Monday, 23 April 2018

Glimpses of the Wicked City: the art of the Silk Road

Art plays a major role in how we visualise other cultures. Our view of ancient Greece is heavily shaped by all those white marble statues: we'd probably think of it very differently if their paintings had survived as well. Ancient Egypt is monumental sculptures and paintings in tombs. Medieval Europe is stained glass, illuminated manuscripts, and woodcuts. Victorian Britain is pre-Raphaelite paintings and sepia-tint photographs. And so on.

For most of us, if the Silk Road looks like anything at all, it's probably a nineteenth-century Orientalist painting: something by Rosati, perhaps, or Delacroix. But while some Orientalist paintings depict their subjects with skill and sympathy, an awful lot of them are just excuses for tiresomely repetitive 'naked slave-girl' scenes, and even the ones that aren't usually emphasise the qualities of the 'Orient' that their painters went out looking for: sex, passion, luxury, exoticism, and violence. They give little sense of how these people understood their own world, as people with their own lives to lead, rather than as part of the backdrop to someone else's adventure tourism - and besides, for my purposes, their period is out by roughly two hundred years.

Related image
Rosati, 'A Game of Backgammon'. If you want the slave-girl paintings you can google them yourself.

Probably the greatest representative art tradition to emerge from late medieval / early modern Central Asia was Timurid painting, especially in the form developed by the miniaturists of Herat in Afghanistan. It's a style which combined Persian and Chinese elements to depict blue-and-gold worlds of staggering beauty, which really have to be seen to be believed. (Online reproductions do them no justice at all.) Here are some examples:





Now, Timurid art is wonderful - but it's very much a product of the earlier part of the early modern period, and its fascination with the sages and heroes of the past means that it tends to look back earlier still. For a sense of what Asiatic Islamic civilisation looked and felt like once modernity started to take hold - and of what life in the Silk Road kingdoms might have looked like if they hadn't been in terminal decline by the late 1600s - I look instead to seventeenth-century Ottoman and Safavid miniature paintings, especially the Rålamb Costume Book (1650s) and the works of Reza Abbasi (1565 - 1635) and Abdulcelil Levni (?-1732). Here are some figures from the Rålamb Costume Book:

This soldier is dressed as a Janissary with a leopard skin. The 'RÃ¥lamb Costume Book' is a small volume containing 121 miniatures in Indian ink with gouache and some gilding, displaying Turkish officials, occupations and folk types. They were acquired in Constantinople in 1657-58 by Claes RÃ¥lamb who led a Swedish embassy to the Sublime Porte, and arrived in the Swedish Royal Library / Manuscript Department in 1886.

Turkish woman "Turca". The 'RÃ¥lamb Costume Book' is a small volume containing 121 miniatures in Indian ink with gouache and some gilding, displaying Turkish officials, occupations and folk types. They were acquired in Constantinople in 1657-58 by Claes RÃ¥lamb who led a Swedish embassy to the Sublime Porte, and arrived in the Swedish Royal Library / Manuscript Department in 1886.

Cavalryman   Sipâhî.  Claes Rålamb (8 May 1622 – 14 March 1698) was a Swedish statesman. The 'Rålamb Costume Book' is a small volume containing 121 miniatures in Indian ink with gouache and some gilding, displaying Turkish officials, occupations and folk types. They were acquired in Constantinople in 1657-58 by Claes Rålamb who led a Swedish embassy to the Sublime Porte, and arrived in the Swedish Royal Library / Manuscript Department in 1886.

Executioner    The instrument was probably used for impaling.  The 'RÃ¥lamb Costume Book' is a small volume containing 121 miniatures in Indian ink with gouache and some gilding, displaying Turkish officials, occupations and folk types. They were acquired in Constantinople in 1657-58 by Claes RÃ¥lamb who led a Swedish embassy to the Sublime Porte, and arrived in the Swedish Royal Library / Manuscript Department in 1886.

Executioner with strangulation rope. "Chelat - Bödeln". The 'Rålamb Costume Book' is a small volume containing 121 miniatures in Indian ink with gouache and some gilding, displaying Turkish officials, occupations and folk types. They were acquired in Constantinople in 1657-58 by Claes Rålamb who led a Swedish embassy to the Sublime Porte, and arrived in the Swedish Royal Library / Manuscript Department in 1886.
These last two are executioners. The first one carries an impaling stake. The second carries a garotting cord.
Here are some by Abbasi:

Two Lovers, 1630 Reza Abbasi

Shah Abbas: Youth reading

Reza Abbasi

And here are some by Levni:

Acem Çengisi Maverdi Kolbaşı, minyatür   Persian Dancing Woman, miniature, Levni, 18th century

IV. Murat Levnî, Kebir Silsilenâme, Topkapı Sarayı Müzesi,

turkish miniature paintings - Google Search

Levni-Surname-i Vehbi-1720
Janissaries at a banquet. There's always one guy who can't keep his hat on...
Levni Ottoman Artist
I love the expression on this one. 'It says olive prices are down again. Fuck.'

