Wednesday 31 January 2024

No More Drama

Have you noticed something about my blog, over the past few years? I have. Sit still for a moment and you will too. I want you to be very quiet. Quiet as a mouse. Still your breathing. Don't fidget. Concentrate  for just a moment or two on the sensation of your feet resting in their shoes against the floor. And now listen; listen carefully. Do you notice it? I notice it. It is a beautiful sound, isn't it? It is the sound of the absence of drama.

I miss certain things about G+ and the OSR 'scene' (which I suppose moved to Discords and Twitter and other venues in the aftermath of G+'s demise). But what I don't miss are all the fevered egos who there congregated in order to taint our collective subconscious. You probably know who they are if you were active on G+ in those days too; there is by no means just one name on the list. Well, now I don't have to know who they are anymore, and I can live my life safe in the knowledge that their existence is a blissful irrelevance. And in this respect I am very glad that G+ died.

Some of you will have seen the latest resurfacing of Old G+ OSR Scene Drama round and about the internet. Some of you will not. If you do not know what I am talking about, be glad. If you do, be sorrowful, but rejoice in the fact that you are also 'out of the game' - that you are as a Burkean cow, contentedly chewing the cud, paying no heed to the 'little, shriveled, meagre, hopping, though loud and troublesome insects of the hour'.

We have a poor philosophical understanding of the demoralising effect of having to know about, and to be confronted by, the psychodramas of people who live unsatisfactory lives and write incontinently about those dramas on the internet. But we all know about that effect at gut level. It gets you down. Life is a hundred times better without it. Let us all then take a moment to toast the passing of that era in the OSR's development, and look to the future with an air of greater optimism and calm.

Monday 29 January 2024

The Sunday Seven: 28th January 2024

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

  • You may be amused to learn of the existence of the D&D Lore Wiki, which catalogues 'official Dungeons & Dragons content of every edition, from 1974 to 2024: every monster, NPC, organization, race, character class, magic item, spell, dungeon and place which has ever appeared in an official D&D sourcebook, along with their real-world creators.' 
  • The MIT Press is putting out an academic edited collection on Fifty Years of Dungeons & Dragons, available to pre-order here. Will it be worth reading? I make no predictions. 
  • Speaking of that fiftieth anniversary, The Escapist goes over what Wizards of the Coast is planning for 2024 here. It turns out it involves selling more rules.
  • If you are hungry for oppressive orientalist filth of the Yoon-Suin variety, I recommend Ernest Bramah's Wallet of Kai Lung, available at Project Gutenberg here. I picked up a first edition at a secondhand bookshop about a year ago and finally got around to reading it; it's a fascinating piece, and will I think be the subject of a proper future post.
  • Investigating Censor grows in power and influence. Will this be baleful? Time will tell.
  • I have mentioned this before in the Sunday Seven but you have a few more days to enter Ben Gibson's adventure writing contest
  • Brian at The Silver Key has been blogging longer than I have, which is in itself an insanely long amount of time to be pumping words into the ether. His recent post on organising his bookshelf amused me. I do not organise mine at all - partly because I just enjoy looking at it while I try to find the book I want.

Friday 26 January 2024

Are You Sequel-Worthy?

When it comes to fantasy novels I am now old, jaded and cynical, like the Ron Perlman character in Enemy at the Gates. I like it to be brief and to the point. Unless Gene Wolfe, Jack Vance or JRR Tolkien has written it, 300 pages is too long; I also have a heuristic approach to what I read, which dictates that I will not buy anything written since the year 2000 unless it is by an author I already know and respect.

Ricardo Pinto's The Masters slipped through the net on a technicality; it is less than 300 pages long, and although it was published in 2020 it is a reformulation of a book that came out in 1999. So I gave it a try, and I was very impressed - I recommend it wholeheartedly as the most original fantasy setting I have come across since arriving late, a few years ago, in Urth. It is also genuinely chilling in places - if you thought the 40K universe was grimdark, wait until you've arrived in The Three Lands.

