Art Projects Update

Any creative person knows of the struggle between Art and Commerce. One fulfills the soul, while the other pays the bills. If you’re lucky, you manage to merge the two into a seamless unity. Most of us, however, have to prioritize one above the other.

The Commerce side of things has overtaken my life for the past three months, leaving me little time for my Art projects. However, I have a break in the clouds for a few weeks and I’m relishing the chance to work on more personal things. “What does this mean?” you may rightfully ask.

Firstly, my snail mail thing (whose real title is only known to the chosen few who’ve sent me a SASE), which is running a month behind schedule, is getting the attention it deserves this week. No promises, but I hope to finish both parts of it by end of the month and start sending the SASE I have banked out by then. Also, if you’ve sent me personal correspondence and are waiting on a reply, I’ll be getting to that in the coming weeks and mailing out responses. I thank you for your patience.

If you’ve been putting off mailing me a SASE and want a copy of the first mailing I created, I’d send it to me much sooner rather than later. I can’t guarantee the inaugural mailing will be available once the next one is completed and my back stock of the first version is exhausted. The postal address to send your SASE is over there in the sidebar to the right.

Secondly, I’ve settled on a topic for Secret Antiquities #2 and will be starting preliminary writing and research on that in the near future. My goal is to have the second issue out for Gen Con at the latest, but I have to remember all the steps necessary to produce the damned thing. Yes, it’s been that long. Issue #2 will focus on occult locations and landmark in America and their role in the ongoing occult skirmish for the soul of the county. Ideas for converting those sites or their powers into more typical DCC RPG campaigns will be provided as well. I’m shooting for 10 to 12 sites described and it will likely be just the first installment in cataloguing and describing mystical, historical, and/or strategic locations of numinous importance.

More updates as things develop, and thanks for understanding that I enjoy things like electricity and food and have to make sacrifices that result in my personal Art being deferred.

Strange Sinema: The Lost Room

the_lost_roomI’ve been poking around the verges of reality lately, investigating concepts and themes I don’t usually get to explore in the fantasy genre I predominantly work in. I somehow managed to miss ­Unknown Armies for two decades, but after skimming through a 1st edition I acquired from the FLGS a few years back, I’ve fallen for the game—hard. It scratches all the right itches that Mage: the Ascension never touched, and I’m leaning heavily towards running a short UA campaign as a mid-year break from our ongoing The One Ring game.

With that in mind, I revisited a mini-series that aired on the Sci-Fi Channel back when it was still called that. This three-part series was The Lost Room, a show I think myself and maybe six other people in the entire world knows about. As such, I thought I’d showcase it in brief here.

The Lost Room is about a number of mundane objects that acquired mystical powers through a mysterious event that happened in a motel room back in 1961, the aforementioned “Lost Room” of the title. These items, called simply enough “Objects” by those who know of them, have spawned a number of secret cabals, occult underworld brokers and researchers, and addicts who’ve paid horrible costs to acquire and keep an Object. Their powers vary greatly: a wristwatch cooks a hardboiled egg in a minute if it’s placed within the band, while a fake eye can destroy or recreate living flesh.

The story begins when Pittsburgh police detective Joe Miller (not the other detective of the same name on another SyFy series), played by Peter Krause, investigates a pawn shop deal gone bad where several people ended up dead over a motel room key. Miller soon finds himself in possession of that key and discovers if it’s placed in the lock of any door, that door opens to a 1960s motel room somewhere in the American Southwest. The key’s owner can then use the room to travel to any other location in the world.

Things quickly go wrong as Miller learns that the key is not only highly sought after by a number of the occult underworld’s movers and shakers, but also suffers a personal tragedy through an accidental use of the key. He’s soon on the run, trying to correct a horrible mistake and discover the truth behind the Objects’ origins.

I’m a fan of the occult underworld theme, the idea of secret cabals moving behind the scenes of modern America. The Lost Room could easily exist in the same universe as Clive Barker’s The Great and Secret Show or The Lord of Illusions, or be a case John Constantine gets drawn into. For a modern occult RPG, the entire plot could be lifted with little effort on the part of the game master and used whole cloth as the basis for long-term campaign. I’m actually leaning in that direction at the moment for the Unknown Armies game I’m plotting out. The fact that pretty much nobody knows about this series means your players will consider you a genius for coming up with such a complex and mysterious campaign spine that keeps them busy and engaged hunting down MacGuffins, dodging shadowy cabals, dealing with broken people whose lives have been destroyed by the Objects, and trying to find the cause of the event that created them.

