Thursday, 31 May 2018

Poetry and compression

I like poetry. That's probably pretty obvious. I'm going to use this post to write about some of the things that I value about it. There 's some token RPG stuff at the end, but don't hold your breath.

Image result for geoffrey hill poems

The text I'm going to use is the first four lines of Geoffrey Hill's historical sonnet, 'Requiem for the Plantagenet Kings':
For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood.
These lines are dense with meaning. Let's take them one at a time.

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,

'The possessed sea' here must be the English Channel, the sea which the Plantagenet kings laid claim to both sides of. So it's 'possessed' in the sense that it's owned (by them). But 'possessed' can also refer to spirit possession, especially by evil or demonic spirits. This sea does seem to behave like a thing possessed, as we'll see in the next line. But it's not enough to say that there's a double meaning, here: the phrase is not simply a compressed way of saying 'the sea which the kings owned, which also behaved as though it was possessed'. By using a single word here that can be understood in two ways, the line also opens up the possibility that the meanings are inter-related: that it is because the sea is possessed (by the Plantagenet kings) that it behaves as though it is possessed (by demons). As I'll try to demonstrate, this technique of using language to suggest not just two things at once, but two things at once and the relationship between them, is fundamental to this piece of poetry.

Let's move on.

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,

What are these 'ruinous arms'? Weapons, most obviously: it was under the Plantagenets that gunpowder weaponry first came into use in Britain. Such weapons may be 'ruinous' both in the sense that they are capable of causing ruin, and in the sense that they have been ruined themselves. Then again, though, these 'ruinous arms' might also be actual human arms: the kind of body parts you might expect to wash up on beaches after battles in which 'ruinous' weapons have been 'fired'. The same double-meaning of 'ruinous' can apply in either case: these arms could be 'ruinous' in the sense that they've been ruined by injury and mutilation, or 'ruinous' in the sense that they have brought ruin down on others. Or both.

The same ambiguity extends to the word 'fired', which can mean that these weapons have been fired (i.e. used to shoot at people), and/or that the weapons (or the arms) have been 'fired' in the sense that they have themselves been set fire to. Similarly, 'for good' can be read as meaning 'in the service of virtue' and/or 'once and for all', either of which could conceivably apply to any combination of previous readings. So the 'expanded-out' meaning of the line would be something like this:

'On the shores, the sea scattered guns (and perhaps severed limbs) which had been ruined and which had been the cause of ruin, which had been fired and then burned, the use and the destruction of which may have been in the service of virtue, but which was also permanent and conclusive'.

But, again, the double meanings go beyond simple compression. They suggest the way in which these wars have made human bodies and the weapons they wield almost interchangeable, all just so many 'arms' for the creation of ruin. They suggest the way in which the destruction of such 'ruinous' weapons and their wielders is already implicit in their usage - that he who lives by the sword shall perish by the sword - and the way in which the pretense that all this violence has been conducted for a good reason may in fact have simply made it more final and permanent. What the line really communicates, I would suggest, is the way in which, under the Plantagenet kings, all of these meanings have become implicit within each other. 

OK. Line three.

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,

'Sound' here can mean both 'announce with noise' (as in 'sound off!') and 'test the depth of' (as in 'take the soundings'). These 'ruinous' guns have been fired to proclaim 'the constitution of just wars', but their use (and their destruction) have also tested its depths, its limits. 'Constitution' can mean both the law code which supposedly establishes the legal legitimacy of those wars - a law code which those guns and arms are at once being used to test and to declare - and 'constitution' in the sense of 'make-up': it is through the process of being 'sounded' by those guns, that we find out what 'just wars' are really made of. (Mutilated corpses, mostly, as the previous line implied.) And 'just wars' pivots in the same way as 'for good' in the previous line: the Plantagenet kings may insist that they are 'just wars' in the sense that they are morally and legally (constitutionally) validated, but those who suffer in them know that they are 'just wars', just so much violence and terror, blood and gunpowder, fire and death. The line communicates, through a kind of verbal montage, how easily the guns proclaiming the legal constitutions of the Plantagenets give way to the guns destroying the physical constitutions of their victims, demonstrating yet again that 'just wars' have a horrible habit of turning out to be 'just wars' in the end. 

Line four, and the end of the sentence:

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,
Ruinous arms; being fired, and for good,
To sound the constitution of just wars,
Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood. 

