Monday, April 17, 2017

Atypical books as campaign source material

There is nothing particularly innovative about using books as source material for setting RPG campaigns. Some, like the Lord of the Rings, A Song of Fire and Ice, the Call of Cthulhu, and the Amber Chronicles have already been used to build settings (and indeed, mechanics) for use in those specific worlds.

But what if we try to push the boundaries of what's acceptable material outward a little? There are many varieties of literature that do not typically fall into standard gamer purview, or fit into standard categories like "fantasy", "science fiction", or "pulp", but that could, properly handled, definitely serve as backdrops for highly unique and attractive game settings. Some of these might fall under the rubric of "serious literature", and are shunned by a lot of gamers because they are perceived as being "difficult", or "boring". Some may derive from linguistic cultures with which most gamers are not familiar. Some might be children's literature that have not yet been mined for RPGs.

In what follows, I select a number of such books, and highlight their gameable aspects. The list is highly idiosyncratic: it reflects books from my childhood that I have mused over through the years, or those I encountered later that immediately struck me as RPG quarry. There are certainly blank spots, which represent major oversights in my own fiction-reading history. On the other hand, the list deliberately avoids "genre books" classics that already have a strong RPG echo (e.g. Spencer's Faerie Queen, Dante's Inferno, or Stoker's Dracula) or cult classics (e.g. Burrough's Naked Lunch, the Illuminatus! trilogy, or Pavić´s Dictionary of the Khazars) that already have high purchase in the gamer community. The point is to get people to become acquainted with interesting books they may not be familiar with, to share their own lists of titles, and to stimulate a discussion that will expand our collective gamer horizons.

