A slightly weird idea I know, but I was struck by it while sitting in a Japanese drinking restaurant (izakaya) attempting to read the fantastical labels on all their Sake bottles. I tried a variation on this theme a while back, when I suggested translations of Osaka place names as inspiration for adventure settings. While western wines tend to be named based on their location (e.g. Jacob’s Creek or Chateau de Whatever), Japanese sake[1] tends to be named after auspicious, fortunate, or bold concepts. Previously on this blog I introduced the infamous suigei, or drunken whale, which was inspiration for a lie but not for a spell; however, many of the names that festoon your average drinking restaurant’s wine shelf would probably pass muster as a spell, ability or card. So, here are a few, taken from the Rakuten sake market. I’ve included some basic D&D stats.

Sound of Snow (Yuki no Oto)

  Class: Druid

 Level: 3

Duration: 1 rd/lvl

Area of Effect: 20′ radius

                   Saving Throw: None

The caster and his or her allies become as silent as gently falling snow; +4 on all Move Silently Checks. This spell is ineffective in areas of strong wind or great heat.

The Wine: Incapable of being mass-produced, this wine retains the elegance and mellowness of handmade sake, combined with a rounded and refreshing taste. It goes well with sashimi, grilled white fish, and delicate-flavoured vegetables.

Region: Akita Prefecture, Northeast Japan.

Favorable Reply (iroyoi henji)

  Class: Cleric

Level: 1

Duration: 1 round

Area of Effect: Caster

Saving Throw: None

With this spell, the caster can ask a minor deity a single yes or no question concerning the action to be taken in the round immediately following the casting of the spell. The minor deity will tell the caster whether or not they are capable of success with the given action, but will give no information as to whether, for example, the caster is embarking on the correct actions necessary to secure this success. The action in question must be describable in terms of a single die roll (e.g. a single attack or skill check), not a general sequence of actions (such as, for example, avoiding the snapping pincers of the giant crabs in the pit while balancing on a narrow log, and grabbing a hanging gem). Mechanically, whether this spell is useful depends on whether the GM usually gives this kind of information away for free. Note also that the deity invoked is a minor deity and cannot answer questions of a difficulty beyond its ken.

The Wine: Made with a special Yamagata yeast that achieves an excellent balance of flavours, this is a wine that is able to be enjoyed with food.

Region: Yamagata

Honorable Blade of Fortune (ofuku masamune)

Class: Paladin

Level: 4

Duration: 1 rd/level

Area of Effect: Caster/sight

Saving Throw: None

The caster summons a holy sword that grants him or her both good fortune and power for the duration of its use. The sword grants its wielder +1 to hit and damage, and is capable of damaging monsters that can only be hit by magic weapons up to +3. Furthermore, when the spell is cast the caster rolls 2d10+wisdom bonus. While the caster is wielding the sword, a single d20 roll can be replaced with the result of this casting roll every round. The caster or any ally can replace their roll with the result of this roll. At the very least, this spell will protect one member of the party per round from a critical fumble; note that if the caster rolls a natural 20, this does not grant critical successes (but it can be used on rolls to determine whether a natural 20 results in critical damage).

The Wine: Brewed from rice cultivated for more than 40 years by the famous Takeuchi family of brewers, in terraced rice paddies on the Sea of Japan coast of Niigata, this wine is a masterpiece imbued with the spirit of the brewer.

Region: Niigata

Hawk’s Courage (takayu)

 Class: Wizard

Level: 2

Duration: 1 rd/lvl

Area of Effect: One person

Saving Throw: None

This spell grants its target both great courage and fine vision. For the duration of the spell the target gains a +2 morale bonus to saving throws vs. fear, becomes immune to fear of heights, and gains a +2 bonus on spot, listen and search checks. Rumour has it that the spell was developed by wizards in the service of certain ancient clans of pirates who ply the skyways over the most forbidding mountain peaks of the realm.

The Wine: The flavour of this wine is a rare and exquisite thing of beauty. Anyone who receives this wine as a gift will surely be profoundly pleased.

Region: Tottori

There are many, many more wines on the Rakuten marketplace – a whole spell book’s worth if you have the skills. And then there is the shochu … want to give it a try?

fn1: which is called nihonshu in Japanese, btw – literally, “Japanese alcohol”

The Guardian reports that recent scientific experiments confirm the use of Icelandic spar (a type of calcite) may have enabled the vikings to navigate without a compass even in cloudy weather. Apparently this stone is described in an Icelandic legend about a sailor called Sigurd, who used such a stone on a cloudy day to orient his ship. This may explain how the vikings were able to sail to America even in polar gloom. An interesting side point of the research is that, apparently, even a single cannon on an Elizabethan ship held enough iron to interfere with a compass, and sunstones may have been used by navigators to avoid this effect 4 centuries after the end of the viking era.

