Saturday, November 21, 2015

The Shadow Out of Providence

The Shadow Out of ProvidenceThe Shadow Out of Providence by Ezra Claverie
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Lovecraft afficionados: Pay attention! This is unlike any other Lovecraft-inspired book you've laid eyes on. It is unique for its quirkiness, its aims, and its presentation. There really is nothing like it "out there". When I heard about the project from author Ezra Claverie, I agreed to do an honest review, as I felt the premise was inspired: A metatextual critique of Lovecraft's racism, predeliction for the superiority of the aristocratic class (from which he was derived), and his baroque language.

The Artifact:

The Shadow Out of Providence is a short volume, 85 pages long. It is, however, packed with content for a book of its size. The cover is a genuine cloth cover (when's the last time you saw that?) imprinted with the design portrayed in the cover photo of this review: A black silhouetted city with tentacles thrust "underground" into the blue background, with silver lettering (and a silver moon on the top center binding). spread out, the cover looks like some sort of sinister piece of art nouveau. In other words, it's beautiful, the sort of book collectors drool over. The pages are substantial, so unlike the flimsy tissue floating around so much of the publishing industry today. This thing has weight. The interior is lavishly (and I don't use the word lightly) illustrated by Timothy Hutchings, Dan Zettwoch, and Erol Otus - yes, that Erol Otus, you roleplaying geek, you. The one whose paintings and drawings you grew up with in your basement with your friends late at night over cold pizza and a bunch of polyhedral dice. But please, keep the pizza away from this one. It's gorgeous - you don't want to stain it! My copy came with a postcard illustrated by Otus showing a Shoggoth surrounded by flying Elder Things (more on this later), an ex-libris bookplate illustrated by the same (his telltale sigil can be seen in the open book beneath an amorphous something - probably another Shoggoth - which is reaching up to apprehend a bat in mid-flight), and possibly the most unique bookmark I've ever seen: a clear acetate bookmark, hand-painted on one side with a representation of drilling occurring at the Soviet research base Vostok Station, wherein an immense drill is being sent down through the 420,000 year-old ice sheet into Lake Vostok below. Flip the bookmark over and you find - surprise! - a burbling Shoggoth, all eyes, tentacles, and pseudopods, bursting up toward the surface.

If you aren't convinced that you need this already, please, let me continue . . .

Part 1: Diving to Dunwich:

This bit of short fiction fairly erases the line between fact and fiction. I consider myself pretty knowledgable about Lovecraft and his historical milieu, and I must admit that, while reading this piece, I found myself, again and again, looking up names, places, and dates of events that may or may not have happened, either in Lovecraft's fiction or in "factual" history.

The title, "Diving to Dunwich," is to be taken literally - this story begins with the account of a dive by the author with his companion, multimedia artist Timothy Hutchings, below the waters of the Quabbin Reservoir, to the underwater ruins of Dunwich, Massachussets, in order for Hutchings to create more material for his video installation "The Persistence of Dunwich". As any interesting commentary does, this narrative soon wanders into a strange alternate reality in which Lovecraft lived until 1959, married one Comity Archdale, and enjoyed commercial success with his writing to the point where Directors Peter Jackson and David Lynch both made movie adaptions of his work. There is much more in this pseudobiography, conflating timelines and causing the most erudite Lovecraft scholar (which I am not) to go scrambling for the books. It is a convincing treatise of what might have been, or what might be, in some dimension just sideways of our own. I would not be surprised to see some of these "facts" show up on Wikipedia at some future date. You just wait and see . . .

Part 2: Facts Concerning the Late Eadward Thurston and His Family:

What exactly is a metatextual critique? Good question. I don't know that I have a good answer. But I think the answer might lie somewhere in this second piece, a play, replete with stage directions, and illustrated with watercolors by Dan Zettwoch showing how certain costumes are to be constructed and providing some storyboard illustrations, as well. The play was presumably written by Albert Jermyn in 1962. The biography of Jermyn, included in a preface to the play, indicates that Jermyn was the illegitimate son of a white travelling salesman by the name of Winfield Lovecraft, and Eulalia Jermyn, a black housekeeper of New Bedford, Massachussets. Winfield was later to marry Sarah Phillips, with whom he would father Howard Phillips Lovecraft. A series of letters from Howard to his wife, Sonia Greene, reveal a veritable soap opera of accusations and confrontations which end in Sarah declaring that "the black brat looked more like Winfield than poor Howard does."

Through a long series of events, Albert ended up taking a teaching position in Senegal, where he wrote the play. In that process, he found himself in the midst of a turbulent intellectual exploration of communism that left him disillusioned.

Now, you might think you could imagine what kind of a play a person with such a background would write.

You can't . . .

You can't even begin to imagine. Keep in mind that the actors would be Senegalese or of other West African descent. Jermyn couldn't help but write a critique of aristocratic structures into the text, though it is sometimes difficult to pin down exactly what he thinks of socialism. Add to this the relationship between the main protagonist (or is it antagonist - again, these roles are difficult to establish) and his dead, but recently reanimated father. Now, now you can start to imagine. In essence, we have the skeleton of Hamlet hung with the skin of Lovecraft, filled with organs of soviet social revolution, animated by waves of self-love, self-loathing, and revenge. A strange, absolutely brilliant piece of metafiction that would make Lovecraft turn over like a roto-tiller in his grave.

