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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

M.A.R. BARKER: THE AMERICAN TOLKIEN

MUHAMMAD ABD-AL-RAHMAN BARKER was born "Phillip Barker" in Spokane, Washington, in 1929.  He passed away a few years ago at the age of 82.  Professor Barker was a linguist and a specialist in South Asian Studies, but despite the fact that I was trained in the same field as him this wasn't how I knew his name.  I knew of M.A.R. Barker long before I ever studied the Vedas or the Mahabharata or Sanskrit. I knew of him because I had frequently visited his planet.

Tékumel.

Long before Tolkien published his The Lord of the Rings, independently and quite by chance the young Barker was already following in his footsteps, creating an entire fictional world as a setting for his own constructed languages.  Whereas Tolkien's world was rooted in Northern Europe, and his Elvish tongues borrowed from Finnish and Welsh, Barker's Tekumeláni languages were rooted in Mayan, Urdu, and Pushtan.  The only one to ever receive a complete published grammar, phonology, and dictionary was Tsolyáni, the language spoken by the Empire of the Petal Throne, but Barker fashioned (and published some guidance on) several other tongues of neighboring kingdoms as well.  There are indeed people out there who can now converse in the languages of Tékumel, just as people can in Tolkien's Elvish.

While Tolkien set his languages in the distant past, Barker placed them in the far future.  Tékumel exists sixty thousand years in our future, on a distant planet.  Nuclear war eventually wipes out the human civilizations of the Northern hemisphere, leaving the planet to new cultures of African, South American, and South Asian descent.  These eventually take to space and explore the galaxy.  Tékumel, originally called by this galactic empire Nu Ophiuchi, was originally a resort world.  The empire seized control of it, and herded the hostile native populations into reservations before starting to terraform it to their tastes.  They built their palaces and mansions on the shores of the warm seas.  Eventually, disaster struck.  Tékumel, her sun and two moons, and four other planets in the system, vanished from "normal space" and became trapped in a pocket dimension.  No one is certain how or why.  Cut off from the interstellar space lanes, and subject to massive geological upheavals, the sophisticated futuristic society of humans and their alien allies devolved into barbarism.  Worse, the reservations broke open, and the natives wanted their planet back.

Barker took all of this--invented languages, tens of thousands of years of history, alien species--to create a sort of "science fantasy" setting the likes of which the world had not seen.  Tékumel is a world of elaborate cultures, intricate languages, and terrifying religions.  "Exotic" does not even begin to cover it.  And it's depth, the sheer bulk of exploration Barker did into his own world, finds rival only in Middle-earth.  This is why, when Der Spiegel published a 2009 article on his life and work they called him "The Forgotten Tolkien."  

Luckily, he wasn't quite "forgotten" though.  Barker achieved a devoted following, he just came to it in an unusual way.

In the early 70s Barker was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by Mike Mornard, one of the play testers of the original game.  Barker immediately recognized this new art form--the roleplaying game--as a way to share his Tékumel with the world.  In 1974, shortly after D&D stepped out and said "hello" to the world, Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne became the second RPG ever published.  While Dungeons & Dragons was really just a rules set, loosely rooted in fantasy fiction and European mythology, EPT was a complete setting, with history and languages and cultures.  This is something we all take for granted today; we expect our RPGs--tabletop, console, or computer--to come with in-depth imagined settings.  But Tékumel got there first.

It so impressed TSR, the publishers of D&D, that with Barker they released a second edition of the game shortly thereafter.

For a public still trying to wrap its brain around the whole new "roleplaying thing," Empire of the Petal Throne was probably a step too far.  The plot of those early D&D campaigns was painfully simple; here is a dungeon, go inside, kill monsters, get treasure.  EPT by contrast asked players to navigate the social complexities of an alien culture, to role-play etiquette and hierarchy.  It was a world in which diplomacy and subtlety often eclipsed brute force.  More difficult, perhaps, was that players had no immediate access points.  If you had read Robert E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien you had a general idea of what to do in D&D.  In EPT you were going into it blind.

There were other factors as well, but Barker and publisher TSR parted ways leaving Tékumel once more a world without a rules set.  Undeterred, M.A.R. Barker pressed on, and ten years after EPT had first been published, Barker had the first novel set in Tékumel (Man of Gold) and a second, two-volume roleplaying game (Swords & Glory).

The novels kept coming.  1985 saw the publication of Flamesong, followed later by Lords of Tsámra, Prince of Skulls, and A Death of Kings.  2004 brought what might best be described as Barker's Silmarillion, the two-volume compendium of religion and culture known as Mitlanyál.  By that time, Tékumel had been growing and deepening for over sixty years, explored mainly by Barker, but also by hundreds--possibly even thousands--of hardcore Tékumel fans.

Unfortunately, none of the roleplaying games ever really seemed to last.  Empire of the Petal Throne had been too ahead of its time, while Swords & Glory suffered from the obsession with complexity that hounded gaming in the early 80s.  Certainly the most comprehensive game ever published on Tékumel, none but the most diehard had the patience to climb this dense Everest of text.  In 1994, the third Tékumel RPG, Gardásiyal, made the opposite mistake, publishing a rules set with very little background at all.  Indeed, you needed to by several additional books just to make a complete character.  This was a pity, because by the 1990s, the gaming industry had finally come around to the idea of deep, fully realized settings.  EPT was ahead of its time, Gardásiyal was behind it.

For me, 2005 was a sort of high-water mark for Tékumel.  Mitlanyál and just been published, and Guardians of Order, a game company that had published the award winning anime RPG Big Eyes, Small Mouth, took an interest in Barker's world.  Using a modified version of their "Tri-Stat" rules system, they brought us Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne.  This lavish, hardcover rulebook brought a popular system and a streamlined, very accessible approach to Tékumel's histories and cultures.  For someone who had never heard of Barker's world before, this was the perfect entry point.