Of course the vikings knew nothing about the polarization of light or even the scientific processes by which instruments are calibrated and used. How did they discover this “magic” property, how did they believe it worked, and what did it tell them about the world around them? This kind of solution to complex navigation problems fascinates me as an example of science in an era when many phenomena of the natural world must surely have been seen as magic. Probably, the vikings had worked out sophisticated navigation techniques without any understanding of the nature of the heavens or the earth. It’s interesting to think about how far such science takes people before it breaks down or its contradictions force its adherents to find modern science. How do these processes work…?

When I played AD&D I think one of the first aspects of its magic system I dropped was the material components. It’s a shame, but they just represented too much of a constraint on what was already a hideously underpowered class (especially at first level). Some of the material components even for first level spells are quite challenging to provide, and they’re consumed in the casting of the spell. Consider, for example, the following spells:

  • Alarm: A tiny bell and a very fine piece of silver wire
  • Armor: A piece of finely cured leather that has been blessed by a priest
  • Color Spray: A pinch each of powder or sand colored red, blue and yellow
  • Dancing Lights: A bit of phosphorus or wychwood, or a glowworm
  • Friends: Chalk, lampblack and vermillion
  • Identify: A pearl worth 100gp and an owl feather soaked in wine
  • Light: A firefly or a piece of phsophorescent moss
  • Protection from Evil: Powdered silver

and so on.  The spells Burning Hands, Detect Magic, Charm Person and Magic Missile require no material components of any kind. These material components are very cool and really add to the romance and style of wizards, but they’re an enormous burden, especially on low level wizards. A first level wizard starts with 20-50 gps, so will not be able to cast Identify and probably can’t afford the ingredients for Protection from Evil, Dancing Lights or Color Spray in most medieval settings. That’s without considering the difficulty of carrying phosphorus, glow-worms and phosphorescent moss. Some of these spells also can’t be cast in the casting time given in their description, because the ingredients need to be steeped, smeared or scattered in a circle. Find Familiar, much more powerful than its 3rd Edition version, requires 1000Gps of herbs and incense. Even Sleep is probably beyond the reach of a lot of wizards, requiring as it does a pinch of sand – sand would have been a rare sight in 12th Century Glastonbury, I’m willing to bet. So here you have a first level wizard with 40 GPs, and before he goes adventuring he needs to gather together a piece of silver wire, several portions of powdered silver, a collection of tiny bells, some phosphorescent moss, some sand and a drop of bitumen (!! for Spider Climb).

One can imagine what happens if the party kills a gnome, who has a small admantite file in his toolkit. The file is worth 50gps and everyone else just wants to sell it, but the Wizard recognizes here an opportunity to make himself self-sufficient in powdered minerals, and snaffles it up. A libertarian party would probably charge him 200gps premium for it[1]. And at higher levels it gets ridiculous, of course:

  • Invisibility: An eyelash encased in gum arabic[2]
  • Melf’s Minute Meteors: nitrite[3], sulphur, pine tar and a (reusable) fine tube of gold worth 1000gps
  • Evard’s Black Tentacles: a piece of tentacle from a giant octopus or squid
  • Feeblemind: a handful of clay, crystal, glass or mineral spheres
  • Chain Lightning: A piece of fur, an amber, glass, or crystal rod, and a small silver pin for each experience level of the wizard

Some of these material components are very very difficult to get hold of. I doubt I could get most of them easily, even living in Tokyo. If one were to rigorously adhere to the spell components rules, every wizard would need the regular services of an alchemist, silversmith, blacksmith, and a couple of other extremely talented craftspeople; the wizard would also need to be very assiduous about cutting up and preserving any roadkill or adventure-kill he or she came across. There’s no doubt that this sort of thing makes these PCs much more interesting, but it also makes them virtually unplayable, because it essentially restricts the number of spells the PC knows in any one day, as well as the number they can cast – effectively it puts a bunch of spells beyond the PC’s reach at any time, while maintaining daily limits on those that the player does have the ability to use. A good example is Identify: a wizard at first level can’t use it, but by second level may be able to afford a pearl of suitable value. They can then cast the spell; but they can only cast it once, on one object, and they can’t cast it in the dungeon because they only know two spells a day and they need Shield and Magic Missile in the dungeon. So the party stumbles upon a ring that may be of great use right there and then, but the wizard can’t cast the spell even though it was a week’s work to find the owl feather and the pearl. So then they have to wait till they leave the dungeon, at which point they have a second item to identify but they can’t do so because they don’t have enough ingredients. Alternatively suppose that the wizard has spent all their treasure on pearls and owl feathers; they can still only cast the spell once today, because they couldn’t memorize more than two spells; but the party is pressed, and has found a magic sword and armour that they really need to use now, in the dungeon. Even though the wizard has spent his last money on two pearls and two owl feathers, he can only identify one item today.

