Friday, 30 September 2016

Eulogy for a White Ape: On Bathos, Shaggy Dogs, and Archaeology

My character died last week. It was an exemplification of bathos. It has made me revisit that topic - one which I wrote about, I think usefully, before.

The PC in question was a mute white ape, called "The White Ape". The game uses a variant of the Into the Odd ruleset, which basically balances out character generation by giving statistically weaker PCs better/more interesting stuff to start off with. I rolled ridiculously good stats, so I ended up with a difficult starting position: hence, a mute white ape.

I decided early on that my white ape was not going to be a raging John Carter of Mars-style brutish simian, but a contemplative, Buddhist, vegetarian Orang-Utan figure with unusually progressive attitudes. While he was immensely strong and hence useful for that purpose, he tended to rely on his strength reluctantly. He was accompanied everywhere by another PC, an old woman, who he carried around on his shoulders, and who was ostensibly his "mistress" even though they were both classical liberals opposed to slavery.

Playing a mute character is tough. You can't really contribute a great deal to any sort of planning or interaction with NPCs. But I was interested in the white ape and how things were progressing for him.

Last session, for complicated reasons, it was decided that my white ape was going to enter into gladiatorial combat with a crab-man at a festival for the sake of a bet. The crab-man was owned by a powerful slug-man merchant who it already seemed was going to turn into some sort of arch-enemy. There was a lot riding on the bet: if we won, we would receive a big payment of the food which we needed for further expeditions and prevent our hirelings deserting us. If we lost, we would lose vast riches and be in even direr straits than before. (You may legitimately ask why we took on the bet in the first place rather than just buying food - we couldn't do this because, I think, the counterparty to the bet had lots of food and wouldn't give it to us through a straight trade.)

The white ape was a little reluctant to participate in these brutish games but agreed to do so for the greater good, and played up his role by acting as ferociously and aggressively as he could. The fight was an entertaining back and forth in which the white ape showed off his judo skills and the crab-man use its speed and armour to inflict serious injuries. Eventually the white ape ripped off one of the crab-man's forearms and began opening and shutting the claws in mocking triumph while the crowd bayed for blood...

At this point, if games were like films (or if we were playing a game which excluded random elements or the DM was in favour of fudging) my white ape would have gone on to win the fight and be lauded for his bravery and strength. We would have got the food we needed, made an enemy in the form of the slug-man, and my white ape would have won greater respect from the party and also perhaps further developed a conflict in his character between societal expectations of brutality and his own sensitive nature.

But instead, the crab-man had one last attack which gave the white ape a serious injury, I spectacularly failed a save, and the ape was finished. He lay there semi-conscious and hors de combat, trying to communicate to the crab-man that there were no hard feelings and that the two of them were, in the grand scheme of things, mere pawns together at the whim of the imperialist forces which oppressed them. Rather than suffer the ignominy of having the crab-man finish me off, the leader of the party blew the white ape's brains out with a pistol. We lost the bet and most of our wealth and now we are in an even worse position than before.

This is what dice and randomization can do - they throw off what might be thought of as narrative convention. If you were telling a story or playing an RPG whose aim was to consciously create a story, you would not have allowed this to happen - bathos is not conventionally satisfying. Some DMs would have fudged the crab-man's attack roll or figured out some way to let the white ape survive because the session ended on such an anticlimax. But that is not what we're playing for.
Rather, we're playing to see what happens. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that there is space to make this an explicit goal or design choice in a set of rules for RPGs.

The model for a good RPG campaign is not really a film or novel, but a shaggy dog story. That's not to suggest that what goes on in the game has to always be funny or frivolous - but rather, that it is a long and ongoing process of events which are connected to each other by a thread of cause and effect (however loose), not conventional narrative drama.

Think of it this way. An RPG campaign is a concatenation of events. A happens, which causes B to happen, which causes C to happen, all the way to Z and back again. What is interesting is how, after the event, you can see how all of those events were connected. The satisfaction comes from being able to look back at that long chain, at each link in it, and see retrospectively how it all came to pass. An unpredictable and impossible-to-make-up sequence of happenings all following on from one another as if they were following some strange path that was not at any stage consciously created. If there is any point at which the chain of causation was fiddled with, by connivance between DM and players or by fudging, it seems to me that something is lost. You can't, at the end point of a campaign, look back at all of the things that happened and say, "Ah, yes, what a great long chain of surprising events, all connected to one another in interesting ways by the mystery of chance and the phenomenon of causation." Instead, you have to say, "Ah yes, what a great long chain of pre-planned events following the conventions of narrative." The former seems more interesting to me: like a documentary, history book or biography rather than a novel.