This line modifies everything that has come before it. 'Being fired, and for good' now has another possible referent: it could be the men rather than the arms who are 'fired', either in the sense of being physically burned or in the sense of being 'fired up', to 'sound (declare or test) the constitution of just wars'. In this case, the referent of 'understood' might be 'wars', and the meaning would be something like 'being fired up to do good, men understood (in their eloquent fashion) the just wars whose constitution they sounded', which sounds like the way in which the Plantagenet kings would probably like to describe themselves. (Indeed, in this reading, 'eloquent fashion' could refer to the symbolic eloquence of their court dress.) But if the 'men' are 'fired' in the sense of being burned, then their 'eloquent fashion' is probably the screaming of men being burned alive, and what they 'understood' about 'the constitution of just wars' would be something very different. And if it's still the 'arms' doing the sounding, as the first three lines implied, then the referent of 'understood' must be 'for whom': what these 'men' really understand, in their eloquent fashion, is for whom the 'possessed sea' has littered its 'shores' with weapons and corpses. And for whom did it do these things? Most obviously for the Plantagenet kings, its supposed owners: but perhaps also for God, casting up upon its beaches this mute evidence of violence, refusing to let it lie hidden. (This is a theme the rest of the poem takes up, but I'll spare you the last ten lines.)

What these lines do, brilliantly and insistently, is to simultaneously show us the royalist propaganda and the horrible realities underneath it. According to the party line, the sea belongs to the Plantagenets, and serves them: their wars are just, the weapons fired in them only inflict ruin in the service of virtue, and men, being fired up for goodness, eloquently understand the justice of the constitution which enables them. But at the same time, and in the same words, we can hear a very different story: the sea is demon-driven, the wars are just meaningless bloodshed which permanently ruin the people who fight in them, and men understand that the Plantagenets are to blame. In prose you could present those points in series, but you'd struggle to present them in parallel: to show the ruin already built into the artifices of state propaganda, demonstrating how the gun fired to announce a war-enabling constitution already implies the sad, mangled bodies washing up on the shores, or allowing us to hear, in the same words, the eloquence of court sycophants and the screams of burning men.

Yet even here we haven't finished, because poetry is an art of sound, and half the meaning here isn't really being carried by words at all. Look at the long vowel sounds in the first line:

For whom the possessed sea littered, on both shores,

Long, open vowels in a line about the sea are always going to evoke the sound of water: here, I think, the ebb and flow of the tides, with the stacatto rattle of 'littered' marking the clatter of objects deposited on the beach at the point when the tide ceases to come in ('foooor', 'whoooom', 'seeeea') and starts to flow out ('ooon', 'booooth', 'shoooores'). Those long vowels continue into the second line ('aaarms', 'fiiired', 'gooood') as the arms continue to drift on the sea, only to shift quite quickly after 'sooound' - which here is probably the mournful boom of a far-off gun 'sounding off' - into the very different sound-patterns of the last two lines. 'The constitution of just wars, / Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood' asks to be read much more quickly: the oceanic drift of the sea has given way to a human voice speaking rapid legalese, the point of the poem being to make us understand how these two things connect. Or look at the work being done by the rhymes, which cut across the flow of the text to link together first 'shores' and 'wars' (as the Plantagenet kings do), then 'good' and 'understood' (because the question of what is understood to be good, and by whom, is at the heart of the whole poem). Or look at the way in which the pentameter rhythm, which in line one is all but inaudible, drowned in all those sea-sounds, gradually gathers itself into an unmistakable drumbeat by line four, as human eloquence asserts its ability to understand the sad, mute wreckage of the opening lines. Or...

...I mean, my point is, there is a lot going on in these four lines. 

As I've tried to emphasise, I feel strongly that the point of writing like this is not just to show off how clever you are, but to enable qualitatively different forms of communication than would otherwise be possible. Enormous amounts of work have been devoted, here, to allowing a handful of words to say lots of things at once: not just in the interests of concision, but in order to articulate the otherwise-inexpressible interconnectedness of things. It's a way of pushing back against the relentless linearity of text, its insistence on progressing only in one direction, as though a world of holistic experience could possibly be described adequately by addressing one object at a time. The prose commentary I've given here may express the same ideas as the four lines of verse it describes, but the actual lived experience of reading the two is completely different. Hill's verses linger in the ear, and the mind, and the heart in a way that my prose commentary cannot possibly emulate. 

