Monday, 17 January 2022

Idleness and Paranoia

A recent (if November is recent) event of a game I am playing in saw my character ambushed in the course of carousing. While obviously, she wasn't carrying shield and sword, there was some debate about what how many coins she was carrying - as well as any expensive-looking personal items. 

I have no intention of re-inventing the wheel on this matter; we can make a rough guess at a character's civilian gear. Some charms, some money, a pocketknife. Exceptions for practiced thieves and tricksters, of course. Even if weapons may be openly carried, there is a distinction between the courtly small-sword and the claymore. One can imagine that wizards might be required to put a band around their spell-books, as a matter of security or courtesy. The same goes for their staffs; if it looks like it has an obviously magical function and Orvald the Orange is an outsider to the city of Zayana and can't claim it is mark of office, then it better not get brought out anywhere respectable.

But, of course, you wouldn't part an old man from his walking stick. Would you?

Enough on restrictions. This train of thought led me to the provision of non-encumbering items for two situations. These are not characterful or plot-enhancing, as Manola's (excellent) lists for different classes. They offer a modicum of roleplaying potential, but hopefully allow for unexpected uses of a relatively niche item. Carrying more than one would be unusual, and perhaps even uncomfortable. None are intended to be class-limited.

Firstly, let us consider 'hurry up and wait'. How many occasions will there be when a party of adventurers must wait, despite being largely ready to move on? Everyone's in their armour, with full packs - so no-one is actively relaxing - but still, the cleric needs to finish his prayers, the ranger is covering their tracks, the scholar is translating something on the cave walls. Small, portable amusements and pleasures. 

These are situated roughly as categories, rather than specifics. They all sit fairly closely in the pre-modern variety of settings that tend to characterise D&D (et al).

  1. Dice or knucklebones. Not too ornate; probably not loaded. Will the testing of probabilities confuse oracular predictions?
  2. Patience cards. Half the size of a regular pack, presumably less fancy, implies you know a few solo games. 
  3. Prayer beads. Simple, easily pocketed. Can also be used to count steps. 
  4. Counters (different designs on each side). Suitable for simple games like Noughts and Crosses or Nine Men's Morris. 
  5. Blindfold. Privacy, easily obtained. A relatively fine piece of cloth. 
  6. Compact musical instrument. A harmonica, a jaw harp, a tin whistle, a music box. Pocket-sized, not necessarily requiring any great talent, not a source of any real social cachet. If you play it and pass round the hat, you get coppers, not silver. Nothing loud enough to signal with, really.
The second category - as the title suggests - is hold-out items. Just in case. Nothing as impressive as a spy or practiced deceiver might carry, but present all the same. I have neglected to include the ever-popular boot knife

  1. A lockpick. Only one, and hardly ideal for every lock, but concealable and useful.
  2. A length of wire. A snare? A garrotte? Wraps neatly round the wrist; may be inside a piece of clothing.
  3. Trade coin. The coin you never spend. A good weight of precious metal, valuable anywhere they like shiny things. It might even be a blank disc or gemstone. 
  4. Marker stub. A small stick of material suitable for writing or marking most surfaces; chalk or wax pencil are possibilities. 
  5. Treated handkerchief. Do not confuse with regular handkerchief. This piece of cloth has been treated so that you can breathe through it in foul air or poison gas. It can be moistened to create a seal of sorts over nose and mouth. It smells unpleasant.
  6. Pocket mirror. A little larger than one square inch. Useful for signals, peering round corners and minor grooming.
All the above, of course, come from the school of equipment lists that is interested not so much in providing solutions for problems but in seeing what will happen when you give the players a new toy, no matter how small it is.

Sunday, 2 January 2022

Rogue Movie & 2021

Recent viewing (well, as recently as last year) has been the 1976 Rogue Male. I've praised Geoffrey Household's 1939 novel on here before, and so happily picked up a BFI DVD (a dedicated set of notes on which is here) when I saw it. Made for the BBC, directed by Clive Donner, script by Frederic Raphael (who also did script work on that seasonal favourite, Eyes Wide Shut). 

Peter O'Toole plays the protagonist, unnamed - indeed, deliberately anonymous - in the original, but here given the name 'Sir Robert Hunter' allowing a normal flow of conversation; and for the credits to read 'HUNTER - Peter O'Toole'. Other characters played by Alastair Sims, John Standing, Michael Byrne and Harold Pinter (yes, that Harold Pinter). 

Rogue Male had been adapted before - by Fritz Lang, no less - under the name Man Hunt in 1941. This had altered the story rather and bore the weight of anti-Nazi propaganda efforts in 1941. 

Of course, Rogue Male is a suitable source for such a thing. The book features the nameless protagonist and narrator (an English aristocrat and hunter) taking aim at an unnamed dictator from a state that borders Poland. Well, Household was being relatively discreet in 1939, but the feel of the protagonist's torture, escape and pursuit through both the unnamed foreign power and Britain suggest Nazi Germany rather than the Soviet Union. Household would later confirm that he was thinking of Germany; to my mind the ambiguity of the framing narrative is part of the essence of the novel, but there is no real harm in knowing this. Naturally, the film would struggle to make an actor (and the set, and the costumes, and the spearcarriers....) look like either Hitler or Stalin. Maybe it could be done in some form of animation, but hardly live action. 

Va tacito e nascosto,
quand'avido è di preda,
l'astuto cacciator!

The narrator is caught and contends that he was only going to point his rifle at [Possibly Hitler]; it was a sporting stalk against the most dangerous game of all. Here is one of the major points of divergence between book and film: the text of the book has been written by the protagonist (even noting where he stopped work and started again). It takes time for him to admit - both to us, and seemingly, to himself, that he A) intended to kill [Possibly Hitler] and B) did it because of his love for a woman killed by the tyrannical regime. 

Of course, this slow-maturing portion of the novel cannot be reproduced in the film. Flashbacks, imagined sequences and montage make Sir Robert's motivation fairly clear. Further, other characters know of his romance, originally oddly concealed in an otherwise somewhat well-known man. 

Further, the film introduces Alastair Sim as a doddering Earl and government member to explain the delicate political situation of 1939 - things the book's protagonist could work out for himself. I can't find it in myself to complain about his presence, though the first name references to 'Neville' and 'Winston' are a bit much. Likewise, the plausibly Jewish lawyer of the book, Saul, is made definitely Jewish (Saul Abrahams, played by Harold Pinter). There is at least one piece of clearly framed British Union of Fascists graffiti shown on Sir Robert's return to London. The half-German adversary who uses the name 'Major Quive-Smith' is in the film no more than he appears - a Nazi sympathiser and English hunter, played by John Standing. 

