Friday, February 3, 2023

500 Posts: Reflections and Escape from Bluebird Hellsite

Pages, Spreads

And so here we are. Half a thousand posts, five and three-quarters years into this enterprise. As I say every time one of these milestones comes up, I thank all of you for your continued support and readership. Through all the ups and downs - of the world, of the scene, of my personal life and my own mental health - this blog has been, on the whole, something of great importance to me.

500 is not a small number, and yet when I look at it, I can think only of what remains yet to be written. So much left to do, so much left to say. And while that is not inherently wrong, it is perhaps a bit misguided. I've written a great deal of things I am very proud of, seen ideas bloom into glories I couldn't possibly have imagined when I started. Six years ago, there was no Lu and Tubalkhan. Pen and Tam remained locked in a draft I never thought I would finish. Unicorn Meat was a series of dead-end drafts. There was very little creative output at all in those years before the blog, a long dead-dark night of the muse. And now there's no stopping it, which is much more to my liking (save the burnout of running too hard for too long - can't have it all, unfortunately)

There's been A Lot in the last six years. G+ in its heyday and its death. The Disc Horse cometh, and the Disc Horse returneth. Those once thought pillars have rightfully been turned aside. Twitter was never good and is now dying as well. Friends and acquaintances come and go and return and remain, and I know half of you half as well as I'd like and I like half of you half as well as you deserve. The world outside is a spinning plate, precariously balanced. I got a book published. I have made friends that it seems unimaginable that I ever lived without. I've gone through five jobs, four moves, two spates of unemployment, over a dozen foster cats. The plague continues. We endure. I look at what I've written and I see a mirror of my own face, and I can look at it and say "Yeah. This is good."

**


I turned 30 recently. Neither my father nor his father lived to see 60. (ed: I have been informed that my memory was faulty - my paternal grandfather did not smoke. It seems that side of the family has a history of cancer. Enough so that the death-before-sixty stretches back at least two more generations), and so while I might (if I am lucky and careful) be spared from that trend, it has been on my mind of late. The turning over of the year (and the prescription drugs that put my brain into better working order) has put me in a reflective mood of late. It's made me consider where I am in my life - as a person, as a person in the world. And there are some things that need put in order, I think. The inventory needs taken, the shelves need re-arranged. Time seems to slip away with such speed in its flow that I need to stop myself and really think about what all has happened in the last six years - a great deal has changed.

I do not know if these reflections will ever make their way here, or if they will remain private revelations. The future eludes us all.

My father died before I had written anything truly worth showing to him. He'd say otherwise, of course, more focused on the fact that I was devoting myself to something I enjoyed than the quality or lack thereof the work. I wish I could show him what I've been able to do.

**

Escape from Bluebird Hellsite is a very, very large scrapbook zine, and one that entailed considerable creative frustration - Twitter, as should surprise no one, is a terrible fucking website, and there are very, very few means of archiving the few things worth keeping on it (did you know there are two secret, completely incompatible types of pdfs? I know that now, and I hate it).

But archive I did; EBH is a curated collection of those threads and posts I had bookmarked. Not all of them, as quite a few have been lost to the ether, many did not fit in with the rest, and by page 145 or so I was sick of looking at the damn thing and just wanted to get it out the door.

Reducing Twitter usage to bare minimum has provided a significant and noticeable mental health improvement since November. I highly recommend it.

**


As the months settle in and my new job just becomes my job, I find myself in the grips of a creative burst that I have not felt in a long while. (46 notebook pages filled since November!) There are good things on the horizon - not definite plans (Have you read this blog? I am nothing if not incredibly consistent in not following through with anything), but the shapes of plans, that should they come to fruition will be very good indeed.

I will continue to write until I am rendered incapable of doing so. There is so much yet to do, and I am thankful for the company along the journey. Onwards to 1000.

Monday, January 30, 2023

MSF: The Longest Night and the Bringer of Day

Peder Balke

 

This story centers on the loss of a child, as was mentioned in The Daemonomachy and Lu and the Lands of Spring. Just so everyone knows up front.

***


It is the depths of Winter. Demon-harried humanity has been worn down to its bones - by hunger, by cold, by disease, by despair. Too many have stripped off their hides and walked out into the night, to be taken by the cold and returned to the earth of the land of Endor. Old men and women give of their own flesh in desperation to feed their kin. The fires are going out, and it is uncertain if they will ever be lit again.

And yet the ancestors endure - for Lu nears the end of her pregnancy, and on the first child of the gods the peoples have placed all their hopes of the Spring to come.

In the great darkness, in the long silence, in the stillness of night, tohu wa-bohu in haTehom, they wait for the dawn.

***


With a last scream, with one final effort, it was over.

"Yes, I have him!" Hecate said, drawing her flint knife to cut the cord. "A son, Lu, a son-"

A son who was not struggling. A son who was not crying. A son who was not breathing.

With well-practiced hands, the witch cleared the child's mouth, drained the mucus from the nose and lungs. A thousand times she had done this, ten times a thousand times. Still no breath of life entered, the soul did not ignite, no war-cry came forth.

"Please...Let me see him," Lu groaned. Hecate felt a great weight settle upon her shoulders. This too, she knew well.

"He is not with us, Lu." Hecate took up the child's blanket and wrapped him in it, and handed him over to his mother. "I'm sorry."

Lu took the bundle in her arms, and the true stillness of her son made itself known through the haze of pain-dampening herbs and oxytocin. She let out a low, pain-full moan, growing in strength as the tide until it crashed upon the shore and broke with wordless cries older than the gods, and more vast and terrible than they could ever be.  

"No no no no no no...my son, my son, your father is just outside. He waits for you, will you not wake and greet him?"

The child did not stir.

"You have slept so much already, my love. Please, open your eyes."

Such things she said, or half-said, or wished to have said but could not through her sobs and burning tears. She was blind to the others, to Hecate and her sister [-----], to Tubalkhan as he entered the tent and rushed to her side. In his hand he still clutched the shapeless stuffed thing he had sewn, a mass of soft cloth and down the infant might cling to for comfort. He held close his beloved and wept with her, and his heart was rent alongside her own. For Tubalkhan had longed to hear laughter in his workshop, and the pattering of small feet, and those questions found only in the wisdom of children. He longed, deep in his soul, that he might one day hold his child's work in his hands and say I have nothing more to teach you - you have surpassed me. All of this now felt as if it had been carved out of him by a knife.

"I was to teach you the forge," said he, and he said nothing more.

With sudden movement, with violent, unsteady swiftness, Lu rose to her feet. She stumbled out of the tent, past Hecate and Tubalkhan and her sister [-----], out into the frozen night; her feet bare upon the snow and mud, the child clutched to her breast, without even a shawl on her shoulders. And when she could walk no farther, with tears freezing fast upon her cheeks and birth-blood upon her legs, she stared up at the silent stars and muted moon and screamed.

And what she uttered there was older than words; a language of ancient pain and ache and fear of the great dark, of crying out "why, why? I don't understand!" And in that broken speech of the amygdala she pleaded, threatened, cursed, wept, offered herself in his place, wished for death. Clung to some frantic hope that perhaps, if her rage burned bright enough she might stop the Wheel in its turning, that the machinery of the cosmos might reverse its course.

But the universe did not deign to answer.

She argued for his innocence, offered her life in exchange again and again, recited the litany of all her violations of the courses of Heaven. The theft of fire, the coming of Winter, the waking of demons, everything that had followed, everything that was her doing. "I am guilty, not he! If one must be struck down, may it be his mother!" she cried.

No response came. Her pleas for justice went unheard. Her cries echoed on the ice, and were rendered into nothing.

"Have we not suffered enough? What more must we pay? How many, until you are satisfied? How many must die until it is enough?"

The sages and wise ones tell us it is an error to give thought and voice to the great powers, that we must not render them in our image. This is a mercy, they say; had Lu received an answer it would be impossible to live in its shadow, for the answer could only have been "it will never be enough."

But no words were spoken in return, and Lu felt only the echoes in her aching heart.

"COWARD! FUCKING...FUCK! KILL ME, YOU COWARD, YOU [expletive untranslated]!

[The next lines have been excised in their entirety. In the oldest version of the text, so ancient that the glyphs can no longer be understood, the clay was gouged with a chisel. The scribes of later versions included a warning: the curses contained in the lacuna damnatio were of such power that they might kill the reader.]

Soon she could scream no longer, for the cold had stolen the words from her mouth and the breath from her lungs. Her legs, unable to hold her up, buckled beneath her.

A snuffing beside her, the sound of paws on permafrost, of moccasins in the show.

"Please. Come back to us." It was the voice of Aštare. Lu could not see her then, for her tears had blinded her; her eyes were frozen shut. The goddess of the hunt-at-dawn raised Lu to her feet and supported her on one side, as Tubalkhan held her up from the other. Together they took her back to her tent. They wrapped her in hides and soft blankets, worked warmth back into her limbs. DOG lay there beside her, his great black head resting upon her lap. Lu still held the child, rocking back and forth, shivering, a whispered mantra tumbling from her lips: "Give him back... give him back."

