"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.
Thursday, June 4, 2020
Tuesday, June 2, 2020
This review was written on the 17th of May, though Chaosium asked me to hold it until the release of the hardcover edition. I mention this because the death of George Floyd fell between then and now, and as I write these words I am watching the nation I left behind wrestle with its soul.
It might appear at first blush then that this review is being published in a very different context than it was written. But then again, is it really? I am of the opinion that the only thing that has changed in America these days is that there are more cameras; what happened to George Floyd has been happening on a daily basis for centuries. Nothing has changed, but we can all live in hope that this time maybe--just maybe--something finally will.
One thing I will say before you and I go ahead with the review. Back in May, I initially had some reservations after looking at what I had written. I questioned myself whether the review wasted too much time talking about Harlem Unbound's contribution to the ongoing conversation on race in America, rather than talking about it as the damn fine Call of Cthulhu supplement it is. I decided to let it stand. My sense was that author Chris Spivey--who has clearly poured his heart and soul into Harlem Unbound--wanted the dialogue on race to be part of the experience. For me to shy away from that as a reviewer would be disingenuous at best and cowardly at worst. Now, as I watch the news each morning, I am glad I made that call.
Chris, if you are reading this, thank you. And if you are a drinking man, someday the first beer is on me.
THE BOOK YOU DIDN'T KNOW YOU NEEDED
The book starts with a bang. In his "Introduction" author, developer, and art director Chris Spivey (who leads a writing team that also includes Sarah Hood, Alex Mayo, Steffie de Vaan, Dr. Cameron Hays, Bob Geis, Noah Lloyd, Ariel Celeste, and Neall Raemonn Price) lays it all out for you. Yes, Lovecraft was a racist. He was also homophobic, anti-Semitic, and a misogynist. This isn't news to anyone. "But we're not here to focus on the man," Spivey tells us, "...we are here to focus on the work and how to elevate it." The way that we are going to do that is to turn Lovecraft inside out and on its head. Where Lovecraft wrote from the place of a white man's fear of marginalized people, we are actually going to be playing the objects of his fear. The default assumption in Harlem Unbound, to put it plainly, is that the player characters are black.
What follows over the next twenty pages or so is a history of Harlem, and a detailed look at what has come to be called the "Harlem Renaissance." Despite being set in the 1920s, when the Harlem Renaissance was in full flowering, Call of Cthulhu has never really used this as a backdrop before.
Called "The New Negro Movement" at the time, after African American and Rhodes Scholar Alain Locke's 1925 The New Negro, the Harlem Renaissance was a cultural and artistic explosion whose epicenter was Harlem, New York, but which had ripples felt around the world. Much of what we think of as the roaring 20s--the music, the fashion, the energy--either has its roots in the Renaissance or finds expression there. It grew out of the Great Migration, the movement of upwards of 6 million Black Americans from the rural South into the urban centers of the Northeast and the Midwest. After centuries of not having a voice, these people were finding theirs, and the contribution they made to American society was immense. Spivey and his team take us through all the facets of the Renaissance, the fashion, the cuisine, the art, the literature, the science, and of course the music. They paint a vibrant picture of the neighborhood, and why it makes such a unique and complex setting.
These transitions us perfectly into the third chapter, which covers creating Investigators.
As mentioned, the default assumption is that your Investigator is black, but as the next chapter makes clear Harlem also had strong Jewish and Italian communities. The chapter introduces both new occupations and tailors old ones to the setting. These include selections like the Conjure Woman (or Conjure Man), a catch-all occupation representing the priests, practitioners, and wise people of African-rooted traditions, and the Harlem Hellfighters, soldiers from the Great War who served in segregated units. There are Harlem-specific backstory elements, and talents for Pulp Cthulhu aficionados.
