Sunday, 24 January 2021

Back from the Scum Quarter!

I was pleased to discover that Garth Nix's 1988 spoof Choose Your Own Adventure Down to the Scum Quarter is available online - albeit via the Wayback Machine. It was also published in the book of short stories Across the Wall, but I don't imagine any of you would care to buy an entire paperback for the sake of one brief adventure. That said, the format it is parodying is a print medium - the experience of your eye drifting across the page to other entries, or keeping your thumb at the last page you turned to are a part of the joke. 

Anyway, the whole thing may be found here. It's a broad parody of Three Muskateers-flavoured swashbuckling (Nix refers to the Richard Lester-directed, George MacDonald Fraser-scripted 1970s film adaptations), rescuing your mistress, the Lady Oiseaux (yes) from kidnappers. Nix has had the wisdom to keep it short (a hundred brief entries in all, which I believe to be shorter than most game-books) - it's possible the broad humour might grate otherwise. 

I still find this quite fun. But it has a few other uses....

Nix had to devise and lay out (fairly rapidly) an Early Modern urban environment and scene. This equipment list:

Choose Five:


Pistol (with powder & ball for five shots)

Bag of 20 Gold Bezants

Portrait of Lady Oiseaux (3'6" square)

Scented handkerchief


20' rope

Repeater Watch

1 Bottle 'El Superbeau' Cognac

2 Pairs Silk Stockings

A glove puppet of Cyrano de Bergerac

Small Plaster Saint

1 Bottle 'Opossum' perfume

A Five-Pronged Fish-Spear

...begs to be re-used at the tabletop. It has the same sort of highly specific, characterful equipment options as offered in Electric Bastionland or these equipment lists from Gus L's Fallen Empire. These could meet the needs of a Rogue or Fop of some kind very nicely.

Nix also draws out some swiftly-drawn locations: the Boulevard of the Muses, The Carved Heads of Past Emperors, The Street of Fishmongers - as well as the Place of Plaice and the Avenue of Champignons. (Names like Fishgut Alley reek of Lankhmar). Using the link above, you could navigate these pretty quickly and at random, scattering encounters on the way. Again, these are fairly broad pastiche, but if it were needed, an apt way to quickly produce a slice of a dense, riotous city. Perhaps there's only one or two uses in it, but I'd happily use to sprinkle a spot of the Scum Quarter into an Early Modern setting.

Now, I imagine I've made my affection for Down to the Sum Quarter apparent. But could any other game book be used this way? I don't know; I never had any great love for them. I suspect that the length and relative complexity for the Cityport of Traps*, say, means that you might struggle to use it in the same way as Down to the Scum Quarter. You are welcome to prove me wrong.


*I have never encountered anything else referred to as a Cityport. Port Cities, yes. Harbour towns, yes. Cityports, no. 

Monday, 11 January 2021

Hic Svnt ****ones

I recently encountered a refutation of the idea that a) dinosaur fossils and some sort of fear-of-snakes ancestral memory gave birth to the image of the dragon across a number of cultures and b) that (accordingly from a) and referring more closely to folklore) all cultural dragon-like ideas were related. The serpent-slaying myth may be very old - but it is a very old myth from a distant Indo-European culture, and there is much of the world that is not Indo-European.

Now, we obviously connect the Western dragon of Beowulf (say) with the Chinese dragon - though this is the result of translation. But a fantasy setting that uses the real world or something very close to it might (often does?) throw into the dragon family all sorts of other things. Smaug's cousin is the Hydra; his aunt is Leviathan; he went to school with the Lambton Worm and the Naga. Shadowrun, for one, did this. 

But let's step away from that idea for a moment. Let us posit that various types of dragons are not at all closely related: that Nidhogg would take comparison with Tiamat the way you or I might take comparison with a baboon. To illustrate this if we glance at the current Linnean taxonomy for baboons and humans, you have to go from Species past Genus and Family to Infraorder (the Simiiformes) to find them in the same category. There's a very clear distinction between them - aside from all the differences you might already care to name between humans and baboons.

Proposal: in building a fantasy world, you may include dragons or dragon-like things, but you cannot use the word dragon. Now, if you read this blog, I suppose the chances are you already know a dozen alternatives for dragon. Some dragon-like images deviate from the fire-breathing winged Western norm sufficiently to not require adjustment - as the Feathered Serpent or Couatl of Meso-American myth. Deliberately playing up the noble and mammalian qualities of the Chinese dragon or lung could work. But referring to the zmei brings one fairly directly to 'Slavic dragon'.

So....does one have to deliberately reshape the dragon? Referring to 'wyrm' works because of the closeness to worm, but we may want other terms. You could use something like Serpent-Prince or Lizard-King - though the latter brings us too close to the spectre of the tyrannosaur. Giant Snake is good, but leaves out other properties of the dragon. Perhaps kenning is the way to go: Hoardkeeper, Firetongue, Goldtwiner. 

Are there any additions you would care to make to this list? How can we avoid using the word dragon?

Wednesday, 6 January 2021

Monday Starts on Saturday

Over December and into Christmas, I read a number of books. One that stood out was Arkady and Boris Strugatsky's Monday Starts on Saturday (the Gollancz Science Fiction Masterworks edition). You may know the Bros. Strugatsky from Roadside Picnic (the inspiration for Stalker) or Hard to be a God; suffice it to say they were authors of science fiction in the Soviet Union in the 1950s and 60s. The constraints of publishing in Russia at that time are interesting and relevant to their work - the SF Masterworks editions of the above have afterwords by Boris Strugatsky detailing their difficulties - however, this isn't quite what I'm here to write about today.