So, the 1976 film is less veiled than the book, and is made with a dollop of hindsight. But it still captures the mood well; even if we cannot get so much technical information about Sir Robert's burrow or the surrounding farms, or miss his musings on British society, the impressions of his efforts in concealment, or the nature of his interactions with wider society are adequate. If O'Toole and Sim are perhaps sometimes over-arch or stereotyped (an escape through London is probably more compelling if Sir Robert knows how to ride the Underground!), well, it's all very finely done. Even if the protagonist's injuries are downplayed - who wants to cover up any leading man's face, let alone Peter O'Toole's? - we get a very strong impression of what has been done to him and the problems this causes. It all looks very good, as well. Strong, well-placed actors and settings. 

As ever, read the book first (or listen to the Michael Jayston reading). But I enjoyed this, certainly. 

***

I'm not given to reviews of the year, but 2021 did see at least one watershed for this blog with the launch of Punth: A Primer - bolstered by some kind words and good publicity. TRoAPW is the next such item on the agenda, but is still half-formed. My review of Magical Industrial Revolution was popular, and I may have to do a little more review work. 

In the meantime, enjoy the last days of Christmas and Epiphany, and let us see what 2022 brings.

Wednesday, 15 December 2021

The Rest of All Possible Worlds: Ley Lines

Another 'problem post' detailing debates and questions confronting the community of magic-users in TRoAPW

Ley lines have been mentioned in an earlier setting post and equipment list.  

Premise

There are points in the world where magic is concentrated in its effects. There is a greater flow of background power, an easier flow of energies. The shortest path between two points, as the Geometricians have demonstrated, is a straight line. Thus, there are places where one is on one of these shortest paths, and therefore, closest to two wells of energy. 

It is thought that the two wells correspond in some way; even beyond the well boundary, minute magic tendrils - bearing no more especial power than most places - reach out and interweave, to form a line-like area. If two wells of magical power are hilltops, the ley line is the ridge between them. 

If magic on a ley line is not so spectacular in its effects as at a place of power, it is certainly easier, more ready to the mage's instinct. Devices and substances that are only borderline magically active will become more active on a ley line. The comparison given for apprentice wizards is like going from an overgrown lane to a well-kept road: you must still walk for yourself, but the going is far easier. 

The State of the Art

Wells of magic tend to have an established reputation for outlandishness. Finding or identifying them (in places where some remain to be found or identified) is often a matter for the antiquarian. Ley lines, however, must be charted and tracked.

Thankfully, this may be done, just as those state boundaries which do not follow some natural course like a river or a coastline may be surveyed. Of course, ley lines are to some degree as natural as a river, and even if they will not meander like a watercourse, there will be variations to be taken in. Thus, observations must be made. 

Once, this would involve a string of magic-users walking across the land, firing off flare spells. The strongest flare would mark a point on the line. Thankfully, this costly method is less necessary with the invention of the witchsight theodolite. The buzzing band of the ley line may be seen by the observer, and its path charted. Accordingly, ley line surveyors exist as a skilled magical trade. These are related to but distinct from Nematists* - those who specialise in the study and theory of ley lines.

What use is this? Well, wizards will attempt to find homes along ley lines, but the costs of relocation mean that naturally not all wizards can do so. Some Colleges of Magic are placed on them and are useful in coaxing out fledgling magical talent. Wider application is thus far limited, with an exception. Wealthy landowners, having become aware of the lines crossing their land have begun to erect Thaumaturgical Follies: elegant pavilions full of magical devices (for, say, light, heat, scent, sound, simple motion) which would either fail or swiftly deplete elsewhere. Serious-minded wizards deplore these, but charge through the nose for them. 

Opponents of the Nematists

Opposition to charting ley lines rarely comes from any magic-user: any mage but the merest neophyte can detect the ley lines and what they produce. Knowing where they are is at least useful, and so charting them will be a matter of When rather than If.

Thus, opposition comes from those locals (squires and commonality alike) who have a suspicion of any surveyor, let alone a magical one. Likewise, the idea that a wizard wants to move into the neighbourhood would be granted with a measure of trepidation, especially if their eccentricities include building a brand-new house miles from anywhere convenient. 

If an opponent of ley lines were to gain an understanding of some of the ideas in Nematist circles, this could very well strengthen their opposition - for motives of profit if no more. 

The Nematists divided

Of the group of magic users that make a particular study of ley lines**, two schools of thought may be discerned. These are the Static Nematists and the Dynamic Nematists.

As the term suggests, Static Nematists look purely to study and exploit the web of ley lines. This will not mollify Opponents, for their visions are quite as wild as anything the Dynamic may suggest. If every mage were to erect a mere humble cottage on a ley line, it would still warp land ownership pattern unthinkably, and Static Nematists have theorised about much more than that. 

Dynamic Nematists are something else. Having noticed that ley lines do not sit in useful well-connected places, they intend to create more wells of energy and thus place more lines on the web. No magic-user would have to leave the towns to dwell in distant, lonely places. The wonders and conveniencs of the Thaumaturgical Folly could be offered to so many more. 

The Static Nematist thinks the Dynamic, whether or not they can actually create new ley lines, is playing with fire (you do know why no-one ever settles permanently on a well of energy?). The Dynamic Nematist thinks the Static is ridiculously timid.

A question that remains open is if different ley lines produce different levels of power for respective sorts of magic. Those who hold that they do refer to a 'Spectrum' of magical streams and are referred to as Spectrumists (they are not important enough to be mocked often, but when they do, people refer to rainbow-chasers).

Implications

The vision nursed by some Nematists - of great automated workshops, some twenty yards across and twenty miles long, fed by the drip-flow of magical energy from a ley line - is unlikely to be seen by anyone now living in Calliste.

A fully-charted set of ley lines would doubtless lead to an alteration to land use, and perhaps, as well-funded well-equipped surveys increase in number and prominence, even speculation in ownership of certain well-placed plots. If you can hold onto that acre of scrub land where a ley line is just forty yards from the Roqueport to Loughdainne road, one day a wizard might be in a position to offer you quite a bit of money for it. 

