Factual errors and rhetorical traps in Failforward’s post about DnD 5’s consultants

August 1, 2014 13 comments

EDIT: Since I wrote this post, Seebs has written a really good intro to the ongoing controversy here and a thorough rebuttal of the Failforward piece here, giving a more detailed critique of deliberate dishonesty in the piece’s argument and language, which contains a bunch of good points I missed or glossed over. He’s also had Roland attempt to smear him because of his work in elucidating all this, and dissected the smear with characteristic grace and clarity. All Seebs’s linked discussions are well worth reading. In short, I agree with Seebs when he says that the accusations leveled against Zak remain badly-supported and that they look a lot like a malicious smear campaign. Roland has actually attempted some kind of argument in his counter-post but his “evidence” does not actually constitute evidence at all (and Seebs has already explained why in that last link above).

Executive summary: there is no evidence that supports the claims against Zak made in the Failforward piece. There is evidence of vicious arguing and name-calling both from Zak supporters and Zak detractors. The fight has really moved past the point recorded in this post – in particular I am now persuaded that there is deliberate dishonesty on the Zak-smearing side. Nonetheless I’m leaving the post up as originally written, as a record of the conversation at the time of writing.

—-original post below—-

There’s been a lot of chatter about a piece recently posted on Failforward, which accuses Zak Smith and RPG Pundit of various bad things, the worst of which is passing coded messages to their supporters inciting them to harass their detractors. Most of this chatter has either cheered on Failforward’s condemnation or has supported Zak and Pundit, on both sides based on their character, either from personal knowledge or from online interactions or revealed in the quality of their work.

This post is not about that. It’s about pointing out factual errors and unsupported assertions in Failforward’s piece, and analyzing what work the piece’s rhetoric is doing – what the message is and the effect that message can have.

The piece itself presupposes that the RPG community divides into two sides: those who support Zak and Pundit and those who condemn them. It pains me that I even have to say this, but I am not accepting that choice here. In the interest of full disclosure I should note that I have been reading Zak’s blog for a couple of years, I’ve played in his G+ game and I am currently in his G+ circles. That means I’ve seen what’s been going on around Zak. I know nothing whatever about Pundit so this post is going to deal principally with the accusations about Zak.

But all that doesn’t mean I’ve given up my critical faculties to some kind of tribal identity. If I’m “with” anyone, it’s Kiel Chenier and Tony Demetriou, who are trying to gather the evidence that’s missing from Failforward’s piece, to see if there is any substance to its accusations. So, if you have evidence, please post it on Tony’s G+ link above or in comments here and I’ll pass it on to them.

The reason I’m writing this at all is that I want to call out the piece as expressing a totalitarian mode of thought. The post forwards an us-and-them mentality, alleges the existence of a shadowy army of “harassers” and an opposing legion of unnamed victims, and tries to align the reader with the victim camp and to force their opinion against two named individuals. This is all painfully familiar to anyone who has studied the histories of totalitarian regimes: such regimes routinely hold up their public order by dividing and terrorizing their subjects by marginalizing and excluding a few “public enemies,” who are most usually accused of both thought crimes and endangering public safety. The fear of being found guilty by association with these public enemies is the disciplinary tool used to silence the population. I had previously thought that people with no direct power interest in totalitarian regimes would only buy into these modes of thinking out of desperate fear for their life and family. But apparently it can happen in online discussion forums about elf games, too.

First, let’s deal with demonstrable factual errors.

These are mostly trivial but they are used to bolster an assertion about the importance and “toxicity” of the accused. Quotes from Failfoward are in italics:

1. The piece describes the ‘Old School Rules’ movement as people who think everything since the earliest editions of D&D was unnecessary.
This ‘Old School Rules’ movement is subsequently referred to as the OSR. Here are some prominent OSR bloggers: Jeff Rients, Grognardia, Necropraxis, Hack & Slash.
As you can see, they write blogs, which often contain new and revised rules. So that’s factually disproved right there: they find other rules necessary enough to write them. It turns out that quite a lot of them find value in elements and rules from subsequent editions, too, as well as whole other games. Just type queries into OSRsearch and you’ll find stuff.

2. the OSR movement contains some very nasty people. Zak and Pundit are two of them.
So the important part here is vague (what does nasty mean? Doesn’t every movement contain nasty people?). But in Zak’s case, the statement is trivially untrue because nasty or not, he does not identify himself as OSR, but rather as “DIY DnD,” a kind of tendency that also contains people like False Machine and Scrap Princess and Last Gasp who have no special attachment to the earliest editions. Zak’s own game draws from every edition up to (at least) 3.x. So if you define OSR as earliest editions only (as Failforward does) then Zak is demonstrably not that. Further, he actively encourages people to play without worrying too much about the rules – in his own uniquely abrasive way.

So then (3) we get to the point of these two errors. They are necessary to painting Zak and Pundit as angry nerdboys who spent all their time trying to gatekeep the hobby. And in Zak’s case this is demonstrably untrue, in terms of rules, play style or personal comportment. See point 2.  More generally, see his blog. It is true that he has recently called people to shout down people who are spreading lies about him and who have already destroyed their own credibility by, for instance, equating silence with endorsement. I wish he hadn’t, and I’m not going to shout anyone down. But even that is not gatekeeping the hobby.

Now, unsupported assertions. These require some corroborating evidence to be taken as true, but none is provided.
1. at the same time as D&D tries to appeal to those outside the gender binary, it has been driving them away by employing two of the most toxic personalities in tabletop gaming.
This requires citation of people outside the gender binary, driven away specifically by the employment of these two people. Perhaps I will get some such evidence in the comments, but remember, you have to have actually been driven away from D&D by Zak and Pundit on gender grounds in order to qualify.

