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


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

Tuesday, June 8, 2021

MONTE COOK’S “THE DARKEST HOUSE”: A REVIEW

 THE MIRROR


AS A GENRE, horror always works best when it applies pressure to our own sore spots. In the 1950s, horror did a sharp turn away from gothic monsters towards alien invasions and atomic monsters, a perfectly logical response to the dawn of the Cold War. While American audiences watched flying saucers destroy the US Capitol, what they were “seeing” were Soviets, not BEMs. When they saw alien seed pod convert friends and neighbours into soulless drones, it was the Red Scare (what Theodore Seuss would have called “the spreading pink stain”) in the back of their minds. Later, in the early 70s, when audiences flocked to watch a film about a sweet little girl who metamorphoses into a lewd, foul-mouthed monster whose mother can no longer recognize her, parents got it. Sure, The Exorcist was nominally about demonic possession, but every parent in the late 60s who had watched their cherubs grow into equally unrecognizable long-haired, bra-burning advocates of free-love and psychedelics identified with Chris MacNeil. And for those of us who came of age in the 80s, the sudden resurgence of vampire films that decade preyed on very real fears of the sexuality we were waking into. After all, everywhere we turned we got the message that hooking up and exchanging bodily fluids with the wrong stranger was the ticket to walking death.


Now, Monte Cook is not the first person to mine the current global pandemic for horror. In a way, the popularity of the zombie epic the last decade was fueled by fears of a coming disaster like this, and Rob Savage’s Host (2020)—with its use of isolation and the special kind of hell that is the Zoom Meeting—beat Cook and his team to the punch. But Cook’s The Darkest House is the first RPG response to our collective ordeal, and I daresay the pandemic haunts all of its glorious pages. Nearly all of us can now relate to the experience of being trapped in a house you cannot escape, cut off from the world, spiraling slowly into madness. The Darkest House is a nightmare we have either just lived or are currently living. Yet it isn’t just the story of The Darkest House that shows the mark of the pandemic, its mechanics and its presentation do as well. From the bottom up this game seems shaped by the ghosts currently haunting us.


There are three components of the product I want to look at here; the presentation, the mechanics, and the tale itself. In discussing each I will relate them back to the pandemic. Why? Roleplaying games do not exist in a vacuum any more than film does, and the really good ones speak to the world that produced them. You cannot look critically at 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons and not see a fantasy Vietnam, where sudden death was just a pit trap or an ambush away. Cyberpunk in the 80s reflected both our coming to terms with the emerging Information Age and the unfettered capitalism born of Reaganomics and Thatcherism. In the 90s, Millennialism haunted our thoughts, and an endless string of apocalyptic end times games appeared to tap into that. I suspect Cook and his team know this, at least instinctively, and have responded with a product that at any other time would have been superb, but now also has the virtue of being relevant. The Darkest Hour has the potential to do what both great horror and gaming excel at… helping us face our boogeymen.





PRESENTATION: A NEW WAY TO LOOK AT RPGs


The Darkest House is designed to be played online. Take a moment to let that sink in.


For nearly five decades the dominant tabletop RPG venue has been, well, the tabletop. Sure, over the last decade more and more of us have been moving to running out games online, and platforms have sprung up to facilitate that. But I suspect I am not alone in being a GM who has consistently turned  his nose up at online games until the pandemic put a gun to my head and forced me to reconsider. For me, gaming is first and foremost a social experience. If I wanted the game itself I would play a video game. Yet the pandemic made me do it, and my frustration mounted at sifting through all the windows on my screen. All the relevant PDFs. My notes. Dice apps. The darling faces of players on my Zoom screen. For me, at least, the irritation of the format just added to my dislike of it.


The Darkest House is a single app, currently available for Windows or Mac OS. Click on it and it opens across your computer screen All you need to run the game is literally right there. No page-flipping. All the additional materials are embedded there in the main screen. The PDF GM and Player guides can be accessed with a click (read before play and not necessary while running the actual game). The fillable character sheets are there. Game aids. The main map (more on this later). To the right is the complete list of rooms in the house and you can move effortlessly to one by clicking there OR on the location on  the aforementioned map. When you click on a room… it is all right there on one screen. A map, an image of the room, a brief description, and then a list of contents and entities in that location. Click on any entry in that list and it opens again with a description, sometimes another image, and yes… even audio clips. ALL of this are instantly shareable with your players by download or just copying and sending them the link. Intuitive. Painless. Fluid. Fast.


Speaking of images, it likely goes without saying at this stage given the track record of Monte Cook Games but the art is first rate. The room illustrations strike the right balance between dark enough to be unnerving and light enough to see and bring the locations to vivid life. The entities… it is always hard to illustrate the monsters in a horror RPG. Lovecraft barely described his terrors at all to leave them monstrous and unformed in the reader’s mind. The entity illustrations in The Darkest House show just enough to give you a firm impression of the being, but are vague enough and shadowy enough to leave much to the imagination.


MECHANICS: AND NOW, A BREAK IN YOUR USUALLY SCHEDULED CAMPAIGN


The presentation of The Darkest House makes it ideally suited for online play. The mechanics make it ideally suited for pandemic play.


Let’s say you were running a campaign before COVID-19 descended upon us. You and your friends gathered round the table for Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, 5E, Night’s Black Agents… whatever. Then the pandemic hit and not only was your life upended, the lives of the player characters in group were as well. Some groups made the transition to Roll20 or Discord or whatever. Many didn’t. Monte Cook seems to have designed the mechanics of The Darkest House with this in mind.


