Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Gonzo Game Fiction

I mentioned yesterday sharing the game fiction from Gonzo. I'm happy to put it up today as a taster of what the game might feel like.

Something Approaching a Naturewalk

Diego was panting like a whipped dog as we ran through the thick pine forests outside Monte Rio. No doubt the cocaine, an especially potent Guatemalan blend said to have been partially responsible for Jimi Hendrix's pitiful end, was racing through his system at speeds liable to give him a stroke or, worse yet, psychotic episode. I skidded to a halt, turned around, and stuck a hand up in front of him in order to bring him to a stop. He pulled his hairy bulk up at the last minute, just avoiding crushing me against a tree.

"Dammit, man! This isn't a game! We're on a story and I only brought you along to keep your work visa renewed! This is dangerous work here.... these aren't amateurs. They're vicious, rabid animals, the most terrible known to man..."

I paused to take a quick huff of the ether rag crammed into my pants pocket.


Diego merely grunted, something between a noise of understanding and the low whine of a wounded beast. He was a hirsute, mountain of a man, more fat than muscle, but with a weird baby face under his beard; he looked like a cross between Fidel Castro and Jonathon Winters. I pushed him away as the ether took hold, hurling a garbled profanity at him as he turned and began jogging toward our objective. Even though we were in a forest outside San Francisco, it may as well have been Phuoc Tuy. The night was muggy, foggy, oppressive, the sort of night that might give a Vietnam veteran flashbacks just from the weather.  The sound of crickets reverberated through the moist night air. I found myself stopping and starting as I jogged forward, trying to sync the sound of the little demons with the throbbing of my pulse in my ears. Diego stopped and started in unison with me, which annoyed me to no end. I skidded to an abrupt halt and berated him for his bizarre behavior.

"You lummox, what are you trying to do? This place is crawling with armed guards, no doubt, and you're going to alert them," I hissed.

Diego turned his bloodshot eyes to me and replied, "Mrhmah hurgla drham!" A small grey pill fell from his mouth to the mossy floor beneath his loafered foot. My peripheral vision went dark as my eyes narrowed. Panic began to grip me.

"Those were for the comedown!"

I ran up to him, grabbing him by the collar of his blue Hawaiian shirt, screaming right into his face and shaking him for all I was worth.

"The comedown, you idiot! That was two hundred dollars of horse tranquilizers! How am I supposed to write the piece without those?"

A froglike croak came out of his mouth as he slumped to the ground, his body starting to quiver in anticipation of the sobs to come. "I'm sorry, man. I'm sorry."

A sudden spike of pity welled within me. I realized that I was being monstrously unfair to my friend. He wasn't a man; he was a force of nature, unable to control himself when confronted with pills or powders. He needed my guidance, dammit, not my admonitions. So I crouched next to him, slipped an arm around his shoulder, and helped him to his feet.

"There, there, Diego. There, there. I'm sorry I was so harsh. We can get more once we head back into town. There you are. Up, up."

My companion was on his feet, shaking the cobwebs from his head, sadness forgotten for the time being. I lit a cigar and handed it to him before reaching back into my bomber jacket for one of my own. The puffs of smoke wafted upwards before becoming indistinguishable from the fog.

"We're almost there now."


We trudged through the night, one section of woods seeming exactly like the other. Without my compass, we'd be lost. It was a straight shot west from our starting point, so it was easy enough. Still, a nature walk while loaded up on hard drugs is hardly a recommendable course of action, particularly outside of Bohemian Grove in the middle of the night.

Finally, after a what seemed like an eternity, we reached our destination. The soft orange glow of a bonfire clued us in. It illuminated the low ridge in front of us, casting long shadows like grasping specters all around. I tugged on Diego's sleeve to get his attention, putting a finger to my lips when he glances over.

Silence was paramount. Even my good friend, in his state, knew. We crouched down and sneaked over to the ridge to get a glimpse of the action, flopping down heavily behind a bush to stay out of sight. I fumbled for both my ether and binoculars.

"Goddammit, I'm out of ether."

It was true. A travesty of the highest order. And the tranquilizers were long gone, disappeared down the gullet of the semi-coherent Honduran next to me. There was no way we would escape alive while sober.

