2020/10/18

40k: Tyranid Planning - Sharpening the Talon

D&D books and miniature collections both benefit from sharpening the axe. Before starting an ambitious project, I like to have goal and something resembling a plan.

With my Imperial Guard army nearing completion (well over time, budget, and size), and no end to the plague in sight, the time has come to plan another ludicrous timesink. I'm going with Tyranids.

I like pewter as much as anyone, but I've got one Rogue Trader-era army already, 2nd Edition Tyranids are expensive, and the 3rd edition sculpts were fairly rough in places. It's 4th Edition+ for this project. Some pewter, some resin, and some plastic.

Luckily, Tyranids aren't the most popular faction at the moment, so slowly acquiring a suitable heap of used plastic and pewter wasn't too difficult. In Kidnap the Archpriest, I talk about heists being an exchange of Time, Money, and Information. Miniatures are often the same. If you're willing to take extra time, you can get away with very little money. If you're in a hurry, you'll have to pay a premium. I'm not in a hurry.

I also want to use this project as an excuse to learn to properly sculpt (not just fill gaps and fix mistakes), cast in resin (instead of plaster and putty), and try out more airbrush techniques.
 

Colour Scheme

I like painting with slightly muted colours, and I want a scheme where raw flesh (as opposed to chitin and bone) will stand out. The purple/white Hive Fleet Leviathan scheme is appealing, but it looks terrible if it's not done well. I also need to stick to a black primer (thanks to the aforementioned pile of used plastic).


I think I'll go with the Green/Cream Hive Fleet Ouroboros scheme, used by Marco Schulze to win many awards over the years. It was the official scheme for thy Tyranids in Forgeworld's Imperial Armour 4 book, though all the photos were taken with a thick hazy yellow filter so you couldn't really tell.

Strangely, GW later released an "official" blue/black Hive Fleet Ouroboros scheme. How dull.

I found a few painting tips in this thread, but I think I'll try to use an airbrush for the body and preshading, then finish the carapace and details with traditional acrylics. Who knows if it'll work, but an airbrush will save time when it comes to massed termagants and hormagaunts.
  

Basing

A lot of Tyranid models are designed to slot into their plastic bases. Cutting them off leaves them precariously attached by a hoof or claw. If your basing material is attached with PVA glue, and your Tyranid is attached to that, a light breeze can snap them off and take a chunk of base with them.

Painting models while they're attached to a base is usually frowned upon by skilled people. Luckily, I'm not skilled. I'll probably use a Vallejo texture pot to lay down a dark earth base, with a mix of greys and yellows, and maybe a few clumps of static grass. I don't want to create a "Tyrannoformed" landscape of ash, bare rock, and tentacles. The swarm is on the move.

Using greys and browns will let the bases blend with my current terrain sets and the RT-era Guard army, without perfectly matching either one.

Approximate Source

Army Composition

General Aesthetic

I want a classic carpet-like swarm, with a handful of larger creatures looming above the mass, and a few eerie drifting monstrosities. Three modes of movement: the scuttlers, the stompers, and the floaters. A fleet protected by barrage balloons. A parade with balloons.

I think I'll try to avoid winged flying units, unless I can pose them on a solid base. They always seem to tip over, and they occupy a lot of storage space. While my RT-era Guard army eventually included a lot of superheavy vehicles, I'm not sure I want to budget for a proper biotitan.
 

The Swarm

The usual mix of Hormagants and Termagants should suffice. I love how these models look in a line. Their tails and claws line up to create this illusion of purposeful movement, like a swarm of fish or a flock of birds. Every model is centered over its base.

I'm going to convert all low-independence units to be eyeless. I think it'll make them more menacing and alien. I'm not crazy enough to resculpt every head crest, but a quick dab of putty in the eyesockets and some careful blending should help. Rippers, Hormagaunts, Termagants, and bio-artillery will be eyeless, guided by the Hive Mind's will. Leader-types and creatures capable of independent action will have eyes.

The original pewter rippers were eyeless worms with eight (ish) tiny legs. Some of the Armorcast designs resembled upscaled Rippers. Also, back in 2nd Edition 40k, any "organic terrain" a Ripper swarm moved over was destroyed. Many plastic trees were eaten.

Forgeworld rippers have broader head and needle teeth. They're a bridge between the original design and the 3rd edition plastic rework, and resemble the Scythed/Barbed Hierodule kits of the same era. The 2001 redesign of the entire Tyranid range introduced the new plastic rippers, which have remained more-or-less unchanged since.
 

The Elites

I'll probably add a small unit of Genestealers and a Broodlord, with minimal conversion work. I might commit a bit of heresy by running Genesetealers with scything talons (instead of their traditional grabby hands), to maintain visual similarity with the Hormagaunts.

I've seen the occasional Lictor (with the serial # filed off) 3D printed in clear resin. I'm not sure if that's cool or kitsch.

I'm not a fan of the Tyranid Warrior aesthetic. The snake-like Ravener variant (and their larger cousins) are fine, but the Warriors always seemed insufficiently monstrous.


Imperial Armour 4

The Weird

I like the idea of spore mines and spore-mine artillery. While Hydracast's Bio-Cannon is miles ahead of the competion, I may be stuck converting and rescupting existing kits. The grotesque cables of the Pyrovore should be fun to paint.
 
