Sunday, October 13, 2019

Goblin Brain: Normalized Trauma

I had a dream last night.

Which is somewhat unusual- I very rarely remember my dreams. I'm sure I have them like most other living things do when they sleep, but memory of it hardly ever reaches me when I wake up.

This was different, though.

I had a dream that I had a friend (so you already know that it's completely insane and fanciful) who was a painter. And they invited me (out of my home) to their art gallery. And so I went.

I have no recollection of the space that the gallery was located in, or even the friend themselves- just that I had a friend, and that I was there looking at their things. And the gallery was peculiar. It was strangely appropriate for me, starting with the fact that everything was more-or-less goblin-sized, and the paintings were hung almost down by the floor for my convenience.

I can't remember much about most of them, but as I was traveling along the right-hand wall, I stopped in my tracks in front of one enormous landscape piece.

It called to me, I suppose?

And what it was, was this alien place. This world that was obviously meant to be something out of science fantasy, but very relatable on some level.

It was some sort of desert. There were satellites--natural satellites, that is--visible in the sky which was tinged a sort of purple color. There may have been some planet with rings around it far in the distance, I'm not sure. The sand and the rocks on the ground were kind of a bluish-grey color with yellowish streaks and highlights across them from the setting sun- one of the setting suns, at least. I remember the rocks had a metallic, almost greasy sheen to them like graphite.

There was a procession of beings walking through the desert. I got the impression that they were very tall, even though there was nothing to compare their scale to. Not outlandishly tall, but relative to humans--and certainly relative to me--they were pretty tall. They were fairly thin, too. They were humanoid, and sort of blue-skinned, I think. But not the same kind of blue as the land around them. They popped out from their surroundings quite visibly, somehow. They didn't have anything resembling hair, or horns, or any other sort of head protrusions. There was actually very little in the way of distinguishing characteristics between them. If they had anything like gender, I wasn't able to differentiate them.

But they all seemed to be walking in groups of three- two of approximately the same height, and one much shorter than the other two. Eventually I realized that they seemed to be family units. Parents and children. And there were dozens--hundreds?--of these units stretching all the way back into the sunset horizon. They were moving toward the foreground, until eventually the line twisted to the side where they entered some sort of large stone building which conveniently had the front of it cut off for the sake of my perspective.

I was able to look inside, where there was a sort of waiting room, and a much smaller chamber next to it. There was a much tighter congregation of people in the second room. There were several tall beings here who didn't appear to be parents, or at least they didn't have their own children with them. But they did have a group of other children with them.

It was at this point that I realized that another defining characteristic of these people was that each of them had a little socket in their forehead. The tall ones only had an empty space that was rectangular or diamond-shaped, with raised edges of thick and scarified flesh around them. Meanwhile the young ones had what looked like jewels- Brilliant little multicolored, multifaceted things poking ever so slightly out of their foreheads.

But when they reached this back room, they took out what I can only describe as a pair of pliers, and held the children down, and... removed them.

And it was obviously not a pleasant or willing procedure- the children had to be held down after all.

There was kicking, and screaming, and bleeding of a very dark, ichorous purple.

And when it was done, the children were bandaged up and moved over to the other side of the chamber, where there was a door leading out of the back of the building. At this point the parents, who had witnessed the removal and were looking far more exhausted than when they had come in, carried their children out. Or at the very least they shouldered their weight as they staggered on limply.

All of them had this expression of regret and sadness, tempered with this feeling of inevitability.

Like they dearly did not want to do this to their own children--to any children--but it was... required?

Expected?

I don't know how I was able to perceive all of this in a single painting. Either I imagined much of it, or my subconscious is was very, very good at ekphrasis.

(Is that how you say that word? I realize I never vocalized it when I learned about the concept in my class on Greek and Roman mythology.)

In any event, I believe I glanced down at the name of the painting before I left or moved on or the dream ended.

And it was titled "Normalized Trauma".

Appropriate.

I just wish I hadn't seen the mound of discarded jewels leaned up against the side of the building. I can't get it out of my head. Some of the jewels were very new and lustrous-looking, save for the encrusted blood. Others were old and faded. The pile was almost as tall as one of the adults.

It was also at the edge of the field. The field was filled with hundreds of mounds just like it.

Tuesday, October 1, 2019

The Tiamat-Ymir Principle.

Big creatures are vital to mythologies everywhere. They are the movers and shakers of the world, sometimes literally. They can be gods, or guardians, or monsters in need of slaying by a hero going through their standard-issue 17-point plan for greatness. And while their importance might often end with their deaths, their being dead can sometimes be of equal or greater significance to the narrative.

Sometimes the death of a Big Thing leads to the birth of much greater things. Even something as big as a world.

Mythological Context (AKA Feel-Bad Stories)

When the Babylonian goddess Tiamat discovered that her husband Apsu had been murdered by their children, the first generation of gods, she was furious. She took on the shape of a terrible sea serpent (or dragon, in her more pop-culturey depictions) and made a war of vengeance on her treacherous sons and daughters. She conjured the first dragons, and other monsters, as tools of her will. And when her son the storm god Marduk killed her, she was carved up into two halves and then mutilated.

Her eyes, still bitterly weeping even after death, were made into the sources of the Tigris and Euphrates rivers. Her ribs became the vault of the sky, her lower body the earth. Her tail was flung into the void to form the Milky Way. She was big enough to be made into the world that we live on, and in that way the Mother of Monsters is humanity's mother as well.



When the North Germanic giant Ymir was born from the thawing water that existed between the frozen realm of Niflheim and its fiery opposite Muspelheim, he didn't do much more than sit around sweating and drinking cow's milk straight from the tap. But from his armpit sweat and chafing thighs were born the jotun people, and from the salt lick that the cow Auðumbla tongued placidly was born Búri, ancestor of all the gods.

Eventually Odin and his brothers--all of them distant descendants of Ymir thanks to their jotun mother Bestla--came to slay him. Not because he had done anything in particular against them, though the gods did seem to think the giants were evil, even back then. They killed him because they wanted to become the rulers of earth and sky- things which did not yet exist in the yawning emptiness of Ginnungagap. So they fashioned the earth out of his flesh, mountains from his bones, trees from hair, the seas from his blood, the sky from his skullcap, storm clouds from his brains, and the entirety of the human realm of Midgard from his eyebrows.


