Thursday 27 April 2023

WizardKnighting Planescape

I have been intending for some time to do a series of posts on Gene Wolfe's The Wizard Knight, which I recently re-read (after having had a first pass at it sometime in the mid-noughties) and thought worthy of much comment.

The first thing to say about it is its cosmology and how that sheds light on a big problem that Planescape encountered and which I discussed here. This is that, in an infinite setting, with infinite possibility, it is difficult to imbue events with any meaning. Instead, as I put it in that post, everything comes across as 'intangible, airy, ineffectual'. I might better have used the word 'inert'. 

The cosmology of The Wizard Knight is something akin to that presented in Planescape. We have a series of infinite planes which have a kind of alignment-based composition (in this case, Elysion, at the top, is the most pure and good, home of the Most High God, and Niflheim, at the bottom, is the most base and profane, home of the Most Low God; the planes in the middle are shades between them). The central plane, Mythgarthr, is akin to the Prime Material Plane, where human beings live. 

The relationship between the planes is also Planescape-esque, with characters being able to move from one to the other to a certain extent. There are no portals exactly between the planes; rather, one simply travels literally upwards or downwards from one to the other. (If one is in Aelfrice, one's sky is literally Mythgarthr - so unless one is below Mythgarthr's sea, one lives in shadow; one can also descend to Muspel, home of dragons, by going down tunnels far enough.) But the basic idea - of travellers from the most 'human' plane going to other ones on adventures - is roughly similar. 

But this is also where things start to diverge. Planescape was very much a product of the 1990s, in which 'edginess' and being the anti-hero was in vogue. This meant that all of the planes were conceptualised as being essentially equal. There was no real hierarchy between them. Yes, the 'Upper Planes' were the ones of good alignment and the 'Lower Planes' bad, but this had absolutely no in-game consequence. This was in keeping with the orthodox TSR position of the day on alignments - that good and evil, law and chaos had to be 'in balance'. This was even depicted as a known quality of the multiverse in-game; in 2nd edition AD&D characters of True Neutral alignment were actually presented as seeking to consciously preserve the balance between the alignments through their actions.

(Incidentally, the text of Planescape is strangely coy about the relationship between the good and evil planes - the only real conflict that gets any 'air time' is the Blood War, fought between Lawful Evil and Chaotic Evil respectively.)

The Wizard Knight, however, assumes a hierarchy, and this actually matters. It is easier to go down than up - almost anyone can accidentally wander into Aelfrice, and going to Muspel and Niflheim is a relatively simply matter of physically descending into the bowels of the Earth. But it is very hard for Aelf to go to Mythgarthr, and almost no human beings are permitted to go to Skai, let alone Kleos. Time also flows differently in the different planes, so that what seems like an hour in Aelfrice may be weeks or months in Mythgarthr, and the main character disappears to Skai for what seems like a very brief period (I think from memory it is just a few hours, though I might be wrong about that) but comes back as a comparatively old man, having spent decades in the upper plane.

In addition to this, there is supposed to be a relationship of veneration between the inhabitants of lower planes vis-a-vis those in the upper ones. Humans, on Mythgarthr, are supposed to worship the Overcyns, who are the gods of Skai. And the Aelf of Aelfrice are supposed to worship humans. At the same time, humans and Overcyns are supposed to set a good example to those in the plane below and model for them the right behaviour; again from memory, I think it is implied that this is so that ultimately everybody in the hierarchy can eventually ascend all the way up to Elysion, but, again, I could be wrong about that. (The book is over 1000 pages long and written by Gene Wolfe, so don't expect me to get every detail right!)

This, however, in practice often gets perverted - most notably by the Aelf, who come up to Mythgarthr when they can. Their magical prowess ensures that humans, particularly those who have lost their moorings by being badly ruled or falling on hard times, start to worship them instead. Similarly, although Skai is objectively better than Mythgarthr, it is riven by conflict between good and evil, and the malformed spawn of the evil gods comes falling down to Mythgarthr in the form of hideous giants - the Angrborn. This throws everything into disorder, and (without spoiling the plot), righting it is one of the things the story is about. (I say one of the things - I think what it is mostly about is a boy growing up into a man, but that's a subject for a future post.)

