Monday, 18 September 2023

Four Books on War

“ .. Belgium’s leading living poet whose life before 1914 had been a flaming dedication to socialist and humanitarian ideals that were then believed to erase national lines. He prefaced his account with this dedication: “He who writes this book in which hate is not hidden was formerly a pacifist … For him no disillusionment was ever greater or more sudden. It struck him with such violence that he thought himself no longer the same man. And yet, as it seems to him that in this state of hatred his conscience becomes diminished, he dedicates these pages, with emotion, to the man he used to be.” – Tuchman quoting Emile Verhaeren in ‘The Guns of August’.



It’s pretty quiet in the shop on a night shift. This lead me to fulfil a long-time promise to myself to finally read Barbara Tuchmans ‘The Guns of August’, her celebrated history of the opening weeks of World War One. 

At the time I also had two books of WW1 poetry on the shelf, both from less currently-popular poets, which I had picked up because I wanted to find out what the actual man-on-the-street/jingo poetry of the war was like. 

At about the same time a friend online mentioned the Manga ‘Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths’, which I grabbed a copy of. 

·        Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths by Shigeru Mizuki.

·        The Guns of August by Barbara Tuchman.

·        The Poetry of Jesse Pope.

·        Rough Rhymes of a Padre by ‘Woodbine Willie’.


So, with one very long book and three quite short ones, having finished ‘Guns of August’ why not add the rest and make an event out of it? (Because its stressful and depressing as hell but, being in idiot, I had not fully processed that.)



The Guns of August 

(Tuchman is actually a character in her own book too. 
She is the little girl interviewed by the American Ambassador about the British hunt for a German Battleship in the Med.)

Reading this book was like having a low-level panic attack, at times I had to get up and walk about to de-stress. At times it didn’t really matter who’s side I was on (the book is on the side of the Allies). I wouldn’t have thought a beat by beat breakdown of the days and hours before the second battle of Tannenberg, between Imperial Germans and Tsarists, would have me biting my nails and shouting at the screen (in my mind) but it did. 


The intensity, vividness, complexity and madness of the fog of war can, even when dealing with armies and factions I don't care much about, cause a kind of disaster-driven engagement. 

The book is a kind of anti-procedural. Instead of a cast of characters who are very good at things facing a big problem, working out what to do and coming together at the last minute against the odds, we have a massive spread of characters, all struggling against each other in big teams, arguing, perceiving and acting in different ways and coming together catastrophically, against the odds. 

It is the tension of confusion, the agony of crippled or misguided plans. Everyone has their own little section of reality and is struggling to do what they think they should and absolutely everyone is deluded, mistaken, or wrong. 

We, as the minds-eye of Tuchman, fly and flow across the battlefields, seeing more than any single person at that time ever could, simultaneously aware, as no-one living through those events ever could be, of the mutual, asynchronous and chaotic reality stuttering forth across the western front, an orchestra of staccato mistuned instruments, playing in blind opposition. Like two teams of Jazz musicians separated by a curtain, each group told to improvise and at the same time, to precisely counter the improvisation of the other side. Except no-one on either team actually likes each other. 

It is one thing to be locked in a story with your heroes point of view and to see thing going wrong. It is quite another to be slightly above that point of view, to see more of the situation than your protagonist, and to see why things are going wrong, in ways they can't. This is where the agony comes in, and yet another thing to zip across the scene, into the point of view of the antagonist, who is in fact the hero of their own story, and who’s enemy is the original hero, and to also see their schemes going wrong, and to see why they are going wrong. 


At the same time we are living in the future of these events and know that no-ones plans will go as expected and no-one (except maybe the Americans) will come out of this well - for all this striving we are watching a continent take itself apart. 

so really a poly-agony 

a poly-agonist history 


Irony, Readability and Satire 

Oh, the Kaiser and his whacky schemes, his military-style sleeping gown. The dithering-to-the-point-of-wooly-mania British Cabinet, the top-down but extremely secret and authoritarian French plans,

or French Plan, which can only be executed by having one guy in charge, and that guy not really telling the government what’s going on - was nearly the Dictator of France during the opening parts of the war, the SECRET DEALS, the French and their obsession with red pantaloons, Russia having the exact opposite of a Philosopher King - a guy genuinely dense but not quite dumb or weak willed enough to do a Coup against or just shuffle off to a Palace somewhere, all of this is part of what makes the book so readable and such a good and complex synthesis of history. 

But there is a danger to irony, in its distance, its easy synthesis and perhaps most in its argument-without-arguing. Tuchmans is a narrative history and, looking for the most interesting criticisms of the book I found that it was easy to avoid many of the more broad and obvious statements by claiming “well, Tuchman doesn’t really say that”. 

But what does she say? 

She makes few absolute and explicit value judgements, but the whole thing is an intense and vivid value judgement, only communicated through choice of detail, focus, method and rhythm of communication. A storyteller is not making a specific argument, one can hardly counter point-by-point, but they are convincing you of a something more ably than someone making a more explicit, leaden, and less persuasive statement. 


Hair-Thin Cracks In History 

the Russians being so badly organised that they start sending their orders for the next day out in Clear radio signal instead of code - this having a massive effect on the next days pivotal battle. 

Von Moltkes apprehension that the German line is too extended and loose, communicated just a day too late. 

The sheer and staggering number of times that personality conflicts between generals leads to serious problems in the war effort - they are as neurotic and sensitive as cats. 

It feels like there were not just one but a whole range of time-travellers zipping about making sure a series of cataclysmic co-incidences did and did not take place. 

