Thursday, 21 September 2017

There'll be no accusations, just friendly crustaceans...

On G+ somebody asked about an underwater campaign setting I was supposedly writing, called "Unit Swim" or "Union Swim" or something. This tickled me tremendously, but it also gives me the opportunity to talk about Behind Gently Smiling Jaws a bit - which I haven't done in a while.

One of the rules I made myself promise I would follow, pretty early on, is that nothing in BGSJ would come from or be based on other existing works of fantasy. It all had to be either completely novel or based off real world history or legend. This has worked well in large part, but has created a real sticking point in one area of the world map - the Underwater Ziggurats. These are remnants of alien cities on the sea floor which the crocodile supposedly saw in some lost era, akin to Atlantis - the conceit being that aliens did actually colonise the ocean bottom millions of years ago and the crocodile was witness to this. It's based on the Yonaguni Monument/Formation.

So far so good, but it turns out it is really difficult not to turn this area of the campaign setting into Deep Ones and Cthulhu and Father Dagon. Coming up with a concept of aliens living in underwater cities which owes nothing to Lovecraft is hard. His work is practically the first and last word on the subject.

I'm working on it.

Another stumbling block is more practical: format. I know that producing an eight-volume slip case is a really bad idea. A really, really bad idea. A really, really, really bad idea. But sometimes bad ideas sound very good - like that decision to eat a Double Decker after lunch, or that decision to miss the last train home on a night out, or that decision to have a cigarette when you know you shouldn't.... The multi-volume slip case idea just will not relinquish its hold.

Friday, 15 September 2017

Landscape with the Fall of Icarus - World Landscape Campaign Setting

world landscape is a made-up backdrop of beautiful European scenery in a painting. They are arguably examples of the shadow fantasy genre. Here is one:



A: The Gerontocracy of Basiney. A city where one in a thousand citizens is born an immortal struldbrug, who gradually accrues more and more wealth until he wields immense power and influence (but is too decrepit to enjoy it). A place in which corporatism not merely dominates but has run amok, like renaissance Florence or early modern Amsterdam as imagined by Gordon Gekko.

B: The Platinum Mountain. Ruled by a white dragon demigod who spins platinum thread, mined by his dwarf serfs, into webs and coils which he then magically animates into automata to serve him.

C: Servasser, the Sea Wolf Port. A fishing settlement which now lies largely abandoned; the population of fishermen and fishwives were infected by lycanthropy which spread through them like a plague. Now they inhabit its dilapidated ruins and raid the surrounding seas to assuage their ravenous hunger.

D: Gwenteliver's Castle. A fortress owned by the storm giant Gwenteliver, who surrounds herself with human slaves who she gradually interbreeds with giant insects, reptiles and other beasts. Her collection of art is unrivaled and strongly desired by almost all the Gerontocrats of Basiney.

E: The Smugglers' Cove. A small, secluded bay where smugglers from the neighbouring land of Celquinox come to liaise with rogue traders sneaking goods for trade past the tax collectors of Basiney. The people of Celquinox are a race of mutes who extend their necks with metal bands until their vocal chords no longer function; they employ their children to communicate on their behalf with strangers, and talk to each other with secret gestures they do not teach to outsiders.

F: The Entrance to the Spirals. An underground network of caves extending far beneath the surface of the earth, created in the ancient past by a burrowing worm which dug in endless repeating spiral tunnels. Somewhere these spirals connected with the tunnels of underground denizens such as the duergar, neogi, kuo-toa and the like, and they now throng with busy subterranean life which boils up from the bowels of the earth towards the surface.

Wednesday, 13 September 2017

Because Allah Loves Wondrous Variety

I do the odd bit of volunteering with a local wildlife conservation trust. A lot of this involves what is euphemistically called "grassland management" - what this typically means is cutting and raking up vast swathes of grass and other vegetation in order to allow tiny and obscure native species of plants to flourish. We arrive at some very remote and windswept location and destroy the peace for a day with strimmers, leaving it looking like a sheep that's been sheared - where once there was a jungle of plant life, now there is an open and empty patch of stubble. Like the deforestation of the Amazon in miniature. (But the main thing is that there's now a bit more growing space for a rare little flower that looks like a blob of moss and which nobody except a few enthusiasts has ever heard of.)

