Monday, 24 December 2012

Mundus Subterraneus

You're going to regret not putting your campaign in historical Europe when you hear about the Mundus Subterraneus of Athanasius Kircher. You may even want to put that book in your campaign regardless - a tome of strange lore containing dizzying hints and tidbits about the world below..

Like the Utriusque Cosmi of Robert Fludd, Kircher's two-volume work from 1664 hurls together a vast array of topics that today sit in very different buildings on campus. He tells us of geometry, physics, geology, astronomy, alchemy, even the reputed magical properties of gems...

Alabaster for stomachache ... Amethyst to resist drunkenness ...
but the emphasis keeps coming back to the "subterranean world" of the title, with how-to on mining and metallurgy, and a section explaining fossils as forms spontaneously generated by the earth - a precursor, perhaps, of Richard Shaver's strange ideas. There is a particularly rich section in the middle where Kircher describes his adventures in the craters of active volcanoes, and then indulges in sober speculation about the networks of fire, airy caves and water spanning the center of the earth, leading eventually to Hell and possibly Purgatory ...

and lays the seeds for generations of hollow-earth fictions and crackpots to come with lengthy passages about the underground ocean that creates the tides, and the creatures that lurk within the underworld - races of subterranean men, giants, demons, and several species of dragon and basilisk.

The possibilities for pseudo-historical adventure campaigning under the assumption that Kircher's ideas were mostly true cannot be underestimated.  Fantasy writers from Verne to Burroughs to Lovecraft have resonated with Kircher's "underdark." Even early on in the D&D universe, the existence of a vast network of tunnels and dwellings deep underground provided a logical continuation for players who had exhausted the depths of their local dungeon. What makes the better endgame, I ask: becoming lord of a castle and hearing the grievances of peasants all day, or equipping for the ultimate delve down rivers of flame and straight through the gates of Hell itself?

Articles and posts on the Mundus:

OU History of Science Collections
Public Domain Review 
Original text, e-book format

Saturday, 22 December 2012

For Your Seacrawling Consideration

Is this not the most remarkable, extraordinary adventure location?

* An island owned by some kind of high-level evil rogue/fighter/beastmaster-by-intimidation (Bluto, in the role of Sindbad)
* The average, everyday, boring guard monsters are vultures, war dogs, lions, apes, snakes, and dragons
* The lieutenant-grade guard monsters are an ettin and a roc
* A chest of diamonds, undoubtedly the least of the treasures
* A cave, huge castle, chasm, steep stairway, skull-shaped rock formations, canyon, and active volcano in the vicinity
* Furthermore, the whole shebang sits on the back of a giant whale
* An enchantment renders combat damage into highly implausible ouchie-effects, with several additions to this excellent table.
* Popeye, aided by no useful henchmen to speak of, rolled over the whole place in ten minutes flat.

Monday, 17 December 2012


Pick the description that suits you:

1. The potentially greatest as yet unsampled hip-hop beat in existence (according to
2. Play this for your PCs as they enter a small village church during a snowstorm. The organist, the pastor singing in his cracked, off-key voice, around six parishioners kneeling, heads bowed. See how long it takes for them to realize something is wrong ...
3. The potentially greatest easy listening death metal lyrics in existence.
4. The soundtrack for your swinging 60's "Carnaby to Carcosa" Call of Cthulhu session.
5. The potentially ugliest, most acid-warped attempt to copy this picture in existence.

Sunday, 16 December 2012

It's A Hard Game

Will Dungeons and Dragons be the next [insert high-impact fantasy franchise here]?

This article in TIME is a better-than-average mass media assessment of D&D's impact on the popular landscape.What I appreciate is its clear analysis of the game's simultaneously pariah and ubiquitous status. D&D has a clear and massive legacy, a definite mandate as a cultish hobby,  but an uncertain future as a mass phenomenon.

I sometimes think the often-repeated cries for these kinds of games to regain their fad status are misguided. The days when people just broke out the D&D and played were days without wide access to more immediately involving interactive games. Let's not forget that tabletop games are hard. They can be hard in an easy way or hard in a hard way, to be exact.

The easy hard way is playing with the tons of rules that some approaches to gaming demand. It's easy because it requires the same cognitive skills as understanding how to play Monopoly or World of Warcraft, just multiplied by a factor of however many. It sometimes seems unnecessary when you can play computer games that take care of the drudgery, but nonetheless we see people drawn to the rule-based approach because they have the brainpower, the obsessiveness, or the ability just to sit back and let other people coach them.

The hard hard way is letting go the rules, finding a gamemaster who is capable of doing more than we did just breaking out the rulebooks in high school, and accepting his or her authority. The "authority" part is the really hard part, especially for adolescents. I know I remember things that way, anyway. In fact, the revival of stripped-down D&D may be a better thing for parents playing with their young kids and friends. The chain of command is already clear there. The kids don't demand much in the way of continuity, emotional depth, grandiose sociopolitical thematizing, and other quintessential adolescent ohmygod-so-serious concerns.

As I've argued before, we could get more players for our games if we made it clear that the DM handles most of the rules, and you just tell us what you're doing and how - but that assumes enough maturity on the part of the players. I don't know, I think we can get enough of those players to come around. It might take a shortcut around the stigma - call it the "survival game," give them modern equipment and problems, only slowly introduce the weird. Or the hell with it, embrace the weird, let your own maturity as a person open eyes and make it okay for them.

Just never let them see the damn gaming forums, okay?

Thursday, 13 December 2012

Snow Dog is Victorious!

It's fitting that I should finally have ready the two last encounter tables of my gigantic graphic system - intended to replace the "natural" and "savage" tables in cold regions:

Click to enlarge

Oh yeah, that's a snow dog.

