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Can't you hear that singing, sounds like gold
Maybe I can only hear it in my head
Five years ago, we owned that road
Now it's rolling over us instead
Waylon Beulay is dead


Five years ago tonight (same day of the week, too) was the final session of Unknown USA. I hope to post something longer to mark this little anniversary in the next few days, but I am packing the car just now for (appropriately enough) a long drive. Much love to my old and often missed road-tripping companions. Pancakes are on me.
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A few months ago I mentioned the film student who was interested in trying to turn Unknown USA into a screenplay. He and I have bounced a couple of emails back and forth since then with him asking for clarifications and elaborations of various things on the wiki. All y'all who have GM'ed before know how fun and rare and self-indulgent that is, somebody actually asking you to yammer on at length about some old game of yours. So that's fun.

The first question he hit me with was "what's the deal with Danny Greer?" and my answer turned into a frickin novel, which, among other things explains what the hell I thought was going on in that session with the Hollow Earth and the Silver Age Knights of the Road and the Oneiros. Which you sure didn't ask to read, but that's what LJ-cuts and the vertical scroll bar are for. )

Adaptation

Apr. 28th, 2008 04:32 pm
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So as the seven stalwart players (although not Chris F., with whom my only contact is occasional ghostly music on my car radio late at night) already heard, a film student emailed me the other day to ask if I was the person behind the game Unknown USA, and if so, if it would be OK for him to adapt it as a screenplay. I said it was up to the other players as well as me, but that if he wasn't doing anything commercial, I didn't have any problems with it, and indeed I'd love to see the finished project when it's done. (If any of you who played in the game do have reservations, let me know. It's your baby as well as mine.) It's just a student project, but it's flattering, and hey, who hasn't imagined a screenplay or a movie of one of their games?

But I'm already doubting if I have the equanimity for adaptation: I said in an email something about how big and sprawling the story was and that I wondered how it could be shaved down into a screenplay. The student said "oh, I know I'll have to cut things - for instance, I was thinking the Doc Lully subplot will have to go." And in my head I was instantly CUT DOC LULLY NO WAY HOW CAN YOU CUT DOC LULLY WITHOUT LULLY THERE'S NO IAM AND NO DERO AND NO WILLIAM JENNINGS BRYAN IV IN MEXICO AND DANNY'S STORY WON'T MAKE ANY SENSE AND DANNY'S LIKE DOROTHY, HE'S THE MORAL CENTER OF THE WHOLE THING!!! Even though intellectually I can see how one might cut the Lully-IAM-Monarch mind control/historical shift part of the story, the truth is my emotional response would be the same to any cut. The homicidal state trooper with the chimp? The Cuban cop with a walk-on part in the second session? The old couple selling frozen lima beans outside Ochopee Swamp? Deathless brilliance, I tell you! Remove the tiniest figment and the whole masterpiece collapses like a house of cards!

Would you be any different if it was your game?
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Attention Unknown USAkateers: John Hodgman is Ben Siegel.



That is all.

get it? PC? like player character?
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[livejournal.com profile] jeffwik beat me to posting about the Kansas / geographic center of North America thing, but those just getting hip to the John Hodgman tip should check out my latest OITNN post for lazy, excerpted goodness. There can be no doubt, as I said in a couple of LJ comments, that Hodgman is One Of Our Tribe Made Good.*

[livejournal.com profile] mgrasso caught me off guard today with an three-line email - not a post, an actual email! - asking me how I've been doing lately. The novelty of it has flummoxed me and I will need a few days to answer properly, but thanks for asking, Mike.

*I neglected to excerpt Hodgman p. 78: "Great Rivalries in Dungeons & Dragons".

2000+1d4

Jun. 21st, 2005 05:25 pm
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I'd better skip ahead a bit, brother: yesterday was eaten up by moving stuff, and my desktop gets packed up tomorrow, and everything else gets packed up Thursday, and then we're in limbo for two weeks and I don't know how much I'll be online.



