Red & Pleasant Land Layout Review



Introduction

Okay, I figure other, more insightful people than me have already told you what you need to know about the contents of Red & Pleasant Land. The short answer is, it's really good and really pretty. Even if you have no interest in running the whole setting put forth in the book, it's chock full of mineable goodness. If nothing else, if you are of a staid and vanilla turn of mind like myself, this will help you to push your own boundaries and question your own assumptions about what you can and can't do with a game, which is good exercise for your brain.

So, what I propose to do here instead is to review the layout, graphic design and usability of the book specifically. Yes, I know that implies a lot of moxie given that Zak S. has won a technology award for his previous graphic design work, and Jez Gordon is the DIY layout hotness with good reason. That being said, I've noticed that most reviews tend to give the physical appearance/usability one paragraph tops, and then focus on the content. Maybe that's the right way to go for almost everybody, but I really like this layout stuff, and paying attention to it will hopefully help me get better at my craft. And hopefully it'll be useful to some other folks along the way. So let me know if you'd like to see more of this sort of thing, and any requests, and I can get on it.

Oh, and a bit of a disclaimer - I have not used this book in the heat of play, so some of my suppositions about usability could very well be totally wrong. If you have used something and found the experience different from what I imagine, do please let me know.

The Physical Characteristics

To begin with the very beginning, let's look at the cover and binding. First, it's gorgeous and sturdy, with a cloth-covered hardcover, which appears to be bound with through the fold sewing (but I could be wrong there - at any rate, it's sewn, not just glued), which doesn't quite allow the book to lie flat, but does let you put one facing flat and hold the other side up at about 90 degrees without doing any damage to the spine - it's good and sturdy. I figure if you need a more extreme version for table top use, print out the relevant pages from the PDF. There's also a lovely book ribbon for keeping your place, which has come in quite handy for a read-through. The embossing is attractive, and the cover artwork is Zak's usual quality work, and part of the original "gag" that led to the production of the book, but I personally think the classy cloth bound cover could have stood alone without it - minor nitpick there, though. Like pretty much every LotFP product, the size is a slightly large digest (A5) which is large enough to read without squinting, and small enough to fit comfortably in the hand or on the crowded gaming table, or to throw in a backpack with other things. Oh, and the paper inside is matte and textured and ivory colored and thick. It looks good and it compliments Zak's art without reducing readability (if anything, it's probably easier on your eyes than stark black on white). Overall, the book is nice, it's sturdy, and it's well proportioned for its intended uses.

Forematter, General Layout Nerdery, and Organization

So, opening up the book, the front end paper is a map of Voivodja, and the back endpaper is an illustration of a number of denizens thereof, many of whom you'll recognize if you've watched "I Hit It With My Axe" or read Zak's play reports. They are wearing a plethora of interesting clothes and give a good feel for the sumptuous, slightly over the top nature of adventure here. The map is very high level, but like most of Zak's maps, it features a lot of useful, immediately gameable information - distance, names, terrain, and a clever encounter table tied to terrain. It's placement is useful for reference and it has lots of whitespace for adding notes and new locations.

Credits

So, turning past the title page, we get to the credits, which I've alluded to earlier. The book is written by Zak S., most of the art is by him as well, Jez Gordon did the layout and some of the maps, and James Raggi edited and published, with the printer being Otava Printers in Finland. I'm going to guess that they're the same printers James has been using for a while now, and I gotta say, the physical quality of all of the books I've gotten has not disappointed, so I'm glad James has them to work with. I was also pleasantly surprised to see my own name in the acknowledgements - I must have commented on one of the contributory Google+ posts, so thanks, Zak.

Table of Contents

Next up is the Table of Contents, which shows us that the overall organization of the book is logical and useful for both reference and initial reading. It has three tiers of organization - I'll name them "Chapters", "Sections", and "Topics", but they aren't called anything in the book. Chapters have a roman numeral and are larger and bolder. Sections are bold, and Topics are smaller and plain text. The whole thing is fit on a two page spread with 4 columns each. What this means is that just about every specific thing short of room contents is in the table of contents, making an index unnecessary. The bolding scheme makes it easy to find high level stuff easily, while more time allows you to find specifics, rather than trying to strike an ideal balance between abstraction and detail in choosing what to include in the contents.

