Tekumel!

Tsolyani

At last! I have decided to revive this blog, at least temporarily, to get myself writing again. Much has occurred since my most recent post, nearly a year ago. I have finished a grad program, and I nearly have my license to teach elementary school in Massachusetts. My wife and I are also expecting our first child in a few weeks. Indeed, many great changes are occurring!

But in the midst of all this, I finally have more time to devote to other things I love. Namely, writing, and immersing myself in other worlds. While I was in grad school, I didn’t have much time for escapism (although I did wrap up a long-running D&D campaign). In recent months I’ve gotten back into Jack Vance, and now, the works of M.A.R. Barker, which will be the primary focus of this post.

Professor Muhammad Abd-al-Rahman Barker (born Phillip Barker, and known as “Phil” by friends and family) is the creator of the world of Tekumel. It is an exotic science-fantasy setting that the Professor has been developing for most of his life. He was a friend of the original designers of Dungeons and Dragons, including Dave Arneson, who was an occasional player in his games. The D&D crowd at TSR decided to publish Barker’s setting, along with an original RPG rule set, in the “Empire of the Petal Throne” box set in 1975. This original edition of the game was one of the earliest tabletop RPG’s ever published, and featured the first complete setting paired with rules.

TekumelBoxSet

(The original 1975 boxed set)

Barker was a fascinating guy. He passed away in 2012 unfortunately, but he left behind quite a legacy as a writer, linguist, gamer, and builder of worlds. Much like the revered J.R.R. Tolkien, he was a linguist, and created numerous constructed languages to go along with his setting. The most developed of these is Tsolyani, the language spoken within the default starting region for Tekumel games. Unlike Tolkien, Barker studied South Asian and Native American languages rather than European ones, and his setting is an interesting amalgamation of the cultures and histories of those places. Tsolyanu, the Empire of the Petal Throne itself, feels like equal parts Indian, Aztec/Mayan, and Persian/Arabic. Rather than settle for a pseudo-European fantasy world, or a sword-and-sorcery pastiche, Tekumel features rich, ancient cultures steeped in history and hoary tradition.

Barker as a worldbuilder is also strongly influenced by the trends in fiction that came before him. He was an avid fan of science fiction and fantasy, drawing inspiration from Jack Vance and corresponding with writers like Lin Carter. I tend to think of Tolkien as fitting into a category of “mythic fantasy,” given that his world and invented cultures are based on a tradition of mythological storytelling, with gods creating the world and so forth. Tekumel is based on the science fictional premise of a futuristic world populated by humans, and many other alien species, which is then cut off from the rest of the universe by a mysterious cataclysm. Related to that disaster are actual god-like beings, and actual magic which flows from another dimension. Tens of millennia after this event, humans and other species now live at a level of roughly bronze-age technology, with ancient sprawling empires, magic, gods, and a general sense of unchanging tradition and ritual.

I have been aware of Tekumel since my college days, although I don’t remember how I stumbled across it exactly. I used to actually trawl through lists of published RPG’s on Wikipedia, to get a more complete picture of the hobby, so that could be it. I remember thinking the world was interesting, but also somewhat inaccessible. The odd-sounding names and constructed languages seemed off-putting I guess. Also, there wasn’t a lot of easily available material out there, except for the recently published version of the game in 2005 by Guardians of Order, which I wasn’t willing to buy. More recently however, there has been a small Tekumel revival, coinciding with the “Old-School Renaissance” for D&D inspired games. First off, the Tekumel Foundation which manages Barker’s intellectual property has started publishing the old books on DrivethruRPG. A new RPG called Bethorm was also recently published, with an old-school feel meant to evoke the original game.

Choice of Games, which I have written of in earlier posts on this blog, also released a game set in Tekumel a few years ago. It was this that got me interested in Tekumel again more recently. The game didn’t get amazing reviews, but I thought it would be a good way to re-introduce myself into the setting. “Choice of the Petal Throne” does indeed have issues, namely some flat characters and a rushed ending, but got me excited about the world again as I had hoped.

From there, I purchased “Swords and Glory, Vol. 1” from Drivethru, which is considered to this day to be the Professor’s most comprehensive sourcebook on his fictional world. The book is fascinating and immersive, but also challenging in some ways. Written in the early days of the hobby, the text is dense, with very few illustrations, and an odd sense of organization. It covers dozens of cultures across a continent the size of Asia, and details everything from histories and religion, down to the minutiae of silverware etiquette. There are no maps, and until the new PDF’s were released, there was no index. It took me weeks to read through it in small bites, but I feel like it was worth it. Anyone looking to really dive into Tekumel should check out this book.

