Friday, 17 March 2023

Analysis of Causes of PC Death in OSR Games

In my previous post, I mentioned that in my weekly campaign we average around one PC death a month. In the comments somebody asked me about the causes of these deaths, and that sent me down a statistical rabbit hole which probably reveals very little (it's a tiny sample; there are lots of different operant variables in any given case; a lot of it is down to chance dice rolls) but which interested me nonetheless.

The list of PCs killed, and causes of death, are as follows, where the cause of death is one of three categories: random encounter, killed by keyed dungeon or wilderness denizens, killed by trap, natural disaster or other environmental factor, and killed by set-piece 'boss fight'. I don't have a 'plot arc' in my campaigns, but in my dungeons and hexmaps I do tend to have a number of 'bosses', and there are also occasions in which the PCs make powerful enemies and their entanglements take on a climactic character. (Also, there are two PCs for whom I have simply forgotten the cause of death. 

Gnaeus, 4th level Roman Cleric, killed by a spider-elf (boss fight)

Xanthippe, 3rd level Roman Fighter, killed by crow-men (boss fight)

Aurelia, 3rd level Celtic Fighter, killed while escaping from the Swan Queen's prison (boss fight)

Amyntas, 1st level Macedonian Fighter, killed by earwigmen (keyed dungeon denizen)

Men-Kheper-Ra, 2nd level Egyptian Magic-User, killed by tree guardians (random encounter)

Kemnebi, 5th level Egyptian Thief, killed by woodwoses (keyed dungeon denizen)

David of the Web, 1st level Celtic Fighter, killed by crow-men (boss fight)

Finan of the Hammer, 6th level Celtic Fighter, killed by insect-elves (keyed dungeon denizen)

Argyros, 1st level Greek Cleric, killed by lacewing automata (keyed dungeon denizen)

Bomilcar, 1st level Carthaginian Fighter, killed by shrew-men (keyed dungeon denizens)

Pry, 1st level Celtic Fighter, killed by tree guardians (random encounter)

Stymatos, 1st level Greek Magic-User, killed by insect-elves (boss fight)

Octavius, 3rd level Roman Cleric, killed by [?] 

Laren Dar, 3rd level Etruscan Fighter, killed by a spider-elf (boss fight)

Pupli Artnli, 2nd level Etruscan Cleric, killed by earwigmen (random encounter)

Wolvela, 2nd level Celtic Fighter, killed by [?]

Atrius, 3rd level Roman Cleric, killed by a giant spider (random encounter)

Flavius, 4th level Woodwose, killed by a cyclops (random encounter)

Cutheyura, 1st level Atlantean Fighter, killed by a giant swan (boss fight)

Pandion, 5th level Greek Magic-User, killed by tree guardians (random encounter)

Mastanabal, 1st level Carthaginian Cleric, killed by wererats (keyed wilderness denizen)

Padraig, 7th level Celtic Fighter, killed by a giant scorpion (random encounter)

Flewyn, 7th level Celtic Thief, killed by giant ants (boss fight)

Plotted on a pie chart, this shows us:

This suggests roughly even amounts for all categories except traps and other environmental factors. This may simply be a result of taste; I don't really like 'gotcha' traps, magic ones in particular, and prefer them to be at least reasonably realistic. This means that intelligent players will generally spot them and figure them out - they work more as bottlenecks or roadblocks than life threatening dangers.

Otherwise, the really noticeable thing is I suppose that almost a third of deaths occur in random encounters, indicating that they are very much to be avoided; not only are they dangerous, but PC deaths in that context will be meaningless and usually will be for little reward.

Wednesday, 15 March 2023

On Gene Wolfe and the Feeling of Being Inspired

I have recently been re-reading Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight, and wanted to write some longish blog entries about some of its key themes. But before doing that I thought it might be worth dwelling on the way inspiration works.

I've read many excellent books in my life, listened to some great music, and watched some great films. I've also watched some wonderful sporting performances. Some of these things have inspired me. But most haven't. And I'm curious about what it is that separates the former from the latter.

Let's put some flesh on those bones. When I read The Lord of the Rings for the first time, around the age of 10 or 11, I immediately got it into my head that I also wanted to write novels. Some quality in those books must have struck me, in a way that no book I had read before, as being in some way worthy of emulation - not I think in the sense of aping their content, but in the sense of wanting to attain a similar creative achievement. Reading Tolkien's work made me feel good about the world and glad to be in it, and it convinced me that if I could only produce a book that would make other people feel that way, then it would be pretty much the greatest thing that I could possibly do with my time on Earth. (I was obviously hardly alone in this - three generations of fantasy writers seem to have had an almost identical series of thoughts after reading LOTR.)

