Wednesday, April 28, 2021

Productive Scab-picking: On Oppressive Themes in Gaming

Preamble -- On Helicopters and Hugos:

Last year, an author named Isabel Fall wrote an amazing milSF story in Clarkesworld magazine, now titled "Helicopter Story," but previously "I Sexually Identify As An Attack Helicopter."

 Fall took a ugly transphobic 'joke' and turned it into an amazing, provocative, and thoughtful story. She also suffered a great deal because of it. People reacted badly to the title - which makes sense, given the incredibly hurtful associations the phrase has. Unfortunately, this also led to Fall receiving a lot of harassment herself. She pulled the story from Clarkesworld about two weeks after it dropped, and was also forced to out herself as being trans, in part of responding to the accusations of transphobia leveled at her.

Helicopter Story is not currently available online anymore, but if that changes, I'll edit in a link here. It recently became a Hugo finalist for best Novelette. (Disclosure here: I'm one of the people who nominated it, and I'm really happy that it's up for a Hugo.)

* * *

Fall's Hugo nomination generated a Twitter thread here from Elizabeth Sandifer: 

One thing that I don’t think has been discussed enough around Isabel Fall or in general is that there are two diametrically opposed visions of how to write queer literature. Let’s call them hugboxing and scab-picking, and do a quick thread...

The basic divide between hugboxing and scab-picking comes in how they engage with queer oppression. Hugboxing imagines its absence, creating safer, better worlds. Scab-picking probes its wounds in deliberately painful and uncomfortable ways. 

This got me thinking about the way that this is treated in the games we create and play. Sandifer's discussion of hugboxing and scab-picking (loaded terms! but ones I'm going to continue with for now) is centered in queer literature, but I think that the two poles have resonance for treatment of other axes of oppression (racism, sexism, imperialism, and colonialism for example). In games, it's a bit trickier than the binary state that Sandifer proposes -- instead of a single creation being put forth to be taken on its own merits (with an audience able to take or leave it as desired), you're dealing with a shared group interaction, often iterated over multiple instances. People's thresholds and goals are going to vary, both between people and sometimes within the same person from session to session.



I think I fall on the scab-picking side of the spectrum, by and large - but I reiterate that it's a spectrum, and that operating on one side doesn't mean that the other doesn't have very valid outlook and uses. The gaming projects I'm most proud of (Lorn Song of the Bachelor and the forthcoming Haunted West adventure "Home is the Hangman") both fall on the scab-picking side regarding colonialism and racism...but I've veered away from the most recent editions of Paranoia, a game I have significant history with, in part because the decision to rebrand Alpha Complex's enemy du jour from "Communists" to "terrorists" felt a bit too on-the-nose for me, given what it felt like going through high school post 9/11. Everyone's got a different line that they will draw.

* * *

First, some perspectives from other thoughtful folks regarding the valid role of presenting oppression in a gaming context.

Another Twitter thread here from Chris Kutalik (creator of the Hill Cantons and my longtime GM): 

@ChrisKutalik: I sympathize with the motivation, the need for a clean bright shiny place for our brains to go when we roll weird shaped dice. One that doesn’t have women treated as chattel and the layers of racist projection...

 But I also think it’s an ironically reactionary impulse, the need to project heroism and romanticized ideals of stabbing living things with sharp things...I do draw the world of the Hill Cantons in a society I wouldn’t—and shouldn’t—want to live in. A rich one (I hope) with the pervasive weirdness, ugliness that the European medieval world was along with a more complicated society than many give it credit for.

And this discussion from Pam Punzalan (TheDovetailor) and TrooperSJP (Academic Foxhole):

@TheDoveTailor: The Philippines was colonized four times, and has a long history of trans-cultural exchange with upwards of three nations via trade prior to the Spanish coming around. If you're saying we should not deal with colonialism in our stories, you're telling us we have no story.

@AcademicFoxhole: Everytime I hear: No POC wants to read about racism I think: Toni Morrison? Everytime I hear: No woman wants to read about sexual assault I think: Margaret Atwood? No Queer person wants to read about homophobia? Quentin Crisp? There is power in being able to define my own story.

And of course, Zedeck Siew's thread here:

@ZedeckSiew: Firstly: "D&D is colonialist" is similar to "the English language is colonialist".

If your method of decolonising RPGs is to abandon D&D- some folks abandon English; they don't want to work in the language of the coloniser. More power to them!

...[I]t's an error to "decolonise D&D" by scrubbing such content from the game. That feels like erasure; like an unwillingness to face history / context; like a way to appease one's own settler guilt. Remember: if you -white or PoC- live in the West, or in an Asian urban centre (say), you are already complicit in colonialist / capitalist (they are inextricably linked) behaviour.

Removing such stuff from RPGs might let you feel better. But won't change what you are. 

I think it more truthful *and* more useful, to not avert one's eyes from D&D's colonialism.

The fact that going forth into the hinterland to seek treasure and slay monsters is a thing and *fucking fun* tells us valuable things about the shape and psychology of colonialism.  

Finally, a quote from Chris Spivey's Harlem Unbound:

Harlem Unbound is built on the concept of tackling issues head-on. Some say Lovecraft was 'of his time,' but we know that his racism was even worse than that... So what does the popularity of his work, built on racism, say about our current society? And, how do you address the popular work which is so tethered to his reprehensible world view? We can't change the past, but we can tear it down and rebuild it into something that focuses on bringing us together. This can only be done by facing ugly truths. 

* * *

So. How do we, as creators, responsibly deal with and tackle those ugly truths Chris mentions? How does one pick at those scabs in a productive manner? A few of my takes:

1. Stay Fluid

As mentioned, people's thresholds and goals re: the level of oppression that they are willing to deal with in gaming are likely to fluctuate. Sure, one can have a Session Zero where some baselines are hashed out, but those can change on even a session-by-session basis. The real-life people around the table come first, and sometimes that means further check-ins or even rerouting session plans because of a spike in player discomfort. Make space for that, and make space for people to voice discomfort.

"The Feral Shore" - section of the HC campaign
where this story went down
Personal example: I had a really bad time with a Hill Cantons game session a few years back, triggered by one player's actions in particular but rooted in discomfort with some of the colonialist facets of play that were being brought to the fore. It's not a thing I would have thought to flag when joining the campaign or even when the domain-game-heavy phase of play began, and I didn't realize how uncomfortable I was feeling or why until I had some time to unpack it afterwards. This led to some tough-but-clear conversations over G+ regarding what each of us was willing to play through and deal with at the table, and how we, as a group, felt comfortable progressing. The individual session was rough, but ultimately led to a better perspective on where we were at as a group. 

