Friday, 24 June 2022

Eight Pious Arachnids

  1. During the years of strife, the Prophet Erimon was in the service of Argoz, High Prince of all Letarmine. When Erimon failed to obey Argoz in a matter of the interpretation of his dreams, he threw Erimon into a dark stone pit which contained giant spiders, there to be devoured. The seal of Argoz was placed over the pit, and Erimon was left there. But Erimon despaired not, and a veil of light was placed about him, and he sang of the Highest Heavens. When Argoz came to re-open the pit, he was shocked to see Erimon alive and well; he had even taught the spiders to make gestures of blessing, and to stamp their feet as if they were at the Festival of Palm Fronds. Great was the astonishment and sorrow of the High Prince!
  2. The blessed hermit St Arilan is said to have cast aside his possessions to take up a life of prayer and contemplation, living in peace with every beast of the earth and bird that steps upon the winds. However, the Hagiographies speak of him dressed in plain robes, for in the land of Rhoopagno the winters can be cold indeed. Rhoopagno tradition holds that these robes were woven for St Arilan by spiders that visited him in his cave; however, research by ecclesiastically-approved natural philosophers has demonstrated that this would be quite impossible.
       It is far more likely that the spiders provided thread with which the Saint was able to sew together the bolts of cloth given to him by the charity of the region. This does not stop tailors and weavers in Rhoopagno from dressing up as spiders on the Eve of St Arilan. Moreover, it is a custom of the region that every bobbin should have carved into one end an eight-legged image of a spider.
  3. The War of the Chalcedony Kings kept the pious daughters of the sage Octesian from maintaining his tomb shrine in a proper fashion. The tomb was of course complete, but the Ten-Day Seal had not yet been set in place. They were driven from their lands under the Caustic Edicts. However, when finally peace settled again over the land, they were able to return. They rejoiced, but were saddened that the tomb was still unsealed: creeping things could have entered the tomb, and flies - which, as any reputable sage will tell you, are merely a curdling of the Widdershins Force. 
       Yet when they reached the tomb, they found that no fly - neither the gadfly, nor the horsefly, nor the cranefly - had entered that place. All had been blocked by the webs of a benevolent spider - who was, through sad circumstance, better able to manifest the virtues of filial piety than the daughters of Octesian.
  4. By the accounts given in the Hymns of Drinian, the 11th Avatar of the Preserving Sovereign appeared on the Fifth Day of the Sixth Month, mounted on a heavenly steed. The steed took the form of a great spider of marble countenance, but four of its legs terminated in gold hoofs, like the hoofs of a mountain goat, and four of its legs terminated in bronze talons, like the talons of a forest hawk. Each of its eyes had the colour of a flawless pearl; the chittering of its mouthparts was like the temple sistrum and it span indigo silk to cover the body of the Avatar. This spider could run faster than the pheasant-flighted arrows shot by the Passarid Mothers and of all earthly foods would eat only dates and scallions.
  5. One summer month the hero-sage Mavramorn began a series of extreme ascetic exercises, designed to purify her soul. She threw down bow and spear, and retreated to the woods. She forsook the company of all comely youths and sweet-mouthed singers, deigning not to even look upon them. Even when not in a period of fasting, she would pluck a berry from a bush and then wait an hour and a half before consuming it. Her days were spent in prayer and meditation. 
       Beyond the woods were she did this, however, demons descended from the mountains, riding upon war-wagons pulled by tusked swine. Mavramorn knew of their presence, for her eyes saw clearly after her asceticisms. But she was bound to remain in the woods. Then, one afternoon as she sat in contemplation under a tamarind tree, a spider with its own notions of defence policy bit her upon the tricep. Mavramorn let out a highly unpleasant oath and batted at it. Having spoiled the effect of her ascetic exercises she sighed, sorrowing exceedingly, and went to retrieve her bow and spear.
  6. The maiden Prismia dwelt upon the farm of her father, a heathen. Her wish was to enter into a convent, yet her father wished her to make an advantageous marriage to the son of another heathen landowner. She sighed at this, and her sighs were lifted by a passing angel to the ear of the Pancrator. The Pancrator then caused a message to be taken to a certain spider in the barn of Prismia's father. One morning when Prismia woke, she saw that the spider had written the first two-thirds of the Sistine Creed in a vast web in the barn door. Her father was baffled, enraged, and then bowed to the inevitable.
  7. When Uvilas was driven from the city of Miraze, he fled to the rocks of Belisar, there to shelter among the jagged boulders. He reached the rocks and found a place to lay his head but was stricken by a fever and lay among the boulders for a month. No food had he, and only dew to quench his thirst. Yet spiders among the rocks came and found him stretched out and still and fed him on certain roots and berries and nourishing gums of that region. Therefore, no man of wisdom and respect goes among the rocks of Belisar, in memory of the sustenance given to Uvilas. 
  8. A bravo of the city of Glozellea was lounging near the Plaza of Fractured Stars. He spotted a fair maiden of sound health and radiant beauty passing by, and called out to her "Fair One! One whose hair falls like blossom! Tarry a short while. I have a sack of newly-roasted beans, but none to prepare mocha for me. Use those long-fingered hands, quite devoid of imprisoning rings, to prepare a brew of pleasure for us both!"
       The maiden hissed at him like an irritated cat, and directed her chaperon to make the signs of scorn and vexation towards him. Puzzled, the bravo slumped against a wall. A spider descended from a web and began to laugh at him "Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!"
       "Why do you mock me so?" said the young man. "Surely you know I could crush you beneath a boot-heel."
      "I merely thought," said the spider "that when my kind mate, the man has his head bitten clean off. It struck me as funny that you run so fast into the arms of your doom. Hoo! Hoo! Hoo!"
      The bravo, hearing this, resolved to live a healthier and more circumspect life.

Saturday, 18 June 2022

States and Emergence: COULD YOU GOVERN A COUNTRY?

"Hey, the first Fighting Fantasy gamebook was in the 1980s, right?"

"Sure, 1982. But you can't call yourself a real true genuine grognard unless you've played State of Emergency."

"....what's State of Emergency?"


State of Emergency
is a 1969 'do it yourself novel' that Yr. Hmbl. Crrspndnt. found in a second-hand bookshop. It was written by Dennis Guerrier and Joan Richards, both civil servants. A paperback copy (below) was published by Penguin; William Heinemann issued a hardback. From the back cover:

COULD YOU GOVERN A COUNTRY? Would your decisions be better than those of its Prime Minister? This is your chance to find out. State of Emergency, the very first of its kind, combines a conventional novel with the technique of programmed learning. The reader is actively involved with the development of an emergent nation and the decisions which are made. 

