This entry is part 17 of 17 in the series 2022 Reads
As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them.
The Cursed Chateau is an adventure set in a castle in the south of France, haunted by the ghost of a sadistic maniac and many of his victims. This is an adventure that James Maliszewski had published previously: there’s a Rogue Games edition listed online from 1999, and the author mentions having run the game many times over the years and noted player responses and feedback. The edition I’m looking at is the 2016 edition.
My contribution, “So, You’ve Angered a Sea God…” is inspired by The Odyssey, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and the story of the whale ship Essex (which inspired Moby Dick, though I haven’t read that). It includes a system for generating a minor deity who was somehow angered by someone in the crew—possibly an NPC sailor who messed up at the last port, or possibly the PCs when they ransacked the deity’s old, ruined temple in their last adventure—and a system for rolling up complications that the sea god inflicts on a ship’s crew.
There’s also a simple mechanic for escalating the risk of terrible events if the offense goes unrectified, and for deescalating risk somewhat if the crew or PCs make an effort to smooth things over with the deity. (This mechanic secretly also makes some deities harder to appease than others: characters need to know who is offended, and they’re likelier to find out when things get really bad.)
I’m not sharing the system here—you can late pledge for the books here if you want to see it—but I thought I’d share a few recent roll-throughs. I’m freely making up the crew and PC reactions, but the torments and the Divine Rage Ratings that drive the escalation/deescalation are all the result of rolls, as is the information about each deity.
Week 0: The ship somehow angers Mul-Epek, a deity of sea battles whose patron beasts are the octopus and seahorse, and who hungers for… yeah, human sacrifice.
Week 1: A contagious illness—let’s call is Green Gills Fever—breaks out on the ship. The ship’s crew is disabled for a week, but nobody dies. (Yet.) Divine Rage Rating: +7.
Week 2: There is a rash of thefts committed by a minor crew member. Divine Rage Rating: +16.
Week 3: The entire crew is plagued with nightmares featuring the offended god. They are deprived of sleep and morale suffers. +21 to future rolls. The crew becomes terrified, and prays to the deity, reducing its anger slightly. Divine Rage Rating: +15.
Week 4: A higher than usual number of dangerous encounters continues. (Random encounters are at double the normal rate.) The captain believes the encounters are merely poor luck, and that the deity has been appeased, but the crew continues to pray to the deity, as they are not convinced. Divine Rage Rating: +16.
Week 5: Fog rolls in, surrounding the ship, obscuring the stars, and making navigation difficult. Soon the ship is lost, and collides with a rock in the middle of the sea. The PCs, and some of their crew, escape in rowboats. Divine Rage Rating: +18. Crew members determine that the deity is still angry, and toss the captain into the sea after slitting his throat. Divine Rage Rating: +5 .
Week 6: A fierce tempest lashes the drifting rowboats for 2 days, during which 3 crew members are lost. Divine Rage Rating: +14.
Week 7: The crew, furious, slit the throats of the first mate, the navigator, and one of the PCs and hurl them into the ocean. Divine Rage Rating: -19, which is enough of a human sacrifice to slake Mul-Epek’s thirst for human sacrifice. The torments cease, though the surviving crew is still stuck in rowboats on the open sea.
Week 0: The PCs insult Glameogh, goddess of sea travelers, whose patron beasts are whales and terns, and who desires sacrifices of gold and jewels, mocking and then robbing her priests, who had the temerity to solicit a donation “to assure safe passage” before the ship sets out.
Week 1: Fog rolls in, surrounding the ship, obscuring the stars, and making navigation difficult. Soon the ship is lost, but it narrowly avoids a collision with a coral reef. Divine Rage Rating: +10.
Week 2: Fierce tempests lashes the ship for 4 days straight, resulting in the loss of 6 crew members. (4 are thrown overboard, one falls from the rigging and breaks her neck, and the last is crushed by moving cargo down in the hold.) Divine Rage Rating: +20.
Week 3: One night, parts of the rigging simply rot overnight and fall apart. Several days are spent trying repurpose what remains so the ship can be minimally functional. The crew begins to mutter about a curse, bad luck, or a sea god’s anger, but nobody knows yet that it is Glameogh who has been offended, so there is not much they can do. Divine Rage Rating: +22.
