Wednesday 31 August 2022

Chaos and History

To paraphrase Edmund Burke, what separates human beings from flies is that human beings live their lives at the end of a vast chain of culture and tradition that connects them to the very distant past, and which they will pass on to their children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren and so on in their turn - and perhaps, if they are lucky, even add to. Flies simply repeat the biological lives of their parents in more or less identical fashion. 

To put it slightly over-simplistically, humans have a history and flies do not. 

It follows that if you can eliminate from human beings a sense of historical continuity and any tie to the past then you can essentially abolish humanity as a distinct category - they will be a mere animal species like any other, living out their lives in meaningless repetition of biological exercises. 

This, it seems to me, is the unstated goal of the forces of Chaos, whether in its Warhammer, Warhammer 40,000, Fighting Fantasy, early D&Dish or Moorcockian guise. Chaos is the pursuit of sheer, unbridled whim - or, alternatively, devotion to the excess of vice. In this, it actively militates against history, culture, and tradition. The goal (or perhaps I should say the byproduct) of Chaos is in other words to achieve Burke's nightmare: a world in which human beings are no different from the 'flies of a summer' except perhaps by virtue of the fact that what they do is a little bit more complicated than mating, buzzing around aimlessly and feeding on shit. 

In case there is any doubt about this, think about Chaos's opposite, which is Law. Law (and here I am riffing on the work of Maurice Hauriou, among others) is inescapably and indelibly historical in the deepest and most profound sense. Most obviously, law is a product of the past; the moment after a law is created it is literally in the past, of course, but more significantly the most basic laws in any society - the prohibition of theft and murder; the enforceability of promises intended to be binding; the remediation of unjust enrichment, etc. - always derive from very ancient rules that are essentially unchanged over thousands of years. And at the same time no law is created without the intention that it should also regulate conduct not just now but into the future, and ideally far into the future - law does not reside in a museum, but continually informs human behaviour like a 'living instrument'. In this sense, law acts to bind the past, present and future of any society which possesses such a concept - the rules which the parents created are binding on the children, and will continue to be binding on their children in turn. It is one of the means by which continuity is assured. 

The existence of law necessarily therefore involves an understanding of history and the continued existence of a culture. Where law exists human beings are absolutely distinct from flies. It therefore follows that Chaos can be understood as the insistence that there should be no law (perhaps I should write 'Law'), and therefore no continuous basis for the regulation of human conduct and the disintegration of the distinction between human and mere biological life. 

So there.

Tuesday 30 August 2022

Setting Building through the Riding of Strange Mounts

When struggling for ways to freshen up a campaign setting you are devising, you could do worse than start off by asking: 'What weird things do the people in region X ride?'

Here is a table you can use:






Giant frogs or newts


Giant snakes


Giant gulls





Giant anteaters










Giant tortoises


Other (orcs, gnolls, etc.)


This is not just a way of 'weirding things up'. It acts as a spur to the imagination: what kind of a polity, geography and society is home to crocodile-riding dwarves, giant gull-riding elves, or giant newt-riding humans?

In the first case, I immediately imagine a riparian kingdom based in cities burrowed into the huge banks of a gigantic river, with intricate systems of dams and sluices for flooding control, and a complex schedule of taxation for merchants seeking to pass through. In the second, I see a wind-swept and rain-flecked archipelago in subarctic climes, dominated by rivalrous clans of 'gull barons' trapped in a never-ending cycle of internecine squabbling, blood feuds and vendettas. And the third calls to mind tribes of newt-riders inhabiting a great swamp or river delta, living in tree-house villages and waiting for the seasonal (or monthly, or weekly, or whatever) floods to arrive so they can go raiding on their fire-bellied amphibious steeds.

How about giant-anteater riding orcs? Ostrich-riding elves? Rhino-riding halflings? The possibilities are endless (well, 50 or so, anyway). 

Wednesday 24 August 2022

Closed, Open, and Absent Historicity

A lot of D&D settings have what you might call open historicity. (By 'historicity', I mean simply the quality of having a history.) They are thought, like our own world, to have an origin, and a timeline that begins some time in the distant past and may go on indefinitely into the future. The timeline, note, does not have to be detailed - it simply has to be the case that there is a sense that events in the world follow on from one another in a chain of causation. Faerun, Krynn, Eberron, etc., all tend to be like this, as do most 'fantasy heartbreaker' worlds and those in high fantasy novels (such as Westeros). 