Lakoto is an independent state within the British Commonwealth. Formerly Eastern Victoria, it was one of the last British colonies in Africa to be granted independence. Its Prime Minister, Toumi Okobo, is a man facing destiny, in a situation repeated many times today. Stricken by his estrangement from his British wife, Erica, and by the suspected disloyalty of some members of his Cabinet, and hampered by a grave lack of trustworthy information, he desperately needs an adviser whose judgement is sound.

You are at his shoulder. You can choose between the courses of action open to him. Could you govern Lakoto? Here is your chance to try.

"So where is this Lakoto place? Who lives there?"

Oto lind Lakoto!

Reader: 
    You may well feel you know as little about Lakoto as Fournier's prospective readers. In this event we suggest you read Appendix A page 243, before going any further. 

Lakoto is a landlocked Eastern African republic on the eve of independence. The majority of the population is made up of the Cantarbi people - who in the sixteenth century began to fall under the influence of Islamic expansion from their neighbour Mokoran, eventually gaining a Sultan. Accordingly, when it became a British colony in 1893 there was a strong Muslim minority that would grow to dominate many Lakotonese institutions. Other neighbours include East Kangola and Lawtonia - the latter apparently being rather like Rhodesia (although Rhodesia is mentioned as being alive and well in the course of the novel).


"Duly noted. And the tone of the novel?"

Rather like a certain kind of British thriller of the late 1960s-1970s. Bits of the prose are like the exposition segments in, say, Forsythe's Day of the Jackal.  There's the occasional illustration - Lakoto's flag, some postage stamps - and sketch maps in the back for the country and the capital, Tanabi. Information is sometimes presented as part of an in-universe document - newspaper articles, extracts from Hansard, confidential reports, the page of a notebook. (Some of this is in the Appendices, but not all). 

Incidentally, intentions might be good but language can be dated: hence the use of Moslem for Muslim throughout. The French journalist Fournier reflects the following in the introduction at a pre-Independence gala: 

Vicky Sarola just about summed up how he liked his Africa: with a European gloss on top but with definite hints of untamed forces prowling about not too far below the surface.

Adjust expectations accordingly.

The provided map of Lakoto. Enlarge if desired.

"What of our protagonist, Toumi Okobo?"

An Oxford-educated compromise candidate between the various independence movements. Born to a pro-British Cantarbi Chief in east Lakoto. Spent time in Britain and married Erica Okobo, née Williams. They have two children. His life as portrayed seems rather middle-class - a good but relatively modest official residence, he drives his own car and doesn't have an entourage of chauffeurs, aides and bodyguards. Maybe this is semi-plausible for someone in Okobo's shoes, but I would expect a few more secretaries and the like. The strain on his marriage is also a note that rather grounds him.

It is tempting to believe that Okobo was designed as a sympathetic protagonist for a (White, British) reader. Certainly, enough features of his life seem deliberately familiar: the novel can even take him back on a trip to London and Oxford. Is a sympathetic protagonist necessary for 'the technique of programmed learning'? Of course, the fact of his possible Anglophilia is not necessarily a useful trait in a newly independent Lakoto - an interesting trait to explore. 

The provided map of Tanabi. Enlarge if desired.

"Fine. So how does a do-it-yourself novel work?"

There are no paragraph numbers, only page numbers. And instructions:

DO NOT READ THIS PAGE UNTIL TOLD TO DO SO

Messages from the authors ('Reader: Please turn now to page 40.') are given in italics. Directions to the Appendices are given in the text and occasionally as footnotes. As to actually governing Lakoto....

[Spoilers, I guess. Supposing any of you really wanted to go out and read this fresh.]

You may join the first Cabinet Meeting of the newly independent Republic of Lakoto. Not only join it but also see if you can influence its decisions. [...] That is the broad picture; you will have learned the essential details from what you ahve read so far. What is the long-term solution?

Recruit professional men and technologists from other countries....Organise a comprehensive unemployment insurance scheme..... Seek more financial aid from Britain or any other country.....Concentrate on improving standards of education at all levels.

Let's say we want a comprehensive unemployment insurance scheme to 'relieve the poverty and reduce the possiblity of racial disturbances'. Turn to page 30.

Reader: 
    Your long-term solution would be to organise a comprehensive unemployment insurance scheme. With respect, you would have the country bankrupt in the short-term and would never reach the long-term. An unemployment insurance scheme can operate only where there is a large employed population and a low risk of unemployment. The first step to be taken... [....] It wants to become a modern society, not a soup-kitchen society. Please return to page 29 and choose another answer. Re-read Appendix B, if this will help you to choose.

Blighters! Which of us is meant to be Prime Minister, hmm? 

Did you guess the correct answer? That's right, it was in fact Education. (Education. Education.)

So, yes, Guerrier and Richards do this a lot. There's even one choice you can make where the advisor responds:

"I'm sorry, I know you don't mean it seriously."

"I'm sorry too," said Toumi. "I shouldn't be wasting your time with solutions which we both know are unacceptable."

This is even addressed directly at one point:

Reader: 
    You may feel at this point that the outcome of your choice has been 'stage managed', and that events would not have taken the turn described in the paragraphs you have just read. This may be true. It is possible that order might have been restored in Benallahi. However, what we are now seeing.....

The argument offered is not perhaps unreasonable, but the manner of presentation did make me snort.

Some policies are barred to you, as are some methods:

But Toumi found he was quite unable to approve cold-blooded murder. He had to find another, more subtle, method of getting rid of General Nashur.

Reader: 
    Your choice may have been the correct one. Time may prove that a ruthless leader, capable of authorising the death of his enemies, is necessary for Lakoto. But surely, this would be the first step.....

 [...]

Reader: 
    Toumi cannot dismiss Nashur. Neither can you. Please turn back to page 99 and select one of the other choices.

Blast it all, State of Emergency! Let me make some bloody stupid decisions! 

As indicated, the decision making process is quite narrow. This is at its most frustrating when discussing big domestic plans - long-term education policy, hydroelectric dams, the exploitation of oil or mineral wealth. Towards the end of the novel, the rapid pace of the titular state of emergency, the desperation and the diminishing options means that the narrow set of decisions offered makes more sense and feels more fitting. Or maybe I was just used to the technique of programmed learning.

Reader: 
    We have set out in this book to show that a country like Lakoto cannot survive as a viable economic proposition without outside financial and technical aid. That, given the political situation she is in, she cannot survive without military aid. If you really think she will be better off without aid, either we have put all the arguments badly, or you haven't read them properly. Rather than admit the former we are forced to conclude the latter, and suggest you go back to page 229 and make another choice.

