Palimpsest


Black Dog Dérive is a 32-page collaborative scenario produced as fan material for STALKER: The SciFi Roleplaying Game by Ville Vuorela.

Seven double-page spreads designed to be used as prompts for improvisation, creative inspiration or random tables provide the spine of the story: pre-generated characters, maps and guidance for play form the scenario’s second half.

Right now, the scenario is freely available only as a desktop PDF but other formats may soon become available:-

Black Dog Dérive

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Contents

Two hours of sheer panic this morning when it emerged that the latest Microsoft updates meant that two-thirds or so of the images I’d used in Black Dog Dérive wouldn’t print, but sustained and desperate technical legerdemain has resulted in a hard copy I can trust. It seems to render okay as a PDF too. Aren’t those disingenuous mountebanks at Microsoft lovely, lovely people?


 

Sacred Cow



10 years old and out from under its parent’s wing: Neil Smith announced that this, the 21st Concrete Cow, would be the last he organised and that Amy would take the reins from now on. I’ve only been to the last two but I’ve the very strong impression he’s done a great job. Amy shows every sign of the same enthusiasm and generosity of spirit.

I offered Starfall by Paul Mitchener in the morning slot and I just about held it together: I’ve not run a game with six players before. The players – God bless ‘em, one and all – succeeded in their mission to take out the Strategist but Captain Howard Fairbright, poor chap, ended the game as a Quisling… under the control of Double Agent “Knees-Up” Mother Braun.

I played Lighthugger – an iteration of The Next Big Thing – by James Mullen in the afternoon slot and learned a lot from watching James facilitate the game. He had a very deft touch and managed to persuade the players to supply the logic of sense for the story by raising the stakes in the endgame.

I can’t recommend this convention highly enough. Concrete Cow 16 ½ is on September 10th of this year.

Art in the main image is by Jonny Gray

Concrete Cow 16

Concrete Cow gaming convention is in Wolverton, near Milton Keynes, this coming Saturday, 12th of March. Games on offer include the following:-

  • New Gods for an Old Town (Apocalypse World, Just Heroes hack)
  • Chap with the Wings, Five Rounds Rapid (Starfall)
  • Lighthugger (The Next Big Thing)
  • Titan’s Wake (Symbaroum)
  • Dark Predators (The Code of Shōjo and Shōnen)
  • Deadpool saves the Fantastic Four (Manifold Superheroes)
  • Flight into Oblivion (Manifold Horror)
  • Newtown (Story Game)
  • Training Day (The Laundry)
  • Blackhearts (Dead of Night)
  • Traveller: Hard Times (Story Game)
  • The Hanging Tree (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
  • Monster of the Week (Apocalypse World)
  • But is it Art? (Pulp Cthulhu)
  • Green Fields and Paydata (Shadowrun, 3rd Edition)
  • The Void Citadel of House Vervain (Dramasystem)
  • Rinden Snarls (Tenra Bansho Zero, Ruined Empire)
  • The War in Crow’s Foot (Blades in the Dark)
  • Ad Astra Per Aspera (Cthulhu Dark)
  • Fish Squad vs Megashark (HeroQuest: 2.1)
  • On the Discovery of Witches (Lamentations of the Flame Princess)
  • Cadenza (World War Cthulhu: Cold War)
  • The Queer & Deadly Town of Sorrowset (D&D, The Black Hack)

Do come along if you can. People from London’s Indiemeet are meeting at Euston station at 07.40am onwards to catch the 08.10am train to Wolverton:-

https://plus.google.com/u/0/communities/103901894016021062102

This is the game I’m offering:-

Starfall Pitch Sheet 2

 

“Everyone Hates Žižek…”

…was the founding principle of the second group of stalkers to enter the Zone.

Asking each player to a) explain the “deepest desire” of their character, and b) work up a series of interrelationships from that impetus seems to produce the goods.

The group was led by Queen Rat (Christel) – a Pre-Gen unused during the prequel we played at the Mini-Campaign Indiemeet organised by Epistolary Richard last month – who’d had more than enough of former boss Žižek regularly traducing her work, stealing her research and refusing to grant her even a modicum of the respect her expertise in Gravioconcentrates deserved. Žižek – an egotist and an alcoholic – had similarly alienated the rest of the party, having threatened stalker and sound recordist Weno (James) with legal action after claiming his voice had appeared on one of Weno’s recordings, experimented on Latch Key Kid (Sridat) – another Pre-Gen, dual-gendered and mysteriously Changed by her time in the Zone – and, not least, cited fixer Elm (Tom) in a published paper on Geographically Induced Credulity (GIC) which ridiculed the former security expert’s newly-found religious beliefs.



