Mar. 13th, 2015

athornton: Angry.  Drunken.  BOFH. (Default)
Three Dreamlands: The Sense of the Sleight-Of-Hand Man by Dennis
Detwiler, Dreamhounds of Paris and The Book of Ants by Robin D. Laws
with Ken Hite and Steve Dempsey, and A Red & Pleasant Land by Zak S.

I recently read these three-or-four books, which are all RPG books
about, in some sense, Dreamlands; two (or three; whether you choose to
consider The Book of Ants as separate from Dreamhounds of Paris is
to some degree a matter of personal choice; I choose to see the pair as
a single work) of them quite explicitly so, and the third one by
implication. In looking at them, I'm also going to drag in some of the
other RPG books riffing on Lewis Carroll's work.

The Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man is far and away the most
traditional of these three works. This was a Kickstarter-funded project
that was initially published in 2013; somehow it had evaded my notice
until recently. It is intended for use with Call of Cthulhu 6th
Edition, but it would be easy to make it work with any other CoC
version, or indeed any Lovecraftian RPG. It would be a little harder to
do outside of a straight-up Lovecraftian game, since it assumes a pretty
standard Call of Cthulhu cosmology and a Dreamlands not very different
from what you get in The Dream-Quest Of Unknown Kadath.

Its frame story, quickly dispensed with, is presented as 1920s Call of
Cthulhu but could trivially be moved to another environment. All the
characters are addicts who have fallen far behind on their payments to
their dealer; in the standard frame it is opium he deals, but one could
easily set it in 1970s Detroit with heroin, or really, almost any place
or time where someone sells addictive intoxicants to someone else, which
should leave plenty of latitude. The kingpin dealer has the PCs all
brought to his lair by his goons, and insists that they share a pipe.
Unbeknownst to them, they are not merely to be murdered as an example to
his other customers regarding the advisability of paying ones'
debts--they are given a drug which is supposed to gradually erase them
from everyday reality and shift them into the Dreamlands. Unbeknownst
to Mr. Lao, the drug dealer, the drug he is providing is tainted, and
disintegrates their bodies while propelling their souls into the nearest
empty vessels in the Dreamlands. The conceit behind this is that
there is an analog of Mr. Lao and the opium trade in the Dreamlands.
The Men of Leng supply dreamers to the moonbeasts, who in turn supply
them with the fabulously valuable Blood Gems.

All this is well and good, but if your players don't like railroads--and
who does?--they are likely to get their characters killed in the real
world before they ever get transported to the Dreamlands, and even if
they go along with the train, they're likely to already be sullen and
resentful even before the next part. And if they make it there, they're
in for a further shock: the bodies they wake up in are radically
different.

The adventure assumes you will be starting the game with brand-new
characters. To be sure, it'd be an extremely heavy-handed narrative
intervention if continuing characters within a larger CoC campaign were
all to become addicted to opium and then have their forms disintegrated
halfway through the first session of this new arc. However, since the
characters will spend their whole lives, effectively, in the Dreamlands,
you will likely get players who spent their time and character points
creating a backstory and set of skills for someone like Frank, the
down-on-his-luck auto mechanic with a lucky tattoo and tertiary syphilis
acquired in Montmartre, with piloting skills, familiarity with an M1
Carbine, and PTSD from the Great War, who now finds that he's a small
Asian woman, and there's nothing more technologically advanced than a
sword in the whole world.

I know that if I were on the outside of the screen that I'd be pretty
peeved at having just put in a bunch of effort for character creation
only to have all pretense of narrative agency wrested away, and then to
have my character given a new, probably race-and-or-gender-swapped body,
with a bunch of skills completely inapplicable to the new setting.

I don't know how you'd fix this without telling the players what you're
going to do to them, which would destroy a lot of the impact. It
strikes me that this is the sort of game you can only play within groups
that have evolved a lot of at-the-table trust--and if you don't do this
well, you may erode a lot of that earned trust. Caveat emptor.

But anyway, assuming that you eventually do get the characters to the
Dreamlands, then the game widens out a lot. It's pretty much assumed
that the characters' motive is to get back to the real world New York,
although it's not clear to me that going back to a grim, hardscrabble
existence of mounting debt and ever-deepening addiction is such a great
idea.

Once they awaken in the Dreamlands, they meet the wretched Collector,
who seems like a minor Peter Lorre role. He can provide some impetus by
telling them that if they do not find a way back home, their
dream-selves will sicken and die.

