Friday, 8 April 2022

City of Spires character art, by Autumnal Bloomer

One of the players in my City of Spires campaign recently commissioned a collection of character art for the party from Autumal Bloomer, of Tabletop Character Art. I thought they were absolutely adorable, and so - with the permission of both the original artist and the commissioner - I'm reposting them here. If you'd like images of your own D&D characters in a similar style then do give Autumnal's Etsy shop a look!

Barnabus, scribe turned sorcerer.

Barry, vagabond swamp magician.

Crabface, levitating crustacean pope.

Cyrus, Harvester of Men, and his knife-throwing murder-monkey Zari.

Darius the Organ Collector, with his offal bag and his pet raven, Giblet.

Ira, bee-swam hive-mind sorceress.

Jyll, crossbow-woman extraordinare. 

Lucius, long-suffering herbalist turned city administrator.

Marcus, evangelist of the Shining Ones.

Nikolai the distractingly sexy trapper.

Rattigan, rat-man energy-stave wielder.

Victor, heir of the Witch-Queens.

The whole damn crew!

Sunday, 3 April 2022

Team Tsathogga / City of Spires setting primer, for Severed Fane

Severed Fane asked for a 'small campaign bible' for my current campaign, City of Spires, which shares a setting with my previous Team Tsathogga campaign. This campaign world started as a kitchen-sink-y science fantasy setting, suitable for running short, casual games over beer with players new to D&D. To my utter astonishment, I'm still running games set in the same world six years later, and it has now accumulated a staggering level of background lore. 

What follows is a very zoomed-out version of the setting. Obviously I can't include anything that my PCs haven't discovered yet, but this post provides a snapshot of the discovered regions of the setting as they currently stand, fifteen years of game-time after our first campaign began!

Deep history: City of Spires, like Team Tsathogga before it, takes place on the world originally known as Research Planet Alpha Three. It was colonised thousands of years ago by a spacefaring empire of serpent men, who used it as a research base for something called 'The God-Mind Project': this seems to have involved going to other planets, capturing the various god-like psychic 'hyper-intelligences' they found there, and bringing them to Alpha Three in a limbo state of [sleep / death / non-existence] for research purposes. Presumably this was eventually going to lead to some kind of pay-off for the empire, but their civilisation was destroyed in an interplanetary slave uprising before their work could come to fruition.

Even before their empire fell, the serpent-men on Alpha Three were not much involved in the day-to-day running of the colony. In the part of the planet in which the campaign is set, the various species they imported or created were ruled for them by three client states: the Zaant Imperium (ruled by island-dwelling ape-men), the Omen Kingdom (ruled by one-eyed giants), and the Nameless Empire (ruled by human magicians - its name is genuinely lost, having apparently been burnt out of history by some terrible magic). When the empire fell apart, a rebel space fleet obliterated the main power centres of these loyalist states from orbit. The rebels were then meant to land and liberate their enslaved subjects, but something happened and the liberating army never came. What went wrong with the rebellion, like the purpose of the God-Mind Project, has been one of the major mysteries behind both campaigns.

The game is set 1300-ish years later. 

The Chaos Ages: The destruction of the serpent man power structure, coupled with the non-appearance of the rebel army, ushered in an age of chaos. The magitech infrastructure of the old empires fell apart, and the world was ravaged by the various war machines, monsters, and bioweapons released, intentionally or otherwise, during the war. Power in many regions was seized by local warlords who managed to salvage fragments of functional magitechnology from the general conflagration: these included the Witch Queens, the Cannibal King, the Scavenger Lords of Aram, and the Kings of Ruin. Other regions fell under the sway of cults worshipping the alien hyper-intelligences kidnapped by the God-Mind project, whose containment systems were shattered by the war, leaving them leaking incoherent psychic distress into the surrounding world. This was a pretty grim era, remembered in most places as a dark age of strife now thankfully surpassed. 

The modern era: In the end the various Chaos Age despotisms mostly destroyed each other, or were overthrown by their subjects, or simply disintegrated when their scavenged relic technology finally degraded into uselessness. In their place came more stable polities, unified by pro-social religions such as the worship of the Bright Lady (a deified folk memory of the original rebel commander), the Shining Ones (pure-energy beings imprisoned by the serpent folk to power their magitech infrastructure), and the Golden Lotus (a transcendent embodiment of cosmic Law). The God-Mind cultists, who despite their formidable supernatural powers tended to be a crazy and dysfunctional bunch, were mostly driven into the wilderness.

Today a range of nations have arisen in the more habitable areas of the old empires. However, the areas beyond their borders are still littered with radioactive ruins, magical dead zones, and the lairs of weird creatures who escaped from the prisons and laboratories of the serpent men. 

Regions visited so far

Qelong: Based on the (excellent) supplement of the same name, this Khmer-inspired nation was saved from utter ruin by the PCs during the first campaign and is now staggering back towards something resembling normality, although vast swathes of the hinterland remain effectively post-apocalyptic. The Naga who empowers the river flowing through it was one of the victims of the God-Mind project, and is presumably imprisoned somewhere beneath the nation.

The Cold Marshes: Freezing expanse of marshlands inhabited by mutated marsh giants, and by human tribes who ride upon great swamp beasts and drive squirming masses of bog mummies into battle by beating on enchanted drums. The PCs in the first campaign kidnapped one and forced him to give them drumming lessons.

The Stonemoors: A windswept land of sheep-herding crofters brought to crisis when the perpetual snowfall ceased on its holy mountain, denying meltwater to its rivers and causing a serious drought. (This turned out to be due to the theft of an enchanted maiden from the mountain, who had been slumbering in suspended animation within a magitech casket.) In desperation, the hardest-hit clans turned to a cave-dwelling monster, the Blood Fiend, for power to extort food their neighbours. In the first campaign the PCs found the casket but kept it as a power-source for their flying ship, and 'solved' the problem by sending the Blood Fiend and his followers off to reclaim the Fiend's birthplace in the Grey Uplands.

The Plateau of Yeth: Inspired by Minotaurs of the Black Hills by Raging Swan Press. Plateau inhabited by minotaur clans, who arrived here as invaders, but whose power was broken by the terrible heat-weapons of the bat-folk who lived within the citadels of vitreous stone at the plateau's heart. Since then they have lived humble lives as tributaries of the bat-folk, whose skill in technology remains great, but whose numbers have now waned to the point that their citadels are almost empty. The PCs from the first campaign adopted one who had aspirations of reversing the decline of his people, but then apprenticed him to a mad scientist and forgot about him.

The Great Northern Wilderness: Vast expanse of hills and forests inhabited mostly by savage cave dwarves and mad vulture-men, who once ruled as death-priests of the necromantic Carrion Kingdom until their defeat by the bat-folk of the Plateau of Yeth. Hidden here are the Pools of Life (loosely based on Dwimmermount), an ancient complex where the serpent men originally created their 'demon' shock troopers. An attempt to duplicate this feat by a sorcerer in the Chaos Ages led to the creation of the minotaurs, who were the closest he could manage to the real thing, but who soon turned on their creator. Later still the Pools were looted by a magician in the service of the Church of the Bright Lady, who went rogue and used his stolen technology to create the creatures of the Grey Uplands. In the first campaign the PCs shut down the complex and its malfunctioning monster-engines, and led the creatures trapped within it back into the light.

