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"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."


THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

CALL OF CTHULHU: AWOKEN

Every Halloween, my players and I do a one-shot horror scenario.  This year, we took a break from The Dracula Dossier to revisit an old favorite, Call of Cthulhu.  What follows is "Awoken," the Halloween one-shot.  The Dossier's influence should be obvious, as well as my wink and a nod to Brian Lumley.  


HOOK:  A team of Investigators in the employ of Lawrence “The Uncanny” Underwood—escape artist, stage magician, and outspoken skeptic—is sent to the rural Massachusetts town of Shiloh.  It is 1932, and the countryside is in the grip of the Great Depression.  The team has been working for Underwood for some time; they have investigated (and debunked) dozens of hauntings, seances, mediums, and spiritualists.  This time, they are set to the home of Emily Putnam (36) and her two children, Susan (12) and Tommy (7).  For the last two months, their remote farmhouse has been in the grip of a haunting.  Doors open and close.  Objects move.  At times the water runs red as blood.  There are nocturnal moans, thumpings, rattles.  And in little Tommy’s room, a cold spot has developed.  Emily wants help.  She cannot afford to leave the house in such perilous times.    

LINE:  The secret to this investigation is a little Geology and Library Use.  A few days before the haunting started, Massachusetts was affected by a rare earthquake.  It cracked the bedrock beneath the house and subterranean, iron-rich springs are bubbling up under the house.  The icy water has created the cold spot; the iron in the water makes it red; the trapped gases from the spring cause the moanings, the thumpings, and at times are violent enough to shake the little farmhouse, shutting doors and moving objects.  Case closed.

But while they are investigating…

The local undertaker, Martin Crane, vanishes from his mortuary.  Blood is everywhere, but there is no sign of a body.  The next evening, his daughter, Mary, vanishes from her bedroom.  His assistant, the gravedigger Paul Rudlidge, vanishes from his cottage the same night.  

And all across town, a stillness has fallen.  No birds sing.  No crows caw.  No insects buzz.  The farmers report their animals seem panicked.  At night, dogs incessantly howl.

Constable Parker Goodman, knowing the Investigators solved the Putnam House mystery, turns to them for help.


SINKER:  The same earthquake that that shifted the ground under the Putnam House cracked an ancient slab of shale at the edge of the woods bordering the Shiloh Cemetery.  This slab was covering an old well, long since run dry.  Just days after the well was exposed, Crane started dreaming of it, of something calling to him.  His journal speaks again and again of the Caduceus, of the Bronze Serpent that protected the Israelites.  He scribbles in the margins over and over again “the wyrm, the wyrm.”  During the day, he started walking along the edge of the cemetery searching for the well and the voice.  When he found it, he tied a rope around a nearby tree and went down.

His meticulous journal records nothing beyond this point.  His wife, however, reports him locking himself up in the mortuary for days.  When she peeked in on him, against explicit instructions, she saw him hovering over something she describes as a “leather ball, but a funny sort of thing…it looked more like a ball of string than anything else.”  During this time, his neighbor’s dog, Silas, vanished.  

In that well, Crane found the remains of a vampire…a Wamphyri leech coiled up into a shriveled ball in the rib cage of a male skeleton.  An iron stake had been driven through it.  Crane removed the stake, took the leech back to the mortuary, and fed it the blood of the neighbor’s dog.  The leech awoke, regenerated, and then snared him in its barbed coils before sliding down his throat.  Now it dominates him, slowly transforming him into a full vampire.  He has already turned his daughter and employee into Thralls.  More will die soon.

THE WAMPHYRI (Mythos Vampires): are a race of leech-like aliens born in the fetid swamps of an alien world.  Neither plant nor animal, they are most akin to a sentient fungus.  Their gelatinous, protoplasmic flesh can change shape at will, extending barbed tendrils and feeding suckers, membranous wings, or thinning to squeeze through even the narrowest of fissures.

On Earth, they are rarely encountered in their natural forms.  Brought to this world millennia ago, they survive in our atmosphere by forming a parasitic relationship with a human or animal host.  The leech coils around the heart, sending a fine network of feeding tubes throughout the cardiovascular system, and sending forth feelers into the nervous system and brain. Seizing control of autonomic and motor functions, as well as accessing memories and experiences, the leech comes to completely dominate the host, which is eventually driven mad.  This hybrid creature is known as a vampire.

Vampire Powers and Weaknesses 
The vampire lives on blood, and reshapes the host’s body into a perfect predator for the purpose of obtaining it.  The leech’s metamorphic properties are partially transferred to the host, allowing it to extend its teeth into ripping fangs, its fingers into grasping claws, and even to sprout wings for flight.  The skeleton and muscles are reshaped and reinforced, increases the monster’s strength and stamina.  A human host no longer ages, is immune to sickness and disease, and regenerates damage at frightening speed (each combat round the vampire heals 1d4 hit points).

In addition to these formidable physical powers, the vampire possesses potent psychic ones.  It can communicate telepathically and read minds; if the target is awake and alert, the vampire must overcome the target in a contest of POW vs POW.  If the target is asleep, the vampire can slide quietly into its dreams.  By making eye contact with a target, the vampire can attempt to mesmerize him or her (again with a contest of POW).  Success means the vampire can paralyze the target for feeding purposes, issue simple, one  or two word commands, or even cloud the victim’s memories.  

Vampires are not indestructible, however.  The parasitic infection transfers many of the leech’s alien weaknesses to the host.  Silver burns and scars the vampire, doing 1d3 points of damage per round of contact which cannot be regenerated.  Damage from fire is suffered normally and cannot be regenerated either.  Exposure to sunlight is the most lethal of all, however, doing 1d6 per round of direct exposure.  Again, this cannot be regenerated.  The only way for the vampire to heal any of this damage is to enter a deep, coma-like sleep.  In this state it recovers 1d4 HP per day. 

