Wednesday, June 14, 2023

Book: All Hail the Great Macaroni

 If I Were Dictator by Lord Dunsany, Methuen & Co, Ltd. London, 1934

Provenance: This is from the collection of John Rateliff, better known as Sacnoth. It is a honest-to-gosh rare book, and John's copy is actually a hand-bound copy, photocopied, reassembled, and bound with a sturdy plastic clip. The original may be found in the University of Wisconsin library, and had been checked out all of four times, in 1975, 1976, 1986, and 1990. I'll put money on the idea that the 1990 check-out was by Sacnoth. 

Review: In 1933 E. V. Lucas, publisher approached a number of intellectuals in England with the question - what would you do if you were dictator of England? There has been something similar in a series of articles in America run by The Nation, but it's unknown if Lucas knew about it. The results came out in a series of short books in 34 and 35. Most of those who wrote things up were serious scholars in a variety of fields, and took their assignments fairly seriously. Dunsany? Not so much. Maybe.

Mind you, in 1934, Dictator did not have quite the negative connotations that it picked up during the war. (I found that Studebaker had a car called the Dictator at the time, with no push-back). The term Dictator in those days was closer to its initial Roman definition - an individual invested with absolute power to solve a particular immediate problem that would defy group consensus (like war). In cases of emergency, the Senate would take its hands off the wheel and let someone on the scene make the decisions. When the emergency passed, the Dictator would step aside. Not only the Romans did this - the Japanese Shogunate did as well, and the Native American tribes had "war chiefs" whose main province was battle. In the Roman Republic's case, they had 80-some dictators. Sulla, one of the last ones, grabbed power militarily, but even he stepped down after he re-orged the government. Julius, who was his student, decided to hang onto it full-time as dictator in perpetua and Rome moved fully onto its Empire phase. 

At the time this volume was written, the best-known dictator was Mussolini. Hitler and his Nazis were recognized as running Germany, but would graduate to full-fledge authoritarian Dictator-hood with the death of Hindenberg late in late1934. Dunsany probably had Mussolini in mind as his model for ultimate authoritarian, since he dubbed himself "The Great Macaroni" in detailing his plans for England.

And his plans? for the most part, pretty pedestrian, and in some cases advanced, all presented with tongue deeply inserted in cheek. Cars involved in fatal accidents should be confiscated and use for more peaceful purposes, Advertisers should be punished for false claims, people adultering products should be horse-whipped. The League of Nations? Briefly touched on as a good thing. But he's got a few things that makes one think he is pulling your leg - Fox-hunting should be permitted, since fox-hunting in inefficient, and without people would find more effective ways of killing foxes. The solution to the English in India is a modest proposal to remove all the English from India, all the Indians from England, and all the Europeans from America, just to keep things fair.

And here's an intriguing one" the solution to unemployment would be to remove all farm-machinery. Removing labor-saving devices would increase the need for labor, and send everyone in cities into the hinterlands to live richer, more fulfilling lives. I think this is meant in jest, but then, Dunsany is the 18th Lord Dunsany, complete with manor house and family lands in Ireland.

Finally, the Great Macaroni has declared that editors should not change the words or meaning of the original author. The Death Penalty, in this case, is reserved for those changing the words of  the Great Macaroni. In this, of course, he is being absolutely serious and should be implemented at once. 

In general, it feels like Dunsany is treating the brief as a bit of a lark, suitable for a late night comedy show. Indeed, it feels similar to his jibes on religion found in his early works on the Gods of Pegana. But I have to ask how much of are things that Dunsany truly believes, dressed up in amusing terms terms. 

Ultimately, Dunsany's If I Were Dictator is an interesting view into the pre-war years, where everyone is sure something bad is about to happen, but are still normalizing authoritarian views as being worth civil discussion. It makes me wonder how our era in turn will be so viewed. 

More later,

Thursday, June 08, 2023

Recent Arrivals (North Texas Bonus Round)

 There are lot of hardbacks in this particular collection, but I did not buy the bulk of them. I've been a judge for several years for the Three Castles Awards, presented at the North Texas RPG Con. NTRPG is a really nice con dedicated to "old-school gaming" - earlier editions of D&D (and all of its retro-clones) and other classic games. They send me the candidates I and several other judges make our decisions under a precise set of guidelines, and the winner was announced at the most recent NTRPG Con. Anyway, my opinions here are untethered by those guidelines, and as such are my own. But let's do the ones that are NOT NTRPG candidates first.

Everyday Heroes (Sigfried Trent, Chris "Goober" Ramley, D. Todd Scott, Evil Genius Games, 464-page hardbound) This was an "author's" copy from the publisher. I worked on this project as a Design Consultant, helped them staff up, and looked over the various sections when they were in development. Even so, I was stunned by how HUGE this book turned out. It is a spiritual descendant of D20 Modern, and this particular edition echoes the original on the cover. Physically, it is a beautiful rulebook. Content-wise, it is incredibly playable. Recommended.

