Thursday 28 December 2023

Monsters and Manuals - 2023 in Review

No more champagne. And the fireworks are through. Here we are, me and you. Feeling lost and feeling blue...

Oh wait, sorry, I think I've been listening to too much Now That's What I Call Christmas! on Spotify this last month. Where was I? Yes, that's right. The year in review: 2023.

Well, it's been an eventful year professionally, and indisputably this has taken my attention away from the blog a little bit - although, at 105 entries and counting, this actually turns out to have been the most monstersandmanualsiest year since 2019 (when I wrote 143 entries) and indeed the seventh most monstersandmanualsiest year overall since records began. 

This also means I had to put my Three Mile Tree campaign (running weekly since January 2021) on hiatus in September, simply because I just haven't had the time to do it justice. I miss regular gaming, but I have to confess I don't miss panicking about trying to get everything else done each week alongside finding time to run a session. I hope sufficient slack will develop in 2024.

I continue to operate largely in ignorance of what is going on across the blogosphere and the RPG industry as a whole. I increasingly think of my work here on the blog, the stuff I am writing (yes, I am writing), and the campaign I run (when able) as a wing in my monastery of the mind, and to be frank I am less and less interested in the outside world - even the outside world of 'the hobby' as such - impinging on it. Some people might say this makes me sound like a grumpy old fart. Those people would be right. But in the monastery of my mind I am surrounded only by beautiful women telling me how great and wise and sexy I am, so I'm not that bothered what the rest of you think.

As far as my RPG-related projects are going, Yoon-Suin 2nd edition will be out in the coming months after its successful Kickstarter earlier in the year. The Great North will, if all goes to plan, follow. I've also just about finished off typing my notes on Three Mile Tree into a coherent, readable document, so as to form the basis for a book: this will be my first proper megadungeon release (containing nine levels of roughly fifty rooms each on average). Then it's pressing on with Behind Gently Smiling Jaws, at long last - and possibly other more informal projects which I will inform you about in due course.

I will also - whisper it - almost certainly reach 2,000 posts next year, being currently on 1,936. When Monsters & Manuals hit ten years of age I spent an inordinate amount of time trying to shortlist entries for a short book release and failed. God knows how I would fare with 2,000 entries to choose from, but I am tempted to put out a proper 'Best 200 of 2,000' book when eventually I hit that milestone. I expect, indeed, that there will be overwhelming public demand for this and possibly even civil unrest if it is not forthcoming.

The best five entries of this year on the blog are, I think (in chronological order):

Assessing my output from the past 12 months, I feel like my writing gets better and better (is there a way to say this without sounding big headed?), but I confess to doing too little with it here on the blog. I feel a sense of shame about this, and it weighs on my conscience. But anyway, on that happy note, I wish you and yours the best for 2024. May it contain much dice rolling!

Monday 18 December 2023

The Sunday Seven: 17th December 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • Her Christmas Knight posts an entire RPG Wargame, Investigating Censor.
  • Cyowari produces insanely nice historical snapshot maps on Deviantart.
  • This post, from almost exactly a year ago, statistically organises OSR and OSR-adjacent rulesets in attractive diagrammatic form. Why? To what end? It is the kind of mad enterprise for which the blogosphere was invented, and I salute the author for it.
  • Why did nobody tell me this blog existed? You had me at 'This week, we're going to take a look at a different aspect of ancient infantry tactics: how heavy infantry shield formations work.'
  • Ricardo Pinto has completely reworked his Stone Dance of the Chameleon trilogy into seven shorter, punchier novels; I have been reading the first, The Masters, and it is excellent. 
  • I am a big fan of Pariah, but I am a bit embarrassed to confess I had no idea who the author was or that they have a blog. Well, they do.
  • OK, the music is cheesy. But I could while away hours watching WMA videos.

Friday 15 December 2023

Seven Deadly Sinful Alignments

Work with me here: what if you were to make a system of monster design founded on an alignment system drawn from the seven deadly sins? 

The seven deadly sins are:

  • Lust, which obviously includes sexual longing but is generally used to mean other forms of desire (like lust for power, wealth, status, etc.) 
  • Gluttony, meaning overconsumption
  • Greed, meaning avarice
  • Sloth, meaning not just laziness, but a lack of care or interest in anything; a kind of navel-gazing indolent self-centredness 
  • Wrath, meaning uncontrolled rage, and particularly of the vengeful or vindictive kind 
  • Envy, ‘nuff said
  • Pride, the worst of all, which places the sinner at the centre of the universe 

You could of course create an entire bestiary of monsters grouped on the basis of instantiating these sins (goat men = lust, lungfish men = gluttony, etc.), and I may indeed do something with this idea at a future date, but it occurs to me that deploying them in combination, a little like the alignment structure, could be even more productive in inspiring ideas. What you would do is roll 1d8 (a roll of '8' being a 'neutral' result) and generate one sin, and then roll another 1d8, and put them into combination. 

Hence, I have just rolled two 1d8s, and generated a '4' and an '8'. This is a result of sloth/neutral, or True Sloth. This is a being which embodies melancholic indifference; it spreads its indolence like a cancer as it travels, and its abilities are designed to drain energy, motivation and vitality from its victims. Perhaps something like a giant slime mold? Or a plaintive, child-like spirit of mournful and pathetic anti-energy.

I've just done it again, and generated a '1' and a '5'. Lustful Wrath. This perhaps opens doorways through which one is reluctant to pass, but one can steer the result away from undesirable connotations by interepreting Lust along its nonsexual axis. This is a monster which seeks to amass power and status in the most vengeful terms and will act to destroy any who fail to bend the knee - a lich-like undead king, perhaps, or a juggernaut-like titan who dominates an entire region through sheer force of will.

One more time, and I got Gluttonous Envy. Nice: a being which seeks to devour the possessions of others (perhaps their magical abilities, to put a more interesting spin on 'gluttony'?) or is malevolently parasitic, like a primitive vampire?

A fun idea to play around with for a Thursday evening.

Monday 11 December 2023

Warhammer is not and has never been funny

This may be old news to some (a lot) of you, but I recently learned of a minor kerfuffle that took place at the end of 2021 on online spaces concerning themselves with Games Workshop-related news. A long and really, to be frank, rather histrionic essay by Tim Colwill gives all the details, but, in brief, somewhere in Spain a bloke turned up in Nazi regalia to a Warhammer 40k event and - things get a bit hazy here - the organisers of the event concluded that 'Spanish law' would not allow him to be ejected, so he was able to stay.

I find it hard to believe that this interpretation of 'Spanish law' is correct (I very much doubt it supports the position that 'because I am wearing political symbols I can't lawfully be refused entry to a private event'), but be that as it may, the whole thing worried vocal segments of the fan base, and in the end somebody at Games Workshop's PR department thought it important to issue a statement to the effect that it did not condone the behaviour of this individual (although it stated this only obliquely).

It is often the case when a company issues a statement of this kind that it tends to just draw attention to the issue while raising fresh ones, and so it was here, because whoever wrote the statement very unwisely chose to deploy the term 'satire':

The Imperium of Man stands as a cautionary tale of what could happen should the very worst of Humanity’s lust for power and extreme, unyielding xenophobia set in. Like so many aspects of Warhammer 40,000, the Imperium of Man is satirical. 
For clarity: satire is the use of humour, irony, or exaggeration, displaying people’s vices or a system’s flaws for scorn, derision, and ridicule. Something doesn’t have to be wacky or laugh-out-loud funny to be satire. The derision is in the setting’s amplification of a tyrannical, genocidal regime, turned up to 11. The Imperium is not an aspirational state, outside of the in-universe perspectives of those who are slaves to its systems. It’s a monstrous civilisation, and its monstrousness is plain for all to see. 
That said, certain real-world hate groups – and adherents of historical ideologies better left in the past – sometimes seek to claim intellectual properties for their own enjoyment, and to co-opt them for their own agendas.

The idea here is I suppose fairly simple: don't look at us, guv, we're just holding up the Imperium of Man to ridicule ourselves, and if real-world hate groups take the wrong end of the stick, we're hardly to blame. And in one sense, of course, the spirit of the statement is impeccably correct. A company isn't to blame for the views of the people who buy its products. To claim otherwise is sheer madness, and I've never been able to understand why it is that nerds so readily fall prey to this line of thinking. As well as being into elf games, I'm also very into whisky and other fine spirits. I've often wondered quite why it is the case that, say, single malt enthusiasts don't give a monkey's whether somewhere in the world an actual honest-to-goodness Nazi is also drinking 15 year old Springbank, whereas D&D and Warhammer enthusiasts do seem to care deeply about such issues in their respective domains. But I've never been able to arrive at a satisfactory answer to that question - except perhaps to muse that bookish nerds tend not to actually understand human beings all that well on balance.

In any case, though, it was a stupid statement to make. And it was stupid for two reasons. 

The first is readily apparent: it just isn't true. Neither Warhammer nor Warhammer 40k has ever been satirical, unless by 'satire' one means the crushingly unfunny sub-Goon Show chaff that peppered early Games Workshop materials, of this kind of ilk:

To call that an attempt at humour is to err catastrophically on the side of charity; to call it 'satire' is to abuse the English language to the point of incomprehensibility (as would be the other standout examples, most of which revolve around 'hilarious' orc/ork names and speech). So whoever wrote the statement was onto a loser from the very beginning. 

