Inspired by my interview with Semiurge, and as a means of procrastinating on other things I really want to / need to do but am feeling suddenly burnt out on, I have created my first Semiurge-style generator. This is a D6xD6 generator for everyone's favorite monster, the fantastic flumph!
With all the talking of elements I've been doing lately, I thought it would be interesting to make an element generator. Elements are by definition the primitives of the universe, but in the case of the alchemical elements often found in fantasy, they are also symbolic, which gives us a little more room for interpretation. I think it is necessarily the case that even with this generator, a lot of manual work will be required to make elements drawn from this table coherent. I was originally going to write up a full setting from a random drawing of four elements to really demonstrate what it might look like, but I've been too focused on my Maximum Recursion Depth setting and can't really think about it right now, but I'll write up four example elements just to give you all a sense of it.
The properties of the generator are color, state, and two additional qualities.
Color is fairly straightforward, although I intentionally throw some weirder ones in there. It can be the case that color is a literal property of the element, or it's more so a cultural association. Additionally, while I do distinguish between blue and cyan for reasons, generally a color can encompass a broad range (green can be forest green, neon green, etc.)
State includes not just solid, liquid, and gas, but also plasma, freezing (between liquid and solid), vaporizing (between liquid or solid and gas), and ionizing (between gas and plasma). These are not intended to be taken too literally or scientifically, but I have this feeling which I can't quite articulate that state provides some unique point of reference for elements. I realize that, with the traditional elements, ice is often sub-set into water and I think it's fine to give yourself a similar amount of leeway with these elements. Still, I think water as liquid has a certain symbolic resonance ("go with the flow"; water flowing around a large stone, a river carving a canyon).
The additional qualities are a mix of mostly visual and tactile features to give the element a little more flavor. I decided to go with two per element to create a bit more variety and potentially interesting combinations, and just to be more descriptive. It can produce results with duplicated qualities; you can either ignore the duplicate, or treat it as an exaggerated version of that quality.
I had considered also adding some more symbolic or metaphysical tables as well, but ultimately I decided that I preferred to allow the symbolic and metaphysical aspects of the elements to be an emergent property of the rest of the elements and how they fit together within the setting, rather than trying to pre-define them, although I think that could be interesting as well in a different way.
Given this generator, the traditional alchemical elements might be represented as such:
Water Color: Blue (or colorless?) State: Liquid Additional Quality 1: Semi-translucent Additional Quality 2: Silken
Fire Color: Red State: Plasma Additional Quality 1: Incandescent Additional Quality 2: Animate (flickering fire) (or marbled, or splash of yellow or orange?)
Air Color: Colorless (or cyan, maybe yellow for lightning?) State: Gas Additional Quality 1: Iridescent (rainbows, other light reflections) Additional Quality 2: Animate (winds, lightning) (or semi-translucent if given a color?)
Earth Color: Brown (or green?) State: Solid Additional Quality 1: Gritty (dirt, sand) Additional Quality 2: Fibrous (representing plantlife / nature) or Metallic (representing metals and minerals)
As you can see it requires a bit of a stretch of the logic to get the traditional elements from this table and they can potentially be represented in multiple ways, but I see all of this as a feature not a bug ;).
I might be tempted to curate my elements if I really want to build a whole setting out of them and not go full-random, but if you're less hung-up on elements than I am, or just want some weird material for a one-off instance, this generator should be good.
Minute particles in the air which condense like a sheet of frost over objects on cool mornings and winters. The song-glass is nearly invisible except for a slight cloudy sheen. It cracks easily to the touch, producing a fuzzy, static-y noise. Ancient shamans and philosophers learned how to decypher these noises into information, which gave the species valuable knowledge about the world and how to survive in it. They later learned to encode messages into song-glass, build devices to speak the messages or project the images of song-glass, and eventually even to transmit vaporized song-glass ethereally over vast distances.
Element 2: Popstone
Additional Quality 1: Matte
Additional Quality 2: Gritty
A dull, gritty, cyan-colored sand, believed to be condensed air. When rapidly shook, popstones crackle and pop like thunder and lightning. The thunderstorms of popstone deserts shine so brightly they twinkle like stars. The weaponization of popstone quickly led to the species' dominance of the world, and later they also learned to harness the power of popstone as a source of energy and means of locomotion.
