Monday 29 April 2024

The OSR is Much, Much Bigger Than You Think

I recently came across a fascinating article, called 'No one buys books', which, while misleadingly titled (it should probably be 'people only buy certain types of books'), is well worth reading. The author basically read through all of the transcripts of a major antitrust trial involving the merger of Penguin Random House and Simon & Schuster. and gleaned from it some fascinating nuggets of information about the business model of publishers. I think I already knew that the publishing industry basically functions on the basis of publishing lots of loss-making books on the basis that one or two each year will be huge bestsellers and make megabucks. But I didn't realise quite the extent to which this is true. From the article:

The DOJ’s lawyer [the DOJ having brought the antitrust case] collected data on 58,000 titles published in a year and discovered that 90 percent of them sold fewer than 2,000 copies and 50 percent sold less than a dozen copies.

The money is basically made from four categories: classics (The Lord of the Rings, etc.), kids' books (The Hungry Caterpillar, etc.), celeb biographies (Michelle Obama, etc.) and franchise authors (Stephen King, etc.). Everything else is almost certainly loss-making, and the numbers are surprisingly small even for books by major public figures:

Representative Ilhan Omar, a Democrat from Minnesota, is no global pop star, but she has a significant social-media presence, with 3 million Twitter followers and another 1.3 million on Instagram. Yet her book, This Is What America Looks Like: My Journey from Refugee to Congresswoman, which was published in May 2020, has sold just 26,000 copies across print, audio and e-book formats, according to her publisher. 

Tamika D. Mallory, a social activist with over a million Instagram followers, was paid over $1 million for a two-book deal. But her first book, State of Emergency, has sold just 26,000 print copies since it was published in May, according to BookScan. 

The journalist and media personality Piers Morgan had a weaker showing in the United States [than the UK]. Despite his followers on Twitter (8 million) and Instagram (1.8 million), Wake Up: Why the World Has Gone Nuts has sold just 5,650 U.S. print copies since it was published a year ago, according to BookScan.

Of course, the big takeaway is, to repeat, that most books don't really sell. In the US market:

[I]n 2020, only 268 titles sold more than 100,000 copies, and 96 percent of books sold less than 1,000 copies.

Yes, you read that correctly. And, yes, it means the OSR is much, much bigger than you think: Yoon-Suin, in the year it was published, sold far more copies than 96% of books put out by actual publishing companies in 2020. It really did. And you will be able to think of books recently put out after successful kickstarters that have sold, or will sell, far, far more copies than that, too.

Of, course, we are not Brandon Sanderson, who recently earned $42 million from a kickstarter campaign to self-publish four novels. (Perhaps The Great North....?) But I find it fascinating that the humble elfgame fare that we collectively vomit forth into the collective subconscious is actually, barring the big exceptions that make the publishing companies their actual money, more lucrative than the vast swathe of contemporary literary fiction. On the one hand, this says something depressing about the state of mainstream publishing and its ability to produce things that inspire people to read them. But on the other, it says something quite extraordinarily positive about our level of cultural influence in comparison to New York publishing houses.

Friday 19 April 2024

Play as Sculpture, Play as Prism

Watching my eldest child and friends engaging in imaginative play, I'm often struck by the fact that what seems to excite them is deciding who gets to be what, and describing the many different situations that could unfold, rather than actually taking on those roles and acting out those scenarios. 'You can be the big sister and I can be the little sister, ok? And your name can be Annie and mine can be Becky.' 'Ok, and we can both be mummies.' 'Yeah, and I'm a doctor but in my spare time I teach aerobics.' 'And I'm a doctor too but I teach swimming. And I have three babies, one boy and two girls.' And so it goes on. And on. And on. And on. After a while they get bored entertaining these options and either move onto something else or shift to a different imaginary landscape: 'Let's be fairies!' But they never actually seem to spend very long doing what they spend an inordinate amount of time imagining themselves being.

This is because the activity of imaginative play really engages two rather different pleasures, and operates in two different modalities (to use a horrible word). 

On the one hand, the undertaking can be thought of as an exercise in foreclosing options. Picture yourself sitting quietly, minding your own business, doing something dull and anodyne - calculating your monthly incomings and outgoings, for example. At this point, you are not really imagining anything at all: your creativity is not at all engaged. Now picture yourself being distracted by some thought or other, and - you'll be familiar with the sensation - shifting your gaze to the middle distance while mental images rise up in your mind.

At this point, you are shifting from a position of complete imaginative openness - you could be imagining literally anything conceivable - to one of gradual imaginative closure. You are imagining nothing, and now you are imagining....a swan floating down a river. Why? It bubbled up from your subconscious. OK: so now you are imagining that, and you by definition can't be imagining any of the other near-infinite things you could be. You've gone from a position of unfettered imaginative freedom to one in which whatever it is you are going to imagining next is going to relate is some way, however indirectly and unpredictably, to swans floating down rivers. Obviously this gives rise to many other options, but it is much, much fewer options than literally anything.

