Rock and Roll Creation

Every  year, I spend Christmas with my wife’s family.  It’s been an ongoing gig for the last twenty odd years (whuf, there’s something that I didn’t want to admit), and it affords me the chance to do some much needed wandering in the winter months.  Being that it happens three states away, I have the chance to hit up a couple of interesting game shops on the way and scrounge through some larger book retailers that we don’t have at home.  (This is an ongoing problem for me.  One of the best places for my money is a sizable used and wholesale chain that happens to not exist in my home state.  I’ve managed to score some amazing finds at the different outlets I prowl during the Christmas sojourn, but it pains me that it’s at least a four hour trip for me to undertake.)

This last time netted me less RPG material than I would have hoped, being as I passed over what appears to be an extraordinarily rare game that I knew would never be played.  It’s an attractive idea to have rare items on my shelf, but it helps if there’s some reason that I would actually crack the damned thing open and play it.

Instead, I found a couple of interesting books that I hadn’t seen elsewhere.  First off is a copy of Chambers’ The King in Yellow, which gets referenced regularly by Lovecraft and the Call of Cthulhu RPG, as well as the first season of True Detective.  (Which stands as a fantastic example of how to integrate really weird stuff into what is otherwise a non-supernatural setting.)  I have yet to get into that, despite it being a thin volume of short stories, but we’ll see how that goes when I do manage the time.

The big find, however, was a copy of George R. R. Martin’s Armageddon Rag.  This book holds an interesting place in pop culture, in that this was the book that more or less bankrupted Martin and sent him out to find a paying job.  This was the period of his life where he wrote for Twilight Zone and Beauty and the Beast, as well as story treatments for other, unmade shows.  (Doorways, which is included in Dreamsongs and was made into a weird little one-off comic, was one of these.  It was a little too high concept for 1980’s TV, but it would have been interesting, had it happened.)

Since Martin toiled away under the constraints of TV budgets and special effects of the time, he ended up deciding to write something that, done properly, could never be filmed.  This was the basis for Game of Thrones and its subsequent volumes, given the cast of thousands, the breadth of the setting and the need for on-screen dragons.  And predictably, this idea kind of backfired on him, which netted us the well-loved HBO series.

So, yeah.  Armageddon Rag.

This is an interesting book, overall.  It’s the narrative of what amounts to being a Rolling Stone journalist dealing with a reunion of The Doors in the early 1980’s.  In the context of the book, Rolling Stone is replaced with a magazine called Hedgehog (termed “da Hog” by most of the characters), and The Doors are replaced by The Nazgul, with the obvious Tolkien references to go with it.  The band and the magazine appear in setting alongside their real world referents, with Martin going out of his way to build the mythology of both entities with surprising solidity and reverence.

Each chapter opens with a lyric from a different 1960’s contemporary of the Nazgul, and this offers an overarching theme for the scene in question.  The quoted lyrics end up taking up several pages of end notes, and the book reads like a love letter to the “better music” of Martin’s youth, all while disparaging the “lousy music” of the 1980’s which has grown up to replace it.  For better or worse, there are a number of self-aware notations in the text that call out the main character for this kind of thinking and seem to reference the weaknesses of the novel in a meta-narrative sense, but I’m not quite sure if this improves or detracts from the overall strength of the story.

The plot weaves its way around three distinct ideas.  First off, the main character is trying his damnedest to reconcile the fact that the revolutions of the 1960’s have generally passed him by, leaving the promises of a better world in the wreckage that resulted.  This has him going across the country, visiting old friends and finding himself disappointed with each encounter.  All of this is done in the name of the other two, interconnected plots.  On one hand, there is the decade old murder mystery, which involved the death of the lead singer of the Nazgul, and how this pertains to recent murders.  And there is the plot following the reunion of the band, which is trying to get back together with a new singer and album.

The first plot is an exploration of what it meant to stand at the brink of a cultural revolution, only to have it fall away as the wheel turned.  This is the weakest of the three plots, as it spends a lot of time dealing with the main character’s cohort of collegiate pals, none of which actually have anything to do with the murder mystery or the occult underpinnings of that more interesting narrative.  It echoes some parts of Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, where he ruminates on where the cultural revolution failed, but here it doesn’t do much more than propel the character forward.

The plot of “getting the band back together” has some interesting aspects, which serve as a frame for the actual mysterious parts of the book, and these are pretty strong, overall.  The untimely death of the lead singer of the Nazgul gives weight to the way things unfold, and his Jim Morrison aspected legendry form the main conflict in trying to replace someone who was an undeniable icon.

