Monday 31 October 2022

Animal Name Monsters

I've always been interested in animal names in different languages. I've also long been fascinated by the strange parallel universes which are created when calqueing foreign words for everyday things into English (imagine a world in which potatoes are literally 'apples from the ground'/pommes de terre, or tortoises are really 'shield-toads'/schildkrote). 

These can be great inspiration for new monsters - 'shield-toad' to an English speaker instantly calls to mind something very different to a tortoise, and has D&D written all over it. 

The Japanese language is sadly increasingly characterised by loanwords from English (most of which are horribly ugly and difficult to pronounce in comparison to the original words they've replaced) but it is still replete with very D&D-able parallel-universe animal names. For instance:

Sparrow-wasp (suzumebachi/hornet) - A small bird with a vicious, hooked sting in place of its tail and an attitude to match; a flock can rapidly stab a victim to death, after which they feast with gusto on the eyes and other soft parts.

Treat a flock of 12 as single monster with HD 3, AC 5, #ATT 1, DMG 3d4*, Move 120, ML 6 (*Does 2d4 damage after losing 50% of its hp, and 1d4 damage after losing 75%). More than one flock may be encountered (No. App. 1d6). 

Seven-faced bird (shichimencho/turkey) - A giant, flightless avian predator with seven heads, each as ravenous and rivalrous as the next, on the end of long muscular necks.

HD 7, AC 6, #ATT 7, DMG 1d6/1d6/1d6/1d6/1d6/1d6/1d6*, Move 150, ML 7, No. Appearing 1d6 (*If one head scores a hit, the next head has a 1 in 3 chance of directing its bite attack against the previous one instead of the target, doing half damage)

Scythe-cutter (kamakiri/praying mantis) - A filthy ape-like beast with scythe-like claws for hands; unable to groom itself, it pollutes the air around it with a miasma of stench. 

HD 4+1, AC 5, #ATT 2, DMG 1d10/1d10, Move 120, ML 8, No. Appearing 1d6 (*Anyone coming within 10' must save versus poison or be incapacitated for 1d3 rounds due to retching; scythe-cutters never surprise opponents)

Needle-mouse (harinezumi/hedgehog) - A magical construct, resembling a tiny rodent with sparkling eyes, dextrous hands and a nimble tail, its hairs are needles filled with deadly poison. An assassin par excellence, it is able to sneak its way into its victim's dwelling through the tiniest cracks and crevasses, where it secretes itself in a handy boot or bedsheet and waits for warm flesh to press down upon it... 

HD 1hp, AC 3, #ATT 1, DMG 1d1*, Move 120, ML 12, No. Appearing 1 (*Hits automatically if it surprises an opponent; opponent dies instantly with no saving throw permitted) 

Hole bear (anaguma/badger) - An ursine ambusher, the colour of loam and with amberish eyes, which lurks in a concealed burrow, waiting for a prey animal to pass by. When one does, the bear lurches from its hole with lightning speed and drags its victim down into the dark...

HD 6+6, AC 3, #ATT 3, DMG 1d8/1d6/1d6, Move 150, ML 8, No. Appearing 1 (*When in its hole, the bear always surprises opponents unless they are forewarned or led by a local expert; it does no damage in the first round but if any of its attacks hit, it pulls its target into its burrow)

Each language will, however, have many such examples, and English surely does, too. Give it a whirl!

Saturday 29 October 2022

Expensive Kickstarters - How Much is Too Much?

Thomas Aquinas argued that merchants had a moral duty to charge only a 'just price' for their goods. If there was high demand for those goods, it was immoral to raise prices, because to do so would be to take advantage of the buyer's needs.

There isn't much space for Thomas Aquinas in the RPG kickstarter world, where prices grow ever more exorbitant and frothy. And there probably shouldn't be - if there is any justification for just price theory in relation to the necessities of life like bread or milk, it isn't really relevant when it comes to luxury goods. There, raising prices is not taking advantage of anybody's needs - it's taking advantage of their excitement and enthusiasm (and perhaps stupidity). That might not be exactly moral, but it's not like hiking the price of foodstuffs in the aftermath of an earthquake.*

Should producers of RPGs nonetheless keep pushing up prices and expanding the boundaries of what the market can bear? I have no problem with creators making money. But I do have misgivings about ever-more expensive products. One the one hand, it raises expectations in regard to production values, which I think makes it difficult for new entrants. And on the other, it seems to have the effect of pricing some people out of the hobby and making it ever more a bourgeois, hipster pursuit (which it never used to be). In theory, there should be cheaper options undercutting all the mega big-ticket items. In practice, those big beasts seem to hoover up all the hype and leave only scraps for the rest. 

So I am genuinely conflicted. Do creators owe a duty to the hobby to limit how expensive their elf games get? I daresay you will let me know you own opinions in the comments.

