Monday, 24 October 2016

Halloween zombie-movie rambling: the Resident Evil films and the struggle to escape Saṃsāra

[Fair warning: insofar as they have plots to spoil, this post contains spoilers for all five Resident Evil films. And, no, I don't really think the Resident Evil films are metaphors for Buddhist theology...]

Let me start by stating the obvious: the five Resident Evil movies are not good films. The first one was a serviceable Aliens pastiche. The second one was a rubbish zombie movie. The third one was a rubbish post-apocalyptic action movie. The fourth one was just rubbish. The fifth one was totally incoherent. I tremble to think what the sixth one is going to be like when it comes out in January.

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And just how much sillier are Jovovich's increasingly-ridiculous costumes going to get?

They're not good films. But they are increasingly strange films. Driven by their own near-total lack of new ideas, they fill their run-time by endlessly repeating themselves, like a rambling drunk launching into the same anecdote for the third time in two hours. As their plots become ever more nonsensical - why is Red Queen now trying to kill the world, exactly? - they increasingly dissolve into a kind of impressionistic collage, in which the same handful of scenes are endlessly repeated. Alice wakes up naked in a strange place. A team of friends delve into a labyrinthine underground facility. A band of survivors is whittled down, one by one. A grid of lasers hurtles down a corridor. Alice befriends a little girl. Alice gains new powers. Alice loses new powers. The Red Queen threatens people over a speaker system. Alice loses her memories. Alice battles a near-unkillable monster. Alice is carried off by masked men, unconscious. And then, at the start of the next film, Alice wakes up naked, in a strange place...

These films make aggressively clear that the viewer isn't supposed to be looking for a deeper meaning in all this. These are exactly what they appear to be: big, stupid action movies whose appeal depends almost entirely on the opportunities they offer to watch Milla Jovovich put on fetish outfits and shoot zombies in the head. But as their internal logic disintegrates under the force of too many plot twists and too much repetition, I find it increasingly appealing to try to make sense of them in other ways, especially as their actual plot - if they can even be said to have a plot at this stage - is so clearly no longer up to the job!

So let's ignore the increasingly unconvincing attempts of the films to pretend that the scenes they show us can be connected together into a single coherent narrative, and look at the scenes themselves. One very strong repeating pattern in the films is death and rebirth. It's not just that people constantly die and then come back as zombies, or that Alice experiences a long sequence of symbolic deaths and rebirths as she endlessly whacks her head on things and wakes up in new places, sometimes in womb-like fluid bubbles, usually in white, hospital-like environments, and usually naked. It's also that Alice, and later other people, keep getting cloned and killed, only to be cloned again.

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Alice discovers hundreds of her own clones waiting to be sent to their deaths in Resident Evil 3.
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Alice sends her own clones to their deaths in Resident Evil 4. 

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Resident Evil 5: Alice discovers everyone else is being mass-produced and repeatedly sent to their own deaths, as well.

The villain of the third film, Dr Isaacs, repeatedly runs clones of Alice through a kind of 'greatest hits' version of the first film; each time a clone dies, he reloads the set-up with a new one and starts again. (Just like a Resident Evil video game, geddit?) In the fourth film, Alice sacrifices a whole army of her own clones to take out an enemy stronghold. (This is probably a joke about the ease of using CGI graphics to copy-paste duplicates of the same figure onscreen.) In the fifth film, it turns out that virtually the whole cast of the first film (including Alice) were almost certainly clones right from the beginning: the Red Queen has been mass-producing copies of all of them in an underwater base, in order to run staged 'zombie outbreak' scenarios over and over again, in giant bio-domes that look like cities but are actually just Truman Show-style stage sets. (Just like the Resident Evil film series, geddit?) The more of them I watched, the more I started to feel that under the surface of these loud, dumb action movies there was some kind of almost Buddhistic meditation on life, death, and rebirth - entirely unintended by their creators, no doubt, but reaching out from between all the zombies and explosions, none the less...

Bear with me, here.

