Friday 28 July 2023

Fantasy and the Real World - Or, Yet More About AI?

Is it possible to create a fantasy world that is totally sui generis - borne out of one's imagination and nothing else?

Of course not. We are all products of our biology, history, language, culture, and time, and we perceive and imagine only through those lenses. A feat of pure fantasy in the sense of bearing no relation to the real world is therefore itself a fantastical notion. Fantasy is always ineluctably rooted in reality. 

An individual's imagination in other words is best thought of as a kind of confluence of many currents coming together to form little eddies and whirlpools, none of them ever the same but all of them born from the same mixture flowing in from the various tributaries. Think of Tolkien's Middle Earth as the paradigm case - a great imaginative feat, of that there is no doubt, but plainly and unabashedly springing from the author's cultural background, knowledge of history, birthplace, language, and all the rest. And there is no creation in the field of fantasy and science fiction about which similar things could not be said - the only real difference being that very few authors or game designers embed their creations in the real world as consciously as Tolkien did.

What we downplay in this, and what truly separates us from our Robot Overlords, is the role of experience. There is no question that the World Wars - both of them - were significantly present in the mixture of influences that created Middle Earth (certainly in its later iterations), for example, and no question either that other important features of his life (such as his Christianity and his very loving relationship with his wife) were also in the water. This will be, to a greater or lesser extent, true of everybody, even at the level of what books one has read, what films one has seen, and where one has been on holiday. It all goes in; it all contributes; and we personally often have little to no insight into how.

The individual human being is therefore a unique blend of all of those features that I earlier identified - biology, history, language, culture, time, and so on - combined with all of the things that have ever happened to them, every second, since the moment they were conceived. This makes their imaginative ventures inescapably an expression of themselves. 

AI cannot hope to replicate this, since all it is capable of is drawing together existing creations, mixing them together, and spitting out pastiche. And we should therefore play to our own strengths. Pastiche is treated as an inferior act of creation partly because it apes too much the work of another, and we sense that there is something illegitimate in this: the original work has so much of the author in it, and to copy is therefore to expropriate the product of his or her unique experience and character. What we need, in fact, is a properly worked out critique of pastiche, and a philosophy of creativity that emphasises above all pastiche's negation. We need, in other words, to embrace the fact that fantasy is a product of reality and an expression of ourselves, and worth taking seriously as a consequence.

Monday 24 July 2023

On Moral Ambiguity and Colonialism

I have recently finished reading three books on a roughly similar theme: Undaunted Courage, Stephen Ambrose's account of the Lewis & Clark expedition; and Buddy Levy's Conquistador (a biography of Hernan Cortes) and River of Darkness (about the first descent of the Amazon by Francisco Orellana).

This theme is, in essence, the moral ambiguities of imperialism and colonialism. I am fully persuaded by the argument that these are basically Bad Things and that trying to carry out a defence of them (as some have recently done) is probably misguided. And it is very difficult, in reading the accounts I've mentioned (all three of them fabulously written, by the way) to see past the sheer cultural - in many cases genocidal - destruction and environmental degredation that would follow in the wake of the endeavours of men like Cortes and Pizarro. Even genial Meriwether Lewis, who clearly loved the natural world and was fascinated by the people he met in the American West, was the unwitting harbinger of an apocalypse that itself followed on the heels of other European-induced apocalypses of staggering scale. Yes, the Aztecs and Inka were themselves callow and brutal imperialists, and yes, American Indians were no strangers to genocidal violence, and yes, everybody was at it in those days, but the cataclysmic effects of European colonialism are truly without historical parallel and are worth treating separately on that basis alone. As Napolean said, quantity has a quality all of its own, and the fact that the Aztecs and Spaniards, for example, were both imbued with fairly similar sets of motives shouldn't distract us from the sheer vandalism that was unleashed by the latter in their conquest of Mexico. None of this is our fault (only a moral illiterate would suggest that the sins of the great-great-great-great-great-great grandfather should be visited upon the great-great-great-great-great-great grandaughter), but it should nonetheless fill one with horror to contemplate just how much destruction was wrought on the New World and the scale of what was lost.

