Ninth Expedition

There’s a lovely, gentle atmosphere at Concrete Cow.

My Bookhounds of London game turned out schlonky and overstuffed with clues, despite fun and enterprising players. I’d hone it and reorder the narrative were I ever to run it again.

I played Ralph Lovegrove’s Cthulhu Dark: Annihilation game in the afternoon session, which was excellent.

 

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Troika!

Luke has been reading The Warlock of Firetop Mountain (1982) to daughters Delia and Willow at bedtime. Delia rolled double six for their character’s SKILL and has been merrily steamrollering her way through every encounter while keeping a detailed map of their progress through the interior of the mountain (see diagram); Willow mostly shouts and hides under the covers, insisting that Delia stab the monsters in the face.

My first single-player gamebook was Starship Traveller (1983). I’d not long since learned to read in complete sentences and short paragraphs – a fact I’d successfully hidden from various of the disinterested parties around me – and was utterly entranced by the book’s difficulty, circuitousness, and metatextual back-and-forth. I read the first dozen or so books in the Fighting Fantasy series, very often while standing surreptitiously in a bookshop. City of Thieves (1983) and Deathtrap Dungeon (1984) were my favourites.

Marvellous, then, to discover that the Melsonian Arts Council has published Troika! by Daniel Sell and Jeremy Duncan, a small-press RPG based in part on the Fighting Fantasy gamebooks and the subsequent roleplaying game Advanced Fighting Fantasy (1989); that there are significant differences between Troika! and its source material in no way impairs its heady melange of nostalgia and snot-jokes.

I turned up at Luke’s house with the rulebook, its character sheet, a copy of the Pergamino Barocco – the spellbook was to serve as the McGuffin in our improvised storyline – a map of ruined temples from the inestimable Dyson Logos, and a copy of Chromatic Soup 01 (2017) by Evlyn Moreau and friends. This last item proved a wonderfully atmospheric resource for random encounters and I will use it again at the first opportunity.

Troika! uses d66 to choose a character’s starting background – which is to say, you roll two six-sided dice and read the results sequentially rather than adding them up; so, if you roll a 1 and a 4, your result is 14, not 5.

Given that our story concerned the theft of the region’s most powerful grimoire from a local monastery, Luke and I decided we’d keep re-rolling until we got a character that began the game with spells. Here’s what our third roll generated:

12 Befouler of Ponds

You’re a wise woman, a high priest, a pond-pisser, a typical but committed adherent of P!P!Ssshrp. The bloated toad god has no church other than the periphery of ponds, where the foulness catches in the reeds, and no congregation other than the gnats and the dragonflies. You minister to them all the same.

Possessions
-Sackcloth robes, caked in stinking mud and undergrowth. +1 to Sneak rolls in marshy terrain while wearing it, -1 everywhere else ‘cos it stinks
-Large wooden ladle (Damage as mace)

Skills
3 Spell – Drown
3 Swim
2 Spell – Tongue Twister
2 Spell – Undo
1 Spell – Web
1 Sneak
1 Second Sight

Special
You may drink stagnant water without harm.

A player can infer quite a bit from a piece of background text like this – the phrase “pond-pisser” did a great deal to inform Luke’s portrayal of ‘The Crocadillon’, a local creature lifted from the stories he shares with Delia and Willow about their neighbourhood. We had intended to play Troika! while out on a hike but the weather drew in and we were content instead to stay indoors, eat turkey sandwiches and draw inspiration for our adventure from the topography of Box Hill and the meteorological conditions.

The Crocadillon had been accused of stealing the Pergamino Barocco when an unexpected fog – the Chromatic Soup – had descended upon the local community; tracks leading into the soup and up the side of the mountain had been found close to the lakeside shack at which the Crocadillon made its home. Encounters with a Basilisk – some spawny Luck rolls and a well-timed Web spell saw the Crocadillon survive the threat of paralysis – some Swamp Hunters and a swarm of overheated Boilerfish led to final encounters with a Skeleton Priest (an adapted version of the “Living Dead” from p46 of the Troika! rulebook) and a difficult-to-see Chromatic Dragon (a somewhat diminished version of the “Dragon” from Troika!.)

The great thing was that Luke managed to use everything on his character sheet and usually in inventive and entertaining ways. We found that sudden transformational acts – sneaking, the casting of spells, a psychedelic trance involving sacred mushrooms – worked better for us than rolling dice round-by-round to determine winners and losers of fights or other adversarial face-offs.

Here are the three things we liked most about the game:

  1. Backgrounds. These are written with the wry, childlike wonder of early Games Workshop publications, or scenarios from the halcyon days of White Dwarf magazine. I like them.
  2. Spells. Clear, transformative, based on the STAMINA stat in such a way as to provide a player-character with meaningful choices about cost and effect.
  3. Initiative. You draw blind from a bag of differently-coloured dice to determine who goes first when. This requires a bit of stage management.

