Thursday 28 March 2024

On Emotion in the Creative Process

I have written a lot in this blog about AI and machine learning, and have probably established my credentials as a sceptic. It is not 'intelligence' and it will not, in my view, ever be able to create anything other than curious pastiche. That is not the same as saying it will not create things that people will utilise: most popular entertainment is basically pastiche. And these days 'entertainment' seems increasingly to mean addictive clickbait, at which AI will presumably excel. But it will not produce anything really worth reading, watching, or hearing.

This is because - I know this will shock and appall readers - human beings are not rational. We make our decisions on the basis of emotions. And anything that does not have emotions therefore cannot replicate human thought or decision-making. In this regard, I strongly recommend listening to this interview with Robert Burton, a neurologist who has written extensively on knowledge and decision-making. A transcript of the crucial passage in the interview runs as follows:

[There was] a cardiac surgeon of some repute, who did a study of whether or not hands-off massage--I have forgotten the name for it now but it's when you run your hand over the patient's body but don't actually touch them--will improve cardiac surgery. And, when they asked him why he came up with this idea, he said, 'Well, I had no a priori opinion on this.' Then, I would say, 'Why would you do this study?' I mean, that would be the equivalent of saying...eating lasagna helped cardiac surgery. You'd say, 'Why?--' and this was sort the plea that I have in my second book, is that: Scientists initiate almost all research, and I mean, I say, 'almost all' I'm just trying to be generous, from the point of view of some preconception. Often one that they don't understand at all. But it's just one that tweaks them. And I was--you think about Albert Einstein and the theories of relativity, and he was working at the Swiss patent office, and one of the big issues at the time was with the nature of time and getting railroad scheduling. So, trying to arrive on time. And he wasn't the only one thinking about it. Now, the question is: If he hadn't worked in the patent office, would he have come up with the same idea? Maybe. Maybe not. But did thinking about time and getting it so the trains--triggered an experiment about the man on the train? Well, you never know. I wouldn't call that a bias. I would just call that prior experience and his native temperament have shaded the way he starts thinking about the experiment. And that's not overcome-able.

The crucial phrases are there in bold. Human beings - even scientists, who are purportedly 'rational' - decide what they are going to investigate, and how they are going to investigate it, on the basis of emotion. Otherwise, why would they be interested in the thing they are investigating, as opposed to the infinite range of other topics they could be investigating? Why are they interested in investigating anything at all? The answers to those questions are based in 'prior experience and native temperament', on how the scientist is being 'tweaked' (which is to say, irrational motives), and not on reason. Why did Einstein investigate relativity? Because he was interested in it. And the 'being interestedness' is itself rooted in emotion, not rationality.

The emotion, then, comes first and is crucial. Why do we get out of bed in the morning? Because we feel that there is a reason to, as opposed to not doing it. More pertinently, why do we want to create a piece of art in the first place, let alone actually go about the process of doing it? Precisely because, well, we want to. The feeling and wanting are necessary - they are where volition comes from. And they are what dictate to us the direction in which we will go during the creative process. Human creativity is in other words only partly iterative, and only partly based on prior influences and knowledge of the genre in which one is working. It is emotion that dictates the decision-making processes which are continually made during the production of any given work of art.

There is a great interview available on YouTube between Rick Beato and Billy Corgan. You'll get a huge kick out of it if you're a Smashing Pumpkins fan and should listen to the whole thing. But if you're not, and just want to get to the salient segment, start listening at this point, an hour and five minutes in. Having been asked about the songwriting process, Billy makes clear that drawing from existing influences is only a very minor part of the exercise. Again, to provide a (somewhat paraphrased) transcript:

'Sometimes it might help when you get stuck to think...well, what would John Lennon do? What would Bob Marley do here? Sometimes that can just get you across the line... But as far as the core of what I do, it's always a mystery to me. And the best way I can describe it to somebody is, I'm at home playing the piano, and I'm singing a melody, and I'll sing a note, and I'll think, that's kind of a weird note, so I'll find the note on the piano... [and sometimes] it's dissonant....and I'll think, 'well that's wrong'. So I'll resing the melody, 'correctly', and there's a little guy in my head that goes, 'No', and there's an argument in my brain, and I cannot, not hear the melody that my brain is telling me to sing, so that's the melody.... and if I derogate from it, there's a voice in my head that says, 'No, that's the wrong melody'...'

