Sunday, June 9, 2019

The Invaders - Invid, Inheritors, Dreamers, Ividia

The Invid were one of the first monsters I ever wanted to fight. The Invid are the villains of season 3 of Robotech.

The villains of season 2 of Robotech, the Robotech Masters, spend about half the season worrying that the Invid are coming. While the human heroes of the story are all going crazy wondering whether they can beat the Robotech Masters and their seemingly invincible army of clone pilots and bioroid mechas, the Masters themselves are going crazy because they're certain they CAN'T beat the Invid, and their only hope is to hurry up and finish things on Earth so they can run away before the Invid get here. In other words, the Invid are introduced by reputation as the REALLY BAD GUYS that even the regular bad guys are scared of. I have to tell you, as a suspense-building device, kid me found it pretty successful.
The evolution of the Invid from the Legends of Zor comic
Season 3 of Robotech opens with the Invid coming to Earth and completely wrecking up the place, so that the rest of the season is set in a ravaged, post-apocalyptic wasteland where humans are barely eking out subsistence. Which is to say, from the moment of their arrival, they absolutely lived up to their reputation.

The Invid we see appear to be crab-like crustaceans with partially mechanical/electronic components. On the show, it's ambiguous if what we're seeing are the Invid themselves, form-fitting suits of battle armor the Invid wear, oversized mecha with the same body-plan as their human-sized pilots, or mecha with entirely different looking aliens inside. (It's possible, for example, that the blue-green ooze that bleeds out when the armor is pierced IS the pilot, not the pilot's blood.)
Invid Scouts
This and subsequent images from the Robotech Picture Archive
Invid Armored Souts
Invid Trooper
Invid Shock Trooper
The Invid come to Earth seeking the Flower of Life. In season 1 of Robotech, a battle fortress crashes into the Earth, and the alien Zentradi come to seize it. Humans eventually repel the Zentradi  invasion. The battle fortress is so desirable in part because it's fueled by a large supply of a power source called Protoculture. In season 2, the Robotech Masters come to Earth to try to retrieve the Protoculture for themselves. Unfortunately, over the course of the season, the Flower of Life starts growing in the Protoculture, which makes it both useless to the Masters, and irresistible to the Invid, who can sense its presence from across the galaxy.

There are some interesting anti-colonial themes and themes of decadence at work in all this. The Robotech Masters enslaved the Zentradi, turned them into giants, and gave them their fleet of warships, but by the start of season 1, the Zentradi have escaped from the Masters' control, and are just a roaming army. They know how to pilot their warships, but not how to repair them or build more, and everything looks pretty heavily worn, even broken. They're hoping the battle fortress that crash-landed on Earth will include schematics that will let them make things and not just use them.

The Robotech Masters have also forgotten some of their technology. They can use Protoculture to grow clones, build bioroid mecha, and fuel their whole civilization, but they no longer remember how to make more Protoculture. They want the battle fortress basically just to buy time. The entire season, we see them fighting at far less than full strength because they're almost out of fuel. They want to seize the Protoculture in the fortress to replenish their supply, and it's pretty heavily implied that if they fail, they'll go extinct. They might be doomed even if they seize it though, since they have no particular plan to relearn how to synthesize the stuff for themselves, and the fortress might be the last great untapped supply anywhere in the galaxy. What they need is renewable energy, and instead, they're going absolutely all-in on using up the last bit of irreplaceable fuel.

Meanwhile, the Flower of Life itself is like a prion or a parasite, at least from the Robotech Masters' perspective. They describe it as both a pest that grows in Protoculture and as a mutation of Protoculture itself. Regardless, the Flower of Life contains all the energy of Protoculture, but in a form that's unusable to the Zentradi or the Masters. The Invid, we're told, were once either non-sentient, or at least a non-technological species from the same planet where Protoculture originated. The Masters' uplifted the Invid and enslaved them to either grow Protoculture, or to grow the Flower of Life and convert it into Protoculture. By the time of the show, the Invid have also escaped the Masters' control, and now outnumber and overpower them. All the old Protoculture farms are controlled by Invid who use them to grow the Flower of Life for themselves, and when they come to Earth, it's to enslave humans to farm and harvest the Flower of Life for them.
The Invid Flower of Life
The Invid use bio-technological Genesis Pits to experiment with ways to better adapt the Earth to their own purposes. They also use the Pits to transform a few of themselves into human-like bodies.

So to summarize, the Invid are simultaneously the sympathetic victims of a colonialist empire, and a terrifying unstoppable invasion force. They come to Earth to transform it into a slave-tended garden for growing their sole food-source, the Flower of Life. And they control their own biology to such an extent that we see them as both giant crab-robots and as humanoid spies.
Marlene was grown to be an Invid spy,
but her egg was damaged and she hatched with amnesia
Sera retained her memories,
but found that her human form gave her human emotions
Now these are absolutely some monsters I want to fight. BUT, they also remind me of some other monsters, and so rather than leave well enough alone, I want to put my own take on them for Gilded Age horror gaming. What shall we call these not-Invid? I think I would call them the Invidia, the Invaders.

In Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford's novel The Inheritors, the eponymous Inheritors are humanoid invaders from the Fourth Dimension who are endlessly fascinating to actual humans, and who are successfully able to exploit this fascination to ascend to fame, power, and prominence within British society. The book ends at about the point when they're about to move from acquiring power to using it to remake the world.

The Inheritors look basically human, but their presence is like a superstimulus that overwhelms most people's psychological defenses against being abused or manipulated. It's sort of not clear to me if Conrad and Ford intended these characters to be alien invaders, or just like a new "breed" of modern humans who are unbounded by tradition - but for the sake of gameability, let's go with aliens. Likewise, it's not clear if they intend the Fourth Dimension to be a literal place, or just a metaphor, and both interpretations of 4D were pretty popular at the time, but again, for the sake of gaming, let's assume it's a place. If the Inheritors are from another world, and take on human-like bodies when they come to ours, it's possible that they have another appearance entirely when they're at home.
The Inheritors: An Extravagant Story by Joseph Conrad and Ford Maddox Ford, 1901

In Samuel Delaney's short story "Aye, and Gomorrah", Spacers are essentially a third gender of humanity. Delany describes them as being agender and asexual. They live full-time in space stations that orbit the Earth, but can teleport down to the planet for recreation. When they come down, they're idolized, exoticized, and fetishized by "frelks" - people whose only sexual attraction is to Spacers. The story seems to imply that most people have a low opinion of both frelks and Spacers, and Spacers seem to see frelks' attraction to them as basically a joke. Throughout the story, frelks basically beg Spacers to exploit them, and Spacers are easily able to get cash, or a favor, or a laugh at a frelk's expense.

