Monday, April 30, 2012

Z is for Zenyatta Mondatta

[This is the last of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. What a month!]

So sorry, but this post is a total bait and switch.  It's not about the Police's ground breaking third album.  It's about their even more successful fourth album and the enigmatic red LED type symbols on its cover...


I never knew until recently that these symbols are actually stylized pictures of the three band members.  On the left is guitarist Andy Summers, in the middle is Sting, with his spiky reggae hairdo, and on the right is drummer Stewart Copeland, who had cropped forehead bangs at the time.  An image this iconic was of course ripe for parodying (e.g., Batman and the Muppets) and it's also been targeted by religious extremists -- backwards, it's 666, right!?!

I also didn't know much until recently about the album's title, Ghost in the Machine.  That phrase was tossed out in Terry Gilliam's Brazil, but with so much else going on in that movie I never followed up on it.  Sting and friends were inspired by Koestler's 1967 book of philosophy, which explored the incompatibility between what we know about the multi-layered brain and the classical idea of a mind-body duality.  The more we learn about how our bodies and brains evolved, the harder it becomes to see how a disembodied spirit or soul could ever detach itself from all that hardwired wetware...

It's funny that, all this month, down in the comments of these A-Z posts there's been an intermittent meta-discussion, mainly between myself and Suze, that's come back again and again to the idea of Transhumanism.  People planning for the Singularity have been thinking a lot about how "embodied" a conscious intelligence really needs to be.  Can we truly thrive as ghosts in a digital machine?

Gotta be a Trekkie to get this one?
I'm sure transhumanists have debated whether there should be litmus tests to verify that we're ready, willing, and able to be uploaded.  Personally, I wouldn't attempt the crossover until I was 100% sure that the new "substrate" keeps not only the conscious mind, but also the murky depths of the unconscious.  I'm not going anywhere without my archetypal peeps!  :-)

I sometimes get excited about these quasi-apocalyptic possibilities, but I worry about becoming too focused on the potential awesomeness of the future.  It's kind of the flip side of nostalgia and Springsteen's "Glory Days."  If I fetishize either the past or the future, it keeps me at a distance from the Right Now.  Maybe that's the real Zen(yatta) connection here?

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Y is for Yat

[This is the 25th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

"Yat" is a letter of the Russian Cyrillic alphabet that doesn't exist any more.  Where did it go?

Back in the 1700s, it represented a unique vowel sound, but spoken sounds tend to slip and slide with the centuries.  By the early 1900s it was kind of redundant, and the rules for its proper use were complicated.  It was called "...the monster-letter, the scarecrow-letter ... washed with the tears of countless generations of Russian schoolchildren."  And the Soviets gave it an unceremonious heave-ho.

There are some theories out there that this particular letter was singled out for persecution by the Communists because it kind of looks like a church topped by a cruciform spire, or like the traditional sovereign's cross-bearing orb.  I've also seen a grim joke that noticed that the word for "bread" in Russian was spelled with a Yat, so that its removal heralded the coming of the famines of the 1920s.

Like many things, though, what was old can be made new again.  Since the 1991 fall of the Soviet Union, there's been some nostalgia for the Yat, with it being called a "white swan" and "that most Russian of letters."

Why bring up this remnant of the era of Catherine the Great?  Even though its link to religion may be apocryphal, it's yet another reminder that in many cultures, writing and the alphabet were regarded as holy and sacramental.  One can't simply decide to throw away a letter from Sanskrit, or Hebrew, or Arabic!  There have even been times when mystics have received secret languages that were claimed to be from God himself.  The Golden Dawn (see my K-post and M-post) made use of the Enochian language taught to John Dee in the late 1500s, and they tricked it out with more psychedelic colors than you can shake a lotus-wand at...


Modern Enochian scholars have put an incredible amount of work into trying to understand this language and what the "angels" told Dee and other seers.  Some of it seems to approach a new mythology for a new age (click on Ben Rowe's Book of the Seniors if you have a spare week to delve deeply).  Some of it, though, seems to get people running over the same old ground, finding their same old fears dressed up in different clothes.  (Out of courtesy I won't link to those that I suspect of going down that road.)  Even with the benefit of the angels whispering in our ears, I guess we can always choose to turn up the volume on the iPod...

Friday, April 27, 2012

X is for Saltire

[This is the 24th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Another alphabetic cheat?  Maybe.  Unlike my earlier V-but-not-a-V post, at least this one looks like the letter X.  Saltire, or a Saint Andrew's Cross, is heraldry-speak for a diagonal cross that spans the full length of one's shield or flag.  The bonnie Scots have adopted this term for their own symbol of rugged individualism...


...to the extent that, in some circles, the word "Saltire" is synonymous with "the Scottish flag."  But the general Saltire design is also a popular component of flags of many other nations, regions, and military forces...


Americans will no doubt recognize that one on the lower left that's never far from controversy.  What struck me from this collection of Saltires is the large fraction of them that command strong emotion amongst those that fly them proudly.  You've got various peoples of the British Isles who've been under the thumb of the English monarchy, you've got the Basques, Confederates, and other rebelling factions, and you've got various "Hey! Danger!" signs.

Why do people get so emotionally involved with a simple X?  Or rather: why do they actively associate X's with issues and objects that they're already strongly emotional about?  I think these feelings were associated with their Saltires long before our modern-day association between X's and negation.

Psychologists probably have their theories, but I wonder if part of it is the expressive "swoosh" of this shape.  Sharp, bold, and decisive!  This made me think of a few other angular swooshes from logos and advertisements that you may recognize...


Zorro's Z is particularly interesting because it's made with the tip of a sword.  The red V was made, with spray-paint, by freedom fighters who seethed with many of the same emotions that caused Don Diego de la Vega to don his mask and cape.  (No need to carp on the unrestrained emotions of devoted video gamers or that famous Nike sponsor...)  The lesson: symbols can be powerful things!  Trifle with them at your own peril!  :-)

Thursday, April 26, 2012

W is for Weary

or woozy, or wrecked, or weak-kneed, or wiped out.  I'm sorry folks; I wracked my brain, but nothing really worthy of this fun series on symbols worked out for the letter W.  So, I decided not to be such a worry-wort, and just take a bit of a walkabout today to see what the world has in store for tomorrow.

But...

You know...

W is also for Waldo:


They say that nobody knows whatever became of him, but I know.  Unfortunately, I'm not at liberty to say.

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

V is for Digamma Inversum

[This is the 22nd of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

V is for what now?  I'm not cheating here... this post really is about the letter V, but maybe from a bit of an alternate history perspective.