But the statement was stupid for a much more important reason, which is that it undermines the very thing that makes Warhammer and Warhammer 40k interesting in the first place: their essentially tragic view of the universe (or, at least, the universes which they depict). If there is a message behind Games Workshop's two main settings - and here I am referring of course to pre-Age of Sigmar Warhammer - it is that mankind's battle against Chaos is at the same time sisyphian (one can never win), corrupting (one will be turned into the very thing against which one fights), and yet necessary (because the alternative is worse). The war against Chaos must be fought, always and everywhere, even in recognition that it will cost almost everything that one holds dear and one will be transformed in the process into something truly gruesome. One will end up sacrificing one's values, losing all regard for the good things that one hoped to protect, and descending into brutality and even savagery. And one will, even while recognising this, choose to do it all the same - because Chaos simply must not be permitted to win. And in a strange way the nobility of the struggle, indeed, can be said to derive precisely from the fact that it involves such great sacrifice, even at the level of values themselves - from the fact that to defeat great evil one knowingly damns oneself to evil in turn, and must face the consequences in eternity. 

To dismiss this as a mere assertion that 'Everything is bad', as Tim Colwill does, is a bit like dismissing King Lear, Othello or Oedipus Rex as 'Everything is bad'. The point of tragedy, and the reason why it has always been associated so closely with catharsis, is precisely that everything is bad - but that life is still worth living anyway. The great works of the literature of humanity, West and East, North and South, have always grappled with this fact, which might be considered the very crux of the human condition. And in their own small way, the Warhammer Old World and Warhammer 40k can be considered as contributions to that same, cross-civilizational interest in one of the fundamental features of our species and its existence in the universe. Life is hard, full of pain, corruption and suffering, but the act of living is good. Games Workshop should be proud about that fact that their ultimately daft fantasy setting speaks to this great truth, rather than being dismissive of it, and it certainly should not be retreating behind the cowardly artifice of it all being 'satire'. 

The Sunday Seven: 10th December 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • Ben Gibson, of Coldlight Press, is hosting an Adventure Site Contest, closing date on January 31st. Details are here; it has actual prizes!
  • I need new gaming systems like I need a hole in the head, but Errant, which, I quote, is 'rules lite but procedure heavy', sounds like an interesting proposition.
  • There is a great trove of real life cave maps available at; usefulness varies, but inspiration is everywhere.
  • The Yellow Book of Brechewold bills itself as 'What if Jack Vance wrote Harry Potter as a sequel to TH White’s The Once and Future King?'
  • Games Workshop's share price took a hit recently (after years of barnstorming performance) on news of lower-than-expected licensing income; buy buy BUY!!!*
  • The Fighting Fantasy Project is a collection of fan-made Fighting Fantasy books which you can play online. I cannot vouch for quality, but you had me at 'A Strange Week For King Melchion The Despicable'
  • Brace yourselves... 6th edition is coming.

*Never, ever take investment advice from me, under any circumstances whatsoever.

Thursday 7 December 2023

Shieldwalls and Sorcery

The furniture of D&D is high medieval Europe, but tonally, it is a Western. The PCs are not medieval Europeans who are buried beneath complex layers of rank and status and bound by chains of obligation. They are rugged individuals wrestling with the world one-on-one: they are pioneers, not peasants. 

This is the case for two obvious reasons: the authors were American, and anyway it also just works better that way. There's a reason why Ars Magica or Harnmaster are less popular games (as good as they are on their own terms). And there is no particular problem here - in the end, the gap between default setting assumptions and the style of play hardly matter in practice, as generation upon generation of D&D players have proved.

Still, it remains the case that actually by default it probably makes more sense for the standard D&D setting to be more like the European Dark Ages* - a time of great upheaval, generalised collapse, and consequent freedom from social bonds not exactly like North America circa 1650-1850, but not exactly unlike it either. In Europe one had the retreat of the Roman Empire, the arrival of barbarian invaders from all directions, mass migration, and population decline. In North America one had the collapse of pre-Columbian civilisations, the arrival of barbarian invaders from all directions, mass migration, and population decline. There are of course huge differences between the two situations, but there is a similar mood music. Everything is in a state of flux, a new world waits to be born, and for a brief moment it feels as though almost anything is possible.

This makes the Beowulf period particularly fruitful as a template, as commenters on a recent entry here observed. Anglo-Saxon England (okay, Beowulf is technically set in Scandinavia) is almost the Dark Ages in microcosm - all of themes are there, from retreating Rome to barbarian invaders - and everything was gloriously kaleidoscopic and patchwork (see below for a map); this was a world in which a story like Beowulf, in which a brave adventurer just goes off and fights a monster to win fame and glory, makes perfect sense. 

Shieldwalls & Sorcery, then, is a workable concept, not as a faithful representation of historical fact, but as a kind of Yoon-Suinization of that period. Here is what I am thinking, in bullet point form:

  • When people think of Dark Ages England, they tend to instinctively take the sides of the Celts, who are the underdogs, and have the inherently appealing figure of King Arthur on their side. Shieldwalls & Sorcery, though, should have the Anglo-Saxons equivalents as the focus: they are the adventuring pioneers who have come to win fame and fortune in a strange foreign land; that's therefore who the PCs should be. 
  • This means that the native Celt-stand-ins should be stereotypically Celtic, dialled up to 11. They like sinister magic and hiding in misty forests and fens; they engage in weird sex cult rituals; they go in heavily for human sacrifice; they consort with elves and worship weird gods; they are unpredictable and fiery and given to fits of melancholia and strange flights of fancy; they are maudlin but good musicians. (All very much like a typical Saturday night in Glasgow.) They are antagonists.
  • This is historically probably wrong, because the native Celtic Britons received Christianity before the Anglo-Saxons did, but in my not-actually-England-in-the-Dark-Ages setting it seems to make more aesthetic sense to imagine the Anglo-Saxons as the Christians, or pseudo-Christians, who have a sense that they are engaged in some sort of good vs evil struggle. This is important, because it allows me to bring in...
  • ....the idea that not-actually-England-in-the-Dark-Ages is also populated by the Sons of Cain; different categories of monstrous enemy birthed by the murder of Abel and roaming the Earth ever since.
  • There are therefore different intersecting imaginable campaign styles here - the PCs as pioneers exploring a brave new world and winning renown; the PCs as adventurers raiding the ruins of the not-actually-Roman-Empire that has now receded; the PCs as paladins smiting the Sons of Cain and heathen elf-loving Celts; the PCs as protectors of their people, newly arrived from beyond the sea; and so on.
  • I want to reimagine D&D's classes accordingly. What would not-actually-Anglo-Saxon character classes be? Fighter, yes. Cleric, yes. But the uses of magic and druidry feel as though they should be the preserve of the Celts. Could a reconceptualised Bard be a replacement?

*We're told by historians that this is a misconception, blah blah, and that we are supposed to call it the Early Medieval Period or somesuch. Fuck off, historians.

Tuesday 5 December 2023

Syncretic D&D, Or, the Shoe That Does Not Drop

And compensation, a price in gold, was settled for the Geat Grendel had cruelly killed earlier— as he would have killed more, had not mindful God and one man's daring prevented that doom.

-Beowulf, trans. Seamus Heaney

Paging through the AD&D corpus and thinking about what it all has to say about religion, one is struck by two things. The first is the very high degree of syncretism on display. The creators invented many of their own species of (usually polytheistic) religious belief, and these are mixed in with real-world religions that are typically dead (so that, for instance, the Outer Planes are thought to be home to a variety of 'pantheons' such as the Greek, Chinese, Babylonian, Finnish, Egyptian and so on). And at the same time, of course, individual DMs who invent their own campaign settings merrily create their own systems of religion to sit alongside all of these others, also. If one stops to really think about it, this is suggestive of a vast galaxy of unrelated religions all existing together, and none of which being Truer than any of the others or being able to make a plausible universal Truth claim.

From a theological perspective the oddness of this is breezily waved aside in the source material - why wouldn't there be Finnish and orcish gods living alongside one another in the multiverse? - and, phenomenologically, the ordinary inhabitants of that multiverse see no nice distinctions: gods are gods and exert power in basically the same way, by granting spells to clerics and so on and so forth. And obviously at ground level most people, who never stray more than ten miles from their birthplace, have no conception of any of this anyway - their religion is their religion and that's that. Maybe they have some dim awareness that the local goblin tribe worships some specific deity which is different to their own, and maybe they even recognise that deity to have some real-world power and influence (and might even come to adopt it as their own if it is revealed to have more power and influence than the god their ancestors traditionally worship). But they're not worried about how it is supposed to all make sense.

The other thing that strikes one, however, is the shoe that doesn't drop - there is no explicit mention of Christianity (or Islam, Judaism, Hinduism, or any other modern living religion) in canonical AD&D, for all that the religion is clearly latent within it. The cleric, who banishes undead and splashed around holy water while waving a holy symbol, obviously derives from basically Christian motifs and stereotypes about exorcists and inquisitors; many of the monsters - especially the undead - only really make sense as monsters when founded on a basis of Christian folk belief (which holds that coming back from the dead is intrinsically evil, as opposed to something that happens once a year when the ancestors come home for dinner, or whatever); the devils and demons clearly use the iconography of medieval Christian ideas about hell; and so on. It is almost as though there is an implied Christianity in the typical D&D world lurking in the background, (one could widen this out and say an implied Abrahamic faith), which is unable to fully express itself but which is hinted at at every turn.

