Friday, 21 October 2016

And Even Something Called A Firbolg!

I love it when non-D&D people write about D&D. Guess what! With Volo’s Guide both dungeon masters and players will be able to bring new races to the table, both as player and non-player characters. That includes rules for goblins, orcs and even something called a "firbolg."

Ooh! New races, you say? And as player and non-player characters as well? And what's a firbolg? It sounds awesome.

I should ignore articles like this, because I am just not the target audience and I am also the kind of person who gets profoundly annoyed by people telling me things like "we are living in a post-Game of Thrones world". But still, I can't help but feel that the really interesting and innovative thing to do - the thing that would really set DMs free, expand their minds, empower them, and "inspire new stories at the table" - would be a Monster Manual without the stats, the banal descriptions, the leaden prose, the amusing pseudo-narratives, the prescriptions, the stats. It would have nothing in fact but art. 196 pages of pictures of monsters. Just pictures. No words, except for a short introduction: "Do what you want with this."

That is a bestiary I would pay good money for. Volo can go fuck himself.

Thursday, 20 October 2016

Interactive Fiction and Restricted Geography

For a short period of time, I'd say around 2008 or so, I got into what was in my youth called "text adventures" but is nowadays called "interactive fiction" or IF. As with lots of nerd pursuits, it turned out that somewhere between 1985 and 2008, people got a bit serious about what had hitherto been perceived as a childish thing, and did some quite innovative and artistic things with the form. I strongly recommend having a look at some of the work of Adam Cadre and Emily Short, for example. ("Photopia" and "Shrapnel" by Cadre are particular favourites.)

For that short period I tried to experiment with writing my own IF using the natural language programming tool Inform 7. I didn't have the patience for it, though, mainly because I think I was too ambitious and always ended up biting off more than I could chew: too many rooms, too many items, too much detail, too much to keep track of.

Which brings me to what I always rather liked about IF: restricted geography. A good short and interesting IF game works by giving the player a number of room-like locations (these could be natural or artificial) - certainly no more than, say, 20, and enough for the player to get to know and memorise into a mental map. There are a similarly restricted number of NPCs, items and puzzles - again, enough for the player to get to know and work out the relations between. There is skill in doing new and interesting things in that restricted literal and conceptual geography (you can only visit a certain number of places; you can only speak to a certain number of people, etc.), but there is also a certain value added for the player too: getting an intimate and detailed knowledge of place is itself, in its own way, fun. There is something almost territorial about it: the human need to get to know a certain area around you very well and force it to be familiar.

(Think of the last time you went to a new town or city, even if it was just a business trip for a few days, or whatever. What was the first thing you did? For me after dumping my bag in the hotel it's to walk about the neighbourhood and figure out what's what and where's where - to make it mine.)

This is why I like the idea of a location-based adventure or even campaign: a manor house, a cathedral and cloisters, a village, a palace, a castle, a tower and its grounds, and so on - an area which the PCs can really get their teeth into, and whose restricted geography facilitates that. (Of course, the key to any good location-based campaign is that the PCs are free to leave if they want to - but it's too interesting for that to happen.) A place which, through repetitive visits, the PCs get to know and understand in detail.

The Seclusium of Orphone should really have been a way of facilitating that sort of game - and does to a degree (I was surprised how well that book worked in practice to create a gameable location with a bit of work) - but I think there is space for something better and more expansive. Something which provides tools for coming up with restricted but detailed geographical spaces for a more small-scale and detailed type of game.

Tuesday, 18 October 2016

Paint Me A Picture

I have been reading a bit about The Arnolfini Portrait. I am not an art historian. But I get the impression that The Arnolfini Portrat is, to art history, a bit like what Hamlet is to English literature: the puzzle of what it actually means is, in a way, more interesting than the actual artifact itself.

The painting is of course fraught with symbolism and alternative readings, but what is probably more interesting is the idea that the painting actually symbolised something very tangible and, in fact, legal. Erwin Panofsky thought that the painting was itself an official record of the marriage Giovanni di Arnolfini and his wife, because Jan van Eyck was a notary as well as an artist, and makes such a big point of inserting himself into the painting as though witnessing the ceremony. This makes the painting a kind of unconventional and remarkable instantiation of a marriage contract. Linda Seidel, on the other hand, thought that the painting was almost a receipt for the dowry which Arnolfini's father-in-law paid (or was arranging to pay): the picture is an official record - a statement to the effect that "I have given this guy a heck of a lot of money and him and his family had better not weasel out of the arrangement if they know what's good for them. And look, this painting proves it."

Whether these interpretations are true or not doesn't matter: listen, in the 1430s in Bruges it was plausible that Italian merchant banking dynasties used phenomenally beautiful paintings for practical purposes in ways which to us seem entirely strange.

Let's make this game-able. Forget your 3000 copper pieces; art as treasure is much more interesting. But art in a D&D world doesn't have to be simply something aesthetically beautiful to steal/find and then sell. Art in a D&D world might mean all kinds of things.

Maybe in storm giant society, family history is recorded visually in decorations on big pottery jugs. A storm giant matriarch might do anything to recover one if lost (or might agree to anything if one was threatened with destruction).

Maybe for an ancient civilization, totems or idols were carved which, if interpreted correctly in the right sequence, show the direction to special locations. Maybe somebody would pay a lot of money for the missing idol in the sequence, or maybe the PCs come across the whole set.

Maybe for a certain cult of assassins, it is important for religious reasons to paint a picture of every victim in a certain symbolic setting to indicate why they were killed. If you come across one of these paintings you can possibly figure all of this out.

Or maybe the cult of assassins will only kill somebody if they are provided with a painting of that person in advance.

Or, to bring it back to Arnolfini: imagine you were a rich merchant banker and had given your son-in-law a huge lump sum of money to ensure your daughter was looked after until her death. You had this evidenced by the creation of a sumptuous painting. Now imagine it gets stolen or lost.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Preliminary Thoughts on Mapping a Tree

Thinking about the Fixed World led me a while back to speculate that in a land where it was always daytime and always summer there would be plants the size of buildings - and trees the size of skyscrapers or even bigger. That led me to think about a megadungeon that is a single vast tree.

This morning I started thinking about how you might map a tree that is basically a country.

The above picture is a diagram of a tree which stands in my garden.

All the major branches and the trunk are interconnected, on a tree. Anybody can travel between them if they are capable of moving along those branches. But then once you get away from the major branches there are vastly complicated networks of smaller branches and twigs that it would be impossible to actually map.

It makes more sense, then, to divide the tree up into zones. Away from all the major branches radiate networks, which are the different zones marked A, B, C, D, and E. (F is a separate zone where there used to be a big branch, which fell off.)

The red arrows are an attempt to illustrate depth - if the arrow is pointing down it indicates that the branch sort of comes back towards the viewer and if the arrow is pointing up it indicates the branch sort of points away. No arrow indicates the branch is side-on.

Then within each zone there are 4 sectors. Where sectors overlap with each other (A2 and B3, C4 and B2, C2 and D1, C3 and D3, and D4 and E1) travel between zones is possible by going between leaves and twigs in the different zones.

Within each sector there is no need to map anything - you just need to make a note of what is in each sector. It is presumed that there are ways of travelling within sectors fairly straightforwardly, because people will have built up ropeways, spider-silk bridges and whatnot to allow interconnectedness. So if you are in A2 you may have to travel for a day to visit the wizard who makes his home on a certain twig in A3, but you can do it.

All zones and sectors connect with what is called the outer canopy, which is obviously the outer bit which is all leaves, buds, and the very thinnest narrowest twigs. Out there it is probably impossible to build anything because of wind and rain and because of the activities of giant forest animals. Adventurers willing to risk that danger can go out into the outer canopy and use it to traverse the tree if they desire (for example from E3 to A3), but doing so will incur a huge risk.