This time round we used tokens to denote the spending of attributes and chose a new motif – transformation – and a new theme – resolution – for our story. Every suggestion the players made improved the game.

It soon became clear that Žižek had his eyes on a new Artefact that had appeared in Zone Toulouse, and clearer still that Queen Rat had both the know-how and the equipment to beat him to the punch. A Merger, it seemed, was capable of combining any form of matter with any other when subjected to temperatures very close to absolute zero or those hot enough to produce nuclear fusion. Queen Rat had the portable laboratory with which to achieve this but there was a catch: the only place the Merger had been seen was at the Mausoleum (Stalker rulebook, p214), a place littered with the bones of 6,000 dead, and at which a new Inorganism had also been sighted: the Night-Axe, a thing of darkness and disembodied carcasses and, like the Smoking Mirror artefact that had made Žižek’s reputation, named from Aztec mythology. Three previous missions had been sent from the Institute on Žižek’s behalf; none had returned.

Story Arc 2

Story Arc by Ville Vuorela: I can vouch for the fact that this is an excellent way to structure a Stalker narrative.

Queen Rat recruited a former security officer – Elm – from the Canadian Zone at Harmont as the fixer to get her in and out of the French Zone without being noticed by Žižek’s friends at the Institute, and two stalkers, the first of which – Latch Key Kid – had contacts inside the Zone, and the second – Weno – sound equipment capable of hearing the dread whispers of Night-Axe from a distance.

The party, however, ran into problems from the off. The “door” long-used in the fence between the Dead Alleys and the Soot Quarter – the same, in fact, they had used with their previous set of characters in the prequel – had been repaired, and a new CCTV camera had been set to observe the electrified mesh. They also observed a large air-vehicle going into the Zone – they chose not to spend any attributes to find out more – and portable camera-drones alongside it. Elm noticed that the personnel at the nearest tower had been doubled – four guards, not two – and Latch Key Kid was forced to use her connection to the Kids with Guns to create a distraction.

With the difficulty level of the Challenge rising by the instant – only two of the four guards had been drawn to the disturbance created by the Kids with Guns – Weno was forced to use a recording of the guards taunting one of their own number – “Chacal” – to distract the attention of the two remaining in the tower while Elm cut a hole in the fence. He and Queen Rat squeezed through but the party quickly found themselves triangulated by disaster.

From the east came the Burning Man (Stalker, p157), an Inorganism long suspected to be attracted by heat and light, leaving a trail of bush-fire in its wake; from the west, Weno discerned the distant whisper of the Night-Axe, enticed, it seemed, by the panic and the terror; while from above came the search light of the tower, missing Elm as he drew his poncho over his head, but tracing the route of Weno and Queen Rat as they bolted toward the Soot Quarter.

Queen Rat shot out the search light with her pistol and Weno – finally – spent an attribute to rendezvous with Elm by an abandoned van at the outskirts of the Soot Quarter. An understandably-panicked Latch Key Kid – “Night Axe!” screamed the kids, before running – had, meanwhile, sprinted deep into the Zone, the only direction from which no discernible threat loomed. That’s when s/he noticed something flickering in the shadows of the flames left by the Burning Man: it was a Black Dog, an Inorganism notorious for feeding on the negative emotions of its targets by joining and deepening their shadows. There was no shaking the shade off once it had a hold on you.

Latch Key Kid decided to sacrifice her pet monkey – so useful, so cuddly, so kind – to the Black Dog, casting the too-too-sweet simian in front of her as the Inorganism loomed: it melded to the dark reflection of the monkey rather than to hers. The monkey still had its eyes on its former companion and keeper, however, and they were hungry eyes, eyes resolved to continue its pursuit of the good life, and something was wrong: the bones of the monkey clattered, it called out, “Ee-ee-ee!” – many thanks to Sridat for the monkey impression – and it seemed that some kind of unholy transformation between monkey and shadow had occurred – its Replica (Stalker, p154) and Black Dog merged to form some terrible new entity.

Latch Key Kid ran and ran and ran. Stalker Weno used his knowledge of the Zone and the narrative rights gained from spending the relevant attribute to reach the well-known oasis of the Tower (Stalker, p214), there finding Latch Key Kid splayed out asleep, apparently dreaming peacefully.

glasshousestores
The pub was too loud and refused to serve food.

