Monday, 30 January 2017


The Dark Side of the Moon is populated by, and composed of, the dreams of those who sleep in dungeons. Anyone dreaming in a dungeon dreams of this place and cannot leave it in their dream. Which makes dungeons a doubly bad place to be.

This place is lit only by starlight and stolen mists, but it is also an area of this world, a land which grows more powerful and who's borders interpose with ours as shadow moves across the dial of the moon like the lateral blinking of a lizards eye.

The vision-people of the moons black side are moon-dragooned and serve as churls in the Fractal Baronies of the Unseelie Chivalry, knights who kneel to Barons bound in loyalty to the Court of the Sleeping King.

The Sleeping King dreams his fortress and his court and the hypnagogic dreamscape of his lands and if he wakes all will disappear and chaos will snap the scales and break the balance of the political moon, bringing disaster to the star-lit sands. Therefore he is lullabied by an endless supply of hollow-eyed holocaust-bards snatched from their homes and stolen from their lands by the soft-shoed Silent Knights whose cloaks are stitched from the skins of embryonic mice. Rows and rows are carted to the Kings court on the dark side of the moon, chained and forced to pipe without rhythm, tone or tune until the all go mad and die, then the bard-corpse is detached and dragged away only for the bard to be replaced.

But this is not the only palace in this land, and not the only lord.

There is the Court of the Moon, rumoured to be ruled by a masked Selenian Queen, and the Knights of the Moon ensure a constant supply of new dreamers and new lands by venturing out into the waking world and lending their services as bounty hunters, cops and prison guards.

Anyone dreaming in any dungeon, anywhere in the world, lends their strength to the Kingdom of the Mad and so it serves those Knights that as many people as possible should be imprisoned for as long as possible as deep as they can possibly be.

They care nothing for innocence or guilt, only imprisonment, and there are many in the world who share their view, and are keen to call upon their blades of smoking glass and their moon-bronze chains.

Wherever the dungeon dreamers are, erupt blocks of Piranesi-buildingforms, impossible labyrinths of black stone, impossible archways and infinite rooms. These are the result of the dreams of the long-term dungeon-doomed, and the deeper and madder their imprisonment is in our world, the more magnificent the palaces they build in theirs.

And there is the Court of the Grail. The Sacred Bowl filled with the ever-replenishing black spit of God, hurled out as he shook his many-angled prison somewhere in the cosmos-core, beyond the reach of reason or measurement, hopefully never to escape.

The Holy Sputum breathes out the Verdant Land. Even without sunlight or warmth, the monstrous life-giving  power of the black spit is so intense that all over the dark side of the moon, trees and plants of primitive and eldritch kind boil up out of the lifeless white sand, black grass grows and nodding vein-blood-purple orchids burst their sacks.

by Beth Moon

So due to these three horrors, the mad visions of the Sleeping King, the nightmare memories of the dungeon-churls and the awful verdance of the black gods spit, life, and economy come to the moons blind hemisphere.


The preferred mount is a horse/goat hybrid with enormous polycerate horns, the eyes and legs and hooves of a goat and the body and speed of a slender Arabian steed. They can climb anything, perch anywhere and can chase escaping dreamers by leaping from branch to branch through the forest canopy, and by dancing from arch to arch in the Piranesi-dungeons.

The hearts of these Knights are so cold that they can freeze the water of an ocean as their horned horses hooves press against its waves, they can sweep out of the sea on frozen tides clad in rosepetal mail held together by thorns, or armoured in mantis wings pinned by the biting heads of ants, holding shields of glass with porcelain swords.

Amongst their orders are Mad Knights, men who were good knights and went mad, now believing impossible things, heroes who forgot themselves or those who were never knights at all but simply believe they are, driving only by the power of their delusion, Elvish Knights from the Otherworld, spirits of Autumn and Winter who hate mankind and mans imaginings, masked Knights of Misrule who’s king rules hidden from an endless carnival of death, Grail Knights, brave and honourable men who serve and protect the spit of god that brings life to this cold land, who’s eyes see only dying worlds  and cracked realities, and Goblin Knights, Goblins who have gone completely mad and sworn themselves to tell the truth and do only good, and who have been forced from Goblin lands, cloaked in clanking tin armour, mounted on pigs and told never to come back.

The Oaths and Orders of these knights are various and awful to a man.

Thing you have to do
Power you get
Lost by
The Order of the Cold-Heart
Break the heart of someone in love with you.
Own heart freezes, gain ice powers.
Falling in love.
The Order of Discord
Always lie.
Can change shape at will.
Telling the truth (trapped in current shape).
The Order of Strife
Never courteous, always contemptuous.
Doors & locks fly open for you, can’t be trapped by anything.
Saying please/thank you/just being polite.
The Order of Pandora
Cruel to women.
Love curse/Charm powers.
Kissed by a maiden of their own free will/kind to a woman.
Order of Hate
No friends.
Immortal/immune to harm/blades.
Share a fire/food with someone/help them/allow yourself to be helped.
The Band of Ashes and Sparks
Condemn the innocent, free & assist the guilty.
Elemental immunity, can’t drown, burn, fall, be crushed be earth or stone.
Giving a true or fair judgement, helping an innocent person.

Never wash/be clean.
Invisible at will (but they can smell you coming).
Cleaning yourself, even a small part.
The Knights of Anarchy
Never take and order and kill any social superior on sight.
Can’t be killed by any royal authority or if a king/queen says to someone “go and take out this deadly knight in my forests” that command can never be fulfilled.
Allow a king or queen to escape your sight/swear loyalty to any feudal hierarchy/be loyal (could even mean keeping a coin with a king or queens head on it, rule revealed by Knight leaving certain kinds of treasure behind)/obey an order.
Waste Knight
Live only in the waste-lands.
Perfect hunter, can always start a fire/find shelter/can’t die from exposure.
Spend a night in any built dwelling/eat cooked food.
Red Knight
Challenge everyone on the slightest pretext, never turn down a challenge and never show mercy to a foe.
Decapitation Strike, like a Vorpal Blade effect on any blade you pick up.
Show mercy, behave honourably to a defeated foe.
Moth Knight, Barrow Knight etc
Swear fealty to a particular enchantress of wizard.
Can polymorph into a particular thing. The Barrow Mages sworn Knights can turn into autumn leaves and float away/escape/sneak up on you but you can spot them in summer & early spring.
Disobey your wizard.

