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.

Saturday, September 17, 2022

The Media has a Dungeons & Dragons Problem

THE OLD ADDAGE tells us "lightning doesn't strike twice." Tell that to Dungeons & Dragons.

Created by Dave Arneson and Gary Gygax and published back in 1974, there is something about Dungeons & Dragons, or "D&D," that repeatedly makes it the focus of moral panics. It might have something to do with it being an entirely new kind of art form. There is a portion of the general public that cannot wrap their brains around role-playing games, of which D&D was the first. Things people don't understand, they fear.

In the 1980s it was the Right obsessing over the game. Frequently (and erroneously) blamed for suicides, murders and depression, in 1984 quoting a police chief the Omaha World Herald wrote:


[Dungeons & Dragons] appeals to very intelligent people, who use their imagination to manipulate characters and work through a series of mazes to achieve treasures and avoid falling into the dungeon. "My undertstanding [sic] is that once you reach a certain point where you are the master, your only way out is death," Stallcup said. "That way no one can beat you."

Obviously the only thing the article got correct was that D&D appealed to intelligent people.

The next year, American media company Knight-Ridder was covering attempts by a group called BADD ("Bothered about Dungeons & Dragons") and published the following little gem:

"Dungeons & Dragons is essentially a worship of violence," said Dr. Thomas Radecki of Champaign, Ill., a psychiatrist and chairman of the National Coalition on Television Violence in Washington, D.C. "...Talk to people that have played it. It's very fascinating. It's a game of fun. But when you have fun with murder, that's dangerous. When you make a game out of war, that's harmful. The game is full of human sacrifice, eating babies, drinking blood, rape, murder of every variety, curses of insanity. It's just a very violent game."

Shortly after this, of course, the same criticisms would refocus on video games, a narrative that continues to this day. Suffice it to say I have my doubts Dr. Radecki ever actually saw the game played. While some of those things do exist in D&D, they are also literary staples. You could find all of that in the Bible. More to the point, because those things might exist in the game it didn't mean D&D was condoning it. My feeling on the subject is best summarized by British occultist Aleister Crowley, who quipped "the world of magic is a mirror, wherein who sees muck is muck." The same is true of any art.

In 1986 the Richmond Times-Dispatch, under the headline "Game Said to Inspire Mind, Raise Satan" quoted Republican candidate for state attorney general Winston Matthews:

D&D teaches Satan-worship, spell-casting, witchcraft, rape, suicide and assassination.



This was at the start of the full swing "Satanic Panic," and literally hundreds of media articles would soon follow associating D&D with black magic and the Guy Downstairs. It became such a popular drum to beat that even 60 Minutes got on the bandwagon.

Now as I said, some of this had to do with people who didn't really understand what the game was. On the other hand, I think we could also say these criticisms came from people who could not fully separate fantasy from reality. D&D was, and is, a game. An entertainment. More to the point, it is a fantasy. Aside from elves and dwarves and orcs and dragons the game often featured a black and white cosmology where gods were real and concepts like Law, Chaos, Good, and Evil were concrete realities. This is not the world we live in. 

Well, not the world rational people live in.

But before we cluck our tongues at the silly right-wing religious nuts and their inability to separate make-believe from real life, the exact same thing is happening to D&D again these days...and this time it is coming from the pearl-clutchers on the Left.

Two days ago Gizmodo published an article "Why Race Is Still A Problem In Dungeons & Dragons." This is just the latest of a very long series. Last month the UK Independent asked "Can Dungeons & Dragons banish its racism problem?" Last year ComicYears informed us "Dungeons & Dragons Has A Race Problem They Aren't Doing Enough To Fix." And Wired told us in 2020 "Dungeon & Dragons' Racial Reckoning is Long Overdue."

The crux of this argument, if you can call it such, is summed up in the Gizmodo piece as "Racial bioessentialism is a core design crutch for Dungeons & Dragons." Bioessentialism is basically the idea that biology plays a larger role in identity than culture, socio-economic status, or environment. The article quotes Wizards of the Coast, the current publishers of D&D, who are trying to respond to the criticism:

“throughout the 50-year history of D&D, some of the peoples in the game—orcs and drow being two of the prime examples—have been characterized as monstrous and evil, using descriptions that are painfully reminiscent of how real-world ethnic groups have been and continue to be denigrated.” 

The article goes on to say:

With this one statement, WotC confirmed what most people already knew; that the fantasy of race in Dungeons & Dragons is sometimes racist in a way that reflects the racial dynamics that continue to oppress people of color across the world. To depict an entire group of people as “monstrous and evil”–e.g. because orcs are born to orc parents, they are evil–is the very definition of racial bioessentialism. To do so, even in fiction, is reductive and monolithic, and encourages real-world stereotyping at the expense of the racial “other.”

It is hard to know what to say to any of this, and what is truly remarkable is that D&D once again seems to be dealing with people who do not understand the concept of fiction. Yes, D&D had human sacrifice and devils and demons...but that did not mean it was encouraging such things. They were fictions within a story. And yes, D&D has malevolent beings. But so does folklore, and this is a game based in folkloric roots. Goblins and kobolds (both found in the game) date back in the English language to at least the 12th century, where they are described as wicked and evil entities. Dark Elves, the inspiration for the Drow mentioned above, are described in the Norse Eddas as being blacker than pitch and wicked. This was not a racial slur. The Dark Elves were "black" because they were the personifications of the underworld and night. 

D&D is a game with unicorns and dragons and gods and devils...things that do not exist. More to the point, many D&D campaigns assume the existence of moral qualities as concrete cosmological forces, just as Tolkien did. Good and Evil are as as real in these settings as heat and light...and that is why we call it fantasy. Orcs are not evil just because they were born to orc parents. They are evil because this is a fantasy game where evil is personified.

And in a case of history repeating itself, D&D is backing down. Back in 1989, the second edition of AD&D removed all references to devils and demons, assassins, thieves, and whatever else the morality police objected to. Today they are doing it again by capitulating once more. When the 3rd edition of D&D appeared in 2000, enough sanity had returned to the world that the devils and demons were put back in. Hopefully twenty years from now sanity will return again   

Are there people who will look at Orcs--as they have with Tolkien--and see real-world racism in them? Sure, but these are the people Crowley was talking about. They look in the mirror and see only what is in themselves.


