Tuesday, 13 September 2022

What Remains?*

Players: don't you hate it when you character dies? For most of my life, and in most of the games I have played, the idea of being forced to hand in my character sheet, one I've put so much into building up,  garlanding with story, tchotchkes, booty, and loot, it's almost... unthinkable.

Playing in noisms' Three Mile Tree campaign cured me of this fear. In that campaign I've watched five of my characters die and, if anything, I was a bit impatient for the last one to kick the bucket by the time the dice fated it. No one character is the story, the campaign is.

It is fun, though, to see where those dead characters' life stories pushed the world. With this in mind, as some sort of a compensation for a player's character death, why not allow that player to indulge in a bit of legend-making, a bit of "hey, why not stick around for your own funeral": ask the player of the dying character to name one thing for which, in years to come, that character will still be remembered. It doesn't have to be something they actually did, in fact it's probably more fun if it's untrue. "Remember Men-Kheper-Ra? If he hadn't started tinkering, trying to breed humans with insects, then we wouldn't have had stag-beetle men and all of this horrible mess could have been avoided".

(This is a sort of simplified riff on my game In My End Is My Beginning, where dying characters look back at the turning points and missed opportunities in their lives). 

*What Remains is also the title of a book by my friend (and I hope, some day, my undertaker) Ru Callender. It will be in all the bookshops, and hard to avoid, from next week. Read more about Ru's book What Remains: Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking.

I also have a book coming out soon: sign up here to be notified when King Arthur vs Devil Kitteh launches.

Wednesday, 31 August 2022

Cerne2CERN the Pilgrim's Tarot

I may have dropped the occasional clew here about how I found the God/Esss and what I did when I found them. If haven't, doubtless I will before long. In the interests of openness (as a byproduct of which I might try to sell you some tat - see below), I will tell you the tale of the day we finally immanentised the Eschaton.

There's no way easy way into this tale so I shall start, by explaining that this is/was either a complex joke masquerading as a religious ceremony, or a complex religious ceremony masquerading as a joke. A third possibility: Daisy Eris Campbell, central to this production, once yelled orgasmically "FUCK PUNCHDRUNK! This is how you do immersive theatre" (no offence intended, I went twice to The Drowned Man - wow! Took my daughter once to let her roam alone, one of the greatest things a dad can do).

Now it's certainly true that, if you take 69 fee-paying members of the public, call them all "pilgrims", cram them in a double decker bus for 5 days to see some far-out sites around Europe, implicating them all as audience, actors, directors and writers of a collaborative unfolding, there is a fucktonne of theatre involved. Exactly who's playing whom though... hmmm?

When you offload Daisy's charabanc trip at a spot in a field in the centre of Europe where also lies the geographical centre of the largest, least-dense, unmass of empty space in the entirety of our known universe (a 27-kilometer torus buried deep under the Alps, known as the "Large Hadron Collider"), which also happens to be on the exact site of a former Appolonian temple, and whose nearest neighbours (according to Google Maps) are the "Chaos Killers Motorcycle Club", then you're not just talking a pile of scatology, you're talking eschatology. When you start this trip, to visit the Large Hadron at that temple to moderity CERN, with a trip to touch the large hard-on at a temple to ancient times called Cerne then this whole caper has gone a bit beyond a joke.

(Is this all starting to get a little tweetle-Beatley for you yet? Far out! If you only came here for simple Role-Playing Games... well, hang around as the ride may get more Real than yer usual story game)

When you reach the centre of the universe and you finally do this (below) - and you decide that you've been doing it all along, since the universe began - then at least you know that you've boldly fucked about where no being has ever fucked about before:

When you look for clues, clews, threads, yarns, coincidences or synchronicities, you find them all at rates that bombard a human mind faster than quarks looking for holes in a wall. When all of that happens, and you find yourself in Gawain's Chapel Perilous, you may avail yourself of rest in the garden around the tower which the maestro of the synchronous, Carl Jung, built with his own hands. There you may take a breather, and listen to the wise words of Merlin, "root and branch will change places and the newness of the thing shall seem a miracle", while a sudden twister whips the mirror-smooth surface of Lake Zürich opaque, then ends just as rapidly as it began.

When you try to explain any of this in plain English, as my friend The Door heroically did, shortly after our return from Out There, you will find the task impossible. But since when has anything that's not impossible been really worth doing, anyway?

In the words of our patron Bill Drummond, "if we knew why, we wouldn't be doing it".