What Wolfe provides, in The Wizard Knight, is therefore a cosmology that feels dynamic. There is something for its inhabitants to strive for, and a wider telos, if you will, in which they can become integrated. There is a way for their actions to really matter.

Why Planescape doesn't feel dynamic in the same way is something of a mystery, because of course the authors of the setting actually tried their damnedest to imbue it with the kinds of themes that are infused through The Wizard Knight. In Planescape, one of the idealised things that PCs are supposed to be doing - it is suggested - is reshaping the planes through their actions: by ridding, for example, a chunk of the Outlands of chaos and evil, they can actually tip its geography into Mount Olympus or Arcadia. Or, by acting in the name of a God (although the writers called these 'Powers') of one kind or another, they can literally physically enlarge his or her sphere of influence. And, of course, the PCs can themselves aspire to ascend to Godhood and carve out a realm of their own, individually or collectively. 

The mystery is at least partly solved by reflecting on how awkwardly the engine of D&D fit into that thematic chassis. Without wishing once more to channel Ron Edwards, there is a basic incoherence that results from using the mechanics of AD&D, which were originally designed for dungeon/hexmap exploration games on a sandbox model (as we all surely now accept), to run campaigns that are orthogonal to that theme. By the time Planescape was being written, that incoherence had become intolerable and unsatisfying - AD&D 2nd edition was being ripped apart at the seams by trying to stay true to the game's mechanics while insisting on grand narrative and plot arcs, to which those mechanics were not at all suited. (This is strongly evident in Planescape's bizarre and half-arsed introduction of a Belief Point economy.) 

To do Planescape justice, one really needed a system that was something like Pendragon's, in which the game is to a certain extent about the PCs forging themselves into paradigms of knighthood, and the most important stats are those concerning values and personality. There is an unwritten but much better version of Planescape out there in the ether, in which PCs' stats are largely to do with belief and values, and they roll against these stats in order to effect change in their surroundings. This would be a game worth playing and an exercise worth doing. And in making the relationship between setting and mechanics more coherent, it would give Planescape campaigns a sense of being about something more than simply wandering about in an infinite multiverse. It would, like The Wizard Knight, thereby present its cosmology with more seriousness and weight. 

Monday 24 April 2023

Prompt Your Own Campaign Setting

Here's a business idea you can have for free, because I won't do it on the grounds of, well, SATAN.

The conceit behind Yoon-Suin and my forthcoming book The Great North, as well as other planned projects, is that you can 'create your own' version of the setting through the use of many, many random tables that produce a unique iteration with the flavour of my original idea. This has proved to be popular and I suppose qualifies me as having made some very minor contribution to the hobby.

Well, you too can now basically do this using AI, as comments towards the bottom of this entry prove. The commenter MTB, Prompt Engineer Extraordinaire, gave the following prompt to ChatGPT-4:

Describe a hex in a hexmap for a fantasy roleplaying game set in a region that is designed to resemble Miyagi prefecture in Japan. Make it fantastical. Avoid cliches. Don’t take creatures directly from Japanese mythology - rather, create new creatures that are thematically appropriate. Use the lateral thinking technique of random stimulation to add fresh ideas

And it came up with something that still to my eye felt inert and banal, but was certainly plausible:

Hex #21: Luminous Tidewood Sanctuary


The Luminous Tidewood Sanctuary is a magical realm where land and sea intertwine harmoniously, creating a unique and enchanting environment. This captivating sanctuary is adorned with trees bearing iridescent leaves and bark, shimmering in a kaleidoscope of colors that shift with the ebb and flow of the tides. Perpetually in bloom, the foliage is illuminated by ethereal flowers with delicate, translucent petals that emit a gentle, otherworldly glow and release a soothing, fragrant scent.

The rising tide partially submerges the sanctuary's lower regions, creating a spellbinding scene of blossoms floating upon the water's surface. The tide's ebb and flow influence the magical creatures inhabiting the sanctuary, who have adapted to this exceptional environment.