Larger spores might be fun too. I've always loved the menacing Malanthrope, the sombre gravedigger of the swarm. I think it's the surgical skull-piercing dagger-hands, combined with those brain-devouring tentacles, that makes the kit perfect.

Zoanthropes belong among the floaters, and if I can convert their larger cousin to float as well, I will. A huge brain-orb with lesser brain-orbs around it seems like an interesting formation.

Larger Creatures

I'd like to include a Tervigon or two, but the kits lack some of the elegant horror of earlier models. The spawning... pouch... thing... doesn't feel groteque enough. For the sake of the kit's design, it's bolted onto the existing ribcage like a wart.

Tyranids don't have a full gastrointestinal tract, as confirmed by the models and the lore. The mouth connects to a pouch. This makes a certain degree of sense for a sci-fi hive organism. Eat, get some nutrients out of the meal, vomit the remains into a pit or pool, let specialized bacteria and microorganisms digest it further, then sup on the refined meal. All the benefits of a digestive tract, none of the extra plumbing.

They don't seem to carry a reproductive system around either, so that can't be adapted. In my mind, a mobile Tyranid factory-beast wouldn't have a separate mouth-pouch and spawning-pouch. It'd just be one system. Imagine a Termite Queen, but in reverse.

The Tervigon also has some weird limbs: two claws to spindly spike-legs, and two oddly distorted back hoof-legs. I'm not sure if I'll adapt it to resemble the spindly Heirophant Bio-Titan or a more solid beast.

Tom Markham

Final Notes

I'm not worried about making a competitive, or even entirely legal, army. GW changes the rules so often that there's no point. I just make stuff that looks neat or appeals to me, then pick and choose bits to fit the current rules.

Binging a few blogs or forums is always useful. The Modern Synthesist and Confessions of a 40k Addict are both excellent resources for the prospective 'nid converter.

2020/10/17

Non-Euclidian Horror: The Writhing Spheres

I've always wanted to write an article on why "non-Euclidian" should be a synonym for "horrifying".

If you're a horror academic, this post will probably be trivial nonsense at best, and outright misleading at worst. I strongly suspect all this material has been covered before. So it goes; this is ostensibly a D&D blog.

Shamefully, I haven't read Jonathan Newell's book, "A Century of Weird Fiction, 1832-1937: Disgust, Metaphysics and the Aesthetics of Cosmic Horror", despite hiring him to draw the maps for Magical Industrial Revolution. It's probably dreadfully clever and full of useful facts, but it's outside my normal areas of study, all the local library lending programs are shut down due to the plague, and I've run out of bookshelf space three times since March. To atone for my sins, you should buy a copy or three.

As penance for not doing my assigned reading, I've decided to publish this post.
The Flammarion Engraving

Possibly Gilman ought not to have studied so hard. Non-Euclidean calculus and quantum physics are enough to stretch any brain; and when one mixes them with folklore, and tries to trace a strange background of multi-dimensional reality behind the ghoulish hints of the Gothic tales and the wild whispers of the chimney-corner, one can hardly expect to be wholly free from mental tension.

-The Dreams in the Witch House

 
Without knowing what futurism is like, Johansen achieved something very close to it when he spoke of the city; for instead of describing any definite structure or building, he dwells only on broad impressions of vast angles and stone surfaces—surfaces too great to belong to any thing right or proper for this earth, and impious with horrible images and hieroglyphs. I mention his talk about angles because it suggests something Wilcox had told me of his awful dreams. He had said that the geometry of the dream-place he saw was abnormal, non-Euclidean, and loathsomely redolent of spheres and dimensions apart from ours. Now an unlettered seaman felt the same thing whilst gazing at the terrible reality.

-The Call of Cthulhu
 

Even the pictures illustrate only one or two phases of its infinite bizarrerie, endless variety, preternatural massiveness, and utterly alien exoticism. There were geometrical forms for which an Euclid could scarcely find a name—cones of all degrees of irregularity and truncation; terraces of every sort of provocative disproportion; shafts with odd bulbous enlargements; broken columns in curious groups; and five-pointed or five-ridged arrangements of mad grotesqueness. As we drew nearer we could see beneath certain transparent parts of the ice-sheet, and detect some of the tubular stone bridges that connected the crazily sprinkled structures at various heights. Of orderly streets there seemed to be none, the only broad open swath being a mile to the left, where the ancient river had doubtless flowed through the town into the mountains.

-At the Mountains of Madness

 
That looking-glass had indeed possessed a malign, abnormal suction; and the struggling speaker in my dream made clear the extent to which it violated all the known precedents of human experience and all the age-old laws of our three sane dimensions. It was more than a mirror—it was a gate; a trap; a link with spatial recesses not meant for the denizens of our visible universe, and realizable only in terms of the most intricate non-Euclidean mathematics. And in some outrageous fashion Robert Grandison had passed out of our ken into the glass and was there immured, waiting for release.

-The Trap


Part 1: Geometry Class

Primary and secondary mathematical education has fundamentally changed in the past few decades. Proofs are out; they might be discussed by a teacher, but students are not expected to work through a proof on their own. Practical applications are in. Classical texts and ancient authorities are no longer cited. While some schools still require students to purchase geometry sets, they tend to be used for art class or prodding classmates instead of geometry.

But for hundreds of years, Euclid was central to mathematical education. Students learned his axioms by heart. Euclid took the visible world and transformed it into elegant mathematics. A pastoral natural scene, under Darwin, becomes red in tooth and claw. Because he assumed the points, lines, and circles of his system were the points, lines, and circles of the real world, he horizon, the columns of a building, and the shape of a cone of sand become living mathematics under Euclid.

