Welcome!

"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, September 17, 2020

LEGION: THE DEFINITIVE JONSTOWN COMPENDIUM OF BROO




FIRST, A WORD FROM THE REVIEWER...

...who has been accused of being outspoken, stubborn, and unapologetic.  Some of you might wish to just skip to the review of Neil Gibson's terrific new Jonstown Compendium book.  

AN ALARMIST MIGHT SAY that art, and artists, are under attack these days.  A cynic would point out they always have been.  I probably fall closer to the latter camp.  I am old enough to remember my parents' fury when Annie Lennox dared sport sideburns to perform "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)" at the Grammys, their insistence I get rid of the Eurythmics' albums and buy no more.  Likewise, I recall my high school D&D club being shut down during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s and the horror that two books discovered there confirmed everyone's worst fears...Cults of Prax and Cults of Terror.  All the occult whispers about RPGs had to be true if the books said "cult" brazenly on their covers.  And yes, I fully recall TSR caving and pulling all mention of "devils" and "demons" out of their 2nd edition.

No, if there is art someone is going to be offended by it and demand its removal.  Growing up, from Mapplethorpe to the Dixie (er, excuse me, the) Chicks the attacks came from the Right.  Now the Left has embraced cancel culture with equal passion.  In all cases, and on both sides, the critics "know" moral authority is on their side.

It's come round to gaming again, and unsurprisingly D&D has once more been the one to flinch.  Drow, Orcs, and other "evil" races are now no longer allowed to be evil.  Oh sure, there are a few bad apples, but you can't brand a race evil these days.  Not even a fictional one.  Art must bend to the will of the people, after all. 

That brings us to the Broo.


LEGION

Chaos is not for everyone. However, from the very first Snakepipe Hollow scenario I have been in love with the concept of Broo. I recall early days of playing D&D and encountering with the ubiquitous Orcs. However after moving to Runequest Broo seemed to have so much more depth, danger and dare I say character. They are classic evil protagonists. In a roleplaying system that is often ubiquitous and containing shades of gray, it’s refreshing to have clearly evil creatures where there is pleasure to be had in dispatching them.

--Neil Gibson; "A Love Letter to the Broo"

In Greg Stafford's Glorantha you are hard pressed to find capital "E" Evil.  There are no alignments per se, just conflicting motivations.  Even Chaos, which most people would consider the purest form of Evil, has its defenders, and the Lunar Empire--which embraces Chaos as a necessary part of creation--is actually for most people there a terrific place to live.

As author Neil Gibson points out in the passage above, the Broo tend to be an exception.  Generally goat-like, they are like the satyrs of classical mythology stripped of even a single redeeming feature.  They are a hybrid race, each one different from the next, a mixture of its Broo parent and whatever unfortunate creature it had offspring with.  They hate most other living things and worship the very foulest gods, including one who spreads disease.  If it is sickening, cruel, or despicable, the Broo probably do it.  They are one of the few things in the setting you can kill guilt free.




Gibson's Legion, a supplement for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, is nearly 80 pages of Broo.  Each one is unique, each one is fleshed out, each one is sheer, horrific delight.  There are Broo of all danger levels here, from Rune Levels down to their followers.  The book is simply page after page of gloriously terrible antagonists.  

Inside you will meet the likes of Vuz Dog Witch, a hyena-broo hybrid carrying distemper.  There is Mad Eye, who has no eyes where one should reasonably expect them...but instead has eyes opening and closing all over his body.  There is the Black Bull who...er...well...originally born of a rock lizard has been mutating beyond all comprehension or recognition by his (?) worship of Porchango.

The diversity of the monsters included is amazing, and the book comes with several new diseases tucked away in the back.


    

No, this is not The Big Book of Gloranthan Bedtime Stories, but Gibson's Legion is as responsible as a work of horror or dark fantasy fiction could be.  It includes a giant warning right up front as well as in the product description.  It politely sidesteps any mention of Broo reproduction. and Gibson deftly manages the trick of going right up to the line between taste and gratuitousness without ever crossing it.  For those of us who love Gloranthan as it is, chills and all, Legion isn't a love letter to the Broo, but to us.

Shout outs also have to go out to the terrific artists, Tho Connell, Mika Koskensalmi, Yoza, and Rick Hershey.  And how could I not to mention Teguh Suwanda's glorious cover, which has to be my new favorite cover in the entire Jonstown Compendium.

At 8.95 US for an 80 page PDF, it is a treasure.            

   

Tuesday, September 15, 2020

NEPHILIM, PART THREE

A MAJOR OBSTACLE for many potential Nephilim players and gamemasters was that they simply weren’t sure what to do with it.  Once your Nephilim character was made, what did it actually do?  What are adventuress like?  When my players asked me, I simply quoted Hermes Trismegistus to them; 

“Leap clear of all that is corporeal, and make yourself grown to a like expanse with that greatness which is beyond all measure; rise above all time and become eternal; then you will apprehend God. Think that for you too nothing is impossible; deem that you too are immortal, and that you are able to grasp all things in your thought, to know every craft and science; find your home in the haunts of every living creature; make yourself higher than all heights and lower than all depths; bring together in yourself all opposites of quality, heat and cold, dryness and fluidity; think that you are everywhere at once, on land, at sea, in heaven; think that you are not yet begotten, that you are in the womb, that you are young, that you are old, that you have died, that you are in the world beyond the grave; grasp in your thought all of this at once, all times and places, all substances and qualities and magnitudes together; then you can apprehend God.