2. people began to speak out. Most did so in private, others posted publicly but without naming names. This, I became aware, was because anyone who criticised the pair found themselves subjected to harassment, abuse and real world stalking.
This is the crux of the whole post. Apparently there’s a crowd of people speaking out against Zak but they’re doing it in secret for fear of reprisals. Quoting any of this speaking out would really help here. The author excuses his lack of evidence as necessary to protect his sources: The people named in this article have a history of harassing their critics. As such I have chosen to keep my sources and any traceable information they have given me anonymous to protect them – but there’s an obvious problem then of credibility.
People have found ways around this in the past. Whole Mafia trials have been achieved, using witnesses who faced actual murder if their identities were revealed. Even a couple of detailed stories with the names filed off, of people who actually had spoken out and been victimized, such that their stories provided the chilling effect that silenced others – these would be helpful. The post doesn’t contain any, except for a reference to phone calls to people’s houses in the middle of the night that say “This is where your children go to school” which the author states were not made by Zak or Pundit.

In particular, it would really help to be able to cite any example of harassment, abuse and real world stalking actually performed by Zak AND Pundit (since they are jointly accused), because that would support the case that they are themselves a community problem.

But that’s not in fact the nature of the accusation. Instead it’s that Zak and Pundit publically attack someone… That person then finds themselves under a sustained campaign of harassment from Zak and Pundit’s fans [emphasis added]. They pair would then feign innocence despite knowing full well what would happen and doing nothing to discourage it.

So, in Zak’s case this last assertion is demonstrably untrue. He has in fact written: “Well, don’t stalk or harass them, that doesn’t help me at all–I want them discredited and harassing them only adds credence to their bullshit.. Just don’t ever trust or help any of these people ever, and confront them with a demand for proof when they make accusations.”
But even if it were true, the accusation is flawed by a simple error: it assumes Zak and Pundit are responsible for their fans’ actions because (presumably) the fans are automata with no minds of their own.

The repeated calls for factual evidence of such harassment, which have turned up no such evidence, are actually secondary to this point. Zak’s or Pundit’s alleged culpability in harassment is predicated on a basic failure of attribution. Even if they have fans who stalk people, neither Zak nor Pundit is responsible for that, unless they actually told anyone to do it. And possibly not even then, unless we discount free will in the face of minor internet celebrity. To be held responsible for the actions of others in particular by your silence or failure to discourage the actions is a classic Kafkatrap – and guilt by silence is a classic totalitarian show-trial criterion.

It so happens that in the wake of Failforward’s piece, one case of personally threatening behaviour, supported by quotable evidence, actually happened. Kiel Chenier was anonymously threatened by someone who revealed his address online along with the words “someone pays you a visit, fucker.”


As I mentioned above, Kiel was also asking for evidence of prior harassment by Zak. So here in these two clippings from Kiel’s tumblr we have an actual threat and identification of Kiel as “another mindless zak fanboy.” Which almost seems like anonymous is trying to prove my contentions for me (it wasn’t me, in case you’re wondering. I don’t threaten people, online or off).

3. it the choice of victim that is the most telling. These attacks nearly always target women and LGTBQ individuals
So. This is a classic hard thing to prove. You’d have to identify all victims and prove their victimhood, then the subset who are women and/or LGTBQ, and then you’d have to demonstrate that Zak and Pundit jointly and separately knew these victims were women and/or LGTBQ in order to back up this accusation. Unfortunately simply asserting I know several transpeople who their fans have attacked and harassed isn’t enough to back up the above assertion. Even if you actually named them. Even if you could prove that the fans did this attacking at Zak’s and/or Pundit’s behest. And if you can, then (again) please, please post it in the comments.

As a case in point of the difficulty in proving any of this, it is asserted that his girlfriend attempted to out a trans designer (here, it is widely assumed). This has been pretty effectively debunked in Tracy Hurley’s G+ thread, where it is pointed out that it can be difficult to know the actual identity of people who use several aliases online, and much more difficult to track the changes in that identity over time. The original post has since been modified to prevent any such accidental “outing,” although, given the existence and accessibility and traceability of the identities (given work) it’s unclear whether the person in question was “outed” and to whom at which stages. Especially since it seems later in the post that Fred Hicks might have outed the same designer.

So, finally, the rhetorical payload.
First, lets deal with gatekeeping – that is, redefining the boundaries of the RPG community, which is, I aver, what this post is about.

The first case of this in the post concerns feminism:
Zak presents himself as a sex positive feminist, but spends all his time derailing conversations on sexism, defending sexists and attacking real feminists by painting them as anti-sex conservatives. When called out on this he defends his words with a greatest hits list of derailing arguments: ‘I know women who disagree’, ‘You’re just anti-sex prudes’ and even attempting to debate what the word ‘sexist’ means.

This here is actual gatekeeping: the invocation of real feminists as opposed to Zak and his supporters, who must be “false feminists.” Who are these real feminists? How is their feminism realized? Who issues the licenses?
That terrible dichotomy is enclosed in one that’s simply false the “but” in the quote should introduce a contradiction but it doesn’t. Rather, it sounds like Zak’s debating about feminism, in which case everything else cited is not necessarily unreasonable. So, claims here need actual evidence. To prove he defended sexists you’d have to prove their sexism, and anyway to be meaningful at all Zak would have to defend the sexism itself, not the person identified as a sexist. And debating sexism pretty much has to involve debating what the word means.

Regarding that troublesome “but,” it’s not the only case in the post where bad grammar opens up space for uncharitable misreading.
Mearls responded. No-one had given him evidence that Zak or Pundit had not spoken any slurs, so he was throwing the complaints out.
See that “not” in there? It’s also probably just bad grammar/proofreading. But there it is, quietly contradicting the point of the sentences around it. When you read the paragraph, you can’t quite know the writer’s intention. You can infer, and in that inference you lose the certainty that could let you rebut it. Vagueness creeps in.

But the conspiring Army of Harassers is the real problem here – the putative gatekeeping agent. Where are they (please, really, tell me in comments, citing sources so I can actually quote them)?

The post’s invoking of a shadowy force of stalking, harassing fans does the work of such a gatekeeper, regardless of whether they really exist or not. It’s a classic disciplinary tactic: the point is to stop you, the reader, from speaking out. The post practically tells you not to speak out, alluding to other people who have been hurt and are afraid to speak out. It also paints anyone who supports Zak as a potential stalker in his zombie army – which is why I was at such pains at the top of this piece to state that I was not in fact writing as a member of any such army.