Hat tip to Chris Higgins who wrote an article back in 2012 referencing one of mine. It gives a lot fuller treatment of the "D&D panic" of the 80s than I do here.




Monday, September 12, 2022

THE GROUNDING OF GLORANTHA: Making the Impossible Believable

Blood and Wood

I ran my current group through one of my favorite episodes of The Company of the Dragon yesterday.



"Blood and Wood" is the first chapter of a possible trilogy of stories in which the Company crosses paths with the Aldryami, the "elves" of Glorantha. In a relatively spoiler-free nutshell, the player characters are thrust between two factions in a land dispute that is spiraling out of control into ever-growing bloodshed. The Company can take one side or the other, try to make peace, or stay out of it. Each of those choices comes with consequences.

The scenario features my favorite thing about Glorantha: there are no "good guys" here. In the "Thoughts On Running Glorantha" section I wrote: 

Because the setting is all about the clash of cultures and religions--just as our own terrestrial history is--the tired cliches of black and white, good and evil, light and dark do not work terribly well in Glorantha and give way to more complicated shades of gray. The Lunar soldiers the Company fights are not orcs. They have spouses, and children, and loved ones. They follow a religion they believe in and follow an Emperor they see as just. It just so happens that their agenda is at cross-purposes with the wants and needs of the Sartarites. How far you rub the faces of the players in these uncomfortable facts is entirely up to you. The point is in Glorantha people fight because they differ, not because one side is “good” and the other “evil.”
The Company of the Dragon, p. 101

"Blood and Wood" is all about this. Both sides have done terrible things, both sides are out for blood, and both sides insist the other started it. If this were a different fantasy setting, the player characters would come across a poor group of villagers being terrorized by marauding orcs and know exactly what to to do. They are the "heroes," it is their job to defend them.

But "hero" is a word we need to use very carefully in Glorantha. It probably doesn't mean what you think it does.

Heroes

hero (n)
late 14c., "man of superhuman strength or physical courage," from Old French heroe (14c., Modern French héros), from Latin heros (plural heroes) "hero, demi-god, illustrious man," from Greek hērōs (plural hērōes) "demi-god," a variant singular of which was hērōe.

Going back to the ancient Greek, "hero" meant "demi-god." It signified a measure of divine power, not necessarily with any moral component or admirable qualities. When it first arrives in English it indicates the "superhuman," but as the Enlightenment arrived and humanity became ever more skeptical anything greater than us could possibly exist we applied the word ever more increasingly to ourselves:

a person who is admired for having done something very brave or having achieved something great 

the main character or the main male character in a book or film, who is usually good 

someone who you admire very much

Thus, Achilles is certainly a hero in the Greek sense, but his penchant for dragging his slain enemies around behind his chariot might disqualify him from the modern use of the term. Heracles is a Greek hero too, and while we can just overlook the nasty business of his murdering his own wife and children (cue the "Agatha" theme "it was Hera all along!") it's harder to give him a pass for flying into a rage when chastised by his music teacher Linus and then beating Linus to death with his own lyre.

The thing is, just like the Greek gods, the Greek heroes were morally ambiguous beings.

This is not to say they were not worshipped or admired: they were...but so too were the gods. And this is a point that brings us straight back to Glorantha. While the Greeks worshipped Achilles, the Romans were cooler on him. Virgil called him a merciless butcher. Horace called him a child murderer. Catullus and Ovid labeled him a rapist and pederast. Why? Because he was a Greek hero. Imagine what the Sartarities say about Jar-Eel the Razoress, or how they talk about Argrath in Glamour.

Glorantha, a Bronze Age world, leans towards the ancient Greek definition of hero. It doesn't mean "the good guy" and it doesn't mean a protagonist we should expect to save the day.

What's In A Name

I've already argued that I think RuneQuest qualifies, in many ways, as an "Old School" game. I won't reiterate those arguments there, save to summarize.

The general concept of "Old School" is that prior to 2000, RPGs--particularly fantasy RPGs--tended to focus on player characters who were weaker, more fragile, and more morally dubious than post-2000 RPGs. I don't necessarily agree with this. It lays too much blame (credit?) at Wizard's of the Coasts' door. I think the date can be pushed back further to 1990, but essentially there has been a decades long transformation of the player character into the "hero."

No? Go no further than to compare the 1st edition of the Player's Handbook to the 5th:




The 1st edition has a party of adventurers, surrounded by their retainers, in a dungeon. We see a few dead humanoids scattered about as they scrabble to pluck gems from a statue's eyes. 5th edition? A single character is taking on a giant, looking like they just stepped off the cover of a Marvel comic. In case the message is too subtle for you, the 5e cover tells you this book will help you create heroic characters (this is a step back from 2008's 4th edition, which preferred to straight up refer to player characters as "heroes").

This is a total, complete, transformation. Gary Gygax, author of the 1st edition, viewed a "campaign" as the adventures occurring within a specific sandbox. He would run multiple groups of players in the same sandbox and they all existed there at the same time. For example, if the Friday night group penetrated the local dungeon, and your group arrives on Sunday, you will find the goblins dead and the treasure looted. This is completely different from the modern definition, where a "campaign" is a bit like an ensemble TV show, the ongoing story of a specific group of characters. They are the stars. They are the heroes.

As this ideological shift occurred, game mechanics evolved as well to make the player characters stronger, hardier, more spectacular. They were given tools to control the narrative. Combats were expected to be balanced so that they were never too tough for the stars of the show. The days of the Old School meat grinder, where you might expect to go through several characters, are long gone (outside of the OSR or "Old School Revival" and a few throwbacks...like RuneQuest).

And this brings me back to Glorantha.

Hero Wars appeared in 2000, and appeared in a retitled edition in 2003 as HeroQuest. This was, officially, the new Gloranthan game. HW/HQ was very much a product of the new times. Player characters were referred to as "heroes," and it was a narrative system that moved away from RuneQuest's casual lethality and "let the dice fall as they may" ethos. It was followed in 2009 and 2015 by reworked editions of HeroQuest with a system that doubled down on the narrative approach and the "heroes" as the center of their story. Challenges, for example, were designed to scale compared to the number of adventures the characters--sorry, the "heroes"--had played. 

