The Alexandrian

Query: “My PCs were drugged, captured, tortured, and put on a slow boat to their execution. The villain comes in to interrogate them and they just toss one-liners and empty threats at him. How do you get your players to take your villains seriously?”

Kill them.

I’m not saying you should capriciously seek to slaughter them, but if the logical outcome of the PCs’ actions is lethal then let the dice fall where they may and don’t protect them from the consequences.

A lot of GMs shield their players from the negative consequences of the actions they take… and then wonder why the players keep engaging in bad behavior. (One common reason for this is that the GM is protecting the railroaded plot they’ve predesigned. But it just demonstrates how the railroader’s desire for rigid conformity actually just creates a compounding fragility which makes it ever more difficult to achieve the conformity.)

Conversely, I’ve played in games where PCs had explicit script immunity and had great experiences. But it requires the players to erect a rigid wall between their metagame knowledge and the actions of their characters. If the characters start acting as if they knew they had script immunity things go bad very, very quickly.

The Colour Out of Space

It is uncertain whether these are truly different stages in the life of a “colour” or if they are distinct, perhaps representative, samples of a biology utterly alien to human understanding.

PUPATING COLOUR

This form of the colour is most vividly described in H.P. Lovecraft’s original “Colour Out of Space”. At the dawn of the creature’s life cycle (or at least this phase of its life cycle), it seeks vast quantities of energy (drawing lightning strikes to itself, tapping into the electrical grid, or the like). Once it has been “jump-started”, it rapidly grows by feeding on the environment around it.

However, it must be understood that this is no terrestial feeding. In some incomprehensible way, the colour is consuming the memetic content of the world around itself: This initially manifests itself by way of the colour “super-charging” the physical realization of the object. For example, fruits will grow at a prodigious rate; computer systems will achieve impossible benchmarks; animals will become capable of incredible physical feats. This hyper-expression of the memetic ideal allows the colour to rapidly process the memetic totality of its surroundings, but even at this early stage the colour’s consumption of that memetic essence is apparent: The fruit will be bitter to the taste. The computer will manifest strange run-time errors. The animals will exhibit queer and unusual behavior (often blending their traits with those of other creatures in the same region).

Once this rapid phase of initial growth is complete, the pupating colour will begin to “digest” its surroundings. What is left is a grey, desiccated reality slowly turning to empty dust. (This, however, should not be mistaken for any form of normal decay: Even in the most advanced stages of destruction, the memetic integrity of the original will still remain horrifically intact. Thus, for example, bodies half-turned to dust will still exhibit slow and deliberate movement, betraying that the original consciousness is still trapped somehow within.)

At the end of its pupation, the colour undergoes a metamorphosis into a secondary (or perhaps higher) form. The exact nature of this form, however, is unclear: Ammi Pearce described a great uplifting and withdrawing of the effervescent emanations of the colour from the great swath of land it had infested or infected, culminating in a “launch” of one (or perhaps) more entities into space.

However, in the final stages of its existence before that extraplanetary launch, there is little doubt that at least some portion (or agent) of the colour had become motile and perhaps even physically manifest (producing a “splash” within a pool of water when it retreated to a well). And there are also those, Pierce among them, who claim that something still lurks within the gray and desiccated fields of the Gardner farm. At the moment of metamorphosis could one part of the creature have launched as genetic/memetic seed pods while leaving some other post-pupating creature behind? (Or was the motile agent of the colour merely the possessed form of one of Gardners’ sons? Pierce reported that, in the final phases of their infection, mother and son would converse in screams that sounded like some alien and inhuman tongue.)

INQUISITIVE COLOUR

Inquisitive Colour Out of Space

“I might have told myself the rust had eaten away the car until it was thin as a shell, but I was past deluding myself. All at once I knew that nothing on this beach was as it seemed, for as my hand collided with the car roof, which should have been painfully solid, I felt the roof crumble — and the entire structure flopped on the sand, from which it was at once indistinguishable.” – The Voice of the Beach, Ramsey Campbell

Where the pupating colour feasts upon the memetic content of its environment for its own aggrandizement, an inquisitive colour mimics the objects (and, eventually, animals and people) around it. Of course, it is still ultimately destructive to its environment: The templates on which it builds its mimicry (seeking and striving to understand the alien worlds in which it manifests) are built by draining the memetic content of the originals.