HD: 6 AC: 5/14 AT: d12 MV: 15
Size: 3 Mind: Average Reaction/Morale: +1/+2
These shaggy, fierce but benevolent horse-sized creatures roam wintry wastes and mountain peaks. They are of lawful disposition, associating with kindly druids, abbots and hermits, and will aid well-intentioned travelers. There is a 1 in 3 chance that a Snow Dog will have around its neck a keg with d10 doses of a potion of cure light wounds and protection from cold.

Now comes the hard task of putting all these tables into a presentation format and integrating them with the two outdoor adventure systems I've cooked up: one suitable for pre-stocking areas, and the other for generating encounters on the fly. More on that later.

Wednesday, 12 December 2012


Nowadays we take this kind of graphic for granted, as a staple of the more highbrow kind of serious news outlet:

Number of cars in USA vs. rest of world, 1914-28
 The style has a name. It is ISOTYPE, a movement that most people probably don't even know was a movement, let alone its connection with social democratic ideologies in 1930's Germany. If you've ever been told in a statistics class that icons should illustrate quantities by varying in number, not size, you've learned one of the main principles of ISOTYPE design.

The influence, indirectly, on my own 52 Pages approach can't be underestimated.

Lifespan of animals
Lifespan of monsters (under attack from adventurers)
Maybe it's a little incongruous to illustrate rules for adventures of swords and magic using a Modernist graphic language developed in the 1930's. And maybe not - considering it's not the real ancient world or Middle Ages our games are simulating, but fictional products of 20th century fantastic writers. ISOTYPE is industrialization, but also does surprisingly well at accompanying the standardization of pulp literature into rules and monster statistics.

More stuff:

Gerd Arntz collection of ISOTYPE icons.
Links to essays on ISOTYPE.

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Gaming the Atrocity

When we play games that imagine conflict, violence and history, a reasonable question to ask is how  sensitive we need to be. I'm thinking about this because of Joe Bloch's recent outraged post about a Kickstarter game of the Salem witch trials, which he considers an offensive treatment of historical genocide against pagans.

Assuming for a moment that everyone agrees (as Joe does) that people have the right to publish whatever games they want, and also that they have the right to express their moral sentiments over said games, where can we draw the line? Are some topics just completely unacceptable in gaming - or can the right approach make a sensitive game about North American chattel slavery, the Holocaust, or genocidal campaigning against Native Americans?

In this question, perspective definitely matters. I remember that my father, who had lived through the Spanish Civil War, been imprisoned by the Fascists and lost many friends in the conflict, had a lot of misgivings about getting me a wargame on the topic when I was a teen, and absolutely refused to play it with me. Having a pagan perspective on a game about witch trials, or a Christian perspective on a game that takes a cynical approach to the politics surrounding the Council of Nicaea, certainly makes one appreciate more the serious issues in play with that historical topic.

Simulation gamers are caught in a catch-22 when the general public regards our doings. On the one hand, we are accused of taking our games too seriously; dressing up in costume to play D&D, learning real magic spells, becoming Walter Mitty-style armchair generals, disappearing into character like Tom Hanks in Mazes & Monsters. On the other hand, people associate a game with fun, lightheartedness and a certain Machiavellian approach to moving pawns around. So when war, murder and other awful topics crop up in a simulation game, the suspicion arises that at best we are callous and insensitive, and at worst we are taking a perverse glee in simulating slaughter and suffering.

These latter misgivings mean that topics that are seen as perfectly acceptable to treat in a novel or a film suddenly become more offensive when proposed in a game. Some examples of controversy:
  • Video games that involve killing members of identifiable groups - Africans, Americans, Arabs, etc.
  • A board wargame that deals with the vicious early warfare between settlers and natives in New England, King Philip's War.
  • The "host a murder" genre of games, which have come under attack from an advocacy group for families of murder victims. (Mysteriously, "Clue" remains untouched in their long list of boycotts.)
It's individual and collective sensibilities that draw this map of offense; the dead in the Spanish Civil War, combatant and civilian, are just as dead as the Natives in King Philip's War, but no Spaniards are protesting the numerous games on that topic. The sad fact is that many intellectual puzzles - military strategies, detective work - come from life-and-death situations, and gain added interest value when tied in to those situations.

It's in this light that I take a larger view of the Salem game. Actually, I feel toward it much the same as I do toward the classic Avalon Hill game of paranoia and betrayal, Kremlin. Both deal with a horrific period of history in which "games" of suspicion and accusation had life-and-death costs. Kremlin in fact takes a lighter tone with its made-up, Boris Badenov-style names; Salem at least goes this far toward a respectful approach:
While the story surrounding the Salem witch trials has become something of a legend, every character in this game is based on a real person whose life was directly touched and in some cases torn apart or taken away by the events surrounding the Salem witch trials.
A solemnity somewhat undercut by the gleeful offering of add-ons and goodies that Kickstarter encourages: colorful Pilgrim tokens, a gallows card, etc. But the overall tone, as with Kremlin, Guillotine, Credo and similar games, is to satirize the morbid absurdity of a system that lets bribery, showmanship and venal accusation influence life-or-death decisions.

I see it as perhaps more advisable to take a serious approach to painful historical topics in a game, in a way that sides unambiguously with the oppressed. Some posters in Joe's thread mentioned the Holocaust game Trains, which I don't like. But this is largely because it recycles received notions about the "banality of evil" that Holocaust scholarship has by now discredited. We now know that the architects and bricklayers of the Holocaust, far from mindless, saw their work as a difficult but morally mandated task, aided by seeing their victims as not really human. The way to simulate the Holocaust from within the minds of its supporters is to set up a scenario, familiar from much Cold-War era science fiction, where the enemy are aliens living among us, superficially sympathetic but actually parasitic. But that's not to discredit the tone or ambition of Trains, or of other efforts, dealing with enslaved Africans in the New World (the comments on that article are also diverse and interesting).