Chapter Four talks in depth about the peoples of Harlem, including as mentioned the Italian and Jewish communities, as well as the LGBTQ community (lest we forget Harlem was also a queer mecca during the period). It gives biographies of prominent residents and sneaks in several campaign seeds into boxed texts involving them. I found myself spending the most time with this chapter, coming back time and time again to read about these people and their lives there. Josephine Baker is here, alongside Louis Armstrong, Bessie Smith, Duke Ellington, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois, and dozens of others. The chapter had me so lost in the period I almost forgot I had come there for some Lovecraftian horror.
Chapter Five talks about the neighborhood itself, all its distinctive areas and parts. It familiarizes you with the clubs, the eateries, the night spots, the places to go and to avoid. Alongside the previous chapter, it's a fascinating read and the temptation to jump into a campaign grows each page you turn.
Chapter Six is devoted to storytelling in this setting, and at first brings us back to the issue of race and racism.
Spivey pulls no punches here, but neither does he go out of his way to offend. There is a full and frank conversation here on the realities of the period...and the realities that persist today. There are mechanics; he introduces the "Racial Tension Modifier" which increases the difficulty of rolls (like social skills) made across racial lines. Yet there are also important reminders and tips on running Harlem Unbound comfortably and confidently, especially if your players are a diverse group. Can a white person he a HU Keeper? Spivey certainly believes so and walks you though what to be mindful of. 25 years ago, I was a white gamemaster living in West Philadelphia and playing with a group of black and latino players. While I was not running Harlem Unbound, many of these tips would have been priceless then and they more than deserve a read now.
Chapter Six is also where the book starts to make the transition deep into Mythos territory. From a discussion of the Mythos and the very human evil HU Investigators face, Harlem Unbound introduces in this chapter short scenario hooks suitable for a night or two of gaming, as well as a handy 4d6 scenario generator. These can be used to expand on and personalize the campaign provided in the rest of the book.
And that, dear reader, is where our dance draws to a close. Chapter Seven encompasses just under 200 pages, with seven fully-realized scenarios that form the core of Harlem Unbound. Having said this, there is very little a review can say about scenarios without entering the country of spoilers. I will say this is a terrific collection, greatly expanded from the previous edition for those wondering if they need to make the move to the new edition. They continue to bring the setting to life, and the horrors within are terrifying enough to remind us this is a Cthulhu mythos game and not just a historical.
So what exactly is Harlem Unbound?
For starters it is very much more than the some of its parts. The campaign contained in its pages will deliver all the challenges and chills we have all come to expect from Call of Cthulhu, and 200 pages of scenarios is more than enough to sell the book alone. But somewhere along the line Cthulhu campaign settings have made the realization that it isn't all about having a backdrop for horror. Investigators have lives, loves, and reasons to fight the forces of the Mythos. Thus, the richer the setting, the more incentive the players have to care about it, and frankly it doesn't get richer than Harlem Unbound. In playing Insomniac Games's Spider-Man on the PS4 last year, I am not ashamed to admit I spent countless hours just swinging around the amazingly realized city. I strongly suspect players will find similar enjoyment just "being" in the streets of 1920s Harlem.
And yes, Harlem Unbound has now established itself as the definitive text on dealing with race in roleplaying games. This is an element that cannot be overlooked. While it is odd for weirdos like us who are drawn to horror games and the thrill of experiencing discomfort, race is an uncomfortable thing we tend to look away from. Harlem Unbound asks us, gently, not to be afraid, making it arguably the first Call of Cthulhu supplement NOT trying to scare us.
Sunday, May 31, 2020
COMING OF AGE
THE BRAZILIAN STATE of Amazonas is one of the largest territories in any country in the world, close in size to the US state of Alaska or Australia's Queensland. It is also mostly tropical jungle. The combination of rainforest and immensity makes Amazonas fascinating in another way; it plays home to peoples relatively untouched by the modern world.
And the Mawé, my friends, are getting off easy.