― Hermes Trismegistus, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius

Well that clears everything up, doesn’t it.

But really, it does.  Hermes is describing to us the Golden Path, the Road to Agartha.  He is laying out what every Nephilim must aspire to do.  Because “veiled,” “obscure” and “impenetrable” are all good synonyms for “occult” however we can expect it takes a fair bit of deciphering to make sense of it!  Fortunately the original authors already handed us the keys in simple numbers; to reach Agartha you need 90% in a Third Circle Occult Technique, 90 points in your Dominant Ka, 90% in a Hermetic Lore, and 90 points in your Metamorphosis.  With those numbers we can start to make sense of the passage.

“Think that for you too nothing is impossible; deem...that you are able to grasp all things in your thought, to know every craft and science...”

Mastery in a handful of key skills dates back to RuneQuest, and the requirements for becoming a Rune Lord.  With a wink and a nod, Nephilim is saluting its parent game here.  But Hermes too urges the initiate to seek mastery.  Specifically in game terms four masteries, mastering at least one Hermetic Lore and three circles of an Occult Technique.

To increase their knowledge of the Occult, Nephilim need resources.  They need libraries and laboratories.  They need to seek our rare tomes—the older the better—from private collections and museums.  They need to hunt for artifacts.  This probably requires a fair bit of globe trotting, and adventures that lie somewhere between The Ninth Gate and Raiders of the Lost Ark.  Nephilim as “treasure hunters” is probably the most accessible mode of the game for most players.  And don’t forget mundane resources!  It takes money to zoom around the globe, and safe, secure labs and libraries are not cheap.  Entire adventures could be built around Nephilim raising capital to finance their Occult pursuits, putting off nosy reporters, the curious, and dangerous rivals.

“Leap clear of all that is corporeal, and make yourself grown to a like expanse with that greatness which is beyond all measure; rise above all time and become eternal...”

To reach Agartha, a Nephilim must also raise its Dominant Ka to 90.  This is developing its spiritual nature to its very highest potential.  A Ka of 90 is practically a demigod.  Raising skills is a matter of study and having the right materials.  Raising Ka is what we call “initiation.” It only happens through the successful exercise of magical powers.  GMs should always remember to “mix the planes” in a good Nephilim campaign.  In other words, “as above so below,” and even mundane adventures should provide opportunities for magic use, making them also initiations.  The idea of the Symbol and the Veil is critical in the Occult.  A Nephilim doing something as pedestrian as conjuring a breeze to air out a noxious smelling room is, on another level, understanding the Nature of Air as an agent of Change.  In this game, everything has meaning, everything is a symbol of something else.

(F)nd your home in the haunts of every living creature; bring together in yourself all opposites of quality, heat and cold, dryness and fluidity; think that you are not yet begotten, that you are in the womb, that you are young, that you are old, that you have died, that you are in the world beyond the grave...

A requirement for Agartha is complete Metamorphosis; 90 points must be achieved across five characteristics, marking total union of the Nephilim spirit and the mortal host. Just as a Nephilim needed 90 points of Dominant Ka for Agartha (signifying perfection of spirit), it needed 90 in Metamorphosis to signify perfection of flesh.  “As above, so below. “    Metamorphosis is described as a physical transformation of the host, not the spirit.   

GMs must take care to emphasize the importance of the Simulacrum in their games.  Nephilim pursue the Golden Path because they cannot ascend without the human element; the Simulacrum is a critical element, the base matter, the lead being made into gold.  Outside of a Simulacrum, a Nephilim is an unconscious creature driven by instinct, as we see in both Khaiba and Narcosis.  Identity, Will, Awareness, these are all Solar traits.  Only Incarnated can a Nephilim think and act.  Further it seems clear from Hermes that Solar cyclicity, the way the Sun rises and falls, dies and is reborn, is also part of the Golden Path to Agartha.  For these reasons the Simulacrum is critical to Agartha, and something a wise Nephilim takes good care of.


The Trumps Lovers, Art, and Sun from the Thoth deck, or in Nephilim terms, Incarnation, Metamorphosis, and Agartha

This makes Nephilim something of a super-hero game.  Like Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker, or Clark Kent, the Nephilim leads a double life.  The Simulacrum is necessary to it, and a clever gamemaster will spin plots about this.  Does an ex-wife reach out to the Nephilim because their son needs an organ donation or transfusion the Nephilim is a match for?  Does the Simulacrum have a vengeful rival at the office making like difficult for the Nephilim?  Does the Nephilim still maintain its job and social engagements?  Conflicts between esoteric and exoteric matters are at the heart of the game.

...the Pure will be thought insane and the Impure will be honored as Wise.  The Madman will be believed brave and the Wicked esteemed as Good...