The titular house in The Darkest House is meant to show up in whatever campaign you are currently running. More on the story in the next section but the house is pan-dimensional. It hungers, bleeding through the multiverse looking for victims. It could show up just as easily on a street corner in Arkham, the outskirts of a fantasy metropolis, or as the deck of a space station that suddenly goes very wrong. The point is, conceptually The Darkest House is ready and waiting to take up the slack in your regularly scheduled campaign. It’s an easy-to-run-online interim your current player characters can step in to and—assuming they survive—back into their regular lives and campaign after.


How?


The Darkest House uses the House System, a simple set of mechanics that model how reality functions inside of the house. The house is alive, it is its own separate pocket universe and once you cross the threshold you play by its rules. The game then provides a sort of “Rosetta Stone” (a term the game itself uses but which might be overreaching just a tad), a way to very quickly and easily guesstimate House system statistics for your favourite system and character. Technically, a character from Vampire 5E, Pathfinder, and Champions could all wander into the house from separate universes and find themselves together there.


Essentially everything in the House System is modelled on a scale of 1 to 10, with ten being the weakest and ten the strongest. Those familiar with Monte Cook’s recent works, especially the Cypher System, will recognize this immediately. A beaded curtain would constitute a Rating 1 door, nearly effortless to get through. A bank vault door, by contrast, might be Rating 10. Inside the house everything is modelled in this way, and that includes your characters.


If you are coming from a system that uses character levels (or Tiers) like the Cypher System, you start by finding the corresponding rating to your character’s level. For 5E, with 20 levels, you would just divide by two (always rounding down). Your 6th level Fighter would have a starting rating of 3. In a game with fewer levels, you just adjust to the scale of ten. In 13th Age, for example, with ten levels, your level would be your starting Darkest House rating. A level three Fighter is a Rating three character. For games like Call of Cthulhu, which uses skills and no levels, or similarly a World of Darkness game, take the rough average of the character’s skills and abilities and match them to the scale. Harvey Walters, the stalwart Call of Cthulhu example character for 40 years has a couple of skills in the low 80s (Cthulhu uses a percentile system), a couple in the 60s and 70s, and the bulk below 40, some as low as 0 or 5%. His “average skill” is probably about 30%. Using the House System then I would eyeball him around Rating 3. The Call of Cthulhu 1-100 scale fits easily in the House scale just by dividing it by ten. This is about right for a CoC character, because generally speaking, a character who is the equivalent of a “real life” human should never be higher than Rating 4. 


Once you determine the base Rating, things the character is good at get +1 to the base. A base 3 Fighter would probably have Rating 4 in combat. Harvey Walters has 80% in Archaeology, so he would get a +1 in that. Things the character is poor at get a -1. The House System addresses ways to translate over special powers and equipment as well.


These Ratings, then, get used in the core system (which should be noted is entirely player-facing, the GM never rolls dice). When attempting to perform a task, roll 2D6 + your Rating. The target number is 7 + the Rating you are trying to overcome. Trying to force upon a locked Rating 3 door, the character would need to score 10 or higher with their own most appropriate Rating + 2D6. In lieu of hit or sanity points, characters can take mental and physical wounds. These have ratings as well, and each time the character receives a new one, they must roll against the wound with the highest rating (even if they beat it before) to resist falling unconscious and possibly dying or suffering mental damage and breakdown.


There are a few clever twists on dice rolling, however. There is for starters a mechanic for Boons and Banes, situational modifiers that help or hinder your character’s chances. A Boon allows you to roll a third die and discard the lowest roll. A Bane adds a third die but you are forced to discard the highest. By far the most interesting die, however, is the House Die, rolled every time a player makes a roll.


The house itself is malevolent, and the house—the book likes to remind us—hates you. This would be bad enough if not for the fact that in the house you are also subject to its rules, its reality. The house resents your success, your progress. Thus, every time you make a roll, you also roll the House Die. If you succeed, and the House Die is higher than your highest result, the house responds to your success and makes a move.


For example, you roll to batter open the locked door from the example above, rolling a pair of 4s. Your Rating was 3, so 3+8=11. A success. But wait. Your House Die was a 6. This means the house will respond to your success, lashing out in resentment. The way in which the house responds gets increasingly more severe the more times this happens. Maybe the first time the lights flicker, or a piercing cold fills the air. Later it might be violent shaking, blood dripping from the walls, objects hurtling at you, etc. It’s a system that neatly captures the escalating horror found in most haunted house tales.


You can, however, call upon the house. If you are desperate to succeed, you can actually add the House Die to your result. This produces an immediate response from the house, however, and inflicts a Doom upon your character.


Dooms are cumulative and they are very, very bad. When you make a survival roll to avoid death or madness, your Doom total is subtracted from your roll. If you leave the house, the Doom follows you into your regular campaign. Depending on how much you have, it acts like a curse… bad luck and misfortune at lower levels, sickness, wasting diseases, and tragedy at higher totals. The house hates you.


Getting Out


One mechanic that really needs to be spotlit is that of Lies and Truths. 


In The Darkest House every player character gets an arc. As you confront the dark spaces in the house, so too do you confront the dark spaces in your heart. This is a lovely nod to Shirley Jackson’s masterpiece, The Haunting of Hill House. When you create your character, you need to give them either a Lie or a Truth. This is something that the character believes in. It it a Truth if the player also believes in it, but a Lie if the player knows it to not be true.