I have no idea whether this would work or not in a game.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Sperm Whale DMing

"I felt a bit like a sperm whale that breaks the surface of the water, makes a little splash, and lets you believe, makes you believe, or want to believe, that down there where it can't be seen, down there where it is neither seen nor monitored by anyone, it is following a deep, coherent, and premeditated trajectory." - M. Foucault, lecture of 7th January 1976

A lot of bloggers and RPG publishers (I include myself in this) are a little like how Foucault describes himself here. Every so often you rise to the surface of the ocean and make a little splash in the form of a blogpost that hints to the world at large that you are working on something unfathomable and yet epic and brilliant in scope. Yet this may well be entirely a mirage - a glimpse of something that is in fact disorganised, chaotic, and barely moving forward at all.

But that is not what I want to post about here. Rather, I want to discuss the importance of the DM as sperm whale.

Sperm whale DMing is, as frequently as is appropriate, hinting that there are things going on beneath the surface of the campaign setting that are seismic and important - so important, indeed, that the PCs operate in a completely different sphere and cannot yet get at them. There are plots. There are movements. There are strategies. There are wars being fought, struggles being played out, loves being lost, dreams being won, seasons turning on different time scales, geological movements, symphonies being written, eras changing, things happening. The low-level PCs only get the tiniest hints, the merest whispers, of all of this. It is only as they get more powerful, more influential, more noticeable, more knowledgeable, that they start to pull at the threads and unravel the veils and turn over the rocks and look behind the curtains. The DMs role is just, every now and then, to ensure that there is just a little splash on the surface to hint at what is going on in the ocean currents below.

The crucial point here is that it does not matter whether the DM is actually following deep, coherent and premeditated trajectories. It is nice and interesting for him if he is. But at the same time, you can build those trajectories in a decentralised and disaggregated fashion, from the belly up: you can drop hints and whisper rumours and scatter clues without the foggiest clue how they all link together or what they mean. What you have is time. Time to ruminate and time to see where and what the PCs dig. You can build those deep trajectories from what you hint at, rather than the other way around.

That is, what you are really doing as you drop the hints and whisper the rumours and scatter the clues is planting the seeds for what you are going to work with later. Some examples of things a DM might throw into a campaign without any idea of future pathways:

-A man in a cape who the PCs see every now and then in the distance when it is raining.
-Rumours of something called The Sapphire Tower - a building whose location nobody knows, as it always seems to change.
-The aftermath of an assassination of some important NPC in which the assassin has apparently just killed himself.

All these things might just occur to the DM off the top of his head, or appear, perhaps, as random table results. It may be a year later that the PCs enter the castle of a storm giant and the DM decides, wouldn't it be fun if the man in the cape was the storm giant's servant and he has been watching the PCs for some time? It may be two years later that the PCs finally find out that The Sapphire Tower only appears after a rainbow or on the 366th day of a leap year, and that it is connected to some arch mage NPC who they have heard about in the meantime since the rumour was first dropped. Or it might be 10 sessions later that they discover that the assassination was carried out by the thieves' guild they have been working for and the DM has finally figured out the reason why. And maybe it's 10 sessions after that when the DM figures out how all those strands are tied together and are related to something deeper yet.

Friday, 30 September 2016

Eulogy for a White Ape: On Bathos, Shaggy Dogs, and Archaeology

My character died last week. It was an exemplification of bathos. It has made me revisit that topic - one which I wrote about, I think usefully, before.

The PC in question was a mute white ape, called "The White Ape". The game uses a variant of the Into the Odd ruleset, which basically balances out character generation by giving statistically weaker PCs better/more interesting stuff to start off with. I rolled ridiculously good stats, so I ended up with a difficult starting position: hence, a mute white ape.

