18 September 2020

Weresharks and other beasts

I came across an interesting confluence of posts today, surrounding the theme of werebeasts, or more specifically, weresharks (or werefish).

The first post was an interview with Chris Holmes, son of Dr J Eric Holmes, one of the editors of an early edition of Dungeons & Dragons. This led me to a post about the weresharks” which Dr Holmes had included in a number of his works.

An illustration of the Holmes wereshark by his son, from Alarums & Excursions. Courtesy of Grognardia.

Chris Holmes describes his father’s weresharks as follows:

Weresharks were Dad’s creation. They were based on Hawaiian folklore. The Polynesian shark man retains a shark mouth on his chest in the myth, which is not a detail my Dad kept. His monsters had arms and legs that allowed them to crawl upon the land and grab in addition to biting. He also gave them the immunity to conventional weapons.

I do not doubt Dr Holmes’s creativity, but I (rather serendipitously) found that weresharks had something of a historical precedent. Apparently, man-fish hybrids — using that word broadly — have emerged from the imagination of human beings before.

That brings me to the book Der Naturen Bloeme (ca. 1350), thanks to The Public Domain Review (which I highly recommend). As the Review describes:

Nowadays, when we seek a holistic picture of our world, many of us might look to the internet. It’s debatable whether this crowd-sourced glut of information provides us a more extensive or more accurate version of things than the encyclopedias and natural histories of old provided their readers. A great deal, after all, depends on the interpreter. But one thing is clear: everyone, no matter when or where they have lived on this earth, has always loved drawing and looking at pictures of animals.

The wonderful illuminated manuscript featured here, produced in Utrecht or Flanders sometime in the mid-fourteenth-century, contains quite a number of memorably rendered creatures, some real and some imaginary, and would have acted, in its day, like a kind of Wikipedia of the natural world. There is an elephant with a funnel-like trunk in a landscape of mushroomesque trees. There are several bipedal, winged, or horned fish. And a rather mean looking oyster. Indeed, a compendium of cute animals this is not — most of the beasts are found sporting the same grisly grin, though often to the point of comedy (and one might argue, cuteness).

All of the images are worth your time perusing, but a particular fascinating set of illustrations show fishes with human limbs and features.

While some use the term lycanthropes” broadly, I think that strictly speaking that term is reserved for werewolves” of some kind. I appreciate the fact that Roman writers, in describing werewolves, used the term versipellis, literally turnskin”. I’m minded to use that term from now on.

Also interesting to me are those fishes with other animal features as well. I’ve been thinking a little about the myth of the Merlion in Singapore (which, I think, has become too domesticated). That these combinations of animals and fishes find traction elsewhere is something to ponder further.

RPG Games History Mythology Stories Faerie Stories
29 August 2020

Imagining for Better or for Worse

The imagination should be a mirror, not a psychedelic portal, transcending reality without renouncing the transcendentals (Sean Fitzpatrick, Flying Elephants and the Margins of Imagination”)

There are (at least) two ways in which imagination (or an imaginary world) can relate to the real world.

The one is distracting and ultimately destructive — here, the imagination creates a dome around you which shields you from the reality which is. The world that you may project onto that dome may be beautiful in its own right, but it blocks out the sight of the stars and the sun and the sky.

The other is nurturing and responsive — here, imagination takes what is and works with it in a resonant fashion, like harmony to a melody, bringing out points of beauty in the real world that would not otherwise have been seen.

John Senior once remarked that a flying horse is a good use of imagination, while Dumbo, a flying elephant, is an abomination of the imagination.” It may be difficult to draw the line between the two, but these are two modes of imagining that should lead us to caution. Are we telling stories that turn us away from reality, or are we weaving tales that enhance our being in the world?

