lördag 8 juli 2023

Sex in The Bloodmarch

SPOILER WARNING – for The Bloodmarch, a Forbidden Lands RPG expansion below. Also be warned of SEXUAL CONTENT (though not explicit really).


My original text to The Bloodmarch had some sexual content in it, most of which was edited out by Free League. They explained that they have to be careful due to various international laws and standards and also due to some recent RPG-related scandals that you might have heard about. I can understand and accept that. Still, I'd like to share some hints on what was there in the first draft, not only because I like raunchy details (which I do), but also because some of it has connections to the plot that you might want to explore. GMs can include these sexual elements or leave them out according to group preferences.

Disclaimer: Free League Publishing is not responsible for what I'm writing in this blog post (or any other). These are my personal musings.


Sex at Ashenstead
1. In the adventure site Ashenstead there's an upcoming wedding between the son and daughter of two Aslene clan leaders. One event had Merdekai, the father of the bridegroom, claiming ius primae noctis according to ancient customs – that is the right to sleep with the bride on her wedding night. The bride and her father were naturally outraged. It is uncertain whether Merdekai meant what he's saying OR whether it was a test of his counterparts / his son's balls OR a way to start a civil war (which Grudenstaal doesn't want if he's there). In any case, the adventurers are asked to solve the situation diplomatically. One solution is to access the temple's library and verify that the custom of ius prima noctis is stated only in some apocryphal texts that may be refuted.

2. The high priests Liklaudos and Melgir are to have public, ritual sex on the temple roof as part of the wedding ritual, which makes Melgir's husband Tordenost madly jealous. Murders take place, the tower Kardena's watch is made to fall into the abyss with the lovers in it, and the adventurers have to investigate whodunnit. An alternative perpetrator is the penitent dwarf in the temple hall that knows magma song.

Sex at The Watch of the Sisters

The mad composer Cavaldo is based on the actual, historical 16th century composer and prince Carlo gesualdo. In historic reality as well as in the first draft of the adventure, Cavaldo caught his wife and her lover making out in flagranti and brutally killed them, a deed that distressed him for the rest of his life and affected his work. In the game, the forest spirit Margarita fuelled his wrath towards the lovers in order to increase his musical passion.

Sex at Oxengelder
The garden of Novices in the original text was kind of a hippie park with free sex, dream and drug experimentation aiming to free your body and mind for true oneiromancy. Two charismatic young dreamers were leading these orgies, that in one event got out of hand, tranforming the participants to agressive beasts. There was also an aphrodisiac called Libertine involved, that could lead to interesting complications. The male leader of this crowd called himself ”Olof Skötkonung”, which I though was somewhat funny (actual name of historical, Swedish king, but untranslatable joke I'm afraid ;-) ). The female leader was namned Vilega Starsight as a homage to the raunchy online comic ”The Cummoner”. The elders of Oxengelder frowned upon these practices, but couldn't do much since the Dreamstress herself didn't seem to care.

Fiena Fromelei having sex
In the original text the escort goblin Crudehack, protected Fiena Fromelei so closely that he made her pregnant without she neither understanding what was going on or that she is carrying a child. Fiena's daughter could become a moonelf after birth as an alternative to herself.

Some additional sexual couples in the original text
Kurmena and Eisendor in Taregyll
Vaerfor van Reiben and the Dreamstress
Draug of the White and Mildella (reluctantly from the latter, as part of her debt)
Poansa and Grudenstaal if they join forces

tisdag 4 juli 2023

En målning byter ägare


En av mina vänner, den spännande konstnären Mark Frygell, har köpt Steven Stahlbergs (tidigare Steven Hägg) originalmålning till det ursprungliga äventyret Svavelvinter från Fredrik Malmberg. Mark bytte den mot en av sina egna målningar och båda verkar lika nöjda över transaktionen.

Mark och jag har ofta intressanta och öppna diskussioner om rollspel, konsten, livet och kreativiteten. Han är helt rätt person att förvalta målningen, eftersom han som gammal rollspelare vet hur viktig den har varit för många genom åren, och dessutom kan visa den där den bör visas i konstkretsar. Fredrik uttryckte för sin del önskemål om att målningen ska tillgängliggöras för de intresserade och inte bara hängas undan privat, vilket jag vet inte heller är Marks avsikt.