Is this just the natural pixel-resolution of all history, made much more visible through this well-recorded super-crisis? Or were things genuinely more utterly bollocked than ever before? It truly is a kind of science fictional 19th century war; radio’s, codes, rail plans, the Germans bring an actual super-gun. World War One seems to take place at a fringe of complexity where nations and governments have just enough technological and organisational power to organise truly insanely massive groups, plans and actions but just not enough experience, or rapid or subtle enough technology, decision plans, structures, feedback systems or ideas to deal with the results of that complexity. 

Its curious how everyone seems to ‘play to type’. The Germans are angry and somewhat autistic, the French have a cartesian top-down view of everything, the British are dithery and pull something out of their arseholes at the last minute, the Russians are brutal, slow and fall apart. Is this just a feature of Tuchmans re-telling? I recently finished Julian Jacksons biography of De Gaule and he had a somewhat tragic view of European history in which no-one ever really changes and nations are fated to play out the conflicts of their essential character again and again over time. 


Criticisms Of Tuchman 

What are the most coherent, specific and least-whiney criticisms of Tuchman? 

The clearest is that for a book about the start of World War One, there is relatively little about whatever was going on between Serbia, Austria, Germany and Russia around and after the assassination. Neither is there a huge amount about the eastern front. 

She goes on a lot about how awful the Germans were in Balgium, but they were. 

Sir John French comes out as a borderline treasonous jumbled coward. His general reputation in history doesn’t seem anywhere nearly as bad as in this book, has anyone written about that? 


Onward Towards Our Noble Deaths 

A manga by a sweet old man; Shigeru Mizuki


This cute little guy! About the experiences of his youth! In east Asia. In the 1940s..

As part of the Imperial Japanese army.... 


Familiar Things 

I have read a few soldier-autobiographies including, oddly enough, 'Quartered Safe Out Here' by George McDonald Frasier, which is about some Cumbrian soldiers in the British army, fighting the Japanese Imperial Army, not in the same place, but in a similar environment. 

A few things flow between them; hunger, boredom, incoherent orders, officers and sergeants ranging from stupid to decent, the jungle being beautiful yet horrible, being permanently sweaty, dirty, hungry and damp, accidents and disease taking people out more regularly than the enemy, "there are people hiding in the Jungle", people popping out of holes or shooting at you from trees and whatever, if you see a dot in the sky better scatter till you know whose it is. 

It’s just guys hanging out you know!

just some guys having a time.


It’s curious to see the 'villains' from Quartered Safe Out Here' from the other side. The main difference between the forces, from the perspective of a common soldier, seems to be that, in the Imperial Japanese Army, literally everything is worse in every conceivable way. 

The Japanese soldiers are insanely hungry, on half a cup of rice a day, about 500 calories.


Instead of being shouted at and condescended to by officers and sergeants the new boys are literally slapped repeatedly in the face and punched to the ground. This is when they do something wrong, or just for existing. The end of a normal day is almost lining up to be repeatedly brutally slapped in the face for no reason



Their officers, or at least some of them, or many of them much of the time, are in a death cult. 

Their immediate commanding officer seems to fantasise pretty much continually about executing a Banzai charge and going to an 'honourable death' to the extent that he has to be talked out of it whenever a crisis happens, and eventually they can't talk him out of it.




The central 'plot element' of the book is that the Lieutenant finally manages to order the suicidal midnight jungle Banzai charge of his dreams. 

HQ finds out about this and valorises their noble sacrifice, making it a point of propaganda; the Japanese soldier never surrenders! When they are finally doomed they do a mass Banzai! For the Emperor! 

But because it was dark and the jungle a bunch of soldiers manage not to get themselves killed and get lost. Come morning they meet up and decide to go get some food before trying to Banzai themselves again. 

When this gets back to HQ, that there are still guys alive from the suicide charge, it becomes a major problem and an officer is sent down the river to re-Banzai them, at sword or gunpoint if necessary  (he shouldn't join them of course). 

The author was part of this outpost and either got ill or was knocked out by bombs during the whole thing, went missing and only got back after the remnants had been 're-Banzai'd'. This left him..  sceptical of war. 


Hell in the Pacific 

Looking into the war in the Pacific and the Imperial Japanese Army was definitely on a vibe.

The Imperial Army ate quite a lot of people, specifically they ate quite a lot of Indians, often alive, carving out the flesh of their thighs while they were still living and throwing them in a ditch to die while they ate them like steak. There are accusations that some officers ate their own men. 

I don't really know where to go from here..


The Poetry of Jesse Pope 

I picked this up I think after hearing it referenced in an episode of 'In Our Time'. 

I wanted to hear about the war poets who were not of the alienated faction, I wanted the Patriots and jingoists. WW1 has been re-written in our imagination, well perhaps not entirely re-written, but re-emphasised, reorganised and reset around the 'sad victim soldier' stereotype and the 'vague cataclysm' tale. 

These views have a lot of truth to them, they are not really 'lies', there were a lot of sad victim soldiers and it was a vague stumbling cataclysm, but the left likes to remember things a certain way

and the popular imagination of WW1 has essentially been transmitted by the left; Siegfried Sassoon, Pat Barker, All Quiet on the Western Front. I mean think of a WW1 tale and you know what you are going to get (in the anglo/westosphere at least) Amilie, Blackadder, you know the scenes, the characters, the tone, the mud and the vague emotional tenor that hangs over it all. 

