Saturday, 24 May 2014

Elric of R’lyeh: History and Legend

  1. Myth
  2. Subverting History
  3. Timeline of the Common Era

In this portion of the game notes, we’ll discuss history and myth.

Myth

It was as if some enormous sun, thousands of times larger than Earth’s, had sent a ray of light pulsing through the cosmos, defying the flimsy barriers of Time and Space, to strike upon the great black battlefield.
Stormbringer

When Elric blew the Horn of Fate, a rent in time and space allowed the Gods of Law to pass into our world and do battle with Chaos. Eventually the power of the Horn swept all gods away and ushered in a new age and new world.

At least, that’s how the common version of the myth goes. As Moorcock fans we’re familiar with the events in Stormbringer up to the point of Elric’s final toot of the horn (and subsequent betrayal by the eponymous sword) and it’s generally assumed that the world that follows is both geographically and metaphysically altered into our own world.

The alternate earth of Elric of R’lyeh exists after that cataclysm; the Elric myth is broadly aligned with the events of Stormbringer, but it is still a myth. The cataclysmic event at the beginning of the Common Era is the beginning of known history, and the time before is speculation — and the Elric myth is probably a rendering down of a complex series of events to make it palatable to modern citizens.

But, let’s consider what could have happened.

Firstly, the Horn of Fate is a macguffin. It could be a metaphor for vast cosmic change, or it could be a coincidental detail that has been blown out of proportion. What if the sound of the horn was the “thin, monotonous whine of blasphemous flutes from inconceivable, unlighted chambers beyond Time” (H. P. Lovecraft, Nyarlathotep) and Elric’s true purpose was to summon Nyarlathotep to usher in a new age?

Another idea: what if the Horn of Fate were a weapon? Its intent was to usher in a new age, reset the balance and sweep the old gods away. When Elric sounded the Horn of Fate and conjured the gods, what if they came there not to do battle with Chaos, but — facing their own extinction — with the sorcerer himself?

“So it is over,” Moonglum murmured. “All gone — Elwher, my birthplace, Karlaak by the Weeping Waste, Bakshaan, even the Dreaming City and the Isle of Melnibone. They no longer exist, they cannot be retrieved.”
Stormbringer

And finally, when the Horn was sounded for a third and final time, did the Earth change, or did Elric’s perception of the Earth change? Did he truly witness the Earth whirling “faster and faster… day giving way to night with incredible rapidity” (Stormbringer) or did Dead Elric dream those changes after his final battle ground sank beneath the waves? Elric is popularly portrayed as mortal, yet he is also Melnibonean; he is both fantastically long-lived and powerful, and there is no-one in the Common Era who is truly Melnibonean, and thus his true power is likely beyond the estimation of modern scholars. That he lives still is a frightening possibility.

Ylrhc the sorcerer created a weapon that could challenge the gods themselves, and for his blasphemy they met him in his palace at R’lyeh to strike him down. He was defeated but not killed, for he did the gods terrible harm and weakened them such that even they could not end him. And so the gods consigned his R’lyeh to beneath the waves, along with his weapon, so men would never find him and understand that they had the power to challenge the gods.

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Ylrhc R’lyeh wgah’nagl fhtagn!

  • Unnamed heretical scroll, from the archives of the Vatican

Subverting History

There’s not a lot to say about mucking about with history. It falls down to two things: inserting historical figures into your game, and establishing a timeline.

Let’s talk about historical figures first. Melnibonean bloodlines present a lot of potential; in my campaign Queen Elizabeth was the last true Melnibonean, and the class structure was predelicted on Melnibonean blood and how many generations one was removed from Her Majesty. The greater the percentage of Melnibonean blood the longer lived the individual is, too. I’ll cover modern society and its obsession with bloodline and status in a later post.

With the potential for historical persons having a drop of Melnibonean blood in their veins, there are opportunities to insert any figure you care to from history into the 1920s. But, this is hardly new, since we were doing it in Vampire 20 years ago.

In fact, Melniboneans are a lot like Vampires in their scope to change history — they’re unusually long lived and usually powerful. The differences between a Melnibonean and a Vampire that matter are

  • they’re able to go out in the sunlight
  • they walk around in a society which obeys them rather than fearing them
  • they’re public figures.

History should be made by Melniboneans. Bear in mind that “Melnibonean” is a fluid concept and applies to members of rich families with strong Melnibonean bloodlines — but not exclusively alien. No-one in 1920’s earth is a “pure” Melnibonean, or has any concept of what that would look like — maybe with the exception of Queen Elizabeth.