The classic world with closed historicity is Middle Earth. It has an origin and a timeline but also an end. Its historicity is not indefinite - there is a point at which Middle Earth as we know it ceases to exist. There are, I am sure, other example - Narnia? The Hyborian Age? Urth? Viriconium? 

Then there are settings with absent historicity - which present themselves as having existed in the same form essentially forever, and generally without any indication that they have a history as such at all. Alice's Wonderland, Lovecraft's Dreamlands, Neverland, Oz and Fantastica are obvious examples.

It is not necessarily straightforward to deploy this taxonomy. Many settings which one would instinctively put in the 'open' camp turn out to be closed (Lyonesse, for example, or Zothique). And it is easy to fall into the trap of doing violence to a setting like Alice's Wonderland by falsely historicising it, as with the Tim Burton film and its sequels. There are also some interesting edge cases. Is China Mieville's Bas-Lag a setting of open, or absent, historicity? On the one hand, it gives the appearance of having historical depth. But on the other, it seems caught in a holding pattern - fast forward 10,000 years and once suspects that a lot of stuff will have happened, but that the same conditions will essentially prevail. 

Thursday 18 August 2022

Natural Right and Relativism in Vance, Wolfe and Lewis

This year, I have read an awful lot of books by Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe and CS Lewis. This has caused me to reflect on the nature of morality and how we conceptualise it.

Wolfe, being a Catholic, wrote fiction that was infused with a commitment to the notion of natural right, which here I will use, in the Straussian sense, to refer to the notion that there are objectively good ways for human beings to live, that these derive from an underlying metaphysics, and that there are hence morally better or worse modes of life - both at the individual and societal levels. 

The Book of the New Sun, which I reread this year after having first encountered it probably 20 or more years ago, encapsulates this commitment. Some people think of Severian as an analogy for Christ, but this never passed the sniff test for me first time around, and I was gratified to read somewhere that Wolfe himself also dismissed the idea. Severian is not an analogy for Christ but for a christian, in the same manner as John Bunyan's pilgrim: his tale is one of gradual spiritual and moral growth and redemption. He begins steeped in a morally degraded culture, and over the course of the four books very slowly finds his way - through what can only be attributed to divine grace - not only to the discovery that his culture is morally degraded, but to a position in which he can attempt to change both it and himself for the better. This is basically the christian story, as I understand it at least: humankind's redemption through grace, and its slow discovery of how to be better in light of God's revelation. 

The point, to put it in a more spoilerish way, is that Severian begins as a torturer but comes ultimately to achieve empathy - albeit very imperfectly - and indeed to abolish torture. He slowly discovers, and effects, a better morality. And this happens not from the application of his own reason or intrinsic goodness but through the intervention of grace - at certain moments that I think will be evident to anybody who has read the novels and reflects on them.

(Wolfe's genius of course is that one doesn't have to be a christian to appreciate the books, whose essential premise is: here's a set of incredibly dense and symbolic novels that you could spend a lifetime unpicking, but if that's not your cup of tea, how about all this virtuoso prose, these peerless feats of imagination and a side of horrible monsters?)

Lewis's That Hideous Strength echoes the same themes as The Book of the New Sun in a more explicit way. In one of the more important sequences in the book our antihero, Mark, finds himself being forced to undergo a series of apparently arbitrary and puerile mental exercises designed to achieve absolute objectivity and hence the ability to apply pure reason. The aim of this, of course, is to be in a position to put traditional morality or conceits about natural right before what Oakeshott calls the 'tribunal of the intellect', and cast it all aside when it is inevitably found wanting. The novel's punchline - again, to get a little spoilerish - is that such a state can be attained only through utter relativism and the absolute dissolution of meaning itself: meaning only comes from living in such a way that God intended, and the application of human reason alone to the task of constructing a fresh morality in practice ends in nihilism of the most extreme kind - a war of all against all in which it is just the loudest voices that win. 

This is elucidated for us in Vance's very different approach to the question of metaphysics. In Vance's fiction, particularly the Gaean Reach novels, we find a universe in which there is no concept of natural right, either explicit or implicit - the people in that universe do not believe in it, and nor (apparently) does the author. What exists instead is innumerable cultures whose moral codes and laws rest on mere circumstance; they happen to have developed in the manner in which they have because that is what the history and evolution of those societies has produced in the millennia of their separation from Earth. The endless variety that results is one of the great charms of the Gaean Reach books, and nobody in their right mind would have them any other way, of course, but there is no denying that it is the result of an essentially relativistic understanding of morality. No culture can objectively be said to be "better" or "worse" - they are all simply different (and indeed a persistent theme in Vance's fiction is that they all seem to have malevolence simmering either right at the surface or somewhere deep within). 

