Tiki&D 1: Gary’s Hawaiian shirts

June 8, 2016 19 comments


I’ve been wrestling with how to write this post for a while. It’s tempting to write a book… instead I think I’ll try to keep this brief and useful for gaming.

History teaches you that context is important – the culture behind events not only shapes them, it also gives them meaning. Culture is practice (what people do every day) and imagination: what people think the world and society around them is like. How they imagine it used to be and/or how they’d like it to be.


I grew up in Cornwall – far from the matrix that spawned DnD, while being confusingly close to the imagined source of its medievalish elements. Because I grew up there I couldn’t see it in the Romantic terms Gygax & co seemed to see.


Tolkien was my guide to Romantic medievalism (and we all know the arguments about whether that’s a primary source for DnD or not), not Ivanhoe or Vance’s Lyonesse or Anderson’s Three Hearts. I had almost no exposure to the titles in Appendix N – I actually had to special order Barsoom books, once AD&D had told me about them, because they weren’t on local shop shelves. A big part of my involvement with the OSR over the past few years has been trying to understand where Gygax was coming from with his peculiar gloss on medieval England.

As for the rest of the specifically American imaginary landscape that DnD borrowed from, I’d get little glancing references from time to time but they didn’t mean any coherent thing. Elvis movies, Westerns… When He-Man or Xena turned up, they were completely sui generis. Carcosa took me totally by surprise.

So when Natalie Bennett prompted me to look at the cultural complex of Tiki it sent me off down an archaeological rabbit hole that’s still extending in front of me, with side tunnels into the invention of tourism and Thailand’s “Land of Smiles” and just what European ex-pats were doing in Samoa in the 1880s.

Screen Shot 2016-06-08 at 15.49.47.png

But two things seem really clear:

  1. DnD and Tiki are horns on the same goat.
  2. Tiki informed the attitude of a lot of early DnD.

Tiki shows a bunch of similarities with DnD – from the spats between the two great progenitors of Tiki, Donn Beach and Trader Vic, to the difficulty in reconstructing its early forms. Both Tiki and DnD have risen and fallen as cultural movements. Both are enjoying current revivals significantly nurtured by guys called Jeff. Sometimes the influence is direct – according to Chirine Ba Kal:

Prof. M. A. R. Barker was out on the West Coast at USC Berkley at the beginnings of
the Tiki craze, and… some of his artwork from that time is stylistically very similar
to some of the menus from the local Tiki watering holes. …every year, to celebrate
the Tsolyani New Tear’s holiday, I decorate my game room with my extensive
collection of Tiki artifacts and items.

Most of all, both offer a temporary escape into a carefully crafted fantasy world from the routines of modern life for a table-full of people at a time, provided they aren’t too self-conscious about putting aside their regular uniforms. When Gary and Dave started doing this with dice at the end of the 60s it had already been running in specially-created imaginative environments for the previous 30 years.

kahikisc10_jpg085e49f9b903afd56ba3223d446f72e3Kahiki210735191814_b4aa3c9803_bThe starting points and equipment might be different, but both immediately devolve into hours of chatting and dreaming for a group of friends who don’t want to rehash the concerns of their week. For what is the DM but an attentive barman?

I said I’d try to keep this useful. OK, here’s the thing:

Tiki is not just (or even principally) a set of rum cocktails or a style of interior design:
Tiki is an attitude – a way of engaging with the world – that I think is important for understanding early DnD. And that attitude is seriously unserious – it takes elements that it knows are ridiculous and accepts them as authentic; true-in-the-moment. It holds consequences lightly and laughs at its own pratfalls. It’s touristic in the sense that tourists are always playing a role – the interested outsider, there but not fully committed; the lost ingenue; the troublemaker. It never forgets that this temporary tropical island paradise has walls – that outside lies the Minnesota winter (or Hollywood’s greasy pole or Houston’s endless parking lot), so it never has to worry about what its fantasies look like from the inhabitants’ side. Those “inhabitants” are helping to create the imaginary.