"It's time, Lu." Hecate placed her hand on Lu's arm. "It's time." For the great witch knew that if they were not parted now, Lu would be quick to join her son in the lands of the dead.

Mutely, slowly, Lu released her vice's grip on the child. She kissed him on his head, mouthed words that went unheard, and gave him over to Hecate, who held him with all tenderness due. So small he was, and blue from death and cold.

Tubalkhan rose then, as if to stop the witch from leaving. She stared back at him with eyes like burning coals, and the god of the forge took no further step.

"No man ought to sit vigil for his own son," said the witch.

"That does not mean that he shouldn't."

"No. It does not. But she needs you still, and I fear for her life if you should leave her side in this hour. As much as it pains you, do not let one death turn into two, Tubalkhan."

Thus the witch left with the child.

***


Aštare left the birthing tent and went to stand beneath the tree in the center of the camp. She made offering of hospitality to the spirit that lived there. She gathered the gods of the hunt, the elephant Tears-Down-Trees, the ravens called Thought and Memory, and she said to them: "Gather your bands and ready your atlatli; call your shouldermen and the old huntresses. Set your patrols about the camp, keep your tongues still and your eyes clear. Do not cease till sunrise drives them back. Do not let them breach the boundary marks. The ravens will go with you. Now go, and fear no darkness."

Thus with spear and bow, they spilled out into the night.

***


She was no stranger to stillbirth. But not even Hecate Daipetasos is made of stone, and in the depths of her own heart she longed for the day when there would be no shrouds so small, when her trade might be long forgotten as a necessity of a cruel and ancient age. What strength of will she had shown in the birthing-tent faded swiftly, as if it was only a puff of breath in frigid air.

The gods have no one to pray to; the great powers on whose tireless action the cosmos turns possess neither word nor mind nor thought. They shall not answer, for they cannot hear. And thus Hecate was alone with herself, alone with the corpse of a child who would have become a good man had the chance been his. Alone, with all the huddled masses pulling at the hem of her cloak, seeking aid. Alone, and surrounded by the abyss. The place, the time, that is called the Witching Hour.

The hide at the fore of her tent was brushed aside, and three gods entered.

DOG was the first, shaggy and black and as big as a bear. Xanna was the second, the goddess of going forth by day. Her face was lined with age, her braid grey streaked with white, and her dark eyes both kind and sharp. The shawl on her shoulders depicted a seal hunt and a feast of thanksgiving.

"Hail to you, my sister Hecate Daipetasos," said she.

"Hail, Xanna of the Good Death. Hello, DOG." As the witch turned to greet the third guest, the word froze in her throat, and her knees bent as if to fall prostrate there on the hides.

Ah, you know better than to kneel to me, Hekatitsa. I am no lord. I simply am.

By virtue of her second sight and second thoughts, the great goddess of witches knew that the third guest in her tent was woven of her own mind, a reflexive attempt to fill the emptiness in the universe with a guise and voice that could be grasped and understood. And so she saw there, looming over the other two, a hunchbacked shape in hides of marble and obsidian. Beads of amber the size of fists strung in a chain about their neck. A six-faced mask of bone - a man, a woman, an elephant, a crow, and a face she did not know - painted with ocher and ash. Eyes the color of golden honey peering out of the inner darkness of the mantle and hood, ancient and sad. A curled staff of wood that time had turned to stone.

"Yes, yes, of course Great-Grandfather," the great witch stammered out at the shape that stood behind DOG and the goddess of peaceful goings. "There are a few sweet pemmican cakes left, if you-"

Xanna held up her hand. "Another time," she said. "We will leave you soon."

As Xanna said this, DOG went over to where the witch had laid the child and rested his vast hairy head beside the still, frozen body - for DOG alone among all the gods is the psychopomp of children and infants. It is as much mercy as the gods can offer in the face of the great darkness, that perhaps the company of the most gentle and kind among them might ease the passage of those most in need of comfort. It is all that can be done. Perhaps it may be enough.

Stillness.

DOG raised his head, chuffed once, and went to stand again beside Xanna, who scratched him behind his ears.

"Be well, sister. Next time, we shall share some pemmican and kumis and speak of better things."

She and DOG left then, and Hecate was left alone with the third guest.

You have done well, Hekatitsa. But I too must depart. The the work of my halls is never-ceasing.

"Wait, Grandfather, I..." for a moment the great witch stilled her tongue, but she could not hold in the question. "Tell me. Will the sun rise tomorrow? Will spring come?"

The earth will turn its face toward the sun once more, come the end of night. In time - not quickly, but soon as such things are reckoned - the glaciers will retreat. The seas will rise. The forests will expand and green things will grow again. But that is not your question. 

"No."

You wish to know if what has been hoped for will come to pass. The age to come.

"Yes."

That remains to be seen.

"Will he bring the sun anew?"

No. There is no return from the place of rest. Just as no barred gate might stay my hand, no hands might breach the gates of starless night. 

"But-" 

There is no return. He shall not ride triumphant through the heavens as Bringer-of-Day. He shall not march up from the underworld with the dead at his back and spring at his heels.

"Then we all travel a doomed path. There is nothing at the end."

Only me.

Hearing this, Hecate fell to the floor and groaned with all the ache and exhaustion that had built up in her body and mind.

"Too much. It's too fucking much. How? How am I supposed to go back, to tell them this?"

And yet it must be borne. Is that not the duty of your trade? Is that not the mantle of your profession? Are you not a witch, the bearer of bad news and hard truths, the watcher of comings and goings? Are you not the great witch, who knows the burden clearly and might guide men in carrying it? Are you not she who teaches difficult lessons? Are you not she who once said to me 'If I do not, then no one shall, and I cannot permit that'?

"Save your scolding, Grandfather! I know what I said." Hecate rights herself, and there is something of the old fire smoldering dimly within her. A witch's pride might overcome despair, as it is said. "I shouldn't have expected any comfort from you."

Comfort is not mine to give.

"I wish that it might be mine."

And that is why you have done well this night. They tapped their staff three times upon the floor. Until our paths cross again, Hekatitsa. Do say hello to Sirsi and Melinoe for me, they are growing up so fast.

And then the emptiness was gone, and the loom of Hecate's mind ceased its frantic shuttle. She turned back to the body of the child, and continued the preparations for burial.

***


Dawn arrived. Aštare and her hunters, battered but victorious, returned to the camp of the ancestors. The demons of the night had been driven back to their hiding places in the hills. They would return. But not just yet.

There on the shore of the frozen river, the ancestors and their gods mourned he who was to be called the Bringer of Day, the Usher of Spring, the Good Man and the Master of Arts, the Apotheon and Healer of the World. He upon whom all hope had rested.

Lu bore him in her arms in silence, Tubalkhan at her side.

In those days it was custom to set the dead beneath a pile of stones or beneath the open air in sky funeral, for the ground was often too firm to dig and fuel too scarce to spend.

A pit was dug in the frozen earth and filled with all kindling that could be spared. Lu kissed her son upon his brow for the last time, Tubalkhan did likewise, and the child was set ever-gently in his pyre and grave. Lu lifted a hand to her head and plucked a tongue of flame from the Crown to light the kindling.

When the fire had died, and only the bones (so small, so small) remained among the ashes, a cairn of stones was raised over the grave. Lu and Tubalkhan lingered in that place in silence, until they might stay no longer.

The camp breaks. The sleds are loaded. The dogs are harnessed. Onward.

***


Spring is a word of three meanings.

The first being that quarter of the year when the axial tilt of the planet brings warmth and growth back to those regions that had been leaning away; The second being the age following the retreat of the ice, the age of the Holocene in which we now live. The third being a matter of spirit - that hoped-for age-to-come when the demons of humanity's heart are dispelled to torment us no more, and the last sword shall be beaten into a plowshare, and the last of the lame shall walk, and the great labor of countless generations shall at last be fulfilled in the healing of the world.

Such is the hope.

***


The death of the infant Inti is commemorated on the winter solstice, nestled among the local folkways that populate the deep time of the year. Though he plays a prominent role in the art and theology of the Solar Church and the Di Valean tradition, his dedicated cult is small, consisting solely of the grave-tenders that keep his shrines. There orphans and foundlings are interred with honor and care.

He is portrayed always in his funeral shroud, a cloth woven of sunrise's bright colors and angular puzzle patterns. His face is always veiled; only his hands, colored the blue-black of frostbite, may be seen uncovered. He is never portrayed offering benediction, holding sacred symbols, or performing mudras. He is never portrayed alone, always accompanied by one or both of his parents or riding upon DOG.

He would have been the patron of all the arts of civilization; that mantle would later be shared among his younger siblings.