Of course there are thousands more beings that die like this. Some of them are more benign and peaceful. I don't know of any existing term for it in proper mythography, but apparently Jungian theory calls it the Cosmic Man.


So What?

When Big Things die, they turn into bigger things. Like normal flesh-and-blood creatures they don't just vanish into the ether. They have bodies with physical pieces and parts, and just as we decay and get reused by nature, these parts can be separated and made into something else.

So what if this Tiamat-Ymir Principle™ applied to other things?

What if every significant beastie in a universe was able to turn into something upon death? And what if this process could be directed and controlled by the smaller creatures that kill them? Not just in the sense of cutting off a dragon's horns for weapons or scales for armor, but shaping an entire fortress or range of hills out of its body.

What if adventurers were less like thieving murder-hobos, and more like landscapers (but also still thieving murder-hobos)?

You get a setting where the classic pass-time of going out and killing big things has immediate, physical consequences in the world that even the least attentive party can see. The landscape can be transformed by accident or by deliberate act, either as a plot twist or as part of a plan made by any players clever enough to kill a titan.

What To Do With This

At this point I'm just throwing out whatever sounds nifty. It's not a unique idea at all obviously, but I never saw it called out and named before. Feel free to appropriate the idea however you see fit.



Landscaping- The world has always been home to colossal things and the little pests that murder them. It's a way of life. Hunt something, kill it, fashion a civilization out of its insides and then eat the rest. Monster Hunter, Salt in Wounds, etc.

But here, every landmark has a bloody, meaty history. That island in a lake was a wyrm that hit the ground so hard it formed a crater. Those mountains are actually a graveyard of stone giants being riddled with tunnels by dwarves like termites in so much rotting wood. This city was built with the fingerbones of a Hekatoncheires.

The world is defined by the monsters that live and die on it, and in attempting to master their environment the mortal species take a more hands-on approach.

The consequences of Big Thing death can be just as destructive as they are creative, of course.

Killing the monster harassing the town might make the road to the town impassable, or snarl the area in marshes, isolating the settlement from trade and travel and killing it more slowly. A wounded or naturally old being might be herded away from populated lands so it doesn't completely throw the region's topography into whack. Sending a titan running amok into enemy lands could inadvertently give them building materials for a new castle.

Maps could be made utterly useless every few years thanks to a brand new chasm or forest that definitely wasn't there before. Travel is never entirely secure. The world is living, breathing, and growing with every death, stacking up high on the literal bones of eons.



Terraforming- Space is a lot of empty, well, space. There aren't a lot of habitable worlds out there for most humanoids. But the void is home to giant things, living or dead. Think of the astral god-isles from Planescape. Most of these petrified deity remains probably occur from gods naturally losing followers and slowly decaying, but some must have been made suddenly, and by violence. Setting deicide aside for a moment, think of all the titanic alien beings that exist out in the gulfs of space, eldritch or otherwise.

If a sufficiently advanced civilization wanted to expand beyond its homeworld, but it could find no suitable planets to claim as their own, why not just make a new one?

Our "heroes" would be science-fantasy terraformers, tasked with tracking down a space Big Thing, killing it, bringing its corpse to a desired location, and then shaping its blood and bones into something that resembles home. If the creature had parasites, gestating young, or just a whole lot of gut fauna, perhaps this new world will offer unexpected competition or neighbors. This could be a process that takes centuries, or sufficiently powerful demigods could take care of it in a campaign or two.

And if the universe doesn't have the right kind of teleportation or flight magic, they're going to have to make a spaceship out of someone first.



Homegrown Gods- Paradise in all its forms has some overarching similarities, but just as many qualities are tailored to the people of a historical time and place. In many fantasy settings the gods either populate ontologically distinct planes after coming into existence, or they helped create them when they splortched this new universe out of cosmic goo.

Why not take this a step farther? In settings where gods are created by the hopes and prayers of mortals, and gods create their own planes, then are mortals not indirectly creating those heavens and hells for themselves? What if they cut out the middleman, so to speak?

Found a religion. It can be about anything, as long as it has a god or godlike being, and that being can be imagined in a body. Gain followers. Feed this blind, mindless godhead the thoughts and souls of thousands of like-minded people until it is a polished mirror reflecting back at them. Nurture your nascent deity, foster its growth and development. Teach it with ritual and scripture. Reward it with sacrifices like treats to a good child. Describe what the afterlife is like in your faith. Make your god strong enough to embody it and protect it.

And then kill it.

Butcher your god. Take its bones and craft a firmament. Shape the new land with its meat. Fill the air with its dying breath. Use its skin to line the boundaries of this new realm.

With your pandeicide complete, you and your followers may now enjoy an eternity or however many eons or kalpas your afterlife is meant to last, all to yourselves. Belief will continue to bleed into the landscape overtime, letting your infant plane grow.

Just don't let it slip to your living followers that god is dead and you killed him. Some philosopher might latch on and make a big deal of it.



Hunted- They're after you. The fiendish little upstarts. They've stopped playing with fire and digging holes in the dirt long enough to decide to kill you. Their champions are on the way, with magic potions and bright iron. Perhaps some of your kin assisted them. But it doesn't matter. All that matters is that they want to inflict that final and absolute shame upon you. They won't just kill you. They will take you apart and desecrate you. You will be devoured by lowly little things that are not even close enough to you for it to count as cannibalism.

There's no true escape. Chaos is vast, even infinite, but the hunter is tireless. They will always be right behind you. You can fight back, but they are great- greater than you, even. Your hubris would kill you before their swords did.

The best you can do is deny them their prize. Fight tooth and nail, and when those teeth and nails fall off, devour them. Allow nothing to fall into the hands of the enemy, for they will grow mightier for it. Live a perpetual fighting retreat. Leave a bloody trail across the length of the abyss.

They want a world. You will give them a battlefield.

Monday, September 30, 2019

A Brief Tourist's Guide to Notable Stops in Porylus Mons.

As our tour of the city continues, Kibra has been quick to point out every sight or structure of interest for our group. She would sound like a compensated tourist trap informant if she wasn't so genuinely enthusiastic about everything her topics have to offer, down to her points of interest which, I hope she'll forgive me for saying, I can't imagine many other people would find interesting.

How riveting is it that a series of mistakenly translated homophones resulted in one of the oldest inns in the city being named after a pet toad?