The ancient Roman alphabet was slightly shorter than the 26-letter version that we're celebrating this month.  Specifically, they used the letter we call "V" for both the Vee (consonant) sound and for the "Youuu" (vowel) sound.  You've probably seen inscriptions like AVGVSTVS.  The problem was that there were some Latin words that were ambiguous when spelled this way.  People talk about VOLUIT ("he or she wishes") being indistinguishable from VOLVIT ("he or she tumbles").

Enter the hapless emperor Claudius in the 1st century AD.  He introduced three new letters of the alphabet to fix some perceived problems, and one of them was the digamma inversum shown here.  It was meant to replace the letter V when the consonant sound is to be made.  To ancient Romans who looked up to the Greeks in matters of culture, it was a quasi-borrowing that made some sense; the Greeks had an old F-shaped letter called digamma that was used for this sound (even though they weren't using it much when Claudius was alive).

The problem was that nobody, um, gave a fvck....  There are a few stone inscriptions in Rome that show this odd letter, but after Claudius died, it rapidly fell out of favor.

The lesson, I suppose, is that of Ozymandias... "Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair?"  Not forever, bucko.

However, stuff like this can spur the mind into "what if's."  What if these new letters DID remain a part of our modern-day alphabet?  Would Robert Graves' famous book cover look like this?  (Look closely!)  :-)

About a decade ago, I got really into ancient Roman alternate histories.  You know... What if the Roman Empire never fell?  I thought I'd end this post by listing a few of my favorites...
  1. Kirk Mitchell, in his Germanicus trilogy, probably did the most historical homework of the three authors I'm listing here.  One of his "points of departure" (the Romans' defeat in the Teutoburg Forest) is something that historians continue to debate as a key turning point in the Empire's expansion.  Even with all the history, it's an enjoyable, fast-moving read that shows the rise of a troubled emperor and his journeys to the New World and back.
  2. Somtow Sucharitkul's Aquiliad series (Book 1, Book 2, Book 3) is probably the least researched, but the most fun!  Full of howling puns, glaring anachronisms, and in-jokes that only sci-fi fans will get, the characters have stayed with me since I first read parts of Book 1 serialized in the early 1980s.
  3. Robert Silverberg's Roma Eterna was interesting in a bunch of ways, though it's been criticized for its history and its characterization (both a tad shallow).  However, his tie-ins between the changed Roman history and the plight of the Jews were quite poignant.
  4. More alterna-Greek than alterna-Roman is Richard Garfinkle's Celestial Matters, which is best known for its conceit that the Ptolemaic, geocentric universe is actually true, and the "crystal spheres" that surround the fixed Earth can be visited by spacecraft!  I honestly don't remember the historical point of departure, but it may involve the survival of Alexander the Great's empire.  I remember the characters being endearing in a similar way that I came to love the characters of Avatar: The Last Airbender.

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

U is for Unkin

[This is the 21st of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Readers who play(ed) classic Dungeons & Dragons may remember that there were several magic spells that required chalking out mystic runes on some surface to get the effect to work.  There were Explosive Runes (3rd level M-U), Aerial Servants that came only in response to a magic circle (6th level cleric), and all-purpose Symbols that could enslave or kill (8th level M-U).  But maybe most famous was the Glyph of Warding (3rd level cleric), which could be tweaked and adapted like a piece of devious technology.  Is it a booby trap?  An unbreakable lock?  It allowed sneaky players to devise all kinds of interesting delayed reactions.

The original D&D books only gave a small number of examples, but fans ran with that ball.  Most memorable to me was an article by Larry DiTillio, in The Dragon #50, which gave dozens of them.  I was a bit freaked out by the one shown here, titled "Unkin," which was described thusly:
The bleeder. This Glyph causes any wounds on the toucher or passer to open and begin bleeding even if the wounds are bound. Wounds will continue bleeding for 2 rounds per level of caster, such bleeding draining an additional 2 pts. every round.
Not fun for the person who happens across this one!  More recently, I encountered the word "unkin" in the novels of Hal Duncan (who is awesome because he's a Blogger blogger, and because of this).  His version of this word refers to mortals who are touched by angels/demons and thus become "...transformed by the ancient machine-code language of reality itself."

But whenever I think about chalking weird geometric symbols on a wall for mystic effect, my mind goes first and foremost to the Twilight Zone -- the "Little Girl Lost" episode to be specific.  In that story, a kid fell through the wall into a fourth dimensional portal and was rescued by a quick-thinking physicist with a piece of chalk...
 

It's been famously parodied by the Simpsons, and it may have been inspired by an earlier, weirdly abstract Jack Kirby comic.  I always loved the idea that simple geometry could be the key to such "magical" outcomes.

And yes, I was probably the only kid in the class who looked forward to this on the ol' 16mm film projector.  :-)

Monday, April 23, 2012

T is for Treasure

[This is the 20th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Money is a major "symbol" for all kinds of real things.  I was surprised to learn (from its obligatory Wikipedia page) that money can actually "symbolize" at least 4 distinct things: a medium of exchange, a unit of account, a store of value, and a standard of deferred payment.  Before your eyes glaze over in an econo-haze, I should say that money is also something that RPG players often obsess on as a way for their characters to gain experience and get new super-kewl powerz...

I find it interesting that the word Treasure comes ultimately from the Greek word Thesaurus, for a vault or storehouse in which money is kept.  It speaks to the enthusiasm of early compilers of "word hoards" that they came to call one type of lexicographical compilation by this evocative name.  I could also wax on about Aleister Crowley's use of the Greek word in his poetic (and symbol-filled) work called the Treasure House of Images, but I've probably blathered on about the ol' Beast too much this month.

So money!  In most of history, it was synonymous with coins made of various precious metals...


Game masters who create imagined fantasy worlds often want to make these worlds come alive for their players.  I think that much of a setting's verisimilitude can be conveyed through its coinage!  So here's a d6 list of numismatic events that may serve as fodder to help PCs get a feel for their world...
  1. Watch out for "clipping!" It's the weight of a coin that counts, so all merchants should have scales to watch out for those who may shave off a bit of that precious metal from each coin.
  2. Sometimes, though, it does matter what is printed on the coin.  One kingdom may "overstrike" the coins of their enemies with their own symbols, to show dominance.  Some merchants may not care if an enemy's coin is being used, but some may!
  3. From time to time, the ruler can decide to revalue their money, in comparison to either a foreign currency, or with regard to the things it can pay for locally. Sometimes there's inflation... sometimes there's debasement.  Both often generate controversy.
  4. Counterfeiting was often punishable by death.  Nuff said!
  5. Rulers can put images on coins that are offensive to a ruled people. Romans enraged the Jewish people by putting pictures of their holy liturgical items on coins (see the lituus and jug pictured here), and Muslims didn't like seeing coins with images of animals on them.
  6. A kingdom can choose to mint new commemorative coins for a big occasion.  PCs coming across these coins will learn about important events that they may soon
    become inveigled in!  For example,
    • birth of heir or new ruler
    • coronation of ruler
    • death of ruler
    • deification of dead ruler
    • peace treaty
    • great war victory
    • big-number anniversary of any of the above!