Typefaces

Now then, on to some type nerdery. Zak is fond of denigrating the importance of typefaces, but I like them, so I pay attention to them. The titles and section headers appear to be primarily in Parmapetit with assists from FoglihtenNo07 (it might be the other way around), which results in a somewhat loopy and whimsical look that sets the "Alice in Wonderland" tone for the piece while remaining clear and readable for quick reference. The body text is in Neuton, which is apparently a "slightly Dutch inspired serif" that fits generally into the "Roman" category. Read more here if you're the kind of person who likes to read about typeface characteristics. From the point of view of this review, it's clear, readable, and doesn't get in your face about being a "theme" typeface. It provides a range of fonts for weights and emphasis (italic, bold, extrabold, light, extralight, etc) that are put to good use in the text for highlighting important things and distinguishing sections.

Typography/Layout

Let's talk about the basic layout followed through most of the book. Margins are small, as you'd expect from Zak - he likes to get as much content on a page as possible, and the "classical" margins are less relevant to a game book that spends more time on a table than perched between thumb and fingers. The only gaming nitpick here is that there's not much room for notes if you're into that sort of thing (I've recently been breaking a lifetime aversion to writing in books, so I noticed this). Sections are titled with the same titling font, and begin with a big, fancy drop cap capital initial. This makes them easy to pick out, which is helpful. Topics are titled by a simple large all caps bold that is easy to find without being obtrusive.

Text is divided into two ragged right columns per page, and lots of allowance is made for art to break up the blocks of text. More on the art later. The leading looks pretty generous, while the tracking looks just a teeny hair tighter than "standard" - but I'm eyeballing this and could be totally wrong. The net result is that the text is easy to read "like a book", but individual lines are distinct enough to easily pick out when referencing things. This is especially useful for things like stat blocks and lists. More on tables later. The last thing I'll say is that I'm not positive why Jez went with ragged right instead of justified for two column text. My guess is that it was some combination of looking better wrapping around art and not wanting it to look too rigid or polished. I may just be enamored of justification since I recently learned how to do it "properly". Finally, lots of use is made of bullet points and numbered lists, which works well. We'll dive more into that in some of the specific sections.

Introductory Material & The Alice

As for sections, he first is a half-page flavor intro to Voivodja, the Place of Unreason, the "Red & Pleasant Land", followed by a half page "how to use this book". This section is appreciated for explicitly acknowledging and setting the stage for its multi-functional usefulness, which basically breaks down into "use as is", "mine for ideas", "get inspired to do something totally different", and "kill pesky animals". I'm sure there are more not covered here, but those seem the most relevant.

This is followed by a fairly brief introduction to the Place of Unreason, (~15 pages) that gives an overview of salient features with a relentless focus on what's useful and necessary for making the game interesting. You'll be seeing a lot of that. It accomplishes a lot by implication and aesthetics - by referencing well known literature, art, and folk lore, western culture fills in a lot of the gaps, with the book going for what's gameable. So, even subject matter is a choice that affects what you can and need to convey in your text or visually to get a "complete" result.


After this is the Alice character class, which will pretty familiar if you read Zak's blog. For the purposes of this review, I'll just say that it is written to work well with just about any version of D&D or its clones and progeny you may want to use, and the D100 level up table fits admirably onto a 2 page spread, despite some fairly wordy entries. In fact, everything you need is in 2 spreads, which is pretty great.

Beasts & People

Now, the Beasts & People section has some stuff that got me really excited while reading through it. First off, this section does about 40-60% of the lifting in defining the setting (I used very scientific measurements to determine this). Most of the descriptions are admirably brief: the "major NPCs" of the setting get 1-2 pages max, and the longest monster description for "guests", or demons, comes in at 5.5 pages, because of extensive random tables to build your own. Despite this brevity, the monsters and people all have motivations, rivalries, and hooks.

One way this is accomplished is through the 4 major factions of the setting - Heart Queen, Red King, Pale King, Colorless Queen. Each creature that belongs to a faction has this really nice icon at the beginning of their entry. The icons are both pretty as well as just the right size to immediately give you the relevant information without crowding the text.

Only three creatures don't have illustrations - horses, a Gryphon, and Pale Pawns - and all three of them have been adequately illustrated elsewhere (Pale Pawns are basically described as vampire dandies).

