Wednesday, 24 August 2016

Corpses shall be exquisite or they shall not be at all

China Miéville’s new novella The Last Days of New Paris has just appeared in the US but isn’t coming out in the UK for six months, presumably for arcane publishing industry reasons - an ancient astronomical clock churning its gears slowly in a basement in Bloomsbury, calculating publicity-friendly lunar alignments, oiled occasionally with the blood of increasingly pale interns, has pronounced the Old World omens good for February. I am also in the UK (and also in publishing, so solidarity with the exsanguinated interns), but I ordered The Last Days of New Paris transatlantically in a moment of impatience having just finished something else of his. I can therefore inform you that The Last Days of New Paris is, in order, a good thesis on surrealism, a very good short novel, a great title and an absolutely amazing role-playing game, though it is not the last of these things in what we bourgeois mortals temporally understand as ‘yet’.

(Worth noting here that Miéville is of course a known D&D player and via Zak even a sort of peripheral OSR presence, so I would not be surprised if some of the below had occurred to him. This is all intended to a tribute to this book and to his body of work, which I urge you to go and buy. Nor is this new one even necessarily the most D&Dable of his books. Anyway, this post will not be spoilery but it will be improved if you read the book.)

The Last Days of New Paris is a kind of High Pulp novella of an alternate French resistance, in a timeline in which by 1950 WW2 is still ongoing and Paris still Nazi-occupied. At some point during the war as we know it a resistance fighter affiliated with Surrealist artists set off some kind of bomb in the city and surrealism...became real? Actualised? Was realized? 

"A blast, an acceleration, the distillate, the spirit, the history, the weaponized soul of convulsive beauty went critical."

Whatever: the novel is not as clever-clever po-mo as I am risking being about it, but rather
Dora Maar's Sans Titre. This is
definitely an encounter.
creates an alternate Paris in which Surrealist artworks and creations (referred to as manifs, most of them genuine, as carefully and playfully noted in the back of the book) run riot and whole sections of the city are overlain with dream-realities, surreal-mundane junk-objects swarming and piling in the corners of bombed-out cafes. In response to which (this is where it really gets pulp) the Nazis and Nazi-aligned elements within the Catholic church made a contract with literal Hell to enlist the help of actual demons, who now also roam the increasingly nightmarish city.

Sensibly, Paris has been cordoned off and quarantined, and in it the SS, the Wehrmacht, the forces of Hell (some enslaved by the Reich, some gone rogue), Surrealists (notably the group called Main a plume), non-Surrealist resistance (Communists of various stripes etc.) and actual Surrealist artworks fight it out endlessly. 

You can probably see where I’m going with this, huh. Let’s break it down and then build it back up, Surrealist collage-style.

The setting

Max Ernst, depicting one of the more
warped parts of New Paris
Handily, someone else has already mapped Paris - several times, even. A map like this is period-appropriate and will serve well: Paris’ urban geography is game-friendly too, with the long geometric boulevards for easy navigation and the tight-packed apartments and courtyards in between for house-to-house dungeoneering. Best of all is the division of Paris into 20 arrondissements, something Miéville makes use of in the novel for demarcating territory and which are a gift to the gamer who wishes to come up with differing neighbourhoods and appropriate encounter tables and local powers for them. The fact that there are (d)20 of them is the kind of useful, meaningful-seeming random confluence that the surrealists themselves dined out on.

There are also lots of good landmarks, obviously: the novel makes use of a few, the Arc de Triomphe having become a giant self-sustaining urinal and the Eiffel tower having lost its bottom half. If your players can reach the floating top section there will no doubt be something rewardingly murderous waiting for them. Other tourists hotspots cry out for surrealist use: it is technically ahistorical to have your players be stalked through the well-mapped megadungeon of the Louvre by the living Winged Victory of Samothrace (because most of the artwork was moved out of there during the war for safety) but you should do it anyway, and clearly we are leaving so-called history behind. The ultimate dungeon, as the book makes clear, is the Metro, where gloopy art nouveau signage made of iron vines will coil round your throat when you’re not looking.

