Monday, March 28, 2022

Books for Dungeon Masters: The Peregrine, by J.A. Baker

I recently picked up the audio reading of J.A. Baker's The Peregrine on the recommendation of this blog. The book, published in 1967, won the Duff Cooper Prize the same year. It concerns the watching of peregrine falcons in England, and condenses ten years of observation into a readily digestible account. I doubt my readers have any interest in birdwatching (neither do I), but you should pick it up anyway for two reasons. 

First, the prose is excellent, especially in its use of creative metaphor and simile, and I believe any game master would benefit from reading it and picking up a couple turns of phrase. His description of landscapes, if cut down a bit, would make for spectacular opening narration. 

Second, it may inspire you to think more deeply of the behavior of natural and supernatural animals in your world. I imagine his words on the peregrine applied, to say, a giant eagle or even a roc, and the creature becomes so much more fantastical. What kind of lake might a giant raptor prefer in order to bathe itself, how does it spend its day in anticipation of a hunt, how does it play, how does it treat its kill? The thought of a creature that might strike from the blue, not out of territoriality or hunger, but out of cruel play, is so much more engaging. 

Of the country landscape and the nightjar, he wrote: 
"There is always a sense of loss, a feeling of being forgotten. There is nothing else here; no castles, no ancient monuments, no hills like green clouds. It is just a curve of the earth, a rawness of winter fields. Dim, flat, desolate lands that cauterise all sorrow. I have always longed to be a part of the outward life, to be out there at the edge of things, to let the human taint wash away in emptiness and silence, as the fox sloughs his smell into the cold unworldliness of water; to return to the town as a stranger. Wandering flushes a glory that fades with arrival. 
I came late to the love of birds. For years I saw them only as a tremor at the edge of vision. They know suffering and joy in simple states not possible for us. Their lives quicken and warm to a pulse our hearts can never reach. They race to oblivion. They're old before we have finished growing. 
The first bird I searched for was the nightjar, which used to nest in the valley. Its song is like the sound of a stream of wine spilling from a height into a deep and booming cask. It's an odorous sound, with a bouquet that rises to the quiet sky. In the glare of day it would seem thinner and drier, but dusk mellows it and gives it vintage. If a song could smell, this song would smell of crushed grapes and almonds and dark wood. The sound spills out and none of it is lost, the whole wood brims with it. Then it stops, suddenly, unexpectedly, but the ear hears it still, a prolonged and fading echo draining and winding out of the surrounding trees. Into the deep stillness between the early stars and the long afterglow, the nightjar leaps up joyfully, it glides and flutters, dances and bounces, lightly, silently, away."

Of sparrow hawks:

"Sparrow hawks were always near me in the dusk, like something that I meant to say, but could never quite remember ... They lived a fugitive, guerrilla life. In all the overgrown, neglected places the frail bones of generations of sparrow hawks are sifting down now into the deep humus of the woods. They were a banished race of beautiful barbarians, and when they died they could not be replaced."

Of the peregrine:
"He re-enacts the whole process of learning to kill that he went through when he first left the eyrie. The first short, tentative flights, the longer, more confident ones, the playful mock attacks at inanimate objects such as falling leaves or drifting feathers, the games with other birds changing to a pretense or attack, and then to the first serious attempt to kill. True hunting may be a comparatively brief process at the end of this long re-enactment of the hawk's adolescence.
Hunting is always preceded by some form of play. The hawk may feint at partridges, harass jackdaws or lapwings, skirmish with crows. Sometimes, without warning, he will suddenly kill. Afterwards, he seems baffled by what he's done, and he may leave the kill where it fell and return to it later when he is genuinely hunting. Even when he is hungry, and has killed in anger, he may sit beside his prey for ten to fifteen minutes before starting to feed. In these cases the dead bird is usually unmarked, and the hawk seems to be puzzled by it. He nudges it idly with his bill. When blood flows, he feeds at once."
Of watching a peregrine dive:
"He hovered, and stayed still, striding on the crumbling columns of air, curved wings jerking and flexing. Five minutes he stayed there, fixed like a barb in the blue flesh of the sky. His body was still and rigid, his head turned from side to side, his tail fanned open and shut, his wings whipped and shuddered like canvas in the lash of the wind. He side-slipped to his left, paused, then glided round and down into what could only be the beginning of a tremendous stoop. There is no mistaking the menace of that first easy drifting fall. Smoothly, at an angle of fifty degrees, he descended; not slowly, but controlling his speed; gracefully, beautifully balanced. There was no abrupt change. The angle of his fall became gradually steeper till there was no angle left, but only a perfect arc. He curved over and slowly revolved, as though for delight, glorying in anticipation of the dive to come. His feet opened and gleamed golden, clutching up towards the sun. He rolled over, and they dulled, and turned towards the ground beneath, and closed again. For a thousand feet he fell, and curved, and slowly turned, and tilted upright. Then his speed increased, and he dropped vertically down. He had another thousand feet to fall, but now he fell sheer, shimmering down through dazzling sunlight, heart-shaped, like a heart in flames. He became smaller and darker, diving down from the sun. The partridge in the snow beneath looked up at the black heart dilating down upon him, and heard a hiss of wings rising to a roar. In ten seconds the hawk was down, and the whole splendid fabric, the arched reredos and immense fan-vaulting of his flight, was consumed and lost in the fiery maelstrom of the sky.

