Thursday, 21 January 2021
Thursday, 14 January 2021
British literary critics of the 19th century had the notion of the "Young Lady Standard", which was a kind of family-friendly U-rating for novels that would not offend the sensibilities of a Victorian girl. Because of this, British literature often shied away from the sort of forthright depiction of life you find in French or Russian novels of the time. There was a feeling on the Continent that literature was an art form and had a right, indeed a responsibility, to mirror life warts and all. In Britain literature was the forerunner of early-evening television.
Even so, authors like Jane Austen were not the twee and cosy yarn-spinners that many suppose. Lady Susan Vernon is an amoral, manipulative adventuress who deserves a place in the ranks of dark antiheroes alongside Vic Mackey and Walter White; Catherine Morland runs afoul of predatory sexual vindictiveness; Lizzie Bennet takes on a real-life dragon for very high stakes; Becky Sharp is willing to betray even those who love her just to squirrel away some cash. Nonetheless, though depths of human depravity are certainly there to be inferred in 19th century British literature, those are all pre-watershed conflicts. None of them is described with the uncompromising raw honesty and occasional breathtaking brutality of authors like Balzac or Chekhov.
Dickens wrote stories to stir your emotions, but he and his readers knew they were parlour entertainment, to be read by the whole family -- a "safe space" in entertainment. A Victorian paterfamilias who opened a novel to be confronted with the likes of Madame Bovary might well have stormed back to the bookshop and thrown it through the window.
I think something similar is behind the uproar we sometimes see nowadays over "unsuitable" content in roleplaying games. There are some people who play games the way those Victorian families read novels; there are others who expect games with no holds barred. This has led to the concept of the "x-card" -- sadly nothing to do with homo superior, but a mechanism to interrupt games whose scenes or subject matter a player is unhappy with. To quote from the blog I linked to there:
"The x-card is used to signal that a boundary has been crossed or that a player is not OK with the content. The game stops immediately, and discussion shifts to the reason why the card was used."For me that's as absurd as calling a halt to a disturbing play or movie. If you don't like what you're seeing, don't tell me about it; there's the exit. But there's a category disconnect here. I regard roleplaying games as art, no different from literature, theatre, cinema, poetry, and painting. The people who advocate x-cards want their games to be morally uplifting and to avoid upsetting anybody, just like those family novels for the Victorian fireside. We have different expectations.
I have a player who doesn't like horror scenarios. If we're going to be playing a horror campaign, that's OK; she sits it out. Sometimes there's a grey area. A scenario may not be overtly intended as horror, in the sense of belonging to the horror genre, but horrific things happen. There have been a few times when my players have shocked me to the core with some of the things they're willing to do. And that's fine. It's why I play, in fact, to see those things that emerge unexpectedly from characterization -- sometimes beautiful, sometimes very nasty. It's the same when writing characters. You ask yourself how far they will go, what lines won't they cross, and the answer is often revelatory.
What do you do if you come up with something you know will be shocking, whether as a player or a referee? If I thought my players couldn't handle it then I'd keep it to use in a story, perhaps. But really, if my players were like that then we'd soon part company. They and I know we're not setting any limits.
Taking the blog post I cited again, one of that player's boundaries is "I don't want any romance involving my character." But it's really hard to plan that kind of thing in advance, especially in the improv style of play that gives the best games. When refereeing, I wouldn't have an NPC profess love for a PC if I didn't think the player was capable of running with it. (I'm talking about their acting ability and imagination, of course.) What if one player-character falls in love with another? I'd much rather they both played it. Unrequited love is one option there, and it could develop in interesting directions as we know from countless TV shows and novels. It would be pretty disappointing if a player just said, "I don't want to roleplay that." In that case play your blocking. Reject them, spurn their advances in-character. Don't tell everyone about it.
But what about games in a public forum? Twenty years ago I went along to a convention to sign Fabled Lands books but soon got roped into a series of fascinating mini-RPG scenarios run by the guys behind West Point Extra Planetary Academy. Each game had a different setting and was built as a moral quandary to be played out in twenty minutes. They could hardly have started by saying, "This scenario deals with issues X, Y and Z." It's the trigger warning problem. If you're trying to capture a genuine sense of surprise in the game, you can't give too much away upfront. (Not to mention that the evidence indicates that trigger warnings are of no use in any case to the genuinely traumatized.)