As always, your thoughtful comments and reactions are welcome.

Tuesday, 4 December 2012

The Baroque Spell Scroll

As posted on Paolo's Lost Pages, my Baroque Spell / Folio Spell series has come to magnificent life thanks to his layout and bookbinding chops. The titles included, in full ...

The Radiating Cloud of Seven Interfering Bands
The Prelapsarian Pavilion of Mundjogo
The Caryatid Cordon of Cerysse
Hester's Exacting Accountancy
The Appeal to the Seven Worthy Elders
The Contundent Chaos, Without Form and Void
The Multifarious Mandaglore
The Ovo Sub Aquea of Bellorand
The Five Swords of Severity

Now, Paolo is selling a very limited number of copies, but we are also thinking of expanding the book, putting more content on the back of the book/scroll, and so forth.

Perhaps these following sinister spells and items will be involved ... although the risk of publication is great, the watchful Eyes of St. Damien being what they are, and buyers must be most discreet:

Alas! The Passenger
Madame Hildred's Dance
But enough about us. What would you put in an accordion-folded book?

Monday, 3 December 2012

Considerations of a Con Game

A little more aftermath from Dragonmeet:

1. The players felt the lethal fury as I made all rolls in the open (except for sensing rolls) and fudged nothing dangerous about the adventure. However, as I had stocked it there was one puzzle-trick involving a massive sliding block intervening between them and the climactic encounter. With less than 30 minutes to go in the session I decided to remove the block trick and show a straight path to the climax. I strongly believe that at a con game, fun takes precedent. Challenge is part of that fun - so no fudging combat - but having a memorable and dangerous climax is also part of that fun.

The trick was not super-dangerous, although the previous lot of players had found it quite anxiety-provoking. Look at area 9 on Dyson's map. Now imagine a 10' stone cube that starts in the north-east niche. It moves at the equivalent of a 30' /round move according to these rules:

* If no living thing is in any square of room 9 it makes its way back to its niche.
* If a living thing is in room 9 it focuses on the northernmost of these, then the westernmost of these if there is a tie. It will try to move immediately to the north of its focus first, stopped only by a wall. If it cannot move any further to the north, it will try to move to the west of its focus. This means, for example, that it will appear to "chase" a character in the top two squares of the room, and will crush anyone who stays there. If he or she darts by and stands by the south door, it will move down but stop just short of crushing.
* Being crushed against a wall is not pleasant; it does 2d6 damage a round with no saving throw.
* If you are particularly cruel, all doors to the room open inwards.
* Behind the cube is a niche with a small purple worm tooth inside, worth 250 $ to the right buyer.

2. I was considering a reward system for the con that would add a competitive element without tedious and gamesmanlike point-scoring. I didn't implement it, but offer it here for your consideration.

Arranged below from lowest to highest, like poker hands, is a series of individual outcome goals for your character. Each player secretly selects a goal before the game begins. After the game, see who achieved their goal. The one(s) who achieved the highest ranking goal win(s).

* Survive, with a share of loot worth at least 250$.
* Survive with a share of loot worth at least 250$ without being incapacitated at the end (having gone to 0 or fewer hp but not dead).
* Gaze on the Heart of the Sunrise (the gem in area 11).
* Survive, having gazed on the Heart of the Sunrise.
* Survive, having gazed on the Heart of the Sunrise without being incapacitated at the end.
* Alive or dead, ensure that the party eventually carries forth the Heart of the Sunrise from the dungeon successfully.
* Survive, as part of a party that carries forth the Heart of the Sunrise from the dungeon successfully.
* Survive without being incapacitated at the end, as part of a party that carries forth the Heart of the Sunrise from the dungeon successfully.
* Be the surviving, non-incapacitated, hero who personally carries forth the Heart from the dungeon!

Having written this all out I now keenly want to put this kind of goal setting in action for the next one-shot I run.

3. For the information of the players: The haul of xp from monster killing is 608, and from sale of treasure brought in on the back of Bill the Mountain Camel, who had fled and was only located after an arduous search (dwarven mail shirts and mirror frame) is 458; total then is 1066. If you are not a spellcaster and have INT or WIS > 12, add 10%, so you get 1173. The gnome and rogue also get 300 xp each for cooperating to get the gem out of the dungeon. It would have been more if you had been able to sell it, but ...

Gnarro the Gnome knew that he had only one hour until the pixie dust ran out, and guessed that the elemental could only track the giant gem if he touched the ground. He put the gem in a waterskin, tied it to the rock and float it in a nearby mountain stream. Unfortunately, the elemental was capable of following the tenuous scent  from the rock, through the rope, through the leather, to the gem.  When Gnarro returned to the scene he found only a large, hemispherical hole in the river bed....

Saturday, 1 December 2012

Dragonmeet 2012: Heart of the Sunrise

Dragonmeet is a one-day small gaming con that's held in London around this time each year. Having been there as a player last year, this year I vowed to return as a gamemaster.

The table ended up filled with fans of the blog, including two folks from the L5R days and Paolo of Tsojcanth fame. Paolo brought his 52 Pages gnome, Gnaro, who had last been sighted in Mittellus-Prime and had somehow moved sideways in time to Mittellus-15087, which featured an alternate, rebooted version of the dungeon I had restocked using Dyson Logo's Purple Worm's Gullet map.