My 2001 entry was going to be about moving to JP, and the night my car was stolen and we were inexplicably traumatized by a little girl jive-dancing on the subway, coming back from a fancy dinner we couldn't afford. By extension, it was going to be about class and race in America and coming to terms with all that. Though I could have also talked about giving up finger-quotes for Lisa, or getting traction on the dissertation, or the time these dudes flew a couple of planes into some buildings. And then 2002 was all about weddings, ours and the seven others we went to that year. But some of you have been waiting patiently for me to get to gaming, and since it's half of what we talk about around here, I've got to cover it. I just don't know how to do it justice.

Big pile of gaming memories behind the cut. )

Yeah, you probably had to be there. But if you were there, thanks. Because we were there together.
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The Arrogant History of White Ben, by Clemence Dane
This is an odd one. Cited by the Great and Terrible Ken Hite in his Suppressed Transmission column about scarecrows, it's a weird forgotten novel from 1938 in which a scarecrow comes to life and becomes the King of England. The scarecrow's name is White Ben, and entirely by coincidence, Ben is also the name of the Scarecrow Who Would Be King in our Unknown Armies game. So obviously I had to track this down.

It is a strange book, musty and seemingly out of its proper history, not unlike good old Harry Smith's anthology. I think I was the first person to check it out of Widener since the late 1940s. In the book, there is a war on, and has been for as long as anyone can remember. With Germany, one presumes, though it might as well be the Hundred Years' War—nobody remembers what the war started for and nobody expects it to come to an end anytime soon. It's just something that England endures. Then Ben, the scarecrow, comes to life. And he hates crows. That's pretty much his sole motivating passion. But when he talks about killing crows, everyone assumes he's talking metaphorically about whoever it is in society they don't like. So they believe he's giving voice to all their hatreds and prejudices, and they love him for it. It's like the Anti-Being There. White Ben is the evil opposite of Chance the Gardener. Ultimately, they make him King or something and he presides over a bloody holocaust where everyone suspected of being a "crow" is killed. It has a storybook quality to it that is a little reminiscent of Oz, but it's dark as hell.

"The night was a noisy one. More were killed than even Ben had proscribed, in his astonished anger that there still existed such monsters, scums, filths, dwarfish horrors. In short that there existed people who would not agree with him. … Ben's plan for testing a crow had become known, and many were flung from roofs and windows to die slowly on the pavements or to be trampled under the looters' feet. Houses were set on fire, and men and statuary shot to pieces. Nevertheless there was a certain good-humoured regret about the business, a general feeling that the fun couldn't last forever."

I must admit I didn't make it cover to cover. I read to page 182, but that took weeks, then skimmed the rest. The musty unworldliness of it all put me to right sleep within pages every time I picked it up. As occasionally happens with books of this sort, the fact that the book exists is probably cooler than the actual activity of reading it. (But I haven't returned it to the library yet—so if anyone local wants to take a crack at it...)
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We played Unknown USA last night. Fun session (for me, at least—I hope all that sitting around the cornfield wasn't too passive for the players) with more guy-hanging-from-a-ferris-wheel comedy than you might think possible. It's great to have Brant back, too. His animated disgust at just about everything that happens to his character is like ambrosia for a GM.

[livejournal.com profile] bryant and [livejournal.com profile] jeregenest, both of whom are genuine published RPG authors, with all the wealth and status that entails*, have been telling me, half seriously, half in jest, that we should write up and submit our game as a possible sourcebook for Atlas Games. Knowing me and knowing my schedule, I don't think that will really happen, but their praise is flattering, and it's fun to think about.

Like I said, it's not going to happen. But if it did, it might go something like this... )

*OK, that sounds sarcastic, and the "wealth" part is, but they do have genuine status in my eyes at least for having both the creativity to come up with such cool stuff and also the stick-to-it-ness to turn that cool stuff into genuine published work. I leave it to you, gentle reader, to guess which of these two qualities I myself possess, and in which quality I am lacking. Speaking of which, once I post this, didn't I have a dissertation I was supposed to be working on?
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We played Unknown USA again on Monday night. I thought it was a good, powerful session, thanks to my fine players, especially [livejournal.com profile] editswlonghair, whose characterization of the hellbound blues man Blind Joe Biscuit has gotten so damn good since John & I decided to kill him off! He was good before, mind you, but now I just keep dumping bad shit on him, and John just runs with it, in a performance that is by turns funny, dark, and sad.

