Tuesday, 22 March 2016

The City Of Lights: A Bearded Quail Travelogue

The view from the front door of our AirBNB.
Another adventure is at an end and Sister Superior and myself must return to work after a week off which included a journey to Paris.  Like our trip to Manchester last year, this ended up alternating between me satisfying my geeky urges and the missus satisfying her more glam interests.

A giant sized make-up shop.  It still didn't have the Sephora-made items she wanted, though.

Trips to museums, shops, archaeological sights and Disneyland turned up a host of interesting pictures for our collection.  Oh, and pictures of tartan shortbread boxes in Disneyland Paris.  Obviously.

He probably thinks he's got a great-great-grandfather who was a Scottish laird, the bloody Yank.
 Now, I know you're all of far too quiet and tender a disposition to hear about the primary reason for our visit - no, Dita Von Teese taking off her clothes and prancing around the Crazy Horse cabaret club isn't going to be your bag.  Even if it was, it isn't really within the purview of this blog, so we're compelled to move past it.

And definitely not include a gratuitous picture.
Instead we're going to give you the kind of article you expect - commentary on an excellent gaming shop I visited as well as some mixed RPG/wargaming thoughts brought about by the things I saw and did on my trip.

And definitely no more gratuitous pictures of barely clothed ladies.

Somewhere I was determined to visit after seeing their website.
 Game shop wise, I have only positive things to say about Jeux Descartes.  Located a short walk away from Notre Dame cathedral on the south side of the river, this two story shop had a fantastic selection of products across the gaming genres.  The ground floor seemed mainly to be card games and traditional game, with the primary RPG and wargaming selections held downstairs.  My very limited French combined with the staffs friendly nature and grasp of English meant I was able to do business here perfectly well.

From an RPG point of view, I was interested to see what games were present.  Notable selections of Cthulhu, Pathfinder and White Wolf were present in translated editions and I was surprised to see a fair selection of English books (mainly Pathfinder) also present.  Miniatures wise they had a good Warhammer selection and some home-painted armies on display including a very nice Warhammer 40,000 Sisters of Battle army with some conversions that betrayed it was a labour of love.

Despite being below ground, the lower level was still quite bright and did not have that distinctive "gamer store funk".
When it came to board and card games there were some surprises - games I had never heard of, including an amusing one in which one had a literal translation of an English word into French and you had to work out what concept it was trying to describe.  Some of the titles of recognisable games were interesting just to see how they wrestled with concepts and puns that didn't translate well - Munchkin 3 Clerical Errors, I'm looking at you!

RPG wise I didn't see many games I hadn't heard of, though the one I did would have almost certainly been picked up if it hadn't been a 50 euro boxed game.  That game was Bimbo, an unashamedly Grindhouse RPG
for people who want to roleplay something with the gonzo silliness and low cut tops of Death Proof - or, perhaps for the more retro inclined of you, the films of Russ Meyer.

I'm actually really glad to know that the French, asked to write their own RPG, made something so very.... very... French.

The day this gets an English translation will be a fine day indeed.

There was actually some product I had my eye on buying but, alas, it wasn't in stock the day I visited.  That game is one which, while written in America and set in Britain, is one that is based on source material with a strong French connection.

It's also a game I'm not playing right now but would like to again soon.

Any guesses?

I may have failed but I still got my 100 Glory for trying.
Yes, that's right, King Arthur Pendragon has a French edition.  It's the same mechanics as the version I play but the French books have their own art which.... with the utmost respect to Greg Stafford... are substantially better than the Anglophone style!  Even the Character Sheet, while recognisable, manages to have a bit more European class.

Even the titles of the books are a bit more evocative - the functions Book of Knights and Ladies is not translated directly but instead called La Rose & l'Épée.

The item I'd really like to get is the GM Screen.  At least.... I think it's a GM screen?  It's so very pretty, though!

And learning to read the back of it might be a useful incentive to pick up some foreign language skills.
Without Pendragon to pick up I just got some more dice.  Dice are never a bad thing.  Some pretty marbled dice and some white/red and white/blue D6s have been added to the bags of dice lying around the Quailcave.
Sister Superior has bagsied the red/white and black/white D20s.
What follows is a more schizophrenic random collection of thoughts based on some of the stuff I saw.  This is going to be a mixed bag of geeky inspiration from the things that caught my eye on my trip, so apologies if it makes even less sense than usual.

I can't really imagine this in a family comedy starring Eddie Murphy.