― Hermes Trismegistus, Hermetica: The Greek Corpus Hermeticum and the Latin Asclepius

Come now...you didn’t think it would be that easy, did you?
While the Nephilim struggle for the Light, they are surrounded by enemies.  The Templars, Thule Brudershaft, and the Carbonari pursue global schemes of world domination.  The Black Star hunt you for your magic.  In many ways this is a game of Occult espionage, where every government, every corporation, conceals a dread conspiracy.  Assassination, extortion, spying is everywhere.

Or perhaps it is a game of horror.

There is a secret society of things that make vampires look tame...and they have not forgotten the Nephilims’ betrayal.  The Selenim—as cannibalistic ogres, murderous werewolves, soul destroying succubi and the mummified blood-drinking dead—plot revenge in the shadows.  Then there are the Old Ones and their cults, the ancient Saurians, cyclopean Titans double-crossed by the KaIm.  In the deep places of the earth, beneath mountains and seas, they lie dreaming but not dead, waiting for the stars to be right for their return.  Beyond these, the world is full of elemental beings, some monstrous, for the Nephilim to face.


    

Thursday, September 10, 2020

NEPHILIM, PART TWO

NOTE:  This is the second part of an ongoing series of articles about Nephilim: Occult Roleplaying.  Part One can be found here.




The Hebrew word that is translated as “giants” in the book of Genesis is Nephilim. This word is believed to be derived from Nawphal, “to fall...” Biblical literalists believe that this passage describes a historical event – angels in physical form interbreeding with humans before the time of Noah’s flood...In an esoteric sense, however, these readings are incorrect and miss the point of the passage... The simplest esoteric explanation of the Nephilim story is that it was created to explain the existence of individuals with spiritual or magical abilities...The marriage of Angel and Human that opens the door to greater magical power and understanding...(this) has much in common with a successful marriage, and the “child” brought forth from this union is in fact the magician him or herself, enlightened and perfected...

Scott Michael Stenwick, The Descended Angel


NEPHILIM IS A GAME. This is obvious, but having just spent the previous article showing how Nephilim is a fairly accurate depiction of the Western Mystery Tradition, it needed saying.  A completely authentic game depicting the progress of the Initiate in their quest for gnosis would be monstrously dull indeed!  Thus, while Nephilim's entire core premise--the marriage between a spiritual being and a material one that elevates both--is an honest reflection of Traditional teachings, much of the game arises from the imaginations of its authors and players.

While future entries might further explore the myriad ways Nephilim weaves occultism into its saga of secret societies and elemental entities, I would like here to focus on Nephilim as a game and as, despite what you may have heard, an extremely playable one.  If I have done my work correctly, hopefully by the end you might consider picking up a copy and giving the game a try.

THE MYTHOLOGY

The lunatic is all idée fixe, and whatever he comes across confirms his lunacy. You can tell him by the liberties he takes with common sense, by his flashes of inspiration, and by the fact that sooner or later he brings up the Templars…There are lunatics who don’t bring up the Templars, but those who do are the most insidious. At first they seem normal, then all of a sudden…

Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum

Following the publication of the first article, a brief conversation with one of the authors of the original French edition, Fabrice Lamidey, confirmed something long suspected and revealed something I had not been aware of.  Namely, that two of the game's literary influences were Umberto Eco's tour de force Foucault's Pendulum, and The Stress of Her Regard by Tim Powers.  Eco's novel is a favorite of mine; in Tokyo, where space is somewhat limited, most of my novels are now read digitally, but if I turn my head slightly to the right Pendulum sits there proudly beside a few rare others.  It concerns a group of bored Italian editors at a publishing company which opens a vanity press department for writers of occult books.  Reading these insane and conspiratorial manuscripts, the authors start to play a game in which they re-imagine all of human history as a behind the scenes battle between secret societies, and eventually concoct "the Plan," a theory want these societies are after.  The joke is on them, however, when secret societies do start coming out of the woodwork believing these editors have stumbled across their designs.  

I start with Foucault because Nephilim owes so much inspiration to it.  It is, in fact, a game that re-imagines all of human history as behind the scenes battles between secret societies.  Chief amongst these in both the RPG and the Eco novel are the Templars, and in both works the Templar's Plan is strikingly similar.  To set the table for the rest of this essay, then, let's dig into the mythology of the game.


Science is an Illusion, History is a Lie



In the primordial Chaos, the ether, centers of order began to form; the stars.  Our local one was the Sun.  Its life-giving and creative solar energies brought planets into being around it.  Each acted as a sort of lens, transmuting the solar force into something else.  Mercury generated the force of Air; Venus generated the force of Water; Mars generated the force of Fire; Jupiter formed the force of Earth.  Another body, the Moon, generated the Lunar force, and out beyond Jupiter on the edge of the Void a dark force manifested in the form of Saturn.



There are, of course, elements in the classic sense, meaning they have spiritual, celestial, and material correspondences.  Everything in the mythology of Nephilim depends on them.  Certain colors, certain forms of life, certain gems and minerals, days of the week, signs of the Zodiac, etc etc ad infinitum are associated with them.  



