The Magpie – Chapter 1

Over my Spring Break I decided to create an interactive fiction. I used Inform 7 to create it, and I wrote it in a period of about one week.

This is the first chapter in a longer story. If you play it and find any bugs, problems,  find that a puzzle is too difficult to solve, or just want to talk about the writing, then comment and let me know. This is, in many ways, a work in progress and I’d like to see what people have to say.

A few hints:

  • The most-used commands are:examine [subject], take [object], give[object], talk to [person], ask [person] about [topic], ask [person] for [object], play [instrument], and the directions north, south, east, and west to move about.
  • Pick up anything you can. Try giving things to people to trade for objects.
  • Read the text to find clues.

The playable files can be found by going into The_Magpie, then The_Magpie -Chapter One.materials, then Release.

You can play it through a webpage using the play.html file, or you can play the .gblorb file using applications like the Zoom IF interpreter or Windows Frotz.

The files can be found here.

It is also available on the Creations page under “games.”



Art, Ritual, and Magic

William Blake integrated many mystical symbols into his art, and even developed his own Christian mythology.

I’ve always been fascinated by magic – the idea of mysterious forces intertwined with the natural world, yet somehow apart from it at the same time, its so very removed from the modern world. People used to live with an understanding that magical forces were very real, and very alive – in most cultures magic predated medicine, serving as a mix of herbalism, psychology, and religion. I just don’t think I can imagine what it would be like to live in a society where magic is so prevalent to society. I’m sure some of the more aggressive skeptics would argue that we haven’t moved beyond magic, but I don’t think that most contemporary religious institutions really qualify.

Magical practices are a very important part of our history, and its unfortunate that there is so little serious scholarship dedicated to its study from an objective view. There are plenty of “grimoires,” and “books of darkness” floating around on the internet for the casual practitioner to peruse, but only occasionally does anyone publish antique rituals with legitimate scholarly merit. Writers like Owen Davies and Richard Cavendish have published extensively on the history and practice of magic from numerous anthropological lenses, nonetheless it is an untapped field.

This is particularly upsetting now that magic ritual seems to be making something of a comeback as a practice among youth (at least here in the west). I have nothing against the use of magical ritual, at its heart its a very effective psychological practice intended to instill meaning into basic actions and to impart certain emotions upon the practitioner. However, when someone practices “magic” that not only combines numerous cultural practices, but tries to revise history to justify their practice (because everybody know that Aleister Crowley developed his Tarot from ancient Egyptian methods that were in also brought east by Alexander the Great to India and developed into the Chakras, right?) then I start to get a little upset.

See, our rituals and our superstitions are part of our history – whether we like it or not – and magical practices are an important part of cultural history. To arbitrarily remix these cultural practices in order to assure yourself of some “greater truth” is nothing less than conspiracy theory. Honestly, the thing that bothers me the most is how seriously most people take their magic. If you’re a white, middle class teenager living in the west, if you have access to modern medicine and science, then why should you take magic very seriously? Why try and build a false history around your practice? Why not embrace your ritual as part of the modern culture, rather than fabricate a new culture to be a part of?

The way I see it, modern magic (and I’m speaking here within the bounds of western culture, I can’t speak for magical practices outside of this sphere) is essentially an artistic practice. Comic book writer and ceremonial magician Alan Moore wrote a pretty fascinating, and wonderfully witty, piece about the practice of magic as art in 2002. The piece actually offers a pretty interesting, if brief, look at the development of magic throughout history. I find myself drawn to Moore’s argument. Magic, it could be said, is merely a means of altering the state of the world through non-natural means (“natural” here being the scientific laws of physics). Religion can do this through its own set of rituals and beliefs, but in most religions the power is represented as being apart from ourselves. Its manifest in some God, Gods, or other abstract form – the power is not individualized. Some religions do use magical practices, but these are somewhat rare in the modern world, and many churches frown upon such practices. So if we don’t include religion what are we left with? Art. Art is capable of changing the world – or more specifically, our perception of it – without any sort of mechanical manifestation.