Entries are organized alphabetically for reference, but there's a nice note at the beginning about a few general entries to read first if this is your first time (like the rules for Voivodjan vampires in general). Also, most of the rules shared by multiple monsters are repeated in each entry. Repetition in game material meant to be referenced is super useful but is often cut for seeming unnecessary when the book is viewed as a book you read cover to cover. Generally, I like what terms are bolded in the monster entries - things like spells, specific abilities, and each stat in the stat block (with regular weight numbers). The stat blocks could maybe stand to be a touch more set off, but the fact that practically every monster fits on one page, or at worst, one spread, combined with the relatively straightforward stats makes that a minor issue. Oh, and while the general description for each monster is a paragraph or two of standard prose, almost everything else is bullet points, which is again good for reference.

Altogether, really top marks for the monster section - most of what makes the setting interesting and unique is conveyed by, you know, the people and things characters will actually interact with. There's an added bonus that the monsters can be easily ported if you're looking for a creative and slightly weird monster to put somewhere else, but a lot of them fit into their factions and ranks in cool ways that makes them all more rich together than alone.

Adventure Locations

If monsters do around half of the heavy lifting for getting the setting into your brain, the adventure locations do maybe 30-40% . You get to see the Heart Queen's Palace and the Red King's Fortress, and both are wacky and wonderful, and will give you very creative ideas for running "dungeons". Implicitly, both show you what "Unreason" really means, and give you a model for the kind of challenges you can throw at players here, so they do a lot more than just give you cool places to explore. And most of the weirdness and puzzles are made to be modular and portable (and are even called out as such in the introductory material, so that's cool). For the actual layout, each location begins with some general notes, a random encounter table (d100, natch), and a full location map that fits on one spread.

Maps & Illustrations

Like all of Zak's maps, they pack a lot of information, but I find these much more immediately comprehensible than those in Vornheim, which I found confusing initially, and awkward for my brain even after I got them. The R&PL maps still take some study to get familiar, but once you know the place, almost everything you need to run the whole location except some puzzles and set piece rooms is right there, which is super cool. All of the rooms are labeled right there on the map, but also have numbers for reference to the keyed description. Side views are incorporated where useful and necessary, and are clearly marked. The door, locked door, and secret door icons are nicely useful, but I really like the notation used for doors in the floor and ceiling. There's a yellow square and then an orange arrow leading to the connected piece of the map. If it's in the ceiling, the arrow overlaps one side of the yellow square frame (it goes "over" and "up), but if it goes down, the frame overlaps it (thus showing it going "down"). This is a really neat visual way to convey complex information clearly and easily. Nice.

The best part, though, is again repetition. Pieces of the maps are repeated throughout the keying, such that you are never more than one page flip away from the map relevant to what you're currently reading (okay there's one page that's two flips away from the relevant map). This is a fantastic solution to the difficulty of getting detailed enough room descriptions into one spread. Everyone, everyone writing/laying out dungeons, please do this. I'm going to try to start incorporating it into my own work. Really useful. Oh, and the illustrations throughout are both evocative and often useful (especially for the weirder rooms with crazy effects).

Room Descriptions

Now, speaking of room descriptions, these are brief, bulleted, and generally focus on only what is different/interesting/tactically relevant for the room, with the rest being covered by the scene-setting in the general description and your own understanding of what would be in, say, an opulent ridiculous palace or an impenetrable vampire fortress. Occupants and references to other rooms are bolded, and most of the spatial relationships not covered by secret doors or weird passageways are left to the map to show. It's not quite as systematic as Courtney Campbell's Set Design method, but I don't think to take a highlighter to the text to make it playable.

If I wanted to run one of these, I think all I would need would be an initial read through to get the whole thing, some note taking for any changes I wanted to make, and a quick refresher immediately before play. For a location with more variation in aesthetic or a huge number of rooms (like a megadungeon), I could see maybe wanting or needing a more systematic approach to room descriptions, with a clearly defined way of ordering information, bolding, italicizing, et cetera, but this system looks pretty right for these particular dungeons.

Extra Rules, Random Tables, and Other Resources

The remaining 10 - 20% of getting the setting across (if that's what's left, I don't even remember) is done by that general intro at the top and the sample locations and random tables. There are three random locations, showing the three generic sort of territories in Voivodja - forest, garden, and interior. They very well may have been generated by the random tables following, because you see some shared features between them. All three are presented as a one-spread illustration/map with notes right there, effectively giving you three one page adventures. You could make a pretty great setting book with nothing but these and a thoughtful monster section. I would like to especially give a shout out to the "marble madness" style map of the interior (I think Jez did that one) - it rather easily shows a super complicated place, including a section with sideways gravity.