Apparently I'm not that used to it. 

A veritable multimedia experience!

"So what was the point of all of this?"

Well, State of Emergency isn't really a good simulation of governance. There's some interesting political manoeuvring, but the reader doesn't exactly get to plan this out. The best way of fending off Nashur is given a level of detail and finesse that is not offered to the options for assassination or dismissal - maybe one could finesse a way to dismiss the General safely. 

I shall tell you what it puts me in mind of. One year at school, while other year groups were dispatched off on trips of one kind or the other, my own was kept back. We were herded into the main hall and addressed by the representative of an international development charity - I'm not being coy, I cannot recall which. The year group would form the Parliament of an emerging fictional African nation and select the options of a computer programme. This was all projected up onto a screen.

Anyway, the government collapsed. Well, fair enough. Young twits like us could well make poor decisions. Yet we were told that we could go back and try again online. Some did: I was told later that every single choice led to collapse.

At this point, somebody will doubtless mention Star Trek's 'Kobayushi Maru' - a training exercise for a no-win scenario. [Post-Colonial Africa: the only winning move is not to play.] Given the relative sedateness of the occasion (and of reading State of Emergency), I wouldn't call it an assessment of how we were meant to behave under such circumstances.  More likely, it was an exercise in sympathy. The age of the participants meant we well aware of the cases made for our support by charitable appeals. This meant that we had an awareness not just of the problems involved for a worker and his family in a famine-stricken region, but the problems for the state around that family.

State of Emergency seems planned to do something similar. The tone is, naturally, different, the level of detail higher, the Cold War ongoing - but the notion is the same. The pastiche of East Africa is faintly informative, but ultimately unspecific: one doesn't learn much from that. The decisions made by the state don't get played out in much detail: this isn't a lesson in statecraft. What is left? A sketch. The end is inconclusive, but the fact that Okobo (in the face of a breakaway region, civil strife and border incursions) has started taking aid from Communist China indicates part of how this may develop. 'This is how a rational, sane and sympathetic man can end up taking aid from a sinister foreign power,' Guerrier and Richards are perhaps saying. 'Don't back people in a position like Toumi Okobo into a corner.' Not the worst moral, if you need one.

"But this," said Vicky "is a documentary, not a play with a clever denouement and breaks for commercials. If anybody expects a nice neat ending in this situation they're too cut off from reality to worry about." She took the papers from him and put them on the table. "You're just not in the mood tonight," she said. "Let's have a drink and leave it til tomorrow."

Reader: turn to page 240. 

Friday, 10 June 2022

"When all else fails, have a lizard with a gun come through the door."

This indoor scene needs pepping up. Consult the below, or roll 1d6.

1. The click of clawed feet echo down the road. There is a knock on the door. There are four soldiers outside, each with a cornflower-blue coat and a tall periwinkle shako. Four muskets with four gleaming bayonets are also on display. The first fusilier darts a forked tongue over sharp teeth. "Your pardon, sir, but we have orders to search this house. It is believed to be the site of an illegal printing press."

2. The door's unlocked. That's odd. You're generally quite careful about such things. Your hands ball into fists. You nudge the door open with a toecap. On the other side is the stark muzzle of a sawn-off shotgun, and a scaled hand holding it. "Told you what would happen, O'Grady. Told you what'd happen if you couldn't make yerr payments." The muzzle lowers slightly. "You ain't that bastard O'Grady! Where is he?!"

3. You're in the front parlour. The noise of the street drones on in the background. Then, there are muffled shouts, a cry and an almighty crash somewhere from your front door. You run into the hall. The door has been splintered asunder by the muzzle of a great bronze cannon. Behind it, there is a heaving mass of scaly flesh. You hear military oaths, and the sound of an aristocratic voice. "Packmaster! Get this curséd lizard moving! The Marshal wants these field pieces by the front line tonight!"

4. An iguana with a string tied to it crawls under the cellar door. As the little beast skitters forward, you see that the string is tied to some heavy object. Under the door comes a slim little nickel-plated pistol with a hand-written note: FROM A FRIEND.

5. "Aah, I see you've spotted my old hunting rifle!" Vindemiatrix the Golden rejoins you in the cavernous library, by a typically draconic roaring fire. He hands you another drink: it smells like paraffin and vermouth. "A lovely piece, don't you think? I wonder if it still shoots."

6. Lunchtimes are busy at the Hessian Grill, but it's the one place in the neighbourhood you can get good labskaus. Your order arrives, just as you finish a glass of switchel. Fork loaded, you are about to take your first bite....
"Everybody be cool: this is a robbery!"
Third time this week.

From Warren Ellis's Nextwave: Agents of HATE.

Context is available, but do you really care?

Wednesday, 1 June 2022

The Rest of All Possible Worlds: Trajectory

So: The Rest of All Possible Worlds has several locales, and several magical disputes. But what would a group of assorted ne'er-do-wells do in this world?

Where are the Adventures?

The continent of Calliste is settled. Any wars of religion are over and done: cabinet warfare is the order of the day. Street violence is present, but has not led to civic breakdown. There may be isolated regions or dense forests, but this is not Warhammer Fantasy: the teeming herds of Beastmen do not lurk in the backwoods. There is no such thing as Skaven.

However, the pursuit of magical knowledge (and fame, and money) will lead people into danger. Tracking ley lines is a theoretically simple idea, but there are those that object to outsiders - especially outsiders with theodolites. Travel beyond Calliste is fraught with peril: not everywhere speaks Common, and not every continent is so free of monsters. But there are unknown magical doctrines to be uncovered, mystical artefacts to retrieve (by fair means or foul...), studies to be made. Adventures like Quelong and Hot Springs Island suggest themselves for the proven adventurer.

Some 'dungeons' might remain in Calliste - Horatione tombs complexes, perhaps, or the vaults of the older magical colleges. But there are fewer liches in the barrow mounds of Glengallow than you might imagine.  

Further, there is the possibility of magic opening up new prospects for adventurers. Portals are known to the mages of Calliste, and there are those who are very excited about the possibilties they offer.

Thus, a sort of trajectory for an adventuring party suggests itself.

A Trajectory

An assortment of mages, rogues, pathfinders, pietists, &c are gathered to support a ley line survey in a province of (say) Pavaisse. They defuse local tensions, see off a few spectres and plot a course through the wilderness. Having thus bonded, they rent a house together when they return to Purlitz. 

