Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Great Adventure Hooks in Art History 2: Matejko's Stańczyk (+new Axe)

First: new I Hit It With My Axe episode


Stańczyk (The Ioculator)

(Second in a series about how Art History is Actually Adventure Hooks)
Click to enlarge, it's magnificent
So the official story is this is a late Piratey Era painting by Jan Matejko. His art was censored by both the Russians and the Germans on grounds that he depicted Polish history, the existence of which irritated them, and this particular piece was stolen by the Germans in the 40s on the grounds that it was not nailed down then (in an irony that pretty much sums up Polish history) returned by the Russians in the 50's on the grounds that they basically owned Poland so they could afford to be generous. History Painting (more a genre than a movement, but a big deal in the 1800s) was a generation before straight-up Realism (which typically had less lush color, and focused on contemporary subjects) which Matejko's students would adopt.

It depicts the semi-legendary Stańczyk, satirical genius and jester to three Polish kings for at least 40 years during Poland's Renaissance being depressed about the Russians taking Smolensk while a brushily executed ball (or just a few people talking in a lobby?) takes place on the right and a comet streaks earthward on the left.  It's an important and iconic image in Poland according to the thing what I read and the number of weird red-suited parodies of it on pages in Polish that come up when you google image search it and Matejko is to Polish history what Wayne Reynolds is to Pathfinder--basically if it happened to Poland before Matejko was born, he painted it.


-"The title erroneously suggests that Poland was at the time ruled by Queen Bona Sforza, when in fact, on July 30, 1514, when Smolensk was lost to Russia, Poland was ruled by King Sigismund the Old and his first wife, Queen Barbara Zápolya".

-Sigismund survived an assasination attempt by an unknown assailant in 1523.

-The country experienced an uprising known as the Chicken War during this same period.

In reality....

Although attributed to Matejko by the Soviets (who decided they liked the idea of the most famous Polish painter's most famous work being a clown who's sad about losing a fight with Russia), it is in fact much older--having been painted in Osc Lithicum by Haerlaen Qinzael during the reign of Sigismund the Old, while Stańczyk, the Great Ioculator, was yet living.

It hung for many years in the Snail Quarter headquarters of the absurdist anarchist Cult of the God That Laughs and depicts Stańczyk brooding not over the loss of Smolensk but over his unsuccessful assassination attempt on Sigismund earlier that year.

While outwardly a loyal subject gently but cleverly tweaking the foibles of the Crown, Stańczyk was a spy in good standing for the ruinous Cult.

The Cult's foundational beliefs are based around the idea that, in their formal and named forms, comedy and democracy emerged at the same time (the 6th century)--and it considers the former absolutely necessary to inform the latter. Just as Aristophanes mocked the Athenians in order to tell them who to vote for and against (ok, mostly against), the Cult sees the creation of amusing viral absurdities as necessary to spreading the Laughing God's message of universal disorder. The Cult's actual aims are variously populist, nihilist, socialist, apocalyptic or merely liberal, depending who you ask and which branch and era they are familiar with.

Only marginally more successful than the assassination attempt was the so-called Chicken War--while history records that the name derived from the popular notion that only chickens were harmed in the anti-monarchist rebellion, the name actually came about because during this period Stańczyk had managed to introduce an hypnotic pheasant into the court of Sigismund the Old, which strolled from room to room whispering bad advice to generals and advisors until the fowl was discovered and traduced by the Minister of Wells.

At any rate, in the manner of all Laughing Cult artworks and artifacts, the portrait of the undiscovered traitor Stańczyk contains esoteric clues to the mysteries of the Troupe--in this case the combination to the Cult's vault in Vornheim.

It comes in the form of a spread in the Nornrik Tarot (the word "Karkivit"--Northen Elvish for "6 Cards" is written on the message in the center of the painting):

The Comet ( 17 )

The Tower ( 16 )

The 3 Goblets

The Marotte ( 0 )

The Peacock's Fan ( 7 )

The Chandelier in Blood ( 14 )

Stańczyk himself is a 14th level Thief or Rogue or Specialist or Assassin, like all members of the Cult he has access to one Joke which, due to issues of timing, pronunciation, accent, etc only he can properly tell.  These Cult Jokes have the following characteristics:

-They are cruel and target one intelligent creature present.
-The can only be effectively told once to any given audience--the joke's power is lost if anyone present (aside from the teller) has heard it before.
-These impressive jokes shake and humiliate the target such that, each morning thereafter, s/he must make a wisdom/will/spell save or lose a point of charisma. This continues even after a day's save is made until the victim is reduced to a timid husk, incapable of any action.
-The joke's devastating effects can only be ended by gathering the same audience (or such members of it as are living) and telling a funnier joke at the Cultist's expense. The counterjoke must make the god's laugh (practically speaking, this means it must make the majority of the players at the table laugh--and genuinely). This reverses the effect of the joke completely.