And for the partridge there was the sun suddenly shut out, the foul flailing blackness spreading wings above, the roar ceasing, the blazing knives driving in, the terrible white face descending, hooked and masked and horned and staring-eyed. And then the back-breaking agony beginning, and snow scattering from scuffling feet, and show filling the bill’s wide silent scream, till the merciful needle of the hawk’s beak notched in the straining neck and jerked the shuddering life away.

And for the hawk, resting now on the soft flaccid bulk of his prey, there was the rip and tear of choking feathers, and hot blood dripping from the hook of his beak, and rage dying slowly to a small hard core within.

And for the watcher, sheltered for centuries from such hunger and such rage, such agony and such fear, there is the memory of that sabring fall from the sky, and the vicarious joy of the guiltless hunter who kills only through his familiar, and wills him to be fed."

I've only just started the book and immediately felt the need to share it with others; I have no higher recommendation. The audio version I picked up is read by David Attenborough, who brings a spectacular vocal quality to the text. Pick it up on your platform and venue of choice. 

Saturday, March 5, 2022

Sticky Alignments

With the release of the Elric of Melniboné audiobook, I've finally gotten into one of the Appendix N classics. It got me thinking of alignment, along with the 1e campaign I'm prepping for the day I can seduce my group to try the system.

With the usual caveats about applying game system thinking to linear narrative media, Elric is definitely aligned with chaos. The Duke of Hell Arioch is his patron after all, you're not getting more chaos-aligned than that. But at the same time, Elric isn't some crazy chaos cultist, nor, in the early stories I've read anyway, is he particularly evil. In Fortress of the Pearl he proves himself capable of great nobility and virtue, even though at the end of that story he gives in to vengeance and bloodthirst.  

I think the nature of alignment this implies is far more interesting than alignment as a category for character ethics and morality. I would rather conceive of one's alignment as faction membership, or meta-faction membership. Elric sold his soul to Arioch, but he's not a puppet, and his personal morality quite often conflicts with that of his hellish master. Alignment in this system would tell you where your soul is going, what forces have a hold on you, whether you give yourself over to them enthusiastically or only reluctantly. 

In other words, alignment is sticky. Whatever metaphysical or supernatural forces have a hold on your soul are fairly invested in keeping it, and a single action contrary to your alignment isn't going to cause a shift. Rather, an alignment shift would be the end result of a longer series of contrary behavior, or a conscious and very strong rejection of your alignment in favor of another. It's like being part of a club or organization (a religious organization is a good model here) which is quite keen to keep its members and is willing to forgive some minor transgressions and bring wayward souls back into the fold, but if you deliberately break with it, or if your actions so consistently break with policy that you're no longer worth the trouble to redeem, you'll be excommunicated, and fall into a new alignment more consistent with your behavior. 

Alignment then becomes something external to your character, something about their relationship with the world, and not just their internal state of mind. This goes a ways to making features like alignment language more sensical, and makes it easier to adjudicate things like alignment-based classes. Yes, rangers must maintain a Good alignment, but they're not going to lose their class just because some villain forced them into a situation where they were forced to make an immoral choice. I'd go as far as to say that sort of thing could never cause a paladin or ranger to fall, unless in the process they suffer a true crisis of faith and reject their alignment of their own will. 

Likewise for an assassin, which must maintain an Evil alignment, donating to charity or rescuing innocents or otherwise aiding in Good causes isn't in itself going to cause an alignment shift unless, 
a) the assassin is so personally moved that they question their own alignment and cast it aside, or 
b) the assassin so reliably acts against the interests of the forces of Evil that he is cast out.