Why have these debates crept into games of late? I think partly because roleplaying is becoming -- well, not mass market entertainment, not by any stretch, but certainly it has opened up beyond the hardcore gaming demographic of the early days. Aficionados take a sophisticated approach to their hobby. The casual fan tends to have a less mature outlook.
Also, American culture has always had a much more censorious streak than European. The idea of shutting down a discussion because it offends somebody's moral code is perhaps natural if your country was founded by Puritans. And because of social media, the Overton window has shifted away from liberalism towards moralism. Hence gripes like this, that maybe do make sense over in the US (American friends, feel free to chip in) but strike most Europeans as potty.
And because most roleplaying derives from genre fiction, and genre sensibilities tend to be a little less grown-up than proper literature, there's a tendency to expect roleplaying games to stick to the soft-soap forms of conflict you get in traditional SF and fantasy. Witness the outcries over Game of Thrones when the writers stepped outside genre norms -- even though that was pretty much the entire thesis of the show from day one.
Anyway, enough theorizing. What do we do about it? Well, surely few gamers want to sit around listening while one player explains their reasons for halting the game. The next stop on that line is struggle sessions, which nobody will enjoy. But those people's sense of offence seems genuinely to overwhelm them, and there's no point in subjecting anybody to an experience they disapprove of. So we're going to need better ways to signal which kind of roleplayer you are. High literary with anything goes, or pulp with puritan boundaries? As long as everyone around the table knows what they're letting themselves in for, I'm sure we can all keep on gaming without needing to call the thought police.
Tuesday, 5 January 2021
I’m on the latest of those, mostly chatting about Dragon Warriors and Jewelspider but with a bit about the early days of roleplaying. After the discussion, an interesting point was raised about whether DW would have worked better as a single rulebook, the way games like Runequest and Champions were released at the time, rather than as six standard-format paperbacks. (We’d hoped for twelve, but that’s a detail.)
What happened in the early ‘80s was Ian Livingstone and Steve Jackson had a epiphany. They could see that fantasy games potentially had a huge market but had so far failed to escape the niche of sweaty hobby shops. How to get them out of the shadows and into the mass market bookstores? The lightbulb moment must have come while playing a Fantasy Trip solo adventure. ‘Know what, lad?’ I can imagine Steve saying – or maybe it was Ian. ‘Do something like this for kids and we could have a breakout hit.’
The red-braced MBAs among you will have noticed that Ian and Steve didn’t publish Fighting Fantasy themselves, despite owning White Dwarf magazine and a chain of game stores. They pitched it to Penguin Books and lions were shook into civil streets.
Me, I just rode their coat-tails. I figured that all those tweens and teens who’d now discovered gamebooks might also be waiting for roleplaying. So Oliver Johnson and I took ourselves out to Ealing, where Transworld had their offices, and the game that was to be known as Dragon Warriors was born.
What if we had done DW as a single rulebook? I’d been working on an RPG for Games Workshop that they planned to call Adventure (yeah, not my idea) and that would have sold about 2000-5000 copies. The value to GW was mostly that they could sell figurines on the back of it. Adventure never happened because GW picked up the UK Runequest licence, but it had penetrated even my business-blind consciousness that we could sell ten times as many copies if we got a paperback RPG into high street bookshops.
And where would a chain like W H Smith have put a single-volume rulebook anyway? Not alongside the FF books that all the 10-13 year-olds were snapping up. There might have been a corner of the shop where Jane’s Fighting Ships and Formula One books were stocked. You’d never have seen it. We wouldn’t be talking about it today.
And how much would it have cost? The DW books were £1.75 each – in the mid-80s, a little less than $5. If we’d lumped the content of the six paperbacks into one durable hobby-style RPG hardback, call it £15. About fifty quid in modern money. Not a pocket money purchase, for sure.
And would Transworld have been interested? Probably not. The adult division wouldn’t believe there was a market for fantasy role-playing, the kids’ editors wouldn’t commission a £15 hardback. And if they had, Oliver and I would have got an advance of about £2000 each (that's maybe £7000 in today’s money) to keep us going for a year or more while we wrote the whole game and all the scenarios. Passion project though DW was, just to pay the bills we'd have been tempted away by gamebook contracts instead.