I also, however, used to play cricket to a decent-ish amateur level, beginning at roughly the same age as I was taking the plunge into Middle Earth (I gave the game up shortly before going to university). And in my life I have watched an awful lot of cricket, live and on TV. I have had plenty of cricketing heroes -Brian Lara, Sachin Tendulkar, Graham Thorpe, Shane Warne, etc. - and witnessed some truly great moments that I will cherish forever. (I'm not sure I've quite recovered from 'that' Ben Stokes innings in 2019.) But never once can I say that I have watched a game of cricket that made me want to emulate what I have seen in the same way that I wanted to emulate Tolkien. It has made me feel happy (more often, as an England fan, sad, and reflective upon the vagaries of fortune). But it has never really made me want to rush out and get into the nets in order to get better. 

Why is this? What confluence of factors is it that causes one cultural experience to inspire you while another does not? It can't simply be the medium; I've read lots of great books that have made me happy to be alive simply because it gave me the opportunity to have experienced them (Jack Vance's Ecce and Old Earth, TH White's The Goshawk, Newton Thornburg's Cutter and Bone, Kingsley Amis's Lucky Jim, Michael Ende's The Neverending Story, James Ellroy's My Dark Places, Turgenev's Fathers and Sons - I could go on). But the number that have given me that LOTR feeling - that sensation that I simply must try to produce something an iota as good, or die trying - is few indeed.

And it can't simply be down to the availability of resources, either. I am a music lover with wide and eclectic tastes - I adore Zoltan Kocsis; I adore Glenn Gould; I adore Ella Fitzgerald; I adore Al Di Meola; I adore Billy Corgan; I adore Bill Withers; I adore Marvin Gaye. I could at any time have been inspired by their music to put in the effort to get good at singing, or playing the guitar, or playing the piano, just as reading Tolkien made me want to just pick up a pen and paper and start writing. But I never have really done those things as a result of listening to a record - even one which has thrilled me to the very core of my being with its wondrous beauty. 

All I can say is that the way in which books, films, music, etc. influence our minds and our souls is something that we will probably never really come close to understanding. And all I can add to that is that, along with Tolkien, it is Gene Wolfe whose work has the highest hit ratio when it comes to inspiring me. I don't always read Gene Wolfe. But when I do, I want to write novels. The Wizard Knight really brought back that LOTR feeling to my heart, second time around more intensely than ever - and even more so than did reading The Sword of the Lictor or Soldier of the Mist. There is a great deal to be said about the book. But, before doing so, I though this needed to be said first.

Monday, 13 March 2023

Get Busy Living or Get Busy Dying

In my regular weekly campaign, the most recent foray into the dungeon has brought with it two more PC deaths - both of them 7th level PCs. Even the henchman being prepped by one of the players as a backup to cover this sort of eventuality was also killed. Back to the drawing board - and, the way I run things, a new PC starting at 1st level. We are now I think at PC death #23 or 24, over the couse of just over two years. A rough average of one every four sessions.

What passing bells for those who die as cattle? Only the monstrous anger of the d20s. But still the PCs come. They are fully aware of the possibility of death. Indeed, they understand it to be inescapable. But it is somehow what actualises them.

In this respect, PCs in my game are Heideggerians. The anticipation of death is what mobilises them. It is the fact that they will die that stirs in them the desire to act. Knowledge of the inevitability of death is inextricably bound up, that is, in the ancient understanding of freedom as the pursuit of excellence. It is only because we know that we will one day die that we do anything at all that is worth doing - and that therefore we endeavour to realise our true selves, and become that version of ourself that is potential within us.

This is why D&D PCs are so relentlessly active. In the two years I have been running my campaign, only about 6 months have elapsed in 'real time'. Yet the PCs have in that time grown vastly wealth, founded a cult, vanquished pirates, slain a swan queen, massacred a tribe of shrew-men, tamed a herd of hippogriffs, and much more besides. They live as though embodying Heidegger's description of 'being-towards-death'. 

This passage from Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight (which I intend to write a lengthy entry about at some point) seems apposite:

I raised my hand, and finding the rag still in it began to clean my hauberk again. 'What's foolish is spending your whole life being scared of death.'

