Monday, 30 December 2013

Monday, 23 December 2013

Dead Man Talking

Heard an incredibly depressing interview on my drive to work this morning, in the grim wet gloom two days before Christmas.
Totally bummed me out, so I've squeezed it all out of me and onto paper. Keyboard. Screen. Whatever.

I listened to death today.
Not Death with a capital D.
No dour Discworld reaper,
nor gamine Gaiman goth girl, no;
I listened to a dying man,
who exuded his oncoming death
with each emphysemic, leukemic breath.                          

For half an hour in my car
I listened to him breathe his death
on Start The Week with Andrew Marr.
A man so near the end
you could feel the mortality
seeping out of the radio.
Blanketing me in the bleakness
the blackness
the sadness
of his poetry.

You're not dead yet Clive,
but I'm mourning you now
and thinking back
to the funny fat-faced man on the telly
saying 'Meanwhile, on Endurance…'
and showing us clips
of silly people from around the World,
and writing what is was like
falling towards England
with only a cardboard suitcase,
a Singapore suit
and mushy slushy Chelsea boots.

Normal light-hearted hijinks will resume in due course.

Wednesday, 4 December 2013

The Mighty World Of Me #1

Thought I'd try doing a webcomic. This is my first effort.

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Dan Brown's The Mysterious Thing

Now, I quite like a Dan Brown book, I do. Oi, come back. I haven't finished yet. Put your snarky snobbery over there on the side for a moment and read on. There will be amusement and mockery, do not fear.

As I was saying, I do quite like a Dan Brown book. I like the mysteries and the riddles and the stuff about the weirder bits of history. I even don't mind the bits about art and architecture, providing they're heavily laced with references to hidden clues and secret passages of course.

And sometimes the books have cool visual puzzles like the ambigrams in Angels & Demons and the map thing in The Lost Symbol. I actually sat down and decoded the map thing before reading any further, yes I did. I am that sort of a person. I also used to translate alien languages in comics, and for those of you who do likewise, what about that issue of Smalsh Yegger, eh?

But I diverse. I do like a Dan Brown book. I will freely admit that the writing, whilst perfectly competent, ain't great literature. But that's fine. I'm not after great literature, just an engaging mystery/adventure. And yes, the characterisation's non-existent, but who cares? I just wanna figure out the puzzles along with (and hopefully ahead of) tweedy protagonist Robert Langdon.

BUT. I am halfway through the audio version of the latest effort Inferno and I've figured out which aspect of Mr Brown's writing bugs me. It's the padding. My god, the padding. The endless pages of nothing much happening and nobody getting anywhere. I swear he uses a template much like the following to bump his page count up every other chapter...

* * *

The Mysterious Thing

Chapter nn

Robert Langdon glanced down at the Mickey Mouse watch that served as his personality. His age-nonspecific brow wrinkled in concern. Too fast.  They were moving through the plot too quickly. He had to slow things down somehow.

But how? Perhaps some internal monologue, debating his choices. Or should he? The threat of the Unusual Killer finding them was ever present. Could he afford to spend time reviewing the story so far and considering all the clues and puzzles for the convenience of the reader? Could he afford not to?

His mind wandered back to a lecture he had given about the Famous Dead Guy some time ago. Rehashing the deceased genius' life and achievements would not only serve to remind everyone that this story Could Actually Be True, but would also pad out a few pages with some judicious keystrokes from the Famous Dead Guy's Wikipedia page. And it would make an ideal flashback scene for the movie adaptation.

He paused in his reverie, suddenly aware once more of his surroundings. They were in the Fascinating Real Place, with its unusual architecture and collection of weird stuff. Tourists will come to visit this place after they've read this; I should get a royalty, Langdon mused. Though he did not muse wryly, as that would have suggested some sort of personality.  And in any case, he did not need the money, as his flashback lectures on Art History For Dummies seemed to provide him with a healthy income. Enough to keep him in tweed jackets and comfortable loafers, at any rate.

Running a hand through his brown hair, his only notable feature apart from the watch, he glanced over at his companion on this strange journey. The Helpful Young Woman was looking at the Intriguing Object she held in fascination.

'Robert', she began 'You were telling me a little about the Helpful Thing before we had to run away again. While we're hiding here from the Unusual Killer, could you continue for the benefit of myself and the reader?'
Langdon smiled. But not patronisingly, as that would have shown some sort of personality.

'More than a simple MacGuffin, the Intriguing Object is a device to guide the protagonist on his journey, revealing clues one by one. And by extension, the reader too is fed background on the Famous Dead Guy and the Mysterious Thing which we seek in maddening, bite-sized morsels. Just enough to keep them interested through the padded bits.'

'Like this one?' the helpful Young Woman said, peering out from their hiding place, bravely.

'Precisely.' Langdon was pleased. Under his paternal tutorship, she had rapidly adapted from the role of wrong person in the wrong place into a useful expository foil and capable companion, much like a Bond Girl or Dr Who assistant, though with neither the sex appeal of the first or the personality of the second. No matter, he reassured himself, she would disappear in between books anyway.