Tiki is a shared joke (that you can take as seriously as you want). I think this might be what John Wick has always missed with Tomb of Horrors. There’s a kind of Bob Hope “you’ll like this one” wink in that module: as a player you’re supposed to go “d’oh I can’t believe I fell for that.” But you’re not going to if your DM isn’t laughing with you but at you. The deadliest dungeon ever made is like the deadliest cocktail (and there’s a very gamer-like machismo around drinks like the Zombie and the Suffering Bastard… which belies their decidedly un-macho umbrellas and fruit presentation) – you’re a fool if you order it… so of course you do and that makes you the fool of the evening as you drink it. Some further performance may be necessary.

Tiki is deliberately bad taste. I don’t really mean post-modern, but rather it’s generating its own aethetic and it is deliberately not going to be too picky about what sources go into that aesthetic. If classicism is a conservative impulse that tries to reproduce good taste by reinforcing a set of rules, Tiki is a liberal one that embraces novelty, plays up the exotic, and knows it’s titillating.  It is an important part of the attitude not to frown and say “I don’t think that fits here” but rather to strike a referential pose and roll with it for a while.
…so does anything go? Well, no… but that’s part of being a good barman – if the customer hates the drink you mixed, it goes in the fire and you make them a new one. Everyone has to be ready for that possibility. Nobody should go into a traumatized funk if a move doesn’t work.

Corollary – Tiki has a freewheeling attitude to appropriation – of other cultures, others’ artwork, anything that passes by. This was more charming in DnD before the publishers got all protective of their own IP and started canonizing it as PI. But if you’re running Tiki DnD, you’re going to be dealing with issues of appropriation if only because Tiki himself has been rudely stolen from Polynesia.

If actual offended Polynesians come and try to stop your game – and if they won’t be bought off with an offer of drinks – then I’d say your best defense is the opposite of what you usually hear, about being culturally sensitive or paying attention to the “original meaning” of whatever you’ve nicked. Instead, pile on so much of your own creativity that the appropriated parts are transformed into something new. That’s what artists do.

Thinking about it, the slow evaporation of the Tiki mood from DnD just might be what defines the edge between James Malichewski’s Golden and Silver ages. When DnD got its visual style defined as heavy metal it acquired metal’s earnestness – the wargamer tourists of the 70s gave way to a new player base of DnD natives who took it all very seriously and wanted to know just how heavy that axe was. Kitsch, whimsy, a lack intensity – these became signs of poor commitment.

With thanks and apologies to Trey Causey, Scott Martin, Steve Sigety and Chirine Ba Kal, all of whom have been quoted out of context and may want to disavow this whole thing.


Things to do in a shipwreck

May 5, 2016 Leave a comment

Because +Handy Haversack asked, here are some circumstances of shipwreck and typical responses from the age of sail, swiped from the corpus of shipwreck stories, mostly Dutch and English but a few Arabic in that piecemeal Orientalist mode that it’s so hard to escape. I’ve deliberately kept these historical rather than fantastical because I assume you can add all the uncheckable fantasy elements you need. And this is not supposed to be exhaustive – in particular it doesn’t tackle the Small Boat Journey that so often rounds out a shipwreck tale. I might get to those sometime soon…

What to do if the ship is sinking:
The Dutch East India Company had a clear protocol for what to do in a shipwreck:
1. obey the officers.
2. try to save the ship.
But then, their rules were written by the money men, safe on shore. Abandoning the ship could be punishable by death if they caught up with you. If you were the captain a wreck would probably end your career.
“Women and Children First” and the trope of noble self-sacrifice really only started in the 19th century long after the wreck of the Meduse and might have been apocryphal/literary until the Titanic. The idea of the captain sacrificing himself to save the rest of the crew and female passengers goes back to the wreck of the Halsewell (1786) but it was a remarkable act, not common expectation.
Muslim seafarers (before the 19th c) would throw stuff off a ship in peril to lighten it (most peril coming from storms/high waves). Once the cargo and guns and spare spars were gone, you could draw lots for the people. Non-Muslims and slaves might offer a buffer-zone before you got to such dire straits, though.
Ideas of fairness in general become really important during wrecks – indeed, are defined by them. Crews tend to mutiny (especially if not free laborers) and personal leadership becomes important. In the 19th century, contracts are canceled at the moment of wrecking, so the steward staff are all immediately fired, which might help to explain the breakdown of social order a bit, but probably not all that much.

What I have observed from British, Dutch and Portuguese accounts, is that people respond to the things they can see and deal with right now. You can distract the crew from fighting a fire by shouting that the merchant is getting away in the boat – suddenly everyone will deal with the boat and nobody will be fighting the fire. Chaos is everywhere: a small group of determined leaders can make the difference between saving the ship and losing it, or rescuing the crew, or just swiping a boat and escaping.