This isn't the only way to write poetry, of course. Not all of it is quite this complicated. But all poetry has, at minimum, two interconnected levels of simultaneous communication going on, via form and content. The best poetry sometimes achieves the near-magical feat of apparently using words to push beyond language, creating effects which seem to defy the very possibility of paraphrase or explanation.

OK. Onto the token RPG bit.

The relationship between form and content in poetry is, I would suggest, analogous to the relationship between system and fiction in RPGs. In the same way that the most exquisite lines of poetry can sound utterly banal when reduced to their 'meaning', so many fantastic RPG sessions would sound boring and stupid if reduced to their 'story'. 'We went into a cave, and we killed some goblins, and then we killed some hobgoblins, and then we ran away from a troll, except for the wizard who fell down a pit' is hardly the stuff of epic drama, but could be wildly exciting and scary and tense and funny if played out at the table. What is missing in both cases is a sense of how form allows that content to be communicated in a qualitatively different fashion to the way it would be transmitted via ordinary prose narration. When your beloved PC has one hit point left, and your GM describes how the orc in front of you raises his axe to strike, you are going to feel the dread and anticipation as they pick up the d20 for an attack roll, in a way that would be difficult if not impossible to emulate precisely through the use of words alone. Stripping out those interactions, and pushing RPGs back towards straightforward collaborative storytelling, means losing those unique resources for generating meaning and emotional response. You might still be able to generate those things in other ways, but it will never be quite the same.

I also think that RPGs are, in their own odd way, very good at compressed transmission of meaning. Standard RPG concepts like 'the elf' and 'the orc' and 'the dungeon' persist precisely because they can mean lots of different things at once: so the dungeon, for example, is simultaneously a physical descent into the earth and a journey over the Frontier into a kind of mythic wilderness and a journey back into deep time and a symbolic descent into the subconscious and a spiritual journey into an Otherworld / Underworld realm, all communicated and understood so intuitively that encounters with wild tribes and walking corpses and dinosaurs and primordial slime-monsters all make equal amounts of intuitive sense once you've crossed its threshold. But whereas Hill had to work very very hard to make each of his lines transmit so many different meanings simultaneously, in RPGs the structure of the game does most of the work for you. You read a good entry in a monster manual and you think: I could use it like this. Or like this. Or like this. Or like this. I could construct a setting in which these creatures played this symbolic role. Or this one. Or this one. All those multiple meanings are already simultaneously present, in potentia, waiting for the process of actual play to call them into being.

A lot of clumsy RPG commentary attempts to assign single, fixed meanings to game elements, asserting that orcs mean this and dungeons mean that and if you think they mean something else then you are wrong. But it seems to me that it is precisely because of the ease with which they can pivot between multiple meanings, especially with the formal assistance provided by the interactions between system and fiction, that people keep coming back to them.

An elf, a dwarf, and a wizard walk into a dungeon.

Men, in their eloquent fashion, understood. 

Friday, 25 May 2018

Clockwork mecha revisited

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One of my original inspirations for ATWC, especially the Plains of Rust, was Dragonmech: a nearly-forgotten setting published by Goodman Games back in 2004, before the company refocussed its efforts on its much more successful Dungeon Crawl Classics adventure series. Dragonmech was set in a world called Highpoint, which used to be a generic D&D setting... until its moon's orbit started to decay. As the moon came closer and closer, enormous lumps of moon-rock started to get ripped off it by the planet's gravity, pummelling the surface of Highpoint with an endless 'lunar rain' of meteorites which darkened the sky, wrecked the ecosystem, flattened the forests, and basically destroyed all above-ground civilisation. To make matters worse, it turned out that the moon was inhabited by evil, intelligent blob-monsters, who were perfectly capable of surviving a meteorite ride down onto the planet's surface. By the time the moon got close enough for the monstrous Lunar Dragons to start flying down onto Highpoint, the setting was pretty much fucked.

So the dwarves invented steam-powered mecha to fight back. Like you do. And a hundred years later, when the game itself was set, everyone who was anyone was living in giant city-mechs and fighting each other using giant robots with steam cannons on their heads.

