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.' "

Monday, May 6, 2019

Empire in Black and Gold - part 1

If Adrian Tchaikovsky's Empire in Black and Gold isn't the GLOGosphere's favorite novel, it probably should be. In the first place, all the characters are technically human, but they're also all "insect-kinden", members of fantasy races and societies who liken themselves to different insect species, bear some physical resemblance to their namesakes and bear some supernatural powers that resemble them too. In the second place, the setting is an industrial, pre-apocalyptic world where the various societies of the Lowlands are on the cusp of a catastrophic invasion by an unstoppable army from just outside their borders.
All the different insect-kinden have access to what are essentially psychic powers called "The Art." A person can learn to access their Art by meditation, and it manifests in different ways in the different human races, and apparently there's some variation among individuals of the same race. (Only some Beetle-kinden can fly, for example, and those who can are much slower and clumsier than any other flying race.) When someone summons their "Art-wings", they appear like they're made of light, and the same is true for some other physical manifestations, like the Wasp-kindens' "Art sting." Art also lets Ant-kinden communicate telepathically and Spider-kinden manipulate people's emotions, but it ALSO also lets the Mantis-kinden grow bone-blades from their forearms, and it supposedly accounts for the Beetle-kinden's superior durability.

Tchaikovsky refers to the human races using capital letters, and actual insects using lowercase. So "Beetle-kinden" and "Beetle" refer interchangeably to humans, while "beetle" refers to the insects. There's not much animal life of any kind in the novel, but aside from humans, I think that horses are the only mammals we see. Meanwhile insects are sometimes as large as horses or elephants, and fulfill similar domesticated roles.

The Lowlands are a relatively self-contained region, protected from their neighbors by ocean on two sides, desert on a third, and a "The Great Barrier Ridge", a very Grand-seeming canyon that led me to spend a little time pondering if Tchaikovsky had set his novel in the far future of the real world. I think actually the geography here is supposed to kind of resemble Central and South Asia, but also maybe Southern and Eastern Europe, and the invading Wasp Empire seems like both the Mongol Horde in some ways, and like the Roman Empire in others.

The most industrious people are the Beetle-kinden, who control the liberal, cosmopolitan college city of Collegium and the sprawling, industrial-capitalist city of Helleron. Beetles are shorter than the other races and fatter. They're also the most mechanically adept - or "Apt" - and are the most similar to any readers who hail from liberal democracies in the contemporary West. Three of our viewpoint characters, Stenwold, Che, and Totho, are all Beetle-kinden.

Stenwold Maker reminds me a little of Isaac dan der Grimnebulin from China Mieville's Perdido Street Station. He's a middle-aged man of science, confronted with problems whose origins lay outside his worldview. I think the two are cut from the same cloth, and Isaac's life might be a bit like what Stenwold's life would have been like, if he hadn't adopted an infant daughter and raised her, hadn't adopted his niece as a ward to give his daughter a sister, if he had the opportunity to devote himself to his machines, instead of being forced by circumstance to become a spymaster and a statesman, so that he could learn about the Wasp Empire's activities, and try to influence Collegium's policy against them. (I guess he's also a little like Benjamin Franklin, now that I write this out.)

Cheerwell Maker, "Che", is Stenwold's niece and ward. When I think of her I usually just see Glimmer from the new She-Ra series. Totho is Stenwold's apprentice. The other two viewpoint characters are Tynisa, a Spider-kinden woman who Stenwold raised as his daughter, and Salma, a visiting prince from the Dragonfly Commonweal who understands the importance of opposing the Wasps. Spiders are incredibly adept at emotional manipulation, and Dragonflies just seem to be generally very graceful. We also see a Mantis Weaponmaster, Tisamon, in action, and he's the sort of fighter who can mow through an unlimited number of enemy combatants like an out-of-control grain threshing machine, the kind of fighter who basically can't be defeated in normal combat, because there simply isn't room to surround them with enough opponents to actually defeat them. (If Dragonflies remind me a bit of D&D's monks, Mantis-kinden are like barbarians with unlimited rage. If you used this as a setting for a game, you might want race-as-class character classes, or you might want to give each race 2-3 classes that are tied to it.)