Wednesday, 25 January 2017

Wondrous Bullshit - A Review of "Tales of the Marvellous and News of the Strange".

I mean bullshit in a specific sense, that fudgy fairyland between genuine folklore, attempts at real history and self-confessed fiction. The place in which Geoffery of Monmouth and Erich von Danekin both make their home.

"Tales" is a collection of Arabic stories discovered by Europeans in 1933 in a manuscript created somewhere between the 14th and 15th centuries based on an original collection which probably came from some time in the mid 10th century with the whole thing translated into English for the first time in 2014.

The title page is missing, half the manuscript has been torn off and lost, the name of the person it was inscribed for is smudged and illegible and the scribe didn't seem to really know what they were doing so they get basic details wrong and occasionally drop us in and out of the stories at odd points.

We are talking here, of something like The 1001 Nights dirtbag tabloid cousin in which the fine qualities of relations between stuff have perhaps been sacrificed in the interests of having just more stuff.

This translation is half-way between "official" academia and popular taste. If you are used to the slightly bowdlerised, abridged and already somewhat-posher 1001 Nights then this may strike you are being janky, common, hectic, oddly written, uneven and really really rapey. There are some complaints about it being a bad translation on Goodreads, it’s possible those people are translation experts but to me it looks more like an accurate translation of a very weird original with all of the strange qualities of medieval text and the sketchy writing left intact. If you are an academic reader, well, if it’s your subject you probably already know about it and have the academic version. If you are an educated nobody (most of my readers) then it should be good enough for you. There is a half-decent index, that excellent intro and a list of potential extra reading.

There is a very good introduction by Robert Irwin, one complete enough that it’s hard not just to summarise it when talking about the text.

Boring Liberal Prophylactic First

There's lots of actual-rape where the writer calls it that, rape which writer didn't think was real rape but anyone reading it now certainly would, creepy stuff with slaves, lots of rather worrying stuff with slavery generally, lots of misogyny and some anti-black racism.

Christians, bizarrely to me, come out pretty well. Christian monks get rolled out as figures of wisdom, one of the final tales has a romance between two Christian rulers in Egypt I think? The storyteller does have the Christians having a chat with an idol of Baal, but this is represented as being just the kind of things Christians do sometimes? Who knows with those guys.

The literary quality of the tales varies, but if you are an omnireader then the interest in the tales is continuous since even the bad ones give us a glimpse into a really alien and strange world. The morality in the tales, and of the tales, is a little disturbing to modern senses.

Well that's your lot. I put that stuff in for honesty and so anyone sensitive to that stuff isn't tricked into buying it.

Cool Stuff For D&D Types.

Put simply, if they ever re-do the Al-Quadim for 5e then whoever does it will have to read this first. It has All New Ancient Stuff in it, and how often do you get to say that there is New Ancient Stuff?

And there are a lot of Things. Especially the kinds of Things relevant to TRPG's.

Treasure Hunting

Several of the stories in the middle are concerned only and entirely with treasure hunting in ancient tombs. These are so much like a game of D&D that it's fucking ridiculous and also, when you think about it, kind of interesting that they are that much like a D&D game, not only in incident but in the character of the seekers.

The adventures tend to be a bit railroady, usually an Ancient Text is discovered or translated by a handy monk and then out heroes are off on a journey to a forgotten mountain or something. Usually the POV character is following someone who reads from a specific book or text and uses this to find the dungeon and predict its dangers, so, a wierd statue or iron door is discovered and the leader figure checks it out in their book, tells our hero what to do, usually some redshirts doubt their wise guidance and are tempted by gems and die to prove how dangerous the dungeon is and how cunning its creators were. Then they do things the right way and the poison gas or whatever stops and they can move on.

Rather than describing I will display;

               "When he got there he halted at its foot and asked the monk where they should go. The monk told him that what they were looking for was in a cave in one of the gullies, and the emir told his men to scatter and look for it. They spent the day investigating the mountain but when they came back they said: "We saw nothing but a lot of gullies, all of which looked alike." "Is there a sign that marks this gully out from all the others?" the emir asked the monk. "Yes," he said, " for opposite it is a huge stone snake with a frog in its mouth and a scorpion on its head." "That's what you must look for," the emir told his men, and after three days of searching they found it in a large wadi, with the gully lying opposite the statue. When they looked they could see a great stone. There was writing over the door of the cave, and on the summit of the mountain was a huge statue on which birds were perching. There were rings with iron chains attached to the place on the mountain.

               'The emir marvelled at the statue and told the monk to pull on the chains. When he did the secret place opened up, and a flight of steps could be seen leading to it. "Go up," the emir said, "for through the help of God we have got to where we wanted." We went on up to the stairs and after climbing some two hundred steps we came out at a fine square room with three open doors, near each of which was a closed door. In the middle stood a giant statue of gilded brass with what looked like a covered bowl on its head, which it was holding with its hands.

               'When we got to the middle of the room and approached the statue, the monk took one of the emir's servants to go up to the closed door and strike it with a pick. He obeyed and struck a great blow, using all his strength, but at that the statue threw the bowl down from its head, revealing a pipe from which water flowed. We were in great danger, and the monk began to go round the room until he caught sight of a barred window. When he opened it the statue fell to its knees with its mouth open, and the water started flowing into this until it had all gone from the room.

               We gave thanks to Almighty God for this, and the monk told us there was nothing else that the statue could do. he ordered the servants to break the locks on the doors, and when they did we opened them and went into the rooms behind them. In them was more wealth than had ever been seen and in indescribable quantity of jewels. We almost died of joy but the monk told us: "Take care that no one takes the cover from the bowl and looks in or he will die." Some of the servants rushed up to it, each thinking greedily that none but he would remove the lid. The one who did looked inside and dropped down dead, after which the cover went back on the bowl as it had been before. The monk implored us if we valued our lives to leave it undisturbed or we would all die."

- and there we are. Listen to your Monk, fools.

One story has an actual NPC turn up, a horned magic man of an unknown species who lives around the dungeon mouth and whom the hero befriends to mixed effect.

