On history

July 7, 2020 Leave a comment

Continuing an occasional series on the useful things grad school taught me, here is what I learned about how we construct history –

  1. when you read history books, you get it completely backwards
  2. every generation has to reconstruct their history all over again. Actually no, scratch that, every individual reconstructs it for themself.

Both of these realisations are very simple but have far-reaching implications.

  1. (assuming good will and an honest attempt to grapple with archival data rather than straight up propaganda-writing ) The act of constructing history starts out a little like the act of constructing science: you notice some phenomena and try to find a cause for them. This engages the pattern-matching part of your brain – you look for behaviours that seem reasonable to you, run through a list of explanations you’ve previously accepted for why things happen, and look for other observers who agree or disagree with your ideas.

    But after that, constructing history is nothing like constructing science. First, because you can hardly ever test your theories – in fact, the phenomena you’re trying to explain aren’t even repeatable. Second (here’s the novel part) because your search for causes runs backwards in time, and that’s the proper, honest direction in which to talk about your construction work, that makes your work evident and lays bare the present conditions you are trying to explain. Science gets to hunt for causes, then test, confirm, and predict effects from those causes, so it can run its models backwards and forwards in time. But history does not, so the habit of telling historical stories forwards inevitably buries the work and the assumptions that informed your pattern-matching. It presupposes that all your constructing is correct, so when you stand back to admire the whole cathedral you’ve built, you can point to the spire on top (the present) and assert the foundations (past causes) are strong… when in fact you’re just looking at the building upside down, balanced precariously on its tip and anchored firmly in a ground of suppositions, unsupported assumptions, and beliefs, that stretches out in every direction beyond your view.
    tl:dr: write and teach your histories backwards.

  2. (in the best possible cases) Every historian has stood in their present and constructed a past to explain it. They have mostly trained to do this by reading the backwards constructions of previous generations of historians and then agreeing or disagreeing with them. So there is a genealogy of backward constructions at work. Whatever a previous generation of historians thought of as an obvious inference gets reproduced by successive generations until a sufficient community comes along with different philosophical assumptions or categories, at which point it becomes suspect.

    One result of this is that it’s enormously difficult to uncover the history of an idea because as long as that idea or something that looks sufficiently like it to get a pass has held, one finds historians who will assert that it’s true or take it for granted. In fact, searching for the singular root/source of an idea at all is probably misguided – it’s likely to have been floating around in society for a long time before an observer decided to write it down and base decisions off it. Another result is that there’s no general consensus, as there is in the sciences, on when to discard an idea that no longer looks credible. Pieces of that idea can always be recycled back into service if they look useful for present purposes.
    tl:dr: always be suspicious of long-period phenomena. They’re probably not what they seem at any particular point in their apparent continuity.

I was recently in a conversation about colonialism and the idea of Europe. We tend, these days, to use the phrase “European Colonialism” as shorthand for a system of economic and political domination currently mostly spearheaded by the US but seemingly, superficially based on previous efforts mostly by Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain and Portugal. There are some problems with this equation of US imperialism with prior forms of colonialism, but when it comes to the oppression of peoples in Africa or Asia the shorthand seems useful. But then comes the question: “where does this idea of Europe come from? Why did Europeans do this to other peoples and how did they draw lines between who should colonize and who should be colonized?”

And the question is only really relevant, it only really makes sense, in the backwards construction of history. Let’s say you do a linguistic analysis of your archives and you decide that “Europa” was first used to describe a distinctive social entity (rather than a geographical region) during Charlemagne’s empire, somewhere around the 9th century. Now you have some evidence of the existence of an idea of difference a thousand years ago, which you can relate to a forward series of varied phenomena:

– the governing of the Holy Roman Empire;
– The Crusades, where borders between Christendom and Islam were repeatedly defined and contested;
– The conquest of the Americas and the Renaissance, where Italians “rediscovered” that they “had been” the Roman Empire and where French and Englishmen learned that they were the intellectual descendants of Romans and Greeks (whoever they were) (and probably not the literal lineal descendants as Geoffrey of Monmouth had claimed).
And most importantly, the idea that Europeans formed an oecumene dedicated to oppressing Africans and Asians, which we find in a few history textbooks and a lot of tweets published today.
Now you know why there was a European club, why it didn’t include the Ottomans or Japanese, and how it was fundamentally tied to the unifying European ideas of Christianity and Latin grammar. Drawing a rough outline around Charlemagne’s empire you find a rough correlation with the list of national origins that have at some points informed the idea of “whiteness.”

Or do you? Maybe instead what you’ve done is uncover a backwards-construction by a particular previous generation, built to justify their current exigencies and political alliances and social distinctions. It might all make sense backwards as a supporting idea for power relations in, say the US in 1930, but it would probably make a lot less sense for people in Europe during, say, the 18th century. Because if there was a unified European effort to subjugate Africans (and one can find plenty of evidence to support it) it was somewhat overshadowed, for Europeans in the 17th and 18th centuries, by incessant wars between European nation states and Christian sects bent on destroying each other and stamping out each other’s ideas. From about 1560 to about 1620, Christian (Catholic) Spain repeatedly attempted to exterminate the Christian (Protestant/Reformed) Netherlands, while writers in the Netherlands literally labeled Spain “the Antichrist, enemy of all mankind, the Devil incarnate.” The Portuguese king Manuel I reportedly sent sailors to southern Africa looking for a mythical Catholic king with which to fight the Muslim Ottomans, while the Catholic French king Francis I allied with the Ottomans and sheltered their fleets in his harbors in order to fight against various Catholic Italian states. In this context, the enslaving of Africans looks more like an economic technology, deployed by multiple warring states in their struggles for survival against each other. We can counter-argue that there are degrees of difference – that Europeans, even if they would fight among themselves, would trade African slaves to their nominal enemies. That they would unify against Africans as they did in Haiti in the 1790s. But to do that, we have to read selectively and ignore countering voices – by which I don’t just mean the long history of abolitionists but also the enthusiastic slavers who just hated their next door neighbors more than anyone else in the world. Maybe what we’re doing, by reading these histories forwards, is smoothing over the differences between them and privileging some previous interested parties, who worked to make their own situation look natural and explicable.

(…to be clear, I am not seeking to jam an oar into histories of racism, or colonialism, or imperialism. I am absolutely not seeking to justify or support any particular political position here, nor to excuse, nor to cast doubts on the present claims of any people regarding the proper respect with which they should be treated. Racism sucks, we should try to live up to the words and not the actions or lifeways of universalist Enlightenment theorists. Let us be equal and thoughtful and respectful to one another. And right there, that’s how it’s impossible to separate the construction of history from its political uses in the present.)

And maybe the project of trying to delaminate the previous generations of history-construction is itself misguided, because those previous laminae were determinedly fused together by their creators for their own purposes: one misreads them by trying to separate them from their genealogies. And how would you know when you’d done it? When you’ve isolated the innovations of particular historians at particular times? After all, they might just be picking up ideas that had been floating around for centuries, but nobody thought it was necessary to record them.

tl:dr: when Michel Foucault writes about the “genealogy of knowledge” he really is thinking of ideas loosely arranged in family trees – that is, not the same idea with the same meaning reproduced from generation to generation, but rather separate generations of ideas that identify themselves as part of a tradition, whether we would agree with their identification or not, and that maybe emphasize some of their ancestors more than others.

tl:dr tldr: history is a slippery form of fiction writing, constructed always to support some philosophical position. Even if you try to make it something else, some reliable documentary guide to human thought, it’s actually impossible to write that because you’re predisposed to notice the patterns you know.

Some Basic Anthropology Texts For DMs

March 23, 2020 4 comments

I’ve been thinking about a shortlist of books that my kids would benefit from reading, and on reflection, I’ve decided just about everybody would benefit from reading them, if they haven’t already, since we all may have some time on our hands.

To get on the list, a book has to have significantly shaped my own world-view, sure, but it also needs to be generally applicable to a lot of different questions (so no books on, e.g. underwater archaeology), and it should also be fairly short and accessible and possible to summarize without jargon – so that excludes e.g. Marx’s Capital, even though I think that’s an indispensable read for understanding nearly anything written in the humanities during the 20th century, regardless of whether you agree with its arguments.

These qualities, of general usefulness, readability and clarity, tend to go together with strength of argument. The part about me being impressed by the books’ arguments… is obviously idiosyncratic. I’d be interested to see what lists others around here produce.

Looking it over, I see my list is a bunch of old, old works. This is not because I think they’ve stood the test of time or some similar conservative nonsense but because
(a) academic fashion over the past 40 years has been against clarity and brevity, and
(b) they’re pretty much all anthropology texts (or “political theory,” which is to say, anthropology minus field work), which deal with familiar topics and behaviors and yet somehow their ideas have not been absorbed into common parlance. Which makes me suspect that despite being broadly “political” in nature, they are somehow resistant to being used as political footballs – a quality that has also been unfashionable in anthropology for a very long time.