For a book that wants to be a sandbox, The Sense of the Sleight-Of-Hand
Man
reads much more like a choose-your-own adventure book. For
instance, in the city of Sarkomand, where the characters awaken, they
have three choices:
* Try to find the exit to the waking world the Collector told them
about by taking the greased chute to the Underworld. Turn to
Chapter 7, p. 72.
* Try to steal a moon-beast ship from the harbor. Turn to Chapter 5,
p. 47.
* Try to march overland to Inquanok. Turn to Chapter 6, p. 58.
* If you just hang out in Sarkomand, you are eaten by a wamp or a
voomith or something. The End.

The book's title is the title of a Wallace Stevens poem. Each chapter
is introduced with a little quotation from Stevens. Stevens, of course,
is not part of the Weird Fiction tradition. It is very refreshing to
get little snippets of usually-quite-good poems rather than the same old
same old Clark Ashton Smith and Robert E. Howard and To Show That We're
Hip, Thomas Ligotti, or To Show That We're Ironically Hip, Clive
Barker.

Fortunately things get somewhat better from here. The trip through the
Underworld (should the party take it), under the supervision of their
ghoul guide Madaeker is extremely railroady, but the other two options
less so. Eventually, perhaps, the characters will find themselves in
Ilek-Vlad trying to determine what's wrong with Randolph Carter (itself
a rather-nicely-done parallel to the addiction that landed themselves in
this predicament in the first place) and to defeat his nemesis (or at
least, rouse him or some other major Dreamlands power to defeat same).

There are some delightful side-quests, such as the Oracle of the Western
Machine accessible from Inquanok, or indeed the whole Lhosk political
plot, as well as some fun smaller ones (including a nice Sarnath bit).
The midgame, with the characters wandering across the Dreamlands, is
where this book is at its best. It presents itself as, basically, a
bunch of location-centric adventure hooks with a few fleshed out
set-pieces, and they're generally well done, and quite varied. The
Oracle of the Western Machine comes across as almost Numeneraesque,
while The Nameless Rock comes across as ... well, it's not quite Robert
E. Howard, but imagine the better sort of Lin Carter and you've got the
idea.

Alas, after having saved Randolph Carter and Ilek-Vlad, the dreamers'
putative quest--to return home to the waking world--may seem a little
lackluster. Should they manage it and return to New York to defeat the
villanous Mr. Lao, their triumph offers little catharsis. The fruition
of the bargain Madaeker may have extracted from them in the Underworld
is much more interesting. This is, of course, the natural consequence
of the dream narrative being much more compelling than the frame story.

Still, as Dreamlands published adventures go, this is a damn good one.
It doesn't really break the mold of classic Call of Cthulhu, but if
you were looking for a solid large campaign, the size of Horror on the
Orient Express
(I originally wrote this before the new Horror showed
up, borne to my doorstep on the backs of six sweating Venetians, pallid
of skin and wild of eye; let's amend that to the size of the first
edition of Horror on the Orient Express) or Beyond the Mountains of
Madness
but with the Dreamlands as the focus, you really couldn't do
better.

It's published by Arc Dream press. It's clearly laid-out, and well
copy-edited. I found only a few typographical errors. There's not a
lot of reason to buy the print version: it's completely adequate, the
same quality you'd expect from a Lulu book, for instance, but nothing to
write home about. It's just a bit larger in every dimension than the
Call of Cthulhu 5th Edition paperback. An ungenerous reviewer might
point out that if the margins were less huge it would have fit into many
fewer pages and made a less weighty, and cheaper, tome. The art is also
by Detwiler and is unspectacular, but competent. My recommendation
would be to stick with the PDF.

The second of the Dreamlands adventures under the microscope is Robin
Laws', Ken Hite's, and Steve Dempsey's Dreamhounds of Paris and its
companion volume The Book Of Ants. They are nominally for Trail of
Cthulhu
, but as with most ToC works, it wouldn't be too hard to
translate it into another gaming system.

This game is evidently the fruit of a whole lot of research Robin Laws
did into the Surrealists. The players are expected to take the roles of
Surrealists (historical or fictional) in 1920s Paris, and to care about
the machinations of Andre Breton and his ilk as they guide the movement
through the interwar period.

But of course that's not really what's going on. Maybe. The basic
conceit of the work goes something like this: Giorgio de Chirico, having
looked at a lot of Bocklin, finds his way to the Dreamlands in 1909.
Cocteau follows in 1913, and his children's book Le Potomak is a
Mythos tome. Dada does its thing, Max Ernst starts Dreaming, all the
Surrealists figure out how to get to the Dreamlands. They start shaping
it. The Dreamlands get weirder and nastier and then start to bleed back
into the waking world. Dali shows up and steals the Surrealist
movement. World War II destroys Europe. The End.

