Friday, August 10, 2018

Two Neighborhoods in Umberwell

Jack Shear from Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque is writing a book for his Umberwell campaign setting, which will likely be similar to his Krevborna book. I've played in Jack's Umberwell campaign, and recently, I had the opportunity to preview a random neighborhood generator he's written for it.
    
So here are two random Umberwell neighborhoods, built using the generator, and my idea for the seed of an adventure you could have there.
    
    
Neighborhood purpose: artist's quarter
Neighborhood aesthetic: maze-like
Noteworthy neighborhood feature: monument

    
1 - The Cubist's Quartet: 
Filled with art students all slowly driving themselves mad, streets are so sharp-angled they're nearly non-Euclidean, uncanny resemblance between local streetmap/architecture and the output of the local artists, here cubism is realism, dozens gather daily to sketch beside the quarter's most famous statue - the 20' tall "Portrait of the Artist Descending the Stairs".
    
Why would you adventure here? The streets aren't just maze-like, they are a maze. And the purpose of this maze is to hide from the world a single house and the unwilling occupant kept prisoner there. A recent gallery opening provides three clues - the same artist has a painting of the house, a portrait of the prisoner, and an abstract rendering of half the maze. A patron in the position to recognize what the paintings show has hired you to obtain the artist's sketchbooks and to navigate the maze, find the house, and visit the prisoner, to kill, free, or relocate them.
    
       
Neighborhood purpose: landfill
Neighborhood aesthetic: floral decoration
Noteworthy neighborhood feature: rooftop farms
    
2 - Rose Hill Reclamation:
(This was a really tough one!) Once a botanical garden, then rezoned as a dump after being flooded with sewage, specializes in chamberpots and other broken crockery, the red clay tiles on the original surrounding wall were all stamped with a rose motif before being fired, the ground is like gravel made of shattered pottery, the roofs of the original exhibition buildings now grow wild with feral Queen's Roses possessed of animal intellect.
     
Why would you adventure here? A mysterious group calling themselves "the Reclaimers" have taken credit for a half dozen assassinations, all using Queen's Roses as the murder weapon. The dump seems like an obvious place to start looking for them, but no one seems to be present on-site during the day. Climb the red tile wall at night though, and you'll see a handful of campfires arrayed in a loose circle. Investigate the center of the circle during the day, and you'll find what you were unlikely to notice before, that someone is excavating the dump, peeling away layers of soil and pottery with the thoroughness of an archaeologist. They're obviously looking for something specific.
    
    
The aesthetic seems to be more important in my first adventure seed, but it might inform what the Reclaimers are looking for in the second. I hope I caught the feel of Umberwell in both neighborhoods and adventurer-starts. The seeds are deliberately a bit light on detail to leave the important decisions to the individual referee. As I said, Jack offered me the chance to preview part of his book (after reading my previous random neighborhood post, actually) and I thought it would be fun to put his procedure to the test. I will say that unless you're a very fast thinker, this is probably better to use to prep beforehand, rather than trying to use at the table during play.

Monday, August 6, 2018

Two Chromatic Neighborhoods in Infinigrad

The Lizard Man Diaries has posted a generator for creating fantasy city neighborhoods. Le Chaudron Chromatique has a new fantasy building generator. Let's combine that with Lizard Man Diaries' fantasy building generator, and create a couple fantasy neighborhoods, as well as a landmark building for each neighborhood. In one neighborhood, we'll use the "fantasypunk megacity" generator to provide extra information about the neighborhood itself, and in the other, we'll use it to provide more detail about the landmark.
 
 
Neighborhood 1 - The Fountain District
 
Okay, so our random table tells us that this neighborhood's prevalent architecture is something to do with water transport - canals, pipes, sewers. There's engraved script that winds along the streets, and that script communicates some kind of message. Finally, the neighborhood is somehow existentially committed to being ethereal, vaporous, twisting, flowing, or floating. We can work with that.
 
Now let's add in extra detail from the other generator. The neighborhood has feral, makeshift, or jury-rigged architecture, made from repurposed materials, and seemingly on the verge of collapse. Despite its appearance, it actually required great expense in its construction. Meanwhile, the residents of the neighborhood are stoic or silent, and they dislike visitors.
 
Finally, the landmark building. It's a productive building of some kind and/or has something to do with food - a barn, farm, store, granary, greenhouse, mill, workshop or factory. Its special feature is that the building is made out of or connected to a giant fruit, vegetable, mushroom or tree.
 
Infinigrad: prevalent architecture 24, what's going on 85, atmospheric mutation 14 
Fantasypunk megacity: raceoid base 6, physical quirk 2/3, mental quirk 4/4
Fantasy house: trait 1, type 3, special 8
 
"To everyone else in the city, the Fountain District is a joke, but despite the place's whimsical appearance, the locals in the Fountain are all grim and serious. The whole neighborhood is filled with pipes, the entire apparatus above-ground, looking like something from a Dr Seuss book or a Rube Goldberg diagram. Pipes as densely packed as bamboo in a jungle, rising 10 feet, 20 feet in the air, vaulting over the streets, passing through buildings at eye level though open windows. The layout is more or less permanent, but it looks like it was built yesterday and ought to collapse tomorrow. The pipes wind and meander, merge and split, diameters stepping up and down, water pressure rising and falling, joints and valves and gauges everywhere you look. At any given time, half the water in the neighborhood is in the air, which is how the Fountain District gets its name. Every spray looks like an accident, a leak, but there are thousands of them on every block, and every one of them gets caught by a funnel or basin or drain, perfectly placed despite looking for all the world like a haphazard mistake. The locals shuffle around all day, taking pressure gauge readings, carrying wrenches, tightening here, loosening there, grafting on new pipes that look just as accidental as the old."
 
"What the residents know, but won't tell outsiders, is that the pipes in the Fountain District perfectly match the blood vessels, organs, lymph nodes, and glands of an Astral Leviathan. Anyone who's studied marine astrobiology will notice the similarities immediately. The daily routines of the locals involve a great deal of turning on faucets, filling basins, drinking and washing and bathing - and somehow, they believe, their activities don't just copy the natural biological functions of the leviathan, they cause them. Every day for the locals is a 16-hour choreographed routine that sustains the life of their Whale God. If directed with the right orchestration, they could seize control of the great beast, summon it to the mortal plane. For now though, their goal is just to keep the Leviathan alive on the Astral Sea, and they treat this responsibility as a sacred trust."
 
