Why I’m not writing a Chinese game; or, Let’s Eat Thai!

February 24, 2016 2 comments

Some Aphorisms:

1. the best kinds of information in RPGs are the ones that get revealed at the table, as a consequence of things the players did. If you have to impart lots of information before the players can start playing, you’re probably not having the best time with your game.

After information the players generate or earn, the next best thing is information the DM imparts directly, which the players can use to form actions. The bad thing about this information is, it holds the players up in a not-playing state while the DM has to impart it. The good thing is that it’s authoritatively part of the game because it comes from the DM. Even if it’s false information – lies told by NPCs etc, its falseness is a deliberate part of the game.

The worst kinds of information for a game are assumptions the players carry around in their heads, which may or may not be part of the game under way at all. When this information doesn’t match the game (or the ideas in the DM’s head) you get the unintended kinds of misunderstandings – bad assumptions, dissatisfied expectations.

The more a game’s setting (or any other element) encourages common understanding of the moving parts of the game (the stuff on which or through which the players can act), the more it helps the game to happen. The more it imports divergent understandings/assumptions/expectations, the more it gets in the way of a fun game.

2. in order to be worth bothering with, a setting should have some effect on the players’ actions – what actions are available/plausible and what they mean.

Star Trek is pretty much The Odyssey in Space. So why is it not _just_ The Odyssey? I’d say principally because the crew of the Enterprise are not Ancient Greek adventurers. They’re not acquisitive or warlike, they are there simply to understand what’s around them. And for the audience to buy that _and buy into the exploration themselves_ alongside the crew, the whole thing has to be in space, in the future.

– – – – – – – – – – – – –
So Patrick Stuart asked why there is no OSR game that tackles China, and I took that personally, like Richard, why have you still not written a China supplement especially when you write but don’t publish stuff about fantasy Turkestan and Southeast Asia why ignore the elephant in the East?
And I have 4 real problems with writing a China supplement:

1. No table full of players really agrees on what they want out of China. Everyone has their own assumptions and expectations, so half the work would be brush clearing.

Consider the sorts of settings that get successful games/supplements made around them:
A. entirely made up, or crudely hacked off Tolkien’s oeuvre. There’s heavy lifting here, but every word the author writes is gospel. It’s all the second sort of information, above.
B. Ancient Egypt – true, that’s a long history but for most audiences it’s just fine if it’s treated as a single moment, half funny hats and gods, half Arabian Nights. You can totally set just one adventure here and everyone will think you’ve done it justice.
C. Mythic Europe again – usually really just England and even more usually directly sourced from Robin of Sherwood and/or Excalibur. Like Ancient Egypt, it’s treated as a single moment, free of historical development, and everyone already knows what it smells like so you can get on with your plot.

The point is, each of these settings is already pretty familiar to players. Each can be presented in a few scenes, sufficiently to give the players an idea of what sorts of characters to make up, and each can be selectively ignored or highlighted at the DM’s discretion in order to support the demands of the current adventure. None of them imports a lot of player assumptions.

But China is big enough and diverse enough – and “our” (Westerners with a yen for pop or pulp fiction) understandings of it are divergent enough to be trouble. Not trouble you can’t fix at the table, but if you’re writing a supplement that “covers China” then you have the job of encompassing at least some of that diversity.

2. And with 4000+ years of history and a quarter of the world’s population, in a lot of ways that’s not very different from writing a supplement to cover Earth.

GURPS China is a superb illustration of how hard it is to “cover China” – it offers an excellent potted history that points toward dozens of adventures, and it has a few monsters and notes on culture and it even tries to pretend that there’s a Chinese mood or moment that persists through all that history but… it doesn’t give you the tools to write or run Chinese adventures as anything other than GURPS with droopy sleeves. It’s a wonderful sourcebook, but it totally fails as an adventure-writing kit.

