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Noir

I’ve moved back to Ma from Ny. Back with my old friends its time to put away the D20’s and try something a little different for a while. I’ve been meaning to run a few sessions of (and review) Greg Stolze’s “A Dirty World” for quite some time now. Stolze utilizes the d10 “one roll engine.” It’s been used in other games, but in “A Dirty World” it’s really impressive.

I want to mention that the game itself reads quickly, which is great for those of us with limited time (so, all of us). Stolze’s writing is concise, which really aids in my understanding of the at times, highly abstract rules. The read seemed to me a perfect length. And yet the real tone of the game came through not just with the limited fluff, but directly through the rules themselves. I wont say too much except to say, the rules seem to perfectly complement the games desired appeal. They are gritty, frantic, and unpredictable.

I’ve been watching a lot of noir films lately and I really got hung up on Graham Greene’s “The Third Man.” I believe the film was filmed in London, which is striking to me because the film feels particularly “noir” as I might define it, and yet it was filmed outside the confines of hollywood where the noir genre really took off (correct me if I’m wrong). But in the few noir films I’ve managed to see, violence is something catastrophic – not simply something to walk away from. I wonder how my friends will deal with this in our upcoming game. Which leads me to my next post…

To any faithful readers out there, I owe you an explanation. Over the past twenty days or so, I’ve been preoccupied with graduation as well as finding a job. Unfortunately, that whole finding a job thing hasn’t quite worked out yet. But I’m doing my damnedest! Below is a photograph of my buddy Mike on the day of graduation… Actually its Mike’s character Dorin, drawn by Alexander Swenson (see more of his drawings in the last post). I’ll never forget Dorin. Mike was going for a space dwarf motif, but what really solidified this concept for me is the quaff cannon. What is a quaff cannon you ask? Mike invented it – essentially it’s an axe launcher. Absurd? O yes, and in the best way. To Mike, Rich, Matt, Alex, Alex, & Alex its been a good RPG run, boys. Keep rolling high!

Ordinarily when I introduce a home-brew monster into a session, I try to limit its description to only a few words. My hope is that the players will come to define the creature on their own terms, filling in the blanks as needed. As referee I abstain entirely from offering any input into the appearance or mannerisms of the player characters (protagonist descriptions are something the other players should enjoy). But having artists around to game with is always a good thing. As fun as it is to think of the game-world as an amorphous reality, art lends the game stability. Being able to physically look at a thing, rather than to simply grasp at it in minds eye, lends permanency and thus believability to the campaign. I can thank Alexander Swenson for adding a layer of vividness to our sandbox campaign by letting me post his drawings. Make sure to check out more of his art here.

Here’s an image of Azi:

Azi is just as likely to pull out a med-kit as he is a space sword. Neigh.

Below are two images of O’Reny:

Four words: steam punk & mole man.

Below is an image of Moxu fighting one of my unnamed monsters (Moxu is attacking from behind… the sneaky fella). This monster was once a sentient avian alien from a dark region of space (thats a mouthful). As you can see, once mutated these creatures don’t look much like birds anymore. Exposed to an aquatic parasite, the spacefaring birds were transformed as the minds of host and parasite enmeshed to create a singular abominable intelligence. I’d love to get a name for these things if I could. What do you think? Bird + coral + crab = ??

Is it just me, or is there a face underneath the beak? I can make out an eye, nose, ear, and I think the mouth is a coral polyp.

You might have seen reviews of James Raggi IV’s LotFP  before, but I’m a relative newcomer to the game. Several weeks ago I was going to buy the Deluxe edition, but when I saw that Grindhouse was to be released I opted to wait it out. Reading up on Grindhouse, I ran across Zak S’ Vornheim: The Complete City Kit. I actually ended up purchasing Vornheim first and was really quite astounded. I was so intrigued by what I saw, that I bought Grindhouse the very next day (both in PDF). Below is an image that appears in Vornheim and on the author’s blog:

Below is the cover of the “Referee’s” book from LotFP Grindhouse (another stunning piece from Peter Mullen):

Grindhouse and Vornheim are nothing short of inspirational. The LotFP “Referee’s” book offers a spin on weird-fantasy that really appeals to me. In particular Raggi’s less is more philosophy regarding monsters is refreshing. I like scaring my players, but Dungeons and Dragons has never been the game to do it for me… and believe me I’ve tried. Raggi’s game is certainly a DnD retroclone at its core, but it offers a radical shift in tone towards the macabre. With Raggi’s advice, I feel much more equipped to scare my players. The “Rules and Spells” book has my favorite summoning spell I’ve ever read about in any game (this spell is like a plot hook garden). I can’t get into the differences between Grindhouse and any earlier editions of LotFP, but if you don’t own LotFP yet, now is a great time to get on board.