Unfortunately, The Lost Room remains lost in the world of streaming video and isn’t available through the usual subscription services. Nobody has uploaded the entire series onto YouTube either. You’ll have to fork over $10 to purchase the three-DVD set, but that’s a fraction of the cost of a solid RPG sourcebook these days and you’ll find just as much as weird inspiration in those three disks as you’ll find in an urban occult splatbook at four times the price. If you check it out, let me know what you think. I suspect if we share similar tastes, you won’t be disappointed.

The Future Needs More Tinfoil Hats

This is 2019, the year of Blade Runner and Akira. We’re living in the future and it’s only sensible that I find myself looking back at the past and wondering where it all went wrong.

For me, and perhaps for others in the same age bracket as myself, the future began in the 1990s with the shriek of a 56.6k modem and the greeting of “Welcome! You’ve got mail!” The adoption of the Internet into wide-scale use changed the world in a way few other events in the history of mankind have. It gave us untapped opportunities and a lot of us glimpsed the dawning of a bright future.

Twenty years later, I’m wondering where that went.

Oh, I know where it went: we’re humans and we squander everything we’re given. We find a way to turn opportunity for greatness into a means to subjugate the many and enrich the few. Instead of communicating, we instead form gangs and sharpen knives to wield against “the other side.” Our bright future is corroded by our worst inclinations and we end up with baubles instead of riches.

Ruminating on all this leads me to look up the 1990s with rose-colored glasses. I have no illusions that I’m indulging in strong nostalgia here, but a little self-delusion can be helpful from time to time. However, what I’m about to discuss is only slightly tinged with wistfulness, so I’ll continue on with my train of thought.

Of all the things that have gone wrong with our time, the one of the most disappointing to me is that fact that conspiracy theory isn’t fun anymore. (I also fully admit it just took three turns around the barn to get to what I set out to talk about).

pyramidConspiracy theory and humanity’s ability to draw divergent events and phenomena into a unified whole has fascinated me from the first time I learned what an urban legend was. As the years passed, I found myself exposed to all manner of Kennedy assassination theories, Illuminati lore, UFO sensationalism, and far stranger ideas. I’ve always enjoyed a good conspiracy yarn while remaining skeptical about everything I read. It’s no surprise that I have an ongoing fondness for Steve Jackson Games, whose mentality and celebration of the weird so closely mimics my own.

Before the dawn of the Internet, conspiracy theory was something you had to seek out. While everyone had an uncle or an older brother who was convinced that the government was UP TO SOMETHING, it took some doing to delve deeper into the conspiratorial mindset. One had to track down a copy of the Illuminatus! Trilogy or visit secondhand bookstores with a shelf in the back crammed with small press runs of crackpot books or send a check off to a tiny publisher who advertised in obscure interest magazines to get the real riches. You really had to work for it if you wanted to delve into the topic and it took an immense amount of money and not a few dollars to subject yourself to intense daily bombardment of the secret and the strange.

Because of this, I suspect that there was a good percentage of conspiracy theory enthusiasts who were like myself—interested but not influenced. It’s hard to take the subject matter seriously when you had a prolonged decompression period between finishing one crackpot work and tracking down the next one. Perhaps, although this is clearly influenced by nostalgia, we were more adept at evaluating the information presented to us before the firehose of the Internet drowned our culture in data and overwhelmed our ability to separate fact from fiction.

Whatever the reason, I feel that twenty years ago we could entertain a well-constructed—or even a poorly concocted one if it entertained—conspiracy idea without it harming anyone. I could sit in a movie theater and notice when groups of five people came into it (2+3=5 and if you don’t know the significance of that, you’re missing out). I could drink beers with you and talk about Freemasonry and black helicopters and why no one would help this poor widow’s son and it would be a time for laughter and a little smugness in knowing we were aware of something not everyone else knew about. And that, at its heart, is the appeal of the conspiracy theory.

