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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.

Sunday, January 20, 2019

SIX SEASONS IN SARTAR 4: HARVEST

Chapter Three
HARVEST

Note: If you are just joining us, please go back and start here.  Then check out episodes 1 and 2.



ABDUCTION (Template)

Begin With: Someone—or something—valuable to one of the characters is stolen or abducted.  News is brought to that character while he or she is with the other characters.     

The Situation: First decide what exactly was taken.  If it was a person, why was he or she taken?  Does the abductor want something from the abductee (information, revenge, requited love?), or is the abductee a means to an end (a hostage to get something out of someone else?).  If it is an item, why did the thief want it?  Will it be kept or fenced?  Destroyed?  Next determine where the object or prisoner is being held and who is guarding it.  What is the time frame before the object is sold/destroyed or the person harmed.  There are many excellent models for this kind of story.  Kurosawa’s 1949 Stray Dog features a rookie cop whose service revolver is stolen by a pickpocket on a crowded train, and he chases it down, trying to recover the weapon as it passes from criminal to criminal and is used in a series of crimes.  Abduction stories are also abundant; look no further than the Arthurian Cycle and the many abductions of Guinevere for inspiration.           

Characters: The Abductor.  The Abductee.  Anyone else who was part of the theft or capture.  If the Abductee is a hostage, who is the Abductor trying to pressure or get revenge against?  

Short Term Goal:  Figure out what the Abductor wants immediately.  To find a fence for the item?  To smuggle it out of the area?  To obtain information from the prisoner?  To make the prisoner love him?  Does the stolen item or person gain the Abductor glory or respect in the eyes of his or her allies?  Or is the theft kept secret?  

Long Term Goal: What does the Abductor want in the end?  To humiliate a rival or get revenge?  If so, is he or she willing to die so long as the target suffers?   

Scenes: After the characters learn of the abduction, they will need to investigate.  When, where, and how was the item or person stolen?  Are there witnesses?  Who do the players suspect?  The first few scenes involve narrowing down the list of suspects and chasing them down.  The player characters then need to try and locate the Abductor.  There should be a trail of clues they can obtain and follow.  Decide if there are any complicating factors (for example, in Stray Dog the gun passes from criminal to criminal).  Does someone steal the object or person from the original thief?      

Conclusion: The Abductor (or current possessor) of the item or person is confronted.  Is the item/person unharmed?  Do the player characters kill the Abductor or bring him/her to justice?

CHAPTER THREE
HARVEST

Wild Day, Death Week, Earth Season ST 1619.  Harvest season has come to Black Stag Vale.  The land has brought forth fields of ripened oats and barley, orchards heavy with hanging apples, tended plots of carrots and beets.  These need to be harvested and picked.  Herds of pigs and sheep, flocks of chickens, even some of the cattle need to be divided into those who live through the winter and those which need to be slaughtered.  And in the middle of all this, comes one of the greatest of the annual festivals, a full week of rituals, ceremonies, and celebrations in the name of the Great Mother, Ernalda.  The Earth Priestesses gather the women of the clan together for their deepest, most sacred mysteries and magics.  Young men prepare for the Harvest Games, competitions of archery, javelin hurling, and rock lifting meant to impress eligible women from the neighboring Enjossi, Antorling, and Konthasos clans.  Beer will flow.  Feasts will be consumed.  Life will be celebrated before the coming of the Dark.

Yet this year, a shadow hangs over the festivities.

There are grumbles and whispers among the adults that even the youths have heard.  In the lowlands to the south, Heortland—the last bastion of free Orlanthi in Dragon Pass—has all but fallen to the Lunars.  Smithstone and Karse have been taken, and only Whitewall (currently besieged by the Lunars) stands.  It is expected to fall.

In triumph, bloody Shepelkirt shines brighter at night.  The winds have been strangely becalmed as the Storm God weakens.  The summer was long and hot with very little rain.  As a result, the crops have suffered, yielding a third less than the year before.  There is nervous talk of empty bellies, and in more ways than one.  For this year, as fear takes hold, the women of the Vale have produced less children.

The Sons of Orlanth continue to harry the occupying Lunar forces.  Fires have been set to barracks and granaries.  A Tribune was assassinated and his body dragged through the streets behind his panicked horse.  And everywhere are the whispers that Starbrow is with the rebels again.

Everywhere there is a sense of something coming, of a darkness greater than winter falling.  It tinges everything the clan does.

The Focus Character this week is Kalf Brogansson, whose budding courtship with Esrala Kulvilsdotr and rivalry with Darestan Varankosson comes to the fore.  A subplot follows Kalliva Kellessadotr and the strange draconic mark on her hand.