Let’s say the character believes “the universe is just,” or “my wife loves me.” The player decides whether or not this is true. The house will test these beliefs, eventually precipitating a crisis. This leads to five general results;




 

Escaping from the house is part of the story, and it is suggested the GM does not make escape an option until all or most of the player characters have had time to resolve their arcs. Think of this as the malevolence of the house. Killing its visitors is fun. Driving them mad even better. Nothing beats, however, an assault on their core beliefs, their souls.


THE TALE: THE HOUSE ALWAYS WINS


Some of the following will read as mild spoilers. I assure you they are not, as the GM gets to decide what exactly is true about the house and what isn’t. In fact, when it comes to the house, their are multiple possible truths and layers of truth. One thing I will not discuss, however, is the specific contents of the house’s rooms. However if you want to enter the house knowing absolutely nothing, turn back now.


I was probably predisposed to like The Darkest House, so gentle reader bear that in mind. This blog has already seen, for example, articles on both The Haunting of Hill House and House of Leaves, two of the major influences on The Darkest House and two of my favourite pieces of haunted house fiction. I mention in both my preference for stories of a house that is aware and malevolent over one that is merely occupied by ghosts. It would appear Monte Cook shares the same tastes, because the house is in The Darkest House is a superb example of what Stephen King called “the Bad Place.”


It seems there was once a man named Phillip Harlock. It seems that he lived most of his entire life within the house, alone. Phillip might have grown up there… or he might have built it. He might have once had a family there. Phillip seems to have been an occultist. He seems to have been a severe agoraphobe. As he lived out his entire life there, he seems to have grown increasingly eccentric… increasingly mad.


We sometimes think that when two people spend extended periods of time together, one begins to take on qualities of the other. After years, they truly share everything, including a mental state, and perhaps even a mental space. We even begin to think that they physically resemble each other. It’s more than just finishing each others’ sentences; they share thoughts and dreams and emotions. …But what if one of those people isn’t a person at all? What if it is a place? A house…


And what if, gentle reader, neither was entirely stable?


Harlock vanished inside the house, and it has been ever since unliveable. It seems to miss Harlock and hate anyone inside it who is not him. We should also say that it seems Harlock dabbled in Things Man Was Not Meant to Know, that the house became part of something deeper, some darker, that bleeds and oozes through the multiverse. 


The result is a house that might show up anywhere, a house that is alive and insane and twisted in hatred. It is “haunted” by all sorts of entities, including the family that Harlock either imagined he had, or that he created distorted caricatures of. Father, Mother, Brother, Sister, and Lover are some of the worst entities in the house, each representing some form of love gone wrong.


The house’s interior dimensions, like the Doctor’s TARDIS, have nothing to do with its external ones. It may well be infinite. The “map” of the house is actually a flowchart. Rooms relegate to each other emotionally and thematically rather than geographically.


Once inside, the house will not let you go… at least until it is done with you. There are ways to escape, but they are hard won and hard to come by.


Your Story


Getting the players inside can be facilitated any number of ways. In standard Call of Cthulhu fashion they might be hired to investigate the paranormal there. In high fantasy they might go in seeking treasure or looking for a way to stop evil. Occultists and wizards might be drawn to it seeking power. Perhaps one or more of the player characters’ loved ones have vanished inside and they go after them to rescue them. The story however is essentially the same. Something draws you inside the house and once inside you realize you cannot easily escape. Inside, your wits, your will, your beliefs will all be tested. 


Again, a bit like 2020 all over again.


FINAL THOUGHTS


The Darkest House is a masterpiece. It stands head and shoulders above any haunted house we have seen at the gaming table. While I think Cook and his team were trying a bit too hard to reinvent the wheel with their previous effort, Invisible Sun, here they absolutely have, changing how a role playing game can be conceived of and run. It’s a haunted house, it’s a mega-dungeon. Depending on the characters you bring inside it could be everything from crushing psychological horror (characters from Kult, Call of Cthulhu, Unknown Armies, etc) to a heroic struggle against evil (high-level Pathfinder, 5E, or 13th Age characters, or really any superhero characters). But really what The Darkest House is is a mirror, and the abyss we gaze into is the specter of our own pandemic experiences.


And that, ladies and gentlemen, is art.

Friday, May 28, 2021

THOUSAND YEAR OLD VAMPIRE


With the moon I run, far from the carnage of the fiery sun
Driven by the strangled vein, showing no mercy, I do it again

Open up your eyes, you keep on crying, baby, I’ll bleed you dry


Kings of Leon, “Closer”




SEVERAL AGES AGO I read (and later ran) Trevor Ackerly and Michael O’Brien’s terrific RuneQuest scenario, “The Old Sun Dome,” published in 1992’s Sun County. It stayed with me for decades. The story featured a vampire, and what particularly haunted me was its description. “The vampire no longer remembers its name,” the passage began. “It cannot recall where it came from or what deeds it did in mortal life. It has forgotten what tongues it once spoke.” I think I must have reread the lines a dozen times as the horror sank in. This was, after all, in the midst of the Anne Rice craze. Her vampires had such prodigious memories they could give lengthy interviews about the minutia of their entire existence in florid, purple prose, but this vampire no longer remembers its name. O’Brien and Ackerly had put their finger on what made immortality a curse, and the more you thought about it the more acute the “personal horror” of the idea became. The vampire in “The Old Sun Dome” was the vampire equivalent of Percy Shelly’s “Ozymandius,” a terror made somehow sad and wasted by the desolation of centuries, and it made the ones in Vampire: The Masquerade (published a year earlier) look like simple exercises in wish fulfillment. 