What I've learned from all of this is that, just when you think you have a feel for how much variety there is in the natural world, you find out you don't know the half of it. Grasslands are unbelievably varied. Today I was in a more-or-less unique habitat - a strip of land about a mile long and no more than 100 yards wide along the side of a river. Mine run-off containing traces of heavy metals such as cadmium and lead had been put into the river during the industrial revolution and gradually this had seeped into the banks at various locations up and down its length. While the river is now pristine, the heavy metals have remained in the soil. This was one such location, and it had resulted in a blend of plant life that you would find nowhere else on earth - including a sub-species that you find literally nowhere else other than these slivers of land on the upstream banks of the Tyne.

And that was just in the afternoon. In the morning we had been at an abandoned quarry where the limestone scree happened to produce the perfect conditions for a certain rare alpine flower. The site could have been no more than 400 yards in diameter. Go outside of that limit in any direction and you would be in a different habitat altogether and noticeably so.

The world is a patchwork of different environments so multitudinous it is almost mind-boggling. When creating a hexmap we tend to paint in very broad brush strokes - forest, grassland, desert, etc. This makes life easy, but causes us to miss out on some benefits that thinking in very granular detail could bring. Consider: what different types of grassland might exist in a world where there is not just mine run-off but also materials left over from magical duels? What types of unique habitats might sprout up around the corpse of dragons? What might the existence of a megadungeon do to the area around the entrance? And what kind of druids, treants, and other guardians would exist to protect these unique environments?

Monday, 11 September 2017

Good DMing Advice; or, God Loves a Trier

One of my favourite bits of DMing advice comes, in all places, in the 2nd edition DMG. Zeb Cook (I am paraphrasing because I don't have it to hand) basically foreshadows some OSR thinking in one place only, which comes in his discussion of stat requirements for character classes. Don't let players access any class they want, he recommends; keep the stat requirements for rangers, paladins and so forth strictly. Encourage players to play the stats they are given, so to speak. Let the dice fall where they lay; so your PC didn't end up getting the 17 CHA required to be a paladin. Stop being titty-lipped about it - you can play a fighter who always wanted to be paladin but failed (or hasn't yet succeeded).

In other words, a fighter who wants to be paladin is already way more interesting than a paladin. That's a PC with a ready-made goal and pretty much ready-made personality too. He may not have special paladin powers but being "awesome" isn't what the game is really about. It is more about trying hard and applying yourself and getting involved.

You can tell 2nd edition was very much focused at a younger audience - this is the kind of advice that's important for kids, whereas adults should in theory at least have already learned those lessons. But the wider point holds for all ages: it's good for starting PCs to have goals. It makes the PC part of the world and gives the player an impetus to drive things along, which helps the DM tremendously.

Friday, 8 September 2017

Nevelskoy's Privateers

The realm of the Tsar has finally finished its vast Westward expansion and made its way to the mouth of the Amur River and the great island of Sakhalin. Nothing of this is known to the inhabitants of the Japanese islands, but the world has far from lain still since their isolation began. Now Russian explorers, adventurers and pirates are beginning to make their way across the Sea of Japan - albeit in small numbers. Here is an expedition of such men: a blend of banditry and science with a common aim of invasion and theft.

Leader: Gennady Nevelskoy. A fur trader, explorer, pioneer and buccaneer who has spent two decades charting the waters of Kamchatka and Sakhalin and trading with their natives. Now he has headed south to Vladivostok and formed an expedition to try to capture Nipponese to bring them to the Tsar - or, failing that, to bring back treasures at the very least.

HD 4, AC 16, AB +5, ATT Sabre, two pistols, Move 120
*Can fire both pistols in the same round if both shots are directed at the same target
Possessions: Splint mail armour, sabre, two pistols with ivory butts [350 sp each], powder and 50 shots, gold signet ring [300 sp], ruby-studded gold thumb ring [1,000 sp], silver belt buckle [50 sp]

Second in Command: "Fyodor" the Koryak. A native of Kamchatka who Nevelskoy befriended in his youth; the two saw in each other a desperation to make the world their own, and quickly became partners. Fyodor's real name was unpronounceable to Nevelskoy, who called his comrade after Saint Fyodor the Black, a Duke from the middle-ages who married a Mongol princess. Fyodor comes from the warlike Koryak tribe and wears the lamellar armour of his people; in a fight his brown eyes shine with dangerous glee.

