EGG biography coming this fall

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This may be old news, as I don’t read the RPG forums any more, but I just heard about an upcoming book, Empire of the Imagination by Michael Witwer. As far as I can tell it is the author’s first book. I’ll keep an eye out for it. Judging by the subtitle it may be less of a biography and more yet-another-book-on-how-D&D-happened, but I’m holding out hope that it is a real biography.

Published in: on July 30, 2015 at 9:07 am  Comments (5)  

In the dust of this planet / Eugene Thacker

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This book has a gained a small measure of notoriety because its cover appeared in a few places in pop culture and because professional moron Glenn Beck singled it out as a destructive force in American culture. However I can’t imagine many people reading this — it is essentially a short work of philosophy that looks at how twentieth and twentieth-first century horror (in fiction, films, and music) might help us comprehend the unthinkable world we now face: the world that might be: the world after human extinction. (I am reminded of the ancient skeptical quip that just as we do not fear the nonexistence we enjoyed before we were conceived or born, we should not fear the nonexistence that follows our death, but Thacker would probably want to say: The individual’s nonexistence is one thing, the nonexistence of humanity, perhaps even of rationality, is another.)

Thacker’s basic idea is subtle and difficult to paraphrase. If I am understanding him (and as someone who studied philosophy pretty extensively, and in particular a lot of nihilism, as well as someone interested in or familiar with most of the writers he uses to illustrate or explore his ideas, I may be among the relative small minority of people who actually comprise his audience) — if I understand this book, the first premise is that we need to distinguish among three “worlds”: the world-for-us, the world-in-itself, and the world-without-us. (For my money this distinction alone was worth the price of reading this short but difficult book.)

Briefly, the world-for-us is the world understood instrumentally*, the world as something for our use as humans; the world in relation to humans. This concept of the world is most fiercely promoted in myth and religion, but it is also how we usually think of the world in our everyday interactions with it. Thacker uses the generic term “World” for this world.

The world-in-itself on the other hand is the world as it exists independently of human concerns and interests, the subject of scientific inquiry perhaps but potentially hostile. Paradoxically our scientific investigations generally convert the world-in-itself to the world-for-us because we normally undertake these investigations to solve some problem or gain some understanding of human problems, however it was the rational, scientific mindset that reveals the possibility of the word-in-itself. But philosophically, at least, we acknowledge that the world-in-itself is not just some human construct or a world made for- or by- us. The Kantian noumena (“thing-in-itself”) is obviously being invoked here, but Thacker is not strictly being Kantian here. For one thing he doesn’t necessarily agree with Kant that we know nothing about the world-in-itself; we in fact have a concept of the world apart from human concerns. Thacker calls the world-in-itself “the Earth”.

Lastly the world-without-us is the world that is, by definition, hidden from us and beyond our reckoning, and its reality is most plain when we think of the world after human extinction. This concept is of fairly recent vintage because it is only in fairly recent times that we’ve had any idea of a world with no humans. In the mythological/religious past, we could only think of the end humans as the end of the world itself. But climate change, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the threat of extinction-level pandemics, the notion of civilization-ending disasters generally: these possibilities evoke the world-without-us. Thacker calls the world-without-us “the Planet,” because when we imagine the world without us we are considering our world “objectively,” as one planet among many, and not merely in-addition to humanity but apart from and independent of humanity. The Planet is not even hostile to us; it is indifferent to us. This indifference is terrifying to us, because it negates the humanocentric world. I should hasten to add that the alienating thing about the world-without-us does not depend entirely on human extinction. The very idea of the multitude of worlds, the near-infinity of time and space, and the possibility of alien intelligences also invoke the world-without-us.

Thacker’s thesis is that modern horror (in film, fiction, and even music) provides a non-philosophical approach to grappling with the Planet, that is to say: the world-without-us. The bulk of the book tries to illustrate this thesis, drawing on everything from black metal music and Hammer films to H.P. Lovecraft and Georges Bataille. Theological and occult writings on magic and demonology are also analyzed as precursors to modern horror. Along the way Thacker uses a variety of philosophers, especially Schopenhauer and Aristotle (!) to explain how the world-without-us can be understood philosophically. Perhaps obviously, Lovecraft’s notion of “cosmic horror” very aptly describes the human response to the idea of the world-without-us. Towards the end of the book he suggests a mystical approach to comprehending the world-without-us, using certain “darkness” mystics (Bohme, John of the Cross) to analyze a strange, supposedly anonymous poem that is probably the work of the author himself.

I should finally comment on the utterly strange but effective structure of his book: we are treated to a series of medieval scholastic forms (quaestio, lectio, disputatio) each exploring specific questions or topics.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Thacker does not settle on a clear conclusion, but there are at least two more books in his “Horror of philosophy” series.

