I mentioned, last week, that my imagined audience for “I Liked It: A Series of Blog Posts” is basically my sister if she had a little more time on her hands, not a whole lot, just a little. However this It that I Liked isn’t her bag at all, so instead the imagined audience becomes me from about six months ago, long before I decided on a whim to order and read this volume.
Listen, Jeff of early July 2015. I know your life has changed a lot in the last six years, and I know better than you do how much it’s going to change in the near future. But you’re still the guy who used to amuse himself and to a lesser extent his friends by yammering on Livejournal about role-playing games. About campaign frames that you never used, and about imagined Wikipedia articles for characters you inserted in the history of Xerox, about your penchant for making self-destructive player-characters which sometimes had deleterious effects on other people’s games, about your envy of the caliber of games your friends ran, and about your unceasing chase for the perfect high of a 100% successful game run by you.
You don’t know it, but you are literally the target audience for Dreamhounds of Paris. In theory it’s an adventure scenario, the same general class of product as B2 the Keep on the Borderlands or Alpha Complexities or WEEP. A niche thing, only of interest to people who are a) participating in a Trail of Cthulhu RPG campaign and b) actually running the thing and c) willing to use prepackaged materials rather than build each scenario by hardscrabble scratch uphill both ways. You figure you aren’t in that sub-sub-subcategory of the very specific kind of nerd to whom the GUMSHOE system is meant to appeal. You’re ambivalent about the amount of insider gaming jargon and references you’ve seen tossed around in the last couple of paragraphs. You shouldn’t be.
What Dreamhounds of Paris is:
A timeline of major events of the Surrealist movement (1918-1940)
Biographical sketches of almost two dozen members of the Parisian arts scene of the period, from Salvador Dali to Max Ernst to Kiki de Monteparnasse
An examination of the fantasy fiction of H.P. Lovecraft
A set of guidelines for constructing a Cthulhu-related RPG campaign in which the player-characters are the ones who cause all the terrible problems, instead of the ones who come in afterwards to mop it all up. You set out to destroy and remake the world through glorious Art, and it all comes crashing down and the Nazis occupy Paris. Best-case scenario, you keep the total number of WW2 dead down to “fifty million” instead of “every human being alive,” as the cards predict.
By day they’re drug-addled starving artists who bicker about Stalinism and accuse one another of selling out whenever one of them manages to sell a painting. By night they’re veritable gods, the most powerful dreamers in the Dreamlands, who bicker about Stalinism and raise vast empires to raze one another’s vast empires!
The back-cover copy of Dreamhounds of Paris describes it as the campaign of a lifetime. I doubt I’ll ever run it, but it has a great density of ideas, ideas that are new to me, yet congruent with the kind of stuff I’m into. I mean, come on! Gala Dali, recast as the wisest woman in Europe with a wicked pack of cards! Antonin Artaud, creator of the Theater of Cruelty! That is so far up my alley it’s poking through my back door into my kitchen and getting all up in my stew.
It may turn out to be unplayable, I’ll admit that. Robin Laws ran it for his playtest group, and it may be that the total number of times Dreamhounds of Paris gets run in this world never gets as high as three. A campaign spanning over a decade, with a set end of “and then the Nazis show up as you stand in the wreckage of a low dishonest decade and sob over what you have wrought,” with pregenerated player-characters whose historic records are exceedingly detailed (and who exist in a mileu so sexist and homophobic that it’s almost comical by today’s standards), with only the most tenuous of links to Lovecraft’s more celebrated works (everybody who calls the Dreamlands second-rate are blunt but not wrong)… that’s a hard sell. I read it as a reference piece, as a delightful collection of ideas, to go on my shelf alongside Chuubo’s Marvelous Wish-Granting Engine and Over the Edge.
Side note: one of the 19 surrealist figures written up as pregenerated player-characters is Leonora Carrington, a painter who seemed like an odd choice at first, because a) she was largely incidental to the politics of the Surrealist movement in Paris and b) connected with that, she didn’t arrive in the city until 1936. In terms of the projected three-act arc of the campaign, Leonora is Fortinbras, showing up too late to matter to anyone. I assumed at first she was included because a) she was a woman and there weren’t enough pregenerated PC female characters, and b) her late date of entry makes her suitable as a replacement PC after Artaud goes mad for the last time, or Pablo Picasso is consumed by the King in Yellow and becomes a shroud of lies wrapped in a human costume, or Max Ernst is eaten by ghouls or whatever. Then I did a quick Google Image Search: