Sunday, 18 November 2018

The Stygian Library: A few thoughts

Turns out this is my hundredth post. As a milestone of sorts, this will be a little longer than usual and as a treat it is actually immediately relevant and useful. Hoorah.


If I started the last review with a meditation on place, I cannot quite do the same here. I have been in many libraries, but never felt the same strangeness as a garden. Nor have I been in quite so many old libraries as formal gardens. But still, the manner of the structure is the same as The Gardens of Ynn. The strangeness of this place is brought forward. A place dedicated to preserving books, scrolls, collections of documents. Human-sized, perhaps – but not human friendly.
The literary antecedents of great libraries vary. The library of the Unseen University in Sir Terry Pratchett’s Discworld is the most obvious ancestor of the Stygian library; Pratchett even gets a dedication on the flyleaf. Jorge Luis Borges’s Library of Babel is the perhaps the tale that is most centred on a library – an especially inhuman one, at that. Borges may have inspired the late Umberto Eco in the Monastery’s library from The Name of the Rose (consider the librarian, one Jorge, of Burgos); the library of the Citadel of Nessus from The Book of the New Sun also seems to reference the elderly, blind Borges in the Argentine National Archives. The description of this library, found in The Shadow of the Torturer is perhaps the best fantastical treatment of book as object I have read:
"We have books here bound in the hides of echidnes, krakens and beasts so long extinct that those whose studies they are, are for the most part convinced that no trace of them survives unfossilised. We have books bound wholly in metals of unknown alloy, and books whose bindings are covered with thickset gems. We have books cased in perfumed woods shipped across the inconceivable gulf between creations– books doubly precious because no one on Urth can read them.
 "We have books whose papers are matted of plants from which spring curious alkaloids, so that the reader, in turning the pages, is taken unaware by bizarre fantasies and curious dreams. Books whose pages are not paper at all, but delicate leaves of white jade, ivory and shell; books too whose leaves are the desiccated leaves of unknown plants. Books we have here that are not books at all to the eye: scrolls and tablets and recordings on a hundred different substances. There is a cube of crystal here – though I can no longer tell you where – no larger than the ball of your thumb that contains more books than the library itself does. Though a harlot might dangle it from one ear for an ornament, there are not volumes enough in the world to counterweight the other. All these I came to know, and I made safeguarding them my life's devotion.
For reasons that should be clear towards the end of the review, I feel I should also mention the realm of horror. Think of the House of Usher, from the story by Edgar Allen Poe. Hardly short of books; choked, almost with the things. The narrator of The Raven paws over ‘many ’a quaint and curious volume of forgotten lore’. The antiquarian and the scholar will be familiar to readers of HP Lovecraft or MR James.
***
From Roger Corman's 1964 film of The Masque of the Red Death.
I have mentioned Poe, and cloaked figures in different robes will enter the tale shortly...
***
Where does this leave Emmy Allen’s latest work?
It exhibits the same structural features as The Gardens of Ynn. It is clearly positioned in the same light as the previous work.
[From the Introduction: Well, people seemed to like Ynn. So, here’s more in a similar vein. Ynn was outdoors, this is indoors. Different locations and monsters, but the same basic tone and structure.  ]
Yet it doesn’t strike the same note – nor should it; the indoors versus the outdoors – the library set against the garden. The wild breaking free of cultivation as opposed to the structured storage of knowledge. But of course this defies those ever-familiar OSR aesthetics of ruin and the Stygian Library is certainly not ruined. Aside from the network of ducts and feeds, the staff – the librarians of five different coloured robes – are alive and well and kicking (or as like to that state as may be said of those mysterious folk). Scholars may research in relative peace (supposing they can get in). Food and other essentials are provided; though in a far more genteel fashion than the one-man alcoves of the Library of Babel
Yes, you can move through the Stygian library with relative impunity. (There is perhaps a reason Pratchett never used L-Space for much in the way of adventure). The gateways to Hell, brains in a jar, giant beehives and so forth are quite deep into this otherwise cordial realm.  This is a library; expect books. There are simple, fairly intuitive rules about how to find a given book or piece of information. The librarians might even be able to help you. You may even be able to find different source of information; one of the most emblematic parts of the library are the devices to store and contain phantoms –spirits, ghosts – an artificial afterlife, perhaps for scholarly purposes. A series of mechanical computers even exist, rather similar to Hex, an artificial intelligence of Pratchett’s Discworld.
The ultimate purpose of the library has a degree of ambiguity about it*. It is extensive and intricate yet has no obvious goal (beyond perhaps facilitating the studies of others, and it is by no means clear that this is a purely philanthropic endeavour). A dungeon (or any adventure module in a contained place) tends to pose an obvious threat even if the players have no goal. The Gardens of Ynn had definite threat to life and limb in the form of the broken down intricacies of the garden, the crumbling edges of the pocket dimension and the Idea at its centre. This is hardly the case in the Stygian Library. The name, the dealings with Hell, the spooky librarians, the phantoms – none of it bodes well, but little seems directly or overtly malevolent. The librarians would likely thank you for pacifying those portions that are.
All this means that The Stygian Library acts as perhaps the equivalent of a Rorschach test or a Trolley problem for players. How willing are they to look for trouble? What think they to the methods of the librarians? There are clearly horrifying elements to the library. We might even consider that the Stygian Library, divorced from reality is a sort of critique of knowledge for its own sake.** There is something horrific about the place that serves one purpose, divorced from all others. Think of the isolated, unproductive, decaying mansion; the company town; the oil rig; the research station; the prison planet; the factory spewing out products unbrought by any customer. You might tolerate these places; you would not wish for them. To what end are you doing all that reading? It can’t be healthy; you need to get outdoors more. Meet some people.***
Clearly, it is not just a mechanism for offering a moral conundrum to the player. My advice on the use of it is roughly the same to The Gardens of Ynn. Take care with presentation; remember that you are in a library. It is slightly less picturesque as a book than The Gardens of Ynn, less directly evocative – but in terms of knotty problems, for a conceit, for dilemma – it is clearly the superior of its predecessor. It is indirect and as cloaked in darkness as the Stygian Library should be.
See here for Emmy Allen's blog and here for a place to purchase The Stygian Library


