Saturday, 26 May 2018

Projects I Will Never Finish

A complete series of campaign books for all the Inner Planes

A Call of Cthulhu supplement for games set among Japanese immigrants in Latin America in the 1920s

The Book of Judges as a campaign setting

The PCs are insects - like arthropod Redwall

Portmeirion as an adventure site

The Tyne Valley painstakingly mapped and made into a hexcrawl

Herodotus' world recreated as a hexcrawl

Romans explore Kent; Celtic mythology is real

Stone Age Britain with Lovecraft entities

Licensed version of Mythago Wood

Chinese explorers in Kofun-era Japan

Wildlife photographers on alien planets

This list

Friday, 25 May 2018

D&D and Doux Commerce: Alignment Rethought

Doux commerce is the notion that trade has a "sweetening" effect on human relationships: commerce brings about peace, because through it people get to know one another, cooperate, and become able to get what they want from each other without violence. It's a notion that's been around since the time of Adam Smith at least, and is at the root of the existence of the European Union, among other things.

What if amenability to peaceful exchange was at the root of D&D alignment? At one extreme are the genuinely selfless: the monk who has taken the vow of St Francis; the Buddhist priest who gives away all his possessions and lives by begging, and so on. A little bit further in and you have elves, who prefer to enter into relationships of exchange rather than violence if they can possibly help it. In the middle you have humans who are about as likely to engage in trade as war. Moving further towards the other extreme you have dwarves, who jealously guard their own possessions and do not trade them away even at an apparently fair price. Then you have orcs and goblins who prefer to steal or take by force. And then at the very opposite extreme are dragons, who zealously guard every last copper coin of their treasure hordes and never give any of their possessions away at any price.

It's not a matter of good and evil: ostensibly evil things (illithids, githyanki, ogre magi) may be generally more willing to give and take than ostensibly good ones (dwarves, sverfneblin, werebears). It's not about morality, per se. It's about whether, in a sense, you play well with others - whether you do so for selfish reasons or otherwise.

Wednesday, 23 May 2018

There are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks in which decades happen

Well, it happened. I sat here quietly, like granddad sitting in his easy chair with a can of special brew and the TV remote, waiting to see if his ungrateful grandchildren remember his 80th birthday. And sure enough, the day came and went without even a card, let alone a phone call. None of you bastards noticed that the 17th of May 2018 was the ten year anniversary of this blog - I didn't even get one lousy congratulatory email. Was I eclipsed by the bloody royal wedding? Was that it? I refuse to believe that Monsters & Manuals Day 2018 wasn't the subject of at least one street party with purple and yellow bunting and free opium for all.

I jest. Yes, it was 10 years ago I started writing this blog: Saturday, 17th May, 2008. You can find the first entry here. I started with a pretentious, half-workable idea, and I like to think I set the tone very nicely for what followed: a decade of mostly pretentious half-workable ideas, during which time there has been:

  • 1,352 posts
  • 1,696,166 page views
  • Probably getting on for a billion broken promises about stuff I'd blog about/publish
  • One marriage
  • One baby
  • One massive natural disaster and the loss of most worldly possessions
  • A PhD
  • A move between countries
  • Shit loads of alcohol imbibed
  • Yoon-Suin

And lots else besides. Ten years is a long time. There's a scene in Magnolia that I often remember, where a character - an old man slowly dying - insists that "Life's not short - it's long". I know what he means when I look back over the last decade. I don't feel like it's a case of blink-and-you-miss-it. I feel like it's a veritable ocean away. In May 2008 I was living in Kawasaki city in Japan, working for a startup, usually packing in 12-14 hour days, doing very little in the way of creative projects, eating and drinking out almost every night, and living for the weekend. 