A fairly old-school approach is required to keep the game flowing – which is to say, a Gamemaster needs to linguistically prime the dice rolls (it’s all in the timing of the dramatic beats) and provide constant threat and mise en scène in order to give a character plenty to do. I like that the Fighting Fantasy connotation provides a strong thematic impetus around which to improvise and reminisce.

The “obscure and incandescent” register of Daniel Sell’s prose, the hallucinatory Russ Nicholson aesthetic of Jeremy Duncan’s art and the snot jokes combined to echo some small-yet-significant part of the Sense of Wonder Luke and I felt when we first started gaming together in the 1980s. Fighting Fantasy has a lot to answer for and Troika! is its emissary.

 

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Players draw differently-coloured dice from a bag unseen to decide order of initiative. I caught Luke ruminatively rubbing the edges of the dice inside in order to locate his own. Bounder.

 

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Roll off!

Warlock1

 

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Cartomancy of the Surreal

“A big part of what makes this ambitious game work is the deck of cards that drive play,” says Jason Morningstar in Itras By without Itras By, a set of guidelines on how to use the cards from Itras By as a general resource in any roleplaying game. “The chance cards are completely portable to any other game and any other system… Best of all, the deck can be carefully tuned to deliver just the right amount of surprise and strangeness.”

We used twelve of the chance cards to inject surreal elements into our game of Dreamhounds of Paris for Trail of Cthulhu and occasionally drew a resolution card to decide the outcome of actions in the Dreamlands. Whereas we found it was possible to draw too many cards in any given session – chaos requires order for its impact – we almost never drew a card that felt inappropriate to the story we were telling and on several occasions drew a card that transformed the game in ways we might never have expected.

“Cards assist randomisation, dissolve order, remove interference, enhance focus,” says Ralph Lovegrove in Nørwegian Surreal, the second issue of fanzine Machineries of Joy, before going on to stress what I believe may be the most important factor to their use in a roleplaying game: “To invite players into the ritual cards must be ambiguous as well as inspirational.”

People love license to use their imaginations but are sometimes nervous about doing so in an atmosphere which insists on a priori knowledge of what a roleplaying game could or should be – an attitude which, I’m afraid, some dedicated hobbyists are all too willing to visit on those who are new to roleplay. Itras By’s strongest attribute is the way in which it communicates a shared imagined space while granting complete creative freedom to those playing; the cards combine surreal effects – moments of sudden disjunction designed to create unconscious emotional connections between those playing by means of improvisational prompts – with an underlying logic of sense: gameplay is directed by the creative substructure of surrealism rather than by an explicit superstructure of instructions and in my opinion is all the stronger for it.

The expanded deck of cards published to go with the Menagerie supplement to Itras By includes cards used as elements of the setting – those that accompany Aleksandra Sontowska’s game for exploring the Black Bay district of Itras By (Neighborhood, pp193-197) are wonderfully evocative – or as dedicated elements of a scenario, as in The Scientific Order of Itra-Troll, or even as an edit facility, as in the Nø-Card that supports the essay Saying No by Ole Peder Giæver. It’s also very easy to make your own cards to suit your own purposes. Cards are effective and adaptive.

 

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Cat’s Paw

06/10/2117


sudden / chemical / shipment / tenth / puppet / devil

It’s alive. More alarmingly, it’s alive in me.

Maybe it’s adaptive or maybe it’s different but the ratio of atoms just isn’t the same. The resistance I had back on Earth doesn’t seem to function here and none of the experiments I’ve run are clear about why. It’s not thinking exactly – it’s difficult not to be emotional about these results – but it does seem to change according to stimulus.

I’ve sent a sample back to Earth, warning them not to examine the substance outside of the orbital laboratory. I’m not sure that matters anymore.

I stopped thinking I was the centre of the world when H died, but even after that, even out here, I was still thinking locally. There’s nothing scientific about seeing things entirely from our own perspective.

I’ll always think of H in that leather get-up from his 40th, with the trident and the red cape. He was so gleeful about it. And yeah, we had that awful row. I like to be in control. He was right though: if you appreciate someone else’s difference, you get to participate in it and that kind of participation can be uplifting.

We were part of Earth, H and I. Earth is part of all the planets in the galaxy. The galaxy is part of an entire system of the universe. To disintegrate is to become part of it.

This is Abstract Machine, coming home.

 

H2 Graph

[delight]

 

I was playing Sole, a game designed by James Mullen in memory of his partner Philip. I enjoyed playing and you might too.