Now let's be totally clear here...HeroQuest was a design masterpiece. It did exactly what it was designed to do. And the argument could be made that it suits a world of Jar-Eels and Harreks and Argraths and Crimson Bats better than its predecessor.

My distaste for it was a matter of taste, that's all. Glorantha had always felt real to me because the world was so detailed, the cultures so believable, the magic system so solid, and the combat so simulationist. RuneQuest characters were not Hollywood action heroes. Encounters were not balanced. Combat wasn't "sport" it was "war." Sometimes, characters failed. They failed often and sometimes unfairly. They were driven by beliefs and loyalties and ambitions. Glorantha felt real to because the system was grounded and because the world did not revolve around the player characters. It operated by its own rules, not the needs of their arcs. 

And RuneQuest underscored this by calling them "adventurers," not "heroes."

Back to Blood and Snow

The reason I dragged you down this detour was because the game last night didn't just exemplify what I love about Glorantha but also about RuneQuest. Not only was the Company dragged into this messy conflict, the dice were truly against them.

Though they attempted, valiantly, to talk to the two sides out of open war, every chance at persuasion failed (and in some cases backfired). The result was tragedy as the Company looked on and the two sides went into battle.

Now, these players were introduced to Glorantha through the HeroQuest version of Six Seasons in Sartar. While they had replayed Six Seasons in RQthey are only a few seasons into the sequel, and this was the first time, really, that they experienced the design approach differences in the two games. 

Being Old School, RuneQuest requires more strategy and planning than many modern games. This is true of combat, but also other aspects of the game. If you just charge in, expecting the game mechanics to support that approach, the dice will likely show you the error of that decision. The issue from my perspective as a long-time RQ player is that they didn't come up with a unified strategy. Each player character tackled the problem themselves, from their own angles, just as game designs which tell you that you are the "hero" condition you to do. They didn't tackle it as a "team."

The good news is that all enjoyed the session--and it is my hope that they will come to embrace the "Tao of RuneQuest" after a few more sessions and see that failure also drives forward the game. Dice, like life, are cruel, but that is all part of the experience. For me, it might have been my favorite session thus far, showcasing why Glorantha and RuneQuest are an unbeatable combination. Once you set aside the hero moniker and the expectations that come with it, the real adventure begins.      


  

Sunday, September 11, 2022

GHOST STORIES: PETER STRAUB (1943-2022)

A Brief Bit of Autobiography


When I was seventeen, I wrote my first play.


My English teacher persuaded me to do it. New York was launching the first “Young Playwrights Competition,” and she knew that I was a writer. She thought the competition was ideal for me. I was not as certain, however. I’d written two novels by that time, and a number of short stories, but never a play. Prose was more my thing. Still, my teacher was persuasive and the prize—seeing your play produced and staged—was too tempting to pass up. I decided to give it a try.


Mara ended up taking first place out of five hundred entries (as a side note I entered again the next year with The Wine of Violence and took first place again). It was the story of three young men who reunite a year after they were all in a horrific car accident. One of them was left paralyzed from the waist down. One of them was traumatized (what later we would call PTSD). The third—the driver during the accident—is blasé about the entire thing. There was, however, a fourth victim that night…the young woman driving the car they collided with. She was killed.


No sooner do they reunite than a sudden blizzard—the same weather conditions as the night of the accident—snows them in. Housebound, the power and phones go out. There is the sound of an accident and a young woman stumbles to the door before collapsing. They take her inside and tend to the unconscious stranger.


As they do, hidden resentments slowly surface. The traumatized young man resents the driver, who seems completely callous about the incident. The young man in the wheelchair resents the other two for being able to walk away from the accident. The driver resents that the other two hold him responsible, that they seem to think he should feel guilty. Tensions mount and it ends in murder and suicide. Only the wheelchair bound narrator remains…and the unconscious guest.


She awakes soon after the violence, and (you guessed it) confirms she was the fourth victim that night. Just as the wheelchair bound man invited the other two, he summoned her from the grave. This was his revenge as much as hers. When the ghost vanishes we are left with the narrator, who stares out into the blizzard and debates rolling out into it to quietly freeze to death.


I received a lot of praise for Mara. The editor of the Albany paper said it exemplified all the classic conflicts, man versus man, man versus himself, man versus nature, man versus the supernatural. The reviews were generally positive. I worked closely with the director, and was there for the auditions and castings, and took my bow hand-in-hand with the company at the end of opening night. For a young writer, it is the kind of validation you dream of. I was very lucky.


Before writing Mara, I had gone back and researched the craft. I read every play I could get my hands on. Shakespeare. Ibsen. Williams. Miller. That was how I learned stage directions and the inner workings of a play. But what people asked me most about it was where the idea had come from. What my inspiration was. 


The answer to that was simple. 


Peter Straub.


Ghost Stories


Peter Straub (1943 - 2022) left us last week. I was deeply saddened by his passing. While pre-teen me was inspired to write by Stephen King, adolescent me was driven by admiration for Straub. To my mind, Peter Straub was to the ghost story what Shirley Jackson was to the haunted house novel.  He was the master of the genre. Straub’s ghosts—always female—are not insubstantial wraiths but manifest as flesh and blood entities. They haunt by corrupting their victims and inducing mental breakdowns. Here, I’d like to talk about three of my favorites. 


1975’s Julia was Straub’s first foray into the genre. A young American woman living in London flees her domineering husband (with the aid of his younger brother, and it is unclear if he does this out of genuine concern for Julia, desire for her, or just to piss off his brother). She has just recovered from a mental breakdown in the wake of killing her own daughter. The little girl had been choking to death, and Julia performed a tracheotomy to try and save her. But as soon as Julia moves into her new house, there are disturbances, which may or may not be hauntings. She begins to catch glimpses of a little blonde girl who looks strikingly like her daughter. The most dramatic is at a park near her home, where she spies the girl in a sandbox…


Almost immediately, she saw the blonde girl again. The child was sitting on the ground at some distance from a group of other children, boys and girls who were watching her…the blonde girl was working at something intently with her hands, wholly concentrated on it. Her face was sweetly serious…this is what gave it the aspect of a performance…


When Julia goes back to the sandbox she finds a turtle mutilated in the sand. It looks like the blonde girl had given it a tracheotomy.