Element 3: Godrend
Additional Quality 1: Animate
Additional Quality 2: Marbled
Marbled like fatty meat, bleeds like a wet sponge to the touch. Not quite animal or fungus, neither organic nor inorganic. Believed to be the rendering fat of the gods. It absorbs properties of the things it touches, like DNA and also things beyond the measurements of modern science, and provides sustenance when absorbed through the skin or consumed. Godrend swamps burble and jiggle and dance, especially on nights with starry skies. Outside apocrypha, the species are the only ones capable of deriving sustenance through godrend; it is what separates the species from animals.
Element 4: Shadowbrine
Additional Quality 1: Silken
Additional Quality 2: Phosphorescent
Light which is absorbed but is not transformed into heat, and is instead gated behind a one-way liquid medium to suffocate, ferment, and die. Like liquid eclipse, one can sense the energy of light by its absence, its shadow. Shadowbrine is found in caves and other dark places, and most abundantly in the hard to reach depths of the oceans. Shadowbrine brewers mold their processed concoctions, and as the sun rises and as the sun sets, the object which would block the light to create the shadow rises in its proper place. This is how the species' cities were first formed and mostly how they are formed still.
I spontaneously decided that I wanted to start doing interviews, so I interviewed Semiurge of the blog Archons March On. His random generators are some of the most creative and useful tools in all of the OSR, and I genuinely believe Semiurge to be one of the most talented and creative bloggers in the OSR blogosphere. I enjoyed this conversation quite a bit and would potentially like to do more interviews like this. If you enjoy reading this and would like to see more, please let me know!
Why don't you start by telling me a bit about yourself and the blog.
Semiurge: Re: Introductions, I'm semiurge, my blog is Archons March On, it's mostly random tables.
Why did you start the blog?
Semiurge: Honestly it's incredibly petty.
Max: Ooh I'm intrigued...
Semiurge: The r/d100 guy automated one of my tables and put it on his website (with my permission of course), and the link to the automated table got more attention than my original one. So I thought why not start doing the automating myself, found Spwack's thing, and the rest is history.
What are your inspirations?
Semiurge: Recently (as in the last few months) it's been other people, bouncing ideas off them like the Ping Pong Challenge I did with Rememberdismove, doing prompts, riffing off their formats/ideas
Max: I remember that ping pong thing you did, that was pretty cool. I don't know Rememberdismove outside of that event, but it was cool to see.
Max: Wow, that's quite a compliment. I will have to take a closer look at their work. I can't remember when exactly that challenge happened now, but I think I may have been a bit disengaged from the RPG scene at the time.
Max: What about prior to the last few months? More generally?
Semiurge: As dissatisfying an answer as it might be: just about everything I've ever experienced. My memory's not great on specifics, so after a while it just lumps together into the same mash. Occasionally I get good stuff bubbling to the surface.
Max: No worries, my memory is the same way.
Semiurge: Kenneth Hite, particularly his Suppressed Transmission series, definitely informed my writing. Conspiracies, freewheeling free association, weird secret history. Weirdly enough I'm not sure if the stuff I've read and enjoyed reading makes it into the part of my brain that inspiration comes from. At least reading like books. Blogs do.
Max: That's interesting, can you elaborate on that? What is it about blogs vs books? Is it a context thing you think? Or actually something about the medium?
Semiurge: Part of it's probably that blog posts are more modular, you can take each on its own and really mine it for ideas, a full longform work is more entangled.
Semiurge: Wait got one more thing for settings: Tattered Realms, for Song of Swords, it's got like five types of elves in a medieval Europe pastiche yet still blows most others out of the water. There's an anemic wiki but if you namesearch Jimmy Rome on 4plebs or another /tg/ archive you can get the direct stuff. How could I forget this one?! Long live the Invincible Republic of Dace!
Many of your posts are these very specific, multi-layered generators, which produce all sorts of weird and wonderful results. What about this format in particular appeals to you so much? What is your process?
