Wednesday, 30 November 2022

Further Encounters in AI

OpenAI have just added a new model, text-davinci-003, to their GPT-3 text generators. It is supposedly much higher quality than previous models, so I decided to generate some random encounters and some nanodeities using the same prompts as before. I also, for shits & giggles, decided to ask another AI to make pictures of the encounters, because: why wouldn't I? 

Here are the results:

Random encounters

* At the edge of a nearby lake, a giant 3-headed turtle is sunning itself on a rock. It has a large shell with powerful scutes, and its 3 heads have different expressions: one is smiling, one is frowning, and one is screaming. The turtle is friendly, and will willingly carry up to four PCs across the lake on its back. It is also a repository of knowledge, and will answer any question they ask it, but will only do so if they answer three of its own questions first.

The turtle's questions are:
1. What is the most beautiful thing you have ever seen?
2. What is the most powerful emotion you have ever felt?
3. What is the most important lesson life has taught you?

* The PCs come across a clearing in a forest, where four wooden pillars have been erected around a raised platform. On the platform, a circle of five humanoid figures stand, their heads bowed and their hands clasped together. As the PCs approach, the five figures begin to chant a strange, eerie melody in a language none of them have ever heard before. The chanting becomes more and more frantic, and soon the five figures are spinning in a circle and holding hands. The ground suddenly trembles and a shimmering red portal appears in the centre of the circle. The five figures continue to chant, and the portal slowly starts to open, revealing a strange and alien landscape beyond. If the PCs step through the portal, they will find themselves in a place called the Shadow Realm, where they will be able to explore, interact with the inhabitants, and find powerful magical items. However, they must be careful, as the Shadow Realm is a dangerous place, and they must be careful to not become lost in its depths.

* A small rock-strewn valley, at the bottom of which lies a shallow lake. In the lake is a small island, upon which stands a single, ancient oak tree. As the PCs approach, they notice that the lake is home to a small colony of giant fire-breathing dragonflies. The dragonflies are friendly and will offer to give the PCs a ride across the lake, in exchange for a few pieces of copper. Once on the island, the PCs discover a small shrine to the god of fire, surrounded by a ring of standing stones. In the centre of the shrine is a small altar, upon which sits a single, flaming gem. If a PC takes the gem, they will gain a permanent increase to their fire resistance.


* Gurf, a deity of long-forgotten front doors made from oak and yew, has domain over the forgotten and misplaced. Gurf appears as a moss-covered door with a lion’s head knocker and a keyhole with a glint of starlight. To appease Gurf, kneel in front of an ancient door and whisper a prayer for the forgotten and the lost. Gurf will reward you with an entirely new door, with a shiny brass knob and a lock that can never be picked.

* Marilath is the god of half-forgotten memories, and can be found in the far corners of one's mind. Marilath looks like a silver-scaled catfish, but with a human face and a beaked nose. To worship Marilath, one must sit in a comfortable chair and recite forgotten memories in a soft voice. If successful, Marilath will reward you with a vision of forgotten memories, providing a glimpse into the past.

* Gorack the Great is the god of forgotten roads, appearing as a giant centipede with a glowing yellow eye. To appease Gorack, one must draw a map on a piece of paper and trace a route along a forgotten road. Once the map is complete, Gorack will reward the worshipper with an altered perspective on the world, and will offer guidance on how to find forgotten roads.


These responses do feel slightly superior to the set I generated with an earlier text model. The differences are subtle, but the biggest difference is the one you can't see: with the previous model, I generated perhaps 10 or 15 responses in order to get three which I felt were adequately creative and believable. This time around, I only had to generate the three which you see above.

As for the image AI: that was predictably terrible, but a lot of fun. The images themselves are nice enough, but scarcely representative of the text (although the deities are a lot closer than the random encounters). I could have made the images a little more accurate by tweaking and re-tweaking the text, but life's too short and, as my attempts to get an AI to depict a viking longship made of thorns have taught me, AIs are terrible at generating anything other than simple portraits or landscapes.

However, I adore the fact that the picture of Gorack the Great, god of forgotten roads, incorporates what appears to be a prehistoric version of Google Maps' location pin.