Additionally, garlic causes weakness and nausea to the vampire, causing it to flee.

Piercing the main body mass of the leech (the coils around the heart) paralyzes the creature.  It will be held in place until the stake is removed.

The best way to destroy a vampire is to catch it while slumbering.  Vampires do this during the daylight hours, particularly between 9 AM and 3 PM.  Or, the creature can be caught while in a longer, regenerative slumber.  Either way, driving a stake through the heart “pins” the leech.  This is traditionally followed by a beheading, and the entire remains are burned.  Any of these alone may not guarantee the destruction of the beast.  A stake will only paralyze it; and beheading a vampire will cause the leech to rip free from the host, slithering away to seek a new one.  Fire can reduce the human host to ash, but the leech will coil into a hard, leathery ball the size of a fist.  This is immune to further further damage, save from sunlight or silver.  Dormant, it still possesses the power to slide into the dreams of those nearby, especially the weaker willed.

Vampires can be identified by their failure to cast reflections or shadows…a byproduct of their alien, protoplasmic flesh.  They are usually pale, and their eyes have a reddish caste that glows in darkness.  

Vampire Reproduction
Vampires reproduce by means of an egg.  It takes decades—even hundreds of years—for a leech to generate one.  Once an egg is formed the leech will keep it indefinitely, until a subtable host is selected.  The leech will then inject the egg into the target, where it nestles against the heart and starts to grow.  The transformation can take weeks or months.  As the infection spreads through the victim’s system, it feeds first on his or her flesh and blood.  The victim grows thin, pale, and weak, developing a hunger for raw meat and blood.  Sunlight causes extreme pain and red welts like hives.  Garlic becomes revolting.  As the leech takes over, the victim loses time, sleepwalking under the control of the leech.  Eventually, he or she “dies,” and over a three day period transforms into a full vampire.  The host’s consciousness remains trapped in this body for years, unable to resist the domination of the leech.

Finally, vampires are able to create Thralls.  A Thrall is a reanimated human or animal victim that the leech infected with spores while feeding on it.  A Thrall is a lesser vampire, an infected victim without a leech under the psychic domination of the vampire that created it.  It has no will of its own, and can act as the eyes and ears of the leech that dominates it.  A Thrall possesses all the powers and weaknesses described above, but is not as physically powerful as a true vampire and can be killed by simple decapitation or burning.  In addition, reducing a Thrall to 0 Hit Points destroys it.  Thralls are immobile during daylight hours, lying in a trance-like sleep.  They are not always human; a vampire can create them from bats, canines, or birds as well. 

Vampires Thralls (Human)
STR  3d6 x 2 (20-22)  3d6 + 2 (12-13)
CON 2d6 + 6 (13)        2d6 + 6 (13)
SIZ      3d6 (10-11) 3d6 (10-11)
POW 2d6+6 (13)         2d6+3 (10)
DEX 3d6 (10-11) 3d6 (10-11)
Move 12                    10
DB        +1d6         +0
Armor 2 pts none
Weapons
Bite 50% 1d4 + 1d2 blood drain each round after; Claw 50% 1d4 + db
Skills
Human Psychology 60%, Scent Blood 75%
Habitat
Tombs, ruined manors
Sanity Loss:  0/1d4 to be attacked, 1/1d6 to fully comprehend what the vampire is, 1/1d8 to see the leech pull free of a host.

THE VAMPIRE IN QUESTION:  Samuel Cartwright was a Puritan minister in London.  Born 1598 to a prominent barrister, he later attended the heavily Puritan Emmanuel College in 1613 where he became a minister.  Austere and fervent in his beliefs, he nevertheless harbored a dark secret.  Rumors surrounded him of assignations with young men and boys.  As time wore on, the whispers became more sinister, linking him to the disappearances of children.   

In reality, while at Emmanuel the young Cartwright drew the attention of Adorján Ferenzcy, a centuries old vampire.  The creature was amused by the young man’s torment. As a homosexual living in an age and culture when such a thing was abomination, the struggle between his faith and his flesh proved irresistible to the vampire. It saw in him dark potential, and decided to infect Samuel with its egg.  As the leech inside grew, Cartwright’s hungers grew dark and more intense.  Homosexual impulses became pedophiliac, and these turned sadistic and murderous.  Terrified by what was happening to him, he fled to the New World.  There, the leech consumed him.

The monster Samuel Cartwright had become prowled the Massachusetts Colony feeding its obscene hungers for blood and flesh.  In 1683, it came to Shiloh.  Mutilated livestock and vanishing children convinced the local minister, Andrew Morton, that he was struggling against the Devil.  Morton travelled to Boston seeking help.  There, he enlisted the aid of scholars Edward Garrison and John Lich, who along with a 22 year old Cotton Mather, returned with him to exorcise Shiloh of its demon.

The details of their hunt are vague—supposedly Mather wrote of it in his lost work, A History of the Devil in the Massachusetts Bay Colony—but it ended with the quartet tracking the young and inexperienced vampire to its lair, where they drove a stake through it.  Instead of burying it in holy ground, they dumped the remains in a dried up well on the edge of the vampire’s property and covered the makeshift tomb with a slab.  The rest of their lives they apparently believed they had destroyed the vampire.  Garrison and Lich went on to found Arkham College in 1690, which eventually became Miskatonic.  Cotton Mather, of course, went on to play a pivotal role in the Salem Witch Trials.

And Cartwright…slept.     