All principles of Euclidean geometry - or, for thousands of years, simply "geometry" - derive from five postulates:
1. A straight line can be drawn between any two points.

2. Any straight line segment can be extended into an infinite straight line.

3. A circle can be drawn given a straight line segment as the radius and one end point as the centre.

4. Any right angle is equal to any other right angle.
The first four postulates are elegant and brief. They feel intuitively true. The last one even feels tautological; of course one 90 degree angle  is equal to any other 90 degree angle.

But the fifth postulate is troublesome. It bothers students when they learn it, even if they can't say why.
5. If two straight lines are drawn which intersect a third straight line in such a way that the sum of the interior angles on one side is less than two right angles, then the two lines, if extended infinitely, must inevitably intersect each other.
Draw a horizontal line on a flat sheet of paper. Drop two sticks on it. If the sticks are exactly perpendicular (vertical), then they will never cross, even if they're infinitely long. If one stick is angled to the right and the other to the left, then they'll cross once. If they're both angled to the left or to the right, they'll still cross, unless they've fallen at exactly the same angle.

The first four postulates are axioms, as solid (within their system) as bedrock. They're the the bottom of the stack and cannot be reduced further. The fifth remains a slightly wobbly postulate and requires more assumptions. This bothered mathematicians. Anyone who could untangle those intersecting lines would "purify" Euclid and earn eternal fame. Proofs of increasing complexity were published over the centuries, but every time some dreadful flaw emerged. The search consumed the lives of many great mathematicians. In 1820, Farkas (Wolfgang) Bolyai wrote to his son.
You must not attempt this approach to parallels. I know this way to its very end. I have traversed this bottomless night, which extinguished all light and joy of my life. For God's sake! I entreat you leave parallels alone, abhor them like indecent talk, they may deprive you from your time, health, tranquility, and the happiness of your life. That bottomless darkness may devour a thousand tall towers of Newton and it will never brighten up in the earth... I thought I would sacrifice myself for the sake of the truth. I was ready to become a martyr who would remove the flaw from geometry and return it purified to mankind. I accomplished monstrous, enormous labors; my creations are far better than those of others and yet I have not achieved complete satisfaction. For here it is true that si paullum a summo discessit, vergit ad imum. I turned back when I saw that no man can reach the bottom of this night. I turned back, unconsoled, pitying myself and all mankind... I have travelled past all reefs of this infernal Dead Sea and have always come back with broken mast and torn sail. The ruin of my disposition and my fall date back to this time. I thoughtlessly risked my life and happiness - aut Casear aut nihil.
But despite this warning worthy of any Gothic Horror novel, the son, Janon (Johann) Bolyai dared to continue his father's work. In 1823 he wrote back.
I am resolved to publish a work on parallels as soon as I can put it in order, complete it, and the opportunity arises. I have not yet made the discovery but the path which I have followed is almost certain to lead me to my goal, provided this goal is possible. I do not yet have it but I have found things so magnificent that I was astounded. It would be an eternal pity if these things were lost as you, my dear father, are bound to admit when you seen them. All I can say now is that I have created a new and different world out of nothing. All that I have sent you thus far is like a house of cards compared with a tower.
If that's not Lovecraftian prose, I don't know what is! The dreadful warning, the obstinate investigation, the transcendent discovery that smashes reality; this is a horror plot writ large.

In one of those odd coincidences of history, a half dozen or more mathematicians discovered non-Euclidean geometry at the same time. Euclid, the bastion of stability for generations of schoolchildren, was toppled from his pillar, and a realm of curving chaos enthroned in his place.
 

Part 2: A Matter of Perspective

The fifth postulate, as described above, matches our expectations of reality. Railway lines, sticks, towers; all seem to converge, meet once, and then diverge forever. But it is not necessarily so. Two equivalent postulates exist.

Draw a horizontal line on a flat sheet of paper. Drop two sticks on it, and imagine one stick is angled to the left, the other to the right. If they are extended infinitely and meet only once, then we have Euclid's fifth postulate, and all is well.

But imagine the sticks extending to infinity and never meeting, just continuing forever. That doesn't make sense if our piece of paper is flat, but what if it's curved? What if it, and the horizontal line, and the sticks, are on the surface of a sphere? Then the lines could extend infinitely and form a loop without ever meeting. This is elliptical geometry.

Or imagine the sticks cross once, then cross again  (at least once). That's odd. As they extend towards infinity, they loop back and forth like a pair of skaters or stitches in cloth. If our piece of paper is flat, that makes no sense, but if it's a sort of saddle-shape, the seemingly straight sticks can bend back towards each other. This is hyperbolic geometry.

Amazingly, for both elliptical and hyperbolic geometry, Euclid's first four axioms remain true. Strange bendy triangles and pointed circles arise, but with consistent and unvarying results. This raises a distressing possibility. Since all three variants are equally "true", which one is the "real" one? While the universe appears to follow Euclidean geometry, it might be because we can only see lines of limited size. If the universe is not flat but curved, it could easily appear locally flat. Compared to the universe, a railroad track or Grecian column is very small indeed.

Any scientific discovery takes time to enter popular consciousness. Lovecraft was born in 1890; just late enough to be educated on textbooks drawn from Euclid by schoolteachers steeped in Euclid, but well within the time when non-Euclidean geometry was percolating into popular culture. In every field of study, a world of fixed absolutes and thousand-year laws was collapsing into incomprehensible chaos, and geometry - the last bastion of law - was not immune.

