Mad, Bad or Dangerous to Know?

Issue 2 of Machineries of Joy, a fanzine on roleplaying games from the Nørwegian Surreal, has doubled in size but I’m now halfway through laying it out. The main image is the character sheet for a hack of Tarot-horror game Psychosis (Charles Ryan, John Fletcher, 1993) called Infernal Desire Machines. I’ve just reread Steve Dempsey’s riotous-but-playful critique of “creative agenda” Tbilisi: it’s inspired by Georgian Dada and is a lot of fun. John Rose has supplied another collage for Steve’s game. It’s beautiful.

Infernal Desire Machines: Playbook


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.


Infernal Desire Machines Playbook 2

Infernal Desire Machines: The Real


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.


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:-


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



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.


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


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.”


Trace: Hierophant / King of Pentacles
Hand: 3 cards

Trump suit: Pentacles / 25

Augment: Persistent

Rewrite: Epilogue (one scene only)

Infernal Desire Machines: The Symbolic

Narrative Structure

1. The City Under Siege (Symbolic)
2. Lost in Nebulous Time (Imaginary)
3. The Elaboratory (Real)

Act 1: The Symbolic Order (of the City)

Consider the nature of a city. It is a vast repository of time, the discarded times of all the men and women who have lived, worked, dreamed and died in the streets which grow like a wilfully organic thing, unfurl like the petals of a mired rose and yet lack evanescence so entirely that they preserve the past in haphazard layers, so this alley is old while the avenue that runs beside it is newly built but nevertheless has been built over the deep-down, dead-in-the-ground relics of the older, perhaps the original, huddle of alleys which germinated the entire quarter. Dr Hoffman’s gigantic generators sent out a series of seismic vibrations which made great cracks in the hitherto immutable surface of the time and space equation we had informally formulated in order to realize our city and, out of these cracks, well – nobody knew what would come next.

Angela Carter

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

Locations equal to the number of players are granted a) a trump suit, b) a connection to one or more of the characters, and c) a number of (unseen) cards appropriate to the size of the challenge they present.

Each of the four suits of the Tarot supplies a ‘tenor’ or context to the scene, and each player plays cards from her hand (which are burned) or her trace (which can be re-used throughout the game).

A Challenge may take place between players, between player(s) and NPC(s) and between players and an aspect of the environment. Cards used must a) match the trump suit, or b) be of a related suit narrated into the action by a player:-

Wands – sphere of STRENGTH.
Opposed to Cups, related to Swords/Pentacles.
Swords – sphere of AGILITY.
Opposed to Pentacles, related to Wands/Cups.
Pentacles – sphere of KNOWLEDGE.
Opposed to Swords, related to Wands/Cups.
Cups – sphere of PSYCHE.
Opposed to Wands, related to Swords/Pentacles.

How other characters and NPCs ‘feel’ about what you’re doing may complicate your task. Base difficulties are:- Easy: 10 / Average: 15 / Hard: 20 / Nah: 25Symbolic success in any task is likely to rely on more than one card, or the presence of at least one minor arcana:- Pages: 12 / Knights: 14 / Queens: 16 / Kings: 20.

The loser’s score is subtracted from that of the victor in physical contests, the result being the level of injury. Every increment of ten equals one life lost; each life lost means the loss of one card from a player’s maximum of five.

The Symbolic Order overlaps the Realm of the Imaginary, affording each player the opportunity to narrate an aspect of their unconscious desire into the scene through the special move Phantasm.

A card (from either trace or hand) may be burned to introduce an apparition into a symbolic location. Don’t be shy about this. Let rip. These are long-buried emotions taking shape.

Cards burned to introduce phantasmagoria into locations may not also be used in challenges. Phantasms may, however, ‘meld’ into the cards (and therefore the ‘meaning’) of any location.

In the case of the first location, the Opera House, an aspect of the opera being performed could ‘come alive’ or a scene from any film set at the opera might make itself felt – the swordfight from Scaramouche, for instance, or Mozart’s dad coming down the stairs in Amadeus. The action here is pataphysical – ie connected metaphorically to something that is already occurring symbolically.

Other locations around the city include the River, the Underground and the Coast of Africa, or indeed any other single location chosen by a player. The suspension of time and space means that any location may connect to any other via the Realm of the Imaginary.

The Imaginary, a version of which was used in the Playstorm at Indiemeet, contains two special moves, Augment and Evoke, each of which relies on the imagery of the Tarot. The Real invites players to use one of two further special moves – Inrupt or Rewrite.