The Grey Uplands: Remote upland region inhabited by the various monsters created using magitechnology stolen from the Pools of Life - including the Blood Fiend, who later ran off to the Stonemoors. In a castle at its centre lived an isolationist settlement of humans with transparent skin, bred for medical testing purposes. The PCs in the first campaign evacuated the humans to a haunted valley they'd found earlier, and sent the Blood Fiend and his followers back to reclaim their homeland.

The Purple Islands: Inspired by Islands of Purple-Haunted Putrescence. Taken over by the PCs during the first campaign, now the home of a motley assortment of humans, apemen, and undead practising a syncretic religion that the PCs invented. Contains a lot of relatively intact ruins due spending most of the last four hundred years outside the timestream. There was once a hidden Serpent Man science base here, but the PCs invaded it and killed most of them, with the ones that got away vanishing into the jungles of the south.

Reval: This temperate agricultural kingdom is the seat of the Church of the Bright Lady, which is run by mysteriously similar-looking 'Angels' and an all-female council of Elders who appear to be mutants of some kind. Site of Glasstown, home of the setting's leading magical academy, which has some kind of sinister dealings with the Mirror Men. Recently ravaged by a plague of 'demons' falling from the sky - these turned out to be genetically-engineered warriors created by the serpent men, who had been floating in orbit in their cryo-chambers since the empire's fall. In the first campaign the PCs discovered their ancient command codes, and managed to free some of them from servitude.

The Underworld: A vast expanse of caverns beneath Reval inhabited by many strange monsters, including goblins and toad-folk loyal to Tsathogga, who was one of the beings kidnapped for the God-Mind project and is presumably imprisoned somewhere down there. The dominant underworld powers were previously the Science Fungoids and the Navigator Houses of the Nightmare Sea (which I lifted from They Stalk the Underworld and False Machine, respectively), but in the first campaign the PCs inflicted terrible damage upon the Science Fungoids, allowing the Navigator Houses to establish trade relations with the surface and press everyone nearby into debt slavery.

The Grand Duchy: Cold northern nation, remote and agriculturally poor, a centre of the fur trade. Plagued for years by the Devourer cultists hidden in the mountains, who secretly served the serpent men of the Purple Islands, drawing liquid time from a sleeping titan buried in the earth (another God-Mind project victim) and using it to keep the Purple Islands isolated from the timestream. It was the fall of this cult that precipitated the reappearance of the Purple Islands and the rain of 'demons' in Reval. The PCs in the first campaign ransacked the cult temple, and adopted the undead cultists they accidentally awoke while doing so, leading them back to the Purple Islands. 

Ingra: A fertile land of shady, forested hills and valleys, once a stronghold of the Witch Queens until their defeat by the followers of the Bright Lady. Witch-cults and beastmen still lurk in its deeper forests. Its cities are famous as centres of learning, and especially renowned for their schools of medicine. A secret society, the Cult of the Divine Surgeon, commands the loyalty of many senior doctors and academics, revering an obscure golden-armed hero figure from the early Chaos Ages. 

Aram: Once a hub of trade between the eastern and western nations, now in decline since the Howlers cut off the roads to the east. Centre of the faith of the Shining Ones, whose holy city was once the capital of the Nameless Empire. Reliant on alchemically-modified warriors to keep the Howlers at bay. Its nobles telepathically link themselves with psychic golden serpents, and are served by Gearsmen, clockwork automata animated by human souls. The kingdom was wracked by internal discord until the PCs from the second campaign mostly resolved the situation.

The Southern Desert: Wandered by pastoralist tribes who live in fear of a terrible devil of the wastes, the Black Jinn, who dwells in the House of Tarnished Brass somewhere deep in the desert. This desert was once the home of a cult revering a god whose name is both 'Fire' and 'Hunger' - the ruins of its sacred sites still dot the desert, haunted by firenewts and other servitors of this vanished faith. Ancient obsidian warriors roam its southern reaches. This whole region was menaced by the sinister schemes of the Red Architect until the PCs in the second campaign blew her up. 

The Far Towns: Marshy region of isolationist farmers, recently brought back under the control of the City of Spires by the PCs from the second campaign. Threatened with annihilation by the Howlers until the PCs saved them with the aid of a giant robot snake and an order of ninja death cultists they founded by accident. Deep in the marshes live a matriarchy of hags, the remnants of the once-terrible dynasty of the Witch Queens, hiding from the world and served by loyal ogre clans who live in enormous halls woven from reeds. The PCs are currently working with them to find a way to neutralise the Howler threat.

Wastes of the Cannibal King: These once-fertile lands desertified as the weather control satellites of the Nameless Empire ceased to function - getting these back online has been a long-term goal of the PCs from the second campaign. In the Chaos Ages they were ruled by the fearsome Cannibal King, from whose tyranny the ancestors of the Tajarim fled long ago. Today they are dotted with haunted ruins, though the PCs have managed to clear out most of the worst ones.

The Howler Territories: Once a centre of sheep farming, this upland region was overrun by the Howlers - aggressive, territorial humanoids created by the dwindled Witch Queens, who hoped to use them as an army with which to reclaim their empire. The Howlers fled their makers and infested the hills and forests, driving out the human population and cutting off the roads between Aram and the City of Spires. The PCs from the second campaign have been trying to work out how to deal with them for years.

The Old Road and the City of Spires: Trade route that runs through the deserts north of the Pale Mountains, connecting Aram to the lands of the Tajarim and the kingdoms beyond. The major waystations along this road are the oasis-cities of Halwa, Wasat, and the City of Spires - this last is much the greatest of them, though it has fallen into accursed ruin since the closure of the road by the Howlers drove its merchant oligarchs to desperation and despair. In the days of the Nameless Empire the city was bombed flat, but immense underground complexes survived beneath the surface, and the treasures and horrors stashed within them have played a pivotal role in the city's history. The PCs in the second campaign seized power in a coup and now govern the City of Spires with the aid of a variety of freakish allies, including cyborg cultists, reformed diabolists, rat-man mechanics, and the remnants of the local nobility. 

The Pale Mountains: These towering mountains are fought over by hardy human clans and furry abhumans with a fondness for gunpowder, which they manufacture from stinking nitre pools. One peak was hollowed out by the Nameless Empire as the resting place for its honoured dead, and a vault beneath it held the egg of the Great Worm, a larval hyperintelligence which presumably had something to do with the God-Mind project. It has since hatched, giving rise to a worm-cult which the PCs from the second campaign destroyed so that they could turn the whole mountain into a worm farm for their giant rat-breeding side-project. 

The Lands Beyond: South of the Pale Mountains stretch lands that were once part of the Nameless Empire, but which were so devastated by bioweapon releases and orbital bombardments that civilisation here has never really recovered. One blasted city is inhabited by a nation of ghouls; other regions are home to wandering cattle-herding wagon tribes, or clans of hidden people who watch over the ruins of the doomed cities from which their ancestors once fled. Further south these lands are apparently ruled by lords who call themselves the Barons of Rust, but the PCs have never visited their territories. 