'You believe that because some knight told you.'

'Sir Ravd, you mean. No, he didn't tell me that. Only that a knight was to do what his honour demanded, and never count his foes. But you're right just the same, a knight told me. That knight was me. People who fear death - Lord Beel does, I guess - live no longer than those who don't, and live scared.'

What is important is not to ignore death, but to accept its inevitability as a reason for living well. This is what Heidegger was driving at, and this seems to be the implicit philosophy of old school D&D PCs. 

Sunday, 5 March 2023

On the Satanic Nature of AI Art

My friend Dan is a dab hand at manipulating AI art programs. (He will undoubtedly be one of the few humans permitted to hold a position of responsibility once AM has taken over and the rest of us are reduced to drone-slaves; I for one welcome our new Sumption Overlord.)

Here are some examples of his (their?) oeuvre:

When Dan posts these on my gaming group's Discord, I am invariably impressed by the fact that they are impressive, but also by the fact that they are quite profoundly evil and Satanic. Just examine them closely and see how dead they are behind their eyes. These are not people, but horrible homonculi, as utterly alien to real human beings as are rocks or icebergs. If they gained life I would not be able to sleep at night simply knowing about their existence in the universe; it would confirm to me quite inescapably that God exists, for the simple reason that things so evidently evil must also have an opposite.

After Dan's most recent posting, I was immediately reminded of Sir Able's description of the Angrborn (the race of evil giants from Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight), which I just happen to be re-reading for the third or fourth time:

They are never loved, neither by us, nor by their own kind, nor by any animal. Disiri probably knows what it is in people, in Aelf, in dogs and horses, and even houses, manors and castles that makes it possible for somebody to love them; but whatever it is, is it not in the Angrborn and they know it.
This seemed particularly apt as a way of describing all the AI art I have seen. It is often technically highly competent, and in its own way remarkably creative and genuinely surprising. But it somehow lacks the capacity to be loved. We examine it as we would a constellation of stars - a thing that, however beautiful, is impenetrable to emotion. We do not love it in the same way that we can love a real painting by a real person, or at least recognise such a painting to be loveable in some sense to somebody even if it's not to our personal taste. We humans can love all manner of things - think of how deeply a child loves a stuffed toy, a hardworking parent loves his or her comfortable bed, a football fan loves his team, or a young person loves an item of clothing. But we do not love AI art. It is inert to our affection.

It is perhaps not surprising that Gene Wolfe, a devoutly Christian writer, should have thought so carefully about the nature of evil and seen it as a reflection of the incapacity to be loved - perhaps even a product or result of the incapacity to be loved (or of feeling that way). 

That in turn calls to mind that other most notably Christian SF/fantasy writer, CS Lewis, and his description of the demonically-possessed Professor Weston in Perelandra:

He did not look like a sick man: but he looked very like a dead one. [His] face...had that terrible power which the face of a corpse sometimes has of simply rebuffing every conceivable human attitude one can adopt towards it...It did not defy goodness, it ignored it to the point of annihilation. Ransom perceived that he had never before seen anything but half-hearted and uneasy attempts at evil. This creature was whole-hearted. The extremity of its evil had passed beyond all struggle into some state which bore a horrible similarity to innocence.

There is, here, an intriguingly similar-but-different point being made: evil inheres, again, in the fact of being impenetrable to emotion, but in this case it is not just love but 'every conceivable human attitude' per se.  Here we are very much in the territory of Terry Eagleton and his presentation of evil as a rejection of being - the desire to transcend all barriers to pure will, and hence best understood as a fundamental opposition to the notion of human nature as such. AI art also seems to embody this phenomenon: a rejection of the very concept of art as a product of human creators, as well as a comprehensive rebuttal of the idea that human feeling should play a role in the creation of art itself. 

The theodicy of AI art, if we can call it that, therefore brings to the surface very thought-provoking questions about God (assuming for the sake of argument He exists). If Gene Wolfe is right, this body of art's evil is as a result of its lacking the capacity to be loved. If we follow Lewis, on the other hand, its evil derives from its rejection of limits on the will (and particularly those posed by human nature and human feeling). Is evil therefore predetermined and inherent (imposed by the circumstance of a thing being unloveable), or deliberately chosen? 

