Friday, 30 November 2012


In the lush valleys of Sughd live a race of giant, intelligent arachnids: the ophiliones. Omnivorous, they are as likely to eat fungus or guano as flesh, but they will not reject an opportunity to devour succulent human meat.

In combat, ophiliones attack with their two forelegs, with which they attempt to drag prey towards the powerful maw. They are by nature cowards, however, and they have two detachable legs (which they can regrow) to distract their enemies as they flee.

Armour Class: 5
HD: 3+1
Move: 180' (60')
Attacks: 2
Damage: 1d6/1d6
No. Appearing: 2d6
Save As: F1
Morale: 6
Treasure: Nil
Intelligence: 8
Alignment: Neutral 
If both leg attacks hit, the ophilione drags the target to its mouth and bites for d8+1 damage; this hits automatically.  
If an ophilione loses 75% of hits hit points or more, it will flee and shed two of its legs. These legs fight on as 1 HD monsters, with AC 7 and doing d4 damage.  
A successful hit on an ophilione has a 10% chance of dislodging one of its detachable legs, in which case the leg will fight separately from the host as above. 

Wednesday, 28 November 2012

On Creating New Monsters

Creating a truly new monster is difficult, and perhaps impossible: there is some fundamental failure of human imagination which means that we are very often forced into the simple "giant this" or "this with a this" or "this which can this" paradigm; as in:

Griffin: a lion with eagle head and wings

Medusa: a woman with snakes for hair which can turn people to stone

Beholder: giant eye which can float

This is even true of people like H P Lovecraft, who is often set forth as one of the most imaginative and inventive fantasy writers of the past 100 years: in the end, for all that Call of Cthulhu is a spooky story which admirably communicates the Lovecraftian ideal of inscrutable and never-ending indifferent evil, Cthulhu is merely a humanoid dragon with an octopus head. He is a "this with a this", or, if you are being charitable, a "this crossed with this with a this". 

I've been sitting at my desk trying my damnedest to think of monsters that are truly novel, without antecedents - not composed of amalgamations or inspirations. Failing that, because of my human limitations, I changed tack and tried to think of existing monsters that have been created by fantasy authors or RPG bestiarists that I would call "new" - that were not based on the "this with a this" paradigm or regurgitation of folklore. I couldn't really do it; the only arguable, and honourable, exception I could think of was Geiger's Alien. 

Why is this so? Some limit imposed by our evolution, which means that setting aside brain cells for pure speculation is a waste of resources? An immutable law of the universe which states that it is not possible to imagine a thing which is not based on prior experience in some way? That we are capable only of being what we are remains our unforgivable sin; our imaginations are shackled by our nature, it seems. 

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Actual Play: Blood & Honor Session 1

Three of us spent the afternoon playing Blood & Honor today. Billed as a game of "samurai tragedy in Old Japan", this is a game based loosely on Houses of the Blooded which can be described as an attempt to create a rules-lite story game that stays reasonably close to what feudal Japan was actually like without becoming pedantic. It mostly succeeds (although, as an appallingly arrogant Japanese language snob, I can't resist pointing out that much of the Japanese writing which festoons the sidebars is quite obviously written by a non-native using a dictionary).

In any event, I think the game gets the most basic things absolutely right. At the core of it is the idea that the Clan is everything and the individuals are nothing; the characters pool their honour and, ultimately, should be prepared to sacrifice their characters' lives in the name of the greater whole. That seems pretty authentic, and the mechanics generally work towards that goal rather well - although we made something of a hash of parts of the rules given that it was a first run through.

One of the most important elements of this is that the players create their Clan at the start of the game, which gets them hooked into its success right from the beginning. As well as choosing the name, the character of the Daimyo, and what resources it has, this also involve deciding which of the bushido virtues it values most highly, and the character of its samurai.