3. Unlike the Ancient Egypt or Star Trek, it doesn’t really have a genre of action attached to it.

OK. Knights ‘n’ Dragons is a genre of action. If you say you’re going to play Knights ‘n’ Dragons everyone knows not only that they’re going to play a knight and meet a dragon, they also know pretty much how to play through that scene. There’s an established language of actions they might take, and if they choose not to take those actions then they’re already subverting the genre in a way everyone gets. (KnD is NOT Europe, BTW, although culturally European audiences will tend to set it there. KnD is much more limited and focused).
Pirates is a genre of action, and you can set it in Ancient Greece or Southeast Asia or Space and everyone will still know how to proceed. Vikings is usually a subgenre of Pirates in which there might be history and cultural diversity but they don’t matter because FIRE AND THE SWORD.

Pseudo-medieval Europe’s genres of action are different from Ancient Rome or Modern Europe’s. Arabia(n nights) really has one and only one genre of action as far as Western audiences are concerned.
But China?

an RPG setting needs to offer a situation:
– a place, tools, moving parts, usable details
– a menu of meaningful or appropriate actions – a language of interactions with the setting. Bakhtin called these “Chronotopes.” The dungeon, wilderness, city adventure, court: each has its own idiom of actions and challenges associated with it.

Gary called his situations scenarios – a term borrowed from theater to mean plot summary, scene list.
But really I’d prefer chronotope or environment, meaning the stage setting; the background that suggests/supports the actions that will play out on top of it.

the most readily usable chronotopes or environments for games are ones that already have few stories laced through them – the Grimm woods, the Greek mountains, Arabian caves and palaces. The stories provide the language of action, the settings inflect that action in particular directions.

So what does China give us? What do you do there?
– dark doings in the Imperial Palace
– magistrates and bandits
– explore beyond the boundaries
…but in what way are these things particularly Chinese? How does it change each of these elements when they are placed in China and not anywhere else? Arguably the wandering martial artist or reclusive scholar who just wants to write poetry but must solve all the world’s problems is a Chinese archetype [ETA:] and +Dennis Laffey‘s Flying Swordsmen does a superb job of answering “what do I do?” for generic wandering martial artists, but it works partly because he deracinates them from any Chinese context, making them portable to other settings. That is, they remain excellent characters with their own genres of action or even solutions to bring to adventuring problems, but they’re really not an adventure – they’re not like the knight who requires his dragon and from whom one can infer a whole world of values.

Disney’s Mulan is a pretty good story about gender chauvinism, and it’s based on an actual Chinese story so it makes great sense to set it in China, right? But what difference does Chineseness make to Disney’s Mulan? I’d say it pretty much just excuses the audience from thinking too much about the feminism by making it all somebody else’s problem – some other person with weird, inscrutable hang-ups about honor and stuff. If you were running a Mulan-like game, what would make it imperative that it be set in China?

4. It’s hard to find a basic core or essence that makes China distinct from other settings. This is partly because it’s a real place with real complexity, and partly because of the ways Chinese culture has been presented to Western readers/viewers.

First, it’s not that easy to say where China ends. Chinese culture is everywhere in Southeast Asia and Japan, like ethnic Chinese migrants are everywhere. And migrants make their own cultures.
Is Big Trouble in Little China distinctively Chinese? Well then, so is about half of Thai, Burmese, Indonesian and Vietnamese culture. If you’re writing a China supplement, where do you draw the line?
If we’re being inclusive, on the other hand, should we insist that Japan is distinctively not Chinese? Why?

…..well, the answer is nationalism. Burma, Thailand, Japan, Indonesia et al have spent a great deal of effort to distinguish themselves from China, through national education programs, careful management of their images abroad, and the promotion of sites inside the country that stand as symbols of their distinctive national essences. In short, all those other places claim Chinese culture AND their own distinctive culture as national features.

In the 1910s and ’20s, surrounded by high-tide colonialism, Thai King Rama VI (who was himself ethnically Chinese) pushed visible symbols of the Siamese nation hard and specifically set out to distinguish Siam from China. He also approved of Hitler and wrote a little screed about the pernicious nature of the Chinese, whom he called “the Jews of the Orient.”