Indeed, maybe those terms are more useful even than "shaggy dog story" - an RPG campaign is archaeology rather than fiction: an archaeology of made-up events that you can only uncover by looking at it backwards. It all makes sense in the end, in its own way, but not because of convention or cliche - but because it couldn't be otherwise. It is what happened.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Of Night and Day and Heart Beat Time

I have been thinking some more about day to day life in the Fixed World, mainly because I am a player in Patrick's game, which is set in a world where it is basically always night.

The most significant logistical problem for anybody wanting to run a campaign in the Fixed World is sleep. In some places it is always night, in others always mid-day, in others always morning, and in others always evening. How do people figure out when to sleep in such a world?

It strikes me that things would work out as follows.

First, in ye olden times, people knew what the time was in their local region, but had little conception of what it was outside it. As far as you were concerned, in your village, there was morning, noon and night, and the sun moved around in its cycles, and you slept during the night time. The fact a few days' travel to the North or South the night would come slightly earlier or later depending on the time of year would be neither here nor there. You wouldn't care, because you would rarely leave your own village and the area around it.

So for the vast majority of the population, "when to sleep" is just a matter of local custom, determined by tiredness or some sort of arcane ritual. Perhaps the oldest person in the village decides, when he gets tired, that it is time for everybody to sleep. He gives some signal - rings a bell, puts up smoke rings, etc. - and that's the cue for most people to sleep while others keep watch. A big element of war would be trying to catch your enemies out when they are mostly asleep. Alternatively, a system might evolve in which the custom is that different people sleep at different times in a sort of rota: about a quarter of the population would be asleep at any one time, with the others hunting, farming, and going about their business. This means, of course, that there would be no downtime - work would go on continually.

The point is, it doesn't particularly matter that the people in village X have different sleep patterns to those in village Z. It doesn't concern them because they don't live in a world in which instantaneous communication exists, and for the vast majority of the time they exist in a purely local context. It would only chiefly matter for ports - you would get ships arriving without any idea whether the locals would be currently asleep or not. Ports would pretty much have to follow the sleep-rota model.

Planning would be extremely difficult, of course, because you wouldn't be able to say "I'll meet you in an hour" or "I'll meet you in the evening" - those concepts wouldn't really exist. Because the sun doesn't move, there are no hours. I think, probably, people would develop a very sophisticated understanding of other units of time - for instance, heart beats. Most adults' heart beats have an approximately similar rate. Because there would be no other way of doing it, I expect that people would have units of heartbeats - so while you wouldn't say "I'll meet you in an hour", you would say something like "I'll meet you in 100 time units", each time unit being 100 heart beats. It would be so crucial to be able to measure the world in this approximate way that people would be able to very accurately estimate what the real, "normal" heart beat rate was if, for example, they had been doing lots of running. They would be very good at roughly guessing how many time units are passing as they go about their business.

(This reminds me a little of Lewis Carroll's musings about the international date line.)

For kingdoms and empires, official measurement of time might be more important than simply figuring out when to sleep. Things like weeks, months and years are very convenient - it is hard to imagine people being satisfied saying "The Battle of Waterloo happened about 2 million hours ago." What you would want is a system of units: an A is 100 heart beats; a B is 10 As, a C is 10 Bs, and so on. And you would want to keep track of that in a standardized way. That would mean standardization of what a heart beat constitutes. It doesn't matter that the hoi polloi in the provinces use rough and ready rules of thumb. For official purposes there has to be a standard rate. And this would have to be the same wherever officialdom reigned.

I imagine a kingdom where the keeping of time is deemed important. Each major settlement is required to be on the same footing as regards when events have occurred or will occur. So they all need to have the same official heart beat rate.