Imagination in that sense is a funny business, and it has a way of leaping about in unfathomable ways: you're thinking about a swan floating down a river one moment and the next, for some reason, you're remembering an ex-girlfriend. Why? There is some reason dwelling in your subconscious why the two things are connected, but heaven knows what. The matter becomes clearer when reflecting on the task of a novelist. A novelist begins with a real or digital blank sheet of paper. He could write anything. But he sets pen to paper and starts to write: 'The frog-man woke in a cold sweat with the bedsheets wrapped tightly around him.' Given that he has written this, in the next sentence the novelist could write many things, but, for the story to make sense, whatever he writes has to relate now to the character of the frog-man and to the fact that he is in bed, has been apparently feverish and dreaming, and so on. And what he writes next will have to relate to those things. And so on; the world of options becomes narrower.

This is a pleasurable sensation in that we experience something of the same feelings that are experienced by the sculpture, who begins with a blank slab of stone - near infinite options - and, with his tools, starts to carve. He chisels out a human face - and now the options of the sculpture being non-figurative, or not being human at all, dissipate. He chisels out a beard. Now the sculpture will be a man. He chisels some more. Now it will look like this and not that or that or that or the other thing. Eventually, it is honed into finality.

On the other hand, imaginative play has a kind of prismatic quality to it in that it can take what has been tightly bunched and linear - tightly bunched and linear like a ray of light - and scatter it open. The game has been 'mummies' and an entire complex scenario has accreted; now suddenly it's 'let's be...fairies!' New options appear. These moments can almost be thought of as paradigm shifts, in which what was settled is suddenly and radically destabilised.

This too is pleasurable. It keeps everything from going stale. It gives us a sense of unpredictability and excited anticipation about what is going to happen next. 

These two pleasures, or two modalities - sculpture and prism - of course interact, and I think it is safe to say that, acting in harmony, they produce an iterative process that is highly conducive to creativity. Ideas are had and the foreclosure of options necessarily begins; gradually things grow narrow before being exploded outwards again by new suggestions, new notions, new potentiality. And so things go, back and forth, oscillating between these twin modalities of closure and expansion. 

The beauty of a role playing game is that it, of course, incorporates both of these different pleasures - 'What shall we play? D&D. What is your PC going to be? A fighter. And so on. In these moments the session, and the campaign, are sculpted. But of course there are other moments, often moments of decision - or moments when dice are rolled - at which things are exploded open again. A PC dies - who will replace him? A random encounter sends everything off on a tangent. The PCs decide to venture overland, across the wilderness. A hitherto-uncharted or unmapped (by the DM) region is suddenly brought into awareness. A process of foreclosure is reversed - before itself being reversed again. The new PC is going to be a magic-user. The newly-mapped region is inhabited by X, Y and Z and contains A, B and C. And so on. 

RPGs can, then, be thought to capture - and formalise - two important substrates on which imaginative play, perhaps the most truly human activity, since no other animal can do it, rest. 

Tuesday 16 April 2024

Moons around the Storm God

What moves the wind, brings the rain, boils the clouds into the sky and freezes them into snow? 

Not the Storm God. He is rather the one who takes what the weather gods have wrought and imbues it with his malice, his pride, his might, and his indignation. His task is to bring low, to strip away, to break down, and to shatter, splinter, smash. He waits in a brooding simmer, and at moments when his umbrage at the sheer gall of the living grows too great, he summons the power of his rage to remind them that their lot is to suffer.

He sits as a tempestuous mass of wondrous colour deep in the great ocean of rainbow dream-scape that is drawn into the sky of all possible worlds. But he does not sit there alone. Around him he has flung his children - ninety-five of them he has sired - as a man casts a great fistful of salt into the air around him. Each a world in its own right, hanging imprisoned and transfixed before the vastness of his bulk and the greatness of his outraged splendour; they are the closest to the power of his anger, and bear it at its most frequent and savage. 

But the peoples who inhabit them, near as they are to him, also know a secret - that when a storm abates, in its wake is revealed a world transformed in its freshness and clarity, such indeed that it never fails to be shown as it really is, with all that is shrouding, or misleading, or veiling, or deceitful, swept aside and gone forever. It is in such moments, these peoples know, that opportunity takes its moment to presence in creation - and the Storm God is unwittingly displayed to be the agent not only of sorrow, but also of hope.

(A Moons of Jupiter planetcrawl to put the new Spelljammer in WotC's pipe and make them smoke it. 'Nuff said?)

Thursday 11 April 2024

Real World Dungeons: The Norman Chapel

To be truly effective, a good narcotics agent should know and love narcotics. Similarly, a good DM should know and love dungeons.