Among other things, he determined to find a distinctively Thai national cuisine – and he landed on a certain set of dishes drawn from Bangkok street vendors to stand for Thai food. Lemongrass, lime leaves, coconut, and chili were rarely used in combination in any of the Chinese regional cuisines, so he promoted these as specifically Thai ingredients, alongside the native ginger varietal Krachai. He sponsored cookbooks to spread the new national food and had it served at world fairs. When he was deposed in the coup of 1933 it was by an even more nationalistic government, which in 1938 held a competition to choose the new national dish – Pad Thai won (although it’s a lot more Chinese-looking than all those curries that require Rama VI’s fork-and-spoon).

Subsequent governments have continued the effort to present a particular kind of Thailand, both at home and abroad. Thai restaurants around the world can apply for government help in decorating their dining rooms and training their cooks. Result: a highly recognisable, homogenous set of flavours that serve as a base for local experimentation. You know when you’re in a Thai restaurant. You know it’ll have certain dishes (definitely Pad Thai), and you can usually count on a certain level of quality.

Chinese menus, on the other hand, tend to be much more regionalized. The celebrated (and completely made up) General Tso hardly ever shows up in Europe. If you order Lo Mein or Lemon Chicken in an unfamiliar Chinese restaurant you never quite know what will arrive. Different tables, different Chinas. This is partly because there hasn’t been a big international push on nationalizing Chinese cuisine, and partly because during that period when everyone else was getting the fever of nationalism, China had a little revolution and Greap Leap Forward to deal with. Presenting Chinese distinction was regarded as less important than rice quotas.

Japan, BTW, was easily the most “modernized,” industrialized, “Westernized” and well-connected country in Asia in 1890. The Japanese Emperor wrote that his subjects were white (unlike the “yellow” Chinese and Koreans) and even got in on the act of colonizing China in 1931, right alongside the European powers. And yet in the 1980s the popular view of Japan in the West was still of a nation that had been “closed in on itself” for hundreds of years and was responding to American modernity like a drug. News voiceovers would intone: “under this modern veneer lurks a deeply traditional culture,” while pictures of Shinto priests and the Castle of the Swans floated by. It was a national (and colonial) story, dominated by Samurai and Ninja and Sushi, useful to the current moment of postwar economic miracle – that curious moment when America was a little afraid of miniature Japan. Strip away those nationalist tropes and you’re left with a place that looks a lot like it could be China’s affluent corner.

And these nationalist stories and flavours (aside from their effects in real life) are useful for a harassed DM trying to create something recognizable at the table. Precisely because they’re brightly coloured and incomplete. They provide enough of a hook to get play going, and then they leave the stage clear for the story you want to tell, rather than leaving a load of divergent ideas lying around in corners to trip the players up.

So if I were going to write a Chinese game, what would I do?

1. I wouldn’t bite off the whole thing. I’d choose a specific moment with its own concerns and make the game just about that. Maybe I’d make a few of those in a series.
2. I’d look for situations where there is a clear answer to the question what do you do here?

The Mongols. Limited to Kublai Qan’s reign and maybe his predecessor and successor, the Mongols are just what I’d be looking for: brightly coloured, with their own modes of action and challenges, and without a ton of incidental detail in the public consciousness to get in the way.
The Warring States and its aftermath. This is Chinese Nationalism 101; the formation of the nation and its discontents. You can play soldiers drafted into the national army or people from Not-China. Either way you have to confront the newly emerging state as a thing separate from yourself and find your place inside or outside it.
the late Ming – internecine squabbling fit for an Italian court, rising barbarians all over, a distant emperor… like Game of Thrones on the brink of disaster. Who can unite the disparate Chinese, now that the national story is in such tatters? Also/alternatively Restore the Ming, where you sail with the pirate and revolutionary Coxinga and navigate Manchu, European and Mughal concerns and try to build your new empire on smuggling.