I liked a lot of things about Dragonmech - though the D&D 3.5 system was pretty much the worst imaginable fit for it - but I just couldn't get past the inherent implausibility of its setting elements. City-mechs are a nice idea - but if you were going to build an enormous mobile fortress, large enough to be inhabited by thousands of people for years at a time, why would you build it in the shape of a human? (Wouldn't it sink into the earth every time it put its foot down?) In a setting where cannon technology is readily available, why would anyone build a 90' war robot whose main armaments were a giant sword and shield, let alone a 50' mech whose primary attack method was running up to people and biting them? I get the thematic appeal of having orcs build mecha powered by slave labour rather than steam engines, but the idea of a bunch of slaves being able to generate enough muscle-power to move not just themselves and the giant metal box they're all sitting in, but also the arms and legs and head and weapons attached to it - and move it not just briefly, but for hours at a time - is ludicrous. And where were the inhabitants of this blasted, post-apocalyptic world getting the iron and coal and water they needed to build and power all these thousand-ton war machines in the first place?

You can get away with this kind of thing in fiction, but not in RPGs. Player characters are devious little beasts: they'll spot the massive impracticality of steam-powered mecha in no time, wrecking the plausibility of the setting in the process. ('Are we really the first people to just build tanks instead?') As a result, when I sketched out the steam-and-clockwork mecha for ATWC, I took a much more conservative approach, keeping them in the 10' to 20' range where they might semi-plausibly occupy a kind of 'super-heavy infantry' battlefield role. After picking up some Dragonmech pdfs in the recent Goodman Games online sale, however, I've been wondering if I may have been a bit too conservative. Maybe clockpunk mecha could have roles other than 'big stompy robot' after all...

So here's a few more, most of which blur the boundaries between mecha, tanks, and yagas. The numbers refer to the technology rules, which can be found here.

Operate (O)
Maintain (M)
Repair (R)
Construct (C)

Runner mech (2-man)
Walking cannon (3-man)
Troop Carrier
Mech-killer (1-man)
Anti-personnel mech (1-man)
Huge mech (8-man)
Iron Crab

Runner Mech (2-man): Whereas most mecha are built for durability, runners are built for speed. They consist of a pair of birdlike metal legs, 10' in height, surmounted by a metal box containing an engine, from which an exhaust pipe emerges like a tail. On top of the engine is a cockpit set with viewing windows, within which the pilot sits, controlling the legs with a pair of levers. (Basically, imagine a more graceful-looking AT-ST walker.) A swivel gun is usually attached to the roof on a turntable, along with a second crewman who acts as a spotter and gunner, and who must be strapped in place to avoid falling off when the mech starts running. Access to the cockpit is via a ropeladder dropped down from above.

Runner mechs are much faster than other mecha, and are the only vehicles of their kind able to keep up with horses - although they have to stop regularly to refuel, as carrying large quantities of heavy coal around would defeat the purpose of their lightweight design. They are the only kind of mech likely to be useful during cavalry engagements, and can also be used as secure, high-speed messengers. They have AC 18 and 25 HP, and are impervious to arrow- and musket-fire, though the roof gunner has no protection except speed and range.

Walking Cannon (3-man): Pretty much what it sounds like: a metal box on six crab-like legs, with a chimney on top and a cannon sticking out of one end. Inside sit three crew, in cramped and hellish conditions: one to feed the furnace, one to control the legs, and one to load, aim, and fire the cannon. Accuracy and rate of fire are very poor, especially when the walking cannon is in motion, and the only reason to use one instead of a tank is if you need to move your guns across uneven terrain. Proof against ranged weapons smaller than cannons, though if it gets swarmed by infantry then the crew will all get killed by people shooting pistols and stabbing spears in through the viewing slits. 

Troop Carrier: Essentially a militarised yaga: a big, oblong metal box, walking along on four stompy legs, one on each corner. Swivel guns are mounted on each side. Has a crew of six - one fireman, one pilot, and four gunners - and can carry an additional six people inside, who can deploy via hatches on its underside, making it a useful way of safely carrying squads of specialists such as sappers across a battlefield. Using legs instead of treads means it has to be less heavily armoured than a large tank would be, and the legs are an obvious weak point, with AC 18 and 20 HP each. Immune to missile weapons smaller than swivel guns.

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Image by Jeff Carlisle.