Monday Starts on Saturday is (effectively) three linked novellas that deal with a young programmer who gets drawn into the 'Scientific Research Institute of Sorcery and Wizardry' - which is abbreviated to 'NiiChaVo', a pun on the Russian 'nichero', 'Don't mention it!'. Andrew Bromfield's translation renders this as the National Institute for the Technology of Witchcraft and Thaumaturgy, IE, NITWIT.  With a name like that, you will have grasped that the vein of comedy in Monday Starts on Saturday lies fairly close to the surface. 
Cover of the Gollancz SF Masterworks edition. 
I'm not over-enamoured of it, but it's not unfitting.

What you have is an organisation with somewhat similar responsibilities and power to the titular Laundry of Charles Stross's Laundry Files or the BPRD of Hellboy but, a) seemingly pretty civilian in its applications (this might simply be a matter of focus - Koschei the Deathless is locked up in the basement while prosecutors labour to complete the immense list of charges against him) and b) largely tangled up with it's own problems. At any rate, Monday Starts on Saturday is more a satire of scientific research than a blood-and-thunder adventure. Certain aspects of this passed me by - I didn't pick up on some of the veiled references to Lysenko, even if the general shape of scientific theories agreeable to the governing ideology of the Soviet Union was apparent. 

Apart from all the above, there's a certain air to the mishaps and goings-on of Monday Starts on Saturday. It's something in the vein of the campus or varsity novel - talented, spritely people in a communal setting not always doing much work, having conversations and passing among a fairly mixed group of characters. Even if the tone or setting of the books changes, both Brideshead Revisited and The Secret History serve well in this regard. Lucky Jim is a little too centred on its main character; parts of AS Byatt's Possession may also be worthy of attention. 

I don't suppose that I have to explain the present appeal of this kind of setting, but it did put me in mind of something comedic (in the Classical sense of the word) or pastoral. It's a tone not often evoked, I think, by role-play. There have been very campus-like, academic materials produced: this post on Coins and Scrolls, this post on Against the Wicked City - and one should not forget the Chthonic Codex of Paolo Greco. 

At any rate, it put me in mind of a hibernating project of my own, provisionally if cumbersomely entitled White Hot Sparks from the Crucible of the Enlightenment. There have been a few posts devoted to this, and I have been looking over a few of my old notes (I think there might even be a short story somewhere on a hard drive....). I haven't yet read Skerples's Magical Industrial Revolution (jolly well ought to) but it seems it may cover much of the same ground. 

Monday Starts on Saturday, whatever it may be 'About' or remind me of, is still a worthwhile read. If nothing else, it is a reminder of the stakes that may come from magic even when no-one is threatening you with extinction.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Appian Considered

Some of my reading list is calculated and planned, part of reading reviews and picking up on references or following certain authors. Some of it is pure coincidence. This was a coincidence: I found a Loeb Classical Library edition of the first few books of Appian's Roman History. This is partially fragmentary, particular the early sections dealing with the young Kingdom and Republic. But this volume covers up until the end of what we call the Third Punic War (Appian's terminology differs slightly). Appian was a Greek official, based in Alexandria and a Roman citizen. He lived at least until the reign of the Emperor Trajan.

I'm not going to discuss all the events covered by Appian's history here. You likely know a number of them already, or have some image of them - Hannibal taking his elephants across the Alps and rampaging around the Italian peninsula, Cato the Elder's catchphrase. Instead, I'm going to examine certain elements from Appian and suggest them as world-building elements.


Appian is writing in Greek about Romans, Italians, Celts, Iberians, Numidians and Carthaginians. The advantage of the Loeb books is that they present the original text of the work side by side with the translation. Greek has no letter H, Q, V or W and so we see some odd transliterations in the Greek, reproduced below.

'Amilcar [Hamilcar]

'Annibal [Hannibal]

'Asdroubal [Hasdrubal]

Ma'arbal [Maharbal]

Phoulouius Phlakkos [Fulvius Flaccus]

Kointos Pompeios Aulos [Quintus Pompeius Aulus] 

Oualerios [Valerius]

Ouolouski [Volsci].     

For the last two above, consider the pronunciation of the French oui, or the Mexican state of Oaxaca.

A purely coincidental picture of Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus, 
from a 2011 film adaptation. 

As fun as it may be to wrap your tongue round some of these, pronouncing names differently or using different formulations may be a better tabletop methods for indicating cultural differences than an entire new language or an attempted accent (my Peter Lorre or Humphrey Bogart might be pretty good, but do you want an entire city full of Bogarts?). Hasbrubal can become Asdroubal, just as Solomon can become Suleiman, or Thor can become Thunor can become Donner. Saint Ottoline can become the Blessed Ottoline, or Holy-most Ottoline or Ottoline Beata.

Wikipedia's Names for Germany is an interesting example of intersecting language groups, and rewards study.


The Saguntines, when they despaired of help from Rome, and when famine weighed heavily upon them, and Hannibal kept up the siege without intermission (for he had heard that the city was very prosperous and wealthy, and for this reason relaxed not the siege), issued an edict to bring all the silver and gold, public and private, to the forum, where they melted it with lead and brass, so that it should be useless to Hannibal.

The Wars in Spain, 2.12

As you can imagine, Hannibal reacted badly to this. But the notion of an opponent trying to ditch or spoil their treasure is arresting. If Our Heroes have blazed through the Platinum Immortals of the Supreme Syndic far quicker than the GM might reasonably predicted, discovering that an objective is imperilled keeps the action meaningful. Of course, paper money, share certificates, top-secret dossiers and tomes of eldritch lore can all be burnt. But the danger of hot crucibles and the haste of loot-hungry adventurers has a certain high drama to it.