... Extremely, actually- at least according to Ciudo.

In any event, I have elected to share a report of some of the city's sites when we return home. Below is a portion of what Kibra has to offer us, curated for time.


Ewefield

When Kibra brought us to this site, we at first mistook it for an immense tract of pasture land slapped down right in the center of the city with the hill overlooking it. And to be fair, we were not entirely wrong in thinking that. There were after all several small herds of sheep grazing across the field.

What we did not know is that these sheep are gardeners rather than livestock, and they were being made to graze in that field not to grow fat, but to trim the grass in anticipation of an upcoming game.

The Ewefield is the largest sport field in Porylus, and has a history not so different from that of the oldest game fields in Deneroth- excluding all of the episodic violence and pig cheese, of course.

According to the local legend, the spot was picked out for for the city's founding games for its unique flatness. A great festival was in the works, and competitions on foot or on hoof were inevitable. But for some reason--possibly foul play, a lover's quarrel, or spillover from a heated academic debate about the spontaneous generation of small rodents--the group hired to cut the grass to regulation length was never paid, and so refused to finish the job. This would have delayed or doomed the games, if not for an accidental strike-breaking sheep farmer who drunkenly shepherded his animals onto the field the day before, rendering it perfect for use.

I have not gotten any answers yet as to whether or not the games were hindered by the mountains of dung that the sheep must have left behind.

Because there are no games being played just yet, I cannot attest to how fine the venue is. But as is, it is somewhat relaxing to be able to sit down on a raised bench overlooking such an odd scrap of greenery so deep inside of a town. The sheep are placid and comforting to watch, and the occasional shouts drifting through the cold air as shepherd-gardeners cooperate to tidy up this corner or that is amusing.

This will be the last game before winter truly sets in, and everyone seems to be quite looking forward to it here.

The Shout-House

One might not expect the politics to be so volatile in a small city like Porylus.

One would be deaf to continue to believe that, after walking past the city's municipal center on any active night.

Unlike the government of Deneroth, which was originally intended to be just one regional facet of the larger Haraalian empire but which now exists in perpetual semi-electoral stewardship, Porylus Mons has always had a nonstandard way of doing things. Northern rhetoric would have you believe that Porylus has been infected by that curious brand of anarchic lawlessness so plaguing the P.A.S.C.O.P.P.Y. on-and-off for centuries, but that is not the case- nor does that accurately describe the favored systems of the Pach-Pah, for the record.

Because of Porylus' relatively small size, a representative government is easier to maintain than most. The smallest political unit is the neighborhood, the heads of which are chosen by a variety of traditions, including direct election by their neighbors. Those neighborheads then serve in and advise the central administration of the city, which is a tentative balance between the common citizens and various other power groups in Porylus, such as the trade guilds, old families of wealth and prestige, and the (surprisingly minor) presence of the university.

The goal of congress between these groups and their representatives in city halls such as this is general consensus on how to handle the running of the city-state, overseen by subdued authority of a governor or governess.

The result is a lot of yelling, and a provost with very high blood pressure.

The appropriately named "Shout-House" is the largest of these city halls reserved for the largest of debates, located across the street from the traditional governatorial domicile. They are the perfect intersection between politics and spectator sports, drawing huge crowds on every occasion and providing no small stimulus to the businesses nearest to the area.

We are not in town for one of these debates, but I hope to interview a regular in my time here.

Harhal's Place

Informally named after its deceased previous owner, this nameless and unposted building on a thoroughfare close to the beginning of the hill's spiral would be easy to miss if it wasn't for the steady stream of people coming and going through its doors, held wide open despite the wind and frost.

This establishment is an eatery of sorts, focused on serving hot food to its patrons quickly and efficiently to match busy midday hours. It apparently changes from a hive of activity into a near-abandoned shell within ten talecks of that window, though we did not stay long enough to see the (somewhat welcome) lull.

Much of the food is prepared ahead of time and then reheated as needed. Though this invariably affects the quality of each meal, the price and convenience seem to be worth it to the workers and students in the area. Anything leftover at the end of the day is also given to the urban poor- assuming it is still edible. This tradition has earned the Place a considerable amount of goodwill from the locals over two generations now.

I have my reservations about their fare, however.

Don't mistake me for someone with any amount of culinary acumen or snobbery. The ingredients and taste seemed just fine. I just don't understand why the dishes are named the way they are.

Everything has a slightly off-putting or unnecessarily risque name attached to it, apparently originating from the late Harhal's sense of humor. The tradition has been continued by his son Rhal, the current proprietor.

As such, when Kibra finally convinced us to go in for lunch, I sat down to a plate of "Mother Fried in Her Children", which is to say cutlets of chicken breast fried in an egg-based batter. Kibra meanwhile swore by a bowl of "Bull Taken Hotly to the Wedding Bed", or steak peppered with Nambarish spices and served over a bed of a short, white rice harvested from the northern slopes of the Pashels. Hraela and Sarq both tried and enjoyed the "Crimson Infestations" after a bit of goading from one of the patrons we were seated close to. The mushroom caps were stuffed to overflowing with a variety of ingredients, but the bits of tart or savory red berry sprinkled throughout gave them the name. Ciudo burned his tongue on a serving of fried black bread topped with cheese curds that had been heated up to the point that you can hear the cheese hissing and whining. "Flaxen Screamers" indeed.

Eventually the contrast between the wind at our backs and the enormous braziers and cooking fires in front of us grew tiring, and we moved on. Kibra paid for us, and Rhal insisted she take home a few roasted taproots as a gift to make up for it.

The Benefactory of Eotirus

The maxims of the ITU and the Laiziji faith in general hold the creation and acquisition of knowledge to be vital and defining for the human experience. It is agreeable to me, for sure. But historically, the center of the Eternal Scholar's clergy has had issues with the freedom of access to that knowledge. Stemming from a combination of tradition and a desire for control, education has never been easy to obtain outside of the University's gates. Unless you were born to a founding family or had the new money to buy a temporary adoption into one, you are not going to get in. And unless they're going off to found a new sister-campus, an instructor at the ITU is not going to set foot outside of the place, by choice or by law.

Eotirus was a vanishingly rare exception to this tradition.