Creativity Imagination Storytelling Imago Dei
28 August 2020

River patterns of the Columbia River, Western Washington and Western Oregon, and its tributaries. Sunset Avenue Productions / Getty Images. Image and caption courtesy of ThoughtCo.
Inspiration Riverkeepers
28 August 2020 Uureg Nuur images inspiration
28 August 2020

Riverkeepers

Riverkeepers they once were, Riverlords they began to call themselves, forgetting that they kept, not dominated, tended, not owned.

I chanced upon this podcast episode, The Riverkeeper”, this morning on the newsletter, Read in Case of Emergency. That word, Riverkeeper”, gripped my imagination. The work done by such a real-life riverkeeper is, clearly, very important and makes for a fascinating read, but what I was intrigued by was the possibility of something more.

The thought of a Riverkeeper, or group of Riverkeepers, being a sort of office or title held by protectors of rivers started to mix with what I had been considering about the Lord Warden of the Marches. One could imagine, perhaps, a drainage basin which was sufficiently secluded but which held a sizeable population centred on the river delta that led to the sea. That peoples, let’s call them, the Anduin, rely heavily on the health of the river that feeds the river delta and runs into the sea. There are many species of fish that live near the river delta and thrive there, and most of their agriculture is found in the river delta.

Yet, say there is (and always has been) a threat to the rivers. A dark force, the Still (or perhaps, the Sludge? but that is maybe too blunt), constantly encroaches upon the rivers. The Anduin say that the river, which grants life, was a work of an ancient angel, whose work the Still hated, for he had been spurned. Ever bitter, he sought to destroy all that the angel had created, and waged war against the rivers day and night. All forms of creatures and all manner of evils he devised, and the Anduin were forced to form means of protected each tributary from the encroachment of the Still. So the Riverkeepers arose, first organically when certain strong men and women were told to brave the upstream and to protect the headwaters, and then, over the years, becoming an office.

In the years that have passed, these offices have fallen into decay. The nobility of the Riverkeepers has degenerated into the proud but petty squabblings of minor lords. From stewards, they became haughty, and began taxing the downstream folk. They deemed themselves Riverlords, rulers of the river, but also begin to fight amongst themselves for power. But downstream, matters also had become worse. Complacency and forgetfulness over many generations have resulted in a leadership in the delta that forgot the contribution of the Riverkeepers to their well-being. The taxation of the upstream (the tributes that they had to pay for the tributaries) was almost unbearable.

The ties that bound upstream and downstream for hundreds of years begin to decay. New voices begin to clamour with all sorts of possibilities. And all this while, the Still bides its time and hovers, waiting to strike.

Riverkeepers Fiction
20 August 2020

Migrating from Dropbox

I’ve moved my cloud storage from Dropbox to OneDrive, largely because I am already paying for the Microsoft 365 Family Plan. It didn’t make any sense to have a paid Dropbox account alongside that. The migration went much smoother than expected, and it was a good chance to do some spring cleaning.

After migrating, I noticed that the fan on my laptop was spinning up even though I wasn’t doing anything. A quick peek at the Activity Monitor and what do I see? Dropbox happily using 98% of the CPU doing… well, nothing that I could perceive.

I was keeping Dropbox on my laptop just for Blot, but then remembered that Blot had Git support too! So, I quickly transferred to Git, and am going to try to to use this from now on. It just makes sense, and I do hope it works.

My sincerest apologies to anyone if your RSS feed happens to be spammed by old posts being re-posted here.

Housekeeping
11 August 2020

Blogspot Blogging

Grognardia: a mainstay of the OSR blogging scene. Last post 11 December 2012.

I’m on a bit of a blog-reading spree at the moment, gathering more information on the Old School Renaissance” in RPGs.

One fascinating thing I’ve noticed is that many defunct blogs on Blogspot are still online. This has allowed me to browse posts from years ago, even though the the blogs themselves have become inactive since then.

