Monday, April 18, 2016

Unfinished Urungus' Towers Two: The Viking Funeral Jobe Bittman Built

Oderus Urungus did not hit me when he died in the same way Bowie did. I said at the time that the jarring disconnect wasn't that Bowie was mortal but that I'd never thought about him not being David Bowie any more. When David Brockie overdosed in the recliner however that seemed exactly like something from the "ways to die" bucket list from GWAR. Dying from too much heroin is GWAR being GWAR, sure as if he had suffocated under a mound of groupies or died from injuries sustained in a cockfight at the planetarium on Laser Zeppelin night. I was also not as large a fan. Oh sure I liked their music well enough in a cartoon idea of transgression kind of way - like when AC/DC says If You're Into Evil You're A Friend Of Mine, which is such an adorable kind of Mumm-Ra turn of phrase - but I've only started really appreciating their musicality in the last couple years. It's probably because, antithetically to a lot of the spirit of metal, I think, GWAR reminds me first and foremost of nice memories about my dad. Those first couple years I went to Dragon*Con were when GWAR would still show regularly enough, and he was super amused by the way they just wandered the floor in character. Did you see that guy with the big foam wiener? That naked chick poked me in the shoulder with their huge spiked tits when they went by. Honestly my folks seemed to enjoy those trips as much as we did, because it was beyond sensory overload for them, often involving things they had no inkling of. Good times.

A lot of my personal connection to GWAR then is not as artists but as celebrities. GWAR were a sort of mascot for a certain epoch of metal, and Oderus was the mascot of GWAR. He was the lead singer, sure, but as the AV Club recently noted GWAR has had a few of those by now. None of them have really been the FRONT MAN Dave Brockie was, though. A kind of ambassador for an aesthetic, he made everything from horse movies to Bam Margera somehow tolerable. He made FOX News watchable. You can call him one note, as has been said about GWAR, but there is a delectably east-Asian idea of the mastery of simplicity that I appreciate from someone who finds their one note (albeit a power chord) and masters it in such a way that they become synonymous with a movement, with a time, with a medium. No one played that note like Oderus & Co.

What their whole scene embodied was a message of fuck yeah but in a joshing way. Like (as Zak noted a while back) Metalocalypse or Beavis and Butthead or for that matter All in the Family, the joke was intended to be on a lot of the very people who became rabid fans. Their characters are dumb as posts but they call people retards. Their personae are sex made foam rubber flesh but with the effect of making everyone lumpy genderless puppets.They sing about how awesome raping stuff is on stage only for other characters to call them out on it in the song, prompting the original fuck demon to defer. They are the id sharpied onto the back of a PE workbook of a thousand virgin warriors. Of course some of those powerless headbangers latched on to GWAR completely unironically. That's not what has kept GWAR going all these years, though; it's the fact that they actually have better musical chops than fellow metal cartoons KISS and a far better sense of humor about themselves. They're a Spinal Tap that kept putting out albums, with Ralph Bakshi and William Gaines as their producers.

What their whole scene embodied was a message of "People who think metalheads are scary, look at us: it's exactly as bad as you feared. BUT, now that you're looking at it, is that bad?" Of course not. Who can actually be scared of foam rubber dildos and still be worth the time spent with them?

Towers Two by Dave Brockie, Jobe Bittman, Jeremy Duncan, Glenn Seal, and Alex Mayo, from James Raggi's Lamentations of the Flame Princess.

Reading Dave's original partial manuscript first, the biggest difference between the two isn't what is in a room but why it's there and how it's described. GWAR acolyte Bittman had the un/enviable task of finishing this manuscript so the rooms that are all him (with help from some of Brockie's other notes and emails I'm sure) are focused on finishing the telling of a story. That story is entitled "What I saw at the GWAR show last night." It is described in that manner, with the blood, shit, come, tits, decapitations, puppets, and special effects center stage. The set list at a GWAR show is never what people talk about on Monday morning. It's more like holy shit I watched Jerry Springer get eaten by a vagina dog. Replicating that experience and finishing Brockie's unfinished draft so that the plot of the module is anywhere close to cohesive are the orders of the day.

With the original text the Why of a room's content is always "to kill you and/or give you a shitload of treasure." The way it is described, though, shows the experience not of just a seasoned dungeon master but of someone who is accustomed to conceiving and executing gags in a performance. The stage is set first and then the freaks show up and maybe do a thing that in itself is grotesque so that the setting, the actor, and the action all are points of interest. This draft is Dave Brockie writing an adventure like he's planning a video or a tour, and the book as a whole is finished through a Vaseline flashback to the GWAR What Was.

