Thursday, July 9, 2015

Where I read the Suppressed Transmissions 1-10

Back in 2011, I started a lengthy RPGNet "Where I Read" thread on the old Suppressed Transmissions columns by Kenneth Hite, in order. I'm only about halfway through with the columns, but I feel I should archive them here on this blog as well. Here, then, are my reviews of the first 10 columns.

1. The First Transmission

"I put great store in the H.P. Lovecraft dictum that the 'piecing together of dissociated knowledge' opens up 'terrifying vistas of reality,' at least in roleplaying games..."

The very first column, beyond explaining the origin of the term "Suppressed Transmission" (from the 1991 movie "Slacker"), gives us an idea what to expect from future transmissions by giving us some short examples from each of the main themes - Conspiracy, Secret History, Horror, and Alternate History. Kenneth Hite starts out with an interesting rumor he read in one of his many, many books which claims that Abraham Lincoln was such a capable politician that he just couldn't have possibly have an utterly unremarkable origin - no, he had to be the son of someone famous. Thus, muses Hite, might he have been the result of some conspiracy trying to create particularly "potent" bloodlines, like the Prieuré de Sion? Then he speculates on the other famous people born in the same year, 1809 - Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Darwin, and the poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson. He further hints at another noteworthy event that year, the Man Who Walked Around The Horses, which is expanded upon in one of the footnotes (where he also contemplates writing a future column on (sadly, he didn't).

The rest of the column then follows the year 1809 and see what else might be happen. In Secret History he speculates upon the death of Meriwether Lewis. In the Horror section he muses on a world based on the visions of Edgar Allan Poe. In Alternate History, he points out that both Wellington and Napoleon were involved in heavy fighting on opposite ends of Europe which might have gotten them killed - and that the death of either might have helped the survival of the French Empire. Finally, Kenneth Hite gives us a short introduction of himself and his previous works.

As an introductory column, this works well enough, although it lacks the stronger thematic unity of later columns. As usual he makes references to many, many things (Masons? The pirate Blackbeard? Emperor Norton? Bugsy Siegel?, but since he is trying to cover so many things at once he lacks the space to go into any of them in detail. Still, you get plenty of cool tidbits to research further, and while the author was limited to physical books and AltaVista when he wrote the column, we have Wikipedia, Google, and all sorts of other tools to help us with our research - that is, if you don't want to look up all the books he references (thirteen in number, and that's not counting the books he wrote himself). This is a general "problem" when reading the Suppressed Transmissions - there are so many interesting books mentioned that the average reader simply cannot read all of them...

2. Six Degrees of Sir Francis Bacon

"According to boring old historical fact, he served as Lord Chancellor of England, betrayed his benefactor Essex to a charge of treason, pled guilty himself to bribery and corruption, wrote books of essays and histories, codified the scientific method in Novum Organum and The New Atlantis, and died on Easter Sunday after catching pneumonia trying to freeze a chicken..."

This transmission is not as much about Francis Bacon himself - though as Kenneth Hite explains in sufficient detail, the man certainly had enough going for him to use him in a game - but rather, how everything is connected to him, or how everything is connected to everything else in general. And where people, events, or things aren't apparently connected, it is quite likely that you are able to connect them with each other with a little research, using one to three intermediaries. From this you can span a vast web of conspiracy, and thus get your players into the proper paranoid mood for conspiracy gaming.

And along the way, we get mentions of the Count Saint-Germain, Adam Weishaupt and the Bavarian Illuminati, Vannevar Bush, and the obscure but cool-sounding Order of African Architects (so obscure that they don't even have a Wikipedia entry, although various conspiracy sites have information on them - oh, and despite the name they were founded in Prussia, allegedly on the order of Frederick the Great) - and then the footnotes mention some really strange stuff, like the Kindred of the Kibbo Kift, a boy-scout splinter group...

This column isn't really a ready-made adventure or campaign framework as such, nor does it examine a particular topic in detail. Rather, it represents a useful thought exercise, something that helps a game master get into the proper frame of mind when working out their own conspiracies - the lessen that everything can be connected if you squint hard enough is a useful one, and one that I have striven to embed into the Arcana Wiki.

3. Justinian and Arthur: High Historical Fantasy

"The Emperor, seemingly merely a former barbarian, is actually a prince of demons in disguise, raised to the throne with the help of a profligate user of sex-magick, poisons, and diabolism who now reigns as Empress..."