Wednesday, 1 March 2023

Being 'Impactful'

The career of the modern academic, certainly in the UK, is defined largely by whether or not one's research is generating 'impact'. They never asked this of Einstein, Descartes, Derrida or Darwin. People were simpler in those days, and had faith that good and important work would necessarily have an impact in the end. Now we are supposed to be cleverer, and think we can identify 'impact' in advance and measure its effects. 

It does raise the question of what it really means to have an impact on the world. Speaking as an academic - and purely in a personal capacity of course, lest in a truly bizarre turn of events anybody of importance at my workplace should be reading this - I often think we would all be a lot better off if academics had considerably less influence than they currently do. We suffer from a serious case of elite overproduction, and see the effects of that everywhere.

We also suffer from a paucity of understanding about what 'impact' really means. Who had the most impact on the world: Martin Heidegger or JRR Tolkien? How could you possibly measure the one against the other? But more importantly, how does one measure the impact of philosophy versus literature, physics versus history, biology versus maths?

I increasingly take the view that we woefully underestimate and misunderstand the impact of art and literature, and that if one really wants to change the world, one should probably recalibrate one's focus from writing op-eds for the New York Times, running for political office or trying to do 'impactful research', and towards creating sublime and wonderful things that will elevate people's souls. Beethoven wasn't an activist and he certainly didn't worry about making an immediate political impact; he made, and continues to make, people's lives better through transcendent beauty - whatever their own personal views or backgrounds. And the world is better that he was there than it would have been if he had not. 

We don't all have to be Beethoven, but we can all make the best use of our time. At the more mundane level: is it more 'impactful' to, for instance, retweet some political 'take' you agree with or post a comment on a newspaper article, or to run a great sessions of D&D with your friends and all go home with smiles on your faces afterwards? OK, so you didn't write the Appassionata. But the world is just that little bit better all the same.

Thursday, 23 February 2023

Generate Your Own Module/Pulp Novel Title

In my weekly game session last week I observed that 'Revenge of the Centaur Queen' (a phrase which came up in the course of events) would be a great title for a pulp novel or AD&D module. 

Sometimes a title is evocative enough in itself to be suitable inspiration for an entire creation. I bet anybody reading this blog could have a decent stab at Revenge of the Centaur Queen. It almost writes itself.

Without further ado, then, I present you with the Generate Your Own Module/Pulp Novel Title table:




of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 






of the 



My first five, with elevator-pitches:

The Wrath of the Ghost Knight (a Lord Soth-type figure has laid waste to a hex-mapped region and the PCs adventure amidst the ruins; the ghost knight appears at random locations and times)

The Death of the Yellow Mage (the titular archmage has died and word has got out that all the treasures in his tower are ripe for the taking)

The Lust of the Whispering Mage (the PCs visit a Palace of Love-style 'paradise' which is not all that it appears, searching for lost relatives/friends)

The Tower of the Pale Beast (the title is itself an elevator pitch for this one)

The Sorrow of the Two-Headed Demiurge (the two-headed demiurge makes both wonderful and horrible, benevolent and hateful, beneficial and dangerous creations depending on which head is in charge at any given moment; they populate his palace in rival groups and he weeps over their mutual antipathy)

Now you try.

Monday, 20 February 2023

Against TV

In a recent and now lost-forever interview with Dan, I was asked how it was that I manage to juggle having a 'proper job', a young family, reading lots of books, writing this blog, and producing RPG materials. Any answer would make me sound big-headed (as does me bringing it up now...), and I can't now recall what I actually said in response. The truth of the matter is that I actually feel spectacularly unproductive and constantly beat myself up about that. But I suppose that, in the round, objectively I probably do more with my time than the average person.

90% of the reason for this is that I don't really watch TV (including streaming televisual stuff online). It's not true that I watch no TV, but I more or less religiously limit it to around 20 minutes a day - just long enough to wach half an episode of NextGen or a full episode of Frasier or Seinfeld, or a whisky review, or something. Mindless unwinding does have its uses, and I recognise that, but 20 minutes is more than enough time spent indulging. 

Part of the reason why I don't watch TV is that I find most of it mind-numbingly stupid and crude, even the supposedly 'intelligent' stuff, and can't figure out why people who I know to be intelligent don't also notice this. Part of the reason is that there just isn't really much out there that particular interests me - I tend to find TV drama pretty cringeworthy, especially when it's in the fantasy/SF genre, and modern comedy is almost universally dreadful. But most of the reason is that I think TV is actually a rather poisonous influence on the modern world, that modern online streaming services have put that poisonous influence on steroids, and that I feel guilty for watching it in the same way that I would feel guilty for using social media - an equally baleful force in our lives.

