Friday, 28 June 2013

Actual Play: Pendragon of Mars, Sessions 5, 6, and 7

We had a bit of a hiatus from Pendragon of Mars due to timetabling issues, illness, tangles with the police, and various other obstacles. But we're getting back to regular sessions.

Characters Present: Sir Wiglaf the Windhover, Sir Elias the Overly Curious, Sir Xyre of the Barrens, Sir Emerec the Modest

The knights had captured Sir Michael, the wayward knight who had cuckolded Lord Jagent, and his brother Sir Aquinal. They now brought these two men back to Sarum to face the wrath of Earl Roderick. Roderick passed judgement on Sir Aquinal for aiding his brother against his vassal lord's knights and exiled him for a year. He then imprisoned Sir Michael and dispatched a bird to Lord Jagent to inform him that he could come to claim vengeance.

Sir Wiglaf took advantage of his success to press the issue of marriage with Lady Elaine. She said that she would like to wed him, but that Earl Roderick would have to permit the union and currently the Earl favoured another knight, Sir Phelot, to be her husband. But she knew that Lord Jagent would be holding a tournament that summer as he always did, and that if Sir Wiglaf could be invited to the tournament and embarrass or defeat Sir Phelot in a challenge, this might move him above Sir Phelot in Earl's estimation.

However, a further problem was that Sir Wiglaf took it upon himself to appeal to the Earl for clemency towards Sir Michael and Sir Aquinal, since Sir Michael's wife and young son would be alone without them. The Earl, perhaps scenting a replacement husband for Sir Michael's wife, ordered Sir Wiglaf to administer Sir Michael's estate in his stead.

Lord Jagent arrived some days later to duel Sir Michael and regain his honour. He was accompanied by some of his bannerman, including the massive Sir Barcal, known as "The Boar". His wife, Margeta, was also in his party: clearly, he aimed to make her watch him kill Sir Michael. And that he did: in a duel with swords he brought Sir Michael rapidly to his knees and then thrust a dagger through his eye into his brain, much to the shock of the court at Sarum.

Lord Jagent took Sirs Wiglaf, Xyre, Elias and Emerec to one side at the feast that night and told them that since they had brought Sir Michael to "justice", he owed each of them a boon. He said that they could ask him for this boon at any time, and while he would not promise to do whatever they asked, he would promise to do what was in his power to permit. He also invited them to his tournament that summer.

Summer came by and around 200 knights gathered at Jagent for three days of jousting, melee and challenges. On the first day Xyre, Elias and Wiglaf were all somewhat successful in the jousting. Elias, however, was altogether too successful - he accidentally killed an opponent, a poor knight from Somerset, and the man's squire, a boy called Keith, swore vengeance. Xyre faced up against a mysterious Black Knight, who he rather fortunately defeated, whereupon it was revealed that the Black Knight was none other than the exiled Sir Aquinal, who fled into the wilderness. Sir Wiglaf was given Lady Elaine's favour to carry on the end of his lance.

That evening, the knights tried to decide how best to bring low Sir Phelot so that Sir Wiglaf could get him out of the way and ask Roderick to let him marry Elaine. Eventually they came up with a complicated plan: the  best swordsman in the realm was Sir Jaradan, they decided, so if they could get Sir Jaradan to somehow bring Sir Phelot low this might act in Sir Wiglaf's favour. But in order to do this they would have to perform a quid pro quo for Sir Jaradan; Jaradan intimated that there was another night, from Somerset, called Sir Ector, who was a rival for the daughter of Lady Adwen. They agreed that they would find a way to make sure Sir Ector was embarrassed at the melee, if Jaradan would find a way to "do something" to Sir Phelot to make it easy for Wiglaf to vanquish him in a challenge on the third day.

The plan worked rather well. Sir Xyre and Sir Wiglaf got Sir Ector appallingly drunk that night, reasoning that he would be hungover and weakened the next day. (Meanwhile, Sir Elias managed to annoy The Boar by insulting him as he tried to flirt with Lady Adwen; he subsequently learned that at a previous melee, The Boar had managed to decapitate somebody he didn't like with a blow from a shield.)