In words I once used myself, and use again, with nods to TS Eliot and Einstein: All this happened. This all a-happen-will. Oh Ma-ma-ma it's all a happening now!

Friday, 26 August 2022

“Scientific proof” and “self-help”

The sun rose today, but will it rise tomorrow?
I mentioned in my last post that Peakrill Press is branching out into a variety of non-gaming related content. I will also be blogging more about random stuff. If you're here just for RPGs, that's cool: there'll still be plenty, and you can skip the rest. But I hope that, if you enjoy my writing about games, you'll appreciate my writing about everything else under the sun.

Below is an example of such other stuff. I'm thinking of writing - bear with me here - a self-help book. I already posted what I guess you could call some advice on productivity and, after 53 years struggling to stay cheerful and get things done, while also managing Bipolar Disorder, I feel I have useful advice to offer.

The passage below will be part of the book, either an introduction or an appendix. I'd especially appreciate any scientists giving it the once-over. As for scientismists, I'd love them to read it, though it may bring them out in a rash.
Any good scientist will tell you that there is no such thing as "scientific proof". What this inaccurate but handy phrase is shorthand for is “a scientific theory that has a lot of evidence that appears to back it up”. As the great philosopher David Hume teaches us, even the theory that “the sun rises every morning” is one we can never prove to be true, because: what about tomorrow morning?

There are folks, I’ll call them scientismists, some of whom believe that scientific proof is a thing, and almost all of whom believe that if a thing doesn’t have at least “a lot of evidence that appears to back it up” then it’s not worth doing, perhaps even dangerous. What a joyless approach to life!

What scientismists appear to forget (even though they often use the term!) is a thing called the “Placebo Effect” which basically means that even when a thing doesn’t work, it works! There’s a belief out there that if something - say, for example, homoeopathy - is “only” as effective as the placebo effect then it’s bunkum, to be avoided at all costs. What a wrong-headed approach to doing good!

Some of the stuff I’ll suggest here - in particular the habit of “gratitude journaling” that forms the heart of this book - have “a lot of evidence which appears to back them up”. Other stuff, like drawing trees or counting the number of petals on a daisy, probably don’t. That shouldn’t stop you from doing them. 
(Disclaimer: not everything untested is as good as a placebo. For example, the theory that jumping out of a plane without a parachute is better for you than jumping out with one has not yet been tested, and I don’t advise you to be the first to try).
By the way, there are some very good books out there which go into detail on which “self-help” practices appear to be more effective than the Placebo Effect -  I recommend starting with Richard Wiseman’s “59 Seconds”. But do bear in mind that all you need to do in order for something you do to do you good, is to believe that it does you good.

I say “all you need to do”. Forcing yourself to believe something is a tough nut to crack, especially if you’ve cynical tendencies like mine. But it is doable. Just remember: the Placebo Effect exists. And it’s magic!

Thursday, 25 August 2022

What's new? Lots new!

A quick note about exciting new developments at the Peakrill cottage. First up, things you can buy from me, and where to buy them. My book Learning to Draw Trees is now out, and I've moved my shop to Shopify - purchase all sorts of Good Stuff from me here! Shopify's monthly fee is a fair bit more than I'm making from sales at the moment but... you know how to change that, right? Buy, buy, buy!

As well as books/zines/leaflets whatever, this includes art prints and mugs of the trees I've drawn. More of both will be coming soon, as well as greeting cards and... I dunno, tea-towels? Branded underwear? Comment here with your wants and your needs.

I'm also selling the last few of a very special pack of "tarot" cards, a magical artifact which will be spoken of a thousand years from now.

I've also also, finally, got around to drawing trees again. A beautiful ash tree covered in freaky boles, which I found in Robin Wood, Loxley, Sheffield (Ha, Robin Wood, Loxley! I've only just realised the pun). You want mugs of this? Prints? T-shirt? G-string? Let me know, and the gods will arrange. 

Bole ash tree, Robin Wood 

More exciting publishing projects coming soon. Peakrill Press is branching out! Like my friends over at Polyversity Press, I'm a big fan of "quality books of indeterminate genre", brought together by the passions and personality of the person publishing them (I'm also a big fan of "covers that look like textbooks for subjects that almost certainly don't qualify as real sciences", though that's a little less relevant here). And so, while my main focus will continue to be on gaming related guff, I'll be printing other stuff that I love, not all of it by me.