Alice's interminable travails, I would suggest, reflect what it is like to be stuck in what the Indian religions call saṃsāra: a cyclical world of life, death, and rebirth, characterised by continual change and pain. At the micro-level (of any one incarnation, or of any one film) her actions seem to have meaning, value, purpose: there is an evil to be fought, a person to be saved, an obstacle to be overcome, a clear and determinate goal towards which she can and must advance. The further one zooms out, however, the clearer it becomes that all this sound and fury doesn't really add up to anything, and that instead of advancing towards something, she's just wandering around in circles - which, Wikipedia tells me, is more-or-less what the word saṃsāra literally means. Her world never changes: there's always another underground labyrinth, another wave of zombies, another sneering villain, another mega-monster. She is born and reborn many times, in many places, sometimes more powerful and sometimes less, but it never makes any fundamental difference. She always just ends up in some damn corridor kicking zombies in the head. 

(Is it too fanciful to suggest a resemblance between the omnipresent logo of the Umbrella Corporation and the Buddhist Wheel of Life, which rolls our souls from one incarnation to the next? They certainly keep reincarnating Alice...)

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Umbrella Corporation logo.

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Wheel of Life.

This cyclical world is characterised by duhkha, suffering. Everywhere she goes, Alice sees a world dominated by violence, death, hunger, and pain. With each incarnation, more and more of the world is taken over by zombies, animalistic beings driven purely by their own insatiable desires. (Or is it just that people increasingly look like zombies to her increasingly rebirth-weary eyes?) But it is also a world of māyā, illusion, in which virtually nothing is 'really' real. Alice begins to realise this as early as the first film, when she takes off her wedding ring and sees that it has 'property of the Umbrella Corporation' engraved inside it; by the fifth film she has come to realise that the world she inhabits is literally a series of stage-sets. After waking up naked and amnesiac for the first time (or is it the first time?) at the start of the first film, she finds a handwritten note on her dresser: on this day all your dreams come true. (Perhaps the films are her trauma-dreams: Freud noted a hundred years ago that people who had suffered traumas tended to experience recurring nightmares in which those traumas were repeatedly replayed, albeit often in coded or symbolic forms, and he would have had a field day with all the weird injections that Alice keeps being subjected to.) Is any of this more than a dream, or an illusion, or a pantomime? Is anything?

Stuck in this illusion-world of pointless suffering, Alice's lives start to look increasingly meaningless. Dr Isaacs runs eighty-seven successive incarnations of her through a deathtrapped murder-maze, each of them waking, struggling, and dying without ever having any idea what their lives are supposed to be about or why nothing that is happening to them makes any sense. (Just like you and me, right?) Not that Alice herself proves to be a better task-master: under her leadership her clones die in droves, using the deaths of their 'sisters' as excuses for cheap quips, not even pretending to care whether they live or die. The Red Queen repeatedly manufactures whole communities of born-to-die victims, each provided with only the most basic memories and personality (just like minor characters in films, geddit?) - just enough to equip them to play their part in staged zombie-outbeak scenarios that last for no more than a few hours at most (which is roughly the length of a zombie movie, geddit?). Adopting a child refugee from one of these fake, doomed worlds, Alice insists that the girl's false memories matter because 'they're real to her': implicitly she's also talking about why her own memories matter, given that by this point she must have worked out that the chances of her not being a clone as well are slim-to-nil. But her actions belie her words: Alice and her comrades go on to blow up the whole clone storage facility, with countless thousands of clones inside it, demonstrating very clearly that they actually don't consider their fake lives and fake memories to have any real value. It that because they have, nihilistically, come to much the same conclusion about their own lives, as well?

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Mass grave of dead Alice-clones from Resident Evil 3.

This being an action movie franchise, Alice responds to all this death and pointlessness by fighting. Punch the monsters, shoot the zombies, blow up the underground bases... as though victory was simply a matter of racking up a sufficient kill-count. The films tell us that this is the right and heroic thing to do, but what they actually show us is that it's almost totally counter-productive: the only thing her violence ever grants her access to is yet more violence. She gets an army of her own clones, hundreds of new incarnations which she could devote to any end she chooses, and what does she do? Throws their lives away in yet more warfare. She discovers the means to repopulate the zombie-ravaged world with effectively-real people, and she blows it up in the hope of taking the Red Queen down with it. Her reincarnations are locked into a degenerating downward spiral which any Buddhist could have seen coming from the start, a cycle which threatens to drag her down below the level of the human and into the Realm of the Hungry Ghosts. (Maybe she's there already. Maybe that's why she's always surrounded by ravenous zombies.) You can't shoot your way out of saṃsāra. 