I know very well why the creators of AD&D never inserted Jehovah, or Allah, or whatever, into their fictional multiverse - they didn't want to piss people off. But given the standard approach to theological matters (basically that any and every religion that one could think of can exist and has actual divine power), and taking that approach on its own terms, then surely the God of the Abrahamic faiths must also be subject to the same rationale on a 'sauce for the gander' basis. There is not, I mean to say, any principled reason as to why the Finnish or orcish (or whatever) god are 'real' within AD&D world, but the Christian God is not.

Following through on this idea would have interesting ramifications. First, it opens the door to a Beowulf-inflected syncretism, in which old pagan beliefs and pagan demons (Grendel, the dragon, the eotenas, the orcneas, etc.) exist, but alongside a Christianity which is somehow more True, or at least stands in opposition to it, Here, all of the furniture of AD&D would be as it is, but there would be some notion that it is set against an underlying theology which is of a different substance entirely - there is a God who is simply more good or indeed more powerful (for all that perhaps he refrains from acting, for mysterious reasons) than the rest. 

And second, it could give rise to a campaign style that would feel as though it has more at stake. Obviously, this would be true for people who are themselves religious believers. But I think it is also true for atheists and agnostics who come from a Christian cultural background. Long, long ago I wrote a post comparing HP Lovecraft and MR James. As I put it then, there is something about MR James's horror, which assumes a kind of default Christian backdrop to events, that gives it a much greater sense of immediacy and resonance than HP Lovecraft's entirely invented mythos:

James's universe is one where things make a kind of sense, even though he was expert in keeping things hidden. The ghosts, spirits, demons who his protagonists encounter are products of Christianity; it's a vicious, vengeful, Old Testament Christianity, where sins are punished rather than forgiven, and it's a Christianity which comes more from the Apocrypha (The Testament of Solomon, Knights Templar, medieval Jewish magic) than from the Bible, but it's still a universe people from the Western world are familiar with. It's in many ways a quid pro quo universe - you get what's coming to you - but more importantly it's one that's horribly familiar, especially if you have had a church upbringing. Words like Baphomet, Satan, King Solomon, hell, the afterlife, altar, pew, prayer book, etc., have meanings to us which extend beyond the immediate story or what the writer can conjur up, and reach into our shared Judeo-Christian cultural past. This gives them a sense of weight, a sense of meaning, that made-up words like Hastur do not. 
You don't have to be religious to appreciate that certain shared myths, stories and artefacts can take on a sense or feeling of the numinous, despite your own agnosticism: they get it not from the fact that they're true, or genuinely 'spiritual', but from something deeper - they've been around a long time, thousands of years in some cases, and when something is around a long time, it tends to grow roots. The Testament of Solomon is spellbinding because these are stories which have their roots in extreme antiquity, and something that old can't help but feel significant.

The point here is that one doesn't have to be a Christian to feel the viscerality of the notion that an orc or gnoll is a son of Cain rather than an evil humanoid - or indeed that a pit fiend is satanic rather than 'chaotic' or whatever else. One gets the concept of fighting a chaos demon; but one feels, in fighting a servant of Satan, that something weightier is going on. I think this would likely be truer across the piece, in a campaign setting which integrated Christian mythology (let's call it that for the sake of argument while sticking a pin in the question of metaphysics) in a more direct way.

Friday 1 December 2023

Best Books of 2023

The greatest of traditions have a timeless quality that allows us to imagine ourselves inhabiting an unbroken chain of custom that goes back into the mists of the ancient past. And so it is with Monsters & Manuals 'Best Books of...' lists, which each year are keenly awaited by small, ruddy-cheeked children up and down the land, so that they can refer to it when deciding what to put on their Christmas lists to St Nick.

This year, the recommendations will be as follows. I limiting myself here to five books, as is the tradition; according to Goodreads - where I religiously review every book I read - I read thirty-three books in total this year, which I think is less than usual. I went back and forth over whether to include Beowulf, literally the last thing I 'read', but technically I didn't read it (I listened) and it was the subject of my most recent blog entry anyway (and will be the subject also of the next). 

So, in no particular order, the top five are:

1. Who Framed Colin Wallace? by Paul Foot. This, an account of the trial for murder of a British serviceman who blew the whistle on a 'dirty tricks' campaign by MI5 in Northern Ireland, has nothing whatsoever to do with the subject matter of this blog, but I thought the book was a great read and highly recommend it. From my Goodreads review:

I was swept up in this tale, which is written in an utterly absorbing way and which successfully builds a meticulously researched and argued case that Wallace was framed. The account of his trial in itself is absolutely superb - indeed, it's difficult to imagine a better example of a detailed dissection of court-room procedure in all of non-fiction. The book is marred slightly by the author's evident biases, which at times lead one to question whether he can have viewed the evidence dispassionately. But even if one does not agree with its conclusions, it's impossible to put down.

2. The Knight and The Wizard by Gene Wolfe (okay - I suppose I lied when I said this list would contain five books). I wrote a series of posts (beginning here) on the blog about The Wizard Knight after reading the series, and probably bored the pants off my readership through repeated references to it thereafter, but the fact of the matter is that great books sometimes have that effect - and these are genuinely Great Books. From my Goodreads reviews:

(The Knight) I read this almost 20 years ago and liked it, but second time around it has grown immeasurably in the telling, possibly because a middle-aged man can see within it themes which a younger man ignores or rejects. It is very much a tale about men and manhood, and I suspect quite alienating to female readers as a result, but there's nothing really wrong with that (I've got no problem with books being written by women for women) - and what it has to say about the subject is extremely important, counter-cultural and profound. 

(The Wizard) I am thoroughly prepared to accept that the first Act of this novel is too long and at times tortuous. This probably means I should give it less than 5 stars. But in a way the difficulty of that section is almost worth it for the emotional payoff of what comes after. Wolfe here achieves that rarest of things in contemporary fiction: a genuinely happy ending (who has the guts to try to write one of those these days?) that is thoroughly convincing and satisfying. In this respect, it reminded me a lot of TH White's The Ill-Made Knight, to which it makes an excellent companion piece.

3. Last Witnesses by Svetlana Alexievich. I am a huge fan of Alexievich's work but nothing could prepare me for the emotional body blow that comes from reading this book for the first time. Simply a retelling, in their own words, of the stories of people who had been children in the Soviet Union (chiefly Belarus) at the time of the Nazi invasion in 1941, it contains the full gamut of human experience across the spectrum - the depths of sorrow and despair, and the glory of hope and love, and all that lies between. An amazing, 'Best Books of a Lifetime" contender. From my Goodreads review:

The less said about some books the better, because they cannot be improved by another's words - only diminished. This is indeed the philosophy underlying all of Alexievich's work: that other people's stories must speak for themselves and could only be made worse by inserting the interviewer's perspective. This, in any case, is an unspeakably moving book - suffering on every page, but also survival and redemption. It made me understand the human condition better for having read it.

4. The Inheritors by William Golding. The short, terrible, horrifying, and disturbing tale of the meeting between a group of neanderthals and a group of homo sapiens, and of the passing away of one world and its replacement with the next. Somebody recommended in the comments to an entry on this blog that I should read this, and I'm very glad they did (it might even have been this guy); it changed my perspective on what fiction could be. From my Goodreads review:

A great novel will make you understand human nature better, and in a different way. This novel is very great, because it does this with stark purity by forcing us to confront humanity from the outside, as it would be perceived by minds that are not our own. This is an achievement that truly merits being labelled a work of genius. That it is also a work of great lyrical beauty and terrible tragedy makes that achievement more unlikely, and more impressive still.

5. Now We Are Six by A A Milne. Is this cheating? I suppose it might be cheating. But I deeply enjoyed the experience of reading the poems in this collection to my eldest child, over and over again, during the course of the year. To the adult ear there is something truly magical about the rhythms and cadences of Milne's; one rarely ever reads poetry nowadays, really, and when one does one tends to read pretentious and impenetrable stuff like Pablo Neruda or free verse like Raymond Carver. Milne set himself an altogether different task: picking a meter (sometimes quite a complex one), sticking strictly to it, and communicating clearly and effectively - and beautifully - while doing so. This is enough to inspire one to try it oneself. From my Goodreads review:

These poems must be read out loud (ideally to one's son or daughter) in order to appreciate the sonorous cadences of AA Milne's verse. Things have changed in the last 100 years; what was expected of the reader in terms of poetic literacy were much higher in 1927, and some of the rhyme structures and rhythms strike the modern ear as genuinely complex. This makes the book all the more useful in communicating to a child the beauty of the English language deployed well.


A funny year, in retrospect, in that I read almost no SF or fantasy (Gene Wolfe excepted, and unless you count The Inheritors), and read very few books that really had me properly hooked - I noted down quite a few two- and three-star reviews. But the ones that I loved, I really loved. 

Do feel free to leave your own lists in the comments - I can never have enough recommendations for good reading material.