*There is a given answer, but this – quite deliberately - conceals more than it reveals.
** Or knowledge at any cost. Think of Faust, perhaps. 
***All of which brings to mind the image of hulking barbarians, poised and arrogant rogues and ironclad paladins clanking or hacking though the library, disturbing the composure of the swots, nerds and pencilnecks there dwelling.

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Entertaining a Notion: Star Wars

In response to Throne of Salt's latest, please see below for my take on a version of Episode VII.


Premises: I am not starting from the ground up; I shall use concepts, characters, images, themes &c. where I can find them from Episodes 7 & 8. But the central theme becomes less “It all begins again” (or it all happens again – see Starkiller Base) than “Keep the faith”. That is the change that sets all else off.
We start with our opening text crawl(not verbatim): The New Republic is happy and prosperous , the apparatus of the Empire is being swept away – but in the Outer Rim the last remnant of Imperial Forces lurks, and redouble their efforts. The New Republic Security Forces are hard pressed to keep up.
Meanwhile, Luke Skywalker reaches out to force-users the galaxy over, seeking to reignite the Jedi Order....
First Segment: Peaceful village, secluded. Maybe something like the American Great Plains – have we seen that yet? A mysterious spaceship touches down outside; the startled occupants go to meet it. Inside: a Jedi. Not Luke. He requires fuel, food, or something. Either way, a chance meeting. Why this village? “The Force.” Villagers very interested, gather round – maybe some of them ask for his blessing. But one person is watching from a distance; a young woman. 
This Jedi gets talking with the local Sheriff (or what have you). He senses somebody in the village with a deep connection to the Force. But it is none of those clustered around him. Who is missing? Sheriff sighs, discusses the young woman – not obnoxious, merely withdrawn. An orphan; parents died recently of Toydarian Flu. Or something. Guess what, she’s the Force user; guess what, it’s Rey, much as we know her. 
She and this Jedi go out into the countryside a way to talk; they bond. Of course she knows what the Force is, people talk about it a lot. Newly fascinated in what in might mean to use it. Is there anything for her here? Not much.  Why was the Jedi out here anyway? Well, they run patrols, but Master Skywalker sensed something dark....
 [We don’t start in War, as A New Hope; we move from Peace to War].
Second Segment: X-Wings or similar at a Republic Base. Enter Poe Dameron. Think Maverick from Top Gun; complains about having to patrol a backwater sector, not being with General Solo at the front. He is reminded that the Remnant can strike at any time. He rashly suggests that they are finally on the run; his commander (Space Colonel Blimp?) reminds the Young Puppy of what the Empire was at its height. We do see him pal around with BB-8 however, so he must be a good guy.
Third Segment: An industrial world – or a heavily industrialised place.  A black-clad figure flits through alleyways, through streets, over a wall – and into a local garrison. He stops, placing devices on certain structures, or in certain computers. The guards don’t see him – except one, who interrupts him in the process of tampering with a machine. The black figure clouds his mind (a more brutal process than what Kenobi was up to) – clearly a force user - and stalks off.
Meanwhile, a young man returns late from the cantina. There is sternness in his parent’s eyes when he returns home – a relatively humble dwelling, but with the trophies of a Rebel Alliance veteran on the walls (Mother? Father? Your choice.) We learn his name – why not Finn? After his wigging, he steps outside to look at the stars and smoke some death sticks
Back at the military base, a space-radar operator reports a ship incoming. The Jedi from Rey’s planet. 
Finn looks at the sky; there are many ships coming. With proud Imperial insignia. 
They land. Those who come out are Stormtroopers but not as we know them. Patched, mismatched armour.  A variety of equipment. Good shots. The garrison is overwhelmed; it’s defences sabotaged. The civilians are subdued and captured. They are let by somebody in intact, shiny armour – Captain Phasma, or the next best thing. She is surprised by the black-clad figure and they confer about their objective – a munitions plant, say. We might learn the man in black’s name – Kylo Ren.
Finn sees a great deal of this, runs from explosions, etc. A hand on his shoulder – a parent. They begin to evacuate, with others, under the guidance of the Jedi. Wounded soldiers, stretcher-bearers, desperate mothers. Push through to the airfield but are interrupted by Kylo Ren, who clearly sensed something. We see Rey helping folk onto the ship. Lightsabre fight ZWOOSH ZWOOSH ZWOOSH &c. (May be there are Stormtroopers with him, maybe they kill the parent. Maybe it was Phasma.) Finn tries to intervene with a blaster, but manages little. The Jedi is overcome, but tells Finn to go see Luke Skywalker, tell him of what has happened. Uses last strength to toss Finn the lightsabre. Kylo Ren takes note, Rey aghast (she has had her force senses ‘bruised’ by Kylo Ren and the sudden violence), Finn has had his world shattered, Phasma arrogant – everyone gets a nemesis.  
Fourth Segment: Airbase with Poe. Ship landed; wounded cared for.  Horror. Dameron all for a speedy counterattack; slapped down.  A counterattack is gathering; Dameron and his wingmen/women/aliens are set to escort Finn and Rey on the Jedi ship to the Temple. The commander contacts Minister/Secretary of Defence Leia Organa, who confirms his order and muses on Luke.
Meanwhile, Kylo Ren, Phasma and an Imperial officer – Hux, or as good as – confer (Hux by hologram). They know that Finn has gone after Skywalker and want to stop this – the New Jedi Order haven’t played a big part in the Remnant/Republic conflict yet. Kylo Ren will go after them – with an ‘Infiltration Squad’.
