In the dust of this planet / Eugene Thacker


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.

*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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So I’ve been watching some of the Starz series Spartacus: Blood and sand (actually each season seems to have a different subtitle…).  I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice that it kind of veers between frenetic splatter-action and soft-core porn. I’ve read they intentionally emulated Zack Snyder’s 300 film in the first episode or two, and it shows. The action sequences also owe something to Tarantino’s Kill Bill — geysers of blood, a bit like old samurai films, and crazy stunts, more like the Shaw Brothers’ work, only less of it. The special effects are not always convincing but they certainly out-splatter pretty much any other film in the “peplum” genre. The sex scenes — and there is clearly a quota that each episode must meet, with four or five topless scenes for the lead actresses and full frontal nudity for at least one actor or extra — are a little off-putting, juxtaposed as they are with ultraviolence. In fact about half of the sex scenes are intentionally repulsive, and this actually works in the show’s favor. The decadence of Rome is meant to be shown in a repulsive light. Moreover, despite the exploitation levels of sex and violence, the show is not that bad. Some of the acting is quite good — John Hannah and Lucy Lawless tend to steal the show in their scenes, but the whole cast is reasonably good. The plot is melodramatic and violent, and kept my interest. It also really works as an indictment of Imperial Rome. You can’t help but hate the Romans. They are portrayed as relentlessly decadent, greedy, venial, lustful, and basically evil in every way. A show about a bloody slave revolt probably has to dehumanize the Romans some in order to make the rebels into heroes. It’s too bad the show has to get so much history wrong.

Actually it gets a fair amount of the history right, in terms of the Roman world. Rome really was very dependent on slavery (a fact that Hollywood has usually been unwilling to depict). The show emphasizes the horrors of slavery pretty well, though I’m not sure if slaves were quite so callously killed on a whim as the show suggests. The sets are convincing. The costumes of civilians and nobles are generally accurate, and military kit looks right too (hell, the Romans’ shields are oval rather than the usual later imperial rectangle we see in every movie).  The gladiators’ equipment is mostly correct too, in so far as they depict mostly depict real gladiator styles. (The axe-men I’m very dubious about — the show keeps depicting guys with a huge battle-axe like something you’d see in a video game, and they also have several gladiators fight with a pair of double-bitted axes. Granted they look awesome, but like the guy with a medieval flail in the Russell Crowe Gladiator film, it is just Hollywood being Hollywood. The hoplomachi are depicted as fighting in melee with their spears rather than casting them — that seems possible but it’s not how I usually see them depicted.)

I like the very formalized manner of speaking the nobles usually use — I’m not sure if it would really be common in private conversations but it does class up the dialogue, even with the occasional gratuitous but hilarious cursing.

The main things I think the show gets wrong, unfortunately, are pretty central to the plot. First, the show depicts Romans as being pretty shameless about sex. Every party involves live sex shows. This helps establish the ruling class as decadent. But Caligula, Tiberius, and Nero actually shocked the Romans with their orgies; the show suggests everyone in Rome was pretty much on their way to a brothel or stumbling home drunk from a party out of the movie Caligula. Yes, the Romans had a pretty open attitude about sex and fewer hang-ups than we do in the U.S., but I don’t think they were all voyeurs and exhibitionists as the show suggests. Also, while slaves could be used for sex, it was considered somewhat shameful for a free citizen to do so, while the series suggests it was normal and acceptable.

Secondly, the show depicts most gladiatorial bouts as being to the death. Historians who have studied the actual records of the Roman games have concluded that very few bouts ended with the death of a gladiator. Certainly there were times when there was massive loss of life, but those would be the “re-enactments” of battles (staged by condemned criminals) and executions by beasts or gladiators (the latter of which do figure occasionally into the show). So we see death after death in the arena and almost no defeated gladiators being given the chance to submit. I suppose that helps elevate the drama too, but the arena was terrible enough without exaggerating the lethality for gladiators. In reality the gladiators more often “fought” animals or prisoners than other gladiators, and they rarely killed other gladiators.

Now I know that most “historical” shows and movies are terribly inaccurate and I’m not someone who can’t appreciate them as drama. In fact, Spartacus does a pretty good job of creating really compelling characters. The bad guys are interesting. The good guys are interesting. The situations they find themselves in, or create, are interesting. If you can accept that this is a drama which plays up the exploitative elements, you will find this show pretty enjoyable.


Published in: on June 10, 2015 at 8:00 am  Comments (2)  
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Behold the elephant harpy!