In each of these cases the home culture of the PCs is compressed into a few repeatable tropes. The action of the game involves confronting some kind of Chinese cultural other, so it can be built on learning about it, rather than one based on performing it on day one.

Maybe your game group is totally ready to take on the role of Chinese explorers, confronting their own Others? In that case there’s a great alternative, Journey to the West. I actually think it’s not such a great candidate for Western newcomers to Chinese culture because you play Chinese people confronting the zone of adventures – outside the safety of the Empire. Fundamentally it’s a lot like The Odyssey – a picaresque series of self-contained monster encounters. But where we Westerners can pick up the Odyssey and explore it as Greeks or Vikings or Knights, we find it a lot harder to explore it as Chinese wandering bandits who are recognizably Chinese. The only current game I know of that covers this one is James Desborough’s Irrepressible, which is self-consciously campy and post-colonial and kind of extremely interesting in its own right, being based on a 1980s English dub of a Japanese TV retelling of an English translation of Wu Cheng’en‘s original stories. With voiced by Andrew Sachs, a.k.a. Manuel from Fawlty Towers. I love it in its own way, but it’s not a game I would have designed, and it’s definitely not a good introduction to China.

Regrettable Spells

February 19, 2016 Leave a comment

I wrote these ages ago but never got around to publishing them. Then somebody asked me where Summon Bigger Fish was and I had to go looking. So here it is.
Summon Bigger Fish has become something of a worn-out meme. But it wasn’t when David Morgan-Mar published his comic and it was still at least a bit fresher when I wrote this, so there.

Summon Bigger Fish
can actually be used to summon any sea creature, and all it costs is HP. The sea creature is a perfectly normal specimen of its species except for the size, which is determined by the number of HP expended.
This spell has a memory of its previous uses. Each time it is cast, the fish summoned must be capable of eating the previously summoned fish whole,* otherwise the spell fails, in which case all HP are refunded. Singers, dancers and synchronized swimmers can be used to augment the HP pool available: if sufficient HP are present to cast the spell at its current magnitude then the spell will be cast and HP taken, even if this means the deaths of most or all of the creatures involved in the casting ritual.
Although any sea creature may be specified at any size, the following is a rough guide/mnemonic:
1 HP gets you a herring or similar tasty snack.
2 HP gets you a pike,
4 HP summons a tarpon.
8 HP gets a man-sized fish, such as a mako shark.
16 HP gets a tiger shark, (or 20 HP a great white),
32 HP attracts a megalodon.
64 HP gets you Livyatan Melvillei, which is pretty much a blue whale with teeth and attitude.
…or similar.
Aerowhales are included in the list of “fish” purely so that Timor Tom and his ilk can be included at 1024 HP (not this Timor Tom who’s probably not worth more than 70 or 80 HP).
For 16,384 HP you can definitively destroy Honshu by waking up the carp it’s built on top of.

The fish is not remotely controllable (although mythical fish such as the Salmon of Knowledge or Timor Tom may respond to reasoned arguments) and always arrives very hungry.

A specific fish may be summoned (eg SoK or Timor Tom) for double the standard cost – that doubling is not counted toward the fish’s size cost for escalation purposes, however. Of course, if you’re summoning something the size of Tom of Jormungandr then there probably will only be the one example around to hear your call. Probably.

* note: just because I’ve gone with powers of 2 in the examples doesn’t mean you have to double every time. Evil tooth-factories like the Gulper Eel or Fangtooth might be able to eat things only a little bit smaller than themselves. But consider carefully how much you really want to summon a giant Fangtooth.

**Attract Fish and its potential for disaster has been covered adequately by Scott Dorward and his salty clan. It occurs to me belatedly, however, that fish attractant should probably be a salve or ointment that you spread on yourself before you get in the water.