Tuesday, 29 November 2022

The Mycoleum

My friend James Burt and I are producing a “Mycelium Parish Newsletter”, a round-up of what’s been going on in our corner of the UK counterculture over the last year (James explains in a little more detail here).

Our underground network of threads has birthed some fairly significant mushrooms recently, including the books What Remains? Life, Death and the Human Art of Undertaking by Ru Callendar, and John Higgs' Love and Let Die: Bond, the Beatles and the British Psyche, while the goetic sitcom Damned Andrew, by Andrew O’Neill, was commissioned by BBC Radio 4.

But there are other edible treats deeper in the woods, such as the ongoing Lost Doctor audio dramas (set in an alternate Doctor Who universe), the F23 podcast (who scooped interviews with Grant Morrison, Douglas Rushkoff, and - an incredible coup - the first ever interview with The Economy in its several-thousand-year history), Tim Arnold’s Superconnected album and accompanying feature-length film, plus a host of books, blogs, podcasts, events, email newsletters, and much, much more. In The Mycelium, we attempt to bring together all the threads, and to raise up all of the mushrooms. 

James and I started with the notion of a regular parish newsletter, amateurish and hastily thrown together. I thought we ought to have an equivalent of the church photo which often appears at the top of such newsletters and, having no budget or appreciable skills, I turned to AI to see what could be done...

The Mycoleum

Blimey, that was a rabbit-hole and a half! I now have far more pictures than I know what to do with, as well as a much more image-heavy newsletter. I will be posting further details of the newsletter when it's complete, but meantime... I put some pictures onto clothes:

Yes, I have a new online shop! Please visit... The Mycoleum!

(Above is just a very limited selection both of the images I want to stick on things, and the things on which I want to stick them. If you have a need for any of the above on other items, from g-strings to facemasks, iPhone cases to ice-buckets, please let me know).

I should add that, despite my adventures with AI, I remain committed to providing work for real flesh-and-blood illustrators whenever I can. Maximillian Hartley is hard at work on the pictures for King Arthur vs Devil Kitteh, and I have Rich Tingley on standby for when I finally get to writing Nanodeities.

But on those low-budget/no-budget occasions where, in the past, I would have headed straight for oldbookillustrations, I now have another, very fun tool at my disposal.

Sunday, 27 November 2022

Something Happened

image by The Mycoleum

Last night, I was reading dark short stories from some of Nightjar Press's excellent chapbooks. Walking the dog later, I thought "I fancy writing a short story like one of those writers. You know, those ones". And suddenly this came spewing out, stream of consciousness-style:
The effects were subtle but they were certainly there. Obvious, really. 
When we waved goodbye to Kim that morning, nothing changed. The rain of the last few weeks was unabated. If anything, it got worse. Thank god we’d got the coal in before prices went up.
“Schildkreute”, Jan exploded. 
“Slow warts steadied by delish topping.” 
“Stop it.” 
When the sun came through, it was golden. Although it never reached the house, you could tell by the light on the opposite hills. Jan said “there’s no end to the things that turn up”. We said “no matter, look at the hills”. 
After one of those baths that are never as good as you’d hoped, things started turning up again. If it wasn’t the weather, it was the price of dry goods. At least you could stock up on them. We had no way of saving the perishables. 
It happened that Jan had an appointment the following Monday. So we made the most of the trip, got what we could out of it. Rain running along the train windows reminded me of Kim. 
“Nothing seems to last” you said as you chucked the carton of congealed milk, scarcely a day later. “Not like it used to”. “It didn’t, even then”, we replied. 
By the time we reached the bottom of the freezer, strangers were roaming the moors, hoping for rabbit, maybe mushrooms. Jan didn’t speak any more, and we missed their petty contributions to the household. Mould had put a film across two of the windows, and the rest were in need of putty or something to serve. 
By the time the end came, none of us was surprised. I remember you talking of something quite similar back, when was it? Before the incident with the putty, anyway. We’d been living a little beyond our means for some time now, and things were stacking up. Things always do. 
We’d tried cutting back, but it never seemed enough, never made much difference anyway. Not until things became unbearable.
For a very different piece of fiction, check out What We Have Left, which is also the title of my short story collection which will be published by Polyversity Press, once I get around to editing it.