The Situation: Darestan Varankosson, a member of the Haraborn, has kidnapped Esrala Kulvilsdotr of the Enjossi.  Darestan, the only member of the group of men he went through the adulthood rites with four years ago to still not have found a wife, has been trying to court Esrala for two years with little success.  Her sudden interest in Kalf Brogansson, a mere cottar and worse—a beardless boy—has driven him to the edge.  Keladon Blue-Eye, the chieftain’s skald and Bonded Trickster, pushed him over that edge, showing up unexpectedly at the White Bark longhouse one evening shortly after the Founder’s Feast to entertain those gathered with the law of “Jarndor and Gralala,” about an Orlanthi warrior in love with a woman who belonged to another.  Jarndor abducted Gralala and wooed her until finally winning her over.  Since that night, Darestan was obsessed with the idea.

Keladon’s motives have more to do with the player characters than Darestan, especially Beralor.  He is acting in his role as a member of the Eurmal the Guide subcult.

Darestan has taken the girl to a hunting lodge high up the slopes of Mount Quivin.  He has been stocking him quietly with enough food for the winter and dressing it up as something of a love-nest.  He is no longer quite in his right mind, and unlike Jarndor has no intention of wooing Esrala properly.  He will make her love him.

Short-Term Goal: Darestan wants a wife.  He has decided that is Esrala.  He had decided he is entitled to her.

Long-Term Goal: Darestan was never as clever, as fast, or as strong as the other boys in his peer group.  They are all married now and most are fathers.  More than anything he wants to be accepted by them.  However he is no longer reasoning clearly.

Begin With: Exhausted and aching from head to toe after several days of reaping grain, bundling it, and carting it around, Kalliva sits beside her mother in the Twin Stone longhouse, eating a communal meal with the rest of her family.  There is agitation at the head of the table.  News has arrived in the Vale that has the elders huddled in fear.  The Crimson Bat has been spotted in Tarsh, headed south.  The Lunars seem to be bringing it to Sartar.

Play this out a bit if you like.  Give Kalliva’s mother, Kallessa, a chance to complain about her Vingan sister Korolmara, and how her activities with the Sons of Orlanth only provoke the Lunars and bring doom on them all.  We have the right to strike against those who oppress us, one of the men replies.  Violence is always an option.

There is always another way, Kallessa replies.  And violence will not win against the Lunars.  You do not know them as I do.

With this cryptic statement, Kalliva realizes many of the adults are looking at her, not her mother.  But this is the end of it.  Even if pressed, Kallessa will add nothing more.

Kalliva goes to her sleeping mat beside her cousins Andressa and Talliva.  As the long house settles down and fatigue takes her, she has blurred and fitful dreams of Shepelkirt hanging bloated in a black sky and the beating of great wings.  When she opens her eyes, in the fire-lit shadows of the longhouse…something is looking at her.

It is no bigger than a small child, or perhaps a large alynx.  It is on all fours, leaning across Andressa’s sleeping body to examine Kalliva.  She sees first its face…a hairless muzzle almost like a beak, large oval eyes slit like those of a cat, a forked tongue that darts in and out of its mouth inches from her face.  A short crest runs from between its eyes back over the top of its flat head.  The firelight reflects over its skin, which is shiny like polished bronze.  When it sees her awake, it rises on to its hind legs and tilts its head, staring at her.  Then it turns, a short tail whipping in the air behind it.  As it does so it either blurs or fades, becoming hard to see.  There is the sound of claws scrabbling over wood and it is out the longhouse door into the night.

How does Kalliva react?  Does she tell anyone?  Keep it to herself?  Dismiss it as a dream?  

Taken

The next morning the player characters are helping Kalliva bind and carry sheaves of hay the next day on Twin Stone clanstead (as Cottars, both Kalf and Leika had smaller plots to harvest and are finished; as a Thane, Beralor has no plots of his own and assists others on theirs).  It is around midday and they are already tired and sweaty when young Ashart comes running towards them across the field.

He has come for Kalf.  Ashart and his father were visiting his mother’s kin in Enjossi lands when they heard the news. Esrala Kulvilsdotr has been missing for three days, and her clansmen have been searching everywhere for her.  The last anyone saw of her was in the orchards, after a day of picking apples.  It was sundown and she was headed home.  She never arrived.

Answers and Decisions

It is likely the players will suspect Darestan Varankosson; all they need do is head up the Vale to the White Bark longhouse to confirm their suspicions.  It will be easy to discover that Darestan went missing three days ago as well.  Worse, there are signs he was leaving for somewhere.  He took food rations and his weapons.