There's a brief section on some widely useful rules - rank, duels, mass combat, skirmishes, and a spell. Not much to say here except that they're clearly presented with the same useful headings and section divisions from the rest of the book.

Tables & Generators

Now, the tables (what, you thought you'd get a book by Zak that didn't feature random tables prominently?). There have been tables throughout the book, but I thought I'd leave the description of them to this section dedicated to them. First, many of the tables from earlier in the book, presented either in the introductory material, monsters, or some of the locations, are repeated here, which is great, with only one or two left with a "see page whatever" place holder.

The contents of the tables are all useful for Voivodja, many are useful as-is outside of there, and some are useful anywhere with a bit of modification. Some of the plot hook and intrigue generating tables, for example, would make good fodder for copying the text out of your pdf and doing a search & replace (which Zak points out in the text). Most of the tables have a red header with white text, bold black numbers, standard weight entries, and alternating fill rows - page color and a light pinkish/orange sort of color, with strokes on the lines between rows. Edward Tufte might have some issues with this "chart junk", but I think he has not applied his energies to the different demands of RPG products. Plus they look better than plainly presented tabular with no fills or strokes, and aesthetics are more important to an RPG than to a scientific report. Altogether legible and useful, and none spill outside of a spread, which is definitely useful and appreciated.

Three of the tables deserve special mention for doing cool things: Encounters, Intercepted Communique, and the Location drop tables.

Encounters

The Encounters table especially excites me as giving a lot of useful information in a compact form. It's takes up both sides of one spread, but is actually two slightly different tables. Each page has a full list of all of the characters and creatures listed in the book, and to the left of each name is a simplified version of the faction symbol used in the Beasts section - a little colored square, some with a smaller colored square in the middle. So that's the first cool thing. The next is that on one page, you have columns presenting the chance of encountering each creature based on where you are (forest, interior, etc), and on the other, you have columns for each faction - so only those creatures in a faction are given a chance of appearing in that column. So whether you need to know "what would they find here?" or "what sort of Heart faction thing do they find?" you're covered. Either one of these alone with the addition of the faction icons would have been neat, but both together are extremely useful.

Intercepted Communique Generator

Next is the Intercepted Communique generator, which is both hilarious and full of potential for starting adventures. It is (I think) an example of a multi-step Complete Creative Result Generator. This would work for just about any intrigue focused game you could want with only a modicum of changes (mostly to the "to" and "from" entries).

Not much to say on it layout-wise, though I felt like a little more visual separation between the tables for those rolls taken in sequence without a a header might be helpful for a GM in a hurry. For example, under "To. . ." (bolded) is a 1d6 table for a salutation, and then a 1d20 table for the recipient. There is a slightly darker line between these, and obviously the numbers change, but in a hurry, you might just roll a d20 and miss out on the salutation. With a little more time (like pre-session prep) this wouldn't be a problem, but perhaps a little more space or a mad-lib style sentence with blanks for each roll would have been a helpful visual cue.

Location Drop Tables

The drop tables are not anything new if you've seen Vornheim or the many works influenced by it. I like the concept of drop tables - they have a ton of information built into them and they make use of the spatial characteristics of dice in addition to their sides and numbers. On the other hand, I think you'd need fairly small dice to make use of these tables, and you'd have to be holding up the half of the book not being used to keep the other side flat for the roll. Altogether, possibly more useful blown up to letter-ish size, printed out, and put into a box top to contain the dice (like some of the stuff Dyson Logos has been experimenting with). Given these reservations, I really appreciate that the drop tables are reproduced as more traditional tables, so you can use whatever method works for you.



The Art

Oh, and I promised I'd talk about the art. All illustrations are by Zak, and they are very definitely his style. While I find his work technically impressive, much of it is not my personal favorite style, which probably says more about me than anything else.

Now, in terms of gameability, the frequent illustrations not only make the book more fun to look at, they go a long way towards jamming the setting into your brain. I probably lied about the division of setting-conveyance above, since I short-changed art. It goes a long way to giving you the aesthetic of the place, which is a huge part of this setting (and maybe any game setting? I'm gonna say yes).

