Friday 19 July 2024

Personal Reflections on the OSR at 1,990 Posts

This post is the 1,989th published at Monsters & Manuals. That's a lot. I have been writing this nonsense for sixteen years, which might actually be before some readers were even born. (Are teenagers even still able to read? Or do they simply drink Prime while buckling themselves into self-driving buggies which infinitely project TikTok videos directly into their brainstems via Bluetooth? I'm out of touch.)

Over the next ten posts leading up to post 2000 I thought it would be fun to do some 'top 10s' relating to events since 2008. But before doing so I would like, in the manner of an aged veteran reflecting on his many campaigns (the edition wars, the storygames wars, the GNS wars, the yourdungeonissuck wars, the Zak wars, the other Zak wars, the other other Zak wars, the post-Zak wars, the post-G+ wars, etc.), to try to put it all into some sort of context and perhaps even frame it with a meaning of some kind. 

In many ways the past sixteen years can be understood as the creation, flourishing, co-option and gradual dissolution or maturation of a scene, which in the way of all scenes - the Merseybeat scene, the grunge scene, the acid house scene, the arts and crafts movement, hard bebop, and so on - began with a huge cultural flowering, generated vast enthusiasm, become dominated by commercial interests, and then entered into a 'grown-up' phase in which it is essentially acting as a foundation or groundwork for newer things. 

But what strikes me now, looking back, is something a little more dramatic and, dare I say it, important: the OSR mattered not because it was any old scene, like any other; it mattered because it kept alive what I long ago referred to as the subversive qualities of nerd-dom. These days, geek culture has well-and-truly entered the mainstream and has as a result been thoroughly commercialised, and D&D has as a consequence become much more universal and standardised; there is not only a very widespread mode of play, but a very unified aesthetic and design philosophy and even illustrative style that is unmistakably now its own subgenre of fantasy. And at the same time the space for other RPGs has undoubtedly shrunk; it's not as though D&D is the only RPG in existence, but its dominance in the mainstream has become effectively total. 

What the OSR did, in essence, was to subvert the monolithic and centralising tendencies that were so much in evidence in the d20 era and which have only really accelerated since, by liberating D&D from ownership by any one company, or association with one brand, and thereby in essence giving its ownership to the people who loved it in order that they could do what they wanted with it. The major writers and thinkers of the movement were not alone in taking this kind of approach (Ron Edwards and the story game crowd certainly played their role with respect to the liberation of the wider hobby as such) but they were instrumental because they took on their task in respect of the most significant RPG by far, and the one which was most in danger of becoming the only game in town. 

If I could summarise, then, what the OSR did was genuinely rebellious and even, dare I say it, punkish, in that it took something that was becoming flagrantly commercialised in a monopolistic way and rescued it from the bland, drab fate that awaited it if it was allowed to go down that road too far. In the process, the OSR itself become a (very minor) commercial phenomenon, but in way that allowed it to stay true to its basically subversive origins. This was no mean feat. It was worth doing, and we should be glad that it was done.

The other thing that strikes me is that as the scene has collapsed, or mellowed, or aged, or whichever term you prefer to use, it has moved blessedly beyond its early associations with particular authors or notable charismatic figures and bigmouths. Here, I will venture into controversy, but I think it is important to make the point that we owe a debt of gratitude to those people - including, yes, Zak himself, probably most of all - for being the ones to pour rocket fuel on the emergence of the scene in the period 2008-2012 or so. Without those figures, I'm not sure that the OSR would have been a 'thing' in the first place. I certainly owe what small successes I have had to the fact that many of these minor celebrities of our obscure niche of the hobby championed what I have written. But it is also a relief to not have to spend even a second of any given day paying attention to the psychodramas associated with the big G+ personalities of yesteryear. We've moved beyond that phase, and it's largely a good thing that we have.

Where do we go next? Who knows? I certainly have no intention of stopping blogging or writing, and this year I think a logjam will be cleared that will allow me to publish a few completed-but-not-published books. Life has gotten in the way in so many respects; when I started writing here I was 27 years old and working for a start-up in Yokohama; now I'm nearly 43, married with two kids, with a proper career and actual proper books with proper publishers to write. Somewhere along the way there have been deaths, natural disasters, emergencies and crises of all kinds. But I've somehow kept going. And I'll keep going a while yet.

Wednesday 17 July 2024

Before the Flood: The Pre-Apocalypse

I have a longstanding fascination with the pseudoepigrapha - that body of texts which might have ended up in what we think of as the Bible, but didn't (branches of the Orthodox churches notwithstanding).

In The Book of Jubilees, we get a window onto a very different antediluvian world. In it, a group of fallen angels, the offspring of Adam and Eve's third son, Seth, have sex with human women (the daughters of Cain) and the result is the Nephilim, a race of monsters and giants. The Nephilim themselves then breed with humankind and produce the Elioud, a people of great ability and also great evil. We also hear that there are in fact four types of angel - the mysterious 'angel of the presence' (which appears to mean a direct representative of God), and angels with, respectively, purview of sanctification; guardianship over individuals; and the natural world. 

We also learn that time itself is divided into 'Jubilees' - cycles of 49 years - and that the year has 364 days with four quarters of thirteen weeks; the extra day is made up by a 'double sabbath' of two days once a year. (The implication would appear to be that there is a treble sabbath once every four years.) 

There is a lot to say about this world - a world which is dominated by what appears to be a metaphysical confrontation between angels and what the Beowulf author might have called the 'clan of Cain' ('ogres, elves, evil phantoms, and giants') - with human beings caught in the middle. And there is therefore a lot about the implied setting that is very gameable, with the PCs navigating this landscape of confrontation and trying to win fame and glory, or to do good (or evil) accordingly.

But what I especially like about this idea is that it conjures an image of a world that is fresh, and unencumbered by history, in a way which in D&D circles strikes me as genuinely novel. We are used to D&D settings being weighed down by accumulated weight of lore and timelines and ten-thousand-year narratives; OSR settings are generally no different in that they allude to the existence of vast chronology while keeping it largely implicit. Either way, D&D settings generally assume the presence of things that are very old: old gods, old dragons, old treasure hoards, old ruins, old civilizations, old cataclysms and disasters.

The world of the Book of Jubilees has none of that sense of great age. And a game set in such a setting would therefore cast the PCs in a very different role to that to which we have become accustomed: not the looters and explorers of the ancient and antique, but as the movers and shakers in a world that has just been born and is in the very act of being shaped. They would be situated not at the end of time, but at its beginning. 

It would also cast their actions in a tragic light, because of course that world is already foreshadowed by the eventual flood which will sweep everything away - it is pre-, rather than post-, apocalyptic. Everything that they could achieve will therefore in the end, in any event, be meaningless. (Unless perhaps one were to imagine their quest as being to somehow avert the eventual deluge itself.) 

This, in a strange sort of a way, calls to mind the only example I can really think of of pre-apocalyptic fiction, Jack Vance's Lyonesse. There, we have an entire trilogy of novels which (not-really-spoiler-alert) all take place on an Atlantis-style subcontinent lying off the coast of Arthurian Europe which will one day sink beneath the ocean. Everything that therefore happens in the books is pointless because shortly after the action ends everybody will be dead anyway. But we read along regardless. 

It is an interesting question as to whether a knowably pre-apocalyptic setting would be a compelling one in which to play a D&D campaign, but I rather like the archness of Lyonesse and its fundamental bloody-mindedness. In Vance's way, a philosophical point is being made: nothing matters in the end because everybody will be dead in the fullness of time; yet at the same time, everything still matters. To put it another way: "It won't be expanding for billions of years yet, Alvie, and we've gotta try to enjoy ourselves while we're here!" The Biblical point would obviously be that even though you're going to at some point be dead, there is a larger story that plays out far beyond the scale of the human lifetime, and if that floats your boat (or, perhaps, your ark), there is plenty of grist for the role playing mill there, too. 