The Spine of the Investigation

  • Arriving at the Putnam House, they meet the family and begin to experience the “hauntings.”  Geology, or Idea Rolls in a pinch, reveal the haunting symptoms could all have underlying geological causes. There was an earthquake in this part of the country just three weeks ago, before the haunting started.  Of course Geology is necessary to confirm this theory, and if no one has it, an NPC geologist will need to be brought it.
  • At some point before they conclude at the Putnam House, stage an atmospheric scene at night where suddenly all the crickets, the peeping frogs in the marsh, and the birds just suddenly fall silent.
  • After they have confirmed the geological source of the haunting, have them stop for fuel on the way out of town.  Here Constable Goodman stops them and asks for help.  The timing of this is the day after Mary Crane and Paul Rudlidge go missing.  To sell it, have him tell the players he has the coroner’s journal, which is full of “weird, spooky nonsense.”
  • Reading the journal reveals Crane’s dreams of the well, the voice in his head, and the sudden obsession with divine snakes.
  • Speaking with his distraught wife (Persuade, Psychology) reveals Crane’s odd behavior and the existence of the leather ball.
  • Following the hints in the journal and exploring the property will lead to the well.  To discover more, someone will need to descend into it.  The darkness, cold, and stench grow greater the further the Investigator descends.  At the bottom of the well the earthen floor is covered in a weird, sickly white mold that looks suspiciously like veins and capillaries.  Half concealed in this filth is a skeleton.  Medicine or Biology identifies it as male and at least 200 years old.  It has recently been disturbed.  A wrought iron stake lies beside it (SAN roll 0/1d3).  There is evidence this was in the skeleton’s chest.  Examining the weird mold more closely requires Spot Hidden and triggers a second SAN roll (1/1d4).  The mold covers a vast carpet of bones and insect carapaces…rats, birds, snakes, desiccated beetles.  It is almost as if the mold was feeding on all this.
  • Shiloh has nothing resembling a library.  The nearest one is twenty miles away in the county seat of Arkham.  Using the Library there turns up the volume Towns and Tales of the Miskatonic River Valley.  Shiloh is mentioned in this book, as is the “witch scare” of 1683.  It includes rumors that the town minister, Andrew Morton, enlisted the aid of Cotton Mather, Edward Garrison, and John Lich to investigate rumors of witchcraft behind the mutilation of livestock and the disappearance of young boys.  
  • The first night after they interviewed her, Mary Crane will come to her mother and vampirize her.  She will vanish like the others.  If the Investigators are with her that night, they will encounter their first vampire.
  • The next day, two local boys—Jack Draper and Rummy Boyle—will also be discovered missing.
  • Towards the end of his life, Andrew Morton (d. 1716) built a home in central Shiloh that still stands.  It is now owned my the town doctor, Stewart Hughes.  There are papers in the attic dating back to Morton’s lifetime, and these can be found with Library Use or Spot Hidden.  In very poor condition, badly faded and with many missing pages, they tell the same story as Towns and Tales above but from Morton’s point of view.  He mentions Samuel Cartwright by name, and mentions he hails from London.  He also mentions Garrison and Lich discovering the “nature of this fiend” in “the book of one Ludvig Prinn.”  There is a strange passage about the “wyrms of the Earth having their origins in the Stars.”
  • Miskatonic has a copy of Prinn’s De Vermis Mysteriis of course, but this will require Credit Rating, Persuade, Fast Talk, or something similar to be allowed to see.  It cannot be removed from the library.  It would take weeks of study to read and comprehend.  However, Library Use and a period of 2d4 hours will track down Prinn’s references to “the blood drinkers” and “the leeches from the Void.”  It describes these as “demon wyrms coiled round the heart of corpses giving them horrible life and hunger for blood.”  SAN loss 1/1d4, Cthulhu Mythos +03%.  Apparently the “traditional remedies” have basis in truth, but Prinn warns not to “put your faith into the devices of the Church.”  He advocates staking, decapitation, and burning, lest “the wyrm survive the corruption of the flesh, coiled into a ball in slumber.”
  • Library Use, either at the town library in Arkham, the Miskatonic University library, or the Miskatonic Valley Historical Society (also in Arkham) can track down the location of Samuel Cartwright’s old farm.  It once stood adjacent to Martin Crane’s funeral home.  The farmhouse is long gone—it is all woods now—but conducting a search of the forest beyond the well (which once stood on the edge of the property) will reveal (with Spot Hidden) a set of stone steps that descend into a hole in the ground.  This is partially covered in brush, and the steps themselves are carpeted in leaves.  Descending reveals a root cellar hewn into the rock with a dirt floor.  This was the cellar of the Cartwright house.  It is here that the vampire lairs, surrounded by his Thralls.  Between the hours of 9 AM and 3 PM, all will be completely immobile.  Beyond those hours, the vampire will appear to sleep but can awake and attack instantly.          

THE QUICK: I like to use a fairly simple rubric for NPCs in Call of Cthulhu.  Unless the NPC is a main antagonist or critical ally, I simply assign it a single “stat,” usually between 1 and 20.  This serves as an average characteristic, like INT, STR, or DEX, and also represents hot many hit points and magic points the character has.  Doubling it gives you a damage bonus.  “Core skills” for the character are assumed to be stat x 5%; “secondary skills” are stat x 3%.  For example, a (12) night watchman might have Blackjack and Handgun at 60% and Dodge, Listen, and Spot Hidden at 36% each.  If I need the character to have higher skills, I just assign them.

Emily Putnam, Concerned Mother, (10).  Emily’s husband, Ernest, died young, having been wounded back in the Great War and never fully recovered.  She is a simple, plain-spoken woman with little or no book learning but a lot of common sense.  She doesn’t understand what is happening to her family, and though religious has never believed in ghosts.  She just wants the disturbances to stop, unable to afford relocating her family.