Friday, 11 March 2022

More encounters from the City of Spires: the uplands

Second in a series of three 1d10 encounter tables, one for each of the three biomes that my PCs have been most active in recently. This post covers the uplands. Feel free to roll on them next time you need to stock a random hex!

1: Wooded hills dotted with overgrown ruins. There are many springs and streams, here, but not all are safe to drink from: some ancient catastrophe seems to have poisoned many of the aquifers, and the area is shunned by travellers, who fear that drinking from the wrong stream could spell their death. These lands are inhabited by clans of hidden folk, who live in concealed settlements deep in the forests, and keep watch on outsiders from afar. They are the only ones who know where to find the ruined, poisoned cities that their ancestors once fled from, and of which they consider themselves the ancestral guardians. Today these ruins are roamed by ex-human monsters over whom the clans maintain a sorrowful watch, believing them to be all that remains of those who did not flee quickly enough when disaster came.

2: Uplands inhabited by furry, bestial abhumans, who roam the vallies by day and creep back to their lairs by night. They have learned how to make crude gunpowder using the nitrate pools in the foothills: it's vile stuff, coarse and smoky and impure, but the abhumans love their bombs and blunderbusses and use them fearlessly despite their tendency to explode in the faces of their wielders. By these means they carry on an ancestral feud with the human mountain clans (see 3), killing them when they can and nailing their turbans to the walls of their hillforts as trophies. Though brave in battle, they live in fear of the cruel ghosts said to haunt the mountains, who carry their victims off into the heights and leave them to perish in the snows. Their king dwells in a ruined clifftop castle, his armoury stuffed with prodigeous quantities of black powder. 

3: Mountains claimed by rival clans who live by herding and raiding from inaccessible villages hidden amidst the scree slopes, their independence guaranteed by the impassable nature of the terrain, which they navigate with the same agility as the mountain goats they herd. They are easily spotted afar off amidst the rocks and snow by the bright red fabric of their turbans, though these are grey withinside and are worn inside out when the mountain-men do not wish to be seen. They are great travellers, roaming far and wide across peaks that anyone else would regard as uncrossable, and serve an important role as traders and messengers between peoples whom the mountains would otherwise have severed utterly. Outsiders passing through their lands are usually seized and held prisoner for ransom, though the clans do this entirely without malice, regarding it simply as the immemorial custom of their people. 

4: These hills are infested with rebels, who raised their standards a few years back, dreaming of rallying the people and sweeping their king from his throne. That didn't happen, and the king's men drove them into the uplands - but then his armies were called away by troubles on the border, and the rebels have been here ever since, lurking in the forested valleys, unable to return home while they are regarded as enemies of the crown. Initially many of the local communities supported them, but with each year that passes the 'contributions' they level on the nearby villages looks more like simple theft, and they are well on their way to degenerating into a mere bandit gang with a fancy flag. Their leader is a charismatic aristocrat who has discovered, somewhat to her own surprise, that she much prefers her new life as a terrifying bandit queen to her old life as an admired and accomplished young noblewoman. Her spiritual advisor, a saintly healer-priest, is quite besotted with her, and continues to insist on the obvious righteousness of their cause even as their grand rebellion declines into mere brigandage. 

5: High in these hills stand isolated villages, whose inhabitants practise a syncretic faith that combines the local state religion with worship of their ancestors. Each family traces its lineage back to one of a set of founder-heroes, to whom they maintain household shrines - a practise that has repeatedly got them into trouble with the religious authorities, who regard them as borderline-heretical and mistreat them accordingly. Their men are famous for their courage in battle, claiming their bravery comes from the knowledge that their ancestors are watching over them. The most closely-held secret of these villages is that their ancestors really are watching over them, having gained a ghastly immortality from deals struck with a dark spirit of the desert: by day they sleep beneath their ancient burial mounds, but at night they squirm from the cracks of the ground to watch over their descendants from afar. After so many years the ancestors have become bestial and barely-human, with wild eyes, claw-like nails, and tough, fibrous flesh covered only by their black and matted hair. They are a mad and bloodthirsty bunch, but their descendants are fiercely devoted to the 'grandparents' who have protected and watched over them for so long. Only the elders of each community are entrusted with knowledge of the hidden burial grounds where the ancestors 'live', and are charged with keeping them supplied and placated with offerings of blood. 

6: These rocky, forested hills were once inhabited only by solitary trappers and hermits, but the lands upon which they border are now ruled by a cruel lord who overburdens his subjects with conscription and taxation. Driven to desperation, a growing number of people have simply abandoned their old lives and fled into the woods, joining fledgling communities nestled in remote valleys where they hope the lord's men will never find them. They have acquired a protector of sorts in the form of a malfunctioning clockwork warrior with bladed wings, who was unwisely revived from deactivation by another local ruler, and promptly mutinied when it was unable to match its current circumstances with the memories recorded in its fractured mechanical mind. Paranoid and unhinged, this automaton assumes any soldiers it sees have been sent to recapture it, and murders any who trespass into its domain - a fact which has so far stymied the local lord's efforts to reclaim his errant subjects. He is growing increasingly irate about this, and has offered large bounties for anyone capable of destroying this mysterious defender of the woods.

7: Officially these hills are the site of one of the local ruler's hunting lodges, and nothing else. Secretly, however, he also maintains a hidden prison here, in a low, mossy fort concealed by screens of trees. Here he stashes those inconvenient individuals whose disappearance he has deemed desirable, who are dragged to the prison by night and kept in ignorance of its location. They are watched over by snarling semi-human guards, who have been alchemically modified by the king's enchanters to ensure their ferocity and remove their ability to speak. Here many people are held who are generally believed to be dead, including high-status individuals implicated in a recent rebellion (see 4).

8: Half of an ancient castle clings to a mountainside, here - the other half lies smeared and tumbled across the slope below, having been toppled in an earthquake centuries before. Once the seat of some ancient tyrant, it is now the home of an exiled magician, banished from her homeland for dealings with unholy beings who promised her knowledge and power - an opportunity whose loss she still very much regrets. Since taking up residence here she's managed to refurbish the flying stone skull-throne that belonged to the castle's original owner, an airbourne symbol of power and terror that has allowed her to convince the inhabitants of the surrounding villages that she's a terrible witch whose wrath must be placated with offerings of food, herbs, and flowers. Although amoral in the pursuit of knowledge, she's otherwise a decent enough sort, and far from the fearful hag the villagers imagine her to be, even if her years of living in isolation are making her increasingly eccentric...

9: Long ago, this mountain was partially hollowed out by a now-fallen empire as the resting place of its most honoured dead. Whole sections of the complex have collapsed over the centuries: what remains is accessible only by clambering through ancient elevator shafts, and is still defended by zomborg guardians, who stand watch over endless rows of ancient, embalmed corpses in broken glass cases. Few were buried with much treasure, but the halls are an antiquarian's paradise, and the cumulative value of all those rings and earrings and belt buckles is considerable. In the uppermost part of the complex the embalmers themselves still rest in cryosleep, though various freezer malfunctions over the centuries has turned their brains to mush: if revived they will mostly come lurching from their chambers crazed and screaming, some of them brandishing still-dangerous cybernetic limbs. Only one of them, an apprentice embalmer wearing a protective amulet gifted to him by his sorcerer uncle, is really reviveable alive and sane, though he will be utterly distressed to learn that his civilisation has fallen while he slept. 