Where it’s amusing to do so, pluck figures from history and give them Melnibonean blood. Pay attention to their relative ages. No-one is older than Elizabeth herself, but having NPCs who were born in the 1700s is plausible. In my own games I inserted Elias Ashmole and various contemporaries of Elizabeth. However I was mindful not to turn it into an alternative Vampire with the players as mere observers to the Elder’s machinations. This should still be an investigation game.

Timeline of the Common Era

This is a sample timeline. In this world the Dragon Isle and Melnibone are both synonymous with The British Isles, and Imyrr is synonymous with Oxford (city of dreaming spires and all that).

0-500 – age of Chaos.

Sinking of R’lyeh followed by a power vacuum. The Western Ocean is named the Boiling Sea and becomes impassable for the next 1500 years. Old Melnibonean feudal estates within Britain and on mainland Europe vie for power. End of the Bright Empire witnessed by Maximillian von Becque who founds the Church of Law. At the end of the Age the Church of Law is a significant power in central Europe.

500-1000 – age of the Construction.

Church of Law gradually permeates through civilisation, and challenges the Melnibonean estates. British Isles resist influence of Law and is widely held to be haunted by mainland Europe, inhabited by ancient sorcerer-kings and frightened tribes of humans. Capital of the Church of Law established at the ancient pre-collapse city of Byzantium.

1000-1500 – age of Enlightenment.

British Isles invaded by William who establishes his United Kingdom and begins the reconstruction of the largely superstitious and Chaos-aligned Britain. This is the Middle Age of Britain, during which time the Church of Law is fully established. At the same time the Court of Chaos is put in place to satisfy (the vanity of) the remaining Melnibonean estates on the island. The southern estates join the alliance of the Church of Law and the Court of Chaos under the British Monarch, though in the far north of Scalland the estates refuse to bow to the alliance and a bloody war ensues which is never fully resolved, only conceded. The Scalls continue to predominantly observe the cults of Chaos and become known as the Lands of a Thousand Cults.
At this time the old cities of Melnibone are rediscovered and William arbitrates on the rightful stewardship of the settlements. Oxford is one such city, and becomes a principle seat of learning. Towards the end of this period the collapse of the Byzantine Empire is imminent, to be replaced by the modern European structure.

1500-present – modern age; the Age of Empire; the Rediscovery of Melnibone.

The influence of Law spreads as cities prosper and the precepts of Law supplant the old allegiances to the cults of Chaos; however in rural areas local cult worship is common. Queen Elizabeth comes to the throne in Britain after a brutal war of succession following the death of her father, Henry. As it happens this profoundly influences the Balance between Law and Chaos throughout Europe. Had her sister Mary succeeded their father it is likely that Mary would have founded New Byzantium and a second Great Age of Law would have resulted; instead Elizabeth sought a balance between the Church of Law and the Courts of Chaos, and the latter was able to establish itself in the political landscape. This was the great Rennaissance of Chaos, with the rediscovery of the arcane sciences and a resurgence in magic. The British Empire — also known as the Second Bright Empire — is established during this time, and spreads throughout the modern world as far as the New World to the West, and Asiacommunista to the East.
The “Romance of Melnibone” is a phrase used for the romantic sensibilities of old Melnibone, the rediscovery of Melnibonean relics and knowledge and a reconnection with the spirit of Melnibone which Elizabeth sees as a continuation of the work of William’s Reconstruction. As part of the Rediscovery, the pioneers of the new Bright Empire travel west across the Boiling Sea and successfully land in the New World. Colonies of the Bright Empire are established there until the war of Independence, where the United States split from the Empire completely.

Recent History

Britain has recently fought a Great War with Germania and won; for the moment there is peace in Europa, though the cost has been very high. Russian revolution leads to the renaming of the Eastern continent as Asiacommunista. Church of Law establishes prohibition in the former Imperial Colonies who now refer to themselves as the United States — though the Empire calls them the Young Kingdoms.

Back: Law and Chaos | Index | Next: Politics

Wednesday, 14 May 2014

Sources for Elric of R’lyeh

  1. Main Sources
  2. Books
  3. Roleplaying Games
  4. Afterword

Book sources for this project are divided into two camps: literary sources, and derivative works (which for the most part are games). In addition, there are some games which have nothing to do with the original premise but may still be useful.

This list is meant to be evergreen and may be expanded in the future.