Epstein-Barr

04/10/2117


bogeyman / best / category / glandular / beefcake / esoteric

Being this close to the thing that killed H… well, I don’t know what it makes me feel, really. They mistook it for the Epstein-Barr virus to begin with. He’d just lie there in his hospital bed reading Tom of Finland and cracking jokes.

The dust doesn’t fit any of the known taxonomies. We knew that, of course, but now that I’m closer I’m none the wiser and nor are any of the instruments. It’s some kind of interstellar gas that contains unusual data-sets.

It’s silly to think I have a sore throat in an environment this closely-controlled.

epitelio-glandular-tipos-secrecion

[fear]

 

I’m playing Sole, a game designed by James Mullen in memory of his partner Philip.

 

Soma-6a

02/10/2117


ox / boarder / shine / desolate / impure / attic

Here is my major reason for deviating from the programme: Soma-6a, a planet we barely believed when first we saw it via the Cosmic Origins Spectrograph. That something so coal-black and desolate could exist in such proximity to its star: I can see it absorbing light with my own eyes!

H always preferred the mythologically-inspired names for planets and constellations: he’d tease me about the “scientific imagination” and I’d always take the bait, insisting that science was about everything that was possible.

It’s like some deity is descending their chariot in the heavens, burned irrevocably by the light they bring… that’s the sort of thing he might have said. I’ve stopped wondering what the engineers back home think of me. H and I said we’d make the trip to the ruins at Hari-yúpíyá but we never did.

I’ve turned everything off and I’m just gonna drift awhile: existence without light and death and impurity is lonely.

Black Planet

[delight]

Nasadiya Sukta

(Hymn of non-Eternity, origin of universe):

There was neither non-existence nor existence then;
Neither the realm of space, nor the sky which is beyond;
What stirred? Where? In whose protection?

There was neither death nor immortality then;
No distinguishing sign of night nor of day;
That One breathed, windless, by its own impulse;
Other than that there was nothing beyond.

Darkness there was at first, by darkness hidden;
Without distinctive marks, this all was water;
That which, becoming, by the void was covered;
That One by force of heat came into being;

Who really knows? Who will here proclaim it?
Whence was it produced? Whence is this creation?
Gods came afterwards, with the creation of this universe.
Who then knows whence it has arisen?

Whether God’s will created it, or whether He was mute;
Perhaps it formed itself, or perhaps it did not;
Only He who is its overseer in highest heaven knows,

Only He knows, or perhaps He does not know.

Star Soma-6
Constellation Veda
Right ascension (α) 06h 30m 33s
Declination (δ) +29° 40′ 20″
Apparent magnitude (mV) 11.69
Distance 871[1] ly
(267 pc)
Spectral type G0
Mass (m) 1.35 ± 0.14 M
Radius (r) 1.57 ± 0.07 R
Temperature (T) 6300+200
−100 K
Metallicity [Fe/H] 0.30+0.05
−0.15
Semi-major axis (a) 0.0229 ± 0.0008 AU
(3.43 Gm)
0.086 mas
Periastron (q) 0.0218 AU
(3.26 Gm)
Apastron (Q) 0.0240 AU
(3.59 Gm)
Eccentricity (e) 0.049 ± 0.015
Orbital period (P) 1.091423 ± 3e-6 d
(26.19415 h)
Inclination (i) 83.1+1.4
−1.1°
Argument of
periastron
(ω) -74+13
−10°
Time of transit (Tt) 2454508.9761 ± 0.0002 JD
Mass (m) 1.39 ± 0.04[1] MJ
Radius (r) 1.79+0.09
−0.09[1] RJ
Density (ρ) 326 kg m−3
Surface gravity (g) 1.16 g

 

RX J5623.5-3754

01/10/2117


helpless / large / paralysed / clubfoot / ambiguous / discussion

One up, two down. It doesn’t make any sense. The down particles keep getting heavier, according to my readings. I probably shouldn’t get any closer than I am. I wouldn’t be the only thing destroyed by a gamma-ray burst on that scale.

There’s this whole discussion in the datalogs about quark stars and its basically two astrophysicists going at it over whether or not they should have their own category – the stars, I mean. Neither can bear the ambiguity created by the other and there’s this whole field of research paralysed by the unconscious symmetries between these scientists; Pessoa is the senior researcher, no doubt – we all know she disproved the preon hypothesis and what a great help that was – but since she went to Hawaii, well, I’m just gonna come right out and say it, she’s been a little cranky. And this other guy, he’s got a point to prove: it’s like he’s forgotten the uncertainty at the heart of scientific inquiry.