But the gaming industry is a cruel one, and just a year after Tékumel's publication, the over-extended and deeply in debt Guardians of Order closed its doors.  Ironically, the same year they published Tékumel they had published another RPG set in a relatively obscure fantasy world...it was called A Game of Thrones.

M.A.R. Barker left this planet on March 16th, 2012.  Part of me likes to think he returned home, enjoying a cup of chumetl on the terrace of a clanhouse in Pálla Jalálla.  Tékumel lives on; in 2014 the fifth official RPG Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel was published, and his army of fans are keeping the world alive.  But as great as Tékumel is, I don't think this is the legacy we should remember him for.  Not exactly.

Barker was to my mind a pioneer of the imagination.  We all live and operate in the wake people like he and Tolkien left. The most popular program on television right now is set in an intricately detailed created world, putting to bed the lie that the general public lacks the attention span for such things.   Indeed, it is impossible to imagine a modern computer or console RPG succeeding without a compelling and consistent setting characterized by unique cultures and great depth.  When you play something like Dragon Age, the Elves and Dwarves are obviously Tolkien, but the Qunari--and the Qun--are definitely Barker.  And with other pen and paper RPGs, exotic stopped being a bug and became a feature.  There would be no Talislanta or Legend of the Five Rings or Numenera if Barker hadn't gone there first.

In the end, no one will ever dispute the power of Tolkien's legendarium, but when it comes to imagined worlds Barker might have even been a little ahead.  After all, Tolkien was not creating so much a re-creating--taking scraps of ancient European folklore and literature to weave together as a masterful patchwork.  Barker did everything from scratch.

And that is fantastic. 

    

Saturday, August 26, 2017

THINGS NOT MEANT TO KNOW: HP LOVECRAFT IN THE CYPHER SYSTEM

For decades, the definitive representation of Lovecraft at the gaming table has been Chaosium's classic Call of Cthulhu. While other Mythos-releated game systems have appeared sporadically in its wake, most of them (Trail of Cthulhu, Realms of Cthulhu, d20 Call of Cthulhu, GURPS Cthulhupunk) have looked to Call of Cthulhu for guidance on recreating the genre. Because it is so radically different--in both mechanics and tone--from the Chaosium game, Monte Cook's Cypher System might appear a poor choice for authentic Lovecraftian play. Cypher System characters can take a lot more punishment, have a wider range of abilities, and follow a much more traditional progression in power and options than classic Cthulhu Investigators. But Cypher is a surprisingly flexible tool, and can easily be dialed up to handle four color superheroes or dialed down to portray normal men and women pitted against the titanic, unknowable powers of the Mythos. In this article, we hope to show you how.


GETTING THE GENRE RIGHT

The Cypher System system rulebook includes five chapters on adapting the game to portray different genres; Fantasy, Science Fiction, Modern, Horror, and Superheroes. Expanded Worlds builds on these by introducing seven "Fantastical" and "Gritty" sub-genres. None of these, however, is actually right. 

First published in 1981, Call of Cthulhu billed itself as "Fantasy Role-Playing in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft." Later editions would change that to "Horror Roleplaying." Given that Lovecraft's work frequently dealt with alien races or scientific experiments gone wrong, a case might even be made for "Science Fiction Roleplaying." So which exactly is it? If we look to Lovecraft himself, he would have defined his fiction as Weird.

To get a handle on what Weird fiction is, let's look at a few different voices in the genre. First, James Raggi, the author of Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, distinguishes between the Horror and Weird genres in this way;

The main thing that separates a Weird Tale from a conventional horror story is the forces completely out of the control of those who encounter them. A thing that cannot be explained, cannot be defeated, cannot be solved...

Jeff Vandermeer, author of (among many other things) the superb Wonderbook, wrote for The Atlantic;

...the weird tale, or literature of the strange...fascinates by presenting a dark mystery beyond our ken and engaging the subconscious. Just as in real life, things don’t always quite add up, the narrative isn’t quite what we expected...

Both of these place emphasis on inexplicable rather than horrific, If the intent of the Horror story is to scare, the intent of the Weird tale is to instill a sense of having confronted something incomprehensible. Fear is often a byproduct of this, but so is wonder or awe. Lovecraft himself describes this by emphasizing a sense of having left reality behind;

...I believe that weird writing...should be realistic and atmospheric--confining its departure from Nature to the one supernatural channel chosen, and remembering that scene, and phenomena are more important...than are characters or plot. The "punch" of a truly weird tale is simply some violation or transcending of fixed cosmic law--an imaginative escape from palling reality...

So what exactly does this mean for your gaming table? 

First, it suggests that the GM should create a world as realistic and mundane as possible. If everything is Weird, then nothing is. Instead, you want to create a sane and ordered world into which the Weird intrudes from outside, violating sanity and reality when it does. Use the "Modern" setting as your starting point, or better still, the "Historical" setting in Expanded Worlds (most Lovecraftian games are set in the 20s and 30s, though the Victorian Era is another popular choice). 

Second, make sure that all "supernatural" or "paranormal" elements in the setting are in the GM's hands, not the players'. Character Types should all be based on Warriors, Explorers, and Speakers, with no Adepts and no Magic flavor available. It is important for all paranormal elements to be inexplicable, incomprehensible, and beyond mortal control. If player really wants to create a psychic or medium character, have them create a Scholar or Dilettante or Professional instead...but then handle their "paranormal" abilities as GM intrusions rather than powers. The characters are not in control of these extraordinary talents, and cannot reliably call upon them. They never know when a sudden vision or cryptic communication will occur...and when these do, they are probably damaging to the character's psyche (see Mere Mortals below).