For instance, my players create the Kurohou Clan (they came up with the endearingly cheesy name "Black Pheonix Clan"). They established it was headed by a mad Daimyo who kept a reclusium in a cave behind a waterfall; that the local peasants are said to consort with demons; that the clan owns an item of pottery owned by the sun goddess, and that they have a famous Noh theatre group. They decided the province the Kurohou own is famous for its okonomiyaki. They specified it had a famous blacksmith, a large Buddhist temple, a gambling den, and extensive rice farms. And they established that the samurai of the clan are renowned for their impulsiveness ("Waiting for Luck is Waiting for Death"), their vengefulness ("Dig Two Graves"), their deceitfulness ("Fog Cannot be Dispelled by a Fan") and their liking for alcohol ("First a Man Takes a Drink"). Patrick is its spy-master or oniwabanNate is its executioner, or kaishaku.

Blood & Honor is all about narrative control: success in dice rolls gives the privilege to narrate what happens in the situation at hand, while failure means the narrator decides. This means that you can effectively let the game run itself if you're willing to improvise - I came up with a very basic starting scenario (a messenger arriving at the castle at dawn) and the players basically made up the rest as events progressed through use of privilege. The narrative ended up involving a plot on the part of two of the Daimyo's courtiers to conspire with the neighbouring Daimyo to overthrow the Kurohou, and covered, inter alia, one player disguising himself as an old woman; the employment of the local yakuza gang as hired thugs; a mass sword fight in front of the altar in the temple in which the kaishaku killed four enemy ronin single-handed; bungled haiku writing offending cute geisha girls; flirtations with a mad seamstress; coded messages; and a final confrontation in which the kaishaku lost his arm and the conspirators escaped while, oh, 20 people were killed in a swathe of blood and spilled entrails.

It was a great deal of fun, above all, even if at various stages we had to wing it with the rules. My favourite rules by far are for combat: you don't roll for initiative; it's just whoever says "strike!" first. And a samurai can kill non-samurai at will - you don't even have to roll for it. This is absolutely in-keeping with the source material and, for rather bloodthirsty groups like mine, fun in itself. (The glee with which unfortunate plebs were disembowelled, eviscerated, hamstrung and mutilated was something to behold.)

Saturday, 24 November 2012

Horses for Courses

I find myself increasingly wondering whether hipster story-games where the players get to control the narrative and are involved in the creative process are better for groups that are DM-heavy than "trad" games are.

The world of gamers, I think it's obvious, is divided into people who like to be players and people who like to DM. If you have one of the latter and a group of the former, traditional games work swimmingly, but if you have a group composed of people who prefer to DM, I think frustration can rather easily set in. When I am the player in a traditional game I become antsy and fidgety: I want the DM's role, because I want the really creative stuff and because my ego demands that I am the demigod (and demiurge) at the table.

Yet in my group, there are at least two other people who are (I suspect) rather similar to me. I wonder if, in the final analysis, games where the players are involved in controlling the narrative and helping create the world in some sense are more suited to groups like that, as they parcel out the traditional DMing responsibility and hence assuage the frustration of being just any old PC.

Friday, 23 November 2012

Three Yoon-Suin Hexes

The Jade Baths

A grand bathhouse stands half way between Charikot and Bharatput, where a hot spring broils up from the bowels of the earth. The oligarchs of the two cities, and the local chattaris, are regular visitors, and an ancient  gentleman's agreement maintains its neutrality even during the (regular) wars which ravage the Vale of Flowers. It is said that Tamangh Nikil and Udit Ghimere shared a bath there together a month and a day after the Udit clan had slain Nikil's grandparents, and the two did not come to blows or draw blades.

The bathhouse is decorated everywhere with jade panels, statuettes and crenelations, although it is made of dark cedar. At the gate stand two jade lion statues; these are jade golems (AC0, HD11, Attacks 3, DMG d10/d10/d12, damaged only by magical crushing weapons) which will protect the life of the bathhouse's owner and any who serve there. The current owner is Jal, a beautiful but apparently ageless woman with three triplet sons, Dilip, Hari and Laxman (each is a level 5 magic-user). There is at least half a million gold pieces' worth of jade on the premises.

