Thursday, 27 July 2017

High Court Bailiffs Story Game

I am not a great one for TV or reality shows in particular but I have a real soft spot for Can't Pay? We'll Take it Away! For the uninitiated, it's a programme which follows around High Court Enforcement Agents (bailiffs to you and me) as they try to recover debts, or carry out evictions, arising from High Court judgments. Surprisingly, it's not as trashy as it sounds. For what it is - a cheaply made Channel 5 documentary series (Channel 5 is the barrel-scrapingest of the 5 main terrestrial TV networks in the UK) - it is quite sensitively done and even manages to mix in a lot of social commentary through the back door. You do get cases of genuine deceitfulness, villainy and/or fecklessness but most of the cases are purely about bad luck, and the producers are good at emphasising that. In some of the episodes the bailiffs personally become involved in fighting against poorly-run local authorities for the rights of evicted tenants to get access to emergency social housing. In others they choose not to enforce their writ because the subject is disabled, in dire straits, ill, and so on. What you get is an interesting and quite depressing depiction of life in early 21st century Britain (particularly London): lots of consumer debt, huge pressure on the housing system, lots of renters, lots of squatters, lots of self-employed people living on the edge of the bread line, lots of people who don't really understand the legal system but end up at its sharp end nonetheless.

The first two seasons are now available on Netflix and I recommend checking it out if you have never seen it. In the episode we watched last night, which is illustrative, the team had to evict a tenant who hadn't paid rent in 18 months and whose landlord was his own mother; evict illegal migrant tenants with a disabled son from a tiny one-room flat in a house in London because the landlord wanted to renovate it (quite heart-rending); remove a Spanish guy from an appallingly tiny room with no windows in a London tower block; and deal with an eviction of a tenant with clear psychotic issues whose pastor was trying to act as a go-between. Describing them in this way makes the series sound like gawking at human misery. I think it's the opposite: an objective but sympathetic depiction of an astonishingly difficult job carried out in trying circumstances, and a really rather shocking indictment of circumstances in Britain today.

You could make a great story game based on it. It is by nature episodic and has the same basic structure: High Court bailiffs arrive somewhere needing to solve a case (i.e., get money or carry out an eviction). They may face a web of lies which they have to untangle. They may face violence. They may face obfuscation. They may face pleas for compassion. There are also all sorts of complications which can arise: battles with local government; misunderstandings with the police; language problems; logistical difficulties (how do you value a light aircraft and remove it for auction to pay off a debt?). And there are different methods of achieving success: friendliness, tough love, physical coercion, mercy. Every subject of every writ is different - one day it might be a taxi company who owe money to a contractor; the next a tenant who hasn't paid rent in two years because he or she thinks the landlord is doing a lousy job; the next an eviction of a young family. Victory could be defined in terms of getting the job done, but equally could be defined as getting the best possible outcome for everyone.

Random tables of course: random writ (evict or recover a debt or both); random client; random subject; table of complications. You could do it in 12 pages. High Court Enforcement Agents in the Vineyard, you could call it.

Wednesday, 19 July 2017

It Doesn't Matter Who Plays Dr Who

I have never understood the appeal of Dr Who - in my view its rightful place is surely alongside repeats of Some Mothers Do 'Ave 'Em and The Brittas Empire on Gold at 3pm on weekday afternoons - but be that as it may, for some reason it's popular and I have to accept that in the same way I accept that there are people who buy recordings by the Black Eyed Peas. 

Anyway. It turns out that the next Dr Who (I refuse to refer to this person as "the Doctor") is going to be played by a woman. Gadzooks! Another victory in the gender wars! My opinion on this is pretty similar to Brendan O'Neill's - as it typically is (if you want my opinion on anything going on in pop culture you could basically phone up Brendan O'Neill and ask him) - namely, I thought that at some point, like, 20 or 30 years ago, there was a general consensus that your identity, sex, race, creed, background, religion and so forth didn't matter and it was your own unique personhood, character, talents and abilities which were to be valued; but it seems that we've collectively decided to go back to 1957 and act as though actually people in the old days were right all along and it's important to put each other in boxes again. So whereas we seemed to have reached a stage where we could get past all that bollocks about identity mattering and be free to just be people, all of a sudden it matters again and we are collectively diminished as a result. When Martin Luther King Jr. talked about the important thing being the content of one's character, he was just talking out of his arse, and bizarrely it is the supposedly liberal left-leaning chattering classes who are leading the vanguard against him. The important thing about Dr Who is not the content of his character. It's his uterus, or lack of it.

I suppose you can trace all this back to Hegel via Kojeve and the French Marxists of the 1960s - the notion that ideas are the vehicles of historical change and hence you can actually shape the world through pop culture. Having a woman play Dr Who can actually contribute to sexual equality in this way: you produce fiction which points towards sexual equality and thus another small step goes in the right direction and influences things that little bit more. It's a very attractive idea to intellectuals, academics artists, writers and so on, of course, because it makes it seem as though their work is deeply important in some sense. And it seems to be becoming, ironically enough, increasingly attractive to the politically engaged modern nerd via the mechanism of consumer capitalism: you can contribute to changing the world through your hobbies and pastimes and choices as a consumer. By watching Dr Who, the half-formed thought goes, you can actually now have a stake in promoting sexual equality, just as you can by watching Wonder Woman or the remake of Ghostbusters. (And the producers of movies, TV programmes, books and whatnot are well aware of this trend - what a shot in the arm all this is going to be for BBC Worldwide.)

