U is for Unknown Armies #AtoZChallenge

Alexandra "Lexa" Valentine

Alexandra “Lexa” Valentine

Unknown Armies may not be widely known, but it’s a fascinating—and very dark—roleplaying game that may not be to everyone’s taste. The second edition was published in 1998 by Atlas Games, designed by the multi-talented John Tynes and Greg Stolze. Players strive to become avatars, channeling powerful magical archetypes in society, such as the hunger, the demagogue or the mystic hermaphrodite. They usually begin play ignorant of the mystical world, but quickly learn that things are not as they appear.

I ran a game based on the book Flicker by Theodore Roszak using the Unknown Armies mechanics, where players were film students in the 1960s who learn the truth behind the disappearance of a “forgotten genius of the silent screen,” according to the Amazon book description. This game, where I heavily indulged in equal parts realistic props and player railroading, was not really very UA.

Not until we played it with Scott running the game did I find out how scary the game could be. I played Alexandra “Lexa” Valentine, a college student with a personality like Angel-era Cordelia (“Tact is just not saying true stuff.” Buffy the Vampire Slayer, season 2, episode 18), who goes to live in a house with two strangers after her bank account is mysteriously drained. One of the strangers, Fiona, is a professional dominatrix. I forget who the other character was (played by my husband, who dropped out of the game after one session). Lexa finds out along the way that her aunt created clockwork creatures, and that she has the same skill. They investigate a series of very disturbing happenings (yeah, Scott had been reading Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles), which I won’t go into here for lack of space, but here’s an excerpt from Lexa’s diary:

I was in a good mood walking home, thinking about Mrs. Rosemont's friend and what she might tell me.  Maybe I wasn't quite as attentive as I should've been, but it wasn't even dark yet.  As I passed by an alley a couple of blocks from the bookstore, a hand clamped over my mouth.  I tried my tae kwan do, but it's not the same as it was in the gym.  He dragged me into the alley, fingers pressing my lips into my teeth so hard I could barely breathe.  I've always heard the expression “cold steel”–the knife blade at my throat sent an icy wave shuddering through me, and would've started my teeth chattering had they not been clenched beneath his hand.

His breath on my right ear was like the hot summer air before a lightning storm.  He rumbled in a gravelly voice, calling me filthy obscenities and threatening to use his knife on me in places my boyfriend hadn't seen.  At that point, his grip on my mouth was all that kept my knees from buckling.  Every horror or detective movie I've ever seen about women dismembered by serial killers flashed through my mind.  Through the roaring in my head I heard him demand to know where Michael [the owner of the house where we were staying] was.  He took his hand away and I protested that I hadn't seen him since last Thursday. 

Then he asked the weirdest question–if I saw Michael when he left the house that morning.

I reiterated that I hadn't seen him since Thursday, which didn't make him happy.  He ordered me to find Michael and that if we didn't, he would kill all of us in the house.

As I was realizing that he wasn't going to Jack-the-Ripper me right then and there, he shoved me in the small of the back with his foot and was gone.  The feel of his hand and the knife burned my face and neck as I picked myself up from the ground and ran.

We later found out his name. To this day, if someone mentions “Mr. Lake,” I get creeped out. It was a genuinely frightening experience.

Fascinating game, though. I think I’d like to play it again. Maybe.

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T is for Telling Stories #AtoZChallenge

my other hobby ii

my other hobby ii (Photo credit: Laenulfean)

The whole point of this month’s journey into my world of roleplaying gaming is telling stories. Whether it’s mildew emanating from the wet dungeon walls or swashbuckling paragoblins dueling to the death, hacking and slashing through ranks of gnolls or parrying and thrusting with clever words, the shared story is the thing.

Roleplaying is a unique form of game in this respect. A group of people build from a starting premise concocted by the gamemaster (or found in a purchased adventure book), each adding her or his own personal touch to the experience. No two gaming sessions, even with the same printed adventure, will be the same. A party consisting of all gnomes will be quite a different party than one mixing a half-orc barbarian, an elf ranger, a human bard and a tiefling sorcerer. Each character/race combination brings special skills and abilities, just as each player does.

