Sunday, 22 January 2017

How To Make an Adventure Part 2, answers to your Questions

Question 1

 Brandon D asked;

"So just a follow-up for clarification: are each of those "inner folders" - such as is shown in the DCO image with chapter titles for each folder - just filled with notepad documents? I'm picturing that each of said documents would be small text files that start almost like sketch ideas (like one for Hoolloch in "The Crows," and one for each encounter in "The Profundal Zone, etc) and eventually form into a complete idea, but are still separated by idea (every encounter is its own text doc) - is that the case?"


What happens is the folder contents start off as text files. Then as soon as the subject in each file has any weight or imaginative coherency it gets incorporated into a big word doc for that section. This is like the skeleton or 'main machine' for that section.

Then things are either added straight onto that skeleton (when things are going well), or, when necessary, individual parts are dragged out into their own notepad docs, word docs, or even whole subfolders full of individual files relating to different things.

Then as problems are solved and issues are dealt with, they all condense back into the big main skeleton word doc, like a mad scientist making a Frankenstein, you have your big corpse in the centre, then you pull out organs to work on them, add bits on, shave bits off, fiddle with things and consider alternates, then you shove the organ back in the Frankenstein.

As this is being done you build up a detritus of files of various kinds which, as the Frankenstein near completion, generally get dumped into a bin folder called "Development" or "Everything Pre-2015".

To answer your question more concisely, those particular folders each have a single word doc for that section, but during development they might have had lots of sub folders and scrappy files like you describe, alongside one big doc for everything to be re-incorperated into.


Question 2

Scrap Princess asked "How do you fight "mission creep" or things otherwise expanding inward and outward in all directions?"


This reminds me a lot of someone asking "How to go to sleep?" in which the answer is intuitively obvious to anyone who can do it, but when we can't do it, it seems impossible and, in fact, the solution flies further and faster out of our reach the more we harass ourselves to find it.

I can only really describe this from my own point of view,

So there are a few moods or states of mind that help us achieve the aim of Reasonable Completeness.

The Cut

This is generally arranged around a single moment, it’s the thing most similar to a single decision, a simple, strong, singular NO, in which a situation is briefly assessed and then a prospective course of action is cast firmly and probably permanently into a state of not being done and never being done.

In a sense this is a kind of intelligent stupidity. When you're making any creative project, no “NO” should ever be really final or absolute, even if you throw something away it still stays in the brain bin and might come up later in something else or mutate in there BUT, having it on or in your mind when you are not going to use it soaks up energy. It's like having extra papers on your desk, you must sweep your arm across the desk and cast them onto the floor

I always feel a little macho or 'tough' doing this, and it’s also slightly painful as you are probably throwing away something that you are mentally attached to and feel affection for, so it’s a bit like strangling a pet. Anyone who makes a choice kills a world. It’s the alternative world where you chose a different thing and all the various consequences of that choice play out, the moment you decide against it, that world and everything in it fall instantly into irrevocable ruin, and that pristine ruin often looks better than the shitty flawed thing you actually ended up living with.

Creative work is really really heavy on your cognitive architecture in a lot of invisible ways.
It’s really global, you need a lot of the different parts of your brain talking to each other fluidly, and the more brain parts you can get communicating the most then the better chance you have of making something good.

Because of this, because of the need for a lot of cognitive energy or ability to be free, in a strange sense, being conservative can help you be more imaginative and more successfully imaginative

But this does not answer your question.

If it's hard to make a decision because you have a lot of stuff going on in your mind at the same time then it can be good to reduce things to a binary choice based on a particular quality, element or feeling. People are better at choosing between two things than between three or four things I think
the simplest way of saying this to yourself is "which of these two things provokes greater feeling in me" or some statement similar to that.

This means looking at a big mess of stuff and trying to boil it down to two main things. Then, if necessary, doing so again at a lower level.

After you make a bunch of binary choices in a row you have done the equivalent work to choosing between three or four complex things, yet perhaps with less energy cost and stress.

The Holistic State

I think of the Holistic state as the ability to hold the whole thing in your mind. It is governed more by love and desire than by dislike or rejection, more by the softer emotion of 'letting things go' rather than the harder 'cutting out' and provoked more by affection for the whole than by contemptuous judgement of the part.

Because this is a softer emotional state it’s harder to analyse and give advice about. I have found it the most difficult state to achieve at-will.

The ability ‘to cut’ is more easily and directly provoked in the heart, regardless of your mood, allowing yourself to feel is harder.

Nevertheless the holistic state is utterly vital because it invisibly shapes the decision architecture that tells you when and where it is wise to ask your mind for the energy ‘to cut’, a kind of meta-emotion guiding, not what choice you make, but when to make a choice.

The vague, gnawing troubled sense of something being undone or somehow incorrect might be the absence or negative influence of this state.

My best advice to provoke this state is to seek the initial spike of embodied joy that caused you to become interested in the project. Imagine your first enthusiastic conception of what it might be, imagine yourself explaining, clearly and lucidly, to someone you actually like, what you love about the project, dwell on what is, or was, pleasing to you about it.

Hopefully forming this image or idea-group in your mind, as a vague but positive idea of what should be, rather than a negative idea of what you do not want, will help guide you when you turn back and look at what is currently going wrong with your thing. Where has it expanded out of its original conception? Where must it be pruned?

The Use of System

This is an emotionally neutral-feeling capacity which is just about your ability to organise and arrange your own information.

The better you are at 'filing' things, then the larger and more total view you have of the whole project and the easier it is to have that total view. If a map of the whole thing comes more easily to mind then that reduces the cognitive cost.

Also, when you are angry and blocked on a project then it’s still relatively easy to do ‘filing’. Moving information around and getting all your shit in the right place requires neither love nor hate, it can be meditative, a bit like doing the dishes, and it might actually do you some good because, who knows, you might have a breakthrough.


To count backwards from the top to bottom.

1.      Do your filing and have your folders and text architecture worked out, you don’t need to feel anything while you are doing this.
2.      Imagine the feeling of the great idea that caused you to embark. Imagine explaining it to a friend.
3.      Take this feeling and use it to look at all the stuff you currently have. If it’s a big sprawling bush, what parts of it may not be like your explanation or idea?
4.      Look closer at those parts and reduce each issue to a series of binary choices where you choose between two things.
5.      Be super tough and macho or whatever your equivalent of that is a boldly strike your way through those either-or decisions one by one.

Be aware, I just make all this shit up and it may or may not work.


Question 3

 Scrap Princess also asked;

"How much winds up all the cutting room floor?"


I don't really know as I don't keep a lot of records of ideas that have been thrown out and not used. My memory may be inaccurate or unreliable. It also depends at what stage an idea or concept is abandoned. When it first flits through your head? When it’s written down in a big list along with a bunch of others? When its incorporated into a main draft? When it’s in a first final draft? When an editor cuts it out before printing?

If we go from the end and say stuff that was cut out in the same way old film was cut, that is, written, performed, filmed and then dumped, I would say anywhere from 30 to 5 per cent. With MotBM being more towards the thirty percent number, or higher, and DCO or FotVH being much lower.

If we say every idea or potential that passed through your head from initial conception on, then it could be around 50% or higher of those idea's don't get used. Making good things is about saying no to bad ideas.


Question 5

 |Kyana asked;

"How to know if idea is good or not? What if idea appears to be very insubstantial? "Gateway into Underworld" deals with places that can be mapped, but what if the idea is, for example, "explore/decide what means to be human" or some other abstract-moralistic thing? Maybe such ideas are never good ideas at all?"


Ultimately I can only answer this in reference to the kinds of thing I already know how to make but I will first try to consider the varying possibilities for different kinds of games or formats.

"explore/decide what means to be human" on it's own is best explored first through an essay or poem, then through a narrative, then through a storygame, then through a kind of white-wolf or Pendragon-esque highly-specific game, then finally through an OSR-style game. Even for a storygame that would be a very abstract concept.


