Sunday, November 26, 2017

REVIEW: Bastards on Horseback, by Dex Logun and Lady Croose

Rodney Matthews

When the Second Age dawned on a gray kind of sand and a copper manner of ash there turned out to be a much reduced emphasis on the classic cam-pak, or adventure or anything resembling the modules of other companies. Certain of Adder Entertainment's releases began to feel more like some kind of madman got hold of the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and thought that was prescriptive. The kind of dense lore exposition and world building infodump involved would make even a viral YouTube simplification shit bees with confusion. Perhaps the worst offender of these would be our old friend Nathan Goodwrench Hosea, late of Cyclopean Romanse and then-most-recently of the now infamous Stigma Systics. Easily the true champion of this sort of funhouse-mirror-version-of-a-historical-fantasy-novel approach was Japanese-Indian metal guitarist and pog doper Fear Star, alias Jane Mahuri, whose epic exploration of the un-trilogy we will ruminate on later since the story of Time Colossus Go Fuck and its strange transformations is a column unto itself.

What if that box text and crowbarred-in Mary Sue shit didn't just make you go "kill me now?" What if a story could actually talk you to death? The establishment-challenging mixed race marriage of a traditional Æ apocalypse romp and the new hotness of "anthropology textbooks that ain't happened" was put together by one of Æ's unsung giants: The Black Knight. Trapmaster Cosmodamus - founder emeritus Dex Logun, the woman who could trick you.

Bastards on Horseback ride from the horizon in a very literal sense intent on sacking a city. Again, very literal: they are going to break every person, creature, and thing into a smaller more manageable form and then bag up the whole enterprise to schlep back to a between space to be reassembled into a new kingdom and people of their liking. In this way potential always grows, until the tipping point where potential must needs become necessarily kinetic. You could call this a fight with heaven if you like, except we all know Æ actually published that one. This is a pillaging from the Frankenverse.

Lore is a punishment when time is of the essence. Stopping the wildfires takes priority over finding out which fucking teenager carelessly started them. Should the riders breach the defenses erected by the party over the course of their preparations then they are treated to more information about their enemy. There is a hard ticking clock here, though - sunup to sundown - and your enemies have the benefit of paralyzing tiny mortals with the enormity of themselves. The more you know the better you can fight but you lose your greatest weapon: chrono-ammunition. You could always elect to investigate your foe ahead of time but that gives you less opportunity to prepare defenses, even though those defenses would be more elaborate. Bastards on Horseback is a book about making you ask to be told how you lose.

Appendix abuse is rarely so egregious as this publication's Appendix Gray, a brief outline for rules regarding combat, locomotion, magic, and death elocution in the strange horizon would should you choose a pre-emptive strike or actually roust the invading cavalry and chase them back to their homefield advantage. While there is enough here to play a session, a whole campaign even, (we've all made do with less) it is a criminal sin unforgivable from anyone else but from Dex...I like to consider this part of a meta-trap, a grander snare she has set for us all. Some have argued this might be a backdoor cosmology for a company who always deliberately resisted anything approaching continuity. When I first came to this hobby I assumed it was basically a resume' since the writing was by far on the wall in a big fucking God Is Dead And The War's Begun font and AE's second age was already on the precipice of Sickboy territory, not nearly dead but preparing for a long period of glowing embers before their comparatively recent snuffing. They would withdraw and remain Galadriel, Dex Logun as much as any.

I have since approached a new scheme: Appendix Gray is two traps. The first is a way of convincing you to get your whole party killed by trying to warhammer the unknown to death. "You can fight the devil" only means you can beat the devil if you can beat the devil. The option raises the question but does not beg it. The more insidious trap is convincing multiple generations that the story within and the rules within were the same thing. Here's how you don't play the game, it says, which means the rest of the book is how you play the game, and that Gray are special edge rules which must be similarly strictly adhered to. Remember, this was a glacial epoch shift for the company and they needed them a ferryman well versed in punishing players who thought they were smarter (and therefore morally better) than the designers. Here was a candleflame that decoding the epistle was always the aim and invited these brainteasers to a new Gordian challenge. In actuality this was simply Solomon Kane methadone designed to instill some new addiction you wouldn't know you'd acquired until the shakes began.

Dex Logun's ghost work on the Fire, Ice, and Steel era releases from Æ went largely uncredited and since record keeping is an art form even when some nutless fuck isn't setting buildings and people on god damned fire we have a hard time pinning down the scope of her contributions. Memories differ and blame is ping-ponged around and all we come away with is a looming miasma continent-like in drift. It is possible she designed deaths and devices for almost any notable Æ release except for their earliest efforts right through to the end of the Second Age. Her personal life is less the enigma, subject of the Oscar nominated short documentary Row on Row. Their name was in the papers a few years ago for her continued efforts to sue the British government to release Thatcher's body for "reverse-autopsy," a campaign which lost a lot of supporters when she started mailing major news outlets frozen blood phalluses. All the stranger behavior since Dex Logun is from Colorado. Lady Croose for his part was an underground comic book artist who took a for-hire gig in between painfully confessional zine appearances. Their dalliance in the gaming world left them screaming for the mildewed hotel conference centers of home.

You twist yourself into strange postures when you're trying to pleasure a partner seemingly incapable of direct communication. Anything to elicit a response. It's enough to just do something, just to see if it works. Remember with charity that it was a strange time, and gaming was changing faster than many in a faster world. There are treasures to be found in what I call the "histories" of the Second Age but they are largely buried in the very heap which defines them as works. They are sapphires in compost, and like that loam they would give fertile root to better trends in time. They were a kind of trap that Æ had to walk itself out of after building its own cage on all sides. But that, I think is where Dex Logun's Bastards on Horseback really shines. See, puzzles that aren't designed to be solved aren't good puzzles any more than a painting of a door on the wall is a great door for anyone not in a Bob Clampett joint. No, riddles are meant to be answered. Maybe not all devils can be beaten but you also don't have to try to fight the devil, or THAT devil, or on the devil's terms.

The greatest gift Bastards on Horseback has to bestow is splitting the veil and showing you the pharisees are just doing puppets back there. It is a work that invites (fair dares) the player to go "Actually fuck this" and run what they like out of the book and only that, using what rules they choose and agree upon amongst themselves. Game companies are not often in the habit of reminding their consumers that they are not required. It takes a confident creator to make that statement even in between the lines. True a thousand wrong lessons were learned from this in the same way that Dylan led a parade across decades of imitators with voices like cicadas murdering table saws but those were not Dylan's sins. As Faberge egg Bastards on Horseback is a rewardingly intricate museum piece. Shame it's nards as an evening.

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