Tuesday 28 November 2023

The Clan of Cain: Ogres, Elves, Evil Phantoms and Giants

I recently had the opportunity on a long drive to listen to Seamus Heaney reading his own translation of Beowulf from start to finish. It was a real treat, and I highly recommend it. I had read Beowulf before in other translations, but long ago, and the words are of course meant to be spoken rather than read; it is a much more powerful experience that way, especially (and strangely) when delivered in Heaney's decidedly un-Germanic Irish brogue. 

I was very struck by the poem's syncretism (more on this in future posts) and the way in particular Germanic myth and Old Testament legend are able to fit alongside one another almost seamlessly. Hence:

Grendel was the name of this grim demon haunting the marches, marauding round the heath and the desolate fens; he had dwelt for a time in misery among the banished monsters, Cain's clan, whom the Creator had outlawed and condemned as outcasts. For the killing of Abel the Eternal Lord had exacted a price: Cain got no good from committing that murder because the Almighty made him anathema and out of the curse of his exile there sprang ogres and elves and evil phantoms and the giants too who strove with God time and again until He gave them their reward.

The idea that the creatures of Northern European myth were born from the murder of Abel by Cain is just too wonderful not to spur the imagination (as is the idea of giants literally fighting against God himself), and it would be incredible to me if no other RPG bloggers or writers have noticed it or done something with it. Nonetheless, it very much makes me want to do something with it - perhaps along the lines of the single class paladin campaign, with paladins conceptualised as warriors who specifically battle the 'clan of Cain' and protect humanity against them.

The interesting thing about the 'clan of Cain' - aside from the fact that it groups elves with the bad guys, which is always how I have thought elves work best - is the distinct division into four categories: ogres, elves, evil phantoms ('orcneas' in the original Old English, the only instance of the word appearing to our knowledge, and apparently thought by Old English scholars to be a compound of 'hell corpse') and giants. This is suggestive of four clear archetypes into which monstrous threats can be divided.

The easiest is the last: giants here are clearly meant to be genuinely huge giants capable of actually struggling with the almighty. (The Old English has 'gigantas', which speaks to me of something truly gigantic and also demigod-like, stemming as it does from an ultimately Greek source.) The vision I have is of titanic cthonic or celestial beings of immortal character and scale, rather than just a big person in the traditional D&D mode.

Another easy one is elves - understood as capricious and malevolent, or perhaps simply incapable of empathising with humanity. Not the elves of Tolkien but something more like the Aelf of The Wizard Knight who come in the night to steal babies or mislead travellers, and are of many different varieties. 

Then there are the 'evil phantoms', clearly simplest to understand as the undead, but perhaps also encompassing demonic and devilish spirits born from Hell or the Abyss (or, indeed, the dead brought back to life as demonic spirits). Here, I imagine everything from D&D-style zombies and skeletons all the way up to Lord Soth, and on the other hand the lemures, manes, pit fiends, succubi and so on that we tend to think of as 'demons' in the classical sense. It's all grouped under the orcneas category.

And finally we come to the most difficult category to define, the ogres. The original has 'eotonas', which obviously has a similar root to 'jotunn', but this conjures in the mind precisely the same kind of image as 'gigantas' - a demigodlike, supernatural figure of immense size and power. This is clearly the meaning of the word in the Eddas. Wikipedia provides us with the interesting information, however, that the word's root is the proto-Germanic word 'etunaz', which is connected with 'etanan' ('to eat'), and that from this were derived various Old Norse and Old English words connected with consumption, gluttony and greed. Could this make 'ogre' a catchall then for the type of creatures that we might traditionally think of as goblinish or orcish, and which make their living from catching and eating people? Or maybe even evil dwarves, acquisitive, avaricious and grasping - like perhaps the duergar or derro?

I like this basic idea of dividing threats into four categories, and one could even thereby subdivide paladins into four types, each specially equipped for taking on one of the monster types in particular: the giant-killer being especially difficult to kill and physically strong; the elf-killer being especially knowledgeable in/resistant to magic and charms; the phantom-killer being very good at smiting evil spirits; and the ogre-killer being very skilled in melee. This would allow some differentiation by archetype, even while maintaining the basic framework of the 'everything is paladins' motif. 

You could even call it The Clan of Cain

Monday 27 November 2023

The Sunday Seven: November 26th, 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • Patrick Stuart's Gackling Moon kickstarter is live
  • I did not see the new(ish) Dungeons and Dragons film, but it seems a sequel is in the works: D&D is genuinely having a cultural moment
  • Settlers of a Dead God - an animal fantasy setting in which the PCs are anthropomorphic insects exploring the corpse of a gigantic dead god - intrigues me
  • Rapier versus Katana. Yes, they did it. (Years ago.) These comparison videos are always stupid - you would have to run the experiment 10,000 times with 10,000 different sets of competitors to get anything like convincing results - but still fun.
  • I find myself often linking to this blog, but Mythlands of Erce has some excellent stuff to say about the most underrated (least overrated?) edition of D&D
  • You will have seen Grognardia's post about the 10 Commandments of D&D, but I think it is worth flagging regardless
  • Napoleon is in the news a bit because of the new Ridley Scott film (which I will not watch); I very strongly recommend Andrew Roberts' Napoleon the Great, if you have not read it

Friday 24 November 2023

Ground Up Campaign Setting Building, Or: These Goblins Ride...

We tend to think of campaign settings in terms of grand design: the creation of a world, starting with a high concept and working from top, down. 

This is not, though, always or even usually how human creativity works; we just as often begin with the tiny seed of an idea and then gradually nurture it to prolific growth. George RR Martin, for example, started with a very simple image - a family with five children discovering five direwolves - and extrapolated A Song of Ice and Fire from there. Tolkien began The Hobbit simply by jotting down the opening line - 'In the hole in the ground there lived a hobbit' - in a flash of inspiration, and the rest followed (and, of course, his 'Leaf by Niggle' is a beautiful allegory for this mode of creation). I'm sure one could cite many more examples. 

It occurred to me today that if one were seeking inspiration one could do worse than creating a method for generating such small ideas. One such method would be the These Goblins Ride.... Table. The idea here is to begin the creation of a campaign region simply by imagining what mounts a group of goblins would be riding in a wilderness encounter. Viz:

These Goblins Ride... Table

Roll 1d10:

1- Ostriches

2 - Giant snakes

3 - Giant newts

4 - Reindeer

5 - Elephants

6 - Llamas

7 - Giant seagulls

8 - Buffalo

9 - Giant tortoises

10 - Giant anteaters

The idea here is that the mere act of imagining a set of goblins riding ostriches, or giant seagulls, or reindeer, immediately results in a mental picture giving rise to a chain of further images. Goblins riding reindeer to my mind's eye implies rolling tundra, dotted with patches of not-yet-melted snow and exposed hunks of black moraine; it implies nomadic tribes of humans on whom the goblins prey, and perhaps a great tent city where these tribes congregate to trade, marry, and make merry; it implies desolate hillsides of sheer scree in which can be seen from a distance dark caves; it implies glaciers riddled with tunnels; it implies roaming bands of quaggoths, yetis, and frost giants - and white or silver dragons lying in slumber beneath unnamed ranges of craggy mountains. 

Goblins riding anteaters, on the other hand, suggests to me something like the pampas - fertile grassland pulsating with life under a warm blue sky. It implies abandoned giant ant hills like towers or fortresses dotting the landscape, harbouring ghosts and demons; it implies anacondas and crocodiles lurking in myriad waterways; it implies armadillo-skinned orcs and elves with domesticated pumas; it implies human societies thriving on symbiotic coordination with tame giant ants; it implies thunderstorms that bring with them swarms of elemental spirits or demons of the air. 

I could go on. Clearly, one could easily extend this table both to include more rows but also to produce something more complicated and broad, so that instead of goblins one could generate a wide range of initial races and a wide range of mounts. But you get the idea in principle: when in doubt, just think, 'These goblins ride....what?'

Monday 20 November 2023

A Trap Has Been Placed Here to Kill Hornet-Women

I am currently finishing off my next big project - the Three Mile Tree megadungeon.

One of the entries in the key begins with the phrase contained in the title to this entry: 'A trap has been placed here to kill hornet-women.'

I know what the trap is. I want you to give me your ideas in the comments!

The Sunday Seven, 19th November 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • He has been coy about it, but Patrick Stuart's kickstarter for his next project, Gackling Moon, is in the works
  • The BBC World Service did a radio play of William Gibson's Neuromancer in 2002; it is available on YouTube here and it is truly surreal
  • My love for The Wizard Knight is known throughout the land; here is Gene Wolfe being interviewed about it
  • You probably know about this (I am behind the curve these days, in my fortress of solitude) but Palladium is running a Kickstarter for a 'redux version' of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles and Other Strangeness 
  • Simon Roper, an archaeologist, makes some fascinating videos about historical speech - here he is demonstrating what a South East English accent sounded like down the centuries
  • Here is Ingmar Bergman talking about his demons; I find the insecurities of people like this, who by anyone's measure can be said to have achieved greatness in their field, immensely reassuring
  • I don't know if you have come across this guy's extreme camping videos, but they are great inspiration for imagining what wilderness travel looks like and the kind of challenges PCs would experience crossing a hexmap 

Friday 17 November 2023

Worst Five Monsters

What defines a 'bad' monster? For me, it generally has at least one of these three qualities. First, it shatters verisimilitude by being either 'jokey' or just really hard to visualise or imagine. Second, it has some nuclear-grade special ability that can only really be avoided or circumvented by a successful saving throw rather than player intelligence. Third, it is just boring, usually because it is too much like a lot of other monsters, or because it has no obvious role beyond being a benevolent quest-dispenser or GMPC.