The adventure idea you described in the comments to the last post wasn't quite like that. It didn't just have a single abstract concept at its core, it also had particular people, a particular world, certain charismatic objects and relationships and places which all had a specific tone and mood. So if we were considering that, then I would say it was best expressed through either a storygame, OSR game or possibly a narrative.

One thing that makes a concept group a good possibility for an OSR game is the ease and fluidity with which it suggests a geography and lists.

It doesn't really matter exactly what the lists are of. They can be places, people, monsters, objects or just cool sounding words and individual names of things, so long as they are things.

If you can sit down with a piece of paper for an hour and start writing down things, just anything you can think of, and end up with a page full of cool or interesting sounding-stuff. Something that, if you think of it you either smile or just want to know or explain more, then you might have a good concept group for an OSR game.

Even if you can't do that it's not necessarily a bad idea, it just might be best for a different kind of thinking.

I think it could make a really good adventure, if that's what you wanted to do with it. If I were you I would take the time to make sure


So in addition to all these questions I said I would talk thee things and those were;

6.     Publishing, formats and printing.


These are rather tiresome issues that I only started to think about once I began making things but which it might reeeaaallllly benefit anyone making an adventure to consider


First comes something that probably everyone knows about already but that I feel I have to repeat publicly just because the consequences for not knowing are so aggravating and this might be the first time some people hear about it and if I can save even one…..

American Letter Size – Beware It!

Americans, unwilling to deal with the same kind, rational and eminently reasonable paper sizes as the rest of the world, have clung resentfully to their own special paper size which is nearly but not quite the same as A4. American "Letter" size. Day 1 in Trumps America people. This piece of shit size has fucked up more good ideas than (INSERT TOPICAL REFERENCE HERE).

The nightmare of this shitty, deceptive death-swamp of a paper size is that, unless you are looking for it or are already familiar with it, it’s entirely possible to get most of the way through a production or adaption and not realise that the stuff you did in A4 will have to be completely re-formatted for printing in a US letter format and that, because the size difference is so marginal, you can't just cut the info content of a page in half or anything, you have to shaaaave it, and, depending on the paper quality or type of binding some printing companies may or may not make certain paper types, colour options and bindings available to use.

O, so other than that page size has three big effects on a piece of work

1. Amount of stuff you can fit on a double-page spread, power of art, tables, interrelationships of information.

More and more I have come to think that things should be written and designed in informational groups so that everything on a double-page spread hangs neatly together, and to do this you need to know ahead of time what format you are going to be using

For anyone creating stuff in the future I would strongly recommend thinking 'by spread', when you are creating, or trying to, to see if it works.

2. Ease of practical use at a table.

Almost everyone I know who has spoken at any length about use-at table strongly prefers a relatively small format for use and I see the LotFP A5 size praised a lot (again, if anyone has opinions then let me know in comments), also a big thick tome is going to be a bitch to hold up and flick through at the table while a light Broodmother Skyfortress or Blood in the Chocolate will be relatively easy to deal with.

I do not love A5 myself but as with PDF’s I am in a cult of one.

3. Weight of the thing and its cost to produce and post.

the general process of development for most OSR creators seems to be that we want to get our stuff bigger and bigger and bigger and more and more like a 'real book', heavier, thicker and with better binding.

As the thing you make gets bigger then the ancillary costs to printing and sending it go up and up and this is especially valid in cross-ocean postage.

The boundaries of the OSR market (and D&D generally, for the most part) are roughly contiguous with those of the Anglosphere. The USA takes up the majority, then there are sub-markets in Canada, the UK, Australia, some in mainland Europe like France and Germany and a bit in New Zealand. I have not seen very much from the rest of the world.

(Though presumably there is gigantic potential in India and China, especially India, so far as I know most urban Indian nerds will be multilingual in English so if there was a Lulu printing centre in India and D&D somehow took off there then that could be a biiiiiig deal).

So a big deal for OSR publishers is if you are posting your stuff across an ocean, if it’s done through lulu or RPG.NOW then they have production centres in both Europe and the US so that takes care of that problem for those areas (not for poor Australia or NZ), but if you are printing your own shit and then posting it then you need to think about the weight of the finished product. Intercontinental postal costs take a big leap at certain weight boundaries and parcel thicknesses and you will need to know what these are. If it’s going from the Old World to the US or visa versa then the value of postage can create a larger and larger effect on the cost.

(I was going to back the Contessa Swords and Wizardry but the postage was going to be as much as the thing itself and was going to be taken out of my account at an unknown time so I noped out.)

In addition, there is the effect of page thickness on the ability of that page to hold colour. I learnt this from Scrap but essentially, perceived colour is strongly affected by the depth and intensity of blacks on a page, if you can't get deep blacks then they will seem greyed-out and the intensity of colours will suffer accordingly, to get deep blacks on a page you need thick paper to absorb the ink
thicker paper costs more and increases weight, leading to all the knock-on effects of cost listed above.

there is perhaps a potential market opening for a kind of series of zines or pamphlets, with one being produced every two or three months, sent out like a subscription service, and with each series making its own large scale thing

I'm imagining something the size of Yoon-Suin broken down to chapters based on area and then subscribed to, with each pamphlet being playable on its own, so someone could get one part and play it with their friends while the creators work on the next part, then after a few months, hey, looks like a new area has opened up, we can go there now. So the whole thing could almost be a continuous-play thing, going out and being experienced like a comic book, and the relatively small size would make postage and transport easier, plus making each individual part less of a massive weight on the time and resources of the creators.

PDF/hardcopy conflict/synergy

I hate PDF's because I think they don't get read. I think they are largely dead information.


No-one else on earth agrees with this opinion. A meaningfully large part of the audience wants a PDF alongside a hardcopy, many people want to buy a PDF to 'try it out' before getting a hardcopy and another chuck of the audience only wants a PDF.

Regardless of how you feel about them, PDF's are a dominant part of the production process

This interrelates with page size as the reader that most people are using to view a PDF is smaller than A4. In most cases it can comfortably view a notebook sized page and an A5 sized page but it will often have a bit of trouble with a full-page spread at those sizes (not much direct experience of this so let me know in comments if wrong), this changes the dynamic from a physical book, which will almost always be open in the DM's hand or in the table with a double spread showing.

Navigating a PDF opens up a whole new range of ways to deal with information, no more, turn to this table on page XX, instead, you can just have a button on the page and when it says, to use this procedure, turn to this table, it can just take you right to the table.

In the same way, navigation can provide much greater ease of movement between sections and elements, even in a large book


I also said I would look at;

Dealing With Artists, Co-Workers And Editors.


Fucked if I know. I am no good at this so I have decided that I should try to interview some people who are good at it and then report back to you. So get ready for part three I guess.

Friday, 20 January 2017

How I Make an Adventure - Part 1

Due to a discussion with Kyana in the comments to the previous post, I have been lead to consider the following question

How do I write an adventure?

You might think this is a simple question since I should just be able to remember doing it.

Well, firstly my memory isn’t that good.

Secondly, I tend to accomplish things in a fugue state.

Thirdly, they are really complex things and your memory of doing them is being constantly over-written with each new version and iteration, each of which are almost a whole thing in themselves and, like a waiter forgetting a previous order, it can be quite useful to be able to dump a lot of not currently-relevant information out of your head to get the processing power back.

Fourthly, I've really only ever written one complete adventure, arguably two.

Here’s my best guess about how you do what I did, and I’m talking here about process and practice more than ideals, ‘design goals’ whatever the fuck they are and general rambling about minimalism and maximalism or whatever the fuck people are banging on about this week. This is literally, how do you do it.


1.      THE BIG IDEA

The most important and central thing about making a good adventure is to have a good idea.

I do not believe that good ideas are easy to get. Especially ones to specific purposes.

Ideas are easy to get. I could probably write down ten crappy ideas right now. Good ideas are rare, and the difference between the two is not just the level of work you put in.