“But of course, the more one thinks of the beach, the stronger its hold becomes.”

Of particular interest to the inquisitive colour are intelligent beings who are inquisitive about it, to which it is drawn like a lodestone. Although perhaps it would be equally true to say that it creates the inquisition to which it is drawn. In either case, it draws those near it into a kaleidoscopic hall of mirrors and sinks its memetic hooks deep. These siren-like memes often take the form of strange patterns – often in natural phenomena (like the sands of a beach or the cascade of a waterfall), but sometimes in other forms as well (like the torn leaves of a book or the ashy cascade of a forest fire). Often those afflicted by the colour will describe a painful constriction of the skull, which is merely a physical manifestation of the colour’s memetic searing of the neural channels.

Another common manifestation of the inquisitive colour is its whisper. This inexplicable memetic earworm will attempt to manifest itself wherever possible: In the sound of the sea in seashells; a corruption of the MP3 files on a computer; an instant messenger on your phone that connects to nothing. Even if one can physically escape the inquisitive colour, often its whisper will follow, subtly infiltrating their lives and inexorably drawing them back to its origin.

Over time, the ghost-like meme patterns manifested by the inquisitive colour will begin to move and shift. As the strength of the colour grows – or, perhaps, as its understanding of the memetic realities it is processing grows clearer – the vague patterns become larger and more complicated forms (although these often fade into and out of reality). At the same time, those afflicted by the colour are slowly reduced towards the same common denominator until they are little more than metaphors of their previous existence. They will begin to vanish intermittently from reality as it becomes more obvious that the colour is transforming the physical laws of our reality (or persisting despite their hostility), and each time they return they are a little less comprehensible to human sanity.

Perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the inquisitive colour is that, in its final stages, it begins to so closely mimic the world around it that it can no longer be distinguished from reality itself. Except there is left the vague and horrible sensation that the reality it is seemingly conforming to is not actually identical to the reality which was there before; you are simply no longer able to remember or understand (or perhaps comprehend) the reality which you had known before.

If that is so, then it is possible that our world as we know it is nothing more than a fresco of inquisitive colours, laid one atop each other in the soft plaster of our minds.

There are even those, hopefully driven mad by the colour, who claim that all of reality is nothing more than layers of such colours laid out like kaleidoscopic cloth. That the scope of our worldly perception is only the craqueled interstice of the memetic matrices of a many-coloured mesh.

SENESCENT COLOUR

Senescent colours manifest effects similar to pupating colours by hyper-expressing idealized memetic forms while nevertheless subtly warping them in hideous ways, but they do not expand aggressively. This has led some to suggest that senescent colours are the opposite end of the colour’s life-cycle, but this is most likely nothing more than a terrestrial assumption being applied to something far more complex and alien.

The fallibility of this comforting lie is perhaps best suggested by the rich psychological effects which are manifested by the senescent colour. These groping accords or hallucinogenic visions make it seem as if the senescent colour is trying to communicate (or perhaps inculcate) complex and alien memetics into the consciousness of those coming into contact with it. But often the transformative wake of these incoherent concepts nonetheless leaves behind a veneer of alluring ideas. These ideas, in turn, can prove seductive even to those who never come near the senescent colour. Is the senescent colour truly dormant in the decrepitude of age? Or is it merely more insidious in the viral paths of its memetic transformations?

Similarly, relics infected by a senescent colour often become the focal point for mass conversions. And the subtler (and perhaps more important) question is: Mass conversions to what?

It is said that a senescent colour danced in the halls of Solomon’s Temple, inspiring pale copies of itself in ivory pomegranates. When the Temple fell, it was carried away from that place in the Ark of the Covenant.

Another may have lit Excalibur’s blade and sough to transform the emerald isle.

When the Houmuwu ding was unearthed in Wuguan Village in 1939, the senescent colour that clung to its bronze walls may have seeped out into the Yellow River and sung a song of Cultural Revolution until its ghastly harmonies marched 30 million to their deaths.