If they don’t suspect him, let them chase down whatever leads they like and when appropriate, arrange for them to overhear someone mention Darestan’s disappearance (it’s a small valley, news travels vast).

Darestan’s cousin, Fiedor Faffirsson, knows more than anyone what has happened, and can easily provide all the details.  He keeps his silence because Darestan knows Fiedor has himself been having an affair with the wife of Karenstar Grollsson, a weaponthane who would probably kill him.  Darestan used this to blackmail Fiedor into helping him.  Others will point inquiring player characters in Fiedor’s direction (Ask Fiedor, he is the only one who keeps company with Darestan).  Getting him to speak should be challenging.  The players will need some sort of leverage.

Assuming they can get him to talk, he will say something like it was that song Keladon Blue-Eye sang that put the idea in his head.  This should set off some bells.  It was Keladon who also “put the idea into” the player characters’ heads to go seek out the Sons of Orlanth in the first story.  

If they fail to get Fiedor to talk on the first attempt, all is not lost.  One option is to have Soratha Umandorsdotr overhear what happened and approach them.  She has no love for the beautiful and vain Daladra—the weaponthane’s cheating wife—and is happy to stir the pot.  Perhaps you should talk to Daladra Thargansdotr about Fiedor…or him about her.  Perhaps you should talk to Daladra’s husband.  This should give them enough to start making suppositions and asking questions.  

Alternatively, you could have Keladon Blue-Eye show up and suggest the same.  Remember Keladon embodies the Trickster, and in Orlanthi mythology it is usually the schemes of the Trickster that initiates quests.  Keladon is playing a long game here, a longer game than even he knows, and pushing the player characters towards their destinies is part of it.

Once they get the full story the question is what to do with it.  Do they do the responsible thing and tell their elders?  Do they take it upon themselves to seek out the hunting lodge and rescue Esrala?  WWOD (what would Orlanth do?).

The Lodge

Assuming they go up the mountain to the lodge, they will arrive to find it empty.

It takes two days to get there, and one night will have to be spent camping.  If you feel foreshadowing is appropriate, fill the dark with the distant howling of wolves.

There are definite signs at the lodge that Darestan was there…but the door has been battered in and their are signs that the entire place as been raided.  Grain and vegetable stores are still there, dumped on the floor…but the meat has all been taken.  Signs and symbols carved into the walls, a broken flint knife, and the tracks of several large wolves circling around the cabin outside suggest a disturbing twist; while Darestan was holding Esrala here, the Telmori must have found them.


Bearding the Wolf in its Den

The players should again have the option here to turn back and get help or to try and press on.  The signs are good that this is a mixed Telmori party of both humans and wolves, a challenge the player characters are probably not up to facing.  On the other hand, the two days it will take to get back for help will put Esrala at greater risk.  

If they turn back: search parties will be sent out, but no sign of the Telmori are their captives will be found.  Darestan and Esrala are gone.  Role-play the ramifications of this, including the weregild the Haraborn will need to pay their neighbors and the loss Kalf suffers.  The fate of Esrala becomes a plot thread to be followed in future episodes.

If they pursue: even without a hunter among them the tracks should not be too difficult to follow.  They lead up a craggy mountainside towards a cavern the Telmori are using as a den.  Long before the player characters get near this place, though, the wolves get wind of them.  Outnumber the players by sending one pair of Telmori—a human warrior and his wolf brother—for each of them.

The Telmori (Sees Far Black Fang, Gray Paw Boarkiller, Singing Tree Shadow, and Walks-In-The-Dark) will surround the characters and demand their surrender.  Sees Far speaks for them in halting Sartarite.  Walks-In-The-Dark, one of the warrior women, takes a special interest in Leika.  If Leika is still bearing the stone that dampens her spirit powers, Walks will sense it immediately.  She speaks to Sees Far in the yips and barks and growls of their language.  Walks-In-The-Dark says the White Deer Red-Eye is not like the others.  She says the spirits sing to you but you silence them.  

Sees Far tells them they know why they have come.  You come for the other followers of Big Thunder and Earth Woman.  He tells them they will come see the Mother and Father and they will decide what should be done.

He takes them to the cave this Tribe is sheltering in.  There are at least 12 humans and as many wolves using the cave as their lair.  

Pack Father Takes-Teeth is a powerfully built alpha, heavily muscled and scarred.  He wears an extraordinary collection of teeth—wolf, bear, boar, shadowcat, etc—on a knotted leather thong around his neck.  He snarls into the faces of each of the characters, sniffing them.  Pack Mother Wind Chaser is an actual wolf.  One or both of the mated alpha pair are shapeshifters.