The energies of the five planets formed as nexus and a seventh body formed amidst them...Earth.  Too distant, Saturn initially had no influence.  Because the Moon was closest to Earth, the Lunar force was strongest and the dominant life form on the planet was the great reptiles, the Saurian Priest-Kings.  Decadent, alien, sensuous, they created a sorcerous civilization and engaged in all manner of perverse delights.  



Around this time another type of being, formed by conjunctions of the five elemental fields, started to appear.  These were the KaIm, beings of Air, Earth, Fire, Moon, and Water.  When the Saurians conceived of a plan to create a second Moon, a Black Moon that would blot out the hateful Sun and create eternal night for them to bathe in, the KaIm intervened.  The Black Moon exploded, damaging the White Moon so that it would thereafter wax and wane.  Their powers greatly diminished, the Saurian went extinct or into eternal slumber, and the KaIm inherited the Earth.



These beings possessed mastery over the elemental magic fields and could form bodies at will, but they lacked the capacity to evolve, change, and ascend to even greater heights.  This is because they were missing the Solar element.  To rectify this, in their empire paradise of Atlantis they started breeding life forms rich in Solar force.  They had particular success with a species of apes that came to be called "human."



The original plan was to perfect these humans into vessels for the KaIm.  They would fuse their elemental forces with the humans' solar force, uniting higher and lower into a Perfected Being.  Two things went horribly wrong, however.  On one hand, a KaIm known as Prometheus took it upon itself to "awaken" humanity and give them sentience.  On the other, the Black Star fell from the sky.



A comet or meteor from the planet Saturn, it smashed into the KaIm paradise of Atlantis drowning it, and melted into the planet's core.  The dark essence of Saturn infused the metals of the planet, especially iron.  This was a sort of "anti-element" that destroyed the other planetary energies on contact.  The KaIm fell, losing the ability to create bodies and losing their center.  Now subject to mortality, and severely weakened, they called themselves the Nephilim, or Fallen Ones.



Some humans learned how to use the new Saturn-infected metals against the Nephilim, rising up and hunting them.  Some wanted to destroy the Nephilim, others enslave and use them.  Thus the first Secret Societies were born. The weakened Nephilim might have fallen if not for an unexpected and terrible ally...the dread Selenim.



While most Nephilim were experimenting with Solar force and merging with photo-human vessels, a faction led by Lilith became fascinated by the artificial Black Moon element created by the Saurians.  Merging with it and shedding their other planetary energies, they became Selenim, creatures of darkness that devoured living Solar force (just as the Black Moon had been fashioned to eclipse the Sun).  Because the Black Moon was artificial, it was immune to the baleful energies of Saturn.  In the Ice Age caused by the Black Star colliding with the Earth, the Selenim began to hunt humans en masse, ravenous for their Solar life force.  The humans with their Saturnine iron weapons could do nothing against them.



And thus, a bargain was struck.



Humans and Nephilim began to form alliances against the Selenim.  The Nephilim learned how to preserve their spirits in material objects called stases, and could emerge from these to temporarily inhabit specially trained human shamans.  This gave the shamans the Nephilim power of magic, and protection from the Selenim.  In return, periodic incarnation allowed the Nephilim the focus and concentration they needed to pursue spiritual evolution and perhaps escape their fallen state.  Eventually, the Great Compacts was formed, in which the Nephilim were allowed to permanently fuse with certain royal and priestly lines.  These divine priest-kings built civilizations and empires, using their powers to rule over and protect the non-Nephilim human race.  History as we know it began.



Behind the Veil



In Nephilim, all of human history is a secret war between the Nephilim and the secret societies. Every major event veils a "true history" behind it.  The pharaoh Akhenaton, for example, was not a mortal king revolting against Egyptian priesthoods; he was a Nephilim revolutionary who shattered the Great Compact and defined 22 paths to Agartha, the transcendent, perfected state in which the Nephilim reclaims not just the lost powers of the KaIm but access to higher planes of being as well.  He carved these into 22 Emerald Tablets, the Major Arcana of the Tarot, each of which became a society of Nephilim, a tribe.  



Against these are the human secret societies, the most dangerous of which are the Templars.  These are not the crusader knights of human history--that was just an exoteric manifestation--but a society with its roots in ancient Egypt bent on enslaving the Nephilim and seizing control of the magic fields generated at the center of the Earth.  Some societies seek to use the Nephilim, some to serve them, others to bind them...but all are distractions and obstacles on the Nephilim's True Path.



Playing the Game




That "True Path" and the singular focus of the Nephilim is Agartha.  It involves raising one's elemental energies to the highest levels, mastering fields of occult knowledge and magical techniques, and well as completing the fusion of the spirit and the host into a single, united whole.  The few able to complete this find the doors of higher reality opened to them; they become immortal again, with mastery over the magic fields.  This makes Nephilim that rare RPG with an actual endgame.


The heart of a Nephilim campaign lies in getting there, however.

