Friday, August 26, 2016

An Easy Method to Up the Surreal

The challenge of the surreal

When I first saw the kickstarter for Numenera, I was intimidated.  Though the launch event at Gencon and my first read-through of the core book, I continually told myself "you can't write adventures that live up to this premise."  I doubted my ability to offer the Gene Wolfe experience of slowly revealing the forgotten purpose of ancient technology while still telling a traditional adventure story (and still do, really).  I enjoyed reading the material but it was not a setting for which I was comfortable designing material (even for my home game).

I hear similar concerns about Invisible Sun.  It so happens that I am much more comfortable with the notion of surreal fantasy so I wanted to provide some tips to overcome the hesitation of working with surreal storytelling.

While it is antithetical to the spirit of some of the founders of the surrealist art movement (particularly Breton and his calls for automatism), I would like to propose a simple process for getting you started in developing material for a surreal fantasy game.  For now, I will focus on encounter elements and small pieces of games.  I need to think more about how surreal fantasy affects the development of adventure structure, pacing, and related issues.  If I think of anything, I will definitely post on that subject.

For now, here is a simple process to jumpstart your thinking about surreal fantasy.

The Process

The process I propose is simple.  Start with a metaphor.  Think how you would describe the encounter you want to design and commit to expressing the encounter in metaphorical terms.  Yes, similes are fine as well.

Second, turn that metaphor into a physical representation.  Instead of having a person who floats like a butterfly, have a person who IS a butterfly (at least to the characters).  Take the metaphor in the first step seriously and consider what physical characteristics would be needed to render the metaphor into reality.

Finally, consider whether the physical representation conjures connections to other metaphorical elements.  This is simply the follow-through for taking the metaphor seriously.  Don't necessarily stop with one physical manifestation of the metaphor.  Consider all of the potential manifestations and how they may be connected into this particular element of your adventure.  Maybe consider related (or even contradictory) metaphors to mix into the element.

An Example

While I think this process is simple, it is vague.  I want to illustrate the process quickly with an example.  If there is enough interest, I will provide more detailed examples down the line.  Consider this line from a Police song that is not Invisible Sun.

>I chased his thoughts like birds

-- *Secret Journey* by **The Police**

Open Your Mind by Lucas (flickr)

Here we start with step one complete: the metaphor.  We need to break the metaphor down for step two.  Consider all of the pieces of even this simple line from a song.  Well, it is simple in terms of language.  It may be complex in terms of metaphor.

The metaphor includes several elements.  Someone is "chasing."  That is a great term for us because it indicates an action.  This will give us a sense of how to incorporate the metaphor into the game in an action scene.

The subject is chasing thoughts.  What does that mean, exactly?  In a non-metaphorical sense, it may mean an attempt at comprehension.  If we are to turn the metaphor into a literal experience for our players, we need to embrace the metaphorical sense.  The thoughts become an element in the scene that can be chased.  You can go in different directions with this process but I will take the sense of physically chasing a manifest thought.

Finally, the manifest thoughts are "like birds."  Taking the metaphor seriously, I can present the manifestation as actual birds.  Now we have a good central hook for a surreal fantasy scene.  The players have to chase down thoughts that have escaped from a wise person (that part comes from the rest of the song - its great, you should listen to it) and are flying away in the form of birds.

The final step in the process is to consider what related images and metaphors may fill out the scene.  This can be close to a free association process - so maybe Breton won't haunt me.  My first reaction to the notion of "thoughts like birds" was Odin's ravens representing memory and thought.  You can do a little research on this related image to see how the process can spiral out to create more-and-more developed scenes.

This is just a simple example from a single line from a song.  I hope this provides a way to bootstrap your development of ideas for surreal fantasy scenes.  If nothing else, it is a fun way to distract yourself.   Listen for metaphorical language and consider what it would look like if literally true -- then game-ify it.

Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Microcosm and Magic in Invisible Sun

Following my discussion of surrealism, I wanted to continue to dig into "big" concepts that are key elements of the Invisible Sun setting.  Today I want to explore a notion that has gone without a direct name in several recent interviews with Monte Cook:  the concept of microcosm.

