Saturday, February 22, 2014

Howling Across the Chasm

When the time comes for describing the monster the GM looks up and to the left, searching for the words,  and the hands come out and begin delineating and caressing the invisible contours of this thing they are imagining. The players are transported, to some extent, by this performative enactment of monstrosity. It is not merely the actual description of the monster but the struggle for description that bears the aesthetic reward. There is a moment of shared mythopoieia where the GM is delving in their visual imagination and the players are doing the same and the fruit of that description, the mental image and conception of the thing is born in everyone's mind, fresh and immediate and consensually realised. Then the players take that emergent image of the monster and embed it in the situation they find themselves in and it becomes a threat or an opportunity, a mystery or an unmitigated calamity unfolding.

That such a thing can occur at all in the context of aesthetically mediated group-bonding rituals is wonderful to me. That it occurs all the time, as a matter of course is even more so. The storytelling instinct and the competitive instinct and the yearning for group one-heartedness humans possess innately makes this miracle commonplace, to be taken for granted. 

There are two distinct kinds of excitement I am interested in that can arise from the moment of description. The first of these is the dawning familiarity/dread response: "You see a wrinkled sphere hanging in the gloom atop which writhe a number of short tentacles and from the midst of which there glares a single baleful..." "Fuck, Beholder! Run!" The second is the unfolding mystery response which makes me think of my own first D&D session - I encountered a rust monster and a carrion crawler, neither of which I had any notion of beforehand and both of which made a very strong impression on me such that subsequent encounters engendered in me the dread response, the thrill of which was all the keener from the disastrous initial meetings.

I am a bit jaded about settings and scenarios that only use established, folklorically entrenched D&D beasties. There is an OSR tradition of using such creatures in novel combinations and in new ways which is laudable but not what I am chasing here. There is also the accumulated technical knowledge of ways and means of dealing with monsters that brings with it a certain kind of slick satisfaction - even if that satisfaction is derived from huddling in a grimy corner trying to bless the last crossbow bolt before the rakshasa finds you and provides a tragic finale to your travails. These things have their own particular aesthetic appeal but I would like to investigate other ways.

The other way I have always striven to pursue is to try to reboot the process. To begin anew with whatever descriptive powers I can muster to break through to the freshness of things as-yet-unimagined. From whence will inevitably commence the diminishment of novelty. If it can be engineered that this slow death of wonder can be made to pass through phases of notoriety or fond familiarity then all the better. 

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Foreshadowing

In published scenarios it is not uncommon for there to be examples of the literary device of foreshadowing. Rumours and portents precede the thing towards which the PCs are being guiltily ushered (often in direct contravention of accepted orthodoxies regarding railroading). Conversely, wandering monsters are almost never foreshadowed save as plausible inhabitants of certain habitats. If you go traipsing through the Accursed Principality of the Dead and encounter Spindle-Ghaists tripping bonily along the very nature of the place has done the work of priming the players' expectations for something gaunt and necrophilous, but there is scope for introducing other means of telegraphing intention to ramp up dread. Wandering monsters are usually just there, a sudden unpleasantness to add artful disarray to a situation that was probably going terribly awry in the first place.

So, as a means of fleshing-out the environments through which the PCs travel and of producing a sense of foreboding it would be aesthetically pleasing to have signs that precede the appearance of wandering monsters. Something like;

Dost thou wander the Lackly Veil? Roll each morning and evening upon this table;

1. Reek of burning hangs in the air and trees bear jagged wounds. Distant screams as of animals in pain. (Ugsome Boors)
2. Cruel honking geese harry and harrass, following at a distance, regarding with sinister sidelong glances or darting in to bite. (Aglæcwif)
3.The land about seems suddenly gaunt, pinched and harrowed as with years of hunger. Something rumbles from afar. (Grunzel-gullet)
4. Twittering starlings shrill and flock, innumerably multifarious, surging and warping on the northern wind. (Sceadugenga)
5. Huge footprints as of some elephantine behemoth have torn the countryside. Morning fog lasts too long. (Pukelin Tark)
6. In a mournful quiet, sparse and wiry grass grows in old lime-pits and red clover nodding in the breeze. (Marlebrute)

etc. 

Following such a foreshadowing and assuming something in the manner of an onward trajectory or feckless tarrying (rather than immediate withdrawal and/or other countermeasures) there is a 50% chance that the next wandering beastie corresponds to the foreshadowing (or if multiple things have been foreshadowed 25% or 16.7% or 12.5% each or whatever). The aesthetic intent here is the establishment of linkages, of apparent depth in an essentially procedural reality where depth can be hard to come by. 

I dislike the idea of determinism and the removal of agency but keenly love doom and foreboding. It would be nice to have the PCs discussing intently whether to go on up the Worm-Road knowing they'll probably meet the Pukelin Tark that tore out Pieter's lungs or go back around the hills where the starlings flock and risk forgetting their own names.
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So there's this thing:

Monster Reaction Table 

Roll Result 

2 Friendly, helpful                        
3-5 Indifferent, uninterested 
6-8 Neutral, uncertain                  
9-11 Unfriendly, may attack 
12 Hostile, attacks                       

The reaction table is the vastly underused social mechanic I tended not to use. I saw it as an excuse to skip past the important funny voices component of the game. I now see it as an armature upon which vast quantities of setting-specific colour can be hung, fluff crunchified, fashionable curly shoes and ruffs and virtuosic sackbut performances rescued from obsolescence.

More on that later (or maybe never if you're lucky). It suffices to say now entities have a hostility rating, ranging from -9 (St. Cumbertwilde on her Sanguine Ass) to +17 (Vehement Rutabagas). PCs can have some effect on this with gentle croonings or bribes of food etc. but the general rule is that different things exhibit different behaviours. I recall the thing of most interest to me in the crowd-sourced Grognardian endeavour - Petty Gods - was the concept of individualised reaction tables. Reaction need not be a consistent spectrum but a set of behaviours specific to the behaver and modified by affordances particular to its predilections.