Altar Meadow

Here, in a small vale in the foothills, there is a wide area of pleasant meadowland dotted with flowers. In its centre is an altar of pale granite, covered with lichen; faint etchings in Old Sangmenzhang Dwarven indicate that this was an altar for the cult of Marvindhra, a local dwarven demigod long dead. The altar is haunted by 6 dwarven wraiths [stats as standard wraith] who appear in a circle around it d4 rounds after it has been touched by hand; they are the servants of Marvindhra who await his resurrection, at which time they believe they shall live again. In the ground surrounding the altar are the remains of travellers who the wraiths have slain, and their belongings - a few assorted pieces of armour and weaponry and other equipment; approximately 200 silver pieces, 100 gold pieces, and 50 platinum pieces; and a suit of Banded Mail +1 and copper Ring of Djinn Summoning. The fact that these treasures lie beneath the soil is discovered on a roll of 1-2 on a d6 - roll separately for each party member.

The Mute Drifts

On the high plateau is an area of snow drifts around two miles in diameter; some quirk of topography creates a microclimate in which the air is perfectly still and no wind blows. It is so silent than any movement - even the crunch of a footfall on the snow - can be heard for hundreds of yards. A tribe of bhuta inhabit the area, taking advantage of these unusual conditions to surprise and attack travellers. There is a 2 in 3 chance that anybody travelling through the Mute Drifts will be spotted by these bhuta and attacked by 4d6 of them; the bhuta are never surprised, while their victims are always surprised. Encounter distance is calculated the normal way. The bhutas' lair is a series of caves carved into the inside of a crevasse; inside is a randomly generated treasure trove of type C, along with the bodies of 2d6 children encased in ice for later consumption.

Thursday, 22 November 2012

You Already Know What a Role Playing Game Is

In the past couple of days I have, for one reason or another, been leafing through several rulebooks - Unknown Armies, Apocalypse World, 3:16, and Call of Cthulhu, among others - and something I have noticed is that there is a tendency among modern rulebooks to either disavow any attempt to describe what a role playing game is, or at least to caveat that description by saying something along the lines of "you probably know what a role playing game is already..."

Hence, Unknown Armies (at least as far as I can see) does not even describe what a role playing game is in its introductory chapter. In Apocalypse World, we are told "You probably know this already: roleplaying is a conversation." Meanwhile, in 3:16, we get "3:16 is a role-playing game.There is a very good chance that you already know what this means. If so, please skip ahead to the next column."

I find this entirely understandable (because let's face it, if you're reading 3:16 or Apocalypse World or Unknown Armies, the chances are you're already au fait with RPGs) but also a little sad (because of the clear implication that people who design role playing games nowadays don't have a great deal of faith that they'll reach any audience outside of the hobby).

This doesn't mean that the hobby is in decline or failing to expand, of course - I think it has always grown primarily by word of mouth and people inviting newcomers along to join their group. It does speak to an increasingly clique-y approach, however: if you're in with the 'in crowd' (I use the term insofar as it is possible to use it in regard to fat nerds pretending to be elves) you'll be introduced to the hobby, whereas if you don't know anybody who is involved, you simply won't. This seems inevitable, and yet at the same time it doesn't sit right: there is a part of me, possibly equipped with rose-tinted glasses, which thinks a certain amount of ambition and hope seems to have drained from the collective subconscious of role playing gamers. 

Tuesday, 20 November 2012

In the Time of Byakhees I was a Deep One

That just struck me as a good title for a blog entry. I can't think of what the entry is, though.

Sunday, 18 November 2012

Actual Play: Murderous Ghosts

I spent yesterday afternoon playing a game of Murderous Ghosts over a pint with this guy. Now I am blogging about it.

I think straight away it's important to say that Vincent Baker is a minor genius of a kind - or the closest thing that the world of RPGs has to a minor genius, anyway: he's a proper innovator. Murderous Ghosts isn't up there with his best efforts, but nor do I think it is meant to be; it's a fun little parlour game for one-shots that, ultimately, isn't really a role-playing game per se. It's more of a story-telling game in the sense that the two participants co-operate to make up a sequence of stuff that happens. The stuff that happens, at least in our experience, is that invariably somebody gets killed by ghosts in a subterranean location.