It struck me that this was only possible because those blogs were not self-hosted. If they were, once the blog became inactive, the temptation to stop paying for the hosting could kick in. How many of these old blogs would be still online if their owners had to pay a monthly fee to keep them up? Probably none! Of course, there are ways around this, but it may be one of the great side-effects of the Blogspot era that these old blogs continue to pepper the landscape, like long-abandoned towns with everything left intact, allowing wanderers like me to stumble into them.

Blogging OSR
4 August 2020

Microscope Actual Play: A Watery Grave”, Part 2

This is a continuation of the previous post documenting our play of Microscope. You can find Part 1 here. To recap, the big picture of this history was that humans leave the land and build a civilisation underwater. It opens with the Atlanteans expanding from underwater to the land, and ends with humanity becoming extinct underwater.

Photo by Matt Hardy on Unsplash

The Second Focus: Star-Crossed Romances

This was Ys turn as the Lens, and he proposed the second Focus to be on star-crossed romances. This played very nicely into the existing dualities in the history, and opened the way for more dualities to be introduced. It also fit in nicely with one of the Yes” items in the palette, Romance”, which was definitely A’s cup of tea.

On reflection, this Focus opened up a lot more possibilities for the types of history and stories that would emerge in this world. Rather than being too focused on big conflicts and ideas, this Focus allowed the history to be sliced” a different way, providing a cross-section of the world that revealed more about the people in them.

Event: Land-Dwelling Atlantean Leader Seeks Independence from Atlantic Throne

Y introduced a new event within the period when the Atlanteans expanded onto land and began to take over. As they developed on the land, the land-dwelling Atlanteans began to suspect that they would do better without submitting to a distant throne, far away geographically but also, increasingly so, culturally. As a result, the leader of the land-dwelling Atlanteans, Muffy, seeks independence from the Atlantic throne.

It bears noting that a very hard part about these kinds of games, including more usual role-playing games, is coming up with good names for characters. More often than not, a big stumbling block is coming up with suitable names. I would recommend having a random name generator or some other list of names that can be used at the drop of a hat to help move things along. As you will no doubt see, some of our names were randomly plucked out of thin air.

Scene: Muffy’s Daughter Meets with the Son of the Atlantean King

Within that newly-declared event, Y then proposed a scene to answer the question, What would the daughter of Muffy and the son of the Atlantean King do about their romance given the political situation?” Muffy’s daughter was named Fiona, and the son of the Atlantean King was named Shrek.

The following characters were identified:

  1. Shrek
  2. Muffy

and the remaining two players took on the roles of the advisers to Shrek and Muffy.

The scene was played out in a cavern near to the coast, a clandestine meeting for two lovers on either side of the divide. Fiona wanted Shrek to declare his love for her and to remain with her, but Shrek was growing into his own as the son of a king. He knew that his father would only approve of their love if she would renounce her father. Fiona was distraught that Shrek would force her to choose, but Shrek was insistent. Fiona’s adviser, her old nurse, told her to follow her heart, torn between her duty to Muffy (to whom she had promised that she would report the outcome of the meeting) and her love for Fiona. Shrek’s adviser was more cunning, knowing the realpolitik that drove the Atlantean King. Shrek did not budge, and Fiona declared the relationship broken.

End scene.

Event: Scientist Falls in Love with Atlantean Specimen

YH went next and moved us into a later period, when human beings discovered and developed the technology that would enable them to expand underwater. Some part of that discovery (or perhaps, in some sense, rediscovery) had been made possible by the capture of a live Atlantean that scientists could observe. He was imprisoned in one of the laboratories maintained for aquatic research. A researcher in that lab, however, began to feel sorry for the imprisoned Atlantean. Slowly, but surely, her feelings grew deeper and deeper, as the Atlantean began sharing more of himself and the civilisation that he was a part of.

We never figured out what happened to these two, whether their love triumphed or whether the illicit romance was uncovered and swiftly cut off. One more romance lost to the history books, perhaps.