They went over the next clue again. Discussing it over and over, to give the readers a chance to work it out themselves and feel clever. Was it an anagram? Or an acronym? Perhaps a homophone or a translation? Fortunately, as the world's premier symbologist and explainer of things, Langdon was well qualified to unravel the secrets of the Mysterious Object, one tedious layer at a time.

He repeated the next part of the puzzle. If they could stretch this out for another paragraph, he would be able to use his jammy eidetic memory to solve the riddle. Perhaps if he went over the story so far just one more time, with the Helpful Young Woman asking lots of simple questions. But already he could feel the onset of another narrative shift, and with it another frustratingly oblique chapter from the perspective of the Unusual Killer and the Friend Who Is Actually The Main Baddie. Langdon checked his watch again and ran his fingers through his brown hair. But not nervously, because, well, you know.

* * *


Thursday, 12 September 2013

Scriptics: AKA - A Foggy Day In London Town

Well, hello again. I've been having a jolly good rummage through the Pouch's back catalogue of late, fishing out a few never-before-seen (except by everyone who knows me but weren't able to run away fast enough) products of my imagination. Comic strips, nasty digs at gamers, satirical tarot cards and the like. As you do.

This seasonal harvest of creative goodies is in no way linked to my starting a new grown-up job on Monday, thus signalling the end of a fun but ultimately financially punitive year off / sabbatical / mid-life crisis / failed attempt to make a living out of making shit up. Oh no. Nothing to do with that. Not an eleventh minute of the eleventh hour, half-arsed display of what one might laughingly call a portfolio of written work in order to remind myself that while yes, I might be going back to the old nine-to-five and taking the Man's dollar (pound actually) once again, secretly I am still a writer of mildly entertaining things which the day job is just there to fund.

Speaking of mildly entertaining, remember those little TV script excerpts I splurted out a couple of years ago? Stuff like AKA: The Children of the FieldsDepartment X and the Iron MenagerieThe Man From 2000: The Year of the Monkey?

What do you mean, No? I'm wounded. Oh alright, I forgive you, like I always do.

Once more with the introduction then. These scriptics are one-page scripts for fictional British TV shows from the 60s and 70s, which I wrote for the splendid game 7TV. They range from Dr Who meets The Avengers to Time Tunnel meets Adam Adamant. Yeah - that wide a range. Hey, whaddaya want from me? It's an homage to cult British telly, or as I like to think of it, everything I watched between the ages of seven and thirty-two.

In the scriptic below we return once again to the supernatural adventures of that mod mage of swinging London, Adam Kismet, played (in my head) by sixties icon Simon Dee. Or more precisely in this case, we return to Adam's friend and companion (we'd have said assistant or Girl Friday back in the day) Eloise Pargeter (probably played by Paula Wilcox), as she falls afoul of sinister devil-worshipper Sir Humphrey Lomax (almost certainly played by legendary heavyweight villain actor Charles Gray).

Throughout these scenes, kindly assume a modest TV budget, low rent effects, scenery chewing character actors and a cracking Radiophonic Workshop soundtrack...

* * *

6.30 Black and White
starring Simon Lee

A Foggy Day In London Town

Ms Pargeter decides that the best way to keep an eye on the enigmatic Adam Kismet is to move into the house next door. But moving day is interrupted a dense fog that blankets the city. And then people begin to disappear.
Ms Pargeter ...................... PAULA WILCOCKS
Fortnum ............................. RONALD CORBET
Mason ...................................... JOHN CLEASE
Sir Humphrey Lomax/
Magister Malleus .................CHARLES GREY

* * *

A London alleyway, wreathed in thick fog. Ms PARGETER, dishevelled but struggling is dragged before Sir Humphrey LOMAX by two of his burly CULTISTS. His lackey HAMILTON stands behind Lomax and whispers into his ear.

EFFECT – Smoke machine.

We ought to kill her, Magister.

No, Hamilton, not yet… Bring her to my sanctum.

He turns toward the rear door of the club.

A richly appointed wood-panelled study, adorned with occult idols, paintings and books. A walnut desk with a leather top. A high-backed chair behind the desk. A flimsy stool before it. LOMAX is in the highbacked chair. He is wearing the full black and gold robes of a magister. Ms PARGETER is sat in the flimsy chair, bound at the wrists and ankles. HAMILTON stands by the door.

EFFECT: Darkly lit by a reading light on the desk.

It is useless to struggle, my dear. Those bonds are quite secure, I assure you. 

He reverently pats an old leather-bound book on the desk.

Do you like my inner sanctum? It was here, many months ago that I came across the Ritual of Apollyon, a ritual I intend to enact, tonight!

You’re mad!

LOMAX (Chuckles) 
Am I? Is it madness to question the nature of this world? To probe the fabric of reality? In another time, another place, I would have been hailed as a visionary, a sage!

You’d have been burnt as a witch, more like!