HD 5, AC 20, AB +6, ATT Axe, javelins, Move 120
*Fights in a frenzy; once in melee he does not retreat and fights to -9 hit points
Possessions: Axe, 4 javelins, lamellar armour (seal leather and metal), religious charms (reindeer horn carvings of indistinct figurines)

Clergyman-scientist: Kirill Laxman. A Lutheran priest from Finnmark who came as a missionary to Siberia and hence to Japan. While nominally aiming at conversion his true passion is the recovery of flora, fauna and ancient artefacts which he can take back home to his museum in Irkutsk - or even to the Tsar in St Petersburg. He is middle-aged, bespectacled, and balding, but as tough as a life spent in the wilds of Siberia would suggest.

HD 3, AC 14, AB +1, ATT Pistol, knife, Move 120
Possessions: Spectacles, binoculars, note book, St Christopher necklace [100 sp], pocket watch [priceless in Japan], hide armour

Geographer: Vasily Golovnin. A minor nobleman and member of the Russian Academy of Sciences, aiming at least notionally to chart the coastline of Nippon and, in particular, easy landing locations. In connection with this he wants any and all information available about the lay of the land, the locations of rivers, and so on. However, he also has an alternative secret goal which is to do away with Nevelskoy and Fyodor, paid for by the duo's enemies and rivals in Vladivostok. He plans to do this through concealing their deaths as an accident or, at last resort, poisoning their food. He is tall, thin, with an unhappy straight line of a mouth and sunken eyes.

HD 3, AC 16, AB +1, ATT Pistol, sabre, Move 120
Possessions: Telescope, compass, charts of Kamchatka and Sakhalin, hide armour, vial of arsenic

Crew: A mixture of outlaws, runaways, dispossessed noblemen, brigands, adventurers, escapees, mercenaries, thugs and petty criminals, united under Nevelskoy’s man’s-man leadership toward the common goal of getting rich off the exploitation of exotic wildernesses.

They are as tough as hard leather, as mean as snakes, as gluttonous as dogs, and as clever as magpies. There are 24 of them in total.

HD 1+2, AC 16, AB +2, ATT Sabre, axe or spear; and/or musket, Move 120

Ship: The Speshnoy is a small sloop with a shallow hull capable of being moored on land. It carries supplies of rations, fresh water, rope, and other such items. It also contains 6 sacks of gunpowder, each weighing 10 kilogrammes [worth 200 sp each], and 56 one-litre flasks of vodka [worth 50 sp each]. Locked in a chest, to which only Nevelskoy has the key, is 20,000 sp worth of gold bullion in irregular small slabs, for bribes and emergencies.

Camp: The Russian crew have created a camp in a cove on the beach. The Speshnoy has been dragged ashore and there are tents placed in a semi-circle around it; there are always four guards on watch during the night. During the day the crew roam the forests nearby in groups of 3-6, hunting, foraging, and searching for natives to kidnap or items to steal.

Tuesday, 5 September 2017

Dictionary Monsters

For years now, off and on, I've been meaning to write this post - but kept forgetting. Patrick's most recent post gives me the necessary spur to do it.

It all began back when I was living in Japan. My then-girlfriend had this electronic dictionary which resembled a mini-laptop; it contained more or less every English and Japanese dictionary ever published, and allowed you to search and cross reference between them in very powerful ways. (It was the kind of thing now rendered defunct by ubiquitous smart phones and Google; dictionary websites and Google Translate are much more superficial but allow the language learner to translate simple words and phrases just as quickly if they don't mind some inaccuracies and decontextualisation.) One day I was bored for some reason and started looking up simple words in it in pocket dictionaries, like "cat" and "table", wondering how they had been defined. I suppose I was entertained by the sheer redundancy of having the word "cat" in your bog-standard definitional dictionary; in what universe are there people who are good enough at English to be able to read and understand the definition of "cat", but who don't already know what a "cat" is?