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*Thacker doesn’t specifically use Heidegger’s concept of “instrumental rationality” here, but Heidegger certainly applies: The world-for-us is the world for Dasein.

Published in: on July 22, 2015 at 8:57 am  Comments (1)  
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A 7th century D&D party

A cleric, a thief, and a fighter (or possibly an assassin) set out to slay a dragon (or a “Gargouille,” depending on your source).

From Ebenezer C. Brewer’s A dictionary of miracles (1910):

“What renders the name of St. Romanus [aka St. Romain] especially memorable in all France, is his victory at Rouen over a horrible dragon, of a shape and size hitherto unknown. It was a man-eater, and also devoured much cattle, causing sad desolation. Romanus resolved to attack this monster in his lair; but as no one would assist him in such a dangerous enterprise, he took with him, as assistants, a murderer condemned to death, and a thief. The thief, being panic-struck, ran away ; but the murderer proved true steel. Romanus went to the dragon’s den, and, making the sign of the cross, walked in, and threw a net over the beast’s neck. The murderer, then taking the net in his two hands, dragged the monster through the town into the market-place, where was a huge bonfire. Into this bonfire he led the beast, there was it burnt to death, and then thrown into the Seine. All the people thanked the saint for delivering them from this pest, the murderer was set at liberty, and Romanus appointed a day of public thanksgivings. — Propre de Rouen.”

No word on the dragon’s hoard, but the murderer was pardoned for his part in slaying the dragon, and after Romanus’ death there was annual procession of his relics ending with the pardon of a convicted criminal.

A surprising number of saints took an active role in slaying or banishing dragons. A pretty good list is here.

Published in: on July 8, 2015 at 8:47 am  Comments (5)  
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False advertising

DMGR1/2112. The Campaign Sourcebook and Catacomb Guide.

This is actually a pretty good reference book for DMs. There is general advice on designing dungeons and indoor environments, and lots of stuff about running a game — practical table-manners type stuff, managing players, DMing style, all that. World-building and mapping and even suggestions on the hows and whys of in-game dungeon construction. It’s co-written by Janelle Jaquay, an icon of early D&D. So it has to be good, right?

It’s a little unusual for a 2e splatbook, in that some of the art is pretty bloody (pages 9, 33, and to a lesser degree 89), and there seem to be a couple of half-orcs among the PCs in various illustrations (pages 11 & 96 — though the guy on page 96 could be full orc).

There are great sample maps of various structures and environments that you might run as “dungeons” (understood here in the most basic sense as an boundaried adventuring environment, limiting where you can go). A pyramid, caverns, a temple, that sort of thing. All done in Sutherland’s neat perspective mapping that he pioneered in the 1e “Survival Guides”.

But you what it hasn’t got? Catacombs. Nothing about them. Nada. The biggest word on the cover & title page, and as far as I can tell the word doesn’t even turn up in the text. Disappointing. That’s OK though; I have something in the works that will cover catacombs.

The other odd thing about this one is the annoying illustrations of a nerdy DM and his gaming group, which is so mocking as to be unsympathetic. It’s supposed to be comical but really comes off as pretty contemptuous.

I haven’t read any of the later editions’ Dungeon Master Guides so I can’t say how much of this was carried over to them — honestly I haven’t even read the 2e DMG in years so I don’t know if this redundant to stuff in there. It does give a very concise set of guidelines that you can use in any game, so it’s worth checking out for that and for the handful of maps in the back. For as much I hated most of the brown splatbooks of character options back in the day, this blue splatbook is surprisingly good.

 

 

 

Published in: on July 6, 2015 at 2:43 pm  Comments (1)  
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Armor never wearies by Timothy Dawson (review)

 

'Armour Never Wearies'

But the writing here sure does.  :)

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a book on such an esoteric topic would be dry, but Dawson scrupulously avoids any kind of summary or conclusions. He gives a lot of detailed diagrams of individual scales and possible reconstructions, but no timelines or maps, so it is not always clear what period or area a particular find is relevant to. He also seems unwilling to give any real details about the weight of a suit (or pieces) of the armors, how well it might prevent penetration by various weapons or compare to other types of armor of the same period, and so on — the sorts of things someone interested in arms and armor might wonder about. Instead we have a detailed description of how different types of scale and lamellar armors depicted in period art might have been made, and how various archaeological finds might fit into the reconstructions. He is pretty careful to avoid speculation, but doesn’t always explain why he disagrees with other people’s ideas about the armor or even who specifically he means to criticize or dispute.