If you turn the settings right up on the spectral analysis machine you get to watch this wonderfully misshapen ebb and flow of particles – kind of like Italy turned upside-down and wrapped in the glowing wax from a lava lamp. I’ve been watching it a while. I need a rest. I need a rest from taking a rest. I’m shooting some footage of this thing because I can.

Neutron Star

[wonder]

 

I’m playing Sole, a game designed by James Mullen in memory of his partner Philip.

Join in if you like: you can play under your own steam.

Year Zero

30/09/2117


discovery / swarm / calendar / officer / condition / houseguest

The data arrived as formaldehyde and methanol from the Local Interstellar Cloud – or, at least, that was the way it seemed at the time. Pretty soon, anyone on or near the equator had the condition and it spread like some lurid inkblot across the surface of the earth: everyone remembers those infographics on the news. Aunt Dolly on Orkney took us in but H didn’t make it: “You can’t keep running,” he said to me. “I know you flunked the training but you’re resistant, which means you’re one of the few people who can do this now.”

They made me an officer. Bastards. This meant they told me a lot of the truth from the beginning, about how the cloud was something huge, something terrible, something beautiful. The launch seemed difficult, as did the time spent in orbit – none of the pilots really got to talk to one another – but an awful calm has descended now that I’m finally out here on my own on the trajectory of Orion: a painted dot upon a painted backdrop. It barely seems real now that I’m actually seeing it. I can’t seem to stop rehearsing what I should have said to H.

 

black-cloud

[melancholy]

 

I’m playing Sole, a game designed by James Mullen in memory of his partner Philip.

Join in if you like: you can play under your own steam.

Snake Eyes

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I’m not saying an impromptu summoning at a nearby stone circle is a bad idea but… one dead witch, a player-character shot in the head and anathema pronounced upon the party by the surviving witches.

I’m generally disposed toward a Purist style of play but the group ain’t having it: it’s Pulp all the way.

We’ve a few other things prepped and ready-to-play but the group wants to continue with Fearful Symmetries. We’ll spend a bit more time working up spells and styles of Magic, as these turn out to be integral to the flavour and progress of the game.

The themes of the campaign run pretty deep – this was a playtest, so we tried to go into it without too many preconceptions – and we felt a little under-researched in one or two respects. I’ll take some time to hang out with the “folklore engine” from the draft of the book:

Now I may say to you, what perhaps I should not dare to say to anyone else: That I can alone carry on my visionary studies in London unannoy’d, & that I may converse with my friends in Eternity, See Visions, Dream Dreams & prophecy & speak Parables unobserv’d & at liberty from the Doubts of other Mortals; perhaps Doubts proceeding from Kindness, but Doubts are always pernicious, Especially when we Doubt our Friends…



 

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James William Barnes casts “Crooked Bob’s Eternal Vigilance” in order to contact Robert Nottingham for advice about a certain magickal tome: “I call forth the straight path to the crooked man.”
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Snake Eyes have appeared at the heart-centre of the Prophet of Albion: “The beginning of the world is nigh.” Can’t be good, can it? 
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Oops. Hello Quachil, my old friend…

 

Black Dog to White Dog

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End Game

Zoas

We finally – ugh, the slings and arrows of everyday life – managed to kick off our mini-campaign of Fearful Symmetries last night. I’d better not say too much for fear of spoilers.

The heavens shall quake, the earth shall move & shudder & the mountains
With all their woods, the streams & valleys: wail in dismal fear
In the second “night”, the theme of women ruling is discussed but there is an emphasis on how the ability to create constricts them. Humanity is imprisoned by creation, and experience causes great pain…

Vala, or The Four Zoas
William Blake (1797-1807)

Alienist Hauke Greiner (57) and parapsychologist Emily Cheek (34) met Prophet of Albion James William Barnes (?-?) during last night’s session; a survivor, or one might say casualty, of our Bookhounds of London mini-campaign: they were moderately discommoded by finding him addressing the heavens from a box on Speaker’s Corner.

The PCs witnessed the maw of the sky run red, cozened a book scout and dowsed north-north-west from Oxford; Emily found herself upon a throne not of her choosing. Our ignorance of the work of William Blake runs fairly deep but it’s a chance to extemporize, and Innocence brings its own rewards.

Next week: witches. Yes, witches. Loves me some witches.

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Here Hauke Greiner – a devoted student of Richard von Krafft-Ebing – practices his skills of Hynopsis. Our group seems disposed to the Pulp flavour of play in Trail of Cthulhu.
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The players work out their True Names for the initiation into the Order of the Radcliffe Camera – a scene which turned out to harbour a major surprise.
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Hauke and Emily meet the “Prophet of Albion”: they were in some doubt about his holiness and whether or not Crispina had divined the right person at all.

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