Part 3: From the Game Designer, etc:

The last section of the book is composed of several disparate pieces, a dossier for use in a role-playing game. The bulk of this section is taken up by the short story "Beyond the Far Islands". Now this is a piece that took me a while to figure out. The voice used herein is intentionally simple, sounding a lot like a young teenager. It is the Anti-Lovecraft voice, and yet, it does well to convey the horror felt by the narrator who is . . . well, I don't think I'm going to tell you! This character was absolutely NOT what I thought, at first. I was deceived by the voice, truth be told. As I discovered who it was that was talking, and continued to read, a smile grew on my face that never quite left. That said, this is no mere lampooning of Lovecraft. There is a sense of dread conveyed, a sense of cosmic dread, but it is conveyed in a way that Lovecraft would not, perhaps could not write. After spinning Lovecraft over in his grave, Claverie and company then flip the body on its head . . . and with style, I might add. Erol Otus's illustrations here are fantastic, among the best work I've seen of his, and I've seen a lot. The subject matter lends itself to many amorphous, non-humanoid illustrations reminiscent of the old Konny and Czu comics (among my favorite comics of all time) or the cartoons of Stepan Chapman.

A Note from Forrest Aguirre on the Mutation of Capitalism

While I think that the End of Capitalism is a bit oversold, I do want to pause here a moment and note that this book was initially funded as a successful Kickstarter project. Without Kickstarter, this book would have never seen the light of day. It is a work that could only have been produced and reached a wide audience with the internet. No publisher would have taken it. And that's part of the appeal to me. Yes, my own work has been published by a third party publisher, but I've also had a few things that I've published independently, outside the bounds of the "normal" publishing industry. The more I look into works published in this way, the more I like. Yes, there are problems, especially in the vetting of quality that a professional editor normaly provides through the publication process. Then again, there are some wild successes, some books that otherwise never would have seen the light of day. I'm also discovering the many wonderful podcasts available and have even funded a few using the patreon website. Between the various nodes of commerce available on the internet, including paypal, amazon, smashwords, kickstarter, indiegogo, and patreon (among others), there is a tool-set that is slowly changing the face of commerce and capitalism as we know it. I laud those who are pushing the frontiers of creativity for the simple reason that they can. There are some duds, there always will be, but this book is an example of everything that can go right with the new economic paradigm that seems to be emerging. These are exciting times! Embrace the mutation of capitalism!

. . . pedantic cheerleading over . . .

Where do I procure this bizzare congerie of eldritch metatextual critiques?

Right here, right now! If you don't get one for yourself, get one for that Lovecraft-lover in your life, or even that Lovecraft-hater! I can think of a lot worse gifts, and not many better for collectors of all things - or anything - inspired by the creator of Cthulhu.

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Thursday, November 12, 2015

Gameholecon, Part 4, Death by Nexus

I've always been a bit unimpressed by the whole idea of alignment in role playing games. That's part (albeit a tiny part) of the reason I was so pleased with the morning's session of Mutant Crawl Classics, wherein +Jim Wampler said, in essence, alignment in a post-apocalyptic environment is meaningless. So imagine my surprise when I discovered that he was running a tournament game in which alignment was of primary importance: Death by Nexus - a gladitorial combat, set up by the gods, pitting teams of differing alignments against each other in strange, other-dimensional arenas. Truth be told, I was originally signed up for another session but, alas, the DM had to cancel. Then the session I thought was open for another seat was not (and I understand that the Con hosts were being sticklers about tickets and table slots and such). So I thought to myself, "self, you're here to learn DCC. So jump right into this and get to know the combat system". So I did.

Now while I'm not too fond of the idea of enforced alignment, I'll be the first to admit that I tend to play chaotic characters. Just ask anyone who was a part of the multi-year AD&D 1e campaign in which Pheelanx Durrowphael (still my favorite character of all time) sowed chaos, even fueling the Blood Wars, whenever given the opportunity. And in +Brendan LaSalle's "Neon Knights" game, guess who was the only chaotically-aligned character? Yeah . . .

So when Jim randomly assigned alignments to teams and I got Chaos, I thought - well, that's appropriate.

Truth be told, alignment didn't matter a whole lot in this free-for-all. Three teams of three each entered the arena. Those who were killed were immediately replaced by another pitiful mortal meat puppet. In the first scenario, Law and Chaos were placed on platforms at opposite ends of the arena. Paths led from each platform to a central platform on which three elementals - fire, ice, and air, each representing, respectively, chaos, law, and neutrality - duked it out. Above the fray, on a cloud, were the heroes of neutrality. Near the starting point of each alignment team was a rack of weapons. I don't remember all of them, but chaos had a red hot poker, a javelin that shot flames, and a molten metal battle axe. Ice had a flail, I think, I dunno. Neutrality had weapons, including a lance and a bow, that allowed them to fly for their movement. It became apparent very quickly that neutrality and law felt threatened by chaos. They beat up our poor, innocent fire elemental, causing our chaotic weapons to wane in power. Neutrality, with their flying ability, was able to descend on the path leading from the chaos platform to the main fray, killing off our heroes more quickly than they could re-spawn (which was kind of the point). Needless to say, chaos got their butts handed to them.

The next arena, neutrality, in truly neutral form, decided that they needed to balance things out, so they attacked law alongside the forces of chaos. This arena was set in the eye of a vortex. One of laws weapons allowed them to shoot a paralysis ray, as the cleric spell. Those who were paralyzed drifted down into a narrower section of the whirlwind and were destroyed. I honestly don't remember who won that contest, but I think it was the longest-lasting of the combats.