* Nijiiro Serpents: These mesmerizing serpents, with their opalescent, shimmering scales, slither gracefully through the trees and water. Though territorial by nature, they can be pacified with offerings of Suijin Fruit—a rare and coveted fruit found exclusively in this enchanted sanctuary.

* Shiomori Ents: Resembling trees with seawater-soaked bark, these gentle beings possess the power to control water in their vicinity. They maintain the sanctuary's fragile balance by directing the tides and nurturing the flora.

* Koralomim Turtogs: These amphibious creatures boast shells composed of living coral. When threatened, they can retract into their shells, camouflaging themselves as ordinary coral formations. Feeding on underwater plants during high tide, they venture ashore to bask in the sun at low tide.

* Hoshikage Wisps: These minuscule, bioluminescent entities appear as floating stars that emit a soft, melodic hum. They illuminate the sanctuary at night, their movements synchronized with the moon's phases.

Points of Interest:

* Suijin Fruit Grove: This rare and mystical grove is home to the prized Suijin Fruit. Guarded by Nijiiro Serpents, adventurers seeking the fruit's potent healing properties may attempt to harvest it.

* Crystalline Lagoon: A secluded lagoon with pristine, magical waters that bestow temporary water-breathing abilities upon those brave enough to submerge themselves.

* Whispering Caverns: Accessible only during low tide, this intricate network of underwater caverns houses the reclusive Shiomori Ents. Those who approach peacefully may gain their trust and have a chance to seek the Heartstone of the Tides, a powerful artifact that grants unparalleled control over water, hidden deep within the caverns.

* Seashell Shrine: An enigmatic, ancient shrine, half-submerged within the sanctuary, dedicated to a long-forgotten ocean deity. Crafted from intricately carved seashells and coral with mysterious runes etched across the surfaces, the shrine houses the Echoing Conch, a mystical relic with the power to communicate with sea creatures, control the weather, and summon tidal forces.

Unique Features:

* Bioluminescent algae blankets portions of the sanctuary floor, casting a soft radiance and forming intricate, glowing patterns visible at night.

* The sanctuary serves as a migratory path for the rare and majestic Azure Sky Mantas, a species of winged sea creatures that visit the region once every few years. Their appearance is considered a fortuitous omen by locals.

Somebody could probably make a series of campaign setting books which describe the setting in exciting narrative form and then give you, the reader, prompts to use with ChatGPT-4 (or whatever) based on the content which then generate almost all elements of the setting for you, along the lines of the above. Whoever does it could probably make money that way. The people who will, will be the ones which have the most compelling original settings, and into which the most thought has been devoted in terms of crafting the prompts. 

Wednesday 19 April 2023

Against being 'rules-lite' and what 'minimalism' really means

I was challenged in comments on a recent entry to explain why I have a level of disdain for the creation of rules-lite systems (Into the Odd being an honourable exception which I will come to later). 

I am on record as being in favour of maximalism. What I mean by that, really, is that I have a lot of respect for people who who want to put the time and effort into making something Big, and often get the sense that 'rules lite' is an excuse for 'can't be bothered' or a lack of genuine ambition. 

There is danger in ambition - it is very easy for somebody to shoot for the creation of something Big, and end up with a bloated, rambling mess. (Oliver Stone's Alexander remains the paradigm example of this. Peter Jackson's Hobbit monstrosities are another; a third is George RR Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire.) But at the same time, most of the really great things, the things that are worth committing to understanding, tend to be Big. The Lord of the Rings, the Book of the New Sun, The Tale of Genji, The Years of Lyndon Johnson, The Irishman, The Brothers Karamazov - I could of course go on.

In other words, I would much rather read an honourable failure to try to come up with a new, fantasy heartbreaker, 'rules heavy', crunchy RPG system and unique, detailed setting, or a huge encyclopedia megadungeon, than I would yet another relatively successful B/X hack. 

