the forester’s lament

When you read, in a setting or in an adventure, about a forest, what do you picture? In your head?

Is it something like this?

The elves are hiding in the trees, natch.
Photo: debabrata

Green, pleasant . . . generic?

I know. Me too. It’s really damn hard not to. Fantasy forests are benign, commonplace. Set dressing without the dressing. Somehow, they’ve become so well-used and ill-described that an open, sun-drenched plain feels like it has more narrative potential.

But forests are interesting. In a former life hella had occasion to spend quite a bit of time—tromping through, sleeping under, getting lost as fuck in—in forests.

Sometimes they look like this.

The dwarves are hiding in the trees, obvs.
Photo: Hansueli Krapf

So what’s the difference? It isn’t just what we’re imagining—although, we are playing a game where all the action takes place in the imagination—but the actual implications are fully different. Before we were in a nice sunlit wood, not really hampered by anything: sure, there are hiding spots the bad guys can use, but nothing is really hindered or hidden. Here, we have to worry about elevation, taking the high ground; we have to worry about scree shifting underfoot; we have to worry about temperature or thunderstorms.

Above all, it just feels different. It’s a forest. But it’s not bog-standard elves-in-the-leaves sameness.

Or maybe your forest doesn’t look like that. Maybe it looks like:

No place to hide.
Photo: MeegsC

The only elves in this forest are the tatterdemalion sneakthieves of my setting.

Or what about here?

Not fog; smoke. Arsonist eucalypts!
Photo: Fir0002

Or here?

“Where’d he go?” “No, when’d he go.” “When’d he go?” “No, asshole, WENDIGO!”

The point being, when you think forests, don’t think gentle green foliage and shafts of sunshine and rabbits hopping about and sparrows flitting around. There’s so many forests—adventure in a different one.

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the necessary spectacle of evil

Evil is unspectacular and always human, and shares our bed and eats at our own table[.]

Augustine fails in a world with explicitly evil gods.

My theodicy is weak. hella still hasn’t figured out the problem of evil. And still hasn’t figured out how to implement real evil in this game.

But my problem is prosaic. How do I depict evil, in play, that makes any sense?

The D&D I grew up with was the same bullshit high fantasy I saw in every one of those dozens1 of fantasy novels I read as a kid. It’s not even that good guys are good guys and bad guys are bad guys and there’s no moral ambiguity, nor much consideration of each actor as a mix of good and bad and generally self-minded and mostly morally indifferent and . . . complicated.

Rather, it’s that it never really feels like there’s anything at stake. Yeah, there’s the fight against titular evil, but it’s always evil-in-name-only. Like evil was a tag, an invisible attribute, applied to certain creatures but not others, will little rhyme or reason. Maybe you can tell the evil humanoids because they’re ugly. Maybe not.2

Of course, this is because lots of things do have an invisible tag:  lawful evil, neutral evil, chaotic evil.

The point being, nothing evil would ever happen,3 or if it did, it was given in the most anodyne way possible. Either, the orcs are just there, wandering around in the world, and we know they’re evil—I mean, we just know, because they’re orcs, so it’s okay to kill them—or there are some orcs, and we’re told they’ve raided a village or they’re going to attack the city; they are barbaric, or brutish, or bandits; they’re savage or slovenly. (That last one is a lie. I’d love to see slovenly used in a description.)

But we don’t see them slowly feeding bound townsmen into campfires. We might hear of the village being massacred, but we never seen the thicket of stakes along the marketpath, each topped with a blackened lolltongued head. We never see the eight-score kidnapped women being led off into the jungle to forced “marriages,” and those the lucky(?) ones. We never see—and thereby feel—the visceral wrongness of evil, and without that, “evil” just becomes another reason to wander around a gameboard, knocking over pieces.

Like, I get it:  people play this game for fun, and many do it for the escapism, escape from the unpleasantness of their daily lives. Many want to elide—fade to black—the explicitness of what evil actually is. I’m not one of them, but I understand it is a thing.

But—well, it just doesn’t work. Heroes’ hearts are stirred to action by the twisting of the guts that comes from the knowledge of true evil at work in the world. Evil visiting hearth and home. Not the abstract knowledge that someone, something, somewhere, is doing acts that should not be done, but the seeing of it, the bearing witness in person and always always too close. If the evil in your game is weak, or vague, the heroism in your game will be weak, and vague.

