Saturday, December 31, 2011

Debtors and Dead Men

Lately, I've been taking mental vacations to the lands of Steampunk Sherlock (saw the current film) and Dickens' London, as well as a side trip to 18th century Hammervania.  It seems to me that considerations of 17-18th century England and Europe are not out of order for many fantasy settings, where great age and magic would allow for developments beyond feudal fare.  In particular, I have been struck by two institutions that deserve consideration for your fantasy setting: debtor's prison and resurrection men.

Illustration of the Marshalsea from Dickens' Little Dorrit
Many may choose to shy away from slavery in their world-building, for various reasons, although this is the most ancient and perhaps obvious solution to the problem of outstanding debts.  In such a cased where temporary servitude to work off debt (yes, so barbaric!  And so different from the world we live in!) is not a favorable option, then one might want to consider debtor's prison.  One then has the character(s) in a relatively controlled setting, if so needed.  Depending on their conditions of their imprisonment, they may be a liberty during the daytime to work.  Needed NPCs could be held there, needing to be busted out or bailed out -- it introduces a whole new sphere to plot Trouble with the Authorities.  It might also be an effective place to hide.  In gaming, it could be a punishment for bad behavior or consequences of failure -- as well as a motive to participate in a get-rich-quick-scheme, such as dungeon delving.  I think places like the Marshalsea and the Fleet, as horrible as they are, add color and shade to a fictional city.

Detail of a Thomas Rowlandson illustration showing a resurrectionist
We associate corpse snatching with the robbing of the body from its grave, and furthermore, with the work of Dr. Frankenstein.  But it was a widespread problem in the 18th-19th centuries, and supplied mundane anatomy needs and not simply the work of a single mad natural philosopher.  Now, add in all the needs for bodies that a fantasy setting would require beyond ordinary needs we saw in our own past, and you will quickly realize that resurrection men would have an even more booming business in a fantasy world.  No one would want their body or its parts floating around for various uses (including a tool for pestering them with questions in the other world), much less reanimated as a construct or a walking undead -- or perhaps used for the reincarnation of another.  No, ordinary people would not submit to it willingly, so only the corpses of criminals would be offered for legal purposes.  If we assume, as on Earth, these will not be enough to meet demands, and add on to that a much larger demand from illegal practices such as necromancy, then the ranks of the resurrectionists swell, and so do their methods.  History tells us that fresher bodies were worth more money, and that bodies would be gained by women pretending to be mourning relatives.  If your setting uses the convention of the thieves guild, the resurrection men could be members or they could be practitioners of an independent and slightly more legal, um, livelihood.  For more on the practice, see this post.

As you ponder these institutions past for your mythopoecizing, I hope they will not only add fuel to the fire but cheer to the new year.  For as we say good-bye to 2011 and look forward to 2012, we can all be thankful that we are not dead nor denizens of debtor's prison.

Friday, December 30, 2011

Review: Death's Heretic

Click cover to purchase!

I take reviews seriously, and I'm not sure I can write a proper review after reading a book once, for pleasure.   A proper review would follow from re-reading, probing for the review, and that sounds like reading for my profession, not for fun.  So I'll call this a review, for lack of a better term.  (Maybe a mini- or informal review?)  First, the big picture.

I'm a subscriber to Pathfinder Tales -- the novels are the best game-related fiction I know (for that matter, the serial fiction stories also fit in this category). 

My favorites are Dave Gross' Prince of Wolves and Master of Devils.  I just love the characters and there's lots of interesting stuff going on with flavorful elements.  The solid middle of the pack are Howard Andrew Jones' Plague of Shadow and Robin Laws' The Worldwound Gambit (the reviews on the latter are surprising low.  It deserves more appreciation).   My least favorites are Elaine Cunningham's Winter Witch and the newest addition, James Sutter's Death's Heretic.  In this case, however, no shame accrues to being my least favorite, for I enjoyed both works, in spite of some defects.  For those curious, I've decided my issues with Winter Witch are too complicated to unravel in a review until after a reread.  However, I'll offer my more timely thoughts on Death's Heretic here.

