Friday 27 October 2023

Community Project: Fantasy Inspiration, Era by Era

Currently reading The Inheritors, I started to idly list in my head the broadly 'stone age' fantasy books I had read. I couldn't come up with a long list. Along with The Inheritors, there is The Clan of the Cave Bear, The Land That Time Forgot, and I suppose The Saga of Pliocene Exile if one were cheating a little bit. Maybe also Mythago Wood and Lavondyss if, again, one were cheating a little.

So that got me thinking: what if we were to create a list of resources of inspiration for fantasy settings, era by era (focusing, for now, on eras of Old World history?). These can be books or films, and don't necessarily have to be situated firmly within the fantasy genre; A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening is straight historical fiction, for example, but would clearly be good inspiration for a vaguely Classical-era inspired setting. You can also include myths, legends and folklore too, but don't go overboard with that. Here are the broad categories I think we can work with (no need to be pedantic about them and where each begins and ends), together with a few ideas for each just to start us off. Feel free to add your own in the comments or repost elsewhere; I will update the list accordingly:

Stone age/prehistoric/dinosaur

The Inheritors by William Golding

The Clan of the Cave Bear by Jean M. Auel

The Land That Time Forgot by Edgar Rice Burroughs

The Saga of Pliocene Exile by Julian May

Mythago Wood and sequels by Robert Holdstock

The Lost World by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

Dinotopia by James Gurney

Bronze/iron age

The Song of Albion series by Stephen Lawhead

The Epic of Gilgamesh

River God and sequels by Wilbur Smith

Troy series by David Gemmell

Creatures of Light and Darkness by Roger Zelazny

Classical antiquity

Soldier of the Mist and sequels by Gene Wolfe

Salammbo by Flaubert

Julian by Gore Vidal

Herodotus's Histories

A God Strolling in the Cool of the Evening by Mario de Carvalho

Fire from Heaven by Mary Renault

Dark ages

The Saga of Erik the Viking by Terry Jones

The Last Kingdom and sequels by Bernard Cornwell

The Mists of Avalon by Marion Zimmer Bradley*

The Once and Future King by TH White

The Poetic Edda and Prose Edda

Egil's Saga and other Icelandic sagas

Middle ages

The Iron King and sequels by Maurice Druon

A Song of Ice and Fire by George RR Martin (come on)

The Game of Kings and sequels by Dorothy Dunnett

The Cadfael Chronicles by Edith Pargeter/Ellis Peters

A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman

The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco

A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay

Renaissance/early modern and later

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

The Niccolo books by Dorothy Dunnett

The Baroque Cycle by Neal Stephenson

*I accept Zimmer Bradley's status is nowadays problematic for entirely justified reasons

Tuesday 24 October 2023

Orcs as a Concept

[The competition in last week's post remains open. I put up that post thinking I would get about three replies max, but it seems to have got a bit of a momentum, so I will keep it open until Friday and then announce the winner.]

A while ago, I put up a post dismissing the notion that 'racially essentialist depictions of orcs are racist'. In my view, that was a category error, fostered really by misunderstandings about the expressionist nature of fantasy. As I put it at the time:

Orcs don't have genes. They are mythical, fairy tale beings, with a different essence altogether. They're not a 'race', or a 'species'. They're spirits, demons, monsters. This isn't racism. It is quite literally the stuff of which fantasies, myths and legends are made. Why would you want them to be otherwise?  

I later revised my position a little as a result of the comments on that earlier post, and accepted the premise that certain naturalistic depictions of orcs are undesirable. The way I now see it is that:

Orcs work really well as a representative of the worst human tendencies... - aggression, cruelty, resentment, and so on. Watering that down by trying to make them sympathetic ironically seems to have the result of making it feel 'wrong' to stereotype them as evil, leading to weird discomfort with what is a core element of traditional D&D (killing evil humanoids and/or taking their stuff).

[Ultimately] if one is to use orcs at all, it is better to do so expressionistically rather than naturalistically. In other words, orcs (like all monsters in general, really) are best thought of as representations or evocations of mood and emotion rather than natural species with genes and psychologies and histories of their own. They're like fairy tale goblins, devils or evil spirits - and not like Klingons.