These qualities we can call, for shorthand, silliness, unfairness, and boringness. 

On this basis, I would say that the Worst Five MonstersTM in the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual are:

5. Banshee. I am not averse to the concept of this monster in principle, as the concept of a banshee as it exists in folklore is deeply eerie and evocative. And actually the Monstrous Manual entry is nicely written and provides some good ideas for use of a banshee in a campaign region. But the monster itself is high in boringness (its role overlaps too much with that of the ghost or spectre) and unfairness (it gets to just show up, scream, and then everybody might die). 

4. Cloaker. The picture in the Monstrous Manual does this monster no favours, but it is intrinsically very high in silliness, both through shattering verisimilitude (try picturing a flying cloak with glowing red eyes attacking somebody in your mind's eye and tell me it doesn't immediately transform into a scene from a cartoon) and for having no obvious justification for its existence other than surprising adventurers. And then you have the fact that for some reason it can emit magical 'moans' of different intensities. Now try imagining that: a moaning, flying cloak with a face in the middle.

3. Faerie Dragon. I just think that the last thing that any D&D campaign needs is a creature which 'thrives on pranks, mischief and practical jokes'. Practical jokes are visual, for one thing, and are not funny when being verbally described, but the more important issue is that joke monsters are like campaign cul-de-sacs.  A random encounter with something which simply intends to 'wreak mischief on passers-by' provides no adventure hooks, nor danger, but simply acts as a distraction or speed-bump. The faerie dragon is therefore both silly AND boring.

2. Ki-rin. There are too many of this kind of monster in the Monstrous Manual, and they all bleed into one: couatls, lammasu, shedu, sphinxes...all of the same: flying benevolent sky dwellers who descend to the the world below to smite evil and help out the PCs (presumably on the basis of their taking part in some pre-ordained quest or mission). I am fully on board with the idea that there should be powerful good entities in the world if there are to be powerful evil ones, and that enterprising players should on discovery of their existence seek them out for aid, but there is too much of a duplication of roles her and too much of a stink of 'plot' about the ki-rin in particular. The boringness is off the charts. 

1. Sea Lion. Just stop it. 

Tuesday 14 November 2023

On Sympathy for the Young

In my last post, I linked to a Wired article which purports to be about a Ghibli-inspired D&D 5th edition setting, but which is really about the bigger issue of 'wholesomeness' and the need which young people nowadays seem to feel for media that is, for want of a better word, 'nicer' than what they are used to.

There was a time when I would have dismissed this is the whining of softies, and accused youngsters of wanting to be special snowflakes. But in recent years I have increasingly come around to the position that life simply is psychologically harder for young people nowadays than for previous generations (those born after, say, the 1950s), for all that it is materially more secure. I therefore have a lot of sympathy for the idea that we could probably do with a more wholesome media landscape in general than the one to which we have become accustomed. 

What, though, do I mean by life being psychologically harder? Really, there are three linked phenomena at work.

The first is I think obvious: smartphones. I am glad that there appears to be a head of steam now building towards more robust regulation of these devices, and that there is increasingly more recognition of what should have been evident all along - namely that the effect of smartphone use on the developing brain is nothing short of disastrous. But I still think we are at the very foothills of our understanding of the deleterious consequences of widespread smartphone use. My day job brings me into contact with hundreds of young people every year, and I increasingly see what I have witnessed over the past decade as something like a slow-motion apocalypse. People who are eighteen years old in 2023 are almost a different species to people who were eighteen years old in 2012, and they bear the countenance of people who have been mentally scarred by the mere process of growing up. It's not their fault: they have been subjected to what can only really be thought of as relentless psychological assault, driven by a technology which is designed to be addictive in a way that puts crack cocaine to shame (all the while going through what everyone knows to already be the toughest period of life - the teenage years). It is desperately sad, and I think in ten or twenty years' time parents will have a lot of apologising to do to their children for allowing all of this sorrow to be caused under their watch. (I direct your attention in particular to this recent article for a very interesting and lucid analysis of a central aspect of the phenomenon, which is the problem of loneliness and involuntary celibacy.)

The second is also evident to most thoughtful people, and it is the fact that the world has simply become a lot less social, and a lot 'colder', over the past thirty or so years. Technology has obviously facilitated this. But whatever the cause, the texture of life has fundamentally and drastically altered. One should not look back on the past with those famous rose-tinted glasses, but there were many ways in which life was simply more communal, more supportive, and more forgiving than it is now. I grew up in humble circumstances in one of the poorest regions of the UK, but there were lots of compensatory factors that made life cheerful - kids playing in the street, neighbours looking out for each other and lending each other money where needed, community groups and clubs, religious meetings, pubs and newsagents on almost every street corner, big family gatherings. The importance of this dense web of sociality has radically diminished in my lifetime, and for young people in particular things have become as a consequence just a little bit, well, shit. They have fewer opportunities to develop, fewer opportunities to make friends, fewer opportunities to meet romantic partners in a natural way, and fewer opportunities to mix with people from different generations. All of this adds up to a feeling of being largely alone against a cold and unfriendly world (with only fake online sociality to compensate).

The third is more diffuse, but I think perhaps the most important of all, and it is the spiritual consequence of feeling as thought there is not a great deal of purpose to being alive. Most young people nowadays leads lives of comfort that previous generations could not have imagined. And vast swathes of them are able to postpone the transition to adulthood almost indefinitely with university, postgraduate study, extended periods of living at home. This is in one sense an astonishing privilege, but it is also a curse. Part of what makes life feel as though it is worth living is the sense that what one does matters. One gets this sense, very keenly, when one has to lead an independent life as a productive contributor to society - paying the bills, raising a family, doing a good job at work. One does not get it from studying something vaguely interesting for year after year (unless one is very academically gifted) or from living at home with Mum and Dad and temping. In short, young people now grow up in an atmosphere almost of enforced listlessness. And this saps the soul in a way that people of my generation (who were generally expected to stand on their own two feet from the age of eighteen) cannot quite imagine.

I do not wish to misinterpreted: life was materially very hard for my family when I was a kid, and is still materially very hard for very many people even in purportedly wealthy societies like Britain's. Life is materially much harder still in the developing world. And life was also undoubtedly psychologically harder in many ways for certain categories of people in previous generations - soldiers who had fought in war, gay people who were relentlessly bullied, and so on. But I'm not sure that previous generations ever had to deal with this strange malaise that has set itself like a pall over the lives of our current youth, and which seems almost purposively designed to direct their energies only to the most soul-crushing aspects of life: consumerism, light entertainment, pornography, the self. 

What is to be done about this is beyond my pay grade. But facilitating people getting together with their mates and enjoying a wholesome pastime together to my eye seems like one of the most important contributions that anybody can make by way of a remedy or palliative. It at least might be a bit of an antidote to the unrelenting sordidness that the internet has become. And in that sense, I wish Obojima the very best of luck.

Monday 13 November 2023

The Sunday Seven, 12th November 2023

Each Sunday, I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • On Mythlands of Erce, we hear about 'Why "Roll under" Ability checks really are the best of checks', and we agree
  • Dungeon stocking is one of the most important and enjoyable of DMing activities, and I am always curious to learn how other people do it; In Places Deep posted one of the better examples I've read
  • I will probably write a post about this subject myself, since I used to be a translator, but World Building & Woolgathering has a great little piece on translation errors/issues in maps
  • I can't remember if I have posted about this before, but the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs has an online map application which allows you to zoom in on the UK to beautifully crisp and granular OS-level detail - it is extremely useful in, for example, coming up with maps on the fly for random wilderness encounters; stealing names; or even just drawing inspiration from to create more realistic-looking maps
  • There is a new thing called Obojima - a setting for 5th edition 'that aims to bring the aesthetics of Studio Ghibli' to D&D
  • In case there is the slightest chance you are living under a rock, Mythic Bastionland has now launched and is likely relevant to your interests
  • This may be old news; I have no idea, as I am out of the loop, but His Majesty the Worm sounds great and intrigues me in that 'summer of 08' way

Friday 10 November 2023

The Obliqueness of Real World Place Names

RPG setting designers tend to adopt one of three approaches to place names. The first is just to come up with made-up assortments of syllables arranged to make a pleasing and evocative sound: Allansia; Al Qadim; New Crobuzon.

The second, I think generally more effective, approach is to use place names that actually mean something: The Misty Mountains, Cloud City, King's Landing. 

The third, I think least effective, one is to deploy names that break the fourth wall by imagining the inhabitants of a place to have deliberately given it a 'cool' name: Bloodhand Gap, Moon's Spawn, Fang.

