Tuesday 31 January 2023

Playing to Win versus Playing a Role

When I used to play computer games, I was almost exclusively interested in strategy and tactical wargames - Europa Universalis II, Crusader Kings (1 and 2), Civilization (I-III, V), the Total War series, and similar. 

The appeal here was for me never really winning (and indeed despite playing Europa Universalis II or Medieval II: Total War for hundreds of hours respectively, I don't think I have ever actually bothered seeing things through to completion in either of them - whever one gets to a certain level of power and advancement things rapidly become boring). Rather, what I liked about them were the flights of fancy that one's imagination tends to take when imagining oneself to be the ruler of some alternate-universe version of a real place with real purposes, objectives, whims and eccentricities. I didn't make war, construct settlements, make technological advancements, etc., because it made rational sense given the aim of winning the game on its own terms; I did so on the basis of what I thought would make the most sense - both rationally and emotionally - given that the place I was purportedly 'ruling' was real and governed by people with human motives. The aim, for instance, is not to conquer Province X because that leads towards the overall end of conqering The World. I aim is to conquer Province X because the damned Spaniards (or whoever) pissed us off 20 years ago and need a punishment beating. The aim is not to build a city that is designed specifically to grind out military units of a certain kind, but to build a city that would be nice to live in and reflective of its geographical surroundings. And so on.

It won't surprise you to learn that I kind of suck at this kind of game when viewed at from the perspective of winning. But it was the only basis on which I could ever really enjoy them. I was in other words really playing them as though they were RPGs, but in my own head. And there is a pecular phenomenology to this, which I'm sure you have also experienced - a strange dual consciousness that develops in one's brain as one enters the type of fugue state which good computer games can produce: simultaneously aware that one is playing a game and must click the mouse here and there to do this or that, and yet also imagining oneself at the same time to be a real person within the world that is being depicted.

When, in later years, I eventually stumbled across internet forums and discussion boards for these games, it amazed me to discover that while lots of people played them in the manner to which I was accustomed, many others did not. To many people, playing, for instance, Civilization II was not a project of immersive role-playing, but one of figuring out various 'tricks' to maximise one's advantage and thus derive satisfication from winning in very rapid or improbable circumstances. The idea was to figure out loopholes and 'hacks' that would achieve this, often in ways that were prima facie unrealistic - the best example perhaps being a user on the old Paradox Interative forums who would post about his unusual Europa Universalis II exploits such as 'Conquering the World as Lakota' or 'Converting the World to Islam by 1550' or whatever. I have absolutely no issue with people doing this - it probably scratches the same itch as getting really good at solving Rubix Cubes - but it was a very alien approach to me and one that I could never hope to emulate. 

Some people, in other words, seem naturally to prefer 'playing a role' and others to prefer 'playing to win', and while there is likely to be some cross-over/overlap between them, I think it's fair to say that everybody has an inkling which group they most closely align with. The question for you is: which group are you in, and do you think the people who prefer 'playing a role' naturally congregate more towards table top role playing games, as one might intuit?

[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.]

Yoon-Suin 2nd edition Kickstarter Stretch Goal Announced - Yellow City Poster

It's my great pleasure to announce that the Yoon-Suin 2nd Edition campaign that I am currently running has a stretch goal and it's one that I'm very excited about. 

Jason Thompson, also known as Mock Man - professional RPG illustrator, comic book artist and editor, game creator and all-round good egg - is going to produce a grand A3 poster depicting in Wimmelbilderbuch-style a scene from the Yellow City in all its vibrant glory. 

This is going to be included with every physical copy of the book delivered to backers (that is, only to backers and not for sale after the campaign) for no extra charge and no additional cost in shipping. It will be a fold-out under the front cover. 

All that we have to do is get to the £70,000 target by judgment day and the stretch goal will be activated.

And here are some pieces from Jason to get you salivating about what he might come up with:

Friday 27 January 2023

On Structural Conservatism and Substantive Revolution - the OSR and the 'Coincidence of Opposites'

It's very interesting to me that criticisms of the OSR have tended to focus on its purportedly almost paleoconservative desire to return to a past golden age that has long since sadly faded. To its critics, the 'movement' seems to comprise only fifty- and sixty-something neckbeards who pine for their youthful glory days and see newcomers as johnny-come-lately entryists bent on perverting their beautiful game.

It's strange critique, founded on must surely be wilful ignorance, because while it is undoubtedly true that the OSR was always mechanically conservative in its approach to a style of play, it was anything but conservative in the substance of the types of campaign it gave rise to. 

(Here, of course, I should make clear that I am not in this entry talking about political conservatism, but 'small "c" conservatism' in the general sense of opposing change or commitment to tradition.) 

When one thinks of cornerstone releases of the early-mid OSR era, one thinks, for example, of:

  • Deep Carbon Observatory and Veins of the Earth
  • Death Frost Doom
  • Carcosa
  • Slumbering Ursine Dunes, Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and Misty Isles of the Eld
  • Vornheim, A Red and Pleasant Land, Maze of the Blue Medusa (like it or not, we all know Zak Smith's stuff was of vast formative importance and influence)
  • Qelong
  • Hubris
  • Bastion
  • Kabuki Kaiser's stuff
  • &c
And one also thinks of the many famous blogged-about but not released settings of that era, such as:

And one then is led to ask: does this seem like a particularly conservative movement to you? It doesn't to me. If anything, it seems like one of the most creative things to have ever happened to RPGs - a veritable cultural outpouring that utterly revolutionised certainly fantasy role playing and probably the entire hobby. 

People who decry the OSR for being 'stuck in the past', in other words, are either disingenuous or spectacularly ill-informed.