First, the threat posed by the Army creates quietism, which the post bravely breaks. Second, it prevents the sharing of evidence, so we have to take the brave poster’s word for everything. But what are we accepting, in fact?

Told their conversations would be confidential they shared with Mearls all the stories I’ve shared with you, only with names, links, screenshots and other traceable information I have removed to protect my sources.
But where are the stories? All I’ve seen is vague accusations of people en masse being harassed.

Like the poster, Mearls also doesn’t share stories, preferring claims he can address directly. In his case this apparently makes him culpable of not taking them seriously:
The allegations of harassment it seems, were secondary to whether they had ever spoken a bad word: “I haven’t seen or received any evidence that Zak has made homo/transphobic or racist statements. I have heard from a number of people who feel harassed and marginalized in the gaming community.”

It looks to me like Mearls’s statement is very carefully worded, but I’d have to ask him what exactly he wanted to say. But he doesn’t confirm the existence of the Army, so he’s no use to the poster.

Why was it more important to re-assure Zak he was in the clear than respond to allegations of harassment? Mearls again replied, saying that he was not taking the accusations seriously because some of the people stating them where members of the Something Awful forums, which he claimed has a history of harassing Zak

So here we have claims of rival bands of harassers working to silence both pro- and anti- Zak/Pundit voices. A whole war is going on and you might not have noticed.
How could you not have noticed? Privilege, of course.

We naively assume that our world is just, that someone we know couldn’t get away with abuse without us noticing. Mearls isn’t alone in this belief, over the past three weeks I’ve seen similar sentiments from senior figures in the RPG community. “This can’t really be happening”, they reassured themselves,”We’d have heard something”, “Someone must be exaggerating”. It is tempting to believe that the RPG community is not ‘that bad’, but it is, it is the worst community I have ever known. Partly because it harbours Zak and Pundit, but also because so many have reacted to this crisis by playing down legitimate anger and trying to find a truth in the middle where there is none.

It’s true that trying to find a truth in the middle where there is none is deeply unhelpful and can prop up stupid propaganda routines. Like when the middle path is between things which are demonstrably true and things which are demonstrably untrue, for instance.

Because the author finally knows the Truth – or enough of it to speak for “almost all” of the terrified, unPrivileged people involved.
The RPG community is small enough that almost every woman, person of colour or LGTBQ individual seems to have had a run in with Zak or Pundit. The only reason I hadn’t heard about this before is because they are too afraid to speak out. Discussions happen in private, or with the names left out, because both Zak and Pundit are infamous for googling their own names and attacking their critics.
That’s right, it’s a *silent majority.* People you can’t respond to because they’re too scared to speak. Scared of a harassing army that has no face or voice, which therefore cannot answer its accusers. Happily Failforward will speak for them all.

Does this seem ludicrously paranoid? That’s probably your privilege talking, blinding you to the truth. But just in case you feel like giving in to that nagging voice of reasonable doubt, Failforward has a lampshade to hang on it. Zak even now tries to portray these allegations as prudish conservatives out to smear him due to his involvement in pornography. Yet for that to be true almost every marginalised voice in the RPG community would need to be part of a secret right wing conspiracy. At a certain point you have to accept that that is implausible.
But you don’t have to accept the implausibility of a secret conspiracy of the silent abused, cowering at their keyboards.

Who is ultimately responsible for this community in secret peril? Is there anyone with an actual face and identity we can turn on with our pitchforks?


On the poster’s holding the writers and publishers of D&D accountable – his demand that they consult only people that don’t scare other unnamed, unidentifiable people, I have nothing to say. The contention is obviously ludicrous. But there is something specific to object to in his language:

I’m sorry D&D, you don’t get to have it both ways. If you want praise for your inclusive language, you’ll also need to answer for the people you hire.
By excluding them. That’s what this whole thing was about. Excluding Zak and Pundit and anyone who speaks with or in support of them from the community of civilized discourse.

So if I were directly involved in any of this I’d be angry about the falsity and/or vagueness of the accusations made by the Failforward post. I might be emboldened to speak up with actual citeable evidence if I had any. Are you genuinely worried about me or others harassing you? Post an anonymous comment here with a link showing harassment. Get creative. Send e-cards from third party providers.

As it is, being a simple member of the “community” of gamers (if there is any such thing), what I’m disturbed about is pretty minor, but it’s still a precondition for having a community that can discuss stuff. Whether there really is an army of harassing fans and of victims or not, this post demands I choose a side. Now I’ve written this, there will be some people who think I’m part of the army, and others who think I’m just hopelessly blind, and still others who think that no matter how blind I am, I should side with the victims regardless – no matter what kind of bill of goods is being sold with that side. And those people will refuse to talk to me about this, because they will have already made up their minds that I am potentially dangerous. In that Tracy Hurley thread there’s name-calling and dismissal not just of opinions but of questions on the grounds that they’re Zak-supporting. And that’s the death of conversation.

Me, I’ll be continuing to presume everyone’s innocence until proof is provided against it.


Review: Pergamino Barocco

July 23, 2014 1 comment

I don’t usually write reviews, but I’m going to make an exception. Because Pergamino Barocco is a little gem.

Screen Shot 2014-07-23 at 4.03.58 PMScreen Shot 2014-07-23 at 4.04.24 PM

First, it’s a leading example of what I think we should be doing more of: it’s a roleplaying book that is also an artwork. And I happen to be lucky enough to have a copy that’s not strictly a work of mechanical reproduction, being hand-bound in silk.

Now this is not a smart commercial decision for anyone working in the publishing system – the number of books that can be made this way is strictly limited by the spare time of the maker. It’s also not a smart proposition for an artist working in the gallery system – it’s full of writing that gallery buyers won’t read – and worse, gameable content that the art public definitely won’t play, and it’s labour-intensive to reproduce and the written content is laser printed game book style stuff, not hand-written or hand-printed self-conscious art object stuff.

So why do I think we should be doing this kind of thing? Because out here in the deep DIY end of the hobby, where we aren’t dependent on commercial sales or marketing focus groups or the manufactured value of the gallery system, we actually can. We can make things that don’t fit in the usual boxes and we can find a few like-minded souls who will enjoy them and maybe create a laboratory for experimenting with new forms of expression and do something else.