När jag pratade med Mark vid midnatt igår så hade jag ändå blandade känslor eftersom jag själv hyst funderingar över att försöka köpa målningen. Treåringen i mig ligger fortfarande och surar på golvet, men samtidigt är jag övertygad om att detta var det rätta och att verket hamnat i bästa händer! Världen blev rentav lite mer spännande.

Kanske får jag till och med snart se tavlan i verkligheten såhär trettiosju år senare ;-).

söndag 16 april 2023

The Unreliable Narrator

File:Gustave Doré - Baron von Münchhausen - 034.jpg

There has been a discussion on Discord recently about the pros and cons of the Unreliable Narrator style of the Forbidden Lands Roleplaying Game (RPG). Being one of the lead writers of the game and of its concepts, I thought I'd give my personal view and explain where it comes from. Now, I'm not that familiar with most RPGs, so I assume there are unreliable narrators in other games as well, but if so, my inspiration might come from elsewhere, and the setup might differ. I wouldn't know.

According to Wikipedia, an Unreliable Narrator is a narrator whose credibility is compromised. This can be due to a number of reasons: bragging, lying, filling in the gaps, misunderstanding, hallucinating etc. Unreliable narrators are not uncommon in first person renderings nor in movies, where at best the unreliability results in a twist – called Peripeteia by Aristotle.

In computer games, simplistic twists are common, often meaning that the good guys that you worked for actually turn out to be bad and vice versa. In an RPG however, the narrator traditionally is reliable: The Game Master (GM) reads how the world really works in the rule books and sets the game up accordingly. There is an actual, objective answer to most questions, for instance whether gods exists, how beings came into existance and how magic actually works. The players, on the other hand, often get fed lies and incomplete speculations, the decoding of which make up a big part of the game. 

Not so in Forbidden Lands. In the basic Game Masters Guide, the GM may indeed read the elaborate history of the land, get descriptions on the kins (aka ”races”, which is a term I avoid out of various reasons) and their origins, read about gods etc. Pretty soon, however, the GM gets the impression the none of this seems to be entirely true. Do the gods actually exist? Is the presented history merely human-centric and politically biased – one narrative out of many possible ones? Did the dwarves actually build the planet? did the six primordial elves actually organize life? Were orchs made as a slave kin? Were humans led across the ocean by a raven god? Etc. The GM can't be sure.

I'm not aiming for ”gotchas” with this insecurity – setting up false pretenses and dropping red herrings to fool everybody. Nor do I seek to raise elaborate illusions that suddenly vanish into thin air. 

My aim is instead to present facts, legends and observations about the forbidden lands that the viewer may percieve as patterns – different and ever changing patterns depending on changing perpective and new information coming up. Some of this stuff I won't even know about, since it is created in your individual game, but I'm confident that you'll make sense of it, since humans basically are pattern-oriented beings. Ideally, earlier observations may be fitted into the amended narrative, but in a new way, rather than turning out to be plain false, which of course also will happen as players know from the game's legends.

What I don't do in the Forbidden Lands RPG is present a ready-made pattern – ”the truth” about he world that many ask me about. Instead, I basically describe the forbidden lands in line with how I perceive our own world. Things happen around us all the time, and we try to make sense of it, fitting new information into contexts we already believe, arriving at the currently most useful and probable patterns, amending them as we go. This is also how research works.

I'm not saying I'm an adherent to alternate or totally made up facts like some current politicians and dictators. Things are and things happen. People say, see, think and do things that can't be denied, also in a game world. It's when we interpret, descibe and put these things into narratives and patterns that it gets weird. I do not believe that there even IS an objective way to decribe something at all. As soon as something is put into words, we have done assumptions concerning what and how something is to be told and in the process inevitably have discarded innumberable alternate ways to say it. This doesn't mean that anything goes, or that all descriptons are equally true – just like in research, different narratives fit more or less well with actual observations and also may serve different purposes.