The last arena was sort of triangular. Within the angles of each point was a circle of blood and, within that circle, two pods or columns that held weapons: one offensive, one defensive. The schtick was that, in order to get a weapon, someone had to be killed within that circle of blood. Of course, each team set about killing one of their members (or two, in the case of law and neutrality) in order to get the weapon or weapons. This played well against the fact that whichever player survived the most combats over the course of the convention won the combat. I had one brand-new character, for instance, so he "took one for chaos" and allowed himself to be killed so that the defensive weapon (a really cool cloak that turned forces of law and that we never had the opportunity to use) could be had by his team. Again, everyone ganged up on law, though one of my characters, who had a herd dog, did sic the dog on the neutral team toward the end because . . . well, because he was chaotic, that's why!

I'll admit that, after hearing so much about 0-level funnels and the carnage that usually results from them, I was just a touch disappointed that none of my characters died in that morning's MCC game. All three survived. Yeah, I liked all three for differing reasons (you do bond with the pathetic little schmucks, honestly), but I had no "badge of honor" to wear, no loss I could count as my own.

This more than made up for it. I went through 11 bodies characters that evening. Furthermore, because of the nature of the combat, I was able to learn a little more about spell effects, mercurial magic, and clerical magic, all of which I had hoped to do at the con. All-in-all, with the three sessions I was able to attend, I accomplished my goal of being steeped in the DCC system and learning how it worked in real-time. And I love it. I seriously love this system. I'm giddy like a schoolgirl about it.

Here is a list of the fallen one's names (given before combat, mind you) and their cause of death:

Whipping Boy - Arrow through the eye
Failtacular - Cloud burst
Meat Puppet - Sonic shock
Next in Line - Freezing ray
Fodderovski - Miasma arrow
Walking Corpse - Lightning staff
Coffin Filler - Paralysis sword
Death Song - Lance
Grave Trough Soup - Collateral damage (sacrificed to obtain weapon) - survived one combat
The Last in Line - Scheduling conflict (I couldn't be at the tournament the next day) - survived one combat
Loving McDeath - Scheduling conflict (ibid) - survived two combats (tied for first place when I left the table)

Jim has a cool "Dead" stamp used everytime someone dies in the tournament and a Hugh the Barbarian "I survived" stamp for those who actually make it through a round without dying. I didn't see much of Hugh's face. Then again, no one did. It was a complete bloodbath. But I think I was the lead sausage-grinder.

Mission accomplished!

Lord of the Dead, Jim Wampler, overlooking my corner of the Death by Nexus graveyard

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Teatro Grottesco

Teatro GrottescoTeatro Grottesco by Thomas Ligotti
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

For reasons unknown to me (or hidden from me? Once can never be sure.) this past year or so has been chock full of existentialist texts. From philosophical surveys to plays to role-playing supplements to novels to novels that were later turned into movies, I seem to be crawling my way up a mountain of stark realizations, worrisome revelations brought forth by prophets of . . . not gloom per-se, at least not in the sense of utter nihilism and hopelessness, but soothsayers of "facing that which you dare not face in order to be enlightened about the severe limitations placed on you because of the cycle of life and death" (and possibly doing something with the limited time you realize you have).

And just as "gloom" doesn't capture the essence of existentialism (though it is a window), "horror" does not do justice to the work of Thomas Ligotti. Not even close. The adjective "horrific" is accurate, but not sufficient. It is merely one contributory factor to the ouvre that Ligotti creates.

"Philosophy" doesn't quite catch it, either, though thought experiments are always in the wings and sometimes right out front in the stories contained in Teatro Grottesco.

No, these are stories. Their plots are sometimes skeletal (no pun intended), as in the story "Our Temporary Supervisor," an unsettling take on the workplace that will cause you to carefully consider who it is you work for and the nature of the relationship between your "personal" life and "personal" time, and that of the company for which you work. Sometimes, the plots are more rigorous, a vital part of the tale. This is the case with "Bungalow House," a deep delve into performance art and madness, with a side swipe at the nature of market economy.

From these two plot assessments, you might think that Ligotti's work is overtly political. Not so! Only insofar as individuals are, at times, at the mercy of the larger social order of which they are a part. His characters are often at the limnal zone between psychology and sociology, the decision point (if one can make a decision) between being utterly alone and being utterly overwhelmed by the tyranny of the masses. This place is uncomfortable, and some of these stories will make the inner pre-teen squirm in the remembered angst and shame of that age. Ligotti is in touch with the inner you, whether you want him to be or not!

But with this discomfort comes a sense of awe, reverence for that-which-is-bigger-than-you. The sense of hopelessness is humbling, putting the reader in a state of mind, a trance-like state, that suddenly sees beauty in ugliness. Ligotti's prose is gorgeous, not baroque for the sake of baroque - Ligotti is very much in control of his language (and I have now begun to be able to see how he does what he does, which is a fascinating thing to a writer) - but his prose is elegant, with a stately cadence behind it that makes chaos feel ordered and makes order feel chaotic, creating a disconcerting sort of music in the reader's brain.