1 . . . and dozens . . . .

2 Ironic twist! Sometimes things are beautiful and wicked!

3 Eh. Mostly I just see bog-standard competition for resources.

coyote land

Lodged in faults and crevices a hundred feet above them were nests of straw and jetsam from old high water and the riders could hear the mutter of thunder in some nameless distance and they kept watch on the narrow shape of sky overhead for any darkness of impending rain.

Setting: You go in from the coast, in through the valley-and-mesa. Then the mountains arise before you, all boulders and chaparral and blue oaks. Up and down the mountains, like a green carpet, the shitty scratchy kind you find in a low-rent community rumpus room, avocado with grey splotches like old foot-ground gum. But the chaparral is deceiving; for all it looks like rolling carpet, it hides sharp gullies that can eat man and horse and spit them out somewhere else bloody and bewildered. Roll d10.

1: An old blue oak spreads wide over a bald hilltop. Tied to the limbs with hempen cord are wrist-thick locks of hair, each painstakingly braided. They wave in the breeze.

2: Four metates are worn in the smooth top of the granite. They are always full of water, no matter when it last rained.

3: A wedding under the oaks. Each tree is bound with bright, makeshift ribbons. Shabby lashed-wood symbols of incoherent make hang from the trees. An elfgirl. An elfboy. Guests, strictly segregated by some unknown code of ancient manners. Many sentinels, and arrows for interlopers—two feuding bands are being bound today, and expect other bands to disrupt.

4: Some of the long-limbed oaks are bound with bright, coarse-woven cloth, ribbons tightly interlaced, carefully knotted, not a loose end anywhere. Those are the safe oaks.

5: When the sun rises or sets, the watching shadows stand atop the hills, elongated giantmen staring into the twilight.

6: The valley floor, straw-colored swaying dried weeds, waving in the wind, begins to move. Really move. The weeds run. Uproot and frantic, they all flee together, swirling and wheeling around obstacles like a flock of starlings.

7: You smell it first. Then you see the haze of white smoke, smudging out the distance. Then the billows. Brush fire. Don’t run uphill—that shit’s faster than you.

8: The air smells of rain. Blue sky, but it’s there in the distance, grey needles from sullen withdrawn far-off clouds. The arroyos will be full in a second—in a flash, as freight trains of filthy frothing flood comes, half water and half skull-smashing debris.

9: The fire has gone but the rain has come. The black hillsides groan under the weight of water, gravity grinding gravel and substrate no longer tendoned by roots and dendrites. The hills will fall; will you be beneath?

10: The coyotes are here. All of them.

The chaparral hides more than it will ever show.

why aren’t goblins scary? pt. 2

Goblins are really rare. Solitary. You don’t often see one, and almost never see more than one together. And they’re smaller than you’d think, little more than half-size to a halfling. And emerald green. Yeah, they hide a lot.

But sometimes not, none of that.

Sometimes, when happenstance or outside design brings goblins together in close proximity, something truly remarkable happens. If two goblins are in skin-to-skin contact for more than a day—huddling in a burrow from a predator, perhaps, or trapped—they begin to change. They become gregarious goblins. Doesn’t that sound nice?

It isn’t.

Something about that skin-to-skin contact causes a release of something in the goblins. They grow bigger. They change color, from that otherworldly emerald to a contrasting black and savannah tan. Their body plan shifts, becoming longer of limb, lean, whipcorded like greyhounds. And they gather. Something about a gregarious goblin attracts other goblins, solitary and gregarious alike. They hunch together, and the solitaries turn gregarious. The more of them there are, the more powerful and wide-ranging the attraction. This works exponentially, as more gather, more turn, attracting more to gather.

Woe betide.

Now you have a plague of goblins. And, hungry, they’re on the move.

A plague of goblins—that’s what it’s called, and what it is—is insensate, insatiate, and inexhaustible. It will carpet the earth and befoul watersheds. It will eat everything more than halfway edible in its path, and it moves at a rolling sprint. As the front of the plague stops to eat clean its environs, the back has already exhausted its own and sprints forward to begin anew. In such way the plague continually rolls forward, denuding everything in its path.