10: Beneath this mountain lies a great vault, built to contain the egg of the Great Worm. At some point after the fall of the civilisation that built it, the egg hatched, giving birth to a vast, blind worm-god crawling endlessly around its prison. At some point after that a band of luckless refugees chose the wrong cave in which to seek shelter, and ended up being converted into worm cultists by the psychic radiation of the monster-god below. Now they and their worm-man followers labour endlessly to dig their way through the innumerable tons of rubble that lie between them and their buried god: already they have dug close enough that anyone descending into the lower workings will be enveloped in the dreams of the Great Worm, a hallucinatory dream-world of alien jungles that the Worm recalls through ancestral memory, but has never actually seen. The cultists have unearthed many relics of the ancient world in the course of their excavations, and will eagerly trade these for sturdy pickaxes and shovels if the opportunity arises. Vulnerable travellers who are unable or unwilling to hook them up with good shovel suppliers will be abducted and dragged down below instead, where the Great Worm's psychic radiation will progressively transform them into worm cultists as well. 

Sunday, 6 March 2022

Gender and 1990s comic books 4: Witchblade

Fourth and possibly last in this series, depending on whether I can muster the energy to do posts on any of Kabuki, Dawn, Aphrodite IX, or Fallen Angel. This one's just on gender, as Witchblade had little interest in race beyond the usual 1990s surfeit of honour-obsessed Yakuza assassins. Previous posts on Shi, Warrior Nun, and Ghost here, here, and here.

She's mostly forgotten now, but there was a time when Witchblade was a pretty big deal. Her comic ran for 185 issues, or 230-ish if you count the spin-offs and crossovers. It appeared monthly from 1995 all the way up to 2015: a run that dwarfs those of most of its competitors. Witchblade quickly became the tentpole of the 'Top Cow' comics universe, relegating older characters like CyberForce to the status of mere supporting cast. It had a manga series (2007-8) and an anime series (2006) and a two-season live action TV show (2001-2). And it provided a launchpad for Croatian artist Stjepan Šejić, who illustrated dozens of issues of Witchblade and its spin-offs between 2007 and 2013 before achieving online fame for his heartwarming lesbian BDSM romance comic, Sunstone (2014).

In later years, the creators of Witchblade were very open about the fact that they came up with her because Shi and Lady Death were the most successful characters in comics at the time, and they wanted a piece of the 'bad girl' action for themselves. However, unlike the other comics I've discussed in these posts, Witchblade was initially written by an actual woman, namely Christina Z, who wrote the first 39 issues. Its gender politics weren't as in-your-face as those of Ghost, but it was still pretty clearly about the difficulties of wielding female power in a world built on male violence and female victimhood. 

As the Witchblade armour shreds Sara's white ballgown, her empowered (and sexualised) 'bad girl' identity rises from the ruins of her 'good girl' femininity.

Witchblade had two opening plot arcs. The first arc - issues 1-8 - tells the story of Kenneth Irons, billionaire, sorcerer, and all-around embodiment of patriarchal power. Irons is obsessed with the Witchblade, an ancient gauntlet which grants great power to its wielder... but all of its previous wielders have been women, and any man who tries to wear it ends up maimed or dead. When it merges with NYPD detective Sara Pezzini, Irons choreographs a series of events to try to compel her to yield it up to him, in a not-very-subtle allegory for the way in which powerful men manipulate women into giving up the power that is rightfully theirs. Sara resists and reclaims the Witchblade, and Irons apparently falls to his death. 

The second arc - issues 9-14 - tells the story of Dannette Boucher, Irons's wife, who is basically a metaphor for the ways in which women become complicit in misogynistic power structures. Abjectly devoted to Irons, Dannette allowed him to experiment with implanting fragments of the Witchblade into her body, wilfully blind to the fact that he sees her sacrifices only as a means to enhance his own power. By the time he's done with her she's a monstrous mutant freak who constantly builds up power within herself, power that she can only get rid of by discharging it into other people, cooking them to death in the process. Realising that she's going to need a steady stream of victims, she demonstrates her internalised misogyny by setting up a modelling agency that keeps her supplied with desperate young women, whom she treats the same way Irons treated her: as disposable fodder. Sara hunts her down and reabsorbs her power into the Witchblade, killing her. 

Both stories set Sara up as a kind of champion of her gender, against the cruel men who seek to steal the power of women and the abject women who help them do it. The Witchblade, as its name implies, is the symbol of her power as a woman. (Pop-feminist Wiccan neopaganism was everywhere in the mid-1990s.) It connects her to a lineage of female resistance stretching back through time, embodied by all the previous women who carried the Witchblade in other times and places - a fairly obvious metaphor for the project of feminist history, which at the time was very invested in excavating histories of 'inspiring' women who could act as heroines and role models for new generations of girls. Interestingly, similar 'lineage' scenes - in which heroines have visions of all the previous women who have wielded the same power they currently hold - appear in both Magdalena and Warrior Nun Areala. Buffy, with its conceit that the power of the Slayer has passed from one woman to another throughout history, represented a minor variation on the same theme. 

So what qualifies Sara to wield the Witchblade, when most women and all men fail to do so? Simple: she's just stronger and braver and tougher than pretty much everyone else. She tells an anecdote at one point about how, when she was young, some boys encouraged her to climb a wall, and halfway up it she realised that they hadn't really done it because they wanted to see her climb: they'd just wanted to look up her skirt. She responds by climbing so far above them that their lustful leering is replaced by awe. But the limitations of this as a methodology of liberation are fairly obvious: it only works because Sara is stronger and braver than the boys who seek to humiliate her. That's great for her - but what about everyone else? What about all the girls who only possess average levels of strength and courage, the ones who will never be chosen by the Witchblade as its wielders? 

Sara frequently expresses contempt for women too weak to walk her path, including her own mother and sister. She scolds Dannette for allowing herself to become a victim, declaring: 'Unlike you, I'm not stupid. I'm not going to blame my plight on some man who screwed me over. I refuse to let anyone, man or woman or object, decide my fate.' (Dannette, as she lies dying, replies brokenly: 'I'm sorry, Sara. I wish I could have been as strong, as independent, as you.') The comic is thus led towards a kind of 'Great Woman Theory of History': advancement comes through the actions of a series of heroines, women badass enough to take on the patriarchal weight of history and kick the shit out of it. Ann Bonney is named as a previous wielder of the Witchblade, and so is Joan of Arc. Everyone else just sort of cowers and waits for the next heroine to come along. 

Sara as phallic woman, from Witchblade #1.