I decided early on that my white ape was not going to be a raging John Carter of Mars-style brutish simian, but a contemplative, Buddhist, vegetarian Orang-Utan figure with unusually progressive attitudes. While he was immensely strong and hence useful for that purpose, he tended to rely on his strength reluctantly. He was accompanied everywhere by another PC, an old woman, who he carried around on his shoulders, and who was ostensibly his "mistress" even though they were both classical liberals opposed to slavery.

Playing a mute character is tough. You can't really contribute a great deal to any sort of planning or interaction with NPCs. But I was interested in the white ape and how things were progressing for him.

Last session, for complicated reasons, it was decided that my white ape was going to enter into gladiatorial combat with a crab-man at a festival for the sake of a bet. The crab-man was owned by a powerful slug-man merchant who it already seemed was going to turn into some sort of arch-enemy. There was a lot riding on the bet: if we won, we would receive a big payment of the food which we needed for further expeditions and prevent our hirelings deserting us. If we lost, we would lose vast riches and be in even direr straits than before. (You may legitimately ask why we took on the bet in the first place rather than just buying food - we couldn't do this because, I think, the counterparty to the bet had lots of food and wouldn't give it to us through a straight trade.)

The white ape was a little reluctant to participate in these brutish games but agreed to do so for the greater good, and played up his role by acting as ferociously and aggressively as he could. The fight was an entertaining back and forth in which the white ape showed off his judo skills and the crab-man use its speed and armour to inflict serious injuries. Eventually the white ape ripped off one of the crab-man's forearms and began opening and shutting the claws in mocking triumph while the crowd bayed for blood...

At this point, if games were like films (or if we were playing a game which excluded random elements or the DM was in favour of fudging) my white ape would have gone on to win the fight and be lauded for his bravery and strength. We would have got the food we needed, made an enemy in the form of the slug-man, and my white ape would have won greater respect from the party and also perhaps further developed a conflict in his character between societal expectations of brutality and his own sensitive nature.

But instead, the crab-man had one last attack which gave the white ape a serious injury, I spectacularly failed a save, and the ape was finished. He lay there semi-conscious and hors de combat, trying to communicate to the crab-man that there were no hard feelings and that the two of them were, in the grand scheme of things, mere pawns together at the whim of the imperialist forces which oppressed them. Rather than suffer the ignominy of having the crab-man finish me off, the leader of the party blew the white ape's brains out with a pistol. We lost the bet and most of our wealth and now we are in an even worse position than before.

This is what dice and randomization can do - they throw off what might be thought of as narrative convention. If you were telling a story or playing an RPG whose aim was to consciously create a story, you would not have allowed this to happen - bathos is not conventionally satisfying. Some DMs would have fudged the crab-man's attack roll or figured out some way to let the white ape survive because the session ended on such an anticlimax. But that is not what we're playing for.
Rather, we're playing to see what happens. The more I think about it, the more it seems to me that there is space to make this an explicit goal or design choice in a set of rules for RPGs.

The model for a good RPG campaign is not really a film or novel, but a shaggy dog story. That's not to suggest that what goes on in the game has to always be funny or frivolous - but rather, that it is a long and ongoing process of events which are connected to each other by a thread of cause and effect (however loose), not conventional narrative drama.

Think of it this way. An RPG campaign is a concatenation of events. A happens, which causes B to happen, which causes C to happen, all the way to Z and back again. What is interesting is how, after the event, you can see how all of those events were connected. The satisfaction comes from being able to look back at that long chain, at each link in it, and see retrospectively how it all came to pass. An unpredictable and impossible-to-make-up sequence of happenings all following on from one another as if they were following some strange path that was not at any stage consciously created. If there is any point at which the chain of causation was fiddled with, by connivance between DM and players or by fudging, it seems to me that something is lost. You can't, at the end point of a campaign, look back at all of the things that happened and say, "Ah, yes, what a great long chain of surprising events, all connected to one another in interesting ways by the mystery of chance and the phenomenon of causation." Instead, you have to say, "Ah yes, what a great long chain of pre-planned events following the conventions of narrative." The former seems more interesting to me: like a documentary, history book or biography rather than a novel.