The magnitude of the tragedy that had befallen us was masked by the scene unfolding not a hundred yards away. The baleful glow of the fires recaptured my attention. Diego's, too, as his mouth slowly began to hang open as he took it all in. I pushed the binoculars so hard against my eyes that I'm damned lucky I didn't do permanent damage to my sight.

There before us was a gigantic wooden owl, surrounded by a small amphitheater which was packed by men in black robes. At the foot of this ghastly pagan idol, a huge fire roared. But it was next to the conflagration that I saw a sight which I'll never forget, one which made my blood run cold. A nude woman, beautiful and blonde, with big tits and perfect skin, was chained by arms and legs to a stone table in front of the idol. She was unconscious, blissfully unaware of the horror about to befall her.

I scanned the crowd of pale faces standing in front of the altar, somber and stony-faced, awaiting the ritual. With magnification, there was no mistaking any of them, and I dictated the faces I recognized to Diego.

I saw Richard Nixon, our disgraced former president, looking on from the front row, a look on his face as though he'd just eaten a turd. Joe Namath was flanked by Art Linkletter and Jimmy Stewart. I saw Warren Berger half-heartedly paying attention, focused as he was on quietly sharing a joint with Merv Griffin. Ronald Reagan stood off a bit by himself; he was so barbarous that not even these cutthroats and thieves wanted to be near him. On and on the list went, a list of titanic figures, taller than the surrounding trees, the movers and shakers of a system built on blood and war and sheer meanness, each one responsible for crimes against decency and humanity.

I called out each name in turn, Diego wheezing slightly as he scribbled them down as quickly as he could. Forty of them in all. Forty monsters. But then I saw something which caused my heart to skip a beat. Stepping out of the shadows and to the altar, in the same black robe but with a mitre of red and black upon his head as a cruel mockery of the Pope's, came the High Priest of this sordid ritual. He was immediately recognizable. He was The Beast, the most vile human to walk the earth since Batu Khan razed Kiev, the only man with the sheer force of evil to bring all these lesser devils into line.

Henry Kissinger.

The congregation at this black mass stood upright and silent. Justice Berger flicked the joint out of view and stifled a giggle, bloodshot eyes burning. A spell had been cast over all of them. It was deathly still and silent; the only sound was Diego's labored breathing beside me. I looked over at him to make certain he could get through this. He didn't look good. Big beads of sweat had popped up all over his forehead, tumbling down his nose and cheeks. He was sitting, slouched forward, eyes big as saucers.

"Diego," I hissed. "Goddammit, Diego, you have got to keep it together just a little longer. Get hold of yourself."

He looked at me, staring. I could see the vein throbbing in his neck.

"Sorry, boss," he whispered. "I'm okay, man. I can stick it out, man."

I scowled at him and put the binoculars back to my head to survey the action, knowing that Diego was going to pop any second. How his fit would manifest was beyond the knowledge of mortal men, but it was certain to be severe given the sheer volume of chemicals in his blood. This was just how things went. The line on the floor is bright and red but you cross it anyway, hoping to survive the madness on the other side.

My vision focused in time to see Kissinger, who had been addressing the assembly, draw a long, thin dagger from his robes, holding it aloft. His voice, that hideous nasal baritone drilled into a generation's collective skull over six years, reverberated around the wilderness.

"Oh Satan, we acknowledge thee as our Lord and Master! Grace us with your presence, oh hairy man-goat!"

The voice boomed, a sound like Leviathan awakening. Chills ran up my spine and Diego whimpered helplessly.

"Take this sacrifice as your demon-bride! Take her to Hell as your own! See her heart offered to you as a mark of our obeisance!"

The crowd called back to their priest, "Hail, Satan!"

At that, Kissinger drove the knife deep into the poor woman's chest. She woke up from her slumber just long enough to let out a high-pitched wail before falling permanently silent. Kissinger sawed and hacked at his victim, eyes glowing with a maniacal energy. He opened a hole in her chest, reached into it, and pulled her still warm heart from its chamber. Up his arm went, holding it aloft.

"Hail, Satan! Hail, Satan!"