Peter Jacksons documentary about WW1 ‘They Shall Not Grow Old’, had an interesting piece of editing which exemplified this. It’s based on interviews with soldiers. The opening interviews are all have a relatively positive view of the war, while the voices at the end all have a negative view. The way they are distributed creates the impression of the grieving 'sad soldier' who went in with high spirits and was crushed and alienated by the experience of the war. But, both of those strands, those interviews and recordings, are taken from the same people, all recorded long after the war. It is their dividing up and the way they are edited which creates the nice neat moral story of the 'sad soldier', not the actual recordings themselves. 

The views of a lot of WW1 soldiers, certainly of a lot of Anglosphere soldiers (the ones I am familiar with) might well strike a modern ear as not what they were expecting at all. many of those men were proud of their service and convinced they fought in a good cause, to save Europe and the world from Prussian militarism. 

Those recordings wouldn't be free of trauma and dead friends but the moral view those men had of their own actions, the weight and colour they placed on various parts, would be very different to that of later generations. 

That is why I wanted to read the poetry of Jessie Pope, because it was the popular poetry of the Daily Mail, the actually-popular poetry of the opening years of the war. The actual voice of the time rather than the remembered voice. 

I also wanted to know if she was as utterly awful as the historians claim she was. 

She was.. not *quite* as bad.. entirely 

but still pretty bad 


"A Humble Appeal 

She was a pretty, nicely mannered mare,

The children's pet, the master's pride and care,

Until a man in khaki came one day,

Looked at her teeth, and hurried her away.


With other horses packed into a train

She hungered for her masters voice in vain;

And later, led 'twixt planks that scare and slip,

They slung her, terrified, on board a ship.


Next came, where thumps and throbbing filled the air,

Her first experience of mal de mare;

And when that oscillating trip was done

They hitched her up in traces to a gun.


She worked and pulled and sweated with the best;

A stranger now her glossy coat caressed

Till flashing thunderstorms came bursting round

And splitting leaden hail bestrewed the ground.


With quivering limbs, and silky ears laid back,

She feels a shock succeed a sharper crack,

And, whinnying her pitiful surprise,

Staggers and falls, and tries in vain to rise.


Alone, forsaken, on a foreign field

What moral does this little record yield?

Who tends the wounded horses in the war?

Well that is what the Blue Cross league is for."


Many of the poems are quite interesting. Not all the rhymes are leaden or as faintly ridiculous as the one above. There is a lot of early stuff from 1914 to 1916 in praise of ANZACS, the soldiers, the war. She is not as bigoted or wrathful as a really hardcore blood and soil type but is more glib, positive, patriotic, a booster-upper cheering from the sides of the football match (a football match is one of the metaphors used in the poems), there are fragments of sort-of feminist stuff about war-girls doing jobs. 

I went in for Jesse Pope and what I got was pretty much what I half expected, a very British Church-Hall type quite common before the 1960’s. That she doesn’t seem to write much after 1916 means we don’t see any development. She is more shallow than evil and so tea-stained mildly bad a poet that I would feel bad for making fun of her.

(The BBC of all people argues here that the Pope vs Owen match is a stitch-up).



Rough Rhymes of a Padre


Willie is G. A. Studdert-Kennedy, an Anglican Priest who served as a chaplain on the western front and gained the name ‘Woodbine Willie’ for offering wounded and dying soldiers Woodbine cigarettes. 

This book ‘Rough Rhymes’ was mainly written in and around the front. 

Its great virtue for this review is that it is a direct and explicit search for meaning. Mizuki, with whom Willie would perhaps have had some things in common is, in ‘On Towards Our Noble Deaths’ seemingly detached, almost ironic, but possessed of a deeply buried rage. Tuchman is actually detached and ironic (apart from about Sir John French). Pope is patriotic, glib, 'keen', jolly. 

‘Rugh Rhymes has a combination of emotions and experience that was missing from every other book in this list. Even 'Onward Toward Our Noble Deaths' has little of hatred for the enemy, they barely play much part directly and are rarely depicted. 


"Whats the Good?" [first two verses]

 "Well, I've done my bit o' scrappin',

And I've done quite a lot;

Nicked 'em neatly with my bayonet,

So I needn't waste a shot.

'Twas my duty, and I done it,

But I 'opes the doctor's quick,

For I wish I 'adn't done it,

Gawd! it turns me shamed and sick.


There's a young 'un like our Richard,

And I bashed 'is 'ead in two,

And there's that ole grey 'aired geezer

Which I stuck 'is belly though.

Gawd, you women, wives and mothers,

It's sich waste of all your pain,

If you knowed what I'd been doin'

Could yer kiss me still, my Jane?”


Studdert-Kennedys post-war journey is quite a ride.  He went into the war delivering stirring sermons about the virtues of the bayonet and came out a Christian Socialist. He wrote a book called "Lies!", was 100 per cent behind Bismark being essentially the antichrist was denied burial in a Cathedral for being too much of a leftie. 

From his Wikipedia; 

“"After the war, Studdert Kennedy was given charge of St Edmund, King and Martyr in Lombard Street, London. Having been converted to Christian socialism and pacifism during the war, he wrote Lies (1919), Democracy and the Dog-Collar (1921) (featuring such chapters as "The Church Is Not a Movement but a Mob", "Capitalism is Nothing But Greed, Grab, and Profit-Mongering" and "So-Called Religious Education Worse than Useless"), Food for the Fed Up (1921), The Wicket Gate (1923), and The Word and the Work (1925). He moved to work for the Industrial Christian Fellowship, for whom he went on speaking tours of Britain." 