Even more than Ghost, Witchblade thus celebrates a version of femininity which wins power by being more masculine than the actual men. Sara Pezzini's only emotion is anger, her only mood is 'pissed off', and her only problem-solving technique is violence. Her favourite movie is Dirty Harry, she loves guns, she idolises her detective father, and when her partner is murdered she refuses to do anything as girly as talking to a counsellor: instead she works out her grief in true macho style, through boxing practise at the gym. However, whereas Ghost pairs its aggressive heroine with calmer, kinder men - 'beta heroes', as they were called in the romance literature of the time, before the internet poisoned the term beyond usefulness - Witchblade, like most female-authored media, pairs its alpha heroine with a man who is even more alpha than she is. 

Enter Kenneth's personal enforcer, Ian Nottingham, a sexy bad boy so over the top that only a woman would ever have written him. He has knee-length black hair and a British accent and he catches bullets with his bare hands and cuts cars in half with katanas. Ian actually does wield the Witchblade for a while, despite his gender - probably because, like most male love interests written by women and unlike the ultra-macho Kenneth, Ian actually has quite a lot of femme traits, including physical and emotional vulnerability, a history of abuse at the hands of patriarchal authority figures, and a tendency to wear floor-length gowns and pose with pink roses. Ultimately, though, even a gender-fluid man isn't woman enough to handle the Witchblade, and it is to Sara that it always finally returns.

Apparently Ian's pay is 'a high seven-figure salary and access to Irons's vast laser disc collection'. Adorkable.

Witchblade is also notable for being much kinkier than its competitors. The whole 'bad girl' genre owed its existence to the fact that, in those innocent days, internet pornography had not yet become ubiquitous, meaning that there was still a market of horny adolescent boys willing to pay two or three dollars a month for comic books full of pictures of mostly-naked ladies. Witchblade provided fan service in spades: every time Sara activates the Witchblade it rips her clothes up, providing endless excuses for her partial nudity. (Later writers dialled this up to absurd extremes.) But it also repeatedly featured tableaux of men and women in bondage gear or fetish fashion, and depicted Ian and Kenneth's relationship as deeply homoerotic and sadomasochistic: in one scene Kenneth even dresses Ian up in chains and a rubber gimp suit for a spot of water torture. Sadomasochism, of course, also structures Kenneth's relationship with Dannette, Dannette's relationship with her victims, and even Kenneth's relationship with the Witchblade itself, which is explicitly described as an abusive relationship in which the more the Witchblade hurts him, the more he desires it. Even Sara's triumph over Kenneth has a sado-masochistic edge to it, as Kenneth pleads with her to show him the full power of the Witchblade by hurting him as badly as she can. Sara refuses, which reminds me of the old joke: Sacher-Masoch meets De Sade in hell. 'Torture me!' begs Sacher-Masoch. De Sade thinks for a moment and then says: 'No.'

Ian Nottingham: assassin, anti-hero, gimp.

As a result, while they feature relatively little actual sex, Christina Z's Witchblade comics are much more sexually charged than, say, Shi. She's clearly interested in the inseperability of sex, power, and violence, and in the way that Kenneth, Ian, and Sara are all attracted to one another precisely because they keep trying to kill one another. She also has a much more grown-up understanding of what it feels like to be fascinated with someone else's body, as in the scene where Sara borrows Kenneth's coat and finds herself thinking about the warmth and strength of his body inside it. Sadly the art doesn't back her up on this, remaining fixated on busty women in revealing clothing to the virtual exclusion of all other forms of eroticism, although it did feature a surprising number of hot guys in bondage for a comic so clearly marketed at heterosexual boys. 

After the first fourteen issues, Christina Z's run carried on for another couple of years. She started lots of new plot threads - a cult, a conspiracy, Ian's backstory, Sara's childhood traumas - but never resolved any of them, and her run ultimately just trailed off into nothing. After that the comic passed into the hands of other authors and dissolved into stream-of-consciousness fanservice gibberish for a while, before going to David Wohl, who upped the fanservice even further but also tied up most of the dangling plot threads left over from Christina's run. Finally it went to Ron Marz, who wrote Witchblade from 2004 all the way to its final demise in 2015. Marz professionalised the comic: he gave it a consistent tone, cut back on the nudity and nonsense plotting, and tried hard to elevate it above its trashy 'bad girl' roots. But he also masculinised it, ditching Ian in favour of some generic 'nice guy' hunk, and dropping any attempt to engage with gender politics. 

I can't really claim that Witchblade is a good comic. Its art is amateurish compared to that of Shi or Ghost or Kabuki, and the writing is mostly pretty weak. Its 'solutions' to the social problems that it identifies are not exactly sophisticated: when Witchblade had a crossover with Darkminds in 2000, it takes the more emotionally intelligent Nakiko just a few pages to realise that the Witchblade's all-violence-all-the-time methods ultimately mark it out as just another abuser, and that what its wielder really needs is a supportive female friend and a good hug. But for its first 14 issues Witchblade is at least an interesting comic, worthy of note for the way in which both its author and its heroine struggle to find ways of using the 'bad girl' formula to assert themselves within a male-dominated world. That their answers are necessarily imperfect does not lessen the significance of the fact that they asked the questions in the first place!

Thursday, 24 February 2022

More encounters from the City of Spires: the desert

 A year ago I posted tables of 72 encounters from the City of Spires, as a convenient means of recycling material from my ongoing campaign into something that other people might find gameable. As the game is still going on (and now approaching the two-and-a-half year mark, or five and a half if it's considered as an extension of the previous Team Tsathogga campaign set in the same world), I thought it was probably time for an update.

Since taking over their city the PCs have been spending more and more time in the outlying wildernesses, so I'm going to be doing three 1d10 encounter tables, one for each of the three biomes they've been most active in. This post covers the desert. Feel free to roll on them next time you need to stock a random hex!


1: Desert expanse roamed by nomad pastoralists, who travel between watering holes with their herds of goats, sheep, camels, and horses. Harsh experience has taught them to live in dread of the evil spirits of the desert, to whose wicked deeds they attribute all their misfortunes. A thriving market in protective charms, spells, and talismans exist among them, and the clans compete fiercely over those rare men and women believed holy enough to protect them from the devils of the wastes.

2: A trade road winds alongside the wadi here, watched over by linen-swathed desert giants, ten feet tall, leaning on gigantic spears. They are few in number and serve a human king, acting as his shock troops and honour guards, and demanding a toll from all who pass. The king's palace stands nearby, an ancient building divided awkwardly into human-scale and giant-scale areas. The giants are long-lived and more loyal to the palace than the man who rules it, transferring their loyalties each time it changes hands with little more than a shrug of their colossal shoulders. 

3: City built by the side of a wide, shallow oasis, surrounded by stands of date palms and overgrown with sedges. The people of the city are famous for the manufacture of papyrus: in the heat of the day they sleep, and conduct much of their business by night, in streets lit by innumerable papyrus lanterns. Their ruler is a once-vigorous man, now sinking swiftly into indolence. In the dusty caravanserais the traders mutter that the desert clans no longer fear him, and that their demands grow more outrageous every year. 

4: Here the desert clans have been driven from their watering holes by an aggressive race of diminutive lizard folk, who came surging suddenly out of the desert and have since been conducting excavations of certain long-abandoned buildings of baked brick that lie nearby. Their diggings have revealed walls painted with ancient frescoes, depicting beautiful androgynous figures dancing between pillars of fire. The lizardfolk are mute, and exactly where they came from and what they are looking for remains deeply unclear. The nomads who claim these lands would very much like them to be driven back into the wastes from whence they came.