But the night did have a weird and not entirely healthy energy to it, as one player noted. Part of that was some sharing the spotlight issues, I think. But also things got a little heavier in tone than I expected. I actually put the Hell House in to lighten things up, if you can believe it, to make fun of all this talk of devils and final judgments and Hell. Things got a little creepy and it ended up being the second time in this game that I've squicked myself out a bit (the first being the infamous crackhouse in New Orleans—damn! it just occurred to me I should have called that crackhouse the House of the Rising Sun!).

Anyway, [livejournal.com profile] bryant has now put his fantastic summaries of the game online, and they're all here (in reverse order). Those playing have already seen the "Dear Brother" letters, of course. I offer the link for my non-local and even my non-gaming friends. Yeah, I know, first-person narratives of somebody else's RPG campaign, not exactly the top of everyone's must-read list. But take a peek. Bryant writes them exceedingly well and the game is, if I do say so myself, kind of cool.

...

Semi-related: I made CDs for the players in my game (cough**I'm such a geek**cough) of all the rootsy Americana music that had inspired it—James McMurtry and Drive-By Truckers and Robert Johnson and The Band and so on. If you've got a taste for that y'allternative shit I highly recommend Boot Liquor, an internet radio station from the fine folks at Soma FM. Soma also brings you Secret Agent (swank spy-fi) and Groove Salad (ambient beats and grooves), both of which are great 21st century muzak to work to. Got Groove Salad on right now.
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Let's drop the pretense that I use this LJ to talk about anything other than gaming... :)

Big big Pantellos game tonight, with Jeremiah doing the gutsy thing of pulling the curtain back and revealing a major chunk of the world's secrets. Pantellos Thoughts... )

Also a good post-game conversation about where the game was going, and some input on Unknown USA, which I need to get rolling again before too much more momentum is lost. UA Thoughts... )
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My interests in weird history, old music, and RPG geekery combine:

In the UA game last night, the PCs got a hold of an occult text in the form of six vinyl LPs: the Anthology of American Folk Music. The version you can buy from Amazon on 6 CDs might not be quite as unearthly as the one I imagine in our game world, but it's pretty darn close.

You can read about it here and here and here, but the best source for the Anthology as occult text is Greil Marcus' The Old, Weird America (and how could I not pick up a book with that title?). Marcus writes about music the way Reese Beulay talks about roads. Some people can't stand it (note the little dig in the Salon article); I like him a lot.

The Anthology was a mystery ... an occult document disguised as an academic treatise on archaic musicology. ... It was an insistence that against every assurance to the contrary, America was itself a mystery.

The original Anthology was a collection of eighty-four performances on six LPs. The records, colored to represent symbolic elements (air, fire, water—and in our game also earth, silver, and gold), are illustrated with an alchemical etching of something called "the Celestial Monochord." The original liner notes contain quotes from seventeenth century alchemists like Robert Fludd. ("In Elementary Music The Relation Of Earth To The Sphere of Water is 4 to 3, As There Are In The Earth Four Quarters of Frigidity to Three of Water." ?!?)

Again, Marcus writes:
On the covers of the Anthology volumes the monochord was shown being tuned by the hand of god. It divided creation into balanced spheres of energy, into fundaments; printed over the filaments of the etching and its crepuscular Latin explanations were record titles and the names of the blues singers, hillbilly musicians, and gospel chanters Smith was bringing together for the first time. It was as if they had something to do with each other: as if Pythagoras, Fludd, and the likes of Jilson Setters, Ramblin' Thomas, the Alabama Sacred Harp Singers, Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers, and Smith himself were calling on the same gods.

It's called an anthology of folk music and was a big influence on the folk revival of the 1960s, but it's much more the O Brother old-timey music than what I think of as 1960s folk (hang down your head Tom Dooley, poor Charlie on the MTA, that sort of thing). It throws together Delta blues and Southern gospel and Appalachian murder ballads and supernatural English and Scottish love songs going back two hundred years at least. Smith organized it all by subject, not by chronology or musical style or race, so we have a selection of women-murdering-their-children songs, then tragic accident songs, then judgment day songs, and so forth. The ballad of John Henry is on there, and the sinking of the Titanic, and Casey Jones' last ride. President Garfield gets shot by a hobo evangelist, Jesse James is laid in his grave, Stagger Lee shoots Billy Lyons in St. Louis, goes to Hell and shoots the Devil too.

