Baudolino!

Like most people, I first heard about Umberto Eco when The name of the rose became a bestseller back in the late 1980s.  I’ve always been meaning to read that book, but somehow never got around to it.  Eco would come back to haunt me in grad school, when I was studying philosophy, as one of my profs was really into semiotics and Eco has actually written some important stuff on signs and symbols.  But I never looked at his semiotics stuff very closely.

In library school, I tried to begin Foucault’s pendulum, but lacked the time to and energy for such a dense book.  I finally picked up some of Eco’s essays (collected in Misreadings and How to travel with a fish) and thought the essays were pretty good — who can resist publishers’ rejection letters for The Iliad and The bible (“Regretfully, we are returning your…”) or a retelling of Lolita with the object of desire replaced by a geriatric patient (“Granita”)?

Here’s an oft-quoted excerpt, the rejection letter for the bible:

I must say that the first few hundred pages of this manuscript really hooked me. Action-packed, they have everything today’s reader wants in a good story. Sex (lots of it, including adultery, sodomy, incest), also murder, war, massacres, and so on.

The Sodom and Gomorrah chapter, with the transvestites putting the make on the angels, is worthy of Rabelais; the Noah stories are pure Jules Verne; the escape from Egypt cries out to be turned into a major motion picture . . . In other words, a real blockbuster, very well structured, with plenty of twists, full of invention, with just the right amount of piety, and never lapsing into tragedy.

But as I kept on reading, I realized that this is actually an anthology, involving several writers, with many–too many–stretches of poetry, and passages that are downright mawkish and boring, and jeremiads that make no sense.

The end result is a monster omnibus. It seems to have something for everybody, but ends up appealing to nobody. And acquiring the rights from all these different authors will mean big headaches, unless the editor takes care of that himself. The editor’s name, by the way, doesn’t appear anywhere on the manuscript, not even in the table of contents. Is there some reason for keeping his identity a secret?

I’d suggest trying to get the rights only to the first five chapters. We’re on sure ground there. Also come up with a better title. How about The Red Sea Desperadoes?

Anyway, Baudolino became the first of his novels I’ve had any success with, and it is pretty awesome.

The title character is rogue and liar who generally believes his own tales, and the framing story is that he is telling his life story to a wealthy Byzantine gourmand while the two flee Constantinople, which is being sacked by crusaders during the fourth crusade.  Baudolino rises above his peasant upbringing to enter the court of Frederick “Barbarossa”, the Holy Roman emperor, and goes on to study in Paris, work as a spy, and eventually embark on an epic quest with a motley assortment of companions to find the legendary kingdom of Prester John.

The first half of the book is largely historical and rationalist (for example, Baudolino carefully observes and explains the trickery of a “necromancer” and meets a scientific revolutionary who recreates some engineering feats of antiquity); the second half slowly increases the fantasy until our protagonists are fighting chimeras and manticores, and leading armies of blemmyae, sciapods, and other Plinian races against an invading army of Huns. [I have long fantasized about creating an army of Plinian races for Hordes of the Things and this passage may finally inspire me to do it!]  The second half also gives some great fantastic settings and encounters that I’ll probably steal for my own D&D game — all based on literal or figurative interpretations of medieval travelers’ tales and folklore, much of it so obscure that it seems like pure invention.

A sample of the Plinian races … cyclopes, blemmyae, panotti, sciapods, etc.

Eco is sometimes compared unfavorably to Jorge Borges. I do see some similarities, although Eco is a lot funnier; Borges is usually more serious and mind-blowing.  But Borges wrote no novels.

The novel never lagged, for me, even when the characters get drawn into theological debates.  Eco chose what is probably the most interesting period of the middle ages — when the crusades taken on an air of realpolitik, people like Barbarossa, Richard the Lionheart, and the Old Man of the Mountain were alive, and science and magic were beginning to become distinguishable from religion.  By placing the most fantastic elements of the story in the East, and keeping events in the West realistic (if occasionally absurd), he creates a vivid picture of what life might have been like before travel and communication brushed away the legends people told about foreign lands.

The novel is not without literary pretensions and students of semiotics will surely enjoy the unreliable narrator, the outright lies and sophistry of the characters, and the characters’ anxiety that their story will never be told, and the extremely plastic nature of truth (which may depend much more on communication and interpretation than on a correspondence between reality and propositions).  I think this is probably one of those books I’ll reread at some point and appreciate for the epistemological puzzles as much as the story, so I guess this one should find a place on the shelf among Borges (for the erudite fantasy) and Pratt’s Well of the unicorn (for the philosophical puzzling) and Vance (for the picaresque setting and characters, and the excellent dialogue).