I suspect there's a curve showing how much potential an idea has, even with the maximum level of work. At one end are really shitty ideas, with these, even if you change everything about it and hire all the best talent to work on it for a long time then it’s still not going to be very good. The interesting thing with a really shitty idea is that they tend not to produce giant charismatic piles of flaming disaster. You tend to end up with just mediocrity. Like the Duce Bigalow movies.

Then, in the middle are the standard 'good ideas', these are the ones you have coming out of the shower, on the toilet or whatever and you think "oh, that's a clever idea". I think of them as Writers Room ideas. If you got a bunch of reasonably intelligent, reasonably creative nerds in a room and they start spouting off ideas then you will probably get a few of these. These are ideas that can be massively enhanced or destroyed by the work done on them. They are like B+ movies, like a Robert Zemekis movie or a Max Landis movie or a Marvel movie.

Then right at the other end you get the good ones. These are the ones that if you just wrote them down badly they would still be kinda good. The City Without a Name is one of those. These are also the ideas where you know if you work on it in the right way with the right people and everything goes perfectly and, for once, all the stars align and all the coins land on their edge, you might just get the Real Deal, art with a capital A, something that punches through time, invents a genre, adds to the culture in a meaningful way.

They do not come along that often and I have never been able to predict when they will come along. They are a mystery to me.



So what is 'an idea'?

The most important thing about your idea for the adventure is that you like it. Making it will be hard and you will get depressed at multiple points and want to put it away, but if the central concept is provokes affection and desire in you then you have a much better chance of making it and of making it well.

There is a paradox, the idea should have a very strong identity and feel, but at the same time be a little formless. It should be something that you could accomplish a variety of ways.

At this point it absolutely doesn't need to be something you are able to explain to other people, or even to yourself. You can just have it there in the back of your head like a silent impulse. Wrapping it up in a neat conjunction of words at this point is not necessarily a good thing.

This is the opposite to movie-producer rules. You don't need an elevator pitch because right now, you are not trying to persuade a bureaucratic system that it's good. You don't need to explain it in terms of other things (yet), you need to let it be itself and grow and become unlike other things. You need to keep it to yourself a little.

The idea for DCO

The Research

With DCO I had already done a lot of research for Veins of the Earth and had had most of the ideas for that written out in their initial form.

I wanted to make something that would be an effective gateway to the Underworld as I conceived it. I had a head full of geology and deep time (thanks in large part to the books of Richard Fortney). If there is one basic concept behind DCO it’s that transmission of the feeling of deep time, the same one you feel when you see huge layers of strata on a cliff face and think about how deeply they reach into the past.

Whatever you are trying to make it will draw from something, even if its just everything you have ever experienced or imagined.

The Name

Deep Carbon Observatory is actually the name of a research group and I stole it. I had noticed it during my research along with the name of another group, Dark Biosphere Investigations, and noted it down.

DCO was nearly DBI, in that case it would have been a journey to a kind of collapsed abyssal zoo under the ocean.

It can be really important to have a good name. The name acts as the first hook or crinkle in the minds memory, a nodule that other impressions can accrete about. It’s a kind of symbol or rallying flag for when you are explaining the idea to others and yourself or for when you are depressed and doubting it. A cool name can breathe life into a project and idea. It’s also useful for capitalistic reasons of course, with marketing and so forth. it brands the project as being or not being a particular kind of thing in the eyes of the world.

My advice would be to make sure you have a really cool name that you love and write it at the top of your notepad or writing document. Have a file shortcut named that on your desktop.



When I started out I began everything by hand on various pads, usually either lined or square. Then once I had what I needed I took it to the computer at the end of each day, or week, and typed it in.

The great thing about this is that you can be away from a computer which you don't have to carry around with you. You also get longer to think about the euphony of your sentences and they flow through your mind in a different speed so that effects your writing style a little.

Later I started doing almost all my computer writing on Notepad – it’s really fast to open so you don't have to wait. It doesn't check my spelling or bad grammar and underline words to irritate me so I can type very fast and inaccurately without it being a problem. It has no format, fonts etc. so there are no extras to fiddle with. If they were there I would fiddle with them and waste time.

Almost everything I've ever written on my computer has started as a badly written notepad document. This is being written in notepad, the it will be re-written here, then transferred to Word to check spelling and fix stuff and make sure it makes sense, then finally the blog. I'll take a picture of it now so you know what it looks like

Now I rarely use physical paper for major segments. It just took too long to transfer everything over  I still carry physical notepads around with me just in case.



This is a part of the process quite difficult to keep track of, it takes place mainly on notepad documents that are easy to delete and transfer and on actual physical notepads.

It's also an extremely important process because it’s here that the first inklings of the shape of the adventure take place.

A main thing here is working out problems and getting chapter or section headings.

The thought process for DCO went something like this.

- I want PC's to go somewhere deep, gain access to something deep but most importantly, feel as if they are going somewhere deep. I want the space to tell them that.

- Here's this name, Deep Carbon Observatory. What would that actually be like? An underground observatory? What would that be?

- Then gradually - it would be inverted, it would see through stone, it would be deep underground but accessible (like our observatories are on hill and mountaintops).

- Mine - no. Done already.

- What about Open Cast Mine - this is an important moment, open cast mines are visually and spatially powerful and hyper-dominant spaces. They create a very deep impression. They are also something that most D&D creators won't use as they are explicitly modern and creators prefer to draw from pre-existing pseudo-medieval forms. Once the idea of it being an open cast mine was settled on, that governed a lot of the iterations from that point on.


Choose the most powerful thing EVERY TIME and THEN use reason and explanation and rationalism to make it all mutually coherent like it makes sense. Never be reasonable to start with, that is not your job.

- Ok, its like this big inverse pyramid and the observatory at the bottom. So why does no-one know where it is, why doesn't everyone know about it, why isn't it in use?

- Can't be filled in. Hidden somehow. How?

thinking thinking thinking thinking

- Hidden under a lake. River diverted and deliberately used to hide it, like a huge geo-engineering project. And that explains why no-one has gone there in ages and why its findable now. The project failed.

- Then the idea of the dam (the shape of the dam is a 20th century concrete-based technology, like the open-cast-mine of the entry, no ancient dam would ever have looked like that).

- How did no-one fuck with the dam/how did it stay up (the dam golems)

- Then the dam having broken. Then what happens in a flood?

- Stages and effects of a flood.

- Then that breaks down quite easily into different areas or zones. Then we have the idea of each area or zone being like going deeper and deeper into an alien reality, with each step closer to the observatory being like you are going further and further out of the realm of human understanding and into the realm of otherness.

- It's about this point that we reach our basic subdivisions or chapter headings.



We're back to names again. Instead of adventure names we are choosing section names but the process is similar. You want to choose a good name, but most importantly you need to know what manner of thing that section is and broadly how it relates to the whole

Here's a picture of what I ended up with in the DCO folder at the end.

You can see they aren't that good. Carrowmore is ok, the Crows is ok, the Drowned Lands is ok, The Big Dam is bad, The Profundal Zone is good (an actual measure of a particular layer of biosphere in a lake), The Observatory and the Giant are just practical.

With Maze of the Blue Medusa, well, in files the sections were first called UPPER RIGHT, CENTRE RIGHT, CENTER, LOWER LEFT etc. The project was always called MEDUSA MAZE, in caps. The sections eventually turned into LIZARDMAN ARCHIVE, GALLERY, GARDEN, ENTRY, THE DEAD WEDDING, then that odd bit in the lower mid right I forget if that had its own name, then the medusa's stuff, not sure if that had a name either but I knew what was there, then PETRIFIED CELLS. Then they got their current names through the edit.

The most important thing is that it be broken down into workable sections. In the case of DCO, and to some extent with MotBM, the sections are based on geography, i.e. they could be sections of a map, but they are also based on gathering consequences of play; you can't get to the profundal zone without going through the drowned lands, you can't reach the Medusa without going through the Almery and you are unlikely to meet her without meeting Chronia first.