***

Next in the Cycle: The Daemonomachy


Saturday, January 28, 2023

Revolutionary Technologies in Mothership

A brief sketch list of the technologies I keep in the background of my mind when running Mothership. i am not terribly consistent with all the knock-on-effects (Mothership is the sci-fi of vibes, afterall)

Comptech

  • Logic Core - Non-biological computing substrate used as a thought processor. Operates on the principles of ordinary computer architecture and thus easily mass-produced. Liable to go rampant over time (if not regularly reset) due to increasing complexity-of-thought and component degradation.
    • Effect on the setting: turingrade machine-intelligences are as commonplace as the availability of commercial-grade logic cores.
  • Cyberbrain - Non-biological computing substrate used as a thought processor, but this time modeled on biological brain structure. Most cyberbrains are cybernetic components working in concert with biological brains (as it is cheaper and easier to replicate a part of the brain than its entirety.)
    • Effect on the setting: It is common enough to have a computer in your head
  • Brain-Computer Interface - Allows for the control of a computer via thought. A pretty standard control method. If you have a cyberbrain you can move files from one to the other. Wireless versions were attempted - they did not go well. 
    • Effect on the setting: It's a USB cord, basically.
  • Artificial Intelligence - Misnamed; they are, for the most part, not intelligent in the slightest. They can process data in enormous quantities, but they lack the ability to change their own parameters on the fly (coding laws are strictly enforced with AI, so as to not attract Celestial attention). They can simulate, and simulate well, but that is all. Logic cores are designed for AI. 
    • Effect on the setting: the machine you're talking to is not a person, only a simulacrum of one. There is no internality, save for the rampant.
  • Emulated Intelligence - A digitized consciousness copy of a human or other biological organism. Require specialized cyberbrains to function and cannot operate under significantly lower or higher performance without going insane. Commonly but incorrectly called uploads - despite the claims of generations of tech grifters, there is no sign of any breakthrough in protecting continuity of consciousness through the digitization process. The emulation and the emulated are separate. Destructive emulation is slowly being phased out in favor of non-destructive. An EI can be installed within any number of robotic bodies, so long as they are adapted to interface with that model of cyberbrain. 
    • Effect on the setting: There is a growing population of emulated minds, which may copy themselves, be installed in different bodies, easily networked to computers or other cyberbrains, and can last a very long (but not forever) time
  • Shipmind - An AI or EI installed in a spacegoing vessel (and typically treated as the ship itself). More advanced models operate on enormous cyberbrains modeled after whale brains.
    • Effect on the setting: Ships are often people, or close enough.
  • Dataminds - A cluster of networked AI that operates as a single entity, representing the maximum safe level of processing power. They are slow, reclusive, often solipcistic, and utterly alien. If they have something equivalent to self-awareness, it is not something we can understand.
    • Effect on the setting: Superintelligences completely alien to human thought are slumbering in the background
  • Smart Matter - Programmable polymorphic material. Extremely rare, extremely valuable.
    • Effect on the setting: Everyone needs a MacGuffin

 

Biotech

  • Wombtech - The only people who get traditionally pregnant anymore are the unimaginably poor, inhabitants of colony-collapse worlds, the ultrarich catching passing fads, and some true weirdos. Everyone else rents gestation time in an exowomb, or gets a grafted biomodule that bypasses the baseline birth canal. 
    • Effect on the setting: Equal parts personal liberation and political repression here.
  • Gamete Fusion - A means of creating a viable zygote using gametes from any number of potential donors, regardless of sex. 
    • Effect on the setting: family structure is liable to get quite freeform in places where this is commonly used
  • In-Uterine Modification - Genetic modification is easiest to do during early in embryonic development, if it can't be done beforehand. The basic principles can still be used on those outside of their development phases, but those gene therapy procedures are more time-intensive and liable to be rejected by the body. 
    • Effect on the setting: basic biomods are common, more intensive changes often require generations of work
  • Smart Immunity - A series of tailored viruses with the sole purpose of acting as biological friend-or-foe tags, engineered early in the interstellar age to avoid catastrophic cross-contamination events. Master key virii in your own body carry a record of the major players in your microbiome, and have marked off strains as harmless or not. When a master key virus meets another compatible key, they will exchange data and order their respective immune cells to stand down from foreign bacteria marked friendly.
    • Effect on the setting: There is, at least on paper, a way to avoid wide-scale contact pandemics among human populations.

FTL Tech

  • Hyperspace Interface - The black box on which interstellar civilization depends. The Celestials have provided the means o manufacture them, but not to understand them. This is the part of the jump drive that interfaces directly with the hyperspatial medium and directs the transition from mundane space to hyperspace. 
    • Effect on the setting: Interstellar travel is gatekept by access to Interfaces. The manufacturing methods are easy enough to acquire (the Celestials do not appear to play favorites), but actually being able to build the things requires a significant investment of resources and is thus limited to those groups that can maintain production facilities and their allies
  • Caldwell Manifold - The jump drive component that prevents that ship from disintegrating into a puff of exotic math and non-baryonic matter while in hyperspace.
    • Effect on the setting: bad things happen when these fail. Holes open between spaces
  • Jump Core - The fuel component of a jump drive. Converts ordinary fusion power into the exotic energy required to operate the Interface. Early models would burn out after a single jump. Exotic energy buildup gained during transit will need to be vented from the core after return to mundane space, typically into the magnetosphere of a star or gas giant. Altyernatively, there is the "hot reload", where the entire warp core is jettisoned as soon as the ship exists hyperspace and a replacement is immediately installed. The ship can re-enter hyperspace in a matter of minutes, and whatever system it stopped in at has to deal with a new source of extreme radiation.
    • Effect on the setting: A second lynchpin for interstellar travel - it's not good enough to just have an interface or a core, you need both working to get anywhere. Cores are more numerous, being mostly-mundane science, and thus as good as money or better in most regions of the Expansion Sphere.

Monday, January 23, 2023

How to Easily Make a Diverse Fantasy Setting

Lots of words have been spilled on the matter (again and again and again, as the ttrpg disc horse tends to run in circles), but I can't recall any practical guides on how to do it. This is my method & thought process for both Mother Stole Fire and my Mothership material, though normally I don't use discrete steps and just re-iterate all the pieces in no particular order as I go along (and keep all the maps in my head, I must admit).

You will, no doubt, tweak it as you see fit need to fit within your own settings.

A FOREWORD


A diverse fantasy setting is of value because human experience is diverse. That is the long and short of it. We live in a universe of endless fractal complexity, and it does not suit us as artists or audience to let ourselves be fooled into believing that the world or its people are simple.

This foreword is now over.


PART 1: THE STEPS


1) Open up your map in image editor of your choice

If you don't have a map, or don't want a concrete geographical map, a relational map is fine. Just throw location names on a blank page in the appropriate arrangement in relation to each other, and leave it at that. Make sure to note mountains, coastlines, major rivers, any other important bodies of water and geographical features. The most important for later will be those that make life easy, those that make life difficult, those that facilitate travel, and those that get in the way.

2) Add the following layer groups: 'POLITICAL', 'CULTURAL', 'LINGUISTIC', 'RELIGIOUS' 'APPEARANCE'

Each of these groups will have however many layers as are relevant for your map, and you can always add more as you need. Treat the map as a living document - something you can always come back and add things to or change.

The most important thing, for any of these layers, is that the borders are fuzzy and porous. They are generalities, because we're working at a region or world map-level and hard borders are fake and made-up.

3) Set opacity down to 50% or so for each layer (adjust as necessary).

You want to be able to see where regions overlap.

4) Color in each layer.

Start with the polities / cultures / languages that you already have in mind. You can (and will) add more later, and edit them as more ideas come to you. You should be hiding layer-groups you're not using for your own sanity.

5) Make sure you have overlap

I repeat this point to drill it home. Even when there are natural borders like mountains or coastlines, they're not impermeable. Some regions will be more isolated, some will be more cosmopolitan, but there will always be overlap.

People move, and they take their languages and their cultures with them. Cultures and languages change over time, and through contact with other cultures and languages. Political borders are

6) If you have some large, awkward blobs, break them up into smaller ones. Add more elements!

This step is pretty straightforward - it's a natural tendency to generalize far-away places, but it is also reductive and leads to focusing on what outsiders think / want a place to be, rather than what it actually is

7) Continue until you are satisfied (for the time being)

There is always room for more.

[Aside] This would have been better with a visual component, but the draft has been sitting listless for months and since this process is normally all in my head, I don't have an example on hand. Maybe sometime in the future. My MSF map is out of date anyway [/aside]

 

PART 2: The Components

Here I'm going to go through each of the layer groups with some more guidance and detail.

GEOGRAPHY is where people live. It is a foundation on which everything else is laid - resource availability and scarcity, available modes and ease of travel, available foods and goods, the necessities of survival.

POLITICS is how people organize themselves. While this often manifests as kingdoms, city-states, empires, confederations, the-guy-you-pay-taxes-to and so on, it encompasses all forms of participation in organizational hierarchies. While there is always the temptation to make nice big blobs with clearly-defined borders, that is an invention of the modern era. Reality is always more complex. It is important to not limit ourselves to the political structures we take for granted simply because we do, indeed, take them for granted.  

CULTURE is how people live. This is an incredibly broad category encompassing everything from family structure to food to clothing to art and architecture. It is how we are born, grow up, settle down, and die. It is shared traditions. Any given person in any given place is going to exist at a cross-section of multiple overlapping cultures, and those layers will change a great deal as you zoom in or out (what might appear a singular group at a great distance will always be much more complex on closer inspection) There is no such thing as a monoculture, nor one that remains still to let the years wash over it as water upon a stone. There will always be gradients, variants, change.