The Masters is, then, sequel-worthy: I think I will read the rest of the series, which is a very unusual decision for me. For the last ten years or more, I have tended to only read the first volume in a series, even if I have rather liked it, because there is always so much else to read, and continuing with a series can therefore often feel like something of a wasted opportunity to encounter something different. It doesn't help of course that a single volume in the typical fantasy series is so interminably long; in this regard Stone Dance of the Chameleon, of which The Masters is the first volume, may be almost unique - and I applaud Pinto's risky decision to produce seven short volumes rather than three big long ones (even though there is undoubtedly a financial rationale at work in that decision, too). 

What are the other sequel-worthy beginnings to a fantasy series? The Fellowship of the Ring, yes, clearly; The Shadow of the Torturer, The Knight and Soldier of the Mist; Nine Princes in Amber for sure, Lyonesse/Suldrun's Garden and I think most of Vance's series if we are counting the SF ones (though probably not the Durdane books, which I read out of a sense of completeness, really); Out of the Silent Planet, and, let's face it, A Game of Thrones too. I have a hard time thinking of other examples of first volumes of series that have really grabbed me and refused to let go. What are yours?

Monday 22 January 2024

On Writing a Fantasy Gamebook

I don't have time to do all of the many things I have to, let alone want to. So it is probably a bad idea to embark on the project of writing a choose your own adventure book. But I have never let that stop me before.

Here is the first entry in the book that I am writing:


Your first memory, perfectly preserved because you touch it so rarely and handle it with the utmost delicacy when you do, is the sight of your father being borne by his household knights across the Laund in the rain, with the people watching in silence from the trees.

Your second memory is of your uncle, Usth, crouching before you in a dark room criss-crossed by sunbeams in which dust motes swim. His hazel eyes hold yours, and he says, softly, ‘Your goal is revenge. From here until it is achieved. This is your fate.’

You third memory is being carried across a wet beach gleaming with the light of the dusk or the dawn - you cannot remember which - towards a vessel being borne gently up and down on the grey waves as it waits for your arrival. You now know this memory to be that of the day of your exile, when you were taken away across the cold sea to the warm place in which you now live, but will never call home.

In the fifteen years since then you have trained to achieve the goal your uncle set for you in that long-ago shadowy room. You have strengthened your body such that you feel as though you are made from iron and stone; you have learned competence in all manner of weapons; you have tested your will against your own weaknesses and indolence and found it triumphant. You are now ready to travel back across the sea to slay those who killed your father and stole from your family everything which it rightfully held.

Your training was comprehensive, but it was evident from a young age that you were endowed with physical gifts, upon which your teaching built. If you were naturally powerful, turn to 87. If you were naturally dextrous, turn to 352. If you were naturally tough, turn to 101.

Friday 19 January 2024

The Importance of the Moon as an Underused Location for Pen and Paper Roleplaying Games

The moon has played an exceptionally important role in the development of the human imagination. The sun gives life; we know this intuitively, and we have long worshipped it as a result. But the moon is different. It stands there in the heavens and seems to suggest to us that our world, the human world, and the sun that gives it warmth and light, are not all that exists in creation. It calls for an explanation. It seems to have its own, cold and pale, source of light. It presents us with mysteries, at times concealing its face and at times revealing it, and sometimes looming larger or even changing its colour. Looking at it carefully, one can discern features on it, which to some cultures resembles a face, to others a rabbit, to others a woman carrying sticks. It is trite to call it 'otherworldly', but that is how even the ancients seem to have thought of it. Is it possible to imagine that human beings would have come up with science fiction if the moon did not exist?

To the hardened SF enthusiast, the moon is old hat; we have even been there. But in a fantasy, or apocalyptic, or 'dying earth' setting, the moon can be anything. Anything can live there; any rules of physics can apply; its pale white surface could conceal any kind of structure or environment one would wish. I have long had the idea of a megadungeon setting called The Mountain to the Moon, but other broad options suggest themselves:

1 - The Alternate History Moon Invasion campaign setting, in which one picks a time period and location (the Thirty Years' War; pre-colonial Australia; Viking Greenland; Great Zimbabwe) and imagines that the inhabitants of the moon (who might be strange humans, aliens, monsters, slumbering gods, whatever) have recently made their appearance on Earth. 