Memorable events in this run, entitled Heart of the Sunrise in true prognard fashion, included:

The party tarrying to collect the valuable claws of the hopping piercers not far inside the gullet, and interrupted by the appearance of the wyvern who had been nesting above the dungeon entrance. It wasn't long before the wyvern fell victim to an astounding series of events. It fumbled with its stinger (natural 1, 1/20 chance), went on to roll a fumble of 5 on the lower of 2d6, hit self for 1/2 damage (1/12 chance, increasing the odds to 1/240), lost my 50-50 determination roll of whether it was immune to its own poison (1/480), failed the first save vs. incapacitation I give victims of poison, which it would have made on a d20 8+ (1/1200) and the second save against death (1/3000) - both by one point, rolling a 7! So the wyvern arched around and, being clumsy in such confined quarters, stung itself in the eye and expired on the spot ......

Losing 3 party members to incapacitation and maiming. Tip: When making jokes about two suspicious-looking lizard statues possibly coming to life, interpose someone solid between them and the squishy characters!

An encounter with a mirror hidden in the room under the vertically rotating door under the dwarf youth hostel, which the Mittellus-Prime party had missed. This one will deserve a post of its own - the mirror was a special creation and it played out really well.

The final encounter with the shrine of the titular glowing ruby. The Band of Iron, being campaign characters with something to lose, were content to merely revere the fabulous gem. Not so these one-shot scoundrels! The party rogue used his Oil of Invisibility, lassoed the gem successfully, and then the altar turned into this and all hell broke loose:
What followed was the first time I have used the new chase rules and they worked like a charm. The rogue and gnome, who used pixie dust from a previous campaign to fly,  could double the creature's speed ... but they had to thread the dungeon, while it could move through stone at no penalty. It cut them off and the rogue only barely slipped past with a lucky roll of 2 from a quite-likely-to-hit rockhead. Still, a grim pursuit from a relentless, untiring opponent who seemed an infallible tracker seemed likely, so the rogue threw the gem to the flying gnome ... and the rock-thing stopped in confusion.

How long can our "garden-variety gnome" hero keep the gem aloft and away from the senses of the elemental guardian? That, alas, must await another chapter of his dimension-hopping saga. I want to thank all my excellent players for a truly memorable game with a rousing climax!

Wednesday, 28 November 2012


I was not in the UK from 1987 to 1994, so I missed what looks like the ultimate cheesy dungeon meets TV game show experience: Knightmare. Here's an article about it by Ellie Gibson from the Gameological Society.

In fact, it looks like a lot of recurrent old school gaming themes made it into the show. From the article:

Surprises for the DM!
“There were no rehearsals, because you couldn’t rehearse the children, otherwise it would no longer be a contest. We did no retakes, because again, you would have been making them into actors, which they were not. The actors in the void, as we called it, had a very hard job. They knew roughly how they were going to guide the children, but they didn’t have a script. They had to improvise. That sounds fine, but remember, you have to keep those kids on track. [The production team] tried to work out every possibility the kids could come up with. But they never did. The kids always came up with something they hadn’t thought of.”
Palette shifting!
For instance, in the show’s first season, the path chosen by the contestants determined which rooms they would encounter, forcing the writers to prepare for all the branching possibilities. “Progressively we realized, of course, this wasn’t necessary, because the kids didn’t know. Whether they turned left or right, we could use the same scenario. So then I didn’t have quite so much to cram in.”
Failure = death!
But part of what made the world of Knightmare feel real was the fact that unfair, arbitrary things happened within it. This set it apart from other game shows, as did the absence of a scoreboard or competing teams. The challenge was to stay alive. And unlike in computer games, there were no extra lives or “CONTINUE?” options. When you died in Knightmare, you really died. 
No doubt if this show was produced today, it would have railroaded story lines, oodles of hit points and healing, and consolation prizes for all. Meanwhile ... well, I have to write what I know. New York area kids in the 80's, looking to participate in TV shows that simulated video games, had to make do with this:


Monday, 26 November 2012

Slow Times but More Coming

So yeah, between falling ill, lots of stuff on the job, and having to prioritize actual play rather than reflection, this blog has kind of fallen off in the past couple of weeks.

I can tell you that Paolo "Tsojcanth" and I are preparing a special surprise that will be unveiled at London's Dragonmeet on Saturday, for those of you who plan to attend. I'm sure I'll have something to say about that. I am also running a game there based on a well-regarded one-page dungeon contest winner.

I also dropped a hint for my campaign players ... a large pinkish-gray obelisk covered with strange runes, with ape heads at its summit, one of which seems to be shooting some kind of rays? I think it's no spoiler to say, I have opened the path leading away from intrigue-based adventuring and into straight-up hardcore dungeoneering.

Certainly one of the most fun things about running a campaign the way I do is dropping other people's modules into it. Sometimes the module bends, other times, the campaign does ...

I even feel a little guilty for dropping off at a time when the blog is scratching the 250 follower mark ... but after these few weeks of hell, or maybe even sooner, I have lots of stuff on deck.

Friday, 16 November 2012

One Last Harpy: Interposing Decency

Before I conclude the Naked Harpies series with a grand analysis of sociopolitical forces in conflict, I want to draw attention to one more harpy, from the 2nd edition D&D Monstrous Manual:

Here we see a transitional form. After the raw naturalism of 1st edition, it's still clear that harpies shouldn't be wearing clothes. But ... but ... the moral panic! The D&D cartoon! Think of the children! So the artist makes use of a visual stratagem as old as prudery itself  - the decorous interposition. In this case, the harpy's arm.

I guess most of us learned in Sunday School how very leafy the Garden of Eden was, and how very long Eve's hair.