Call Sandgorgon
The caster sends out a psychic call to the sandgorgons of the deep Taklamakan. One will respond and come to devour the caster and anyone else in its way. The principal reason for casting this spell is to take an awful lot of your enemies with you: the sandgorgon wants to eat the caster alive and will therefore eliminate all other threats to the caster in order to do this. If the caster is killed before the sandgorgon arrives, then the sandgorgon will not know this until it gets to the caster’s current position, at which point it will be deeply disappointed and enraged. It is therefore absolutely imperative, if you kill the caster of this spell before their nemesis arrives, to get rid of the body ASAP and hope they have no immortal spirit with which to haunt you.

Since nobody who has sees a sandgorgon has survived, no reliable physical description is available. It is, however, known that sandgorgons have some kind of blunt fists with which they can beat down castle gates, bony heads with which they can batter castle walls, and jagged bony jaws with which they leave a red trail of destruction. Sandgorgon response time depends on the distance between the caster and the Taklamakan: if the caster is within 100 miles of the desert then the sandgorgon will come in 20 minutes or less. 1000 miles can take up to 4 hours. If the caster is in another universe/on another plane the sandgorgon could take up to 5 days to arrive.
Cost: 8 HP and one gold or platinum piece (consumed in casting).
(with apologies to Stephen R. Donaldson).


Harry Warboy and the Raiders of Humungus

July 31, 2015 Leave a comment

Hogteeth Citadel has four Houses: Slytherin, Gravelspittin, Clawgut and Scrotepunch.

Clawgut’s students come mostly from that creepy swamp place with the Bosch stilts. The sole qualification for joining Scrotepunch is a brief rite of initiation – nonetheless, only the most macho and/or desperate students choose this path.

The Immortan, the People Eater and the Bullet Farmer form the board of governors, which is also the Ministry of Combustion.

Bikes and beach buggies replace wands. Spells include Rollanbounce, Really High Jump, Snatch, Yorefullaholes (which saves you from having to keep count of ammo) and ShinyandChrome, which summons a fireball, 50% chance engulfing the caster and their bike. Valhallaaaargh! makes your next roll an automatic crit or crit fail (50% chance). Petronus is a petrol-powered Patronus.

Rowling’s talkative, spying portraits are replaced by preserved body parts of previous Immortans, which sometimes speak to a Warboyz inside his head so no one else can hear.

The whole potions thing remains unchanged – Snape, the ingredients, everything.

NPCs summoned by a cursory Google Image Search for the title:

1432597215192 Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.38.27 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.37.51 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.37.43 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.37.33 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.37.26 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.37.15 PM Sorcerer023-e1430525107161 Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.36.55 PM Michael-Rooker-Guardians-of-the-Galaxy-Yondu-e1412356924443 Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.36.38 PM Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.36.05 PM

Screen Shot 2015-07-31 at 1.36.25 PM

with thanks/apologies to Adam Thornton.

Jeff’s 20 questions:

What is the deal with my cleric’s religion? / Where can we go to buy standard equipment? / Where can we go to get platemail custom fitted for this monster I just befriended? / Who is the mightiest wizard in the land? / Who is the greatest warrior in the land? / Who is the richest person in the land?


Where can we go to get some magical healin /  get cures for the following conditions: poison, disease, curse, level drain, lycanthropy, polymorph, alignment change, death, undeath?


Is there a magic guild my MU belongs to or that I can join in order to get more spells? / Where can I find an alchemist, sage or other expert NPC?


Where can I hire mercenaries?


Is there any place on the map where swords are illegal, magic is outlawed or any other notable hassles from Johnny Law?


Which way to the nearest tavern? / How about gladiatorial arenas complete with hard-won glory and fabulous cash prizes?


What monsters are terrorizing the countryside sufficiently that if I kill them I will become famous?


Are there any wars brewing I could go fight? / Are there any secret societies with sinister agendas I could join and/or fight?


What is there to eat around here?


Any legendary lost treasures I could be looking for?


Where is the nearest dragon or other monster with Type H treasure?