There is an alternative take on this, which is simply that trends in pop culture tend to reflect and come after changes in the general culture. In this view, the female Dr Who is just a more-or-less inevitable consequence of a big societal shift towards female empowerment that has nothing to do with what people watch on TV and everything to do with technological development. There's nothing trailblazing about it, in other words - it would have been if it had been produced in the 1890s - it's just reflective of the way the world is, or is becoming. This I think is actually generally speaking the way things work, although there are of course outliers like William Wilberforce or Mary Shelley who act as "norm entrepreneurs" or whatever you want to call them. 

Irrespective of that, I find it kind of sad and strange that people feel as though this sort of thing matters - as though there are legions of young girls out there who will now watch Dr Who and feel empowered as a result. It's odd to imagine that people would need a character in a TV show to allow them to aspire to something, rather than actual real family members, friends and role models. And I think it is even odder that somebody would need such a character to look like them in order to be inspiring - the characters in Star Wars I always aspired to be like were Lando and Chewbacca, and when I was a kid I used to have inspirational quotes by American Indians on posters on the wall. It didn't matter a jot to me that these people weren't white men and hence couldn't inspire me, and I can't think of much that is more small-mindedly conservative than imagining anything different. So in my view not only is the notion that having a female Dr Who matters for sexual equality empirically wrong, it is also morally bankrupt and narrowing. Let's be grown-ups: David Tennant can inspire young girls if that's their thing and Jodie Whittaker can inspire young boys. 

(And I would add as an addendum that all of my criticisms can be leveled at the Men's Rights Activist types getting their knickers in a twist about all of this - but doubly so.)

Sunday, 16 July 2017

Tolkien's Drow, the Bizarro Orc, and Corrupt Elfdom

As a general rule I try not to re-read books these days, but I make certain exceptions. I'm currently on may way through The Two Towers for the first time in years (one of my favourite sections in the trilogy - the travails of Pippin and Merry - which I always found more interesting than the Frodo and Sam bits). It gave me an opportunity to re-acquaint myself with the way Tolkien presents orcs in the series - taken in isolation from the goblins in The Hobbit.

It's probably worth noting that Tolkien takes his time with the orcs. They appear first as rumours in The Fellowship of the Ring, then as brief encounters, and finally in the Mines of Moria as a kind of general menace, but they are barely described, and I don't think there is a line of dialogue involving an orc until Chapter 3 of The Two Towers. Then suddenly you're in their world, and it's a very different one from the world of Warhammer or D&D orcs. These are in their own way quite articulate ("Saruman is a fool, and a dirty treacherous fool"; "..., I daresay"; "You speak of what is deep beyond the reach of your muddy dreams..."; "Untie your legs? I'll untie every string in your bodies!"; "I'll cut you both to quivering shreds!"). They seem to know all about civilized life even if they despise it ("You'll get bed and breakfast alright..."; "What do you think? Sit on the grass and wait for the whiteskins to join the picnic?"). They are sarcastic ("Splendid!" "Fine leadership!"). They even seem to have a sense of comradeship and loyalty ("stout fellows"). 

That's when you remember that for Tolkien orcs are, of course, originally supposed to be twisted and corrupted elves. They are not green-skinned thugs. They're a warped vision of perfection. (Is it possible that they also live forever?)

It makes you wonder about dark elves, and "drow". It isn't really worth rehearsing all the many arguments one could have about drow, but perhaps worth considering: orcs and drow are in a sense the same thing. That closes off certain options but opens up a lot of others. If orcs were corrupted elves, what would that mean?

In classic D&D, elves have the following abilities:

-Detection of hidden doors
-Immunity to ghoul paralysis
-Spell casting
-Friendship with animals

So let's imagine orcs as things which can:

-Magically conceal any doorway or entrance
-Cause paralysis with a touch
-Dispel magical spells cast by others
-Destroy natural life, maybe by draining its essence in their surroundings?

This gives orcs more of a feeling of a creature from a fairy tale, but not one that is entirely displeasing. It certainly makes them seem more dangerous

Wednesday, 12 July 2017

When Thoughts Collide (and Have Sex and Make Baby Thoughts)

It's funny how two streams of ideas can come together gradually in your mind without conscious effort - just time. A bit like your brain being a primordial ocean in which molecules of carbon and oxygen and whatever float around and gradually make stromatolites after being zapped by lightning at random (or something - I was never the best at science).

For a long time I've been ruminating over at some stage creating an animal fantasy-based RPG. I have written dozens of posts about this over the years, probably, but still feel compelled to insist that this is nothing to do with a love of either furries or manga. (The more I think about it the more I come to the realization that it's just being English. As in many other obscure fields, we are world leaders at making up talking animal stories - I suspect because, as Roger Scruton would put it, the English countryside is a home. Other countries have wildernesses full of danger. We have hedges and wild flower meadows. Nature is friendly and safe. But I digress.)