Fifth Segment: The Temple-world. The temple. Think Angkor Wat plus St Peter’s Basilica in the middle of rural Ireland.  A small town and a vast quantity of pilgrim’s tent are outside. Dameron, Finn and Rey land and make their way through a great host of odd folk, monks, mystics &c to the gates. On the basis of lightsabre, force, New Republic uniform &c, they are let inside.
They are brought before a few Jedi Masters and what I will call the Jedi Chamberlain. Said Chamberlain, who gets to be spokesman informs them that Luke Skywalker has taken hermitage for a time and is not to be disturbed. He is very kind but most insistent on this. Nor will the New Jedi Order go to war without Luke’s say-so; too much politics had a bad effect on the old Order; they are servants of the Force, not the Republic. 
Rey is given a teacher; Dameron returns to his ship and crew; Finn helps out with the temple staff. Through Finn we learn a bit about this place, how there used to be only a few pilgrims but numbers have grown with the death of the Empire and the fame of Luke Skywalker.  “We used to feed them in the great hall, ask for news, Master Skywalker would walk amongst them – we couldn’t do that now.”
As this conversation goes on, we see a group of shaven-headed, scarred men and women, led by Kylo Ren. They work their way through the crowd, but are oddly silent next to the chanting pilgrims and shouting vendors. “Who are these folk friend? Why do they look so alike?”
“Monks of the moons of Ponitplax. They have taken a vow of silence.” Says Kylo Ren, with or without any magical persuasion.  A thief goes through their baggage and sees blasters; he is discreetly killed.
Meanwhile: Rey is learning about the force with some others – just meditation and discussion . But whilst they have a certain level of Jedi composure, self-awareness &c – just enough to be smug – she is off-balance, disturbed by what she has seen. Her teacher (who is presumably some sort of fan-favourite from the expanded universe) quizzes her on why; she explains why she came here, what she saw &c.  He gives her the location of the hermitage, says she needs to find Luke herself – “Don’t worry, he always has time for a student.” Off she trots to find Finn and get to the hermitage – but a shaven-headed pilgrim has been listening in. 
Finn and Rey make it to the airfield to find Dameron – who is ready to take his squad back to the front line. He doesn’t feel he has time to chase after Skywalker – and the Jedi are quite clear about their position on the matter. He doesn’t have the political clout or the inclination to press it any further.  Finn and Rey depart – and we see another ship take off.
The hermitage is near enough the island seen in Episodes 7/8. Luke greets them, has fun playing the old hermit – as Kenobi and Yoda did. They probably don’t recognise him at first and leave him be (or he orders them away) – but then he gets more visitors in the shape of the Infiltration Squad. Vicious battle; Rey and Finn only saved by Dameron turning up with an X-Wing in the nick of time. Luke in all his glory as a warrior, obviously a master. Kylo Ren flees (or something).
We get to the meet of the discussion. Dameron wants to know why he’s not in the fight. He gets a fiery response about the youth of the Jedi order – “You want me to lead children into battle?!”, about the purpose of the Jedi, the horrors of a Force-powered conflict – and Luke’s semi-Messianic status “If I lifted my hand, every pilgrim in the great square would take up a blade, a blaster, a rock and follow me.” Literary influence time – Dune, and all the inner conflict of Paul Atriedes in that.
Nonetheless, if the Empire can get at him here, something is wrong – especially with Kylo Ren alongside the Empire. So back they go with Skywalker in triumph. The Chamberlain is aghast – but Luke says the equivalent of “Time for a change of duties.” (Those duties being fighting.) This isn’t ‘Throw the interfering bureaucrat in the pond’ but ‘Well done thou good and faithful servant.’
Meanwhile, Kylo Ren has returned to Finn’s world. He warns Phasma and Hux of what’s coming.
Sixth Segment: the New Republic forces gather.  The ground forces are now in something like Stormtrooper Armour – but with a changed colour scheme, blue or Republic red. Naturally, we can see their faces under helmets or caps like those the Rebellion wear in Episodes 4-6. 
They are led by Han Solo – an older Han, poacher turned gamekeeper – running something like anti-smuggler operations. [Someone will comment on how he now wears a breastplate – not how it used to be. He growls “We’d have worn armour back then if we could bloody well get it” (or words to that effect). ]  We see Dameron’s commander complain that he was expected by now when he turns up, Skywalker and a few picked Jedi in tow. Reunions galore. Optimism.
A plan is hatched, hinging on Finn’s local knowledge, Rey’s awareness of Kylo Ren and the overwhelming force the New Republic can bring to bear. 
Great big battle; Imperial Remnant fall back rapidly under the impact of Jedi, the 101st Spacebourne &c. Finn leads or guides liberation of the garrison/prisoners (touching reunion?). But Dameron & co are caught in an ongoing dogfight with Kylo Ren, who denies air superiority to the Republic. Presumably we see Luke destroy a fortress gate with the force or something along those lines. 
The rout leads to Phasma demanding evacuation by Kylo Ren – “We need an escape route, now!” – “Who, Captain, is WE?” She is caught with a small squad and  fights with Finn and Rey – who capture or kill her.
Seventh Segment: Hux talks to somebody over a communications link: “How much material did we get from the munitions plant?” “Enough to keep fighting. Enough for the next stage of operations.”
Meanwhile, on Finn’s world a space has been cleared for Minister Leia Organa to make a speech – won the battle not the war, stay vigilant. General Solo hands out medals to Dameron and Finn – rejoicing. Luke hangs back from celebrations, discussing war and the Force with Rey and gives her the lightsabre of the Jedi who came to her world.  