I thought of that vampire again decades later, when the ninth series of the revived Doctor Who introduced the character of Ashildr, played by Game of Throne’s own Maisie Williams. A 9th century Viking girl, the Doctor saves her life in such a way that it renders her immortal. When next they meet, six centuries later, she had taken to calling herself “Me” because she too has forgotten her name. Her lifespan is infinite, but not her memory. She writes in journals to preserve things, and tears out pages for things too painful to remember.


All this brings us to Tim Hutchings’ elegiac little masterpiece, Thousand Year Old Vampire. The plot is all right there in the title (spoilers!). You, the player, will create and take on the role of a vampire and (un)live out the millennium (give or take a few centuries) between the loss or your mortality and the eventual end of your existence. You will watch the world you knew and everything in it slowly crumble to dust, as incomprehensible new people and ideas replace it. Then you will watch these new ideas turn to dust and get replaced. And as the centuries slide by, you will fight to hold on to your memories, forced to either discard old memories in favour of new ones, or to cling to your ancient memories and forget the new ones. You will lose memories, loved ones, resources, and perhaps even your own name. But your existence goes on and on and on.


I still remember, I still love

I still remember, where I came from

Love to lover, days in the sun…


Grace Jones, “Seduction/Surrender”


TYOV is a solo game (though it does not have to be, read on) played with just you, the book, and somewhere to keep notes. A D10 and D6 are recommended, but there is a random number generator in the back of the book. It works like this: first you will create a vampire, and its powers, weakness, origin, and human identity are all up to you. Then, you play the vampire through a series of prompts in the rule book. The choices you make create a unique and often desolate saga of immortal existence. You can chose to play this quickly, all in a single sitting, or chose the journaling option where you write a vampire story as you play.


The Vampire

Your vampire is defined by Memories, Skills, Resources, Characters, and Marks.


The vampire begins play with five Memory “slots,” and since Memory is the most complex (and probably most important) part of the game we will spend the most time explaining it. Basically, a Memory is an episode of your existence, and it is in turn is made up of smaller “Experiences.” An Experience is a couple of sentences that sum up the character’s response to a prompt (more on those below). For example;


A prompt reads “How do you find solace from the raging hunger within you?” You decide that your vampire falls in love with a mortal, and for a time forgets his own curse. You write; 


 I sat and watched him from the windowsill, the moonlight sliding over his body, and the dead heart that no longer beat in my chest ached for him with a hunger that eclipsed my lust for blood. I did not wish to drain the life in him, but to preserve it.


This single response to the prompt is an Experience. But subsequent Experiences can be linked with this one (up to three total) and these linked experiences become a Memory. For example, another prompt reads “You commit a despicable murder, but not for the sake of feeding. Why?” You decide that you discover the object of your love has betrayed you with another, and kill him in a jealous rage. You write;


The woman lying naked beside him saw me first, and her scream filled the house. I ravaged her, her blood a red torrent down my throat. He watched me, helpless, and did nothing when I came to him and snapped his neck. Weeping, I watched the light go out in his eyes.


These two Experiences form a Memory that you call “Arad,” the name of the man you loved.


Every time you respond to a prompt, you create a new event which must either be linked to a previous Memory or form a new Memory all its own. The problem is, after awhile you will “fill up” (you can have five Memories of three Experiences each), so as new Events come you must start choosing which to keep and which to discard. You can delete older Memories to make space for the new, and yes…even forget your own name.


I’ll never wash these clothes, I want to keep the stain

Your blood to me is precious, nor would I shed it in vain


Sinead O’Connor, “You Made Me The Thief Of Your Heart”


Skills are things you are capable of doing or things you have done. Sometimes a prompt will tell you to check a skill. This means you use that Skill to resolve the prompt. Once checked, however, you cannot check it again, and must use a different skill in a later prompt. Prompts also give you new Skills from time to time. If you have no unchecked Skills, you fail the prompt and lose the game. Any Skill can resolve any prompt, but part of the game is explaining how. How does your “Ruthless Cunning” defeat the mob of vampire hunters? How does your “Silent as the Grave” defeat the invading army?


Resources are things the vampire owns or has at its disposal. Sometimes a prompt will give you a new resource, sometimes demand you expend one. Again, if you have no resources to expend, you lose the game. Resources can be as small as “a jeweled dagger” or as large as “a criminal empire.” Part of writing the Experience then is how you use the Resource to answer the prompt.


One of the more important Resources is the “diary.” A character may volunteer to shift a Memory into a Diary, allowing them to preserve it. However, there are prompts that destroy Resources, and it is very possible to lose one or more of your diaries in play. They can even fall into the hands of your enemies. 


Characters come in two varieties. Mortals are the humans, and Immortals are other vampires, demons, angels, deathless witches, etc. As with Resources sometimes a prompt will give you new characters and sometimes it will take them away. One common occurrence is with Mortal characters. To keep track of the passage of time, periodically you will be asked to scratch out Mortals from your character sheet, showing that they have aged and died. Characters can be allies, enemies, and everything in between.


Finally we have Marks. A Mark is something that marks you as inhuman. It might be a lack of reflection, icy skin, dead black eyes, claw like hands, etc. Certain prompts will cause you to gain Marks and others remove them.


The Prompts

All this brings us to the actual prompts. There are about 80 of these in the “core” game (though the book includes scores more for use after you have played a few times and need fresh ones). They are numbered, and they progress roughly through the beginning, middle, and end of your vampire’s existence. For example, all the earliest prompts deal with experiences becoming a vampire while those in the 70s are how you meet your demise.