Next up will be new editions of some inspirational books on walking by my father-in-law, Terry Howard. Terry has been a huge force in the movement to secure the Right to Roam in the UK over the last 50-odd years. A documentary called Ramble On has recently been made about Terry, by Director Charlie Thorne, and it's an absolutely wonderful piece of "slow cinema". It made me cry. I believe that you can catch it next at Sheffield's Festival of the Mind on 22nd September. Here's the trailer:

Finally, for those of you in the USA and nearby territories, I'm glad to say that you can now save on mail costs by my purchasing my Cairn adventure Gespenwald from the Cairn Store - or at least, you'll be able to once Yochai gets back from vacation. Likewise, both Gespenwald and Mostly Harmless Meetings will soon be up for sale on Exalted Funeral. Words cannot express what a confidence boost it is for me having those folks appreciate my stuff so much that they will pay for bundles of it to be shipped to the USA. 

Actually, that wasn't such a short update, was it?

Oh! And there is... just one more thing (and thank you for reading this far!) My wife makes some absolutely amazing stuff out of vintage fabrics, under the moniker "Made by Candlelight". I'm hoping to add that too to my online shop in due time, although meanwhile she has a folksy store but... it's sold out. She's frantically making patchwork hot-water bottle covers in time for Winter, but if anything below catches your eye then drop me a line, custom orders always very welcome! We recently shipped a beautiful wheelchair blanket to Natchitoches, Louisiana - something else which makes me beam with joy. 

Happy almost-autumn, and may your mushroom-hunting always be safe.

Sunday, 7 August 2022

The Stone Bone Mound

Here is my entry to this year's One Page Dungeon Contest. With a working title of "negative space dungeon", it's a solution to a thought experiment which came to me, as do all of the best ideas, while walking on the moors: what if I were to use all of the dungeon map, and not just the white bits. As part of the process of making it, I learnt how to draw a labyrinth, which turns out to be super simple and is also super rewarding: I sometimes draw them just for relaxation now.

Here it is: The Stone Bone Mound

Sunday, 31 July 2022

New stuff in't store


A very quick post to say that I have added two new products to my online store and both are currently on special offer: Learning to Draw Trees is a 44-page book documenting my attempt to, well, learn to draw trees. Contains drawings, photos, thoughts and tips. Gespenwald, meanwhile, is a free-form TTRPG adventure, my entry to the Forests of Another Name game jam for Cairn

Tuesday, 7 June 2022

Just Do The Work

Well of Bolonchen by Frederick Catherwood

[This post was originally intended for my personal blog, but I figured that folks here may find it useful]

I am well acquainted with the whoosh of deadlines, and I've just been overtaken by yet another; weeks, months, stopped in my tracks by Seasonal Affective Disorder and Bipolar Disorder (or perhaps I'm lazy and that's just my excuse?)

My inability to complete work to schedule has bugged me all of my life, as I know it does many people. My bipolar disorder (of which I will say more at the end of this post) makes this particularly tricky. But, partly because of this, I've spent many years investigating different life-hacking techniques, and have a fair idea of what does and doesn't work. A serial deadline-misser like me may seem to be the worst person to give advice on productivity hacks, but that's what I'm going to do anyway.

First of all, and most importantly: Do The Work. The short and sweet book The War of Art by Steven Pressfied is very clear on this subject. Sit down, every day, and crack on with things. Do this regardless of whether the muse moves you or not. Treat every project like paid employment, and treat being there as an obligation. Even doing a few minutes every day will soon build into something worthwhile, and will result in in more Stuff produced over the course of week, a month, a year, a lifetime.

Which is all well and good, but turning up regularly can be difficult; sometimes just remembering to do the work is itself a job of work. Elastic Habits by Stephen Guise helps you to build the muscle that keeps you battling on. To build elastic habits, you learn to consider the smallest possible increment of work as something worth doing. Simply making sure that you Do The Work with regularity will, over the course of a few months, build a self-sustaining habit. Of course, you don't want to always be doing the smallest amount possible: the system sets 3 different goal-sizes (and usually 3 different variations on the task, for variety) to help you monitor your achievements and stay on track.