2 - The Voyage to the Moon campaign setting, in which one imagines a journey to the moon taking place at a much earlier point in history than it did in reality, perhaps through discovery of the phlogiston or suchlike; perhaps the voyagers are early moderns, or ancient Greeks, or Incas. 

3 - The Dying Earth, Living Moon campaign setting, in which life on Earth itself has become exhausted and civilisation frayed, and in which the moon has been chosen by the wealthy and powerful as a place to hide from the coming apocalypse.

4 - The Dying Earth, Dying Moon campaign setting (into which category the Mountain to the Moon falls), wherein an ancient civilisation found a way to colonise the moon from Earth, but then fell into irreversible decline and ruin - and now the comparatively degenerate inhabitants of Earth can attempt to ascend to the moon to explore those ruins, recover treasures, and so on.

Suggest your own variations on these themes, or your own themes, in the comments. Let us return the moon to its rightful place at the centre of the human imagination! 

Wednesday 17 January 2024

Gimme Shelter: Tolkien, Wodehouse, Gygax, and D&D

A few years ago, I wrote a piece on D&D as a kind of 'monastery of the mind', which seemed to strike a chord with some readers. 

I was thinking about this earlier today when paging through a PG Wodehouse book and coming across a quote from Evelyn Waugh, I think on the occasion of Wodehouse's death:

'Mr Wodehouse's idyllic world can never stale. He will continue to release future generations from captivity that might be more irksome than our own. He has made a world for us to live in and delight in.'

This finds an echo in what Wodehouse said about his own work: 

'I believe that there are two ways of writing novels. One is mine, making a sort of musical comedy without music and ignoring real life altogether; the other is going right deep down into life and not caring a damn...'

The path of my life reading books, watching films, etc., has gone on an up-and-down trajectory. As a child, like most children, I went for the 'musical comedies without music'; then I grew up, or thought I grew up, and got very into the sort of books that try to go 'right deep down into life'. Now, as time goes on, I find things have gone full circle and I have a newfound appreciation for the type of fiction that ignores real life altogether once more. 

You might be tempted to call this type of thing 'escapism'. And here perhaps you will be thinking of a familiar Tolkien quote:

Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape in this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and, what is more, they are confusing, not always by sincere error, the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.
But I'm not sure if this is quite the right term, because it sounds too grandiose. I, probably like most people reading this blog, live a life of material comfort which my ancestors could only have dreamed of, and - so far at least - do not face much in the way of 'imprisonment' except insofar as I have chosen it for myself. Describing myself as being therefore in jail would be melodramatic. It is rather that real life has become characterised more and more by a kind of fraughtness - neurotic, unfocused, insistent, shrill - and that in such circumstances the natural human instinct I think becomes to take shelter, as though from the storm of unrelenting gibberish and static that contemporary life so often becomes.

The act of giving people that kind of shelter is, I say without exaggeration, an ennobling one. Those who can achieve it (PG Wodehouse and JRR Tolkien among them) deserve to be thought of as great. And I think Gary Gygax and the other creators of D&D can be included in that category, too. Gygax's gifts were not on anything like the order of a wonderful novelist. But his contribution was different: he did not merely provide shelter, but, through his creation, gave each and every reader the opportunity to build their own shelter and provide it to their friends and family. That is a special contribution indeed, and I think one that we appreciate too little. 

