- Life in a Medieval City—Saturday, April 15th, 2017
Joseph and Francis Gies’s “Life in a Medieval…” series is a useful series for gamers. I’ve just finished reading Life in a Medieval City and it provides details that should inspire ideas both for characters and for creating adventures.
The Medieval City of the title is, basically, Troyes, around the year 1250, in what was then only sort of France. The king of France didn’t control the Champagne area; the Count of Champagne ruled over the Province of Champagne, and Troyes was its capital.1 Nor was it the only area not under the control of the King, and Champagne itself was potentially under several jurisdictions.
The sovereign who granted Troyes its charter was Thibaut IV, whose talent as a poet won him the dashing sobriquet of Thibaut le Chansonnier (“Songwriter”). Even before he inherited the kingdom of Navarre (after which he signed himself Thibaut, king of Navarre and Champagne), his territories were extensive, though held from seven different lords—the king of France, the emperor of Germany, the archbishops of Sens and Reims, the bishops of Paris and Lancers, and the duke of Burgundy. For administrative purposes, the complex territory of Champagne was divided into twenty-seven castellanies, each of which included several barons and a number of knights who owed military service—altogether more than two thousand. (There were also a few hundred knights in Champagne who owed military service to somebody else.)
Language was fragmented as well. The literate used Latin as a common language—sometimes. The rest did as best they could with widely variant versions of French.
Because of the class structure, knowledge was also fragmented: all those strange things we read in medieval bestiaries, such as that “weasels conceive by the ear and deliver by the mouth” were there because the people writing the encyclopedias copied from (possibly misunderstood) Roman sources, rather than consulting the “Furriers, trappers, hunters, and poachers [who] could correct much of the natural history in the encyclopedias.”
In a fantasy game, of course, scholars have a very good reason for not investigating monsters at the source: the monsters are real, and it’s dangerous to investigate them. Which could make for a lot of fun when the encyclopedias don’t match what the monsters actually do.
Troyes was the major fair town in an area known for its fairs, and the authors take us through the kind of people who take part in the fairs and how they do it. As with Life in a Medieval Castle, they cover not only how the fairs grew, but also how they faded.
- Can I legally use Gary Gygax’s name for my son?—Saturday, April 1st, 2017
My wife and I are going to have a son in May, and since we met while playing Dungeons and Dragons, we’d like to name him Gary. Is that legal? Can we do this?
First, congratulations on the successful character creation process. It can take a long time, but it’s also a lot of fun and very rewarding.
The short version is that names like Gary and Dave appear to be available for use, but tread carefully. This is a very gray area. Before you name your child anything, you should talk to a lawyer. And I don’t mean a rules lawyer!
The name “Gary” may be so common that it’s difficult to defend, but you could always use a similar name, such as Garry. The extra ‘r’ makes it look archaic, and a lot of people would get the wink-wink-nudge-nudge true source of the name. Even though the name is nearly identical, Hasbro might consider it small enough that it isn’t worth acting on the infringement. The usual advice I give, however, is that if you’re not certain, avoid the issue. Some other common name ought to be in the clear1, but copying D&D’s creator, while a very light shade of gray, means you’ll be dealing with Hasbro lawyers.
It’s always in your best interest to avoid encounters with the dreaded 12 HD Lawyer Dragon!
Short of talking to a lawyer (which is always a good idea when worrying about legal issues such as naming your child) it might be helpful to look at what other people have done. Paul Francis Gladd named himself Gary around the same time that Gary Gygax wrote Dungeons and Dragons with Dave Arneson. But he suffered legally from 1997 on. A city in Indiana capitalized on its nearness to D&D’s Gencon conference by naming itself “Gary”, but the city’s population has dropped precipitously since Dungeons & Dragons’ popularity rose. After several lawsuits, they’ve nearly gone broke.
Gary Gilmore ended up going to court and was shot by a firing squad just three years after D&D was published. The punishments courts can levy for copyright infringement are often severe, and I’m sure you’d agree you don’t want to inflict them on your son.
Your safest course of action would be to choose a completely different name, but if your heart is set on honoring the D&D founder, you might try a homonym such as Gharee, Garrie, or Gayri. Bearing a unique name will also give doughty young Gayri the respect of his classmates when he reaches school age.
- North Texas RPG Con Event: House on Crane Hill—Tuesday, March 21st, 2017
If you can make it to the North Texas RPG Convention on Saturday, June 3, I’ll be running a game of Gods & Monsters. The event is “House on Crane Hill”. As I write this, there are three earlybird tickets available, and there will be four free tickets available on April 15 at midnight.
Assuming you have an account on the NTRPGC sign-up site and are logged in, here’s the event page.
The adventure will use pre-gens at first level. Bring dice, pencils, and your Barrett’s Electromagnetic Field Generator.
