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Friday, 24 July 2020

The Conclave

I like this cover painting (by David Bergen) because it depicts a wizard who might have stepped from the pages of National Geographic rather than Dragon magazine. I’ve had the book for decades but never so much as read the first page. Now that might change because I’ve been playing in Tim Harford’s marvellous Conclave campaign, inspired by the Earthsea books.

Tim began by stripping everything back to just a few pages of rules. I know people are playing full-on tactical dungeon bash games using platforms like Roll20, but our style is more theatre of the mind anyway, so it made sense to pare the system and dice-rolling to a minimum.

There were seven players and we were all wizards in an archipelago world where magic is brought about by using the true names of things. (That’s Ursula K Le Guin’s idea.) We began by describing our characters. Here’s Oliver Johnson on the background of the mage Wax:
“My mentor was my father, ‘Ear of Ear’, the shaman before me, but now ‘of his bones are coral made’ (see below). At the age of 12 he gave me my true name. Since his death, only he, the wind, and his coral brothers know this name.

“Wax is a shamanistic sorcerer on the Island of the Ear in the scorching southern Sandbanks group of islands. As you point out, these areas were never subject to the rule of the High King and have their own language, Al Vari. Though we can of course speak the Common Tongue when called upon, we prefer our own language and customs. Just out to sea are The Great Southern Shoals.

“Wax is a skinny, sun-tanned fellow with dreadlocks and a perhaps a not very clean loin cloth as his sole wardrobe, he carries a conch shell and a coral staff/spear about five feet long. Like many on the island he is addicted to the dreamberries that grow in profusion among the sand dunes. They give him powerful visions of the past, the present and, sometimes, even of the future…

“Along the coast of the Island of the Ear are the many coral houses of my people, a fishing folk with a peaceful way of life. Apart from, that is, at certain times of the year when the fish are running, such as the great tunny migration, when I am called to ritualistically gather the fish into the Bay of the Larynx and the villagers proceed to batter the hapless creatures to death in the shallows (for this, think the Sicilian Mattanza ceremony) . At other times I am required to raft the dead out to the Great Shoals and lay the corpses upon the exposed reef so they can once more become the sea and the coral. I spend many days there as the bodies fall apart, driving the seagulls away so the spirits of the dead will be of the sea and not the air… The reef speaks to me of its mysteries and the wider oceans beyond. Sometimes at the dead of the moon the coral men come out of the sea and sit once more on the beach and converse of their living days. I sometimes join them, listening to their strange clicking language which over the years I have become quite proficient in. The last time they came from the deeps my father told me of a great treasure they had found in the ocean troughs, an immense object like a metal dragon. He does not know whether it is a thing of evil or good, but suspects the former. The ocean depths and the reefs near it are now absent of life.

“Wax lives in a huge cave complex overlooking the Bay of the Larynx, knows as The Pipes. Strange ululations are caused by the fierce sirocco blowing from the south and it seems the wind brings him news of those far away deserts and their peoples. A secondary aid is his conch shell which he often applies to his ear and from which come the voices of the other sorcerers of the isles and the desert lands who also carry these devices.

“Wax is sometimes referred to as ‘Ear Wax’, for there is another sorcerer with the same name on the nearby Island of Wax (known as ‘Wax Wax’). We are not friends, nor shall we ever be, though he, too, has a conch.”
And my own character:
“I hail from the far north, where lie bleak, flat islands of pebbles whose shores are lapped by an iron-grey sea. Sullen fisherfolk live short, hard lives untouched by beauty. By day the frost and the flensing wind scour all in a cruel embrace. At night the vault of stars is vast beyond grandeur, a pitiless glimpse into cosmic infinity that exposes the utter hopelessness of all human endeavour.

“I dwell within the wind and the darkness, being the god Surma -- or at any rate worshipped as such by the few hundred savages of those islands. When the sun is gone and all must huddle around a spitting driftwood fire, they know they must forfeit their own comfort to save offerings for Surma, god of sudden endings, lord of the final moment, who demands propitiation for all the hours he has withheld his attentions from those who yet sit shivering by the fire.

“Those primitive fishermen belong to a tribe called Tarvastans and they eke out a hard life. In the middle of an empty island strewn with large pebbles stands a spire of crystal about half the size of Cleopatra’s Needle. The fishermen burn offerings to the god Surma who lives here, hoping to propitiate him, for Surma is the spirit of violent death.

“Surma is not in fact a god but a human wizard. His name is Kullervo and he was brought up by the Tarvastans, who treated him harshly as he was a captive from another tribe and not one of their own. One day the young Kullervo found the crystal monolith, which even then the Tarvastans regarded with dread, and discovered that by approaching it in a certain way, ‘stepping sideways from sideways’ as he understood it, he was able to get inside. Within the crystal is much bigger and Kullervo discovered he could hear whispers left over from beings who lived here long ago.

