Thursday, May 24, 2018

The Glistening Chamber Codex (or The Nyctythatic Text)

The earliest fragments containing any element of the text appear in Chalcolithic-era Sumeria in cuneiform script. It has been convincingly argued that they are not Sumerian in origin, showing a certain rigidity of grammar suggesting metaphors too-literally translated from older sources.  Even in this earliest incarnation the text references the “narrow tower banded in red higher than all the city” (alu) under the domed roof of whose “highest room” (itima) sits the “glistening” heresiarch by whom the text was commissioned, as well as calculations and (accurate) astronomical observations relevant to the system of “chambers” which forms the text’s core. In some versions the author describes their work as both “counting the city” and in others as “counting the gods”.

Later Assyrian sources are extremely similar, as are Babylonian fragments—though the latter describe the work as “counting the roads” and “counting the prisoners”. There is some evidence of the Babylonian text having been politicized. A version found in Beth Nuhadra refers to the work being commissioned by “a lord in a chamber” with “eyes that speak and this mouth is light”.

A Chinese oracular text of the Spring and Autumn Period (ruthlessly suppressed by the Zhou dynasty) known as the “Court of the Red Marquess” or “Palace of Folding Rooms” is mathematically similar to all of these versions in many respects, though some of the astronomical data appears to contain bodies not yet identified.

The first reference to the necessity of “dividing” or “disordering the chambers” appears in the works of an unnamed Ionian geometer of the 5th century BCE. Modern scholarship is unsure whether the suggestion that dividing the chapters of the “concentric text” one from the next into an “anti-text” is a serious philosophical suggestion or ironic in the manner of Xenophanes’ satires of Pythagoras around the same time.

A papyrus with related formulae distributed around the late first century in a mixture of Coptic and Demotic Egyptian refers to “Sixty Devices and Twelve Plagues Yet Unnamed” (Thirteen in one version). Like many texts of this period it is alleged to be a copy or fragment of the so-called “Book of Thoth”. Some scholars have claimed the Library of Alexandria was burned specifically to destroy it.

The actual Glistening Chamber Codex appears in the historical record thereafter: 12.5 inches tall, 8.4 inches wide, bound in an unidentified leather and written on goat(?)skin parchment, purporting to be a Latin translation of a Greek translation of a text discovered in “The script of Canaanites” (probably Hebrew). By all accounts it was, despite clear evidence of handling and travel, a textually undamaged and continuous mathematical and philosophical treatise describing a system of occult knowledge based on the concept of a series of 78 (“sixty and then six and six and six again”) “essential chambers” in which certain archetypal events and persons occur and, properly manipulated, can be expected to “swallow themselves” and reveal other “chambers of another city”. The most intriguing fact about the Codex was not appreciated until the 19th century, when the logosyllabic cuneiform of the aforementioned Sumerian fragments was translated and the texts were found to be nearly identical to the Codex.

The book was first found in the library of the astronomer and gambler Nyctythasis, condemned to death by dismemberment after the synod of Zaragoza in 380 as an addendum to the condemnation of Priscillianism. Sources within the church thereafter refer to the book (inevitably in hushed tones and only in private commnications) as “The Nyctythatic Text”.

Efforts to destroy the codex and the philosophy it espoused (or was alleged to espouse) had decidedly mixed success—throughout the esoteric writings of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, even in Christian texts, there are allusions to “a locus concentrycal”, “a chambred laborynth”, “chambres that go glisnynge a midde towres” and “blacker sterres incased wythyn the brycht sterres visyble” and 15th century grimoires such as the Synapothanumenon are considerably more explicit.

Certain temples in Uttar Pradesh constructed during India’s Pala period seem to be mathematically inconceivable without access to the Glistening Chamber formulae.

The book itself does not reappear in any records until the late 1400s when the Italian-suited Tarot de Marseille had become popular as a gaming deck, likely originating across the Mediterranean. At this point the Codex fell into the hands of the Augsburg merchant, occultist and manuscript collector Claus Spaun who immediately recognized the congruity of imagery and numerology between the system described in the Codex and the then-current version of the tarot playing-card deck, especially considering Classical commentary that the chambers should be “disordered” and “divided”. The Tarot was simply an attempt to place the Chambers in their proper order. Rather than publish his discoveries, Spaun elected to continue his researches in secret and the book itself passed into rumor for the next 500 years. Word of the conjunctions Spaun had found within esoteric circles eventually lead Antoine Court de Gébelin to publish his own theories of the occult meaning of the Tarot in 1781, although there is no evidence Gébelin ever had access to the Codex.