Suppose then, that instead of using the standard approach to magic of AD&D, one introduced a simpler system in which a wizard can cast any spell they know as often as they like, provided they have the material components. This would mean that the wizard would usually have some spells (such as Burning Hands) on rotation, but I don’t see this as a bad thing. A first level wizard with Burning Hands once per round at will can do 1d3+2 hps damage per round on anyone within combat range (save for 1/2). It’s not a game changer; free use of Magic Missile makes a high level wizard pretty scary, doing 5-25 damage per round with no saving throw, but a few tweaks on minor spells (e.g. fixing magic missile at a maximum of two missiles) would easily solve that problem. Alternatively, you could give these spells simple material components: magic missile could require an arrow per missile, for example. Burning hands could require the wizard be carrying a lit flame source, that is extinguished by the spell. This would reduce the spell to the potency of WFRP 3rd Edition, where wizards have basically unlimited spell use but mostly have to use one every other round.

Even for high level spells with simple components, like the Bigby’s Hand spells, this method wouldn’t lead to infinite amounts of spell casting. Bigby’s Hand requires a glove; no one can realistically carry more than, say, 10 gloves in their equipment if they also have to carry: a small bag full of crystal spheres; a collection of test tubes carrying the components for Melf’s Minute Meteors and Invisibility; 8 or 10 small pouches of different powders, nitrites and the like; a sheath or case with several different rods; some vials of acids, pure water, tears, etc; additional pouches carrying fur, bits of leather, feathers and wings; a jar with a pickled piece of a giant octopus tentacle; a small cage of fireflies; a pestle and mortar to crush gems with; a couple of miniature platinum swords; and a collection of iron, silver, and bronze mirrors. Sure, this would make the task of spell-casting a little like a complex system of inventorying, but you could handle it, I’m sure, and if it’s hard for the player imagine how complex it is for the PC! You could also argue that if a Wizard is carrying components for more than, say, 5 spells on their person, they can’t cast a spell every round (they need a round to find the item[4]).

Furthermore, one could introduce different effects for more imaginative components. E.g. Invisibility lasts a round longer if the eyelash is from a thief (handy if you have a thief in the party); the component is never destroyed if the eyelash is from an Invisible Stalker. Water from another plane makes a spell that uses it more powerful, and the effect of spells like Identify is enhanced with more expensive pearls or more esoteric feathers (e.g. from a Sphinx). Expending a magic arrow adds one to the damage of a Magic Missile spell, and so on. You could also rule that every time a wizard is struck in combat one of their more fragile components is damaged or destroyed (randomly determined). It would also make wizards very eager to kill or capture each other, since they can loot their rivals’ components as well as their spell book.

Power limits could be obtained easily by dividing wizards into specialties, so that from first level they are limited only to conjuring or evocation, etc. Many RPGs do this, so that wizards have access to very few spells over their career. This would prevent a single wizard from being able to cast Burning Hands (alteration), Magic Missile (evocation), Charm Person (enchantment), and Chill Touch (Necromancy). I would make the conjuration, divination and abjuration specialties common to all wizards and then force them to choose one of the other four

fn1: libertarian parties probably last as long as the first Cure Light Wounds spell, and then decide socialism is the way to go.

fn2: According to Wikipedia, gum arabic was an extremely valuable export commodity and is an essential ingredient in soft drinks, and the Sudanese president recently implied he could bring down the western world through suspending its export

fn3: I find it hard to believe that nitrite was readily available in the medieval world but nitrates were as saltpeter, again not exactly your common or garden middle-ages corner store product

fn4: This could be a good rule for PCs with more than 5 magic items in general, I think.

This is a novel about a magician-policeman set in modern London. The policeman, Peter Grant, is drafted from the normal police service to work for a special investigations department that consists of a single policeman, Inspector Nightingale, and takes on all the investigations into things that no one else believes are real. In order to work in this department, Grant must also become the apprentice to Inspector Nightingale, and thus also begins learning the rudiments of “modern” magic – that is, magic as systematized by Sir Isaac Newton back in the day.