The second day was a day of melee. Here, Sir Emerec covered him/herself with glory by rallying a charge which won the entire fight. Sir Wiglaf was able to find Sir Ector in the general chaos and fight him one-on-one; early on in the fight he accidentally dealt Sir Ector a real wound, and then made the decision that he would kill the man and claim it was an accident. Sir Ector fumbled his sword and dropped it, leaving the opportunity for Sir Wiglaf to do the deed, but he decided eventually that he would not perform such a dastardly act and instead spared Sir Ector, hoping that would be enough to satisfy Jaradan.

Meanwhile, Sir Xyre and Sir Emerec sought out Sir Xyre's nemesis, Sir Guy, planning to do him "accidental" harm. Xyre and Guy fought momentarily but Xyre was quickly disarmed and Guy had him sword-to-throat. But Sir Emerec stepped in and held her sword to Guy's throat, a la Reservoir Dogs, and session 7 ended with the three of them agreeing to stand down and pretend nothing untoward had happened - with the clear plan of getting revenge through issuing challenges the following day....

Thursday, 27 June 2013

Know Your System

I came across this article ("11 ways to be a better role player") while clicking around; I've not heard of the blog/website/whatever it is previously, but I think it's safe to say (on the basis of this post at least) that Look Robot is unerringly on the side of the angels.

I'm particularly interested in number 6 on his list, which is something that I've often thought but not often seen aired in online RPG-related discussion:

SIX. Know the system, don’t be a dick about it. If you know a system, you are easier to GM for, because you know your character’s limitations. You can calculate the rough odds of a particular action succeeding or failing, just like in real life. You can make prompt assessments of situations and act accordingly, because you understand the rules of the world. (New players, of course, get a free pass on this one. But do make an effort to learn the rules, obviously, if you’re keen on sticking around in the hobby.)

He puts it so elegantly and succinctly that I have little else to add, except: yes, yes, a thousand times yes. Players, know the system. You don't have to know it perfectly, but know it enough. Your GM will love you for it.

Wednesday, 26 June 2013

The Cyberpunk Megadungeon

Long-term readers of my blog will know that I have a deep, abiding love for the cyberpunk genre - and particularly the game Cyberpunk 2020. Something I occasionally think about is the idea of a cyberpunk megadungeon. It's not immediately obvious why this should be a good fit, to which I say:

a) It's a mashup, so fuck you - stop harshing my buzz, man;
b) It worked for Paranoia, so fuck you - stop harshing my buzz, man

My first idea for doing this was always like Paranoia but sort of dialled to 11. It was based on the Harlan Ellison short-story, "I Have No Mouth And I Must Scream", in which a far-future computer called 'AM', which was created to operate the US's nuclear arsenal (stop me if you've heard this one before, writers of The Terminator) became self-aware and amalgamated with the Chinese and Russian supercomputers and took over the Earth. AM grew to hate mankind because they had created this uber-intelligent and all-powerful machine but given it nothing to do or live for, so it killed off almost all of them except for five people it kept alive to spend every moment devising new tortures for.

But recently I read this article in The Economist, about mile-high skyscrapers, and it sort of combined with my ancient memories of the hive city in Necromunda; here, the conceit would be that the players start off near the top floor of a massive skyscraper with god-knows how many levels underneath. Maybe on some levels there are actual functioning societies but on others there are weird techno-cults, barbaric boostergangs, bio-plague-infected beggar kings, crazed AIs, psychopathic full-body conversion cyborgs, and more besides. Just getting from one floor to the next would be a task in itself, because none of the lifts would be working any more - although the shafts would still be there (natch). And most levels would be based on roughly the same floorplan, although others would be given over to biodomes, electricity generators, computer server banks, etc., etc. And you would use Lorem Gibson to generate idea-seeds:

  • 8-bit claymore mine augmented reality
  • singularity tower sub-orbital narrative
  • 3D-printed warehouse BASE jump man
  • military-grade weathered rain bomb
  • saturation point vinyl artisanal fetishism
  • decay gang boat

Tell me you wouldn't want to play in a game in which you could find a "tech item" called a military-grade weathered rain bomb. 