I think it is impossible for a horror writer to fake disgust or terror. To make a scene authentic, they must be repulsed by what repulses their characters, horrified by the same scenes, staggered by the same conclusions. Horror must be drawn from life

H. P. Lovecraft was fascinated and horrified by the difference between perception and reality. What we see, and what is true. Do the sticks meet only once, or do they merely appear to meet? What is real, and can the human mind survive true comprehension of reality?
One can only hope that Lovecraft's racial views, his "fascinated disgust", will one day require such additional explanatory footnotes.

Part 3: Phase-Contrast Microscopy

When Meillassoux writes about the idea of the world-in-itself he invokes the idea of a “great outdoors” or “absolute outside” – a world that exists “whether we are thinking of it or not” and which “thought could explore with the legitimate feeling of being on foreign territory – of being entirely elsewhere”. It is precisely such an “outside” that preoccupies Schopenhauer when he writes of the will-in-itself, and while Schopenhauer inherits much from Kant, including an insistence that the world of our senses is one of mere phenomena or “representation,” his “strange immanentism of noumena”, as Thacker puts it, links the will-to-live to the phenomenal world, since the latter is but the manifestation in space and time of the indifferent and inaccessible former.

-The Daemonology of Unplumbed Space: Weird Fiction, Disgust, and the Aesthetics of the Unthinkable, Jonathan Newell
This is good academic writing. As far as I know it's solid gold. I can't tell Schopenhauer from Schubert, and Jonathan Newell strikes me as the sort of person who knows what they're talking about. There are several plausible-sounding quotes, and scattering of dashes. I'm convinced, and I'm not even on his dissertation committee.
The horror of the story lies not merely in the contemplation of an alien world, but, crucially, in the realization that the world has always been suffused with alienage. “From Beyond” reveals that reality has been already, always contaminated. [...] We could also read “From Beyond” as a sort of microscope-story, a science fiction tale about seeing things which could not normally be perceived but which science can now reveal, and which are omnipresent. The polypous beings vaguely resemble blown-up bacteria, made visible by the Tillinghast resonator just as bacteria are by a microscope.
-ibid

This is a horrifying realization, and in the abstract, it's horrifying to anyone. The idea that slimy things with legs do crawl within the slimy air, all around you, invisible and lurking, is horrifying. It needs no additional context. But there's an aspect that Newell didn't emphasize, a twist on mere microscopy.

In 1932, Frits Zernike invented phase contrast microscopy. He won a Nobel prize for it in 1953, but the Nobel committee is always at least two decades behind the times. Phase contrast microcopy would have saturated the scientific and near-scientific papers Lovecraft read. It was, and still is, astonishing. In 1934, H.P. Lovecraft published “From Beyond”.

The speed of light in a vaccum is constant, but the speed of light in different materials can vary. Imagine two photons in lockstep (in phase). Their peaks and troughs match. They are traveling in the same direction at the same speed. One passes through water, the other through air. The photon passing through water moves slower compared to the photon passing through air. Its amplitude and wavelength stay the same. If they both then enter air, the photon that passed through water will be shifted behind. It's out of phase, like Left Shark.

To the human eye, both photons appear to be identical. They've got the same wavelength (colour) and amplitude (brightness*). Light passing through a glass of water doesn't appear significantly different than light passing through the air next to it, right? If it does, get your tapwater tested. Light, as we see it, is wavelength modulated. Longer wavelength fall towards the red end of the spectrum, shorter wavelengths towards the purple. And that's it. Our feeble eyes can't see polarization or phase shifts. Phase contrast microscopy breaks down the barrier of mere human perception.

*yes, I know, brightness=/=amplitude but this is a D&D blog, give me a break.

Phase contrast microscopy uses very clever optics to turn phase shift - the delay in light - into a wavelength or amplitude difference. Suddenly, things that were invisible become visible. Everyone who uses phase contrast microscopy says something like "it opens up a whole new world", and it really does. Glassy organisms become sharply defined. An invisible world pops into full visibility.

I don't really "get" the optics behind phase contrast microscopy, and, bluntly, neither did Lovecraft. The principle is enough, and he didn't have full colour youtube videos (or a phase contrast microscope to play around with). A whole new world, parallel to our own, but hidden by our paltry and limited perception. This "newly visible world that lies unseen all around us" actually exists. It's real! It's under the microscope! Ick!

To the modern reader, phase contrast microscopy is fun, even adorable, but like anything else it can be turned into horror if taken to an extreme conclusion. Lovecraft saw the horror in reports of phase contrast microscopy, and turned it into a story. We can see, in living colour, what he could only imagine.


Conclusion: There Are No Straight Lines

They say of the Acropolis where the Parthenon is that there are no straight lines.
-Stephen Fry, QI Series E Episode 1

From our infancy, the idea of certain contrasts becomes fixed in our minds: water appears to us an element that moves; earth, a motionless and inert mass. These impressions are the result of daily experience; they are connected with everything that is transmitted to us by the senses. When the shock of an earthquake is felt, when the earth which we had deemed so stable is shaken on its old foundations, one instant suffices to destroy long-fixed illusions. It is like awakening from a dream; but a painful awakening. We feel that we have been deceived by the apparent stability of nature; we become observant of the least noise; we mistrust for the first time the soil we have so long trod with confidence.  
-Personal Narrative of Travels to the Equinoctial Regions of America, During the Years 1799-1804, Alexander Humboldt

Non-euclidian geometry turns straight lines and solid ground into curving and suppurating folds of incomprehensible space. Phase contrast microscopy turns a glass of clear water into a writhing column of vibrant life. H.P. Lovecraft was horrified by these things, and he tried to convey this horror to his readers. Without context, without knowing why an author was horrified, stories lose a degree of vibrancy.