Swords and Glory

Another good way to get a feel for the setting is to read some of Professor Barker’s own fiction. He published five novels over the course of his life, which were set in Tekumel. I recently finished the first two, “The Man of Gold” in 1984, and “Flamesong” in 1985. I enjoyed them both thoroughly, and was pleasantly surprised at Barker’s ability to tell an intriguing, complex story, and create some sympathetic characters as well. Fair warning though, Barker’s style can be just as dense as his gaming material, and the frequent exposition drops can get a little ridiculous. He wrote the other three novels later in life, and they are apparently not as good as the first two. They are also out of print and difficult to find, but hopefully will be released in PDF by the Tekumel Foundation sometime soon. I plan to read them if I can find them, mainly for the descriptions of other parts of Tekumel.

Man of Gold

You would be hard-pressed to find a setting more deep and fully-realized than Tekumel. I’m looking forward to trying it out as a role-playing game (I got my copy of Bethorm a few weeks ago). Perhaps that will be the subject of a future post, if I can actually get a group together!

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If Not Now, Then When? If Not You, Then Who?

Unknown Armies

THE TIME IS NOW. One of my favorite RPG’s, the occult horror classic Unknown Armies, is on Kickstarter, and there’s only 4 days left! I should probably mention that it’s hit 500% of it’s original funding goal, so y’know, it’s doing fine. But I want to geek out about it because it is such a good game, and I’m unspeakably happy that it’s getting more attention and love right now.

The Kickstarter is for the 3rd edition of the game. It was originally released in 1998, and now it’s experiencing a revival. The new edition will be released as 3 core books, with an additional two setting books released as stretch goals. I’m feeling slightly grumbly about the multiple books (cuz I’m poor), but also excited that fans will be getting so much material. The project is currently being helmed by Greg Stolze, an incredibly talented writer and game designer who was one of the two geniuses behind the original game. He has since gone on to create the One-Roll Engine, and several awesome story games.

This man is, in my opinion, the finest writer to ever work in tabletop games, period. He writes excellent fiction and fluff, but his real (and subtle) talent lies in writing text for the rules. Reading the rules for an RPG can sometimes be a slog. They’re often dry and abstract, but unfortunately they’re the most important part to study if you’re the GM. Stolze writes rules in a clear, conversational style that is always easy to grok, and often as much fun as learning about the world. Reading a rule book by Greg Stolze actually makes me excited.

So, one may ask, what makes this particular game so special? What is it even about!? The setting is the modern era, mainly in the USA. It focuses on a loose, disorganized “Occult Underground,” made up of weirdos and outcasts who compete for power and influence. Some of the Underground is represented by cabals of mystically aware people, or sometimes by crazy loners known as “Dukes.” In a typical game, you have a group of people who are exploring their own personal paths to power (and usually, corruption and insanity), and also coming into conflict with others who want the same thing.

It’s special because of it’s themes and influences, and it also features well-designed rules combined with a fun and unique system for magick (note the “k”).

  • While most urban fantasy or occult horror settings feature traditional vampires, werewolves, and hermetic-style mages, UA draws influence from different genres. David Lynch, James Ellroy, and Tim Powers have all been sited as influences. While Grant Morrison or Robert Anton Wilson have not been specifically mentioned by the authors, those writers also do a good job of evoking the weirdness of the setting.
  • A central theme is human responsibility. There are no ancient alien gods, no shadowy monster societies that secretly rule the world. It’s all just humans. We are the monsters, we are the ones responsible for the world we live in, and we’re the only ones who can change it. I like the freedom and power this gives to players in the narrative, and the way it affects world-building.
  • The game runs on a pared-down percentile dice system. Think Call of Cthulhu, but much easier to learn and play with.
  • Magick comes in several different forms, but it follows a “postmodern” theme (syncretic, self-conscious, rebellious, deliberately different). My favorite are the “adepts,” who are so obsessed with a particular worldview that they can change reality. Every adept has a school, like Entropomancy (chaos magick), or Dipsomancy (alcohol magick), a set of ritual behaviors that help them gather power (for the above examples, taking crazy risks and getting drunk), and taboos that they must avoid to hold on to their power. These are built around the idea of risk and consequence. On the quest for power, you are going to take risks, and most likely lose a part of yourself along the way.
  • There are lots of other things that make the game unique and well-recommended, including a very influential system for representing and roleplaying stress and mental illness, brutal and realistic combat, and fast-and-loose character creation.

I can’t recommend this game enough, and if you’re interested in the Kickstarter, jump on board while you can. Better late than never after all!