Although Delaney writes about a public that is distinctly un-sympathetic to his main characters, he seems to be pretty sympathetic to both the frelks and the Spacers, while showing that their relationships aren't healthy for either party. They kind of can't be, since they're fleeting, and so one-sided. But what if Spacers were more like Inheritors? What if almost everyone fell in one-sided love with them the way frelks do?
Dangerous Visions edited by Harlan Ellison, 1967
In James Tiptree's story "And I Awoke and Found Me Here on the Cold Hill's Side", humans have encountered aliens, and have joined galactic civilization. We're the newest members, so we have the least technology, least political power, and are economically the poorest species in galactic civ. And a significant portion of humanity becomes sexually obsessed with aliens from the moment we first meet them.

Tiptree describes this almost exactly like superstimulus - whatever qualities we find attractive in other humans, aliens simply have MORE of those qualities, more than any human ever could, so much MORE that we become unable to feel attraction for other humans again. The humans who love aliens love them desperately and one-sidedly, and never seem to get more than a pity-fuck out of their pursuit. Tiptree never says if the aliens who go along with this exploit their human lovers, economically or in any other way. But the relationships are clearly unhealthy, both emotionally and physically, as every human who loves aliens is shown to have permanent injuries they sustained during sex.

The Invid spies with human bodies do elicit deep feelings of affection and attraction in season 3 of Robotech, but throughout the series, love between humans and aliens occurs over and over because both sides sometimes find one another alluring and irresistible. The difference is, in Robotech, this love is shown to be reciprocal and valuable. The xeno-philia or xeno-sexuality of humans and aliens alike proves again and again to be the first step toward greater mutual understanding and diplomacy. Robotech is a war story - three war stories, really - but in each season, it's people who feel inter-species attraction who make the first overtures to peace. Tiptree's vision is different, like Delaney, she imagines a lopsided attraction that leaves one side willing to sacrifice everything, and the other side only willing to condescend to interact at all for the sake of receiving their sacrifices.

(Quick thought that serves no purpose: what if there were a setting were "homosexual" referred to ANY humans who loved humans - who loved the SAME species as themselves, who loved other HOMO sapiens? What if "heterosexual" referred to humans who loved aliens - who loved DIFFERENT species? That has no real relevance to what I'm talking about here, but I would find that to be a fascinating linguistic drift.)
Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, March 1972
To take another tack, in D&D's Eberron setting, the Inspired are humanoid bodies inhabited by the minds of extra-dimensional aliens - the Quori from Dal Quor. The humanoids are explicitly described as being not quite human. Their species, when not combined with a Quori to become an Inspired, are simply called Empty Vessels. The art depicting the Inspired often shows a phantasmal Quori floating behind the Inspired body. Personally, I interpret this not just as a way of illustrating that we're looking at an Inspired rather than a human, but as an indication that the Inspired sometimes project psychic images of their Quori when they're being overt about their identities.
Inspired and Quori
Inspired and Quori surrounding adventurers
In Jack Shear's Umberwell setting, he describes a species he calls Dreamers. Just describes Dreamers like this: "Dreamers are a rebirthed race; they are the souls of an insectoid species originating from a lost age of the city’s history reincarnated in bodies indistinguishable from the human form. If the theory that the city’s islands are the remains of a dead god is true, it may be the case that the insectoid souls of the dreamers achieved their initial sentience and innate psionic powers by feeding on a divine body as parasites. When they sleep they dream only of Scarabae - the precursor city that stood on the islands currently occupied by Umberwell."

You could imagine Dreamers as being like the Inheritors - human bodies with alien minds. You could imagine them like the Khepri from Perdido Street Station, as humanoids who simply followed a different evolutionary path to arrive at much the same place humans did. You could imagine them like the Insect-kinden from Empire in Black and Gold, as humans whose psychic powers and tribal identities draw on actual insects as a source of imagery and fictive-kinship. Or you could imagine them like the Inspired - humanoid bodies with phantasmal insects hovering behind them, like the totem animals that appear DC comics' Vixen or Mera use their superpowers.
Umberwell: Blackened be Thy Name by Jack Shear, 2018
Lin the Khepri by Justin Oaksford, 2011

In Greek myth, Invidia is the goddess of jealousy. Invasion, I think, could be imagined to be like jealousy. You want what someone else has, and you try to take it away from them.
Circe Invidiosa by John Williams Waterhouse, 1892
From there, it's a simple misspelling to arrive at Ividia, a genus within the family of pyramid-shelled snails. Is there any animal more D&D than a snail? It's almost too perfect to learn that Ividia snails are hermaphroditic, and usually parasites.
Turbonilla acutissima, not a member of the Ividia genus,
but still part of the Pyramidellidae family

And that, I think, is enough to start building our Invaders, our Invidia.

The Invaders come to us from somewhere beyond. Some of them claim to hail from the Crab Nebula, situated in the night sky between Aldebaran and the Pleiades. Others claim a kingdom within the Fourth Dimension, a realm but a sidestep away from our own reality.

The Invidia appear to us in humanoid guises. They are intoxicatingly beautiful, with flawless androgynous features. Some dress in men's clothes, others in women's, others in some mix. They claim no human gender, and each addresses itself like royalty, as "we" and "our". Those humans who have seen the Invidia without their clothes claim that all their bodies are alike, no matter what they wear, and that the resemblance to humanity only goes so far before giving way to impossible alien anatomy, unattainable foreign beauty. Those humans who have been trusted to see the Invidia like this are inevitably too far gone to really return to humanity. The rest of their lives will be spent as the Invidia's evangels.

Humans are like thrall before the Invidia. We lack the strength to refuse them, lack the will to oppose their desires. The first encounter with an Ividia is an unsettling, uncanny experience. They seem too good to be human, too perfect. Their strength of personality is overwhelming, their very presence, overaweing. Many who meet the Invidia fall instantly in love with them. They become suitors, followers, hangers on who accompany their beloveds everywhere they go. Others fall so deep in thrall that they become almost insensate. These "sleepwalkers" are uncanny in their own right, nearly mindless servants despite their human form.

It is as easy as breathing for the Invaders to enter the highest echelons of human society. They collect socialites and celebrities as their most valued sycophants. The Invaders' power over humans with worldly power makes their domination almost instant, almost complete.

The earth, to these Invaders, is like a garden, where they seek to grow Golden Lotus. This flower is life to the Invaders, it is the source of their abilities and their only food. It is also a powerful narcotic that affects them as opium affects humans. The effects of Gold Lotus on humans is even stronger. It can turn lotus-eaters into "sleepwalkers" or put them into a near-permanent twilight sleep. It can also imbue seemingly magical properties on the eater. The Invaders have come to earth to grow their garden, and though their vanity seems insatiable for our adoration and our praise, what they really want humanity for is to labor as their gardeners.

