Monday, 10 December 2018

Something for Your Shelves: John James's Votan

Found in a secondhand bookshop near York Minster, this was the first I had heard of John James. A three-book omnibus published by Gollancz in their Fantasy Masterworks line. Pictured below, it contains Votan, Not For All the Gold in Ireland and Men Went to Cattræth under the title Votan and Other Novels.  The collection has an introduction by Neil Gaiman. 
Image result for Votan and Other Novels
As pictured. 

I am going to focus purely on Votan (published first 1966) today. This is perhaps the most accessible of James's works in that collection and the one I can best discuss. I hope the following will show you why.

A brief discussion of what Votan is about. A Greek physician and priest with some mercantile connections is living on the German frontier of the Roman Empire in the first century AD is lured over the border into the trade links and battles of the Teutons - particiapting in and giving rise to the tales of Norse Mythology taking on and creating the guise of Odin (Photinus > Photin > Votin > Votan >Wodin > Odin). It is rarely outright 'fantasy', but I do not think it is wrong to call it fantastical, even if it is only slightly within the bounds of speculative fiction.

The trick, if you will, is in how James does this. Photinus is explicitly of his time; he never feels like a time-traveller, condemning his own time or trying to stand outside it. Part of this may be because he is an outsider for most of the novel: a Greek from the world of the Empire reacting to the world of the Norse. He is even putting on an act: impersonating a deity or a priest, not just to save his own skin, but in order to make a great deal of money from the profitable amber trade, as well as to leverage such other benefits as he may from the position he finds hismelf in. But even while he is putting on the act, he does it at the behest of a divine figure he seems to have a genuine belief in.

This never feels, I am glad to say anything like the Hollywood-esque 'The TRUE Story behind the Legend!!' affair this might be. Even where James's prose gets a little too slick or humorous (Photinus on German costume: 'Trousers are funny things to wear. You can always feel them on your legs. IT takes you a long time to get used to riding a horse with them, the cloth spoils the contact with the beast's side.'; 'It was wonderful to walk round with bare legs, like a real human being.'), it never feels glib or referential in that manner called 'fanservice'. Of course, this is a book full of reference to Norse myth, but one doesn't get the impression that Photinus is inventing this all out of whole cloth. He is inhabiting a role and has to keep moving and struggling to shift through intact.

So, why bring this up here? In part, because of the reaction to it. I made a search after reading it for writing about it, in addition to Gaiman's introduction (it occurs to me that if folk read the books Gaiman introduces as readily as they read the stuff he pens, this would be fine indeed). I dug up a brief article on James from Tor Books by Jo Walton. But eventually I bit the bullet and went to GoodReads. One of the longer reviews did not rate Votan highly; complaining of the excessive detail Re. German tribes (Vandals, Marcomannni, Frisians....) and trade networks. 

Well, the narrator is a merchant and is able to exercise his powers by sitting in Asgard at the centre of trade networks and between tribes; further, he is an outsider and must untangle this for hmself mentally, whilst standing aprt from the Germans. Besides, he is taking on the role of Odin - a knowledge god. What could be more appropriate than demonstrating this?

But aside from my defence of James's Votan, what makes me write this post? Photinus's tale and status is rather reminiscent of a tabletop fantasy RPG player. He is from a different civilisation from that which he moves through and some of his abilities and knowledge come from this. He must learn the ways and tricks of this world. His financial motivation and cynicism is not unlike a certain vision of the player: the murderhobo model, though tempered by his vulnerability. He even shows the occasional, hidden scrap of sincere belief and religious fear - like a player paying occasional service to in-universe beliefs. 

In all, a book worth reading. 

Wednesday, 28 November 2018

Pistol Crossbows: A Jaundiced View

I am not fond of pistol crossbows appearing in media with a somewhat medieval theme. If someone says that they want to use one, I roll my eyes. They don't strike me as strictly possible even in a world of wizards, Dwarven metallurgy and the like. (I take it that the pistol crossbow is always intended as a faintly plausible mechanical device rather than something that works because it has been so heavily enchanted that it is effectively a crossbow themed magic wand). To make one of these roughly as powerful as a crossbow or handgun seems that it would need devices and materials beyond the abilities of the age. Crossbows are hard work; there is a reason why they possessed stirrups to fit your foot into or large cranks to bend the limbs of the bow. There is something static about them - for use behind the battlements, or behind a pavisse. They are not assault rifles; if a modern comparison had to be made, perhaps the anti-tank rifle is the correct equivalent: heavy, cumbersome, requiring a fixed position.