The other place the Lowlands reminds me of is the fantasy East Africa of the Charles Saunders' Imaro stories. Saunders' Nyumbani is filled with a variety of societies and ethnicities, but his heroes are from beyond the boundaries of the lands any of the other characters are familiar with. They have "powers" that are common among their peoples, and those peoples are themselves repeatedly described as "semi-mythical" when Saunders explains how they seem to the majority of Nyumbanians. Imaro himself is a raging warrior whose upbringing resembles a fictionalized version of the Maasai peoples' traditional lifestyle. Pomphis is a pygmy sage who seems to have read and to know everything (a bit like the "lore" ability of D&D's original bards, hmm...), and Tanisha comes from a society that I think is supposed to seem a little like the Nubians after the end of their rule of Ancient Egypt. The point is, in both Saunders' world and Tchaikovsky's we have several heroes from distant lands, whose appearances and abilities seem almost supernatural to local observers.

As I mentioned, the Lowlands are in the midst of an ongoing, Beetle-led industrial revolution. The other "Apt" peoples are the Ant-kinden, whose skin-color derives from their city, and whose cities war endlessly with each other, and the Fly-kinden. (Incidentally, Ants from the city of Tark, and later, desert-dwelling Scorpion-kinden, are the only peoples described as having "pale" or "white" skin, although the Wasps are all blonde, I believe. Everyone else has a skin-tone that would make them a person of color in contemporary America, except the moths who are grey, and the people of Mynes, who have blueish skin.) Spiders have their own kingdom to the south of the Lowlands, and Dragonflies live further north. The Lowlands used to be dominated by the Moths, who enslaved most of the other races, but by the time the book opens, Moths mostly live in caves beyond the outskirts of their old cities.

The Wasps are also Apt, and they're organized as a conquering army. Literally every Wasp male is a soldier, and all their other work is performed by slaves taken from their conquered peoples. From the beginning of the novel, their Empire is large, unified, organized, and preparing to pour into the Lowlands and conquer everyone. The Beetles have been selling them weapons for decades, every Ant city expects that the Wasps will conquer the other Ants and leave them alone, so Stenwold Maker is nearly alone as a voice of reason. Slavery is a common enough practice in the Lowlands (and some characters even observe that Helleron's factories practice a kind of wage-slavery) but if Lowlands' slavery is like the kind practiced throughout the Ancient World, then the Wasps' slavery is more like the chattel slavery that Europe and America perfected between the Age of Exploration and the Civil War. That is to say, all slavery is bad, but some kinds are indeed worse than others, more dangerous, more dehumanizing, less escapable - and the Wasps plan to convert all the peoples of the Lowlands into property.

We get introduced to the Beetles and their scientific world-view first, and only later learn that the "in-Apt" races - the Old races who ruled during the Age of Lore before the Beetles' and Ants' revolution overthrew them - that they believe in magic. "Magic" is separate from Art, which is part of why I think of Art as being more akin to psionic power, and for most of the book, it's not clear whether the Beetles' or Moths' worldview is more accurate. Certainly within the industrial society the Beetles, Ants, and even Wasps live in, there is no room for or appearance of magic. It's only what happens outside those societies that makes magic's existence seem possible.

I should mention, the in-Apt peoples literally can't use technology. They can't pick locks or even fire crossbows. Individually, their citizens fly better, fight better, and are just generally more cultured and skilled than the masses of the Apt, but Beetles can make machines, and use them, and overwhelm the others with their sheer numbers. Beetle equality is the key here, because of course the "citizens" of Spider or Dragonfly society doesn't really include their lower classes, who are unlikely to receive such extensive education or training to develop their abilities. And there just aren't enough aristocrats to defeat entire armies of the middle class. (If you were modeling this in a game, you might assign Technology Levels to different species, and use those to restrict their ability to use various equipment. In a kind of balance, the Old races get more innate powers, while the Apt races get better tools.)

And then the Wasps, like something from Max Weber's nightmares, represent a kind of rationality run amok, able to outnumber and out-compete literally every society they encounter. While the Beetles' universal citizenship and compulsory education give them their military and economic edge over traditional societies like the Moths, it also makes them vulnerable to the authoritarianism and universal conscription of the Wasps.

(After writing this, I checked to see if there was a sequel, and learned that Empire is the first in a series of 10 books. I'm not especially interested in watching the kind of thumb-twiddling you have to do to keep mostly the same set of characters in the same unresolved narrative arc over the course of like 3-4 thousand pages, but if you enjoy reading fantasy series, I suspect you could do worse.)