The approach might be called postmodern, and was for instance used by writer Umberto Eco in ”Foucault's Pendulum” and ”The Name of the Rose”, where the protagonist, the detective monk William of Baskerville, strings together facts to a pattern that makes sense but turns out to be wrong.

So why don't I give the truth concerning The Forbidden Lands? Well, I personally think it gets more interesting and flexible and opens for more vividness and depth with some uncertainty. You may also see the unreliability as a challenge to myself as creator and to you as GM's and players, challenges delivered with love and confidence in your ability. Some may like it – some don't, but then there are other games.

The picture shows baron Münchhausen putting together his horse that was acidentally severed in two.
Artist: Gustave Doré


tisdag 7 mars 2023

The Maha Language

Maha is not about you. 

It is not about the world. 

It is about melding your mind to the world.

    /Gremerdin the speaker

The pictogram Maha Language of the Elvenspring druids is described in the Forbidden Lands RPG. Players may encounter it as a puzzle in the adventure site Pelagia of the campaign Raven's Purge. What is presented there is pretty limited due to practical reasons. In my first drafts of the game I had the ambition to use the Maha language as a foundation for druid magic and to invite players and game masters to add to the language to see were we would end up. Since some interest was aired in the game forums, I here present my initial thoughts on the language and its structure. Note that this is an unpublished draft and not official in any sense, but please lets discuss what you think!

Picture by Niklas Brandt. These are just examples of signs, not the complete Thesaurus.

Maha Language and Druid Magic

According to myth, Maha is the creation language of the god Clay. It is used by elves and elvenspring druids. The signs are often written on small clay tablets, that are burnt and combined when used. The tablets regularly have a hole drilled in the upper right corner, showing their orientation. Druids often carry their tablets on a string through the holes.

The Basics

* Maha is a holy, incomplete pictogram language. It is traditionally used to create statements that describe and affect aspects of the world, magically enforcing the statements or making them come true.

* Maha is a written language of symbols. There is no specific spoken language connected to it.

* Maha is normally not tought. Learners are supposed to gain insight by personal interpretation of statements.

* Maha signs are pictograms. Statements are formed by arranging secondary signs around primary signs.

* A mirrored sign means its opposite. For instance signs for ”white” and ”black” mirror each other. Symmetrical signs have no opposites.

* Maha signs are seldom complex or abstract and never decorated. Brevity, simplicity and clarity traditionally means more power and are the signs of a master.

* Individuals and places might be given unique signs, unless their names have a meaning that may be written as a statement.

* A laid down Maha statement may normally be interpreted in several ways over time. ”The most convincing sign” is usually accepted as true, being the interpretation chosen by the majority of respected interpreters. An already placed Maha statement may change meaning as new, more convincing interpretations come about. It is believed that this also changes the effect of the statement on the world.

Structure of Maha statements

 The primary sign (1) is mandatory. It is traditionally marked with a drop of the writer's own blood as a tribute to Clay. Druids often carry a small lancet for this purpose. Less convincing, the primary sign might be marked by having its edges blackened.

Secondary signs (2-5) are added as needed. Their position in relation to the primary sign determins their meaning. There may be more than one secondary sign in each position. Additional ones are added further from the primary signs, and certain schools make a point of the distance to the primary sign. A shorter statement is however always preferred. Statements may be added in sequence after each other to make longer sentences. The more traditional way is however to arrange statements in groups, leaving more room for interpretation.

General key:
1 = Noun
2 = verb
3 = adjective / adverb
4 = grammatical form (like plural or genetiv or imperative mode)
5 = numbers and operators (and / or / if – then / not etc)

The same sign changes meaning when it is placed in different positions. For instance these are all the same Maha sign:

Fire (1)
Burning (2)
Hot (3)
Imperative form (4)
Melded with (5)

Everyday use of Maha signs

Maha signs are often used to reveal information or wisdom in druidical holy places. Oracles might for instance offer a Maha statement. It is up to the reader to understand, and if the reader doesn't do so, he is considered not to be ready for the statement. Druids often use Maha signs for meditation and prayer, alone or in group placing Maha statements, contemplating on the shifting meanings and investigating interpretative changes when secondary signs are shifted.