Really, Ms Pargeter, I had hoped you would understand my viewpoint. Appreciate the historic challenge I have undertaken – to make contact with Those Who Lie Beyond.

So that’s what you’re doing! Adam said only a fool would try something like that.

LOMAX (Splutters indignantly) 
It is Kismet who is the fool! Wasting his talents in the service of those sheep out there. With his arcane skill, his knowledge, he could have bent this world to his will long ago! But soon, with the power I will wrest from Beyond, he will bend to me, and acknowledge that Magister Malleus is his better.

She gulps.

He said it was impossible. Nobody would have the willpower to resist those… things you’re talking about. He said their minds are so huge, they’d overwhelm anyone who even looked at them!

Do you question my strength of will, Ms Pargeter? I can assure you I am more than capable of carrying out my plans. Did I not summon the choking fog that even now paralyses all of London? Is it not my will that maintains the endless corridor that your precious Adam Kismet is doomed to walk until he starves to death?

You lunatic! I demand you let him go!

LOMAX (Slowly shaking head) 
I hardly think so, not at this crucial juncture. But… I think you still require proof of my power, my dear. Perhaps a small demonstration will suffice to convince you. Hamilton – bring the body in!

HAMILTON opens the door. Two robed CULTISTS enter carrying the dead body of GEORGE the milkman between them. They place it on the floor by Ms PARGETER’s feet and leave. Hamilton closes the door again.

PARGETER (Tremulous) 
That’s, that’s the milkman! He’s dead!

She cannot take her eyes from the corpse of GEORGE.

Life, death, these are mutable states of being, dear girl.  Surely Kismet has told you that much? Now, behold the power of a true magister of the forbidden arts!

LOMAX fixes his gaze upon the corpse of GEORGE.

EFFECT: superimpose glowing eyes on LOMAX.

The corpse begins to twitch and slowly begins to rise to its feet. Ms PARGETER struggles to get out of the chair, but the bonds around her wrists and ankles are too secure. The corpse of GEORGE sways upright behind her.

MAKE UP: GEORGE the milkman. Corpse pallor, blacked out teeth, opaque contact lenses.

LOMAX smiles cruelly and he switches his gaze to Ms PARGETER. The corpse of GEORGE raises its arms to her neck. Ms PARGETER screams.

Roll Credits.

* * *

There will be many more of these, as I feel the burning need to expose my one-page wonders to you in their full majesty. Later efforts will, I assure you, feature lobster men, Nazis and Diana Dors.

Wednesday, 11 September 2013

Reading the Screaming Cards

Go here for an introduction to the Screaming Cards.

Traditionally, there are 3 configurations or patterns for the cards, though variants do exist. None of the configurations use the entire pack, and all are arranged as follows:

  • The entire pack is shuffled thoroughly, usually by the person undergoing the reading ('the Guest').
  • The cards are dealt by the Guest face down onto the table, in the order and configuration indicated by the person carrying out the reading ('the Host').
  • Cards should then be turned over, so that they are facing the Guest (though advanced readings may make use of 'inverted' cards).
Readings for as given Guest may vary over time, due to the waxing and waning of various factors, both internal and external, such as emotional states, energy fields and planetary alignments.

The House
A configuration of the Self
Also known as the Palace or Mountain, this pattern represents the inner voices and influences of the Guest; their mind, personality and soul.

The House is made up of three distinct areas: the Door (outward persona), Windows (inner voices) and Roof (core aspects).

The cards should be dealt as follows:

1.      The Door
This is how the Guest chooses to interact with the World. It is their voice, outward demeanour and everyday persona that they use to present themselves to others.
2.      The Southwest Window
This is a minor negative influence. An inner voice with some malign effect on the Guest's daily activities.
3.      The Southeast Window
This is a minor positive influence. An inner voice with some benign effect on the Guest's daily activities.
4.      The Northwest Window
This is a major negative influence. An inner voice with a greater malign effect on the Guest's daily activities.
5.      The Northeast Window
This is a major positive influence. An inner voice with a greater benign effect on the Guest's daily activities.
6.      The West Roof
This is a deep, unconscious negative aspect or drive. It is also one of the Guest's spiritual guardians or totems.
7.      The East Roof
This is a deep, unconscious positive aspect or drive. It is also one of the Guest's spiritual guardians or totems.
8.      The Upper Roof (or Chimney)
This is the deepest core aspect of the Guest's current psyche. It is also the Guest's primary spiritual guardian or totem.

The Seasons
A configuration of Time
Also known as the Passage or River, this pattern represents the course of the Guest's life; be it the recent past and immediate future, or their entire lifespan. It may represent just one aspect of the Guest's life, such as their career, relationships, finance or health.

The Seasons are divided into rows for Spring (childhood, birth, renewal, rain), Summer (youth, growth, change, fire), Autumn (adulthood, maturity, stability, drought) and Winter (old age, decline, closure, ice). Each Season is made up of the central Earth column (the primary influence) and bounded by Sun and Moon columns (secondary influences). This of course uses 12 of the 13 cards in the pack. The 13th card is said to be 'outside time'.