He goes on (very illuminatingly when thinking about AI):

'There's the computer part [in my brain], and then there's the part which is felt emotion. It's hard to explain.... You're playing something and you think, well, this part's okay. You try something and you go, well that's a little bit better. But maybe it's too weird or out of context...and then you're into the binary choice of whether to go for the D, which is the 5th, or I could go to the F which is the flatted 7th of a G or something, and then you sing one way, and then you sing the other, and you sit there and go, eeny meeny miny mo....I think that's the moment that makes you a songwriter.'

The point, of course, is that the 'eeny meeny miny mo' moment is where emotion comes in. At any given point in time, when writing a melody, one could come up with one note, or another note, or indeed any other of a range of notes. At that level, the human creative process is the same as an AI process. The difference is that the decision of which note comes next to the human is rooted in emotion, whereas to the AI it can only be rooted in reference to other songs which it 'knows'. The human can make a leap based in the logic of feeling. An AI can only, metaphorically, act randomly or by reference to 'What would John Lennon/Bob Marley do?' reasoning. 

This is the difference between art and pastiche. And this is why 'artificial' 'intelligence' will not produce art. 

Monday 25 March 2024

Thoughts on the Theory and Doctrine of Golems

It is an important question, I'm sure you will agree, as to what qualifies as a 'golem' as distinct from an automaton, an animated statute, and so on. It has long troubled me that the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual treats Frankenstein's monsters, clay golems, doll golems, gargoyle golems, juggernauts and scarecrows as a single category, when to my eye these are an impossibly wide variety of fundamentally different types of thing that are being wrongly brought under the same umbrella. Many a night have I lain awake, tossing and turning in my bedclothes, staring at the shadows on the ceiling and whispering hoarsely to myself about the infelicities of this deep, fundamental misunderstanding and what it suggests to me about the impending dissolution of the world of concepts - this tends to happen when I've been at the whisky. In any event, it's about time I got this off my chest: YOU CANNOT HAVE A MEANINGFUL CAMPAIGN IF STRICT DEFINITIONS ABOUT WHAT IS, AND IS NOT, A GOLEM ARE NOT MADE OUT. 

To a certain extent, philology can guide us. According to wikipedia, the word 'golem' appears in Biblical Hebrew once in the Bible, as golmi, meaning 'my light form' or 'my raw material', as in an unfinished, incomplete or uncultivated human being. This has some important corollaries.

The first is that a golem must have a humanoid form. This instantly rules out juggernauts, gargoyles, and so on (though, I would argue, they will also be ruled out for other reasons which I will come to). 

The second is that a golem must be fashioned from 'raw material'. This rules out finished goods such as stained glass or steel, and also anything that is or has been alive, such as flesh or wood. It also rules out things like scarecrows and dolls that may have been created for a particular purpose and are now being repurposed as an animated slave/servitor.

The third is that a golem must be unfinished or incomplete in the sense that it is not fitting for some other purpose than being a golem. In other words, something that had an independent existence as, say, a statue, objet d'art, etc., and is now being animated for use as a putative 'golem' is not in fact one. 

It follows that there are other categories into which it is more appropriate to put things like juggernauts or scarecrows, to wit:

Animated statues are things like gargoyle 'golems' and stone 'golems' which were originally created for an inanimate, cosmetic/aesthetic purpose and have subsequently been animated.

Automata are things, mechanical or otherwise, that have been 'finished' as putative 'golems' - this would include, for example, juggernauts, steel 'golems', clockwork 'golems', glass 'golems', and so on.

Animated objects are things like scarecrows, doll 'golems', animated chairs and tables, etc., which were created for some original useful purpose but are not deployed as moving servants. Some sages dispute whether perhaps animated statutes and animated objects are in fact two sub-categories of a broader category.

Reanimations are things that were once alive and have now been, well, re-animated - whether as a whole or in a collection of parts. The flesh golem would be the archetypal example, but a golem made from wood would perhaps be another.

It also follows that the only two types of 'golem' listed in the Monstrous Manual that actually qualify as golems are clay, and possibly iron and stone on the proviso that the latter two types must not be statues that have been later animated, but must be crude, unfinished humanoids fashioned from the material in question. It also follows that there may be other varieties of golem that are as yet undiscovered - for example, golems formed from the mud at the bottom of the sea, or from soft metals, or from ambergris perhaps.

Wednesday 20 March 2024

Three Boos for AI

Readers who have been following along with my posts about AI in RPG publishing (see here, here, here and here) may be interested to read the latest missive from the excellent Ted Gioia. In it, he describes how tech nerds at the SXSW conference this year, well, roundly booed a video extolling the virtues of AI:

At first, just a few people booed. But then more and more—and louder and louder. The more the experts on screen praised the benefits of artificial intelligence, the more hostile the crowd got.