In other words, it is a really bad idea to treat orcs (or other evil humanoids for that matter) as a kind of 'noble savage' or similar, because then one instantly generates obvious insensitivities and understandably gets into hot water accordingly. It is, paradoxically, the introduction of nuance that is the problem. Unreconstructedly evil orcs aren't a cause for concern. Orcs who might not be evil, or who just have a 'different perspective', seem as though they are natural beings with inner lives, and the way we think about and depict them therefore begins to seem as though it bears some relation to how we think about the real world and real people. Clearly, this is a minefield best avoided.

I increasingly think that the word 'orc' makes more sense as a category or concept, rather than a 'race' or species or whatever; an orc, that is to say, is not a member of a particular group with defined characteristics, but a way of classifying the Enemy - the human-hating, destructive, violent, demonic things which everywhere threaten the human world. It doesn't matter what they look like or do - maybe they have flamingo heads and live on floating cities from which they raid human settlements; maybe they are like bipedal snapping turtles who live to taste human flesh and bone; maybe they are boar-headed thugs who dwell in the forest; maybe they are beetle-people. These are all orcs, provided they have the characteristics of orcishness - hatred of humanity, hatred of goodness, and extreme violence. What matters in other words is what they represent: something roughly our size, and of our intelligence, which exists purely to prey upon us, and therefore is to be resisted and destroyed wherever it is found.

There is a way to tie this thought into an ongoing project of mine, the single-class paladin campaign, in which the PCs, rather than being representative of rogueishness, instead represent its opposite. Paladins protect. The protect people from all kinds of dangers, evils, and cruelties. But maybe their chief enemies - the things they fight against most often, and with the most vehemence - are the many different, possibly infinitely different, varieties of orc, and what they represent: almost the anti-paladin in the terms which I have described what a paladin is. A paladin protects; orcs predate. A paladin puts his honour above his life; orcs traduce and subvert honour wherever they can. A paladin always stays true to his word; an orc holds that truth is a fiction. And so on. When one thinks of orcs in these terms, as literally the embodiment of evil, a great deal of problems are resolved, and fresh creative opportunities appear. 

Friday 20 October 2023

Elves = verbs, Dwarfs = nouns, Orcs = adjectives

I think the title of this post pretty succinctly summarises its content, which raises the question as to whether or not there is any purpose in writing it. But be that as it may, I will do so. 

One of the interesting features of human languages is that there is a lot more flexibility than you would think in respect of even the most basic grammatical concepts. It seems almost impossible to believe for an English speaker, for example, but in Navajo many of the things we think of as nouns (apple, cigarette, rock, etc.) are verbs, and in Japanese, the concept of liking something is described by an adjective rather than a verb. 

This seems to hint at there being something different in the way thoughts are structured from language to language (that hoary old Sapir-Whorf hypothesis). And it raises the question in my own mind: given that we know demihumans are supposed to think very differently to humans, what would this say about the structure of their languages?

Somewhat simplistically, I began thinking on my walk home from the office this afternoon about whether a language could be comprised entirely of verbs, nouns, or adjectives and, if so, which race would most appropriately speak the all-verb, all-noun, and all-adjective variants?

Elves would, I think, speak entirely in verbs. Picture a language in which everything is an action; every object would be described not as existing in a fixed state but in one of flux and potential movement, and always in relation to other objects/actions. A table would not be a 'table' but 'standing solidly on the floor so as to be available to be used for eating and drinking'; a window would not be a 'window' but 'standing perpendicular and presenting the outside to the inside'; a book would not be a 'book' but 'giving knowledge in the reading'. 

In Elvish: 'I sat at the table reading a book' = 'Speaking-in-relation-to-the-past sitting at standing-solidly-on-the-floor-so-as-to-be-available-to-be-used-for-eating-and-drinking reading giving-knowledge-in-the-reading.' It's a good thing elves live for a long time.

Dwarfs, meanwhile, would speak only in nouns; their concepts are objects, and they live in a world of manipulable reality, not abstraction or movement. Hence, they have tables and chairs, no problem. When describing what we think of as an action, they instead describe objects juxtaposed against one another with the gaps filled in by context. One does not 'eat' a ham, but 'ham, inside-of-mouth'. One does not 'look' out of a window, but 'eyes window'. One then uses nouns to specify what we think of as tense: 'I looked out of the window' = 'I eyes window past'. 'I looked out of the window yesterday morning' = 'I eyes window yesterday morning'. 