For example, say I want to get fit. I could have three different activities that count towards getting fit, let's say floor exercises, swimming, and running (doing any one of those in a day counts as Doing The Work). For each of them, I will set three different levels of difficulty. The first one has to be so simple that you can do it almost without effort: one set of floor exercises, swimming one length, running for a minute. The next level should be a little harder: 3 reps/lengths/minutes. And the next, quite a bit higher, perhaps 15 reps/lengths/minutes. Each day, you make damn sure that you either run, swim, or do floor exercises at least a tiny amount. You can adjust your goals as you go along - if you fail to make even the simplest level, perhaps you can simplify further: lie on the floor/get your bike out of the shed/visualise swimming. If you're managing the hardest level every day, then make it harder.

Another book I've found helpful in tackling my own specific difficulties is Your Own Worst Enemy by Kenneth Christian. This book is aimed at "high achievers" who are not achieving. The premise is that those of us who do extremely well in school (or at least in the early years) start to assume that we can just coast through life. This turns out not to be true, and so we fail, and think of ourselves as failures, until learn how to put in the necessary effort to Do The Work. Again, this book mainly focuses on Just Doing The Work, as well as visualising future achievements (a well-proven psychological technique for bringing those achievements closer to realisation).

Speaking of getting things done, the book of that name is a classic of the productivity genre. Like most books in this field, it can be summed up in a few sentences. It employs three basic tools: a to-do list, a calendar, and a filing system. Many of us will have a pile of paper on our desk and/or an inbox full of unread emails and/or a bunch of vague ideas in our heads which serve (badly) all three purposes. We will also have an accompanying cognitive load and frequent moments of "oh gosh, I'm sure there was something I was supposed to do today, what was it again?" The premise of Getting Things Done is that immediately shifting each piece of paper/email/idea into one of the three buckets (to-do/calendar/filing) gets it off your mind and into a place where you cannot fail to have access to it exactly when you need it. I struggled with this system for years because I was never any good at to-do lists: I tried both paper and digital ones, but always found myself soon overwhelmed with too many items. But a few years ago I discovered Todoist, and suddenly everything fitted into place. Todoist's flexibility - allowing you to use it as a basic list, but containing more advanced optional features such as due dates, projects, and labels - has allowed me to hack it into to a system that works for me, and that does not overwhelm me on a day-to-day basis.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, is accountability. In my case, accountability that is inflexible and dangerous. I have written about how I use the Book of Horkos to fulfil this role. Less perilous forms of accountability, I have found, are easy to sidestep (which I have done so many times that it almost comes naturally). The cost is that people will think worse of me and will trust me less, but in my darker moments I feel that I've probably lost all of their trust already and anyway, so what does it matter? For some people, simply by stating in public "I am going to Do The Work" (with the potential loss of face of failing to Do The Work) means that they will Do The Work. For me, it requires an immovable deadline and another person or people who will not only think less of me if I fail, but will themselves suffer some inconvenience. I hate letting other people down!

Due to the whooshing deadline I mentioned at the start of this post, I have today initiated a new harsh form of accountability. I have hired... I'm not quite sure what to call her, something between a PA and a life-coach. I pay her money, and every week I tell her her exactly what I will complete in the next week. Then we will look back on the previous week and check that I did in fact achieve what I said I would. The person I have hired to do this is my daughter because, not only is she as sharp as a pin, she is perhaps the one person in the world that I could never bring myself to let down. I know that she is going to be ruthless at her job, and I know that this is going to keep me in line.

I said at the outset that Bipolar Disorder makes my task a lot trickier. My specific flavour of bipolar disorder is BP-II. On the surface this appears far less severe than classic BP-I "manic depression", but BP-II's mood swings are far more frequent, and the disruptive effect this has on one's life can barely be overstated (BP-II sufferers are far more likely to attempt suicide than those with BP-I, because of this frequent inability to function).  When I'm depressed, all bets are off, and everything falls apart. The frequency with which this happens means that habit-building is virtually impossible. People often say that to form a habit, you should do it at the same time as you brush your teeth. In 50+ years I have never managed to acquire the habit of brushing my teeth regularly. This inability to be consistent is known to cause many problems in the life of those with BP-II, in particular psychosocial impairment results from being unable to be consistent in one's relationships (I was in my my 30s before I began to understand how one interacts with other people, and it's only due to having an amazing and supportive wife that I'm able to function reasonably normally today).

And that, I believe, is why I've never quite managed to dial in those productivity habits that I know so much about for any real length of time (the longest I've managed is about 2 months). But that's not going to stop me trying. And my next attempt starts today. Once I'm done, I'll probably write a book on productivity hacks for bipolar folks.

