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Friday 29 March 2024

Maps of the mind

Martin Noutch, author of the wonderful Steam Highwayman books, is a true scholar of the craft of gamebook writing. One of the reasons his own books are so good might be because he has thoroughly analyzed the works of other writers in the field. The shoulders of giants and all that.

So that you can benefit from his studies too, Martin recently posted his story maps of the Fabled Lands books. Looking at those prompted me to dig out some of the maps I used to plan the books. Astonished that I still have this stuff after 30 years? I'm working on that hoarding obsession.

Trust me when I say that you haven't seen the full possibility of storytelling married to open world gamebooks until you've played the Steam Highwayman series.

And if you like the idea of steam-powered vehicles and picaresque adventures in an early 19th century setting (or style thereof), I recommend Keith Roberts' seminal SF novel Pavane. (It is SF, incidentally, and not steampunk, which is really a branch of fantasy because physics, but I don't want to give any spoilers. Read it and see.)

Tuesday 26 March 2024

Passion projects

Here are Laurent and Patrick of Alkonost Editions talking about the thriving world of gamebooks and roleplaying in France. My publishers back in the 1980s and 1990s were fine supportive folk, but series like Dragon Warriors and Blood Sword were just part of the conveyor belt of books they were producing at the time. I could never have dreamed back then of working with publishers who are fired up with such enthusiasm for the medium. Inspired by them, I came back from Cannes with renewed energy to complete the Vulcanverse saga.

The only downside is that each time I hear about the two forthcoming books that Alkonost will be publishing for Les Terres de Légende, the more I lament my abysmal grasp of French. They sound to be full of exciting new rules concepts and adventures. Will there ever be English editions? We anglophones can but hope.

Sunday 24 March 2024

Speak up

It's that time of year again, when I end up poking a stick into a hornets' nest of controversy. By tradition it should involve a professor, but as far as I know Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is not currently teaching at a university because those who can, do. Here's her Reith Lecture on the subject of "Freedom of Speech". I recommend listening to the podcast, but if you're pressed for time you could just skim-read the transcript.

For advocating free speech I've been called a fascist, and all I did was retweet Philip Pullman, so goodness knows how much flak Ms Adichie gets for her stance. But if I'm a free speech "fascist", I'm a lazy one, so I'll let her speak for me and just say (as David Baddiel does in the Q&A after the talk) that I agree with almost everything she says here. It was refreshing to hear a grown-up talking, not something we get much of now that we seem to have drifted into Bizarro World.

Friday 15 March 2024

Blood Sword to Dragon Warriors - part 3

The third of Oliver Whawell's meticulous conversions of stats from the Blood Sword gamebooks to the Dragon Warriors RPG covers The Demon's Claw. You can get a PDF of the stat blocks here.

This is the book where the series starts to kick up into really epic gear, seeing you face off against one of the series' best guest villains, have a return match with your arch-foe Icon (that is, Aiken, Lord of the Mountain of Songs), experience a close shave with Psyche (Saiki, his sister), and get a close encounter with the gods (allegedly) themselves.

If none of that makes any sense, and if you're interested in turning the Blood Sword gamebook saga into a roleplaying campaign - now's your chance. I'll just caution that the Legend of the gamebooks is considerably higher fantasy than the Legend of Dragon Warriors, never mind the "real" Legend of Jewelspider. But that's just my view anyway. All versions are equally valid.

Wednesday 13 March 2024

From Hercules to hermit

Talking of gods, and because I'm always partial to a bit of psychogeography, here's some news about the Cerne Abbas giant and his huge club. To save you reading the whole piece, the chalk outline version is that he began as an effigy of Hercules to rally the troops of Alfred the Great against those pesky Vikings. 

I realize it's fashionable these days to think of Vikings as peaceable multicultural traders, but that wasn't quite how the 9th century Anglo-Saxons thought of them. What's interesting is that Hercules was an ambiguous folk hero to the people of Wessex, who you'd think might have been sniffy about pagan demi-gods. But by the 11th century the local monks decided the big lad was actually their patron saint Eadwold. (Saints back then were obviously a bit more priapic and a bit less pudibund.)

The Giant shows another side of his nature in one of the Royal Mythological Society posts from Mirabilis: Year of Wonders. And if you're looking for a way to work chalk giants into a roleplaying game, take a look at my scenario "Wayland's Smithy" for Legend (the world of Dragon Warriors).

Friday 8 March 2024

A friend who never changes

This one's about religion, not gaming. Actually, it's not even about religion, really; it's about theism. I've been thinking about it lately because of all the deities in the Vulcanverse series that were once believed in and worshipped by half the civilized world, and now are universally regarded as fictional. If that's not a topic that interests you there'll be more ludology next time.