Week 4: The mainmast spontaneously splits and cracks, falling apart. The crew is now terrified, convinced that a deity has been offended. Divine Rage Rating: +30. The PCs realize that they probably angered Glameogh, and by magical means, they inquire how to appease her. They learn that a large sacrifice of gold and jewels, or a commitment to quest in her service, or possibly both, will be necessary to quell her rage. They decide to perform both, before something truly terrible happens, and toss hundreds of gold coins and gems from the cargo, to the bottom fo the sea, and to commit to a quest in service of Glameogh. The quest commitment instantly quells Glameogh’s rage, and the crew are able to return the ship to a semi-functional state even without the main mast, hobble to a nearby port for repairs, and live on.
Week 0: Unbeknownst to anyone, a crew member cheerfully offends Mechadalth, god of sea beasts, when he steals a swordfish from the god’s altar in the temple to unknown gods at the port. The swordfish is holy to Mechadalth (as are flying fish) and the god can only be appeased by acts of artistic tribute.
Week 1: The guilty crewmember wakes to discover that he murdered the ship’s navigator in his sleep. He flees, to avoid being killed for the crime. Rumors abound and morale suffers. Divine Rage Rating: +6
Week 2: The first mate goes missing. (He has been tied up, gagged, and stuffed into a crate in the cargo hold, again by the offending crewman, again in his sleep, but he has no idea he has done this.) Divine Rage Rating: +7.
Week 3: A Tempest lashes the ship for 2 days straight, and 6 crew members are thrown overboard and lost. Additionally, for an hour on the second day, cockroaches and rats rain from the sky onto the ship, and the crew finally realize someone has offended a god, though they have no idea which one. Divine Rage Rating: +14.
Week 4: The guilty crewman strikes again, this time murdering the captain in his sleep. (In both their sleep, in fact.) He is not caught, but suspicions are growing about him. Divine Rage Rating: +15.
Week 5: There is no wind at all for eight days in a row, and the sun is scorchingly hot as the ship is stuck in place. The crew is certain that a divine curse plagues the ship. Divine Rage Rating: +24.
Week 6: The ship springs a major leak suddenly. The crew scrambles to keep the ship afloat, and grows more resentful, demanding the problem be addressed. Divine Rage Rating: +32.
Week 7: A somehow still-alive swordfish is discovered in the cargo hold, screaming the name of Mechadalth over and over. Divine Rage Rating: +36. The crew panics but since none of them knows about Mechadalth, they throw a sailor overboard, which would affront Mechadalth except that the sailors also throw the swordfish into the ocean, which appeases the deity in a minor way. Divine Rage Rating: + 31.
Week 8: Dysentery breaks out among the crew, killing 11 of them despite the PCs doing their best to cure who they can with their magic. The surviving crew are now completely miserable, and the only ready they don’t mutiny is because they are deathly ill. Divine Rage Rating: +35.
Week 9: A titanic swordfish begins ominously following the ship. Divine Rage Rating: +38. The crew has recovered enough to attempt a mutiny, but not enough to carry it off. However, several important crew members and a major ranking member of the crew die; a few so-called “ringleaders” of the mutiny are punished with death to prevent a recurrence, but not many—the ship can’t afford to lose too many people.
Week 10: The ship is lashed by brutal storms, and literal blood rains down from the heavens. Divine Rage Rating: +42. The terrified crew, forced to work to keep the ship afloat, sing as they work, and happen to improvise a song about Mechadalth. The blood rain stops, and as they continue to sing, the storm itself ends. Divine Rage Rating: +38.
Week 11: A large number of flying fish begin leaping over the ship constantly. Divine Rage Rating: +39. This terrifies the crew, who begin again to sing, but since of Mechadalth. Older crewmembers have carved swordfish from chunks of wood and toss them into the ocean, while begging the god for mercy and forgiveness. Divine Rage Rating: +23.
Week 12: The ship springs a major leak, and the crew must scramble to repair it. Divine Rage Rating: +24. They sing hymns to Mechadalth daily, offer more carvings, and two of the crewmen carves the ship’s figurehead into the likeness of a swordfish in the god’s honour and rename the ship “The Swordfish of Mechadalth,” begging for the god to forgive the crew for their offense. Divine Rage Rating: -27. The torments cease.
A certain amount of that—like determining when mutiny breaks out and how it proceeds, deciding when characters figure out how to appease the deity, and how appeasement interacts with an ongoing torment all are kind of judgement calls that would need to be figured out in play, because contributions were limited by page size—not that I’d want to necessarily mechanize all that stuff anyway. I think a bit of improvising is good in cases like this, as it allows for more narrative freedom and leaves more room for players to do things the GM might not think up.