Bob Dylan says:
Folk music is the only music where it isn't simple. It's never been simple. It's weird. ... All those songs about roses growing out of people's brains and lovers who are really geese and swans that turn into angels ... I have to think of all this as traditional music. Traditional music is based on hexagrams. It comes about from legends, Bibles, plagues, and it revolves around vegetables and death.

If all this wasn't cool and weird enough, there's Harry Smith himself, the guy that put this little collection together. According to Marcus, he was a notorious moocher, a dope fiend and an alcoholic, a hunchback stunted from his youth by rickets. Smith's parents were Theosophists, friends of Madame Blavatsky and Annie Besant. On his twelfth birthday, Smith's father gave him a lump of coal and told him to turn it into gold. Smith's grandfather was a leading Mason, and his great-grandfather, John Corson Smith, was one of many nineteenth-century mystics to refound the Knights Templar. Smith's mother sometimes claimed to be Anastasia, last of the Romanovs, and she told Smith that his true father was Aleister Crowley, with who she had a long affair in the 1910s and 20s. Harry studied Indian tribes in the 1940s and then fell in love with early recordings of blues and hillbilly music, which he collected in bootlegs of dubious legality that eventually became the Anthology. He roamed the country for years with no fixed address, though when he died in 1991 in New York, he had become known as "the Paracelsus of the Chelsea Hotel."

Glen: It's a crazy world.
H.I.: Somebody oughta sell tickets.
Glen: Sure, I'd buy one.
Raising Arizona
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Two very fun gaming sessions this week: [livejournal.com profile] jeregenest's Pantellos game on Sunday and Unknown USA last night.

In both cases I think one of the things that made it fun was that the GM was pushing a little, but not all the way, out of their regular comfort zone: Jere kicked off the Pantellos game with a great pulp action sequence—Chase scene on narrow Peruvian mountain road! Incan mummy and Tesla-Marconi gravitic radio in the back! Gorillas! FARCs! It's not his normal style, but I for one ate it up with a spoon. (OK, it turned out they were Shining Path, not FARCs.) But FARCs ("Farks!") is more fun to say.)

And in the UA game, I ran with much less script than I'm used to. About half the characters were on fairly well-prepared paths, but the other half were roaming around with really no preset storyline to follow at all. I had a few bangs to throw at them (and some goodies I didn't get to use) but nothing that had to happen or any real sense of where it would end up. That half of the group probably had more slow time (exacerbated by having 6 (!) PCs, including 2 that had just joined the group), but it also generated the most exciting moments of play (for me, at least), including a 1-in-a-100 roll by John as his old blues man recorded a song in a Memphis record studio. What do you do when someone makes a spectacular roll on something non-spectacular like playing a guitar?

Funny: Jere runs these intricate, intellectual games and I'm kinda pushing him for more straight-forward action. While in my gaming history, action has typically been everything, and I'm now trying to figure out ways to make a scene with an old man playing his guitar as exciting and as valid a climax as a car chase or a shoot 'em up. Playing what you know is good, but so is stretching your muscles.
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We're supposed to be playing Unknown Armies on Monday, and I'm kinda stumped as to what is going to happen.

I've got piles of ideas: weird people to meet and places to go and plots to be embroiled in and so forth. Coming up with that stuff is easy and fun. It's logistics that drive me crazy. How do I herd the PCs to the place where the story kicks in? Will they investigate lead A or lead B? Will they be interested in subplot C or subplot D? Now, I don't think that "railroading" is always the crime that a lot of gamers say it is. My Adventure! game was a massive exercise in consensual railroading and that seemed entirely appropriate for the genre. But it is a lot of work, and I'm not all that interested in doing it week after week after week.

I have this idea, though. If, say, I want to run a session where the PCs are in rural Appalachia searching for the Book of Good Roads, or are being chased by an implacable bounty hunter across the New Mexican desert, why can't I just start the session by saying "You're in rural Appalachia, searching for the Book of Good Roads." Or "You're in the New Mexican desert. A bounty hunter is chasing you." If I was going to run a one-shot, that's what I'd do, and nobody would complain. Couldn't you run an extended campaign this way?