So what should she have done? Well, one possible answer is that she could have taken the hint from her name. (Her name is also obviously fake, by the way: other people keep referring to her, not as Alice, but as 'Project Alice', though she never seems to grasp what this implies.) There was another Alice who went down a rabbit-hole and met a Red Queen. (Every single Resident Evil film includes a sequence in which the characters go down a long, long shaft into the depths of the earth... and, yes, I know the Red Queen isn't the same person as the Queen of Hearts) That Alice also found herself in a world that made no sense, ruled over by tyranny and death ('Off with their heads!'); but instead of just fighting it, she tried to understand it, pursuing the nonsense-logic of its inhabitants to its logically illogical conclusions. As a result, she was able to attain a kind of transcendence, seeing through its basically illusionary nature ('You're nothing but a pack of cards!') and ascending (literally - she grows two miles high) into a higher level of reality. Her Resident Evil namesake does not seem to be on track for any similar kind of spiritual progress.

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Another Alice, attaining something resembling enlightenment.

The start of the first film isn't really the start of the story. Before Alice wakes up, amnesiac, naked, and alone, she's already lived at least one previous existence as Umbrella's head of security; very possibly she has lived many, many more times before that one. The slate is never wiped clean, even though her memory often is: she's always neck-deep in karma, enduring the consequences of her previous actions, even when she has no idea what those actions might have been. Almost no-one in these films really stays dead: they come back as zombies, or as clones, or they just straight-up regenerate and pick themselves back up off the floor, confirming yet again that the present can never truly rid itself of the weight of the past. The sixth film is supposed to be the last one, and so I guess it'll have to offer some kind of attempt at narrative resolution. But the franchise being what it is, that resolution is probably just going to be an even bigger explosion, probably with Alice waking up in yet another symbolic rebirth on the other side of it; and unless she can change her ways, I fear that, on some level, she really is going to be stuck with her hordes of hungry ghosts forever.

Wednesday, 19 October 2016

The Men in the Mirror

[This post started out as a rewrite of the Nerra, a 3rd edition monster which, like so many of the monsters from that era, contained a few good ideas scattered like oases among a desert of pointless rules and numbers. It kind of grew in the telling.]

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They look a bit like everyone, which is another way of saying that they don't really look like anyone; walking blurs, like people seen in smeared mirrors, or through distorted glass. Touch them and your hand will come away covered in tiny cuts, as though you'd just run your fingers over the surface of a broken mirror. When they speak, their voices sound like the harsh, discordant scratching of glass against glass.

Here's how you call them: build a square room, and cover every inch of the walls in mirrors. Stand in the middle of the room, and fill it with light. Look in every direction and you will see yourself, reflected to infinity, a vast phalanx of your own reflections stretching away as far as you can see. Wait long enough, and you'll see that something else is walking among those reflections, something which is not the reflection of anything that is in the room with you. Call out to them, and they will come. They will step out of the mirrors as though they were made of water instead of glass.

Here's how you talk to them: you must wear a mirrored mask that covers the whole of your face. How you see through it, or around it, is your problem: some people use periscopes, others contrive primitive one-way mirrors as best they can. When the mirror-men look at you, and speak to you, they must not see anything except their own blurred-mirror faces, reflected back at them. No other method is safe.

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If they see your face - if they see anyone's face - they will hunger for it. They will try to draw you into the mirrors from which they came. They will beg and plead and wheedle and promise in their horrible scratched-glass voices. They will say anything they can think of to get you to step into the mirrors with them. Finally they will use force, grabbing you with their lacerating broken-glass hands and dragging you in bodily behind them. If you enter the mirrors with them then you are lost; you will become a phantom, mad, starving, haunting the reflections in other people's mirrors until finally you wither away and die. No-one ever comes out. No-one except them.

So you don't do that. You don't let them see your face.

You can bargain with them. They can offer three services.

Here is their first service: they can spy for you. Let one step back into a mirror, then take that mirror down and hang it on another wall. The mirror-man will see everything that occurs in front of that mirror. Rehang it in your mirror-room and it will step out and tell you what it has seen.

Here is there second service: they can store for you. Hand one an object, and let it step back into a mirror, carrying the object with it. The object will now appear inside the mirror, a reflection without a source. Break the mirror and it is lost forever. Only by hanging it once again in a mirror-room and calling the mirror-men out of it can the object be retrieved.