Of course, such words are in there because of the need for completeness and because the mother of all dictionaries, the OED, is not really a catalogue of definitions but a catalogue of word histories and genealogies. But you get the idea: it's interesting to imagine an obscure people living in a parallel reality who understand our language but are fascinated by concepts such as "cat" and "table" as they page through our dictionaries.

(If you're curious - or if you are one of those people in that parallel reality - a cat is a "small animal with soft fur that people often keep as a pet" and a table is a "piece of furniture that consists of a flat top supported by legs".)

The interesting thing about these definitions is they don't really tell you a great deal. They flirt at descriptiveness without being particularly descriptive. A cat is a "small animal with soft fur" - so it could have six legs or two; it could have a single cyclopean eye; it could have no head at all but eyes and mouth located in its torso. Looked at this way, dictionary definitions are quite inspiring and lead to all sorts of flights of fancy. Consider:

"A domesticated carnivorous mammal that typically has a long snout, an acute sense of smell, non-retractable claws, and a barking, howling, or whining voice."

"A tailless amphibian with a short squat body, moist smooth skin, and very long hind legs for leaping."

"A gregarious burrowing plant-eating mammal, with long ears, long hind legs, and a short tail."

"An eight-legged predatory arachnid with an unsegmented body consisting of a fused head and thorax and a rounded abdomen."

"A long limbless reptile which has no eyelids, a short tail, and jaws that are capable of considerable extension."

"A large perching bird with mostly glossy black plumage, a heavy bill, and a raucous voice."

"A heavily built omnivorous nocturnal mammal of the weasel family, typically having a grey and black coat."

What images do they call up in your mind, once you've got past the actual image of the real-world creature referred to? What does the large perching bird say with its raucous voice? Why does the heavily built weasel wear a coat? Why is such prominence given to the domesticated carnivorous mammal's non-retractable claws? What direction to the long limbless reptile's jaws extend in?

Seen in this way, the dictionary becomes a source of great inspiration for monster design. You could, if you were minded to, create an entire setting that way: replacing all the real world animals with new creatures based only on their dictionary descriptions. A world in which people farm sheep and cows but they're not our sheep and cows; hunt foxes but they're not our foxes; put down traps for mice but they're not our mice....and so on and so forth. Alternatively, it's just a way to come up with something different when the juices aren't flowing. What's in the next cavern in the dungeon? Ok, a snake...but its jaws extend forwards.

Friday, 1 September 2017

Old Farts Solve Mysteries

The other day I was sitting in a cafe in Hexham, a rather eccentric old market town in Northumberland, just watching the world go by. Like everywhere in Northumberland, Hexham is a weird mix of the very wealthy and the very rural - two worlds co-existing side-by-side, one in which everybody is a solicitor who shops at Waitrose; the other in which everybody is a farm labourer whose parents are cousins. (China Mieville missed a trick with The City & The City - he should have set it in the English countryside without a doubt.)

A group of old men - old farts, let's face it - were sitting on the next table on the pavement, having what seemed like a regular meeting. They were old friends who may very well have been meeting up for a cuppa every day for the last 40 years; that was the kind of vibe they gave off. However, you couldn't, if you had tried, come up with four more different characters.

One of them was big, Jabba the Hutt corpulent, wearing a black waxed jacked despite it being summer, and with his thinning hair plastered to his scalp with styling gel in a manner that suggested he had scooped fistfuls of the stuff out of a bucket and lathered his head with it an hour previously. But, to top it off, he had somehow managed to get what looked like a half dozen or so pigeon feathers stuck into it. He didn't seem to be aware of this, and his friends were seemingly too polite to tell him, but they were right there, plain as the nose on your face. I imagine his name was Derek.

Next to Derek was another portly character but one who carried it with that sort of rotund dignity which some older men can pull off - he was the kind of guy who would pat his stomach after dining on a dessert of a cheese platter and port and announce "I always say that a belly on an older man signifies a certain joie de vivre!" He was wearing an expensive blazer and a turtle-neck sweater and had a neat beard. He looked like a retired art salesman. Let's call him Jeremy.