With all that in mind, and in no particular order:

Mary Douglas: Purity and Danger
Douglas gives some critical thought to what constitutes “clean” and “dirty” in different cultures, and it turns out that these categories are really important for understanding what’s considered to be “ordered” and “disordered” in society. Once you grok this, biases in e.g. Hobbes’s Leviathan spring into focus – Hobbes is not just scared of disorder, he’s also disgusted by it as a dirty thing (nasty, brutish and short), so he needs a “sovereign” (the people) to make living in the world imaginable. Applicability to Lovecraft, Oscar Newman’s “broken windows” theories, and anti-immigrant politics should be obvious.

If you’re writing an RPG campaign, this will help you understand what gets revolutionaries thrown to the lions and how to outrage the Winter Queen’s court in just the right way to free your party-mates.

Marcel Mauss: The Gift
Mauss talks in detail about a specific set of communities in the Pacific Northwest of the US and in Papua new Guinea, but his Those People Over There observations work perfectly for Everyone Around You. He says gifts are not, in the first place, generous acts of sharing but instead ways to generate socially-binding debts.* Right-wing charity organizations spring straight to my mind, but (here’s the clever bit) Mauss doesn’t stop there and he doesn’t actually disapprove of gift-economies – he sees the position of hanging debt as a basic building block of social cohesiveness. This is useful for understanding Charlie Stross’s sf story Neptune’s Brood, without having to read trendier lefty darling David Graeber’s 550pp Debt: The First 5000 Years.

Applicability to RPGs: every time a local chief or grand vizier or corporate rainmaker has a mission for the PCs, and every time they need a favor from such a character, and whenever PCs get into positions of power, you can use this kind of gift exchange to make sense of their social climbing and networks. Just find and replace “Trobriand Islander Chief” with “Mafioso.”

*obviously the gifts you and your family give are selfless acts of generosity and any anxiety you feel about not having given the right gift for the circumstances is just because you like the people you’re giving the gifts to and want to please them. That’s because you’re freed from the cycle of debt by the example of Jesus, who died for your uh oh no wait now.

Benedict Anderson: Imagined Communities
Anderson wanted to know why people fight and die for their country. He wound up writing a theory not just of nationalism but of community self-representation in general. If, in a discussion, you refer to a community as “imagined,” you can quickly identify who in your earshot is qualified to talk usefully about what communities are made from by separating the ones who nod in recognition from the ones who look angry. Unlike most theorists of nationalism, Anderson doesn’t just conclude it’s bad. When he says community is “imagined” he does not mean it’s necessarily a sort of imaginary fantasy, but rather that it necessarily must be actively reproduced in each member’s own imagination, out of various kinds of representation, which contain various arguments about power, since it lives only in collective imagination.
He’s clearer than I am, read him.
Also, there’s a delightful short excursus on the use of monuments and why official photos of them tend not to contain sightseers.

Read this for RPGs if you want to write convincing polities, patriots or propagandists. Like dirt and gifts, people tend not to want to think hard about what communities mean or how to feel about membership in them (parroting pious phrases is not thinking hard). This is a good book for getting you to ask “but what if it were different? How could it be? Has it ever been?”

Bruce Bueno de Mesquita: The Dictator’s Handbook: Why Bad Behavior is Almost Always Good Politics
OK I lied. This book is decades younger than the others, and a whole lot more obvious and obviously partisan in its arguments. And to be honest, it didn’t change anything about the way I think. But it’s still very useful to have it written down, so you can see its arguments clearly – it’s the book I wish I’d had available to cite during grad school whenever I was told some very complex theory about justice and history that didn’t match the data I could see. The (fairly universal) workings of power are laid out simply, cogently, and more or less in handy bulleted lists, without any of the sentimentality or partisan apologizing that just about everyone else does. To hold onto power, you have to identify and cultivate the people around you who can get things done. That means, the ones with networks of influence and debt. Sadly its newness means I can’t give you the full text, but these “rules for rulers” videos offer a handy summary. Yes, it ties together with Mauss and Anderson. And it explains little things like why democracy is unlikely to take off in Saudi Arabia (the economy there doesn’t need a helpful, educated class to agree with its rulers, it just needs to be mined). Any time someone tries to tell you how power really works, check their explanation against this ground state, to see if it’s actually doing better than the default, or if it’s just claiming some kind of spurious virtue by associating itself with other values.

Usefulness for RPGs: right in the title it tells you this is a sourcebook for making evil empires. And in fact any empires. You can use it to check the motivations of the powerful and see if they “make sense:” if you can explain what a particular governor or admiral is doing in ways that satisfy Bueno de Mesquita, then that’s enough to satisfy any cynical party of players.

The virtue of such a list lies in its shortness. There are lots of worthy works that didn’t make it in, that have ideas I refer to all the time. But this is where I would start, personally.


Maps of some classic dungeons, 3: Ramses’s linear psychopomp

March 16, 2020 8 comments

Continuing the series on real-world dungeon types leads us, inevitably, to architectural narrative sequences, or railroad dungeons.

valley of kings tomb schematic
Tomb of Seti I in the Valley of the Kings. What it lacks in Jacquaying it makes up for in pedagogical clarity. 

The ancient Egyptians were really hot for linear, narrative structures. Their temples and tombs have one way in, one destination, and a series of lessons to be learned along the way, so that the architecture serves as a tour guide to a state of mind, to priestly initiation, and to Egyptian cosmology.
nut goddess of night
That’s Nut, goddess of the night sky, vaulting over a sarcophagus. The walls are covered in the Pyramid Text – a Baedeker’s Guide to the Egyptian afterlife, which is itself a kind of railroady ur-campaign. More of that later.

Here’s Ramses III’s memorial temple in Luxor – not the biggest or grandest of the Ramessea (Ramses II’s the Mos’ Grandiose) but one of the best-preserved and clearest in plan:
ramesseum iii top down photoEntering from the Main Pylon at the top of the frame, note that there’s an unbroken axis through a series of lined-up doors all the way to the back room, where the portrait of the dead Pharaoh is located.
Here, another view where you can see the commanding bluff wall and majestic-but-still-exclusive doorway of the Pylon:
Screen Shot 2020-03-16 at 11.24.09 AM

The purpose of this arrangement is to allow the architects to pull several tricks – first, they can tell stories on the walls, knowing that you’ll progress through the structure in the sequence they want (and that you only get to see the punchline if you’re the right level of priest). Second, they can arrange information hierarchies off the main axis – stop at particular points along the way and you can learn the stories of Ramses’ wives and forebears, all subordinate to the main axial narrative, like hyperlinks off the main article. Third, they generate a very narrow, straight beam of light from the front entry all the way back to the holy of holies, so that if the priests open all the doors on just that one special day each year that’s sacred to the Pharaoh (which wasn’t a cliche back then), then the sun can shine all the way down the axis to the portrait on the back wall. If the temple tells the story of progressing from Earth to Egyptian heaven, where Ramses resides, then on this special day, His reflection travels back down the arduous path to spy on His people. Also, stick a load of gold and glass in that portrait and you can have it light up the whole back room, so that the special secret stories carved in there are revealed in the radiance of the Pharaoh’s visage. Theatrical stuff.
(OK I cheated, that’s from Ramses II’s tomb at Abu Simbel, but the principle is the same, or would be if robbers and earthquakes hadn’t screwed up RIII’s special moment)

My point here is that the Ramesseum, typical of Egyptian temples, limits visitors’ choices in order to expand its narrative possibilities and concretize its hierarchies. The Grand Axis points to the point of the building – it tells the faithful about the Pharaoh’s divine journey, lets them relive it as they progress inward, and tells them where they should stop, appropriate to their appointed level, in order to pay their finely-calibrated respects. Side chapels and structures are side-quests – lower in status, therefore more accessible, they appease secondary gods, hold the remains of minor wives and functionaries, and fill in bits of myth from distaff sides of the royal lineage that don’t quite merit a place in the main story or the regular attentions of a priest.

The Ramesseum offers a physical map of the structure of New Kingdom Egyptian religion, which is to say, of New Kingdom Egyptian society.* It also offers a campaign frame for Pharaohs and their subjects, with character class-specific goals:
Pharaoh: command your country well enough that you can build a temple and tomb with all the systems working, plus a mortuary services caste (mummifiers, mourners etc), to give you gear on your journey through the afterworld;
Wife: get enough favour and influence that you get a story spot close to the back room, giving you gear and protection on the afterworld jaunt;
Priest: level up far enough that you get the right to go into the back room, where the deepest mana stores are held;
Tomb-robber: collect inside knowledge that you can use to Indiana Jones it into the treasure room without getting riddled with darts/ghosts.