Fast-forward ten years and I am living in North East England, with a job that offers almost limitless flexibility, doing lots of creative things when I can in between looking after a baby girl and fulfilling husbandly duties (which, for those of you unmarried men out there, involves disappointing amounts of sex or romance and mostly doing stuff like taking the bins out, unblocking the plug hole in the bath, and mowing the lawn), living for the weekend because it means I'll have time to iron my shirts for the week ahead, and spending most evenings knackered on the sofa drinking 18 year old Glenlivet because one of the few things that improve with age are taste buds. You can pack a lot into a decade. Trust me.

What does the future hold? God knows. Blogging is hard when you've got other commitments, and having young children ratchets up the difficulty factor of everything exponentially. 2016/2017 were peak years for this blog in terms of page hits. 2017/2018 has seen a precipitous decline - most of the blame for which can be lain at my daughter's feet. I work every evening, more or less, on RPG stuff, but mostly that work is unseen as it is being ploughed into creating publishable material for different projects. The blog often doesn't get a look-in, sadly. 

Now, don't worry, I have no intention of quitting. I've been doing this for 10 years now, and it's become pretty much the longest-running single thing I've ever stuck at - that includes jobs and even careers. I'll still be writing Monsters & Manuals until the day Google pulls the plug on it (which in occasional dark moments I suspect of being only just around the corner). It might not always be what it once was. But then again - what is? 

Tuesday, 22 May 2018

Fresh Water and the Lake as Dungeon

Yesterday I dredged the pond for blanket weed. In amongst each netful of juicy brown squelchy organic mess from the bottom - rotting vegetation, gooey mud, fibrous plantlife - I discovered a little treasure: dragonfly nymphs, dozens of them, each a few inches long, with angry murderous expressions on their faces at having been disturbed. It was amazing to thing that they had probably been down there for two years or so already, living out their lives with us on the surface completely ignorant of their very existence.

It got me thinking about fresh water - lakes, ponds, rivers - and how under-utilized it is as an environment for adventure in D&D. Undersea adventures, we know about, at least in theory if not in practice: we've all got our monstrous manuals brimming with sahuagin, locathah, aquatic elves and ixitxachitl. But under-lake ones?

Structurally, the under-lake adventure is similar to that of a dungeoncrawl. There is a deep, dark, Loch Ness-style body of water: murky and muddy and green. Beside it is a village. The villagers know that there are strange beings down there on the lake bottom. In fact, maybe they believe that down there on the lake bottom there is a gateway to hell. They fish on its surface, and sometimes they see things moving through the gloom. They say that there was once a city there, or a temple, or a castle, or all three, until the inhabitants wronged the gods and the valley was flooded. And so on and so on. And rather than simply strolling into the dungeon, the PCs can borrow a boat and dive into it - or just swim. All they need are a way to breathe underwater and something to weigh them down.

And what do they find down there? In a body of water the size of Loch Ness there could be entire ruined settlements, entire living settlements of whatever creatures are down there, cave systems burrowed into the lake bottom or sides, forests of weeds, chasms and ravines, miniature deserts of rock (not to mention a hundred different Nessies). Plenty of stuff to bring back to the surface for the enterprising D&D PC.

The logistical niceties are in a way what I like the most. How do you get heavy stuff up from the bottom of a lake? How do you make sure that when you leave the lake and come back, you going to end up at exactly the same location given how hard it is to judge where things are from the surface? How do you find your way around in the murky depths were visibility is only a couple of yards? How do you locate the body of a fallen comrade?

Saturday, 19 May 2018

Poetry RPG Challenge

A friend introduced me to the 200 Word RPG Challenge. I quite like the idea as an example of constrained creativity, but it got me wondering whether 200 words was too much - and too banal a concept. Would it be possible to create the rules for an RPG in the form of a single haiku? The rule is that it has to be entirely complete and playable - no extra explanation allowed.

Here was my first attempt:

Roll a d-20
To do whatever you want
Higher is better

But there maybe isn't quite enough there (on its own, the haiku sort of implies you can do whatever you want automatically and the higher the dice roll the better the result, but there's no accounting for failure).

