So the problem with a surrealist rpg translated from a foreign language is cardiac dishwasher happenstance.
Itras By is a Norwegian Surrealist RPG recently translated into English. It takes place in the city of Itras, a place created by collaboratively by players and game fiction with echoes of imagined 1920’s and 1930’s imagery.
In some ways I have to back slowly into this, with the clear note that this is a reading review. I’ve always been fascinated by Surrealism in all its forms-- from the accessible of Magritte, to the political of Breton, to the off-putting of Peret, even to the simple absurdity of the Marx Brothers' Duck Soup. The concept of surrealism covers a good deal of ground. The Surrealists themselves- Ducanp, Ernst, etc- engaged hugely in gameplay as a means to exploding rational throughout and reaching the underground of real meaning. Alastair Brotchie’s Surrealist Games is an excellent primer looking the many kinds of games they played and produced: Automatic Writing, Exquisite Corpse, Collages, Analogy Cards and many others. You can see the influence of surrealism in other rpgs. It had a literal application in Atlas Games’ Weather the Cuckoo Likes for Over the Edge. The forthcoming Dreamhounds of Paris for Trail of Cthulhu will be the first game sourcebook truly integrating the surrealists themselves.
That being said, I think Itras By falls into the category of surrealist-light. It is weird, powered by imagination,throws together strange bits, but still maintains a core of coherence. It doesn’t fully disrupt the limits of the structure. A few of the details hint at that, like the meta-fictional NPC in the text, who like Robert "Doc" Cross recognizes his position as a character in a book. Itras By seems more like works of the Uncanny (ala Ligotti), Magical Realism, or the metafictions of Borges or Pavic. It showcases an rpg take on the “New Weird” as coined by VanderMeer.
And that’s a great and interesting thing- but really one course of the surrealist conception- and not the radically liberating one. I just want to be clear. I'm name-dropping here not to be an arrogant jerk, but more to demonstrate that I'm sympathetic to the intent of this story rpg.
I was given a free copy of the new English-language pdf. The original volume came out in 2008, but this version has a higher page-count at 233 vs. 151. The layout’s well done- clean and clear. The page edges are beautiful. The artwork throughout is excellent and evocative. It really fits with the material and often directly shows the imagery presented in the text. The writing is good, but…
…I came up short in several places where the phrasing seemed wrong. Some felt like an odd idiom choice, but others like a word-choice error. There are some errors (numbers given wrong, rules cited as already given when they haven’t appeared yet…). But I can’t tell in some of those cases if those “errors” are deliberate or not. None of them break things, they just make it slightly more confusing, which may have been the intent of the original text. Or it could be the difficulty of translating something like this; I tried translating poetry before, that’s not an easy task.
Itras By jumps right into the setting of the game, the eponymous city. There’s an abstract two-page discussion of the theme of the game, but instead of setting the stage we’re thrown through the curtains. The authors imply, and I think rightly, their target audience is experienced gamers. That will be worth keeping in mind when we hit the rules sections.
But first we have a little over 80 pages presenting our strange and wondrous city. It is a place isolated without people acknowledging the isolation. Black ships come from across the sea to deliver goods, but no one from Itras By has ever gone there. Walk far enough into the wilds and reality itself starts to crumble and drift. Think Dark City, think City of Lost Children, think Perdido Street Station- but then clean them up. At the heart of all of those weird place movies and stories is a griminess, dirt and grue, and the potential awfulness of a Burroughs fever-dream. Itras By isn’t like that. It has a strange historical vision- idealized borrowings from the 20’s and 30’s. Futurism, pulpish tropes, and the uncanny win out over the truly horrific. The few places and details which are gruesome work because they’re rarer than one might expect in a 21st Century game of the strange.
