Fury of Shadow

Fury of Shadow is a sourcebook for Midnight, by Fantasy Flight Games. It covers the forest of Erethor, the home of the elves and the last large area free from the control of the Shadow, and against which Izrador has turned all of his fury, hence the product’s title.

It is not a bad product. There are useful descriptions of the whole region, with story ideas, and of the forces massed against elves, along with the defenders of the forest. It would certainly be a major help to anyone running a Midnight campaign set in and around the forest, and should give them a lot of ideas.

However (and you could see that coming, couldn’t you?), it wasn’t absolutely inspiring. I think that may be partly due to a lack of the right sort of detail. What would be inspiring would be if there were well-detailed things that player characters could do, at various levels of power and with various backgrounds, to blunt the assault of the forces of Shadow, along with some consideration of how that would affect the outcome of the war. The default course of the war is detailed, and it isn’t good for the elves, although they are not completely defeated. There is even a bit of background on how player characters could intervene at various points. I feel, however, that developing these in a bit more detail, and making them a bit more specific, might have improved the product.

The Cults of the Roman Empire

The title of this book is a little misleading; there is almost no coverage of the state cults of the Roman empire, the cult of the emperor, or the indigenous cults of western Europe. The original French title (it’s a translation) referred to the “oriental cults”, which is more accurate, but still not completely so, as two of the most important oriental cults get virtually nothing. On the other hand, there are plenty of other sources on Judaism and Christianity, so I suppose the author can be forgiven.

Once past the title, the book does, I think, a good job at what it actually set out to do. There are chapters on groups of oriental cults, discussing their arrival in the Roman empire, their development there, and their spread. This includes the Egyptian cults, particularly Isis, the Syrian cults, the Magna Mater, Mithras, Dionysus, and a few lesser figures for which there is less in the way of evidence.

In fact, a shortage of evidence is a common problem. The final victory of Christianity means that all the cults described in the book died, and any writings they may have had were lost. Reconstructing Mithraism is described as akin to trying to reconstruct Christianity on the basis of the Old Testament and the iconography of medieval cathedrals; this would clearly be a rather unreliable process, and our evidence for Mithraism is relatively good. This is probably why so many cults can be covered in a relatively short book; the amount that can be said about each without straying into unsupported speculation is rather limited.

That said, I now think I know a good deal more about those cults than I did before reading the book. I’m not sure that I agree with the author’s assessment that the failure of the cults in the face of Christianity was inevitable, because they failed to truly appeal to Romans in the later stages of the Empire. The fact that Christianity did win tends to colour our assessments; had it failed, many historians would doubtless have felt that was inevitable. In particular, he criticises the cults for not having a developed and coherent theology, like Christianity. However, we don’t know that they didn’t, as we are missing a lot of material. If we only had the Old Testament and cathedral iconography, Christian theology would look fairly impoverished, and the Jesse Windows would probably lead to theories that Christians though that Christ grew on a tree. And then was nailed to one, and rose from the dead – clearly a simple vegetation deity, which would explain why Christianity failed to catch on as compared to the elaborate soteriology of Mithraism. (Actually, I do tend to agree that Mithraism’s exclusion of women doomed it, assuming that such an exclusion was universal. The cult of Isis might be a better candidate, especially as a number of aspects of Isis seem to have been adopted into the cult of the Virgin Mary.)

One of the most intriguing sections was the description of the cult of Dionysus. It seems to have been quite popular, despite official attempts to suppress it, much like Christianity. If that had been the one to win, with its celebration of wine, women, and song, the history of Europe would have been very different. It also seems to be an element of society that never goes away; look at the history of carnival in Europe and matsuri in Japan. I know that quite a few scholars have written on this topic; I’d quite like to get around to reading some of them eventually. So many books, so little time.

Anyway, this was a good book, which I can recommend to people with an interest in the pagan religions of ancient Rome. It certainly provided me with a lot of useful inspiration.

The Satyricon

The Satyricon is another Roman novel, this one written in the first century, by Petronius, who was the emperor Nero’s arbiter of good taste. Which, to be honest, sounds like the ultimate nightmare job, and Petronius was forced to commit suicide in 66 AD.

The Satyricon is not complete. We have maybe a fifth of it, and what we have is fragmentary. There is a complete description of an over-the-top Roman dinner party, and some other more-or-less complete incidents, but there are gaps, and odd jumps that suggest errors. It can’t be an easy text to translate.

It is also very, very rude. The title actually means “Dirty Stories”, and the main “romantic” triangles are between two men and a teenage boy. (One of the men is constant, but the second changes in the bits we have.) There’s a lecherous priestess, a brief visit to a brothel, and several bed scenes. The famous dinner party actually has less sex than just about any other part.