Tuesday, 22 November 2022

You May Find A Bed

There is no convenient time to break your leg 
There is no convenient time to find your soul 
There is no convenient time to submit to force 
There is no convenient time to starve 
There is no convenient time to have a child 
There is no convenient time to lose your will 
There is no convenient time to have a flat tyre  
from You May Find A Bed, by Skeleton Crew

I had hoped, by now, to be selling a book called King Arthur vs Devil Kitteh. But, as is the course of things, obstacles have been encountered, delays endured, and it’s still a work-in-progress. But I find myself facing a new dilemma: once it is ready, when and how do I launch it? 

My intention had always been to run a Kickstarter: I’ve had great success with the previous two that I’ve run. But I'd wanted the Kickstarter to complete at a time which means I can deliver the book around about this time of year, in time for Christmas.

I really don’t want to wait another year before launching the book; but I now have more significant concerns than that: will anybody be able to afford it? 

Like I said, my previous two Kickstarters have been very succesful. But they have been for relatively cheap zines, they have piggy-backed off well-supported community games jams, have been moderately cheap to produce (unlike the properly bound hardback picture-book I have in mind for King Arthur) and, most importantly, were released when “spending money” was still a thing.

Sure, for many people around the world, it still is. But quite specifically here, now, in the UK, things seem to have changed rapidly for the worse. Fuel and food prices have gone up astronomically, and the government which has overseen this country’s decline over the last 12 years seem determined to push us into another round of “austerity” (AKA bubble-up economics). Friends in retail tell me that they’re turning over 20% of what they did this time last year. When is a good time to launch a £20 book which many, I know, will love but, let’s be honest, nobody really needs?

I don’t have an answer. All suggestions gratefully received.

Meanwhile, I flddle in my hilltop home as Rome slowly burns. I’ve been tinkering with AI “art” and, my god, it’s addictive. While I’m extremely sensitive to the concerns of artists who stand to lose work, wow, aren't these beautiful? (I want to stick some on T-shirts and sell them, but… ethics, damn it).

Back to King Arthur: while my brain takes its time over mulling a release date, you’d be doing me a great favour if you signed up to be notified when the Kickstarter starts kicking, you can do so here. Also, why not sign up for my email newsletter using the form below - one day, I may even send out an email.

Wednesday, 26 October 2022

MuMufication and the People’s Pyramid

Yesterday I completed foundation training as a Death Doula (or "Soul Midwife"), somebody who helps members of their community to come to terms with and approach death in as comfortable a way as possible. As part of my training, I had to give a presentation on a particular community's practices surrounding death. Rather than tackle the practices of a traditional religion or long-established community, I chose to focus on a more contemporary issue: what happens to old ravers and punks when they die? If you too are interested in knowing the answer to the above question, or to questions such as "how does one build a pyramid out of 35,000 dead people?" or "whatever happened to that rave band The KLF?", here is my presentation: 

“MuMufication” is a process whereby 23g of a dead person’s ashes are placed inside a hole in a specially designed brick (a “Brick of Mu”) which is then fired for a second time in such a way that the person’s ashes become sealed into the brick. These bricks are then laid as part of a pyramid, “The People’s Pyramid”. This bricklaying ceremony happens once per year, on 23rd November, during “Toxteth Day of the Dead”.

The bricks themselves can be purchased during a person’s lifetime, along with a “Certificate of MuMufication”, at a cost of £99 (which includes the cost of the firing and ritual bricklaying once the person is dead), although there have been special offers allowing the very very young, the very very old, and residents of the Liverpool L8 postcode to participate for as little as 99p.

However, the brick does not need to be purchased during a person’s lifetime; if the deceased’s loved ones wish them to be MuMufied, as long as 23g of ashes are available then it can be done at any time following death. It should be added that the nature of the ritual means that the dead may also be celebrated in more traditional ways by their direct family and loved ones, for example a person could have a "normal" funeral and cremation before later being MuMufied.

This is a very new ritual: the first brick was cemented in place in 2018, and there are currently 35 bricks in the pyramid (22 of which were laid last year). The complete 23-foot high pyramid will require 34,592 bricks, which means that it will not be finished during the lifespan of anyone currently living. This is intentional. Modern life lacks both meaningful ritual and long-term thinking. MuMufication is a secular ritual, one which allows for contemplation of what it means for us to become ancestors. The MuMufied are literally laying foundations for our descendents 1,000 years in the future.