Monday 15 July 2024

The Sunday Seven: 14th July 2024

Most Sundays I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • Have you seen Le Peuple Migrateur? I am a sucker for wildlife documentaries that respect, but do not overdramatise, their subjects. This is one example.
  • Are you a fan of Mark Helprin? You ought to be. I found this recent interview with him riveting in all its cantankerous glory.
  • Do you know about the Perseus digital library? Lots and lots and lots of classic texts, in translations and original Greek/Latin, with full dictionaries. 
  • Do you want to watch strangely mesmerising videos about camping in Alaska? This guy has lots of them.
  • Do you like arty French documentaries about ants warring with termites in the African savannah? I saw this film years ago when living in Japan and heartily recommend it.
  • Do you like Celtic-inflected high fantasy? I recently read CJ Cherryh's Ealdwood stories - they're relevant to your interests.
  • Do you like watching martial artists show off? I do.

Thursday 11 July 2024

Blood Multiverse; Or, The Evening Redness in the Abyss

I have written before about the failings of the Planescape authors to do anything really compelling with the ideas which they had either inherited (the D&D planes) or come up with themselves (the factions). To openly and unabashedly mix my metaphors, they had lightning in a bottle and failed to make the sum into more than its parts.

My argument, roughly a year ago, was that although Planescape implies a what I called a 'continual life-or-death struggle over the substance of reality', what it comes up with is really just a self-consciously 'edgy' fancy dress party and some imaginative locations which in practice, as I elsewhere put it, are 'barren and inert'. It is almost all style and almost no substance, elevated for the most part by the sheer fluke of happening to have a genuinely great fantasy illustrator, Tony Diterlizzi, doing most of the art. It is the D&D RPG setting equivalent of The Monkees, with Diterlizzi cast in the role of Mike Nesmith. (That's a reference for all the younger fans out there reading.) 

Some further light is shed on these matters by an interesting article on Cormac McCarthy's fiction which reveals - I did not know this - that Blood Meridian was partially inspired by two fragments by the pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus, one of which reads:

War is the father of us all and our king. War discloses who is godlike and who is but a man, who is a slave and who is a freeman.

This, the author of the article links to a particular speech given by the Judge, the principal antagonist in McCarthy's great masterpiece:   

[W]ar is the truest form of divination. It is the testing of one’s will and the will of another within that larger will which because it binds them is therefore forced to select. War is the ultimate game because war is at last a forcing of the unity of existence. War is god.

War here is thus cast by McCarthy as being an act of creation in the sense that genuine struggle, with an all-or-nothing victor, grants to that victor the capacity not merely to occupy territory or take booty but to remake the conditions of thought itself: to take all pre-existing norms and values and both reforge and then force them on the loser. War can thus be a metaphysical act, with metaphysical implications - it takes two ways of being, two potential futures, and sets them against one another so as to grant one the victory. 

The alternative title to Blood Meridian is The Evening Redness in the West, and it is not difficult to trace one's way from these musings on Heraclitus to the semiotic significance of red on the Western horizon: the war which Europeans brought to the New World is an absolutely quintessential illustration of the point - it did not 'merely' represent the occupation of land but the brutal casting together of different modes of being, one of which ultimately triumphed and imposed its metaphysics on the other totally. The way in which the Aztecs, Incas, Beothuk, Sioux etc. existed in the world was extinguished forever in that grand conflict, even though the people remained: redness on the Western horizon indeed, and not merely in the form of blood but extinction. (There is nothing unique about this story, of course, in the sordid narrative of human history - it is simply a very striking example.) 

To come back to Planescape, the idea that the planes of existence would be the battleground of metaphysical conflict - 'War' in the McCarthyian sense, rather than the quotidian 'war' of battles over land and loot - is right there, implicit in the setting, and ready to spring forth. Planescape, as those familiar with the setting will remember, even has a concept of metaphysical and literal physical change taking place in accordance with victories or losses in conflict, with whole fragments of the landscape shifting from one plane to another in accordance with the results of philosophical and military struggle. And, to put matters even more firmly on the nose, the notion of Blood War, which the authors came up with, is more or less entirely captured by the musings on Heraclitus in the Judge's speech. To return to where we started, then, the setting of Planescape is pregnant with deep, serious, and visceral potential - and it is a great pity that this was never properly realised in such a way as to do justice to the ideas which the setting hints at.

Wednesday 10 July 2024

Impending Big Yoon Suin News and Big Oops

This is probably as suitable a forum for this post as any; many of you will know that I have been slaving over the finalisation of Yoon Suin 2nd edition, and that a v.01 PDF has gone out to Kickstarter backers. I am shortly to release the final version of the PDF to them (on July 19th) and will put it out for general sale subsequently via the usual channels (Drive Thru RPG, my website, travelling ogre mage salesmen, merchant spelljammer vessels, etc.). 

With great shock and horror I discovered that I had inadvertently made the v.01 PDF available for purchase on Drive Thru RPG in the small hours of this morning. This problem was rapidly rectified but 11 people had already bought the PDF. They will receive the final version as an update, so no harm will be done, but I was only able to contact three of them due to privacy settings on Drive Thru RPG. Lacking another means of letting them know, I am putting up an announcement here.

In the meantime - some sample pages!

Monday 8 July 2024

The 1 HD Humanoid Winner-Stays-On Title Fight 2024

It is of great importance that we perform the following exercise.

The Contestants

The contestants are all of the 1 HD humanoids in the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual, with '1 HD' defined as anything that has a HD total starting with the integer 1 (so this would include goblins, with HD 1-1, and hobgoblins, with HD 1+1, but would not include kobolds, with 1/2 HD, or halflings, which do not have HD as such, but rather have 1d6 hp). Where there are separate stat blocks for different varieties of the same creature (for instance, hill and mountain dwarfs), each variety is represented. Where different varieties of the same creature have the same stat block (for instance, hobgoblins and koalinths), only the main variety is represented. Aquatic humanoids are prohibited entry.

The list of contestants is therefore:

1. Aaracokra 

2. Bullywug 

3. Hill dwarf

4. Mountain dwarf 

5. Duergar 

6. Elf 

7. Gibberling 

8. Rock gnome 

9. Tinker gnome 

10. Goblin 

11. Grippli 

12. Hobgoblin 

13. Mold man 

14. Myconid

15. Orc 

16. Tasloi

The Rules

The first two contestants are assigned at random and must fight to the death. The winner stays in the fighting pit to take on the next contestant (chosen at random). Each contestant is equipped with standard armour and weapon for its type.

Hit point totals for each contestant are generated at random.

Initiative rolls take place every round. A 'to hit' roll of 20 does double damage; a 'to hit' roll of 1 is a fumble. 

Special abilities may be used.


Round 1: Goblin vs Mountain Dwarf

The first two fighters enter the pit. The goblin (5 hp) wields a spear; the mountain dwarf (9 hp) a battle axe. They circle one another for a moment, warily. Suddenly the dwarf lunges forward with an ineffectual swipe; the goblin jabs out with a weak blow that glances off the dwarf's armour; they come apart once more. The crowd mutter testily at this ineptitude, and the dwarf - perhaps stung by these murmured aspersions cast on his technique - darts nimbly past the jabbing range of the goblin's spear and caves in the creature's skull with a single blow of his axe (8 hp damage).

Round 2: Mountain Dwarf vs Orc

The mountain dwarf kicks the goblin corpse to one side and its brains smear across the floor of the pit. A newcomer, the orc (7 hp), carefully strides over the mess, swinging his flail. Once again, the fight begins slowly as the two opponents test each other's defences, probing at each other with feints and false movements. But just as the crowd is settling down for a long encounter, the orc, focused on his enemy, slips in some goblin brains and fumbles his flail, sending it clattering to the floor. The mountain dwarf seizes the advantage and drives his axe into the orc's torso (6 hp damage) and then, as it sinks to its knees and scrabbles for its weapon, shatters its spine with an overhead blow (critical hit, 5 hp damage x 2).

Round 3: Mountain Dwarf vs Duergar

Now the mountain dwarf's true arch enemy enters the pit: a duergar (7 hp), wielding a war pick and shield. Judging that his foe must now be tired from his previous bouts, the duergar adopts a fresh tactic, marching forward directly to go toe-to-toe with the enemy. The two flail at each other. First the duergar is nearly felled by a great axe blow to the head that dents his helmet inwards and nigh breaks his skull (6 hp damage), but then the mountain dwarf is wounded for the first time by a ferocious swing of the duergar's war pick that pounds into his side (3 hp damage). More lusty blows are traded; both dwarfs take repeated heavy hits to their shields and armour. But then, at the last, the mountain dwarf is once again triumphant, suddenly shifting the focus of his attacks to the legs and taking out the duergar's knees with an artery-severing slice (4 hp damage) which makes black duergar blood spew out onto the stone.