The other visual source I keep coming back to is the sixteenth-century Tyrkervaerk of Melchior Lorck. Like the nineteenth-century Orientalists, Lorck's engravings show the Ottoman dominions through European eyes, but his perspective is completely different from theirs. The Orientalists painted from a position of assumed cultural superiority, safe in the knowledge that while the Islamic world might be excitingly dangerous to the individual traveller, it no longer posed any meaningful threat to European dominance. But Lorck's drawings of the armies of Suleiman the Magnificent reflect the strength and terror of the Ottoman Empire at its height, when it was an aggressively expansionistic imperial power which had demonstrated itself to be entirely capable of kicking the shit out of the forces of European Christendom. Here are some examples:

Melchior Lorck'un ağaç baskılarındaki Osmanlı figürleri ve ellerindeki dış bükey kanat şekilli kalkanlar..1570-83

Melchior Lorck ( (1526 / 27 – after 1583 in Copenhagen)

A Turkish warrior; WL figure, in profile to r; wearing spurs and holding a lance and a large shield in his l hand; from a series of 127 woodcuts.  1576 Woodcut

Melchior Lorck

Melchior Lorck, Danish-German, (1526/7-post 1583), Portrait of Suleyman the Magnificent (Hollstein 34), Engraving (IIIrd State), circa 1574 | Lot | Sotheby's

Lorck's Tyrkervaerk engravings are an important part of the way in which I imagine the Wicked City itself: a world dominated by strong, cruel, violent men and the weary, hollow-eyed despots who command them, full of militaristic pomp and spectacle, strong lines, sharp angles, and plumed soldiers marching through the streets in splendid uniforms while veiled figures with downcast eyes scurry into corners to avoid them.

The world of the Rålamb Costume Book is the world of the oasis kingdoms beyond, all bright colours and gorgeous fabrics and matter-of-fact violence. The world of Levni and Abbasi is the world of the rich and powerful, the merchant princes of the Great Road: a world of strong coffee and extravagant fashions, elegant youths in perfumed gardens, falconers and dancing girls, and people who really, really don't want to talk to you about exactly where all their custom-made guns and fancy clockwork machinery is coming from.

And outside that, in the steppes and the deserts and the mountains, is the blue-and-gold world of the miniaturists of Herat: a world of flowers and water, rocks and monsters, vast and strange and old and dangerous and very, very beautiful.

The taiga looks like Evenki folk art and Gennady Pavlishin illustrations.

I guess the gods and spirits of the steppe look like figures from Mongolian thangkas?

Fuck, this post is long enough already. I'm just going to hit 'publish' and have done with it.

Friday, 13 April 2018

Wheels within wheels: clockworkers and scrap mechanics of the Wicked City

Compared to its state a century ago, when it stood at the zenith of its prosperity, the Wicked City is a shadow of its former glory. Its streets lie in ruins. Its population has fallen dramatically. Its farmlands are turning to desert. Its state religion has become a hollow farce. But one segment of the city's economy which has not declined are its clockworking industries: and in this area, at least, the city retains its world-leading status, just as surely as it did before it lost its name.

Before the rise of the Wicked King, the city became preeminent in clockworking because its coal mines made it cheap to build and power metal automata, and because its position at the hub of the Great Road made it easy for its merchant dynasties to attract the most talented mechanics from both the eastern and western empires, sure that they would be able to find markets for their wares. Since then, the city has retained its edge largely because of the enthusiasm with which its government has invested in clockwork technology, ensuring that the clockworking guilds have never lacked for patronage. The government's willingness to tolerate the excesses of the Steel Aspirants has made the city a major centre for the cult of the Cogwheel Sage, and the low price of coal means that it still has a substantial community of Brass Folk: after all, they can 'eat' there more cheaply than they can anywhere else.