Disney Parks have a tradition of featuring a haunted house-style ride, The Haunted Mansion.  Located in the sort of western/early American style area, I haven't been to the the one in Florida for over fifteen years but as I recall it somewhat more comedic than truly scary.  Yes, there are ghosts but the whole thing is slightly more anarchic than anything else.

The Paris one, however, has much more of a gothic horror vibe to proceedings.  The dialogue is mostly in French so it wasn't until I got home and looked up Phranom Manor on Wikipedia that I could really get the background explained. Despite that, however, the basics are pretty clear from the visuals in which a ghostly or skeletal figure walks around in a bridal dress while around her ghosts host some sort of spectral wedding party.  There is more than a little of Miss Havisham to proceedings and even the finale strikes a much more horror movie tone than the playful style of the other parks.

I really want to do some sort of Wedding themed ghost story now.  It's not quite as bad as ghost children but I think it's pretty creepy a concept.

"But don't tell the boys. This is our secret girl plan."
Both Sister Superior and I were drawn towards this picture in the Musee d'Orsay, which claims to be a Toulouse-Lautrec painting of a lady in a black boa but looks surprisingly like Missy from Doctor Who found time to pose for a portrait for a French master in-between one of her dimensional conquest plans.  That's not exactly new to Doctor Who, anyway, so why should only heroes have the fun?

One of the advantages of a time travel game is being able to use all sorts of props and paint them in weird new lights.  In a sort of Back To The Future meets The Da Vinci Code, what if there are time travelling parties encoding messages in art works - what if someone stuck on 15th century Earth tries to use classic artworks to send coded messages back in time?  Either through symbology or something as simple as "paint something that will become apparent when the painting is X-Rayed", an adventure might start when a team at La Louvre find GPS co-ordinates on a renaissance masterwork

Perhaps a noteworthy sculpture is destroyed before it's time and the group must try to recreate it to prevent a time paradox, meaning that the statue everyone has admired for centuries is actually a fake the PCs made in their shed; or the original model is a noble the player is impersonating, which means they accidentally end up being the face immortalised for generations as that of Elizabeth I or Benedict Arnold.

Finally, don't forget that these ancient paintings will still be sloshing around in the future.  Both Star Trek and Doctor Who have shown us centuries or millenias passing yet paintings we could recognise are still famed - what if the plot isn't about the Mona Lisa or The Scream in 2016 but in 2416, 10,116 or even 40,916?  Imagine how much a millennia-old Salvidor Dali would go for if it was the subject of a bidding war between House Atredies and House Harkonnen...

They're Not Listening Still.... Perhaps They Never Will?
Not long after noticing this painting our wander in the same museum came to a painting which in fact had featured in Doctor Who.   Not that I remember, because it was definitely not an episode I cried at.

<sniff>  Sorry, a lot of dust in the room there.

Moving swiftly on...

Major terrain envy.
Something else at the Musee D'Orsay was this rather epic model of the Paris Opera House.  My picture on my phone doesn't really do this justice - this was a huge and highly detailed piece showing the entrance, auditorium, stage, backstage and various other details to the level of an architectural model.  A trip online will turn up larger scale pictures in which you can see how bloody huge the thing is - it's almost two and a half meters high for one thing!

Models like this always give me a bit of a terrain building bug and all those stairwells, staff passageways and attic spaces with theatre gizmos make me think about my long standing plan to build a starship to play 40K boarding actions with.

This goes on for quite some length.  Click to embiggen and make out individual skulls and femurs.
The big tourist attraction that Sister Superior wanted to visit this time was the Paris Catacombs - we booked our tickets in advance and our first full day saw us arrive right at opening to get in straight away. 

Obviously not for the squeamish, this network of tunnels forms a colossal ossuary in which over six million bodies are located acting as a sort of overflow for when the early modern period saw the surface gravesites unsafe to use.  Stone signs at various places note which specific graveyards were decanted here, every corpse therein anonymously piled up with peasants beside artists and soldiers besides doctors. 