Here is their third service: they can kill for you. Let one step back inside its mirror, and then hang the mirror in a place where you know your victim will be; and when the mirror-man sees their target they will step down from the mirror-frame, silent and gleaming, with razor-sharp knives made from mirror-shards in their hands. They can strangle with their lacerating fingers. They can exhale great clouds of ground glass dust with force enough to flay away flesh and skin. They feel no pity for innocence or youth or beauty, but they have one peculiarity, and it is this: they cannot bring themselves to kill the truly vain.

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For each of these three services, the mirror-men must be paid, in the only currency that mirrors truly desire: attention. The person who bargains with them must sit and gaze upon their own reflection for a length of time commensurate to the service rendered: for a day, or a week, or a month, or a year. For great tasks - multiple murders, for example - they may demand that you literally sit and stare at yourself until you go blind. (The blind are of no further use to them, and cannot enter into any subsequent bargains.) Payment is rendered after the fact, but it is unwise to attempt to cheat them. They can step out of any reflective surface, at any time, and they will drag the defaulter away to complete their service... on the other side of the mirror. That such a person can never return home afterwards is no concern of theirs.

(There are some wicked old magicians who live in houses where every reflective surface is forbidden. No polished metal, no glass, no still water except in darkened rooms. They are hiding from the mirror-men. Not so much as a bowl of wine is to be placed on a well-lit table, in case a shining arm reaches out of it to grab them by the throat.)

Some curious souls have asked them about their lives on the far side of the mirror. For such questioners, the mirror-men spin elaborate tales of shining glass cities, gleaming and windless oceans, radiant kings and queens. They tell their stories in stagy, rehearsed voices, like people practising speeches in front of mirrors. If the questioner expresses doubt, the mirror-men will be most offended. When, they will ask, has a mirror ever been known to lie?

What they neglect to mention is that, while mirrors tell the truth, they only ever tell it backwards.

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  • Mirror-Men: AC 15 (lightning reflexes), 2 HD, +4 to-hit, 2 mirror-shard knives (1d6+1/1d6+1), saves 12, morale 8, special attack: ground glass breath, special defence: spell reflection, looking-glass leap. They take double damage from crushing attacks. Anyone in skin-to-skin contact with them takes 1 damage per round from hundreds of tiny cuts.

Ground-glass Breath: Instead of making its normal attacks, a mirror-man can exhale a blast of ground glass into the face of someone within 10'. The target must save or take 1d8 damage and be blinded; a Cure Light Wounds spell cast on their eyes will heal the blindness, although not any other damage.

Spell Reflection: Any single-target spell cast on a mirror-man, whether beneficial or harmful, will automatically bounce back and affect the person who cast it, instead. Area-effect spells are not affected by this ability.

Looking-Glass Leap: A mirror-man may leap into any reflective surface large enough for it to physically dive into: a polished shield, a pool of still water, etc. It then 'inhabits' that object, and can leap back out of it at any time, cured of all wounds. It can also leap at will from one reflective object to another, provided the first is reflected in the second. (So a mirror-man inhabiting a polished shield could leap into a window-pane, instead, if the shield was reflected in the glass for even a single moment.) When fighting a mirror-man, smashing whatever shiny thing it just jumped out of should probably be your top priority. 

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Sunday, 16 October 2016

'The resonant steam-eagles': A hex description from 1844

So, following my post on a dungeon description from 1843, here's a hex description from 1844...

There's a lady - an earl's daughter; she is proud and she is noble;
And she treads the crimson carpet, and she breathes the perfumed air;
And a kingly blood sends glances up her princely eye to trouble,
And the shadow of a monarch's crown, is softened in her hair.

She has halls and she has castles, and the resonant steam-eagles
Follow far on the directing of her floating dove-like hand -
With a thundrous vapour trailing, underneath the starry vigils,
So to mark upon the blasted heaven, the measure of her land.

- Elizabeth Barrett, 'Lady Geraldine's Courtship' (1844)

The borders of her land are marked upon the blasted heaven in thundrous vapour by steam-eagles. Don't tell me you can't get a hex out of that.

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Here's one, which could easily be fitted into ATWC somewhere...