Indeed, maybe those terms are more useful even than "shaggy dog story" - an RPG campaign is archaeology rather than fiction: an archaeology of made-up events that you can only uncover by looking at it backwards. It all makes sense in the end, in its own way, but not because of convention or cliche - but because it couldn't be otherwise. It is what happened.

Tuesday, 27 September 2016

Of Night and Day and Heart Beat Time

I have been thinking some more about day to day life in the Fixed World, mainly because I am a player in Patrick's game, which is set in a world where it is basically always night.

The most significant logistical problem for anybody wanting to run a campaign in the Fixed World is sleep. In some places it is always night, in others always mid-day, in others always morning, and in others always evening. How do people figure out when to sleep in such a world?

It strikes me that things would work out as follows.

First, in ye olden times, people knew what the time was in their local region, but had little conception of what it was outside it. As far as you were concerned, in your village, there was morning, noon and night, and the sun moved around in its cycles, and you slept during the night time. The fact a few days' travel to the North or South the night would come slightly earlier or later depending on the time of year would be neither here nor there. You wouldn't care, because you would rarely leave your own village and the area around it.

So for the vast majority of the population, "when to sleep" is just a matter of local custom, determined by tiredness or some sort of arcane ritual. Perhaps the oldest person in the village decides, when he gets tired, that it is time for everybody to sleep. He gives some signal - rings a bell, puts up smoke rings, etc. - and that's the cue for most people to sleep while others keep watch. A big element of war would be trying to catch your enemies out when they are mostly asleep. Alternatively, a system might evolve in which the custom is that different people sleep at different times in a sort of rota: about a quarter of the population would be asleep at any one time, with the others hunting, farming, and going about their business. This means, of course, that there would be no downtime - work would go on continually.

The point is, it doesn't particularly matter that the people in village X have different sleep patterns to those in village Z. It doesn't concern them because they don't live in a world in which instantaneous communication exists, and for the vast majority of the time they exist in a purely local context. It would only chiefly matter for ports - you would get ships arriving without any idea whether the locals would be currently asleep or not. Ports would pretty much have to follow the sleep-rota model.

Planning would be extremely difficult, of course, because you wouldn't be able to say "I'll meet you in an hour" or "I'll meet you in the evening" - those concepts wouldn't really exist. Because the sun doesn't move, there are no hours. I think, probably, people would develop a very sophisticated understanding of other units of time - for instance, heart beats. Most adults' heart beats have an approximately similar rate. Because there would be no other way of doing it, I expect that people would have units of heartbeats - so while you wouldn't say "I'll meet you in an hour", you would say something like "I'll meet you in 100 time units", each time unit being 100 heart beats. It would be so crucial to be able to measure the world in this approximate way that people would be able to very accurately estimate what the real, "normal" heart beat rate was if, for example, they had been doing lots of running. They would be very good at roughly guessing how many time units are passing as they go about their business.

(This reminds me a little of Lewis Carroll's musings about the international date line.)

For kingdoms and empires, official measurement of time might be more important than simply figuring out when to sleep. Things like weeks, months and years are very convenient - it is hard to imagine people being satisfied saying "The Battle of Waterloo happened about 2 million hours ago." What you would want is a system of units: an A is 100 heart beats; a B is 10 As, a C is 10 Bs, and so on. And you would want to keep track of that in a standardized way. That would mean standardization of what a heart beat constitutes. It doesn't matter that the hoi polloi in the provinces use rough and ready rules of thumb. For official purposes there has to be a standard rate. And this would have to be the same wherever officialdom reigned.

I imagine a kingdom where the keeping of time is deemed important. Each major settlement is required to be on the same footing as regards when events have occurred or will occur. So they all need to have the same official heart beat rate.