(He said, writing this post at the absolute last second).

 

Conan, What is Best in Life?

Positive image from a scan of a Powerhouse Museum, Philipps Collection, glass plate negative
2008/165/1-192

Good news everyone! My days of toil and suffering have paid off handsomely, and my first written work as a freelancer has been published! WOOHOO! It is available currently on DrivethruRPG. Now that it’s released, I can talk a little bit about what I was actually working on. Months ago, I responded to an open call for writers that I found while trolling the forums of RPGNet. Soon after I signed a contract to adapt a short story by Menagerie Press’s artistic director, and thus, the Masks of Tzanti was created.

It’s supposed to be a full-on sword-and-sorcery adventure, complete with cultists, murderous barbarians, and skeezy rogues. I haven’t actually read much Robert E. Howard, but I like lots of other writers that are considered imitators, or part of the same family (Jack Vance, Gene Wolfe, Michael Moorcock). It took me about two months of solid writing to complete, although I took occasional breaks from writing due to my intense work schedule. Here is the cover art, by the very talented Steven Catizone (who does all of Menagerie’s illustrations) –

Masks of Tzanti Cover

(This cover would make Frank Frazetta run off for a cold shower)

It’s a happy day indeed, and I hope friends, family, and the very few followers I have will spread the word (among RPG players at least). I will likely be working with Menagerie Press again in the future, as they are a young company looking to expand their list of products. I am also writing a conversion to 5th edition D&D for this adventure, so you can look for that in the next few months or so.

(Here are a few notes on RPG’s and D&D for the uninitiated. I wrote the story for the Pathfinder RPG. This is continuation of the 3rd edition of Dungeons & Dragons, published in 2000. When the 4th edition of the rules was released in 2007, it split the gaming community, and a lot of people rallied behind the company Paizo Publishing, who continued to release products for the game that used a modified version of the old rules (this was called the Pathfinder RPG). The company that owns D&D, Wizards of the Coast, recently published the 5th edition of the rules, in the hopes that they would unite the community again. I prefer Pathfinder to 4th edition, but I prefer 5th ed to Pathfinder. The rules are fun, and a lot more streamlined and easy. Wizards recently opened an online marketplace for PDF products called Dungeon Master’s Guild, and it’s really taking off. People can now write and sell their own 5th ed material under an open-gaming license. It was my idea to write “Masks” in 5th edition rules, since I think it’s just the right time. I may continue to do so if I write more stuff for Menagerie Press.)

So, what’s next for me you might ask? Well, if you’ve read any of my other posts on the blog, you know that I’m a big fan of interactive fiction games. One of the companies that remains consistently popular with that genre is Choice of Games, and I’m thinking that I should try my hand at penning some IF. I’ve dabbled in it before, and I got a good ways into a storynexus game about the Byzantine Empire. But this would be a bigger project, roughly the length of a short novel. To prepare, I’ve been devouring Choicescript games by the bundle, including Choice of Robots and Hollywood Visionary, both excellent stories in their own right. I don’t want to share too many of my ideas just yet, as I have a tendency to spew out thoughts and then not use them, or get bored with them. Once I get a bit more done, I’ll drop some details.

In the snippets of free time I’ve had (and March has provided more than usual) I’ve been enjoying some media that I wanted to gush about briefly. First is an excellent fantasy novel that needs to get more attention –

Baru Cormorant

This is the first novel by Seth Dickinson, and it brought me low with it’s sheer awesomeness. It’s about a girl from an isolated island community, living in a fairly traditional way. Then they get colonized by a powerful empire that controls the world through cunning, ruthless diplomacy and economic superiority (aptly named the Masquerade). She grows up in their schools, learns their twisted philosophy, and becomes a bureaucratic prodigy. She is then sent to the rebellious province of Aurdwynn to bring it under heel as the Imperial Accountant. Most of the story takes place there, and concerns the unraveling of conspiracies among the nobility of a strange and foreign people. The main character Baru Cormorant of course has many divided loyalties, and she has to lie to nearly everyone she encounters (especially herself). You wouldn’t think that a story about an accountant could be so totally riveting, but I couldn’t put this book down. I blasted through it, and I’m normally a pretty slow reader. It had excellent pacing, interesting mysteries and intrigue, and incredibly well-drawn characters. I really felt for Baru, and when she got hurt (and she gets hurt a lot), I cringed as I compulsively turned each page. Read this book if you find any of the following interesting –

