Pandæmonium

 

Bastion Ein Sof Front Cover


Certain games from the Old School Renaissance connote a class sensibility by moving beyond the sometimes-cosy constraints of modern fantasy and into what critic John Clute calls the “armamentarium” of fantastika – an imaginative space that interrogates the impact of human-occupied processes such as ruins, industrialisation and imperialism.

This sort of roleplaying game very often puts its players in the position of being the looters of treasures, the bearers of new technologies or the foot-soldiers of a colonial power. Fond as I am of those “story games” that seek to correct the European attitudes that have played such a large part in devastating the planet – often by taking the part of protagonists who have been brutalised, or by playing people of different ethnicities or genders, or by de-centralising the authority in the game – I think it is sometimes instructive, as well as fun, to play as one of the aggressors. It is easy to forget that they are as poor and desperate as the rest of us.

Portal Rats (2017) by Tore Nielsen and Neal Stidham – “rats are riff-raff… hardscrabble ne’er-do-well[s] from a tough background found anywhere there is a portal that allows escape from hardship, oppression, a dead-end life…” – is based on The Black Hack by David Black and describes via random tables comprised of pithy and easy-to-combine prompts the kind of high-octane space fantasy found in Thor: Ragnarok (2017) or the Planescape campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1977; rev 1989).

Into the Odd (2015) by Chris McDowall rewrites the industrial hubris of the Western world as a game of survival horror: the precision and brevity of the writing makes it all the more suggestive of a fallen world hollowed-out by human appetites. Bastion Ein Sof (2017) by Joe Banner – “you are a hunter, deemed fit (or expendable) enough to serve the greater cause” – functions as a kind of operating system for Into the Odd by extending the implication of the game’s demiurgical theme into a literal evocation of the terrestrial desolation described in the Book of Enoch, a form of mythology utilised in works of fantastika by authors such as John Milton (1608-1674) and Doris Lessing (1919-2013). Giants and Angels rule a post-apocalyptic earth in which humans must do the bidding of global developments they barely understand.

The aesthetic of Into the Odd brings to mind Pandæmonium (1985; rev 2012), a compendium of first-hand accounts of the machine age between the years 1660 and 1886 that conveys both the heroic promise and the dehumanizing waste of industrialisation. Games like this describe the world we live in rather than the world we want and are all the more effective for using the codes of escapism to do so.

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Into the Odd double spread

It’s easy to criticise the war-party style of play for its simulated violence: I’ve done this myself on a few occasions. I don’t think the behaviour this style of game describes is a lie, however; rather, a difficult truth that we must face in order to overcome. These are the people too poor to hide away at home while someone less fortunate does the fighting for them.

And… what would you do in their shoes? I speak as a wannabe pacifist who has punched Nazis and committed acts of violence to protect those he loves. “When is it necessary to kill?” asks a victim-aggressor in José Saramago’s masterpiece Blindness (1995; trans Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa, 1997), before answering her own question: “When what is alive is already dead.” “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity,” wrote Herman Melville (1819-1891), “nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”

Pergamino Barocco


 

The Pergamino Barocco of Roger S G Sorolla (a hastily-stapled edizione economiche of the grimoire’s ornate text was distributed by Lost Pages at Dragonmeet) communicates the defining motif of the Baroque: the Fold, on and on, unfolding & refolding, each Orientalist swirl or explosion of meteorological Physick a selection and accretion, an Old-school preference for the eddy of potential over the possibility of white space; open-ended, Generick, inexhaustive, a Fold repeating by meaning and design, a bird into whose plumage is tucked the Grimorio Minuscolo of Paolo Greco:-

 

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“I deliberately forgot to mention the sinister book’s existence, instead treating the Pergamino as a vehicle to ship the nefarious spellbook as contraband.”

 

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Sorolla’s spell “Cheirosciamancy” (pp2-3) is something of a masterpiece.
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The spell’s design bears some resemblance to that of  the “Inquirer” card from the tarot deck of Austin Osman Spare.

 

Moon

Social Contract

I was finally able to give Judith Clute her contributor’s copy of Itras By: The Menagerie last night: she was impressed by the design and the variety of the book.

The girl from Judith’s painting “Social Contract” (2017, main image) kind of breaks my heart. I want to leap into the picture and save her.

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#Feminism

#Feminism, an anthology of 34 nano-games first published by Fea Livia last year, is available in a second edition from Pelgrane Press. I recommend that you buy it. The graphic design (by Shuo Meng) is the best of any RPG book I know.

Editors Misha Bushyager, Lizzie Stark and Anna Westerling have organised the games into nine sections – Romance, Women and the Media, Body, The Digital Age, On the Move, Playing Well With Others, At Work, Difficult Decisions and Violent Encounters – and refined the description of each game into its own marginalia, thereby communicating at a glance how many players each game requires, how long it takes to play, its emotional intensity on a scale of one to five, what, if any, supplies are needed to play the game, and a number of keywords that indicate the game’s theme. There is no way to open the book without immediately apprehending what it is for or which game might suit your particular purpose. It’s form factor – analogous to a glossy consumer magazine – is inviting, suits being laid flat on a table and subtly indicates its target market and creative agenda.