The origins of MuMufication are both serious and playful, and central to them are the artists and situationists Jimmy Cauty and Bill Drummond. This duo were best known as the pop group The KLF during the late 1980s and early 1990s, but have also operated under many other labels including The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu, The JAMS,  the Timelords, the K Foundation and K2 Plant Hire Ltd. In order to understand where MuMufication came from, it is useful to understand something of the pair's history.

It also helps to know something about The Illuminatus Trilogy: three sci-fi novels written in the 1970s by Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea which, with their storyline packed with conspiracy theories, were intended to demonstrate how ridiculous such theories were, but which ended up having the opposite effect by re-igniting interest in an obscure 18th Century sect called the Bavarian Illuminati. In the trilogy, The Justified Ancients of Mu Mu were the sworn enemies of the Illuminati. The books (and Drummond & Cauty) also draw heavily upon the symbolism and ideas of Discordianism, a spoof religion which highlights some of the cognitive biases involved in mainstream religions, and which places special significance upon the number 23.

The KLF were the biggest singles band in the world in 1991. Tracks such as What Time Is Love and Last Train to Trancentral were the soundtrack to the rave movement of those years, and for their follow-up single Justified and Ancient they famously persuaded country music star Tammy Wynette to appear on a rave single, singing about a group of mysterious “ancients of Mu Mu” who roamed the land in an ice-cream van. However, The KLF are remembered far more for the way in which they left the music industry than for any of the music they left behind. At the height of their fame, they were invited to open the 1992 Brit Awards. For this, their only ever live performance, they played an unrecognisable thrash metal version of their trance hit 3AM Eternal , backed by the band Extreme Noise Terror, before firing a machine-gun full of blanks at the music-industry audience, and leaving the stage as an announcement declared that: “The KLF have left the music industry”.

The music industry, however, refused to believe that any band this successful would simply quit at the height of their success. To reinforce their message, and burn all bridges forever, the duo deleted all of their releases, meaning that their songs could no longer be purchased, or played on the radio. Then they burned the remaining £1 million that they had made from their time as a band. Hounded for doing so, they wrote a contract saying that they would not speak any more about this act for 23 years. The contract was written on a car, which was then pushed off a cliff.

The two were good to their word. The ashes of the £1 million were made into a brick (the beginning of an obsession with bricks), and for the next 23 years they each worked on assorted art projects, and had no further dealings with the music industry.

At the beginning of 2017 rumours about the band began to circulate. The 23-year contract was due to expire on 23 August, and the sudden appearance of strange posters, graffiti, and YouTube videos at the beginning of the year sparked rumours that the KLF would be reforming and releasing new music. This was never going to happen. In the event, The JAMS’ return was far stranger than most had imagined, stranger than many could imagine. The 23rd anniversary kicked off an event called “Welcome to the Dark Ages” during which 400 people each paid £100 to spend 3 days doing a series of increasingly bizarre tasks.

Welcome to the Dark Ages started fairly normally with a book-signing and a debate about why the pair had burned the £1 million (little clarity was achieved and perhaps the most illuminating answer to this question was “to get to the other side”). Things got weirder though, as the 400 were given mysterious duties to perform which included collecting shopping trolleys and traffic cones, forming a band “Badger Kull”, worshipping a statue of John Lennon, and performing pranks inside branches of Starbucks. But the culmination of the three days was an announcement that Cauty and Drummond had gone into business with undertakers Rupert Callender and Claire Phillips, and were launching a literal pyramid scheme whereby punters could pay to be baked into bricks and then piled into a pyramid. The pyramid was to be built in Toxteth, Liverpool - one of the country’s most deprived areas and a breeding ground for creativity, and somewhere with which the pair had previous ties. 

Given the nature of the event, and of so much else that Cauty and Drummond had done during their lives, it’s tempting to think that this was and is just a big joke, with anyone foolish enough to buy a brick as its butt. However the pair are not pranksters like Jeremy Beadle, they are tricksters like the god Loki: their intention is not to make fools of other people, but to point out the foolishness of the reality in which we all live, and so bring real magic into people’s lives. The playful solemnity of the People’s Pyramid was made painfully real when, the following year, it was revealed that the first brick in the pyramid was to be Jimmy Cauty’s younger brother Simon, who had tragically died in 2016 at the age of 57. Jimmy wrote a beautiful eulogy to his brother, and why this death drove him to establish the building of the pyramid.

