Sunday, 19 February 2017

The Sunday Slush Pile 19.2.17

The Sunday Slush Pile is a roundup of things I’ve listened to, read, watched, scoured the globe for, met eyes with across a crowded room or glimpsed in a darkened alleyway – those things that I think are eminently D&Dable. I’ll share this potent ideas soup with the rest of you every Sunday to give you ideas for settings, encounters and characters. 

Dune (1985)
It's some weird synthesis of acid-trip and utter kitsch, but the kaleidoscopic disaster that unfolds  is weirdly watchable. I've read Dune (1965), and was therefore in the privileged position of translating to my fellow viewers - like a time traveller to an archaeologist - the narrative behind all the spectacle. 
In terms of inspiration this is hearty stuff: David Lynch's aesthetic direction manages to combine a BDSM riff on Nostromo for the Harkonnens with Kaiser Wilhelm meets Flash Gordon for the Padishah Emperor. Its all so rich in implied meanings and bizarre power relationships and a kitchen-sink approach that it is valuable brain-food for any setting. I think the central take-home is that despite the innate silliness of sandworms and spice and space-travel the narrative is po-faced with the power-relationships and character dynamics that stem from it. Be thus in your RPG settings. 

There's also some brilliant (if melodramatic) villainy in the character of Baron Harkonnen. He combines a repulsive, vengeful, grasping body horror with sexual perversion and body horror. If your RPG villains are anything like the Baron, your players will know to hate them. 

Iron Kingdom: The Rise and Downfall of Prussia 1600-1947 by Christopher Clark. 
This is not an easy read. The tangled history of the Prussian Reich has no room for coffee table books, and almost everyone is called Frederick or William or occasionally, for novelty, Frederick-William.  It tells the story in rough chronological order of Prussia from a backwater Kingdom on the periphery of Europe to the villainy of the Nazi empire. Having loved Christopher Clark's Sleepwalkers, I'm glad he's maintained the humanising microscopic interludes to the vast and soaring epic that is a historical narrative. The cast - which includes luminaries like Frederick the Great and Bismarck alongside some fascinating twenty-page digressions on the politics of grumpy Calvinists at the University of Heidelberg - is rich in human drama interposed with the innate stiffness of the average Prussian.

From a D&D perspective, it is again rich in mind-food for villainy. Clark's descriptions of the Freikorp's hyper-masculine and deliberate cult-like fetishisation of violence is Lawful Evil as fuck. The toxic ideology that willingly embraces devotion to a state or a throne - even an empty one - over all considerations of morality would be a perfect match for an RPG villain. 
Somewhere in the Freikorps is a  Paladin of Vengeance itching to get out. This captures smart, psychopathic, amoral evil like nothing else. 

A Gladiatorial Arena where Humans fought Dinosaurs and Giants.
Creationists, eh? 

Sunday, 5 February 2017

The Sunday Slush Pile (5/2/17)

The Sunday Slush Pile is a roundup of things I’ve listened to, read, watched, scoured the globe for, met eyes with across a crowded room or glimpsed in a darkened alleyway – those things that I think are eminently D&Dable. I’ll share this potent ideas soup with the rest of you every Sunday to give you ideas for settings, encounters and characters.  This week’s theme seems to be history and myth.

TV: The Shannara Chronicles (Netflix)
As there is a dearth of quality on-screen fantasy, I gave it a go. As I feared this is lukewarm fantasy garbage featuring beautiful clean people farting about in generic Tolkienania. Despite being heralded as a Game of Thrones competitor, the characters are mainly useless whimpering Millenials who can’t decide whether they can hang out with each other long enough to save the world. Whenever something needs to happen for the plot a convenient vision from the future occurs to ensure it happens. Dreadful but weirdly watchable.

The world itself does have some interesting things to say about history and myth: it transpires that Generic Tolkeinania is actually the ruins of our civilization, and there’s scenes with nuclear waste and mutations and a cult trying to recreate human society as was using Star Trek as their model. This play on cargo cult thinking would make a great D&Dable as the players would be in on the joke the characters aren’t. I also think subways, nuclear silos and buried shopping malls would make excellent dungeon locations, and aren’t hard to find maps for. As my gameworld has extinct iterations of the Prime Material as an aspect, making one the current world and having the players explore some kind of post-nuclear-war event or see the Statue of Liberty poking out from the desert a la Planet of the Apes seems too good to miss. This peculiar anxiety around nuclear warfare would seem a little dated, but luckily Trump is giving us a nostalgic taste of a ‘Duck and Cover’ reality.

Podcast: The King of Kings (Dan Carlin's Hardcore History).
A gargantuan podcast (totalling some tens of hours), this has been my chief gym and commute listening for the last week. When I lift, I lift to the conquests of Alexander the Great or the intrigues of Persian harems – what could be more motivational? Dan Carlin is conversational and possessed of a child’s enthusiasm for his subject. With my ‘historian’ hat on, I’m always a little concerned by the age of his secondary sources but as a storyteller he is excellent.

There are tonnes of images and moments that are D&D as fuck – it’s often hard to remember this is real. Xenophon, Greek mercenary, camps among the ruins of destroyed Assyrian cities – no local can match the building or knows who made them – and they still stand sentinel to a lost empire. An imperial army with aristocrats from every corner of an Ancient Empire, each with their own eccentricity: peacock feathers, zebra-skin shields, Amazons, Scythians. The idea of statues of gods as living aspects of the gods, and the suitably mercenary way gods can therefore be kidnaped, held hostage, threatened or destroyed. Archaeologist-Kings eager to seek evidence of epic ancestors. All of this would be excellent for your campaign – I have included the god-statue thing already.

Secondly, there’s the fact that Ancient people(s) lived so violently, that their reprisals and struggles were so life-and-death, that we often forget it as modern people, and even our fantasy worlds can often have a sort of Cowboys and Indians vibe. Not here. If you want tutoring in psychopathic violence, listen to Assyria.