Finally, don't feel pressured to define the Weird elements as either "magic" or "science." Don't define it at all! Blur the lines. Clarke's Third Law applies here anyway; any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Are the spells in the dread Necronomicon sorcery, or some advanced mathematical formulas that bend the fabric of time and space? There is no answer to that question--it is beyond mortal ken. 

MERE MORTALS

Call of Cthulhu differs in feel and motivation from other roleplaying games. in many such games, player characters can directly confront and attempt to destroy obstacles and opponents. This strategy typically leads to disaster in Cthulhu scenarios. The majority of the other-world monstrosities are so terrible and often so invulnerable that chasing open combat almost guarantees a gruesome end for an investigator. Even the merest glimpse of some of the more macabre horrors can send one screaming into insanity...

Call of Cthulhu, 6th Edition


While they are capable of great heroism, and even on occasion do manage to drive the horrors of the Mythos back (see The Dunwich Horror), Lovecraft's protagonists are all mere mortals. These are not action heroes or supermen. To get the genre right, and to raise the stakes, the player characters need to be considerable more vulnerable than the average Cypher System character. Physical combat must be deadly, and encountering the alien, incomprehensible forces of the Mythos must be damaging to the psyche.

To simulate this, the optional "Shock" and "Madness" rules in the Horror setting chapter are a good start, and every Lovecraftian game should include them. When a character encounters something Weird or horrific, he or she needs to make an Intellect defense roll, the level of which provides both the Difficulty AND the Intellect damage suffered if the roll is failed. For example, when the intrepid cub Reporter sees a chair move across the floor of a haunted house, he makes a Difficult 4 (12 or better) roll, and if he fails, he loses 4 INT points from his pool. Failure also results in shock; for one round the character panics, freezes, or flees.

Encountering Weird entities--alien races and horrors--triggers the same response. Seeing a Deep One (a level 4 creature) requires a level 4 (12 or better) roll and inflicts 4 INT points of damage. However the gods and Great Old Ones of the Mythos are infinitely worse. Beholding Yog Sothoth or Great Cthulhu is a mind-shattering event. These beings inflict at least three times their level in INT damage. Watching Shub Niggurath manifest in this dimension, might require a Difficult 9 (27) Intellect defense roll, with failure causing the lost of 27 points from the INT pool!

While the optional "Madness" rules model the slow and steady slide into insanity common in long term Mythos games, true Lovecraftian gaming needs even more "punch" in the sanity department. In Lovcraftian games, if any character suffers an INT loss larger than their maximum value, he or she must make a second Intellect defense roll (against the last Difficulty) or go permanently insane on the spot.  For example, our cub Reporter has an Intellect of 16. Seeing Shub Niggurath manifest, he fails his Level 9 (27) defense roll and loses 27 Intellect points...far more than his maximum number (16). He now must immediately make a second Level 9 roll or go permanently insane. 

Another option you may want to consider is to take away the damage track.

If a character's Speed pool is depleted, he or she is paralyzed. If his or her Intellect pool reaches zero, he or she is stunned and helpless. And if the Might pool is emptied, the character is unconscious and at the mercy of the opposition. This will definitely make players think twice about entering combat, and much better reflects the grittiness of the genre. GMs should seriously consider using the "Lasting" and "Permanent" damage rules as well.

CYPHERS

It wouldn't be the Cypher System without cyphers, but how do these fit into a Weird game?

To start with, make "Subtle Cyphers" the primary ones in the game. These are the lucky breaks, flashes of inspiration, or extremes of effort characters call upon in their struggles against the Weird and horrific forces of the Mythos. 

Manifest cyphers can be fun as well, but these must take the form of Weird spells, chemicals, or devices and as such should be used VERY sparingly. Further, using a manifest cypher is by definition an encounter with the Weird and thus triggers a Shock test (Difficulty 3 or 4 most commonly).


WAIT...HORROR MODE?

"Horror Mode" (also discussed in the Horror setting chapter) is a good mechanic, but I think the methods discussed above are sufficient for creating the right sense of trepidation and dread. While Horror Mode does ramp up the tension, it also telegraphs ahead that something Weird is coming. Opting not to use it, and emphasizing that the Weird can intrude any time any place without warning, better suits the genre.

   

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

'SALEM'S LOT IN THE TRUMP ERA

Baby mama drama's screamin' on and too much for me to wanna
Stay in one spot, another day of monotony's
Gotten me to the point I'm like a snail
I've got to formulate a plot or end up in jail or shot
Success is my only mothaf****n' option, failure's not
Mom, I love you, but this trailer's got to go
I cannot grow old in Salem's lot

- Eminem, Lose Yourself

I grew up in 'Salem's Lot. Many Americans did. The town that is the titular character in Stephen King's second published novel is instantly recognizable to millions of us. It's a dead little place. Nothing ever happens there. Everyone knows everyone, and it is so safe you can leave the keys in the ignition of your pick-up truck at night. If you live there, you probably don't even have a lock on your front door. After all, the crime rate is just about zero. Because 'Salem's Lot doesn't know the inflated and grotesque evils of the big city; its evils are all the small and whimpering kind. The neighbor's wife cheating with the postman. The guy who smacks his girlfriend around. The kids who shoplift at the dime store.  The alcoholism and addiction that springs from despair, from knowing the jobs have all gone and you can't feed your family.  These are the small town evils, evil with a small "e," the monotonous and banal evils that slowly bleed you dry like a million paper cuts.  Everyone knows the really big "E" Evils could never happen here.

Until, of course, Big "E" Evil waltzes--by your invitation--into town.

