What I Read On My Vacation, Part 3

I guess this has become an annual tradition.

Book 1: Spain in the Middle Ages

Angus Mackay
245 pages

Published by: The Macmillan Press

What is it with historians named Mackay? In addition to Angus, I've got Charles Mackay (Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds) and Christopher Mackay (a hilariously acerbic translation of the Malleus Maleficarum) on my shelf. Google reports an Ian Mackay and a Lauren Mackay can be added to the list and, by Aaron Smith-Teller logic, Machiavelli.

Someone should sequence those genes.

Anyway, Spain in the Middle Ages is solid book. It's not exciting or humorous. The author doesn't get sidetracked by macroeconomics, gossip, or deeply held personal views on the actions of people long dead. It feels immensely professional without being stiflingly academic. If you want to learn about Spain between 1000 and 1500, this book will give you a well-rounded background.

Book 2: Une Semaine de Bonté 

Max Ernst
208 pages
Published by: Dover

I'm not entirely sure what to make of this book. I think that's the point.

On Monday, the watery element pervades every picture, whether the locale is a bedroom or a city street: an anxiety-dream situation and perhaps an illusion to Noah's flood.

On Tuesday, large or small dragons (sometimes bats or serpents) are almost universally present, or else wings sprout from people's backs.
The surreal collages are mesmerizing. There are patterns; do they mean anything, or are they just patterns for their own sake? It reminds me of The Mysteries of Harris Burdick (a book well worth reading). Each illustration cries out for a story. A Week of Kindness is probably best enjoyed in a slightly altered state.

I wish I knew where some of the pieces came from. There are a lot of public domain engravings online but nowhere near enough.

Book 3: Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds

Charles Mackay
724 pages
Published by: Harmony Books

I've read bits and pieces of this book over the years, but I finally had the chance to read the whole thing. It's just as excellent as everyone says it is. The author is lively, argumentative, humorous, reasonably well-informed (for the time). It's well worth reading, though I think the life coach and economist crowd might overplay its importance. It's got alchemy, bad economics, and bizarre urban memes. I'll probably do a book notes series on it at some point.

Book 4: The Popish Plot

John Jenyon
346 pages
Published by: Phoenix Press

Speaking of madness, the Popish Plot covers the anti-catholic persecutions in England after the Great Fire of London, and the perfidious and convoluted tales spun by Titus Oates, and the unlikely cast of rogues who emerged to support his story. It's a tale worthy of the Coen Brothers. There are dramatic trials, forged letters, confidence tricksters who unexpectedly reenter the story, Catholic lords being stoic, parliament being parliament, etc. It's a wonderful book. Darkly funny in places, outright despairing in others, but meticulously sourced and organized.

Side Note: I'd like to make a timeline of all the English monarchs with films that cover their reigns. In my mind, Charles I will always be Alec Guinness (from Cromwell); his son Charles II is John Malkovich (from the Libertine).

Book 5: The Medieval Machine

Jean Gimpel
274 pages
Published by: Holt Rinehart and Winston

Predicting the future is hard. It's very easy to laugh at incorrect predictions. Fun too!

The Medieval Machine is two books. The core covers, with good citations, enormous advances made in the medieval era in the use of water and wind power, in mining, in pollution, in architecture, and in timekeeping. Mills dot the landscape like modern gas stations. Villard de Honnecourt presages Leonardo da Vinci. Walter of Henely wrote scientific advice on agriculture, telling his readers to test his ideas and "and you shall find what I say is true." The text is worth a book notes post, particularly the special liberties afforded to miners. They can legally steal rivers.

But the text is bracketed by pessimistic essays on the fall of western civilization. The energy crisis of the '70s and the mystic draw of Spengler convinced Gimpel that western civilization (mostly America) had lost its vital drive, much as (he claimed) medieval europe had done in the late 13th century.

I'm not really sold on either idea. The America of 1956 was vastly different from the America of 1971, but Gimpels' predictors and points of comparison are either spurious or purely anecdotal. He's older. The world has changed. People seem slower and more sedate. There are fewer gadgets. Nothing has been created to match the Empire State Building. Therefore, the world is winding down. Young people just don't give a damn anymore. Etc.