We each had a game as 'MC' and player. I was the player in the first game. Nathan came up with a spooky scenario in which I came across an underground factory peopled by its former workers, including a cleaner, secretary and manager. I was killed by the manager for refusing to go through an 'interview', though I suspect I also would have died if I'd chosen the opposite.

As MC, I came up with a scenario in which the player came across an underground facility that had been used by the government to create materials hazardous to life; the back story I came up with was that there had been some sort of accident down there and the government had locked the facility down and left the workers there to die. One of them had killed and eaten all the others but had eventually starved to death and was now haunting the corridors as a mad cannibal ghost. Nathan found almost none of this out, however, because he was killed and eaten by the ghost in short order after discovering a cache of human bones.

Murderous Ghosts is not a role playing game, and I think we discovered that it falls apart if you treat it as such. When I was the player, my immediate reaction whenever something creepy happened was "I go back to the surface to get the police", or "I do not go down the spooky corridor from which the weird noise is coming", or "I hide and wait until it goes away" - reactions which I had to override in the interests of the story. When it came to my turn to MC I deliberately rigged things so that the player had to explore the facility by using the hoary old horror device: a door which suddenly swings shut behind you and which you can't re-open. The player physically could not go backwards and could only go forwards until he had encountered the ghost (as clear a railroad as you will ever see).

This isn't necessarily a problem - the game does what it says on the tin. It is set up like an idiot-proof Choose Your Own Adventure with clear instructions about what to do, which makes it not all that far removed from a Fighting Fantasy book and the attendant problems associated with that medium; but if you think of it in those terms, it's an enjoyable way to pass a couple of hours.

Thursday, 15 November 2012

Cthulubox and the Investigative/Quasi-Railroad Problem

I've been doing some thinking about how you might run an investigative game - Call of Cthulu being the paradigm example - in a sandbox style. The problem with that sort of game is that it is heavily reliant on the players responding to events rather than guiding them by themselves. Something, or somethings, have to happen for them to investigate, and by definition that means that the GM has to spend a lot of setting up quasi-railroads for them to follow.

I say "quasi-railroads" because providing players with something to do ("A young woman mysteriously disappeared last night and her mother asks you to investigate!") is not a railroad per se, but leads down a certain path which has only two outcomes - success or failure in finding out what happened. How you get from A to Z is not set, but you'll probably end up getting there in the end. And by the same token, you can create a huge rumour table all you like - a d100 list of strange occurrences for the PCs to delve into - but at the end of the day, as GM, you have to know where those strange occurrences lead: all you've done is create a list of 100 quasi-railroads, ultimately.

I don't think there is a way around the investigative/quasi-railroad problem - it is probably at its most pernicious if you want to run a police procedural, but it still means that any Call of Cthulu campaign is likewise going to be heavily GM-led, simply by dint of its nature.

One possible way to make a Call of Cthulu game more of a sandbox would be to subtly shift the starting assumption and make sure that the players begin with an understanding that their characters are deliberate seekers of dark powers and magicks who already have some idea that there is a wealth of forbidden knowledge out there - if they could only get their hands on it. Their investigations, in other words, would not be into mysterious events that the GM tosses their way, but an exercise in finding where all of this knowledge lies. They might start off in Providence, Rhode Island in 1922 with a web of contacts, and locations, which they can tap as resources in conducting their own self-centered investigations - my character has heard that it is possible to live forever, and now I'm going to find out how - and this would allow them to drive things along more autonomously.

This would require extensive preparation on the part of the GM pre-campaign - akin to the way I set up urban sandbox games in general (see entries passim here and here), only more so - and also a good, skilled GM who is able to think things up on the fly. As such it may be more trouble than it is worth, though I think it's something I could happily give a try to see what happens.

Tuesday, 13 November 2012

The Revolutionary PC

It probably counts as a truism that sandbox games really work well when the PCs are rogues, and not when they are superheroes, or even heroes - and that this is down to logistics more than anything else: for a sandbox game to sing, the PCs need the initiative and need to be the engine.