Would I rather have released DW as one book? Well, that’s what I was working on in Adventure. It wouldn’t have been entry-level like DW. It would have been set in the world of Medra rather than Legend. The skill system would have been more complete because it was designed as an entire system rather than piecemeal and episodic the way DW came out. There'd have been no elves or goblins.
Would that game have been as good? Apples and oranges. Single-volume RPGs back then were for the hobby market. Paperbacks like DW and FF and Maelstrom were for the mass market. I'm heartily glad that James Wallis eventually reorganized DW into a single book, and it's far easier to find the rule you want that way, but we had to follow the winding road to get to that point twenty years on.
If I'd really understood the business side of gaming at the time, though, I’d have made the rules d6-based. How many schoolkids even knew where to buy icosahedral dice, still less have the pocket money to spare? It was Britain in the ‘80s, a tatty and corruption-riddled backwater off the coast of Europe. The streets were paved with stale chewing gum and flattened fag butts. Off licences had metal grilles to stop people pinching Watneys Party Sevens. The height of dining out was a gristly steak and chips at the Berni Inn. Kids didn’t have the cash to fling at mobile phones and X-Boxes like they do today. Or did, that is, pre-Brexit.
That dice bit I’ll be fixing with Jewelspider. All you’ll need are a couple of six-siders. It’ll be a small-format book, too, though maybe I should do a hardback as well as a paperback edition if only because that will be more resistant to spilled wine and red-hot fragments of dope. Tell you what, though. It’ll be a bit more than £1.75.
Friday, 1 January 2021
I was recently reading an article that dismissed the idea that human beings might be perfectible and that history is generally moving in the direction of civilization away from barbarism, so I thought I'd share this short talk by the delightful Hans Rosling.
It's no proof that we'll end up with the Federation, or even the Culture, but it would be pretty stupid if, for the sake of cynicism, we didn't even bother to try. So my resolution is to do more in 2021 to combat injustice, superstition, prejudice, intolerance and ignorance. I hope you'll join me on the march to humanity's bright future. If we can't get there, don't let anyone say it was for want of effort.
In the meantime I want to wish all the blog's readers a very happy New Year. May your own personal trajectory be ever upward and onward. Let's leave the world a better place in January 2022 than we find it today: more civilized, more rational, more generous, and more compassionate. And if you're looking for a resolution for 2021, how about: get the jab?
Thursday, 24 December 2020
Steve has given his blessing to handing out free PDFs of this seminal (if rough-&-ready) work:
GURPS's several hundred skills and perks when I've yearned to strip things right back. Maybe not quite that far back, but almost.
And you can see now why I didn't choose a career as an illustrator. Happy Christmas!
Tuesday, 22 December 2020
Thanks to the instantaneous distributive powers of the internet, there are some Christmas freebies you can scoop up in the time it takes to say "ho ho ho".
Casket of Fays issue #3, for instance, has scenarios, stories and new rules for Dragon Warriors. I especially liked Lee Barklam's article on cunning folk, having heard a friend of mine talk about his Yorkshire heritage and a colourful local character called Conjurer Tom. But there's so much brilliant material packed into this issue that it's impossible to single out any one piece. Many thanks to editor Simon Barns and his contributors for making such top-quality support material available for free.
By the way, have you seen any of Jakub Różalski's art? His work seems like a perfect fit for Legend at Christmas. Here's what I mean:
Still with Dragon Warriors, Jim Desborough has a post on Yuletide monsters like Krampus and (not being as lazy as me) he's even included stat blocks. Don't settle for a lump of coal when you can have this crew of ghastly ghoulies in your Christmas stocking. And while you're there, do take a look at all the great gaming stuff in the Postmortem Studios store.
Straying only a little way from DW into the misty borderland where the English New Weird merges with science fiction and folk horror, John Whitbourn's Binscombe Tales includes a creepy seasonal yarn called "It'll All Be Over By Christmas" which comes in a Kindle chapbook with a couple of other stories. If you're asking my advice, I'd buy the whole series, but that's a good place to start.But wait, you say; that's not free. True, but here's another Binscombe Tale that is. Draw the curtains, dim the lights, and enjoy "Eyes".