Finally, if you're truly disappointed at my semi-bait-and-switch here ("money is a symbol?" really?) and you want REAL symbols to chew on... I can give you the Type Parlant, a coin with an image on it that pictographically symbolizes the name of its home city or nation.  Usually very obvious with the linguistic play -- e.g.,  roses for Rhodes, a moon for Luneburg -- they've been used since ancient times.  GMs can have punny fun with this, too!  :-)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

S is for Shibboleth

[This is the 19th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

At the core of my own fascination with signs and symbols is a long-standing love of alphabets.  Maybe it's no coincidence that the very idea of the A-to-Z challenge got me thinking of symbols!  In fact, I still have a few posts left in the queue that have to do with special letters... It's just a coincidence, I think, that we had to wait all the way to S to see the first of them.

Anyway, in English there are some "exotic" sounds that don't correspond to a single letter of the alphabet.  One that always interested me is the "SH" sound -- strictly speaking, the voiceless palato-alveolar sibilant.  Here's a selection of how a few other alphabets deal with this sound:


The first (blue) one is the Hebrew letter Shin.  This letter has some interesting stories attached to it... the most famous of which is the Biblical tale -- from Judges chapter 12 -- of the word Shibboleth.  The Ephraimites took advantage of the fact that their enemies, the Gileadites, habitually mis-pronounced the "Sh" sound as "S", and rooted out sneaky infiltrators by demanding they pronounce the word.  42,000 of them failed to do it, and were slaughtered!

Some happier "Shin" anecdotes include the fact that the hand gesture made by the Jewish priestly Kohanim, when giving a blessing, is supposed to be in the form of the letter Shin. A young Leonard Nimoy saw this in the temple, and thus was born the Vulcan "Live long and prosper" gesture!  There's also the story of a four-pronged version of the letter Shin, which today is mysterious and unmanifest, but will become known to the world when the Messiah comes.

Anyway, the regular old three-pronged version probably gave rise to the Coptic and Cyrillic letters for the "Sh" sound (the 2nd and 3rd ones in my image above).  The fourth one is familiar to calculus students as the integral sign, but it's how the Sh sound is rendered in the International Phonetic Alphabet.  (Now there's a treasure trove of weird symbols and glyphs!)

The final (red) symbol above is a special one.  I was probably 5 or 6 years old when I first wondered why the "Sh" sound doesn't have its own letter.  Thus, I set about to create one!  This pretzel-twisted "R" is what I came up with, and the name of the letter was also a bit of a tongue-twister:  "Double-bull."  (Inspired by the spoken name of the letter "W" I suppose?)  Who knows what lurks within the mind of a geeky child?!  :-)

Finally, I can't let this go without pointing to an interesting online challenge.  Fans of designing fonts (and other types of typography) were asked to come up with new letters for the sh, ch, and th sounds.  Here's an example of my favorite one:

The new symbol looks enough like the two letters that inspired it to make it easy to understand what it's supposed to be... but it's still clearly a new and unique "letter."  (Kudos to designer Jongseong!)

I don't have too many concrete suggestions for RPG players here, unfortunately.  I guess one lesson one could take away from the Biblical Shibboleth is that world-traveling PCs should try to be mindful of the local dialects!  :-)  If one comes into a new village and speaks like someone from far far away, one may get doors shut in one's face -- or worse!

Friday, April 20, 2012

R is for Rota Fortunae

[This is the 18th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]
from a deck by Nigel Jackson

Today's symbol is more like a piece of traditional medieval imagery: the Wheel of Fortune.  Wikipedia describes various meanings and cultural sources (and there's also the Tarot Trump of the same name), but I can't say it any better than Joseph Campbell did in his amazing interview with Bill Moyers from the late 1980s...
In the Middle Ages, a favorite image that occurs in many, many contexts is the wheel of fortune. There's the hub of the wheel, and there is the revolving rim of the wheel. For example, if you are attached to the rim of the wheel of fortune, you will be either above going down or at the bottom coming up. But if you are at the hub, you are in the same place all the time. That is the sense of the marriage vow - I take you in health or sickness, in wealth or poverty: going up or going down. But I take you as my center, and you are my bliss, not the wealth that you might bring me, not the social prestige, but you. That is following your bliss.
It's about much more than marriage, of course.  I should also quote modern-day philosopher and jackalope enthusiast Bud Luckey, who put it more succinctly:
Now, sometimes you're up,
And sometimes you're down.
When you find that you're down,
Well just look around!
You still got a body,
Good legs and fine feet.
Get your head in the right place
And, hey, you're complete!
Finding a peaceful "central hub" amidst all the ups and downs of the Wheel is a big challenge for me, but having these poetic images close to hand can sure be helpful.

When it comes to games, we can forget momentarily about the deep philosophy, and revel in the fun of wheels and spinners! :-)  I always loved the multi-colored look of the one from the Game of Life (pictured here), and wonder if the big one on the Pat Sajak game show was inspired by it.

Even cooler in some ways are wheels that don't merely randomize, but instead can be used to help you figure out useful things in your chosen pastime.  D&D fans may remember the wheel-shaped Combat Computer from Dragon #74 that assists the player in figuring out what number needs to be rolled to hit an opponent.  This may have been inspired by circular slide rules that are still used by pilots even in this age of GPS.  As a kid, I remember getting to play around with a Grumbacher Color Compass, a set of wheels that provides all manner of color combinations and explains color theory for painters.

I guess I enjoy wheels and spinners for the same reason I love the strange polyhedral dice of RPGs.  It's more fun to have a variety of ways to do what you love doing... This is why I sometimes can't understand what drives some RPG people to want to use a unified resolution mechanic to figure out whether their tasks succeed or fail.  Just using a single type of die roll for everything seems so bland to me... Why would one want to make the experience of fighting a monster "mechanically" equivalent to casting a magic spell, or disarming a fiendish trap, or seducing a fiendish princess?

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Q is for Quincunx

[This is the 17th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

"Quincunx" is one of those words that has branched out into many meanings in many fields.  From the Latin phrase for the fraction five twelfths, it originally referred to a Roman coin worth 5/12 of their standard bronze denomination.  They used a pattern of five dots, in the standard "dice" pattern (a square of 4 dots surrounding the 5th central dot), on that coin.  Soon that abstract pattern became known as a quincunx in heraldry, and it eventually became popular in various counter-cultural circles as a covert tattoo design.