What sold me on Vornheim was the art. But Vornheim is such a solid product because of its sandbox approach. Vornheim anticipates the rapid and sudden expansion of player generated content as the story moves. In some urban RPG’s, an unexpected player decision might be disastrously time consuming; not so with the aid of Vornheim.  Vornheim provides the referee tools to handle any number of circumstances that might occur within a city adventure. I was particularly amused by the “Aristocrat” tables because the eccentrics listed are so well suited to a game of weird-fantasy.

Science-fantasy demands a certain strangeness. Perhaps my inspiration comes from all of the memento mori I’ve been exposed to recently, but the best dungeons I’ve created over the past few months have all been bodies. In an earlier post I talked about one of these dungeons, enmeshed with both machine and soil. But the last “dungeon” I ran, was actually a living spaceship. Now this is hardly something new, there’s plenty of Sci-fi out there with living bio-tech machines. But the tone I hope to project is particularly Lovecraftian. Over at Sword and Sanity I read an article – or rather, I read H.P. Lovecraft’s “Notes on Writing Weird Fiction,” in which he states “Conflict with time seems to me the most potent and fruitful theme in all human expression.” [The sculpture below is “Le Transi de Rene de Chalon” by Ligier Richier.]

Time is a constant reminder to man of his mortality, his relative insignificance. So it is time which winds the very cogs of weird fiction, because it so adequately defines the human experience (and frailty). The goal of my living dungeons, and particularly those composed of pulsing flesh has been to hint towards a very specific tone of unease. This is an unease derived from a sense of corporeal impermanence.

As dungeon crawling adventurers, player characters entering a living dungeon must not be led to think they are entering a neutered or sterile treasure trove. But rather, a living dungeon is a foreign entity, to which the presence of plundering adventurers is like a disease besetting the body. The hope is that these dungeon environments will seem like an ever present malevolence which reacts to the players with white-blood-cell defense. The monsters in these dungeons should behave like extensions of the environment, rather than individuals capable of agency.

The deeper the players go, so to speak, the more aware they should become of their affect on the environment. There should be a direct correlation between the success of the players, and the death of the dungeon. Eventually players should be concerned about doing too much damage to the dungeon, lest it die and come crashing down upon them.

However I’m doing something a little different than what I usually do. Because the players managed to capture the living ship during our last session, I’ve decided that the ship will gradually change (mutate, evolve, acclimate, transform) to reflect whoever is the crew. Before, the ship was a tentacled dreadnought (inspired by equal parts bird and coral reef… no seriously). I’m not sure exactly how these transformations will play out yet – but thats the beauty of sandbox games.

The Ineffable & Paradox

The past week and a half has had me pretty pinned down. And though I’ve been neglecting my internet soapbox, I haven’t been neglecting RPG’s. The reason I haven’t been writing here, is because a major deadline for my research project was just yesterday. I presented to my class the concept for my upcoming game, “Dice and Devilry” (title likely to change). Below is Ibn Al Arabi – Sufi theorist and poet from the 13th century… [He’s here because I like him.]

 And while not many of my  classmates had ever played a role-  playing game before, the ones who  had seemed most interested in the  way I’m choosing to represent the  divine in my RPG.

In medieval dream and vision  literature the ineffible divine is  represented  in paradox. This is a  trend that comes straight out of  sacred texts.

Player characters exposed to such  paradox in “Dice and Devilry”  might become “god-drunk” with divine overload (I believe it was Rumi who first coined the term “god-drunk”). But the real role of paradox within my own game, is in the implication of reinterpretation. What I’m arguing is, paradox is a sort of invitation to the reader to participate in expanding the mythology. In the act of making sense of the contradictions, one must limit the paradox into personal terms of understanding. “The Book of Revelation” was central to every medieval Christian’s life (even if they couldn’t read, because they’d hear about it from someone else), because this is the text that placed such an emphasis on the otherworld.

