“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.
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.
Social media has turned into a game of dodge the 200 Word RPG Challenge entry, so I haven’t been online quite as much. Judging begins on April 26th (Wednesday), so I’ll probably release Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy on Monday or Tuesday. It’s on roleplaying games from the Nørwegian Surreal and includes work from the following array of wonderful people:
Ole Peder Giæver
We had a great time with Trail of Cthulhu: the game will probably be the focus of a future issue of Machineries of Joy.
Our Dreamhounds of Paris campaign ended with two of the player-characters living as debased and cannibalistic ghouls in the catacombs of Paris and with the other being rejected by the Lakhota heritage that had been the centre of his existence. Still, they did manage to defeat Sex Hitler.
Last night was one of those sessions where the inclusion of the Itras By chance cards worked really well: it’s all about timing and punctuation, really, and the guys aced their moments of narrative.
I pitched Night Witches hard – I really want to play that game – but I don’t think it’s going to happen soon. Same with Lovecraftesque: two of us interested; two of us less so. A Red & Pleasant Land is likely to be next, but not for at least a month or so. Real life is being demanding right now.
Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy, a fanzine on roleplaying games from the Nørwegian Surreal, has doubled in size but I’m now halfway through laying it out. The main image is the character sheet for a hack of Tarot-horror game Psychosis (Charles Ryan, John Fletcher, 1993) called Infernal Desire Machines. I’ve just reread Steve Dempsey’s riotous-but-playful critique of “creative agenda” Tbilisi: it’s inspired by Georgian Dada and is a lot of fun. John Rose has supplied another collage for Steve’s game. It’s beautiful.
Something is living in our dreams. We discover the Mnemosite in childhood, learn more during our youth, first meet as the Society of Dreamers as adults, then weave the facts of the story together before learning the eventual fates of both the characters and the Mnemosite. We are the dreamers who live in the dream.
Technique: scenes are framed by each of the players in turn, prompted by one of nine results blindly decided by the other players’ engagement with a bespoke Ouija board.
Playstyle: Nordic Dreaming; listen, don’t block, no need to complain or explain, everyone is equal.
This game may contain mature themes.
We’ll use an X-Card to moderate content anyone at the table finds uncomfortable – perfect for a weird, fast-moving narrative in which anything can happen. You just tap the X-Card whenever something you’d prefer wasn’t in the game arises and that’s it: no explanation necessary. It’s a way of being considerate without interrupting the flow of the game.