"Unfortunately, with all that water, it was inevitable that something would start to grow. First it was rust-colored lichen growing along the pipes, then precise lines of moss forming living shadow of the whole apparatus on the ground. Then came the ultramarine snozzberries, growing on winding vines that gripped where the lichen and moss already took hold. The locals tried ripping it all up, but it just grew back, and vermicious wasps began attacking anyone who tried. Now a giant peach has grown up right in the south-central park, right where the Leviathan's womb should be. The wasps have chewed away the peach's interior, carving it like the cliffs of Petra. It seems to serve as a cafeteria of sorts for them, perhaps a boarding house as well."
 
"The locals have two theories about their newest landmark. One faction thinks the God Whale has cancer and the peach is the earthly manifestation of its tumor. The other faction thinks the God Whale is pregnant and the peach represents is offspring. Obviously opinions differ about what should be done with the peach, but both sides agree the stakes are very high. Just recently a peacemaker seems to have convinced both factions that the only way to decide is to summon the Leviathan itself to the city, and perhaps to let it cure itself by destroying the worldly embodiment of its disease. The ceremony is currently being planned..."
 
 
Neighborhood 2 - Old Foundry
 
According to the neighborhood generator, this one's dominant architecture are ancient factories, oil wells, and fire pits. It's also a maze of teleportation portals, and might not even be physically connected to the rest of the city. The atmospheric mutation causes everything to be frozen, preserved, or caught. Okay, I think I'm getting a sense of what this place is like.
 
Next up, the landmark building. This one is a combination of two building types. It's somehow both a small house and a theater, arena, music hall, agora, or forum.
 
Let's see where it came from. The building was built by whisker men, so it's got low ceilings, tunnels instead of hallways, and the whole thing feels claustrophobically cramped to surface dwellers. The weather directly over the building is different from the weather in the rest of the neighborhood, and the building has been somehow partially destroyed by caustic liquid or boiling lava. Maybe something like the output of all those foundries?
 
Infinigrad: prevalent architecture 52, what's going on 19, atmospheric mutation 11
Fantasy house: trait 5, type 7/5, special 9
Fantasypunk megacity: raceoid base 3, physical quirk 1/8, mental quirk 2/9
 
"Old Foundry is a catastrophic industrial accident in slow motion, quite literally. In the hundred years since the final redundancy failed, perhaps 1½ seconds have passed. The cataclysm is still happening, still threatening to wipe out all life in every neighborhood that touches Old Foundry, and in every neighborhood that touches one of them. You can still hear the alarm bells ringing, a low bronze note that hums like thunder and never wavers."
 
"The old founders must have triggered one final failsafe to slow down the disaster so that someone could fix it before it was too late, and surely someone will, but not today, and probably not for another hundred years. For now, it's much cheaper, much more profitable to redevelop other boroughs, places where the sky isn't black and the air doesn't reek of sulfur and there aren't 10-story-tall crucibles midway though tumbling over, no tidal waves of molten iron hanging over the ground waiting to finish splashing down. The cleanup is going to be a logistical nightmare, and frankly, no organization exists within the city with enough employees and enough expertise to handle a problem on this scale. No one even comes close, no one is even in the right order of magnitude. So the problem waits for another day."
 
"The old founders sealed off the Foundry when they pushed the final button. All roads leading in or out of it are dead ends. From the outside, you might not notice that the buildings along one edge of your neighborhood form an impassible wall, but from the inside, it's obvious that Old Foundry is inside a sphere of black. Every factory and forge in the city has a secret entrance to the Foundry hidden in it somewhere, and if you aren't careful to go back exactly the way you came, you could end up halfway across town when you return. The whiskerers maintain their own network of entrances, as they do with most things, and it links up in innumerable ways to their larger network of underground tunnels."
 
"The whiskerers don't mind the dark, they like the warmth of the place, and time being near frozen doesn't seem to bother them much, they move so slowly anyhow. The only thing that would bother them is the dry, but recently they solved that too. The whiskerers have built a shanty town in Old Foundry right underneath one of the fire control stations. An entire water tower is slowly falling onto them, most days just enough lands to make a heavy mist, occasionally they get a light rain."
 
"The whole slum is centered around the Sensatorium, a kind of museum / performance art space. It's maintained by an onsite caretaker, who tends the tactile portraits and the haptic displays. The museum is filled with slow-time objects with unusual textures and properties. The centerpiece is a fireplace surrounded by dozens of sconces. The fireplace is the door to an industrial oven that was blown off in the disaster, with a blob of lava that landed right in its center just as time came to a halt. The sconces are dozes of pieces of ever-burning metal."
 
"The whiskerers collect dead bodies too, all the original workers, they carry them off somewhere. But unlike the Sensatorium - their pride - they share the location of the dead with no outsiders."

Thursday, August 2, 2018

D&D Cosmology & the DC Universe

In some ways, the Forgotten Realms setting of contemporary D&D is a very vanilla fantasy realm (and the Golarion of Pathfinder is pretty much the same, except maybe more high fantasy and with slightly more fantasy types represented amongst its own "realms"). But in other ways, the setting of D&D is weird.
  
The weirdest stuff is mostly the stuff WotC reserves as "product identity," the non-open game content that lets them maintain their trademarks (or whatever). The beholder, the mindflayers, the slaad, the tanar'ri, the yuan'ti, the gith... You can see it in Tales of the Grotesque and Dungeonesque's "Let's Read Mordenkainen's Tome of Foes" series, where, for example, you see a "loving, good" elf god who damns his followers / children to unending torment via infinite reincarnation and nightly visions of elf-hell for the "sin" of wanting physical bodies and stable gender. (Yes, in D&D, the elven epitome of goodness is a vengeful genderqueer/non-binary entity who will never forgive the elves for wanting to be men and women. And somewhere, I'm sure, there are right-wing D&D fans who are deeply offended by how "progressive" they imagine this story to be.)
  
In my opinion, the stuff that seems "weirdest" in D&D is the stuff that has no precedent in genre fiction. While "Appendix N literature" famously inspired a lot of the setting and mechanics of the original D&D game, and Tolkien's writing is arguably as big an influence on later D&D as it is on all post-Tolkien fantasy, there are some things that are basically unique to D&D, or that only show up in literary fantasy when the authors are modeling their books to be more like D&D. In particular, the weirdest stuff is the stuff that's to do with "the planes." It's not like D&D invented the idea of traveling to "other worlds", but it's almost unique in terms of its detailed and well-documented interdimensional cosmos. (I think D&D is also fairly unique in its insistence on an expansive polytheism of living, interventionist gods, but I don't plan to expand on that here.)
  