There are many passages that I might use to show what it is I am trying to express. I have settled on a section from the final story, "The Shadow, The Darkness". In this scene, the narrator is speaking with an un-named companion who is, supposedly, the writer of the unpublished book An Investigation into the Conspiracy against the Human Race. The two are discussing the artist Grossvogel, who has brought them (and other companions - art snobs, to be precise) to a dilapidated town to reveal his masterpiece, one in a long series of sculptures entitled "Tsalal 1," "Tsalal 2," etc. The author has just spoken to the narrator, explaining how these works of art have proven so successful in the marketplace, despite their crude workmanship and nonsensical representations:

"The mind and all that, the self and all that, are only a cover-up, only a fabrication, as Grossvogel says. They are that which cannot be seen with the body, which cannot be sensed by any organ of physical sensation. This is because they are actually non-existent cover-ups, masks, disguises for the thing that is activating our bodies in the way Grossvogel explained - activating them and using them for what it needs to thrive upon. They are the work, the artworks in fact, of the Tlalal itself. Oh, it's impossible to simply tell you. I wish you could read my Investigation. It would have explained everything, it would have revealed everything. But how could you read what was never written in the first place?"

"Never written?" I inquired. "Why was it never written?"

"Why?" he said, pausing for a moment and grimacing in pain. "the answer to that is exactly what Grossvogel has been preaching in both his pamphlets and his public appearances. His entire doctrine, if it can even be called that, if there could ever be such a thing in any sense whatever, is based on the non-existence, the imaginary nature of everything we believe ourselves to be. Despite his efforts to express what has happened to him, he must know very well that there are no words that are able to explain such a thing. Words are a total obfuscation of the most basic fact of existence, the very conspiracy against the human race that my treatise might have illuminated. Grossvogel has experienced the essence of this conspiracy first-hand, or at least has claimed to have experienced it. Words are simply a cover-up for this conspiracy. They are the ultimate means for the cover-up, the ultimate artwork of the shadow, the darkness - its ultimate artistic cover-up. Because of the existence of words, we think that there exists a mind, that some kind of soul or self exists. This is just another of the infinite layers of the cover-up. There is no mind that could have written
An Investigation into the Conspiracy against the Human Race - no mind that could write such a book and no mind that could read such a book. There is no one at all who can say anything about this most basic fact of existence, no one who can betray this reality. And there is no one to whom it could ever be conveyed."

"That all seems impossible to comprehend," I objected.

"It just might be, if only there actually were anything to comprehend, or anyone to comprehend it. But there are no such beings."

"If that's the case," I said, wincing with abdominal discomfort, "then who is having this conversation?"

"Who indeed?" he answered.

As you can probably tell from this passage, Ligotti is also a master of breaking through the fourth wall, not in such a way as to bring the reader and the false construct of the book itself face-to-face, but in such a way as to bring the reader face-to-face with the idea of reality itself. Ligotti breaks through the fourth metaphysical wall, leaving readers to question their own sanity, their own senses, their own interpretation of the world and people around them. You'll never be frightened outright by Ligotti's work, but his fiction will claw your brain in a way that you will never forget. You may not be scared by Teatro Grottesco, but you will be scarred by it.

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Tuesday, November 10, 2015

The Arwich Grinder

The Arwich Grinder (Crawl, No. 9)The Arwich Grinder by Daniel J. Bishop
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

In a world inundated with fantasy role-playing games, Dungeon Crawl Classics innovates. This is particularly true with their concept of "0-level funnels" in which players take a number of decidedly unheroic characters through an adventure before they are even considered warriors, wizards, clerics, or thieves. The idea is that a group of outlyers (our potential adventurers) go out to do something out of the ordinary that their more banal-minded counterparts simply will not. Of course, you can expect that most of the people in this undertaking die a horrible death of some sort. And it's not the strong who survive, necessarily. It's the ones who don't do stupid things, but take a chance once in a while, relying on their wits and luck to pull them through.

The Arwich Grinder is a third-party supplement for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game.But this is more akin to The Hills Have Eyes or Deliverance than your typical Tolkienesque fantasy. The word "grinder" should serve as a sort of warning. This is not a pretty module. Definitely not for children! As the copy indicates, the adventure centers around the village of Arwich and the Curwen family, who lives up in the pine-covered hills, away from civilization . . . in so many ways. And, like many a good adventure, Lovecraftean nasties may or may not make an appearance. You'd better hope not. But if they do, you can always try to defeat them with . . . uh, a stick? Or that butcher knife you stole out of the meat market drawer? Maybe?

This is a very coherent, very short adventure that sets a solidly dark mood and gives the characters opportunity to become heroes, if they don't run off in terror and if they aren't killed by . . . well, I can't give away the many opportunities to die here. You want super-heroic warriors bristling with muscle or wizards with total control over eldritch magic? You want a judge telling you exactly the next step in your story, to be railroaded through a plot that you don't create? Go play "Math"finder (Pathfinder). You want to do your own exploring, create your own adventure, to go "off the rails" in a dark, horror-saturated environment where you just hope to survive to the next day? You want to learn to love your character because he is, against all odds, a survivor?

Here you go . . . Enjoy???

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Gameholecon, Part 3, The Creature . . . er, d30 . . . that ate Sheboygan . . . er, Madison

As a part of +Jim Wampler's The Museum at the End of Time, each player got a little piece of schwag, a MCC die. Here it is, alongside the complimentary Gameholecon die that came in our bags (more on schwag and purchases later):

Now, these were not the most important dice of the day, by any means, though they are cool and much-appreciated. I'll explain a bit more in a moment.