I was struck, today, by the thought that ultimate rogue is really the revolutionary. I had this thought while reading the excellent Young Stalin, by Simon Sebag Montefiore. What a lot of people don't know about Stalin is that he began his Bolshevik career as a kind of Marxist-Leninist version of Robin Hood, with the Caucasus Mountains as his Sherwood Forest and his revolutionary comrades as his Merry Men. Except that rather than rob from the rich to feed the poor directly, he did it in a far more attenuated fashion: robbing the rich to feed the Bolshevik revolution, which would (come the revolution) result in food for the poor in the long run (except that it didn't, but we won't go into that). Most famously, he organised the 1907 Tiflis bank robbery, in which he and his gang stole around £1.7 million in broad daylight, killing 40 guards and civilians and wounding 50 more. The money was used to fund revolutionary activities throughout Russia - although it seems to have had a negative effect on Bolshevik popularity in Georgia, at least.

The picture painted of Stalin's young life is hugely romantic. He was head of a band of brigands, revolutionaries and gangsters, roaming the Caucasus, with a woman in each town, a glass of wine in one hand, a sabre in the other, having a roaring good time - and fermenting revolution on the way. It gives one a sense that being a Bolshevik was probably a whale of a time.

Being a revolutionary is extremely game-able - perhaps more so even than the standard murder-hobo routine, because these are rogues with a cause. Their chaotic money-making schemes, carefree adventuring and casual murder has a purpose. The players have to make careful plans, engage in all manner of derring-do, and roam about looking for adventure, just like they always do, but at the same time they have to think about how to help The Cause. A number of "revolutionary sandboxes" randomly themselves:

  • Genuine Robin Hood style outlaws: "Robin Hood, Robin Hood, riding through the glen..."
  • Druids and rangers protecting some natural wilderness from exploitation through terrorist action
  • Cyberpunk Marxist-Leninists undermining the capitalist system from within
  • Religious fanatics in a quasi-counter-reformation, avoiding the inquisition while trying to convert the world from sin
  • Suffragete-style campaigners trying to bring about Rights for Women/Men/Trolls/Ferengi/Werewolves/whatever
  • Psionicists in a land where WIZARDS HAVE BANNED PSIONICS

Thursday, 8 November 2012

Meet the New Wave - Same as the Old Wave

Following links on various blogs lead me here, which lead me here, and thence to here. (Now I am blogging about it here. The circle of life is, I think you'll find, a wheel of fortune.)

Half of the writer's complaint about modern SF is entirely valid: the absurd, bloody-minded obsession with The Trilogy or The Series. Tolkien probably changed modern literature more than any other single writer in the 20th century, and you can view those changes as being for good or for ill; but it is without dispute that he bequeathed to fantasy, and to a lesser extent SF, a certain awful legacy: we can't have proper stand-alone novels any more. They have to come in three volume packages, or worse. There is probably no single thing about fantasy/SF as a genre that annoys me more than this - if you can't tell me a good, satisfying story in 400 fucking pages you aren't trying hard enough.

The other half, I am puzzled by. It is best set out in this sentence:

There is a problem...with contemporary SF as a whole. Osiris, like The Windup Girl by Bacigalupi (widely heralded as the most important science fiction debut of the last decade), addresses itself to the central problem of post-Twentieth Century life but makes no attempt to escape the trap of the trappings of modern genre fiction.

This connects to an earlier comment on the GRRM piece:

At the most basic level, if Martin can’t write movingly or beautifully about the strip malls of Burbank (and I’m certainly prepared to believe he can’t) then he has no business writing anything. He is basically saying he has no eye, no ear, no empathy. And that is why it is speaks to the problem of commercial fantasy in general.

Which seems to say the same thing in a different way: modern SF (and fantasy) needs to, in some sense, speak to the real world. And while SF perhaps achieves this more than fantasy, it still suffers from an artistic problem: it is mired in genre and stylistically and narratively conservative:

[D]espite Osiris's fundamentally progressive approach, both publisher and writer have made equally fundamentally conservative choices. For Swift, that is to play it safe artistically: the two placeholder protagonists representing philosophies as much as people, the interleaving chapters getting shorter and faster as they go, the third person narrative that cares a bit about voice but more about story. It turns out that at the novel's heart is not a question about how we live our lives now but instead a conspiracy. There is always a bloody conspiracy. Whether it is fantasy's palace intrigue or SF's corporate secrets, there is always a piece of hidden knowledge that will unlock the world. But, of course, there isn't. With wearying inevitability, the novel climaxes with a set piece action scene (it is safe to say such scenes are not Swift's strong point). In this way, the novel's potential ends up dribbling away down the plug hole.

