“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.
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 everything.
This is Abstract Machine, coming home.
I was playing Sole, a game designed by James Mullen in memory of his partner Philip. I enjoyed playing and you might too.
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.
I’m playing Sole, a game designed by James Mullen in memory of his partner Philip.
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.
(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,
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.
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.
Vagrant Workshop has released Itras By: The Menagerie, a compendium of supplementary materials for the Itras By roleplaying game organised like Dadaesque pamphlets or avant-garde magazines of the 1920s. I’m very happy.
“Between 1900 and 1937 Europe experienced an extraordinary cultural rebirth and interchange of ideas, comparable to the Renaissance and Enlightenment,” says Stephen Bury in his introduction to Breaking the Rules: The Printed Face of the European Avant Garde 1900-1937 (2007). The term avant-garde (“vanguard”) had become associated with utopian politics over the course of the nineteenth century.
“We, the artists, will serve as the avant-garde: for amongst all the arms at our disposal, the power of the Arts is the swiftest and most expeditious,” said Henri de Saint-Simon in Literary, Philosophical and Industrial Opinions (1825), a treatise on how artists, scientists and manufacturers might combine to lead humankind out of the alienation caused by industrial society. “When we wish to spread new ideas among people, we use in turn the lyre, ode or song, story or novel… we aim for the heart and imagination, and hence our effect is the most vivid and the most decisive.”
I’d long-hoped for a roleplaying game to address this shared imaginative space: my own efforts to introduce surrealist ideas into games of Vampire: The Masquerade – I was always enamoured of Clan Toreador – or Mage: The Ascension were for the most part paltry and ill-conceived; I wanted the thing without knowing how it should be done. The decision of editor Ole Peder Giæver and publisher Carsten Damm to open the Menagerie up to all-comers was inspired. The book (at almost three hundred pages) was made by Aleksandra Sontowska, Anders Nygaard, Banana Chan, Becky Annison, Caitlynn Belle, Carsten Damm, Cecilie Bannow, Clarissa Baut Stetson, David Cochard, David M Wright, Edward “Sabe” Jones, Emily Care Boss, Evan Torner, February Keeney, Gino Moretto, Henrik Maegaard, Jackson Tegu, Jason Morningstar, Jeremy Duncan, Joshua Fox, Josh Jordan, Judith Clute, Kamil Wegrzynowicz, Karina Graj, Kat Jones, Kathy Schad, Keith Stetson, Li Xin, Lizzie Stark, Magnus Jakobsson, Martin Bull Gudmundsen, Mathew Downward, Matthijs Holter, Mo Holkar, Niels Ladefoged, Ole Peder Giæver, Olivier Vuillamy, Philipp Neitzel, Sanne Stijve, Steve Hickey, Terje Nordin, Thomas Novosel, Tobie Abad, Tor Gustad, Trond Ivar Hansen and Willow Palecek.
There are lots of wonderful things about the Menagerie but it’s the insanity and the sex I like most – that and the way they’re combined with a creative generosity about every conceivable view of the world. Thought and expression are a deadly-serious game that should be treated with the utmost frivolity, and conducted in an atmosphere of outright honesty. People who tell you that life is work want you to work for them: they might ask you to die for them too. This is instead an invitation to express yourself.
This new alliance—I say new, because until now scenery and costumes were linked only by factitious bonds—has given rise, in Parade, to a kind of surrealism, which I consider to be the point of departure for a whole series of manifestations of the New Spirit that is making itself felt today and that will certainly appeal to our best minds. We may expect it to bring about profound changes in our arts and manners through universal joyfulness, for it is only natural, after all, that they keep pace with scientific and industrial progress. (Apollinaire, 1917)
Little has changed since Apollinaire died; the world’s war machine rumbles on and public discourse seems to ebb further away from scientific data. The surrealists understood that it is by playfulness that we can achieve the arraignment of violent human impulse to spontaneous truth.