One of the things Dreamhounds tries to do is explain some of the
(historical) bizarre behavior of the Surrealists by reference to their
struggles within the Domains du Reve. Not to worry, an awful lot is
also still down to their politics and their just-plain-batshitness.

This thing is engaging (especially if, like me, you didn't know much
about the specifics of Surrealism beforehand) and quite fun if, like me,
you keep doing Google searches on the various artists mentioned as you
read it. But that's the thing. It's fun to read, and it's a good
introduction to Surrealism, but I have a really difficult time imagining
how you'd play it.

For starters, you'd need to have a group willing to devote months or
years to playing Surrealists in Paris. Maybe, maybe if I were in
college and all my friends were in the art department or at least taking
a bunch of art classes, I could see that happening. These days? Not
likely. Next, you and they will all need to be down with the idea that
the investigators are, most likely, going to be historical figures, and
that the game will therefore constrain their waking world actions at
certain points (there's also a pretty decent sidebar on how you can
arrange for the dream-Bataille, for instance, to escape to the real
world and take over should Georges Bataille the PC succumb to a terribly
addled egg). And you'd have to be willing to force not just the
real-world, but to some extent the whole Dreamlands narrative arc as
well, onto your players.

I haven't even started to talk about The Book Of Ants, which is a view
of the history of Surrealism and its expression in the Dreamlands, from
the point of view of a minor and forgotten Surrealist, one Henri Salem.
This gives a much more visceral picture of the mutation the Dreamlands
undergo than Dreamhounds itself did. As a general rule, I hate game
fiction. So it's high praise, coming from me, that it's great fun to
read. Really, the best part of the combined work is the sudden horror
when Salem realizes that the cod-medievalism of the Dreamlands has been
irrevocably eroded: he discovers that the ninth month of the dream-year
is no longer "Basalt" but "Machinegun."

That's where this piece shines. It's a weird allegorical
reinterpretation of RPGing itself, I think. Maybe capitalism in
general. Hear me out. My thesis goes something like this: Gygax and
Arneson gave us a world where, sure, the trade dress was Late Middle
Ages France Without The Cholera, but the stories? Westerns. Don't let
the longbows fool you: D&D is about How The West Was Won.

Only the Indians were now orcs and hobgoblins and shit, and so we didn't
have to feel the least bit bad about killing them, because it's not like
they were people, right?

Only then, later on--maybe much later on--we said, hey, what? Dude,
that's...a little creepy. And some people went on to do games where
Well Obviously It's The People Who Are The Real Monsters. The thing is,
it's not much fun to kill monsters and take their stuff if you have to
feel guilty about it. Self-aware murderhoboing is uncomfortably close
to straight-up psychopathy.

So: the Dreamlands. HPL's cod-medievalism. Feudalism where you're sure
you're one of the landed gentry, and not a feces-besmeared peasant, and
where the feces and the cholera are discreetly offstage. And, of
course, this follows in a loooooooong tradition of romanticization of,
well, feudalism. Of the Ancien Regime.

Then you've got the Surrealists. Who are, not to put too fine a point
on it, all like "Hey, this Established Social Order sucks. Seriously,
guys, can't you see that it blows goats? It's completely reinforcing
the status quo at the expense of, well, almost everyone except the
very richest motherfuckers."

(Oh, by the way, if you've read this far, you can probably give
Piketty's Capitalism In The Twenty-First Century a miss, because it's
pretty much what I'm saying right now, only with more data and fewer
swears.)

So, you know, it's hard not to sympathize with the Surrealists, or for
those who'd challenge the established social order, because they're
right, it does suck. But tearing down is the easy part. Trying to
build a New World Order? Turns out that not only does it usually suck
just as much, but it sucks in most of the same ways, only the New 1%
are a (maybe) different group of motherfuckers.

So, yeah. That critique applies to Surrealist falling-out-of-love with
Stalinism, but of course it also applies to our wanting to play Not D&D
but always, somehow, coming back to it. And to Capitalism In The
Twenty-First Century (the thing not the book), for that matter. Maybe
Human Endeavor In General.