Sridat had been kind enough to invite us to his place in Tufnell Park after we’d found the pub in Piccadilly too noisy; looks like the next session will be at Christel’s place in Bermondsey. We had a quick chat about what kind of dénouement we wanted from the story – the metaphysical pay-off of the prequel hadn’t quite satisfied – and we agreed we wanted a material solution to the survival horror set-up. What is the Night-Axe and where does it come from? Can Queen Rat put her hands on the Merger without awakening the horror? And what was the large air-vehicle the PCs saw entering the Zone earlier?

Black Dog Rewrite



The players at last Saturday’s Mini-Campaign Indiemeet were everything I could have wished for: engaged, enthusiastic and clear about what worked and what didn’t.

The good news is that the set-up and journey into the Zone worked very well. The bad news is that the dénouement with the Body without Organs pretty much stank up the joint.

Sridat helped me with some of my wonky pseudoscience and agreed with James that the conflicting agendas among the characters (PvP) were insufficiently supported by the way I’d hacked the system. James preferred the survival horror set-up to the quantum flim-flam climax. Tom said he said felt adrift at the end because characters had to spend attributes to act: yes, I’ll change that. And Christel made the point that the first half of the story felt like the book and the second half like Tarkovsky’s film adaptation, becoming “a bit too metaphysical”. Spot on.

We’re hoping to get together for a sequel using new characters.

The consensus on Stalker seems to be that the setting is great but the system difficult to apply. I like the system: I think it’s a case of using its toolkit to develop the playstyle you want. This is easier to say than to achieve, as I’m no kind of game designer. The game has me in its grip, however:-

“To be in the Zone is to be part of the Zone.”

Too Much Too Soon

I made a pig’s ear of writing a scenario for John Keyworth’s game-in-development Intrepid Histories. Easy done, and most instructive.

Recent peregrinations in story-gaming have led me to the shadowy borderland between two styles of play:-

  • Escapist games led by one person which encourage players to relax into the story and the world it creates; and which, with some irony, can tend to encourage everyone at the table to play a version of their usual social dynamic.
  • Games designed to achieve a specific effect by using rules to govern circularity and flow between players of any level of experience; and which, with some irony, often involve being told every five minutes you’re playing it wrong.

Mixing these styles can be fraught – people have OPINIONS – but, for me, John’s game gets it just right. So much so that I pestered him into letting me draw up a version of the game based on the Spanish conquest of Mexico in the early 16th century.

I thought I’d be playing to my (imagined) strengths by adding historical detail to the simple set-up John generally favours – the map of a line-drawn journey from history altered only by one ‘world fact’ (ie difference) per player.

Thus the route is prescribed but the characters and events improvised, punctuated only by plot-points to indicate the opportunity to spend a token to frame a scene or vignette of the journey.

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But no: I wanted to show off the extensive reading I’d done about the conquest of Mexico over the years and ended up with a character-by-character breakdown, similar to the set-up in Montsegur 1244 – a game I’d played for the first time a couple of weeks before.

I also cluttered the map with historical facts, effectively inhibiting players’ propensity to improvise. John was kind about my efforts, but I realised I’d made a mistake.

I played instead in a version of the Jack the Ripper narrative – not usually my thing – which used a scratch-map of the five murders over an imaginary London. Players chose hyper-industrialisation, opium-dealing elves and dwarves in the Underground as their ‘world facts’. The police force had been formed by the nobility. Each point on the map indicated both a scene in the investigation and a flashback to the murder. It was fun.

Clichés about a ‘rules-lite’ approach to games with ingredients so intricately-connected you can’t change one without altering the effect of another turn out to true – in the case of Intrepid Histories at least.

Wondering if a similar method would work in a genre of game I knew fairly well, I took a look at Graham Walmsley’s Cthulhu Dark, which uses a D6, or, if you prefer, three D6s, to communicate the essence of Lovecraftian gaming:-

  • One die if the task is within human capabilities.cthulhu-dark
  • One die if it’s within your occupational expertise.
  • Your Insanity die, if you will risk your sanity to succeed.

I love this. And yes, in a game this boiled-down you’re going to encounter situations not covered by the rules. But that’s a) an opportunity to improvise, or b) a chance to refer to your other experiences of playing another version of Call of Cthulhu, or c) both. The game is highly-adaptable. You could use it as an adjunct to another campaign of play or drop it ad-hoc into any social situation.