Tuesday 16 January 2024

The Institutional Campaign and the Adventuring University


Stamford - a fetching but obscure small Lincolnshire market town - had in the early 14th century a rival to Oxford and Cambridge universities. A falling-out between scholars at Oxford led to a number of them decamping to Stamford, where they set up shop in 1333. But some things never change: Oxford University quickly lobbied the king (Edward III) to put an end to the 'evil, which we think every way hurtful and pestilential, namely, the new assembly of scholars at the town of Stamford for university instructions'. The king duly acted to suppress Oxford's competitor, and the University of Stamford came to an end with a whimper, with the king's emissary and the local sheriff prohibiting any further 'scholastic acts' and threatening the scholars there with total forfeiture of their property if they continued. Stamford sank back into quiescence in academic terms,* though I have passed through it a few times and can confirm it does have a Gregg's, so it's not a complete wash-out. 

The idea of rogue scholars trying to set up a new centre of learning is a fascinating one, and it actually meshes nicely with a longstanding idea of mine, which I call (in my own head, and when I talk to strangers on a park bench) the 'institutional campaign'. The idea here is that players do not have individual responsibility for a PC and his/her retainers, but rather collective responsibility for an institution of some kind - an adventuring guild, temple, order of paladins, monastery of monk-assassins, whatever - and garner XP and treasure as a unit, to then spend either on levelling up individual members of the institution or on expanding/reparing it. I doubt very much I am the only person to have ever thought about doing this, and this is usually the point at which somebody will pop up in the comments to recommend I play X, Y or Z, which does something similar - but the point remains that this is the type of campaign I would like to run.

The idea of a group of adventurer-scholar-sage-wizard (-assassins?) setting up a new place of learning from scratch (and against other, more established such institutions in the region) is I think a rich variant on this theme. Here, I imagine the players taking control of a couple of dozen first level PCs perhaps in a single small building, and having to expand from there. They need money to expand, to buy guards and servants and so on; they need students to come to study; they need to fend off agents of the king and attacks from monsters and robbers; and they need above all to actually get the material with which to teach - new spells, new magic items and materials, new maps of the world, new bestiaries of monsters, new knowledge about the deep dark places under the mountains, new philosophies, new artworks and mystical artefacts, new beasts of wonder, and so on and so forth. Availing themselves of these things allows them to take on new students and open new fields of study and new departments and extensions - not to mention, of course, new members of staff, who presumably inhabit far flung regions of the globe only reachable by long and dangerous journeys.

Would this 'adventuring university' not be a good idea? Would this not be a wonderful variation on the core game? Would writing it not earn me millions of pounds, not to mention the undying loyalty of thousands of devotees? ANSWER ME THESE QUESTIONS.

*Although until the 19th century Oxford graduates apparently still had to swear an oath specifically promising not to ever teach anything in Stamford. 

Thursday 11 January 2024

The Predicates of D&D

One lesson I probably should have learned by now after over 15 years of writing this blog is that, since I treat it as informal, casual brain-splurge, I don't always take the time to properly guide the reader through my thought processes, and this results in misunderstandings (that are sometimes - no pun intended -entirely understandable) . 

An example of this is my recent post about imagining high-level combat, which some people took to be a declaration that I cannot visualise what it would look like if a person was fighting a giant or dragon. That isn't what I meant; we have all of us seen cartoons and read comics when we were children. What I meant was that I find it hard to realistically visualise what a D&D PC would look like fighting a giant or dragon, given that D&D PCs* are not supposed to be quasi-superheroic Peter Jackson-LOTR-style Legolas elves who can manipulate physics and are possessed of extraordinary strength and agility, but are basically supposed to be humans as we know and understand them today.

More simply put: D&D PCs are supposed to be able to do supernatural things, but only on the basis that they derive from magic - spells, magical items, or inherent magical abilities. They are not supposed to be able to do supernatural things merely by virtue of advancing in level or being more experienced. A 1st level PC with a STR of 12 is as strong as a 20th level PC with a STR of 12. And being 20th level shouldn't in itself therefore entitle you to be able to leap 12' in the air, swing about on your arms like a gibbon, penetrate inches of steel with the force of your blows, and so on and so forth. 