I should say first of all that I am not one of those people for whom the word 'conservative' is an automatic negative and 'progressive' an automatic positive (which seems to make me bizarrely counter-cultural and radical among my peers, but that's another issue). Nowhere is this truer in literature. As an undergraduate I had to read Dos Passos, Gaddis, Stein, and plenty of other "progressive" writers (both politically and stylistically) and found little or nothing there to love; my general feeling about literature which is self-consciously "progressive" is that it tends to be cold, arch, and unentertaining.

Be that as it may, stylistic evolution is important; without it we'd still be reading Cervantes. (Though I have to say, as somebody who reads a reasonable amount of SF I just don't recognise the genre the reviewer is describing: it seems to me to be much less stylistically conservative overall than any other, but perhaps I am reading the wrong books.) What concerns me more is this idea that genre fiction has to "address" or "speak to" issues - be they to do with post-20th Century resource scarcity or anything else.

No, before you get ahead of me: this isn't one of those paeans to escapism. It has its virtues, but that's a conversation for another day. This is something more fundamental, to do with the nature of fiction and authorship, and it is this: professional writers of fiction are, probably, with the exception of movie stars and musicians, the least appropriately qualified people in the world to speak with any authority whatsoever about important 'issues', and yet we are expected to not only indulge them in their phony philosophizing and half-educated musings, but pay them for the pleasure of it - for the wonder of being enlightened by their ill-formed and incorrect opinions. Why on earth they should arrogate for themselves such a role is beyond my comprehension - except for the obvious armchair psychology of noting that writers tend to be college educated and "intellectual", and that sort of person tends to think that not only do they know best; everybody else should hear about it. "Issues writers" are like impotent, frustrated people who post on forums on obscure websites - the only difference being that, because they happen to be good at telling marketable stories, we're expected to take their impotent, frustrated opinions seriously.

Bruce Sterling once wrote that science fiction writers are court jesters. They caper about making fools of themselves, while occasionally uttering veiled words of wisdom and speaking truth to authority behind the veneer of a joke. I would go along with that, although my assessment is perhaps unkinder: there is no truth for writers to speak, and their wisdom can only be of that homespun, general kind which your grandmother has more of in her little finger.

When I read fiction books I do so to be entertained - that's what I'm paying for. I am giving you money in exchange for amusing, exciting, horrifying, mind-blowing and/or beautiful lies arranged in a certain order with a beginning, middle and end. I can make up my own mind about resource scarcity, and have no need whatsoever to hear what Paolo Bacigalupi has to say about it. In fact he's close to the bottom of the list of People Whose Opinions On Resource Scarcity I Actually Care About, just above Justin Bieber and the guy who's always hanging around the local supermarket and urinating on himself. Which is to say nothing about his writing skills, which may be excellent; it is to say only that they have no bearing on anything when adults are talking.

Professional writers make shit up for a living. Let's leave the "issues" to the economists, scientists and practitioners who actually understand them. Simply put: Tell me a good story that makes me glad to be alive in the world, and fuck everything else. Dance, Paolo Bacigalupi. Dance!

Tuesday, 6 November 2012

The Urban GM

I like running all kinds of game - from fantasy wilderness exploration to hard SF - but I've come to realise, on balance, that I am an urban GM. My favourite type of game takes place in a city. Moreover, it takes place within one city. Almost all of the things that I want in a game - a web of interpersonal relationships, a feeling of connection between characters and locations, growing familiarity among the players with people and places and themes, memorable recurring NPCs, and so on - are all enhanced in that kind of setting.