A point about lifeboats: before the age of passenger ships (1860+) these were mostly unknown (except _maybe_ in Zheng He’s Treasure Fleet). Whether the ship carried 30 or 1300 people, it would probably have 2 or 3 boats, each capable of carrying maybe 20 people, for running mail/small stores/shore missions. Life rings were also only adopted in the 19th c. Usually “man overboard” meant “man lost” especially if the ship were a slaver or warship or on the usual slaver routes, because sharks would follow those ships. Even non-slaver ships would sometimes fish up sharks on quiet days, to haul them on deck, torture them for being evil, and then throw them back… to be eaten by sharks.

So what happens in a wreck and what do you do about it?

Causes of Wreck:
     rocky lee shore: total loss of ship almost certain 😦 But land nearby 🙂 But so are the smashy waves that will grind your ship (and loose people) up on the rocks 😦 Your best bet is a sturdy surf boat, nervy steering and good luck. Rapid loss of ship leaves little time for grabbing stuff before leaving, maybe half the cargo will wash ashore in some sort of recognizable condition. Ashore there might be wrecker villagers, eager to knife any survivors/witnesses to their looting. Or cannibal savages, or in Muslim lands a proper legal system and trusted friend-of-merchants where the salvage might be stored awaiting a proper claimant.
Style moves: using masts/spars to form a bridge to safe land/cliff. Throwing small party members to boats that are far enough offshore to avoid the smashy waves.

     sand bar/reef out at sea in worst case can be like rocky lee shore, in best case, ship might float off again at high tide with minor damage. After initial shock (possible falling spars) wrecks tend to progress slower. If there’s a safe shore nearby, order can be maintained and many boat journeys made to rescue crew and even cargo. If there’s only a small group of dry islands, “rescue” may be worse than wreck: mutiny is likely. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Batavia_%28ship%29
Longer wrecking events have a typical pattern:
1. shock, officers on deck, injuries from falling rigging, assessment of damage. Warships and East Indiamen might store barrels of grenades on the mast heads to use against boarders, so those can spice things up.
2. crew either orderly but impatient (require strong officers) or despairing and mutinous (will break into, in order: liquor stores, munitions, ships’ hand weapons). Despair tends to increase, so this is probably a morale roll every hour, quicker if the ship starts to break up.
3. some people get off in boats, everyone else resents them, suspects they’ve run away. Small acts of looting, especially if there’s alcohol, chests of money
4. crew actually removed to safety, attempts to save cargo. This is very hard to achieve: people are exhausted. Generally it’s easier to get them to dive for treasure days later than to go back into the ship for those silk bales right then and there.
5. new situation ashore. Usually only the captain and 1st officer know where you are. Hexcrawl to guess which direction you should go for help.

     storm/high seas ships generally have a max height of waves they can deal with. Exceed it and the water gets in and the boat goes down. You can increase this maximum by lightening the ship (see previous comment). You should also keep just one small sail up to help you steer into the waves so they don’t hit you on the side, maybe throw out a sea anchor, otherwise ride it out. This shakes the rigging and cannons loose, makes a mess of the deck, and can eventually shake the timbers of the ship apart – they start by leaking (stuff rags in) and can wind up splitting right off their nails/stitching/keel-posts. Then it’s Sindbad time: cling to a lump of wood and drift. Storms produce the most floating wreckage, some of which can be used for rafts/new boats. Then it’s small boat journey time (prob another chapter in this ridiculous comment set).
Reasons for storm-wrecks:
1. navigator impious/cursed. This is terrible – the navigator’s the only guy who can get you to safety. Solution: repent or jettison.
2. merchant impious/cursed. Jettison – may be grabbed by some other sign of his metaphysically dangerous condition (whale, Rama, conch-woman)
3. test of faith: hang on, stay together, no arguing, obey the captain/chaplain.
4. supernatural disapproval of your mission/cargo/destination/sect (especially popular with Portuguese). Solution: mutiny (risky, see below)
5. mutiny. God doesn’t like it when you disobey orders. Dutch stories tend to go “we were OK until the mutiny, then we hit the rocks. Then almost all of us died but the last 20 rallied behind the captain and he got them out of the storm.”
6. bad luck. Maybe you had women aboard or someone put the books upside down or the model ship back to front. Solution: none, just deal with the new situation.