However, probably the most widespread meaning of the word quincunx is in astrology, where it refers to an angular aspect of 150 degrees (i.e., a separation of 5/12 of a great circle) between two planets. The purple "sawhorse" glyph above is the standard symbol for this aspect.

Because 5/12 is kind of an oddball fraction -- especially in comparison to the more "harmonic" fractions of 1/12, 2/12, 3/12, 4/12, and 6/12 -- the quincunx was often thought of as the red-headed stepchild of the aspects and given the name "inconjunct."  Poor quincunx...

When two planets are in a quincunx aspect with one another, it's supposed to be not overwhelmingly positive or negative.  Because the two zodiac signs are so different from one another (just shy of a crisp opposition), it's thought that the 2 planets just don't know how to relate to one another. Not so much direct conflict as uneasy friction.  Maybe it's the astrological equivalent of this:


For some reason, the idea of the two "inconjunct" planets being thrust together with no common ground makes me think of the surrealists and their fondness for making odd juxtapositions between disparate items.  Even though the surrealists often said that the best juxtapositions were the most distant and jarring, I think the coolest ones are those with SOME commonality between the ideas.  I think that's why I like the semi-realistic paintings of Dali, Ernst, and Man Ray, but I don't connect as much to the most abstract end of the spectrum (Miro, Kandinsky, Duchamp) or to the absurdist performance stuff (Ubu Roi, John Cage).

In my letter C post, I mentioned something similar with my own goal of moderation in designing settings and adventures for fantasy role-playing:  not too much Weird... but not too little, either. Players may need some discrete "stepping stones" that connect their own experiences to this Other World.  Though of course the occasional inexplicable non sequitur can be fun, too!  :-)

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

P is for Plot Snake

[This is the 16th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Back in letter B, I blathered a bit about narratives and plots, but the search for order in storytelling chaos is neverending...

The idea of diagramming a plot goes back to Aristotle, and probably earlier, with the basic idea of "something" (call it tension?) that goes up, then comes back down.  It builds up, then it is released.  A famous playwright called it the tying and untying of knots.  Some say that the whole is divided into three parts (protasis, epitasis, catastrophe) and others argue that it's really five acts (exposition, rising action, climax, falling action, and dénouement).  Up until the middle of the 20th century it was rare to see anyone questioning this basic idea.

Enter Professor Allen Tilley.  He claims the old Aristotle up-down just characterizes one "episode" in a more complete narrative.  The minimum necessary sequence for a truly satisfying story isn't a single mountain, it's a SNAKE:


(He's got one book from 1992, a more recent one from 2009, and also an active web page at his university... lots to see there!)

He calls the vertical axis "entropy," with upward motion meaning more order, and downward motion more chaos.  The story ends on a "higher" plane than it began, but the characters had to go through their highs and lows to get there.

I'm particularly fond of Tilley's plot snake because it's such an infectious mind-worm... once you know it, you start seeing it everywhere!  Let's briefly break down a story that everyone probably knows:  Cinderella.  Compare these steps with the ups and downs in the snake diagram above:
  1. Initiation:  Her parents dead, Cinderella is stuck with her horrible stepmother and stepsisters. The main conflict is set up: her own self-worth clashes with how the others see her.
  2. Burnt Fingers:  The conflict begins to come to a head.  She wants to go to the ball. The stepmother says she can, if she accomplishes an impossible amount of work.
  3. Temporary Binding:  The fairy godmother helps Cinderella attend the ball and she falls in love with the prince.  Everything seems to be working out perfectly!
  4. Infernal Vision:  Not so fast...  It's midnight!  From the heights, to the depths:  Cinderella has seen love, but is now even lower than before.
  5. Final Binding:  Of course, the prince is searching for the owner of the glass slipper. Through many travails, he finds her.
  6. Termination:  And they live happily ever after.
See the flow?  The transition from stages 3 to 4 is pretty much required in modern-day romantic comedies, usually about a half-hour before the end of the movie.  You've seen it, I'm sure:  3 is the stage of a happy musical montage... frolicking in the park, trying on funny hats, and so on.  But then the big bad secret is revealed, and we're into despondency and stage 4: will they break up forever?  Of course they won't; there's still stages 5 and 6.  Sometimes stage 6 is only shown in snippets in the end-credits, or with freeze-frames on the characters with words telling how they ended up (Senator and Mrs. Blutarsky).

Of course, there are other templates.  Joseph Campbell's monomyth is often visible through the cracks of modern film making. (I know what example you're thinking about, but I would bet money that George Lucas didn't know about it until 1986 at the earliest, despite what he says now...)  There are also companies who sell software that supposedly does this work for you.  Some of these don't seem to be that worthwhile, but others do seem to be doing their homework on comparative dramatic theory.  But Tilley's plot snake is compelling because of its simplicity and unintentional ubiquity.  I dare you to NOT think of it in the next movie you see!  :-)

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

O is for Oui Dire (or On Dit)

[This is the 15th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Since I've already got plans for R, today's loose talk about RUMORS (no, not the album) has to be filed under something else.  Two French terms for hearsay: oui dire ("yes for the ears") and on dit ("they say...") are as good as anything else. :-)  I don't have much profound to say about why rumors spread, or why we like to hear them... this is a very practical RPG-related post.

There is no established symbol or pictogram for a rumor, but the tech community became intrigued recently when Apple trademarked this symbol for something in development called "Ping."  I don't know if anything more is known now about it, but from the look of the symbol, rumors began to spread that Apple is getting into the social networking game.  Anyway, I thought the symbol itself could serve quite nicely as an intuitive representation of a "rumor" itself!

Anyway, GMs in role-playing games sometimes like to stir the pot by spreading rumors -- often when the characters wander into the local tavern.  GMs with lots of time to prepare sometimes even have custom-built tables containing brief snippets of gossip for different locales in their imagined world.  I fondly remember Len Lakofka's adventure L1: The Secret of Bone Hill, that presented a fun list, with true ones mixed in with false ones.  Some modern-day GMs let the computer do the randomizing, too (see this list of 200+ generic town rumors).

However interesting the content of the rumor tables, the method of rumor delivery is often pretty ham-handed.  Here's 1d8 worth of ideas that venture beyond stereotypical whispers at the local watering hole...