...Tourists and through-travelers still passed by on Route-12, seeing nothing of the Lot but an Elks billboard and a thirty-five-mile-an-hour speed sign. Outside of town they went back up to sixty and perhaps dismissed it with a single thought: Christ, what a dead little place...

  
In terms of plot, 'Salem's Lot is essentially Dracula; an ancient European vampire relocates from East to West and begins vampirizing the populace.  But the book is actually far more than that.  In his introduction to the 2005 Illustrated Edition, King talks about the naive arrogance of a 23-year-old writer thinking he could rewrite Bram Stoker's Dracula as "the great American novel."  Maybe it would be a stretch to bestow that title on 'Salem's Lot, but what amazes is how close King actually came. Forty-two years after its publication, the novel rings true more than ever.  This is the story of a rural American town well past its glory days; no jobs, no hope, no future.  In their despair the townspeople make a Faustian bargain with a stranger, a man who comes into their lives with empty promises of great things.  Submit to him, put your faith in him, and he will make you great again.  Out of quiet desperation they turn their backs on the light and lose their souls in the process.

In the wake of the 2016 election and the more recent events in Charlottesville, 'Salem's Lot seems very relevant.  

When horror works, and it works extraordinarily well in 'Salem's Lot, it does so because it makes us uncomfortable with ourselves.  Vampires don't cast reflections, but 'Salem's Lot makes us squirm because it turns the mirror on us.  Dracula was a very 19th century novel, in which the liberal and democratic British easily put down the threat of foreign imperialism.  But 'Salem's Lot emerged at the tail end of the 20th, and just a generation removed from the people who fought World War II, King understands fascism far better than Stoker ever could have.  Fascism, whether it happens in Germany or Italy or middle America, is always the willing submission of the populace, the surrender of morals and freedoms, born out of despair.  Fascism is something that must be invited, like the vampire, into your home.

Like Eminem says in the song, he can't bear the idea of growing old in 'Salem's Lot. He's desperate to escape and become something more. And that is what the vampires in King's novel feed on, far more than blood. They drink up that quiet desperation, that ennui. With their cold dead smiles they seem to say "don't you worry about a thing, close your eyes and I will make everything go away."

King makes several references in 'Salem's Lot to Shirley Jackson's The Haunting of Hill House, a book that deeply influenced him. No where is that more clear than in the way he characterizes Small Town, USA. 'Salem's Lot is the geographic incarnation of Jackson's protagonist, Eleanor Vance, a deeply conservative and self-obsessed woman who secretly longs for something, anything, to "happen" to her. It finally does; she encounters Hill House and allows it to seduce her. The small Maine town of Jerusalem's Lot just about does the same with its vampires...creatures that of course have to be invited in. There is a grim undercurrent running through the novel that the town is pleased something interesting is finally happening to them.  For once they are not being ignored or dismissed.  Someone is listening to them.  Someone cares.  And if the price for that is vampirism, or racism, or anti-semiticism, why not? 



...The town knew about darkness. It knew about the darkness that comes on the land when rotation hides the land from the sun, and about the darkness of the human soul. These are the town's secrets, and some will later be known and some will never be known. The town keeps them all with the ultimate poker face...


I reread 'Salem's Lot biennially.  It was one of the novels I read in my childhood that made me want to write.  There are a thousand reasons for this.  I could talk about the stealthy and devious way King creeps up on you and makes you believe in vampires.  I could talk about the memorable characters.  I could talk about King's easy, almost folksy prose.  I could praise his intimate understanding of small town people and small town life.  But I think it rises to the level of a great novel because it has a warning for us.  It understands the narcissism that is ultimately at the heart of the vampire tale, the poisonous notion of Prince Charmings and politicians and saviors who we think will sweep in and make all the pain just magically go away.  And maybe above all, it understands the necessity of fighting this in whatever form it takes.


Tuesday, August 8, 2017

CYPHER SYSTEM 2D10?

EVEN THOUGH I AM currently running The Dracula Dossier, Monte Cook Game's Cypher System remains my current favorite RPG.  Despite all the things I love about it--the simple "on a scale of 1 to 10" resolution mechanic, the "hands free" approach to game mastering, the experience system, etc--after a lengthy Numenera campaign some of my players had concerns.  Well, perhaps "concerns" is the wrong word, but "complaints" isn't right either.  Let's just say they expressed a preference, and not exactly a new one.  As the perennial GM, I think it is crucial to listen to your players, and since the preferences they expressed exist throughout gaming circles, I thought I would share their feedback and my response to it here.

It's the d20.

Cypher works--as you may already know--by assigning a Difficulty of 1 to 10, with 1 being ridiculously easy and 10 being nearly impossible.  Applying character assets--skills, abilities, equipment, favorable conditions--lowers this Difficulty. The final Difficulty level is then multiplied by 3, giving the number you must roll equal to or higher on a d20.  It works beautifully.  

But...the d20 is a flat roll.  There is no bell curve there.  You have the same chance (5%) of rolling a 1 and triggering a free GM intrusion as you do a 20 and earning a major effect (think fumble and critical if you are an old grognard like me).  Technically you have the same chance of rolling your target number as well.  Imagine the frustration of tackling a massive, Level 6 Difficulty; you apply your skill specialization and drop it two levels to 4, and splurge on a massive three levels of effort to lower that to 1.  All you need to do is beat a 3.  Aaaaaaand then you roll a 1.

Sure, "them's the breaks" in a dice-based system.  It's been an (in)famous aspect of d20 systems for a while (and the source of innumerable D&D memes).  On the other hand I can well appreciate the player frustration of exerting such massive skill and effort to a task and still failing disastrously.  Not only that, but it tends to make games more extreme with disasters and amazing successes cropping up equally often.   