How this is arranged is as follows. Some people exist whose reason for living is to provide a regular heart beat. These people are carefully selected when they reach the age of thirteen: every child is at that age brought to their nearest major town. There, if their heart beat happens to exactly match the required rate, they are immediately taken from their parents and sequestered as time pieces. They are from that moment forbidden to exert themselves in any way, and ensconsed in chambers where there is no external stimulus. They are kept constantly drugged with a special gas which regulates their breathing and prevents them from having any sort of emotional spasm which would cause their heart rate to fluctuate. They live in this way, in a sort of suspended animation, while their heart rate is continually monitored: there is an entire caste of monks whose job it is to take it in turns to sit and listen to the heart beat of the human time piece, all the while making small marks on a piece of parchment with each heartbeat. After 5,000 heart beats, the first monk steps aside and another swiftly takes his place to continue the marking. And these monks are surrounded by a host of neophytes and acolytes who constantly replenish the parchment and ink and carry it away to be officially counted. And in a room next door are the official counters, piling up all the many sheafs of parchment, each of which is marked 5,000 times for 5,000 heart beats. And each pile of 5,000 sheafs makes 25 million. And so on and so on. Entire rooms, warehouses, filled with paper, all marked with tiny stripes of ink, so that if anybody asks, they know when it was that such-and-such an event occurred - how many sheafs ago it was that the storm came, or the ship sank, or the meteor fell from the sky.....

Alternatively, a wizard does it.

Monday, 26 September 2016

D&D in the Media Watch and the End of Social Media

D&D gets a mention in this article in The Grauniad today. "[R]ole-play titles such as Dungeons & Dragons, in which players imagine themselves as heroic warriors and wizards in imaginary, fantasy worlds..."

There is a typically Guardian spin put on what it calls "the rise and rise of tabletop gaming" - the writer attributes it at least partly to the fact that apparently board games nowadays allow everybody to be nice to each other and cooperate, rather than those horrible traumatic competitive games of yesteryear like, er, Monopoly and Cluedo. (Trigger warning for competitiveness!)

The fact that board games are sociable and allow us to re-connect with the physical world is surely more to do with it. One should never make predictions, of course, but here's one: board games and RPGs are going to grow in popularity and this is going to be correlated with larger numbers of people quitting or taking "detoxes" from social media and smartphones.

Friday, 23 September 2016

I'm not a Businessman, I'm a Business, Man

I am ambivalent about the lionization of the entrepreneur which has been a growing feature of British society since as long as I can remember. I am half-persuaded by the view that the end state of modern neo-liberal capitalism is a society in which all of the behaviour of homo economicus becomes subjected to market rationalities and theories of exchange until there is nothing left except rational (or irrational) actors existing in atomised isolation - a society in which everybody is an entrepreneur because human social contact is only competition and exchange and nothing else.

But I am also half-persuaded by the idea that it would be great to write RPGs for a living. What would I need to be able to do this?

I stress that this post is not serious. I like the "proper" job which I have and I'm not about to quit it. And I think a life of sitting alone at a keyboard trying to create things would quickly turn me into some sort of long-bearded, filthy weirdo. Human company and variety are important.

However, the freedom to just do something you enjoy, free from the constraints of management or control, sounds very fulfilling. I have worked out that I would probably need to produce a Yoon-Suin every two months in order to be able to live in the manner "to which I have become accustomed" based on prior performance. If I got better with pricing, budgeting, marketing and all of that jazz, then who knows? Could be every three or four months.

Could I do that? Perhaps I could. Free from all other time constraints, I might be able to write things that quickly. On the other hand, the model is based on the heroic assumptions that I could write things that are consistently as good, that the market could bear a new thing by me every three months or so, and that my financial circumstances wouldn't change. Perhaps the most heroic assumption of all is that the pressure to produce wouldn't play on my mind until I was living like a crazed rat. And I want to be a crazed rat even less than a long-bearded filthy weirdo.

We think about money a lot. The requirement to make it limits our freedom. But at the same time, freedom and money are inextricably linked - the more you have of the latter, the more you have of the former. It is because I have money, at least a reasonable salary, that I do not feel the pressures and worries that might very well cripple and restrict me from doing anything creative at all. It is because I have the freedom that comes with money that I can create. By some strange perversity, if I had more freedom my capacity to create might be critically undermined.