Mech-Killer (1-man): A specialised mech meant for battling other mecha. Like a regular small mech, this is a 10' walker operated by a single pilot, who controls its arms and legs with their own: but instead of a normal weapon, its right forearm contains a pneumatic spike powered by pressurised steam, while its left contains a mass of thick chains ending in heavy hooks. In battle the chains pour out through its left palm, and are used for entangling the arms and legs of enemy mecha, allowing the right hand to get within grabbing range: then, once the right palm is pressed against the body of the enemy mech, the pneumatic spike is triggered, hopefully punching through its armour and impaling something important like the engine or the pilot. (The spike is a bit of a one-shot weapon, though: once it's fired, it'll take ten rounds for it to build up enough steam for another shot.) Against non-armoured targets, they can just be used as a giant flail and spear, respectively.

The mech-killer has AC 20 and 40 HP: its chains inflict 1d10+6 damage if used against living targets, or entanglement if used against small- or medium-sized mecha, while its pneumatic spike inflicts 2d8+6 damage and ignores 6 points of armour. (If it's just being used as a regular spike, without the pressurised steam, it just inflicts 1d8+6 and has no special armour-penetration abilities.) If the pneumatic spike scores a hit on a small or medium mech, there is a 50% chance that it deals damage to one of the crew inside, as well.

Anti-Personnel Mech (1-man): Mecha exist, and chatterswords exist, so it was only a matter of time before someone put them together. This is your classic 'ten-foot robot with giant chainsaws for hands', with the chatterswords drawing power from the mech's mainspring and thus not requiring the regular rewindings needed by hand-held versions. Having chainsaws for hands means that it can't actually interact with the world except by chainsawing holes in it. Have fun with that.

Anti-personnel mecha have AC 20 and 40 HP. Their giant chainsaw hands inflict 3d6+6 damage on targets made of soft, squishy flesh. Any attack roll of 1 means that the teeth have snapped off, and the hand is now just a big club (1d8+6 damage) until it is repaired. Using them on heavily armoured targets (e.g. tanks, other mecha) caused their teeth to snap automatically.

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Image by Jakub Rozalski.
Huge Mech (8-man): A boxy metal robot about 25' tall and weighing a couple of hundred tons, supported by huge legs that terminate in the massive splayed-out feet needed to support its enormous weight. A row of three cannons are mounted across its wide metal shoulders. The arms are mostly just there for show, but can be used to knock aside obstacles or punch giant monsters in the face when necessary. Has a crew of eight: three gunners to operate the cannons, one to control each arm, one to control the legs, one to operate the engines, and one to feed the furnace. Very slow, very ponderous, and almost indestructible. Just run away until it runs out of coal. It will run out of coal.

Iron Crab: Yagas larger than the 15' cube size are impractical, given their tendency to sink into the ground with each step. This is an attempted solution: an armoured metal dome, 20' high and 30' across, bristling with swivel guns and supported on six articulated metal crab-legs that raise it 8' off the ground. Internally, the crab is subdivided into twelve small rooms which may be outfitted as the owner desires, allowing it to be used as a secure mobile base of operations by as many as eighteen people - or more, if some of them don't mind riding on the shell. Very few of these exist, mostly as roving temple-forts for the Steel Aspirants, and they are not really intended for battlefield use.

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Thursday, 17 May 2018

B/X class: the Rake

Not the one from Creepypasta. That would make for an extremely odd D&D game. ('Leave the ogre to me, guys! I'll sneak into his house and spend three months whispering subliminal messages to him in his sleep!')

I've always thought it was a pity that D&D lacked a proper 'socialite' class. (Bards don't count. Everyone hates bards. Even you.) Having spent the last week marking essays on Restoration-era literature, it occurred to me that the classic 'stage rake' of the period might actually be a pretty good fit: after all, these are people with no meaningful attachments who go wandering around the world, getting into stupid adventures, and then talking (and, if necessary, fighting) their way out of them. They imply a seventeeth- or eighteenth-century-style setting rather than a strictly medieval one, but it's not as though D&D isn't super-anachronistic already.

The trick of modelling all this is to find a way of doing it that doesn't involve any kind of social skill system or 'social combat', as either of those would be powerfully antithetical to the OSR principle of primarily representing talking to people by talking to people rather than rolling dice. So here's my attempt, which is built on the assumption that what makes a good social specialist isn't bonuses to numbers, but talents that let you get into situations where you can use those social solutions in the first place...

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From the inimitable Kate Beaton.

The Rake

To-Hit, Hit Dice, Saves, Experience Per Level, Weapons and Armour: All as per Thief.