Semiurge: The biggest from the start is that because each individual line's so small you can drop the tables and pick them up again whenever. So I can't lose the thread like I do for the dozens of longer drafts I have lying around.
Max: Oh ya, the struggle is real in that regard.
Semiurge: It can be a fun puzzle too, coming up 3,200,000 possible combinations, none of which contradict themselves. I've done so many it's meditative at this point, like combing a rock garden.
Max: But still, it is impressive how you can take some really specific idea, like... (searches through your index for a random post) headstrong helmets, and have five tables worth of stuff that can combine in all sorts of ways, and each one is interesting and coherent.
Semiurge: Magic loot's usually one of the easier ones to do. Except for boots, which has languished unloved.
Max: I can get the meditative aspect, when I'm in a good flow I feel that with my process as well. But there is really nobody I can think of that does what you do, and certainly not as well as you do it, so I'm just genuinely curious how you do it.
Semiurge: Only so many interesting powers you can tie into boots
Max: lol really?
Semiurge: Yeah let me check it. Yeah just walk unharmed on oozes/lava/other mostly-fluids. Also I don't like reusing fantastical materials. Defeats the purpose of the creative exercise part of the form. So now that I've exhausted all the low- and medium-hanging fruit I'm on to like.... giant's toenails or whatever.
Do you worry that you'll run out of sufficiently original or interesting premises for these tables?
Semiurge: Yes and no. It's harder now that I've used up most of the monsters and whatnot with broad enough thematic resonance to milk a hundred entries out of in an afternoon, but to reiterate it's a creative exercise in a pretty much literal sense. You start off doing 5 sets of 20 vampires, work your way up to oni, gnolls, time-travellers. The challenge is part of the point and the fun for me. Re: thematic resonance, I posted on your blog the other day how I find elves to be more of a feeling than a specific creature. Like everything from Keebler to Sindar. Do elves live in the woods? Where else could elves live that wouldn't be out of place for this feeling of "elf"? What's kind of like a forest? And so on. Same logic for everything else. What's a (D20x5) Place(s) of Pilgrimage (coming November 2022)? How much can I stretch and play with that idea? The web serial writer Wildbow came up with what he calls a pivot for this sort of thing that I find useful. It's like "nail down a concept as a set of points, then switch one of those up".
Max: Ya I totally get what you mean. It's like, most people, if they're thinking about it at all, are thinking about an Elf in the mean average (the cognitive neuroscientist in me would call that the Prototype), or maybe as a single modal representation (the Exemplar). Your tables really deconstruct the concept of (in this case) Elf by saying, how many features can I create, where I can randomly combine them, and they're all still Elf, while also being unique. I'm not familiar with that web serial but that's an interesting idea.
Semiurge: Wrt the pivot thing because that's a scrawny explanation. Take dwarves: Dwarves dig underground, dwarves are greedy for gold (for a shorter set). How do they dig? Typically like human miners, but maybe these dwarves are more like moles or worms. Where can they dig besides underground? Maybe into giant trees, like big hairy termites. What's kind of like digging? Maybe they dive into the ocean in bronze submersibles, hunting leviathans in abyssal trenches. Etc., et cetera.
Max: Did you come up with those just now? Damn, those are good.
Max: I have very little restraint and when I try to do these kinds of deconstructions, I almost always tow way over the line lol. There's definitely a science to it.
What are some of your favorite systems and settings?
Semiurge: I'm going to try to avoid the ones that a lot of people probably know and also like already (e.g. Centerra).
Max: Fair enough.
Semiurge: I've been playing with Sofinho (of Alone In The Labyrinth) in his Pariah game the last couple months, and that's been great. It's this neolithic, animistic, on the verge of agricultural revolution setting. The system's fast and simple, I think like a cut-down B/X with a bit of Spwack's Die Trying (at least the Xs system). I like anything simple and fast, and don't generally like learning new systems. When I was a kid I could blaze through and memorize all that 3e D&D, world of darkness stuff, now it's like just keep it to 100 words or less to start off.
Max: I totally agree about not wanting to learn / play really complicated systems anymore.