My biggest criticism is that Sutter needs to work on characterization.  There are times that the behavior of the characters seemed unlikely or even incongruous, above all in the case of Neila, who seems to be in danger of losing her grief and desire for vengeance at various points.  The final decision of Salim is also a cause of wonder for me, though I imagine that would be cause for long conversation.

Where I believe Sutter pulls off his greatest success is his theme of religious belief/disbelief.  Throughout the novel, he successfully duped me into believing that his novel was going to be satisfied with a widespread (and, given my professional interests, rather facile) conception of belief in a divine reality.  He manages to pull of a thoughtful twist here, and I will say nothing more to give it away, but I  must salute him for it -- quite satisfying!

While I have indicated Sutter's debut novel is not my favorite in the series, clearly others disagree: Paul Allen Goat lists it among his Best Fantasy of 2011. While I cannot agree, I am happy for Sutter, and especially for the line, to benefit from the recognition.  (And, I note, Howard Andrew Jones' other novel also appears in that list.)  For more on Sutter and Death's Heretic, see the review (by Andrew ZIMMERMAN Jones, not to be confused with HAJ) and interviews (parts I, II, and III) at Black Gate.

Thursday, December 29, 2011

Far over the Misty Mountains cold...

Many of you have probably been listening to The Hobbit Trailer version of "Far over the Misty Mountains cold."  I like it, but it really drove me back to the Rankin/Bass The Hobbit soundtrack.  Am I the only person who thinks that is the best track from that soundtrack?  Or who actually prefers it to this new version?  I'd like to have the complete Tolkien lyric sung to the tune of the original soundtrack.  Heck, I'd like to get together with a group of guys and sing the whole song!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Let Zelazny Learn Ya

Tim White's Sign of the Unicorn

An important part of my fantasy reading is filling in my personal lacunae from the famed Appendix N.  I recently finished the first series of the Roger Zelazny's Chronicles of Amber.  (Yes, Chad, you spoiled the identity of the villain for me.  I will crush you.)  WOW.  Beautifully written.  For years, just hearing "multiple worlds, the Tarot, reworked English and Celtic mythological elements" in the descriptions of this work somehow didn't grab me.  If sketches of the work you have heard don't appeal to you for some reason, my advice would be to ignore them: the execution far outstrips any laundry list of the elements.

Back on the gaming front, this is Absolutely Required Reading for anyone who is interested in the Law vs. Chaos struggle and the concept of Balance -- more so even than Poul Anderson or Michael Moorcock.  Hie thee to yon bookshelf and read, Masters of the Gaming Table!  Some thoughtful and arresting sub-creating is going on, here.  Also, if you are working on the plane of Shadows (cough, JON BRAZER, cough), you need to take a long look here.  More Plato than Spooky Shadows so definitely worth some pondering.  Even though I have been warned that some fans were disappointed in the second series, I may give in some day and read those too, so attractive did I find the first books, and they effectively implanted curiosity about what will happen after the big events at the end.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Accurate and True Historical Timeline of FRPGs

For years, I've been reading bloggers talking about the Golden Age and the Silver Age of TSR or of D&D.  Gritting my teeth through such ill-executed attempts, I thought it was time, once and for all, to publish an accurate timeline with unprejudiced year divisions and names that reflected a true understanding of the state-of-affairs.  That's right: mine.  As all things that are self-evidently true once one has grasped the terms, I shall not argue for it, but merely proclaim it for universal reception.  You can now replace outdated schema: merry third day of Christmas!  :-)

Historical Timeline of Fantasy Role-Playing Games
Ages of Prehistoric Warfare
The Copper Age
The Golden Age
The Silver Age
The Electrum Age
The Platinum Age

Saturday, December 24, 2011

Christmas Eucatastrophe, Mythopoesis, and Life

I have said it before.  Undoubtedly, I will say it again: Tolkien's On Fairy Stories should be required reading on more than one reading list, but it should be at the top of the list for mythopoets.  If you are not familiar with his theory of eucatastrophe, then I highly recommend getting hold of the lecture in some form and digesting it thoroughly (and for greater reasons that that this blogpost will assume a familiarity with it).  In his epilogue, he included a statement on the faith that underlay all his work.  For in the end, eucatastrope was both the spring of his creativity and his thought, and also the deep hope of his life.