The problem in other words is not, properly stated, one of visualisation, but coherence. D&D asks us to imagine a world in which PCs are ordinary humans (or dwarves, elves, whatever) and derive what special abilities they have chiefly from external magical sources. But in combat, at high level, it asks us to imagine they are capable of superhuman things - whether this means physically taking down a vastly bigger opponent or surviving attacks that can only be realistically imagined to cause at best grievous wounds (such as a dragon's breath attack, a boulder thrown by a cyclops, etc.). 

No, this does not make the game unplayable and yes, abstract combat has many virtues. I simply mean to point out that this basic disconnection between what a D&D world is supposed to look like and what happens within the sphere of combat leads to a lack of immediacy or verisimilitude and that this tends to make higher-level gaming less satisfactory or 'vital' in tone and more cartoonish or video-gamey in feel. And that is all.

*Here I should clarify, on the off chance that a random bystander is reading this blog, that I mean D&D in the TSR-era, or OSR, sense.

Tuesday 9 January 2024

Implied Magic, No Magic, Low Magic, Fake Magic

I mentioned in a previous post that I am currently reading The Masters, the first volume in the reworked Stone Dance of the Chameleon series. I vaguely remembered the original iteration of these books (then a trilogy) coming out at the end of the 90s, and I think I read bits of it, but this is something of a director's cut - if by that we mean a redux version that has more volumes (seven) but is actually slimmer and more efficiently told.

I have been impressed by it so far - indeed, it has kindled within me the fire of enthusiasm for the fantasy genre, which I have not felt lo these many years. Fantasy's great sin has been its derivativeness of Tolkien (which manifests even in hostile responses to Tolkien's work, such as those by Moorcock, Harrison, Mieville, and so on); Pinto has I think managed the much rarer feat of copying Tolkien's approach without borrowing any of his furniture, even to react against - a thing which only a very small number of fantasy authors have been able to convincingly achieve. 

Gene Wolfe is the obvious comparator here. I would not put Pinto in his class (though this may of course change as I read through the series), but the project feels to me to be similar: to create worlds which feel as Important and Resonant as Tolkien's Middle Earth, while being in all other respects only accidentally related. Pinto seems to have, whether intentionally or not, achieved this too, and it is in itself a feat worthy of respect - leaving to one side the fact that it is also a genuine page-turner from the start.

There is another point of interesting comparison: Wolfe's Book of the New Sun feels infused with magic (in that case, of course, very advanced technology) but it exists in the background as a kind of permeating force, rather than a plot point or distinct field of knowledge. The characters don't behave as if there is some discrete, identifiable phenomenon such as 'magic' or 'technology'; where it exists at all it is a seamless part of their experience of the world. In Stone Dance of the Chameleon, we get a similar, but even more muted, sense that there is probably something magical going on somewhere, but if it is, it is so natural and normal to the characters that they do not really think of it at all - as a fish does not particularly pay attention to decorative statues in its nicely filtered tank.

I like this type of setting, which I will call (I am not sure I have ever heard anybody name such a category) one with implied magic - implied because it never really comes out and makes the statement: 'A spell will now be cast!' 

It is different to the no magic setting, where as the name suggests there is clearly no such thing as magic at all. The Viriconium stories spring to mind here, as do quite a lot of Moorcock's, and also probably most of A Song of Ice and Fire's early volumes. There will be others, if I think hard enough. (Those Tad Williams books?) Here, it is often the case that having no magic is a statement of some kind - either a refutation of irrationalism or an insistence that the existence of magic pollutes the materiality of the fiction. It doesn't have to be that way, of course, and I have an abiding sense of attachment to the bits of A Song of Ice and Fire that read like a history of the Wars of the Roses happening on a different plane of existence.

The classic low magic setting is Tolkien's The Lord of the Rings, where magic is rare, treated with suspicion, and is hinted to be corrupting. Would one put the Sword of Truth series in this category too? There will, again, be others for those willing to put their thinking caps on. Here, again, it often seems as though the decision for magic to be 'low' is more than an aesthetic choice; it hints that something symbolic is being said about the nature of power.

I am not sure if I have ever come across a fictional setting in which all the characters believe that magic exists and has observable effects but it isn't in fact real (or in which the matter is never decided or made clear either way). This is true for RPG settings also, but could be interesting to experiment with: what if PC magic was all just a matter of legerdemain and bluff?