Folks may move from being down to pick at scabs to needing to strongly divert away, and back again. Listen to where they're at, and try to accommodate. What that accommodation looks like may vary! If you as GM are preparing a heavy scab-picking session and a player needs something more hugboxy (or vice versa), maybe change the dynamics of the session...OR hold off on the session for a while, or maybe change the player composition for the session so that both parties can get the gaming experience they're seeking. There's no one right answer here, and the answer definitely isn't always "change your intended work." 

Using safety tools may help for this, but those are generally something for after things have gone sideways, not a replacement for fluidity in terms of game approach. Further, not all safety tools are going to match with all tables. Just saying "oh, we have these tools, we're fine" isn't enough; you've got to think about these things before problems occur at the table.

2. Work with Intentionality

"Broken Blade," Evlyn Moreau
One of the critiques often levelled at works reproducing systems of oppression is that it's all fictional - so why include these elements that serve to remind folks of real-world oppression? I think there's certainly some truth to this; our imagined worlds aren't limited by the scars of history, and don't need to go down those paths and recreate those pains in-game. But if one wants to engage with those issues in game, then they are going to have to come up in some form. 

So, if you're going to bring in those elements of oppression into your setting or your game, fine -- but make a deliberate choice to do so. Think about the implications on a societal level, and what dealing with those means for players. Have some thought beyond "oh, things were bad in (Renn Faire Fantasy Times), let's put it in that way, it'll add atmosphere." You're making a conscious choice to include this material in your setting. Is it being presented in a meaningful way? Is there personal experience that you're able to draw on when including this material? 


3. Know Yourself, Know Your Audience

Are you creating material for your home table, or planning on publishing this for others to interact with? If you're tackling material that's outside of your personal experience, have you thought about how you're going to make sure you don't hit some of the pitfalls associated with that? If you're planning on publishing something that's centering on experience outside of your own, are you the right person to be tackling this work? 

And even if you're just focusing on something for your home table, are you sure that your crew is on board with the material you're bringing in? If you can, try to touch base beforehand and make sure folks are on the same page. 

4. Take Your Lumps -- But Know Who's Talking

If you're going to put issues of oppression in your work, you have to be willing to listen, sincerely listen, if and when folks call you out about the treatment of a given issue. And this is hard! It's even harder if someone calls you out in an angry fashion, because it can feel like they're coming after you and your work personally. 

If someone's calling you out? Try to listen. Because that's often someone who legitimately wants to see you do better. And even if you don't agree with their takeaway and you still think you did it right, you might have a better feel for how you want to handle a similar issue in the future. But at the same time, also pay attention to who's critiquing you, and the substance of those critiques. Most are going to be in good faith, but there are folks who thrive on call-outs for Internet clout.* Listen to what people are saying, but don't assume that they're automatically correct. 

Fall's example is on point here. Many of the critiques she faced were good-faith critiques, understandably on edge from the (original) title and the red flags that it raised for people. Some critiques went a hell of a lot further than that. I think that while the critiques may have been made in good faith, the story was legitimate and should not have been pulled; she was right to pen it and publish it. 

* * *

These are not easy things to do. But I think they are necessary if we're going to create thoughtfully. It can feel like a lot - particularly when the context for folks reading this is likely far more towards "RPG as fun group problem-solving game" instead of "RPG as deep raw emotional catharsis" or "RPG as art piece." 

At the same time, I think that even games focused on the fun problem-solving side of things have the potential to tackle painful material in a thoughtful way, whether it's in a satirical or direct format. We can walk and chew gum at the same time here. If the fictional worlds we're envisioning are to have axes of oppression within them, then the least we can do is put time and effort into making sure those worlds are thoughtful and deliberate, that the scab-picking is productive. One of the strengths of the people I hang with has long been the compelling and fascinating settings that folks have put together. I see this as just taking the next logical, necessary step. 

Y'all with me?

(Special thanks to Yoshi and Momatoes for providing feedback on this post.)

*Call-outs can be necessary sometimes! But they can also be a pernicious thing, because you feel like you're doing the righteous thing and you're getting positive attention and reinforcement. If you're going to call someone out on bad behavior, think about it, make sure you know why you're doing it, and make sure you're centering the folks actually harmed by the bad behavior. I've tried to keep this framework in mind, and I think I've done a decent job on this front? But it can be tricky. 

Wednesday, April 21, 2021

Landsknecht Link Round Up, 2021

While I try to put together two actual posts of my own, here are a few recent(ish) OSR blog posts that I thought were interesting/compelling, and a little bit about why I thought that they were worth checking out.

  • All Dead Generations: So You Want To Build a Dungeon: This is a series of tips on how to construct the epitome of the Classic Dungeon Crawl, with discussion on some major features that designers ought to consider. Gus has been thoughtfully discussing some of the components in this process for a while, but it's nice to see a one-stop codified "best practices and design tips" location. I'm definitely going to be checking this out when working on my next dungeon.

  • Realm of Zhu: Some Ludological Influences on the early adoption of Dungeons & Dragons Etc.: Hopping into the Jon Petersen Playing At The World/The Elusive Shift zone of assessing influences on proto-D&D, Zhu looks at the influence of Tony Bath-style wargames and the board game Mastermind. I've been interested in the Tony Bath school of play for a while, ever since Hill Cantons blogged about it a while back, but I hadn't expected the connections that Zhu is drawing re: Mastermind. My preference in selecting these blog entries is generally more towards "building forward" than retrospectives, but I think that this entry is worthwhile because it generates some fruitful questions: are there still useful tools to be gleaned from the wargaming side of things? Are there changes in game design on the adversarial boardgame side that can provide some useful frameworks for bringing into OSR-style play?

  • Le Chaudron Chromatique: Some advice to represent trans characters in game: Evlyn M has some thoughts about how to portray trans characters in one's gaming and worldbuilding, both tropes to avoid but also areas that she recommends making a point to think about and fill in.

  • Le Chaudron Chromatique: Setup of my new OSE campaign: Hey, while you're at the Chromatic Cauldron, also check out this post regarding the setup and framework for a new campaign Evlyn's putting together. I really like these sorts of posts - they let you see a fellow GM's worldbuilding and design framework. It's always interesting to get a feel for how other GMs are approaching their campaigns, and getting a brief taste of the ideas they've got percolating. In this particular instance, Evlyn's put together a neat setup envisioning adventurers picking through the ruins of a vanished Elven civilization as their forest enters a perpetual autumn, while a dread wizard-king takes over the world in the background.