I have also been thinking of different iterations of an idea which seems to have burrowed its way into my psyche and won't let go: the megadungeon inside a giant tree.

Well, at some stage the animal-fantasy molecules and the megadungeon-inside-a-tree molecules seem to have coalesced together to produce life of sorts. What if there was a giant tree the size of a mountain and it was populated in its roots by dwarves who look like badgers, trolls who look like hedgehogs, elves that look like spiders, goblins that look like foxes? What if the heartwood was burrowed through by kobolds that look like ants? What if orcs who look like woodpeckers infested the bark all the way up, burrowing tunnel-cities into its walls? What if a dragon who looked like a tawny owl had a nest somewhere in a hollow? What if a society of bugbears who look like robins inhabited its branches?

Tuesday, 11 July 2017

Monster Connections Table

Having a baby has led to me reading lots of Beatrix Potter books out loud. (Babies, it turns out, just like to listen to anything. I could probably read my daughter At the Mountains of Madness and it would have the same reaction - but it would be a terrible affront to her dignity to do something like that, so I won't.) The other day it was the turn of The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle. (If you want recommendations/reviews, Two Bad Mice and Jeremy Fisher are the best ones in my opinion.)

The Tale of Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is a strange beast. In the other Potter books the animal and human worlds interact in a realist fashion - Peter Rabbit is actually a rabbit who actually wears human clothes. But in Mrs Tiggy-Winkle things slip into a fairy tale reality in which the talking hedgehog might simply be a figment of a little girl's imagination (or IS IT?). It also isn't really a proper story; it is rather a kind of extended vignette in which the author simply riffs on the idea of a hedgehog washerwoman.

But I digress. The point of interest in Mrs Tiggy-Winkle is its implication of a kind of animal society existing under our noses. Mrs Tiggy-Winkle isn't just a washerwoman in the abstract - she does jobs for the other animals in the local area (washing cock robin's waistcoat, cobbling Sally Henny-Penny the chicken's shoes, etc.). I was quite taken with this idea of an entire community of animals who actually have neighbourly connections with each other and an economy of sorts, and I got to thinking, naturally enough, about D&D. A troll's lair is in one hex; in the next hex to the West is a dragon; in the next hex to the East is a dwarf mine. Instead of existing in isolation, why not make them connected?

Hence, I bring you the Monster Connections Table:

Monster A
Monster B
Is rival to
Is friends with
Trades with
Performs tasks for
Is subservient to
Has an alliance of convenience with
Secretly controls
Pretends to be allied to
Has been bewitched by
Is master of

Should be fairly self-explanatory - after stocking your hex map pick a monster as Monster A and see what his connection is to Monster B in the next hex.

Friday, 7 July 2017

Generating the Infinite River

A long time ago I wrote a blog entry about exploring an infinite river. I've always had it in mind to take that idea somewhere, wherever it may be. The answer: probably nowhere, but at least in theory there could be a game lost in the tributaries.

The PCs start off at an original base in a port on the river. From there, they can explore. They do this hex by hex, with a method for procedurally generating hexes and their contents as necessary. Every six miles (or twenty miles or whatever) there is a new hex with new contents - geography, adventure locales, settlements, etc.

What I hadn't realised at the time but which is increasingly clear to me is that the only way that this can really make sense conceptually is if the PCs are only able to move downstream from a location upriver (perhaps because the flow of the current is so strong it's impossible to row or sail against it for any length of time). This is because the inhabitants of each hex, which are procedurally generated, can be fairly easily created so that they have knowledge of what's upstream (because the DM and players know this also) but not what's downstream (because that hasn't been generated yet). In other words, since every downstream hex is not generated until the PCs actually go there, the inhabitants of existing hexes can't really have any interactions with the inhabitants of downstream hexes. Only upstream ones. This means the flow of traffic/exploration must all be downstream.

What this means, of course, is that the Infinite River never reaches the sea. The question then becomes: is there a sea at all? I leave that question to the philosophers.

Thursday, 29 June 2017

Pape Jan in the Dreamtime of Man


When the first apes who could legitimately be described as "human" spread their way across the savannah the crocodile was there to bear witness, gliding through the waterways like a rumour of a murder. It saw the infancy of human life out of the corner of its eye, paying as much attention as a man does to the hopes, concerns, lives and deaths of deer: occasional subjects of disinterested study; occasional meals.

It remembers those early humans chiefly as bipedal, hairless creatures - something like a beast of the land, but also smooth and sleek like a fish or snake. Forever making strange chattering noises, like a bird; the crocodile does not understand the concept of speech, and if it thought about the behaviour of early humans at all, it surmised that they were somehow able to understand each other through pheromones. It thinks of them as cowards, who were extremely skittish around water and terrified of confrontation unless they were armed and in large numbers, though sometimes, at night, it perceived the warm glow of the fires they were somehow able to create, apparently from the dust itself. It saw their villages too: nests, it thought, like those of some social insect like a bee or wasp. It has no understanding of their hierarchies or sexes: it never paid enough attention, nor is perhaps capable of comprehending such a thing as a "family" or a "chief".