For those with a more secular upbringing, you may recall that it was very important for evolving primates to put their right foot forward, or at least swing their arms a little:

Pulp magazine covers sometimes didn't even bother with the interposing object, trusting in the artistic merit of the marble-like,  hairless and pigmentless female form, diaphanously clad or not. But sometimes they used it like pros:

As moral standards for newsstand entertainment tightened, the scenery became more obliging. Here is a wonderful driftwood intervention from the height of the paperback era:

You're probably more familiar with the spoof in Austin Powers, but the height of proscenic propriety was reached in the 1970 sci-fi film Colossus: The Forbin Project, where the evil computer orchestrates a naked tryst that is shown ... well, let's just say it's the only film in history where the choice to drink wine instead of martinis was the difference between an "M" and "X" rating.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Natural Nudity, Lewd Clothing

Following up the previous post, let's take history forward from the 1970's to now. In comparing the old controversy about the nudity in D&D art with more recent controversies about sexualization in D&D art, a few signal differences emerge.

The naked or topless females in OD&D and AD&D are mostly monsters, demons, or goddesses, like the harpy from last time or the memorable Loviatar. There's a certain amount of "realism" behind the nudity - how ridiculous does this foul carrion bird from 4th edition look in a smock?
Yes, she eats rotten flesh, befouls the food of others, lures men to their graves, but her only crime against decorum is daring to wear a brown breastplate with a blue skirt. (At the same time, it is notable that a lot of opportunities for male monster-nudity get passed over in those books, unlike the equal opportunity monsters of the present-day Otherworld miniatures line.)

But isn't it odd that the female adventurer pictures in old D&D are mostly reasonably clad and mostly not sexualized?
I have to grin a little because this generalization is based on a grand total of two female adventurers depicted in the 1st edition AD&D player handbook, and one more inside the DM Guide (though her and her party's adventures take up several illustrations). And feel free to point out the glaring exception: the metal-bikini Fay Wray on the DMG's cover.

Since those days, it seems that the "artistic nudity" or "realistic nudity" loopholes in mainstream gaming art have been sutured firmly shut. And yet, although more women are represented, their sexualization - particularly in player character representations - is even more evident. The difference between female and male representations, now as then, assumes that woman, not man, is the proper object of visual erotic delight.

I am reminded of Roland Barthes' essay which begins, "Striptease--at least Parisian striptease--is based on a contradiction: Woman is desexualized at the very moment when she is stripped naked." Eve, nude, has the possibility of being innocent; Eve, in pasties and G-string (or costumed with a cleavage window and thigh slits), does not. The covering of nipples and pubis satisfies the letter of the obscenity law, but sexuality is not a mere matter of obscenity. Going back to the infamous succubus from the AD&D Monster Manual, what's striking in light of adolescent memories is how covered up she actually is, by hair and pose and strategically placed limbs:

 Can you really say Pathfinder's present-day iconic character, Seoni, is much more covered up (except by tattoo ink)?
And those leggings and bustle/skirt/train call to mind Barthes' observation: "The end of the striptease is[...]  to signify, through the shedding of an incongruous and artificial clothing, nakedness as a natural vesture of woman, which amounts in the end to regaining a perfectly chaste state of the flesh." Except we never get to the innocent state of nudity here. Yes, we have many more female characters now than in AD&D1, but when so many of them look like this (and almost no male characters look like Riker in "Angel One"), is this really progress?

A real matriarchy would have him in short-shorts, too.

Next and last post in the series: What these issues mean to players today, and why the endless three-way flame war over sex, gender and art can be reduced to false premises.

Wednesday, 14 November 2012

Naked Harpies and the Fine Art Defense

Quick, name the animated Disney film that was released with female frontal topless nudity, breasts, nipples and all.

Apparently it was OK for Fantasia's harpies to swoop into your face topless, and for various she-centaurs and fairies to have exposed boobs (sans nipples and mostly covered up afterward with halter tops, but yeah), and for baby cherubs to fly around bare-assed. What was up? Wasn't this the Hays Code era of draconian film censorship?

Well, here's the list of things prohibited by the Hays Code:
  1. Pointed profanity – by either title or lip – this includes the words "God," "Lord," "Jesus," "Christ" (unless they be used reverently in connection with proper religious ceremonies), "hell," "damn," "Gawd," and every other profane and vulgar expression however it may be spelled;
  2. Any licentious or suggestive nudity-in fact or in silhouette; and any lecherous or licentious notice thereof by other characters in the picture;
  3. The illegal traffic in drugs;
  4. Any inference of sex perversion;
  5. White slavery;
  6. Miscegenation (sex relationships between the white and black races);
  7. Sex hygiene and venereal diseases;
  8. Scenes of actual childbirth – in fact or in silhouette;
  9. Children's sex organs;
  10. Ridicule of the clergy;
  11. Willful offense to any nation, race or creed
Aren't you glad they banned both racism and miscegenation?

Absurdities aside, what's remarkable is how hedged around with qualifiers the nudity language is. It almost seems like it's making room for artistic, innocent, and high-minded nudity; making room for children's butts, as long as they don't turn around.

And indeed, censorship has for a long time tussled with the artistic exception - Christian body shame against Renaissance glorification of the nude, played out in a myriad different arenas from the Sistine Chapel's "breeches makers," to Comstock's crusade against the New York Artistic League, to the final bursting of the dam in the 1960s. As much as prudes read salacious interest into high art, high art was itself used as a stalking-horse for titillation; like the high-minded, body-stockinged "tableaux" deployed for the entertainment of gentlemen in the music-hall era.

It's against this backdrop, still within living memory in the 1970's, that we have to consider the much-commented nudity in early gaming materials. Like this harpy:

Was this kind of depiction considered as harmless to children as the Fantasia harpy? What has happened to our culture in the intervening generation? Why the Janet Jackson-level shock today? Aren't we supposed to be living in the Most Sexualized Times Evar? These questions and more must, alas, await the next blog post.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

Eye Tyrants and Eye Trackers

It's always heartwarming to see my hobby world and research world (experimental psychology) inform each other. Such was the case with the talented Julian Levy, who used monsters and characters from D&D to test whether people's tendency to fixate on eyes is due to the attention-drawing powers of the eye no matter where it appears, or just a tendency to fixate on the head. A first-authored scientific paper at age 14? Not bad! (free access to paper until 30 November 2012)

I have my doubts, though, about whether the eyes are really the most attention-grabbing part of the body (pdf). Perhaps fantasy game art can come to the rescue again? Clearly further research is needed.