Now you may well see this as a feature rather than a flaw, and to be honest so do I.  I've heard similar complaints over the last thirty years running Call of Cthulhu with Chaosium's equally flat percentile roll, in which far too many detectives miss vital clues and expert scientists botch the most basic analyses.  Heck, that's where Trail of Cthulhu came from.  To my mind Cypher has greatly mitigated the frustrations of the old Basic Roleplaying system with ideas like assets and effort.  But for groups who dislike the flatness of the d20, there are a couple of easy fixes.

1. THE SLIGHTLY TORG SOLUTION

Peering back through the ages to West End Game's TORG, we find one possible solution.  TORG had an experience point/hero point combination called "Possibilities."  While used to advance characters with new skills and higher stats, they could also be spent for in-game goodies.  Like Cypher, TORG used a d20, and one of the things a player could do was spend a Possibility to ensure a roll of 10 or higher.  After spending that point, any roll of 1-9 effectively counted as a 10, while 10 or higher remained the same.

This works just as well for Cypher.  Spend an XP and guarantee a roll of 10 or higher.  This is a perfect solution for more cinematic games, where players usually succeed at the critical moment.  At the same time, experience is experience, and not something players want to spend willy nilly.  

If you really want to go over the top--and this works very well for four-color supers and cinematic secret agents--allow a player to spend two experience points for an automatic 20.

2. THE BASICALLY GURPS ANSWER

Trade in the d20 for 2d10.

This was the way Steve Jackson went with his GURPS, built around 3d6 for all die resolutions.  By making the switch, you are installing a built-in bell curve.  Behold the following graph, shamelessly borrowed Scott Boehmer's excellent discussion on 2d10 in D&D


Click me to enlarge

Making this switch, you have roughly the same chance of rolling a 10 or less, about 50% in both cases, but the likelihood of extreme rolls greatly decreases.  The odds of rolling a 1 or a 20 drops from 5% to 1%.  This has the effect of really making a character's assets and effort more important; in the example above, after dropping the Difficulty from 6 to 1 the player has a 1% chance of failing, down from 10%.  In essence, it shines the spotlight on a character's training and determination, reducing the whims of chance and fate.  On the other hand, you are greatly reducing the odds of triggering the special effects and bonuses that come with high rolls.  


       

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

THE DRACULA DOSSIER: DAYS OF DISHONORABLE PEACE, SESSION FOUR

For a full summary of sessions one to three, see here.

WE ARE USED TO GENRE MIXING, we role players.  Shadowrun has been mixing cyberpunk and high fantasy for nearly thirty years.  We've seen steampunk fantasy (Castle Falkenstein), horror westerns (Deadlands), superhero war dramas (Godlike), and multi-genre free-for-alls (TORG, Rifts).  Even the original 1974 Dungeons & Dragons was a bit of a gumbo, a mix of weird fiction, high fantasy, and sci fi.  Yet despite having run horror espionage before (Delta Green and Conspiracy X), something about The Dracula Dossier daunted me when I first sat down to sketch out the campaign.  As an obsessive fan of the novel, it was essential to me that the game feel "Stoker," but I didn't want to neglect the crucial other half of it.  I feel that four sessions in, my gaming group and I finally got the balance right.

Session four of Days of Dishonorable Peace opens with a bang.  Well.  Almost.

Having broken into the tomb of Laura Wexford (our Lucy Westenra) to examine her remains (or to see if the casket is empty), the team instead discovers the opposition has left a nasty surprise for them.  The coffin contains neither a vampire nor human remains but a bomb, a combination of ball-bearings and C-4.  Fortunately for the team, CIA operative William McPherson has eight points in Explosive Devices, saving their lives in a daring rapid defusing.

These leaves questions; who was behind this?  Edom?  Dracula?  How did the opposition know the team was coming?  The agents suspect their Internet searches for the identities of the 1894 network must have triggered red flags, while the players know Dracula has nightly been interrogating CIA agent Lacey Mickelson.  Lacey's player has decided to keep these nightmares to herself, and to play the slow erosion of the character's stability.  This was completely true to the spirit of Stoker, giving us a "Mina" in the group.

While McPherson and Mickelson investigate the bomb design, Douglas Reid and Luna Richter scout the grounds outside the Highgate tomb, and there discover the remains of Laura Wexford.  Whoever planted the bomb simply dumped her skeleton, still in the decayed wedding gown, in the underbrush.  Mickelson, an expert in forensic pathology, decides she needs to examine the remains.  McPherson examines the door, taking samples in the hopes of figuring out exactly what the "red liquid" Van Helsing used a century earlier to seal it.  In claiming the remains, the group finds something else pinned to the decaying gown...the silver and jet "Westenra Brooch."

Lacey has a London contact, a coroner named Parsev Singh.  She convinces him to let her use an examining room and takes the remains there with McPherson.  Reid and Richter head back to their London base of operations to catch up on some rest and pursue another lead; they have managed to make initial contact with Oliver Prenger, the husband of the dossier's last custodian, "Hopkins."  They came across each other as both parties were investigating the same leads.  Reid and Richter decide to set up a meeting.

In the lab, parallel discoveries are made.  The stake driven through Laura's chest was not wood, but iron.  The red liquid used to seal the tomb was also iron.  Further analysis shows this isn't just any iron, this is extremely rare telluric iron.  Given the weird electrical phenomena the team saw in Berlin, it gets them thinking about Faraday cages.

Reid and Richter, meanwhile, meet with Prenger at a cafe near the British Museum.  Prenger is a special secretary to House of Lords MP Philip Douglas, descendent of "Arthur Holmwood" and the current Lord Drumlanrig.  "Hopkins" was really Andrew Miller, an MI6 analyst and Russia specialist.  Prenger is convinced the Russians have something to do with his husband's disappearance.