  1. New Atlantis (Francis Bacon).     In general, early utopian literature is a great gaming genre. Here, I choose to focus on New Atlantis rather than on More's Utopia or Campanella's City of the Sun largely on account of its peculiar institution - Salomon's House, but an amalgam of the three is certainly possible. The settings for all these novels are large islands in the middle of an ocean, which are discovered by adventurers during an age of exploration. The society on the island is highly orderly, though it may be egalitarian (as for More), or divided into distinct castes (as for Campanella). Typically, the utopian society does not use money internally, though it is rich, and uses its stock of wealth to purchase what it needs from the outside world. The society is usually both open and closed - it accepts what it regards as rational ideas (for Bacon, that included astronomy, Platonic philosophy, Judaism, and Christianity), but it does not permit regular immigration, and free trade. Unlike for More and Campanella, who have highly visible monarchies, Bacon keeps governing institutions very much in the background, and focuses on Salomon's House  - a prototype of a baroque scientific academy, but also easily recognizable as a Mage's Guild and an employer of adventurers. Salomon's House can direct visitors to procure spell components, seek out ancient tomes and worthy collaborators, and even influence foreign politics by placing desirable candidates on thrones (if they are judged as having potential for advancing knowledge). At the same time, adventurers who reside in New Atlantis over long periods may find that as foreigners, they are deliberately excluded from the halls of power, prevented from integrating into the society, and used to destabilize the outside world to promote the New Atlanteans' "security". 
  2. Magic Mountain (Thomas Mann).     A sanatorium high up in the Swiss Alps attracts all sorts of ailing and neurotic patients. Although the book offers subtle commentary on fin de siècle Europe and various modernist projects, it can easily be read as early magical realism. The mountain is separated from the mundane world in the manner of a D&D demiplane, or a World of Darkness horizon realm, and escape from the sanatorium is either impossible or inadvisable (steep cliffs, or possible yetis/icepeople, as the GM sees fit). The denizens of the sanatorium - great models for quirky NPCs - may also be powerful mages, who are seeking to entrap other visitors in their lunatic fantasies (further horizon realms that could be directly accessed from their quarters). The inmates may even be deity-level entities, who appear as patients, but who are simply using the premises to test their mad schemes upon the world. The set-up is somewhat similar to Paranoia, or a Cthulhu Now adventure, set early in the digital age at an asylum where Cthulhu has infected a computer. Here, the role of the mad computer or Cthulhu can be played by a divine-rank psychiatrist, or perhaps even by the gnomes of Zurich, who live deep under the mountain, preparing to unleash a golem-like Davos Man upon the world in another half century.
  3. Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov).     The Devil, who holds an annual ball in a chosen city, has selected early Soviet Moscow, and has descended upon it with a retinue made up of Princes of Hell, in various guises. Some appear as gangsters, some - as middling bureaucrats, and at least one (named Behemoth) - as a human-sized, bipedal black cat. Along the way, they engage in theological debates with Marxist functionaries, hold seances of mass hypnosis, grant pacts to initiates (including the main heroine), and turn a theatre manager into a vampire for refusing to take his own phone calls. This is almost an ideal setting for an urban fantasy using Mage: the Ascension rules, as it involves hefty doses of paradox-generating spell use that completely undermines (or backhandedly promotes) a newly established regime of the Sons of Ether who have gone over to the Technocracy. Additional fun may be had courtesy of one of the resident NPCs (the novel's hero), who is building a conduit to ancient Judea in order to explore the relationship between Procurator Pontius Pilate and a certain Yeshua of Nazareth. For additional hijinks, throw in some of Bulgakov's other plot lines into this setting (a mad scientist who creates a dog-human hybrid; another mad scientist who makes a mistake, and imports the Eggs of Doom into his lab).
  4. War With The Newts (Karel Čapek).     Čapek is best known for inventing the neologism "robot", and with it, the trope of robot revolt against human masters. War With The Newts is a more mature, and in my estimation, better written work (Čapek's gifts as a lyrical writer comes through much better in novel than in dramaturgical form), but it explores many of the same themes. In the book, some pearl divers in the East Indies discover a colony of intelligent, amphibious newts. Local people are aware of them, and advise European sea captains to steer clear of the "sea devils", but sure enough, soon the newts are caught up in the wheels of industrial civilization - first, as zoo curiosities, then as laborers, and ultimately, as fodder for raw materials (the macaroni-class newts, bred on a mass scale simply to produce tissue for manufacturing and pharmaceutical concerns). The newts are overbred to such an extent that the World Ocean soon becomes too narrow for them, and a movement led by a Grand Salamander springs up virtually overnight to make demands to expand the ocean at the expanse of the earth's landmass (where the human masters reside). This is a great 1930s style pulp setting, though given the obviously environmentalist themes Čapek conjures up, it can easily be transposed to an apocalyptic scenario set in our own time.
  5. Old Khottabych (Lazar' Lagin).     This is a children's book that was originally published during the height of the Great Purges, but still gave several generation of Soviet (and post-Soviet) kids one of its most beloved heroes - Old Khottabych. A powerful djinn named Hassan Abdurrahman ibn Khattab (Russified as Khottabych) is punished by the King of the Djinns Suleiman ibn Daoud (the Biblical King Solomon) and imprisoned in a sealed bottle, which is then thrown into the sea. 3000 years later, it is discovered by 15-year old Young Pioneer Vol'ka Kostyl'kov, who scrapes off Solomon's Seal, and releases the djinn from his imprisonment. Khottabych has no greater wish than to shower his young benefactor with wealth (jewels, palaces), and to shield him from problems created by teachers and fellow students, all of which he effects by tearing hairs out of his prodigious white beard, and muttering ancient incantations. In Vol'ka, however, Khottabych meets his match, because the young man takes it upon himself to reeducate the djinn, get him to abandon his retrograde ideas on slavery, hierarchy, the power of money, and miracles, and to exchange them for faith in equality and technology: the novel ends with the djinn abandoning magic to become an engineer. Despite the clear ideological message, a lot of people read it as tongue-in-cheek; in any event, Khottabych's popularity is caused precisely by his colorful use of magic, and his eccentricity. In many ways, Khottabych is a Soviet version of the Famous Five books (the djinn leads Vol'ka and his school chums on global expeditions on a flying carpet, to battle Italian fascists and American bankers). It is perhaps even a forerunner of I Dream of Genie, which essentially shares its main plot line.  