The pyramid continues to grow, and Toxteth Day of the Dead continues to evolve. In 2020 it had to be postponed due to COVID, and in 2021, for the first time, it was held outside Liverpool (in Buxton, Derbyshire) as it was declared that “Toxteth is a state of mind”.

One of the most exciting things about this entirely new form of memorialisation is that nobody, including Cauty and Drummond, yet knows quite what it is. The form and nature of the thing evolves from year to year, as attendees who are unsure of what the “proper form” is for this death-ritual soon come to realise that this is entirely up to them. Everything is up for grabs. There are still 34,557 bricks to be added. A permanent site for the pyramid is still to be found. In the meantime, like the ark of the covenant, the foundation stone and its growing stack of bricks moves from place to place, accruing legends and souls. 

Further details of MuMufication can be found at The MuMufication website where there is also a list of those MuMufied to date, with photographs and short biographies

There is also a Radio 4 documentary “The People’s Pyramid” available on BBC Sounds; and Paul Duane’s 2019 documentary of Welcome to the Dark Ages, “What Time Is Death?” includes some details of MuMufication. John Higgs’ excellent book “The KLF: chaos, magic, and the band that burned a million pounds” gives a detailed and enjoyable tour of the history and philosophy behind many of Bill Drummond and Jimmy Cauty’s activities, as well as a novel explanation as to why the 21st Century has turned out to be such a shitshow so far.

Thank you for reading. I shall soon be publishing a book King Arthur vs. Devil Kitteh, and it would help me enormously if you could sign up on the Kickstarter page to be notified once I launch it.


Tuesday, 11 October 2022

AI-generated soundtracks

Amidst all of the talk about the use of AI/Machine Learning to generate content for RPGs, I've only ever heard two forms of media discussed: words, and pictures. Of course, these are the things that RPG books and supplements are made up of, and so it seems obvious to talk about them. But they are not the only form of medium.

Some people set their games to music and sound-effects. Not me, and I've never been sure whether I would want to (background music is such a ubiquitous distraction nowadays, and I think that it detracts from the act of actually sitting down to appreciate good music) and, even so, I imagine it would take an awfully long time to pick out and compile a suitable soundtrack (especially if you are as fussy as me). However, there is clearly a demand for it, and some supplements I have downloaded from even come with their own soundtracks.

There is a precedent for music set to accompany perilous adventure, and it's in film and TV. It ought to be possible, although not trivial, to train an AI using scripts and soundtracks from the last hundred years of moving pictures, so that it can generate music appropriate to, say, yomping through the mountains, listening carefully at a door, tiptoeing into a darkened room, or fighting with a sodding great dragon. How this is integrated into the game presents another challenge, but it's a challenge similar to that already faced by anyone using music and sound effects to enhance their game: essentially, do you have a backing-track running throughout the whole thing, or do you press the "dragon fight" button to switch on the dragon fight music the instant the party starts to fight the dragon. Again, this problem isn't insurmountable.

So I wonder... is there anyone out there teaching computers to set roleplaying sessions to music?

By the way, I am in the process of writing a book "King Arthur vs Devil Kitteh", and if you could visit the Kickstarter page and sign up to be notified on launch, that would help me an awful lot, thanks! 

Monday, 10 October 2022

AI writing partnerships

The topic of using AI/Machine Learning in TTRPGs just won't go away. Most recently, I see that Monsters and Manuals has declared for the Luddite side. I can certainly appreciate this position from an ethical standpoint, and from an aesthetic standpoint I can see why a person would think that computer-created content lacks soul (and I agree, given the current state of the art, though I think that a computer will learn to mimic soulful words and pictures eventually. The question here is how long "eventually" takes to arrive). 