The world of man's dreamtime it remembers better. Hot and blasted by the sun except when the rains boiled up from the land and spilled back down like a waterfall. Dotted everywhere with trees, as far as the eye could see - flat-topped Acacias, components of an infinite archipelago in a sea of dry grasses. And rivers, great rivers, like muddy water spilled over flat ground, in the summer dried to narrow ribbons and in the rainy season bathing the world in wetness. Each year marked by the great migrations of wildebeest when there was more food than could be eaten and the female crocodiles stank of their fecundity. In those centuries the crocodile fathered more broods than it could count if even it was able. In its memory, a time of plenty, a time of joy, a time for living like no other.

The Coming of the Naacals

The first Naacals who came to the Dreamtime did so because they believed that in the search for origins they might discover deep truths about the human race and where it came from, and thus better understand themselves and others and in that way transcend their limitations and deficiencies. Scholars, then, and explorers, but also spiritual seekers - the kind of poets, mystics and dreamers who believe that one's character is like a blade that must be honed.

These seekers were first disappointed, second made afraid, and third and finally became embittered. In some embitterment manifests itself as single-minded pursuit of their original goal in spite of its clear failure. In others it appears as a kind of brutal nihilism which glories in the lack of ultimate cause and hence ultimate meaning. In others still it comes as a horrible weariness that has no respite. In many it is a mixture of all three. Naacals persist in the Dreamtime still but almost all of them are alone, and almost all of them beyond redemption due to their exhaustion, hatred, or inhuman determination.

The Coming of Pape Jan

Pape Jan is a king of the "Third India" of Ethiopië, who traveled beyond the sea in the antique past to spread the word of God among the heathen peoples of the Orient. Long thought to have forged a kingdom there, in fact he eventually made his way to Guarded Lake, and, with the help of the Lady of the Lake, ventured from this world to the crocodile's memory so as to raise a great host there and bring it back for his holy wars.

Finding his way to the Dreamtime of Man, Pape Jan came upon the strange memories of proto-humans living there and knew what his task must be: to not only bring them to worship of the true and living God, but then to use them as his war host in his battles against heathens elsewhere. He built a fortress in its wastes and from it plots his campaigns; his missionaries swarm across the savannahs bringing the proto-humans to him, and he baptises them in nearby rivers in the name of Jesus even as more flock around.

Yet Pape Jan's energy, dedication and psychic strength are a curse as well as a blessing. He has brought religion to a race of beings which had hitherto had no concept of it, nor even the capacity for conceiving of it, because the crocodile had no understanding of religion with which to endow its memories. It has found ground that is not just fertile but fecund - and occultism has spread throughout the Dreamtime like a plague. Strange new systems of thought and belief proliferate among the proto-humans in nightmarish abundance, each nest holding rabidly and single-mindedly to its own strange interpretation of doctrines of virginal birth, living sacrifice, commandments, and the eating of flesh and blood. Pape Jan cannot convert his charges fast enough to stem the tide of warped idolatory that now prevails across much of the Dreamtime.

Worse, as with all of the Seven, Pape Jan's own dreams, memories and visions have too begun to spread. Demon princes have appeared - Ornias, Beelzeboul, Asmodeus, the Star Sisters, the Wingdragon, Envy, Rabdos and others more terrible yet. His quest to spread the word of God has become a quest of a burning sword, and his orthodox crucifix a war standard at the head of armies which make the crusade for Jerusalem appear a mere skirmish.

DMing in the Dreamtime of Man

The Dreamtime of Man has at least four modes of adventure. As adventuring explorers and brigands the PCs may simply explore the infinite Acacia-dotted savannahs in search of Naacal treasures and wealth to bring back to Paradijs Kolonie and thus gain wealth and glory. Alternatively, they may become involved in Pape Jan's missionary work among the heathen proto-humans - or in the internecine struggle between the infinite competing religions of those new believers. Third, they may attempt to plunder the treasure houses of the demon princes who now make their homes in the Dreamtime. And fourth and finally, they might choose to involve themselves in the Great Crusade of Pape Jan itself, as he sends out his armies to battle the denizens of Hell as they appear in this new world he has discovered.

Tuesday, 27 June 2017

The Tree Megadungeon and the Mythic Upperworld

About this time last year I had the idea of creating a megadungeon inside a gigantic tree. For some reason today that idea came back to me, spiraling up out of the mists in my brain. I started thinking about the burrows in the roots at its base, and how you could invert the traditional way of doing things and start your PCs off down there, in civilization, ready to explore their way upwards. You could call this, "The Mythic Upperworld". To the people living down in the soil underneath, the tree up there is an alien place of verdant life, light, sap, wind, water, and strange green and brown fecundity. To them in their shadowy, dank, dark world a place of danger, adventure, and legends they are too cowardly or conservative to verify. (This is where the PCs come in.)

What sort of city would exist in the roots of this place? Where would the PCs begin their campaign? I picture a society made up of quiet, furtive things at home in damp loamy soil. Myconids and mold men, of course, but also a variant of the drow - loam elves, you could call them - pale, maybe even blind, hateful of the sun. Creeping spidery things, like neogi and ettercaps. Hook horrors and umber hulks kept as slaves or pets to dig tunnels and fend off enemies. All thing which hate the light green living world above, but who thirst for knowledge of it and its treasures.