Semiurge: Another setting, which is a bit of a cop-out because it's stylized history, is Shigurui. One of the best stories put to paper. Set in early Tokugawa Japan. The way the social expectations and dynamics are so cloying, like a lead blanket on every character. Feels dominating in a way that fantasy settings usually don't, closer to real life in the weight and density of it. And yet very different from modern society.
Max: I am not familiar with Shigurui, but you make such a bold claim now I feel compelled to check it out.
Semiurge: To go back to Pariah's setting, it's hit home a bit of what is conventional wisdom for osr settings that didn't previously land for me. The post-apocalyptic, social order has broken down sort of stuff. But in kind of the opposite direction, pre-civilization rather than post-civilization. Smaller cast, smaller world, no big powerful states to exist in the shadow of. More room for weirdos and weird doings.
Max: Ya, I've sat on some "stonepunk" ideas, but never quite felt like I had a strong enough grasp of the implications of pre-history to do it justice. And anyway, I don't think I thought of this parallel in quite the way you're suggesting, or at least you're making it now more salient. Dang, you are really good at making everything sound interesting! Although I guess I already knew that. I was passively aware of Alone in the Labyrinth but I will have to start making a more active effort to follow the blog now.
Semiurge: Wildbow's stories too, to reference him again, are also neat. I maintain that if osr superheroes were to be a thing then Worm & Ward would be the base to build them off of setting-wise.
Max: I'm sorry, I'm not familiar with Worm & Ward. Is it something from the campaign you were mentioning? I am, as you probably know, a fan of superheroes (although I've been struggling with my feelings on that recently, but that's a conversation for another time), and I know there are plenty of others in the OSR who are also into superheroes, but in a lot of ways supers are a bit antithetical to many of the common conventions of OSR. So any ideas about superheroes in the context of OSR or tabletop more generally are definitely interesting to me.
Semiurge: They're a couple of that Wildbow guy's web serials, Worm alone is longer than the Bible so I can't really 'recommend it' recommend it but I'd say try it until the bank robbery and if you're not hooked by then it's probably not gonna work for you. I think the best frame would be as street-level villains jockeying for cash and reputation.
Max: I can already kind of imagine how that ties into OSR.
Do you have any thoughts about the future of the OSR, blogosphere, RPG industry and community in general, etc.?
Semiurge: The osr is a spook.
Max: I have literally no idea what that means 0.o.
Semiurge: (in the Stirner sense)
Max: I am actually not super familiar with Stirner if you wouldn't mind elaborating on that further.
Semiurge: To give a more serious answer, I've never really experienced a thing such as 'the osr'. Maybe it existed before I got into things.
Max: Aah ok I think I see what you mean now.
Semiurge: I'd say it's more of a network, but that sounds like networking, too businessy.
Max: No I get what you mean by that though. And ya, I think the OSR that you and I came up in was very different than this thing that apparently existed for nearly a decade before either of us started blogging
Semiurge: There's people whose stuff I like, there's people who like my stuff, sometimes those are the same people, many of them at least know of each other. So I guess my answer would be all that culture, industry, community stuff passes over my head like a cloud. I want the people I like to keep making good stuff and enjoy it. I want to make stuff I can enjoy. It's more individuals, personalities, relationships for me than all that.
Max: That is probably for the best.
Semiurge: Actually I think I can comment on platform.
Semiurge: Discord's ok for finding new people and playing games. But it can also be fun to meander through peoples' "recommended blogs" sidebars.
Max: Oh ya for sure. Honestly, I'm not a huge fan of discord; I mean I like it for small group chats and running games and that sort of thing, but it doesn't really work for me as a big open platform in the way reddit (strictly as a platform, not speaking on the community) or especially G+ (RIP) did. But I 100% agree about the blog list sidebars. And also it feels really good when you see your blog on someone else's list, whether they're someone you really respect or someone you've never even met before.
Semiurge: Yeah for sure.
Ok, I do have one more question that I'd like to end on, but before that, are there any questions I didn't ask that you'd like to talk about, or just in general anything you want to say?
Semiurge: Yeah if you or anyone else would like me to write something I'm always open for ideas. So shoot those over on whatever platform. Won't say no to ideas.