Things intensify and Julia cannot be certain if this girl is a hallucination, a ghost, her daughter, or her husband trying to drive her mad.


Straub followed this with 1977’s If You Could See Me Now. Miles Teagarden is a recently widowed English professor who returns to the rural community where his grandmother once lived to write his dissertation. Or so we are at first led to believe. In the summer of 1955, Miles and his cousin Alison—whom he was in love with—made a promise to meet up there again twenty years later, in 1975. That is what brings him back. The only catch is that Alison died that summer…and he is expecting her to keep her promise anyway.


No sooner than he takes up residence there young girls begin getting murdered in the community, just as Alison had been. The police suspect him. He suspects Alison. And the reader is not quite sure who to trust.


The novel that put Straub on the map, however, was 1979’s Ghost Story.




Probably his most famous solo work (Straub cowrote both The Talisman and The Black House with Stephen King), Ghost Story is a ghost story about ghost stories. A group of old men, the “Chowder Society,” hold meetings where they tell each other ghost stories, each of which the reader gets to share. They are bound together by a terrible secret. When they were college boys, a mysterious older woman came into their lives, seducing them, playing mind-games with them, and ending their innocence. An argument and some alcohol leads to them accidentally killing her, and then hiding the body and covering the murder up.


Meanwhile, Donald Wanderly, the nephew of one of these men, becomes a successful author and lands a university teaching position. There, he meets and falls in love with a beautiful young graduate student, Alma Mobley. But there is something wrong with Alma, something cold and alien that becomes ever more evident in the relationship. One of the most chilling scenes comes when he touches her skin one night and feels an electric shock of revulsion, as if he had just touched a dead body or slug. Later, he wakes to find her standing naked in front of the window. He asks her what’s wrong and she answers “I saw a ghost.” Later, he begins to believe she said “I am a ghost,” and later still…”you are a ghost.” When he ends the relationship Alma re-emerges engaged to his brother soon after. Donald tries to warn him about Alma but his brother dismisses it all as jealousy. Then the brother ends up committing suicide.


The members of the Chowder Society reach out to him for help as they become increasingly convinced their past has come back to haunt them, that the woman they killed is back and may have indeed been his Alma. There is more at work here than this, however, and they begin to understand the nature of the shape shifting horror they are dealing with. Wanderly kidnaps a little girl he firmly believes is the latest manifestation of Alma, and in this interaction we get to the heart of the novel and its conception of the ghost story:


Okay, let’s try again,” he said. “What are you?”

For the first time since he had taken her into the car she really smiled… “You know,” she said.

He insisted. “What are you?”

She smiled all through her amazing response. “I am you.”

“No. I am me. You are you.”

“I am you.


Straub is perfecting a thesis here he proposed first in Julia, namely that the Ghost is really ourselves. He frames Ghost Story with the myth of Narcissus, because for him the ghost is our own reflection and our morbid obsession with it. Julia is haunted by her past, by the death of her daughter. Miles Teagarden is haunted by the memory of Alison and the effect her death had on his life. The Chowder Society is haunted by the woman they killed. None of these people can let the past go, and by staring back into the abyss of their traumatic experiences, the abyss in turn stares back into them. 


Straub went on to write several novels in multiple genres. Shadowland is a fantasy novel about a magician who learns real magic, Koko is a novel about Vietnam, The Hellfire Club is a straight up thriller, et cetera. But to my mind, his ghost stories were a high water mark, not merely for him but for that form of literature.  



Tuesday, August 30, 2022

ULYSSES: AKA "WHY HEROQUESTING IS EASIER THAN YOU THINK"

MY FATHER LIKED TO ASSIGN BOOKS for me to read. Then he would quiz me about them at the dinner table. One of my clearest memories is of Jame Joyce's Ulysses, which being a mythology nut I clicked with long before my father thought I would. "What do you think about the title?" He asked me. "Ulysses is the Latin name for Odysseus. He is basically saying that any man who leaves his wife to go to work every day and manages to come home to her has experienced the Odyssey for himself."

I don't recall getting any bonus allowance but I should have for that answer. Yes, I am being facetious, but the point here is that heroquesting is easier than you think.

Wait...what?

"Heroquesting" is a magical and religious practice in Greg Stafford's fantasy world, Glorantha. I've written about it extensively both in Six Seasons in Sartar, The Company of the Dragon, and as part of the Chaosium team for an upcoming release. It is, basically, a "vision quest" yet also the same thing that the ancient Greeks invented drama for. The idea is a simple one, if you can think like a Traditional person. The problem is, most of us have never been taught to. Quite the opposite really.

In a nutshell: there is the mortal world inside of Time and the immortal world outside of It. Why does it rain? In the mortal world water evaporated into the atmosphere condenses back into water and raindrops form. But this is the effect, not the cause. No. Let me tell you a story. 

Once, the Blue Dragon Vritra swallowed all the waters of the world. Indra, chief of the gods, had the smith god Tvashtr create the "thunderbolt" (Vajrayudha) for him. With it he slays Vritra and releases all the waters of the world from the "blue" sky. In doing so Indra makes himself both the storm and rain god.

Now. In the Traditional perspective, both things could be true. Here inside of Time, water condenses and rains back to Earth. But outside of Time, all this happens because Indra fought Vritra. It formed a pattern, a fact. 

And let me stop you before you utter those poisonous words "that is just a myth." You have, as a victim of the Post-Modern world, been taught that only one thing can be true. In ancient India, they were wiser. They also told a story about Indra and rain that had nothing to do with Vritra.