Still, it is s probably the only book ever written about scale and lamellar armor, so if you’ll want to read it if you have any interest in armor. The author is an historical reenactor, so he includes photos of actual suits he’s built, even photos of himself wearing them, which is neat. I was able to track down an article he cites in the book (and which he also wrote) that mentions, in passing, his tests of reconstructed lamellar armor against sword, spear, and compound bow, but there is not a lot of data, and no comparative tests against other types of armor were done, so it is hard to draw specific conclusions about the effectiveness of lamellar. He says he couldn’t pierce it with contemporary weapons, and his bow was an 82 pound draw longbow shot at 20 feet, using what sound like bodkin or armor-piercing arrowheads, so it sounds like lamellar is as good as mail or plate; it is stiffer than mail and so would be a little better versus impact weapons, but much more expensive to produce than plate, which explains why it fell out of use everywhere people had access to plate.

The article is “Kremasmata, kabadion, klibanion: some aspects of middle Byzantine military equipment reconsidered,” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies, vol. 22 (1998) p. 38-50. An open source scan (pdf) is here.

D&D-wise, this book got me revisiting the question of what kinds of armor should a campaign include. AD&D is a grab-bag of stuff from the dark ages through early middle ages (with late medieval full plate optionally added in the DMG). Most simplified systems strip it down to leather, chain, and plate, but  really there is something funny going on in any campaign world where mail armor is cheaper than plate (the amount of work involved in cutting, bending, and riveting all those links is insane). My brother, who as big an arms & armor nerd as me, has argued that mail would really better for adventurers because, among other things, plate will overheat you pretty quickly, while mail acts as a radiator, letting heat escape. (Other factors being that mail is pretty repairable in the field while plate is less so; mail could be removed before you drown, unlike plate; and mail stops weapons almost as well as plate in most cases — remember, knights were jousting with lances before full plate was being made, and they survived.) But mail was too pricey to compete with plate — besides plate looks awesome, and you don’t really need a shield with it. so my point is by the time full plate armor is available, your real choice is between partial and full plate armor, not between mail and plate. D&D “plate mail,” if it is as I assume mail with a few bits of plate added at the joints and perhaps a chest piece, might reasonable coexist as an improvement over mail, and of course mail continued to see use long after they stopped making new suits, as hand-me-downs and inventory from armories, but I’m tempted to reduce all armors to maybe three classes — light (leather or padded); medium (scale or mail, or half-plate or less); and heavy (a full suit of lamellar or reinforced mail, and  any kind of plate armor).

 

Published in: on May 29, 2015 at 5:00 pm  Comments (1)  
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Girdle books

A girdle book; image from Wikipedia.

Recently a colleague of mine cataloged a “girdle book” for our library. I’d never seen one before. It is a small book, typically a prayer/liturgy book, that is bound with long tail of soft leather and clasp so that it can be attached to one’s belt (“girdle”) for easy access. Our specimen is a 17th century German prayer-book, I think Lutheran, and had been rebound in the 1980s. It is a small, but thick, manuscript, and it looks to me like the original clasps were saved in the rebinding but the tail was placed on the top edge rather than the bottom edge, so that it hangs upright. I think it would be more handy to have such a book hand upside down, so that when you pull it up the tail is on the bottom.

This fellow is carrying the girdle in his hand, but normally you’d attached the knotted “tail” to your belt. Image from Wikipedia.

So yeah, wearable information technology is like a thousand years old. :)

Girdle books seem like pretty natural fits for adventurers. IIRC the first edition Unearthed Arcana described “traveling” spellbooks, which would be compact spellbooks that a magic-user took on an expedition. These would be lighter than a standard spellbook and have fewer spells, but the benefit is that you would not be as burdened and losing it to dragon fire or whatever hazard you faced would be less of a crippling blow.

Yet another Wikipedia image.

If you Google Image Search the term, you’ll see a lot more examples. Some have a pair of rings attached to the cover and loop a chain through them; I kind like the image of a mage with a tiny spellbook on a chain, like the dudes you sometimes see today with their wallets on a chain.

Published in: on May 23, 2015 at 12:04 pm  Comments (5)  
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The book of creatures

This post is just a shout out to a project I recently noticed on someone else’s blog roll: The book of creatures. The posts are all like encyclopedia entries, with an excellent color illustration, a map showing the creature’s habitat/origin, and a silhouette showing the relative size of the creature next to a human (much like the silhouettes in the books published by Chaosium, Inc.). The description gives a bibliography too, which is nice. The creatures are all from folklore so far, and not your run-of-the-mill collection of stuff everyone knows about. Looking at the old posts, I have only heard of three of the featured creatures, plus  maybe a couple more that similar to more familiar creatures. The unfamiliar ones are pretty amazing. The eventual goal is to create a comprehensive catalog, or nearly so.