Even though in most things I do I like a high degree of interconnectedness both in aesthetic, in terms of worldbuilding and imagined mutual history and in terms of mechanics and carried over effects, if I didn't break things down a LOT first I would go mad.

The only way I know how to deal with highly complex big projects is to break them into parts with a specific informational architecture.



Once I've got a rough arrangement of chapters it’s just a matter of working out what is in each thing then writing that


But yeah, a similar process is followed. Breakdowns on either paper or text docs, lots of notes, lots of sub-headings. Breaking down each section into its own sections and then working out names and content for each of them.

This is like 80% of making the thing but it only gets these few lines.

Also, the whole architecture of the adventure and the arrangement of all of its parts can and will change multiple times as new stuff is invented and put in and old stuff discarded.

The DCO flood flowchart only happened because I had this big clever idea for a kind of flood mega-image map thing with all the different encounters on it and Scrap just said no so I had to come up with a way to do the same thing with just information.

This leads directly into –



It's too big. It's unmanageable. There are too many simultaneous problems you have to think about. Your dumb ambitions have sunk the project. It will be incomprehensible anyway. It's pretentious unplayable arty shite. You can't even stand to look at it any more. There's some waste ground near your house where they won't find the body for a while. You could do it with pills.

At some point you cross the line from having it all in bits to....



I have found the Navigation View in Microsoft Word to be very useful for arranging the architecture of information, here's a picture of the navigation view of a BFR doc.

As your chapters fill up they also narrow, casting off old word docs, notepad docs, image files and prospective layouts in like a snake with leprosy shaking off its skin. Here's a list of the files for BFR as they currently stand

And here's the "Misc Development" folder for the section I'm working on now. I use this as a dumping ground for stuff that might be relevant but I don't want it staring at me.

Eventually you have all your little chapter sections as complete as you think they are going to get. you have read through them all multiple times and to you they are entirely comprehensible and eminently playable, only a fool could fail to understand them. So, you mangle them all into one huge, sequential, staggeringly slow and constantly crashing word document.

After months (possibly years) of crushing effort, multiple dark nights of the soul, fitful rushes of inspiration, moments of near genius and several bedazzled and hallucinogenic dead-ends your glorious first draft is READY.


You are now half way through the process.


That’s all for one blog post. Next post I will talk about all the stuff that comes after like publishing, formats, printing etc. As well as all the stuff that I missed out like dealing with rebellious mute beasts artists, fools who would oppose your will co-workers and parasites who dare to questions your divine genius editors. I will also try to answer any specific questions that people ask in the comments.

Friday, 13 January 2017

The Green Knight Wants To Fuck Gawain

I said somewhere that I would write about what Gawain means to me, so here we are. This will be the last one I promise.

So I got very depressed and didn’t work on anything for a long time and spent a lot of evenings drinking and mainlining animated series on DVD (Clone Wars is a mixed bag with some very good elements, Avatar the Last Airbender is excellent).

As part of some research for another thing I re-read parts of Gawain and translated a bit of it.

Translating it was the only work I was capable of doing that didn't feel like I was grinding broken glass into my own face. I'm curious as to why that is. Perhaps its because my mind had something to look at that wasn't itself. (Inventing stuff sometimes feels very much like your mind looking at itself.) It’s poetry, which does often calm me down, I’m not sure why that is.

So I would go to work each day, (my phone tracks my movements like a stalker and thinks the library is 'work' because I go there during work hours), and translate a bit of Gawain.

It's set where I'm from. Not exactly, it spends a lot of time in Yorkshire and Lancashire, but the paths of my life and of Gawain’s journey cross quite a bit. I have family in the Wales he wandered around, I went to university in the Lancashire he travelled through and, most of all, I was writing in the Wirral he found such a grim place, at almost exactly the same period of the year that he was in it. The weather has not changed.

And the weather and the descriptions of it are some of the best parts of the poem, the ones almost all the translators seem to think are really good, especially considering the frequency with which they are translated.

(Poets are just good with wind I think.)

Yet all the travelling of Gawain takes place in a few pages and its barely relevant to the dramatic action of the story. It's mainly a courtly story about high status people having parties in rooms, or, essentially, about Gawain not having sex with a hot girl.

There is a lot going in in Gawain, let’s look into some of it.


Working out how gay Gawain and the Green Knight is, is a complex endeavour. The word 'gay' and the concept probably, don't exist for the poet. Medieval literature rarely (as far as I know) talks about, or names, non-hetro sexual practices, but sex does show up, in stuff like Chaucer certainly and almost everyone grew up in a hovel & probably heard/saw their parents having sex under the sheets, which was considered relatively normal I think. Sex and sexual desire is a key element in Gawain, which is quite a fancy upper-class courtly story.

So this certainly isn't a modern culture story, but it’s also not a Victorian or early-modern culture, which is what we first think of when we contrast a sexual culture to "us". It's not repressed in the same way. Doesn't have quite the same sharp duality. Although Certain Things aren't mentioned, it doesn't have the same feelings of denial. And like almost anything from before the modern era, there is a lot of sensual male contact that is just considered part of normal male behaviour, from guys being super-glad to see each other, even crying from happiness, to a lot of kissing, touching, grabbing or "laching", and a lot of frank appreciation for each other.

Guys in this era are just well up in each others business socially in a way not common to our own time.

So any modern reader feels a familiar internal monologue which goes something like this:

A - Wow some of these male behaviours seem pretty gay.

B - Probably you're just reading a sexual element into a behaviour that had no sexual element when it was performed as you have been perved-up by modern knowledge.

A - But surely some men did gay stuff in this period?

B - It's likely, but without any generally accepted and widely known awareness of homosexuality, a lot of quasi-sexual feelings are going to be absorbed by and expressed in general, warm homosocial contact.

A - Then surely that warm homosocial contact could itself be interpreted as being a bit gay...

B - NO! Stop trying to gay up history and see gay stuff everywhere!

A – Well it sounds like you’re in denial to me. Anyway, who says there wasn't any widely known awareness of homosexuality, or at least, guys getting busy with each other. I mean there was that king in Shakespeare..

B - They almost never talk about it.

A - But that doesn't mean it wasn't happening.

B - Even if it was happening that doesn't mean that all the stuff in Medieval texts that seems a bit gay is actually a secret signifier for gayness the way it might be in a modern or early modern text.

and so on and so on and so on.

So, with this in mind, reasons I interpret the behaviour of Bertilak/The Green Knight towards Gawain as more homosexual than homosocial are -

One - The Green Knight/ Bertilak remarks on their happiness at seeing Gawain and their desire to be in contact with Gawain a LOT. In Arthurs hall as the Knight, in his own hall in numerous ways, and again at the end as the Knight, he still just wants Gawain around him.

Two - Bertilk laughs and giggles when Gawain agrees to stay at his house, he acts as if he doesn't know what he's doing. This is from the guy defined in the text as being super tough and the most masculine guy ever, the guy who always seems to be in a dominant position and always knows what’s going on. Yes, in some translations its Gawain that giggles and loses control of himself, but I have re-checked my facing text and I think that it a bullshit interpretation.

“The lorde let for luf lotegh so myry,
As wygh that wolde of his wyte, ne wyst quat he might.”

Three - The sex game. "Ok Gawain, you stay here and I'll go hunting. Whatever I win out there I will give to you and whatever you win in here you give to me." Bertilak goes off & catches symbolic animals while his wife stays home and try’s to fuck Gawain. Then Gawain gives Bertilak his own wife’s kisses later in the day. Which Bertilak is quite pleased about.

So two things. If Gawain had fucked Bertilak’s wife, what would he have had to give Bertilak that night? And secondly, knowing this, what was going through his head when she flirted with him the second and third times? What does he think Bertilak thinks is going on? I mean, that’s a highly specific bet right? Is Gawain just super-innocent, or is he quite jaded and courtly and ‘cool’ and has a good idea of what is going in and just deals with it?