The conversation opens all sorts of questions; how did "Hopkins" get the dossier?  What is the Russian connection?  Is this recent, or does it go back to "Cushing" and the 1977 fiasco?  More to the point...which came first; did "Hopkins" get the dossier first and then seek out and seduce a man who just happened to be secretary to one of the 1894 legacies, or was it an innocent coincidence?  They discretely don't share this later bit with Prenger.

After regrouping, the team splits again.  The two CIA agents decide to construct a Faraday cage while Reid and Richter set up a second meeting with Prenger, this time at a pub.  While Mickelson and McPherson construct the cage, Lacey starts to confide in him her disturbing dreams and the growing fear she has that Dracula is invading her mind.  When the cage is finished, they try an experiment and put Lacey inside it.  After a flash of blinding headache pain, her connection with Dracula is severed by the cage and complete free of influence, gushes out all that has been happening to her and pleads for help.

Across town at the pub, a second meeting with Prenger is cut short when Reid and Richter realize Prenger has been followed.  In the middle of the bar one of the suspects slides a knife into Prenger's side to silence him.  Richter opens fire and takes down both, but before the surviving assailant can be questioned he kills himself with cyanide.  As they fled the club, they notice a black limousine parked across the street.  Watching them from the back is a beautiful blonde woman in white, wearing dark sunglasses.  The car drives off as things heat up...

Friday, July 28, 2017

THE DRACULA DOSSIER: DAYS OF DISHONORABLE PEACE

The following is a summary of sessions one to three of an ongoing Dracula Dossier campaign.  While this is my individual campaign, with my own take on vampires, Dracula, and the events of the Stoker novel, it does draw heavily on Kenneth Hite and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan's excellent game.  If you have not bought and read these books, do.  Possible spoilers ahead.

BERLIN, 2016 (Episode 1)

In Kreuzberg, a joint operations team consisting of CIA agent William McPherson, MI6 operative Douglas Reid, and BND officer Saskia Richter have set up an observation post to monitor a suspected ISIS terrorist cell.  Hiding among Syrian refugees, there is mounting evidence that the cell has managed to smuggle sarin gas into the nation, and that an attack may me imminent.  The agents are working to verify this before sending in a strike team to shut the cell down.

The problem is, the intelligence doesn't add up.

The Cyprus-based shipping company used to bring in the sarin, for example, has ties to Bashar al-Assad's government, which itself has been known to use sarin gas.  Why would an ISIS cell be working with the Assad government?  There are other irregularities, suggesting another faction--an outside player--might be involved.

Once the presence of the gas is positively confirmed, the team decides it cannot delay any longer.  A strike team is assembled, and under the cover of darkness, prepares to go in.

Things immediately begin to go pear-shaped.  An unseasonal fog comes out of nowhere, obscuring vision.  One by one, electronic monitoring systems start to malfunction and go down.  And someone--or something--starts picking off the strike team with ease.

The operatives themselves go in.  In the darkness and the fog, they encounter a black-clad paramilitary force, soldiers that display uncanny strength and speed.  The one in the lead is unmasked, a pale man with thick, unruly hair and a thick mustache.  He attacks with a knife.  Bullets do not seem to affect him.   Agent Richter is killed, while McPherson and Reid barely manage to escape the scene with their lives.

In the wake of this, the sarin gas is released, killing more than seventy people in neighborhood and causing an international scandal when CIA and MI6 involvement is leaked.  The surviving agents are burned; McPherson goes underground and Reid goes back to his cabin in the Scottish Highlands.

But the events of Berlin reach out to them both.

EIGHT MONTHS LATER...

McPherson finds himself receiving encrypted emails, both to his burner phone and his laptop.  A figure calling himself "Hopkins" claims to know the truth of what went down in Berlin, and hints at a conspiracy far bigger than ISIS or Assad.  The emails direct McPherson to a bus station locker, where inside is a century-old dossier, along with information gathered by Hopkins, suggesting a link between the events in this dossier and an 1888 group of Masonic occultists calling themselves the Golden Dawn.  Hopkins jokingly refers to McPherson as "Jackman" now, and suggests that while he has been forced into hiding for fear for his life, he will do what he can to aid Jackman and his team from the shadows now.  The Dracula Dossier--and the terrible burden that comes with it--is theirs, now.

Meanwhile, at his cabin in the Highlands, Douglas Reid receives a visit from a strange eight-year-old girl.  She is Luna Richter, Saskia's little sister.  While Saskia had made a passing reference to her sister possessing strange "abilities" back in Berlin, Reid didn't pay much attention.  He is forced to now.  The girl, a psychic, seems to have all of the memories--even skills--of her older sister.  It is as if Saskia's brutal murder transferred the whole of her knowledge to her telepathic sibling.  When McPherson shows soon after, and brings the dossier with him, the Berlin team is re-assembled.  They decide to pursue the conspiracy hinted at in the dossier, and find the truth of what happened to them in Berlin.

WHITBY, 2017 (Session 2)

The trio decide to drive south to Whitby, where Dracula made his landing in Britain.  This was his starting point, and thus they decide to make it theirs.  Along the way, McPherson is tracked down by his old CIA partner, Lacey Mickelson.  Taking a leave of absence, she has pursued McPherson to find out the truth behind the Agency burning him.  As the trio arrive in Whitby, Lacey confronts them, and McPherson decides to bring her in.