These are writing or thinking prompts, very open-ended. For example, prompt number one reads;


“In your blood-hunger you destroy someone close to you. Kill a mortal Character. Create one if none are available. Take the skill Bloodthirsty.”


From this you decide who the victim is, how exactly the death occurs, how this effects your character, etc. Since you start the game with mortal characters you created as part of the background, this might involve the trauma of killing someone who was part of your human existence.


Later, you encounter prompt number sixteen which reads;


“Some mortals have banded together to hunt you, well-armed and wise to your tricks. How do you defeat or evade them? Create a mortal hunter related to one of your checked skills. Check a skill.”


Here you would add a new Character to your sheet (the hunter) and check one of your skills to defeat them. You decide to use Bloodthirsty from prompt one, and then to proceed to describe how you do not go after the hunters, but instead hunt down and slaughter everyone dear to them until they are devastated and broken and give up their hunt.


Prompts are randomly determined by rolling a D10 and a D6, and subtracting the latter from the former. You then move forward, or back, to the corresponding prompt. If you land on a prompt a second or third time, extra variations of that prompt at give, the second and third in increasing severity and intensity.


In a quick play game you just answer these prompts, verbally or mentally. In a journaling game you might write an in-character diary entry to describe them, ending up at the end of the game with your very own vampire novella. 


Appendices and Final Thoughts

The appendices are full of extra prompts from various contributors, expanding the game in some very intriguing ways. There are interviews with the author, giving valuable insight into the game’s design, and there are ideas for group play. One involves exchanging letters with other players (or perhaps a shared online document) and having the vampire characters share Resources and Characters…sometimes stealing resources from another, or killing one of their Characters. The vampires of this game are not necessarily the political, clan-based infighting sort seen in the various iterations of Vampire, but they are apex predators who do not play well with rivals.


Which brings me to one of the final points about the game. There is no baked-in mythology here, no setting, not even a timeline (it is called Thousand Year Old Vampire but nothing stops yours from being 5000, or even 500). Does your vampire drink blood? Suck breath? Feed off the life-force of mortal lovers? Devour victims whole? Your Marks allow you to be as weird or unique as you like. The book reminds us that Google is our friend. With a bit of research you can play in any historical period you like, or even into the far future. Again the prompts are more creative writing tools than anything else, so the only practical limit is the players imagination.


But this is not a pretty game. You are running a character that has a mind and will of its own. The prompts will often tell you what your vampire has done, and then leave you to justify it. The central theme of it is loss: yes, the vampire is immortal, but absolutely everything around them rots and is lost to time. A secondary theme is reinvention. Your vampire will often willingly chose to forget their extensive knowledge of medieval heraldry or classical Latin in order to make room for computer programming, automobile driving, and the like. Thus the vampire moves through history, but retains no tangible hold on it. It is a lonely game, a scary game, and yes…an addicting one.


Available in PDF or in Print + PDF form. 

Thursday, April 15, 2021

THE BOOK OF DOOM: A JONSTOWN COMPENDIUM REVIEW

We need to talk about Simon Phipp.

While fanzines and later fan websites are a thing for most RPG settings, they have long been a very strong tradition for Glorantha. In part this is due to the fact that it is a lore-heavy setting. There is a lot out there to analyze, detail, and discuss. On the other hand, there is also the long-standing "Your Glorantha Will Vary" policy, meaning that how the setting appears at your table will differ from at other tables. This all but demands fans get out there and share what "their" Glorantha looks like. But the real culprit is probably RQ3, the third edition of the flagship Glorantha RPG RuneQuest published in the 80s and early 90s by Avalon Hill. 

For those of you who may not have lived through all of this, the story is detailed in Shannon Appelcline's terrific Designers & Dragons. In a nutshell, the relationship between Avalon Hill (RQ's publisher) and Chaosium (RQ's creator) was never a terrific one. The game, which had literally been created to showcase Glorantha, was turned into a generic system that could also be played in Glorantha. This was a turn-off to many fans (myself included). There were long stretches of time between the release of any Gloranthan materials, while generic products for vikings and ninjas appeared. As the new default setting of RQ was "Fantasy Earth," when Gloranthan products did appear they often presented the cultures of Glorantha as Earth-analogues, a problem that persists in Gloranthan gaming circles to this day. While all this would eventually lead Chaosium to pull the plug on the relationship, it also led to fans who decided to take matters into their own hands and create their own Gloranthan content. Here was the birth of the Gloranthan fanzine tradition.

For more details on all of this, just do yourself a favor and go read Shannon's books. I need to get back to Simon.   

Now, as any long-time Gloranthropologist will tell you, Simon is the author, curator, and custodian of Simon's Glorantha Pages. Never mind the quality. Feel the width. This online collection of Gloranthan lore has existed since time immemorial (I could be exaggerating), or at least to around the same time I arrived in Japan (just under 20 years but I assure you it feels like forever). All these years of producing fan material for Glorantha makes him, gentle reader, exactly the sort of creature the Jonstown Compendium is the ideal habitat for. He has mountains of material and he is going to use it.