This is leaving to one side my other concern, which is just that we've got enough rules lite systems already - in fact, we probably had enough of them already when Labyrinth Lord first came out - and we're now far into the realms of diminishing returns with these things. How many more variants do we actually need on the basic chassis of old school D&D, which is still perfectly good for getting from A to B?

I say all of this not to besmirch minimalism, but to defend it. Minimalism does not mean 'small' or 'easy'. Minimalism, done properly, is the pursuit of what is minimally necessary to communicate the whole, and as such is an exacting discipline.

The most famous artistic instantiation of minimalism is the Japanese haiku, and probably the most famous example is Basho's frog poem, which in the original reads:

Furu ike ya 
kawazu tobikomu 
mizu no oto

This can be translated literally as 'old pond / frog jumps / sound of water'. The idea being that if one reads those words in quiet reflection, they are what is minimally sufficient to create an entire scene and mood in one's mind, in which on a hot summer's day a frog is sitting by a pond, and then jumps in to the cool water, causing a splash. This, so the theory goes, itself makes one feel almost refreshed as the frog. And one's mind fills all of this in on the basis of a mere 17 syllables.

Another famous instantiation of minimalism is the later work of Piet Mondrian. See his famous Composition No 10 - 'Pier and Ocean' here:

Again, we see here the attempt to do what is minimally necessary to communicate the whole - that is, an image of the sea, with a pier projecting out into the middle. All achieved through the use of mere short straight lines. The exercise is to strip everything away to the precise point at which nothing more can be removed while still being a representation of what the painting purports to depict.

That kind of minimalism is worth pursuing, and this is where Into the Odd comes in. I personally find the experience of running and playing Into the Odd to be too ephemeral for my own taste, but I recognise in it the same virtues as a Basho haiku or a Mondrian painting (or indeed a William Carlos Williams poem) in that it seems to me to be a genuine attempt to strip D&D down to the barest essence possible while still replicating the experience of playing the game. In its own way, in other words, it communicates the whole of D&D in the most minimal way possible, in the same fashion that a haiku communicates an entire scene and a mood with the smallest number of syllables available. 

If that is what is meant by 'rules lite' then I think it is a worthwhile endeavour, but that is not normally what I see when I see a system that purports to be 'rules lite'. 

The upshot: wouldn't it be great to see somebody try to do, say, Iron Heroes well? Or what about a completely new, sui generis system for running campaigns in the style of the worlds of Lord Dunsany, William Morris, Robert Holdstock or Michael Moorcock? Or - while I am being optimistic - a completely fresh fantasy setting with its own bespoke system of rules that manages to (Ron Edwards alert) be 'coherent' rather than 'just another set of stats, skills and feats', and yet still incorporated OSR sensibilities? Maybe those things would be worth doing in our little corner of the internet (I am fully aware they go on in the world at large) rather than 'a rules lite system for X and Y'.

Tuesday 18 April 2023

Stirring the thin gruel of AI-generated RPG materials: Still reasurringly shit

I make no apologies, I'm afraid. Having said yesterday I would put a stop to all this discussion of AI, I've decided there is YET MORE to say about the matter. 

This morning when I was supposed to be working I spent a little time dicking around some more with ChatGPT. This time, instead of trying to get it to DM an adventure for me, an experience which I described as being 'reassuringly shit', I decided this time to put my mechanical turk to work on creating a hexmap. The results were, well, reassuringly shit, and confirmed me in my suspicion that when it comes to creative endeavours all AI will really do is produce lowest common denominator pastiche that is only indiscernible from 'legit' material if said 'legit' material is itself unimaginative and dull.

Here is the exchange:

I began by deciding to create a pseudo-Japanese setting, thinking I would get ChatGPT to produce it for me hex by hex. I chose Miyagi prefecture because it is an area of the world with which I am very familiar. 

OK, so ChatGPT 'knows' what pseudo-Japan looks like. But we instantly see here the problem identified in yesterday's post. It is on its face impressive that a language model can produce this text. But is it anything better than what the average 11 year old could have come up with given a paper and pencil and two minutes? At best, in other words, what we get is a simulacrum of a by-the-numbers throwaway cliche that anybody could create for themselves, but merely spat out a bit quicker. 