Sure, one could argue that, from a neurological standpoint, art still follows the laws of cause-and-effect, conservation of energy, etc. But that sort of takes the … well the magic out of it doesn’t it? Besides, we know so little about how the brain works that consciousness is pretty much magic already.

Austin Osman Spare’s method of sigil-making draws heavily on surrealist methods. It is considered by many to be the beginning of Chaos Magic. 

Actually, I don’t think that this brand of magic is opposed to science at all. Anymore so than art already is at any rate. This magic is more of a way of thinking than anything else – a means of a delving into the consciousness, a reorganizing of thought patterns, a sort of postmodern dissection of belief itself. Robert Anton Wilson, Alan Moore, and Grant Morrison (really all chaos magicians in general…) have all integrated magic rituals and symbols into their work as a means of conveying their ideas and ideals. By performing a ritual, one produces a state of mind that is unique to the performance. This is one of the reasons actors and performers warm up before going on stage. When you create with the right mindset, you can more effectively pass said mindset onto the audience. This isn’t even a new idea: 20th century dramatist Antonin Artaud’s Theater of Cruelty works along these lines: you create an environment of ritual so taboo and shocking that you must communicate to the audience with something beyond words, reaching the subconscious.

Perhaps I’ve become a little too serious about this topic myself, but I don’t see why magic can’t be something that is simply experienced through creation. Lets drop the defensive front, lets stop hiding away, lets drop our pseudo-history. Lets have fun for a change.

RPG Design Journal #3: History is a Nightmare…

This might be too much history for a game…

The land is mapped, the course is clear – the time has come to delve headfirst into the past so that we may define the present of our world.

History building can be one of the most dangerous parts of world building. Its very easy to get wrapped up in the details of a setting’s past, but the more information present in a world’s history the more difficult it will be to implement it into the actual gameplay so that its palatable for players. You can try writing a “history book” for the players to read before hand, but that’s even more time consuming and not all players will want to read that. Plus, how are you going to determine what information players are familiar with and what information is unknown? When I make a world’s history I try to come up with a list of major events that have directly influenced this setting in a way that affects the players. Smaller, more “bite sized” events can be built out of NPCs, locations, monsters, spells and other elements of the world. This way the big events build the history in a visible manner, while the smaller bits (the parts I would say constitute the “lore”) are built into parts of the world that can be interacted with and discovered. So, let’s start with the keystones of the world’s history.

We know that the game setting is a colony, so that’s an important event: the Empire moved north some time in the past and then “discovered” a new land that they began colonizing. This is a good starting place. But, instead of moving forward towards the present, I’m going to go backwards just a bit more. The Empire is an important presence in this world, and now is a good time to give it a little more flavor. The founding of an Empire is an important event, and a world-spanning Empire often has a big say on how it determines its own history. We’ll say that the Empire is founded in year zero of this world’s timeline (the Empire started its calendar at its founding). The Empire is also a useful tool to say why all the character races (human, dwarf, gnome, etc.) can be found together and why they work together (maybe some don’t work together, but we’ll get into that later). Of course, people don’t usually just submit to being assimilated peacefully. We’ll say that the Empire underwent a long period of warfare that ended with it assimilating or destroying most of its surrounding neighbors that ended in, say, year 500 of the calendar. Finally, we’ll say that the Empire discovered the New Lands (what would become the colonies) in the year 1000. Yes, the dates are a little too neat and even to be realistic, but they’re easy to remember and we can put in other events as needed.

So, the colonies begin in the year 1000. The first city – St. Malun’s – is probably made that same year. As the colonies expand they slowly begin to move East. In 1020 the colonies split into Curelsed and Yûevellin. In 1025 Harthkatha is formed. The Coalition is a military territory formed in response to the monster migrations. If we say that the migrations happen, say, every 30 years then we can say that the colonies face the first migration around the year 1030 and the Coalition is formed shortly afterwards – say 1033.