I refuse to accept that my interpretation of this as being a bonkers sex game is a modern interpolation of an 'innocent' medieval text. I believe that at least a fraction of the audience reading or, more likely, hearing this read out, knew exactly what was going on with this. I think most of them did.

Four - Gawain is feminised and Bertilak masculinised, a LOT. Gawain’s beauty is gone on about quite a bit, when he arrives in Bertilaks hall he is dressed in skirts and described (I think) as like a flower. Bertilak and the Green Knight are both described as super-masculine with specifically well-shaped limbs (especially thighs), narrow waists and muscular trunks. He's always called 'stiff' staunch' and strong. His beard is off the hook. He physically does things 'on camera' in ways Gawain does not. Gawain has some generalised adventures and battles on his way to the Green Chapel but they are never described action-by-action. Bertilak does a lot of stuff, he hunts, attacks, skins, fights and, most crucially, grabs. Gawains main heroic qualities in the poem as shown by action are him *not* doing things.

And Five - Bertilak grabs and 'lacches' Gawain a lot in his castle. Whenever he wants Gawain somewhere he 'lacches' the guy and basically moves him where he wants him to be.

I state this as a cornerstone of my theses, and its fucking ridiculous that no-one has said this directly before: The Green Knight Wants to Fuck Gawain.


Tolkien described the poet as (I'm paraphrasing) a man of religious conviction and some humour. I tend to see him the other way round, as a funny man with strong religious feelings. That may just be the natural difference between Tolkien and I.

By the time we get to the poems end, it is very much a religious work, the finish is anguished and serious and very Christian.

But the rest of the poem, is, not exactly light, or humorous, but lively, witty and wry.

It's hard to describe how the Gawain poet is funny, there are very few 'jokes' and not many hard distinguishable moments where you can point at it and say "look, this is meant to be funny". Nevertheless, the image we get in our minds of the poet is someone with a wry, somewhat ironic, compassionate and rather rueful view on the world. The mild doubling of meanings, the understatements and the kinds of situations created: Arthurs court describing what they think Arthur should have done, Lady Bertilak duelling with Gawain, Bertilaks comments after some of the kisses, the nameless doomsayer telling him blankly to run, show someone who is aware of, and enjoying, the multiple intersecting levels of awareness, and wants you to be aware of them too.

There's a few medieval texts I think, where we see the warmth of the human lifeworld duelling with the totalising and annihilating power of the world of faith, with varying results. The Morte is a lot like this, with the faithworld stuff coming in hard during the grail quest and with Galahad. Both worlds are good at different themes and good in different ways. I tend to favour the human lifeworld, (as, I suspect, most modern readers), but even when the story is deeply concerned with human things, the faithworld is still there wrapped in in everything.

I doubt the poet saw them in conflict in any meaningful way, to the creator, I believe, it’s all one story with all of the elements making a neat whole (except maybe for the bit with Morgana's plot).


No-one in the poem ever says 'fuck' or anything close to it but I put the word in a few times. Even though I did a lot of specific stuff with the translation, this is the one that is going to stick out and if anyone notices it they are going to call it the "Fuck Gawain". So my excuses/reasons are;

One - It's a natural part of my internal repertoire. I say fuck in my head like its punctuation and my translation goes back and forth a lot between a very archaic representation and some very modern interpretations, depending on how I felt each part should come through.

This means my translation doesn't have a unified tone, at least according to the way an English teacher would describe it. But it does really because that is my tone and the pattern of my thought, it is natural to me, no matter what anyone else thinks of it and therefore is a reasonable pattern of translation.

In most cases I put in a fuck where I felt *that Character* might say it according to my own internal sense and what they were up to at that moment. There are only three parts where it comes in.

One - Arthurs Hall. I read this much like a Scorsese scene. (This probably isn't entirely accurate to the nature of the scene in its original context, but no translation could be). This is the moment when one masculine guy in a masculine culture jokethreatens another masculine guy in front of his male friends.

Many of you will remember this situation from school. The aggressor says something that could be a a joke or a threat. If you respond as if it’s a joke then you might be judged as if you were afraid to respond to the threat, showing lack of courage, so you lose face. But if you respond as if it is a threat, and the aggressor plays it off as a joke, then you look as if you ovverreacted, showing fear and internal weakness, so you lase face anyway. There is no good response to this. I read it pretty much as a Scorsese gangster scene and I thought the Green Knight might way say 'motherfucker' and it fit the sonic structure of that line so I put it in.

Two - The Nameless Doomsayer. This is the fuck I feel most fine about. This character is a churl who exists purely to lighten the mood of the last part of the poem before the scary bit and, as a churl, he is meant to show what a super-knightly guy Gawain is. He is the character most likely to say fuck and use low language and I had no problem putting one in.

Three – Gawain’s rebuke. This is the least likely. Right at the end, as Gawain realises he is alive after the axe comes down and leaps away drawing his sword, he rebukes the Green Knight and tells him quite forcefully that this is it, the thing is done, he is not going back under the axe. Gawain never uses low language of any kind, or even comes close, the worst you get from him is a bit of cold sarcasm at the end. But I felt the emotion of the moment and the extremity of the incident might allow it and I was a bit fuck-happy at that point so I gave Gawain a small fuck of his own. He had earnt it.


Well, this motherfucker is about twenty things. Let’s see if we can count them.

He's Nature - Well, he’s green. Plus he's covered in leaves and things. Plus he's literally carrying a branch. Plus many of the things that threaten Gawain on his way to the Green Chapel are nature incarnate, bears and bulls and wolves and woodwose. Plus at the end his chapel is in the wildest most barren place ever. Plus it’s called the Green Chapel. Wildness is not good in the medieval mind I think because they haven't yet invented Wordsworth and Shelly to tell them it’s ok.

Arthurs court is the epitome of civilisation. Nature BURSTS its way in to civilisation to say "Ha Ha! You thought you could forget me mankind, well here I am to challenge your weak assertions that you are something other than nature. How about that chivalric code you made up, reckon you can stick to it?"

He's Violence - He's carrying an axe. His contest is a murder. The axe is his prize. When we meet him again he has another axe and is sharpening it. As Bertilak he hunts and kills a LOT of stuff and this is described in the most detailed and gory fashion.

"Knights! You think you are pretty great hey? We have you noticed that all of you are KILLERS? And that all of your knightlyness is based on MURDER? You like killing so much, why don't you kill me tough guys? Hmmmm? Then I’ll kill you. Afraid to muderdie murderers?"

He's The Outside/Elves/Elvishness - He's clearly magic as fuck. Described as 'an elvish man' in the text. Exhibits magical regeneration, seems to change location near-magically, changes size and appearance magically. He's just very magic, he's a magic man. This is probably more real to the original audience than us. From a modern perspective we can add “He’s the Unconscious” to this one – see below.

He's Death And Winter - Turns up in one winter, meets Gawain in another. Carries holly which is strongest in green when the boughs are bare. Leading us to;

He's Rebirth And Summer/ The Unity Of Opposites - The Green Knight loves being opposite things. A super green guy in a dead white winter land. Carries a holly branch as symbol of peace and an axe at the same time as a symbol of warishness. Fucks with everyone but is a stickler for knightly conduct and oaths and fine legalisms of behaviour. Is the green-bearded Green Knight and the Red(ish) bearded Bertilak. Wants to fuck Gawain and tries to trick Gawain into sexdeath. Works to destroy Arthurs court but ends up giving them the green girdle that becomes a symbol of a knightly order. Schemes and lies to corrupt Gawain and forgives and reassures Gawain. Dies but lives. Likes dogs AND cats! And yes, sex and death. OPPOSITES. COMBINNNNEEDDDD.

He's Cycles - You have to wait a year to meet him the second time. He dies and lives again. Pluss see all summer/winter stuff above.