The murder (or murders, properly) that lights the fuse on the plot is kept somewhat in the background, as the occult aspects are downplayed by the main character himself.  He tries to convince himself that the visions and weirdness that surround him are stress derived or generally the product of hallucinations, rather than actual supernatural manifestations.  And when he finally has to confront just how bad things are getting, it almost seems like it has gone past the point of no return.

So, what of this particular book can be adapted to an RPG?

There’s a lot that can be done with the idea of a band, set as a fading cornerstone of a lost age of promise.  In the book, the Nazgul are a defining aspect of the 1960’s rock scene.  Martin bypasses the unfortunate aspects of the “death by misadventure” fates of people like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison with the way the Nazgul broke up.  It’s not hard to consider the real world impact of how the dissolution of The Doors affected the people who held Morrison up as an icon (or Kurt Cobain, to bring things more contemporary).

If you were frame a campaign off these ideas, the player characters could take on the roles of the surviving bandmates, a point buy system like GURPS or Storyteller allowing the natural disadvantages to shift the course of play.  One character in Armageddon Rag is a drug addict and likely pedophile, another is saddled with crippling debt, and the third wrestles with the psychological impact of all that has happened.

The plot itself would wind around the legal implications of growing fame (likely influenced by the occultism and blood magic that set things in motion), even as they struggled to make sense of the events that were unfolding around them.  Unlike the book, they would have to try to investigate the mysteries that they found themselves implicated in, which would put them at odds with the intensive rehearsal and touring schedule that would be required.

Where the book has most of the early plot unfolding to set the reunion in motion, I would see the RPG plot being a little less reactive.  The first murder would happen within the characters’ sphere, calling them out to investigate and deal with consequences accordingly.  There could be a red herring in the form of a perceived assailant whose motives would later become more and more murky.  Bit by bit, mishaps would grow in intensity, with the Great White styled nightclub fire, the riot outside the venue in another city, and the oddly Woodstock inspired mass gathering that lead up to the final, fateful encounter.

I don’t see this sort of game being a long-term campaign, really.  This would be better framed as a sort of mini-series campaign, between six and twelve sessions as the overarching mystery plot unfolded with a shadowy conspiracy of occult players manipulated things according to their own weird agendas.

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Rock and Roll Creation

Inspiration for Worlds, such as they are…

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Lately, I’ve been on a George Martin kick.  My mother found a fine deal on the Dreamsongs books a little while back, and I had been poring through them before the business of moving put much of my reading endeavors to the side.  Dreamsongs are collections of his short stories from the various avenues of publishing.  Some are drawn from his Wild Cards series, others from the sci-fi mags of the times, and still others come from collections that he built the stories specifically for.  There are the occasional story treatments and screenplays for teelvision (Martin did write for the 1985 revival of The Twilight Zone and the Beauty and the Beast TV series with Linda Hamilton and Ron Perlman), alongside the works that got him his various industry awards.  They form an interesting time capsule of his career, both good and bad, following him up to the point where he started work on A Game of Thrones.

Martin’s work is … interesting.  I’ve read and re-read the five volumes of A Song of Ice and Fire enough times to be able to dissect the finer points with careful ease.  They rank amongst my favorite books of any time period, and I can debate the complexity and detail as well as any.  To this day, I’m firmly of the opinion that Martin ran a very long campaign in Westeros, likely using some esoteric system like Pendragon as its base.  (He did, after all, run a Superworld game for some years that became the basis for his Wild Cards anthology series.  His love of Chaosium‘s BRP System is well documented.)

Many of the Dreamsongs stories are drawn from his science fiction stories, which largely reside in a greater shared universe, not unlike Alan Dean Fosters Humanx stories.  This was the fashion of the time, and it serves well enough for these stories.  According to the Wiki entry, these were in his “Thousand Worlds” setting.  These included “A Song for Lya,” which netted him the Hugo Award in 1975, and The Dying of the Light, his first novel in 1977.

Most of Martin’s science fiction feels too closely tied to the time period that he wrote in, as though one could change out elements of other 1970’s sci-fi and emerge with the same result.  It comes across as being by the numbers on a lot of the stories, and the only theme that seems to break the surface in any of the works is a feeling of quiet, desperate loneliness.  A fair number of his protagonists are stuck captaining starships across interminable voids, isolated among the stars as they consider all that they have left behind.  Even “A Song for Lya” has this as an underlying theme, with the characters confronting their internal misery and need to find some way to belong.