I'd also take issue with the idea that gadget-fascination is a indicator of anything. People of all times seem to love gadgets. I'm willing to bet some early medieval farmer, newly prosperous, returned home to show his wife an hourglass.
"For what do we need this hour-glasse?" she'd ask.
"To measure the time it taketh to doeth a thinge," he'd reply in bad pastiche.
"Prithee, I knoweth how long it taketh to doeth a thinge," she'd say, "without the turning of a glasse or the fallenge of sande."

Book 6: The Devil in the White City

Erik Larson
445 pages
Published by: Penguin Random House

Erik Larson writes perfect vacation books (for me). They're tolerably accurate, they're exciting, and they're very easy to read. A perfect summer mix of true crime and historical perspective. The 1890s is a famously bonkers decade and I'll take fresh insights whenever I find them.

Anonymous death came early and often. Each of the thousand trains that entered and left [Chicago] did so at grade level. You could step from a curb and be killed by the Chicago Limited. Every day on average two people were destroyed at the city's rail crossings. Their injuries were grotesque. Pedestrians retrieved severed heads. There were other hazards. Streetcars fell from drawbridges. Horses bolted and dragged carriages into crowds. Fires took a dozen lives a day. In describing the fire dead, the term the newspapers most liked to use was "roasted". And there was murder... In the first six months of 1892 the city experienced nearly eight hundred violent deaths. Four a day.
Larson deliberately draws out or temporarily obscures facts to create tension, which is fine (if a little theatrical in places). But at the end of the book, he cites all his quotes and, more importantly, tells the reader how the sausages was made. What inspired him. What sources were valuable and why. What choices he made between competing narratives. More authors need to do this. There's no Magic Circle of authors with the power to expel those who reveal their secrets.

Book 7: Byzantium, the Apogee

John Julius Norwich
389 pages
Published by: Penguin

I stuck this book in my bag as a backup and ended up reading it first. Rereading Norwich is always a pleasure. I've already written a post on this book. Norwich isn't a scholar and doesn't pretend to be one. "I knew little about Byzantium when I began writing about it," he says in the introduction, "and I shall doubtless have forgotten a good deal of what I have written soon after I come to the close. If I tend to give economic considerations less than their due, it is because I am not an economist and a three-volume work is quite long enough already. Similarly, if I concentrate on the personalities of Emperors and Empresses, rather than on sociological developments, I can only plead that I prefer people to trends."

He treats accounts of single combat between rulers uncritically and makes a few wild leaps of faith, but for RPG purposes, Norwich is a very fine source. Untangling Byzantine history is not an enviable task.


OSR: Bosola (or Why 1380 Was A Very Exciting Year For Almost Everyone)

First, Magical Industrial Revolution made its funding goal (and then some!) While the book is being whipped into shape, I've finally got some time to work on more medieval content.

Before writing anything, I like to spend time "sharpening the axe". I'll pick and test a format, a world limit, and a goal. Working directly in publishing software helps. Will each location get a page? A half page? A column? A paragraph? Will tables be consistent? What information is vital? What information is repeated (and could be combined into one universal entry or table)? How will this information be used?

For the medieval Italy pointcrawl, I'm not really expecting the PCs to spend a lot of time inside towns and cities. Mercenaries were (for good reason) barred from walled towns. They'd create a camp nearby, usually by taking over a village or two, and sit around waiting for something to happen.

So while I'm not going to map or plan urban adventures, conflicts between cities will define the campaign. Luckily the real world provides examples in great abundance.

Real-World Background

I've decided to use 1380 as the base year. It's an... interesting time in Italian history.
  • Both of the original Popes in the Western Schism are alive and feisty in 1380.
  • The final war against Joanna I of Naples starts in 1380.
  • Genoa and Venice are grinding through the War of Chioggia. The Genoese fleet, theoretically blockading Venice, has itself been encircled and blockaded. 
  • Pisa, broken as a maritime power, is fighting for its life against Florence.
  • Milan is ruled by Bernabò Visconti; his unassuming nephew Gian Galeazzo Visconti has just started a 5-year plot to gain control of Milan.
  • After a staggering number of revolutions and plots, Siena has a stable, if completely ineffectual, government.
  • Bologna has just thrown off both Papal and Milanese rule.
  • The Malatesta have seized Ancona.
  • Florence is convulsed by revolutions.
  • Arezzo is up for sale; everyone thinks the price is too high.
  • Paul Palaiologos Tagaris reaches the peak of his ludicrous career.
  • France crowns a new and precarious king
  • Geoffrey Chaucer was in northern Italy in 1378, possibly as envoy to Sir John Hawkwood
  • The world gets ~2oC colder within a generation. New weather patterns wreak havoc. Crops fail. 
  • Basically, anywhere you look in 1380 something is either going awry, has just stopped going awry, or is on the edge of going awry.