Across the Atlantic Ocean, among the Bukusu people of western Kenya, 14-year-old boys undergo the sikhebo. Jangling chinyimba bells he goes from house to house, getting gifts--and insults--from friends and relations. He is called a child, a "sissy," and told he is not ready to become a man.
That evening, while everyone gets drunk on busaa, a cow is slaughtered and the boy is smeared with the contents of its bowels. Like the Mawé boy he is not to cry out of show fear. He will be forced to remain awake all night while alternately taunted and instructed in what it means to be a man.
Then, at dawn, without anesthetics, he will be circumcised with a knife.
RITES OF PASSAGE
Glorantha is not the "real world," but it is among those fantasy settings out there that hews closely to it, especially in terms of myth, ritual, and traditional cultures. I suspect this has everything to do with who Greg Stafford, its primary creator, was. Greg was not just a lifelong scholar of mythology, he was a self-described shaman. He left us, and this world, in his sweat lodge. So Greg knew a thing or two about how traditional societies work, and he knew a great deal about initiation.
We don't really do initiations any longer in the quote-unquote "civilized" world. Our post-modernism safely assures us initiations are all mumbo jumbo, and we know so much better than that. I expect that several readers out there would regard the practices discussed in the passage above as child abuse. In writing Rites of Passage, the male adulthood initiation ritual for Heortling boys as practiced by the Haraborn, I had the boys seized in the dead of night and thrown roughly into pits. I expect some in the Gloranthan community would call that child abuse as well.
But as long-term readers of this blog have already surmised, I know a thing or two about initiations myself. For nearly twenty years I have been a member of the O.T.O., which describes itself as an initiatory organization, and though I have taken oaths not to speak of them, I have been through a number of initiations as a result. They were all ordeals.
That word has an interesting story. We throw it around today to mean something difficult, but of course the original definition--going all the way bay to its Proto-Germanic roots--is a trial that divides. The "deal" portion of the word is actually from the same root as "dual" or "duo." So an ordeal is a ritual that divides you, it separates you. From what? On one hand it separates you from others; after the ordeal you don't belong to the same group you did before. In case of manhood rites we are literally separating the men from the boys. But I opened with a quote from Aleister Crowley for a reason; the point it is making is that every initiation is also a death.
In an esoteric sense, death is synonymous with "transformation." When the caterpillar becomes a butterfly, the caterpillar is "dead." What the Bukusu or the Mawé are doing therefore is not some simple fraternity hazing, they are transforming the boys from one thing into something else. While our post-modern initiations are essentially window-dressing (being handed a diploma at graduation, for example), traditional societies regard them very, very seriously. Make no mistake, those boys are being killed. The men who take their place are transformed.
There is a temptation--a very real one--to impose our modern sensibilities on the peoples of Glorantha. The Heortlings could simply have a party for their boys to welcome them into manhood. They could gloss over issues of gender and have everyone simply go through the same rituals together. YGWV and there is no wrong approach, but I suppose what is at issue here is what Glorantha means to you; is it a fantasy world in the sense that you can use it to redress the disparities and inequalities you perceive in this world, or is it an attempt to recreate and engage with traditional worldviews? Greg firmly saw it as the latter. So do I.
Thus it was important for me for both Rites of Passage and The Riddle to be ordeals. The boys tossed into the pits and the girls walking into the Riddle never come out again. Instead, brand new men and women do. Death and transformation have to be part of the formula. These are births, and births are accompanied by difficulty and pain. In preparing both I paid a great deal of attention to what Greg had to say on the matter, as well as traditional initiations like those described above. To remove the pain is to misunderstand what initiation is about.
Saturday, May 23, 2020
Monday, April 13, 2020
Any rumors of my being entertained by naked, "gazelle-hipped boys" in the City of Dreams in exchange for a favorable review are mendacious lies spread by those disloyal to the Emperor.
All Hail the Reaching Moon!