He was also capable of some rather spicy gothic verse;


“Truth [lines 34 to 45]

The shadows have departed,

And black night

Lies brooding over all the earth,

And hideous things find birth.

The world brings forth abortions,

And then weeps with bloody tears,

Because her womb is shamed,

Her children maimed,

And all her home become a wilderness of sin.

The sun is darkened,

And the moon turned into blood

And down upon us sweeps a flood

Of Lust and Cruelty.”


These are not really an accurate representation of the full tone and weight of the poems but are some of the darker fragments which I personally like and which I think will grab your attention and will also make vivid the contrast between Willie and Pope. The full range of the verse is more religious, with much more seeking and finding of divine grace, and I thought if I put that stuff in right away my audience would find it a bit twee. 



“Thy Will Be Done [last verse]

And Bill, 'e were doin' 'is duty boys,

What e came on the earth to do,

And the answer what came to the prayers I prayed

Was 'is power to see it through.

To see it through to the very end,

And to die as my old pal died,

Wi' a thought for 'is pal and prayer for 'is gal,

And 'is brave 'eart satisfied."


Fundamentally ‘Rough Rhymes’ is a religious text about the search for meaning in a crushing and annihilating place, with the central praxis or dichotomy being between deeply held faith and the martial virtues, and hatreds, of a soldier and a patriot. The two don’t mix but that hasn’t stopped Europeans, and Abrahamics generally, for a couple thousand years. And you get a lot of interesting thinking and reflection out of it. 

For me G. A. Studdert-Kennedy is the most human of these writers, or the one who seems to exhibit the greatest humanity or the greatest and deepest range of feeling and questions. Tuchman comes close but the sheen of her irony, which aids her in gliding over great spans of history and synthesising its details into a coherent and engaging story, also keeps her a windowglass' depth from the image. 

Willie is also the person who seems most like a full or real soldier, someone ready to stab crush and shoot his fellow man, sometimes feeling bad about it after. Sentimental, patriotic, though not as thoughtless or stupid as Pope who is just those things resigned, sometimes despairing, resolute, breaking down, wrathful at the war and at the enemy.  Mizuki has this too but his war was so much darker and there are deep elisions in his telling. I don’t know if anyone could grapple with the whole thing head-on. 


“Her Gift [lines 12 to 47] 

"We’ve seen men die,

Not once, nor twice, but many times

In agony

A ghastly to behold as that.

We’ve seen men fall,

And rise, and staggering onward fall again,

Bedrenched in their own blood,

Fast flowing like a flood,

Of crimson sacrifice upon the snow.

We’ve seen and would forget.

Why then should there be set

Before our eyes these monuments of crime?

It’s time, high time,

That they were buried in the past;

There let them lie,

In that great sea of merciful oblivion,

               Where our vile deeds,

               And outworn creeds,

               Are left to rot and die.

               We would forget,

               And yet,

Do you remember Rob McNeil

               And how he died,

               And cried,

And pleaded with his men

               To take that gun,

               And kill the Hun

               That worked it dead?

               He bled

Horribly. Do you remember?

I can’t forget,

I would not if I could,

It were not right I should,

               He died for me.

He was a God that boy,

The only God I could adore.”


Tuesday, 12 September 2023

Got poor, old etc. Been workin'**

Sorry for the lack of posts. Things have been CHALLENGING recently. Anyway, call me if you need advice on being middle aged and the least successful member of your peer group by far**.

I just finished reading a few books on WAR; 'The Guns of August', 'Onwards Towards Our Noble Deaths' by Shigeru Mizuki, 'The Poetry of Jessie Pope' and 'Rough Rhymes of a Padre' by 'Woodbine Willie'. I will try to put together some kind of review in the next few days. I usually put these on the Substack first but everything over there ends up over here eventually.

Speak, False Machine is taking its time but hopefully some news on that soonish.

In the brief meantime, my friend Dan is running a micro-kickstarter for a picture book based on a legend in which Merlin and King Arthur battle a giant Kitten.

I have backed and they only need about 20 people to actually make the thing.

The question is will this one be on the shelf or eventually sent to my niece. There is only one way to find out!

Thursday, 27 July 2023

Ride the Giants Development Blog, Part 2

The Speed of the Giants 

This matters not only in general gameplay but because the initial concept of the game was ‘a game in real time’; an adventure lasting two to three hours, with a gaming session lasting the same two to three hours. 

There would be some, but little, compression of time. The time-limit was meant to add impetus to the PCs choices and get them making decisions faster. It was also meant to add a bit of interest and challenge to the choices made. 


Estimating the Gait 

I began by asking people on Discord for advice on estimating the gait of the giants. That is, when one takes a step, how long is the step. 

If they stood up straight, the Giants are nearly 3,000 feet high. Hunched over as they are their heads are about 2,000 feet high. So I started with the step-length of an imaginary 3,000 foot high man. Using various mysterious means, including reverse-engineering an equation used by the police to derive height from step-length, the Discord homies came back with a step length of just under 1,300 feet per-step. 

That’s just under 400 metres per step or a little under a Kilometre per double-step. 


The Chronology of a Step 

Estimating the timing of each step is more difficult. Giants of this size are physically impossible anyway. Large long-legged animals have to take care of their steps as they can easily break their own legs with their weight. 

I essentially just ended up eyeballing it. Each step takes roughly a minute and a half. 90 seconds. 