In this tale, a sage is meditating under a tree. Understand, in ancient India, there is nothing more dangerous than pissing off a sage, because they practice austerities, acts of sacrifice that earn them enlightenment and magical powers. Well, the part I have left out so far is that elephants--the sacred mount of Indra--once had wings. They lived in the sky. One elephant alighted on a branch in the tree over the sage's head, and depending on which version you hear, either the branch broke and the elephant's fall disturbed the meditating sage or (more colorfully) the elephant relieved himself and the sage became covered in elephant dung. Ladies and gentlefolk, if you have seen elephant dung, you will understand the sage's displeasure.

So the sage, quite angry, full of Rune points from his many sacrifices, lets the elephant have it. He curses the elephant and all his descendants to never fly again. This leads however to the widespread Indian belief that elephants bring rain. Why? Allow me to paint a picture...elephants are big, gray, thundering, and shoot water from their trunks. Basically, they are clouds. The idea goes that the sky elephants like to visit their terrestrial kin and bring the rain with them.

So, you that is just a myth crowd, the Indians had two stories about Indra and rain. They considered both true, and at the same time their philosophers knew perfectly well rain occurred because water evaporated, rose up, cooled and condensed, and came down. These people were not stupid. We get chess and the concept of Zero from them. But all of these things could be true. All of these things were true. Because condensation is a fact of the mortal world. Flying elephants and Vritra are facts of the immortal world. Facts of the immortal world are called Myths, meaning a story that is true, but we are only capable of grasping a fraction of. Myths can contradict themselves because each is a facet of the Truth.

Glorantha assumes the Traditional viewpoint is the correct one (except for some of those nasty Malkioni, the Westerners who deny the reality of Other People's Truths and assume they know the One True Way).(1) As a consequence the peoples of Glorantha have a wide variety of myths. Heroquests are when you leave the mortal world, enter the immortal, and experience the truth of it for yourself. 

This brings us back to vision quests and Greek drama. These were both attempts to leave the mortal world and interact with the deeper, richer, immortal one. Playing RuneQuest is another form, leave the round mortal world for the flat immortal one. So at last, we return to James Joyce.

Heroquesting is easier than you think.

People new to RuneQuest often have a lot of trouble with the concept. "Cross over? Cross over to where?" "What does it look like?" "What are the game mechanics?" "What do we do there?" Well I have answered these. Simon Phipp has answered these. Chaosium will soon give a definitive answer to these. But if you are asking "what is heroquesting?" and you expect a rules answer, you are never going to get there.

Heroquesting is a perception. It is the sheer acceptance that everything mundane is also sacred and magical. That everything local is also infinite. That your experiences are the experiences of heroes and gods. That the simple act of going to work and coming home to your wife everyday is the Odyssey.

It is my habit to write in the mornings and then take a walk. Bear with me here.

I live in Tokyo, one of the most urbanized places in the world. Across the street, however, is a river, and across that river is a large park stretching for kilometers along the water. My walks there are heroquests.

1. At a sacred time (my afternoon break) I go to a sacred place (the edge of the bridge). 

2. Before I go I prepare myself. Soma is hard to get these days so I settle with the traditional Orlanthi Widebrew: I have a libation before I set out. This is my entheogen.

3. Fortified I "cross over" (the bridge) to the "Other Side" (in this case of the river. 

4. I follow a Path. This is a path laid out by those who came before me. In this case, a literal one, but in Glorantha, a story or Myth.

5. Now the trick on any sacred journey like this one is to experience it as the immortal world, not the mundane. Everything that happens is part of the Myth. It is all pregnant with meaning. Today, as soon as I had "crossed over" I was set upon by Heler, the God of Rain.

6. Now I was armed against their attack (Heler is non-binary). Having consulted sages beforehand (the weather channel) I knew he was lurking. I had the Sacred Shade Maker and Rain Shield (an umbrella).

7. Still, Heler was right wroth (okay, I am straying into Pendragon territory with the vocabulary there). So I sought shelter amongst the daughters of Aldrya (I hid under trees).

8. I was not alone long in my shelter. Grandmother Mortal (random Japanese pensioner) emerged from the woods to join me. She was not armed against Heler.

9. We spoke awhile shielded by the daughters of Aldrya. I soon realized this was the climax of the heroquest, the supreme test. So I insisted she take my Sacred Shade Maker and Rain Shield. I knew, of course, that all heroquests require a sacrifice after all. 

10. Let before I left, she bestowed upon me a Boon. Grandmother Mortal instructed me on Fate.  "I thought I would be soaked and get pneumonia tonight, but then I ran into a kind young man who helped me. This is what my grandmother taught me. If you have faith in things they usually turn out right." With this Boon I undertook the Return and faced the fury of Heler alone.

11. Finally, the most important part of any heroquest, I came back to share the story with my Tribe.

So you see, when you sit down to write or run a heroquest at your table, don't get hung up on The Myth. There is never The Myth. There are infinite ones. Don't get caught up on the details of the Hero Plane or the gods encountered or the stages of Campbell's bloody Hero's Journey. Like Joyce, just have them go out the door but make the experience mythic. They are already on a flat world shaped by the gods, draw attention to that, make it feel myth, and understand that anything undertaken during the quest has Mythic Import.

Do that, and you have a heroquest.      

(1) Usually I avoid footnotes, but this one is too good to resist. Greg Stafford's cultures all derive from various global myth-types. Orlanthi mythology is built on the old Indo-European model, for example. But the Malkioni, with their One God and their humanistic materialism and their science and their colonialism, are clearly Western mythology...basically Greg's way of saying that our absolute assurance that elephants never flew and Vritra is just a myth is itself just a myth. The God Learners were reductionists like Marx or Fraiser or Freud who thought they could reduce global mythologies to a single theory, and the world destroyed them for it. And like the God Learners, our empire is being threatened by the seas rising from the consequences of our arrogance.


    

  

Sunday, August 28, 2022

LOOKING FOWL AND FEELING FAIR: DUCKS INVADE THE JONSTOWN COMPENDIUM

“I see. I look foul and feel fair. Is that it?”

- Strider, The Fellowship of the Ring



GREG STAFFORD's "GLORANTHA" is a flat world floating on a cosmic ocean. The sky is a dome. Metal comes from the bones of dead gods. Elves are sentient trees. Giant babies float down river on ark-sized cradles, and once my player character was hired by a talking fish. Yet with all this wonderful madness, the one element of Glorantha that is certain to generate controversy and complaints are the Ducks.