In a typical campaign, you create a character by choosing the spirit's elemental focus--is it an Air, Earth, Fire, Moon, or Water Nephilim--and one or more past lives.  Since their Fall, disembodied Nephilim do not experience the passage of time, have no sense of space, no real "consciousness," and cannot interact with the material world.  Worse, their elemental energies degrade over time until they cease to exist.  Thus each Nephilim needs a stasis, an enchanted artifact or object that holds its slumbering spirit between incarnations.  When the planets are right, it awakens and unites with a nearby human host.  If that host dies of old age or some other cause before Agartha, the Nephilim returns to stasis and tries again later.  These previous attempts are then the past lives.

When the Nephilim awakens again at the start of the campaign, it incarnates in a human host.  This host, the simulacrum, experiences a mystical awakening, a moment of revelation.  John Smith the English banker suddenly realizes he is also Orogariel the Phoenix, a Pyrim (fire Nephilim).  He is still John Smith--he knows his wife Miriam and his two children, he remembers his entire life--but now he also remembers being Memtet the ancient Egyptian charioteer, Iulian the Carolingian knight, and Sir Richard Stone, the student of John Dee.  He remembers their lives and inherits many of their skills and abilities.  More importantly, he remembers how to do magic, and because of his new elemental powers, is able to make it work.

What happens next is up to the player, the GM, and the campaign.  Does John Smith remain with his wife and family, conducting his search for Agartha on the side?  Does he slowly separate from them in an amicable divorce?  Does he simply vanish into thin air?  This is in the hands of the player; only they know if John's love for his wife and children is more important to the new Nephilim that Agartha.  The game does not dictate this.  Each player navigates the dual identities of the character.  

This is not a bug, it is a feature.  It is not unlike a comic book; how does Peter Park balance his relationship with MJ and Aunt May along with the duties of being Spider-man?

The Possession Problem...Again

Ah! Mr. Waite, the world of Magic is a mirror, wherein who sees muck is muck.

Aleister Crowley, The Goetia


Despite the above, there will always be a potential player or two who chooses to see incarnation as "possession."  Initiation is not for everyone, neither is Nephilim.  The world of the occult is a mirror that shows us ourselves.  If you look into it and see evil and the Devil, perhaps what you are really seeing is a Fundamentalist religious background you were raised with.  If you look at the Nephilim and see body-hijacking, possession, and rape...perhaps there are issues you should first deal with that a game cannot cure.

For most players, though, it is easy to get around this.

1. Meet Dax.  Around the same time Nephilim appeared to an English-speaking audience, Star Trek: Deep Space Nine audiences were introduced to Jadzia Dax.  Jadzia was a young woman fused with an alien symbiont, Dax.  Captain Ben Sisko had known Dax before in a previous host, Curzon.  Over the course of the show, we learn all about the symbiont's previous hosts, and see Jadzia die and Dax implanted in a new character, Ezri.  Each host is different, but has all the memories and abilities of its previous hosts.  This complex character is the perfect analogue for how to deal with a Nephilim character.  Have the potential player revisit the show.

2. Meet Castiel.  In the horror-drama Supernatural, protagonists Sam and Dean Winchester ally with an angel, Castiel.  Spirit beings, angels do not have bodies of their own, he has incarnated in a human host, Jimmy Novak.  This is something Novak prayed for, however.  He wanted union with Castiel.  If this helps the player, simply have the Simulacrum being a willing host.  Perhaps they are an aspiring magician who located a Nephilim stasis and awoke the spirit hoping for incarnation to occur.

3. A Second Chance.  Something I have used in previous Nephilim games is incarnation as a second chance.  One player decided his simulacrum was a human on the edge of committing suicide when the incarnation occurred and gave him a new purpose and meaning in life.  Another, and my favorite, was my college girlfriend, who created a simulacrum who was a seventy-five-year old dementia patient abandoned by her family in a retirement home.  Sitting in the same chair alone, day after day, she is reborn when an Air Nephilim comes to her and for the first time in years she gets up and walks out of the hospital.  Incarnation can be a blessing, not a curse.         


4. Feels Like The Very First Time.  Perhaps the easiest way around discomfort is for this to be the Nephilim's first incarnation.  Nephilim are born in the nexus of planetary energies...perhaps a new-formed Nephilim blindly incarnates in banker John Smith.  Suddenly John starts developing weird senses and magical abilities, but has no sense of being anyone else.  There are no past lives to remember.  Eventually he stumbles across the world of the Nephilim, joins one of the 22 Arcana, has his first stasis made, and selects a Nephilim name for himself. 


These fixes should open the game to just about anyone, but there will still be some for whom the human is the end-all and be-all.   Perhaps they can play a human ally of the Nephilim?  Though of this, I suppose Frater Perdurabo would say;




A Sorcerer by the power of his magick had subdued all things to himself. Would he travel? He could fly through space more swiftly than the stars. Would he eat, drink, and take his pleasure? there was none that did not instantly obey his bidding. In the whole system of ten million times ten million spheres upon the two and twenty million planes he had his desire. 

 And with all this he was but himself. 

 Alas!