This hex is the domain of Lady Geraldine (or Lady Shahnoza, if it's in a Central Asian context), an impeccably bred and languidly bored young noblewoman whose power is maintained by her ownership of a flight of steam-eagles: flying steam-powered automata passed down to her from her distant ancestors. They maintain a continuous patrol of her borders, roaring through the air in a rumble of smoke and steam, and leaving long vapour trails in the sky behind them. Anyone who intrudes upon her territories without an appointment will be set upon by giant robot eagles and driven back beyond the borders. The eagles will initially just scream and threaten, but if defied or resisted they will escalate rapidly to the use of lethal force. Each eagle has a 20' wingspan, and their steel beaks and talons are very sharp.

Protected from the outside world by the sleepless vigilance of her automata, Lady Geraldine spends most of her time lounging around and waiting for something interesting to happen. She has seven official residences - four halls and three castles - each set in an elaborately landscaped estate; one is in a forest, one is by a lake, one is on a hilltop, and so on. Every few weeks she gets bored of the one she's living in and decides to move to another: she travels on the back of her personal steam-eagle (which she rides expertly), and is followed over the next several days by a baggage train of servants on horseback and on foot, bringing with them the extensive range of luxury goods which her aristocratic existence requires. The people of the surrounding area are taxed heavily in coin and coal for the privilege of her protection; they are deeply divided on whether the guardianship of the steam-eagles is worth the price demanded of them, but the question is ultimately moot, as the eagles won't let them leave. Only specially-appointed merchants are permitted to travel in and out of Lady Geraldine's domains, and they must keep rigorously to their assigned timetables in order to avoid an unfortunate run-in with their giant metal protectors.

Lady Geraldine herself is not a particularly cruel or evil person, but she's never known a time when she didn't have an army of steam-powered murder-birds waiting to kill anyone she points at, and this fact has rather warped her personality. She has an extremely high opinion of her own superior worth; she is not accustomed to being defied or disagreed with, and she takes criticism or rejection very badly. At the same time, however, a lifetime of never being challenged has left her a prey to ennui. The safe way to visit her domain is to apply well in advance, pay whatever toll she demands of you, keep your heads down, and agree with everything she says. More ambitious visitors could potentially earn lavish rewards by bringing her new ideas and experiences, things that might relieve her boredom and give her something more stimulating to do than just fret over the proper matching of perfumes and carpets; but any such novelties will need to be introduced with extraordinary tact, and without any hint of criticism of her current lifestyle or beliefs. Lady Geraldine's rooms have very large windows, and the steam-eagles are always perched just outside them, waiting for her order to strike.

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Friday, 14 October 2016

Stealing art from Magic: the Gathering - Kaladesh edition

Back when I started this blog, Magic: the Gathering had just finished doing a Central Asian-themed set, Tarkir, which I promptly plundered for images to use with ATWC. Last month, they released Kaladesh, which is very nearly a clockpunk-Asia-themed set. (Its stylings are Arabic and Indian rather than Central Asian, though.) Given that there's not exactly a lot of clockpunk art around to start with, and almost all of it is draped with the trappings of Victoriana, this opens up an exciting new art-stealing opportunity!

The technology in Kaladesh is magitech rather than clockpunk, but it has the same kind of filigee intricacy that I imagine as characterising the technology of 'Against The Wicked City'. This is technology as art, not technology as industry: each work of clockpunk tech in ATWC is the expression of a single craftsman's vision and talent, rather than some kind of mass-produced off-the-shelf item churned out by a factory somewhere. So, here are some examples...

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This is very much how I imagine clockworker's workshops in ATWC - all polished brass and beautiful fiddly objects.

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And this, weird elongated back section aside, is pretty close to how I imagine bronze horses and the caravans they pull.

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Apart from the open cockpit, this is pretty much a Steel Spider.

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This is a great image of a clockwork giant - handy as a deterrent, but only worth winding up if the city is actually being invaded!

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A clockwork centaur-robot-centipede-lizard-thing. Love this guy. (This is the sort of thing that far-gone Steel Aspirants tend to turn themselves into.)

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Someone or other in ATWC will have built clockwork elephants by now.

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And clockwork centipedes.

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And clockwork snakes. (This one was probably commissioned by the Serpent Folk.)

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Clockwork soldier.

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Giant clockwork walker with gyrocopters. Probably built mainly to show off.

Wednesday, 12 October 2016

After eight days underground, Skadi took up cannibalism.