Why, though, is TV so bad?

The first reason is probably the one which has the greatest chance of finding broad acceptance. It is that, even if TV isn't actively bad for you, every minute you spend watching it is a minute you're not spending actively doing something that would improve your life (studying Spanish, learning to play guitar, talking to your family members, knitting, practicing drawing, doing yoga, cooking a delicious and healthy meal, trying to get your head around Hegel, etc., etc.). TV watching is almost entirely dead time: the mental equivalent of just sitting on your sofa eating white bread and margarine. Sure, you can kid yourself that by watching documentaries or decent drama that you are learning things and developing yourself - pull the other one. One day you will get to the end of your life and look back and ask yourself if you have any regrets, and while I have no idea what the answer to your specific version of that question will be, I guarantee you it will not be 'I should have spent more time watching TV.'

The second reason is that TV is a literalising medium: it makes you stupider. Compare the experience, phenomenologically speaking, of watching TV versus reading a book. TV presents us with images and speech. Because it can't present us with internal monologue or indeed tell us anything about the thoughts, experiences, and knowledge of the people it depicts, it is required to make those things explicit in the form of actions and dialogue. As a consequence, it is almost as though it were designed to destroy our capacity to develop a fully-fledged theory of mind - with the final result being an approach to other human beings which understands them as the kind of crude, stick-figure representations which we are used to seeing on our screens. You may dispute this, or ask me to cite evidence; I can only respond - isn't the evidence all around us in our political and cultural landscape? People often fault social media for the awful goodies vs baddies tribalism that is increasingly dominant across the developed world; I think increased TV watching, especially thanks to the advent of streaming services that allow one to watch 'good' TV (I use the term loosely) 24/7 is just as much to blame.

The third reason is that excessive TV watching develops a habit of passivity. How many times have you said to yourself, over the course of your life, 'What shall I do now? I suppose I'll see what's on TV.' Next time you think that, pause for a moment and reflect. Why was that your first response? Because you default to TV watching when bored. Your initiative has been dulled. You have got out of the habit of actively engaging with the world and with people around you. You prefer the path of least resistance. TV watching has trained you to think like that. Make working out, or going for a walk, or baking, or reading a book, or learning a skill your default option instead.

The fourth reason is that the overwhelming aesthetic of the TV screen is fundamentally pornographic. Now, let's hold our horses for a moment. I don't mean that TV is necessarily hypersexualised or that there is too much sex - implicit and explicit - on TV and in our media landscape in general. (Though I do think those things too.) What I mean is that TV, as a visual medium, tends to be dominated by a style, a way of looking at the world, that is best summarised by the phrase, 'Phwoar, look at that.' Phwoar, look at her. Phwoar, look at him. Phwoar, look at that view. Phwoar, look at those colours. Phwoar, look at that cheetah. Phwoar, look at that explosion. Phwoar, look at that car. Phwoar, look at that slo-mo replay. Phwoar, look at that gunfight. And so on and so on. It is pornographic in the sense that it replicates the relationship between the viewer of pornography and the pornographic image: one is reduced to an empty vessel through which the image communicates itself directly the one's lizard brain. This is basically dehumanising. It bypasses the part of us that is above the animals, going in fact straight underneath. This may not always be so terrible, in the same way that sometimes eating chocolate cake isn't always so terrible. But it is terrible in large doses.

Our societies are increasingly secularised. Many of us are convinced that you have only one life and that's that - there is no afterlife. And yet more than ever before we fritter away our lives simply observing, and not, for the most part, even observing things that are real. Rather, we spend hours a day essentially just observing the fantasies of others. This is deeply strange and sad. Stop it.

Tuesday, 14 February 2023

Kickstarter/Publishing Lessons Learned


I am by no means the most prolific of one-man-band RPG publishers, but I have now run two successful Kickstarters and published, er, 4 or 5 things. This at least qualifies me to, if not give authoritative advice, at least rant semi-coherently in an extemporaneous way about the do's and don'ts of the matter. Perhaps some people will find it useful to do so.