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So that the discerning GM may interlard their nattering with a few choice phrases without resorting to the stultifying tedium of boxed text I have chosen to give descriptions of these beasties in collections of fragments. Of course, the danger that the fragments themselves may infect said GMs' tones with the recitative droning inflection typically derived from reading shit out may be circumvented through judicious insertion of an implied et cetera after the suggested phrases and the use of (hopefully pre-sparked) imagination. There are plenty of details in these fragments conducive to dramatic description.

For a while it's been floating in my head as an alternative approach to the verbose gibberish I usually employ but Jacob Hurst's Dire Boar Den Information Layout Thingy has encouraged me to experiment.

- Also, no more descending armour class. I relinquish orthodoxies reluctantly but recognise finally that I'll be able to maintain the mechanical parsimony I desire at the same time as not doing that little mental calculation every time. It isn't an enormous effort but any means of doing away with unnecessaries appeals to me.



Pilshach Oobit                                                       
Brutish Earth Sprites



Foreshadowings:

Moldiwarps emerge from their diggings to sneer and gloat.
-The land is strewn with boulders that seem curiously out-of-place and haphazardly arranged.
- Sensitive souls get the sensation they are being regarded with ill-will from among the stones.
-Everything seems heavy and trudgingly onerous. 

Appearance: Four-foot tall lumpen boulderish demon-thing

Elemental Menace: unearthly brutality of essence, alien hate, archaic loathing, weird dark thwarted intensity, hollow black sockets like holes in the world

Guttural Musicality: Singsong droning dirge, thunderous barking, quaint unaccountable ponderous dancing

Catastrophic Tumbling: sensation of vast weight and incredible force, quaking earth, embodiment of disaster and panic

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Upon Investigation of the Remains: They appears to be made of boulders and blood and bits of lambent silvery ore, 1d6 x 10 groats' worth apiece

To the Scholar of Paynim Lore (Heathen Language + INT check): The Oobits are sung of in the old songs as guardians of the thresholds between the earthly realm and realms of impenetrable density where the mountains dance and the sky is made of stone. The Dun-Trows know something of their ways and the uncouth mummery of the festival of Burian-Kirk is said to recount the parting of the Pilshach and Pulchrie Oobits in the long-ago springtime of the world.

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Hostility: Intensely Inimical, +7 to reaction rolls

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Oobit -  (1d6) AC: 18 HD: 4 #Att: 1 chomp or special dmg: 1d8 MV: 6 AL: C
Special: Tumbling: The Oobit must dance quaintly and sing gutturally for one round prior to this attack, 1d20 dmg, save vs. paralysis or be knocked prone
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Mallagrugous Welkintrout                                            
Supramundane Piscatorial Monstrosity
Foreshadowings:

- Minnows or frogs fall in a rainstorm
- A fishwife goes irrevocably mad, gesturing violently at the sky, ranting about a redness in the north
- A missing child is found dismembered in a tree, unspeakable glistening mucus drips down.
- There is a dismal reek that passes in the night. Perchance a wet flapping is heard.

Appearance:

Abysmal Foetor: Like;  - the dredgings of an ocean trench,  - a whalefish disemboweled, - the open grave of a rancid giant, an eye-watering awfulness at a hundred paces.

Glaring Fishy Eyes:  dead-eyed gloating malice, alien curiosity, otherworldly hunger, startling wrongness

Fanged Pugnaciousness: hideous array of vicious fangs, horribly ragged maw, snapping jaws, bristling with dagger-teeth, talon-fins and wing fins flailing

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To the Scholar of Inimical Otherworlds (Alchemists' Argot + INT Check): The thing probably originates from the ocean-skies of the Outermost Firmaments, beyond the poison-blue Empyrean of Night Everlasting. It can only have flown down to tellurean realms at the behest of a thaumaturge of considerable puissance.

To the Desperate Hooligan: The talons and fangs may be salvaged for use as shoddy weapons (i.e. breaking on a 1) doing 1d4 dmg. They smell very bad. Those struck need save vs. poison or be sickened (see below).
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Hostility: Very Nasty, + 5 to reaction rolls
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Welkintrout -  (1) AC: 15 HD: 3+7 #Att: 1 bite dmg: 2d6 MV: 6, Fly 24 AL: C
Special: Ungodly Stench, Save vs. poison within 20' or -3 to hit from vomiting. 
Uncleanness, Save vs. poison when struck or be infected with debilitating pustulent odium -1d6 CON per day unless a further save is successful, two consecutive saves needed for recovery. 
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The Tatzelwurm of Bastardly Hark                        

Creeping Squamous Odium

Foreshadowings: 

- Crickets shrill with fiendish triumph at the dying of the day.
- The trees and plants hereabouts are pallid and sickly. Hemlock blooms with fervid vitality.
- Dull-eyed lizards watch from  mossy niches.
- Carven deep in trees and stones is the figure of a twisting snake. Corroded fragments of chain  are found in the vicinity.

Appearance: Two-legged dragon-thing the size of a man

Baroque Grotesquerie: Weird ornate scaled anatomy, spiny and tattered, bristles and hooks and talons, undulating nastiness, awkward crawling and creeping, writhing worm-tail

Demonic Malevolence: Horrible gloating and hissing, gnashing and spluttering, drooling virulent spittle, tormented snarling

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Hostility: Inimical +4


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To the Historian of the Empire (Imperial Tongue + INT check): Of old in this region it is told an Imperial outpost was held to ransom by a poisonous serpent that demanded a seasonal tribute of maidens. By the actions of avaricious knights and by grasping clergymen caught up in bloody internal strife was it laid low. Now only yammering shades haunt its empty hall.

To the Canny Tracker (Language of Beasts or Lowlander Tongue + WIS check): Following the furrows and poisoned weeds back to its foetid lair the hoard it stole in ages past can be found. The Tatzelwurm's venom is on it such that anyone handling it recklessly saves vs. poison at +2 or goes down like a pollaxed steer for 1d4 rounds. 

