I Has a Pastebin (Historical Inspiration)

[Obligate apology for being offline for a couple weeks]

First off, Medievalists.net has a feature on a recently-excavated medieval fortress city in Salisbury (abandoned due to some king vs. Church shenannigans in the 14th century, so it’s preserved quite well – unlike most medieval cities). The aerial photography makes the layout of the city itself visible, and the cathedral and keep’s floorplan are even clearer. The article is here.

One of the cool things about the internet has always been the way it gives you access to things you could never see normally. Unfortunately, it takes a hell of a lot of work to find what you need. So.. I’ve spent most of the last month researching military drill, naval tactics, and clothing construction in the 1600s (with some branching into the 1700s). I’m collecting a link library of high-quality scans of various primary sources, mostly drill-books and a few strategic works, to help out other wargamers and DMs get a feel for the military of various historical periods. Even if you’re just a history buff, they provide some valuable context on the lives of soldiers. It’s living temporarily in this pastebin.

Yes, I know the list of historical conflicts is incomplete and Eurocentric. I’m also using the most common American name for the conflicts to reduce confusion on my end, which will no doubt give someone a severe case of butthurt.


Anyway, right now I’m busy cross-referencing a bunch of books on Ottoman drill and military structure for a personal project (maybe a publishable one!). It’s a bitch sorting out the truth from the lies, self-aggrandisment, and general panic that most Europeans were dealing with at the time (the late Renaissance/Early Modern period). If I can find reliable primaries, they’re next in line for the library, then it’s time for screenshots and organizing an actual website for this.



Literary/Historical Inspiration: Herodotus, #1

So, there have been a lot of dudes who were hugely influential to fantasy, well beyond “Appendix N”. I’ve talked about William Morris before (who was one of Tolkein’s foundations – much of the Good Professor’s work was lifted, based on, or adapted from Morris’, in the tradition of all good storytellers). Another enormous influence was Lord Dunsany, who laid the cornerstone of Weird Fiction for Clark Ashton Smith and HP Lovecraft. Vance was the first to make “wizards” squabbling murderers hunting each other’s spells (although calling D&D-style magic “Vancian” is at best a bit blinkered. Perhaps I’ll touch on that later).

But there’s another figure towering behind them all. Because he worked in the “real” historical field, it’s not as easy to recognize Herodotus’ contribution to the RPG hobby. For example, the first Monster books and Manuals owe him a tremendous debt. Most were compiled from historical sources, especially Medieval bestiaries – which were, in turn, copied from the Histories. Herodotus remained one of the most widely-traveled, literate human beings on the bloody planet until the Crusades, and his work was literally seminal for every other historian and travelogue author down to the present day. He reported not just the things he saw, but the tales he was told, and it is to him we owe the surviving accounts of everything from Griffins to the Bonnacon.

In addition, unlike most other sources, the Father of History hasn’t really been mined nearly as extensively as, say, HPL by the OSR. He describes everything from atmospheric sculptures and rumors to adventure seeds, and is tremendously funny to boot. Even if the translators are shitty writers. Since it’s out of copyright, it’s available for free or very cheaply in complete editions; I have a B&N Classics edition of the Macaulay/Latenier translation, which cost me less than $10, and free versions are available all over the ‘net.
I’ve been through about 3/4ths of the Histories thus far (it is a bit dense..), and every time I find a tasty tidbit I highlight it for future reference. I’ve got far, far too many for my own campaigns, so I’ll be sharing particularly tasty tid-bits with you all. All quotes are referenced by Book: verse, to the aforementioned Macaulay/Latenier translation.

They say that [Queen Nitocris], desiring to take vengeance for her brother, who the Egyptians had slain when he was their king and then had given his kingdom to her, she destroyed by trickery many Egyptians. For she caused to be constructed a very large chamber underground, and making as though to inaugurate it but in her mind devising other things, she invited those Egyptians whom she knew to be guiltiest of the murder, and gave a great banquet. Then while they were feasting, she let in the river upon them by a large secret conduit. They told no more than this of her, except that when this had been accomplished, she threw herself into a room full of embers to escape vengeance.
II: 100 (Adventure/Plot seed)

Fun with magic:

..Immediately upon [cursing the river-god], Pheros suffered a disease of his eyes and became blind. For ten years thereafter, he was blind. In the eleventh year, there came to him an oracle from the city of Buto saying that the period of his punishment had expired, and he should see again when he washed his eyes in the urine of a woman who had had sex only with her own husband and none other.
Book II: 111 (Lulzy oracles: check!)