"Durluz," if you're nasty.

Ducks have been there from the beginning. "This is a race," RuneQuest informed us in 1978, "cursed by the gods during the Great Darkness...(i)t is unknown whether they were originally human and became feathered and web-footed, or originally ducks cursed with flightlessness and intelligence." Hardly comical, they are a cynical and grim race who manage to survive on the edge of Delecti the Necromancer's marsh. Hunted and hated, it is seldom wise to piss one of the little buggers off.

I am firmly in the camp that loves the Durulz, and when the AD&D crowd used to sneer at our Gloranthan Ducks back in high school I sneered right back at their hairy-footed halflings. I am loud and proud in my Duck defense. And thank the gods that I am clearly not alone. Authors Drew Baker (Highways and Byways, Return to the Big Rubble, Gloranthan Family Backgrounds, etc)  and Neil Gibson (Legion) have joined forces on not one, not two, but four Duck-tastic Jonstown Compendium releases (the fourth as of this writing is not yet released) detailing the race. With a wink and a nod to the classic Gloranthan Trollpak they are calling the line DuckPac. 

DuckPac has been released separately, but I suspect we might get a bundle down the road (this has been the pattern with Baker's releases). I will talk about the three titles currently available here.

Book 1: Myths, Legends, & Lore is pretty much as the title says, a 52-page PDF  introducing the Durulz of Dragon Pass. The real meat of the book begins on page 12, where the Ducks tell us their origins, how they came to be named, all about their culture and lifestyle, then about their anatomy. 

There is then a long and frankly moving section on the "Duck Hunts," one of the darkest chapters of their recent history. This is where the Duke paradox (see, I resisted the urge to say "pair of ducks" there) is truly highlighted. Our first instinct is to see them as comical, but in reality, Glorantha uses the Ducks to explore some very dark territory indeed. The "Duck Hunts" are nothing less than a pogrom, an attempt at genocide that mirrors some of the least savory chapters of terrestrial history. The treatment the authors give it here is grim--this is not a book for kids--but masterfully illustrates why the Ducks are far more than a punch line. They are, in fact, the underdog and a very persecuted minority. The secton on the "Duck Hunts" drives that home beautifully.

The book finishes out with a gazetteer of Durulz lands, complete with a map (see below). 


Book 2: Duck Adventurers is 90 pages on creating Duck player characters. This book mirrors the "Adventurers" chapter of the core RuneQuest rules and like them, includes several pregenerated characters. They start with Homeland and then go into Family History, which includes a section on the infamous "Duck Hunts," a generational trauma that will likely color your character's perceptions and feelings. Rune affinities follow, as do Characteristics, Occupations, and Cults. There are not a lot of surprises here. Occupations are familiar to us from the core rules but rewritten with a Duck focus (and we do have the new Occupation "Kafari," Ducks who master the business of river trade). There is a Duck name generator, the return of the "What the Such-and-Such Tells Me," a popular RQ/Glorantha tool that has an elder of the culture answering questions for younger members, and a terrific end section on playing Ducks. This includes a new table of Duck-sized weapons, a discussion of Duck movement rates, how to address the stereotypical "cowardice" of Duck characters, and a surprisingly detailed section on underwater combat. Then, if this was not enough, a terrific section of Duck specific items and artifacts. We finish with pregenerated characters and a sample Duck settlement.


Now, before we get on to book three, we need to talk about art and layout.

I've been saying in several of these reviews that it is really getting harder to tell what is a Chaosium product and what is a Jonstown Compendium product these days. DuckPac exemplifies this. With art credits going to Drew Baker, Neil Gibson, Tania Rodriguez, Rick Hershey, Lee O'Connor, Dominic Reardon, John Spelling & Forge Studios, these are the best looking Ducks I have seen in 40 years of playing RuneQuest. The tables, the maps, the diagrams, all are top notch. See for yourself:

Click to enlarge




With Book 3: Redfeather Dreaming we have a 133-page soloquest, a tradition I know I am not alone in being delighted to see revived for RuneQuest. Obviously this is the book I can say the least about, but it consists of more than 300 scenes or "story fragments" that have a high degree of replayability and could easily be adapted for a GM to run for a player. 

While the Ducks have had a sourcebook before (Mongoose published a Duck book for their version of the game), this is the first time we have ever seen anything worthy of the classic TrollPak. DuckPac is brilliant, a cohesive, sensitive, and sometimes tongue-in-cheek examination of what arguably is Glorantha's most iconic species. It's a "must have." 

Friday, August 12, 2022

NOBILIS: THE 2022 RERELEASE

The wind told me once that everybody gets to play a game of Nobilis before they die. Maybe it’s in their secret dreams. Maybe it’s in real life. But everybody gets to experience the world of the Nobilis once—to leave behind the dead world where things don’t talk to you and nobody knows the purpose of the world, for at least one night, and see the truth...

Nobilis, p. 7

When all else fails, start with a Kenneth Hite quote:

Imagine Neil Gaiman's Sandman and Clive Barker's Hellraiser on an absinthe bender, with flowers. That's Nobilis.

Hite wrote that twenty years ago, but it still is the best summary of the game I can think of. Nobilis is about mere mortals who have a god bury a piece of its soul inside them, transforming them into quasi-divine beings connected to one of the fundamental building blocks of creation. Whatever you were before, now you are Gravity, or Longing, or Autumn, or War. You are a "Noble" or "Nobilis," the heart and mind of the Estate stuck inside you. Your job is to govern it, to protect it, to serve it.

This is not just a superpower. Sure, the Power of Architecture can conjure buildings up from the dust, plant blueprints in an architect's mind, or create a secret floor in that skyscraper that no one else can find, but it's deeper than that. When the newlywed couple in Boise remodels their kitchen, you feel the tickle as they apply paint to the walls. When that earthquake in Japan levels a village, you feel the sting of every collapsed wall. You are Architecture, from that tree house in Oregon to the silver palaces in Heaven. The very concept lives inside you.