Tuesday, 25 June 2013

The Tri-Dimensional Planebox Megacrawlathon Sandhexamagig

As anyone who watched Star Trek: The Next Generation will attest, the most popular pastime in the 24th century (provided sinister aliens weren't involved) was something called "Tri-Dimensional Chess". Every single table in ten-forward seemed to be equipped with a Tri-Dimensional Chess board. It used to fascinate me in a mild sort of a way. How on earth could such a game be played? The rules were never made clear, but it seemed to involve a number of games of chess taking place simultaneously and in parallel, so that what happened on one board would impact the others and vice versa.

For some reason I was thinking about Tri-Dimensional Chess on the way to work today and I started to ponder what the D&D equivalent would be. This would be a form of D&D taking place across a number of different dimensions simultaneously, with constant slippage between the different planes. I call it The Tri-Dimensional Planebox Megacrawlathon SandhexamagigTM

Picture the scene. Bob, the DM, slaving away over hexmaps and graph paper, planning plot seeds and adventure locations and prominent NPCs - doing all the things you do to prep for a new campaign. Except, what's this? That isn't one hexmap that Bob is creating. It's 3, or 7, or 9. Wow - that's a lot of extra effort to put in; is he going to be running a game for a different group every night of the week? But in that case, why not just use one hexmap and recycle it for each group?

That's because he's only DMing for one group, but the game they are playing is the Tri-Dimensional Planebox Megacrawlathon SandhexamagigTM version of D&D.

Look closely. There is method to Bob's madness. He isn't plotting out 3, or 7, or 9 different hexmaps. He is plotting out 3, or 7, or 9 variants on the same hexmap. Where in hex 7D on map 1 there is "Orc Lair", on hex 7D on map 6 there is "Laser Ape Lair", and on hex 7D on map 4 there is "Octopod Mutant Lair". Where in hex 8E on map 1 there is "Rothbury (town)", on map 6 there is "Kalakilakik (mothman town)" and on map 4 there is "Howick (town - Deep Ones)".

In Tri-Dimenstional Planebox Megacrawlathon SandhexamagigTM, you see, each campaign takes place across several planes of existence, all of which are different and yet the same: reflections of each other, refractions of the same light. One is high fantasy, one is Arabian Nights, one is Lovecraft, one is Space Marines, one is Sword & Sorcery, one is Everything is Dolphins.... Occasionally, there is seepage in between: the PCs may slip through portals to the other dimensions and back, and what they find on each plane will remind them of their home dimension and yet be subtly - or hugely - different. Locations, magic items, NPCs, geography, will all be familiar, and yet at the same time not. And perhaps, over time, their actions in one plane will come to warp the others: if an NPC on the first plane dies, perhaps the other versions of that NPC all fall foul of mysterious maladies, accidents or mishaps.

And of course, roaming all of the other planes of the Tri-Dimenstional Planebox Megacrawlathon SandhexamagigTM are people who look horribly familiar still, because they are variants of the PCs themselves, with agendas of their own....

Saturday, 22 June 2013

The Past is a Foreign Country

As somebody interested in history, anthropology, evolutionary biology and all that jazz, I find myself increasingly keen on trying to play around with culture and setting in games. Our own cultural history is itself so odd that a fantasy culture could be billions of times odder still.

Consider the Burgundians. Not a distant, bizarre Amazonian culture from Bolivia, but a Scandinavian/Germanic/Frankish one not altogether dissimilar to the Anglo-Saxons who are our direct cultural ancestors. Their legal code contains the following provision:

1. If anyone shall steal a girl, let him be compelled to pay the price set for such a girl ninefold, and let him pay a fine to the amount of twelve solidi.
2. If a girl who has been seized returns uncorrupted to her parents, let the abductor compound six times the wergeld of the girl; moreover, let the fine be set at twelve solidi.
3. But if the abductor does not have the means to make the abovementioned payment, let him be given over to the parents of the girl that they may have the power of doing to him whatever they choose.
4. If indeed, the girl seeks the man of her own will and comes to his house, and he has intercourse with her, let him pay her marriage price threefold; if moreover, she returns uncorrupted to her home, let her return with all blame removed from him.
5. If indeed a Roman girl, without the consent or knowledge of her parents, unites in marriage with a Burgundian, let her know she will have none of the property of her parents. 