Go to Part 2: The Remnants of the Colour

Ender's Game - Orson Scott CardHere’s a question I’ve seen come up quite a few times: Is the Ender’s Game series by Orson Scott Card worth reading? And, if so, should you bother with sequels?

As a young adult, Ender’s Game was one of those books that stuck with you and transformed you and informed everything you read from that point forward in your life. Revisiting the book a few years ago as an adult, it was not quite so utterly mind-blowing, but it was still a really good piece of science fiction and I recommend it highly.

Speaker for the Dead, on the other hand, is one of the best science fiction novels ever written.

So, basically, yes. I enthusiastically recommend these books and I think your life is poorer if you haven’t read them.

With that being said, here’s my recommendation for tackling the Ender-verse:

(1) Start with Ender’s Game and read through the original sequence of novels until you don’t like them any more. Then stop. They aren’t going to get any better.

Ender’s Game
Speaker for the Dead
Xenocide
Children of the Mind

(2) Now, pop over to Ender’s Shadow. Read through this second sequence of novels until you don’t like them any more. Then stop. They are going to get a lot worse very, very quickly.

Ender’s Shadow
Shadow of the Hegemon
Shadow Puppets
First Meetings
Shadow of the Giant
Shadows in Flight

I stopped reading about midway through that sequence, so I don’t have any opinion on the Ender inter-quels:

A War of Gifts: An Ender Story
Ender in Exile

Nor do I have any opinion about the prequel trilogy:

Earth Unaware
Earth Afire
Earth Awakens

But I suspect I’m not missing anything.

The Names of Legend

March 2nd, 2015

Names of Legend - Wordle

This article originally appeared in Pyramid Magazine on July 23rd, 1999.

When a character is in the process of being created it is a rather magical period of time. The most proficient members of our hobby are able to breathe so much life into their characters that they seem to actually inhabit the bodies of their players while the game is in action.

However, the half-elven archer who is tortured by the fact of his heritage and was torn from his mother and rejected by his father when the truth was first learned — while being an exciting and interesting character to play — is all too easily spoiled by a name such as: “Ron the Archer”. Somehow it just seems to lack an essential ephemeral quality.

An engaging, exciting, entertaining, and original name for characters in a fantasy universe has become essential. “Gregory” dims in comparison to “Fairyleaf” or “Dewdusk”; “Stewart” becomes shallow when held up to names such as “Aldervan” or “Floaic”.

But there are no sources from which to draw these names and I have, more than once, had the character creation process halted by the fact that I cannot find an appropriate name for a character. Even fantasy literature does not aptly serve this purpose, because if you have seen one “Aragorn” you have seen them all.

The task becomes even more daunting for the aspiring Game Master. He must, literally, populate his world with thousands of NPCs and the one bad memory of “Bob the Butcher” will leave a much greater impression upon his players than a hundred characters with interesting and original names will ever do.

This problem is one unique to the gamers of fantasy. If you are playing a campaign on the modern or futuristic scales names such as “Donald” and “Blake” do not appear incongruous with their surroundings, and “Arthur” is a fine name for a historically-based medieval campaign. Fantasy, on the other hand, is a world of primitive wonders that are completely unearthly in their scope and nature. This inspires us to come up with equally unnatural and magical names to the mirror the world in which the individuals who bear these names live their lives. Fantasy worlds are the domains of Fafhrds and Alustriels… somehow it seems the only proper thing to do.

This article strives to alleviate these problems from the backs of fantasy gamers by providing sources you may not have thought to consult, as well as some basic ways to start the creative process when the block occurs.

HISTORICAL TEXTS

Historical texts are an invaluable source for names. Although many are cluttered with more common names such as “John” or “Margaret” you can often caches of treatises which deal in totally foreign names.

J.R.R. Tolkien used historical papers and names extensively. The names of the thirteen dwarves from The Hobbit are lifted verbatim and in order from one of the Icelandic sagas.

Even the common-sounding names from historical papers can often be fancied to one degree or another to produce a usable fantasy name of some sort. For example, while “Thomas” is rather mundane you can easily make it of the female persuasion (“Thomasine”) and end up with a name that is not commonly used.