Magical use of Maha signs

(I took some out here – if we were to use Maha in magic we would need to gamify)

Druids may use the Maha language for magic. Depending on skill, the druid may carry a limited number of signs for this purpose. The limitation doesn't depend on weight or space of the signs, but instead on the mental capacity of the user – how many he ”knows” and is able to focus on, i.e. connected to skill. The carried signs may over time be exchanged for others, but this normally takes a few days.

The basic function of Maha magic is that what is stated becomes true in reality, subject to the skill level of the druid. The effect is also subject to the interpretation by the majority of readers around (in practice, the druid player may place a statement and the other players get to interpret. Majority decides effect).

Maha signs used for magic should be made by the user. Statements are activated by placing a drop of the druid's blood on the primary sign.

torsdag 26 januari 2023

Mannen med hammaren


En man går runt med en spik
Man frågar: vad är det han vill
Då svarar han blygt sin publik
Jag vill bara att ni står still
I morse han rusade ut från sin kammare
irrade runt med sin spik och sin hammare
klöser med spikens hungriga klo
Jag söker en mening, jag söker min ro
Hans hela karaktäristik
är att vara en man med en spik.

Hans hammare hörs genom byn
om än tonen i slagen är stum
Han höjer sin spik emot skyn
för att söka en tid och ett rum
Han prövar vart plank, verkar noga och händig
Jag söker en vägg som är frisk och beständig
letar ett fäste att hålla en bro
Jag vill vara säker, jag vill inte tro
Han är en förunderlig syn
denne man och hans spik uti byn.

I trä vill jag fästa mitt hopp,
och när spiken till slut sitter fast,
ska världen ha stadigt förlopp,
så tänker han denne fantast.
På spiken jag hänger vår hägrande framtid,
värmen jag saknar i kyla och samtid
hänger en blomma, jag hänger en frukt
allt annat som spirar ur drömmarnas fukt
Jag famnar min älskades kropp
på bädden av levande hopp.

En man går runt med en dröm
han drömmer att något ska gro
Hans hand är stadig och öm
Han hoppas få bygga en bro
Man frågar sig: hittar han nånsin sin bräda
Ska han och vi andra den bron få beträda
Nån uppgivet skrattar: Vad är det han vill
Kanhända han lyssnar, men stannar ej still
Han söker sig inte beröm
Han går bara runt med en dröm.

torsdag 10 november 2022

Fantasy world creation as a research project


I'm not a researcher, but I've worked as CIO of two universities and as an editor popularizing research, so I am reasonably familiar with the nature of research. While following an esoteric discussion on the reproduction of two fantasy species in the game Forbidden Lands, some similarities between research and fantasy world creation suddenly struck me. I'd like to tell you about it, since it explains the way I work – not telling more facts than the basic necessities about my fantasy worlds, which some find frustrating. Questions might concern how magic actually works, whether the gods actually exist or not etc, i.e. – truths and facts.

Similarities with research
An experimental research project might come from an idea that you want to test, but often it is initiated because you scent a pattern in an already existing material, perhaps a structured deviation from expected results, or just the feeling that something is to found that hasn't so far been adressed. In the latter cases, you start with a heap of existing data and try to see patterns that might be further tested and purified and brought to conclusion.

This is exactly how I build my fantasy worlds. I start with some general, pretty simple vision and then start piling up unrelated ideas and dig for inspiration wherever I can find it. When I reach a certain volume of statements and ideas about the world, patterns always emerge and new connections show up, often in ways I couldn't know before discovering them. It's a process you need to have faith in for it to work. People often ask me whether I knew my complex world and story from start, but I never do and I wouldn't want to. Things I can plan in advance might run like clockwork, but they are never as alive as things I myself discover along the way, often with the happy elation of an explorer rather than as a methodical creator.