I’m a fiction writer, so when I play a game, I like to keep up with what happened each session. In the past, I kept a running log using a (tape, later digital) recorder and transcribed them. That sounds a bit obsessive to me even now, but I saw it as a way to preserve the story, to relive good times with close friends in the future.

If you’ve never played a roleplaying game before, don’t dismiss it out of hand as something only for children. Especially if you like story, you should join the group creative experience. You’ll have a great time!

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S is for Sahasra #AtoZChallenge

SahasraOne of my first professional game-writing jobs was for Dog Soul Publishing, in their Folkloric series. I created the land of Sahasra, an analogue of the India of folklore. I wrote the setting book, Sahasra: Land of 1,000 Cities, following it with an adventure, Sahasra: The Spirit in the Spice Groves, and a book for incorporating religion into the campaign, The Books of Faith: Hinduism.

The books were beautifully produced, with gorgeous graphics and maps. I purposely didn’t link to them here, because I was only paid for the first book. I’ve never received payment for the others to which I was entitled, and, as far as I know, royalties are still going to Dog Soul’s owners. You can see the books at DriveThruRPG, if you’re so inclined.

I’ve heard countless stories of game writers not getting paid, and it’s not a happy experience. I may see if I can get the rights for Sahasra reverted to me. It’s a fun and exciting setting, and I’d love to actually be able to do something else with it. We’ll see.

Here’s a bit from the overview of the setting book:

Sahasra, the Land of 1000 Cities is an exotic region of urban settlements interspersed with wild forests. The land mass juts out into the ocean and is roughly equivalent to India—the India of ancient folktale, legend and sacred text. Rich cities are ruled by kings and their beautiful queens.  Dark terrors lurk in the forests and burial grounds. Fabulous artifacts await the adventurer clever enough to find them.

Although the tales about King Vikramaditya and the variously-named vetala (goblin, genie and vampire are a few of the translations of the word) were first written down about 1070 AD, they were passed down as oral tradition for over a thousand years. The settings of these stories exist without historical context, however, and easily fit into any fantasy campaign. The focus is primarily on city dwellers who travel between urban areas by land or, less frequently, by sea—and even once by air in a magical flying chariot. Their concerns are universal—love, wealth, power, spiritual enlightenment—but from the perspective of rulers, counselors and merchants, rarely that of the villager or farmer.

The inhabitants of Sahasra are passionate people, given to impulsive actions. King Vikrama makes a promise to a stranger that nearly costs him his life, merely on the basis of the stranger’s rich gift. A young prince falls desperately in love with a woman at first sight and vows to marry her, even when she tries to poison his best friend. Another love-sick prince cuts off his own head as an offering to the gods because he had promised to do so if she became his bride; fortunately her prayers restore him to life.

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R is for Rafael Ceurdepyr #AtoZChallenge

Rafael Ceurdepyr

Rafael Ceurdepyr

I’ve mentioned Rafael Ceurdepyr back in L is for Leviathan: Adventures in the World Sea, and you saw a mini of him in M is for Minis and P is for Paraphernalia (AKA Stuff!). He’s one of my favorite characters of all time. He was a swashbuckling, romantic paragoblin bard who was hopelessly in love with his best friend, the beautiful and fierce Ariadne Thalassofrisi.

Here’s an excerpt from his diary before the adventure begins, following his expulsion from the Cantorii Academii, with the duel he fought with the betrothed of the woman he was mooning after:

At the first clash of blades I knew I was hopelessly outclassed, so I did what I do best—I talked.  I reeled off every rumor and innuendo I'd ever heard about Hidalgo and the whole Montecassino clan.  I'll give it to him—he kept a cooler head than I expected, but at length, one of my verbal jabs—the one about his dealings with sailors behind the Heart o' the Dog—distracted him enough that I scored three successive winning hits.  I won!

Some dead goblin poet (Harnikapiratricialuris, I think) once said, “The treachery of woman is the treachery of the seas and the wind,/And neither compass nor scryglass can tell from whence the next calamity will blow.”  The crowd behaved as though I'd publicly humiliated some war hero.  I looked around for Altagracia, but she was as far away from Hidalgo as possible, talking animatedly with some handsome Red Guardsman.  My first duel was a success, but you couldn't tell by my adoring fans.