Though they usually appear in their humanoid form, the Invaders have other bodies as well, kept just a sidestep away in fourspace. When roused to anger, or high on Lotus, these ghostly golden bodies appear just behind the Invidia, always behind, no matter which angle they're viewed from. The translucent gold bodies of the Invidia are not human. They appear as the ghosts of giant, monstrous snails. A lesser caste of Invidia exists, who dwell on earth in their snail-bodies, and are summoned to act as soldiers when their leaders' charisma and diplomacy fails them. Sightings of the soldier caste are rare, for few can refuse the Invidia any request.
Should the Invidia be snails? or crabs, like the Invid?
Should they just have golden eyes? or entirely golden bodies like the Sovereign from Guardians of the Galaxy?
Consider this idea a work in progress.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Investigations in DCC

I mentioned before that I'm going to be taking over as the head writer for Discerning Dhole's CRAWL-thulhu zine. I haven't made many decisions about the future direction of the zine yet, but I know I want it to be set in a fictionalized Gilded Age (encompassing roughly the period from 1880-1945) and I know I want it to focus on mystery investigations.

Which has got me thinking more generally about the question, how do you conduct investigations in DCC? How do you handle skills? How do you handle clues?

Zine by John Potts, cover and interior art by Todd McGowan

CRAWL-thulhu issue 1 has a mystery investigation adventure, but basically everyone is willing to talk to you, and all the clues are laying out in the open. The core mysteries arise from the fact that a key witness is dead and a key source of danger is invisible. Essentially any character should be equally likely to solve the mystery - deciding where to go, what to look at, who to talk to are all tests of player skill instead.

But often in mystery investigation games, there's an element of character skill involved instead. The basic idea being that not every character should be able to find every clue. Even in Trail of Cthulhu (and related games) where any character with the right skill can find a clue automatically just by asking for it, they still have to have the skill, and they still have to ask if there's a clue. In the original Call of Cthulhu, you not only need to have the skill and ask to use it, you also have to roll the dice to see if you succeed at finding it. This introduces an element of ambiguity - was there really no clue there? or was there a clue but you failed to find it? (I'll talk about some possible solutions to the "what if they don't find ANY of the clues?" problem at the end. Dungeon Crawl Classics HAS a skill system that involves rolling dice already - so I'm NOT going to propose adopting Trail of Cthulhu's diceless skills.)

CRAWL-thulhu issue 2 introduces skills, and the list would look pretty familiar to players of both D&D and Call of Cthulhu.

There are a few other people who've written rules for conducting investigations in DCC, so I'm going to look at Brent Ault's Cyber Sprawl Classics, Stephen Bean's Bloody Hound character class for Julian Bernick's Nowhere City Nights, and Paul Wolfe's Dark Seas. Luckily for us, these are all freely available online, so they're very easy to look at.

In DCC, there are two types of skills - the named, formal skills practiced by Thieves, and the unnamed, informal skills that every character learns from their zero-level occupation. A Thief's formal skills can usually be substituted by an ability score check - although the Thief might roll against a lower DC, and always benefits from a bonus determined by her alignment and level. The informal occupational skills are considered either "trained" or "untrained" - and about a dozen occupations are likely to be considered "trained" for any particular task. Untrained characters roll a d10 to attempt the skill, while trained characters roll a d20. So using a trained skill in DCC is basically the same as making an ability score check.

CRAWL-thulhu's skills build on this framework. All skills start out untrained, and you can roll a d10 to attempt them. You get one trained skill from your occupation, and you can roll a d20 for that. As you gain levels, you earn "skill points" that you can either use to train in untrained skills, or to improve your training in a trained skill - becoming an expert who rolls a d24 or a master who rolls a d30.

There are two really basic ways to find clues in a mystery investigation - talking to people, and finding / analyzing objects.

There are also two really basic dangers to designing skills for a mystery investigation. The first is having too few skills - most people would agree that a single "Clue" skill is too few, and likewise that a "People" skill and an "Objects" skill is still not enough. The second danger is having too many skills. Consider the question of talking to people - if each PC occupation could only talk to NPCs in the same occupation, then surely having 100 different "Talk to Person of the Same Occupation" skills is too many. (A third basic danger is making the skill tests too difficult, which is related to the "what if they don't find ANY of the clues?" problem I'll discuss at the end.)

Zine by Brent Ault, Cover art by Korotitskiy Igor

In Cyber Sprawl Classics (CSC), player characters know Etiquettes that help them talk to NPCs. CSC treats Etiquettes a bit like foreign languages - everyone knows the common tongue, but you need a positive Intelligence modifier, a Lucky Sign, or a class feature in order to learn an Etiquette. If you are smart or lucky enough to know an Etiquette, you get to roll a d24 when speaking to the relevant NPCs, instead of the standard d20. So in this game, everyone is "trained" to talk to everyone else, but if you know the relevant "foreign language," then you become a bit of an expert.

There are seven Etiquettes - Academic (for talking to scientists and doctors), Corporate (for talking to CEOs and white-collar workers), Gang (for talking to criminals), Security (for talking to police and military), Runner (for talking to hackers), Socialite (for talking to "industrialists" and "the elite"), and Street (for talking to blue-collar workers and people who provide services to criminals.)

If that list sounds familiar to you, it's probably because it's so similar to the list of backgrounds available in 5e and the GLOG. Before looking at what other DCC writers were doing, I made a list of the way I would divide up Gilded Age society, and CSC's list is very similar to what I came up with. It's probably very similar to the list you would come up with, if you were thinking about how to divide virtually any Western society.

If I were to alter CSC's list, I think I would combine the Corporate and Socialite Etiquettes. In the Gilded Age, "society" was basically synonymous with the corporate elite and their families. That might be different in a cyberpunk game - indeed, in such a game, it might even make sense to have two skills for talking to the same person in two different environments, at work and at leisure. I might also do away with the Runner Etiquette, or combine it with Gang, since there isn't really any group analogous to hackers in a Gilded Age setting, and since the motives of any analogous individuals would be essentially criminal.

I like "etiquette" as the name for this kind of skill though. I'd thought of calling them "interaction skills," but I think "etiquette skills" might sound better.

There's also a question of how common these skills should be among characters. In 5e and the GLOG, essentially every character starts with one Etiquette due to their background. In CSC, only a fraction of characters know any Etiquettes. In the heroic fantasy of 5e, character backgrounds are mostly relevant for receiving material support from NPCs, and the support most NPCs provide is food and shelter, and perhaps friendship with a specific faction. In CSC, Etiquettes might have many uses, but they're optional, a bonus. You get along fine without them, you just get along better if you have them. But "etiquette skills" could be treated as a skill like any other, a skill that you could either be "untrained" or "trained" in - but doing that changes something else fundamental about how social skills work though.

If everyone has an "etiquette skill" (or, what amounts to the same thing, if not everyone has one, but nobody needs one) then it's possible to have other social skills as well - separate skills for persuading people, for tricking them, or for intimidating them. Those are the kinds of social skills we're pretty used to seeing. But, if not everyone starts the game with an "etiquette skill" and every NPC needs you to have one, then I don't think you can have separate "traditional" social skills as well. If the party wants to blackmail a robber baron, I think it's too much to ask for them to have both a "corporate etiquette" and a "blackmail skill."