  • Pricing. I err on the side of value for money, but I wonder if I am excessively Thomist about this. In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard is around 200 pages of content for £15 in print; Yoon-Suin 2nd edition will be 400 pages of content for £30 in hardback; The Peridot's first issue is 80 pages long and £6 in POD. But nobody ever, ever, ever, comments favourably on this approach. Meanwhile, people seem to amass vast sums in Kickstarter backing for (to me) absurdly slim volumes at very high prices (e.g. £28, not including shipping, for a 48 page 'book', which I saw recently). It is useless to complain, so I do not do so - I merely offer the observation to people thinking about pricing a product.
  • Doing the packaging/shipping oneself. It is best not to if you have anything else going on in your life, like a real job and/or a family. It is feasible to do it, but comes associated with all kinds of unexpected ball-aches and hidden costs (like the printer delivering all the books to the wrong address, etc.). Best avoided if you value your sanity.
  • Doing 'pledge management' oneself. This is much more doable. The greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing Kickstarter launchers they need pledge managers (or marketers for that matter). There has evolved a very complicated ecology of companies who are basically parasitic on the existence of Kickstarter; I am sceptical that many of them actually add value, though of course I could be proved wrong.
  • People will come out of the woodwork to give unsolicited 'recommendations' about how to do things; ignore them. (I'm aware of the irony of giving this advice in this form.) If they were such geniuses they would be doing it themselves.
  • Stretch goals are fine, but probably best limited to one achievable and relatively cheap thing. My stretch goal for IHOTB was an adventure I had already 80% written; my stretch goal for Yoon-Suin 2 was a piece of art by somebody I know is reliable and good and quoted a good fee. That's enough. If the core of what you are offering is good enough, have faith that it is.
  • Kickstarter's main benefit may be in advertising/promotion. A Kickstarter campaign provides you with what is essentially free advertising (well, almost free - you pay them 5%) for a month. This gets your product out there as very few other things can. Matters might be different if you have 10,000 followers on Twitter or whatever already, but almost no indie RPG publishing one-man-band has that, and the days when one could simply post something on G+ and receive endless reshares are sadly long gone.
  • Human nature being what it is, people like shiny, good-looking things. There is a monkey- or magpie-like acquisitive element of our nature that leads us to gather prettiness to our bosoms, no matter how superficial that prettiness really is. Have at the very least a nice, blingy cover. I learned this with the first Yoon-Suin. Yes, people liked the content, but only after being snared by Matt Adams' art. 
  • If you can write AND draw/paint then it is like having a license to print money, and if you can only do one of those things, it is might be worth practising really hard on the other so you can maximise your talent stack. Then again, what would David Ricardo say? I haven't made up my mind.
  • Drive Thru RPG is a terrible blight on all of our lives, and takes a really almost criminal cut of royalties, but in the end it is the only game in town when it comes to the PDF market, because that is where all 90% of your prospective customers are making their purchases. It is important to use it, because you will get 'window shoppers'. 
  • I could probably make a living doing this if I quit my day job and did two successful Kickstarters along the lines of Yoon-Suin 2nd edition every year. Make of that what you will.

Friday, 10 February 2023

A Mere 20 Hours Remain: Yoon-Suin 2nd Edition Kickstarter

The Kickstarter for Yoon-Suin 2nd Edition will soon be at an end. Back it now or forever* hold your peace!

Also, for your amusement, I did a trawl through the archives and uncovered some of my old doodles, drawn when I was just beginning to think about the setting circa 2009. I have a vague memory of sitting  alone in my old apartment in Yokohama on a day off while my then-fiance was at work and for some reason being imbued with the need to, well, draw pictures of weird things. I was no artist then and nor am I today, but I suppose I was really bored.

*Well, until it's out in print/PDF when you'll probably be able to buy it, but only more expensively than original backers...

Wednesday, 8 February 2023

On Good and Evil, Law and Chaos, Limits and the Unlimited

I have recently been reading Terry Eagleton's On Evil, a slightly madcap but always entertaining tour d'horizon of the way the subject of metaphysical evil has been dealt with in literature across time. 

Amongst quite a lot of rambling and digression, Eagleton identifies something which I think is of great significance for contemporary society but also, more importantly, for D&D alignments. This is that evil metaphysically speaking expresses itself as simultaneously a rejection of being itself (and hence of the limitations that necessarily accompany being itself) and an ambition to transcend the finite, the temporal, the physical, and indeed the real, and become therefore an infinite expression of 'pure will'. This is as true of the school shooter who expresses his malice towards the very concept of being by targeting children; to the serial killer who transforms human lives into mere objects of his will; to the pedophile who asserts his desires despite and in a sense even because of the way they transgress society's most fundamental limits; and to Nazism and Communism and their absolute refusal to tolerate the fundamental facts of human biological, communal and spiritual life as barriers to the realisation of their utopian dreams. Evil is in fact almost synonymous with what Kojeve saw as the end point of History as such - the 'universal and homogenous state' in which there are no distinctions or classes of persons as such and no limits placed on individual will (because everybody's individual desires are known in advance and realised). 