It's been a bit over a year since the Jonstown Compendium--a place for Glorantha fans to publish materials--appeared, and in that time Simon has unleashed several projects including Secrets of Dorastor and Secrets of HeroQuesting. For people watching Simon's website, it felt like these projects had been brewing for awhile in his mind looking for a place to manifest. The same can be said for The Book of Doom, which simply put is the kind of resource you would have to be mad not to purchase. It's a compilation, or dare I even say a compendium, of spells and skills that Simon has obviously been working on for decades. To be exact, we are talking about 55 new RuneQuest skills, 89 new spirit magic spells, 22 sorcery spells, and 494 new Rune spells. Not enough for you?  Fine. Simon also delivers up new rule systems including Alchemy, with 15 alchemical "concoctions" and 11 ways of delivering them. If you still need more numbers tossed at you there are 4 new magic items and 7 new varieties of plant. You are never going to use everything in The Book of Doom, but you are definitely going to use some of it.



It is by default a RuneQuest resource, however. While most of it could be used in sister games like HeroQuest/QuestWorlds or 13G, it presents its materials through the lens of RQ.

There is not a lot of art in The Book of Doom, and it reads a bit like an encyclopedia, but that is essentially what it is. We are looking at years of ideas a Glorantha fan has come up with. Rather than going for a skills section, a spirit magic section, and a Rune spells section, the items are grouped together in fields or topics. For example, in the "Crafting" section Simon offers up some rules on crafting items, followed by specific crafting skills. Then comes a large selection of spells that relate to the creation and shaping of items. The same applies to realms like "Adventuring," "Agriculture," "Entertaining," "Love," "Twins," etc. It's a common sense, practical approach that arranges a lot of material in a way that is convenient to use.



To be certain, there is a ton of crunch in here, but it is not all crunchy. There are some very specific combat items like "Tooth Shattering Armor," a spell that like the name says basically protects against bite attacks, but also a lot of story-oriented, roleplay-heavy ones. "Plough Hard Earth" may not get a lot of adventuring use, but to a society like the Orlanthi it is far more valuable than "Bladesharp." There is plenty in The Book of Doom for those looking for magic and skills useful off of the battlefield.

Between this and Chaosium's The Red Book of Magic it is hard to imagine needing to come up with any more spells for your game. While the Red Book is a compilation of published spells, The Book of Doom expands on those with the author's own innovations and ideas. Filled with boxed texts and asides that explain the designer's thinking, The Book of Doom would be an extraordinarily useful tool for any RuneQuest campaign. To be clear, The Book of Doom is really just one author's take on the setting, and there will likely be areas where you disagree with Simon's choices. But this is essentially the way it has always been with the Glorantha fanzine tradition. Your Glorantha Will Vary, and The Book of Doom has a ton of ideas you will want to borrow to personalize your view of the setting.

Friday, April 9, 2021

NEPHILIM: KALIYUGA SESSION 1

This is the second in an ongoing series of articles about a campaign in Chaosium's 1994 Nephilim. In Nephilim, the player character is an inhuman elemental spirit that incarnates in a series of human hosts over the course of history. 


IN ENGLISH, THE SECOND TAROT TRUMP is usually labeled as number I, and called either the Magus or Magician. It is worth noting however it is often referred to as the "Juggler." That last appellation formed the inspiration for much of this session.



A frequent criticism of 1994's Nephilim is that it is essentially a game about "possession." I've already shared my thoughts on this elsewhere, but I think these criticisms have more to do with the blinders that secular humanism, Western culture's celebration of (obsession with?) "individuality," and two thousand years of the Gerasene demoniac story getting repeated have put on many potential players. After all, in RPGs you can play a professional killer, a tomb raider, or a blood-drinking monster, but if you play a spirit that incarnates in a human host people suddenly start developing qualms. As modern Westerners we have been taught that "uniqueness" and "autonomy" are the two greatest traits a person can possess, even though very few people actually possess them. Hermeticism directly challenges this assumption, and there is no way Nephilim could be authentic without doing so as well.

That aside, this session was a chance to dig into incarnation, and so we decided to frame it from the point of view of the simulacrum. What does incarnation feel like?

THE DARK NIGHT OF THE SOUL

Dr. Trevor Bennett, 42, is a Las Vegas-based forensic pathologist. He lives with his wife, Lucinda, and his daughter Marisol. On the surface his life appears suburban, successful, and happy. In reality, it is all caving in.

When I run Nephilim I always start from the perspective of the simulacrum, and I always ask the player to build a "dark night of the soul" into the backstory. The term comes to us from Catholic mystic St. John of the Cross (la noche oscura del alma), and signifies the spiritual crisis and crumbling of identity as one approaches union with God. It is hardly, however, limited to Catholicism. Buddha's confrontation with Mara on the eve of his enlightenment is another famous example. In many mystical traditions, the individual breaks down and endures a period of blackness before reintegrating and achieving union with a higher spiritual force. In Hermeticism, this is the alchemical process of nigredo. 

In Nephilim, the elemental spirit lacks a soul (Sol, Solar Ka). It is made of five other elements corresponding to heavenly bodies (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Luna) but has no center, no core. Humans possess only Solar Ka. Incarnation then is the reformation of a complete microcosm, with the Nephilim's elements coming into orbit around the human's Sol. It makes both the elemental spirit, and the human host, a complete being. But as the core element, Solar Ka can dominate the elemental forces, so prior to incarnation, the Nephilim blindly and instinctively seeks out hosts in a period of crisis, a moment of weakness when the Sol is wavering. 


For Trevor Bennett, this means being on the edge of losing everything. Years ago he was set up into spending the night with a prostitute by a local drug cartel, las Polillas Calaveras, the “Skull Moths” (Death’s Head Moths in English). They have been extorting him ever since into falsifying death reports, switching bodies, and lying about causes of death. Now, his ambitious younger rival, Dr. Emily Yang, has discovered his involvement with the Moths and has threatened to expose him if he doesn't step down.