Friday, 18 December 2020
So here's the other half of the Greek-influenced world Jamie has been creating for his Vulcanverse computer game. In these two regions (the world is divided into four rectangular quadrants) he takes us up into the mountains and out across the deserts. When Jamie sent me this material he mentioned gamebooks, and my first thought on reading it was that it would make a great setting for a gamebook -- or even for a series of four linked books, Fabled Lands style.
Anyway, here's Jamie's description of the oroi and eremoi of the -- I suppose it would be the Klytotechneschora (Κλυτοτέχνηςχώρᾱ)? Greek scholars, feel free to correct me!
If you go up through a pass and down the other side, you will descend into the table-top plateau beyond, a great alpine steppe, bounded on all sides by silver-capped, cloud-bound mountain peaks. The plateau is where Boreas, the winter wind, dwells.
Unlike the other gods, Boreas does not sleep. He cannot sleep for he is bound to blow for all time. Once, as a god, he could choose when winter came, whether it be early or late, whether to bring rains for crops or to drown them with floods, or to unleash storms upon ships at sea or relent and let sea-soaked sailors live or die. Boreas delighted in the sacrifices made to him by those who sought to appease his terrible power. But now he is bound by mankind’s science. Science that has decided how the world works, how he shall work. As the divine power of the gods declined so did the inevitable, inescapable power of reason rise to eclipse everything that had gone before. Now he must follow the rules and strictures of man’s ineluctable logic. He must blow when unknown forces he will never understand impel him to do so, rest when he must rest according to a system he is incapable of comprehending. Gales, hurricanes, tornadoes, gusts, breezes or soft zephyrs are not his to decide. He is no longer the master of his own destiny, and so he rages across the high steppes, screaming his incoherent anger at the empty skies.
In the middle of the plateau is a tall column of granite that spears upward into the clouds. Upon it rests the Fortress of Winds where Boreas himself lives. But he rarely resides there now for he spends most of his time shrieking in rage, rushing across the frozen flatlands or ‘working’. Boreas hates ‘working’.
Elsewhere, there are four mountains that rise up out of the plateau, separate from those at the edges. Mt Helikon, Mt Atos, Mt Othri and Mt Nysa. These were once home to the Oreads, members of the Ourea, young minor goddesses of the mountains, the children of the earth goddess Gaia. These mountain nymphs, the rulers of Boreas, have not been seen in aeons. It is said they sleep inside their mountain fastnesses awaiting a time when mankind may turn to them once more. They once ruled this land but now all that is left is Boreas, mindless, raging, howling, not much more than the rush of the wind unlike the old days when he and the Oreads would banquet in the Fortress of Winds or soar across the sky, shrieking in delight as Boreas, laughing, wafted them gently over the clouds.
Much of the plateau itself was once rich, terraced mountain farmland, now it is little more than wind-scoured tundra.
Cyclopes living in their mountain-side cave lairs, would climb up to the peaks and hurl boulders at each other for sport, or drop enormous rocks on unwary travellers below to crush them for their great cauldrons. Tenderized human flesh and crunchy bone stew was the height of cuisine as far as a cyclops was concerned. Now only a few cyclopes are left, scattered across the peaks, eking out a tired, lonely existence.
Many mountain peaks were used as eyries or nests inhabited by harpies and hippogriffs. They struggled against each other for control of the mountain peaks for thousands of years, a bitter war of hatred and blood. But now, as only a few harpies and hippogriffs remain, there is plenty of space to share, their glorious kingdoms of the sky reduced to abandoned nests, shattered rocks and broken, cliff-top pillars.
In ages past, minotaurs ruled in their subterranean cities dug into the mountains, emerging only to raid the lands of the Amazons who ruled most of the steppes that made up the high sierra of Boreas. These warrior women bred magnificent horses, riding across the steppe tundra, warring with the minotaurs, and tending to their nomadic herds, moving around from tent city to tent city. They would meet for great conclaves at their temples on holy days.