"I listen to money singing. It's like looking down from long french windows at a provincial town, the slums, the canals, the churches ornate and mad in the evening sun. It is intensely sad."

Thursday, 22 September 2016

Shadowrun, Future Maztica and Wood Pigeons

Zak S wrote a post about Shadowrun. In the G+ comments I wrote:

I have written about this before on my blog I think. (I have written so many entries by know I forget what I have actually published and what was just an idea for a post which I never wrote.) Cyberpunk as a genre really works best when predicated on the notion that it is fiction about the people who the future has left behind. That's the relentless focus of Gibson's work anyway. I think there is scope for doing the same with Shadowrun. There is now magic in the world, and elves and dragons and whatnot, so the focus is PCs as members of the measly non-magical human race, trying to make a go of it. Fundamentally though, I think Shadowrun is just kind of a naff concept. Even though I played it a lot back in the day.

As Zak rightly points out, it is all very well saying that, but it is functionally the equivalent of what Shadowrun is anyway: "the basic assumption that Shadowrun PCs are low-level mercenaries caught between massive feudal corporations". How do you actually practically make a different form of Shadowrun in which the PCs are part of an anachronistic underclass superannuated by the introduction of magic into the world? I think the broader question here is: Shadowrun is really just Cyberpunk 2020 but with Tolkien furniture all over it (an orc sofa here; an elf desk there; a dragon lava lamp in the corner). It is the ultimate high concept but the concept is only barely, let's say pathetically, followed through. It is Cyberpunk 2020 except you can be an orc and/or a magic user in it, if you want. I don't think that is really good enough.

A while ago I wrote a post about Future Maztica, following an idea I had to try to subvert the absurd, stupid and boring decision to make DM's Guild all about the Forgotten Realms. Let's use this as a starting point, because Future Maztica interests me a heck of a lot more than Shadowrun's default of orcs, elves and dragons. The basic idea of Future Maztica is fantasy Aztecs in the future. There are humans but there are also manscorpions, tabaxi, and yuan-ti, and they, being more powerful, are in charge. Because it's Shadowrun, this happened fairly recently - the world was as it was in 2016. Then it was 2017 and things changed.

What we instantly need to get away from is cybernetic implants and cyberspace. If there was magic in the world, and there were manscorpions and tabaxi and yuan-ti running the show, they wouldn't have any want or need for cybernetic implants, or for that matter the internet or railguns or e-cigarettes. They've got magic. And they come from an orthogonal plane of reality - what they are interested in is just fundamentally not what we are interested in. Social media? Those words have no meaning to a manscorpion. And their claws are rubbish on keyboards.

Rather, it is the superannuated underclass of humans in this society who are using the cybernetic implants and cyberspace. We, the underlings, are still scrabbling around with our smart phones and our laptops and our social media and our televisions - those quaint, innocent tools.

By the same token, what need have the yuan-ti for the limited liability company? What is economic profit to a tabaxi? For them, financial derivatives are little different to the conch shells which neanderthals might swap for the corpse of a deer.

My inkling is this: if Future Maztica were real, we would not understand the goals, drives, ambitions and desires of the elite which in effect ruled us. To us, these alien spirits, who use a "technology" (magic) which we simply cannot fully comprehend, whose minds are totally different to ours, and who are in all probability much more intelligent than us, would come across as being arbitrary and capricious. It wouldn't do much good to try to pre-empt their actions - we would be fundamentally reactive.