When you think about real world place names, though, what is most noticeable about them (certainly in Britain) is their strange obliqueness. It is not as though they are a bundle of made-up sounds; but nor very often do they quite make sense when imagined as standalone English phrases. They are like something Tolkien would have made up, but squinted at through a pane of translucent glass, so that they become misshapen and strange. Here, for example, are some names of places from the countryside not far from where I live:

Howly Winter

The Dimples

Kitten Tom

Benty Band


Candlesleve Sikes

Cockshot Wood

Featherstone Rowfoot

Pyke Dyke

Far Town

Wool House


Spout Bog

Plunder Heath

Humble Dodd

Pudgment Hill

Piper's Drone

Tudhump Holm

Drowning Holes

Pedler's Grave

Limestone Gears

Howlerhirst Crags

Deer Play


Yes, you can imagine why 'Wool House' would end up being a place name, and perhaps also 'Pyke Dyke' and 'Drowning Holes' (something dark is hinted at there). But most of the rest of the list inhabits a kind of limbo - almost making sense but not quite.

This is I think partly likely a result of an Anglicization of pre-existing Celtic names; hearing the locals refer to such-and-such a place with a Celtic word, the Anglo-Saxons would have heard something which to their ear sounded different, and over time would have developed a pronunciation which sounded familar to them. Hence we get the almost-English quality of 'Kitten Tom' or 'Sillywrea'.

But it is also simply the case that the real world has an impossibly rich history, and place names are produced by a continual layering of events, dialectal changes, population shifts and deliberate choices, one of top of the other, over the ages. A human author or game designer doesn't have a hope in hell of emulating this - there is not a DM in the world who would think to call a village 'Howly Winter' - and as a result there is generally something deeply dissatisfying about the names we tend to come up with. The best way to get around this is obviously just to grab a map (DEFRA's magic map is a good place to start) and start plundering.

Thursday 9 November 2023

Dragons Reviewed and Ranked

The AD&D 2nd Edition Monstrous Manual lists 23 types of dragon. I here intend to review and rank them as they are presented in the text (i.e. not as reimagined by a creative OSR-influenced DM). Each dragon type is assigned a score out of 5 across three metrics: evocativeness, usability, and coherence (the latter being a shorthand for a pleasing congruence between abilities - breath weapon, magical abilities, and so on). The scores are then averaged and the dragons ranked. 

Without further ado, let's begin:

Black Dragon

Evocativeness: 3. 'Black dragon' conjures in my mind a reference to Ancalagon the Black, the original dragon in Tolkien's Middle Earth, but the D&D version is a lot more humdrum. There is also a major redundancy problem given the existence of the green dragon - which can already be said to have the marsh/forest/jungle/noxious miasma angle covered. With that said, a swamp or marsh is a kind of overground equivalent to a mythic underworld, and I like the idea of there being a dragon lurking at the heart of each. 

Usability: 3. It is hinted that black dragons' lairs are supposed to be at least partially flooded, or accesible through waterways. This adds an interesting dimension - but, sadly, is not really followed through in the text.

Coherence: 2. There is a conceptional confusion at work here. Black dragons' abilities suggest a dweller in dank, dark, damp places - darkness, corrupt water, summon insects, charm reptiles. But why is the breath weapon acid? This has never made a great deal of sense to me.

Overall: 2.666

Blue Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. It's possible that the creators of D&D were the first to dream up the existence of blue dragons, at least in published material. (Somebody will inevitably pop up in the comments to inform me that actually they first appeared in a Edgar Rice Burroughs novel from 1907, but whatever.) Why would a desert-dwelling dragon be blue, and breathe lightning? I don't know, but it feels very redolent of D&D during the TSR era.

Usability: 3. I am in favour of deserts as settings for campaigns, and it is important therefore that there should be lots of desert-based monsters. A desert-based race of dragons therefore comes in handy.

Coherence: 2. To repeat: why would a desert-dwelling dragon be blue, and breathe lightning? And how is that consonant with its magical abilities, which are mostly to do with creating hallucinations? There is too much going on here: blues are a 'busy' type of dragon, and it dilutes their impact.

Overall: 3

Green Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. Dragons are classically green, and I like the fact that green dragons exude poison, and indeed poison the landscape around them. This is Saint George! This is Glaurung! This is the Lambton Wyrm! This is more like it.

Usability: 3. Here, however, the overlap of functions and purview between green and black dragons again becomes problematic. Green dragons are 'about' poison, and this suggests swamps, bogs, and the like. But that's a black dragon's territory. If on the other hand one conceives of them as a kind of 'forest' dragon, this would not be suggestive of having abilities associated with poison. This in practice makes it difficult to imagine where exactly green dragons 'fit', if they are not to step on the toes of the blacks.

Coherence: 3. See above. Yes, it makes sense for green dragons to be associated with poison. Yes, it makes sense for them to have the magical abilities they have - warping wood, entangling, growing plants, and so on, if they are supposed to be a 'forest' dragon. But one of these things is not like the other.

Overall: 3

Red Dragon

Evocativeness: 5. Nothing says D&D more, really, than a red dragon - and to somebody of my age, the image of a red dragon and its treasure is almost synonymous with the experience of playing D&D (the very first session of D&D I ever played in even featured one, I suspect because one appeared on the cover of the Red Box and was therefore present in our minds from the very outset). It therefore communicates a mood, and a sense of nostalgia, that is almost quintessentially of the TSR era which we remember so affectionately.

Usability: 4. Covetous and greedy, sits on a big treasure hoard. We get this. Everybody gets it. And it is beautifully uncomplicated and pure. The game is Dungeons & Dragons. At the bottom of the dungeon is a dragon. It is red. It breathes fire. This works, and we all instantly recognise that it does so. The text also includes a nice little titbit: red dragons like to eat young maidens and sometimes charm local villagers into sending them as sacrifices. It writes itself.

Coherence: 5. It is hard to really imagine what image the word 'dragon' would conjure in people's minds were it not for the cultural impact of Tolkien and, in turn, D&D. The red dragon, which can breathe and manipulate fire, find treasure, and use powers of suggestion and hypnosis on its prey, is so redolent of Smaug and Glaurung that it taps more or less directly into that shared imaginary history, and is thus really the most coherent dragon type of them all.

Overall: 4.666

White Dragon

Evocativeness: 2. The idea of white dragons is sound. But it is by-the-numbers. While the blue dragon has a pleasing oddness to it (it lives in the desert and therefore it is blue and breathes lightning), the white dragon is lazily obvious. It lives in cold places and it is white and does cold things. OK.

Usability: 4. The virtue of white dragons, however, can be said to lie precisely in their banality. As is the case with desert campaigns, I am fully behind the 'ice world' motif - and monsters suitable for use in icy places are thin on the ground in D&D. White dragons, in this respect, need our support.

Coherence: 4. White dragons breathe cones of frost, and have spell-like abilities that chiefly revolve around manipulating cold weather, wind and fog. This all makes perfect sense, although it does raise the question as to whether it is really plausible that a monster that makes its living in very cold places would mostly seek to kill or subdue its enemies by deploying the cold itself, to which they are presumably immune. 

Overall: 3.333

Amethyst Dragon

Evocativeness: 2. Amethysts themselves suggest regality, and it is therefore appropriate for amethyst dragons to be described as wise and aloof, and vaguely snooty. But does this not describe the stereotypical image of all dragons? Delusions of grandeur, arrogance, and a strong sense of entitlement? It is hard to discern within this a USP (a problem that also bleeds into amethyst dragons' coherence, too). I think what the designers were going for was a neutral equivalent of the (evil) red and (good) gold dragons, the correspondingly most powerful representatives of their alignment groupings. Fine: but this in itself does not add up to a distinctive character. 

Usability: 2. Partly for the above reasons, amethyst dragons greatly overlap conceptually with red dragons and, as we shall see, gold dragons and others, too. It is a powerful, wise and conceited being that dwells deep in subterranean caves and likes treasure. Yes, but we have those already. What, aside from psionics, do amethyst dragons bring - metaphorically and literally - to the table?

Coherence: 2. Amethyst dragons' abilities and breath weapon also reflect a lack of a strong sense among the designers about what they were designing. An explosive concussion-lozenge breath weapon conjures an image of a dragon spitting out cough sweets, but alongside this they are able to walk on water, neutralise poison, shape change, control weather and cast resilient spheres - a smorgasbord of abilities that suggest not so much 'paragon of True Neutral' as 'mishmash'.

Overall: 2

Crystal Dragon

Evocativeness: 1. I have never been a fan of 'friendly' monsters, having I think been scarred by too many experiences with 'friendly' GMPCs in the days of my youth; the word makes me immediately smell a rat. And I think 'friendliness' is especially to be avoided when it comes to dragons. It is undignified. 

Usability: 2. A dragon type which is friendly and curious, prefers conversation to fighting, and is 'fun loving and mischievous' suggests to me one thing only - a self-conscious 'good guy' with some sort of role in an overarching plot. D&D should not be about unrelenting hostility, but there is a problem when the only possible encounter that can be envisaged between the PCs and a particular monster is benign; in such circumstances we immediately begin to descend the slippery slope into railroading. 

Coherence: 3. The crystal dragon has a nice breath weapon - a cloud of glittering shards that dazzle as well as wound. And its abilities are consonant with the role that the monster is evidently supposed to play in the minds of the designers, having a mixture of mood-altering and gift-giving spells at its disposal. I'm not a fan of that role, but the suite of abilities makes sense in its own terms.