Years ago some friends asked me to be godfather to their daughter. 'But it will be in church,' they said, 'so you have to have been baptised.' Anything for friends. I spoke to the local vicar about getting baptised. 'Do you accept Jesus Christ as your lord and saviour?' he wanted to know. Well, I conceded that I was totally onboard with the ethical side of Jesus's teaching, just not the supernatural bit. Perhaps this is what's called Jesusism. Anyway, it wasn't enough for the vicar. 'I think you and the Church of England must go their separate ways,' he said.

Sometimes I get characterized as an atheist, but that's incorrect. Belief in the existence of a deity, or accepting the possibility of such an entity, is an entirely different question from whether you believe in a specific deity. And the question of whether you should revere a deity is another thing again. So just to set the record straight...

Newton thought that something must have created the planets and set them in motion. He called it God, as did priests throughout history and probably prehistory. The only thing that changed over the ages was that the phenomena that God was used to explain became more closely observed and more complex.

Nowadays we know that it’s not just about explaining how the sun and planets formed. That was gravity, not God. We know we live in a vastly bigger universe than Newton ever suspected. It might even be infinite, but almost certainly consists of far more than the septillion stars in the observable region around us.

Nearly fourteen billion years ago there was an event sometimes called the Big Bang (though a lot of astrophysicists avoid the term these days, seeing as it's thought of more as a kind of state change and certainly not an explosion) which might have been the beginning of matter and could be said to be the starting point of our universe, though we can infer the existence of a reality before that which was of unknown extent and which for an undeterminable period had been (according to theory) undergoing something we call cosmic inflation.

We could start speculating how that earlier reality came about, but it’s (almost) pure conjecture. You could imagine the Big Bang as like a bubble forming in a pot of boiling water. Each bubble in this analogy is a universe. But we not only don’t know any of that, we almost certainly can never know. We can't even see the whole of the bubble we're in. So let’s just stick with the Big Bang and our own universe.

The theistic argument is that an entity or entities existed in the proto-reality and they caused the Big Bang. Let’s assume that’s true and we’ll call them God. That still doesn’t tell us if God intended to cause the Big Bang. Also it doesn’t tell us if God designed the nature of the resulting universe or even was able to foresee it. It doesn’t tell us if God was generating a whole lot of universes or just the one. We can’t say what further interest God had in the universe once it formed. We can’t say where God came from either, unless we evoke an earlier God; turtles all the way down.

In any case, this is an unimaginably alien intelligence we’re talking about. Would we even be able to recognize God as intelligent? That requires us to observe an entity that has a mental model of reality, uses that model to predict the consequences of an action, and can update their model based on the consequences actually observed. Can we apply diagnostic principles like that to God? If not, the concept of ‘intelligence’ may simply have no meaning.

Incidentally, theologians have a concept called the cosmological argument that runs something like this: everything we observe has a cause, therefore everything in the universe has a cause, therefore everything can be traced back to the cause of the universe, and we’ll call that God. It’s not a lot of use because it is based on everything working the same way our everyday observations suggest, which is almost certainly a fallacy. Also, it uses the word ‘God’ but doesn’t tell us whether that first cause is intelligent or even if it still exists. And it has the problem of only going back to the start of this universe (no philosophy or science can take us further, other than speculating on the most general principles, though we can provisionally include non-observables if they are corollaries of an otherwise complete and working theory) but that’s only where our reality began. You could call what came before that ‘God’ but you don’t thereby learn anything about it, you simply gave it a name.

Typically whenever humans discover that the universe is bigger or older than previously known, the concept of God gets adjusted to be the supposed first cause. Other Gods are possible. We could conceive of a God that created just the solar system or just our galaxy rather than the whole universe. Or a God specifically responsible for creating life on Earth, or even just for creating hominids. There could be other Gods responsible for other planets. Gods of that sort can't be the first ever cause postulated by the cosmological argument, but that argument is probably based on a fallacy anyway. And the cosmological argument requires a God who was in existence eternally but who waited until 13.8 billion years ago to create our universe in its current form. What was that God doing for the preceding (maybe infinite) period of time? Each question unpacks a dozen more.

Let’s make another set of assumptions anyway. Let’s assume a God who existed before this universe, who planned and initiated the Big Bang, and who continues to take an interest in the universe, particularly in the 5% of everything that comprises what we are used to thinking of as ‘normal’ matter. A few billion years after the Big Bang it was theoretically possible for life to form, and given all that time and all those stars maybe life did form many, many times. We can’t estimate a probability for that as we only have the one example. However, we have some basis for thinking that life probably formed multiple times on our planet, in which case we might expect it to form elsewhere under similar conditions.