Importantly, we would also very soon get into the territory of diminishing returns, here. Let's say you wanted not just one village, but thirty spread across a large hexmap. Hot springs, rice paddies and ninjas is passably ok for one of them. Variations on those themes are going to get mightily repetitive for the rest. (I asked ChatGPT to produce another village for me, and it came up with, er, Takayama, which also, it turns out, is famous for hot springs, architecture, and local cuisine, although this one had - hold onto your hats! - a market.)

The same point is made with respect to NPCs. A friendly noodle restaurant owner, you say? A skilled woodworker always looking for new challenges? And, what's this? A hardworking, quiet farmer. And he's always willing to lend a hand to those in need? Well, I never.

What we get, I repeat, is bad pastiche - or, perhaps I should say, good pastiche of the worst kind of thoughtless hackery that you might have encountered at the height of the d20 era's splatbook bloat, or in hastily written doggerel available on DriveThruRPG today. Nobody needs this kind of material. Anybody with two brain cells can think it up on the fly.

The NPCs and village itself being entirely hookless and bland, I asked ChatGPT to come up with some explicit ones. Again, nothing that a reasonably competent child couldn't have come up with, although I'll grant you that ChatGPT produced it in a matter of seconds whereas said child may have taken, say, 10-15 minutes. The results, actually, if anything remind me of the results that would be listed in a single column table in Yoon-Suin, except (to my eye, at least), more generic and less interesting, and certainly nothing like as rich as what a multi-column random table can come up with using the more fun method of rolling lots of dice.

OK, cheers for that, ChatGPT. I obviously outfoxed it with that one. 'The village is troubled by a monster - now think it up for yourself' is not exactly what I would call a useful tool for helping create materials for a game.

Same again. As a series of prompts, this is superficially impressive, but deeply uninspired. The lost temple contains [drum roll....] treasure, dark magic, ancient artifacts, and/or a portal to another world. Do lost temples ever not contain any of these things?

What we're getting, you see, is the very basic, least creative stuff, vomited out very quickly. The stuff that is interesting and/or difficult (what the treasure/dark magic/ancient artifacts/other world consist of, and that which requires hard work to detail) is up to human creativity, as it has always been. ChatGPT in other words does the boring bits for you, rapidly, but in a way that can only itself be bland and sapped of life and enthusiasm. 

And here again we get the same mixture of the uninspired and not-useful. Vague ideas for traps, puzzles and magic items which are in themselves dull, and leave all the hard yards (the details and nuances which will make things really sing) to the human brain once more.

I repeat my conclusion from yesterday: all the Artificial 'Intelligence' is doing is mashing together pre-existing material to produce tasteless pastiche, which is not what creativity really is, and if one can't tell what it comes up with from something 'legit', then that 'legit' thing is itself, I am afraid, insipid and formulaic. 

Monday 17 April 2023

'A grotesque mockery of what it is to be human': Last thoughts on ChatGPT/AI

I will shut up about AI for a bit, because I've been posting about it a lot, and I've largely exhausted what can be said about the matter for the time being. I've also come to a point of smelling a bit of a rat with regard to all the hype about it. Silicon Valley transhumanists have an incentive to overegg the pudding with respect to what the technology can do, especially if they own equity in companies producing AI and AI-adjacent software, and I'm not sure what we're seeing is going to be anything like as transformative as was first thought. My own experiences with ChatGPT reassured me in this regard - what we are talking about is simply not 'intelligence' in any meaningful sense.

The chief danger, really, is that we make the mistake of thinking that because an algorithmic process can produce something that looks a bit like what humans can do, humans themselves are basically algorithmic. Once we decide that this is a convincing description of what we are, all really will be lost, because it is only a short step from there to deciding that, since humans are just vessels by which inputs become outputs, one simply needs to give everybody the same inputs and squish, mould and shape them into the same form so as to get the same desirable output. That is an old story, told in many different ways - always with a bad ending.