Further comments – Han Solo as poacher turned gamekeeper is an excellent little way to divert his traditional characterisation. If you want to subvert or put a twist on things, here it is. Luke as reluctant leader – likewise. Kylo Ren comes across less as rage beast here, but some of his character remains sufficiently intact for whatever semi-Modred connotations his character has to shine through. Besides, Dark Ben Kenobi is a great notion: elusive, mind-twisting, controlling, aloof.

“Keep the faith”? Yes, I think that comes across. The Jedi can do great good; the New Republic might be embattled, but it is clearly preferable to the Remant; our heroes might take on new roles, but still do good works.
You can play the “Let the past die” card next episode.

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Rats, Cats and Albatrosses

Over at Against the Wicked City, Joseph Manola has been doing a very decent series of reveiws of
Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, 1st and 2nd edition [Link]. The Skaven form a large part of that. In a comment of mine on one such review, I referenced the rats of Fritz Lieber's The Swords of Lankhmar as an inspiration for the Skaven. [Link] A month later here I am actually doing something about it, presenting a few extracts.

I would still contend that The Swords of Lankhmar is an inspiration on Warhammer Fantasy and the Skaven in particular - albeit an inspiration a few degrees lower than Michael Moorcock's Gods of Law and Chaos and that the Skaven have been notably reworked from their Lankhmarese ancestors.

I am quoting from the Mayflower Books paperback edition of The Swords of Lankhmar from 1970.
Image result for The swords of lankhmar 1970
Pictured. 

Those who lack knowledge of Lieber's adventures of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser may wish to look them up first; see Wikipedia, for instance.

Chapter 5, Page 52. Skwee is a talented white-furred rat; Hisvet his carer (and more besides, not that our heroes know that yet).

The Mouser watched the little scene with clouded and heavy lidded wonder, feeling that he was falling under some kind of spell. At times, thick shadows crossed the cabin; at times Skwee grew as tall as Hisvet, or perhaps it was Hisvet tiny as Skwee. And then the Mouser grew small as Skwee too, and ran under the bed and fell into a chute that darkly swiftly sped him, not into a dark hold of sacked or loose delicious grain but into the dark spacious low-celinged pleasance of a subterranean rat-metropolis, lit by phosphorus, where robed and long-skirted rats, whose hoods hid their long faces moved about mysteriously, where rat-swords clashed behind the next pillar and rat-money chinked, where lewd female rats danced in their fur for a fee, where masked rat-spies and rat-informers lurked, where everyone - every-furry-one - was cringingly conscious of the omniscient overlordship of a supernally powerful Council of Thirteen, and where a Rat-Mouser sought everywhere a slim rat-princess named Hisvet Sur-Hisvin.

I should note now that the Council of Thirteen is in reference to the Nehwon legend that '...for each animal kind...there are always thirteen individuals having manlike (or demonlike!) wisdom and skill.' (Chapter 2, Page 26). A legend we learn to have some very real truth to it.  The Grey Mouser here has in fact been drugged (not that he is presented as un-whimsical when not high as a kite), but the image of the under-empire and shrinking prefigures later events.  This paragraph with its Council of Thirteen and political intrigues does seem to have much of the Skaven about it - albeit in a rodent polity that, however grim seems significantly more pleasant than life in the Under Empire. The Skaven as eventually presented would, of course, separate out this Council of Thirteen and the white-furred rats into the political and religious leadership of the Skaven.

The rats of Lankhmar are not humanoid and are of normal size - albeit they are highly organised, armed and determined in their ambitions for dominance. The rat plague in Lankhmar produces the following speculation in Chapter 7, page 92.

Their behaviour made old folks and storytellers and thin-bearded squinting scholars fearfully recall the fables that there had once been a humped city of rats large as men where imperial Lankhmar had now stood for three-score centuries; that rats had had a language and government of their own and a single empire stretching to the borders of the unknown world, coexistent with man's cities but more united; and that beneath the stoutly mortared stones of Lankhmar, far below their customary burrowings and any delvings of man, there was a low-celinged rodent metropolis with streets and home and glow-lights all its own and granaries stuffed with stolen grain. 

The ancient, unified, vasty empire of the rats. Skaven unity may be a tenuous thing, but this paragraph fits very nicely into some of Manola's thoughts more specifically on the Skaven here - their power, their depth, their secrecy. The Skaven may have gatling guns, weaponised plagues and ninja skills (among other things) and may be twice as cruel as any of the Lankhmarese rats but there seems a goodly thematic connection here - the Skaven as a (warped, diseased) limb of the tree with Lieber's roots.

***

I will also use this space quickly to mention the line between The Swords of Lankhmar  and Terry Pratchett's first Discworld novel, The Colour of Magic. The obvious link is the brief appearance of pastiches Bravd the Hublander and The Weasel - not uncommon for the fantasy-satirising early Discworld books, though the prose style for those fragments concerning them seems decently Lieber-esque on a brief overview.

However, other elements emerge. The City of Ankh-Morpork might sound like Lankhmar, and be as rotten but Pratchett has denied a specific connection. The political offices of Overlord and Patrician have a similarity; the Lankhmarese symbols of starfish (and other piscatorial emblems in the palace and fleet of Lankhmar) chime with the seafood sweetmeats of the Patrician in The Colour of Magic. Lankhmar's tavern Silver Eel has a likeness to Ankh-Morpork's Crimson Leech. The various Guilds of Assassins and Thieves perhaps owe something to Leiber.

