July 8th, 2011


City of the Kobold Kings. (72)

Streets of Zobek & Alleys of Zobek by Ben McFarland, et al.

The Alienist
set up shop in The City.
"This ought to be good."

"Grim & Gritty" is the first two words in this book, & you can tell that is really what Ben McFarland shot for. He owns up to his influences-- Zobek is Lankhmar, is New Crobuzon, is Casablanca. It ain't Sigil, but you can see it from here. It is home to more scoundrels & ruffians than you can shake a stick at, by its very nature. A wretched hive of scum & villainy & all that jazz. We're still safely high fantasy, here-- colleges of wizards & clockwork soldiers-- but we're down in the gutters. Streets of Zobek isn't worldbuilding by narrative-- the Clockwork City has been expounded on in Kobold Quarterly & The Zobek Gazateer if you are so inclined-- but rather consists of bundled resources. Adventures, mostly, but NPCs, locations & feats too. Alleys of Zobek is an online enhancement, so to speak-- sort of the DVD extras, or clips from the cutting room floor. It is more of the same, in other words-- adventures, hooks, items, dramatis personae & the like, with the added bonus of a Lust domain. Like Northlands, this is part of the Midgard campaign setting-- a nice big overworld with increasing diversity in culture & tone.

It starts off with the NPCs-- now, I generally don't need a cast of characters, but there are some clever bits here, particularly the "Schemes & Plots" section in the template. A few hooks provide an NPC with vastly more potential-- miniquests abound. There is a sluagh, which flashes me back to my Changleling: The Dreaming days. There is a ghoul fixer, which reminds me of the ghoul street doc in my Shadowrun game. Gritty fantasy on the streets? I shouldn't be surprised that it reminds me of Shadowrun. Then onto locations & hey; tossing in terms like "alchemically treated glass" make things so much better than more banal high magic deus ex machina; that is a good use of storytelling there. It is the little details that make the whole come together-- like all the detail Weta put into The Lord of the Rings that we never see up close. The pattern recognition software of the brain catches it! The botanical rooftop garden? I've used that in my urban Oubliette campaign to good effect as well; kudos to Matt Stinson for coming up with the same notion. & public baths; that is a brilliant idea that I've used a few times, in several different campaigns. I'm serious when I say "great minds think alike," you know? There are even rules for running your own bar!

Then come the adventures. I'm not a pre-published adventure kind of guy-- the only one I've tried to run that I can think of are the matched pair of Shadowrun mega-modules Harlequin & Harlequin's Back. I really like harlequins; if you don't know that about me, you ought to have been able to guess. The adventures her could be slotted into most urban settings; strip out Zobek & replace it with the metropolis of your choice. Eberron in particular might really click with the material provided. Again, there are little tidbits that catch the eye; vignettes & set pieces like the animated slaughterhouse, characters like Mister Corpulent & Mister Doldrum, surprises like lots of derro. Derro, I heart 'em. There is also plenty of clockwork Frankensteinia in a couple of different adventures, which puts me in mind of Curie Firstlight in my current Oubliette campaign. I might just get some devilish ideas...& there are a few adventures that I can almost see Players linking together themselves. "Hey, that severed head might be really useful with the headless body we found..." Glen Zimmerman's art really shows off the story to good effect, here-- the devil soaking in the hot bath with the tattooed woman is particularly nice.

I have to question some of the feats-- maybe I'm spoiled by Sigfried Trent's Advanced Feats series, but there are a few overpowered & underpowered showings, here. In particular, "Diplomatic Strike" is a tricky one-- a feat that lets you deal non-lethal damage with no penalty? I know The Book of Exalted Deeds had something similar, but I didn't like it then, either. Makes too many ethical questions disappear in a poof of "I bop him on his head. There, unconscious." & Heavy Hitter lets you do double damage with a weapon that deals non-lethal? Having played with a character who took advantage of non-lethal combat, I can tell you that will backfire on you. On the flipside, "Crippling Blow" isn't useful enough-- you have to have knocked someone out twice in one day? How often is that going to come up? There are plenty of of solid decent feats-- "Urban Spell" is cute & "A Firm Word" is promising as well. I also liked the feats "Sling Anything" & "Diluted Brewing" (that'll show those cheapskate Players!) but they are scattered in the NPC section, Traits & spells are...well, traits & spells, but the Magic Items really made me realize how badly Fourth Edition has screwed up with loot. There aren't boring old pluses with a minor rider effect; instead there are clever gimmick items like "Bag of Traps" & "The Cloak of the Inconspicuous" that really drive home how fun treasure can be.

Maximum Deletion.