Fig. 1 - The Great Wheel from D&D 3.0 Manual of Planes
    
Fig. 2 - The Outer Planes from D&D 3.0 Manual of Planes
   
I say it's almost unique, because I can think of one literary source that has a fantasy cosmology that's not only as systematic and as rigorously cataloged as D&D's, but that sort of mirrors the structure of D&D's cosmology in some interesting ways. One fascinating thing about the similarities between these two interdimensional cosmoses is that I don't think (although I could be wrong) that the similarity is the result of copying. As far as I know, this other cosmos was built up over time, as enterprising and/or obsessive authors insisted on taking idiosyncratic elements of fiction and turning them into the building blocks of an orderly, logical, systematic, internally consistent fictional universe.
   
I'm talking, of course, about the multiverse of DC Comics.
  
Fig. 3 - Map of the Multiverse from DC's Multiversity
    
Fig. 4 - Some worlds of the post-Convergence multiverse from DC's Convergence
    
Fig. 5 - More worlds of the mutiverse
   
In both D&D and DC, there is a core reality - "the Prime Material Plane" in D&D and "Earth-1" in DC Comics - that is surrounded by the rest of the multiverse. In both cosmologies, that core reality floats around a bit like an island in some medium - called "the Astral Sea" in D&D and "the Bleed" (apparently) in DC Comics - surrounded by other islands, some near, some far, and all organized in a fairly predictable way.
 
In D&D there are two groups of "Inner Planes" - the Positive and Negative Energy Planes, and the Elemental Planes of Air, Earth, Fire, and Water. The Inner Planes are essentially made up of whatever form of matter/energy they're named for, and the planes themselves are supposed to be the ultimate source of each of those substances. (In some settings, there are also a bunch of "demi-elemental" and "quasi-elemental" planes, but these are the core ones. In 5e, I believe that "the Feywild" and "the Shadowfell" have replaced the positive and negative energy planes, although I may be mistaken about the relationship between them.) 
   
Although they aren't shown on the diagram above, DC Comics also has a number of elemental-type forces that are grouped logically as well. There are the various life forces represented by "The Black", "The Green", and "The Red" (which are definitely actually planes), and there are the various color-emotion pairings of "The Emotional Electromagnetic Spectrum" (which may exist just as elemental forces, rather than as places you can visit, although I won't be surprised if that changes in the future).
 
D&D also has "Outer Planes" which embody philosophies and ideologies the same way the "Inner Planes" embody various powers, forces, and energies. D&D has an extensive list of "Outer Planes", eight perfectly embodying the possible combinations of Law/Neutrality/Chaos and Good/Neutral/Evil, plus another seven existing in between each adjacent pair of those, and one more embodying True Neutrality at the center of "The Great Wheel" formed by arraying those planes like directions on a compass. So, for example, you don't just have the perfectly Lawful Neutral plane "The Clockwork Nirvana of Mechanus", the perfectly Lawful Good plane "The Seven Mounting Heavens of Celestia", and the perfectly Neutral Good plane "The Blessed Fields of Elysium," you also have "The Peaceable Kingdom of Arcadia" which exists halfway between Lawful Neutral and Lawful Good, and you have "The Twin Paradises of Bytopia" that exists halfway between Lawful Good and Neutral Good. In addition to being the multiversal font and source of each philosophy, each Outer Plane is the home of a race of beings who embody and defend the philosophy, and also serves as the afterlife for souls who followed that philosophy. (That's right, in D&D, your afterlife isn't determined by the god you worship, but on the very precise moral philosophy your life followed. You and your spouse both worshiped a Lawful Good god and you were looking forward to your souls spending eternity together? Well tough shit, pal, because you two appreciated slightly different things about that god, so now you're going to Arcadia and they're off to Bytopia, and you'll never see each other again. Don't worry though, I'm sure that you and the accidentally-slightly-good worshipers of the Lawful Neutral clock god who also got separated from their spouses for eternity will all get along just fine.)
   
DC has two sets of worlds that I see as analogous to the Outer Planes. The first analogy I thought of - the one that helped solidify my being convinced that the D&D and DC cosmologies are similar - is "the 52 Earths". In addition to Earth-1, there are 51 other earths. None of them are as tightly tied to any single concept as the "alignment worlds" of D&D's Outer Planes, but most of them are "opposites" of Earth-1 in some way, or else they embody a particular time-period or aesthetic, which is quite similar in its ultimate effect. According to that multiversal map thingy DC made, there are also paired worlds that more similar to D&D's Outer Planes, including standing in an after-lifey-type relationship to the various earths. The most famous pair is "Apokolips & New Genesis", but there's also "Heaven & Hell", "Dream & Nightmare", and a few more.
 
(I will confess, before continuing, that I have somewhat good knowledge of D&D's planes and their history, and more like a casual fan's knowledge of DC Comics and the storyline trajectories that led to the multiverse they have today. So if I may get some details wrong. My larger point is that these two fictional universes / franchises share some interesting similarities in terms of their fictional multiverse, and that those similarities are all the more interesting because they are pretty much entirely unlike how any other genre fiction imagines other dimensions. So if I get any details wrong, I'm sorry, but try not to let that make you lose sight of the larger point here, which is that these two universes are weird and they are similar to each other in almost precisely the ways they are different from everything else.)
   
Inner Planes - The Black, The Green, and The Red
DC's first set of Inner Planes are depicted as both places, kingdoms with parliaments and avatars, and types of life energy. I see them as roughly analogous to D&D's Positive Energy Plane and Negative Energy Plane. "The Black" is the source of death, rot, and decay; "The Green" is the source of plant life-energy; and "The Red" is the source of animal life. They were first introduced as planes in New 52 Animal Man and Swamp Thing (I think, although it's possible they were described earlier.)
 
Each plane, when it appears in the comics, is depicted as being a sort of endless panorama of life. "The Red" for example, which seems a bit like Xor, is depicted as a ground made of meat, with rivers of blood and clouds of blood droplets, where internal organs grow like plants grow on Earth, and amalgams of every kind of animal life wander the plains. It's creepy, gross, utterly alien and utterly familiar, and it looks like an awesome place for a D&D character to travel while I eat a salad or something to avoid thinking too much about my own tongue. The other two are similar, just, you know, for plants and death.
 
Fig. 6 - Animal Man traveled to The Red, where he was alternately portrayed as himself, an animalistic version of himself, a skeleton in a body made of blood gelatin aspic, and a walking mass of blood vessels.
   