Brendan’s 20 questions:

  1. Ability scores generation method? – 3d6 in order
  2. How are death and dying handled? – 0 is out, -1 is dead
  3. What about raising the dead? – AND TURN YOUR BACK ON VALHALLA? PSHAW!
  4. How are replacement PCs handled? – they happened to be lying in wait in the dust right there.
  5. Initiative: individual, group, or something else? – group d6, high wins, tie goes to players
  6. Are there critical hits and fumbles? How do they work? – 2 or below: crit fail. 19 or above: crit success
  7. Do I get any benefits for wearing a helmet? – chicks dig it
  8. Can I hurt my friends if I fire into melee or do something similarly silly? – 8 or below hits a friend
  9. Will we need to run from some encounters, or will we be able to kill everything? – Drive away recklessly. Or better yet, steal their wheels and use them to drive the hell out of there.
  10. Level-draining monsters: yes or no? – maybe, but see 13.
  11. Are there going to be cases where a failed save results in PC death? – yes
  12. How strictly are encumbrance & resources tracked? – you can carry up to 2 friends on your bike. If you don’t have a bike, you can carry 1 friend on your shoulder if you have to. Otherwise you may never carry more than a tool belt a knife and a gun.
  13. What’s required when my PC gains a level? Nobody gets to level 2 unless they challenge the Immortan
  14. What do I get experience for? – treasure, defeating foes, surviving potion ingredients, exploring
  15. How are traps located? Description + die roll.
  16. Are retainers encouraged and how does morale work? – You are the lowest of the low. You yourself have to roll morale.
  17. How do I identify magic items? They are decorated with skulls or in possession of the Immortan or other notables
  18. Can I buy magic items? Buy? With what? Your meagre sexual favours? I don’t think so.
  19. Can I create magic items? Maybe by negotiation/special pleading
  20. What about splitting the party? – On purpose? Sure. It’s a terrible idea though. People come back changed.

Andrew Ferris’s 20 Questions: aren’t actually questions, he just expects you’ve probably never considered these questions if you’ve been hiding under a rock for the past 30 years.

1. isn’t this all a bit racist? Only if Warboyz is a race, but if you’re really worried, just add Carcosan crayola coloured men – that’ll help

2. isn’t this all sexist? Yes, against boyz of all stripes

3. aren’t you just perpetuating a bunch of vile stereotypes and if you squint really hard, also colonial discourses? Duh

4-20: these first 3 questions repeated in increasingly querulous tones

In praise of original Battletech and parsimonious rewards

January 25, 2015 2 comments

I’m too busy to be blogging and I have a self-imposed rule not to just wax nostalgic here, but Gordon Cooper directed me to Jeff Rients’s recent post on first-version Battletech and…

See, the arrival of the clans was the first time I realised that power creep and complexity could spoil my fun.

I got clued into Battletech about a year before the return of the clans was released and before FASA’s canon story cranked into gear (which powered a series of further releases in several different media and made me all excited about the possibilities for being a writer/designer of an entire game line, like the Tolkien of a new creative world explored originally through play etc etc.). So I just about had time to get confident with the game before it changed forever.

And immediately I could see that the change was a double-edged sword.

On one hand, it was wildly exciting – all the new stuff to geek out about, the potential for a massive player league actually writing history in real-time on tables around the world, which would be published and would update everyone’s game. This was before the internet: the idea that your game could affect someone else’s a continent away? Wild.

On the other hand, Battletech worked. And it taught me a bunch of lessons that are now OSR mainstays. It was a nice little game you could teach and play in a day – complex but not unmanageable. And it was pleasingly incomplete, which meant you could make it work your way. It encouraged tinkering and the setting encouraged the same kind of tinkering, so you could kinda roleplay as you tinkered. That’s a feature I’ve long dreamed to getting into a game design, BTW. And I’ve never managed it as elegantly as Battletech.