To a neogi or loam elf living down in the Great Root City, what would the leaf canopy miles above represent? Heaven, or hell? An abode of the gods, or devils? Most likely the latter. Most likely the green cloud far above would represent fear, hate, danger, misery, death. The top of the Mythic Upperworld, like the bottom of the Mythic Underworld, is simply an infinite abyss. I like the thought of PCs reaching the top of the tree some day and discovering that all the stories they have heard in the Great Root City are mirrored precisely in reverse up there - because for the dwellers in the canopy, hell is all the way back down.

Thursday, 22 June 2017

The Implementation of the Fixed World

The last couple of weeks I have been thinking more about the implementation of my setting idea, the Fixed World.

What I envisage is a tighter version of Yoon-Suin. Each section of the map, of which there are 20 or so, contains a regional 24-mile hex map, an overview, the necessary d30 encounter tables by terrain type (which also functions as a bestiary), and then a sample 6-mile campaign hex map with random tables necessary to fill it. The aim is to be relatively succinct (a target of 6 pages per section).

Flavour-wise, the Fixed World (what I am provisionally calling Orbis Immobilis: the Fixed World) is a tribute to Mystara, the Known World - a kind of jumbling together of standard D&D tropes, but given new twists.

Above is a rough and ready sample of a 24-mile regional hex map for "Mane Hiemalis", the region of the world in which it is always spring and always winter. Here is the overview section:

Mane Hiemalis

Eventually the vast ice shelves of the frozen sea give way to open waters mixed with pack ice as the sun begins to dawn upon it. This frigid ocean of black water washes its ice floes up northwards onto rocky, desolate beaches under a red-gold sky. This is Mane Hiemalis, the land where it is always dawn and always winter.

Mane Hiemalis is rugged and ruffled - shelf after shelf of hills rising up from the coast, each higher than the last, until they are finally mountains and on the other side of them the plateau of Mane Vernus. Between those hills, sliced into them by rivers of glacial meltwater, are a myriad of deep, high-sided valleys where mist gathers and dark pine forests flourish in the dim light. On the hill tops above the tree line there is only rock, frost, lichen and tundra - and the unending cry of the wind.

Mane Hiemalis's terrain can be divided into four distinct belts: the sea and coast; the hills; the valleys; and the mountains.

The Sea and Coast

The seas of Mane Hiemalis may not be entirely frozen but they are frigid and cold. In the depths are Kuo-Toa, who thrive in the miserable darkness below. They are divided into many rivalrous warring theocracies, all with their own interpretation of their God's demands; holy war is a fact of life on the sea bed, and when it rages half-eaten and rotting corpses of the fish-men wash up on the beach like flotsam in their hundreds. At those times the bounty for scavengers is immense, and vast flocks of gulls sweep the coast like storm clouds to dissipate when the war is at an end.

On the cold bleak coast human communities eke out a living from the whales, walruses and seals with which they share their beach homes. They owe fealty to nobody and are so scattered, distant and distrustful of each other that they could generally never have the wherewithal to group themselves into something more organized than a loose affiliation of tribes. They dress themselves in skins and blubber and war occasionally with the horseshoe-crab people who inhabit the shallow littoral zones: petty inconsequential squabbles played out in repetitive brutality while the world beyond goes about its business.

The Hills

The bare hills of Mane Hiemalis begin to rise not far beyond its beaches and soon they are tall and looming - ridge after ridge extending northwards, their foothills shrouded in mist and shadow, their humped peaks pale with permanent frost. They support little animal or plant life, exposed as they are to the wind, fog and cold, but different nomadic groups range across them, occasionally raiding down into the valleys below for food and plunder.

There are three types of such nomads. The first are the troll-kings, petty potentates who traipse the high ground with motley collections of followers - subordinate trolls, human outlaws and slavers, captive ettins or other giants, vagrant duergar, and so forth. The baggage trains for these roving marauders can straggle out for miles behind their vanguard; typically the troll-king is somewhere in the middle, being carried on a howdah, chariot, or other grandiloquent vehicle. They as frequently fight each other as they do raid more settled lands below.

The second are the heath elves, ancient, proud and cruel, who inhabit the most isolated and distant hilltops of all. They live in high, narrow towers gently curved like fingers, which they call waypoints; different families move between them, spending a week or month here, a week or month there, before traveling on. In the ancient past the heath elves lived a settled existence in their towers, but now their numbers are greatly reduced and there are too few of them to populate all of the waypoints at a time. Hence their relentless wanderings.

The third are the bariaurs, half-goats, who herd their flocks across the desolate, craggy landscape, picking their way over cliff faces and scree on dainty hooves, traversing places which no other travelers can reach. Their goat herds can number in their thousands, spread across dozens of miles; each individual, tough and rangy, is able to survive on its own on the grass and mosses it can pick from the thin soil of the hilltops. The bariaurs themselves live off goat milk and meat - the only permanent cultural artefacts they create are huge geoglyphs etched into hillsides, visible when the dawn sun cuts through the mist, to mark their territory and summon the power of their gods.