More prosaically, the art provides an aid to mental bookmarking - you can go "oh yeah, the section on that one wing of the Heart Queen's palace has the creepy lionfish thing in it".  And having almost every monster illustrated is fantastic - I tend to like Zak's monster art a lot more than his other stuff, so maybe I'm biased there, but it makes the weird new creatures a lot more concrete and evocative and saves effort in the written description, which gives you more elbow room for talking about behavior and motivations.

Quibbles & Nitpicks

I only had a few quibbles and nitpicks, but they were there, and for the sake of completeness, here they are. There were a few typos throughout the text (not a lot, certainly fewer than most DIY/Indie/whatever type products, but some). The Rabbit has the Pale King's icon, but his text says he works for the Heart Queen (on the plus side, this could serve as an inspiration for some intrigue). And one of the handouts is missing from the back of my printed copy (though it's present in my PDF, which is probably where I would get it from if used, anyway). Unlike Vornheim, the chapter headings at the top of the page, and the page numbers at the bottom are somewhat small, and the page numbers are centered on the page, which certainly looks attractive, but makes flipping through the book to a specific page a teensy bit less convenient than outside edge number.

But really, that's all I've got in terms of layout/typography/editing issues.

Conclusion

So, as should be no surprise to anyone, this book presents a lot to learn in terms of design, layout, and usability. It's maybe not as in-your-face radical as Vornheim, but I think that this and Qelong are now going to serve as my gold standards of "how to do a setting book", and I'm going to try to synthesize them if I ever put together any kind of setting. So even if you never want to run a game in Voivodja, even if a gorgeous RPG book isn't something you want for its own sake, and even if you don't think you'll find anything you can pull out and use in your own game, consider getting this if you want a good model of how to write and set up a setting book. But buy it soon, cos it has sold fast and it might be years before there's a reprint (I foolishly thought a pdf would be "good enough" for Vornheim when I discovered it at the tail end of its print availability).

Memory: Some World Building Notes



Okay, so this may or may not be game-related, though I've tried to provide a few suggestions, but it's what I've been thinking about recently, and it's definitely game adjacent if nothing else. I figure smart folks can use interesting stuff in all kinds of ways for games that I can't even think of.

So, I've had a long fascination with memory and learning. As part of that, I've more-or-less idly poked around at methods of improving my performance in both, but other than a few abortive experiments, I've never gotten anywhere spectacular. A while back, though, I had an idea for some world building, and since then I've been researching it with a (very) little more rigor.

The basic idea for the world in question is a post-literate world. Something bad happened that made this society not trust writing anymore - I'm thinking something along the lines of the burning of the Library of Alexandria times 1000. External memory is great for how much it allows us to extend and fix our knowledge, but it's fragile - reproducing written knowledge is a long, expensive process, and it's stored on stuff that can burn, disintegrate, or rot.

So in this world, an order of monks (maybe wizards? I haven't decided yet) has arisen to safeguard and preserve world knowledge without writing. They're like an anti-library. Where libraries are fixed, they wander, where centralized, they're dispersed, where external, they're all about internal. So, naturally, I've wanted to look for real world examples of cultures that have preserved and transmitted large amounts of information with pretty good fidelity over time, as well as how individuals have increased their ability to store and recall information individually.

At any rate, here are some highlights from my research, some of which has been generously shared by Google + folks. I think a lot of this stuff could add some real flavor to either magic users or clerics in your games, and heck, you might be able to make use of some of this stuff yourself.

Oral Traditions

By "oral traditions", I mean the larger cultural contexts in which stories, law, religion, et cetera are transmitted, as distinct from the techniques practiced by individuals. Clearly those members of a culture tasked with retaining and transmitting the important stuff will make use of various mnemonic techniques, and some of those are covered later. As for gameability, any one of these could make for an interesting cultural feature, or might inspire you to think up even weirder ones.

Basically the original gangster

Epic Poetry - In cultures that haven't written their epics down yet, the way they seem to work is that the tellers know some general story frameworks or themes, and also know specific sequences of actions that go together (like, if you're describing a duel, you start with the hero getting kitted up, then they talk trash, then they throw spears, then they close to fight, for example). The poets flesh out these skeletons with poetic language that fits a specific meter and/or rhyme. The combination of basic framework, rhythm, and sound apparently allows for on-the-fly production of compelling poetry that tells an exciting story. In other words, rhapsodes and their ilk didn't actually memorize most of their poetry, they memorized a procedure for creating poetry. Pretty rad.