2020/10/07

OSR: Massive Community Hexcrawl - Open Submissions

I started a community hexcrawl on Patreon. Since it seems every interested Patron has contributed, I've decided to open the project to everyone. Hear ye, hear ye, get your hexes in before it's too late.


V 1.5 PDF

I really like the land that's slowly emerging. The high, star-blasted peaks of the Barren Fells, the slab-sided slopes of the Bluffs, the oozing Wastes, the desolate Badlands, and the contentious and turbulent Savannah. The mysterious Researchers, the aloof Rust Monks, the dead Pallid Knights, the mutated Protean Army, and the mysterious Kalawi Tribe. Wurms, golems, psychic elephants, and stranger things besides. Like Arnold's Centerra, there might be weird stuff everywhere but the world is still a real place with real people experiencing real problems. The setting feels like it could be bolted on to the Ultraviolet Grasslands, Dying Earth, or other similar settings without too much trouble. It's similar to Gus L.'s Dread Machine, but more factional and much larger. You could stick some of the Trilemma adventures or White Plume Mountain in here too. 

Please avoid direct pop culture references. I reserve the right to edit all submissions (or ignore them). All text will be licensed under CC-BY-NC.

Pavel Kolomeyets

To Submit:

Post a comment with one hex and one encounter. You can submit multiple hexes and encounters in separate comments, but I'll try to give everyone a chance before looping back to the same authors. There are a surprising number of hexes to fill, but it's still first-come, first-serve.
 

Hexes

In the format:

#.## - [Faction] - [Landform]


Terrain: [max 66 char. including spaces. Describes the general features of the hex.]

Obvious Feature: [max 107 char. including spaces. Describes a specific feature: a village, a standing stone, a dungeon hint, etc. Something the PCs will find if they wander into the hex.]

Hidden Feature: [max 107 char. including spaces. Describes a hidden feature: a cache, a cave, a dark secret, etc. Something the PCs might find if they search or spend time in the hex.]


#.## refers to the row.column number from the hex map. If you don't have a specific hex in mind, leave this blank or use #.##.
[Faction] must be one of the following: 
Neutral, Kalawi Tribe, 
Researchers, 
Rust Monks, 
Protean Army, Pallid Knights.
[Landform] must be one of the following: Badlands, 
Barren Fells, Bluffs, Savannah, Wastes.

Factions and terrain types are briefly described in the PDF. Hexes take 6hrs to cross. They could be twenty miles of flat open ground or one mile of trackless wilderness. Don't worry about scale, worry about density of gameable content. Try as hard as you can to make every word or phrase capable of supporting an interesting session.
 

Encounters

In the format:
Omen:
[max 66 char. including spaces. The hint the PCs get if they move cautiously.]
Encounter: [max 124 char including spaces. The encounter itself with descriptors.

Ariel Perez

Notes on Community Projects

Sticking to a very strict, very brief format makes collating material much easier. I sometimes need to trim a word or polish a phrase, but it's a lot easier than open-ended bestiaries.

Short character limits inspire creativity. It's easy to get an idea across in a long blog post, but can you write a snappy, evocative, and useful sentence? It encourages people to focus on the essentials.

It's essential that the project's coordinator maintain motivation and drive. If they stop caring, the whole thing falls off the radar. Handing the project off to someone else leads to more problems, even if a style guide and copious notes are provided.

Concerns / Problems
The broader the project's scope, the more likely similar ideas will appear. Terrain types and factions were entirely crowdsourced, and tended towards aesthetics of ruin immediately. Idea reinforced idea. This is great (because the hexcrawl feels very cohesive), but it did lock the project in a specific direction.

Without direction or knowing what's already been submitted, people tend to submit what they think is useful, leading to duplication. See: Petty Gods. With clear direction, and knowing what's already been submitted, people tend to riff and reiterate, leading to reduced creativity. Early adopters set the tone for all following submissions.

After an initial burst of enthusiasm, interest in a project rapidly fades. It's tricky to keep the flow of submissions going. The coordinator can fill in blanks if needed.

There's no easy solution, and a solution may not be necessary. These are just things to keep in mind.

2020/10/01

Plague, War, Famine, and Death: The Greatest of These is Plague

Questions I've heard recently, and questions I've asked myself:

"Why do I feel tired all the time?"
"Why is is harder to write? Why do I feel uncreative?"
"Why is communication more difficult?

After listening politely to a long and rambling story, my father would sometimes say, "That story reminds me of the parable of the boy and the dolphin."
"Oh? How so?" the storyteller would ask.
"It was really fucking boring," my father would reply, stonefaced.

So, fair warning, this post has more than a wiff of dolphin about it.

Death and the Bishop, 1541, Heinrich Aldegrever

War

In a war, there is the Other Side, and they are Right Bastards Who We Hate. The "We" is important. War brings solidarity and unity of purpose. This isn't necessarily a good thing, but it is a traditional and predictable thing. War brings shared experiences and shared hardships; both can be manufactured.
 