And yet the mature human mind should be capable of holding within it contradictory emotions without feeling the need to reconcile them or banish one in favour of the other. And it is important also therefore to accept that, for all the bad that resulted from the expeditions of men like Cortes or Merwether Lewis, they were in many respects hugely admirable people. Cortes (Pizarro even more so) was a truly monstrous figure. But he was also, without doubt, one of the bravest and most intelligent men who ever lived - somebody who truly merited being labelled a genius. Think of the sheer courage and resourcefulness that it must have taken to set off on those ships across the Atlantic, let alone to conquer an entire civilisation after arrival on the other side; think of the iron will, the determination, the absolute intolerance of failure that must have imbued every atom of his being. Think of having the balls - I think the use of the word is appropriate in this context - to burn your entire fleet, your only vehicle home, right before the eyes of your men to make it clear to them that the only alternative to victory was death. Think of taking on and defeating a much bigger army of your own countrymen in order to remain at liberty to finish what you have started. Think of what you could achieve if you had a tenth of his gumption and cunning. This was a serious man. 

Lewis and Clark, meanwhile, are much more relatable figures, partly because they seem to inhabit a world much more like our own, and partly because the records they left are so much more personal (and endearingly spelled). But it bears remembering that these two were striking out into a vast continent that was, as far as they knew, peopled entirely by hostile bands of native people who would just as soon shoot them full of arrows as look at them, and possibly roamed by prehistoric megafauna and lost tribes of Israel. And they had no means of contacting home, no means of travel except by boat or on foot, and nothing to live on except the supplies they could carry and whatever they could hunt or catch in the wilderness. Whatever the results of their expedition, these men were giants: 'undaunted courage' barely begins to describe their character. Francisco Orellana, meanwhile, had already seen three quarters of an approximately 4,000-strong expedition die before they had even left the Andean foothills, yet plunged on to get all the way to the mouth of the Amazon with his small band of 50 comrades a year later. Believe me, stumbling around in the dark in an English woodland at night is scary enough. Doing that in the Amazon rainforest can't even be contemplated - and after he had finished he set off to do it all over again. 

A person's personal qualities, that is to say, can in themselves - taken in isolation - be deeply admirable and even inspirational despite the causes in whose name they are deployed and the ultimate consequences which they have. This is unpalatable, perhaps, but inescapable. And it is worth contemplating with reference to D&D, given that many D&D PCs, particularly those in the old school framework, themselves represent mini-Corteses, Pizarros and Orellanas. These rogues whose characters we play often do despicable things for despicable reasons. But that doesn't mean that they can't also display certain qualities that in other contexts would be described as virtuous. 

Tuesday 18 July 2023

Thirteen Ways of Looking at a TPK

In honour of the players in my weekly campaign, whose PCs were all killed last week. Think of it as thirteen things to do with a campaign once a TPK has taken place.


The new PCs appear on the scene afresh

They have no relationship to what came before


The new PCs are the friends, relatives or former comrades of the old ones

Their first task is to recover bodies for burial, or exact revenge


The new PCs are the descendants of the old ones

Generations have now passed

And they come chasing after legends

Or to recover heirlooms


The PCs' ghosts attempt to return to the world of the living from the halls of the dead


The PCs' ghosts find new life

In heaven or hell


Reincarnation is real

The PCs' souls are reunited once more after many rebirths

Their home is now the stars - or the aftermath of the apocalypse


Reincarnation is real

The PCs were sinful, and return as beasts


A god spares the PCs' souls from oblivion

In return, they must serve him


A change

The players now take on as their PCs the enemies that killed the original ones

Until they too are killed in turn


The campaign ends and a new one begins, different in every way


Generations later, the PCs are resurrected

They are now a necromancer's slaves


The coward's way out

Not death but capture


A butterfly flaps its wings in Peking

The PCs actions all had their consequences

The next campaign begins in the world extrapolated from what they created

Wednesday 12 July 2023

What is the most important thing in life? Meat.

A month ago I posted an entry lamenting the 'thinness of fantasy thinking', in which I described modern fantasy literature, and fantasy RPGs, as generally simply replicating the thinking of post-enlightenment liberals dressed up in fantasy furniture, rather than engaging deeply with the question of how people in radically different worlds would think and engage with the reality around them.