I would venture to say that approaching the Christian Story from this direction, it has long been my feeling (a joyous feeling) that God redeemed the corrupt making-creatures,  men, in a way fitting to this aspect, as to others, of their strange nature.  The Gospels contain a fairy-story, or a story of a larger kind which embraces the essence of fairy-stories.  They contain many marvels--peculiarly artistic, beautiful, and moving: "mythical" in their perfect, self-contained significance; and among the marvels is the greatest and most complete conceivable eucatastrophe.  But this story has entered History and the primary world; the desire and aspiration of sub-creation has been raised to the fulfillment of Creation.  The Birth of Christ is the eucatastrophe of the Man's history.  The Resurrection is the eucatastrophe of the story of the Incarnation.  This story begins and ends in joy.  It has pre-eminently the "inner consistency of reality."  There is no tale ever told that men would rather find was true, and none which so many sceptical men have accepted as true on its own merits.  For the Art of it has the supremely convincing tone of Primary Art, that is, of Creation.  To reject it leads either to sadness of wrath.

When I consider the general notions of what Christianity is about that are popular currency in the world today, and especially in America with which I am most familiar, whether those notions are entertained by Church people of various stripes or by the people who despise them, I am tempted to conclude some very unflattering things.  But then I remember that, despite my supposedly informed upbringing, I held similar notions.  These notions tend to center on a cluster of Sin, Faith (a rather peculiar notion of what faith is, honestly), the Death of Jesus, and the Bible.  Having been raised with this cluster in a version of its popular configuration, Christianity failed to make sense to me well into my adult life, until during my second graduate degree program in the field of religion, a professor assigned a little book from the fourth century: On the Incarnation of God by Athanasius of Alexandria.

This book revolves around the axiom that God became human so that humans might become divine.  The axiom is rooted in the New Testament and the key to the Nicene Creed.  If, this Christmastide, you find yourself wondering why a Galilean peasant and his fellow Jewish followers so transformed the world with a story that took the Mediterranean world by storm, consuming and displacing other stories and cultuses on an empire-wide and then a global level, I am not aware of a way to be more helpful when it comes to reading material than to recommend Athanasius' On the Incarnation (that, and skipping the chapters that are diatribes against Jewish conversationalists).  It is free in an old and difficult translation, and cheap in a new and easier translation.  Both normatively and descriptively, I would argue that it provides in a compact volume a formulation of what the Christian mythos and ethos are all about.

Wishing you all the blessings of the season,

Friday, December 23, 2011

Great Balls of Lucky Magic Part II: With Stats!

Huh.  I went and checked my packages, and Santa did not send me Pathfinder's Bestiary 3...yet!  However, a friend let me know that among the wonderful oriental creatures contained therein, the tanuki is stated.  And it is given a slam attack!  Oh, let us speculate in our minds about the source of this slam attack!  Anyway, I am excited about this third installment to Pathfinder's line of bestiaries, and I fully expect it to live up to my experience of these being the finest monster books ever produced for an RPG.  The link above will take you to purchase your hard copy or the very reasonable $10 pdf.

Great Balls of Lucky Magic!

    daishi0723_DY013.jpg  By: dantada
Thanks to Heath for bringing this back to mind: the Japanese raccoon dog, or more properly, TanukiStudio Ghibli brought this wonder of Japanese fauna and folklore to America in the film Pom Poko.  Distributed by Disney, it is very humorous to see how they handled the tanuki's key feature: their magical super-scrotums!  (Dubbed, "magical pouches."  "Hey, baby, wanna see what I can do with my magical pouch?")  Because, the real point of this post is oh-the-things-that-they-can-do with their lucky nut sacks.  Go ahead.  Stare in wonder at these traditional prints.  Linking that page that Heath sent me is the raison d'etre of today's blog.  Too bad it is too late to get a tanuki Christmas ornament for your tree.  Or even better: do they make tanuki dreidels?  For those of you who have to get more scholarly to justify gazing in wonder at beastly ballocks, here is the entry at the Obakemono Project.  And don't forget to put Pom Poko in your queue so the kiddies will have something fun to watch over holiday break.

