Thursday, February 6, 2014

Quasquetherion No More. Arise Hyperbarbaria!

I've been dreading this post for a few reasons. (A) It might make me have to change some of the tags that I've been using here on the blog. (B) I might come terribly close to something that resembles making fun of some sacred cows that I actually really love (and, if anything, this is my own bizarre twist on them). And (C), I might wax a little pretentious here, but not in the "I'm such a snob, here are some snobby things I like to talk and think about" way, more in the "I don't really have other ways to describe this particular thing, so please forgive me for using them to discuss an aesthetic, in fact, while you're at it, please forgive me for discussing an aesthetic" way. I hope you got all that.

Here's the thing: It's not just Quasquetherion anymore.

Sure, Quasquetherion was a great place to start and in many ways its still the focus of the campaign, at least this far, but I've had to answer enough of my questions about what surrounds the area, why this thing is occurring, why that thing, that it's naturally evolved past just the one dungeon, you know, like it does. The players deserved some understanding of the wilderness that they were trudging through on their way to and from the dungeon, if only to explain the occasional random encounter or why Quasquetherion hadn't been found despite it only being a five-hour hike from the nearby fort (or keep; you know, of the sort you find on the borderlands).

Plus, what about those barbarians that Zonn the Mind-Breaker and Harrowvar the Ironic went off to fight? What about them? Are they still a thing or what?

So, yes, it's moved from being a one-dungeon setting to a setting that has a wilderness (of sorts) to explore and characters who aren't just in the dungeon when they're on-screen.

(Side note: Amazing, isn't it, how when you let a game evolve naturally from "lets roll some dice and kill some monsters in a dungeon," it naturally ends up as "what's over that next hill and can we kill it and take its stuff?" That whole Basic to Expert transition isn't as artificial as Advanced editions like to make us think.)

Influences And Aesthetic

Since I wanted to give the kids (sorry, the "new to old school" gamers, but seriously, I get to call anyone younger than my wife a kid, I figure) a very authentic look into the origins of the hobby, the climate of give and take, sharing ideas and concepts from one gaming group to another, it's only natural that I draw a bunch of inspiration from the traditionally non-traditional early D&D campaigns. Blackmoor, Arduin, the worlds of the Complete Warlock and the Necronomican/Booty and the Beasts. These would be my guides. Weird. Wild. Fun.

Ah, who am I kidding. I'm not going to list every possible influence because then I'd be rambling on for page after page of tiny influence after tiny influence. Here are the broad strokes: comics, Moorcock, doom metal, CA Smith, Twin Peaks, Lovecraft, RE Howard, Italian splatterpunk, Sumerian mythology, Zontar of Venus (check that shit out if you don't know about it), Sword & Sorcery in general, Heavy Metal (the music & the mag), Jack Kirby and existentialist philosophy.

That last one caught you up, didn't it? Well, here's the thing: I've been spending a lot of time trying to nail down exactly how I would describe my own aesthetic because... because it can be damned hard to explain a thing unless you've got a name for it. Sometimes, it can be easier to explain how a thing works if you've bothered to figure out what it should be called, if only because you've had to sort out how the facts about the thing contribute to its name. And thus, I've given my particular aesthetic the name "phenomenological cosmicism," in that it's focused on the experience of the bizarre and unhinging elements (that's the phenomenology part) that communicate man's overall insignificance on a cosmic scale (that's the cosmicism part). If things are just plain strange enough, my mind seems to tell me, players will feel a connection to it in an attempt to wrap their heads around it, which is especially excellent if it leads them to an understanding of their own cosmic import: not much. Bundle that with a focus on some identity theory and theory of mind and self-determination and you've got my philosophy on gaming: make it weird, make the weird count, and make things sufficiently strange and just at the point where the disconnection between logic and game events occur, the good stuff rises to the top.

Sometimes, this aesthetic doesn't jibe well with some players. Most players, though, seem to enjoy it, at least enough to keep coming back for more. Sure, I've had a player tell me that my games gave him nightmares, but he said it with a smile on his face. He was seriously excited that he had had a game experience so intense that it followed him to bed. Not every session is that big, and most aren't, but that's the sort of damage I go for.

Why Hyperbarbaria?

Yes, the play on words is obvious. I don't feel I'm terribly clever for it. Remember that part earlier where I said if I can name it, it helps me figure out what's important enough to influence the naming? Yup.

So yeah, Hyperborea meets Korgoth of Barbaria. That's where we'll start.

We'll take some oddities that I've always enjoyed from Blackmoor (the mountain that fell from the sky, but this one didn't drop magic everywhere like Uncle Dave's did, it did other stuff, that sort of thing) and add some of the West Coast weird (Hargrave, Otus, etc.). Stay Swords & Sorcery rather than go the pseudo-medievalist or genre-D&D route. We'll throw in some Old Ones as... well, themselves. Arise, Tsathoggua! Reskin some tweaky freak out Twin Peaks strangeness in the form of Cthulhu Mythos creatures dressed up in different clothes (yep, that's a re-clothing of reskinned stuff). A dash of Silent Hill? Don't mind if I do.

Still not enough? Wait! There's more!

Hyperbarbaria, the "land beyond the land of barbarians," lies in relative close proximity to the Dreaming Dimension and passing from one to the other is easier here than elsewhere (thus allowing all sorts of weirdness to foment on both sides of the wall of sleep). The journey from dream to waking world and back again is dangerous, though, as the cancerous nightmare of Carcosa attempts to assert itself by clinging desperately to reality, swelling tumorously with the poison of every mortal's bad dreams.

It is on a stark borderland here that a small keep stands as bulwark against the mad wild men infected with Chaos and black magic who dwell at the end of the world. Here, where intrepid adventurers seek the plunder of forgotten ages that were scoured from the world by the corrupt scourge that is the wild men.

Man, this is really sounding bleak, isn't it?

Let's lighten the mood a bit with zombie animals, rat things (completely different and distinct from vermen), mad cannibal haflings dressed in costumes for human children, srange mutli-hued NPCs that are remarkably similar to characters from my favorite films (I do a mean Sydney Greenstreet) and my reliance on the theme song and imagery from the 1968 classic, The Green Slime. Why yes, my green slimes do have a single giant red eye and sparklers at the end of their tentacles. So yes, I do have my own sort of whimsy that I'll gladly add to the mix; it can't all be David-Bowie-in-Fire-Walk-With-Me-grade freak out all the time.

Put some Sleep or Electric Wizard on the record player, pour a glass of whiskey and let's get into the dungeon!