Silver Tongue: You get +1 to reaction rolls from anyone who you can talk to in a language that they can understand. 

Ways of the World: Starting at level 1, pick one talent from the following list. Pick an additional talent each time you advance a level. The talents you can choose from are as follows:

Actor: You have a talent for performance and impersonation. If you can present yourself in some kind of plausible disguise within a situation where it makes sense - dressed as a priest within a temple, dressed as a servant in a large house, etc - then people will always assume that you are who you appear to be unless and until you give them a strong reason not to. If you take an injury which reduces you to less than half your maximum hit points, you can attempt to 'play dead' by rolling 1d20: if the result is equal to or less than your Charisma + your level, then you will appear to be dead until you move or are closely inspected, which can be handy for setting up getaways or sneak attacks.

Connected: You know a guy who knows a guy. If you want something (items, information, invites to parties, etc) which could possibly be obtained in your location for the right price, then you know someone who can obtain it for you. (Of course, there's no guarantee that you'll be able to afford it!) Even if you find yourself in a completely alien environment, you will somehow manage to establish a network of guys who know other guys within 1d6 days of your arrival.

Disguise Artist: With the aid of a box of makeup and a bag of props, you can quickly and effectively disguise yourself as belonging to a gender, ethnicity, or medium-sized humanoid species other than your own. Your disguise won't pass close inspection, but it will pass muster in any casual encounter unless the people you meet already have reason to be very suspicious of you. Can be used in conjuction with 'Actor' to get into places you really shouldn't be.

Drunkard: You have a phenomenal ability to consume alcohol, and do so constantly. You suffer no ill-effects for being drunk, and once per day you can heal yourself (1d6+1/level) HP by taking a drink 'for medicinal purposes'. You are also a wonderful drinking companion, and anyone who you spend a few hours drinking with will regard you as a friend unless and until you give them a strong reason not to.

Duellist: All those fencing lessons paid off after all! Whenever you're in a one-on-one battle with a single opponent, you get +1 to hit and damage: this bonus ends as soon as either of you attacks or is attacked by anyone else. Anyone who sees you fight a formal duel (whether to first blood or to the death) will regard you as a person of courage and honour unless and until you give them a strong reason not to.

Expensive Education: You know one first-level magic-user spell, which you can cast once per day. You also have a head full of famous quotations and random bits of vocabulary in old languages. By dropping a few learned remarks, you can give the impression of being an expert on any given subject, which will last until you do something to make it obvious that you are not. (A real expert, however, will see through your charade as soon as they put it to the test.)

Fast Talk: Through dazzling use of wit and word-play, you can persuade people of all kinds of crazy shit... briefly. Listeners get a saving throw: if they fail, they will believe your lies and excuses unless it is obviously impossible for them to be true. 1d6 minutes later they will realise that it's all nonsense, at which point they'll be very angry with you, and will be immune to subsequent uses of your fast-talk ability. Make every second count!

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Fop: You have such beautiful clothes... and you wear them so very, very well. If you are wearing something awe-inspiringly fashionable and impractical (which precludes the wearing of armour), you will always automatically be the centre of attention wherever you go, and cannot be upstaged by anything short of actual disaster or attack. 

Hauteur: You behave with such natural authority that everyone will always assume you're in charge unless it's really obvious that you're not. In any kind of emergency situation, people will naturally look to you to tell them what to do, and will usually go along with your plans unless they're obviously terrible. Your hirelings and followers gain +1 morale.

Libertine: You pride yourself on your mastery of sex and seduction. If an NPC might plausibly be interested in a casual sexual encounter with someone like you, then you can seduce them in 1d6 hours. (They get a saving throw if they want to but know they really shouldn't.) If you then spend another 1d6 hours showing them a good time, they will be very positively disposed towards you for as long as you continue to shower them with attention, affection, and sex, and will grant any reasonable requests or favours you might ask of them. Their attitude towards you will reverse as soon as they become aware that you have taken another lover (unless they're into that sort of thing, of course), or as soon as you begin to neglect them. 

Mohock: Your misspent youth was spent as an aristocratic street thug and hellraiser, terrorising the city streets by night. You gain +1 to-hit and damage with clubs and knives, and take no penalties for fighting in poor light, although full darkness blinds you just like anyone else. Once in your life you may call in a single favour from the Emperor of the Mohocks, a shadowy and near-mythical figure who is said to wield great influence in aristocratic and criminal circles. 