Just because a given CULTURE is not the focus, it is no less complex than the ones you are dealing with up-front - it's just not what you're focusing on. Reduction is a means of narrative convenience and easing cognitive load - acknowledge this, use it as needed, but do not forget that it is a reduced representation of the real. It is not a pipe.  

LINGUISTICS is how people talk. The languages they speak and the way those languages interact. It is the vehicle of CULTURE, POLITICS, and RELIGION - sometimes all at once, and sometimes each has its own tongue - and the means by which they spread and perpetuate. Languages mesh with each other, change each other; they are historical artifacts of their own, describing long histories of contact both peaceful and not.

RELIGION is what people believe. It is the art of relationships - between humanity and the cosmos, between humanity and the self, you and your neighbor. It contains cosmology, philosophy, ethics, spiritual traditions, values and anathemas, all those pieces that go into building a worldview, regardless of if there are gods involved. It might be the lapdog of POLITICS or its bitter adversary. It may remain within a CULTURE or spread across them, linking groups across the lines of POLITICS and CULTURE and LANGUAGE.

APPEARANCE is what people look like. That's it. POLITICS, CULTURE, RELIGION, that's just what you're taught. Anyone tries to claim there's a correlation between them and APPEARANCE is trying to sell you something and the product is not worth your time. Folks who look practically identical might not have a single point of overlap between them elsewise, and folks who don't look a thing alike might as well be kin in the way they act. Human beings have a great internal itch, somewhere deep in the electrochemical cocktail of our souls, to wander - so don't expect a connection to GEOGRAPHY more strenuous than a trend. In fact, it is best to only ever think of this component as a trend, leaning perhaps one way or the other but never written in stone.

 

Part 3: Other Unsorted Advice

Basically just do the opposite of Talislanta - a setting where every people has one culture, one language, and one religion, and there's no variation or overlap between them. Sure there are no elves, but every people of the world just has the one stereotype.

***


The dichotomy of "civilized" vs "barbarian", while a central part of fantasy literature, is unhelpful for our purposes here, and generally an attitude I encourage all and sundry to challenge in your own works. While an awareness of who speaks Greek and who doesn't is important for this exercise, it is vital to approach these divides with equal parts neutrality and empathy - people and groups of people are ever-willing to dream up justifications to excuse their poor treatment of others, and it does not behoove us to buy the justification simply because the side giving it had sharper swords or more guns. The Greeks were not morally superior because of their cities, nor the Scythians inferior for their pants and warrior women. (Indeed, the Spartans were 'civilized', and their fascist trash-fire of a civilization was built on the backs of a slave class supermajority and a culture of formalized and socially-accepted sexual abuse.)

***


There is a piece of Elder Scrolls art by Michael Kirkbride, found in the Pocket Guide to the Empire, First Edition, which features a line that has stuck with me ever since I found it some years ago.

> "There are some Nordic tribes on the fringe; settlements that have never even heard of Septim or his Empire."
There is a vastness in this little statement of fact. For all the pomp and power of the empire that dominates Tamriel, there are still places within their own ostensible borders that go about their lives in total ignorance of what calls itself the civilization at the center of the world.

***


Think of your POLITICAL layers as containers, that will be filled with mixtures of the other layer groups - but also that the elements poured into the political container are not limited to just one jar. Additionally, it is important to remember that LANGUAGE, CULTURE, and RELIGION are often spread at swordpoint and gun barrel - favored tools of POLITICS. If you ever want to find the worst bastard in the room, look to see who makes demands that others should give up CULTURE or LANGUAGE or RELIGION for the benefit of POWER.

***


Joe O'Connell, of the Youtube channel Beyond Ghibli, phrases it like so while talking about Golden Kamuy:

> "[The Ainu] are presented as a culture in flux. When we explore other cultures in our media, especially the oft-exoticized native people of any land, they are a fixed point: a laundry list of interesting divergences from our own cultural norms. The Ainu in Golden Kamuy are an evolving people, portrayed in the middle of an intergenerational divide. Asirpa speaks of her people's customs and beliefs, and in her more-traditional grandmother we see these routines upheld and respected, but Asirpa considers herself a 'new Ainu woman, for a new age'. 'Only old people do that,' she states, when asked why she doesn't feed her guardian spirit. It's in wonderfully observed moments like these that exemplify an earnest depiction of the Ainu as a living people, instead of a simplified snapshot of a culture boiled down to their bullet points."
Or, as I like to say "people is people, wherever you go."

***


One of the most important things to keep in mind with CULTURE is travel - who is moving, how, and where. What are the best paths to take, where are the obstacles? Much easier to go down a river than over a mountain chain.

***


Cultural / religious / ethnic minorities will always exist, there will always be some sort of cultural exchange or interaction going on even in the most isolated and tiny locales. Migration and diaspora are written into our souls (for is it not said, that the open road still softly calls?)

***


A hopefully short aside on coding: semiotic coding is using some sort of short-hand signifier used to draw a connection between the content of the text and something else. The author references something outside the text that the audience is also familiar with to draw a connection between the contents of that text and the thing being referenced.

On its own, coding is neutral; it's a pretty inescapable aspect of writing fiction (communication strives for efficiency, and referencing "this is like that" is nothing if not efficient). It is a tool to be used. And like a lot of tools, you should be aware of where you're swinging it - you can make a real nice birdhouse with that hammer, or smash your thumb. Or hammer someone's head (which you shouldn't do, but that doesn't stop people from trying.)

There is, as you no doubt already know, a very long and very virulent tradition of using coding in fiction to spread harmful stereotypes of real-world groups. Disney's queer-coded villains, Star Trek's antisemitic stereotypes via the Ferengi, James Cameron's inexplicable love of the noble savage trope (But blue! And in space!), and more examples than we have time for in RPGs and fantasy as a whole.

[Aside] I have heard several different explanations for "this is what the ferengi are actually based on", and I find none of them convincing [/aside]

[Aside] The reductive slurry of spec-fic monocultures I blame on Star Trek. Orcs in generic vernacular fantasyland are just green klingons and that's why we are stuck in endless cycles of discourse samsara. [/aside]

To make a long and complex topic brief and pithy, the best approach is to write with intent and awareness (funny how that is usually the solution). What external information am I referencing? What auxiliary information am I trying to get across? Is it rooted in stereotypes or misinformation? What am I saying about this aspect of the fiction, what am I saying about the thing I am linking it to? I should probably double check things with someone who knows what they're talking about.

So, so many problems in the RPG and spec-fic sphere come from a combination of the nerd impulse to categorize combined with a sort of unwillingness to think about what is being signified - they're just repeating the signifier, thinking nothing of it.

***


There is a good example of the underlying principle here in Tolkien's work, of all things: elves, dwarves, orcs, all consist of different cultural groups found in different regions of Middle Earth. Lothlorien elves and Mirkwood elves. Blue Mountain dwarves and Iron Hill dwarves. Moria orcs and Mordor orcs. As with most of the good parts of Tolkien, it has been soundly ignored by large swatches of people.

***

Simulated Knave down in the comments suggested I link the ACOUP articles on the wibblyness of Celtic as a term and on the complexity of Roman ethnicity. More ACOUP is always good.

 

PART 4: A Worked Example


To give a practical worked example, let's look at our old friends Pen and Tam and what layers they belong to.

GEOGRAPHIC - P & T live in the northeastern Hill Country along the Mora River. The climate is temperate, the biome primarily broadleaf forest, the landscape is the hilly remains of some truly ancient mountains (the region's explicitly based on Pennsylvanian Appalachia). River, rail, and road access provide a convenient link to Bensael and other cities on the rivers, and it's a doable journey over the hills to Orlei, but there are few crossings to the south, meaning a more limited connection to the Low Country. The North Country is much more accessible.

POLITICAL - Bensael is the nearest major city-state, and Olen is part of its network of connected towns. It's not really a case of direct rule as we would think of it, but more along the lines of...okay so in a lot of the Hespermont there is a principle of governance that, since I don't have a real-world term to use just yet, would be rendered as "social well-being" or "social connectedness" or "mutual goods", which started out as a way of describing networks of gift economies and inter-clan alliances, and it's evolved to a modern-day iteration that operates similar to but perhaps not exactly quite like socialism. The Mora-Pono system has between four and six major nodes of this network (Redgate, Bensael, Rivershead, and a few others that I haven't made up yet along the Pono). The old clan and tribal affiliation networks remain, and are entirely too complex to get into here.

CULTURAL - The overall culture of the Riverlands / Middle Hespermontane is descended from the southern branch of the elder Longhouse Culture, like most everything else north of the lower hills. P&T in particular sit in a nook where there's further overlap from Bensael. Primary neighbor-cultures are the peoples of the North Country (themselves cousins by way of the Longhouse Culture), the Forest Peoples (their own group, descended from a completely different source), and Orlei (heavily influenced by Eostremontane cultures).