I was intrigued to read, this morning, of Nick Cave's visceral reaction against AI song lyrics, which chimed with my own, and which forced me to reconsider a songwriter whose music I have always cordially disliked. (Recognising it is objectively good, but finding it somehow alienating all the same.) It is worth quoting him at length:

What makes a great song great is not its close resemblance to a recognizable work. Writing a good song is not mimicry, or replication, or pastiche, it is the opposite. It is an act of self-murder that destroys all one has strived to produce in the past. It is those dangerous, heart-stopping departures that catapult the artist beyond the limits of what he or she recognises as their known self. This is part of the authentic creative struggle that precedes the invention of a unique lyric of actual value; it is the breathless confrontation with one’s vulnerability, one’s perilousness, one’s smallness, pitted against a sense of sudden shocking discovery; it is the redemptive artistic act that stirs the heart of the listener, where the listener recognizes in the inner workings of the song their own blood, their own struggle, their own suffering. This is what we humble humans can offer, that AI can only mimic, the transcendent journey of the artist that forever grapples with his or her own shortcomings. This is where human genius resides, deeply embedded within, yet reaching beyond, those limitations.

He could not be more right, of course, and this is part of what reassures me. All that I have seen of AI-produced art, read of AI-produced writing, and heard of AI-produced music is deeply unimaginative and often even parodically so, precisely because all it is doing is taking pre-existing cultural product and mashing it together (admittedly in sometimes highly 'creative' and unpredictable ways) to produce more. This is precisely not what human beings do when they create real art, which is precisely what no artificial 'intelligence' can ever do, because real art is not 'product' in the first place and human artists do not simply pastiche what came before. Indeed, this is why we despise pastiche and consider it contemptible - exactly because it is not what Cave calls 'self-murder' and is merely churned out to order.

And this is, indeed, why we should not worry at all about the fact that AI can produce a passable version of the pop music of the day. The whole point about music produced by the likes of 'Drake' and 'The Weeknd' is that it is disposable, formulaic, repetitive nonsense that is designed to serve as an empty vessel into which the artist-as-brand can pour his personality and the listener can then drink to get a cheap endorphine rush. It is not remotely surprising that it can be easily replicated by an algorithm - because it's nothing like art, nothing like beauty, nothing like what Nick Cave is talking about - because it is, in short, shit. 

All we really need to worry about it is that there are millions, nay, billions of people around the world who know nothing better than to aspire to the kind of bilge that contemporary pop culture serves up, and therefore are unable to discern (as one person quoted in the BBC article linked to above puts it) 'what's legit or fake anymore'. Of course one can't tell what is legit or fake when what is 'legit' is so deeply and profoundly worthless. What we need to work on, and hope for, is a renaissance (I mean that literally) in the arts that will result in more aspiration, more transcendance, more beauty, more humanity. In its own small way the OSR was the beginning of that in our little corner of the hobby - and long may that tiny candle continue to gleam.

Wednesday 12 April 2023

The Megadungeon Around Us


If where you live is anywhere like Britain, which I assume it is, you may have noticed that it is full of places that look like the photo above. Empty, clapped-out, derelict husks, sometimes dotted around vast hectares of waste ground, that once housed something that people deemed important and which now...don't. Often they brood with menace, as though all manner of bad things have happened in and around them, and have left a psychic imprint in the concrete, the steel, the stale air. At other times they give off a more mournful sensation, as though they grieve for a lost youth when people thought them necessary enough to put considerable time, resources and energy into building them. Sometimes, they appear to stand in silent and inscrutable judgment over us, like sentinels. And now and again they are repurposed into something radically different by vagrants, outlaws or rebels.

It is like we are living in a Judges Guild hexmap, peppered with ruins, monuments and lairs, which we poorly understand and suspect to harbour dangerous, but possibly also valuable, things. All that we lack is an adventurer-economy of rogues whose profession is to break into them and emerge with treasure, and oddball collectors willing to pay them for it,

d20 Modern should have been about this, but in the end wasn't about much at all. It's crying out for somebody to do an OSR version. In fact I'm quite taken with The Megadungeon Around Us as a title.