City of Krakensfort on the island of Ahnkey

City of Krakensfort on the island of Ahnkey

Ari and Levan begged off so I went off alone to buy myself a celebratory drink or three.  By the time I got back home a few hours later, my father was waiting, his face as set as that statue on the Hill.  Without a word—uncharacteristic for him!—he took me into his study and shut the door.  “Some of my own family on the heights denigrated me for accepting a half-goblin as my own son,” he started out, his voice very quiet, eyes seeing something other than the tops of the villas outside the window.  “Your mother was a fine woman, and I promised her I would take care of you for her sake.  As thanks for years of care, you have done nothing but push the limits of my patience time and again.  I hoped to make something of you, but you wanted to sing.  So I entered you in the Cantorii Academia, at great personal expense, I might add. “He walked across the room, his hands clasped behind his back, never looking at me.  “It wasn't enough for you to fail your classes.  You humiliated me by your behavior.  You cuckolded the Headmaster—a man of his salary can only afford one wife, but you managed to steal away her affection.  Every party I attend, I hear of your exploits.  Do you realize, Rafael—” and he still had not raised his voice above that gravelly whisper—”that my intervention saved your hide after your remarks about the Parliament?  You went too far that time, boy.”

City of Krakensfort

City of Krakensfort

“And now this.”  He sighed and shook his head.  “It might interest you to know—although I seriously doubt you care about such things—that I'm in the midst of some rather delicate trade negotiations with the Montecassinos.  In the midst of my meeting with Hidalgo's father, a messenger broke in bearing the news.  Now it'll take a miracle to get that back on track.”As he paused for breath, I broke in.  His quiet voice scared me far worse than yelling and beating ever did.  I doubted I could parry his accusations, so I went for a thrust to the heart: “You're just worried that Mother's dream is finally coming true.”

I swear the blood drained from his face.  He clenched his fists at his sides.  “What did you say?”

“Oh, I know about the dream.  I heard her talking about it one day when you didn't know I was listening.  You know that I know my destiny and it scares you.  The idea of me being rich, famous and respected throughout Krakensfort.”

Once again I'd gone a bit too far.  I had no idea what the dream was about, only that I was involved.  And he knew it now.  A slow smile crept across his lips.  “You're not half as clever as you think you are, Rafael.  You know nothing of the dream.  You're bluffing—and poorly, I might add.”

“Mother believed in me,” I answered.  “She knew I'd be famous someday—and cantors don't become famous.  You just don't want me ruffling the calm of your little world you've built around yourself—”

The smile was completely gone now, replaced by a stony stare that might've given the Destroyer pause.  “Rafael Ceurdepyr, you are no longer welcome in my house.  I renounce all claims and affiliations with you,” he whispered.  He droned on, actually reciting the Ritual of Renunciation.  After “my waters and my lands reject you,” I clenched my teeth and strode from the room to retrieve what few possessions I could gather in the interval required by the ritual.

I'm now officially homeless.

Rafael didn’t stay homeless long, and went on to have many adventures. Eventually I decided I’d played him long enough and switched to another character, Magda Rayale. But that’s another story.

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Q is for Querulous #AtoZChallenge

querulousThe word “querulous” is an adjective as well as a noun, according to the Oxford English Dictionary (my favorite dictionary, in case you wondered, access provided through our campus library). Why am I writing about the word in a blog challenge about roleplaying gaming? Has the alphabetical nature of it caused me to slip into rubber-roomosity?

Just bear with me.

Yes, I could have written about Q is for Quest, which I nearly did, but the idea bored me, and I don’t really know what I would say about it that hasn’t been said already.

Is your gaming group querulous?

I have read all sorts of horror stories about gaming groups where people didn’t like each other or didn’t get along, or didn’t try. I’ve been fortunate that the groups with which I played back in college and my group now were people who got along and behaved in a friendly fashion. I know it’s common in some groups for the gamemaster to have an adversarial manner toward the players. Again, that’s not been my experience. Maybe it’s because I hate, detest and despise conflict.

If you don’t like the way the game is going, talk about it with the gamemaster one-on-one and make constructive suggestions. Do your part to keep the other players’ complaining to a minimum through positive peer pressure.

For me, life’s too short to put up with querulous people in my spare time. I can go to work and hear that.

How’s the dynamic in your gaming group? Comment below!