For orcs, meanwhile, everything that is worth saying is a command or an expression of submission or emotion; orcs are governed not by reason but by the natural hierarchy of might-makes-right and the incontinent desire for violence. They must in every word of their speech reflect this. Orcs do not sit at tables reading books or look out of windows (or, if they do, they do not tell other orcs about it). Instead, they simply assert dominance or subservience. An orc sees some food that it wants, and it barks at the nearest weaker orc and points at the food: 'Quick!' Another orc, bigger, objects: 'Presumptious!' The original orc sits back in its chair, murmuring 'Quiet.'

Your job is now to put these ramblings into effect by translating the first sentence of the King James Bible, 'In the beginning God created the heaven and the earth'. If you can put that convincingly into elvish, dwarfish or orcish as described here, you win a prize.*

*Probably a PDF of something I've made.

Wednesday 18 October 2023

Diterlizzi Unpublished Art and Yoon-Suin Inspiration

A while ago, I came across this Twitter thread, in which Tony Diterlizzi shared some unpublished* pieces from his stint working on the 2nd edition AD&D Monstrous Manual. I've been meaning to share this, but kept forgetting. Some favourites:

Diterlizzi's art was a huge inspiration to me as a child, I think chiefly because it did not seem to be working too hard to be edgy or dark as most fantasy/SF illustrations then did (and to a large extent still do), Even when depicting horrible monsters, his pieces seem somehow optimistic. That minotaur at the bottom, for instance, strikes me as fundamentally a nice guy. This is refreshing.

Another share: at the blog The Yakmen Cometh talks about an art exhibition he went to and shared some images from it that are very Yoon-Suin:

*Some of the pieces did appear in the index/appendices after having inexplicably been replaced in the respective entries in the main text by vastly inferior illustrations.

Tuesday 10 October 2023

Homogeneity within Heterogeneity: Justifications and Weapons and Armour Combinations that Create the World

The Thracians in the army wore fox-skin caps on their heads, and tunics on their bodies. Mantles of diverse colours were their covering. They had shoes of fawn-skin on their feet and legs, and carried javelins, little shields and daggers...

-Herodotus, The Histories

In the last post, I noted the tendency for armies - particularly imperial armies - to be highly heterogeneous even into relatively recent times. Particularly in ancient sources, or in the work of authors like Tolkien who are to an extent aping ancient sources, we see in descriptions of armies these long catalogues of different troop types of different origins, implying a great patchwork of peoples and fighting styles, all crammed together into one giant horde. 

What is interesting about this heterogeneity, however, is the fact that the individual groups that make up the mass are themselves very homogeneous. Each is described as having one archetypal item of clothing, weapon and armour, as in the example of the Thracians above; while the Thracians are just a small piece of Xerxes's army, they all have fox-skin caps, all have shoes of fawn-skin, all have javelins, little shields and daggers.

How realistic is this? And, implicitly, how realistic is the way D&D monster manuals usually describe a group of orcs or gnolls or goblins as all have the same type of armour, all having the same weapons, and so on?

The answer I think is that it is probably pretty realistic, when one reflects that when soldiers in an army are conscripts, and their technology is pre-industrial, those soldiers are probably rounded up en masse by an official of some kind off the cuff (perhaps their own chief or whatever) and therefore go off to fight with the equipment they have to hand. All Thracians, etc., are equipped in the same way because that is what men in that society use in their daily lives as hunters, fishermen, agriculturalists, and so on. Here is the Oogingloop tribe and they're all armed with bill hooks because they are farmers; here is the Wakkawippy tribe and they all have blow guns and clubs because they are jungle hunter-gatherers, and so on. They don't have a wide variety of armaments because why on earth, as amateurs, would they? They simply seized what was to hand when they got the call to arms.

