Visual Art In Fantasy

Starry Night by Vincent Van Gogh

 

When you say “Art” to most people they think of paintings, and maybe sculpture – Visual art or fine art. Wonderful though that is, it’s not the only thing to which “art” could be referring – last week’s post on nursery rhymes are looking at a more low-brow sort of artistic expression. Later posts will address music and food.

But for now let’s talk about visual art.

More often than not it is relegated to “some paintings” on the walls of the local lord’s manor or describing a palace as “richly decorated”. This tells us something about the individual, but just a little more description can tell us a lot more: Pictures of ancestors that tells us the lineage of this noble is long (ste: or if they are few in number that the lineage is short but with great hopes for the future) – if the decorations are not just rich but beautiful it shows us this person has good taste.

Or to reverse them, maybe the paintings are of someone else’s ancestors, and this person is a recent usurper trying to claim credibility and status they may not deserve, if the decorations are gaudy or clashing it tells us the lord has more money than sense or at the very least no taste. If someone’s fingers are dripping with rings, and they are wearing crowns, brooches, pendants and the like it tells us they like to display their wealth at all times, wherever they are.

If there is next to no art in a manor house it would feel very empty. Maybe the noble is broke due to bad investments, or debts come calling. Or maybe they have no care for art, they concern themselves solely with functionality – the only concession to decoration may be a suit of armour or a pair of crossed axes over the fireplace which are as functional as they are decorative.

A little more description again can tell us yet more. I’ve touched on portraiture and military regalia, but what of other things?

Delicate vases are unlikely to be on pedestals around boorish drunken lords (well not for long), and delicate princesses are unlikely to have gory battle scenes in their bedrooms, so their lack or presence would set expectations. Of course expectations can and should be reversed occasionally – maybe that boorish drunken oaf has a butler always three feet behind him to catch all the delicate vases, which he has on display because he simply loves to have fresh cut flowers around him at all times. Maybe the princess has a tragic back story and it’s the last remaining picture of her true love after the incident… Maybe she’s not really the delicate princess she appears to be, but she can’t express it in public for some reason. Or maybe she’s a psychopath.

Sometimes art is used as treasure – heroes find jewelry, gems and artworks in a dragon’s hoard – it’s more plausible than finding gold bars, I guess, but it tells us basically nothing unless it was a curated collection (in which case it’s akin to the examples above)

But what of making the art the focus of the plot rather than a roundabout way of describing a character or extra-bulky cash? That can work very well. Probably the most famous example is the One Ring from Lord of the Rings – the entire plot circles around that little band of gold. It is not treasured for its artistic value though, but rather for its power as a magical artifact.

In some settings magic and aesthetics can be tied together – a magical sword must be beautifully crafted to hold the spell in place and therefore a beautiful sword is likely magical. If a suit of armour is finely crafted yet non-magical it may even become magical simply by being used by great heroes on their quests…

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Using Jigsaw Fantasy 4: A Question of Rules

What we write is system and setting independent. While this means that things need to be adapted to your games, that is true of any published material – you know your games, your world, and your players better than anyone else after all. On the plus side this means what we write is applicable to a wider range of people and we are not tied to another company’s release schedule or edition changes.

There is one noteworthy issue in system-independent material, and that is the question of rules. If we were to publish rules for a gyik as, say, a level 8 monster in Pathfinder it may be useful for a few levels either side, but the range would be limited meaning that you would have to adapt it if your players are not in that range when you want to send them into the Sivatag Desert – and it would be almost completely useless to players of Savage Worlds. So how do you turn that gyik into a monster for your players to fight, or the giant sundew from Samudtratat Beach into an interesting terrain feature?

Well of course that depends on your game system. Most systems nowadays have advice on how to create the stats for something, and (unless you’re playing high level D&D 3.5) they’re generally pretty quick, if relatively basic. For something like Fate Accelerated (or even more so Risus) you can often just pull a few key lines out of the text and chuck a few numbers which feel right at the page and it’s sorted. Something like D&D or Gurps is more involved, but again between the guidance for creating monsters and NPCs in the book and the ideas it can certainly be done. If you find yourself struggling to create something within the guidelines given the simplest solution is often to look in the “Monster Manual” “Creature Compendium” “Baddy Book” or whatever else your chosen game calls its enemies section – look for creatures with similar abilities and just tweak them and change the description (and damage types if applicable).