Pack Father growls and snaps.  Sees Far translates.  You are the Wind Deer People.  You fought the Seven Tailed Wolf.  You are not friends.  You are prey.  

Getting out of this will require negotiation. Crucial to running this is making sure the player characters have something to negotiate with.  In the version written here, I created Takes-Teeth to give the players just that; he collects teeth.  In the last episode, Beralor took some of the teeth from the ogre he killed and made a necklace of them.  In the first episode, Kalliva was given a dragnonewt tooth necklace.  Both are rare prizes and could be used to sway the chief.  GMs will need to tailor the story to give a similar bargaining chip.

Appealing to their “better natures” is also a way out.  There are few “monsters” in Glorantha, by which I mean adversaries are often complex and have their own values and motivations.  The Telmori are not slavering werewolves.  They observed Darestan holding Esrala hostage long enough to know this man was abusing her and decided to intervene.  While they are holding both prisoner, they have clothed and fed Esrala recognizing she is a victim.  An appeal can be made to their sense of justice (we must take this man make to our clan to be punished) or sympathy (this girl must be taken back to her family).  This does not need to be made easy, but could be a way to get the Telmori to release them.

If the players succeed in convincing the Telmori, especially if they give the Telmori something in return (like the teeth), they will be allowed to stay the night with the pack and will be released in the morning with the prisoners.  This can be a chance to pull the curtain back a bit on Telmori culture, possibly even to make a few friends.  Again, these are not Tolkienesque orcs or goblins; tensions between the Telmori and Haraborn are more akin to real life adversaries.  This evening with the Telmori could be like the “Christmas Truce” of 1914.   

If the players fail avoid letting it come to blows.  The Telmori are not eager to start a conflict over this.  They understand the situation and simply decide to wash their hands of it all.  Have them turn over the prisoners and tell the player characters to in effect “take your fellows and go.”

Darestan and Esrala

Darestan is clearly not in his right mind.  It should become obvious he is unhinged.  In his mind Esrala is his.  She belongs to him, and he feels her flirtation with Kalf was a betrayal.  He did not abduct her to woo her…it is clear he did so to punish her.

Esrala is more complicated, and handling situations like this depends entirely on what your players are comfortable with.  Esrala was tied up and terrorized…but push the details only as far as you know your players can handle.  Was she beaten?  Raped?  The details will depend on how dark your group likes its stories.  Remember, there is a long tradition of leaving the details vague.  Classics like the Iliad or Le Morte d’Arthur  contain the abduction and mistreatment of women, but handle the grisly details off camera.  It is also fine if you decide that he abducted her but never touched her.

However, be aware that the degree to which Darestan mistreated Esrala will affect what the player characters do to him.  If you have established a relationship over the last few episodes between one of your characters and Esrala (as with Kalf and Esrala here), Esrala’s paramour might well be tempted to kill Darestan.  Be aware that this is kin strife, that the killing of a member of your own clan is one of the worst crimes an Orlanthi can commit.  Usually it ends in death or exile.

Return

The player character’s return to Black Stag Vale will be a complicated one.

Bearing in mind the two days it took to reach the lodge, the two days to get back, and the day spent with the Telmori, they likely return Windsday of Fertility Week…right in the very middle of the very sacred and critical rites of Ernalda.  These were greatly disrupted by the need to send out parties looking for the characters.  In the very least, the Harvest Games were suspended, leaving the young men of the Vale particularly angry with the characters.

In addition, following on the events of the last two episodes, this is the third time the player characters—still technically children—have run off and done something dangerous.  While secretly many of the men might approve, the more level-headed women will be less amused.  Some sort of punishment or consequences will have to fall.  Feel free to forbid the player characters from “hanging out” with each other again.  Roleplay scenes of angry confrontations with the parents.  All of this will be suspended in the next episode by an earth-shaking event…but the players don’t know that.


On the other hand, the Enjossi and particularly Esrala’s father and family will be extremely grateful for what the player characters have done.  If they bring Esrala back, it will even mitigate somewhat the weregild the Haraborn owe their Enjossi neighbors (yes, a Haraborn abducted her, but other Haraborn took it upon themselves to rescue her).

THE AFTER PLAY REPORT

IT TOOK MY PLAYERS all of five seconds to decide that Esrala had been kidnapped and Darestan was the culprit.  They immediately left their harvest duties behind (!!!) to march up the valley to White Bark longhouse to confront him.  