Today I went to the Norman Chapel at Durham Castle, a subterranean place of worship built around 1080. It was packed with sightseers (Durham Castle isn't normally open to visitors) and, because it was cold and wet outside, the air within was full of that distinctive warm, slightly foetid smell that seems to arise in an encolosed space in which there are a lot of people who have just stepped in from the rain. My eldest said it smelled like the reptile house at the zoo; I thought it smelled like my old classroom at school on what we used to call a 'wet lunch' when we weren't allowed outside at lunch hour because it was too inclement. 

But it retained its ability to impress. It is not a large space - I would estimate something like 10 x 10 metres if that. And it was empty of the paraphernalia that must have once been in there: pews, candles, altars, etc. Yet there was a lot going on in it all the same. There are a lot of columns, none of which are identical, and all of which are decorated with interesting symblic carvings at the top (including a mermaid, leopards, hunting dioramas, and so on):

There was attention to detail evident everywhere. This was an empty room, but it was no 'empty room'. There was stuff - were it a room in a D&D dungeon - for a group of PCs to investigate, ponder, note down, ask about when back in town. Giving some of the carvings a minor magical effect when interacted with, or some sort of historical importance or thematic tie-in to objects found elsewhere, would transform it from something to merely pass through to an entire mini-encounter in its own right.

I was most struck, though, by how difficult it would be to fight down there - even with lights on, let alone in the dark. This photo gives a good taster (click to enlarge):

But it doesn't quite convey just how cramped it is. There's barely room to swing a cat, let alone a sword, and there is everywhere something to duck or hide behind. It gives the '1 minute combat round' a whole other aspect to imagine how hard it would be to actually land a telling blow in a fight in such circumstances, considerations of armour set aside. 

More crudely, the room makes a very good case for the column. Like most DMs, the rooms in my dungeons tend to lack columns unless I feel it would be interesting to include them or they had some aesthetic or other purpose. But, of course, 'real life' dungeons would be full of columns. This makes the column a much neglected phenomenon in OSR writings. How to make columns interesting ought to be a subject to which we have devoted large amounts of time and generated much theoretical insight. Courtney Campbell, Melan/Gabor Lux, Prince of Nothing, Ktrey Parker - we are looking at you.

Monday 8 April 2024

I Do Not Hate This: Or, is the OSR of Lego a Thing?

I took my kids to the local shopping mall the other day and we went into the Lego shop to play with the Duplo. And there, in the window, I saw this:

Yes D&D Lego is now a thing.

I must be going soft in my old age, but I was surprised to discover that I do not hate this. Indeed, I am sure that if I was 10 years old, I would have absolutely loved it. I would not have loved the price (£315 bloody quid!!); I can still remember gazing longingly at Lego pirate boats as a small boy and knowing that there was no way my parents would have been able to afford them. And the way in which poor kids are increasingly priced out of hobbies by the geek chic arms race does irk me; one of the big problems associated with the prevalence of nerd pursuits among adults with comparatively large disposable incomes is a gradual inflation of cost that pulls up the drawbridge to ordinary children without deep-pocketed parents. But, I do have to confess that there is still a small part of me that finds it possible to get excited at the thought of playing with Lego, and that in that regard D&D Lego is kind of a no-brainer.

This, though, got me wondering. Even when I was a child I can remember my dad venting about the direction in which Lego had gone. The nature of his complaint was that real Lego, ironman Lego as it were, should just involve the basic standard Lego pieces with which we are all familiar. To utilise those simple, orthodox building blocks for all of one's building needs was, in his view, the mark of proper creative Lego use. The fitting together of pre-moulded chunks of plastic to make things like the dragon's wings, or the tree trunk, or the beholder's head and eye-stalks, was to him an anathema. It was 'cheating'. If one wanted to make a Lego dragon, say, then one ought to do it with the standard bits. Otherwise one was a mere hack - engaging in the act of building merely to pass the time.

That must have been in the late 80s. Goodness knows what he would have made of the Lego kits that are available now. I concede that he may have adopted this line of argument as a way of kidding me into not nagging him to buy expensive pirate boats. But I think it was based on a genuine desire to imagine Lego not as a mere toy but also as a tool to boost lateral thinking and creativity. As fun as it looks to put together the D&D Lego diorama shown above, it is a creative straightjacket; you can't really do more with it than just follow the instructions. My dad wasn't into just following instructions, and I can see now that I must have inherited something of that sensibility. I prefer the idea of putting bricks together to realise an idea of one's own.

This is all, though, a roundabout way of saying: presumably there are people out there who are of the mindset as my old man, and who refuse to partake in modern Lego's embrace of the pre-mould. There must be Lego enthusiasts - call them the OSR of Lego, as it were - who like to stick to first principles and will only build things out of the basic, standard bricks and old-fashioned smiley-faced men. This has to be the case, doesn't it? Fly, my pretties, and see what you can unearth.