  • It’s a “hard fantasy,” without magic or fantastical beings. The focus is on politics,  intrigue, and economics (!?) yet it still features a fascinating world with well-designed fictional cultures and people.
  • It deals with important issues that are usually shied away from in fantasy: colonialism, racism, feminism, queerness, crappy economic practices.
  • It doesn’t pull any punches. It’s an entertaining story, but it’s also brutal. The main character is a closeted lesbian working as a double (or triple?) agent for an evil empire that would imprison or torture her under any number of circumstances. She has a lot to lose, and you’ll worry for her.
  • Wonderfully realized, flawed characters. The story has a pretty big cast, and I feel like I’ll always remember each person clearly for who they are. There’s no glossary, and you won’t really need one.
  • If you like  – Ursula Le Guin (especially Left Hand of Darkness), Patrick Rothfuss, George R.R. Martin, or Frank Herbert, you will go for this in a big way.

Seth Dickinson has a blog, and he wrote some really cool stuff about his design process for the book. It’s clear that he’s an intelligent guy who puts a lot of thought into his work. This post in particular is great, although it may spoil some things about the story. I also feel the need to mention that even though I compared Dickinson to G.R.R. Martin, there is one important difference. Seth doesn’t go for blood, guts, and sexual violence. I found this a relief honestly, as I’m no great fan of gruesome depictions of the latter myself. He explains it a bit more in that post, and my feelings on the subject are basically the same. It’s important, it needs to be acknowledged, but in fiction (especially fantasy) there’s no need to be gratuitous about it.

Anyway, check it out! And check out the thing I wrote! Until the next time when I have time and enough coffee!

Featured image courtesy of the Powerhouse Museum, no known copyright restrictions

The Breath of December

Iceface

I thought I’d post a few more game reviews before the end of the Winter sales. After that I need to buckle down and get working on some of these freelance projects! Since I work at a public elementary school, I have a whole week of vacation going on. That means plenty of time to write, since we didn’t plan on going anywhere (my fiancee has to work). The weather has taken a turn for the bleak and horrifying, as a thin layer of wet ice coats all and everything. We had snow yesterday, and it seems, in spite of 60 degree weather around the holidays, Winter is here at last.

Thankfully Haymarket Coffee and Juice Bar is a short walk from my very cold apartment, and now that I have a cozy working atmosphere, and a nuclear-strength cup of coffee, I feel better-equipped to laugh in the face of the season.

So here are the promised reviews. I’ve already posted some in-depth coverage of the grand strategy titles from Paradox Interactive. Deep games deserve deeper reviews. These are some other titles that I fell in love with in 2014 and 2015, and I would be pleased if they received some more attention. Here we go –

BannerSaga

This was my favorite game of 2014, and if you haven’t tried it yet, I would heartily recommend it. It’s an absolutely beautiful game, with hand-drawn graphics and gameplay that could be described as a mix of Oregon Trail and Final Fantasy Tactics. It also features a mind-blowing soundtrack composed by Austin Wintory, the genius behind the music in Journey. Here are some bullet points for you –

  • The game features an epic story about love, loss, war, community-in-exile, all taking place in a Norse mythology-inspired world. Think of big, apocalyptic narratives like Battlestar Galactica, Watership Down, the Odyssey, or the Book of Exodus.
  • The battles are very challenging, but tied together with simple, addictive mechanics. Unlike FF Tactics you don’t have a million classes and special abilities to parse through. Each character has one or two very useful, simple abilities.
  • You also are responsible for keeping a caravan of innocent villagers alive as you travel across the known world, balancing the needs of your warriors with those of your friends and neighbors.

It’s an intense, emotional experience playing this game. It’s not perfect of course, the combat system can feel non-intuitive, and there aren’t many serious consequences for letting your caravan die (unless you count sobbing uncontrollably). But it’s something special, and if you haven’t tried it, it’s only $5 on Steam this week! There’s also a sequel coming out in February, so there’s never been a better time.

SunlessSea

I’ve mentioned this one a couple of times already on the blog. Let’s assume that you don’t already know that I’m obsessed with the browser game that this is based on. Sunless Sea takes place in the same fictional world, and it’s probably a better experience all around, just because you aren’t limited by turn actions. You play the captain of a steamship, given free reign to explore a massive, underground ocean. You will discover strange locales, interact with even stranger people and… things with tentacles.

  • It’s very difficult at first, but very rewarding, as you get the hang of surviving voyages and pursuing profit.
  • The writing is unparalleled. Seriously, the strangeness and mood of this world will infect you after you’ve played for a little while.
  • It’s highly replayable. There are some storylines that you simply can’t pursue until you have crafted a lineage of captains, with inherited money and resources. I’ve gone through about 8 of these captains.