Of the many kinds of preparation, those which understand which bits to leave out seem most effective. I knew this already, of course, but it’s good to learn a bit more about why that is. It’s the absences that let the creativity in.

Infernal Desire Machines: Playbook

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Advice from last month’s Playstorm – thanks Ed, David & Anita – has been applied. I shall canvass fresh freaks at a future Indiemeet; a game in which you choose your own madness may prove an acquired taste. All feedback gratefully ignored.

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Infernal Desire Machines Playbook 2

Infernal Desire Machines: The Real

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What is desire? Something in the unconscious that leads you toward (or away from) a coded version of your family? According to Jacques Lacan, its structure determines your sexuality; or, as Madan Sarup puts it: “Need is satisfiable, desire is insatiable.” Hence fantasy, fetish, image. It’s just a game we play.

The Real invites you to decide what’s been driving your character all this time – and what, if anything, you intend to do about it.

Choose one of two special moves:-

Inrupt allows you to retell one of the scenes already covered from the point of view of your character; you can import systems from other games to facilitate this – initiative systems, wizardry, wild romance, whatever – or just choose a genre or narrative style. There’s one proviso: stick to your own character. If other players want to join you in this, great – but allow them hegemony over their own characters.

Rewrite lets you in on the Epilogue – the part of the game that follows The Real. You get final cut. If more than one player wants a rewrite, they each draw from the larger part of the Tarot deck to decide who rewrites when. Try to identify an over-arching theme, or at least include everyone. We’re in your hands: enjoy it.

In this, the introductory version of Infernal Desire Machines, The Symbolic, The Imaginary and The Real have been segmented into beginning / middle / end. This is to facilitate picking up the principles of the game.

In fact, there will be a lot of flipping around between these states of play. One player will be challenging another symbolically and her opponent will want to respond imaginatively by introducing a narrative element. Or two players will be merrily escalating one another’s imaginary scenes only to find they need to ‘get real’ for a moment in order to discuss the implications for the story.

For the most part, this will happen informally; how much you notice the machinery of the game while playing is a matter of play-style and personal preference. It’s one of the reasons the game has three parts: ‘play through’ and find what suits you.

Where it gets interesting is when different play-styles cross-over or ‘clash’ during play: one person will want to stay ‘in the flow’ of a character arc between symbolic and imaginary while another will want to step back to the threshold between imaginary and real in order to shape the story. Players can fall back on a simple paper-scissors-stone mechanic if they want a quick resolution to any such discussion:-

Imaginary trumps Symbolic trumps Real trumps Imaginary

If you’re running a version of the game led by one person (GMed), call this as needed; you might have one eye on the clock, or think a certain scene has gone on long enough. In an ‘all for one, one for all’ version of the game (GMless), any player can call this when they’ve had enough ‘blah’. Reach an agreement or move on. If the cut-cut-cutting gathers pace, it’s an indication you need to frame a new scene in a new context.


Imaginary_Axis1

The Symbolic
Challenge / Phantasm
Conduct numerical challenges
Threshold: Imply deeper meanings

Is superseded by:-

The Imaginary
Augment / Evoke
Frame scenes from the pictures on the cards.
Threshold: Take the story in a new direction

Is superseded by:-

The Real
Inrupt / Rewrite
Import systems or flavour from other games
Threshold: Negotiate outcomes with other players

Is superseded by:-

Epilogue

You’ll have ‘felt’ something during the game. Some foreshadowed possibility, perhaps, or an intimation that the character you’re playing might do something to surprise you or someone else. The epilogue is your chance to express that – or to put it into some sort of context. Maybe – gasp! – you were a bit bored. The story might have gone off at a tangent that didn’t interest you much. This is your chance to fix that – or at least to underline a point you wanted to make.

An idea is a brick – build with it or hurl it through a window.


I was the only man alive who knew time had begun again.

Angela Carter


The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

Recap

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The Tarot deck is divided into two piles: one containing major arcana, the other containing the suits and minor arcana. Challenges proceed according to the resolution mechanic of Psychosis: Ship of Fools by Charles Ryan and John Fletcher. These are covered in The Symbolic section of the game. Cards are dispensed during play according to a) the preference of a GM, b) the agency of the Ambassador, or c) the general approbation of other players. Anyone who draws an Ace during play may choose to swap it for a draw from the major arcana.

Players narrate scenes using the imagery of the Tarot deck, rules for which are covered in The Imaginary section of the game first playtested at the London Indie RPG Meetup Group.

Players apportion input into the outcome of the game through rules covered here, in The Real.