At the end of the year, Fabius Maximus Servilianus, the brother of Aemilianus, came to succeed Quintus in the command, bringing two new legions from Rome and some allies, so that his forces altogether amounted to about 18,000 foot and 1,600 horse. He wrote to Micipsa, king of the Numidians, to send him some elephants as speedily as possible. As he was hastening to Itucca with his army in divisions, Viriathus attacked him with 6,000 troops with great noise and barbaric clamour, and wearing the long hair which in battles they are accustomed to shake in order to terrify their enemies, but he was not dismayed. He stood his ground bravely, and the enemy was driven off without accomplishing anything.

The Wars in Spain, 12.67

Images of long-haired barbarians and Romans with sensible short-back-and-sides isn't really anything new, but the impression Appian gives us of hair as a form of psychological warfare is quite fun.


This victory raised the spirits of the Romans, but the next night they were seized with panic. A body of the enemy's horse who had gone out foraging before Lucullus arrived, returned and not finding any entrance to the city because it was surrounded by the besiegers, ran about shouting and creating disturbance while those inside the walls shouted back. These noises caused strange terror in the Roman camp. Their soldiers were sick from want of sleep, and because of the unaccustomed food which the country afforded. They had no wine, no salt, no vinegar, no oil, but lived on wheat and barley, and the flesh of deer and rabbits boiled without salt, which caused dysentery, from which many died.

The Wars in Spain, 9.54

Drink no longer water, but use a little wine for thy stomach's sake. The notion of dysentery ravaging the armies of the classical and medieval worlds is probably not new to you, but here is a fine example of it. The passage is also a reminder of the necessity of things like salt. While it may be that a game renders food as one element alone('Rations', 'Elven waybread'), here's a reminder of the necessity of a varied diet.


Fetial priests appear in Appian as part of the negotiations in sieges, or dealing with the various embassies from Celtic nations or Carthage. Livy describes parts of fetial ceremonies:

Then the Pater Patratus, who is constituted for the purpose of giving the treaty the religious sanction of an oath, did so by a long formula in verse, which it is not worth while to quote. After reciting the conditions he said: "Hear, O Jupiter, hear! thou Pater Patratus of the people of Alba! Hear ye, too, people of Alba! As these conditions have been publicly rehearsed from first to last, from these tablets, in perfect good faith, and inasmuch as they have here and now been most clearly understood, so these conditions the People of Rome will not be the first to go back from. If they shall, in their national council, with false and malicious intent be the first to go back, then do thou, Jupiter, on that day, so smite the People of Rome, even as I here and now shall smite this swine, and smite them so much the more heavily, as thou art greater in power and might." With these words he struck the swine with a flint. 

Livy, History of Rome, 1.24

In order, therefore, that wars might be not only conducted but also proclaimed with some formality, he wrote down the law, as taken from the ancient nation of the Aequicoli, under which the Fetials act down to this day when seeking redress for injuries. The procedure is as follows: -

The ambassador binds his head in a woollen fillet. When he has reached the frontiers of the nation from whom satisfaction is demanded, he says, "Hear, O Jupiter! Hear, ye confines" - naming the particular nation whose they are - "Hear, O Justice! I am the public herald of the Roman People. Rightly and duly authorised do I come; let confidence be placed in my words." Then he recites the terms of the demands, and calls Jupiter to witness: "If I am demanding the surrender of those men or those goods, contrary to justice and religion, suffer me nevermore to enjoy my native land." He repeats these words as he crosses the frontier, he repeats them to whoever happens to be the first person he meets, he repeats them as he enters the gates and again on entering the forum, with some slight changes in the wording of the formula. If what he demands are not surrendered at the expiration of thirty-three days - for that is the fixed period of grace - he declares war in the following terms: "Hear, O Jupiter, and thou Janus Quirinus, and all ye heavenly gods, and ye, gods of earth and of the lower world, hear me! I call you to witness that this people" - mentioning it by name - "is unjust and does not fulfil its sacred obligations. But about these matters we must consult the elders in our own land in what way we may obtain our rights." 

With these words the ambassador returned to Rome for consultation. The king forthwith consulted the senate in words to the following effect: "Concerning the matters, suits, and causes, whereof the Pater Patratus of the Roman People and Quirites hath complained to the Pater Patratus of the Prisci Latini, and to the people of the Prisci Latini, which matters they were bound severally to surrender, discharge, and make good, whereas they have done none of these things - say, what is your opinion?" He whose opinion was first asked, replied, "I am of opinion that they ought to be recovered by a just and righteous war, wherefore I give my consent and vote for it." Then the others were asked in order, and when the majority of those present declared themselves of the same opinion, war was agreed upon. It was customary for the Fetial to carry to the enemies' frontiers a blood-smeared spear tipped with iron or burnt at the end, and, in the presence of at least three adults, to say, "Inasmuch as the peoples of the Prisci Latini have been guilty of wrong against the People of Rome and the Quirites, and inasmuch as the People of Rome and the Quirites have ordered that there be war with the Prisci Latini, and the Senate of the People of Rome and the Quirites have determined and decreed that there shall be war with the Prisci Latini, therefore I and the People of Rome, declare and make war upon the peoples of the Prisci Latini." With these words he hurled his spear into their territory. This was the way in which at that time satisfaction was demanded from the Latins and war declared, and posterity adopted the custom.