Round 4: Mountain Dwarf vs Hobgoblin

A hobgoblin (9 hp), burly and orange, descends to the whoops and jeers of the audience. He wields a halberd, and strides forward confidently into the duel, his intention simply to overcome his opponent with brute force. Those watching bray for ultraviolence: halberd against axe; chopping and slicing and the severing of limbs or, preferably heads. What they get initially, however, is a grotesque display of incompetence. Both fighters repeatedly pound on each other's armour or, more often, simply at the air itself - not one, but both manage to fumble and drop their weapons only to be reprieved by the failure of their opponent to press the advantage. Eventually, and to the hoots of the derision of the audience, first blood goes to the dwarf when, for the second time, the hobgoblin drops his halberd, and is cut ineffectually by the dwarf's battle axe across the forehead (1 hp damage). He is then sliced again at the shoulder as he seizes up his weapon once more (1 hp damage). Those watching let up a great cackle of scornful laughter - but this suddenly transforms into a loud cheer as the hobgoblin recovers his composure and, with a deft touch, skewers the dwarf through the spleen and forces him to rapidly bleed out in a gurgling ruin on the floor (critical hit: 10 hp damage).

Round 5: Hobgoblin vs Gibberling

The hobgoblin lifts his halberd into the air and roars in triumph. But the next participant is already in the pit - a gibberling (6 hp) stopping only for a brief moment to lunge to the ground to lick up some of the gore and offal that has been spilled in previous fights. This time, no time is wasted. The gibberling flings itself at the hobgoblin and, with its short sword, subjects the orange enemy to repeated, violent stabs, one of which penetrates armor and bites into flesh (5 hp damage). But summoning up all its remaining strength even as its blood pours free of its torso, the hobgoblin wrestles the gibberling to the ground and staves in its face with slamming motions from the steeled pommel of its halberd (7 hp damage). The fight is over almost as soon as it has started; the crowd are unsure whether the appropriate emotional response is disappointment or glee.

Round 6: Hobgoblin vs Myconid

As the noise from the audience simmers down an altogether different aspect is brought to proceedings as the hobgoblin staggers, grievously wounded, into the middle of the pit to face its enemy - a fungus man (6 hp), moving with the alien gracility of animated chitin. Expressionless, it creeps forward as the hobgoblin circles it. The hobgoblin swings and stabs; the myconid buffets these blows aside with its deceptively dextrous fists. then pounds weakly on its enemy's armour to no avail. Then, trying a different tack, the walking fungus grasps the shaft of the halberd and draws the hobgoblin into its embrace; a brief struggle ensues, but the wounded goblinoid is no match for the pitiless strength of the fungal kingdom, and soon it lies dead, strangled and finally stomped on the floor (3 hp damage).

Round 7: Myconid vs Tasloi

Whether the fungus man is wounded or tired is not within the wit of the audience to discern. Unfeelingly, it turns from the hobgoblin's twitching corpse to regard a tasloi (5 hp), which has crept quietly into the ring on padding feet, wielding a javelin and shield. The audience is quiet now: an altogether different type of combat is here promised. The two opponents watch one another. Then the tasloi darts forward, and skewers the fungus man in the leg (1 hp damage) before ducking away from the myconid's fists. The enemies once again hold themselves still, some yards apart, motionless and silent. Most of the audience is enrapt; others, impatient, yell grumbles and insults. The fights remain statuesque. Then the tasloi once more darts forward with startling rapidity. But the myconid has anticipated its movements perfectly! With a single blow it swipes the ape-like target aside, snapping its neck (5 hp damage), and its corpse lands with a crunching thud some distance away, utterly inert.

Round 8: Myconid vs Mold Man

But now there is a hubbub of approval from the audience as the next fighter - a mold man (8 hp) enters the pit, and a battle is promised between the two branches of the fungal kingdom itself. Neither betrays any emotion as the fight begins. Yet clearly pitless hatred is at stake. In the very moment that battle is joined the enemies force all of their strength against one another: the vegepygmy thrusts its spear into the body of the myconid (4 hp damage) and the fungus man, ignoring whatever pain it may feel, simply uses the shaft of the weapon to tug its owner closer so that it can batter him brutally about the head (4 hp damge). No mercy is sought, or given, in this straightforward battle to the end; the vegepygmy, despite its wounds, simply twists and jerks its spear until the myconid's body is rent asunder and it collapses to the ground (3 hp). 

Round 9: Mold Man vs Elf

The cold-bloodedness of the confrontation has shocked the audience but a cheer goes up as the elf (8 hp), wielding a longsword, strides confidently into the pit. And his swagger is justified. With a single sidestep and thrusting motion he simply dispatches the vegepygmy - the lightest of touches being enough to nearly seperate its head from its body by slicing delicately through its throat.

Round 10: Elf vs Rock Gnome

Barely have the spectators had the chance to digest what has happened in the previous bout that they are compelled into gales of laughter as the next commences. A tiny, frail and decrepit rock gnome (1 hp) has assayed forth - surely, the spectators think, this tale will not be long in the telling. But no! The elf, clearly buoyed by overconfidence, drops his weapon in the initial clash and the gnome is able to deliver a lusty blow with his warhammer that, were it an inch or so to the right, would have succeeded in braining the bigger opponent completely. As it is, the elf suffers a serious but survivable blow (6 hp) and manages to seize up his sword so as to finish what ought to have been a much simpler fight by simply hacking the gnome about the body (5 hp damage). 

Round 11: Elf vs Tinker Gnome

Crestfallen, the elf clearly has no stomach left for the fight, and the catcalls and jeers of the audience have left his confidence shattered despite his victories. And he faces, in the form of a tinker gnome (3 hp), an enemy who is clearly imbued with the desire for revenge. The dispatch is quick and expedient: the gnome slips beneath the elf's slashing longsword and jabs his shortsword into his larger opponent's groin: the elf's lifeblood jets out from its severed femoral artery and he expires with a long, pained and sorrowful gasp. The audience break out into spontaneous applause at this, deeming it good and necessary work; the tinker gnome beams with grim satisfaction.

Round 12: Tinker Gnome vs Grippli

But the tourney is not over and a frog-man (8 hp) creeps forth, wielding a cutlass. It examines the tinker gnome with predatory amphibian coldness, and then lurches forward. The two diminutive enemies clash - jabbing and cutting and thrusting at one another with their small but deadly blades. The grippli is left badly wounded by a gaping slice in its side (6 hp damage); it croaks in fury and backs away. The audience cheer: this tinker gnome, small though he may be, has proved himself to their liking. Given greater strenght and purpose by their support, the tinker gnome presses his advantage. He is badly cut about the face (1 hp damage) by the grippli's cutlass - but he finishes the frog-man in style, thrusting his short sword into its mouth and thereby into its brain, killing it instantly (4 hp damage).

Round 13: Tinker Gnome vs Aaracokra

The spectators stand to applaud their hero even as the Aaracokra (7 hp), wielding a javelin, swoops down to occupy the centre of the pit. The applause turns to boos and jeers; the audience are behind the underdog, now, and immediately make clear their demand for an upset. The bird man cackles and flaps its wing-arms confidently, sure that it will frustrate them and happy to take on the role of heel. But no! This tinker gnome is skilled, strong, and blessed by his gods with fortune - no sooner have he and the aaracokra commenced battle than he is driving his bloodied blade into its very heart with the single upwards thrust of an execution (critical hit - 10 hp damage). [I didn't fudge any rolls, I swear.]

Round 14: Tinker Gnome vs Bullywug

Wild cheers break out as the tinker gnome raises its blade in the air in triumph. Now comes forth another frog-man, though of a more upright and malevolent sort: a bullywug (5 hp), naked but armed with shield and sword. It licks its own teeth and the fight begins - gnome and bullywug alike slashing and stabbing but failing to cause harm. They come apart once more, panting and gasping; the spectators shout encouragement to their champion. Again the fight is joined; again no harm is done except to the strength and vitality of the fighters' sword arms; again a moment of respite as they catch their breath. A third time they come together for the kill; this time, though, a gasp of horror from the audience as the tinker gnome's blade is forced from his grasp! The bullwug, sensing victory, ignores the shrieks from the spectators and slashes and swings at the tinker gnome's wildly squirming form. Surely now the audience's favourite is done for? But somehow he manages to seize up his weapon once again and escape harm. And then, at the fifth entanglement, he wins - sidestepping a thrust from the bullywug and cutting out its throat in the same darting movement (5 hp damage).

