The set-up for the Fearful Symmetries playtest went well. It’s a beast of a document but it turns out to be fairly easy to use: the improvisational approach with plenty of background material suits the way I tend to facilitate games anyway and the guys enjoyed creating their characters.
We’re using the Radcliffe Camera campaign frame from the book; I’ll have to avoid freewheeling with the rules-as-written and I haven’t delved too deeply into the folklore engine as yet, but I find myself easily persuaded by the marriage between William Blake and the Cthulhu Mythos. It helps that Blake’s poetry and Crowley’s system of Magick have so insinuated themselves into the popular imagination: there’s little or no need to get bogged down in prep.
One of us was away this week and another of us is travelling for work the next – but that doesn’t turn out to be too much of a problem either. There’s a touch of Ars Magica to the way Fearful Symmetries suits troupe-style play, magickal rivalries and sudden affiliations. The self-proclaimed “Prophet of Albion” arrives in our game next week… but some of the players don’t know that yet.
The region was created by major earthquakes, destroyed by the same propensity to seismic activity and its ancient civilisation – the same on which Plato may (or may not) have based the Atlantean descriptions in the dialogues of Timaeus and Critias – later exposed by the volcanism of the industrial age.
The seafront also reveals a familiar story: sixteen-hour working days. Guys piss in a bottle; girls run down to a public convenience at the risk of losing business. There’s no work in Athens.
Successful businesses – usually orchestrated by a matriarch around a grandfather and extended family – work flat-out for six months and then go away on holiday for the remaining six months of the year, during which almost the entire island is shut, including its supermarkets.
I’m not as down on capitalism as some – it creates surplus, and there are plenty of people in the world who could put the excess to good use – but I’m also of the more-or-less Marxist view that the values that underpin capitalism prevent the proper use of surplus. Every time something drastic happened to the community of the Cyclades, redevelopment occurred from the ground up: a common appetite for metallurgy informed its inception; buildings and cities were rebuilt by their inhabitants, or from donations from their military garrison by neighbours and relatives. Commerce was guided by mutual need.
We lack – we need – a term for those places where one experiences a ‘transition’ from a known landscape onto John’s ‘far side of the moon’, into Hudson’s ‘new country’, into Berry’s ‘another world’: somewhere we feel and think significantly differently. I have for some time been imagining such transitions as ‘border crossings’. These borders do not correspond to national boundaries, and papers and documents are unrequired at them. Their traverse is generally unbiddable, and no reliable map exists of their routes and outlines. They exist even in familiar landscapes: there when you cross a certain watershed, treeline or snowline, or enter rain, storm or mist, or pass from boulder clay onto sand, or chalk onto greenstone. Such moments are rites of passage that reconfigure local geographies, leaving known places outlandish or quickened, revealing continents within countries.
What might we call such incidents and instances – or, rather, how to describe the lands that are found beyond these frontiers? ‘Xenotopias’, perhaps, meaning ‘foreign places’ or ‘out-of-place places’, a term to compliment our ‘utopias’ and ‘dystopias’. Martin Martin, the traveller and writer who in the 1690s set sail to explore the Scottish coastline, knew that one does not need to displace oneself vastly in space in order to find difference. ‘It is a piece of weakness and folly merely to value things because of their distance from the place we are born,’ he wrote in 1697, ‘thus men have travelled far enough in the search of foreign plants and animals, and yet continue strangers to those produced in their own natural climate.’ So did Roger Deakin: ‘Why would anyone want to go to live abroad when they can live in several countries at once just by being in England?’ he wondered in his journal. Likewise, Henry David Thoreau: ‘An absolutely new prospect is a great happiness, and I can still get this any afternoon. Two or three hours’ walking will carry me to as strange a country as I expect ever to see. A single farmhouse which I had not seen is sometimes as good as the dominions of the King of Dahomey.’
The American artist William Fox has spent his career exploring what he calls ‘cognitive dissonance in isotropic spaces’, which might be more plainly translated as ‘how we easily get lost in spaces that appear much the same in all directions’. Fox’s thesis is that we are unable to orient ourselves in such landscapes because we evolved in the close-hand environments of jungle and savannah. In repetitive, data-depleted landscapes with few sight-markers, ‘our natural navigational abilities begin to fail catastrophically’. Fox had travelled to Antarctica, to the American deserts and to the volcanic calderas in the Pacific to explore such monotone spaces – but David and I had stumbled into one a few hundred years off the Essex coast.
Funny how these things work: you think things are falling a bit flat, particularly after a six-week layoff, and then there are two good ideas in a row and woof! the set-up catches alight.
Seven Dwarves will enter the Place of Unreason in a bid to rescue the sleeping Empress Maudlyn from the Red King:
Margäz Princess of the Second Empire; aunt to the torpid Maudlyn.
Grimbald Grimson Quartermaster of the expedition to the Dying City.
Bûrin Ironhand 325-year-old diplomat of one of the largest Dwarven clans.
Anselmo Sheild-bearer to Bûrin Ironhand; good Strength rating.
Hildebrand Hasselbeard Slayer Dwarf feared for the impact of her two axes.
Morag Blackhand Gunpowder specialist; brace of pistols.
Freya Fargazer Astrologer to the Court of the Exiled Dwarves.
Osprey of the Iron Cliffs, an Elf, and Ralmir Herakson, a Cleric and follower of nature god Argan Argar will accompany the Dwarves on account of their expertise in magic. They are doomed. It’s all so delightfully old school.