I Liked It: The Dreamhounds of Paris
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:
Confidential to myself: the song “The Future, the Boot” by Unwoman.
Now you ask us what did we do
For the revolution today?
We learned when life throws you sarin
To sing a sweet serenade
Suddenly everything depends upon us
We’ll determine whether
Our future is a big boot
Stomping on a human face forever
And if we win will we win
Just the right to our new chosen leader
Or is there something bigger
To believe in to unite us under
It’s inevitable these methods
Decide how our world goes
As falls the king so we know
As we seize the crown so we grow
You know entropy always wins
But what rises from the ruins?
OK, that looks amazing. I totally want to play that game with you. Thanks for bringing it to my attention.
I’ve read complaints that it would be a better fit for a bunch of systems that aren’t Trail of Cthulhu, which I think are valid complaints, but as a thing-to-read the system isn’t quite so important anyways.
That pretty much rings all the bells. I’ve got bookhounds of London and have, of course, done sweet F.A. with it but it is a good read and sounds like this improves on that model even as it narrows focus to pre-gens.
Wyndham Lewis and the Vorticists don’t come up do they? Probably too early.
The book is really focused on the Parisian scene in particular, and there’s a disclaimer about how there are umpteen other artists and scenes in London, New York, Your Hometown, etc., that deserve to be included but that just was not possible.
Wow, this sounds great. How did I not know about this?
I’m just starting a Trail of Cthulhu game. I have no idea what it will end up like, but in my head it is, “Nick and Norah Charles team up with Philip Marlowe to discover horrors that man was not meant to know – and true to form deal with their slow slide into madness by throwing a cocktail party.”
Your review makes me wonder if I’m taking the entirely wrong approach. Thanks for the recommendation!