The Hoard consists of;

- Three Falchions of Dwarfish Temper with scabbards and baldricks chased with gold -250 groats apiece but of Svartling make - Blæingr, Brusi and Baldrekr shall seek out the bearers of these and flay them alive.

- Two Silver Reliquaries bearing the bones of Heretic Saints (Bombasticus and Gnoldo) - worth 200 groats apiece but representatives of the One True Church are 50% likely to denounce the bearers and call for their excommunication.

- Ducal Signet Ring - worth 120 groats for the gold alone but potentially substantially more for the Imperial Crest (sadly of a lost and discredited house)

- 1298 groats in assorted solidii, guilders, stivers and half-crowns

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Tatzelwurm - (1) AC: 16 HD: 5+2 (hp: 27) #Att: dmg: 1d10 + poison MV: 9 AL: C
Special: Poison: Save vs. poison or flop around haplessly moaning for 2d4 turns
Threshing Flurry: When reduced below 10hp the Tatzelwurm will writhe its spiny form about in a snarling frenzy causing opponents within 10' to save vs. dragon or suffer 1d8 dmg from its barbed anatomy.
Curse: Three times a day the wurm can bestow a curse causing a character to be consumed with the lust for gold, save vs. spells each time another withholds gold or attempt their murder within one day.
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Ark Raven                                                                
Antediluvian Avian Hierophants



Foreshadowings

Vast webs of intrigue perpetrated by jackanapes and boobries under the tutelage of corrupt abecedarians ensorcelled by demented druidical priestesses commanded by a cabal of unseelie princes et cetera. Behind all of it, eventually, will be Ark Ravens.

-In the dim vaults of their ancient seclusion are mouldering nests of tomes and scrolls, tablets and runestones and ogam-staves and myriad other glyphic artefacts in crumbling strata from inconceivable aeons, forgotten now by all save the waddling scions of the elder world.

Appearance: Featherless flightless birds, four feet tall

Features: 

Waddling Decrepitude: Wizened awkwardness, nearsighted, shambling, wrinkled hide, raspy croaking voice, mouldy stink

Aura of Ancient Wisdom: Hard bright eyes, vast store of sarcasm, cruel and mocking laughter, riddling speech, immortal pragmatism and patience

Hostility: Harsh +2

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Ark Raven - (1) AC: 12 HD: 2-7 #Att: dmg: 1d4 MV: 12 AL: N 
Special: Enchantments:1/rd at will; charm person, sleep, cause fear, hold person, bestow curse, charm monster, geas, mass charm. 
Uncanny Foresight: rolls d12 for Initiative rather than d6
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To the Scholar of Obscure Lore (Imperial Tongue, Heathen Tongue and The Language of Birds + INT check): There are faded legends of prophets and the fathers of the fathers of pagan kings who spoke to a birdlike race that lived in the deeps of the earth since before the stars were kindled. It is said they taught wickedness to the elves and avarice to the dwarfs and folly to feckless manlings newly woken in the world. They shall come again.

Wednesday, January 29, 2014

In the Jolly-Boat


There is a moment when you've got to get off the big boat and start paddling to shore and fucked if I have any understanding of how that particular process goes. The mystery that is on the shore is unfathomable. I'm not there but am paddling still.

I have been trawling through early Weird fiction of late and can say that Hodgson would be masterful with a little restraint. Haggard is proto-Weird and suffers from the same hokey bullshit characterisations as Burroughs and Merritt (which I guess is a pulp thing, or an old-timey thing). Merritt can't stop going on about light and colour and has the whole virtuosic inventiveness meets mediocre storytelling thing going on, I can see simultaneously why he was so popular and influential and is now relatively forgotten. Burroughs name-drops contemporary scientists like Lovecraft though perhaps not quite so embarrassingly. Blackwood is my favourite so far. Blackwood has the rather commendable quality of having not been impressed by Lovecraft (though Lovecraft was very impressed by old Algernon). The Willows is a ferocious thing of fiendish inscrutableness, it does not give anything away unnecessarily but what it gives is good.

Ho, chitchat, Xenia, generous Flailsnails referees, the lubricants by which social intercourse is made to run smoothly. Here are things which are not the heart of the matter but peripheral fripperies you'll have to traipse through to achieve the thing. More jolly-boats and dwindling shorelines, prevaricating headwinds. Game is not art but social-bonding ritual masquerading as communal aesthetic experience or vice-versa, wandering up and down the play-art-religion spectrum, daring itself to take itself seriously, taking too large bites, paddling. Don't go burrowing.

Gnome stew gives me nothing.

Requisite paragraphs achieved, content ensues;

1. A wind carries with it the sharpish tang and chill of storm and from the seaward horizon rises a hail-green malevolence of roiling thunderhead. The squall breaks flinging ice-shards and biting rain and whips the ocean to a seething and a waterspout roars out of the depths hurling piranha-fish a-gnashing on the ravenous wind.

2. The balmy air is fragrant with a curious perfume of long-lost land that fills the mind with visions as of another life long ago and far away. In the mind's eye a verdant furnace-realm of topless towers and a vastly upward yearning unto green skies where leathery grey things fly that croak and bellow in the burning air. Something abominably too-like lust stirs and with it a terrible loathing.

3. In the ocean's shallow azure brilliance writhe the impossibly vibrant forms of sea-snakes in superb and meticulous traceries of virulence unparalleled, that merely looking upon them too long causes the eyes of the watcher to split and bleed. The very waves that wash over their display hiss with the venom.

4. Among the dappled light and shadow of gently undulating kelp fronds is glimpsed a dappled curvaceousness. Closer inspection reveals a wallowing sirenian in playful mood that wakens unaccountable vistas of forbidden carnality. All else recedes before the tide of urgent longing and the drowning brine all-too eagerly engulfs.