And Pergamino is definitely something else.

It’s also pretty damn good in the content, even if you don’t get the hand-bound version. It’s a collection of a dozen or so very detailed little spells designed specifically to blow the mind of anyone who’s got used to feather fall or sleep. You know how DnD promises this whole Vancian flavour but in the end a lot of the spells are kinda pedestrian? These are full-on Vancian whimsy: exploitable, backfiring, specific, demoniacal, baroque. Even more so than the spells in Nephilim or Elric. And the booklet provides a kind of primer for making more spells in the same vein, because Roger’s method is eminently copiable – he has made a spell book by misreading historical spellbooks. Each spell is illustrated with a woodcut or engraving from Robert Fludd or Edward Kelley or the Malleus Maleficarum or someone like that, which is reinterpreted into something else, that is just as wondrous and strange as the original but also smart and usable and ready to game.

And literate. A pre-lapsarian hut where you cannot lie or engage in violence. A spell for making treasure coins recount their histories (ie direct you to other hordes and hoarders) in the voices of their stamped emperors.

And although it came out like a year ago, I think right now might be its right moment because Patrick and Scrap’s just-released Deep Carbon Observatory is also something else, and the two products point in two different directions for the possibilities of what Zak Smith calls folk-art witchery.

And it has an easter egg (at least one, I guess). And it’s short but delightfully formed, which suits my current impatience.

So if that sounds good to you, go get it. And harass Roger Giner-Sorolla and Paolo Greco into making another one, because you can never have enough oddball spells to act as dungeon traps, plot generators or villain nobblers, even if your players aren’t the kinds of munchkins to work out how to use them to break your game.

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DnD Tourism: the inevitable Neuschwanstein post

June 2, 2014 3 comments

I don’t have much time these days, so I’m going to keep the analysis short here. Tl:dr – you should go visit Neuschwanstein, even if you don’t run a classically pseudo-medieval game, even if the whole volkish Wagnero-Tolkieny fantasy thing brings you out in hives, and especially if you think you’ve been inoculated against sentimentalism by a surfeit of Disney princesses. Because it’s all those things but it’s also so very good.

All the following photos are stolen off the internet: feel free to send takedown orders.


So you know the basic story already: Mad king Ludwig II of Bavaria decides ruling is too hard/boring and his real passion is building fairytale castles. He’s best mates with Wagner and he does his best to turn those turgid operas into fluffy stone confections until his mysterious death at the bottom of a lake supplies the obvious final tragic chord. 50 years later Walt Disney gets excited about the pointy turrets, digs up the last surviving artists who worked on them, and makes the first feature-length cartoon all about Fairycastleland, eventually leading to Cinderella’s Castle at Disneyland, CA, which sears Ludwig’s vision into the imagination of little girls for the rest of the 20th century and probably beyond.


So far so serviceable, if you want to mine the second most obvious source in all of fantasy. But this story spins off in several curious directions and the devil (and his salvation) is in the details. If you want to get conspiratorial, you could ask who murdered Ludwig and why, 16 years after Bavaria’s inclusion in Bismarck’s empire made his throne into a historical footnote. You could also wonder how it was that Ludwig’s brother and obvious successor Otto came to be “unfit for rule” after serving adequately in the Prussian army during the short and decisive Franco-Prussian War (or what he was doing in that army, for that matter). The official tour says Otto suffered from PTSD or something, and notes in passing that Ludwig, too, was mad. Except these days we think he probably wasn’t. Ludwig’s building fetish threatened to bankrupt the family, but when he died there was still enough money for his uncle Luitpold to keep up the residence at neighbouring Hohenschwangau and even to have novelties like a telephone and elevator put in.


Less famous, but cozier and handy for the shops.

Work stopped on the castle the day the king died, so only the 4th floor and above were finished. That was enough to make it into an attraction, however, and it was handed over to the new German state and opened to the public just 6 weeks after Ludwig drowned was bludgeoned to death following his arrest. Which is pretty quick moving, from a building site riddled with rebellious, gossiping servants to a state museum.

Then there’s the curious relationship between Ludwig’s creations and the 2nd and 3rd Reichs. In 1866, Prussia had expanded (via military threat, trickery and horse-trading) through most of the vaguely German-speaking territories that weren’t already nailed down in the Austrian Empire. When Ludwig acceded in 1868 Bavaria’s days were clearly numbered, as the largest independent state waiting to be seized by Prussia’s new, aggressive Kaiser from the sphere of influence of Austria, the “sick man of Europe.” Whether Bavaria was forced to join Prussia or ingeniously navigated an impossible situation depends on who you ask: legend has it that Ludwig sold his crown in 1870 in return for the royal treasure of Hannover. So Bismarck’s “tide of history” that swept Ludwig himself aside also made his castle-confections possible. As physical expressions of Wagner’s operas (and flotsam from the Second Reich), the castles were later grabbed up into Hitler’s “Mythology of the German Spirit,” but their frothy, light-hearted brand of mordlust didn’t fit squarely into the Chancellor’s drill routines: in 1937 they slipped out again from under the Nazi curse dressed up as Germanic Lore for American Kids, and hooked into the already vibrant American Castle Craze, incidentally helping Disney to fund anti-Nazi propaganda films (while Walt himself… had a more troubled relationship with the politics of oppression).

Right now, though, I’m most tempted to consider Ludwig’s ghost as one of the great secret architects of the 20th century: a progenitor who used film before it was even invented to propagate his memes around the world.


Walking around Neuschwanstein you can play spot the Disney movie and get a sense for just how direct the castle’s influence was on Walt’s greatest hits. And once you do, you start to wonder why Disney never made a Lohengrin or Tristan and Isolde. Take this painting in the Hall of the Singers, for instance:


Looking at his actual home at Hohenschwangau, it’s remarkable how the colour palette, motifs and composition of a bunch of 1840s German painters would inform 1940s American background artists and children’s book illustrators:

la chambre de la chatelain  piano de wagner Culture-Vixen-Wintibaugh-Wheatley-Bavarian-Castles-3chevalier du cygne

It’s even tempting (though facile) to see unmarried fantasist Ludwig as the prototype for all Walt’s lonely girls in a hilltop castle, waiting for their princes to come. But Snow White and Sleeping Beauty were just the first moves in ghost-Ludwig’s grand strategy to build Fairytale America (in Calyferne, no less), which may be the sneakiest bit of Capitalist appropriation ever: demythologizing mythology. Roaring like a mouse from beyond the grave. Convincing people that he’s safely dead, then re-emerging as… well, a patron saint of kayfabe – of theatre-as-life.