Raconteur: You are a master story-teller, capable of holding an audience spellbound (and thus distracted) for up to 1d6 hours. Any vaguely plausible stories you tell about your own exploits will always be believed unless and until evidence is presented to the contrary. 

Rover: You've been everywhere, and you are very, very good at fitting in. Even if you have no language in common, you can always establish basic communication with any intelligent creatures through a combination of gesture and pidgin speech. If a group or a population is negatively disposed towards you because of your ethnicity, religion, species, etc, then after 1d6 hours of non-violent interaction with them you'll have picked up so many of their mannerisms that they'll regard you like one of their own. (They still might not like you, of course, but it'll be because of what you've done rather than because of who you are!) 

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Wednesday, 9 May 2018

Monsters from Central Asian Mythology 14: Divs of the Desert

In Zoroastrian tradition, Divs are spirits of evil, the children of the Druj, or cosmic lie. In Persian folk-tales, they often lurk around in wild and dangerous regions, looking for victims to deceive and devour - and, as a result, they're just the kind of creatures you might run into if you leave the relative safety of the Iranian plateau for the deserts of Central Asia. My take on them here is heavily informed by their appearance in the twelfth century Persian poem Haft Peykar, where - in C.E. Wilson's 1924 translation - they are described as follows:
Innumerable demons seated there, exchanging shouts through valley and through plain.
All of them, like the wind, were scattering dust; rather, they were like leeches black and long.
Till it got so, that from the left and right the mirthful clamour rose up to the sky.
A tumult rose from clapping and the dance; it made the brain ferment in (every) head.
At every instant did the noise increase, moment by moment greater it became.
When a short time had gone by, from afar a thousand torches (all) aflame appeared;
(And) suddenly some persons came to view, forms cast in tall and formidable mould.
All of them “ghūls” like blackest Ethiops; pitchlike the dress of all, like tar their caps.
All with the trunks of elephants and horned, combining ox and elephant in one.
Each of them bearing fire upon his hand, (each) ugly, evil one like drunken fiend.
Fire (also) from their throats was casting flames; reciting verse, they clashed the horn and blade.

So: tall, black, fire-breathing, desert-dwelling monsters, with trunks like elephants, horns like oxen, and fires and blades in their hands, who go around laughing, and clapping, and dancing, and reciting poetry. Like you do.

Here's a fifteenth-century illustration of the scene.
My suspicion is that these particular divs are basically anthropomorphic representations of the perils of the desert. They're associated with heat: thus the fires that they carry in their hands and breathe forth from their mouths. They create sandstorms; indeed, in some sense, they may actually be sandstorms, which would explain why they dance around in circles filling the landscape with clouds of dust. They create mirages - thus the recoil of the guy in the picture as his horse suddenly turns into a seven-headed dragon beneath him - and they themselves, with their monstrous beast-faces, resemble the kind of hallucinations someone might experience while stumbling around a desert half-dead of sunstroke and dehydration. But at the same time, they seem to possess art, language, even culture. They aren't just whooping and gibbering: they're reciting verse. It's that combination of primal destructiveness with apparent knowledge and intelligence that interests me.

So - if you go too deep into the desert, if you are lost and dying and desperate, then you may meet the divs. The base daily chance of a group encountering them is 0%, modified as follows:

  • Group has only the vaguest idea where they are: +10%
  • Group is completely lost: +20%
  • Group has no food: +10%
  • Group has no water: +20%
  • Many people in the group are sick: +10%
  • Many people in the group are wounded: +10%
  • Many people in the group are suffering from sunstroke: +10%

When encountered, they come whirling over the horizon, leaping and dancing and singing, clashing cymbals and horns and blades. They breathe out gouts of fire. They kick up great clouds of dust. They conjure up frightful illusions of people and animals turning into monsters. What they're looking for is a terror reaction: they want to see people flee in panic, abandoning the supplies and the pack animals that they need to survive in the desert in their desperate scramble for safety. The divs think that kind of thing is hilarious. They'll be laughing about it for weeks.

If you hold your ground, then they'll come stalking up to you, waving swords and snorting flame. They'll try to intimidate you, uttering blood-curdling threats, and demanding all the food and goods and water you have in exchange for letting you live. They don't need those things: they just think it's funny to send people staggering away to die of thirst and starvation. They'll probably burn it all as soon as you're out of sight.