Regency Cthulhu: Dark Designs in Jane Austen's England (Andrew Peregrine, Lynne Hardy and Friends, Chaosium Inc. 224-page hardback) I could not find the anywhere from my local hobby stores, and ended up making a trek down to Olympic Cards & Comics down in Lacey with Stan! on one of our days off. There is a Cthulhu project for every era and genre, and this one drills down on the Austenian era (1811-1820) when George IV served as king for the increasingly crazy George III. The volume details changes to the skill and occupations for that era to the standard Call of Cthulhu (CoC) 7th edition rules, and the importance of social credit and standing as a tool for roleplaying. There's a typical country manor and village and a couple adventures. Presentation is up to Chaosium's usual standards.

Rivers of London the Roleplaying Game (Paul Fricker, Lynne Hardy, and Friends, Based on the novels by Gen Aaronovitch, Chaosium Inc. 400-page hardback). Also a result of the Olympic trip, I was surprised to find this one in the wild as well. I've never read Aaronovitch's books, but the Lovely Bride has and thinks they are good, as they are modern urban fantasy dealing with a London police department that deals with the supernatural. The system is a simplified 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu. Presentation is good, but I'm not a fan of the 3D models in some of the illos. Wondering if I can get the Lovely Bride to play.

Ruins of the Lost Realm (Gareth Hanrahan. Free League, 120-page hardback). One more from Olympic, this was a whim pickup. Have been cruising through The One Ring RPG, and want to take it out for a spin, but wanted to see the support project. Free League makes some of the best-looking products on the shelves today. This one deals with Arnor, a chunk of Middle Earth unvisited in any of the books. Pulls what is known from the trilogy and fills in the blank spots. Uses Tharbad as a launching point for adventures. The game does not do dungeons so much as sites and places of interest with general descriptions. Looks interesting if you don't want to be tripping over too many trademarked characters.

Dragonlance: Shadow of the Dragon Queen (F Welsey Schnieder and 10 writers, Wizards of the Coast, 224-page hardback). This was a purchase from the Mox Boarding House up in Bellevue. And it is interesting that, except for a small tempest (Tiamat=Takhisis*) I have heard absolutely nothing about it. Which is a little weird since the adventure ties itself to the "war" part of the War of the Lance, creating an adventure that runs concurrently with dragon armies marching through Ansalon. And it is tied into a wargaming boardgame (the component-heavy Dragonlance: Warriors of Krynn) so you can fight the battles as well. Plus has a lot of Dragonlance specific stuff (Kender, Gods, High Sorcery) for 5E. The book itself is WotC standard good in appearance, and for having a bunch of writers and editors on it, is coherent and cohesive, and tells an epic story without DL's well-known heroes. But since its release in December of last year, there has been mostly nothing in the 'net about it.

Necropolis (Mark Greenberg and Bill Webb, Necromancer Games, 240-page hardback). This is the first of the  NTRPG Three Castles Awards candidates. It is a further development of Necropolis, a Dangerous Journeys adventure by Gary Gygax (due credit to Gary inside, but nary a mention of GDW, the original publisher), which had a brief stop in 3rd Edition D&D over the years. As a refinement this top-notch, brought up to date for their Swords and Wizardry OSR Clone. It is an ultimate Ancient Egypt Adventure, and keeps the Gygaxian nature of brutal consequences for player actions (teleport into a room identical to the one you are in, but with all the doors missing). Updated and upgraded, it has improved art and excellent maps. Bonus - full-color poster map of the tomb. 

Dwarrowdeep (Greg Gillespie, 334-Page Hardback) NTRPG Three Castles Award Nominee. Greg Gillespie does Moria. Let me refine that further - Greg Gillespie, who does sprawling mega-dungeons like Barrowmaze and The Forbidden Caverns of Archaia (which my Monday night group is STILL moving through) and does so in a classic old-school D&D style, does a sprawling underground dwarven underground. Major sites are laid out, room-upon-room, Secondary locations can be built with tables and geomorphs. The cover shown here is for the "Special Edition Monochrome" which evokes the old, old style of the early D&D modules. Comes with a packet of maps for the main areas in the light-blue style of, you got it, early D&D Modules. Interior art includes pieces by legendary TSR artists. Very old-school.

Swords of Cthulhu (Joseph Block, BRW Games,128-page hardback). NTRPG Three Castles Award Nominee. This one made me smile. A lot of Old School D&D clones use the styles of early adventures, but this one comes very, very close to the original Unearthed Arcana I worked on all those years ago. So that made me smile. Added bonus - Cthulhu for D&D, Deep Ones as a PC race. Cultists and scholars as new classes. Spells that petition the Old Ones. Insanity rules, Mythos monsters and deities, and hints on running a Lovecraftian Game in 1e rules. Art varies from good to pick-up.

Corsairs of Cthulhu - Fighting Mythos in the Golden Age of Piracy (Ben Burns, New Comet Games, 300-page hardback) NTRPG Three Castles Awards Nominee. Wait a minute, didn't you ALREADY talk about this? Yep, got a copy way back here. So when this one arrived for judging, gave it to a colleague and re-read it. And pretty much my initial impression stands. The opening bits about adapting Call of Cthulhu for the golden age of piracy (1650-1730 AD) is pretty solid. The adventure is, well, all the map, and then off the map and onto other maps. We get a great setup for a Caribbean set of adventures, then head for the Pacific, the Dreamlands, and times and places beyond, with guest appearances by most of the mythos' heavy players. 