I recently happened to listen to Iain McGilchrist delivering a public lecture on ''The Coincidence of Opposites'. In it, McGilchrist gives an hour-long precis of what might be called the philosophy of opposition, identifying a recurring theme in myth, religion, science and philosophy of opposites being both necessary and coeval, rather than mutually exclusionary. This would appear to be the case here, where an insistence on staying true to a particular method or play structure coincided with an extraordinary proliferation of new ideas that continues to wash over us to this day. I have written before about the importance to creativity of imposing limitspurposive constraintcreative constraint and creativity through constraint (that last post being from 2010!); this seems to be another example, in which the general principle is evidenced at a higher level of abstraction.

The other side of the coin would here be the link between mechanical creativity and substantive conservatism and I think there is something to that - it's interesting that while the implied or explicit default settings of D&D 3rd edition, 4th edition and 5th edition do have their fresh elements, they are much more committed to a form of mainstream high fantasy which doesn't demonstrate all that much in the way of creativity. This is despite them being, of course, mechanically quite innovative. 

Is it just that human beings, even very creative human beings, only have a certain capacity for creativity, which they must ration out between substance and form? Answers on a postcard.

[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.]

Thursday 26 January 2023

The Motivated Sandbox Search or 'Haystack' Campaign

There has long been a trope of fantasy fiction in which the main character or characters have to search a wide geographical area for certain items - often fragments of what is itself a larger item - in order to assemble them into a great artefact of some kind (often to forge a weapon so as to strike against some Dark Lord or other). It is almost certainly inherited as a storytelling device from ancient myths and sagas - in which heroes often have to perform a set of certain 'labours', slay a series of monsters, etc., in order to realise some greater ambition.

I can't remember the first time I ever personally came across this trope (it was almost certainly through reading some Fighting Fantasy gamebook or other) but I instantly latched onto it; when I was about 10 or 11 a friend and I both sat down together to launch what we were sure were bound to be stellar careers as novelists, and my book - The Spear of Eternity - concerned a quest ranging across the continent of Snith in search of the four parts of the eponymous spear, so that it could be reassembled and thrust into the heart of the 'Death Lord', Keshin.

There is something addictive about this structure. It provides a basic formula or pattern which possesses the power to satisfy precisely because of its repetitive nature - we can see what's coming, but, like in an episode of Columbo, the enjoyment derives from the manner in which the resolution comes rather than the ending, which we already basically know. This method of storytelling also builds tension by creating a series of mini-climaxes and denouements before the final moment of victory. And it can, let's face it, give the author a bit of license to really string things out. It is no accident therefore that writers still latch onto it - as JK Rowling did, of course, with Voldemort and his horcruxes. 

(Indeed, my 5 year old daughter is a big fan of the Rainbow Magic books, which consist of seemingly dozens of series, each of which involves the two main characters, Rachel Walker and Kirsty Tate, invariably having to journey across Fairy Land to find seven items which seven fairies have dropped so that they can foil the arch-villain Jack Frost in the final volume. Even to an adult, despite the crushing repetitiveness of the formula, there is a kind of pleasure to be derived from discovering how the authors have managed to write yet another variation on the same, rigid framework.)

Interestingly, the RPG equivalent of this storytelling device exists in that strangest of places - the Lagrange point between a sandbox and a railroad. On the one hand, there is an overarching plot. But on the other, there is no preordained way in which it has to play out: there's a rod with seven parts (or whatever) scattered around the world, and the PCs have to find them. Where they look and, how they go about looking, is up to them. It is perfectly possible to play this kind of campaign in, essentially, a 'sandbox' fashion: 'You have to find the 13 Rings of Yamtether; they're somewhere out there in the continent of Flax; here is a big list of rumours about places they may or may not be found - go!' With a big hexmap and lots of places to explore, you've got yourself quite a game going.

The motivated sandbox search, as it will be henceforth known (but I also rather like the term 'haystack campaign' - feel free to use it) also manages to achieve the difficult task of marrying player agency and freedom with the idea that the PCs are the 'heroes'. Giving them free rein to go wherever they like provided they are searching for the Six Ladles of the Holy Chef in order to slay the Bouillabaise Demon of Doom creates space for a unity of 2nd edition-era 'good guys' D&D with the roguish sensibilities of old school play, and may be worth fiddling with for that reason alone.

(And one could, of course, just as easily run such a campaign entirely within one massive megadungeon - of, say 9 levels, each containing one part of an item which needs all the others in order to be put together into a greater whole.) 


[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.]

Tuesday 24 January 2023

I see that there is evil, and I know that there is good - it's the in-betweens I never understood...

You will perhaps have come across this PBS story about D&D, which circulated a month or so ago.

I am totally out of the loop, so I'm not sure if it received a lot of push-back (I suspect it did), but it's hard to discuss the substance of the article without getting dragged into culture war nonsense - and I think that's the last thing D&D really needs at the moment. What interested me about the piece, though, was this paragraph: 

Old School Renaissance, or OSR, is a gaming movement whose players claim they are “against outside politics permeating their game space,” said Dashiell. These players support the use of traditional fantasy tropes in game design, such as the existence of “good” and “evil” races with no nuance. OSR gamers are often seen as the old guard of tabletop gaming and tend to idealize the past, which “defaults to a white, masculine worldview,” Trammell said.

Leaving aside the fact that it is very sloppy journalism not to interview somebody who actually considers him- or herself to be part of the OSR alongside somebody critical of it so as to offer a variety of perspectives, I'm curious about the assertion that '[OSR] players support the use of traditional fantasy tropes in game design, such as the existence of 'good' and 'evil' races with no nuance'.

First, I am compelled to say that I don't think that claim is empirically true. Do any of the main OSR authors/adventures/campaign-settings reproduce the idea that there exist 'good and evil races with no nuance'? I honestly thought the whole point of OSR gaming was to return to an idea that the PCs are rather amoral Vancian rogues who are just out for what they can get, and in general to avoid the whole good/evil dynamic (which most of the genuine grognards would say was an imposition foisted on D&D during the days of 2nd edition). 