(His wife failed. So did the wives of most of the leaders of Egypt. After he got his sight back, he took all the ones who failed to another city, and burned them to death. Then burned down the city. Because Egyptians.)

Hand’s still bugging me, so done for now. More later.

Artistic Inspiration: Early Fantasy Illustrations 1

Had guests over, and the hand’s still not at 100%, so I’m going to be lazy and post a few turn-of-the-century illustrations from fairytale and fantasy books.

Welcome to my wandering monster tables. These are the >friendly< ones.

Welcome to my wandering monster tables. These are the >friendly< ones.

Can't find the source for this one - too many Walkers. Nonetheless, it's out of copyright and quite a nice wizard.

Can’t find the source for this one – too many Walkers. Nonetheless, it’s out of copyright and quite a nice wizard.

This is why gods should never have fucking stats.

This is why gods should never have fucking stats.

Literary Inspiration: Book of the Dead, Aztec Myths

I’ve got a few hours to touch base before I have to swing back up Seattle way. I’ve been spending a lot of time on the bus (three bloody hours each way for an hour-and-a-quarter drive..), which means I’ve also been spending a lot of time reading. In this case, a shitload of occult anthropology and ancient linguistic works; there’s a reason I play the system I do..
So, I find that a lot of people get way too Jungian when they’re building their pantheons, neglecting just how fucking weird we as a species have gotten in the past. Here’s some examples of ways to weird up your creepy native cultists all proper-like.

For starters, I found a couple of excerpts from Budge’s 1895 translation of the Egyptian Books of the Dead (available here) that were too deliciously pulpy not to pass on.

..The Night-Watchers of Set. Yea, the Night-Watchers of the Crocodile, whose faces are hidden, who dwell in the divine Temple of the King of the North in the apparel of the gods on the sixth day of festival, whose snares.. are like unto Eternity. – Book of the Dead, V.II, Ch LXV, On Coming Forth By Day from the Nu Papyrus

Tell me that isn’t setting off the fires in your head right now. Elsewhere (Ch. LXXI) they consistently refer to “the God of One Face”, which is a hell of a title. Excerpt deliberately partially redacted, as I try to avoid using magical incantations – especially to obvious demons – in my daily life. For some reason.

....the God of One Face is with me… ye seven beings, who support the scales on the night of the judgement.. who cut off heads, who hack necks to pieces, who take possession of hearts by violence and rend the places where the heart is fixed, who make slaughterings in the Lake of Fire.. -op. cit., Ch. LXXI, Papyrus of Nebseni

There’s your demonic titles right there.

Meanwhile, the Aztecs are getting up to their own pantheonic Weirdness; the information here is taken from a book that’s rather badly out of date at this point, “A Primer of Mayan Heiroglyphics” by Daniel G. Brinton. Still, even what’s wrong is a fertile ground to play in. Just, preface all this with “Brinton says that..”. Anyway..
• Aztec Dwarves were the degenerate remains of the previous age of the Earth, having survived the apocalypse in defiance of the gods. Indeed, their very degeneracy brought the Apocalypse. Would explain the dour demeanour and throwing themselves into their crafts, certainly. Holding on to the dying arts of a dead world, lurking underground to avoid the prying eyes of the New Gods, not enslaved to the current god of Death. Adventurers are tired of an eternity of cowering, unafraid (or only a little) of walking under the eyes of the Sun. Some were said to have come, in the last, to the form of flowers.