Alternate Rumor Delivery Methods
  1. On the street, a PC runs into a NPC they know well (friend/contact? enemy? family member? merchant or tavern-keeper the PC does business with?), and the NPC feels the need to fill them in.
  2. The PCs are walking around.  They turn a corner and overhear two NPCs whispering to one other about what's going on.
  3. The PCs see wanted posters or other written announcements.
  4. The PCs get stopped by local guards/constables.  Why is the whole town on alert?
  5. Everyone in town has gathered... it's either a proclamation by the town crier, or (depending on what's going on) a public trial, ceremony, or execution...
  6. The PCs happen upon a dead body.  Investigation will show the person was carrying an important message that lays the seeds for some interesting goings-on.
  7. Random person (unknown to PCs) goes up to a PC and says "Hey... are you XXX?" No, they're not, but it's an excuse to talk about why the NPC is interested.
  8. Related variation on the above: If the PCs are well known, then the random person DID hear a rumor about that PC!  But it's been mashed up -- some truth, some WTF -- with the latter weirdness relating to the rumor that the GM really wants to deliver.
There's nothing astonishingly new about the above, but harried GMs may appreciate having options like these in one easy-to-find list.

I guess the only other thing I have to say about rumors is that they're a member of that rare class of nouns that can still be appended to the word "MONGER."  It used to be used for sellers of all kinds, but these days it's pretty much only for dealers in rumors, fish, and war!  :-)

Monday, April 16, 2012

N is for Networks

[This is the 14th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

I hope today's topic isn't too much of a cheat, since I don't have a simple "symbol" for the idea that I'd like to talk about.  (Try these, if you really crave one?)  I also hope this idea isn't too much of a re-tread of stuff I talked about on E-day and I-day... There are many cool aspects to interconnected and interdependent Networks, no matter what the "nodes" and "links" actually represent.

Today I'm thinking about political and diplomatic networks.  I guess the "nodes" could be towns, cities, nation-states, or planets (the latter in a sci-fi setting!).  The links between them are relationships:  Alliance or enmity?  Do trade goods flow freely?  Does a common religion forge a bond?  Prior to the modern age, the INTENSITY of feeling between two regions (whether friend or enemy) was probably tightly correlated with the distance between them.  These days, that's probably still largely true, but technology is making distance less of an issue.  Here's a graphical representation of a randomly distributed set of nodes, where the thickness and brightness of the linking lines depends only on physical closeness:


One of the fun parts about tabletop role-playing is setting up a "sandbox" type world for the players to explore.  Game masters love making maps, but the real verisimilitude comes when working out the relationships that link the points on the map together.  Alexis Smolensk is infamous for delving deeply into the economic aspects of these linkages.  Old-school RPGs often had "racial preference" tables that told you what the various demi-human species thought of one another.  1st edition AD&D used the following continuum of default feelings:

preference > goodwill > tolerance > neutrality > antipathy > hatred

...and I think it would be straightforward to apply these labels to neighboring towns and cities, as well.  In a similar vein, I've seen some computer variants of games like Diplomacy and Civilization use specific hierarchies of political relationship (see here or here, for example) as a way to quantify the difficulty or ease of accomplishing specific goals.  I've assembled a few of these lists together to form the following gradation of 11 steps...


One could imagine any connection between two locations on the map having a known "temperature."  Over time, it can heat up or cool down -- and it's especially fun when the player characters become embroiled in these events.  In a fantasy, feaux-feudal setting, maybe something like Jeff Rients' random castle shenanigans could kick off a chain of events that cause the mercury to skyrocket!  :-)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

M is for Moon Letters

[This is the 13th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

It's full-on geekiness here at the blog today for some J. R. R. Tolkien action... In The Hobbit, our heroes learn that their treasure map has some hidden writing on it -- writing that only becomes visible when held up so the Moon's light shines through it.  (And it's got to be the same Moon-phase and season as when the words were first written with a magic silver pen...)


So today's symbolism isn't so much the runes of Tolkien's invented languages, but the idea of the rays of a celestial body "activating" a bit of time-sensitive magic down here on Earth.  This of course can cross over into various interpretations of astrology.  Also, the Theosophists often get all rainbowy with their seven rays shining down on us and correlating with the classical planets.

A few days ago, I talked about the British Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn and its eclectic Victorian wizardry.  They taught their advanced initiates some very literal "ray theory" when showing them how to do magical alchemy.  Their "Z-2" document contained a step-by-step procedure for creating the philosopher's stone (correlated with the steps of their Neophyte initiation ritual... i.e., the alchemist is "initiating" the dead matter and enlightening it to a higher level!)  The process involved exposing the ingredients to the rays of the Sun and Moon at precise times. Some practical alchemists have picked nits with the details given in the Z-2 paper, but French Golden Dawn scholar Jean-Pascal Ruggiu says not to dismiss them so quickly:
Another discrepancy of the Z.2 document with other secret operative alchemical works concerns the exposure of the matter to sunlight and moonlight, the sequences which are not correct. However, the mere fact that this process is given proves that the author of the Z.2 document was really well instructed in the mysteries of Alchemy, because this indication was never revealed in published texts (although it was often shown in many plates). Indeed, the action of light upon the matter, and above all, how and when it has to be applied, is one of the main secrets that the Philosophers reveal only to their pupils after due initiation and under oath. Fulcanelli gave a very good definition of Alchemy as being "the art of transmutation of the matter by the power of light."
Who's energizing who here?
Kind of also makes me think of various flavors of light therapy and color therapy!  After all, if the Golden Dawn could take their initiation rituals and apply them to "inert" matter, then why not turn the tables and apply some other (meta)-physical techniques back onto the initiates themselves?  :-)

Inventive RPG game masters will find dozens of ways to use these ideas to spice up their magic items and spells. If you're still scratching your head about how it can be fit into a rollicking picaresque series of adventures, see how Aang and friends dealt with various astronomical alignments, focused sun-rays, and doom-bringing celestial objects!  :-)

Friday, April 13, 2012

L is for the Lion's Paw

[This is the 12th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Today is another secret hand signal (like old Ficus)... this time a handshake of recognition amongst the Freemasons.  I don't think I'm giving away anything TOO über-secret, here, since the source of my image below is almost 150 years old, and it is often derided by Masons who talk about its many errors.

Specifically, many modern-day Masons say that the Spock-like separation of fingers is no longer done that way...

Suffice to say, the "Lion's Paw" is taught to the new Mason at a climactic point in their final initiation ceremony, and it involves death, resurrection, and bonds of brotherhood that are meant to extend beyond the grave.  In some versions, it also involves some grisly imagery of flesh tearing away from the bone.  When introducing it, they often mention the biblical Lion of the Tribe of Judah, which is often identified with Jesus by Christians.