I tend to prefer those games that either, (a) overcome or undermine misconceptions about feminism by including some of the opinions of those that oppose it (a classical argument), or (b) include a range of inter-subjective opinions about feminism (a postmodern argument), over those that (c) communicate a single point of view with a single idea – but those are my own political sensibilities and I do understand that violence of expression creates its own affect. When I first started reading the work of Angela Carter and Suzy McKee Charnas back in the 90s, it was the violence that drew me in: I needed the dramaturgy of the forced sex change of The Passion of New Eve (1977) and the hybridogenesis of Motherlines (1978) to help me understand the nature and extent of my own false consciousness about patriarchy.

I’ve seen guys of my own age and ethnicity (I’m white and in my mid-40s) say that nano-games, or game-poems, or short games, or whatever you want to call them, aren’t really games in and of themselves, but just an adjunct or a bit of showing off on the part of people who may or may not be able to design a “proper” roleplaying game with mechanics and dice and a fully-realised imagined space. I do not agree with this assessment. Being involved in the 200 Word RPG Challenge taught me that small games reveal a lot about the connections between people and their craving for emotional intimacy. Their brevity is part of their agency, like poems or laughter or farting. I might easily sneak these games into the conversation on a long train journey or into the gaps between longer games at a roleplaying convention: as design strategy, #Feminism is pretty much perfect.

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Thor: Ragnarok

The fusion of Waititi’s aesthetic and Marvel’s story formula works – but the enjoyment comes at the cost of relegating Hela’s invasion of Asgard to a kind of sideshow to the boys-will-be-boys badinage of Thor, Loki and Hulk. Thor returns to Asgard after defeating the fire demon in the film’s prologue to find Loki posing as Odin (Hopkins): Thor – never the brightest tool in the pantheon, hammer notwithstanding – believes he has prevented Ragnarök by removing any possibility of anyone uniting the fire demon’s crown with the Eternal Flame that burns in Odin’s vault. This, in fact, is the deus ex machina McGuffin that affords the Marvel story engine one of its most basic and persistently useful moves: use one Villain to defeat the other just when all seems lost for the Heroes at the end of the movie, as, indeed, was the case at the denouement of the enormously-successful Doctor Strange (2016). Stephen Strange (Cumberbatch) pops up here to direct Thor and Loki to their father in Norway, where Odin explains that his impending death will allow Hela, his first-born and general of the armies that brought him the Nine Realms, to return to wreak vengeance on the planet of Asgard. Hela (Blanchett, in a gloriously campy and vicious portrayal of the true nature of a people intent on the Colonization of Other Worlds) obliterates Thor’s hammer Mjolnir, pursues Thor and Loki across the Bifröst Bridge and exiles them into deep space before quickly establishing her rule over Asgard by destroying the Warriors Three, resurrecting her ancient army from the dead and appointing Asgardian champion Skurge (Urban) as her executioner:-

Thor: Ragnarok entry

The Dark Is Rising

Susan CooperThe Dark Is Rising (New York: Atheneum, 1973) [The Dark Is Rising: hb/Michael Heslop]

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Cover image courtesy John Clute, David Langford & Roger Robinson at the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction: SFE Gallery

Robert Macfarlane is coordinating a reading group for this novel – one I’ve long intended to read – over Twitter, beginning Midwinter’s Eve (20 Dec): #TheDarkIsReading

Midnight Special

Two men are holed up in a motel, watching an amber alert on the television news (see Media Landscape) about the abduction of eight-year-old Alton Meyer: Meyer sits on the floor of the room the men occupy – its windows are blacked-out with cardboard – reading Comics. These men turn out to be Roy Tomlin (Shannon), Alton’s biological father, and Lucas (Edgerton), a state trooper and Roy’s long-lost friend from childhood. The pair has abducted Alton from “The Ranch”, a quasi-Christian Religious cult based in rural Texas that has been worshipping Alton’s ability to speak in tongues (see Linguistics) and emit beams of pure blue light from his eyes: the cult sees the boy’s Psi Powers as the harbingers of a forthcoming Rapture-like apocalypse. Cult-leader Pastor Calvin Meyer (Shepard), the boy’s adopted father, is interviewed by NSA Communications expert Paul Sevier – played here with some Humour and panache by Adam Driver in the wake of his portrayal of the Villain Kylo Ren in Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (2015) – and pointedly asked how streams of numbers from encoded satellite transmissions have found their way into Meyer’s sermons; Pastor Meyer insists Alton received them as revelation from a holy source:-

Midnight Special entry

Midnight Special Poster

 

 

The Defenders

Vigilante lawyer Matt Murdock, protagonist of Daredevil (2015-current), persuades binge-drinking private investigator Jessica Jones (2015-current), former Prison inmate Luke Cage (2016-current) and billionaire martial arts expert Danny Rand from Iron Fist (2017), to combine their efforts against the perfidious Asian Crime syndicate “The Hand”, the Secret Masters behind a series of earthquakes that begins to afflict contemporary New York.

The original line-up of The Defenders from Marvel Feature #1 (December 1971) included the man from Atlantis Namor, the Alien emissary the Silver Surfer, and The Incredible Hulk, central character of both the US tv series (1977-1982) and the film of the same name (2008); this was coordinated by Comic-book Hero Doctor Strange, most recently given the big-budget treatment in Doctor Strange (2016). The membership of the four-strong team of Superheroes changed frequently, however, over the course of its run in Marvel Comics from 1972 until 1986, as it did on a mission-by-mission basis under the name The Secret Defenders (1993-1995), and was always subject to the kind of contractual availability and convenience that made it suitable for current-day aims of the Television arm of the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

The Defenders entry

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