Architecture is a communicative art.
Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 11.43.04 AMprada rotunda
It tells you what the owner of the building wants you to think about their status and your own. It tells you where to stand and what roles to assume, what you should and shouldn’t do, where you should and shouldn’t go.
Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 12.23.16 PM

Buildings are maps of institutions.
5 military branches, 5 stabby points on the Pentagon. All equal in the eyes of God if not in funding or status. Yes I know there are serious problems with this facile example, but they’re such intriguing problems…**

Buildings are very often theme parks of their institutions’ concerns and neuroses. Where the institutions support communities, they teach their inmates how to behave, what they can and can’t do, who’s in charge.
workhouse plan

There are lots of directions I could go here. Private houses in the era of psychoanalysis becomes maps of the mind – insights into the soul of the person who shapes them. Hence the haunted house, i.e. haunted family (thanks Jack Shear!). It’s no accident the protagonist of Inception (that celebration of memory palaces) winds up in the basement.  Hence also the Romantic trope of Bluebeard’s Castle, with its doors onto a bloody treasury and a sea of tears,
Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 12.29.41 PM
and Poe’s explanatory palace of damnation and illusions in Masque the Red Death.

But today it’s the canalisation of architecture I want to talk about, and how it pertains to (railroad) campaign design. Railroads get a bad rap, especially in the OSR, because nobody wants to be pushed to make choices that are no choice at all, and nothing makes players rebel more than having their motivations assumed for them. And yet there are whole genres of play that depend on/exult in railroading. What is a Call of Cthulhu campaign but the serial unlocking of doors, leading to ever-more-horrible doors?

All plots are railroads, inasmuch as they progress through stages and there’s already something happening when the players show up. The key to good railroading is to reconstruct your pushes as pulls – goals rather than herding – and to intersperse the choice-limiting pipework with tasks that involve free invention.

The Pyramid Texts painted all over the walls of the Ramesseum offers one method – it’s a list of directions, which you have to pass through in sequence to get to your ultimate destination. So it’s a railroad with continual teases: just follow these instructions exactly and do not deviate from the path and you’ll be OK. With, of course, obstacles designed to tempt or scare you off the path. The same basic vamp is visible in Early Christian labyrinths,
Screen Shot 2020-03-13 at 12.51.34 PM
where the walker is invited right up to the edge of the holy center for an early look at the goal, before being directed away again, to walk around and around it, sometimes toward and sometimes away from their target, knowing what it is and therefore why they have to jump through whatever hoops and tests of faith are necessary to get there. (Note how it’s not a maze – both medieval and classical labyrinths are unicursal: single involuted paths, designed not as puzzles but as meditations.)

This is the basic structure of any Rod Of 7 Parts type campaign: once you know you need to assemble n parts, it’s up to you to figure out how to fetch them and what the best sequence is to try (hint: do the lowest level one first). It’s absolutely a railroad, and often one where the players have to construct parts the track. Its saving grace is that the players have some freedom about how to do it, maybe digging new tunnels into the final room or fooling someone else into passing tests for them – it doesn’t necessarily matter what they do in an episode as long as they follow the bigger rails of the episodic structure.

If you really sell them on the goal, though, you can get them to hew ever closer to the intent of the railroad. I can hear DMs breathing through their teeth from here, but bear with me.

Torii avenue
Torii gates mark the boundary between mundane and sacred spaces. Which is why they tend to work like stationary TARDISes in anime.

The point of ritual journeys is not so much to cover distance as to change the people undertaking them – to adapt them to the system of an institution. Often they require special cleansing and passages through death and so on in order to allow access to the Sacred Space where the Final Adjustment can be made. That’s why trespassing in Pharaoh’s tomb is so dangerous – partly because you trip the security systems, sure, but mostly because you’re not the right level to be there, you didn’t bring the right passes or armour. According to this scheme, Howard Carter and his friends didn’t know what they were missing, so they punched a crude hole in the cordon sanitaire between worlds and as a result started leaking secret juice. They had to be scrubbed from the mundane for structural reasons. (The way Grim Fandango presents this is rather disappointingly Christian, but maybe it points to a deeper level of initiation: the development team are not Aztecs!) And if you don’t take the long, strait way? Then there are options for dramatic moments of sacrifice – you can’t enter the garden, but you can help someone else go in and bring the paltry gold out, while leaving the mystery inside. Someone purer, more deserving. Maybe your next character. It’s your choice.

Ars Magica has a deracinated version of this Sacred Precinct idea in its regio – a higher level/excited state of a mundane location that only opens on midsummer eve or when you’re holding the hand of a fairy or if you’ve collected the 7 seals. It’s a neat mechanism for putting the end of the campaign right on top of the wizards’ home, where they were always brushing their hats against it but couldn’t access it until they were properly initiated. It allows Ararat to exist simultaneously as a literal lump of rock you can climb to get a nice view, and as a holy mountain, gateway to heaven etc. But it fails to address the bigger point of such sacred-other-spaces: by having to go on the full ritual journey to get there, the players get to understand the significance of whatever’s sacred in the campaign – the stakes, the terms of success or failure, the structure of the game.

Most great epics save this moment of realization for the end because it was what they had to say and once they’ve said it, you should be free to read something else. But as a DM you only have to stop there if you can’t think of anything the players might want to do with their secret knowledge. Effectively, it’s leveling up. If you have another campaign set in the world as it is after The Change, then congratulations, your players will be totally excited to get on with it, having sunk all those costs into being Stage 1 shlubs.


Huis ten BoschThe late 17th century Dutch palace known self-deprecatingly as the Huis ten Bosch offers a neat little map of the political society that built it. It has the same basic structure as the palaces of Louis XIII and XIV, and contemporary English lords, and a whole load of other monarchs, but this one has a geometric purity that makes it all so clear. 

As a 1st level shlub (not a 0-level commoner), you might get invited to a big do in the Grand Ballroom:
and you’ll probably feel like that’s a great and special reward, but it’s only the first step on a long staircase of initiations.
floor plan – the ballroom’s the big cross-shaped space in the middle. Pretty awesome!

Out of the throng of courtiers in the ballroom, only a lucky few get invited up the stairs to the voorkamer – which can afford to look less impressive because the people there know how much more powerful everyone present is. From there, a precious few get to meet the monarch (well, stadhouder) himself, in his bedroom! Which is sweet indeed but nothing compared with being invited into his closet behind it, from which hardly anyone at all – just grand vizier level true intimates – get invited into the little closet behind that.

Leveling up here means smaller scale, deeper secrets, a different view of the realm. To be called for an interview in the little closet and subsequently to leave, unnoticed, via the back stairs means not only that you have the ruler’s full confidence but also that you are yourself secretly a member of the select band of cognoscenti – and anyone who knows it (ie only the useful few) will hang on your every word, attentive as a courtier, ready to fulfill your secret needs. To inhabit this level of society is to pass through a city outside that others do not see, but that they may be able to sense clinging to you.

The initiated recognize you as a regio.

tl:dr –
1. don’t neglect the communicative powers of architecture. If you set your dungeon up to speak to the players about the secrets they can uncover, you will supply them with a line of mission briefings that can support years of play, that the players actively want to unlock.
2. it’s tempting to keep your secrets secret – everyone loves uncovering them and writers (less often, players) love having their expectations overturned when the Big Cheese does a face-heel turn or it turns out it was aliens all along. But those kinds of secrets are only powerful at the moment of revelation. Letting them slip early makes them active parts of the campaign in anticipation. It lets you pile significance onto setbacks and shortcuts, it encourages the players to try to find ways to “cheat,” i.e. find creative solutions.
3. depending on the degree of buy-in your players are feeling, they might be up for a not-cheating path, in order to maximize their initiation level. If that’s the case you can get them to submit to all sorts of arbitrary limitations that will make the game harder and more interesting. What if using violence makes them unclean and locks the doors? What if they have to train a new generation to pass the final lock? What if only someone who doesn’t know what they’re looking for can find the key? The hard part of all these tricks is getting the players to really understand them. The fun part is watching them figure our ways to fulfill the requirements.

* OK fine, not the whole society, just the political class.
** This obvious reason is, of course, spurious. Probably. After all, in 1943 when the Pentagon was designed, there were only 4 branches. People who are too smart for this trap often say that the Pentagon is a pentagon because it happened to be built on a 5-sided piece of land, but this was (a) a strange accident, in Pierre l’Enfant’s rigorously geometric plan, and (b) no longer true by the time of construction. It suggests to me that FDR probably knew an Air Force would be set up eventually (optimally after the war, to avoid confusion mid-conflict), but didn’t want to spill this destabilizing plan before it happened. So the building is prophetic – those that had eyes (or clearance) to see, could read the future of the military in its plan.


on the costs of trade

March 12, 2020 4 comments

One of the projects I’m in the middle of right now is an early-modern trading game, for which I’m currently rereading Neil Stephenson’s excellent (but daunting) Baroque Cycle.