The booing, he continues: 

started in response to the comment that 'AI is a culture.' And the audience booed louder when the word disrupted was used as a term of praise (as is often the case in the tech world nowadays).

'These people,' he concludes the opening section to his post, 'literally come to the event to learn about new things, and even they are gagging on this stuff.'

He goes on from there to make quite a strong case that we are reaching a tipping point with respect to tech in general, citing various surveys that both he and others have conducted. But in the end he quite rightly makes a more subjective but more forceful argument: 

Almost every one of you feels this in your gut: You can’t trust the tech. Not anymore.


I feel it, you feel it, we all feel it. The world that big tech has imposed on us is, quite simply, a pretty crappy place to be. What we need is to act on this knowledge. And what we can do in our little corner of the multiverse, as elf game enthusiasts, is I think clear: we can tell the truth more. The use of AI art and writing is creatively redundant; it is lame; it is dehumanising; it is the refuge of the unskilled and uninteresting; its results are insipid, soulless and uninspired. It should never be used except perhaps as an amusing toy or meme generator or way to make throwaway clipart to liven up a PowerPoint presentation, and it certainly should never make an appearance in anything approaching work that aspires to be taken seriously. It is the last refuge of scoundrels, and you should stop using it. 

Friday 15 March 2024

Feel like my soul is beginning to expand - look into my heart and you will sort of understand

Sometimes a picture tells a thousand words. Let us, then, tell many thousands of words with the following images, from what I think of as the holy triumvirate of artworks depicting a conceptual World of TSRan (see posts here, here and here). This triumvirate consists of Larry Elmore, Keith Parkinson, and John Howe - the latter of whom never to my knowledge having illustrated anything for D&D, but whose Tolkien pieces were roughly contemporaneous, and certainly just as influential on the formation of my imaginative contours in my early teenage years (as always, click to enlarge):

In the end, if I can add just a few words, I think what makes these pieces so important in building the necessary mood is the combination of three key elements: first, a sense of vastness of scale; second sufficient hyperrealism to allow the viewer to imagine entering the world depicted; and third, a sense of the transcendent or sublime. These are in short romantic images, and it is perhaps helpful to think of the World of TSRan as imbued with romanticism. 

What can also perhaps be observed is that many, if not all, of these pieces are also curiously intimate despite the size and grandeur of the backdrop. The best example of this I think may be the image of Sturm and Flint travelling through the snowy mountains; these are real people, and you can imagine yourself there with them. There is a kind of genius in this.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

Nostalgia, Hope, Wonder: The World of TSRan

I increasingly look to the future with an inchoate sense of foreboding. The physical world around us seems to be deteriorating before our eyes; there is a degeneration of basic civility in our interactions with one another that speaks of a rapid decline in empathy and common decency; young people walk about in a daze as though shell-shocked by the cataclysmic forces their constant phone use has unleashed on their psyche. This doesn't end well, and it's not in the gift of our political, cultural or religious leaders to fix. 

I therefore become less and less interested in 'dark' themes. The skies are darkening enough. What I would rather do is try to carve out creative spaces in which I (and ideally other people) can re-engage with the best aspects of human imaginative potential - our love for what was good about the past; our capacity to hope; and our excitement about being alive in a glorious world and universe more extensive than we can dream of. This is not naive escapism, but what one might call - if one were of a mind to be provocative - committed escapism: escape not for the sake of running away, but for the sake of re-engagement with certain things that make it good to be alive. Who knows? If enough people start doing it, maybe together we can get somewhere.

Almost two years ago I wrote a post about The World of TSRan, an idea for a campaign world which tries to recapture and also improve upon and intensify what was good about the way high fantasy was imagined in the AD&D of the period 1985-1995. This is an idea that is dear to my heart. Being an adolescent boy is pretty crap, but reading through the material TSR put out in those days - everything seemingly illustrated by Larry Elmore or Keith Parkinson, everything writ large across vast landscapes that made one desperate to run out without a pocket handkerchief and go exploring, everything relentlessly emphasising adventure adventure adventure - was a call to a world that was bigger, grander, and imbued with potential. It suggested not just that there were no limits on what could be imagined but also that what could be imagined could itself be aspirational. One could imagine beauty, and awe, and spectacle, and daring deeds, and that could in itself give you the wherewithal to transcend the limitations around you and make real the burning ambition to be someone, and do things, and leave one's mark. One might, if one tried hard enough, imagine oneself to glory

Partly, the appeal is of course nostalgia - what I earlier called our love for what was good about the past. And the past was good (not perfect); characterised by human interaction largely unmediated through technology; by emebeddedness in community; by a sense that what was coming tomorrow would be largely the same as today but slightly and gradually getting better. I've written this before on the blog, but watch an episode of Friends, or Frasier, or Seinfeld, or an early episode of The Simpsons, if you want to recapture that optimistic world - a world that had its flaws but that was characterised by smiles, humour, conversation, affection. But it is not just that which makes the World of TSRan such an alluring place. It is also that it is filled with hope, and wonder - a dangerous world, to be sure, but one in which it is possible to make one's name, and to see and experience great things along the way. 