Published in: on November 21, 2012 at 3:00 pm  Comments (3)  
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Of Dwarves and Jews

“Daddy Grognard” recently posted a nice dwarf figure and added an intriguing excerpt from a letter by Tolkien mentioning that he thought of dwarves as being more like Jews than tiny Vikings or Scots.

I’ve seen some mention else where that the dwarvish language in Tolkien is very Semitic, despite their Scandinavian personal names (and the dwarves apparently don’t use their true names among outsiders anyway…), and also that dwarvish architecture, being huge and monolithic and with massive columns seems Assyrian or Semitic too.

Could the “model” for the dwarves be Jewish or Semitic? (as the model for the Rohirrim, say, was the Anglo-Saxons?) This puts quite a different, and offensive, spin on dwarvish tropes of beards, large noses, famous craftsmanship, secretiveness about their women, ancestral grudges, and love of battle and gold, doesn’t it?

Might the dwarf-elf enmity be a sign of elvish antisemitism?

Well, there is this quote from an interview, and this academic paper on Dwarves in The Hobbit and LOTR. The paper is actually very good, although the author does stretch things a little. The thesis is that the dwarves of The Hobbit are very different from the the dwarves of LOTR, and that to some extent JRRT was “correcting” his unconsciously antisemitic depiction of dwarves. Very interesting reading.

Published in: Uncategorized on June 25, 2010 at 10:20 am  Comments (14)  
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Second draft, with demi-humans. Comments?

Here is an updated draft. I’ve added the non-humans, so now the classes are Hero, Wizard, Dwarf, Elf, Munchkin, and Woodwose. Some parts are still pretty sketchy, but it’s something. I didn’t repost the spell lists because they need to be edited again.

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Published in: on June 18, 2010 at 1:41 pm  Comments (3)  
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Other races in D&D part two: some crunch

My musings on how to move a little bit away from strictly Tolkien demihumans — without descending into the anime style of 4th ed. D&D — have been a consistently popular post, garnering 50-100 hits every week.  I think there is a strong possibility most of those hits are 4e players looking for the newish Changeling race from the –3rd? 4th? 5th? — Player’s Handbook for 4e.  My Google penance for that will be to offer some slightly crunchier stuff…stats and numbers for how I can see a slightly fairy tale/Nordic take on the traditional D&D races. (I envision using a heavily house-ruled variation of C&C, which I’ll detail as my brother & I hammer out the details.)

An illustration for Peer Gynt by Arthur Rackham

Elves

My preference would be to make elves very alien, soulless, and basically chaotic, as they are in Poul Anderson’s works.  But in keeping with fairy tales, they should range widely in size.  Elves roll d8-1 for their height, in feet.  Treat 0 as 1.All elves get +1 Charisma and Dexterity, for they are fascinating and graceful.

Illustration by Brian Froud

If 1 foot tall, they are Fairies, with wings (flight = 18″). They may turn invisible at will but become visible until their next round if they attack.  -3 to Strength (they are still supernaturally strong though) and they can use only tiny weapons which generally deal 1-2 points of damage (bows and one-handed weapons) or d4 (for two-handed swords and the like).

If 2 foot tall, they are Pixies.   They fly with wings (15″) and are small. -3 Strength

Ernie the Keebler elf.

If 3 feet tall, they are Cobbler (Keebler?) Elves, the sort Santa employs.  Small and nimble, they lack wings but are excellent craftsmen. -2 Strength, +1 Constitution from living in extreme environments (trees, artic, etc.)

If 4 feet tall, they are Wood Elves, a very wild breed with green skin and hair.

If 5 feet tall, they are standard D&D Elves.

If 6-7 feet tall, they are Sidhe, also known as High or Courtly Elves, of the Seely (Good) and Unseely (Evil) courts. +1 Strength.

Little People

Occasionally confused with Cobbler Elves, the Little People live all over the world and come in  wide range of varieties.  All have +1 Constitution and -2 Strength.  Their appearance is closely tied to their alignment.  Optionally, a change in alignment will alter the appearance/breed of the Little Person!

Good little people are Gnomes, and live in the woods.  They can speak the languages of all woodland animals and generally will not be attacked by any but the hungriest or most vicious animal.

Lawful little people are Halflings (also called Munchkins, Bobbits, or Hobbits). They live in villages of their own and often have trade relations with Humans.  They rarely adventure but make adequate thieves and even become fighters on occasion.

Neutral little people are Bogarts (also called Brownies), a fairly unpredictable breed who live, often surreptitiously, in Human buildings like barns, houses, and shops.  They are the most shy of the little people, and covered in fur.