Differences from research
The main and obvious difference from research is that fantasy worlds are created from made up facts and ideas, but once you state these ideas, they ARE the fixed reality of the fantasy world and from there on they might be treated as actual facts and be mulled over and researched upon, making new patterns emerge. This however also shows the danger of establishing facts about the fantasy world, since once something has been stated and published, it's a FACT and cannot be taken back without loss and/or pain. Thus I never say more than I have to, since it keeps my options open, and makes way for new twists and discoveries. You will see this in the currently released expansion ”The Bloodmarches”, where old mythological beliefs suddenly are turned upside down. I think this makes fantasy worlds more alive and gives them depth. There's a trick to avoid facts that I used a lot in my Trachorian setting. As the world creator I seldom said ”this is how it is”. Instead I said ”this is what is claimed in the imperial academy of Tricilve”. After all, they might be right or they might be wrong at the academy.

So in the esoteric discussion on the reproduction of fantasy species where I started, questions are asked, but rather than answering them right away (which I no doubt could do if I put my mind to it, nailing the discussion shut), I follow, tease, comment and investigate the many suggested solutions from others. These in turn give me new ideas, making patterns appear due to the mere volume of ideas presented. We thus create together in a metagaming spirit! It's a wonderful fantasy world!

tisdag 30 augusti 2022

Liberalism in Dark Fantasy Ages

I'm currently reading ”Liberalism in Dark Times” by Georgetown univerity scholar Joshua Cherniss. The book describes how a number of liberally inclined, twentieth century thinkers, including Albert Camus and Isaiah Berlin, tried to deal with anti-liberalism and totalitarism, mainly nazism and Soviet communism.

The main concern in the book is how to adress ruthlessness and cruelty without becoming so ruthless yourself that you loose your liberal essence and soul. That is: how do I fight, stop and if necessary kill bad guys while not staining my own hands, becoming as bad as they are. Liberalism should after all be based on law, individual rights, tolerance, acceptance of diversity and freedom of speech. These questions are very urgent also today, as democratic societies wrestle with an openly aggressive and repressive Russia as well as with internal, populistic lies and organized crime.

There are however no simple solutions, as there seldom are in non-totalitarian politics. Cherniss leans towards liberalism founded in ethos, that is a personal conviction of liberal norms, rather than having liberalism rest on ideology. The problem with the latter is that it often slips into expedience; ”the end justifying the means”. You've been brutalized, so you're justified to be brutal in turn. In Star Wars, you would turn to ”the dark side of the force”. Instead Cherniss wants you to retain your soul and resist the temptation to quick and dirty fixes. This is not simple, but perhaps the only way. I wrote a blog post (in Swedish) on a simliar subject: that extreme positions tend to get stuck and inflexible, while interesting development only takes place in the instable balance point between them. I compared this position to the equivalence point in chemical titration, where small changes yield major effects.

Liberalism in my fantasy writing

I'm currently working on two expansions to Free League's role-playing game Forbidden lands as well as writing a fantasy novel in the game setting that I had the pleaure of constructing. Cherniss' book has given me unexpected and useful input. In the game you meet ”The Rust Church”, a fascist religious organization. What I learned from the book is that many (not all) early Soviet communists and German nazis started out in good faith; that they solidly believed themselves working for a good cause. Being part of nonliberal movements, they however were told that their personal opinions and comforts would have to be sacrificed for the greater, common good. Indeed, the weak of stomach had to prove their loyalty by demonstrating cruelty and abscence of empathy – ”Squeamishness is the Crime” as is the title of the first chapter. Once this threshold had been overstepped, people could stand working in prison camps. I like giving my bad guys some kind of rationality rather than just being sadistic and ”bad”, so I'll probably use similar mechanisms for the Rust church. Add some historicism – the belief that your cause inevitably will prevail, and that anything implying the contrary is fake and heresy – and you're set for disaster. As Bolshevism had it: good can issue from evil.

For liberal champion, I will use the elf Mergolene from the game, advocating moderation, respect, coexistence and reasoning to fellow elves that feel justified in raiding and killing the orchs at The Eye of the Rose, a fortress once built by elves. Mergolene will probably be the protagonist of the second novel in my series. The more aggressive elves will advocate the temptations theatening fed-up liberals.

By reading and using books on history and political theory, I get the opportunity to discuss and adress current problems in our own world while writing about fantasy stuff in made-up lands.

Simply the best of two worlds!