• Some divine titles and charges (note that these are far, far more interesting than the shit that made it into Deities and Demigods) :
“The Virgin Fire” – Infants
“The Virgin of the Butchered Kill” – Hunting
“The Divine Snare” – goddess of killing by ropes and traps.
“He who tends the cooking fire” – Fisherman’s deity
“The intoxicating Mead” – Drinking, but not boning. So no Dionysis here.
“She who vomits precious stones” – Patron of gemcrafters in amethyst and jade
“The infinite jewels” – Medicine (consider the importance of gems in Western “medicine” until the ~1700s and it’s not that much of a leap..)
“He whose teeth are Six Lances” – War
“The Archer” – War, plague
“Dangerous one” and “The Terror” – War demigods
“Fire is his Face” – Burning things in war
“He who works in Fire” – Destruction by fire in a more general sense
“The Bearer of 8,000 lances” – war

..not that the Maya had a fixation or anything.

More to come later. Gotta head out to the bus now.

All excerpts are from texts in the public domain, your personal cultural heritage. Defend it.

Artistic Inspiration: A gentle reminder to Early Modern GMs

Bows are damned near silent. And they shoot faster than anything you could get mass-produced until, oh, the late 1700s. Great for poaching and assassination, especially after everyone gave up on body armor…

Joshua Reynolds, Colonel Acland and Lord Sydney The Archers, 1769The Archers, by Sir Henry Raeburn (1789-1790).

Artistic Inspiration: Female Biblical Badasses

Since there aren’t all that many good pictures of females suited for the less “gentle” characters in an RPG, I thought I’d post some of my collection today.

Lucas Cranach had a problem. That problem was a lack of creativity and an enormous need for money. Fortunately, noble ladies loved getting painted up as various historical women from the Bible, which allowed them to go punk and be socially transgressive. In the religious wars of the 16th and 17th centuries, many of them wanted to be Judith, a Hebrew woman who slew the general Holofernes in his tent during one of the Jews’ many wars over the Levant…

This is my background at the moment; an absolutely gorgeous piece. I particularly like the no-nonsense sword and the slashes in her gloves that display her ring collection. Her clothes may be velvet, but they make at least a nod to combat function, and she’s not wearing a corset so much as an armored brace. The outfit is tightened-up and easy to move in compared to the older slashed-and-strung outfits below. All in all, a great trophy shot of a higher-level Fighter.

Oh, and there’s a LOT more after the break.1336678547691 (more…)

Literary inspiration: The Works of William Morris

William Morris was an artist and academic who lived and worked in the mid-late 19th Century. He was a philologist and translator, concerned mostly (though not entirely) with ancient Germanic sagas. He also wrote poetry, illuminated and bound books, was part of the Pre-Raphaelite movement (of whom I am inordinately fond) and wrote the odd bit of fantasy. He pushed hard to beautify and improve book printing and binding techniques. Where does this intersect with gaming?
His linguistic works were an influence on many scholars of the early and middle 20th century – scholars like JRR Tolkien and CS Lewis. His fantasy works also influenced bloody Dunsany, and Wagner, and Tolkien, and Lewis… Indeed, they were so influential Tolkien called them the “foundation of his work”. By that he meant all his work, academic and creative. JRRT’s first work was a pastiche of one of Morris’ translations written in the style of House of the Wulflings. He even lifted characters and names from Morris for Lord of the Rings (remember, works actually went into the public domain for the first half of the 20th century..) and arguably improved both the characters themselves and the quality of his own work.

Morris’ interests jive well with my own (substitute “anime, weaponry, and martial arts ” for “socialism” and you’ve pretty much got the list). His works are showing me connections unthought-of  between all manner of topics, and between stories I never thought were related. Plus I’m getting helpful tips on book-binding :b

Since his work is in the public domain, I’ve taken the liberty of hunting up the best scans of some of his many works; I encourage you to delve into the writings of one of the foundations of modern fantasy, and into the sagas and legends that have provided me and countless others with inspiration.