LEGENDS AND FAIRY TALES

Naturally enough, from this sort of material, you will be able to reap great rewards in terms of names. Although many of these tales employ common names of the time period, it is not hard to find names (usually in the more mystical sections of the story) that will spark your creative skills.

Often you will find good sorts in foreign tales, as names are not typically translated. Therefore you can draw greatly from common names, so long as they are not common to the people with who you are playing.

It is also advised that you avoid well known material. Having the captain of the Lich’s guard named “Neibling” is probably not the best way to come off as witty and an intelligent to your peers; similarly the elven archer who has lost his royal title and is named “Robin” is not going to instill coos of delight at your originality. Therefore avoidance of tales in the ilk of Robin Hood or King Arthur is heartily suggested.

FANTASY FICTION

Although the last names of your peers may seem boring and commonplace, it is more likely because you have become overexposed to them. There are many uncommon last names with a feeling of unearthliness attached to them, and if employed correctly even your local phone book can be applied to naming your NPCs.

If you have a large library of novels and other works it is suggested that you look at the last names of some of the lesser known authors. Names such as “Gillard” and “Amend” strike me as perfect for the use being discussed. Even slightly more earthly names such as “Blish”, or names that seem just slightly unusable, can be changed in various manners (see the Syllables sections below) to suit your purpose.

It is also suggested that you get in the habit of looking at the credit pages of large books. If you look at the front of a TSR book you will get a listing of everyone from the CEO to the artists to the actual writers of the work. A massive collection of names, any one of which may be fascinating for you.

To stress this point again (and I do not believe it can be understressed): Do not use the last names of popular authors. If you add characters such as a fearsome fighter of unparallelled strength known as “Asimov” or a butcher named “Gygax” the popularity of your campaign may be drastically reduced. The author of this article takes no responsibility if this warning is ignored.

COMBINATIONS

If you are in a rush a cut and paste method may best fit your tastes. By this I mean that by a combination of two different sections of text from a work (or two different works) you may be able to come up with something completely original.

For example: Paging through a handy science fiction novel I spot two names I rather like, Bryce and Nicolai. I quickly paste them together and my character becomes known as Nicolai Bryce.

Try to make it compositionally sound; “Richard Andrew” just doesn’t make the cut.

Do not let yourself be limited to just fantasy authors. If you employ this method in combination with the Last Name method above you’ll find great success: modern fictional characters can have exciting last names just as easily as real people. The only thing to remember is our prime directive: No popular works (and thus, in this case, characters). Therefore “Gandalf Bilbo” is probably not the wisest thing to attempt.

GAMING SUPPLEMENTS

Gaming supplements may seem unlikely places from which to draw material from names — especially if you are playing the game in question — but, if done properly, the supplements game companies produce are invaluable assets.

If you are running the campaign on the fly, either because the PCs have taken off in an unexpected direction or you simply had nothing prepared, and you want them to enter a village, but have no name for it my suggestion is to open one of the game worlds produced by game companies. This process works for any locale name, from cities to mountain ranges, so long as you avoid the more popular names which are immediately recognizable.

SUGGESTED

GM: The dust billows up around you as you walk down the dusty road. A rickety old sign off to the side says “Sourlode”; some short figures, probably dwarves, are milling about an old mine entrance about a half mile away.
Player: Wow!

AVOID LIKE THE PLAGUE

 

GM: Alright, you’re in Waterdeep–
Player: So this campaign is in the Forgotten Realms?
GM: No, I just stole the name.

This method even works effectively for NPCs; so long as you avoid Elminsters and Raistlins you should meet with successful results.

BABY NAME BOOKS

Although the vast majority of the space in these tomes are filled with commonplace names such as “Betsy” and “Frank”; one of my best characters — Darwara — was named from one such book.

It may take a little bit of time to find an appropriate name, but if you are completely out of ideas or simply want to browse for awhile you may uncover simply wonderful and awe-inspiring names that you never would have considered. Render all options fully available to yourself; leave no stones unturned and no doors unopened.