This means that Vance is basically a Nietzschean, although I'm not sure he would have described himself in those terms. Since there is no underlying metaphysics upon which morality rests, and it is simply a product of evolution, it can be made subject to human reason, and if an individual human being has sufficient will and vitality he can apply his reason to constructing a moral code of his own. This is indeed what Vance's heroes almost inevitably do, albeit generally unconsciously. The trouble, though, is that the number of individuals who actually do have the will and vitality to achieve this task is very few, and what ends up happening for the mass of human beings is that the moral code which they end up following is simply imposed upon them by those who shout the loudest. When there is no notion of natural right, embodied in a tradition, to draw from, everything is up for grabs in moral terms, and a struggle emerges which is settled only by (literal or metaphorical) force. The result is societies dominated by the moral codes of the victors of such struggles - and laws and customs tending to be harsh, capricious and without any capacity for self-critique. This describes most of Vance's cultures aptly.

Whether Wolfe and Lewis or Vance is correct about how the universe and its underlying morality (or lack of it) is arranged is a question I leave for you to answer.

Tuesday 9 August 2022

Early Development Sketches for the Great North

'The Great North' is the working title of what I have previously referred to as, amongst other things, 'Northumberland Yoon-Suin' and 'The Meeting of the Waters'. It adopts the same basic approach to creating a campaign setting as Yoon-Suin did - being a toolbox with which the reader can create his or her own version of the region. In this case, the area in question is loosely based on the desolate and debatable region between England and Scotland, and can be thought of as being the equivalent to it in the same way that Yoon-Suin is very roughly like the real-world Himalayas and its foothills. 

The text has long been complete. I wrote it in what felt like a fever dream during the original 'lockdown' of March-June 2020, generally waking at 4.30am and writing for 3 hours or so while I had the house to myself (a productive fugue which I sadly was not able to keep going indefinitely). Now, the art is coming together - it is been done by the fabulous Tom Kilian. Tom has recently sent through some early development sketches, and I thought I'd share some of them on the blog, together with snippets of the writing which inspired them. The images contain quite a bit of negative space because they will have room for text in their final iterations, but I'm sure you will like them as much as I do.

Barghest - 'A malevolent and vindictive shapeshifter sighted in its animal form at night or at times of grief, but otherwise walking the earth in disguise as a solitary man or woman...'

Beast - 'A large, wild, dangerous animal, whether natural or magical...'

The Brown Men - '[R]umours also tell of the islands which stand off shore. A cluster of two dozen of them, the Brown Men, lurk on the surface like the exposed backs of a pod of impossibly large seals. Some are mere rocks, but others are big enough to carry towers, fortresses or other ruined buildings, clearly visible from the shore. Biggest of all, like a vast mother which pupped these islets, is the place men call Unholy Island - joined to the land for a third of the day by the retreating tide. The rumours about that place bring few visitors indeed....'

Ettins - 'The left head is full of spite and cruelty, and controls the body. It enjoys committing acts of the most repulsive malice in order to better torment the right head, which is sensitive and sorrowful, but lacks any power over the body’s actions. All that the right head can do is plead with the left to refrain from whatever vile course of action it is pursuing - to no avail.'

Green Man - 'A spirit of the forest, vengeful and fierce, proudly protective, or fecund and virile. He appears as a robed man with thick green beard and hair, disgorging leaves and vines and other foliage from his nose and mouth, and walking without a sound.'

Hrotha - 'Hrotha is a wizard with a thick black beard that bristles almost to his feet, and hair to match it. His violet eyes twinkle from a tanned face creased by laughter lines and his nose and cheeks are red with humour and the flush of wine. He is the image of avuncular affection. But he carries an iron rod, and rules with it both literally and figuratively. None of the populace dares to cross him, and his vengeance when he feels himself slighted is terrible.'