What I like most about the one-city, urban game is that actions have relatively immediate consequences, and those consequences are contemplatable by the PCs. Of course, actions have consequences in any game (or, any good game with a good GM), but in a city they are right there because of the density of population and the difficulty of doing anything undetected or unheard. Moreover, since in a city people know each other, information and events spread fast: to take a simple example, if the PCs kill somebody, it won't be long before other people know about it. They might not know who did it, but they'll know it's happened because in a city, bodies get discovered and almost nobody isn't missed when they're gone.

Because consequences are ever-present in an urban game, this means that the PCs constantly have to contemplate them - and this adds a deep and rich layer of strategy and tactics to their approach. To continue our example, if the PCs in an urban game want to kill somebody, they have to consider what that will mean. What are the chances of discovery? Who will be pissed off? Who will come looking for them? Will the police find out (if there are any)? What evidence might they leave? They have to plan their actions carefully, constantly aware of the ripple effects of causation.

All of this should be present in any game, but the urban setting lends itself to it like no other. This is why, ultimately, I think I will always be most at home with the one-city game, and why I will always be most comfortable with the systems which suit that.

Monday, 5 November 2012

Yellow City Personages

Lefu Yi the Tall - In busy markets, outside boutique tea shops, by thronged quaysides, or outside fighting pits, there are always entertainers: Jugglers, jongleurs, puppeteers, and clowns. Wherever people come together in the Yellow City, these types can be found.

Lefu Yi is never seen in such locations. He is always alone. You may seem him at twilight, lurking under a bridge over a deserted canal in some forgotten neighbourhood. Or in the early morning, standing in the doorway of an abandoned tenement by the river, glaring mutely at its grey, murky depths. Or during the monsoon season in the pouring rain, alone under a tree in the Old Town, soaked to the skin because of the paucity of his chosen shelter. But he always wears his makeup - his face is always the fullest, most crimson red. And he is never without his stilts, those bamboo crutches that keep him eternally two feet from the ground and give him gaunt, lanky appearance of a mantis.

Children and faint-hearted people are afraid of Lefu Yi, but to nobody's knowledge has he ever been harmful. Because he lurks in the city's dark and dimly remembered places, he surely knows many of its secrets; those who would learn the geography of the Old Town in particular would be advised to seek him out. He can be approached and will take payment for his knowledge, in gold or a gem. His voice is querulous and you must lean close, standing on tip-top, to hear it.

Tripti - Tripti is a hijra from the far North, from distant, mountainous Sughd. Like all hijra, she has the body of a man though she lives as a woman, and her strange androgynous beauty is famed throughout the city by those who are of that persuasion. She abstains from sexual matters, however, and because of her purity she is able to offer blessings to those who need it, as well as curses to those who would insult her - or to those whose enemies are willing to pay her.

She has of course never married, though it is well known that she is loved by the Lamarakhi trader, Bemsh Kwellaminamon. Bemsh is the headman of a barge-village which plies the God River between Lamarakh and the Yellow City, bringing precious metals and opium from the North and taking slaves upstream. He is a small, wrinkled, shrivelled man of late-middling years, possessed of a fierce, wiry strength and even fiercer wit. He is a man of considerable power and influence in Lamarakh, and particularly among the Lamarakhi traders who come to the Yellow City.

Bemsh has at least a dozen wives, perhaps more, but his true love - at least in his own mind - is the unobtainable Tripti. Undoubtedly, the hijra's unobtainability is nine tenths of the attraction.

Bemsh's oldest and most trusted trading contact in the Yellow City is the slugman, Po Lu. Po Lu is a scion of an ancient merchant clan which is itself part of one of the great cartels in the city - the Indigo Cartel. Po Lu is sarcastic, bitter, and incredibly old, but his one weakness is loneliness. Though constantly engaged in mercantile activities, he longs for discussion of history, philosophy, and art - and this Bemsh provides.

Po Lu is the patron of many archives, libraries, and museums. He is constantly searching for opportunities to add to his collections - and although he will accept only the rarest curios, he will pay vast sums in return.