Faced with sturdy opposition, however, the divs will waver. They admire bravery, and for all their threats and bravado they will be reluctant to strike the first blows, although they will fight back fiercely if attacked. They hate showing weakness, and will curse and bluster to the very end, but travellers who demonstrate both courage and respect may be allowed to pass in exchange for a mere token payment of tribute. (The divs are incapable of telling direct truths, though, and will come up with all sorts of absurd lies about why they are letting you live.) If they are particularly impressed with you they might even drop some broad hints about the way to the next oasis, although if questioned about it they will of course deny doing anything of the sort. 

Despite their ruffianly ways, the divs are great lovers of music and poetry. They will immediately warm to anyone who can answer them quotation for quotation, and prefer gifts of song and verse above all others. They know many old secrets, and the locations of all kinds of ancient ruins, and sorcerers and scholars sometimes deliberately seek them out with the hope of bargaining with them - although this usually involves deliberately getting lost in the desert first. They also have considerable respect for Dahākans, who they regard almost as their kinsmen. They view the Cruel Ones with utter contempt.

  • Div: AC 15 (super-tough skin), 4 HD, AB +5, two attacks, damage blade (1d8+1) and flame (1d6), FORT 10, REF 12, WILL 12, morale 9. 
Divs resemble large, brutish humanoids with elephant faces and the horns of oxen. They carry swords and flames, which they can call forth from their hands at will, and wield like lashes: they can also breathe forth gouts of fire once per round, causing 1d6 points of fire damage per round to one target within melee range unless they pass a REF save. While leaping and dancing around the desert, the dust clouds they kick up are so thick that all ranged attacks against them are at -2 to hit. They can conjure threatening illusions, which last for as long as the div creating them maintains concentration. These illusions are visual-only, and can only take the form of monsters, distortions, fires, sandstorms, and other intimidating sights. 

Wednesday, 2 May 2018

Gaming with toddlers: the sixfold snare

My son turned four recently, so I guess he's not really a toddler anymore. Anyway, the other day I took him to a swimming pool, and he was playing around in the water when he suddenly announced: 'I'm in a trap!'

(He wasn't in a trap. He was standing shoulder-deep in a warm swimming pool. But ever since he started watching Pokemon cartoons, traps have become a big part of his imaginative play.)

'Who put you in the trap?' I asked.

'Team Rocket!' he replied, predictably.

'Can you get out?' I asked.

'No!' he wailed in mock-despair. 'It's made of walls and water and memory and glue and strongness and leopards!'

Well, a few seconds later he 'escaped' with the help of an imaginary burst of electricity. (Pikachu has much to answer for.) But that trap has stayed in my mind ever since.


Image result for leopards
It's a traaaaap!

I think the reason it's stuck with me is because we expect the transition from concrete to abstract to be one-way. Sometimes it goes from abstract to concrete, like when you have to pass a test to show that you are brave and pure of heart in order to enter the castle of evil, or whatever. More often it goes from concrete to abstract, so it turns out that all the business with fighting skeletons and climbing out of pits was just the warm-up, and the real challenge was to see if you were able to forgive the memory of your dead brother or something. But this trap - this sixfold snare - does both. Twice.

From the outside, I imagine it looks like a castle, obviously built to protect something important. No doors, no windows: just circular curtain walls. Climb them and you'll be faced with the bridge-less moat inside. In the middle of the moat is an island, and the island is full of memories: memories of everything you've ever missed, everything you've ever lost, everything you ever wanted to see again. Only the sternest of souls can avoid standing for hours, lost in bittersweet rapture - which is unfortunate, as the island is also covered in fast-drying glue, and the longer you stand there the more firmly you'll stick to it. Consider bringing an amnesiac.

If you make it past the glue and the memories you'll get to the inner keep, which is made of Strongness. Its stones seethe with barely-contained power, and no human tools can force its gates or breach its walls. Push a wall and it will punch you back. Strike one and it will lash out and hit you twice as hard. The trick, naturally, is to turn the keep against itself: to strike one wall in such a way that the inevitable counter-attack ends up hitting another wall, which strikes back twice as hard at the first one, and so on and so forth until they've punched massive holes in each other and the way forwards lies clear.

And then, when you're inside and your eyes are adjusting to the dark and you're congratulating yourself on your cleverness, you get jumped on and eaten by a bunch of leopards.

It is a trap, after all...