Tim Powers: Interview With a Secret Historian

Mitch Wagner posted an interview with Tim Powers, everyone’s favorite fantasy/horror/science fiction writer — and still secret historian of the world, Tim’s distinctions aside.

I was particularly chuffed to see that Tim and I share an outlining style. Mine’s not nearly so exhaustive as his, because GMs have to be far more responsive to players than authors do to their readers, but I do like an outline, and when a bit of dialogue hits me as being possibly helpful, I’ll note it under the event in question, to have it ready.

The interview spans Powers’ career, from the beginning of his implementation of the Arthurian mythos in Drawing of the Dark and its role in the genesis of The Anubis Gates — surprising, right? — right up to writing Hide Me Among the Graves and figuring out what a person would see up on the dome of St. Paul’s in London.

[Hat tip to Kenneth Hite for the link.]

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Carnagecast 52: Penny Press

carnagecast-rss-image-300At last week’s Game ‘n Grill game day, I got to interview[1] Robert Dijkman Dulkes and Matt Golec, two local gamers who not only designed a game of their own, Penny Press, but entered it in a design competition and emerged as co-victors. Now they’re raising funds to make the game even better than what their prize money enables.

We talk about how the game plays, their design process, the experience of participating Tabletop Deathmatch, which is part concept pitch, part reality series, and more.

Go listen to it!


[1] Fun fact: we recorded this episode in a Sunday school art room.

Ye Liveliest Awfulness

Reading The Case of Charles Dexter Ward this weekend — probably a re-read, as it’s all very familiar to me — a question struck me: given that one of the founding principles of life in Lovecraft Country is that there were all sorts of unnatural doings afoot during America’s colonial period, particularly in the darkly wooded hills of New England — including the deeds of Keziah Mason, as related by The Dreams in the Witch House — why haven’t there been more role-playing opportunities set in that time period?

Certainely, there was Noth’g but ye liveliest Awfulness in that which H. rais’d upp from What he cou’d gather onlie a part of.
— H. P. Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward

Maybe I’m not aware of the texts that do so or maybe it’s because one of Call of Cthulhu‘s key themes is the modern person’s realization the universe is vast, ultimately unknowable and uncaring, but given everything going on at the time that crept down through the years to plague the residents of 20th century Arkham and its neighbors, it seems like colonial America is a natural time and place for mythos-based action. Even in Charles Dexter Ward, there’s an archetypal coterie of community members who take it upon themselves to protect their local world from the depredations of an evil alchemist. That screamed “party of wildly disparate yet bound by a common interest player characters” to me.

I see there’s at least one Chaosium monograph on the topic, Colonial Terrors. Have you ever run a Cthulhoid campaign or one-shot in colonial America? How did it go?

[Read ‘Em ‘Cause You Got ‘Em] GURPS Egypt

After a long trip into fiction and other casual reading, I came back to the role-playing stack with GURPS Egypt, yanked almost at random from the shelf. I think I was motivated by the desire for some crunchy history combined with some campaign frames, which tends to be the formula of the GURPS history worldbooks.

As a condensed history of ancient Egypt and summary of the culture, GURPS Egyptdoes its job. The culture section briefly covers the details of daily life in “ancient Egypt,” a period which covers about 5,000 years, so there’s got to be a lot of glossing over here, particularly for those elements of life that weren’t recorded or whose records didn’t survive.

The history section runs the span of the old, middle and new kingdoms, right into the common era and the last of the Ptolemaic pharaohs. It covers the aforementioned five thousand or more years in thirty-seven pages, which is not a task I imagine any writer would relish. As it is, the history section reads like a litany of pharaonic rules and the reasons they were deposed, with some breaks to focus on especially interesting figures — like Hatshepsut, the former pharaoh’s half-sister, who became regent on his death and took on a male aspect in matters of state.

The remainder of the book covers character types in a straight historical GURPS Egyptgame, some magical elements, supernatural creatures, the Egyptian pantheon of gods and some pages on role-playing scenarios and seeds. And this is where I was let down — maybe because I wrongfully expected more than one typically gets in a historical worldbook — in that nothing in the latter half of the book leapt out at me as especially “gameable.” Gameable meaning campaign or scenario frames that allow for the usual expectations of role-playing: a group of characters with a common tie or reason to work together, extraordinary action or storylines, and so on. Everything was just sort of enh. I thought for sure GURPS Cabal would get some kind of sidebar coverage, but no, not even that — though certainly the sidebars had some of the most interesting content, including paragraphs suggesting crossover with various other worldbooks. Just not the one I wanted, which is my own selfish desire.

While GURPS Egypt is a perfectly laudable effort in giving an overview of ancient Egypt, such as one can compress all those dynasties and thousands of years into one hundred twenty eight pages, I didn’t find anything in it that said, “Yes, this is a one-shot or campaign framework that brings it together.” So that was disappointing.