And this is why a god handed the Estate to you. See, the world is not what we think it is. Earth is just one of a billion worlds hanging in the branches of Yggdrasil, the World Tree. That Tree is surrounded by a wall of blue flame and beyond it...is Nothing. The Void. That is where they come from, the Excrucians. Appearing as impossibly beautiful men and women, mounted on pale horses and with black eyes filled with falling stars, they are the emissaries of oblivion. They have come to erase the cosmos one concept at a time. The "gods" (more accurately the Ymerae or Imperators) are at war with these Excrucians for the fate of all existence. To keep the Estates an Imperator embodies safe, they create Nobles. For example, when Baraqiel the Imperator of Thunder, Terror, and Reversals went to war, it likely created three Nobles: Thunder, Terror, and Reversals. As Baraqiel fights the Excrucians, those Nobles govern and maintain the Estates. If Baraqiel falls, those Estates are not erased from existence, but remain alive so long as the Nobles do.

Imagine the Imperators as crystal snakes: blue crystal, green crystal, red crystal— every color in the world. Where do the snakes come from? They create themselves, pulling themselves by force of will from nothingness. The snakes writhe one about another, a blind, squirming, undulating mass. From above, there shines a light.
It passes through the crystal snakes and forms a pattern of shifting, mixed, twisted colors on the void. 
That is Creation.

Nobilis, p.  17

So what do they do, these Nobles? 

Aside from defending and furthering their Estates (the Power of War, for example, runs around the globe or sends agents to undermine peace treaties and ignite conflicts), a Noble works with their siblings to run their Imperator's chancel. The chancel is a sort of "pocket dimension," the seat of the Imperator's power, and the Imperator's Nobles must run it together. In the example above, Baraqiel's Nobles (each a player character) work together as a kind of Noble family to rule the chancel. Chancels might appear as anything--a Renaissance Italian city, a castle in the clouds, a fortress on the back of a giant turtle--but they are usually inhabited by subjects and worshippers of the Imperator and need to be managed just like any mortal realm. Side note, the players will create the chancel, and their Imperator, as part of the character creation process.

Aside from Estate management and chancel governance, the Nobles thwart the machinations of the Excrucians and their agents, navigate Noble politics, and explore the Mythic Realms. They also pursue their own "projects." Perhaps the Power of Architecture wants to push 21st century humanity to create the first Arcology (a joint venture, perhaps, with the Power of Ecology?). Perhaps the Power of Reassurance wants to ensure no child ever again fears the monster in the closet or hidden under the bed. 

How do they do any of this? Let's talk system.

In the First Age, we lived in harmony.
In the Second Age, we were at war.
It was not until this, the Third Age, the Age of Pain, the
Age of the Excrucian War, that anyone seriously considered the possibility that the world itself could die; but now we know it likely will.

Nobilis, p. 154

Nobilis eschews dice. Play is driven by resource management and improvisation.

At its core, all characters have various statistics rated 0 to 5. When tested, they use the appropriate trait and compare it to a difficulty between 0 and 9. If the trait is equal to or higher than the difficulty, the character succeeds.

In addition to these traits, characters will have a pool of points available to them that they can add to these traits to beat higher difficulties. If a character with a trait of 1 is facing a difficulty of 5, they spend 4 points from their pool. 

There is a catch. These points must be spent in the following increments: 1, 2, 4, or 8. If the difficulty above was 6 rather than 5, the character would need to spend the full 8 points.

In any contest between two characters, the higher total wins.

Now, what these traits are, and what pools you can use to augment them, will vary based on the kind of character you are playing at the time. Yes, you heard me right: "at the time." There will be times when you are playing your Noble and other times when you might be playing one of your Noble's human (or inhuman) agents. 

Mortals, for example, have Passions and Skills they use in tests, augmented by a pool called Will. Two characters get into a brawl in an alleyway. One has the skill "Boxing 3" and the other has the Passion "Win at any cost 2." Boxing will win the challenge unless the other character spends Will, and Boxing could also spend Will to come out on top. Other factors come into play, though, including situational ones. "Win at any cost" looks at her GM and asks "we are in an alley, is there a bottle I can break and use as a weapon?" The GM might say "yes" and her character now gets a +1 or +2 boost. Or, her opponent might have "Cool," a catch-all defense trait that subtracts from opponents' attacks.

Nobles are of course more complicated. The game is about them, after all.

Nobles have four core traits. Aspect is body and mind, and as a sign of their power, the scale is utterly different than what a mortal has to work with. A mortal might face a difficulty of 9 to perform like an Olympic athlete. A Noble faces a difficulty of 2 or 3. Past 5 they perform physical and mental feats no human could dream of. At difficulty 6 a Noble could defeat 500 armed men armed with only his bare hands, or at 7 drink one of the Great Lakes dry. 

Domain and Persona both govern use of the Noble's estate. Domain governs the Estate itself, the "substance" of it, while Persona governs how the Estate interacts with the world. The Power of Fire could use Domain to cause a mortal to spontaneously combust, but Persona could make a mortal more fiery tempered.

Treasures governs a Noble's Anchors. These might be NPC servants, mundane objects, or at higher levels magical objects or wondrous beings. In Neil Gaiman's Sandman, for example, Dream's helm, bag of sand, and ruby amulet were all Anchors.

Each of these comes with a pool of 5 points to spend on that trait alone. These pools can be increased with character points or later over the course of the game.

Nobles will have both Bonds and Afflictions, flaws or vulnerabilities that help characters replenish their point pools (humans can replenish Will similarly or through sleep). Bonds are triggered by the player, while Afflictions are the province of the GM.


They rode into the world at the beginning of the Age of Pain. They rode pale horses and carried these horrible weapons—these soul-cutting atrocities that can destroy even nominally immortal things. They broke down the gates of Heaven and slaughtered amongst the Angels before the Angels gathered and threw them back, and since that time, their assault has not relented, but rather only dispersed, with the Imperator-Excrucian War being waged at any given time on dozens of the endless worlds upon the Ash and occasionally slipping upwards to Heaven, downwards into Hell or sideways onto the trunk of the World Ash itself.

Nobilis, p. 160

So what is different about this, the 2022 Rerelease?