Crowley, The Book of Lies, Chapter 27


In the next part, we will look in depth at what a Nephilim campaign might look like, and how a typical scenario might go.






Tuesday, September 8, 2020

NEPHILIM, PART ONE

NOTE: This is just the first in a series of essays examining Nephilim: Occult Roleplaying.  This time we look at the core concepts and some of the controversy around them.  Next time, we will look at the game universe in greater detail.



GIVING THE GAME ITS DUE

TO DATE the most popular articles on this blog have been the occult ones. This probably comes as a surprise to those who have joined me more recently as the focus has shifted largely to gaming.  My series on Andrew Chumbley's Azoetia, the basic principles of Hermetic thought, and even traditional witchcraft come out slightly ahead of even the most-read game reviews (to date, the stunning new edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep).  Conceptually, I don't disassociate magic, writing, or gaming however, so the recent refocusing hasn't been that much of a sea change in my mind.  

I mention this though because if you do the math, the bulk of the traffic here has been either for occultism or Chaosium games.  So it is somewhat astounding looking back that I never actually got around to dealing with the work that unites those two streams.  It becomes particularly shocking if I admit truthfully that in the (un)holy trinity of my favorite games, Chaosium's Nephilim: Occult Roleplaying might actually be slightly nearer and dearer to my heart than either RuneQuest or Call of Cthulhu.  

A BIT OF BACKGROUND

It's probably inaccurate to lump Nephilim in with the host of "urban fantasy" RPGs that flooded the market in the wake of Vampire: The Masquerade. Many critics do, but the fact remains the original French edition of Nephilim was published in 1992, not even a year after the 1991 publication of Vampire, and Vampire was not quite yet the phenomenon it would become. Given its quasi-Biblical subject matter and country of origin, it is far more likely that Nephilim owed more to 1989's In Nomine Satanis/Magna Veritas than any World of Darkness title. 

Chaosium's edition appeared in 1994, and was part of a new trend of translating European games into English (both Kult and The Mutant Chronicles had appeared in English the year before). Multisim, the publisher of the original, had licensed Chaosium's Basic Roleplaying System so it was natural for Chaosium to be the ones to bring the game to the States. However, this was a year after Mage: The Ascension had hit the shelves, and it was an easy assumption to make that Chaosium was just trying to ride its coattails. Nothing could be farther from the truth, however. Yes, you can look at the two games as magician protagonists waging secret wars behind the facade of everyday reality, but the two games are as different as day and night (or rather, Postmodernism and Tradition). Mage, with its "reality is whatever you make it" approach was the ultimate vehicle for a pluralistic, self-referential, epistemologically relative age. It had far more in common with Dr. Strange or The Invisibles than anything even vaguely resembling real life occultism. Nephilim, however, was immersed in the "Tradition."  The game was a love letter to perennial philosophy.    

Despite being a monster hit in France, Nephilim never quite managed the same sort of popularity dans le monde anglophone. There are complicated reasons for this. Shannon Appelcline, in his terrific Designers & Dragons (and this is the point where yet again I urge anyone seriously interested in the hobby to get and read that series of books) puts much of the blame of the fact that the English edition was rushed to print too early and poorly supported in its first year. This is probably true--Shannon was there in the midst of it and knows better than I--but being the guy who bought the rules the moment they hit my local game store, and started running it soon after, my experience was that Nephilim ultimately was the victim of its own authenticity. 



THE PROTAGONIST PROBLEM

Mage was an easy sell to a modern Western public.  "You wake up one day and realize that the world is what we make it and humans have the potential to be gods."  This is, ladies and gentlemen, pretty much the entire message of the 20th century.  Don't get me wrong, I like Mage, but it does seem designed to stroke our Postmodern human egos.

Nephilim was a far harder sell.  "You are an element spirit that fell from grace, and in order to re-ascend to perfection needs to merge with a human host, uniting the lower and higher worlds."  The player characters in Nephilim are technically not the humans but the spirits.  I say "technically"--and I firmly believe this was a crucial misunderstanding of the game--but the fact remains in the world of Nephilim humanity isn't the center of the universe.  In its struggle to attain Agartha (the transcendent perfected state) your Nephilim character has reincarnated in as many as a half dozen human hosts down through history.  The spirit needs the human, who possesses the vital solar essence that the spirit lacks, but humans are pretty much the junior partner. This doesn't quite masturbate the ego of the human player in the same way Mage does!

On the other hand, the core principle of the game is accurate to the Western Mystery Tradition, which has always held that humanity cannot save itself.  Bound to the animal world of matter, only those who form a partnership with a higher spiritual power can become inhuman and ascend to higher reality;  

...The mutation of one’s deepest structure is the only thing that matters for the purposes of higher knowledge. This knowledge, which is at the same time wisdom and power, is essentially nonhuman; it can be achieved by following a way that presupposes the active and effective overcoming of the human condition... 