Construct Token by on @DeviantArt

The innumerable automata upon which the city's economy depends are manufactured partly by the Brass Folk, and partly by the old clockworking guilds, many of whose constituent families pride themselves upon having been clockworkers for three or four generations. Their guildsmen are a fussy and elitist bunch, much preoccupied with family trees and certificates of mastery, and deeply disdainful of interlopers and outsiders. It is their workshops which produce the heavy, ornate, slightly oppressive-looking clockwork machinery for which the Wicked City is famous the world over: it is their sons and daughters who maintain the gyrocopters of the Air Corps, and serve as mechanics in the King's Own Armoured Brigade. Their business practises are slow and obfuscatory, and the Ministry of Technology would like to dispense with them entirely; but no matter how much the minister might dream of uniformity and standardisation, clockworking remains iredeemably artisanal in nature. It is precise, fiddly, and technically demanding work, of a kind that favours obsessives and virtuosos: every workshop has its own house style, and every master teaches their own distinctive tricks and methods to their apprentices. Attempts by the Ministry to train whole regiments of slave-mechanics to a uniform standard have met with very limited success.

In most parts of the world, the expensive tools, materials, and training required to create clockwork automata ensures the craft is practised only by licensed masters and their apprentices: but modern clockworking has been practised in the Wicked City for over a century, now, on a scale which has made the maintenance of true monopolies impossible. Tools get stolen. Supposedly 'secret' methods get taught to curious friends or lovers. Mistreated apprentices run away and take their knowledge with them. Knowledge-hungry slum-kids catch stray clockwork songbirds in nets, and spend endless hours painstakingly taking them apart to see what makes them tick. As a result, alongside its official clockworking schools, the Wicked City has become home to a vigorous 'street clockwork' tradition characterised by ingenious use of improvised materials. For every 'legitimate' clockworker family operating out of a licensed workshop, there is at least one unlicensed scrap mechanic working in a hidden basement, cobbling together devices out of whatever salvaged fragments come to hand: and the asymmetrical kitbashed products of their labours can be often be glimpsed scurrying over the rooftops of the Wicked City, catching the evening sunlight with a dull glint of tarnished brass.

I found this on: I've become a fan of steampunk that I actually know what it is :)

The unofficial symbol of the scrap mechanics is the cogworm. Little more than an adjustable tube of gears with a crank at each end, the cogworm allows power to be leeched from one machine to another: the user simply attaches the worm to moving machinery in such a way that the machinery turn the crank at one end of the tube, and then attaches the crank at the other end to the machine which requires winding, thus turning its key and winding its mainspring. Most scrap mechanics have, by dint of long practise, become extraordinarily dexterous in the use of cogworms: leave them alone with a large automaton for even a couple of minutes and it will end up with cogworms dangling off every part of it, like a horse that's just emerged from a leech-infested bog, each of them feeding power to some whirring contraption hanging from the other end. Many street automata actually incorporate cogworms into their bodies, which emerge like lashing metal tentacles to opportunistically siphon energy from any exposed machinery that may happen to be nearby. When draining power from other people's machines isn't an option, the scrap mechanics use homemade windmills or waterwheels, instead. Actually paying for coal is a last resort.

The scrap mechanics have found all kinds of niches for themselves within the city's grey economy, cobbling together everything from primitive washing machines for laundresses to clockwork messenger birds for gangsters. They employ gangs of street kids to gather scrap metal for them from the city's dumps, and make occasional excursions out into the countryside to loot rusted machinery from the city's old pumping stations - a practise which often brings them into conflict with the pig-men who now infest the abandoned irrigation tunnels. They are fiercely proud of their inventiveness and originality, and delight in competition, constantly facing off against one another in various contests of clockworking skill - everything from simple races in which the fastest automaton wins, to tournaments between chess-playing clockwork robots, to grand events in which whole teams of clockworkers will labour for months to assemble clockwork war machines which are then pitted against one another in battle. The city's gangsters often come to bet on these events, and the drink and drugs flow freely - a quality which has given them a near-legendary reputation among the apprentices of the legitimate clockworkers, many of whom secretly dream of sneaking away from their masters and becoming champion scrap mechanics in the slums, instead. In most cases these dreams lead them no further than occasionally creeping out to spend a night illicitly watching a clockwork street race, but every veteran guildsman can tell stories of promising but unruly apprentices who sneaked out one night and simply never returned, choosing lives of precarious outlaw glamour over the security of wealth and status that might otherwise have been theirs.