From AEG's Thunderstone card game
"Do I have to cast this GLOWING OWL FACE to get you to look up here?"

Thursday, 8 November 2012

The Dungeon Is Safer Than the City

I'm reflecting on our last game session. It was one of those where not a lot of high adventure went down. Mostly it was about traveling to a new city, settling in there and accomplishing various administrative tasks - selling loot, buying goods, carousing for experience, setting some henchmen to leveling up. One player was absent, so her character was parked with an NPC for the duration.

And it's a "what now" moment for the party - having just finished a big quest, they're finding that events are moving rather quickly, and a war is brewing between humans and Faerie. After sending a "telegram" to warn a kind-of-ally on the borderlands (magpie + speak with & befriend animals + Magic Mouth), what next?

Well, our heroes have some idea they should stop the war, but how? Call it an intriguebox or what you will, but the railway station is far from evident at this point. There were some cautious attempts at intelligence gathering, but still, the realization was heavy that, well, one does not just walk into the Archimandrite's audience room with an audacious plan.

Get out now, while you can!
I still believe that these low periods are necessary to play up the moments of high adventure. All the same, this session also made me realize that adventurers have a reason to play out their city visit as a peaceful interlude. Yes, an urban setting can provide more than enough adventure and has possibilities the standard wilderness/dungeon expedition doesn't. But precisely because of this, it can feel more threatening to a cautious, pragmatic party than the terrors of the underdepths. And this in turn can cramp their style.

See, in a dungeon, you are confined and channeled ... but so are the monsters. You take things, generally speaking, one thing at a time. In a wilderness, the enemies are all around, but few and far between. But if you seek adventure in a city, there's a web of interconnections and interests all around you. Pull the wrong string, and the city guard, the lynch mob, the thieves' and wizards' and vampires' guilds are all on your tail. Not to mention the guilt of all that collateral damage to innocent citizens as your fireballs and lightning bolts vaporize your foes.

And the dungeon is nice and easy to find your way through. One door, two doors, three doors, dead end. It's even laid out in nice 10 foot squares for your mapping convenience. The city, though ... how do you sift out the adventure location from the rag-picker's house or the vacant lot? How do you follow a trail through tens of thousands of people?

Finally, once you're done with the dungeon, you're done and you move on. But with a city, you want it to stick around for you, with all its possibilities, commerical opportunities, and allies. Wrecking a dungeon is much less consequential than wrecking a city, or otherwise turning it against you.

Hell, get me out of this city, with its taxes and tithes, its envious eyes, its rats and 8% chance of diseases, its teeming masses all looking for a chance to overbear you and roll your corpse for its suspiciously weighty cache of gold pieces and magic items! Put me in a nice, safe, predictable dungeon - that's where I know I can be the adventurer I want to be.

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

Hodgson's Old School Gaming Appeal

In my last post, I promised to explain why William Hope Hodgson's works have such appeal in old-school gaming circles. And it's not just because of small coincidences like pig-faced orcs or the "Keep on the Borderlands/House on the Borderland" thing.

Illustration by Philippe Druillet
First, as I explained last time, the morality of Hodgson's writing is based on contagion, resistance and disgust. Evil does not consist in things you choose to do, even less so in your motives for doing them. It is a thing you catch, or are overwhelmed by. This is obviously closer to the "pick a team" alignment of original and basic D&D, than the meticulous graphing of alignment as a consequence of character behaviors encouraged by AD&D.

But it's even more primal than Team Law vs. Team Chaos. It is quite simply a morality of physical and psychic survival against forces of evil with purely destructive intent. You never meet people who have gone over to the dark side and make the case for corruption in Hodgson's tales. The closest you get is seeing wretches who have become half-assimilated, who lacked the pluck to resist. Chaos is insidious, relentless, but ultimately voiceless if not completely mindless. It is closer to games where the number one concern is not sticking to alignment, but simple physical survival, and avoidance of such curses and level draining as would render the character useless even if still technically alive.

In these stories, the Enemy is so visibly inhuman that its side is never a temptation. Indeed, as soon as humans recognize each other in these bleak and desolate landscapes of the soul, there is an immediate urge to mutual aid which never falters. Betrayal is not an issue in Hodgson. There are no politics, no clash of vested interests or cultural worldviews; the largest issues between humans concern the tactics of fighting the visible evil. The enemy has no babies whose fate can be debated.

I know that many game tables have involved inter-player intrigue, and even more (including my own) mix up their straightforward adventuring with embroilments in the world of politics and religion. Certainly, allowing players to steal, backstab and otherwise compete with each other smacks of a freewheeling, juvenile style that many players quickly abandon. But there's also something of innocence lost when erstwhile adventurers find themselves in the thick of things with guilds, courtiers, and ambassadors. A more mature subject, maybe, but there's a reason Conan the Barbarian pined on the throne of Aquilonia for his freebooting younger days.

Hodgson's stories appeal to this straightforward spirit of adventure; a band set against inhuman evil, pledged to help each other. They may be working to save the village or the world, but there's no grubby running after the errands of some duke. It also helps that the evil enemies and landscapes are, with only a few exceptions, described so inventively and compellingly (I still think he could have done a better job with "The Hog" but the horrors of the other Carnacki stories, and their constant suspense between supernatural and rational explanations, are first rate). It is this same spirit, I'm convinced, that leads people steeped in intrigue-heavy social campaigns back to the raw experience of adventure, whether within the same campaign or between campaigns.