If you haven’t read it, and you have any interest in the gaming possibilities of the 17th century, then you must go out and read it right now. If you did try to read it and found it hard to get into, start with King of the Vagabonds (which is officially “Book 2”) and then read Quicksilver (Book 1). That way you’ll immediately see the picaresque RPG potential without having to wade through obscure allusions and the Royal Society shenanigans that are Stephenson’s first love. The books can be found separately (expensive, if you want the full 8-book Cycle) or packaged together in Volume 1, which is, confusingly, also titled Quicksilver).

So the reason I’m writing is, I’ve got some rules for maintenance and wasteage, and I’ve been wrestling with whether anyone really wants them – is this the spirit of adventure? Struggling to find enough timber and tar to stay afloat? And then Stephenson points out to me that yes, in fact – the demands of running a ship pretty much dictate that you must get into risky business. Your boat is more than a hole in the sea, surrounded by wood, into which you can pour an endless flow of money. It’s also a demanding patron, which seeds adventures with every worm:

[A ship is] …a collection of splinters loosely pulled together by nails, pegs, lashings, and oakum… She floats only because boys mind her pumps all the time, she remains upright and intact only because highly intelligent men never stop watching the sky and seas around her. Every line and sail decays with visible speed, like snow in sunlight, and men must work ceaselessly worming, parceling, serving, tarring, and splicing her infinite network of hempen lines in order to prevent her from falling apart in mid-ocean… Like a snake changing skins, she sloughs away what is worn and broken and replaces it from inner reserves—evoluting as she goes. The only way to sustain this perpetual and necessary evolution is to replenish the stocks that dwindle from her holds as relentlessly as sea-water leaks in. The only way to do that is to trade goods from one port to another, making a bit of money on each leg of the perpetual voyage. Each day assails her with hurricanes and pirate-fleets. To go out on the sea and find a [ship] is like finding, in the desert, a Great Pyramid balanced upside-down on its tip.

Not convinced? Too wordy and abstruse? Want more of that GURPS Goblins flavour? Here, then – the opening lines of King of the Vagabonds. Even if you only invest in that one, it will repay you a hundredfold. A free campaign opener on page one…

MOTHER SHAFTOE KEPT TRACK of her boys’ ages on her fingers, of which there were six. When she ran short of fingers—that is, when Dick, the eldest and wisest, was nearing his seventh summer—she gathered the half-brothers together in her shack on the Isle of Dogs, and told them to be gone, and not to come back without bread or money. This was a typically East London approach to child-rearing and so Dick, Bob, and Jack found themselves roaming the banks of the Thames in the company of many other boys who were also questing for bread or money with which to buy back their mothers’ love.

The way of the mudlarks (as the men who trafficked through Mother Shaftoe’s bed styled themselves) was to voyage out upon the Thames after it got dark, find their way aboard anchored ships somehow, and remove items that could be exchanged for bread, money, or carnal services on dry land. Techniques varied. The most obvious was to have someone climb up a ship’s anchor cable and then throw a rope down to his mates. This was a job for surplus boys if ever there was one. Dick, the oldest of the Shaftoes, had learnt the rudiments of the trade by shinnying up the drain-pipes of whorehouses to steal things from the pockets of vacant clothing. He and his little brothers struck up a partnership with a band of these free-lance longshoremen, who owned the means of moving swag from ship to shore: they’d accomplished the stupendous feat of stealing a longboat.

Inevitably, they get ambitious and start cutting anchor cables, so they can loot the drifting ships at leisure – or even merely threaten to cut them, to extract protection payments. Inevitably, things go wrong and get complicated.

Need more, always more? Mayhew’s London Labour and the London Poor is a couple of centuries later but just as perfect.


Interlude: Cheese Guns

March 9, 2020 8 comments

When I was a teen my players suddenly got heavily into gun porn. Some mix of James Bond 007 rpg, GURPS, and Twilight 2000 did it to them, and they all suddenly knew about the relative merits and problems of SA80s and M16s and H&K machine pistols. And I said “this is fetishism” and they replied “what’s the rate of fire on that M40 sniper rifle?” and “no, that’s famous for jamming, you should use this instead.” Funnily enough this was in Britain, where none of them had access to any actual firearms. It was all just armchair kung fu talk. I can only imagine what it was/is like in some corners of the US.

So I ran a Flash Gordon campaign, with cheese guns. Name a cheese – that’s the noise the gun makes when fired. Stats follow from the implications.

So a Cheddar is a slow-repeating machine gun, like a Tommygun. A Brie is a railgun with an ultra-fast rate of fire. Emperor Ming’s guards carry Gorgonzolas: freaky purple deathray blasts, weird electrical kirbykrackle around the muzzle.



All guns go “Cheshire” when being readied to fire. And (thanks Anne), a “Swiss” is a silencer, which is versatile and practical but sadly makes the damage the gun does really bland.

…they loved it. They never seemed to understand I was making fun of their gun fandom. They kept top-trumping guns in their other games, but in Flash Gordon they just took off searching for the rare and mysterious Stilton.

fallout raygun

(PS: in those days if anyone threatened to spend half an hour telling me why their sword/fencing style was the best, I’d just grant them +1 when fighting with that particular sword. They were happy, I could get on with the game, it worked. But now we can just chorus “that’s not a talwar, it’s a nodachi!” and move on.)

(PPS: all polearms do 1d8, except those that are especially lovingly described, which do 1d10. There.)

A city is not a dungeon

March 5, 2020 10 comments

Whenever I open a new RPG book, I hope for two things:
first, to be surprised by a new world I can get my imagination fired up about – some atmosphere or proposition that makes me want to play it;
second, some solid ways to get my players equally engaged with it, so that I don’t have to do all the heavy lifting of getting them to see what I see when reading it – ways to put them in the right kind of mindset to enjoy whatever it is that makes this particular book special.

A lot of city supplements are pretty good at the first task – they describe what’s distinctive about their particular city, treating it more or less like a zoomed-out dungeon construction kit, with neighbourhoods and factions and a map, and often an introductory adventure in the back.
Very few are good at the second. In most of them, the elements of the city are laid out clearly enough, but there aren’t a lot of handles for the players to grab hold of.

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Recently I’ve been playing Fallen London and admiring how good it is at both of these tasks. First, it’s totally focused on the player’s actions, using their decisions to gradually open up ever-more-complex vistas onto a genuinely deep, intriguing world. Second, it really understands the particular affordances and opportunities that cities offer, which are different from those of the dungeon, the wilderness, or the sea.
Big deal, you say – it’s an interactive game, of course it handles the game aspects well. OK, but it also reminds me strongly of GURPS Goblins, my favourite city supplement of all time, which manages to take the same approach in book format.

Fallen London is a lot of fun, and free, and doesn’t require any special downloads, so I recommend you go play it, if you haven’t. GURPS Goblins is out of print but not hard to find. Don’t worry about it being GURPS – the rules bits are easy to convert and anyway, the setting and presentation are the important bits. The fantasy Dickensian Londons that both products present are slightly off the standard fantasy genre paths – the latter more Pratchett-influenced and deliberately comic. I like that about them, I think it’s part of their strength, but if you want vanilla fantasy, they still have a lot to teach you.

What they get right is that they concentrate on what the player is going to do, right now, to interact with the city’s parts. At every moment they offer the player hooks to snag their desires, opportunities to get into trouble, and longer-term goals and obstacles, so that the players generate their own adventures.
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Both of them present the city as a set of hierarchies, for the players to level up through. You start in the gutter, stealing bread. Once you’ve solved the problem of starving, you start climbing a social ladder that takes in servanthood, guilds, highway robbery and positions of responsibility until at last you mingle with (and lift jewels off) high society. And here’s one of the clever bits: along the way your horizons and webs of interactions keep expanding – both games recognize that you’re going to start as a lonely murderhobo with selfish interests, looking for what you can extract and consume. But then both show you how building partnerships and networks, giving back, and exploiting the history of your prior interactions will give you power and importance, while opening up new goals and opportunities. So you start with little heists – stealing sausages from the butcher’s shop, breaking backstairs windows to swipe mops and buckets to start a chimney-cleaning business – and progress to… bigger heists, sure, but you also meet other chimney sweeps and find out that they all case rich houses for a gangster, which presents you with a choice – join and progress in the gangster’s court, or alert some potential society patron that they’re about to be robbed and rely on their gratitude.