Microcosm has specific meanings within literature and several domains, but the most relevant to our purposes is its use within early Medieval magic.  As Valerie Flint writes in The Rise of Magic in Early Medieval Europe:

...Isidore was a most enthusiastic early medieval propagator of the notion... that the body of a man is a microcosm of the universe and reflects in little all the constituent parts of it. (p. 130)

Aries by jess (flikr)
There is a lot packed into this notion of microcosm.  In early Medieval magical thought, some thought that the waxing and waning of constellations affected different parts of the body because the individual body reflected these movements.  Others thought that the various constellations were arranged in ways that were similar to the connection between systems within bodies.  Each (the constellations and the body) reflected the other.

The concept of microcosm had important implications for astrological medicine (a foreign concept to modern ears, to be sure).  An illness may be an imbalance of forces within the body brought on by the dominance of a specific star.  Healing of some organs may be easier under some constellations than others.  The core concept of microcosm is that each individual is connected to the whole universe and reflects that universe -- in ways reflecting a type of sympathetic magic (Sympathetic magic may be worth an exploration on its own in a later post).

Another way to express this notion is in the phrase "as above, so below."  Important to alchemical traditions, this phrase emphasizes the parallelism of the cosmic and the personal.

What does this mean for the setting of the Invisible Sun and adventures/stories told within it?  The most important implication seems to be that the Path of Suns represents operations at two levels.  It refers to a greater geography of planes as well as the parts of an individual character (probably more the character's soul, "essence", or personality than physical parts of her/his body).  Moving through the parts of a character's path is parallel to movement through the various worlds.

This may create interesting opportunities for storytelling.  If the individual reflects the greater cosmos (and vice versa), a personal story is a cosmic story.  A personal imbalance may create a universal imbalance.  The destruction of a person reflects the destruction of a cosmos.  There are no "small" stories.  At the very least, the waxing and waning of the various suns are likely to affect characters in direct and personal ways.

The mechanics may (I just guessing here - I have no more information about the game than anyone else) similarly allow for influences that reflect cosmic and personal influence.  A card from the sooth deck may indicate either a development at the personal or the cosmic level.  The same card may even have different interpretations at each level -- but reflect a connection between the two.

This view of microcosm has some connection to surrealism as well.  A common theme of surrealism is to play with scale -- including elements much larger than they are expected to be (or much smaller), etc..  The use of microcosm in the Path of Suns suggests that our stories can play with scale to a degree difficult in many other games or settings.  The game may accommodate both stories of personal discovery and cosmic secrets -- and may let us switch between them.

Wednesday, August 17, 2016

Weird, Strange, Surreal

Presence -by Berli Mike(flikr)
The current kickstarter campaign for Invisible Sun describes the setting as one of surrealistic fantasy.  It is worth taking a moment to compare this tone to that of the previous MCG core games -- Numenera and The Strange.

In a previous post, I compared "the weird" and "the strange."  I won't go into great detail recapitulating that comparison but it is useful as a starting point.

"The weird" represents the incomprehensible.  Characters in Numenera don't know why certain technologies work and it is basically magic to them.  Monte Cook has been clear, though, that it is technology and just not understood.  In this sense, the world works by rules the characters (and, maybe the players) simply don't know.  The result are unpredictable elements -- the weird.

The Strange relies on... well... "the strange."  Strange refers to the unlikely.  All of the setting elements work within a set of (albeit fictional) rules involving a dark matter computer network.  What the characters experience operate within a defined set of rules within the setting.  Something is strange, then, when it operates within the understood rules of the world but is unlikely or rare.

Where does that leave "the surreal."  Well, surrealism is a lot harder to define.  I have to admit that it is the surreal elements that draw me to the Invisible Sun setting (and, thus, the game).  Many will look at the art for the game and say "ohh... weird."  Well, not exactly -- or, at least, not precisely.

I should add that surrealism is an essentially contested term.  Many will disagree with any particular definition.  The term has been used in different ways in visual arts, film, literature, etc.  I will be greatly simplifying the discussion for a blog post - but I think the exercise will get people off to a useful start researching the topic if they choose.

