Saturday, January 10, 2015

REVIEW: In Mansions For Flowers, by Bloom Rose, Uriel Uter, Kimberley Keane-Felton, INRI, and The Sorceress Sisters

Baroness- Red

1979. And here I'm lost.

There is far too much written today about the history of RPGs by people who read something once, who owned this game, who remembered that rumor, who were mad about something on Usenet before I'd even heard of bbcode. There is far too little cobbled together from multiple fisthand accounts, almost as if we can't trust anybody who was actually there, who actually made history, or the people around them. It does seem that small communities (and we are SO small) can be smaller still in their pettiness, and perhaps that is the real history of RPGs.

Nah that's the history of a bunch more stuff, too. Anyway I so hesitate to add to the signal noise yet here I am.

We come to "the Bloom Rose Sequence," an adventure series in the loosest sense, and one which is hard to talk about. Released decades apart, containing no common story thread, without the expressed intent of being considered part of a larger whole. The Bloom Rose Sequence is nonetheless discussed as a unified critical unit by game historians and the tattooed masses for three reasons.

Chiefly, each of the modules contains a "contribution" of some sort (We'll get to what THAT means) from Bloom Rose, co-founder of Adder Entertainment, chief creative director, payroll accountant,and author of every. single. foreword. to every adventure, game, and A Tunnel until her death in the great Donnybrook fire. Secondly, while artists like Tiny Mitch, Ivanov, and Philip Jaksun contributed art during the series, and while Lain to Rest was completed by Steve Olsen, all the books have the distinction of being written and designed by women, curated by Bloom.

Third and last: they got Bloom killed.

In Mansions For Flowers is one of the Adder Anthologies that Bloom specialized in, and probably the second best they ever made. Its name comes from Bloom's actual botany background showing itself in the interstitials between adventures. Articles about how flowers die. Articles about how flowers fuck. Articles about how flowers kill. Articles about how people kill for flowers. The lessons I always chose to take away from these articles were:
  1. Nature is a vicious two-faced prick.
  2. Campaign matter is everywhere.
  3. Do not fuck with the Palm of Christ, which Sunday School had already taught me sort of.
...but looking back I think it's about context. Gardens must be tended, pruned, fed, and even plowed under to make way for new growth. So to it is with adventures and dungeons. You gotta kill the fuck out of Buddha or he'll never take you to Enlightenment Prom. You could fill a monster manual with everything you remember from your Bullfinch you swear you bought in high school or you could skip that and fill a book with interesting ideas, written well, and presented attractively, and trust your customers to think goblins are cool on their own.

I think it's about context. There is cleverness in addition to beauty. There is danger, not just delicateness. There is utility, history, and a far and wide shadow cast by the rose bush, not only thorns and sweetness. Did I mention that this was a lady gamer showcase? There's probably no reason I mentioned that again.

Bloom's Seventies Sunshine feminism aside, the adventures themselves are all illuminated with a jarring cocaine fashion twinge  by the Sorceress Sisters, Sara and Sybil Sobcyznski, as well as the modest map and monster contributions of the individual designers. Most of the art is...cute, and good enough. I always feel bad for shitting people on art, especially people for whom the expression is a means to an end, a bridge by which they can reach their end goal and truly express themselves. Uriel Uter's Moat Man is a standout favorite, since he's made entirely of whatever is going on with Magneto on the cover of X-Men #1. On the other end of the spectrum, whatever Bloom's other virtues her life as a cartographer was thankfully put in the hands of a horse doctor early on.

The Cabin At The Castle by kickboxing columnist Uriel Uter is a weird little puzzle adventure where a shotgun shack appears in the middle of the royal gardens and nobody can get it open. The guy inside, Elias Pelias, is one of my favorite NPCs to play ever because for almost the whole adventure he talks like an old John Ford Cookie type and I freebase that shit. It plays out a little like There's A Hole In The Bucket but with wizards and knights and Moat Mans and shit but once that pinata pops open I can guarantee nobody at the table is anticipating the death to follow. We lost the kingdom once. Not the castle, I stress.

Nobody Sculpted the Gods by self proclaimed silver dollar Kimberley Keane-Felton starts with a talking pocketwatch and ends with murdering the sea in this anarchic romp against enlightened self-interest through the Roman pantheon and the British History Museum. Like most people my favorite part of this brief adventure is the encounters table, particularly the Bulldogs. However I don't think enough attention is paid to Docent the Docent, one of the best examples of GMPC I've ever seen executed. Or heard of. While Kimberley's title is great and all, I do think this would be better remembered if it were titled after its penultimate set piece and her finest, Last Supper-inspired illustration, the House of Mummy Lords.

Many Dragons by INRI of Pet Shop Boys and QVC fame is perhaps the most popular of these, a race against time cited as an influence by a lot of video game designers. It mostly revolves around tense negotiations, a wagonload of save-or-die spelunking, and sleep poisoning. The answer to the final riddle in this section ("I was a king. Then I was a son. Then I was the dawn. What am I?") was left out of Appendix Red and it's still doctrine for the Tattoo Society that INRI had this secret on her body somewhere. Her noble sacrifice tending to the wounded in Bosnia means we'll never know for certain, but the Society's annual exhibition games of Many Dragons have yielded some interesting responses. The seances haven't, though.

Lastly there is Appendix White, featuring short essays by Bloom describing six hidden regents: The Eastern Phantom, Spire, Queen of Barnacles, Mummy Lord Pharoah, Terrible Thunder Chief, and the Revolving Crypt. These NPCs seem more inspired by the work of her collaborators than anything, since none of them actually appear in this book, although Crypt King Revolving would eventually make it into the Bone series of releases.

Reception to this one was interesting. Decades later the RPG community has become much more interested in engaging discussion on important issues of expression and inclusion in a way that leads me to believe, were it released today, the response would be entirely the fucking same. Bloom didn't shy from it, though, and for the remainder of A Tunnel's first volume she printed every letter criticizing In Mansions For Flowers without response or commentary, letting the dedicated letterhacks write in and take her biggest and most beligerently sexist detractors to task for her.

I DO agree, however, that Appendix White, however good it might be, might have been jettisoned in favor of expanding one of the adventures. In particular Many Dragons could/should have been its own expanded release. You can do a lot in eight pages - hell you can do a lot in one page - but there's a sense of scale and ghost details that gets lost with an adventure like Many Dragons when it only has room to hit the high points. I've always been curious whether running it as Many Goblins would feel substantially different, actually.

We'll continue looking back at the rest of the Bloom Rose Sequence from here, meaning that up next is the so-called "pregnancy adventure," My Judgment Day Clothes.