Because theatricality is all over Ludwig’s plans. Consider, for instance, his “throne room” (above, finished apart from the throne), which is really much less like a throne room than it is like a chapel, in which Ludwig himself would play the role of saint statue – on a pedestal under Christ Pantocrator and – most of all – in a narrative sequence of kings who were also saints.


(Valencia Cathedral, Spain, for comparison)


Or his tomb-like bed, crowned with wooden copies of a dozen mausoleum towers (modern toilet hidden behind the paneling). Or the bed he actually slept in, in Hohenschwangau, under a painted night sky in which the stars and moon could be lit up, by means of lamps hidden in a crawlspace above. Or if that’s not clear enough, the fact that in order to get from his bedroom to his reading room, he would have had to walk through a stage-set grotto, built for a performance of Parsifal:


Dracula not included.

Neuschwanstein’s primary architect, Christian Jank, was a theatre designer. His painted designs for the castle look like theatrical backdrops – and that’s what the castles themselves were supposed to be: physical intrusions into our reality of the world that Wagner brought to brief (although still bum-numbing), flickering life on the stage.



Which is why they’re so perfectly suited to being realized, all over again, as fantasies. Because like movie music or a well-written novel, they guide you in your reception. There is one classic exterior photo of Neuschwanstein that every tourist takes:


They take it from the Marienburg bridge, because it offers the one vantage point from which you can see the whole castle. Because the bridge was placed just so, as a viewing platform for the masterpiece; the optimal point for reproducing the castle’s image the way Jank wanted you to remember it. In most of the rooms there’s an obvious place you’re supposed to stand, where all the sightlines converge – and it’s not the king’s seat, but the point where the visitor first enters. The point where you would, naturally, have your Kodak moment. The walks up to the castles are through carefully manicured “wild” forests, complete with Alan Lee tangled roots and craggy shettiya-type rocks, which ground the whole thing and also prepare you for entering the self-consciously otherworldly castle precincts. In short, the whole thing is a masterclass in presenting an experience to the visitor. It only looks, superficially, like a castle. In fact it’s a thesis, a story-book, covered in painted illustrations and punctuated by spiral staircases and high lookout windows.


And it’s a much, much more interesting story than the overtly political ones, built at the same time, that were supposed to sell the new quality of German-ness to Ludwig’s Bavarian subjects.

…and in that spirit, it really doesn’t matter that it’s unfinished. Or that its younger brother, Castle Falkenstein, miscarried before it could get a foot onto the earth.


That just means Falkenstein’s ready to hold whatever story you want to pour into it.

BTW, if you are in fact planning to go see Ludwig’s castles in Bavaria, you really should also go to the Linderhof, where he actually lived much of the time, and the royal Residenz Palace in Munich.

A formal statement of the system I actually use when running Tartary

April 23, 2014 Leave a comment

Tartary has a couple of special systems for subgames, which are supposed to support more exciting, crunchy scenes (mecha combat, basically), but most of the time it’s just basic task resolution. And as I have drunk more martinis and DMed more on the fly, these have become streamlined to the point where I think it might be of service to other gin-swilling DMs to share this worn little pebble of a resolution mechanic. Thus:

We roll 1D10. This is because dice snobs hate the non-Platonic D10 and because I find it easy to calculate in base 10. It’s a habit.

All rolls are contested, ie. both the player and the DM roll.* Whoever rolls higher gets their way. The margin of success = damage in combat, some rough estimate of efficiency, and flair.
You can modify this roll in various ways – with a skill or attribute bonus (one or the other), situational modifiers, special pleading, bribery etc.
Also by taking extra risk. This means you say “I want to add (eg) +3 to this roll.” If you do that, then rolling under that modifier number (in this case 3) on the die is an auto failure and something terrible happens.**

1 is automatic failure anyway. Reroll – if you get another 1 something terrible happens.
If you roll a 10, reroll and add to your 10, ad infinitum.

* inanimate stuff in the environment gets to contest your roll because all of Tartary hates you.

** terrible things are, in fact, terrible. If you happen to be handling explosives (as you often are in Tartary) you’ll likely be rolling up another character and apologizing to anyone else whose character was nearby.

So then there are some standard complications; weapons add a flat bonus to damage (a sword adds +2), unless they are (a) big-ass or (b) explosives, in which case they add 1 or more d10 (more on combat here). There’s a death and dismemberment table, mishaps for psychics and vehicles and doomsday devices, technomagic items and spirit possession and Mi-go and stuff stolen from all over…
…but essentially everything else is an ad hoc ruling.


I guess you’d want chargen here to understand the level of standard mods, but as a baseline, +6 is an excellent skill and +3 an excellent attribute and +4 is an extraordinary situational mod.

image-1 images y187 DSC_0473


Pokemon conversion notes (nothing to see here, move along)

March 25, 2014 Leave a comment

So this isn’t even a real blog entry, it’s just me putting up my half-formed notes about how to do a Pokemon-to-LL conversion for Scrap, further to this discussion on G+.

But if I were stupid enough to do such a conversion (and I’ve been stupid about this before), I might use something like the following (ready for Loganizing into random generators)…

1. Abstract Pokes In A Level Agnostic Old School Crazy Bastard Random Encounter Table:
Roll d100. This table doesn’t care what Pokemon you’ve encountered; you could just use one of Wikipedia’s monster lists or Yokai or whatever. All it gives is HD and basic attack damage. Any critter rolled off this table gets its HD as a bonus to-hit.