One can achieve this, I think, without being too twee, and in acceptance of a certain amount of po-facedneess. What makes the World of TSRan so compelling is that despite its cheesiness it is sincere, and in its sincerity it transcends cliche. It is a world in which in the end - in the distant, distant end - good triumphs over evil and light over dark. Doesn't that sound refreshing set against the backdrop of what we 'consume' by way of culture in 2024?

Monday 11 March 2024

Monsters and Manuals: Best 200 of the First 2000

Dear readers - I am around 40 posts shy of reaching the 2000th post at this blog.

The celebrations can wait until the finishing line is reached, though I have a vague plan to write a post a day for 30 days once I reach the 1970 mark. For the time being, I thought I might enlist your help in a GREAT TASK of INTERNATIONAL IMPORTANCE.

Once the 2000 mark is reached I would like to release a book featuring the best 200 posts on the blog. I might even go crazy and release two versions, one containing the best 200, and one containing the whole thing.

This will be done POD, not via a Kickstarter.

I know that there are many, many thousands of people - possibly millions - who carefully pore over every word I have written here, commit it all to heart, and are able to recite entire posts from memory to impress people at parties. If there are any posts that you really, really liked or think ought really to be included, then please say so in the comments. I will be downloading the whole thing and reading through to make my selection, but it would be good to have my attention directed to any 'greatest hits' in particular that you would like included. 

Friday 8 March 2024

Forget Trump v Biden

The most important decision in all of public life, on either side of the Atlantic, is now before us:

Are frost giants better than hill giants: YES OR NO?

This is the question that has been revealed by what now, in retrospect, appears to be a giant (pun intended) giant primary election in my previous post. The result: exactly the same number of people chose frost as hill giants as their favourites. There is now no alternative but to have a battle royale. Which will win?

I'm sure you will agree with me that the only fair test is simulated combat. 

In the RED corner, with proponents citing its faithfulness to source texts and ancient myth, not to mention its sexy blonde beard and Nordic good looks - the FROST GIANT!

In the BLUE corner, with proponents citing its 'no frills' ape-like brutality - the HILL GIANT!

The rules are straightforward: Marquis of Queensbury Laws of Giant Combat. Each participant has a random allocation of hp based on HD. Round 1 consists of one opportunity to hurl a rock. Then each combat round thereafter is fought on the basis of ordinary melee rules to the death. Initiative is determined by 1d6 rule each round. Let battle commence - no axe or club blows beneath the belt, and keep it clean. 

STATS: Frost giant: 72 hp, AC 0, dmg 2d8+9; Hill giant: 59 hp, AC 3, dmg 2d6+7

Round 1: rock hurling. The hill giant throws first, and HITS, scoring a solid blow to the frost giant's chest (for 11 hp damage). Roaring in anger the frost giant responds and also HITS with a glancing blow to the shoulder (for 5 hp damage).

Frost giant has 61 hp remaining; hill giant has 54

Round 2: melee. The frost giant advances, swinging his axe ineffectually. Ducking contemptuously aside, the hill giant then brings his club smashing into the frost giant's torso, doing 11 hp damage.

Frost giant has 50 hp remaining; hill giant has 54

Round 3: The frost giant again swings and misses, perhaps due to overconfidence, or perhaps due to overeagerness for revenge for the wounds already suffered. The hill giant, inflated by how well the fight is going, experiences a surge of strength and certainty and clouts the frost giant over his helmeted head, doing another 18 hp damage.

Frost giant has 32 hp remaining; hill giant has 54

Round 4: The hill giant now senses an astonishing upset victory. He advances once more and his club of death (tm) slams into the frost giant's now reeling body, doing another mighty 18 hp damage. The frost giant, sensing grave danger, finds that desparation lends strength and accuracy to his arm, and for the first time his axe connects, slicing a great wound across the hill giant's chest (17 hp damage).