In a sense, we would be a little like the real Aztecs were when faced with the conquistadors for the first time, or like the Australian aborigines were when faced with European colonisers. There is a tale (which may be apocryphal) which tells us that the people of Central America thought that men riding on horseback were one animal on first sight - because the idea of a man riding a horse (they had never even seen horses or imagined such a thing existed) was so alien to them. Similarly, there is another (possibly also apocryphal) tale that when Australian aborigines first saw a European sailing ship they described it using their word for an evil spirit, because that was all they could really conceptualise it as. The difference, of course, is that real Aztecs and Australian aborigines were humans just like the Europeans were humans, no less intelligent, and could very quickly figure out what these interlopers were, what they wanted, and what their technology could do. But manscorpions, tabaxi and yuan-ti (at least as I think of them) are more intelligent, and not human, and do not use technology which functions on the basis of laws of physics that we know of. So we would be in a position of permanent befuddlement and mystery about precisely what these ruling classes could do; we might be able, after a fashion, to guess at motives and abilities and beliefs, but nothing more than that.

Perhaps a better analogy is animals. Think of the animals you interact with regularly - your dog, cat or budgie, or the birds you put seeds out for in the garden. Those animals don't really understand who you are or why you are doing it. They simply don't have the intelligence nor the shared assumptions. They can react to, and to an extent predict, what you are going to do - but they don't know why it is happening. I have a few bird feeders in my garden. When I put new seed in it, a few wood pigeons and collared doves are always watching. This is because they know that when I do that, it won't be long before the local flock of sparrows (who assign a lookout - I've noticed this too) come along and start to eat it, but they're so messy that the majority of the seed ends up on the lawn for the wood pigeons to scoff. None of these actors knows who I am, why I put seed out, or how I get the seed - I suppose we can ponder to what extent they understand that I am actually doing it rather than the seed spontaneously being there shortly after I have visited the feeder. But they can arrange their behaviour by watching this all unfold and learning from it. Humans in Future Maztica would be a bit like that.

So Future Maztica would be a society which is not so much divided along lines of technology and wealth, as in a cyberpunk society. Rather, it would be a society which is divided along more stark, naked grounds: knowledge, and hence power. There is an elite which rules because it is manifestly more intelligent and powerful. It has no particular interest in anything as prosaic as wealth - because that is just a means to an end, at which they are already located.

What do the PCs in such a game do, then? How does all of this depart from "the basic assumption that Shadowrun PCs are low-level mercenaries caught between massive feudal corporations"?

The touchstone, I think, is more Call of Cthulhu than Cyberpunk. The game would be more about figuring things out than it would be about stealing. What happens in a Call of Cthulhu game, if you boil it down to its essence? The PCs have all sorts of different clues about things, and discover more; gradually they tease out some tiny threads that hint at a grand tapestry underneath. They will never get the full picture because that would go against everything Lovecraft's fiction stands for. They learn a tiny bit. Then they go insane.

Future Maztica would be something like this. I picture a society in which "the 1%" are something entirely different - weird magical beings which have manifested in this world from another reality. They create a separate layer of society which exists above but also in parallel with ours - we still have our countries, our politicians, our economies and maybe even our wars, but overarching all of that is another social reality whose nature is unknowable. It all goes on somewhere else: in vast complexes behind huge walls, or underground, or on airships, or any other place that is inaccessible to the human hoi polloi. Sometimes the two different societies interface with one another, but this happens seemingly randomly or in a fashion which can't easily be predicted - like, for instance, when the manscorpions descend to order Mr Smith to give them his firstborn, or when the yuan-ti order the government of Sri Lanka to eject the Brazilian ambassador, or when human powers exercise their agency to call on the tabaxi for aid in return for some obscure task or gift.

The PCs' "job", such as it is, is to try and see behind all of this - to get a glimpse at the knowledge and power possessed by the magical elite. Their motives are akin to those of Call of Cthulhu investigators - they want knowledge for its own sake; they want power; they want information to help them; they are searching for somebody lost or taken, etc. They are not "punks" on the make. They are doing paranormal research, except that it is acknowledged fact that the paranormal exists, is fact, and exercises great power over the "real" world. They are trying to tease out some of the threads of the grand tapestry beneath. Or, to put it another way, they are pigeons trying to figure out how best to get some seeds from a bird feeder.