The chant grew, rhythmic and terrible in its lockstep unison. Over and over. It was like the baying of dogs. The mists whipped up, seemingly summoned by the throaty cackles of Henry Kissinger, madman heirophant presiding over the murderous affair.

"NOOOOOOOOOO! I can't do any more, man! I'm FREAKING OUT, MAN!"

The dam had burst and Diego was up, ripping his shirt off, foaming at the mouth. I shouted for him to stop but by the words wouldn't cohere. Fear and the dread ether haze had caused my tongue to go numb, a fat worm inside a useless mouth.

"HOLY SHIT, I CAN'T BELIEVE I'M A JETS FAN! JOE NAMATH, FUCK YOU, MAN," he screamed at those below.

It was a bizarre, stupid thing to say. Silence reigned at Bohemian Grove, as if everyone was stunned at the insolence of this foreigner. Kissinger was the first to move. He slowly pointed a blood-stained finger to where we were. His mouth opened and a high-pitched, inhuman shriek came screeching out. The other luminaries, perhaps held in thrall by Kissinger's dark arts, perhaps simply bored after church, stumbled toward us in a dreamlike but menacing state, like a Romero film come to life. They meant to kill us, torture us, possibly, and it was up to me to prevent it. All the while, Diego screamed at them in a jumbled pidgin of English, Spanish, and gibberish, undeterred by his impending demise.

I jumped up from my hiding place in the bushes, grabbed my screaming friend and, with all my might, tugged him away from the ridge where he was now standing in open view. He stumbled backwards, eyes huge, mouth agape. The ability to speak came back to me, the words jumbling in my head but coming out in a torrent.

"Run, Diego," I said in a surprisingly calm voice. "We have to fucking run for our lives."

And so we did, with purpose, pursued through the endless night by a pack of zombie hyenas who just so happened to control the world.


The sun was just coming up, peeking over the hills ringing San Francisco Bay, rosy fingers giving the city a fine sheen. Diego slumbered dreamlessly in the passenger's seat of the red '68 El Dorado I'd bought upon moving here four months ago. I scribbled in my notepad as I tore down Haight Street, writing down the strange and surreal events of the prior night, terrified that if I stopped for even a moment the details would be lost forever.

I pulled in to the small parking lot of The Examiner, a creak of breaks signaling our arrival. I meant to get out immediately but, instead, I settled back into my seat, lit a cigar, and concentrated on the events I'd seen and what they all meant.

There's a monstrous system which grinds up young men and women for its own sadistic pleasure, a machine whose humorless cogs have names like Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and Joe Namath. It's a killing machine, turning blood and guts into money. Had I called it satanic before Bohemian Grove I would have been accused of being slanderous, of stretching metaphor into insult. Now, though, I knew that it //was// satanic, in every literal sense of the word, that the blood which fuels this machine is the blood of human sacrifice given to a dark god on foggy nights.

I glanced up and down Haight Street. Everything was mostly empty this early but, in a way, it would remain empty no matter how many people packed its asphalt length. This is where the dream had died, where hippies became drug addicts, idealists became pimps, and Jefferson Airplane became Jefferson Starship. My colleagues and I all ignored this reality as the rest of my generation pushed Nixon to victory, blissfully unaware of the true reasons behind things. It was, yes, satanic, as Bohemian Grove proved. But it wasn't Satan driving the behavior of the masses. It was Mammon, and we'd all willingly signed up with him quite on our own.

Now there was nothing but the endless, yawning chasm of the 70s stretching out before us, heated only by the dying embers of the 60s. What would we end up doing? Send more young men to die in another godforsaken jungle? Elect Reagan? Become Jets fans? Atrocity, every which way you turn. It would all be depressing if humanity hadn't invented so many wonderful ways to ignore the sharper edges of the world we live in.

Dawn had fully broken and the fog began to dissipate. I gathered up my scattered papers and walked through the office door, leaving Diego to sleep in the morning sun.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Next Project

Stepping away from Age of Bronze for a moment, I want to spill the beans on my next project, currently shaping up.

I'll be collaborating with Bret Gillan (The Final Girl, Cold Soldier, Gas Mask Games) on a game using Jared Sorenson's excellent InSpectres rules as a base.