Pdf Format:
The Story of Grettir the Strong,
The Doom of King Acresius,
The Story of Sigurd the Volsung, and the Fall of the Neibelungen,
The Sundering Flood,
The Roots of the Mountains, (and the 1879 version – much prettier, but some scan issues)
The Well at the World’s End
The First Adam and the Last Adam, (poetry)
The House of the Wolflings 1890 edition, and also the 1892 edition
Text (No PDF available)
The Hollow Land,

Books published by his press (these are smegging gorgeous)
Sidonia the Sorceress,
Some German Woodcuts.. (exactly what it says on the tin)
The Story of Glitterin Moor

Sunday Sun Tzu: Introduction

I’m starting a feature here as I iron out a posting schedule and fire up in earnest. Bear with me as I hammer it into shape.

This will be an analysis and commentary on the Art of War from the perspective of a gamer, veteran, and sometime philosopher. I am using three translations at the moment:
The first is the Sonshi (a Japanese translation of a very early date), which preserves more of the original commentaries, but is very, very hard for me to read.
Second is Lionel Giles’ solid but somewhat archaic translation from 1910; he eliminates most of the commentary for readability.
Finally, I’m using Gen. Samuel Griffith’s frequently unduly free translation of 1963. That’s a vicious insult in interpreting/translating circles, but justified here: the General rearranges large sections of the book to fit his own notions, and frequently attacks commentators for their “incomplete” understanding, while rendering many clearly idiomatic passages* literally and vice versa. He does, however, preserve more commentary than Giles, and all his changes are indicated in the excellent footnotes. Griffith also has a very readable style.

*For instance, ignoring the common usage of “one thousand” in both Japanese and Chinese to mean “A great many” and niggling over the exact distance one thousand Li covers in the footnotes.

There will also be annotations and quotes from other relevant works: when I’ve exhausted the man from Ch’i, I’ve got quite a library to pull from for other discussions. I’m sure someone else has done this, but like any interpretation there’s always new and personal ground to cover…

So, on to our first quotation.

Griffith: Chapter II, verses 4-9 (he splits the first verse of the chapter)

When the army engages in protracted campaigns, the resources of the state will not suffice. When your weapons are dulled and your ardor dampened, your strength exhausted and treasure spent, neighboring rulers will take advantage of your distress to act. And even though you have wise counsellors, none will be able to lay good plans for the future. For there has never been a protracted war from which a country has benefitted. Thus, those unable to understand the dangers inherent in employing troops are equally unable to understand the advantageous ways of doing so. Those adept in war do not require a second levy of conscripts nor more than one provisioning^1.

1:(From Griffith’s commentary:) [The commentators indulge in lengthy discussions as to the number of provisionings. What is written is, “they do not need three”. That is, they require.. one when they depart and a second when they come back.. Following Cao Cao.. ‘they do not require to be again provisioned.’..]

Giles: Chapter II, verses 3-8

Again, if the campaign is protracted, the resources of the State will not be equal to the strain. Now, when your weapons are dulled, your ardor damped, your strength exhausted and your treasure spent, other chieftains will spring up to take advantage of your extremity. Then no man, however wise, will be able to avert the consequences that must ensue. Thus, though we have heard of stupid haste in war, cleverness has never been seen associated with long delays^1. There is no instance of a country having benefited from prolonged warfare. It is only one who is thoroughly acquainted with the evils of war that can thoroughly understand the profitable way of carrying it on. The skillful soldier does not raise a second levy, neither are his supply-wagons loaded more than twice.

(from Giles’ own commentary in the 1910 edition) 1: [This concise and difficult sentence is not well explained by any of the commentators. Ts`ao Kung, Li Ch`uan, Meng Shih, Tu Yu, Tu Mu and Mei Yao-ch`en have notes to the effect that a general, though naturally stupid, may nevertheless conquer through sheer force of rapidity. Ho Shih says: “Haste may be stupid, but at any rate it saves expenditure of energy and treasure; protracted operations may be very clever, but they bring calamity in their train.” ..[Sun Tzu says] something much more guarded, namely that, while speed may sometimes be injudicious, tardiness can never be anything but foolish, if only because it means impoverishment to the nation…]