But setting that to one side, it's interesting that, reaching for a stick with which to beat OSR gamers over the head, it was the accusation of deploying 'traditional fantasy tropes' of good and evil races that Trammell ultimately chose. Partly, this is because the idea of the existence of inherently good and evil races, or even individual people, has simply become seen as cringeworthy throughout the culture: our popular fiction (in literature, TV and film) tends to lionise anti-heroes and celebrate villains who show redemptive qualities. We don't now tend to think of the universe as being animated by metaphysical 'goods' and 'evils', let alone Good and Evil - no doubt due to increased secularisation - and therefore smearing the OSR by associating it with such old-fashioned, retrograde nonsense is a very easy tactic to use.

But partly the problem is, I think, the uncanny-valley effect. Nobody I think really has an issue with evil beings that are very different to us, such as evil dragons, or evil demons, or evil intelligent giant insects. That isn't the source of the complaint. What people don't like is the idea that there are things - orcs, drow, and so on - which look sufficiently similar to human beings as to hint that there are comparisons and analogies to be drawn (almost always where none was intended), and which are described as being uniformly evil. Especially when the word used to describe what those things belong to is 'races'. I totally understand the squeamishness that results from that, especially once the step has been taken of making those 'races' playable as PCs, resulting in people wanting to identify with them. The very phrase 'evil race' frankly just sounds bad to the modern ear, even when it plainly isn't intended to be used in such a way as to refer to real world people. 

I had come to the conclusion a while ago that evil humanoids are probably unnecessary, partly because humans beings themselves can be evil enough to function as antagonists if you want a good vs evil campaign, and partly because I like the idea of monsters as singular, special, and significant - one-off entities who the PCs must struggle to vanquish, and who are imbued with a symbolic value as a consequence. I think Tolkien's work has been very unfairly traduced down the decades, but I do understand why there is a desire to get away from the good/evil dichotomy at least when it comes to humanoid 'races'. My own preference of course would be to ditch the orcs, goblins, drow and kobolds altogether and do something more creative - fat chance of that, though.


[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.]

Friday 20 January 2023

On Yoon-Suin Adventure Sites

Yoon-Suin 2nd edition (which you can back now on Kickstarter) contains 12 adventure sites. 

These are fully mapped, fully keyed, fully statted-up locations which you can drop in anywhere on a hexmap for your PCs to explore, or run as standalone adventures. They are basically runnable 'out of the box' - with almost zero prep needed. Many are also created in such a way that they can lead to much bigger megadungeon-style locations. 

Here is an example of some of the maps (drawn by Tom Fitzgerald) though obviously not in final form and without the keyed info:

And here are some examples of the kind of stuff that is in the keys for various places, taken at random:

‘Statues from the Lost City of Selefarran Vo, whose people in their final decadence made their children fight in war, while the adults themselves grew fat and feeble.’ A room filled with three dozen or so statues of children, made from white stone but with their hands, feet and noses painted red. All are depicted wearing scale mail, and their hands are sculpted in such a way as to indicate they once held weapons. Almost all are broken to some extent, and some are entirely shattered. One girl still holds a javelin in her left hand. It is made from teak, and the head is of jade; its design is starkly and deliberately minimalist. It is worth 500gp, and is magical - it was used for fighting bhoots, and it always hits when thrown at an undead being, doing maximum damage.

In the room are three evil spirits, all brothers, servants of an arch-mage in the Yellow City who sent them to the museum to bring him its relics, but who found the place to their liking and chose to remain. They call themselves the Creeper, the Caller, and the Climber. Each goes about naked, and has hairless chalk blue skin.

The Creeper: HD 3, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG By weapon+2*, Move 120, Save as F2, TT: None

*Can move in perfect silence, and crawls low to the ground on all fours - he always surprises opponents.

*Carries a kerambit with a black blade - it always does maximum damage (i.e., 6, being d4+2), and is worth 300gp

The Caller: HD 3, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG By weapon *, Move 120, Save as F2, TT: None

*Can cast Monster Summoning I 3/day

*Carries a gada, resembling a pick, its head shaped into that of a gharial - it does d6+1 damage and ignores armour, and is worth 750gp

The Climber: HD 3, AC 6, #ATT 2, DMG By weapon/by weapon**, Move 120, Save as F2, TT: None

*Can climb on walls and ceilings effortlessly

*Carries two bagh nakh, doing d3 damage each; wounds bleed profusely, causing the wounded to lose an additional 1hp per round for 3 rounds after being hit.


The shrine. A circular chamber with exits leading NW, S and NE to [11]. The S exit is a round tunnel 4’ off the ground that has to be crawled through; the NW exit is a thin, low burrow that has to be belly-crawled. Six of the woodlouse men are in here at any one time, engaged in a ritualistic orgy before a wooden statue of their deity, a nameless rhinoceros-beetle god of love and sex with mother-of-pearl eyes (worth 300gp each) Three monitor lizards lie recently butchered on a flat rock against the N wall; around them roam iridescent green rhinoceros-beetle males and females engaged in courtship and mating, and draped around this scene are five ceremonial golden necklaces, each worth 100gp. The room is dimly lit with torches.

The woodlouse men have heightened metabolisms due to their sexual antics. Any reaction dice roll involving them is at -4, and they are only surprised on a 1 (and not surprised at all if the rubble trap in [11] has been activated). They gain a +1 bonus to initiative.

Woodlouse men: HD 1, AC 6, #ATT 1, DMG By weapon (short sword, club, spear), Move 120, ML 7, Save as F1, TT (P, Q, S)


The old guardroom. A cell which once housed yuthada vaanara servants, now long gone, who watched the doorway. It has since become the nest of a pair of giant blood pheasant cockatrices - 6’ high quail-like birds with blood red faces, the male’s feathers grey and flecked with vivid red, the female’s drabber. There is one parent in the nest at any one time, with the eggs (or both, if it is night time); the other is foraging nearby and will immediately return to the nest (arriving within d6+1 round) if it hears an alarm call. The parent sitting on the nest will attempt to warn intruders by making loud, aggressive shrieks (which also function as alarm calls) and shaking its head from side to side before attacking. If the intruders retreat the bird will not pursue.