GLORANTHA IS MANY THINGS. It's a Bronze Age game setting with a strong anthropological bent. It's a mythological world steeped in Joseph Campbell, Georges Dumézil, and Mircea Eliade. It's a neo-traditionalist artifact designed to recall ancient epics like the Iliad, the Mahabharata, or the Enuma Elish.
Glamour--the city--is fantasy gaming's answer to Indraprashta, the capital city of the Pandava brothers in the Mahabharata. Built by Maya, the god of both Illusion and Magic, the Mahabharata describes it as;
How to convey, when one only has words,
the transcendental beauty of the building?
Decades afterward, old men would tell
how seeing the great hall at Indraprashta
had changed them, changed the meaning of the word
Marble that looked like water, artful stairs,
ponds so clear and still them seemed like stone,
painted roses asking to be picked,
jeweled flowers among real lotuses.
In this way, the inspired architect,
invited visitors to be alert,
the reflect on the nature of illusion.
The reason I go out of my way to mention this is that Glamour, the city, and A Rough Guide to Glamour, the book, are both the Mask and the Mirror that the Red Goddess claims to be. Hinduism describes reality as "the play of Maya," a double-edged illusion. The Lunar Way taught by the Red Goddess is a fictional reflection of this, and the Goddess incorporates all contradictions in her. To devout followers of the Lunar Way, Glamour is a warm buzz, the dizzying hormonal bliss of being a teenager in spring. To those who oppose her, it is three AM at the club when you have vomit on your shoes, too much vodka in your bloodstream, and you are starting to come down hard off the high. A Rough Guide to Glamour is a lot like this; if you are down with the silliness, if you "get" the Ducks and cradles and talking fish, the book is a terrific laugh and a teachable moment in the nature of the Lunar Way. If you never cared for the way out flippancy of some of Glorantha, this might not be the book for you. In the end, though, Maya (and the authors) are asking you to reflect on the nature of illusion...namely, where does the silliness in Glorantha end and the mythology begin? The world is a freaking cube, after all. Seen from one angle, it is all sublime, and from another, absurd.
Alright, Nysalorian detour over.
The book details the city of Glamour, its history, neighborhoods, and main attractions. A lot of this heavy lifting comes courtesy of Mike Hagen and Chris Gidlow, who provide a thorough description of the city and her history. RGtG discusses New Pelorian, the language of the Lunar Empire, contains the cult write-ups of both the capital's founders (the Red Emperor and Glamour herself), and talks about the important inhabitants of the city and the heroes of the Empire. It looks a great deal like your typical gaming sourcebook in this way. You could easily use it to set games, even campaigns, in the Lunar capital.
Fitting, however, for the capital of a Goddess who embraces madness, Chaos, and Illusion, a great deal of the book is winking at you. Gidlow's Let's Speak New Pelorian! for example is an obvious wink and nod at Orwell, but at the same time is telling you something very true about the Empire. The illustrations in the Very Important People in Glamour section might look suspiciously like Elvis, a certain actress who played Vanessa Ives, or another who played Hela in a Marvel movie (among others), but this is drawing comparisons between them. The spirits of reprisal in the Red Emperor's cult might make you cringe...but they also make sense. Jeff Richard's Glamour: Goddess of the Capital of the Lunar Empire cult write up will bring a grin to the faces of 80s New Wave fans--or gods help us 90s British Pop and Snow White--but captures the hallucinatory experience of the cult. And what can I say about Nick Brooke's Pelorian Rhapsody? Only that I am not altogether certain Freddie Mercury was singing about the apotheosis of the Red Goddess...but really, who knows?
My gut tells me this might be a slightly controversial entry in the Jonstown Compendium, but hey...what fandom out there these days isn't divided over that is canon and what isn't. The right people are going to grok this, and in the end that is the audience the book is seeking. YGWV, and if your Glorantha doesn't include Ducks because they offend your sense of dignity, you might want to give A Rough Guide to Glamour a pass.
The rest of it will read it and add percentiles to our march towards Illumination.