“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.
Social media has turned into a game of dodge the 200 Word RPG Challenge entry, so I haven’t been online quite as much. Judging begins on April 26th (Wednesday), so I’ll probably release Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy on Monday or Tuesday. It’s on roleplaying games from the Nørwegian Surreal and includes work from the following array of wonderful people:
Ole Peder Giæver
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.
Gala gave a Tarot reading, “Crooked Bob” Nottingham made an assignation with Georges Bataille’s secret cadre of satanic bankers and Edward Cody sold the first-ever copy of Une semaine de bonté for eight times the value anyone was expecting. He ended the evening by emptying his six-shooter into a line of five champagne bottles outside the Galerie de rêve, using his final bullet to dislodge an enormous hat designed by Salvador Dalí from Gala’s head. She loved it and so did the crowd.
Things didn’t go so well for poor old Anton Du Marr. Max Ernst – the influential patron who had identified his painting The Rose Tree as “a work of profound and disquieting genius” – disdained Du Marr’s new work White Bear in Snow (a collage of white pieces of paper on white canvas) by throwing it out of the open door of the gallery. Du Marr later discovered that someone had sold the work from under him for an exorbitant sum. In other news, Gala has a new hat.
The player-characters’ new-found celebrity has won them an audience with excommunicated dream medium Robert Desnos, a sensitive man who has committed the unforgivably-bourgeois sin of going into radio jingles. André Breton will not be pleased.