It reminds me of one of the most memorable scenes from the third of C. S. Lewis' Narnia books.  Poor annoying Eustace -- the Steve Urkel of this book -- was turned into a dragon because of his bad behavior.  But God-Lion Aslan knew that the only way to fix him was to remove that pesky dragon skin...
But just as I was going to put my feet into the water I looked down and saw that they were all hard and rough and wrinkled and scaly just as they had been before. Oh, that's all right said I, it only means I had another smaller suit on underneath the first one, and I'll have to get out of it too. So I scratched and tore again and this underskin peeled off beautifully and out I stepped and left it lying beside the other one and went down to the well for my bathe.

Well, exactly the same thing happened again. And I thought to myself, oh dear, how ever many skins have I got to take off? For I was longing to bathe my leg. So I scratched away for the third time and got off a third skin, just like the two others, and stepped out of it. But as soon as I looked at myself in the water I knew it had been no good.

Then the lion said - but I don't know if it spoke - "You will have to let me undress you." I was afraid of his claws, I can tell you, but I was pretty nearly desperate now. So I just lay flat down on my back and let him do it.

The very first tear he made was so deep that I thought it had gone right into my heart. And when he began pulling the skin off, it hurt worse than anything I've ever felt. The only thing that made me able to bear it was just the pleasure of feeling the stuff peel off.
That did the trick for Eustace's inner character, too... but yikes!

This whole "secret handshake" thing also got me thinking about secret societies in RPGs. They're usually encountered for highly skilled members of certain elite classes (assassins, monks, thieves, etc), but what about the Average Joe?  Suppose that there is a secret order of plain, zero-level folks... but with JUST a bit of magic contained in that arcane handshake. The performance of the handshake allows one order-member to temporarily transfer one or more of his hit points to his fellow.  When you've got only 1d4 hp, a brotha can really help out a brotha with just a very minor gesture like this!  The recipient's gain will dissipate in 24 hours, but the giver's loss will need to be healed as if any other type of damage had been done.  If someone gets help from multiple people and gets a full HD of hit points, that's also equivalent to a "life energy level" when encountering level-draining undead.

Thursday, April 12, 2012

K is for Khabs Am Pekht

[This is the 11th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Have I talked much about the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn on this blog before?  I've probably mentioned it, but I'm sure I haven't successfully conveyed its sheer awesomeness. It was a real-life British occult society that trained some major cultural figures of the early 20th century, and inspired many modern day artists and magi (like Alan Moore) with its tradition of magic and eclecticism.  It also produced some pretty psychedelic imagery, such as this shot of a modern reconstruction of its sooper-secret Inner Order Vault of the Adepti:


For today's symbol, there are literally hundreds to choose from, just in the above image alone!  But instead I'd like to talk about a coded set of passwords from the GD's very first initiation ritual.  A new candidate who wants to become a GD Neophyte is put through an elaborate ritual that symbolically shows how the Order will take them from Darkness to Light.  The initiate wears a "hoodwink" over his or her head through most of the ritual, but at its climax the hoodwink is removed and the initiate sees the Egyptian-themed temple for the first time, and sees the garishly robed three main officers in a triangle surrounding him or her.  At that key moment, they say "We receive thee into the Order of the Golden Dawn," and they take turns intoning mystic words:

The Hierophant says:  KHABS
The Hiereus says: AM
The Hegemon says: PEKHT
The Hiereus says: KONX
The Hegemon says: OM
The Hierophant says: PAX
The Hegemon says: LIGHT
The Hierophant says: IN
The Hiereus says: EXTENSION

The Egyptian phrase "Khabs Am Pekht" is said to mean the same thing as the Greek phrase "Konx om Pax," and they're both supposed to mean "Light in Extension."  (The Greek phrase is from the Eleusinian Mysteries, and I don't think the historians have yet figured out what it really means...)

"Where are the symbols?" you may ask.  Well, later, when the initiate advances a few more grades, he or she is given documents that explain the esoteric significance of the Neophyte admission formula, and that document gives the Egyptian hieroglyphs and Coptic transliteration of the "Khabs Am Pekht" part:


(I'm actually not 100% sure that I'm allowed to present the scan of these hieroglyphs above.  For some reason, all published versions of this document don't show it.  The above comes from a scan of a hand-copied version from the 1890s that was sent to me by a private Golden Dawn scholar.  Hopefully showing just a tiny snippet of that scan isn't verboten...)

To me, what's most interesting about it is that it's just... not... quite... right.  Many of the correspondences between Egyptian and Coptic are straight outta Champollion, but others, like the star and cross for "a" and that recumbent dude at the end, just don't mean what they think they mean.  We're left wondering what kind of convoluted game of "Telephone" this drawing went through to get to where it is...

In fact, the belief that "Khabs" meant some kind of bright, shining light eventually led Aleister Crowley to make the word a key concept in his religion of Thelema.  Some argue that this distortion of ancient Egyptian concepts somehow invalidates the modern-day usefulness of Thelema as a philosophy or world-view, but I think that it's hardly any different from the millennia of borrowing and syncretism that preceded it in every other religion...

Anyway, there are many possible ways to relate the above whirlwind of ideas to role-playing games.  Back in the 1990s, there was a pretty cool Call of Cthulhu Supplement about the Golden Dawn that gives 1890s-era CoC Investigators whole new worlds of occult creepiness to explore.  Even without that, GMs could make use of the infamous ciphers that were used to encode the first version of the GD's ceremonies.  From some of the images shown in the above cipher link, I think Trithemius would have loved the AD&D Combat Computer!

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

J is for the Jolly Roger

[This is the 10th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Well, I can't wait until September 19 -- or even for the letter "Arrrrr" later this month -- so today will just have to be about pirates.

Blackbeard's favorite version
In the 1600s and 1700s, most pirates just flew a pure black flag, but others added the skull and crossbones or other scary signs of death and dismemberment (including more subtle memento mori such as an hourglass) to frighten their victims into surrendering without a fight.  Nobody knows for sure where the name "Jolly Roger" comes from, but many believe it's a derivative of the French joli rouge (pretty red), for the blood-red versions of the flag that were sometimes flown.

Pirates are often stock non-player characters in many kinds of fantasy adventure games. However, often people just look to the classics (from Treasure Island to Jack Sparrow) and make their pirates pretty stereotypical.  Fun as that can be, here's a random table to throw a monkey-wrench into those bog-standard pirate tropes...