The Valleys

Between the hills, where streams and rivers cut their way down into valleys, are the main centers of civilized life in Mane Hiemalis. Here, where the dawn light shines through, are thick pine forests where the trees stand like ghosts in the mist and rain. Amid it all are the strongholds of the were-raven lords - stone towers or motte-and-bailey castles, each ruled by independent nobles marked for rule by their lycanthrophic bloodlines. They hold sway over human serfs who carry out forestry and mining in their lands under oaths of fealty in return for what protection can be offered against the dangers abroad. The were-raven familes are ancient, powerful, and refined: they rule with what they insist is benevolence over the benighted villeins beneath them, though what "benevolence" means is open to broad interpretation.

In the deepest, darkest, most northerly forests where the light barely penetrates, and the mist lies permanently like a blanket, are other polities. An ettercap queendom in a great palace of silk threads, where giant spiders are bred for war. A treant king who rules over a race of forest dwarfs - brown-skinned, sharp-eyed variants of their mountain brethren who find the dark of the forest to their liking and construct great citadels there under the loamy earth. Three green dragons, all brothers, who live on an island in the centre of a forgotten lake; in its caverns great treasures are stored, guarded by golems the dragons have constructed from dead trees, stone, earth, and even the very mist and dawn light which surround them.

The Mountains

In the north of Mane Hiemalis is a high range of snow-peaked mountains which form the barrier between the cold damp south and the verdant wet plateau of Mane Vernus. They are bitter, glacial, and near impenetrable except for a mere handful of dangerous passes through which the merest trickles of trade and diplomacy can run.

These passes are guarded. One is the realm of a family of Formorian giants, deformed white-skinned behemoths who live in caverns of ice with throngs of troglodyte slaves. They tax any trade which goes by and grow ever bigger, ever fatter, and ever more wealthy. Another is watched over by an amethyst dragon, who sleeps under a glacier with one eye on the pass; travelers of interest are interrogated to sate her curiosity, while those who bore her are toyed with and eaten. Her glacier is burrowed-through with tunnels built eons ago by a race of ice elves long since disappeared. Their cathedrals and halls, filled with blue luminescence, lie otherwise empty and haunted save for those where the dragon stores her hoard. A third pass was built by a dwarven hero, Eskwetthum-bey, thousands of years prior: he rules it still as a lich, preserved in undeath by powerful magic and his own sheer will. It consists of a vast tunnel lancing through the heart of the highest peak, inside which Eskwetthum-bey's inbred descendants still live. Their inbreeding accentuates their aptitude for magic and they are sorcerers and warlocks all - though they are frequently also blind, enfeebled or deformed.

(The hex map was created using Cecil Howe's excellent Hex Kit.)

Tuesday, 20 June 2017

Special Sale for Website Launch/Revamp

A while ago, I started a website for my nascent publishing wing, Noisms Games. I'm rather lazy about that sort of thing, but I finally made the effort to spruce it up a bit more (a bit more). I am going to do more to make the most of it in future, too.

To celebrate the re-launch and redoubled effort, for 48 hours only, I am launching a special sale. You can buy Yoon-Suin and Issue #1 of The Peridot in PDF for £1 each during that period at my website and there only. Feel free to spread the word! The offer ends at 5pm GMT on Wednesday 21st and will never be repeated. Click here to visit the website.

Sunday, 18 June 2017

In Media Res

I mentioned in my previous post that I was re-reading The Lord of the Rings. I was reminded earlier that the first time I read it, I think aged 10 or 11, I started with The Two Towers and not The Fellowship... - I think because a friend had already taken out my local library's only copy of the latter, and I was impatient to read it. So my encounter with the books started not with Bilbo leaving Hobbiton, but with Boromir's funeral. Quite a different introduction. 

Beginning a trilogy half way through is interesting. You have to make up for a lot of missing knowledge with guesswork and imaginings. Who was Boromir? Who are these hobbits Legolas, Gimli and Aragorn are looking for? What's all this stuff about a ring? And so on. It actually can add quite a bit of extra richness to the reading experience; your imagination has to work overdrive to fill in the gaps. (I wonder if there is room for a series of blog posts in which I start reading fantasy series from book two and speculate about the contents of book one...?)

A good way of beginning a fantasy novel, especially a series of fantasy novels, is of course to make it seem to the reader as though big important narrative forces are already underway - to transmit to the reader the sensation that they are coming into the middle of something; the setting is alive, and things have been going on before the plot proper starts, and will go on afterwards too. 

George RR Martin does a brilliant job of this in A Song of Ice and Fire. For all the series' flaws, it's indisputable that A Game of Thrones is a stunningly good first volume of a fantasy series, and a big part of that comes from the way Martin sets the scene: this is a world that doesn't just have a history; the characters also have histories - with each other. The book starts off with everybody having unfinished business, and takes it from there, and you're swept along with it as a result.

One can profitably adopt this approach with an RPG campaign too, of course. Having PCs start off with unfinished business is an additional impetus for them to not just do things but also engage with the setting. Gambling debts, a kidnapped child to search for, a family sold into slavery, an enemy to one day hopefully assassinate... these are all easy ways of achieving this, and pretty widely used, I would imagine.