The blood pheasant cockatrices and the Experimenter’s former servants have an implicit and unacknowledged truce: they avoid each other and leave well alone when coming and going through the tower’s entrance.

The nest contains 8 eggs. These are worth 2,000gp each in the Oligarchies (and elsewhere), as the birds are highly valued by the nobility of the Mountains of the Moon as pets, if a method can be found of keeping them 35 degrees warm during transportation or until they hatch (in d3 weeks). They each weigh 5cn. The young eat grubs, small insects, lizards and so on - blood pheasant cockatrices can choose whether to use their petrifying power, and will not do so when eating.

Other than the nest, which is a large pile of sticks, leaves, stones and earth, the room contains stone benches along the outer wall and a rack of 12 halberds on the inner one. The window is opaque blue glass - if looking in from outside one can see the shape of the bird, though one will not be able to identify it. 

Giant blood pheasant cockatrice: HD 5, AC 6, #ATT 2, DMG 1d4*/1d4 (bite/wing buffet), Move 120 (Fly 180), ML 8, Save as F4, TT None

*The touch of the beak petrifies on a failed save versus magic


A reminder that you can back the Kickstarter here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/thirdbluewizard/yoon-suin-the-purple-land

Wednesday 18 January 2023

Do You Remember the First Time?

I don't know if this has been done before, or recently (I'm out of the loop), but wouldn't it be fun to collate a vast collection of anecdotes about people's first time playing RPGs, and especially playing D&D?

I'll start.

I think I've told this story on the blog before, but I've now been doing this so long I can no longer remember specific posts very well, and whenever I put anything in the search bar on my Blogger dashboard I get dozens of results which take a long time to wade through. Anyway, for those of you who are not sufficiently expert in every detail of my biography:

My friend's big brother had got his hands on the classic Basic D&D 'red box' from somewhere, and invited my friend and I and another person (I can't remember who - in my vague memories of the occasion, he sits to one side like a faceless, shadowy ghost) to play a game. I had already read lots of Fighting Fantasy books, and had read all three volumes of Advanced Fighting Fantasy, so I was familiar with the concept - or thought I was - and had spent a lot of time daydreaming about how cool and grown-up a hobby D&D seemed to be. (Bear in mind I was probably about 11 years old.) So I was very keen to give it a try. 

I rolled up a halfling; my two colleagues rolled up a magic-user and a dwarf. I think I had in mind a model a little bit like Tas from the Dragonlance book - the main thing I remember was being very pleased my PC had a DEX of 16. Without any prelude (ah, those were the days!) we ventured into a dungeon. In the first room, we encountered and killed what in my memory was a carrion crawler, although that seems like a tough fight for three 1st level PCs. In the second room, we encountered a mature red dragon. We then spent the entire session trying to convince it not to kill and eat us, making a succession of increasingly creative and desperate arguments. In the end, it breathed fire on us all and killed us. The whole thing was, in essence, a contrivance by which the DM could enjoy tormenting a group of younger, impressionable kids.

I bore no resentment towards my friend's big brother - it is the god-given duty of a big brother to piss all over his younger brother and his mates at every opportunity - but I do remember thinking, 'That can't be what the game is all about.' I've been trying to figure out what it is all about ever since. 

Your turn. 


[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.]

Tuesday 17 January 2023

On the Great 'Chimpanzees in Cambridge' Divide

When the original 28 Days Later was released, circa 2002, a great battle was fought on TV screens across the land (well, those that happened to be tuned to BBC2 at 11pm on a Friday night, anyway). In the one corner, renowned film critic and Orlando Bloom hater, Mark Kermode. In the other, renowned radical feminist writer, Germaine Greer. The subject: chimpanzees in Cambridge.

For those who have not seen the film in question, I give nothing away to tell you that the opening sequence is set at a laboratory at the University of Cambridge, where chimpanzees and other animals (I think) are held in tiny, cramped cages - presumably while they are being experimented on. It is the middle of the night, and animal rights activities sneak in and set them free. But one of the chimps happens to be infected with a zombie virus. The rest of the film is about the ensuing hilarity and hijinks.

On Newsnight Review, a late night cultural/arts programme that had a cult following in Britain in the late 90s and early 2000s, Kermode and Greer drew up their battle lines. Ostensibly, they were supposed to be reviewing the film. But the initial reconnaissance-in-force by Greer met heavy resistance from Kermode and a full scale engagement ensued before they had even discussed anything beyond the first scene.

For Greer, 28 Days Later was ruined from the start by its unrealistic depiction of what happens at science labs at the University of Cambridge. Speaking with some authority in this regard (Greer did her PhD at Cambridge), she asserted that chimpanzees and other examples subject to scientific study at the university were treated with the utmost care and attentiveness. The idea that they would be living in cramped conditions and subject to cavalier experimentation was a fantasy, which completely spoiled the film.

For Kermode, Greer was being pedantic. Worse, she was committing a category error. The point of 28 Days Later was not that it was realistic. How could it be? It was a zombie film. The point was that 'animal being experimented upon by mad scientists and escaping to unintentionally wreak terrible revenge on hubristic humanity' is an SF trope that is as old as the Cambridge fens. Danny Boyle wasn't trying to accurately portray the way zoologists treat animals at real universities. He was being loyal to the expectations of genre.

The Greer-Kermode debate is illustrative of a deep rift at the heart of humanity, between those for whom fiction ought to accurately portray what would be the case in real life, and those who willingly suspend disbelief for the sake of the story. Whether you tend to tack more closely to Greer or Kermode probably says a lot about you - but of course, we probably all have occasions upon which we snootily insist that 'that would never happen', and others on which we freely accept flights of fancy on the part of authors or directors in the interests of the story.

Both positions are defensible. Kermode's is probably the more sympathetic, on its face, because it seems to embrace a more creative and enthusiastic approach to storytelling. But Greer has her point - at a certain point a storyteller can act so fast and loose with plausibility that it becomes insulting to the audience's intelligence. (Top Gun: Maverick, anyone?) 