He's A Gay Dude/The Fear Of Being A Bit Gay - Wants to bone Gawain. You never know how fully Gawain notices this and exactly what his response to it is. Until he finds out Bertilak and the Green Knight are the same, he seems to be really fond of Bertilak, but also kind of glad to get away? We leave the story with one certainty: Gawain is definitely not gay, even a bit.

He's The Best Dude Ever - It's pretty great to be strong and manly with great legs and an amazing beard and your own castle. Wouldn’t you want to be that guy? or at least to hang out with him. Bertilak confirms, manliness, beards and roaring fires are the best. If the situation was reversed, Bertilak would definitely have fucked Gawains wife, and possibly everyone else in the castle as well, but Gawain does not do this. So, are you manly enough to not act manly? You enough of a real man to not be ruled by your virility? Another Gawain paradox.

He's A Threat To His Own Kingdom Somehow - This is an odd one that not many people bring up. On the way to the Green Chapel the nameless doomsayer tells Gawain that the Green Knight is super-dangerous and just kills the fuck out of people for no reason and has been haunting this area for ages. But the Green Knight is Bertilak, and this is not far from Bertilaks castle.

Possibly this is some black ops mission impossible shit where Bertilak gets this guy to talk up the danger of the place to see if Gawain will flinch. But if it isn't, then Bertilak is the monster haunting his own kingdom. He is the lord in the castle but also the terrible violent thing from the outside that kills at a whim. Which leads us to;

He's The Things That Are Inside Us That We Would Rather Were Both Outside Us And Very Far Away - See above, being gay, being violent, being a crazy ass murderer. Also possibly magic.

He's Mercy - Gawain is set an impossible moral challenge that leads directly from his desire to be the best possible knight and it inevitably leads to his destruction, but he isn't destroyed because he's willing to go through with it. So this is a Book of Job story maybe? Which is easy to crap on in a Stuart Lee or Ted Chiang way, because Job gets his 'stuff' back, so it seems like a fake moral message - pretend to go through with this apparently self-destructive moral code and I will reprieve you at the last minute. If you look like you are willing to die, you won't really have to.

It's kind of easy to make fun of from a modern perspective but I'm not sure that that’s what the original creators of those stories meant, or that we are fully understanding them. If you look at it from a detached, ironic, material perspective then it looks like a trick, if you look at it in the spirit and nature of its time, what is it then?

He's Kind Of Like God Maybe? - See above. I will add that in the last scene with the Green Knight, Gawain confesses his mild indiscretion when he had previously lied about it and the Knight says he is now "clean" as if he had been confessed by a priest, from the perspective of the story-world, it’s not clear where the fuck he thinks he is getting the moral authority to do this from. His words and his general air of moral assumption are not those of a trickster but a tolerant moral superior who is congratulating a student for finally seeing through a knotty problem and reaching a new level of awareness and understanding. He forgives like he's god, which makes the next bit even odder;

He's A Pawn Of Morgana La Fay - At the same time as he is forgiving Gawain the Green Knight gives him the backstory to what is going on, which to a modern reader (me) seems ridiculously thematically and dramatically disconnected from the rest of the text. Ok so it was a womanfight between Morgana and Guinevere. Was she orchestrating the sex game thing? You seemed super in charge before, and super in charge now, but in reality you weren't/aren't? Does she turn you into a giant green guy regularly? If she can do that, why not just send you to take out Arthur? Ok some of these are nerdboy questions, but still.

This also meshes with the poems turn towards misogyny in the last part. There seems to be some kind of divide between the poem and the poet on the subject of Lady Bertilak. From the poems point of view she's hot and funny, active, intelligent and has a lot of positive qualities. When the poet wakes up to what his heart is writing he has to remind us that she is sleazy and corrupt and kind of evil even though she doesn't seem it. Then he has the Green Knight effectively say that the whole thing was the fault of women and Gawain confirm it. To us reading, this is Gawain at his worst. I do wonder what the original audience would have thought of the whole thing. I do think, even from a Medieval perspective, it’s at least partly Gawain’s fault, yes you were assailed by magic giants and sexy girls, but it all interlaced with your own honour code and your own image of yourself, this isn't just me being 21stC, the poem seems to take a similar view, in its opening parts at least. And at the end the Green Knight wants to take Gawain back and reconcile him with his wife, his ‘opponent’ as if they were players in a game that is now over.

Would the original audience think it was good that Gawain didn’t back, bad? He’s refusing to go back into the sex/death house, but also refusing to be reconciled with a women/women in general.


Finally we come to the end and Gawain crying and crushed because he failed, even though to us, to his opponent and to his friends, he scored 90% in a moral battle against a witch, a magic giant and a hot girl.

And Gawain never really cheers up, not in the narrative at least. We end on him sad, filled with a sense of his own failure. And we don't really know what to think of this. To Arthurs court it’s a failure that is not a failure. To Gawain it’s a success that is not a success. To the court the green girdle is a trophy. To Gawain a mark of shame.

We come back again to the unity of opposites, the necessity of imperfection in the search for perfection. Gawain’s failure is more humanising, and in a way, more noble than clear and direct success would have been. (Also a better drama.) Gawain’s super-brave and almost self-destructive honour code that first seemed bold, then dumb, then impossibly complex to maintain, then simple again just before the end, is now a weight for him.

What does it mean to hold yourself to an impossibly high standard? What does it mean to oppose death, nature, sex, the possibility of being a bit bisexual, hyper-masculinity, violence and a pawn of Morgana La Fay, and to fail, and yet to be forgiven? To be forgiven by all those same things?


I doubt I’ve got any close to “an answer”. I doubt there is one and if there is its probably obscure and theological.

I’m glad I got to meet the poet through the text. Gawain poet, I’m glad you wrote this. You can’t go straight from sad to being happy but you can go from sad to calm and your words helped me do that. And, if you’re also the ‘Pearl’ poet then I’m sorry about your kid.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

The City of Infinite Ruin

From the outside the City of Infinite Ruin looks a little like Constantinople. Its walls are high and strong and roughly circular and a charming pink-white that glows deep pink-red in the summer sun. There are various guard towers and gates, each with their own storied histories, and from the outside you can see some of the most recent spires and minarets poking up.

It's impossible to accurately measure the walls of the City of Infinite Ruin, either their circumference or their height, and for a long time it was assumed that this made it immune to siege, because how can you build a siege tower or a ladder to get up there when you don't know how tall it is?

It turns out that if you just take a rough guess and built a bunch of different siege towers and ladders then roughly half of them will be the right size (or too tall, but then you can climb down from the tower on another rope ladder).

So the City of Infinite Ruin is not immune to sieges, it just takes a stupidly large amount of resources to besiege. Plus, if you win, the current rulers of the city will just retreat deeper into its infinite ruins and possibly launch guerrilla attacks from the inside.

HOWEVER, that problem tends to solve itself as the infinite ruins are also full of all the previous rulers of the City of Infinite Ruin, and all the escaped ghettos and archeocultures and shadow empires etc., and all those people tend to be pissed off at each other for some reason, so soon your former enemies will be busy dealing with their former enemies.

(Plus no-one really want to throw anything big at the walls of the City of Infinite Ruin as that might damage them, but more on that later.)

Regardless of its exact measurement, the general circumference of the City of Infinite Ruin seems to vary between 18 to 20 miles at the maximum, (about an eighth of this fronts the ocean) although, from the outside, it never seems to take up any greater area of land.

The city is not growing, not growing out anyway.

Think of the city as the rings of an onion, each of the rings are roads (none of the roads inside the city are perfect rings, they always cross over, stop and start, meet squares, etc. but you can think of their general layout in that way) so the outer road, the road closest to the city walls, that runs around the city just under them, on the inside, is 18 to 20 miles around, just like the outer wall (probably a little less), the next road in, the one just a little further inside the city, is 19 to 21 miles around, the next road in, the third road, is 20 to 22 miles around, the next is 21 to 23 miles around and the circumference of these 'ring roads' (that aren't rings) keeps growing and growing and growing without end.