1-9:  1 HD = d4 damage
10-25: 2HD = d6 damage
26-44: 3HD = d8
45-59: 4HD = d10
60-72: 5HD = d12
73-84: 6HD = 2d8
85-93: 7HD = 3d6
94-99: 8HD = 4d6
00: Legendary. Roll another D10:
1-7: 9HD = 5d6
8-9: 10HD = 6d6
0: 11HD = 7d6

Attack Type
All Pokemon have an attack move of their own type. Damage depends on HD as above.
Either use the ENCOUNTER TABLES below or simply roll a d20:
1 = Normal 2 = Fight 3 = Fire 4 = Grass 5 = Water 6 = Ice 7 = Ground 8 = Rock 9 = Flying 10 = Steel 11 = Poison 12 = Electric 13 = Psychic 14 = Ghost 15 = Dark 16 = Bug 17 = Dragon 18 = Fairy 19-20 = dual type: roll twice. If a Pokemon has 2 types it alternates attacks between them.

The type of an attack gives a damage multiplier vs. the type of the defender (and maybe you could have types of armour, too? Why not).  This is one insane lookup table, cribbed from Bulbapedia.

Screen Shot 2014-03-25 at 1.08.59 PM

Imma say humans are NORMAL, elves are GRASS or FAIRY, dwarves are ROCK, halflings are GROUND, and monsters are whatever you like. Undead should prolly be DARK.

There is a chance of a critter also knowing moves of other types if you roll under their HD on a D10. If so, roll on the type table above.

And they may have a status-affecting move (roll under their HD on D10 to see).
If so, roll d10. All status moves allow saves except where noted.
1. Flinch. Target gets no attack this round
2. Sleep. Save v magic every round to wake up
3. Fear. Save or be forced to flee
4. Charm. Save or refuse to attack
5. Confusion. Suffer -3 on all rolls
6. Taunt. You are ompelled to attack this Pokemon and do nothing else
7. Attractive! You must capture this Pokemon at all costs
8. Berserk. Save or attack nearest target, friend or foe
9. Sleep next round. No save – you will fall asleep next round. After that you can save to wake up.
10. Roll twice.

ENCOUNTER TABLES if you want to differentiate encounters by the kind of terrain:

Wilderness, grassland, forest: d20.
1-4: grass, 5-6: water, 7: flying, 8-9: poison, 10-12: bug, 13-14: ground, 15-17: normal, 18: fight, 19: fairy, 20: rock
Underground: d10.
1-3: ground, 4-5: rock, 6: fire, 7: dark, 8: ghost, 9: fight, 10: normal
Volcano: d10
1-3: fire. 4: rock. 5: fight. 6: steel. 7: poison. 8-9: dark. 10: dragon
Mountainside, badlands: d10
1-3: ice, 4-5: flying, 6: psychic, 7-8: electric 9: fight 10: fairy
Desert: d10
1: ghost, 2: psychic, 3: dark, 4: rock, 5-7: ground, 8: fight, 9: fairy, 10: dragon
Lake/sea: d10
1-6: water, 7: ghost, 8: ice, 9: dragon, 10: flying
Urban: D12
1: steel, 2-4: electric, 5: dark, 6: psychic, 7: ghost, 8-9: normal, 10: fight, 11: poison, 12: bug
Sky: d10
1-8: flying, 9: ice, 10: electric

That’s it for the abstract version.


Oh, you were hoping for some of Pokemon’s Extra-Crunchy Crazy, like a full conversion? Fine.

2. MORE COMPLEX CONVERSION FOR POKEMON PCs or a game in which Pokemon can level up.

Here is an excel spreadsheet with all the Pokemon on it, with DnD converted stats: pokemon_by_stat_total_2

And here it is as a Google Drive doc.

The first set of columns is how many HD they should have if you encounter them in the wild, also the HD die size for calculating their HP (some really big ones get eg 2d8 hp per level).

Damage is based on the attacking MOVE you use (per Scrap Princess) – and you learn moves by leveling up or finding them like magic items. Here is a conversion table, created by Scrap Princess, for converting Pokemon move damage to DnD damage dice:
Pokemon damage rating  = DnD

30 = d4
40 = d6
50 = d8
60 = d10
70 = d12
80 = 2d8
90 = 2d10
100 = 2d12
110 = 5d6,
120 = 6d6,
150 = 7d6

Dam. mod on the excel sheet above is effectively the critter’s STR bonus/penalty – it gets applied on top of the damage from the move and modifies the Pokemon’s to-hit rolls (like str bonus). Also, you add level to your to-hit rolls for fighters, right? Same for Pokes.

WTF is Magic mod? It’s what I’ve got for Special Attack. There is no ready equivalent in DnD for the separation of attack and defense into “Physical” and “Special.” But. Physical attacks imply contact, special attacks do not. So, as a quick ‘n’ dirty workaround Imma say that all Special attacks are in fact magic effects, and you get to Save vs. Magic against them (or maybe the Poke has to hit you with them as if they were ordinary attacks but they have this Other Mod to deal with on that to-hit roll). This mod is either applied to your saving throw target (ie if it’s low, that means the Poke is crap at it) or to the Poke’s to-hit roll.

Save is the number the Poke has to roll over to save v. whatever, at level 1. It improves by 1 every 2 levels.

Initiative modifier should be clear? “Double for move” is what it says: double this number and you get the DnD “move” stat in feet (so Bulbasaur can keep up with a lightly-armoured PC at 90′, while Munchlax is almost sessile at 10′ and Ninjask is insanely fast at 320′). And then after the types/descriptions there are the original Pokemon stats so you can correct my work. Don’t worry about the “nonsense” column.

Other stuff not covered in the spreadsheet:

5 Pokemon levels = 1 DnD level.
Start at level 0, so a level 4 Pokemon is still a level 0 DnD character; Pokemon level 30-34 is DnD level 6 (this being useful for calculating when Pokes should “evolve” or learn moves if you wanna check all that on Bulbapedia).

What xp chart does my Gyarados use?
Oh god. Yeah. Um, Pokemon takes full advantage of being a computer game to mess with the xp model. In the end, most Pokes are divided into 4 categories for xp-for-next-level. Imma say that “fast” = cleric xp table, “medium fast” = fighter, “medium slow” = MU and “slow” = elf. After that, you’re on your own. Could this be incorporated in the master table, above? Mmmmaybe, but not by me.