The Cult's vault is rumored to contain:

-The immensely compromising diary of Queen Bona Sforza, a Cult member, including intimations of improper contact with the most powerful wife of a prominent Eastern Monarch.

-Coins of many nations.

-A Goblin Marotte which, when shaken by any creature of that kind, causes changelings to laugh and thus reveal themselves.

-A Sforza family tree, accurate up until the current date.

-A report compiled from various sources on the senses of humor of the world's monarchs covering the last 600 years written with an eye toward practical use--including topics and formats likely to gain favor, offensive subjects to be avoided and reports on the success and failure of various specific attempts to amuse them.

-A secret Deck commissioned by Franceso I Sforza consisting of portraits of his family depicted as Fools and variations thereupon--the Idiot, the Joker, the Ioculator, the Jester, the Joker, Le Mat etc ... As only Foolishness is universal and only Fools behave the same regardless of context, this Deck is said to have ultradimensional properties such that for any deck (including any world's Deck of Illusions or Many Things) there is a card within which can be inserted into it and subtly rewrite the esoterica of that world--causing suits and arcana to shift, altering sowing seasons, changing spell durations, renaming gods, etc.

-A painting entitled The Poisoning of Queen Bona painted before the poisoning took place likewise painted by Qinzael and inaccurately attributed to Matejko in the modern era:

Monday, August 29, 2016

Great Adventure Hooks In Art History 1: The Arnolfini Wedding

The Arnolfini (Arnoult Fin) Wedding

(First in a series about Art History is Actually Adventure Hooks)
Ok so this is the Arnolfini Wedding by Jan Van Eyck--a classic of the Northern Renaissance (the better Renaissance) and one of the first examples of not only oil painting (artists used egg tempera until then) but of a level of then-unheard-of realism in art. It also has a funny dog.

Art history records some odd facts about the Arnolfini wedding:

-Nobody knows who the woman is--the woman people thought it was didn't roll up until after Van Eyck was dead. One theory holds it's Costanza Trenta. "...this would make the painting partly an unusual memorial portrait, showing one living and one dead person"

-Art historian Erwin Panofsky claimed the portrait was actually a marriage contract with the force of a legal/religious document.

-The bride looks like she's already pregnant which--seriously WTF AD1434 posh people?

-The mirror in the background shows additional hidden figures.

-A 1516 inventory including it says "It is necessary to put on a lock to close it: which Madame has ordered to be done."

-By 1599 it had a new frame with a quote from Ovid "See that you promise: what harm is there in promises? In promises anyone can be rich."

-By 1816 a British Colonel James Hay had it and historians say it basically fell off a truck during the Peninsular War.

In reality...

Panofsky is right, but much else is wrong.

The painting actually depicts (as a 1523–4 Mechelen inventory correctly records) a merchant of Vornheim named Arnault Fin and a succubus (Isvin Othvyx of the Fourth Insidious) wearing the skin of the deceased Constanza Trenta.

Folkloric texts found in treasure hoards, sages of highly civilized lands, a DC 19 history check or, in Call of Cthulhu, an Occult roll or a successful Library Use roll made at a sufficiently specialized antiquarian archive will reveal that just before their (essentially shotgun) marriage, Fin (pronounced not like the guys in Star Wars and Adventure Time but like the French would, so like you're about to say "Fuck" then get turned into a sheep then get punched in the nose in the space of half a second) woke late one night to find his fiance missing. He headed to the pantry to get a pear and then chanced to glimpse her, naked atop a wide and spreading oak, throwing stones at the moon and eating the loosened flakes as they fell to the ground. Fin instantly recognized that this was not a proper diversion for a potential bride.

Othvyx's scheme was simple: seduce-, become impregnated by-, and marry- the prosperous Fin and proceed to birth into the emerging merchant aristocracy of Vornheim a strain of tieflings with which to manipulate and intrigue to the advantage of Hell against- and from within- the great cities of the Northern Continent.

Two minor obstacles obtained:
-According to the law of Vornheim, a spouse must obey any promise made to their partner during the first month of marriage.
-Demons can't break contracts.

