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 everything.

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.

Invisible City

menagerie cover
David M Wright

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.

A century has passed since Guillaume Apollinaire named surrealism:

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)

800px-Guillaume_Apollinaire_foto

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 MenagerieDiorama, 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.

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Kat Jones & Cecilie Bannow
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Terje Nordin & Ole Peder Giæver
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Banana Chan
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Tobie Abad, Aleksandra Sontowska, Ole Peder Giæver, Trond Ivar Hansen & George Barbier
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Clarissa Baut Stetson

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The second issue of RPG fanzine Machineries of Joy is dedicated to games from the Nørwegian Surreal.

The Call of Cthulhu

 

 

What’s the point of H P Lovecraft?

We’d laugh at him when we were growing up: ape his funny yokel accents, shake our heads at his racism, sneer at his propensity to stack adjectives; it was a way of excusing ourselves our own racism and snobbery, I guess.

That’s the thing: we who are closeted behind the barricades of the western world are not as distant from the attitudes expressed in the stories of H P Lovecraft as we might like. You can say, “I didn’t choose this,” or, “I won’t do this,” but some of those ideas are embedded into the structure of our language, disguised as ‘common sense’ or patriotism. H P Lovecraft reveals what lies beneath the deep-seated and intractable issue of racism: revulsion and a refusal to face the truth.

He’s also one of very few writers to find an original approach to describing the Real; what’s written isn’t always willed by its writer in the absolute sense, and connotation can be as important as denotation to artistic longevity.

Michel Houellebecq – writing before his own talent and notoriety made him famous – makes a good case for H P Lovecraft’s creative importance in H P Lovecraft: Against the World, Against Life (translated into English by Dorna Khazeni in 2005 and republished by Gollancz in 2008): it is fundamentally an existentialist argument – one about how Lovecraft combined lyricism and delirium to reveal a deeper truth about human estrangement:-

“I perceived with horror that I was growing too old for pleasure. Ruthless Time had set its fell claw upon me, and I was 17. Big boys do not play in toy houses and mock gardens, so I was obliged to turn over my world in sorrow to another and younger boy who dwelt across the lot from me. And since that time I have not delved in the earth or laid out paths and roads. There is too much wistful memory in such procedure, for the fleeting joy of childhood may never be recaptured. Adulthood is hell.”

Colonial powers refuse to face the truth about their impact on the world not because they are old but because they are infantile: that’s my position, at least. Umberto Eco does a great job of summarising the issue in his article on Ur-Fascism: what is presented as rational is in fact deeply irrational. Here’s a quotation from one of Lovecraft’s letters I found in Howard Ingham’s review of the film Jug Face (2013):-

“As for the Nazis – of their crudeness there be no dispute, yet in many ways the impartial analyst cannot help feeling a certain sympathy for some phases of their position. They are fighting, in their naive & narrow way, a certain widespread & insidious mood of recent years which certainly spells potential decadence for the western world – & one can’t help respecting that however ugly & even dangerous some of them may appear to be. Hitler is no Mussolini – but I’m damned if the poor chap isn’t profoundly sincere & patriotic, it is to his credit rather than otherwise that he doesn’t subscribe to the windy flatulence of the idealistic ‘liberals’ whose policies lead only to chaos & collapse.”

The basis of racism is fear; I think we need to get deeper into this fundamental truth rather than turn away from it. Unconscious impulses require creative understanding.

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The song “Whateley” comes from the album We Bake Our Bread Beneath Her Holy Fire by Thumpermonkey.

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.

690

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