Thursday 4 January 2024

How Do You Solve a Problem Like the Difficulty in Visualising Combat in a High Level D&D Campaign?

Whether or not you like to admit it, during D&D combat scenes you are typically imagining what is going on in your mind's eye with some vividness. Depending on your personality and tastes, it probably looks something like a Bruce Lee film, something like a Gladiator/Kingdom of Heaven-era Ridley Scott film, something like Ben Hur, something like a Ray Harryhausen film, or something out of an early-90s anime.

The problem I have always had, particularly with high-level play, is that this theatre of the mind tends to break down when it comes to combat with giants, dragons, demons, and so on. What does it look like when your 12th level PC 'hits' a giant with his longsword? A Lilliputian jabbing Gulliver in the toe? What does it look like when your 12th level PC is hit with a glancing blow by a dragon's claws? Twelve-inch long talons that rake the flesh with the faintest of touches? The implied setting is not one in which a PC can suddenly turn into Orloondo Bland's Legolas and start running up an oliphaunt's trunk or skating down a staircase on a shield with a fully-automatic short bow. It basically suggest a fairly realistic assessment about what human beings are physically capable of notwithstanding magic. So how is one supposed to imagine a fight with a very big, or very ungainly, or very oddly-sized or -proportioned enemy?

This is I think one of the primary reasons why D&D campaigns tend to die off after, say, 9th level or so. Not that all do, and not to say that there are no other reasons. But I think it is a significant one: things just get harder to imagine, and become less immediate and immersive as a consequence.


Tuesday 2 January 2024

In the Beginning, There Was the Crocodile

From the first cycle of The Song of the Naacals:

And so it is said that the Home-God having roamed on long wanderings came to a place of rest and there said to himself ‘And here I will sleep and dream of all of the many things that I have seen, and I shall wander no more.’ And so he made for himself in his mind an ocean and set upon it all of the many things that he had seen, that he might dream of swimming among them. 

And so it was so. 

And so it is said that after long years the People who had learned the Ways came to the Home-God and saw that his slumber was filled with dreams and said to one another 'At times let us ascend to this ocean of memory to linger there in bliss beyond the woes and dangers of the World.'

And so it was so.

And so it is said that among the People there were those who cast aside false teachings and said to one another that famine and pestilence and war were close upon them in the World and that they should not remain there. And so it was that those among the People who said such things ascended to the Home-God and there dwelt amongst his memories without returning and said to one another that this was good. 

And so it was so. 

And so it is said that the People who had ascended to the Home-God built for themselves a city to float upon his ocean and that they said to one another, ‘Let us call this place the Unremembered City, since it is the home we have created here and it is not remembered by the Home-God but built afresh. And let us call one another the Unremembered People.’ 

And so it was so. 

And so it is said that the Unremembered People knew great peace and that they prospered there. 

And so it was so. 

And so it is said that after long years in which the Unremembered People knew great peace that Others ascended one by one and that these Others were finally seven and so they came to be known by the Unremembered People as the Seven. 

And so it was so. 

And so it is said that the Seven did not know the Ways and so what they brought with them also remained and so did their memories remain in the dreams of the Home-God. And so it was that the Unremembered People saw this and were dismayed, and they said to one another, ‘What is to be done about the Seven and their memories which now remain the dreams of the Home-God?’ And so it was that the Unremembered People made war upon the memories of the Seven and sought to cast them out. 

And so it was so. 

And so it is said that in the war between the Unremembered People and the Seven there was great power and might and that there arose many heroes and that there was much wrath and woe and ruin. And so it was that in the tumult the Home-God awakened from his slumber and was filled with malice on his waking after his long eons of sleep. 

And so it was so. 

And so it is said that the Unremembered People and their Unremembered City, and the Seven, and all of their memories and the memories of the Home-God too in his malice descended upon the World afresh and that all was in confusion thereafter. 

And so it was so.