Joyous Garde - 'Joyous Garde is under the de facto rule of its burghers, who elect a town council and make what decisions are necessary save one, which is always made for them by ancient law: to give the town’s de jure rulers whatever they demand in taxes each autumn. These de jure rulers are the Nineyear family, an extended clan of cloud giants who own Joyous Garde and all the land lying around it. Their tax demands vary at their whim, for they have genuine need of nothing which the town can offer, and the Nineyear family delight in abusing their privileges in malign and unpredictable ways. One year they may demand a virgin girl to burn alive and devour; the next they might require the entire contents of the warehouses of all the members of the brewer’s guild; the one after that they could simply ask for a bonnet each of strawberries - so as to make the population of the town anxious to find out what the demand is to be the following year when ‘the other shoe falls’.'

Killers' Way - 'Imperial rule in the Great North found it expedient to deploy assassins to help achieve its ends. These were trained almost from birth, and divided into groups by specialism - strangling, poisoning, stabbing, and so on. What begins in necessity ends in ritual: over the centuries these groups evolved into formal religious cults, devoted not only to the Emperor but also to murder itself as a holy act, and believing purposeless killing to be the ultimate celebration of the triumph of the uncaring cosmos over man’s petty goals and desires. Their religiosity enabled them to survive whatever precipitated the collapse of the Empire, and thereafter they roamed the region where the Dark River meets the Great North Road, further refining their arts and the application of them, preying at random on the populace. 

It took the Lady to unify them and to found what became the town of Killers’ Way. Nobody knows to which cult she belonged, and it has become important subsequently for her origins to remain mysterious; but what is known is that she was a prominent, skilled assassin, well-versed in her technique and devoted like no other to the cause of empty and premature death. Yet she herself became the target of rivals, and was murdered by them - only to come back from the dead a month later with a revolutionary message. This was that it is possible to cheat the cosmos and defeat death through will alone, and in doing so to return fully alive rather than in the empty parody of life that is undeath. She brought the different cults together with this tale of hope, and created with them a settlement which grew gradually into a burgh....'

Nature Spirit - 'The land itself is capable of feeling: of mourning, of yearning, of hating, of loving, of hoping. Anyone who has walked in a forest in spring as green life appears to instantiate itself from the very air around it, stood on a hilltop as the winds of autumn blow in wild, or strolled along a desolate and mournful beach in winter, will be unable to dispute this. Usually, these feelings are expressed only in the minds and hearts of those who are present to observe them. Sometimes, however, the land makes its emotions tangible in much more direct form, creating a spirit of great power to walk the earth and give voice to what made it. '

Ogres - 'The man-eating sons of Orcus, the Punisher of Lies, who have been in these lands since they came from abroad as mercenaries in the Emperor’s pay long ago. His rule bound them, but in his absence they have reverted to their old faith. Their deity demands of them that they kill and devour all oath-breakers, and since that word can describe all human life, any man, woman or child may be made their victim. '

Pwca - 'A race of shapeshifters who may be helpful or cruel depending on the day, location of the moon, temperature, direction of the wind, and so forth - but may be more likely to be benevolent if given a gift which is a genuine sacrifice. One can transform into a hare, stag, horse, dog, goat, boar or bear, at will: the animal always has jet black fur. Otherwise pwcas appear as humans, but each with one discrepancy, such as a dog’s tail, a hare’s ears, a horse’s hooves, etc.'

Questing Knight

Recaps and Reivers - 'A wizened, miserly and hateful old man, powerful in magic, invincible in the belief in his own greatness, and given to acts of extreme sadism visited on his unfortunate captives. Each wears a cap that he soaks in blood, and carries a long pikestaff; if either of these implements are lost, the redcap loses his power and shrivels into a frail and pathetic figure who can only beg for forgiveness of his sins....' / 'The wild, free horse-men of the hills, unconquered centaurs, who live for honour, pride and glory and the visiting of misery and fear upon those they deem weaker than themselves - which is anyone not of their clan. They range far and wide across the Great North from their desolate hills, coming back blood-smeared and flame-scorched with wives, slaves, and plunder....'

Saturday 6 August 2022

Life in the Unremembered City (Cont’d)

How the Unremembered City floats, and what dictates its movements through the sky, are questions whose answers are now unknown - except perhaps in the fragmented memories of the Old Naacals. That it does float is widely understood, because of the widespread existence of holes in its surface - some tiny, some many hundreds of metres in diameter - which reveal great vistas of cloud, ocean, and land far below. And, of course, the people of some Plazas live close enough to the City's edge to be able to simply peer over, which is invariably a source of delight and very often provides an opportunity for elaborate daredevil games.

