The Latest “Weird Mail Thing” is Out

It began as an off-the-cuff remark that with the demise of Google+ I was going to return to the world of analog communications and correspond solely by snail mail. Go “Full Lovecraft” as I called it at the time. While intended as a jest, I soon called my own bluff and informed anyone in earshot that if they sent me a SASE, I’d send them something in return. The SASEs started coming in and the first installment of my “weird mail thing” was unleashed unto the world (Note: it has an actual name other than “weird mail thing,” but only those who send a SASE are told its true name).

Soon thereafter, I started receiving feedback from those curious enough to desire the first installment. Along with that feedback came another round of SASEs for the following mailing. That second installment went out in the mail this morning. Everyone who’s already sent a SASE for me to “bank” has their now-stuffed enveloped headed their way. Keep an eye on the mailbox.

For those of you who missed out and/or are curious, send a SASE (#10 business size) to the street address listed in the sidebar over there to the right. In return, you’ll receive the latest installment of the “weird mail thing” and become a member of a certain shadowy organization privy to materials otherwise unavailable to the unsuspecting public. If you wish your membership to be shared with others in the group (i.e. have your own address included in future mailings so that others can exchange curious letters with you), please include a note to that effect with your SASE.

I have a limited number of first installments still available. If you desire one of these, please state that in a note along with your SASE. People desiring both installments should send two SASE to the address over there to the right. I will attempt to accommodate requests for the first mailing as long as my supply holds out and on a first-request-first-received basis.

An Unexpected Hobbit

My The One Ring campaign celebrated its 1st anniversary at the beginning of the month. We lost one player due to real life obligations, but the remaining five—which is more than enough for TOR, or so I’ve learned—remain invested in our ongoing tale of fell doings, massing orcs, and mysterious happenstances that suggest larger forces have a hand in the fellowship’s doings.

Our latest adventure took us back over the Misty Mountains to Rhovanion in an attempt to diffuse a war that was brewing between the Beornings and the Woodmen. In preparation for the return to the Wild, I pulled my reprint of the original 1937 edition of The Hobbit off my shelf and started reading through it. It stirred up the urge to do some painting of my backlog of Middle-earth miniatures, this time focusing on some of the characters from The Hobbit.

I broke open my Escape from Goblin Town starter set, which had been languishing largely because of my less than enthusiastic attitude towards the movies, and got to scrubbing down the plastic sprue of Thorin Oakenshield and Company. Once it dried, it was time to get Bilbo from Games Workshop grey to something suitable for the game table.

bilboI have this to say about 25mm hobbits: they paint up quick! In an hour or so, I had Bilbo looking ready to leave Bag-End. A couple more hours were spent waiting for the base to dry, but then a fast drybrush and some static grass clumps and the burglar was ready to burgle something. Only thirteen more dwarves and a certain wandering wizard (or maybe two since I have a Radagast the Brown in that box too) and I’ll be well prepared for the next time I have an urge to take a stab at more faithfully recreating the events of the book than the movies did. All in all, I’m pretty chuffed how Bilbo turned out. I’ll never win a Golden Demon, but I’ve managed to develop painting chops sufficient enough that I’m not embarrassed to field one of my own paint job on the tabletop battlefield.

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?