Concrete Cow 18 is this coming Saturday 17th March in Wolverton, near Milton Keynes. You should go if you’re at all interested in roleplaying games. I’m offering the following game in the morning session:-
The Bees of the Invisible
“We are the bees of the invisible. We madly gather the honey of the visible to store it in the great golden hive of the invisible.”
Rainer Maria Rilke
Five bookhounds and a dreamhound convene for an auction of unusual items at a Welsh country house.
It’s all been a bit of whirl since you did the scenery and the costumes for Ninette and Gavin, no time for anything; this job is immense. You know His Lordship is vexed at the overrun but you have to get every bit of it just right, for Caroline.
Nothing’s been right since the shell-shock. The sleepwalking is a bit of a worry, to be honest.
The sea is churning right there on the wall but they don’t see it: a Claudean sunset with pink clouds, fluted and pointed like the prow of boats. We live our real lives in the dream light, far from men – that’s what she says. People misunderstand you and the Lady Caroline. When she’s with you there is not one fragment of your true being, of your real personality, that does not participate unreservedly in the eternal celebration of sovereign night.
Investigator Name: Rex Whistler Drive: Muse of Fire Occupation: Artist Occupational benefits: Anagnorisis – you may spend your point of Mythos to trigger the denouement of the game; you have Medium as an Investigative Ability. Pillars of Sanity: Drive fast, die young; huntin’ and shootin’. Build Points: 2
Art: Engraving 1
Art History 4
Cthulhu Mythos 1
Dream Lore 1
Credit Rating 2
First Aid 5
You’re in contact with a number of spirits – gypsy-girl Bathsheba, mad centurion Quintus Flavius and the shieldmaiden Brünhilda. They’re terrible people but great fun at parties.
They’re all just overgrown boys with mummy-issues, really. They collect and collect and fetishize what they’ve got because mummy was romancing the accountant or whatever.
You might not be so attached to Quintus Flavius if he were flesh and blood. He’s a bit of a brute.
Investigator Name: The Divine Angela Drive: To the Magic Occupation: Occultist Occupational benefits: You know every occult collector at the auction; you may purchase Magic as an Investigative Ability from tomes. Pillars of Sanity: Theosophy; the imagined life. Build Points: 2
The authenticity is in the act, not the provenance. Every time you knock someone off, it’s a courtship – a long, drawn-out process of getting to know someone better than they know themselves. Mind you, the money doesn’t hurt.
Art historians are free-loading pissants.
A little side-bet on which book fetches the most wouldn’t go amiss – all the better if it involves your own work.
Investigator Name: Rick the Red Drive: Artistic Sensitivity Occupation: Forger Occupational benefits: You are “the last word” in four types of forged document. Pillars of Sanity: Art is immortality; a little flutter never hurt anyone; other people’s money. Build Points: 2
You’re going to take it all back – mostly via translation into Arabic, Xhosa and Igbo. Nothing illegal or clandestine. Unless it’s really necessary.
Investment is transitory. Schools, universities and the Bibliotheca Alexandrina project are what will make Africa great again.
They soon back off when you show them the blade.
Investigator Name: Tuesday Naledi Adisa Drive: Thirst for Knowledge Occupation: Catalogue Agent Occupational benefits: You may interact with bibliophiles at their Credit Rating. Pillars of Sanity: Bibliotheca Alexandrina; self-sufficiency. Build Points: 2
Your elder brother is the Bishop of Bangor and you’ve heard people in the village refer to you laughingly as “The Second Cumming”.
You have a personal relationship with God; you don’t hold with all that skirt-swishing and high-and-mighty stuff.
You’ve a lot of good stock you can’t shift and all this hullabaloo about “The Lost Library of Ynys Môn” is a great opportunity to unload some of it onto another bookseller.
Investigator Name: Alun Cumming Drive: Duty Occupation: Bookseller Occupational benefits: You operate with dual Credit Ratings, one for your shop and one for you; you may discover a “squiz” at the auction. Pillars of Sanity: All of human knowledge; kindness is a cure; God moves in mysterious ways. Build Points: 2
Library Use 6
Textual Analysis 4
Credit rating 3/4
Document Analysis 2
Electrical Repair 3
First Aid 5
Mechanical Repair 3
Sense Trouble 5
Certain games from the Old School Renaissance connote a class sensibility by moving beyond the sometimes-cosy constraints of modern fantasy and into what critic John Clute calls the “armamentarium” of fantastika – an imaginative space that interrogates the impact of human-occupied processes such as ruins, industrialisation and imperialism.