This early version of Pratchett's Death, irked by Rincewind's survival and active trying to ensure his demise must owe something to the Death of Nehwon (absent - at least personally - from the pages of Swords of Lankhmar). The Overlord of Lankhmar's vessel for slipping out of the bubble within which Nehwon is said to sit and through the oceans of the universe to another world bears a conceptual resemblance to the wizards of Krull and their vessel for journeying around Great A'Tuin. Nehwon's Year of the Leviathan or Month of the Serpent are similar to Discworld's Century of the Fruitbat or Year of the Intimidating Porpoise. I also rather suspect that Blind Io owes at least a little something to Ninguable of the Seven Eyes.    

Finally, (and rounding off the animal theme of this post), the notion of Albatross mail might well be unique to these two fantasy series.

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Siege Hands


Catapaulta, by Edward Poynter, 1868*

The Horatione Empire produced numerous expressions of martial valour. Troops that were the first to cross the walls of an enemy city were rewarded with a ceremonial crown. The renown of the armoured lancers of the Equestrian Commandery is well-known. Honour placards and sacred banners attested to the bravery of individual regiments. Personal valour and a polished manner could reward a trooper in the Imperial Corps of Intimates. But seemingly unique to the Horation armies was the phenomenon of the Siege Hands. 

Only an army like the Horatione one, at such a time, with the conquests it led and the cities it broke could give birth to them. Strictly speaking they were siege engineers - though they spurned and scorned sapper work, leaving it instead to the labour gangs. The care of the great engines was theirs, rather. Catapults, ballistas, siege towers, rams- these were the subjects of their attentions. Siege Hands pushed battle platforms, turned windlasses, loaded missiles, extinguished fires**, made running repairs. 

They did not wear the cuirasses or prominently ridged helms of the legions; still less the lighter garb of the flank-troops and allied forces. Often they would wear little in the way of armour - armour that would weigh them down, or impede them in narrow places. All this meant that the recruitment pool for the Siege Hands skewed towards the plebeians, who could not afford to equip themselves, but who nonetheless would work the engines of the Imperial Wars. Indeed, in time the sight of Hands sat atop the war machines in the Triumphal processions instilled a vision of the Siege Hands as an expression of plebeian military virtue. Such a vision was doubtless not hindered the sight of muscular soldiery in ceremonial military harnesses that echoed their stripped-down combat practices.

Think the showy, intended-for-exhibition gladiator armour.
(Couldn't find any really good suitably muscular gladiatrix images, but feel free to imagine as you will).

For a Siege Hand to be separated from the Siege Engine or for that engine to be destroyed is a horror. The centurions of any unit they might get assigned to tend to give them a big shield, an arbalest and a big hammer - on the basis that this is closest to what they might use were things as they ought to be, and on the basis that they might actually be able to heft all that about with them.

***

To play a Siege Hand (or something very like unto one) in The 52 Pages, roll higher than 16 on Strength. You take the background word 'Siege Engineer' and thus possess a certain knowledge of the strength of stone, wood, metal and cord; further, you are a good rule-of-thumb ballistician. Even if you have a terribly low DEX score, you may use the simpler missile weapons without penalty.

Receive a bonus on Athletics rolls - when lifting, pushing, pulling, at any rate. The Long Jump and the Pole Vault are not for them. 



*Cyber-cards on the electronic table - this image is roughly the only reason this post exists. The composition is interesting to me; the dark interior of the siege tower dominating the image and that strip of background showing a towering city (you may wish to open the image in a new tab). Straining, bare figures contorted in the centre of the picture, contrasting with the static armoured soldiery behind. The small bare wooden footholds within the siege tower; the raw hides outside. A little glimpse of what the tower is pointed towards - and the archers cowering from whatever it is. 

I also have been edging around the 'barbarian of the city' notion - not, as such, an urban survivor possessed of street smarts, but that strength-of-limb and inner fire notion given to someone who wasn't covered in hides and living miles from anywhere. 

**The Siege Hands who actually dealt with incendiaries were rather more sinister than the rest of their kind, and tended to wear big aprons. Never quite as popular.



Thursday, 12 July 2018

Punth: A Primer Ch. 2

An ongoing topic here has been Punth and the Qryth. A desert land, split by rivers, ruled by four-armed folk taller than men - who take the tongues of people for their own.

As other posts have explained, Punth operates rather like Ascia in Wolfe's Book of the New Sun. Language is purely the product of the Codes - as written long ago by the alien Qryth. A Punthite can only communicate in extracts from the Codes.

If this is to be made into something usable, some of those Codes need to be available for use on the tabletop. Whilst I do not presume to write anything meticulously complete as the books of propaganda, law and instruction that constitute the Codes, I can at least produce a comprehensive slice of them. I shall attach to these encounter tables for the land of Punth.

Firstly, the Codes' set up on the borders of Punth:

1. All that pass here must halt. All that halt must read.
2. To those who do not, a mutilation is due. To those that are mutilated, death is due.
3. This is the dwelling of the Sky Princes and all those who co-prosper with them.
4. Such lands are called by some Punth.
5. All men should live in peace, form which comes plenty.
6. Thus, the Sky Princes raised these stones.
7. Thus, the Sky Princes and the Servants of the People will the tend the ways of peace.
8. Those who do not attend to correct teaching shall leave these places by such means as are best.
9. To learn peace is to learn wisdom. To the wise will come plenty.
10. Might and Justice shall be theirs, by which peace shall ever reign.

Next, the Codes' Statement of Coupling.