  • Mazirian's Garden: Injury and the Abstract Combat Round: Ben's been putting together a new OSR ruleset, Jorune: Evolutions. In the course of this design process, he's been dropping some absolutely great posts looking at various subsystems and facets of play, and thinking seriously about how they can be improved for what he wants at the table. This entry deals with the traditional combat round of OD&D and presents an alternative to try and increase flavor/dynamic feel of combat by abstracting out some of the details and stepping further away from the "one roll = one stab" zone.

  • Gundobad Games: Dressing Your Monsters: Raging Swan Press Monstrous Lairs I & II [REVIEW]: I was really impressed by this review, because it actually does the work to examine "can this help me put together better ideas than what I'm coming up with on my own?" and provides some extremely useful thoughts on how a GM can use this to help prep their own material.

  • From The Sorcerer's Skull: Guns of Middle-Earth: No, people haven't gone back in time to arm Sauron's armies with AK-47s (at least in this entry; Mary Gentle's 'Grunts' might beg to differ). In Guns of Middle-Earth, Trey takes a look at some of the Victorianisms of Middle-Earth and muses on how to heighten the 19th-century feel. Middle-Earth feels very much like a 'closed setting' to me, so I do very much appreciate seeing takes on how to remix it and present a fresh setting to engage with.

  • DIY and Dragons: Tolkienian Science Fantasy -- Replacing the PC Species: In a similar vein to Trey's post, Anne's take on replacing trad Tolkien species with some more traditional SF species (from Trek and Babylon 5) and imagining the changes in tone that would come from this. Anne coins the brilliant term 'French vanilla setting' here -- something that clearly draws upon the basic format of Trad Fantasy, but simultaneously brings something new, extra, and unique to the table.

  • DIY and Dragons: Advice from the Blogosphere in 2020: I'll close out my survey post with this survey post from Anne, which catalogs some of the best advice posted on blogs in 2020.
So! What have y'all been reading or working on in the OSR sphere? Anyone planning on participating in the Megadungeon Jam over on itch.io?

(Crossposted from RPG.net)

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Renewal and Inspiration

The past few months have had me in an odd place re: gaming and publishing, and I've definitely been feeling burnt out. But stepping away from Twitter to get away from The (gaming) Discourse has been extremely refreshing, and last night's session in the Hill Cantons has helped a lot to rekindle my excitement about this hobby.

Along with slugging away on the Slumbering Ursine Dunes omnibus and the sequel to Lorn Song of the Bachelor, I'm also starting to get some wind back in my sails for my own projects.

I've started working on the Gygax 75 challenge, a framework for putting together one's own campaign setting. It's a way for me to channel the big inchoate Feelings about Legacy of the Bieth and put them into a gameable format that other people can actually use to run their own games. Unfortunately, I got stuck on the hexmap side of things. I've had trouble with creating hex setups on my own that felt well-designed and realistic, but part of me balked at using in-depth creation of the sort that Rob Conley has presented. (No slight against Rob intended by any means! It's a great series, but my heart quails at the full process.) 

I thought about using something like Chgowiz's Three Hexes but that framework also doesn't quite fit with part of how I've already conceptualized Legacy of the Bieth. Much to my surprise, I've found that an AD&D 2e product, the World Builder's Guidebook, is hitting the sweet spot for my design needs. It's still pretty top-down design, but presents enough of a scaffolding that I think I can abstract the highest level components, drill down to regional setup, and still get something that will make it easier for future development and design. 

I'm immensely proud of my existing editorial work on Hydra Coop products, but it's a separate field of excitement to move forward on my own creations. Relatedly, my first adventure for publication, "Home is the Hangman," will be coming out with the release of the upcoming Haunted West RPG by Darker Hue Studios. Chris is doing an amazing job on HW and I'm really glad to have contributed to the project. I will also be appearing in a Haunted West livestream starting later this month.

Finally, I spoke with Paco over at GMS Magazine about the OSR a few weeks ago - take a look!


So a question for all y'all - what are you working on? What's been tricky for you, and what's been flowing well?

Wednesday, September 23, 2020

Rush In and Die, Dogs! -- 4e Minions in B/X

 Inspired by a query from ZharethZhen on Reddit.

Stormtroopers advancing; deleted scene from Return of the Jedi4e D+D introduced the minion - a variant of a monster defined by having just a single hit point. This has utility in classic D+D frameworks for modelling hard-hitting groups of creatures that can nevertheless be defeated easily -- even more easily than a the baseline monster with minimum values on its hit dice. (An ogre, at 4+1 HD, will have a minimum of 5 HP, but an ogre minion only 1.)

Adjusting a classic D+D statblock to reflect a single hit point is trivial. But how would one value a minion for purposes of XP assessment? It doesn't seem to make sense to rate them as either a 1/2 or 1 HD creature if they're hitting more strongly and have special abilities (flight, save-or-die, etc.). 

So here's how I might address the issue for B/X-alikes.

  • Monsters use d8 for HD in B/X, which averages out to 4.5 HP per HD.
  • B/X monster XP is based on both the base HD and any special abilities.
  • To calculate XP for a minion, divide minion HD by 4 to determine base HD, but add special ability XP based on the original HD. The dangerous nature of abilities from the higher-tier monster is reflected, but the HD-based XP is reduced to reflect the vastly reduced hit point capacity.

Have you used minions in your classic D+D? What do you see as guidelines for how to implement them effectively, or if at all?

 


Saturday, August 1, 2020

War at the Table

I just finished up a GenCon Online panel, War at the Table, with Basheer Ghouse. You should all go check out Basheer's work here. This was a heck of a lot of fun, and I really loved talking with Basheer and the folks chiming in with questions. 

Take a look, see what you think:


(And if this is of interest, I'm still working on my "Wargaming Ain't A Dirty Word" post!)

Special thanks to Richard Ruane for helping us majorly with backend streaming stuff, and @LilRedAlchemist for an amazing organizing effort for PoC presenters at cons. This would seriously not have happened without her. 

The presentation that we were using (and our sources list) is available here.

Tuesday, October 29, 2019

Awlad-i-Dimagh (Child of the Mind): Troika Background

Axes + Orcs has been tirelessly diving into the Troika design space, creating oodles of backgrounds. He got me inspired to write this up and submit it to the ongoing TroikaJam over at itch.io. It's an update of my original Psychic Warrior class. This feels a bit smoother, at least.

This is available in PDF format over at itch.io, but it's duplicated here for ease of access.

Awlad-i-Dimagh (Child of the Mind)

 
Original energy arc photo by Blaise Frazier
released under
GNU Free Documentation License

I don’t know if you agreed when the recruiters came. Or when they put you under the knife and started mucking around in your brain. I don’t know what they told you about the powers you’d gain - or what you’d have to do to keep using them.

But I do know that you’re on a deadline now. Using these powers catches up to you. The shakes keep coming faster and faster. And when your ticket’s up, you know what to expect - a flare of pain and horror and power before your light is snuffed forever.