SYLLABLES, METHOD ONE

The modern world as we know it is a mass of written material. Even the radio, a purely sound based invention, will have written characters upon it. At this very instant there is 100% chance that there is written material within your line of sight (since you are reading this I figure this is a pretty safe bet).

Each word in the English language is broken down into syllables — one or more for each word. This also applies to names. If you find a string of syllables and arrange them in an audibly appeasing fashion chances are that you will end up with a name fully usable for a fantasy character.

To exemplify an this procedure: I have an AD&D handbook close at hand. Across the room is a shelf of Star Trek novels. From those five words (Advanced, Dungeons, Dragons, Star, Trek) I can construct the name of “Adarun”. I drew the syllable “ad” from “Advanced”; the syllable “ar” from “Star”; and the syllable “un” from “Dungeon”.

This procedure can be applied to any written material you may have at hand. The name “Procan” is drawn entirely from two words in the previous sentence, considering how many words fill up this magazine there are a nearly infinite number of names you could conceive from the combination of varying syllables throughout.

Considering that there must be some written material at the game table in order for the game to be played, it should not be vastly difficult to come up with names on the fly with this method.

SYLLABLES, METHOD TWO

The first step you must take in applying this method is finding a base word; usually this is the sort of thing you can simply pick out of thin air. From this base word you change syllables incremently to similar sounds, or delete them entirely until you come up with a name which you enjoy. It takes me approximately ten seconds to run through the whole process (on average) in my head.

For example:

Ravenloft
Cavenloft
Cavloft
Covloft
Covlaft

And you have a completely original name that is unlikely (if not impossible) for anyone to trace back to its roots in the word “Ravenloft”.

CONCLUSION

I can only hope that this article finds its way into the hands of at least one Gamemaster who will find some use for it. Who will be able to improve his campaign, reduce the guffaws from his players as NPCs with generic names gain center stage, and add the essential elements to the atmosphere of his campaign that creative and correct naming processes can accomplish.

This article was my first professional sale. In fact, it was almost my first professional sale twice over: I sold it to Shadis Magazine, but it remained unpublished when Shadis went on permanent hiatus in 1998. When it became clear that Shadis wasn’t coming back, I sold it to Pyramid Magazine. (In the interim, however, I had sold a book to Dream Pod 9 that was never published.)

Reading it now, I find myself cringing a lot at how overwritten it is. The core of the advice remains pretty solid, though: The syllabic methods remain my go to solution for cranking out alien/fantastical names. (I will note, however, that I find my younger self’s intolerance of names like “Gregory” and “Thomas” for fantasy characters completely inexplicable.)

Semi-interesting note about the byline here: This article was originally published under the name “Justin Bacon”, which was the same name my RPGNet reviews had been appearing under. (At the time my legal name was “Justin Alexander Bacon”.) Shortly thereafter, however, I decided that I wanted to drop my last name and simply be “Justin Alexander”, so I asked Steven Marsh (the editor of Pyramid) to change it. Thanks to the glorious flexibility of digital publishing, this was easily done. Unfortunately, a few months later Dream Pod 9 screwed up the Jupiter Planet Sourcebook for Jovian Chronicles and published the book (my first book!) under the name “Justin Bacon”. I reluctantly decided to accept the fait accompli and went back to Steven Marsh and asked him to swap my article credit back to “Justin Bacon” with the intention of using it for all my future RPG work. (Later I took a hiatus from the industry and when I came back I decided to reverse course once again and fully embrace the name “Justin Alexander” for all of my work, for better or worse.)

 

I think that anyone who spends a fair bit of time hanging out with Shakespeare’s plays ends up accumulating a few choice phrases that will restlessly bounce around the inside of their skulls. I’m not necessarily talking about the big quotes. (Those are pretty much culturally ubiquitous.) What I’m talking about are the snatches of lesser-known verse that just happen to velcro onto your subconscious.

One of these, for me, is “disasters in the sun”. It tends to bounce into my mind whenever I’m confronted with a bit of misfortune or tragedy. The phrase comes from Hamlet. Specifically scene 1.1, where it is usually printed as:

In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets;
As stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.