Imagine what it would be like to live in such a society (although I think giving over the abductor of a girl to her parents granting them "they power of doing to him whatever they choose" is the kind of law a large section of the readership of The Daily Mail could get behind). Obvious gender politics aside, I find the economics of it fascinating: this was a society in which, if you had money, you could quite literally do whatever you wanted. See also the fines for murder:

  • A murdered slave, 30 solidi
  • A murdered carpenter, 40 solidi
  • A murdered blacksmith, 50 solidi
  • A murdered silversmith, 100 solidi
  • A murdered goldsmith, 200 solidi

So not only could you simply give financial recompense for murder (something we cannot imagine in our society today), the amount owed depended on who you murdered. In modern societies the notion that one person's life is worth more than another's is simply not tolerated. 

There are other unusual provisions - for instance, the code also fixes a price of 12 solidi for "A woman whose hair is cut off without cause"; this is apparently because, in Burgundian society, a woman's hair could be cut off to allow her to become a warrior. Meanwhile, refusing hospitality to anybody (literally anybody at all) was punishable by a fine of 3 solidi "for the neglect".

In all respects this was an alien legal system and an alien culture - but it is one from which our modern law and culture is largely descended. So what kind of cultures would exist in a fantasy world bearing no relation to our own? Note: I'm not suggesting that exploring issues of patriarchy and historical materialism would be interesting in a game - just that people in the past in our own world were really weird by our own standards, so fantasy humans on a fantasy world should surely be weirder still.

Thursday, 13 June 2013

Yoon-Suin Update

I feel as if it's about time for an update on the progress of my long-promised, long-suffering, long-postponed, long-awaited (by me, anyway) and very possibly long-forgotten campaign setting, Yoon-Suin.

The first draft is nearly finished. All I have left to do is fill in encounter tables. However, when I say "first draft", what I mean is, it's written in pencil on graph paper. I now have to begin the laborious process of typing the damn thing up.

Nonetheless, I feel relatively pleased with what's in there. I've had the intention for a long time of doing something which both pays tribute to the old TSR campaign settings of times past, but which avoids the primary pitfall of making things too detailed, too specific, and too focused on canon. The last thing I want is for people to do what I did with all my Planescape books and boxed sets, which was to spend ages gazing at them in awe and wonder, but to wonder about how to set about actually playing it. I set myself the task of coming up with a tool box to allow the reader to create his own Yoon-Suin, rather than play around with my Yoon-Suin.

(This has a poetic appeal to me too, since some tiny part of the inspiration for Yoon-Suin comes from the Viriconium books; M. John Harrison's philosophy, which was that Viriconium is the same place and yet fundamentally different in each story, gets reflected a little bit in the notion that no two DMs will have the same Yoon-Suin setting.)

And I think that's been achieved. Inside, you will find, amongst other things:

  • How to create your own nasnas-populated, haunted city
  • A way to randomly generate a generic ruin, which can be reskinned into an ancient dwarf fort or temple, a tumbledown palace in the Old Town in the Yellow City, a hidden jungle shrine complex, a mysterious stone circle in Lower Druk Yul, and more besides
  • A random oligarchy generator
  • Tables for creating your own varieties of tea, opium, and hunting worm
  • A plethora of Yellow City-specific generators for tea shops, crab-fighting stables, cockroach tribes, crime families, archives, and guilds
  • 20 sample hexes for each of the 4 main regions of Yoon-Suin, which can be arranged to taste or merely serve as inspiration for individual DMs
  • A unique (I think) random encounter table, which creates geography of encounters and special "complications" as well as the encounter itself, lickety-split
  • Ways to generate characters from any area of Yoon-Suin, from class to caste right down to name

That's not to mention a big fuck-off bestiary and treasure table, as well as lots of pretentious prose.

I don't anticipate imminent release, but the end is now in sight and I should be totally finished by the end of summer, fingers crossed. 

Tuesday, 11 June 2013

My Unusual Brush with American Copyright Statutes

As many of you may be aware, for a number of years I was writing a thread on in which I examined/reviewed each monster in the 2nd edition AD&D Monstrous Manual in order, and people wrote comments. After this was over, I compiled the whole thing into a PDF (which was thousands of pages long) and uploaded it on mediafire for people to download and enjoy (the link is on the right).