Tuesday 11 April 2023

Pen and Paper Role Playing Games as Revolutionary Praxis

As I sit in the kitchen of a rented cottage somewhere in rural England, listening to tawny owls calling to one another through the twilight, I reflect - as one does - on what it means to be human. 

One doesn't have to be a Marxist to agree with Karl Marx that what separates us from, say, tawny owls, is that we are capable of praxis - a posh word for acting so as to change oneself or society. Tawny owls just do what tawny owls have always done. They are very good at it by now, I'll grant you. But we humans are qualitatively different. We are capable of acting, and later reflecting on why we did it; we are capable of giving our actions purposes beyond the short-term satisfactions of wants; and we are capable of acting so as to give effect to theory. We do not merely act. We act in order to change things - indeed, we act in order to change how we act. We are the only things in the universe to our knowledge that do this.

It should be obvious that this makes us very special, but the advent of so-called 'Artificial Intelligence' has given our self-confidence a bit of a beating. Are we really so unique, or are we each just a souped up natural language model that respond to inputs by spitting out outputs and kids itself that it has free will? Are we just very complicated algorithms?

No. We just have to get our mojo back. And one way we can do this is precisely through praxis itself - and this, you will be glad to hear, involves playing more D&D (though ideally not online). 

What is it that makes playing a P&P RPG a revolutionary form of praxis in 2023? It's because it undercuts three huge tectonic social forces which daily push us inexorably in roughly the same direction. The first of these is the abandonment of reading print, a shift to a post-literary culture in which the great majority of people never really develop the capacity to engage with a long piece of fiction and use it to imagine scenery, people, events and emotions that they have never, and will never, directly see or experience.

The second is virtualisation, by which many aspects of our lives become abstracted from the physical realm, such that almost everything except eating, drinking, sleeping and defecating - the barest aspects of biological life - can, if one chooses, be performed online through technological media (and, concurrently, by which the barriers between what we can imagine and what we can experience give the appearance of gradually being dissolved).

And the third is passivity, by which we become acculturated to constantly being entertained at almost every moment of every day by very cleverly designed devices, kitted out with very cleverly designed software, that keep us always doomscrolling and checking and watching and listening such that our creative gears never really have to engage and we almost never need stand up from the mental sofa to use our imaginations for very much at all. 

Some readers get very bothered about me saying this kind of thing and never fail to let me know about it in the comments on entries like this, but I'll say it again anyway: the place that these forces are pushing us towards (if we haven't arrived there already) is really going to be a bit shit, and we won't at all enjoy it or find it remotely fulfilling. I have faith that this realisation is going to dawn on people ('gradually, and then suddenly', as Hemingway might have said), but we can help that realisation along through our actions. 

In a post-literary, virtualised, passive world, the hobby of playing pen and paper role playing games becomes radically subversive. It requires reading and engaging with lengthy, often very dense, and creatively rich texts. Despite the fact that it requires extensive use of the imagination, it needs proper social interaction with others, preferably all together in a physical space and deploying physical accoutrements like dice, pencils and paper, and beer. And it is active - it needs a DM getting himself off his metaphorical arse to both plan things and imagine, and needs players turning up and engaging positively with each other and the content in order for everybody to have a good time. 

The more people choose to involve themselves in hobbies and communal activities - and especially if they purposefully do so in order to improve themselves and their societies - the less of a grip the antisocial (and, let's face it, antihuman) forces I mentioned earlier will have over us, and the more we will recover our sense of what makes humanity good and special. This may not be revolutionary in the sense Marx understood it, but it will do for our current predicament. 

Pretending to be an elf with some smelly neckbeards and a few d20s can, in other words, actually change matters, if enough people do it - and, even if you find that assertion facile, at they very worst it can change you for the better by making you more well-read, more confident, more grounded, and more socialised. And that in itself is transformative of society when done at scale. What on earth, then, are you waiting for? 