Speaking of which ... there's an issue I want to raise soon, which deals with the role of the town or city in adventure gaming. It has to do with a recent session in my own game. Stay tuned.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Fungi and Swine: William Hope Hodgson's Disgust Morality

William Hope Hodgson was an early 20th century imaginative writer whose fictions often show up on old-school gamers' "Appendix N" lists of inspirational material (here, here and here for example). I've been trying to come to grips with Hodgson's appeal and limitations ever since I discovered his works, most of which are in the public domain and available on Project Gutenberg.

Two themes in Hodgson's work deserve attention, both using physical contagion to achieve horror. One is found in his sea-stories, the best of which is the oft-cited "The Voice in the Night," and the longest of which is "The Boats of the Glen Carrig." In these and others, the sea and its shores, islands, sargassoes and ships adrift teems with biological menace. Whether fungoid, lignic, or cephalopod, there horrors all have a certain flabby and spongy quality. They promise death or worse by assimilating, by being assimilated, by infecting, by crawling on the flesh in the night and leaving slime and sucker marks. I consider "The Voice in the Night" the best of these tales because of its excellent framing, its focus on a single monstrosity, and most of all, the way in which the physical threat merges with a moral struggle.

This element leads us to the next theme - the strange moral cosmos of The House on the Borderland, The Night Land, and the Carnacki the Ghost Hunter stories, of which the most revelatory is "The Hog."  In this shared universe, humanity is menaced by dark forces of evil which lie outside a protective barrier but sometimes break through. The postscript of "The Hog" explains this in terms of a "defense" around the Earth that is energized by the Sun's rays and weakest at night. In the far future world of the Night Land, set after the sun has gone out, the barrier is rather smaller - a circle of white "Earth Current" that protects the great pyramid of the last known city on earth.

The evil forces are tangibly corrupting, with a very physical sense of contagion. Their most usual visual and auditory signature is porcine, in "The Hog" of course, but also in the house-besieging pig-men of Borderland, the strange swine-phantom of the later visions, and in certain of the ab-humans in the Night Land. The image of the abyss or pit also stands for this evil, and its colors are sickly greens and yellows. It is difficult to read Tolkien's description of Minas Morgul and Mordor without seeing an echo of Hodgson's infernal visions published thirty years earlier.

What fights against this evil? The most ordinary struggle involves the individual with courage to resist the darkness, physically and mentally. When people find each other in these tales they almost invariably band together, the stronger helping the weaker. Technology sometimes helps, whether the electric apparatus of Carnacki or the far-future devices in The Night Land. But less often, when it is most needed, there is a mysterious supernatural intervention that almost certainly symbolizes the theological grace of God - as when, at the climax of "The Hog" when the foul entity is about to break through, a green-banded blue barrier manifests itself to dispel the evil.

Interestingly, there is no human moral dimension to this evil. People do not come to it by their deeds, at least not against each other; but they can be infected or possessed by mere contact with it. There is no hint of the strong theme, running through Tolkien, that lust for riches and power is the root of evil, nor even the glimpse of a possibility that evil might tempt people to use expedient but morally corrupt means to fight it. Hodgson's evil is one of contagion, one of disease, one of disgust - man against the Other, having nothing to do with man against man.

This, I believe, explains why Hodgson's vision is only partly compelling in the modern day. In our everyday experience, what stands in for the Other, the ab-human? We cannot really hate nature that way any more, nor can we hate people of other races, cultures, and social strata just for what they are with a clean conscience. After the hundred horrible years that began with World War I - in which Hodgson lost his life, and Tolkien survived - most of us now understand that the Enemy is not the inhuman, but the all-too-human, our normal lusts to level, exalt, defend or attack magnified into systems of slavery and genocide. Disgust is no longer enough; anger at injustice must fuel our outrage for it to be justifiable.

I also think Hodgson put a wrong foot down in choosing the pig as his symbol of Otherly evil. This became evident this weekend as I performed a dramatic reading of "The Hog" to my wife. I am afraid to say that we couldn't help laughing at passages like this:
A sort of swinish clamouring melody that grunts and roars and shrieks in chunks of grunting sounds, all tied together with squealings and shot through with pig howls. I've sometimes thought there was a definite beat in it; for every now and again there comes a gargantuan GRUNT, breaking through the million pig-voiced roaring - a stupendous GRUNT that comes in with a beat. [...]
'And as I gazed I saw it grow bigger. A seemingly motionless, pallid swine-face rising upward out of the depth. And suddenly I realised that I was actually looking at the Hog.'
Or in Hodgson's Mythos-tome equivalent, the "Sigsand Manuscript," where the following passage occurs:
If in sleep or in ye hour of danger ye hear the voice of ye Hogge, cease ye to meddle.
I guess in an era when very few people have heard the cries of slaughtered pigs in the city or countryside, the pig has become a figure of fun, a cozy barnyard animal, bdee-bdee-bdee-that's-all-folks. As Lovecraft, a big fan of Hodgson, realized to good effect - it's the invertebrate Horrors from Outside that have real staying power, the tentacled and flabby and chitinous things. If Hodgson had used his marine horrors for his metaphysical threats we would indeed have something very close to Lovecraft.

Instead, the pig's enduring horror is that it is too close to human, close enough to transplant organs, as smart as a dog, and its fate is uniformly horrible - of all the animals of the farm it alone has no purpose except to be slaughtered for meat. William Golding understood this when he called the doomed boy in Lord of the Flies Piggy, and had the marooned boys erect a pig's head totem. Margaret Atwood's abnormally intelligent pigoons in Oryx and Crake are disturbing because they are us - engineered to carry human genes and twice the normal complement of organs for transplant purposes. I guess the pig as metaphysical unclean evil might fly better with a Muslim or devout Jewish audience, but for those that eat swine, the pig's potential for horror is that it is us; within, not outside.