Trading on their reputation (and in need of money), they sign onto an expedition to the distant Alamgir Empire - there to investigate and learn about a form of Illusion magic practiced by the local mage-caste. In this they will have the support of a Pavaisse magical institution and the local factor of the Pavaisse-Orient Trading Company.

We will presume them to have conducted themselves with the necessary blend of grace and strength in order to triumph - and make a certain amount of money. Their reputation increases, via a blend of patronage, wealth, experience and a short burst of niche fame. They start getting invited to the right parties: those mages among them are asked to take positions on the magical questions of the day. They invest in resources of their own: a library, a bank account with suitably generous terms, access to the better sort of suppliers. They take a formal name: let us suggest 'The Crucible Society' - for they have been tested under pressure and under fire. 

Then a Minister of the Crown retains them for auxiliary support in the Campaigning season. Scrying, scouting and sabotage leads them to intelligence pertaining to the movements of the Tsymricane Western Corps. In the right circles, approval or grudging admiration grows. When an armistice is declared, they return to Purlitz.

It is in Purlitz that they learn of a site in the Bronzemount Free State which seems to be a nexus of ley lines. Other magical institutions would like to investigate it - which may have very different ideas about the future of Callistan magic (or, indeed, of certain polities within Calliste). Accordingly, the Crucible Society sees an opportunity. They can raise money of their own, speak to the correct patrons and appeal to the certain Arch-Mages - all to outfit an expedition to the Free State, to fame, fortune, power and progress.

This is the trajectory I conjure for TRoAPW. Steps are taken from 'Service' to 'Independence' to 'Influence' to 'Establishment'.  'Comrades' to 'Club' to 'Institute'. Prospects increase, but security does not. Eventually, there may be the chance to opt out entirely - to retire from active research and prepare the new generation, to withdraw to the country, to take a noble title, to go into politics - or to step off: 'Tis not too late to seek a newer world....among The Rest of All Possible Worlds. 

Wednesday, 18 May 2022

April-May Miscellany

A bit of recent reading/viewing, &c - none of which is really related to TRoAPW, quite deliberately. 

***

Following my own advice, I consume the media of 1950s Britain. The 1952 film The Sound Barrier was directed by David Lean (Brief Encounter, Great ExpectationsThe Bridge on the River Kwai, Lawrence of Arabia, Dr Zhivago, &c), written by Terrence Rattigan, starred Ralph Richardson, Ann Todd and a young Denholm Elliot and has a soundtrack by Malcolm Arnold. If you hadn't guessed, it's about breaking the Sound Barrier.

Well, it looks good - but you might have guessed that. There's an emphasis on technical expertise, to the point of including the planes used and a number of text pilot advisors in the title credits. It is still fiction, of course, dealing with a fictional British aeroplane manufacturer and his efforts to break the Sound Barrier - at a cost to those around him, not least the test pilots. It isn't perhaps the most harrowing of psychological dramas, but there is a persistent element of tension and peril. Aside from that, there is the background of the Second World War (the test pilots are veterans) and the new excitement of the jet engine, with magnificent cloudscape vistas. 

[Incidentally, I am reminded of a past speculation. If Dune is, facetiously, 'Lawrence of Arabia in space' one might hop between David Lean films: accordingly, what does 'Dune, but drawing from Dr Zhivago instead of Lawrence of Arabia' look like? Well, the notion of Bolshevik Harkonnens squaring off against Fremen Cossacks from armoured trains has obvious appeal. But I'm not sure I know enough about the ecology of the taiga to make give this any real staying power.]

***

Dark Benediction is the title of the Gollancz SF Masterworks collection of the short stories of Walter M Miller Jr - best known of A Canticle for Leibowitz.

Behold: the cover.
It does make some remote sense, honest. 

These were largely published in the 1950s, in a variety of places. A number of them have the (expected?) 'Twilight Zone' feel to them, with speculative fiction stories taking place in something very like a mid-twentieth century United States ('I, Dreamer', 'Conditionally Human' and 'You Triflin' Skunk' are among these). Then there are a few post-apocalyptic stories where the destroyed society seems to have resembled in some fashion the then contemporary US: the titular 'Dark Benediction' is among these.  Further out, some stories are absolutely science fiction, dealing with the colonisation of Mars or the spread of Humanity across the Galaxy (see 'Blood Bank' or 'The Big Hunger'). 

The post-apocalyptic and space-faring stories fairly obviously bring the mind to A Canticle for Leibowitz: certainly this is the case with 'Dark Benediction', with the notable presence of a Catholic monastery in a post-pandemic America. A series of practical but rather unlikable protagonists fill Miller's post-apocalpytic stories: this functions at its best in 'Dark Benediction' with an unsettling plague that causes the infected to strongly desire to touch the uninfected (they are still, however, quite conscious and alive: zombies they are not). The response of individuals and groups to the threat of intrusion is perhaps more unpleasant for being a 'cosy catastrophe': no atomic bombs have been let off, and infrastructure is largely intact, if abandoned.  

'Vengeance for Nikolai' is the final story in this collection, initially published in the March 1957 issue of Venture Science Fiction. The tone and content of 'Vengeance' is rather different from the other stories in the collection: the word 'Gonzo' occurs to me. It probably needs to be experienced free of any brief summary I might offer. 

***

To Everything A Season is a brand new book detailing life 'in and around a particular village on the edge of the Cambridgeshire fens'. The author is Charles Moseley; it was published by Merlin Unwin - also known for Manual of a Traditional Bacon Curer, A Countryman's Creel and Much ado about Mutton.

Why do I choose to bring it to your attention? It is well-written, to be sure, and engaging - drawing together agriculture, literature, folklore and history. Beyond that, however, it is deeply knit with the natural world of its setting. It is a signal reminder of the thousands of textures and sounds and sights of the countryside, often ill-served by film or video games or the tabletop. I accept the limitations of these mediums and all the shorthand they might use to convey what a book has pages to detail - but one ought to know from what the shorthand is working.

***

Fritz Lang's 1931 film M is presumably sufficiently well known as a work from that famous director to need little introduction. I had been geared up to expect something more dreadful and leering - something more in the vein of Nosferatu. The back of the box even describes it as having 'cinema's first serial killer'. Well, maybe. But that's not something to give me any particular chills in a world which has absorbed The Silence of the Lambs and Se7en as cinematic benchmarks.

