Sunday, May 27, 2018

Galli As Character Class

I hate clerics, they make no sense. Or at least: they make no sense to me and pinning their magical abilities to level rather than faith doesn't make sense (since level is a measure of worldly experience not devotion). I also dislike that ecclesiastical hierarchy is implied by levels (why is the highest ranking in church hierarchy attained by adventuring? Why would an organized and established religion have mendicant priests going about doing odd jobs?). To rectify this:
  1. Clerics should be drawn from atypical religious practice 
  2. For religious reasons they are wandering around
  3. Their abilities should be mechanically linked to their adherence to religious behavior
  4. Their cult may be popular but being a traveling mystic is always somewhat strange
 I like the way several systems have you doing weirdo religious stuff so your god will listen to you (Logan Knight's homebrew mystic class, Mateo Diaz Torres' Pernicious Albion has Warlocks, The Cultist class in Johnstone Metzger's The Nightmares Underneath & Zzarchov Kowolski's Neoclassical Geek Revival Piety mechanic [as I understand it]). Having weird and powerful enough deity justifies following weird taboos and being a vagrant that tries to convert more worshipers to the fold. Exemplary of this are the Galli, as a historical curiosity (and occasional conversation piece in the 'is this a proto-trans population' debates): castrated followers of Attis the divine consort of Cybele.

[NB: I am taking a bunch of creative liberties to make this somewhat workable]

Who are they: castrated individuals[1] who dress in luxurious robes, attractive headgear (crowns, laurel wreathes, or Phrygian caps) and excessive makeup. Their hair is long and their features feminine. They have knives, bronze shields, and tympanum and dance ecstatically. They are preceded by frenzied music and wafts of heady incense. They bear a representation of their goddess atop a donkey. They perform for money. Because of the edict against castration of a citizen, they are drawn from the ranks of low born and foreigners. Sometimes they practice sacred prostitution. The object of equal measures of scorn and religious awe.

Why are they: they wander around and perform blessings (a shield dance over newborns, blessing crops to be fertile as Attis represents the life-death-rebirth cycle of crops) and tell fortunes. The actual operations of the cult are opaque (it is, after all, a mystery cult).

Domains: the boundary between life and death, the wild (particularly birds of prey and lions), frenzied dancing, mountains and stones in general. In chthonic ritual practice can contact an ancient race of smiths/magicians who can work metal, teach the secrets of mathematics and literacy and bestow magic; they will also witness oaths and bind them. 

Ways of winning divine favor: Convert followers to worship, observe the holy week of Attis being pledged to Cybele, being castrated, dying and being reborn, make a sacrifice of a ram to Attis (Criobolium) or a bull to Cybele (Taurbolium), ritually sacrifice the testicles of a potent animal, observe minor holidays organized around the import of Cybele's worship. Flagellation and frenzy demonstrating devotion. Give solid agricultural advice in line with the religious calendar.

What are their powers: Lions will not attack them (so long as they are playing divine music) and can potentially be commanded (birds of prey are the same), they can make things fertile, they can communicate with powers under the earth to learn the art of metallurgy, magic, mathematics or literacy, they can shape stone and commune with the dead. They can perform a shield dance and enter a battle frenzy.

How is one initiated: the only requirement is the devotion necessary to castrate oneself in a fit of divine madness during the 'Day of Blood' (March 24) in symbolic mourning for the temporary death of Attis. Then you become a mendicant priest and perform for the glory of Attis & Cybele.

[1] Galli are in various sources referred to with masculine pronouns, feminine pronouns and 3rd gender pronouns sometimes pegged to if they have castrated themselves.

Thursday, May 10, 2018

The Cult of Aesthete Assassins

"People begin to see that something more goes to the composition of a fine murder than two blockheads to kill and be killed—a knife—a purse—and a dark lane. Design, gentleman, grouping, light and shade, poetry, sentiment, are now deemed indispensable to attempts of this nature.... To sketch the history of the art, and to examine its principles critically, now remains as a duty for the connoisseur"
—Thomas de Quincey, "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts"
The Cult of Aesthete Assassins is the vulgar way of referring to The Society for Exquisite Excision. They are less a cohesive artistic school—let alone a guild of assassins as it is generally understoodthan an assortment of artistically inclined individuals—including theorists, critics and patrons—who view murder as a legitimate compliment/component to the other fine arts. A common confusion is that they only commit murder for hire; rather, there are as many rationales as there are methods of dispatch. Among the variegated rationales are:
  •  the aesthetic contemplation of the act of murder
  • the attempt to beautify the world as an act of aesthetic philanthropy 
  • to preserve the legacy of an artist by killing them 
  • an attempt to intuit some transcendent principle or experience through the act of murder
  •  the use of body as medium for artistic expression
  • a means of experiencing the sublime
  • the scandalous/audacious (and importantly, attention grabbing) nature of murder as art
  • an expression of criticism
  • ennui
  • debt
  • inspiration
  • establishing a legacy
  • showmanship
  • pursuit of arete  
Despite their sanguinary pursuits, the primarily concerns are artistic debate, discussion, criticism, curation, manifesto writing, squabbling, feuding and cultivating the artist-as-product to accrue patronage. 