She said he'd been a bad man. She said he'd had it coming. She said the toad-men would be offended if she didn't. But mostly she just wanted to find out what sashimi-sliced human flesh tasted like.

If Hash had been around, he'd probably have egged her on. But Hash had run off somewhere into the darkness, chasing the ambassador of the Science Fungoids and occasionally coughing up lungfulls of blood.

Erin was turning green. Some kind of fungal bloom was spreading itself beneath the surface of his skin.

Circe was starting to scare people with her devotion to her newly-discovered divine patron. She'd begun calling herself 'Warlord High Priestess of the Frog God'. Sometimes she spoke wildly about building an empire in the underworld. She wouldn't take off her mask.

The vampire toads got Nick.

The goblins got Flora.

Soren took a spear-trap to the face.

Eight days since they left the surface. Five days since they fulfilled their notional mission. But the caves kept going, deeper and deeper and deeper. The caves kept going. And so did they.

The underworld awaits.

* * *

So, yeah. Spurning all my suggestions that they could, like, return to the surface and maybe stop living in a fucking cave, my players have insisted on plunging ever-deeper into the underworld. We've gone through a cut-down version of Liberation of the Demon Slayer and on into a cut-down version of Demonspore, with the Shrooms taken out and replaced with the Science Fungoids from 'They Stalk the Underworld'. The PCs appear to have appointed themselves as Tsathogga's mortal champions, and are determined to find his resting place in the deep Underdark. At level 1.

It's all turning out to be rather darker and weirder than I'd initially expected, but I can't say I really mind. The PCs are turning into a kind of band of Underdark conquistadores, taking advantage of the fact that no-one down here knows who they are or how to deal with them, and barrelling through situations on the strength of sheer audacity. Sooner or later - probably sooner - the consequences are going to start catching up with them and they'll need to beat a hasty retreat, but I'm looking forward to seeing how far they manage to get.

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One of Edouard Riou's rather wonderful illustrations to Verne's Journey to the Centre of the Earth.

What I did find interesting - and genuinely unexpected - was the thoroughness with which the PCs have thrown their lot in with the 'monsters'. True to my romantic fantasy principles, I play virtually all the inhabitants of the underworld as being willing to talk and negotiate with strangers; almost nothing attacks on sight, and nobody really wants to end up fighting for their lives unless they don't have any other choice. As a result, the party has built up alliances with factions amongst the local goblins, dark elves, and toad-men; and as they push deeper underground, it's likely to be from these groups that they recruit replacement PCs. The group that finally emerges into the sunlight (if they ever do) may have very weak links with the surface world; and it's entirely possible that the party's 'home base', going forwards, won't be the human town they originally set out from, but the goblin tunnels on dungeon level 1.

People often point out the colonialist / imperialist narratives implicit in D&D: go to strange, exotic, unknown places, meet their strange, exotic, unknown inhabitants, and then kill them all and take their stuff. No-one ever mentions the possibility of the PCs going native instead.

Then again, maybe that's where the monsters come from in the first place. A succession of expeditions launched from the surface, deep into the underworld, in search of vengeance or conquest or knowledge or plunder: some get further than others, but the underworld is limitless, and everyone runs out of steam sooner or later. Lost, exhausted, crazy, stranded miles beneath the earth, warped by their exposure to strange magic and stranger toxins, their survivors regroup in the darkness, telling themselves that when the situation improves, they'll head back to the surface. They forge alliances of necessity with the creatures of the underworld. They trade. They intermarry. They bathe their weary limbs in the waters of lightless oceans. They eat the flesh of weird, blind, burrowing creatures. They forget the sun.

They change. 

They multiply.

And sooner or later, up on the surface, people start talking about mounting an expedition to deal with all these weird monsters lurking beneath the earth...

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Saturday, 8 October 2016

Dungeon description, 1843 style

First off: in case you've not seen it already, Frog God Games are doing a new printing of Swords and Wizardry, with new art by Abigal Larson, Gennifer Bone, Jenna Fowler, and others. Pledge one dollar and you get the full-art pdf version. One dollar. Think of it as a way to pay them back for all those times you downloaded the free version of their rules for nothing.

You can find the kickstarter here.