Crane House is an idea I’ve been working on for quite a while now. Tell me if you’ve heard this story: a hand-selected research group is chosen to spend a week investigating an abandoned house known for its supernatural activities. But this is no ordinary haunting.
No living organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream. Hill House, not sane, stood by itself against its hills, holding darkness within; it had stood so for eighty years and might stand for eighty more. Within, walls continued upright, bricks met neatly, floors were firm, and doors were sensibly shut; silence lay steadily against the wood and stone of Hill House, and whatever walked there, walked alone.
Thus Shirley Jackson began The Haunting of Hill House. Many movies and books about malleable haunted houses and malleable realities have inspired this adventure. The first such story I read was in issues 34 to 37 of Werewolf by Night in Marcosa House (available in Essential Werewolf by Night, volume 2). Doug Moench’s Marcosa House was heavily influenced by Richard Matheson’s Hell House (and the movie, The Legend of Hell House). Matheson, along with half the works listed here, was inspired by The Haunting of Hill House (which became the 1963 Robert Wise film, The Haunting).
- The First Language—Saturday, February 11th, 2017
There is a very interesting article in the latest Biblical Archaeology Review about the evolution of the Hebrew language and its treatment as a holy language. On its most general level, How Hebrew Became a Holy Language by Jan Joosten is a nice summary of how languages evolve, which can be very useful if your adventurers delve into ancient ruins with ancient inscriptions, or, Tarzan-like, meet up with ancient lost civilizations.
Subtle changes in the meaning of words and subtle changes in the use of grammatical constructions altered [Hebrew’s] nature… A phenomenon that illustrates this evolution can be found when words with a general meaning came to be used exclusively to designate specific religious items or concepts. For example, take the Hebrew word torah. In most of the Biblical books, torah simply means “teaching,” or “direction.” In the late books of the Bible, however, torah takes on a different meaning. It now refers to the book in which Jewish law is written down.
This is an obvious way of laying down red herrings or wild goose chases for the player characters to follow. Interestingly, a similar process happened to the word “bible”. The term (as biblia) originally meant any collection of scrolls and later books; the term biblia sacra meant “holy books” and was brought into French as just “Bible” from whence it was brought to English. But nowadays, “bible” can also mean any authoritative work. That might be an interesting evolution for any sacred object in your game. A non-player character tradesman might well describe an extremely-well-made tool as the excalibur of their profession.
Hebrew also, of course, borrowed words during their many tribulations:
The Book of Ezekiel contains dozens of loanwords from Babylonian; Exilic and post-Exilic books of the Bible evidence a high proportion of Aramaic loanwords. The latest Biblical books attest around 20 words borrowed from Persian.
One of the ways that words get borrowed is through similarity, changing the meaning of existing words in the language (Hebrew, in this case) due to a similarity with words of nearby cultures:
- Nothing will be restrained from them, which they imagine to do—Saturday, December 24th, 2016
A while back, Erik Bader wrote on Google+:
I finally dug out my beat up old 1st ed PHB for a decades-later reread and I was surprised to realize most of the rules to actually play the game aren’t in there! You can’t really roll up a character (the instructions it says are in the DMG) and you can’t hit a monster (again, in the DMG).
Now, the DMG didn't come out for what… a year or more later, correct? What the heck did players in 1978 do with this book in the meantime?
As I recall, the only piece of information really necessary from the DMG for creating characters was how to roll stats, and I expect players in 1978 just continued to roll stats however they rolled them before, probably without evening noticing it was missing. I know I had trouble separating “what we did” with “what the rules were” back then whenever playing in a new game group.
I came a little after 1978, but had a limited budget. So our group used Holmes (our DM, who introduced us to the game, already had it) and the PHB1, and never noticed anything odd with that. At the time, we were overcome by a spirit of discovery and creation. It was all about “what can we do next”, not “what's holding us back.” We barely if at all noticed anything holding us back.
It wasn’t just us in our little gaming subculture that people felt that way; it was in many ways a spirit of the times. Many of my friends were out in their garages forcing their cars to do things the manufacturers never intended them to do. In Ham Radio and CB Radio no rig was complete without some customization to take it up to 11.
And, closer to home, it was very much a programmer’s perspective, and of course many of us were also amateur programmers at the time, on a TRS-80 Model I, Apple ][, Atari 400, Commodore 64, TI99/4 or so on. Those computers really couldn’t do much, but that’s not the way we looked at them. We were always on the lookout for what more can we do? It’s absolutely amazing the kind of video game clones we got on those old computers. The TRS-80 Model I was black and white, with 128x48 “pixels”—that’s like playing a game on a four-tenths-inch by one-tench-inch square of my current mobile phone—and yet we managed to have fun playing Pac-Man clones, Armored Patrol clones, Space Invaders, and much more.
