Archive for May, 2012

Carcosa Tourist Guide

May 29, 2012 2 comments

a short, lazy post which nevertheless contains some things that are inspiring as hell.

1. via retronaut, the Codex Seraphinianus is clearly a travelogue, bestiary, grimoire and cookbook from Carcosa, rendered in a cool, familiarizing style so as not to obscure its horrific point in needless exoticism.

2. Mark Zug shows Carcosa the way it would like to be imagined. The truth is of course both less tidy and less charming.

3. Rumours of a Moby-Dick themed sequel to Carcosa Wacky Races cannot be discussed at this time.

On which subject, CWR has taught me that Arthur C Clarke’s famous dictum is too short: any sufficiently advanced technology is  indistinguishable from magic, principally in that you have no idea how dangerous is it and it will probably kill you.

Seraphinus’ own Wacky Racer vehicle was, alas, not ready in time for the race.

Someday soon I will go back to writing about other things, I promise. 5e playtest! Down with Demihumans, fully inhumans is the way forward! Old magic items made new again!

That is all.

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Real life Carcosa wacky racer

May 24, 2012 1 comment

When this guy:

broke his 2CV crossing the western Morocco desert,* he decided to tear it apart, take out the bits that worked and make:

a pretty damn sweet-ass motorbike. With a glove for a seat – gotta love that. Here, from the front:

…English summary here. Several commentators give him props for his Man Skillz but complain about his sartorial choice in that first portrait. Me, I say it’s a classic look:

Sir, Carcosa Wacky Races salutes you. Yeah, yeah, sure – for making a Mad Max motorbike with your bare hands and a can opener in the middle of nowhere in a war zone – but also for deciding it was a good idea, despite the strong objections of the local army, to take off across the desert in a 2CV. That shows the proper disregard for common sense and personal survival.

…although, admittedly, it just might be the most customized car ever:
              electri salvation van
OK, fine. That last one wasn’t a 2CV.

* the other side of the Atlas mountains from the Sahara. Because strict accuracy is vital to a story like this.

Non-gamer authors for Vance fans

May 21, 2012 1 comment

For all you admirers of Vance the stylist, I’m just checking: you do know Saki, don’t you?

Here: Sredni Vashtar. The Unrest-Cure. Mrs. Packletide’s Tiger. No, none of it’s exactly gameable; there’s little world-building, and it depends on a cultural frame rather than laying one out. But if you like Cugel’s off-hand cynicism, chances are you’ll like Clovis and Reginald. Think of him as possessing Wilde’s wit but not his loveable Irish smile.

Also, Robert Byron’s Road to Oxiana, the book that made me fascinated with Tartary. Ostensibly a travel diary, it was lovingly crafted months after Byron’s return from interwar Persia.

Hawk-eyed and eagle-beaked, the swarthy loose-knit men swing through the dark bazaar with a devil-may-care self-confidence. They carry rifles to go shopping as Londoners carry umbrellas. Such ferocity is partly histrionic. The rifles may not go off. The physique is not so impressive in the close-fitting uniform of the soldiers. Even the glare of the eyes is often due to make-up. But it is tradition; in a country where the law runs uncertainly, the mere appearance of force is half the battle of ordinary business.

He brings the same enthusiastically jaundiced eye to bear as Bruce Chatwin, who, had he not died so young, might have become the greatest living stylist in English.

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Dust, Westerns and kreplach

May 17, 2012 2 comments

I don’t like Westerns.*

OK, that’s not quite true (put down those carbines, Cole Long and Ken Hite) – it’s really just the cliches of Westerns I don’t like.

Oh, really? You don’t like cliches? Well, actually it’s the cliche ecology of Westerns I don’t like. I love me some steely-eyed preachers if they show up in the ghost-haunted Philippines or Interzone; I’m OK with vodou-loa-busting gunslingers. I can even bear a posse if it consists of Makassarese pirates and spirit mediums. Shift the basically-Western narrative to Barsoom and I’m delighted. But the Western has worn such a deep groove through its own ingredients that my eyes just glaze over if a new sheriff rides into town and a posse rides out and a steely-eyed preacher spits baccy juice before delivering some tough-guy homily.