The cost to acquire the services of one is extremely variable and prone to numerous whims including if the artist is concerned with working on a particular type of person (only Countess' of a certain age, Men on the night of their wedding, ornithologists, philosophers, the beautiful) or with a particularly expensive medium in addition to the cost of having them produce the body (marble, gold, ivory, jade, porcelain, rare pigments [ultramarine blue, annatto, cochineal, Dragon's Blood, etc.] and so on) and fueling the vices and muses of the artist necessary for inspired work. 

Hiring one is as simple as joining their salon circle, getting their attention, and convincing them to take you on as a patron—it helps if they have a masterpiece they need more money to finish or they have creditors on their heels. It also sometimes helps to get them intoxicated first. It also helps if you suggest you have received a bid from their more successful rival.

What is a typical Aesthete Assassin Like?
There are no typical Aesthete Assassins, the work of art is a singular production. It is hyperbolic to claim there is nothing that can be generalized about Aesthete Assassins but they are extravagant (both in cost and final product) and the extravagance is part of their individual charm.

Almost Insentient, Almost Divine: regardless of the aesthetic principles embraced, as a rule Aesthete Assassins are always without fail very intentionally dressed. They may adopt some strange minimalism of wearing all black and painting their face chalk white—but in that case they spent hours perfecting the shade. They may appear disheveled but there are hours in front of a mirror capturing the exact ways in which they appear unkempt. They may wear impractical, expensive and gaudy fashions but they will often wear it only once because otherwise it loses its impact. The same goes for their personal appearance: regardless of what they have decided is the properly embodied aesthetic for them (perfect muscular symmetry, scarification to highlight portions of their body, elaborate tattooing, intentionally marring their appearance for juxtaposition) it is the product of studious contemplation and the relentless application of cosmetics, management of diet and exercise and selective use of whatever enhancement is available. The artist is an integral part of the work of art. This is reflected not only by their embodiment but also by their commitment to conspicuous consumption.

[consult Elizabeth Amann's Dandyism in the Age of Revolution: The Art of the Cut for inspiration if you like, or just look at weird avant garde fashions].

The fortuitous encounter of a sewing machine and an umbrella on a dissecting table: Aesthete Assassins have, functionally, subsumed all moral questions as questions of aesthetics and therefore spend most of their time contemplating aesthetics, debating the meaning and value of art with each other, justifying the enormous cost of their masterpiece and pursuing an extremely personal commitment to the aesthetic. To anyone outside of the system of aesthetic considerations guiding their behavior, they often seem arbitrary, addled and chaotic—what possible justification is there for bejeweling a tortoise to death? to mutilating the wings of 27 peacocks to create an exacting tableaux before setting them ablaze? to throwing expensive bottles of champagne into the ocean? 

[À rebours by Joris-Karl Huysmans has some excellent ideas about interior decoration and personal aesthetic vision].

Luxury Problems: Aesthete Assassins would rather starve than consume an inferior meal, freeze to death rather than wear an unfashionable coat and have a tendency towards expensive addictionsespecially ones that increase aesthetic appreciation. Common addictions include: hashish, opium, absinthe (with active wormwood), mandrake, nightshade, belladonna, nicotine, snuff and whatever is currently the most fashionable and new substance. Periodic reminder that for real there was a whole heroin chic thing around having tuberculosis, like it was considered a romantic disease (run with that).

Art is Hard: Aesthete Assassins struggle with the doubled vexation of wishing to be widely recognized for their craft, while also maintaining the quality of their works. Many rely on a host of interns and assistants [think Damien Hirst]. They also go through creative slumps, feel uninspired, feel required to exceed their last great work, or struggle with being hired on by provincial clients whose tastes are dull and pedestrian. This is why they have salons, in order to both vent about the narrow vision of their employers and criticize each other to even greater heights—also there is usually free food and drink.

The Medium is the Message (or some suggestions for Aesthetic Assassin mediums)
"whilst the portrait painter often has to complain of too much torpor in his subject, the artist, in our line, is generally embarrassed by too much animation"

Ceramics: Bone china can be produced using the target, possibly make them witness the conversion of their favorite hand into a teacup. Then utilize it in an elaborate tea service (the tea is poisoned; the poisons timed to the service).

