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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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.

 

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[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

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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)

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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.

Le Bateleur

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.

Hang in there, people: it’s another tough year.

Kitty Marshall Playing Cards
Playing cards made by suffragette Kitty Marshall during her incarceration 1910-1913.

 

 

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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.

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Trinary

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.

 

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Ἀλβιών


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

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.