The final high concept of this book is that terrible creatures and terrible deeds have consciously and incidentally conspired to take what would be a boring chapter out of any fantasy novel and turn it into a black metal album cover, a window into the fourteenth hell where every single character is the bad guy apart from like four people who are Merely Shits, not actively vile. That's as good a setup as anything but it does mean that this contains all of the worst and most evil and fucked up and gross out things that Guy From GWAR could think of and guess what: that means Towers Two is the world's longest poop joke that strikes the hour and half hour with rapes.

That's onerous, Oderus, but then it's meant to be. There are decades of wrong to be righted here and even the most self-interested or cruel player character will inevitably find themselves the moral superior of the people they meet, if only because so much of the villainy on display is so petty, short sighted, and basic.

Maybe that doesn't even matter. The game in this book is not where you think it is.

Kiel Chenier is showing this off as I type, running this book in a Nintendo tinged campaign. I've seen a lot of people interested in trying similar reskinnings. That's because the trappings of the MTV dungeon are either to your taste or not, and anything that isn't to your taste is effortlessly dismissed with without upsetting any apples in the cart.

I'll let my players run around with a dick sword if they want but genital weapons aren't what's really exciting here. It's who wields them, why, and what powers them. All the non consensual hog porking in the book is interesting as far as "haha, pig sex right?" goes but it's how the creatures involved relate to one another and the power structures in place that matter. Room after dungeon full of Fulci's worst nightmares become honestly a bit of a blur, punctuated by the set pieces and time tables which will tick forward independently of your players.

This is a personal preference: multiple ticking clocks, some or all of which the players may be unaware of without inquiry, are a favorite adventure planning technique. It means if there's a lull or I'm out of ideas or the players take foreverrrrr to figure something out or debate on doing something, I've always got Something Important ready to happen. It keeps things moving without bringing in a random encounter roll. It also means that in almost every way the longer it takes the players to figure something out or take action on something the worse things are going to get for everybody. Things have been getting worse and worse around the Towers Two for a long time, and while nominally at a tipping point the dilemma facing the party is not "save the countryside or don't." It's a question of allowing the grinding down and the toxic spread to continue by degrees or to force an all or nothing gambit.

This is a text which posits an ultimate evil and it isn't exactly Lovecraftian or Biblical even. It's Sumerian, the evil we make as nature --> there is ultimate evil in nature but not ultimate good --> nature is evil and civilization good --> civilization casts a shadow whence evil emerges, and so on. This isn't an evil that gets something or gets back at dad by sowing sin, and it's not a force beyond human scale and comprehension whose existence is corrupting and dangerous. This is a mind with active agency choosing the spread of evil for the sake of the spread of evil. When the world is cinder it starts over not only because of its nature but because also of its decisions.

Now let's step back again for a minute and compare the evil within the Towers Two to the evil of Towers Two: they say rape like eight times, the innkeeper is basically every innkeeper from every fairy tale ever, and there's this Harvey Dent homophobia where there are notes of antiquated gay panic played for a laugh but after the fourth time what is the joke exactly?

If any of that is where you draw the line I totally get it but I also wouldn't want you to confuse the walls with the wallpaper here. While its sheerest ambition lies in the heightened reaches of its stylized debauching this is nonetheless a pony you can ride all day. You can get months of sessions out of this if you play it right. Your players can simply get a ton of use out of this book without ever actually climbing into either tower. The gonzo trophies aren't nearly the sufficient lure they need to be for the absolute threshing machine of the tunnels and towers. The gold (silver, since this is LotFP) is, however, as are the stories. Like the Tomb of Horrors or Death Frost Doom the point of playing a grinder is to be able to talk afterward about how you barely made it out alive or about how awesomely you died. Either way you get a cool new story. Towers Two's story is compelling in its own way but as a generator FOR stories it is really excellent. There are factions at odds in some of LotFP's other big releases like Qelong or A Red And Present Land but there is a grimy quality to the factions in Towers Two because they're tumbling over one another and clipping through each other. One person may be a knowing member of three spheres of intent in this adventure while unknowingly forwarding machinations of another three. The complicated courtly castling of RPL and the spread out surrounded-but-isolated feel of the Qelong hexcrawl are markedly different experiences.

They're both great books, better than Towers Two, but while they both represent cool stories and cool possibilities for story hooks they won't just generate awesome new stories all on their own. Towers Two has more in common with Deep Carbon Observatory in that respect. Even if you put it at the far end of your campaign world and your players don't get there for three years the fact that it exists at all means that within months every neighboring province is going to be affected, dominoing from there. The yellow brick road will lay itself by degrees until it's right under the players' feet.