The cards should be dealt as follows:

The Table
A configuration of the World
Also known as the Hall or Campfire, this pattern represents the external influences on the Guest. These may be individual people, groups or organisations. The cards ringing the table represents chairs, each one occupied by a different being with some effect on the Guest's life, whether that is on a daily basis, over a long period, or just once.

The Table has an upper female row, a lower male row, plus one card at the head and one at the foot. The male and female cards are labelled as such merely for ease of reference and may not actually represent individual men and women.

The cards should be dealt as follows:

1.      The Lord
Someone or something that that has great power over the Guest. Also known as the Judge.
2.      The Lady
Someone or something that that gives the Guest solace, comfort or sanctuary. Also known as the Abbess.
3.      The Brother
Someone or something that that the Guest trusts and relies on. Also known as the Sergeant.
4.      The Lover
Someone or something that that the Guest desires. Also known as the Mistress.
5.      The Rival
Someone or something that that the Guest is in competition with. Also known as the Opponent.
6.      The Maidservant
Someone or something that that the Guest uses for their own ends. Also known as the Serf.
7.      The Enemy
Someone or something that that means the Guest ill, or works against them. Also known as the Fiend.
8.      The Empty Chair
Someone or something that that the Guest has lost or has been denied. Also known as the Corpse.

Tuesday, 10 September 2013

The Screaming Cards

This obscure cousin to the Tarot first came to prominence in England during the reign of Elizabeth I (1558 – 1603), where for a brief period such noted mystics as the astrologer John Dee used their ability to divine the codified messages conveyed by the cards to win favour with the Queen. Elizabeth herself was said to be much taken with the Screaming Cards, privately consulting her own pack on several occasions on matters of state, and some say the heart.

Though popular belief considers the cards to be a product of Elizabethan England, the true history of these remarkable devices is far older, and lies much further east than many suppose. Whilst a full discussion of the various, often conflicting, theories on the origins of the Screaming Cards would occupy many pages, what follows here is a distillation of the latest, most scholarly thoughts on the subject. Avid students of esoterica and the paranormal alike will find this brief overview more of a taster than a comprehensive guide, and are encouraged to research further either online or in specialist libraries.

It was the Cistercian monk Roger de Hardgrave (1469 – 1547) who truly popularized the use of the pack among Tudor society, with the publication of his hand-painted English translations of the earlier German 'Linz' pack, or Schreiendekarten. De Hardgrave was an illuminator by training, studying first at Fountains Abbey in Yorkshire and then later at Heiligenkreuz Abbey in Austria. It was doubtless here that Brother Roger first encountered the Linz pack, inspiring the scholarly monk to adapt them for his English-speaking fellows upon his return to Yorkshire in 1538, just prior to the dissolution of the monasteries.

This so-called 'de Hardgrave pack' is the version that came into popular use at the court of Queen Bess, passing through the hands of Dee, the actor Edward Alleyn and of course the philosopher Sir Francis Bacon. Notable for their distinctive intricately painted scenes of Tudor life, it was this set of 13 cards that first used the English names for the symbolic characters we know today: Long Armed Jack, Peter Scatterkin, Master Nosedrip and so forth. However, with the death of Elizabeth and the crowning of the ascetic James I, de Hardgrave's Screaming Cards fell into disfavour. Few copies were subsequently made, the surviving packs decaying over the years or else lying forgotten in dusty corners of the Bodleian and Royal Windsor Libraries until their revival in the early 20th century by the likes of MacGregor Mathers (1854 – 1918).

Early History
The first known appearance of the Screaming Cards in Europe was in the 15th century, arriving along the Silk Road from India. They were carried and no doubt traded by merchants via Constantinople, Venice and Genoa, finally reaching the court of the Holy Roman Empire in Linz, where the Emperor Frederick III (1452 - 1493) was intrigued by the cards' supernatural ability to reveal his past, present and future. Our modern English name for the pack comes from the old German (Frühneuhochdeutsch) word Schreiendekarten – shouting or screaming cards.

But this term for the Linz pack is itself nothing but a phonetic corruption of the Hindi 'Shri' (Master) – a word in common use by Indian traders in the 15th century - identified as an early title used to refer to the inhuman (some say demonic) figures as they appeared in an earlier version of the pack, originating somewhere in northern India. This honorific 'Shri' would have sounded to a German-speaking ear like 'schrie' or 'screamed', hence Schreiendekarten and eventually Screaming Cards. Documentation collated by the University of Rajasthan in the 1960s painstakingly identified these earlier 'Master' figures on the cards as Shri Asvapna, Shri Sujana etc, though of course English speaking scholars tend to use the classic de Hardgrave names such as John O'Dreams, The Battered Man and so forth.