So here’s our calendar so far:

  • Year 0: Empire is founded.
  • Year 500: Empire reaches current borders in homeland.
  • Year 1000: Empire explores North, founds St. Malun’s.
  • Year 1020: Curelsed and Yûevellin separate.
  • Year 1025: Harthkatha becomes separate colony.
  • Year 1030: First monster immigration encountered.
  • Year 1033: The Coalition is formed.

For the current year we’ll jump a bit ahead and say the players are playing in the 1300s. That gives us 300 years of distance and a bit more room to add recent events.

This seems very bare, and it is, but that’s not bad. This gives us an idea of scale of the world’s history, and tells us how the colonies were developed. Now we can start sprinkling in some other ideas that pertain to this calendar.

Let’s look a bit more at the Empire. Even though its a clichè, we’ll say that humans were the main force that began the Empire. Humans are adaptable and industrious, but we’ll also say that they’re more single-minded and aggressive than most other people. I think the Dwarves will also be an early addition to the Empire – Dwarves are rather similar to people, they’re industrious, they live in permanent urban environments, overall they mesh well with humans. So the Empire probably began with a human-dwarf alliance. The halflings and the orcs were later conquered. The halflings in this world care a lot about personal freedom, and they’re not the kind of society that will take lightly to being conquered. The orcs feel similarly, but also have their own aggressive expansionism. So between the Halfling tribes and constant Orc uprisings we can see why it took 500 years for the Empire to reach a period of stability (albeit a stability built upon violence and cultural suppression). But wait, what about Elves and Gnomes? Where are they in this history? Well, I’ve been thinking about the idea of the Eternal Forest and how I want this world to be darker and more dangerous than usual settings. The Forest as an unknown has an almost Lovecraftian feeling to it – a mysterious location of untold power, impossible to comprehend or explore, but I don’t want to just throw in the tentacles-and-slime style of the usual Lovecraft horror. Instead, I’m going to make the Forest draw upon the idea of the Fey and Faerie as seen in ancient folk tales. This means that the Elves and the Gnomes aren’t going to be your average, everyday D&D stock creatures. Elves and Gnomes are dark reflections of humans and halflings from the faerie realm, armed with great power and utterly incomprehensible to mortal minds. I’m also including the Calibans from the Ravenloft setting to reflect the orcs. Right now the Duergar are seving as the usual dark-dwarfs, but I’ll see if I can find something more fitting later.

So Humans and Dwarves have a relatively friendly history. The Halflings and the Orcs are a part of the Empire, but they’re not big fans of it. Elves, Gnomes, Calibans, and Duergar are dangerous denizens of the Eternal Forest that other races don’t understand and rarely encounter.

An early sketch for the elves of the setting

We should also determine the actual technological setting for the game. D&D is usually a mix of high-medieval and renaissance tech which occasionally borrows from the Enlightenment and the Victorian periods. This setting, being so heavily focused on colonialism, exploration, and superstition, seems closer to the Renaissance, maybe spilling a little bit into the age of Exploration. We’ll say that this world is closer to the Renaissance. Armor still exists (especially in the less developed colonies) but is on its way out in the mainland where gunpowder is beginning to be developed. This world may also borrow from the aesthetics of the Age of Exploration and Victorians to get that gothic feeling as seen in Solomon Kane and Bloodeborne.

As we develop the world more history will come out of it: why did the Empire go North? Who first met the Elves? Do any Fey live outside the Forest? Do dwarves, orcs, and gnomes have their own religion? Or is there a state religion? The important thing is to develop an experience. The history isn’t important if it doesn’t interact with the players. If we know who discovered the New Lands then we should make that character have a footprint: did they leave behind an artifact? Are their descendants important npcs? Is there a mystery surrounding them? Did a player’s ancestor serve with them? These are the things that make the world matter. Only once the history becomes tangible to the players is it lore, otherwise its just a bunch of words on a page (or even worse, a bunch of words in your own head) that they have no reason to care about. So as we continue we’ll need to start creating and answering questions about the specifics of this world within the basic history we’ve just laid out.

Next up we’ll begin with the creation of some important NPCs.