Heavy-duty logistics questions? For the first analysis? Why not!
There are several good points in here for both the dungeon crawlers and the wargamers out there.
First: The longer you dick around in a situation, and therefore the more rolls you make, the more likely it is that something shitty will happen to you. Don’t be a dumbass, charging around overstretched, but the only thing “resting for the night” every time your wizards’ spells are exhausted does for you is waste time, light, and food.
When you run out of food, of HP, of oil and rope, that’s when kobolds and 0-level human bandits stop being nuisances and start coming for your scalps.
As a wargamer: if you sit around constantly, never attacking and always playing the safe game, you’re going to get sloppy. You’ll miss the chance to attack when you should, or chose keeping to cover over hammering the unit going for a critical objective.
Second: You have to remember that you’re bleeding resources every second you’re in a dungeon or the wilderness. Get your shit done and go home, or you’ll waste all your money on boring things like arrows and food and torches instead of the true motivation of an adventurer [image slightly nsfw]1286939396890Third: Remember that fighting isn’t always wise – or profitable. You’re risking your life and your bottom line every time you draw steel: make damned sure you know what you have to gain, because it’s pretty obvious what you have to lose. For those of you who actually have “sacred” honor, of course, losing it far worse than just dying – but you can lose that honor in a fight just as easily as you can defend or gain it, and often preserve it without risking a shanking.

Good planning isn’t just about getting out alive. The best plan is one where you get in and get out with what you came for.  If you need to reload on henchmen and horses every time you come back to town, what little there is left to buy is going to skyrocket in price (see also ch. II, verse 11/12). You’re not going to be getting the bravest and best in the city if every man who follows you dies – you’ll be lucky to recruit the hopeless alkie beggars before long. Even the Chaotic/Evil thieves that normally volunteer to go along (and rip you off) will take one look at your people and go, “not worth the blade-venom”.
Wargamers: it doesn’t matter if you seize the objective quickly if your force isn’t enough to hold it, because you’re just going to have to keep reinforcing it. Every reinforcement you divert wastes not just units (and by extension, the points you buy them with), but time. As a general on the tabletop, that’s your most limited resource

An interpretation that both of the G’s ignore here is “Stop throwing good money after bad”. If you’re losing a struggle, look at what the best outcome could be for you. Weigh it against what you have to lose. If you can’t really “win” anymore, lose as fast and gently as you can.. There are things you can’t unsay and shit you can’t undo, but you can recover from an easy loss and go back in later.

Literary Inspiration: Dumas Knows Adventurers All Too Well..

(Taken from the final, 3rd French edition, and using several translations for guidance – including my own)

On the first Monday of the month of April, in the year 1625, the village of Meung (in which the author of “Roman de la Rose” was born) was in such an uproar, it seemed as though the Huguenots had come to turn it into another La Rochelle* of it. Many a citizen, seeing the women flying down the main street, hearing children crying at open doors, hastened to don his cuirass, and, supporting his (somewhat uncertain) courage with musket or a polearm, directed his steps to the hostelry of the Jolly Miller, before which was gathered a compact and rapidly-increasing group both vociferous and curious.     In those days panics were common; few days passed without some city or another recording an event of this kind. There were the nobles, who made war with one another; the King, who made war with the Cardinal; and Spain, who made war with the King. In addition to these wars – concealed or open, private or public – there were brigands, adventurers+, wolves, and Huguenots, who made war upon everyone. The citizens always took up arms against the brigands, wolves and adventurers; often against the nobles and Huguenots; sometimes even against the king – but never against the Cardinal or Spain. The result of their habits, therefore, on this first Monday of April 1625, was that the citizens (hearing the clamor and seeing neither the red and gold of Spain, nor the crimson and white of the Duc de Richelieu++) rushed toward the hostelry of the Jolly Miller..

(The clamor? It was an adventurer being a dick. There follows a lot of D’Artagnan-directed exposition. Another useful passage after the footnotes.)