It is also worth noting that earlier, in a letter to the Pope, the missionary Friar Carpini (1180 – 1252) wrote that he had witnessed Mongolian mystics advising the great Khan Güyük by 'casting a score of icons about them, divers spirits most strange engraved upon'. Some editions of his noted work Historia Mongalorum quos nos Tartaros appellamus also make mention of this incident. If Carpini did indeed encounter an earlier incarnation of the Screaming Cards at the court of the Khan, the discrepancies in his description imply that it is likely not a direct ancestor of the Indian pack that arrived along the Silk Road centuries later, but rather a variant pack. This in turn suggests a common 'Ur' pack of cards, sire to both the Indian and Güyük cards, now long lost to history, but perhaps containing a heretofore only guessed at 'Full Pack'.

The Berkeley Pack
The pack presented here is a new edition, based on the older Indian version and using the figures' original Hindi names, as opposed to the more well-known Linz and de Hardgrave versions. The depictions themselves are taken from the notorious experimental studies on thought projection carried out at University of California, Berkeley in the 1960s, where attempts to visually manifest incarnations of the Screaming Cards using an oscilloscope connected to students' frontal lobes yielded intriguing results.

de Hardgrave
Shri Asvapna
John O'Dreams
Shri Barpa
The Snowherd
Shri Cimk
Master Nosedrip
Shri Cot
The Dwarf
Shri Gamx
Peter Scatterkin
Shri Jaga
Long Armed Jack
Shri Jel
The Scaredyman
Shri Jijfasu
The Inquisitor
Shri Kusa
The Joyous One
Shri Lalaci
Squire Pygge
Shri Sujana
The Battered Man
Shri Ult
The Upside-Down Man
Shri Wakawa
Master Squares

For simplicity, the honorific Shri has been omitted from the cards themselves.

Note also that the figures fall into two camps – the six Elysians (depicted with a light blue background) and the six Tarterans (depicted with a ruddy brown background). Some scholars hold that Elysians represent nobler, perhaps heavenly traits, while the Tarterans embody baser, even hellish leanings. One card, Cot (the Dwarf) remains apart from both groups, as befits his special status (see below).

The Figures
John O'Dreams, an Elysian
This mysterious fellow represents dreams, fantasies, aspirations and inspiration, and is brother to Ult. He is associated with the Greek Muses, the god Morpheus, and Oneiros. In the de Hardgrave pack, John O’Dreams appears as a dark wanderer with a glittering eye. Inverted, Asvapna may signify nightmares, lack of motivation or dullness.

The Snowherd, an Elysian
This frosty gentleman represents the physical elements of snow, ice and cold, as well as generosity, purification and preservations, and is brother to Kusa. He is associated with St Nicholas, Jack Frost and other Winter spirits. In the de Hardgrave pack, the Snowherd appears as a massive white-bearded man, swathed in furs. Inverted, Barpa may signify harsh times, deprivation or killer frosts, hence his depiction here bearing a scarf cum noose, reminiscent of the Tarot’s Hanged Man.

Master Nosedrip, a Tarteran
This unfortunate figure represents illness, disease and general sickness, and is brother to Sujana. In medieval times, he often appeared on images of the Plague and Black Death. He is associated with lepers, historical figures like Typhoid Mary, and the Horseman Pestilence. In the de Hardgrave pack, Master Nosedrip appears as a sickly plague-bearer, gaunt and covered in buboes. Inverted, Cimk may signify immunity to illness, good health or a symptomless carrier.

The Dwarf
This diminutive character figure represents smallness, youth and adventurousness. Unique amongst the Screaming Cards, he is neither Elysian nor Tarteran, standing figuratively between Paradise and the Inferno (as denoted by the verdant, earthly background of his card). He is associated with overcoming great odds, children, Mankind and everyman heroes such as Jack the giant killer. In the de Hardgrave pack, the Dwarf appears as a wide-eyed youth of low stature, bearing a walking stick, reminiscent of the Tarot’s Fool. Inverted, Cot may signify age, largeness or meekness.

Peter Scatterkin, a Tarteran
This anarchic fellow represents chaos, untidiness and unpredictability, and is brother to Jaga. He is associated with primal Chaos, the elder god Azathoth, Set/Sutekh, and poltergeists. In the de Hardgrave pack, Peter Scatterkin appears as a grinning imp, making a mess as he runs through the market. Inverted, Gamx may signify neatness, order or law.

Long Armed Jack, an Elysian
This prankish gentleman represents mirth, mischief and freedom of spirit, and is brother to Gamx. He is associated with trickster gods like Coyote and Loki, as well as clowns and folklore creatures like Br’er Rabbit. In the de Hardgrave pack, Long-Armed Jack appears as a jester with freakishly long limbs, stealing pies from the kitchen window. Inverted, Jaga may signify theft, invasion of space, ill-humour or confidence tricks.

The Scaredyman, a Tarteran
This nervous figure represents fear, anxiety and excitability, and is brother to Wakawa. He is associated with cowards, Phobos, and the Cowardly Lion. In the de Hardgrave pack, the Scaredyman appears as a soft-featured monk, trembling in the candlelight. Inverted, Jel may signify courage, calm or firmness.