Visually, in terms of layout, graphic design, and tone this is a return to the 2nd edition, the Great White Book. At the same time it has all the innovations of the 3rd. The setting is more clearly defined and explained, the material is more approachable. There is a terrific "lifepath" system (totally optional) that guides bewildered new players through the maze of Noble character design, and the rules for mortals are a terrific innovation. I had serious reservations--the 2nd edition sits high in my pantheon of the greatest games ever--but the 2022 Rerelease supplants it hands down.

Author Jenna Katerin Moran's prose (the 1st and 2nd editions were written under the name R. Sean Borgstrom) has never been better. One does not often read games for pleasure but Nobilis is hours of pure delight: 

You can survive anything. You don’t need air. You probably don’t even care whether you have air. You don’t need food or water. You can handle being thrown in a giant blender. Maybe the blades break on your legs, maybe you reflexively turn into protoplasm and reform, maybe you emerge on the other side with a torn sleeve and a dramatic nick on your cheek. It’s just being thrown in a giant blender, so, you know, whatever. There’s no point stabbing you. There’s no point nuking you. If someone throws you out of an airplane without a parachute you are going to be upset about possibly missing your connecting flight.

from the "Active Immortality" Gift, p. 128

All in all this is a masterpiece edition of the game. Go. Go and buy it now (as off this writing it is available at a sale price).



Thursday, August 4, 2022

THE CATTLE OF CTHULHU, a review of GET ALONG, LITTLE DOGIES

IT IS GENERALLY AGREED that 1979's Alien is essentially H. P. Lovecraft in space. It's not a perfect match--HPL was not big on working class heroes and no one delivers long monologues on the insignificance of humanity or the benefits of ignorance--but hey, one of the survivors is a cat, and that he would have approved of. The gist of the film is a group of people are out traveling the space lanes when they run into something, well, alien. Not Star Trek or Star Wars alien, no, this is the kind of alien that the more you think about facehuggers the longer you are put off wanting sex. The kind of alien that you cannot wrap your brain around. The kind of alien that is inimical to humanity.

Now I mention Alien because the crew of the USCSS Nostromo are just hard-working folks out there in the middle of nowhere doing their jobs, people trying to put food on the table. They weren't asking for any of this. They are not big bad space marines out on a bug hunt (Aliens), psychopathic inmates (Alien 3), or military doctors looking for the ultimate biological weapon (Alien Resurrection). The Nostromo crew are just operating a space tug, bringing cargo from point A to point B. Basically, they are space truckers on a long, desert highway. Or, if you think about it, cowboys out on the range.

2017's Down Darker Trails brought Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu to the 19th century American West, but Trails paints with broad strokes, covering the entirety of the "Old West" setting. What John LeMaire's Get Along, Little Dogies--a new supplement for Down Darker Trails available from the Miskatonic Respository--does is to focus on one aspect of that setting. It is 134 pages zeroing in on the "cattle drive." In other words--and I swear this is the last time I will beat the Alien analogy like a dead horse--John is concentrating on the helplessness, the isolation, of crossing a wide, empty expanse and encountering the Mythos far from the streets of Kansas City or Tombstone.

Out on the range, no one can hear you scream.




If I lost you back there, let me explain. The Miskatonic Repository is the Call of Cthulhu equivalent of the Jonstown Compendium for RuneQuest. It is Chaosium's community content program for its immensely popular and venerable game of cosmic horror. 

"Community content" is a slur in some circles, but those circles are continually getting smaller. With ENNIE award wins and bestselling titles, venues like Miskatonic and Jonstown are increasingly holding their own. As pointed out by Chaosium's own community ambassador Nick Brooke recently, they allow authors to do the kinds of projects that a publisher like Chaosium can't, either taking their games is bold new directions or diving deep into specific aspects of their settings. The latter is what John has done for Down Darker Trails.




 

In Part 1 Get Along, Little Dogies starts by giving you the reality. John provides a history of cattle drives in the American West and a discussion of their difficulty and necessity. There are in-depth explanations of where and when these drives happened, the various roles people played in them, and what it was actually like to be out there on the trail. All the terminology is there, the little details, and the author has to be commended for his exhaustive research. Useful spotlight rules are included, like a full page on lariat usage. 





Chapter 4 presents a number of episodes, "mini-scenarios" like "Gathering Lost Cattle," "River Crossing," and "Stampede" that turn the realities of the cattle drive into gamable challenges to play out at your table. Reading this chapter I kept thinking how much fun it would be to spend an evening just roleplaying a cattle drive sans the Mythos. 

But that isn't really what we are here for, and it is in Part 2 we are presented with a 40-page scenario that shows the Mythos colliding with characters just out there doing the job. Playable in a single session, "Get Them Dogies Rollin'" could easily be expanded with the episodes mentioned above, and could serve as a terrific springboard into a greater Down Darker Trails campaign. 





Obviously I am going to get necessarily vague here to avoid spoilers, but I will say the scenario is a memorable one, both for the uniqueness of the situation and setting and the way John has woven those all-too-familiar Lovecraftian tropes into the mix. The story provides a number of challenges both real and Cthulhian, and an escalating sense of dread.

The book rounds out with tons of NPC statistics, as well as stats for cattle, horses, and the scenario's new creatures. A few premade settings are offered to launch the story, a mix of believable historical ones and...well shall we say a "darker" option.





Get Along, Little Dogies holds its own nicely against any 7th edition Call of Cthulhu title, and that is a remarkable achievement for a one-man operation. It looks and feels like a 7e title should (and given the praise I have lavished on 7e products here that is saying something). Full of maps, detailed statistics, and a plethora of character hand-outs it is clear that the author has put the work in. There is art on nearly every page, a mixture of period pieces and the author's own work. If you like Down Darker Trails you are going to want Get Along, Little Dogies. It is a terrific expansion full of ideas to be mined. As mentioned its core concept--you out there in the desert, in the darkness, isolated and alone--ratchets up the horror. Yet even Basic Roleplaying players interested in historical roleplaying (or players of a game like Deadlands for that matter) will not be disappointed by this title. The author has clearly already put in the blood, sweat, and tears of research so you don't have to.