Fiedor was dismissive of these youths and their questions, but once they had the leverage they needed (his affair with the weaponthane's wife) they seemed to enjoy going back to make him talk.  Likewise, there was very little discussion about going to their elders or the clan ring with this.  Kalf was determined to go get Esrala himself, Ashart--who continued to follow Kalf around like a puppy--was determined to go with him, and the rest felt they needed to help their friend.  Beralor felt particularly invested...he had persuaded Kalf to approach Esrala back in the first episode, and with his Honey-tounged ability had even helped persuade her to dance with Kalf.  As the de facto match-maker he felt responsible for this.  WWOD?  

They decided to return to their homes, gather food, steal weapons, and sneak out before dawn.  The two exceptions were Beralor and Kalliva.

Kalliva is still torn between what her mother--an Ernalda--and her aunt--a Vingan and rebel--want for her.  Rather than face her mother's potential wrath, she went to recover the sword her uncle had given her, carefully kept hidden in a cliff face behind her family's longhouse.  I added a scene...while she was there, the Dragonewt appeared to her again.  She tried to communicate with it, but after watching her quizzically for awhile, it ran off again.

Beralor decided he must tell his two fathers that he was leaving on this quest, but tried to omit all the details.  It did not go well.  Harvar Redsmith forbade Beralor to leave the house.  He has been growing increasingly wary that despite his bringing up the boy, Beralor has too much of his "true father" in him (more on this later).  He feels this streak will end up killing the boy.  As always the more gentle Affar tried to be the bridge between them.  It failed and Beralor left the house against his father's wishes.

Note however that Harvar did not do what he probably should have...he could have gone immediately to the Ring and tried to prevent the youths from leaving.  Instead, having made his disapproval clear, he let Beralor and his peers do what they felt they needed to.  

At the mountain lodge there were the first signs that Esrala's captivity was a horrific one.  She had clearly been bound and gagged (there were signs that the Telmori were the ones who freed her).  The ring Kalf had given her as a promise of future courtship was discarded in the corner.  Again...this was enough to drive the players forward.  Knowing full well that they were dealing with a large band of Telmori, and that there was little chance of success, they were even more determined to get Darestan and Esrala.

I didn't need to drop any hints about the ogre or dragonewt teeth.  Beralor thought of this himself after their encounter with Pack Father Takes-Teeth.  Leika (who was the spotlight character last episode and less directly involved her) had a chance to come into the spotlight here as well.  Her connection to the Spirit Rune created a kind of connection with the highly shamanic Telmori.  After a "complete victory" result (the equivalent in HQG of an RQG or 13G critical) in negotiating with the Telmori, Takes-Teeth was not only pleased but felt greatly honored by the noble gifts of ogre and dragonewt teeth.  The player characters spent the night with the Telmori, and Leika took part in their celebratory dances...forming a slightly flirtatious relationship with the youngest member of the pack!  This was left as something to explore in episodes ahead.

Esrala was not in good shape.  The fact that she was wearing the furs and skins of the Telmori suggested that Darestan had stripped her of her own clothing, and after Kalliva and Leika examined her it was clear she had been abused and mistreated.  She was semi-catatonic from her ordeal and not speaking.  Even as they descended from the mountain, Kalf could not get her to speak...not until finally he had the idea of returning the ring to her.  For the first time recognition sparked in her eyes and she spoke his name before falling silent again.  But she took the ring and clutched it tightly in her fist the rest of the journey down.

Back in the Vale the characters were disarmed and locked up while the Ring sent emissaries to the Enjossi.  The characters were visited by their parents with mixed results;

- Kalliva's mother was icy in her fury, deciding that Kalliva was "exactly" like her aunt.  She said she would continue to feed and clothe her daughter until her adulthood rites, but that they should avoid speaking to one another.

- Kalf's mother told him that things had not been good between them since they both lost Kalf's father in Starbrow's Rebellion.  It is sometimes painful even to look at you, because I only see him, she tells him.  But she also says rescuing Esrala is exactly what his father would have done, and that she has never been prouder of him.

- Leika's father seemed more interested in hearing about her experiences with the Telmori than anything else, and we realized how alike father and daughter are.  Their entire conversation was about the Telmori and their spirit magics.

- Beralor's father Harvar remains furious with him.  Affar continues to try to get the two to communicate.  A surprise visit from Jorgunath Bladesong, the Humakti Sword who is both the chief weapon thane of the clan and an old war comrade of Harvar comes to tell Beralor what he did was honorable and that Harvar will eventually come around.

The characters are eventually released and brought to the Hall.  Esrala's father, mother, and siblings have come to thank the youths personally for what they have done, and her father stresses that if there is anything they can do to repay the debt in the future they will.  They have asked the characters to come back to Enjossi lands with them to watch sentence be carried out on Darestan.