Fig. 7 - The Black is like a much more visceral version of the usually bloodless Negative Energy Plane, while the Positive Energy Plane is sort of divided between The Green (which looks more or less like the Feywild) and The Red (which looks like Xor and/or David Cronenberg's vision of heaven.)
   
These planes were never DC's original plan for their characters. They emerged over time from writers seeing multiple characters with vaguely similar powers and deciding that those powers must emanate from a common source. As humans, we notice patterns, and we crave order, and when we apply logic to our own unruly, diverse storytelling traditions, we are often tempted to impose order by systematizing, categorizing, lumping things together and sorting them into orderly piles. It's almost like entropy in reverse, and it follows the same times-arrow - once done, it cannot be easily undone by future storytellers.
   
It's like how the original Flash was just a man who could run fast. Later versions of the Flash (and other super-fast people, of whom there are so many they essentially have a character class, "speedster") - later versions of the Flash aren't men who are able to run fast because the ability resides inside them, they're men who can tap into a kind of extradimensional energy that comes from its own "Inner Plane", the Speed Force, which (fortunately) stands alone and apart from any additional systematizing.
 
I'm of two minds about this process. On the one hand, imposing a system can serve as a spur to future creativity. Decide that all your heroes with animal-type powers are drawing on a common source of power, call it "The Red", make it a place, and suddenly you can go there, visualize new sights, have adventures that would have been impossible before. But the system imposes limits. Whatever logic there is to how "The Red" works means that some forms of animal superpower are now off limits, because they would break rules that didn't exist before. And the system demands completion. Which means that there are areas that demand to be filled in, whether anyone has a good idea of what to fill them in with or not. D&D's writers had a good idea of what Heaven should look like, and a clear image of Elysium. In contrast, Bytopia mostly seems to exist because it had to. It's a check-box, pro forma afterlife, there because the logic of the system demanded that something be there, and no one felt inspired enough to come up with anything better. And now that it is there, we're stuck with it. Even if someone comes up with a brilliant, mythologically-inspired vision of the LG/NG afterlife, they can only write it into an official D&D product if they can still call it "Bytopia" and still make it compatible with the handful of established facts about that place.
   
Fig. 8 - Unfortunately, the logic of unlimited systematization means that in addition to the neat tripartite division between The Black, The Green, and The Red, there also exists The Clear, The Grey, The White, The Metal, The Melt, and The Divided. Fortunately, these seem to be mostly unused, just briefly mentioned. The Divided (which is like The Red, except for bacteria) looks pretty cool though.
   
Fig. 9 - New 52 Earth-2 Green Lantern took a special class feature option and channels The Green instead of the green/will light of the Emotional Electromagnetic Spectrum. Here he is inside Earth-2's The Grey, which is associated with fungi and zombie Solomon Grundy and is different enough from The Black to justify its separate existence in the following way: ???
   
Inner Planes - The Emotional Electromagnetic Spectrum
DC's other "Inner Planes" are the color/emotion combinations that make up the Emotional Electromagnetic Spectrum. Red light is associated with anger, orange light with greed, yellow light with fear, green light with willpower, blue light with hope, indigo light with compassion, violet light with love, black light with death (no, I don't understand this one), and white light with life. I see these as being analogous to D&D's Elemental Planes. So, for example, just as The Elemental Plane of Fire is the ultimate source of all the fire in the Material Plane, and all the fire in the Material Plane is connected back to the Elemental Plane, both all green light and all emotional willpower have the same source in the Green/Will section of the Emotional Electromagnetic Spectrum.
 
I don't think that these have ever been depicted as actual planes, that is, as actual places someone could go. As far as I know, they're just portrayed as being types of energy - it's just that the same type of energy manifests as a particular emotion when it's being channeled through a living being, and as a color when it's just manifesting as visible light. I believe there's also an implication that if you see enough of the right color of light, it will cause you to feel the associated emotion. (So far as I know, DC has never implied that someone feeling an emotion strongly enough causes them to spontaneously emit light!) Each color of light is directly channeled into our universe by giant lanterns. (It's not clear to me if these lanterns are supposed to be the originating source of the light - such that, if a lantern were destroyed, that color would cease to exist in the universe - or if the lanterns just channel the light into our universe from some extradimensional source. It's also not clear to me if someone built the lanterns, or if they just exist because the colors exist and need something to channel them.)
 
I'm not sure entire planes dominated by a single color-emotion pairing would make for very good comic-book adventure settings, but they might make pretty good destinations for planes-hopping D&D adventures, especially for occult planes-hopping D&D adventures. They'd certainly provide a milieu for roleplaying being overtaken by emotion, and they'd make for a setting where players would frequently have to succeed saving throws vs bad decisions. Having these planes be dominated by color-emotion pairings feels suitably weird, moreso than color-only or emotion-only planes would be, and at least as interesting as planes made up entirely of water or rock (as Into the Odd points out "There's a reason people think of the City of Brass straight away when discussing the Plane of Fire.")
   
Fig. 10 - The Emotional Electromagnetic Spectrum, and its representatives. Apparently, within the DC Universe, it's axiomatic that if there is a color of light, there is a lantern that projects it, and if there is a lantern projecting light, there are clerics Lantern Corps members channeling it.
   
Fig. 11 - If anyone did visit the color-emotion pairing planes, I imagine it would be like visiting one of the color-coded alternate universes in Farscape 1x17 "Through the Looking Glass", where each plane is inimical to human life in an annoying but short-term survivable way.
   
In small doses, systematizing can act as a spur to creativity. Deciding that the classic characters of Green Lantern, Sinestro, and Star Sapphire don't just coincidentally have similar magic rings, that they have essentially identical magical rings, just drawing on different power sources, and that like Green Lantern, Sinestro and Star Sapphire need to feel certain emotions to make their rings work ... well, I don't know, perhaps it inspires storylines or ways for the characters to fight that you couldn't have written before. Maybe it makes you want to come up with other color-emotion pairings for other characters to use. Just like the idea that Kryptonite that is always drawn as green makes Superman weak, perhaps it's because that's "green Kryprtonite", and perhaps there are other colors of Kryptonite that affect him in different ways.
   