It is just as well that goblins are, mercifully, solitary creatures. A plague may come once every other generation, and none but the elves below the sky and the dwarves below the hills have more than one in living memory.

why aren’t goblins scary? pt. 1

So we have this on-and-off effort to figure out why low-level humanoid monsters (think: goblins, orcs, kobolds) are boring1 and what we can do about that.

Our inquiry for today: why aren’t goblins scary?

Phrased another way: when you see a spider or a snake, even moreso in an unexpected context, people jump. We just do. We know there’s a frisson of real danger there—the toxins involved can sicken, and in rarer cases, actually kill—but that danger is overblown compared to the actual toll taken on humanity. It’s unlikely, in your hamlet, that spiders and snakes are going to be a real cause of mortality.2 I’d much rather be bitten by a black widow than kicked by a horse, but horses don’t give me the shivers.

So, fright response far outsized to actual danger. We think about it for a moment, we’re much more at risk from the miller wearing a hard drunk and a beltknife, or from hunting boar through the thick brush, or from the fevers, or from the rain not falling all season, or from an unseasonable winter and the snow not melting off until May. But none of those make us jump, to hiss in breath, legs sprinting away before we even connect the two thoughts SNAKE – RUN.

So why is that? And how do we make goblins inspire that same startle response in our PCs?

Maybe it’s because spiders and snakes simply have such a different body plan from humanoids that it triggers some monkey-brain fear response below the level of conscious thought. (THIS IS PROBABLY THE CORRECT ANSWER.) Bilateral symmetry, two arms, two legs, and a noggin = good. Skittering multiple legs = bad. No legs at all = bad. Small (compared to human-scale) size = worse, because can be overlooked until right up on you. (HELLO I’M A SPIDER AND I’M IN YOUR HAIR!) General skulkiness, whether slithering in the grass or hiding in dark corners = trifecta of creepiness.

So what do we do to our goblins? Well, for one, quit calling them goblins. Too much subcultural baggage, the accretion of metagame knowledge and implicit associations and general cruft built up over the years. Second, take them off the humanoid body plan. Too far—six-legged goblins?—and we’ve strayed from our mission and created a whole new thing. We need unheimlich, something close enough to be recognizable but just off enough to create that twinge. Maybe the arms are just too long, dragging the ground. Maybe the head’s the wrong shape, or they lack facial features. Or maybe we get rid of the symmetry, maybe one side is off-balance and that makes movement uneven and strange. Goblins shouldn’t run; they should slink, sidle, skulk. No stand-up fights unless the PCs have a well-executed plan to corner and slaughter them.

I GOT STUCK HERE AND DECIDED TO END IT. THERE WILL BE MORE. 

1 Actually, we know why: they’re overused. Worse, overused in the same way, over and over again. Why does a random encounter entry of “Hill Men” seem more creative than actual in-the-Monster-Manual monsters?

2 Unless, we suppose, you’re from Australia. Don’t be from Australia.

don’t stat out your dragon

You don’t hunt a dragon, or fight a dragon, or slay a dragon.  You invade a dragon.  Or depose one.  Or usurp one.  Or destabilize one.  But you don’t walk over and kill one.

Dragons just aren’t like other creatures. A dragon is more akin to a force of nature than a giant beast. What could an Alexander do if with a nigh-invulnerable physical form, personal spellcasting, and wings when the fastest man travels on horseback?  Oh, and about a thousand more years of life to accumulate, compound, sway, consolidate, learn?

The mistake is in thinking of dragons like any other creature, with a statline and a singular Monster Manual entry. Don’t think of a dragon as a creature, no matter how powerful. Think of a dragon as an institution.

It’s tempting to get this one wrong. We’re people and we think like people. Say you see a tribe, and you want to lead it. Maybe you go over and kick the shit out of the guy in charge, and now you lead the tribe. That makes sense, at the most basic level of human society. The biggest badass gets to be in charge; you kill the chief, you get to be the chief.

This only works because humans are within an order of magnitude of each other. You can be a tough motherfucker, but ten slightly-less-tough motherfuckers still win. A dragon is a different thing. A dragon is many orders of magnitude more powerful than a humanoid.

Even if you were standing next to a dragon, what are you going to do? Hit it with a sharp thing you’re carrying?

A landbound juvenile. Smack it with a sword and see what happens.