That sentence is trial by combat.  As they watch, Darestan stands in the ring with his opponent as if he doesn't know where he is.  He refuses to fight back or even face the Enjossi warrior selected to champion Esrala.  Instead he stares wide-eyed at the howling crowds crying her name.

In the crowd behind Beralor a voice whispers into his ear.  Sometimes sacrifices have to be made.  It is Keladon Blue-Eye.  I wonder what happens next.  As they watch, Darestan simply falls to his knees and dies from no apparent cause.  Oh.  That's what.  When Beralor looks back, the Trickster is gone 

Sunday, December 23, 2018

YES VIRGINIA, THERE IS A THIRD SIDE

A CHILD'S QUESTION, A MAN'S ANSWER

IN 1897, Francis Pharcellus Church, an editor for the New York Sun, found himself in a difficult position.  An eight-year-old girl, whose father told her she could rely on anything printed in the Sun, had written in with a burning question.  Church's answer was a classic example of the "Third Side," a crucial element of the thought and life work later promoted by Anton LaVey (1930-1997).

"There are not always 'two sides to every issue,'" LaVey would later write.  "It is invariably a third side that is overlooked in every issue and endeavor, from abortion to gun control.  The third side can be the crackpot stuff of conspiracy theories, or it can be the most logical and simple, yet deliberately neglected conclusion." (1)

The question put to Church was whether or not Santa Claus existed.  Her friends, it seemed, had told her that he did not.  Suffering an existential crisis, she reached out to the newspaper for clarity.  


"Virginia, your little friends are wrong," Church answered.  He continued;  

They have been affected by the skepticism of a skeptical age. They do not believe except they see. They think that nothing can be which is not comprehensible by their little minds. All minds, Virginia, whether they be men’s or children’s, are little. In this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect, as compared with the boundless world about him, as measured by the intelligence capable of grasping the whole of truth and knowledge. 

Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. He exists as certainly as love and generosity and devotion exist, and you know that they abound and give to your life its highest beauty and joy. Alas! How dreary would be the world if there were no Santa Claus. It would be as dreary as if there were no Virginias. There would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence. We should have no enjoyment, except in sense and sight. The eternal light with which childhood fills the world would be extinguished. 

Not believe In Santa Claus! You might as well not believe in fairies! You might get your papa to hire men to watch in all the chimneys on Christmas Eve to catch Santa Claus, but even if they did not see Santa Claus coming down, what would that prove? Nobody sees Santa Claus, but that is no sign that there is no Santa Claus. The most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see. Did you ever see fairies dancing on the lawn? Of course not, but that’s no proof that they are not there. Nobody can conceive or imagine all the wonders there are unseen and unseeable in the world.

...A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay, ten times ten thousand years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

A WORLD OF GODS AND SANTAS

I think of Francis Church--and Anton LaVey--whenever I am asked if I "believe" in God.  For starters I try not to "believe" anything, especially in the sense of "accepting something is true without proof."  However, if you are asking if I think God exists, of course I do.  I am not an idiot.  Yahweh, Satan, Allah, Krishna, Thor, Osiris, et al are every bit as real as Santa Claus, Hamlet, and Sherlock Holmes.  To deny any of these exist is to fall into a trap laid by "vested interests and...minds of limited scope," (2) people who want to frame the definitions of the conversation into either/or propositions to force you to either side with or against them.  

Yes, gods exist and Santa exists.  They exert measurable and demonstrative influence on the lives and behaviors of billions. You might as well deny the existence of capitalism or liberal democracy.  Thus I am categorically not an atheist; "a person who disbelieves or lacks belief in the existence of God or gods."  That definition has that ugly "believe" word in it again.  I know the gods exist.  So rather than play the game of getting forced into one side or the other of this tedious debate (and therefore by default ceding the right to define its terms to the person asking me, who all too often has an agenda), I embrace the Third Side alternative that Anton LaVey synthesized.  The question is not whether gods exist or not, the question is who created whom.

"It is a popular misconception that the Satanist does not believe in God," LaVey wrote in his (in)famous Satanic Bible. "...Man has always created his gods, rather than his gods creating him."  It is clear from the way that LaVey wrote of gods and devils that he regarded them in much the same way as Francis Church regarded Santa Claus.  These are real ideas, real things, that motivate human behavior, and they have manifested in every human civilization we know of.  This indicates to my mind that they are somehow necessary--or at least useful--to us.  All too often, the use to which they are put is control; bullying other people into thinking and acting how we might wish them to, but LaVey had answer for this as well.  "If man needs such a god and recognizes that god, then he is worshiping an entity that a human being invented...(is) it not more sensible to worship a god that he, himself, has created, in accordance with his own emotional needs?" (3)  The Theism/Atheism debate tries to force us into either submitting to other people's gods or to throw the baby out with the bathwater and reject gods of our own.    