When reading a description of a person, creature, plant, or anything else, look for the key parts of the description which would involve mechanics. For example the various characters in Red Lock Bay include descriptions of what they do best and what they are known for, as well as their history. That information should inform their key skill levels. The twins Daniel and Alan Herbert are skilled chefs, but just as much they are excellent showmen. It is fair to suggest they would be highly dexterous and charismatic (despite their appearance – many games unhelpfully conflate physical appearance and social ability) – many games have a stat called dexterity and another called charisma, but those which don’t will have analogues (such as agility, or charm). They also need high skills in cookery, butchery, fishing and whatever other related skills are in your game. As they are generally well respected it would be good to give them some degree of contacts, allies, or similar if your game uses them.

Ultimately, I believe, the rules should get out of the way and allow a good story to be told. Some things can be fudged , or things adapted into other things – for example Red Lock Bay’s Seaborne Ponies could use any regular pony stats with the addition of a swim skill (unless you were to take the suggestion of making them kelpies, in which case they are something altogether more complex). Sometimes, however, the mechanics are a good way to tell part of the story and there we have called out rules ideas – the Royal Panoply of Annem Ka is the only place I have felt a real need to do this. There I have made suggestions of what the various items and artifacts might do as they are awakened as their process of awakening and growing power is a key part of the story. Even here, though I have left the specifics to you – should the bonus to leadership skills that the Crown of Annem Ka provides be +2 or +5? Or should it grant proficiency in the skill?

These questions, and others, are ones that only you can answer because they depend on your world, your stories, what will help the players shine equally, and what you and your players will enjoy.

After all, is enjoyment not the entire reason we are here?

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Epic Environments – Deserts

Photo by Loggawiggler

Deserts

The desert is a harsh mistress… No wait, that was the moon. Anyway, deserts are harsh places. A desert is defined as anywhere that receives less than 250mm of rain a year, which means that technically parts of Antarctica are deserts. What we usually mean, though, is an area of rock and sand with very little water and even less life.

 

Death

They say you can survive 3 weeks without food, 3 days without water and 3 minutes without air (so I guess the moon really is harsher than any desert on Earth!). This means water management is extremely important if you wish to travel in the desert. What life there is tends to congregate around oases, the rare water sources which do appear in many deserts, or it lies dormant until the rare rains. In the Atacama Desert, in Chile, there is a phenomenon called the Flowering Desert – generally the area receives less than 12mm of rain a year, making it one of the driest places on the planet but every so often it receives heavy rain and the seeds germinate – for a few days the entire region is covered in thousands of species of wild flowers, and teeming with life which takes advantage of them. It is said to be absolutely beautiful.

The other problem with deserts is temperature – everyone knows deserts are hot (well, except for Antarctica), but the temperature drops rapidly at night, often falling below freezing. Many a traveller has frozen to death because they were unaware of that.  

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Castle Coverage – Maiden Castle

Aerial photograph by Major George Allen

Aerial photograph by Major George Allen

 

A photograph by Andy Lamb showing the sheer scale of the mounds

A photograph by Andy Lamb showing the sheer scale of the mounds

 

There are well over a thousand known iron age hill forts in the UK, but Maiden Castle is the biggest. It may even be the biggest in Europe. If any of them deserve the title Castle, then it’s Maiden Castle in Dorset.

Hill forts consist of earthen embankments and ditches around a hill top. Maiden Castle has four sets of embankments around the highest hill in the area. When it was built, the ditches cut into the hill embankments would have revealed the chalk under the grass, making them bright white. I like to think they kept them clean to make the hill fort more impressive and obvious. People lived inside the forts and farmed the areas outside.

That’s pretty much everything we know for certain about hill forts.

The people who lived in them didn’t have a written language, and they were going into decline by the time to Romans arrived, so archaeologists have had to reconstruct things from evidence found on these sites, and the occasional written record from outsiders, plus generalising from other sites. You see these places are old!

 

The Unknown and the Ancient

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Castle Coverage – Fort George (No, not that one, the other one…)

There are several places called Fort George across the world, and two in the UK. I’m not writing about the one in Guernsey today, but rather the one in the highlands of Scotland. It’s not technically a castle because it is a military installation, and was never intended as a high-status residence, but it’s interesting enough that I thought I would bend the rules a little.