Of course, that doesn't mean M is not worth seeing. It is interesting observing the streets and shops and office blocks of an early 1930s Germany, with or without a whistling Peter Lorre. I suppose the main effect I get from M is one of mundanity: the serial killer is a round, slightly gormless man. The police forces of the nameless city (which is Berlin in all but name) are neither hyper-effective nor feckless beyond belief. The principal detective is not a Sherlock Holmes-esque mastermind, nor the loose cannon of cliche: he makes relatively few great jumps of deduction, he is physically unimpressive and is quite willing to operate through his subordinates. The criminal unions of the underworld are, well, common thieves, con-men, pickpockets - not suave cat burglars or mobsters in loud suits. Their spokesperson, Der Schränker (the Safecracker, played by Gustaf Gründgens) is unpleasant - but he's just an overbearing tough who dresses to advantage and has some hazy notion of protocol. 

On top of all that, some of it is comic. The mishaps of some of the underworld unions (The rope ladder!), the workings of the Beggars' Guild - the latter is some of the best 'Thieves' Guild' stuff I've seen put to film. Hindsight tempts the viewer to look for allegory - but there's more applicable material than there is obvious parallel. The atmosphere of mob justice, police raids and debates over capital punishment is rather telling, but is nonspecific

***

The Search for Immortality: Tomb Treasures of Han China is the catalogue of an exhibition that passed my way a few years back (images of which have appeared on this blog before). I opened it up again as a purposeful break from TRoAPW .... and was reminded quite how much of it there was! 

I'm ashamed, really, to try and summarise it all in a few paragraphs. It details the contents of a number of tombs from across the heartland of China (largely from those great stretches of plain between Beijing and Nanjing, around the Yellow and Tangtze Rivers) made for royalty during the Han dynasty - that is to say, contemporary with the late Roman Republic and lasting until after Marcus Aurelius was Emperor, about the time of Septimus Severus. 

Firstly, the craftsmanship of the grave goods is fascinating. Ornaments and utensils alike appear, with ritual or practical functions. Government seals coexist with dagger-axes. Terracotta figures act as musicians or dancers, albeit not life-sized - as compared with the rather more famous Terracotta Army. Jade ornaments furnish the dead with protection in the afterlife: suits of jade squares for the very wealthy, and simpler veils or orifice plugs for the merely wealthy. Not all of this is Chinese in origin: imported luxuries coexist with domestic products (the ornamental belt plaques are one such example: gold with closely entwining animals). And, of course, one recalls that much material may have decayed with time.

Secondly, it is a reminder of the strength of catalogues as a genre. Here are the dissipate elements described and categorised: here is how they come together. I don't suppose an audience with an awareness of, IE, Hot Springs Island or Veins of the Earth needs a reminder of this. All the same, the scale of this was very worth returning to.

Especially as it emphasises the size of China, even at this time. I keep needing to remind myself of the distances and regions involved - and I begin to long for an understanding of that context that doesn't rely upon the abstractions of, well, a Sporcle quiz. Not that I need to know the names of every Han Dynasty commandery, any more than I do the name of every Roman province. Either way, this is one to delve into again.

***

Well, chaps, what else should I jolly well be reading?

Thursday, 28 April 2022

The Rest of All Possible Worlds: The Great Bifurcation

The Rest of All Possible Worlds is intended to detail the possible steps of an analogue to the eighteenth century Enlightenment in a fantasy realm. Which means I have been discussing it in terms of magical theory and practice (see: the last few posts on this topic). But this is also an Early Modern setting (meaning everyone can have muskets and coffee and tobacco and printed books and telescopes and....) - further, as some of my locations imply, I don't intend every player to be a student of magic. Nor do I intend that the print-works and gunsmiths to require magic to function (even if magic can assist them). Indeed, I would suggest that having magic within such a setting possess a fairly limited set of practical applications is entirely in keeping with the nature of the Enlightenment (see the passage here starting 'I'm going to tangent for a moment...'). 

Moreover, there's clearly some technological progress going on: soldiers have gone from matchlocks to flintlocks in living memory. Oceans have been crossed and trade between continents is fairly frequent. I don't want to outline a full 'Renaissance' and 'Reformation' for the continent of Calliste. But all the same, there was clearly a moment of change. One of those nebulous 'Turning Points' of history. 

Once upon a time, the line between 'mage' and 'mundane scholar' was not at all clear. A wizard devoted to pyromancy would write as much upon fire and combustable materials as spark-charms and the proper etiquette for addressing Balrogs. Even if a student at a hall of learning would go onto to enter an entirely mundane trade in the law courts or the chancellery, that student would have in all likeliness learnt some little theory of magic and attempted a charm. Of course, those with a great deal of magical talent might well have been taken up by one of the traditional colleges of magic - but the notion that a learned individual is able to prepare and fire off a cantrip would remain.

What changed? Several things.

  1. The printing press is invented. Learning can spread (as can many others things). The School of Malicarn's response to breakaway groups goes from contemptuous neutrality ("Yeah? Good luck with that.") to parachuting in an Overseer of the Faithful with sweeping powers. Division between Schools of the Majestic Vision rises. Civil strife ensues. 
  2. Mundane achievements occur. The press is one - but then the New World is reached by ship, apparently without magical aid. (The worn-out journeyman mage purifying the water casks doesn't count.) Even if later trips and expeditions are made with significant magical assistance (notably, the breaching of Qacenoit by Tsymrikane expeditionaries), it is very clear you need a mundane core to such an enterprise. The aristocrat with his court, synthesising authority, legal knowledge, martial prowess and magical advice is supplanted by the practical gentleman with a sufficiency of learning mastering the elements. 
  3. There is a change from private traditions to public institutions. Naturally, kings and nobles founded academies in the past. But there in the moment of change, new foundations begin with more specific remits - "Produce lawyers for the courts", "Produce surgeons", "Produce mages". Newly emerged Schools of the Majestic Vision also want Readers for the communities they preach to.*
  4. 'Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live' is not among the Words of Procophon. But the nonconformist and schismatic sects in Calliste have evolved a set of doctrines that spurn wizardry as a misuse of time and talent - "A field of good turnips would serve us better than this rose garden." Moreover, the egalitarianism that some of them profess make them suspicoius of people who can fly and chuck around fireballs. Of course, given the controls that rulers place (or attempt to place) upon magecraft, which Archmages must make shows of obedience to, anyone trying to start a school of magic serving a given minority sect would have the odds stacked against them (at least in Calliste....).

Thus, the divergance of the magic-user and the mundane scholar. Nevertheless, there is something like a mundane Enlightenment going on 'out of focus' in TRoAPW. Experiments are being carried out, the earth and heavens mapped, laws reformed. But the presence of magic users, wizarding institutions, &c warp attention from these things as often as they help them. Social changes also follow a different path: anyone proposing a new theory of government or more egalitarian model of society must accept within it magic users; those opposing such a thing can point to magical ability as a portion of the hierarchies of this world (the technique of Pneumametrics is often cited for such a purpose). There are writers that grumble of an 'invisible society of mages' putting the brotherhood of mystics over the good of their neighbours.