He was the third headmaster of the university at Porylus Mons to be elected by a council of his peers. And though he did not have the deep personal connections and/or blackmail to affect change from within, he did have a considerable amount of money to spend to the same effect, thanks to his family's involvement in the construction of much of the city.

When his tenure and his life neared its end, Eotirus decided to cap his fairly average legacy off with a controversial finish. He had the funds secured to build a library located outside of the school's walls, and designed an endowment for its maintenance and assured independence from any powers in the city. He died with a lot of enemies and without a lead coin to his name, but reportedly could not stop smiling at his own funeral.

The library has stood for a little under three hundred years since, its collection expanded to include a wide variety of topics ranging from mathematics, cooking, botany, political histories, and more journals than one could shake a stick at, were one inspired to go shaking sticks for some inexplicable reason.

All of these may be accessed by anyone coming in from the street. There is an entry fee of course, and strict monitoring of every volume, but it is not attached to membership or descent like one would expect. We spent a woefully short period here, but what time I had within the cathedral-esque structure was energizing. I saw an old woman teaching herself to read with the titles on book spines, and a young man snickering at a satirical piece aimed at a prominent governor and his mistress from three generations ago.

I hope this is the future. I could stand to be in one like this.

Old Cairn

Porylus Mons is not the first major human settlement on the hill or the surrounding area. The city was built atop the ruins of a much older hillfort, believed to be Esgodarran in origin. Evidence of this old habitation is normally quite invisible, with the significant exception of the so-called Old Cairn.

This mound-like jumble of stones and the spot of land it rests on have been kept untouched by development thanks to the administration of the school. It acts as something of a centerpiece for the campus park, and is a popular landmark to meet or hold gatherings next to.

It is only called a cairn because of its current shape, fallen into disrepair as it is. Local researchers argue that it likely wasn't any sort of burial site, and boast that it might have been a rather tall lookout tower instead. That would be an impressive feat of engineering indeed, but I am skeptical given the lack of mortar in traditional Esgodarran architecture. I would be more than happy to be proven wrong, of course.

I should ask for a copy of any existing research when we at last meet with the faculty. Their offices loom close now, here by the Cairn. Their perfunctory hymns can just barely reach our ears on the wind.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019

Goblin Brain: Free Range, Dorito-Fed, Organic Gaming Experiences

As some of you may know from my Crypt Cities posts, I am a mild fan of Dark Souls.

I wasn't always one, though. I used to dislike the concept of them quite a bit.

I still might, actually.

Years ago when it was first released, Demons' Souls sailed right past me without my having a clue. A few years later, I heard or saw the name Dark Souls pop up here and there, mostly in relation to this fanboy flame war that I still can't wrap my head around, eight years later.

(Seriously, the Elder Scrolls: Skyrim and Dark Souls are such fundamentally different beasts that it seems like the only common ground on which to pit them against one another was that they were both some form of RPG and they both happened to come out in the year 2011. What was the beef?)

Anyway, I grew dimly aware that Dark Souls was some sort of brutally punishing game with a form of progress loss that was by no means as bad as roguelike permadeath, but still unforgiving. It seemed like the antithesis of fun to me at the time, and I gently avoided it.

A couple of conversations with a peer in community college on the eve of Dark Souls II's release in 2014 got my mildly curious as to what the big deal was since the game had done well enough to earn a sequel. I think I also saw a Game Grumps Steam Train series on DS2 at some point that involved a bunch of commenters getting angry at some ironic "MLG Pro" video thumbnails with swag-hats and Mountain Dew...

But again, it didn't go anywhere.

It wasn't until late in 2015 that I took a more active interest in figuring out what this series was, because the YouTube channel Extra Credits had just started up its new LP project called Side Quest, partly to look at animation and game design, and partly to die a whole bunch. I was familiar with and fond of at least one of the Dans of Extra Credits, and that was my means of bridging the gap now, even if it sounded weird not to hear him pitch-shifted- I thought we just had similar voices.

So I tagged along and witnessed the ruined land of Lordran for the first time. As I watched I grew more interested and wanted to find out what would happen next. But I grew impatient in waiting for episodes to release according to schedule, so I began to peer beyond that playthrough. I started to browse the game's wikis and click on the other DS-related videos I saw on my front page. I had no means to play the game and experiencing it first-hand, so I did so vicariously through others.

Eventually I found ways around my usual lack of resources and gave the first game a shot, first playing to keep up with the progress of the videos I watched using a similar character, but soon overtaking them and forging on ahead. Except I wasn't really forging anything. I was stuck in my newly formed habits, still consulting the wikis and going into each new zone or encounter with as much knowledge as I could reasonably obtain beforehand.

This trend continued into Dark Souls 2 when I tried out Scholar of the First Sin, and repeated again in Dark Souls 3 some years later. The number of hours that I played while unaided and in the dark could probably be counted on both hands. I was also entirely offline for all three experiences.

And in doing so, I think many fans of Dark Souls might feel that I ruined the essence of the game for myself.

A core part of the game to many fans, at least according to the impression I've gotten, is blundering through those experiences naturally, by yourself. To fall for the ambushes until you learn to anticipate them, and then falling for the second one in a row once you've felt an instant of hubris. To not find every treasure chest or hidden room until your second or third playthrough of the game. To either carefully piece together the lore, ignore it entirely, or give up and go watch a VaatiVidya playlist so that you can act like a know-it-all to your friends. Phantoms are free to come and go, but you need to experience the game without the middleman of guides or LPers.

But if I did that, I would die. And dying is an embarrassment to be avoided, at least according to the myriad of "git gud" memes out there. My logic was--still is--if I won't be able to do it perfectly the first time, mastering every challenge while still learning it, in order to impress or at least not coax boos out of a (completely imaginary) crowd of expert spectators, then there was no point to really trying at all. The games stopped being proper games for me, and became more like interactive checklists that I needed to satisfy in order to feel like I had done not-wrong.

When I encountered NPC quest lines in particular, I was faced with the same shattering feeling that I'd get when was faced with morality choices with consequences or quests with multiple endings in more traditional RPGs like Dragon Age- If I didn't get the 100% golden ending for everyone at once, I as a player, as a person, was failing them. I grew physically sick when I thought I had missed a Lucatiel or Siegward of Catarina encounter. It became a reflection of my real-life fears that by not doing perfectly, I was actively damaging the life experiences of everyone around me.