It is worth considering the history of the surreal movement in art, in particular.  I may go into more detail on this in the future but a short introduction will work for now.  The horrors of the early 20th Century convinced many artists that the basic foundations of their cultures were deeply corrupt.  Nothing called enlightened or reason could lead to the atrocities of the Great War.  There were several reactions to this loss of faith in reason (including precursors to the self-described surrealists -- like the Dadaists).  The surrealists sought to attack what they saw as the corruption in realistic and classical art forms by creating art that subverted these realistic forms.  The means of pursuing these attacks were diverse -- including techniques such as "automatic writing" in which writers simply recorded thoughts trying to bypass the pernicious disciplinary influence of reason.  Recording dreams was thought to similarly bypass the corruption that is reason.

What is important to consider is the political nature of surrealism.  It focused on questioning elements of culture taken for granted, taken for objective facts, and taken as permanent.  These seemingly (surrealists thought -- mistakenly) foundational elements of culture were oppressive and limiting.  As a simple example of this questioning, consider Dali's Persistence of Memory.  The realism of the painting (as in, the level of detail -- almost photorealistic) makes the image of melting clocks all the more disturbing.  Here Dali is calling into question the physical coherence of objects like clocks as well as the limp, molten characteristic of memory (and time).  One can find a longer analysis at Legomenon.

Where does this leave us to define the tone of "the surreal?"  There are, of course, many answers to this question but I am excited for a game that explores the political aspects of surrealism.  The emphasis on "escape" and a sense of the oppression of the shadow ("real") world suggest that the game will take seriously the surrealist questioning of what is reality, what is really permanent, and how many seeming facts are really a source of oppression?

So, surrealism is not simply weird -- it adopts a questioning stance.  Surrealism does not merely defy understanding.  It draws into question elements of our world that we take for granted.  How much of the world around us are convenient lies?  Convenient to whom?  What is our responsibility to question the world and how ought we act in such an unreliable world of lies and secrets?

I look forward to exploring these themes in Invisible Sun.

PS As I worked on this post, the kickstarter fully funded.  Congratulations to MCG and I look forward to following this ride.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

Invisible Sun Homework

I am excited about Invisible Sun - like so many others.  I was thrilled to hear that MCG was working on a game that emphasized surrealism (over the weird and the strange).  I thought it was worth taking a moment to bring another gaming resource to people's attention:  Robin Laws' excellent surrealist adventure for Trail of Cthulhu The Dreamhounds of Paris.

Dreamhounds of Paris by Robin D. Laws -- by Pelgrane Press

Dreamhounds (as I will refer to it from here) is an improvisational campaign frame for Trail of Cthulhu in which the players take on the roles of historical (mostly) figures in the emergence of the surrealist movement.  The artists and their patrons/hangers-on realize that they have power to shape of the Dreamland -- though this may come at a terrible cost.  Furthermore, the psychic forces pushing the world toward war are having their own effect on the Dreamland.

This is an excellent campaign in its own right.  Though I likely will not play it, I had a great time reading it for the history of the surrealist movement.  You see the variety of players and some of the remarkable moments in history as the paths of various surrealist figures cross.  If nothing else, it sent me to many enjoyable hours on the internet looking up references to various peripheral figures.

If you are eagerly waiting to see what Invisible Sun is going to offer as a surrealism-influenced RPG, you would be well-served giving this book a read.  You will see the political context of the surrealist movement, its precursors, and some sense of its end.  I suspect there will be some interesting thematic connections between these games as well.  I am confident this will get a re-read in the long wait ahead.

RPGaDay 11 -- Gamer Who Had the Biggest Effect

I do not know the gamer who had the biggest effect on my current gaming approach.  I believe it was at the Origins game fair in 1993 that I had a short DnD session that would preview what I look for in games today.  To that point, I had played games relatively by the book (as if the book was definitive) and had the typical antagonistic relationship between players and the DM -- that is, I saw the DM as trying to defeat the players.  The players were trying to defeat the DM as constrained by the module.

I had limited experience with any players outside of my social circle.  I had played in a tournament a few years before in Dallas.  I think I made it to semi-finals with my friend making it to finals.  It was fun and I looked forward to playing in the "big time" games of the traveling Origins show because it happened to be close to my home that year (the show was in Fort Worth).