Thus, idea of people walking round with them like gunslingers is silly. The idea of being a gunslinger in a medieval or pseudo-medieval setting is silly, especially in a game. You, a twenty-first century player are trying to cope with challenges using a different set of ideas, resources or skills. You cannot act like Jim Lassiter, James Bond or Harry Callahan. There is a range of anachronistic comedy to be mined by this (a man asks for a martini in a world that doesn't drink much in the way of spirits, has no formal image of the cocktail and nothing resembling a cocktail shaker to be shaken, not stirred in).  But that isn't quite the same thing. Try and act with Bond's suaveness or Callahan's brashness (and their tactical equivalents) in the wrong setting and it will end poorly.

I suppose this is less a cry for absolute realism, but rather for the limitation of anachronism. But this is not an article full of invective for invective's sake. What brought this on? Honestly, a new film. A film I haven't even seen; the new Robin Hood picture. Here's a trailer, here's a shorter professional review, here's a longer more discursive review.  The appearance of automatic crossbows*, riot shields and casino-like parties put me in the frame of mind to think on this topic.

On reflection, there were a few pieces of media where I could stomach or even actively approve of such a thing as the pistol crossbow. In the later Discworld books they appear, in a moderate fashion (The Ankh-Morpork City Watch has been using crossbows throughout, but I always pictured these as carbine sized, and so a little more reasonable - besides the fact that the Watch rarely contends with heavily armoured targets).

Image result for paul kidby discworld watch
As in the front row here, Paul Kidby's cover to Night Watch.

However, in The Fifth Elephant one has mention of an assassin's weapon in the vein of the pistol crossbow: concealable, vicious, prohibited. It has the appearance of 'a long-handled hammer or perhaps a strangely-made telescope', it is readily concealable, though difficult to load: a strong man says he 'practically ruptured myself cocking it against a rock'. It is explicitly a one-shot device and may very well be the same thing as the 'spring-gonne' mentioned in The Truth (L-Space, the Discworld Wiki certainly thinks so). It is prohibited both by official law enforcement and the better regulated criminal world.

In terms of conventional warfare, Monstrous Regiment mentions the horsebow, as carried (at first) by an elite heavy cavalry regiment from a well-funded military. I quote from my worn 2004 Corgi Books paperback:

'She'd acquired two of the horsebows. stuck awkwardly through the straps of her pack. They were horrible things, rather like a combination of a small crossbow and a clock. There were mechanisms in the thick shaft, and the bow itself was barely six inches across; somehow, if you leaned your weight on it, you could cock it with enough stored energy to fire a nasty little metal arrow through an inch-thick plank. They were blued metal, sleek and evil. But there is an old milt'ry saying: better me firing it at you than you firing it at me, you bastard.'

The British first edition of Monstrous Regiment had a dust-jacket by Paul Kidby with a still-life on the back cover,
depicting what I take to be horsebows, left and to the back of the shako.
I was lucky enough to find this picture of it on Abe Books.
To see them more clearly, you may wish to open this image to full-size in another tab.
I quite like this as far as pistol crossbows go: technologically advanced, relatively rare and difficult to use. Note also the main characters distaste for them; perhaps echoing the feelings of the British author: this is not simply a thing to point at the bad guys until they fall down. We get an explicit image of its potential for harm.

Stepping away from the Discworld (but not too far; I am told that Ankh-Morpork, among other things was an inspiration) the video game Dishonored** features a pistol crossbow. It is compact and quiet - fitting for a character that must climb over the masonry of the city of Dunwall and remain unseen. It is slow to reload, fitting the style of stealth gameplay: gentle movement, preparation, restricted resources. In this it resembles the silenced pistol of the popular imagination.

More images to be found on the Dishonored Wiki, but this one will serve as an example.
As for plausibility - well, there is only one of its kind, seemingly. It is made and upgraded by the protagonist's pet inventor. For all of its metal parts, it looks delicate somehow, as a microscope. Like dropping it would bend one of the mechanisms or jar something out of place. You certainly wouldn't try and pistol-whip someone with it.