I couldn't just "hold that L" when I was already over max equip load with a Havel's suit of armor made out of other Ls.

But I still wanted to do the video game thing because the areas, spells, and gear were interesting and there were still some forms of positive feedback that I could enjoy and want to return to. So my every strategy was based around the idea of trivializing the challenge the game was designed for. I was shielded up with an over-leveled health bar whenever I wasn't spamming sorceries or using outright exploits to get past non-mundane enemies. I shot Manus almost to death with a longbow from outside his boss arena, and juked the Dragon Rider into falling off of his platform.

I dreaded ever boss battle, which I thought of as nothing but a roadblock, and a check on my enjoyment of the 'fun' parts of the game, which I can't even define adequately. Ornstein & Smough, the high point of Dark Souls I for countless fans, was an annoying and tedious mess that I quickly forgot all details and emotions of after I got past them on the 11th or 12th try. Meanwhile the almost universally panned Prowling Magus and his Congregation in DS2 was a-okay in my book because of how brief and inoffensive it was.

I never finished a Dark Souls game, not all the way through at least.

My armored lady-knight in DS1 was eventually abandoned after I had burned out on grinding tens of millions of souls from the Phalanx Hollows in the Painted World- I really wanted to have my Elite Knight set on while doing Dark Wood Grain Ring backflips, and that needed a lot of Endurance.

I technically killed the final boss of vanilla DS2 with my greying old lightning cleric, but that was only after I gave up on the DLC zones, so I never saw Aldia and the like. Also I was feeling guilty for enjoying DS2 because at the time the feeling that it was not as good as DS1 was in full swing on the internet.

In DS3 I got to the isolated walkway where I could literally see the room where the Soul of Cinder shows up, and I even circumvented it to enter the arguably harder Dreg Heap and have a shot at getting the fiery scimitar pyromancy catalyst thing that I wanted for my pyromancer. But it just never happened. I never reached any of the endings.

And yet, when I switched to other games in order to get a breather, the feelings carried over with me.

The Banner Saga, one of the first games I ever wanted to back the development of (but lacked the money to), had to be played with a walkthrough handy. I even tried to no avail for hours to get a glitch to work where you could recruit Ekkil while also saving Egil so that no party members had to die in this grim, icy world where people are expected to die.

Multiplayer games of any sort always gave me performance anxiety, but after seeing the way your shame can be immortalized in Dark Souls invasion fail compilations, I just can't. It's impossible to imagine co-op anything, let alone PvP where the options are to lose or ruin another person's fun.

I've been staring at an installed copy of Ashen on my desktop for a few weeks now, after hearing that it was a somewhat less intensive "Dark Souls for people who don't really like Dark Souls".

Maybe I'll get around to it without reading too far ahead? It's hard to say.

Sunday, August 25, 2019

On the Trail of the Blue Wizards: An Amateur Campaign Idea

(By now, my readers will know that I have a faint grasp of tabletop mechanics at best. But I've had this idea knocking around in my head for at least two or three years now, and I figure I can communicate most of it without worrying about the gameplay part- that will be left for the viewer to fill in with what works best for their hypothetical tabletop group that takes long-term campaign advice from itchy goblins living behind a Burger King.

So, let's lay out everything I can think of to help a DM run a Lord of the Rings point-crawl drowned in gritty fanfiction cruft!)

The attention-grabber before the long plod

The world has been bent.

Numenor drowns, and the spirit of the Dark Lord has flown screaming back to the heights of Barad-dûr. A war is coming that will shake the foundations of an already fractured world.

But it is not coming yet. Armies are still building in Mordor and the West. Desperate alliances and clandestine deals are being struck. The world is taking a deep breath before the plunge.

And rumors are coming in on the desert wind that a man in blue has a job for someone like you.

You. A wretch. A scoundrel. Someone who's been all but chewed up and spat out upon the salt-sprayed stones of Umbar. Someone that no one should care about. Yet you've been called upon by name. Whatever the work, it will probably be better than waiting around to be found out, or knifed in the street, or dragged before one of the black altars of Melkor.

There may be hope for you yet.

In-Depth Premise

The premise of this campaign is to delve into a less touched-upon time and area of JRR Tolkien's Middle-Earth. As much lore can be drawn upon as you want, but you aren't beholden to following a thorough or even existing history.

Specifically, my idea takes place in the Second Age shortly after the Changing of the World, but before the War of the Last Alliance. Events focus on Harad and Rhûn, and the shenanigans that two of Tolkien's least talked-about wizards might have gotten up to therein.

Beyond that, little about this story has to be solid. I just offer a guiding list of suggestions. Want to dump a whole slew of MERP splatbooks into this instead? Go for it. Want to cleave close to the impressions of Christopher and other Tolkienists in realizing something that almost could have been canon? Try your best. Want to give a new home to those OCs of yours from that one Grelvish AIM chat room you hid from your friends since 1998? I won't tell.

Custom map of Middle-Earth by Peter C. Fenlon for Iron Crown Enterprises,
publishers of Middle-Earth Role Playing (MERP) from 1984-1999.

The wizards in question--the Blue Wizards--are difficult to pin down as any one thing, because they virtually never enter the narrative of the books, and what little was written about them was rewritten several times. In some versions they failed in their task and died, or were corrupted, or formed secretive cults of exotic and blue-robed magic users that no one did anything with until the makers of Lord of the Rings Online seized upon for Update 6. But for the purposes of this campaign premise, the last revision made before Tolkien's death is considered to be canon. That is to say:

"Their task was to circumvent Sauron: to bring help to the few tribes of Men that had rebelled from Melkor-worship, to stir up rebellion ... and after his first fall to search out his hiding (in which they failed) and to cause [?dissension and disarray] among the dark East ... They must have had very great influence on the history of the Second Age and Third Age in weakening and disarraying the forces of East ... who would both in the Second Age and Third Age otherwise have ... outnumbered the West."
 - JRR Tolkien, "Last Writings" written sometime in 1973, pp 384-85 of The Peoples of Middle-Earth, 1996.
What this actually means is nicely summarized by Tolkien Gateway.
  • The two Blue Wizards were sent to Middle-earth at roughly the same time as Glorfindel in c. S.A. 1600 (and similarly at the behest of the Valar), the Year of Dread, when Sauron forged the One Ring and completed the building of Barad-dûr.
  • The Blue Wizards journeyed into the East of Middle-earth, where they remained; they were not heard or seen of west of Mordor.
  • There they became known as Morinehtar and Rómestámo, Darkness-slayer and East-helper.
  • The Blue Wizards were able to hinder Sauron's operations in the East, aiding the defeat of Sauron in the War of the Last Alliance.
  • During the early Third Age and until the end of the Watchful Peace, they were tasked with finding where Sauron dwelt. They failed.
  • Morinehtar and Rómestámo ensured that the forces of the East did not outnumber the West, thus helping secure victory for the Free peoples in War of the Ring.
Of course it's impossible to think that the wizards did this all on their own and didn't get help along the way- even Gandalf needed aid and took a backseat role in his mission, which might have been the most important quest any of the Istari were even tasked with.

