Out of the Box 2/8/02 by Kenneth Hite
webdate: 02/11/2002 05:01 AM
OUT OF THE BOX
By Kenneth Hite
Gaming Column While You Wait
I know, I know, I'm a little bit late this fortnight. Don't think of it as a "late column," though, think of it as an "extra-fresh" column. I was so stoked about possibly getting my review copy of Godlike that I held off writing it until what turned out to be well past the last possible moment. And, sadly, the vagaries of international shipping mean that it's just missed even my somewhat deformed deadline. As a sop to your rightful outrage, my well-beloved readership, this column I'll finally review the other RPG I've been promising a full review of, the already-Outie-Award-winning De Profundis sui generis RPG from Hogshead Publishing (under license from Poland's Portal Publishing). And one other, somewhat brander-newer, book about the RPG potential of, essentially, everyday human life lived as drama, because it just wouldn't be an extra-fresh column without a thematic connection. And also because De Profundis is barely 25,000 words long, and it just wouldn't do to write a review almost 5% as long as the game.
Wait A Minute, Evil Mr. Postman
Although it might take a fair chunk of that to really convey the potential, not to mention the most thrilling part, of Michal Oracz' De Profundis (32 page black and white softcover, $6.95), the basic meat can be summed up relatively simply. The players write "in-character" letters to each other, describing their progressive exploration of (or victimization by) eldritch nightmare forces. There is no GM; it's up to the players to interlink, or not, their own individual horrors. It's an epistolary RPG, not a "play-by-mail" game; all players narrate their own experiences in the first person, taking on either the persona of a typically Lovecraftian prolix, bookish adventurer or, creepily, their own persona with the addition of hopefully imaginary horrific experiences. More on that "hopefully," later. The first 25 or so pages of the game are, in essence, an example of play -- the narrator (the game's author) describes discovering a manuscript (called, with a sadly underutilized flair of Borges-ness, De Profundis) that describes this new game concept, and the world of horror that it opens up for him. Much of the middle third of this section is almost note-perfect in its amiable discussion of game mechanics weirdly interspersed with mentions of odd walks in the woods or peculiar weather. A few odd touches, such as the insistence that this game cannot be played using email, amplify the sense of Lovecraftian crankiness -- individual player groups need to determine their own preferred atmospheric requirements.
And speaking of individual atmospherics -- De Profundis includes one concept, "field psychodrama," that could, potentially, get out of hand. Essentially a kind of invited paranoid schizophrenia, "field psychodrama" consists of wandering through your own daily life and imagining, creating, bisociating horrific explanations for what happens to you, and similarly willing yourself to hallucinate shadowy forms and so forth to add extra menace. This all becomes the raw material from which you compose your letter, adding a naturalism (or even a psychological realism, if you do it intently enough) that will serve to creep not only your fellow players, but even yourself, the heck out. It is the concept of "field psychodrama" that leads Hogshead to label the game as "intended for mentally stable adults" on the back cover. The difference between making up horror narratives, even in first person, and making your life into a horror narrative, should be obvious -- but it isn't, always. The game does include a "play in the 1920s" option (for which I agree email would be lacking the proper juice), which should help with distancing issues, should you have any.
To sum up, the writing, in places, is good and creepy; the concepts likewise. Bottom line, however, it's yet another triumph for the "house of ideas in 32 page booklets" at Hogshead's New Style imprint. The concept can be used to flesh out existing Call of Cthulhu games (there is such advice in the rules) or, potentially, any other game of literate daily horror from Vampire to Ravenloft. Or, you can sign up for the De Profundis Society (information in the back), and join ongoing games.
Something Human This Way Comes
With The Sorcerer's Soul (108 pages, looks like maybe 7x10 black & white paperback, $15), Ron Edwards is mostly intent on adding some more flavors and explanations to his admirably-minimalist demon-summoning Sorcerer RPG, this time centering on the concept of Humanity. Humanity, in the game, is the stability of whatever portion of your personality that summoning demons generally erodes. In a Lovecraft-flavored Sorcerer game, Humanity would probably translate to "Sanity," in a noir-flavored one, it might equate to "empathy" or even "morality" (as variously defined). The core book sets this situation up, and then leaves much of the puzzling-out to the players and GM; The Sorcerer's Soul goes some way toward backstopping that process. The first three chapters, centering on defining Humanity, demon-human relations (including starting as one and becoming the other), and the fraught question of souls and angels in a demon-haunted world, read almost as extra or emphatic chapters of the core game. If Ron Edwards were any other publisher, this would be called "The Sorcerer Players' Guide" or "Expanded Sorcerers" or something. At base, it's not, but the resemblance is there. This focus also makes this book probably required reading for Sorcerer players but less immediately relevant for people following the "Ron Edwards Experience" from one remove.
Of course, he then goes and introduces another wonderfully think-inducing design concept, the "relationship map" technique. This is not solely original to Edwards, similar concepts having appeared in Chad Underkoffler's "Green Glass Grail" scenario in Weep for Unknown Armies and even more explicitly in Malcolm Dale and Klaude Thomas' vastly underrated GURPS Goblins, and likely elsewhere. However, Edwards' treatment of it stands out, first of all, for his direct linkage of the relationship map to the "detective novel" genre (by which Edwards means the post-Chandler/Hammett school of novels in which the detective stumbles into a murderous Gothic soap opera, often centered on a McGuffin of some sort). And second of all, because in the next chapter he provides three Sorcerer scenarios (a standard noir detective story, a musketeering swashbuckler, and a fairy tale -- all taken from detective fiction) to illustrate the uses of the relationship map in Sorcerer games. Designers of scenarios for any RPG can profit from pondering these examples, and the technique they convey. I think, in fact, that I'll try to relationship-map a scenario for my Dungeons & Dragons game and see how it turns out. By that reckoning, The Sorcerer's Soul is even more successful as a game book -- not only did it give me the standard raft of ideas for games I'm not playing, it has actually increased my interest (and potentially my players') in the game I am playing, which is as far from Sorcerer as you're likely to get in this world.
And, In Two Weeks (Or Slightly Less)
I shall have returned from the lovely and talented (and hopefully not gray-skied and snow-spitting) Bay Area with a full report on all the goings-on above and below the fold at DunDraCon. If you're going to be there, swing by the Chaosium or Wizards' Attic booths and ask after me. Also in two weeks (or slightly less), in Orlando, Florida, MegaCon 2002 will be going on, where one of my trusted informants has told me that my book GURPS Cabal was nominated for a SunQuest Partners Nigel D. Findley Award for Best Roleplaying Product. I'm up against Robin Laws' wonderful Dying Earth RPG along with Talislanta 4th edition (which I'll likely review at some point soon), and Kingdoms of Kalamar, Oriental Adventures, and Relics and Rituals for D&D 3E. Since I won't be in Orlando, if you're going to be there, drop me an email and let me know if I won or not. And, finally, we'll review Godlike. This time, I guarantee it, by the laws of the Medes and Persians, which once spoken, cannot be altered. Click back in two weeks and see how I weasel out of that one.
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