Fictional Background

The peninsula is Bosola.

Bosola is the personal property of the Archpriest, donated by a pious emperor in a half-mythic era.  Bosola is also the personal property of the Emperor of Grept, distant successor of the aforementioned pious emperor. The dukes and nobles of Pellamy, north across the mountains, covet the rich cities and fertile valleys of the peninsula, and constantly interfere in wars and crises. The city-states of Bosola, enriched by trade and emboldened by lack of central control, have become independent nations in their own right.

Thirty years ago, a third of the world died. Villages stand empty. The Plague cut down young and old, rich and poor, soldier and scholar, priest and farmer. Smaller plagues still roam the land; even a hint of "the Pest" can wreck a military campaign or end a merchant venture.

Twenty years ago, the benevolent King Robert of Orvonca died without a firm plan of succession. His death, and the perceived weakness of the rich Kingdom of  Orvonca at the south tip of Bosola, lit the fuse on a series of bloody and destructive wars.

Ten years ago, Pellamy concluded a treaty with her enemies. Soldiers of fortune, out of work and with limited prospects, migrated or were chased to Bosola. Existing mercenary armies grew in power; new companies sprung up overnight.

Two years ago, the Church split in half. A controversial election placed the unstable and quarrelsome Archpriest Simon II on the throne of Molont. Backed by the rich country of Pellamy to the north, a group of cardinals disputed the results of the election and appointed the vindictive and ambitious Archpriest Ignatius I. The two Archpriests promptly excommunicated each other. Nations were forced to take sides. Bosola universally declared for Simon II; Pellamy for Ignatius I, Grept for whichever sides seemed likely to restore their lost lands in Bosola. The revenues of the Church also split; both Archpriests demand donations and sell offices to raise funds.

Last winter was hard one but spring is finally here. The mountain passes are finally clearing, and the armies of Bosola are once again on the move.


Magical Industrial Revolution - Kickstarter Update + Public Domain Tips

As of this post, we're just below 300% funding on the M.I.R Kickstarter! Hooray!

If you missed the announcements, all initial stretch goals have been cleared. That's 3 pamphlets and a bunch of art upgrades. Just 7 days remain. It's a short kickstarter, so spread the word; it'll be over before you know it.

For the last three days, I've been picking final art pieces for the book. While the excellent team of artists have provided lots of great pieces, the intent was always to use public domain art to fill in certain areas. Between Dore's London, old advertisements, and Punch magazine, I'm spoiled for choice.

When I started the project last year, I created a folder full of public domain odds and ends. As the project grew and the scope became more clear, the illustrations were sorted into subfolders: city scenes, citizens, monsters, wizards, industrial equipment, etc. Initial drafts used these illustrations as placeholders or reference images.

Now that it's time to put together the final copy, I'm going back through the folders, pulling out the best illustrations, whitepointing them (or checking past work) and manually cleaning up errors and distortions.

Some get composited (in this case, a recitation has turned into an invocation), but most illustrations are fine as-is.

I'm also checking licenses, publication dates, etc. to make absolutely certain the works are in the public domain. In some cases, where I'd really like to use a piece but can't find a high-quality scan, I've even scanned it myself from my library or from an archival collection.

  • Use multiple search engines to find what you're looking for. Google lets you search based on license and file size, which can be handy but can also ignore improperly tagged files.
  • Collect handy resource pages.
  • Save everything, listing the original site in the filename.
  • If you're sending works to a publisher or editor to include in a document, also send the original files + spares or alternates, just in case they need to make edits.
  • Dig deeper. Sites like the Public Domain Review are fantastic, but you can follow links into their original books to sometimes find higher-quality scans.
  • Grab multiple file shapes. Long horizontal illustrations, tall one-column scenes, square, rectangles, circles, things that can be partially masked by text, etc.
And the most important tip, in my opinion: 
  • Text before art.
Wherever possible, condense your text. Pages to paragraphs, paragraphs to d100 tables, d100 tables to 2-column d10 tables, etc. Figure out what your goal is and work towards that. Cut superfluous information. Then decide what you want to do with the art in the space remaining.

