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.