Harpies and hippogriffs, giants and cyclopes were always trying to steal away their cattle, the Amazons always trying to prevent it. It was a vibrant land of warring tribes and creatures. But now the Amazonian temples lie in ruins, their great yurts are no longer pitched ‘neath starry skies, their horses wander in small herds, searching for what little roots and grasses are to be found in the frozen earth, the cattle have long since been hunted to extinction. A handful of Amazon women linger on, trying to preserve their old ways. The tunnels and subterranean cities collapse untended, as the number of minotaurs that dwell below can be counted on the fingers of a single hand.
How can Vulcan restore this magnificent land to its former glory? He cannot do it alone, he needs the help of the mortals, those once feeble humans who have mastered reason and logic, created technologies inconceivable to the minds of the gods, save Vulcan himself. To the ancient gods,, mankind's craft is like a new kind of magic that has empowered them in ways the old gods never imagined possible. Only the mortals can rejuvenate the white capped mountains, the crumbling hill top forts, the Fortress of Winds and the underground cities. Only they can awake the Oreads to rule again, only they can restore the creatures of Boreas to greatness once more.
The High Steppes
Most of the interior of the Boreas is a steppe plateau. Here and there hills rise up out of the flatlands. Where once the land was tilled and farmed, now it is mostly frozen tundra. The Amazons once roamed these lands, leading their herds of cattle and horses in search of pasture, growing crops and tending the land. They built temples and a few hilltop forts, but mostly they moved around living in great tented cities.
Hilltop Forts and Temples
Where a hill rises up out of the steppes, the Amazons built a fort upon it, the better to store their goods and defend against raids by the minotaurs, harpies, hippogriffs, cyclopes and other fell creatures of the mountains. Mostly they lie in ruin but one or two are still inhabited by Amazon warrior women, eking out a sparse life amidst the ruined glories of their past.
Mts Atos, Helikon, Nysa and Othri
These four mountains are the abodes of the four Oreads, the Mountain Nymphs that once ruled over the land with the North wind, Boreas. They rise up from the plateau near the four corners. They sleep in their mountain top palaces (like Parthenons), waiting to be woken once more. From each mountain, a river of the same name, runs to a large abyssal sink-hole near the centre of the High Steppe. The waters cascade down great waterfalls to disappear into unknown lands far, far below. Some say the rivers flow to Neptune’s realm of endless seas, like a celestial drain, others that they flow to another plane entirely.
The Great Sinkhole
Here the four rivers that run from the mountains of the Oreads spill down into the endless depths of an enormous sinkhole near the centre of the high steppes. Some say that if you fall into the Great Sinkhole, you will fall and fall, and die of thirst and starvation before you reach the bottom.
The Fortress of Winds
This is a pillared hypostyle fortress of porticoes and pillars. It rests atop a solid column of stone that rises up from the High Steppes to scratch at the clouds. It is the home of Boreas, the Winter Wind, but he has long abandoned it, in favour of hurtling about his realm shrieking like… well, like the wind, creating havoc, trying to throw off the bonds that bind him.
Lair of the Cyclopes
In the mountainsides that border the interior of Boreas are many caves, dug out by the one-eyed giant cyclopes. Here they would hurl boulders down at unwary Amazons below or play catch with their friends and enemies on nearby mountains using great boulders as balls.
Here hippogriffs (half eagle, half horse) made their homes, high up in the mountains. They would war against the harpies whilst also trying to raid the herds and settlements of the Amazons below.
Harpies (half woman, half bird) made their nests from bones and skins high in the mountains. They would war against the hippogriffs for control of the skies, while also raiding the Amazons below. A risky business as the Amazons became adept in making sky-ballistae that could take down a harpy or a hippogriff with a single shot.
Below the ground, minotaurs have dug complex tunnel systems, creating living spaces, mines, passages, underground temples and stores. Much has fallen into rack and ruin but their great pillared portals and gargantuan gates still dot the landscape though most are sealed through rockfall or massive locks the keys for which have long been forgotten or lost. You might still catch sight of a lone minotaur lurking at one of these gates from time to time but sightings are rare.
