Friday, August 28, 2015

Black Sun Deathcrawl

Black Sun DeathcrawlBlack Sun Deathcrawl by James MacGeorge
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Timing is everything . . .

I began reading William Barrett's masterpiece Irrational Man: A Study in Existentialist Philosophy while on vacation in Indianapolis, IN. This was about two weeks before Gencon, the world's largest gaming convention, came to Indy. Now, I've wanted to go to Gencon since I was a child-geek, back when it was in Lake Geneva, WI (though I've discovered a local convention that many are calling "one of the top three gaming conventions in the US"), so I was a little forlorn that I wouldn't be in town for the fabled convention. I did, however, read of many other gamer's preparations to go, including a bevy of small game publishers who were rushing to print their wares for sale at the con. This is how I discovered "Black Sun Deathcrawl". Man, have I been lucky in finding good modules lately!

Now that I'm eyeball and cerebral-cortex deep within Barrett's book, I seem to have hit a lucky stride with several books that I've just read or am currently reading. This wasn't by design - the gods of existentialism (har, har) are smiling on me . . . or is it scowling at me? Whatever the case, I feel as if I've been led by some higher cosmic power to a bunch of great books in the existentialist vein, but from disparate points of the literary spectrum, from non-fiction to modern fiction to post-modern fiction to gaming . . . SKRRRCH . . .

"Did he say 'gaming'?"

"Yeah . . . existentialist gaming? Like . . . Call of Cthulhu RPG. . .?"

(Cue evil laughter, then a booming voice from below) "Cthulhu? Bwahahahaha!!! Scary? Yes. Gross? A little. Existential? Not on the same level as Black Sun Deathcrawl," (the last phrase is said as if your jaw is spontaneously falling off and you are trying to keep the mandible attached by exaggerating all motion in your mouth - stick that tongue waaaay out) "not even close"!

Yes, Black Sun Deathcrawl (don't forget that exaggerated pronunciation!) is as existential a setting as you will ever see in role playing. It is illustrated throughout with Gustave Dore's drawings of Dante's Inferno, which gives the piece a somber, dark tone that artistically reflects the game mechanics included in the supplement.

Here, all is hopeless. Rather, you have "hope" as an attribute score, but it burns down as the influence of the Black Sun burns through the rock through which you are digging, twisting your body and mind and chipping away at your will to live as you chip through the rock that you hope will protect you (note: it won't). The Black Sun is relentless, and you are not. Death by the influence of the Black Sun's baleful rays isn't even a sure way of escape from its torment. Characters brought to zero hit points die and are then restored to full hit points one round later. There is only one way out. And only you can provide the way out. When your hope drops to zero (a long and painful process, to be sure), you are considered to have committed suicide and finally found relief from the incessant despair of the Black Sun.

The book is divided into several sections, beginning with an introduction to the world and its inhabitants, of which your character - nameless and raceless, known only as the Cursed - is one.The world is described in four short pages, which is all you need or want to know. Monsters, including "Black Thoughts" and "Terrible Thoughts" are described and statistics given, and the effects of the Black Sun are elucidated in the "Black Light Exposure Corruption Chart," which shows the horrific results of being exposed to the harmful rays. For example, one of the fifteen effects (and not one of the worst, by any means) is known as "Liquid Brain":

"A part of the character's brain liquefies and runs from their nose and mouth, -1d8 intelligence. If the liquid can be collected and ingested, regain the Intelligence, but only until it is passed from the system via urine, at which point it may be collected again, ad infinitum."

The next section consists of "Truths," including such gems as: "Identity is Irrelevant in the Face of Oblivion," "If There Is a Higher Power, It Does Not Care," "Life is Endless Conflict," "Existence is Random and Without Meaningful Purpose,"Everyone Digs Their Own Grave," "Only We Can Choose When the Suffering Ends," and others of a similar, somber nature. Each has a game mechanic or rule attached and while the intent is to apply these rule modifications to the Dungeon Crawl Classics gaming system, they can be easily applied to most old school role-playing games with a little work.

The final section is a series of encounters, which might be played in a single gaming session . . . played to its inevitable end, that is!