Constable Parker Goodman, (13).  Another veteran, Parker is a husky bear of a man…but like so many with his inherent size and brawn is really a bit of a teddy bear.  He is a good cop for so small a town; drunk and disorderly he can handle with his big brother charm, but multiple murders and disappearances is way out of his wheelhouse.  He doesn’t know what to make of what is happening in town and is more than happy to ask for help.

Doctor Stewart Hughes (9, First Aid 80%, Medicine 65%).  With Crane missing, it is very likely the players will reach out to the town doctor if any medical mysteries or exsanguinated bodies turn up.  Hughes is semiretired; he’s 68, though still sharp-minded and vigorous.  Trained in Boston, he is a highly educated man (EDU 20), literate in both Latin and Greek.  he is not a believer in the supernatural, but presented with evidence of things beyond is ken is open-minded and inquisitive enough to accept them.  Note that he currently owns Andrew Morton’s house.           

AND THE DEAD: The only full vampire is the leech formerly inhabiting Samuel Cartwright, now nestled in the body of Martin Crane.  The most important thing to remember here is that this leech grew from an egg in the body of Cartwright, so it identifies completely with the Puritan minister.  Despite now being hosted in Crane, it speaks antiquated colonial era English, and finds the brave new world of the 20th century terra incognita. In addition, the Keeper shoulder bear in mind that Cartwright is a very young and inexperienced vampire; he was active only a few decades before Morton, Garrison, and Lich condemned him to the bottom of the well.  Older and experienced vampires have far greater powers, such as access to Mythos magic and spells.  Cartwright has only his strength, enhanced senses, and telepathic abilities.

Mary Crane, Paul Rudlidge, Jack Draper, and Rummy Boyle are all undead Thralls.  Ravenous, the leech inhabiting Martin Crane drained all of them, infecting them with wamphyri spores to reanimate them.  He did so primarily out of fear; he is alone in a strange new world, not fully adapted or come into his powers, and needed servitors to protect him.  Mary Crane and Rudlidge were easy targets…the two boys fell prey to the vampire because he still carries the perverse appetites of his previous host.  

The Thralls are essentially mindless revenants.  They can speak, and possess a low cunning, but they are no longer remotely human and the only thing they are after is blood.  Cartwright dominates them utterly, and if he wills it can speak through them and see what they see and hear what they hear.  As of now, they nest with him, sleeping on the dirt floor of his cellar (see above) around him.  It is up to the Keeper whether or not he creates more Thralls—he wants and needs their assistance and protection, but creating too many draws attention to himself and is more competition for the food supply.  

Perhaps the best way to use the Thralls is to have the players encounter one or more of them first.  Because these seem like more or less standard vampires—reanimated, blood-drinking corpses—it will make Crane/Cartwright and his leech all the more shocking.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

MELNIBONÉ REPEATING


I remember Meliniboné.  Not the empire, obviously, but it's aftermath, its débris: mangled scraps of filigree from brooch or breastplate, tatters of checkered silk accumulating in the gutters of Tottenham Court Road.  Exquisite and depraved, Melbinonéan culture had been shattered by a grand catastrophe before recorded history began--probably sometime during the mid-1940s--buts its shards and relics were still evident in London's tangled streets as late as 1968...


Alan Moore, "The Return of the Thin White Duke"


Despite having visited the Bright Empire several times the last three and a half decades of my existence, I never really understood Melniboné...until now.

How could I, really?  It was hardly any fault of mine.  I lacked the particular foresight Michael Moorcock possessed, that his manifestation in a certain time and place afforded. I was not in possession of the secret knowledge his countryman, Alan Moore, demonstrated when he wrote the the essay glimpsed above. There was no way any of this could be my fault.  It was merely an accident of birth. Moorcock and Moore both originated in the same corner of the Multiverse, a corner that had endured similar experiences. My particular plane was running slower...about seven decades or so behind.

Now, however, I see it clearly.

You cannot know Melniboné until you too have seen a once proud empire crumble, afraid to look forward and unable to stop itself from staring back. Not until, like the denizens of Imrryr, you have watched an entire nation of people retreat from the rest of the world, from reality, into mad dreams of lost power and prestige can you grasp what Elric was dealing with. Only once you have witnessed idealistic princes paralyzed by their philosophy, and swaggering Yyrkoons who prance and croon of "making Melniboné great again," do you know who and what Melniboné is. 

And by that time it is too late. Arioch is already on his way.

Like Elric--maybe secretly spurred on by him, for I have always felt the same affinity that Neil Gaiman expresses in "One Life, Furnished in Early Moorcock"--I left Melniboné before the end fell upon her.  I set sail out into the Young Kingdoms, the wide world that my people had so long ruled and so long taken for granted, knowing that nothing outside our own borders could be of any worth.  By this time, of course, the decadence had already set in; Melniboné was already finished.  The world was secretly sick of Melniboné's oppressive arrogance, the sorcerous stench of "exceptionalism" that its populace marinated in.  There had been an attempt, just prior to my departure, to sack the Dreaming City, but while two of our proud and unearthly towers fell, the impenetrable sea maze nevertheless thwarted the barbarians, and the golden battle barges and venomous dragons had been sent out for vengeance.  This only had the effect of increasing the world's antipathy, for Melniboné had begun to see her enemies everywhere.  Nations tumbled.  Sacrifices were made.  Demons and Chaos unleashed.        