The Heroes

Given how secretive a mission this must have been, traveling beyond enemy lines into the depths of a Dark Lord's realms, the Blue Wizards might have had to be very clandestine. Moving from place to place looking like little more than wanderers, they must have worked through agents and elevated many an unsung hero to fight against the darkness far from the Westlands. Maybe most of them never knew the scope of what they were fighting for.

The story of the Blue Wizards thus becomes a story of ordinary, perhaps even deeply flawed people. Subjects of the Shadow showing their humanity and fighting tyranny even in the most hopeless of places. The thousand little rebellions that make up a single Resistance. In a world whose main protagonists have been criticized as being almost uniformly male, aristocratic, and white, this also gives the opportunity for so many more rich stories to be told.

Naturally, the PCs don't know anything about the wizards when they start to work for them.

All they know, as a motley assortment of exiles, escaped slaves, cutthroats, mercenaries, or any other unfortunates kicking around in the Corsair Haven of Umbar, is that they need a job that will pay, and protection. And this mysterious employer in azure from beyond the desert seems to be offering both.

Instead of coming from the ranks of (almost) always virtuous elves, dwarves, hobbits, and the free Men of the West, player characters come from cultures typically found in villainous roles. They are Near or Far Haradrim, Easterlings from distant lands, Khandish mercenaries, and Black Númenóreans fresh off the sinking shores of their drowned island home. Even people with orkish blood lurking somewhere in their ancestry can find a place in Umbar.

"Redemption" is a strong word with a lot of connotations, but it is appropriate for a story set in Tolkien's universe. It might be a motivation for some characters, or it might just be something for them to stumble into after spending long enough in the company of a being that you'd be forgiven for mistaking for a literal angel.

Or, the characters might never stop being a bit rotten, in which case the campaign takes on the dual nature of the Blue Wizards trying their best to babysit some very dangerous individuals out of turning into full-fledged villains who would add to their headaches.

Some enlightened foreigner from the north could be allowed as a PC, such as a Ranger acting as a suicidally deep spy on the Enemy, but too many characters like this would deviate from the flavor of the campaign.

And no elves!

Starting Location

Umbar isn't actively malevolent toward the rest of the world- at least not yet. Umbar simply wants what it wants and doesn't care care about the rest. Umbar knows only money, power, and lip-service to Sauron, whom the city might still remember as Tar-Mairon, erstwhile adviser and high priest to King Ar-Pharazôn. So long as one can satisfy the appetites of the wretched hive, one can survive.

Survival in those dusty streets is the first order of business before the PCs can even think about tackling the challenges that lie beyond the desolate horizon.

Umbar is located in the south of the Bay of Belfalas. It is the name of the city, as well as the natural harbor of enclosed rock in which it is situated. Near Harad lies to the south, and the Westlands can be accessed by sea to the north, though the fleets of Umbar have little reason to travel north except to raid hated Arnor and Gondor. The eastern land of Khand is also accessible by sailing upstream along the river Harnen and then turning east at the dreaded Ephel Dúath.

The city is rarely at peace, whether with its neighbors or itself.

Since the fall of Numenor and the "death" of Sauron's physical body, the Haradrim tribes have tried to throw off the yoke of Umbar with some success. Tribute is extracted from them mostly by force, and many a Black Númenórean adventurer is drawn to the Sunlands by the prospect of wealth and power in that unstable region. Most meet death at the hands of fiercely independent natives, but enough contenders like Herumor and Fuinur find success for the allure to persist. Open war between Umbar and the northern realms of their "Faithful" kin is unlikely at this moment, as all parties are still recovering from the shattering of their kingdom. But the Dark Lord survives, and conflict is almost inevitable. Already, small raiding expeditions push and prod at borders and defenses.

Within the high old walls of the city itself rages a quiet war between visceral lawlessness and slow, grinding oppression. The city is typically ruled by a pair of lords forming a duumvirate. There is perpetual competition between all members of their decadent court, and a lord doesn't last long in this city without being cunning and ruthless. Still, they and the powerful families of the city keep the peace and protect trade by any means necessary. Silver, salt, and slaves flood into the hazy, aromatic bazaars of Umbar every day, and the altars atop the city's highest ziggurats remain perpetually slick with the blood of sacrifices fruitlessly slain in the name of Morgoth.

But cruelty breeds resentment, and it could boil over into open revolt before long.

When it happens, hopefully it can be steered.

"Umbar" by Turner Mohan

Going Beyond

The bulk of this plot will unfold as I actually figure it out in later posts, but right now I am at least certain of its scope and direction.

If the party succeeds in coming together and surviving the dangers of Umbar, they are to set off across the vast desert of northern Harad, heading southward. After finally meeting with their mysterious employer in person, they trek deep into the south where savanna turns to jungle. The first major chapter of the story is completed when they do something that foils the Enemy's plans. Perhaps they rally several tribes together, or wrest some precious artifact of Elder Days from a hostile group.

After that, as the veil is peeled back from the true story and motivations, the party makes its way northeast. They must brave Khand, which now lies deep beneath the long shadow of Mordor. Finally, they might reach Rhûn for a very unexpected meeting. There, the last two-thirds of the plot will unfold.

The game is intended to be a point-crawl, with defined sites to eventually reach. But the vagueness of the map south and east of known Middle-Earth is to be used to one's advantage. Make up whatever you like to fill the huge, trackless gaps between each.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019

Lamplighters.

"There aren't many of us left these days. The ones who remember the sun. The ones who remember the stars before they went all wrong. Hell, most of you kids weren't even around when they discovered pallite, were you?