In some places, moreover, there remain antique flyers - now temperamental and difficult to command, but still usable - which allow travel to occur between the City and the land. Through this method limited congress takes place between the Young Naacals and the barbaric people who inhabit the Somniatic Earth, and as a consequence there can be found small numbers of traders, envoys, entertainers and slaves throughout the City's Plazas who originated below. In some locations, indeed, there a semi-permanent communities of these barbarians, tolerated because of services they are able to perform, crafts that they provide, or even simply because the local Naacals find them unusual or charming. 

The City usually suspends itself several thousand feet above the surface of the Somniatic Earth, high enough to often be obscured by cloud, but low enough to be able to pass through rain clouds and hence prevent drought. It does not go close to high mountain ranges, whether due to an internal mechanism or innate intelligence or something other; aside from this, there is no discernible pattern to its motions, although this does not prevent legions of soothsayers, astrologers, sages and priests (both on the City itself and the Somniatic Earth) from claiming the capacity to identify one. 

Occasionally segments of the City collapse and plummet to the earth below, usually without warning. To be caught in such a fall is the great fear or all who live in it, but it also probably accounts for the great vitality and energy with which the Young Naacals tend to pursue their endeavours. The prospect of the ending of one's life, which is common to us all, is to the inhabitants of the Unremembered City particularly acute, and they live their lives with gusto as a consequence. 

Friday 5 August 2022

Life in the Unremembered City


The Naacals of the Unremembered City are divided into two castes: the Old Naacals, essentially immortal, who have survived the long eons since the fall of Mu, and the Young Naacals, who were born in the Unremembered City itself and live and die there in the normal span of a human lifetime. 

The Old Naacals who remain in the City are few now, and have long been rendered senile, sadistic or strange. They roam in its wastes or lurk in isolated towers and ziggurats, companioned only by their servitors; the Young Naacals shun them in fear and distaste. It is the latter who form what society exists.

That society is found in what have come to be called the Plazas. No authority exists that is capable of counting how many Plazas there are, and no living person is known to have ever traversed the geography of the City in order to ascertain the number. (Indeed, it is widely thought that travelling across the breadth of the City would take longer than a single lifetime.) All that is certain is that, dispersed as they are - separated from one another by vast swathes of wilderness - there are very many of them; possibly thousands.

Each Plaza is independent, autonomous, and largely isolated from the others, and each consists of a wide, flat space, usually several hundred metres across, surrounded by high ziggurats - often partially ruined and lying empty, and subject to strict taboos. The people of the Plaza live in the open area, which they generally divide into residential, religious, commercial and entertainment districts with the cunning use of walls and curtains - though many exceptions exist. (There are indeed Plazas in which the inhabitants live together in a communal throng, conducting all of their activities in public, and others in which they construct elaborate, labyrinthine hives; there is even rumoured to be a Plaza somewhere in which the people go about blindfolded so as to maintain the strictest standards of privacy.) Each Plaza's culture is distinct, and dependent to a great degree on the interpretations its people give to aspects of the pantheon of gods whom the Naacals worship. A Plaza, for instance, might largely venerate Shezmu, and emphasise the lion god's love of dancing; another, venerating the same god, may instead take inspiration from his love of blood and slaughter and form a public religion and cultural life very different from the first. Since there are well in excess of a hundred gods in the pantheon, the result is a patchwork of religio-cultural variety of bewildering scale and scope. 

The City's networks of canals, where they remain clear and safe to traverse, link its Plazas together. Typically, access to these canals is restricted to particular classes, guilds or clans, and jealously guarded, because it is largely only through these arteries that wealth still flows about the Unremembered City. Anybody seeking to travel from one Plaza to another without using a canal would have to do so on foot, and this would mean a dangerous journey across miles of waste ground - ruined ziggurats, towers, temples, and tombs; overgrown gardens, parks and cemeteries; ancient reservoirs and aqueducts captured by the wild and transformed into murky lakes and pools; strange monuments and fields of broken stone - and all of it populated by outlaws, mad servitors driven to malice and cruelty by malfunction, crazed Old Naacals muttering and malevolent, and carnivorous plants and wild predatory beasts evolved over eons to savour the taste of human flesh. For these reasons, it is rare that an inhabitant of the Unremembered City ever leaves the Plaza of his or her birth, save for those occasions when marriages are arranged between the youths of one Plaze and another; it is through such mechanisms that the pools of familial inheritance among the Young Naacals do not grow brackish and stale.