James MacGeorge has invoked such a mournful tone that this supplement will likely infect your own campaign in some way. This isn't the sort of place that characters from another campaign will want to visit, however. If they do, they will be subsumed into it and consumed by it. Best used for a series of one-shots (with new characters every time because who the heck can survive more than one session under these circumstances?).

The first edition sold out very quickly! If you want a copy of the second printing, you can order it here. But get it fast . . . then prepare for a slow, agonizing crawl!


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Wednesday, August 26, 2015

The Teleportation Accident or An Apologia for Lemming

The Teleportation AccidentThe Teleportation Accident by Ned Beauman
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

An Apologia for Lemming

Life is too short. There are too many books that will be amazing reads. They are physically on my shelf, staring at me.

This is not one of them.

I've been on Goodreads for a few years now. Seven, to be exact. In that time, I have not lemmed a book. Not a single one. Oh, I've crawled my way through some real duds. I've persevered through some that started slow and ended strong. I've appreciated some for their fabulous writing, even when I might not fully understand what's happening. And others I've liked for a rip-roaring plot, though the writing was pedestrian.

I am proud that I haven't yet lemmed a book.

Today, I swallow my pride.

Maybe it's because I've been reading some fantastic fiction and non-fiction lately. Maybe it's because I have more writing projects than ever before. Maybe it's because I know that college football season is coming up and I will watch TV again (no, I have not watched one TV show since last football season - I just don't watch much TV) and not have as much time to read. Maybe it's because I have Joyce and Proust and Nabakov waiting for me . . .

. . . but I just could not get into this book. Yes, the writing is good, even brilliant in places. But the characters - I could not even take enough interest in them to be able to differentiate one from another. Besides, their social brand of hedonism left me feeling, well, bored. Many of my Goodreads friends have written reviews praising this work, friends that I hold in high regard and whose advice I've followed with much success and joy in reading.

At this party, though, I am simply sitting in the corner, falling asleep.

It's been a long night, all 40 pages of it.

In the past, I've scoffed at reviews where someone has said in essence, "I didn't finish the book, but I'm giving it a rating anyway". I thought "How can you justify that as a 'review'? You have to have read the book to have reviewed it!" Truth is, I'll probably go on feeling that same way, most of the time.

But not this time.

I'm done with this book. I didn't finish it. And I'm rating it. 40 pages was enough. That's 40 pages I could have been reading, or writing, something much better.

Yes, for this moment, I am swallowing my pride and lemming this book.

I'm feeling pretty good about that. On to better things. Life is too short. There are too many great books out there to tolerate mediocrity. Viva excellence!

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Saturday, August 22, 2015

Attention Self-Described "Indie" Types - Prove It!

Call yourself an "Indie"?

Prove it, sucker.

Go buy a PDF copy of Daniel Sell's excellent zine, The Undercroft. Issue #6 is "pay what you want" right now at RPG Now.

Not a role-playing gamer? No worries. The article that I created for this issue, "Ludolf's Folly," is somewhere between speculative fiction and an RPG supplement. Something for everyone to love. And there are several other excellent selections there for you to love, as well, whether you're a tabletop gamer, a wannabe tabletop gamer, a lapsed tabletop gamer, a recovering tabletop gamer, or just a reader. And if you can read this, you're a reader.

So get up off your "Indie" butt and go support a true Indie publication. Pay what you want. Be generous, if you can. Prove that you're really as "Indie" as you claim. Thanks!

A Short Stay in Hell

A Short Stay in HellA Short Stay in Hell by Steven L. Peck
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Angst is not a mere intellectual exercise. Existentialism is not just a philosophical movement. Steven L. Peck's A Short Stay in Hell drives this into the heart of the reader like no other existentialist work.

I've been eyeball-deep in readings on existentialism lately (research for a novel and for my own despair edification), including William Barrett's outstanding Irrational Man: A Study in Existential Philosophy and Sartre's play No Exit, among others. But while I've enjoyed Barrett's study, it is just that, a study in existential philosophy. And Sartre's play seems just a touch contrived (I mean just a touch, too - it did not spoil the play).