Livy, 1.32

Appian has the lack of a fetial serve as an indicator of implacability.

While Pontius was speaking the old man burst into tears, then seated himself in his carriage and went back to Caudium. Pontius then summoned the Roman envoys and asked them if they had any fetial priest with them. There was none present because the army had marched to undertake an irreconcilable, implacable war. 

Appian, The Samnite History

There's a few things I would take from this. Firstly, that even if a modern reader might know not to expect the 'separation of church and state', it is still possible to underestimate the extent to which religion and state power entwined. (A timely reminder that Julius Caesar and the Emperors were also Pontifex Maximus). A bishop can be seen as advising a king, still somehow a third party - he's not the Chancellor (though a Cardinal might be...), or the Grand Marshal. Even given that we are seeing a 'polished-up' account of the fetials, they still seem to have a distinct place within the state apparatus.

Secondly, that there is quite a lot about Rome that hearkens back to the laws and mores of an individual city-state. Even if we can associate it with progress and the march of history (Classical architecture = Enlightenment, Classical architecture = Rome, Rome = Enlightenment, 'What have the Romans ever done for us', &c), that's not always something that holds terribly true. This scene (an image of which is below) from the HBO series Rome, with it's images of blood sacrifice, face-painting, staring dragon totems, eerie hooting trumpets and public execution is a relevant counter. Having a fantasy Rome equivalent have its legions with as many charms and streaks of warpaint as the stereotyped warrior of the Great Plains would not be inappropriate.

(Looking up certain Roman priesthoods and festivals - the Flamens, the Salii, Lupercalia - may be helpful.)

Thirdly, the image of the priest as an envoy is an arresting one. The image of priest as peacemaker - Friar Lawrence in Romeo and Juliet - is hardly new, but having a cleric at the tabletop with very specific powers to oversee oaths or to sanctify action is interesting. It's an image of a cleric as a Charisma-based 'face' character which could be an interesting variation. A use of Abjuration or Mental spells schools would be apt, though some adaptation may be necessary. 

Friday, 27 November 2020

Dungeon Emigrés

A comment on False Machine sent my mind in the direction of dungeon émigré groups. Now, this is a somewhat tongue-in-cheek exercise - applying the tropes of the Cold War to the trap-strewn dungeon of cliche. But there is no reason to assume that the Goblins of the Yellow Eye are an unshakeable monolith, ready to fight Our Heroes to the death, incapable of civil strife. So: splinter groups, refugees, ex-pats. 

Several tables below offer examples, all centred around a sizeable town or city.

What group is this? Roll d12

  1. Kobold dissidents, inciting fire and revolution against their draconic overlords.
  2. Goblin satirists of the Red Brows clan, whose unsubtle burlesques and avant-garde wall paintings vexed the wrong chieftain.
  3. A scion of the Drow aristocracy and retainers, forced out in the course of yet another court intrigue.
  4. Minotaur heretics, who have radically different notions on the proper worship of the gods of slaughter and thirst. Their debates are heated.*
  5. An Orc warlord and his huscarls, motivated by the perceived ingratitude of the Orc plebeian classes to throw their lot in with mankind.
  6. Cultist defectors, trying to either atone for misdeeds or get out before the summoning ritual begins.
  7. Goblins of the Blue Lips Clan, who have fled from the join-or-die assimilation policies of the Hobgoblin Hegemony.
  8. A train of misplaced phantoms and spectres cling tenuously onto a single grave slab, carried by a tomb guardian. They have been banished by foul magics from their centuries-old rest.
  9. A bundle of Orcs who have left before the new boss can enact the usual purges. 
  10. Deserters from the Dragon's Tooth Regiment of the Grand Skeleton Army, who have grown tired of pack-drill, roll-call and saluting pimply necromancer's apprentices who can't tell grave-dirt from bone-dust.
  11. A drake who has seen the writing on the wall and is negotiating his conditional surrender and residency in the city before a band of adventurers gets lucky.
  12. Roll twice; clearly two separate groups have elected to make common cause. 

An utterly unrelated picture of Ralph Fiennes as Coriolanus,
from a 2011 film adaptation. 

Where have they taken up residence? Roll d6

  1. An unused warehouse.
  2. A scattering of refugee shanties outside the city wall.
  3. They have a wing to themselves in a sympathetic Nobleman's home.
  4. Several garrets and apartments in the tenements of the Bohemian quarter.
  5. The squalid confines of a non-human ghetto.
  6. A suite of rooms at an expensive guesthouse. 

How motivated are they to go back? Roll d6

  1. "Give us money and arms, we'll go back tomorrow!"
  2. "One day soon, we'll be ready!"
  3. "One day..."
  4. "For the time being, our policy is to...."
  5. "It may take a generation, but...."
  6. "Ah, who cares about that anymore?"
Their Handler or Sponsor Roll d8

  1. A svelte, apathetic, functionary.
  2. An ambitious merchant prince.
  3. The Head of a charitable but well-resourced Religious Order.
  4. A calculating, farsighted statesman.
  5. A Romantically-inclined, socially-adept noblewoman. 
  6. A Chief Lecturer at a renowned Academy.  
  7. An ambitious, splenetic nobleman.
  8. A soft-spoken wizard with large glasses and ill-fitting robes.

An unrelated picture of Alec Guinness as George Smiley,
from the BBC adaptations of John Le Carre's novels. 

*Presumably they are debating whether one waits in the centre of the maze for victims, or if one should harry one's victims in an effort to drive them to the centre of the maze.