Hailing from the Fashionable Upper Cambrian

Just in case you needed a strata of rock of a particular antediluvian vintage from which a hibernating monstrosity may spring or creature may be reconstituted, here’s a list of known fossil sites around Vermont and the geological eras in the history of Earth to which they belong.

[via Geek Mountain State]

Hey Nonny Nonny, it's the God Damned Bat Man

High concept crowd-sourced sketches are a specialty of RPG.net. This time, they hit on something special with the idea of mashing up together Batman and the Robin Hood tales.

Opinions vary whether Batman should merge with Robin, or become sheriff of Gotham. I like the idea of Joker becoming the mad outlaw in the woods, with a very merrie band of loons and psychopaths.

The Occult Nature of Urban Renewal

Public domain image hosted by Wikipedia.

That is John Evelyn’s proposed plan for rebuilding London after the Great Fire of 1666. See anything familiar about it? It leapt right out at me, possibly thanks to the context in which it was referenced at Yog-Sothoth.com. Consider now this image, rotated to aid comparison:

Graphic by Eliyak, made public domain.

That’s right, Evelyn based his street layout on the kabbalah’s Tree of Life. My innate knowledge of London is sufficiently weak that I can’t line up locations with any confidence beyond St. Paul’s Cathedral, which is kindly marked on the details for Evelyn’s plan as location 8, meaning it corresponds with the sephiroth of Yesod, associated with Foundation, the moon and “the role of collecting and balancing the different and opposing energies of Hod and Netzach, and also from Tiphereth above it, storing and distributing it throughout the world. It is likened to the ‘engine-room’ of creation.”[1]

As Wren’s St. Paul’s was to be the centerpiece of the new London, perhaps St. Paul’s was to become the threshold between realms, as well as an “engine-room” receiving energy from the other places of power in Evelyn’s plan. To power what? Otherworldly portals? Memetic stabilizers to help London keep its conceptual shape and power?

In our history, Evelyn’s proposed layout for London never came to fruition. The rebuilt streets followed much the same lines as their predecessors and the general configuration survives today. Christopher Wren still had a hand in redesigning many other churches around London, in addition to St. Paul’s and infused them with plenty of mystic symbolism.[2]


[1] From Wikipedia’s article on Yesod.

[2] Alan Moore’s graphic novel From Hell contains a chapter which is, essentially, a tour of Wren’s churches that dissects the Masonic elements of his designs and — I think — some of the significance of their locations around London.

The Spirit Typewriter

Sunker Abaji Bisey's spirit typewriter.

Here’s an interesting gadget for ghost hunters: the spirit typewriter. As related by Phantoms and Monsters, the spirit typewriter is a variation on the Ouija board designed to remove the possibility of human interference.

A ring of blank typewriter keys is placed above the arm mechanisms. The ring can spin freely, so the user doesn’t know which key imprints which letter on a paper tape. In theory, whatever messages a person is compelled to type out on this machine should be more believable than anything received via a traditional spirit board, the output of which could be a result of the ideomotor effect.

This channeling device reminds me of a character I came up with a couple years back, the ghost writer. Jenny’s automatic writing talent — or affliction, depending on your perspective — assumes she writes in longhand, but the spirit typewriter could be an interesting prop for her. Perhaps a team of paranormal investigators insists she use it to prove her talent is genuine; it would probably flummox any aspiring author from a premechanical era. Or maybe it’s the only way her talent works; that would make more sense in a context where it’s a boon, rather than a duty or intrusion on her life. If Jenny made her living selling dead people’s work, needing the typewriter to do it and overcoming its loss or damage would work for her needing a favor from intrepid occult experts.

Conspiracies and Secret Societies: The Complete Dossier

While laid low over the past weekend with a cold, I took the opportunity to delve into some books that lay untouched on my bookshelf for too long. One of them was Conspiracies and Secret Societies: The Complete Dossier by Brad and Sherry Steiger. It’s a massive tome that I picked up mostly because I kept hearing ads for it on some podcasts and at the time, I had more Paperbackswap credits than I had uses for.

As it turns out, it’s something of an informal encyclopedia on none other than conspiracies and secret societies in history. Rosicrucians, the Trilateral Commission, the Rockefellers, the assassination of political figures throughout the centuries; it’s all in there. Hundreds of oddball topics get some page time in this book. It’s a great way to skip around subjects. You can read up on the Theosophy movement and Madame Blavatsky, then move on to orgone radiation before taking in the Knights Templar.

It’s all grounded in historical fact, mind you. There are no flights of fancy or bisociation. The Steigers’ short articles, typically drawing on Internet resources, but also many traditional works, present the real world perspective as their book is nominally non-fiction — in that they don’t purport that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s workings actually achieved anything, just that there was an order and its members did stuff like that.

Coming off Things That Never Were and my refresher course in Suppressed Transmission, this book reminded me that it’s not all about making stuff up for role-playing games. There’s still plenty of ideas to mine here, but it’s a sober testament to the fact this stuff changed real people’s real lives, for good or worse.

Conspiracies and Secret Societies: The Complete Dossier is published by Visible Ink Press and is available today.