Wednesday, December 21, 2011

Struggling Against the Hibernation Instinct

a bear 038a.jpg By: jdurham

The end of the semester and the approaching holidays have triggered my hibernation instinct.  Posts begun lie unfinished.  Tabs of other people's posts sprawl across my screen.  Netflix beckons; the bed beckons; The Chronicles of Amber beckon.  If I can't get myself in a more productive mode, I will at least point out some folks who have been for the benefit of anyone who may have missed them.  When it comes to RPG-related posts, Beedo's blog Dreams in the Lich House has been particularly hot lately. Among his recent hotness is one post on the Dungeon as Mythic Underworld which is getting some discussion. Moving from world-building to its flip side in mechanics, Delta has done a couple of historical jaw-breakers that are not to be missed: one on the spell Conjure Elemental, the other on Elves.

Monday, December 19, 2011

What is Victoria's Secret?

My most popular post of all time has been, for some time, Z is for Zoomorphic Angels.  I suspect that there is more than one reason for this, but around the time of the Victoria's Secret TV special a few weeks back and forward, some of the most popular searches that find my blog are various searches for Victoria's Secret angels.  So, here I go being all opportunistic, by posting late on this Mythopoeic Monday on the Secret.*  Now, the appeal of heavenly bodies, such as Lily Donaldson's pictured above is no secret at all, is it?  Isn't everything rather on display?  Where's the secret?

I do not think that the intuition or instinct reflected in the name of what surely must be the most successful lingerie company in the world is off, at all. The opposite sex has always represented some irreducible mystery, whichever gender one is.  Mona Lisa's smile has become a symbol of the mystery that women represent to men.  Jung theorized that men and women both have a transgendered aspect in their psyches (the anima in men and the animus in women) that correspond to the opposite sex -- an aspect buried in their individual unconscious. 

Few things garner interest like a secret.  Children who were lucky enough to read E.L. Konigburg's From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil Frankweiler were treated to an extended exploration of the value of a secret.  It is something that we are driven to uncover, and yet, may also be driven to hide from others.  The feeling that we share a secret binds us to another and heightens our own sense of interiority.  In the second chapter of the Apocalypse (Revelation), Christ promises to give those who are faithful from Pergamum a white stone with their secret name written on it.  Value is based on rarity, and what is rarer than a secret?  If knowledge is power, then knowledge of a secret is power of a greater degree.

Mystery novels and shows do not seem to have lost their popularity over the years.  In recent times, conspiracy theories have exploded in popularity.  The element of secrecy is sure to increase interest and dramatic tension in any story or game.  But I think that there is an element of depth, of mystery, that must be present in the best secrets.  The idea I am trying to get across here goes back to my use of the Victoria's Secret angel.  We looked at her and I dared to say, isn't it all on display?  No.  The mode of revelation covers even as it uncovers.  Disclosures are always partial.  We are shown enough to know something, to feel the pull of something, to identify a presence, but the presence is also an absence.  There is a hint of something more.  If a secret is so shallow that it may be revealed in a single proposition or a single glance, then the secret is consumed in its entirety.  Not so the deeper things, which is what our plots should strive for.  Knowing how to include human mystery -- or even mystery that is somehow deeper than humanity -- in a plot's secret is the way to hold interest with a richness that draws but is never fully exhausted or realized.  Perhaps that is part of Victoria's Secret.  By giving the models the wings of celestial beings, their transcendence is symbolized, so that suggesting that they are not women emphasizes their womenhood: that there is an attracting secret of the feminine that can never be fully known or possessed, even in the knowing and possessing.  The display tantalizes with its revelation, and by revealing, reminds us of what is covered, and of the fact that howsoever much one may discover, there will always be something more.