Sunday, 4 November 2012

Actual Play: GMless Risus Star Trek

Today Patrick and Nate and I got together for a game of Risus. Each of us are regular DMs, and none of the three of us could be bothered prepping for a game, so we decided on an ad hoc basis to do a GMless game of Risus. Patrick has a rubber dinosaur that he uses as an eraser; we decided that whoever wanted to grab the dinosaur could be the GM at any given moment, and that anybody could pass the dinosaur to somebody else to foist GM-hood on him. (Actually I think I'm the only one who started doing that.) We decided to play a Star Trek game - the basic idea was that we were a threesome of crew members of the Enterprise charged with finding dilitheum crystals on a volcanic planet: this almost entirely stemmed from the fact that I had an idea to create a character who was a vulcanologist who spent his entire life getting pissed off that people assumed he was an expert in vulcans when actually he was an expert in volcanos.

We had a good time. There is something about Risus that just works - a magic in simplicity. A lot of the fun of the game, it must be said, came from the idiotic characters we created. Patrick had a humanoid alien who could vomit multi-purpose chemicals but had a "weird life cycle" that meant at any given moment he might morph from a humanoid into a moth, into a caterpillar, or into a "noble insect-headed alien". Nate had an engineer who was an expert in "teching the tech" but who was also True Neutral and thus unable to ever involve himself in anything decisive. I was a three-eyed vulcanologist who knew nothing about vulcans but who was really good at scanning volcanoes and was born on a prison planet. Together we avoided radioactive feldspar and murdered an innocent entity with dilitheum for a heart, while pissing off Lieutenant Worf.

In any event, I think we proved decisively the adage that system doesn't matter. We had a notional rolling GM and played ridiculously hard-and-fast with Risus's already light rules, but in the end nothing mattered except that we enjoyed creating a stupid story that took the piss out of Star Trek: TNG while simultaneously paying tribute to it. You don't need a good system - you just need people who get along. And a willingness not to give a fuck when things make no sense.

Friday, 2 November 2012

Ron Edwards Interview

I've managed to track down this, an old interview with Ron Edwards that I heard back in 2006. It's worth listening to. I feel that, in the interests of balance, I ought to say that much as I dislike Ron Edwards' writing style and find much of what he argues about RPG theory trite and wrong-headed, I think that broadly he is on the side of the angels: he put his money where is mouth is (or was) and made stuff happen, and I like and respect that. Thanks to the Forge we got a lot of excellent games, and it was undoubtedly a net benefit to the hobby in promoting a "can do" attitude amongst its members.

The interview is also particular interesting in view of recent discussions about money and RPGs, too.

Thursday, 1 November 2012

Cross My Palm With Silver

"Everybody needs money. That's why they call it money."

The idea of monetizing RPG products is somewhat divisive. Huge Ruined Scott has always been adamant, as far as I can tell, that his creations will always be available for free. Kent also has strong views that RPG-related stuff should be created and shared for free, and people who try to sell them are grubby, greedy and vain.

I have some sympathy with that sort of stance. I used to have a button for PayPal donations which I never really felt comfortable with and eventually removed, because it didn't sit right with me to imply that I expected anybody ought to feel that I thought I deserved money for this constant stream of bullshit I spew forth onto the internet. The clumsiness of that sentence is strong evidence for the argument that I don't deserve it.

Moreover, I think there is something honourable and good about creating things for others to use, for nothing in return. It is something to be encouraged.

And nor do I need the money. I have a good job. When I finish and release Yoon-Suin, it's not as if it will make a material difference to my life even if I were to charge money for it. I'll spend it on booze and women and just waste the rest.

On the other hand, let's not kid ourselves: I like money. And being paid for doing something is a nice feeling. It shows that your work is valued. I have done enough freelancing to be aware of that - working hard to produce something and sending it off for financial reward gives you warm fuzzies simply by dint of showing that your work is worth something. It wouldn't be human not to enjoy that feeling.

I'm also of the view that people value things they pay for above what they get for free. I've downloaded plenty of free products (lawfully) that I have never so much as looked at, because since they are free I subconsciously view them as throwaway. If I've paid for something, though, you can be sure I'll give it due care and attention.

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