The other thing is that the torments might not literally be week by week: characters might somehow reach an isle for restocking or repairs; they could arrive at a viable port out of dumb luck; they could end up using magic to hide the ship, or organize intercession by one of the other gods of the world, especially if they’re faithful worshippers of some other, more powerful sea god. The torments might also let up temporarily—to permit some, you know, adventuring—and then kick in again when the ship is turned homeward.
But I’m pretty pleased that my two tables and one little dice mechanic is sufficient for generating a series of events that emulate, in an interesting way, familiar narratives of divine wrath upon a sailing ship.
This entry is part 16 of 17 in the series 2022 Reads
As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book last week, though!
This is a book I’ve had for ages, but from which I only read a little bit. I figured I’d resolve that, and… quickly remembered why I had never read much of it. Anna Brownell Jameson was long-winded in the way of many people from her era—she was born late in the late 1700s, and this book is an account of her travel to Canada in the 1830s.
Notably, it’s retitled here—or maybe it was retitled in its 1852 edition, or perhaps the title of an abridgement of the original book, I’m not sure—because the (abridged?) copy available on Project Gutenberg is titled something that aged much less well: Sketches in Canada, and Rambles Among the Red Men. That said, the book is what it said on the tin: the first ~200 pages include some impressions of Toronto after a brief stay, and the remainder of the book (over 300 pages) details Jameson’s trip out into the countryside, including among First Nations people referred to in the title.
The book is, honestly, a slog punctuated by moments of surprise and oddity. Jameson spends a lot of time outlining her thoughts on Goethe, but then she’ll bust out some comment about the status of women in her time that sounds downright modern. Then… back to Goethe, or Mendelssohn, or some something else less than interesting or exciting.
Things do get a little more… “interesting” after her trip begins. She makes a lot of observations about the First Nations people, and a lot of those observations are what you’d expect from an Englishwoman of the 1830s: she constantly refers to the indolence of the men, the poverty and squalor and filth and so on. (That said, there are also passages where she uses a lot of the same adjectives for white men in Canada.) Those adjectives tend to get swapped when she is describing Christianized “Indians” and especially when she is describing aboriginal women. Yes, she does compare one to one of the witches from MacBeth, but she describes others as astonishingly beautiful—saying they would be considered so anywhere—and when comparing their condition to the condition of women in England, she concludes that they might even be a little better off than the typical Englishwoman, all things told. Which is to say, when she wants to excoriate Englishmen for their suppression of women, then the aboriginal women she sees suddenly enjoy relatively greater freedom; when she wants to emphasize the inferiority of the natives, suddenly everyone is “indolent” and “filthy” and living in “squalor.”
Jameson seems to at least partly grasp that these are people living through a slow-moving apocalyspe of sorts—and an apocalypse occasioned by European and specifically English cruelty and viciousness, which she both acknowledges and excoriates, albeit at times couching her criticism in the presumed inferiority of the aboriginal people that she encountered: she outright states that she does not think they are “tameable” for example. (She thinks that she’s complimenting them, but… I don’t feel like she really is, and nor have many modern critics.) Even the sympathies she entertains seem to have their limits… at approximately ten feet, in fact: whenever she interacts directly with a Native person, she slips into praising them; when she observes them at a distance, she’s much more critical, and the biased vocabulary emerges again. Then again, most of her direct interactions with aboriginal people seem to have been with Christian converts. I guess that shouldn’t surprise us: even today, a lot of people have that whole “good ones” and “bad ones” dichotomy in their heads.
All of which is to say that it’s not the most comfortable reading in 2022, even if you know enough about 1836 going in to expect that. She does, for what it’s worth. try to learn people’s actual names and transcribe them the best she can. She tries to share a song—there’s sheet music on one page of the book—and retells some stories that a missionary translated for her (how accurately, who knows, but probably only somewhat). She relates a little of the folklore she runs across, comparing it to European and Far-Eastern analogues when she can think of them. She does seem more interested than I imagine a lot of English writers would have been at the time, though maybe I’m underestimating her contemporaries.
