Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Play: Not Bad. You?

Well by Lisa Kron, Directed by Braden Abraham, Seattle Rep, Through March 5.

Well. That was a bit of a mess. But I think that's the whole point.

Well is a monologue (with other people) that goes horribly and amusingly awry. It is not about the monologist and her mother, when it is, of course, totally about the monologist and her mother. It is also about racial matters, illness, being an outsider and few other things I haven't mentioned. But ultimately, it about mother and daughter.

The talented Sara Rudinoff plays Lisa Kron, who is both IRL playwrite and character in her play about putting together the play. Yeah, its very meta, and that's one of the challenges. Rudinoff/Kron sets herself up as a target at the outset, effervescing early about how this would be an "theatrical space showing the status of illness and wellness on the community and the individual" (I may be paraphrasing here). Then she starts undercutting herself by interacting with her mother.

Her mother (a fantastic Barbara Dirickson) occupies one half of the stage, her domain being a comfortable clutter of binned items for various projects, bound magazines, her favorite lazy-boy, and nostalgic age. She has been in pain most of her life, which she blames on allergies, but she is sweet, interrupting, and continually countering her daughter, whether as to her intent, the veracity of her stories, or whether the audience would want something to drink.

The other half of the stage is bare, where Kron is putting together her work, with the help of four supporting actors who are sometimes various roles, and sometimes actors. These merry elves are supposed to carry out her scenes, but they start having their own suggestions and comments. Various sets wheel and lower onto the stage, with the fussiness that becomes obvious when things start to go wrong.

And things go wrong. Kron is trying to address why some people stay sick and others get well, and cast it against her integrated community where her mom was an activist in the 60s and 70s. However, she is ultimately trying to understand why she and her mother, so similar in many ways, went different ways, where she recovered from her illnesses and her mother merely continued with them.

Kron as character loses control of the proceedings quickly, as her mother expands her own reality into the play, sweetly and relentlessly. The merry elves rebel as well, brought over to mom's side. And an childhood bully, a creature of id, appears in the midst of all this from the audience to terrify Kron further. She is creator left at the mercy of her creation, because she is not dealing honestly with them.

I think. To be fact, I don't know. The play doesn't go for easy answers or explanations (and subverts a potential happy hug moment at the end). It sort of ends where it ends, and could have gone on longer or ended a few lines back. I'm really not sure, and I'm not the only one: for this review, I cheated and looked up other comments on the play - all seemed positive, many just embraced the facile facts at the surface of the place, and a few deliver that mantra of the midwest indeterminalism - "Well, it's different".

And I came away with this: Did I have problems embracing a memoirish play where I knew that the individual portraying the monologist was not the original creator? Does monologue (even as burlesqued here) demand the authenticity of original voice? I accept actors portraying all manner of characters on the play, but strain at them portraying the author of the work? And why this work, when I had little problem with a similar conceit in the earlier "Viet Gone" (where the playwrite shows up to say that it is not about his parents (It is totally about his parents)? In short, would a Mike Daisey monologue be a Daisey monologue if I delivered it?

So put me down as puzzled on this one. Well reminds me of a performance of  Six Characters in Search of an Author that I saw many, many years ago in Milwaukee.  I feel I have experienced theatre, but I'm not quite sure I know what it all means.

More later,


Sunday, February 19, 2017

Adventure: Not-So-Pulp Tentacles, Part II

Darkness, Descending by Mike Mason, an adventure from Cthulhu Britannica, from Cubicle 7 Games


Goodness, it has been more than two years since the last time I checked in with my plucky crew of Lovecraftian malcontents? Seems as if. My Call of Cthulhu group is still playing semi-regularly, but for the past few years, we have been working our way through the upgraded Horror on the Orient Express, run by one of my fellow group members. I tend not to review RPGs I am playing a character in, as such a review is a reflection on the limited information my players has, the group the GM/Keeper's style as it is of the product itself. And while I read a lot of Call of Cthulhu gaming material, I don't tend to review THAT publicly without actually taking it out and running it.