Friday 5 April 2024

Incomplete List of Monsters Which Might Inhabit the Moon

Regular readers will know of my fondness for the moon as a location for campaigns, not envisaged as it really is, but rather in the illustrative and imaginative ways that it was before we had the technology to visit it - an ethereal, distant, sibling-world, silvery and pale, constantly shifting and changing; a place of magic and of strange, inscrutable influences on the hearts and minds of men.

We can all of us imagine (well, I hope so) a D&D campaign taking place on that kind of moon: with moon orcs, moon dwarves, moon elves, and the like. That can be the subject of future posts. For the time being, it is I think worth asking: which existing D&D monsters (let's limit ourselves to the 2nd edition Monstrous Manual) can you imagine living on the moon without any tweaks to appearance, abilities, and so on? Bearing in mind, of course, that this the fantasy moon, which has earth gravity and breathable air.

Here is what I earlier noted down when I was working productively at my desk doing the job I am gainfully employed to do:

List of Monsters Which Might Inhabit the Moon Without Significant Tweaks





Bat - Sinister


Broken one

Cave fisher


Displacer beast

Moon dog (natch)

Dragons - probably silver, amethyst, crystal

Galeb duhr

Gelatinous cube

Giants - formorian, fog, stone?







Ogre mage




Umber hulk

Will o'wisp

Xorn, xaren

The advantage of this exercise - what you might call setting-creation-via-monsters - is that this list in itself provides an imaginative framework within which to work. Just to read it is both to taste the flavour of what is intended, and to immediately begin generating ideas. I recommend the method, and it would clearly work well for other types of setting. 

Tuesday 2 April 2024

What if gods were real?

I went to two church services in the last few days, it being Holy Week. The first, the Good Friday liturgy at the local Anglican church, was attended by not more than a dozen of us; the second, Evensong on Easter Sunday, took place at Durham Cathedral, one of the finest buildings ever constructed and a world heritage site, and was attended by a large crowd. You couldn't really get two more dissimilar occasions in many ways, but at root the emphasis was the same: God's becoming real in the person of Jesus.

Don't worry - I don't mean to smuggle Christian apologetics into my blog through the back door. Instead I mean to raise the question as to what human behaviour would be like if there were in fact real D&D deities, who inhabited the physical world, who had personalities and needs and desires, and who one could talk to and otherwise interact with and perhaps some day even rival, fight, slay. Not to get too Joan Osborne about it, but what if Gruumsh was one of us?

In some respects, of course, it would make religion even more important than it is, and was, in human societies in the real world - which is to say, very important indeed. Religion governed basically every aspect of our ancestors' lives; they not only prayed and worshipped as though they meant it, knew what saint's day it was each and every day, worried incessantly about the afterlife, and confessed their each and every sin. They also constructed the entire political economies and legal systems of their society on the basis of what they considered to be divine right, and imagined the exercise of government itself to be a reflection of the proper relationship between God and creation. They were, to the modern eye, complete fanatics. 

Now imagine what they would have been like if there was a realistic possibility that Poseidon, or Zeus, or whoever, might show up one day, hurtling lightning bolts. Everybody's lives would hinge on what would or not be pleasing to them to an even greater extent than would have been the case for a 12th century French peasant or 5th century BC Spartan. And that would be rather a lot.

At the same time, though, the relationship between the human individual and the divine would be much more familiar and knowable. One of the great peculiarities of human religion is that it is contingent on guesswork: whether one is a modern Christian or Muslim praying, an Aztec priest pulling out some poor fool's still-beating heart, or an ancient pastoralist making an offering to the hearth god, one is making what can only be described as, well, a leap of faith. Will my god hear me? Will I get what I want? Will it work?

People in a D&D world would not have this problem. They would live in something more like a spiritual economy, in which one could be pretty sure what one's god would want of one in any given moment, and in which one could ask him or her directly to intercede on one's behalf - and therefore make trades and bargains: I'll sacrifice a dozen gorgons to you if you grant me a safe voyage across the ocean; I promise to never tell a lie again if you heal my sick child; if you give might to my sword arm when I make war on the men of Fnarr, I'll convert them to your cause when I win. And so on. By the same token, it would also be the case that one could be pretty sure - depending I suppose on the caprice of the god in question - whether one would be rewarded for doing x, y or z. 

The result would be a much more pervasive and important, but also more transactional relationship between deity and devotee. If one really wanted to, one could really push the spiritual economy point and imagine a system emerging in which rewards bestowed by gods could be represented by tokens and traded for one another or even exchanged like cash - redeemable from the god in question on a 'pay the bearer on demand' basis.