There are two pitfalls here though, and they both come from systematizing too much. The first is this desire to exhaust all possibilities. To list out every emotion-color pairing, to describe an entire rainbow of Kryptonite colors, to catalog every possible demi- and para- and pseudo- elemental plane. For some of those, the exercise will spur your creativity, but for others, you're just not going to have any good ideas, and so you'll make placeholders, and they'll be bland, and the logic of preserving trademarks and monetizing intellectual properties will mean that you can never get rid of them. The second danger is the allure of creating a grand unified theory. Rather than forcing yourself to create too much, you combine similar things until everything's the same. It might be interesting to think that all the animal heroes get their powers from The Red, or all the plant villains get their powers from The Green ... right up until it starts meaning that you're just giving them the same powers because they come from same source. Worse is when you decide that maybe the green/will light is connected to The Green is somehow associated with green Kryptonite is secretly related to Green Arrow just because he has the word "green" in his name ... you connect and combine until eventually everything becomes identical, becomes bland. Part of the charm and weirdness of old comics is that everything's idiosyncratic, everything's unique. Like Max Weber once observed, out-of-control systematization is a one-way process, it locks us in an iron cage of rationalization, it leeches the magic out of everything.
   
Outer Planes - The 52 Earths
The first set of DC's "Outer Planes" are its many alternate earths. Earth-1 is the home of DC's Silver Age universe. Earth-2 has their Golden Age universe, and having it allowed the characters there to age, get married, have children, pass on their legacy to successors they mentored. For characters like the Green Lantern and the Flash, having Earth-2 meant that the Alan Scott and Jay Garrick versions got to still exist, while for characters like Batman and Superman, it mostly meant that they got to become elderly. Earth-3 is like Star Trek's Mirror Universe, it's a place where (officially) all of morality is inverted. In practice, this means it's a crapsack world full of petty, quarrelsome people ruled over by a Crime Syndicate of Ultra-man, Super-woman, and Owl-man (evil Mirror versions of Superman, Wonder Woman, and Batman.) Earth-5, also called Earth-S is home to Captain Marvel Shazam, and Earth-10, also called Earth-X, is an Earth where the Nazis won World War II and heroes like Black Condor and Doll Man fight different evil versions of DC heroes like Over-Man (Superman) and Blitzkrieg (Flash).
   
More recently, DC decided to set a hard limit on how many alternate earths there are, and assigned numbers and specific identities to most of them. I didn't really think the original 52 marketing event was all that successful, but somehow DC decided the number 52 is their brand identity, so the next time they rewrote their own continuity, they called it New 52, and when they decided to systematize their alternate earths, they decided there are 52 of them. Go figure. So now Bizarro World isn't just some weird planet in space, it's Earth-29. There's are other opposite-type worlds, like the earth where everyone's gender is different than on Earth-1, and there are lots of other era-type worlds, like a Victorian earth, a Wild West earth, a pirate earth, etc. And they all have their own numbers and encyclopedia entries. (I think there are even two different earths populated by parodies of Marvel Comics characters, and two different earths full of talking animals where the Superman doppelganger is a rabbit. Why two of each? For the following excellent reason: ???)
   
Fig. 12 - The protagonists of Earth-2 and Earth-3, post New 52, from Multiversity
    
Fig. 13 - Protagonists from Earth-11 and Earth-12.
     
As I understand it, most of these "other earths" came about because DC Comics kept buying up other comic book companies and their characters. In some cases, they just immediately brought the new characters over into the main DC universe, but for whatever reason, in other cases, they kept the characters in their own separate fictional "universe" within the larger DC multiverse. Earth 5, for example is pretty much just the Fawcett Comics universe, and Earth X is pretty much just Quality Comics.
   
The other big source of "other earths" seems to be DC's own Elseworlds stories. I think these are pretty similar to Marvel's What If? stories, and like Marvel, DC seems to have decided that these aren't just non-continuity stories told using re-imaginings of their characters; they're alternate universe continuity stories told using alternate universe versions of their characters. (It also seems like they kept changing their minds a lot, bringing things together only to blow them back apart, only to bring them back together, only to separate them yet again.)
   
Fig. 14 - Protagonists from Earth-18 and Earth-19.
    
Fig. 15 - Protagonists from Superman: Red Sun Earth-30.
    
This is what I mean when I say the D&D and DC cosmologies are weird. Yes, Star Trek has a Mirror Universe, but that's just it, it has a Mirror Universe, it doesn't have four dozen of them. Captain Kirk once found a planet where a human had recreated the Nazi aesthetics and regime in spaaace, and when he passed through the Guardian of Forever, he briefly accidentally changed history so that his own earth was dominated by Nazis ... but he never found an entire alternate dimension where an alternate earth was being conquered by Nazis forever (and where, I guess, there would be a Nazi planet Vulcan, and a Nazi Klingon homeworld, etc). Countless religions imagine some kind of positive and negative afterlives, but none of them imagine seventeen afterlives, each coded to very fine-grained distinctions between neighboring moral philosophies, and certainly none of them imagine that each afterlife is not just a place, but a source of its own moral philosophy, that radiates, for example, a philosophy exactly halfway between Lawful-Good and Neutral-Good-ness across everything the same way the sun radiates sunlight onto the earth. Basically no other fantasy that's not directly inspired by D&D's or DC's cosmology spontaneously arrived at a similar vision of other dimensions. Which, I guess, is part of why it's so fascinating that the two are so similar to each other, especially since, as far as I know, neither company was consciously trying to imitate the other.
   
Outer Planes - New Genesis, Apokolips, etc
DC's other "Outer Planes" are mostly similar to D&D's. There's the pairing of Heaven and Hell, the Christian afterlives, Skyland and Tartarus, which I guess are supposed to be the ancient Greek afterlives, and New Genesis and Apokolips, which came from a Jack Kirby miniseries, and have gained in importance over time. I think when he first wrote them, Kirby intended New Genesis and Apokolips to be alien planets located in normal space. Since then, they've gotten a promotion. Just like Bizarro World stopped being just a planet and got turned into Earth-29, New Genesis and Apokolips stopped being just alien planets hosting allegorical battles between good-ish and evil aliens and started being divine dimensions equivalent to Heaven and Hell themselves and host to literal battles between the pure physical embodiment of good and evil.
  
Fig. 16 - Jack Kirby's New Genesis.
    
Fig. 17 - Jack Kirby's Apokolips
   
I mean no disrespect to Jack Kirby when I say that his original limited series had a place in the milieu of the 1960s and 70s, where its aesthetics fit in with psychedelia and its plot resonated with the counter-culture's war with the establishment, and that perhaps characters with names like High Father, Mother Box, Glorious Godfrey, and Granny Goodness are not necessarily nearly as compatible with contemporary sensibilities. 
     