Famine

In a famine, there is a chance your neighbor has food. Famine is (hopefully) less of a concern these days. In years when the harvest is good, you hold feasts, provide lavish dowries, donate to the local church, and do your best to bank your excess wealth in bonds within the community. In bad years, you call in those bonds. "Grain rots and money can be stolen, but your neighbor is far likelier to still be your neighbor in a year, especially because these relationships are (if maintained) almost always heritable and apply to entire households rather than individuals, making them able to endure deaths and the cycles of generations."

And if your neighbor doesn't have food, you can at least starve together. Or eat them, if it comes to that.
 

Death

In death, all your problems are over. (Depending on your belief system you might have an entirely new set of problems to deal with, but that's beyond the scope of this article).

The people left behind have a shared and well-maintained framework to cope with death. After all, everyone dies. Mourning, monuments, and the slow process of forgetting help distribute the pain through an extended social group.
 

Plague

In a plague, all the normal rules stop working.

Your family and your neighbors - the people you rely on when war looms, when famine strikes, and when death cuts down a loved one - are now potential enemies, through no fault of their own. All the social capital you invested is worthless. In fact, it's worse than worthless, it's actively harmful.

The oldest rule for surviving a plague, the only treatment that has always worked, no matter the time or the place, is to stay away from people. Go to the hills, flee to the country. Barricade your door. Hide in the tower. Hope that the plague doesn't sneak through the cracks.

Some again, the most sound, perhaps, in judgment, as they we also the most harsh in temper, of all, affirmed that there was no medicine for the disease superior or equal in efficacy to flight; following which prescription a multitude of men and women, negligent of all but themselves, deserted their city, their houses, their estate, their kinsfolk, their goods, and went into voluntary exile, or migrated to the country parts, as if God in visiting men with this pestilence in requital of their iniquities would not pursue them with His wrath, wherever they might be, but intended the destruction of such alone as remained within the circuit of the walls of the city; or deeming, perchance, that it was now time for all to flee from it, and that its last hour was come.
-The Decameron, Introduction
This mechanism is hard to circumvent. Humans are not very bright. All social contact, even over the internet, seems like a potential route for contagion. Medieval authors stopped writing letters. The switch has flipped. "Shun thy neighbor" is the rule, and it's entirely sensible, but the human brain can't easily distinguish one neighbor from another. Shun and shun alike.
Tedious were it to recount, how citizen avoided citizen, how among neighbours was scarce found any that shewed fellow-feeling for another, how kinsfolk held aloof, and never met, or but rarely; enough that this sore affliction entered so deep into the minds of men and women, that in the horror thereof brother was forsaken by brother, nephew by uncle, brother by sister, and oftentimes husband by wife; nay, what is more, and scarcely to be believed, fathers and mothers were found to abandon their own children, untended, unvisited, to their fate, as if they had been strangers
-The Decameron, Introduction
Saturn reigns; the normal order of the is inverted. Yet how could it be otherwise? Normally, it is admirable to strive for fairness and charity. When the plague stalks, the answer, "yes, it is unfair, but it is necessary" comes easily.

The Black Death killed, give or take, a third of the world, but the world was smaller then. The largest cities boasted populations of a few hundred thousand. The survivors were often gripped by apathy, lethargy, or madness. Unfairness of any sort breeds apathy, and both a plague and its preventive measures are deeply unfair. Why strive when tomorrow looks worse than today?

Back in 2017, in a post about the Plague in D&D, I wrote:

It's almost as if there is a blind spot in our view of history that prohibits us from grasping the devastation of a Plague, of a scourge that kills on in ten or one in three of our neighbors, families, and peers. The survivors write histories and chronicles, sometimes in desperation. "I leave parchment," Brother John Clyn of Ireland wrote in the 14th century," to continue this work, if perchance any man survive and any of the race of Adam escape this pestilence and carry on the work which I have begun.”  

But the memory fades almost immediately. The next generation builds few monuments. There are thousands of WWI memorials but only a handful of memorials, mostly plaques and tombstones, for victims of the Spanish Flu. Similarly, while a cult of death arose in 15th century Europe, it rarely referenced the Black Death directly. It's almost too grim. We can understand war and violence, but disease escapes us. Survivors often launch into a period of excess, not just while the plague rages and life seems cheap, but for years afterwards. The "Roaring Twenties" and the elaborate pageantry of 14th century France could be seem as reactions to the vast, merciless mortality that "embraced the entire world".

I didn't think I get a chance to test my theories in real life.
 

Give Me Death or Terror of Anathema Will Drive Me Mad

In Nabucco, the opera by Joe Green, set in the year 587 Before Oily Josh, Ismaele (for operatic reasons) gets cursed (in a charming and not particularly cursed tune), and begs for death instead of anathema.

CHORUS
He who is accursed has no brothers,
no man on earth spares him a word!
Harsh lamentation everywhere arises,
the wind carries it to the impious wretch's ears!
On his brow like lightning,
shines God's fatal brand!
Poison is brought to his lips in vain,
vainly the dagger would pierce his heart!