5. Skin swells and seethes and from within come chitinous nodules that burst into barnacled masses that crust over the faces of sufferers with hideous rapidity. They can't stop laughing wild and shrill.

6. Out on the hazy grey distant shore a weird ululation as of something vast and fell and dreadfully eager fills the heart with a primal dread. Waddling ponderously onto the beach afar is a thing like a grey penguin bigger than a windmill, great yellow eyes agleam with a fiendish curiosity. It hurls its sleek enormousness into the surf and approaches with terrible speed, warbling as it breaches.

7. Close to the shore, beyond the reef, a warm lagoon, shallow, filled with stony protuberances like giant petrified toadstools lapped by the tide. Wrongness sings silent in the stillness of the stone. Intruders twitch and yammer and bloom with a fecund stench as internal alchemies recalibrate themselves in obedience to the thing that thrums in this place.

8. There are bodies on the beach, drownlings tangled in the wrack. Turn one over. It is you. Falling into the sky.

9. Maundy Jill or Skittlebridge throws something up into the bottom of the boat. Black and piteous little manling, half-a-fish and mewling in the scum. Red mouth gaping. Other black shapes are in the water, calling it home.

10. A shadow athwart the sun presages the approach of a teratorn like unto a black vulture-heron grown vast through aeons uncountable. It comes a-flapping out of an elder age, trumpeting its mournful cry.

11. Turbulences drag and suck and thrust the jolly-boat against a reef that seems to rise too violently to crack and splinter the feeble craft,tumbling its passengers into the surge. The riptide rages. There is seeming malice in the currents that endeavour to drag to drowning depth or tear against the jagged coral. Hungry little sharks watch the struggle.

12. The cannon fire seems at first incongruous and the initial shot falls short. Away back at the Gomorrah even at four-hundred yards can be heard the laughter of the drunken damned and seen the capering on the poop-deck. They reload quickly as the hulk sets ragged sail.

So, yeah, approaching something vast and ancient and unknowable. Numerical parameters of the aforementioned misfortunes do not exist yet because the thing is but an embryo or a furtive paddling ashore. I am one of those ducklings that doesn't want to be pushed out of the tree. Besides, d100 tables are in vogue now so I'd like to do one of those for the jolly-boat chapter. It is admittedly unlikely.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Uttermost South



I frequently scrawl in notebooks because of situational restrictions ( at times self-imposed) then I lose the notebooks. Later on I find them while cleaning or looking for something else and what is written within immediately and inevitably distracts me from whatever useful task I am performing. The person who wrote that stuff knew precisely what I like and seems to be endeavouring to reconfigure reality and art in just such a manner as is ever my intent, and yet, some quirk of my drug-addled memory has invariably wiped away all recollection of setting down the words or encapsulating the thoughts and so the text smites my eyes afresh, a thing novel and tailored to my own personal proclivities. 

 Much of what finds its way onto the blog has precisely this genesis - excavated from papery strata and subject to some kind of semi-coherent palaeontological reconstruction of the original intent, a fleshing out of the skeleton of ideas from the scrawl-armature in which they lie coiled. 

 Among these texts are mentions of the Uttermost South setting, the which has no cohesive form but is of necessity and intent without concrete conception. The notion of it is rooted in a concept - The Retreat of Wonder - that I've been fecklessly mulling over for some time. Essentially, as nescience recedes with the accumulation of discoveries so too do the mysteries of the poetic and the transcendent recede with it. Fairies at the bottom of the garden give way eventually to fabulous beings in foreign countries and as those countries are rendered mundane by discoveries the fantastic projections of the desire for wonder flee beneath the earth and to nearby planets and distant times and are again and again banished by enlightenment, further and further away. 

 This phenomenon works both ways, though. As scientific enquiry clears the local regions of space-time of pockets of ignorance where disbelief may be easily suspended, so too does it vastly expand distant realms where our fertile inventive instinct can project embodiments of the awe and terror it is in our nature to feel. This has ever been my explanation of Lovecraft and of his popularity and influence (and importance to literature), he recognised the dissolution of the Humanity's paramount position in the cosmos as deep-time and space and the successive Copernican, Darwinian and Freudian revolutions of consciousness rendered obsolete the old paradigms. In their place Lovecraft was able to set up a new nihilistic paradigm where vast new nesciences were able to be populated by new demons. 

 I don't think this process will ever end, the demons dog our every step and they'll always find somewhere to hide. I reckon they're busy colonising outposts of meme-space and distant 'branes and lurking in wait our genes. 

 As for the South, it crept into my mind the first time I watched Peter Jackson's ridiculous King Kong in late 2005 (I call it ridiculous despite the fact it made me weep with joy at the time). Skull Island, where Kong lives, struck me as being precisely the kind of region of mystery I described, where the projections of early 20th-century folks are concentrated, all the mystery and danger and preposterous wonder alive and wild and free, and at precisely the time the last blank bits of the map are being filled-in. I think it is no mystery that it is at the time in history when lost-world and lost-race fiction is at its height the final stages of the Modernist project of mapping and colonising the Earth was taking place. But the last flourishes of projection were deliciously fanciful, undiscovered islands and plateaus and the hollow earth itself fairly festering with every kind of prehistoric marvel. This era of confabulation gave rise to planetary romance fiction once the lost worlds started to stretch credulity.* 

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Beyond this particular thread of inspiration is the fact of my being Australian. Living on the wrong side of the world I've always consumed fantasy predicated on familiarity with a temperate northern landscape that is utterly unfamiliar to me. I live in a subtropical environment characterised by riotous verdure and great biodiversity - there are more tree species on most of the sites I work (doing ecological restoration) than in all of Europe. The landscape that is familiar to me is the stuff of colonial-era fantasy and nightmares; all manner of poisonous serpents, giant kingfishers' mocking laughter, platypus-haunted rivers, innumerable things that bite and sting, beasts that hop about instead of run, and bear their young in pouches, black swans and inverted seasons. Onto this reality I have projected the familiar northern European tropes of fantasy and found the juxtaposition somewhat jarring. 