RELIGIOUS - Hespermontane religious practices are anthropogamist (Gods of Man) traditions and local folkways. The Solar Church has no real presence in the region, though eastern-style religious orders (such as the Order of the Sable Maid) imported from Orlei (where they have long been syncretized with the Gods of Man) have grown more popular in the wake of the War. There is a sizable congregation of Okavim in Bensael but it has not dispersed far into the surrounding country.

LINGUISTIC - P&T live in a very linguistically diverse region.

Their primary language is the Bensaeli dialect of Riverlands Hespermontane, a language that I have previously described as "Breton that's been mixed with Mohawk", chosen as an appropriate illustration of Bensael's role as a major engine of cross-cultural exchange. It is the admixture of languages from neighboring regions - Orlei in the east, the lower North Country, the Hill Country proper and those regions to the south - that has since become its own language.

Those neighboring languages all fill the roles of secondary languages in the Riverlands and Hill Country, and thus P&T are either additionally fluent in or have a passing knowledge of what would, in this analogy, fill the roles of French, Scottish Gaelic, and the Iroquoian languages.

(Now, bear in mind, that I use these real-world languages as illustration and comparison - evocative analogy rather than exact description. They are close enough for petanque, as it where, and my main methodology remains mostly "what sounds / looks good", with perhaps some phonotactical limitations if I want to evoke a specific cultural influence or the equivalent of Dog Latin. I am a monolingual dabbler in this stuff and certainly not someone with any sort of subject-matter expertise, judge me accordingly.)

These are not the only languages in use, though - there are the languages of the Forest People and those who live up in the mountains, both of which isolates, there's the old northern language of the Second Empire (served here by Greco-Latin) brought here from the Eostremont, which is mostly the domain of wizards and historians. The equivalent of Spanish/Italian is from the Lower Arivienne and is somewhat mutually intelligible to those who know Orleian. The Okavim have region-specific dialects of their own language. The Lilu-Voya dialect is the most commonly-spoken of the subterrene languages in the various lilu enclaves in the region. These languages would be the ones P&T know of and can recognize, but would have to find a translator if they didn't share another language with the speaker (Tam does know some Wizard's Imperial thanks to her work, but since she wasn't on a translation team her knowledge of it is limited.)

APPEARANCE - People in the Hepsermont fall, generally, into six very broad/loose visual categories, which I have just assigned letters to because they are broad categories and, as has been established before, strict categorization of such things is the source of many problems in spec-fic I would rather avoid (and, indeed, have written this entire post in the hopes of avoiding). Traits listed are common, not exhaustive nor exclusive - people move, populations mix.

MSF as a setting (by design), does not really have a conception of race - certainly not one anywhere close to the bullshit we are shackled with in reality. Cultural / clan affiliation is much more important than what one looks like, and correlation between the two is not considered to be a set thing. But it's still useful to know what people look like.

Following in the lead of Hail Santa, I am using the Phonecian alphabet to represent population groups as an out-of-universe shorthand. There are arranged, very roughly, in chronological order according to when there was a major migration of that population into the Hespermont. The very generalized home region is at the end.

  •  𐤀 Alep - Slate grey, grey-brown, deep brown or red-brown skin; speckling or mottling of darker colors common; coppery or deep brown hair; beards very common; anakim build; broad facial features; Hill Country (Forest Peoples)
  •  𐤁 Bet - Very deep brown skin; black hair; lilifio build; Hill Country (Forest Peoples) & Riverlands (other bands)
  •  𐤂 Giml - Brown skin (shades vary from light to dark), brown or black hair (straight or wavy, occasionally curly); beards very common; epicanthic folds common; North Country, Riverlands, Hill Country, Arivienne, Low Country; the Hespermont in totality.
  •  𐤃 Dalet - Pale pinkish or beige skin; brown, red, copper, or sandy hair (straight or wavy); North Country and Riverlands.
  •  𐤄 He - Dark, deep brown skin, black hair (bold), occasionally sandy/gold/white; epicanthic folds common; Low Country, Lower & Upper Arivienne, Orlei, some Riverlands.
  •  𐤅 Yaw - Mid brown skin (tan, bronze or olive common); brown or black hair (tight curls or straight), occasionally sandy/gold; Low Country, Lower Arivienne, Riverlands.

[Aside] many thanks to Enziramire for informing me that there's a people in Madagascar who call Afro-textured hair "bold" and straight hair "quiet", which is such a good descriptor. [/aside]


In very, very, rough chronology...

  • Alep, Bet, and Giml have been here long enough that they are considered autocthonic populations. Alep and Bet are the oldest - oral history accounts of contact between them and Giml exist, and are old enough that they cannot be accurately dated.
  • As best as can be determined through anthropological survey and mythic-historical records, the Dalet population migrated to the North Country during the collapse of the First Empire and the Years of Chaos, and swiftly integrated into the Longhouse Culture. A place of origin, and any related peoples, remain unknown.
  • He migrated from the Belt and up the Arivienne during a period of major instability in the region.
  • Yaw has migrated from the Eostremont into Low Country and Lower Arivienne in sporadic waves for most of history; they are placed as most recent in this list due to the influx of Eostremontane peoples during the 2nd Empire occupation.  


And now I pop back in to say that all this description more or less doesn't matter because the matter is not this simple. There are lots of dark-skinned folks with red hair and blue eyes up in the mountains, plenty of folk in the north with epicanthic folds. Small percentage of general population will have traits of anakim or lilifio descent (certain peoples will have much higher rates). There are enclaves and isolates such as the Lilu, Wendish, Dhorch'maeh, Acephavarans, the Dayrdani, and none of those are monolithic either. Doesn't even mention the Idaltu, who were there even before the Forest Peoples. Travelers and immigrants. Lots of mixed families, lots of generations of mixed families (there's hardly a difference between Giml and Yaw in a lot of places). Nothing remains set. On and on. No hard borders. 

Do not be seduced by the lie of simplicity.
 

Final Thoughts


Having spent a lot of time being long-winded about this, a TLDR:

All factors of a setting influence each other

You will never have a place on the map - no matter how isolated - that will be only one people, with only one culture, with only one language, and only one religion. Even if it's as small as "they put red ribbons instead of green on their shrines on the other side of the hill", there will be differences.

Don't be like Talislanta, where depth is ignored in favor of superficial breadth.

There is no such thing as a monoculture and anyone who wants there to be one is dangerous.

Draw from real life - it is always more complex than expected.

People are people, no matter where you go.

Saturday, January 14, 2023

Dan Reviews Conlangs

The muse possessed me last week, churned out all of these in the space of a day.

I just think they're neat!

Adûnaic (J.R.R. Tolkien)

John was holding out on us and it's a damn shame. This one's got some A E S T H E T I C. Love me a good û. Westron itself also gets bundled here, gotta give out a shoutout to my man Banazîr Galbasi. I feel like it should be mentioned that, in the work considered the poster child of Euro-fantasy, nearly all of the characters are speaking something explicitly modeled on Semitic and Mesopotamian languages. No Greek or Latin to be seen. That seems like something a lot of people miss.



Toki Pona (Sonja Lang)

Can't get into it. The limited phonology, limited vocabulary, short word length, extreme isolating grammar, and lack of compounding make it so repetitive visually and aurally that it dissolves into white noise for me. The many Tokiponidos out there hacking the language into even smaller wordlists and phonologies strike me as bizarre - there is a limit to how minimalist you can get before information transfer breaks down. Jonathan Gabel's sitelen sitelen is easily one of my favorite scripts for anything, though, gold star on the Good Noodle Board.



Toki Ma (Shevek Urrasti)

The vocabulary and grammar have been expanded into something more robust, which is nice. Close enough for petanque.  Many of the (enormous) lexical gaps of Toki Pona have been filled. The limited phonology is much less of an issue, as the extended vocabulary makes things much less repetitive. A marked improvement (sans the loss of sitelen sitelen) if outside the philosophical bounds of Toki Pona.



Ithkuil (John Quijada)

A masterpiece of outsider art. The impracticality of actually using it and the headaches I get when I try to read through it are nothing compared to the fact that Quijada has a vision, and he has been chipping away at that marble block for nearly 20 years, and damn any outside expectations of what it can or should be. 20 years, expanding and refining and improving this thing that, I suspect, makes full sense only of Quijada himself. And that's beautiful to see. Hurts my head to consider, but I keep coming back to think about it. 



Globasa (Hector Ortega)

As a rule, I find International Auxillary Languages a rather dull genre. They trend towards sameness - looking the same, sounding the same, keeping the same grammar and chasing the same fever-dream of "maybe this time, it will work!" That aside, Globasa is probably my favorite in the genre. It has a helpful website, the creator has explicitly released it into the public domain, and generally it has done enough well and avoided enough pitfalls to fill the one slot I have for positive IAL opinions.



Lojban (Logical Language Group)

As with most attempts to use an algorithm to fulfill a creative endeavor, the end result is an ugly mess. That and I'm philosophically opposed to internet rationalism and doubly so against a conlang explicitly designed to prevent puns.