First, though, I have to admit that I had originally hoped to get a seat at the table of the legendary +Doug Kovacs in his Spine Wizard's Tower game. Alas, I did not elect to get the VIP membership, so I was second schrift when it came to choosing the games I wanted to sit in on. Dang, those seats got snatched up fast! (Among my missed opportunities at the Con was getting a chance to talk to Doug. I saw him . . . from a distance . . . but either he or I were too busy to do anything about it. Sorry, Doug. You going to be at Garycon?). So I switched my schedule. As I looked through the available DCC slots (remember: my goal was to play this game to the hilt), I spotted "Neon Knights". I thought, "Oh, cute. Someone's using the title of a Dio-era Black Sabbath song. I wonder if they know what they're doing?" Then I saw that the description of the session was composed almost entirely of lyrics to the song. Sweet! Game on! I was in! 

And I'm SOOOOOO glad I got to sit at that table!

Judge +Brendan LaSalle was just friggin' awesome. His enthusiasm carried this scenario over the top. Seriously, if you have a chance to sit down and game at his table, DO IT! +Scott Swift and I gamed with three other players, including a complete and utter newbie who played, of all things, a halfling. He did great! Scott played Ragnok, the warrior, who had a prediliction of fumbling at the most awkward times. Then there was Knife Ears the elf, our party wizard (help me out here, +Brendan LaSalle - what was the wizard's name? I'm blanking), and me, playing Mandingo the thief.

Our city was surrounded by strange, highly disciplined (almost un-moving) creatures of law dressed in tattered rags that covered every feature. They stood, hook and chain weapons in hand, waiting. Occasionally, they would enter the city, only three at a time, and kill three victims, like clockwork. Though several forays were sent out to combat the strange denizens of law, none were succesful, though a few refugees did manage to escape the blockade. We were called into the offices of Lord Richardson, who ruled the area, to find a way to break this blockade before the city utterly collapsed under the weight of slow attrition.

As we were talking with Lord Richardson, the part was suddenly and without warning transported to the top of a tall castle tower, some 150' above a landscape composed entirely of sand dunes. Waiting there was a wizard of great power, who held us in thrall, commanding the party to fight against a group of beastmen raiders who were at that moment on the balcony,  having crawled up over the edge using ropes and grappling hooks. The wizard commanded us, and we were compelled, to protect his belongings and defeat these creatures. As the party moved into action, they noted that their eyes, along with the wizard's, glowed a neon pink and that when they moved, a trail of pink tracked behind them.

Being a thief, Mandingo stayed back and let the warrior and wizardly types do their thing. While Ragnok performed a mighty deed, sweeping three creatures with one blow (with descending dice chains of damage, which I thought was good judging on Brendan's part), two of the beastmen ran down a stairway into the wizard's laboratory. The halfling and Mandingo followed. 

The two creatures who went below wasted no time in looting. The halfling immediately attacked, but unsucessfully. Mandingo hid, waiting for the opportunity to backstab. He hid behind a low table and noticed that upon the table was a pinned and fully-dissected specimen of the rag-wearing creatures from outside their city. He noted this for later use, then attacked when the beastmen were headed for the stairs (despite the halfling's efforts to stand in the way). He successfully stabbed his intended target, but did not kill it. In fact, as the creature turned to face Mandingo, the thief fell backwards onto the floor. Thankfully, they were more interested in their loot than they were in killing the thief. The beastmen bolted for the stairway. Mandingo grabbed a bottle in which a small fairy or demon of some sort begged to be let out, which he did not. Mandingo wasn't the brightest bulb, but he didn't get to third level by being an utter moron, either. 

Up top, things were not going the party's way. But Knife Ears, with quick thinking, called on his patron, Sezrekan, for aid. The elf was transported to Sezrekan's domain and was set to some menial labor for an extended time. But he was granted a boon and, after learning that Sezrekan is a real douchebag, returned, using the power of levitation to steal the wizard's astrolabe in exchange for Sezrekan's aid. With this aid, and a fast-thinking halfling who cut the rope on one of the escaping beastmen, as well as our wizards many succesful summonings of Ropetrick, we were able to defeat the beasts.

Just as suddenly as we had appeared on the tower, we reappeared in Lord Richardson's library. He was astounded to see us wounded and worse for wear. After remarking upon the abomination that Mandingo had in his hands (the bottled being), he sent us to his cleric for healing. On the way, we encountered an old tower guard whose eyes glowed as ours. We engaged him in conversation, learning that he and some of his men had been whisked away to the wizard's tower many years ago to fight the wizards enemies and move furniture, a truly demeaning task for a warrior of his stature. The mystery deepened. We needed more knowledge.

Our party wizard was one of two in the city, so we sought the advice of the cities other wizard ( +Brendan LaSalle help! I'm blanking on wizard names today!) and learned, eventually, that the wizard on the tower was known only as The Mighty One. The city wizard did tell us that we must travel back to The Mighty One's fortress. Our ally would send a creature of such magnitude as to distract The Mighty One long enough for us to resist his power and defeat him. Then, if we tolled "the gong" (echoing the "toller of the bell" in the song Neon Knights), the ragged creatures surrounding the city would be scattered and defeated.

