Thursday 30 March 2023

Satan DMed My Yoon-Suin Adventure

Dan Sumption, a regular in my weekly campaign and all-round technical wizard (and quite possibly literal wizard - I really wouldn't be surprised) has been messing around with ChatGPT and trying to get it to DM a D&D campaign for him

I thought I would also give it a go, on the basis that it's probably not fair to dismiss something as Satanic without having tried it. (Though, interestingly, nobody ever says this about human sacrifice or orgies with goats.)

So I went on over to ChatGPT and, after a while fooling around trying to get it to say outrageous things (annoyingly, it considers discussions about willies and bottoms to be offensive), I sat down to work.

Yes, it seems to 'know' what Yoon-Suin is - which I won't deny is flattering, and instantly earns it 1 not-Satan point. The strike against it (and this is a theme to which we will continually return) is that, rather than really presenting me with a role-playing game as such, the AI seems to interpret the exercise as being one of wish-fulfilment - 'Who do you want to be?' rather than 'Who do the dice say you are?'

I instantly deduct the not-Satan point I awarded ChatGPT in the previous round. Mages in Yoon-Suin are not seen as outsiders and subject to suspicion and discrimination. Has it just pulled this from a generic description of magic-users in other RPGs and settings? 

And we continue with the wish-fulfilment vibe. The AI gave me lots of leeway. It definitely seems to have drunk the 'new school' Kool-Aid, with 'playing an RPG' understood to mean 'imagining I am somebody I would like to be'.

But let's go with it:

The AI, as will be apparent, likes to lay it on a bit thick with the flattery - one might almost say in a Satanic way. Xa-Lympus doesn't sound at all like a Yoon-Suinish name, but maybe that's a nitpick. The real issue is that one can already smell a railroad. I suppose I'll be investigating this sorcerer fellow then. Sigh.

This is beginning to read like a Fighting Fantasy gamebook. I don't really care about the sorcerer or his questionable associates and am beginning to feel like I feel when actually playing D&D with a railroady DM - impatient and filled with a perverse desire to be a fly in the ointment.

Let's see if I can shift the gears somewhat and imply I want to get on the right side of this sorcerer fellow. Let's also see if the AI can do real-world D&D style awkward, unrealistic flirtation:

No - it's refusing to be drawn, isn't it? Definitely Satanic. But the game has been given away slightly - we're back to wish-fulfilment. The AI basically can't say 'no'. It's just going to riff on whatever I tell it, isn't it?

I don't know about you, but by this point I had already twigged that basically my responses were simply cueing the AI to spit out a vaguely appropriate-seeming sequence of events, and this instantly drained the exercise of any real interest as a 'game'. But I decided to test the limits of the exercise:

See? I've said he's suspicious so he does suspicious things. Let's continue.

Yeah - I've said he's in cahoots with the sorcerer and, hey presto!, it turns out he is. The only reason to continue now is to see what happens when I decide to be silly.

Yes, it really did accept that I just happened to have a 'ring of villain vanquishment', although it also obstinately still wanted to keep me on the railroad. A climactic fight must be had, come what may!

OK, a fart joke is weak sauce indeed, but the response serves to illustrate the wider point, which is that the AI's 'DMing' style is a curious mixture of giving you whatever you want while also quite severely constraining you to what it considers to be appropriate. I decided to engage it in some slightly more philosophical questions, to which it responded in very anodyne fashion:

So there you have it. It is rather fascinating that it 'knew' about the quantum ogre. And, of course, in its own way it is deeply impressive that a chatbot can take a reasonable stab at DMing a session of D&D.

But at the same time, I found the manner in which it did so reassuringly crap. I had some fun messing around with ChatGPT, but only in the sense that I was curious to see what it came up with and academically interested in the results. There is no way this thing is even remotely in a position to do anything that involves actual intelligence - and this confirms my view that the phrase 'artificial intelligence' is itself woefully misleading. There is no intelligence on display here. Just the workings of a very complex automaton. We're in no danger at all of outmoding ourselves on this evidence.