Sunday, 8 November 2020

The Orrery of Golems

An idea I've had knocking about for a while. Not really connected to other Golem posts, which have their own implicit setting.

The Keep of Malphoebe was the home of that most infamous of renegade sorcerers, able to maintain her wealth and carry on magical researches outside of the usual system of Universities and Guilds. The gaze of the Church and the Magistrates fell on her often, but she kept to the letter of the law whilst violently abusing the spirit of it, and was never tried for her misdeeds.

In the deepest basement of that looming trapezoidal donjon, with it's five pentagonal turrets, there is a wide room, perhaps fifty feet across. In the centre of this, between scattered pillars you will find seven rings, surrounding a raised dais. Bands of inscriptions bind each ring to the dais. Each ring is a circuit, each trodden by a human figure. These are seven golems, composed largely of fired clay, but with intricate metal fittings.

Each is clearly one of the seven heavenly bodies that circle about Terrae Vertebrae in the celestial procession. From the centre out, we see Mani, Stilbon, Hesperus, Eliodromus, Pryois, Phaethon and Phaenon. This is an orrery, of a kind. No clockwork powers the movements of these spheres. But one can see the marks where the golems tread out their long circuits, wearing down the flagstones. Parts of the paved floor have clearly been replaced near where ever-changing Mani and nimble Stilbon make their swift circuits. 

The golems are given character by the things they bear, by the pattern of metal fittings about them and by the rough shapes of brow and body. Mani glitters in arabesques of silver, with a veil of silver wires, carrying a sistrum. Stilbon ports in ceremonial mode a petrified snake, with lustrous bands of amalgam about the torso and thighs. Hesperus holds several apples in one hand, a looking-glass in the other; Hesperus is decorated with lozenges of copper, which are alternately untarnished and covered in verdigris. Eliodromus holds a curling gilt whip and an ornate golden flambeau. Pryois stands angular in layers of rustless iron plate, with a plume of fine wires; Pryois holds both shield and spear, and bears other arms on belts and baldrics. Phaethon is robed toga-style in swathes of white tin and carries an ornate tin-patterened chalice and a judicial sceptre with a lightening-bolt motif. Phaenon is cowled in lead and leans upon a crooked vinewood staff; through a lead belt is thrust a reaping-hook.

Each golem is, as in Ch. 16 of C. S. Lewis's Perelandra, sexless. ('Masculine and Feminine meet us on planes of reality where male and female would be simply meaningless.....The two white creatures were sexless. He of Malacandra was masculine (not male); she of Perelandra was feminine (not female).'

Wright of Derby, The Orrery.jpg
Joseph Wright of Derby, A Philosopher Lecturing on the Orrery, 1766
(Paul Kidby did a Discworld pastiche of this for The Last Hero, and I can't find an online image of it).

These, that tread the path of the stars, are celestial proxies. Malphoebe used them to predict the arrangement of the planets and the times of various conjunctions, as well as the aspect of that planet in the mute pantomime of the constructs. The golems automatically match the pace of the planets across the sky, but a device built in the shape of a sundial on the dais can have its gnomon moved to increase their pace. However, Malphoebe did not only this but used the golems as foci, to foster benevolent or malevolent influences upon her enchantments, even outside of the naturally occurring celestial seasons.

If someone should attempt to remove the items they carry or the metal fittings, the golems will attack, though they will also try to continue on their path. 

If a golem has a serious obstacle in their path, they will attempt to remove it. 

If a golem is frozen in place is a way that does not effect their sense of time passing, they will then speed up to get back to where they should be. 

If the inscriptions linking the rings are removed, the golems will continue on their courses. 

If somehow the majority of metal fittings are removed from a golem, it will stand stock-still. (These are their link to the planets proper). If the fittings are restored - even crudely - they will move again.

The words of power for these golems are found in their items, rolled up as scrolls. If the sistrum, snake, looking-glass, torch, spear, sceptre and staff are broken, the golems will fall to their knees and cease movement altogether. There will be the sound of a great bell, though no bell may be seen. 

If the golems are all de-powered or otherwise obliterated, in 1d4 weeks a band of seven people may be seen in the footsteps of your band of adventurers. Clearly colourful characters, they are much remarked upon in the neighbourhood. These are a Rogue, a Mountebank, a Guide (Elf), a Militant, a Fighter, a Wizard and a Prophet. Each is of at least the second level. Several of them - for instance, the Fighter - may be surrounded by pets.

Mani and Eliodromus are as 'Luna' and 'Sol' would be to 'Moon' and 'Sun'. The first is Norse, the second Mithraic - that is, Greco-Roman workings on a Persian base. There's a few other influences in the above to draw it away from purely Olympian imagery.

The term 'The Human Orrery' has been in my mind for a while as a sorcerous device or a curiously rituralistic band of adventurers. Here it became both.

As it emerges, Armagh Observatory has a Human Orrery of its own. This differs significantly from the above.

Monday, 26 October 2020

Something for your Shelves: The Well of the Unicorn

A rousing tale of swordplay and sorcery, an appealing love story and a shrewd and subtle commentary on problems of politics, morals, and philosophy, all at the same time. Laid in an imaginary world, in a setting resembling medieval Scandanavia, it tells of the swashbuckling adventures of young Airar Alvarson...The story is full of action, colour, conflict and intellectual conversation, peopled by such vivid characters as the genially sinister old Doctor Meliboë the enchanter and the rough, passionate soldier-girl, Evadne. It will not only grip your attention while you read it but also leave you with so much food for thought afterwards that you will presently want to go back and re-read it.