Another one:

Player and DM
Each roll a d-100
Compare the results

I quite like that one. Although, as above, it also requires a little bit of creative interpretation to tell that the idea is the player and DM both roll 1d100 and the player succeeds or fails accordingly, with the difference between the two scores affecting the extent of the success or failure.

A last effort along similar lines:

Success or failure?
Competing d6 results
Determine outcomes

This makes me wonder about other poetry-related RPG challenges. Can you come up with a complete ruleset in the form of a sonnet? How about a limerick?

Wednesday, 16 May 2018

Recommendations: Bartok, Wolfe, Dixon, Huss

A few cultural artifacts I've been enjoying lately. The first is Bartok's music for the 1924 ballet "The Magnificent Mandarin". Here's the synopsis from wikipedia:

After an orchestral introduction depicting the chaos of the big city, the action begins in a room belonging to three tramps. They search their pockets and drawers for money, but find none. They then force a girl to stand by the window and attract passing men into the room. The girl begins a lockspiel — a "decoy game", or saucy dance. She first attracts a shabby old rake, who makes comical romantic gestures. The girl asks, "Got any money?" He replies, "Who needs money? All that matters is love." He begins to pursue the girl, growing more and more insistent until the tramps seize him and throw him out.  
The girl goes back to the window and performs a second lockspiel. This time she attracts a shy young man, who also has no money. He begins to dance with the girl. The dance grows more passionate, then the tramps jump him and throw him out too.  
The girl goes to the window again and begins her dance. The tramps and girl see a bizarre figure in the street, soon heard coming up the stairs. The tramps hide, and the figure, a Mandarin (wealthy Chinese man), stands immobile in the doorway. The tramps urge the girl to lure him closer. She begins another saucy dance, the Mandarin's passions slowly rising. Suddenly, he leaps up and embraces the girl. They struggle and she escapes; he begins to chase her. The tramps leap on him, strip him of his valuables, and attempt to suffocate him under pillows and blankets. However, he continues to stare at the girl. They stab him three times with a rusty sword; he almost falls, but throws himself again at the girl. The tramps grab him again and hang him from a lamp hook. The lamp falls, plunging the room into darkness, and the Mandarin's body begins to glow with an eerie blue-green light. The tramps and girl are terrified. Suddenly, the girl knows what they must do. She tells the tramps to release the Mandarin; they do. He leaps at the girl again, and this time she does not resist and they embrace. With the Mandarin's longing fulfilled, his wounds begin to bleed and he dies.

LIKE. Here's a rendition with the score:

The second is Gene Wolfe's Soldier of Arete. I can't remember who it was who recommended these books to me in the comments to a post on this blog, but whoever it was - thank you. Soldier of the Mist was one of the best fantasy books I had read in years. Soldier of Arete is even better. I would scarcely have thought that could be possible. I could also have scarcely have thought it possible that I could respect Wolfe's work more than I did already, but this, to me, is next-level stuff: in fact, I'm just going to go straight ahead and right now give him the coveted Noisms Award for Best Current Living Writer. It's him. Don't disagree. You're wrong.

The third is Judson Huss. Somebody shared some of his work on G+. It is so far up my alley it is practically right at the end of it, with the biggest, fattest rats, oldest piles of rotting waste, and most well-stowed mob hits. I mean, look at this stuff. It's like Dali, Bruegel, Bosch and Escher put in a blender and given the slightest hint of essence of Larry Elmore:

The fourth and final is Dougal Dixon's After Man: A Zoology of the Future. I must declare an interest: Breakdown Press, who are publishing it, are people I am working with and I've gamed with one of the people who run it. That may colour my appreciation for the book, but I doubt it. I was a fan of Dougal Dixon's work anyway - his Complete Book of Dinousaurs and Dinosaurs & Prehistoric Creatures are a huge inspiration for Behind Gently Smiling Jaws - but again, this is sort of next-level stuff: what do you get when an expert on evolution and paleontology gets to speculate about the future of evolution? Well, stuff like this:

Goes up there with Mythago Wood, Jin Ping Mei and Herodotus's Histories in the list of "Books I want to make into campaign settings".