10 to 15 seconds at the start for the weight to rise and the foot to accelerate, then 30 seconds in the air, then another 10 to 15 seconds landing time for the weight to fall, the foot to settle, and weight to be transferred through the hip to raise the other foot. 

I estimate the Giants are is moving roughly 14.4 feet per second. Which makes I think its total movement being just under 10 miles per hour. 

This sounds.. really not totally insane. Like a reasonable synthesis of the impossible and pseudo-realism. 

A good one-to-three rounds of slow-foot time for you to leap up and grab on. A big "whoosh" as you travel 400 meters in 30 seconds. Then the settle time at the end. 

So a human could run away from it, someone on horseback could run faster than it. It could be 'boarded', but with real difficulty as the foot is only slow and close to the ground for not that long. To match their speed a human would need to be jogging or running. To overtake you would need to run pretty fast or have a horse. 

And a continuous 10 mph walking speed sustained essentially forever, would be very hard to keep up with for a long period of time I think? 



Boarding the Giant 

If you were trying to ‘board’ a giants foot, you could probably catch up with it, via sprinting, or if you had a horse. The really dangerous part would be when the foot comes down. If the giant trod down onto something like the soil of a field, it might send up fountains of soil like an impact crater all around the foot. If the soil was wet or the water table was high, it might send up actual fountains or more likely, dangerous torrents of wet mud. 

In the area around the foot-fall it would be like an earthquake hit. The earth might crack open, or roll like waves. Horses might break their legs and men would fall to the ground. 

If you survive all that, you have about 15 seconds at the weight of the foot settles and transfers where it will be relatively still. 

All you need to do is get to the huge curved wall of the foot, I estimate it to be about a 100 foot climb, but you don’t need to make it immediately, just hang one, hang on hard

Because that foot is going to rise up into the air. Its lateral speed at its going to be about 15 miles an hour during the swing of the foot but its speed measured across the whole of its curve till it hits soil on the next step might be more like 20 miles per hour. 

Not insanely fast. But jarring as hell. Plus the angle of its motion is constantly curving and shifting. 


What Strait do they Cross? 

Depending on if or how much time we leave for organisation the actual giant-riding part of the game might range from one and a half hours to three hours. Lets assume two hours of actual giant-riding. 

Assuming ‘real time’ that means the Giants would travel about 20 miles. 

The idea of the game is that you only have the length of the game itself to solve the problem of the giants – by the end of the game they will have reached the Nightmare Continent and if you get off the giant after that you are DOOMED  

Looking for real-life places of roughly the right dimensions the first that comes to mind is the Dover strait. 

Between Dover and Calais is almost exactly 20 miles 

But nowhere near deep enough – its only 50 meters deep!


That’s only 164 feet! About up to the giants Knees! 

Well I suppose it’s acceptable – in their hunched over posture their knuckles will be grazing the ocean surface as they walk. It also gives the PCs a fair amount of time to get up over the knee. Though if they are still dicking about with that half-way through the mission is probably failed anyway. 



Climbing the Giants 

There are several problems; the linear nature of the directional choices on a larger scale, the curved, flowing and non-intuitive surface of the giant and the shifting position and orientation of the limbs. 


The Linear Nature of the Choices 

The main problem here is that the arrangement of the giants limbs is very much not like a dungeon. There are only a few routes and risks. Large parts are semi-visible from various points. 

Most of a limb-climb is just getting up that limb,  and to make the adventure interesting at all I would need to make actually falling off relatively rare. Instead I would have to produce something like the climbing in VotE; everyone can do it a bit and failure leads to ever more nightmarish fail-states without ever quite booting you off. 

Once a climb is begun, the route-choice is largely made and any tension or interest comes  more from how challenges are met than what they will be. 


The Curved and Flowing Surface 

Lets Envisage the Giants Skin -What is this like? A curved, slightly-flexing, rocky surface. Even ‘smooth’ parts are like a rocky, and in fact most of the giants skin is deeply corrugated. 

If you look down at the skin around your knuckles. If you make a claw with your hand so the skin bunches up there, all those little triangles and oblongs of skin where the lines of compression meet and cross. Image that as a karstic landscape, but much more wrinkly – like a very old persons skin, and much deeper in its corrugations. 

Smooth parts – like  a cobblestone road, but with the cobbles jagged and not smoothed. 

Intermediate parts – like clambering over or up large boulders. 

Very Crinkly parts – like clambering over and through sharp man-sized or larger boulders

Which tilt and grind together or apart – big enough that the gaps make an ‘interior of sorts. 

So the smooth parts are actually very easy to fall off & quite dangerous while the rough parts where the limbs meet – the crinkly places of our own bodies, are relatively safe – even though they are moving and flexing, there are many holds and handholds and spaces where you can place yourself to avoid falling off (these might be dynamic holds though). 

But, maybe if I think about the actual shape and details of each part of the leg, arm and side, and think deeply about how each might move I could come up with some general ideas or abstract some rules which would help to form encounter spaces, or interesting encounter ideas? 


The Shifting Gravity 

The limb orientations are shifting regularly from near-vertical to sloped, from climb to overhang, or from climb to scramble. 

Will you wait for the position of the limb to change - it could shift from overhang to climb, or from climb to scramble and the potential danger of an opposing encounter might grow larger or smaller if you are willing, or able, or forced to, wait. 

So that idea of having to make up, lose or gain time feels appropriate. 

OR - you hear movement, or sense something above you, and if you wait you might be able to get a better look - but that will cost you time. 