Overall: 2

Emerald Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. A dragon which lairs only in 'tropical and subtropical extinct volcanoes' is working a narrow niche indeed, but I rather like that niche: it conjures images in the mind of 'lost worlds' in far flung places, like Venezuela, Belize, Myanmar, Indonesia, the Philippines, Fiji.... 

Usability: 3. With the above said, emerald dragons suffer from the same kind of identity crisis as does the amethyst. What is really all that different in the end about a dragon which is described as paranoid, possessive, and vengeful? However, the idea of a dragon which prefers to hide, set up traps, and attack with burrowing ambushes than direct confrontation is I suppose at least somewhat more distinctive than many of the other types. 

Coherence: 2. Emerald dragons breathe sonic vibrations. Why? Not sure, except that it probably felt to the designers like one sort of dragon ought to have that type of attack, and the emerald might as well be it. Its spell-like abilities are a grab-bag: some stuff to do with confusion, a bit of hypnosis, a bit of hold person, some rock manipulation, and geas. 

Overall: 3

Sapphire Dragon

Evocativeness: 1. What is there to say? Sapphire dragons, we are told, are 'militantly territorial' but not actively hostile, and their reaction to intruders basically depends on how those intruders comport themselves. Inspiration was clearly running dry here; this is the dragon equivalent of a bowl of cornflakes without sugar. 

Usability: 1. Lacking distinctiveness, sapphire dragons have little to recommend them to a DM stocking a hex map or dungeon, when so many other dragon types will do. Indeed, the text even says, more or less openly, that there is a big overlap between sapphires and emeralds, with the implication that one might as well just use the latter.

Coherence: 3. The sapphire dragon has a boring sonic breath attack which causes fear, but its spell-like abilities do, in its defence, all make sense for a purely subterranean being - almost all being to do with the manipulation of stone and the generation of light.

Overall: 1.666

Topaz Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. A seacoast dragon is a nice idea and there are touches of genuine creativity on display, here: the image of a topaz dragon diving down into the sea, gannet like, to catch giant squid approaches genius. 

Usability: 4. A powerful 'boss-type' coastal monster is in itself useful, but the topaz dragon entry also adds an extra dimension to a hex map or dungeon by suggesting the entrances to their lairs are normally below the waterline, implying all manner of interesting logistical challenges.

Coherence: 4. Topaz dragons have various suitable water manipulation abilities and, impressively, the designers resisted the temptation to give them a fire-hose style breath weapon. Instead, unlike whites (which are from cold places and therefore breathe cold), topaz dragons have a breath attack which it actually makes sense for them to have - a dehydration cone. Yes, I buy it.

Overall: 4

Brass Dragon

Evocativeness: 2. I like the brass dragon illustration in the 2nd edition MM very much; it is redolent of a dimetrodon and to my eye is unusually distinctive amongst the other phoned-in dragon illos. That's where the evocativeness stops though, really; as with crystal dragons, we're left with the conclusion that a talkative possessor of useful information is really something for a game with a 'plot'. Also, as petty as it is, I find myself objecting to metallic dragons being identified with alloys rather than elements. Gold, silver and copper I am fine with. Brass and bronze, no thank you.

Usability: 2. I smell another rat here, in that much of the text of the entry for brass dragons is dedicated to explaining how, as inveterate bores, they use their abilities to capture victims so that they can keep them as conversation partners. This is vaguely suggestive to me of comic-relief style shenanigans; I'm not a fan.

Coherence: 3. Having a sleep cone breath weapon and a heat cone breath weapon make a sort of sense given what else we are told about brass dragons, and the abilities are a nice package for an 'arid plain' dweller. Being able to summon djinnis is also a solid idea.

Overall: 2.333

Bronze Dragon

Evocativeness: 3. We here find ourselves back in the 'friendly and talkative' arena, and the comments I made with respect to crystal dragons also apply here. With that said, however, the bronze dragon entry is much more interesting than the crystal one, with its hints about sunken treasure, shipwrecks, and aquatic lairs. There is much to like about this.

Usability: 4. There is a good deal of explanation in the entry about how to deploy bronze dragons in an encounter, and many reasons provided to include them in a hex map and ways to integrate them with the wider locality (they like shipwrecks; they ally with dolphins; they like pearls; etc.). This is a dragon type one could see oneself straightforwardly placing within a campaign region.

Coherence: 4. The combination of lightning and repulsion gas as breath weapons is an odd one (what even is 'repulsion gas'?) but the spell-like abilities all work well with what we are told about the dragon in the text. We're left with the impression of a coast-dwelling hunter, identifying prey with ESP, confusing them with fog, summoning storms to subdue them, and so on. This works.

Overall: 3.666

Copper Dragon

Evocativeness: 3. One's eyes begin to roll the instant one reads the words 'pranksters, joke tellers and riddlers' in any monster entry, least of all that of a dragon. But I will stick up for the position that at least in principle there is a fairy tale-ish, folklorish aspect to TSR-era D&D which it would be a shame to denigrate too much, and a riddling dragon is perfectly in keeping with the traditions of the genre. In that sense, copper dragons are ok by me.

Usability: 3. We have the intrinsic problem with all good dragons, which is that their existence seems to pre-empt conflict of any kind emerging with the PCs. But the copper dragon entry is well written and highly suggestive in the way it describes the tricky way that the monster operates, particularly in a fight.

Coherence: 4. The breath weapons and spell-like abilities nicely build the picture of a monster with a taste for the construction of mazes and the desire to slow and confuse intruders rather than killing them outright.

Overall: 3.333

Gold Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. As I said somewhere earlier on, I'm not of the opinion that D&D should be about unrelenting hostility, and there is definitely a space for openly and declaredly 'good' monsters, especially if - as with the gold dragon - they communicate an atmosphere of standoffish 'awesomeness' in the real sense of the word. I also like the vaguely 'Asian dragon' feel of the way the creatures are presented, from the art to the personality and abilities; the designers were clearly tapping into a distinct and distinctly non-Tolkienesque folk idea about dragons, here.

Usability: 3. Gold dragons are tailor-made to take on the role a 'quest dispenser' or possibly a wise adviser or font of helpful knowledge. Fine; there is a significant place for the latter, at least, in any sandbox campaign.

Coherence: 3. Again, there is a sense here that the designers were going for an 'Asian' feel here, as many of the gold dragon abilities are to do with luck and fortune. Makes sense, but it goes alongside a commitment for a Tolkienesque 'greedy dragon on a pile of treasure' motif that muddies the waters - gold dragons also breathe fire, and love gems.

Overall: 3.333

Silver Dragon

Evocativeness: 2. Silver is a poor man's version of gold, and so it is fitting that silver dragons come across as a poor man's version of gold dragons. They are yet another kind, helpful, and wise yet potent being. I apologise, but it gets a bit boring.

Usability: 3. Much the same applies for gold dragons as for silvers. Silver dragons seem created to play the role of quest dispense or, worse, GMPC. But the 'font of helpful knowledge' role is an important one.

Coherence: 3. Silver seems to be conflated here with cold, winds and weather - presumably because silver is like white and 'feels' like it has some connection or affinity to ice and snow. Why would a flying creature need to feather fall, though? 

Overall: 2.666

Brown Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. Something different is going on here - a wingless monitor-lizard affair, which digs deep in desert sands to wait for prey. Is this taking liberties with the very concept of dragonhood? Possibly, but coming after the good dragons in the list, it nonetheless feels refreshing.

Usability: 2. Brown dragons are another desert monster, which works in their favour, but the text only really suggests they exist to be killed and/or burgled. This is too easy, and we already have plenty of alternatives for that job.

Coherence: 4. It lives in the desert. It breathes a sand spray. Its spells allow it to create sandstorms, summon earth elementals, create water, etc. The only criticism is that this is perhaps too 'on the nose'.

Overall: 3.333

Cloud Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. Another 'Asian' dragon, which I like, and one which feels pleasingly 1980s for some reason, perhaps because whenever I think of creatures living in clouds my mind is drawn inexorably to Cloud City on Bespin. 

Usability: 2. Of course, the mileage here very much varies depending on how likely it is that the PCs will for some reason be visiting magical cloud islands. Cloud dragons, we are told, are reclusive and have contempt for beings that can't fly. Is it, then, likely that one will be able to find a use for one?

Coherence: 5. It lives in clouds; it can control weather, call lightning, produce fog, create water...the cloud dragon is in this respect the complete package.

Overall: 3.666

Deep Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. In some respects, the deep dragon is bland - simply an Underdark version of any of the standard 'evil' chromatic types. But a distinctive niche is suggested (roaming hunter) and the shapechanging abilities - into a human or giant snake - are a nice touch.

Usability: 4. Lots to play with here - deep dragons can appear as powerful laired monsters guarding treasure hoards, but also as roving dangers across a hex map or within a dungeon, or even perhaps as significant NPCs-in-disguise in an urban campaign. 

Coherence: 2. Deep dragons' abilities are a bit of a random assortment - levitate, free action, telekinesis, disintegrate, etc., but I suppose the idea is to imagine the magical toolkit an Underdark explorer would need and work from there. The tail wags the dog a bit, in other words. And I'm unconvinced as to where a corrosive gas breath weapon really fits in.