More Doctor Who at television night; fordmadoxfraud was running late so Jenny, myself & elladorian started without him. I had a massive burger from Corner Burger, complete with onion rings on top-- it truly hit the spot. Also a beet & goat cheese salad; I liked it, Jenny was ambivalent. I picked up a bottle of Rittenhouse Rye & we watched George Takei's bit in the Roast of William Shatner while woofing down our meals, so we could focus on The Doctor & Amy Pond when that time came. Which was soon! The first episode we watched was "The Lodger" which was just utterly great. I'm starting to suspect that the little one-offs like this, "Vincent & the Doctor" "The Girl in the Fireplace" are going to be my jam, my little slice of the Doctor Who pie. The mixture of glee & poignancy is grandiose. Then the two-part finale-- "The Pandorica Opens" & "The Big Bang." A few points; yes, River Song is great & the bit of the guard under the influence of the hallucinogenic lipstick guarding a doodle on the wall had Jenny in stitches. I'm frankly sad that Rory didn't stay a robot man-- Auton?-- but so it goes. I will admit that the rye & the late hour might suggest to me that a re-watching of "The Big Bang" is due. Oh, & here is an important note: the Cybermen are way creepier than the Daleks. The Daleks are just goofy space racists. I get that we're supposed to suspend disbelief & accept them as terrifying, but it isn't the easiest thing to do. The Cybermen, on the other hand, want to wear you. They want to have your organs as spare parts. That, see, that is pretty threatening. Body horror wins over nasal commands to "exterminate."
black fist

Unsex Me Here.

Yesterday was the start of celebrating Jenny's birthday; she met me at the Flatiron after work & we walked over to the restaurant Jason manages, Txikito, where we had Carla's Bon Voyage. That place is very lovely-- we drank the 2010 Ameztoi Getariako Txakolina, a sort of slightly carbonated Basque wine. We started with láminas de setas, tiny slivers of mushroom, & gildas-- a sort of anchovy, olive & pepper skewer. Then came the kroketas-- croquettes-- & the arugula salad with the poached egg in it & fried eel larvae on top. My main plate was morros prensados-- a veal jowl terrine with sweet onion vinaigrette-- & Jenny's was albondogas, lamb meatballs in a mint broth. I really like it there-- Jason managing it aside-- & would like to see more of the wine bar around the corner next time. Basque food! Who knew. & the chefs are going to be on Iron Chef! So fun.

Not a bad start! & after that we went over to our date with destiny. Andy had enthusiastically recommended that I see Sleep No More, & almost immediately after that Marie said I needed to see it too. I'm not one to say no to something like that, so Jenny & I met up with Marie, Sydney, David & Daniel outside of the McKittrick Hotel. Now listen. Years back I saw De la Guarda with absolutely no idea what I was in for. I just went into the little room, where we were packed like sardines, cheek to jowl (just like dinner at Txikito!), & then slowly the show revealed itself-- glow in the dark animals trickling onto the ceiling, then water, & only then-- out of nowhere!-- the bungie jumpers. I had no idea that I was going to end up dancing in the rain & singling glossolalia with a bunch of lunatics. I wanted to replicate that experience, so I had a strict no spoiler policy. That policy ends here, so don't read any further if you live in Metropolis. Just take my word for it & go see it.

Seriously, heed my advice. If you can, go see Sleep No More. Stop reading, don't let anyone talk to you about it, just shell out the eighty bucks, buy a ticket & go see it as soon as you can. I'm going to start talking about it, though, so this is your last chance. Still here? Okay. Well, the first thing to say is that Sleep No More is a silent & non-linear performance inspired by Macbeth. They say it is a fusion of Shakespeare with Hitchcock, but there is more than a little Lynch in there. I'd even managed to avoid knowing that, though an hour before the show Jenny-- who knew-- teased me that it was Hamlet. The show takes place over six floors of a hotel-- & the hotel is really just amazing. I'm getting ahead of myself. You arrive at the McKittrick Hotel & the first thing they do is set the mood. You pick up your tickets & get a playing card-- I had the seven of clubs-- & then you are funneled into a pitch black labyrinth. Inch your way forward using your sense of touch dark. Your bumping & fumbling is accompanied by jarring music, sounding much like the distorted Edith Piaf song from Inception.

The tunnel spits you out...into a 1920's speakeasy, complete with live music & singers, absinthe punch & character actors. You may wish to knock back a martini or a Manhattan here-- or two. Be quick about it; they start letting people into the hotel by card number. Here is where you'll notice that you & your plus one didn't get the same card number. They do a good job splitting groups up. Maybe you trade cards so you & your wife can be in the same group. One of the actors escorts you to the elevator, issuing you a Scaramouch mask & issuing stern warnings. First: wear the mask at all times. Second: no talking whatsoever. You can come back to the bar at any time, but you are one you own. The elevator operator-- Jimmy-- takes over from there. "Fortune favors the bold!" he tells you, as they make another play to separate you; one elevator's worth of people is split up between three floors, & Jimmy does a good job making sure that folks who know each other are let off at different stops.