Guess you’ve got some time to kill. (Don’t let these shakes go on…)

Possessions:
  • Tattered Uniform
  • 3 Doses, Psy-Drugs
  • Brass Straw for drinking cerebrospinal fluid
Advanced Skills:
  • 3 Psychic Blade
  • 2 Soldiering
  • 2 Biofeedback
  • 2 Stave Off Inevitable Burnout
  • 1 Memory Leech
  • 1 Spectral Assassin
  • 1 Fight Past the Shakes 
Special: Psy-drugs (expensive), stealing someone’s memories, drinking cerebrospinal fluid, or devouring a sentient’s brain all boost Stave Off Inevitable Burnout. Psy-drugs boost it to 3 and last for a week. Memory leeching boosts it to 4 and lasts for a week. Cerebrospinal fluid or eating a brain boost it to 4 and last for a month.

The Awlad-i-Dimagh Background is an independent production by Humza Kazmi and is not affiliated with the Melsonian Arts Council.

Tuesday, August 13, 2019

Landsknecht Link Roundup, July/Aug

Ba Chim seal of approval!

(Art by Dreadbeasts)
I posted this on RPG.net but it bears reposting (and expanding) here:
  • Not quite RPG related, but Hydra heads Trey, Jason, and Robert have launched the Bronze Age Book Club podcast, for jawing about comics. Check it out here.
     
  • David Schirduan ran a series of interviews with some of the folks in the SWORD DREAM / *DREAM space (including me), discussing our perspectives and how we want to see this space grow.
     
  • Relatedly, Dream Jam (a Sword Dream game jam ) just wrapped up - you can see the entries here. I think this is the first large set of material releasing in the *DREAM space, and it's exciting to see! Many of the submissions skew a bit more to the indie side than I generally roll with, but I'm also excited to see new design influences entering our space and hopefully having some fruitful dialog.
     
  • Cavegirl (the Evil High Priestess of the OSR) starts laying out a system for creating magic items based on supernatural resonances. I'd like to see more detail on the creation process and system details, but the writeup of affinities and their effects is excellent. She's also got the Wounded Daughter advancement, which is raw and from the heart and the first time I've seen a "this PC does not die" mechanic in an OSR game that has felt really compelling to me.
     
  • Throne of Salt has a great post on the Book of the Night, discussing the universe as envisioned by Abd al-Hazra. Certainly not going to pass up an Arabic grimoire post, even if this one might be a bit more Lovecrafty than historical.
     
  • Lizardman Diaries has a compilation of all of their Infinigrad posts, in advance of launching a Patreon. Lots of handy city-related generators, guilds, shopping, random tables... I particularly like the automated augmentation generator (though I sigh a bit at the name "Fantasypunk") and the guild generators, because factions are great. Very good for "strange fantasy city" work.
     
  • Gundobad Games continues the "Settings with Strata" discussion, this time discussing how leaving voids in a setting's backstory can allow for fruitful development and increased depth as different factions tell their own histories. Worth synthesizing with this Hill Cantons discussion of information-as-treasure.
     
  • Evlyn M rewrites an earlier campaign framework of a witches' coven, with a town-centric sandbox and table-generated setting. Pushes back against transphobic components of prior inspiration. (Warning: some NSFW art - stylized nudity, non-sexualized.)
     
  • Against the Wicked City has this pairing of English literary authors and the Warhammer armies they'd play, which is goofy/amazing enough that it absolutely has to be included here.
     
  • While we're on the subject of Warhammer influence, Uncaring Cosmos has a writeup on the British OSR. I think that there's a lot more overlap between the A-OSR and B-OSR than they suggest - WFRP and GW creations seem to exert a great deal of weight in the OSR's aesthetics of ruin - but it's still worth a read.
     
  • Tarsos Theorem has a handy-dandy Mothership PC generator. Be prepared to shout "let's rock" and/or discuss the bonus situation.
     
  • Goatman's Goblet created a Knave's Guide to Eberron, adapting the 3e setting to Ben Milton's Knave RPG. Despite the deep love many folks have for the setting, I've always struggled to get into Eberron; this looks like a short, sweet, and easy way to dig in.
     
  • The Alexandrian argues that the bowdlerization of Palace of the Silver Princess marked the ending of the "old school spirit" in TSR design. Strong concur that Jean Wells was frickin' robbed, and that we lost a lot of potential by TSR pulling her work in favor of the Moldvay rewrite. See also Grognardia's interview with Jean Wells, Part 1 and Part 2.
     
  • This last one is from 2017, but I just discovered it and really like it, so in it goes! Trilemma's post on Awesome vs Tangible Resolution just helped me describe better what I like about my preferred playstyle.
     
  • POCGamer's got a good read on decolonization and integration within D+D. While POCGamer's post focuses on WotC's treatment of D+D, his comments are still handy and useful for considering how we construct other, hopefully more compelling, settings.
     
  • Papers and Pencils just posted a public-facing version of On A Red World Alone, a super-light treatment of post-apocalyptic Mars. Worth checking out, and reminiscent of Rogues and Reavers's Savage World of Krul setting from back in the day (currently hibernating and unavailable).
     
  • Shoe Skogen has been running video interviews with folks on Hey! My Friend Made A Thing! They've uploaded interviews with David Schirduan (who just released his Bone Marshes module) and with me, and there are more to come from folks at Gen Con.

Thursday, June 6, 2019

A Spectre (7+3 HD) Is Haunting the Flaeness: Towards a Leftist OSR

    Special thanks to Kazumi Chin, Fiona Geist, Camilla Greer, Michael Lombardi, and Robert Parker for their feedback and guidance.

    The design space associated with OSR games is often assumed to be inherently reactionary, an interest in classic games coinciding with a desire for social regression and oppression. Setting the incorrect nature of that assumption aside, I started wondering what an explicitly leftist OSR framework might look like. This pondering was accelerated by a query on the same topic that Mabel Harper* raised on Discord a while back.

    This isn't untrodden territory. Some past must-reads from others: Marx + Monsters: A Radical Leftist Fantasy Sandbox, City of Brass "West Marxes"

    Inspired by Marx + Monsters, I concluded that a leftist OSR framework would move away from a simple advancement through gold route, and instead work through improving the community that PCs reside in. The approach I list below is strongly influenced by Mayfair Games's 1993 RPG Underground, a game centered around superhero-veterans attempting to improve their communities as the world around them went mad.

    This is a potential new framework for experience gain that a GM can use to frame a social format for their campaign. It assumes that PCs are still taking on adventurous projects, but seeks to present greater ties to the communities that they are a part of.