This video casts a bit of light on this. It is an interview with some members of one of the last true 'hunter-gatherer' societies, the Hadza of northern Tanzania, ostensibly concerning 'life's biggest questions'. Take a look:

What is astonishing about their answers is how unexpectedly practical they are. To the Western mind, filled with prior conceptions about what people in such societies think and do, the assumption is that they will have views on life that are steeped in spirituality, emotion, and transcendence. But actually they don't mention those things at all. What are the most important things in life? Meat, honey and corn porridge. Oh, and water. What happens after death? Well, you get put in the ground and everybody goes away. We think a person goes to the sun after death but we don't really know. What is your happiest day? Well, you need meat and honey to be happy, so a happy day is when you have those things. What's your greatest fear? Lions. What's your biggest struggle? Getting hungry. What does the moon mean? Nothing, but a full moon is bad for hunting. What do your dogs mean to you? They help us catch bush pigs, elan and baboons. 

There are three thoughts that spring to mind. The first is that, trite as it might be, there is something genuinely humbling about the fact that there are people in the world (many millions of people, of course) for whom there are no 'first world problems', and who, when you ask them about their biggest struggle in life, will say 'finding food'. Yes, it is a cliche to say that this gives one perspective, but it undoubtedly does - or ought to. Most of the things in life that we worry about don't actually matter and would disappear tomorrow if we had to start caring about actively satisfying our physical needs. This does not mean it would be a good thing if that were to happen, but it ought to give one pause the next time one is minded to complain about how 'stressful' one's life is.

The second, deeper point is that these are people who very clearly live in a coherent culture, and that this has a profound affect on how they think and converse. Their answers are those of people whose thoughts are embedded in a particular way of seeing the world, and who therefore do not really consider alternatives. What are the most important things in life? You or I would think carefully about this question and come up with answers, I suspect, like 'family', or 'justice', or 'freedom', or 'fairness', or any number of other abstract concepts. This is because we are used to values being contested, and having to be justified vis-a-vis other values. My interpretation of this clip is that the people being interviewed probably have a set of values which they do not really reflect upon (they are the water in which they swim, so to speak), and so when asked what is important in life their immediate responses are only practical and physical. This is not to say that they are simple or unintelligent. (I tend to agree from my own experience with Jared Diamond's assessment that people who grow up in supposedly 'primitive' societies are often more intelligent and curious than those who grew up in 'developed' ones.) Rather, it is that their experience of the world comes from being rooted in a relatively fixed and autonomous conceptual framework. It is premodern, for want of a better word, in that it takes most things as given and hence not really worthy of comment - as opposed to a modern post-enlightenment perspective, which sees nothing as given and seeks to put everything before the 'tribunal of the intellect' (as Michael Oakeshott once put it).

The third is how deeply in touch they are both with each other and with their surroundings. Notice how they mimic the sounds of the various animals they refer to and how animated they are in describing them. Animals are so important to them that just talking about the subject energises them. Notice also how they incorporate the same gestures when they are talking, as though it is second nature. These are people who live together and hunt together and spend every day cooperating with one another. It is totally natural for them to adopt the same mannerisms and speak in unison - they are not people who are accustomed to reflecting on their own individuality, bur rather to their collectivity. This is abundantly evident.

It is useful to reflect upon evidence like this when considering how differently one would think and behave if one was embedded not just in a coherent and premodern culture as these people are (as much as I dislike the term 'premodern' in this context), but one in which there was actually real magic, a real spiritual world, real monsters, real other planes of exitence, and so on. How To Think Like a Fantasy Person is a topic about which we have not even scratched the surface, and merely to open the door to the subject is to allow a Pandora's box-worth of fascinating topics out into the world.

Tuesday 11 July 2023

Writing the DMing Ten Commandments

Let's community brainstorm.

What are the desiderata of DMing, boiled down into a series of pity aphorisms, ten commandments-style? I will suggest some below; feel free to add your own in the comments, but please keep them to advice about running the game itself, not table manners or social mores. When the exercise is finished, I will publish the list of the best 10.

1. Thou shalt not kill a PC while the player is absent. Whatever happens to PCs when their players are not present for whatever reason, they should not be killed. [It is not right for somebody to be told their PC died while they weren't present to witness it, and therefore through no real fault of their own.]

2. Thou shalt roll all dice in the open where the result is immediately relevant (e.g. combat rolls, surprise rolls, reaction rolls, etc.). [Some dice rolls are necessarily secret, but if they are going to have an immediate consequence the PCs should be privy to the result so they know the DM is not fudging.]