*Aquinas was probably wrong anyway. As Locke later pointed out, if there is a shortage of a particular good (say, grain), it is morally neutral and perhaps even preferable for merchants to raise prices, because that encourages others to enter the grain market and thus causes the supply to increase, while also acting to depress demand among those who don't really need grain in the first place. This solves the shortage problem. 

Friday 21 October 2022

The Apocalyptic Style and the Spiritual Post-Apocalypse

I don't think that a real apocalypse is just around the corner, but it does concern me that so many people - journalists, politicians, commentators, wankers on Twitter - seem to be adopting an apocalyptic rhetorical style. Is it possible to talk oneself into an apocalypse simply by acting as though everything that goes even slightly wrong is a crisis, that everything one doesn't like is a mortal sin, and that everyone one doesn't agree with represents a deadly threat? 

This tendency to speak in apocalyptic terms is coupled with an acceleration merely in the pace of events alone, such that one increasingly feels that it is impossible to simply pause, take stock, and orient oneself. To even make up one's mind as to what one thinks about event A before events B, C, D and E overtake it. To revise old opinions and clarify new ones in the light of new information before newer new information replaces it. 

This combination of frenzied catastrophism and frenetic speed is driving us mad. When the apocalypse does come, I don't believe it will be in the form of nuclear war, the spread of disease, worldwide famine, global warming, etc. I think it will come with the fraying of our psyches such that we will no longer be capable of forming stable societies and maintaining them across time. I think the apocalypse will in other words be mental - maybe the right word is 'spiritual' - rather than physical.

What will the spiritual post-apocalypse look like, then? Not the vacant buildings and empty streets of an I Am Legend, the bleak arid wastelands of a Mad Max, the people-farms of The Matrix, or the lurid alien vistas of Rifts. I imagine instead something more like a scene from a nightmarish old folks' home: a lot of angry and confused elderly people gone senile and dangerous, unable and unwilling to procreate, living amid the slowly crumbling ruins of what was once a civilisation, and perhaps tended to by the robots they managed to create as their level of technological advancement reaches its zenith. A world in which any encounter with another person is potentially dangerous and best avoided, and in which the very means by which one person could communicate with another have totally broken down. 

In the 1970s and 80s the apocalypse that confronted us was nuclear war, and the role playing industry saw this and came up with Gamma World. Will it come up with a game or setting inspired by the potential apocalypses opening out before our eyes today? I hope so.

Tuesday 18 October 2022

Yoon-Suin 2nd Edition Kickstarter Update

I have received news from the Publisher's Quarter of the Yellow City, the Mapmaker's Guild, the Brave Company of Pixel Artists, and the Free Society of Editors: it appears that a new edition of Yoon-Suin is imminent. 

I always said I would never do a "2e" unless there was lots of new material to add, and there is. With proper random encounter tables, many more appendices, and - more importantly - 12 fully keyed adventure sites - the new edition will, it is safe to say, be Yoon-Suin but more so.

It will also be filled with all new, genuinely special, Matt Adams art.

Here is an example of the kind of thing the marvellous madman is producing: 

I expect to launch a Kickstarter soon - ideally in November. Watch this space.

Thursday 13 October 2022

On Not Being Logged

To live a modern life is to have one's daily activities logged, recorded, analysed and added together like never before. Buy something at a shop with a debit card and your purchase is logged. Listen to Spotify and your musical choices and preferences are carefully recorded. Watch Netflix and your viewing history is noted to the second. Send money on PayPal and every penny is traced. Your every social media interaction, website visit, Amazon purchase and streaming view is picked up and used for analysis and ultimately the creation of profit. 

In these circumstances, acting in the real of the purely physical - buying things with cash, reading secondhand books, getting your news from the newspaper, listening to analogue radio - is almost  subversive.

I felt this quite keenly the other day when I finally set up the 1970s hi-fi I inherited from my late father and started playing some of his old records. Like anybody else, these days I mostly get my music through Spotify or YouTube. Listening to an Aretha Franklin album on vinyl I was struck not just by the feeling of once again hearing music unmediated by a digital device, as was normal not so long ago, but also by the feeling of freedom it engendered in me. I was listening to this music alone in the house and nobody else knew it. Nowhere was my experience being logged. It was therefore purely my own.

Gaming online has been a great boon for me over the past two years. I have a weekly gaming group who would never be able to assemble physically in the same place, and it's been a lot of fun. But I am always conscious that even at this level our activity is being recorded by impersonal forces and hence, albeit indirectly, being sucked into the vortex of late-period digital capitalism. We play for ourselves, of course, but we don't play for ourselves entirely. We also serve the profit-making imperative. 

Sitting round a table with friends, a D&D rulebook, some dice and a bottle or two of wine can, in this sense, take on the aspect of a rebellious act. It is a petty form of rebellion for sure, in that it affects almost nothing in the 'real world'. I believe that it does affect one's soul, though, and that might ultimately be the most important effect that there can be.