DMs and players often struggle with Chimpanzees in Cambridge conundrums  conundra problems. How realistic is it that a bunch of murderhobos would be able to come back from successive dungeoneering expeditions with tens of thousands of gold pieces' worth of treasure - enough to feed an entire village for years on end - and it not impact on the local economy? How realistic is it that room 32 contains a dragon and room 31 contains a tribe of halfings, living in apparent harmony? How realistic is it that Bob the Fighter went down to 1 hp after being savaged by a dragon but was still able to carry his fair share of loot?

Every Chimpanzees in Cambridge argument must be resolved by one side or the other backing down and sacrificing their values in the name of the continuation of the game. I offer no solutions, except to call for common understanding across these divides, which are some of the bitterest that can exist between human beings.


[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.]

Monday 16 January 2023

On the OGL and 'Expressing Your Fandom'

I've steered clear of the controversy surrounding the OGL, which I'm sure, if you're reading this blog, you will have heard of.

This is mainly because I haven't made up my mind about it. I feel sorry for publishers who have relied on the continued existence of the OGL for their business model, but on the other hand, evil faceless megacorporations are going to evil faceless megacorporation, and CEOs and Presidents owe a duty to the board to maximise shareholder value. Wizards of the Coast didn't create the OGL in the first place in the interests of 'the hobby' or because they were nice guys. They did it in the interests of being more profitable. They evidently think that there are other ways of being yet more profitable (though I understand there may be a bit of a tactical retreat taking place). Complaining about their behaviour now is a bit like the proverbial frog complaining about stung by the scorpion. 

In summary - Wizards have behaved very badly, but nobody should let corporate PR and a commitment to CSR lull them into a false sense of security about what companies are. As a rule, Wizards - in common with lots of modern consumer-facing businesses - works hard to make itself appear fluffy, caring, and welcoming. It does this not because it actually is, but purely because it sees an advantage in doing so. It seems incredible to me that people don't get this, but then again suspicion of capital has largely disappeared from left discourse in recent decades, and hasn't existed on the right really sine the 1960s, so perhaps I shouldn't be all that surprised.

The thing that should send you running shrieking for your life from WotC-D&D is not really its OGL-related shenanigans but the way it talks about its customers. What worried me about Cynthia Williams' statement about D&D's 'undermonetarization' was not that she wants to monetize it (that's her job) but that she dressed up her ambitions for WotC as being to 'serve [customers] by giving them more ways to express their fandom'.

Not giving them more ways to express themselves, you'll note, or to express their creativity - or even, which would be perfectly laudable ambitions, giving them more ways to play, more worlds to explore, more options - and certainly not giving them better value for money (how quaint). No: better ways to express their fandom. The implication is clear; WotC does not want customers who merely buy D&D and then play it. It, like many companies, wants fans who identify with the brand in the same way that fans identify with a sports team - uncritically, irrationally, and loyally. It wants people who see 'being a D&D fan' as part of their identity. And, by extension, it wants as its customers people who see spending money on WotC products itself as an expression of who they are. It doesn't want to serve you by making products you'll enjoy. It wants to 'serve you' by convincing you that spending money on its products is a way of being who you are.

This, I submit, ought to be intolerable to human adults who value their agency, and in its own way, writ large across the consumer sphere as it nowadays is, it poses almost as significant a threat to our collective humanity as do developments in AI. Your identity is not a commodity, and should not be expressed through the commodities you buy. If Marxist critique ever had any overriding point of value to make, and it surely did, then it was surely that. Yet many, many people seem to have arrived at the position that there is absolutely nothing wrong with idea that it is so.

Once again I find myself lamenting the strange death of the 1990s nerd - the counter-cultural nerd, the unruly nerd, the nerd holding out what I once called 'the possibility and promise of non-conformity with consumer capitalism'. What happened to that nerd? I find them very difficult to find.


[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.]

Friday 13 January 2023

Fairytale Japan Through Modern Prefecture Names

I recently arrived back from a two-week break in Japan, visiting my in-laws, and was once again confronted with the question as to why on Earth, after 8 years living over there, I chose to return to the UK. Going from one country to the other is like stepping from the world of Star Trek: TNG into the world of early Grange Hill - in the first, everything is clean, works well, and people are nice to each other; in the second, everything is a bit shit and you feel as though society rests on the tip of a rubbish chute at all times, ready to tip over the edge.

As a tribute to my second home, I thought I'd sketch out an early foray into a perhaps-never-to-be-written 'fairytale Japan', based on the highly evocative prefectural names that were chosen mostly during the meiji period towards the end of the 19th century. Here, the main islands (not including Okinawa) are imagined as 46 'lands' with very distinctive, almost Planescape-style characters, which change as you go across the border. The translations are not direct (a lot of Japanese words and concepts don't really translate well into English - trust me, I used to do it for a living), but capture something of the flavour of the original while taking poetic license to make something weird and fantastical. The descriptions don't have much to do with the actual preferectures, but basically just derive from their names.

Here's the map - you will notice that during the numbering I forgot about Nara and Saga (which in the latter case, if you know anything about Japan, is entirely understandable; there is a Japanese comedian whose entire shtick more or less revolves around taking the piss out of Saga Prefecture). I had to tag them on at the end. 

1 - Kagoshima - Islands of the Deer Children. A sylvan land populated by deer-people, who are haunted by ghosts of wolves.

2 - Miyazaki - The Cape of Shrines. A land of many shrines to many gods, each with its own priests.

3 - Kumamoto - The Origin of Bears. A land populated by many bears who are born from a great Bear Mother.

4 - Oita - The Vast and Varied Plain. A land made of up a great patchwork of many different, small domains, all independent from each other and jostling for supremacy.

5 - Fukuoka - The Hills of Good Fortune. A beautiful, orderly, Arcadia-esque piedmont of great prosperity. 