Over the course of my travels, a new figure took the Ruby Throne, one considerably darker than the Albino (or anyone who had claimed the throne before) but who offered the world a reprieve, a possibility that Melniboné may not yet be wholly damned.  I settled in the Unmapped East, an island beyond even Phum, and wondered if the Bright Empire really could be saved.  Like Elric, however, too many in the imperial court felt this emperor was "not one of them."  He did not, apparently, show the proper respect for Melniboné's byzantine and ritualistic traditions.  He stank to the pureblooded Dragon Princes of the outside world--the most heinous of all Melnibonéan crimes.  One of these princes in particular rose to prominence the way so many like him do... by peddling the most outlandish and inane lies, lies that only a invalid and disintegrating people could possibly believe.  Endlessly, he taunted and jeered his boorish insults, and like Elric the emperor did nothing.  Until, again just like Elric, this emperor finally left and this Yyrkoon took his place.

I suspect the previous emperor is out there, somewhere, sailing the seas of fate.  We are already well past the fall of Quarzhasaat, that much is quite clear to me.  Imryrr seems ever more eager than ever to dream, to ignore the warning signs that the end is near.  Beset by Straasha and the Lasshaar in the east, with islands drowned and coastlines ravaged, and by the unleashed fury of Kakatal in the west, the omens are easy to read but they do not.  Here in the Unmapped East, a particularly noxious Pan Tang seethes, infuriated by Melniboné's pointless and endless taunting.  There is no diplomacy--what need has Melniboné for it?  Who could dream of assailing her!  Let the Young Kingdoms try.  

So the armies of Chaos stir, the Balance swings widely, and the rest of us can do little but wait for Roland's Horn.  

Here's hoping the next world is somewhat closer to Tanelorn.

   










Monday, September 25, 2017

STAR TREK DISCOVERY: SOME THOUGHTS ON ESPISODES 1 AND 2

BEWARE, AHEAD IT IS DARK AND SPOILERY UNLESS YOU HAVE SEEN THE FIRST TWO EPISODES



Star Trek returns to the small screen by becoming something it hasn't been in a long time...relevant.

YOUR IDEAS ON STAR TREK probably depend on where you started.  Take, "continuity," for example.  If you began with The Next Generation, or any of the shows in that era like Deep Space Nine or Voyager, continuity is probably something you expect.  These were shows, after all, that adhered to a strict writer's bible.  If you began with the original series, however, continuity is not a big deal.  Star Trek was a show that made everything up as it went along. Klingons changing appearance?  Been there, done that.  Somewhere between The Animated Series and The Motion Picture they sprouted their bony brow ridges and somehow fans managed to survive.  Compare this with the Internet lamentations about the new Klingon appearance in Discovery.  

Continuity is one thing, but maybe the biggest difference between old school fans and those who started with the spin offs is what you think Trek is "about."  If the first thing that comes to mind when you think of Trek is a program about a bright, utopian future, where mankind has left savagery behind, you probably started with TNG.  The original series was a lot messier, often darker, with a Federation that struggled towards high ideals but was still plagued by very relatable problems.  Indeed, if you started with this Star Trek, your impression of the show is probably not so much a rosy vision of the future, but rather a social commentary on the difficulties of the present.  This is territory where The Next Generation was far more reluctant to go.

The first Star Trek was on TV in the middle of the civil rights era, and it did not shy away from tackling the hot button social issues of its era.  Racism, sexism, the Cold War, it's all addressed right there in the composition of the bridge crew. Female officers worked right alongside the men, from the first "Number One" to Lt. Uhura.  There was an Asian pilot and a black officer.  There was a Russian on board that no one was trying to kill.  Of the issues of that day, racism was perhaps the most commonly addressed, in multiple ways.  Sarek and Amanda had a mixed marriage and biracial child; "Let That Be Your Last Battlefield" was a blatant tale of skin color and prejudice; the first interracial kiss on television between Kirk and Uhura was not shown in many southern states.  We could go on and on, but the point is original Star Trek was social commentary in the form of stories about the future.  It was a mirror turned back on its audience.  

Which brings me to Discovery.

That there was actual Internet outrage over the diversity of the new cast shows us how necessary it is for Discovery to turn that same mirror on the modern Star Trek audience.  We are not, as a society, as evolved as we thought.  Fortunately, Discovery doesn't shy away from this, and stands right up alongside Star Trek in confronting our most pressing social issues.  It is right in your face with it.

Of course there is diversity; the two senior officers are women, one Asian and one Black, and we will have the first openly gay couple on Trek played by gay actors.  But frankly we expect by now Star Trek to beat the drum for diversity.  Diversity is just assumed to be part of the genre package, and we know Trek will always champion it, despite the noise made by Internet trolls.  Fortunately Discovery goes much further and is more specific in wrestling our present demons.  Nor does it waste any time.  Right there in the first two minutes it jumps right in.     

Would-be Klingon messiah T'Kuvma opens the series with a  speech that could easily have been made by any of the "very fine people" who brought their tiki torches to Charlottesville over the summer.  It's a monologue that would roll off the tongues of any of Europe's far right.  It could easily show up on Trump's teleprompter.  What it amounts to is a call to arms, a struggle between "nationalism" and "globalism."  T'Kuvma is arguing that traditional values of the Klingon Empire are under threat by a cosmopolitan coalition of diverse cultures (the Federation), that his people should reject diversity and "remain Klingon."  Embracing what the Federation represents would be "losing purity" awash in the "muck" of mixed races and cultures.  The Klingons must protect their uniqueness and their "heritage." 

This new Star Trek ain't playing around.  

And in First Officer Michael Burnham, we are thrown the second major curve ball to deal with.  "Where is the line," her story demands of us, "between mutiny/treason and doing the right thing?"  When does conscience and best intentions trump the letter of the law?