As I often mention here, my day job is as a librarian, and I get to see a fair amount of interesting stuff because my library is a large public research library (i.e. we get specialist academic stuff and popular stuff).  So recently The world’s best loved art treasures  (ISBN 9780867198089, have your friendly local book store order it for you) crossed my desk and let me say it is a hoot. The artist (Click Mort, link goes to his web site) basically does what modeling & miniatures enthusiasts would call “conversions,” but instead of working with scale models, he “recapitates” ceramic figurines.  These examples probably explain what is going better than I can.

Elephant harpy : Image (c) Click Mort, used with permission.

Centaur as Envisioned by Arthur Rankin, Jr. and Jules Bass : ; image (c) Click Mort, used with permission.


There are more at his site, and the book has even more. It kind of makes me want to stop in more junk stores hunting for cheap ceramic figurines to create my own chimeras.

Anyway you’ll obviously need to use these in your next D&D game.

Elephant Harpy

HD 5 ; AC as Mail ; Mv. walk 12″/fly 24″ ; Attacks: 3 or 1 ; Dmg. d4/d4/d6 + special or d12

The elephant harpy is every bit as filthy and harridine* as a regular harpy, but with their vast shared memories they also hold eternal grudges. In fact, anyone who harms an elephant harpy will henceforth be the target of vengeance from all other elephant harpies. They attack by dropping objects on their victims for d12 damage (rocks if you’re lucky) or in close combat will rake with their two claws and grapple with the trunk. Anyone grappled will be carried aloft and dropped from some height. Elephant harpies will not go near rodents, for fear that rodents will climb into their trunks.

Rankin-Bass Centaurs

HD 2 ; AC as leather ; Mv. 18″ ; Attacks 1 ; dmg. d6

Said to be the result of the unnatural coupling of deer and hill giants, Rankin-Bass centaurs are the size of deer, but have humanoid heads that would better fit on a giant’s shoulders. Despite their apparent awkwardness, they are quite fleet and agile, and can leap great distances like an ordinary deer as well as move with stealth similar to a deer (surprise on a 1-4). They avoid combat when possible but can kick for d6. They can speak the local human languages as well as several woodland tongues (centaur, brownie, and dryad). They naturally attract normal deer and often herd with them. Rankin-Bass centaurs crave nothing so much as acceptance from humans and humanoids, but their disturbing visages, and horrid stench, make most civilized folk shun them. Some Rankin-Bass centaurs are accomplished druids and can cast with 7th level proficiency; these can be distinguished by their caps. A Rankin-Bass centaur may offer to accompany a party of adventurers in woodland adventures, but usually wear out their welcome by making annoying efforts to solicit compliments and praise. A scorned Rankin-Bass centaur may follow and harass adventurers with their spells (if a druid) or by simply alerting other woodland creatures and monsters to the party’s presence.


*Bonus neologism: harridine = being harridan-like.

Published in: on June 4, 2015 at 3:00 pm  Comments (4)  
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One Page Dungeon Contest 2015 is over: check out the entries!

Congratulations to the winners! There were a lot of great entries, and the damn your eyes, Simon Forster, for doing such a better drawing of a sunken tower than I did.

You can see them all here. There are too many for me to have even looked at them all, but I really liked “Dead dwarf dome,” “The shambling throne of the death cult king,” and “The teeny tiny dungeon.”

Published in: on May 30, 2015 at 12:43 am  Comments (1)  

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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Random plots

I saw this web site, “The story starter,” recently — it was highlighted in a blog about writers. It just generates randomized sentences, and they are kind of goofy. Some examples:

The absent-minded dentist dialed the cell phone in Fort Knox on Wednesday for the Russians.

The religious trivia whiz jumped near the hidden room during the heatwave to clear the record.

The smart diamond cutter spoiled the joke near the huge truck four days ago to cover things up.

There is something to be said for specificity, but with so many random clauses, there’s almost too much to incorporate.

But the “junior” version is pretty cool. The prompts it generates are much simpler, and more evocative because of that.  Here are some examples:

The flower grower was following a treasure map near the volcano.

The fisherman was looking for clues on the moon.

The writer was crying near the lake.

See? There’s a lot less to go on, but for me anyway that gives the imagination more of a spur. Why is the writer crying, and why at the lake? is an interesting question that allows the story be sad, scary, funny, or whatever; the adult version sentences, being more detailed, seem to have fewer possibilities.

Naturally my thoughts also turned to using these sorts of things for quick adventure prompts for D&D. I started looking around for other story prompts or plot generators and was surprised at how many there are.

I particularly like a fairytale plot generator here and a fantasy plot generator at the same site. Actually I pretty much stopped looking once I got to that site. There is a full list of its plot-generators here. If you happen to roll up an interesting one, why not leave it in a comment here?

Published in: on May 25, 2015 at 9:49 pm  Leave a Comment  
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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)  

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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