We paid extra for the audio guide which included some amazing stories , including a tale of an 1897 concert held amongst the bones in which an orchestra performed funeral dirges and requiems -  Sister Superior loved the part where a period chronicler noted that the attendees "even included some intrepid ladies", something she'd like to hope she'd have been.  That description reminded me of an RPG I recently read titled: Being a role-playing game on the topic of the High-Flying adventures of Beatrice Henrietta Bristol-Smythe, DBE, daring Aviatrix and accomplished Exploratrix, and her Gentleman Companion, who for a Modest Fee, accompanies Beatrice Henrietta Bristol- Smythe, DBE, when the Occasion warrants her an Escort 

The skulls are in varying conditions - some have a thin layer of mould growing on them.
The corridor's small height - at various points even a modest 5'10" tall Quail was having to stoop a bit - reminds one that people in Ye Olden Days were smaller and that dungeon crawls are dark, damp and cramped affair.  Never imagine you're just walking down an underground corridor in D&D - you're probably walking down a rough stone passage with limited visibility and the occasional drip splashing on your forehead.

For wargaming, the Catacombs was an inspiration heavy environment.  I appreciate this may seem a bit trite since Warhammer and Games Workshop have a bit of a reputation when it comes to skull imagery which they overuse to extremes.  I mean, when even your generic wargame board has skulls moulded onto it, you have to admit you've got a problem.  Still, it's true that the skulls when used properly can add a certain gothic motif that clearly marks 40K as different from other sci-fi games.  In a Warhammer 40K RPG I ran, had the caved-in skull of a saint feature as a relic on display in a church and I feel that sent a key message to the players of "remember this is the middle ages with semi-automatic weaponry".

I can definitely forsee using plastic skulls and my moulding gear to make Ossuary walls - perhaps the square bases by Micro Art Studios for speed, or go really arty and manually built up a wall with loose skulls and bones before cloning.  If the cloning doesn't work perfect.... well, good, because the skulls are hundreds of years old and will include a bunch of smashed and mangled bones.   I could either build a sort of room - maybe a church building with painted interior - or perhaps some passageways for that earlier mentioned starship could take on a somewhat morbid motif?

Quite a few nerd fetishes are represented in this picture.
The many and varied Disney characters were present alongside each other in Disneyland Paris - including some slightly obscure ones, like the kittens from the Aristocats who are of course French and thus probably popular locally.  I'd be lying if I said I wasn't miffed that Tron got functionally no coverage while there was merchandise for such disastrous films as The Long Ranger and Tomorrowland available...

Anyway, this reminded of an RPG of mine which has been fallow for a while.  The League of Animated Gentlemen, one of those fevered ideas that comes to you when you're bored at work, is a game in which my players take on the role of various cartoon actors who live in a world in which all animated stories are true and they are the British Government's elite response team to weird stuff.  (So think Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, with more cartoons & puppet shows but WAAAAAAAAAAY less rape.)

My first adventure saw Baron Greenback of Danger Mouse turn the Care Bears into beastly Were Care Bears with assistance from General Woundwort from Watership Down, made humanoid by the ooze from Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles.  The second escape saw the horde from She-Ra try to invade Earth, first enslaving the Clangers on the moon and necessitating they be chased back to Etheria with help from Mighty Max's hat and Jamie's Magic Torch.

If this sounds stupid to you... then you're probably quite normal.  If this sounds awesome, then you should give me a shout because I fancy running it again.  :-D

Possibly Sister Superior's favourite part of the park.
As you can imagine the busy items at the park often include those which are most recent or whose films are most popular - Frozen stuff always had a big queue, for example.  This model Nautilus from 20,000 Leagues under the Sea was pretty empty... but it's no wonder it survives here when similar items are gone from the other Disney Parks, what with it's creator Jules Verne being a Frenchman who pretty much invented the whole Science Fiction shebang.

Not a ride but an actual model ship you explore inside - including a window that opens to reveal the Kraken outside - the Nautilus is a delight for the steampunk enthusiast.  Steampunk is a genre I've never gamed - maybe I should change that?  I've been interested in Space: 1889 before and have talked to my chums about what a World War 1 esque superhero game would look like.

Trust the French.
This is actually a pretty faithful rendition of Lancelot's coat of arms.  That sort of thing gets a nod of approval from this hairy Scotsman.

I got nothing.
The Crazy Horse has one cubicle with two toilets.  Apparently the owner, frustrated at women always going off to the bathroom in pairs, decided he'd made a double toilet for them.  Sister Superior assumed this was some sort of myth but, true enough, she saw it with her own eyes and took a photo of it. 

This isn't really geeky inspiration but the missus insisted that you'd all find this as funny as we did.

Now, what IS geeky is two things which France is famous for - and which fantasy/sci-fi worldbuilders perhaps don't think about enough when they're creating their own nations and peoples.  The last two pictures mention those things and I dare you to try and describe France, Germany, Japan, Saudi Arabia, United States of America or wherever without mentioning these two concepts pretty high up.