In a flash, we were back on The Mighty One's tower. The city wizard delivered immediately - an insectoid creature the size of a house, with lightning flashing along its limbs, shell, and mandibles, was climbing that very moment over the parapet and onto the balcony! The Mighty One commanded us to defend his things and defeat this creature. Ragnok resisted the wizard's will and ran behind The Mighty One, hoping to draw the creature into the wizard. Mandingo "interpreted" The Mighty One's commands and went down into the laboratory to seek something - a scroll, vials of chemicals, etc - that he could use to injure The Mighty One, so long as the thief could resist the wizard's influence.

In the meantime, both Knife Ears and our party wizard resisted the influence of The Mighty One. The party wizard cast Enlarge upon himself . . .

Now, a little digression for those unfamiliar with the Dungeon Crawl Classics magic system. On first looking at the DCC rulebook, I was struck by the paucity of spells. I was used to seeing nine levels of spells with about 20 spells for each level. Wizard spells in the DCC rulebook are only listed up to 5th level, with 27 of 1st level, 24 of 2nd, 24 3rd, 6 4th, and 5 5th level spells. The rules are clear that there are 716 Wizard spells in existence. So why only list a total of 86 of them in the core rulebook? Well, the truth of the matter is that each of these spells actuallycontains a multitude of spells due to fluctuations in what is called "Mercurial Magic". One never knows exactly what one will get when one casts a spell. Wizards of higher level, of course, have more control over wht they cast, but magic is capricious - the most seasoned caster can fail to cast a rudimentary spell, and the newest of inductees to the schools of magic art may have a chance ot cast a spell of great power. This is determined randomly, with modifiers based on various circumstances, including caster level. Also, wizards can "spellburn" in which they sacrifice points of Strenght, Agility, or Stamina to power up their spells, increasing their chances of a good outcome. Our party wizard, being 3rd level, was quite adept (for a rough guide, double the DCC level to figure the equivalent level of AD&D power) and had decided to spellburn in order to gain power. He was able, as a result, to roll a d30 to determine the results of his spell. I was the only one at the table with a d30, so I loaned him mine. Consider, this was the first time EVER that this die had been rolled at the table. Here's what happened:

Yup, that's the die as it landed on the table . . . a natural 30. If you're familiar with the old AD&D spell "Enlarge," you'll appreciate the power of mercurial magic by what resulted . . . 

As a result of this roll and the spellburn, our wizard grew to godlike proportions, standing 100' tall. For ten minutes, he gained +10 to attack, damage, and AC, as well as receiving a bonus of +100 hit points. Needless to say, combat didn't last much longer, as our wizard reached in like some giant movie monster, grabbed The Mighty One in his fist and squished the erstwhile tyrant into pulp. The house-sized monster looked up at the gigantic monstrosity, jumped from the tower, and burrowed off underneath the sand, lightning fading off in a line above the sand as the creature fled away at top speed.

But, wait. There's more . . . 

Knife Ears, had, in the meantime, cast a Levitate spell. He had also used spellburn and rolled well, resulting in . . . well, here's what the spell description says at that level of success: "The caster can levitate any object or creature he can see regardless of size or complexity. This could include an entire castle . ." Stop right there. That's all you need to know about that spell description, other than that the effect lasts up to 30 days.

Someone, I think it was the halfling, rang the gong.

Did the ragged siege army surrounding the city dissipate? Had we defeated the enemy and fulfilled out obligation to Lord Richardson?

Who the heck knows? We were cruising around the Purple Planet for thirty days in a flying castle - WHO CARES? WE HAD A FRIGGIN' FLYING CASTLE!!!

Mandingo went to go read books and eat all the great food and drink the all the great wine in the castle. Heck, he could die in an instant after this and still have lived the most fulfilling possible life for a thief. 

Thus ended the quest of the Neon Knights. I don't know that I've had that much fun roleplaying in years! The gods of randomness blessed us . . . which you might expect for a neutral and chaotic party of ne'er do wells . . .

Saturday, November 7, 2015

Gameholecon, Part 2, The Museum at the End of Time

Giddy with anticipation (or was that the tingling of radiation poisoning), I got to the table and was soon joined by the other players including +Julian Bernick and +Scott Swift (note, I apologize in advance for the people I will inevitably miss in my accounts here. Just chew me out and I'll plug you in where you belong if I missed you!). Now while I hadn't gamed with either, I had met Julian many, many years ago, back when the World Fantasy Convention was up in Minneapolis - my first WFC - and now, here I was at a table with him at my first Gameholecon. I'm hoping to make it down to Garycon next spring, which would be my first, as well. Julian Bernick is a trailblazer, and I follow where he goes . . .

Except when he's playing a character with 7 intelligence. For those unfamiliar with Dungeon Crawl Classics (from which +Jim Wampler's Mutant Crawl Classics is derived), you might say "how the heck did he get a character with 7 intelligence"? To which I say: "real men roll stats as Crom intended it. Roll 3d6 and deal with it. Do not reroll ones, do not roll 3 dice. Suck it up, sissy." You want power? Go play Mathfinder. Not that there's anything wrong with that . . .

Now, not to jump too far out of the chronological time stream, but as soon as I posted something about Mutant Crawl Classics on G+ after the session, I was asked when it's going to be released. If I recall correctly, Jim said that it's completed and in Goodman Games' hands, but it has to go through the production queue like anything else (I can tell you all about this - I'm a Production Manager in real life). It's in the queue, but so is a bunch of other cool stuff. You *might* see a kickstarter for MCC this year. Maybe, maybe not.