How this is arranged is as follows. Some people exist whose reason for living is to provide a regular heart beat. These people are carefully selected when they reach the age of thirteen: every child is at that age brought to their nearest major town. There, if their heart beat happens to exactly match the required rate, they are immediately taken from their parents and sequestered as time pieces. They are from that moment forbidden to exert themselves in any way, and ensconsed in chambers where there is no external stimulus. They are kept constantly drugged with a special gas which regulates their breathing and prevents them from having any sort of emotional spasm which would cause their heart rate to fluctuate. They live in this way, in a sort of suspended animation, while their heart rate is continually monitored: there is an entire caste of monks whose job it is to take it in turns to sit and listen to the heart beat of the human time piece, all the while making small marks on a piece of parchment with each heartbeat. After 5,000 heart beats, the first monk steps aside and another swiftly takes his place to continue the marking. And these monks are surrounded by a host of neophytes and acolytes who constantly replenish the parchment and ink and carry it away to be officially counted. And in a room next door are the official counters, piling up all the many sheafs of parchment, each of which is marked 5,000 times for 5,000 heart beats. And each pile of 5,000 sheafs makes 25 million. And so on and so on. Entire rooms, warehouses, filled with paper, all marked with tiny stripes of ink, so that if anybody asks, they know when it was that such-and-such an event occurred - how many sheafs ago it was that the storm came, or the ship sank, or the meteor fell from the sky.....

Alternatively, a wizard does it.

Monday, 26 September 2016

D&D in the Media Watch and the End of Social Media

D&D gets a mention in this article in The Grauniad today. "[R]ole-play titles such as Dungeons & Dragons, in which players imagine themselves as heroic warriors and wizards in imaginary, fantasy worlds..."

There is a typically Guardian spin put on what it calls "the rise and rise of tabletop gaming" - the writer attributes it at least partly to the fact that apparently board games nowadays allow everybody to be nice to each other and cooperate, rather than those horrible traumatic competitive games of yesteryear like, er, Monopoly and Cluedo. (Trigger warning for competitiveness!)

The fact that board games are sociable and allow us to re-connect with the physical world is surely more to do with it. One should never make predictions, of course, but here's one: board games and RPGs are going to grow in popularity and this is going to be correlated with larger numbers of people quitting or taking "detoxes" from social media and smartphones.

Friday, 23 September 2016

I'm not a Businessman, I'm a Business, Man

I am ambivalent about the lionization of the entrepreneur which has been a growing feature of British society since as long as I can remember. I am half-persuaded by the view that the end state of modern neo-liberal capitalism is a society in which all of the behaviour of homo economicus becomes subjected to market rationalities and theories of exchange until there is nothing left except rational (or irrational) actors existing in atomised isolation - a society in which everybody is an entrepreneur because human social contact is only competition and exchange and nothing else.

But I am also half-persuaded by the idea that it would be great to write RPGs for a living. What would I need to be able to do this?

I stress that this post is not serious. I like the "proper" job which I have and I'm not about to quit it. And I think a life of sitting alone at a keyboard trying to create things would quickly turn me into some sort of long-bearded, filthy weirdo. Human company and variety are important.

However, the freedom to just do something you enjoy, free from the constraints of management or control, sounds very fulfilling. I have worked out that I would probably need to produce a Yoon-Suin every two months in order to be able to live in the manner "to which I have become accustomed" based on prior performance. If I got better with pricing, budgeting, marketing and all of that jazz, then who knows? Could be every three or four months.

Could I do that? Perhaps I could. Free from all other time constraints, I might be able to write things that quickly. On the other hand, the model is based on the heroic assumptions that I could write things that are consistently as good, that the market could bear a new thing by me every three months or so, and that my financial circumstances wouldn't change. Perhaps the most heroic assumption of all is that the pressure to produce wouldn't play on my mind until I was living like a crazed rat. And I want to be a crazed rat even less than a long-bearded filthy weirdo.

We think about money a lot. The requirement to make it limits our freedom. But at the same time, freedom and money are inextricably linked - the more you have of the latter, the more you have of the former. It is because I have money, at least a reasonable salary, that I do not feel the pressures and worries that might very well cripple and restrict me from doing anything creative at all. It is because I have the freedom that comes with money that I can create. By some strange perversity, if I had more freedom my capacity to create might be critically undermined.

"I listen to money singing. It's like looking down from long french windows at a provincial town, the slums, the canals, the churches ornate and mad in the evening sun. It is intensely sad."