This sort of roleplaying game very often puts its players in the position of being the looters of treasures, the bearers of new technologies or the foot-soldiers of a colonial power. Fond as I am of those “story games” that seek to correct the European attitudes that have played such a large part in devastating the planet – often by taking the part of protagonists who have been brutalised, or by playing people of different ethnicities or genders, or by de-centralising the authority in the game – I think it is sometimes instructive, as well as fun, to play as one of the aggressors. It is easy to forget that they are as poor and desperate as the rest of us.
Portal Rats (2017) by Tore Nielsen and Neal Stidham – “rats are riff-raff… hardscrabble ne’er-do-well[s] from a tough background found anywhere there is a portal that allows escape from hardship, oppression, a dead-end life…” – is based on The Black Hack by David Black and describes via random tables comprised of pithy and easy-to-combine prompts the kind of high-octane space fantasy found in Thor: Ragnarok(2017) or the Planescape campaign setting for Advanced Dungeons and Dragons (1977; rev 1989).
Into the Odd (2015) by Chris McDowall rewrites the industrial hubris of the Western world as a game of survival horror: the precision and brevity of the writing makes it all the more suggestive of a fallen world hollowed-out by human appetites. Bastion Ein Sof (2017) by Joe Banner – “you are a hunter, deemed fit (or expendable) enough to serve the greater cause” – functions as a kind of operating system for Into the Odd by extending the implication of the game’s demiurgical theme into a literal evocation of the terrestrial desolation described in the Book of Enoch, a form of mythology utilised in works of fantastika by authors such as John Milton (1608-1674) and Doris Lessing (1919-2013). Giants and Angels rule a post-apocalyptic earth in which humans must do the bidding of global developments they barely understand.
The aesthetic of Into the Odd brings to mind Pandæmonium (1985; rev 2012), a compendium of first-hand accounts of the machine age between the years 1660 and 1886 that conveys both the heroic promise and the dehumanizing waste of industrialisation. Games like this describe the world we live in rather than the world we want and are all the more effective for using the codes of escapism to do so.
It’s easy to criticise the war-party style of play for its simulated violence: I’ve done this myself on a few occasions. I don’t think the behaviour this style of game describes is a lie, however; rather, a difficult truth that we must face in order to overcome. These are the people too poor to hide away at home while someone less fortunate does the fighting for them.
And… what would you do in their shoes? I speak as a wannabe pacifist who has punched Nazis and committed acts of violence to protect those he loves. “When is it necessary to kill?” asks a victim-aggressor in José Saramago’s masterpiece Blindness (1995; trans Giovanni Pontiero and Margaret Jull Costa, 1997), before answering her own question: “When what is alive is already dead.” “Of all the preposterous assumptions of humanity over humanity,” wrote Herman Melville (1819-1891), “nothing exceeds most of the criticisms made on the habits of the poor by the well-housed, well-warmed, and well-fed.”
I appear in this flower court. Pictures blossom: they’re my drums. My words are songs. Flowers are the misery I create.
Includes text from “Enjoy!” by Terry Eagleton (a review of The Indivisible Remainder: An Essay on Schelling and Related Matters by Slavoj Žižek; The Abyss of Freedom / Ages of the World by Slavoj Žižek / F.W.J. von Schelling; The Plague of Fantasies by Slavoj Žižek) in the London Review of Books, 27 November 1997; and images from The Making of King Kong by Orville Goldner and George E. Turner, Ballantine Books, 1976; Rosemary’s Baby by Roman Polanski, Paramount Pictures, 1968, based on the novel of the same name by Ira Levin; The Thing by John Carpenter and Bill Lancaster, Universal Pictures, 1982; and Whitechapel Gallery monograph, 2011 (featuring XXXV, 2007) by John Stezaker; music is I Don’t Know If This Is A Matter For Wardrobe Or Hairdressing from We Bake Our Bread Beneath Her Holy Fire by Thumpermonkey (2010).