As a result of all the problems, I’m not sure that this is just worth reading for entertainment. There’s too much missing. On the other hand, it is a very interesting document of Roman attitudes at the period, and provides some very useful information on aspects of life that don’t figure in most text books — that is definitely useful for writing roleplaying games. (Why yes, everything I read serves as research for what I write. That’s how writers tend to work.)

So, very much worth reading to learn more about the period, but not really worth reading if you’re just after dirty stories.

The Golden Ass

The Golden Ass is the only novel from classical antiquity to survive complete. It was written in the late second century by one Apuleius, and deals with the tragi-comic misadventures of a man who has been turned into a donkey as a result of a little too much interest in magic. It also includes the tale of Cupid and Psyche, as a tale-within-a-tale. It has a lot of magical events in, quite apart from the main character being turned into a donkey, and gets quite deeply involved with Roman mystery religions, particularly the cult of Isis, towards the end. It is, in other words, quite clearly a fantasy novel.

It’s also quite good. Standards for entertainment shift over time, and as this book is pushing 2,000 there are a few bits that don’t quite work by contemporary standards. Cupid and Psyche is about a fifth of the book, for example. Lucius, the main character, gets into some fairly entertaining bits of trouble along the way, and there are early versions of a number of classic comic scenes. But there are also tragedies. I think it is worth reading as a story, and very definitely worth reading if, like me, you are interested in historical beliefs in the supernatural.

Of course, the fact that it is a novel makes it a bit tricky as a source. It is generally agreed that some bits are supposed to reflect reality; some bits are independently attested. But when it comes to the stories of magic, it isn’t clear how much of that contemporary people actually believed. If you took, say, Anne Rice’s vampire novels as indicating what contemporary people believed, you’d get an inaccurate picture. At the time, it was probably obvious which bits were plausible and which just made up, but we don’t have that cultural background, so we are left wondering.

Fortunately, when writing for roleplaying games, you can generally gloss over such problems. If people told stories about that then, the elements are suitable for telling stories set then. And, of course, if you’re just reading the book for fun, you don’t need to worry about it at all.

The Later Roman Empire (AD 354-378)

This book is the Penguin Classics translation of the Res Gestae by Ammianus Marcellinus, the most important primary source for the fourth century in the Roman Empire. As you may notice from the title, it only covers about a quarter of the century, and it spends a lot of time on Julian. Part of the reason is that we are missing the first thirteen books; at some point in the vicissitudes of history, the last copy of them was destroyed or misplaced. However, the book apparently originally started at the end of the first century, so it isn’t clear how much detail there would have been on earlier periods anyway. I gather that the bit historians would most like to still have is Ammianus’s section on Constantine.

So, what about the bit we do have? It’s good classical history. That is, he gives speeches to characters that almost certainly aren’t what they actually said, but which serve to establish character and advance the narrative. It’s also very focused on the doings of emperors, although not exclusively; he also wants to tell us what is happening in Rome, which very few emperors so much as visited in this period. It does, however, focus on Julian. Ammianus was a pagan, and Julian was, in many ways, his hero. Still, he is not entirely uncritical, and is quite harsh about some specific decisions, such as the law banning Christians from basic teaching. He also has an assessment of Julian’s character faults.

This is encouraging; it suggests that his accounts of other incidents may not be too distorted, and they do match quite well with what else we have from the period, allowing for religious bias. He’s a lot more positive about Julian than most of the Church Fathers, for example. There are some lovely incidents, such as the vampire meeting the Goths right at the end, or the exchange between Julian and a prosecutor at a court case. The accused denied the crime (a fraud), and the prosecutor had failed to gather documents to prove his case. Julian acquitted the accused, and the frustrated prosecutor said “Will any be convicted, if a denial is enough to procure acquittal?”. Julian replied “Will any be acquitted, if accusation is enough to secure conviction?”.

There is another incident in which someone informs the emperor that one of his (the accuser’s) enemies is having a purple tunic made. This could be serious; purple was the imperial colour, and making clothes in that colour could indicate plans to bid for imperial power, something that happened a lot in this period. Other emperors tortured people to death for less, but Julian instructed his tailor to send the man a pair of purple boots, to emphasise the emptiness of the symbols without the power.

Governments also seem to have been just as prone to witch hunts against enemies of the state (literal witches, in this case) then as now. It’s a good book, with a good introduction, and, as a primary source on the period, well worth reading if you’re interested in that time. In fact, if you’re seriously interested in the period, it’s essential, and you’ve probably read it already.

The Last Pagan

As I mentioned when talking about The Later Roman Empire, historians of the fourth century spend an inordinate amount of time on the emperor Julian, because the sources for his life are unusually good. This book is a good example: it’s a biography of Julian.