*La Rochelle had been the site of several major Protestant/Catholic battles already. It was in fact in open revolt against the crown in April 1625, and had been for about 2-3 months depending on who you ask. The Huguenots wouldn’t be “dealt with” by the Crown until August. They were also known as the Rohan Rebellions, after  Duc Rohan de Soubise. Duke Buckingham would, in 1627, provide mercenary and other assistance to the rebellion – Rochelle had historically been a Plantagenet possession through most of the Hundred Years’ War, and staying Protestant and “independent” would give the English a solid foothold. Interestingly, the core plot incidents recorded in Three Musketeers actually happened closer to 1650, but Dumas put them in a more interesting time period. Food for thought for you DMs out there running a historical campaign, because most of Dumas’ readers over the years have literally never known the difference.
+ I’ve translated “mendicants and thieves” here as “adventurers”. It fits. Really well.
++ Interesting how he emphasizes the noble role of His (Red) Eminence Armand Cardinal du Plessis here, where “the Cardinal” was fine for the rest of the intro. I suspect he’s subtly showing the temporal power of the Cardinal independent of both his official title (Prime Minister) and spiritual role – and quietly lumping him in with the “nobles”.

…The same day, the young man set out on his journey, provided with his parental gifts. They consisted, as we said, of fifteen Crowns* the horse+, and the letter to [the commandant of the King’s Musketeers]**…

(note that he also got a sword, which he broke in a duel and had rebladed in Paris; carried a single change of clothes; and got the recipe for a “certain Balsam, which [your mother] got from a Gypsy, and which has the power of curing all wounds that do not reach the heart”. He uses it a lot over the next few weeks, because he’s a teenager++.)

Tell me that doesn’t sound like an adventurer’s gear.

* Probably large silver pieces. He spends most of them on lodging and weapons repair over the course of the next few days.
+ A very, very bad horse, which still gets good time on the road; it starts at least one duel for our young Gascon, and he sells it against his father’s advice literally the instant he hits Paris – for three Crowns more.
** Stolen, by the Big Bad – because our hero is, wait for it, kind of a big-mouthed dickhead.
++As an herbalist, the healing ointment – insofar as they describe it – is mostly a disinfectant. It’d also keep you smelling fresh and clean. Would probably be an abortifacent if you gave it to a pregnant woman.

So, to sum up; we are presented with a fairly compelling vision of a young Fighter starting his career. He is poor, but pretty geared-up, especially with that healing salve. He dumps his sword on a “shall be splintered” roll (now there’s a thought. Letting a player “splinter” a weapon voluntarily to exploit his opponent’s honor and end a fight with a minimum of lost face)  and repairs it once he gets to town. The entire countryside is in an ideal condition for adventurers. War is everywhere, patrons seek out brave and/or stupid men to do their dirty work, and all manner of bastards exploit the timult to rob etc. The rest of the party is already established, if partially wounded, and he joins them by insulting all three of them by mistake or design (Porthos was totally on purpose, and mostly D’Artagnan being a dick) before having their (illegal) duels interrupted by a “random” encounter. He constantly wrecks or loses his shit, and what little he has rapidly becomes a motivator for the character. The DM, meanwhile, has merrily re-edited the source material to make the campaign more fun for the players, and is playing pretty damned fast and loose with continuity.

Literary Inspiration: Oz is Weird, and you should like it.

So, Oz was my first fandom. It’s always been an influence on my roleplaying, and it’s why (in large part) I’m into the Weird. I’d read all of Baum (archival link) before I had ever even heard of Lovecraft (archive)Dunsany (archive), or Smith. (archive)
I want to do a write-up for Oz as a background for Weird role-playing, and I will one day play a game there again (I ran an Oz game with Holmes as a teenager, but haven’t returned since). At the least, I’m working on an essay about its Weirdness, and how you can use its influence in-game

Below the break, as an example, I present the first chapter of The Road to Oz, one of the later books. Read it through. If this isn’t an amazing random encounter with a wizard/fae, I’m a monkey’s uncle. And my sisters don’t go for simians.
It makes for an excellent adventure hook, and the Shaggy Man is a perfect example of a random encounter that isn’t dangerous. It could be – that’s part of what makes Oz what it is. The Love Magnet is a terrifying, horrible thing, and in the wrong hands.. *shudder*. But as it is, the Shaggy Man is a good being (if Chaotic as all Hell), and Dorothy is a Good Girl of the kind that traipses through Faery without fear.