3. Thou shalt not make use of GMPCs. [The appearance of bias is as bad as bias itself, and in any case it is bad form for the DM to dominate the limelight by being both DM and PC at any given moment. If for some reason an NPC ends up accompanying the party without them having hired him or formed an association organically, he should be 'given' to one or all of the players to take charge of.]

4. Thou shalt maintain strict time records. [Gygax was right about this; it is impossible to have a long-running coherent campaign without carefully tracking the passage of days and hours.]

5. Thou shalt subject PCs, NPCs and monsters to the same rules. [It is bad practice to, for example, not apply the same rules for critical hits and fumbles to PCs and monsters equally, and it is the work of satan to have differentiations between monsters, so that some are 1-hp 'mooks' and others are not. This breeds laziness and also makes it impossible for the PCs to plan, and anticipate events, effectively.]

I await your comments, thoughts and suggestions!

Monday 3 July 2023

The Single-Class Paladin Campaign

One of my ambitions is to develop a variant ruleset for single-class paladin campaigns, and indeed to run such a campaign over the long term.

The more you think about single-class campaigns, the richer they tend to seem. A singe-class paladin campaign in particular gives rise to a lot of interesting ideas about settings, about the way campaigns begin and hold themselves together across time, about the rules of experience and advancement, and about the basic structure of play. Let's deal with each of these in turn:


The basic conceit behind the D&D paladin is a largely ahistorical idea of a holy warrior or hero whose duty is to protect the faithful and smite evil. But this is a wide concept, and can include under its umbrella many variants. For example:

  • The traditional D&D paladin, a paragon of lawful good, who attempts to 'do good' within a typical TSRan type setting
  • A more Arthurian, Pendragon-inspired 'knight of the round table' fighting for Christian order within a world imbued with ancient magical forces
  • A pseudo-Japan in which mighty heroic samurai do battle against demons and evil spirits 
  • A pseudo-Ancient Mesopotamia or Levant where Gilgameshian heroes or 'Book of Judges' style judges fight against primordial chaos embodied in monsters and devils
  • A vaguely Iberian class of holy knights who do battle againts evil infidels
  • A somewhat Warhammerian set of 'demon hunters' in a reformation-era Old World (with the serial numbers filed off)
  • A group of dwarven warrior-priests in Lanthanum Chromate
  • &c. 
The point of all of this is that the necessary ingredients are simply that there is an objective good and an objective evil, that those things are personified in the world and have real content, and that the PCs belong to a class of heroes whose job unselfconsciously is to fight for the cause of good against the cause of evil. This can be ported to almost any type of setting.

Campaign Beginnings

An important consideration in the single-class campaign is, I think, having an 'HQ' - a reason why the PCs get together to begin with, a rationale for their endeavours, and an ongoing source of replacements and hirelings. This could, for example, be:
  • A guild, which attracts a continued stream of apprentices and also has links to other guilds of adventuring trades (fighters, magicians, thieves, etc.)
  • A temple, which has a body of novices and masters
  • A holy site, which attracts pilgrims and healers
  • A martial order, like the Shaolin monks or Knights Templar
  • &c.

Experience and Advancement

The big change that would need to made to the standard D&D rules for a single-class paladin campaign would be to change the method of gathering XP. XP for GP simply wouldn't be appropriate, thematically. Possibilities to consider: XP for killing specific enemy types (demons, infidels, dragons, giants, etc.) is worth 10 times as specified in the Monster Manual? XP for rescuing people from harm? Specified XP hauls for slaying specified named individual monsters on the hex-map or dungeon? And so on.

Structure of Play

A single-class paladin campaign may envisage the PCs as something like knights-errant, who range across a hex-map (or adventure into the Abyss, or whatever) simply looking for trouble enemies to smite and innocents to protect. Alternatively, they might be concieved as defenders of a particular city, region or holy site that is beset by enemies: this would require a process whereby threats are generated and deployed in a quasi-random fashion, to which the PCs must respond. Another possibility: something like my old Random Demonic Incursion Generator; the PCs live in a region of the world which has its own dangers but which, from time to time, is invaded by evil beings from another plane which must be found, rooted out, and destroyed. 

I find this idea appealing, and may elaborate it in a PDF.