LaVey put forward the convincing theory that humanity is an amphibious species that needs to swim the waters of dreams and ideals as much as crawl out and walk the hard bedrock of reality.  This explains the dramatic and romantic dimensions of his otherwise brutal, pragmatic philosophy.  Like Church's Santa Claus or fairies, how drab and dreary existence would be without Count Dracula, Superman, Daenerys Targaryen, or Zeus.  How impossible to imagine.  Yes, atheists are right to point out we can find awe and wonder and beauty in looking at the stars and the sunsets, but this doesn't mean I would want to live in a world without myths and fairy tales. I daresay I needn't have to, because there is a need for these things deeply buried in the human psyche.  So long as we remain human, the need for gods and Santas will always be there.    

1. and 2. from "The Third Side: An Uncomfortable Alternative," published in Satan Speaks!

3. The Satanic Bible   


Tuesday, November 27, 2018

KULT: DIVINITY LOST

KULT RETURNS

ORIGINALLY RELEASED IN 1991, Kult was at the forefront of a new RPG movement, the urban horror/fantasy wave that dominated that entire decade.  Drenched in real world gnosticism and occultism, it postulated a dark world in which humanity was tortured and imprisoned.  Once, the mythology goes, human beings were gods.  The race dwelled in Metropolis, a cyclopean city immense beyond comprehension.   Then, one of their number rose to power and turned against the rest of his species; called the Demiurge, he forged the Illusion and trapped his brethren within it.  Our world, with its 9 to 5 jobs, health insurance, and reality television, is a Lie.  It works to keep us distracted and divided from our own divine natures.  Since around the first World War, however, the Demiurge has been missing and the Illusion is beginning to unravel.  The angels and Archons who helped maintain our prison are scrabbling to keep things up and running, but true reality--the reality of Metropolis and its attendant realms--is bleeding through.  Kult characters are beginning to see through the sham, and their adventures are a quest to discover the Truth.



Now, I've reviewed the complex mythology of this game before.  Back in 2007, I wrote a lengthy review of the game here.  Instead of wasting your time then on the game's setting and history, I'll concentrate on what makes the latest edition of the game, Kult: Divinity Lostdifferent.  It is a a dramatic reboot of the classic game, updated to a more modern setting and driven by a completely different engine.  In fact, whether or not you decide to play Divinity Lost may depend less on your feelings towards classic Kult and more on what you think of games like Apocalypse World, Dungeon World, Masks, or Urban Shadows.  This version of Kult, you see, is "Powered by the Apocalypse."

APOCALYPSE NOW

Originally appearing in D. Vincent Baker's 2010 RPG Apocalypse World, this is a rules system that seems to generate particularly strong feelings in people.  On one hand, there are tons of fans out there determined to convert every RPG in existence over to Apocalypse, and on the other people like a friend of mine who likens the game's approach to ordering Chinese take-out from a menu.  My personal take is that there is more smoke in this debate than fire; the Apocalypse engine is not really all that different from any other RPG out there.  So instead of getting tangled up in the merits I will focus on how Apocalypse changes Kult.



Divinity Lost is driven by a series of "Moves."  Moves are what players characters--and indeed the GM--"can do."  Player Moves include things like Influence Other, Endure Harm, and Investigate.  GM Moves are things like Take Their Stuff, Deal Damage, or Separate Them. There are general player character moves that everyone can use, and then there are those specific to what Advantages your character has taken.  Your Contract Killer character might have Moves like Weapon Master or Sniper, while your Occultist might have Occult Library or Exorcist.  

Moves require the appropriate Trigger to bring them into play, and are resolved by rolling 2 ten-sided dice.  For example, the Trigger for Act Under Pressure is "when you do something risky, under time pressure, or try to avoid danger."  You would roll the dice and add a bonus from one of the game's ten attributes (in this case Coolness).  A result of 15+ means your Move goes off perfectly, without any messy complications.  On a result of 10 to 14, it succeeds, but there will be complications involved.  On a 9 or less you probably fail, but as with many modern RPGs here the philosophy is "failing forward."  It's not that nothing happens--Moves always drive the story forward--but perhaps not in the way you might have hoped.

GM Moves are obstacles put before the players, and are themselves diceless--the GM never rolls.  So instead of a monster trying to grapple a character, the GM plays the Capture Someone Move.  Instead of having an NPC attack, the GM plays Deal Damage.  The effects are automatic; it is up to the player to counter these with the appropriate Move of his own, such as Avoid Harm or Endure Injury.  While I cannot vouch for how the Apocalypse engine's approach here works for every genre, for Kult--a game about horrific supernatural forces--it works quite well.  Moves allow the GM to orchestrate the game like a horror novel or film, while the player to respond to these threats rests entirely in the player's hands.