Frost giant has 16 hp remaining; hill giant has 37

Round 5: Both giants can now sense that victory may be at hand. The frost giant, bloodied but unbowed, again goes on the offensive, and has now got his eye in at last - he deals the hill giant another grievous blow (19 hp damage). The hill giant, likewise, like a true champion, goes toe to toe with his opponent, giving no quarter, dealing a blow to the head that would have shattered the skull of a lesser giant (14 hp damage).

Frost giant has 2 hp remaining; hill giant has 18

Round 6: It comes down to this. Which of our pugilists can win the knock-out blow? The fate of our age may depend on the outcome; this is serious stuff. Frost giant strikes first! A hit, sir! A palpable hit! Hill giant sways....stumbles....but stays on his feet, suffering 14 hp damage. Steadying himself, he raises his club for the killer blow....and misses (rolling a 2)! The battle comes down to the bitterest end.

Frost giant has 2 hp remaining; hill giant has 4 - I swear I honestly didn't rig this.

Round 7: Which giant can finish the job? One feels as though fate rests entirely on the initiative roll. Frost giant rolls a 4....and so does the hill giant. The tension mounts. Re-roll....frost giant gets a 2...and so does the hill giant. Tension mounts yet further! Re-roll....Frost giant gets a 6 and hill giant gets 2. Ok, will this be it? The giants square off once more and the frost giant swings.... and hits, cleaving the top of the hill giant's skull clean away, so that his brains spill out across the floor as his gigantic carcasse crashes to the ground.

So there you have it, folks. The answer is frost giant. I thought there might be an upset on the cards for a while there (I kept rolling remarkably low on a 1d20 for all of the frost giant's melee attacks) but in the end, D&D combat is almost always a case of higher HD beating lower HD. I hope you tune in next week for, 'Which is your favourite D&D golem?'

Thursday 7 March 2024

Favourite Giant Poll

Philosophy can be defined as the pursuit of answers to permanent questions, and there is no finer example than the question of the best type of D&D giant.

Vote for your own favourite in the comments; I will keep all comments unpublished for 36 hours or so. This is a scientific exercise and the results are of the most fundamental importance. The options, taken from the AD&D 2nd edition Monstrous Manual, are: 



















Monday 4 March 2024

How to OSRise Any Game in One Easy Step

A lot of people have spent a lot of time trying to describe what the 'old school' approach to role playing is in a nutshell. Quite a lot of people have boiled it down to XP for gold, which I think is pretty close. I would, however, nuance and broaden that a bit. The reason why XP for gold works is that it is the easiest way to operationalise an endogenous system of advancement. If getting gold is the thing that gives your PC XP, then it means firstly that advancement is based on something that has reality within the fiction (gold pieces are a 'real' thing within the game world), and secondly that it is not dependent on external judgment of value: the PCs want gold not merely because it results in advancement, but because it actually allows them to do things in the game. 

Everything within the OSR 'style' of play is founded on this, because it is how you make a sandbox environment work (the PCs naturally want to go adventuring in order to get gold in order to advance) and how at least ostensibly you give the PCs agency (they choose how they go about the matter of adventuring). Other methods of awarding XP (for example, story goals, good roleplaying, etc.) do not work in anything like the same way. They are contingent on the players to a certain extent acting so as to please the DM or jump through exogenous hoops that he has put in place. They might be happy with that - no judgement is being made - but the result will be something very different to what OSR gaming is all about.

It follows that you can more or less 'OSRise' any game if you can introduce into it a similar endogenous system of advancement. The best way of doing it I think has to be based on the gathering of money or items of a certain useful type, because this fulfils the requirement that the gathering of the thing has use within the gameworld rather than being a matter of chasing after otherwise meaningless tokens. That could be anything from gathering spells or some other type of magic item, say, to capturing sprits or monsters that provide some benefit; the important point is only the endogeneity of what is being pursued. 

There are other systems of what one might call semi-endogenous advancement systems, being based on achievements that are quantifiable on the basis of actual activities within the game world - the number of hexes visited, the number of miles travelled, the number of monsters of a particular type killed, and so on. But these are not I think perfectly endogenous, because there is no particular usefulness to the PC of performing the activity in question beyond the fact that it provides advancement. They are not like the system of XP for gold, in which the getting of the gold is itself useful in addition to the XP it generates. 

It would be interesting to put the reasoning into effect in the context of other games, such as Cyberpunk 2020, Call of Cthulhu and so on. CP:2020 obviously lends itself to the XP for money dynamic; Call of Cthulhu much less so, but it could be made to function on an 'XP for mystic knowledge' basis. Other games will vary; to repeat, the idea here is not to create a 'better' way of playing those games, but a way to make them more 'OSRish' if that sounds appealing.