Standing chatting to them, obviously not quite having got round to ordering a drink yet, was a more wiry character dressed head to foot in expensive cycling gear as though he had literally just finished completing a stage in the Tour de France five minutes earlier. Skin-tight blue lycra, slipstream helmet, the works. He had the body that most fit 55-60 year old men have: skinny everywhere except an overhanging pot belly they can never get rid of. He was plainly having his mid-life crisis 15 years too late. He looked like a Brian.

And pulling up a chair as I sat there was somebody we'll call Gary - tall, thin and slightly dreary, a long drink of water. He was an ageing hippy sort, wearing a colourful woollen garment I can only describe as a smock, sandals, and ragged denim shorts. He was the kind of guy who has thumb rings. I think he may have been wearing a CND badge. What I am absolutely sure of is that he was carrying a Waterstone's bag and brought out of it to show his friends a biography of Bob Marley he had just bought.

I felt immediately like somebody ought to write a novel about Derek, Jeremy, Brian and Gary. They were, clearly, a cabal of wizards, vampires, or occult investigators. Why else would they be meeting up like that, except to discuss the sacrifice of virgins or plot the assassination of a shaman in Mongolia via astral projection?

Better yet, they were self-evidently NPCs in a campaign of Call of Cthulhu, instantiated into our reality from a gaming session taking place among a group of teenagers in a flat nearby. These gamers had concentrated so hard, and smoked so much weed, that their shared imaginings had actually manifested themselves corporeally in the form of these men sitting in Hexham high street. That could surely be the only explanation, couldn't it?

The good thing about Call of Cthulhu and World of Darkness, I always think, is that you only have to really look just around the corner for inspiration to smack you in the face. With D&D you have to work a little bit harder. Fantasy is one thing. The real world is a much stranger place.

Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Living Treasures and Human Capital

In Britain, at a certain point in their career, celebrities start to get referred to as "national treasures". The exact stage at which this happens differs by the individual, but at some specific moment, as though it is preordained, journalists collectively begin to use this phrase to refer to a given person whenever they mention them. Usually these people are extremely obscure to foreigners - Bruce Forsyth, David Attenborough, David Jason, Victoria Wood, and Ken Dodd are the names that spring immediately to mind; Stephen Fry has been making a concerted effort to achieve National Treasure status for what seems like decades now.

In Japan they have a different and more official "national treasure" club. Skilled craftsmen of whatever kind can, in recognition of their excellence in pottery, metalwork or whatever, be bestowed with the status of "living national treasure" (literally translated, a "human national treasure"). This entitles them to a lifelong government stipend, among other things. In Japan, they take crafts seriously.

Anyway, I was thinking about this earlier today: what if there actually were human treasures, who were worth XP just like gold or silver? Don't think slavery. Think in-game rewards for having sway over great artists and craftsmen.

What if, as well as for recovering a treasure chest from the dungeon, you could also earn experience for rescuing a kidnapped artisan of great renown? What if you could get XP for having a famous sculptor under your exclusive patronage? What if you could gain a level by persuading a brilliant potter to switch his allegiance from one lord to that of your own liege? I suppose what I'm saying is: What if there was a systematic way of valuing human capital in D&D?

Saturday, 26 August 2017

The Valleys of the Winter People - Intro

The introduction to my next project, which is nearing completion in first draft form. It takes LotFP's pseudo-real world setting and has a look at what is going on in its version of 19th century Japan

It is the 7th year of the Tenpō era, which in distant Europe would be known as the Year of Our Lord 1837, and the Shōgunate is in its late autumn. Famine ravages the land. Everywhere peasants are in open rebellion. The samurai classes are growing impoverished and weary. Tokugawa Ieyoshi, the 12th Shōgun, is unhealthy and unpopular; the bakufu government, which has kept Japan in feudal isolation for 200 years, will disappear within a generation and the country will then be propelled into the modern age.

But for the time being, Japan hides itself behind the seas which surround it, and maintains its strange and lonely seclusion.