Evergreen: Main Sources

Moorcock, M., Elric of Melnibone (omnibus) (London, Millenium/Orion, 1993)
Moorcock, M., Stormbringer (omnibus) (London, Millenium/Orion, 1993)
Moorcock, M., Earl Aubec (short stories) (London, Millenium/Orion, 1993)
Moorcock, M., Corum (omnibus) (London, Millenium/Orion, 1992)
Moorcock, M., Von Bek (omnibus) (London, Millenium/Orion, 1992)
Lovecraft, H.P., Complete works of H.P. Lovecraft (Cthulhuchick epub)
St. Andre, Perrin, Monroe, Stormbringer 4th Edition (Chaosium 1990)
Willis, Watts, Elric! (Chaosium 1993)
Petersen and others, Call of Cthulhu 4th Edition (Chaosium 1989)

Books

Of Moorcock’s prolific offerings, the most pertinent are the various Elric books. Unfortunately I’m not familiar with the most recent anthologies, which are published by Gollancz, and may have different orders of contents from the older Millennium imprints that I own (the original, big format books, lovely though not very portable). Wikipedia has a good run down of the books in roughly chronological order, and the Wikiverse project is also a source of information.

In addition to Elric, the other books recommended are the first Corum trilogy (Prince in the Scarlet Robe), the short story Earl Aubec) (from the anthology of the same name), and The Warhound and the World’s Pain (Von Bek). I chose these because they’re fairly suggestive of the relationship between humans and gods (and Law and Chaos).

The Dancers at the End of Time and anything with Jerry Cornelius are recommended, though only peripherally useful for the discussion here.

For Lovecraft there are numerous printings available, but the ebook rendering of the Complete works of H.P. Lovecraft by CthulhuChick is recommended for e-readers and has a nice index.

Roleplaying Games

Chaosium (BRP)

For reference, I originally used the 4th editions of both Call of Cthulhu (hereafter CoC) and Stormbringer (hereafter SB). I also posess most of the Elric! line of books (technically these are Stormbringer 5th ed) and the first edition of books published by Mongoose in their Eternal Champion line (EC).

That’s all well and good, except none of these books are in print now. Mongoose’s offerings are defunct, which means there’s no official game based on Moorcock’s work currently available. This leaves the secondhand market as an option for obtaining copies of the various games.

However, I’m lead to believe that Chaosium’s recently released Advanced Sorcery (for Magic World) contains the content of the Bronze Grimoire from Elric!, and should include rules for demons and elementals. I can’t confirm this myself and I don’t intend to buy the new book any time soon, so caveat emptor.

Call of Cthulhu is of course available, in the 6th (and soon to be 7th) edition. One supplement I got a lot of mileage from is the Cthulhu Dreamlands hardback; since Moorcock also has a take on the Dream Realms (q.v. The Fortress of the Pearl) and there has even been a Mongoose game supplement of the same name, it may be worth consideration.

A final note regarding the various Eternal Champion games. I haven’t mentioned Mongoose’s Elric of Melnibone line, mainly because I don’t really like them as games; part of me never really warmed to the Mongoose way of doing Runequest. I’ve also complained about the presentation of the books in the past, and I confess this has put me off reading them cover-to-cover. However I have enjoyed the parts I’ve read and for the Moorcock faithful they may prove to be a better and more complete representation of the Young Kingdoms (and the Tragic Millennium, for Hawkmoon fans). If the presentation of the Elric game was fixed in Mongoose’s 2nd edition, that may be the version to try to pick up second hand (they did a good job for MRQ2).

Other Games

If you’re not wedded to the original games, there are plenty of other options that could be used to emulate the hybrid world. Games will most likely still be oriented towards investigation, which makes Trail of Cthulhu and other Gumshoe games worth considering (and if you’re quick, you can pick up the Trail in the latest Bundle of Holding). I can recommend the Rough Magicks supplement, at least for Kenneth Hite’s essay on Lovecraftian Magick.

Other titles to consider are Unknown Armies, the free Nemesis) (which includes sanity rules from UA) and Kult. However these all deviate into modern urban fantasy/horror, so will require some amount of surgery to make them fit together.

If you want to play something more epic and/or narrative oriented, consider simplifying. Everway is out of print and feels a bit too optimistic to me, but it could work. If you like to get your hands dirty, hack Apocalypse World. This really is deviating from my original specification, but whatever, if you’re inspired then make the game your own.

Afterword

On the subject of “epic”, the Eternal Champion’s high fantasy (with anti-hero) presentation does clash with Cthulhu’s everyman nihilism. This is something I’ll cover later, but for now it’s worth mentioning that if you just glue Stormbringer and Call of Cthulhu rpgs together, you’ll probably get a campaign where some characters can go toe-to-toe with Lovecraftian baddies, at least until they go insane. This may not even be a bad thing: if the goal is to interrogate the higher powers on their motivations and their place in the cosmic scheme of things, then having characters (and therefore players) with the ability to ask such questions may be a benefit.