I really can’t think of anything wrong with this game, but one possible turn-off for people is the pacing. Your ship moves very slowly, and the designers did this intentionally so you’ll feel lonely and contemplative whilst you are exploring the Unterzee. I like it that way myself, and if you don’t, I think there’s a speed mod in the works.

LISA

Now for something very, very weird. Did you ever play Earthbound, back in the day? Do you remember its many quirks: the pop culture references, the weird characters, the New Age Retro Hippies? Most of all, do you remember its strong emotional impact? What if there was a game that had all of that, plus a really intense story that dealt with mature subject matter, and a classic post-apocalypse setting? That’s sort of what you get with LISA, the Painful RPG. It’s the masterpiece creation of one man, crafted on the now-ancient RPGMaker 2000 engine.

  • The story is brutal, and heart-breaking. One of the taglines describes the game as “the miserable journey of a broken man.” That’s pretty accurate, but the game is also hilarious. The jokes and the dialogue had me laughing out loud at times. When I was supposed to smile. I did, and when I was supposed to feel things, they were felt, hard.
  • The gameplay is real old-school, a lot like Earthbound’s turn-based combat. It’s just as hard, but just as fun too. You also have fresh new innovations like button-dial combos, and several different “magic” type abilities.
  • LISA is loaded with secrets and Easter eggs, and you’ll be addicted trying to find them all. Most notably there are something like 30+ characters for you to recruit and build a team from. Trying different combinations of characters is part of the joy.

There’s now an “epilogue” DLC called LISA the Joyful. I wouldn’t want to ruin any of the story by telling you about it, but it’s a great ending to the series. It’s more serious in tone than the base game, but if you liked that, you’ll definitely want to try the Joyful.

Pillars

A lot of these games I’ve posted about are kind of weird, and “niche.” But this one has gotten a lot of positive buzz. I just wanted to chime in and say it really is worth checking out. It was created by Obsidian Entertainment, and it’s one of the big Kickstarter success stories. It’s meant to evoke the feeling of classic old RPG’s like Baldur’s Gate, Icewind Dale, or my personal favorite, Planescape: Torment. BE AWARE that I haven’t actually finished playing it yet, but I’ve immersed myself enough to get a good feel for it.

  • The story and characters are well-written and interesting. It’s not really the cliched “save the world” type of adventure. You’re mostly just trying to learn about this curse your character is afflicted with.
  • The gameplay takes the best from old and new. Most of the classes and RPG tropes are quite familiar, but the designers do really interesting things with them. I don’t think I’ve ever been so excited about Bards before!
  • It’s difficult, in a fun, strategic kind of way. It reminds me of my Baldur’s Gate II days, when I would die in almost every fight. How else are you supposed to learn your enemy?

Pillars of Eternity is part of a family of old school renaissance games like Wasteland 2, and the much anticipated Torment: Tides of Numenera. These are equally worth your time and attention.

That is all! I’ve been reviewing a lot of games lately, and when I return from the writer’s fugue that is surely approaching, I hope I’ll be able to share more about my freelance work. Until then…

Header image from State Library of New South Wales

 

 

In the City of Doors

Nameless_one_concept_art

Today I’ll be doing a review of sorts, but more of a reminiscence. I have resisted the idea of reviewing PC games on the blog, but why the hell not!? They’ve made an impact on my writing, and lots of other things too. Especially my subject for today, the classic Planescape: Torment. Torment was one of those awesome Black Isle Studios games, heavy on narrative and using the Infinity Engine. I feel like this is a good time to be talking about this game again. There has been a sort of renaissance in this style, with Kickstarter success stories like Wasteland 2 and Pillars of Eternity lighting the way. There’s also a spiritual sequel in the works called Torment: Tides of Numenera.

A lot has been written about this game already, and clearly it’s getting a lot of buzz again. So I want to focus mainly on what it meant to me personally, as well as my experiences playing D&D within it’s wider fictional universe.

Playing Torment feels different, it’s an experience like absolutely nothing else I’ve tried, in any medium (except maybe Fallen London). The lead designers had a lot of goals in mind when they pitched the idea to their publisher, but I could sum them up as “let’s undermine every single convention of the genre.” And that’s what they did, and it was awesome. The main character in the game is an immortal, horribly scarred amnesiac whose best friend is a talking skull. You solve puzzles by dying repeatedly, instead of magic items you can equip tattoos and detachable body parts, and instead of treasure, you try to recover memories and lost knowledge.