In the extreme North West tip of the island of Honshu the land and people practice their own form of isolation. Here, lost valleys of thick beech forest lay much as they have for a thousand years, cut off from the outside by ridges of hard mountains, harsh winter snows, and lack of interest. The people who live in those valleys are known as the Matagi, the "winter people", bear hunters, who still practice a way of life that they were following before the people known as the "Japanese" were ever even here. It is said by those who know of them that they are the last remnants of the people called Emishi, who in the ancient time of legends challenged the Japanese for rulership of the islands.

In the forests of the Matagi, things are not as they are outside. Ghosts lurk in the dark beech glades. Animal spirits stalk the mountains. There are rumours that fortresses and tombs of old Emishi kings lie hidden in isolated places, and that in those ruins treasures are hidden, waiting to be recovered. For those that know of it, the lands of the Matagi are distant, perilous, and alien - but also promising.


Adventuring PCs who have come to the forests of the Matagi are desperate samurai who, in need of wealth or glory, are willing to risk their lives in search of Emishi treasures. They have travelled by dark lonely roads and narrow paths to this land of rumour, and, if they are blessed, will leave it transformed so they can return to their homes and live in riches and good cheer - or at least survive the famines and rebellion which threaten to sweep society asunder. 

Friday, 25 August 2017

Every Studio Ghibli Film I Have Seen Reviewed in One Sentence

Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind - Pre-Ghibli and has the feel about it of work produced by a man still feeling his feet; I like elements of it but it has never quite grabbed me: 6/10

Laputa: Castle in the Sky
 - The first Miyazaki Ghibli film - feels like he set out to create a blue-print that would almost become cliche by the end of his career: 9/10

Grave of the Fireflies - Slightly (but only slightly) over-rated tea-jerker; I find it a bit too manipulative while recognising its general excellence: 7/10

My Neighbour Totoro - Adorably under-stated modern fairy tale: 9/10

Kiki's Delivery Service - Dubbed versions of films are always terrible and this is doubly so of Ghibli films for some reason; this is the worst culprit - in Japanese it is a charming but throwaway romance; in English it borders on annoying: 7/10 or 4/10

Only Yesterday - The rarest of rare things - a successful film about childhood that is made for grown-ups and depicts childhood accurately: 9/10

Porco Rosso - I've never been able to make my mind up whether this is work of imaginative genius or a good idea in need of a better plot: 7/10

Whisper of the Heart - You'd have to have a heart of stone not to enjoy this film but it is, overall, a little bit too gentle even for somebody who likes understated films: 6/10

Princess Mononoke: Miyazaki's best effort in my view - a really mature, complex and deep story that does genuine justice to the subject matter: 9/10

My Neighbours the Yamadas - This may be my favourite Ghibli film of all from a sentimental perspective, but you may have to have lived in Japan and understand Japanese to really appreciate it; establishes Takahata's artistic vision as far superior and wider in range than Miyazaki Hayao's: 10/10

Spirited Away: You can't possibly argue that this film isn't a great technical and imaginative achievement but I find the denouement slightly perplexing and verging on the disappointing, as with many Miyazaki films: 8/10

Howl's Moving Castle: Beautifully atmospheric curate's egg; there are elements to adore and astound, but I always think of it as somehow less than the sum of its parts: 6/10

Ponyo: As with his first film, this late-era Miyazaki effort is a microcosm of his work - charming, imaginative, complex, beautiful, strange...but with problems of pacing and plot: 8/10

From Up on Poppy Hill: Of great historical curiosity because I lived and worked in and around Yokohama for years, so I have a hard time watching it as just a film; it's like a time capsule in animated form: 7/10

The Wind Rises: I can't decide - is this film the absolute apogee of Miyazaki's artistic and technical genius, in which he raises the bar for animated films forever, or a slightly over-long and even, dare I say it, slightly boring historical epic?: 7/10

The Tale of the Princess Kaguya: This is not just the best Ghibli film of all, but quite probably the best animated film ever made (I'm still not sure I've quite recovered from the weeping wreck it reduced me to at the end) - it's almost as if Takahata watched Miyazaki making The Wind Rises and thought, "You think you're doing something accomplished?": 11/10