The Inquisitor, a Tarteran
This prying character represents curiosity, meddling and questions. He is associated with detectives, busybodies, and cats. In the de Hardgrave pack, the Inquisitor appears as a masked witch-finder, his long nose literally sniffing out secrets. Inverted, Jijfasu may signify impartiality, sensory loss such as blindness or answers. 

The Joyous One, an Elysian
This smiling fellow represents pleasure, happiness and the Sun, and is brother to Barpa. He is associated with Apollo, Ra and other sun gods. In the de Hardgrave pack, the Joyous One appears as a chubby golden child, beaming with good cheer. Inverted, Kusa may signify pride, self-satisfaction or searing heat.

Squire Pygge, a Tarteran
This lustful gentleman represents gluttony, desire and indulgence. He is associated with Bacchus, Tuck, Falstaff and the deadly sin Avarice. In the de Hardgrave pack, Squire Pygge appears as a corpulent country nobleman, his tight, wine-stained coat bursting at the seams. Inverted, Lalaci may signify abstinence, self-control or the Horseman Famine.

The Battered Man, a Tarteran
This dreaded figure represents misfortune, injury and mortality, and is brother to Cimk. He is associated with the number 13, victims and Death. In the de Hardgrave pack, the Battered Man appears as a pale knight, dragging bloody bandages behind him. Inverted, Sujana may signify good luck, recovery or life.

The Upside-Down Man, an Elysian
This singular character represents reversal, improbability and challenges, and is brother to Asvapna. He is associated with wizards, the Monkey King and Merlin. In the de Hardgrave pack, the Upside-Down Man appears as a robed magician walking upon his hands. Inverted, Ult may signify conformity, the mundane or failure.

Master Squares, an Elysian
This powerful fellow represents invulnerability, strength and potency, and is brother to Jel. He is associated with Hercules, Thor, Gilgamesh and other mythic heroes. In the de Hardgrave pack, Master Squares appears as a broad-shouldered circus performer, clad in a lion skin. Inverted, Wakawa may signify weakness, flight or infertility.

Tomorrow: Reading the Cards

Sunday, 8 September 2013

Roleplayer! the Comic Strip

Some 10 years go, a chum from the world of Rolling Dice And Running Around With Rubber Swords phoned me up and asked if I wanted to do a little comic strip for a magazine he was working on for a newish roleplaying company.

Now since 'Do your own comic book' had been on my To Do list since the age of six, I readily agreed, and began sketching out - literally - my ideas for a series of 3-panel strips, not a million miles away from Yamara and Knights of the Dinner Table. Only more bitter in tone and drawn by a palsied homunculus.

The result was Roleplayer!, the prototype of which follows below. Since I am a) not a very good cartoonist, b) rubbish with Photoshop and c) lazy, it involved an awful lot of photocopying a handful of basic images, cutting them out by hand and overwriting (poorly) with Tipp-Ex and felt tip. Still, I thought it was funny.

Roleplayer! Playtesting a new system
"Great," said the friend from the magazine, "only we're now thinking we'd like a full-page comic. Can you manage that?"

Um, OK, says I. Since I like rilly wanted to do my own comic strip. So back to the drawing board I went (dining table, actually), and came back with this next effort. You may recognise the theme from the Player Archetypes article I had written around the same time (Module G4 - Mock-Tudor Coaching Inn of the Stone Giant Voivode).

Roleplayer! Petz
"Great," says the friend again, "only now we've got this fantastic new idea for a story about three games developers and a talking rodent, sitting around a table talking about their new company. Do you think you could draw that for us?" A script was duly sent to me. It read like a self-indulgent portrait of the actual games company guys. And worse, it wasn't very funny.

So now I had gone from the writer and artist of my own little 3-panel strip to the artist of someone else's not-very-funny script. And after a week of trying and failing to draw a funny talking rodent, I contacted my friend and begged off the entire deal. There endethed my glorious career in RPG satire comics, thus leaving the field wide open for Rich Burlew's The Order of The Stick...

But I like to think that in alternative dimension, things went a little differently, and I am even now closing the deal on the fifth collection of Roleplayer! graphic novels, and reaping the royalties from the associated gaming spin-offs and Lego figures.

(I still think Spumebeak is a great name for seagull familiar).

Module G4 - Mock-Tudor Coaching Inn of the Stone Giant Voivode

Many years ago, my cynical roleplaying friends and I came up with Roleplayer!, a character-generation system for people who wanted to roleplay roleplayers. If that makes sense. These days you would say we were being very 'meta'. Back then we were just snarky wise-asses who sneered at everyone who played games but us. I think the system may have made it onto the boards of Something Awful, but other, memorier people would have to confirm that. If it turns up, I'll repost it here.

Anyway, whilst digging around the deep and dusty recesses of the Pouch this morning (failing to find a long-lost John Buscema sketch of Mephisto, since you're asking), I came across the following, which is an outgrowth of our earlier efforts to lampoon our fellow gamers.