Round 15: Tinker Gnome vs Hill Dwarf

A chant goes up; the audience sense a great upset, perhaps the greatest upset in the history of melee combat, in the offing. The tinker gnome is hurt, tired, but flushed with the joy of victory in battle; his last opponent is a hill dwarf (6 hp), fully armoured and wielding a mighty warhammer. The dwarf will make none of the errors of his predecessors; he will underestimate the tinker gnome not one iota. He is wary - too wary! The tinker gnome's skilled blade once more draws blood, and draws deep (4 hp damage). The crowd's cheers grow louder still - they are certain now that victory will go to their hero. Can he succeed in the final push? Can he vanquish this last opponent, and seize the trophy? Can he upend all expectations, and deliver the mightiest of surprises to whatever proud dieties have arrogated for themselves the right to convene this tournament? No. The hill dwarf quickly dispatches him with his warhammer...and the tournament is ended.


Monday 1 July 2024

The Sunday Seven: 30th June 2024

Each Sunday (hiatuses notwithstanding) I share seven links to items of interest that have crossed my eye across the preceding week. Here are this week's:

  • Roger G-S posted a useful response to a recent post of mine, providing his own method for generating evocative wilderness travel descriptions.
  • Somebody good at maths did some maths to systematise success rates for repeated rolls - he mathed the maths, and it is useful.
  • The same person also did a nice, useful little precis on the properties of randomisers.
  • Jimmy Chamberlin is one of my favourite musicians of all time and was recently given an extended interview by Rick Beato. The whole thing is worth listening to, but in particular he had some interesting sceptical comments to make about AI and music that may be relevant to your interests (starting here).
  • And here is a lengthy interview with none other than Jack Vance, from 1976. Early on, he says something about his philosophy that I found interesting, and strongly counter-cultural - his mission as an author, he says, is to try to avoid inserting himself between the reader and the imaginative world being created, and this is one of the reasons why he was keen for people to know as little as possible about his personal life and opinions. What I think is interesting about this is that despite this avowed intention, it is often quite difficult to avoid Vance in his fiction - his personality comes across so forcefully. This goes to prove a point of some kind that is perhaps worth expanding on in a full blog post. 
  • The Lebombo Mountains, in the far south of Mozambique, are thought to be a chunk of what is now Antarctica, left behind in the break up of the super-continent Gondwana millions of years ago. If you can't use that in a game, there is something wrong with you!
  • I really got a lot out of this discussion of 'The Medieval Cosmos as Permanent Apocalypse' - you might, too. 

Thursday 27 June 2024

Wilderness Exploration Design Approaches: Tight and Loose

Never dispute that the commenters on this blog are deep thinkers who possess profound insights into the True Nature of Things.

In my last post, I suggested that we need to do better in developing the principles guiding wilderness exploration and travel in the same way that we have for dungeoneering. From the comments emerged two suggestions, which I have not made up my mind are in absolute opposition or else McGilchristian productive, harmonied opposition; I will call them 'tight' and 'loose' approaches. 


Here, first, then is a comment by John:

I'll make the general assertion, that a 'true' wilderness hex crawl should be designed with as much love, care and attention as any tentpole dungeon in any underworld exploration game, and for the same reasons - it's the framework and fabric to which everything else is just an adjunct. It's not simply (rather, it doesn't have to be) an interstitial space between dungeons or a rote navigational exercise. Almost all published wilderness adventures have this thinness to them; those that don't tend to blur the line between wilderness adventure and above-ground "dungeon" in a way I find unsatisfying. The proof of the pudding is that it should produce enjoyable long-term play without any dungeons in it whatsoever, and without constant reinvention or new material added by the DM. I don't believe that's achievable with good intentions and excellent writing skills, it requires methodical design.

The idea here as I see it is that published wilderness adventures should carefully catalogue and describe contents of a region in exactly the same way as one would with a published megadungeon - perhaps not down to the last blade of grass (I suddenly have an image in my mind of the life-sized 1:1 map in Borges's On Exactitude in Science) but certainly in much more depth and with much more in the way of loving care than is done currently. I am taken with this idea and I especially like the implicit challenge behind the assertion that the map should 'produce enjoyable long-term play without any dungeons in it whatsoever' - this is a lofty goal (because I have always thought of even wilderness maps as needing caves, holdfasts, towers, etc. to break things up a bit), and one which gives me creative urges.


Second is a comment by Brian:

Traditional systems have you roll each day for weather, probably 3 encounter checks, and navigation. That forces the DM into narrating "you travel through the woods for a day", "you travel through the woods for another day". If you have an alternate system where you make one or more rolls that tell you how much time passes between encounters, (could be anything between an hour and a week), how much time passes until the weather changes, etc. now you can actually narrate the travel like Tolkien, who can spend a single sentence on a boring week's worth, or pages on a single day.

This is one of those 'Your ideas are intriguing to me and I wish to subscribe to your newsletter' moments. It is much more impressionistic, and would I think imply different rolls for different terrain types, so that in very hilly, broken up, densely forested country your 2d6 roll (or whatever) would give a gap between encounters read in hours, whereas in an open, sparsely populated desert it might be read in days. It would also need to be done - as Brian himself suggests - across different axes: weather change, actual creature encounters, 'ambient' events (like earthquakes or whatever), landscape featuers (chasms, rivers, lakes, bogs, etc.).... 

It reminds me in some vague way of what I was trying to achieve with the Zonal Combat System, not in the sense of arriving at the same result, but at the level of principle in abstracting distance for game-related purposes from actual distance in the fictional reality. 

What is for sure is that talking about such matters in this broad and air-fairy way can be interesting and inspiring but what is really needed are proper test cases in which we can see the way things work in action and critique and comment upon them.

Tuesday 25 June 2024

Far, Vast and Lonely: Describing and Confronting the World

Cloud and mist abode ever in the south, and only the foot-hills showed of the great ranges beyond Bhavinan. But on the evening of the sixth day before Yule, it being the nineteenth of December when Betelgeuze stands at midnight on the meridian, a wind blew out of the north-west with changing fits of sleet and sunshine. Day was fading as they stood above the cliff. All the forest land was blue with shades of approaching night: the river was dull silver: the wooded heights afar mingled their outlines with the towers and banks of turbulent deep blue vapour that hurtled in ceaseless passage through the upper air. 
Suddenly a window opened in the clouds to a space of clean wan wind-swept sky high above the shaggy hills. Surely Juss caught his breath in that moment, to see those deathless ones where they shone pavilioned in the pellucid air, far, vast, and lonely, most like to creatures of unascended heaven, of wind and of fire all compact, too pure to have aught of the gross elements of earth or water. It was as if the rose-red light of sun-down had been frozen to crystal and these hewn from it to abide to everlasting, strong and unchangeable amid the welter of earthborn mists below and tumultuous sky above them. The rift ran wider, eastward and westward, opening on more peaks and sunset-kindled snows. And a rainbow leaning to the south was like a sword of glory across the vision.

- ER Eddison, The Worm Ouroboros

I have long been interested in the subject of how wilderness exploration can be perfected as an aspect of 'old school' play in the manner in which I think dungeoneering has been (almost) perfected as a playstyle conceptually by the OSR. I do not think we have achieved anything like as much in this regard despite our desperate graspings, gropings and gesticulations in that direction. And I think this is a failing. If we can think of old school D&D as an attempt to make fantasy literature gameable, then we neglect wilderness exploration only by doing great damage to this goal, since the making of epic journeys across mighty and wondrous landscapes goes so deep into the genre's blood. It is in Tolkien, it is in Eddison, it is in Howard, it is in Moorcock; it is in Vance; it is everywhere. Fantasy is impossible to conceive of as we understand it today without this emphasis on the mythopoeic world as something that exists to be explored and also grappled with as an entity in its own right. 