The other day I received this unusual email in reference to that file:

Now, I know what you're thinking. Fucking Wizards of the Coast, right? Stomping all over the little guy again!

Er, actually not:

Yes, that's right: for some reason a bot has managed to uncover a breach of copyright in a thread discussing the AD&D 2nd edition Monstrous Manual which is held by NBC Universal. Have you ever heard of something so ridiculous? Or a lawyer who doesn't know how to use the space bar? I spend 90% of my time telling law students the same thing: presentation is important; grammar is important; spelling is important; if you start applying for placements at local firms and there is an error in your application form, it will go straight in the bin. Apparently I'm old fashioned!

In substantive terms the challenge is absurd, as should be obvious: it specifically refers to video files, and my file is a PDF - even assuming that a forum thread containing no media whatsoever could somehow breach copyright. (Shit, I told you guys all about Star Trek Into Darkness in my previous entry....Paramount are going to be all over me!) I expect the sheer idiotic frivolity of it doesn't matter to mediafire, however, who are so terrified of a suit that they'll play along anyway. Oh well: fuck you, NBC Universal. If anybody wants the PDF, I'll change the link to a different host. 

EDIT: The link to the PDF on the right hand side of the main blog page has been changed to dropbox. 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Star Trek Into Shite

Well, perhaps "shite" is a bit harsh, but I finally caught the latest, grammatically incoherent iteration of J. J. Abrams' Star Trek reboot and it's safe to say, I didn't like it very much. I liked it considerably less even than his first one, which for me was very much a three star film. There were some excellent set pieces, and the look was good (the Klingon segment in particular had a great aesthetic) but it just confirmed my feeling that J. J. Abrams doesn't really seem to get Star Trek. He makes a game stab of it, but I don't think he can quite disguise the fact that he wasn't originally a fan, and wants very much to make it into a slightly more grown-up and respectable version of Star Wars.

There never was a huge amount of science in Star Trek; to say otherwise would be a lie. This is more true of the original series, which especially in later episodes just turned into a long succession of Monster Of The Week scenarios, than it is for Next Gen, which is the most cerebral of the different series. But there was always a sense in which Trek aspired to be something more than just space fantasy - even in its silliest moments it was always dealing with issues of morality and ethics, and at its best, it often dealt with quite profound questions regarding what it meant to be human.

Abrams' version attempts to replicate this, but he seems to do so in an entirely begrudging fashion. There isn't a single interesting moral conundrum that he can't bury (or skate over) with a bunch of explosions and a chase scene, and leave not so much unresolved as cast aside. It's almost as if he's embarrassed at having to burden the audience with all this stupid ethical stuff, when what we really want to see is a load of famous archetype characters running around shooting things. And meanwhile the Trek fans will be satisfied with the occasional bone thrown their way ("I'm a doctor, not a torpedo technician!").

That's not the only issue, of course. The plot...Well, where do you even start? I would describe it as being full of holes, but that doesn't quite capture the sense of narrative abyss which is at the heart of this film. The first Abrams Star Trek was nonsensical enough (and I don't just mean contradictory or containing continuity errors - I mean fundamentally ignorant of the basic requirements of fictional narrative), but here it's almost as if Abrams is abandoning the entire concept of story in favour of linking together a series of modules, themes, and set pieces which are connected only in the sense that they happen one after the other, chronologically. It surely must be a sign of concern to anybody interested in story that the only way to summarise the plot of Into Darkness is as follows: volcano erupting, Kirk, Spock, Uhura, blonde girl we don't care about but who looks okay in bra and panties, nasty British guy, nasty Star Fleet guy, miscellaneous terrorist-style incident designed to invoke 9/11 and similar except not in such a way that it becomes explicit enough to be offensive, dodgy English actor doing a dodgy imitation of a Canadian doing a dodgy Scottish accent, something about torpedoes, Scotty resigning, Klingons are involved for some reason, lots of things blowing up, skulls get crushed, people getting sucked into space, a ship flies into the sea, there's a fight on a flying thing in San Francisco, everything's okay in the end, and there's a rousing speech by Kirk which bears basically no relation to anything which preceded it.