You are let off, masked, with strangers, & given no direction. I wandered...until I found a bald woman with no mask. I came upon her in a ballroom, filled with mist & plastic Christmas trees...slowly people filed in in period garb to sit at the table & act out-- in a mixture of slow-motion mime & contact improve dance-- a tense caricature of a supper scene. Amazing. Some were quite bloody. Intense. & here is the trick: scenes were happening all over the building. The entire play of Macbeth, enacted in parallel-- so that if you followed the actor playing Macbeth, you could follow his storyline as he moved from floor to floor-- but you'd miss Duncan's or Lady Macbeth's, as they performed their scenes in real time. & so on & so forth, for every one. Witches, Banquo, the Porter-- everything happening all at once, all throughout the hotel. You couldn't possibly see all of it; & that is the brilliance of the thing. There are a little over a hundred rooms-- just to give you a sense of the scope of the thing-- & each room is detailed down to the angels dancing on the head of a pin.

The hotel is fantastic. Gorgeous-- the set design is as much a piece of the show as the dancing. There are letters hidden in chests, antique medical charts to peruse, padded cells, a graveyard, a candy shop. You are encouraged to interact-- eat the handspun candy, paw through the books, look at the seal from the Lesser Key of Solomon drawn on the blackboard, read the "SATOR" square carved into the bottom of a drawer. Pet the taxidermy animals, walk among the trees & the fallen rubble. I spent lots of time exploring, not even following the action. There is a child's room-- in the Duncan suite, I suppose-- that has a one way mirror; if you cup your hand & peer onto the other side of the mirror, you can see an exact duplicate of the room...stained with blood. Really just incredible stuff; I pointed it out to a bunch of people & they were well & truly shocked. The performances themselves are not to be missed. They are as bloody & sexy as the source material. I watched Lady Macbeth strip naked & do a rage-dance with Macbeth around a bathtub. Powerful stuff. & all around the scene-- like nightmare creatures from Silencio in Mulholland Drive or the "Fidelio Club" of Eyes Wide Shut-- are masked watchers, a diabolical Greek Chorus, silent, drinking it all in with their eyes.

We met back up in the bar-- least, Jenny & I & Sydney did; Marie, David & Daniel having gotten too tangled up. I'd missed the witches scene, which I was assured I must catch, so I went to the actresses who had led us into the elevator & asked her advice on how to find some witches. She gave me some hints & strongly implied that I had to leave now if I wanted to see the final performance of the scene, so off Jenny & I scurried. It was...crazy great. There are three witches, & according to the program they are "Bald Witch," "Sexy Witch," & "Boy Witch." The scene where they meet Macbeth is wild. There is orgiastic dancing, loud techno music & heavy strobe lights-- in the choppy cacophony the Boy Witch strips naked & puts a stuffed goat's head on, while the other witches dance, make out & fondle each other. The Boy-Witch-as-Satan ends up covered in blood, & I totally got bloody penis all over me when he pushed past me in the throes of diabolical ecstasy. It. Was. Sweet. & just a taste of the whole; it all was apiece, all just a colossal success, a real victory for the avant-garde. Sometimes? An actor would take one of us masked viewers into a locked room. I don't know what goes on, then-- Marie spied through cracks & saw a nurse putting make-up on a woman, but I ransacked a room after the nurse & there were a bunch of modern alcohol swabs-- I really think that she pricked the mark's thumb, a la "By the pricking of my thumbs, something wicked this way comes."


Urim & Thummim. (73)

The Illustrated Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, paintings by Moebius.

Elixer of Life,
Philosopher's Stone, neither
are the true Great Work.

Lets start by saying something nice, shall we? These paintings by Moebius are, as usual, par excellence. Moebius is an astonishing artist, with no less a pedigree than Alien, Star Wars, Tron & well...many other less recognizable but no less impressive works. The cover, with its turbaned mendicant & black pyramid, really made me think-- hey, maybe this isn't what my preconceptions of it are telling me it is! Unfortunately...it really is what you think it is. A self-help book that that has more to do with The Secret than to The Goetia. If you believe in your Personal Legend, the Soul of the Earth will always guide you! Sorry; when you cross Taoism with Monotheism, things start going screwy. A shame too, since I care about Personal Mythology so much. There are a few bits in here of value-- sure, listen to your heart or whatever! & the discussion about the simplicity of the Emerald Tablet was nice. Otherwise, though, no sir. Aesop-eque fables don't work when you don't have a pithy bit of folk wisdom to back it up. Now, embedding moral lessons in alchemical texts is all well & good-- I just prefer the genuine messages of something like The Chemical Wedding of Christian Rosenkreutz to predictable pablum. Not to mention the whole "a good woman lets her man go traipsing about, waiting patiently for his return" nonsense. This was a Book Club Selection, like A Visit From the Goon Squad, & while I'm happy to have a reason to go outside my comfort zone, I hope next time I'm pleasantly surprised by what I read there. Still, did I mention that Moebius' art is quite nice? Lovely stuff.