The southern parts of the world interest me now, or rather, the concept of South in the northern mind. South means separated by time and space from the comforts of civilisation and reason. It is an inherently irrational direction and legitimately subject to suspicion. There was a time, not so long ago, when sailing into the Southern Hemisphere of the world was like travelling to another planet, an alien world where precious orthodoxies fall away and the pre-eminence of civilisation is brought into question through exposure to manifestations of the untameable universe.


 "We are accustomed to look upon the shackled form of a conquered monster, but there — there you could look at a thing monstrous and free." 

Conrad, Heart of Darkness 

There is a greater metaphor at play here. The wild south awakens a realisation of the wild in humanity. We are inextricably part of that wilderness. We came ravening out of it at the dawn of time and it will always be in us.


 Key texts informing this aspect of Southern-ness are; Moby Dick, Heart of Darkness (of course), Blood Meridian, the films; Aguirre: The Wrath of God, The Proposition, The Tracker and Van Diemen's Land.



And the paintings of Albert Tucker and a whole bunch of other stuff that I've probably forgotten


The more pulpy stuff from the lost world era that I am interested in include H. Rider Haggard's She and King Solomon's Mines, Abraham Merrit's lost race stories, Burroughs' Palaeo-fiction, Journey to the Centre of the Earth, The Lost World and various stop-motion Dino-movies. Also; Mieville's The Scar and, at the farthest extreme, Lovecraft's Mountains of Madness and Call of Cthulhu. 


I'd say that's a J. Allen St. John cover.


 The thing the first lot of texts have that the pulpy stuff lacks is ferocity and gravitas and a willingness to burrow deep into the mystery of humanity in ways Edgar Rice Burroughs could never achieve.** To me what they represent is one of the central themes of the modern era: it matters not that your sacred texts declared you to be beyond reproach, the real universe is made of carnage and you're holding a knife. 



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 So that's South. I'm working on this idea at the behest of Jez Gordon, who saw something of a common thread in the settings of Australian OSR people (i.e. Crapsack sensibilities) and suggested that some or all of us work together to produce some writings on the theme for some kind of document or periodical we could put together. I think there are some brilliant people down hereabouts (and I include our south-eastern outpost, New Zealand, in hereabouts) and that such a thing has potential to be very, very good. The contribution I would like to make to such a document is a setting or a series of tools for the emulation and evocation of an environment of savage alien wilderness. The Uttermost South setting would be concerned with the colonisation of the Great Southern Land - Terra Incognita - incorporating elements of Australia and Darkest Africa and Amazonia as well as all those aforementioned projections of alien otherness. 


The Nameless Continent will become a penal colony, squalid hulks bear miserables banished from the light of civilisation to be cast up on the alien shore. At present, I don't know what they'll encounter there. What I do know is that it will be terrible. The Earth we inherited from our Palaeolithic forebears is largely bereft of terrors but there have been more terrible worlds. Nobody human has ever been grabbed by a Titanoboa or an Andrewsarchus but I imagine it wouldn't be pleasant. I'd like to investigate that level of unpleasantness. 


Few of those who have experienced the crocodile's death roll have lived to describe it. It is, essentially, an experience beyond words of total terror. The crocodile's breathing and heart metabolism are not suited to prolonged struggle, so the roll is an intense burst of power designed to overcome the victim's resistance quickly. The crocodile then holds the feebly struggling prey underwater until it drowns. The roll was a centrifuge of boiling blackness that lasted for an eternity, beyond endurance, but when I seemed all but finished, the rolling suddenly stopped. My feet touched bottom, my head broke the surface, and, coughing, I sucked at air, amazed to be alive. The crocodile still had me in its pincer grip between the legs. I had just begun to weep for the prospects of my mangled body when the crocodile pitched me suddenly into a second death roll. 



Val Plumwood, describing a run-in with a Saltwater Croc

 - I fully intend for this to be a collaborative effort, though I do not expect any contribution, whatever people want to do for this project is more than welcome. Jack Mack already made the suggestion that the currency be rum. This is now canon (and also awesome). _____________________________________________________ 

*It is worth noting that the highlands of Papua New Guinea remained isolated until the 1930s, this represents about a fifth of the world's languages and an enormous quantity of cultural and biological diversity hidden away from the rest of humanity until eighty years ago. 


** An interesting trick of Values Dissonance makes Burroughs' all-American "civilised" protagonists seem preposterously alien to my mind.



The unofficial theme song

Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The Root of all Evil

I have a thing where I am fascinated and appalled by the ramifications of gold being the source of all power in old school games. It makes me think of Blood Meridian and of Cortez and like all the things with which I am deeply emotionally entangled I prance and caper at the margins of the thing because I cannot stare into the heart of the mystery and cannot bear to try to hold it for fear it might be crushed by my apish forepaws. It reminds me also of this bit of Milton;

There stood a hill not far, whose grisly top
Belch'd fire and rolling smoke; the rest entire
Shone with a glossy scurf, undoubted sign
That in his womb was hid metallic ore,
The work of sulphur. Thither, wing'd with speed,
A num'rous brigad hasten'd; as when bands
Of pioneers with spade and pickaxe arm'd,
Forerun the royal camp, to trench a field,
Or cast a rampart. Mammon led them on,
Mammon, the least erected Spirit that fell
From Heav'n; for ev'n in Heav'n his looks and thoughts
Were always downward bent, admiring more
The riches of Heav'n's pavement, trodd'n gold,
Than aught divine or holy else enjoy'd
In vision beatific;

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So you've been tested in the crucible of direst peril  and won wealth as seems beyond the wildest dreams of mortal man. And now against unfeasible odds you've dragged it forth by the exercise of will and cunning and the expenditure of blood and magicks and by the favour of the gods. Here on the sunlit surface world you expect reward, staggering under the weight of booty and wounded comrades, going back to town. Thinkest thou thy trouble done?