So the question becomes, which is more interesting for a mystery investigation game? Is it more interesting if you have a skill to interact with corporate types in whatever way you please? Or is it more interesting if you have a skill to blackmail any NPC you come across? Which leads to more interesting dilemmas if you don't have the skill? Is it more interesting if you have "academic etiquette" and you have to try to find a scientist who can talk to the robber baron for you? Or is it more interesting if you have "intimidation skill" and you have to find someone you can bully into setting up the blackmail?

Roleplaying games, including D&D, including Call of Cthulhu, have traditionally answered the latter - that it's more interesting to use character skills to define a particular approach and then let the PC use that approach on any kind of NPC they want. But part of me wonders if it might not be interesting to try the former. Perhaps it's more interesting to use skills to define a kind of NPC and then let the players use whatever approach is situationally appropriate - but only on the correct kind of NPC. At least for a mystery investigation game, where (paradoxically) the whole point of skills is to not let every character find every clue. To misquote Maslow, if all you have is a Seduction skill, every NPC looks like a nail. But if the only kind of NPCs you can talk to are workers, then perhaps it forces you to get creative to figure out what happened inside that share-holders meeting.

Nowhere City Nights by Julian Bernick, Bloody Hound by Steven Bean
The "Bloody Hound" character class (BH) is an investigator character that Steven Bean wrote for Nowhere City Nights and published in the 2017 Gongfarmer's Almanac, volume 7. BH includes six skills for mystery investigations. The Bloody Hound character class gets all six, every other character gets a single skill based on their background.

BH's skills are Search Scene (for finding clues within a crime scene), Analyze Physical Evidence (for learning information from objects), Analyze Medical Evidence (for learning information from dead bodies, primarily), Interrogate - Charm (for making people want to talk to you), Interrogate - Intimidate (for making people talk to you even though they don't want to), and Conduct Surveillance (for staking out a person or location to see what happens.)

In terms of the effects of skills, BH distinguishes between finding a clue (with a "clue" here meaning an fact from an interrogation or an object discovered at a crime scene), making a deduction (which means analyzing the fact/object to learn what it tells you), and discovering an answer (which refers to piecing together several deductions to solve the mystery, or at least an important part of it.) So for example, finding a shell casing next to a murder victim would be "finding a clue," figuring out what kind of gun fired that bullet would be "making a deduction," and realizing who the shooter is would be "discovering an answer." Note that to discover the answer, you would need another strand of the investigation that tells you what type of gun a specific person has, so that you could later discover that that person is the shooter. BH also awards XP for each of these activities.

So BH makes a few key distinctions. First, it distinguishes between finding a clue and learning something from the clue. Those are two separate steps, and it's important for anyone adopting this approach to keep in mind that adding a step increases the chance of failure, especially if adding a step means adding a dice roll. Difficulty Classes that look intuitively too low individually can easily become too high collectively if you make ultimate success contingent on succeeding each roll in sequence.

Second, BH distinguishes between clues from objects and clues from talking to people. It does this in two ways. First the obvious - you use one set of skills to find and analyze objects, and a second set to learn information from NPCs. But second, and less obviously, you only have deductive skills related to objects. You make one roll to find an object at a crime scene, and a second roll to learn something from it. But when conducting an interrogation, you make one roll to learn a fact, and then ... It's possible that you make a second roll on the same interrogation skill to get the person to tell you what you deduce from the clue. It's also possible that making deductions from verbal clues is a player skill, and not a character skill.

I agree that "discovering an answer" - that is, finally solving the mystery - should be a player skill that doesn't rely on rolling the dice. I'm not sure if I agree that "making a deduction" should be a player skill, or at least, not always. Some information NPCs give you is going to be clearly useful. It will either already be a deduction, or it will clearly point to a deduction that the players can make. But if an NPC tells the players something, and they just have no idea what to do with that information, it seems like it might be nice to have some mechanism in place to let them ask the judge for help. The danger of that is players relying on that mechanism instead of their own thinking, or judges insisting on that mechanism even when the players are able to deduce on their own. If you don't create such a mechanism, then no one can abuse it. But also, no one can use it in a real emergency. I guess it's the same problem you run into with traps in D&D, where it's inherently ambiguous whether you should find them with player skill or character skill, and where any GM hoping to rely on player skill is at the mercy of the adventure writer to provide enough detail to make that possible(Although we're veering into "what happens if they don't find ANY of the clues?" territory here, so let's come back to this.)

What I find especially useful in the "Bloody Hound" class description is the idea that learning from clues in a mystery investigation is a two-step process, and that it might be profitable to separate those steps.

Dark Seas by Paul Wolfe

Dark Seas (DS) is a mini-setting with it's own fairly complete set of rules modifications that Paul Wolfe wrote and published in the 2017 Gongfarmer's Almanac, volume 4. 2017 was a good year for DCC mysteries! DS doesn't have any specialized skills for investigation, but what it does have is a really excellent interpretation of clues and how to use them.

Let me start with what I consider to be the key takeaway, and then back up. Every clue is an object. You might find some clues by talking to people and other clues by looking around the environment, but what you GET when you find a clue, what you KEEP once you have it, is a physical object. Like any other object, it goes in your character inventory.

But what that means for a mystery game, is that when you want to take stock of your investigation so far, you don't have to wrack your brain trying to remember every detail, you just look through your inventory and see which clue-objects are there. If you need help remembering what a particular clue told you, you just ask the GM to describe the object again. All this is probably easier than tracking ephemeral bits of information that are untethered from any specific reminder. I think this is brilliant, and I definitely plan to take Paul's advice.

So technically, in DS, Paul doesn't talk about "clues" but rather about Secrets. As mentioned, each secret takes the form of a physical object. Players collect Fragments like treasures as they explore - and 10 fragments combine to form one secret. In the example adventure, characters can collect fragments by doing things like searching a dead body, gathering rumors in a bar, inspecting magic items, questioning NPCs, they can be acquired like treasure from defeated monsters, and they're a reward for finding islands. The number of fragments acquired at one time is generally random, and is usually somewhere on the order of 1d10 fragments per investigative activity (although sometimes you get a full secret at one go).

I don't know if I would use this approach, but it encourages players to search as many places as possible, and it means that you don't need to know the meaning of every fragment, only the meaning of the final secret (clue) once it's assembled. And, you get to pick which secret you give them, which could maybe avoid the problem of finding a lot of clues hinting at one thing, while missing all the clues hinting at something else. Some examples of secrets in DS are port reports and charts of the sea, but also ghost stories and chess moves. Each character begins the game with a "starting secret" that grants them one boon, so for example you can have a political pamphlet that gives you an NPC contact, a last will and testament that gives you money, or a racy novel that gives you a bonus on certain saving throws.