ISMAELE
For the sake of the living God
from the anathema cease!
The fury drives me mad!
Oh death, for pity's sake!
Anathema has always reminded me of the phrase from Leviticus - "that soul shall be cut off from the community." To Ishmael, being cut off from the community is worse than madness, worse than death. Yet in a plague, everyone anathematizes each other. Normally the solution is to stop doing the terrible thing and do something else, but in a plague, the terrible thing is the right thing. It's all well and good to cry "anathema or death" in an opera, but in real life, it's a fairly easy choice, especially when the anathema is temporary.

Easy to choose, but not easy to bear.
 

Spoons

If normal life requires constant spoon-payments to maintain, abnormal or disrupted life requires additional payments. Energy that could be spent on art, creativity, household chores, etc. gets wasted on the entirely necessary but entirely useless mental processes such as "am I going to die of the plague" and "I have not seen other humans; am I anathema?" and "I must learn new skills."

The good news is that, throughout human history, the abnormal becomes the new normal very quickly.

The bad news is that you may not like the new normal. Adaptation is not always improvement.

Who's To Blame?

Have we angered God? Or have they angered God? Medieval authors, up to and including Popes, are more than willing to heap fault on themselves, under the paradigm that disease is the reward of sin. The populace, aware that they were sinful but painfully aware that they were worse, always found a convenient them to blame, loot, and burn.
Wherever the plague struck, waves of accusation and intolerance seemed to strike in its wake. Sinners were responsible, or heretics, or foreigners, or beggars, or lepers—whoever was Other.
-Heretics and Heroes, Thomas Cahill. Not a great book, but the quote was handy.

These days, under the paradigm that the current plague is a viral infection spread by close contact with the moist breath of infected persons, fingers are pointed in all sorts of directions, but rarely inwards.

Blame is also an excellent activity, and a plague provides very few positive activities. In a war, you can train, fight, build, prepare, assist, and maintain a good righteous froth of anger. In famine, the search for food blots out all other concerns. In death, you do don't need to do anything, and those left behind have a wide variety of activities to keep them occupied. But for most people, there's very little to do besides wait out a plague, ideally in good health. Idle hands are the devil's plaything.

  

Failures of Math and Empathy

Humans are bad at statistics; witness the rapturous joy around a "natural 20" on a d20. Evaluating statistical risk is best left to very clever people with very good models, because most people are poorly equipped to evaluate this sort of thing.

Covid-19 does not seem, compared to the Black Death or other medieval plagues, particularly deadly.
Here's a handy chart from May. When more than half the population of your city dies in a few months, leaving corpses unburied and entire districts empty, the reality of the plague is hard to deny. But these days, it's possible to plug your ears and ignore the whole thing. This is the first global plague most people have experienced. For some people, HIV's silent efficiency at eliminating friends and contacts might make the current plague seem trite, and there are still plenty of people alive who lost swathes of childhood friends to polio, whooping cough, smallpox, and diphtheria.

Medieval rulers often
ignored the plague until it was on their doorstep. The plague strikes a neighboring country; it is time to mock, to plot a campaign, to buy cheaply. And then the plague spreads; it is time to pray, to shun the returning soldier and the traveler, to sell dearly. Temporary protection is attributed to divine favour; when that protection fades, the initial explanation was rarely called into question.

Denial of tragedy can be a form of failed empathy. "If that happened to me it would be terrible; therefor it cannot be happening." Lack of familiarity with disruption can also lead to passivity. A quote from Black Lamb and Grey Falcon (notes here) keeps coming to mind.

 I got up and went out into the corridor. It was disconcerting to be rushing through the night with this carriageful of unhappy muddlers, who were so nice and so incomprehensible, and so apparently doomed to disaster of a kind so special that it was impossible for anybody not of their blood to imagine how it could be averted. It added to their eerie quality that on paper these people would seem the most practical and sensible people. Their businesses were, I am sure, most efficiently conducted. But this only meant that since the Industrial Revolution capitalism has grooved society with a number of deep slots along which most human beings can roll smoothly to a fixed destination. When a man takes charge of a factory the factory takes charge of him, if he opens an office it falls into a place in a network that extends over the whole world and so long as he obeys the general trend he will not meet any obvious disaster; but he may be unable to meet the calls that daily life outside this specialist area makes on judgment and initiative.

 A plague makes muddlers of us all.
 

Final Notes

Lack of extra spoon-energy makes everything feels coarse and irritating. Lack of contact feels like failure; some part of the lizard-brain thinks you've done a bad thing and the lizard-pod has exiled you. Lack of practice makes creative muscles sore; lack of hope makes creative output feel pointless.

Still, best to carry on and do your best.


And finally, I'd love to do a chapter-by-chapter reading/retelling of The Decameron at some point. I suspect that a lot of people who claim to have read it haven't, and those who have skipped quite a bit. I know I did.


2020/09/26

Flying Through A Sunless Snowstorm

For the past 5 or 6 years, I've come to realize, my life has included a Nautilus season. Every year, weather and funding permitting, the Nautilus Ocean Exploration Trust streams live exploration of the ocean floor. I think it should become an annual tradition for more people.


Their highlight videos, with dramatic music and cuts to important scenes, are great, but I don't tune in for them. I tune in for the slow flights over the ocean floor, up seamounts, across silty plains, through canyons of jumbled rock.

It's so different from normal content. There are no commercials (at least I think so. If there are, my adblockers take care of them.) No breaks. No Foley artists to add "the right" sounds. No scripted conflicts.

It's just a camera flying through a midnight snowstorm. Tiny flecks of marine snow, falling on a desolate and entirely alien landscape. And then, through the fog, a rock emerges. A fish darts. An octopus appears. It's a dream-world, flying effortlessly over a strange planet, exploring, at a sedate pace, a world of eerie beauty. It's almost hypnotic.