Scene: An Anti-GenMod Tries to Free Her Pro-GenMod Boyfriend

A moved the game forward in time again to the period of conflict between the Anti-GenMod and Pro-GenMod factions. This was during the time of the Aquarium, where the Anti-GenMods had built a dome to surround the Pro-GenMods’ primary laboratory, and had moved most of the Pro-GenMods into that reservation.

Luke was a pro-GenMod youth stuck inside the dome, who had a lover, Lystra, on the outside. They were separated when the Anti-GenMods forced Luke to live in the Aquarium. A wanted to know how they got out of the Dome.

I played Lystra, while A played Luke. YH was Daniel, secretly in love with Lystra, who was also a member of the army and had brought equipment to cut through the weaker parts of the dome. Y was Luke’s friend, Nemo, but secretly a spy for the Anti-GenMods. He was genetically modified, but by birth, and hated what he considered a mutation and an aberration.

The scene opened with Lystra and Daniel digging a tunnel through the stone and the dome to make an opening. Luke managed to find them, but just as he was about to leave, Nemo drew a weapon and pointed it at Lystra, thinking that Luke’s love for her would prevent him from leaving. Little did he know that Luke was just using Lystra, and, without batting an eyelid, he fled through the tunnel, swimming away with his tail. Nemo tried to fire at Luke, and aimed at the ceiling of the tunnel, but one misplaced shot struck a structural weakness in the tunnel. With a rumble and a gut-wrenching crash, the tunnel collapsed upon them all, killing them. But the collapsed tunnel also resulted in a massive hole opened in the side of the dome. Thus ended the Aquarium and the brief period of separation.

End scene.

Event: A Love Fulfilled?

Knowing that the romance between Shrek and Fiona was short-lived and unconsummated, I looked forward in history and zoomed in on the period when the human beings had waged a war against the Atlanteans, leaving it questionable whether any Atlanteans had survived. I observed that the Atlantean royal lineage was very well-preserved, and that a direct descendant of Shrek was a member of the royal family and still alive after the war. In the aftermath of the war, a descendant of Fiona, now a human being after the years of separation of the two groups, found this descendant of Shrek. They fell in love, fulfilling the love that came before them all those years ago.

Legacy

As I was sitting to the right of the Lens, I observed that a theme that had emerged with particular force with the focus on star-crossed lovers was separation between civilisations, races, and people. To bring this out a bit further, I proposed a period, after the Atlanteans had expanded into the land, where a strict separation arose between the land-dwelling and water-dwelling Atlanteans. While this sundered the unity of the people, it also provided the basis for a growth that may not have been possible otherwise.

Conclusion

Thus ended our two rounds of play of Microscope in this watery world. All of us had a really good experience playing this for the first time. I had a number of takeaways from this session, primary among which were:

  1. Microscope was much less a traditional game and more like improv, where people had to learn to say Yes” and play with whatever elements came up (thanks to A for this insight).
  2. Some tools that would be helpful are things like random name generators that could ease the process of improvising scenes and events.
  3. A variety of focuses, from abstract to concrete, impersonal to personal, gave a lot more texture to the history than would otherwise have been possible.
  4. Some direction may be needed for the roleplaying segments in the Scenes depending on the group. Although this is a GM-less game, some prompter may be useful in certain group settings.

I look forward to playing the next session of Microscope one day. As Matt Colville once suggested, perhaps it could be used to develop the history of a civilisation that forms the background of a West Marches campaign. I’d like to get a group of DMs together to build a world through Microscope and see how that goes.

Microscope Actual Play Record A Watery Grave
3 August 2020

Workaround for OCR on PDF with Renderable Text (with Bookmarks)

One of the frustrating things about working with Adobe Acrobat is trying to OCR a PDF with renderable text. If you try running OCR on the PDF, it will stop at each instance of renderable text on a page and not go any further. This is often a problem for me because the documents I deal with tend to be scanned documents, with page numbers inserted in the PDF as renderable text.

The usual workaround is to export all the pages of the PDF as TIFF images, then to re-create the PDF and then to run OCR.