5: A ruined city deep in the desert, raised up on a rocky plateau. In its central plaza a holy fire burns eternally, huge and hot enough to burn a man to ash. Any who come here are met by a white-robed spirit who asks if they come as pilgrims: any who say no are driven from the city by swarms of mute, dwarfish lizardfolk (see 4) who come pouring from the ruins to aid her. If they affirm that they are pilgrims then she will ask which of them is the celebrant: whomever is chosen will then be invited to step into the flame and be burned to death, so that their fellow pilgrims may ritually partake of their charred remains in the name of her god, whose name is both Fire and Hunger. Anyone who actually goes through with the whole ghastly rite will win the favour of her ancient divinity. A being of pure ritual, the spirit is easily confused by anyone who goes off-script, and quick-thinking PCs may be able to capitalise on this in order to escape. 

6: Desolate dunes roamed by desert zombies, dehydrated animated corpses with flames flickering in their hollow eye sockets. They guard the lair of an undead sorceress, whose body animates only in darkness: in the light she is merely a corpse, clad in tattered crimson rags. During the day she lies buried beneath the sands, her tame bone worm coiled around her, but when night falls she and her mount rise up to resume their unholy work. In life she was a great architect, and knows many secrets of the famous palaces and temples of the world, their hidden tunnels and concealed chambers, having been responsible for designing many of them herself. Now she seeks the resting place of an ancient god once revered in these lands (see 5), confident that she would be able to tap its power for her own purposes if only she could build a temple over it in just the right way...

7: Dusty hilltop ruin encircled by bandit camps. The bandits chased a bunch of wizards in there a while back, and have been keeping watch on the ruins ever since to make sure they don't sneak out again. They haven't gone in after them because the wizards, in desperation, activated the slumbering stone golems with which the ruins are littered: now they cower in the ruins of the very manufactory in which the golems were once mass-produced, relying for protection on the ancient ward-lines that once kept them out of the manager's offices. The wizards have no way of controlling the golems, which now randomly attack anyone entering the ruins, though they're very much hoping to come up with one before they all starve to death...

8: Oasis city ruled by an aristocracy with ash-grey skin, marking them out at a glance from the general populace, who have normal dark-brown skin tones. Each year, the city's emir makes ritual offerings to the spirits of the oasis to ensure the prosperity of his city. He claims to enjoy the favour of the spirits, and those who defy him are dragged off into the night by the Misery Men: anonymous enforcers with jet-black eyes, their presence announced by a cold, damp smell like the bottom of a half-dried well. Among the people, mentioning (or even acknowledging the existence of) the Misery Men is believed to incur extreme misfortune. The remains of an immense rusted tank by the side of the oasis suggest that something was once contained here, although whatever it was must have leaked into the oasis long ago... (No further details - my PCs haven't got to the bottom of this one, yet!)

9: Wasteland haunted by clawed, burrowing humanoid scavengers the colour of charred meat, who sense tremors through the earth and dig their way up to sieze unwary travellers by night.  Though savage and feral, they are smaller than men and do not like to attack except by ambush. The smell of cooking meat will attract them from miles away, and a funeral pyre will bring them in swarms. If killed the bones within them are found to be black and charred, as though burned by some terrible fire, and are filled with cinders where their marrow should be.

10: The desert clans shun this region, roamed as it is by damaged but still-functional obsidian warriors, huge and mighty and almost-indestructible. Beyond them, in the heat-haze, can be glimpsed the bulk of an immense structure half-buried in the desert sands, its walls riven in ages past by some unimaginable violence. Sometimes the wind carries strange sounds from this building - distorted voices, hollow booming, the scrape of metal on stone - but since the fall of the cult of he whose name is both Fire and Hunger (see 5), none have successfully run the gauntlet of the obsidian warriors to discover what lies within... (No further details on this one - my PCs haven't been inside!)

Saturday, 19 February 2022

Race, gender, and 1990s comic books 3: Ghost

Malcolm Svensson asked for more of these, so blame him for this. Previous posts on Shi and Warrior Nun Areala here and here.

Ghost was part of the same wave of comic book action heroines that gave rise to Warrior Nun and Shi. She slightly predates them both, first appearing in 1993, but her story proper began with the 1994 Ghost Special: her comic was then published almost-monthly by Dark Horse until 2000. Like Shi she appeared in 65-odd issues overall, but her stories were much less fragmented, tending towards long-arc storytelling reminiscent of the better sort of 1990s genre TV rather than a staccato rattle of throw-away miniseries. This post is mostly about the first 36 issues, which were written by Eric Luke.

Like Shi and Warrior Nun, Luke's run on Ghost is a story about wielding female power in a male-dominated world. Like them, it was written by a man; but unlike them, it initially took an openly and confrontationally feminist stance. Especially in its early issues, its heroine, Elisa Cameron, is very blunt about why the world is such a mess: it's because men are cruel, violent, and selfish, addicted to the power they wield over women, and her solution is to take them down one headshot at a time. Her targets are embodiments of exploitative patriarchal power structures: pornographers who pressure reluctant women into sex work, cult leaders who use religion to amass harems of female followers, sexually predatory businessmen who exploit their female employees, and cruel misogynists who get off on hurting and humiliating women. The cure is always the same: .45 calibre death. 

These days, people often get anxious about who has the right to tell which stories. There are certainly parts of Ghost that I suspect would have been done differently if it had been written by a woman: it can be a very male-gaze-y comic, with quite a lot of gratuitous female nudity, and it does feature an awfully large number of rape monsters. (In a particularly blunt bit of symbolism, at one point Elisa destroys a whole nest of rape-demons with the aid of a bottle of oestrogen.) At other times, though, Luke's perspective can be a positive asset: he clearly sympathises with the rage and pain of women, but he also understands something important about the ghastly force of male desire, depicted here not as some kind of accidental and easily fixable social quirk but as something horrible, primordial, and endlessly destructive. It doesn't always work, but when it does it's powerful stuff.

Ghost has a superb hook: a woman wakes up amnesiac, invisible and intangible in a bathroom, concludes she must be a ghost, and decides to solve the mystery of her own death. As following the trail leads her to one scene of injustice after another, she becomes not just a ghost but a vengeful revenant, cutting a bloody swathe through the evildoers who plague the city of Arcadia. She's terrifyingly powerful: she can control the tangibility of both her own body and whatever she's currently touching, allowing her to, for example, render her bullets solid while her body remains untouchable, or to grab someone, ghost them, push them inside a wall while they're intangible and weightless, and then let go, causing them to die messily as they rematerialise inside a solid object. But even though she can kill almost anyone, she's a complete outsider when it comes to the hidden power structures of the city. It takes her twenty-five blood-soaked issues to gradually murder her way to the truth about what is actually going on in Arcadia, and even longer to solve the mystery of her own origins.