The working title is Gonzo, but that's subject to change during the design process or when we run across a trademark conflict (surprisingly, we haven't and seem to be in the clear). So, what is Gonzo going to be?

In Gonzo, players will play the employees of a small newspaper or magazine working the political and pop culture beats. Rather than playing normal, boring journalists, though, you're going to be playing drug-addicted gonzo journalists in the mold of Hunter Thompson. An "adventure" will be a story, a story which could be anything the group thinks is cool; Thompson wrote about everything from the Kentucky Derby to 9/11 in his day, so you'll have pretty wide latitude in subject matter for individual sessions.

Now, this isn't a great game idea by itself. The hook for the game is when this intersects with the other main influence: 70s exploitation cinema.

The conceit of Gonzo is that all of the subject matter of the sleazy movies of the 70s is real. Hippies are drug running bikers who do nothing but kill squares and have orgies all day. The woods are filled with cannibal rednecks. Satanic cults are everywhere and Sammy Davis, Jr leads one. There's blood and sex and drugs and all too human monsters lurking anywhere you look, and that includes your news stories.

All of those elements come into play when the PCs write a story. Maybe the mayor has a taste for a particular strain of heroin which he can only get from the Hell's Angels. Maybe the local pro sports team aren't called The Devils for no reason. There's definitely some urban fantasy style stuff here but it's not going to be informed by real world myth; this is solely about the over the top world of Z grade cinema from the era. We completely take it at face value.

Drugs and Reality

For that matter, we're taking Thompson at face value, too. Take a look at this scene from Terry Gilliam's movie version of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas:

You've got a heavy acid trip and Thompson/Raoul Duke seeing everyone turn into lizards. We, as the outside viewer, see it as just a bad acid trip. Gonzo assumes that it's a bad acid trip, sure, but it also assumes that those lizards are very likely real as can be. In Gonzo, everything Thompson wrote is as real as the grindhouse world.

Or, another example: in Fear and Loathing On the Campaign Trail '72, Thompson famously wrote that Maine Senator Edmund Muskie was hooked on ibogaine, a psychotropic drug. Which was 100% untrue, of course. In Gonzo, though, it is true. Or, at least, true enough to be real, which is more important.

So why would your PCs do drugs at all? As your PC does his job, Stress builds up (those familiar with InSpectres are acquainted with Jared's rules for this) and the only way to relieve it in Gonzo is to pop your favorite pill or snort your favorite powder. Your character basically must be high in order to succeed, but being high eventually culminates in mass insanity breaking out. We have a really cool mechanic for that mass insanity that I'm not ready to divulge just yet... soon!

But the 70s? Really?

Hell, yes, the 70s. There's a slowly growing body of scholarship which is revisiting the 70s as one of the pivotal decades in American history in a way that the 60s weren't. The 70s saw the rise of the Boomers as influential mainstream political actors, the death of the New Deal consensus, the complete loss of faith in government and community, the settling of race roles which didn't ease up until the '00s, the birth of mass gay rights movements and the Me Generation, all ending in the Carter-Reagan battle which was arguably the most important of the post-war era. It was almost oppressively political in a calcified way; as Thompson said, the bad guys won. That remade America, for good or ill.

Gonzo journalism and grindhouse cinema were both very different reactions to this almost oppressive political and cultural landscape, but they share a lot of parallels. There's a neurotic dread as subtext in both genres. It's that common thread, a pessimism about the world created in the 70s, which spawned hilarious articles, bizarre films, a fuck it all attitude liberating the free thinker to do some crazy stuff that creates the intersection which lets Gonzo run.

I'm stoked.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Which Greece Is This?

There are a nearly limitless number of Greeces. What we know about the actual Bronze Age Greece could fit on the proverbial postal stamp. What we end up relying on is the other 3500 years of history after the close of the era to inform us of what we're trying to look at. So which slice do you pick? Homer, written during the Greek Dark Ages? The Classical historians and storytellers, with everything wrapped up in their own burgeoning philosophies? The Christians, with monotheistic morality sprinkled heavily throughout? How about Steve Reeves movies or Xena or The Odyssey mini-series?