Next: Why is Hodgson's fiction so appealing to the old-school style of adventure gamers?

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

All Saints' Eve Miscellany

Happy Halloween! I'm on the road, but got time for a few quick cool things.

Do yourself a favor and check out this Cracked photo parade which has material for at least 10 Call of Cthulhu cases. Hail Nyarlathotep!

This is why you should never roll without backup in the medieval city:

I agree that the Purple Worm is the ultimate thing. Except for the Tatzelwurm, king of the Bavarian Underdark:

The plan to rob the wizard one coin at a time went fine, up to a point.

Monday, 29 October 2012

Extremely Crass and Noisy: Gryllus for Monster Monday

The Gryllus is an interesting case for my Monstrous Monday Monster. I statted him up on a piece of typing paper in high-school, having seen him lurking under the furniture and around the bend in more than one Hieronymus Bosch painting (statuettes for sale at the EMuseum Store):

My Spanish book on Bosch identified this kind of creature as a Gryllus, etymology unknown - is it from the Latin for "cricket" or a reference to the crewman of the Odyssey who begged Circe not to change him back from pig to man? Anyway, the Gryllus appears all over in medieval iconography, whenever a manuscript-doodling monk or a cathedral carver got tired of doing torsos:

No-body on the right, no-head on the left.
And okay I'm going to let my 16 year old self take care of the rest of this post, vomit lakes, ordure bogs and all. Stats in parentheses are for the "Bakarout" sub-variety. I think these guys were meant to be the manes/larva equivalent for Tarterus. Ka-scan!

click to enlarge

As a bonus, here's a partially revised version of the gryllus, with improved (?) color illustrations, new stats, and a spiffy two-column layout - forecasting 2nd edition D&D in 1983! - that I never got around to finishing.

click to enlarge
And how would I stat them today, stripped down for generic Old School games?

Knight Gryllus: HD 3, AC 3 [16], MV 6, atk: bite d3 (wounds only heal from rest), spiked headbutt d6; def: non-magical weapons do half damage round down, mind: low, size: 0 (small), xp: 3 HD + 2 minor abilities.
(Visor down: AC 1 [18] but no bite)

Mage/Monk Gryllus: HD 2+2, AC 6 [13], MV 3, atk: bite d3 (wounds only heal from rest), spells as 4th level wizard/cleric, def: non-magical weapons do half damage round down, mind: high, size: 0 (small), xp: 2+2 hd + 1 major and 2 minor abilities.

Sunday, 28 October 2012

How I Do Silhouettes

So, let's say I want to do one of my public domain silhouettes (see latest zip file, to the right.)

I took some "snapshots" of the process along the way as I was doing one for a weretiger recently. I'll take the lesson about halfway to where I have a decent tiger silhouette, but not go into what I did to "humanize" the tiger outline.

First, I do a Google search for "public domain tiger" and get this fairly clean black & white illustration. This part of the hunt is the most difficult but also the most fun. I check that it's actually in the public domain (the source site,, is pretty trustworthy).

The graphics software I use is GIMP 2, which is freeware. I'm still not fully conversant with its use of layers, but know some tricks to get around the annoying aspect of them.

First I copy the tiger from the image, then paste the tiger directly in a new GIMP window from the clipboard, using control-shift-V.

The next step is to clear away the background lines around the tiger. We want to get it to where the tiger outline floats free of the rest.

Next, a little darkening and reduction to plain black-and-white needs to be done, or the silhouette will have gray edges that interfere with the clean black line of the final transparent image. I usually accomplish this by turning the image's "brightness" down and "contrast" up using "Brightness/Contrast" in the Colors menu. Make sure the picture is in RGB format (Image > Mode menu) or this won't work.
We now have a darker-lined tiger with more complete lines. For extra assurance that the image is only black and white use the Posterize command under Colors and ask for only 2 colors. If you get weird colors, the image is not a true monochrome; use "Desaturate" under Colors to get it that way. 

Using the "fuzzy select" tool to the right of the lasso, I select the tiger, cut it out, select all, delete, and paste the tiger back in. There may be some trouble with layers here, but a control-H (to anchor the image) and control-A (to select the whole area) usually solves that. I then do some additional removal of extraneous lines and adding in dark spots to complete the outline, until the tiger is pretty solid:
Notice that this isn't the greatest stand-alone silhouette because the tiger's front legs overlap each other. You'll see that this will look a little weird in the final version. I don't mind because I want to edit out the legs and add in some human-like arms for the weretiger continuation, but having well-defined limbs is something to keep in mind when picking pictures for silhouettes.

Now here's the trick that saves a lot of work. Making sure that the tiger outline is complete, get the bucket fill tool and choose some color neither black nor white to fill the outside area. If there are spaces inside the silhouette, like the gap between an arm and body, those need to be filled too.

Now use the "Select By color" option from the Select menu to grab the red part. Cut it, select all, delete the screen (after returning the color picker to black foreground/white background) and paste it back in, finishing with control-h control-a:

And bucket fill the white with black, then go to Layer > Transparency > Color to Alpha:

Alpha is the channel that makes your image transparent, usually a good feature in a silhouette. Here, you should pick the same color that you used to fill around the outline - in this case, red. That will give you a final silhouette that has a transparent background and can go anywhere.

And so, there you go. Not too bad in spite of the weirdness with the front legs, and by the time I've turned it into a weretiger it looks like this:

Caught mid-transformation, with a little shear applied for weirdness, and a couple of ape arms glued on ... anyway, this is how I do 'em!