We ought then to think seriously about wilderness travel as a fundamental feature of what D&D should be about - and not only mechanically, but imaginatively or (dare I say it) spiritually. The landscape is something against which the PCs should be contending, and which should do justice to the attempt to engage with it in its own right, at the level precisely of landscape. It should not be something that is merely crossed to get between points A and B, or traversed so as to uncover pre-arranged or randomly generated contents (although both of those things will inevitably happen in a D&D campaign and are obviously important). It should have an independent existence that interests, entertains and entices the players as much as would the exploration of a dungeon.

We can mechanise this, of course, and there are systems that can be used for doing so (many of which are available online), but in the end there is only so much that mechanics can achieve. Fundamentally, what makes a landscape come alive is more intangible than that; it is how the physical space is described. To read the Eddison passage that begins this post is to be transported - one can not only see but feel oneself on that place on the cliff-top, looking out over the 'far, vast and lonely' mountains with the 'sword of glory' of a rainbow in the distance.

Not all of us (well, let's call a spade a spade, none of us) is capable of coming up with prose like that on the fly, let alone simply rattling it off such perfectly realised imagery in a description to the players of what the PCs happen to see at a given moment as they survey the landscape. But there are two practical things that we can do - whether as DMs or as game designers - to facilitate the creation of more immersive worlds.

The first is to actually go out and travel, explore and hike, and to pay careful attention to the landscape as one does so and what the actual 'lived experience' of overland travel is like - what what one can see, what one can hear and smell, what one can imagine happening there. A few years ago I wrote a post in which I put this into practice, describing a hike I had recently been on in rural Northumberland, and shared some photos. Here is just one of them, chosen deliberately because it is so ostensibly undramatic:

Look at it carefully and notice the way the landscape unfolds itself before the eye: the rough track that runs across the tussocky grass; the boggy pool that lines right across its path about a third of the way up the length of the photo; the patch of gorse to the right that might conceal a hidden predator; the higher grasses in the middle distance in which enemies might be lying flat against the ground; then the way the ground suddenly falls away so as to conceal a cleft in the landscape cutting across the image - there is obviously a body of water down there but what is it? how deep and sheer is the valley? - and beyond it the low rise to a clump of hillocks beyond; the semi-woodland of leafless trees that half-conceal the bracken around their feet; and behind a glimpse of buildings and of lush green farmland that hints at the closeness of something more civilised. This is an almost studiedly ordinary rural image, but it is not difficult to look at it, and think about it, in an engaged way so as to understand between the scale of natural landscapes and what can lie within them - and what the eye can actually take in (or not take in) during an overland journey.

Doing this will not provide you with an instantly accessible mental library of images that you can simply regurgitate to the players at the table but it will give you the stuff of mental conjuring - you will be better equipped to picture landscapes of your own and put them into words so as to better communicate to players a sense of place.

The second thing that can be done is that people who are writing adventure modules and campaign settings can get good at writing descriptions of landscapes themselves. People may already have done this, but providing DMs with handy, accessible and beautiful three-line descriptors of what the players can see as they traverse one hex or another, or go from one point to another on a pointcrawl, would I think be a very useful addition to wilderness campaigning. We have plenty of models for what good descriptive prose looks like with respect to fantasy landscapes in the form of Tolkien, Lewis, Eddison, et al - not to mention the great travel and nature writers: the Apsley Cherry-Garrards, Barry Lopezes, JA Bakers, and so on, who have tried their hardest to give accounts in prose (or poetry) of how the world looks and what is in it. Good writing can achieve great things - and can be put to useful purpose.

Monday 24 June 2024

The Sunday Seven: 23rd June 2024

I have been juggling too many different balls lately to keep them all in the air at once, and the Sunday Seven was one of the ones I let drop. But never fear. Like an ageing acrobat suddenly reinvigorated by memories of former glory, I find the old muscles still work. Expertly, I dart down to grab the Sunday Seven, somehow managing to keep all the other balls alive, and reintroduce it into my routine.

  • At Worldbuilding and Woolgathering, Edmund penned a response to my thoughts about Gene Wolfe and 40K, suggesting that 40K can be understood as a saturnine setting - I commend the post most highly for its depth and insight. And it even has a competition in it. (True story: I once did some peer reviewing work for Oxford University Press and they paid me in books. One of the books I requested was Michael Ward's Planet Narnia, but they never sent it to me on the basis that it was a quasi-POD book and they would need a few more orders to come in before they did another print run. That was in 2013. I'm still waiting.) 
  • I enjoyed this old post that I came across about Ursula Le Guin's worldbuilding. Le Guin is hit-and-miss for me, but this post made me wonder if I ought to do a reassessment. 
  • Patrick Stuart has decided to pivot towards quality over quantity. I see what your strategy is, Patrick. In any case, he doesn't always post nowadays, but when he does, he posts things like this and this.
  • I post this more out of curiosity than anything: a 2010 Cato Institute event on Robert Heinlein 'In Dialogue with His Century'.
  • I can't remember if I have mentioned this on the blog before, but I recently re-encountered CJ Cherryh's writing advice page, and thought it might be of interest. 
  • John Howe's illustrations of Tolkien's work were absolutely foundational in attracting me to fantasy literature, so I enjoyed this interview I found with him on YouTube
  • On a similar note, here is an interview with Tony Diterlizzi, whose illustrations were also, well, foundational in attracting me to fantasy gaming.

Thursday 13 June 2024

Space Paladins in the Demonic Future

Here's an elevator pitch for you, following on from my most recent post: I call it Space Paladins in the Demonic Future.

Humans have begun to colonise the galaxy and discovered that black holes are portals to hell and demons roam the universe.

The PCs are holy warriors whose task is to hunt down, slay, uproot, exorcise and exterminate those demons whenever and wherever they are found, in all their forms.

The task is to provide maximum campaign flexibility and maximum player agency combined with an institution-based mode of advancement.

Maximum campaign flexibility means - you've guessed it - lots of random tables to generate planets, ecosystems, geographies, space stations, and so on; to generate vast and potentially infinite demon types, appearances, tactics and aesthetics; to generate different varities of holy orders to which the PCs can belong; and to generate many different types of campaign style. It should be as possible to play literal space knights fighting ape-demons in a mangrove forest with trees hundreds of metres wide, as it is possible to play a refined caste of priestly duellists trying to uncover demons-in-disguise in high society in a utopian cloud city.

Maximum player agency means that, while the PCs by definition are not 'rogues', the are choosing how to respond to events that are somewhat random and not governed by DM fiat or pre-ordained plot. This means the implementation of something like my Random Demonic Incursion Generator (tm). 

An institution-based mode of advancement means that the PCs are all members of a particular holy order and that their goal is to advance the aims of that order - however they see fit - rather than exactly to individually excel. This may indeed involve an Ars Magica style approach in which each player has a stable of PCs, or it may involve pooling XP and spending it on developing different aspects of the order so as to recruit new members, expand physical resources, gain new expertise, and so on.

At current rates of progress across my various projects this should be due for release around the year 40,000 AD....

Friday 7 June 2024

Space Wolfe: Or, Why Grimdark Needs a Theology

As somebody who is, let's say, Warhammer 40,000-curious (I played an awful lot of Warhammer Fantasy Battle, Warhammer 40K, Necromunda, Blood Bowl, WHFR etc in my teenage years but have only half kept an eye on GW products since), it has always interested me how the setting sets up but spectacularly fails to deliver on an obvious Christian theological inspiration. We get the trappings of a kind of pastiche, parody or satire of religion in the form of the Emperor. But it's basically shallow and teenage. 

This is entirely understandable - since the people who come up with the rules and write the novels are probably mostly themselves agnostics and atheists, and since most of the audience are too. But it has the effect of denuding the setting of what could be a great deal of emotional heft and import - something which I think even non-religious people could appreciate, much as they are able to appreciate the obviously Christian themes within the fiction of, say, Tolkien, Lewis, and Wolfe without having to feel as though they are being preached to.

Sticking with the triumverate of Tolkien, Lewis and Wolfe for a moment then, while clearly Lewis's work was more actively engaged in Christian apologetics than the other two, there is a strong thematic commonality between the three of them in that they all sought to depict fantasy worlds which were very different from our own but which were animated by an idea of divine grace. 