Revolution, naturally, becomes difficult when the current ruler can call upon not only an army but wizards - and proponents of social change have already spurned the old customs of limited magical engagement with politics. The citizens and burghers of the Republic of Datravia will tell you that freedom from tyranny is quite possible: the mercenaries and exiles that were once Captains of the Ascendancy will tell you bitterly of the price.


*Those public-spirited souls hoping to encourage magical learning among adolescents would, in this period, found a number of gramarye schools.  

Friday, 22 April 2022

A Double Century and Noisy Sheep Shearing

This is post number two hundred, so something different from usual: you shall hear me speak, interviewing noisms of Monsters and Manuals - the occasion being the Kickstarter for In The Hall of the Third Blue Wizard, a brand new 'zine with a variety of contributors.  

 

Things discussed include: 
I hope the above will be of some interest, and look forward to another hundred such posts!

Saturday, 16 April 2022

We use Every Part of the Dragon

So, you've killed yourself a dragon (Ahem). Or maybe it's a sphinx. Now, you are going to want to do something with the carcass. It is well known what happens when you roast a dragon's heart, but what about the rest of it?

Sigurd sucks his burnt thumb, while Reginn sleeps. 
Carvings from the Hylestad Stave Church, photographs by Wikipedia.

Conditions: you must be the first person to taste of the dragon's heart (or other organ). If a beast larger than an ear of wheat tastes even a little of it before you do, they gain the powers mentioned below. Only one person may gain such powers from the organ in question. It must be roasted over an open fire. 

No part of a dragon prepared thus is actively poisonous, but the consumption of large quantities of dragon will cause severe (not to say fiery) indigestion.


You roast and eat....

You can now...

You might learn about...

But generally in the form of....

The Dragon's Heart

Understand the speech of the birds

Threats to your life

A smooth, unhurried radio newsreader

The Dragon's Lungs

Understand the voices of the wind

Adverse weather conditions

Hymns with too many verses

The Dragon's Liver

Understand the distant booming of the earth and rocks

Civil engineering

Blank verse

The Dragon's Stomach

Understand the speech of mammals

Threats to your sanity

A precisely-worded sermon

The Dragon's Kidneys

Understand the songs of the rivers and streams

Direct routes downhill

Patter songs

The Dragon's Intestines

Understand the creaking chorus of the trees

Threats to the environment

A local government meeting

The Dragon's Brain

Understand the speech of Dragons

Gold prices

Light opera

The Dragon's Spleen

Understand the eternal dialogue of fish

Shipwrecks

Sardonic, quip-heavy remarks

The Dragon's Pancreas

Understand the sibilant speech of reptiles

Sources of information and fresh fruit

Compact, smug, maxims

The Dragon's Sparkgland

Understand the dry monologue of flame

Things around the fire that you can't see

A theatre review

The Gods do not smile upon mixed grills or kebabs. You eat one organ at a time. Do not add any sauces or seasoning to the cooked organ, other than perhaps a little salt. 

It is generally thought that anyone who can accomplish the feat of slaying a dragon will be able to procure a suitable set of butcher's knives to joint the beast with relative ease.

An image from the 2015 film Tale of Tales

Successful dragonslayers dispute the proper drink to accompany the dish: answers vary from 'Mead' to 'Fresh stream water'. Some suggest 'Two healing potions, one drunk quickly before you eat, the other sipped slowly afterwards'. Perhaps the most popular response is 'Anything you can get your hands on'.

Thursday, 31 March 2022

The Rest of All Possible Worlds: Names, Planes and Alternate Realms

Noisms of Monster and Manuals has a Kickstarter up for a zine called In the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard. Being a discerning sort, you may very well wish to back it. Now, back to our scheduled programming.

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

This is arguably a late-game problem to confront players; if not a 'theory of everything' then at least one that unifies a great many other questions. 

The student of magic - not of spellcraft, but the full scope of magic - eventually realises two things. Firstly, that magic is otherworldly, it is unnatural - or rather perhaps, it is as natural as a lightning strike or the eruption of a geyser. Secondly, that it is taught. Spells are not created by accident. To realise the existence of such things without aid is unthinkable. 

Two questions, therefore. Who taught mankind magic? Where do they come from?

The Question of Antecedants

Premise

As the Schoolmen will tell you, mankind has been visited by otherworldly beings before. Mages, generally speaking, hold themselves a little distant from the Schools - and so therefore, it is a shock for wizards to learn the truth of matters: that the oldest colleges and unbroken traditions of magic have ongoing relations with- and perhaps even absolute obligations to - otherworldly things. A mage will tend to be deep into the 'journeyman' stage of their careers before they learn this to be so, and some may never learn it at all. They had thought that the image of the diabolic compact was something purely from moralising dramas. 

The State of the Art

Those mages that are admitted to the deepest secrets of one of the old colleges are either so advanced that they have to know or are pursuing a particular line of research. Many had thought that the business of initiations and secret orders was beyond them - or, at least, would proceed in a fairly predictable fashion. There are hidden and obscure chambers even in the airy halls of magical sects and in these places, communion is had with alien entities. That this is less viscerally foul than popular dramatists would have you believe is not necessarily much comfort. 

Quite what that entity is will vary between institutions of magic. It may be something deeply squamous and non-Euclidian that should only be interacted with fleetingly. It may be one of the old folk, the eldar beings of grove and barrow who shun mankind, with their cold iron and their cold sun. It may be that the horror stories are true, and that brimstone-scented demons glower at the contracts made by long-dead archmages with their true names. Some traditions may have traffic with the potent dead, the Eidolons spoken of by the Words of Procophon - what would the Primus of Malicarn say to that? 

Other options are whispered of: the old, shrunken Gods of Horato, shining celestial Star Archons, the ancient sentient forces called Elementals, the bird-headed apkallu, the monstrous Elder Beasts, kings or princes of their respective kinds - even the mysterious masters of the Dreamlands called oneirocrats, who claim to have once been humans. 

Dealing with Antecedents

While the Question of Antecedents is unlike the other wizarding debates in Calliste in that disruptive innovators and revolutionaries have by and large been kept out of the circles that actually discover the truth of the origins of Callistan magic, there is still quiet but fierce debate on how best to engage with Antecedents. 