The Opera House

Peacocks shrieked and fluttered like distracted rainbows and soon they let down the safety curtain… It was Dr Hoffman’s first disruptive coup.

Angela Carter

The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman

Trump Suit: Cups.
Punctuation: the fat lady sings.

Rising out of a city-wide plethora of plants and trees and fauna, the Opera House also contains the mythological jungle that surrounds it; any character may be part of its audience or cast, anything may be expressed if done so with ardour. Cards are awarded for singing, gesticulating, passing out in an unbearably florid manner. Introverts may leave by the back exit.



A kind woman once talked me off a bridge. Another time, I saw language in the sky. The green field at Glastonbury witnessed me trouser-less one morning; turns out it wasn’t just the acid.

Psychosis tends to be a diagnosis of exclusion: it’s when there’s no evident cause that you need to be worried. We all get it and we all have a vested interest in pretending it’s not happening.

We laugh madness off or use it to scare one another – me included, I’m afraid. If dramatizations of mental illness make you uncomfortable, look away now.

Links between madness and creativity are fairly well documented (Plato, Freud, Sheldon Cooper), as indeed are those between play and art (D.W. Winnicott). If this sounds a bit poncey, it probably is. Put simply, I like games – RPGs most of all.

The idea was to port some of the Tarot-resolution rules from Psychosis: Ship of Fools (Charles Ryan & John Fletcher, 1993) into an adaptation of one of my favourite novels – The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman (Angela Carter, 1972).

Players in Psychosis try to discover the truth behind their hallucinations by interacting with them; in Angela Carter’s novel, humanity is hallucinating because Dr Hoffman has eroded the divisions between time and space, symbols and objects, dreams and reality.

I chose to complicate matters by including some of the ‘move’ structure from another game I’m struggling to write:-

What does this mean?

Read meanings from the cards
on the table.

(Conduct numerical challenges.)

Why is it happening?

Frame scenes from the pictures on the cards.

(Take the story in a new direction.)

How do we fix this?

Negotiate outcomes with the players around you.*

(Import systems from other games.)

* Imaginary trumps Symbolic trumps Real trumps Imaginary.

These do not (quite) correspond to the map of human consciousness pioneered by French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. Now, I did try reading some Jacques Lacan: the words kept getting in the way. I kind of like him for this – because, you see, language does not describe reality. Nope, not even the beautiful symmetries of mathematics. Not yet, anyway.

Nobody wants to hear this waffle, so you have to encode it into the systems of the game. I found that the designers of Psychosis – bless you, Charles Ryan, bless you, John Fletcher – had in large part already done this by tying in-game hallucinations to the Tarot deck. Angela Carter, meanwhile, had unpicked some of the connections between unconscious desire and the structures of mythology.

I started by calling the game ‘Heresiarch’ but I’m not sure I want to play a game called Heresiarch. So I called it Infernal Desire Machines. The infernal desire machines in Carter’s novel are based in part on the art of Hans Bellmer.

By gracious design of the London Indie RPG Meetup Group I was able to playtest a fragmentary version of the game. They do this sort of thing out of the kindness of their hearts; either that or as part of some nefarious design to replace the heads of state with the heads of Sesame Street characters. I have visions of Boris Johnson as a power-gaming Big Bird. Try not to hold this against me.


Three’s a Crowd

Ed played Sarah, a violent woman tormented by the loss of her lover. Sarah’s conscious choice was about creating permanence: an ever-changing environment had swallowed her one true love and she needed to compensate for this. The other players around the table chose guilt as her unconscious desire; given that Dr Hoffman’s seismic generators had given her the means to create her own reality, was she really to blame for her own isolation?

Ed, a comedian and born improviser, really got stuck into Sarah. He chose ‘Judgement’ as his major arcana & placed high-scoring Wands into his trace – ie face-up in front of him. These cards expressed how he came across to other people and could be applied throughout the game.

David played Leon, a wonderful counterbalance to Sarah. He’d handled similar issues in a different fashion: everyone had vanished from his world, his wife and kids, his workmates, the people on the street – no-one but he remained. He’d achieved consistency at the expense of company. We chose social anxiety as his unconscious desire. Something in him had shut down when the world got too complicated.

David conveyed Leon’s character through card-play; ‘Death’ was on the table, as was the King of Wands, but the rest of his cards remained close to his chest – just like his feelings. There were a lot of Wands in the air by this point, a lot of implied violence. The encounter between Sarah and Leon proved to be the game’s defining moment.

