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Friday 28 April 2023

How to make things stranger

This article originally appeared on my Patreon page for 5 January 2022 -- there with a little extra content -- and I'm reprising it here in hopes of enticing a few more of you to come and back me. 

“The chimera was beginning to bore people. Rather than imagining it they turned it into something else. As a beast it was too incoherent; the lion, the goat and the snake do not readily make up a single animal.”

Borges there, writing in The Book of Imaginary Beings, and he’s dead right. I never quite embraced the Greek myths as a kid because of all those monsters with the forelimbs of animal X and the hindquarters of animal Y. Even as a kid I thought they should have tried harder. The Norse myths came steeped in really dark and dreamlike elements, which I loved and that’s probably why Legend turned out the way it did.

This came up in a recent episode of The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, my second favourite fantasy gaming podcast. The chaps were talking about Robert E Howard’s short story “The Tower of the Elephant”, and I got to thinking about how almost every illustration of Yag-Kosha just plonks an elephant’s head onto a man’s body. You can almost hear the scratch of the pen as the artist carefully copied a picture from a zoology book.

But here’s how Yag-Kosha is described in the story:

“Conan stared at the wide flaring ears, the curling proboscis, on either side of which stood white tusks tipped with round golden balls. [...] This then, was the reason for the name, the Tower of the Elephant, for the head of the thing was much like that of the beasts described by the Shemitish wanderer.”

Yag-Kosha is an extraterrestrial. While REH was no doubt inspired by the mythology of Ganesha, I think he had something stranger and more original in mind. A body with two arms and two legs, and head that has protuberant teeth or horns and a long, prehensile snout – of course to Conan it looks like an elephant-headed man, but that’s no excuse for artists to be so literal.

One of the worst offenders is the illustration by J M Wilcox from the March 1933 edition of Weird Tales:

No better is Ernie Chan’s depiction from The Savage Sword of Conan. Somewhere there’s a photo of an elephant’s head that looks exactly like this:

Likewise this uninspired mix-n-match. The artist evidently just couldn't be bothered:

On the other hand, Cary Nord put some real thought into his version (the header for this post). And here’s a properly alien one I found online (artist unknown):

The takeaway is that we all find our inspiration in the familiar, but when transmuting that lead into fantasy gold it pays off to hide your sources. And, along with that, always to look for a new angle on familiar material. For instance, vampires that seem to have been whisked off the set of a Hammer horror movie will probably not give your players a genuine shudder, but investing a little work in dirtying them up, or adding an outré spin on the concept, can yield a very memorable encounter.

Incidentally Scott is right on the money about both Conan’s physique and the need for realism to ground fantasy fiction -- but those are subjects for another post.

Thursday 27 April 2023

Weird indeed

If you were interested in recent posts (here and here) on AI artwork, I've been tinkering with it to complete my Mirabilis comic book and you can also hop over to the Wrong blog for some unsettling machine-made images in the tradition of Weird Tales. Which is a sort of segue into tomorrow's post. See you then.

Friday 21 April 2023

Distaff dwarves

There was quite a fuss some time back about whether D&D games should allow female dwarves as player-characters. For all I know the argument is still raging. I don’t allow any dwarves as player-characters in my Legend games – unless we’re talking about achondroplasia, Tyrion Lannister style, but in that case the plural is of course dwarfs. The disagreement about female dwarf PCs presumably has something to do with how Gygax and/or Tolkien describes dwarf (the nonhuman fantasy kind of dwarf, that is) society.

We are all free to make up any society we want for mythological dwarves in a fantasy game, and in most D&D settings nowadays I expect elves and dwarves are multicultural vegans free of any sexism or gender assumptions. But it did get me to thinking about properly alien nonhumans, like you find in Traveller or Tekumel. Let’s take Vegans -- beings from a planet orbiting the star Vega, that is. Just for simplicity, assume they have two sexes, which we’ll call priza and vysma. Vegan society is such that prizas are never seen in public and have no obvious roles in government. What would we do about it? 