1. There must be two for creation, but many for rearing.
2. Two may meet, but the many must grant their abiding.
3. To abide in peace and plenty, there must be might and justice.
4. The two may meet, but the Sky Princes must grant their abiding.
5. But no voice speaks against this. None of the Codes is against this.
6. Therefore joy is the grant of the many, of the Sky Princes.
7. Let those raised in peace and plenty ever heed and honour them!

A few notes on Qryth infrastructure in Punth

The Qryth were, in their first days in Punth, possessed of much foresight about the future. They planned accordingly.

It is a shame they were wrong. Wrong about the society they were building;  wrong about their chances for technological progress.

The Qryth maintain, in a semi-Medieval Near East, the sort of administrative tools that would better suit a state in the 'Western World' of 21st Century AD Earth. Border checks; extensive records of comings and goings. There are roads everywhere, carefully maintained - a great advantage in war, but a great expense (there is often less in the way of immediate funds to spend on a campaign). Moreover, they go everywhere. Not just between cities or along trade routes. They do not appear to have come about naturally.

Some seem to head out to dead ends, terminating in desolate valleys or contaminated springs. The first generation of Qryth extensively scanned Punth; doubtless somewhere beneath the sands is a great bounty of petroleum or the minerals needed to make DVD Players - but this means nothing in contemporary Punth. But the Qryth must maintain the great monuments of their ancestors. So long highways to empty places are sweated over by workgangs, guarded by Sky Princes and Gendarmes.

This is indicative of a lot of Punthite administrative practice. It is worth reading this blog post. I've not read Seeing Like a State myself, but Patrick Stuart does an interesting review. Consider also Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France - though the Qryth could rewrite so very much more than the Constitution, the Calendar and political geography (indeed, they were positively obliged so to do).

[It occurs to me that there is something reminiscent of Warhammer 40,000 in the Qryth. Tradition-bound Orwellian maniacs, stronger than anyone else in that polity, trapped within the structures - physical, political, cultural - of another, greater age.  More aesthetics of ruin, for those who care for them - but the tragedy and loss, the dislocation, of 40k's Imperium of Man has a disticnt likeness to the Qryth.]

The Gendarmes

Nominally, the Qryth are the only military of Punth. One advantage of this is that they are bigger than anyone else (they struggle with Half-Giants, but Half-Giants don't like the heat). But ultimately lesser forces were required. Sentries, quartermasters, teamsters, police forces. Therefore, a gendarmerie was created. It was even called by a word equivalent to 'Gendarme' in the Qryth tongue.

The gendarmes are the most visible military and police presence in Punth. They have some human commanders, but none above what we should think of as regimental rank. The Sky Princes monitor them closely.

Among other things, the gendarmes conduct regular border patrols (even along the desolate stretches of Punth's deserts). They act as a first line of defence - but a line of defence that is expected to fall back in good order and get one of the Qryth if attacked by a serious threat. Not that they are absent from Punth's campaigns or the order of battle.

They wear strange garments of a mustard-like colour, tight fitting and with several pouches, a little like modern police uniforms. Armour can be placed over this; it is padded at several spots to help accommodate this. There are two traceries in red braid on the flanks - roughly where the second set of Qryth arms would be. The officers sport peaked caps. Urban garrisons tend towards truncheons and lathis - at least, in most places. Outside the walls, they are armed well, often with pikes and crossbows. A cavalry contingent is maintained, as are supply trains for the outer garrisons.

[Aside from echoing the dislocated modern-world tendencies of the Qryth, this is deliberately reminiscent of the extensive interior guard or state security forces of totalitarian regimes. To refer again to Recluce, Natural Ordermage and Mage-Guard of Hamor are worth referring to. ]


Friday, 6 July 2018

The Majestic Vision

As before, there's been a rumbling notion in the back of my brain for a while about an 18th Century setting to put together, which needs a lot of finessing - something called (sometimes) White Hot Sparks from the Crucible of the EnlightenmentThis post over at Against the Wicked City is worth considering.

However, I do now have a notion of how a clerical character class would occur within this setting.

First of all, this is grounded in fairly European eighteenth century ideals - even if not every player character, nation, or so forth shares in traits considered European. The eighteenth century in Europe was not, as such, a time of perfect religious tolerance (when has been?) but it is worth noting that the tenor of the age (if you will) is for a relative lack of strife. The Thirty Years War leaves a heavy shadow. The up-springing of new sects or movements (for instance, the Methodists and Pietists) is not met quite with the same social violence as the churning mess of non-conformsits around the English Civil War. Religious differences certainly exacerbate conflict, but are not as often the cause of it. Consider the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. Even if Church and state work in tandem, there is a lessening of the connection between the two - witness the reforms of Joseph II (or indeed Peter the Great, to look Eastwards) and receding Papal influence. Towards the end of the century, witness the Deist influences on the Founding Fathers of the United States of America - and the separation of Church and State. Come to that, witness also the anti-clerical works of the French Revolution (this is putting it mildly).