Don't worry, it's a real thing. Here's proof:

Now, while the elegant judge's screen is jerry-rigged, take a look at those spiral bound books in front of the screen. I believe those were rules booklets. In my giddiness, I never did pick them up and thumb through them. Duh. Lost opportunities. Nothing new to my life. But they are *real*.

For all you Crom haters, you're probably saying "well how do I survive an adventure if I'm not a super human". Truth is: you don't. You die. You may die multiple times. So in the 0-level "funnel" adventures, you are usually given several characters to run at the same time. Here are mine:

Left to right, that's Madson Wisconson (an imaginatively-named Pure Strain Human), Hannah Banana (a mutant banana tree - yes, banana tree - whose full name was "Hannah Hannah Mo Mannah Banana Nana No Nana Fe Fi Fo Fana Banana," though I restrained myself from using it in deference to the constricted time of a con game, and Morelholio, mutant fungi. 

We had six total players, with eighteen characters between us. A wide range of Pure Strain Humans, mutant humans, hybrids, and plants (well, technically, plants and a mushroom). One of our number, ominously named Desslock, led us, encouraging us to go out to the desert to retrieve artifacts that would prove us worthy of the rite of passage. 

Take a quick look again at the picture of the table up above. On it you'll see some rectangular blocks with Jim Wampler's image on them. Yes, that is what he looks like in real life. Anyway, these represented talismans that would tell us when "the glow" was endangering us. All of this is true, except for the part about what Jim looks like in real life. He's a little less cartoony, in actuality. But his image (i.e., the talisman) did show danger, growing dark, as we walked out into the desert. In fact, the radiation was so bad that after bedding down for the night near a rock outcropping, we awoke . . . well, not everyone awoke, let's put it that way. Among the dead was Desslock, who we then renamed "Deathlock" (you had to see that coming . . . it was almost inevitable). 

The next night, we bedded down at another rock outcrop, assured that those remaining were strong enough to survive the night. But in the middle of the night, the watch, who was atop the rock outcropping, spotted a strange sight - a group of dozens of ancients, or at least humans dressed as ancients, wandering around in circles in the desert night. We tried, in vain, to hail them. Then one of our mutants ("Fuzzy" was his name, I think, for the fur that he grew) was able to talk to one of these strange, glowing, semi-translucent ancients. She whispered to him . . . and he went mad, becoming, suddenly, very stupid, and going on and on about how "nothing is real. I'm not real. You're not real. There's no point in anything," and so forth. A truly existential mutant. This made for some . . . uh . . . fun(?) as the rest of the party . . . um . . . helped him, yes, helped Fuzzy to do . . . things . . . for the party.

A side note: though it is hoped that characters hold a profound respect for sentience, the idea of alignment is only applicable insofar as one is aligned with a certain social or ideological group. As Jim put it: "After the apocalypse, 'law,' 'chaos,' and 'neutrality' have little meaning". I rather liked this, as it seemed to feel right for the mood of the game.

And it let us push Fuzzy to near death several times helped us as we best considered how to let Fuzzy contribute to the party's success in his state.

In time, these ghosts of the ancients faded and we spotted a structure off in the distance, something different than the occasional rock outcroppings we had seen so far. We investigated.

Lo, we beheld a building of the ancients. Of course, we entered . . . which accounts for the next casualty as one of the party blindly walked in and plummeted to his death. Yeah, you might want to look before you walk into a dark doorway. Sigh.

So we explored more carefully, lowering one of Scott's characters (help me here, Scott, what was the name?) down on a rope, only to hurriedly pull him back up after hearing his frantic screaming. He had seen an immense creature in the pit below, something gigantic and hideous that seemed to match a very, very large tooth that Mach the human had found earlier in the desert. Eventually, Mach himself, Mach the Mighty, Mach the Fearless, Mach the (insert testosterone-infused bravado here), discovered that the monster was all bones. With instruction from Hannah Banana, Mach broke off one of the ribs of the creature and sent it up to be used as a tie-off point for the rope, spanning the breadth of the doorway at the top of the pit.

As you might be able to tell, this game was all about using available resources, as all old-school gaming should be. You won't find much tech just laying around in MCC, though we did get lucky enough to have a couple of pieces (one had an earbud that occasional spoke, while Hannah Banana had a "bug caller" that buzzed when he pushed a button, though it never succesfuly talked to bugs during this adventure). You just have to make do with what you've got or do without. This tends to push creativity and roleplaying, which is the heart of the game. You want to argue rules, go play scrabble. Not that there's anything wrong with that . . .

The exploration of the inside of the structure began in earnest. Yttrium, our hook-handed mutant, found a dessicated corpse dressed in the clothing of the ancients. When he removed the clothing, a couple of other artifacts tumbled out, including a device that shot a pink ray (a "Dazer Gun") that accidentally put one of our party members to sleep and something that was promptly broken by the party member who was trying to make it work. There is a good chance, when your character tries to figure out a device of the ancients, that he or she or whatever will not understand the function of the device and stands a pretty good chance of breaking it. Those who are old enough will recall the overly-complicated artifact chart from Gamma World, which was used to determine if a character could get ancient technology to work without killing himself or others in the process. MCC has such a chart, less complicated, though no less nasty. Careful what you do with shiny things . . .