fire or structural failure these are both negligence issues, and tend to begin slowly and build. Fire in the hold is a nightmare: there’s nowhere to go, lots of nooks and crannies for it to hide in, and the hold will act as a smoke-trap, but not enough to stifle the fire. Solutions: throw water into hold in buckets (smokey! Unlikely to reach source of flames) or dive off ship and drill holes in bottom to drown flames deep in the hold (always popular! Success depends on how low down the fire is, managing to plug the holes afterwards). Flammable things typically kept in holds: barrels, grain in open bins, cloths, spare spars, sails, oil and pitch for maintenance, rope, strong liquor (explosive!), coal for cooking or maintaining colonies, gunpowder magazine. This last one sank the Nieuw Hoorn – when fire first broke out (when the under-steward dropped his candle in an open barrel of liquor) the crew made a bucket chain and doused it…. or so they thought for several hours. But it turned out burning alcohol had dribbled down the inside of the ship and got into the coal, making for a long, persistent, chokingly smokey blaze. The crew tried the bucket chain and drilling holes, but the fire kept burning. Eventually a good number of them mutinied, tried to escape in the boat, were discovered by the master who tried to ram them… and then the ship blew up. The master survived, unconscious in a section of the stern that floated through the night, to be rescued by the deserters.

Structural failure is just bad building or maintenance… or sabotage. In notorious cases 18th century British warships sank because their keels had rotted through. Big ships sink slowly – it can be possible to pump them out enough to go across the Atlantic… and so therefore it’s possible for desperate naval or company money-men to keep ships that are basically sinking in service, as long as they don’t have to face down the pumping crews. If a keel rots badly enough, the masts can come loose from it. This kind of slow wreck can take days to unfold and for a while it’s unclear if you’re actually sinking or if the leak might get better.  Alas, ships full of water sail slower.


Undigested thoughts

April 15, 2016 Leave a comment

Putting this out there even though it’s incomplete because the discussion may be more fruitful than me trying to figure it all out myself:

Benjamin Baugh has been asking about puzzle monsters – enemies which are undefeatable by conventional means… the heroes must improvise, investigate, or otherwise figure out clever ways around the monster’s invulnerabilities or dominant powers, where all their usual go-to stuff won’t work.

Call of Cthulhu obviously abounds with these, but the solutions tend to be obvious once you’ve found the ancient scroll – you follow the recipe, the thing happens, ruin is staved off. It’s like a special kung fu move.

In RPGs I hardly ever see that classic gambit from fiction, the spiked dose – attacking the vampire by poisoning its victim, or the corrupt politician by feeding them traceable money.  Luke activates the spiked dose in Vader – that treacherous poison of humanity and empathy that has lain dormant so long that the Emperor has forgotten it.

CoC seems to be crying out for this approach, or Carcosa with its unspeakable rituals (summon and poison Yog Sothoth), and it’s a perfect opportunity for dramatic self-sacrifice, which is popular in some circles. Has anyone seen it applied? Can anyone cite other actually inventive solutions to puzzle monsters, which are not just reading the instructions?

(Doctor Who is good at these, but a lot of his are not easily portable to your game of choice)

Ben also cites the hoary “we have to work together” Gatchaman/Sailor Moon/Power Rangers trope as a kind of puzzle solution to a monster.

I’ve never seen this one subverted, and that strikes me as odd, especially given how obviously it feeds into the ideology of the obedient salariman or even Communist propaganda. “Join me and together we will rule the world” is an obvious example of the poisoned team, but it tends to be presented as a one-on-one thing, Sith to Jedi (Satan to Saviour), and maintaining your individual identity and agency (soul) is the key to understanding why it’s a bad idea. What if there are multiple teams, each potentially made supreme by your membership? How would you choose which one to join? Are there games (or fiction) where a choice between teams is an actual dilemma, not a foregone conclusion/message? Are you going to saw off your feet to fit in that cockpit seat or find a divine gesellschaft better suited to your height?


Are there times you wouldn’t want to do this? When you should, in fact, keep your team-mates away to stop it happening? How about just this once we don’t all catch on fire and, like, try to talk things out or anything else, really?

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.