In the meantime there is a way in which AIs can be used both ethically and soulfully, particularly in the field of writing. And that is by putting a human in collaboration with an AI. Human-to-human  collaborations like this already exist - think of the classic comedy writing duo, or the sitcom "writers' room". Even many RPGs and RPG supplements are created by teams - I'm thinking in particular of Tracy & Laura Hickman, who really shook up the D&D world when they wrote the Desert of Desolation adventure series (and went on to write Ravenloft and then Dragonlace, both of which had an even bigger impact).

So, how about a writing duo, one half of which is a computer? It's fairly easy to picture how this would work: the human writer writes some stuff, feeds it into the computer, the AI riffs on the writer's ideas and style, throwing out new ideas which the human can then either incorporate into the original text, or finesse and publish as an entirely new piece of work.

In fact, this is already happening. My friend Charlene Putney who writes scripts for computer RPGs (including games such as the Divinity series and Baldur’s Gate 3) is one of the people behind a piece of software (currently in beta-testing) called LAIKA, which is intended to do just this. Once you have trained LAIKA, it will make suggestions as you write, throwing up options you may not have thought of, and helping you to break out of writer's block. You can also use pre-trained models in LAIKA if you would like to, say, write like Dostoevsky or Dickens, although that's not something that appeals to me at all (but it might help if you were writing a Dostoevskyan or Dickensian RPG). I have had a quick play with LAIKA, but don't really have enough of my own writing on which to train it. I'm working on that though...

I just started thinking again about this collaborative approach to AI because I revisited my earlier, surprisingly popular blog post "Generating random content for RPGs using Artificial Intelligence" and was impressed at rediscovering the surreal creativity of the prompts I wrote (at the very end of the post) in order to provoke the AI to also be surreal and creative. I don't think that the AI-produced random encounters are as good as the ones which I wrote (please, allow me a moment's immodesty), but the computer also produced some gold dust: I would never in a million years have come up with the idea of a "magical amulet, which will allow the wearer to control any sand-dune within 100 miles" and which an evil wizard is using to slowly bury a village in sand. I could very easily run with just that concept alone, spinning it out into a fully fledged adventure, without any further assistance from the computer.

My project Nanodeities keeps getting kicked further and further into the future, but when I eventually get around to it (and I really do hope to do so) I shall certainly be collaborating with computers, probably in several ways including using both machine learning and procedurally-generated content. In fact, part of the conceit behind Nanodeities is that any tiny sentient entities which are already lurking inside my computer hardware and software (and I'm pretty certain such beings do exist, right?) will be gently pushing the content in whichever direction they see fit.

By the way, I am in the process of writing a book "King Arthur vs Devil Kitteh", and if you could visit the Kickstarter page and sign up to be notified on launch, that would help me an awful lot, thanks! 

Friday, 7 October 2022

Kaverns & Kittens

Writer Mister Daniel Nathan Sumption and Illustrator Master Maximillian Benjamin Hartley present: KING ARTHUR vs. DEVIL KITTEH, a modern retelling of the medieval story of good King Arthur, and of how he killed a giant cat (how very brave of him!)

This is a genuine medieval tale, and it's about the daftest thing we've read in a long time. We're almost certain that large parts of the film Monty Python and the Holy Grail were based upon it.  It was first written down (in French) before the year 1250 CE, when it appeared within "The Old French Vulgate Cycle", and was translated into English as part of what is now know as "The Prose Merlin" around 1450 CE. Since then, it's become remarkably obscure (Monty Python aside), and we feel that its time it was unearthed again. And so, we're turning it into a beautiful illustrated book.

Arthur and Merlin unite Albion
Like we said, it's the story of Arthur, Albion's legendary king, killing a whopping great cat (a kitten, even!) on the advice of his wizard Merlin. There's a lot more to it than that but, I mean, do you really need to know more. Of course it includes the Devil Kitteh Origin Story, there's also the tale of the time Arthur decided to become Roman Emperor, trust us, there's plenty for you to sink your feline teeth into.
Arthur and Merlin arrive in Europe
We want to make a book as barmy and dark as the original tale. Inspired by kids books of the 1970s, with their weird spooky vibe and folk-artish illustrations, it will be a tale for children, adults, and immortals alike. Taking inspiration from Gawain and the Green Knight, Jabberwocky, The Goodies vs. Kitten Kong, and obviously Monty Python, we'll weave a good tale that will wow the world.