We also have no way of setting a probability for the evolution of general intelligence, language, and culture among tool-using social animals. We have the one example, and for all we know it’s the only case of it happening in the entirety of our universe. If we really are the one and only philosophizing species in all this universe, perhaps the God we’re hypothesizing took a special interest in us. What then? Would God want to contact us? We wouldn’t immediately think of making contact with a colony of new microbes, but perhaps intelligence makes all the difference and is recognizably a shared trait even between God (conjectured lifespan 13.8 billion years up to eternity) and we mere mayflies.

Did God contact humans? We only know about historical religions, each of which had its set of divine revelations. All we can infer from those is that God restricted revelation to matters that were of immediate interest to the people of the time: what to eat, who to have sex with, which fabrics to wear, contemporary codes of law. God revealed nothing involving science or technology, and in fact vouchsafed completely erroneous versions of the size, nature and origin of the stars and planets.

Also, in most cases God’s pronouncements were supposedly revealed only to a select few, either by choice or perhaps because God is not omnipotent and cannot use any method to communicate other than speaking telepathically to a specially receptive mind. Certainly if God did choose to communicate with humans, it was in a manner that left any genuine messages exactly as uncertain as the thousands of delusional messages experienced by the mentally ill. If some guy told you he’d spoken to God, and that God had revealed exclusively to him a whole bunch of precepts, you’d be dubious. There are many explanations more convincing than that the guy really had been singled out by God. If I told you that I believed the guy’s story, and if I gave my reason for believing him as ‘just faith’, you’d think I’d lost my marbles. It makes no difference if the guy is in a trailer park in Texas today or in a desert a thousand years ago. Whenever we accept something on the grounds of faith, we should reflect on the origin of that faith. If it’s just what we were raised to believe, or if it’s just something we’d like to believe, that tells us nothing about reality on a cosmic scale; it only tells us about our own nature.

But let’s assume that God did communicate with some people, as most religions claim. God could not have any experience of what its like to live as a human being, but several religions solved that with the concept of the avatar – creating a human possessing some of God’s mind. That must be a bit like trying to do quantum computing on a Sinclair Spectrum, but let’s say it’s enough to let God include human experience in God’s mental model of everything.

What about other animals, incidentally? Does God care about the existence of bees? Has God contacted any individual bees? We can’t know that any more than we can know anything about the nature of such a being. Assuming that God only cares about humans, does that just mean Homo sapiens or did it extend to Denisovans and/or Neanderthals? If God is only concerned with modern humans, does that apply equally to all ethnicities? Or how about sex? Does God favour men or women?

These might seem like frivolous questions, but they're all things you’d have to think about once you’re going with the hypothesis that God exists at all. If we can look at a person's behaviour and detect favouritism, or at whole organizations and declare them institutionally racist or sexist, then it should be possible to look at how the universe operates (assuming it is controlled by a God who is not disinterested) and infer any built-in preferences.

Suppose we believe that God, having evaluated human existence, has come up with a set of precepts for how we should live. We don’t know which religion’s version of morality corresponds to this. Even if we did, should we follow God’s rules if they don’t accord with our personal morality?

Some would argue that their morality is directly based on God’s rules. The trouble is that everybody thinks that, and they can’t all be right. It’s entirely possible that none of them is right. Just assuming that God exists, and designed and initiated the universe, and takes a personal interest in the doings of humans, doesn’t give us a steer as to whether any of the world’s religions say anything accurate about the nature of God. You can say, ‘I am convinced that Baptist Christianity tells us exactly what God wants.’ Or Zoroastrianism. Or Wahhabism. Or those Greek gods who show up in the Vulcanverse books. Or the faith of the Aztecs. But all that’s guiding you there is a feeling, almost certainly based on how you happen to have been brought up. It’s not reasoned speculation from first principles.

Can we tell anything about the nature of God (if there is one) just by looking at the universe? That would be a good place to start. OK, well, it seems that God either does not have direct control of events or else prefers to stand aloof. Having set up the laws of physics ('laws' is a misleading way to look at it, but let it stand) God is a dispassionate observer allowing each event to have the consequences that emerge naturally. (This makes perfect sense to me. It’s how I’d do it if I were God – not that that’s a proof of anything.)

I call myself an agnostic rather than an atheist because I don’t have any idea what caused the Big Bang – or, indeed, what caused whatever conditions that applied before the Big Bang. Maybe it was some kind of intelligent entity or entities, with the caveat that I don’t even know what intelligence would mean in that context. I can’t even say that’s unlikely, as there’s no basis for assessing probabilities. I can say I don’t feel it’s likely, but that’s no more rigorous than somebody saying they feel sure Jesus is God. A groundless sense of improbability is not enough to go on to call myself an atheist.