This raises the interesting prospect of using the basic tools of DMing (reaction dice and random encounter tables) to create the world - something which I have written about for, some time ago (here and here). In this case, encounter tables. Picture the scene: a random encounter is rolled with a band of humanoids (orcs, gnolls, bugbears, whatever). The DM goes through the usual process. But then he consults the Table of Homogeneous Amour and Armaments and Their Implications, and the world becomes richer:

Table of Homogeneous Armour and Armaments and Their Implications


Weapon A

Weapon B



Special attire






Animal skull headdress 






Feather headdress



Hand axe







Hard leather


Face paint and/or body paint




Splint mail


Flowers in hair


Great club


Banded mail


Gaudy clothing




Chain mail








Ritual scarring


Bill hook








Soft leather


Conical hat


Blow pipe*






Long bow*






Short bow*




Feather cloak






Horned helmet


War scythe




Elaborate beard






Ostentatious jewellery


Long sword




War trophies






Silk cloak


Military pick




Ivory jewellery






Turbans or long plaited hair

*Only roll for Weapon B where Weapon A is asterisked.

Hence, we roll an encounter with orcs, and it turns out they are armed with great clubs, wear cloth armour, and have conical hats. What does that suggest to you? To me, it suggests a region, and a people, who either lack access to metals or have not yet figured out metallurgy, but who have nonetheless developed an advanced culture of a kind. Perhaps this due to some feature of the environment (they live in a swamp, or a river delta?), or perhaps it is a religious taboo. In any event, enough to riff on and populate a couple of 5- or 10-mile hexes.

Or we roll an encounter with gnolls, and learn that they are armed with javelins and machetes, wear no armour, carry medium shields, and wear furs. Here, the image that comes to mind is a tribe of forest-dwelling hunters, perhaps with shields of monkey or tapir hide, and clothing fashioned from the skins of jaguars killed in the hunt which makes one a man. Or, if the setting is more temperate, shields of aurochs hide, and wolf fur clothing.

Or we roll an encounter with goblins, and find that they are armed with tridents, wear paper armour and carry bucklers, and weave flowers in their hair. Clearly, they are a tribe of fresh-water lake-goblins, making their living from fishing and used to a semi-aquatic lifestyle (everyone knows paper armour is more effective when damp), who decorate themselves with the water lilies they use for camouflage when hunting prey.

And so on. Some tailoring of contents can obviously go on depending on the campaign setting and what has already been established within the region, and results like 'hide' or 'furs' are deliberately open-ended (in a coastal hex in an arctic region, 'hide' might mean walrus hide, whereas in a hot savannah it might mean elephant or giraffe, and so on). Feel free to tinker.

Friday 6 October 2023

On Heterogeneous Imperial Armies

One of the interesting functions of war is to bring together people from far-flung reaches of a state or empire for the completion of a single purpose, and it thus serves as a homogenising force. In Robert Graves' Goodbye to All That, for instance, he describes how some of his Welsh troopers could barely speak English when conscripted and sent to the Western Front; the war Anglicised them. 

But before that can happen, there is the glorious spectacle of a great army made up of soldiers of many different cultures, ethnicities and languages - the stuff perhaps of cliche, but compelling for all of that:

'On March 6th the defenders made a sortie, which allowed Doguereau to notice how heterogenous the Ottoman army was: "There were Maghrebians, Albanians, Kurds, Anatolians, Caramaneniens, Damascenes, Alepese, and Negroes from Takrour [Senegal]," he wrote. "They were hurled back."'

-From Napoleon the Great, by Andrew Roberts

'The Kaspians [from the southwestern shores of the Caspian sea] in the army wore cloaks, and carried the reed bows of their country and short swords. Such was their equipment. Their leader was Ariomardos, brother to Artyphios. The Sarangians [from what is now southwestern Afghanistan] made a brave show with dyed garments and knee-high boots, carrying bows and Median spears. Their commander was Pherendates son of Megabazus. The Paktyians wore cloaks and carried the bows of their country and daggers. Their commander was Artayntes son of Ithamitres...The Arabians wore mantles with belts, and carried at their right side long bows curving backwards.​ The Ethiopians wore skins of leopards and lions. They carried bows made of palm-wood strips that were four cubits long in full and carried short arrows pointed not with iron but with a sharpened stone, the type of stone used to carve seals. Moreover, they had spears pointed with a gazelle’s horn sharpened to the likeness of a lance, and studded clubs in addition. When they went into battle they painted half their bodies with gypsum and the other half with vermilion....[T]he Paphlagonians in the army had plaited helmets on their heads. They had small shields and short spears, as well as javelins and daggers. They wore the shoes of their country, which reach half-way to the knee...The Thracians in the army wore fox-skin caps on their heads, and tunics on their bodies. Mantles of diverse colours were their covering. They had shoes of fawn-skin on their feet and legs, and carried javelins, little shields and daggers...The Psidians had little shields of raw ox-hide. Each man carried two wolf-hunter’s spears. They wore helmets of bronze, with the ears and horns of oxen represented in bronze, and crests in addition. Their legs were wrapped round with strips of purple stuff...'