This time, Kenneth Hite does provide us with a ready-made campaign framework, and it is all based on real history, or at least real historical slander. It appears that a Byzantine guy named Procopius secretly wrote a very unflattering book about his contemporary, Emperor Justinian, where he basically described him as an Evil Overlord straight out of High Fantasy. We are then encouraged to take this material at face value, and run a campaign with the PCs as agents of another (allegedly) contemporary - King Arthur - and using plenty of other fantasy tropes, all the while using the abundant historical information available on the period to flesh things out. While the author bemoans that there is no decent RPG supplement available on Byzantium (I have no idea if this has changed), he does provide plenty of other sources, both historical and fiction.

This is a good, solid entry in the series. It doesn't immediately want to make me go out and run such a campaign as I know little of the period, but it does want to make me learn more of the period. Unfortunately, my "to read" book pile is already massive, thanks in no small part to the rest of the series...

4. Urban Legends: Adventuring in the City

"The Bradbury Building, a rococo fantasia in the heart of downtown Los Angeles, and the Mount Wilson Observatory, high in the San Gabriel Mountains to the northeast, have one thing in common: they were commissioned by nonhuman entities..."

This is the first transmission which hasn't been published in one of the two printed volumes, and it discusses adventuring in fantasy cities - a topic dear to my heart, as I'm developing an entire setting centered around it. Kenneth Hite starts by listing a number of examples from fiction, both entirely fictional ones and ones based on real world cities, mentions sacred geometries and mystical architecture in passing (which he will expand upon at length in later transmissions), and gives us the sound advice of digging deeper into the histories of real world cities, especially ones we are familiar with.

He then provides examples using Los Angeles, starting with the "mundane" but still adventure-worthy thefts of water that made the Los Angeles Basin what it is today, musing on their possible deeper meanings, and then discussing noteworthy buildings and people who were active in the area (such as the rocket scientist Jack Parsons who had attempted to summon the Whore of Babylon in a magical working...).

This is solid stuff and really drives the point home what kind rich adventure fodder you can discover by digging into the history of real world places - even if you play in entirely fictional settings, the real world really is frequently stranger than fiction, and thus learning more about it shouldn't be discounted for inspirational material.

5. Using Alternate History in Any Campaign

"For a secret-magic 1588 campaign, of course, the ideal centerpiece is Elisabeth's court wizard John Dee, reputed to be the model for Prospero in Shakespeare's The Tempest and the holder of the first code-number 007 in British intelligence..."

Now we get a more through primer on Alternate History than presented in the first transmission, complete with several examples. The simplest one starts with a world where the Spanish Armada not only won, but also managed to keep France and Holland down - and this, according to the author, makes for a spectacular swashbuckling setting as pirates will have to ally themselves with every opponents of the Spanish just to get by. Then he recommends adding magic and the supernatural into the mix, taking the "Black Legend" (the very effective slander of the Spanish prevalent at the time) at more-or-less face value, and perhaps making Vlad Tepes into an active vampire with an ever-increasing domain. Then we get even weirder stuff, like one alternate history trying to impose itself on another reality, leading to zones similar to those in TORG...

This transmission works as an introduction, but while it has the usual brilliant nuggets, the topic is just too large to cover adequately in a single transmission and thus lacks the thematic focus of others.

6. Top Ten Books for High Weirdness in Your Campaign

"When adding High Weirdness to your campaign, it certainly helps to have decades of experience reading the stuff and three enormous bookcases full of obscura and eliptony at your back..."

Just in case the first five transmissions didn't give you references to reading material for the next year or so, here Kenneth Hite gives us more... lots more. Beyond the ten books mentioned in the title, there is a short list of a dozen more at the end of the column - and 49 more in the footnotes, if you have the print collection.

Not really much to say here, except that Charles Fort's Book of the Damned is available here for free download. It sits, unread, on my Kindle like far too many other books...

7. There's More to Faeries Than Their Glamour

"Thinking of the faeries as evil little cannibalistic axe-murderers loitering on the moor behind the monoliths does put rather an unpleasant spin on those fine old songs about Fairy Love By Moonlight and whatnot, doesn't it?"

Now we come to one of my early favorites. In this transmission, Kenneth Hite dissects the stereotype of the happy, friendly fairies still common at the time (remember, this was written back in 1998 before we got the Cthulhu Elves of Exalted or the cruel True Fae of Changeling: The Lost) to get at the blood and gore and horror behind it all. Along the way, we get mentions all sorts of useful connections and origins - the "Teind", or tithe to Hell that the fairies have to pay, the Victorian theory that they were degenerate, deformed remnants of the Picts, the idea that they are embodiments of nature of the "Red In Tooth And Claw" variety, and their possible connections to UFOs and other "modern" otherworldly phenomena - plus, of course, references to numerous books which the reader can use for further research (he bemoans the lack of a GURPS Faerie, but fortunately it's out now).