Of course, the other reason that Julian is interesting is the big “what if?” that he raises. As a committed pagan emperor, could he have reversed the Christianisation of the Roman Empire? It’s an interesting question, because the answers are not obvious either way.

Julian was a talented leader, with a fair amount of military talent, wide reading, and a good head on his shoulders. He was also fully capable of alienating large numbers of people through tactless political goofs; after becoming emperor, he appointed a Gaul he trusted to high office, which alienated the Senate. He would never have made a democratic politician, but he wasn’t asked to. He got to be an autocratic ruler.

The evidence is that he would not have endorsed a full-on persecution of the Christians; he doesn’t seem to have gone for that sort of thing. However, he would have restored pagan temples, knocked down some churches, and he did forbid Christians from teaching the normal school curriculum of rhetoric. More important, paganism would have been in favour. There would have been new temples, pagan rituals would have been restored to public life, and pagan philosophers would have had the whip hand in challenging the Christians. This all suggests that he could have reversed the trend.

On the other side, his personal version of paganism was rather eccentric. Even his friends and supporters thought that he was a bit too into sacrificing hundreds of animals to the gods. He was also, it seems, a devotee of the Unconquered Sun, although he was a henotheist rather than a monotheist. That is, Julian’s paganism did not connect to the religiosity of most people in the empire. It might have been doomed to die with him, just like Akhenaten’s religious reforms did in Egypt.

The question is purely academic because he miscalculated badly, getting into a war in Iraq and dying on the battlefield after only eighteen months as emperor, without a clear heir. (Back then, leaders who took their nations into disastrous wars tended to die in battle. It is notable that this doesn’t seem to have stopped them.) In the end, then, he is almost completely irrelevant to the course of history. The interest is that he might not have been, and this book, which is, after all, one of my main sources for what I know about Julian, is a good account of him as a fully rounded individual, drawing on multiple sources. I recommend it.

The Later Roman Empire

Recently, I’ve been reading a bit about the later Roman Empire, essentially the fourth century (284 to 430). This is a period I didn’t know much about before, so I started with this book, which is a general introduction. As far as I can tell, it’s a pretty good general introduction, too. It starts with a discussion of what came before (near-collapse, basically), a chapter on the sources for the period (not as good as we would like), and then has a series of chronological chapters. Finally, there are a few thematic chapters, covering society, the military, and the rise of Constantinople, which was refounded by Constantine in the early fourth century.

It’s an incredibly important period for world history, because it’s when Christianity went from being a marginal, sporadically persecuted sect to being the official religion of the Roman Empire, relentlessly persecuting all others. (That finished after the period of the book, when all the non-Christians had been wiped out.) It thus covers just about the only other period (other than the present day) when Christianity was both dominant and relatively tolerant. It’s interesting that this period roughly coincides with the living memory of the persecution of Christians, although I’d want a lot more evidence before drawing any causal links.

Another interesting feature of the period is the importance put on the eighteen month rule of Julian, the last pagan emperor. This is because the main source for the period, Ammianus Marcellinus, was a pagan, and devotes a large number of pages to Julian’s reign. Ammianus also seems to be fairly reliable, so we have a detailed, apparently trustworthy source for the period. It may not, in fact, have been particularly interesting or important. This happens a lot in ancient history; historians write about what sources exist for, and assume that the other stuff is less important. This isn’t as unreasonable as it might be, because people do tend to write about important things, and they tend to be preserved. This blog probably won’t exist in 1700 years time, unless I go on to be massively influential in some field, for example. On the other hand, occasionally it is pure chance; a lot of ancient material survives in one manuscript. Thus, there is always the nagging feeling that we might be missing something vital.

Still, that isn’t the fault of the author of this book. It gave me a solid framework for the period, so that the books I read later could be slotted in relatively easily. Thus, in so far as my non-expert opinion is valuable, I can recommend it as an introduction to the period.

New Book

My latest book has now been announced. I contributed to Monster Manual V for Dungeons and Dragons. On the one had, this is just a handful of monsters in a big monster book; it’s not a book by me in any reasonable sense, just one I contributed to. On the other, I have now written for Dungeons and Dragons. This will be immensely useful to me when people ask what I do, because “Oh, like Dungeons and Dragons?” is quite a common response.

I can now just say “Yes, one of the games I write for is Dungeons and Dragons”, rather than having to say “Yes, like that, but not actually D&D”.

Also, D&D is the original RPG, so there’s a sense in which I really wanted to get a D&D credit under my belt. As a bonus, the process was easy, and Wizards pay well and early.

Once I know which of the monsters I wrote made it to the final book (they paid me for all of them, which is promising), I’ll add a books page for D&D.