As for earthly religions, that’s another matter. They all look like human inventions to me, and pretty nonsensical ones. If there were a God who insisted on the blind faith and footling rules demanded by most organized religions, I’d repudiate that God. Being the creator of the universe doesn’t give God any more authority than me on what it’s like to be me or how I believe other people should be treated. So I’m an atheist – or an irreligionist – as regards all historical religions. But that’s nothing remarkable. Everybody who espouses one religion is an atheist towards all the other thousands of gods believed in, worshipped, and died for throughout history.

As well as an irreligionist I’m definitely a non-worshipper – because even if a God exists, worshipping that God strikes me as pointless. I don’t worship light or heat or matter. I don’t worship the universe. I don't even worship beauty or truth or justice, much as I appreciate them. Any intelligent being that requires worship isn’t worthy of it. (And, as a personal note, rituals and ceremonies leave me cold anyway. But that's irrelevant to the theism question.)

Nor do I believe in life after death, because I don’t see any viable mechanism for it nor a sensible reason why God should arrange it. But I’m agnostic about that too. Just because it makes no sense to me, I can’t know whether it makes sense to an alien mind that thinks on cosmic scales. Maybe some or all of us get to live on (but as what?) after we die. If so, and if I eventually get first-hand experience of it, it still won’t necessarily prove the existence or nonexistence of God. It could be just another random process, albeit a really baffling one. We all just have to wait to see if we get an answer.

All of this, though, is perhaps beside the point. It arises because most people are literal-minded and insist on religion being true in the way that it’s true that water is wet. Think instead that religion is true in the way that a Mozart symphony is beautiful and you’d be on firmer ground. That of course requires you to accept that it is subjective and can be true for you while not true for somebody else. That God is real in the way that Lizzie Bennet and Winston Smith are real – very real, subjectively, that is. If more religious people understood it that way we’d have a lot less trouble in the world. You can object to other people's ethical rules, because those govern how they behave towards others, but there's no point in disputing matters of personal belief. Why take issue with anyone else’s idea of the nature and wishes of God, given that there is no objectively true version of those concepts?

Still, I remain open-minded; I could yet be convinced of atheism, perhaps, though probably not of theism. Dr Richard Bartle, who knows more than I do about the nature of world design and its implications, says: "I can see what would have to follow if reality were a conscious creation. These consequences have not arisen. [...] Even if reality were an accidental creation ruled over by an uncaring or capricious god, it would be different from how it is now." His book How to Be a God: A Guide for Would-Be Deities seems like the best place to start; on sale on Amazon US and Amazon UK.

Wednesday 6 March 2024

Coming attractions

Just a glimpse here of upcoming titles from Alkonost, our French publisher. Finally the complete Légende series will be returning to France -- that's both Blood Sword ("L'Épée de Légende") and Dragon Warriors ("Les Terres de Légende"). More details on my Patreon page -- and it's an open post, so don't be put off if you're not a backer.

These are just mock-ups and may not reflect the final covers or layout, but the important thing is that the books will at last get an accurate translation. I'll give you an example. In The Demon's Claw, the third Blood Sword book, you confront your longtime rival Icon the Ungodly (to give him his proper title, Aiken, Lord of the Singing Mountain) and he replies to your attempted brush-off thus:

"By my honour, this is a call to battle. Do you mean to suggest that I am unable to destroy you? I’ll crush you like the merest ant. Like a thing without bones, you’ll squirm and die under the heel of my boot. For five years I have pursued you, since the days of your callow youth when by stark chance you managed to get the better of me in Krarth. When I arrived in Crescentium at the house of my sister Saiki, I discovered you were also in Outremer. Since then I have remained on your spoor, prepared to hunt you for hate’s sake to the very boundaries of the earth. This petty concern of yours for that magic blade is as nothing. My feud with you is like thunder. My wrath is the spitting of lightning!"

But in the original 1980s translation that became:

"Je vous poursuis depuis cinq années, depuis que vous m'avez ravi la victoire. Ma sœur Saïki m'a averti de votre présence en Outremer. Peu m'importe votre épée magique, je ne veux que votre sang..."

Which is to say:

"I have been pursuing you for the past five years, ever since you robbed me of my victory. My sister Saiki warned me of your presence in Outremer. I don't care about your magic blade, I only want your blood..."

It was a busy time in the 1980s with a lot of gamebooks getting published. Gallimard's translator may have been rushing to meet a deadline, which accounts for why that version was so perfunctory. Alkonost's translation team have taken the extra time and care to make a version that's true to the original text, so for the first time French gamers will get to experience the Blood Sword books as they were written.

(By the way, I probably don't need to point this out, but if your French is as lousy as mine and you want to follow that discussion with Laurent and Patrick in the video above, you know that thanks to AI YouTube does auto-translate, right?)