-Herodotus, from the Histories

'Foreign observers never failed to be impressed by the exotic regiments of the Tsar – Don, Turkistan and Ural Cossacks, the latter ‘big, red-bearded, wild-looking men’. Officers carried their maps in their high hats; many enemies were killed with the lance...As for the men, correspondent Alexei Ksyunin wrote: "The yellow and purple robes of the Turkmens appeared blindingly brilliant against the background of village houses. They wore enormous sheepskin hats, above dark features and wild hair which made them seem picturesque and majestic. Galloping on their horses they caused no less panic than armoured vehicles. I ordered cigarettes and tried to talk to them. It was useless, for they didn’t speak any Russian. They could say only 'Thank you, sir,' and nothing more."

'An American correspondent described a squadron of Kubanski Cossacks: "a hundred half-savage giants, dressed in the ancient panoply of that curious Slavic people whose main business is war, and who serve the Tsar in battle from their fteenth to their sixtieth years; high fur hats, long caftans laced in at the waist and coloured dull pink or blue or green with slanting cartridge pockets on each breast, curved yataghans inlaid with gold and silver, daggers hilted with uncut gems, and boots with sharp toes turned up ... They were like overgrown children." First Army’s cavalry were commanded by the old Khan of Nakhichevan, who was found weeping in his tent one morning because he was too crippled by haemorrhoids to mount his horse.'

-From Catastrophe, by Max Hastings

'Men of all nations were there, Ligurians, Lusitanians, Balearians, Negroes, and fugitives from Rome. Beside the heavy Dorian dialect were audible the resonant Celtic syllables rattling like chariots of war, while Ionian terminations conflicted with consonants of the desert as harsh as the jackal’s cry. The Greek might be recognised by his slender figure, the Egyptian by his elevated shoulders, the Cantabrian by his broad calves. There were Carians proudly nodding their helmet plumes, Cappadocian archers displaying large flowers painted on their bodies with the juice of herbs, and a few Lydians in women’s robes, dining in slippers and earrings. Others were ostentatiously daubed with vermilion, and resembled coral statues.'

-From Salammbo, by Flaubert

Until very recently, very few armies indeed were unified and regimented swarms of men in uniform. They were more often a disparate, highly heterogeneous mix. Fantasy armies, it goes without saying, should reflect that, and are much more interesting and compelling when they are made up of a vast array of troops from different backgrounds, different regions, and different species, than when they are undifferentiated mass. 

Monday 2 October 2023

On Being Unimaginative and Failing to Follow Through

For complicated and not entirely explicable reasons (which include the most small 'c' conservative PC in the group voting whimsically to go through a known interplanar portal along with the party's confirmed nutcases), the PCs in my regular campaign ended up in the Quasielemental Plane of Lightning in last week's session.

Needing to actually now devote a level of thought to the contents of this plane where previously there was a very brief sketch, I turned to the old Planescape splatbook, The Inner Planes, to see what it might have to offer. 

I was disappointed. But this is not an unfamiliar feeling where Planescape is concerned. I loved the setting as a 12-year old, because it was so genuinely different to anything else that I had previously encountered, because of Diterlizzi's wonderful art, and because at the level of broad brushtrokes it was indisputably highly imaginative: an infinite plane of radiance! An infinite plane of the natural world, writ large! An infinite plane of technological pursuit of war! An infinite prison! The ambition that is hinted at, and the larger-than-life scale of what is depicted, is still inspiring to me as an exercise in demonstrating what 'fantasy' can be thought to mean. And I treasure the original boxed set that I have in my possession accordingly. 