Our Pirates Are Different:  Roll d20 for Freebooter-Themed Foibles
  1. The captain has a strange psychological quirk.  There are plenty of quirk/flaw lists out there... try Mike Monaco's modification of Galloway's classic Bogey Table.
  2. The captain has a strange magical anomaly.  Roll 1d20 on Dyson Logos' table of unusual characteristics for pirates from last year's April A-Z.
  3. The captain is powerless.  He or she is secretly the puppet of another (random) crewmember.  Is it magical coercion?  Or just good old blackmail?
  4. The captain is a stereotypical Long John Silver type, but the crew is all made up of people from a very different part of the world.  How did these folks get together?
  5. The captain is a woman.  No... scratch that.  The "pirate queen" trope is getting pretty stereotypical, too.  How about a pirate Red Queen?
  6. The crew are all lycanthropes.  When is that next full moon?
  7. The captain and crew are all devotees of a strange deity unknown to the PCs.  Will they try to convert the PCs?  Or sacrifice them?
  8. A seemingly innocent cabin boy is planning mutiny.  He has almost half of the crew on his side.  (The captain killed his parents...)
  9. The crew has a good luck charm that they believe keeps them safe in battle.  It's displayed out in plain sight, but it's taboo to talk about it too much or touch it disrespectfully.  Hopefully it's nice and shiny, so one of the PCs won't think anything of picking it up, tossing it around, and saying "Hey, what's this?"
  10. Down below, the crew keep a powerful druid prisoner and force him (with a stolen Ring of Human Influence) to constantly cast Control Weather to give the ship good seas.
  11. The captain and crew are wanted... not by the authorities, but by all other active pirates in the area for breaking an article of the Pirate Code.  Preferably one that is fairly incomprehensible to the PCs!
  12. The crew is divided into several (four? five?) warring factions.  Everyone is out to get everyone else, but they're so cagey and shrewd no direct hostilities are ever carried out.
  13. The pirate ship is a strange color, and/or has sails with strange things painted on them.  Who's the on-board artiste?
  14. At night, nobody goes below.  At the last port of call a random monster scurried aboard, and the ship cast off without knowing.  It's killed several crew members already, and it makes sounds that chill you to the bone, me hearties... but it never comes up into the open air...
  15. The ship was captured from the local navy and still looks very much like a ship of the line.  ("So, is this the new Bluesmobile or what?")
  16. The ship still drags about a dozen corpses from a recent keelhauling.
  17. The ship is haunted.  Not a semi-ghostly curse like the Flying Dutchman, but it's literally haunted by the spirits of people killed by the captain and/or crew.  Will these ghosts eventually become numerous (powerful) enough to sabotage the ship, or attack crewmembers directly?
  18. Once per day, the ship can magically go underwater for 30 minutes of super-cool submarine attack action...
  19. The ship is equipped with the equivalent of stinkpot projectiles (adjust tech level to be era-appropriate).  And they literally stink, too.  Well, how else do you expect them to efficiently get rid of the contents of their... poop deck?  :-)
  20. Roll another d20 for more randomness "At Sea in the Tropics."  See pages 61-62 of the 2011 Secret Santicore, and combine the sub-tables titled SHIPS and CREEPY.
Once your quirks are known, use this to name the ship, use this to name some of the pirates, and you're ready to cast off!

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

I is for IDIC

[This is the 9th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Known by the most unbridled denizens of geekdom such as myself, IDIC is an acronym from Star Trek that stands for "Infinite Diversity in Infinite Combinations."  It's a core principle of the logical philosophy of the Vulcans, and it also comes in nifty pendant form:


In reality, the IDIC pendants seem to have been a crass marketing ploy by Trek creator Gene Roddenberry... so crass that even Leonard Nimoy needed lots of convincing to wear it on the show.  But the idea of it really resonated for me back in the day, so I'll keep my fond memories of it anyway.  :-)

Many fans embraced "infinite diversity" because of its resonance with tolerance for alternate ways of living.  I always thought that trying to fold your mind around "infinite combinations" gets quite close to the sacramental core of the Glass Bead Game (see collected quotes here).  It's also reminiscent of the ideas in my letter E post of a few days ago.

One great way to stretch your mental muscles with IDIC is to think about the various degrees of infinity that mathematicians have come up with.  Georg Cantor got the ball rolling in the late 1800s with transfinite numbers, but that was only the start.  Want to take a ride?
  • First up is the idea of a "countable infinity."  You know:  1, 2, 3, 4, ...  The "dot dot dot" just means to keep on going forever.  Cantor proved that if you can write down an algorithm that accounts for all the members of a set by counting (even if it goes on forever), then that set has essentially the same number of members as any other set that satisfies this criterion.  This can be a bit counter-intuitive, since it means the set of all even (or odd) integers is the same size as the set of ALL integers.  The set of all rational numbers (integer divided by an integer) is also countable, and thus the same "size" as the set of all integers, too.  This degree of infinity is called Aleph-Zero.
  • Are there sets bigger than Aleph-Zero?  Yes!  The set of all real numbers (including all those pesky irrational numbers like pi and the square root of 2) contains an "uncountably" large number of members.  Unlike, say, the set of all integers, there is no way to say what the "next" real number is that follows any given real number. There are always infinitely more reals squeezed in between any two that you can write down.  This degree of infinity is called (by some) Aleph-One.
  • Are there sets bigger than Aleph-One?  You bet!  As big as it is, something even bigger is the set of all possible SUBSETS of Aleph-One.  In other words, the set of all possible "infinite combinations" of the members of Aleph-One.  There's Spock and his pendant again!  This degree of infinity is called Aleph-Two.
  • You can keep on going and going, with Aleph-(N+1) being the set of all possible combinations of the members of Aleph-N.  You can even substitute another "Aleph number" in for N.  But some mathematicians take the next leap to be the following: Consider an infinite set so big that it's the SAME size as the set of all of its possible subsets.  It's so expansive that it is its own subset.  Your mind has to really stretch to see how that could be possible.  Reading the mathematics literature starts to get hard to follow from here on, but I think these "Inaccessible Cardinal numbers" are often given the symbol theta.  (And there's the Ecology symbol again?)
  • The mathematicians go on, with hyper-inaccessible cardinals, indescribable cardinals, ineffable cardinals, and so on...  I can't keep them straight!
Anyway, I highly recommend Rudy Rucker's classic book Infinity and the Mind for those who want to dig deeper -- or climb higher up that infinitely tall mountain!

Monday, April 9, 2012

H is for the Helm of Awe

[This is the 8th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

The Helm of Awe, or Ægishjálmr, was a magical symbol worn by Norse and Icelandic warriors for protection in battle and to invoke fear in one's enemies. How precisely it was to be "worn" varies a bit with time and place -- sometimes it's drawn on the forehead, sometimes tattooed on the body, and sometimes it's meant to represent an actual helmet (as in Wagner's Tarnhelm). The web is full of modern-day drawings and tattoos, but I wanted to show (at right) a scan of a page from an actual Icelandic grimoire that highlights the original symbol.