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Shadowrun, Future Maztica and Wood Pigeons

Zak S wrote a post about Shadowrun. In the G+ comments I wrote:

I have written about this before on my blog I think. (I have written so many entries by know I forget what I have actually published and what was just an idea for a post which I never wrote.) Cyberpunk as a genre really works best when predicated on the notion that it is fiction about the people who the future has left behind. That's the relentless focus of Gibson's work anyway. I think there is scope for doing the same with Shadowrun. There is now magic in the world, and elves and dragons and whatnot, so the focus is PCs as members of the measly non-magical human race, trying to make a go of it. Fundamentally though, I think Shadowrun is just kind of a naff concept. Even though I played it a lot back in the day.

As Zak rightly points out, it is all very well saying that, but it is functionally the equivalent of what Shadowrun is anyway: "the basic assumption that Shadowrun PCs are low-level mercenaries caught between massive feudal corporations". How do you actually practically make a different form of Shadowrun in which the PCs are part of an anachronistic underclass superannuated by the introduction of magic into the world? I think the broader question here is: Shadowrun is really just Cyberpunk 2020 but with Tolkien furniture all over it (an orc sofa here; an elf desk there; a dragon lava lamp in the corner). It is the ultimate high concept but the concept is only barely, let's say pathetically, followed through. It is Cyberpunk 2020 except you can be an orc and/or a magic user in it, if you want. I don't think that is really good enough.

A while ago I wrote a post about Future Maztica, following an idea I had to try to subvert the absurd, stupid and boring decision to make DM's Guild all about the Forgotten Realms. Let's use this as a starting point, because Future Maztica interests me a heck of a lot more than Shadowrun's default of orcs, elves and dragons. The basic idea of Future Maztica is fantasy Aztecs in the future. There are humans but there are also manscorpions, tabaxi, and yuan-ti, and they, being more powerful, are in charge. Because it's Shadowrun, this happened fairly recently - the world was as it was in 2016. Then it was 2017 and things changed.

What we instantly need to get away from is cybernetic implants and cyberspace. If there was magic in the world, and there were manscorpions and tabaxi and yuan-ti running the show, they wouldn't have any want or need for cybernetic implants, or for that matter the internet or railguns or e-cigarettes. They've got magic. And they come from an orthogonal plane of reality - what they are interested in is just fundamentally not what we are interested in. Social media? Those words have no meaning to a manscorpion. And their claws are rubbish on keyboards.

Rather, it is the superannuated underclass of humans in this society who are using the cybernetic implants and cyberspace. We, the underlings, are still scrabbling around with our smart phones and our laptops and our social media and our televisions - those quaint, innocent tools.

By the same token, what need have the yuan-ti for the limited liability company? What is economic profit to a tabaxi? For them, financial derivatives are little different to the conch shells which neanderthals might swap for the corpse of a deer.

My inkling is this: if Future Maztica were real, we would not understand the goals, drives, ambitions and desires of the elite which in effect ruled us. To us, these alien spirits, who use a "technology" (magic) which we simply cannot fully comprehend, whose minds are totally different to ours, and who are in all probability much more intelligent than us, would come across as being arbitrary and capricious. It wouldn't do much good to try to pre-empt their actions - we would be fundamentally reactive.

In a sense, we would be a little like the real Aztecs were when faced with the conquistadors for the first time, or like the Australian aborigines were when faced with European colonisers. There is a tale (which may be apocryphal) which tells us that the people of Central America thought that men riding on horseback were one animal on first sight - because the idea of a man riding a horse (they had never even seen horses or imagined such a thing existed) was so alien to them. Similarly, there is another (possibly also apocryphal) tale that when Australian aborigines first saw a European sailing ship they described it using their word for an evil spirit, because that was all they could really conceptualise it as. The difference, of course, is that real Aztecs and Australian aborigines were humans just like the Europeans were humans, no less intelligent, and could very quickly figure out what these interlopers were, what they wanted, and what their technology could do. But manscorpions, tabaxi and yuan-ti (at least as I think of them) are more intelligent, and not human, and do not use technology which functions on the basis of laws of physics that we know of. So we would be in a position of permanent befuddlement and mystery about precisely what these ruling classes could do; we might be able, after a fashion, to guess at motives and abilities and beliefs, but nothing more than that.