L. Sprague de Camp, as quoted in the Gollancz Fantasy Masterworks edition (pictured below).

Let us establish this first: The Well of the Unicorn is a novel by Fletcher Pratt, first published in 1948 by William Sloane Associates under the name of George U. Fletcher (see cover of first edition, below). Fletcher Pratt (1897-1956) was, variously, a librarian, translator, and reporter - as well as an author. He wrote both a string of military histories, as well as collaborating with L. Sprague de Camp on The Incompleat Enchanter.

The first edition of The Well of the Unicorn. The landscape is a stylised Dalarna. 
Photograph taken from Abe Books.

The Well of the Unicorn he wrote alone, or almost alone. An element of its setting is taken from a short play by Lord Dunsany, King Argimenes and the Unknown Warrior (this play may be found on Project Gutenberg). It is set in an unnamed continent and deals with the division between the Dalecarles and the Vulkings for mastery of Dalarna. The two nations are of roughly similar types, but the Dalecarles were conquered by the heathen Dzik for a time, whereas the Vulkings were not. The rule of Argimenes expanded Dalarna into an empire ('The Empire') by marriage with an overseas Princess of the southern nation, Stassia, and the bringing of the yet more southerly Twelve Cities into the imperial fold. 

This latter was accomplished by the titular Well of the Unicorn - the Well of Peace, the World's Wonder. The well, it seems, will grant peace (if not virtue, or freedom, or other boons) to a king's reign. The reader slows learns about it by several 'Tales of the Well' embedded as stories within the narrative - but Airar Alvarson is not on a quest to find it, or to protect it from the Dark Lord. 

A Church is mentioned - apparently on the Christian model, but without any great discussion of its creed. Magic comes under its ban; magic is not common, but can be fairly readily learnt. Even if wizards and warlocks are few, the notion that magic could be employed is ever present and the Well acts as a pervasive religious-magic influence on the setting. Airar Alvarson certainly has a knack for it.

So, to the plot. Airar Alvarson, a Dalecarle of a good if impoverished family is evicted from the family farm. By contact with the enchanter Doctor Meliboë he is drawn into a conspiracy - the Iron Ring -  against the rule of Count Vulk, who deals with the Dalecarles ill. Thus begins a tale, that if dealt with reductively may seem familiar: A young, gifted man is thrust out into the world to fight tyranny as part of a rebellion; he wages war on several different fronts with bands of heroic irregulars and characterful mercenaries against a harsh, established, featureless military and falls in love. 

Well, this does have connections with previous musings on the place of a military in the products of popular culture. L. Sprague de Camp, from a review in Astounding Science Fiction Vol, 41 No. 4 describes it as being about 'the philosophy of government: how can men be organized to fight for their freedom without irretrievably losing that freedom in the process.'. That's not wrong. But aside from noting The Well's place as pre-Tolkien fantasy, I'd like to counter that reductive summary above. 

Firstly, Airar Alvarson is a callow adolescent rudely awakened by his eviction. He is rarely in a state outside of war or peril for much of the book. Doctor Meliboë* - whose introductory chapter has something of TH White's Merlin about it, albeit rather more sinister - is more Svengali than Merlin. Airar has no steady mentor, despite a stable youth (his father is alive, if elsewhere and linked to the Vulking regime). He becomes rapidly surrounded by the conspirators of the Iron Ring and mercenaries of the Twelve Cities. Even if he is capable of holding his own, those around him constantly have their own agendas. And Airar is enjoying the fruits of freedom, status and power - which leads to romantic or physical entanglements. His grappling with the latter causes no end of internal wrangling and argument.

Secondly, I would note that Fletcher Pratt's own work on military history has clearly paid off. The necessities of campaigning - of shelter and fodder, of forced marches and rough terrain, of keeping the peace between proud quarrelling men in the midst of many weapons - are very real. The accounts of battles and siege engines may be a little over-detailled for some tastes, but they can be arresting.

The cover of the Fantasy Masterworks edition.
I do not recall a scene quite as Gothic, but some of the magic in The Well has something of this tone.

A note on tone and style: the work is scattered with archaisms. Some reviewers associate this with E.R. Eddison, though The Well is far less developed in it's unique style than The Worm Ouroboros or Mistress of Mistresses. It can be an awkward style to read, but I got used to it (not everyone does). When reading it, my mind went to Walter Scott rather than anything else.  
Despite the violence of the book and the scattering of fade-to-black sex scenes, the Iron Ring still identify themselves by whistling a few verse of a song; trumpets still go 'Tira-Lira'; a nobleman urges on his troops by asking if they were 'suckled by rabbits'.** Perhaps we can see this as an outlier of the Walter Scott Fictional Universe that looks ahead to 1960s-70s historical/fantasy works; it certainly bypasses Tolkien.  

The Well of the Unicorn is at least interesting to talk about - who knows if the above has actually sold it to you as an appealing prospect. It's low magic setting may be arresting. I would argue, however, that it gives a fascinating example of 'clerical magic' in the Well. This isn't the parish priest giving you 1d6+1 hit points or Holy Water = Acid for Vampires, but is a pervasive social and cultural feature, which while it definitely works, offers mixed results. More to the point, it has deliberately spiritual (or possibly 'character-effecting') qualities to it rather than being a simple tool (Mother Atsilva healed your gangrenous leg wound; now you can go right back to plundering dungeons and killing orcs!). I don't know how one would go about modelling it, but it may be worth a thought.