In any case, this is a book I must admit I skimmed rather than reading throughout; and I don’t think that neglect is wholly unwarranted,. In many ways, it feels a lot how blogs feel today, a decade after their faltering and mostly slipping from the digital landscape: it’s written for an imagined audience, but with perhaps too little attention to whether that audience would really enjoy what is being written.
While this is not a full-fledged update on SF in South Korea, I thought it’s noteworthy that Clarkesworld recently published our interview interview with the author Djuna, a longtime enigmatic titan of the Korean SF scene.
(We’ve also translated two of their stories recently, so it’s been very 듀나-듀나-듀나 at our place lately.)
Anyway, the interview is up at Clarkesworld now, alongside lots of other great stuff including an interview with translator Rachel Cordasco (founder of the SF in Translation website) and some a really gangbusters lineup of stories—for me, the Pan Haitian and Greg Egan are especially attention-grabbing. Go check it out.
This entry is part 15 of 17 in the series 2022 Reads
As with other posts in this series, these #booksread2022 posts go anywhere from a few weeks to a month after I’ve read them. I read this particular book last week, though!
May We Borrow Your Husband? is a 1967 collection of short fictions—in some cases, they’re in fact extended vignettes, and Greene himself called them “entertainments”—by Graham Greene. The subtitle—”And Other Comedies of the Sexual Life”—isn’t printed on the cover of the Penguin edition I have, but it pretty much sums up the book. It reminds me a bit of Armistead Maupin’s Tales of the City except it’s much grittier and much, much more meanspirited… in a good way, I suppose, since Greene’s approach appeals to me more.
Why? I think it has something to do with Greene’s honesty. His mode of observation is quietly empathetic eye, but also mercilessly honest. The result is that his characters are sometimes quite bit stupid, and a bit tawdry, fairly selfish, and often quite sad and broken as human beings, and yet they’re still somehow unremarkable in this, and Greene doesn’t generally seem to judge them too harshly for it, since—one gets the sense—he seems to feel that the human condition is fundamentally one of absurd ridiculousness, and that there’s little we can really do about that. Accepting their flaws and cruelties and failings even as he lays them bare for us to see almost seems to free Greene from feeling any need to pull his punches with them, and likewise from feeling the need to spare us as readers. Greene understands that his readers are likely very flawed, and almost wants to reassure us that our flaws and our brokenness are deeply connected.
I guess that is also to say: for the first time, I can see that Greene really did take Catholic ideas to heart in his writing. I never noticed it much in the other novels of his I’ve read, but in this book, somehow, it is hard to miss. Perhaps it makes sense, given the role of sex and sexuality in these stories, I don’t know.
I find his use of narrative distance from the goings-on fascinating: in just the first few stories, there are multiple seductions, a cheap shot at a lonely old lady with a ridiculously named dog, and a guy who, no kidding, carries a dead baby (his wife’s, but with another man) home on an airplane from France to England in his carry-on luggage as if it were no big deal… “I’ll have to declare it, I acquired it abroad,” he says, as if he were speaking of a handbag, and of course we learn why he’s so cold, and are perturbed by the fact it’s at all understandable he’d be like this.
Greene may be merciless, but often there’s an older male writer in these stories, and truth be told that older male writer often ends up looking anywhere from ridiculous to terrible. Greene doesn’t push this angle too hard, but one gets the sense that he could skewer himself as well as he could anyone.
Now, there are some stories where light and kindness and sympathy wins out, as much as they ever could in a book by Greene: I expected to dislike “A Shocking Accident” (about a man who struggles through life having to deal with people laughing at the story of how his father died—struck by a falling pig in the street one day in Italy), but it’s actually kind of a beautiful depiction of what love can look like when it really works out, and the ending is just gorgeously written. “Cheap in August” is also well-written and heart-wringing and sympathetic more than it is judging: it’s much less a tale of adultery than it is a tale of loneliness, autonomy, and desperation. I was surprised to discover that several of the tales here were adapted for TV, but maybe I shouldn’t be: after all, the majority of Greene’s novels were adapted to film, so why wouldn’t have producers turned to his short stories next?
I did feel a few of the tales are duds, and the “Beauty” especially feels like the elaborate setup for a nasty punchline. A few other stories left me wondering whether I’d missed something. Not all of it has aged particularly well, either, but I found it fascinating to watch Greene work with material that he felt was less “serious” than the stuff of his more “literary” works—”entertainments,” as he called them, even if I had a nagging sense that my time might have been better spent reading one of his more serious novels.