It makes spectacular moments, like a whalefall or a coral cluster, all the more exciting. You feel like you're there, next to the excited scientists, watching the event over their shoulders.
The flight over the octopus garden in Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary probably ranks in my all-time favourite internet events.

Like many people with an active imagination, I have mild thalassophobia. Pictures of deep sea fishes in old National Geographic magazines used to scare the life out of me. I used to imagine horrible glass-toothed monsters with bulging eyes rising and biting me in half. But the Nautilus stream is different. I think it's because the ROV is part of the sea, not above it. It glides with such tranquility and calm that even the unexpected appearance of tentacles or teeth is a cause for wonder, not alarm.

The scientists (and pilots, technicians, etc.) help. They're excited, and their excitement is infectious. They try to provide relevant information, speculate (within limits), and use technical terms (where appropriate). The expectation is that the audience will follow along. It's not performative. The content isn't dumbed down, repackaged, monetized, summarized, or polished. It simply is. It's a window into another world, not a screen.

I leave the stream on more or less 24/7 during the season. (Direct link). Updates/announcements here. This year, it seems more appealing than ever.

2020/09/25

1d100 Divine Domains

I wanted to create a list of domains for part of the Monster Overhaul.

Creating a list of 100 domains is easy. Creating a really good list is harder. Duplicate ideas need to be ruthlessly pruned. Idea that seem good on paper, but which nobody actually invoked for anything, need to be cut as well. The list grew and shrank for a few weeks, but I think I'm finally happy with it.

Harrower


1d10 Greater Domains
1 Death
2 Fertility
3 Fire
4 Livestock
5 The Harvest
6 The Sea
7 The Sky
8 Time
9 Travel
10 War

Greater Domains are areas that most pantheons place in a position of importance. They're the gods most people know (aside from regional deities and profession-specific intercessors).

"Travel" is the weakest inclusion on the list. I'd gladly swap it for a Fate/Destiny/Chance aspect, but Travel seems more crucial to D&D-type games.

It's tempting to roll The Harvest in with either Fertility or Livestock, or some other combination of the three concepts, but I think that's just because the association is so common in classical polytheism.

Noah Bradley


1d100 Lesser Domains
1 Acting
2 Anxiety
3 Archery
4 Baking
5 Battle Beauty
6 Bees
7 Bells
8 Birds
9 Blindness
10 Bones
11 Boundaries
12 Builders
13 Chance
14 Childbirth
15 Children
16 Clay
17 Cleanliness
18 Contracts
19 Cooking
20 Dancing
21 Darkness
22 Dawn
23 Decay
24 Deserts
25 Destiny
26 Diplomacy
27 Discord
28 Disease
29 Dreams
30 Drowning
31 Drunkenness
32 Earthquakes
33 Endurance
34 Fear
35 Feasting
36 Fevers
37 Fish
38 Flowers
39 Folly
40 Forests
41 Fortifications
42 Friendship
43 Geometry
44 Gold
45 Graveyards
46 Headaches
47 Humour
48 Hunger
49 Hunting
50 Inspiration
51 Iron
52 Lakes
53 Language
54 Law
55 Lies
56 Light
57 Lost Things
58 Love
59 Loyalty
60 Madness
61 Marshes
62 Mechanisms
63 Medicine
64 Memory
65 Merchants
66 Messengers
67 Mountains
68 Murder
69 Music
70 Obedience
71 Orchards
72 Painting
73 Peace
74 Poison
75 Poverty
76 Prophecy
77 Rain
78 Reason
79 Rivers
80 Salt
81 Serpents
82 Sleep
83 Sorrow
84 Stone
85 Storms
86 Swords
87 Teeth
88 The Moon
89 The Sun
90 Theft
91 Thresholds
92 Time
93 Truth
94 Vengeance
95 Vermin
96 Vice
97 Weaving
98 Wells
99 Wind
100 Zeal


I've tried to stick to domains that have some historical precedent (i.e. at some point, somewhere, as far as we can tell, people invoked a god / patron saint / spirit of X).

Horses and Bears should be on the list, but they seem tied to a particular kind of setting. I'm willing to imply the existence of seas and deserts in a table (after all, they don't have to be local seas or deserts), but springing the existence of horses and/or bears on a GM might be impolite.

Serpents and Bees are two notable inclusions that sort-of imply a setting. Serpents are such a common feature in mythology (and snakebites are a constant concern), that I felt not including it would cause more problems than it would solve. Bees and beekeeping tend to fade into the background of most games; I'm not sure many GMs would be shocked to find that their setting included bees (of some description. Arnold's bees are probably horrifying).

The seasons should also be on the list, but since there are Season-themed chapters in the book, I felt it would be a duplication of effort to include a powerful semi-divine seasonal creature here as well.

After revising a shortlist a few times, I remembered this post from Daniel Sell (216 domains, with powers). It looks like we went down similar research lines, but I'm including it for the sake of thoroughness, and because I referenced it while drafting the final list. I also referenced Petty Gods (post here) and this post.

Help!

Are there any duplicate concepts on the list? Entries that could be combined?

Are there any obvious concepts that are missing?

And yes, there will be a d10 (at least) list of Very Minor Domains, to include Hats, Hindsight, Cowardice, Puppetry, etc.