Bennett is drinking too much and sleeping too poorly, his world about to end, when the incarnation occurs.

The session starts with a dream of listening to his mother playing piano downstairs, the metronome ticking. He awakes suddenly and hallucinates a gigantic serpent, like a constrictor, slithering across the carpet towards his bed (the player chose a Snake Metamorphosis). It is just a trick of the light. And yet he feels strongly a presence in the room.

THE JUGGLER
The next morning he awakes and climbs out of bed to go downstairs... only to suddenly find himself in a woman's body. The character's first incarnation was an Egyptian priestess (Nofretiti) in Thebes, 1350 BC, and Bennett is suddenly experiencing her memories. Befuddled, he struggles to understand where he is, who he is, and what is happening to him. The scene shifts again and he is now a man again on the streets of Elizabethan London (the second incarnation). Both hallucinations pass and he finds himself befuddled in his kitchen, his wife staring at him wondering why he hasn't gotten dressed for work yet while his daughter plays a game on her phone.

Bennett goes into the office and we introduce Emily Yang, and roleplay out the tension of the situation. Soon after, Bennett begins to hallucinate both Nofretiti and Avad Levinson (the Theban and Elizabethan incarnations), seeing them as people in the room only he can see or hear. They try to explain what has happened to him.

The elemental spirit never "speaks" in the session. Again, this is consistent with the idea that lacking a Sol, the Nephilim is not a person. The two previous incarnations, however, are fully realized identities that Trever Bennett now carries around inside him. Over the course of the campaign they will appear less and less to him as external beings as he integrates more with their memories, but early on they play the role of narrators easing him into his new reality. Bennett is "juggling" these identities around.

Bennett goes to the gang member who pulls his strings, Axel Escribano. He tries telling the gangster that he is not going to be able to go on as their man inside the crime lab much longer. Escribano, who is young, well-dressed, but with shockingly pink dyed hair, explains how unfortunate that would be for Bennett's wife and daughter and suggests taking Emily Yang "out."

Persuaded by the new voices in his head, Bennett attempts (and fails) a spell to seduce Emily Yang and bring her around to his side. This only makes matters worse and intensifies the trouble Bennett is in. That night, however, Yang is killed in a very convenient car accident, too convenient by far...

THE MAGICIAN
The previous incarnations urge Bennett to both find and locate his stasis object, as well as seek-out and make contact with his Arcanum, the Magician. Signs, omens, and Ka vision point him in the direction of the latter.

In our Nephilim Vegas, the Penn & Teller/Siegfried & Roy analogue is Black & White. Merlin Black and Arthur White run a nightly performance in the Luxor hotel and casino, and Bennett uses a lot of cash and resources to get a VIP backstage pass to their performance. Merlin Black is in fact Ras-khem-ka, a Nephilim Bennett knew previously in London as Dr. John Dee. Arthur White is the Magister Templi of the Stella Auream, a Rosicrucian society working unwittingly for Black. They will help Bennett seek out his stasis, but there is another complication coming...

THE VIRGEN NEGRA
The gang extorting Bennett all these years is a particularly vicious one, engaged in both human and drug trafficking between northern Mexico and the souther United States. Rumors are that they are run by a woman, called only la Virgen Negra (the Black Madonna). Merlin Black is extremely distressed to hear Bennett has dealings with this gang. He suspects the Black Madonna is not a woman, not human, and not even alive, but an ancient Aztec Selenim operating in the region for centuries. Bennett finds this a shocking coincidence that his life has been entangled with the world of the Nephilim all these years without knowing it. Merlin Black tells him there are no coincidences, and that it time he will understand that his life, and the existence of Temek'Tel (the Moon Nephilim incarnated in him) have been entangled all along.

Returning home that night, Bennett has a visitation from Emily Yang. Dead, nude, and showing her autopsy scars, she hovers inches about the ground staring at him. In Ka vision he sees her shrouded in dark tendrils of Black Moon Ka.

I see you, she says, but it is the Black Madonna doing the talking. 


Sunday, April 4, 2021

NEPHILIM: KALIYUGA Session O

IN THE TAROT, the Zero Arcanum is called "the Fool." At gaming tables, "session zero" has become a popular designation for getting the players together, creating characters, and talking about the game before actual play begins. The two concepts dovetail nicely, as the Fool is the card of initiation, of beginning from scratch, of starting from nothing.


Pre-pandemic I was running a Glorantha campaign, but that all went on hold last year, giving me time in the interim to collect that campaign and others into two books. I have never run a game online, and have been extremely resistant to the idea. As a means of sticking a toe into the waters of distance gaming, I decided to run a one-on-one session with one of my regular players. The game we chose was Nephilim.

I have already talked extensively about Nephilim here, here, and here, so I will spare you the introductions and just point you in those directions. Nephilim is one of my favorite pieces of game design in existence, but given its subject matter (and its extreme faithfulness to that subject matter), it is easy to see why many people just didn't "get it." Shams Shirley, one of the co-authors of the English edition, commented after my first Nephilim post;

The Chaosium edition of Nephilim was an alchemical work intended to catalyze gnostic awakening, or to move the (player) closer down that path. Not a great marketing strategy, & prone to misinterpretation because the reader sees into it only to the depth that they are able to understand.