    Communities and Experience

    1. PCs start out as members of the same community. While they may have wildly different origins and backgrounds, they're all united by current location and ties. (This can be a city or town, or even a neighborhood. For higher powered games, a province or nation might be apropos.)

    Figures outside the tombs of the caliphs, Cairo, Egypt.
    Coloured lithograph by L. Haghe after D. Roberts, 1848.
    Credit: Wellcome Collection. Public Domain
    2. This community is assessed on six stats:

    Identity - How strongly the community identifies as a group together, with a shared culture. Identity 4 or 5 might be a newborn boomtown, Identity 14 or 15 might be a longstanding ethnic enclave in a larger city.
    Prosperity - Whether the community is economically stable. Are folks able to get by comfortably? Are folks living hand-to-mouth?
    Safety - Are people physically safe in this community? Is their security under threat?
    Governance - The breadth and scope of government function. How well do governing institutions respond to the requirements of the community?
    Legitimacy - Is the government regarded as representative of the community's people? Are these seen as interlopers or leaders?
    Sustainability - Is the community's usage of resources sustainable in the long run? Is support infrastructure properly available for the residents?

    These stats are rated on a 3-18 scale, just as character stats are. The GM may either work with the PCs to collaboratively generate a community, as in Beyond the Wall or Dream Askew/Apart, may assign stats to a pre-existing community setting, or may roll 3d4 (not 3d6) for each stat.

    3. During downtime, between adventures, PCs may place money and time into raising one of the categories. They must describe how they are using their resources and time to combat problems or improve conditions for their community.

    Ex: Shaghab and Arslan live in a community with Legitimacy of 6. They decide to improve this stat by ousting the famously corrupt qadi, or chief judge, and seeking to install someone a bit better. Shaghab describes how she'll be spending three weeks organizing street protests against the qadi as he attempts to rule on cases, shouting out the stories of those he's screwed over, while Arslan will try to force the local governor to be confronted with this evidence of the population's unrest. They hope that through this, the governor will consider removing the qadi and replacing him with someone new. While the replacement's unknown, Shaghab and Arslan believe that they'll be able to influence the selection and pressure the governor to find a more virtuous replacement.

    Tizemt lives in the same community, but they think that trying to replace the qadi is merely supplanting one outside leader for another. Instead, they decide to spend a month organizing a community council that will resolve disputes outside the scope of the qadi and avoid having to appear before the corrupt pustule. Tizemt sees this as improving the community's Governance rating (conveniently, also 6), but it might also apply to Identity or maaaaybe even Legitimacy as well. Tizemt plans to support this council through holding meetings and determining who among the community will have sufficient stature to be seen as legitimate decision-makers.

    4. The GM assesses their plan, mentally considers counterarguments and forces that will operate to protect the status quo, and places it in a matrix framework to assess how effective this is at addressing the issue in question. (See: Matrix Games.)

    Strength of Argument
    Adjustment to Roll
    Very Strong Argument
    Roll 5d6 against stat
    Strong Argument
    Roll 4d6 against stat
    Average Argument
    Roll 3d6 against stat
    Weak Argument
    Roll 2d6 against stat
    Very Weak Argument
    Roll 1d6 against stat
    Abysmal Argument
    Roll fails!


    Ex. The GM thinks that Shaghab and Arslan's plan isn't too great -- aside from trusting in the benevolence of the governor, they also don't know that the governor and qadi have been working together to feather both nests, and that the qadi has some compromising information on the governor. But significant enough street protests might be able to sway the governor, if it becomes clear that the city won't quiet down until the qadi is removed. It's not the best thought out and there are hidden factors, but it's not completely unreasonable - the GM considers it a weak argument. They get a 4 on 2d6 against the community’s Legitimacy 6 -- the plan fails.

    The GM thinks that Tizemt's plan is more likely to receive results, since there isn't any hidden information in play, the scope of the change is enough to merit increasing the Governance stat, and Tizemt's player has identified prominent NPCs who they think have established a solid community reputation, even in the cynical Vancian atmosphere of the setting. While it's more likely to get off the ground since there's no particular opposition, having an alternative dispute structure may not necessarily take off and gain community support. It is considered an average argument.  They roll 3d6 against the community’s Governance 6 and get an 11 -- the plan succeeds!

    5. After the time and resources have been invested, the GM rolls against the stat as above:

    a) If the roll is above the stat in question, the PCs' effort is successful. The stat is raised by one, and all PCs who contributed to this effort gain experience: Firstly, each PC gains 1500 x the number of times the stat in question has been raised (so, 1500 XP for the first improvement, 3000 for the second, etc.) Secondly, they gain 1.5x the GP value of resources that were contributed as XP. Finally, the GM makes an explicit note of the method that the PCs have used to shape the community, to ensure that its effects continue to be remembered (and leveraged) as play continues.

    b) If the roll is under the stat in question, then the PCs have failed to improve conditions. The stat remains unchanged, and no experience is awarded. The GM keeps a tally of how much resources have been put into improving the stat in question; if the PCs manage to improve the stat later, then all PCs who have contributed (past or present) gain both the stat-raise experience, the benefit of 1.5x the resources of the successful attempt, and 0.5x the value of all prior resources put in, combining failed attempts with the most recent success. Long-term campaigns may not succeed at first, but they continue to build the foundation for subsequent success.
    Sao Paolo General Strike, 1917
    Unknown artist. Source: Wikimedia

    Note: Application of extra resources beyond the base requirements can grant rerolls on step 5, allowing a second chance at a failed increase: When a stat is 3-8, putting in an additional 3000 gp grants one reroll. When a stat is 9-12, this amount increases to 9000 gp. When a stat is 13-17, the amount increases to 27000 gp. Resources spent towards rerolls do not grant additional XP.

    6. After a stat has been increased successfully, the GM determines another stat to be tested against, and rolls 3d6 against that stat. (The statistic is either determined randomly, or emerges naturally from the nature of the improvement.) If the GM rolls under, that stat decreases by 1, to a minimum of the lowest stat present (if the two lowest stats are both 5s, one cannot lower to a 4 through this method). Decreases represent additional challenges that have begun facing the community; the GM should generate new adventure hooks from these.

    Ex. Tizemt's plan to create a community council as an alternative to the qadi was successful. Given that the community council now serves as an alternative form of governance to the incumbent, the GM chooses to decrease Legitimacy by 1, since there is now uncertainty over who really rules the neighborhood.

    7. This process can be used on its own, but ideally it would also take into account dynamic shifts in the campaign from the actions of other parties. The next steps would be tying additional shifts to a Chaos Index (reflecting further changing dynamics outside the control of player characters) and ensuring that adventure hooks can also present opportunities for changing a community's stats, or at least laying the groundwork for doing so.