And that's not even to start on all the little things which, taken individually, shouldn't matter, but whose cumulative effect was to irritate me beyond measure. For instance:

  • There is no reason for Carol Marcus to be in the film except presumably to set her up for something which happens in the next one. She has no role to play in proceedings, could be excised from the script entirely, and her motivations don't make any sense - why does she even get on the Enterprise in the first place? I honestly have no idea. 
  • Where the fuck does the real Spock come from all of a sudden, just at the right moment when inferior Spock needs him? It feels as if that scene is just crowbarred into the film so the director can refresh the audience's memories about Wrath of Khan. Incredibly weak.
  • Why does 'Harrison' go to Kronos? It's not's just, well, we want Klingons in there, and, well, Marcus wants to start a war with the Klingons! See - plot!
  • Star Trek technology has always been impossible when you think about it, but this film didn't even pay lip service to making it believable. How in God's name is Sulu able to simply broadcast an audio message that Harrison can hear on the surface of Kronos, without everybody else on that planet being able to hear it? Or in the future does everybody simply have a radio receiver in their ear? Or have they invented a form of sound that you can beam across hundreds of thousands of kilometres with pin-point accuracy so that an individual person can hear it, but nobody else? 
  • Why were the Klingon patrol involved, except for the purpose of providing a reason to have a fight scene? Or do we just forget about Chekhov's gun nowadays? 
  • Isn't Khan supposed to be intelligent? Wouldn't he spot inferior Spock's ruse a mile off, as the audience does? And on that point, what relation does real Spock's advice have to the actual ruse that inferior Spock comes up with? Surely in order for their interaction to have any narrative meaning, real Spock's words should trigger something in inferior Spock to make him come up with an idea for defeating Khan?
  • Why doesn't Khan just throw inferior Spock off the flying barge thing at the end? He has about a dozen chances to do it. Why is he obsessed with trying to crush his skull? Is this Mortal Kombat, so everybody has to have a finishing move?
  • How far is Kronos from Earth, exactly? Because from a remark Scotty makes towards the end of the film, almost the whole thing occurs across the course of a single day. Again, we know that warp speed has always moved at the speed of plot in Star Trek, but at least older iterations paid lip service to the notion that space is, you know, a bit big. 
  • Kirk is obsessed with saving his crew ("Just let my crew live...") but how many people must have died when the big evil Star Fleet ship ploughs into San Francisco? And nobody even bats an eyelid. This is just a manifestation of a bizarre phenomenon that exists in Hollywood scriptwriting, where if somebody's life is meaningful to one of the main characters, we care if they die, but otherwise, we don't think twice about them.
  • In the future is it okay for officers to argue about their love lives in front of subordinates, as Spock and Uhura do on the shuttle to Kronos? I'm not in the military or anything, but in my job, it's considered the worst possible form for managers to argue in front of subordinates, especially about their personal lives. It just doesn't happen. But this is a film, so fundamentals of human interaction are ignored in the name of inferior Spock getting the chance to emote
  • Lens flare. At what stage does that become self parody? 

It was bloody dreadful and I regret watching it. 

Saturday, 8 June 2013

Players Are Like Lucifer

I've plugged it often, and I'll do it again, but The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy is always worth listening to. I've been catching up on recent episodes at the gym, and this one in particular, while video game-specific, has much of interest to say about the nature of games in general.

Austin Grossman, the interviewee in the episode, makes the excellent observation that players of video games are a bit like Lucifer in Paradise Lost; it seems like it is in their very nature to rebel against the pre-ordained state of things. As a video-game designer, you simply have to accept that players will not do what they are "supposed to", and will constantly find ways to pervert what the game is for. And the stricter you make the narrative, of course - i.e., the more you define what the player is "supposed to do" - the more this perverse streak will emerge, and the more it will work against the game.

We've all experienced this. Even within the strict narrative confines of a text adventure, our impulse to type HIT MAN, PULL DOWN PANTS, BITE DOG, FUCK OFF etc. is irresistible.