Gastronomy: Obviously one can prepare and cook another human being in a variety of ways. On top of Hannibal, I would suggest The Cannibal's Guide to Ethical Living (Mykle Hansen) for a completely different take on the aesthete cannibal. Preparing a meal out of someone—even a sumptuous meal—can get repetitive. Gourmand Assassins also specialize in making foods that highlights being poisoned and still are irresistible (Fugu, Ackee, Cassava are all poisonous and popularly eaten).

Music: The obvious answer is using human derived catgut to string any number of instruments (a harp, violin, cello, etc.)—obvious answers are boring [gut strings are also used in some tennis racquets]. There are a lot of contemporary musicians that use bone derived instruments: Eraldo Bernocci [Obake/BLACKWOOD], Adel Souto [156], Christopher Juul [Heilung], and Michael DeWitt [Zero Kama]. Historically the Kangling (Tibetan horn made from a human femur) is used in ritual practice, Damaru (a kind of two headed drum) have been made from human skulls, there is a pretty cool Lyre made from antelope horns and a human skull in the Met.

Additional Arts (because otherwise this will go on forever): bodies can be taxadermied (including with flensed elements for aesthetic appreciation; think paintings by Bacon) which can also translate into an art installation or be inventively posed for depiction in another medium, skin can be tattooed, flayed off and made into a garment or canvas, the act of murder can be a performance (utilizing elements of mime, theater of cruelty, theater of the absurd, etc.). You can almost certainly do various sorts of printmaking using a human corpse. Various sorts of bone carving are among the earliest forms of art, scrimshaw is a very particular style. Andres Serrano (among many others) used a wide variety of bodily fluids in his compositions ["Piss Christ" is just well known]. These all can be done in conjunction.

There are probably many more I am not thinking of.

Suggested Reading:
Thomas de Quincey, "On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts"
Patrick Suskind, Perfume: The Story of a Murderer
Hannibal (TV series)
Maria Tatar, Lustmord: Sexual Murder in Wiemar Germany
Marcel Duchamp, "The Creative Act" 
T.S. Eliot, "Tradition and Individual Talent"
Ina Blom, "Boredom and Oblivion"
Johnathan Harris, Art, Money, Parties: New Institutions in the Political Economy of Contemporary Art 
Anything by Antonin Artaud, Georges Bataille, Gilles Deleuze.
Anything about the Vienna Actionists.

Sunday, August 6, 2017

RPGs Are A Brick Test

Last Edit: 8/1/2017

As a child, my therapist tested me for intelligence. One aspect of this testing was a Brick Test. The gist, if you want to ignore the link, is that you are given time to answer what you can do with a brick. Creativity is (allegedly) tested by enumerating a lot of answers. As a really shallow scratching of the surface:
  • You can probably hit someone with a brick, you could certainly throw it, could you make a bullet with it? What non-obvious weapon-like uses are implicit in a brick?
  • You could probably build something with it, a house or a fence are pretty obvious (assuming you can get many bricks or scale the brick up or down as needed). What sorts of architecture could utilize a brick that are not immediately apparent?
  • You could make a sundial or cave it into a simple wheel and depending on the stone used in brick-making you could maybe utilize it to start a fire, it certainly could be the basis for comparative weighing or a counter-balance in some machine. What sorts of tools could be shaped from a brick?
  • Building on the wheel, you could probably slap some wheels on a brick and make a very inconvenient skateboard or roller skate. What sorts of vehicles can be shaped from bricks?
  • You could sculpt something with the brick (even something functional like a key, at least in theory) or paint or decorate it. What sorts of art objects and utilitarian functions can be shaped from a brick? 
Ultimately, children tend to score higher because they aren't constrained by practicality, e.g. you may be able to build a boat with bricks but only a child would bother with considering something so impractical. The brick test itself is an excellent metaphor for RPGs.

Rules (whether light or pedantically enumerated) are taken up by players and applied to a situation which a DM provides in order to creatively approach the uses of the rules. Explicitly: players are given a series of moving parts (NPCs & Situations) and creative constraints (rules) which form a "brick" onto which they project a solution. In the best cases, like children, players come up with a strange and wonderful and implausible solution that they develop organically between the constraint of rules and the properties of a situation and NPCs. Some solutions are obviously more likely to succeed than others, hence the concept of "challenge oriented play." Conversely, rules heavy systems tend to limit the application of wild solutions because there is an appropriate skill to apply to the problem at hand. As a simple example: later editions of D&D abstracted the action of disarming traps by making it a skill as opposed to the older format of "ask the DM a bunch of questions and use resources to mechanically disarm a trap" (hence the confusing carryover of 10 foot poles to a system that utilizes dexterity checks and disarm traps rolls rather than prodding things with poles and jamming pitons into mechanisms). Personally, I prefer the latter. The counter argument of course is the purpose of the game is Hack n' Slash and traps are there to make the Thief feel good about not playing a combat focused class. Alternately, there is the narrative approach that the purpose of the game is to have long conversations and make social rolls.