The original Codex was last seen in the hands of British linguist and architect Frederick Chester-Harping (a protege of Sir John Soane and Joseph Michael Gandy) who suffocated to death in 1873 while attempting to construct a building replicating the principles of the Codex in an unknown location. However, handmade copies have allegedly been found in the archives of industrialist and art collector J Paul Getty and in a public library in the abandoned coal-fire town of Centralia, Pennsylvania.

From Demon City, which you can support here.


Wednesday, May 23, 2018

Gigacrawler Playtests

James Hutchings from over on the Teleleli blog:
I'm writing a game based on Zak's Gigacrawler setting.
It's a choose-your-own-adventure-style game for one player--similar in format to my free online game Age of Fable.
I've completed a draft of about 75,000 words, and I'm looking for around ten playtesters.
I'd prefer playtesters who have a blog, YouTube channel or similar outlet, where they can talk about the game.
I'll mail the playtesters a printed copy of the draft and the board.The feedback form will be online.
If you're interested in being a playtester, please say so in a comment on this post.
Since I'm in Australia, and most playtesters probably won't be, it'll cost me a bit to mail the drafts. So please don't ask to be a playtester unless you can commit to playing it at least a couple of times, and filling in the feedback form.
You can find more information about the setting, and previous playtests (which I did myself) here.


Tuesday, May 15, 2018

No Dice.

So for a while I've been trying to figure out exactly how to get the tarot card further down into the guts of Demon City than it was. It just seemed like more and more the big question was why can't the game be all tarot cards instead of dice? Why make people use two randomizers if one goes along with the game and the other is basically just the most common option?

There are a lot of design pitfalls though:

-The cards can generate numbers very much like dice, BUT you don't just want the tarot-ness to be a cosmetic gimmick. Wands and swords should matter and The Devil should not just mean "15".

-Onnn the other hand if the cards are always throwing their symbolic weight around then you risk having a resolution system where someone's trying to do a simple RPG crime-horror task like try to recognize a mugshot and the cards are suddenly like HAHA! THE EMPRESS! and then you have to deal with multiple layers of interpretation just to get through natural gameplay scenarios.

-The whole thing of the tarot is that it tells you what's going to happen, RPGs (at least the kind I make) you aren't ever going to be able to completely predict what'll happen.

-You don't want to create a situation where the system is suddenly less flexible and less convenient than dice but basically doing the same things. Like I don't want anyone cheated out of a fun game just because I want some precious themes stuck in there.

-You don't want to make it a deck-building game. Distracting players from clever things their players are doing in the game with card-management tasks would be bad. Especially because this is not a game where most players throw magic around (except the occasional lone psychic or vampire character).

-I already have a gajillion d100 tables in Demon City, I'm not gonna knock them all back to d78 tables just for aesthetic consistency, that's some serious form-over-function.

-So: the cards need to be as intuitive and frictionless as dice, while still taking advantage of the special qualities and associations that tarot cards have.

And....I cracked it. There are no dice in Demon City now.

(Ok, actually I am building in a "dice option" that covers the same bases in case you're like at a con or game store and suddenly decide to play but there are no cards. But the default uses cards.)

Here's how cards work, basically. These aren't how the official rules in the book work but its a quick rundown of what you'll see in the current draft:

Part of the Hosts job is to take the full tarot deck and make mini-decks out of it to play with.

The first and simplest is the Character Deck, which just randomizes number for character gen. This solved a problem I was having before: I want numbers from 0 to 5 but I wanted extremes to be rare and I wanted the math to be simple. The character deck has 4 Aces, 4 twos, 4 threes, 3 fours and 1 five (of any suit) and The Fool (0). So then you just shuffle and pick your 7 attributes from the deck. Easy peasy. Hack-happy Hosts can even adjust the odds as they like manually to make more-instabadass or more-bathetic characters. This part actually makes dice-for-character-gen seem kinda like a kludge in comparison.

Real gameplay sees the deck used in more interesting ways:

The Host the makes a "Players' Deck" and a "Horror's Deck".

At the beginning, the Players' Deck just has 3 of each number (3 aces, 3 twos etc up to 10).

The Horror's Deck has one of each number Ace-10 plus any cards associated with the scenario and the specific Horror for that day, also the specific Ace through ten chosen will be the most thematically appropriate ones for the scenario. Advice on how to do that is laid out.

The Player's Deck sits in the middle of the table face down. Instead of taking set numbers of dice and--when its time to roll the Clash--everyone rolls dice and takes the highest, you take set numbers of cards off the top unseen and, when its time to resolve the Clash, flip them over and take the highest. The math is the same other than certain numbers slowly get depleted until you run out of cards and reshuffle.

The Horror's Deck is just used by the Host the same way. The Host, at least in the beginning, will have a few unbeatable cards (over 10) because hey it's a horror game. But they will pop up randomly rather than when the Host wants them to.

When a Big Bad is taken down, the Host fans out the Horror's Deck face down and each player gets to take one card.