Given the level of carnage that gets meted out in every issue, with Elisa regularly mowing down whole rooms full of men at a time, the comics very wisely make no attempt to present Arcadia as a credible American city, the kind of place where ordinary people might live and work and raise families. Exaggerated urban decay was standard in comics of this era, but Luke's run on Ghost goes much, much further, depicting Arcadia as a Gothic Art Deco hellscape of perpetual night: a kind of stylised Film Noir nightmare world in which violence is omnipresent, life is cheap, and everyone is either a criminal or a victim. (The artwork of Adam Hughes in the early issues does a great deal to define Arcadia's visual identity in this respect.) Several of Elisa's battles involve the destruction of entire city blocks, but no-one seems to care, or even really notice. Apparently Arcadia is the kind of place where a demon can crash a blimp into a skyscraper and everyone will just shrug and get on with their day. 

The airships and the Art Deco architecture, like the 1940s fashions that so many of the male characters seem to wear, serve to anchor Ghost more in the world of pulp fiction than that of conventional superheroics. Elisa's costume owes as much to 1940s 'good girl' art as to modern superhero design, and when it's revealed that the city of Arcadia was originally built by a GLOBAL CRIME CONSPIRACY as cover for an UNDERGROUND CRIME CITY built around a SECRET CRIME MACHINE - a plotline that wouldn't have been out of place in Doc Savage - it feels like a logical extension of what's come before, rather than a random asspull. (In fact, my reaction on reading the relevant issue was: 'OK, that explains so much about this place...') Elisa's twin .45 pistols are an obvious homage to The Shadow, but whereas the pulps 'explained' crime in terms of individual psychopathy or racial degeneracy, Ghost depicts it as an expression of masculinity gone berserk. A city of phallic towers ruled over by violent, abusive criminals is, for Ghost, the logical result of a society in which men think less with their brains than with their dicks.

By far my favourite part of Ghost is the way that it plays on the symbolism of this 'nightmare city' material. Elisa frequently waxes lyrical about her sense of connection to the city, the way that she experiences it as her shadow or reflection, and this connection works on at least two levels. On a personal level the city is a reflection of Elisa herself, mirroring her pain and trauma back at her: it's full of crime and violence because her mind is full of crime and violence, meaning that these are the only parts of the city she is capable of seeing. But on a collective level she mirrors it: she's the city's ghost, the composite ghost of Arcadia's innumerable anonymous victims, risen from their graves and back for blood. (Her amnesia means that she identifies less with the person she once was than with the city in general.) There's an awful lot of as-above-so-below symbolism: Elisa literally has a version of the city inside her head that she uses for teleportation purposes, while the 'real' city outside is terrorised by a demon who escaped from Elisa's subconscious, a demon who embodies everything that she hates and fears about men. When it turns out that, for example, Arcadia is the way it is because it is inhabited by a giant psychic envy monster whose tendrils grow inside the walls of every building, or because it is secretly ruled by a man with the psychic power to induce suicidal despair, these figures are simultaneously wholly symbolic and entirely literal. This wasn't new ground: back in 1989, Morrison's brilliant Arkham Asylum: A Serious House on Serious Earth had already made explicit that Gotham is Batman, Arkham Asylum is Batman's head, and all Batman's fights with his villains double as metaphors for his struggles with his own worst urges and deepest fears. But it's still pretty well done, and the moment where Elisa is given the key to the city by a hundred-year-old PSYCHIC CRIME SOLDIER and rises up into the sunlight, finally transcending her own inner darkness, had me grinning from ear to ear. 

As the comic goes on, and Elisa faces down her literalised inner demons one after the other, she gradually mellows out. She goes from avenger of the dead to champion of the dispossessed, toning down her anti-male rhetoric as she does so. In some ways I found this a bit of a disappointment, as the earlier issues gain a lot of their strength from the clarity of Elisa's feminist anger, but it obviously came as a relief to many of the comic's male readers, who were writing in from very early on expressing their hopes that Elisa would calm down and realise that #notallmen are rotters. It also allows her to gradually escape the 'strong female character' box she's initially trapped in, within which - like many other 1990s antiheroines - the only way to be strong and female is by actually embracing a kind of parodic ultra-masculinity, communicating entirely through violence and feeling no emotions other than rage. (See the earlier issues of Witchblade and Fallen Angel for more examples of the type.) All Elisa's complaints about the stupidity of male violence, and the absurdity of men clinging to their guns to compensate for their own sense of inadequacy, look a bit hypocritical when her own go-to problem solving technique is 'shoot everyone to death forever'. It's thus probably for the best that she's ultimately able to develop beyond it, tapping into empathy as well as rage, even if the comics do lose some of their edge as she does so.

The elephant in the room is the way that Elisa's militant feminism collides with the very male-gazey fanservice of the art direction. Elisa may talk like a particularly angry Riot Grrl, but she dresses like a showgirl - much to the perplexity and irritation of the comic's female readers, who quite reasonably wanted to know why its man-hating heroine insisted on fighting in high heels. Nor was she alone: this was a comic that featured a lot of fanservicey character designs and nearly-naked women, including supposedly 'empowered' characters like Mindgame, a female psychic whose teammates apparently couldn't come up with a better way to keep her from injuring herself during her trances than tying her up in leather bondage gear, complete with a ball-gag. At times this lends the comic a queasy sense that it's trying to have its cake and eat it: Elisa gets to take down creepy misogynist villains like Hunger and Reverend Scythe, but only after the reader's had a good chance to ogle at the debasement of their female victims, who very frequently include Elisa herself. Some of this may have been editorial mandate, based on the desire to drive sales - the editor admitted to having been the one behind Elisa's footwear choices, for example - and one reader mournfully wrote in to describe Ghost as 'a well-written comic [...] that can only survive by the grace of the lead character's cleavage'. But it remains an uncomfortable fit for a series whose heroine holds a special contempt for pornographers, and who repeatedly critiques the way that media objectifies women. In issue 30 a villain demands that Elisa engages in a 'sexy nurse' striptease for him, a process that she finds so degrading and destructive to her sense of self that she freaks out and shoots him, instead. But as he himself points out, he's not asking her to do anything all that different to what her costume does for her every issue.

Interestingly, Dark Horse assigned a female staff member, Debbie Byrd, to answer the letters columns for most of Luke's run on Ghost, making very clear that they did so because they wanted the comic to have a female 'voice'. Debbie steadfastly defended the comic's feminist politics, and sometimes poked fun at it's sillier aspects (like Elisa's costume), but her role sometimes put her in the awkward position of also having to defend things that didn't make much sense, like the issue in which Elisa is magically able to defuse an apparently hopeless situation by kissing another woman. (The amount of lesbian queerbaiting in 1990s comics was incredible.) Her position, as a woman defending a woman written by a man, feels somehow symbolic of the whole situation. Ghost was a comic that supported women in every way other than letting them actually draw or write it. 

Race-wise, Elisa inhabits a world that is, for the most part, as snowy-white as her costume - probably partly because it takes so many of its cues from 1940s film noir, where non-white people scarcely exist. On the plus side, this meant that the reflexive Orientalism that ran rampant through so many contemporary series is absent here, and Arcadia may well have the lowest ninja-to-civilian ratio in all of 1990s comics. Interestingly, though, one of Elisa's closest allies - and the man who first starts her on the road to wondering whether not all men are bastards - is King Tiger, an Asian martial arts mystic who assists her many times over the course of her story. Despite his decency and ethnicity he's not desexualised, prompting one Asian female reader to write in in issue 29:

And thank God, finally, an Asian-American superhero (Okay, so he still does the stereotypic Asian mystic stuff). And he gets the girl, too!