Given the choice between the "perfect" piece of art and an extra little table of helpful information, I'll go with the table every time.

I've tried to ensure M.I.R maintains the same standards as my other books. Clean lines. Ease of photocopying or home printing. No huge ink-sucking black blocks (no matter how cool they'd look).

It's important to make sure information is spaced out and properly landmarked (I like using art as "weenies" to help readers navigate a book), but in the end, if you're writing a book that's a toolbox, it's probably best to include as many tools as possible.



OSR: Appendix N...dustrial

Here's an incomplete list of all the works I specifically consulted, read or reread, watched or rewatched, during the preparation of Magical Industrial Revolution. I've probably missed a few vital ones; I suspect I'll be editing this post for weeks. This isn't a list off unconditional recommendations either. It includes are a few hours of my life I'd very much like back.


Alice In Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass, Lewis Carroll 
Barnaby Rudge, Charles Dickens 
Bleak House, Charles Dickens 
Darkness Visible, William Golding 
Feet of Clay, Terry Pratchett 
Great Expectations, Charles Dickens 
Going Postal, Terry Pratchett 
Hard Times, Charles Dickens 
Jane Eyre, Charlotte Brontë 
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell, Susanna Clarke 
Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell 
Martin Chuzzlewit, Charles Dickens 
Moving Pictures, Terry Pratchett 
Oliver Twist, Charles Dickens 
Peter Pan, J. M Barrie 
The Little Minister, J. M. Barrie 
The Complete Saki, Saki (H. H. Munroe) 
The Complete Sherlock Holmes, Arthur Conan Doyle 
The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde 
The Flashman Papers, George Macdonald Fraser 
The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, Laurence Sterne
, Scott Alexander
Note: despite people telling me I really should, I haven't got around to the Mistborn series yet.


1066 and All That, R. J. Yeatman and W. C. Sellar
1800 Mechanical Movements, Devices and Appliances
, Gardner D. Hiscox
Das Kapital
, Karl Marx
Description of the House and Museum of Sir John Soane, Architect
, John Soane
Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds, Charles Mackay
The Inner Ring
, C. S. Lewis
London Labour and the London Poor
, Henry Mayhew
London: The Biography, Peter Ackroyd
Occult Chemistry: Investigations by Clairvoyant Magnification into the Structure of the Atoms of the Periodic Table and Some Compounds
, Annie Besant and C.W. Leadbeater
The Letters of Queen Victoria
, 1837-1861
The March of Folly
, Barbara W. Tuchman
The Proud Tower
, Barbara W. Tuchman
The Rise and Fall of a Regency Dandy
, T. A. J. Burnett
Vienna, 1814
, David King
Wage Labour and Capital
, Karl Marx
What Jane Austen Ate and Charles Dickens Knew
, Daniel Pool

Blogs & Modules

Against the Wicked City, Joseph Manola
Augmented Reality, The Holistic City Kit For CyberpunkGames
, Paul D Gallagher
City State of the Invincible Overlord
, Judges Guild
Fever-Dreaming Marlinko
, Chris Kutalik, Robert Parker
GURPS Goblins
, Malcolm Dale and Klaude Thomas
In Cörpathium
, Logan Knight
, Michael Raston
Into the Odd
, Chris McDowall 

Gardens of Ynn, Emmy Allen
The Kerberos Club
, Benjamin Baugh
The Trilemma Adventures
, Michael Prescott
Umberwell: Blackened Be Thy Name
, Jack Shear