This then is the Younger Ocelot's sarky snapshot of tabletop roleplaying archetypes, circa 2003. Apologies for any offence caused, though my younger, snidier self would counter that offence was actually very much the intent. The scamp.

Ref Archetypes

I'm a Storyteller - I facilitate a shared storytelling experience that I like to call Consensual Fictioneering. I don't like dice or systems. My stories involve death, unrequited love and childhood trauma. Characters in my games are likely to be pale and wear a lot of black leather. Total immersion role-playing is encouraged, with a full-fledged screaming argument in-character representing the summit of my storytelling aspirations. I run these games at conventions to meet girls.

I'm an Old Time Dungeon Master - I only run classic D&D type games. Squared paper and multi-faceted polyhedra are my tools. On the wrong side of 30, I often casually namedrop playing Gary Gygax's original Chainmail game in 1974 at the age of 6. There are mouldering piles of ancient TSR, Avalon Hill and Flying Buffalo products lurking in the corners of my forbidding flat. Peckforton Castle, Bedbug Island and Ballastor's Barracks are Names of Great Power for me. I can remember Dave Langford's first book review column. Games run by me revolve around underground complexes randomly populated by 2d6 Orcs playing dice in sealed rooms with no food or water. My greatest thrill is rolling "20 - DM's choice" on the Wandering Monster table.

I’m a Keeper - I run games that no-one else plays anymore. I insist that they're really good, but have to admit that the others only play them because they can't be bothered to run anything themselves.

I'm the NPC King. I have an enormous repertoire of richly developed supporting characters for my players to encounter. Each has their very own voice and probably facial tics too. I enjoy showing off my favourites to the players, and making sure they realise how great I think my creations are. Plot and player actions are secondary to me exercising my vast array of cameo appearances. I like to base my characters on obscure walk-on parts from movies and TV shows that nobody likes or remembers.

I'm the Background King. Similar to the NPC King, I have developed a fully fleshed out campaign setting. Every house and shop in town is mapped and described in painstaking details, from the number of sacks of grain in the feed store to the inscriptions on each cemetery headstone. I like the players to wander around the setting I have created, hoping they will stumble across a thinly thought-out adventure hook, or more likely, get bored and make one up themselves (this often involves a bar-room brawl and a fascinating tour of the local incarceration facilities).

I'm the Plot King. I've designed a fantastically convoluted storyline for the players to utterly ruin when they kill the vital contact or call in the police instead of investigating it themselves. I will break down mid-session and sulkily declare that it's all ruined. One of the players will attempt to mollify me by pointing out it's a great story, just not a great game.

I'm a Railroader. Related to the Plot King, I too have a great story to tell, but unlike my weaker cousin, I have the strength to bend the players to my will. Through a series of scene shifts, deadly curses, in-game coercions and other deus ex machinae, I will subtly and not-so subtly ensure that the pitiful pawns who play my game end up exactly where I want them. Too late, they will realise they have boarded the Plot Express, bound for a pre-determined outcome, with no stops en route.

Player Archetypes

I'm a Pet-Lover. I insisted during character creation that I would be accompanied by a faithful wardog, talking parrot or smartest-horse-in-the-movies. Whilst this will initially work within the first adventure, both the ref and the other players will eventually become annoyed by my abuse of this animal sidekick as a telepathic human-smart extra pair of hands to gain unfair advantages. The pet will be unceremoniously eaten by a troll soon after, leaving my character strangely ineffectual.

I'm a Driver. Like the Pet-Lover, I insisted on a sleek and unique vehicle during character creation, such as Nightboat the crime-solving boat or KIMM the sexy superbike. This soon proves to be a mistake as the campaign moves the players away from the original coastal/riverside/fjord environment to a desert. The hapless wonder-machine is either mothballed indefinitely or suffers a modern fate not unlike the troll/pet incident.

I'm an Adult Newbie. A frustrated real-life hooligan, I have accidentally fallen in with a crowd of role players who are subtly attempting to reform me. Their efforts fall at the first hurdle when I inevitably create a warrior character with a Really Big Gun/Sword. I further exhibit my caveman roots by instantly falling upon the first female NPC we encounter and engaging in graphic grown-up naughtiness quite at odds with the game atmosphere. The other roleplayers laugh nervously at this but do nothing to curb my manly ways, as they are a bit scared of me.

I'm a Rules-Boy. I know the system forwards and backwards. I've read all the supplements and expansions available and pride myself on calculating other players' To Hit numbers without leaning over to look at the sheets. My crowning achievement is pointing out a loop or logic flaw in one of the Ref's own house-rules and hoisting them on their own petard (which hits for 4d10 explosive damage, no armour save). I will eventually be brought low by over-reaching myself during an extended bout of rule-lawyering and find myself roundly humiliated by a ref who has actually read the rules.