TIMING – if this is ‘real-life’ timing then there could be a metronome or something. Or you could time the giants steps minute by minute. 

I don’t know if someone’s done this before but if each 90 seconds is a real-life round and an in-game round, a single step of the giant. Could it be made to work? You would have to roll fast! 



Climbing a map of the muscle groups 

Another possibility is - making some kind of map of the MUSCLE GROUPS of the limbs and making THAT a sub-map of each ascent. 

like you can LEAP from one muscle group to another to avoid an encounter.




These could be quite minor - the main danger is that they could drop you. They should also be 'rock beasts', cliff beasts really. (I didn’t put pigeons in as they suck.) 

Seagull-Griffons; micro-Griffons based on seagull heads and wings but with the bodies of racing dogs. That sounds sufficiently awful. 


Condor-Riding Snow Monkeys – they bathe in the hot springs atop the giants backs and form a symbiotic relationship with the semi-intelligent condors, travelling on their backs and performing tasks involving fine motor control – they can crack open bones with flints and actually they have learned to work in close co-operation with the condors, the monkeys can pull open flaps of skin, bare muscle, expose the joints of dead animals, brace cutting surfaces and put flesh under tensile strain so it cuts more easily. 

SUPER-TICKS – these feed upon the giants magmic blood. [The giants are tectonic inside so their ‘spots’ or pimples might be popping lava and their sweat might be steam or thick bubbling oils. A walking mountain has to be generating a pretty serious amount of heat. The giants back – hot, even steaming, would carry a moving column or a trailing flag of hot air above and behind it, a layer or a stream of cloud following each of them like a pennant in the atmosphere as that pillar of air rises, cools and probably condenses. The heat of the giants would make them of much more fecund than many other forms of similar mountain.] The blood does cool quite a bit in them but it’s still pretty hot and dangerous. Plus this is still a tick as big as a man or maybe horse. 

Animated magical kites that won't die - These were the creation of some ancient empire of magicians far away who wanted to study the giants – the kites were so well made they have a basic self-repair function and can weave the substance of cloud into solidity to act as canvas or waxed paper to sustain them – the kites are more like solid memes, or paper golems, semi-intelligent but not really alive, men can ride them but their actions may be very unpredictable – possibly they will obey commands in the language of the long-dead wizards. They might do slightly bonkers A.I. stuff based on garbled comprehension of their original instructions.  

Friday, 7 July 2023

Dark Corridors

 Choice Theory 

So you come to a split in a dungeon, or you come to a room set with three portals, each seems to lead in a different direction but they seem identical. 

Depending on party and DM, game style and preference, you either just pick one, or have a little conference with the team, maybe looking at the map, or start asking weird questions like “what do the corridors smell like?” 

Whether this is a good or bad thing depends very much on the style of game and whether the needs and intuitions of the players and DM match. 

I intuit that the ‘actual’ Old School old school process had a lot more time for no-context choices, partly due to the prevalence of player-mapping, (easier to do in-person in a 70’s game session and which would be part of their problem-solving procedure), partly due to what I would expect to be longer more digressive gaming sessions and partly due to a somewhat harder more ‘masculine’ quality where its expected that some decisions will be tricky, oblique or apparently pointless, either due to pseudo-naturalism or a Gygaxian riddlemaster element. 

I intuit that a more ‘neo’ OSR scene would have shorter sessions, more likely to be online so player mapping harder, more likely to want events and drama condensed and with less tolerance for ‘dead’ time, unguided choice and apparently contextless decisions. 

Yet, in either situation, a choice must be made, and if the choice is to be informed at all then how shall it be so? There are greater context elements which can be brought into the question; general dungeon intel, the use of mapping, informers, magic and guides.

But what can be learned from the empty corridor itself? 

And as a corollary to that decision, what information can be imbued into  that apparently-empty corridor by the designer or DM? 

I will break our discussion into elements. In lived experience all of these will interrelate but I will try to cover those interrelations within each subject; 

·        AIR

·        SMELL


·        LIFE

·        SOUND

·        STONE


Once I started to think about it I decided that a key dominating and synthesising element is AIRFLOW

so I will begin with that and discuss why.

Ernst Fuchs



Based on my research for VotE, Caves and cave systems can differ hugely in temperature and airflow. 

This depends on whether the system massively intra-connected or isolated, if there is running water in the cave and the general temperature gradient around the cave. 

An isolated cave system with no big interconnections and no water flow within will often be a bit warm. An underground space with static air will often maintain a steady, not-quite-cold temperature. Mines, being closed systems and full of people and movement, are often hot. 

Conversely, a huge cave system with many exits will often have very strong airflows. Caves 'breathe', and any slight differences in temperature and pressure between its varied entries can create winds which can be focused and channelled by narrow passages in the system itself. 

Most caves are shaped by water and many have streams moving through them, this creates airflow

and often cools the cave. 


Dungeons vs Caves 

Dungeons are more likely to be smaller and contained and much more likely to be made of different materials with closed doors and other connectors and divisions within, but airflow can still tell the prospective dungeoneer a lot. 

Dungeons, specifically; the classic tomb buried under temperate soil, might not actually be cold. A tomb complex separate from any other dungeon, well if it’s a rainy area it might be damp, but not necessarily, it might be slightly warm, or at least no colder than the outside. 

[Question; have you actually been in an actual tomb complex? What was the temperature and airflow like?] 