Anyway, this is the second of the adventures from the Cthulhu Britannica booklet from Cubicle 7 Games. The first was Bad Company, which I talked about here. The book consists of four adventures for different eras, set (mostly) in Britain. I won't be running the last two for this group, since they have modern and futuristic flourishes which would be difficult to fit into my campaign, in which it is eternally 1928 and consists of a company of random individuals who have come together to fight the Mythos.

The group consists of Smokes, our exiled Chicago gangster; Horace, our spy/newspaper photographer; Cliffy, our aspiring archeologist; JB,our wealthy dilettante, Hyacinth, our author' and her bombastic boyfriend/hero of her novels, Goodwin McNash. My style with them is very pulp/adventure, and I tend to run with more of an eye towards survivability than TPKs. They have been world-travelers, but are based out of London, and I've been eying this adventure as a means of doing something local. Spoilers, of course, follow.

Cliffy's player could not make it, so I used him to bring the others. The young archeologist was assigned to a dig sponsored by Cambridge in the county of Norfolk. A small team working in a small forest found a site of an old Roman settlement. Among the potsherds, tools, and weapon fragments the group found a particularly ugly bat-statue, and Cliffy called in the rest of the team as volunteers.

The bat-statue is one of five vaeyans, used to imprison an Elder God, Cyeagha. Cyeagha can only break free (apparently) on the fall equinox, which is three days away. Removing the vaeyans will allow him to return. Cyeagha has already possessed a local poacher, and is working on one of the archaeological team as well. should Cyeagha escape, bad things happen. Challenge to the players is to figure out what is up, and either keep the Elder God trapped or banish him entirely.

The adventure is based on a Eddy C Bertin's "Darkness, My Name Is", from The Discples of Cthulhu short story collection, moved from Germany to England as its location. It is designed as a one-shot  as opposed to part of a larger ongoing campaign, and shows it, from pre-generated charters with more archaeological backgrounds to a lack of SAN rewards and the general "everyone dies horribly" ending if things go terribly wrong. So some work is needed to make it part of a campaign.

There are some additional challenges for the adventure. A good chunk of the space is made up of describing the inhabitants of Middle Harling, a community to the dig site, but there is nothing within the presented flow of the game to get the players to TO Middle Harling.over the course of the game. This is particularly nasty since some of the clues to explain what is going on are located in Middle Harling, and straightforward playthrough could miss them entirely.

For my session, I dropped them off in Middle Harling at the outset and let them interact with the locals a bit before Cliffy (being run as an NPC) picks them up to take them to the dig site. They are made aware of the local constable and the church and in particular the local pub. While it felt like the first ten minutes of an episode of the old British Avengers TV show - before the small quirky town reveals its dark secret, it actually gave me a good collection of NPCs to do horrible things to later on.

Worse from a playing perspective was that I had no note how far it was from the small town to the dig site. It had to be short enough that that they could come back and interact easily, but far enough away that whatever happened at the site would not immediately become known. I settled for a 45 minute walk (or a half-hour run), but it is something that is pretty basic for the game. In this case, unlike the usual curse of Cthulhu, the maps were pretty good, and had player versions that I could share with relative clarity.

Organization was a pain. Useful information was sometimes lost in body copy or in numerous sidebars, such that despite it being a short adventure, I kept flipping back and forth trying to find some scrap of data that I swore I knew was in there. Plus, the entire section on Middle Harling itself was banished to the back, after the adventure itself, making it unclear when or where the players would encounter it.

And the handouts were a bit odd, with Library Use getting standard information on "What is an Equinox?" while the translation of an old Latin tablet gets a summary as opposed to a full translation. This is worse because it has an incantation to trap Cyeagha, without any clue to what it says (there is a second spell to defeat Cyeagha utterly which is presented in such an off-handed way I'd be surprised to see anyone understanding and using it).

Art was a bit off as well, as the description of Cyeagha's minions (vomitting forth black tendrils) did not quite match up with the art of half-melted, tentacle-armed individuals, but that part is minor.