Though she is skeptical, she agrees to help.  After taking in the "Dracula Experience," an obvious tourist trap, they explore the old town, focusing on the locations described in the dossier.  Hoping to discover the actual names and identities of the 1894 primaries, they track down the tax and residential records for the Crescent in the 1890s.  This is where Lucy Westenra and her mother had their Whitby summer home.  They come across one Amelia Wexford, and her daughter Laura.  The background information suggests Laura Wexford is almost certainly the real life "Lucy Westenra."

With this name secure, the team begins a massive Internet search or any and all available records, slowly piecing together the identities of the 1894 network.

Lucy Westenra/Laura Wexford: A nineteen-year old socialite who died of "heart failure" shortly after her engagement.  There isn't much remarkable about Laura, but the discovery of her name and identity leads the team to the rest of the network.



Arthur Holmwood/Alexander Douglas, Viscount Drumlanrig: In 1894 Laura was engaged to Alexander Douglas, the son of Viscount Drumlanrig (a business partner of Laura'a father, Chester).  When Laura died, Douglas inherited her estate (including her home in Hampstead, Wallingham) just as the dossier describes. Shortly thereafter, Alexander's father died in a mysterious hunting accident and Douglas inherited his title.



Mina Harker/Genevieve "Gina" Harper, née Malcolm: Tracking down the famous "Mina Harker" is achieved by searching for Laura Wexford's school records.  Genevieve Malcolm leaves London in 1894 for the continent, and returns Genevieve Harper (providing the next link in the chain).




Jonathan Harker/James Harper:  From his marriage to Genevieve Malcolm, and his passing of the bar exam just a year earlier, tracking down "Harker" presents little difficulty. There is not much on the young solicitor, however, especially after 1894.  More disconcerting is the fact that he was employed by one Peter Hawkins...the same name used by Stoker (who changed all the others).  This suggests that "Peter Hawkins" was itself a cover identity, and that Stoker may not have known his genuine name.



Kate Reed/Catherine Cook: Laura's school records turn up the other classmate as well, Catherine Cook, daughter of Westminster Gazette founder and editor Edward Cook.  A journalist, she fits the description in the dossier.  Tracking down the society page articles she herself wrote (and mentioned in the dossier) leads to both Seward and Morris...



Quincey P Morris/Quincey Adams: The colorful "Texan" of the novel was nothing of the sort.  The son of John Quincey Adams II and great grandson of President John Quincey Adams, Quincey Adams was a close friend of the young Viscount Drumlanrig.  His assignment as an "attache" of the American Ambassador to the Court of St. James is concealed in the dossier, and suggests a connection to American intelligence.



Jack Seward/Dr Jonathan Sievers: Sievers and the Viscount Drumlanrig apparently met in the British Army in Suakin, 1885.  Douglas was 20, Sievers was 24.  Sievers returned from duty "shell shocked," and took up work as a police coroner in London.  In 1890, his father passed away, leaving his son a private mental hospital in Plaistow.  Sievers changes his practice to psychiatric medicine.



Abraham Van Helsing/Albert Wilhelm Van Renterghem:  This Dutch spiritualist, psychiatrist, and hypnotist was an associate and friend of Sievers's father, and took the younger doctor under his wing.  A highly respected physician, he took a sabbatical from his work in Amsterdam in 1894, possibly placing him in London.  

(Note: As of this writing, the team has yet to ascertain the identities of Renfield, Aytown, or Cotford)

With these leads, the team decides to make their next stop London, to track down key sites connected to the disastrous 1894 operation. 

LONDON, 2017 (Session 3)

Concerned that their research may have sent up red flags with the opposition--whomever and whatever that might be--the quartet rents a car and travels to London by circuitous routes, using AirBNB to rent a home in Plaistow, near Plaistow Park.  Their research indicates that Siever's asylum, and Carfax, were once located here.

They settle into the small home and set up operations there.  In the beginning they have no greater difficulty than an over solicitous neighbor across the street.  McPherson scouts the neighborhood and discovers a large Eastern European community a few blocks away, including a Romanian father and his London-born daughter running a convenience store.  McPherson uses his impersonation skills to blend in and pass himself off as a fellow immigrant.

But there is a growing sense of being watched as the team further investigates the London locations and draws plans to investigate them.  McPherson--perhaps paranoid--has the sense of being followed and turns to see rats in the street.  Lacey, meanwhile, begins to experience disturbing dreams in which a dark figure comes into her room and interrogates her.  Luna, the psychic, spends the night monitoring her and indeed confronts a dark presence.  

There are other signs as well, but the team presses on.  They pinpoint the location of Laura Wexford's home, Wallingham, in Hampstead, as well as her burial place in nearby Highgate Cemetery (the dossier fictionalizes this as "Kingstead," but records show this is where Laura was buried).  They also locate Siever's former asylum...now an NHS Hematology Treatment and Research Center.  McPherson asks around and discovers the place has a shadowy reputation; heavily policed, there are rumors of people disappearing.

The team decides to stick with Laura.  Under the cover of darkness, they penetrate Highgate and locate the Wexford tomb.  There are signs of recent entry.  




Inside, it is much as the dossier describes, including the sarcophagus of Laura Wexford itself.  As they begin to open this, Luna Richter begins having enigmatic visions; clocks, the sea, the number four.  Only once they have opened the casket does she understand; someone has placed an explosive device her with a timer and C-4.  They have seconds before it explodes...





  










Monday, July 17, 2017

VEINS OF THE EARTH: A REVIEW

Prior to May 25th, 1977, Dungeons of Dragons was a weird little cocktail, a Long Island Ice Tea mixed up from literary influences like Tolkien, Leiber, Moorcock, Anderson, Howard, and Vance, with a dash of Vietnam to give it bite.  It was a brutal, trippy, occasionally nightmarish little thing.  Then came Star Wars.  In the wake of the Lucasfilm hijacking of fantasy and science fiction, D&D became increasingly more cinematic, more heroic, and more a clearly delineated struggle between Good and Evil. 