My one concern is that so much of this is based on pure luck. Kult: Divinity Lost characters have ten core Attributes, such as Willpower, Reason, Charisma, or Violence (brilliantly these correspond to the Sephiroth of Kabbalah, or in the Kult universe, to one of the ten Archons created by the Demiurge to shape mankind's prison).  Each Move a player executes is keyed to one of these Attributes and receives a bonus from them.  The problem here is, the bonus from an Attribute ranges from +0 to +3 (in play an Attribute can be advanced to +4).  Again, there are no skills in this edition of Kult.  Archetypes simply allow new kinds of Moves, not additional skill bonuses.  Remembering that to avoid negative consequences you need to roll above a 15, and that a 9 or less is generally a failure (or at least a very messy success), the character's progress through the story relies mainly on pure luck.  The influence of actual skill or expertise is minimal.  Powerlessness is a common feature of horror roleplaying, but I can already hear my players balking at this.

The other side effect of adopting the Apocalypse engine over those used in previous editions is that it makes some major shifts to the lore.  

An important feature in previous versions of Kult was the concept of the character's Mental Balance.  Essentially this was a number determined by comparing all the values of your positive and negative traits.  Sleepers--humans blinded by the Illusion, with no real awareness of the reality behind it--were balanced.  In other words, their positive and negative traits evened out.  As characters began to approach extremes, either very high or very low Mental Balances, they started to break through the Illusion and were now Enlightened.  Breaking through the Illusion by pursuing a positive Mental Balance was the Light Path; breaking through by pursuing a negative Mental Balance was the Dark Path.  This was a fascinating feature of the game.  You could pursue Enlightenment either by becoming increasingly superhuman or increasingly monstrous.



Nothing like this really exists in Kult: Divinity Lost.  There is no Dark or Light Path.  The Apocalypse engine eschews bookkeeping of this sort in favor of Moves and a fairly simple Wounds and Stability bar.  Characters still can and do evolve from Sleepers to the Aware, and then to Enlightened, but this is handled via a much more abstract system of taking enough Advancements.  

Additionally, the removal of skills from the system removes the occult sciences characters used to have to pierce the Illusion.  For example, Kabbalah provided knowledge of the Archons, Alchemy studied the substances the Illusion was made from, and Voodoo was the science of breaking the hold of death.  These things could still exist in the setting, and might be introduced later, but for now this rich level of setting detail is all gone.  The same is also true of the remarkably rich and eerie spells that added so much texture to the previous edition.  The new magic system is extremely thin and freeform; not something I object to in a general sense, but it does deprive newcomers to Kult of the deep lore that made the setting such a dark jewel.  If you happen to have previous editions of Kult or your shelf it would be easy to port more of the lore in, but as things stand there is a lot more style in Kult: Divinity Lost, but a lot less substance.

FINAL THOUGHTS

This is hands down the best looking edition of Kult.  Arranged in 22 chapters (like the Tarot Trumps) the full color book is flawless in its visual presentation.  The art pulls no punches, which is consistent with the spirit of a game (in)famous for its unflinching approach to horror.  Neither does the text.  Particularly in the wake of issues plaguing the latest release of Vampire (we want our horror edgy but not that edgy), Kult: Divinity Lost goes "all in" on the horrific.  Kult can afford to be this bold because of its audience; while Vampire or Call of Cthulhu can be extremely horrific, there are large swathes of those communities that want the games more "Anne Rice romantic" or "genteel Lovecraftian."  People come to Kult because they have strong stomachs and like their horror relentless.



Divinity Lost hews close to the spirit of previous editions, and while I am not quite willing to call it a "better" game than Kult: Beyond the Veil, it does offer the much more narrative, story-based approach the people expect from games powered by the Apocalypse.  Unfortunately, Divinity Lost does seem to assume prior knowledge of that system.  It throws terms like Moves and Holds at you right away and gets into detail later.    If you have never played anything like Apocalypse World or Monsterhearts, the initial chapters can be unclear.  

In the end, if you like games powered by the Apocalypse you will like Divinity Lost.  If that isn't your cup of tea, I would recommend at least giving it a try.  The system's approach to gaming fits the macabre setting well, and might change your mind even if you disliked the way the mechanics model high fantasy or supers.  Previous Kult fans are going to find a promising but quite more scaled back game here.  We'll have to wait and see how it expands into something closer to the scope of the previous edition.