In a Star Trek game, obviously nothing. Dammit, Jim, it’s the prime directive. But what about other science fiction RPGs? Would player-characters take a stand? “We must liberate the prizas!” And would any player want to take a priza character, knowing that they would spend the whole game isolated from everyone else? Closer to home, if you were creating a character to play in a campaign set in Afghanistan under the Taliban or in classical Athens or among the Lev Tahor sect, you wouldn't get to do much if you chose to be a woman. Though no expert on either D&D or Lord of the Rings, I've got an inkling that dwarves in those settings sequester their womenfolk in a similar way, which would explain why Gygax didn't think they'd make viable player-characters.

It leads onto the whole question of whether the settings of roleplaying games should reflect 21st century mores or those of the period (if historical) or invented world (if fantasy). Personally, while I would like to live in a world with no hang-ups about ethnicity, sexuality, sex or gender, I don't expect novels, movies and TV to indulge my utopian dreams -- other than SF, where I enjoy a utopian vision but will settle for Blade Runner grittiness just as happily. On the whole I want fiction to be "warts and all". A WW2 movie in which the Nazis weren't a genocidal totalitarian movement wouldn't make any sense. What would Blade Runner be if humans were nice to replicants? The whole point of art is to confront the darker aspects of humanity, not pretend they don't exist.

And similarly in games. If there is slavery or sexism then player-characters could fight to overcome it -- that could be the point of the campaign, although history shows that they probably wouldn't even think to question it. The interesting thing is if and how they choose to react. I don't know if that moves us any nearer to resolving the squabble over female dwarves (are they still supposed to have beards?) but at least it suggests there might be some useful metaphors to be explored.

Thursday 13 April 2023

Good versus the other thing

‘Can anybody play characters in service to Napoleon and think of themselves as the good guys?’

A gobsmacking comment (55 minutes in) from Mr Cule there, I thought -- not complaining; it’s for those comments that I especially love the show -- but presumably millions of people did follow Napoleon and definitely they thought of themselves as good guys. This interested me because a few days earlier I’d come across a note I made a few years ago:

‘Has anybody ever written a novel like Lord of the Rings but instead of being “good” vs “evil” in a generic sense, we actually get to hear the ideologies on each side? It is in effect left vs right, Dems vs GOP, or whatever.’

The thing is, that’s a very modern take on how people justify themselves. We expect to be presented with a manifesto and then pick a side. Or at any rate we think that’s how we pick a side, but other than William MacAskill and a few monks most of us really only pay lip service to these high ideals of ours, don’t we? ‘I’ve given up meat,’ we plead in our defence, while enjoying a comfortable life that three quarters of the world are denied.

As hypocrites we’re no worse than our ancestors. They would say they fought for God, but it’s funny how often God just happened to support their own country. Throughout the 18th century, most Christian groups other than Quakers were in favour of slavery. Freethinkers too; Tom Paine argued against slavery, but few of the Founding Fathers listened to him. In the French Revolution, most of the left-wing firebrands (if calling them left-wing means anything*) entirely overlooked equality for women. And "Kill them all; God will know His Own" and "Slay the pagans" show that total war and the butchering of civilians began with people who claimed to be fighting on the side of the angels.

The best we can say of most human beings is that they are basically good with a lot of blind spots. (And, yes, in that we must include ourselves.)

To return to the Napoleonic period, if we asked Marshal Ney why he considered himself a good guy I’m sure he’d talk about patriotism (admittedly a bit of a grey area for him), honour, and loyalty to the Emperor. I don’t suppose he’d cite the specific revolutionary aims he felt the Emperor stood for, though many at the time (even in England) did find that a reason to praise Napoleon, whereas nobody in the world would have declared support for the Houses of Hanover or Bourbon on the basis of their professed ideology.

So we can see a new era dawning at the start of the 19th century, one in which some men wouldn’t simply fight for tribal symbols like king, country or religion, but instead expected those to be backed up by specific principles chosen of their own free will.