Internet Things


Hancock’s Half Hour, 1954-1961
Round the Horne
, 1965-1968
The Goon Show,


Against All Flags, 1952
Barry Lyndon
, 1975
Bedknobs and Broomsticks
, 1971
Chitty Chitty Bang Bang
, 1968
Crimson Peak
, 2015
, 1970
, 1998
Elizabeth, the Golden Age
, 2007
From Hell
, 2001
Gold Diggers of 1933, 1933
Gosford Park
, 2001
Howl's Moving Castle, 2004
League of Extraordinary Gentlemen
, 2003
Love and Friendship
, 2016
Master and Commander, the Far Side of the World
, 2003
Modern Times
, 1936
School for Scandal
, 2009
, 2004
The Adventure of Sherlock Holmes’ Smarter Brother
, 1975
The Critic,
The Draughtsman’s Contract,
The Fall of the House of Usher
, 1960
The Falls
, 1980
The First Great Train Robbery
, 1978
The Libertine
, 2004
The Remains of the Day
, 1993
The Ruling Class
, 1972
The Wolfman
, 2010
Trinity and Beyond
, 1995
Young Frankenstein
, 1974
, 1964

TV Series

Blackadder, 1983-1989
Downton Abbey,
Series 1 and 2, 2010-2011
Horatio Hornblower
, 1998-2003
Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell
, 2015
Parade’s End
, 2012
Penny Dreadful
, 2014-2016
The entire Noel Coward BBC television play collection (particularly Hay Fever & the Vortex), 1980s
Witness for the Prosecution
, 2016


OSR: 1d50 Missions for Small Groups of Medieval Mercenaries

As a late medieval mercenary, your time is divided between:
  • waiting around (something D&D can skip).
  • fighting a mass battle or siege (something D&D traditionally has trouble handling without switching to wargame scales).
  • staying alive.
  • having a good time.
Here are 50 missions for small groups of mercenaries (3-10 people, the size of a traditional D&D party).

Of course, ElfmaidsandOctopi got there first.