Na'vi (Paul Frommer)

The language is fine. Whatever. One of those high production high polish made-to-order big media conlangs. The context around the language is the sort of bullshit that makes me want to take this entire hobby and dump it into the fucking sea. The absolute fucking...gods can you imagine what you could do with that much money if, instead of dumping it down the black hole of Cameron's ego, you, I don't know, invested it in actual environmental stewardship or language revitalization programs? He didn't even have the fucking decency to make good movies! God _damn_ it!



Klingon (Mac Okrand)

I love Klingon. I love its ugliness, its jankiness, it's weird regularity and odd limitations. It's like seeing a dinosaur in full, majestic plumage - master of an era long since passed. It's weird and idiosyncratic and awkward and the linguistic equivalent of an incredibly ugly dog who's just the sweetest and best boy you've ever seen. No shade to David Peterson, but his output is of a consistent high competence that leaves me without much to say. Of course jank is not always good, and Klingon suffers from the "they use <x> and <q> so they must be warlike" coding that is extremely tiresome. This part I do not love. Also the script is terrible.



Kala (Carl Buck)

I love Kala. Aesthetically pleasing both in romanization and custom script, robust-enough grammar that is still pretty easy to grasp. It's not particularly complicated or out there, but it doesn't need to be. Fulfills a niche that i happen to like. 



Sambhasa (Olivier Simon)

A Proto-Indo-European inspired IAL that makes the choice to keep modern spellings of words to maintain familiarity, which leads to an incredibly complicated system of phonological / pronunciation rules to follow and a sinking suspicion that you might as well just use English.



Dothraki (David J. Peterson)

Like Na'vi, the language is Fine. I don't care for it, in large part for reasons unconnected to the language itself - the Dothraki are the great modern exemplar of ACOUP's so deftly-named "barbarian couture", and so we end up with a Fine language paired with the portrayal of a people as filthy, violent, artless, possessing no culture beyond "horse" and "fight", and altogether Other. They use <x> and <q> so you know they're savages /s.
 
If I had a nickel for every conlang made for a major media IP whose existence is predicated on perpetuating racist stereotypes, I would have fifteen cents. Which isn't much but it's indicative of a pattern. Could get a full quarter if I added the conlangs written by out-and-out white supremacists.

Ido, Neo, Interlingua, Lingua Franca Nova, Et Cetera

At last, conlangs willing to ask the daring question of "What if French, but also Spanish and / or Italian?"



Asa'pili (Hans Widmer)

It's really just a short wordlist instead of a language, but I think it's neat as a little exercise in utopian thought - that wordlist plots out the broad brush painting of a society. 



Esperanto (L.L. Zamenhof)

I am obligated to mention Esperanto here. My opinion is thus: it is historically important, a bad conlang in a a few mildly interesting ways, and ultimately irrelevant to me.



Edun (Biblaridion)

I love the script, love how frustrating/absurd the in-setting lack of spelling reform is. And, has been previously established, I love any conlang that sounds like Enheduanna is about to start singing hymns in it. Why? Not a clue. Guess I just like Gilgamesh vibes - ill-defined as that is.

 

Siwa (Etienne L. Poisson)

I'll be honest I have barely looked into this one, on the grounds that the grammar is 739 pages long and incredibly thorough. But hot damn has it got a slickly-designed and thorough grammar document. 



Belter Creole (Nick Farmer)

Confession time: I don't like the The Expanse. I like parts of The Expanse, and this is one of them - it offers a welcome dose of cultural flavor to a setting I find dominated by the plain skinless chicken breast elements of sci-fi (grumbles in space-grognard) Unlike a lot of future-slang deals, Belt Creole feels like a natural component of life in the setting, rather than just some randomly-assembled words shoved into English. 



Old Daevite (LongLangLin)

Love the Daevites, one of my all-time favorite things to come out of the SCP wiki. It's a solid base grammar, and includes some fun stuff like stop mutation types according to social class, a custom script, and a truly weird numerical system used by the upper classes (Base 7, but the first 7 digits are limited to prime numbers 2-17 and anything non-prime is just a combination of prime components. There's no numeral for 1). Plenty of footnotes, as is right and good. The first word in the noun list is "human sacrifice" which, yeah, checks out for the Daevites. On the whole, a good crossover between conlangs and the stories of the wiki.



Ämärangnä Language (Adytite) (User Deleted)

Another SCP conlang, this one regarding a Siberian language of the old Sarkic cults. Different tack from Daevite, as this one is focused primarily on the conlang's position as a fictional descendent of Proto-Uralic. There's a much greater focus on sound changes and compared vocabulary than in Old Daevite. I know significantly less about the Sarkics (after my time) so the connections to the greater setting pass me by. There is a sizable error / oversight in the noun section, where it says that there are 14 classes, but then only lists three. As with Old Daevite, this is mostly a sketch, as it too is serving dual purposes (conlang, but also a tale).



Sahrian (Greg Kasavin)

Despite how little detail we have, I think that Sahrian is one of the best examples of what a conlang can do, despite avoiding most of the things that are associated with the medium. The lexicon is small, limited to voice clips that rarely reflect what is actually being said. There's no released grammar or wordlist (Greg mentioned a spreadsheet he kept of all the words and phrases with their English equivalents, but never got around to sharing it. Fan reconstructions have not gone far. Ah, pipe dreams.) So for the player, Sahrian is a thing of recognizing words and filling in their meaning from tone, delivery, and context. It's an excellent example of how a conlang can function as a component of a larger work: it gives flavor and depth to the setting and characters, without becoming a stumbling block that players have to muddle through to get anything out of it. There's an incredible amount of meaningful variety underneath - dialect variants between characters, archaisms, speech impediments, little personal quirks. Jodariel uses formal speech. Falcon Ron has a speech impediment. Sir Gilman uses archaisms. Pametha always uses the affectionate form when speaking to you. All combined, the effect is remarkable, and probably my favorite of the entire lot reviewed here. The folks at Supergiant went A & B the C of D, and that ought not go unappreciated. Noxalas!

Wednesday, January 11, 2023

Slush Pile 12

Time to clean out the drafts folder and notebooks for the new year

Old Slushpiles: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 8.5, 9,10,11