We can argue with her decision to run around Captain Georgiou and seize control of the ship, but in the wake of Edward Snowden and Chelsea Manning, of whistleblowers and the near constant leaks of information from the White House, this is an issue that the original Star Trek would have taken on too.  Sometimes, if you believe in a course of action powerfully enough, right or wrong you break the chain of command.  "I thought saving your lives was more important than the principles of the Federation," Burnham tells us.  No, this is probably not something Will Riker would have done, but need I remind fans out there it is exactly something that Spock did.  To Kirk.  To bring his previous captain to Talos IV.  Maybe it all has something to do with the way Sarek is raising his kids?

It is too soon to tell where all this is going, but I found "The Vulcan Hello" and "Battle at the Binary Stars" a welcome return to classic Trek, not just in the old school swoosh sound effect of the doors or the beeps and whoops on the bridge, but in the challenging spirit of it.  Yes, this is a very modern Trek, with Abram's Kelvin Timeline effects, dizzying shots, and lots of movement--the entire thing looks like a big budget film--but it doesn't feel anything like the cinematic reboots.  It doesn't feel much like The Next Generation either.  It feels like a Trek ready to get its hands dirty again, a Trek ready to make us uncomfortable and to make us think.  Will it follow through on these difficult issues?  We have to wait and see.  

But I can't wait to see where it goes next.

  

  

        

Tuesday, August 29, 2017

M.A.R. BARKER: THE AMERICAN TOLKIEN

MUHAMMAD ABD-AL-RAHMAN BARKER was born "Phillip Barker" in Spokane, Washington, in 1929.  He passed away a few years ago at the age of 82.  Professor Barker was a linguist and a specialist in South Asian Studies, but despite the fact that I was trained in the same field as him this wasn't how I knew his name.  I knew of M.A.R. Barker long before I ever studied the Vedas or the Mahabharata or Sanskrit. I knew of him because I had frequently visited his planet.

Tékumel.

Long before Tolkien published his The Lord of the Rings, independently and quite by chance the young Barker was already following in his footsteps, creating an entire fictional world as a setting for his own constructed languages.  Whereas Tolkien's world was rooted in Northern Europe, and his Elvish tongues borrowed from Finnish and Welsh, Barker's Tekumeláni languages were rooted in Mayan, Urdu, and Pushtan.  The only one to ever receive a complete published grammar, phonology, and dictionary was Tsolyáni, the language spoken by the Empire of the Petal Throne, but Barker fashioned (and published some guidance on) several other tongues of neighboring kingdoms as well.  There are indeed people out there who can now converse in the languages of Tékumel, just as people can in Tolkien's Elvish.

While Tolkien set his languages in the distant past, Barker placed them in the far future.  Tékumel exists sixty thousand years in our future, on a distant planet.  Nuclear war eventually wipes out the human civilizations of the Northern hemisphere, leaving the planet to new cultures of African, South American, and South Asian descent.  These eventually take to space and explore the galaxy.  Tékumel, originally called by this galactic empire Nu Ophiuchi, was originally a resort world.  The empire seized control of it, and herded the hostile native populations into reservations before starting to terraform it to their tastes.  They built their palaces and mansions on the shores of the warm seas.  Eventually, disaster struck.  Tékumel, her sun and two moons, and four other planets in the system, vanished from "normal space" and became trapped in a pocket dimension.  No one is certain how or why.  Cut off from the interstellar space lanes, and subject to massive geological upheavals, the sophisticated futuristic society of humans and their alien allies devolved into barbarism.  Worse, the reservations broke open, and the natives wanted their planet back.

Barker took all of this--invented languages, tens of thousands of years of history, alien species--to create a sort of "science fantasy" setting the likes of which the world had not seen.  Tékumel is a world of elaborate cultures, intricate languages, and terrifying religions.  "Exotic" does not even begin to cover it.  And it's depth, the sheer bulk of exploration Barker did into his own world, finds rival only in Middle-earth.  This is why, when Der Spiegel published a 2009 article on his life and work they called him "The Forgotten Tolkien."  

Luckily, he wasn't quite "forgotten" though.  Barker achieved a devoted following, he just came to it in an unusual way.

In the early 70s Barker was introduced to Dungeons & Dragons by Mike Mornard, one of the play testers of the original game.  Barker immediately recognized this new art form--the roleplaying game--as a way to share his Tékumel with the world.  In 1974, shortly after D&D stepped out and said "hello" to the world, Barker's Empire of the Petal Throne became the second RPG ever published.  While Dungeons & Dragons was really just a rules set, loosely rooted in fantasy fiction and European mythology, EPT was a complete setting, with history and languages and cultures.  This is something we all take for granted today; we expect our RPGs--tabletop, console, or computer--to come with in-depth imagined settings.  But Tékumel got there first.

It so impressed TSR, the publishers of D&D, that with Barker they released a second edition of the game shortly thereafter.

For a public still trying to wrap its brain around the whole new "roleplaying thing," Empire of the Petal Throne was probably a step too far.  The plot of those early D&D campaigns was painfully simple; here is a dungeon, go inside, kill monsters, get treasure.  EPT by contrast asked players to navigate the social complexities of an alien culture, to role-play etiquette and hierarchy.  It was a world in which diplomacy and subtlety often eclipsed brute force.  More difficult, perhaps, was that players had no immediate access points.  If you had read Robert E. Howard or J.R.R. Tolkien you had a general idea of what to do in D&D.  In EPT you were going into it blind.

There were other factors as well, but Barker and publisher TSR parted ways leaving Tékumel once more a world without a rules set.  Undeterred, M.A.R. Barker pressed on, and ten years after EPT had first been published, Barker had the first novel set in Tékumel (Man of Gold) and a second, two-volume roleplaying game (Swords & Glory).