So the deeper you get into the city, the bigger it is.

Arguments differ over the maximum depth yet explored. The greatest extent of 'official' circumnavigation of the city is set at 2660 miles in from the walls and 2681 around for a total round-trip journey of roughly 8000 miles, although probably if we include diversions and so on it amounted to about 10,000, though in fact none of the original members completed the actual circumnavigation. All died or were lost in the cities infinite depths, but a slave, or servant, that they picked up on the original penetration did manage to complete the journey to the rim, bringing back the expeditions notes (assuming the notes are real and not forgeries created either by the original explorers out of madness or cupidity or by one of the shadow empires for more mysterious reasons. (Or are notes from one of the suspected parallels somewhere in the depths (or an alienist plot to indicate the existence of such parreles)).

The City of Infinite Ruin is one of the only cities in the world where the most valuable land and important buildings are all close to the city walls. You can get around the inside in a day, if the traffic is good (though you may need to cut deeper into the inside, which will take longer of course). A good parkour messenger who can leap and climb over and under the permanent traffic jams and can catch a fast gondola across the infinite docks, can do the whole journey in around four hours and doing it inside five is a condition of membership in the messengers guild.

All the 'rulers' of the city (to the outside world at least, philosophers will argue that obviously, no-one can rule the City of Infinite Ruin), the people who’s flags are on the buildings, who are currently the primary patrons of the Mosque  of Conchodeus and who's bureaucrats will be collecting your taxes, have their palaces next to the wall and so do all the major elites and the primary organs of 'government'.

Then closer into the centre you get the professionals, army officers, lawyers etc, then the middle classes, shop owners who often have to commute out to the wall districts, then the working populations, then the slums (some of the nicest slums in the world), (and of course, the slums are very lightly populated while the most important and high-status rim areas are very densely populated, leading to a situation in which the rich and wealthy struggle to cram themselves into close, tight, densely-packed living situations and where the poor starve in palatial and silent ruins), then some of the inner villages or outposts or watchtowers, and then, and then...

There is no exact point where the culture of the city gives over to the culture of 'the depths'. Populated areas get fewer and further between and along the boundaries of the infinite docks there are some towns six-months sailing away which technically still pay fealty to the rim.

The city is growing, continually, into its own interior space. In typical magical or cognitive-bias fashion you can't actually see this happen but it is growing at a rate of about a centimetre a year (Probably. It might be faster or slower), so if you were to build a house adjacent to the city walls and leave it for 100 years, when you came back, there would be  a metre gap between the wall of your house and the city wall (possibly with a duke squatting there and claiming the space).

Those few buildings 'attached' to the city wall are very valuable as they are 'carried' with the wall like an anchor stopping them from being pulled gravatically into the cities depths, but almost all of these are run by the security services and there are strong laws prohibiting any more from being built as no-one wants to weaken the walls.

Everyone is quietly terrified of what might happen if the walls come down. If the walls broke, the city might escape. It might spill out into the world. Then the whole world would be like the city.

The Aurulent Empire is alleged to have besieged the City of Infinite Ruin purely in order to repair its walls. Legends claim that they sent in crack troops of suicide bricklayers and combat masons while the (at that time) corrupt and nihilistically mad rulers of the city hurled bucket of their own boiling piss at them and tried to loose the City of Infinite Ruin out into reality.

Eventually the Aurulent Empire took the city and drove its evil rulers deep, deep into the interior, from whence they have never returned (but they might), and then ruled peacefully and wisely for a millennia until they too gradually passed away into the interior (where they might still be).

But they did leave the walls in very good repair and subsequent occupiers have worked hard to keep them that way.

SO, what happens to the space between the buildings? (You are probably asking.) As buildings are swept into the interior of the city, and as they occupy longer and longer roads, then surely the space between them should open up, after all, if all the buildings that occupied a 20 mile-round road are now pulled into a 50-mile round road, what happens to the extra 30 miles, is it just left empty?

A few things happen. Near the rim, where things are 'civilised' and the population is dense, new space is filled very quickly (space is at a premium) and new buildings and houses are squeezed into the tightest possible spaces, and then gradually expanded as they sink deeper into the city and space opens up (losing value all the time).

But even with that, since the space inside is infinite then the city of infinite ruins should really be the city of some ruins and a whole lot of nothing.

Deeper in, something slightly more disturbing happens, in areas outside regular human notice, places people won't look at, new ruins seem to auto-generate. And by new ruins, I mean ancient ruins, ruins that have always been there. Ruins that might have always been there. It's hard to tell. Old buildings gain extensions, a church might gain an extra nave, a house might get an extra wing, roofs will extend and merge, buildings and colonnades will grow.

This is deeply worrying and interesting to a variety of people, especially a class of people who exist only in the City of Infinite Ruin, the alternate-architectural-history-explorers, Alterologists or 'Alters', because when a building 'grows' as it falls into the depths of the city, it only grows in a way that extends or deepens the natural state of that building. It isn't just a case of random bits and pieces of architecture and stone being added on. Each incarnation of that building, or complex of buildings, or city block, or sub-city, or mega-city, depending on how deeply in it has fallen, is a coherent whole, making complete architectural and historical sense.

From some perspective.

The history of a building several miles in will not be the same as the history of that same building near the rim, though it will be related, grown from the same seed if you will. Perhaps the history of the same family, or the same god, or the same guild, from a world where they were just a little more powerful, able to build a slightly larger house or hall or church, and then as the building falls deeper and deeper into the city, it grows into a palace, a complex.

What if the same family or guild could build a quarter of a city? What if they could build a whole city? Still in the same style, still a coherent aesthetic whole, but now a metropolis of its own?

The Alterologists, or ‘Alters’ travel deep into the city to investigate these ruins and bring back their strange knowledge to the rim. (And irritate the fuck out of everyone by doing it.)


Textualists – Probably the closest to real historians and in many cases are former historians. These alters range about looking for inscriptions on buildings deep in the interior and try to use the knowledge gained from these to ‘contextualise’ or add meaning to ‘actual’ or ‘real’ history. They are generally despised by real historians who fight a constant war against ‘counterfactuals’ to keep what they regard as false evidence out of the historical record. Textualists are thought of as academics too flaky to make it as the real deal though, as they never tire of reminding people, a handful of genuinely brilliant historians have turned textualist and have used the evidence gathered thusly to write truly brilliant and field-defining works. All textualists think they are one of those few.

Portraitists – Pretty much just a textualist but for the arts. They follow statuary, mosaics and (much more rarely) portraiture and stained glass. The power balance between the portraitists and the academy is close to the inverse of the textualists as they are regarded as braver more interesting artists who actually get out of the house occasionally, though they are utterly despised by Original Artists who actually create their own work.

Stylists – What many people think of when they think of an ‘Alter’, essentially archaeologists of alternate realities whose histories they divine through full-spectrum study of the entirety of a ruin, building or city. They belong to an academic branch all their own and produce works following the development of entire alternate culture or world. This branch contains both geniuses and flakes and since their entire study is devoted to alternate realities it’s really hard to tell the difference between the two.

Adventurists – The ones who think it’s completely reasonable to search through ancient ruins several miles deep for treasures from an alternate world which are almost never there but which to be fair, have actually been found once or twice. Adventurists hate Adventurers since Adventurists all believe (or are meant to believe) that “it belongs in a museum!” Everyone thinks Adventurists are actually Adventurers and snarks over them A- never finding anything and B- secretly being in it for the money. “Adventurist” was actually a derogatory term invented by the Textualists but was adopted as a Badge of Honour. Adventurists are very chippy and they tend to pronounce the name of their faction with the quote-marks included. “Yes, I am indeed, an “Adventurist”.” 