In time, the party tried to make its way through the doors that were embedded in the museum's walls. At one point, they were met by a very helpful hologram and his two very helpful pieces of Smart Metal, who pleasantly informed us that the museum was closed and that we must leave. After conversing with the hologram, it became more insistent that we leave and even let us know that the "security bots" would help us out, if it became necessary. This was not construed as helpful. But since the Smart Metal had "insect-like" legs, Hannah thought it would be a good idea to try to communicate with one of them using the Bug Caller. He approached one of these "security bots" with the Bug Caller buzzing, and it attacked.

So we attacked back. Yttrium got a very lucky stab on one of the bots, opening it up and causing sparks to fly. Though still functional, it was wounded quite badly. The hologram produced some kind of technologically-enhance flail, but he couldn't seem to hit anything with it (Note: You may have heard Jim talk about how unlucky he is with his dice rolls - I'm here to tell you: he ain't lying). And though the Smart Metal zapped a couple of our party with pink rays, we were ultimately able to prevail and go through - and I mean this quite literally, as Mach ran right through the hologram - to the hallway beyond the door.

After a little more investigating, we found a room that contained several small cabinets. In each one was a device that looked like some sort of belt and some sort of helmet. After a near-fatal donning of the helmet by one party member, we eventually figured out the function of these devices - a force-field-generating belt and a helmet that prevented you from suffocating from the lack of air within the forcefield (something I had never thought about before, incidentally).

Moving forward, we found a semi-circular room filled to the brim with ancient tech. I won't spoil everything, as I'm sure certain elements of this adventure, or maybe the adventure itself, will be published in due time, but suffice it to say that Madson Wisconson figured out how to use a certain device, though he had little control over its exact effects, which resulted in Morelholio being transfigured from a fungus into a strange, stunted bird with sharp teeth and de-evolved the party's mutated Conifer Yew. Mach also underwent a change due to the strange device, developing something akin to a turtle shell on his torso and back (which elicited the best comment of the session from Drew: "He's a Mach turtle!").

The party, or what was left of it, made its way back to the village and the elders of the village informed us that our party would now serve as a scout party for the village, carrying out missions at their request.

For the record, Fuzzy survived. As did all three of my characters. Honestly, I felt a tiny twinge of disappointment that all of my guys survived. But you know what, I grew attached to them. Hannah Banana was probably my favorite because . . . well, because he was a freaking mutated banana tree, that's why! Madson Wisconson proved to be the most adept at manipulating tech (which, if you know the city that I love and live in, makes a lot of sense). And Morelholio . . . well, how much more freaky can you get than a mutant fungi who becomes an archaeopteryx? That's just over the top cool.

Besides, there was plenty of dying waiting for me later in the day. Plenty. Oh, so much dying. Mister Wampler wasn't done with me yet. But more on that later.

Gameholecon, Part 1

Like everyone else, I wish I had the leisure time to do one huge entry about Gameholecon. Alas, this is going to be done in short discrete chunks. Apologies for the inevitable multitude of posts, but hey - people have been asking for con reports, so who am I to hold back just because I don't have time to get it all into one entry?

Let me state up front that I had a nefarious purpose in attending. A few weeks ago, I finally picked up the slipcase edition of the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG and wanted to use my time breaking that thing in, getting to know the rules, the flow of gameplay, and just plain immersing myself in DCC. I had just drawn up a draft of a DCC Patron in an effort to more fully grasp the game mechanics and "feel" of the system, and I was ready to put this knowledge into practice. More importantly, I looked forward to meeting and gaming with several people, a few of whom I had already met and/or gamed with in person, many of whom I had not met outside of the hallowed halls of G+. Yeah, I was a little pumped!

So, here's what greeted me on my way in Friday morning:

Now, while I thought this was pretty cool, I am, frankly, completely burned out on steampunk. Excuse me for snobbery, but I'm just so over it. So while I appreciate the construct (and never did find out who built it, though I'd like to know), I let out a little internal groan and moved on. Besides, I was there to see real people. The statue was just gravy. Oily, steamy gravy.

The night before, +Reid San Filippo and I had a fun conversation about . . . wow, about a lot of stuff. Suffice it to say that Reid is as interesting and thoughtful as you would guess he is, if you've ever read his publications, particularly his Crawling Under a Broken Moon series of zines, which are excellent. So I ran into him again first thing in the morning. After shaking out some early con schedule bugs, we hung out with +Jason Bossert for a little while . . .

Until my phone rang. It was work. WORK! Argh. Well, I have only myself to blame. In my excitement to get the heck out of work the day previous, I left a spreadsheet open. A spreadsheet that our production schedule macro happens to need control over in order for my company to do its thing. Thankfully, I work about five minutes away, so I went in, closed the stupid spreadsheet, and came back in time for the first session of my day: Mutant Crawl Classics with the gentlemanly (unless he's killing you) +Jim Wampler. I must admit that , after listening to the Spellburn podcast for several months (which really led me to go ahead and buy the DCCRPG rulebook), and knowing his love for Gamma World (an old love that I share, going back to 1980), I was a little starstruck thinking about it. I was a touch nervous, too because . . . well, you know, you just get that way once in a while. Then I pumped up my courage and headed to the table. Heck, I *live* right near the Barony of Horn, one of the earliest outposts of post-apocalyptic role-playing. What the heck was I worrying about? Still, I was just a smidge nervous, Only a smidge . . .