Of the new work I saw, I liked that of Simone Pellegrini best.
“Your parents threw you away like garbage and you can’t stop needing them,” Kylo Ren tells Rey, a prodigal son resenting his own oedipal impulses and able, as such, to perceive a similar Psychology at work in his counterpart. “I thought I’d find answers here,” Rey says of the cave she has entered on the remote island of Ahch-To, recalling the shamanic journey of her teacher Luke Skywalker on the swamp planet of Dagobah in The Empire Strikes Back. She has activated her most heartfelt desire to ask the smoking mirror therein for a vision of her parents – as, indeed, did Harry Potter of the Mirror of Erised in Harry Potter and the Philosopher’s Stone (2001) – but instead of a buried family Memory or message of loving reassurance Rey receives a vision of herself, recurring without end in the darkness. “I was wrong,” she tells Ren: “I’ve never felt so alone.” “You’re not alone,” he replies. “Neither are you,” she says:-
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.
-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)
3 Spell – Drown
2 Spell – Tongue Twister
2 Spell – Undo
1 Spell – Web
1 Second Sight
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:
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.
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:-
The sun was so low in the sky and the air so crisp and clear that it seemed that every tree had been fastidiously etched.
We were too ill to enjoy last year’s autumn but this year’s has been glorious.
There are a few days in early November when England is as beautiful as England in early May – and that’s saying something.
“Am I the only one who can see the fucking sense, here?” asks K’s boss at the Los Angeles Police Department, Lieutenant Joshi (Wright): “This breaks the world, K.” “The ancient models give the entire endeavour a bad name,” says Wallace’s corporate enforcer and later-model replicant Luv (Hoeks). This is the way mid-twenty first century Earth is organized: cops, renegades and production units. Any production unit that goes renegade is “retired” (i.e. murdered) by a Blade Runner, itself a production unit of a system of Crime and Punishment that exists to protect the commercial interests of the Corporations. The tripartite power structure mirrors the Subhuman/Protagonist/Übermensch methodology of mid-era Philip K Dick, which Dick himself laid out in a long letter to fellow sf writer Ron Goulart in the summer of 1964: “The entire dramatic line of the book hinges on the impact between [the Übermensch] and [the Subhuman],” Dick is quoted as writing to Goulart in Divine Invasions: A Life of Philip K. Dick (1989), “…the personal problem of [the Subhuman] is the public solution for [the Übermensch].” Here, the “miracle birth” McGuffin of Rachael’s lost child Messiah – a common motif in the work of Philip K Dick, whose dedication to a Drug-fuelled Jungian version of the Gnostic Religion only intensified over the course of the 1960s – is used to relate the domestic concerns of K, and those of the protagonist of the first film, Rick Deckard (Ford), to the world-sized problem faced by Niander Wallace, the Übermensch who replaces Eldon Tyrell in Dick’s schema from Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? (1968):-
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.
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.