Several tales finish with skeletons holding jade tablets describing the majesty of their former domains and giving exact circumstances in which one dead king thinks it reasonable to loot from his tomb. (All his family were losers and if you managed to break in and survive then you have already proved yourself better than them so feel free, but remember that treasure will only make you miserable in the eeeeennnnd).

Strange Islands

It’s a medieval standby but, thanks to their low latitude, the mystical islands from Arabic stories sound like much nicer places to stay than those in European Saints tales.

Get ready for castaways, more goddammn magic statues (I think *all* of the statues in this are magic), Jinn, freaky animals, odd currents, lost tribes etc. etc.

Speaking of which, there are lots of


One of my favourite parts is from the last story, (this is from a story *in* a story *in* a story, which is pretty much expected for "Tales"), the Princess Haifa has lost her Jinn lover who used to disguise himself as a white-footed deer in daytime and then get suggestive with her at night. She is wandering the world looking for him and encounters Hirmas, king of the ostriches (who is not an Ostrich);

"He wrote a letter, which he passed to me before summoning an enormous ostrich, which had lost all its feathers, leaving its skin smooth. He told it: "Take this human to the land of the old queen of the crows. See that she has an easy ride and come back quickly." I sat on its back holding on to its neck as it flew between sky and earth, keeping my eyes shut. When dawn broke it told me to open them and get down, for this was the country of the old queen. I dismounted and found myself in a red land with interlacing trees, some of which were red with red leaves and green citrus-like fruit. There were flowing streams with fish to be seen in the clear water feeding on the green weeds, while on every tree there were as many as a thousand crows, both black and piebald.

While I was in the shade of the trees, admiring their leaves and their fruit, I suddenly came upon a great red dome set over an ebony couch on which sat a grim-faced and frowning old woman wearing dyed clothes with ten jewelled bracelets on each arm, ten anklets on each foot and ten rings on each finger. She had a crown of red gold studded with jewels of all kinds. She held a sceptre of green emerald and flanking her on each side were two black 'ifrits with hooked iron clubs in their hands.

When she saw me she gave orders to these two who took hold of me and brought me before her. She addressed me harshly, asking who I was, where I lived, where I had come from and who had brought me to a land in which she had never seen a human before. I was so frightened by her and her appearance that I could find nothing to say in reply. She laughed more and she repeated: "Where do you come from and how did you get to my country?" This unlocked my tongue and I said: "I am al-Hafia, the daughter of King Muhallab of Persia. I fell in love with a jinni known as 'the white-footed gazelle', and I went on to tell her everything that had happened from beginning to end until tears overcame me and I could no longer control myself. I then handed her the letter from the king of the ostriches. She took it and after reading it, she exclaimed: "Welcome to the letter and the one who wrote it!"

She went on: "I am the old queen of the jinn crows who part lovers and companions. My nature is rude and rough, and I have never shown pity to anyone. It is through me that husbands are parted from their wives, companions from companions, and lovers from their beloveds, and in every land I am represented by an emir of the crows."


That's the coolest one but they do appear in a variety of roles, sometimes as transformed animals with mysterious agendas, sometimes summoned with the use of a magic pearl inscribed with one of the hidden names of god, sometimes as lovers and sometimes simply as super-toughs for those villainous types for whom having 1000 Malmuks with iron clubs just wasn't enough.

Superviallan Hot Girls

We have quite a few horny, evil, magic-using women who use their wiles to bang hot guys but one stands out for joyous, brilliant sociopathy. A girl so evil she gets her name in the title "The Story of 'Arus al-'Ara'is and her Deceit".

'Arus al-'Ara'is so dark that inside the nesting element that borders her story (I forget how many stories deep we go in this one, but it might be the most extreme of all the tales, a story in a story  in a story in a story, and possibly that one in another story) a caliphs daughter dies and he is so bereaved that someone promises to tell him the tale of 'Arus al-'Ara' as her deeds are so evil that hearing about them will teach him hatred for all women and girls. So, then he won't feel as bad about his dead kid.

The short of it is a child born under a bad sign and prophesied by 100 soothsayers to bring evil to her kingdom, compulsively fucks, betrays, outwits and murders a long long string of men. Along the way she also arranges the deaths of the 100 soothsayers as well as mass slaughter when she persuades a Jinn to burn her own city to the ground with magic sand because she was bored of it.

She ends up trapped on an island with her djinn lover until our hero gets washed up there. She hides him and sleeps with them both for a while, then gets bored of that and finds a way to kill the Djinn. Then she outright confesses her whole tale (this is about four or five stories down the stack).

She tells him outright that she obsessively sleeps with men and then, as soon as they irritate, oppose or bore her in any way, she arranges their destruction, and she's not promising to reform.

But she's hot so the guy takes her with him when he escapes anyway. You can probably guess the end of the story.

It's an interesting one as its written from a somewhat Lucifer-in-paradise-lost-esque perspective. Everything about the formal construction of the story tells us about how terrible she is but it’s pretty clear that the sympathies of the writer, and the audience, are with 'Arus al-'Ara', and not any of the string of boring men she destroys, and also because she seems broadly aware of her sociopathy, and almost a little sad, neither denying, declaiming or explaining it but simply describing what she is and has to be.

Treasure And Luuuuuxxxxurrrryyyy

The last thing of immediate interest to TRPG-types is the stupendous love of treasure, wealth, luxury, money and sweet high-status living. I seem to remember Rebecca West saying she respected the Islamic passion for luxury, (though she probably said it in a more flinty and condescending way) and that is seriously born out in “Tales”.

There is little here, of Christian worries about wealth and decadence. Having money is good. Having jewels and 'Robes of Honour' is good (people keep handing these out and I have no idea what they are), having more slaves is good, plus dancing girls, plus how about a private garden with imported wild animals, plus multiple thrones, one for when you are feeling merciful, and a death throne with an animatronic vulture that spits lead balls and two tigers (I couldn’t work out if they were automata or not) that tear to death those who have displeased you. (I did not make that one up, I think this one is from the story where a Prince goes to war with several ships full of Lions as his Vizier is a talking Lion, but the lions are beaten in combat because, to paraphrase his advisors; “Animals are dumb”.)