The text adventure craze came about because it provided great game play beyond the limits of the actual hardware of the time. If the computer’s graphics didn’t match what our brains expected, we would harness our brains to create what graphics we wanted.
Which is, of course, a lot like tabletop roleplaying.
- North Texas RPG Con 2016—Saturday, November 26th, 2016
Last June, I attended the North Texas RPG Con. This was my first gaming convention since Forge Midwest a couple of years ago. Like Forge Midwest, this is a gaming convention where all you do is game—and, of course, chat with people about gaming in between gaming.
I signed up ahead of time for five games, although I ended up having to cancel the first one due to my mis-entering the dates in my calendar. I ended up playing Villains and Vigilantes, D&D, Empire of the Petal Throne, and BX.
The Villains and Vigilantes game was under the new, third-edition rules, run by Jeff Dee. The rules seemed very similar to the old rules, except that the attack vs. defense table has been removed and replaced with a simpler d20 roll against a standard target number. And, while it didn’t affect us at the table, there is some sort of a point-based character-creation system.
The pre-gens were pure seventies superhero team, a bunch of mostly-unrelated heroes banding together to have a grand time. Running away with the MVP award, if we’d had one, would be The Schnozz, a Jimmy Durante type with a floppy hat and a big nose with precognitive smell.
“The future,” he said, “smells strange.”
Many of the old V&V standbys showed up, from CHESS to Intercrime, the latter not surprising since this appears to be the adventure Intercrime: Hostile Takeover.
- Vincent Price in House on Haunted Hill—Saturday, August 27th, 2016
House on Haunted Hill, with Vincent Price, certainly looks like it was inspired by The Haunting of Hill House. No psychologists, but still, a group of talented and varied people invited to an old house along with the current owner who thinks it is a bad idea. The characters are accompanied by the owner, but, as in Hill House, are invited by a third party who is paying them to be there. In this case by Vincent Price’s millionaire, who promises them $10,000 each if they stay the night. As in Hill House, the doors are locked when the servants leave. And there’s the impressionable young woman lost in the maze of a house that seems to want to swallow her up. There are more similarities, but there are also important differences which would be spoilers.
And of course the title consists of the same three basic words.
Yet they appear to be completely unrelated. Shirley Jackson’s The Haunting of Hill House novel was published in 1959. The House on Haunted Hill movie was released on February 17, 1959. William Castle is known for the speed of his productions, but it seems very likely that the movie was written first. Unfortunately, I don’t know how to find full release dates, other than year, for novels, but to write the entire novel and have it go through the full publication process and still come out in 1959 makes it unlikely that Jackson was influenced by William Castle and Robb White’s script. The script does not appear to have been based on any previous work that Jackson could have been inspired by.
It still, however, seems extremely unlikely to me that these stories are not related in some way. The stories and title have too many similarities. While they are in no way copies of each other, if one was not inspired by the other, there must have been some other inspiration to both of them.
Provenance aside, House on Haunted Hill is very good. Vincent Price is in top form, and his conversations with his wife are in the old-school Hollywood tradition of sharp banter. It’s as much or more a mystery as it is a haunted house story, though I can’t say any more without spoiling some of it. It is definitely worth seeing.
- The hauntings continue—Saturday, August 13th, 2016
The Haunting, with Liam Neeson, Catherine Zeta-Jones, Owen Wilson, and Lili Taylor, is a pretty good retelling of The Haunting of Hill House, with permission. It’s a decent, though heavily flawed, psychological thriller until the over-the-top CGI at the end.
The high point of the film is the decent—and I mean that sincerely—acting by all involved. The film’s greatest lack is that Liam Neeson is woefully underused. His character, despite being the lynchpin of the plot, doesn’t actually do much. It looks as though there was supposed to be tension about whether he was causing all or some of the hauntings but if so it was negated by perspectiveless scenes in which we see that the haunting is real. This also removes the other tension, which was the possibility that Eleanor is going crazy and hallucinating everything. If it’s happening when she isn’t present, then she’s not.
A lot of the tension was squandered by keeping things from the viewer that the characters knew (or thought they knew). We have no idea, for example, that Liam Neeson’s character might have invited Eleanor specifically until we find out that he didn’t.
We are never told why he has chosen the house or how he gained access to it. In the book, one of the heirs to the house accompanies them; his character is dropped from this version, but there’s a sort of completely wasted twist that plays on it.
For the new movie, they exchanged the old paranormal research subplot for fear research, but that makes these people nothing special. In the book, the psychic potential of the subjects awakens the house; in this version the house, presumably, is always awake. Except that it isn’t: as in any good horror movie, the house wakes up slowly, perhaps fed by blood. Or perhaps not, because by the end of the movie it seems that the house has been awake all along, and able to affect happenings far, far away.