A Gobble of Goblins by Edward Foster

Chaotic little people are Goblins.  They live in caves and other wild places, and are extremely mischievous.  They usually become rogues if they adventure. -1 Charisma.  They can see well in the dark.

Evil little people are Kobolds (also known as Knockers or Tommyknockers).  The live in mines and dungeons and love to lure men to their deaths with their tricks and traps (the simplest ploy being to knock in a mine shaft to lure would-be rescuers to their doom). -1 Wisdom.  Kobolds can see in the dark.

Dwarves

I think standard D&D Dwarves are ok rules-wise, but I still think they need to have their culture revisited so that they are not miniature Vikings or Romans but instead live in underground, largely solitary.  Some have odd deformities like crow’s feet or backward knees that they try to hide.

Changelings

As explained on the earlier post, these are human or demihuman babes raised among the other kind.  Changelings with a Charisma of 12 or more are known as Half-Elves, apparently favoring the human or elf influence; those with Charisma below 10 are known as Half-Orcs, Orc-Men, or Goblin Men.  Half-elves have no attribute modifiers and can be most classes; Half-Orcs get +1 Strength and Constitution but suffer a further -1 Charisma, and can only be of fighter and rogue type classes.

Woodwoses, or Wild men, have very acute senses (Listen as Thieves and track as Rangers), can hide in the wilderness even without shadows or cover (use Hide in Shadows as Thief of same level), and are never surprised in the woods.  However they do not begin the game with Common as a free language (although highly Intelligent Woodwoses may choose Common as one of their bonus languages).   They are covered in hair, like Bogarts, and need not wear clothes except in extreme environments (arctic cold, deserts), although they might do so to enter towns and civilized areas.

ALL DEMIHUMANS* HAVE NO SOULS.

Unlike humans, they cannot be raised by means of Raise Dead or Resurrection.  Their life force stays on the Prime Material Plane and will be reincarnated.  A Reincarnation spell will bring them back with their memories (and experience points).  If Reincarnated as humans, they will still be soulless and should have uncanny features (mechanical or  wooden bodies or body parts; hollow chest cavities/no heart; etc.)

However, soulless demi-humans have much less to fear of the undead.  They merely suffer one of their own HD type in damage when suffering energy drain attacks (i.e., no levels are lost, just HP, and this is damage, not permanent).  Demi-humans slain by the undead never rise as undead creatures, but Animate Dead spells will animate demi-human skeletons or corpses.  Finally, demi-humans are not aged by ghosts nor paralyzed by ghouls and ghasts.  However, other special undead attacks still affect them (a vampire may still hypnotize an Elf, for example).

Because they are soulless, demihumans cannot be Clerics or Druids if these exist in the campaign.  (I am planning some house rules that eliminate all classes but Fighter, Rogue, and Magic-User, but more on that later.)

*I’m on the fence about Munchkins, Gnomes, and Changelings having souls.  Maybe they should have souls.  Woodwoses who learn to speak Common might have souls too.

Published in: on June 8, 2010 at 2:52 am  Comments (7)  
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Some demihumans

Blame it on Tolkien, but D&D is pretty much a demihuman’s world, in my experience.  I’ve known a few players who always play humans and read the pulps who would have been approved of by Gygax, but most players I’ve known make nonhumans (or “demihumans” as Gygax dubs them).   To some extent later editions of D&D really push the idea that certain demihuman races are “better” or “more iconic” for certain classes.  To some extent all editions of D&D give bonuses to the demihumans that just make them more attractive.  Even back in my hardcore AD&D days, level limits, when enforced or even applicable (most campaigns I’ve played in just didn’t last long enough to hit high levels anyway), did not outweigh the benefits of multiclassing and the logistical advantage of infravision.   It also never hurt that there are tones of cool demihuman figures.  Here are two elves.

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Published in: on April 12, 2010 at 12:50 pm  Comments (1)  
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Other Races in D&D

No, this not a half-assed rant about how D&D is racist. You can find that here, and see it beaten into pulp here. This is another prospecting post about a campaign I may run someday; today’s topic is character races.

I’ve been having a lot of sympathy lately for the view that the only player character race should be Human. A ton of classic sword & sorcery literature and films support that, and especially in later versions of D&D (but also in other games) nonhumans just get too many benefits and too few drawbacks. (4e actually makes humans pretty good though.) AD&D’s level limits got it right, IMO, denying the very highest levels to nonhumans, but that is another post. (C&C does a good job too, giving nonhumans a big disadvantage in that they will have only two “prime” abilities with good saves & target numbers for checks, while humans get to pick three, although I’d rather see level limits.)

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Published in: on February 23, 2010 at 3:24 am  Comments (11)  
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