I've written about Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing before.  The game is a James Raggi-led campaign to take D&D style roleplaying back to those gritty, weird roots.  With Old School mechanics dialing up the lethality, and atmospheric writing establishing the grim, eerie mood of the game, one of the most striking elements of the game has been the published settings.  All turn sharply away from the high fantasy, Light versus Dark worlds so characteristic of D&D.  

There was, for example, Geoffrey McKinney's divisive and controversial Carcosa, set on the world first mentioned by Ambrose Bierce and later more extensively in Robert Chamber's The King in Yellow.  Pretty much absorbed into the Cthulhu Mythos, this was a setting of weird science, Lovecraftian gods, and nary an elf or dwarf in sight.  The vividly described sorcerous rituals were a turn-off for many, with elements such as ritualized rape, dismembering, and child sacrifice.  Less controversial, but no less weird and wonderful was the Zak S. offering A Red & Pleasant Land.  This presented the land of Voivodja, a "Wonderland" beyond the looking glass ruled by vampiric dynasties (the Red King and the Pale King, the Queen of Hearts and the Colorless Queen) whose sorcerous warfare had turned the realm into a madhouse of chaos and horror.  With inhabitants like the Cheshire Cat, Jabberwock, and the Hatter, Voivodja made even the eerie Wonderland of the Burton films look cheery.  Mention must also be made of Kenneth Hite's Qelong, a setting inspired by Southeast Asian mythology.  Fought over by two "barely conceivable beings" this land has also been filled with horror and madness.  If you are seeing a pattern here; good.  The worlds of Weird Fantasy Role-Playing are not showcases for the struggle between Good and Evil, but rather terrifying arenas in which characters struggle for survival and sanity.

Which brings us at last to Veins of the Earth.


The Underworld isn't a new idea, it's one of the oldest known to man, and it is a staple of both mythology and fantasy roleplaying.  The word "dungeon" is, after all, the first "D."  We are all used to adventures underground.  But Patrick Stuart's spellbindingly written setting book, hauntingly illustrated by Scrap Princess, has a sort of weird alchemy to it that fuses Moria, Virgil's Underworld, Neil Marshall's The Descent, and the terrifying endless labyrinth of House of Leaves.  This is a fantasy world, a fantasy universe, right below our feet.  Where mundane, terrestrial mines and caves end, the Veins of the Earth begin, and woe to the adventurer who crawls into them.  For here "the frightful bulk of night, feebly pushed aside for a moment, as quickly, and with an irresistible violence, regains empire."  You leave the world of daylight behind for "the deeper, more true world...bordered only by light above and fire below, and perhaps not even that."  The entire setting is an endless maze of lightless tunnels and caverns, stretching out for infinity and populated by entities banished from the sane world of light and reason.

This is poetic--and to be certain it is never very clear if the Veins are literally in the Earth or an extradimensional space altogether--but the setting also brings very real concerns to bear.  Darkness rules the Veins, absolute and total, making light the most precious commodity in this underworld.  While there may be places lit by bioluminescent fungi or magic, do not expect this.  It is not the norm.  Running the setting, GMs need to adopt a whole new vocabulary.  "You walk into a room" will not work.  How, if you cannot see, do you know it is a room?  Stuart suggests learning to limit your descriptions to "you see" and bearing in mind how few meters ahead the player characters really can see.  Couple this with the fact that many of these tunnels will involve climbing, squeezing, or crawling...that there is always the very real danger of a sudden chasm in the blackness ahead.  There are detailed and surprisingly realistic 3D cave and tunnel generating systems in the book for just this.


There are other very practical rules as well.  Encumbrance becomes a serious concern when slithering throw very narrow passages, and where does the water and food come from ?  In case you run short, there are some charming rules for cannibalism.  And without light, measuring time has to be done differently.  There are no days and nights, just the endless dark. This all tends to make claustrophobia and madness very real threats.  Veins of the Earth is filled with well-thought out goodies like this.

But this is also a weird fantasy game, and in the absolute darkness, magic and horror flow deep.  There are civilizations down there; the AElf-Adal are a terrifying cross between the Unseelie and the Drow, fae beings born from human dreams and nightmares that still require madness and terror to survive.  Long ago, they were driven from the surface by the very humans they used as psychic cattle, and now they hate humanity as much as they hunger for it.  There are the Deep Janeen, solitary elemental beings of terrible power.  The dErO resemble the UFO conspiracy Greys, and the dwarven Dvagir are a race obsessed with perfecting themselves, a process they associate with Ascent.  The first of their kind emerged from the Core, and they have been working their way up ever since.  The Substratals are Lovecraftian/demonic earth elementals, and the Gnomen are perhaps the least threatening, a race that values and treasures life above all else in the cruelty of the dark.  

Aside from these are monsters, a great many of them, many original and terrifying (think fossils that claw their way out of the stone hungry for the flesh and blood they lost and can never again have).  These just add to the value of the book, either as an utterly unique and terrifying setting, or as a grab bag of ideas to add to your own games and campaigns.


Veins of the Earth completely re-imagines the way we look at the dungeon in ways never really seen before, and is yet another example of the outside-of-the-box thinking that makes so much of Lamentations of the Flame Princess: Weird Fantasy Role-Playing a dark jewel of a game.  Use it to add deeper, darker levels to your dungeons, as a particularly grim Land of the Lost into which characters are thrown and struggle to escape back up into the light, or as a sourcebook for inspiration.  With high production values, lyrical and evocative writing, and disturbing illustrations, no one with a taste for weird fiction will be disappointed by it.