Consider also Church interiors. There is a movement away from direct depiction of religious figures or events - even in Catholic buildings with the excesses of the Baroque and the Rococo. Compare the wall paintings of the Medieval period:
Image result for St Peter and St Paul's Church, Pickering
St Peter and St Paul's Church, Pickering

and the white and gilt patterning of the Eighteenth Century.
St Mary Le Strand, London.
If you zoom in on the altar, you will see three smaller paintings around the panels behind it.
Two larger paintings are on the left and right, largely unseen from this angle.
The ceiling of the dome above the altar is decorated with numerous winged heads,
rays of light and floral arrangements. A triangle with the Hebrew name of God is at the centre.
The presence of the Hanoverian coat of arms is not an irrelevant touch.
If you've any doubts on this matter, take a look here and in sections below. Even where the scene is exuberant, well-financed and well kept, there is a focus on specific areas - rather than a sort of seamless, continuous pattern of images about the building. The presence of the Tetragrammaton or the Alpha and Omega rather than an image of God the Father is another facet of this to consider. This can also be seen in clerical dress. Here's the Cadaver tomb of Henry Chicele, Archbishop of Canterbury 1414-1443:


...and here's a portrait of Thomas Herring, Archbishop of Canterbury 1747-1757:
ThomasHerring.jpg
By William Hogarth, May be found in the Tate Britain.
To counterbalance any excessive Anglocentrism in this blog post, here's Charles Antoine, Count of La Roche-Aymon, Cardinal and Archbishop of Rheims.
WP Charles-Antoine de la Roche-Aymon.jpg
And he may be found in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco.
More luxuriant than Thomas Herring? Perhaps. More colourful and grandiose than Henry Chichele? Not quite.

So, it is these kind of characteristics that an eighteenth century inspired faith would need to fit. As capable of producing hellfire preachers as subtle Jesuits; popular reformers or Princes of the Church. Capable of presenting a relatively abstract sort of theology. Possessed less and less of the power of the state, but capable of raising force and spirit when needed.

Anyway, this is what I've come up with.

***

In the city of Loribides, some four hundred years after it's foundation, during the fourth term of office of the Exarch Ctionas, there was a teacher, a debater, a scholar. He went by the name of Procophon and gathered a small but intense following. In time, he gained enemies - petty malice and envy from some, irritation from others. Their accusations led to his being declared an enemy of the state and he was forced to drink a slow but sure poison.

He died, or did something very like it.

However, after this he rose up again and a voice very like his own sprang from the cold lips; a voice like unto that of a son or daughter. His family certainly thought it him.  Procophon then told of the world he had seen that lay the other side of death and thorough what eyes it is seen. Men propel themselves into the next world, moulding their souls over the course of life. The better the soul, the more Majestically it is transformed after or by death.

Some said Procophon had been favoured by the Gods and so had been granted this vision. Some said he was a fraud. Some said that the poison had been too slow, and had given him time to prepare himself perfectly for the next world. Accounts differ one what the man himself said.

Perhaps the poison was slow - some six months slow. The body fell and began to turn into corruption and the voice very like Procophon's was heard no more. The body was dismembered by his enemies and buried in secret. Procophon's daughter, Cnoh, was later killed by his grave. But their malice did not stop the teachings of the Majestic Vision had left from spreading.

Three of his pupils penned separate accounts of his life, before and after the deadly cup. These were collected into a book, the Words of Procophon.  Later, dialogues and epistles of the faithful would be added to this. Five hundred and ten years after the foundation of Loribides, nationalist sentiments folded historical records of Loribides before and after Procophon into the Words, offering useful context of those times. A jumble of other proverbs, poems and writings were placed into the canon at this stage. It is this version of the Words that is the standard text employed by Diverse Realms and Kingdoms subscribing to the Majestic Vision.

Teachers spread the marvellous news and hope of the Majestic Vision. Some exhibited powers, derived from the potential energy of the Eidolon, or Soul-that-is-to-Come. By this they made their word known.

The tales of ghosts and the deeds of necromancers helped convince many. Ghosts have clearly not died peacefully, or with time to make proper use of the teachings of Procophon. Those things summoned by necromancers have no resemblance to Procophon as described in the Words.

Those subscribing to the Majestic Vision have a number of Schools that regulate the faithful. Perhaps the largest is based in Malicarn, but it's authority had been challenged upon multiple occasions by other, newer schools in different cities.

Charity is a virtue to those subscribing to the Majestic Vision, but, as it were, contingently. Folk with health and (moderate) wellbeing are better able to follow Procophon's example. Prayer, Sermons, Meditation, Scholarship, Discipline - these are the hallmarks of the Majestic Vision. Spiritual exercise for the refinement of the self. Many coming of age rituals are accompanied by tutelage, however perfunctory, in the principles of the Majestic Vision.

The hope of the Majestic Vision for the poor is to transcend what they have. The rich, having greater access to accounts of the supernatural or time to make a detailed study of the Words, generally have a more cerebral relationship with the Vision. Death may come at any time and one should not get the Eidolon get out of shape, but a wholehearted devotion can be delayed for the busy man. Of course, most folk subscribe to the Vision; conversions are not vital, rejuvenation might be.

Some have the mastery still to use the power of the Eidolon in this world. They are often feared and respected - or loved, depending on their uses of those powers.



A fairly obvious set of influences - though one quite a way under the surface is the heavily divided Egyptian soul. But I think that they fix the Eighteenth Century flavour well into the matter. There a relatively well recorded historical reality. There is a background set of ritual and worship, but upfront or vital. The Majestic Vision need not even be Theistic. 

However, one thing this is not is Spiritualism, though the Majestic Vision acknowledges and considers ghosts and necromancy. But actively contacting the next world is impossible. No seances, no ectoplasm, no automatic writing and table knocking.



Tuesday, 26 June 2018

Age of Mythology: A Checklist of Beasts

I have been in the midst of a moderate nostalgia kick for Age of Mythology, a real-time strategy computer game from 2005. The premise of setting civilisations and their various deities, monsters and heroes at one another's throats was moderately irritable. The inclusion of a scenario editor was a very good choice - however poor I was at using it versus the versions found in Age of Empires. If you want more of a background or assessment, here's Wikipedia and here's a podcast.

One thing, however, that might appeal to readers is the visual inspiration. Many of the monsters - 'myth units' - took their cues from cinema. Hence, the cyclops looked like this:



reminiscent of this cyclops from Ray Harryhausen.