But there is a thing the Western brings that I do like. That I would like to see in some games out here in the DnD-circling multiverse. For me, the take-home message of the Western** is:

it’s up to you to make the world better.

And the Western is peculiarly well-pointed to deliver this message: everyone (that matters) in the Western has the same upbringing, which features a hefty dose of scriptural Right and Wrong – so everyone knows what they should be doing, but the defining feature of the Wild West is that the Law is weak so, shorn of the steel embrace of society’s strictures, we get to see whether people will deal with each other in a way that makes everyone’s life better or worse (and it’s usually worse).

The default case with DnD is essentially the same minus the assumed moral background, which is replaced with a hard-wired, zero-sum acquisition = destiny leveling up mechanic, which promises More and Bigger game and in-game status only and always at the expense of other characters in the world.*** So it becomes mighty surprising if anybody ever decides to do anything to improve anyone else’s lot.

This morning Jason Kielbasa said he’s concluded that his new game, Dust (mythical 1930s American great depression game) should be a game about carving out areas of optimism in a world of depression.

I would play that game. It’s the good part of the Western, just slightly divorced from the Western! Even better, if the Depression is a brief hiatus in the building of the great Foucauldian socio-legal machine, it represents a narrow window where you could try to carve out your safe haven in the wilderness, against the BBEGs of hunger and banditry and gubmint and the nascent interfering Feds and the bootleggers and the preventive-men and the cops and the robbers and the cowboys and the indians – you could try to build a better way – and then try to defend it in all the conceivable ways such different utopias would be attacked, by the resettling of the Leviathan on the land through the second half of the 30s.****

I’d even play a paladin in that setting, because as a paladin you’d actually have something to do beside enact violence on competing philosophies. You could do some good.

* obviously this doesn’t apply to High Plains Drifter.
** Messrs Hite and Tynes will tell you that one of the dominant themes of the Western is the Way of the Gun: one does not wish to pick up the tool of death because in doing so one relinquishes one’s civilisation, but somebody has to do it, and forever after they are tainted by it – civilisation must be defended but it cannot encompass those who must be so uncivilised as to do what is needed to defend it. That’s cool too, but it doesn’t help to shift a game that’s already about murderhobos away from the murderhoboing into any other activity.
*** hence the term “monster,” which means “unperson from which you may take without tarnishing your Lawful Good crown,” and hence also the boundary-probing orc babies encounter in Keep on the Borderlands, which seems designed to test how far you’re willing to buy into the implicit moral framework of the game. Carcosa of course makes hay with – and derives much of its power from – this categorizing game, by allowing PCs to be explicitly as monstrous as anything else while, with its 13 colours of men, making the lines between “human” and “humanoid” less certain.
**** look I’m just going to assume you know what I mean by all this Foucauldian/Leviathan stuff, OK? Otherwise I’ll have to post a syllabus on the end of this, and that will spoil the whole joke. The kreplach thing is a Pynchon reference, which I’m not going to explain further here.

Bonus reward for reading this far: this is what Carcosa Wacky Races looks like 200 years after the original race, after a massive influx of funding and materiel from all over the flailsnails multiverse has turned Carcosa into a Las Vegas tourist trap/paradise version of its former self, and its electroradiant hellscape has been declared a UNESCO multiversal treasure. The pilots of these sleek, polished rocketshells like to wax nostalgic about the old Burning Man spirit of the early races. Somehow, they say, the old adventure has gone out of the event.

Ad hoc random table generation for Carcosa Wacky Races

May 17, 2012 1 comment

Here’s my method for generating a random table I should’ve anticipated but didn’t, in 10 minutes or less:

Drive the kids to school, muttering to myself like a madman. Listen to whatever’s on the radio, ask them baffling questions. Then try to hook their baffling answers back to Carcosa, CoC, Vance or the Moomins.*

What you get when you press the “cloudy-swirly-bubbly thing” button (D6)

1 jellyfish
2 tornado monster
3 shoggoth
4 “lightning spring”
5 bubble dragon
6 yog sothoth gate – whatever goes in it gets thrown out of one of the squirmy pentacles that are on people’s vehicles.