Five seconds of random flicking through got me this;

"When we reached the royal palace we went in and, after passing through a series of halls, we halted. Taking me by the hand, she lead me into a house the like of which I had never seen. It was like paradise, with walls plated with gold, and around it and them were statues of women each holding a musical instrument. It was furnished with all sorts of silk brocade, and at its upper end was a dais on which was a throne of red gold inlaid with various types of gems, sapphires, balkash rubies and emeralds.

The queen mounted the dais and took her seat on the throne, taking me up with her and seating me by her side, with her thigh over mine. For a time she issued commands and prohibitions, but then she called up a golden table encrusted with pearls and other gems, to which forty bowls of gold and silver were brought, containing various types of foods. As we ate she put spoonful’s in my mouth, and I kissed her hand until we had had enough. The table was removed, and we washed our hands after which golden trays were bought with scents, and then came girls carrying musical instruments, each of whom went up to one of the statues, with the girl carrying a lute sitting beneath the statue of a lute girl, the girl with a flute sitting beneath a flautist and the one with cymbals sitting under a cymbal player, each one underneath the appropriate statue. They all began to sing in unison until I thought the place was rocking with me as I looked at the splendour of this luxury."

In addition to this we find various magic crowns whose gems cast light that can stun all who look upon them, a variety of Jinn-summoning and controlling gems.

Interesting Structural Choices

From a writing perspective there are a lot of interesting things going on here.

Relentless Nesting

The most obvious and dominant distinctive element of the text is how willing the writer(s?) are to nest one story within another to an extent where the fracturing and interrelationships sometimes seem to take on a life of their own.

So, for instance, a sad Caliph will be unable to sleep and demand a story. His guys go and grab someone interesting-looking from outside, lets say a glass merchant. So ok, now the glass merchant has to tell the Caliph a story.

So they tell the caliph who they are and how they came to be here, and when he asks a question, well, it turns out that in important element of the Glass-Merchants life and adventures turns on meeting this unusual owl, that could talk. Well how did that happen? Asks the Glass Merchant of the Owl.

So now the owl tells you its story. We get that for a while, but it turns out that at one point the owl was trapped in a tower with a beggar, and the owl asks the beggar (in the owl’s story, which the Glass-Merchant is telling to the Caliph) for his story, so now we get the beggar talking.

But the beggar is actually a ruined prince, and to find out why he’s being transformed we have to have a bit about the family drama with the sorcerer who hates his dad, so the prince (before he became a beggar) says, “Hey dad, how about that sorcerer who hates you? What’s up with that?”

And the dad says, “Well son, that’s quite an interesting story….”

And on we go. I think the deepest down we ever get is about five stories in but I’m not sure.

You could do quite a lot with this I think. You have multiple layers of story and continuity going on at the same time. The effect is weirdly intense and strangifying and quite baroque, especially when combined with;

Poetry Bits

Well you can’t just talk about romance in normal language can you?

So several of the stories have big, BIG, chunks that are given in poetry. Either two lovers talk to each other in poetry, they send each other letters in poetry or, in one particular story, each and every element that either lover wears has poetry embroidered on it and every time they take a pice of clothing on or off, or use a high-status object (which also has poetry on it) the story breaks out into poetry again.

(The translator makes no attempt to rhyme or use any similar structure in the translated verse, but they don’t think it was very good in the original anyway.)

The effect of this is really really odd and interesting. It reminds me a bit of watching Gaszes 6-hour silent film about Napoloean. Something about silent cinema really slows down your cognition to a different rhythm and adds a certain kind of voiceless intensity you wouldn’t get any other way. Like it has its own cognitive pulse.

Person Shifting and The Lacunae

Either because the scribe didn’t really know what they were doing or because that’s part of how it was written, the person of description changes fluidly between described second person, described third person and first person.

So we could have the Glass-Seller above describing how he met the Owl, then him describing the owls adventure like a typical second-person narrator, then suddenly it shifts and we get the Owls voice.

Is the Glass-Seller mimicking the voice of the owl in front of the Caliph? Fuck knows.

We also get some charming lacunae in the text marked (lac) which makes the whole thing even more like a jumpy black and white film where some scenes have been accidently dropped.

All of this combined with the nesting above produces this byzantine structure and feel which meshes really well with the mad, luxurious, violent, precarious, magical culture of the stories. Strange and luxurious in description and luxurious and strange in form as well. If I was going to rip off the genre I would start with those structural elements and see what I could come up with.

Well that’s three hours and its midnight, so farewell.

Sunday, 22 January 2017

How To Make an Adventure Part 2, answers to your Questions

Question 1

 Brandon D asked;

"So just a follow-up for clarification: are each of those "inner folders" - such as is shown in the DCO image with chapter titles for each folder - just filled with notepad documents? I'm picturing that each of said documents would be small text files that start almost like sketch ideas (like one for Hoolloch in "The Crows," and one for each encounter in "The Profundal Zone, etc) and eventually form into a complete idea, but are still separated by idea (every encounter is its own text doc) - is that the case?"


What happens is the folder contents start off as text files. Then as soon as the subject in each file has any weight or imaginative coherency it gets incorporated into a big word doc for that section. This is like the skeleton or 'main machine' for that section.

Then things are either added straight onto that skeleton (when things are going well), or, when necessary, individual parts are dragged out into their own notepad docs, word docs, or even whole subfolders full of individual files relating to different things.

Then as problems are solved and issues are dealt with, they all condense back into the big main skeleton word doc, like a mad scientist making a Frankenstein, you have your big corpse in the centre, then you pull out organs to work on them, add bits on, shave bits off, fiddle with things and consider alternates, then you shove the organ back in the Frankenstein.

As this is being done you build up a detritus of files of various kinds which, as the Frankenstein near completion, generally get dumped into a bin folder called "Development" or "Everything Pre-2015".

To answer your question more concisely, those particular folders each have a single word doc for that section, but during development they might have had lots of sub folders and scrappy files like you describe, alongside one big doc for everything to be re-incorperated into.


Question 2

Scrap Princess asked "How do you fight "mission creep" or things otherwise expanding inward and outward in all directions?"