  6. Neznaika (Nikolai Nosov).     Another classic Soviet children's book that later grew into a trilogy. Neznaika (literally, 'Know-Nothing') is a garishly-dressed bad boy with no obvious skills or talents aside from fighting, teasing, and generally annoying his friends. He is a Little Person, and lives Flower Town with others of his kind. But this classic children's book set-up soon yields a lot of peculiar elements. Neznaika's home is a gender-segregated commune, and when he inadvertently becomes the leader of a hot-air balloon expedition, he and his commune mates end up in a wholly gender-segregated town, whose population split into two separate settlements as a result of a war between the sexes. In the sequels, where Neznaika and friends travel to a suspiciously Campanella-like Sun City, and then to the Moon, it becomes clear that Neznaika's society is also a classless, money-less communism. Its denizens refer to one another as Brother, have mostly technological and artistic inclinations (but no religion), and end up leading an effort to help Little People on their moon to overthrow a rapacious capitalist order. At the same time, Neznaika, like Khottabych, is a lovable rogue who enjoys taking self-important and preachy Little People down a notch, and who exhibits leadership qualities precisely because he doesn't play by the rules. The fact that he doesn't exhibit much personal growth from book to book is a stark contrast with, say, The Wind in the Willows, where the forces of order succeed in taming Mr. Toad, and getting him to see the error of his ways. The setting, which encourages colorful (if whimsical) characters is easily reinterpreted as a fey scenario with a dose of windpunk and steampunk thrown in for good measure. 
  7. Generation P (Viktor Pelevin).     This is a post-Soviet answer to Generation X and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas. A literature student comes of age in the very late Soviet period, when the country had already effectively lost the culture wars to the West (the "P" in the title stands for "Pepsi", which became a major American import at that time). As he watches the system collapse around him, he is forced to apply his literary talents in advertising agencies, translating Western ad campaigns into a cultural medium that will be understood by culturally disoriented, and then increasingly nationalist Russophone audiences. After notable successes at work, psychedelic experiences in a decaying post-Soviet countryside, and seances with the ghost of Che Guevara, the hero is discovered by the mysterious and debauched Ministry of Beekeeping, which, as it later turns out, operates a media-driven virtual reality, which, among other things, is responsible for designing the entire Russian political system. But behind the Ministry is an ancient Babylonian cult, whose leader must consummate a ritual marriage with the goddess Ishtar in order to prevent an ancient apocalyptic beast from manifesting in Russia's northerly wastes. This setting, which combines the Matrix, occult conspiracy, and biting social and political satire, would make a good backdrop for a Virtual Adept-centered Mage campaign, especially as it can be supplemented by Pelevin's other World of Darkness-resonant themes (e.g. "A Werewolf Problem in Central Russia"). 
  8. Baudolino (Umberto Eco).     A 12th century bard, scholar, and likely pathological liar, the title character sets out to find the kingdom of the Legendary Prester John. After his patron  - the Emperor Friedrich Barbarossa dies in the course of the Third Crusade, Baudolino continues eastward into the distant lands of the medieval European imagination. Some are inhabited by the classic beasts of fantasy RPG lore (manticores, basilisks, chimeras, satyrs, rocs, and unicorns), while others  - torso-faced blemmyes, skiapods, and the dog-headed cynocephali - have, inexplicably and unjustly, been ignored by designers of fantasy races. What Eco presents in this lesser known book (compared to the Name of the Rose and Foucault's Pendulum) is a veritable master-class of medieval-type fantasy world design. Not only is there a credible (given sufficient suspension of disbelief) articulation between the real medieval world (from which player characters likely originate), and a fantasy realm packed with legendary beasts, monsters, and potentates; there is also a truly medieval geography - the eastern edge of the oikoumene, where Prester John's realm is located, simply ends: as in Pratchett's Diskworld, water falls off the edge of the world. It's hard to count all the people who won't countenance any but high-magic campaigns, and yet insist on drawing up continents on a globe, where standard physical laws must function. To account for this world's existence, one of the characters  recounts a Gnostic creation myth - a red thread that runs through most of Eco's novels. That makes it possible to run Baudolino as an occult conspiracy game like Nephilim, or, both of which strongly feature historical conspiracies and have modern echoes. But standard D&D - with a twist - is also an eminently workable option.
  9. We, the Gods (Bernard Werber).     We, the Gods, and the other two books of Weber's Gods Cycle, rest on a fairly simple premise: cultural heroes of each nation (both fictional, like the book's narrator, and real, like most of the supporting cast of characters), after spending time as transfigured angelic spirits guarding their assigned humans, are promoted to deity status. As gods, their quarry is no longer individual people, but civilizations. They are given training in world design by establishment deities (most notably, the Olympians), and then set loose on a planet of their own, contending against other newly-baked gods, to see whose civilization will come out on top as the globally dominant one (notably, Werber is a believer in a single world government). Along the way, they engage in intrigues against one another and the tutor gods (most importantly, Aphrodite), and try to give their people a push by entering their own civilizations in mortal guise. Ultimately, the series is best described as Sid Meier's Civilization video game transformed into an RPG. There are annoying aspects of the cycle, like the author clearly favoring 'his people', strongly drawn contrasts between "good" and "bad" civilizations, and strange takes on Toynbee's notion of civilizational affiliation (the Americans are a modern incarnation of the Romans). Still, it's an interesting twist on most conceptions of divine characters in play, and could be fruitfully portrayed using a game system such as Exalted or Scion.
  10. The Yiddish Policeman's Union (Michael Chabon).     Although it won the Nebula Award, this book is not commonly identified with the sci fi genre, but is better described as a noir detective novel meeting alternative history. Set in Sitka, Alaska, which became a locus for a resettled European Jewish population at the start of the Second World War, the novel looks at the final days of the autonomous settlement, which is to revert to the State of Alaska at the end of its 60th year. The resettlement plan succeeded in rescuing the majority of the Jewish population from the Holocaust, but the State of Israel never got off the ground at the end of the war, and Palestine is a messy jumble of sectarian statelets beset by militants of various stripes. The novel's hero - hard-drinking police detective Meyer Landsman - tries to solve a murder mystery as he negotiates the divide between Sitka's Jews and the native Tlingit Alaskans, pursues Jewish mobsters and millennarians, and uncovers an apocalyptic  US government conspiracy to usher in the Messiah and rebuild the Temple in a newly Jewish State. The unique and colorful setting could serve as a backdrop to an investigative game using the Gumshoe system, or perhaps even constitute a twist on an international espionage setting. But to me, Meyer Landsman and his Sitka offer a much richer take on a Dresden Files-type urban fantasy, with Yiddish dybbuks and Tlingit Land Otter People there as otherwordly presences for the professional wizard to summon, bind, and bargain with.    

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