The point is, D&D is thinking at the wrong scale. A dragon isn’t just a big beast that you can chase down with enough men and pointy sticks, as though it were a particularly nasty mastodon. To issue forth to bring low a dragon is more akin to sitting in Ionia and plotting how you’re going to march to Susa and kill Darius. Or how you’re going to get to Seoul so you can find your way north and end the Kim Dynasty. In a very real way it doesn’t matter whether you could kill Darius in a swordfight—that isn’t the point.

The point is that you’re trying to bring down an institution, an organization controlling territory and an economy and a society, an institution that may have been successfully fending off interlopers since before your father’s father’s father’s . . . nix that, since before your race figured out the addition of tin to copper makes bronze. And by interlopers, not a plucky band of misfit rogues and swordsmen and magisters, but real interlopers: armies and climate change and pestilence, mana barrens and barbarians and forces bringing other empires low.

Any dragon past an adolescence has satrapies and vassals, an economy and a culture, death squads and intelligence cabals, a court and counsel. And it will have all of these things after the ones it has die off, and their sons and daughters pass from remembrance. Ultimately, institutions can and do fall; but they are rarely slain by cave-creeping good-for-nothings with glowing swords and stage-magician cantrips.

omg wtf leylines

I don’t know why I’m so captivated by the idea of leylines.

Too facile: “hey asshole, you played too much Rifts as a kid!”

Likely true: “hey asshole, you played too much Rifts as a kid!”

I think it’s probably because there’s always this feeling that magic has to come from somewhere. The idea that it’s just floating around like oxygen, freely available to anyone who wants to draw upon it, requiring little effort and no specialness, just a part of the world’s normalcy—that’s tough. Magic should be special. Last I saw, there’s nothing f-word about the world,1 and life doesn’t allocate a pool of ability points. Some people get to be brilliant and strong and gorgeous. And some people get to be stupid and ugly and unpleasant and poor and sick.

I like the idea of leylines because they are a resource to exploit. One way to think about them is like any other fixed-site resource, a port or a river or a vein of gold or patch of oil. That is, someone will come to exploit it, and in doing so exclude others from it.2 Magic is valuable—it can either do things doable in no other way, or can do mundane things in an easier way than is traditional, or both—and so now you have conflict. Someone has it and wants to keep it; someone doesn’t have it, and wants it. Conflict is storystuff.

I also like the idea that some places are just deeply weird. Two-headed goats get born; bloodsqualls fill trackfurrows; people forget who they are. Stones speak wisdom and rivers flow the other way. The sun winks at you—just you—and babies take up apple-knives. If there were some demon behind these things, some bloody-bone or hellwain, these things would suck, but at least make sense. There’s a motive, if only to fuck with you. Weirdness comes from the lack of conscious motive.

But if weirdness happens everywhere, is diffuse, no work gets done. Weird shit happens when you get close to a leyline, but those who seek power have never learned from moths or flames.

Where else does magic come from? It infuses everything and you need some mystical beardy wisdom to know that we really are just all one? Bleh. I’ll take Carrie any day.3 Extremes of emotion work what look like miracles. Or hellfire.

Maybe necromancy isn’t a thing, it’s the thing. In a world where gods are indisputably, Zeus-fucked-my-hot-sister, everyone’s seen one for realsies, completely real, calling down and using a portion of their powers isn’t much of a reach. But maybe actual magic only comes from pacts with the dead, and necromancy isn’t necromancy because necromancy is just magic.

Maybe there’s only so much magic in the world, and when it’s used up it’s gone. Of course, all those assholes in that “golden age” so long ago made it golden by using up all the easily available stuff, leaving you to scrabble about trying to pluck up the remnants, or seek far-off wildernesses where it just wasn’t economical to extract.

In a pinch, I’ll even take “there is magic, some weirdo three counties over can do it, but you never will.” Maybe the gift is really just that rare, and no, the PCs will only ever see the stabby flamey I’m-dead-now side of it.

1 “Fair.”
2 “Hey, c’mon everyone, let’s all go sustainably utilize this valuable resource in an equitable, communal manner!” said no one ever.
3 Believe it or not, hella was once a teenager. Of course teenager overwraughtness makes magic happen. In other news, The Rage: Carrie 2 wasn’t that bad.