Anyway. My reading for The Coach of Bones rolls on... slowly. Most recently, it has brought me (via a rather circuitous path) to the works of Theodosia Garrow, a minor poet who was born on the South Devon coast in 1816. Most of her work isn't very interesting, but in 1843 she published a long poem called 'The Doom of Cheynholme', and the first section of it caught my eye.

It is, very obviously, a description of a dungeon.

Seriously. You could print this out and hand it to your players and say 'This is a song you hear some old guy singing in the tavern one night', and that alone would suffice as an adventure set-up. It gives you a description of a dungeon (the ruins of Cheynholme Hall), its history (the seat of a dynasty of murderous lords who followed 'the ancient faith'), a reason to go there (they looted the surrounding countryside and some of their loot may still be in there), a bunch of things to watch out for while exploring it (snakes, poisonous swamps, marble statues which might contain the souls of the dead lords of Cheynholme), and some very ominous suggestions about what once happened there (are 'blood-cemented wall' and 'crime-stained roof' just poetic figures of speech, or are they horribly literal?). It's a bit long, but you could always just use stanzas 1, 3, and 6 if you wanted a shorter version.

Anyway. Here it is.

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The Doom of Cheynholme (Theodosia Garrow, 1843)

Cheynholme Hall is a ruin lone
Dank with ivy, and furrowed by age;
     In the turrets tall
     Of its mouldering wall
The white owl maketh his hermitage;
And beside the edge of its broad hearth-stone,
(Whereon the sluggish mosses creep
In many a full and silken heap,
Like graves of household pleasures gone),
The dark-grey viper and her brood
Bask in the sunny solitude.

Cheynholme Park is a dismal swamp,
Nought remains of its forest wide,
Save four old trees, which side by side
Blacken and pine in the noxious damp;
Scarred, and stained, and shattered, and bare,
They stand like landmarks of despair
Pointing aloft through the heavy air;
The frog's dull croak, the bittern's shriek,
And the voice of the boughs that wearily creak,
And the rush of the dusky waterfowl,
Winging to rest on the reedy pool,
The plashing beat of the mournful rain,
And the wind with its childish moan of pain—
These are the only sounds that rise,
And with their slow monotonies,
Make such poor mockery of life,
     As shivers and wanes
     In a sick man's veins,
When the departing fever strife
Hath spared but enough of sense and breath
To shudder and gasp at approaching death!

Fierce, stern, haughty, and bold,
Were the lords of Cheynholme in days of old;
None had a sharper sword in fight
To strike for the wrong, and to vanquish the right;
None had higher and wilder blood
To spur them to evil—to blind them to good;
None could ravage, and burn, and kill,
For the ancient faith, with a hotter zeal;
None could wring with a steadier hand
The last slow mulct from the fainting land.
Brave—proud—reckless and bold—
Fit to be types of the barons of old—
Evermore thirsting for bloodshed and gold.

Now the cry of the poor grew strong and deep;
The hands that toil, and the eyes that weep,
And the mouths that fast, and dare not speak,
Sad day by day—chill week by week,
Rose at last, as the waves arise
When the tempest wakens their energies,
And head over head they bound and roar
'Gainst the black cliffs of the towering shore—
     So loud—so vain,
     Were the threats of pain,
The gasp of fear—the curse of hate,
And the bursting cry of the desolate,
Which rang thro' Cheynholme's large domain;
For the evil seed throve none the less
Within their ancient mansion pile;
Bearing the fruits of bitterness,—
     They sinned and died
     In pomp and pride,
Deaf as their marble forms which press
The tombs of Cheynholme's aged aisle,
And as their generations passed,
Each one more mighty than the last,
And, with a brow of harder pride,
Looked in the face of Heaven, and lied,
And revelled, and squandered, and slew amain.

The hearts of the lowly sank again,
They ceased to strive beneath the yoke,
Or wonder at their fate of woe,
Or pray against the want which broke
Their spirits with its torment slow;
But a dull, hopeless unbelief
Palsied the supplicating hand;
     They deemed the seal
     Of God's high will
Chartered those vultures of the land.
They thought it were a fruitless strife
To wrestle with the rooted sway,
Which, ivy-like, drained forth their life,
And flourished on their hopes' decay,—
So died into their parent soil,
Like dumb o'erlaboured beasts of toil!