* I'm behind because the last week of the semester was as one would expect.

Friday, December 16, 2011

Another One of My Nitpicks -- But in What Kind of Fur?

I have often wondered why the term lycanthropy has been applied to all cases of animal-human shape-shifting when there is a perfectly correct technical term to cover not merely the werewolf, but all such shape-shifters: therianthropy.  So yeah, I am stumping for therianthropy/therianthropes in the vocabulary of all mythopoets.  Update your speech and your bestiaries!

On another level, and this is a broader issue for all who change their appearances -- though the differences between transformation and illusion introduce complications --which form is the true form? (D&D gamers will recognize Gygax's take on this issue by his distinction between werewolves and wolfweres, and other similarly named monsters.) With a therianthrope, the issue could be put thus, Is it an animal that can pose as a human or a human that becomes a beast?  Maybe we should consider the possibility that it is something else, although this too is complicated by the possibility that it was originally one before it became what it is now.  A further complication is therianthropes that have a hybrid form; perhaps that is the true form?  But wherever there are multiple forms, they hold out the possibility that no single form alone is the creature's true form, challenging us to entertain the notion that all the forms are equally true or perhaps that they are true in different ways.

This comes up in particularly humorous ways when discussing the TV show American Horror Story with people.  All the women I've heard talking about it laugh over what it says about men that they would see the maid as she is pictured below, when she is "really" a gross-looking old woman.  On one occasion, my psychologist friend countered by saying exactly what I was thinking: "Why isn't the beautiful form her true form?  Maybe only men can see her as she truly is, and she is disguised in the sight of women."  Oh man, there followed silent and unhappy discomfort from the female faculty involved in that conversation.  Whether spectral or embodied, shape-shifters prey on discomfort and fear -- the basic human fear that when things are not what they appear to be, they are dangerous.

All we are give this post a chance

Ha-ha!  Welcome to my contribution to the Deja Vu Blogfest (flourish in Tim Brannan's direction).  If this is your first visit to my blog, it treats all sorts of topics mythopoetic, and especially gives vent to my desire to imagine materials for fantasy role-playing.  My Do-Over is a contribution to alternative rules for old school Dungeons and Dragons. 

Below is my repost of the post that I feel didn't get the love it originally deserved.  Seriously, folks, Jeff Freakin Rients liked the post: it's right there in the comments.  The first comment.  The one above mine.  Me and Jeff, against the world.  Thanks for being that one person to download the rules document, even if it was a pity download.  (Please, Jeff, never tell me.)  Who knows, maybe I posted it on International Stay-off the Internet for Peace Day and I was just clueless.    In any event, here it is below.  If you skip it and your medium dies clutching his dry dagger to his breast after his one magic missile failed to save him, don't come crying to me: I tried.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Looks Like the Pawns Are Out of the Bag

The box?  Well, however you mix that metaphor, ICv2 has come out with the news that Paizo will be releasing the entire first bestiary as a set of over 250 monsters on over 300 pawns.*  Sweet!  I'm happy to hear it, and the price doesn't sound bad.  Even though I prefer minis, I will probably pick this up just because of those monsters that will likely never get made into minis, or the super rare ones that are a pain.

It was a no-brainer, of course, but I'm really surprised Paizo allowed someone else to announce it first.  Usually, this is the kind of thing you hear first on the Paizo blog.

EDIT: The product page is now up at the Paizo website.

*Per the product page.

For Telecanter because no one can stop me

Yeah! Silhouette time!

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Rolling Lots of Dice

You need a large enough surface for the Big Bang.