Thing One

The first concept is food. Anyone who travels to a foreign country will mention the unique foods and drinks they had there - or the items they didn't have which surprised them.  The above picture is from the restaurant we went to on the last night, Au petit Sud Ouest which specialised in Duck - a meat you rarely see in the UK.  Indeed, in a French supermarket I found more Duck and Rabbit available than I did Pork which bamboozled me but clearly there's different cultural priorities at work.  (And that's before you get into more "weird" French food animals like Frogs, Snails and Horses...)

When you describe a foreign land in your RPGs or what have you, the strange smells of the local foodstuffs needs to factor in.  In Traveller, on the hive world Kline, we made a point of talking about how rubbish the restaurants in the working class area were because importing real meat and vegetables was expensive so they mostly survived on artificial nutrients.  When my D&D game first took the players to the China equivalent, it wasn't long before they were nosing through the food and noting that the more expensive dishes eschewed meat so clearly the culture had some sort of "thing" about dead flesh being dirty. 

If your players go to a tavern and find the locals of Exampla don't drink wine because grapes can't grow in the weather but have easy access to spirits, you've laid down a small but important part of the culture which immediately gives clues as to other parts of their society and possibly even adventure hooks.  (Could we make money by importing wine to Exampla?  Can we identify an off-worlder on Kline by the smell of real bacon from his sandwich?)

The other thing...

Thing Two
No, bear with me!  This isn't a gratuitous excuse for a titty lady picture!

The other thing is sex and gender.  Remember that big list of countries up earlier on?  Try to describe how they differ from your own without at some point mentioning sex and gender as a key defining trait.  The Swedish sexual equality is a key aspect of their culture and an undercoat by which a lot of other stuff about them makes sense, just like the Japanese fetish for youth to the point of considering women over twenty five "old maids" is a key element in grasping how they view other things.  The passe attitude French have to sex, to the point where they don't talk about "first dates" but "first sex", says a lot about how they view the world and you won't be able to recreate France without taking that into account.

Very few RPGs take much time to talk about this, either skimming sex completely or only nodding in the most cursory ways. Blue Rose got a lot of attention on release a decade ago as being "the gay game" - the default lands of the players characters are ones where homosexuality and to a lesser extent polyamory are considered totally normalised.  Sex only tends to come up in somewhat more prurient games and jokes about Grease spells are more likely in those books than a serious analysis of whether Goblins practice monogomy.

What sort of clothes are considered "erotic" could vary wildly between species as well.  My D&D Arabic-esque culture considered the mouth the most erotic part of the body and demure ladies would walk about in bikinis but veiled faces.
As a rule, RPGs tend to duck gender issues completely - players don't like being told they can't be a Female Paladin or whatever, with games like Pendragon actually rare for forcing the medieval culture split between genders complete with some very different skills between the two.  I understand the reason for this - to prevent the problems that the -4 Str meme generates and to allow players to play whatever character type they want - but surely there are more interesting things you can do than just ignore the question entirely?

I think this is even more notable in science fiction, where species who evolved from races other than humans could have inherited sexual and gender relationship dynamics totally different to us.  In our Traveller game, I played the dog-descended Vargr as having something of a "dominance mounting" behaviour which other species might parse as "homosexual" or "kinky" but is something they perceive as totally separate to sex with someone you love.  The Droyne, a race with six castes/genders which each have a role within society, were said to handle identifying as a different caste to the one you were born to as a taboo akin to being transgender with conservative Droyne insisting "You can't CHOOSE to be a Warrior!" or "If it doesn't lay eggs, it isn't really a Drone."

If you're inventing a culture and it has children at any point, then pro tip - THESE PEOPLE ARE DOING THE NASTY.  You need to give some thought as to how they are doing it and what role the genders have.  Maybe your cat-people practice sex acts in front of their family and friends, with "secretive" sex acts that have no spectators a social faux pas.  Maybe your Gibbon-descended humanoids have women who are a foot taller than the men, though the men still have more muscle mass so they tend to make better soldiers.  Your Dwarfs could be carving all their children from stone they magically enchant and have no generative organs, making them view Humans as positively bestial for rutting like a farm animal.  Your female warrior clan might practice Spartan-style homosexual relationships between soldiers, but it's something of an open secret and no-one ever admits it because they would be hounded out by their colleagues even though everyone else is as it too.

Basically, never forget your fictional characters have a stomach and also have naughty bits.  You don't need to go into gory detail, but remember that they're probably using them off-screen and build your world accordingly.

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