Oh, don't give me that look. I'm not griping. It isn't like my experience ever ripened into wisdom.

In fact, I envy you. The memory of what we've lost can be as bad as any lurker out there... well, almost as bad.

But that's enough reminiscing for this old girl.

Your spotlight's fixed. Broken filaments. Didn't get damaged or nothing- just shoddy workmanship that needed replacing. You got this from Amit's workshop, didn't you? He's about as brainless as nephews come, bless his shadow.

Caravan's heading out to the settlement outside of Oldglow in a few hours, isn't it? Good luck out there. I've been hearing rumors about breaks in the light fences along the road.

Keep your high beams trained on the flanks."

- Mira "Mama Sparks" Das, owner and proprietress of the Penumbral Preparations Mechanic & Pallite Depot


Bright Beginnings

The world had seen better days. Nuclear war was waged once, then narrowly avoided three more times. The global climate tap-danced back and forth over the point of no return for over a century. Milk-Eye made the jump from livestock to people and infected hundreds of thousands before a vaccine was created. Competitive flagpole sitting managed to become a fad. Again. Times were dark.

But the world slowly stood back up onto its feet.

Cities rebuilt themselves, carefully and deliberately. Politicians toned down their rhetoric enough to shake hands on armistices. Wind and solar farms sprouted up like glittering forests across countrysides, at least once enough people had bitten the bullet long enough to entice investors. Humans didn't all of a sudden realize that harmony was a sustainable way forward, but their track record began to suggest that upward turn.

Majestic, crystalline buildings rose up high, not to scrape the sky but to kiss it, as they stood cloaked in vertical farms and hanging gardens, their faces aglow with solar panels. Geodesic domes, perhaps a bit overused, bubbled up everywhere as people realized that now was their age. Elegant and garish art styles exploded onto streets everywhere as an era of blending cultures and philosophies reached its climax.

Nobody wanted to say it. Nobody wanted to jinx it. It looked and felt like a golden age. A brilliant dawn that mankind was waking up to, their minds still stuck halfway between dream and the boundless possibilities of a new day.

In the end, that caution saved a lot of people their disappointment.

It didn't save very many of them their lives, though.

The Long Night

One day, the world woke up to find that the sun had shrunk. It wasn't by much. Just enough to get experts scratching their heads and double-checking their instruments. But every hour after that point, the giver of life whom people had only recently reacquainted themselves with grew smaller and dimmer, as if it was getting further away. By the end of the first week it was barely an orange dot above the equator of a panicking world.

They theorized that something might have happened to profoundly disturb the planet's orbit around its star, but that didn't explain why all of the other stars were wrong.

As the sun grew smaller and the nights became more intensely dark than they had been for hundreds of years of human light pollution, the stars began to shift and twist out of their formations. Constellations rearranged themselves or broke apart entirely. New stars appeared nightly, while old ones winked out at random, as if the night sky were mocking anyone who tried to understand what was happening to the universe around them. Satellites vanished or were destroyed in erratic, decaying orbits. Space stations went dark.

No one knows what happened to the astronauts on board. Hopefully they only died.

The fear that gripped the world was that this was an end to civilization as they knew it. That within a few weeks--months, at best--every ecosystem on the planet would collapse, and the food supply would go along with it. Humanity would face a cold, lonely death by starvation in the darkness. They barely noticed when the last, vague suggestion of their beloved sun vanished into the gulfs of the night sky.

Most didn't live long enough to starve.

The deepening dark had grown and matured. It grew arms and claws to grab living things that strayed from the light, and teeth with which to gnaw them. Entire cities which had barely started withering were emptied out with little more than muffled cries and whimpers. The wilderness became anathema to life, and what still stalked those places could no longer be considered truly alive. One's own shadow became a deadly thing, to be scrutinized and guarded against, lest something unearthly rise up out of it to scrape at the light. The death toll will never be known, let alone imagined.

Those who remained learned to stick to the light. Everything that could be burned as fuel, was. They scavenged what they could in the inky skeletons of their homes, and then moved elsewhere to start all over again. Some groups cobbled together primitive generators to stay put with. A few even tried to farm in the flickering light of grow lamps. In a few years the norm of life switched from creativity and cooperation to fighting over scraps until it came one's time to get swallowed up by the night.

That is, until some damned, lucky fool discovered pallite.

Noxious. Cancerous. Beloved.

Unoriginally named for the pallid yellow light it casts in any solid, liquid, or gaseous state, pallite has allowed humanity to pretend that there is still a chance.

No one has a satisfying explanation of where pallite comes from, or how it was only discovered on the cusp of the endless dark. All that is known for sure is that it comes from below. It wells up in pools or accumulates in waxy, crumbly deposits. Sometimes it even discharges from vents in the ground into clouds of tangible light, but for whatever reason that form is rarer. Each nucleus of the new "element", for lack of a much better word, has a half-life that appears to adjust according to how much other pallite surrounds it. It produces almost no heat on its own, but it can power one hell of a combustion engine with a little pressure and abuse. It is the closest thing to a miracle fuel that this dying world can hope for.

It's also highly carcinogenic in all forms, raw or refined, and smells like kerosene and durian fruit had a baby, and then that baby soiled its diaper. Even mild exposure from a lifetime of use greatly increases risks of cancer and other diseases. Miners and siphoners rarely grow old enough to retire. The stench also clings to a person, and can damage senses of smell and taste over the years. But it's what keeps the darkness at bay, so people endure it.

Pallite lamps line the walls, floors, and ceilings of every livable space in the world today, and the extraction of more is one of the largest, most grueling industries in existence. When people dare to step outside of their homes or travel to other holdouts, they do so under the lurid glow of pallite lamps, both placed along roads and mounted on vehicles. It's what allows trade and communication to persist, and any harm is causes is worth it to make the world feel a little smaller and safer.

Those Brilliant Fools

It takes a lot of training to master the use of pallite and maintenance of anything that runs on it. It also helps to be versed in fighting off the darkness when a malfunction does occur- and it will.

Here enter the Lamplighters. Every camp worth its light has at least one or two of them hanging around, making sure the whole place doesn't go to hell. Equal parts engineer, guide, and mercenary, these people come from any walk of life touched by the tendrils of ennui and dissatisfaction- which is to say, all of them.