The old methods repeat the actions of the first masters of a tradition. Similar forms of etiquette, summoning rituals and offerings are repeated as they have been throughout the centuries. Those who stick to these in their original form are known as Ritualists.

There are then those who suggest gentle changes to ritual and negotiating technique. Surely different offerings are apt for different requests? What does an Antecedant want? No doubt it must be something, or why would they be in contact with human magic-users. Let us find out, and use that to our advantage.  The proponents of such a view are known as Realists.

Finally - and perhaps most controversially - there are those who propose dealing with Antecedants (though probably not the demons) as part of a grand moral compact. An Antecedant can communicate, after a fashion, therefore can be educated and brought to a proper state of understanding regarding mortals. Mutual advantage, respect and equality will spring from this. Those who assert this are known as Idealists.*

Implications

The Ritualists hope to keep everything running smoothly. A steady drip of magical knowledge inspiring generation after generation of new magic-users. Even those outside their particular tradition are playing their part by producing new spells in their happy ignorance. 

The Realists and Idealists, in their respective fashions, want to create a new wave of magic to radically transform the lot of man and produce a brave new extraordinary world. There are those who say that this has already happened. 

Of course, all the above relies on everything going to plan. That nobody interrupts the rituals or negotiations. That an Antecedent doesn't have a change of heart. That an Antecedant's fellows don't object to the noise.


The Realms Beyond

Premise

Antecedants have to come from somewhere. Wizards can summon beasts to do their bidding - they have to come from somewhere. Wizards can step into pocket dimensions to hide from their foes - where are they going?

So there are Realms, planes of existence beyond this one. There are existing gates between them and the right magic-user can make new breaches all of their own. 

Not that this would necessarily surprise anyone in Calliste. Wizardry is commonly known to have contact with the extraordinary, and the Schoolmen suggest a world of possibility through the teachings of the Majestic Vision. 

The State of the Art

Now, the mage that focuses on planar spells - whether they call themselves a Conjurer or a Master of Gates - is a relatively rare beast. Summons can be difficult to control, or unnerving - as can inter-dimensional travel. Still, there are enough of them to have discovered that magic is quite literally otherworldly. It is not merely 'an unseen arm' that levitates the stone, it is an intruding and unnatural force. 

This force is not produced by mages, but used by them - a wizard is not a man running across a field, he is a man holding a sail out to catch the wind to propel himself. In either case, effort is required, as is technique - but the source of power differs. Further, spells are living things - or at least as lifelike in their actions as a pennant or kite that moves like a living thing in the wind. Therefore, spells must have a medium in which to exist and exert themselves. 

The most obvious entry point of an otherworldly power is the very gates and breaches made by or known of by wizards. Few would dispute that other unknown portals must exist, but there are also those who claim that there are myriad 'pinprick breaches' through which magic enters the world. Either way, a current of magic moves through the world, with sufficient regularity to allow mages to cast reliably - but still with enough fluctuation to allow for concentrations of magic.

Quite what is in these other realms is suggested by the nature of some Antecedents above, but some may be places very like Calliste. 

Planar Policy

Having established to their own satisfaction that magic requires portals of some kind, several options present themselves to those mages who know and care. 

Firstly, to leave well alone. You may drink from the river, but do not think to drain or divert it. Most magic-users inhabit this position by default. Such mages are known as Pastorals, for their (perceived) rustic simplicity and humbleness. (A Pastoral can still live, of course, in a sapphire pagoda with platinum wheels pulled by manticores. Wizarding humility is a strange thing.)

Secondly, to plug every breach and drain magic from the world. Even if this is possible (and those who assert the existence of 'pinprick breaches' do not think it is), no wizard wants to do this. 

Thirdly, to make (eventually) as many breaches as possible and let magic rush through every corner of the world. Let there be intercourse with every realm! Wealth, beauty and novelty await! A strange and brilliant new world! For their willingness to connect, those who hold this position are known as Conjuncts.** 

Fourthly (and finally), to establish a state of being in which there are as few breaches and portals as possible (to as few realms as possible) while maintaining a given flow of magic. Those who long for such a thing are called Autarks. The very danger of summoning and planar magic makes this a desirable position. 

A devout follower of the Majestic Vision might well be an Autark, looking to restrict portals other than to the Hereafter. It may even be that humanity could come into full ownership of a certain small number of realms, freeing it completely from the control or influence of demons and eldritch things. Those Autarks who hold to this last point are deeply interested in those Antecedents called oneirocrats.

Implications

Neither Conjuncts nor Autarks have advanced their plans very far yet, of course. The Autark model is more appealing to wizard-friendly magically inclined princes and ministers: fewer risks involved, more chances to control trade. The loop of worlds described by Patrick Stuart's Great Fold is something like what Autarks might produce - though naturally, all involved would rather not link in the realm of terrifying mega-fauna. 

Conjuncts quite like the idea of Planescape's Sigil. The more sober might acknowledge that most lands will not become a grand inter-dimensional freeport, but rather take their place in a layer of one of many realms bound together like a quire of paper. In this case, some of the descriptions of commerce between realms in Stuart's Great Fold describe backwaters, while wizards surf the tide of magical energy flowing between worlds. New mage-tyrants will arise, reshaping the world as they see fit, fighting their competitors and outside invaders. 

This could very easily turn into Kenneth Hite's Qelong.  While the archmages turn into the main characters from Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber. And you can't tell if your land is being invaded by the pike-and-shot regiments of your terrestrial neighbour, the world where the Horatione Empire never fell and now has zeppelins and mechanical walkers (but no gunpowder), the Legions of Hell, the frost giants or King Arthur - and it might not even matter. 

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


*The actions of Dr Faustus have something of the Ritualist in them; the Government of New Crobuzon in Perdido Street Station are something like Realists in their dealings with Hell and the Weavers; and some of the later dealings of the protagonists in His Dark Materials form an image of the Idealist school of thought. 

** The malevolent Conjunct probably looks (or at least, acts) rather like the cultists of Lovecraftian fiction. A benevolent Conjunct owes something more instead to Ursula Le Guin and the later entries in her Earthsea series. If they aren't Heraclitan all-is-flux types.

Thursday, 24 March 2022

Two Outings to the Hill Cantons: Some thoughts on Marlinko and the Ursine Dunes

 In between stodgy slices of TRoAPW, a brief change of tone. A weekend citybreak, if you will. A visit to Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and to the Slumbering Ursine Dunes.  Both are written by Chris Kutalik, for his Hill Cantons setting. 

Both Fever-Dreaming Marlinko and Slumbering Ursine Dunes are available as PDFs and in solid form. I'm working from the PDFs in this case. 