I see my mind as a well oiled machine made up of gears and cogs moving in perfect sync. Every once and a while one or two of the gears slip out of place and i do something stupid or make a bad judgment. But God is my tinker he puts it back where it was and oils it up good as new. Not to say Im a psycho lol

To find out what the local clockworker's guild is up to, roll 1d10:
  1. Working on a big order of clockwork machinery for the mines or irrigation works.
  2. Working on a big order of clockwork wargear for the military.
  3. Working on a big order of yagas for one of the merchant houses.
  4. Working on a small but highly-demanding order of clockwork toys and animals for one of the Cobweb families.
  5. Manufacturing clockwork luxuries (pocket watches, wind-up songbirds, etc) for export by the merchant houses. 
  6. Manufacturing a unit of clockwork soldiers for export to some far-off warzone.
  7. Carrying out arcane debates about their guild's rules, degrees, traditions, and regulations.
  8. Brainstorming how to best edit their family trees to make their collective pedigree look more impressive without the forgery being spotted by their rivals.
  9. Moaning about how no-one has any respect for real tradition and craftsmanship any more, and how apprentices these days would all rather sneak off to watch pit fights between robot gladiators than put in a good, honest day's labour polishing their master's brasswork.
  10. Planning elaborate security measures to prevent power from being siphoned from their machines by the cogworms of those damn scrap mechanics.
Image result for mechanical turk

To find out what the local scrap mechanics are up to, roll 1d10:
  1. Carrying out small-scale clockworking jobs for local businesses and residents, using scavenged tools and materials. 
  2. Carrying out a large-scale clockworking job for a merchant house that's too cheap (or in too much of a hurry) to get one of the legitimate clockworker's guilds to do it instead.
  3. Building clockwork traps, alarm systems, and kitbashed guardian automata to sell to local businesses. (50% chance these have built-in flaws that the scrap mechanics will subsequently sell to a local gang.)
  4. Building clockwork traps for a local gang, to help them fortify a section of the streets to which they have laid claim.
  5. Planning an expedition out into the farmlands to loot an abandoned pumping station for parts. Everyone is discussing what kind of clockwork devices they should bring with them to deal with the pig-men they are likely to find there, and how best to avoid the Man With Stones For Eyes on their way out of the city.
  6. Discussing the pros and cons of throwing in their lot with the Steel Aspirants, and whether or not the unquestionable coolness of having guns for arms is really worth having to take orders from a disembodied brain inside a battle tank.
  7. Building automata for an upcoming street race. (Roll 1d4 to determine type: 1 = automata with feet, 2 = automata with wheels, 3 = automata with wings, 4 = automata with human drivers.) All the competitors are hidden away in their respective workshops, tinkering away on their latest secret projects, each convinced that this time they've got a great idea which is certain to win the race. Bets are being taken, and the local gangsters will pay for inside information about who's building what.
  8. Practising for a nocturnal wingride (an aerial race in which all competitors use clockwork wings). Most competitors build their own wings, less because it's an actual rule than because otherwise pilot and mechanic just blame each other every time anything goes wrong. The tendency of the Wicked City's streets to rearrange themselves by night makes the sport a dangerous one, and the most successful wingriders are fearless daredevils adored by the children of the streets.  
  9. Working on clockwork brains for their chess-automata, in preparation for an upcoming tournament. Advice from human chessmasters is suddenly in high demand. The automata themselves can look like anything provided they wear a metal fez, and fanciful designs abound: chess-playing dragons, insects, cats, etc. Absolutely no hidden dwarves permitted. 
  10. Gathered in teams, building freakish robot gladiators for an upcoming arena fight. There are only a few of these events each year, and they are widely attended by locals, gangsters, and even members of the Cobweb Families. As the event approaches, excitement reaches fever pitch, and rival teams becoming increasingly willing to pay over the odds for that one weapon or component which might allow them to secure a surprise victory...
Image result for master trinketeer

(EDIT: The Scrap Mechanics and the Clockworker Guilds have now been added to my post on liberating the Wicked City.)

Tuesday, 10 April 2018

The value of raggedness

Despite the tribalism of their respective fans, OSR games and modern storygames have a lot in common. They both arose as responses to the same problem: the bloated, railroaded, rules-heavy, metaplot-infested RPGs of the later 1990s and early 2000s, which promised such vistas of wonder through their rules and settings, but delivered such disappointing experiences in actual play. As a result, they share an emphasis on clawing back genuine agency for their players, and on ensuring that 'story' is something that gets generated live at the table, instead of being written down in advance by some frustrated novelist turned GM. But they approach this objective in different ways: and while most storygames aim to simulate fictional genres, OSR games aim to simulate fictional worlds.

For as long as D&D has existed, there have always been players who have pushed back against its world-simulating tendencies. 'A game of D&D is supposed to be like a fantasy epic, right?', they say. 'So how come my heroic paladin can get killed by a stray arrow fired by some random goblin? Isn't it awfully anti-climactic to get all the way down to the big boss and then lose because of some bad dice rolls? And why do the rules punish me for fighting fair and charging bravely into battle, even though that's exactly the kind of thing that epic fantasy heroes do all the time?' In the early days, such players either played D&D with lots of house rules and fudged dice rolls, or else wrote their own fantasy heartbreakers which did a better job of reflecting how they felt the game 'should' work. These days, many have gravitated instead to games which are built from the ground up on the premise of emulating genres rather than settings: games in which the fact that heroic protagonists will never be killed by nameless henchmen, and that epic confrontations will always ultimately save the day (although often not without cost), are actually written into the rules.