Garde-Arriere – The Garde-Arriere are artists who explore the infinite ruins in a similar way to the Portraitists but with the deliberate idea of mixing up, altering or re-arranging what they find, bringing back ideas and examples of ancient alternate arts not just to make money from it, but to re-introduce them to current society specifically to create the greatest degree of shock and derangement. No-one is sure what to think of the Garde-Arriere. Original Artists suspect them of being secret conservatives and Portraitists and the Academies suspect them of being secret radicals (who they will then try to co-opt).

Originalists – Originalists search the infinite ruins for those single elements which were the true, original and real seeds for the endlessly-proliferating fractal histories that surround them. This requires a staggering amount of contextual knowledge gathered in extremely difficult conditions. They are regarded with distant respect by Historians as chief allies in the constant war against counterfactuals and with a degree of I’m-glad-someone-is-doing-this-and-equally-glad-it-isn’t-me piety. Originalists tend to be patient, serious and sad.

Alienists – Alienists believe a variety of scary shit that everyone else pretends to regard as crazy talk while at the same time secretly believing that its likely to be true. It’s not clear if the alienists are intelligent and imaginative enough to spot what no-one else can see, brave enough to say what no-one else will say or just dumb enough not to realise why no-one ever says it. Alienists suspect that the city rim they come from is not the only city in the City of Infinite Ruin. They think the endless parallel expansions into the interior are actually slightly off-parallel and that other city rims on other worlds may exist immeasurable distances away, slowly vomiting out their own alien histories into the infinite vastness of the Infinite Ruins, and that deep in the ruins these architectural histories may mash and merge, creating impossible hybrid cities on the borders of infinity. They also suspect that there may be all kinds of weird shit deep out in the depths, stuff like auto-nomadic shadow empires, reality breaches, places where the city fades into Nightmare or the Plane of Shadow etc. and so on. They are the kid that goes to paddle at the beach and keeps talking about kraken.


The City of Infinite Ruins sits opposite the Straights of the Ithsmus and controls one of the worlds major trading routes. Outside the city on the seaward side is an extensive system of docks and a canal system actually leads these docks through special gates inside the city walls.

No-one knows which empire or culture first began this process but it was clearly an incredibly stupid thing to do. Once a dock was created inside the walls it became part of the built environment and began gradually falling into the cities infinite depths like everything else, which meant they had to add more docks to keep it linked up, and so on.

So now a gigantic series of stagnant drydocks reaches deep, deep into the city, gradually spreading out like the branches of a tree into the infinite space.

No-one knows if the same force that grows new-old ruins replicates the stagnant water in the infinite docks or if all of it runs in from the sea, but no-one wants to take the chance. Since there is enough space in the infinite city to suck up all the oceans of the world, all new docks and canal systems have to be built so the water is pumped up into the city. If anything breaks down or a dock door fails the situation must be that what’s inside flows out instead of in. (Though there is a slight possibility of cyclic failures from deep in the city causing a flood effect which torrents infinite gallons of stagnant water out into the sea, but this is considered a lesser risk than maybe having the world’s oceans just drain away by mistake.)

There is a special ‘Dock Guard’ who are actually the oldest continual organisation in the city. They wear armour of rose and dusty gold and their entire duty is to repeatedly and ritually patrol the boundary between the docks inside the city and the docks outside the city, to make sure each is safe from the other. Their squires deal with aquatic traffic violations and police the Gondolas and the dock bureaucracy.

The relative wealth of the docks and the comparatively easy passage they afford into the interior means they form a counterweight to the power of the rim. There is a continual tug of war between the two powers and revolutions against the rim have often begun in the docks.

Ship captains who fail to pay their dock fees can be moved to the back of the queue for spaces in the canals, meaning they have to move their ships deeper into the stagnant water of the infinite docks. The deeper in they go the harder it is to make the money to move back up the queue and so some ships can wallow for ages, their crews fled and the Captains mad.

Some might even decide to sail the infinite docks deep into the interior and these ships do allow the government of the rim to keep in contact with those of its colonies in the depths. The docks though, might also be a method of passage for something coming from inside the city…


Many texts speak of the conditions deep inside the City of Infinite Ruins. It is dry, with few sources of water outside the infinite sewers, which are often filthy near the rim as all the waste of the polity is pumped into infinite space, but much cleaner further out.

The air is said to be deeply still and the overwhelming silence and emptiness is remarked on by all travellers, as well as the ease of getting lost in the infinite streets with most navigation being done by way-markers of particular buildings and general position being known by the drift between the aesthetic of different architectural cultures.

The interior feels little effect from the seasons, with winter and summer leaching away, resulting in a continual cool, temperate climate.

It’s possible to force agriculture in the interior. First a ruin must be demolished or a street pulled up to form a field. Soil may have to be gathered from the gutters of local buildings. In some cases an overgrown park forms an easy start.

Then dryland crops like winter wheat, corn and beans can be grown using water from the infinite sewers, though yields are low, keeping most efforts at the subsistence level, if that.

Nomadic cultures can feast off birds like pigeons, which feed on the plants growing in the cracks in the buildings, or on goats, which are expert at climbing the walls to reach grazing, but even so, the numbers that can be supported are vanishingly small per area. It is a hard life to lead.

In some places large areas of parkland can provide concentrations of agricultural power and plants grow quite vibrantly in the paving stone cracks near the infinite docks, making these a favoured position.

Deep voyagers into the interior report all kinds of crazy stories, storms coming from inside the city, nomadic archeo-cultures, dimension-bending squid living in the infinite docks (effectively the size of an ocean a hundred miles in) and all the usual alienist claptrap, best ignored by normal decent people.


The people of the City of Infinite Ruin live on the borders of an incalculable and impossible interdimensional wilderness in which anything might exist. They are really good at not thinking about it. A kind of survival-based delirious narrow-mindedness leads them to spend lifetimes struggling for social positions, cramming themselves closer and closer to the rim, in ever greater crowds jammed into ever closer spaces, as if the density of people will somehow force out the annihilating silence of the city deeps.

They are fond of cults of mediocrity and knick-knacks and doily’s are popular. The room of an average teenager can look like that of a crafting-obsessed pensioner from our culture and the room of an actual pensioner can look like that pf a very brisk Miss Haversham.

People are big on hobbies and the hobbies are never very interesting.

The ‘cultural’ life of the city goes on at right-angles to this enforced mediocrity and is resentfully tolerated, most of the time as a major source of the cities wealth and fame. At various times different sumptuary laws have forced the different Alterologists into ritual masks and robes of various kinds (apart from Alienists who are not required to wear them but insist on doing so anyway) and these laws have never been repealed.

Sometimes the psychic pressure gets too much and there are terrifying pogroms of various intellectual groups.

Silence and space and emptiness are death, and, more importantly, low status. Busyness, loudness, crowds and density are life, and, more importantly, high status.

Most people in the City of Infinite Ruin lie about their address (placing it closer to the rim) and lie about where they were born in the same way. Everyone wants to be close to the wall and “having your eyes on the rim” is a positive thing to say about someone, indicating ambition, drive, will to exist and wise close-mindedness.

Being from the depths is bad, and being from the deep depths is somehow devilish. Everyone is deeply aware that that only thing keeping them away from some kind of interior barbarian or impossible alternate self is simply distance. (The possibility of doppelgangers is a major source of hysteria in the city and a general doppelgangerphobia exists. It is not good to look too much like someone else.) Though this is true for all nations, and though the distance between the people of the city and whatever might threaten them is actually probably much larger than for any other nation in the world, (as the interior is infinite), it’s still somehow worse because they are inside the city.

Nevertheless, the city does have the relics of infinite culture and an extensive amount of immigration. With infinite space inside, anyone from anywhere in the world who wants to escape somewhere can go there, and anyone is welcome, so long as they go straight to the back of the queue, out in the palatial and silent slums, miles from the rim, and then work their way up.

As much as they have their “eyes on the rim”, the people of the City of Infinite Ruin generally don’t have their minds anywhere beyond the rim. People who leave and then come back are pitied. They will have to start all over again at the back of the queue, and why would you want to leave anyway? This is the greatest city in the world!