Perhaps a better analogy is animals. Think of the animals you interact with regularly - your dog, cat or budgie, or the birds you put seeds out for in the garden. Those animals don't really understand who you are or why you are doing it. They simply don't have the intelligence nor the shared assumptions. They can react to, and to an extent predict, what you are going to do - but they don't know why it is happening. I have a few bird feeders in my garden. When I put new seed in it, a few wood pigeons and collared doves are always watching. This is because they know that when I do that, it won't be long before the local flock of sparrows (who assign a lookout - I've noticed this too) come along and start to eat it, but they're so messy that the majority of the seed ends up on the lawn for the wood pigeons to scoff. None of these actors knows who I am, why I put seed out, or how I get the seed - I suppose we can ponder to what extent they understand that I am actually doing it rather than the seed spontaneously being there shortly after I have visited the feeder. But they can arrange their behaviour by watching this all unfold and learning from it. Humans in Future Maztica would be a bit like that.

So Future Maztica would be a society which is not so much divided along lines of technology and wealth, as in a cyberpunk society. Rather, it would be a society which is divided along more stark, naked grounds: knowledge, and hence power. There is an elite which rules because it is manifestly more intelligent and powerful. It has no particular interest in anything as prosaic as wealth - because that is just a means to an end, at which they are already located.

What do the PCs in such a game do, then? How does all of this depart from "the basic assumption that Shadowrun PCs are low-level mercenaries caught between massive feudal corporations"?

The touchstone, I think, is more Call of Cthulhu than Cyberpunk. The game would be more about figuring things out than it would be about stealing. What happens in a Call of Cthulhu game, if you boil it down to its essence? The PCs have all sorts of different clues about things, and discover more; gradually they tease out some tiny threads that hint at a grand tapestry underneath. They will never get the full picture because that would go against everything Lovecraft's fiction stands for. They learn a tiny bit. Then they go insane.

Future Maztica would be something like this. I picture a society in which "the 1%" are something entirely different - weird magical beings which have manifested in this world from another reality. They create a separate layer of society which exists above but also in parallel with ours - we still have our countries, our politicians, our economies and maybe even our wars, but overarching all of that is another social reality whose nature is unknowable. It all goes on somewhere else: in vast complexes behind huge walls, or underground, or on airships, or any other place that is inaccessible to the human hoi polloi. Sometimes the two different societies interface with one another, but this happens seemingly randomly or in a fashion which can't easily be predicted - like, for instance, when the manscorpions descend to order Mr Smith to give them his firstborn, or when the yuan-ti order the government of Sri Lanka to eject the Brazilian ambassador, or when human powers exercise their agency to call on the tabaxi for aid in return for some obscure task or gift.

The PCs' "job", such as it is, is to try and see behind all of this - to get a glimpse at the knowledge and power possessed by the magical elite. Their motives are akin to those of Call of Cthulhu investigators - they want knowledge for its own sake; they want power; they want information to help them; they are searching for somebody lost or taken, etc. They are not "punks" on the make. They are doing paranormal research, except that it is acknowledged fact that the paranormal exists, is fact, and exercises great power over the "real" world. They are trying to tease out some of the threads of the grand tapestry beneath. Or, to put it another way, they are pigeons trying to figure out how best to get some seeds from a bird feeder.

Tuesday, 20 September 2016

The Mask Worn by the Night Sky

A crack only wide enough to squeeze through; on the other side is a space just big enough for one person to stand and turn around. Inside is a fragment of Sese-Mahuru-Bau's memory of his people's folklore: a dark and starry humanoid figure, as though composed of a man-sized shard of the night sky. It wears a mask made from bamboo, decorated with stark white clay paint, with a shock of a red beard and a high flat crest extending up from the forehead. The eyes are encircled in black. The night-sky figure itself is intangible and non-corporeal, except for a tingling sensation like pins and needles felt, for example, in a forefinger extended to try to touch it. It stands motionless and yet somehow communicates the sense that it is conscious and longs for the release that can only come with removal of the mask. The viewer must successfully save vs magic to resist the urge to take it off. Removing the mask causes the night-sky figure to instantly disappear.