The dawn of the Internet didn’t change all that at first. If anything, it was a golden age for those of us who loved to swim in the shallow waters of conspiracy theory. I fondly recall Steve Jackson Games’ Daily Illuminator’s “Illuminated Site of the Week” which regularly drew my attention to some poorly-designed web site written by a true believer or, better yet, the work of a fellow conspiracy aficionado clearly spreading some bit of secret wisdom with tongue firmly in cheek.

Although the World Wide Web gave us as-yet unimagined access to the weird and conspiratorial, it still took some doing on the part of both the seeker and the disseminator, who had to possess at least rudimentary knowledge of HTML and the building and hosting a web site—which wasn’t widespread yet in the early to mid-1990s. Conspiracy aficionados remained a small majority of the masses and we could still relish in our elite status as either knowing more than the guy next door or at least being in on the joke.

Fast-forward two decades and look what’s happened.

There have been THIRTEEN seasons so far of “Ancient Aliens.” Alex Jones, once a somewhat enjoyable crackpot from the fringe, built a media empire to spread vileness and many people took it to be a real news source. There are honest-to-Bob folks who bought into PizzaGate whole-heartedly and we have the occupant of the highest office labeling anything he doesn’t like as “fake news.” Otherwise sensible ignore evidence of everything from falsified vaccination papers to global warming. My nine year old nephew knows what the Illuminati is.

The once refreshing waters of the conspiracy theory pond have swelled to a troubled sea filled with sharks.

At the real risk of sounding like a hipster holding court at the back of the new vinyl record shop, I liked it better before everyone was into this thing. I feel like the pranksters and the fans have been muscled out by the true believers, the paranoiacs, and those looking for evidence to further strengthen their hate and their fear. It’s hard to polish up your golden apple and demand your Slack when the guy next to you honestly believes in the Deep State and that QAnon is speaking the suppressed truth.

Apologies if you came here expecting elf game stuff, but this has been weighing on me as I consider what’s next for me in the field of fictional worlds and gaming material.

I don’t see any easy way out of this, no way to reset the tone of the room. I’d like to let my freak flag fly a little higher, but I fear who might come along to salute it.

This is a subject I’ll likely return to in the future. My thoughts are still in flux and will continue to evolve, but I needed to work out a starting point from which to build. So in true conspiratorial fashion, I’ll slip back into the shadows, giving you time to consider what you’ve learned.

Leave a coded message for me in the back of Village Voice if you need to contact me. Until then, fight the future.

Early Thoughts on Gaming-Related New Year’s Resolutions

There’s still some weeks and a whole major holiday between me and 2019, but I’ve already begun thinking about what to do in the coming year and what needs to change. I’m not making any major resolutions aside from getting caught up on some projects that have been proposed and/or announced and got sidetracked by DCC Lankhmar (Hello, The Four Phantasmagorias, announced maybe four years ago. One of the original playtesters was in pigtails then and is now driving).

Resolution-wise, and this ties into the shift in my own preferences these days when it comes to the gaming table, I intend to limit the amount of “genre” fiction I consume. I’ve read a lot of a fantasy over the past several years, largely to cover the Appendix N list for numerous work-related projects, and I need a detox for my brain. I suspect this overload of swords-and-sorcery is responsible for the sudden desire that hit me a few weeks ago to suddenly get into WWII wargaming. I’m suffering from
“imagination malnutrition” and need some vitamins that fantasy fiction isn’t providing.

My plan is to replace the genre literature I normally consume with more non-fiction, figuring that anything I read can serve as inspiration and that I once devoured non-fiction voraciously. I’m missing the pleasure of armchair scholarship that comes with a well-written non-fiction work about a subject I’m interested in and would like to exercise the old noggin a bit more.

The second change I’ve been anticipating is running a short campaign as a temporary breather from our regular The One Ring game. It will be one year of TOR at the end of January so a brief vacation from Middle-earth is in order. I believe I’ve settled on doing a six session GUMSHOE arc, since the last few sessions of TOR have been investigative-focused and both my players and I have enjoyed the social interaction, planning, and problem-solving that’s come out of it. GUMSHOE is something we’ve played briefly and it’s a system I want to get more of a handle on, if only because there’s some great material out there for it.