Of course, for fans of tabletop roleplaying games, we will wow you with the Stats of the Cat, a playable monster with skills and weaknesses the likes of which you've never seen before. Add Devil Kitteh to your game of D&D or Into The Odd, and your players will never complain about losing a limb ever again.

Who knows, perhaps one day we will make it a movie. One that wears its sources a little bit more up-front than that Holy Grail of 70s' cinema. 

To be kept up-to-date on the progress of this project, please sign up at the Kickstarter site for the book. This does not in any way commit you to backing it or buying a copy when it launches, it's just the best way for us to let you know when it's ready to launch.

Initial concept sketches

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 Punch Drunk producion "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!

To restate and expand upon some of the above in a slightly (but only slightly) more grokkable way:

A little over three years ago, 69 "pilgrims" travelled from The Manhole Cover in Liverpool (a site which Carl Jung - who never visited Liverpool-  dreamed about in the dream which he claimed was his most important) to Bollingen, where Carl Jung lived in a tower.

Inside that pilgrimage was another pilgrimage, from Cerne Abbas in Dorset to CERN on the French/Swiss border.

Inside that pilgrimage was a holiday at Damanhur and the Temples of Humankind, the eighth wonder of the world, where the 69ers learnt to speak in a silent language made of dance. Nobody knows what the fuck was going on.

Before the trip, in the midst of a maelstrom of over 5,000 emails, these 69 each chose a Pilgrim Name. Each then designed a Pilgrim Tarot Card. We should probably have made metal cocks and vulva badges (we did at least have one Norwegian witch hard gentle genital-sounding ancestor-child the Völva) but, to be honest, 5,000 emails and we just didn't think of it. We're not that kind of historical reënactment society. 

Perhaps surprisingly, nobody chose names from any "standard" tarot deck; I came closest, deciding at first the be The Fool (I had serious previous with foolery: I'd been appointed, by random ballot, the Official Fool of Festival 23). But I then thought "everyone is going to want to be the fool and so, haha, for a witty postmodern joke I'll the The Twat". But I then thought "gosh, should I really be appropriating female genitalia? when we also have this most wonderful term, The Pillock".

(Male/female/non-binary issues were a bit of a theme of our games, as we journey from Cerne-man's shaft to CERN-woman's hole and we all accidentally had... a story for another day).
The cards submitted were a rainbow of ideas, pictures, styles, collages and personal sigils. Dotted among the pilgrim cards were significant locations and concepts, from Cerne to CERN, from the Chaos Killers Motorcycle Club to the Toilet on the Bus. They were wonder-full! 

I was privileged to be the one collating these designs into an actual deck of "tarot" cards. My mate Chris Barker, laugh-or-you'll-cry chronicler of Brexshit Britain and Sergeant Pepper-sprayer of dead celebrities, designed the Happy Shopper box for the cards. My other mate (we're all allowed two) Zali Krishna, publisher of quality books of indeterminate genre and perhaps the first ever person to have used the word "novelettino", pointed me at a decent printer's. 100 packs were... I believe the term is, "manifested".

69 packs went to the pilgrims. 20-odd went to "stay-at-home pilgrims". With one or two more slipping through gaps in the matrix... the Law of Fives has determined that

I get to end up with five spare decks. 

Our "caper" literally vibrated the universe, even if no-one noticed at the time. Its shockwaves still spread through the counterculture, they're beginning to tickle the mainstream. I'm not saying that we didn't have COVID and a terrifying new world order before the approximate middle of 2019, but we didn't have COVID and a terrifying  new world before the approximate middle of 2019.

But the Eschaton's not just there for the nasty things in life. Hey, even Merlin's shaggy beard grew from a deadly worldwide pandemic. Plus I moved to a nice new house in the country last year so, you know, swings and roundabouts. The five remaining tarot decks have requested to be sent out into the universe and into muggles' homes. 

What all of the above amounts to, basically, is that  there are five packs of seriously playful playing cards in my online shop, and if you're very quick you might get one. "Friends" in the know assure me that you'll be selling one on eBay in 2323 (If man has, still, a tree) for a quandrazillion Imperial Currencyunits.

Footnote: if you've clicked on every link on this page, read background, watched videos, perhaps even stopped to think, then welcome, pilgrim. You are one of us 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!