Tuesday 24 September 2019

The Club

Posted another short story to Medium. This one is called The Club. Inspired by the detective novels of John Dickson Carr - his detective, Gideon Fell, was also a big fat jolly English guy, inspired by the real-life figure of G. K. Chesterton, whose own detective was a small anonymous Catholic priest.

The interwar period - the 20s and 30s - is the classic Lovecraft setting, obviously. I've posted about that here and here. There's a lot of easy cliched material you can use - in America, flappers and gangsters and bootleggers, in England, Agatha Christie and P. G. Woodhouse. There's also a lot of deep political and artistic weirdness going on - modernism and futurism, fascism and communism - which contrasts interestingly with the whole Victorian adventure-fiction tradition, still very much alive and well at the time. 

So on the one hand you have plucky British heroes stealing rubies from the eyes of Indian temples - on the other hand you have Ulysses and Italian guys writing odes to the motor car. The cool white cubist surrealism of Picasso and le Corbusier, which would come to define the aesthetic of the 20th century, vs. sailing ships and pagan death cults. Which is basically what Lovecraft is about.

Not that this story is about Lovecraft at all. But I've tried to capture some of the weirdness of the interwar setting and hopefully demonstrate why I think it's so productive for writers and game designers.

My first story, The Strange Fate of Captain Strathclyde, is still here if you want to read it again.

hi, i'm g. k. chesterton
atheism is a nightmare, to me
also, japanese people are elves

Monday 23 September 2019

the depths

stop rolling d4s when you get to the crater

terrain encounter
1 lake, the water tinted wrong. steaming banks swarmed thick by bloated flies toads as big as dogs. d3+4 of them, with d3+4 legs each, twitching grumpily. their venom causes hallucinations of an earth destroyed and reborn. seizures at higher dose
2 pines. mostly toppled. caught like pick-up-sticks in each others arms deer blasted into after-images. skittish. flickering blackwhite silhouettes leap away over the brush. if a buck runs through you your bones glow through your skin like an xray
3 heath. wildflowers in a thousand coruscating shades, each a tiny atomic sunset brainwolves. lobes bared like teeth from the top of their head, spilled from the hollow where eyes should be. only d4+1 left in the pack, their minds meshed in howling psychic echolocation
4 crater punched hard into the rock, cracks still sizzling with radioactive heat armoured personnel, bodies helplessly melted into their truck, souls fused in the plutonium forge. their chassis is irreparably torn, engine near liquid with heat. hunting officers, scientists and politicians
5 crater angered earth. the bomb lodged in its chest a nuclear heart, overflown with hateful passion. titanic fists obliterate themselves against anything it can reach. it scoops a handful of dirt and screams at it until the atoms burn off
6+ crater torn reality. something is visible on the other side. god, probably. an alien world and your childhood home. reality has been undone, memetic tumours are all that's left. it's every burning future all at once. a perfect void but no vacuum; you realise that our world is hollow now too

best way to get back to earth is to climb the nearest mountain, wait for a snowstorm, then jump off a cliff
roll d6s, adjust depth as instructed, minimum 0

1 playful platypus, as long as your arm and twice as friendly. its fur is worth an inestimable fortune. its venom could kill you in seconds
depth +1
2 herd of brumbies. shaggy steppe ponies grown huge and wild in hyperaustralian air. stumbled in from somewhere in the himalayas, they're breeding out of control and wreaking havoc in this alien ecosystem
depth +1
3 lyrebird skulks just out of sight. tired of scratching in the dirt for bugs it calls to you, testing cries and words to find what sequence of sounds might encourage you towards a clumsy death
depth +1, and the bird follows you
4 hundred-strong mob of roo grazes, indolent but fiercely territorial. one of the larger will sway up to you to pick a fight. the legs hit like a log trap, though if you can knock it down the rest will let you pass without issue
defeat a roo or depth -1
5 lone echidna, bear-sized, snuffles in the dirt. its quills are said to carry great potency of an unspecified kind. follow it long enough, collecting dropped barbs, and it will lead you far, far from its nest and your path
depth -2 if you follow it, else depth +1
6 the wombat is nowhere to be seen, though its den is impossible to miss. earth gouged by paws fatter than your torso. soft square spoor the size of your fist. the cool breeze wafting from the tunnel suggests it may lead just where you're headed
depth -2+d4 if you take the tunnel. encounter a pissed off diprotodon if you come back through
otherwise, depth +1
7 crimson rosellas, their wings a dozen shades of snowstorm blue. they squawk and giggle in the trees, the first flakes of snow falling around them. somewhere between beautiful and ear-splittingly annoying. if you try to camp near them you won't sleep a wink
depth +1
8 the rock here is bare, thin snow failing to congeal in the near-constant wind. this peak is not yet high enough, though the view is quite beautiful
depth -1
9 finally the snow thickens, trackless and serene. just under the surface pygmy possums lair. too much weight on the crust and you'll punch through into their den. their swarming bites are rarely lethal, so long as someone helps pulls you out
depth +1
10+ the peak is flat, almost disappointing, uneventful until night falls. the aurora australis roars overhead, colours calling to you even in your dreams. too much time spent up here, before the snows come to open a path back home, and you might never want to leave 

start at depth 1. instead of just +1 per step add the result of your d6. if you go off the end of the table you wrap back around to the start