I'm not completely convinced the experience system in DS would really work in practice the way Paul seems to want it to. When characters find fragments, they divvy them up, each character gets their own secret at 10 fragments. Characters earn XP for secrets - although not for finding them, but rather for divulging them to an NPC confessor. I think you're supposed to need a new NPC for each secret, although that could add up quickly. Raising 4 PCs from 0th level to 1st level would take 40 secrets and 40 NPCs ... which feels like kind of a lot. Starting secrets also need to be divulged in order to earn their benefit, which seems more appropriate. I'm quibbling over details at this point though - the big takeaway that every clue is an object is still absolutely brill.
Zine by John Potts, cover and interior art by Todd McGowan
Finally, as promised, let's address the question "what happens if they don't find ANY of the clues?" How are you supposed to run a mystery if there's a chance that the players won't find, or won't be able to interpret, ANY of the clues that are left for them?

1) First, and most obvious, give lots of of clues. The Alexandrian famously recommends including a minimum of 3 clues for any conclusion you want your players to draw.

The point is that in order for there to be ENOUGH clues for the players, there need to be what feels like TOO MANY clues from the perspective of the judge. The judge can see everything, the players will only ever experience a fraction of it. The judge also knows all the answers from the outset, and so can instantly see how each clue points to each conclusion. The players are assembling a mental image piece-by-piece, and it's not always immediately clear where each piece goes.

2) Second, provide multiple sites of investigation. Give the players several distinct places to go look for clues. Following the Alexandrian's advice again, at every site, leave clues pointing to the final solution AND clues pointing to the other investigative sites.

Realizing that there's another place to go look can feel like a discovery in itself, and leaving one site to go to another can feel like forward progress is being accomplished. Movement between sites also passes some time that gives the players a chance to think, and creates opportunities for new information to become available.

3) Third, use the random encounter table to provide breaks in the case. Mysteries don't necessarily need wandering monsters the way other D&D adventures do, but random encounters are still useful for pacing and for marking the passage of in-game time.

Each day that passes with no solution to the mystery, allow events to be in motion. Maybe the criminal keeps committing similar crimes. Maybe the criminal gets spooked and engages in some kind of cover-up. Maybe new witnesses come forward. Maybe new sites for investigation are revealed. Maybe an NPC investigator got killed but left a diary behind. These random events provide verisimilitude, they can be a way to just GIVE the players a clue they might need, and they should almost always open up some new avenue for investigation that wasn't available before.

4) Fourth, speaking of just giving the players clues, sometimes just GIVE the players clues. Sometimes don't require a skill check. Sometimes just let the clue be sitting right out in the open, so all the players have to do is say they want to look at it. Sometimes let the witness be perfectly willing to talk, so all the players have to do is say they want to talk to them. Sometimes, the barrier of the players having to notice that they want to look at something or talk to someone is going to be enough without getting the dice involved at all.

Alternatively, if you're going to require a skill check to find the clue, then consider just TELLING the players what it means. You want to be a little careful with this, because you don't want to rob your players of the chance to exercise their player skill at solving mysteries, BUT if you're going to require a skill check to FIND the clue in the first place, then maybe don't require a second check to discover the meaning of the clue.

Always be careful not to set your skill check DCs too high, and be DOUBLY careful not to make the checks too difficult by requiring multiple rolls to succeed. What sounds like "this is an appropriate test of skill" to a person just READING the adventure will often turn out to be too difficult to people actually playing through it. What sounds like "this is way too easy" to someone who's just reading will often turn out to be appropriately difficult for actual players. Set your DCs for players, not for readers. And wherever you set your DCs, make the reward proportionate to the difficulty. If you need one check to find the clue and another to research it, then the reward for those paired successes had better be a REALLY GOOD CLUE so that the players' efforts are worthwhile.

5) Fifth, give the players multiple opportunities to find and interpret each clue. If they fail once, give them a second try. If one approach comes up short, let them attempt another.

Use these multiple attempts to create the narrative of the adventure. Maybe the first time the PCs search a room, they try just looking around very carefully during a house party. If that fails, they can try searching a second time, but they have to try a different approach. Perhaps they try breaking in and tearing the room apart looking for secrets. Perhaps they hire a professional burglar to search the room for them. Make sure there are narrative consequences for whatever approach they choose. The first attempt requires getting invited to the house party and roleplaying interactions with the other guests. The second attempt is sure to tip off the house owner that somebody's on to them. Hiring a burglar is going to require using criminal etiquette to make contact with the local underworld.

If a character can't interpret the meaning of a clue, let them try again if they can get access to a library or a lab. Or let them find an NPC who can interpret it for them. NPCs don't need to make skill checks. Picking the right NPC to ask, and using your etiquette skill to ask them, is difficult enough. There's no reason to add another chance of failure by making the NPC roll the dice as well.

The point is, failing once shouldn't mean failing forever. Players should have multiple clues they could find, multiple ways to get information out of each clue, and multiple ways to "get help" if they find they can't do it alone.

6) And finally, what happens if they can't find any of the clues? Let them fail. Give the whole mystery some kind of time limit. Create consequences for failing to solve it. And if the players fail, let them fail. The killer keeps on killing. The burglar pulls of their heist. The sorcerer summons the monster. The monster destroys the city and slinks back into the ocean.

If you've provided lots of clues, made them easy to find and easy to interpret, allowed second chances for anything the players want to try again at? Then let them fail. Just make sure their failure is legible. At least let them understand the solution to the mystery when they see what happens as a result of them not stopping it. Nothing's going to be less satisfying than having the mystery end and STILL not understanding what happened. If the players don't stop the villain, then at least let them watch the villain take their mask off, or gloat in triumph, or commit one final crime right before their eyes.

At that point, you've created a recurring villain, and a chance for your players to shout "I'll get you next time, my pretty!" When the villain DOES recur, the players have a much better shot at stopping them the second time around. Or, if they're very proactive, they can start planning to bring the pain directly to the villain's doorstep. Either way, failure in one case can be made to simply raise the stakes and make another case more interesting.

Sunday, June 2, 2019

Overland Maps - Gridcrawl, Chromatic, Mars

Lately I find myself wishing my campaigns were set someplace a little better defined. For awhile now I've been running a very episodic campaign that started in one town, then relocated to another, and then another. I have no idea where those town are in relation to each other, no idea what other towns might be nearby, no idea what terrain lies between or around them.

And this has sort of worked okay so far, but lately it's also got me feeling like I want more definition from my setting. I want the "sense of place" that comes from knowing where you are and knowing what's around you. I want the opportunities that come from having a sandbox for my players to traverse and explore. I want an overland map.

Let's look at a few examples of overland maps I've seen recently that I've liked.