At the moment, I’m torn between three potential ideas and will likely present them to the players in January when we come back from our holiday break. One involves a Fall of Delta Green campaign that’s mashed up with Cthulhu City and a bit of The Prisoner thrown in for good measure. The second in a 1970s UFO-themed game with the PCs as Men in Black type investigators and trouble-shooters (perhaps even literally). The last is a more traditional Trail of Cthulhu game that skews into Hastur country.

There’s a third thing that’s been brewing over the last couple of days and it might be the off-the-books game I run on the road this year. I’m still doing some prep work, but if I remain excited about it through New Year’s, I think it has legs and could be a lot of fun. It’s definitely a change of pace for me in some ways, but pure Curtis in others. Stay tuned for more on that as it develops.

The Mass Transportation Migrant Tribe

This is the first of a series I’m calling “Thousand Word Bombs.” Each is an essay of roughly 1000 words intended to be used as inspiration for RPG campaigns. Not all will be applicable for all RPG systems and settings, but I hope people will get inspiration if not actual “use as written” benefits from them.

They are a people without a homeland, yet whose territory spans the world. They move among us unnoticed, engaged in a mission we cannot understand. You see them, but do not comprehend what you are glimpsing. Endlessly roaming, never tarrying, they are the members of the Mass Transportation Migrant Tribe.

Core Concept

There are people in the world who live their entire lives within its mass transportation networks. Buses, subways, trains, and even ships, along with the terminals that connect them, are all these people know. You can tell them by their eyes, which seem to whirl like wheels when you look at them too long, by their poor complexions stemming from a diet of snack bar fare and fast food bought from express stands, and by their shabby clothes, washed in restroom sinks.

To most observers, the mass transportation migrant tribe members are identical to the destitute and often mentally unbalanced passengers not uncommon to public transportation—and being a member of one group doesn’t prohibit acceptance in another. The tribe members, however, are anything but mad, possessing the keen intelligence and cunning necessary to survive unnoticed and in constant motion.

The mass transportation migrant tribe is constantly moving, their travels only interrupted by brief pauses in train or bus terminals, or subway stations, where they await their next conveyance. They sleep in short stints in bus seats or on subway benches, awakening when the rhythm of motion is even slightly broken. Unemployed, yet somehow they never lack the modest means to buy cheap food or replacement clothes purchased from newsagents and tourist shops found throughout the world’s mass transit networks.

The tribe has its own cultural customs, meeting for brief moots in larger transportation hubs to trade news, arrange marriages, and conduct secret rites. The tribe has little in the way of authority figures, but the oldest and most experienced of the tribe’s members form ad hoc “elders’ councils” as necessary. When deaths occur, if the body isn’t removed by local authorities alerted by the mass transit operators, the tribe members inter their own in hidden crypts near subway stations, in shallow graves along railroad lines, or slipped over the railings of a ferry for a burial at sea.

Membership in the migrant tribe is either a result of birth or adoption. The tribe’s arranged marriages result in usually only a single offspring and the infant mortality rate is high among the migrants. Some become tribe members because circumstances have forced their hands. More than one runaway teen or person fleeing the consequences of their actions has been adopted by the tribe, initiated into the secret nation after demonstrating their ability to endure the constant movement required for the migrant life. Ethnicity, race, gender, or religion are meaningless among the tribe, and members can be of any background.

The few esoteric anthropologists who know of and have studied the mass transportation migrants hypothesize that they number less than 500 world-wide and, aside from the occasional moots noted above, seldom travel in numbers larger than three or four. Solitary tribe members, however, remain the norm.

Possible Background

There are a few possible origins and purposes for the mass transportation migrant tribe. These are just starting points for the game master to build upon or to inspire her:

  • The tribe are the custodians of an ancient relic or other item of power that their ancestors swore to safeguard long ago. The tribe’s constant motion makes it difficult for those seeking the item to track it down, and the object changes ownership constantly in subtle exchanges that would make a three-card monte dealer jealous. Until the day comes when the rightful owner of the object makes themselves known, the tribe will remain in motion.
  • The first tribe members were the victims of a powerful curse, one perhaps laid upon them by someone whose life or livelihood was impacted by mass transportation. The mother of the first person killed by a train might have been a witch, for example, or the owner of a once-profitable stagecoach line who lost his fortune when the railroad came through and paid a hoodoo man to lay a curse on the railroad workers. Over time, those suffering similar baleful enchantments have been initiated into the original tribe, passing their curse down either in truth or simply by tradition. The tribes’ moots are really opportunities to exchange information on how their curse(s) might be broken or to plot for revenge against those who set them in motion for perpetuity.
  • The tribe members are from outside this time and place, perhaps having fallen through holes in dimensions (such as from alternate history Earths) or rifts in the time stream. Unable to integrate themselves into an alien culture, they are a people suffering from “future shock” and only the soothing rhythm of constant motion keeps them from going insane. As they move, they plot, plan, scheme, and hope to find a way home, taking in other misplaced peoples from other places and times.