But this is the nature of comic book publishing. Nothing is allowed to simply exist in its original form. Every good story must be re-told and re-told and re-told until it becomes unbearable in its repetition. Not even retold. The same events must happen to the same characters who remember it happening to them last time over and over and over again. Jean Grey must become the Phoenix and die and be reborn and become the Phoenix and die and be reborn and become the Phoenix and die and be reborn. Kingpin must be dethroned and work his way back to the top and be dethroned and work his way back to the top and be dethroned and work his way back to the top. Superman must die fighting Doomsday and be resurrected and die fighting Doomsday and be resurrected and die fighting Doomsday. Darkseid must invade the earth and be repelled and invade the earth and be repelled and invade the earth and be repelled. We demand that our favorite characters be damned to the fates of Prometheus and Sisyphus.
   
Bonus Cosmology - The Dark Multiverse
When you consider how many of the 52 earths are full of "evil doppelgangers" for DC's superheroes, it seems almost redundant to have an entire extra multiverse full of even more evil doppelgangers, but here we are. The Dark Multiverse, I am given to understand, is entirely, ontologically evil in a way that even Earth-3 and Earth-X aren't. (I'm curious to know about the what the Dark Multiverse counterparts of the regular multiverses "dark counterparts" - is the Dark Multiverse version of Earth-3 one of the few good places? Or is it even more evil than the rest of the Dark Multiverse? What about their version of Apokolips or Hell?)
  
Fig. 18 - The Dark Multiverse is sometimes depicted with a color-inverted version of DC's official multiverse map. Apparently it was first introduced though, as just being the black underside of the map.
   
The "Outer Planes" of the Dark Multiverse are designated by a negative sign. This would work really well if DC didn't already use hyphens in their universe names. So like, "Earth -2" would be more instantly identifiable as being part of the Dark Multiverse if DC usually wrote "Earth 2" instead of "Earth-2".
   
Fig. 19 - Apparently everyone in the Dark Multiverse is Batman?
    
Fig. 20 - Also, Galactus is there for some reason. Also also, he's dead.
   
Bonus Systematization - Seanan McGuire's "Every Heart a Doorway" series
Seanan McGuire's "Every Heart a Doorway" and its companion novellas do something similar to D&D and DC by applying systematization to the fantasy worlds of classic portal-fantasy fiction. McGuire imagines that events like Dorothy travelling to Oz or the the Pevensie children traveling to Narnia happen with some frequency, and that the children who come back from trips to fantasy worlds need group therapy and to live in a special asylum to recover from their journeys and readjust to living in the real world.
   
So, obviously, McGuire is doing something a bit postmodern and metafictional, as Daryl Gregory does in "We Are All Completely Fine" where the survivors of common horror-movie plots form a support group to cope with their shared traumas. Most stories that have a portal to another world have one portal to one other world; McGuire concatenates dozens of returners from dozens of portals to dozens of worlds, and puts them in conversation with each other. And the other thing she's doing, is systematizing, in exactly the same way that D&D and DC Comics do. McGuire has her characters develop a typology of worlds that sounds suspiciously like D&D's alignment chart. The two "cardinal directions" in the array of worlds are the axis of Virtue vs Wickedness and the axis of Logic vs Nonsense. Or, as Gary Gygax called the same ideas, Good vs Evil and Law vs Chaos. The one big difference here is that instead of imagining all her "Outer Planes" as equidistant from the earth in a Great Wheel as Gygax does, she allows that they may be closer to or further from the earth along their axes. (Although in practice, nearly every character she talks about visited a "High Nonsense" or "High Logic" world, so the distinction is mostly academic, and also mostly a way to talk about the dichotomies without referencing neutrality.)
  
Fig. 21 - Tor.com commissioned a map of portal-fantasy story worlds that uses McGuire's terminology to systematize a whole host of fiction.
    
Bonus Bonus
Because I am slow, in between when I started writing this and when I actually posted it, io9 wrote about weird planes in Marvel and DC comics. I weirdly feel like I got scooped.
   
There's a whole cavalcade of different dimensions I didn't mention in this post, but the thing is, most of them are idiosyncratic. They're unique, they stand alone and have no relationship to the other planes out there. You enter each one in a different way. Want to go to the Mirror Dimension? You'll need a mirror and a special ray-gun. Want to go to DC's Microverse or Marvel's Quantum Realm? Just shrink real small. Trapped in the Phantom Zone or Negative Zone? There's some special machine you'll need access to, plus time will have passed differently for you there. Also there's no way to travel from one of these places to any other.
   
These "weird" dimensions are actually more like Pathfinder's revisions to the D&D plane-scape. They're planes that exist pre-systematization. Each one was invented by a different creator, to serve as an adventuring site for a different hero. Each one has its own method of ingress and egress. None of them are connected. They're certainly not laid out like coordinates on a grid. Looking over this list reminds me what's unique about D&D's multiverse, and about the parts of the DC multiverse I've talked about. Most other fictional alternate dimensions are stand-alones, they're messy, disorganized, almost organic, because they simply accrete facts over time as people write about them. What's unique about D&D's and DC's "multiverses" is that they have a logical system underlying them. They were (or appear to be) created whole-cloth, designed rather than accumulated. It is actually fairly unique for them to not be idiosyncratic.

Monday, July 30, 2018

Joel Simon's Dungeons I Want to Explore - Evolving Floorplan Elementary Schools

People are programming neural-networks to do all kinds of things these days.* Joel Simon used one to design a new elementary school.
 
Rather than feed his AI thousands of elementary school floorplans and then ask it to produce a new one that fits in with the others, Simon gave the computer one floorplan and asked it to keep the same rooms in the same sizes, but rearrange the layout, first to minimize the amount of building materials and the time it takes to get between classrooms, and then to minimize how long it takes anyone to reach a fire exit.
 
Fig 1 - The neural-network's two final designs from Joel Simon
 
The structures the computer came up with are probably impossible to build, and would likely feel deeply unsettling to be in. He says "I have very mixed feelings about this project. ... By not obeying any laws of architecture or design, it made the results very hard to evaluate." He could probably get a viable building if he also demanded that the neural-net only draw rectangular rooms and uniform hallway widths. Instead, he ended up with a lot of teardrop, hexagonal, and diamond-shaped rooms;** hallways that get narrower the deeper into the building you go (because the expected foot traffic diminishes as people enter shallower rooms); and hardly any windows. He explains: "Windows were also experimented with ... this led to many interior courtyards."+
 
Joel Simon's elementary schools don't look like any buildings that actually exist, but they do look like they'd make pretty good dungeons. The numerous branching paths and dead-ends would create a non-linear exploration experience, and the frequent use of room-to-room doorways actually creates a number of loops despite the hallways never reconnecting.
 