But there is judgment for the strong,
And there is justice for the weak,
And there is unrepented wrong,
And crime so venomous—so long,
That its foul mass at last must break.
Dire and swift did vengeance fall
On Cheynholme's blood-cemented wall;
Root and branch, and budding spray
Were hewn from the ancient trunk away;
Their lofty name is borne by none;
Their hearths lie open to the sun;
Their rich domain of field and brake
Is blasted for their guilty sake,
And of their proud oaks' sylvan court
The fierce-eyed lightning makes his sport.
Listen! ye of the stony heart—
Listen! ye of the bloody hand;
For the ruthless deed shall have its meed,
And the crime-stained roof its kindling-brand.

Wednesday, 5 October 2016

[Actual Play] I Ran Liberation of the Demon Slayer!

...or did I?

A big RPG module is an odd beast. The best analogy I can come up with is that they're like themed cookbooks. So a given cookbook might tell you how to cook, say, twenty different traditional Russian meals, and you could just cook them one after another in exactly the way the book tells you to, and that would be your dinners taken care of for the next twenty days. But you could also just cook half of them. Or you could mix them up, and pair the starter from one with the main from another and the side-dish from a third. Or you could have three or four different cookbooks which you dip into more-or-less at random. Or you could come up with your own recipes loosely inspired by the ones in the book. In fact, the 'cook everything in the book in exactly the way the book tells you to' approach is probably the least common way of using a cookbook, and the same is almost certainly true of RPG modules. I don't think I've ever run a module, especially a big module, in precisely the way it was written. Has anyone?

Image result for liberation demon slayer

Liberation of the Demon Slayer is a huge six-and-a-half-level science-fantasy dungeon by Venger Satanis, containing something like a hundred and fifty rooms stuffed with Cthulhu cultists and naked slave girls and all the other things that Venger loves so much. I'm not sure that it's actually possible to run it by-the-book, because the module-as-written leaves out some essential information (like how the levels connect to each other), but if you tried it would probably take you months and months. I stripped it down to a one-level, twenty-five-room affair and ran it over the course of three-and-a-bit sessions. Every room was inspired by something in the original module, but not a single encounter was run in the way Venger wrote it. (I cut out all the random naked women, for a start.) Still, I'd like to think that the resulting game bore at least a film-of-the-book resemblance to the original module: it still had evil cultists and a crashed spaceship and collectable coloured trapezoids and a slug-blob monster and a fire shrine guarded by lava men and 0-level villagers looking for a magic sword. Had Venger been in the room at the time (or scrying on us like the freaky Cthulhu worshipper that he is), I'm sure he'd have recognised every encounter as clearly based on something from his book, even if nothing was left exactly the same.

Anyway, I ran it, and it was great. Ten zero-level peasants went in; seven first-level adventurers and three corpses came out. Cultists were beaten to death with frying pans. Poorly-thought-through plans were hatched to trip hobgoblins into pits of acidic slime. Spellbooks were stolen from druggy elves out of their heads on hallucinogenic fungus. A suspicious fat man was force-fed a poisoned mushroom on the grounds that he might have been a cannibal. One luckless PC set fire to his own legs in order to prevent himself from being swarmed by giant maggots. The final battle was won by waiting until the enemy were climbing up a steep slope and then dropping a raft on them. It was weird and random and funny and horrific and unpredictable, and I had a great time throughout.

How much of that was due to the module? Quite a lot, I'd say. I mean, yes, I completely rewrote the spaceship and the lava men and just about everything else, but it was Liberation of the Demon Slayer which gave me the idea to put them all there in the first place. It was the module which pushed me to work out why there was a crashed spaceship deep underground (and how it got there, and why it was now part of a dungeon with a magic sword hidden in it), prompting me to develop a whole science-fantasy mythology in the process. It inspired me to make things more weird and gross and silly than I normally tend to do. I might not have used most of what was in the book, but what I did use ended up carrying me a very long way.

If you want a huge dungeon you can play right out of the book, then you don't want Liberation of the Demon Slayer. (You probably want either Stonehell or Dwimmermount instead.) But if you want a big book of weird, vivid, and above all gameable ideas, so loosely connected to one another that they can easily be hacked into new shapes to fit your needs, you could do very much worse. It's full of pictures of naked women in peril, which are certainly not going to be to everyone's tastes, either in book form or at the gaming table; but I can attest to the fact that even after removing all the sexual material, there's still plenty of usable stuff left over.

Depending on what the players go from here, I might end up running The Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence next...