Julius Evola, Introduzione alla Magia 

To this end the Tradition has long embraced the principle of uniting with an alien, spiritual being;  

(there) is an auxiliary divine, or semi-divine (daimônic) spirit...called a παραδρoç in Greek. Such auxiliary spirits were permanently attached to the magician after certain rites were performed, not just for the duration of the operation, but for life. In such an instance, the magician is thought to gain a certain kind of union with that entity—to become a “son” of that god or daimôn. The essence of the magician and that of the entity have become, or are becoming, one. This is why the magician can himself be worshiped as god or daimôn... 

Stephen Flowers, PhD, Hermetic Magic 


By the Renaissance, in Christianized Europe the idea of "semi-divine" spirits had become associated with the Biblical Nephilim, or "fallen ones."  Discussed in far greater detail in the apocryphal Book of Enoch, they nevertheless get several mentions in the Bible from Genesis forward.  Essential, they are half-human half-angelic entities, the Jewish equivalent of demigods like Heracles or Jason.  Hermeticism--a form of the Tradition born in Hellenic Alexandria in the first centuries after Christ--attributed to these Nephilim all of the arts and sciences, including magic (again, this is in the Book of Enoch as well).  

The Nephelim (sic), the "fallen" angels, are nothing less than the titans and "the watchers," the race that the Book of Baruch (3:26) calls, "glorious and warlike," the same race that awoke in men the spirit of the heroes and warriors, who invented the arts, and who transmitted the mystery of magic. What more decisive proof concerning the spirit of the hermetico-alchemical tradition can there be than the explicit and continuous reference in the texts precisely to that tradition? We read in the hermetic literature "The ancient and sacred books," says Hermes, "teach that certain angels burned with desire for women. They descended to earth and taught all the works of Nature. They were the ones who created the [hermetic] works and from them proceeds the primordial tradition of this Art... 

Julius Evola, The Hermetic Tradition 

These Hermetic precepts form the core of the Nephilim RPG. A race of spirit beings, fallen from on high, teach humanity all arts and sciences, guide human civilization, and merge with certain mortals to form half-human half-spiritual beings.  To achieve perfection, the spirit and its host slowly merge together through as process called Metamorphosis.  The human and spirit overcome their conditions and become something inhuman, something higher.  An Agarthan.  All of this is perfectly correct from the standpoint of the Western Mystery Tradition.

In the eyes of many potential players, however, humans became mere "flesh vehicles" for the body-hopping Nephilim.  That this spectacularly misses the point is lost on a generation of Postmodern thinkers for whom "esoteric" means "out there" (it literally means "in there") and mystical is some nebulous concept.  The goal of the Nephilim is the "chemical wedding," to become one with its human host, and from the timeless and transcendent perspective of Agartha, they thus always were one.  This is the message of the very last page of the book, which closes with a quote from the Sufi mystic and poet Jalal al-din Rumi;

The moment I heard my first love story, I starting looking for you, not knowing how blind that was.

Lovers don't finally meet somewhere.  They're in each other all along.

Nephilim was not, as some critics felt, "body rape" but rather a love story.  But from a modernist perspective, games where humans become blood-sucking corpses, werewolves, ghosts, mages, and mummies are all well and good...so long as it remains all about the human condition.  Suggest there might be something higher or beyond the human condition, and sales suffer.



Monday, August 24, 2020

TALES OF THE SUN COUNTY MILITIA: SANDHEART VOLUME ONE (A REVIEW)



INASMUCH AS ROLEPLAYERS "like" the idea of settings different from our own world, we don't seem to like them to be too different.  Sure, castles and knights are fun, but the whole "women as second class citizens" business?  Not so much.  The speakeasies and jazz of New Orleans in the Roaring Twenties are great...let's just ignore the Jim Crow laws.  We enjoy using roleplaying as a window into the Other, but like Narcissus what we really want is to see our own face, the familiar, reflected back at us.

The most successful RPGs do this; the best do it well.  In the 70s D&D had absolutely nothing to do with Europe or the Middle Ages; written by Americans for (at the time) an American audience, the game was basically the Old West in Renaissance Faire drag.  There were alignments instead of White and Black hats, but it was still about swaggering drifters riding from town to town proving their badassness and making fistfuls of cash doing it.  The feudal system?  Vassalage?  Nah...you made enough money to buy your own land and build yourself a fort at 9th level.  It was a stroke of genius, really.  TSR served Americans Tolkien with all the confusing British bits removed.

I would argue that Greg Stafford's Glorantha was a masterpiece of this principle, and for the very simple reason that it was built on myth.  Set in a Bronze Age world--and a flat world under a sky dome at that--20th (and later 21st) century players could nevertheless see the familiar reflected back at them in it.  The reason is simple; myths are timeless.  Yes, we can all sit around and debate "who the Lunar Empire is."  Like looking at Rorschach blots you see what you are familiar with.  They could be the Romans.  The Persians.  Assyrians.  But for a kid playing RuneQuest in Reagan's America, we knew damn well who the "Evil Empire" was.  Hell, they were Red too.  

The same goes for the Heortlings.  If you live in England, I suspect they look Celtic.  Northern Europe?  Probably Norse.  My friends and I thought they were clearly Mycenaean.  After Braveheart, they suddenly had woad and kilts.  But of course they are all of these things because Glorantha is this titanic genius mirror that shows what you want to see in it.