Infernal Desire Machines: The Imaginary

I want to live other lives. I’ve never quite believed that one chance is all I get.


Anne Tyler

The deeper implications of Doctor Hoffman’s paradigm now begin to assert themselves:-

First theory of Phenomenal Dynamics:
The universe has no fixed substratum of fixed substances and its only reality lies in its phenomena.

Second theory of Phenomenal Dynamics:
Only change is invariable.

Third theory of Phenomenal Dynamics:
The difference between a symbol and an object is quantitative, not qualitative.

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Act 2: Lost in Nebulous Time (The Imaginary)

Relationships between characters, and between characters and free-floating phenomena, may have turned messy during the first turn of the game: that’s all well and good. Now we begin again.

Each player draws one major arcana and briefly frames a scene from any point in history based on the card. Write them on post-its or just keep them in mind; these scenes are ‘out there’.

Players then ‘bid’ by indicating how many cards they would be prepared to ‘burn’ to see a scene enter play. If no-one bids or the result is a draw, then the Ambassador (see below) either frames a scene of his own, or chooses the scene with which the second act begins.

The player that won the bid then uses the imagery of the card(s) she burned in conjunction with the scene’s major arcana to frame the first scene. These cards are placed in the centre of the table. The next player clockwise then chooses how she will become involved in the scene; and so on.

There are two special moves in the Imaginary:-

Augment scenes already taking place by adding a card to those already in the middle of the table. Use the imagery of the card to complicate matters or take them forward.

Evoke new scenes based on the imagery of a new card from your hand or trace. This may be used in conjunction with one of the major arcana used to set up a scene at the beginning of the second act.

Augmenting is ‘joining in’ where evoking is ‘changing the subject’ – but one move will have a tendency to lead to the other. Evoked scenes take place on a different part of the table but conjoin with ‘central’ scenes if:-

  • a) characters cross or interact between scenes;
  • b) players refer to the other scene(s), whether accidentally or on purpose;
  • c) the Ambassador augments an imaginative leap between scenes, whether out of mischief or as a form of psychological engineering.

Scenes that overlap are considered to have coalesced, and their cards are placed together in the centre of the table as part of a pool through which any character may thereafter enter play.

NB: Cards used to evoke or augment scenes in the Imaginary cannot be re-used in Symbolic challenges: they have a life of their own. This doesn’t prevent new cards being burned (from the hand) or re-applied (from a trace).

The Realm of The Imaginary is messy: it’s about the oneiric force of an emerging narrative and the interplay of emotional entanglements that underpin this. Cut if necessary. Discard unwanted cards. Order can arise spontaneously, even at the end of time and space.

Have the Ambassador turn up if characters are going round in circles. If players are arguing amongst themselves, evoke a new scene or go to the next act, The Real – the part of the game designed for discussing where the story should go. Don’t be afraid to punctuate. A free-flowing game benefits from well-timed interventions.


The Ambassador

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Luxuriantly glossy black hair so black it was purplish in colour made of his head almost too heavy a helmet to be supported by the slender column of his neck and his blunt-lipped, sensual mouth was also purplish in colour, as if he had been eating berries. Around his eyes, which were as hieratically brown and uncommunicative as those the Ancient Egyptians painted on the sarcophagi, were thick bands of solid gold cosmetic and the nails on his long hands were enamelled dark crimson, to match the nails on his similarly elegant feet, which were fully exposed by sandals consisting of mere gold thongs … I think he was the most beautiful human being I have ever seen – considered, that is, solely as an object, a construction of flesh, skin, bone and fabric, and yet, for all his ambiguous sophistication, indeed, perhaps in its very nature, he hinted at a savagery which had been cunningly tailored to suit the drawing room, though it had been in no way diminished.

Angela Carter


The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

The Doctor has an agenda. The Ambassador will be happy to explain it to you:-

“The Doctor has liberated the streets from the tyranny of directions and now they can go anywhere they please. He also set the timepieces free so that now they are authentically pieces of time and can tell everybody whatever time they like. I am especially happy for the clocks. They used to have such innocent faces. They had the water-melon munching, opaquely-eyed visages of slaves and the Doctor has already proved himself a horological Abraham Lincoln. He will liberate you all.”

Gameplay

Trace: Hierophant / King of Pentacles
Hand: 3 cards

(Symbolic)
Trump suit: Pentacles / 25

(Imaginary)
Augment: Persistent

(Real)
Rewrite: Epilogue (one scene only)