Fallen London handles the progression through logic gates, of course. In Goblins, there’s a chapter-by-chapter structure that progresses up the hierarchy – it tells the player how best to dispose of the treasures they’ve picked up in order to unlock more complex adventures, and it gives the DM advice on how to distinguish the different levels of society. One of its smartest, clearest expressions of progress is the discussion of the PC’s lodgings – a character’s social ambitions demand a certain number of rooms, from the first flophouse dormitory to a lockable bedroom, where they can safeguard their stuff, to a suite of reception rooms and even bathing facilities, so they can entertain and rub shoulders with the quality. And income, status and expenses all go hand-in-hand, so the aspiring courtier plotting to win a baronetcy has to get out there and hustle to maintain their position, no less than the grubby urchin beggar.

So this leads me to my second point, about why (counter the assertions in Vornheim) a city is usefully not a dungeon. First, it is simultaneously the arena of play and the player characters’ home base – an ambivalent status that’s reflected in all its institutions, which protect its loyal and influential denizens while threatening its outcasts and miscreants. In the dungeon, guards are always bad news. In the city, the successful criminal avoids them or pays them off, the successful courtier uses them to help guard their secrets or harass rivals. Second, as a social environment with repeated interactions, it demands social play – fealty and tribute, gift-giving, debts and clubs and favours – which is to say it builds history for the PC, so that each new challenge becomes an opportunity to deepen and broaden their network of contacts. Third, as a socially mobile environment, it demands display. The dungeoneer can skulk unregarded in their name-level Keep on the Borderlands, nipping out occasionally to raid yet another Lich’s carefully-hidden trap-park, and store up the resultant cursed gold and invisibility neckerchiefs in their attic, but the influential townie needs to be seen maintaining their position, occupying boxes at the opera, commissioning swagger portraits, renting bears for their retainers to bait, and flirting with their betters. And, apart from En Garde!, hardly anyone has ever seriously developed a game that reflects both the advantages of preferment this sort of display can bring, and the costs of failing to keep it up.

Of course, I’m not talking about just any city, here. Maybe you can skulk in your McMansion of solitude in Cincinatti, but then you’re not really engaging in the interesting chronotope of the city-of-adventure, outlined above. For that you want some analogue of industrial revolution London or Paris (depending on whether you’re an ambitious huckster or a struggling Bohemian artist) or, if you want to get right down to the soul of the thing, late Renaissance Venice.
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To the extent the city is not a dungeon, it demands different characters and skills (I’m tempted to say the single most important way games distinguish themselves is in the kinds of characters they get you to play). D&D, focused on robbing dungeons, demands robber types that fit like keys into the dungeon’s locks. Monsters afford fighting, traps afford thieving, ancient mysteries afford magic. So D&D draws on Howard’s Conan and Lieber’s Grey Mouser and Vance’s Mazirian to structure both the kinds of characters the players will play and the kinds of challenges the DM will pit against them. Fallen London and Goblins are if anything even more focused: they get you to develop PCs who are themselves interesting guides to the nature of the city and its affordances. But they draw from a different tradition of fiction, in which mountebanks and chancers take advantage of the uncertain social situations for which the early modern city was famous. Fallen London offers a wry joke about this, when you pursue a mysterious arsonist, who turns out to be just like you:

You hear of them! A series of robberies. Acquaintances in high society. Wins at the ring fights. Entanglements with surface folk. Even forays into the arts of detection. Just who is this person?

Who? I’d argue that it’s the great granddaddy of urban, socially mobile mountebanks: Giacomo Casanova.

Casanova was, by his own description, a complex and difficult character – a womanizer and seducer,* a duelist, a rake, a spy, a sometime burglar, an alchemist, a charlatan, and a quack doctor. He was exiled from his native Venice three times, and yet managed to ingratiate his way into society in every capital in Europe. In D&D terms he’d be something like a thief or a bard, but neither of those classes capture his breadth. He’s just not a D&D character. He’s also one of the prototypes for a whole tradition of urban literature, taking in rakes and Romantic poets and Zola’s demimondaines and gentleman thieves like Raffles and the Pink Panther. Fallen London models him (i.e. you) with four attributes: Watchful (for spying), Shadowy (for sneaking and thieving), Persuasive (for seducing and charlatanry), and Dangerous (for dueling and the livelier kinds of raking). Note that it does not bother to model your gross physical attributes or your intelligence: it is concerned only with those reaction surfaces that grip the challenges of its world. And Fallen London, therefore, is filled with jilted duelists and enraged constables, balconies and knotted bedsheets, spies and assassins, poorly-guarded prisons and lurid scandals, for you to fall foul of, deny, evade, and just maybe control.

To get you into this “monstrous variety” (it’s also a shameless pastiche, of course, and wears its Borges and Gogol serial numbers with pride) it needs to involve you with all the city’s competing interest groups and agendas. And that’s another way the city is unlike the dungeon.

A city is at base a collection of factions, all in symbiotic relationships with each other. It’s a big ball of twine, and if you pull on a strand, an unknown and expanding number of other strands get tugged as well. It’s a social minefield, and you need experienced guides to get you through parts of it.

You may protest that this is also true of many dungeons, but here’s the critical difference: the dungeon is fundamentally an adversarial genre of interaction. The players step into it as outsiders and they seek to loot it for what they can, and then retire to somewhere safer. Vornheim assumes you go to the countess’s ball in order to disrupt it, steal from it, poison the countess – because you’ll never really be a native among its grotesque aristos. But Fallen London ties those society figures to every other corner of its web, by having you constantly leapfrog in your progress from gutter to rooftop to gallery to lawyer’s office. So it shows you how every major figure has contacts among the criminals and dock-workers, as well as the musicians and police, and it slowly makes you, too, into a native among them. The city expands to let the players in, not as invaders but participants. It has uses for them in every corner, and it turns them into supporters of one faction or another through repeated choices.

All this works because many of the factions are actively recruiting, so the player should be able to get into several of them fairly easily. Those that aren’t – the closed-off, exclusive or shunned places – are terrified of missing out, so the more experienced, street-wise player should be able to worm their way in with some privileged information and a well-connected ally.

So, in summary, if you want to run a city campaign, my recommendations are:
1. start small and low down the social scale, with short-term activities that lead to longer-term goals, familiar to murderhobos. Then, through every one of these early adventures, introduce helper characters, who the players have to remember, who can owe them favours over time, who can be asked questions and offer hooks in future escapades.
2. make the routes to advancement obvious, but strewn with perils. Make it clear early on that you may be able to steal those diamonds but if you do, you’ll never be able to use them to get close to the Countess, which is in the end far more valuable.
3. encourage adventures that are outside the usual heists and menace-hunting expeditions – making contacts, impressing guilds, learning and exploiting personal information, romantic entanglements, no matter how mercenary they may be at their root. The players’ histories will come to represent the city for them – and will give them resources to draw on, which is to say, something to lose.
4. never introduce a faction without first thinking about how the players can use it, why they should want to get involved, and why they might care. Corollary:
5. make it clear that helping others will help the players eventually. Maybe there are resources, secrets, mysteries that the players will hear rumours of but can’t get hold of unless they can influence some certain set of people. Now they have to actually get involved in the lives of intermediaries, in order to realize their goals.
6. eventually, by all means, make it dizzying and complex. Make the players long for a map and a notebook and reminders of the hundred schemes they’ve opened up. But not all at once: introduce no more than two more elements, goals or factions per session. That’s how you get reel them in.
7. keep the barriers to entry low, but the paths to advancement twisty and arduous. Always offer ways to make lateral progress – it may be next to impossible to get into the Ninja Guild, but it’s easy to join some band of street ruffians that have members who’ve had dealings with the Ninja before, or who, it is rumoured, the Ninjas watch closely for promising newcomers.
8. and never tell them they can’t do something because of what class they are. The city is the place you can reinvent yourself, constantly, and where you can always find specialist help, provided you don’t mind forming a partnership.

* it turns out that the original author of Fallen London, like that of Vornheim, has been accused of sexual misconduct and some kind of abuse. I don’t know, I wasn’t there, I have no special reason to doubt the accusers. Allegedly he’s not involved with the game any more. Given that you play pseudo-Casanova in the game and historical Casanova was a thoroughly reprehensible abuser and child-molester, and you have the opportunity in the game to fantasize about seducing various fictional characters, that may be a kind of complicated fun that isn’t for everyone. Or maybe the fact that your character isn’t called Casanova or that Casanova lived more than 200 years ago makes it all OK, Personally, I just think the game is a fine piece of work and have no opinion about the rest.