Anyway, coming back from that tangent: Dreamhounds and The Book Of
Ants
are fun to read. I don't know how the hell you'd ever use them at
your table. If you have some disposable cash and you feel like learning
more about the Surrealists while reading some social critique dressed up
as history dressed up as an RPG (and hey, I thought Qelong was one of
the best RPG books of the decade, so, you know, I'm not being dismissive
here), then you should totally buy this. Or buy it if you just like
Surrealism and want to inflict nightmare-scapes out of Dali or Bunuel or
Max Ernst or Magritte or ... on your players.

I do have physical copies of these. They're...nice, in modern
high-end-but-not-Paizo-or-WotC ways. If you own any other Pelgrane
Press books, you know what Dreamhounds looks like. The Book Of Ants
is smaller, and paperback, but both seem solidly bound. The quality of
the editing is good. The art is all right; the Hugenin cover on
Dreamhounds isn't his best work, but it's certainly serviceable.
Really, though, you're going to remember the art as the Surrealist
things you looked up while reading it, and that's mighty fine. Or at
least, if you don't like Surrealism, there's no real reason for you to
buy this book, so you probably will remember the art as having been
mighty fine, if slightly creepily obsessed with rapey Pianotaurs.
Again, though, there's not a compelling reason to buy a physical copy
rather than the PDF of either of these.

Finally, we get to Red and Pleasant Land. This is Zak S.'s take on
Alice. I absolutely cannot review this in any way objectively. One
of the very few records I had when growing up was the boxed set of Cyril
Pritchard reading the two Alice books, and so for many years I knew,
basically, the entire text of the two Alice books word-for-word by
heart--and I bet if you quote me a bit I can recite along for a while,
even now. I may be the only person in the world who can recite
"Jabberwocky" in less than thirty seconds, and if you buy me a beer I
will do so for you. So: despite the fact that, by modern standards,
Carroll was a creepy, creepy man, and possibly a pedophile, and despite
the fact that, sure, he embodied a lot of What Was Wrong With The
Victorians, I love my Alice.

And then there's the fact that Zak also did Pictures Showing What
Happens On Each Page Of Thomas Pynchon's Gravity's Rainbow
, which,
well, if I were stuck on a desert island with one book, Gravity's
Rainbow
would obviously be that book. You thought, based on the last
paragraph, I was a drooling Carroll fanboy? It's nothing to my
Pynchon-fanboy-ness. The only other person I'm close to that obsessive
about is Tom Waits. Who, yes, also did an interpretation of Alice.

Zak's book made me realize that, at least at one point, he (meaning Zak,
not Tom Waits) must have been almost as scarily into Gravity's Rainbow
as I am.

So: there was no way I was going to not like this book.

Of course I got a physical version as well. And, holy shit, Raggi
knocked it so far out of the fucking park you can't even see the stadium
anymore. Seriously. He nailed everything about this. You know those
late-Victorian-through-about-1920 fairy tale books your local library
had when you were a kid? This is those. It's the right size. It's the
right weight. The paper is not glossy, and it's medium-weight, and it's
cream-colored, not white. And the thing smells right. It smells like
a fairy-tale book. Seriously, if you don't want to take your pants off
and rub up against this book, you're probably a lot better adjusted than
I am.

Jez Gordon, whom you may know from Secret Santicore or any of the other
completely awesome stuff he's done in the OSR, did some of the layout
and maps, but this is mostly a Zak piece.

The closest I can come to a summary is:

This is The Two Alice Books If You'd Taken A Bunch Of Acid And Also
Watched A Bunch Of Shitty Italian Horror Vampire Films.

Nominally it's set somewhere in the Transylvania of Raggi's Thirty
Years' War Lamentations Of The Flame Princess setting, but...seriously,
it's pretty much the Dreamlands. It says it's for LotFP but, c'mon, you
can adapt it for anything D&Dish. Or CoCish. Or Risus. Or, y'know,
whatever.

This one is very up-front about how you can use it: drop it into your
campaign whole, steal specific mechanical bits of it, use it as general
inspiration, or the seldom-stated #4, which is very endearing: "Some
animals will swallow almost anything whole and some are very small. You
can use this book to kill them— by choking them with it or dropping it
on them, respectively."

The Alice character class (or, if you're going the whole Gravity's
Rainbow
route, the Fool character class) is a charming touch; an
underpowered rogue backed by high-entropy serendipity. If your campaign
has one of these, you know it, and it's fun to be able to give that play
style (which usually meshes pretty well with player personality) some
mechanical support.