Adventure Ideas

  • A friend of the PCs suddenly goes missing and all attempts to determine their whereabouts are unsuccessful. Several months later, one of the characters catches sight of the missing person standing on a subway platform as the PCs train passes by or sitting in the window seat of a bus rolling down the street. These sightings continue on and off for some time, with PCs always just missing their lost friend. Finally, after some effort, the party gets on the same bus or train as their friend and confronts them. What he/she reveals exposes them not only to the existence of the mass transportation migrant tribe, but the danger that causes their friend to become one of them.
  • The party awakens with a start as the train they’re on lurches away from the station. The problem is that they each went to bed at home the night before and have no inkling as to how they got on the train. They can easily get off at the next station, but quickly learn that shadowy, almost demonic figures, are pursuing them. It is only when the PCs are on a form of mass transit that their shadowy pursuers’ sinister attacks cease. How do the PCs solve the mystery of what happened to them and what is chasing them when they’re limited solely to whatever assets they can access on public transportation routes?

Spellburning to Lankhmar

faf_mouseThe latest episode of the Spellburn podcast begins a deep delve into the rules and setting of the forthcoming DCC Lankhmar boxed set. If you’re curious about what awaits you within and what tweaks we came up with to create a setting that reflects the tales of Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser using the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG, this episode is for you. Future episodes will continue to explore this version of DCC RPG and what makes it different, yet entirely compatible, with the core game. Hie thee over the the Spellburn website for more information and downloadable audio.

On the Road in Middle-earth

I’ve run several RPG campaigns over the past five years, but only my two The One Ring games have shown any durability. My players aren’t tremendous Tolkien aficionados (although we have more in the current group than the previous one), but there’s something about the rules and the setting that makes it a favorite of ours.

TOR does a tremendous job of capturing the feel of Tolkien’s stories, as well as the Northern European sagas and myths that influenced them. That’s not really a surprise given The One Ring is an RPG where the rules where designed to evoke the setting and not a setting squeezed into a pre-existing rule set. The game’s central mechanic that covers combat, social encounters, and travel equally also adds to its appeal for my players and me. The rule system is simple enough to make learning to play a quick task and requires little consultation of the rulebook.

As fine as a rules are, however, I feel that travel in the game has the greatest potential for becoming rote and devolving into a series of dice rolls. In doing so, we miss the opportunity for world-building and creating character narrative.

For those unfamiliar with the journey rules of TOR, in short, you make a check of your Travel skill against a target number that depends on the type of land you’re passing through. These checks come at intervals depending on the season (you make them more often during winter than summer, for example) and a failure results in the accumulation of fatigue. Fatigue is hard to recover from while traveling and impacts your ability to take damage and fight for prolonged periods at full strength.

If one of the characters rolls an “Eye of Sauron,” one of two special icons on the d12 feat die, a hazard occurs. Hazards can run the gamut from your old school random encounter with monsters to unexpected delays to a sense of creeping foreboding that taints your soul. Despite their constant presence, hazards aren’t a regular occurrence and even with my group of six players making three or more rolls each per journey, I don’t think we’ve had more than five hazard encounters in nearly a year’s worth of play.

Since the chances of a hazard occurring are 1 in 12, many long journeys become a matter of asking for Travel rolls, making note of who passed and who failed, handing out fatigue to those who blew their roll, then summarizing the next leg of the journey (“The hills begin to rise as you pass east out of Rivendell for three days, the lofty heights of the Misty Mountains forming a wall before you. The clouds cover their tops, but the chill winds remind you that snow still lingers in the High Pass.”).