Ballads and Counting Out Rhymes - For "Counting Out Rhymes" think "Eenie Meenie Miney Moe". I haven't gotten to these sections in the book I'm reading yet, but apparently there are certain phonetic qualities that are especially "sticky" to memory. These probably vary by language, but also have something to to do with physiology (like what part of the throat/mouth you use to produce the sounds, and in what order). What's really wacky is that even where precise wording isn't remembered, recall of the semantic content is improved by it being heard and recalled as verse. In other words, a balladeer might hear a poem, and then later on think he's telling/singing the "same" poem, but he actually changes some of the words - while still telling the same basic story and still keeping to the same general poetic form.


Hula - Though originally for religious purposes, it looks like Hula had become primarily an entertainment thing by the time white folks showed up, and they promptly forbade it (presumably because the ladies were topless). I haven't done a ton of research here yet, but specific hand and foot positions were/are associated with different parts of the stories/myths/worship being performed, and I suspect that they performed a similar role to the poetic structures above, by associating movement and rhythm with specific semantic content.


Kathak - is a form of Indian dance that means "storytell(er/ing)" that originated as Vedic temple worship and then was influenced by Persian styles when it became court entertainment to the Mughals. What I found intriguing about it is that like Hula, it has specific hand and foot motions associated with certain representational elements. Also, dancers make use of syllables called bol that act as memory cues as to what move to do. Finally, like other artists in India, some Kathak dancers make use of Abhinaya, which is the art of conveying emotions and internal states to the audience, and includes stock body positions, facial expressions, tones of voice and that kind of thing. I have to imagine that being good at that would help to remember the semantic content of a story that involved emotions.

Songlines - this one was one of the coolest to me, for being the least familiar. Australian Aboriginal people have a pretty complex (to whitey, anyway) way of looking at the world and its relation to the spiritual. I won't try to summarize, because I don't totally understand it, and if anyone knows better, please correct me on whatever I get wrong. But one aspect is that it's highly spatial - different gods/spirits belong to a place, and the people who live in a place have a special relationship with the stories about those beings - particular people "own" particular stories, and that ownership comes with responsibilities to tell the stories when appropriate and not to mess them up. One specific instance of this spatial-ness coming through is in songlines. Different tribes of people will have paths across the land - sometimes very long paths - and certain places along that path are associated with different stories, and someone setting out on the path needs to sing the right song at the right place. I realized that it's like the method of loci (see below) in real life, and that's pretty cool. 

Vedic Chanting - Apparently recitations of the Vedas of the Hindu religion are pretty hardcore. A number of complex mnemonic devices that you might call poetic are used to make sure that not only the meanings but also the pronunciations of words are remembered, since the qualities of the sound are believed to be part of the spiritual power in the mantras. Apparently it has resulted in remarkable fidelity, so far as the oldest written records of the Vedas can say. My one question is to what degree this oral tradition is dependent on/symbiotic with the written record. In other oral traditions that lack any writing, there's no evidence of such a thing as "an authoritative correct version" - what matters is that the semantic content is right and the poetic forms are right, not specific word choice or order. Still, a remarkable example of what individuals and a tradition can do. 

Story Bones - An acquaintance who wished to remain anonymous told me about a relative of Northwest American Indian descent who conceptualized stories as made up of "bones", and then related those to her own bones as a method of following the different connections and associations of different stories. Very cool and totally gameable - maybe actual bones can be imbued with stories, or each bone could hold a different spell or some such. 

OH HELL NO

Anthropomorphization - If you've ever read Cryptonomicon by Neal Stephenson, this will sound familiar. Basically, people are wired to devote a lot of mental horsepower to other people - thinking about them, figuring out what they want, how to sleep with them, whether they want to kill you, et cetera. Mythology does some cool stuff with this deep and intuitive understanding by embodying abstract concepts as people, and then having those people interact in very human ways. Consider Hephaestus and Athena. Hephaestus was the god of the forge - making stuff out of metal, a kind of technology. Athena was the goddess of generalship, the citystate as a political institution, and techne (craft, but we got the word "technology" from it for a reason). All examples of applied smarts. Well, one day Hephaestus sees the virgin goddess and gets randy, so he starts chasing her. After keeping away for awhile, he catches Athena, but since he is continuously cuckolded by his wife Aphrodite, he gets prematurely excited, and he blows his load all over Athena's thigh (I know, yuck). Well, she goes "gross" and wipes it off with a rag and throws it in the dirt outside of what is to be Athens. Being god-semen, it impregnates even the dirt, and a weird snaky baby named Erichthonius is born. Among other things, as the first king of Athens, he invents coined money. What's the point? When you put together the god of making stuff with metal and the goddess of how to run a society by law and applied smarts you get money. This very sophisticated conclusion involving pretty abstract concepts is conveyed with remarkable clarity and nuance in the form of a concrete, even crude, story about (super) people acting badly. Neat, huh?