The flowering of wizardry in rural climes aside, there are two implications offered by ley lines that might emerge in the next generations. Magical tools and devices certainly function advantageously on a ley line, but the production of these more widely is not sufficient in terms of quantity or quality to create the linear factories mentioned above.  What is far more likely are small workshops in talented, specialist trades that require delicate or intricate work (IE, watchmakers, gunsmiths, cabinet makers) obtaining sets of magical tools to drive production. Some greenhouses and other artificial environments might also be sustained by a ley line, though an automatic drainage pump for the fenlands is still a way off.

The other possibility, of course, is for workers with magical tools to use the ley lines to aid them in their industry. If navvies with rune-enhanced picks and shovels excavated the course of a canal along the course of a ley line, it would be a fair quicker process than if those navvies were to excavate a canal of identical length in a stretch of comparable ground. If something like a railway locomotive ever comes to Calliste, then using stretches of the ley lines could be the basis for the track system.

Of course, it takes a certain combination of factors to make this actually viable. Equipping workmen with rune-enchanced picks is not cheap or quick. There needs to be a reasonably accurate map of ley lines available, a pressing reason to go to work along them, ownership or similar of the land on which the line runs - and lots of money. The production of new roads operated as turnpikes would be perhaps the most likely circumstances under which a group could garner the funds and power to make such a thing happen. 

A fanciful scenario suggested by some Nematists is that a line of crack troops suitably equipped with magical weapons stationed along a ley line would be a mighty bulwark. Perhaps they would - but they could not manoeuvre and maintain that advantage. Nor does every battlefield conveniently possess a ley line. This would be the sort of expensive technical advantage that wins battles, not wars - though maybe a well-informed, canny and lucky commander could contrive to fight most of their battles on a ley line. Of course, unless you have a great many magical weapons, the high ground will always be preferable.

Most of the above applies to both Static and Dynamic Nematists. Unless the Dynamic Nematists manage to start making their own ley lines and placing them advantageously. In which case there could be a great deal of change to infrastructure. 

And all of this is disrupted again if someone creates a magical battery

Comments, nitpicks, &c welcome - I'd rather work out the problems now than later.


*My Greek lexicon gives νῆμᾰ, nema as 'that which is spun, thread, yarn: the thread of a spider's web'. Which seems apt.

**One would struggle to be a professional or full-time Nematist, Grimoirean, or similar in Calliste at present. But if you gain that reputation, it's rather like being a policy wonk among more generalist politicians.

Wednesday, 24 November 2021

November Miscellany

A few things I would like to write about or draw attention to, none of which quite constitute a post all of their own. 

***

Sumption of Peakrill has a Kickstarter going for something called 'Mostly Harmless Meetings'. This is a series of social and possibly whimsical encounters derived from the English countryside, and may well be worth a look. For my part, I know from the tabletop that Sumption has an abiding interest in the land, based as he is in the wilds of Northumbria, and seems willing to apply that. I am of course a wretched southron, who can't tell parkin from lardy cake*, but I bring this to your attention all the same. 

***

Far from rural England, we look to L'Empire du Soleil Défunt, as reviewed here. It's about an apocalyptic Early Modern Japan, written by Aldo Pappacoda. It runs by the compact 2D+ system (a first for me). Take a look at the second para of that review - the devastation and high magic implied by it make the idea instantly fascinating

Further, while the apocalyptic and post-apocalyptic are well-known sub-genres, there is something interesting about the period apocalyptic. My comments on Fallout aside, making the mechanisms of an apocalypse period-apt is an interesting approach. The notions of (say) aliens invading during the Second World War or a zombie plague bedevilling the Roman Empire are familiar enough, but this is somewhat new. I'm not sure if I can quite conjure something comparable. 

What if the Pilgrims on the Mayflower saw a sinful Britain sink below the waves as the Godly left for the New World? (If Robert Eggers made it, I'd watch it). How do the Varangian Guard in Micklegard react to Ragnarok? What if Hesiod's Men of Iron were succeeded or subverted by Men of Rust? 

Of course, the closer one gets to the present, the less supernatural and less comfortable such themes may be: thus, an early Victorian 'You fools, Malthus was right all along!' scenario. Still, the idea of the period apocalypse has potential. 

***

I recently acquired a copy of Max Beerbohms's Seven Men and Two Others. I knew of Beerbohm as a caricaturist and comic writer (see his parody of early twentieth century British authors, A Christmas Garland; parody is one way to learn the style and reputation of historical figures swiftly). So I anticipated the literary world and a spot of 1890s Bohemia - which I got. What I wasn't expecting was the supernatural elements, the games with reputation and memory, the occasional sense of peril and malevolence (how did Argallo die?!).

There is a form of comedy, and I'm not sure what to call it, that has in its centre a very genuine horror - something more supernatural than an unhappy marriage, I mean. (Actually, a theological-inflected setting in which an unhappy marriage was a supernatural curse would be interesting.) Anyway, Beerbohm's Seven Men (the two others were added later) has that, as well as a note of Borges. Give 'Enoch Soames' a read, and see what you think.

***

EDIT: An addition is the latest entry of the podcast Bad Books for Bad People, co-hosted by Guignol of Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque. This interesting, firstly in that they are discussing Peter Fehervari's Requiem Infernal - part of his Dark Coil sequence. Secondly, it is two people - speculative fiction fans - discussing Warhammer 40,000 somewhat from the outside (with apt musical choices).  Much appreciated, anyway. Kudos for introducing me to concept of the qareen.


*This may be a lie. Both cakes are however lovely. 

Thursday, 18 November 2021

The Rest of All Possible Worlds: The Anti-Grimoirean Thesis

Another 'problem post' detailing debates and questions confronting the community of magic-users in TRoAPW

Premise

A wizard needs a spellbook. Spells must be initially recorded and re-memorised for use regularly; the best means to do so is a compact volume. Mages must inscribe these themselves in one of the languages of magic using the shorthands, syntax, cyphers and symbols particular to them. They are things far too specific to be printed.

But what if spellbooks were unnecessary? What if mages could cast freely? This is the line of thought followed by the Anti-Grimoireans

The State of the Art

While there are legends of hermit mystics and certain Schoolmen casting spells without the paraphernalia of wizardry, to follow such a course would be rather contrary to the mood of the times. It would not be the thing at all for an inquiring, modern wizard. 