Random encounters?
If only I had the time and patience to sort all Pokes by type, frequency, power and preferred terrain, and then generate full encounter tables! Sorry. In lieu of that, the most gonzo approach is just to roll d8-1 for the hundreds, then percentile, and that’s the Dex# (Pokedex number) of the encounter. They’re all tabulated here. Null result means the Pokemon got away before you could ID it.

XP if defeated
Use the LL chart based simply off HD. Add 30% for each extra attack it has beyond the first.

Morale: I got nothing. Unless the description gives you some indication (eg Lillipup: “when at a disadvantage in a fight, this intelligent Pokémon flees.” Rufflet: “bravely stand up to any opponent, no matter how strong it is.”)

This is not a pure conversion. Honestly I despair of doing any such thing  b/c Pokemon delights in outliers at the extremes of the curves that screw things up and I used a bit of fudge factor to make sure we don’t have a bunch of categories that only have like 2 Pokes in them.

The singular Save is based off Special Defense and is assumed to be Save vs Wands or similar (that being missile-type magic). Other saving throws are tricky: poison and steel types should be immune to poison, flying should be especially vulnerable to electric attacks, water should be harder to drown… use the Type chart and improvise.


Tartary hooks and rumours

February 6, 2014 4 comments

Let’s start with the PCs’ more-or-less commitments:

You’re currently 2 days into a 3 day event Mecha Basho, the third day of which is being delayed by your irresponsibly absconding with the Pit Boss of Komtor.

cube of komtor

His vizier, OTAN, images figures that they won’t start the climactic day without him and besides, those bastards from Ulla-n-Batoor Overworld2 haven’t turned up yet and you guys were unceremoniously chased out of the Dashoguz arena by a nomadic horde of Purples so you probably have a bit of a grace period before people start to moan that you’re late.

You have a secret mech for this 3rd day showdown, and potentially awesome destructive capacity (using energy weapons + Holtzman shield, or possibly orbital bombardment). OTOH, now you’ve seen the size of the Pit Boss’s mech, giant saw mining machine it’s kind of comically out of scale with your own (like if yours were a 25mm scale figure, his would be a shoebox).

Cutter #5, driven by Jen the goat and Kyre the human

Come to think of it, it’s pretty much a classic hobbit/dragon scale relationship.

So there’s that.

Also somebody told Kyre to kill the Pit Boss via orbital strike because he’s a mere puppet for sinister Nautiloids (and so is the rest of the top rank of mechawrestlers).


The metal seed-pod in the next door chamber


OTOH OTAN has offered you guys a job fighting for him. Not clear right now how that’s gonna play into Day 3: is it even allowed in the tournament rules? What rules?

Meanwhile OTAN wants colourful belts like your Yellow Belts of Choison. He has not said why. So that’s why you guys went to the Farishta crash site,

Map of the inside of the farishta

Farishta interior, prior to looting

a hundred miles north of Otrar, City of 99 Seers. Apparently the Farishta has been extensively looted already, and its control furniture (likely including the belts) has been taken to Otrar – after a battle between Otrari and Ulla-n-Batoor forces. Wreckage of the battle (burned out Ulla ‘thopters) still litters the area.

So. 1. Farishta wreckage seems to be in high demand – except for the various creepy stuff that’s still left at the crash site (jelly eggs full of dead/dormant humanoids, Mi-go, and other hybrid and exotic body types), which even the ghouls won’t touch, even though it seems mighty meaty.
2. If you want to try to get those belts you’ll have to go to Otrar. 9RraiIrE17D6y36sPfK6fYvuLD0wUIFqQaNiUXLgyAI=w422-h597-no Locals can tell you that Otrar is a fortified city with a high blue tower and famous workpits, from which there is a near-constant banging of hammers and occasional flashes of light like they’re welding together continental plates or something. The Seers of Otrar sometimes have jobs for them, which either involve bringing stuff back from toxic wastelands or performing meaningless acts with mysterious metal stuff on mountaintops. It was a junior Seer who started the Carcosa Wacky Race going, the object of which was to recover the Farishta’s Black Box. Local sky men know that Seer (Mienu the Fat) – and Thora has met him, though I don’t think they exchanged words. You don’t know if the Black Box ever made it back to the Seer or not.
3. Whatever valuables the Otraris didn’t take is probably either in the hands of the sky men or of the ghouls.

Incidentally, the Carcosan sorcerer Chixi’lu the Melter chihuly_face2 used to be highly active in your area. You never figured out what he was up to, but the landscape is littered with his weird scallopy colourful glass towers. Red-Figure_original_large Dale_Chihuly_Mohegan_Sun_Tower_1668_32 Last time Thora was here, there were also lots of dazed/zombified women stumbling about, missing hands or feet. They’ve gone, but the ghoul population has boomed. Why do you care? Well, he was the previous owner of the Yellow Belts. Also he probably had a lair or hideout or something.

Farther afield, and back the way you came…

On the TV: news is still all about your amazing victory at the Basho – unprecedented! Complete unknowns, Cosmic Dancer… could they be another cover identity for The Vengeance of Kokand? Surely he was not so easily bested! Let’s replay that moment when…  interspersed with reports of the fighting around Dashoguz: apparently the main Purple infantry have now arrived, it’s not clear exactly what’s going on. News speculates that terrorist attacks (pictures of Kyre, Keisha and Iqbal with a moustache) were really scouts for this invasion force. The Khan of Khiva says the situation is in hand, but the Amir of Urgench says a strong counter-attack is the only way to stop the Purple Menace, and he’s parading his tanks,_8 implying that the Khan can’t handle it. Dashoguz may or may not have loot for the taking, now that you killed its Governor.

Khiva clearly has its own secrets – big toroidal underground complexes; oNUAv5-JtxN2OuR7iFl6teS8nrcqmF1HLhW6QKVRL14=w865-h592-no odd blue crystals. Extensive mech factories even though the Khan doesn’t fight, and a fondness for electrical powerplants even though the Gas Mining Colony is next door. The Khan

This guy is the Khan of Khiva

was perfectly happy to let you guys loose after you confessed your plan to “deal with” the Pit Boss, and even to host you at his parties, even though consensus seems to be that the Pit Boss is horribly dangerous. He also fixed you up with grease monkeys and supplies – all unofficially. Weirdest of all, he expressed interest in Cutter and where it came from (everyone seems to be curious about that) and then let you go do your thing, rather than, say, impounding Cutter and making you guys disappear.