I've had several discussions with Shams about that and I agree: Nephilim is hard to grasp if you come at it from the standard post-modernism of the 21st century. But then again, King Arthur Pendragon is hard to play if you don't understand concepts like chivalry, Call of Cthulhu loses something if you don't embrace the existential dread, and RuneQuest makes less sense if you don't grok the entire Bronze Age mythology approach. Nephilim is asking you to take a step that many find hard to do, namely to embrace the possibility that humans are not the pinnacle of existence, that there is a chain of being, and that humans cannot ascend it without help.

Fortunately that was not going to be an issue with my player, who, like me, is an occultist and an initiate in a Western esoteric tradition. So this time Nephilim was being tackled by two people who speak the language. My mission here, in these blog posts, is to try and make it accessible to everyone else, and show why the game is really not as hard to play as you might have heard.

The Campaign

The first English edition of Nephilim tapped heavily into the "millennialism" of that decade, with the Templar's "Plan" set to culminate in 1999 and waves of Nephilim awakening en masse to stop it. 22 years later, however, we are all still here. Fortunately, there is always an apocalypse somewhere on the horizon. For ours we need look no further than renowned mythologist and Traditionalist René Guénon, who wrote in his  Les Quatre Ages de L’Humanité that the Kali Yuga, the Age of Kali that we currently live in, was due to end in 2030. In this campaign then, The Nephilim were unable to stop the Templars back in 2000, and the Plan has begun. It will reach its climax in 2030, and if the Nephilim cannot stop it before then the world will be lost.

However, at the end of session zero I had the player draw three Tarot cards for the past, present, and future. The final card was, interestingly enough, the Fool. In Nephilim, the Arcanum of the Fool are those Nephilim who believe in the coming of messiahs, beings that are born as Nephilim and do not become Nephilim via incarnation. They acknowledge four; Akhenaton was the Messiah of Air, Moses of Fire, Jesus of Water, and Mohammed of Earth. Rumors haunt occult circles that back in 2000 the fifth and final Messiah, the Moon Messiah, was born and will come into their full power at the age of 30. So the elevator pitch might be:

As the Templar Plan enters its final stages, whispers abound that the Last Messiah walks hidden amongst us. As the circle comes to a close, is it a new beginning, or the end of all that is...

The Character  

When the idea to play Nephilim again came up my first impulse was to run it using Basic Roleplaying and "bolt-on" Nephilim elements. My previous posts had generated a lot of discussion in the gaming community and based on feedback the general consensus was that Nephilim had a lot of moving parts and could stand being streamlined a little. But it had been awhile since I had run it, and so the player and I decided to do it "as is" to make a fresh assessment of the game for ourselves. Going forward I will talk about some of the ideas for streamlining it, and what we ended up going with.

For the campaign, my conception was to run it from the point of view of the 21st century simulacrum. Incarnation occurs and the individual slowly starts remembering past lives and their Nephilim identity. In Basic Roleplaying, I would probably have had the players simply create a modern human character and as past lives came up in the game, add "Life Experience" for that particular period to the sheet. Life Experience already exists in Nephilim. It "is taken once for each historical period in which the Nephilim has lived. It deals with all cultural knowledge of a particular time and place..." (Nephilim, p. 98). My idea was to expand that to cover all skills the Nephilim might have believably learned in that past life. So if the Nephilim had been a medieval knight, horseback riding and the use of a long sword would be covered by the skill too. It would reduce all past life skills to just a couple of skills on the character sheet and eliminate the need for double skill columns (Nephilim and simulacrum).

As I said, we decided to play Nephilim straight up, however, so we created the character the standard way.

The player wanted an Onirim or Moon Nephilim, with a Serpent metamorphosis. We decided to use the Emotional Metamorphosis system from Chronicle of the Awakenings rather than the one in the core rules. With these choice made, the player selected Magician as the character's Arcanum, and we moved on to step 3, "past lives."

The player decided to go with two prior incarnations and we looked at the combined list of available periods from the Gamemaster's Companion for ones in which the Magician Arcanum was active. He decided to go with Thebes, 1350 BC (Akhenaton's Revolution) and London 1590 (The New Camelot). We read the descriptions of each period, which the player really got a kick out of, and followed the instructions in those sections. The first incarnation was a priestess, and he decided to go with Bast for her. The Nephilim's stasis was a statuette, so he made that of Bast as well. Jumping ahead, in London the player rolled an alchemist, and decided to make him Jewish. 

The process of determining past lives is repetitive (find out how old the simulacrum was when incarnation occurred and generate skill points from their age, find out how long they lived as Nephilim and generate occult development points from that) but not difficult, and going through the process made be discard the idea I had had for a Basic Roleplaying adaptation. Reducing all past life experience to a single skill reduces these past incarnations as characters. Taking the time to assign points to their skills fleshes them out, gives them substance, and makes them more real. We both liked the past lives section "as is."

I should note that for the first incarnation in Thebes, the only form of magic available was sorcery, and we decided to use the alternate sorcery system presented in Liber Ka. In the second incarnation, all magic systems were available and the player decided to set a few points into summoning.


The final step is to select the modern incarnation. I compiled a list and added a percentile roll to it to make the process random, while making it clear to the player if he didn't like the result he could roll again or just select.  The result was a doctor, a 42-year old forensic pathologist with a husband and child. He decided to keep the result but switched the gender to male.
 
It is never very difficult to create BRP system characters, and neither of us found Nephilim any exception. The rules are clear, and by the time we were done we felt we had a layered, complex character. The next session then will be about breathing life into it and the world.