In essence, then, this is a kind of Harry Dresden story, but set in London rather than Chicago, and featuring a policeman rather than a private investigator. It’s the first, apparently, of a series. I hope no one from Chicago will be displeased with or misinterpret me when I say that London is a much more romantic and interesting setting for a novel of this kind than Chicago, and this is not the first novel to use London’s historical complexity and its modern multicultural mish-mash as a setting for the bizarre or the unusual: Gaiman’s Neverwhere and Mieville’s UnLunDun are two other good examples of stories in this field, and both draw heavily on London’s peculiar synthesis of the historical and the modern to lend their tale an additional edge of romance that more uniformly modern cities cannot get. It’s particularly well-suited to a magical policeman story because, well, because London is a city full of crime and trouble. It has a violent and depressing history, and a violent and depressing present, which makes it a bad place to live but a very good place to set a fantastic story of this kind – especially since in novels all the little irritations of London life can be ignored, and the picture can be painted using the broad brushstrokes of history, crime, modernity and multiculturalism.

Which is what we get in this book. Something is up in London, and Grant has to investigate a spate of murders connected to it. The something-that-is-up is connected to a violent grudge that has passed down through history, and is being played out in the very modern setting of post-2007 Covent Garden. There is also a conflict between the different rivers of London – whose spirits are personified in some amusing human forms, and appear to have come to an “arrangement” with the various departments and authorities of the British government. Grant is investigating all this while also studying magic as a new apprentice, trying to get laid, and trying to enjoy his new life as a freshly-graduated police constable. Much of the context of the story is very ordinary and very real – he goes to pubs I’ve walked past, in streets I’ve frequented, and talks of real very recent events that we’re all familiar with. The author also appears to be familiar with police culture and language, and we get a lot of very British policing attitudes coming through. Also interestingly for a novel from London, the author is very aware of London’s overcrowded and multiracial culture, and this is very smoothly worked through the story so that, for those of us who have lived in London, it really does feel like the London we know rather than the sanitized all-cockney-all-the-time London that, say, the Imperial War Museum likes to present. The lead character is himself mixed-race, his mother West African and his father British, and grew up on a council estate in Peckham. Witness reports are particularly amusing because they present us with such a classic hodge-podge of London life as it is now. There’s a classic report of two hare krishnas beating up their troop leader: one is a New Zealander and the other is from Hemel Hampstead. It’s so mundane, and so spot on in its mundanity, and I think this mundane realism serves to ground the magic and mystery of the story very well, so that you really can believe that someone like Peter Grant can learn to use magic and see ghosts and work for the Metropolitan Police Force.

The book also shares with the Dresden Files a well-constructed (so far) theory of and structure for the magic Grant uses. It’s very different to Dresden, and a nice attempt to imagine how magic might feel when you work it – he talks of forms, that you can feel in your mind and have to learn to understand like music. There’s also the first exposition that I’ve ever heard of why magic might need to use language to be cast, and why it must be latin at that. On top of that, the book also attempts to explain magic’s bad effect on modern technology, and Grant of course begins experimenting on this issue as soon as he discovers it, so that not only can we generate a working theory of why the problem happens but he can use it as an investigative tool, and find ways to safeguard his stuff. This is how I imagine a modern wizard would work, and it’s very well done in the story. His depiction of ghosts in modern terms, and his attempts to understand all of magic in terms of the language of computers and science that he grew up with, is also very interesting and I think a quite new take on the genre.

The book is well written and overall the flow of the story is good, though I thought Grant’s first case was a trifle too complex near the end and I’m not sure I understood the relationship between the rivers of London and the case Grant was working on – maybe that will come later. The characters are good and believable and the setting very powerfully like the London I know, but the author has weaved into it all the powerful romance of the city we see in the history books, so that while you always feel like you’re in modern London you don’t forget that this is a London built on layers of history and rich with magic and power. I think in this use of setting the book is definitely superior to a Dresden novel (and, on balance, better written too), and gives a richer and more nuanced vision of a modern magician than Dresden does.