The setting is actually an old 2nd edition Dungeons and Dragons campaign setting, Planescape. It’s not exactly a “world” per se, but an entire multiverse. Think something like Roger Zelazny’s Chronicles of Amber, or Neil Gaiman’s Sandman. I can sort of imagine what the game would look like if it didn’t take place in that setting, but I think it was a really strong choice to use it. A lot of the undermined fantasy conventions that the writers were looking for were already present in Planescape, ready to use. In Planescape, your beliefs and personal philosophy are stronger than your sword, and a whispered phrase or useless trinket can open doorways to other worlds.

TSR2600_Planescape_Campaign_Setting

I think the writers and designers of the game started with a simple idea (do everything differently), and whether intentionally or not, created a universe that was incredibly inspiring for them to work in. Because it’s not just how strange and different the game is, the writing has so much depth. Every description of your surroundings is dripping with mood. Every NPC is given a unique voice and their own set of quirks. I’m a strong believer in using text to describe the world you’re playing, and Torment uses that to full effect. There’s certainly a place for the more cinematic styles (check out any triple-A game from the last 10 years), but it gladdens my heart that this is a kind of storytelling that the old top-down style does especially well.

And I should talk about the supporting characters, your party of adventurers (warning, this where the feels come in). I have never been so attached, and so invested, in a cast of characters like I have with these. Not only are they written incredibly well, but your relationship with each of them is very complicated. I think that’s what does it for me, it’s not just that they are deep and interesting, but I actually feel conflicting emotions when I interact with them. The reason for that has to do with the main characters nature as an immortal.

Every time the protagonist died in the past, he came back with a different personality. Sometimes those personalities were really, really bad people. So that means you have a dark past, you made some bad decisions and you hurt and abused a lot of people. Some of those people you hurt can join your party, and you need to deal with that baggage. Pretty much all of them, if they haven’t been scarred by you personally, have been scarred in some other way. One of my favorites characters is a “love-interest,” Fall-From-Grace.”

Fall_from_Grace_full

I mainly like Grace because she’s intelligent, open-minded, and a joy to converse with (and she’s kind of the only one who’s nice to you). I also feel for her because of how she clearly suffers, but won’t or can’t share those feelings with you. She is an actual succubus, but she has taken a vow of chastity in an attempt to better herself. Her past is even more horrifying than your own. She was a slave to devils, sold by her own mother, and so on. She stays with you initially because you represent a new experience for her, but over time she comes to have feelings for you. Being with you is painful for her in many ways, not least of all because no matter how hard you try, you can’t seem to change who you are (or who you were). The big tag line in the game is “What can change the nature of a man?” I like to think that Grace wants an answer to that too, since she struggles to change herself as well.

So what game nowadays has you roleplay the traumatic aftermath of abusive relationships? None that I can think of. And I don’t want to scare anyone off from the game due to all that mature subject matter. These stories always have at least the option for a happy resolution, even your own. Every question gets answered, but some of them you’ll have to come up with on your own.

I also want to give a resounding recommendation for use of the setting in role-playing games. My first experience with D&D was playing a lengthy campaign (which we actually finished!) using Planescape. I have very fond memories of this game. It’s great because it’s fantasy fiction at it’s best, not bogged down with rules or the minutia of world-building. I was inspired (along with my excellent co-DM) to create some very memorable scenarios.

My favorite, which I’ll have to revisit someday, was the party’s visit to Coyote’s Refuge. The basic premise was a secret place beyond the real world, that was created as a collaboration between three different Trickster Gods: Coyote, Anansi, and Eris. The Refuge was meant to be a place for the tricksters of the multiverse to lay low, after pissing off some god or powerful figure. It looked like a giant flesh-colored orange, floating in a sea of pure chaos called Limbo. The Refuge was sort of intelligent, and if anyone committed an act of violence within it’s walls, it would spit them out into Limbo. So our players realized that they could accomplish things by acting obnoxious and pissing off NPC’s, who would then be spat out when they acted up.

It was good fun, and I hope Planescape is kept alive in the years to come, it’s just too unique to let it fade into obscurity. The new edition of D&D has made some shout-outs to Planescape in their core books, so who knows, maybe it’ll make a comeback?

Images taken from the Torment Wiki

A Singular Sort of Fiction

Rubbit

Today I shall share my thoughts on epic lapine narratives, and of course more stuff on games.