“The Jume are dead, as we understand it, but their words had innate power and could not die. Those words echoed still within the matrices of crystal, speaking to the sensitive mind of the child. Kullervo returned day after day, enduring the blows and cruel commands of the fisherfolk as he learned the secrets of the Jume. Soon he contrived the death of the man who owned him, causing the body to sit up on the third night of its wake and foretell the return of the god Surma. Since then, Kullervo took on the identity of Surma and occasionally protects and occasionally persecutes the Tarvastans, though most of the time he forgets their existence, engrossed as he is in the endless mysteries to be gleaned within his crystalline citadel.”

Tim asked us a few questions before the first game. I only have Surma's answers to those questions, of course:
Who trained you? The endlessly echoing voices of the Jume, which in the crystal sanctum have far outlasted the Jume themselves. From their immortal whispers I gleaned the secrets of my art. In the things of which they spoke I am unrivalled, therefore, but I remain ignorant of the gentler ways of wizardry which the Jume disdained.

Who knows your true name? None, but it is there in the world nonetheless, for in my early days of study I spoke it aloud within the walls of crystal, which allow no sound of magic import to be deleted. Yet I will confound any attempt to learn it from there, for I spoke many other names, equally indelible, so that if any foe somehow found his way into my sanctum (no easy feat in itself) they would hear my voice pronouncing many names. How would they know the true name? They would have to sift it from the reverberating choices I have left there, each cunningly contrived to be as convincing as the next.

Where do you now abide? In my crystal monolith – from outside, a grey quartz splinter on a small, barren, rocky island; yet inside it is a palace in dimension, though austere and unwelcoming to any who does not have iron in their will.

One reason why you are pleased to be summoned to the Conclave is that you have seen worrying changes where you live. You wish to discuss them and seek advice from your peers. The names of new things are more similar to each other than they were in older times, more easily determined by grinding logic than by arcane craft and intuition. It is as if the world is losing the flavour of things, becoming colourless and uniform under the skin of reality. This is why the old songs lose their melody, why the fisherman’s catch is mostly minnows, why the young cast their elders out into the cold, why the storms are violent and unseasonal and dragons hide in distant clouds.
In the set-up we were told we'd been invited to travel to the island of Dain by the Master Summoner of the College of Wizards: "Surrity, Lord of Dain, invites you to a feast in honour of his visitors. Parties at Castle Karmon have a reputation for showy social displays, progressing to other forms of immodesty. The thought may appal or delight you, and the invitation to yours to accept or reject."

Surma replied: "It is right and proper I should be at the feast, as I am in a sense at all feasts. Where I pass, flowers wither, a chill deepens the shadows, and all feel an unease at the momentary reminder of their mortality -- a reminder that those who see beneath my mask of resplendent black harpy feathers will not forget."

My write-up of the first game was from Surma's unique perspective, which didn't even trouble to stick to chronological order:

Rarely do I choose to leave my lands, but on a whim I responded to an invitation from one styling himself the Master Summoner of Dain, not the least of my motivations for this being whimsical curiosity, for I have heard that ‘a wizard of Dain’ means a buffoon.
Many new impressions, then, in no particular order:
I visited a tavern, a low-ceilinged smoky hovel into which men press themselves like herd animals in a pen. Here they drink away what little wits they possess, exchanging metal rooted up from the ground by manual effort. And they talk and talk, and thus they squander each breath until the last.
At a circle of nine stone seats, along with Wax and six others, I was enmeshed in a spell and visited by one calling himself the White Watcher. He commanded one of the others to die, resisted the most vindictive thunderbolt I could find in those meagre skies, and even managed to temporarily restrain my own freedom of movement. (Note: perhaps he was another aspect of myself?) While I was preparing a means to escape the binding and counterattack, Wax called down some other bolts, one of which brought the senile Master Summoner to himself and he sent the Watcher away.
In the market one of the mortal wizards bought cloth, but rather than give metal coins for it he cured the stall-owner’s daughter of a fungal infection. Her home was smaller and more squalid even than the moss-roofed bothies of my worshippers. I told light to inhabit it, which the mortal wizards took for an illusion. (Note: a kind of visual trick.) The wizard, who styled himself the Whisperer, said that the disease was once common in the isles but had been thought eradicated.
Lord Surrity is the ruler of the island of Dain. I forgot to ask the relationship, if any, between him and the College of Hythe, but their library is on Dain also. (Note: mortal wizards acquire their magic from books; before I leave for home I should visit the Librarian to look at some.)
The greatest marvel: I saw a man who seemed to have no True Name. He styled himself as a slaver called Jude. You would imagine such a one would live as Wax and I live, with one foot in the otherworld, yet he supped his tankard at an ale-puddled bar and did a sordid deal to sell children to a merchant for sexual violation. (At my instruction, this merchant later took the children to the castle and confessed his crimes to the secular authorities.)
Let us end this account at the beginning. Wax arrived at Dain on the back of Sprugel the Great Turtle, a stylish gesture, and disembarked with the unearthly hints and flavours of dreamberry raptures still trailing him in a cloak of half-seen wisps. I came in the form of lustrous pearls borne in a chest by tritons with the heads of fish and hindquarters like octopuses, caparisoned in coral hauberks and sitting astride brine-spitting sea horses that rode forth from the mouth of a blue whale with two centuries of barnacles on her flanks. I did not notice how the mortal wizards made their way to Dain, but I believe they came by boat.