As soon as the mask is put on by another person, it locks in place and cannot be removed. Over the course of the next hour, the wearer begins to feel the sensation of a painful tingling, growing stronger and stronger, throughout his body, as though from the inside out. His companions, at the same time, notice his flesh beginning to darken and fade, as he gradually transforms into a non-corporeal fragment of the dark firmament.

Once the transformation is complete the wearer is non-corporeal (except for the mask) and cannot be harmed or touched; he can also reach through physical objects without difficulty. He exists in the world of the night time, and can see in the darkness as though it is light, but is blind in the bright light of the day. If the mask is removed he ceases to exist. Eventually that is what he will long for.

Monday, 19 September 2016

The Ligottian Shift; or Three Scenes from Horror Games Not Played

I have been reading Thomas Ligotti's Songs of a Dead Dreamer & Grimscribe, recently released as a Penguin Classic after being near-enough impossible to get hold of prior to that. I am a great fan of Ligotti. So I feel awful using the word "cliche" to describe the work of a writer who is so distinctive and special. But I do think, after reading most of his short fiction, that I have worked out the one element that appears with enough regularity to merit the term; last night I was thinking about this and decided to call it "The Ligottian Shift".

I don't want to spoil any of Ligotti's stories for those who haven't read them, but those who have will know what I mean when I mention stories like "Dream of a Mannikin", "Eye of the Lynx", "The Christmas Eves of Aunt Elise", "Gas Station Carnivals", or "The Bungalow House". (There will be others - these are the ones I thought of off the top of my head.) What tends to happen is this: there is a setup which makes you feel very uneasy. Often it has a kind of mini-horror story which exists within the first half of the story proper, so that you get a sort of false climax before the climax proper. Then at some undefined point, in a very seamless way, the perspective changes so that you find that the narrator is now somebody or someone else, or in a radically different situation, but you don't quite know why or how. All of a sudden the terms on which you understood the story are different to what you thought they were. You had bought into one narrative and now you are reading something altogether different. Everything has turned itself around. (The last section of "Notes on the Writing of Horror: A Story" suggests to me that Ligotti is more than aware that this is his very special and unique trick.)

This is, of course, what makes Ligotti's work so compelling - the reader is not allowed to settle, because of the content but also because of the form. (In some stories, like "Purity", it feels almost impossible to work out quite how things are holding together, like the narrative is a kind of slippery eel you are trying to grab with wet hands. All you know is that you are scared and you don't know why.)

I got to thinking about this and how you might incorporate something like a Ligottian Shift into a horror or horror-inflected game. One of the key elements of the Ligottian Shift is not so much reversal as a side-step - things don't flip so much as reconfigure, like a kaleidoscope being twisted. What the DM would need to do would be to, at a certain point, change the fundamental assumptions on which the game has been based - it's not a plot twist that we're interested in, but a form twist. What kind of thing am I talking about?

Imagine that you are a playing in a gaming session. The DM describes your characters doing something typically Call of Cthulhu-esque - let's say they've broken into the mansion of some rich eccentric in search of clues because they think he is associated with a cult. They are looking in rooms, in desks, under furniture, and so on, but at some point it becomes apparent that actually they are not in his mansion house at all but are in his mind, in which they are now trapped - they are in a memory-construct of his house and "outside" the doors and windows there is only blank nothingness. Somehow, imperceptibly, things have shifted so that they are not in the real world, investigating the mansion house, but rather trapped inside the creation of the mind of their erstwhile target of whom they are now the unwitting playthings. Crucially, the DM has not informed them that this shift has taken place. It just has.

Or; imagine that you are in a dungeoneering session. The PCs come across a meek kobold who they put in a wooden cage and start interrogating. It is pliant and pathetic and snivelling. It answers all of their questions. But then one of the PCs notices that...hang on...the kobold isn't in a cage. It is on the outside of the cage and they are in it. And suddenly it doesn't seem so pliant and pathetic and snivelling. And suddenly, looking around, the walls and ceiling seem much higher and further to the PCs. And turning back to the kobold, it is not as small as it was. It is actually now much much bigger than them.