This is made very obvious through comparing the work of these authors to their non-Christian or secular equivalents - Ursula Le Guin, say, or ER Eddison, or George RR Martin, or Terry Goodkind, which typically posit a world which is largely defined by human will: the interest is in how individual people or groups amass power, or shape their own futures, or remake society, through their own actions. For Tolkien, Lewis and Wolfe on the other hand, while undoubtedly their stories are characterised by human heroism, that heroism is always reliant for its success on the notion that there is an underlying or overarching (pick your preferred term) natural goodness in the universe which both pulls events towards an ultimate telos and at crucial moments intervenes miraculously in acts of mercy, blessing and so on.

Hence, for example, in The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe Edmund is given the chance to become heroic by the fact that Aslan intercedes with the Witch on his behalf to save his life. In The Hobbit Bilbo is able to change the world because of miraculous happenstances (Sting found in a random troll hoard; secret entrances and hidden meanings discovered in maps at opportune moments; stumbling on the ring; the intervention of the eagles and Beorn at the Battle of the Five Armies, etc.). In The Book of the New Sun Severian comes across the Claw of the Conciliator by sheer fluke at the end of the third book. And so on and so forth.

A consistent theme in Wolfe's fiction in particular is the thrusting of a young man into an evidently perverse and dangerous setting (Urth; Mythgarthr; Greece in the aftermath of the Persian invasion; etc.) and the subsequent discovery by that character that he holds a different morality to those around him - rather by 'accident'. And not only this; the character also then discovers that that this personal morality in fact fits into a broader moral structure which underpins the universe, such that the prevailing social order in which he is enmeshed is revealed to be a corruption of what is in fact True. Thus, to take the most obvious example, Severian finds himself by accident (which is to say, grace) stumbling on the awareness that he simply cannot live as a torturer without compunction. And this forces him, over the course of the novels, towards the understanding that the society in which he lives is evil and alien to the proper moral way of things, with explosive results.

The problem that 40K has, as I see it, is that it sets up a kind of metaphysical halfway house in this regard, in positing the perverse and dangerous 'grimdark' setting but hiding away from the counterpoint of natural goodness or right. All of the different factions, including the forces of the Imperium, are basically variations of baddies vying to impose their own conditions of Being on the universe. That's fine, as far as it goes - it works as the setting for a tabletop wargame. But there is something thin and unsatisfying about it when it comes to role playing games - being mere rogues in a 'crapsack world' is only to go with the flow, and going with the flow is not the stuff of good fiction, whether emergent or otherwise.

For events to feel as though they have consequence at the individual level within the context of a setting like that of Warhammer 40K, which is defined by all-or-nothing conflict, they have to be accompanied by the sense that the individuals involved are in some sense wrestling with and against the very conditions of that conflict. I am much more interested in the idea of people in the Warhammer 40K universe trying to do good in terms of a vision of morality that sits entirely at odds with the prevailing morality across the conflicting factions than I am in the basically cosmetic choice of picking between those factions, or the superficial one of glorying in grimdark kitsch. A Warhammer 40K roleplaying game in which the PCs hunt daemons or battle orks is one thing. One in which they try to do good in a different sense is much more appealing.

What I want, I realise I am saying, is for Gene Wolfe to come back from the dead and write Warhammer 40K fiction. Then we would be cooking with gas.

Wednesday 5 June 2024

The Monster Kills XP Economy

Advancement systems in D&D must always, to my eye, be intrinsic, pseudo-objective and at least quasi-quantifiable. They should in other words relate to events that happen 'in universe' rather than in the context within which play take place (ruling out, for example, XP for 'good role playing'); they should leave as little as possible to subjective judgments by the DM (ruling out, for example, 'story goals'), and there should be some plausible connection between the amount of XP awarded and what it is being awarded for (1 XP per GP; 25 XP per HD of monsters killed; etc.). This is all geared basically towards keeping the DM somewhat honest, and ensuring that the incentives point towards player agency rather than railroads - the result should be that the players want their PCs to go on adventures because of some intrinsic motivation rather than 'because it's the plot'. If the PCs are getting XP for 'story goals', they are by definition wedded to 'the story'. If they get XP for treasure, all they have to do is look for treasure - wherever and however they like.

(I say 'pseudo-objective', because in the end the DM is in charge of setting up the conditions in which play will take place, and it is therefore always inevitably within his gift to determine, for example, how much treasure is actually available in the setting for the PCs to discover, what monsters inhabit the local region, and so on and so forth. And I say 'quasi-quantifiable', because obviously to a certain extent the relationship between the XP value and the underlying token - GP, say, or monster kills - is arbitrary; why should it be 1 XP per GP rather than 1 XP per SP or 5 XP per GP?)

All of this is now known and I know that I am teaching all of you grandmothers out there to suck eggs and preaching basic, primary school level OSR knowledge. But still, it seems important to lay out my bona fides all the same.

XP for gold is therefore in any case the gold standard (see what I did there?) for an advancement system, because it does exactly what it says on the tin - it provides an incentive for the PCs to adventure and it prevents DM arbitrariness. But there are viable alternatives. One would be XP for exploration - based on the number of hexes travelled, or the number of hexes fully explored, or a similar mechanism. Or one could even come up with a method for awarding XP for 'adventure' - giving XP for simply encountering things, or being made subject to particular magical effects, or for descending dungeon levels, and so forth.

The main rival for XP for gold, though, would probably have to be XP for monster kills, since it seems to make intuitive sense: combat is after all often the most enjoyable and immersive aspect of play, and it has an 'in-universe' logic to it in that killing monsters is probably both useful and would also help a person develop his abilities in the crucible of life-and-death confrontation. 

When I run D&D I mainly rely on an XP for gold system but I do award XP for monster kills on the basis of the little table found in the Rules Cyclopedia. What this typically means in practice, though, is that XP for monster kills is like a thin sliver of icing on a very fat slice of cake. It is big treasure hauls which see PCs advancing from level to level; the monster kills don't really move the dial. What I don't see emerging, in other words - because the totals are so comparatively small - is a monster kills XP economy. 

What I would expect if I increased the XP awards for monster kills (from, say 25 XP or so per HD to 250 XP) and abandoned XP for gold entirely is a radical restructuring of player incentives that I think would play out as follows:

  • Players would still be incentivised to go out on adventures but their tolerance for risk would I think increase. Under an XP for gold system, the incentive is to try to amass as much treasure as possible while minimising the risk of monster encounters. An XP for monster kills system would I think reward more risk-taking behaviour: trying to take out the local ancient red dragon despite perhaps not quite being 'ready' for it, because of the big XP haul that would result.
  • A genuine monsters kills economy would I think emerge, in the sense that the players would still need to get money from somewhere to fund their lifestyles and buy their necessaries. It seems likely that the selling of monster body parts would become quite an important aspect of what would happen during gaming sessions; it also seems likely that securing payment for bringing in bounties or monster scalps - or even assisting in trophy hunts - would also become part of proceedings.
  • Aimless roaming might be encouraged. PCs would actually desire, rather than actively avoid, random encounters. And they may very well decide that simply striking out into the wilderness on long journeys would be a good way of triggering them.
  • Killing monsters would become more important than defeating, out-smarting, or avoiding them (without, of course, a tweak to the concept). This would result in a more violent and aggressive approach to the game world - although this might be channelled in an interesting direction if XP was only awarded for killing certain types of monsters (demons or evil undead, say, in a game in which the PCs are all paladins). 
This seems to suggest that the result would be a more 'gamified' and superficial engagement with the setting on the part of the PCs. Discuss. 

Friday 31 May 2024

Reflections on a City

I had the pleasure of being spirited away on a business trip to spend much of the last week in and around the old town on the castle hill of Budapest. 

Hungary is a country that, to the European outsider, is encountered through a thin veil of fantasy. The Hungarians are Europeans, no doubt, but they retain a hint of the vast Eurasian steppe about them. Their language, and the aesthetic preferences rumoured in their art, crafts and architecture, speak of roots in an altogether different substrate to that of the peoples who surround them. 

The consequence is that Budapest, to the non-Hungarian, is a city that feels as though it ought to belong in a different plane of existence. It is a city with magic in the air - rumoured in the distance, or stowed away in secret attics, or hidden behind ornate doorways or at the end of high narrow alleyways. Never even really glimpsed except, if one is fortunate, at the extreme periphery of one's vision, like a flitting shadow. 

A feeling that there are things being said and done behind closed doors that one cannot dream of but suspects are filled with strange import and concealed meaning. A feeling that beyond upstairs windows are meetings and whisperings in rooms decorated with signs and symbols in gold leaf or etched in silver. Summonings and secrecy. Old books in old languages filled with old knowledge and paged by old fingers, read by ancient eyes. 