Othvyx planned to circumvent these by using the false name that went with her false skin: Constanza Trenta.

However, once Fin discovered his wife's demonic nature, he consulted a witch-hunter, who instructed Fin to go on with the marriage and the usual marriage contract, but to also, unbeknownst to his new wife, enact the contract in a non-verbal form--thus the commission of the painting, which Othvyx, unschooled in art, mistook for a mere curio. Fin then playfully extracted from his new bride a pillow-promise to always be good and to teach their children and all the fruits of their line good things and Othvyx agreed, thinking herself safe due to the treacheries embedded in the written contract. Fin then burned the written contract, leaving only the painting--a loophole-free document of the reality of their marriage, and Othvyx was forced to be good and to teach her tiefling children goodness for all time.

The line of Fin is, incidentally, one of the sources of those non-evil tiefling PCs that pop up in D&D campaigns.

As for Othvyx (immortal and still extant long after the natural death of Arnault Fin): This rankles.

The Hellish siblings of the Fourth Insidious have inculcated many schemes over the years to free their sister and her descendants from her long-ago promise to Arnault Fin. Their various stratagems include:

-Destroy the painting

Seemingly the most straightforward scheme, but a demon can't destroy a contract, so it requires either manipulating resourceful mortals with unusual access into doing it. Complicating this is the fact that the artwork is discreetly protected by (in the D&D eras) various responsible clerical orders (thus the 1516 lock on the painting) and (in the Call of Cthulhu eras) clubby secret societies of Templars and whatnot, to one of which Colonel James Hay--who actually wrested the painting from the hands of a Spanish diabolist and scion of a corrupt family in Salamanca who had acquired it from the Inquisitorial libraries of the Dominican order and totes did not steal it off a truck like some parody of an entitled British world-heritage plunderer--belonged.

-Besmirch the good name of Arnault Fin

Divorce won't do it, but if the Church or State can be somehow persuaded that the Fins could never have been married in the first place and thus trigger an annulment then Othvyx is free to work once more her wicked way in the world. Generally this is easier in a D&D game than in a Call of Cthulhu one as the only entities extant still capable of annulling the marriage in modern times (the Catholic Church and the government of Belgium) seriously do not care. Either way, the most obvious way to do this would be to somehow smear Arnault Fin, finding someone in authority willing to retroactively and officially declare him a close relation of Othvyx, a changeling, a bard, or some other entity denied the ordinary rights of a citizen.

-Get the witnesses to recant or be declared unfit

The convex mirror in the painting shows two witnesses. One is presumed to be the painter himself, Jan Van Eyck.

In D&D, agents of demonic forces might hunt down these people themselves and cause them by threat or guile to recant their witness to the marriage of Fin and Othvyxx. In any game taking place long after the painting was finished, the task of ruining the witnesses is not unlike discrediting Fin himself--it will require convincing an authority figure that the witnesses were not what they seemed or in a state of disordered mind (drunk or possessed) rendering them incapable of proper witness.

Either way, you'd have to get a good look at the painting in person in order to figure out who these witnesses are or were.

So anyway...

If this painting happens to turn up in a treasure hoard or on a the wall of a great hall, it's valuable to a lot of people for a lot of different reasons and could start a lot of trouble. Keep an eye out.

Friday, August 26, 2016

Teach Children To Read By Watching Things Die

So I'm doing Satine's annual ChariD20 event on Sunday coming up.

I'll be at Keith Baker's table.

The character I play and voice I use on the livestream will be determined by vote by you people, here are the choices:
Stereotypical disturbingly-comfortable-with-ultraviolence-Cockney guy (my go-to NPC voice).

Shady drunk German guy (my go-to PC).

-Basically Rust from True Detective but not from the south (me irl).

-Basically Joan Rivers (my last Charid20 PC) (also me irl).


Tuesday, August 23, 2016

Emergent Cannibalism and the Art of Milo De Fretwell

So last game just the blondes showed up--and it was a total party kill.
"Wait you all died?"
"Yes, we all died"

This time folks were more cautious, but it still got weird real fast...

It all started with some rules:

-I said roll 3d6 for ability scores instead of 5e's usual 4d6-pick-the-highest.

-I made a Witch class that gets d4 hp (details later)--like wizards do in my game. 3 people are playing it.
Connie drawing her witch

-Morgan rolled like a 5 or a 6 or something for Con. That's a -3 or -4 to everything to do with Constitution.

-So Morgan's witch--Sendrelle--is getting 1 hit point per level. No matter what.

-And since equipment is random, nobody bothered to buy any rations before going into the dungeon.