Or, imagine that you are in a World of Darkness or Unknown Armies sort of game. The PCs are sitting in the office of somebody they may, or may not, know is a magician of some kind. On the desk is a snow globe. The DM tells you that your character has noticed this snow globe and is particularly drawn to it. He asks you to describe an incident from your character's past in which heavy snow was falling. You think for a second and come up with some story about how when your PC was a child he went to the funeral of his favourite uncle (who happened to be the one who initiated him into the occult). At the funeral, the snow was falling heavily, so much so that people had to dig out the hearse. You warm to your tale in the telling, and start feeling pleased about your creativity. The DM tells you that your PC is now back in his memories of childhood snow - so vividly that he can practically feel the snow flakes touching his cheeks, and the chill pinch the top of his nose. But that as he steps away from watching his family members shovelling snow and turns around, he looks up and sees a strange curved glass screen in front and above of him. He can't go through it. It is like a clear, invisible barrier. He turns back, but his family, the hearse, the funeral scene have disappeared. There is now just snow and glass. He is trapped inside the snow globe. And in the shell of the body which he once inhabited, way back in the magician's office, is a spirit of snow which has replaced him.

I would like to do this sort of thing in a game some time.

Friday, 16 September 2016

Dungeonizing the Wilderness

From Seeing Like a State, an extremely important book which everybody should read:

[Edmund Leach] suggested that we look at the precolonial Burmese state not as a physically contiguous territory, as we would in the contest of modern states, but as a complex patchwork that followed an entirely different logic. We should picture the kingdom, he insisted, in terms of horizontal slices through the topography. Following this logic, Burma was, in practice, a collection of all the sedentary, wet-rice producers settled in valleys within the ambit of the court center. These would be...the state spaces. The next horizontal stratum of the landscape from, say, five hundred feet to fifteen hundred feet would, given its different ecology, contain inhabitants who practice shifting cultivation, were more widely scattered and were therefore less promising subjects of appropriation. They were not an integral part of the kingdom, although they might regularly send tribute to the central court. Still higher elevations would constitute yet other ecological, political and cultural zones. What Leach proposed, in effect, is that we consider all relatively dense, wet-rice settlements within range of the capital as "the kingdom" and the rest, even if relatively close to the capital, as "nonstate spaces". 
The role of statecraft in this context becomes that of maximising the productive, settled population in such state spaces while at the same time drawing tribute from, or at least neutralizing, the nonstate spaces. These stateless zones have always played a potentially subversive role, both symbolically and practically. From the vantage point of the court, such spaces and their inhabitants were the exemplars of rudeness, disorder and barbarity against which the civility, order and sophistication of the centre could be gauged. Such spaces, it goes without saying, have served as refuges for fleeing peasants, rebels, bandits, and the pretenders who have often threatened kingdoms. 

Two thoughts emerge from this.

1) I dimly perceive a map which is not birds-eye, but horizontal. A bit like what Christian Kessler has been posting about lately. It is subdivided into strata, each of which has a distinct character based on its elevation and ecology - getting more dangerous and strange as the elevation increases. This is in effect a way of (let's coin a phrase, shall we?) dungeonizing the wilderness. Think of a city state in a valley. All the way up and down the valley it exerts control and authority. But on either side are very tall steep hills and then mountains, which ascend ruggedly and rapidly. You wouldn't have to travel far from the city to be in a radically different, alien environment which civilization simply cannot touch. And moreover, it is stratified into levels - of, say, 500 feet of elevation. What this is is, in effect, a dungeon that is upside down: the higher you go, the more dangerous things are and the more potential there is for discovering things that are amazingly weird and/or valuable. Here the wilderness is not just a hex-map in which the PCs might equally be confronted by a dragon as by some kobolds; it takes on the same function of a dungeon in providing a somewhat predictable range of risk-taking.

2) To the city state discussed above, the wilderness is a threat which it wants to neutralize, and ideally draw tribute from. For some reason I have never really thought about this properly before, but why not conceptualise PCs in a D&D game as being representatives of the "State" rather than simply rogue-like murderhobos - competent independent frontiersman types with letters of marque, or even diplomats, sent to the dungeon or the wilderness to neutralize it? Not in the sense of clearing it, but in the sense of reducing its capacity to pose a threat - by creating tributary relationships (one way or the other), trade links or even ultimately civilizing it? In a strange way this seems to have been what my Three/Four Mysterious Weirdos campaign ended up resembling without me quite realising it. I find the concept interesting partly because it subverts so many typical D&D assumptions, but also because it puts the PCs in a role which is (at least in my view) fundamentally wrong-headed, in an intriguing way.