Rabbits. Honestly, I don’t know if we would ascribe so much importance to these little fellows if it weren’t for the works of Richard Adams. I mean sure they have a place in our folklore and mythological cycles going back to ancient times. But before his wonderful magnum opus, I don’t think it occurred to anyone to look at a rabbit’s life story the same way we look at the Aeneid. Watership Down has always been one of my favorites, and I’m currently re-reading it for the nth time. I love the book, I love the movie, and I love the bizarre role-playing game which it inspired (more on that later).

There has been plenty of interesting criticism on the book, but it’s still hard (for me at least) to answer the underlying question of why it’s still so appealing. It’s not just that Adams expertly captures the feel of the old epics, and creates a fascinating culture and world while he’s at it. I think it has something to do with how stacked the odds always seem to be for the characters. Everyone loves underdogs, because the possibility (and even likelihood) of failure or death really raises the stakes.

Rabbits are the ultimate underdogs, they live in an incredibly hostile world, and they only have each other to depend on. There is always something out there that is smarter, faster, and stronger than them. The only edge they have on the rest of the animal kingdom is being really good at making babies, and that’s a long-term survival strategy. So whenever I see a character in Watership Down display bravery, or defy the odds, it seems so much more meaningful because you know how f#@%ed they are if things go badly for them.

Here’s one of my favorite scenes from the movie to give you a sense of what I’m talking about. I couldn’t find a high-quality clip, but if you follow the link and start at 1:06:00 and go to 1:08:00, there you are –

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=FakucIq58XU

Bigwig (and the rest of them too) have nothing going for them at this point. They are surrounded, they don’t know Kehaar is on the bridge. It’s pretty hopeless, and Bigwig goes ahead and trash-talks the General anyway, just because he’s a badass. It’s foolish bravery, but bravery nonetheless. Later those two characters square off again in my other favorite scene, which I will use the book to excerpt (Bigwig, from the point of view of the Efrafrans, is referred to as Thlayli) –

Once more he climbed on the earth pile. Then he stopped. Vervain and Thistle, raising their heads to peer past him from behind, saw why. Thlayli had made his way up the run and was crouching immediately below. Blood has matted the great thatch of fur on his head, and one ear, half-severed, hung down beside his face. His breathing was slow and heavy.

“You’ll find it much harder to push me back from here, General,” he said.

With a sort of weary, dull surprise, Woundwort realized that he was afraid. He did not want to attack Thlayli again. He knew, with flinching certainty, that he was not up to it. And who was? he thought. Who could do it? No, they would have to get in by some other way, and everyone would know why.

“Thlayli,” he said, “we’ve unblocked a run out here. I can bring in enough rabbits to pull down this wall in four places. Why don’t you come out?”

Thlayli’s reply, when it came, was low and gasping, but perfectly clear.

“My Chief Rabbit has told me to defend this run and until he says otherwise I shall stay here.”

Again, even in a situation where it’s rabbits against rabbits, Adams puts the protagonists in a seemingly hopeless situation, and if the survival of the whole community wasn’t at stake, who knows where it would have gone. It’s not the kind of world where the heroes are invulnerable either. Bigwig almost dies in a snare, and the group loses a few rabbits during their journey.

I’ve found that when it comes to stories like this, the audience immediately becomes aware of how serious the circumstances are, regardless of how silly or strange the premise. There’s almost a comparison with zombie fiction. You’re on the edge of your seat because you know this is a world that does not care. And if you’ve seen the movie, you know that there are some horrific moments that wouldn’t be out of place in the horror genre. I’ll never forget my 8th birthday party, where my friends slept over and watched Watership Down for the first time. Two of them had their moms come pick them up after I fell asleep.

Anyway, that feeling of tension and desperation carries over into some of the book’s other adaptations, namely the role-playing game. Bunnies and Burrows is one of my favorite tabletop games of all time, even though it’s now incredibly dated. Here are some interesting facts about it-

  • It’s one of the oldest tabletop RPGs, the first edition coming out only two years after the original D&D.
  • It introduced many innovative concepts, including a rudimentary skill system and martial arts.
  • Multiple “magic” systems, in the form of herbalism (combining ingredients to create a range of effects), seer abilities (spending “trance-points” to achieve supernatural effects), and empathic healing (burning fatigue and hit points to heal your friends).
  • It forced the players into making non-traditional choices for overcoming obstacles, with combat usually being a really bad idea.

I ran a short B&B campaign with some roommates/college friends, and it was a blast. Since Richard Adams clearly was inspired by ancient epics, I basically adapted the Odyssey into an adventure series with rabbits. The group played a band separated from their warren by a flood, and they had to find their way home. We had some surprisingly emotional moments, with plenty of tension, excitement, and moments for Bigwig-style heroism.