Then there was the dungeon itself:

-Maze of the Blue Medusa has hunger on the random encounter chart. If you get that result, you have to eat something in the next 10 minutes or you lose 2hp.

-There's a room where a corpse hangs. It is the corpse of the last person you killed. It explains to you what you could've done to avoid killing it.


The players see the corpse, then I roll this, I tell the players. Sendrelle the witch has 2 hit points. After a few minutes of floundering ("Wellllll thoroughly searching the room takes a Turn which is ten minutes so if you find nothing Sendrelle dies...") she gives up and runs back to the corpse room. Soon Sendrelle and everybody else is eating fresh Oku corpse.

Second level. 2 hit points. Still alive.

So that was fun.


The other thing that happened was later the party ran into "The Screaming Face of My Wife" by Milo De Fretwell--the painting that makes you moan and collapse weeping for 5 minutes if you fail your save. At exactly the same time, some stealthy Chameleon women began uncoiling in the next room.

Sendrelle hung back on account of having 2 hit points, and pretty much two rounds later everyone else in the room (party and chameleon-warriors) was either unconscious or weeping uncontrollably. She slipped in, cut some chamelon-throats and that was that.

This worked so well the party decided to sleep in the dungeon under the painting. So far the spellcasters have gotten through 1 of 8 hours needed sleep and 2 more groups of wandering monsters have fallen victim to the painting.

I love D&D. Have I mentioned that lately? I love D&D.

And now, a word from our sponsor:
7 Ennies, actually. 3 for this.

Monday, August 22, 2016

New I Hit It With My Axe + Some Pics

Episode 43:

L to R: Stacy Dellorfano of Contessa, Me w/Ennies, Trollsmyth

Drinking Kickstarter's beer after the Ennies
L to R: Ken Baumann (Satyr Press), Kenneth Hite, Me
Satyr Press intern Theo on the bottom 

Graham Linehan created the IT Crowd, Black Books and Father Ted. He's a fan.

Ennies, L to R: Some guy, Charlotte Stokely, Me, Stoya, Kiel Dungeons & Donuts Chenier

Carl with yet another infuriating homemade shirt
Stokely manning the Lamentations of the Flame Princess booth

This was just a really cool Warhammer 40k table i liked -- do yourself a favor and enlarge these

While we were at Gen Con, our cleric, Karolyn, was invited to the White House. There are Pokemon there.
border="0" height="320" src="https://1.bp.blogspot.com/-1sMamXwP3FM/V7tM1UQuoSI/AAAAAAAAcVY/aU0qGW-hZ7IKD4TGnPocRLYDahNCUZp_gCLcB/s320/IMG_5365.PNG" width="179" />

Post GenCon, me and Stoya went to Europe to make some pornography

St George about to kill Stoya in  Marshall Tito Square, Zagreb

Friday, August 19, 2016

Monte Cook and You

What Monte Did This Time

It turns out Chris Pramas of Green Ronin jerked around and misled folks running his GenCon Blue Rose games to the tune of hundreds of dollars. EDIT: Circa Aug 29, Kiel has reported this got ironed out. Possibly partially due to this being pointed out here. 1

It turns out Loren Coleman of Shadowrun scammed freelancers writing their material out of hundreds of thousands of dollars. 2

Are folks hopping mad about these things? No. These things only affect real people in a real way. What are people in game circles hopping mad about?

RPG celebrity Monte Cook put out a very expensive game. Nobody really knows what it's like and it's called Invisible Sun. Clearly he is a fierce villain and begetter of untold woe.

Standard Operating Procedure

The anger map follows a familiar pattern:

1) Anonymous folks who dredge the game internet looking for the holes in their soul notice a game announcement they don't like, put it on a forum, then trip over each other racing to see who can perform their cynicism about This Industry the hardest. 3

2) Trolls with grown-up identities use them (like, anonymous goon Guilty Spork talks to anonymous goon Evil Mastermind who then turns into responsible wannabe game writer Sean Dunstan so he can talk to genuine game industry guy Rob Donoghue on Google+) to move the outrage off the trollnet and into the light and then post the same takes for a more sincere but still unquestioning audience and then these people trip over each other, this time in a contest to perform pain instead of cynicism. 4

3) Supposed adults with jobs doing game stuff see gamers and wannabe-designers in pain and ask in public posts why oh why doesn't anyone Address These Problems Seriously? And they host hand-wringing conversations with the trolls and feelers awash in grievance and unchecked libel.