This reminds me a lot of someone asking "How to go to sleep?" in which the answer is intuitively obvious to anyone who can do it, but when we can't do it, it seems impossible and, in fact, the solution flies further and faster out of our reach the more we harass ourselves to find it.

I can only really describe this from my own point of view,

So there are a few moods or states of mind that help us achieve the aim of Reasonable Completeness.

The Cut

This is generally arranged around a single moment, it’s the thing most similar to a single decision, a simple, strong, singular NO, in which a situation is briefly assessed and then a prospective course of action is cast firmly and probably permanently into a state of not being done and never being done.

In a sense this is a kind of intelligent stupidity. When you're making any creative project, no “NO” should ever be really final or absolute, even if you throw something away it still stays in the brain bin and might come up later in something else or mutate in there BUT, having it on or in your mind when you are not going to use it soaks up energy. It's like having extra papers on your desk, you must sweep your arm across the desk and cast them onto the floor

I always feel a little macho or 'tough' doing this, and it’s also slightly painful as you are probably throwing away something that you are mentally attached to and feel affection for, so it’s a bit like strangling a pet. Anyone who makes a choice kills a world. It’s the alternative world where you chose a different thing and all the various consequences of that choice play out, the moment you decide against it, that world and everything in it fall instantly into irrevocable ruin, and that pristine ruin often looks better than the shitty flawed thing you actually ended up living with.

Creative work is really really heavy on your cognitive architecture in a lot of invisible ways.
It’s really global, you need a lot of the different parts of your brain talking to each other fluidly, and the more brain parts you can get communicating the most then the better chance you have of making something good.

Because of this, because of the need for a lot of cognitive energy or ability to be free, in a strange sense, being conservative can help you be more imaginative and more successfully imaginative

But this does not answer your question.

If it's hard to make a decision because you have a lot of stuff going on in your mind at the same time then it can be good to reduce things to a binary choice based on a particular quality, element or feeling. People are better at choosing between two things than between three or four things I think
the simplest way of saying this to yourself is "which of these two things provokes greater feeling in me" or some statement similar to that.

This means looking at a big mess of stuff and trying to boil it down to two main things. Then, if necessary, doing so again at a lower level.

After you make a bunch of binary choices in a row you have done the equivalent work to choosing between three or four complex things, yet perhaps with less energy cost and stress.

The Holistic State

I think of the Holistic state as the ability to hold the whole thing in your mind. It is governed more by love and desire than by dislike or rejection, more by the softer emotion of 'letting things go' rather than the harder 'cutting out' and provoked more by affection for the whole than by contemptuous judgement of the part.

Because this is a softer emotional state it’s harder to analyse and give advice about. I have found it the most difficult state to achieve at-will.

The ability ‘to cut’ is more easily and directly provoked in the heart, regardless of your mood, allowing yourself to feel is harder.

Nevertheless the holistic state is utterly vital because it invisibly shapes the decision architecture that tells you when and where it is wise to ask your mind for the energy ‘to cut’, a kind of meta-emotion guiding, not what choice you make, but when to make a choice.

The vague, gnawing troubled sense of something being undone or somehow incorrect might be the absence or negative influence of this state.

My best advice to provoke this state is to seek the initial spike of embodied joy that caused you to become interested in the project. Imagine your first enthusiastic conception of what it might be, imagine yourself explaining, clearly and lucidly, to someone you actually like, what you love about the project, dwell on what is, or was, pleasing to you about it.

Hopefully forming this image or idea-group in your mind, as a vague but positive idea of what should be, rather than a negative idea of what you do not want, will help guide you when you turn back and look at what is currently going wrong with your thing. Where has it expanded out of its original conception? Where must it be pruned?

The Use of System

This is an emotionally neutral-feeling capacity which is just about your ability to organise and arrange your own information.

The better you are at 'filing' things, then the larger and more total view you have of the whole project and the easier it is to have that total view. If a map of the whole thing comes more easily to mind then that reduces the cognitive cost.

Also, when you are angry and blocked on a project then it’s still relatively easy to do ‘filing’. Moving information around and getting all your shit in the right place requires neither love nor hate, it can be meditative, a bit like doing the dishes, and it might actually do you some good because, who knows, you might have a breakthrough.


To count backwards from the top to bottom.

1.      Do your filing and have your folders and text architecture worked out, you don’t need to feel anything while you are doing this.
2.      Imagine the feeling of the great idea that caused you to embark. Imagine explaining it to a friend.
3.      Take this feeling and use it to look at all the stuff you currently have. If it’s a big sprawling bush, what parts of it may not be like your explanation or idea?
4.      Look closer at those parts and reduce each issue to a series of binary choices where you choose between two things.
5.      Be super tough and macho or whatever your equivalent of that is a boldly strike your way through those either-or decisions one by one.

Be aware, I just make all this shit up and it may or may not work.


Question 3

 Scrap Princess also asked;

"How much winds up all the cutting room floor?"


I don't really know as I don't keep a lot of records of ideas that have been thrown out and not used. My memory may be inaccurate or unreliable. It also depends at what stage an idea or concept is abandoned. When it first flits through your head? When it’s written down in a big list along with a bunch of others? When its incorporated into a main draft? When it’s in a first final draft? When an editor cuts it out before printing?

If we go from the end and say stuff that was cut out in the same way old film was cut, that is, written, performed, filmed and then dumped, I would say anywhere from 30 to 5 per cent. With MotBM being more towards the thirty percent number, or higher, and DCO or FotVH being much lower.

If we say every idea or potential that passed through your head from initial conception on, then it could be around 50% or higher of those idea's don't get used. Making good things is about saying no to bad ideas.


Question 5

 |Kyana asked;

"How to know if idea is good or not? What if idea appears to be very insubstantial? "Gateway into Underworld" deals with places that can be mapped, but what if the idea is, for example, "explore/decide what means to be human" or some other abstract-moralistic thing? Maybe such ideas are never good ideas at all?"


Ultimately I can only answer this in reference to the kinds of thing I already know how to make but I will first try to consider the varying possibilities for different kinds of games or formats.

"explore/decide what means to be human" on it's own is best explored first through an essay or poem, then through a narrative, then through a storygame, then through a kind of white-wolf or Pendragon-esque highly-specific game, then finally through an OSR-style game. Even for a storygame that would be a very abstract concept.