There are a lot of interesting things about Icelandic symbol magic that I could talk about, but you can get a feel for a lot of it from the above links.  One thing that particularly jumped off the screen at me, when I first saw the Helm of Awe, is its eerie similarity to magical symbols drawn centuries later, half a world away... Have a look at a Haitian Voudon symbol (Veve) for the imposing Baron Samedi:

Like medieval European magic circles (and Tibetan sand mandalas?), these symbols are created by ritually strewing various powders on the ground in the appropriate patterns.  However, Baron Samedi's sphere of influence is kind of the flip side of what one would want from the Helm of Awe.  One invokes survival with the Helm... but the Baron is the one who accepts people into the realm of the dead.  Well, maybe this is just the mirror image of the same idea.  Soldiers going into battle often must meditate on the idea that "this may be a good day to die."

In RPGs, there have been some products that describe a kind of "Tattoo Magic."  See a Pathfinder source book, as well as a page of Rolemaster house rules.  Borderline creepy that they are, they still don't seem to approach the religious aspect of both the Helm and the Veve.  Perhaps it's the CLERICS that should get these kinds of powers when they choose to mark themselves with the symbols of their gods.  Of course, if it's just drawn on (and not permanently tattooed) then it wouldn't impart as strong a bonus.  And woe to the cleric for whom the drawn-on symbol accidentally rubs off!

Saturday, April 7, 2012

G is for Gremorly

[This is the 7th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

A short post today, in terms of words.  But I couldn't let a month of intricate symbols and glyphs go by without seeing the mystical etchings of Dave Trampier's evil wizard Gremorly, from the long-running Wormy comic strip in Dragon Magazine.

Scoff if you must, but a magic circle like the following would flummox John Dee himself:
You'll kick youself if you don't click for the bigger version
The above is just one of several of Tramp's intricately rendered examples of the "visual manifestations" of Gremorly's conjurings.  In a different strip, Gremorly's spell-casting speech was transcribed with a script (left panel below) that looks to me much like the Nuskhuri form of the Georgian alphabet (right panel below):


Yes, my thoughts exactly!  :-)

Friday, April 6, 2012

F is for the Ficus Gesture

[This is the 6th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Today's symbol isn't something written... it's a hand gesture that goes by many names around the world.  I first encountered it as the "fig" (Italian fico, Latin ficus) gesture, that came from ancient Greece as a sign of fertility, but has now bifurcated into either a sign of good luck and/or an obscene gesture.  (With the issue of fertility, one can easily see how that bifurcation happens...)  Towards Eastern Europe it's called Dulya and is used to ward off the evil eye.
In America, though, I've got your nose!
About 100 years ago, when occultist Aleister Crowley was rewriting the Christian Mass for his own newly-born religion of Thelema, he substituted this gesture for the traditional priestly sign of benediction.  Given the "naughty" symbolism of much of Crowley's material, this probably made a lot of sense!

In role-playing games, I think there are a few areas in which it would be interesting to include an arcane symbology of hand-gestures...
  1. Thieves Cant:  Instead of having roguish scoundrels develop a spoken language of their own, it may make more sense for them to use a SILENT system of sign language.  Some players and GMs may feel the need to develop its basic details, but at minimum one can just keep track of proficiency using the thief's experience level.
  2. Wizard/Cleric Spell Casting:  This is the infamous "somatic component" that never seems to get as much discussion as the verbal or material components.  There are all sorts of ways one can go with this...  Maybe great precision is needed, such that if the caster is distracted or fatigued, the wrong stroke of the finger could cause a disastrous mishap.  Maybe, like in the Harry Potter universe, a sufficiently advanced wizard or witch can learn to do away with one or more of the more distracting components and rely only on the somatic.
  3. Not to leave out the fighters, there are also the tactical hand signals used by ground forces when trying to move quietly through dangerous areas.  Of the three types listed here, these are probably easiest for the actual players to learn to do, rather than leaving it to the in-game characters.
Finally, I can't let a discussion of "Ficus" and fertility gestures go by without a reference to a terrible old TV show from the 1970s: Quark, starring Richard Benjamin.  It was kind of a Star Trek knock-off, and the Spock-like science officer was a half-human, half-plant, named FICUS.  Probably the only time this show made me truly laugh out loud was a time when Ficus was forced to woo an alien princess, and he set about to show her his species' mating pollination rituals. After lying down on the ground and starting to make some high-pitched sounds, she asks him what that was all about...


The plant-man's monotone answer:  "We're waiting for the bee."

Thursday, April 5, 2012

E is for Ecology

[This is the 5th of my April A-Z Challenge series of posts on Symbols, Glyphs, and Sigils. Each day I'll try to include some material that old-school role-playing gamers will find useful, but I can't guarantee that there won't also just be a few posts filled with weirdness for the sake of weirdness....]

Usually when one sees the word "ecology" these days, it's meant to refer to the natural, biological environment of planet Earth.  But people have extended the concept in so many other interesting ways.  The familiar Theta-like symbol is artist Ron Cobb's superposition of a lower-case "e" (for environment) with a lower-case "o" (for organism).  The intersection of these two terms is certainly general enough to reach beyond thoughts of endangered species and air pollution....

Piled on top of the natural biosphere is the multi-layered noosphere of human society and knowledge, and on top of that is the recent dawning of a global infosphere.  What could be next?  Thinkers from Teilhard de Chardin to Frank Tipler saw it all collapsing eventually toward an infinite-density Omega Point.  On the other hand, David Zindell, in his Neverness books, envisioned it all continually expanding outwards...
There is an ecology of information. Stars will die; people and gods will die, but information is conserved. Macroscopic information decays to microscopic information. But microscopic information is eventually concentrated. Nothing is lost. Gods exist to devour information. The lower intelligences sort, filter, concentrate and organize information. And the gods feed.
Zindell's "gods" are complex fusions of biology and computer, in the end expanding into uncountable quantum multiverses.  The "happy ending" of the story (of all stories?) is essentially that once Life reaches a certain level of complexity, it fills all of existence with its diversity and can never be completely extinguished.

Heady stuff!  Coming back down to the ground -- and to my daily refrain of real-life applications to RPG la-la land -- I think back to the multiple layers of social activity that Zak Sabbath laid out here.  It turns out that a tabletop role-playing game can contain a quite complex "ecology" of psychological interactions:
You get both Lord of the Rings and the Mystery Science Theatering of the Lord of the Rings. In this way, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts -- it's not just hanging out with your friends plus an adventure story plus the challenge of a game -- it's also and largely that fourth thing that only happens when all of them happen together.
People often talk about cognitive dissonance, but here's a place where the layers can play together in "cognitive consonance."  (Is that a thing?)  In any case, I think those of us on the "inside" may sometimes let familiarity dull the wonder that rightly should be directed at this many-layered, many-splendoured pastime of ours!