“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.
Dog-faced boy Rex Barker drew Mysterious Data, which manifested as a large bullfrog narrating a string of words concerning secret assignations with cat-people. Bowler-hatted accountant Algernon McGinty, meanwhile, drew Dead Lover, whereupon ex-wife Dolores appeared complete with imprecations at the gloom. The pair electrocuted Prokor Lem, fought The Archaeomancer, Pamela and fled from wooden robot Varvara-6 before drawing Bisociation for the collective dream of the Scientific Order of Itra-Troll, followed by Pseudoscience (4: Psychosexuality) and Ferrous Brocade, thereby discovering that the scientists were fuelling the research station’s dreaming machines by furious orgiastic confabulation. Algernon made good his escape by revealing (from under his hat) the only remaining piece of ingenuity left to him by the Machine God’s creativity-sapping lamp-posts. Rex remained on the station to help Varvara-6 with her efforts. He does not regret his choice.
Itras By is one of the most enchanting and innovative roleplaying games ever made.
Eight Resolution cards link to a deck of Chance cards designed to communicate the disjunctive elisions and dreamlike combinations of surrealist narrative. In the case of the former, players draw cards and resolve actions on one another’s behalf; in the case of the latter, each player (including the GM) draws a Chance card once per session: something as wild as it is suitable is sure to occur.
The larger part of the game describes the City that is inspired by these creative implications: Itras By is a game that is as rewarding to read as it is fun to play.
Now some of the world’s best game designers – plus one or two opportunistic hangers-on – have gathered to form a new dérive into Itra’s City and beyond.
Somewhere in early 2015, I reached out to Ole Peder Giæver to hear if we and Martin Bull Gudmundsen were interested in writing an adventure or two as follow-up to their surreal roleplaying game Itras By. Itras By is one of our best-selling books, so making more of that would satisfy a certain demand.
A few months later, Ole came back to me with a different vision–a sourcebook containing a variety of contributions from several authors. A wild mix of material: varied, eclectic, slightly subversive, and useful or inspiring to readers, players, and gamemasters of Itras By. How could I say no?
Now, over a year later, our company inbox is overflowing with contributions. Ole and his team of collaborators–dozens of writers and illustrators–have worked hard to create Itras By: The Menagerie. We have no idea of what the final page count will turn out to be, but since the ball is now in our court, we will make sure this book gets all the love it needs and the looks it deserves.
Look for it in early 2017.
And this from Ole Peder Giæver, who lives with the elves of Dunsimore:-
Itras By: The Menagerie
Foreword by Emily Care Boss
Using the Menagerie by Ole Peder
The Diorama (Back to the By)
Imperia Manila by Tobie Abad, illustrations Trond Ivar Hansen
Capybaras with Hats by February Keeney, illustrations by Clarissa Baut Stetson
The Salon and the Darkness by Edward “Sabe” Jones, illustrations Thomas Novosel
The Fringe Zones by Terje Nordin, illustrations by Tor Gustad
Radio by Philipp Neitzel
LUNACY by Caitlynn Belle, illustrations by Thomas Novosel
The Laboratory (Method)
Costuming Itras By by Kat Jones
Oneshot Guide by Keith Stetson
A Cartography of the Surreal by Steve Hickey, illustration by Gino Moretto
Saying No by Ole Peder, illustrated by Anders Nygaard
Itras By without Itras By by Jason Morningstar
The Dream Résumé (Elements of Character)
Character Generator by Keith and Clarissa Baut Stetson
Character Seeds by Willow Palecek
Character Name Lists edited by Ole Peder
Curious Characters by Niels Ladefoged
Character Sheets by Karina Graj
The Hall of Mirrors (Games & Scenarios)
Grimasques, freeform by Banana Chan
Surrealist Games by Kamil Wu, illustrated by Li Xin
Neighbourhood by Aleksandra Sontowska
The Hyacinth in the Bureaucracy by Matthijs Holter and Jackson Tegu, illustrations by Jeremy Duncan
The Scientific Order of Itra-Troll by Abstract Machine, illustrations by Judith Clute
The Shadow Carnival by Evan Torner
Edgar by Oliver Vulliamy, scenario from the Swiss-French edition, translated by Sanne Stijve with illustrations by David Cochard
When life doesn’t make sense by Martin Bull Gudmundsen
Outsiders by Martin and Ole Peder
The Dream Team by Ole Peder
32 new cards (+ optional extras for new deck)
There are rumours too of one or two very special surprises…