The adventure idea you described in the comments to the last post wasn't quite like that. It didn't just have a single abstract concept at its core, it also had particular people, a particular world, certain charismatic objects and relationships and places which all had a specific tone and mood. So if we were considering that, then I would say it was best expressed through either a storygame, OSR game or possibly a narrative.

One thing that makes a concept group a good possibility for an OSR game is the ease and fluidity with which it suggests a geography and lists.

It doesn't really matter exactly what the lists are of. They can be places, people, monsters, objects or just cool sounding words and individual names of things, so long as they are things.

If you can sit down with a piece of paper for an hour and start writing down things, just anything you can think of, and end up with a page full of cool or interesting sounding-stuff. Something that, if you think of it you either smile or just want to know or explain more, then you might have a good concept group for an OSR game.

Even if you can't do that it's not necessarily a bad idea, it just might be best for a different kind of thinking.

I think it could make a really good adventure, if that's what you wanted to do with it. If I were you I would take the time to make sure


So in addition to all these questions I said I would talk thee things and those were;

6.     Publishing, formats and printing.


These are rather tiresome issues that I only started to think about once I began making things but which it might reeeaaallllly benefit anyone making an adventure to consider


First comes something that probably everyone knows about already but that I feel I have to repeat publicly just because the consequences for not knowing are so aggravating and this might be the first time some people hear about it and if I can save even one…..

American Letter Size – Beware It!

Americans, unwilling to deal with the same kind, rational and eminently reasonable paper sizes as the rest of the world, have clung resentfully to their own special paper size which is nearly but not quite the same as A4. American "Letter" size. Day 1 in Trumps America people. This piece of shit size has fucked up more good ideas than (INSERT TOPICAL REFERENCE HERE).

The nightmare of this shitty, deceptive death-swamp of a paper size is that, unless you are looking for it or are already familiar with it, it’s entirely possible to get most of the way through a production or adaption and not realise that the stuff you did in A4 will have to be completely re-formatted for printing in a US letter format and that, because the size difference is so marginal, you can't just cut the info content of a page in half or anything, you have to shaaaave it, and, depending on the paper quality or type of binding some printing companies may or may not make certain paper types, colour options and bindings available to use.

O, so other than that page size has three big effects on a piece of work

1. Amount of stuff you can fit on a double-page spread, power of art, tables, interrelationships of information.

More and more I have come to think that things should be written and designed in informational groups so that everything on a double-page spread hangs neatly together, and to do this you need to know ahead of time what format you are going to be using

For anyone creating stuff in the future I would strongly recommend thinking 'by spread', when you are creating, or trying to, to see if it works.

2. Ease of practical use at a table.

Almost everyone I know who has spoken at any length about use-at table strongly prefers a relatively small format for use and I see the LotFP A5 size praised a lot (again, if anyone has opinions then let me know in comments), also a big thick tome is going to be a bitch to hold up and flick through at the table while a light Broodmother Skyfortress or Blood in the Chocolate will be relatively easy to deal with.

I do not love A5 myself but as with PDF’s I am in a cult of one.

3. Weight of the thing and its cost to produce and post.

the general process of development for most OSR creators seems to be that we want to get our stuff bigger and bigger and bigger and more and more like a 'real book', heavier, thicker and with better binding.

As the thing you make gets bigger then the ancillary costs to printing and sending it go up and up and this is especially valid in cross-ocean postage.

The boundaries of the OSR market (and D&D generally, for the most part) are roughly contiguous with those of the Anglosphere. The USA takes up the majority, then there are sub-markets in Canada, the UK, Australia, some in mainland Europe like France and Germany and a bit in New Zealand. I have not seen very much from the rest of the world.

(Though presumably there is gigantic potential in India and China, especially India, so far as I know most urban Indian nerds will be multilingual in English so if there was a Lulu printing centre in India and D&D somehow took off there then that could be a biiiiiig deal).

So a big deal for OSR publishers is if you are posting your stuff across an ocean, if it’s done through lulu or RPG.NOW then they have production centres in both Europe and the US so that takes care of that problem for those areas (not for poor Australia or NZ), but if you are printing your own shit and then posting it then you need to think about the weight of the finished product. Intercontinental postal costs take a big leap at certain weight boundaries and parcel thicknesses and you will need to know what these are. If it’s going from the Old World to the US or visa versa then the value of postage can create a larger and larger effect on the cost.

(I was going to back the Contessa Swords and Wizardry but the postage was going to be as much as the thing itself and was going to be taken out of my account at an unknown time so I noped out.)

In addition, there is the effect of page thickness on the ability of that page to hold colour. I learnt this from Scrap but essentially, perceived colour is strongly affected by the depth and intensity of blacks on a page, if you can't get deep blacks then they will seem greyed-out and the intensity of colours will suffer accordingly, to get deep blacks on a page you need thick paper to absorb the ink
thicker paper costs more and increases weight, leading to all the knock-on effects of cost listed above.

there is perhaps a potential market opening for a kind of series of zines or pamphlets, with one being produced every two or three months, sent out like a subscription service, and with each series making its own large scale thing

I'm imagining something the size of Yoon-Suin broken down to chapters based on area and then subscribed to, with each pamphlet being playable on its own, so someone could get one part and play it with their friends while the creators work on the next part, then after a few months, hey, looks like a new area has opened up, we can go there now. So the whole thing could almost be a continuous-play thing, going out and being experienced like a comic book, and the relatively small size would make postage and transport easier, plus making each individual part less of a massive weight on the time and resources of the creators.

PDF/hardcopy conflict/synergy

I hate PDF's because I think they don't get read. I think they are largely dead information.


No-one else on earth agrees with this opinion. A meaningfully large part of the audience wants a PDF alongside a hardcopy, many people want to buy a PDF to 'try it out' before getting a hardcopy and another chuck of the audience only wants a PDF.

Regardless of how you feel about them, PDF's are a dominant part of the production process

This interrelates with page size as the reader that most people are using to view a PDF is smaller than A4. In most cases it can comfortably view a notebook sized page and an A5 sized page but it will often have a bit of trouble with a full-page spread at those sizes (not much direct experience of this so let me know in comments if wrong), this changes the dynamic from a physical book, which will almost always be open in the DM's hand or in the table with a double spread showing.