The other point of interest, I suppose, is that the exercise confirms that for an RPG session to be successful it needs to involve give and take between DM and players. The DM can't just give the players whatever they want and present events in a manner which suits their desires - because that rapidly makes them bored. But at the same time the players need to be given a satisfactory level of agency: 'I guess we'll be investigating this sorcerer then' is equally as boring as 'you can be whoever you want and do whatever you want!' Further grist for the OSR mill, methinks. 

Tuesday 28 March 2023

Aelid the Blue's Chambers, and Future Publishing Plans

Here, apropos of nothing much really, are two locations from the next big thing I'm working on, The Three-Mile Tree - a megadungeon inside the trunk of, well, a three-mile high tree:

34. The Soothsaying Room. The witch, Aelid the Blue (see room 35) does her soothsaying in this small chamber, from the low ceiling of which hang various bird skulls on lengths of string - those of a magpie, an owl, a crow, and a dunnock. 

The magpie skull will tell the value of any non-magical object. The owl skull will tell the location of any person. The crow will give information about the feelings and memories of the recently dead. And the dunnock will tell the location of any object that has been deliberately hidden. 

The skulls only respond to Aelid, who will ask them questions in return for teeth on a one-to-one basis. She removes teeth with a single yank of her forefinger and thumb. On removal of a third tooth, the supplicant loses 1 CHA permanently. For each tooth removed thereafter, he or she loses a further 1 CHA. 

35. Aelid’s Sleeping Area. The doorways to this chamber are closed with heavy whicker doors. Within is a wigwam-like tent within which AELID THE BLUE sleeps and spends most of her days. Crouching motionless on its haunches nearby is an incongruous IRON GOLEM, which resembles a male ape that would stand 7’ tall if fully erect. It obeys Aelid’s commands without question and instantly attacks anybody it perceives to threaten her or who enters the tent without her permission.

From the outside the tent appears to be around 8’ in diameter, but on the inside it is three or four times as wide, and could easily shelter a dozen people or more. Aelid’s bed is a cot carved out of the back of the stiffened carcass of a cave bear, which stands four-legged in the middle of the tent. Beside it on either side are a pair of stuffed wolves standing awkwardly on their hind legs. The wolf on the left bears a silver tray in its paws which, if filled with brine, Aelid can use for scrying (she does not supply the brine). In return, she requires a finger tip, which she bites off. Anyone may lose two fingertips without penalty. After that, each fingertip lost reduces DEX by 1. The wolf on the right bears a basket which contains the witch’s possessions - a potion of invulnerability, a potion of speed, a potion of water breathing, two scrolls of protection from elementals, a spell scroll of wizard eye/light/create air, a ring of fire resistance, and a large pouch containing 1000 ep.

AELID THE BLUE, 8th level magic-user (20 hp), AC 9, staff. Has memorised polymorph other, dimension door, protection from normal missiles, clairvoyance, mirror image, invisibility, phantasmal force, charm person, magic missile, hold portal

IRON GOLEM: HD 9, AC 0, #ATT 2, DMG 1d12/1d12, Move 90, ML 12, TT None

*Only damaged by bludgeoning or magical weapons

Currently, I'm working on finally ironing out all the kinks in distribution of Issue 1 of In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard (the latest thing is that it turns out that when the Royal Mail's software pulls orders from my online shop, it sometimes cuts off a line from the customer's address, so most days over the last two or three weeks I've come home to find a 'return to sender' package waiting for me on the doormat - something that naturally never fails to produce from me a trill of fond laughter at the postal service's hijinks). After that, my plans are:

  • By autumn 2023 - Yoon-Suin 2nd edition finished and being distributed
  • By autumn 2023 - possibly run a Kickstarter for In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard, Issue 2 (I don't really care if there is any demand for this - I will do it in any case to spite Patrick)
  • By end of 2023/early 2024 - run a Kickstarter for The Great North, billed as 'Yoon-Suin for North East England'
  • By end of 2024 - run a Kickstarter for The Three-Mile Tree
  • After that - finally complete Behind Gently Smiling Jaws
Wish me luck.

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.