    As a community improves, it will become harder and harder for PCs to improve its stats. PCs may choose to expand their focus (working to improve a city instead of a neighborhood, a province instead of a city). If PCs elect to expand, they begin working to improve the larger polity's stats (which are likely worse than the smaller area PCs have been focusing on). Multiply experience gains by 5 each time a player group chooses to expand. Multiply reroll resource costs by ten (and adjust costs for open-ended resource allocation accordingly as well).

    Emma Goldman
    T. Kajiwara, 1911 (Wikimedia)
    Note: Players may try and solve some of the problems that their communities are facing through violence -- their PCs are likely still adventurers or revolutionaries, after all. GMs should be cautious with this. In some cases, violence may absolutely be necessary - but it is not enough, in and of itself, to generate long-term systemic change. There must be positive action taken in order to create a sustainable improvement in a community.

    Design Notes

    XP as Central Driver

    Much has been made about 1 GP = 1 XP as the core gameplay loop driver of TSR D+D. But XP for gold retrieved also winds up being something of a de facto capitalistic outlook as well. Success is driven by accumulation of individual wealth -- by an adventuring company, even! So what's a new framework that can be used for underpinning a leftist OSR campaign?

    Marx + Monsters raises two proposals: XP for direct redistribution of wealth, or XP awarded through communal questions (a la Dungeon World). I found neither of these satisfying for my purposes. Direct redistribution of wealth is basically a slightly tweaked version of "XP through spending," and communal questions seems too far at odds with the mechanical framework of OSR games. Admittedly the system proposed here is still related to "XP through spending," but ideally generates a bit more  thought and focus regarding how people attempt to help others.

    Campaign Framing

    "Standard" OSR gaming is focused around the pulp-inspired picaresque. James's bullet-point list of what that entails (assumption of PCs at the margins, a corrupt/venal society) can fit well into a radical framing. The change is that instead of focusing on the individual rise of a small group of people (PCs), this proposed campaign explicitly looks at how a community or society changes (through the actions of a small group).

    Community Creation and Interaction

    Beyond the Wall features group creation of the party's starting-hub town, and ties the player characters together with each other and the shared NPCs they've created. (See also the communal creation of Dream Askew/Dream Apart, which focus even more tightly on communal setting as play center.) I don't know that group setting creation is a necessary part of this framing, but it can help to provide players with a strong connection to the community they are a part of, combating the detachment with which PCs can sometimes view their surroundings.

    "You Know Nothing, Jon Snow"

    Obligatory pop culture references aside, I recognize that this is a game system that's discussing social resistance and community building: areas which are pretty important at the moment, and areas which which I don't have a full grounding in. While I'm slowly learning more on these topics, I also recognize that I have LOTS of blind spots regarding these areas. If I've said something boneheaaded here, please do let me know.  
      * Also check out Mabel's new music video!

      Bibliography:

      Leftist Design and Community Interaction
      Alternative Experience Takes

        Friday, April 5, 2019

        Tuesdays in the Cantons, Eight Years On.

        This past Tuesday was the weekly Hill Cantons game - the usual B/X ruleset, going through some of Chris's new material for Revoca Canton, the next planned expansion for the setting (now getting early release on Patreon). I got to the session a bit late, arriving as the group was planning on fighting two four-armed, four-legged guard constructs (unaffectionately dubbed 'Shaq-nus') guarding the top of a tower, hidden away in an extraplanar pocket dimension.
        Kirbyesque Space Chris
        by Jason Sholtis, commissioned by Robert Parker



        Tuesday was also the shuttering of Google Plus, the social network where Chris began running the campaign online in 2012, after starting it as a local game in 2008. The play report from my very first session is here. Despite the much-vaunted lethality of OSR play, four of the five PCs listed survived through five years of roughly weekly play (with the last PC dropping away from the campaign). Admittedly, if it weren't for the additional padding of the Death and Dismemberment table, Ba Chim would have been toast many times over.

        Tuesday night was one of those sessions where you spend fifteen real-time minutes discussing the logistics of getting the group up a tree to get to the top of the tower, and then another fifteen to twenty planning out how to go through the fight, while the fight itself wraps up in five or six rounds, lasting maybe seven minutes tops. After the fight, we caught our breath with some interesting puzzle-solving (how do you disarm this energy field trap guarding the top of the tower?*), and then getting our teeth into the exploration of the tower.

        Revoca Canton Player's Map - Gus L
        The tower exploration wound up having half the group drawing upon and synthesizing information (cultural aesthetics and sociology, cosmology, goofy in-references) across like a real-life decade of play to come to an understanding of the cosmological significance and framework of the tower and some of the weird shit we discovered. Then we wound up finding a greater understanding of the space through traditional murderhobo "grab everything you can" action, found a hidden component of the tower, and wound up getting a McGuffin through being polite, friendly, and enthusiastic about exploration and discovery.

        The combination of exploration, intuitive understanding and synthesis and spitballing, and strange-but-charming discussion with an NPC who would probably be parsed as an immediate existential threat in other games is a large part of what gets me interested in and passionate about RPGs, and why I've been coming back to the Hill Cantons for eight years on.

        So big thanks to you, Chris. And big thanks to the other players who've shared adventures in the Cantons over this time. It's been a major touchstone for my life. RIP to the Big Red Plus, but here's to new adventures and frontiers.

        * No spoilers, but the disarmament process involved lots of Kirby Krackle, it turns out. (Tragically neither Nadezda the ranger nor Burt the feral dwarf walked away with the Power Cosmic.)

        Tuesday, March 12, 2019

        Hymn to the Bow: the Hunters

        “Portrait de Jeune Noir avec Arc”
        Hyacinthe Rigaud.
        Special thanks to Jerry Grayson and Lloyd Gyan for their input and guidance.

        Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze! The Two-who-are-One, the Hunters Without Peer! Some say that they are eternal rivals, vying for greater success in the hunt. Some say that they are twins, or parent and child. Some that they are lovers, forever together. Many in Manden hold that they are the left and right hands of the Path to Justice, the Orisha Oshossi. Many in Sukiyya believe that the Two-who-are-One were once human before they crossed over into the world of the jinn. But who can know the truth of that otherworld?

        They are certainly not a god, despite the rumors that are sometimes spread. If they were a god, would the princes of Manden be required to swear to the Two-in-One before their ascension to the throne? It would be unthinkable for peers of the Caliphate to forsake Ar-Rahman.

        So. Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze are manifestly not gods. 

        But all agree that they are mighty spirits, the lords of brush and forest. They are the Hunters, knowers of the paths and the way. They see what is to come, and move towards the future and the past as they track their prey.