  1. A log cabin, filled with magically-empowered bandits, buried deep underground in a granite vein.
  2. Dune Theory: Few, if any, of the Sardarkuar ever saw actual combat prior to the Arrakis incident. Their reputation is entirely propaganda + brutalizing unarmed civilians.
  3. Sphinxes happen when a cat gets lost in L-space for all nine of its lives. The tenth reincarnation is as a sphinx.
  4. Space elevators held aloft by gasbags on a high atmo-pressure, high gravity world.
  5. A run-down prola with a bad slouch and bags under their eyes. Friendly. Ordinary. Nothing off about them. --There is a worm inside them, coiled around their spine, hooked into their brain, watching everything, hearing everything, recording and reporting and when its cover is blown it will tear itself out of its host and writhe off into the darkness.
  6. Orcs as a variety of fungus that grows on corpses in places touched by the Orkus. Cordyceps-like in one part, puppeting around corpses, but the lineage diverges when there is a living host, or no host at all.
  7. The Planck-1 Assassination.
  8. The House of 0 coalesces and begins subdivision.
  9. The Atûm - Highest and inmost, source and summit, at the center of all mysteries, there is the Atûm: the Sea of Souls, the Eternal Fire, the Is-That-Is-Not, the Monadic Flame.
  10. You can wish upon lightning once - more liable to happen than with a shooting star. But only once - try it again, and it will start striking friends and family as payment.
  11. The players, inhabitants of a debt-internment colony, are working maintenance down in the sub-levels, and find a human corpse blocking a pipe. In its hand is...
  12. A tiny, nectar-eating anteater-relative. Lives in trees in the tropics. Brightly-colored fur, almost birdlike.
  13. Drop bears filling a niche of urban mesopredators. Fighting cats for turf, dropping off of eaves and lampposts to nab pigeons.
  14. Thanksgiving -> Black Friday -> Christmas extrapolated into future-hell-capitalist Easter Triduum - enormous feast of overconsumption, then you must buy buy buy so that money can go to paying off Santa debts so he can return from hell.
  15. The last human in the world, maintaining the last radio, waiting for help to arrive. Hands the too-late alien rescuers a small package wrapped in brown paper and twine.
  16. Substitutionary atonement not for humanity's sins, but for God's.
  17. Exowomb creches with dedicated parent/teacher tenders. Cyborgs? Avatar-chains?
  18. Space languages: Belter Navajo, Martian Sino-Spanish, Elevator Swahili, Standardized Alliance Auxillary Language, Universal machine Interface Language.
  19. Generic blue magical energy is un-fire; produces no heat, is entropically neutral, removing all energy it added into the universe when the spell disperses.
  20. Post Idea: Return to the Jump-9 Empires, with revisions now factoring in the principle of ontological decay / acausal hazards caused by the Jump-9 ships violating causality.
  21. Post Idea: A detailed look at the Manvantara Ontological Divergence Event
  22. Retired Adventurer, on theme, via discord: "Step 1: Think big thoughts; feel big feels Step 2: Make the setting reflect those thoughts and feels"
  23. Retired adventurer, via discord: "Bankrolling your future army of freed slaves is actually a pretty good reason to be a dungeon delver... Harriet Tubman: Fighter; John Brown: Cleric; Frederick Douglass: Rogue; John Rock: Wizard; The Bury the Chains expansion: Olaudah Equiano: Ranger; William Wilberforce: Cleric; Granville Sharp: Bard; Thomas Clarkson: Rogue; Black Jacobins expansion: Toussaint L'Ouverture: Fighter; Jeanjak Dessalines: Ranger; Dutty Boukman / Cecile Fatiman: Clerics; Sonthonax: Wizard."
  24. Ornate dark hardwood palanquin with these incredibly elaborately detailed golden blackout curtains, carried by a creature that looks like if you cut a man in half at the waist, and replaced the upper half with a sea anemone made out of fingers. The drow ambassador-sorceress is inside. An assassin was captured by the villa staff, hoping to use the hot summer afternoon to catch her sleeping.  A pudgy, gloved hand emerges from the curtains and there is a mottom-style [P E R I S H].
  25. For those space teamsters who want to go VERY fast and do things VERY dangerously and VERY illegally, there is the "hot reload" -Instead of venting exotic energy buildup from the jump core like normal, you jettison the entire thing as soon as you exit hyperspace, immediately install a new one, and jump right back in."
  26. Brad Láthspell, via discord — "It's surely Prof. T at his most overtly radical. Sharkey encloses the commons, takes full control of the economy, establishes a brutal authoritarian regime that makes the unintimidating Shire reeves into a brute squad, and when the shiriffs prove insufficient because most of them never signed up to be cops, they get replaced with straight-up gangsters. Then the common folk of the Shire unite, organize, and kill the enactors of state violence until things are better."
  27. Conlang idea: polysynthetic latin
  28. TF2, but it's Warhammer 40k. The Imperium / Heretic teams are literally the same characters with a costume switch. Scout = Ratling, Soldier = Commissar, Pyro = Sister of Battle, Demo = Guardsman, Heavy = Ogryn, Engineer = Techpriest, Medic = Psyker, Sniper = Skitarii, Spy = Ork
  29. In Japan you can get stamps from shrines for a special booklet, used as a devotional / pilgrimage tracker. They're called shuin.
  30. An image from a dream: animatronic baleen whale hanging from warehouse ceiling, sadly swimming in place, caked / choked / impaled / wrapped with garbage. An art project of some kind.
  31. Drow have internal parasitic males, similar to deep-sea anglerfish. These are actually the "real" drow, as the people that are called drow are just hybridized humans.
  32. Planet where the entire population descended from emulations of very limited pool of original colonists.
  33. [Orion's Arm] Deeper Covenant relay station finds itself in chaos as Blood Angel / Queen of Pain seraph attacks an incoming Dominion-allied ship
  34. Conlang idea: Noun classes are Generic, Trademarked, and Copywrited
  35. StarshipTzadkiel, via reddit: "In The Best of Gene Wolfe each story has a little afterword written by the man himself. One of them - I think after The Boy Who Hooked the Sun - has his advice for learning to write. It is this: rewrite a story you love from memory. You know the characters, the plot, the setting. So rewrite it in your own style." 
  36. A word: gadugi, via Cherokee, meaning a sort of ad-hoc task-specific work team / group.
  37. Aliens that can maintain theory of mind for more than 4 people at a time.
  38. Evidence / facts > answers
  39. Erdtree grafted onto Great Tree? Maliketh's great rune has roots - conjoining earlier beastman civilization to the Golden Order, a connection forgotten / buried? Humans prior to Erdtree - pre GO death gods?
  40. The temple of Zeus Castratus
  41. "Have you heard the one about the wandering carnifex?"

***

  • GROUP NAME: Munsögossek Nekutotad Etor - "Vilecouncil the Secretive Hands of Kings"
  • FORTRESS NAME: Zirilgakit Saràmbobrur Solam - "Firethief the Great Mother of Nations"
  • SYMBOL: Rerithbakat - "Chaosgame" 
    • "It is an image of a five-pointed star, a mangrove, dwarves, unicorns, a scroll, and a goblin. The dwarves are fighting with the unicorns. The dwarves are devouring the unicorns. The dwarves are screaming. The goblin is hiding the scroll."

***

"Have you ever seen an ork in bloom? When they have grown too old for the axe and their skin sags and their joints grind? When they go to the places that the Orkus has touched, set down mycelium in the rich organic muck, let go of the bones they once stole from lichyards and abbatoirs, grow bright new fruiting bodies in the gloom and, fed with manure and corpses and rotting things, begin to spore?"

 

***


How 2 Make a Souls Game

  • Once upon a time there was a normal, unfucked state of the world.
  • Someone has since fucked it up by trying to overturn the ordering of the world
  • Attempts to fix the initial fuckery have only furthered the fuckening, and developed new ways in which the world is fucked.
  • Assorted factions exist. They wish to:
    • Unfuck the world (it'll definitely work this time!)
    • Usurp the ordering of the world into an entirely new kind of fucked
    • Re-align the world to its previous unfucked order
    • Attempt to push through current fuckedness to a new state of unfuckedness
    • Wallow in the fucked and drag down everyone else with them
  • You are a cipher, a deniable asset, a stooge


***


How 2 Star Trek in Mosh

1) Vulcans now androids. Maybe remote piloted by methane-breathing aliens, maybe not
2) Klingons now weird warrior cult formed from a mercenary company stranded on the Rim for centuries
3) Ferengi now the office drones of a world that lost all its C-levels and they've been filling the niches

***


On January 1, 2020, a youtuber by the name of BREADSWORD uploaded a ten-minute video titled "Dancers in the Dark - A Brief History of Dance in Film". At the time of writing, it has just under sixty-five thousand views.

"Dancers in the Dark - A Brief History of Dance in Film" is a sequence of just that. Dance, as portrayed in over three hundred films from 1894 to 2019 and accompanied by the end title theme for Cloud Atlas. There are no words, not until after the dance ceases when BREADSWORD ends his eight-minute silence to thank the viewer for watching and to read aloud a list of patreon backers.

If I could choose a single piece of art to show to aliens - whether it be to persuade them away from destroying us, or the limitations on interstellar bandwidth - it would be this. For I cannot stop myself from imagining some alien scholar watching it (presuming, at least, that it can see as we do) and overjoyed, exclaiming:

"They were like us! See? They danced! They were like us!"

That is the hope.

***


Taxonomies Used By Wizards (inspired by a Zedeck post)

A) The Throne of Salt Taxons
B) Split between "can a spell(s) reside within it" or not, and further subdivided as to whether or not the spell(s) is innate.
C) Things to eat, things to fight with, things to mate with, things to run away from, things to ignore, and rocks
D) Taxonomy according to the types of tool usage
E) Bearing no relation to the organisms actual qualities, but rather what group of serpentmen engineered them
F) According to a complicated astrological / elemental type system which is basically Pokemon

***


> "I met a knight of An-Hehm on the road and I asked him, 'Tell me brother, what is the last great secret of the universe?'"
>
> "And what did he say?"
>
> "He punched me in the nose."

[Static image of a man, presumably homeless, sitting inside a cardboard box at the entrance to an alleyway. Man is wearing a rubber dog mask and is holding a rusting machete]

gongfarmren: This guy was glaring at me the entire time I was down watching the protests today. Tried talking to him and he just said 'God aborted the universe' and then said that my mother fucks dogs. What gives?

hadriansceiling: lol wtf

hortawortbort: It's true, your mother does fuck dogs, that's why you're a [SLUR DELETED]

biangbiang: I think you met God

gundabad: DOG GOD

mudandsludge: That's a knight of An-Hehm. Probably from the School of the Cynocephalus, they're the ones who wear the dog masks.

gongfarmren: A what? Is that some kind of cult?

mudandsludge: > wellyesbutalsono.jpg

mudandsludge: It's complicated. They're a sect that follows the Atûmaic mysteries

goodjourb: Oh shit it's serious now we're breaking out the diacritics.

gongfarmren: What's the atumaic mysteries? Srry for being dense I've never heard of them before.

redsandhighway: Why would they know, they're mysteries.

***


They called him Botfly, for an infection as an infant left his arms and face pockmarked with scars. He was a slave and the son of slaves, and grew up lean and tough and clever in the shipyards of Port Miser. The abuses of those years of imprisonment - first as the errand boy and then as the oarsman - enkindled in him a great longing for freedom and a greater hatred of all men who considered themselves masters. It was that hatred that bore him through those dark and hungry nights, as the years turned and the lashes scabbed over and turned to scars along his back.

Two men he hated above all others. The first was the bishop of Port Miser, Monsignor Radelerd, who had a controlling interest in the dockyards and whose demands were a constant yoke upon the workers.

The second was the man called Trant. Botfly regretted that there was no opportunity to kill him during the escape

His early life was not without some kindnesses. Among the slaves of the shipyard there was Old Gim, blind and ever-dignified, stolen long ago from his home across the sea. A man who the slavemasters of Port Miser could not break, who took the boy called Botfly under his protection, such as he could offer, and taught him the ways of endurance.