But this . . . this little novella kicked my emotional depths right in the crotch. What could have been a work buried in academic gymnastics turns the rational boundaries by which one anesthetizes ones real self completely inside out. And it hurts. Oh, Ahura Mazda, it hurts! This is a novella which, if you have ever been in love and have then been involuntarily separated from the one you love, will tear your heart apart! If you are sensitive to the injustice of the world, your short stay in hell with Soren Johannson is going to be rather unpleasant.

This isn't your typical conception of Hell. Hell here is modeled after, or at least pays homage to, Borges' "Library of Babel". And unlike the Christian hell, from which there is no escape (without a guide's help, at least), there is a way out. You merely need to peruse the 7.16^1,297,369 light year wide and deep library and find the one book that contains the complete story of your life, from beginning to end. How long can it take, really? Really . . . wrap your brain around that number. This is the size of the library that contains the books through which you must look to find your escape from Hell. This might take a while.

The upside is that you live forever! And you can never die! Or, rather, you can die, but you always come back the next day. This is not without pain, however, and Johannson experiences pain in spades, especially when he finds himself (view spoiler).

But physical death, painful as it is, is nothing compared to the emotional pain of falling deeply in love and losing your lover (not that hard in a place as vast as this). You know that the one you love is there, somewhere, because they can't die, either. But, once lost, what hope do you have of finding that one person again, really?

"Anticipation is a gift. Perhaps there is none greater. Anticipation is born of hope. Indeed it is hopes finest expression. In hope's loss, however, is the greatest despair."

Taken out of context, this quote seems hyperbolic or even pithy. But in the context of the story, I can think of no more gut-wrenching, heart-twisting distillation of existentialism than this. It physically took my breath away when I read it. I gasped aloud and had to remind myself, for a split second, to breathe. It is that emotionally-charged, and a reminder of angst really feels like. A Short Stay in Hell won't give you the intellectual finesse of an examination such as Barrett's or the breadth of understanding that comes with a critical analysis of the philosophy and its history, but it will plunge you face-first down the heartbreaking abyss of what it means, what it feels like, to lose all hope.

Dante's Inferno (which I love, by the way, so don't take this as too derogatory) is a childrens' amusement park, in comparison. No need to abandon hope while entering Peck's Hell: It will be stripped from you whether you want it to be or not; just give it time. You've got all of eternity. Or, rather, all of eternity has you!

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Thursday, August 6, 2015

Wassily Kandinsky: 1866-1944 a Revolution in Painting

Wassily Kandinsky: 1866-1944 a Revolution in PaintingWassily Kandinsky: 1866-1944 a Revolution in Painting by Hajo Düchting
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A lavishly-illustrated, easily-digested account of Kandinsky's career and the careful thought he put behind his paintings. Kandinsky is portrayed here as an emotionally-honest artist who worked with great focus and intent. His works were in no way haphazard, but carefully calculated in their design, the thought behind them, and the emotional effect that Kandinsky hoped to achieve.

I was surprised that Kandinsky was a sort of early existentialist, particularly in his feeling that the soul of man was doomed to mediocrity and abasement, so long as materialism held sway over society. One might have viewed him as a happy Marxist, except that he really wasn't. In fact, he was careful to avoid being caught up in the sweeping changes that took place in his home country of Russia. For example, he refused to be subsumed in the tide of Social Realist art embraced by so many Russian artists during the early 1920's. He felt strongly enough about it that he left Russia (again - he had spent several years in Munich during his early career before returning to his motherland around the outbreak of The Great War) to move to Germany during the interwar years. Later, he moved to France only to witness the German occupation and hear of the destruction (back in Germany) of several of his paintings, which were considered decadent by the Nazi regime.

And somehow, amidst all of this, he and his art survived. Perhaps there was something to his strong feelings of spirituality that upheld him during these tumultuous years, where the world seemed to be falling to pieces all around him. Early in his career, he espoused spiritualism and even based his long essay "Concerning the Spiritual in Art" on "The Third Revelation," a twelfth-century occult text by Joachim von Fiore. In fact, Kandinsky and several of his early contemporaries felt that abstract art was the herald of a new age which would be ushered in by the artists who "led" society to greater heights of well-being, though they were, naturally, misunderstood prophets at the time.