Yeah, but did they, though? Was the USSR really a free federation of states based on egalitarian principles? Or was it the Russian Empire under a cloak of socialism? Did Mao whip up the Cultural Revolution to bring about a utopian society, or simply to shore up his own power? Did the average Wehrmacht soldier charge into battle to bring about a thousand-year Nazi reich or because he believed he was doing his duty for his country? Did any major world power ever march into Afghanistan in the interests of the Afghan people themselves? Or just because of their own geopolitical or economic needs?

Do people today decide disinterestedly which side to take in a dispute, or do they see which side their tribe takes and then find reasons to justify it?

The British used to be under no illusions about that. In the First Gulf War, US troops were given leaflets that explained why their cause was just. ‘Saddam has invaded a sovereign state and that is against international law,’ one GI explained on TV. The same camera crew interviewed a British squaddie, who had not been given any leaflet. ‘I got nothing against this Saddam bloke personally,’ he said, ‘but he’s in Kuwait and we been told to kick him out.’

So would it make sense to tell the story of a fantasy world, or any period in history, as if ideology actually made a difference? I don’t think so. This revisits an earlier post in which we discussed whether any non-modern society could usefully be described in modern terms. For example, SF writer Damien Walter posted a tirade about how the Spartans were fascists (he also calls them cowards and pederasts) but to try to squeeze them into a modern box like that is not only cultural chauvinism, it's plain dumb.

There was a bit of a pram fight a while back about "evil races" in D&D. Before the movies came out I assumed orcs were in fact supposed to be people just like the Gondorians (if that's the right word) and that Tolkien only described them as monstrous and evil because that's how "our" side saw them. I don't have any problem with utterly inimical species in fantasy. #NotAllDaleks? Gimme a break. But I think that's a less interesting way of looking at Lord of the Rings than my misconception.

Perhaps what we're seeing now is D&D moving beyond its simplistic good vs evil origins towards a more realistic kind of world. Characters (whether human or nonhuman) are not motivated by alignment in Tekumel or Glorantha, or even in Legend come to that (apart from the actual devils, that is). Instead they have desires, foibles, personalities, political alliances, and so forth that all contribute to how they behave. Where it gets messy with D&D is the game inherited its elves and orcs and whatnot from Tolkien, for whom good and evil meant something. If you want to create a more believable and nuanced world then great, but maybe better to start from scratch in that case.

In one sense, of course, simplistically framing a struggle as Good vs Evil might be the most honest way to describe any human conflict. You just have to remember that both sides think that they’re the good guys.

* Roger from Improvised Radio Theatre With Dice has pointed out that there's almost no better use of left- and right-wing, seeing as the terms came from the seating plan of the Estates General and later the National Convention. Touché, citoyen!

Face it

When I'm writing a scenario for publication (such as this one) I'll sometimes cast the incidental NPC roles by saying which actor might play them. It's a shorthand way of conveying the idea of the character without having to describe their personality in the scenario.

My wife goes one further. When writing her novels she picks real faces that she can visualize as the characters. That could work when designing roleplaying scenarios too.

And a further evolution: Unreal Person lets you generate faces that don't exist. (The one above on the right really shouldn't.) Or you can use something like Nightcafe for non-modern images like this medieval apothecary:

You do have to let the art lead you where it will, though. There's not yet much hope of getting the AI to draw exactly what you want, as my experiments on the Mirabilis blog show. Still, the field of generative AI has reached escape velocity now. It's only a matter of time.

Thursday 6 April 2023

A Thunder of Dragons

Tension and excitement fill the room as A Thunder of Dragons begins! Players take on the role of these mighty flying reptiles, soaring above a sprawling 15 by 15 playing board filled with raging rivers, perilous mountain ranges, treacherous swamps and dark forests. Castles, villages, towns, and abbeys are dotted about the game board. Such settlements offer rich pickings for the dragons. But beware! These havens of prosperity are guarded by garrisons of bowmen, knights, foot soldiers and wizards alongside powerful heroes. Bigger and richer settlements are even more fiercely defended. Players swoop in to pillage these strongholds for their treasure and relics: coins, jewels and magical artifacts of great power. They will need crafty tactics to bypass or obliterate the defensive units that stand in their way or else they risk being driven off into the wilderness to lick their wounds. As dragons claim victory they return to their lair triumphant and laden with booty, growing ever richer and stronger. But other players won’t just sit back and watch; they can unleash potent spells from afar in an effort to thwart dragon attacks and aid NPC defenders.