Alan Lee, Petty-Dwarves



Roll 2d6 + 1 per thousand groats retrieved, a further +1 per special item

2-7. Lucky. No hustlers but watch out for bandits.

8. Local peons have various worm-eaten victuals and moldering accoutrements to sell at inflated prices which they'll attempt to press upon you with some degree of enthusiasm and vehemence.

2d4 appear. Demands: Triple normal prices for substandard shite

9. A band of apothecaries, quacksalvers, barber-leeches and the likesuch worthless charlatans descend, they will charge outrageous prices for ineffectual healing and dangerous remedies.

2d6 appear. Demands: 50 groats per healing. CON check each time, if successful gain one hit point, if unsuccessful lose one.

10. A troupe of travelling players and tinkers gather, selling popinjays and jackanapes and extravagant garb and flesh and mysteries and a hundred other things, hutling and gambling and getting you drunk, the prices are high but not absurd and the dozens of laughing children are all pickpockets.

4d10 appear. Demands: double normal prices + 1d6 pickpocket attempts per party member.

11. Desperate mothers with starving children in barrows and lepers and the scrofulous and plaguey come clamourous for alms and mercy in the name of all the saints. They follow and pluck at hems or prostrate themselves weeping in the path.

3d6 appear. Demands: at least 5 groats apiece and they'll leave you alone, any more and the numbers will double each day, a random miasma will accompany them.

12. A mob of drunken louts in clogs and rancid smocks and beshitten trews all armed with swingle-flouts and cudgels and dung-forks come offering protection 'gainst the unfriendly world, eager to ensure the gold does not fall into the wrong hands. Their leader has an open face and hard little eyes.

4d8 appear. Demands 10 groats apiece plus they'll attempt robbery at first sign of weakness. Their leader yearns to see gruesome and humiliating tortures enacted.

13. A wheedling, reedy and peevish reeve of the ward comes bearing documents signed and notarised by bonnet-lairds and burgomasters decreeing the immediate forfeiture of one half of all that has been borne out of yonder hell-gate, citing fees and tarriffs and tolls payable. Seven sneering horsemen accompany him of grim aspect and loaded crossbows.

Demands: half of all treasure, The horsemen are 1st-level fighters.

14. Painted blue and black, dark-eyed and tall comes a heathen warband thirty-strong. There seems to be a degree of acrimony amongst them regarding whether outright murder be the truest way but a sallow and sardonic bard among them comes forth to declare the land and its underworld theirs and their chieftain's by right and bloodline an hundred generations deep. All goods and chattels are to be seized immediately and all saintish priestlings shorn of hair and ears or the land will drink of thy drenching gore. 

Demands: 100% of everything + d8 dmg to clerics, 30 Heathens plus 2nd-level leader

15. Thunderously presaged by echoing hoofbeats comes a troop of heavy cavalry in rusted harness and bearing heads on pikes and such other grisly trophies of long campaign as are accumulated by those men to whom death and killing are a daily chore. They declare themslves outriders of a vast and terrible vanguard on the march to unseat an apostate demon-king from his ghastly throne and do vengeance to the night and all her legions. This crusade is imperative and it is hungry. 

Demands: 100% of all treasures or 80% +  joining the crusade, 20 3rd-level fighters plus 10,000 more soldiers on the march

16. A huffing little herald and his dangerously slouching bodyguard come to declare each of the party newly granted title and demesne in the name of the Emperor (in far-flung, squalid and untameable districts) in recognition of their efforts in beating back the enemies of all. Of course, the Empire requires ongoing pecuniary recompense for the building of roads and aqueducts and the garrisoning and outfitting of troops.
These titles are;

The Baroness Impecuniary
The Underking of the Blodsea
The Landgrave of Kettlesprechen
The Laird Grootmanke
The Marquess of Netherclough
Implacable Intransigent of the Erstwhile Fletches
etc.

Demands: 90% of treasure plus the same amount quarterly in perpetuity, the titles are worthless and potentially hazardous.

17. Trumpets sound and bells toll and gleaming in gorgeous panoply of glory everlasting comes an embassy of the Utmost Pontificate of the Ineffable Truth. Pale choristers step lightly through the mud and upon their heels one comes clothed in the raiments of sainthood riding a brindled nag. She accepts graciously the offer to sacrifice wordly cares to the construction of a new cathedral upon this spot. Clad in light and thunder comes an angel in her wake.

9th level cleric +2d100 in entourage + unpredictable angel. Demands: All wealth and perpetual devotion to the Truth.

18+. It seems that one has followed ever since we came out of the hole. A little man, gnarled and hunched.

1 dwarf. Demands: Your money and your life, and roll again.

Additionally it needs to be restated that all treasure carries with it the threat of avaricious dwarfish claim: 1% per hundred groats plus 20% per special item, this is in addition to other claimants.

Yes, I am a bastard and I think this is how it would be. Tolkien was right.

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Marmot Soap Angst

This is my obligatory anagram post. I've been listening to Rabelais again on audiobook in the forest and it got me onto a blog called Six Degrees of Thomas Urquhart, which is nice and allows me to indulge my logofascination, the which indulgence is one of the primary reasons for the existence of this blog (no secret really). So Zak brought up this site which I've been in love with before and I allowed myself the writing of this little post in which I mess with anagrams and mediaeval monotheism.

I also now have a tumblr; http://verminprong.tumblr.com/ onto which I dump lots of inspirational imagery for Middenmurk.


On a hunting trip in celebration of the achievement of her majority, the fourteen year-old Countess of Feigned Irony was seen to clamber through the summer air to impossible distance while waiting attendants shuddered in dumbfounded fear and watched her dwindle in the sultry heights. In the balmy evening among dancing fireflies she came down like an elegant meteor, incandescent and terrible, and devoured the entourage with celestial fury.

