“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.
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.
Gala gave a card-reading, the player-characters explored the lost library of Nicolas Flamel and women keep falling from the upper floors of Parisian tenements. René Crevel is upset. Why do Bird-men suddenly appear? What is it that the PCs really see when they look in the mirror? And: how are the creatures from Une semaine de bonté escaping the Dreamlands? The PCs have persuaded themselves that Salvador Dalí’s bid for the leadership of the Surrealist movement is behind the various threats, thefts and privations they’ve suffered and they’re determined to crash the poor man’s Friday night orgy.
“It is not safe to enter the Dreamlands by the Aragon method,” Robert Desnos is saying from an open coffin at the centre of the player-characters’ shared hotel room in the 18e arrondissement. “You must warn Cody before it is too late. He will become a creature of the Gatekeeper.”
Robert Nottingham starts from his lucid dream a little before midnight on the cusp of Tuesday night and Wednesday morning to see the face of a Lizard-man staring at him from the mirror on the wall. He turns to see what is casting the reflection to find nothing: his notes on the table in front of the mirror go up in flames and he ruins his shirt extinguishing the fire.
Anton Du Marr is almost pulled into a mirror at Shakespeare and Company by two Bird-men reminiscent of those Edward Cody saw in the Wednesday volume of Une semaine de bonté. Everyone around the characters begins to suspect they’re drugged or crazy or both. Their caché among the surrealists increases.
Later in the Cimetière de Montmartre Bob meets Georges Bataille at the party given by the secret order of Là-bas – he spends one of his float points on Disguise to gain entry – and begins to realise what he has got himself into. The drunkenness and debauchery are fine with Nottingham – he attended a minor public school – but he finds a small group in cowls carrying votive candles in a dark corner of the Cemetery; they’re drinking from a small chalice and passing round choice cuts from the grave they’ve excavated. Bob gains the ability to speak Mongolian from the brain-matter he imbibes and suddenly, all at once, he begins to understand what he was eating at dinner with Nicolas Flamel the night before, and he fails his Stability test and he’s heaving into the open grave and Lt Col Percival Fawcett, his nemesis and mentor in matters of the Cthulhu Mythos from The Last Catalogue of Ramon Degas, is standing by the exit of the Cemetery: “Did you think you could escape us, Robert? This is why the Treader of the Dust twisted your spine and gave you your immortal gifts; so that you could eat the memories of others the way He will eat them from you. Soon you will be as nothing and He will know everything and there will no experience from the Abyss of Time that is beyond Quachil Uttaus.”
Simon, who has done a great job of depicting “Crooked Bob” Nottingham’s slow-but-greedy descent into matters of the Mythos, is down to a rating of five Stability by this point and bless him, but he’s going to pieces.
Back at the hotel room, Anton Du Marr and Edward Cody are engaged in the creation of a masterpiece. Du Marr has secured hair from the head of Robert Nottingham, as instructed by Nicolas Flamel, and they’ve purchased hairs from the head of a Lakȟóta woman at great expense from the proceeds of Cody’s sale of Une semaine de bonté. This is the reason Cody came to Paris, to find a Dream Medium capable of returning the memories he lost to Quachil Uttaus of the Lakȟóta language and of his deep-seated matrilineal connection to his ancestry; a source of Stability was lost and a Pillar of Sanity shattered when he shot his mother at the final Anagnorisis of The Last Catalogue of Ramon Degas. Things may never be the same.
Du Marr suggests using the mirror through which the Lizard-man attacked Bob Nottingham as the basis for their painting-cum-collage. It’s a master-stroke. They remove the glass and paint a high plains Native American scene from fifty years before European settlers arrived onto its silver back, building up layer upon layer, using real hair on the bison, real canvas for the tents of the Lakȟóta, grass and leaves and silver paint, before replacing the glass and painting onto it with the same materials a large shamanic hat of bison hair and horns designed to look as if the person looking into the painting is wearing the headgear. They agree that those viewing Reflections de Vérité will be blindfolded until they reach the white line three feet in front of the painting. Anton aces his Art-Making roll. Du Marr and Cody are jubilant: they know they’ve cracked it and that all their hard work and Instability has been worth it.