Navigating a PDF opens up a whole new range of ways to deal with information, no more, turn to this table on page XX, instead, you can just have a button on the page and when it says, to use this procedure, turn to this table, it can just take you right to the table.

In the same way, navigation can provide much greater ease of movement between sections and elements, even in a large book


I also said I would look at;

Dealing With Artists, Co-Workers And Editors.


Fucked if I know. I am no good at this so I have decided that I should try to interview some people who are good at it and then report back to you. So get ready for part three I guess.

Friday, 20 January 2017

How I Make an Adventure - Part 1

Due to a discussion with Kyana in the comments to the previous post, I have been lead to consider the following question

How do I write an adventure?

You might think this is a simple question since I should just be able to remember doing it.

Well, firstly my memory isn’t that good.

Secondly, I tend to accomplish things in a fugue state.

Thirdly, they are really complex things and your memory of doing them is being constantly over-written with each new version and iteration, each of which are almost a whole thing in themselves and, like a waiter forgetting a previous order, it can be quite useful to be able to dump a lot of not currently-relevant information out of your head to get the processing power back.

Fourthly, I've really only ever written one complete adventure, arguably two.

Here’s my best guess about how you do what I did, and I’m talking here about process and practice more than ideals, ‘design goals’ whatever the fuck they are and general rambling about minimalism and maximalism or whatever the fuck people are banging on about this week. This is literally, how do you do it.


1.      THE BIG IDEA

The most important and central thing about making a good adventure is to have a good idea.

I do not believe that good ideas are easy to get. Especially ones to specific purposes.

Ideas are easy to get. I could probably write down ten crappy ideas right now. Good ideas are rare, and the difference between the two is not just the level of work you put in.

I suspect there's a curve showing how much potential an idea has, even with the maximum level of work. At one end are really shitty ideas, with these, even if you change everything about it and hire all the best talent to work on it for a long time then it’s still not going to be very good. The interesting thing with a really shitty idea is that they tend not to produce giant charismatic piles of flaming disaster. You tend to end up with just mediocrity. Like the Duce Bigalow movies.

Then, in the middle are the standard 'good ideas', these are the ones you have coming out of the shower, on the toilet or whatever and you think "oh, that's a clever idea". I think of them as Writers Room ideas. If you got a bunch of reasonably intelligent, reasonably creative nerds in a room and they start spouting off ideas then you will probably get a few of these. These are ideas that can be massively enhanced or destroyed by the work done on them. They are like B+ movies, like a Robert Zemekis movie or a Max Landis movie or a Marvel movie.

Then right at the other end you get the good ones. These are the ones that if you just wrote them down badly they would still be kinda good. The City Without a Name is one of those. These are also the ideas where you know if you work on it in the right way with the right people and everything goes perfectly and, for once, all the stars align and all the coins land on their edge, you might just get the Real Deal, art with a capital A, something that punches through time, invents a genre, adds to the culture in a meaningful way.

They do not come along that often and I have never been able to predict when they will come along. They are a mystery to me.



So what is 'an idea'?

The most important thing about your idea for the adventure is that you like it. Making it will be hard and you will get depressed at multiple points and want to put it away, but if the central concept is provokes affection and desire in you then you have a much better chance of making it and of making it well.

There is a paradox, the idea should have a very strong identity and feel, but at the same time be a little formless. It should be something that you could accomplish a variety of ways.

At this point it absolutely doesn't need to be something you are able to explain to other people, or even to yourself. You can just have it there in the back of your head like a silent impulse. Wrapping it up in a neat conjunction of words at this point is not necessarily a good thing.

This is the opposite to movie-producer rules. You don't need an elevator pitch because right now, you are not trying to persuade a bureaucratic system that it's good. You don't need to explain it in terms of other things (yet), you need to let it be itself and grow and become unlike other things. You need to keep it to yourself a little.

The idea for DCO

The Research

With DCO I had already done a lot of research for Veins of the Earth and had had most of the ideas for that written out in their initial form.

I wanted to make something that would be an effective gateway to the Underworld as I conceived it. I had a head full of geology and deep time (thanks in large part to the books of Richard Fortney). If there is one basic concept behind DCO it’s that transmission of the feeling of deep time, the same one you feel when you see huge layers of strata on a cliff face and think about how deeply they reach into the past.

Whatever you are trying to make it will draw from something, even if its just everything you have ever experienced or imagined.

The Name

Deep Carbon Observatory is actually the name of a research group and I stole it. I had noticed it during my research along with the name of another group, Dark Biosphere Investigations, and noted it down.

DCO was nearly DBI, in that case it would have been a journey to a kind of collapsed abyssal zoo under the ocean.

It can be really important to have a good name. The name acts as the first hook or crinkle in the minds memory, a nodule that other impressions can accrete about. It’s a kind of symbol or rallying flag for when you are explaining the idea to others and yourself or for when you are depressed and doubting it. A cool name can breathe life into a project and idea. It’s also useful for capitalistic reasons of course, with marketing and so forth. it brands the project as being or not being a particular kind of thing in the eyes of the world.

My advice would be to make sure you have a really cool name that you love and write it at the top of your notepad or writing document. Have a file shortcut named that on your desktop.



When I started out I began everything by hand on various pads, usually either lined or square. Then once I had what I needed I took it to the computer at the end of each day, or week, and typed it in.

The great thing about this is that you can be away from a computer which you don't have to carry around with you. You also get longer to think about the euphony of your sentences and they flow through your mind in a different speed so that effects your writing style a little.

Later I started doing almost all my computer writing on Notepad – it’s really fast to open so you don't have to wait. It doesn't check my spelling or bad grammar and underline words to irritate me so I can type very fast and inaccurately without it being a problem. It has no format, fonts etc. so there are no extras to fiddle with. If they were there I would fiddle with them and waste time.

Almost everything I've ever written on my computer has started as a badly written notepad document. This is being written in notepad, the it will be re-written here, then transferred to Word to check spelling and fix stuff and make sure it makes sense, then finally the blog. I'll take a picture of it now so you know what it looks like

Now I rarely use physical paper for major segments. It just took too long to transfer everything over  I still carry physical notepads around with me just in case.