For instance: the original low-cost Locust was, like many pieces of Vietnam-era military design, clearly conceived for a very specific mission and partly crippled for any wider application. “What use is such a tiny mech?” you could hear Kerensky scoffing. “Perhaps against infantry. Give it machine guns and send it to quiet street riots and it won’t be a total waste.” No. The rules allowed you to take out the MGs and give it 3 medium lasers. Suddenly its high speed plus reasonable punch made it an effective weapon and my favourite toy.

And the whole system was delightfully balanced, elegant and well-considered. Its parts fit together seamlessly. You could design your own mechs and they would delightfully be just a bit more effective than the ones in the original book but there was no killer combo that rendered all others obsolete. Heat, damage, movement, armour, cooked together just right for maximum tactical pleasure. And the people I played with got that, too, and it encouraged a certain refinement in their design sense. I got kudos for realizing the potential of the Locust within the design system. When I suggested it could be made even better with the addition of a new element – a sticky mine, weighing 1 ton, that you could apply to an enemy by ramming them, and which would do ludicrous damage – they wisely noted that such a weapon would destroy the balance, making the whole game about sticky mines.

Also, back in original edition 3025, mechs were in short supply and getting shorter. Battlefield salvage was the main treasure in our campaigns – “limb blown off” was like level drain – you would have to fight hard to get a compatible weapon to replace whatever you’d lost.

The changes the Clans supplements made were just enough to ruin this balance – and they were accepted because they were published by the designers. Some weapons were upgraded and symmetry was lost. Worse, the Clans changed the ecology: salvage and scarcity gave way to a market and plain old bookkeeping. We tried playing it the new way, and then we didn’t play Battletech any more. Somehow the existence of this new canonical path, and our unwillingness to follow it, sent us off to play something else rather than continuing with the older rules. So far, so OSR – we all know the chorus to this one. That’s not my point here.

My point is that Battletech taught me one more thing, as I turned to other games. I missed the delight of finding a PPC to replace that large laser I’d lost and having to make sacrifices to get it to fit – sacrifices that made me question the decisions I was making. I missed the charm of the bad decision, of scarcity, of smaller but more significant rewards. It gave me an idea for a campaign I still haven’t played – although bits of it have been scavenged into Tartary and CCH.

What if, in 3050, the Clans are in worse shape – and hungrier – than the Houses? Instead of plentiful and better parts, they hasten entropy so that complete mechs become great rarities and you come to find those large lasers and missile racks much more commonly on improvised transports or sedentary installations. What if, as you begin your campaign, all you have is a book of blueprints – instructions for building these mythical, ideal things that nobody quite remembers. So then maybe you find a whole engine, rated 275, and your blueprint book tells you it was designed to go in a Wolverine. And now you’d like to find a Wolverine skeleton but all you have is half a Hatchetman frame and a pair of Marauder legs. Do you try to cobble those together or hold out for closer matches and the possibility of a more efficient, more reliable, more by-the-book combination? What kinds of risks are you willing to take, to get the right chassis for your other parts? If you do manage to put something respectable together, can you handle the heat from all those other junkyard generals and collectors and major governments? And when is a lance of working mechs actually a better solution than a couple of turrets, a short length of railtrack and some infantry using a SRM6 like a mortar? When does it actually make sense to take your hard-won mechs into battle, rather than finding any other solution?

Screen Shot 2015-01-25 at 1.28.28 PM

…of course, the same principles can be applied to any game. In Warring States China you might be lucky enough to chance across a proper sword – definitely potentially better than your fire-hardened spear, but you have to learn know how to use it, and in the meantime you’re a target for every would-be sword saint and bravo gang leader who wants some high-status steel on their hip to boost their charisma. When I think of running a DnD-like game I most often think of it being a game without adventurers’ markets in town, where basic equipment qualifies as valuable treasure. Plate Mail armour has, on occasion, worked in this role. But there’s something nice about Battletech’s particular setup, where the original designs stand as dreams to be resurrected, and the idea of the Atlas looms over everyone’s neo-medieval radioactive siege engine, mocking your engineer’s paltry efforts.

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 2 comments

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 4 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.