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)


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.

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



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.



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

Snake Eyes


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…


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.”
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? 
Oops. Hello Quachil, my old friend…


Black Dog to White Dog

End Game


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.

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.
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.
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.




Tore Nielsen, Neal Stidham and Brian Wille did me the great honour of playing Black Dog Dérive over Hangouts last night. Tremendous fun.

Ville Vuorela’s game STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game is available here.




The set-up for the Fearful Symmetries playtest went well. It’s a beast of a document but it turns out to be fairly easy to use: the improvisational approach with plenty of background material suits the way I tend to facilitate games anyway and the guys enjoyed creating their characters.

We’re using the Radcliffe Camera campaign frame from the book; I’ll have to avoid freewheeling with the rules-as-written and I haven’t delved too deeply into the folklore engine as yet, but I find myself easily persuaded by the marriage between William Blake and the Cthulhu Mythos. It helps that Blake’s poetry and Crowley’s system of Magick have so insinuated themselves into the popular imagination: there’s little or no need to get bogged down in prep.

One of us was away this week and another of us is travelling for work the next – but that doesn’t turn out to be too much of a problem either. There’s a touch of Ars Magica to the way Fearful Symmetries suits troupe-style play, magickal rivalries and sudden affiliations. The self-proclaimed “Prophet of Albion” arrives in our game next week… but some of the players don’t know that yet.

Information on the playtest is available here:

Fearful Symmetries



I’m going to an archipelago. I’ve always loved them, whether via maps, by boat or on foot. Here John Clute elucidates their meaning and use in works of science fiction and fantasy:

I’d dearly love to play the roleplaying game of the same name, the third version of which is freely available from Matthijs Holter and Jason Morningstar:



Seven Go Wild in Voivodja

Funny how these things work: you think things are falling a bit flat, particularly after a six-week layoff, and then there are two good ideas in a row and woof! the set-up catches alight.

Seven Dwarves will enter the Place of Unreason in a bid to rescue the sleeping Empress Maudlyn from the Red King:

  • Margäz Princess of the Second Empire; aunt to the torpid Maudlyn.
  • Grimbald Grimson Quartermaster of the expedition to the Dying City.
  • Bûrin Ironhand 325-year-old diplomat of one of the largest Dwarven clans.
  • Anselmo Sheild-bearer to Bûrin Ironhand; good Strength rating.
  • Hildebrand Hasselbeard Slayer Dwarf feared for the impact of her two axes.
  • Morag Blackhand Gunpowder specialist; brace of pistols.
  • Freya Fargazer Astrologer to the Court of the Exiled Dwarves.

Osprey of the Iron Cliffs, an Elf, and Ralmir Herakson, a Cleric and follower of nature god Argan Argar will accompany the Dwarves on account of their expertise in magic. They are doomed. It’s all so delightfully old school.


200 logo

There are three wonderful winners of this year’s 200 Word RPG Challenge:

  • Mechanical Oryx by Grant Howitt
  • Memories by Santiago Eximeno
  • Route Clearance by Andrew Millar

Here are the winners and the finalists:

200 Word RPG Winners

I was a judge this year. I ignored things like word-counts or questions like “Is this really an RPG?” These might have disqualified an entry and I’m not here to impose rules and regulations. I tend to prefer games that marry their gameplay and their theme most effectively: those that can do so in 200 words or fewer earn my respect and appreciation. My favourite of the entries I read in 2016 were Meetings by Jaye Foster, The Vampire’s Kiss by Joanna Piancastelli and The Pope is a Space Lizard by Tobias Strauss.

I selected twenty games I considered possibilities to progress before printing these out and leaving them to sit for a few days; I found that six or seven of the games remained in my memory. Selecting four from these was difficult.

These are the twenty games I considered possibilities to progress from the 174 entries I read in the first round:


This is a well-written and well-conceived game. Playful invective and moral force are combined to convincing effect.