An experienced dungeoneer, or the average Dwarf, should be able to make some decent guesses about the nature of a dungeon just by carefully feeling the airflow. If a system is 'breathing' with air flowing in or out after dawn or dusk; that suggests a system of considerable size. If the air flowing in or out is warmer or colder than the outside air that might indicate the presence of moving water within, or of something else that is cooling or warming the air within, (like, for instance, the presence of life, like Goblins or an Owlbear). 

Airflow is such a dominant factor because it effects the transmission of SMELL, SOUND and TEMPERATURE, all of which are strongly bound within the greater medium of Air. Conversely the absence of airflow is itself a strong negative signal which might not explicitly tell you much but does suggest that either this dungeon, or system, whatever it is, is either small and closed, or has doors and closing elements.



Smell is life! 

The key aspect of scent is that in almost every case it is indicative of the processes of life. A dungeon with intelligent things living in it for any period of time is going to STINK. 

The Food Sequence 

Acquisition, Storage, Preparation, Consumption and Disposal. 

Acquisition; alpha predators like monsters who drag prey back to the dungeon as a lair will leave the stink of blood wherever they are and repeated blood trails will lead to any feeding spot, as well as blood smears and fur snatched from carried prey. 

Anything bringing living or recently dead food back to the Dungeon from outside stands a good chance of leaving marks of some kind, especially since they will be tracing the same route each time to preparation or storage spaces. 

A lot of food smells or has a distinctive scent, and in a still-air environment that scent might remain in place for a long time. 

Storage; if left unattended, the rotting bodies of victims or prey will absolutely stink to high heaven. Even for unaltered human basic smell powers it should be pretty simple to find your way through a still-air environment to a rotting body. 

Poorly-stored non-meat foods can still rot, and will summon their own micro-environment of insects and small mammals, all of which can be sensed or traced. If there are mouse droppings, that’s a sign of something. 

Well-stored or dry foods are more complex, I imagine these as leaving little scent and few biomarkers. It might be that the presence of a particular dry and contained space might leave tangential markers but I am not sure. 

Preparation; if something is intelligent and eats cooked food, and/or just needs warmth or light, then there will be fire. If there is fire there must be smoke. If there is smoke it has to go somewhere. So either there is a chimney leading up out of this dungeon or the smoke is moving through the corridors which will leave traces stains, and scent. 

Consumption; large predatory animals will definitely leave bits and pieces here and there. Smaller more civilised beings might still leave scent, the wall-sweat of their respiration, residual warmth, stains, fragments and the small biomarkers that go along with them. 

Disposal; Poo. All of this stuff has to go somewhere and unless there are convenient rivers or pits then it is going to leave strong scent markers and all the small insects which emerge from feasting on the poo. And spiders, which feast on the flies, the webs of which will remain in place for a long time in a low airflow environment. 

tldr; any closed system which has living respiring and eating residents is going to stink. If there is airflow, then its strength and direction will effect where those smells go and how strong they are. Tracing those smells might be very useful for a dungeoneer. This is one thing that encourages me in the idea of bringing a bloodhound of some kind to the dungeon 



Warmth is co-dependent on airflow and the presence of life within a dungeon so many of the basic concepts have already been considered in those two sections. 

[Question; how much of a temperature differential can an average, or sensitive human being detect if they are paying attention? Could they intuit the presence of a living being occupying a room behind a door? Could they tell micro difference in temperature in the air between two identical corridors?] 

What about cold? Would any particular natural phenomena cause a dungeon to chill unexpectedly? The first thing that comes to mind is the presence of para-normal phenomena like Magic and the Undead. Both are often associated with rapid temperature drops. 

Conversely, super-beasts like dragons or elemental creatures might raise underground temperatures more than you would expect. 




SWEATY WALLS! Why are the walls of the dungeon dripping, dank, with the nitre, so beloved of Lovecraft? It may be water flow from outside but more likely the combination of water and warmth coves from living things in the dungeon. A system of closed stone with living things within it will naturally sweat, and drip, over time. 

What about the sweaty walls of a sleeping dragons cave? Why wasn’t the gold surrounding Smaug absolutely dripping with condensation? Maybe it was and that is what caused Bilbo to slip and slide around. Wet Hobbit action. 

[Question; have any of you actually been in an actual Dungeon, under an actual castle, working or not? Are they actually the cold, dark, dripping places of fiction?] 

I mean clearly they are made not to be comfortable, but surely actual temperature would depend on how much airflow there is, or the temperature of the living rock, if its carved into that. 

Would a dungeon under a living castle with locked doors and no windows, truly underground

actually be cold? Or might it be temperate? It would be damp I think due to the respiration of everyone above in the castle and their condensed breath dripping down.


Lichen, Moss, Mushrooms, Insects 

I feel like Gary must have at least conceived of a grand table of microflora and microfauna that might grow in a dungeon and have the required and likely temperature ranges, water needs, food sources, and, in the case of insects and small mammals, roaming distances. 

I am taking being a dungeon detective a bit too far here, into Forensic territory, BUT - IF you did actually know a lot about these micro-environments you could in theory tell quite a lot about a dungeon just from observing them as you went through. 

This should go for Rot as well, a microorganism which leaves sensory traces. A rot wizard could tell quite a lot about living systems. There is probably an opening somewhere for someone to produce a matrix of easy-to-use and 'read' pseudo-realistic dungeon microfauna, not for use as enemies or 'colour' but as a kind of spread of information that can be observed to tell what kind of things have gone on in a dungeon. 