Photograph by Stephen Branley

Photograph by Stephen Branley

A New Kind of Fortress

When gunpowder weapons were first developed they had many benefits, but they lacked the power of a trebuchet. Sieges therefore remained as they pretty much always had done, only with more smoke and loud bangs – cannons were primarily an anti-infantry weapon, and thus useful in defence but not really in bringing down a castle wall. Castle designs changed somewhat to accommodate gunpowder, and where one once would have seen arrow slits castles were being built with gun loops and cannon ports.

Over time, though, cannons got more powerful, and were able to make big holes in stone walls. The mobility and relative accuracy of cannons made the old castle designs far less useful and so designs changed. Clearly the walls needed to be thicker and better able to absorb impacts, so earthen ramparts were used. The previously popular round towers were problematic for related reasons – a large bomb called a petard could be comparatively safely placed at the base because there was an area which could not be easily seen from anywhere inside (to be hoist on one’s own petard was to be blown up by one’s own bomb – they were also, more dangerously, used to blow open gate houses and portcullises). Because of this bastions were built which were angled and protruded beyond the walls in such a way that they allowed a clear field of fire across the entire area.

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Castle Coverage – Tintagel Castle

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Tintagel is something of an anomaly on many counts. It was never a militarily important location, and rarely was it a royal residence. It is seen as key part of Arthurian myth, but there is little suggestion King Arthur ever set foot there. It has been inhabited since Roman times, but the only fortifications which remain are harking back to something that never happened.

 

The Myth(s)

The great King Arthur was a man, and thus needed to be born and grow up. Before even  that he needed to be conceived, and it is at Tintagel that that night occurred, at least according to Geoffrey of Monmouth. Uther Pendragon, Arthur’s father-to-be and King of All Britons fell in love with Ygrayne when he saw her at his coronation. But her husband Gorlois, the Duke of Cornwall was not happy about that and left, taking her with him.  Uther used that as an excuse to go to war with Gorlois. There is no suggestion of Ygrayne’s position on the matter – the least worst option here is that she was receptive to Uther’s advances, which is the position Mary Stewart takes.  

Gorlois led his campaign from a castle called Dimilioc, but he sent his wife to Tintagel as its location made it impossible to breach – Uther is told that three armed warriors could defend the castle against the entirety of Britain – why Gorlois didn’t choose to base himself out of Tintagel as well I don’t know! Regardless, Uther believed this claim, and so called for Merlin’s aid. He asked Merlin to magically disguise him as Gorlois so he could slip past the defences. Merlin worked his magic and created a potion to do the job.

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Castle Coverage – Harlech Castle

By Baynes, James, 1766-1837 Woolnoth, William, fl. 1785-1836 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

By Baynes, James, 1766-1837 Woolnoth, William, fl. 1785-1836 [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

Harlech. Now there’s a name to conjure with.  One of the most famous castles in Wales if not the entire United Kingdom. In contrast to Bodiam last week, Harlech was the site of conflict from before it was built up until its partial destruction in the English Civil War. There is even a song about one of the sieges of the place! Despite going to university just up the road in Bangor i am sad to say I never managed to visit Harlech.

The Castle and its Construction

It’s a small castle, and comparatively cheap by the standards of the day – it cost around eight thousand pounds, while Conwy cost fifteen thousand, and Caernarfon was over twenty thousand – all three were built around the same time and all in North Wales. All three of these, and five others others, were built on the orders of Edward I towards the end of the Thirteenth Century to try to prevent another Welsh uprising – a conflict that had been bubbling for at least two hundred years by this point.

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Castle Coverage – Bodiam Castle

Engraving from a book by Nathaniel Buck & Samuel Buck

Engraving from a book by Nathaniel Buck & Samuel Buck

 

I’m planning to write a series of pieces about castles in the British Isles this month – there’s a lot of history here, and much of it would make good inspiration for games and stories. Castles are big, impressive structures built to withstand attack, pacify local dissidents, and protect those loyal to the lord. But they are more than just military structures – they are the homes of nobility, and they are big, imposing buildings which show the righteous power of those in charge.

I thought I would start with Bodiam Castle for two reasons: First it is a great example of what we think a castle looks like, and second I’ve been there several times as it is not far from where i grew up (Maybe that’s why I think it is the most castley castle that ever castled!).

 

The Castle and its History

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