The best RuneQuest supplements (and for brevity's sake I am including Hero Wars/HeroQuest/Quest Worlds and 13G under that label as well), understand Glorantha is a mirror and use it as such.  Sure, it's a polished bronze mirror, of course, but we recognize ourselves in it all the same.  Think back to the classics, like Pavis, The Big Rubble, and Borderlands.  New Pavis is not a terribly accurate recreation of any actual Bronze Age city, but it is a mythic mirror of Tombstone, or San Francisco during the Gold Rush, a boom town where an intrepid adventurer can make a name for themselves.  If you are Australian, New Pavis might be "The Alice," with adventuring stockmen traversing the "Red Center" of the Praxian wastes.  The classic RQ supplements never got bogged down in the scholastic gobbledygook of recreation.  This is what made them great.



 Tales of the Sun County Militia: Sandheart Volume One is another example of an RQ supplement that "gets it." I am reviewing specifically here the "remix," a 103-page expanded version of the original 39-page (!!!) Jonstown Compendium offering.  Written by Jonathan Webb, with help from Nick Brooke, Darren Page-Mitchell, and Shaun Rimmer, what stood out to me reading it was how intuitively the authors understand why Glorantha is such a powerful setting and how to use that to their advantage.  Indeed, right from the very start on page 1 it is made clear to us that Sandheart is going to be a sort of dialogue between Bronze Age societies and our own;


It could also be argued that it (Sun County) is a xenophobic, misogynistic, repressive and strict culture. Although this goes against many of the values and virtues of a 21st Century culture, it also presents the player characters plenty of opportunity to both uphold the more noble values of Sun County whilst, at the same time, reeling against such a system. There is plenty of opportunity for role-playing the conflict between the nature of the county and the nonconformist nature of player characters. The secret is to make these conflicts fun and part and parcel of your game... 


In this succinct passage, Sandheart makes clear something that took me a dozen boxed texts in Six Seasons in Sartar to do, namely, to suggest that instead of whitewashing Glorantha or remaking it into something more palatable to us, it might be more useful to engage in a dialogue with it.

Now the book itself contains a single scenario, "No Country for Cold Men," as well as a detailed look at the Sun County hamlet of Sandheart.  Two further volumes, The Corndolls and Tradition, also available from the Jonstown Compendium, continue the campaign.  Sandheart is not a large community, only about 100 souls call it home, but it is lovingly detailed in glorious depth.  It's people, its environs, its mysteries are all there. 



 The heart of the book however is the Militia, because your player characters are it.  This is where the mirror comes back into play again, because Sandheart feels a bit like a police procedural.  Your characters enforce the law.  You are going to come up against lawbreakers, and it isn't always black and white.  So what do you do?  It's nice to get away from the Heortling Clan campaign but still see how adventurers in Glorantha work best as part of a society, rather than outsiders to it.  There is tremendous potential in Sandheart to capture the same feel of all those cop shows were tough choices are made.

"No Country for Cold Men" is the centerpiece here, and I don't want to spoil it for you except to say that the Militia is up against a gang of drug runners here.  I am going to use this opportunity to segue for a moment to the layout and the art.  Because it is here in Marc Baldwin's iconoclastic sketches that the Gloranthan mirror principle comes back to the fore.  Gloranthan art has always had a wicked streak, going through the decades often with tongue firmly in cheek.  I think back to the Argan Argar with his sunglasses and parasol.  Baldwin does it here by giving some of the NPCs direct references to our own world.  Let me show you an example;


The "Make Pavis Great Again" logo also appears in some graffiti.  No, it isn't Bronze Age.  But neither, really, is Glorantha.  In a subtle reference to 21st century America, connections and reflections are happening again between two societies fallen on hard times where people turn to drugs.


Baldwin does the bulk of the heavy lifting here, with Ludovic Chabant and Kris Herbert, and a cover by Jacob Webb.  The layout is Nick Brooke, fresh from his A Rough Guide to Glamour and looking at the terrific work the team does here makes me question the wisdom of going my books alone.  Sandheart is an example of how it is getting harder to tell the Compendium and the Chaosium books apart.  It looks professional, the art (and there is a ton of it) is engaging.  It simply looks great.

The book winds down with Brooke's Sun County Backgrounds, here replacing the parental and grandparental backgrounds in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.  This helps make Sandheart an even more useful tool to anyone wanting to run an RQG game in Sun County.  

With a foreward by Michael O'Brien, who brought Sun County to us back in 1990, Sandheart marks another step forward not only in the development of the Jonstown Compendium but in the entire Gloranthan Renaissance.  MOB writes of his frustration, back then, of RQ3 doing reprints and not new material.  On the opposite side of the planet, a younger version of me shared that frustration.  What we have now is an embarrassment of riches, with better and better Gloranthan material coming at us every day.  Sandheart is a worthy successor to Sun County, and it looks to be just the beginning.  Thoughtful, exciting, challenging, it is essentially what you want your fantasy gaming to be.  And if you learn something about yourself in the process, even better.