The medieval christian experience was fundamentally defined by the belief in a heavenly reality which promised a stability the world of flesh could not. “Dice & Devilry” is a game about finding order in a world after the apocalypse. The game is designed with the hope that players will be exposed to religious symbolism throughout the game, and be forced to make their own interpretations (which the gamemaster will utilize to shape the game world).

If you have interest in playtesting this game in the future let me know.

Kubla Khan

Quick Post: I had a strange thought this morning. I haven’t read any Coleridge in over a year, but “Kubla Khan” is a favorite of mine. I’d love to make a sci-fantasy dungeon inspired by this poem for my “Humanspace Empires” campaign. Here’s the man, and here’s his poem:

Kubla Khan 

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan

A stately pleasure-dome decree:

Where Alph, the sacred river, ran

Through caverns measureless to man

Down to a sunless sea.

So twice five miles of fertile ground

With walls and towers were girdled round:

And here were gardens bright with sinuous rills,

Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;

And here were forests ancient as the hills,

Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.

 

But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted

Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!

A savage place! as holy and enchanted

As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted

By woman wailing for her demon-lover!

And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,

As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,

A mighty fountain momently was forced:

Amid whose swift half-intermitted burst

Huge fragments vaulted like rebounding hail,

Or chaffy grain beneath the thresher’s flail:

And ‘mid these dancing rocks at once and ever

It flung up momently the sacred river.

Five miles meandering with a mazy motion

Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,

Then reached the caverns measureless to man,

And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:

And ‘mid this tumult Kubla heard from far

Ancestral voices prophesying war!

The shadow of the dome of pleasure

Floated midway on the waves;

Where was heard the mingled measure

From the fountain and the caves.

It was a miracle of rare device,

A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

A damsel with a dulcimer

In a vision once I saw:

It was an Abyssinian maid,

And on her dulcimer she played, 

Singing of Mount Abora.

Could I revive within me.

Her symphony and song, 

To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,

That with music loud and long,

I would build that dome in air, 

That sunny dome! those caves of ice!

And all who heard should see them there,

And all should cry, Beware! Beware!

His flashing eyes, his floating hair!

Weave a circle round him thrice,

And close your eyes with holy dread,

For he on honey-dew hath fed,

And drunk the milk of Paradise.

– poem by Samuel Taylor Coleridge courtesy of Project Guntenberg

I’ve never made a dungeon inspired by a poem, so this should be interesting. I’m thinking the dungeon will appear in game if the whole party fails a save. Maybe the PC’s will be transported to the spirit realm  when they fail to save against the effects of an alien poison. Or it might even show up as a secluded temple where the heroes undergo some sacred trial…who knows? I won’t say here in case my players are reading up.

Our Sandbox Campaign

The start of our campaign was dizzying, eerie, and pulpy as all hell. Once we got a firm grasp of the rules, it turned out be a really great first session. “Humanspace Empires” has such a great feel right now. It’s hard to describe exactly, but gamemastering these sessions is exhilarating. Go download this FREE game, and read my review of it in the previous post.

[This is Peter Mullen’s “mantoid” (http://mullenart.webs.com/index.htm). His work is really quite inspiring.]

In our campaign – this is a Pei Choi (read up on them in “Humanspace Empires” if you have the PDF). The Pei Choi are the original benefactors of the player characters.

Two major factions have appeared thus far:

The first is the Esperdyne Corporation. Through Esperdyne the Pei Choi have managed to secure their colonial efforts across humanspace. Largely, their operations have gone on protected by desperate but war-born casteless from across the stars, particularly humans. These men at arms are little more than pawns, but they have proven to be an efficient investment for the Pei Choi. The player characters start the game as Esperdyne mercenaries, on a routine low atmosphere carrier flight on an unnamed moon. This is a very important job, because the Pei Choi haven’t been able to expand without making some enemies. But when the the player’s ship crashes inexplicably, the heroes are left to find out the source of this invisible threat.

The second is the Zodiac Dog; a shadowy corporation with an elusive leader. The corporation has links to insurrectionist groups working against the Pei Choi expansion across the stars. The player characters recently stumbled across one of the ZD’s hidden compounds. Inside they found subservient robotic drones maintaining the facilities enormous energy output. The output from this very base, sent the energy waves that scrambled the carrier the PC’s had been flying in. Delving deeper into the base, the PC’s watched as the very halls became a myriad of flesh and beating-organs. After cutting through some monstrous enforcers for the ZD, the PC’s managed to shut down the base and escape to the surface, only to see that they were too late. The ZD managed to pull the Esperdyne satellite orbiting the moon right out of the sky. We ended the session with the heroes stranded from their employers… Or are they finally free?