Grossman puts it down, if I recall correctly (I don't have the transcript), to human players asserting control over their environment and personal narrative in an almost instinctive way. It's not in our nature to restrain ourselves from exercising our autonomy once we have it.

The application of this line of thinking to tabletop RPGs is obvious. While the RPG equivalent of typing "FUCK OFF" into a text adventure interface is not to be recommended, as any DM knows, nothing you plan ever survives contact with the players. Console yourself with this thought next time your brilliant idea is horribly scuppered by the reaction of the players: they are just exercising their autonomy instinctively and are, essentially, acting like Lucifer. It's in their nature.

Saturday, 1 June 2013

The Death of an Author and Grown Up Fantasy

Jack Vance was one of a handful of fantasy/SF writers who I would consider truly great (the others, off the top of my head, are M. John Harrison, Gene Wolfe and Tolkien). So his passing is a sad event, but I do not feel any sense of shock or tragedy: the man was 96, and the body of work he leaves behind for us to read is vast. Indeed, I've never read The Demon Princes, though I have the complete series on my Kindle; I have that pleasure ahead of me as soon as the book I'm currently reading is over.  

It's only really sad that such a great prose stylist was ignored for so long. I'm glad that British newspapers commemorated his death (though perhaps typically, the Telegraph refer to him only as a "seventies writer"; his most popular and famous books were written through the 60s, 70s and 80s), but they only seem to have managed it because a heck of a lot of more famous, but inferior, writers (GRRM, Moorcock, Le Guin, Gaiman) have cited him as influences and expressed their sadness at his passing. I don't think I know more than, say, four or five people who've even heard of the man. Like Harrison and Wolfe, he's somehow missed out on the mainstream success which fantasy/SF is beginning to achieve. 

I think there are various obvious reasons for this. Unlike writers such as GRRM, William Gibson, China Mieville, or Paolo Bacigalupi, there is nothing 'cool' about Vance's writing. (I don't mean to use the word 'cool' disparagingly: I like three out of those four writers very much.) His favourite author was PG Wodehouse and there is something old-fashioned about his writing: he seemed to eschew the modern and contemporary in favour of a very recherche, arch, and almost polite style - as if the modernist revolution never affected him. And he was damned by the pulpiness of his titles, covers and publishers, which, unlike the writing, feel very much of their time - people don't write books with titles like The Languages of Pao any more.   

But I think there is another reason, which is simply that Vance is a very cold and detached writer, who doesn't make concessions to the reader. That's not to say his writing is difficult to get into; it's just that it's difficult to get emotionally involved in. This is because Vance is first and foremost an amoral author. Not amoral in the pejorative sense, nor in the juvenile everybody-gets-raped sense which sometimes lets down A Song of Ice and Fire. Amoral in the sense that, as a narrator, he never engages in the making of judgements. Even when he is describing horrific behaviour (there is a particularly memorable scene in the first Lyonesse book in which a woman gets her tongue removed) he never allows himself to indulge in telling the reader how to feel about it: his tone and voice always remain detached, neutral and objective. He is always meticulous about allowing the reader to make up his own mind about the morality of what he is reading. (And it is a mark of his skill that he gets you to fall in love with Cugel without ever trying to represent him as sympathetic.)

This is something that it is difficult to love, I feel. If you get Vance, you get him, but if you don't, you probably wonder what the fuss is about. His great strength is something that militates against mass popularity. 

I don't mind this, however; if you do get Vance, it's probably a sign you are simply a superior human being, and you are a member of a very lucky set of people. As I wrote a few years back:

There are moments reading Vance where he is simply so brilliant, so much of a virtuoso, that you can hardly stand it. My particular favourite episode in all of the work of his that I've read is the chapter called ["The Inn of Blue Lamps"], which comes near the start of Cugel's Saga. The depiction of gradual descent into drunkenness of the characters involved, the understated humour, the slightly sardonic detached tone in which it is written, and the joyous unfurling of the tightly-wrought and carefully constructed plot (the creation of which you haven't even noticed because it has been done with such aplomb) - it's enough to make you remember all over again just why literature is enjoyable and important.

I'm off to re-read that chapter now with a glass of brandy - here's to you, Jack.