This card is that PC's Significator (old tarot lingo). It gets put into the Players' Deck for next time. When you pop your own significator it's a crit for you, but each one also has a specific reward related to the card's occult meaning that can be called in at any time, which "burns" the significator and takes it out of the deck. You have to trade in your old Sig for a new one when you defeat the next menace anyway. While there's now several in the deck, each player only has one that applies to them at a time, so it doesn't become a whole thing of keeping track of cards.

The Fool also gets mixed in to the decks to act as a fumble (and yes, there's a rule for if the Fool is your Significator).

d100 rolls can be made from just taking 2 cards from the Players' deck (the Horrors' deck makes it harder to get repeated numbers like 44), one for each digit, 10=0 as usual.

And some monsters have a special mechanic for when one of the cards associated with them pops up.

Aaand other occult mechanics can be bolted on around predicting cards, seeing cards, which suits pop up, etc.

Help out with the Demon City patreon here

Monday, May 7, 2018


Shawn Cheng sent in some more designs. Click to enlarge...

Just a prototype, we gotta get it so the moons line up with the paragraphs
Support the Demon City Patreon here.

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

The Flat Earth Paradox

(or: How Right-Wing Culture Takes Over Nerd Spaces Even Though Nerds Aren't Especially Right Wing)


I wrote earlier about how the category "nerd"--from the 1950s--is largely something industrial culture did to the STEM-educated people it needed to run its machines. But what about the self-identification as "nerd"? Someone who calls themself a nerd or a geek or whatever is saying some mix of these things in different proportions, and saying them about their core identity:

1. "I'm smart or at least well-educated"
2. "I'm enthusiastic in detail about some subject"
3. "I'm a social outcast"
4. "3 is because of 1 and 2 and is possibly a necessary corollary of them" (see: that Simpsons episode where Homer gets smart and suddenly has no friends)

Right-wing culture gets a foothold in nerd spaces especially when the self-proclaimed nerd's confidence in 1 is low and their confidence in 3 is high.

Step One

Everyone online sees this all the time: 

You're discussing something nerd-coded (comics or games or whatever) and someone is bad at it. That happens: a person fails to be smart or well-educated on the subject. Or: they make some nerdy thing isn't that good. Like when people try to tell you it's octopi.

This is to be expected because its Sturgeon's Law that 95% of people are terrible at whatever they're doing including discussing to what degree David Micheline vs Jim Shooter were responsible for Venom or whether Fortnite is better than PUBG.

Well think of this in terms of the self-identified nerd. Somebody who believes that's what makes them them. Some fraction of them are going to have some sliver of self-awareness, at least enough to know, ok: I'm not, on the scale I'm looking at, actually that smart or well-educated. Yet I'm still a social outcast.

Soooo not fair right? The one thing that is supposed to redeem their lack of social skills (and the many social dividends that accompany them) turns out to not be a thing. They somehow got all the bad luck and none of the technocrat-hauter.

The internet allows people to connect like never before and so it also allows people to find out they suck like never before. Ever thought up a really good pun then googled it to see if anyone else..... fuck.

These failed but self-aware nerds definitely exist, the primary modes are the (1) self-mocking nerd forum comedian who openly talks about how unoriginal their ideas are as a way of inviting friends to think well maybe they're not only modest but hilariously self-aware and (2) the confessional mode where it's like guysI'mNotsmartIcan'trememberthingsIhaven'twatchedasmuchofInfinityWarasIthinkIshouldandIdon'tUnderstandTwinPeaksandtodayatworkIcalledapicklea'packle'andcriedinthebathroomfor10minutespleaseIneedinternethugsself-careself-care.

So, you have these Extremely Online self-aware nerds who are also in the 95% of people who are bad at what they do.

Despite being self-IDed nerds and identifying heavily with their own intelligence as their major asset, they can't build community or a support system on the things they make or say since they aren't actually brighter than anyone else in their sphere. Their predictions don't pan out, the things they build aren't original or shiny. But, like everyone: they need the things social intercourse brings or encourages--friends, emotional support, people to fuck, jobs, shelter.

And, since they're self-IDed nerds and Extremely Online they don't have a lot of offline support. They need people. Where to get people?

The Flat Earth Paradox

Do you think the earth is round or flat?

You think: round. True but what it gets you, socially, is fuck-all 

You're not gonna put that you think the Earth is round on your Tinder profile. It's a popular position, yes, but its very popularity is why it says nothing special about you. Nobody's gonna swipe right just because of that.

If you think the Earth is flat, though? There's a whole group of people ready to receive you. With no other requirements.


Now you may object that this is like any fan interest--I like Peggle you like Peggle, we can be friends, but there's an important difference: people are not often called upon, in moments of high emotion, to defend Peggle. 