Spoken/Aural Methods

Song - if you've ever had a jingle stuck in your head, then you know the power of song to cement words into memory. It's not entirely clear why this is, but research seems to indicate that it has something to do with it being multi-modal - you get pitch, rhythm, emotive content, and semantic content all at the same time, so you form a rich web of associations that your brain can store easily. Songs are not only easy for individuals to remember, they show remarkable stability over time as well, provided they continue to be performed and enjoyed.

Poetry - Pretty much all the same reasons that song works except for accompanying music, poetry is apparently a little easier to produce on the fly if you're trained in certain meters and have an arsenal of stock phrases. This makes it fantastically useful for long-form performance art like Epics. For games, I could see this having a cool application to magic: different metrical units modify the spell in different ways (stronger, weaker, bigger, smaller, etc), and the word content determines the actual effect. For added fun, make players actually compose spells in dactylic hexameter or the like (and don't let them prewrite any!)

Bol - As mentioned under kathak above, certain Indian performing arts make use of bol, which are single syllables with specific associations. Drummers use them in conjunction with certain strikes, and dancers use them for different steps. The movement and the spoken syllables reinforce each other, and remembering the rhythm of the spoken syllables helps to remember the proper movements.

Spatial/Visual Methods

Method of Loci - This is the granddaddy of formal memory techniques in Western civlization. It's the source of the rhetorical conceit "in the first place, in the second place. . ." Basically, a practitioner visualizes a location (whether real, like his house, or imagined, like a fabulous palace) as he memorizes something. Each chunk of whatever her's memorizing gets associated with a particular place in his "mind palace". When he needs to recall it, he simply imagines walking through the place in the same order. This takes advantage of the fact that human brains are rather good at processing spatial relationships, along with the earlier mentioned multi-modality. This may be the most practical and trainable technique here for use in real life. As a side note, the tradition of songlines made me realize there's nothing stopping you from using this technique in the flesh, rather than your imagination, if you can repetitively travel a particular path. This would be excellent for rituals in a game, or in real life you could consciously associate the things you need to remember in the morning with different places along your route through your place (say, dresser = remember watch and wallet, kitchen door = remember to pack lunch, front door = remember keys and sunglasses, or what have you).


Mandala - I haven't looked into this one as much, and I'm not sure to what degree mandalas serve as memory aids rather than being the visual equivalent of the spontaneous production of Epic through combined framework and procedure. In any case, it's not too big a stretch to imagine that following a procedure to lay down colored sand could trigger the associations trying to be recalled, or even to allow them to be interpreted in a different way than purely verbal memory. 

Pegs - This technique is somewhat closely related to the method of loci, in that it involves associating vivid visualization with what is to be remembered. These vary in complexity from the relatively simple to the very complex. The basic idea is that you come up with some set of 'pegs' which are vivid mental images - preferably incorporating other senses too. Stuff that is funny or shocking is more vivid, so that's even better. In the simple case, you just make a set of images, say images of words that rhyme with the numbers one through ten (e.g. gun, shoe, tree, etc), and then you associate a list you want to remember with those images, preferably by visualizing something about what you want to remember interacting with the peg. When you need to recall, you just go through the peg images and they should remind you of the stuff to remember. It works well with lists, but you sometimes have to "rest" pegs to get rid of associations you don't need to remember any more (like if you used it for a grocery list, you'd have a hard time using the same pegs for a list of people to invite to a party immediately after). A more complicated form involves a matrix. You make pegs for a string of numbers, and another set for a string of letters (you can pick a famous person with that letter starting their name). Then you assign things you want to memorize to a "spot" in the matrix, say A3. If your peg for A was "Adam" and your peg for 3 is a bicycle, you would imagine a dude with a fig leaf riding a bicycle, grimacing from the discomfort of the seat on his naked butt (remember, funny/shocking is easier to recall). Whatever you're trying to memorize, you associate with that image, with as many senses as possible. Memory competitors (yes, they exist) use methods like this to memorize whole decks of cards really fast. It's crazy.