There's a lot of clever design floating around in contemporary storygames. The crude ones simply mandate that this is the way things will work; the more subtle ones provide notional freedom, but weight their rules in such a way that, over time, genre-appropriate outcomes become increasingly unavoidable. If you want a game in which a heist is more-or-less guaranteed to play out like an actual heist movie, or one in which a magical quest is almost certain to play out like a fantasy epic, or whatever, then they're great. Even the later editions of D&D work towards this to some extent by giving PCs 'death saves', 'healing surges', and so on, thus reducing the likelihood of 'undramatic' events such as major characters dying at the hands of random minions. Fans of such games sometimes express confusion as to why anyone would prefer to use systems, such as B/X D&D, which do so little to guarantee genre-appropriate story outcomes. Why not use a game which ensures that every campaign will actually resemble the kind of fantasy narratives on which D&D is notionally based?

Now, there are a bunch of potential answers to this question. The three most common ones are probably a preference for games which test the skill of the players rather than those of the characters, an interest in exploring settings as if they were just as real as the PCs rather than mere backdrops for their adventures, and a commitment to truly open and emergent play within which any attempt to determine the direction of a story in advance would be viewed as tantamount to cheating. I have a lot of sympathy for all three, but recently I've been wondering whether the 'raggedness' of OSR play - by which I mean the way that it often maps very imperfectly onto the conventions of the genres it supposedly models - might also be potentially valuable in and of itself.

A genre is, by necessity, a system of simplifications. There's only so many pages in a book, only so many minutes in a movie, so foregrounding one kind of material inevitably means leaving out others: and one of the key reasons for using the trappings of genre is to advertise to potential audiences which kinds of content are likely to get foregrounded, and which ones are likely to get left out. But the constraints of RPGs are very different: an RPG campaign can easily run for dozens or hundreds of hours, and while films and genre novels usually have to hold themselves to a very tight narrative schedule, RPGs can (and often have to) incorporate substantial ebbs and flows as people arrive, leave, get tired, get inspired, get bored of things, have new ideas, and so on. If you view the objective of RPGs as genre emulation, then you probably view all that as a problem to be managed, in the name of keeping the game on-track and in-genre: this is one reason why storygames often lend themselves to very short campaigns. But if you see the objective as world-emulation, then you can embrace them. You can take advantage of the fact that RPGs make it not just possible but easy to tell the kind of weird, rich, ragged, unconventional stories that are normally found only in the realms of self-consciously experimental fiction.

An OSR D&D game will sometimes be one in which brave heroes slay wicked monsters in dark places and retrieve fantastical treasures. But it will often also be one in which whole expeditions grind to a halt because no-one remembered to bring enough iron spikes, or where the fighter ends up spending the whole evening gambling with bored watchmen in the local pub because he's a few coins short of being able to afford a new suit of armour, or where the Dark Lord of Disaster can leap out of his tomb, trip over a rope trap left by the party, and promptly fall to his doom down a bottomless pit. I love that. It's real. It's human. It's kind of sad and kind of funny and quite a lot like real life. It's less about 'realism' in the sense of modelling physics or biology, and more about just conveying a sense that the world is strange and complicated and unpredictable and often slightly absurd. I can never really believe in Mighty Heroes Slaying Evil, but I can totally believe in a wicked high priest getting randomly crushed to death after a couple of wily villagers dropped a boat on him.

Now, maybe the limitless complexity of human life is the last thing you want to model when you sit down for an RPG session. Maybe, for you, the whole point is to create a shared fictional universe in which the genre-appropriate thing always happens at the genre-appropriate time, precisely because it almost never happens that way in reality. But what I hope I've articulated here is that it's entirely possible to view the free-flowing randomness of the average RPG session, and the 'raggedness' of the narrative outcomes generated by 'old-school' RPG systems, as a feature rather than as a bug. If I just want to experience a story about epic fantasy heroics, I can watch a film, or read a novel, or play a computer game, or even play one of those D&D board games I wrote about a couple of weeks ago. But stories in which the vivid strangeness of fantasy is used to highlight the oddness and resilience of ordinary life, rather than just to heighten yet another operatic grand narrative, are very much rarer: and for those purposes, for me at least, there's still nothing quite like OSR D&D.