Here again, Taschen has produced an inexpensive, erudite analysis of the artist and his work. Should you have a favorite artist, or are simply curious about a particular artist's work, you'll be hard-pressed to find such excellent texts as Taschen has produced. They are truly marvelous. I've always liked Kandinsky's art, but now I can much more fully appreciate it, both viscerally and intellectually. Think Kandinsky was a scheister? I dare you to read this work and continue to hold onto your mistaken belief. Look, read, and learn. After all, isn't that at least a part of why we read?

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Thursday, July 30, 2015

Moebius on Art and Me on Textual Analysis

As many of you know, I am a big fan of the late Jean Giraud, aka Moebius. I was turned on to this article by another writer and have to share it. I'm trying to process this in terms of writing, story design, etc. There is a lot to think about here, and it's not limited to visual arts. I'm thinking specifically of letters, alphabetic letters, and how each one might, in a visceral way, propel the reader forward or slow them down within a text. Or how "tall" letters or "short" letters affect the reading experience, psychologically-speaking. I am currently studying each letter, capital and lower-case, and some punctuation marks to get an idea of how they affect the eye of the reader, when reading left-to-right in the Western manner. I tend to think about these sorts of things way more than is healthy.

This is true textual analysis . . . Go check out the article and see what you think. There's a lot of mental grist to chew on there.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In Delirium's Circle

In Delirium's CircleIn Delirium's Circle by Stephen J. Clark
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

On the surface of it, this is merely a very creepy tale, extremely well told. But, like the plot itself, this is a multilayered artifact. The cover itself has a beautiful burgundy floral design embossed with a sinuous abstraction of theatrical masks that swirls in a . . . well, a delirious circle. In fact, the novel is illustrated throughout with sinister, ghostly drawings by the author himself, making the artifact a lavish affair worth the high asking-price. The cover is indicative of the story itself - a whirlwind of shadows that leaves the reader wondering who is good and who is evil, or even what is "good" and what is "evil", in the philosophical sense of the words. The effect on me has had one benefit: I've been studying existentialism lately, and this book makes it *really* easy to slip right into existential mode.

But this is so much more than just another straight-faced Ligotti-esque foray into darkness. Stephen J. Clark has crafted some dark playfulness into the text. Take this sentence, for instance:

"In short, the author playfully alluded to the identifiable characteristics of the lives of bookish people as though in essence all are monsters, pariah and exiles."

Clark here gives a sharp elbow to the reader, breaking the fourth wall, while maintaining the character of the book. This sort of metafictional playfulness is not something you'll find in most horror literature, at least not done with this kind of subtlety.

As the borders between dream and reality fray, it's easy to go into a kind of opiate slumber as one is reading. Then, all of a sudden, Clark pulls out a chase scene worthy of Alfred Hitchcock that grabs the reader by the shirt collars and shakes one into wakefulness. It's a sharp slap in the face, but rather than throwing the reader out of their suspension of disbelief, it draws the reader further in, enveloping one just as Mr. Fetch, the main character (or is he, really?) is folded into layers of uncertainty and psychic vertigo.

As Fetch is thrust under the dark, roiling waters of doubt and deceit, he, along with the reader, becomes aware that he is being used by The House of Sleep, a mysterious cabal of . . . well, that is a mystery.

"I was entering another circle, where the world seemed suddenly caught in amber, where the inhabitants of nightmares lingered just out of sight in the wings."

And later . . .

"I had acted as if hypnotized, finding the paint and brush, following the instructions to the letter, all the while with a sense that I was completing an inevitable action. The game played me."

One of the tropes that is hinted at throughout, but never made explicit (nothing is made explicit In Delirium's Circle, which is part of the awful wonder of it all), is the idea that doppelgangers may or may not have replaced one's friends, one's enemies, or one's self, at any time.

"Sooner or later your own shadow will rise up and join you as a guest at your table."

In context, this is one of the most horrifying lines of the book. But I can't, unfortunately, contextualize it without relating the book in its entirety. The haunting effect of this novel is far more than the sum of its parts. Clark and Egaeus Press has created one for the ages, the dark, unsure ages when even solipsism itself must be questioned. Is there really a "self" at all? Mr. Fetch, for one, has his doubts . . . and these doubts are about all that he can claim as his own. All else is distorted by the gyrations of delirium's circle.

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