1 present day. five minutes have passed every time you go through a whole loop
2 bronze age. arching sandstone cities in the distance, lit by a sumptuous purple sky. to either side a sweating, confused gladiator, their duel interrupted
3 ice age. sleet sheets cuts through cloth like a sickle. from the bones of your feet comes thunder - a mammoth stampede driven before pelt-draped hunters
4 meteor impact. sky is thick with smog, white-hot trails cutting through from the ruination flying overhead 
5 triassic jungle. towering ferns busied by mosquitoes big as birds. behind you a trex, sniffing curiously
6 flooded. warm, shallow sea. skittering clockwork arthopods bicker below. the 10ft of water above your head teems with motes of near-microscopic life
7 mossworld. utterly tranquil, though the air is a little thin. sky a light, fresh blue. nothing but mosses and extremely dumb bugs.
8 endless rains. the rock hot underfoot, only recently cooled enough to let liquid water form. high above are all the world's oceans, still a broiling cloud thick with lightning
9 molten earth. a tiny promontory of basalt thrust up from seas of magma, slowly tipping back down into the heat
10 time engine. hazmat suited figures with bulging heads and the wrong number of fingers. they fiddle with knobs and radio in for timemarines to stop your nefarious meddling


1 okay so you like add 'depth' to your roll to indicate that you're moving through something? 11 oh christ and variance is a whole thing?? the smaller the die you're rolling the higher chance of doubles, and the less likely to miss things
2 wait so you've only got one chance to see the first thing on the table? it better be a special one... 12 can always double up entries, too, to smooth out the progression
3 but like you could still roll doubles, or get something that was higher up than what you just rolled; things can't be expected to occur in order 13 double ups in one column but not another? like the landscape column doesn't change much but encounters do
4 oh right and it doesn't have to be spatial. it could be temporal, or like stages of a disease or the passing of seasons 14 or, jeepers, different columns are different lengths?? like you have to get to a certain depth on one to get the really crazy shit, but the other column probably cuts you short?
5 huh you could even have the table be a loop, that you just keep wrapping around 15 you could even roll different sized dice but that sounds kind of fucked
6 and entries could totally tell you how much to change depth by 16 you definitely want to preroll everything if you're doing a spatial one. it's more like procedural generation at that point
7 or wow even just jump you to a specific point on the table 17 but the more reactive ones.. you could maybe do social encounters through them, even build a generalised one, like peril dice or whatever 
8 obviously you can give it multiple columns, to get some of that sweet precious permutation going 18 every table probably does need specific rules. how to handle doubles, which of all these weird permutations it employs
9 or damn even multiple axes, so you can go deeper in different directions along, let's be real, probably just a grid 19 okay what if you simply reduced all human activity down to several thousand vectors, and all pc activities are coded into these at appropriate depth...
10 okay yeah what if the table doesn't even end at the point you've trying to get to? you can overshoot and then realise you have to backtrack or w/e 20 ...and then u apply a depth mechanic to the process of developing depth mechanics, so u can depth mechanic while u

Friday 6 September 2019

The Strange Fate of Captain Strathclyde

I'm trying a new thing where I write horror stories and put them on Medium.

The first one is called The Strange Fate of Captain Strathclyde. It's about a guy who takes a job as personal assistant to a reclusive novelist, in a creepy old house in the Appalachians, and finds that extremely creepy things start happening.

One of the strangest things about the 21st-century internet is the complete lack of places to publish good short fiction. I assume they exist - the old sci-fi magazines still all seem to be going on, somewhere or other - but I don't read them and neither do you. They don't have any actual cultural reach. And the existence of blogging platforms has made their publishing model obsolete in a way that nobody at all seems to have reckoned with.

In the old days, if you wanted to get published, you needed to persuade somebody with a printing press to actually, physically put it down on a piece of paper and deliver it to bookstores and newsagents across the nation. Hence Lovecraft having to go through Weird Tales, Steven King publishing in... I think it's all these small magazines with names like Startling Mystery Stories that don't exist any more, because why would they? Now you just whack it online.

Nobody needs to approve of what you write. The only hiccup is that you need to build a social-media following on your own, which can be tricky. The best way to do it is to have an existing community of people who do similar stuff. The OSR blogging sphere has obviously been good, although harder to use since G+ died. But we haven't done a lot of actual storytelling - it has always seemed to me like a weirdly dead art, at this point in history.

We do a lot of incredible fiction but very little of it is narrative. And nobody else is doing it either, at least not a way I'm interested in. I remember when I made my Twine game A Thing Called Dracula I struggled to find a way to popularise it, or people who were interested in talking about it and building on it. There is a gap here that someone needs to fill.

I'm interested in Twilight Zone-style horror stories, detective and crime stories, weird tales with some creepy little ironic twist at the end. It's kind of a deliberately old-fashioned project. I want to do a couple more of these and see where it goes. I also wrote a book last year - a crime novel called Croatoan, about conspiracy theories, the pitch being Elmore Leonard does the X-Files - and if I can't get it published traditionally I'll start trying to sell it online as an e-book. So there's that.