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Ignorance and Knowledge of Medieval Peasants

A question that fascinates me is that of how much your average medieval peasant farmer actually understood of the world. Actually, it is probably more accurate to say that what fascinates me is how difficult it is to know the answer to that, or even to understand the bounds of the question itself.

In a post from a while back Tom was arguing that medieval people were predominantly ignorant. He was pointing out that many of them seemed to believe things that were palpably not true and genuinely crazy - like mice being born from the soil itself, or geese growing on trees. It's important to be charitable, of course: it is pretty unfair to say that somebody is "ignorant" about things they couldn't possibly know (like, say, the theory of evolution). But Tom was definitely on to something. For instance, I have recently been reading a book called Meadowland: The Private Life of an English Field. In it, as an aside, the author mentions that people in the Middle Ages actually seemed to think that swallows went to live under the sea when they migrated. More than that: they thought it was possible to go fishing for swallows with a net in wintertime. Also, the people in his local area, until fairly recently, used to build fires in the homes using elder twigs, wood and bark - which causes cyanide to metabolise in the body and was responsible for them basically slowly killing themselves.

Which is very odd, because this very book is written by a farmer and portrays a very compelling vision of how intimate a connection a farmer (read: peasant) has with the land he farms. He knows every yard of it, and everything about it - how could he not? He works on it every day, and does very little else. How could you and all your relatives go their whole lives working on a farm every day without realising that animals breed by mating with each other just like humans? Would none of you ever have come across the nest of a mouse? Or watched a goose lay eggs?

And this vision of the ignorant and bewildered peasant is matched pound-for-pound by the image of the peasant as possessing an encyclopedic knowledge of his (albeit small) world. Take a passage from Evelyn's Sylva, or A Discourse on Forest Trees, which I came across today for other reasons - it goes on for ages about all the different things an elm tree can be used for and all its characteristics: how it can be used for chopping blocks, for mills, for ship planks below the water line, for providing relief to cattle in its leaves, for healing wounds and cuts or consolidating fractures, etc. etc. If people in ye olde days could know so much about elm trees, why did they have such odd ideas about mice, swallows and geese? More to the point, if they knew so much about elm trees, why were they slowly poisoning themselves with elders? In Guns, Germs and Steel Jarred Diamond describes how hunter gatherers in New Guinea know in precise detail the effects of all of the plants in their area of forest - what's safe to eat and what isn't; what's the tastiest; when fruits ripen, etc. That chimes with plenty of other things I've read and seen. What's the difference between a hunter gatherer in the jungle and a peasant farmer?

It is extremely difficult to put yourself into the shoes of somebody who, in all likelihood, never strayed farther than a day or so from his home in his entire life and never went to school. Everything you would know would be gleaned from the accumulated wisdom of the people around you, from hearsay and conjecture, and from personal practical experience. The question remains: how much would you actually know - and would you think that swallows went to live under the sea in winter?

Tuesday, 13 September 2016

Great Illustrations and The Saga of Erik the Viking

Rooting around in old junk from my childhood days, I came across The Saga of Erik the Viking - a children's fantasy adventure book written, somewhat improbably, by the Monty Python member Terry Jones. It's well worth tracking down if you can get it. Unlike most celebs-who-get-book-deals-just-because-they-are-famous around nowadays, Terry Jones can write pretty well, but what makes the book are Michael Foreman's absolutely superlative illustrations. (The same team also created the yet more wonderful Nicobobinus, which is sadly no longer in my possession.) 

Have a look at some of these snaps.










Michael Foreman is first name on the team sheet in my Fantasy Football team of illustrators. If I could choose anybody to illustrate something I created, it may well be him. Is it just because these pictures are watercolour when so little else is nowadays that they are so distinctive? No, it's not just that: it's also the sense of theatricality. Look at the expressions on the faces; the drama of the poses; the larger-than-life movements; the flamboyant way the enchanter plucks the imp from his daughter's hair. There is a fine distinction between this sort of playful exaggeration and the "Look at me, I'm striking an awesome pose!" Wayne Reynolds school of fantasy art that currently dominates, but an important one, I think. One seems delicate and playful. The other seems brash and unsubtle. But there is no accounting for taste.