Most of them apprentice under another lamplighter, but a few of the larger towns and proto-cities dotting the landscape sport their own schools. In either case, they are drilled relentlessly to understand the ins, outs, and applications of pallite technology, while also picking up experience in a range of skills including things as far-flung as hand-to-hand combat, botany, glassblowing, team-building, and autohypnosis.

They brave the dark in between lights, keeping fences functional and settlements livable. They keep the lamp-wagons working in every caravan. They rig pallite flamethrowers to smoke anything that creeps in from the darkness. They turn to conventional weapons if flesh-and-blood bandits decide to decline diplomacy. They know when a caravan is doomed, and how to overload a pallite bomb to take everyone out mostly painlessly before the dark comes.

They are known by the smell of pallite, and the fractal-shaped scars left by shadow-wounds.

They are the closest thing to heroes this benighted world has.

Tired, traumatized, vitamin-deficient heroes.


Sunday, August 18, 2019

The Denerothi Sportballers.

"Watch yourself while you're stuck in the southwest dormitories. That's where the fourth-tier "Bleeders" like to hang out. Now, now. Don't despair. Just think of it like a little stint in prison. Keep your head down, and do your own time."
- Harl Rittuger, third-year senior, advising a group of first-year freshmen.

"SPOILSPORT"
- The carving on a custom weapon confiscated from a member of the second-tier "Dashers" after their confrontation with city authorities. The weapon combines all of the worst aspects of a machete and a flanged mace.



It is strange to see so many well-adjusted and friendly athletes here in our time spent at Porylus. Nary a spiked boot nor club has been spotted among them, and their colleagues and peers seem to regard them positively even when they aren't within line of sight or earshot.

I've inquired into this with both Kibra and members of the student body, and the general response I've gotten has been pleasant naivete. Apparently sports are treated very differently here compared to back home in Deneroth. I will describe a few of those differences below, so that I have some easy points to bring up in conversation in the event that I encounter one of these people the Monites call 'coaches'.

Deneroth has a very old, very proud tradition of athletic competition in and around the ITU. The first game played in the city is said to have been a match of organized pig-wrestling on the second tier, within view of the eastern gates to the University itself. Despite the occasionally painfully accurate stereotype of ITU being full of bony, midnight-tanned twits, the institution actually places a very high emphasis on physical health and fitness- a healthy body is a better vessel for a vast mind, and the like. It helps that Haraal, in all his chiseled, bronzed, and freshly-oiled glory, is often invoked as the patron god of competition and physical perfection.

Within a century of Deneroth's founding, there are records of the young people belonging to the founding families organizing themselves into teams to compete with one another. These teams were often divided according to the cardinal direction or tier the members hailed from, which infused the games with an undercurrent of neighborhood posturing and class struggle almost from the start.

When the University found its yearly registrations dwindling due to founding families raising uninterested children, merging together, or going defunct, it gradually expanded its membership by allowing non-founders to pay into the school via temporary adoption. This brought in an influx of young minds with bodies attached, and the ITU suddenly had enough people to form its first varsity teams. The diversity of games played up top was also stimulated by the influx of lower-tier youths, who brought with them their many games of foot.

Unfortunately, the school administration wasn't entirely sure what to do about the sport teams. The vast array of titles and positions of power in the university did not include organized sporting anywhere within their jurisdictions, and the thought of adding a new title into the mix was and is still seen as a deeply risky move that could upset the balance of power and radically alter the ranking system by as much as ±3.5 points.

So, while senior members or organizers of sport teams have some de facto recognition, they do not have any power to dictate what the teams do or how they spend their endowments each year. 'Coaches' do not exist. Ideally, this makes each team its own democratic body which makes decisions as a group. And for a time, that was the case. But by the year I am writing this in, the reality has changed.

Authority within a team goes to whoever is the most popular or able to wield any power they possess, or more often a combination of both. The head of a club becomes the top of a vicious pecking order which is in constant flux as younger members vie for their own place with the hope of one day rising to usurp their watchful seniors.

These are some of the brightest, wealthiest, most conventionally attractive young minds in the University- and lifetimes of being told so means that they know that all too well. Cults of personality exist here, as do dens of petty crime that the University is ill-equipped to deal with due to a lack of a regulatory bodies for sport-related groups, especially those who keep their teams headquartered outside of the campus. City authorities have somewhat better luck, but as with spoiled rich children anywhere, the protection of their families is never far off.

Funding goes wherever the members see fit, and it is not unusual to see one team loitering around the headquarters of another, weaker team while carrying horseback mallets to "encourage" them to pool their funds together for future projects. Survivors of this brand of collegiate thuggery tend to be hardened and smarmy in equal measure. Other times, a team might hang a piece of sport equipment above the doorway of a nearby establishment, signaling to all that the building and its business is within the club's turf and "protection". Any resistance to this racketeering tends to result in a street brawl that sees few if any of the instigators legally reprimanded.

It is a wonder that any of the clubs or their constituent teams have any time leftover to practice their sport, but somehow they do enough of it to make periodic games look quite spectacular. Bribery and kneecapping help to grease the wheels leading up to city finals, where some of the most larger-than-life showboating and fakery can be enjoyed every year. The games take care of so much of that primal urge for violence that their fans hardly ever indulge in rioting.

Ostensibly, because of Porylus' position as a sibling-city to Deneroth, the Campus here should be entitled and/or obliged to partake in athletic competition with the teams of ITU. Distance between cities tends to hamper that bond, however. And if I am being honest with myself, I hope it never becomes a routine thing. There is something precious and worth protecting about the sporting kids here.

I wouldn't want to see them invited to an empty field by a home team for a bit of "friendly scrimmaging", or to hear of one of their mascot pets being stolen and made to replace the hog in a game of bacon-catch.¹



¹ Bacon-catch is a recent, more extreme offshoot of the traditional horseback game brought by the ancient Ersuunians. Instead of striking a ball with mallets, the players use short lassos or hooked implements to grab a live animal, typically a greased hog, and drag it across a goal line. The pig typically dies before the end of the second of four-to-eight periods, meaning that if replacements aren't on hand, its carcass is dragged across the field and fought over for the next hour or so. This somewhat grizzly display ends once a winner is declared and the animal's remains are roasted in a victory feast, as the name of the game suggests.