        Chief among the simbon, those who are favored in the eyes of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze, are the princes of Manden. But any who desire the favor of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze may swear to their service, should they be willing to abide by the Code of the Hunter.


        "Hunters of Mali" - Philippe Bordas.
        Membership Requirements

        An applicant who has proven their worth as a hunter may seek the blessing of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze. They must find a simbon, a Master Hunter, who is willing to sponsor them in the ranks of the donso, and then they must hunt and defeat an animal or beast that plagues a community. This hunt is a spiritual trial for the applicant, that will test not only their skills as a hunter, but their connection to the wilderness and their willingness to serve Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze.

        Once they have returned victorious, the simbon will ask them three questions:

        "Will you learn to obey Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze before your own father and mother?"
        "Will you learn that honor is never slavery, and give your honor and your submission to the simbon?"
        "Will you learn that kola nuts are good, tobacco is good, honey is sweet - and give them over to your master?"

        Once they have agreed, they are of the donso. The new initiates must obey the code of their brotherhood and annually fulfill its requirements, or be the sworn enemy of all other donso.

        Trappings

        Donso wear skin-tight leggings and bear cowrie shells upon their cloak or blouse as the marks of a hunter. Simbons of great prowess likely carry a pouch of goatskin, the sassa, filled with sand and cowries for use in divination. They favor the spear, the bow, and the rifle. Simbons are likely to bear a hunter's whistle, to signal with others of the band.

        Hunter's shirt. Mali.
        Date unknown. Minneapolis Institute of Art.
        Mechanics

        Prerequisites
        A character seeking to become a donso must have a ranged attack bonus of +5 or greater without any magic assistance - only a combination of their base attack and any Dexterity modifications. They must gain the sponsorship of a simbon who will continue to sponsor and bear responsibility for their candidates.

        Initiation

        After becoming a donso a character continues to level normally, but gains the following benefits in addition to their standard gained abilities at a given level (see below).

        Benefits

        A donso character gains the benefits of the skills listed below when they achieve the level in question. No additional XP is required; however a donso must always adhere to the requirements listed below, or else the favor of Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze is withdrawn. 
        • Peerless Trackers: Improve base hunting skill by 1-in-6, 3 points, or 15% depending on your game system of choice (1st)
        • Herbs of the Healer: 25 + (level * 3)% chance in wilderness to find herbs that can grant a second saving throw vs poison (1st)
        • Future Paths: may cast augury 3x/week (2nd). 
        • Tongues of Jinn: may converse normally with jinn of brush and forest; has 10x level chance to invoke a jinn of brush or forest and converse or bargain, 1x/month (4th)
        • Simbon: Master hunter, may sponsor another applicant into the donso (6th)
        • "Hunters of Mali" - Philippe Bordas, Le Monde
        • Window to the World of Jinn: May cast commune 1x/month (9th)

        Requirements
        A donso must always obey their oaths to their simbon regarding the three questions.

        1. Even the rulers of Manden swear to obey Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze (and their servant the simbon) above their own fathers, giving the royal court of Manden an unexpected dual loyalty. However, each ruler is sponsored by a different simbon, ensuring that no one person continues to dominate the course of the nation.

        2. Along with the duties of respect and obedience to the simbon, donso are expected to oppose slavery at every turn, rooting it out when encountered. Where open confrontation is not viable, donso may take the time to operate in a clandestine manner, but they may never abandon a slave to their fate.

        3. Each year, a donso must present their simbon with their level x 1000 dinars worth of trade goods (tobacco, kola nuts, etc.). This does not have to be all at once, but can be presented to the simbon over the course of the year.

        In return, a simbon must prepare the medicines and powders for their students to ensure that the creatures they hunt do not continue to haunt them.  Donso take a risk when they hunt. The greater power and role that their quarry plays in the cosmos, the greater the danger is that its wraith will stalk the donso that harmed it -- unless the simbon provides guidance and protection.

        Simbon speak each season with the jinn of brush and forest to ensure that they are satisfied, and to confirm that their students have followed their oaths - to guide them if they falter, and to punish them if they fail. They must teach their students the ways to talk with jinn. They must ensure that all those who hunt in their lands (donso or not) obey the traditions of the hunt. They must ensure that no prince or emir or caliph or chief encroaches upon the bounds of the donso, or answer to Chill-of-Death and Unflinching-Gaze at their peril.

        Cultural Note

        This entry derives strongly from the hunters of Kondolon ni Sané as related by Djibril Niane. Niane's work (as he directly acknowledges) came from speaking with the griot Mamadou Kouyaté of Guinea. The Epic of Sundiata is an oral tradition, and cannot fully be conveyed through the written word. Similarly, as you can see from the Guillot article linked below (and the Bordas photographs used for illustration here) the brotherhood of hunters continues to exist in Mali. The abilities I have referenced in this post reflect those mentioned in the Epic of Sundiata, and do not touch upon any other abilities or secret traditions that the hunters may have.

        I have no connection to the Mandingo people beyond those shared from a common Islamic religious and cultural tradition. I believe that Mamadou Kouyaté's work through Niane is a valid subject for interpretation in game material because of the intended public-facing nature of the work that Niane relates, and additional discussion in the preface.

        Bibliography:



        Friday, November 16, 2018

        Dungeons + Dominion II: The Domain Game

        Firstly: a salute to Evlyn M, an artist who was formerly a vibrant part of the online OSR community, but who has since withdrawn as a result of toxicity in the scene. Evlyn does some absolutely charming work, and we are made much poorer by her departure.

        Secondly: a shoutout to Stuart Robertson, creator of the ubiquitous "OSR" logo, on taking a stand re: the usage (and misuse) of the logo.  I haven't spoken out as forthrightly about misuses of community position and power in our community as I should have, and I'm glad that I've got another good example here to try and live up to.

        * * *

        This post was inspired by a query on the /rpg subreddit, where someone asked for a simple way to generate a domain setup for his kids' game, and asked if it were possible to use the cardbuilder Dominion as a framework.

        I've written about using Dominion as a setting generation element before, but I think that this new query is a way to set up an evolving domain framework without too much back-end work. It's pretty abstracted, but if you had to do something in a pinch I think this could work.

        This post assumes a decent knowledge of the mechanics behind Dominion. If you're unfamiliar, it might read a bit gobbledygook to you (you can check out the rules from RGG here)

        Martin Hoffman, Dominion
        Setup

        Play a 3- or 4-player game of Dominion. At the end, pick one of the decks to determine what resources the players' domain has - victory point cards mean territory, treasures mean fiscal resources on hand, and action cards mean buildings or resources within the fiefdom.