There’s a clue to tone and openness of the presentation in the incredibly sketchy map of the city- detailing only the districts relation to one another. Each of these is covered in its own section- with a brief general statement about the atmosphere followed by discussions of various people, places, and things appearing therein. This is all GM and player-facing material- inviting both to think about the implications of the concepts from Talking Apes to the sitters in the Park of Tears to Radio Downtown to Mr. Mogen’s Monster. Several sidebars suggest cut-up and freewriting approaches to the material: crossing out sections, taping over bits, and so on. These hint at the classic surrealist collage techniques- though I have a hard time imagining a gamer actually doing that to a copy…
While the rules for Itras By are actually fairly simple, the gaming section runs from 87-190. It begins by setting up the character creation system, which is entirely descriptive. The book refers to nine parts of the process a couple of times, but only offers eight. Character building is collaborative. Most of the steps involve telling the story of your character. The closest to a “mechanical” element comes where you define a dramatic quality (like a power or ability) and the four intrigue magnets, which might be better seen as plot hooks. The setup is loose. The rules suggest that overly powerful dramatic qualities be balanced, but there’s only minimal guidance on that. There’s a decent selection of sample dramatic qualities- though many are really narrow and character unique. The sample characters and their richness offer examples at once intriguing and intimidating.
The next section covers roleplaying and it has some oddness to it. It moves between an assumption of experience with playing such games and a discussion of basic concepts. I suspect the latter may be aimed at players coming from more traditional games. However, I have a hard time imagining them making it to here at all. The discussion borrows a good deal from improvisational theory (and specifically mentions Graham Walmsley's Play Unsafe. However the chapter also talks about the use of the resolution cards in the system (“You remember how the cards work.”) However those rules aren’t actually introduced until the next chapter. I ended up going back and skimming the material again to see if I’d missed something crucial.
Those cards form the backbone of dealing with conflicts in the game. As with many indie and story games, tested resolution is actually relatively rare. Most conflicts can be negotiated or narrated out. Simple checks don’t occur. Power is heavily shared between the GM and player here- with both allowed to introduce new elements and decide things. The GM sets some of the structure and begins and ends scenes. But at dramatic points the player will need to check to see how fate has treated their action.
In this case they draw a card. They have eight possible results. Three different forms of “Yes, but…,” and then five other results: “Yes, and…,”“No, but…,” “No, and…,” “Help is needed,” “Yes, but only if…”. The player does not draw the card but instead nominates the GM or another player to do so. They read aloud the card and decide on the interpretation. The system suggests that players not invoke more than one card per scene and not draw until the fallout from a previous card has been resolved. The book offers a few examples of what these resolutions look like. A second set of complimentary “Chance” cards exist. Each player may draw up to one per session. Once drawn these have to be worked into the situation. Cards include ideas like “Reality Split,” “Rumor Mill,” and “Two News.”
The game overall is fluid- a shared conversation which can go forward or back in time, switch locations, and invoke high strangeness. This means the GM’s role is more open- setting up ideas and events rather than directing a course. There’s some interesting and general GM advice given- including how to create a campaign. Several sample campaigns appear, but these are rather short. They give me a sense of what a game might actually look like, but I’ll admit none of them really grabbed me. They’re clever but narrow concepts. I think that may be part of the problem of the game- it invites such openness that anything limiting that feels like it doesn’t quite live up to the potential. The last part of the book revisits the material presented in the earlier city description. This offers twists, secrets, and hooks for most of the earlier ideas. That’s a nice touch and perhaps best read as an example for how a GM might change up these concepts. There’s also a sample scenario which, while interesting, requires knowledge of the setting. At least at first read it doesn’t seem like a great way to introduce a group cold. You’d want players who had read at least the first chapter of the rules.
I enjoyed reading Itras By- it reminded me quite a bit of Ben Lehman’s Polaris and John Wick’s Thirty. If you enjoy Story Games you’ll find much to like here. It is worth reading for concepts and ideas. I’ll likely steal a good deal of the imagery to use in Changeling the Lost. I like the card mechanics- I’m glad I didn’t read this before I built our own card-based homebrew as it might have shifted that in a more abstract direction. I can imagine hacking those systems for quick story-based pick-up games. If there’s a real fault to the game, beyond the editorial issues, I would say that it doesn’t do a great job early on of telling the reader what the players actually do in the game. But that may be a hobby-horse for me.
Will I actually run it? I don’t think so. There a risk of creating an open-ended game like this, relying on dream imagery. If I wanted to do that, I’d probably build something from the ground up reflecting the kinds of symbols and dream material I carry around. That would be less work in some ways than trying to build a solid sense of this city which feels unique and the product of sharp, smart and well-defined sensibilities. Still the games worth reading and much, much more interesting than any number of rpgs I’ve read that also didn’t push me to running them.
Itras By on RPGNow