I imagine that the green classrooms would be standard dungeon rooms, while the mustard-colored teachers' lounges are caches hidden by secret doors, the red admin rooms and light blue facilities seem like lairs or faction strongholds, while the lavenders spaces are "specials", and the playground is a garden. The organic, space-saving and material-reducing logic of the place even makes a kind of sense if we imagine that it's underground. (Other explanations could be a building constructed by fungal / alien minds, a building rearranged by evil magic, a memory palace as it exists within the subconscious of the victim of your heist, or the Dark Hyrule / Upside Down counterpart to an ordinary building.)
 
Fig 2 - The neural-network's design process from Joel Simon
   
* I feel like there is some collective ritual of reassuring ourselves that our jobs are still safe among members of the precariat and various white-collar professions, where we read these things with bated breath and then have a good long post-panic laugh after seeing that neural-nets are still so bad at designing anything. I also feel like that will probably change within my lifetime. I suspect that someday we'll all look back fondly at a time when a computer thought "grass bat" and "turdly" were good names for a paint colors. I can't tell you how relieved I feel whenever the all-seeing eye of surveillance-driven internet advertising offers me something ludicrously inappropriate. It's going to be disquieting when internet ads inevitably learn how to offer me things I might genuinely want.
 
** I expected circular rooms, and you can see that they are circular in the preliminary floorplan, but then the rooms expanded to fill all the unused space between the circles, leading to a number of odd, hard-to-describe room shapes.
 
+ I would have liked to see one of the floorplans with an interior courtyard. Again, it's something that you would never build in a real school, but that fits the the underground dungeon aesthetic. Then again, as a child, I used to want to live in a Victorian house that took up the outer ring of a 3x3 grid, with the center square being an interior arboretum - so who knows, maybe AI architects will give us the courtyards we didn't know we wanted.

Saturday, July 28, 2018

Two Good Links on Resource Management

I'm not the only one with resource mobilization on her mind.
  
In his book Art Worlds, Howard Becker proposes that individual genius isn't what creates art, art is created by communities of artists - working together, trading ideas, improving on one another's techniques, discarding unnecessary elements, refining the elements they keep. In this view Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson didn't invent D&D, the Lake Geneva wargaming scene invented D&D. It's obvious that there would be no Tekumel without D&D, it's less obvious, but no less true, that there would be no D&D as we know it without the educational supply companies mass-producing unusual-sided dice as classroom aids. Individual artists get credit and blame for the final products that bear their names, but if those products are credit-worthy, it's because of the community who helped invent, test, prove, and refine the ideas and techniques that went into that product, because of the community's theorists who justified and explained the ideas, because of the community's trained audience members who had already learned to appreciate what the product offered. It might require painstaking historical research to uncover the individual contributions of the community members, it might be impossible if insufficient records were kept of ephemeral conversations. Individuals get credit. But it's the community that creates.
  
My point is, resource management is having a cultural moment within what I would call the Old School Renaissance roleplaying scene. (Other people might call this scene/community by a different name, the self-identity of any scene is one of the things its theorists and aestheticians argue over and refine.) I've written a couple posts about resource management, but I'm not the only one thinking about it right now. One of my goals is to take stock of other people's ideas, but I'm not even alone in my stock-taking. Another of my goals is to look for places to innovate, but any innovations I think of will not be my ideas alone, they will be ideas I only had, ideas I only could have had, because of what other people wrote and thought.
   
Other people working on the same idea as you doesn't mean that you (and the world more generally) is in danger of running out or using up all possible ideas on that topic. It means the opposite. It means that's where the action is, at least right now. It means that ideas will come thick and fast from all corners, good ideas getting replaced by better ideas, today's draft torn down to make way for tomorrow's revision. And if someone else has literally the same idea you just had and posts it first, all it means is that you both looked as the same inspiration, both experienced the same eureka. The same idea might be thought up by many people simultaneously, because it's not any individual's idea, it's the community's. Stay involved, keep trying, speak up faster next time. You may not get credit, out of the whole community, hardly anyone will get credit, but you can still be a part of the scene. That's what's going on with resource management in the OSR right now.
   
   
Necropraxis offers a great overview of good ideas that have come out of the OSR, almost all of them related to resource management, or at least ideas that make RM-play possible. Half of Brendan's post reminds me of my own rough outline for my post series, half is full of ideas and suggestions that don't necessarily seem to be part of RM-play, but are principles that are necessary to make resource management function at the table.
   
"Make chargen fast and easy. Support fully random character generation. Determine starting gear randomly rather than shopping."
   
If you want to free up the cognitive resources necessary to pay attention to resource management, one place to cut complexity and decision-making is in character generation. Making starting gear randomly rather than painstakingly-selected speeds things up a lot, but it also has another consequence I'll talk about in a second. Plus, as Out for Blood (who Brendan links to) explains, random character generation is quick, quick chargen makes frequent character death possible and more palatable, and character death makes random chargen more fair by preferentially culling weaker characters faster, giving players more time to develop strong characters through gameplay.
   
"Low level D&D is a sweet spot for dungeon exploration games."
   
A game where you're worrying about running out of food or water or light is inherently a low-power game. Keeping gameplay grounded and low-fantasy leaves room that makes resource management possible. Superheroes don't count matchsticks. Gods don't carry flint and steel.
   
"Minimize bookkeeping. Not all games demand complex resource management, but I think it is better to let the nature of the game determine rules requirements rather than neglecting the consequences of encumbrance due to the hassle of using cumbersome mechanics."
   
Figure out the simplest version of things, so that you can use that if you need to, so that you have a baseline to add complexity to if you want to. Use something because you want it, ignore it because you don't. Don't feel forced to include accounting you find unnecessary, don't feel forced to exclude things you want because you can't figure out an easy way to count them.
   
   
The Scones Alone also has a recent post about resource management, ostensibly for Into the Odd, but his ideas could be applied to pretty much any old-school D&D-type game. To me, there is one big idea here, and then lots of other smart observations. (Also, I haven't read Into the Odd's latest playtest document, so I'm not completely certain how much of what he's written is new, and how much of it is just new to me.) The big idea is expedition resources. For vital resources like food, water, torches, and rope, one character carries the party's entire supply as a single indivisible object. What impresses me about this idea is that it's simpler than what you might otherwise think is the simplest version of this idea (which would be that each character carries their own supply of torches, let's say, as a single indivisible bundle.)
  
"If even one character in the group is carrying a single quantity of the resource, there is a sufficient amount for the entire group to use. They have an expected use that does not ordinarily deplete the resource. Creative uses of the resource trigger a Luck Roll that may deplete the resource. Only three states for vital resources: sufficient, resource about to run out, resource gone. If nobody in the group has the resource, the party suffers some negative effect."