This is a part of the process quite difficult to keep track of, it takes place mainly on notepad documents that are easy to delete and transfer and on actual physical notepads.

It's also an extremely important process because it’s here that the first inklings of the shape of the adventure take place.

A main thing here is working out problems and getting chapter or section headings.

The thought process for DCO went something like this.

- I want PC's to go somewhere deep, gain access to something deep but most importantly, feel as if they are going somewhere deep. I want the space to tell them that.

- Here's this name, Deep Carbon Observatory. What would that actually be like? An underground observatory? What would that be?

- Then gradually - it would be inverted, it would see through stone, it would be deep underground but accessible (like our observatories are on hill and mountaintops).

- Mine - no. Done already.

- What about Open Cast Mine - this is an important moment, open cast mines are visually and spatially powerful and hyper-dominant spaces. They create a very deep impression. They are also something that most D&D creators won't use as they are explicitly modern and creators prefer to draw from pre-existing pseudo-medieval forms. Once the idea of it being an open cast mine was settled on, that governed a lot of the iterations from that point on.


Choose the most powerful thing EVERY TIME and THEN use reason and explanation and rationalism to make it all mutually coherent like it makes sense. Never be reasonable to start with, that is not your job.

- Ok, its like this big inverse pyramid and the observatory at the bottom. So why does no-one know where it is, why doesn't everyone know about it, why isn't it in use?

- Can't be filled in. Hidden somehow. How?

thinking thinking thinking thinking

- Hidden under a lake. River diverted and deliberately used to hide it, like a huge geo-engineering project. And that explains why no-one has gone there in ages and why its findable now. The project failed.

- Then the idea of the dam (the shape of the dam is a 20th century concrete-based technology, like the open-cast-mine of the entry, no ancient dam would ever have looked like that).

- How did no-one fuck with the dam/how did it stay up (the dam golems)

- Then the dam having broken. Then what happens in a flood?

- Stages and effects of a flood.

- Then that breaks down quite easily into different areas or zones. Then we have the idea of each area or zone being like going deeper and deeper into an alien reality, with each step closer to the observatory being like you are going further and further out of the realm of human understanding and into the realm of otherness.

- It's about this point that we reach our basic subdivisions or chapter headings.



We're back to names again. Instead of adventure names we are choosing section names but the process is similar. You want to choose a good name, but most importantly you need to know what manner of thing that section is and broadly how it relates to the whole

Here's a picture of what I ended up with in the DCO folder at the end.

You can see they aren't that good. Carrowmore is ok, the Crows is ok, the Drowned Lands is ok, The Big Dam is bad, The Profundal Zone is good (an actual measure of a particular layer of biosphere in a lake), The Observatory and the Giant are just practical.

With Maze of the Blue Medusa, well, in files the sections were first called UPPER RIGHT, CENTRE RIGHT, CENTER, LOWER LEFT etc. The project was always called MEDUSA MAZE, in caps. The sections eventually turned into LIZARDMAN ARCHIVE, GALLERY, GARDEN, ENTRY, THE DEAD WEDDING, then that odd bit in the lower mid right I forget if that had its own name, then the medusa's stuff, not sure if that had a name either but I knew what was there, then PETRIFIED CELLS. Then they got their current names through the edit.

The most important thing is that it be broken down into workable sections. In the case of DCO, and to some extent with MotBM, the sections are based on geography, i.e. they could be sections of a map, but they are also based on gathering consequences of play; you can't get to the profundal zone without going through the drowned lands, you can't reach the Medusa without going through the Almery and you are unlikely to meet her without meeting Chronia first.

Even though in most things I do I like a high degree of interconnectedness both in aesthetic, in terms of worldbuilding and imagined mutual history and in terms of mechanics and carried over effects, if I didn't break things down a LOT first I would go mad.

The only way I know how to deal with highly complex big projects is to break them into parts with a specific informational architecture.



Once I've got a rough arrangement of chapters it’s just a matter of working out what is in each thing then writing that


But yeah, a similar process is followed. Breakdowns on either paper or text docs, lots of notes, lots of sub-headings. Breaking down each section into its own sections and then working out names and content for each of them.

This is like 80% of making the thing but it only gets these few lines.

Also, the whole architecture of the adventure and the arrangement of all of its parts can and will change multiple times as new stuff is invented and put in and old stuff discarded.

The DCO flood flowchart only happened because I had this big clever idea for a kind of flood mega-image map thing with all the different encounters on it and Scrap just said no so I had to come up with a way to do the same thing with just information.

This leads directly into –



It's too big. It's unmanageable. There are too many simultaneous problems you have to think about. Your dumb ambitions have sunk the project. It will be incomprehensible anyway. It's pretentious unplayable arty shite. You can't even stand to look at it any more. There's some waste ground near your house where they won't find the body for a while. You could do it with pills.

At some point you cross the line from having it all in bits to....



I have found the Navigation View in Microsoft Word to be very useful for arranging the architecture of information, here's a picture of the navigation view of a BFR doc.

As your chapters fill up they also narrow, casting off old word docs, notepad docs, image files and prospective layouts in like a snake with leprosy shaking off its skin. Here's a list of the files for BFR as they currently stand

And here's the "Misc Development" folder for the section I'm working on now. I use this as a dumping ground for stuff that might be relevant but I don't want it staring at me.

Eventually you have all your little chapter sections as complete as you think they are going to get. you have read through them all multiple times and to you they are entirely comprehensible and eminently playable, only a fool could fail to understand them. So, you mangle them all into one huge, sequential, staggeringly slow and constantly crashing word document.

After months (possibly years) of crushing effort, multiple dark nights of the soul, fitful rushes of inspiration, moments of near genius and several bedazzled and hallucinogenic dead-ends your glorious first draft is READY.


You are now half way through the process.


That’s all for one blog post. Next post I will talk about all the stuff that comes after like publishing, formats, printing etc. As well as all the stuff that I missed out like dealing with rebellious mute beasts artists, fools who would oppose your will co-workers and parasites who dare to questions your divine genius editors. I will also try to answer any specific questions that people ask in the comments.