The site has a (broken) link to a Patreon account, so you might support the project by pledging there.

Published in: on May 18, 2015 at 10:11 am  Leave a Comment  
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Huh. 35,000 words.

There’s a semi-secret project I’ve been working on, on and off, for two years — actually a little more, as it grew out of an idea for another project I was just one of several contributors to. Really the bulk of the work has been finished for at least a year, and mostly sitting around while added a bit here or there and waited for my collaborator to find time to write his part. Anyway I just decided to run a word count on the current draft and it is 35,000. That’d be a respectable novella, if it were fiction. I’m kind of shocked.

I’m probably jinxing things by mentioning it publicly but I am pretty sure it will see light of day this year. All I will say about it, is that it will be D&D-related source-book but compatible with other systems too, and I read dozens of books and journal articles to research it.

 

Published in: on May 12, 2015 at 11:45 am  Comments (3)  

Book sale haul, day 2

Back to the library, this time with my brother and a friend. More goodies.

The Dark Design (Riverworld #3)

The dark design / Philip Jose Farmer. (another Riverworld novel; still waiting to start them till I get the first one)

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Njal’s Saga (Penguin classics; I’ve read a lot of Viking sagas but not this one, even though it must be the most famous of them all)

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The song of Roland (Penguin classics)

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The end of the beginning /Avi (for my daughter mostly)

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The slynx / Tatyan Tolstaya (Looks like an interesting one: a satire about Russia, it involves an underground society, after s nuclear war, that uses mice for food, clothes, commerce, and entertainment)

Doctor Rat

Doctor rat / Willaim Kotzwinkle (another oddball; looks like something Doris Lessing would write as a follow-up for Briefing for a descent into Hell, which was a great book come to think of it)

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The best of Frederic Brown (another book club edition)

and

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The encyclopedia of Hell

And afterward we checked out a neat little craft beer bar with the clever name Craft Beer Bar. There we knocked a few back while opening up a grab bag of 20 more sci-fi paperbacks I got for a dollar!

There were some classics ( 2 by HG Wells, as well as Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon by Spider Robinson, A stainless steel rat is born by Harry Harrison) as well a several others I’ll give a shot; about 2/3 were dross though (Piers Anthony, number X in a series, Star Wars novels, and similar). It was a lot of fun.

The only downside is that I need to clear shelf space now. The wife strictly enforces a “one book in, one book out” policy that I have to admit is for my own good.

Published in: on May 9, 2015 at 10:58 pm  Comments (2)  
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Book sale haul, day 1

As I always try to do, I hit the “pre-sale” for Friends of the Library the other night. As usual, I was a little disgusted by all the prospectors with scanners looking for stuff to resell at a profit. I know the library gets money either way but it seems really dishonest to prey on people’s good will for the library like that; after all the stuff I buy I’ll probably donate back so someone can enjoy it for a buck or less while these vultures are sending them off to jerkwad collector, right? Yeah maybe I shouldn’t begrudge them. I guess I’m just annoyed they aren’t actually there to find things to read and enjoy. Oh well.

The cover images are all swiped from Goodreads.com, which has a surprisingly complete catalog.

I’m planning to hit it again on Saturday (probably while this post goes up). They always restock the shelves between the sale days.

Not a bad haul so far for 5 bucks:

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Dragons / Hogarth & Clery (love this cover; it’s a nice illustrated miscellany on dragons)

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The magic of Atlantis / ed. Lin Carter (Atlantis-related tales by the usual pulp fantasy suspects — Howard, Kuttner, de Camp, etc.)

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Little, big / John Crowley (a hardback in excellent condition, even though it is a “book club edition”)

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Return to Quag Keep / Norton & Rabe (withdrawn library copy; I would not normally bother with Norton but this does have a D&D connection and an intro by EGG)

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Three Hainish novels / Le Guin (typical beat up book club edition but I like le Guin)

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The dwellers on the Nile / E.A. Wallis Budge (a Dover reprint of a fairly classic book on the Egyptians; I may have read this before but I’m not sure)

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Sturgeon is alive and well (stories by Theodore Sturgeon, a true master)

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Dead cities / Mike Davis (nonfiction about extinct and abandoned cities of modern times; looks interesting)

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Fantastic archaeology / Stephen Williams (about crackpot theories about North American prehistory; unfortunately I realized it has some mildew when I got it home so it will not be joining the shelves permanently; so far it’s good)

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The sundering flood / William Morris (a BAF paperback in good condition)

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Issues # 15 and 16 of Harbinger (2005) — a British miniatures magazine I’d never heard of.

Published in: on May 9, 2015 at 12:00 pm  Comments (5)  
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