Friday, 11 May 2018

Small is Beautiful

The virtue of smallness of scale has been a theme on this blog since days of yore (see herehereherehere and here). But the capacity of the real world to pack huge variety into tiny spaces still fascinates me.

Consider the Wrekinsets. A Dark Age Anglo-Saxon sub-kingdom within the kingdom of Mercia which was itself subdivided into sub-sub-kingdoms. You could quite easily walk up and down its length from north-south or east-west (assuming it roughly corresponds to modern Cheshire with some extras in Shropshire and Flintshire) in a couple of days if you meant it. And yet it was an entire kingdom of its own with further major political divisions within it.

Consider the Principality of Theodoro. A tiny Greek Orthodox statelet on the backside of the Crimean peninsula. The rump of the Empire of Trebizond, which was the rump of the Byzantine Empire, which was the rump of the Roman Empire. Look how teeny-tiny it was (it's the green bit):

My rough guess from squinting at scale maps of the Crimea is that the Principality of Theodoro was about 30 miles across, from east-west. Comfortably walkable in two days, if that. But with its own distinct political, social, legal systems; its own foreign policy; its own culture. (I love how wikipedia lists is population as comprising "Greeks, Crimean Goths, Alans, Bulgars, Cumans, Kipchaks, and other ethnic groups...." We like to imagine ourselves as living in diverse societies.)

Consider Wearside Jack. In the late 70s the West Yorkshire police were desperately searching for a serial killer (the "Yorkshire Ripper") when they received a series of letters and an audio message from somebody claiming to be the killer who later turned out to be a hoaxer. This man was clearly from Wearside (meaning the city of Sunderland and its environs) but dialectologists were able to place him far more precisely than that - as being from Castletown, an area within Sunderland which is little more than a few streets. In other words, the way he spoke was enough to place him in a geographical area of about a square mile or so.

Consider that Hilbre Island is only 11 acres in size but it has its own special sub-species of vole.

Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Emishi Knight

A fierce warrior from the personal war band of an Emishi lord. He is violent, powerful, and vengeful, covered in tattoos, with a thick beard, long hair, and black body hair on his chest, arms and back like a wild boar. Everywhere he goes, he rides on the back of a horse, which towers over the steeds of Yamato people, and he is ready to fight and die at the command of his lord or in the name of his own dignity.

HD 4-6 (1d3+3)
AC 4 (Hide armour [AC 7] and protective tattoos)
#ATT 2
DMG As weapon (spear or short sword) +2
*Has a steed with 3 HD and 2 attacks doing d3/d6 damage (bite and kick)
*His tattoos offer:
-Protection from Fire
-Jump if leaping
-Spider Climb if climbing
-Shocking Grasp if grabbing/grappling
-Water Breathing if submerged
*Like all Emishi, he can Speak With Animals at will and Charm Mammal once per day

Emishi knights always have three items of jewelry (randomly determined).

If met as a random encounter a solitary Emishi knight will be 1 - Carrying out a command under oath; 2 - Hunting; 3 - Defending his honour. Roll on the sub-tables below for more details:

Carrying out a command under oath:
1 - To rescue a woman kidnapped by another local Emishi tribe
2 - To track down and kill or capture an outlaw
3 - To kill a man-eating bear or wolf pack
4 - To recover a lost treasure stolen by an animal spirit
5 - To steal something from a wizard
6 - To investigate tales of mysterious travellers from the South

Hunting: the Emishi knight is 1 - Currently stalking prey; 2 - Carrying home a kill; 3 - Decides to stalk the PCs

Defending his honour:
1 - By challenging men he meets to wrestle
2 - By challenging men he meets to fight to the death
3 - By kidnapping a woman from another local Emishi tribe
4 - By climbing a mountain
5 - By exploring a cave
6 - By sailing across the sea to an uninhabited island

Thursday, 3 May 2018

The Semi-Unique Monster

Monsters in RPGs tend to fall into one of two camps: the species and the unique. The tarrasque is a unique. Orcs are a species.