A feeling that one is on the border of something grand and mighty and distant - a shard of another reality that stabs into our own.

A feeling that it is a city of adventure - of cellars that lead to labyrinths and mazes, of wizards' studies, of collectors of rarities and obscurities, of pipe-smokers and calligraphers, of softly murmured rumour in coffee shops and over goulash or dishes of river fish, of antique shops selling merchandise of unknowable origin and vast heritage, of sidelong glances and whisperings in ears. A city defined by a public face which cannot fully conceal the private mind. 

Ultimately, the city-based campaign is one of great appeal. A city can contain worlds within it. Dungeons hidden beneath streets, of course, but also portals to other dimensions - not to mention conspiracies, plots, assassinations, subterfuge and secret war. What is especially noticeable about it is that it presumes that much of what passes for adventure is to a greater or lesser extent deliberately hidden. What goes on in terms of adventure must in some degree go on in a fashion concealed from polite or 'normal' society. A visit to Budapest was enough to kindle my appreciation for this kind of game, since as an outsider I was by definition required to approach the city in that vein - as a place whose real nature was partially disguised from me. I recommend a visit.

Friday 24 May 2024

Eddison-Tolkien-Zelazny: The Sweet Spot

I am currently engaged in something of a strange literary enterprise in that I am daily listening to an unabridged (and utterly fantastic, by the way) Audible audiobook of The Worm Ouroboros by ER Eddison on my way to and from work, but reading The Chronicles of Amber by Zelazny at night. (These are both re-reads after many years, although I don't know if I ever finished Ouroboros when I encountered it long ago.) 

It is hard to imagine two more stylistically different literary works, for all that they are in content oddly similar (both being, in the end, fun adolescent fantasy romps which unashamedly lionise an old fashioned, 'Boy's Own Adventure Story' aesthetic - and both, oddly enough, commencing with a short framing 'real world' narrative which has no bearing on the actual story). Ouroboros is written in a wonderfully self-conscious pastiche of early modern English in which there are absolutely no visible seams: the verisimilitude is total. Viz:

When the King was come into his high seat, with Corund and Corinius on his left and right in honour of their great deeds of arms, and La Fireez facing him in the high seat on the lower bench, the thralls made haste to set forth dishes of pickled grigs and oysters in the shell, and whilks, snails, and cockles fried in olive oil and swimming in red and white hippocras. And the feasters delayed not to fall to on these dainties, while the cupbearer bore round a mighty bowl of beaten gold filled with sparkling wine the hue of the yellow sapphire, and furnished with six golden ladles resting their handles in six half- moon shaped nicks in the rim of that great bowl. Each guest when the bowl was brought to him must brim his goblet with the ladle, and drink unto the glory of Witchland and the rulers thereof. 

Somewhat greenly looked Corinius on the Prince, and whispering Heming, Corund's son, in the ear, who sat next him, he said, "True it is that La Fireez is the showiest of men in all that belongeth to gear and costly array. Mark with what ridiculous excess he affecteth Demonland in the great store of jewels he flaunteth, and with what an apish insolence he sitteth at the board. Yet this lobcock liveth only by our sufferance, and I see he hath not forgot to bring with him to Witchland the price of our hand withheld from twisting of his neck." 

Now were borne round dishes of carp, pilchards, and lobsters, and thereafter store enow of meats: a fat kid roasted whole and garnished with peas on a spacious silver charger, kid pasties, plates of neats' tongues and sweetbreads, sucking rabbits in jellies, hedgehogs baked in their skins, hogs' haslets, carbonadoes, chitterlings, and dormouse pies. These and other luscious meats were borne round continually by thralls who moved silent on bare feet; and merry waxed the talk as the edge of hunger became blunted a little, and the cockles of men's hearts were warmed with wine. 

"What news in Witchland?" asked La Fireez. 

"I have heard nought newer," said the King, "than the slaying of Gaslark." And the King recounted the battle in the night, setting forth as in a frank and open honesty every particular of numbers, times, and comings and goings; save that none might have guessed from his tale that any of Demonland had part or interest in that battle. 

La Fireez said, "Strange it is that he should so attack you. An enemy might smell some cause behind it." 

"Our greatness," said Corinius, looking haughtily at him, "is a lamp whereat other moths than he have been burnt. I count it no strange matter at all." 

Prezmyra said, "Strange indeed, were it any but Gaslark. But sure with him no wild sudden fancy were too light but it should chariot him like thistle-down to storm heaven itself."

This can be contrasted with Zelazny's hardboiled prose, in which no matter the occasion or context everybody sounds like they hail from the Midwestern USA circa 1971. Here we find the main character, Corwin, having a conversation with a camp follower in a pseudo-Arthurian setting:

'Let's have another glass of wine.'
'It'll go to my head.'
I poured them.
'We are all going to die,' she said.
'I mean here, soon, fighting this thing.'
'Why do you say that?'
'It's too strong.'
'Then why stick around?'
'I've no place else to go. That's why I asked you about Cabra.'
'And why you came here tonight?'
'No. I came to see what you were like.'
'I am an athlete who is breaking training. Were you born around here?'
'Yes. In the wood.'
'Why'd you pick up with these guys?'
'Why not? It's better than getting pig shit on my heels every day.'

Nobody can question Zelazny's storytelling power, his pacing, or his skill for deploying dialogue, but this, my friends, is the precise opposite of verisimilitude: demigods and medieval camp followers would not talk like they hail from the late 20th century USA - and certainly wouldn't sound as though they had just stepped out of an afternoon TV mystery movie, as these two do. Don't get me wrong: I love the Amber books, but Zelazny was very much a storyteller first and a worldbuilder a far distant second. His settings never strike the reader as plausible worlds in their own right, but as mere backdrops for the plot. 

We can think of Zelazny and Eddison as being two poles on a spectrum in fantasy literature - the former strongly emphasising the telling of a good story at the expense of detail, and the latter lovingly and almost obsessively painting a picture of a fully realised and inhabited world. I like both; I have a hard time accepting that Eddison's is not by far the greater achievement, but it is hard to find a more entertaining series in the fantasy canon than the first five Amber books. 

One of the reasons why I think Tolkien still stands supreme in the genre is that his work strikes almost the perfect middle between these two extremes. He is a thousand times more accessible than Eddison (one can hardly imagine a Peter Jackson blockbuster version of The Worm Ouroboros) but a thousand times weightier than Zelazny. Hence, for example:

'Begone, foul dwimmerlaik, lord of carrion! Leave the dead in peace!' 

A cold voice answered: 'Come not between the Nazgul and his prey! Or he will not slay thee in thy turn! He will bear thee away to the houses of lamentation, beyond all darkness, where thy flesh shall be devoured, and thy shrivelled mind be left naked to the Lidless Eye.' 

A sword rang as it was drawn. 'Do what you will; but I will hinder it, if I may.' 

'Hinder me? Thou fool. No living man may hinder me!' 

Then Merry heard of all sounds in that hour the strangest. It seemed that Dernhelm laughed, and the clear voice was like the ring of steel. 'But no living man am I! You look upon a woman. Eowyn I am, Eomund’s daughter. You stand between me and my lord and kin. Begone, if you be not deathless! For living or dark undead, I will smite you, if you touch him.' The winged creature screamed at her, but the Ringwraith made no answer, and was silent, as if in sudden doubt.

Nobody could accuse these people as sounding like they are from 1970s Illinois, but at the same time the prose is perfectly digestible and understandable to a reasonably well-read adolescent - as most people reading this blog can probably attest. Tolkien presents with a totally coherent world, so real and so complete that it feels as though it exists, but in a way which still allows us to easily access it - there is no requirement, as there is with Eddison, to spend a while getting one's ear in before one can easily parse the ornate prose. 

What lessons lie here for the D&D DM? Only that every single RPG session I have ever been involved with has, more or less, followed the Zelaznyian mode in the way in which the participants have approached the subject of realism. I feel a sense of regret about this, while recognising the strong biases, incentives and preferences that lead things in that direction. I would love to one day be involved in a campaign in which people invested the time and energy in creating a setting and an experience of Eddisonian depth (if not of subject matter and substance) - but I would more than settle for a Tolkienian one. 