Jakub Rebelka

1d50 50 Mercenary Missions
1 There's a legend about that castle. They say, on the summer solstice, a fifth tower of pure gold appears at noon. And it's the summer solstice tomorrow...
2 For diplomatic reasons, you need to sack and burn this monastery while dressed as mercenaries from a rival company. Make sure you leave survivors. And don't loot anything too obvious.
3 See if you can find a path through that swamp. Map it or use markers. You may need to find a local guide.
4 This convent of nuns has a very important relic. Go steal it for the greater glory of the mercenary company. If the saint doesn't want to be stolen, you'll get smitten by lightning or something equally unpleasant.
5 The emperor of some foreign land is sending wax copies of his legs to a nearby city for custom-fitted armour. You're going to steal them and we're going to hold them for ransom.
6 The emperor of some foreign land wants to add a local beast to his menagerie. Go capture something magical and dangerous. Here's 50' of rope and a wooden mallet.
7 Our leader's favorite lover is very sick. A famous elderly physician resides two towns away, but refuses to travel to the camp despite offers of vast wealth. Go kidnap the physician... politely.
8 One of the Archpriest's legates is carrying secret letters to a nearby city. Insert this sealed letter among them. 
9 We need you to paint insulting slogans on these dead and diseased cows before we launch them over the walls.
10 There's a small castle along our line of march. It would be convenient if it was occupied before the bulk of our forces pass by. Bribe, fight, or bluff your way in.
11 Here's a laugh. Go ride out to this castle and tell the owner to surrender or we'll burn it at dawn. We won't of course. Too much trouble and it's too far away. But the owner might fall for it.
12 Apparently the queen of this town has a magic mirror that identifies pretty women for her. Weird, I know, but think of what we could do with that mirror! Go steal it.
13 There was a silver mine in the hills before the war. See if any of the locals remember where it was. It might still be operating. 
14 The court poet from a local city has written some very satirical verses about our leader. It'd be unfortunate if the poet met with a tragic accident on the road.
15 The enemy army has camped on a plain just below a dam. If someone breaks that dam, the river will burst its banks and sweep them away. Of course, it's behind enemy lines...
16 One of the Archpriest's legates is carrying vital letters. You need to steal them, copy them, and return them without the legate noticing.
17 Feint a night attack on this town, just to annoy them. Don't get killed, just make them raise the alarm.
18 The captain says he needs a tutor for his children. Go find someone suitable. A literate priest or something. They may need some persuading to work in a mercenary camp.
19 We've tried undermining the town's walls, but something keeps eating the miners. I mean the miners keep disappearing. Anyway, if you sort it out you'll get a nice bonus.
20 It's vitally important, for diplomatic purposes, this convent of nuns is protected. Make sure nobody bothers the nuns. That includes you. And keep your hands of their relics.
21 The enemy town has hired unbribeable killer mercenaries from Foreign Parts. They don't speak the local language so we can't corrupt them. Find someone who speaks their language, and quickly!
22 Our leader is hosting a banquet. Ride down to the coast, buy fresh fish, and get them back here before they start to smell. 
23 Our leader's astrologer-wizard started gibbering about "moondrops" and "beams of silver" and ran off into the night. Go find them and drag them back.
24 We need to bulk up our numbers before the assault. Go see if any of the local villagers can hold a sword or a spellbook. If they can and they want to fight, sign them up. 
25 Our leader is getting married. You lot need to get him a gift. Go steal something nice off the registry.
26 Remember that old manor house we took in the spring? Apparently there are tunnels below it. Some of the guards went in; only one of them made it out. Died in a tavern three days later, but his pockets were full of gold.
27 Go scout the enemy army and count their cannons. Don't get caught.
28 This fog isn't natural. It's a wizard business. Or a druid. Or worse. Head that-a-way and see if you find anything. We'll light a signal fire to guide scouting parties back home.
29 Here's the plan. You pose as deserters, sneak into the town, and spread the word that it will be violently sacked tomorrow. The nobles sneak their valuables out. We ambush them and share the proceeds.
30 Someone massacred a village and it wasn't us. Go take a look.
31 The wizard's tower is supposed to be empty, but something in there keeps lobbing spells at our troops. Fix it.
32 You look like clever people. Invent a terrifying weapon to impress our employers. It only needs to work once, during the demonstration. You've got a week.
33 You're our last hope. Get inside the town somehow and open the gates. 
34 To prevent the enemy from marching against us, set fire to all the grassland from here to the mountains It's been a dry month. Their horses will starve.
35 Some moron says he found "giant bones" down by the riverbed. There haven't been giants in these parts for centuries, but I hear a powder made from their bones makes your... well nevermind. Just go find them.
36 We're running low on horses. Go into the hills, find a village, and see if they've got any horses.
37 Go check on the condition of this road. Rumour has it goblins were seen in the trees, and where there's some goblins there's always more goblins.
38 See that hill? There are standing stones on the top with strange markings on them. Might be nothing, but you should check them for wizard business.
39 Our leader's worthless bastard son turned up. Take him on a "hunting trip" in the hills. I hope nothing conveniently tragic happens to the poor lad.
40 Your job is to deliver this letter to the leader of a rival mercenary company. Don't stick around for a reply. No seriously, it's best if you hand the letter to their leader and run.
41 We're running low on food. Go into the hills, find a village, and get as much food as you can. Take these two carts.
42 They say a tunnel went through that mountain in ancient times. Go see if you can find the entrance. It's not likely-smarter people have tried-but if you do you'll be legends.
43 They say there's a hidden village in the hills, inaccessible unless you know the path... or you're very smart. And you're very clever, right? Go find it and see what they're up to.
44 So we might have accidentally killed a bishop and his retinue. You could have been his twin. Put on this hat and robe, go where he was going, pretend to have a fever, and die of natural causes as soon as possible.
45 You need to fake a troop movement away from the camp. Convince any observers watching by night that we're sending a detachment to flank them. No, there's no budget. Figure it out.
46 The people paying us say we can only claim territory up to the border. The border stones are moveable if you've got a pickaxe, three oxen, and a cart. You only need to move... oh, two dozen. A mile or two will help.
47 An ambassador from a distant kingdom was kidnapped by some bandits. They're hiding in a small looted castle. The local nobles want the castle back but can't pay. The ambassador's ransom is unlikely to arrive.
48 A rival mercenary company just purchased a huge stock of gunpowder in preparation for a predicted siege. It'd be a real shame if someone set fire to it.
49 Old Simpkins, who sells us onions and those funny woodcuts, says bandits have been bothering him near the pass. Go sort them out. We like Old Simpkins.
50 A noble in a local town is stirring up trouble. Go assassinate him. Quietly, publicly, doesn't matter.