(Bioshock Infinite: Burial at Sea featured a pistol crossbow of much the same type as Dishonored, albeit less fragile looking and Art Deco. See here for details. )

A mention should be made of the pistol crossbows of the Mad Max films, most prominently in the second film, The Road Warrior. They appear mounted on the wrist of many of the rampaging antagonists of that film***. They are compact and lightweight for those who must concentrate on driving a motorcycle, dune buggy or other heavily modified automobile.
Such as this gentleman. 
In a world with a limited supply of firearms or ammunition, they offer a viable alternative. They might not be terribly powerful, but no-one appears to be wearing terribly thick armour in the heat of the Australian wastes (to say nothing of clothing choices). Moreover, they are generally used at close range: speed up to the target, loose the bolt, drop back again. What one might refer to as a Perthian Shot.

* * *

Having gone over all these so thoroughly, what positive contribution can I make?

I have a few alternatives to the pistol crossbow, for compact projectile weapons - for preference, able to be used one handed.

1. Darts
2. Throwing knives
3. Sling (requires slingstones or bullets)
4. A slim weight on the end of a line - can be whipped out with tremendous force from a sleeve.
5. Shuriken, or similar slim throwing weapons
6. Slingshot (of the Y-frame and flexible strap variety)
7. Throwing axes; the sawn-off shotgun to the throwing knife's pistol.
8. Just give in and allow gunpowder weapons.

However, if you do insist on the presence of the pistol crossbow, here are a few ways to make it a little more interesting - by which I mean troublesome and palatable to my tastes. A pistol crossbow may be fast, cheap or good. Pick two.

1. It is a pistol crossbow, only slightly less deadly than a fullsize crossbow - but it breaks frequently. The bow is the weakest point.
2. The Discworld 'horsebow'. Expensive and difficult to source - there are few artisans that make them; those that do are contracted by the military and discouraged from selling their talents elsewhere. Reloading is hard; a military unit would have a reloading device clamped to a robust wagon in order to make this easier for the quartermaster.
3. The bow works fine, but cannot muster enough force to penetrate armour/thick monster scales, hide, &c. In order to correct this, a remarkablely potent (and expensive) poison has been smeared onto the bolts.
4. The bow works fine, but cannot muster enough force to penetrate armour/thick monster scales, hide, &c. In order to correct this it fires small pellets of asphyxiating, pain inducing spices and chemicals. Congratulations, you now have an expensive long-range pepperspray.
5. The bow works fine, but cannot muster enough force to penetrate armour/thick monster scales, hide, &c. In order to correct this, it fires thin tubes containing a potent acid. The acid is not uncommonly expensive; but the bolts with their aerodynamic hollow glass heads are.
6. The bow works fine, but cannot muster enough force to penetrate armour/thick monster scales, hide, &c. Instead, it fires a thin tough bolas intended to tangle, trip or throttle an opponent. This bolas is difficult to make,both due to the materials involved and the business of making it fly as intended.
7. Pistol crossbows exist, and are not uncommon - but are for sporting purposes only.  They might be accurate and more-or-less reliable, but they have approximate stopping power of an air rifle.
8. This pistol crossbow reloads quickly, doesn't break and will penetrate an inch of steel. This is because there is a demon (or Djinn, or mighty spirit, or other Demon-equivalent) trapped inside it. You are now carrying around the equivalent of a nuclear reactor on your hip.  Both purchasing this and keeping it are likely to be, in one fashion or the other, expensive.

*Thanks to Age of Empires II, I have long been aware of the Chinese repeating crossbow. This is quite clearly something else.
** I haven't played the second game in the series, but I believe most of my points still apply.
*** Of all places, something similar turned up in the Arthurian 1997 film Prince Valiant attached to knights' gauntlets.

Sunday, 18 November 2018

The Stygian Library: A few thoughts

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

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

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

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Entertaining a Notion: Star Wars

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

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

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

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

Sunday, 16 September 2018

Rats, Cats and Albatrosses

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Thursday, 19 July 2018

Siege Hands

Catapaulta, by Edward Poynter, 1868*

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Punth: A Primer Ch. 2

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

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

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

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

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

Next, the Codes' Statement of Coupling.

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

A few notes on Qryth infrastructure in Punth

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Gendarmes

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

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

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

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

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