However, today, I encountered this issue with the added headache of trying to keep the existing bookmarks that I had added to the original PDF. The workaround I found on the Adobe forums (here) works, and I am recorded this here so I do not have to scavenge for the same instructions every time!

  1. Export the PDF to TIFFs, and merge them into a new PDF.
  2. Save this new PDF as a separate document.
  3. Run OCR on this new PDF and save the new PDF again.
  4. Go back to the original PDF.
  5. Use Replace Pages…” and select the new, OCR’d PDF.
  6. Specify the full range of page numbers (1 to the end).
  7. Replace the pages. The PDF should now have all the bookmarks and also have been OCR’d.
Workarounds Productivity
2 August 2020

Microscope Actual Play: A Watery Grave”, Part 1

2 August 2020, 4 players, ~2 hours of playtime

Players: Y, YH, A, and myself

This was the first time that I, or anyone else at the table, had played Microscope. Most of the players had some experience with RPGs before, but this was a completely new structure and type of game for all of us. This is a record of our play, with comments in italics throughout. The chronology follows the actual sequence of play, followed by a summary of the history.

Big Picture

Humans leave the land and build a civilisation underwater.

Palette

Yes No
Romance Space travel
Human-fish hybrids Magic (all things had to have some technological basis)
Conflict between land-dwellers and water-dwellers Other humanoid or sentient beings
Genetically-modified aquatic creatures

Focuses

  1. First round: Genetic modification
  2. Second round: Star-crossed lovers

The bookends

The history that we wished to tell opened with the first period, where a race known as the Atlanteans lived underwater, and emerged from the water to form the first landed civilisation.

The details of the early Atlantean underwater civilisation were never fleshed out in this history, but there are inklings that it was an advanced civilisation with technology that the humans (descendants of the Atlanteans who lived on the land) would discover for their own benefit in later periods.

From the beginning we also knew that the expansion of the humans underwater would ultimately be the end of the human civilisation — the ruins of the underwater constructs would become empty and uninhabited, becoming nothing more than husks for new life to emerge.

The first pass

The following periods were added in the following sequence:

  1. Atlanteans rapidly colonise and take over the land
  2. Humans discover and develop technology to go underwater
  3. A conflict emerges between pro-genetic modification (pro-GenMods) and anti-genetic modification (anti-GenMod) camps
  4. Humans war against the Atlanteans, and it is unclear if any Atlanteans survive.

The First Focus: Genetic Modification

As recommended by Ben Robbins, since I was introducing the game, I took my turn as the first lens.

Event: Mediation between the Pro-GenMods and the Anti-GenMods falls apart

Within the period of conflict emerging between the pro-GenMods and the anti-GenMods, I declared an event where the United Nations attempted a mediation between the leaders of the former and the latter in the hopes of achieving some form of cooperation. However, the mediation would fall apart.

Scene: What led to the irreconcilable conflict between the Pro-GenMods and the Anti-GenMods?

Within that event, I then proposed a scene, where we would try to answer the question, What was it that caused an impassable rift between the pro-GenMods and the anti-GenMods?”

The following characters were identified as necessary to the scene:

  1. The leader of the Pro-GenMods
  2. The leader of the Anti-GenMods
  3. The Secretary-General of the UN

As we had four players, that left the last role to the imagination of that player. The player in question, Y, decided to play an associate of the leader of the Pro-GenMods who was actually secretly an Atlantean, who wanted to maintain the purity of the aquatic creatures against the encroachments of the Pro-GenMods and their experiments in genetic modification of humans.

The scene began in the United Nations headquarters, as the Secretary-General called an informal meeting over a coffee between the leaders of the two sides. I introduced myself as the leader of the Pro-GenMods, Felix.