As you can see, in the hands of a lesser game master, journeys can potentially turn into a series of dice rolls and their resulting fatigue increase. But I’m a firm believer in the adage that it’s not the destination, but the trip that makes things worthwhile.

I decided to use journeys as an opportunity for shared world-building when I begin my latest TOR campaign. The game already allows for sharing the narrative with the players, in effect giving them the chance to become their own game master for a brief period at the end of each adventure. I took this concept and incorporated it into the journey as well.

Each leg of the journey now include another step, one that gives the players a measure of creative control within the campaign world. I call for Travel rolls as normal and assign fatigue to the characters if they fail their travel roll, then I ask if any hazards have occurred. If they have, they get resolved as usual. However, if that leg of the trip proves to be uneventful, I ask each player the same question, “What interesting thing happened on this stage of the trip?”

The player then has the opportunity to tell us all about something the group saw or some small event that happened to the group over the previous couple of days. In many cases, it’s a minor occurrence, like they came across an old campsite a few days ago or they saw a bird that seemed to take an interest in them. Sometimes it’s even humorous, like when one player told the group that another player’s character—our fat hobbit (we have two hobbits)—was chased around a rock by a mountain goat for a short time before the group chased it off.

Occasionally, one of the players introduces something more substantial and it gets incorporated into the setting. For example, on an early journey, one of the players remarked how they kept seeing old menhirs with spirals on them as they came down out of the High Pass into Eriador. Seeing an opportunity, I asked for Lore rolls from the players and those that succeeded recalled that these were raised by the Hillmen of Rhudaur long ago and mark their territory (or where their territory once was). The group now knows whenever they’re in potential Hillmen lands thanks to something one of the players added to the campaign. In another case, our other hobbit remarked how he spotted an old wagon with a faded colorful canvas covering its bed mired in a swamp north of the road. We marked its location on the map and just recently the hobbit returned to check out the wagon during the downtime between adventures. I gave the player to option to either come up with what his character found there or to have me create it. He decided that he didn’t have enough knowledge of Middle-earth to concoct something himself, but suggested some parameters of what he might be interested in finding. As a result, a curious pukel-man statue has now entered the campaign.

The players all know that I reserve the right to veto anything they introduce if it’s too far-fetched or problematic. My boilerplate example of something not allowed is “We met Gandalf the Grey and he became our best friend.” So far, I’ve never had to veto the players’ suggestions and I trust I won’t have to in the future. If you’re gifted with players that are both even slightly creative (and most role-players are) and who can be trusted to stay within the loose boundaries you impose on them, giving them creative control to flesh out journeys is an excellent way to grow the campaign world beyond whatever you can come up with.

I’ve just begun experimenting with another technique to take advantage of uneventful journeys, one that I’m calling “banter” for lack of a better term. This is a simple request for some brief role-playing by the players. In our last session, rather than ask for an interesting event, I took out my phone, set the stopwatch function, and said, “Please give me two minutes of roleplaying. You’re on your journey, stopped for the night and sitting around your camp. Go!”

This technique produced good results. Our elf brothers bickered a bit, our dwarf smoked his pipe and gazed into the flames, uttering the occasional taciturn response, and our Woodman was distracted by the events that are currently affecting his home and focused on preparing the speech he plans to deliver when he returns there. Even better though was the response from the players, who enjoyed the opportunity to get into character a bit and explore their PCs’ personalities outside of the adventuring space. I suspect that we might get more humorous interactions at first, since it’s both the easiest and least personal means of roleplaying and I know my players, but I suspect with time we might see some deeper explorations of the characters’ personalities, quirks, hopes, and fears.

While these two techniques came out of playing The One Ring and are intended to help shore up some potential weaknesses in the rules, there’s no reason why they can’t be used in any other RPG. An old school D&D hexcrawl could implement them when slogging through the wilderness and no random encounters happen or a modern spy RPG might incorporate them to spice up the inevitable times the agents are on board a plane waiting for to do a HALO jump into hostile territory or just taking a long plane trip to exotic foreign locales.

No matter what you’re playing, if you’re confident enough in your own game mastering skills to incorporate the unexpected into your games and have no fear in turning the reins of the game over to your players for a bit, sharing the narrative is a wonderful way of growing the campaign world and building player investment, both of which lead to longer and healthier campaigns.