There isn’t a lot to adapt into a game with these stories, sadly.

And it doesn’t stop with the shorter works, either.  His rather excellent later novels of the 1980’s, Fevre Dream and Armageddon Rag (both of which I’m sure I’ll touch upon later) have solitary protagonists that search for some sort of meaning and companionship in their lives.  I have little doubt that Martin was working out some issues at the time, and it required him to undergo the crucible of TV writing before he managed to exorcise those particular personal demons.  Ned Stark has his touches of stoic loneliness, but at least he got married and had children.  Most of his regrets come from other sources.

There was one story within the larger Dreamsongs compilation that struck a chord with me, however.  This was “With Morning Comes Mistfall,” the first of his works to be nominated for any awards, netting him consideration for both the Hugo and Nebula.

The story concerns itself with questions of mystery and what happens to the romance of the world if all of the questions are answered and the truth carefully measured.  The story’s setting, Wraithworld, is a world of heavy, cloaking fogs that ebb and flow throughout the day and conceal strange unknowns.  There is a certain mythology that surrounds the inhabitants of the mists, raising the question of whether or not there is a new sort of lifeform (or perhaps an older, stranger one in the form of strange phantoms) that generates and is concealed within the obfuscation.

The story itself resolves very little, settling on the idea that either science can never truly know the eldritch or unknowable or that measuring and quantifying things only removes that part of world that offers romance or value.  There isn’t a great deal of plot hung upon the story, as it tends to be a philosophical meditation on the attraction of mystery.

That said, the setting of Wraithworld is ultimately wonderful for creating new and more tightly grounded settings for one’s own game worlds.  The Mistfall of the title concerns the daily flow of mists from the upper reaches of the habitable peaks on the world, flowing down into the perennially shrouded valleys where none stray.  The mythology of the planet holds that the Mists in the valleys hide stranger things that prey upon those too foolish to seek higher and safer ground.  Ancient ruins scatter in the lowlands, lost to most inquiries and assumed to be haunted by the spectres of the unknown.

For my purposes, this has formed the basis of a new Star Wars setting.  I had considered using it as a jumping off point for either a series of convention games (something I still tend to wrestle with, since my main experience at conventions tends to be either shopping or trying to mingle with various industry personages) or the spine of a city-based campaign.

In my setting, the planet of Orvaskir is an Outer Rim waystation, sparsely inhabited due to the ever-present mists that cloud the lower elevations.  There is a minor and vaguely toothless Imperial presence on the planet, and the flotsam of the galactic criminal underworld tends to wash up here, seeking to avoid too much attention from the larger powers.

The mists themselves hide the previous attempts to colonize and stake industry on the planet, large abandoned factories and mining concerns built in an earlier and more optimistic era and left to moulder when the encroaching elements forced them to be vacated.  (This aspect draws much more heavily from the motifs of the Borderlands video games, with the great, rusting machinery of the past is left to the savages that rise in its shadows.)  I’ve also chosen to give it a visual representation drawn from images of the Sea of Clouds in China, in the Huangshan Mountains.

For my own purposes, I haven’t sought to define the mists themselves too much, but my assumption is that they are some unresolved form of life that reacts to the Force.  Some great tragedy of the past has caused these phantoms to reject the intrusions of galactic citizens, and this is the reason that nothing survives too long in the echoing distortions of the fog.  More likely than not, there is some long-forgotten Jedi temple deep within the lowlands, waiting for some pure-hearted scion of the Force to be able to part the mists and delve within its secrets.

This ties in with the mysterious cave on Dagobah (which was later explained in the EU, to various success) and gives some in-universe meaning to the overarching mysteries.  I’ve drawn in more detail as to how the specific factions on the planet are going to operate, giving it something of a street level setting compared to the normal galactic backdrop of the Star Wars milieu.

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The Inaugural Post That Almost No One Will Read

The Indy Press RPG’s would have you believe that story gaming is a new phenomenon.  Depending on the semantics that you want to use, that’s accurate, as there’s a movement to put the story and agency at the forefront of some modern games, at the expense of the rule mechanics and the power of the gamemaster.

On a deeper level, however, there’s a well-established spine of narrative that forms the very foundation of role-playing in general.  Role-playing games require a story to set them apart from the board and card games that form the ancillary parts of the greater industry.  And to generate the story, there needs to be a basis of narrative construction to build the games upon.