Endless Encounters - Dungeons (Bill Barsh, Pacesetter Games, 280-page hardback) NTRPG Three Castles Awards Nominee. It IS a big book of tables, but it is also a good springboard for dungeon-building, whether you need just something for the spur-of-the-moment or building a larger structure for later use. Embracing the old school nature of dungeon levels getting higher as you go down in levels, the tables allow you to figure out what is there on in a shorthand version. What is the purpose of the room? It's inhabitants? Its treasure. The examples provided (one per level) demonstrate how those results can be fleshed out to a more coherently thematic dungeon. 

Jungle Tomb of the Mummy Bride (Levi Combs and Jeff Scifert, Planet X Games,146-page hardback.) NTRPG Three Castles Awards Nominee. Like Necropolis, this is an expansion and refinement of previously published work, and while listed as compatible with a OSR game (Dungeon Crawl Classics) can be run under D&D rules of various stripes. Instead of ancient Egyptianish undead, we are talking about ancient Central Americanish undead, and can be fit into any hellish jungle settings in your campaign. Of all the nominees, this one has the most fun with its presentation, and keeps its tongue firmly in its cheek as it names encounters  Clean layout and artistic maps.

And the envelope please? The Three Castles Award for 2023 goes to:

Dwarrowdeep by Greg Gillespie. Congrats to the winner and see you folk next year.

More later,

*I have opinions on this contentious matter. Maybe someday I will even share them.

Monday, June 05, 2023

Theater: Jeeves Takes Manhattan

Jeeves Takes a Bow Adapted by Margaret Raether from the stories of PG Wodehouse, Directed by Scott Nolte, Through June 17, Taproot Theatre Company

The theater seasons I pay attention to are coming to a close, but Janice Coulter and her husband, Sacnoth, treated us to this production at the Taproot up in Greenwood. north of the city. Our planned lunch place, the Olive & Grape, had changed its opening hours to later in the day, so we had lunch at Razi's, a pizza place that makes nice salads as well, and hunkered down at the Taproot's Jewell Mainstage for an afternoon of Wodehouse. 

The Jewell is, well, a little jewelbox of a performance space, the stage thrust out deeply into the main space and surrounded on three sides by the audience, who are also sprinkled overhead along thin galleries. It brings the audience right on top of the action (such that they warn the patrons not to put their feet on the stage, lest they be trampled), but has the downside that sightlines don't always work, and we were treated to a great deal of "back-of-the-head exposition".  Which is a pity, since the actors were all excellent. 

Long-time readers of this blog know about my enjoyment of Wodehouse's world. The plot of Jeeves Takes a Bow is pillaged from the Bertie and Jeeves canon, along with original material heavily influenced by the genre. Bertie Wooster (Calder Jameson Shilling) and his stalwart valet, Jeeves (Richard Nguyen Sloniker) have decamped from England for New York City, only to discover that Bertie's old pal Binkey (The oil-slicked Miguel Costellano) has been pretending to be Bertie, auditioning for a local theater production, and romancing the female lead, Ruby (Claire Marx). Ruby in turn is trying to elude her overly-protective producer, the wise guy Daniel "Knuckles" McCann (Tyler Matthew Campbell). Also dropped into the mix is strait-laced old girlfriend of Bertie's, Vivian Duckworth (Kelly Karcher) who wants to research the dens of iniquity in NYC, including speakeasies and, of course, the theater.

In other words, it has all the trappings and tropes of a Wodehouse production. New York is a regular venue for his stories, and the plot is a collection of colorful characters, mistaken identities, and travails for Bertie and solutions by Jeeves. The foolish master with the crafty, wise servant has been with use since the Roman Plautus if not before, and Wodehouse expands upon that fine tradition. And the plot in one familiar to fans of Wooster & Jeeves - Bertie gets into a tiff with Jeeves (in this case involving purple socks), then promptly gets himself in a jam which requires Jeeve's help, and Jeeves gets him out of the jam, but in a fashion that embarrasses and chastises Bertie.

Shilling's Bertie a likable mixture of good intentions and self-deprecation - he's aware of his shortcomings and leans into them, which makes him sympathetic as his well-meaning nature gets him more deeply involved in his predicament. Costellano's Binkey helps support Bertie in that Binkey is even more hapless and hopeless than Bertie. Marx's Ruby is pure brass, Karcher's prim Vivian is a delight, and Campbell thunders with just the right amount of threat as Knuckles. 

And through it all, the calm center is Sloniker's Jeeves, always there with a spot-on comment and chilled cocktail ready for delivery. Even in rough-and-tumble New York, Jeeves rises head and shoulders among his compatriots, and is the wise head that everyone recognizes and relies upon.

The lingo is completely 1920's argot, and you might find one or two lines among the Americans that do not reek of the era. The dialogue is fast and furious rolls through the entire stage as the actors throw themselves into the works and across the stage in bringing the page to life.

Kinetic, Frantic, Antic, Manic. Yep, that about sums it up. All in all an afternoon well-spent.

More later,