Widely speaking, two methods are in use among the Anti-Grimoireans. Firstly, there is an examination of ancient magically-associated relics and artefacts seeking for an older pictorial language of magic, where the carvings on a staff or paintings in a cave are memetic spell-triggers to allow the magician to re-memorise instantly. This field of study has extended to the examination of traditions outside the continent of Calliste. 

Some application has been made of these ideas in the form of so-called Savant-Mages. Apprentices (usually from a less-than wealthy background) are taught in the methods of rote memorisation and strict mental focus to cast a spell without a spellbook. It is noted, however, that there are very few confirmed Savant-Mages, that those that exist have a rather limited repertoire and that their livelihoods are rather dependant on one Anti-Grimoirean patron.

Opponents of the Anti-Grimoirean Thesis

The opponents of the Anti-Grimoireans do not regard them as deceivers, merely as fools. If we can cast spells successfully from a grimoire, why should we not continue to do so? Our research efforts are better spent in other fields - developing new and better spells, creating taxonomies of magic, and so forth.  A certain amount of hay is also made out of Anti-Grimoireans seeking after foreign artefacts and magics.

The Anti-Grimoireans Divided

The Anti-Grimoireans may be divided between the 'Hard' Anti-Grimoireans who contend that spellbooks will in time be completely unnecessary (and who get all the publicity and wide-eyed fans) - and the 'Soft' Anti-Grimoireans who suggest spellbooks will always be around one way or the other (and who have burnt far fewer bridges and have far quieter lives. You'd like to think this would mean they get more research done).

Beyond this fairly elementary division, there are the Ante-Grimoireans. These are those of a romantic cast of mind who believe that there was a golden age of magic where magic-users could manipulate the world around them freely with no need for spellbooks or the study of arcane languages. Anti-Grimoireans dislike them, partly for tainting Anti-Grimoireans by association and partly for the constant tone of adolescence.

Implications

What if the Anti-Grimoireans manage to produce a method of grimoire-less magic equal to or surpassing the existing model? 

To begin with, there is a mass change in magical training as the new methods are propagating. If the wizard was once an 'Antiquarian', mages now become 'Artists'. The change-over of methods also would spread a wave of new spells being taught and disseminated through the magical world. The disruption to existing magical institutions should be mentioned as well; the opportunities for Anti-Grimoireans sky-rocket. There is a real difference in the culture of magic, replacing rule-bound sects with personal cliques. 

As the Antiquarian-Artist comparison may imply, the business of actually teaching magic by the Anti-Grimoirean method may be troublesome. Potential mages may go unnoticed or undeveloped by the new method. 

New spells are likely to be taught by Anti-Grimoireans; a new group of 'set texts'. Of course, certain useful functions are likely to be kept or imitated: a fireball by any other name may scorch as much. Nevertheless, there is a potential for variation in the new method that exceeds the old as magical focus, mental imagery and personal disposition vary: at a minor level, the passage, shape, size and colour of a fireball could change. In a greater display of variation, the fireball could manifest as a rocketing salamander or flaming sword. 

The above presents frustrations to the mundane world, but fewer problems than might be expected. Bookish bewildering magecraft is replaced or supplemented with symbolic bewildering magecraft. In the short term, there going to be some important people disappointed by wizardly disputes, but the wise statesman does not put all his geopolitical eggs into one pointy hat. 

Comments, nitpicks, &c welcome - I'd rather work out the problems now than later.

Friday, 29 October 2021

The Rest of All Possible Worlds: Pneumametrics

This is the first of a series of 'problem posts' detailing debates and questions confronting the community of magic-users in TRoAPW

Premise

It is known that a journeyman mage will be able to hold and successfully cast X number of spells each day. However, X will vary between magic-users, even magic-users of similar years of training in the same tradition. Further, X is always self-reported - an observer has no way of knowing if a magic-user is keeping something back.

Thus, proposals exist to assess X by various means. The hypothetical study of measuring spell capacity is called Pneumametrics. A proponent is known as a Pneumametrician

The State of the Art

Pneumametricians have not yet devised a means by which they have successfully measured the number of spells a magic-user possesses. Proposed means of doing so include the analysis of a magic-users bodily fluids, rearing twins with magical potential, modified Detect Magic spells and the composition of vast comparative tables. 

The use of Charm spells to induce truth and the use of Auguries are variously considered either invasive, too resistible or overparticular for true Pneumametrics. Indeed, the possibility that someone might try and compel the information is sometimes cited by Pneumametricians as a reason for developing a non-invasive method. 

Opponents of Pneumametrics

Pneumametrics has its opponents, but these are not usually united. They do not write journals dedicated to overturning the reputation of Pneumametrics or test theories about why you can't reliably measure an individual wizard's spell capacity. They reserve their positive efforts for other spheres. 

Such opponents commonly include mystics, exceptionalist mages ('the occult traditions of the Cerulean Order cannot be assessed so lightly!'), sceptical rule-makers and traditionalists. 

Naturally, Pneumametricians regard opponents as reactionaries and fools. Opponents of Pneumametrics regard them as snake oil salesmen. 

Pneumametrics divided

However, of that group called Pneumametricians two camps emerge. 

The Unicameralists assert that the magical energies of a magic user are reserved within one chamber. The Polycameralists assert that the magical energies are held within a number of chambers.

The former are known as 'windbags', after a pamphlet outlining the position described the magic-user as a man inflating bladders (with the nature of the bladder influenced by its origin). Later Unicameralist publications quite deliberately use differently coloured and shaped paper bags as an example.

The latter are known as 'butlers' - spells being like the wine held in a variety of bottles. Polycamaralists are glad that their nickname is not associated with bladders or wind, but still bristle at being likened to servants.

Implications

What if the Pneumametricians are right? What if someone can somehow determine the quantity of spells a wizard can cast independently?

Well, to begin with one might expect a greater use of magics. Mages could be assessed with a certain set of standards: a trained soldier can march X miles with a full pack, a trained wizard can cast Y first level spells in a day. It would be an end to the hedge wizard and the court mage; the adept that could once cite exhaustion, or lack of resources, or mystical circumstances to refuse an aristocratic patron would find it more difficult to do so. A magic-user could still bewilder the layman, but the benefit of the doubt would be lost. 

The loose magical college and its quasi-feudal privileges and rights is set aside for employer-employee relationships. Wizards are no longer 'priests'; they are 'lawyers'. Beyond this, there might be the production of official mage-cadres to be deployed in dedicated military capacities. This last part is a favourite theme of Opponents of Pneumametrics, usually employing the spectre of a 'malevolent foreign potentate' - our own beloved Sovereign would never do such a thing. 