I think it is likely to be much less common to take a wide-angle approach and begin a campaign in the middle of historical events, so to speak. Imagine starting off a campaign on the evening that a completely unrelated revolution is taking place (with a randomly determined outcome, natch). Or a few months after an earthquake, with ruined buildings still much in evidence. Or against a backdrop of a long-lasting civil war, with a battle happening just over the next hill as the PCs emerge from the dungeon with their loot. Or with the Black Death just beginning to sweep through the population. Etc. Right now all I can think of is the beginning to Deep Carbon Observatory - maybe there are other published examples out there.

Saturday, 17 June 2017

The Logistics of Sleep Deprivation

I have a not-quite-two-month-old baby so I think about sleep a lot these days. She actually isn't all that bad a sleeper as these things go but a good unbroken 7-8 hour stretch is now a distant memory for me.

I also happen to be re-reading LOTR at the moment. I realised the other day I'd not read it in a few years so I dug it out for the, what, 10th time? In the early chapters as Frodo and his friends cross the Shire sleep features quite heavily; camping outside, marching at night, finally getting a proper rest at Tom Bombadil's house, etc.

Anyway, it amused me to think of how blithely sleep is treated by most D&D players. Night comes and they glibly decide "Boris is on watch for the first 3 hours, Gwendolyn for the second, Job for the last" or whatever and that's that. The cumulative effect of broken sleep (especially when there is an encounter as there often is), the fact that you never sleep all that well in a tent, the fact that dawn comes *really* early for much of the year... We just ignore it and get on with killing orcs.

People have come up with interesting ways to make encumbrance, rations and so on easy to keep track of. Is the logistics of sleep deprivation the last frontier? (Don't look at me for ideas - I got 3 hours, then 2 hours, then 3 hours again between 9pm and 7am last night. I'm hardly in a position to make up D&D subsystems.)

Wednesday, 14 June 2017

Seasons Last 1000 Years

It has been a wee while since I posted about "The City Shining...", my (although I should really say our, since so many commenters on the blog and on G+ have contributed to its evolution) campaign setting in which a day lasts 100 years.

As a reprise to those posts, I have just finished a book which may be relevant to your interests - Helliconia Spring, by Brian Aldiss. I had never even heard of this book (part of the "Helliconia" trilogy) until I happened across it in a second-hand book shop a few months ago; I find this beyond surprising, because it is in a strange way a masterpiece of the SF/Fantasy genre.

I say "in a strange way" because the book is flawed - it is granite-hard to get into and the plot moves like a glacier. But simply as a vision it is sublime: a world in a binary star system which orbits one star while that star orbits a much larger one. As the planet comes closer to the larger star, the seasons rapidly warm up, and rapidly cool down as it moves away. In other words, each season lasts over 1000 years. Entire civilizations are formed in spring, rise to their apogee in summer, then die off in winter leaving only ruins behind.

As a description of a fantasy world I can think of few parallels; the planet of Helliconia is itself a character and the extended lyrical sections in which the changing of the seasons is described are stunningly good (they remind me of Kim Stanley Robinson's descriptions of the first explorations of the poles of Mars in Red Mars, still for me probably the tour de force in SF imaginative writing). The book is also notable for having an opening prelude of nigh-on 100 pages set entirely underground - Veins of the Earth, eat your heart out.

Well worth checking out and eminently gameable - nay, crying out for licensing and turning into a campaign setting. The PCs start off at the very turning of winter into spring, going out into the newly thawing wilderness and uncovering the remnants of lost civilizations from the previous summer - as well as weird and wonderful new civilizations being founded in their place. Great stuff.

Friday, 9 June 2017

The Art of the Background

For years now I've used this as my desktop background:

I love it and wrote about it here.

That said, a change is as good as a rest and I think I might give Gawain and the Green Knight and the sorrowful horse a well-earned break. What do you have as your desktop background? And what single piece of fantasy art which I might not have seen would you recommend?

Thursday, 8 June 2017

The Valleys of the Winter People

Alongside BGSJ and another project, I am also working on something tentatively titled The Valleys of the Winter People. It is a hex-crawl-with-dungeons module set in early 19th century Japan. Here is a hex entry:

0301 - The blind necromancer, Yama-no-Itako, wild and hateful, able to commune with the dead and guarded by the wraiths of three dogs. She appears as a shriveled old woman of tiny stature, wearing faded green robes and with the merest wisps of remnant hair on her mostly bald skull. Her paper-like skin barely conceals the blue veins beneath. Her dogs were transformed into wraiths by an ancient ritual in which they were buried up to their necks and starved within sight of food; Yama-no-Itako then fed their spirits in their afterlife and thus bound them to her in infinite loyalty. They are of a lanky, wolf-fighting mountain breed but are invisible to the naked eye except for the long shadows they cast on the ground. Those attacked by them smell earth, death, and dry leaves.

Her modest hut, which contains a bed and some statues of the Buddha, sits in permanent shade in a grove of beech trees on a hilltop. She burns incense which may be scented from 1 mile away; the smoke is visible from 200 yards. She almost never leaves her hovel. Her dogs are always within 30 yards of her.