It sounds like I'm robbing the players of their autonomy, and to some extent I am, but all the herding takes place "off screen," between sessions. In a lot of ways the players end up with more "in game" autonomy, because I've already established the situation I want to explore. They now have absolute freedom in how they respond to it. No need to spend half the session asking "What do you want to do? Wouldn't you like to look into that intriguing-sounding McGuffin that NPC muttered about last session? [clatter of dice] You hear rumors it might be in Appalachia..." And of course, if the players say, "but we wanted to go to Minnesota!" then I can always start out the next session with, "You are in Minnesota."

Basically it's the difference between a TV show like 24, where each episode leads directly into the next one, and one like Samurai Jack, where we have no idea how much time has elapsed between epsisodes or even what order the stories come in. The latter probably leads to a more picaresque, episodic story structure, but then that was always part of my plan for this game.
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Assorted entertaining Tarot decks: Oz, Rock & Roll, Peanuts, Hello Kitty. Click each image to see more.

The Nome King as The Devil Elvis as The Emperor Charlie Brown as The Hanged Man Hello Kitty as Death
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All that deceives may be said to enchant. —Plato

I'm hungry. Let's get a taco. —Mr. White

Here's a summary of player knowledge for my Unknown Armies game:

Campaign Level: Nationwide (somewhere between Street and Global)
Campaign Frame: Magickal Cabal / Clued-In Mundanes / Quest
Goals: Travel around, see the country, uncover its secrets. Keep moving, stay ahead of the people that don't like you. Maybe fix a few things, set a few things right. Maybe, just maybe, make a big score.

"Occult underground" isn't a term you use much. First, it's redundant. Second, it makes you sound like a geek. But there is an underground community, of sorts—a very loose network of people who have a clue, at least a shred of one, about the real U.S. of A., the one not shown on TV, not sold in any store. It's a world of crooks and a world of magick, with no clear dividing line between the two. Here's the gist of what you, as a group, have heard about the occult U.S.A... Read more... )
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The first edition of Unknown Armies, cool as it was, left a lot of people scratching their heads and saying "yeah, but what do we actually do?" The second edition tries to answer that with a series of "campaign frames" that spell out: who are the PCs? why are they together? and what are they up to? There's some very good suggested campaigns in the rule book. (I'm especially partial to "The Friends of Charlie Verrick," "Mobius Dick," "Guns Against Magick," and "The Tuxedo Brigade," plus the Ken Hite campaign referenced on p. 201. And "Banjo Music Aversion Therapy" from the 1st edition.) I've also come up with a bunch on my own (stealing from a number of sources), oriented to my goal of a traveling "road movie" campaign.

Some possible campaign frames... )

And people wonder why I haven't finished my dissertation yet...
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Here come a couple of lengthy posts about the UA game.

Underneath all the macho talk, the guns and the BOHICA rolls and so forth, Unknown Armies seems to me to be a game about character. I want to give the players as much input as possible as to the nature of their characters and the kinds of adventures they're embarking on. I have a setting in mind (highways, trailer parks, burger joints, motels, roadside attractions), a cast of supporting characters, and lots of ideas. But rather than impose a narrative structure right off the bat, I'd like the players to have input into who they are, why they're together, and, (in at least a general sense) what their goals are.

I've brainstormed some rather lengthy lists of ideas that will hopefully spark player creativity and suggest the kinds of things that I have in mind. But everything is open to negotiation.

First, some ideas about individual characters. )
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After talking about it for ages, I'm finally trying to get an Unknown Armies game started. Everyone who reads this journal has, I expect, already gotten the e-mail about the game (except, I guess for [livejournal.com profile] mgrasso—feel like commuting to Boston for the game?), but I'll post it here anyway so I can point people to it online.

Unknown Americana Teaser )

I've got a handful of interested players, all of whom I know would be great. The X factor for everyone, including me, is scheduling. If we can't make it biweekly, I might end up running this as linked, monthly one shots, with a recurring cast of characters but a more episodic structure than your standard campaign. Like the annual Cthulhu games I ran in college—there were connectors between stories, but because the gap between games was so long, each one had to be a satisfying chunk of story on its own.

I'll post some character ideas and campaign frames I've cooked up soon. This game has been in my head for a while and I've generated a fair amount of stuff.

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