Tim commented: “Surma is a Vancean mage in a Le Guin universe. It shouldn’t work yet it does.” Whether I'll ever prevail on him to publish The Conclave as an RPG is another matter. He is rather busy with books, radio shows and a podcast, not to mention running our weekly game, so it might take a while, but come back tomorrow for another taste of the campaign.


  1. Very interesting. Surely a man of distinction such as yourself has at least read the first 3 Earthsea books though?

    1. It's one of those things, Nigel. The original Earthsea books were published by Puffin, and as a kid I never read kids' books, so they just didn't appear on my radar. Years later, a friend at college put me onto them and I read the first one but for some reason never got any further. It seemed to be a self-contained story, anyhow.

      Fast forward forty years and Tim starts his campaign by saying, "If you haven't read Earthsea, don't." So I refrained so as not to have the game spoiled, then when the campaign wound up I skim-read the last book to find out what had happened -- though I'm actually none the wiser.

      I'll post the rest of our game write-ups over the week, so maybe you can tell me how much it deviates from Le Guin's story.

    2. I've put Earthsea on my list, Nigel (although I'm no man of distinction), along with Lyonesse of Vance. Both authors are on my list of, loved the only books I've read (The Lathe of Heaven and Araminta Station/The Cadwal Chronicles), so why didn't I get the others? Some kind of weird blind spot that afflicts me.

    3. You're not alone in that, Andy. How many people have read more Orwell than Nineteen Eighty-Four? And Umberto Eco used to grumble that every time he brought a new book out, all that happened was people bought The Name of the Rose. (Don't bother with the recent TV version btw; it's dire.)

      I read and enjoyed The Word Ouroboros decades ago, but have yet to get around to anything else by Eddison.

  2. Andy I’m sure there are gaps in my reading you could drive a truck errr I mean a lorry through... One of the many appeals of Earthsea to me is the sheer elegant economy of writing. In an age of giant doorstop fantasy novels Earthsea really is a master class in how to create both a whole world and a magic system in very few words.

    1. Agreed. One thing I picked up from my shamefully fast read-through of The Farthest Shore is that Le Guin's prose and imagination are magnificent. The frustrating thing for me was I went looking for answers to what had happened in our campaign, and it was obvious that Le Guin never worked out the magic system in that level of detail. It's hand-waving. But after all, she wasn't writing a set of rules, she was writing a novel. There doesn't have to be any building behind the facades we can see.

  3. I don't think I've ever read a good fantasy doorstep. Are there any?

    1. I hear The Game of Tomes isn't too bad.

      Red Truck, Yellow Truck doesn't quite cut it for me, Nigel! :)

    2. Is it doorstep or doorstop? I never know, but either would do. Lyonesse is close to half a million words, and Jonathan Strange & Mister Norrell would break your toe if you dropped it -- both very good.

    3. I've gone and done it again, Dave. Get up this morning, look at posts, Game of Tomes pops into my head, do a post, go shopping, start thinking hmmm that was a bit too easy, come back, look up Game of Tomes, I'm not a genius and am way behind the curve once again!

      Not long after leaving school, I wrote about 20 songs for a mate who was in a band (probably the last creative thing I've done). I said to him, I've got this tune that I can't get out of my head that I'm sure is original. I hummed it to him and expected him to say, wow, that's catchy. What he actually said was, that's Enola Gay you bloody idiot!

      About that blind spot, the most obvious one of mine was John Christopher. Some 30 odd years after I read the books, I was watching the DVD of it and something clicked in my brain that I hadn't read anything else of his. I went through his entire works that summer and the rest were also utterly brilliant. Thankfully, there was only a three year ish delay between Binscombe and Triffids, otherwise Mr Whitbourn may have suffered the same fate! Speaking of Binscombe, I've just read the last one. Speechless!

    4. That should say after watching The Tripods DVD by the way, Dave, although I'm sure you would have filled in the blanks!

    5. Btw Andy, I keep meaning to say that John Whitbourn has released his non-series stories in a collection called Altered Englands. Your interest played a part, so take a bow. I'll review it on the blog when I've read it -- you might beat me to it.

    6. You're far too kind, Dave. I'm rather naughtily not reading it in the order that the author intended. All I'll say is, the last Binscombe is worth the price of the book alone and the other few stories I've read so far are also brilliant. I may be a few weeks finishing myself as I intend pacing myself with them.

      Oh, forgot to mention myself, I read To Build Jerusalem a few weeks ago and left an Amazon review. I thought it was at least as good as A Dangerous Energy. I've set myself the target of finishing John's works by the end of the year. I'm sure I'll come across an under par one at some point!

    7. Inevitable with any author, Andy. The best we can hope for is to find a few with a good batting average.

      Re the final Binscombe story -- I could have included that in the three books, but deliberately left it out hoping John would write more. It feels like once that last one is out there, that's the end. But he wants to move on to other settings and stories, and fair enough.

    8. Well, after 5.1 books, he's Don Bradman.

      If you're gonna go out, go out at the top. And with a perfect ending to boot.