Gary Gygax saw the necessity of these sources in his early work on Dungeons & Dragons.  In the Dungeon Master’s Guide for AD&D published in 1979, he included the long discussed Appendix N which covered the fantasy works that he deemed important for the construction of the worlds he had built the game for.  It’s an interesting list, and the relevance is pretty quickly established.

Michael Moorcock and Howard Philips Lovecraft were important enough to merit inclusion in the first edition of the Deities & Demigods sourcebook with the Melnibonean and Cthulhu Mythos amongst the more recognizable pantheons of gods.  Similarly, Fritz Lieber’s cosmos was in those same pages, with a later module series and worldset in the 2nd Edition era.

Jack Vance may as well have written the magic system that has persisted into modern eras of the game (and been lamented by every fitful GM that’s “determined to do it the right way” by abstracting it out to some new system).  And well, Tolkien’s influence is as obvious as the threatened lawsuit that came early in the game’s history.

And then there’s Andre Norton, who managed to write the first actual D&D novel in the form of Quag Keep and ended her notable career with this book’s sequel as her final work, unfinished at her death.

Each of these sources can be measured from the elements that were lifted to created the framework that is recognizably Dungeons & Dragons.  Aragorn provided the template for Rangers, while Hobbits and Elves remain largely unmodified to this day.  Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser are recognizable as a Barbarian and Thief from the early editions.  Conan adds to this mythos, only his particular class advancement tends to be less rigid than what D&D would allow for.  (It’s a little more flexible these days, but still…)  At the same time, his exploits, drawn from the pulp weirdness of Robert E. Howard’s heyday, model much of the feel that Gygax was trying to infuse into his world-building, with aging, decadent empires and foul sorceries from inhuman dimensions.

Now I will be the first to admit that I have read precious few of the books that Gygax included on his list, due as much to the esoteric nature of his source material and the relative lack of access that my childhood allowed for used bookstores.  I have burned through plenty of Lovecraft, a fair cross-section of Moorcock, and a solid amount of Tolkien.  I read The Chronicles of Amber in high school, and there’s always been some Andre Norton somewhere in my bookcase.  Here and there, I return to Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, but without much guidance or oversight.

And that’s about it for Gygax’s list.  I’ve read stuff by Lin Carter, L. Sprague de Camp and August Derleth, but only in other collections alongside Lovecraft and Howard, and Edgar Rice Burroughs sits forlornly on my shelf, unloved until such point as I have time and ambition.  I’m not terribly likely to go back and search out the hoary tomes that I’ve missed (that tends to be something that Ironbombs is more predisposed towards), but if I manage to lay hands on one of these sources that captures my interest…  well, we’ll see what happens.

In the meantime, I’ve burned through quite a lot of books that landed after the publication of the DMG in 1979.  And that’s mainly what I want to talk about here.  I feel, in a lot of ways, that Gygax’s list is a good starting point, but it is constrained by the time period that he composed it in as much as anything.

If nothing else, he had very few sources outside of books to draw from.  These days, we’ve got an upcoming Shannara TV show, the wildly popular adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, a questionable adaptation of Terry Goodkind’s novels, and so on.

Stepping outside of the Western Fantasy genre, there’s even more quality source to be drawn upon.  Gygax was building a list of a single genre, which limited his choices accordingly.  At the time, the industry was only tentatively exploring other genres, and it would be a couple of years before other genres gained much of a following.  I’ve run a lot of contemporary setting games that draw from stories I’ve read in newspapers or in the strange corners of the internet, and these have offered great fuel for single sessions.

As much as anything, I want to explore the sources that pique my interests and offer ideas to my creative impulses.  These can be books, movies, TV shows, anime, musical lyrics and so on.  I have integrated a lot of disparate elements into my own gaming lexicon over the many years I’ve been at this, and this particular endeavor is my own attempt to catalogue my thoughts as they occur to me.

In some ways, I figure that this blog will see updates in a slightly more schizophrenic manner than my main blog, since it will follow the vagaries of my reading list and associated impulses of creative thought.  For all I know, I’ll be updating this every time I finish a new book or find an anime series on Netflix that appeals to me.  Or I might not be possessed of anything new for weeks at a time.  It’s hard to say.

But anyway, this is where it all starts.  This is the spark, and it remains to be seen what it may manage to ignite.

The Inaugural Post That Almost No One Will Read