It all makes a welcome change from the endless sexy Japanese ninja girls with whom most other 'bad girl' comics at the time were overrun. Sadly, King Tiger - like most of the comic's character's - got thoroughly wrecked when Ghost changed hands.

Eric Luke's run on Ghost lasted for one special plus 36 issues, of which issues 1-25 were the best. After that it passed into the hands of other writers, who ditched everything that made the comic distinctive, including its feminist themes and its Deco-Gothic aesthetics. Soon it was just another 'action girl' comic book, full of boobs and gunfire, signifying nothing. But for a few years at the start it was genuinely something pretty special.

Next in line: Witchblade!

Friday, 4 February 2022

Drunken incompetent regional magnates: the purpose of aristocracies

First up, a brief announcement: the kickstarter for Knock! issue three has now gone live, packed with material from the old-school blogosphere's finest. It will also have a couple of my articles in it, so if you've ever wanted to own a physical copy of my d100 problem-solving items table but couldn't be bothered to print it out yourself then this is your chance.

Anyway. Something mildly interesting happened in my game this week: the PCs were negotiating with a king to end a civil war, which had started when the king had framed a mostly-innocent nobleman for his own misdeeds. The PCs wanted him pardoned, and suggested that the king should instead pin the blame on a different, more powerful nobleman, who was (a) actually much guiltier and (b) a drunken wastrel whom nobody liked. The king baulked at this, which somewhat confused some of the players. 'Isn't he a drunken incompetent?' one of them asked. 'Yes', I replied, 'but he's a very rich and influential drunken incompetent!'

The negotiations moved on and a compromise was ultimately reached, but thinking this over I feel there may have been a disconnect between the assumptions that I and (some of) my players were bringing to the table. To them, I think that getting rid of a corrupt lord who was despised by his own people seemed like pure upside, something that should be easily acceptable to everyone who wasn't him. Whereas my assumption, roleplaying as the king, was that openly moving against a powerful regional magnate - even one he personally disliked - would be something that he'd want to avoid unless he felt that there was absolutely no alternative. This isn't the first time I've felt such a disconnect: in reading discussions of fantasy RPGs and similar online, I've sometimes seen the view expressed that pre-modern aristocracies are purely parasitic, something that can be circumvented or done away with without disadvantaging anyone other than the aristocrats themselves. Frequently these seem to be rooted in modern liberal-democratic assumptions that aristocracies are obviously stupid ideas, and that any society that has one would be better off getting rid of it as soon as possible.

Nice throne, but what exactly is the point of you?

Now, I myself believe in democracy, and I am very glad that I don't have to spend my life bowing and scraping to the guy in the castle down the road. But I also think that social forms develop for a reason, and that if most of Europe and Asia kept circling back to social systems built around powerful land-owning aristocrats for thousands of years, then that probably wasn't just due to some kind of historical accident. When people think of aristocracies, I think they often tend to think of nineteenth-century aristocracies, lounging in their stately homes, expensive and decorative and mostly useless. But pre-modern aristocracies have a function, one that is not easily circumvented before the rise of the modern state, and understanding this function can help in making settings where all the obligatory dukes and barons and whatnot actually have some reason to exist.

Pre-modern life is local. There are no accurate maps, no accurate census data, no accurate statistics: the only way you can properly learn about a region is by living there, not just briefly but for years on end. Learning who lives where, what they produce, what they trade, understanding the social fabric that connects each family or community to those around it... all this requires specific local knowledge, and there are no shortcuts to acquiring it. Under these circumstances, establishing an effective system of resource extraction (taxation, conscription, etc) is often going to be the work of years, if not of generations. Any thug with an army can ride into a major population centre, steal everything not nailed down, and ride off. But if he wants his power to extend into the woods and the hills, the hamlets and villages, then that thug and his family need to be prepared to settle in for the seriously long haul.

This is the service that the local lord provides. If they've been there for long enough, he and his relatives will have wound their tendrils deep into all the prominent local families, bought off or intimidated all the local village 'big men', and learned through a grim process of trial and error roughly what kind of tax burden can be extracted from the region without actually triggering famine and/or revolt. He's probably been hunting and hawking in the area his whole life: he knows where to find all the hidden villages nestled deep in the forests, the ones that will never appear on any official map. His family's grip on the area will often have been decades if not centuries in the making. If you just banish them and install someone else then it might take a long, long time before his successors are able to exploit the region with anything like the same success.

Thus I have made myself INDISPENSABLE!

And above the local lord is the regional magnate, who is playing the same game one level up. As the local lords work their hooks into the local clans and prominent village families, so the magnate works his hooks into the local lords, gradually establishing a network of family ties and legal dependencies and bribes and threats and traditions and alliances that allow him to tap them for resources, and to call upon their aid in times of war. The whole system is intensely local and intensely personal: it's 'I know a guy who knows a guy' all the way down. A really well-entrenched regional magnate can run his domain like a petty king: the royal court can issue laws and proclamations, but the court is far away, and royal power can only extend out into the regions via networks of local intermediaries. In the little hilltop towns that the king has never heard of, the law is usually whatever the local lord says it is.

As a result, for a king to antagonise one of his regional magistrates is a really big deal. That magnate stands at the head of a patronage network that reaches all the way down into miserable, marginal settlements that only a few outsiders even know how to find, and alienating him - or alienating his family by executing or banishing him - risks disrupting the functioning of government across a whole chunk of the kingdom. Dispossessing his whole family and installing someone else could easily be even worse: while they'd presumably be loyal to you, it might take decades for their replacement to get a proper system of leverage up and running to replace the one you've just destroyed. (Remember, all of this is personal - a matter of 'you owe my brother a favour' or 'my cousin married your sister' or 'our grandfathers served together in the war' - and so none of it is straightforwardly transferable to a new candidate.) And of course there's always the risk that the offended magnate (or his family) will simply storm off and rebel, relying on their remote strongholds and local support networks to keep them safe. You'll probably win the resulting civil war - you're the king, after all - but winkling them out of their distant castles is probably going to be a slow and bloody business, and exactly the kind of thing that rival kings love to take advantage of if given half a chance.

So when the PCs in our session this week proposed to King Bahir that he should sacrifice Lord Maruf, I think that what they meant was 'You're the boss, so why don't you pin this whole mess on this under-performing middle manager?' But what I, in character as the king, heard was: 'Hey, that guy whose family network you rely upon to hold down the northern provinces and the border lords? The one whose people know how to extract tax revenue and conscript soldiers from the upland villages around the domains of the Broken One? He's expendable, right?' The fact that King Bahir personally disliked Lord Maruf was beside the point. He just couldn't afford to take that kind of hit unless he really had to.

Luckily, in the end the party circumvented the whole issue by staging an illusionary wizard battle in a desert instead!