Yesterday, Beedo posted, asking about people's opinions regarding hopeless characters.  This made me think of my current favorite method of character generation: rolling all the dice at once.  Now, if anything but 3d6, in order, no rerolls, no point swaps, etc, is the only thing that satisfies you because one morning while sitting on the can you had a vision of Gary Gygax, dressed in a white robe and strumming a golden harp whose six strings were tuned to the Fibonacci scale, singing, "Lo, 3d6 ordo," just skip this post: I've got nothing to offer you, so why bother?  But if are open, pray continue.  It may not be new to you, but it doesn't seem very common to me and may be worth your consideration.

Taking 18d6 and rolling all of them at once instead of six times of three together has the following benefits, in my view.
  1. Rolling eighteen dice all together is fun.  I like it better than dragging the rolls out, and the kids I've introduced to this method seem to like it more, too.  (Go ahead, judge me.)  The birth of a character starts out feeling like an event because of the veritable explosion of dice.  
  2. While there should be no significant statistical difference in the total outcome, you now have 18 dice to arrange, three to each of the six ability scores.  This introduces an element of control, planning, and customization that is something like a point buy system, but without eliminating dice or variation.  
  3. You are working not simply with math, but with manipulatives.  For lots of us, this is more fun.  
  4. You have a better chance of getting an 18 in something -- certainly a 17 or 16.
  5. All that talk about it being fun having a low score in something?  Yeah, chances are your allocating your dice to suit your character concept, class, and/or race are going to leave you short somewhere.  Voila, fun.  And fun you chose, weighing your options and using the resources the dice gave you.
  6. Chances are lower that you will roll a hopeless character, since you can weigh the dice totals against the modifiers they will yield in whatever system you are playing, and assigning them to scores you want.
Here are three characters that I created by this method.  Note that, to illustrate the basic method in such a way as to be applicable to the widest number of systems, I did not add any bonuses given to certain races in some systems, not did I observe the limits placed on scores for some races in others.  Just a bare bones approach. (X is for Charisma, by the way.  I'm trying to spread this handy help from the Greek, where chi is written like X.)

Human Fighter

Halfling Thief

Order out of Chaos: The first picture turned into a character.  I'm thinking, Human Magic-User.
Does anybody else use this method?  Is there anything I am missing?  I'd be curious to hear.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Holmes on Alignment

Alignment Diagram from the Second and Third editions of Holmes.

Above is the alignment diagram from Holmes' rulebook, in which the interstices between four forces produce five alignments.  The only hint of a continuum here are those segments of the alignment that approximate more closely to Neutral.  (This spacial element may help us interpret the table below.)  Holmes' monsters (p.22-34) appear in the chart below according to the alignment he assigned them.  Surprisingly, the majority of these monsters are Neutral.  At times, a number of LE or CE monsters occur in a row, alphabetically.  While I noted below the order in which Holmes indicated a divergence in a population's alignment by 1st or 2nd, in the absence of a percentage breakdown, I assume that a 50/50 division is indicated.  In one case, we are told merely that "some" elves are neutral (less than 25%?) and that the Displacer Beast, though neutral and not listed as belonging on under one or more of the evil alignments, merits the parenthetical comment, "evil."  (Is this an indication of evil tendencies within a broadly Neutral alignment, heralding the complications to come in AD&D? Or is it an unresolved editorial issue, and later percentages between Neutral and evil displacer beasts, exact alignment to be decided, never came to pass?)  Link to document with table below.

Holmes Monsters
Lawful Good
Chaotic Good
Lawful Evil
Chaotic Evil
Blink Dogs
Dwarf (25%)
Brass Dragon (2nd)
Storm Giant (2nd)
Gnome (75%)
Wereboar  (2nd)
Werebear (2nd)
Pixie (2nd)