First, and most recent is the unnamed map Edward Kann posted to the Forbidden Lair of the OSR MeWe group. He calls it "wilderness map done in gridcrawl style". I like it. It's simple, hand-drawn, unconventional for being on a grid instead of a hexmap, and something about it captures my imagination. It pleasantly reminds me of the maps from the old Legend of Zelda games, and other 8-bit overworlds.
Wilderness Gridmap by Edward Kahn
Legend of Zelda map from NES Maps

Next are a couple maps by Evlyn Moreau of Le Chaudron Chromatique. Evlyn has a couple maps I want to show off. Her most recent is a keyed map of a lake and its surrounding environs. I particularly love the way the black-circle numbers break through the edge lines as they lead you on a meandering tour around the lake. It reminds me, for some reason, of Tom Gauld's map of his home.
Lacustres Map by Evlyn Moreau
Map of the Area Surrounding Our Holiday Home by Tom Gauld
The other map of Evlyn's that I find really inspiring right now is her Doodle Map. This one is more colorful and more whimsical, with more obvious landmarks. Again, it's a pointcrawl, rather than being tied to a grid or a hexmap. This one feels more like something that might accompany a Mario game from the 16-bit, SNES era. It's full of skulls and snails and mushroom houses, and other interesting details. I should point out that if you go to the sidebar of Evyln's blog, she's got a link to free PDFs of Lacustres and Doodle Map as well as her other books, as well as a link to her Lulu storefront.
Doodle Map by Evlyn Moreau
Super Mario World Map from Mario Universe
Finally, I like Aos from Metal Earth's map of the Bad Canyon region from his forthcoming B/X Mars book. Compared to the Wilderness Gridmap and the Doodle Map, this is much smaller in scale, much closer to the Lacustres Map in terms of the geography covered. Like Evyln's second map though, Aos has included a number of interesting landmarks to draw the players' attention. The canyon setting is also a neat way to put literal walls around the sandbox setting, rather than making it an island, or requiring informal agreement to stay within the bounds of the map.
Bad Canyon Map by Aos

Thursday, May 30, 2019

Should we Start Numbering Hallways on our Maps?

I was thinking about Diogo Noguiera's now-famous post "How to Never Describe a Dungeon!"

If you haven't read it, you might like to. He makes a persuasive argument. I'll summarize.

There are two ways to describe a dungeon hallway. One way is bad and, you should never do it. The other way is good, and you should try to do it every time.

The bad way is like this: "You get to a intersection and there is a door to the north and two passages, one going east and one going west."

The good way is like this: "If the corridor in the east leads to a natural cavern covered with mushrooms and myconids, maybe when the PCs look down that passage they will see a dim fluorescent light that emanates from the weird moss that lives there, and feel a light cool breeze flowing from that direction. Some moss may be growing in that corridor also. If to the west there is a nest of giant spiders, that corridor will certainly have more cobwebs covering it than the other passages they have been through, and some of them are still vibrating, as if something alive is touching the web."

The bad way is bad because it prevents the players from making an informed decision. With no information to base their decision on, they might as well roll the dice to decide which way to go. They might as well be in a straight railroad.

The good way is good because it supplies information that lets players make meaningful, informed decisions. Rather than a simple toss-up between "left or right" or "heads or tails" they have a real choice between moss and cobwebs, and whatever each implies about what's at the end of each hallway. (I would add, this approach also encourages players to use the information available to them to try to draw conclusions, and it rewards them for thinking ahead, by hopefully supplying them with a safer or more favorable path through the dungeon.)

I feel like Diogo has persuaded me, but what I'm thinking about is how to make it easier to put his idea into practice. (I say "his idea" even though I know Diogo's not the only one who's ever made this point - he IS the one whose essay on this point I'm quoting here.)

Because good intentions are fine, but I think there's a reason so many game-masters probably default to the bad way of doing things. The reason is, it's easier.

Pick any dungeon you like. Open the map, find a hallway. Imagine your players entering the hallway. Now, prepare to describe it to them. What will you do?

The first thing you'll do, of course, is look at the drawing of the hall on the map. How long is it? How many doors open off of it? Where are those doors? Are there any special features you need to mention?

All of that is important information, but if that's all you describe (and I'll be honest, it's probably all I usually ever describe) then you're doing things the bad way that we just agreed doesn't allow for meaningful player decision-making.

What more do you need to do, in order to describe this hall the good way? Well, you need to take note of the room numbers. You need to go check the key to the map for each of those rooms. For each room, you need to read the description, come up with a general impression of what's the most important thing in the room, decide what a good clue about that thing would be, and then move on to the next room, which is probably on another page. Also, you need to hurry, because your players are waiting, and what's taking so long describing a simple hallway?

Did I say the bad way was easier? I misspoke. The bad way is MUCH easier.

So if all you have is good intentions and a regular map, it's going to be much harder to describe each hallway the good way. And that's because RPG maps don't number hallways.

Which is one of those things that I noticed, and thought was odd, when I first started reading RPG books. But there are all kinds of conventions and practices that go into making RPG books. Pretty quickly you get used to them, and basically forget that you ever thought they were strange. But reading Diogo's essay made me remember the way I felt when I first looked at an RPG map and wondered why the hallways didn't have numbers like the other rooms.

Which is fine, I guess, if you're treating hallways as non-spaces, like we've probably all been doing all along. But treating them that way basically forces you into the bad way of describing halls, because it forces you, the GM, to come up with a description right there on the spot.

If we want to describe hallways well, we need to number them on our maps.

Every hallway is an empty room, except we usually don't think of them that way. They have all the promise, and all the problems, that we associate with empty rooms. Think of every blog post, every essay, you ever read about what to do with empty rooms - we should apply all those ideas to hallways. And we should number them.

Getting good hall descriptions during play shouldn't be a matter of exception skill, fast reading, and quick thinking. It should be a matter of looking at the hallway's number on the map key, and communicating the information there to your players.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019


My friends John Potts and Todd McGowan have just published the second issue of their DCC zine - CRAWL-thulhu!

Zine by John Potts, Art by Todd McGowan

I was a playtester and a volunteer proofreader for issue 1, and I wrote a couple sections of issue 2. John and Todd worked as partners with John doing almost all the writing, editing, and layout, and Todd providing all the art. Because John has decided to retire following the release of issue 2, I'm going to be the lead author of all future issues.

CRAWL-thulhu issue 1 introduces advice for running a Lovecraftian campaign using Dungeon Crawl Classics. It replaces the Luck score with a Sanity score, has rules for Sanity loss due to encountering elements of the Lovecraft Mythos, has a list of 1920s occupations for zero-level characters, and has a complete adventure "A Horrible Day at the Dunwich Fair", which I've played through twice.

CRAWL-thulhu issue 2 introduces a skill system for mystery investigations in DCC, has six 1920s character classes, rules for spellcasting and magic, some death & dismemberment style tables I wrote for recovering from insanity and near-death, and offers more advice for running Lovecraftian campaigns using DCC.  

(And I should note, the tables here are different from the death & dismemberment table I wrote for DCC earlier. They're tailored to the horror genre and the modern setting in the same way that my original table is tailored to DCC's regular setting.)

Zine by John Potts, Art by Todd McGowan
So if you like DCC or Cthulhu or both, you might like to take a look at what my friends made!

My agreement to take over writing in the future was very recent, so at the moment, I don't have any answers about what will happen to the Discerning Dhole Productions imprint, or what will be in the contents of future issues. I'm sure I will shamelessly advertise here when issue 3 is ready to be released. In the mean time, CRAWL-thulhu issue 1 and issue 2 are available for you to enjoy!