4) Nothing changes at all in any way. Even a little. Ever.

What Is Monte Thinking?

Familiar events bring on familiar cries: What is Monte Cook thinking? Why doesn't he see the problems? Why is he so out of touch?

I'm going to educatedly guess what Monte is thinking, because Monte will never tell you, nor will co-designer Bruce Cordell--Monte Cook Games' third pillar, Shanna Germain, might tell you a little bit, but only obliquely. They are professionals.

Let me stress I have no inside knowledge, this is just based on my experience with them and every other person at every other game company who seems to drift ever aloof from the concerns of the outraged. WOTC, Kenneth Hite, Goodman Games, everybody.

Monte and co are thinking: Yes, angry internet, we are out of touch. With you. We are only ever punished for being in touch with you. We decided to be in touch with some whole other bunch of people who aren't you.

Aside from customers, MCG is in touch with the people who actually want the problems they are complaining about to get fixed.

What does that kind of person look like?

-When they see a problem in a Monte Cook Game their first response is to contact Monte Cook Games about it. 
This is, like, instead of forcing this company of three people to sift through Google alerts and carefully pick through hate-threads in order to find substantive complaints in between doing all their real other jobs.

-They answer questions and counter-issues that MCG might have about their complaint.
Generally people do things because they thought it was a good idea to do them. In order to make your complaint meaningful and effect genuine change, you have to address these reasons, not pretend only your priorities exist. The thing to not do is vent your feelz but then immediately shut down the discussion when asked any reasonable question about the relationship of those feelz to actionable reality. 5

-They notice when the problem gets solved.
After the worst parts of the RPG internet called MCG's Shanna Germain sexist for putting a space succubus in Numenera but before the current uproar about a pricey cube, the worst parts were complaining about the treatment of Native American themes in MCG's The Strange. MCG reacted by putting some amazing Native freelancers on the project--Anthony Pastores and Alina Pete. In short, MCG were a model of doing what you're supposed to do in response to outcry.
This meant nothing to the people complaining.
The same folks who were so angry at the misrepresentation of fictional Native peoples (and who participated in every other uproar about MCG) completely failed to notice the tremendously talented actual Native people who just got some work out of the mess. Even if you think MCG's response was too little too late, anyone genuinely worried about the condition of actual people of Native American descent in the hobby would have good reason to shine a spotlight on Anthony and Alina even if they didn't bother to mention MCG while doing it.

-They don't lie about the problem.
Nobody cares what you think if your "concerns" are openly clownshoes--like if you're asserting MCG is demanding players coerce their GMs into playing this game, there's nothing anyone could ever do to address your issue because you made it up.

...and note none of these things is about tone--you can swear and scream and use exclamation marks and be angry all you like and you're still well within bounds of acceptable discourse. This isn't tone-policing your complaint, it's about the content of it: Lying isn't a tone issue.

The People Complaining Know They're Complaining For No Reason

The outrage alarm is not being raised to warn people about MCG (none of their behavior is secret), the alarm is not being raised as a cautionary example to other publishers (nobody else but MCG has plans to make a fabulously expensive game, and very few even could), the alarm is not being raised to explain a hidden flaw in Invisible Sun to fellow gamers (it's immediately obvious that this game is expensive and the game's contents are unknown--these are not secrets), this isn't a cop recorded shooting a child (where the mere existence of the problem suggests the person who can solve the problem will act in bad faith when contacted).

In short, there are as yet no utilitarian reasons that any complaint about Invisible Sun should primarily be addressed to anyone other than the people making Invisible Sun.  Yet still folks are doing it.

Why? In the words of Rebecca West: They want to be right rather than to do right.

There is no sense in which these kinds of complaints can honestly wear the guise of activism--an activist, above all, wants problems to go away, and these complainers have deliberately cultivated a system of complaint which makes addressing the complaint impossible. The difference between critique and whining is critique is directed at actual change.

Meanwhile, much like any other halfway-sane company of its size, the 3 people called Monte Cook Games will restrict its worries to people who actually treat them like human beings you can email, rather than distant constellations you shake your fists at.

1 One GM, Kiel Chenier, is selling the adventure he ran in order to recoup costs he was told the Blue Rose people were paying for--get one here.

2 C- digs in deep on the Shadowrun scam here.

3 For example:

"RPG Despot Monte Cook is telling players to force their GMs to run his new game!"
4 For example:

"Want to play D&D with us?"
"I can't, ever. I saw that there's a Kickstarter for another game, and it's....expensive." 

5 For example.