But the reality is that Planescape is a tease. At the level of implementation, it is not imaginative at all: it is humdrum and dull - inspiring only by accident. Lacking the creative tools to do anything with the setting, the authors only ever seemed to come up with practical results that were barren and inert, leaving the individual DM to do all the imaginative heavy lifting. For all that the line presents itself as the apotheosis of TSR's imaginative flair, in truth it is in its own way as banal as the Forgotten Realms. 

The Inner Planes and its treatment of the Quasielemental Plane of Lightning is a case in point. Here we have something that could be mindblowing: an infinite plane of pure storms. What could live in such a place? What could happen within it? What would its politics, its economy, its society resemble?

In the hands of Monte Cook and William W Connors, though, the answer is: we don't know, except insofar as it is not very interesting. The lack of intellectual energy and commitment in the prose is itself striking: 

'In appearance, this quasiplane resembles the Elemental Plane of Air that sired it, but rather than endless blue skies, it holds nothing but black storm clouds that rumble with thunder and flash with inner fires (heat lightning). Janison's treatise Planar Energies descibes "bolts of lightning and balls of energy dancing amid the billowing, threatening clouds".' You don't say. 'The Grand Archives of the Fraternity of Order list a total of 143 portals leading to and from [the plane]...' it goes on. 'Rumours speak of individuals struck by powerful discharges of lightning - whether from a storm, a magical item or spell, or the breath of a dreagon - who were transported [there] as a result. This seems highly unlikely to the scientific mind, but as we all know, each rule has exceptions and loopholes, so it could be possible.' Later on, we learn that 'Although the not without life, most of it is difficult to discern, since it resembles the lightning of the realm itself. Some theorists have speculated, in fact, that all lightning in the quasiplane is alive somehow...This is far from being proved true, however, and most still assume that the majority of the lightning seen here is nothing more than it seems (which makes it no less incredible or worthy of study).' Later still, the ghost is given up entirely: 'For all their somewhat chaotic nature, the creatures that populate Lightning do not seem to value individuality, as few single beings stand out from the proverbial crowd...The vast majority of the quasiplane is little but one storm-cloud after another...For some reason, the natives of the Thundering Realm rarely conflict at all....Records of travelers journeying to the quasielemental plane of Lightning are extensive, but they provide little consistent explanation as to the nature of their stay.'

What on earth is this? The text should be fizzing with ideas that the DM can use for adventure hooks and weird and wonderful content for him to riff on. Instead, the laziness on display is almost palpable. It is phoned-in. It is padded out. It is verbiage for the sake of it. It is words written to fill space. Its tone is almost insultingly flat. 

And the substance itself gives one nothing to work with. It's not that there are no ideas in the text at all - some of them are even quite good. It seems, for example, that near the neighbouring plane of Ice, there exist floating icebergs made from frozen stormclouds, and imbued with inner radiance; another interesting idea is the existence of beings which live and reproduce inside lightning bolts. The problem is that what ideas there are are simply cast before the reader like chaff, without any help with implementation - mere fluff, with nothing to crunchify it.

It should hardly be surprising that if I had been writing the book I would have approached it from entirely the other direction, producing a method by which, through the use of random tables and the like, the DM could actually build up a campaign region within his or her chose plane: in this hex is a stormcloud-berg, and here are a set of tables to generate its inhabitants and some adventure hooks; in that hex is a floating chunk of earth that has strayed in from the respective plane, and here is a way to find out what lives on it; and so on. But the book advances no such method. It is the lightest of salads.

The broader problem is that, wedded to their broad brushstrokes-project and therefore wishing therefore to always be innovative, the authors of products like The Inner Planes neglected the vast back catalogue of TSR lore, to the great detriment of the usability of their products. It should be plainly evident to anyone, for example, that the Quasielemental Plane of Lightning would be the abode of storm giants, blue dragons, tempests, and all the other existing D&D monsters who would naturally call such a place home. Thinking how standard D&D races such as humans, orcs, elves, etc. would make their homes in such a place would also be in itself an interesting creative endeavour and produce vastly more usable content. But, wishing to be fresh, the authors ended up producing something that is only ephemeral and insipid; this could indeed, sadly, be Planescape's motto.