Another player, YH, ask to clarify whether we were sitting in the water, or whether we were in an air pocket or structure of some kind. Since I had not specified this, we had a quick discussion and decided that we would be having this meeting in the water, while surrounded by a see-through membrane that kept the outside” (including various aquatic creatures and vehicles) separate from the inside”. As a result, of this agreement, we had to resolve the issue of how we were breathing — YH, playing the anti-GenMod leader (“Mr Lee”), was in a helmet and suit of some kind, whereas Fleix, as the pro-GenMod leader, was in fact genetically modified to be able to breathe in the water.

This was a wonderful contribution to the game as (1) it was extremely concrete, (2) immediately required various solutions to the technical problems it presented, and (3) naturally progressed the plot and the division between the pro- and anti- GenMods.

We then entered a discussion between the leaders of the two factions and the Secretary-General, each side making their case for the value or evils of genetic modification of human beings. The Secretary-General, played by A in this scene (who described the Secretary-General as a 48-year-old and stylish lady), sought to balance both sides, proposing that the pro-GenMods and anti-GenMods be separated. This was displeasing to Felix, who then tried to persuade the Secretary-General to undertake the modifications herself, emphasising that these were entirely voluntary. Mr Lee countered violently that the children of the GenMods were never given a choice in the matter.

As the discussion continued, Y began discussing with YH how their two characters (whose interests were aligned, at least for that time) could work together. YH proposed that Mr Lee would leave the room, and at that point, it was suggested that the Atlanteans might attempt an attack on the UN headquarters. That neatly wrapped the scene up. Y described the Atlanteans spotted advancing against the headquarters, while Mr Lee was conveniently absent, giving rise to a great deal of speculation (among the public) about the connections between the Atlanteans and the anti-GenMods.

As the Atlanteans advanced, I described how a half-human, half-octopus hybrid who was waiting in the wings came through and grabbed Felix to bring him to safety. This was the first time that anyone had seen such a GenMod — it had been understood until then that the GenMods had only been working on making human beings able to breathe underwater.

The speculations surrounding the origins of the Atlantean attack and the revelation of the extreme lengths to which the GenMods had gone rendered any form of compromise unacceptable. Thus ended any hopes at stability and the conflict between the two sides heightened.

End scene.

Event: The Atlanteans and Anti-GenMods attack Felix’s Lab

Y followed up on the Atlantean efforts against the Pro-GenMods and proposed the following event: flush with their victory at the United Nations headquarters, the Atlanteans ally with the Anti-GenMods in launching an attack on Felix’s lab. However, Felix manages to hold them off and prevents them from destroying the work that the pro-GenMods had done.

Event: The Pro-GenMods are domed off” in the Aquarium”

After that failure, and seeing that the destruction of the Pro-GenMod technology might be beyond them, the Atlanteans and anti-GenMods dome off a large area which included Felix’s lab. When that area is established, they force all genetically modified humans to live in there, an area that comes to be known as the Aquarium”.

Event: Scientific discovery polarises opinion on genetic modification

A took a step earlier in time and proposed an event in the period when human beings were discovering the technology that would enable them to live underwater. In that period, a cloning experiment leads to the result of a genetically modified human child who had certain characteristics of fish. Colloquially dubbed the Dory” experiment (after the Dolly” sheep experiment in our reality), this polarised public opinion on the lawfulness, ethics, and morality of the genetic modifications that were now within mankind’s reach.

Legacy

The Legacy” part of play was a bit harder to explain than others (and I’m not sure if I understood fully, or explained correctly, the purpose behind the Legacy”).

A, being the player to my right, summarised a legacy from this round as follows: the pro-GenMod faction gains popular sympathy. She dictated a scene which sought to answer, How did the people react to the attack on the UN headquarters?” We zoomed in on a bar where a bunch of people were watching the attack unfold on TV. We heard the murmuring in the crowd against the Atlanteans and anti-GenMods, realising that they may overreached in the attack and the sly alliance that they had struck.

So ended the first Focus on genetic modification”. I will continue with an account of the next Focus in my next post.

To be continued…

Microscope Actual Play Record A Watery Grave