Saturday 1 April 2023

The Tournament of the Gods, First Round (6) - Large Bats and Hairfoot Halflings

The tournament has fallen into abeyance as dawn spills across the sky in pale brightness; some of the gods have run, cackling and whooping, down to the river to wash themselves of the aftermath of Hexaich's exuberance. Others have gone back to the citadel for more brandy, more wine, more arak. Still others loll about on the grass, savouring the cool freshness of the dew. It is already warm, and the day promises to be hot indeed.

The Skurtch is impatient. Scratching his belly and chewing on a lamb cutlet he has somehow found, he beckons the Droll Knave. 'I grow dissatisfied. Let us recommence.' The Droll Knave nods, and others with him - Lap-Laz, the Snem, the Quiet Leaper - murmur approval. Their calls go out, echoing through the trees: 'Return! Return! The tournament begins again! Return!' And soon the gods are flocking back to the purple blanket, waddling dripping from the river or bearing amphora from the citadel gate.

Gathered in place once more they wait in a hubbub to see who will emerge for the fight. Eventually Collequette, the Indigent, edges forward. Draped in black and brown rags, her thin face etched with lines and patinated with dirt, she whispers, 'I have little, but what I have, I will offer.' Kneeling briefly, she waves her arm before her in a flourish, as if casting out a handful of salt or sand. What look like small scraps of crumpled black paper unfurl in mid-air and reveal themselves to be bats, fifteen of them, flapping frantically and wheeling about like fragments of rubbish whipped up by a storm. 

Opposite her now stands Vwaik, the Sherbet-Eater. Thin, graceful, effete, his florid robes a mess of ribbons and sashes, he always conveys the impression that in his own mind he inhabits his finest hour. But he is old now, and bald, and his skin is sallow and blemished. From a very long black sleeve, lined inside with cherry red, he produces his champions - eight halflings, bearing short bows and equipped with smart-looking leather armour and brightly polished helmets. They nod to one another in reassurance as they march forward across the purple.

'Ah, a bout for the purists, is it not?' calls out the Droll Knave, and a snigger goes up among the crowd.

'I for one have a taste for this type of ingenuous digression,' says Lap-Laz. 'Honest fare of the type that was once common, but now lamentably out of fashion!'

There are some nods of agreement. But Hexaich expresses her verdict after a loud belch: 'At least it will be over quickly.'

For the participants, though, the focus is already on the battle. The bats swoop forward and the halflings immediately loose a volley of arrows. But, perhaps overawed by the crowd around them, their shots are wild. Only one bat is struck from the air. And then the beasts are screechingly upon them, biting and clawing - a whirlwind of flapping wings, sharp fangs, tiny malevolent eyes sparkling with the lust for blood. Four halflings lie dead on the blanket as the bats wheel away.

'"Quickly" was an understatement!' shouts the Skurtch. But the bats must come around for another pass, exposing themselves to more arrows. Volleys are fired. Once! Twice! Each time another bat dies, plummeting down to expire on the purple in a tangle of broken wings and snapped wood. But then the remaining bats are on the halflings again, swooping down for the kill. The gods lurch to their feet to watch the slaughter; they bray and cheer and punch the air as another three halflings fall torn and bloody to move no more. 

Just one wounded hairfoot remains, an arrow knocked to his bow. The gods howl with laughter. 'Is this what we came back for? Is this what we gave up our swimming to see?'

'Sherbet-Eater!' Lap-Laz's voice rises above that of the throng. 'You are doing this by half-measures!'

'Not half!' cackles Ya-Besh.

Vwaik wrinkles his upper lip. 'Do your worst,' he hisses to his last champion. The halfling draws his bow, takes careful aim, tracks a target through the air - and shoots wide. As the deadly flock circles back to his position he fires again - again to no effect. Vwaik does not wait to see the outcome. With a single stamp he crushes the life from his champion, and stalks off towards the river, leaving the small broken body oozing and twitching on the blanket. 

The rest of the gods glance at each other and shake their heads. 'Poor show,' says the Snem. 'He was always that way, even as a child,' says Cacomantis. 

But Collequette at least is pleased. She beckons her bats to her, and catches them with a single sweeping and surprisingly graceful motion of her bony hand.