This, because of its complexity, I think I know least about. I know a bit about cave fauna, but the secret of that is that, beyond a certain depth, there really isn’t much of it. Without light you get near-nothing and so far as I know, mushrooms will not actually grow on the cold limestone of a cave wall. 

[Question; does anyone out there know if lichen will grow in dark conditions? Or any such moss? Any fungal experts who can say which foods and temperature ranges are needed for fungal growth?]


Unknown Artist



How does sound carry underground anyway? Irregularly I would think. It must depend a huge amount on the substance and layout of the place. Some shapes and materials I know just EAT sound, but in others, small sounds can travel a very long way. 

[Question; does anyone know about what kinds of stone, material or corridor shape interact how with various sounds? Do the stone walls and floors of a classic dungeon echo with footsteps of mocking laughter as Gothic novels claim? Can anyone confirm?] 

The most important matter must be FREQUENCEY. Specifically, is there anything in this dungeon that produces a low-bass sound, like stone scraping, or something huge moving or rolling? Those low frequency sounds travel a lot, through materials more than air. How many times on a quiet day have you realised a big truck is moving several street away, or a washing machine or other large device is working several rooms, or an entire property away? 

A sleeping dragon, for instance, will produce not only sweaty gold but probably a very deep, but soft, sound that might transmit strongly through stone. 

Doors opening and closing; if these are on hinges there is a good chance they will be badly maintained and so screech. They may also thud and slam. Stone doors may produce the deep frequency sounds that transmit so easily. 

Living things; the biomarkers we talked about in the ‘Smell’ section. Is there scampering? The buzzing of flies or mosquitoes? The crawling of insects? 

Consistent background sounds - Water should produce some kind of distant continual sound

likewise, wind changing outside the dungeon, rain, storms, these should produce some sort of effect, unless there are many portals between here and there. 

Is this place indeed as 'Silent as the Tomb'? If so that itself might be quite unusual.  In a state of such absolute silence it might be that very super-quiet noises which are usually indiscernible could become more prominent, like the crawling of a bug for instance, or the shifting of dust. 

At what distance and in what circumstances can we expect living inhabitants to produce discernible sound? 


by Art of Raman


Or whatever material the dungeon is made of. 

You would probably need to know a lot about bricks, or slate flags, for micro differences in them to be useful in any way, but.... aren't dungeoneers (and Dwarves) exactly the type to pick up just such knowledge? 

What could we reasonably expect a skilled observer to pick up from various arrangements of building stone in separating corridors? Could they guess which corridor was built first? If one is a later addition to the other that should be obvious should it not? as well as the various skill and the resources available to the builders. 

A culture in decay producing less perfect masonry, or cutting into a stone-lined corridor with one lined with brick. 

What the hell are the roofs of these dungeons anyway? Logically they should be braced with wood, but that would decay (or would it?), so they should be either megaliths or arches. 

Does stone degrade over time (without use, probably not..?) but with use and perhaps dripping water, how does stone degrade? 

What stone would you even expect to be used in construction of a dungeon? Granite is too hard surely? I would expect bricks to be the most practical and affordable and bricks do crumble both from use but also from compression and freeze-thaw over time. 

Does sound echo across marble? How about light? In the Mersey tunnel near me, the roof has been covered with black tar or pitch. it was originally made with a white, reflective, opalescent roof to the tunnel. The idea was that it would reflect the lamps of vehicles and make the tunnel seem more full of light. Two problems; exhaust fumes blackened it, and where that didn't happen the improving strength of electric lights made the roof blindingly white so they had to paint if over. 

But if you were in a classic Carrera-marble tomb, with only lamps, it would be pretty relatively bright surely? There can't be many materials like that. Do we have any idea of the reflective nature of various kinds of stone? Would a difference between slate, bricks or granite slabs add or reduce 10 or 20 feet of visibility?


Viggo Johanson


21 Questions for Empty Corridors 

(This is my attempt to condense the discussion above into a simple set of concrete questions, more for Dungeon designers and DMs, in a style similar to Jeffs ’20 Questions for your Campaign World’.)


1.      Is the air still or does it flow?

2.      If there is airflow, where does it flow to or from, and at which times? (i.e. does it ‘breathe’ in and out as it warms and cools with dawn and dusk like a cave system might?).

3.      Is there moving water? If there is, does it cool the dungeon?

4.      Is it warmer or cooler than outside? Are any parts especially warm or cool?

5.      Are there living things eating, breathing and pooping in the dungeon?

6.      Do the walls sweat? Is there nitre?

7.      Is there a food store? Are there mice or insects?

8.      Is there fire in the dungeon? If so, where does the smoke go?

9.      Is there poop in the dungeon? Where? How strong is the smell?

10.   Is there rot in the dungeon? Are there flies?

11.   Do smells emanate evenly through still air or are they carried by airflow?

12.   If you followed the smells of blood, meat, smoke, spices or poop, where would they lead?

13.   Are their spiders in the dungeon? How stable and old are the webs and where?

14.   Do lichen, moss or fungi grow in the dungeon? If so where?

15.   Are there any sources of LOW FREQUENCY sound in the dungeon?

16.   Are there any permanent natural sounds like moving water or wind?

17.   Do voices, steps or door sounds transmit in a reliable way?

18.   Would the sound of fighting transmit and if so how far?

19.   If someone stays absolutely silent in the dungeon and listens, what do they hear?

20.   Are there obvious changes in construction? Like in materials, methods, age, wear etc?

21.   Do any of the above elements come into play at otherwise contextless choices in which door or corridor to take?