Once, the Great River rushed from the first Cataract of Oceanus, the father of rivers, in the far north, through the second Cataract of Tethys, down to the Shores of Psamathe at the southern edge of the desert, and into the sea. In that delta stood the mighty city of Iskandria. Here the Myrmidons lived, a warrior race armoured like ants, who fought for Achilles in the Trojan wars. Iskandria teemed with life, commerce, arts, and crafts. Ships plied the Great River, its banks were home to farms and fisheries, vineyards and breweries for the making of fine wines and barley beer. Irrigation canals ran from the Great River into the deserts, creating farmlands and oases to feed the Myrmidons. The land was blessed by the gods, and filled with abundant life, fed by the Great River.
But now the gods have departed to their divine divans, to sleep the ages away. Where the waters cascaded down in raging torrents at the Cataract of Oceanus, now there is only a trickle that evaporates into empty air before it can reach the parched and dry riverbeds of the once Great River. Where once a river flowed, there is nothing but a long, winding ditch that cuts through the desert, slowly filling up with wind-blown sand. The canals that branched out to either side, once swollen with waters of life, are choked with dust and rocks, and dry, white bones.
The second Cataract of Tethys halfway through the Great River’s journey to the sea, was used to divert waters into the irrigation canals. Huge water wheels were set up to capture the power of the raging torrents. Tethys, a goddess, was mother of rivers, springs and streams, but she has long gone to her rest. Now the waterwheels lie baking in the hot sun, grime and dirt clogging their cogs, rust eating away at their metal brackets, their wooden spokes as dry and brittle as bleached bone.
Iskandria, the city at the Shores of Psamathe (goddess of the beach), once a thriving metropolis crumbles ‘neath the sun’s hammer. A handful of Mymirdons scratch out a living from the dusty fields, living amidst the cracked houses and shattered streets like the ghosts of once mighty warriors of legend.
Elsewhere, the desert has spread like a tsunami of sand. Lost cities and sunken forts are buried beneath tons of desert dust, waiting to be rediscovered, filled with ancient wonders and long lost treasures.
Dragons have crept back into the wilds, untamed, unchallenged, to take up residence amidst the pillared temples and cities of old, even in the Great Pyramids of the long forgotten kings of ages past. Even the Valley of the Kings where the ancient Myrmidon lords were buried is lost to time, the desert and dragons.
And where dragons roam so do the Spartoi. When a dragon’s tooth falls to earth, up springs a skeletal hoplite with spear and shield. Over the years, many dragon’s teeth have fallen. These Spartoi have formed themselves into regiments of undead hoplites, appointing their own lieutenants and commanders, taking over the forts that the Myrmidons once built to control these lands. Now the Spartoi range up and down the desert in search of blood or battling amongst themselves for supremacy.
And as if that were not enough, out in the western edges of the desert, in an empty quarter now called the Land from which None Returns, there dwell cockatrices whose touch is poison and whose breath is death. Yet their blood is said to cure all ills, so it is that desperate men and women will sometimes seek them out.*
Three of these are hidden in the sands of the desert awaiting discovery. Much smaller than the great pyramids of Egypt these mausoleums each house one of the sphinxes of ancient times. They slumber, awaiting a new birth. Will it be mortal men who free them from their sleepy shackles?
Cataract of Oceanus
This is the origin of the Great River that runs through the Desert of Sphinxes. Oceanus was the god of rivers, the well of all the fresh waters in the world. But now he sleeps, no longer needed, discarded, set aside. So the wellspring of the Great River has dried up, and the once fertile lands, fed by the river, have been reclaimed by desert sands.
Cataract of Tethys
This second cataract, half way on the Great Rivers journey to the sea, was used to divert waters into the irrigation canals. A shrine to the goddess Tethys was regularly tended, to ensure the free flow of waters but that too has fallen into rack and ruin. Tethys herself has long since departed.
The Great River
A river that meanders through the two cataracts from the north to the delta and the sea to the south. It is now dried out and is slowly filling up with sand. It fed a fertile land, but now it is a barren wasteland of dust and sand.
A once great port at the mouth of the Great River where it spilled into the sea. Now the delta is silting up, and the great city is a shadow of its former self, slowly falling apart as the sun beats down upon it.
* ‘Where are you off to, dear?’
‘Just popping out to the Land from which None Returns.’
‘I suppose you won’t be home for supper, then?’
‘Umm… probably not.’