Another Interlude – on the dangers of writing skill lists for foreigners, or: IB ToK’s “indigenous knowledge framework”

February 24, 2020 2 comments

I will get back to gaming posts any day now, but this is another thing I needed to get off my chest first. And if you can’t abuse your blog for this sort of thing, what’s blogging even for?

The International Baccalaureate’s Theory of Knowledge Program has many noble goals, combined with some serious flaws. It tries to encourage critical thinking, assessment of facts and claims of knowledge and motivations and so on. It tries to encourage students to maintain open minds without sacrificing their better judgments. Naturally, by reaching a little higher than most, it sets itself up for greater falls and more carping criticism.

Therefore, this essay.


I’ve just read the chapter on the “indigenous knowledge framework” in Decoding Theory of Knowledge for the IB Diploma: Themes, Skills and Assessment.
I had read earlier, shorter attempts to shovel all indigenes into a single category, based on the idea that they all think (or “know,” in IB parlance*) in similar ways, but evidently the problem with those efforts was that they didn’t go into enough detail or raise enough doubtful, wagging fingers. This year’s edition covers 10 pages. If the history of D&D has taught me anything, it’s that future editions will keep getting longer, as long as the itchy, underlying problems remain for future authors to scratch at.

Here is my shortest statement of what I think is wrong with the whole project of trying to characterize or teach “indigenous knowledge frameworks” as a category:
it places Eskimos, Maori, Lakotas, Hakka and thousands of other groups of people in the same category and pretends that they all have common habits of cognition, which are notably different from “ours,” where “we” are… the normal. Modern, Western Civilization. More exactly, White Americans and Europeans.**

If you simply replace “indigenous” with “foreigner” you get the same meaning and the same degree of theoretical coherence.

Now, there may be some value in assembling common points of difference between Americans and foreigners – all foreigners tend to struggle with some things when adapting to American ideas of “natural” categories. But if you say “foreigner knowledge” it becomes obvious that what you are really constructing is not a portrait of the foreigner but a reverse-portrait of America – one defined by the unconscious hurdles it throws up to outsiders. So it is with this whole concept of “indigenous knowledge.” And because the IB program insists on continuing with this category, it is bound to continue to conceal exactly those unconscious biases and blockages it’s supposed to be fighting against.

In this, it might in fact offer a sad reflection of the current state of internationalism – a minority cult that is gloomily aware of the strength of cultural barriers, without any definite sense of how to get over them. But it does not offer much of an inspiring example or guide to the next generation of cult members.

The chapter itself raises a few thoughtful questions. It asks “how are indigenous groups defined?” and cites a few groups that have managed to negotiate their way into internationalist, post-colonial political consciousness under the label.

This Maori guy can have “indigenous knowledge” even though we now know the Maori did not simply spring up from the soil of New Zealand but arrived there from somewhere else. That’s because he’s “close to the land” and has knowledge “passed down through generations,” and because he “self-identifies as indigenous.” That last one’s the verifiable datum.

It points out that there are, in fact, people living lives that are not relentlessly Western/American in outlook. It also cautions the reader “not to over-generalise. All indigenous peoples are not the same…. take care not to romanticise indigenous cultures.” Unfortunately on the same page it asks “to what extent could ignorance of indigenous knowledge lie at the heart of the current global ecological crisis?” and “could there be such a thing as global indigenous knowledge over the preservation and stewardship of the Earth’s resources?” Which, aside from the obvious point that it asks for predictions about ignorance, is distressingly close to “will Magic Negroes come and save us?”

Is that all I needed to say? Then here’s the Joesky Tax:

Indigenous Knower – a character class for DnD and ToK type games.

Stat mods (DnD): Wis +1, Con +1.
Stat mods (ToK): Language (obscure) +1, Sense perception (unshareable) +1, Emotion (unpredictable) +1, Reason (unfathomable) -4, Imagination (traditional) +1, Faith (superstition) +1, Intuition (inscrutable) +4, Memory (innate) +2

Disadvantages: Linked to the Land – you cannot leave to pursue opportunities elsewhere, maybe because if you did, your character class would be Recently Urbanized (Poor).

1. Racial knowledge – you know what your ancestors knew. This must be something startling but not very useful in industrial society. “Find fish, +10%” or “traditional medicines that are less reliable than Advil.”
2. Environmental Wisdom – you know 1d4 things about your native environment that are worthy of publication in National Geographic, provided you can find an American interpreter to write about them. No effect on Wis stat. Also, if Americans would just leave you alone, you would totally live in perfect, sustainable agreement with the rhythms of nature for all time.
3. Learn With Your Body. All the other classes have to study from books, but you alone get praxis and apprenticeships and muscle memory. I guess that means a +10% xp boost but you need to find a higher-level teacher to advance. Corollary: you will never exceed the level of the highest extant teacher.
4. Trigger Debates – once per minute you can begin one of the following debates to distract all NPCs who are not of your ethnic group:
“who really counts as a member of this indigenous group?”
“are we all shrunken offshoots from a mighty African source, and if so do I get to feel Black pride as well as White superiority?”
“To what extent do you think the landscape and sky are more meaningful for indigenous peoples?”***
“am I supposed to cringe and apologise now or can I just take a photo with you?”
“Is it good for these people that they’re now making money out of tourism? How much money can they have without it spoiling them? (obviously, less than this guy here)”
(“do you think they know about brand management? What if we’re just being sold a value system here to drive up the price of their handiwork?”)
“these people have experts! It’s adorable. Let’s learn a new vocabulary for understanding basic concepts of hierarchy and specialized skills all over again, but adapted to their unique difference!”
“Can we distill all the advantages of this character’s whole way of life down into a one-a-day tablet and get on with eradicating them, secure that we’ve extracted everything of value?”

Is this offensive? Well, it reflects the chapter, not actual foreigners.
…do I really have to spell that out again? Yeah, probably.

* for IB, “knowledge” includes:
– something for which there is persuasive evidence or rational argument (so e.g. genetics and also rules for crossing the road)
– something accepted by a large body of people (e.g. religions, flat earth theories, celebrities’ opinions)
– something we would act upon (e.g. prejudice)
– something that might cause us to change our behaviour (e.g. moods)
– something that forms a part of a larger body of claims that are held to be true (e.g. Aristotle’s idea that snakes have no genitals “because they are so long”)

** This used to be called the First World, an idea that made more sense at the height of the Cold War, but then, so did this whole line of colonial thinking. White Australians and South Africans and so on are included as long as their first language is English and their dominant religion is Protestant. Y’know, rules of Whiteness.

*** this question actually appears in the chapter. No, really.

Interlude: some thoughts about dancing, wrestling, and performance

January 9, 2020 4 comments

What are we doing when we’re “gaming”? Like, actually at the table, in session?

To some extent we’re dealing with forward processes – working out puzzles, advancing plots, learning about characters, covering up or uncovering stuff that may have been planned ahead or might be improvised but which will in any event soon become part of the game’s canon. Making progress.

To a larger extent, though, (I think) we’re doing something with a bit more give-and-take. Something where we adopt positions and make moves and expect the other people at the table to respond and/or take the creative initiative themselves, seeing where it ends up. Like a conversation. Or a dance.

(I am terrible at dancing, specifically that most conversational of dances, Argentinian Tango, in which power and initiative pass back and forth between the partners in a continuous flow of exchanges, moves, glances, competitive expressions of hauteur. I am therefore (according to Bourdieu) in the privileged position of being able to talk about it as a problem.)

I think this dance is the essence of play – it’s not reducible to victory conditions or even the tactics taken to reach them, it’s an exploration of the people, the situation, and the moment. I also don’t think it’s necessarily reducible to the elements of agon (struggle) and paidia (joyful diversion) – there’s also a lot of thinking, realizing, finding delicate points of balance and then deliberately wiggling them, provoking, retreating, being powerless, route-finding, and other stuff I can’t think of right now, even as I (re)play through different fields where this activity is applied.

And often we’re doing several sorts of play at the same time, both as active participants and encouraging audience members.