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Quotes from Empire in Black and Gold - part 2

I wanted to share some quotes from Empire in Black and Gold, both to show a little what Adrian Tchaikovsky's writing looks like, and to illustrate a few ideas from the text. This is a follow-up to my earlier post about the book.
Factions of the Lowlands

The first quote comes from chapter 5, and shows the opening ceremony for an annual Olympic-style game. I like it because it's the first really good introduction we get to all the species/factions of the Lowlands, and it's also the first time we see the Wasps.

"There was a crowd the length of the Pathian Way. The wealthy and more prosperous artisans rubbed shoulders unselfconsciously, sitting on the great tiered stone steps that lined the route. The ritual of the Games and the procession of the athletes were older than the College itself. These steps had been thronged like this when the city had been still called Pathis and the Beetle-kinden were second-class citizens and slaves, back in the Bad Old Days."

"Before those comfortable steps thronged the poor, but they made up for it with noise and cheer. Being poor in Collegium was only a relative thing, for the poor of Collegium enjoyed ample work, and sewers and clean wells with pumps, and there was food to be had from the civic stores when times were lean. Governance by academics, philanthropists and the wealthy was hit or miss, but it had always been fashionable to be seen doing charitable work for the lower orders. Even the greediest magnate wanted to be seen to be generous, and even false generosity could fill bellies."

"There was a roar among the crowd. People began craning forward, even pushing out into the Pathian Way, though there was a scattered line of the city guard to keep them in check, mostly middle-aged men in ill-fitting chain mail. Their presence was enough, though, and every tenth man was a Sentinel wearing the massively bulky plate armor that only Beetle-kinden possessed the sheer stamina to wear. The cheering grew louder and louder, for Collegium's own athletic best were the first band of heroes to enter the city by the Pathian Way."

"Helleron's team came close behind. The Helleron team were fed a little less approval than the city's home-grown heroes, but they received cheers nonetheless. They were mostly Beetle-kinden, and they and Collegium took the honour of that race with them to the field."

"Traditionally, the Ant cities came next in the procession. The first platoon of neatly marching Ants hailed from Sarn, which in the last few decades of political reform had become Collegium's nearest ally. They were a uniform breed, tan of skin, regular of feature. The Kes team followed next, looking much like their predecessors save for the coppery tone of their skins, and then the pale Ants of Tark following on their heels."

"A showing from Seldis and Everis came next, a score of Spider-kinden, both men and women, and each of them as beautiful as heredity and cosmetics could conjure up for them. Behind them was the combined Egel-Merro team of Fly-kinden, a jostling pack of little people casting looks at the crowd that were full of bravado and sly humour."

"And last, of course, straggled whatever of the other two kinden of the Lowlands had managed to put together for a team this year. There were just eleven of them, far short of any of their competition, and nine of them were Mantids. They looked down their noses at the patronizing crowd, stalked with a killer's grace between the great packed masses of Collegium like hostage princes entering into captivity."

"Amidst the Mantids were a couple of others, grey-skinned and grey-robed, shorn of any ornament, staring fixedly at the ground. These two were not official delegates from Mount Hain in the north. They were radicals, renegades. Like the few Moth teachers employed at the College, they were the exceptions to their race who had come to see the world beyond their insular home. The Beetle spectators looked on them with amusement nowadays. There was no ire left, among the people of Collegium, for a race whose reach had once shadowed all of the Lowlands."

"There was now a murmur running through the crowd. For there was, this year, another team. They brought up the rear, consigned there because the organizers had not known what to do with them. Their banner, their colours, repeated in their clothes, their armor, even the hilts of their weapons. Black and gold. All of it black and gold. They were men, every one of them. Some were pale and some were darker, and most were fair-haired, and handsome when they smiled. Some of them wore banded armour and some simply cut clothes, and all of them had short swords in their belts. They were not the rigid lattice of the Ants, but their step was close in time. Seeing them, all of them together, the people of Collegium understood that a new race, a new power, had fully entered into the Lowlands."
Apt-ness and Crossbows

The next quote from chapter 7 is one of the first times Tchaikovsky really lays out how the different relationships-to-technology work within the setting. We learn what it means to be "Apt" and see just how unable to use machines the in-Apt species are.

"Tynisa shook her head. 'Sorry, Totho. All machinery is bibble-babble to me.' "

" 'But you were brought up here in Collegium!' he protested."

" 'Sorry. You ever see a Spider-kinden crossbow-woman? Being Apt to machines isn't something you can just pick up. You're born to it or you're not.' "

"Che had seen Tynisa with a crossbow, once. It had been when they were both around twelve, and Tynisa had been determined to become good with it, as she had been with everything else she put her hand to. That day lingered in the memory because it was the first time Che had found something she herself could do, that her foster sister could not."

"But it's not hard, she remembered saying patiently. You just point it at the target and pull the lever. And the staggering weight of her understanding that Tynisa just could not grasp the notion, could not understand that the action led to the result. She almost shot Stenwold when she finally clutched the weapon so hard she mistakenly triggered it, and she could not even begin to reload or recock it. It was not just that she had never been trained, or taught. It had all been there for her, if only she could adapt her mind to take it in."

"Persistent myth related that the crossbow was the first tool of the revolution. Almost certainly there had been something else, something less warlike and more practical. The crossbow was what won the battles, though. Any fool could pick up a crossbow and kill a man with it, any Beetle-kinden, or Ant, or anyone Apt. Bows were an art form, crossbows but a moment in the learning, in the making. The world had been turned upside down within a generation by men and women armed with the crossbow and the pulley, the hand pump and the watermill. All the old masters of the Lowlands had been unthroned, their slaves prising mastery of the world from their impotent hands. The old races of the superstitious night were waning. Only the Spider-kinden held on to their power, and that was because they could play the younger races like a musical instrument. The world belonged to the Apt: Beetles, Ants, and most Fly-kinden these days, the races of the bright sun that drove out the shadows."

"And also the Wasps: an entire Empire of the Apt."

Locks are Technology Too

So this quote, from chapter 8, kind of repeats some of the ideas from the previous post, but I like it also lays out what the Spider worldview is like. We know that they can't really use technology already, but it's nice to get a glimpse of what they CAN DO instead.

"Tynisa discovered that the cabin door was her only way out, and the door was locked."

"Now if she had been a Beetle, that would have been different. She was quite sure that if she had been a Beetle-maid then a few quick jabs with a piece of wire would see her out the door and away as fast as her stubby legs would carry her. She even began to try that, kneeling before the lock and peering into the narrow keyhole, trying to imagine the pieces of metal inside that, in some way beyond her imagining, controlled whether the door would open or not."

"She simply could not do it: there was no place in her mind to conceive of the lock, the link between the turn of the key, the immobility of the door. Of all the old Inapt races, the Spider-kinden still prospered as before, but that was only because they found other people to make and operate machines for them. Spider doorways were hung with curtains, and they had guards, not locks, to keep out strangers."