The novels kept coming.  1985 saw the publication of Flamesong, followed later by Lords of Tsámra, Prince of Skulls, and A Death of Kings.  2004 brought what might best be described as Barker's Silmarillion, the two-volume compendium of religion and culture known as Mitlanyál.  By that time, Tékumel had been growing and deepening for over sixty years, explored mainly by Barker, but also by hundreds--possibly even thousands--of hardcore Tékumel fans.

Unfortunately, none of the roleplaying games ever really seemed to last.  Empire of the Petal Throne had been too ahead of its time, while Swords & Glory suffered from the obsession with complexity that hounded gaming in the early 80s.  Certainly the most comprehensive game ever published on Tékumel, none but the most diehard had the patience to climb this dense Everest of text.  In 1994, the third Tékumel RPG, Gardásiyal, made the opposite mistake, publishing a rules set with very little background at all.  Indeed, you needed to by several additional books just to make a complete character.  This was a pity, because by the 1990s, the gaming industry had finally come around to the idea of deep, fully realized settings.  EPT was ahead of its time, Gardásiyal was behind it.

For me, 2005 was a sort of high-water mark for Tékumel.  Mitlanyál and just been published, and Guardians of Order, a game company that had published the award winning anime RPG Big Eyes, Small Mouth, took an interest in Barker's world.  Using a modified version of their "Tri-Stat" rules system, they brought us Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne.  This lavish, hardcover rulebook brought a popular system and a streamlined, very accessible approach to Tékumel's histories and cultures.  For someone who had never heard of Barker's world before, this was the perfect entry point.

But the gaming industry is a cruel one, and just a year after Tékumel's publication, the over-extended and deeply in debt Guardians of Order closed its doors.  Ironically, the same year they published Tékumel they had published another RPG set in a relatively obscure fantasy world...it was called A Game of Thrones.

M.A.R. Barker left this planet on March 16th, 2012.  Part of me likes to think he returned home, enjoying a cup of chumetl on the terrace of a clanhouse in Pálla Jalálla.  Tékumel lives on; in 2014 the fifth official RPG Béthorm: The Plane of Tékumel was published, and his army of fans are keeping the world alive.  But as great as Tékumel is, I don't think this is the legacy we should remember him for.  Not exactly.

Barker was to my mind a pioneer of the imagination.  We all live and operate in the wake people like he and Tolkien left. The most popular program on television right now is set in an intricately detailed created world, putting to bed the lie that the general public lacks the attention span for such things.   Indeed, it is impossible to imagine a modern computer or console RPG succeeding without a compelling and consistent setting characterized by unique cultures and great depth.  When you play something like Dragon Age, the Elves and Dwarves are obviously Tolkien, but the Qunari--and the Qun--are definitely Barker.  And with other pen and paper RPGs, exotic stopped being a bug and became a feature.  There would be no Talislanta or Legend of the Five Rings or Numenera if Barker hadn't gone there first.

In the end, no one will ever dispute the power of Tolkien's legendarium, but when it comes to imagined worlds Barker might have even been a little ahead.  After all, Tolkien was not creating so much a re-creating--taking scraps of ancient European folklore and literature to weave together as a masterful patchwork.  Barker did everything from scratch.

And that is fantastic. 

    

Saturday, August 26, 2017

THINGS NOT MEANT TO KNOW: HP LOVECRAFT IN THE CYPHER SYSTEM

For decades, the definitive representation of Lovecraft at the gaming table has been Chaosium's classic Call of Cthulhu. While other Mythos-releated game systems have appeared sporadically in its wake, most of them (Trail of Cthulhu, Realms of Cthulhu, d20 Call of Cthulhu, GURPS Cthulhupunk) have looked to Call of Cthulhu for guidance on recreating the genre. Because it is so radically different--in both mechanics and tone--from the Chaosium game, Monte Cook's Cypher System might appear a poor choice for authentic Lovecraftian play. Cypher System characters can take a lot more punishment, have a wider range of abilities, and follow a much more traditional progression in power and options than classic Cthulhu Investigators. But Cypher is a surprisingly flexible tool, and can easily be dialed up to handle four color superheroes or dialed down to portray normal men and women pitted against the titanic, unknowable powers of the Mythos. In this article, we hope to show you how.


GETTING THE GENRE RIGHT

The Cypher System system rulebook includes five chapters on adapting the game to portray different genres; Fantasy, Science Fiction, Modern, Horror, and Superheroes. Expanded Worlds builds on these by introducing seven "Fantastical" and "Gritty" sub-genres. None of these, however, is actually right. 

First published in 1981, Call of Cthulhu billed itself as "Fantasy Role-Playing in the Worlds of H.P. Lovecraft." Later editions would change that to "Horror Roleplaying." Given that Lovecraft's work frequently dealt with alien races or scientific experiments gone wrong, a case might even be made for "Science Fiction Roleplaying." So which exactly is it? If we look to Lovecraft himself, he would have defined his fiction as Weird.

To get a handle on what Weird fiction is, let's look at a few different voices in the genre. First, James Raggi, the author of Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, distinguishes between the Horror and Weird genres in this way;

The main thing that separates a Weird Tale from a conventional horror story is the forces completely out of the control of those who encounter them. A thing that cannot be explained, cannot be defeated, cannot be solved...

Jeff Vandermeer, author of (among many other things) the superb Wonderbook, wrote for The Atlantic;

...the weird tale, or literature of the strange...fascinates by presenting a dark mystery beyond our ken and engaging the subconscious. Just as in real life, things don’t always quite add up, the narrative isn’t quite what we expected...