While I was there, I signed up for a one-shot Dark Sun game.  I liked Dark Sun.  Playing a bunch of thri-kreen sounded great.  I had no idea what the game would be like.  The entire session consisted of trying to make it across the desert with, maybe, one combat encounter.  This was unlike any session of DnD I had ever played.  The DM let us interpret our abilities however we wanted to help us survive the harsh environment.  The DM was not our opponent -- he was our guide and our colleague.  Together we were telling a story.  I remember specifically using my "shadow manipulation" psychic power to provide shade.  I later looked up the power and it is WAY out of scope of that power.  It did not matter though.  It was fun in that session.

I did not really know how to understand the session.  I went off to play in another open tournament.  I think I got our party killed (or largely maimed) in that tournament.  I struggled to describe the Dark Sun session to my friends.  I could not describe what monsters we fought or what wondrous items we acquired.  I just talked about the fun we had reinterpreting powers and struggling, together, to survive the harsh Athasian sun.  

Years later I understand what I had experienced and why I had enjoyed it.  I liked the cooperative approach to DMing and the agency I had to shape my character.  I felt a part of the story - not like the story was something happening to me.  To this day, the memory gives me permission to obey "the rule of cool" and let players do what they want as long as it improves everyone's fun.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

RPGaDAY 7 -- Biggest Effect of RPGs on Me

RPGaDay #7 -- The Biggest Effect of RPGs on Me

I am just recovering from Gencon and catching up on RPGaDay.  I could not let this question pass by, though.  This question is particularly important for me.

RPGs, with no exaggeration, have made me the person that I am today.

I don't mean this simply in terms of being a hobby that I have pursued my entire life.  I have picked up and largely dropped reading comic books.  Similarly, I grew up alongside video games (from the Atari 2600) and play few today.   Those have been long-term components of my life -- but they did little to define who I am.  RPGs have shaped me my entire life and continue to do so.

When I was growing up (I mean early on - like elementary school), there were very few books in my house.  By fourth grade or so, I had more RPGs books than there were non-RPG books in my house.  Outside of the encyclopedias my parents bought (and soon regretted shelling out money for), there were probably fewer than half a dozen books at any given time.  RPGs instilled a love of reading in me.

Particularly important in this process was the original Appendix N reading list.  It was tough to get access to any books, really.  I hung out at the library A LOT in school.  The elementary (and later junior high) library did not really have much to offer.  Nothing as sophisticated as the material on Appendix N (no, really).  I remember spending a long time working out how to order The Face in the Frost from the book mobile that started coming around in junior high (at that time we still did not have an accessible library -- just a truck with books).  By the time I was in late junior high, I joined a book club and got regular access to a book store and became a voracious reader.   All of that stemmed from my early love of RPGs and the recommendation - necessity, really - to become familiar with fiction to play the game.

The games (various versions of DnD) also provided me a strong number sense and appreciation for math.  Even the simple math in the game helped me develop a facility with arithmetic and mental math.  It even set me up well for algebra with its (then never-ending) sets of equations and tables.  After figuring out THAC0 and adding bonuses for roles, moving to simple arithmetic was simple.  I even develop an early intuition for probability and statistics.  Many early lessons in statistics made sense to a person who was steeped in 3d6 making 10 more likely than 18 but each side of a 20 sided die was equally likely.

I have no idea what sort of person I would be without this early access to reading and simple mathematical manipulations.  Now my career centers on statistics and writing.  I think all of it is possible because of the early skills developed in RPGs.

Thursday, August 4, 2016

RPGaDAY 4 - Best (Other) Character Moment

My favorite moment from another character in my RPGs this year was the previously mentioned monkey-seeking character in our Paranoia game.

Early in the game, the representatives of Alpha Complex sought to bribe a character into confessing his treachery.  He said that it would depend on the price.  He wanted a pet monkey.  A good part of the early game was spent with the PC asking everyone if she or he was the person from whom he could get his promised monkey.

The GM smartly added an NPC with a monkey companion to escalate the situation.  Through the middle part of the session, the potential monkey provided some incentive for the PC (in a childish, insane way that fit perfectly in the game).  It even held up through the end game after the character recounted all he had done and now, NOW he wants his promised monkey.

That little bit of improvised dialogue became a major axis around which the humor and role-playing for the session rotated.