Bandit (50%)
Carrion Crawler
Displacer Beast (evil)
Doppleganger (2nd)
White Dragon (1st)
Black Dragon (2nd)
Brass Dragon (1st)
Dwarf (75%)
Elf ("some neutral")
Hill Giant
Stone Giant
Frost Giant (1st)
Fire Giant (1st)
Cloud Giant
Storm Giant
Gnome (25%)
Lizard Man
Wereboar (1st)
Wererat (1st)
Werebear (1st)
Weretiger (1st)
Werewolf (1st)
Pixie (1st)
Purple Worm
Rust Monster
Bandit (25%)
Fire Giant (2nd)
Hell Hound
Wererat (2nd)
Bandit (25%)
Doppleganger (1st)
White Dragon (2nd)
Black Dragon (1st)
Red Dragon
Hill Giant
Frost Giant (2nd)
Weretiger (2nd)
Werewolf (2nd)
None: Black Pudding, Fire Beetle, Gelatinous Cube, Giant Ant, Giant Centipede, Giant Rats, Giant Tick, Gray Ooze, Green Slime, Horse, Ochre Jelly, Shrieker, Spiders, Yellow Mold.  (“If the monster’s alignment is not given, it may be assumed to be an unintelligent beast that will attack anyone who comes near,” p.22.)

     Holmes Alignment Diagram from First Edition. If anyone has a bigger scan they can send me, it would be much appreciated.

Holmes and 4e
I am not very familiar with fourth edition D&D, but I note right away a structural similarity between it's alignment system and Holmes.  If we follow widespread assumptions hinted at in D&D materials before 2nd edition, and list the alignments from LG (purportedly the most good) to CE (purportedly the most evil), we see a striking structural (and terminological) similarity.  This is complicated only slightly the fact that Holmes also left a number of monsters without alignment -- one might be tempted to say, unaligned -- thus hinting that perhaps Holmes saw Neutral as a substantive alignment.  However, since intelligent creatures, including humans and superhumans, are unaligned in 4e, it may be that there is still no significant difference, and that Unaligned may simply cover more alignment landscape, but broadly of similar make-up.  I wouldn't be surprised if 4e's simplification of the two-axis, nine alignment system were directly inspired by Holmes.  The five alignment system does not come naturally to me: from experience, I am much more comfortable with either Law-Neutral-Chaos or the more baroque Gygaxian Nine that went forth and conquered the gaming world,  However, setting the five out on a continuum as below, and assuming that there is an indication of movement from most good to least good/most evil (left to right), then that might make more sense to me than four forces (or dimensions) producing only five alignments, rather than nine.  I'd be happy to hear from anyone who has additional information on Holmes and alignment or on alignment in 4e.

Comparison of Alignment Systems
Lawful Good
Chaotic Good
Lawful Evil
Chaotic Evil
Lawful Good
Chaotic Evil

Monday, December 12, 2011

Last Minute Christmas Cards?

Looking for something that's seasonal but flies your geek flag?  Check these out.  A friend of a friend knows him.  Pretty cool, eh?  Anyway, he's Myles Pinkney and I hear he's a good guy as well as a talented artist.

Holmes' Underworld: A Prelimary Sortie

Flimsy Excuse for Kate B. Picture, Accepted

One of the things that struck me as I read The Maze of Peril was Holmes' regularly referring to the realms of underground dungeons that are the destination for his adventuring characters as the Underworld -- complete with capitalization and definite article.  This fits with the terminology of Dungeons & Dragons, edited by Eric Holmes, 1977-79, where he uses the term, though uncapitalized.  I haven't counted, but I believe that he actually prefers "the Underworld" to the term, "dungeon" in the novella.  I am curious if his adoption of the term simply reflects passages is his source materials (Men & Magic, Monsters & Treasure, The* Underworld & Wilderness Adventures, Greyhawk, Blackmoor, and Eldritch Wizardry), or if it occurs at a statistically higher rate.  If the latter is the case, and if this usage tracked with his usage in other writings, we would reasonably conclude that the preference in usage here is deliberate, and that in works where he reflects his own judgments rather than summarizing those of others, he prefers to the more game-bound term, dungeon, the traditional term that evokes mythic works and themes.  But to what extent and with what confidence we could assert that Holmes preferred the Underworld to the dungeon, and whether it seemed to be more a matter of his continuing the earlier verbal practices of D&D (pre-AD&D) or more a reflection of his conception of the presumed setting of D&D adventures, could only be asserted through more careful investigation.