We tried to use the original, 1976 rules, but I ended up kind of re-designing it as I went. Still, they’re actually pretty simple and fun, if you ignore a lot of the ridiculous and useless sub-systems (like herbalism, which has some great ideas, and some terrible ones). There’s also a GURPS edition which is supposed to be good. Currently, Bully-Pulpit Games, the masterminds behind many classic  story-games, such as Fiasco, Durance, and Night-Witches, is working on their own rabbits RPG. It will be called The Warren, and it adapts the rules of Apocalypse World. I’m a little bitter about it, since I also had that idea a while back, but I guess it goes to show that you should act on good ideas when you have them. I have to admit they came up with a better title too, mine would have been called Bunny World.

Image courtesy of the Internet Archive Book Images photostream, no known copyright restrictions

Topatocon!

PotatoDerby

I went to an awesome con this weekend! Topatocon took place for the first time in Easthampton, right in my backyard. My wonderful fiancee talked me into going, and it sounded like my kind of thing anyway. The focus was mostly on comics, although there was an excellent “Labyrinth of Games” to check out, featuring awesome work by local indie game designers. I may as well give them a shout-out, since they’re friends of mine, and they are currently putting out new material!

I bought some older stuff by Emily Care-Boss, who is quite prolific and always coming up with new classics in indie games. She is probably most famous for her “Romance Trilogy,” a group of games that create stories about dating, relationships, and the fun complications that arise from these. I know her as one of the best GM’s I’ve ever had the pleasure of gaming with, an excellent moderator, and master of the social space of gaming.

Also present and tabling their work were Hannah Shaffer and Joshua A.C. Newman, talented game designers and two of the most fascinating people I’ve had the pleasure to meet. Hannah is the creator of Questlandia, a game about characters struggling to change their fantasy-world society as it collapses around them. Joshua is the mastermind behind Shock, the game of social science fiction, and a neat miniatures war game that uses Legos.

They are both now experimenting with what could be called “nanogames,” usually meaning a set of rules printed on a folding card, small enough to fit in your wallet. The first iteration I’ve seen of this is Epidiah Ravachol’s Vast and Starlit, and the concept has apparently blown up from there. Joshua’s new micro-game is Lover of Jet and Gold. It’s meant to create adventure stories in the vein of Jack Vance’s Dying Earth series, and it’s a bit thicker than the average wallet-book (it has pages!). He has incidentally called this his favorite work, so check it out! Hannah’s game is called Birds are Amazing (they are amazing). It is fun and hilarious, and once begun, it never ends! So be careful, it’s a bit of a commitment, but the kind I am okay with making.

Anyway, so Topatocon was great, and my game designer friends are awesome. I came in contact with many cool people, artists, writers, leaders of movements and budding schools of philosophy, that sort of thing. I guess the main attraction was the presence of many contributors (including the editor) of the Smut Peddler anthology. This is a collection of woman-centric porn comics, many of them written by women. The editor is C. Spike Trotman, otherwise known as Spike. She’s the creator of the weird and wonderful Templar, Arizona, and a fantastic editor. I talked with her briefly about her anthologies, and watched an excellent talk that she took part in. The subject was women and gender issues in comics, I don’t think the recording has been posted yet, but when and if I can find it, I’ll post that stuff for sure.

Other highlights!

  • Meeting Jess Fink (again) – Smut Peddler contributor, creator of Chester 5000, and master of erotic comics, she’s also really nice and approachable!
  • Listening to Kate Leth‘s Live Podcast – She’s a comics creator who has worked on Bravest Warriors and Adventure Time comics. She is really funny, and also has lots of insightful things to say about comics and other things. Her live podcast featured Erica Henderson, the artist working with Ryan North on Squirrel Girl (she’s pretty great too).
  • Panel on World-building with Evan Dahm – This was so cool, SO COOL. First of all, meeting Evan Dahm was great, he’s such a nice, humble person. His talk was excellent, well thought-out and well presented. It got me thinking about the world-building process, how fantasy literature has changed over the years, and how to engage critically with your own fantasy work. I am working on several projects that could be described as fantasy, so it was all very relevant. I enjoyed this so much that I’m probably going to do my next post about world-building.

I had a good weekend, I learned a lot, and spent way too much money on comics. A lot of the guests at Topatocon will also be appearing at the Cambridge-based MICE (Massachusetts Independent Comics Expo), including Evan Dahm. If you missed out this weekend, check that out!

That is all for today methinks. Adieu!

Image courtesy of the Galt Museum and Archives on the Common’s Photostream, no known copyright restrictions. I chose it because Topatocon kind of reminds me of potatoes.