In such a situation, losing the character class might mean that they actually lose those abilities, which implies some supernatural force granting the ability to assassinate and use poison (which doesn't make all that much sense to me) or else that the character is no longer willing to use such methods and the player thus loses access. This is a grey zone which doesn't fit as well with this conception of alignment, and which would require more detailed adjudication. 

It also gives a meaning to faction alignment or species alignment without being totalizing. The Melnibonéans are, one and all, Chaotic. This isn't because every single one has the same morality (the vast majority are cruel and do not heavily value life, but this results from the same causal factor rather than being the cause itself) but instead because they've come up in a culture which traditionally aligned itself very strongly with Chaos, and those assumptions and traditions remain even as they've weakened. There can be Melnibonéans who disapprove and want something different, who seek to align themselves with other forces, but because of the particular cultural dynamics summarized by that big C, they're very much the exception, like Elric.

And if you sell your soul, your alignment isn't changing, period. Elric has that big capital C on his sheet from the moment he makes his covenant with Arioch, and no matter what decisions he comes to about his own morality, or what lessons on justice he brings back to Melniboné, it's staying there. 

I think this is the understanding of alignment I'll use in my games going forward. How does this compare with how you use alignment at your table, if you use it at all?


Enjoy this sort of post? Be sure to follow the blog and comment below. Until the next time, have a great week. 

Friday, March 4, 2022

Running the Campaign: The Stinger

A 'stinger' is a post-credits scene in a film or tv series. During my ongoing Ptolus campaign (we just had our 11th session and will be on break in a few weeks to come back in April, I just haven't kept up with session reports) I stumbled on a use for this in RPGs. I don't recall where I picked it up, but the idea is simple enough. At the end of a session, pull away from the PCs to show a short scene elsewhere, something the PCs do not know about. It is entirely meta-knowledge. 

An example: a few weeks ago, after the party defeated a district boss of the Killraven Crime League, Durant the Stink Man, I pulled away to crimelord Kevris Killraven's secret lair, where the remaining boss the party had let go was begging for his life. I wrote the whole thing out.
A woman sits on a majestic throne before a roaring fire, in a secret keep deep below the city of Ptolus. A portly dwarf, Dollin Ebonhome, the head of the Killraven operation in North Market, kneels at her side, bloody and beaten. 

"It was all Durant's idea! Please!"

The woman contemplates the fire, and sips mead from a goblet. "North Market was your turf, Dollin. Why was Durant acting as he pleased there, without you doing anything?" The goblet is made from a dwarven skull. 

"I just needed help making collections, he- he just got out of contro-" The snout of a gold-plated dragon pistol presses to his forehead.

"Tell me again how things got out of your control."


A bang fills the chamber. The dwarf's brains coat the rug. 

Behind the throne, something, something tall, with the long arms of an ape and the eyes of a goat and the teeth of a wood chipper leans down and slurps out the remains. 

"Get this to Korben in South Market. I'm sure he could use the ... motivation. Then convene the Pactlords for tomorrow night, and make an example of Durant's worms. We make our move on Godsday. And see to it that these mice don't make any more trouble."

The thing's shape melts and reforms like water, into a young woman with red hair and an impish smile—Tellith Herdsman. Then into a diminutive, wiry gnome—Anageo Quigg—and again into an elderly woman, the Administration building requisitions officer. On the table before them are four dossiers.

Jaiden Cunningham: ELIMINATION
Lucien Chenier: ELIMINATION

This is much longer than I would recommend making a stinger, and now I no longer plan them out very much or write them out. Still, it worked. It gave the players some meta-information, namely that the other boss was dead, that the captured gangsters would be executed (as they found out the next morning from the newspapers) that the plot they'd been told about was ongoing, and they got a look at a secretive villain. Plus, it set up a new intermediate villain, the ogre mage mercenary KILLBOSS, who the party actually dealt with and defeated not long later, but at a high price. Without that setup, he would have just come out of nowhere, but with it, his sudden appearance in the middle of a dungeon made more sense; not to the PCs, but to the players.

This information was largely non-actionable, and I trust my players well enough not to go trying to pass this off as in-character knowledge. This allows me to build dread and tension without having to worry immediately about PC reaction. In last session's stinger, I told the party how, the very same night they were living it up in Castle Shard, rubbing shoulders with high society, a young, ragged woman in the slums was hunted and eaten by a black dragon. This is setting up yet another intermediate villain. I think that's where this technique shines best, like in the teaser at the end of a thriller series episode, taking the POV to the villain to set up the next challenge. 

Have you used anything like this? Do let me know below. 


Enjoy this sort of post? Be sure to follow the blog and comment, and until next time, have a great week.