Devolver creature exchanger cannon (roll 3D6 in order)
A: threat level

1-3: animal
4-5: intelligent
6: eldritch monster

B: how does it move?

  1. Sessile/drifting – like a jellyfish, anemone, or Yithian
  2. Crawling
  3. Running
  4. Swimming
  5. Flying
  6. Exotic (teleport, suggestible pallbearers, “always there” in some associative, dream-logic way etc)

C: size of a…

  1. mouse –
  2. cat
  3. sheep
  4. man
  5. horse/crocodile
  6. elephant +

And then you just try to think of something that fits those important characteristics. In the worked example, a pelgrane is: 5 (intelligent), 5: flying, 5: horse-sized.

*What, were you hoping for a random random table table generator?

Zak’s awesome psionics system, plus some scrawling from me

May 15, 2012 Leave a comment

So, ages ago I asked Zak for a non-sucky psionics system that wasn’t just another magic system, because it seems to me that the whole psychic power thing should be distinctive. And he very graciously invented one on the spot, and I rather gracelessly buried it at the bottom of another tl:dr post because I wasn’t quite sure why he hadn’t published it himself.

Today I’m going to rectify that. Here’s what he said:
1. Once per day, period.
2. If you want to be a psionic PC you are distracted and fucked up, -1 to con and dex.
3. You must concentrate for 3 rounds in combat or 20 seconds. No physical interruptions allowed but you can hear noises or be in the presence of combat.
4. After the 3 rounds you can “hold” the release of the power up to 2 rounds if you like.
5. Psi power is based on traumas and horrors your PCs has witnessed. To wit: the power consists of the PC being able to manifest the effect of any natural power of a living being (or undead or whatever demons are) s/he has seen used to date. The effect of a ghoul’s paralysis, a medusa’s stare, a sorcerer’s intelligence, an ogre’s strength, a hydra’s regeneration etc.
6. If the ability in question can normally affect another creature it can be projected up to levelx5 feet. So like if your PC had seen a giant, the PC could telekinese with the giant’s strength up to 5 feet at 1st level and at 200 feet at 20th level.
6. Spells do not count as powers, but the spell-like abilities of demons and devils do.
7. Feedback: after manifesting the power, the PC must make a wisdom check (ie roll under wisdom, minus the monster level of the creature being mentally evoked) or will save (at a DC of 10+monster CR) depending on system.
8. A failed feedback save/check causes hp damage equal to the level of the creature evoked. A botched feedback save causes that much damage to everyone in a creature-level x 10′ radius including the psion.
9. If the psion is ever knocked unconscious by feedback (alone), this is a traumatic experience that will cause him/her to gain one minor insanity.
10. At the GM’s discretion this may also extend to natural phenomena such as lightning discharges, etc. If there are described dreams in the game, any supernatural ability observed in the dream may be used. If the effective level of the phenomenon is unclear, roll 2d4
11. Instead of the normal botch rules you can use the Dark Heresy weird phenomena psychic phenomena chart which is pretty cool.

Now this seems pretty much perfect for straight-up DnD characters – when you start you haven’t seen anything you can channel and then as you adventure the terrifying awesomeness you encounter becomes a form of treasure you can inflict on others (man oh man, the grief Skeree could inflict on people from playing in Zzarchov’s games). But what if you were a starting character who somehow, say, got uncontrollable psi powers from, completely hypothetically here… being operated on by Greys while you were down in the weapons pit in Carcosa Wacky Races? Then you would undeniably have use-now powers but no experiences to guide them. And it would be uncontrolled, which adds more of a live grenade vibe. What then?
Roll a D6 when the dice gods declare your powers have built up too much and must be vented…

1. old-fashioned psychic blast – your chance to hit is your CHA, the target’s chance to save is their WIS, difference in level between you is a mod on the to hit roll. 3D6+level mental damage: if their hit points are exceeded, they fall unconscious and take the remainder of the damage against their WIS, which they can maybe heal back through story events. Blaster saves vs WIS to avoid also being knocked unconscious.
2. psychic bridge with nearby person (determine randomly unless there’s eye contact when the fit strikes). Lasts D10 minutes. Roll D6 for effect of the bridge:

1 = twins! each mirrors the other’s actions until the link is broken;
2 = suggestion – you implant one geas on target;
3 = suggested – target implants one geas on you;
4 = fate brothers – you are now charmed by each other, cannot hurt, must protect;
5 = body swap – instantaneous and permanent;
6 = evil twin – the target always knows where you are and what you’re doing, and will work to screw up everything you try to achieve.