Even further in the future is the potential for centralised wizarding assessment and certification (rather than reputation - 'she trained under Malphoebe') and the attendant bureaucracy. But that is likely beyond the lifespan of any player character. 

Debates such as these are poised to be a cornerstone of TRoAPW. The next one is probably going to be on the necessity of spellbooks. 

Comments, nitpicks, &c welcome - I'd rather work out the problems now than later.

Wednesday, 20 October 2021

__punk, Cities and Detectives

There have been a few posts over at Monsters and Manuals on __punk (Cyber-, Steam-, Diesel-, &c). Reading them over reminded me of an old, short piece of writing I once did....


Times are tough in New Ur. The mammoth-drivers guild are in the third week of strikes, the fire-priests have raised the spark tariff again and the palm wine has gone bad. But in the shadow of the great ziggurats, rumours have come to the ears of a secret informer about a new technology that can successfully preserve for all time the secret speech of the Grand Hierarch....and that somewhere in the city, one woman can help him get it.


The point was, in so many words, to gently satirise the tendency of __punk works to end portray a world drawing greatly from images of hard-boiled detectives and urban life of the twentieth century (see also this other post on the Victims of the New). 


Now, one sees the worth of the private investigator as A) a protagonist that can go to all parts of the society being portrayed - slums and spires alike - in search of the truth, uncovering sins and secrets - and B) someone who can get into thrilling fist-fights, gun battles, &c. (Among other examples: Rick Deckard is a re-activated former policeman, Section 9 might be government agents but have a usefully wide remit - the private eye model is a useful one).


But the notion that the cities of humanity would always end up as something like, say, The Naked City or Taxi Driver - or the pastiches of the same .... is odd. And the visions of cities shown in __punk works don't quite have the strong 'sense of place leading to verisimilitude' that we might see in (say) Chinatown. Gotham is (or can be) a background for our hero; New York is an ongoing intrusive reality. They can feel oddly generic, despite megastructures and future-tech - where generic is '20th century western world, probably Anglophone'. This is foolish, even if one was born in the twentieth century in the Anglophone world; it becomes more foolish to apply it to counterfactuals and uchronia.


Hence, well, my moderate scorn. I've communicated the same thing here: the 'snarky, streetwise magician' is now quite well known. The appearance of a portentous, pompous decidedly uncool scholar-mage in the vein of Carnacki or Gilbert Norrell would be somewhat refreshing (drop one of them into a Marvel film: unsightly, quip-less, irritable and apparently completely sincere when speaking of 'the most dreadful peril unto your very soul.')


So, what is there to say for my Blade Runner but Flintstones mock blurb? Not a lot. (Neanderthals as replicants?) It might be complete in some fashion to make a Bastionland district out of it, but that's all. 


However, beyond the above, it does make me want to think about the kind of cities one portrays. Setting aside (or at least non-centrally) the crowded metropolises of Dickensian derivation and 20th century mass transit, though avoiding the stagey puzzlebox cities of Italo Calvino (Invisible Cities is good, but not quite what is wanted).


To suggest examples: 

  • The manufactured new cities of a centrally planned economy, with districts ordered by industry. 
  • A conquered city, now governed by a distrustful coalition of four powers, whose representatives travel everywhere in quartets. 
  • A city distorted by the central lump of a palace complex in its centre, and by the demands of ritual centres around it.
  • Fortress cities are nothing new (see Minas Tirith*; contrast Osgiliath), but the image of a fortress city full of perpetually humourless guards, bunkers and chokepoints, difficult to traverse even for residents ....I've rarely seen the like, with the exception of Abnett's vision of Cadia. 
  • A city riven by municipal factionalism manifesting in sporting contests, brawls, and sporting contests that produce brawls. Your entire life may be bound up in the district: your place of worship, your family, your friends, your trade.....

Now, I concede that this is just me casting out somewhat loosely: actually connecting any of the given above schemes with a retro-futurist setting/aesthetic/message/theme/&c may be more difficult. But I hope that this can suggest alternatives to the cliches and defaults that __punk produces. 



*Incidentally, if you were to tell me that prior to The Return of the King Dol Amroth was a much nicer place to live than the capital, I'd believe you. The threat of Mordor aside, you're living in an actual city (comparable in age and fame) rather than an inflated barracks, and you aren't under the gaze of Denethor.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

Magical Industrial Revolution: Some Thoughts

Not exactly timely, but here is a review (of a kind) of Skerples's Magical Industrial Revolution (hereafter MIR).

This is available in hard copy (US link, UK/EU link) and PDF. I'm working from the PDF.


Other reviews collected here


I'm dividing this into three sections. First, a fairly self-serving look at how MIR might connect or overlap with the The Rest of All Possible Worlds (hereafter TRoAPW), the magical enlightenment setting I'm steadily assembling. Second, a look at the bulk of MIR and how it all fits together. Third, some scattered thoughts.


****

The cover.


So: does MIR conflict with TRoAPW? Do the two match? Is this blogosphere big enough for the two of us?*


Well, the answer to the first of these is no. MIR starts with the premise of a paradigm of magic having been devised. See 'Emergency Backstory', p. 7:


a reclusive foreign wizard named Valentine Sims published Principia Arcana, a new book of theoretical magic. In obtuse but incontrovertible terms, the book explained the nature of spells, wands, scrolls, ghosts, and a dozen other seemingly disconnected phenomena. 

Sims publishes what is imagined could be the results of TRoAPW. Players in TRoAPW are (in an atmosphere of) contributing to the research of magicians, charting ley lines in far-off places, making observations - if they aren't getting into fights, conceiving wild schemes, investing in the South Sea bubble or anything else players usually want to do. Theories flash back and forth; journals contradict one another; schemes are hatched to prove one side over the other.


Do they match, then? Well, I don't intend to take the Paradigm of MIR as the 'canonical ending' of TRoAPW. It's a possible result. MIR claims to be (p.2):


Restoration-Georgian-Regency-Victorian fantasy. It starts with liberalism and social change and ends with the First World War, but it’s more focused on the middle bit than the transitions at either end. 