Max: Oh dang, ya I will definitely have to take you up on that some time. I wish I had a good idea for you off-hand but unfortunately I really don't.
Semiurge: Oh yeah and thanks for the interview, fun way to spend an evening.
Max: Ya for sure, this has been a lot of fun. I wasn't sure how this was going to go but I feel like we got into some really cool stuff. I do have one more question for you though!
Can we talk about "Platinum Big Dick Baller"?
Max: it's a (semi-)serious question!
Semiurge: He [NOTE: The r/d100 guy) sneakily removed it for a week but then I noticed and had it reinstated. For a while, I was producing like 50%+ of that sub's content (it's bigger & faster moving now I think). So the head guy asked me if I wanted a special flair. That was the first thing to come to mind.
Max: lol that's amazing. I remember you telling me when he removed it but I had no idea that's how you got it in the first place. I mean no disrespect to anyone else who has ever posted in that subreddit, but in my opinion your posts are are still the best thing there. I remember the first time reading one of your generators and my mind was blown. I am glad this story is now out there, the public has a right to know!
Semiurge: Started from the bottom now we here (slightly above the bottom).
Max: oof too real... ok well on that note, I think it's time we wrap up, but ya, thanks for doing this, this was really cool. We've talked about various things before, but I do feel like I've gotten to understand your creativity better through this and also learned about some cool stuff. You are full of just fascinating insights on top of your creativity.
I keep talking about elements and their significance to me (this post about the positive and negative plane, which further links to other posts where I discuss this as well). When it comes to elements, I generally prefer to create worlds of new elements, either entirely made-up like Impossible Light, Absolute Solid, Anti-Information, and Liquid Starfire, or of real things (or at least real fictional things) like Phlogisten, Yeast, Lymph, and Ectoplasm. However, I had the thought the night before drafting this post; what about a world with the typical alchemical elements (in this case I'm assuming Fire, Water, Earth, and Air), but where one of the elements is missing? How do the other elements adapt or develop? How do the organisms, the cultures, the gods, and monsters and magic?
There are a few key points to my thought process:
I try to take an almost evolutionary approach to it, thinking about how the remaining elements or the world adapts to the lack of the element.
I generally try to not conflate the science with elementalism. For instance, ice is just solid water, but in a world without earth, ice may be, in an elementalist sense, meaningfully distinct from water and take that role.
That being said, I'm willing to break this soft rule if it would be more interesting to do so.
These are very brief. I've been struggling with putting my thoughts to words lately; I'm sitting on several new settings which I think are really cool but just haven't been able to write them up. There's something to be said for brevity though, so maybe it's ok if they are just brief little blurbs.
Large ocean. Pillars of ice the size of cities pulled up towards the sky, connected by bifrost bridges. Rays of focused light rain from the sky like beams of holy light, burning into the ever-rising pillars, sculpting the landscape, and inducing violent wave patterns into the ocean. This is a world of constant change and high concepts, of flight and mobility, a world that feels light and airy.
Red Moon. Couldn't find a good image with a red moon, steam or smoke vents, and red hot stones and glass, but I think this gets the vibe across of being fire-less and dark.
A World with no Fire
Harsh winds vibrate glass and stones to glowing red. The world is pocked with vents of steam and smoke from naturally-occurring coal and hydrothermal power. A softly glowing red moon provides barely any heat or illumination. On land, this is a harsh and tired world of survivors, of competitive energy-oases. It is a world of little change and little accrued knowledge, except what is necessary for survival. In the bubbling oceans, hot-water life thrives. Who knows what rests in the energy-rich deeps...
Lava Fields. No gelatinous air and cities on glass planes.
A World with no Water
Magma oceans. Gelatinous humid air. Glass planes cut through swimmable air; a vertical landscape. This is a world of strict hierarchy, of unmoving objects, of tradition and propriety. Except for the sky pirates...
Silent and still. Flat oceans. Pockets of city-sized sugary ooze containing zymological life. A low and persistent dusty fog. Geothermal vents glow from ocean pits, as do motionless volcanoes topped like molten glass.