A Flat Earth Position though?

A nerd recently proposed on Twitter that the solution to sexcreeps like Savage Rifts author Sean Patrick Fannon at RPG conventions is that RPG pros practice celibacy at all conventions. This is a contender for literally the most conservative fear-first policy ever proposed in the RPG space but...100 Likes, 25 ReTweets. Those people can start a conversation, those people can grouse together about how gross it is that people have sex and those people can talk and form a clique. They can honestly claim to be surrounded and embattled by other tweeters suggesting that maybe repressive 13th century social mores aren't the best answer to sexual harassment (Like this is the exact same logic as Mike Pence's "Men should never be alone in a room with any woman they're not married to".). They will soon be in an online fight and, thereafter, war buddies--bonded by their scrape with the vicious sexhavers.

(Ironically Fannon himself got nerds to help him harass and dogpile people online well before being caught by using exactly the same dynamic.)

Another example: Flat Earth post. (140 likes) Round Earth post. (14 likes)

If you reshare an idea that 13,000 other people also reshared you get nothing. If you reshare an idea that only 25 other people have? Maybe you just made some friends.

This is the Flat Earth Paradox: Irrational ideas online result in networks of connected people who are more loyal, closely-knit, and active than rational ones. And the participants will be stupider--they, after all, chose this path to friends partially because they couldn't find another--which means more prone to use tactics that go past reasonable.

We have the numbers but they have, in effect, the guns.

The origin of the paradox is that people who have their own things going on have a way higher bar for who they interact with than people who have nothing going on.

What does it take to get noticed in DIY RPG circles? Well: you have to write some interesting game content, basically. That's how everyone else did it. Then, on top of that, depending which part of it you want to get accepted by, you have to pass a barrage of political purity tests (of which I approve) and online-interaction gates. Like, to hang out here you can't be racist or sexist or homophobic and you can't dodge questions or make personal attacks: that's a lot of requirements. 

Regardless of how many of my games you buy or how nice you are to me, if you can't defend every single word off your keyboard you ever type I will personally ban you from this page.

But preying on isolated people online by offering a community with a much lower bar for entry is a conscious strategy among right-wing groups. Somebody who'd been through it started a much-RTed thread worth looking at:
In addition to being disproportionately white, old, male, married, religious, parents, and less likely to actually play games, RPG harassers are more likely to be suffering mentally illness.

All you have to do to part of a conservative gamer clique is believe one insane idea. Or not even believe it: just white knight for someone who believes it.

The number of people with fairly reasonable personal takes on sex in games who will still defend people who make wildly flailing right-wing attacks on sex in games is remarkable, and the number of gamers who are ok with their friends making pro-Trump remarks despite claiming not to believe them is just weird.

The reasonable positions aren't getting attacked, though, so they doen't generate community around them. Only the bad ideas do that:
Just defend one insane idea and you'll have friends:

You're ok with saying RPGs aren't really games unless there are no rulings, ever? Gaming Den people will be your friend.

If you think it's ok that a guy once said Vampire causes brain damage? There was the Forge.

If you think elfgames are inherently dangerous and are responsible for the world's social ills? There's RPGnet.

You think the appropriate response to that idea is to vote for Donald Trump? theRPGsite.

If you think that chainmail bikini cosplayers will destroy humanity? There's Something Awful.

If you think the best way to support diversity in games is to never offend anyone and underpay everyone? There's Evil Hat.

And, similarly, this creates paradoxical irrationalist cause-celebres: the more indefensible someone's stance, the more defending them becomes a secret handshake--a mark of exclusivity. The irrationalist martyr's flaws are, to these nerds, their features. The stupider someone is the better they are: they're going to attract more and more shit and you can get more and more brownie points for defending them.

And if someone accidentally gets some splash damage by tanking for the martyr? Even more attention:

Whereas here your game will only get discussed if I actually read it (tall order) and like it (taller order) conservative game cliques are fiercely loyal to anyone who makes the right noises. If anyone gets a chance to write a Top 10 Games That Are About (your thing) you'll be on it.

This is how, for example, somebody can start a blog called "How Not To Run a Game Business" antagonizing people with snarky takes on how shitty the RPG industry is, then run their own Kickstarter, steal thousands of dollars from their friends on Something Awful, and still have their ideas defended by those same friends. Or how someone can make art for a game about rape while decrying games that include rape and be defended by their friends for their bold stand on rape.

The Flat Earth Paradox is how bad ideas are primed to outcompete good ones, at least until the good idea results in some big thing people can buy or download something the bad ones have to acknowledge.

Anybody who read Origins of Totalitarianism will see a familiar pattern and see how this ends. But the cure simple: demand accountability and be totally unforgiving of bullshit.