The Hour of the Dragon

About five and a half years ago, Borders in Cambridge had a sale on the Fantasy Masterworks series. I bought a lot of them, sure that I would get round to reading them eventually. I have just finished getting through them. (I still have some other books that I brought with me from England, but none quite so old. I do have journals from that long ago, though, still waiting to be read.) The one I’ve just read is the second volume of the collected stories of Conan the Barbarian.

I actually enjoyed this rather more than I expected to. While they are not going to join the list of my favourite books ever, they were definitely fun. Conan is implausibly strong, with impossible stamina and fighting skills, and a remarkable tendency to meet extremely attractive women in metal bikinis. Or nothing at all. He tends to go into underground complexes, kill monsters, and come out with treasure.

Oh my god, it’s Dungeons and Dragons.

D&D is often described as “Tolkienesque”, but the basic narrative structure is not very much like Tokien at all. In fact, back when I was writing for the Lord of the Rings RPG, one of the really striking things was how little like the standard D&D conventions Tolkien’s work actually was. Similarly, although Jack Vance’s Dying Earth books are cited as influences, and some ideas were simply lifted, the tone of the Dying Earth is nothing like the tone of D&D. (And the Dying Earth roleplaying game is very, very different from D&D, as it should be.)

Conan the Barbarian, on the other hand, reads more like a write-up of a D&D session than most D&D novels. (OK, “than most of the D&D novels I have read”, which only comes to a tiny fraction of the total published.) Since Conan is one of the archetypal “pulp” story series, this means that D&D is really a pulp RPG.

And this, dear readers, is why Conan the Barbarian counts as work for me. This sort of realisation is directly relevant to writing games, because it gives a bit more insight into what’s going on behind the scenes. It’s a good thing I love my job.

What’s Going on in There?

Continuing my program of reading about babies and children, we have a book about the neurological development of the foetus and child up to the age of about five. This was very interesting; lots of neuroscience I knew in outline, put into a definite context.

The aim of the book is to provide the background necessary to understand why it’s best for parents to do certain things for their children. Some of it concerns how to avoid things going wrong: folic acid in pregnancy (did Yuriko have enough of that? IwillnotpanicIwillnotpanicIwillnotpanic), avoiding cigarette smoke (don’t Yuriko’s co-workers smoke? IwillnotpanicIwillnotpanicIwillnotpanic), and making sure that your baby is neither blind nor deaf early on. Early impairment in either sense can lead to the relevant parts of the brain not getting properly wired up, which means that the child will never be able to use them properly, even if the physical problem is resolved later. In the case of the ears, this can mean losing the ability to use language, even sign language. (This is the book with the quote about auditory systems not developing in a vacuum, by the way.) Other bits concern things that you should do; those are much more positive to read about.

Some bits are quite obvious. Babies, apparently, need loving parents who talk to them. Who would have thought it? Other bits are really not obvious at all. For example, there is pretty good evidence that spending ten minutes a day spinning round in a swivel chair while holding your baby can bring the age at which it walks forward by a couple of months. (You spin slowly, and hold the baby in different positions.) As an added bonus, babies, apparently, love this. Now, I don’t know about you, but this is not something that would have instinctively occurred to me. Similarly, while babies should sleep on their backs, to avoid SIDS, it’s a good idea to put them on their fronts while they are awake, because that lets them exercise their arms and heads. And some are somewhat surprising: baby walkers retard a baby’s own walking, for example. (Baby walkers are those seats with wheels that let babies move around by pushing with their legs.) The best guess is that it makes them lazy.

While much of the book concerns the various subsystems of the brain, from vision to language, the final three chapters concern intelligence. Apparently, about 50% of the variation in intelligence is genetic, and the other half due to environmental factors. (That fits with most of the numbers I’ve seen elsewhere, as well.) So, what can parents do to encourage their children’s intelligence?

This is another bit that isn’t terribly surprising. Teaching calculus to three-year-olds is not, apparently, much use. On the other hand, playing with them, and encouraging them to do things that use their brains, is.

One thing that struck me was the extremely close similarity between the parenting styles that seem to produce the happiest and brightest children, and what I think of as a good teaching style. Parents need to be responsive to the child, so that they always respond to the child as an individual. They should be as positive as possible, concentrating on what is good rather than criticising and correcting. And they should encourage the child to reach high standards. In fact, when you correct for subject matter, the two seem to be exactly the same. I’ve never had to teach anyone table manners, but teaching philosophy and English both work that way.

Finally, there was one comment which I will find extremely useful. The book says that parents should keep up their reading, in front of their children. This encourages children to read, and that has a massive positive effect on their intellectual development. So now I have the perfect excuse. “But honey, I am raising our child. I’m providing a good example, just like the book said.”