Wednesday 5 October 2022

On the Importance of Random Treasure Hoards, or the Tale of the Gauntlets of Air Elemental Control

In the days when I used to frequent RPG discussion forums on t'internet, I sometimes used to see people complaining about their woes of trying to run a 'sandbox' campaign. "All my players do is sit there!" a DM would moan. "We didn't know what we were supposed to do!" a player would whine. This seems to suggest a level of almost pathological passivity; given just the tiniest ounce of initiative and creativity, a rudimentary D&D sandbox campaign should almost be able to run itself from the results of some random generator results alone.

In my regular game, one of the PCs wears a pair of gauntlets of air elemental control that he inherited from a fallen comrade (he is actually the fifth PC to have possessed the gauntlets, the others all having died and passed them on to somebody new in their turn). They were obtained in a randomly-generated treasure hoard, and were identified shortly after, but they have never been used in anger - the party just hasn't happened to come across an air elemental at any stage since. 

The player whose various PCs have worn the gauntlets at different times has always had it in the back of his mind that at some point he wants to use the damn things for their intended purpose. And at the last session he seemed to be hinting that at some point actively going out and finding an air elemental to command would be something he would like to do. This, of course, is the stuff dreams are made of: like putting the ball on the penalty spot for the DM to hit right through the laces. What greater spur to creativity does one need? All of a sudden, questions pop off in the mind like fireworks: where might there be an air elemental in the region? Who would know? What would it be doing, or guarding, or searching for? And why?

Random treasure hoards, in other words, just like random encounters, are a campaign-generation device par excellence. All that is needed is for the DM and players to be attuned to the notion that their results are not to be taken in isolation but as part of a cohesive world, and the game will drive itself along with only a finger needed on the steering wheel for guidance. All that one needs to do is to think of the campaign world as having an independent existence, and the things - everything - found within it as having an explanation waiting to be thought about and uncovered. 

Saturday 1 October 2022

How To Be Prolific

I have been blogging a long time now, and understand my own rhythms; when I am devoting a lot of creative energy to writing something and/or gaming, my hobby itch, as it were, gets very nicely scratched and I don't have a great deal of juice left over for blogging (or, at least, blogging about role playing). This is very much the case recently. I am finishing off a biggish writing project for somebody (details will follow when I am allowed to talk about it) and have a long-running weekly game to manage, and I find this means that, like a junky with a stable and regular supply, I need to devote less time all round to the source of my addiction. 

Instead, I have been thinking a lot, in a vaguely self-critical way, about my productivity (or lack of it). I have a day job and a family, so I do have some excuses, but I am now probably in the position that I have to refer to myself as middle-aged, and I am disappointed with my creative output so far. I have written an honest-to-goodness real book for a real publisher (admittedly, an academic monograph nobody in their right mind would want to read), and I have written quite a lot of academic articles. I also write for a general audience in various online publications. But when it comes to what I really, really care about doing, the sum total is Yoon-Suin, the first issue of The Peridot, a longish bit of a yet-to-be-released game, a yet-to-be-released campaign setting, and the aforementioned work-in-progress. 

And I've been at this for getting on for 15 years.

After years of polite agnosticism about Ursula Le Guin (I read the Earthsea books ages ago and found them pretty bland), I have been reading and enjoying some collections of her short fiction lately. This comment of hers, on 'April in Paris' (from the collection The Wind's Twelve Quarters), really struck me:

This is the first story I ever got paid for; the second story I ever got published; and maybe the thirtieth or fortieth I wrote....At about twenty I began sending things off to publishers. Some of the poetry got printed, but I didn't get systematic about sending out the fiction till I was getting on for thirty. It kept systematically coming back....[at] age thirty-two I was very pleased to get a check.

Thirty or forty stories! Before even getting published! And then after that she wrote about twenty novels! And literally hundreds more short stories! And she had the same number of hours in a day as the rest of us!

Agatha Christie is also a writer I was always politely agnostic about. My sister is a big fan, and like any good brother, very early in my life I made up my mind that anything my sister liked had to be bad. I had read the The Mysterious Mr Quin stories, and like anybody from my generation grew up watching David Suchet swanning about and berating 'Aystings' as Hercule Poirot on ITV. But I was never a big reader of Christie's fiction. Lately, I decided to dip my toe in, and again discovered a writer of quite astounding productivity: she wrote 66 detective novels, hundreds of short stories, and half a dozen 'proper' novels to boot - and she, it turns out, also seems to have only had 24 hours in a day as well. And she wasn't like Enid Blyton, churning out largely formulaic fluff at a rate of a book each week. This was decent stuff.

We are very down on guilt, regret and shame. This is a problem; they are beneficial emotions which should be rehabilitated. Comparing oneself negatively to others can serve as a useful kick up the backside; the torment of regret is a good incentive to change bad behaviours; sensing that you've wasted your life is an excellent reason to make up for lost time. I invite you in a spirit of brotherhood to join me in feeling like shit for a little while in comparing yourself to these authors. And then get to work.