Every vital resource has an expected use that doesn't deplete the resource at all (so for food, for example, one ration in one character's gear feeds all party members). Making creative use of a resource triggers a luck roll (Brian's example for food is dropping scraps to distract a monster, you could also imagine leaving a trail of breadcrumbs, eating extra portions to heal damage, or feeding an NPC you just met). The possible outcomes of the luck roll are that the resource runs out, that the resource has only a single use left, or that you get lucky and the resource remains un-depleted.

I like very much that this idea removes the shopping question "how much is enough?" from resource management, and focuses all the attention on the dungeoneering question "how shall we use this during play?" The right amount of anything to buy is one. One is enough ... as long as you use it exclusively for its intended purpose. And this is true regardless of how many people are in your party, so there's no wondering if each person needs to buy extra torches because there are fewer of you this week than last. This approach takes the classic lamp-oil trade off "shall we use it for light or shall we use it as a weapon?" and finds a way to generalize it to all the classic resources. Use your resources as intended and you're done, they're managed. Or use them creatively, which uses them up. Perfect. That's just about the perfect resource management decision, and in The Scones Alone's approach, it's the only RM decision.

"Notice something though? The group has only one of each Expedition Resource. That's a 'sufficient' quantity for the group's expected needs. But if a Luck Roll happens to deplete one of those resources, or one of the characters falls into a lava pit, the group now lacks that resource. We've successfully eliminated the guesswork about exactly how many individual rations, how many flasks of water, how many oil flasks are needed, and instead replaced it with the question of: 'How much redundancy do you want?' Or, what is your risk tolerance? Which is a more interesting question to me. It also happens to be an easier question to manage resources for. Maybe the party hires a porter to carry an extra everything? Of course, porters sometimes get scared and run away with all of their stuff..."
  
Again, this is smart. If a character dies (or at least dies in certain ways) or if an NPC fails their morale and runs away, you're not just down a person, you're potentially down your entire supply of a vital resource. It's the kind of risk that would basically never occur if you're counting individual torches. I mean yes, you could still run the risk of running out of individual torches, but probably only if you under-shopped. Here the question is not "should we buy 20, 40, or 60?" it's "should we run the risk of carrying only one, or give up the space to bring a spare?"
  
"Players quickly have so much gold that buying more-than-sufficient quantities of vital resources is trivial."
  
Resource-management heavy games may inherently be poor and/or low-power games, but if your character is routinely bringing back so little gold from the dungeon that you can't afford flashlight batteries and bottled water, then your campaign world may be a little too crapsack. Remember you're risking death down there. If all you're getting in return is pocket-change that leaves you unsure about whether or not you can afford a microwave burrito and to refill your Zippo lighter, then the risk/reward structure of your world may be too cruel for anyone to survive. Brian's idea would also justify charging non-trivial prices to replenish your expedition resources. Remember, you're not just buying a torch, you're buying all the torches you'll need to get through the dungeon.
  
"It is difficult for players to know how many individual rations, flasks of water, torches, etc. will be sufficient for the current session. Players will usually have either so much of a vital resource that it ceases to matter or so little that it feels like they guessed incorrectly."
  
To this I would add that if you are using fully-random character generation, including randomly generated starting equipment, then it feels perverse to punish the players with their characters getting lost in the dark forever and then starving to death, just because you, the judge, made them roll on a random table and then wouldn't let them go shopping afterwards. This is the point I said I would come back to earlier. If random starting equipment is a best-practice that gets games going faster and lets people actually play, then you can't subsequently force them to wallow in misery because they had random starting equipment rather than a painstakingly selected bespoke panoply.
  
"The more differences items have in relation to encumbrance, the more difficult the system is for players to manage accurately and efficiently. Limit encumbered status to, at most, two states: normal and overburdened. All items are either normal or Bulky. Normal items take 1 slot. Bulky items take 2 slots. There is no 'X quantity of this item fits in 1 slot'. If you have 4 vials of poison, it takes 4 slots to carry them."
  
"A single treasure is treated as a single, indivisible item. Most treasures are Bulky. Some treasures are Unwieldy - they cannot be carried in your inventory. You must come up with a plan, equipment, personnel, etc. to transport them. An important idea is the indivisibility of treasures. Take this into consideration when making your treasures. A heavy, golden vase makes a better treasure than a pile of gold coins. The latter immediately re-raises the 'how many coins per slot' question. If you really want chests of coins, play the 'It's a game. The chest of coins is a single, indivisible Bulky item' card."
  
Brian gives his player 8 encumbrance slots per character. Note that the popular encumbrance equal to Strength means an average character in an OSR game will get to carry 10 items, after packing rations, torches, and rope, they're left with 7 discretionary spots. In a party of 3 using expedition resources, each character can pack a single expedition resource and be left with 7 discretionary encumbrance slots. Perfect.
  
Brian's advice here is also just one more reminder that if you're going to use encumbrance, you have to keep it simple. I'm of the opinion that encumbrance is often difficult to use because we often ask it to do too much, tracking significant items, insignificant items, bundles of items, armors that can take up between 0-6 encumbrance slots, incorporating adjustments for strength, multiple movement rates, etc. Brian keeps it dead simple. A specific number of items, period. No bundles, nothing is special. Just this much and no more, and that's it. Again, if you want to add more complications later, there's still some value in identifying the simplest possible version for now. The simplest simplest version is still just to ignore these things entirely, but the simplest version that actually uses some form of encumbrance is probably going to look something like this.
  
The treasure rules are dead simple too, and preserve original D&D's challenge of making treasure an encumbering item, not just something that disappears into hammer space the moment you pick it up. I think caches of coins are still do-able, but I would suggest making each cache be a unique currency or denomination. The "late Renaissance gold florins with a rare anti-pope obverse minting" are a separate cache from the "Iron Age iron coins dating from Vandal Savage's third empire right before he was overthrown by Kru'll the Eternal" - and both of them are going to a numismatist to get changed for cash before you can spend them. Brian also points out something that I've noticed recently, and that Luka Rejec is obviously thinking about with his rules for "hacking up treasure", which is that there's a distinction between items that take up 1 or 2 encumbrance slots, and items that are larger than an individual character can carry. While technically, this issue could come up with adventuring equipment too, more often, it's a problem that arises from treasure, and I don't think it's fair that you, the judge, should show the players some cool treasure and then force them to leave it behind because you couldn't figure out what rules would adjudicate how their characters could carry it.