3. Homing beacon for psychic, astral and psionic entities. Sure, ghosts and whatnot, but also mind flayers, githyanki, nightgaunts, mi-go etc.
4. Purge your inner demons. Like that time your mum hit you with the iron, or you were naked and everyone was laughing at you? All those things go hopping and jumping and slithering right out of you in a cascade, like extras from Hieronymous Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights. You feel fantastic: lighter, shriven, free. Also you lose 1d6 SAN or 1 point of WIS because, you know, there goes the old superego.
5. Limited precognition. Lasts 1d6 days, works basically like danger sense but for dice rolls. You still make the rolls as normal but if something awful happens you get to say “ah but but but…” and make up some reason for why you should get an extra save to get out of the mincing machine in time.
6. Bang. Brains everywhere. Stuff like resurrection should still work, as long as it doesn’t need an intact body. 1d6 SAN loss for all your friends.

I don’t want all Ken Hite’s speculations to be made real…

May 14, 2012 3 comments

…but this one just might be my all-time favourite. A replica air loom. What’s an air loom?

…a human Influencing Machine. Borne of the same paranoia and psychosis that characterises contemporary reports of mind control… [its designer/whistleblower] believed it ran on magnetic fluids. Operated by skilled pneumatic chemists who controlled the warp of the fluids that travelled out of the machine toward the intended victim. The primary targets were MPs and the patients of mad houses (including Matthews himself). Targeted in coffee houses by the Assasins who worked the machine, their victims were surreptiously primed with vapours, ready for the dreadful event-workings of the machine. Matthews writes of the formidable arsenal of tortures that the Air Loom could deliver. They include: Kiteing, Bomb bursting, Lobster cracking, Thigh Talking, Fluid Locking and Lengthening the brain.

Apparently it was (is?) on display in Newcastle.Dallas McNally suggests a dungeon that rises from the material plane to the ethereal or astral, using the old Yogic chakras:
The root chakra dungeon level is the level which abuts the PCs’ prime material plane. The third eye and crown chakra dungeon levels abut the astral plane.
My aim is not to make a new-agey D&D but merely to imagine how the pieces of the PHB Appendix IV fit together without ending up with Star Trek.
Sounds like an example of Ars Magica’s regio to me, or maybe the hermetic idea of shaking off the influences of the planets to rise to your proper god-nature, but he mentions specifically the old new agey changing frequency idea – getting a new vibe – as a means for etherastral travel, and it set me thinking first about the air loom and second about what I actually want from the  ethereal/astral/altered states/ghost/spirit world/umbra in fiction or games. I always find the ones people come up with unsatisfying, maybe because when you talk about what this Other World of the Imagination is, you’re really asking “what is fantasy?” in the widest, most far-reaching and personal sense. And… I still want to be surprised. Any time you nail it down – any time I have to decide myself what it is – it can only disappoint.

Update: from the same G+ thread, Heikki Hallemaa mentions the Temples of Humanity, dug out of the mountains near Turin! How did I not know about this when I actually passed through Turin earlier this year, dammit! Must go back.

On the topic of fooling with things man was not meant to fool with, check it out, they’re digging out some Easter Island Moai! Unhinging of the continents in 10, 9…

On the topic of things that should be hoaxes but might not be, here’s a series of lectures by Borges! I know what I’ll be doing for the next few evenings.

Finally, there has been much discussion of DnD’s endgame – should you set about running a kingdom, or get lost in clearing brush and charming the locals, or fight gods to claim your place in the sky, or eventually kill the source of all the trouble in the gameworld (the DM?) and retire to the Western Isles? Well, if the campaign’s been a Tolkien manque with all your standard fantasy creatures and whatnot, then this is my answer right here:

That‘s planar travel I can get behind.