6 - Nagasaki - The Long Cape. [This is one of the less evocative names.] A cape with many small islands, surrounded by wild, stormy, barely navigable seas; the result is many communities totally isolate from each other and the outside world, and all insular and strange as a result.

7 - Kochi - The Land of Great Knowledge. A land dominated by many places of secular learning and those devoted to the study of magic, ruled by scholars and sages.

8 - Tokushima - The Virtuous Island. The home of many chivalrous lords, each competing with the others to be the most virtuous of all.

9 - Ehime - Land of the Beloved Princess. The domain of a great and beautiful lady whose people worship her as a goddess. 

10 - Kagawa - The Land of Scented Rivers. A paradise of perfumed rivers, lined with willows, whose people while away their time like lotus-eaters in idle frivolity.

11 - Yamaguchi - The Mouth of the Mountains, a great gateway that leads to high, icy plateaus.

12 - Shimane - The Roots of the Islands, where huge tunnels are bored down into the very depths of the earth. 

13 - Hiroshima - The Wide Island [another less evocative one], a vast open grassland travelled by wild nomads. 

14 - Tottori - Land of the Bird Catchers, a place full of many varieties of birds, which the people catch to use as steeds or beasts of burden.

15 - Okayama - The Land of Hills and Mountains [the last unevocative one]. A land without barely a scrap of flatland, whose people have to scramble about the sheer cliffs like goats.

16 - Hyogo - The Barracks. A great complex of fortresses, staffed by huge garrisons, each rivals to each other and fighting constant internecine wars.

17 - Kyoto - The Capital City. A stereotyped, fairlyand version of the real place (watch the Ghible Princess Kaguya for details).

18 - Wakayama - The Mountain of Harmonious Song, whose people devote themselves to the pursuit of music and dance, and, like sirens, seduce travellers into their endless performances.

19 - Osaka - The Great Slope. A city built on a huge escarpment, which is constantly being rebuilt to stop it sliding downhill, like an architectural travellator. 

20 - Mie - The Three Layers. A land comprising three different parallel 'layers', like artificial realities, which one can slip in and out of through portals. One is a permanent dawn, the other a permanent noon, the last a permanent dusk. Each has its own ruler, who seeks to dominate and subvert the others.

21 - Shiga - The Land of Nourishment and Celebration. A land of permanent banquets and bacchanals, whose people compete against each other to provide the greatest feast.

22 - Fukui - The Well of Good Fortune. A pleasant land at the centre of which is a well which dispenses an elixir of life; pilgrims come from across the world to drink from it.

23 - Ishikawa - The River of Rocks, where avalanches continually tumble down the mountainsides and into the sea.

24 - Gifu - The Base of the Mountain of the Philosophers - the foothills of a great, high mountain ruled by the wisest of the wise. Its people are the many pilgrims who have come over the eons in search of truth.

25 - Aichi - The Land of the Knowledge of Love, whose people are obsessed with the pursuit of lust and romance.

26 - Toyama - The Mountain of Riches. A mountain riddled with silver and gold mines, whose people live in fabulous wealth and spend it on absurdly large and wondrous palaces.

27 - Niigata - The New Lagoon. A long coastal realm whose people exist in the liminal space between person and sea-creature, transferring from land to sea and back again as they go about their lives.

28 - Nagano - The Distant Fields, a mountainous domain where a beautiful pastoral utopia always seems to be just 'over there', but can never be reached no matter how far one journeys.

29 - Shizuoka - The Quiet Hills, cursed into complete silence.

30 - Yamanashi - The Pear Mountain, a land of orchards, whose people are fat and merry - almost horrifyingly so.

31 - Kanagawa - The River of the Gods, a holy river whose waters cleanse away sin, like a Ganges of the Pacific.

32 - Tokyo - The Eastern Capital, rival to Kyoto, and its evil twin - unrefined, coarse, commercial, violent.

33 - Saitama - The Protruding Sphere, a perfectly spherical, glass mound which towers above the surrounding plains, and in which its people live.

34 - Gunma - The Land of Many Horses, like the talking horses of Gulliver's Travels, ruled by a horse-king. 

35 - Tochigi - Land of Horse Chestnuts, a bucolic woodland whose animal-people live off the bounty of the forest.

36 - Ibaraki - The Fortress of Thorns, a realm ruled by an evil queen, whose castles are created from huge, endlessly growing thorn bushes.

37 - Chiba - The Land of a Thousand Leaves, a totally impenetrable 'Old Forest' or Mirkwood-type woodland, dark and shadowy and filled with strange beasts and wild ghosts.

38 - Fukushima - The Island of Good Fortune, which rises from the swamps all around it, and which is home to a benevolent king and his blessed people.

39 - Yamagata - The Mountain Form, a mighty tower-like peak which rises far into the sky, and which has never been ascended.

40 - Miyagi - The Shrine-Fortress, home to a militaristic caste of warrior-priests who occasionally venture into other lands to smite the unholy.

41 - Akita - The Autumn Fields, a land where it is always autumn, and the people all ageing, without young.

42 - Iwate - The Stone Hands, where the land is shaped into two massifs each shaped like a fist; the people who live on both detest each other and fight an unending war.

43 - Aomori - The Blue Forest, which is as it says - a forest of blue leaves.

44 - Hokkaido - The Route to the Northern Sea, a pathway to a 'grey havens'-type harbour, which people travel when they have tired of their lives in this world, and wish to pass to the next.

45 - Nara - The Holy Plain, where great gods and goddesses walk the earth.

46 - Saga - The Land of Aid and Celebration. An oasis for the weary and injured, who find succor in its great hospitality, but frequently desire to remain for eternity afterwards...

[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.]

Don't Use AI Art (Except for Fun)

The discussion concerning the 'new' OGL WotC is putting out is undoubtedly important. But we shouldn't let it blind us to a much more fundamental threat to the work of RPG creators - one that, I think, requires concerted resistance on the part of writers, game designers, illustrators and layout artists alike. I'm talking, of course, about the use of AI (though I would prefer the term 'Artificial Creativity') to produce text and, especially, art. 