On the latter side, much talk of “spotlights” in RPGs strikes me as annoyingly binary on this point: heckling, commentating, advice-giving, even boredom are all part of the show in a RPG. Pro wrestling has one of the most active entertainment audiences I know of (although they’re still far from the level of engagement of a tabletop roleplayer who doesn’t happen to be speaking right now), and they’re engaged in multiple kinds of play all the time – they play around the boundaries of kayfabe, purporting to believe something that is obviously false and/or being seen to be playing along and/or suspending disbelief and/or looking for an underlying truth (like when wrestlers insist that wrestling is “real” in the sense that it’s actually dangerous, even if it’s not actually fighting). All these kinds of play are what I call boundary play – negotiating the boundary of what’s taken for true, moment by moment, making moves as the play moves. Dancing. They play with the boundary between scripted action and improvisation (in their own cheers/jeers, which are a real form of initiative-seizure) as well as appreciating that boundary play from the wrestlers. They play with whether they receive the action in the terms of its own script (emically) or as critical observers of a drama (etically) or, as ProteusEst told me, on both sides of the related Watsonian/Doylist boundary in Sherlock Holmes fandom, where readers can choose to accept stories as being authored either by Watson (as is claimed in the text) or by Artur Conan Doyle (on the cover). And that discussion led me straight back to wrestling again:
many fans of Professional Wrestling view events from the Doylist perspective. If a wrestler suddenly disappears from TV without a proper storyline explanation, it will often lead to speculation that he/she is on his/her way out of the company and where he/she might turn up next
And this boundary opens up yet another arena for play/dance. Which surprises me, because I’d think that this admission of the business/dramatic reality of wrestling would dissolve the kayfabe, right? But instead, fans get into a totally comfortable sort of doublethink – the sort of thing that thesis/antithesis/synthesis stories are supposed to do the hard work of reconciling. Once you acknowledge that there’s a soap opera going on between matches involving the corporate structure of the wrestling league/stable, then it’s creatively ambiguous whether your Doylist speculation is really Doylist, or if it is itself being scripted by another level of Watson, who narrates the business drama. Where is the audience supposed to be, relative to all this? The answer is, they have a whole dance floor to occupy. The point is not to answer the question definitively but, for audience, wrestlers, promoters, commentators and everyone else, to have fun making moment-by-moment moves around it.

The most conspicuous other place I see this play being played out in public is politics (nope, that runs the risk of derailing this whole discussion. Let’s instead go with) stage magic. A lot’s been written about how stage magic works – I’m going to assume we all know the audience is complicit in being fooled – that to the extent they try to figure out how the magic is done, it’s a sort of idle diversion while they get their dopamine hits from the spectacle of watching stuff spontaneously appear and disappear, like the fort/da game – right? And the first act of every magic trick, where the magician sets up the stakes and establishes that the object they’re holding is perfectly ordinary and gets buy in and permission to make it disappear – this is all well-explored, right?

Fine. So far, the magician simply leads us in the dance (unless we express boredom or refuse to play along). But then usually there comes not a single flourish but a succession of tricks – this is the dance in full swing. The magician dazzles the mark with the first “surprise,” then does a few more-expected moves, maybe eliciting growing bewilderment but also a growing sense on the part of the audience that they know the grammar of the trick language being established. The magician surfs the audience’s attention span and sets up an exchange rate of moves and gasps, so the audience becomes increasingly comfortable with where this show is going. And then (if they’re really great), the magician overpays. They finish with something that’s baffling even in the expectation scheme they’ve established. The audience suddenly finds themselves bent backwards with one leg up and a rose between their teeth and… the magic show ends. They have no further interplay with the magician, they just have to applaud and spend all their tension on each other, advertising the show to their friends.

That works for the magician. It can also work sometimes for writing RPG adventures, when you’re thinking of a shocking denouement for the players’ investigations to lead them toward. But it’s not (I think) a great ending for most of your dances or most of your RPG sessions. Because it demands applause and it depends on the submission of initiative from the people being whisked off their feet, so it turns them (back) into the audience, watching a performer. 

That’s not what I want. I want a conversation with active participants. If it’s going to be unequal then, after all the work of setting up a game session and DMing the environment and challenges, I want my players to seize the initiative and dazzle me. But what I want most – what I remember as the best sessions – is the dance itself and those times when everyone is equally, maximally engaged, leading and following, using the floor. I want ongoing trust and rapport out of my games, a collaborative creative ferment, out of which spring all those products and memories and collective products that the OSR is famous for, but which most of all is the experience of the moment of dancing.

Achieving that reliably? That’s another post.

Maps of some classic dungeons, 2: karst cave systems

December 22, 2019 3 comments

For just about as long as there have been cave dungeons, there have been people complaining that everyone does them wrong – that caves pose their own unique natural hazards and challenges, and that they’re way more interesting than 10′ corridors.
…and now I’m going to join them. Here I’m going to talk about (mostly) natural caverns. Mines and carved architecture deserve their own posts (and may get them, eventually).

One publication that doesn’t get it all wrong is Patrick and Scrap’s Veins of the Earth, which should get you back into caving after you were turned off it by the Dungeoneer’s Survival Guide all those years ago.

Already know all about this? Here, have some maps. Note how the mapper has to deal with bits of cave crossing and recrossing at different heights.

Still want more help?

In brief, the cool things I know about caves are: 
1. they’re naturally totally dark BUT can have really, really long sight lines, so one sniper with infravision should be able to hold a whole underground river complex.

2. they tend to be really complex, ruffled, full of stalactites and overhangs and slippery bits and uneven floor, so you can probably hide a battalion in one and advance in little scurries and jumps.
So your lone sniper had better have a back door out, because a determined assault will always get them.

3. they’re full of surprise hidey-holes, some of which are only accessible by climbing up sheer cliffs or going underwater.
water link.jpg

Oh yeah, right: many, many caves have interesting water features, like rivers and flash flooding, and constant drip-drip-dripping from aquifers closer to the surface, which in theory you might think you could trace to the surface, but they’re completely treacherous, because the water takes weird snaky paths to get to you, which might actually delay it by a few centuries on the way down.
(oh yeah and: cave diving is about as dangerous as skydiving while firefighting in a phone box.)

So water (or other fluid) keeps the air pockets of cave chambers separate, so those chambers can be filled with choking smoke or depleted of oxygen or contain pockets of poison gas.

And you think you’ve got to the deepest point but then;

4. they’re prone to suddenly opening out into giant cathedral chambers where a whole city can hide and you wonder why the soaring ceiling hasn’t opened up to the sky in a sinkhole yet.
onondaga state park cave
And you also wonder how all the city-builders found this subterranean flask-hole, because you wouldn’t have stumbled across it (and nearly died getting in) if you hadn’t been pursued by armies of ninja goblins (or in my case been taken in by a tourist guide).

All this is because most big caves happen in karst country – where the local rock is a mix of limestone and something harder, but then water erosion strips the limestone out, leaving behind wild bubble and flask caverns, connected by narrow, twisty passages.

Natural karst tends to happen in limestone but it could occur anywhere you have mixed domains of hard and soft material – take the alternating layers of cooled lava and volcanic ash in Cappadocia, for example, where little chips remaining from a thin layer of basalt protect the soft tufa underneath them from being washed away in the rain:
(The great thing about ash is that you can carve it easily, so now you have rabbit warrens scooped out in your cave country. The bad thing about it is, once you’ve carved it, water can get in and then freeze in winter, forcing cracks and collapses. Which, for spontaneous opening of ancient dungeons, is kind of promising.)

…or what about post-apocalyptic deserts, where diggable sand and branching qanats lurk under the blasted, glassy surface?

Here are some things everyone should be doing with caves:
– underwater rivers mean underwater boats, which you row or punt. Being in a boat means being vulnerable to missile fire.
If they’re kayaks, you can totally roll them over and keep going through totally submerged passages, rolling back up where the ceiling allows.
(There’s a Sindbad story about this, where he comes up miles away from where he went into the cave, having followed an aquifer. It’s a one-way journey: the current is way too strong and the underwater passages too long to even think about trying to swim back.)

– narrow squeezes and swimming mean taking off your armor. All the best caves have rivers, every big cave has had cave-ins. I have been through a gap in the ATM cave in Belize where the only way to pass was to squeeze your neck through the narrow point between two fallen rocks, and to rotate your torso as you did so. I remember thinking “I don’t think there’s any way to get a breastplate in here.” And on the other side, the cave carried on for 5 miles, including a couple of caverns full of sacrifices of clay pots and a few bodies. So somebody managed to drag stuff in there.

– climbing after the swimming means soft or no shoes, to feel your way along narrow ledges. Even if you want to stick to the “floor” of a karst cave, you’ll probably do a lot of climbing. Floors tend to be littered with giant boulders from old cave-ins, or covered in shallow pools of chalky water that could be hiding anything, and cavern chambers are fairly often inconveniently placed at the top of exhaustingly long, ridiculously steep, glass-slippery stone slides with water running down them.
Here’s where you deal with the whole “how much equipment do I have?” question. The answer is: as much as you can swim and climb up slippery cliffs in. Whenever you’re in water, remember that the floor could disappear at any moment (karst bubble chambers, right? Also loose rocks wind up in the rivers, so footing is unreliable) so you’d better be buoyant.
The more detailed answer is: sure, by all means bring a load of equipment with you, in waterproof backpacks that float, with loads of rope and torches, and have the whole team relay that luggage to safe points and set up camps after every serious squeeze. Map and hammer in guide ropes and do all the professional taming of the underworld you can. But also remember, you may be under fire, and big cave systems can follow rivers for 30 miles or more underground, so torch longevity is a real issue.  You probably want to be thinking about extending your overall exploration by like a mile a day, then retreating to camp, and maintaining constant supply lines to the surface. 20 people should be enough if you don’t meet serious resistance. Actually, now I’m excited about running a game of slow exploration and fast retreats: first you spend a load of time really understanding and preparing the ground, then you get chased back over it at breakneck speed, using routes you yourself built: the players are apprentices in an alien environment but masters of their own constructions.