*Micheal Moorcock is apparently appreciative of The Well, but I have not seen any explicit links between the names Meliboë and Melniboné.

**This just makes me want a big-budget Game of Thrones-esque TV series, but all the dialogue is relatively tame semi-Shakespearean material of this kind. All the blood and nudity you could wish for, but nary a four-letter word in sight. And a selection of actors that have to taken this very seriously indeed.

The Hollow Crown doesn't quite count.

Saturday, 3 October 2020

Punth: A Primer - Appendix N

Some of the below have been referenced in Chapters of the Primer and other blog posts. Other inspirations have not been hitherto mentioned. 

Genesis, Ch. 11 Verses 1-9 will provide you with the story of the Tower of Babel.

[The Wisdom literature of the Old Testament, or similar works of the ancient world, are not a specific inspiration, but are useful reading. The portions of the Codes in the Primer are not written on this model - Punth is atheistic - but it is still in the DNA of the Primer; see below.]

Snow Crash, Neal Stephenson

The discussions of Babel, language and Sumerian culture are more relevant to Punth than corporate warfare, hacking and the metaverse. 

Dune, Frank Herbert

The Book of the New Sun, Gene Wolfe

The chapters of Citadel of the Autarch devoted to the Ascian language (if you click on any link in this post, make it the second of these) are obviously vital, but the image of a collapsed space-faring civilisation is also arresting. The Azoth of The Book of the Long Sun is of interest as an artefact of a space-faring civilisation; I have discussed that here

Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell

The element of Newspeak is most relevant. 

A Princess of Mars and the Barsoom series, Eric Rice Burroughs

Various interpretations of which are discussed here.

The Saga of Recluce, L. E. Modesitt, Jr.

Most notably Fall of Angels, Magi'i of Cyador, Scion of Cyador. Discussed here.

Declare, Tim Powers

The djinn of the desert owe a great deal to Declare.

Seeing Like a State, James C. Scott

The following reviews may be of use: A), B), C).

Reflections on the Revolution in France, Edmund Burke

Red Plenty, Francis Spufford

Warhammer 40,000

Star Trek

I cannot claim to have been thinking of any given part of Star Trek when writing on the origins of the Qryth, but as an image of space exploration advanced enough to invoke Clarke's Third Law as well as vigorous enough to produce the Qryth, it serves nicely. 

Chariots of the Gods?, Erich Von Daniken

I have not read Chariots of the Gods, but it serves as synecdoche for the whole of the 'Ancient civilisations were built by aliens' school of thought. 

Seven Pillars of Wisdom, T. E. Lawrence

More for the atmosphere of the desert than the events of the Arab Revolt.

The Pillow Book, Sei Shonagon

Tuesday, 29 September 2020

Playing in Punth

 OR, A Primer for the Primer

NB - the below is all untested. It is trying to provide a suitable framework to make the Primer usable, but the Primer rather than the system presented came first. 

There are really two ways to set a game in Punth. To have players create characters from outside Punth (or they could be Ka-Punth) and have them go in, or to have them create Punthite characters.

Punth was originally conceived as part of a larger world (see Ch. 7) - the Terrae Vertebrae of this blog. Other than in that Chapter and a few scattered other references, I have tried to make Punth able to be slotted into another fantastical setting. The Babel-myth elements and Near or Middle Eastern basis makes it perhaps an odd fit if you were to slap it down right next to, say, fantasy equivalents of Vietnam or the Tlingit lands - both in terms of culture and environment. However, I would contend that the meat of Punth is in the Codes and the position of the Qryth: the specifically Babel-like elements could be reduced, reformed or repositioned, as could the Near Eastern portions.

The question will be, how much of the Primer do you issue to players? 

If they create Punthite characters, the only in-character conversation they should do should be in the Codes. Ch. 5 and Ch. 6 are deliberately linked to the Character creation process of The 52 Pages (and probably aren't that far distant from other systems). Ch. 8 will be needed at this point also. Parts of these could be issued to players at creation. Ch. 9 is most useful for play, and will likely come up as you go along. Ch. 1's foundation story and creed and Ch. 2  act as introductions to Punth as the Codes would describe it. These could be introduced into play early, in a 'We will all rise and recite the Oath of Allegiance' sort of affair. 

Here's the contents of the Primer, with a schedule of how you could issue it to players playing Punthites.

Ch. 1 - Foundation & Creed - Soon in the Game

Ch. 2 - Entrance into Punth & Marriage - When desired

Ch. 3 - Punthite Justice - When desired

Ch. 4 - Trade in Punth - Soon in the Game

Ch. 5 - Arms and the Qryth - Character Creation

Ch. 6 - Occupations in Punth - Character Creation

Ch. 7 - Religion and Foreign Affairs - When desired

Ch. 8 - Names - Character Creation

Ch. 9 - Conditions - Character Creation

Ch. 10 - Goals - When desired

[If you go to, say, Ch. 5, you will spot the table of military encounters at the bottom. This is as much inspirational as mechanical, but is more for the GM's use. Chapters of the Primer as referred to for player use above probably don't need to include these, and I shall probably produce a document where these materials are separated.] 

Introducing Characters from outside Punth into Punth probably starts with the introductory hooks at the beginning of some of these blog posts: 

The land of the unbelievers, the fallen. A great desert, with who knows what lurking beyond. Where ten crusades have faltered. The Land of Punth.

South of the great mountains, south of the border provinces of the Empire lies Punth.  The tribes of the deep desert co-exist with the Ziggurat-Cities along the river, all under the eye of their alien lords.

Who are these strange folk? From where did they come?