“The Moon grew bigger and bigger until it was the only thing in the sky (and presumably, growing ever still, until it is the only thing in the universe) and with each passing night drilled holes of light into the eyes of the people of city until all they knew was the Moon, all they thought of was the Moon, and all they wanted to do was make the Moon happy,” says Caitlynn Belle in Lunacy (pp69-74, with jagged, evocative illustrations by Thomas Novosel: “And the Moon wanted flesh. And the Moon wanted blood.” My kind of game. In The Hyacinth in the Bureaucracy (pp25- 44) by Jackson Tegu, Matthijs Holter and Jeremy Duncan, everybody and everything is having sex: it’s great. (Jone Aareskjold has written a critique of The Hyacinth in the Bureaucracy’s treatment of the sex trade here.) “No such thing as love, only passion!” cries Evan Torner in The Shadow Carnival (pp216-238), a freeform scenario in which the principles of German Expressionism guide the action: “No luck, only the will to gain power! Don’t be afraid of me!” I am afraid. I like that. Henrik Maegaard’s illustrations for Evan’s scenario are luminous. Becky Annison and Josh Fox have (correctly in my view) discerned the suitability of Itras By for GMful play in Sharing Room and Giving Space (pp145-154), an approach which calls upon every player to frame scenes, play supporting characters and drive external events.
These are just a few excerpts from the five parts of the Menagerie – Diorama, Laboratory, Dream Resume, Hall of Mirrors and Post Scriptum. Martin Bull Gudmundsen’s essay When Life Does Not Make Sense (pp256-263) was, for me, a masterclass in making sense. It may be that you prefer to purchase games or books in digital format to lessen your impact on the environment or save shelf-space but I must say I didn’t fully appreciate the wonder of Kathy Schad’s visual design until I held the physical artefact in my hands. You can buy it here.
The second issue of RPG fanzine Machineries of Joy is dedicated to games from the Nørwegian Surreal.
I’d hoped to be able to offer a Trail of Cthulhu game at Concrete Cow on September 16 but I’m not sure my health is going to allow it.
A Gift of Fortune was going to involve bookhounds, dreamhounds and magicians vying for the lost tarot deck of Austin Osman Spare. I may try offering it at some future date.
Concrete Cow is a games convention held in Milton Keynes every six months and you should go if you’re at all interested in roleplaying games. The organisers take care to be kindly and courteous to all that attend.
I’ll probably keep up with the fanzine but I’ve shifted the focus of the next issue from Lamentations of the Flame Princess (never fear, the game is ably served by its own dedicated fanzine called The Undercroft, and you should buy it because it’s great) to… well, I’m not quite sure yet. Next issue may be The Metazine, a pretentious title for a zine about all the other zines out there, or be dedicated to a particular game like Trail of Cthulhu, or to a particular game attached to a particular theme, such as Archipelago, or address a more general theme, such as Live Action Role-Play or the outsider-edge of the Old School Renaissance.
I’d intended to offer an online game of Itra-Troll before the launch of Itras By: The Menagerie but that also looks tricky, in part due to technological issues. Sometimes you’ve just got to roll with the punches.
I appear in this flower court. Pictures blossom: they’re my drums. My words are songs. Flowers are the misery I create.
Includes text from “Enjoy!” by Terry Eagleton (a review of The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters by Slavoj Žižek; The Abyss of Freedom / Ages of the World by Slavoj Žižek / F.W.J. von Schelling; The Plague of Fantasies by Slavoj Žižek) in the London Review of Books, 27 November 1997; and images from The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, Ballantine Books, 1976; Rosemary’s Baby by Roman Polanski, Paramount Pictures, 1968, based on the novel of the same name by Ira Levin; The Thing by John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster, Universal Pictures, 1982; and Whitechapel Gallery monograph, 2011 (featuring XXXV, 2007) by John Stezaker; music is I Don’t Know If This Is A Matter For Wardrobe Or Hairdressing from We Bake Our Bread Beneath Her Holy Fire by Thumpermonkey (2010).
Rumours are that the members of PABLO ALTO emerged fully-formed from three enormous eggs washed up on the banks of the River Wye; others insist they were constructed kit-form from the remnants of a schoolgirl production of R.U.R.: Rossum’s Universal Robots: Kolektivni Drama by Karel Čapek.
What is certain is that they and other shadowy figures of chaos including STRANGE CAGES, DUSTY MUSH, TABLE SCRAPS, ABJECTS, CAPTAIN SUUN, AS MAMAS and INSOMNICHORD are playing at The Victoria in Dalston, London, on the 23rd September, 3-11pm.
Those in favour of the ongoing planetary depredations of The Man are advised to contact their local MP.