Both of these place emphasis on inexplicable rather than horrific, If the intent of the Horror story is to scare, the intent of the Weird tale is to instill a sense of having confronted something incomprehensible. Fear is often a byproduct of this, but so is wonder or awe. Lovecraft himself describes this by emphasizing a sense of having left reality behind;

...I believe that weird writing...should be realistic and atmospheric--confining its departure from Nature to the one supernatural channel chosen, and remembering that scene, and phenomena are more important...than are characters or plot. The "punch" of a truly weird tale is simply some violation or transcending of fixed cosmic law--an imaginative escape from palling reality...

So what exactly does this mean for your gaming table? 

First, it suggests that the GM should create a world as realistic and mundane as possible. If everything is Weird, then nothing is. Instead, you want to create a sane and ordered world into which the Weird intrudes from outside, violating sanity and reality when it does. Use the "Modern" setting as your starting point, or better still, the "Historical" setting in Expanded Worlds (most Lovecraftian games are set in the 20s and 30s, though the Victorian Era is another popular choice). 

Second, make sure that all "supernatural" or "paranormal" elements in the setting are in the GM's hands, not the players'. Character Types should all be based on Warriors, Explorers, and Speakers, with no Adepts and no Magic flavor available. It is important for all paranormal elements to be inexplicable, incomprehensible, and beyond mortal control. If player really wants to create a psychic or medium character, have them create a Scholar or Dilettante or Professional instead...but then handle their "paranormal" abilities as GM intrusions rather than powers. The characters are not in control of these extraordinary talents, and cannot reliably call upon them. They never know when a sudden vision or cryptic communication will occur...and when these do, they are probably damaging to the character's psyche (see Mere Mortals below).

Finally, don't feel pressured to define the Weird elements as either "magic" or "science." Don't define it at all! Blur the lines. Clarke's Third Law applies here anyway; any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. Are the spells in the dread Necronomicon sorcery, or some advanced mathematical formulas that bend the fabric of time and space? There is no answer to that question--it is beyond mortal ken. 

MERE MORTALS

Call of Cthulhu differs in feel and motivation from other roleplaying games. in many such games, player characters can directly confront and attempt to destroy obstacles and opponents. This strategy typically leads to disaster in Cthulhu scenarios. The majority of the other-world monstrosities are so terrible and often so invulnerable that chasing open combat almost guarantees a gruesome end for an investigator. Even the merest glimpse of some of the more macabre horrors can send one screaming into insanity...

Call of Cthulhu, 6th Edition


While they are capable of great heroism, and even on occasion do manage to drive the horrors of the Mythos back (see The Dunwich Horror), Lovecraft's protagonists are all mere mortals. These are not action heroes or supermen. To get the genre right, and to raise the stakes, the player characters need to be considerable more vulnerable than the average Cypher System character. Physical combat must be deadly, and encountering the alien, incomprehensible forces of the Mythos must be damaging to the psyche.

To simulate this, the optional "Shock" and "Madness" rules in the Horror setting chapter are a good start, and every Lovecraftian game should include them. When a character encounters something Weird or horrific, he or she needs to make an Intellect defense roll, the level of which provides both the Difficulty AND the Intellect damage suffered if the roll is failed. For example, when the intrepid cub Reporter sees a chair move across the floor of a haunted house, he makes a Difficult 4 (12 or better) roll, and if he fails, he loses 4 INT points from his pool. Failure also results in shock; for one round the character panics, freezes, or flees.

Encountering Weird entities--alien races and horrors--triggers the same response. Seeing a Deep One (a level 4 creature) requires a level 4 (12 or better) roll and inflicts 4 INT points of damage. However the gods and Great Old Ones of the Mythos are infinitely worse. Beholding Yog Sothoth or Great Cthulhu is a mind-shattering event. These beings inflict at least three times their level in INT damage. Watching Shub Niggurath manifest in this dimension, might require a Difficult 9 (27) Intellect defense roll, with failure causing the lost of 27 points from the INT pool!

While the optional "Madness" rules model the slow and steady slide into insanity common in long term Mythos games, true Lovecraftian gaming needs even more "punch" in the sanity department. In Lovcraftian games, if any character suffers an INT loss larger than their maximum value, he or she must make a second Intellect defense roll (against the last Difficulty) or go permanently insane on the spot.  For example, our cub Reporter has an Intellect of 16. Seeing Shub Niggurath manifest, he fails his Level 9 (27) defense roll and loses 27 Intellect points...far more than his maximum number (16). He now must immediately make a second Level 9 roll or go permanently insane. 

Another option you may want to consider is to take away the damage track.

If a character's Speed pool is depleted, he or she is paralyzed. If his or her Intellect pool reaches zero, he or she is stunned and helpless. And if the Might pool is emptied, the character is unconscious and at the mercy of the opposition. This will definitely make players think twice about entering combat, and much better reflects the grittiness of the genre. GMs should seriously consider using the "Lasting" and "Permanent" damage rules as well.

CYPHERS

It wouldn't be the Cypher System without cyphers, but how do these fit into a Weird game?

To start with, make "Subtle Cyphers" the primary ones in the game. These are the lucky breaks, flashes of inspiration, or extremes of effort characters call upon in their struggles against the Weird and horrific forces of the Mythos. 

Manifest cyphers can be fun as well, but these must take the form of Weird spells, chemicals, or devices and as such should be used VERY sparingly. Further, using a manifest cypher is by definition an encounter with the Weird and thus triggers a Shock test (Difficulty 3 or 4 most commonly).


WAIT...HORROR MODE?

"Horror Mode" (also discussed in the Horror setting chapter) is a good mechanic, but I think the methods discussed above are sufficient for creating the right sense of trepidation and dread. While Horror Mode does ramp up the tension, it also telegraphs ahead that something Weird is coming. Opting not to use it, and emphasizing that the Weird can intrude any time any place without warning, better suits the genre.