Overall: 3.333

Mercury Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. Mercury dragons are, well, mercurial. This is a bit painful. But it also makes for something a bit different - unpredictable, capricious, chaotic, and irrational rather than wise, cunning, aloof, etc.

Usability: 2. I have a hard time thinking about where a mercury dragon could fit into a campaign except as something with a lair on the hexmap or within a large dungeon - simply as an alternative to one of the many other kinds of dragon that could fulfil the same essential purpose. 

Coherence: 3. A beam of light 'breath' weapon is an interesting idea, but I'm not sure what it really has to do with mercury. The spell-like abilities, though, seem to derive from mercury's reflectivity and changeability, and work well as a coherent whole on those terms.

Overall: 3

Mist Dragon

Evocativeness: 3. Taken in isolation, the mist dragon is a nice idea - a moody, mysterious, brooding philosopher with a vaguely 'Asian' vibe. But taken alongside the other dragon types, it must be said that it simply feels too close conceptually to the cloud dragon. 

Usability: 4. The mist dragon's primary use case is obvious: a source of wisdom that must itself be sought in a difficult, dangerous, hidden location. It sees and knows all, but is only willing to share its knowledge for a price, and is hard to find. This works: the mist dragon is to all intents and purposes Dagobah-era Yoda.

Coherence: 3. A scalding vapour breath attack fits very well. The other abilities, though, are too easy - water breathing, wall of fog, solid fog, etc. 

Overall: 3.333

Shadow Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. The shadow dragon is a cheesy concept, but a sound one. It is also one of those cases in which the name of a monster more or less communicates everything you need to know about it. Shadow dragon. Instantly, on reading those two words, one knows exactly what the creature is and what it does.

Usability: 3. The shadow dragon clearly is meant to occupy the 'dragon at the bottom of the dungeon' role, and in that regard, although it is one dimensional, it obviously fits in nicely. I especially like the idea of one lurking at the base of a megadungeon as a kind of final 'boss'.

Coherence: 5. One has to say that the shadow dragon is almost the pinnacle of a high concept monster. The name sets out the stall. And everything flows from there - the behaviour, the abilities, the breath weapon, and so on). It's a dragon which embodies shadow, lives in the dark, and uses it to its advantage. Great.

Overall: 4

Steel Dragon

Evocativeness: 4. A dragon which likes to pose as a human being (presumably in secret) and lives typically in an urban setting; this is different, and I like the concept. I must however be scrupulously fair and consistent - there is, as I earlier said, something deeply illegitimate about metallic dragon types deriving from alloys. 

Usability: 3. Steel dragons make sense really in only one role - as interesting NPCs in a city-based campaign, or as a prominent figure in a major urban settlement on a hex map. I like that role, but it is very one-dimensional. 

Coherence: 5. The steel dragon's abilities and breath weapon map perfectly onto the role envisioned for the monster. It can create toxic gas in pre-determined volumes, big or small, so as to be the perfect poisoner or assassin; it can polymorph itself almost at will; it can use magic to dominate, persuade, befriend or command. It all fits together like a jigsaw.

Overall: 4

Yellow Dragon

Evocativeness: 2. The raison d'etre of the yellow dragon is that there ought to be yellow dragons because yellow is a colour. (On this basis, should there not also be a purple one?) This is weak. Yellow dragons, we are told, are 'solitary and secretive'. This is weak, too.

Usability: 2. Yellow dragons are essentially a mixture of browns and blues in terms of their abilities and MO. I can't help but feel that three types of dragon which live in the same environment and do more or less the same thing is overkill.

Coherence: 3. The only thing to say here is that yellow abilities are like those of browns or blues, and that the tone is once again 'more of the same'. It all makes sense; but it is uninspired.

Overall: 2.333

The Official Ranking, Best to Worst

1 - Red

2 = - Topaz

2 =  - Steel

2 = - Shadow

5 = - Cloud

5 = - Bronze

7 = - White

7 = - Copper

7 = - Gold

7 = - Brown

7 = - Deep

7 = - Mist

13 = - Blue

13 = - Green

13 = - Emerald

13 = - Mercury

17 = - Silver

17 = - Black

19 = - Yellow

19 = - Brass

21 = - Amethyst

21 = - Crystal

23 - Sapphire

Monday 6 November 2023

The Sunday Seven, 5th November 2023

In this new feature, I'll be posting seven links to items of interest each Sunday - and I'll be calling it, unimaginatively-but-appealingly-alliteratively, the Sunday Seven. Here are this week's:

1. 'How Difficulty Class and the d20 Engine Ruined Roleplaying', at Mythlands of Erce. This is a blast from the past - an echo of those great blogposts from long ago whose calls still reverberate in the sunset-lit mountains of our memory. It's also funny. Worth reading.

2. Mythic Bastionland will soon be released on Kickstarter. I don't normally go in for hype, but this one seems like it may be worth it.

3. A commenter, Nick, recommended an old Ravenloft adventure to me, called Castle Forlorn - which among other things apparently included time travel as a significant feature. I am persuaded this one is worth buying and reviewing. 

4. At Methods & Madness, the author is carefully and dutifully re-reading the AD&D 1st edition DMG (the latest post being this one). People used to do this sort of thing more, and there is value in it; I learned today that AD&D assumes a 1% backfire rate on the use of wands - something which I had never noticed before, and will I think implement. 

5. I have just finished reading William Goulding's The Inheritors after it was recommended by a commenter on the blog. It is a phenomenal read, and perhaps the best example I can think of of an author grappling convincingly with the task of plausibly representing non-human consciousness.

6. I tend to put Freddie de Boer into the 'fevered egos tainting our collective subconscious' category, but a recent(ish) post by him makes some interesting points about AI art

7. On the other hand, this piece from The Spectator, on broadly the same subject, makes terrifying ones

Friday 3 November 2023

RPGs and Storytelling Against the Nihilism of the Digital

The eccentric poet and folklorist Robert Bly once wrote that a central feature of adulthood was '[being] able to organise the random emotions and events of [one's] life into a memory, a rough meaning, a story'.

I know what he meant. Little children experience events in a disconnected jumble. As we grow bigger, we learn to connect the things that happen to us from moment to moment. In adulthood, we can then piece them into something resembling a personal narrative. And if we attend carefully to what happens to us, we can envision our lives as an ongoing story with a beginning, a middle and an end. This allows us, in turn, to think about what we wish to do tomorrow, next week, next month, next year, and in old age - and also to think about the legacy that we will leave behind. The result is a vision of one's life as having an overarching meaning, which, when reflected upon, can guide one's conduct. 

Reading novels I think helps to facilitate the development of this ability in a way that other storytelling media (so as films or TV series) do not, partly because it takes a comparatively long time to read one, and partly because of that strange alchemy that takes place in the brain when one is reading words and internalising them through imagined imagery. It is surprising to me that I have never heard or read anybody remark on the fact that reading a novel requires one to be able to maintain a connected narrative and a set of accompanying imagery in one's head despite the big gaps in time between reading one section and the next, and despite the fact that each section of the book may be being read in different surroundings and different circumstances. Currently reading A Soldier of the Great War, for example, I find myself reading 10 pages or so at night in bed, then another 20 pages or so on public transport on my way to work the next morning, then a few more pages in my office at lunch time, and so on. But what I am envisioning in my head when I picture what is happening retains its consistency, as does my knowledge of what is happening and the position the narrative is 'paused' at. This surely has some very significant effect, when repeated again and again down the years, on one's ability to think about life in terms of having a narrative rather than a meaningless series of (fortunate or unfortunate) events.

If this is true of novels, though, it is surely also true of RPGs. What happens in an RPG campaign in some ways can be thought of as what I earlier called a 'disconnected jumble' of events, which we then assemble into something resembling a collective story (the campaign) and individualised stories (for each PC). And, much as with a novel, what is interesting about this exercise is that it happens partly within our brains (as we picture in our minds what is happening from moment to moment) and is also characterised by gaps - in this case, between sessions - during which we have to hold what is going on in stasis in our minds so that we can reconnect it to the past and connect it to the future next time. It seems likely, in other words, that playing in a long-term campaign has the same effect on one's ability to make sense of the world in terms of narrative as does reading lots of novels. 

Thinking about RPGs in terms of self-help can be a bit sick-making, but I think it is important to emphasise (as I have tried to do from time to time on the blog) that there is something deeply counter-cultural about physical, pen and paper gaming. One of the problems that we face, living in a heavily digitised environment, is that the conditions confronting us are highly fragmenting of our consciousness - indeed in such a way as to hinder or even reverse the process by which we move from living in a 'disconnected jumble' of events to understanding our lives as having overarching narratives. Since an awareness that one's life is a story is one of the ways we derive meaning from it, and hence develop a properly adult orientation to the world, the result of this fragmentation of consciousness is ultimately a bleak and nihilistic, not to mention stunted and immature, way of approaching things. If playing RPG campaigns - meaning proper long-term ones, in which one regularly sits down with the same group of friends - can work to undermine the conditions which confront us, then that gives the hobby a pertinence beyond being simply a fun thing to do. And I think we can all agree that we should therefore do more of it - indeed as much as possible.

[Something odd happened to the previous version of this post, I think in connection to an internet outage. I have therefore reposted it.]