It's not nearly as deep as any of those three, though. This book is more along the lines of Forgive Us, LotFP's Free RPG Day adventures, or several members of Zzarkov Kowalski's catalog. That's not intended as a knock, really, but the anticipation for Towers Two and the presentation lend it a prestige above "Four awesome hexes or material." The ghost Urungus haunts its contents (quite literally) as this isn't a book to judge as A GWAR rpg, but THE GWAR rpg. With that scrutiny and standard it's a great adventure but honestly Better Than Any Man (which I know I keep praising but it's that good) is more of a game changer. Looking at that release and Brockie's text it really seems they could have put this together with half the pages if they wanted to. Maybe that was closer to the original intent before tying one off made the book's release much more of an event.

(Speaking of events it seems like everyone is streaming rpgs these days so to James, Jobe, and the remaining members of GWAR, I humbly submit my plea to see this streamed in full costume. I know damn well you all can make a better show of it than the competition. Do it as a fundraiser or do it for charity or do it for both, I'm broke and even I'd find ten bucks for that.)

It's also an interesting venture for Raggi in that it stands completely apart from his current publishing slate but also completely typifies it. As the line hews closer ever on to the early-modern real-world setting its biggest successes seem to be the far, far outliers to this operating mode. Towers Two is that, at least. It shares with Raggi's other output, though, a sensibility not of condoning or endorsing the events and viewpoints of, say, redneck horror, giallo rape killers, or any other bump n grind drive in fare, but instead of the lurid style and music box craft found in those films. It takes both, the style and the craft, and I expect that's why we keep getting the kind of books worth an entire hobby going to war over. Nobody worth anything ever tried to publish at LotFP because they had a book full of cocks and no one would take them. They tried to publish there because they didn't have to engineer, didn't have to schedule meetings, didn't have to run it by legal or focus test anything. They can just build, and nobody is looking over their shoulder tut-tutting about the letters they'll get for painting things creamsicle orange, nightmare blue, or pussy.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess and Towers Two and GWAR all have that in common: the fundamentals and the technical expertise is there but it's easy for some people to miss because it's all so often in service of telling The Aristocrats.

Alex Mayo and Bittman are on point here, double teaming the layout and content here so that not only is information you'll need to use repeated every time you'll need to use it (funny how much sense that makes) but it's laid out in a very clean, uncluttered, open way. That means if you do want to reskin it for Hyrule or write in some quick-n-dirty HP totals or alternate spell lists you have plenty of room to do so. I don't know enough about layout to speak to it too much, beyond this: good layout to me is clear, never suffers the limb while forsaking the body, is attractive, and makes me think not only that I can use this easily but helps to reinforce "I want to use this."

I also can't speak much to the maps. Nice maps. The book is well made as a physical object, too; while their actual subject matter and content are incredibly different LotFP is the game world's equivalent of Archaia over in comic book land, who for my money make the best physical books (as in the actual things you hold) in the business.

Jeremy Duncan's art, now, that I can go on about. Enticing and revolting my wife in equal measure, these are more akin to animation stills than illustrations. Every chink of armor and hair on a snout represents action interrupted. It's not always in the posture or gesture in a How To Draw Comics The Marvel Way vein. It's down to design: everything looks like it is meant to be used, like it is meant to move, and you can easily imagine how everything here moves. That's a quality missing from even some of my favorite art in rpg books. If I had to sum up his style it would be "skate shop on The Dying Earth" making him the perfect candidate to take over Brockie's illustrations. It's not intended as a slight to say that, capable and useful as Brockie's artwork is, it suggests form and detail and experience but not kineticism. Sad that he died but not that he couldn't finish drawing the book. Talk about elevating material to the quality demanded by the suddenly-higher-profile release. Talk about earning those pages. Well done, ace.

There were some things in Towers Two I found not to my taste. That's fine, I can easily wash over those. There are themes which repeat themselves one too many times; to borrow an adage, one dead baby joke is shocking and funny, eight dead baby jokes is a little depressing. But there is too much goodness to be found in Towers Two. The GWARness may be its easiest selling point to promote and it's certainly the easiest thing to object to if your sensibilities are bruised but the food chain of betrayals, interconnected conspiracies, the clustered-in-time precipices of a dozen disasters, that's the real shit. Not the monster makeup or the fanatic recreation thereof but the mind from behind the mask and the affection from behind the enterprise.

Raggi has said Towers Two will never be reprinted so go buy one. This article was brought to you with care and super generosity by Arnold K. He didn't ask me to say this but please stop by his Patreon and throw some nickels his way because we need more articles by Arnold K. Special thanks to +Kiel Chenier for helping me count rapes. And if I may end on a personal note, ask for help.