– caves can be full of environmental treasure. Delicate spindly stalactites are beautiful, take millions of years to form, and are made out of minerals carried by water (or other solvents) from the inaccessible rock all around, so they tend to store up stuff gathered from the surroundings. Like for example magical essence from the demon killed centuries ago, or traces of rare isotopes from before The Fall.
tiny stalactites of padirac.jpgBig stalactites are also great cover. And if you have no respect for strange aeons, you can saw through them to look at deep time and figure out the valley you’re in is a ticking time bomb of volcanic activity or something.
And unrestricted time + slow drying out can lead to some insane crystal formations:
(note: crystals tend to be strikingly pretty, valuable, and sacred. Their regular structures mean they also tend to resonate when struck. ……..rock music)

As for life, you don’t need me to tell you about exciting subterranean fungus colonies or slime molds or blind fish or bats, but what about olms and 200-year-old salamanders – creatures that time forgot? Because….

– caves are time capsules. Stuff in them tends lie out of the sight of man for centuries.  Sacred texts, richly-appointed burials, sacrifices, statues, murals, dragon eggs. During those centuries, treasures are liable to get incorporated into the floor, as the cave floods and drains periodically, bringing minerals that crystallize as the waters subside. You may need a pick-axe. And regular deghosting.

– caves are mostly too complex, too stressful, and too secretive to be mapped on any convenient time scale.
“But Richard,” you whine, “my players want to map! On squared paper. That’s why we mostly do dungeons with 60′ corridors.”
Just don’t. Stay with me here – use different language. It’s not true to the experience of caving to say “the chamber is 60′ by 40′ with a 20′ ceiling, exits to the north, south and northeast.” NO. The cave is actually a completely mysterious space, wider than you could throw a shoe, full of interrupting, scalloped columns and silty pools, with a ceiling that’s mostly dark but has some glistening patches in it. You can see the river runs forward (no compass) and there’s a branching passage off to the right, but getting up into it means finding a path up 12′ or so of smooth rock surface, or trying to climb up a shallow but sharp-looking rock ridge, right round the edge of the cavern. Dark patches on the other side of the river might be entrances to other passages or just shadows cast by fallen rocks. You wanna trace your way back out of here? Bring a long ball of string with you.

Treat the cave as a point crawl or circuit diagram, with chambers connected by lines, and do what explorers did before the last few decades – just give the chambers evocative names, so the players tell them apart by reputation – Dead Drop, the Chimney, the Cathedral. Play on associative memory – a raised space in the middle of the Cathedral is obviously the Altar.

In short, go climb around some caves. There’s really no substitute for personal experience here (a two-edged sword, because if you do go caving, forever afterwards you’ll be saying yeah, words can’t really do it justice…). If you possibly can, it’s totally worth visiting even one big cave complex.

Sac Actun near the Mayan city of Tulun in south Mexico is completely flooded nowadays, but the maps are still worth your time, whether you want to fill it with Deep Ones/Yuan Ti or drain it and use it as a “straightforward” dungeon.


sac actun pic…yes, it actually is that blue.

Actun Tunichil Muknal cave in Belize provided many of the photos in this post. The entrances, one above the other with a colony of bats, are waiting to be used for an Indiana Jones location shot:
ATM entranceActun-Tunichil-Muknal-Courtesy-of-Dr-Jaime-Awe-director-of-the-WBRCP.png

Gouffre de Paridac, which I’ve already mentioned, is in the south of France. And if you’ve been putting off going to the south of France for any reason other than lack of money, I just have to ask why?:
padirac map and elev.jpg
Closer to home for USians, obviously you know about Carlsbad Caverns in New Mexico. I hear Missouri also has a wealth of caves to explore. And I learned about NY’s Howe Caverns while writing this post. In Britain, I hear Yorkshire and the Peak District have good caves. I’m more familiar with the Cheddar Showcaves and Wookey Hole, which are worth a look, even if they’re pretty small potatoes (and really touristy. Like, cheesy not just because of the cheddar) compared with France’s riches:
wookey hole.jpg…and never again treat a cave like a wobbly-walled corner of the dungeon.


Maps of some classic dungeons, 1: The Pantheon, Paris

December 10, 2019 1 comment

Paris is for monsters.

I haven’t been to Beijing or Delhi and it’s quite possible that they are just as teratophilic but walking around Paris I have to say, it’s a perfect lair; seductively full of holes, it wears its unknowability on its sleeve.

Anyway. As usual, there’s some discussion of dungeon maps going on, and how generic they often are, and whether they accurately reflect any sort of known Earth architecture and so on.

And ever since I picked up DnD around the age of 10 or 11 I’ve wondered about a few of the architectural tics of the typical TSR module. Endless crypts under a ruined church/abbey/shrine. Weirdly industrial-looking extruded pseudo-medieval corridors, joining nicely defined rectilinear rooms, separated by regular doors so the whole layout looks like a flowchart, all right angles and neatly serialized vaults for the undead and their treasures. And as I wandered around some actual medieval buildings (or at any rate authentick 19th century reconstructions of them) I wondered where DnD got its putatively medievalish architecture because it certainly wasn’t Fort la Latte or Crac des Chevaliers or Rome.

But then in 2011 I visited a near-ideal D&D dungeon, and now I know. Not the catacombs, although those are inspiring enough, nor the metro, nor the infamously nauseating sewer tour. No, I’m talking about that monument to 19th century National Piety, the Paris Pantheon.


(shown here as a pantheon-in-a-Pantheon – the old conceit of the miniature model of the building you’re currently in, so you can play God but then discover you, too, are the subject of your own play)

Granted, the crypt corridors are vaulted and therefore not perfect Gelatinous Cube runs, but the vaults spring high enough up on the walls that they don’t interfere much with sword-swinging and it features regular torch sconces and abundant grave goods in cramped little rooms just waiting to be disturbed and yes, the corridors really are 10 feet wide.


Above ground there’s a lofty temple with a stacked triple-dome (so there’s some secret space tucked away in the walls like the Opera Garnier, to keep the ghost of Victor Hugo happy)

triple domePantheon_modelsecret dome

and just a bit of mortuary gloom hinting at its weird culty appropriation of 18th century church enlightenment.


Underground it’s a like a Better Homes and Gardens high-class tomb, all orderly ancestor veneration, before the earthquakes and tree roots and goblinoid squatters move in, haunted (mostly) by great dead French writers.


And it truly is deeply weird – I’ve always thought the default D&D dungeon lacked flavor – that it was a neutral background for events like doors and monsters. But no: instead it’s heavy with sacred geometries and secret doors and blind alcoves. It has its own architectural logic, which has nothing to do with light or air or access. Its inhabitants don’t need to get around. They have reached their destination.


In floor plan it’s like a motherboard or a space station.


You see, the style of the enlightenment mausoleum is that it should remind you of a house while absolutely not being one – so it’s full of incidental details and frames for doors and windows which are just… blank, neatly-fitted stone. Its faceless character – a uniform maze – has its own malign power, to be played on by the DM. Caves look all the same because they pile up unmanageable, inhuman detail, so the mind fails to navigate their unfamiliarity. But neoclassical tombs are designed to slide off the brain using a uniform blend of yellowish ashlar stone blocks.

Paris1665Le Pantheon

And right in the center there’s an enlightenment-era particle accelerator (running off, as is typical for crypts, into a blind wall – because obviously the particles continue in the afterlife, where you cannot follow).

Screen shot 2011-12-15 at 9.46.07 AM.pngScreen Shot 2019-12-10 at 2.51.44 PM.png

Did you know there’s a real particle accelerator under the Louvre? I bet it’s a mere material echo of this spiritual one. Which, by the way, lurks directly below Foucault’s Pendulum.

So 30-odd years later I’ve learned to love the strangely uniform DnD dungeon. It’s a Napoleonic tomb. Napoleon, that grandiose psychopath obsessed with Egypt and the Valley of the Kings.

It’s a post-apocalyptic pharaonic copycat. Which can’t help being made as well as its people could make it.

As befits a longdeferred post about a mausoleum, I have no idea if these links are dead.