The cover to Fever-Dreaming Marlinko.
Feverish? Maybe. Dreamy? Maybe not.

***

I'm approaching this having read a bit of the background material provided on the Hill Cantons blog, and having picked up the Misty Isles of the Eld in a bundle a while back. But I'm treating this as my first visit to the Hill Cantons proper; the Misty Isles are, well, an isle - suitable to be slotted into a number of settings off the coast. 

With that context out of the way, let's examine what we have. 

Slumbering Ursine Dunes (hereafter SUD) is a pointcrawl in the titular dunes. It is a pointcrawl rather than a hexcrawl not because of the great distances covered, as in Ultraviolet Grasslands with its cross-continental trade caravans, but because of the steep dunes with 'exterior dune faces precipitously rising up to 300-350 feet in height at dizzying 45-50 degree angles.' These are basically impossible to climb, certainly so by the low-ish level parties suggested by Kutalik. 

There are other elements to touch on, but the most striking feature of SUD is the environment players find themselves in. The scale of the dunes themselves I've mentioned, but this is paired with the Persimmon Sea, which 'with its sickly-sweet scent wraps around the Dunes to the south and west'. The eternal spring of the region adds to the strangeness. Both SUD and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko (hereafter FDM) refer to 'acid fantasy' in their online blurbs - the key element of any 'acid' sub-genre (Wikipedia refers to Acid Jazz and the Acid Western, among others) apparently being psychedelia. Well, my experience of acid-[anything] basically extends as far as listening to a few of the songs of actor and musician Matt Berry. At any rate, the dream-like state of the dunes (as if one were Slumbering) offers a certain psychedelic note, which the strangeness of the vast dunes and the sweet-tasting sea only adds to. The colour palette of the cover to FDM above captures this slightly better than the amber-and-indigo sunset of SUD's cover (see below). The soldier bears (hence Ursine dunes) only add to this: we know a bear shouldn't carry a polearm! - but, as with the gorilla with the uzi, nobody's going to tell him that. 

Between the dunes, however, are the actual encounters and adventures that Our Heroes are to meet with. SUD sees both very local encounters in the shape of monsters and hermits - and a larger set of powers that sink their tendrils into the region. These are explicitly divided into Good (Lawful and Chaotic) and Evil (Lawful and Chaotic).  This comes across as less ham-fisted than that sounds out of context, if for no other reason than the sheer character of each faction, either as a group or a personified as an individual. The Eld buck either the Mordor or Mephistopheles characterisations of Lawful Evil types by being a set of slim, fey 'exaggerated space-opera villains'. Of course, merely because something looks a trifle campy doesn't mean it can't kill you horribly. Likewise, the wereshark Ondrj is memorably unpleasant. Even the most apparently normal faction leader, Jaromir the Old Smith is a rather interesting working-out of the setting's greater cosmology. 

The interactions of all the above, plus assorted followers contribute to the Chaos Event Index: things can become very strange indeed in the Dunes. Reinforcements for the other-worldly Eld, eclipses, rains of blood and stronger spell effects are all on the menu. 

Dorkland!: The Slumbering Ursine Dunes
The cover to Slumbering Ursine Dunes.

***

FDM, by contrast, is a 'city adventure supplement' within the four contradas of the city of Marlinko. Marlinko, as the Ursine Dunes, is within the Borderlands of the Overkingdom and thus closer to pockets of the weird - like the Dunes or the Misty Isles. So FDM and SUD share that, at least. 

They also share the same Slavic-inspired setting. Names like Ondrej, Kaja, Svetlana, Adela, Janos, Pavol, Casimir, Malinka, Bohimir and Hedviga unite the two.  Reference to Rusalkas and Strigoi strengthen this. A beer in Marlinko is named for Radegost. Further, we learn in FDM that 'two of the major food groups of the Cantons [are] dumplings and halushky'. Both are accompanied by a substance called White Gravy. This flippant bit of delivery (compare: 'two of the major food groups in Britain are suet puddings and kedgeree') is a nice compact effective bit of worldbuilding that drags the setting away from the omnipresent viscous brown stew of some fantasy works, memorably mocked by Diana Wynne Jones in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland.  

(Writers have been mocked for their long descriptions of meals - George RR Martin springs to mind - but actually sitting down and working out where a meal comes from and digging into the agricultural requirements of it all is an interesting exercise - even if you don't need to show your working on the page. Starting with a staple like bread - or dumplings - is a suitable place to begin.)

Marlinko is still, food aside, a city of the Borderlands; indeed, like the Dunes, it has a Chaos Index. There is a lackadaisical air about it, far as it is from the orderly, predictable, focused core. Justice is lax. We are told that 'soft fraudulent crimes are so widespread as to meet tacit cultural approval'. There's something of Lankhmar in it all - a sense heightened by the Town Gods:

'Marlinko was built around the squat, black bulk of the Tomb of the Town Gods, a structure that predates the rest of the city by an interminably long period of time. The ominous edifice sitting in its wide, cobblestoned, circular plaza has retained its position as the dead (no pun intended) center of the city. Four wide avenues radiate from it at the cardinal points and divide the city into four contradas, or quarters. '

A read of 'Lean Times in Lankhmar' will only add to this, as will the discovery of a Black Toga on a list of items and the use of the adjective 'Marlankh'. 

All this aside, Marlinko seethes with social perils as much as any dungeon does with mortal peril. Each contrada has its own character and street life to negotiate, but Bravos, Pedants, Grifters, Drug Addicts and Children form some of the busy throng. A number of well-sketched NPCs with memorable descriptions and personalities offer points of reference in all this. The utterly honest but 'extremely racist' merchant Fraža the Freakishly Honest Curio Dealer stands out as an example. 

Two adventure sites are provided for Marlinko. Lady Szara's House is memorably horrible, but while the form of 'the Catacombs of the Church of the Blood Jesus' makes some sense for Marlinko (an underground cult stronghold), the details of a cult apparently formed by 'an alcoholic, time-misplaced, Irish cleric' are a little out of line with FDM as a whole. I confess that I would be tempted to increase the syncretic elements a little further in order to dilute the real-world influence. 

Another lack (it strikes me) is the absence of chariot rules for the inter-contrada Black Race. A more natural role for the PCs might be sabotage and other shenanigans, but a few points on what they should be sabotaging would be good. But if they prefer a bout of Tiger Wrestling, that's covered.

For all those gripes, FDM does the 'wretched hive' bit of city adventures without throwing the populace into a state of constant gang warfare. Both it and SUD deserve their status as works with 'Conceptual Density' and I'm glad to have read them.