The Motley Mafia

We don't see very much of the demimonde or criminal underworld, but we do get a glimpse. In chapter 12, we're introduced to one of several colorful gangs within Helleron. There are quite a lot of "half-breed" characters in the Lowlands (including the apprentice Totho), and we see very early on that there's quite a bit of prejudice against them ... so it makes a certain kind of sense that many of them who are denied other opportunities might end up as criminals. I actually find Tchaikovsky's portrayal of this gang to be reasonably sympathetic, especially compared to "Mister Motley" from Perdido Street Station. Honestly this crew would be pretty at home in Tales of the Grotesque & Dungeonesque's city of Umberwell.

"There was a Fly-run eatery where Sinon Halfway, leader of the Halfway House cartel, held court. Some half-dozen Fly-kinden staff were serving three dozen men and women, and it was evident to Tynisa at first glance that there was a right end and a wrong end of the table to be kneeling at. The right end was closest to the enthroned figure of Sinon Halfway himself."

"He was a lean man just turning to fat around the middle, due to the few years now when he had not personally taken up the sword to defend his empire. He was dressed like a man about to flee the city with all his wealth upon him, but she saw that all of them were, more or less, the gangsters sported chains and rings, amulets and jeweled gorgets, even in one case a mail shirt made from coins, good silver Standards of Helleron mint. Sinon would have been worth, in gold and gems alone, a much as half the table, and she understood that it was a status thing. A wealthy man who hid his light under a bushel would gain no respect for that here."

"The name told true. Sinon was a half-breed, and she guessed that he was Moth-kinden interbred with the pale-skinned Ants of Tark. What should have been an unpleasant mottling had instead left him with milky skin traced with veins and twists of grey, like marble. It was an exotic, oddly attractive sight. His hair was dark, worn long over his shoulders in a Spider style. His eyes were just dark pupils circled in white, without irises. The melange of his ancestry had conspired to make a man at once unnerving and compelling."

"The gangstesr were a motley lot: Beetles, Ants, Flies, Spiders, plenty of half-breeds, and a few she could not name. They had scars, most of them, amidst the jewelry, so it had been a fight for them to get where they were."

The Origins of the Empire

We've been kind of following Tynisa, but here in chapter 19, we pick up with her sister Cheerwell learning about the origins of the Wasp Empire. It sounds vaguely similar to the origin of the Mongol Empire, and reminds me of Coins and Scrolls' vision of foreign invaders as a source of threat in the medieval world of his game.

" 'You must have a very skewed picture of the Wasp-kinden,' he told her. 'If you think of us at all, you must think we're savages.' "

" 'Not so far from the truth,' he admitted, and she raised surprised eyebrows. 'The Empire is young. Three generations, three Emperors.' "

" 'No, we don't live for hundreds of years. Nothing like that. Our Most Revered Majesty Alvdan the Second is not thirty years of age. His grandfather was one tribal chieftain in a steppeland full of feuding tribes, but he had, as the story goes, a dream. He took war to the other tribes, and he subjugated them. He brought all the Wasp-kinden together under his banner. It took a lifetime of bitter fighting and worse diplomacy. His son, Alvdan the First, built the Empire: city after city brought into the fold, the borders pushed ever outward. Each people we made our own, we learned the lessons they taught us. We honed the tool of war until it was keen as a razor."

"Our Emperor now, Alvdan Two, was sixteen when he came to the throne, and since then has not rested in furthering the dream of his father and grandfather. We have fought more peoples than the Lowlands even knows exist. We have defended ourselves against enemies who were stronger than us, or wiser than us, or steeped in lore we could not guess at. We have conquered internal strife and we have done what no other has ever done before us. The Empire is physically near the size of the entire Lowlands, but all under one flag and marching all to one beat. The Empire represents progress, Miss Maker. The Empire is the future. Look at my people. They have a foot in the barbaric still. They must be forced into discipline, into control, into civilization! But we have come so very far in such a short time. I am proud of my people, Miss Maker. I am proud of what they have brought about.' "
Maps of the World

In chapter 20, Cheerwell and her friend Salma discuss their peoples' visions of the larger world. Salma tells the fable that I relate below, and Cheerwell follows up by explaining that the only famous Beetle explorer ended up having all his accounts sold as children's fiction, because Beetle-kinded society could neither believe what he found nor take it seriously. You get the sense though that this world might contain nearly every possible type of insect-kinden if you travel far enough to find them. Here we see Locusts, Slugs, Woodlice, a pretty good description of how "foreigners" become "barbarians", and an outsider's perspective on the Lowlands.

" 'Where is there, out here?' Che wondered. The Lowlander cartographers had never been much for going beyond the borders of the lands they knew. It was part of the inward-looking mindset that was now giving the Wasps such free reign."

" 'Commonweal maps don't go into much detail here. Just "wildlands," that kind of thing,' said Salma. 'Mind you, they're mostly about a hundred years out of date at the least. It's been a while since the Monarch's Nine Exploratory Heroes were sent to the four corners of the world looking for the secrets of eternal life.' "

" 'The who sent for what?' she asked incredulously. He grinned at her."

" 'Three centuries ago the Monarch was very old, and he sent the nine greatest heroes of the Commonweal out into the unexplored parts of the world, because his advisors and wizards had told him that the secret of life eternal was out there to be found. Some went north across the great steppe, through the Locust tribes and the distant countries of fire and ice, and the ancient, deserted mountain kingdoms of the Slugs. Some went east where the barbarians life, and where the broken land is studded with cities like jewels, or to where the great forests of the Woodlouse-kinden grow and rot all at the same time. Some went west, and sailed across the sea to distant lands where wonders were commonplace and the most usual things were decried as horrors not to be tolerated. And some,' and here his smile grew mocking, 'went south across the Barrier Ridge, and found a land where no two people can agree on anything, and the civilized comforts of a properly measured life were almost completely unknown. And five of the Exploratory Heroes returned, with empty hands, but with tales enough to keep the Regent's wise men debating for centuries.' "

"She was agog, just for a moment, waiting. 'And? What about the others? Did they find it?' "

"He laughed at her. 'No one knows. They never came back. Some people still say, though, that the last of the Heroes still wanders distant lands, living eternally, eternally young, trying only to get his prize back to a Monarch who died just two years after the Heroes set out.' "

The REALLY FAR Far Away Lands

Finally, from chapter 40, another glimpse of the much larger world, in which certain peoples are so distant that, like in Charles Saunders' Imaro stories, they are believed to mythical. In this case it's the Centipede-kinden and Mosquito-kinden who are thought just be legends. I somewhat wonder if either species ever shows up in Tchaikovsky's series, and if they do, whether his Mosquitoes are at all like the Anophelii from China Mieville's The Scar.

" 'There is no hand from which I would not take help at this point. I would write to the underground halls of the Centipede kingdom or the Mosquito Lords if they were anything more than a myth. Perhaps, if matters grow much worse, I will do so anyway.' "