That quote, I’m afraid, is not actually truncated. Feel free to read it again a couple or three times if you like: It’s not actually a sentence. Nor is it immediately clear how it could become a sentence. In fact, its so unclear how the passage could become a sentence that it has effectively baffled 400 years worth of Shakespearean scholars and is almost universally cut from performances (presenting, as it does, an almost undeliverable challenge for any actor).

Things might be easier if we could compare the line across multiple original texts, but this passage appears only in the Second Quarto. Many early editors of the play assumed that there must be a line missing (which would conveniently contain the verb so desperately required by the latter portion of the passage). In fact, a goodly portion of the 1700’s were filled with a variety of scholars writing new verse lines and sticking them into the play, while others simply contented themselves with lifting a line from a similar passage in Julius Caesar and jamming it into place.

Another popular emendation was to semi-arbitrarily choose a word from the passage and turn it into a plausible-looking verbs:

Ay, stars with trains of fire and dews of blood,
Did darken e’en the sun…

As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood
Did enter in the sun…

Stars shone with trains of fire, dews of blood fell,
Disasters veil’d the sun…

Astres with trains of fire and dews of blood
Disastrous dimmed the sun!

THE OXFORD EMENDATION

More recently, G.R. Hibbard, in the Oxford Edition of the play, hypothesized the following emendation:

…and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
At stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood,
Disasters in the sun; and the moist star
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.

Hibbard’s assumption is that Q2 text comes from “the compositor’s mistaking t for final s“.

(Amusingly, if you do a Google Books search for “at stars with trains of fire” you will find several such uses which appear to precede Hibbard’s emendation… but they are all the result of Google’s OCR software misidentifying “as” to read “at”. A digital inversion of the human error Hibbard hypothesizes.)

Hibbard’s emendation is to be praised (and has proven quite popular; being adopted into Arden’s Third Edition of the play, for example). It is commendable in its simplicity, and by turning the “stars with trains of fire”, “dews of blood”, and “disasters in the sun” into the objects at which the sheeted dead are squeaking and gibbering it succeeds in granting at least some sense.

However, even with the emendation the wording of the passage is quite awkward. Writing “stars with trains of fire, and dews of blood, disasters in the sun” instead of “stars with trains of fire, dews of blood, and disasters in the sun” could perhaps be excused as poetic license and the necessity of proper scansion. But a construction which is awkward on its own merits suddenly runs wholly aground on the rockiness of the next clause: “… and the moist star, upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands, was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.”

If one squints closely enough, it is possible to pick out the larger construction: “The sheeted dead (did a whole bunch of stuff) and the moist star was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.” But the seemingly mis-sequenced “and” in the listing of calamities makes it virtually impossible to actually say such a passage aloud and have it make any sense.

A NEW EMENDATION

In preparing our script from the Complete Readings of William Shakespeare, however, I realized that, while Hibbard was on the right track, he’d misidentified which word had its final character misread by the compositor. Here is the correct reading of the passage:

In the most high and palmy state of Rome,
A little ere the mightiest Julius fell,
The graves stood tenantless, and the sheeted dead
Did squeak and gibber in the Roman streets
As stars with trains of fire and dews of blood
Disaster’d in the sun and the moist star,
Upon whose influence Neptune’s empire stands,
Was sick almost to doomsday with eclipse.

Those who had groped to find the missing verb in this morass (darkening, dimming, and distempering the word “disasters” in their efforts) were also on the right track… they just didn’t realize that the verb was staring them in the face, cleverly hidden by a “d” that had metamorphosed into an “s”.

Of course, this means that Shakespeare never actually wrote the snippet of text that has been echoing around my head for the better part of a decade now. I might be a little sad about that, but check this out:

A survey of Hamlet texts and variorium seems to confirm that the correct reading of this passage has never been published, suggesting that it hasn’t appeared on a stage as Shakespeare wrote it in more than 400 years. (In fact, it may have never been performed on a stage, depending on whether or not the Q2 version of the script was ever staged by the Lord Chamberlain’s Men.)

But on Monday, at the James J. Hill House in St. Paul, it will be.

How cool is that?

Originally posted on November 19th, 2010.

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