I particularly admire the way in which a beautifully-judged three-act structure communicates the breadth and depth of the game’s theme. This is delivered with clarity and emotional impact.

The fourth and fifth sentences offer up the “insecure” emotional space of the TROLL while allowing the player to distance herself from what she is putting across. The ALL IN CAPS second act accurately depicts the lurid “active-defensive” (as opposed to “passive-aggressive”) dominant feature of Trolldom, while the third act ties-off the angry insecurity of the TROLLS raised in the first act – “write down three physical aspects about which you are insecure… DO NOT draw on your own insecurities” – with a conclusive switch between the shared imagined space of the game – “by the name of [winner’s handle]” – with the real world of those playing: “agree never to speak or write as you have done”.


I like the violence of this one. There can’t be many of us left who believe the old “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me” adage.

I also like the cadence of the game: its shape suggests its theme – a common undercurrent in the 200 Word RPGs I admired – by communicating the attributes of a human relationship inside a dramatic moment.

“You must suffer pain or do something to impact the relationship” feels truthful to me, and more than a little tender, like a bruise or a moment of regret; it reveals that the desire to be in the right is in fact the desire to be liked in disguise. I consider this to be an accurate assessment of human nature.

To Alex!

You could play this in the bar, on the train or on a quite Sunday morning, hungover and full of regret. It catches the full extent of a sorrow while retaining a playful and inclusive air; I like the combination of its 6-6-6 structure and its conversational informality. The prompts are good too.

The Town of M

I’m a bit of a sucker for inventive ways to use everyday objects in games & I’d never encountered using sweets as RPG mechanics. I suspect that it might become difficult to “resolve” things without considerable discussion in the middle of the game but that wouldn’t necessarily stop it from being fun. As someone with a pretentious bent, I also read a coded message about corporate responsibility into the fabric of the game.

The Great Work

I’m also a bit of a sucker for Tarot and I think this would be fun, not least because of the ritual of drawing a card in front of the other players and their waiting to hear what the player said about her great work. I’d have preferred to have seen each player interacting with one another’s great works rather than merely describing their own progress during the third act but this is the sort of game I’d probably play more than once, just for the joy of describing the transformation.

One-Night Stand

This may be the perfect subject for a 200 Word RPG: intensity, sex and dramatic misunderstanding, all turned up to eleven in the space of two hundred words.

I love how it includes the truths and delusions of sex and how playful it is about how either truth or delusion might improve the experience or make it worse. The anxiety and expectation of the moment are present too and the game does a good job of communicating how those emotions might transmute into either disappointment or ecstasy. Or both.

There were a few games in my tranche of entries about the pervasive humiliation of the workplace and the following two were the best of those I read:

An American Workplace

It would be easy to write this off as a rewrite of The Office but I think it successfully communicates some of the agony and the necessity of being at work and of the dishonourable conduct it encourages in both bosses and workers. The mechanics are appropriate to the theme but I feel they could have interacted with one another more fruitfully.

Office Party

This accurately represents my experiences in journalism. I also like that it goes straight for the jugular and pulls no punches about the heavy-lidded competition and insecurity of the corporate structure but I think a little dramatic opposition or variation might have improved the play experience: you sort of get what you’re expecting from off.

There were also a few games among my entries with investigative themes and the following two were most interesting of those I read:

My Alibi

This is the kind of theme that relays itself to almost any audience and can be played in almost any context; the UK Freeform scene does this stuff well and I hope purists won’t be too distressed if I remark that I like that it is both a parlour game and an RPG. The mechanics are well-chosen but their descriptions need sharpening up, both in terms of what happens when and to what purpose.

And then there were none

A well-trodden trope once again, but that’s as much a strength as a weakness: the process is clear but the mechanics get a little fuzzier the longer the game goes on and they put the onus on those playing to provide relevant details rather than providing means of revelation. Almost anyone could play this and relish the details of description, I think.