Tuesday, 3 May 2022

Naming Things

The Ship of Yoharneth-Lahai by Sidney Sime

After a lecture at Cornell in which Lord Dunsany had mentioned his longtime collaborator, the artist Sidney Sime, somebody said what a perfect name Sime was for him. “I don’t know,” said Dunsany; “I think Rhibelungzanedroom would suit him better.”

I have recently been reading Lord Dunsany and Clark Ashton Smith's short stories. They're full of names like Yoh-Vombis, Ubbo-Sathla, Thlūnrāna and Karna-Vootra (alongside plenty of purple prose). Exotic, huh? Hmm.

Weird and wonderful (presumably) made-up names like these proliferate in fantasy RPG-land. Usually packed full of Zs, Ks, Qs, hyphens, and dïạćrîtĩcŝ, this Khazad-dûmbing-down of names does very little for me. These names have no resonance, and tell me nothing except "you tried to make this name sound weird". As a result they all end up sounding much of a muchness, interchangeable letter-mush. And are almost never memorable.

"The names used in the adventure are a complete bricolage signifying no particular human culture. In fact they are all the names of caves." - Patrick Stuart, Deep Carbon Observatory

I've found that using pre-existing words, perhaps with the odd letter changed here and there, makes for far more satisfying and memorable names. Electric Bastionland does a very good job of this, suggesting names for each of its failed careers which, although not entirely familiar, are suggestive and simple to remember. There are many potential sources for names, from Patrick's cave names via place names, technical and domain-specific terms, body parts... not to mention the zillions of lists of baby names out there. The names of climbing routes have an exotic but resonant charm of their own and (perhaps unsurprisingly) remind me of the spaceship names of M John Harrison and Iain M Banks. And I'm reminded of a story of a South American country where the naming of babies after components of car engines became so popular that it had to be banned (I may name my next character Carburettor O'Sump).

Despite this, it's not long since I advocated using the names SsShrp, SvyrySshp, and FssSuSshs. So please take everything that I say with a pinch of salt.

Update: here is another great blog post about naming places in RPGs.

Saturday, 16 April 2022

“and a miniature three-handed sword” - d30 AI encounters

I couldn't resist getting GPT-3 to spit out a bunch more random encounters. I used the same examples as last time to teach the machine what I wanted, and here's what it came out with. There are certain tropes and stereotypes emerging here, but also occasional stunningly original ideas. Enjoy!

noisms and the Hall of the Third Blue Wizard

I interviewed noisms, who blogs as Monsters and Manuals, publishes noisms games, and is best known for his fantasy game setting Yoon Suin, the Purple Land. Right now he'a running a Kickstarter for The Corridor of the Seventh Green Magic User  The Hall of the Third Blue Wizard, a zine featuring high-quality commissioned RPG modules and short stories. Although I fucking hate acronyms, for sanity's sake I'm sure I'll be referring to it as THOTTBW or THotTBW or THot3W by the end of this post, however dirty that makes me feel.

Here are audio and video versions of the interview, and below them are a summary of what we talked about with LOTS of notes and links and other good stuff.

Wednesday, 13 April 2022

Gespenwald, Cairn, and the NSR

Firstly, I have a new thing out. It's called Gespenwald, comes in the form of a PDF (printable as a double-sided A4 trifold), and can be downloaded here. I will have printed copies available in a couple of months.

It kicks off with a children's rhyme:

On Narren Night, my love and me
We met beside the Gespen tree
We kissed and counted, one, two, three,
And turned, and touched the Gespen tree

The Gespen Tree, the Gespen Tree
Her elbows wrapped around her knee
As old as bone and stone is she
The Gespen Tree, the Gespen Tree

In Gespenwald, around the tree
We spent the night, my love and me
Until the sun returned and he
Left me alone, beside the tree

Oh Gespen Tree, oh Gespen Tree
Return my stolen love to me
Next Narren night, please set him free
Oh Gespen Tree, oh Gespen Tree

Gespenwald is a freeform adventure written for the Forests of Another Name jam. Although it's written for the game Cairn, it can easily be played with Into the Odd and its derivatives; or adapted for other games; or even, like my previous publication Mostly Harmless Meetings, read as a piece of Oulipian fantasy fiction.

I thought I'd use the release of this new piece of writing as an opportunity to talk a little about Cairn, a game which many people won't be familiar with, and, via Cairn, to talk about the "NSR" community.