Because of the conjoined potential for creativity (there is not a single solution to the problem at hand, merely increasing degrees of possible success) and openness (a referee isn't constrained by rules pushing a particular solution), I prefer an OSR approach. Opposed to the free-form nature of a more open set of rules, many contemporary approaches attempt to impose narrative and genre constraints by funneling players along a railroad so they may eventually come to a series of set pieces. For example, Pathfinder Adventure Paths and many WotC products accomplish this by setting the DC for checks that could bypass the solution they impose, providing plot armor for NPCs and making some encounters impossible for parties to even approach certain areas. The approach of many OSR products (there is plenty of dross) is to instead provide the party with: NPCs, a loosely defined area and some things happening around them so the party can jump into plotting, pilfering, and otherwise unleashing chaos (which leads to their own climactic set pieces that players had some agency in creating).

Drawing back a bit, let's say that a "brick" is one standard unit of fantasy; Elves are noble and sad, Peasants farm, Fighters fight, Dragons guard treasure. There is a lot of mileage to be gotten from this brick; as a counter proposal to simply creatively approaching the "brick;" I instead propose a sort of meta-Brick Test regarding RPGs. Therefore, the aim of this blog is to:

Assess RPGs to Articulate:
  1. The significance of an RPG module or system: why is it interesting, what it is trying to accomplish, how does it fit in to the grander pastiche of this pastime? Is there some aspect that proposes a significant alteration to the brick presented to the players?
  2. How can I reskin this into some grander or weirder design: what are the guts and bolts available to you if you pick this up, how can it fit into something you are already doing? How does this mutate the proposed "brick?" How does a crashed spaceship or mythic underworld or Fey kingdom redefine the parameters of the brick?
  3. Ultimately, and this is a gloss of a gloss, my interest in products explicitly for RPGs is more akin to some forms of literary analysis. What assumptions are baked into a system or module that (artificially) limit the more open and brick test-y solutions players would ultimately like to engage in (unless you play with an extremely boring table).
Assess Literature to:
  1. Amend Appendix N for more interesting outcomes. I actually am only familiar with some of the original Appendix provided by Gygax.  Keeping with the metaphor The Lord of the Rings has become a predominant influence in defining what a brick looks like (it also wasn't supposed to define the genre). This helps explain the really abysmal genre constraints that pop up. What happens if high fantasy is replaced with (my personal opinion) better reference works. This is something fueling quite a bit of the OSR, but the cannon can always be expanded (especially given the parallel renaissance in genre fiction which hasn't quite seeped into the conversation around RPGs).
  2. Explain why I assume something was in the appendix in the first place: there is a vision behind the original game and some of the choices are interesting in what they assume is the purpose and narrative to the game (I am not the first person to make this observation by a long shot).
  3. Come up with strange ideas that hopefully other people run with. Settings (and by extension PCs, plots, NPCs and monsters) could always use the fruitful integration of some new material, both in the sense of newly published and novel to be integrated. This, collectively, is a question of: what if we substitute a grapefruit for a brick? How about a knife? A block of wood? What different solutions and interactions are proposed by altering the implicit genre assumptions?
Assess Academic Literature:
  1. To figure out some totally weird quirks to move away from vanilla fantasy.  As a series of short glosses some of which are more fleshed out than others:
    • Anthropology is rife with the description of (often made up) social organization that absolutely could lead to some fascinating setting changes. James George Frazer describes kings slowly entombed by ritual; sacred and authoritative while, paradoxically, completely incapable of enacting government because of the sheer volume of rituals they were engaged in and taboos they were required to observe. Isn't this more interesting than another king with a crown directly petitioning a bunch of mercenary adventurers to fetch something?
    • Economics is strange because while money is always tied up in RPGs it is often abstracted, what happens if the world is cash poor and works on a barter system?
    • What sort of founding myths inspire a society? How would interacting with that society be totally different?
    • What historical epochs create good conditions for this sort of game, what can history do to fundamentally warp our brick? 
I think all of this flows into a sort of meta brick test: what can be done with various objects to fundamentally rethink how certain aspects of RPGs are approached. Perhaps in a narcissistic way: how does plotting out an adventure often constrain player choices and how can this be rectified and identified, how could a different sense of the world be generated from fiction and academic literature to produce a more robust, evocative or strange world. What are hooks, details, historical facts, alternative economies, weird rituals, etc that give players are more unique and rewarding brick to play with.

Obviously, this introduction is just that: an introduction (I will probably actually write content soon) but it makes sense that I should try to explain a project before embarking. This is co-run with Claire Diane (who will introduce herself in her own time) but who in my humble opinion is the better half of this collaboration.