But to my mind the emphasis is far more on the second two of those four historical modifiers. A Later Stuarts-Early Georgian fantasy with rapid social change fostered by magic probably looks a little different to vanilla MIR. TRoAPW probably only has a bit of proto-liberalilsm floating around - and has already sketched out a continent, rather than one city, for players to come from and visit - for enlightened absolutists to sponsor experiments, for intrigues and golden opportunities.


Enough of this. On to the next section.


**** 

MIR is a set of narratives - I can't call it a set of tools, for the places and people are sufficiently detailed to make them beyond templates - detailing a industrial revolution using magic in a city called Endon. Whatever else Endon may be, it is ahead of the curve: an unstable mass. Skerples calls it a 'pre-apocalyptic setting'; that may be technically correct throughout the game, but it is truest at the higher levels of development. 


Endon is London. That should be obvious. Not the real, historical London but the London of a thousand movies and TV series and novels and half-remembered anecdotes. 

Of course, if your group is familiar with London, Endon becomes Hong Kong. Or New York. A New York with only one river to cross; a Hong Kong with a Parliament and a Royal Palace. It is London unless sufficiently altered, though that's not a bad thing.
Incidentally, for all that Endon is London part of it reminds me of Edinburgh - no Royal Mile or New Town or crag-top Castle, but there is an Auld Grey Cathedral, an Old Endon Cemetery which seems more reminiscent of the Edinburgh Kirkyards (and Burke & Hare) than anything in London and an institution called Grim Balliol (yes, but also...).

Endon is unlike the countless districts and wards of Electric Bastionland, say. You can get a grasp on the entire city and its laws and mores - in order to save it, or exploit it, or simply live in it.


Fine. London-not London. Rules for smog. Vast crowds. What else? 

A map of Endon.

CLASS.

The Poor, the Working Class, the Middle Class and the Upper Class. Encounters, NPCs and districts are divided by Class. Innovations will effect different classes differently. 

This sounds obvious and to be expected - how many tabletop RPGs do you know set in a classless utopia?** - , but MIR is very clear about the presence and requirements of social class. There are ways to enter a given class, and ways to leave it.

INNOVATIONS

There are eight narratives of innovation that take place in Endon, detailing their evolution from Initial Innovation to Terminal Events. These will change the surroundings of the city around you as (say) teleport spells become cheap and safe. 

The changing pace of events is called the Tempo, and must be tracked. The Pre-Session Checklist (p. 151) allows you to do just this. There's a lot of ticking clocks built in, each with its own dire consequences - aside from any hijinks that may ensue as you go. It's the sort of game that makes me long for a team of staff officers to help run it. 

Given that each Innovation is effectively a science fiction story in miniature, this should be no surprise. The premise is generally excellent, building into a bizarre and quite probably horrifying set of consequences. 

MAGICAL INDUSTRY

There are methods for making magical items and creating new spells. Doing this at scale seems to be largely a business of getting capital and a workforce. The methods of mass production are established, as are the norms connected to it.

The lists of Unique Low-Level Spells, Discount Spells, (Minor) Magic Weapons, Minor Magic Items are all inventive and characterful - in regards of humour and practicality. Two examples, then.

A Minor Magic Weapon:

Crass Knuckles. Deals 1d4+1 damage. On a hit, target must Save or spend their next round swearing and unable to cast spells. 

A Minor Magic Item:

Hairpuller. Originally used by tanners. Small metal rod. On hit, all hair on a cow-sized target or smaller flies off painlessly. 3 uses per day. 


I have then presented several attractive images of MIR. This is all very well, but some of you will be asking how well these separate elements come together and all the mechanisms work. I can't claim to have tested MIR at all, so shan't make any very bold statements. 

MIR is largely laid out in two columns per page, quite crisp and clear. The introduction of the Tempo symbol (¤) makes clear those elements of Endon that are being transformed by the innovations. The whole thing is presented, fittingly, in black and white - integrating jokes from Boff! Magazine, even. A mix of illustrations decorate it, some from the public domain, some the work of Messrs Newell, Stahl and Rejec.

The greatest irritation MIR presented me with was the Condensed Random Encounters table on p. 18. This is of three rows and six columns, with headings in bold and entries alternately on a white or grey background. The second two rows are sub-tables for the first two columns of the first row; this was not clear to me at first - there are some discrepancies between the text used in corresponding terse entries.
I suspect that some colour-coding or a few well-placed arrows would have redirected me sooner - but ruined the overall scheme. It makes me wonder if anyone has accomplished digital variants of the tricks of cross-hatching, dotting and so forth seen on old maps (IE, here).

MIR is an interesting balance of ideas and urban mechanics, usefully presented. It is sufficiently modular that any pieces you wish can be removed and repurposed, and there is room for extra stuffing. I would take a look.

****

  • The Eight Deadly Sins (the extra is Hatred) work quite nicely as the basis for a carousing table.
  • I am convinced that Wackit is in fact very simple and terribly exciting; so exciting, in fact, that everyone decides to take tea midway through a match in order to calm down.
  • The fact that the newspaper name generator can turn out the Daily Mail/Express means that re-rolls may be necessary. That said, a paper with a name like the 'Inside Monitor' is quite sinister. 
  • There is magic, but no miracles or divine intervention. No clerics. There is a Church of Endon, but this is 'a feeble and somewhat disreputable institution vaguely associated with charitable works, weekly luncheons, and tutting'.
    Again, this is the London of popular fiction. We leave aside Mission Societies, the birth of the Salvation Army, fledgling Anglo-Catholicism, and all other trappings of the religious life of nineteenth century Britain. Though clearly, you could slot some of these back into Endon.
    Leaving clerical magic out simplifies things immensely - but Endon is intended to slot into other settings, and we are provided with potential motivations for clerics, monks, paladins and druids to visit the city.
  • Further details on Loxdon College have been made available on Coins and Scrolls, and I advise you to take a look at them.
  • An adventure called the Biggest Aspidistra in the World is included, with a giant specimen of the titular plant. 
  • The PDF came with some in-universe pamphlets that allow communication of some of the above. These are an apt touch.
  • There is a Bibliography (p. 147) and a list of Inspirational Media (p. 148) to consult. You won't be surprised by the appearance of Charles Dickens, Osacar Wilde or Conan Doyle, though you may not have encountered the stories of Saki. Nineteenth century non-fiction makes an appearance - including some of the works of Marx. The familiar appearance of Sir John Soane's House was quite welcome.
    Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell is cited (though is perhaps a little rural for Endon). Terry Pratchett's Ankh-Morpork was clearly something of a reference for MIR (just look at the list of street-sellers) and sure enough, some of the Discworld's 'Industrial Revolution' stream such as Going Postal appear here. The unlikeable rogues Redmond Barry and Harry Flashman crop up also.
    The 1970 film Cromwell is perhaps there to explain the Bogs and Gumperts; I'm less sure for the reasons behind the 1998 picture Elizabeth. Unless this is something to do with the monarch.
    Gardens of Ynn is suggested among the list of bolt-on RPG adventures.
    Mid-twentieth century BBC Radio comedies such as The Goon Show, Hancock's Half Hour and Round the Horne are suggested to inspire Endonian plots. I would suggest Tales from the Mausoleum Club (and The Fall of the Mausoleum Club) to add onto this; the episode 'Heart of Skegness' remains a wonder. (There have been numerous half-hour BBC Radio 4 historical sitcoms***; the 2000s saw two closely occurring Victorian ones in the shape of Bleak Expectations and The Brothers Faversham).