Thence in a crater of her newly-attained radiant selfhood did she tarry a while in contemplation of universal mysteries that had suddenly revealed themselves. And a heresy was born for many holy heads did joyously avail themselves of such an opportunity to grasp from the universe the offered semblance of righteously embracing of a truth 'twould topple the highs and mighties of others whose truths were long-enshrined in cathedrals of historicity and rivers of scribed ink.

Such is the way among the holy, holiness itself is not enough, furnished as it is with burthens of chastity and self-denial most galling to bear, to be holier than was the utmost aim and gilded with innumerable admirations. So tramped they hither and builded shrines nigh unto the abandoned pavilionade while summer faded. Imprecations were pronounced and theology woven from whole cloth, disagreed upon, torn apart and patched together on the crater's rim. The boldest heretics would venture into the burning pit to prostrate themselves before She who waited like an ember in the centre but her mystery was unfathomable, mortal minds could not conceive of it. Thus were they made into torches and became burnt offerings to that which cannot be conceived. Thus was this practice deemed unholy save for upon the feast day of the Aphasic Ladder.

The predictable ossification of the once-fluid theological debates occurred under the stifling influence of Einhardt, the Scalded Pariah. From this does his title derive: while circumambulating the crater on pilgrimage he was caught in the first of the boiling rainstorms that derive their heat from the celestial firestorm of Her ardour. He was burned but in his pain did he speak in the tongue of angels, others heard and were smote deaf by its purity unmerciful. His revelation was then agreed-upon as unnassailable Truth, a cyst builded for him of grey stone upon the crater's brink and daily would stone-deaf acolytes attend to him and bring his scrawled parchments of dogma to the hastily-constructed scriptorium.

The sacred texts out of the scriptorium are bound in leather and marked upon the cover with an Heraldic Spada, for so is named the langeschwert in Southering provinces and thus also 'mongst the delineators of blazonry. It is deemed a solar sigil and emblematic of her cutting disdain for perfidious backsliders and the likesuch unholy. Of these revealed parables are three held most high;

I. A Caliph's Adder tells of the serpent of an Orient potentate that bade him glut too eagerly of his concubinage and with intemperate zeal indulge in correction of perceived transgression and how this did see that fatuous magnate die by a virgin's razor.

II. Another text tells of how the Sesquipedalian Apocrypha of Balthasariandromachus was only partially correct about the flight of Aethelfleda, that the sentries upon that desolate hillside revealed she Hid a Paled Scar beneath her cowl, indicative of her persecution during the terrible Plaid Charades.

III. Redcap's Dahlia is a text that describes the most perfect blossom grown in the garden of a petty-noble by the boggle-bairn who was resident there and how this noble's expressions of gratitude manifest in such a manner as wounded the little gardener and turned his dedication to service into black loathing for light and life and keenest desire to defile reality with merciless abandon.

Otherwise the heresy is utterly orthodox in its heterodoxy. Nettle-scourging and ritualised starvations and kneeling penitences and bewailings of untranscendable materiality abound by the great cloud of steam that veils Her perilous beauty and fills the crater like a cauldron of curdled milk .
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Chaotics will be destroyed by spontaneous immolation upon setting foot into the crater.

Neutrals are assailed by steam and boiling rain -1d6 dmg to reach the centre but numb amnesiac stupefaction prevent any meaningful perception of her glory.

Lawfuls may pass into the centre and behold her as a pillar of fire, white-hot and terrible, and a roaring in the ears like constant thunder. They may ask questions that may resolve the occurrence of this bizarre theological anomaly but the answer to the fourth question is always ultimate destruction.

Should they ask the right questions they will learn of the whereabouts of Bartholomaeus Crumpe* and that he should be brought before her that he may seek forgiveness for his sin prior to his transcendence of materiality. This done she ascends, bestowing a seraphic ikon upon the souls of those petitioners who secured the transgressor.

_The Ikon is a whole 'nother experience level, contingent upon the maintenance of purity and avoidance of shellfish and young cabbages, upon consumption of which it is irrevocably lost.
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Sometimes when I feel like I am being coy and flippant with enormities I remind myself that other people eat the furry people with whom I hold inane one-sided conversations in paddocks sometimes, that aesthetics is abstract and most of my neuroses ain't got nothing to do with much in the real world. Anyways sorry if'n you is offended.


* As it happens, Crumpe has appeared before, what a fortuitous coincidence.


Saturday, December 14, 2013

Miscellany and Iambic Doggerel

So it has been a year since James Maliszewski's last post at Grognardia and the OSR is still a thing. Still no Dwimmermount, though. I read a lot of forgettable nonsense at Grognardia over the years but he was nothing if not consistent. In the interim I've largely stopped reading all the blogs as they generally shit me to tears*. Zak has perceptive things to say, of course, and I love Scrap and Patrick dearly for burrowing fearlessly into the living heart of the mystery. There is also a small knot of crazies including Logan and Arnold and Jack Mack and the gloomtrain kid and Pearce Shea that will be important in years to come. There is a trigger-happy quality to some of the newer stuff (esp. Logan's body-horror stuff) that makes me think the most influential texts of the OSR might just be Carcosa and LotFP. I am guilty in this regard also, I think Weird means surreal juxtapositions with no concern for politeness.  Original Weird was somewhat inspired by the erosion of the prevailing paradigm by the discoveries of deep time and space and the deep subconscious (makes me think the genre should be called Deep).

So, yeah, flirting with taboos - there is potential artistic material to be mined from a setting in which the awful prejudices of historical people are represented and exaggerated**. I'm particularly fond of dystopian nastiness and have a peculiar distaste for Flintstones settings where contemporary values prevail and whatever handwavium the setting runs on is responsible for the production of a contemporary standard of living.
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So I sicken of the way I've been writing my setting material and yearn for an easier way. I therefore attempted to exorcise the mawkish verbosity and faux gravitas that infects everything I write by writing a dungeon in blank verse. This didn't work. I've never actually written any subterranean stuff for the setting since I made peremptory stabs several years ago. In my mind, the underground is the Middenmurk proper and needs to be magnificently weird and horrible and possessed of a Northern Renaissance quality of flamboyant chimerical madness tempered with claustrophobia and disassociative feelings and it's too much and I daren't venture in. Patrick's Veins of the Earth setting captures the level of weird difference-from-the-expected I want to achieve while being, of course, different in its specifics.