Having thus whetted the appetite, the possibility of entering Punth can take place. Characters could enter tutored or untutored. The Codes are (for convenience) meant to be in a regional 'Common', if with a few variations in terms of dialect. Therefore, even the Untutored can read and speak the Codes once they see or hear them. Characters can communicate in Common (or other mutual languages) and not be understood by those who only use the Codes. 

Tutored here doesn't necessarily mean anything academic: it could be a sailor who knew Punth, or a merchant who trades there, or a diplomat or intelligencer briefing you on how to blend in. Ch. 7 (adapted if necessary) is presumably a must. Other than that, access to a Chapter will depend on the tutor - it is unlikely that a merchant will be able to teach you all (if any) of Ch. 5.

Untutored, of course, could imply any number of things: an unprepared expedition, a misfiring teleport spell, a pressgang. What it does mean is that the characters have little knowledge of Punth and none of the Codes. 

Tutored or Untutored, there is still a schedule at which the Chapters of the Primer should reach players: 

Ch. 1 - Foundation & Creed - Soon in the Game

Ch. 2 - Entrance into Punth & Marriage - On entrance

Ch. 3 - Punthite Justice - When desired

Ch. 4 - Trade in Punth - Soon in the Game

Ch. 5 - Arms and the Qryth - When desired

Ch. 6 - Occupations in Punth - When desired

Ch. 7 - Religion and Foreign Affairs - On entrance

Ch. 8 - Names - Soon in the Game

Ch. 9 - Conditions - Soon in the Game

Ch. 10 - Goals - When desired


I would like to make clear that the Primer by no means is meant to declare the whole of the Codes - that would likely be a work at least the size of a thick novel. The Primer is meant to make play in Punth possible and to introduce the Codes to players. From this position, people at the tabletop can introduce new Codes; if the GM is doing so, then they may be slipped in however convenient. If players are doing so, a veto system would be appropriate ('I'm not sure that's quite how Code 7.36.79 goes...shall we check with the scribe?'). 

Obviously, no Code is meant to be specifically advantageous for any one group ('When Three Men, an Elf and Two Fauns enter the land, the time of the Sky Princes is over!'). Faking a Code would require an ignorant or young Punthite, as well as the Charisma-related ability (or magic) to effectively sell this new 'Code'. This would not last long in one of Punth's cities!

The following list of questions is for GMs using the Primer to decide for themselves: 

  • How sincere are the Qryth in their role as leaders - do they live by the Codes themselves?
  • Can (and do) the Qryth communicate by other means than by the Codes?
  • How competent is the rule of the Qryth?
  • What is the nature of the Ka-Punth's revolt against the Qryth? 
  • If the Qryth were to die off, would the state of Punth maintain itself in roughly the same fashion?
  • If the Qryth were to be contacted by their home planet, would they be welcomed home? Or have they been so thoroughly culture-warped and gene-twisted that they would never wish to?
  • What was the Sorcerer-King trying to accomplish?
  • Can Punthites wield magic? Or must they rely on outsiders, willing or otherwise?
  • Do the djinn have any genuine power, or are they only unquiet spirits?
  • Do the djinn have any collective plan to regain their former power?

Sunday, 27 September 2020

Punth: A Primer Ch. 10 - Goals

This looks to be the final post of the Primer proper; two other posts are in the works to round things off.

Punth! Aristocratic republic of former astronauts. Long roads dividing a howling desert. Scribe schools engaged in mass call-and-repeat lessons in the baking sun. Gendarme patrols, regular as clockwork. Polychrome pillars and glazed bricks. Long-necked herbivores pulling carts; six-legged steeds for the Sky Princes. 

(Newcomers may wish to seek wider context here and here).

The Primer thus far has talked about professions, conditions and tactics: now we talk about Goals. Some of this will doubtless repeat earlier parts of the Primer, but it this Chapter still seems necessary. 

Security By the might of the Sky Princes are these lands secured.

Safety Shelter, plenty and benevolence: these sustain a sheltering, plenteous, benevolent populace. 

Find a Community The longing for a home is the longing for Correct Thought and those who speak it.

Find a work-team To be idle is to decay.

Prestige To be known as a vessel of Correct Thought allows transmission of Correct Thought.

Accomplishment The application of might and wit is properly praised.

Perpetuate Culture To the offspring of the Codes, let there be taught the Codes.

Expand Culture Where Correct Thought is not, there is only fruitless toil. This is no proper state for the populace.

Expand Territory Correct Thought has no borders. 

Find a new home Neither men nor land should be idle, but idle men and idle land may be set together and transformed.

Reform By the refiner's fire, both gold and the populace may be remade.

Re-invigrate/Repair Water refreshes the spirit; water with earth makes mud; from mud are shaped bricks; bricks restore the house.

Destroy Might joined with righteousness surpassed all other things. 

Defeat Cast folly into the dust.

To Die Well To die for the populace can be as worthy as to live.

Punish Malice is thwarted in the Servants of the People.

Harmony, Coordination From the scribe, instruction. From the labourer, action. For the populace, joy. 

Prosperity Where bellies are empty, let them be filled. Where granaries are empty, let them be filled. Where granaries are ruined, restore them.

Strength Might is won be devotion and wisdom. These come from the Codes. 

Good of the Qryth The might of the Sky Princes is wondrous and perfusive!

Good of Punth The lands and teachers of correct thought must be sustained.

Justice Who must rise first? The mighty. Who shall be raised up? The just.

Learning Correct thought is the pathway to all abilities that may be considered natural.