In play, however, the townsfolk were surprisingly useful, and I could show the madness that the players take for granted slowly dawning on them. The vicar who translated the tablet for them went more than a little mad, the constable was overwhelmed by sudden deaths, and one of the farmers met a messy end at the hands/tentacles of the possessed poacher. The investigators did have enough action and mystery, and headed down a few wrong paths before they understood that they needed to re-bury the statues (and re-chant the locking spell for the good measure). The poacher (unkillable, slimier each time he returned, and the possessed archeologist made a last-minute assault to break the magical seal on the their god, but ultimately, the player characters survived. And, being an ongoing campaign, they had to figure out how they would seal off the area to prevent anyone else from trying to break the thing open again (like - what about NEXT equinox?)

In general it was OK, but it required a bit more work than I had put in with the Goodman Games versions. Still, it provided a nice base that one can spin an adventure out of, and merits a revision to strengthen the parts that could be part of a long-standing campaign.

More later,

Saturday, February 11, 2017

The Gaming News

There are a lot of Kickstarters going on right now, and I missed the closing of a couple of them, but want to mention the others in this space as "offered for your consideration" before they all shut down.

Many years ago, I did a small chunk of the Midgard Campaign Setting for Wolfgang Baur at Kobold Press. Now, the setting is making an expanded return (and other talented hands are picking up the parts I worked on) as the Midgard Campaign Setting: Dark Roads and Deep Magic. There are three main books now, the first of which, on the world itself, clocks in at 300+ pages, with volumes of rules for both 5th Edition D&D and for Pathfinder. Plus a lot of adventures. This one in huge, and is already funded and moving to stretch goals.

Wolfgang Baur is a member of my regular gaming group. So is Bill Webb, whose company, Frog God Games, is putting together a contemporary card game ripped from the headlines. Conspiracy theories, faux news, and click-bait reign in Alternative Facts. Hasn't funded, yet, but has about two weeks to go.

Also in the department of projects with long names, Goodman Games is putting together a series of essays on How to Write Adventure Modules That Don't Suck. The venerable and wise Jim Ward has invited in an all-star squadron of veteran designers and editors to give you the inside track on building cool adventures. Also funded, and wraps in three days.

I usually talk about Goodman Games in connection with their Cthulhu adventures, and that makes as good a segue as any for moving into Lovecraftian territory. Stygian Fox got good marks for their previous foray into Cthulhu Modern with. The Things We Left Behind and is plunging into one-night short adventures with Fear's Sharp Little Needles. The talent behind this one is solid as well, with Brian Courtemarche and Oscar Rios among the names contributing. Bonus: they are making The Things We Left Behind available at an upper supporter level, in case you missed it the first time around.

Oscar Rios is the man behind a LOT of good Call of Cthulhu scenarios from Golden Goblin Press. He was the writer of Miskatonic Press The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, which is on my list to run (on top of everything else currently in the queue). Making that running even MORE imperative is that he just launched a Kickstarter for a new version of Cthulhu Invictus, Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome. This sourcebook got its start as fan-made tome, and the officially published version from Chaosium could have been improved. I have no doubts that the new edition will give a firm foundation for the Ancient Roman time period (and, at a high level of support, you can get De Horror Cosmico, a collection of Roman adventures which confirms for me the fact that this will be a good project). It just launched, and is well on its way to funding.

I'm not certain about the last one, but I want to bring it to everyone's attention. WotC-vet Rodney Thompson, who was behind the excellent Lords of Waterdeep game a few year back, is launching a caper-style fantasy RPG - Dusk City Outlaws. Apparently one is running heists in a large fantasy city, which is intriguing, but what makes it interesting is that the games sessions themselves are set up to be easy to run and get into as a player. That's a bit of a grail quest for RPGs, so I am interested in seeing him pull it off.

And that's more than enough Kickstarters for the moment. More later,


Thursday, February 02, 2017

Book: After Midnight


Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil - John Berendt, Random House Publishing, 1994.