It follows that 'good' is an embracement of being itself - an acceptance and love for the finite, the temporal, the physical and the real - and hence a respect for limitations on the expressions of one's 'pure will' (indeed, a desire to submit and sublimate one's will to 'the greater good'). Good in a sense inheres in a reconciliation of one's will with the fact that there are not only other human beings with wills (and characters) of their own, but also with the fact that there is such a thing as natural right and things that are objectively better and worse than each other for human flourishing in the round and this is discoverable by reason.

This, interestingly (to my eye, anyway) chimes to a certain extent with what we also think of as the dichotomy between chaos and law, which I have written about before, where chaos represents the dissolution of human nature as such and law represents the essential characteristic and requirement for a distinctive human nature to exist in the first place. Chaos/evil despises being but particularly the notion of 'human beings' as a distinct and special category; law/good is the opposite. 

Nobody should interpret this as having anything to say about politics, I don't think, not least because nobody ever describes themselves as being 'evil' and even the most evil people - Lenin*, Stalin, Hitler - present themselves (and presumably think of themselves) as doing things that in the long run are objectively 'good'. But I do think it has something interesting to say about metaphysics, and especially the metaphysics of D&D. We talk a lot about the alignment system and its apparent inadequacies and incoherences. Perhaps there is something to it after all, and particularly across the dimension of law/chaos, where chaos is understood to be in some way anti-being, and especially anti-human being, and law as both affirmative of being and essential for human-being.

*Gorky descibed Lenin as being animated by love for humanity but that he percieved it through a 'cloud of hatred', which I think strikes at something important.

[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]

A Dungeon Based on an Album: Romantic Warrior

Is it possible to make a dungeon (or setting) based on an album, with each level corresponding to a track and vice versa?

Almost certainly - in fact you could probably do it with every single Iron Maiden album just for starters. But my first attempt, if I ever do it, will be based on the classic 1976 album Romantic Warrior, by Return to Forever. 

Romantic Warrior was probably the pinnacle of popularity for Return to Forever - which isn't saying all that much - and therefore you stand a fighting chance of possibly having heard it, but if you haven't, the best way to describe it is that it's as though a very low-budget late 70s/early 80s exploitation fantasy or SF film was being made, perhaps somewhere like Italy or Sweden with faded ex-Hollywood has-beens and B-listers, and the director was inexplicably able to hire some of the greatest, most virtuoso musicians then living to play on the soundtrack. 

Or, alternatively, you can just listen to it through the marvels of the internet and see what I mean:

It's difficult to put into words how much I love Romantic Warrior, not necessarily because of the music itself (which, while I do really like, I think at times is a little too showy even taking into account Al Di Meola is playing on it) but just because of the intense atmosphere it creates. How does one describe that atmosphere? Really you need some visuals; it's kind of like the distilled essence of all this:

Tell me you don't feel it too.

The dungeon almost writes itself, of course, from the titles of the tracks alone. The whole is set in a complex of palaces with extensive, lush gardens surrounding them, perhaps in an improbably inhospitable spot in a hidden mountain valley, and the levels are:

1. Medieval Overture, featuring a pastiche of medieval bestiary monsters.

2. Sorceress, a tower where the eponymous sexy sorceress holds sway.

3. The Romantic Warrior, a fortress ruled by a chivalric knight with a hypertrophied sense of glory and honour, served by minions and stalked by the foes his imagination has conjured. 

4. Majestic Dance, a series of vast ballrooms where decadent mask-wearing dilettantes prance and pose.

5. The Magician, 'nuff said - an arch-wizard's lair, filled with his slaves and constructs. 

6. The Duel of the Jester and Tyrant Parts I & II, two linked levels devastated by the struggle between the two demigods of chaos and order. 

Now all I need is to find an artist to illustrate it for me. Perhaps Larry Elmore is available.

[I am currently running a Kickstarter for the 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, the renowned campaign toolbox for fantasy games. You can back it here.]