Creatures in children's TV programmes and books often fall in the middle-ground: they are semi-unique. There are four teletubbies. Are there more? It seems unlikely: they are a race unto themselves. In In the Night Garden, we encounter the tombliboos (three creatures who always seem to be kissing each other whenever I watch it), the pontipines (a family of ten tiny people with no feet), and the tittifers (a small group of hyper-real birds). They are each apparently a species in their own right. In the Clangers the titular creatures - weird pink things with long snouts - are a single family of beings who inhabit a hollow planet far away.

The reason for this is, of course, because children's stories are often about families, don't need bestiaries, and don't need to make any sort of particular sense - that's not the point. But nonetheless, I find the implied settings in which these semi-unique creatures live fascinating. Worlds in which a single family or a small group of similar beings can exist on its own, living on its own terms, without being part of a bigger whole.

In fantasy for grown-ups, the semi-unique monster takes on a slightly disturbing tenor that isn't present in children's stories. Isn't there something terrifying and horrible about the idea of being part of a group of half-a-dozen creatures who are all there is of your species? I don't mean because of the threat of extinction; I mean because however hard you search in life for a sympatico, a soul mate, somebody who truly understands you, well, this is it, the entire pool you have to draw from.

There's also something compelling, though I can't quite put my finger about what it is, in the idea of people in a D&D world being able to refer to an entire creature type, found nowhere else in the world except in their little local 6-mile hex, as a collective noun. "Watch out if you are travelling through the Old Forest tonight. That's when the pontipines come out." Is it just because it harks back to the kind of thing I might have read in the tales of my childhood? Very probably, but I like it, all the same. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

The Death of the Archetype and the Character as Brand

Film is often said to be a "literalising medium" and the modern Hollywood machine in particular has no respect for expressionism, symbolism, or the surreal. Nowhere is this more evident than in the all-powerful juggernaut that is the Origin Story: it's not enough for a popular character - be it Wolverine, Superman, Batman, Han Solo, Darth Vader, Captain Kirk, Spock, Malificent, etc. - to simply stand fully-formed, larger-than-life, as you find him; no, there has to be a cultural product detailing where he came from. Not even dream-characters in Alice in Wonderland are safe: even the Mad Hatter gets an Origin Story of sorts nowadays, because he isn't allowed to simply exist - the logic of film demands he be from somewhere and that we understand why he is mad. 

It isn't hard to understand why this is: a character like Han Solo is no longer just the roguish smuggler who everybody prefers to Luke. He's a brand in his own right, or is readily commodified as such, and why should an opportunity to spin him into a money-maker be spurned? The easiest way of doing that is by making a film providing the definitive explanation as to where he came from: nerds will queue in droves to see it and non-nerds know enough about Han Solo to want to find out. Never mind that the power of a character like Han Solo comes from the fact that he is not so much a character as an archetype, and that's the point (if you listen to and believe George Lucas, it was even his point when he wrote the original films). No, he must be rendered prosaic so he can be better monetized. 

What do we lose from this? Not a great deal, I suppose, but we lose something: the notion that fiction actually has primordial, intuitive significance that gets at the structures underlying our common humanity and which can't be reduced to just words on a page or images on a film. Han Solo as a human being, who was a child once and who is the way he is because he never learned to love/became embittered by a personal tragedy/whatever the Origin Story is, will be a less dramatically compelling one than Han Solo who simply is. The attempt to make him seem a more realistic and plausible character will deprive him of his potential to mean something else.