Miltonian similes represent dangerous tangents to the inexperienced pentametrist. You are going off in one direction when you take the opportunity to describe something by saying what it's like then you plunge merrily into that comparison. Sometimes you forget where you are and start up another simile inside the simile, which is fucked. Aside from that I've clumsily allowed the structure to dictate the flow and struggled to not use single syllable words at the start of lines because the initial iamb demands an unstressed syllable and polysyllabic words in English tend to stress the initial syllable unless it is a prefix in which case it isn't stressed most of the time but sometimes is. I haven't actually written anything deliberately iambic before but have carried around bits of Paradise Lost in my head for decades so should have done better. Blame Patrick for the impetus. I'll do Anglo-Saxon alliterative couplets next.



The Sump of Gremory

And lo! Of how in ancient North did stand
Beneath a tinker-beaten pewter sky
The fellest manse of man's untimely fall
I here will tell to those who hearken near
On moor where malice makes her lonely home
Abandoned to the centuries and rot
A piled keep of dismal disregard
Umbrageous and repugnant borehole fane
Looms dark in dread defiance of His law
Above a shaft of seven hundred feet
That into deeply dolven dark did pierce
From which do noxious vapours issue forth
That carry the asphaltick reek of pitch
As like the odious breath of titan worm
That in its fretful slumber is disturbed
By dreams of plund'rous interlopers bold
Descending they the longest ladders down
Into those shadow-haunted Upper Hells
Where black in gilded gulches wallow foul
Th'accursed Elder Dragon's fearsome brood
That gloat and dream their phantasies of greed
And stoke in furnace-bellies the fires of hate
That when the oldest prophecies bear fruit
Shall all the waking world to cinders burn

So thither then do trudge the lowly few
Such bastard sons of those ignoble knights
Whose harness goes to rust in dusty vaults
Who quail to face the paynim's crooked sword
Such bastard daughters fled from whoredom's yoke
Who'd fain stick poniard into noble loins
And brave the heartless northern demon night
As bear the weight of drunken tyrant lust
To bear more bastards destined for the chain
Of servitude and labour until death
To fill the coffers of unworthy kings
These few and dastard folk in hardihood
In dire desperation snared and bound
Whose legacy unjust abandonment
From ruinous Empire is - Untimely flung
Unto the world's daemoniacal maw
Where hopelessness might hide the final hope
That from the Clootie-Man might gold be won
And wrastled from his avaricious grasp
Might all the hundred grails sacred be
That touched the lips of all the hundred Christs
And all the sacred pikes that speared them dead
And verdigris-encrusted crowns of kings
Who long have lain beneath the patient sod
Since giants overthrew their vaunting pride
Who rode against the titans of the dawn
And made the skies resound with heedless war

They gird their dauntless loins these feckless brave
They take up pitted hunting-knife and adze
And don their pilfered siege-caps 'gainst the stones
That faceless fiends who haunt the lonely ways
Oft hurl to dash out such unwary brains
As might not think to watch o'erhanging crags
They trudge the northward furrows gone to weed
And ravens follow them who kestrels are
Who bear a taloned will inside their breasts
And though in tattered fustian and hide
Do bear themselves like lion-mantled braves
That in archaic epochs did contend
With gorgon-whelps and fearsome anvil-kine
And vanquished with the thighbone of an ox
Entire armies clad in brazen scales
The slaughter-hungry fierce onrushing hordes
Like waves against unyielding rocks did crash
To dash themselves to ruin 'gainst such strength
As only in the dreams of man survives

To Empire's tattered brink they northward go
To hamlets made of wicker and of dung
And memories of the words of ancient law
That undefeated legions did enforce
And banners bright declaim and harpers sing
So tender were the rituals then and fierce
The shepherds of all souls to souls' reward
Did then enact that now all men forget
They caught the piercing beauty of the sun
To weave such webs of words that praised a truth
That held imperial majesty most high
And banished into darkness heathen things
But all are lost in echoes and the night
That follows after zenith - Now in dank
And furtive squalor do these pilgrims preach
Another revelation to the low
That nevermore would armies of the south
Give succor to those dwellers of the pale
Instead a slow retreat from northern climes
Would leave them lying naked in the storm
Had not a hundred omens come that told
Of doom unleashed from yonder darkest throne
Of prodigies that walk beneath the sky
That never should have woken in their tombs
Crops lost to blight and hexing-hags at play
And bargains made at crossroads with the damned
And only bitter will and sinew strong
And iron sharp and brightly burning brand
Borne into chasms 'gainst the hateful dead
Might win the precious plunder- Gleaming gold
And talismans of heathen sorcery
The keys to mighty kingdoms yet unfounded
Sequestered in the labyrinthine dark
Await the time their secrets are revealed

Then go they forth across the dismal fells
Through shattered principalities of stone
And tumbled wrack of bastion and fort
And harrowed by the desolation vast
Do stumble on through numbest grey fatigue
Arriving at the last to dreary ruin
Where yawns the portal odious and dark
That seven hundred thousand souls consumed
Who swindled to their deaths by charlatan lies
Must swell the ranks of legions of the damned
And count the gold and centuries of dark
In endless thraldom to His endless reign

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*But not your blog, the other blogs.

**Why not have pseudo-historical settings with derogatory racial caricatures and slavery and noxious gender politics? The prevailing orthodoxy that equates artistic investigation of problematic issues as problematic in itself deserves to be ignored and/or ridiculed.

Two posts in a week? I've cut down on coffee so am less insanely anxious and depressed and slightly more productive.

To both of the people who read this far, thank you kindly, it means a lot to me.