Kinesthetic Methods


Specific Gestures - Multiple traditions make use of this technique, including Hula, Kathak, Buddhist mudras, and Christian iconography (who inherited it from Greek and Roman orators). Considering how closely hands and language are linked (everybody "talks with their hands", and hand sign language is the universal method of communication among people who can't use voice, developed independently and organically in multiple places) it's not a huge surprise that you could make the connection go the other way - associate certain words with certain gestures, and performing both reinforces each. A more common example is when kids learn songs (Richard Grenville mentioned his kids learning The 12 Days of Christmas) with associated hand gestures or dance moves (hokey pokey, anybody?). The virtues of song and of associating gestures once again reinforce each other. In a game, you could have characters that could navigate via gestures keyed to certain directions or wizards who know more spells, but have to use somatic components for all of them.


In Angika Abhinaya, the hand talks to you

Stock Expressions and Poses - In India, there's a whole tradition about this: it's called Angika Abhinaya and it associates very specific facial expression or body poses with certain emotional or story elements. I figure you see a much less developed version in the kinds of faces parents make when reading scary stories to their kids. Doing the expression helps to encode the semantic content of the story. I imagine a sophisticated version of this could take advantage of the fact that it's easier to remember things when you're in the same emotional state as when it happened. A skilled practitioner could maybe learn to associate the feeling of making a particular face with the emotion that caused it, and then make the face on purpose to remember things that happened in that emotional state. 

Body Part Association - Stuff like the story bones above comes to mind here. Another example is from my own experience. In 9th grade, I had to memorize all the bones in the human body, and I kept getting the radius and ulna (forearm bones) mixed up. So when testing my recall, I started wiggling my thumb for radius and my pinkie for ulna. Now I have trouble telling them apart, unless i wiggle my thumb and pinkie, then I know instantly. That's actually the thing that got me started wanting to investigate kinesthetic memory techniques. Another method that's pretty cool is a Korean way to do simple arithmetic with your fingers called Chisanbop. It'd take too long to go into it here, but check out the Wikipedia entry on it to see how it works. When you get good at it, your fingers don't just help you through the calculation in your head, instead you just move them and then you know the answer. It's really wild the first time it works like that.

Smell/Taste Methods

Smell and taste are powerful cues to memory and emotion both, and I have to assume that's why incense, food, and drink have long played important roles in ritual. I've heard of people doing experiments where they purposely match a flavor or smell to particular information (Matthew Aaron over on G+ said he used candy while studying, and when he got to the relevant part of the test, he popped in the same candy he had when he was studying that part). The only issue with smell is that it can be hard to filter out unwanted smells or to control what smells get associated with what. For example, post offices powerfully remind me of the Friendly Local Game Store I spent most of my young adolescence in. Not because they're fun or full of games, but because both were full of things made of paper and glue (comics, games, and boxes in one, and letters, envelopes, and boxes in the other). So, without knowing what I was smelling at the time, the smell of paper and glue created a really strong memory and emotional response in me. For a game, maybe a villain could condition the characters to associate a certain subtle smell with fear or anger or compliance, and then release a magically enhanced version when the time is right to strike. 

Other Sources

A couple of books that got me started on all this stuff:

Mind Performance Hacks by Ron Hale-Evans

This book has the self-described goal of helping  people "develop the mental arts" and "become real life mentats". It's builds on another O'Reilly book called Mind Hacks, but takes the interesting cognitive quirks revealed there and uses them to focus on practical methods. This has "how tos" on everything from constructing a memory palace to mindfulness meditation. If you don't find at least one thing immediately useful and relevant to your life, I'd be surprised.

Memory in Oral Traditions: The Cognitive Psychology of Epics, Ballads, and Counting Out Rhymes by David C. Rubin

Patrick Stuart over at False machine talked about this book and my ears immediately perked up. I've now (like a year or two later) finally started reading it, and it's simply delicious to someone with my particular proclivities (Homeric epic? Check. Memory and Cognitive Psychology? Check. Cultural concepts and institutions behaving in an evolutionary manner? Check). My reading is going somewhat slow because I am underlying and taking notes in the margin for future reference, but it's not dense at all for an academic work, and I suspect it will be enormously valuable with respect to the stuff covered in this post.