Image result for cyclops from Ray Harryhausen.

Likewise, the Gorgon carried a bow and had a serpentine lower half - just as Medusa in Clash of the  Titans. This continues across the civilisations - Greek, Egyptians and Norse (Atlanteans* were added in a less well-received expansion). The Egyptians seem to have come straight out of The Mummy or The Ten Commandments.

But the use of popular culture elements as inspiration, as well as the mix of mythological origins is, on reflection, more than a little reminiscent of Dungeons and Dragons et al**. This said, the best known monsters get used as myth units pretty quickly and the creators (Ensemble Studios) had to fill in the gaps - sometimes using their imaginations pretty freely. It's interesting to see how they plug the gaps.

So, below is a list of myth units from Age of Mythology and The Titans Expansion with notes about each one and if it has appeared elsewhere (that I know of). Age of Mythology wiki link with more information here (elements of the in-game encyclopaedia are hilarious). Reference is made to the first edition Monster Manual in the first instance.

Greek
Pegasus - must be one out there somewhere.
Cyclops - yup.
Minotaur - in skeletal form, even.
Centaur - ahumph.
Manticore - yes.
Nemean Lion - functionally a dire lion.
Hydra - multiheaded dragons are known; not so certain about regenerating heads.
Scylla - basically a multi-headed plesiosaur, rather than a woman with multiple dogs at her waist and a serpentine tail.
Chimera - yes.
Medusa - the correct term would be gorgon, but yes.
Carcinos - giant bloody crab.
Colossos - a bit like Ted Hughes's Iron Giant. But Grecian and with a sword. Think a mass-market Talos.

Egyptian
Anubite - jackal-headed humanoids with two blades. Can jump very far. Found purely as a homebrew.
Wadjet - winged serpent from the Pharonic crown, but scaled up to bigger than a man. Spits poison.
Sphinx - ahumph x 2.
Scarab - no longer tiny. Bigger than a four-door saloon; massive pincers to tear down buildings. Nothing new about giant beetles.
Petsuchos - bejewled laser crocodile. Based on a sacred crocodile, probably without the lasers. Giant crocodiles one can find; lasers are extra.
Roc - giant bird that serves to transport people. See the giant vulture - complete with cage - from Clash of the Titans.
Leviathan - also serves as a transport. Old Testament references now; see Jonah.
Scorpion Man - there's one in the Peridot.
Avenger - nothing to do with John Steed. Mini-Horus with two swords.
Mummy - not hard to find. Can convert you into a minion.
Phoenix - yes, these can be found.
War Turtle - sodding great turtle.

Norse
Troll - these ones throw stones and can get an extra head.
Valkyrie - Nordic-themed mounted female paladin with obligatory Wagnerian metallic bodice.
Einherjar - spirit of heroic Norse warrior. Bit like a Death Knight.
Frost Giant - yes. Elite frost giants get horns, for some reason.
Mountain Giant - standard issue giant with beard and club. 
Kraken - not quite as big as some examples.
Battle Boar - golden boar; think a mass-market Gullinbursti.
Fire Giant - yes. Somewhat like a hornless demon.
Fenris Wolf Brood - functionally a dire wolf; gain greater strength in packs (beyond there being more dire wolves, that is).
Jormund Elver - sea serpent. Though also referred to as elvers - giant eels are also a staple.

Atlantean
Promethean - golem (Prometheus made men out of clay - were these prototypes?). Split into two smaller versions after death.
Automaton - robot suit of armour.
Caladria - winged healer. Doesn't fight herself.
Servant - benevolent water elemental. _ of Oceanus is implicit in the name.
Satyr - ahumph x 3.
Neriad - aquatic woman on a shark with a trident.
Behemoth - triceratops meets armadillo. Eighteen feet long. Old Testament again.
Stymphalian Bird - bird that slings razor sharp metal feathers at you. Can't find any likely suspects.
Argus - floating octopus that can drool acid. Many eyes.
Lampedes - Underworld nymph that keeps Persephone company. Looks a bit like a Drow sorceress.
Man o' War - jellyfish that shoots lightening.
Heka Gigantes - Only four arms, but still giant. 

Go forth and investigate further, if you've a will to.  The game is full of details that could be plucked for ideas. I personally should like to see more laser crocodiles on the tabletop.





* In the first game, Atlantis was Greek with a few extra bits of set decoration. In the expansion, the Atlanteans become Titan-worshipers drawing on Roman elements (IE, Murmillo are the standard infantry unit) with a scattering of other stuff (IE, llamas, implying theories about some Native American civilisations being Atlantean).

It's all a little unconvincing next to the semi-realistic other civilisations - the Greeks have actual hoplites and triremes, for instance. But at the same time, the designers have had freedom to make it all up as they went along. So you get a masonry and metal-heavy semi-Modern architecture, and hints in the flavour text at a slightly egalitarian society. To say nothing of the occasional gem of strange gameplay justification lore:

A Contarius distinguished in battle, upon returning to Atlantis, was presented with a lance made from petrified wood found in one of Atlantis’s most distant western colonies. When the stone lance of a Contarius broke, the soldier’s name was carved on its shaft and the fragments were returned in honor to Atlantis. These fragments were arranged in a palisade around the Palace of the Theocrat. It did not take long for the competitive Contarii to begin seeking out targets that would most swiftly break their lances - namely buildings. 

[Source]

Splendidly evocative stuff, but ultimately not enough of it to satisfy, however daft it all is.

** To say nothing of the unlikely pin-up illustration high fantasy renditions of the gods and goddesses involved (Theia, Hekate and Hyperion spring to mind). Some look reasonable enough; others are begging to have the numbers filed off and to be re-used elsewhere.