Friday, 25 May 2018

Clockwork mecha revisited

Related image

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.

Related image
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.

Image result for scythe board game art
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.

Image result for howl's moving castle

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...

Image result for fop gun kate beaton
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!

Image result for the man of mode

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!) 

Image result for the man of mode

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...

Friday, 27 April 2018

Familiarity and Contempt

Map of Clichea by Sarithus
Map of Clichéa by Sarithus. You can view the full-size version here.

It's odd how quickly we get used to things. How the fantastical becomes mundane: how the strange and exotic becomes something we take for granted. Think of the tapestry of wonders which make up a generic fantasy world: beautiful forest-dwelling immortals inhabiting hidden cities of living wood and crystal, clans of industrious craftsmen carving out underground kingdoms beneath the earth, blood-crazed tribes of monstrous green-skinned savages who eat the corpses of their enemies, and so on. These figures are the stuff of dreams and nightmares... and yet if the first line of someone's setting write-up starts talking about how the elves are wise and graceful and the eldest of all peoples, I'll drop it in a heartbeat. It's boring. I've seen it a thousand times before.

The trouble is that this applies to everything. I catch myself sometimes talking about 'generic fantasy gods' or 'generic elder evils' or 'generic horror monsters', and I think: how does something designed to be shocking, or numinous, or horrific end up becoming generic? And yet it does: if I open an adventure module and read about a band of insane sorcerers sacrificing victims to the primordial tentacle-covered slime monster who lives beneath their prehuman temple of black basalt, I don't think 'gosh, how awe-inspiringly terrible!' I just think: 'OK, so they're generic fantasy Cthulhu cultists. What else have you got?'

I distinctly remember the moment I fell out of love with World of Warcraft. My quest required me to obtain some bottles of ice water, and the only way to get them was to kill ice elementals, who sometimes dropped them when they died. So there was my gnome assassin, leaping about with her enchanted daggers, hacking her way through gigantic, roaring monsters of living ice in the depths of a frozen chasm beneath a twilight-purple sky, and it was... boring. The game had taken something fantastical and turned it, through sheer force of repetition, into an interaction with a glorified vending machine. All I cared about was whether or not each murdered ice-beast was going to give me a bottle of cold water. I stopped playing the game shortly afterwards.

It's sometimes suggested that the solution to this problem is simply to be more original: to replace your orcs with walrus-men and your dwarves with miniature robot dinosaurs and so on. But as soon as something like this catches on, it can go from being excitingly new to feeling played-out and predictable within just a handful of years. Look what happened to steampunk: it started to really take off around 2005, and by 2012-ish it had already hardened into an almost completely predictable list of visual clichés. (Goggles! Corsets! Top hats and bowlers! Clockwork robots! Airship pirates! Gears on everything! Why aren't you excited yet?) Hell, look at what happened to D&D itself: many of the monsters that people now complain about as 'boring' and 'generic', such as gnolls or drow, were completely new and original back in the 1970s. 'Originality' is a treadmill. Yesterday's shocking new idea is today's mainstream default and tomorrow's tired cliché.

In his 1821 Defence of Poetry, Shelley wrote:
[The language of poets] is vitally metaphorical; that is, it marks the before unapprehended relations of things and perpetuates their apprehension, until the words which represent them, become, through time, signs for portions or classes of thoughts instead of pictures of integral thoughts; and then if no new poets should arise to create afresh the associations which have been thus disorganized, language will be dead to all the nobler purposes of human intercourse.
This, I think, is more or less what tends to happen to fantasy elements. They start off as fresh and vivid symbols for urgent realities, or what Shelley calls 'pictures of integral thoughts': orcs were Tolkien's way of articulating the brutalising effects of industrial capitalism, Cthulhu was Lovecraft's symbol for the way in which the cosmos fundamentally doesn't give a fuck about humanity, and so on. Then they get popular, and become 'signs for portions or classes of thought': so Cthulhu gets used as a kind of shorthand for 'A BIG SCARY THING THAT MAKES YOU GO CRAZY', because thanks to Lovecraft we've all somehow come to accept that a giant dragon-man with a squid for a face is an appropriate symbol for that, without it necessarily being connected to any of the things which originally provided the reasons for it to mean that. Soon they become almost entirely symbolic: so a game which features zombies and werewolves and vampires instead of orcs and ogres and dragons will get labelled as 'Gothic horror' instead of 'high fantasy', even if the horror-monsters never actually do anything horrific, because werewolves and vampires are understood to be symbolic of horror in general. And then we play the game and stab all the vampires and wonder why it doesn't actually make us feel afraid.

(You can see these loops playing out with almost comical literalness in games like Pathfinder. You start with a unique monster, like Grendel, and turn it into a type of monster: in this case, the D&D troll. But then the troll gets so overused that it's not scary any more, and no longer conveys the kind of threat communicated by the original. So you go back and you create a new monster, called a Grendel: a mega-troll so strong and powerful that it can terrorise even characters who have become blasé about normal trolls. The diminishing returns involved in such a strategy should be obvious. See also what happens to Dracula in just about every vampire fiction franchise.)

When fantasy fails to feel fantastic, I think it's often because its creators use these fantastical elements as shortcuts or placeholders, relying on their inherited symbolic associations to do all the imaginative heavy lifting. They rely on an audience which is going to find the very idea of dragons so awesome that they'll love your story just for having dragons in it, even if your dragons never actually do anything very impressive, or very dragon-like, or even very interesting. But the more familiar your audience is with the genre, the less credit they're going to give your work just for including orcs and elves and whatnot, because for them those figures will be part of a symbolic system which has been drained of all its inherent power by overuse.

So don't do that. Don't just rely on the fact that something is a troll to convey the fear and the power of it: maybe that would have worked a hundred years ago, but now they've been so drained of significance that your players are just going to see them as big bags of hit points with annoying regenerative abilities. Instead, you have to reconnect them with whatever it was that gave them force and meaning in the first place. 'A goblin' is a three hit point irritation. A giggling thing with too-long arms and a too-wide mouth and far too many teeth that comes squirming out from under your bed at night to cut you up with knives is fucking terrifying. 'An ogre' is a big dumb lump for your PCs to kite around a battlefield. An eight-foot giant who comes clambering from her cannibal larder, her hot breath reeking of carrion, her long hair matted with human gore, still retains some level of nightmarish power. At this point, the names have probably become active liabilities: the howling abhuman beast that roams the wastelands, larger and more savage than any man, becomes much less threatening once it has been identified as 'an orc' or 'a bugbear' or 'a troll'. You don't need to wear yourself out trying to come up with totally original, never-before-seen ideas in every damn adventure: after all, the classics are classics for a reason. You just need to make sure that, when you use the classics, you go right back to the source. 

Because the stories never truly lost their power. Not really. There's still something magical about the glimpse of the path through the woods at twilight, or the huge figure unfolding itself from the cavern in the hillside, or the whispering and scurrying of swift and unseen creatures in the dark. The shining city on the distant hilltop. The sound of something slow and heavy moving through the forest by night. It would be a shame if we let the overuse of our shared shorthand of fantasy iconography stand between us and the very real wellsprings of awe and terror which are, at base, still represented by those symbolic figures with which we have become so painfully over-familiar.

Orcs. Elves. Ogres. Giants.

eotenas ond ylfe      ond orcnéäs
swylce gígantas      þá wið gode wunnon
lange þráge·      hé him ðæs léan forgeald.

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.)