I can not think of a better example of how important improvisation is to the fun of RPGs.

This also got me thinking about the format for sessions.  The Paranoia session was in-person and that seemed to affect my enjoyment.  I have had fun with online sessions and plan more in the future.  However, there was something magical about the improvisation in the in-person game.  The fear of talking over people online (a real danger, in particular, because one can not read nonverbal queues about people starting to talk).  I need to think more about how to compensate for online games.

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

RPGaDAY 3 -- Best Character Moment

My favorite character moments of the year came from the excellent CypherCast Chronicles:  A Fragile Estate parts 2 and 3 (I missed part 1).  You can actually hear the recordings here.

I made a character inspired by Coombs' insane investigator from The Frighteners.

Part 2 took place in the Holstenwall recursion I designed for the CypherCaster -- which was cool in itself.  The investigator was leading a team from the Estate through Holstenwall as part of an investigation.

In part 2, the best character moment came late in the game.  My insane inspector had considerable problems communicating with others.  He has a strange sort of stutter and was easily distracted.  Late in the game the other players wondered if there was a problem with the audio or if that really was how he talked.  There was no audio problem (at least not at that moment).

In part 3, the inspector got ahold of a suitcase motorcycle in a spy recursion.  He carried it around the whole sessions (including hiding from gunfire behind it).  There was a moment of triumph when he could finally use the motorcycle.  He folded it out and zipped around the ship where the final confrontation took place.  That feeling of finally seeing a purpose for my cypher was my favorite character moment for the year.

I usually GM so I don't have a lot of character moments -- but this was a fun one.

Tuesday, August 2, 2016

RPGaDAY Day 2 - Best RPG Session

Selecting a best RPG session of the past year is tough -- which is actually a good sign when I think about it.  I had a great time playing a Gencon game with two friends from junior high (whom I have not played with together in over 20 years).  I had fun with a brief online campaign (about 5 sessions) and an online session run by Darcy Ross based on Into the Night for Numenera.  The games I ran at Gencon were fun.  However, the most fun I have had in a session over the past year was a game at NTRPGcon.

I got to play an old school Paranoia game with one of those friends from junior high.  I don't even know which edition it was (but it was clearly based on some old books -- since we saw the actual books).  Friend computer was failing, alpha complex was breaking down, and we had to go find a replacement part.  This sent us into a twisted version of Disneyland dominated by insane mutants and even "insaner" animatronic robots (think the Country Bear Jamboree).

I took my lead from the instruction that happiness was mandatory in alpha complex.  That started my friend and I riffing.  He ended up spending most of his time asking for the monkey companion he was promised.  I was looking for any sign of treachery -- usually in the form of an indication of less than complete bliss.  In the end, I loved it.

What I learned most from this was how subjective the enjoyment was and how little it depended on the game system.  We randomly generated mutant powers -- none of which any of us ever used (I think).  We choose all of our character skills based on a poor explanation of the rules (resulting in BADLY mismanaged characters).  All of this and I still had a blast.

My friend enjoyed the game - but less so.  He had previously played Paranoia and enjoyed the PvP component.  We cycled through clones but mostly due to external opposition.  He and I started some PvP early on but the GM and other player (there was only one other, long story) did not seem to contribute so we just moved on to other styles of play.

The game system was either remarkably robust to a poor understanding of the rules and limited player interaction or the system truly did not matter.  Most importantly, I just have fond memories of the whole experience.  This reinforced my view that system matters a lot less than the disposition of the players.

RPGaDAY 2016 - Day One

I will (selectively) participate in the RPGaDAY program this year.  I will not likely post every day but I will try to cover topics in small batches -- and single posts where they warrant the time and attention.

This sounds like fun.

I will catch up on day 1 real quick.  I prefer real dice but I often feel that I don't have the option.  Lately, I have been playing many online games.  I have not heard complaints about off-line dice rolling but I am often sitting in a chair where rolling dice would be tricky (and the chair is oh-so comfy).  That leaves me with dice rolling apps.  I used Feudz dice on my phone or dicestream if I am connected to G+.  These have worked pretty well for me.

That being said, I am going to pick up some DCC dice at Gencon.  Those are just too fun to pass up.