Who else is curious about Cutter? Well, there’s the Space Psychics (represented by Birunni, mysterious Black Carcosan woman) who abducted, briefed and returned Kyre. They seemed super-excited about something that could fight the Nautiloids. But they also seemed to be in trouble when Kyre saw them – Birunni’s boss had disappeared and her Gigeresque home/base/ship was beiong taken in tow by 2 enormous Nudibranchs nudibranch that kyre saw.  And there’s the strange detail that, even though your attack on Dashoguz has been all over the news, no footage of Cutter is ever shown. Only those brief moments when members of the party are off the mech.

Oh yeah, and right when you got hold of Cutter – you had to bust it out because the caravanserai was being attacked by a band of desert pirates who were being manipulated by a giant red Mi-go. You didn’t think anything of it at the time but it sure was convenient that this supermech happened to be buried under what’s basically a desert truck stop which just happened also to contain a famous engineer on the run. And then the desert pirates didn’t try to hold the caravanserai after they’d taken it – they marched off with prisoners, in more or less in the direction the Mi-go had fled – are were themselves attacked by someone else. You saw the signs of fighting at night. So maybe the desert is teeming with hostile pirate bands. Or maybe there was some specific thing that brought all these people to this out-of-the-way sand bowl.

Cutter has been patiently sitting inside a statue for the past couple of days, _g unconsulted, but it stated quite clearly a while ago that it wants to go find the Ground Base of Tjerimai, the Sister to its own Mothership, Smeroe. And you guys think that’s probably inside a giant brass enclosure at Amritsar Amritsar+copy. Why a brass enclosure? Because that’s what you freed Cutter from, back at that desert caravanserai, SW of Dashoguz. IMG_1057

And that engineer, Wachim, and his grandson Selim (currently somewhere on the streets of Khiva) seem to have an intuitive grasp of what Cutter wants. They built the control panel you use to talk to Cutter without ever having actually seen the machine or opened its brass cucurbit. They knew there was something helpful in that cucurbit.


Does my Dune have pictures?

February 1, 2014 4 comments

So I reshared a collection of images from the David Lynch Dune movie and I noted that Lynch’s vision wasn’t what my Dune looked like… and Joshua Blackketter asked what does my Dune look like?

Well. Even though it was probably the book that made me decide to go to art school, I never actually made any pictures of it I was happy with. So I’m going to have to show a bunch of other people’s art that still isn’t my vision but which I think is fantastic. Thus:

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 11.58.46 PM DuneCarry_all

First I think Lynch’s Carryall is unimprovable. No apologies, no explanations for how it hangs in the sky: it does so by sheer  industrial charisma. The only misstep is that the spice harvester has nothing in common with its superb brutality of form. But that’s because the perfect, complementary sandcrawler had already been used in a bigger scifi epic a few years before:


The stillsuits, the Fremen, even the Bene Gesserit I have no problem with. Lynch’s guild navigator (start at 3:20 or 4:10 if you’re impatient) is straight up the best thing ever seen in any science fiction film, narrowly beating Princess Aura’s costume in Flash Gordon and Chris Tucker’s hair in Fifth Element. But the Mentats and the Harkonnens… I just wasn’t buying them. Fortunately Moebius’s designs for Jodorowsky are freaking amazing:

baron rabban feyd

That’s the Baron, Rabban and Feyd (in heels!). Imma say that again: Feyd in heels. Melnibonean.

sardaukar2 sardaukar3 piter

Sardaukar guards. And Piter, the Baron’s Mentat-assassin. All from duneinfo.


Thufir, the Atreides’ Mentat… I’m less convinced about, even though I love the Pieter Stuyvesant callout with the wooden leg. Really the only other character I’ve seen who I think would make a great Mentat is that creepy dude from Game of Thrones.

Sandworms are the best thing evar in the book, but every illustration I’ve seen of them has only been ho hum. The consensus Penis Worm is OK I guess once you get over the whole penis thing.

Sheeanaandworm Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 9.31.32 PM ku-medium

In my game I have hot glass worms as a partial homage to Dune but adapted for my electroradiant hellscape (and riding them presents several novel engineering challenges). In that spirit, these are my faves:

Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 11.54.32 PM Screen Shot 2014-01-31 at 11.54.57 PMdune_arising_sandworm_by_philippel-d5jsq2s

though if I were to draw one it would be blunt-ended, almost completely submerged, and more like a tunnel drill than a star-mouthed lamprey.

And the architecture. Lynch is pretty good. These are also good:

dunepix Dune8

but you know what I would love?

12 citadel walls merv13 merv14Great_Mosque_of_Djenné_1 IMG_3083 737691985_1be4a5c55a hotw_vardizacaves1 858053xixia-mausoleum-tomb-tower_0

Finally, ornithopters. Lynch et al said that flapping planes look crap, but I think Miyazaki pretty much nailed it – they’re not birds but dragonflies:

laputa_castle_in_the_sky_002 Weirdest thing: they actually work.

And there’s no shortage of orthoptera out there, via Jodorowsky among others, from the graceful to the charmingly awkward:

Ornithopter dune_ornithopter_by_ilya_b-d36rl91 DUNE_Spotter_AnimTest 1370425299136

but my favourite by far is this incredibly cheeky one in a set of custom minis:


43868-Conversion, Dune, Flyer, Flying, Ornithoptor, Star Wars 43873_md-ornithopter underside bow port 43876_md-Ornithopter Rear

My own would have cantilevered counterweights flapping opposite the wings and would be a health and safety nightmare.

Finally finally, apparently Frank Herbert himself really favoured Schoenherr’s magnificently moody paintings. I like ‘em too, but I’m a child of the 80s: I like my science fantasy illustration more informative and detailed. Still, you gotta admire his Vladimir Harkonnen: dripping with menace, yet PG:



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