        Feel free to abstract meanings from the cards present - having a Golem in the deck might mean that the domain has a construct or warforged present...or, drawing upon the the original Golem of Prague story, it might mean that the polity has a strong and unflagging defender.

        Gameplay

        Each month (or other 'domain turn'), the domain can expend resources to take on new projects and keep growing and improving. The victory point cards present at the end of the setup phase serve to increase the number of potential improvements and projects that a domain can seek to take on as a card draw from the randomizer deck for the next month - the players can choose what they want the fiefdom to try and construct/purchase (adding to the deck). They'll have to keep gathering gold and resources to get what they need for the fiefdom, though (unrelated to the money cards acquired in playing the setup game).

        Resources acquired through standard play sessions (treasure, magical artifacts, alliances) wind up being translated into cards for the fiefdom deck. The game text doesn't matter too much - villages don't give you +2 Actions, +1 Card on the domain turn, but just symbolize that there's a village associated with the fiefdom that's significant in some way. You're using the deck to generate opportunities for randomization, NOT playing a game of Dominion anymore.

        Example:

        After playing an intro game of Dominion with three AI players, I win. My deck contains: 8 Estates, 4 Duchies, and 3 Provinces (Victory cards), 1 Cellar, 1 Village, 1 Remodel, 3 Markets, and 2 Mines (Action Cards).

        Matthias Catrein, Dominion
        Translating the Action cards into domain resources: well, the two mines are simple, as is the village. 3 Markets suggest strong mercantile connections (as would make sense with two extant mines). The tricky ones are Cellar and Remodel, which have no easy direct analog. I might render Cellar as a series of storage vaults untouched through the various ages by the previous domain-holders (strange new swag for the PCs?), and Remodel as the presence of a new builder who's able to start new construction projects right away.

        Now I need to translate the Estates, Duchies, and Provinces into draws from the randomizer. Each Estate is worth a quarter of a card (round down), each Duchy is worth half a card, and each Province is worth a card. This gives us 7 randomly selected cards that the domain will be able to choose its next upgrade from.

        The draw is: Shanty Town, Bridge, Mining Village, Spy, Masquerade, Caravan, and Laboratory.

        Mining Village suggests that there's been expansion around the mines and they're going to be more productive; Shanty Town suggests that the largest settlement in the domain has expanded, Bridge suggests that roads and infrastructure are developed further. Spy would suggest either the creation of an espionage network, or just developing information on one of your neighbors. Masquerade might be hosting a major social event, Caravan a greater focus on inter-domain trading, and Laboratory the creation of a wizard's or alchemist's sanctum.

        Some might (reasonably) suggest that the things listed are all things that a domain should be able to do anyway - why should mercantile expansion be limited by drawing a single card? Well, if you're looking for a very light overhead system, then that's just the random event that's available to you. If you want something that allows for a bit more player agency in the domain turns, then make these random events a bit more powerful -- the caravans here might be higher payoff, or reaching out to farther destinations, or the like.

        Wednesday, October 17, 2018

        Legacy of the Bieth Appendix N (Revisited)

        James Introcaso, over at Worldbuilder Blog, released his own Appendix N a while back, and asked folks to contribute theirs.

        Attentive readers will recall that I've written one, but that was five years ago. So here's a revised and expanded listing for Legacy of the Bieth's Appendix N.

        Primary Sources
        The Book of Contemplation, Usama ibn Munqidh
        The Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun
        The Rihla, Ibn Battuta

        Epics and Folktales
        The Romance of Antar, Anonymous
        The Hamzanama, Anonymous
        Sundiata: An Epic of Old Mali (trans. D.T. Niane and G.D. Pickett)
        Saharan Myth and Saga, H.T. Norris

        I'm still making my way through most of these. Sundiata is amazing and absolutely fertile ground for RPG material. It's not just the main story of a denied prince liberating his home from an usurping sorceror-king, but also the little details like the far-seeing hunters (who provide another reason for the AD&D ranger to have all those divination spells...) I haven't had a chance to read Nneti Okorafor and Eric Battle's comic adaptation of Antar yet, but that's likely going to go up here also. 

        Nonfiction
        10,000 Ways to Die, Alex Cox
        Night and Horses and the Desert, Robert Irwin
        Timbuktu: The Sahara's Fabled City of Gold, Marq du Villiers and Sheila Hirtle
        When Baghdad Ruled the Muslim World, Hugh Kennedy
        Cairo: The City Victorious, Max Rodenbeck
        Making Big Money in 1600: The Life and Times of Isma'il Abu Taqiyya, Egyptian Merchant, Nelly Hanna
        The Tunnels of Cu Chi, Tom Mangold and Joe Penycale
        Codes of the Underworld, Diego Gambetta 

        Most of the sources here deal with Egypt and/or Islamic medieval culture, but there are a few ringers. 10,000 Ways to Die (freely available here) was hugely influential for thinking about the tone of spaghetti westerns, and what makes them work on a thematic level.

        Fiction
        Chronicles of Sword and Sand, Howard Andrew Jones
        Throne of the Crescent Moon, Saladin Ahmed
        Roadside Picnic, Arkady and Boris Strugatsky
        Annihilation, Jeff van der Meer
        The Malazan Book of the Fallen, Steven Erikson (particularly Deadhouse Gates and The Bonehunters)
        Yendi, Steven Brust
        "Zothique" stories, Clark Ashton Smith (also see generally)
        "Outremer" stories, Robert Howard (also see generally)
        Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy, John Le Carre
        City of Brass, S.A. Chakraborty
        Chronicles of Master Li and Number Ten Ox, Barry Hughart
        "Black God's Kiss," CL Moore

        The fiction section is one of the areas where I want to cast a wider net. One of my concerns with my inspirational material is that it's not drawing on enough North African material. The other is that it's drawing on too much of a Western lens. So, more work to be done.

        Film
        The Dollars Trilogy, Sergio Leone
        Black Panther, Ryan Coogler
        The Mummy (1999), Stephen Sommers
        Indiana Jones Trilogy, Stephen Spielberg
        The Proposition, John Hillcoat
        The Wild Bunch, Sam Peckinpah

        The movie adaptations of Roadside Picnic and Annihilation would likely make it onto this, but I haven't been able to watch them yet.

        Music
        Blue Oyster Cult (see generally)
        Powerslave, Iron Maiden
        Ennio Morricone
        Federale

        Blue Oyster Cult winds up providing a lot of the inspiration and underpinning for some of the weirder cosmological elements present.



        Computer Games
        S.T.A.L.K.E.R., GSG Game World
        Mount + Blade Warband, Paradox
        Age of Empires II, Microsoft

        Artists
        Zdzisław Beksiński
        Remedios Varo