Anita played Abigail, choosing ‘The Star’ as her major arcana. Anita seemed to understand from the off – way better than I did – that this was a game about characters coming to terms with unexpressed feelings. Abigail had an Eve complex, manifesting as a pregnant woman with a star in her belly. We chatted about this as players and decided we didn’t want abortion to feature as a theme in the story.

Anita used ‘The Star’ to frame a beautiful scene in which wires connected lights in the sky to a radio in the pub where Sarah and Leon were meeting for the first time. This, of course, contravened the basis of the paradigms they had erected to protect themselves from the cracks in the time and space equation. Abigail was interested in resolving more than her own issues.


The Ambassador of Nowhere

I’d been not-quite-playing the ambassador of the Doctor all this time, using ‘The Hierophant’ to represent the ceremony of his position, and the King of Pentacles (in his trace) to reflect his intellectual justification of the Doctor’s position:-

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.

He’d only been there as an obstacle for the characters to rub up against if needed, and the players had more than enough going on between them. His presence was felt only as one of the characters supported one of the statements above, whereupon they received another card (up to a maximum of five).

I’m afraid I can’t quite remember the order in which everything occurred… which seems appropriate somehow. Cards were burned in challenges and in the framing or augmenting of scenes, but we ended up with an interchangeable pool of cards in the centre of the table to reflect the interrelationship between the characters:-

Ten of Wands = Abigail arriving with difficult news about the instability of the world.
Knight of Wands = absence, flight, emigration; Sarah threatening Leon with a lampstand and barring the door on Abigail’s entrance.
King of Wands = Leon’s missing wife and kids, but also the sense of his stability and protection.
Page of Cups = painful memories taking shape; an image of Sarah’s lost love walking into Leon.
Queen of Cups = the gift of a vision; Abigail’s activity feeding her dream.
Three of Swords = the three characters divided by a similar sense of loss; which in turn was resolved by:-
Three of Cups = the three characters coming together in joy and merriment; Leon handing Abigail a pint.
The Lovers = yeah, I know it’s kinda hokey but Sarah and Leon got together at the end by allowing Abigail to help them. The card just sprung from the deck at the opportune moment.

After the Fall

What is nostalgia for a lost love if not a form of emotional cowardice? We move on by moving through. Thanks to Ed, David and Anita for showing me this.

Feedback after the session indicated that the players had fun interacting with the unreliability of their own perceptions, but that the game’s systems lacked focus.

Ed was dead right about the larger part of my cobbled-together playbook being bumf; bits and pieces of Angela Carter’s novel were there to foreshadow a scenario I wasn’t running. David said the Symbolic (suits/challenges) and the Imaginary (scenes/hallucinations) morphed into one another. Again, spot on. I found I was getting in the way by trying to shoehorn game systems into the flow of the narrative, so I backed off and let the cards dictate play.

Anita agreed that the group’s concentration on the Imaginary element of the game was due to their being story-gamers; she’d held the game together really, and without her it would likely have flown off in all directions. A game running for a group of more traditional roleplayers might focus more on the Symbolic – contests, challenges and trump suits. I quite like a bit of argy-bargy myself but for some reason I prefer losing to winning. (Paging Dr Freud!)

Running my own game is new to me. I’ve found story-gamers, and the people at Indiemeet in particular, to be extremely supportive. Maybe it’s the collective way they form their narratives; maybe they’re blessed by generosity of spirit.

Two other games were playtested at the Playstorm I attended – ‘Truth and Lies’ (Stephanie Jackson), which, unfortunately, I didn’t get to play, and a game by David Morrison in which one person played the inspector, or magistrate, and the rest suspects giving evidence in a crime. After each question & response, the questioner chose one thing that was true about the deposition given by each player, and one thing that was false. The more we went round the table the more we couldn’t stop laughing: a lot of fun.

A theme had developed over the course of the Playstorm – one about the power and paucity of human perceptions. You might say the same about roleplaying in general.

I’m not sure what’s next for Infernal Desire Machines. There are several possibilities:-

a) Run the game again at a future Indiemeet.
b) Run the game for a more traditional group of roleplayers, with a view to sharpening up the game systems.
c) Divorce the game from Angela Carter’s novel and apply it to new stories and settings, such as Ubik by Philip K Dick.
d) Divorce the game from any kind of setting and use it as a parachute system in narratives that require players to hallucinate.
e) Increase the dosage.

Infernal Desire Machines Playbook PDF 1