I am, of course, not making any claims to any originality in my discovery that Holmes likes to call to our minds the Underworld.  I am, rather like Chesterton, the yachtsman who went off on a voyage, only to land on a shore where was raised a fantastic fane.  Raising my flag of discovery on what is so obviously a foreign shore, I learn that I am merely in Brighton.  Maybe everyone is tired of me fanning on Zenopus, but I'm not done: Note the subtitle of his Archives is Exploring the Underworld of Holmes Basic Dungeons & Dragons, playing on his usage and the other meaning of "underworld."  (When you are not reading Zenopus or Holmes, feel free to take a break with Chesterton's Orthodoxy, which you can read online for free if you don't want to get out to the library.  This isn't the first time I've had occasion to point it out.)

The Implication
With my predilections, which I assume are pretty clearly on display in the name of the blog as well as in various posts, I resonate to Holmes' continually referring to the Underworld.  In the novella, the party of Zereth, Boinger**, Murray, and their various allies and hirelings initially enter the Underworld because it is the legendary treasure house of ancient riches and magic (cf. "The party then enters the underworld, tries to capture the maximum treasure with the minimal risk and escape alive," p.41 in the rulebook.) They return due to complications of their first visit, which leaves them with unfinished business: including not only personal business, but the classic trope of a threat to the surface world uncovered through their adventuring.  But broadly this fits the pattern of characters going to the Underworld because that is where the treasures are.  In the novella, the treasures end up being more varied than the gold and magic that is initially the object of the venturing.

The Paradox
As D&D's identification of the planes evolved, multiple Underworlds took shape: Hell, the Abyss, the Underdark, and so forth.  These Underworlds might have little or nothing to do with a dungeon, depending on the location.  This is so much the case that a child of Moldvay+AD&D such as myself, familiar with a good deal of D&D that is post my formative experiences, had to be have someone actually draw my attention to the dungeon-Underworld connection.  (As I have previously indicated, the pieces by Philotomy, found here and here.)  In retrospect, it seems incredible that someone had to suggest this to me, and that it was not something simply and consciously apparent.  That someone who's academic field is not unrelated to mythology had to have this pointed out to them, is indicative to me of how disconnected what I take to be a relatively unexceptional D&D experience became from the stories of Persephone, Orpheus, Odysseos, and Aeneas.

Underworld as Antithesis
Though the party of adventuring characters is made (at various points) of the diverse races of human, halfling, dwarf, and elf, the Underworld is not the home of any of these races.  This point is driven home by the fact that one of the main characters, Zereth, is a dark elf.  Unlike the Gygaxian dark elves (=drow), Zereth is not an inhabitant of the Underworld (or what Gygax named the Underdark).  Apparently what constitutes a dark elf for Holmes is not moral darkness concomitant with a cosmological unnaturality that has a magical expression in an unnatural skin color (like obsidian, not a mundane dark skin tone like we associate with Africans) that belongs in the Underworld, but merely mundane skin color.  (This reminds me of Peter Griffin in the Family Guy episode who, upon being told he cannot play a paladin and use a helm of disintegration responds, "Oh.  Then I'm a black guuuuy...")  Again, the point is the otherworldliness of the realm of adventure, over against the home of the heroes who, despite all their diversity, belong together as members of the same world, not with the monsters of the Underworld.

The Takeaway
Reading Holmes has reaffirmed and encouraged my decision to always think about any specific dungeon in terms of its relation to the Underworld.  Even if a given dungeon is not strictly a planar location, it is somewhere on the planar continuum: a locale that is not strictly mundane, but at least in the process of crossing down into the Underworld and hence populated with monsters, perils, and treasure that indicate an environment whose characteristics are increasingly uncanny and supernatural as one descends.

Genesis: The Gift of Life by Miguel Covarrubias, 1954.  The Dallas Museum of Art.

* See Zenopus A's comment below.  Also, this image.
** I hope no one actually pronounces the name as Boing-er in their head as they read.  Bo-in-ger or -jer allows one to not be distracted by a silly halfling name.