Monday 20 May 2024

Make Animal Fantasy Great Again

I am a qualified fan of animal fantasy - I confess it. My tastes lean more towads the quasi-realistic Watership Down/Duncton Wood end of the spectrum, wherein the animals basically act like animals except for having human-level intelligence and being able to 'speak' an actual language; while I adored the Redwall books in particular as a child, as an adult the inconsistencies in size dynamics between the different animal kinds and their surroundings makes the events depicted impossible to really visualise. But the basic concept appeals wherever on that spectrum it appears.

It's a source of some regret to me that there is no animal fantasy OSR game or campaign setting, at least that I know of,* which does what I think animal fantasy really needs to do in the sense of creating a plausible-seeming depiction of anthropomorphic animals such as they do not simply come across as 'furries' or as human beings in funny suits, but rather as actual sentient animal species. Join me then while I dream up a list of central characteristics that a proper animal fantasy OSR game needs to have in order to merit the description of being truly Great.

First, it should be embedded in a real-world ecology and geography. What I mean by this is that animal fantasy is going to be inherently more interesting if it is based on the anthropomorphisation of animals from a particular biome - a fantasy England in which there are harvest mouse-people, badger-people, hedgehog-people, robin-people etc.; a fantasy Japan in which there are crane-people, fox-people and deer-people; a fantasy Botswana in which there are secretary bird-people, cheetah-people and eland-people, and so on and so forth. Too much animal fantasy is based on the same bog standard set of cutesy species from basically Western European environments, and too much of it feels divorced from a specific region or locality. 

Second, it should follow through on doing justice to the goal of creating plausible sentient animal civilisations. In particular, it should think clearly about the type of civilisation a race of intelligent predators, or a race of intelligent birds, or a race of intelligent herbivores, would produce. Animals definitionally are not human, so the kinds of societies which such an RPG depicts should not seem like human societies as such - their core assumptions should be different, and flow from the type of animal species depicted.

Third, it should be founded in fantasy - it should involve magic, and weird gods, and the other trappings of fantasy, because that's what the audience is entitled to expect. Fantasy without magic feels wrong. (This is another major failing of Redwall.)

Fourth, it should acknowledge the founding sin of all animal fantasy, which is that it makes no sense which animal species get anthropomorphised and which don't. One has to simply accept that there are going to be mouse-people (or whatever) but they are mostly surrounded by ordinary animals - spiders, butterflies, beetles, and so on which are the 'proper' size in the sense of being about as big to a mouse-person as they are to a human. One could make an interesting animal fantasy setting in which everything is its 'proper' size, but this becomes hard to make work logistically if different animal species find themselves interacting. 

The best approach structurally is I think to decide where in the world the setting is based (let's, despite my earlier comments, use the British Isles as a basic template) and then take somewhere between 5-10 'core' species that are going to get the anthropomorphism treatment: let's say rabbits, stoats and weasels, blackbirds, wrens, newts, badgers, and pheasants. And then one would need to sit down and think through carefully what type of societies, what type of religions, what type of magic systems, and so on, these creatures would create - whether in isolation from each other or in a more symbiotic form.

For instance, it seems to me that one could readily dream up a type of society in which the lower-classes are rabbits, living a relatively independent existence as subsistence farmers or serfs, but who owe a kind of fealty to an aristrocracy of stoats and weasels who get to periodically come and kill and eat sacrificial victims on the basis of being pseudo-protective demigods. (Something like this type of society was indeed depicted in The Sparrow, a book which does not get recommended enough in OSR circles.) Or you could dream up a society of blackbirds which forms a kind of dispersed empire of different pockets of forest scattered across a very wide territory - because, since birds can fly, they see no particular need to rule a contiguous physical space. Or a society of badgers who live underground in hugh cathedral-setts ruled over by 'dominant' sows. Or a society of pheasants who roam nomadically over vast ranges and place little to no value on each other's lives. Or a society of newts who create lake-cities and form together for orgiastic religious mating rituals and protect each other's spawn in underwater fortresses. And so on and so forth.

The greatest controversy of RPG animal-fantasy of the OSR stripe would probably be species-as-class. I can see the arguments on either side, but I suspect this may spark a culture war the likes of which we have not seen since the days of G+.

*There was long ago an attempt.

Monday 13 May 2024

Ungoliant's AI

But she had disowned her Master, desiring to be mistress of her own lust, taking all things to herself to feed her emptiness; and she fled to the south…Thence she had crept towards the light of the Blessed Realm; for she hungered for light and hated it. In a ravine she lived, and took shape as a spider of monstrous form, weaving her black webs in a cleft of the mountains. There she sucked up all light that she could find, and spun it forth again in dark nets of strangling gloom, until no light more could come to her abode; and she was famished. - JRR Tolkien, from The Silmarillion

We return, my friends, to a familiar theme: the Satanic nature of AI art (see also, for example, here).

Notice how Ungoliant is described by Tolkien: evil is only, and can ever only be, parasitic. It draws in and 'sucks up', and then 'spins' the results forth again 'in dark nets of strangling gloom' - it does not create. And in the end it becomes famished, precisely because nothing about it is nourishing (one can think of it, in fact, as the absence of nourishment). 

Hence, of course, Morgoth and Sauron (and Saruman, their pale imitator) cannot create either - they can repurpose and redesign and corrupt what already exists, but they cannot make afresh. They can at best deploy machines to extract what they can from the earth and forge it into materials they can use, but they add nothing to creation itself.

This is fundamentally what AI does - and, for the avoidance of doubt in case there are any literalists out there, I do not mean to suggest that AI is actually Satanic in the sense that the devil is behind it - in that it simply trawls through, and 'sucks up' what already exists, in order to spit it out into repurposed, repackaged chunks. The results are thin, vapid pastiche, interesting only inasmuch as it can fool the human eye into thinking it was produced by a real person, or insofar as it is fascinating trying to figure out what it will do next. It is not substantively art in the sense that it can move, or transcend, or communicate the sublime.

What it can also do is creep us out. In my previous writings on the subject, I have noted that there is something ineffably eerie about AI-produced images - there is a kind of deadness to them. Yet at the same time they also manage to communicate a sense of flat affect, particularly in the human visage - as though the people it depicts have seen great sadness, and horror, and that they have come to the conclusion that the only appropriate means of interacting with the world is to disengage from its pain and sorrow:

It struck me as almost too 'on the nose', then, when I came across this highly thought-provoking piece on the subject of how AI training sets are put together and curated. It begins with the findings that LAION-5B, one of the biggest and most important AI training sets, contains thousands of images of the sexual abuse of children (which in itself I think should probably give you pause if you are in the habit of using this new toy). But it goes from there in an interesting direction, showing to us that what we think of as 'AI' is very much human-directed, and reliant of human input, in this case assessments made by actual human beings to vet the quality of images. As the authors of the piece make clear, this means that while we might think of AI as applying a kind of neutral 'brute force' method of generating images, it is actually doing it on the basis of a set of preferences of real-world human beings, and these are human beings of a very particular kind:

The creators of SAC are transparent about the shortcomings of the set, specifically the fact that the scores were submitted by users who were both WEIRD (Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic) and developers of AI art, a demographic they describe as leaning toward "nerdy" and "esoteric." Furthermore, they admit that most of the ratings in the dataset were submitted by a "handful of users," whose "aesthetic preferences dominate the dataset."...The concepts of what is and isn't visually appealing can [therefore] be influenced in outsized ways by the tastes of a very small group of individuals, and the processes that are chosen by dataset creators to curate the datasets.

The point here of course is that the type of person who develops AI art and is therefore 'nerdy' and 'esoteric' is likely to be the kind of person who has been hardened by many years of prolonged internet usage against any sort of geniune feeling, and has come to adopt the highly-arch, sardonic, sarcastic and cynical perspective within which any long-term internet user invariably comes to marianade. It is the tastes and preferences of this kind of person - we all know this kind of person - which influence the composition of the datasets on which AI art is generated, and it is their emotional tone which therefore bleeds through most strongly in the AI art which we end up seeing. We don't really see this explicitly, but I think we (those of us who feel as I do, anyway) intuit something of it in the pervasive sense of unease and inchoate nastiness which pervades this stuff wherever it is encountered. It is I think the type of art that would be prized by Melniboneans, or Melkor - and there is actually a reason why it feels that way.