Kickstarter released a magnificently anodyne and mealy-mouthed statement concerning AI and art shortly before Christmas. Starting out with a balls-to-the-wall declaration that 'Kickstarter must, and will always be, on the side of creative work and the humans behind that work', it then goes on merely to say that, er, we can't make up our minds, but we're a bit concerned about the relationship between AI and copyright, and we also want to make sure KS doesn't inadvertently put out discriminatory content. 

Fair enough, but readers may very reasonably ask in response, 'Where's the beef?' Being on the side of creative work and the humans behind that work surely has to mean more than that.

By coincidence, I was listening this morning to the latest Econtalk episode, featuring Ian Leslie on the subject of 'Being Human in an Age of AI'. It is a great discussion, and I agree with Russ's assessment that Leslie's perspective on the topic is by far the most interesting out there. His point, which I found intuitively correct, is that the real 'threat' posed by AI is not that it will replace us, but that we will come more closely to resemble robots in our thoughts, behaviours, and opinions - a path along which we are already fairly far advanced. If all human beings can do is fiddle around on our phones, stumble around shopping malls, jump through some very wide hoops in school and university, listen to formulaic music and watch formulaic movies, and perform 'bullshit jobs' with spreadsheets, then we surely will outmode ourselves. If, on the other hand, we rediscover what is significant and important about being human, then we will survive. 

Counter-intuitively, though, this is most definitely not an argument for saying that we can be 'intensely relaxed ' about advances in computing and machine learning, as they will just spur us on and serve as a reason for us to produce ever better and more imaginative art. The whole point of AI is that it will ape and mimic whatever we produce, and dilute and diminish it accordingly. This is not a situation in which 'laissez-faire' is really appropriate. 

It is an argument, in fact, for precisely the opposite conclusion: being absolutely robust in saying that, while there's no harm in playing around with AI art for shits and giggles, we can't and shouldn't countenance its deployment in serious creative endeavours. Art is our domain and needs to be defended as such. It's for humans. Not robots. If you want to use AI art rather than work produced by a human being, then I'm sorry, but you are letting the side down - it's as simple as that.

I am not in favour, though, of banning its use (either on the part of private actors like Kickstarter or governments), precisely because the line between 'playing around with AI art for shits and giggles' and 'serious creative endeavours' is porous and blurred. The better solution is to require people making use of AI art to declare it openly, so that those of us (and I think this is the great majority) who want to defend humanity can avoid touching that kind of stuff with a ten foot pole. 

[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.]

Thursday 12 January 2023

Yoon-Suin Kickstarter - LAUNCHED

The Kickstarter for Yoon-Suin 2nd edition is launched!

There are three substantive reward tiers.

Crab-man fighter gets you the PDF when completed.

Slug-man scholar gets you the print+PDF when completed.

Major rakhosh gets you the print+PDF when completed, and exclusive access to a series of podcasts in which I construct a version of Yoon-Suin and give a 'director's commentary' on the book's contents.

On a personal note, this has been a long time coming. People have regularly asked over the years for a 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin, especially once a change in lulu's production methods meant a print version was no longer available. But I always swore that I wouldn't do another version until there was a really good reason - in the form of new material.

I'm pleased that the volume which will be released will be more Yoon-Suin, both substantively (in the form of lots of new appendices and, in particular, 12 large adventure sites that are ready to run), and in terms of art and 'feel'. It will be a bit of a behemoth (400 pages plus), but with almost no fat - this will be, I promise, a heavyweight boxer of a book.

And yes, I am afraid it is also going to be in landscape format and there's nothing you can do about it.

Thursday 5 January 2023

Yoon-Suin 2nd Edition Kickstarter Pre-Launch

In the dark alleys and abandoned courtyards of Syr Darya, the news is whispered from breathless lips. In the clear, dry mountain air of the oligarchies, it is communicated with cowbells and the distant echoing rumour of gongs. Across Druk Yul, it is carried on the wind to what ears can hear it; in the crowded bazaars and temples of the Hundred Kingdoms it is the subject of conspiratorial muttering among vagrants, fakirs and zamindars alike. And even in the Yellow City itself, people take pause amidst the noise and hurriedness of their daily lives to savour a pot of tea with an associate and deliver the long-awaited gossip: yes, finally noisms has pulled his thumb out of his backside and put together a 2nd edition of Yoon-Suin!

The much-requested Kickstarter will launch later this month. For the time being, you can follow it here.

And here is the blurb:

Enter the Purple Land...

Yoon-Suin is a legendary campaign toolbox for fantasy games, giving you the equipment necessary to run a sandbox campaign in your own Yoon-Suin - a region of high adventure shrouded in ancient mysteries, opium smoke, great luxury and opulent cruelty. 

Originally published in 2014, it has long been out of print. This Kickstarter will launch its 2nd edition, containing all-new art by Matt Adams, new monsters, the entire original text, many new appendices and random encounter tables, and 12 fully-mapped adventure sites from across Yoon-Suin for PC groups of various levels.

Contents include:

  • A bestiary of unique monsters, including self-mummified monks, liquid golems, tiger-beetle men, figments, aphid-men, and dozens more
  • The crab-man character class
  • A chapter for each of the major regions of Yoon-Suin, filled with random generators to brainstorm map contents, social groups, and more
  • Extended rules for poisons, tea, opium, trade, deities and so on
  • Extended rules for exploring the Old Town of the Yellow City, and the haunted jungles of Lahag
  • Many random encounter tables
  • Well over 100 pre-written adventure locales to populate a regional map
  • Over 400 pages of content
  • Purple prose
Its 12 adventure sites (mapped by Tom Fitzgerald) are:

  • The Mourning Garden of the Unrequited Lover, a walled garden where the PCs will become entangled, literally and figuratively, with malevolent floral guardians
  • The Hornet's Sting, a desert island, Yoon-Suin style
  • The Museum of Relics Gathered by Wu-U the Brave and Magnificent on His Voyages to the Four Corners of the Earth, a gallery filled with dangerous wonders and wondrous danger
  • The Pit Near "______", where woodlouse-men copulate in orgiastic delight
  • The Ruin of the Dhole God's Temple, home to forgotten treasures and outcasts
  • The Fighting Pits at Hailakandpur, haunted by the beasts and gladiators who once fought and died there
  • The Falls of the Pale Naga, where a reptilian demigod rests in quiet repose
  • The Tors of the Petrified Fakirs, where mystics of immense wisdom and power become as one with the earth itself
  • The Tower of the Experimenter in Light and Glass, where mad apes tend to the arcane paraphernalia of a long-dead archmage 
  • The Mad Sorceress's Blessed Retreat, a floating palace on a remote mountain lake
  • The Fields of Poppies Standing Unharvested, whose owners were massacred by vile interlopers
  • The Dwarves Who Forgot Their Own Names and Faces, whose tunnels can be found high in the Mountains of the Moon
What people said about the first edition of Yoon-Suin:

'Probably one of the most impressive gaming supplements (let alone campaign settings) that I’ve ever come across' (Necrozius)

'My mind is blown. This artifact...is a labour of wonder' (Hack Slash Master)

'This might be my favorite setting. Ever.' (Joseph R.)

'This is one of the few RPG materials that can be read as one would read a novel.' (Stephen M.)

'This is an incredible product for sandbox games. There is enough area description to get a good idea of what the feel for the region is (like 1st edition AD&D Forgotten Realms grey box, before the supplements explored every single square mile), then there are tables to randomly generate your Yoon-Suin. Every Yoon-Suin will be different. Which is awesome.' (Allen H.)

'On first blush, this is one of the best setting supplements I have encountered in 35 years of gaming.' (Forrest A.)

Wednesday 4 January 2023

Megadungeon Practical Example 4: Random Encounter Theory

No megadungeon is complete without bespoke random encounter/wandering monster tables, but this requires some unpacking. A good dungeon random encounter table has to achieve the following:

1. It should be bespoke, but not too bespoke

2. It should be level-appropriate, but not too level-appropriate

3. It should reflect the contents of the respective dungeon level, but not too much 

Let's deal with each of those in turn.

First, it probably goes without saying that it is important that random encounters should not be entirely 'random' in the sense that just any old monster could show up. Each dungeon level should have its own table, and it's best if the entries within it are unique to it and don't show up on other levels, and area also interesting things to come across in their own right - not just goblins, wolves, yellow mold and so on. At the same time, though, it's also fine to have some wildcards - there's nothing wrong with a generic monster or two appearing in amongst all the wonderful special snowflake entities you've made up, and indeed it can be refreshing to suddenly come across some orcs or a dragon in among all the owl-man automatons and phthalo rhinoceros ghosts. 

Second, it has long been a principle of D&D that encounter tables in dungeons are level-appropriate, and those in wilderness areas are not. Dungeoneering should in this sense be a bit more predictable and manageable than wilderness travel - broadly 1 HD monsters on level 1, 2 HD monsters on level 2, and so on, with some variation (a single 4 HD monster could appear on level 1, for example, as a roughly appropriate challenge for a party of 1st level adventurers).

However, I am also a believer that things should not be too predictable, and that it keeps the PCs on their toes if it is occasionally possible to encounter something that is genuinely too powerful. For this reason, I tend to stock my tables with non-level-appropriate monsters in the 'very rare' result range (see below). 

Third, the table itself should be stocked with monsters that are broadly thematically appropriate in view of the contents of the dungeon level itself. Hence, for example, in level one of Lost Eskinoot, there is an aviary, a forge, a kiln, an area of water contraptions such as wheels and pipes, and a parkland containing many statues. This suggests a random encounter table containing monsters that are broadly appropriate to those kinds of environments.

But at the same time, the contents of the random encounter table should avoid being too 'matchy-matchy'. Some years ago my wife and I got caught up in watching a series about interior design. A fabulously flamboyant and loveyish expert would show up each week to express her opinions, and she was always stridently opposed to designs making use of the same pattern on different objects in a room (for example, on the wallpaper and on the sofa). Tasteful use of the same colour was fine, but using exactly the same pattern would be condemned for its 'matchy-matchiness'.

By the same token, I am not a great believer in stocking a random encounter table with the same monsters that will be encountered in the actual rooms of the dungeon. They should be thematically similar, but different. Hence, for example, the kiln area in Lost Eskinoot is home to mephits. This means I would not have mephits appearing as random encounters - but I might have, say, dweomerlings or (clay) mudmen. This maintains thematic consistency but keeps things fresh.

The results of applying these principles are random encounter tables that feel 'right' in the sense that whatever is encountered does not seem totally out of place in a jarring way, but which does contain some 'crackerjack' items that will genuinely surprise, delight, and/or terrify the players.

A final word on structure. Some people use a straight 1d12 or 1d20 table, but I prefer to use 2d6, which gives a bell curve of frequency of results. This means that monsters in the 5-8 results range will appear more frequently than those at 2 or 12, and allows the incorporation of 'very rare' extra powerful encounters at the extremes. If this has the effect of making things a bit samey, one can easily remedy the problem with sub-tables for the common results. Hence, a typical random encounter for a level 1 dungeon (let's use Lost Eskinoot) might look something like this:

2 - Spectral artificier (treat as 'Spectre')

3 - Vegepygmies 

4 - Dweomerlings 

5 - Giant frog or newt

6 - Giant arthropod (1 - Crab spider, 2 - Giant centipede, 3 - Cave cricket, 4 - Giant wasp, 5 - Fire beetle, 6 - Oil beetle)

7 - Humans (1 - Outlaws, 2 - Bandits, 3 - Merchants, 4 - Vagrants, 5 - Sages, 6 - Cultists)

8 - Mammals (1 - Jackals, 2 - Giant bats, 3 - Baboons)

9 - Mudmen

10 - Kobolds

11 - NPC adventuring party

12 - Gargoyles