Yama-no-Itako: 0-level seer. AB 0, AC 12, Move 70. She can Speak with the Dead as a 15th level cleric at will, but only does so in return for communication in reverse; the questioner must reveal a secret for the Itako to pass on to those in the afterlife, at which point all of the dead know it.  
She wears a necklace of pearls taken from freshwater oysters of Lake Usori, near Mount Osore, one of the traditional gateways to the underworld from ancient folklore. There are 16 pearls and each is worth 300 gp; but each also holds a secret. Carved minutely into the white surfaces of the pearls and only visible when held up to the light of the moon are the words and instructions for a spell to Raise the Dead.  
Yama-no-Itako's wraith dogs: HD 5, AC 16*, AB +7, Move 180, Attacks 1 Bite*
*Invisible to the naked eye except for a shadow visible in sunlight. If fought in the open during the day they may be attacked by missile weapons at -6 and melee at -3. If fought at night they may not be attacked at all except in melee, at -4. At night they always act first in initiative order and this supersedes any other special factors affecting initiative.
*The wraith dogs bite with infinite hunger which drains the very life force of those bitten. The victim loses 6 hp (do not roll) which transfer to the dog if it is harmed. 

Wednesday, 7 June 2017

Fond Memories of a Lost Subgenre

Browsing the shelves of the Fantasy & SF section of your local bookshop, a certain category of novel now seems conspicuous by its absence: the heroic high fantasy trilogies (or multi-volume series) which so characterised the 70s-90s and probably peaked circa 1985. A Song of Ice and Fire - that's all there (though increasingly marketed as "Game of Thrones"). "Dark fantasy", which I think means "Twilight with the serial numbers filed off" - that's all there. Weird fiction (China Mieville and imitators) - that's all there. Apparently there's somebody called "Trudi Caravan" or something who's been writing lots of stuff lately. But whither David Eddings? Whither Julian May? Whither Anne McCaffrey? They are as the dinosaurs to us now; occasionally you find part 2 of some forgotten fantasy trilogy lying under a pile of Catherine Cookson and Stephen King novels in a charity shop or flea market stall, like a piece of a tyrannosaur jawbone poking out of an eroded badlands plateau. Other than that, they have vanished from the popular imagination.

Some favourites spring to mind - favourites not because they were of exceptional quality (I haven't read them in so long that I can't really form a judgement anymore) but because I remember enjoying them as a 12- or 13-year-old desperate for follow-ups to The Lord of the Rings.

Julian May's Saga of the Exiles. I was befuddled and amazed by this series when I first read it - a fantasy series about time travel! With aliens! In the Pleistocene Epoch! With maps of a dried-up Mediterranean Sea in the front covers!

David Eddings's The Malloreon. Eddings wrote such balderdash but I do have fond memories of devouring the five books in this series. The first volume, if I recall, is a gratuitous comedy of manners mainly about the marital problems of the king; there isn't an action sequence until the very end of that installment and the plot doesn't actually get going until the second book. But still.

Weis & Hickman's The Death Gate Cycle. You don't even hear of these books nowadays, but in my distant memory they were a curious but strangely successful mishmash of influences: a world split into fragments signifying earth, air, fire and water in an ancient confrontation between rival races of sorcerers... but also there are elves and dwarves in it. As though Weis and Hickman couldn't quite escape the influence of D&D. Clearly could have been turned into an RPG (and maybe was?).

Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn. It stands out to me now as a sort of proto-A Song of Ice and Fire - something grittier and more "realistic" than the other high fantasy series around at the time. I remember vivid and sensitively-written descriptions of combat, psychological complexity, and something to do with magic swords.

There were times when the words "Book One of....[such-and-such a series]" held such excitement and promise. Is that phrase itself doomed to die, as unmourned as the old high fantasy works of yesteryear?

Saturday, 3 June 2017

LotFP Late Edo Period Samurai Classes

And now for something completely different. This is for a project I am working on over the summer, provisionally titled "Samurai Survival Horror Module". Further details will follow in due course. I am just testing these ideas out for now.

Late Edo Period Samurai Classes

Samurai classes all use the following experience table:

Saving Throws
Experience Points
Hit Points
Breath Weapon
Magical Device

Noble - The noble has a stern and regal bearing as befits a member of a cadet branch of his lord's family. He gains an additional +1 AB when using a sword. He can also command a human target using his august charisma once a day (the subject has a saving throw). The target loses the saving throw when the noble is at 4th level. 

Foot Soldier - The foot soldier trains continually for war in the service of his lord. While unremarkable in any other way, in this regard at least he is honed like the finest steel. He gains an additional +1 AB when using a spear. He can also, once a day, seize the moment and force his way to the top of the initiative order for one round of combat. He can do this twice at 4th level. 

Brute - The brute has the strength, size, weight and mass of fat and muscle to make him a perfect wrestler and hence blessed. He gains an additional +1 AB when using a naginata, and can cause fear in undead spirits once a day through stamping (the subject has a saving throw). The target loses the saving throw when the brute is at 4th level.

Aesthete - The aesthete's appreciation for the beauty in each passing moment allows him to forget both the future and the past. He gains an additional +1 AB when using a bow, and can utter poetry to aid concentration once a day, allowing him to automatically succeed in the next dice roll (but only if given time to concentrate). At 4th level he can do this twice a day.