Back: Introduction | Index | Next: Spoilers

Tuesday, 11 March 2014

Old and New Favourites

Weaveworld cover

Nothing like a bit of food poisoning to give you new perspective. For me it was the chance to re-read Clive Barker’s Weaveworld.

This is a book from my late teens, and like most teens I liked my flavours strong and not subtle.  It’s too long, the characters are mostly one-trick ponies, the prose is unnecessary, and the plot swings from being pedestrian to incomprehensible. Still, it resonates very strongly, mainly for Barker’s description of magic.

I prefer The Great and Secret Show (and Imajica, although I read that much later) for magical imagery, but Weaveworld has coloured my perception of what magic should appear to be in both fiction and games. I say appear, because I don’t think there’s any system behind the magic, it’s all texture and the effect it has on the environment. The closest we get to philosophy is probably the concept of Cosm / Metacosm / Quiddity in the books of the Art.

Compared to Immacolata’s  Menstruum and Gentle’s Pneuma, magic in D&D looks a bit agricultural. Barker’s mages usually either know innately how to do magic (the Seerkind), or they’ve seized it through hard work and sacrifice (the Jaffe, Swann), or have been gifted it (Shadwell). Mostly Barker writes about people using magic, rather than the magic itself.

This is probably why Mage: the Ascension appealed to me so strongly (and it cites Imajica in the bibliography). Unfortunately it’s mired in an awful system and an awful political structure, the same clans-and-tribes nonsense inherited from the earlier oWoD games. When I ran Mage the best fun came from mostly ignoring the rules and using the spheres as a rough guide, and pushing all the Traditions nonsense to the background (the characters were mostly Hollow).

I have no idea how magic works in a modern FATE driven game like Dresden Files. My preference is for something completely freeform; a bit like the Everway approach, if that weren’t so light and twee and goody-goody. And looking at FATE (which I have been recently) I’m not sure an Aspect driven game would work either. Of course being my new favourite thing WaRP has a lot of promise, with magic being described in the same loose sense as other Traits. The only downside is there’s not enough to lose; no sanity, no acquiring deformities through paradox, etc. I’ll work on that.

New Favourite: The Anachroneironaut

Now for a new favourite. My new favourite blog is the Anachroneironaut. Amazing gothic illustrations, lovecraftian houseplants, and ink. Check out this amazing piece of art inspired by Perdido Street Station.

Friday, 9 August 2013

Imajica CCG

I was never much of a player of CCGs. I have a bunch of Magic cards, some Battletech cards and some Netrunner sets gathering dust (metaphorically speaking; they’re all in silly deck protectors).

I liked looking at Magic cards and imagining the worlds behind them. I particularly liked the feel of some of the early sets like Ice Age and Homelands, but eventually I grew out of my card fetish (well, almost — I still collect a few fantasy art card sets). Being actually bad at playing MtG didn’t help, of course.

I’m also a fan of Clive Barker, and for years I fancied getting my hands on his Imajica CCG. Well, thanks to a certain auction site:

Imajica Box

Imajica Cards

I’ve not had long to digest the rules (not that I really care, I’ll probably never play them, just paw them) but my first impressions are:

  • It’s like MtG on acid, which is what I would expect from a game set in the Five Dominions;
  • It’s rather restrictive — decks must be exactly 60 cards and can only contain certain kinds of cards, and must contain other kinds;
  • Love the large artwork. Much more of a Tarot feel to the game.

Who knows if it’s any good? It’s a shame that the game was cancelled so quickly, but it was probably inevitable. I think it probably could be “better than MtG”, but we’ll never know. For now I’m happy to have a cheap copy. Hopefully some of the cards will have art by Barker himself.

Monday, 10 June 2013

Iain Banks RIP

Iain Banks died yesterday.

I was never a huge fan, more of an appreciative reader. I got into his non-SF books much more than his SF, and then not so much–even so, his iconic covers were a feature on pretty much every bookshelf of every house we hung out in during my university years and beyond.

(I always wondered why they switched from the original Peter Brown illustrated covers. For a while I confused the new covers with Ian McEwan‘s books.)

Hard SF is less my cup of tea so I have fewer enduring memories of The Culture (I don’t think I’ve read any of the non-Culture SF), but I the bits I remember are fresh, never wallowing in the science of SF, keeping the stories about humans. Perhaps that’s a benefit from Banks being a cross-genre author. If I ever run a Traveller game, Banks is probably the first author I will go to for inspiration.

RIP.

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