It's not a problem, in the sense that it's difficult to overcome (it actually isn't). But it is a conundrum. There is a real world basis for the places and some of the stories, even if we don't have always have ready access to it. A lot of it we can extrapolate; we know city names and what Greece looks like, things like that. But this wasn't a literate culture, Linear B grain store records aside. Everything we have was told and retold around fires and in courts, eventually making its way into the written word.... a thousand years later.

It's not too different from what KAP was faced with when it was designed. Which Arthur is this game about? Greg decided to lean on Malory and then cooked up some mechanics to reflect some of the other Arthurs, coming up with a synthesis which reflected both the historical Arthur, the many fictional Arthurs, and something entirely his own.

We also knew that we didn't want the game to be about superheroes; other games do that, even if they're not always explicitly set in Heroic Greece. Besides, one of the cool things about KAP, and something we wanted to import into AoB, was that gritty feel a "low" power level comes with. We wanted, more than anything, to have a game which would model the real Bronze Age, with the supernatural and such lurking on the periphery... present but not always obvious. We hadn't really seen people do this with the Heroic Age, that melding of the real with the unreal, and it's that synthesis which will set AoB apart.

For those reasons, we ended up using Homer as the basis. If you read Homer, almost none of the characters are the type of superhero Herakles is. With the exception of Achilles, and arguably even there, Homeric heroes are eerily similar to Malory's Round Table knights: extremely competent, extremely flawed, extremely real. The Homeric heroes are "only" the best warriors in the world. They don't need to drink rivers in order to make them badasses; throwing a spear through a man and conquering Troy are quite enough.

There are still superheroic deeds done in Homer, but they tend to happen when the acting hero is in a state of emotional extreme. Sounds pretty familiar, if you know KAP, but we took it to an extra level by adding rules for Aristaea. The specifics will be a future post, but basically if you critically succeed on a Passion roll, you have the option of entering Aristaea: double the bonus (+40!), yes you get to do superheroic things, but you automatically take a point of Hubris. It's high risk, high reward behavior; you might single-handedly strangle a giant but you're also shortening your career as you creep ever closer to your Hubris limit.

When it came to the minutiae of everyday life, things like government, land management, or what people ate, we consulted academic texts as much as we could. This is not to say that this is an extended Master's thesis; I can't think of a single one of those texts which I read all the way through or anything. But we did try to at least get an idea of what we now think things were really like. Again, the real world with the Homeric is what we aimed for.

With the general tone and the primary source material chosen, we then had to pick a specific year. Time is just as important in AoB as it is in KAP. One adventure per year, then the Winter Phase, then you age, then you move on, eventually you die. That, for me, is the heart and soul of KAP and I saw zero reason to change the fundamentals there.

That left us with picking a specific year to start with. This was, surprisingly, not that difficult. People have been trying to put together an accurate timeline of when the myths occurred ever since the Mycenaeans disappeared. We consulted a few sources, ranging from St. Jerome to modern historical research, to establish a reasonable timeline of the real Heroic Era for us to play with.

The game starts in 1255 BCE; we stuck with the modern dating conventions for simplicity after trying and scrapping a new dating system starting with the foundation of Athens, which ended up not feeling right. So why this date? 1255 is four generations after Perseus' adventures and the first year of Herakles' Labors. It's five years before Oedipus takes the throne of Thebes and nine years before the Voyage of the Argonauts (and yes, this last thing is something I absolutely expect people to take part in).

It's an extraordinarily busy time, the most action-packed of the entire mythic cycle. We're also operating under certain assumptions carried over from KAP which should make this particular slice of time awesome. We think it's cool to have the option of hanging out with Herakles or offering hospitality to a blind Oedipus. If that's your thing, of course. The world is still wild and untamed enough that you can hightail your group to Epirus, smash some barbarians, and never deal with the canonical heroes, too. It's a big, savage world.

But most importantly, it's 73 years before the Trojan War. That event marks the end of the Heroic Age. This gives 73 years of gaming time, about what the Grand Pendragon Campaign offers. We're expecting people to make their own Grand Mycenaean Campaigns around the table, with the timeline we provide as a guide.

The synopsis version: power level at the start a bit higher than KAP, low magic with splashes of intense supernatural goings on, mostly a real world feel, and set at the height of the Heroic Age.