*Grimacing, the drifter extracted a package from his coat. He struck an electronic match on his electronic bootheel and used it to light an electronic cigarillo. The fingers of one hand stroked the bone grips of his cyber-Colt. From between narrow eyes, he watched the drift of the Vampire-Spam tumbleweed.
When his voice came, it was in a harsh whisper.
"Alright, Mad Dan Skerples....."

**Of course, it doesn't seem to weigh too heavily on the average band of adventurers. 

***Like Acropolis Now [Aristophanes jokes are mainstream, right?], or the weirdly specific Leopard in Autumn.

Saturday, 25 September 2021

Terrae Vertebrae: The League of Civic Etiquette

A desire was expressed in conversation for more details of the world of Punth; Terrae Vertebrae. While the continent of Vertebrea is detailed in some of the earliest material on this blog, its neighbours - Punth excluded - have only been roughly sketched out. Following said chat, a few ideas occurred for at least one more exception. 

****

Welcome, traveller, to the cities gathered in the League of Civic Etiquette. Welcome to thousand-celled markets and busy counting-houses. Welcome to courts where the fountain plays and libraries with the muted footfall of slipper-clad scholars. See the munificence of the prince and the receipts of the chancellorHear the call of the poet, the grunt of the wrestler and the questions of the metaphysician. Look closely for the woman with the hidden knives or the man with scroll-cases under his robe. Seek out traders in a hundred different goods and services, teachers of a hundred different faiths and disciplines - but keep an ear open for the news from the municipal herald or the decisions of the district magistrate.


To the west of Vertebrea across the Inner Sea, with its nearest portions at about the same latitude as the Imperium, is Near Rhakhia. The name Rhakhia, same as the modifier 'Near' derive from Vertebrean use. A well-travelled person or a scholar from Near Rhakhia might acknowledge the similarity between Rhakhia tongues, or the proximity of the states, or the forms of culture - but still think of themselves as a Cascaran or an Agogi.


Numerous states exist in Near Rhakhia, their interactions governed by the League of Civic Etiquette. The Faith of the Eight is prevalent but not dominant in Near Rhakhia. The two institutions are not unconnected. 


The earliest tales of Rhakhian society - that is, stories involving rulers and people rather than the creation of man from clay, or fire, or the spittle of goats, or apes cursed with the hearts of lions and the tongues of serpents - describe only two offices of note beyond family heads and village headmen (not infrequently the same thing). These are literally translated from the dialects of Old Rhakhian as 'Judge-Chieftains' and 'Captains of the Host'. 

    The former was a single, supreme role within a region, granted (as those old stories actually collected and recorded tell it) to a wise householder with enough personal wealth to have the leisure to judge disputes and enough clout to enforce their pronouncements. The latter was a role gained by charisma and wealth sufficient to head a militia, and many Captains would reside in the region of one Judge. A Judge-Chieftain would not bear arms, even if they had once been a Captain of the Host. Neither role seems to have had a specifically religious function, and the presence of a specialised priestly caste varied from region to region.


Both roles diminish or transform in the histories as the cities of Rhakhia emerged from hillforts, river crossings and oases. Trade and agriculture brought a concentration of wealth and the production of oligarchies. Occasionally some potentate would gain enough prestige and might to make themselves a tyrant, but such rulers rarely lasted long enough to produce a dynasty. 

    The conquest of one city-state by another was rare, but not unknown. Far more prevalent was the economic subordination of one state by another, or the withering of fortunes in plague or famine, or alliance leading to one-sided hegemony. 


Then across the sea in Vertebrea (somewhere) rose the Faith of the Eight, as the Sybil of the Rocks communicated her revelations. The man recorded by both the Manifest Rite and the Unified Rite as  Confessor to the Rhakhians was St Euthydemus. The first convert he made was Gamilat, from then his constant companion - at least, as The Book from Across the Water gives it. There may have been converts to the faith in Near Rhakia before this, but their names have been lost to men. 


Alongside oligarchs and cities had grown an administrative caste. Records in papyrus and clay attest to this, as do inscriptions and seals. Tyrants and the more unscrupulous oligarchs would when pressed use these as scapegoats: my decision was just, but the corrupt scribe altered it. The foolish clerk failed to record it. The petty magistrate was too wedded to protocol, and let that beast go unpunished. The corrupt vizier took the money for herself. The enemy bribed him. My advisor did not bring that to me. Our troops are loyal and strong, but went unfed and were thus defeated. Even where clerks escaped the wrath of a tyrant, the chances of mob violence or social ostracism and penury were high. Such purges may not have been regular, but had sufficient chilling reputation to slow or disrupt administrative work, including the licensing of trade and the gathering of taxes - which reduced the ability of the state, which led to more rulers seeking scapegoats. The historian Shabilat, writing two centuries after Euthydemus, records this practices as 'The Abuse of Viziers'. 


Huldo was the cousin of Gamilat, and if not a vizier, had escaped just such an abuse to arrive in the port of Rabbelisotor, where Gamilat dwelt and Euthydemus had arrived. It is still, frustratingly, unknown if he was a convert to the Faith of the Eight. The Book from Across the Water gives his name only twice in lists of other people and such letters of Euthydemus that have survived refer only occasionally to Huldo. What does seem likely is that he was desperate, embittered and in want of friends. Bureaucrats and converts found common cause at this time: a foreign faith could be cursed and despised in the same fashion as a wicked, scheming functionary. Euthydemus, along with Gamilat is recorded as having fled a city in fear of his life at least twice. It may be supposed that Huldo was with them.