A Thunder of Dragons is a board game I've been designing with Nick Henfrey, co-creator of Conquerors and Spacefarers. (To be honest, all the heavy lifting has been done by Nick while I chip in with suggestions about game balance.) The prototype is a lot of fun to play, and I'm not saying that just because I won our first full game.

You start by shuffling and laying out terrain and settlement cards. This ensures the game board is different every time. Players establish their lairs and can either walk (slow but easy) or fly (fast but uses up power), picking on settlements which they can plunder for treasure, captives (princesses and princes too; no gender bias from us), and spells. You can hold cards to add to your hoard or hand them in to increase power. 

It's really rare for an early prototype of a game to play as smoothly as this. Normally what happens is you start fitting pieces into the rules jigsaw and it's all going well till you hit some part of the design that just refuses to fit with the rest. I've been struggling with something like that in my Jewelspider RPG design (nearly cracked it, though) and I thought Nick and I would have similar problems as we had with finessing the Zombomba boardgame. But no -- we laid out the map tiles and got playing and it all came together like Smaug swallowing a hobbit. One gulp.

My victory in the first game was a bit of a fluke. I began by attacking an abbey. Little did I realize that abbeys are really well-defended and when you're starting out there's a high risk of being driven off and/or being badly injured -- and if you use up all your power in the attack you'll have to try and get back to your lair on foot while pursued by the settlement's defenders and reinforcements. Luckily I survived and carried off a major relic, putting me way out in front. But even that didn't secure a sure victory, because the other players can see who is ahead and will team up to harass them with spells.

As you can see in the picture above, the dragon playing pieces are 3D printed models, making the game as visually appealing and tactile as it is fun to play. But the frustrating thing is we just don't know what to do with it. Patreon and Kickstarter would never raise enough for us to be able to sell physical sets of the game, and nobody is willing to shell out for PDFs of a boardgame. These days, the successful crowdfunded games are all by established games publishers. But if anyone out there can suggest a company we can team up with to turn A Thunder of Dragons from fantasy into reality, please shout it out in the comments.

You can follow A Thunder of Dragons on Facebook and Twitter.

Tuesday 4 April 2023

A place of bones

In its third installment, the Vulcanverse gazetteer reaches Notus, the blisteringly hot realm of drifting dunes, shimmering oases, and ruined temples buried in the sand. Here and here you can read hints about how to survive and find the big quests.

Players have asked about the connection between the Vulcanverse gamebooks (an open world series in the tradition of Fabled Lands) and the Vulcan Forged MMO (an NFT-based world). Well, you don't need to know anything about one to enjoy the other. Seen from an online gamer's perspective, the gamebooks add background lore to the online setting. Ask a gamebook player and they'll likely tell you they haven't tried the online game; after all, there's continuing new content for the Fabled Lands CRPG to play first.

One of my personal favourite locations in The Hammer of the Sun (the book set in Notus) is the strange city of Ostopolis (depicted above). I could have set a whole gamebook there. In fact, seeing as The Hammer of the Sun is over 1700 sections long, the quests in and around Ostopolis probably do make up nearly the whole of one ordinary gamebook.

The city of the Spartoi is a brooding, half-ruined metropolis of black basalt rising from the white desert sand. Did living beings once walk those cracked streets, barter in the now dust-choked marketplace, and cheer their sportsmen in the arena that looms like a giant broken pot against the sky? Now it swarms with the fleshless grinning hordes of the Spartoi. The streets are wide avenues of cracked paving where sand sifts in endlessly shifting threads and lies banked in the gaping doorways. A skeletal dog stirs listlessly in the heat and gazes blankly as you pass.
Drop in for a visit, why don't you?

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