The landscape of Voivodja is principally a war zone between the houses
of the Red King and the Heart Queen, who might as well be Dracula and
Elizabeth Bathory, if you'd been eating a lot of psilocybin. But add to
those the (nice tip of the ten-shilling-and-sixpence hat to David Foster
Wallace there) Pale King and the Colorless Queen, who are trying to take
advantage of the realms' weakened states to stake their own claims.
This can play out, if you want it to, as a high-as-fuck version of the
Thirty Year's War, much like the rest of the LotFP setting but with more
whimsy amid the arterial gouts and spilled viscera. Only, like Qelong,
it's a horrible war where everyone's been summoning all manner of
hideous nightmare creatures from the multifarious hells for years and
years and years, and it's all like the bridge scene in Apocalypse Now.
Oh, and every mirror takes you from The War Side to The Quiet Side,
which is so quiet that it drives you mad in a matter of a very few
minutes.

There are a bunch of political alliances here, none of which are going
to make any sense to the players--I'm not sure they make sense
period--and then the two main castles are described. So, imagine Tegel
Manor. Now take some DMT, and add, obviously, Alice In Wonderland and
vampires. What comes out the other end is a pair of crazy, crazy,
super-lethal funhouse bizzaro dungeons. Then there are three
mini-locations, one of which, "Your Worst Halves," seems to have crawled
straight out of Crystal Castles, although I can't find Bentley Bear
anywhere.

After that there are a few non-R&PL-specific bits: there's a mass combat
system which looks like it's not a bad way to simulate the PCs' part in
a big battle, and a delightfully quick-and-dirty mounted combat system.
There are the usual selection of entertaining random-roll and die-drop
tables you'd expect from a Zak S. work.

I can't even guess about the utility of this book. I've already stolen
the Alice class for the Julian Jaynes-Cthulhu-Alice-JAGS Wonderland-The
Madness Dossiers mashup I'm doing, and I think I'm going to drop a
(perhaps somewhat nerfed) version of at least one of the castles into
the appropriate place in that mashup.

There have been at least two prior attempts to make the Alice stories
into tabletop RPGs. Likely there have been more, but these are the two
I know: Gygax did the pair as Castle Greyhawk sub-levels, published as
EX1 and 2. They're pretty leaden, frankly, in the mold of "let's make
all the animals and people in the stories angry things with a whole lot
of hit points!"

Much better than the EX series is Marco Chacon's JAGS: Wonderland, which
manages to go from author-slightly-creepily-working-through-some-of-his-
issues-with-mental-illness-and-its-treatment-in-21st-century-America to
something really cosmically weird in not many pages at all. It's
nowhere near as beautiful as R&PL, and it's clearly a lot more directed
(indeed, railroady), but it's well worth reading as a
compare-and-contrast. It's also horror, but of a very different stripe.
It's available free online, and it's definitely worth the price (its
companion, The Book of Knots, is less striking, but it's also free and
worth reading if you liked the first one).

In my opinion, you should buy at least one physical copy of Red and
Pleasant Land
. This is, as far as I'm concerned, now the high-water
mark of RPG publishing. Not just small-press RPG publishing, but RPG
publishing, period. The production values on this little book are
ridiculously high. As with Vornheim, I'm pretty sure that if you don't
want to keep the book, there will be plenty of opportunities for later
resale.

Zak S.'s Alice art can stand beside Ralph Steadman and Mervyn Peake's
interpretations, and that's no small praise. Sure, it's not Tenniel,
but nothing is or ever will be. In fact, Steadman and Peake also tried
their hands at Treasure Island. Might I suggest ...?

As to whether you'll use this: if you like Zak's work, or LotFP
generally, then, yeah, you should get a copy; you will certainly find
something worth stealing. If you like playing on the edge between
whimsical and horrific, this is probably in your sweet spot too. If
you're into the splattery bits of LotFP, well, there's some pretty
gruesome description in here, but the art is not a Cannibal Corpse album
cover. I keep finding little bits in the book that make me go "oh,
that's neat"--for instance, the Colorless Rooks. I'm not going to
plug this Wonderland whole into any of my games, but bits and pieces of
it will certainly show up for years and years to come.

To summarize: get Sense of the Sleight-of-Hand Man if you want a big
straight-up Lovecraftian Dreamlands game. Get The Book Of
Ants/Dreamhounds of Paris
if you like Surrealism and want to play with
some political and sociological themes in the Paris of the 1920s and
1930s. You won't be missing much if you get either of these in digital
form only. Get Red and Pleasant Land if you like either Lewis Carroll
or LotFP, and aren't completely dead inside. Get it in hardcopy as well
as digital.

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