The years of this life that Huldo endured do not seem to have been ill-spent. When finally St Euthydemus gave the Sermon in Pharnaces that would establish the Faith of the Eight in Near Rhakhia, he used the burgeoning assembly of converts to circulate the text later called the Fount of Civic Etiquette. This was, in so many words, a plea for the end of the Abuse of Viziers - together with a series of suggestions to strengthen the work of administrators in service of rulers. The principles of broad flexibility, limitations to taxes and a series of suggested, predictable limits to policies (if never to rulers) were suggested as renewing the ancient roles of Judge-Chieftain and Captains of the Host. Demagogues would be replaced by statesman-teachers, despots by wise leaders. Religious tolerance would be the rule, exercised through a licensing system. 


The Satrap of Pharnaces (a ruler in his own right, wherever the traditional title came from) endorsed not only the new Faith, but decided in time to try the new method. Even if Huldo is recorded as more of a dialogist than a rhetor, it is clear that the example of Euthydemus had been meaningful. 

    The revitalising effect on Pharnaces - be it through the busy new community of converts or the new codes of Civic Etiquette or smoother trade with coreligionists in Vertebrea - was obvious. The Cathedral of Euthydemus rose, as did Huldo's School of Civic Etiquette. The next decades would see the spread of the Faith, and the composition of the Codes of Civic Etiquette - along with several books of maxims.


****


If the Faith mimicked the provincial structure of the Nirvanite Imperium without taking on its full range of administrative functions, the League of Civic Etiquette grew to inhabit the functions of an empire without the drive of an Emperor. There was no single burning cause: just the unspoken request for predictable, orderly government. A ruler could be harsh, but harsh in a certain set of pre-arranged manners. Local weights and measures could never be standardised across Near Rhakhia, but a certain bracket of comparable units could be compiled. 


Cities might be ruled by a Bashaw, or a Lord Protector, or a Prince, or a Nizam, or a Supreme Functionary. But they will be staffed by those schooled in the Civic Etiquette and taught at one of its academies - and sent far from home. Armies are led by local aristocrats and filled with the troops of the region, for those schooled in the Etiquette are nigh-on pacifistic; the highest paid mercenaries in the wartime are thus pioneers and quartermasters. In contemporary Rhakhia war is rare. Conspiracy is more usual than conflict and discreet, dedicated operatives do more than a host at the gates.


Unification of Near Rhakhia is nigh-impossible; federation highly unlikely. The simultaneous preservation of the cities and defusing of national and ideological tensions reduces most drives for this. Huldo is recorded as having said that were a reef in the Bay of Rabbelisotor to rise to the surface, and the crabs on it to gather in council, and appoint ministers and magistrates, they too could be admitted to the League. This was likely in jest; there are sufficient cultural peculiarities to Rhakhia that limit the League of Civic Etiquette - structures of inheritance and the choices of taxable goods and services. 


Of course, the sheer weight of the League on the cities of Near Rhakhia has also brought its own set of cultural changes. A common tongue unites many of the city-states of the League, with many language barriers eroded down to dialects. If Etiquette-trained clerks are not constrained in the manner of a monk, the form of their education and displacement furnishes them with a certain approach to the world. Local aristocrats and elites actively develop forms of culture set against the League - flamboyant manners to set against the self-effacing servants of the Etiquette in their un-official non-uniforms. Great lavishly costumed performances compared with the word games and technical poetry of the Civic Etiquette. Aside from the sword-drill and manoeuvres expected of the governing class, shows of physical prowess in the pursuits of wrestling, horsemanship and falconry.


Another product of centuries of the League has been public works. The wealth of trade and the ease of communication has swelled coffers. Local rulers wish to differentiate their government from the codes of Civic Etiquette to which they are bound and will do so by financing and completing works above and beyond the requirements of the Etiquette. These shout their patron's status, by ornament or symbol or unique function. 

    Public baths, libraries, viaducts, avenues, plazas, observatories, study halls, fountain courts and ornamental well-houses crowd the cities of Near Rhakhia. These are unlike the self-consciously simple buildings associated with the Civic Etiquette - one could not speak of a single Rhakhian style of public architecture, but some of the most impressive features include palaces of many apartments, Solomonic columns, tiled surfaces (placing an emphasis on shape over colour; tiles interlock in numerous points or curve and drip in extravagant scallops), carved window screens, millefiori domes, gilded grid structures and numerous ornamental gardens. 

    Scholars flourish in the League, either falling into the patronage of a luxuriant elite or the smoothly furnished path of a student of the Etiquette. In either case, there is a desire for and satisfaction in innovation. Mathematics, music, poetry, logic and metaphysics abound. Public performances or expositions are popular events.


Defiance of the League can meet - and has met - with a number of penalties. An entire corps of civil servants can disappear from a city, most famously in the story of the Flight from Cascara. Every city under the League will have a thick-walled inn near one of the gates with a full stables, secretly (or not-so-secretly) belonging to the League. Anything that has even a whiff of the Abuse of Viziers may meet with work stoppages, barbed letters and infamy. A city that united fully against the League would be left to its own devices. The League plays the long game.

    The fate of one trained in the Civic Etiquette who openly counsels against the Etiquette is unknown, but the fact that Schools of the Etiquette are kept particularly clean has been noted, though servants are never seen.


Diplomatic relations between the states of the League and nations around it are perfunctory. The business of the League is the League; a merchant may travel, but those learned in Civic Etiquette should remain in places where that Etiquette holds. The League rarely acts a single entity, preferring to respond as necessary to explain its internal processes to incomers. 


Yet in the last years, several responses to the League have emerged. Banditry flourishes in the backcountry, between the jurisdictions of Rhakhian city-states. Unsatisfied young lords chafe at the restrictions of the Etiquette, proposing bold new theories of governance and modes of leadership. The Codes of Civic Etiquette have after all never been framed in explicitly ethical or religious terms - their breach could only ever be a venial sin. The toiling villagers of backwater Sanjaks long for some of the fruits of urban life and the balance of ethnic and religious rivalries, long carefully poised, might be tipped by mass migration or a wave of missions. 

    And there are always whispers of warlords, witch-kings and ethnarchs in Central Rhakhia that might finally be willing to cross the hill country and descend on the cities of the coast....