Other comparisons to the Dresden Files also fascinated me while reading this book. The Rivers of London is to the Dresden Files like Coronation Street is to Beverly Hills 90210. In the Dresden Files, the creatures of faerie are always supernaturally beautiful and amazing, and they and the bad guys live in enormous wealthy villas. Dresden gets his girl and is constantly being offered sex by crazed sex goddess super girls, and when he gets a dog it’s a great big supernatural hound of a thing that is more dangerous than most monsters. Finally, of course, there is a lot of heavy weaponry. In The Rives of London, the spirits live in quite mundane buildings – one of the spirits of the river is a traveller – and the characters’ homes are nothing special. Grant doesn’t get his girl and is either warned off the spirit girls, or gets an erection around them while they completely ignore him. He also inherits a dog as a by-blow of a crime scene, but it’s a stupid little ordinary lap dog that doesn’t have any special powers and is a bit overweight and not very helpful. And the only gun that appears in the story is fired once and then disappears, no one can find it and its appearance is frankly shocking because people in London – even criminals – just don’t use guns. I’ve no doubt that things will get more upmarket as the books go on, but it’s an interesting contrast between the artistic styles of the two countries: just like in soaps and dramas, this story conveys that sense of humility and shame-faced shuffling it’s-not-quite-good-enough-is-it?, frayed-carpet and slightly daggy cardigan atmosphere that the British are willing to put into presentations of their own culture. In short, it lacks the brashness of a similar American story. Usually I’m inclined to prefer the brash and the beautiful in American stories to the grotty and mundane in British ones, but in this case I think I like the ordinariness that bleeds out of the pages of this book. I think it helps me to understand Grant as a newly-minted wizard cop better than I understood Harry Dresden.

This is an excellent story, overall, and if this series improves as it goes along (which most series like this do, I think) then it’s well worth getting into. I heartily recommend this tale!

I made two trips to see the Northern Lights, because the first was unsuccessful. During the first, unsuccessful trip, our guide was a cheerful middle-aged Icelander who seemed to have a great love for the Northern Lights. Our tour guides on both nights gave us an explanation of the science underlying the phenomenon and on the first night our guide was particularly interested in explaining the details. He was halfway through describing the role sunspots play in generating charged particles when our bus passed a pair of large rocks on the side of the road, and he broke off his explanation to tell us about the other half of Icelandic natural lore, with a tale of the elves who lived in the rocks.

The elves and the motorway
When the motorway was built it was only two lanes wide, so in the ’70s it had to be widened. The process of widening the road would have put the two huge rocks squarely in the median strip between the two sides of the road, and this would be a huge problem. The rocks were home to a couple of elves, and it would be unseemly to expect them to cross the motorway. The rocks would have to be moved. So, as any sensible road-building company would, the engineers called in a local resident with knowledge of elves, and she (?) gave them the advice they needed to move the rocks outside the motorway in a sufficiently respectful manner. Our guide explained to us that “only” about 20% of Icelanders believe in elves, but the rest of Icelandic society respects this belief and try wherever possible to be respectful around places where elves are believed to live “as if we were in someone else’s garden.”

He then went on to explain the effect of charged particles on the excitation states of atoms, and the role of valence band transition in determining the colour of the aurora. Once he had got through that he gave some theories the Icelandic people came up with to explain the aurora before the advent of atomic science. They actually came charmingly close: one theory held that the aurora was caused by glaciers re-radiating light captured during the day. But my favorite theory, which he explained on the way home, links the aurora with the milky way and Viking religion, and I think includes a much nicer explanation for the milky way than the greeks gave us.

The winter road
Icelanders call the milky way the “winter road,” because it is only visible in winter. This is because of the high longitude, but actually when we saw it the milky way was stunning, really like a road paved with stars rather than a faint smattering of stars (of course you can’t see it at all in Tokyo[1]). So the early Vikings saw this and imagined that the Winter Road was the path that their warriors took to Valhalla. They then guessed that the Valkyrie met the warriors halfway, and the Northern Lights are the reflection of the valkyrie’s radiance from the warriors’ armour.

I think that’s much more romantic than milk sprayed from a jealous goddess’s breast. Iceland itself is a romantic, wild and majestic place, and its history seems to merge with myth in some ways, lending its politics and culture a similar air of romance. I’ll be saying more about this soon, and also talking about historical Iceland as a role-playing setting.

fn1: actually the clarity of light in Iceland and the purity of the water really is stunning, and has me thinking that we who live in more polluted countries really underestimate the value of clean air. In the debate about nuclear power, for example, opponents of nukes tend to assign clean air a very low value in their arguments, even though air pollution is a significant cause of mortality. Iceland with it’s entirely renewable power system, low population density, and atlantic winds to blow away car exhausts, has incredibly clean air and water, and it’s noticeable as soon as you arrive here. It’s amazing, actually.

Standing on a frozen plain under the milky way, listening to Sigur Ros and watching great shimmering sheets of light dance across the sky in gossamer waves. That’s why I came to Iceland!