I plan to write more Sandbox Campaign entries so keep an eye out for more in the future!

P.S. I also promised R. that I would write up a prestigious “courtesan guild” because his character has a background in that skill (see “Humanspace Empires”). He told me to think “Firefly.” So look out for that too. Because R. is a gladiator/courtesan, I think the guild could have a very interesting militant edge.

Pulp Sci-Fantasy

“Humanspace Empires” is a work in progress. You can go download the “playtest draft” for free over at “http://ixians.blogspot.com/“. For an incomplete game, this PDF has serious substance. Packed within 55 pages is a most marvelous blend of genres. The rules lend themselves to a tone ranging from whimsical to preternaturally dreadful. My group’s first quest took them inside the hidden internal organs of a planet; a planet both sentient and malevolent. I also tried to hint (albeit subtly) that the planet was aware of the adventurer’s intrusion, but it might be too early for them to have picked up on that.

The game’s focus is on weird character classes and powers. Almost every class (excluding the warrior) has some access to psychic abilities. The list of playable alien species is also particularly exhaustive. These aren’t your standard fare men with green skin martians. Many of the aliens aren’t even bipedal, which is something I really appreciate. If I want to play an alien in a game, I don’t want to play something vaguely human (but thats just me, nothing wrong with doing otherwise).

I think the game is so successful because it manages to fulfill both my fantasy and sci-fi needs as a gamemaster. Last night’s game might have been the most fun I’ve had running a “retro” game since my interest started. The “Gamer Achievement Award” goes to Basq, the group’s astronaut. Last night, Basq managed to recover from a staggering blow, only to take a shot in the dark, devastating the space-orc who left him for dead (gotta love lightning pistols). It was one of those game-stopping moments at the table where everyone just started clapping.

“Humanspace” promises several upcoming supplements, including a bestiary. Last night I modified some OSRIC critters to fit the setting. I had orcs in divers suits wielding slug-cannons. I had “orcinations” – abominations crafted from the corpses of several orcs to create a centipede-esque monstrosity that spits acid as well as opens a hidden stomach-maw (with a ravenously hungry fetus-orc waiting inside).  Last night my gamers described my narrative style as “Post-Cthulhu.” I have the elegant frame of “Humanspace Empires” to thank.

But whatever your style, I would guess that “Humanspace Empires” has something to offer any old-scool game that has a tendency toward the weird. If you need a break from throwing magic missile’s for a while, why don’t you roll up Scientist with a Z-Ray projector in “Humanspace Empires?”

Dreams & Visions II

I mentioned before that I am in the process of writing an RPG inspired by medieval dream visions. But The New Testament’s “Book of Revelation” is the the real progenitor of the literary movement. But indirectly, the bible in its entirety (both the Torah and the New Testament) informs much of what constitutes divine manifestation in my game. “Matthew” describes a scene of Christ’s passing through the Gergesenes where there were ” devils, coming out of tombs, exceeding fierce, so that no man might pass,” but when Jesus said “Go…they went into a herd of swine: and, behold, the whole herd of swine ran violently down a steep place into the sea, and perished in the waters” (8:28-32).

Interestingly the text seems to associate devilry with the dead… or better put in RPG terms “the undead.” I would guess that this scene is a direct inspiration for the DnD clerics’s “turn undead” ability. Perhaps these devils were even the inspiration for the DnD ghoul. But these devils aren’t quite dead, they have corporeal presence only in their possession of a living mortal vessel. In “Mark” these devils are the possessor of “a man with an unclean spirit” (5:2). The forces Christ invokes isn’t a turning per se, but more like an exorcism. The effects of which ruined the local pig industry, causing residents to ask Jesus “to depart out of their coasts” (Mark 5:17).

The absolute cosmic gravity of the moment is what I’d like to emphasize. The use of divine power is always catastrophic even if used for “good.” I want players to role-play mystics burdened by the weight of their power. Even with the best intentions, contact with ineffable forces can be psychically scarring if not altogether lethal. In my game, God cannot be limited to abstraction because the very presence of divinity is incompatible with profane reality. This strange sense of incompatibility informs much of the game’s tone. The divine flares up like a sudden chemical reaction, sometimes beautiful, always humbling.

How does the divine show up in the games you play?