The stars

The novel has as its protagonists Surrealist partisans, the Main a plume, and probably this is what PCs would mostly be too, but there’s no reason why you can't have non-Surrealist resistance members as PCs as well. Access to guns smuggled into Paris by Stalin is probably less fun than engaging with the artwork, but some people will be up for it: it’ll be like the divisions between magic-using classes (the Surrealists) and non-magic-using ones (the mundanes).

As with the magic/not-magic metadivision, there should then be further true classes within, but not too many: among the latter, maybe like so -
  • Communists (access to outside aid)
  • nationalists (i.e. right-wing but anti-Nazi French, the tatters of the Establishment with the attendant privileges)
  • apolitical rogues (with thief skills, black market contacts etc.)
  • infiltrating British SOE operatives, Violette Szabo-style
  • True (and therefore in New Paris) renegade clergy, with some (loosely interpreted) divine magic       
As for the Surrealists this is where the deep problem and equally deep attraction of this game swims into view - how do you make surrealism gameable? See below, in part. But this needs to be, on some carefully limited level, a reality-warping class and one (as in the novel) capable of interacting in unique ways with the much more reality-warping entities also present in the city. Under that broad umbrella, different currents suggest themselves -
  • the entity whisperer, who knows how to treat with wild surrealism (closer to the novel's protagonist)
  • the ward against the weird (someone with some measure of resistance, a defensive class)
  • the wielder of the weird (someone with some measure of active influence, an indirectly aggressive class)
- but probably more as aspects and directions that one can take for a single, overarching
Dorothea Tanning. For a 'ballet',
supposedly, but most experts argue she
was prepping for an Underdark campaign.
Surrealist class. If that class is half your party, or more, no worries. 

The novel suggests possible, carefully-monitored space for free agents of Hell to appear as PCs too (mortals, that is - freelancers for Satan), presumably along the D&D warlock lines. This would be the class (if you feel it necessary) for straightforward offensive magic, otherwise unavailable, but it would come with some hefty penalties too. If you want to play as Nazis, yuk. Work it out for yourself.       

The system

Actually, I dunno. I am an humble player of mock-medieval games and don’t know what existing systems would work best as an armature onto which to weld the things thought of here, requiring as they do mid-20th c technology and classes. Suggestions on a postcard please. I’ve never played CoC but presumably that might work? Or heavily bodge one up from, uh, LotFP? Perhaps. But whatever it is it needs to accommodate…

The surrealism

Its Celebes. Run!
This is the difficult bit, but also the exciting bit. The Nazis and the demons we can stat up easy, and the streets and the buildings we can map out no problem. Making a game genuinely surreal - truly oneiric and startling and irreal - is the trick of it, just as it is with writing and with art and with film-making. Mieville does a stunningly good job in the novel of infusing surrealism not just into flat descriptive narration but into kinetic, visceral action. This is a hard thing to do with words, just as making the surreal distinct from the merely mishmash odd in collages is hard, and chancy.

This guy specifically is a character
in the novel. Breton, Lamba, Tanguy.
But it's something the RPG is actually, probably, uniquely well-suited to do, as Miéville shows. There are unique and individual artworks roaming New Paris - the setting's tarrasque is Celebes, Max Ernst's elephant - but the chief marker of Miéville's surrealist city, the chief antagonists and amibguous NPCs for your party, are the so-called exquisite corpses, the very much 'alive' mash-up monsters arising from the Surrealist game of the same name  (when I was a kid we called it 'heads, bodies and legs', but, same), iterations of which wander the deserted boulevards with their legs or pincers or tree trunks as appropriate. These are such beautifully RPG beasties it's - ahem - surreal: iterative, contingent, a game already within a game. You could make random tables for the relevant bits, like the abominations in Red and Pleasant Land, or - more fun, more surreal - you could have your players make a bunch before the session begins, without them knowing what they're doing. The D&D party is the perfect size for this, and the perfect collocation of collaborative weirdos. And remember where it all started, with Gary cutting up and gluing randomly together plastic monsters in his basement: the first and most exquisite corpses of all. 

More on this sometime. L'OSR sera surréel ou elle ne sera pas.