In my opinion, this kind of transmission is where Kenneth Hite is at his best - picking a fairly specific topic, and then widening it up for the rest of us so that we can see the vast, vast possibilities inherent in it.

8. Digging Up Weirdness

"I'm not even mentioning pure-dee crazy folk like Frederick Bligh Bond, who communicated with the dead while serving as architect-archaeologist at Arthurian Glastonbury in 1907, or the androgynous American transvestite Antonia Frederick Futterer who claimed to have found the Ark of the Covenant atop Mount Pisgah in the 1920s..."

This time, Kenneth Hite tells you what archaeologists can add to your game - not modern mundane, professional archaeologists, but the cinematic ones in the style of Indiana Jones and Allan Quartermain, or at least the excentric archaeologists of the days of yore (and that field got very excentric back in the days when enthusiasm was more important than professionalism). Special mentions go to a Babylonian king interested in Sumerian and Akkadian artifacts, and an Italian circus strongman-turned-archaeologist with a penchant for using explosives for excavating.

Then we get into campaign frameworks. My favorite are the entirely historical "Bone Wars" in the historical Old West where two scholars paid rival gangs of professional fossil hunters to dig up dinosaur bones - and sabotage the competition (have I mentioned before how much of an education reading these columns is? Where else can you learn so much about such a vast range of different topics?), but the "Archaeologists in Black" who need to "vanish" artifacts for the good of humanity are good as well.

Another great addition, and it would certainly inspire me to work more archeology into my games, except that I already have so many other ideas from all the other columns which I want to add first...

9. Two-World Minimum: Bisociation and the Art of High Weirdness

"Let me warn you at the outset: Grail research is not for the weak of heart, or for the short of shelf space..."

Upon reading the title of this transmission for the first time, most people (myself included) will ask themselves: "What the hell is 'bisociation'?" As Kenneth Hite explains, bisociation is when something - usually the MacGuffin of the campaign or adventure - can have two (or more!) meanings that are not only radically different from each other, but which may be both true in their frame of reference and yet be mutually incompatible.

Heady stuff, so it's good that the author provides us with some examples, such as the Vinland Map (proof of pre-Columbus exploration of North America, or cunning forgery?), the Holy Grail (is it a cup, a dish, a poetic symbol, or a bloodline?), and the Tarot (too many alternative interpretations to list here). And he points out that bisociating major elements of the campaign keeps the PCs (and players) guessing, and thus establishes a nice mood of paranoia and uncanniness.

This is one of the more abstract, "high concept" columns, but I found it no less useful for that. It helps to remember that in game worlds, much as in the real world, many things are a matter of perspective, and not just MacGuffins. Is a certain NPC a hero or a traitor? Is the government of a certain nation benevolent or oppressive? That entirely on whom you ask, and the opinions of NPCs will be colored by their own biases - as will be those of the PCs, depending on their own encounters with the entity in question, which will likely not have shown the whole thing. Bisociating everything keeps the PCs guessing, and forces them to reconsider their own stances.

And as a further note, while Kenneth Hite doesn't point it out in this column, for me one of the attractions of the Cthulhu Mythos is that it is extremely bisociative. Is Hastur a powerful alien entity or a cosmic force of entropy? Are the End Times a rapidly approaching sudden extinction event or will the decline of humanity be an ongoing process for millenia? Are Mythos "spells" some supernatural force, or alien science? Different authors have come up with their own interpretations over the decades which contradict each other yet are self-consistent in their own stories - in other words, they are highly bisociative, just like "real" mythologies and unlike a great many fictional cosmologies in gaming where there is an "ultimate truth" behind it all. And that makes them powerful, as no player will ever "truly" understand the Mythos.

10. The Slightly Alternate History Campaign

"...if the players find out that their PCs' world seems exactly like ours except that John F. Kennedy was shot in Houston on November 24, 1963, by a lone gunman named Carl Edward Schermer, this sends a strong message that There Are Conspiracies At Work Here..."

Instead of making Alternate History truly divergent and different from ours, Kenneth Hite suggests making the differences small and subtle for a change. This has several advantages: The GM doesn't have to worry if he gets the occasional historical facts wrong, the players know that their characters can change the course of history (because history went off the rails already), and even divergences, if chosen right, will get the players into the appropriate paranoid mood without bringing out the weirdness from the start.

This is certainly useful advice for those who frequently run Alternate History campaigns. So far I haven't, so this transmission is less useful for me, but who knows what I will run one day?