I'm a Distraction. My task is to ensure that no period of pure role-playing lasts longer than 5 minutes before I drag it off course with an off-topic remark. Last night's TV, reality shows in general and past games are popular subjects of mine. My weapons are double-entendres, catchphrases from Vic and Bob and Blackadder quotations*. The ref will good-naturedly endure my constant interruptions as the price they pay for having me on board. Besides, it is likely that I will have mesmerised the ref along with everyone else at this point, with my banal flow of Fast Show** impressions, mid-dungeon. The only cure for me is an enforced sentence as a ref myself, wherein I will be faced with an entire group of distractions of my own to deal with.
* I am obviously fairly old.
** See above.

I'm a Symbiote. I lack the self-confidence to roleplay independently, so I habitually attach my character to someone else's. I regularly play partners, brothers, deputies or co-pilots of existing, stronger personalities. I am characterised by a lack of originality, often pinching character names from comics, TV or movies.  At some point, my roleplaying 'host' will fail to turn up for a gaming session and I will be left stranded without a guiding intellect. I will eventually bond to a new host in the party, regardless of any in-game incompatibilities (such as a vampire/paladin partnership), and will continue to ride them like the bone-idle wretch I am.

I'm a Swashbuckler. Like many other players, I live for the combat. But where many of them are interested in Causing Massive Damage with Really Big Guns, I enjoy the cut-and thrust of the fight itself. A simple To Hit roll will not satisfy me until I have graphically explained my complex series of actions - each round of my character's combat will be described in fine detail; whirling, leaping, parrying and slashing. I am a fan of Errol Flynn, Oliver Reed as D'Artagnan and Jackie Chan. I'm probably a member of the Sealed Knot, and may well harp on about my 10-week fencing course back at sixth-form college.

I'm a Girl. I've been roped into playing tabletop games by my boyfriend, in the hope of seeing him more often. I was hoping to play Storyteller games that didn't involve vast amounts of number-crunching and critical hit tables, but so far this has proven fruitless. I tend to get shouted down by the boys, who at least have the good grace to get embarrassed by their interactions with female NPCs, now that I'm around. I don't play superhero games.

I'm a Closet Gamer. My artfully compartmentalised life has been arranged so that my beer and footie mates never meet my games and comics mates. The potential shame and social stigma of being outed is not quite great enough to force me to kick my dirty little habit. I am however sufficiently self-conscious during games sessions to never actually roleplay, contenting myself to describe my character's actions perpetually in the third person, and never engaging in in-character dialogue. I never play verbally oriented characters and would probably spontaneously combust if forced to roleplay some form of social interaction with an NPC.

I'm a Glove Puppet. I kid myself that I'm something of a problem solver or detective, suiting me amply to investigative games. In the past I have stumbled onto the ref's plot quite by accident and amazed my fellow role-players. By now I am hopelessly convinced on the rightness of my instincts, and regularly claim to have 'got it sussed' at some point during a game's first session. The ref has by now figured out my pet 'theories', often based on my favourite X-Files episodes (regardless of game genre), and is now cunningly working me like a sock toy. Blithely unaware of this sly manipulation, I am leading the rest of the group down a plot route of the ref's choosing. I am the secret weapon of the Railroading Ref.

I'm a MinMaxer. I studied the character generation rules at length, in order to squeeze the maximum benefit and minimum penalty from the system. I have located one or two rule loops that give me a game-destroyingly massive advantage in a crucial element, like combat or spell-casting, making me the Best Sniper/Ninja/Hacker In The World. The ref will gnash and grind his teeth at my impudence, but will be held at bay by my mantra of "It's all in the rules". Attempts to impose house-rules to curb my excesses will result in high-pitched whines and angry glares across the gaming table. My character will almost certainly be killed in a specially designed scenario to rid the gaming world of my disruptive presence.

I'm a Jack-Of-All-Trades. I managed to spread my starting character skills thinner than butter on hot toast, resulting in more skills than there are slots on the character sheet. I have the bare minimum rank in each, but this is still enough to make me the busiest character in the game. My character is thus defined not by what they can do (as they can do everything), but how they do it. The other players secretly hate and resent me, spending most of the level advances in getting skills better than mine. They have foolishly failed to realise that the game system makes in-game skills purchased much more expensive than starting skills, and thus they will never match me. They will eventually bludgeon me to death with mini-doughnuts and other role-playing comestibles.

I'm a Frustrated Actor. Handicapped by a grotesque physical appearance or dubious personal habits, my thespian leanings have been instead channelled into tabletop gaming. I insist on role-playing every encounter in-character, replete with appropriate accents, speech patterns and oaths. Less-confident refs can be intimidated by my Lee Strasberg approach to roleplaying, and start to stumble over their own NPC dialogue. I will often win tournament games at conventions, if an attractive female gamer is not around to win.

I'm a Collector. I have countless sets of out-of-date games systems displayed proudly on shelves in my bedroom. I have ferreted around the wild and lawless fringes of eBay, seeking to complete my Dragon Warriors book set. I have the rare AD&D module G4 - Mock-Tudor Coaching Inn of the Stone Giant Voivode, and several leather bound volumes of White Dwarf - the Glory Years. The rest of my time is spent purchasing collectable card game booster packs, in my quest to Own Every Card Ever. I am quite poor.