Provenance: This is one of the older volumes on my "Shelf of Abandoned Books". I picked it up in the nineties, and it has been sitting there, waiting for me to get back to it, for over twenty years. The book has a good rep - finalist for a Pulitzer Prize, long-term status on the NYTime's best-seller list. And it is a physically odd book physically, tall and narrow, more like a door than a text. Maybe that is why it stayed on the shelf when other Abandoned Books were started, ignored, and quietly sent away.

Review: The book is (much to my surprise once I engaged fully with it) a true-crime story of a murder in Savannah, Georgia in the early 80s. The author tells you that there will be a crime at the beginning, but he takes a meandering route to the murder itself, and then feels distanced from it afterward. Really the book is about Savannah itself, or at least the more elite chunks of it.

The author arrives in Savannah as a result of airline deregulation, which makes it cheap to set up a second apartment outside of New York City. He is enchanted by the heart of the Savannah, in particular the antebellum historical district, where the original streets were laid out around park-like squares. He settles in and starts meeting the locals, who are as quirky as anything that would come out of Lake Wobegon. In fact, it does feel like we're dealing with a Southern fantasy version of that Minnesota town that time forgot and the decades cannot improve  - where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and there is a murder just hanging on the horizon. In fact, every time the characters seem to get up a good head of steam, we're reminded that a murder is about to occur and that this is what the book is supposed to be about.

The unamed narrator (though the tale is first-person, so he'd be John) takes a glancing blow across Savannah Society. We meet Jim Williams ,the eloquent antique dealer with his hot-headed poor white trash assistant/lover. We meet the African-American drag queen The Lady Chablis. We meet Joe Odom, the questionable lawyer who squats in fine houses that are not his own and turns them into 24 hour party venues. There are others - the man with non-existent dog, the pianist who criss-crosses Georgia to play any song for anyone, the fellow with enough poison to kill all of Savannah, but Williams, Odom, and Chablis are carry most of the plot, though they rarely encounter each other. The author encounters folk in cafes and drives people around a lot, such that at one point I wondered if he were the only one with a car in 1980s Savannah.

The murder itself takes place at the midpoint of the book, and I shan't spoil a twenty year old text on a true-life event by telling you who was involved (that would be what Wikipedia was all about). But the murder passes through with just the same level of attention as one of Williams' parties or a bar-crawl involving glowing fish. Having occurred, the murder (and the resultant trial) is just one more thing in the Savannah social life. It takes more than a dead body to overturn that.

After the fact, the accused seems to engage in magical thinking on two levels. One is a faith that system will not convict a highly respected member of its own community. The other is a reliance on the old magic, and a literal conjurer name Minerva who uses the garden of the title to put the hex on folk. And both approaches work and neither work and we are left with double-handful of stories and not a lot tying them together.

Our narrator is practically passive throughout - he is transportation and confessor. He drives and he listens. The exception to this passivity is late in the book when The Lady Chablis crashes a black debutante ball he is covering, and he tries to extricate himself before the inevitable meltdown, showing some true emotion and engagement with his surroundings. But that's the exception that tests the rule - he is otherwise incredibly neutral, non-judgmental, and empty throughout. Savannah is the show and he is just the announcer.

So did it age well? Pretty well. It reminded of parts of Reagan's America, and perhaps what is scandalous about it is how much of it isn't scandalous at all in those days, or at least is politely ignored. The tale is all strained through a venue that is as much of a hot-house environment as anything Tennessee Williams ever envisioned. This is a closed eco-system, kept afloat by its own form of magical thinking.

And while there are more than enough working-class types drifting through this environment, they seem to be swept up in the magic of the Squares of Savannah as well, in a weird little ecology of social gatherings and parties at all levels. I suppose that's what holds it all together, ultimately - the parties, whether it is The Lady Chablis performing in drag, Odom's continual bacchanalia, or William's legendary Christmas party (and his OTHER legendary party). It about the social engagements.

Maybe that's what makes the book worth reading after all these years.

More later,