Measured in Cups

Was there another tea-making-and-drinking game out there? A Google search isn’t turning anything up. It’s a great focus for a two-person RPG, particularly one about considering the range of a human friendship. I like the way this draws out the ritual and forces those playing to consider what they’re doing in terms of what they’re saying and vice versa. I’m not sure about “decide together what caused your relationship to fade”. People often have very different ideas about what ended a friendship, particularly after the fact.

Lawsuits & Litigators

This is a game that states its job and does its job with admirable efficiency. You really could drop it into any PBTA game – and perhaps other games too – and watch it create (a) dramatic display and (b) dramatic resolution. The fact that I know I’d hate playing it means that it’s a good game not a bad one.

Jersey Gore: a game for 4 to 6 players

This does a good job of communicating both the sullen and inconsequential narcissism of reality television and some of the reason why people enjoy it so: it is animal behaviour commodified. I might hate it but I’d probably play it anyway because it’s witty and theatrical.

He say you Blade Runner

This is one of the more complete entries I read: I think it really can claim to be a complete game, despite referring to a well-known intellectual property and being part of a bigger whole. It occurs all on one plane of understanding and I’d have like to have seen some examination of the “What is real? What is human?” theme that underpins Philip K Dick’s work.

Good Morning Magicland

This is fun: never underestimate the impact of playability and re-playability. The mechanics are both joyful and workable and framed by a register that everyone understands. It’s one of those games that would either come alive or not and I think in most cases it would.

Flirt Party Aftermath

This has a touch of the Nordic LARPs about it and I think the mechanics suit the theme: I also think that the guidance about what the players write on the index cards needs to be a bit more precise and that the chair-swapping might get a bit confusing. I like the combination of randomisation and solace.

Fatimah’s Busy Day

Beautiful set-up for a game: “anthropomorphic burqa” is a masterclass in domesticating something that has been mistrusted, and perhaps demonised, by certain forms of Western discourse. The phenomenology of what Fatimah sees and hears and chooses is great too and I love the dramatization of the relationship between Fatimah’s inner world and her outer reality. I also admire the way the author has put the larger truths front and centre without being heavy-handed. I did wonder if everyone taking part should get a go at playing Fatimah, as some of the truth of those experiences may be more evident to the person playing Fatimah than to everyone else.


The doginess is strong in this one: I almost feel the game bounded up to me and playfully humped my leg into submission. What’s worse, I liked it. I could play this over and over with the right gaggle of young people; perhaps the same would be true of playing with the appropriate pack of dogs.

Ghost Estate

This had the best language of any of the entries I read: it’s deceptively playful while actually managing to relay quite a bit of the political register and history of the Irish ghost story. People tend to “misunderestimate” the point of combining terror and humour. Phrases like “SPOOKY” and “NOGGIN” and “wheelie based messianism” made me laugh and sufficiently lowered my defences to give me a moment’s pause about the impact of English colonialism on Ireland.

Stop Reading to Lose

This was the most original of the games I read. I love the way it encourages and then complicates the combination of the external and the internal consciousness of the person playing. The decision to leave vast stretches of space between its pieces of text is pretty great too: this uses the physical constraints of the 200 Word RPG Challenge (no formatting, no illustrations, all plain text and so on) to inform its theme and the dislocated-but-intense feelings it wants to create in the player.

Perhaps the distances between the pieces of text might be varied to better reflect the shifts between descriptive and transformative pieces of narration: there are a couple of points where it feels like the game should shift gear but doesn’t. Some element of the player’s “real” environment might be included at the game’s beginning to assist in its claustrophobic intensity – but these are quibbles, really. Using a short form to render the simultaneous vastness of inner and outer space realizes a major characteristic of science fiction.

Call them game-poems, nano-games or what you will but I’m a big fan of short-form roleplaying games and it struck me that this, the third year of the 200 Word RPG Challenge, had fostered a surprising number of entries that felt thematically-complete. Offering those playing the chance to enact some fairly complex concepts and experiences conveys greater emotional impact than mere performance or consumption, and sometimes in the space of a few minutes or half an hour.