Here’s where I call for two Dreamscaping rolls of difficulty 8. This is harsh-but-necessary as the pair intends to change the entire landscape of the Dreamlands by their actions. Space Monkey (playing Anton) burns his remaining pool of Dreamscaping to make a total of 9 on a D6… but Luke (playing Cody) has burned quite a bit of Dreeamscaping already in the session, what with all the scrapes with the fantastical hominids from Une semaine de bonté. He ploughs his remaining two float points into Dreamscaping but must still make “6” on a D6. He does so.
There’s a knock at the door. It’s Georges Bataille pushing Robert Nottingham’s wheelchair and Bob’s in a bad way. The player-characters haven’t seen him like this since they faced down Quachil Uttaus at The Last Stand bookshop. Anton and Cody pull he and Bataille inside and blindfold them. Bataille is the first to see Reflections de Vérité. He’s bowled over; Bataille begins to mutter something about “mystical atheism” before lifting his left leg high, seemingly about to stave in the mirror with the bottom of his shoe. Cody reaches out to stop him, but Anton prevents Cody from interfering, and sure enough, Bataille’s Big Toe goes into painting rather than through it, and Cody holds onto him, and Anton onto both Cody and Nottingham and there the four of them are, on the field of green in the morning of the magicians before the European settlers destroyed the paradise of L’Amerique. The panorama is beautiful almost beyond all imagining.
Space Monkey draws the Itras By chance card “Cut Scene”, pushing the action forward three hours. The four wake up in a shed wearing one another’s clothes: a drunken Bataille rather enjoys Cody’s pair of six-shooters and spurs; Nottingham is pretty okay with Bataille’s half-full bottle of absinthe too. Cody is less enamoured with Anton’s unwashed smock. It emerges that the characters are in the Cimetière de Montmartre early on Thursday morning and as soon as they exit the shed they see the real-life scene of Cimetière du près et de loin, the painting they saw at Galerie de rêve on the Monday of A Week of Kindness; a picture which Anton has no recollection of having painted. Bataille lets off a few shots, dislodging one of the arms from the statue on the grave. All four are taken into custody by the gendarmerie. When the PCs finally return to the hotel, they find Reflections de Vérité gone. Cody uses Charm on the hotel receptionist to learn who gained access to the room. “It’s Gala,” he says.
The first player-produced work of art entered our Dreamhounds of Paris game last night – Catacombs No.4 by Anton Du Marr, created by Space Monkey.
Du Marr emerged from behind a large rock removed from the entrance of a large cave with Romanesque arches by hominids with large, pronounced jawlines rimmed by teeth; he was carrying a collection of lidded eyes on stalks as if they were bunch of flowers.
“Make sure you include something of HIM in the portrait, Anton – a real piece of him, just as you did with the flowers,” Nicolas Flamel was saying. “There can be nothing that is fake about this painting.”
“Satellites” of surrealism “Crooked Bob” Notttingham and Edward Cody dined at Le Maldoror with new-found “Ally” of the movement Anton Du Marr, where Cody found an extremely fearful Robert Desnos hiding in its garret. Cody spent Charm to befriend Desnos and lent the former Dream Medium the use of his American accent for a radio jingle.
The player-characters discovered an upside-down cross in the Crypt of the Sepulchral Lamp – Du Marr’s religious faith meant that he suffered a severe loss of Stability when he touched it – then dined with Flamel (don’t ask what they ate) after a long and arduous journey through the Catacombs. One unique and dangerous text was exchanged for another.
Two days into A Week of Kindness and already the players are finding themselves drawn deeper, deeper into the darkness beneath Paris. Tomorrow (Wednesday) will see them keep an assignation under the light of a full moon at the Cimitière du Montmartre with a secret brotherhood known only as Là-bas.