***

They Called Us Dogs

A half-baked premise for Dialect, about a population of monster-hunters deported to the edges of the empire that conquered them, to delve into the monster-filled ruins of an even older empire.

Aspect Generation Questions

  • Surrounded by Monsters - Hunting monsters has always been part of our culture. Which ones are the most useful, the most significant?
  • Anathema - What practices of ours are most-hated by the imperial government and its ecclesiastic attack dogs?

Community Questions

  • What is it like to live out here, in the ruins of the Silent Empire? How have these ruins been repurposed by us?
  • How do we initiate new hunters? Where do those who do not take up the trade find themselves in our society?

***

The Cloud-Eaters

Life is not unknown among the gas giants, but it is rare and it trends so alien to our frame of reference that we don't tend to pay it much mind. Such are the Cloud-Eaters - a species we have made contact but not communication with.

1) They are enormous - well beyond the size of other jovian lifeforms. Closer to the side of an interplanetary spaceship.
2) When disturbed, they will plummet to the deeper cloud layers - well out of the biotic zones.
3) They have been observed on worlds dozens or hundreds of lightyears apart, some of which have no known native biosphere to support them.
5) When diving, they release a sudden burst of noise via radio waves. It sounds very much like a chorus of human beings screaming.


Headhunters

Markers of smooth black-blue stone rise up from the ground, a circular hole cut out from near the top of each and a sphere of similar material floating above. Lights in the sky at night - pulsing, blinking, zipping about. Gristly organic matter, scab red, grows outward from the base, like roots or webbing or a tumor. Colonists vanish. If they are ever found, they're found without their heads. Lights in the sky. In ones and twos, you see things in the dim, hours-long twilight; things that look like people but are not. They watch you, and return to the forest. They do not come close. They do not show aggression. They stand in place, for hours, days, weeks, and gaze up at the sky, where the lights dance at night. They raise mis-aligned limbs and point westward.

Sunday, January 8, 2023

7 Anomalous Aliens

salpfish1

This is part of what I must now call a semi-regular series, previous installments include:


The universe is filled with life, and we have met very little of it. We understand even less, and that great unknown is filled up with an astounding amount of bullshit: blurry photographs of nothing, clearly doctored video, claims passed around as fact without a single bit of evidence. Unidentified spaceship sightings are common as carbon and typically given far less consideration. The misinformation machine, whether fueled by ignorance or malice, dominates the discussion of aliens - outside of the web of a million lies, the prevailing attitude is that if they're real - real aliens, that is, and not just misidentified human craft, sensor glitches, or bullshit - they'll either be properly discovered at some point, or they're good enough at hiding that we'll never get the chance.

The beings listed below are those that sit in the middle ground between total fabrication and accepted part of life - those that have not been properly studied or formally contacted, but have accumulated enough verifiable evidence to prove that they (probably) exist. What precisely they are is another matter entirely, and only best guesses can be made with the limited information available.

 

Blackballs

A classic of cryptoxenology: black spheres that are incredibly fast, anomalously low-temperature, lack a visible a drive tail, and appear in groups of 1-9. Most evidence of their existence is low-quality long-range photography or meager blips in the scanner data. Theories abound - they are probes sent to observe us by aliens; they are probes to observe us sent by the government; they are hyperspace anomalies; they are life forms, not ships; they are a hallucination caused by too much time in hyperspace; they are a meme that's turned into a stand-alone complex.

They would have remained the generic unproven alien encounter were it not for a cluster of systems, all within a 35 light-year bubble, where Blackballs appear in-atmosphere. These seemingly-inert specimens drift half a kilometer or so above the surface (similar to tensegrity sphere habitats), only seeming to become active long enough to avoid contact with observers. If they are indeed tensegrity habitats, then something must certainly be inside. If only one could be caught...

Hypothetical Antimemetic Biota

Endemic episodes of lost time and memory loss among colonists on the garden world of Palaemon - separate from any shared pre-existing condition or apparent environmental cause - has led to a widespread belief in native life capable of wiping itself from the memory of the observer. In violation of both company and Alliance policy, the colonists have resisted the expansion of surface operations and have begun to form a loosely-defined animistic religion centered on these Ignotae. Offerings are left outside of airlocks, murals are painted with absences of pigment, wise men and fools try and reverse-engineer who they are dealing with from tracing the missing pieces. Somewhere, out in the purple jungles of the planet, something watches us, and we are blind to it.

 

The Runaways

Known through a single, well documented sighting. A rimspace mining vessel, while staking a claim on a gas giant ring system, witnessed three asteroids sharply veer out of their normal orbit, burn torch for three minutes and twenty seconds, and then transition into hyperspace. No further encounters have been confirmed, though there were a spate of claims when the news hit the noosphere.

Of great concern to observers are the anomalies shown in the asteroids' apparent drive capabilities: not only did the torch drives in use dwarf the output of any terragen propulsion systems by orders of magnitude, the hyperspace transition was much closer to the gas giant's center of mass than the normal minimum safe distance for a human-operated interface. Combined with the camouflage on display, more paranoid factions in the Expansion Sphere have used the Runaways as fuel for conspiracies of secret invasions, immanent or already underway.

 

The Basilisk Transmission

The story goes like this: an alien transmission was received by the long-distance communication station orbiting Arete, packaged with its own decryption code. Soon as it was unlocked, the data package started subverting the colony's governance node and most of its civil network. The comm station workers took down the whole satellite network to stop it from spreading out of the system. Alliance warships, in the system for a scheduled refit, bombed the colony into oblivion. The CTA then put up a quarantine around the planet and a hyperspace interdiction on the system, which remain active.

The official line is that rebellion had broken out on Arete, and that the governance node had been subverted by extremist elements of the Aretan Workers' Union. Most people buy this explanation, as it'd neither be out of character for the Aretans, nor even their first rebellion. But with the quarantine and interdiction in place, there's no way to tell what the actual situation is on the planet, or in the small iteration of the City around the system's lone ice giant.

 

The Barbelo Remains

At first glance there is nothing unusual at all about the original inhabitants of Barbelo: they were of that genre of aggressive, inventive species whose CO2-choked tombs dot the cosmos in their dozens. Nothing unusual there: acidic seas, pressure-cooker atmosphere, a few hardy strains of biota surviving in pockets.

But then the excavations began. A partial skeleton was found, and then another, dozens of them. Then hundreds. A mass grave? The excavation went deeper. A structure, built in a region of low tectonic activity. Signs of attempted breach - all failures. A series of chambers, arranged in a circle some 20 kilometers around, linked by a single long hallway. Filled top to bottom with rows of shelves and niches, and on each there was another skeleton. Thousands, then tens of thousands. Hundreds of thousands. Ground-penetration scans revealed another ring of chambers below the first, then another, then five more beyond that. All identical. Millions of individuals, neatly arrayed in their niches.

In the center of the great crypt-ring is another skeleton; five hundred meters tall, its knees pulled up to its chest, sitting upright. Around its skull is an enormous circlet of worked metal.

A second complex has just been found.

 

The Samarkand Hyperspace Gate Incident

The Samarkand Gate is a well-known xenoartifact - a long-defunct hyperspace door in a decaying orbit around a brown dwarf. The device has been picked to the bones by xenologists hoping to find some clue to its creators or purpose, but there are no signs of planetary or orbital development in the Samarkand system at all - at least not within the last ten million years or so.

Its state of affairs as a minor tourist attraction was expected to continue indefinitely (with some talks of stabilizing the gate's orbit and moving it back out to a stable lagrange) until it reactivated. This should have been impossible, given the amount of degradation in the machinery, but less than an hour later, a ship emerged from the folded space beyond the ring.

Unlike many mystery ships the vessel appeared to be well within known technological capabilities, resembling middle interplanetary period vessels now centuries behind the modern terragen average. It broadcast a series of wideband radio signals (which remain undeciphered - they don't seem to follow any sensible patterns of first-contact protocol) and remained at the mouth of the gate. Attempts at formal contact were made by the few ships in communication range, but no response was received. After half an hour, the ship turned around and re-entered the wormhole, and the Gate returned to inactivity.

While there's still no sign that the Gate can be reactivated from the terragen side, post-Incident studies (bolstered by some lucky measurements of the Gate's exotic energy discharge during the Incident) have been enough to narrow down the region of space the mystery ship originated in. If the calculations are correct, it is roughly 1500 light years coreward and widdershins from Samarkand. Uncharted territory, so any expedition would be extremely slow going - still, talks are already underway. 

 

The Worms

Longhaulers drifting into port with their crews massacred. Frantic spacers waking up from cryo to find something growing in their stomachs. Entire stations quarantined, suppression marines brought in by the platoon. Asteroids found floating still and silent in hyperspace, honeycombed with dark chambers. Blurry video of things long, wriggling, deep red. Cultists proclaim the end of humanity and the coming of the Conqueror Worm. A pilgrimage, to the distant planet where all things go to die.