Photos of Toxic Tartary, my Carcosa

May 13, 2012 2 comments

I have a dozen half-written posts here, and Beedo reminded me of my pirate ship game (everyone has one, right?) but I just wanna post some lazy pictures of my current off-center Carcosa obsession.

via retronaut, where they’re called “Mongolia in Color, 1913.” The woman sentenced to death by starvation is particularly apposite, but there are also representatives of the tyrannical Yellow Palace, and a tribesman taking aim with his radium jezzail. By far the scariest thing out of all these is the Yellow Palace “gate.” The tribesmen know all about these buggers, Babayaga-ing around at night, abducting people with their whole “candle in the darkness” routine. Although nobody knows where the abducted people go.

Ambiguity about tech level is key to the Toxic Tartary vibe.

Missile silos are made out of carefully-laid mudbrick. Those guards on the palace wall might have low-light goggles or just decorated hide headdresses or maybe magic makes those badly-tanned hides see in the dark.

and tomb forms are everywhere – even piles of carpets might have secondary uses.

…either guarding the Earth Door or keeping stuff in…

Carcosa’s interesting ambiguity

May 12, 2012 1 comment

For me, one of the main differences between Call of Cthulhu and Carcosa is that in the former when things get too crazy your investigator gets taken away from you, but in the latter you keep playing.

…I find that a really interesting challenge, because the threat of the investigator becoming unplayable defines a clear line in CoC – a pale that, if you go beyond it, has no interaction on the other side. And that seems highly appropriate to its brand of bleak, atheistic horror. It defines a bright line between the PCs and the monsters, but more than that, it reinforces the difference, fundamental to CoC, between the tiny pocket dimension we call “reality” and the inconceivable universe beyond it.

So if you take that pale away, do you also take the horror away? Is it actually possible to roleplay through the horror of going outside the Normal?

I’ve considered, several times, running a game for PCs that are Cthulhu monsters such as shoggoths and byakhee and mi-go, but the game I imagine for them is pretty much straight SF, maybe a kind of Damned Star Trek where you’re forward agents for a less unified Borg or East India Company (the other alternative is comedy, but I prefer to let that emerge as a result of player actions). Such a game would avoid the question CoC suggests, though: if you become a monster, and keep playing anyway, does that really mean you are now a monster (either Vampire-style – you’re supposed to feel that you are a monster and struggle with your monstrousness –  or Kafka-style – you are greeted by all as a monster regardless of how you feel about it) or does it mean that monsters are now simply PC races?

Carcosa strikes me as a setting where this question remains usefully unanswered, ambivalent, undecided.

I contend that here, Carcosa’s ambiguity is different from the default anything-goes ambiguity of DnD – in the latter there might be a bit of inter-player theatre for a session while people get used to the idea, but ultimately the line between PC and NPC is stronger than any in-game-world line between monster races and PC races. So now your fighter is a byakhee? A flying fighter that causes fear? Awesome – you just won’t be able to come into town to spend your treasure, but that’s OK.

Maybe it’s because the sorcerer rules in Carcosa challenge the reader to decide what the pale is going to be in their game. Maybe it’s in particular the interplay I see between Carcosa and CoC, where in playing a sorcerer you do what CoC disallows – you play a cultist – but Carcosa presents me with a novel puzzle. I genuinely don’t know what it would mean to play a monster in Carcosa.

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I love feedback like this… for Carcosa Wacky Races

May 2, 2012 2 comments

If we see the Melter, Mumbles is going to try to shoot him while I try to RUN HIM THE FUCK OVER. Let’s see him concentrate on a spell when he’s got a [vehicle name redacted] crashing through his thoracic cavity! Arr! Full steam ahead!

So far I’ve had players siphon gas, rodents and NPCs out of each others’ fuel tanks, attempt to nobble each others’ vehicles with mi-go brain cases, the aforementioned rodents, and mummy heads, use acid to drop rusty ship hulls on each other, engage in astral combat and attempt to summon Hastur. Oddly I did not have rules in place for all these eventualities. I have to call it a successful play test…

Also, gmail has started giving me the strangest suggestions for products I might be interested in, based on the content of my emails.