The last time I corresponded with Dustin Smith at Chaosium about translating Aquelarre into English was 2009. My opinion, “let’s either find an easy way to make money of this sleeping dog or else let it lie!”
I translated Aquelarre into English back in the early 90’s, mainly to keep up the Spanish I had learned living a year in Madrid (where I found the first, beautiful edition by Joc). Lester’s review in Dragon had really pissed me off, dismissing an historically accurate game for nothing more than cultural bias. I grant you, publishing a game in the early ’90s featuring a spell to summon Satan himself through the sacrifice of an infant, would garner some attention. Imagine the publicity, I would tell Petersen at Chaosium, Steve Jackson at Jackson Games while shoving my translation into their hands. But collectible card games were all the rage back in 1995, and no one really noticed another swords and sorcery RPG, regardless of the spell system.
Since the last drunken brawl where I hosted the game Aquelarre it has changed ownership a number of times, from Ricard at Joc Internacional to Pandora, then Ediciones Crom, before lurching into oblivion. Copyright works a little differently in Spain, it seems to revert back to the author. Despite this legal jumble they and subsequent publishers Leviatham and Nosolorol have generated at least thirty odd supplements and rulebooks for the game over a twenty year period, nearly giving RIFTS a run for its money. But all of that seemed a world away back then. I translated the first edition, failed to sell it, passed off the additional manuscripts and went on with my life. I moved onto other games, and the slow realization that real life is in fact more challenging and fulfilling than any dungeon crawl. But the game would keep coming back in the strangest places. Such potential, such a hassle to get there – in English.
The translation of Nosolorol’s Third Edition by Lester Smith and subsequent marketing by Martin Weick deserve applause. Many bilingual gamers have toyed with Google Translate and their own language skills to bring out the game in English. But it requires some discernment and experience to realize that Aquelarre needs special treatment to thrive on North American soil. One battlefield invocation required shouting Latin gibberish at the enemy while dousing them in the blood of tortured man and rubbing the amputated limbs of a dead baby. As Clem Barstow recently explained in Hopes and Fears North American gamers have had their characters do some pretty twisted shit since Day 1. Lester Smith’s rationale involving “our” puritanical roots never sat well with this Irish ex-Catholic.
No, the challenges presented by translating Aquelarre into English are cultural and historical – how to bring the Weltanschauung of a particular moment in Iberian history to life. I haven’t read the third edition, but correspondence with Alabak de Alderaan and others suggests the Spaniards themselves have made progress in the third edition. As the ‘other’ translator and one of a few to have played Aquelarre in English I will use the game description from the back cover of the Joc edition to detail what we can expect from the expert treatment only industry veterans like Lester Smith and Martin Weick can provide.
1. Let the Historical Pageant Begin
“The place, the Iberian peninsula. The time, the second half of the fourteenth century. Five kingdoms, Castile, Aragon, Granada, Navarre and Portugal, live constantly on the edge of war and intrigue, each trying its best to outwit the other. Two kingdoms, Aragon and Castile, have been at war for decades, each one secure in the knowledge that with the grace of God it will become the supreme power in the land. It’s the lower Middle Ages, an age of disasters, an age of passing, of strong lords, rebellious peasants, prejudice and enlightenment.”
If you haven’t studied medieval history, but have imbibed the products of George RR Martin’s retirement plan, you’ll readily grasp the chaos and complexity of Spain in the Lord’s year 1350. No, winter would come and go, but imagine a plague killing NINETY FUCKING PERCENT OF THE POPULATION.. IN THE MIDDLE OF A CIVIL WAR!! Unlike George Nocturnal Media can and should simply pillage Aquelarre’s extensive back catalog to recreate the historical moment. The details Iberian history cannot provide – the street layout of Leon or Oviedo for example, or the persona dramatis of Peter the Cruel’s court – have ostensibly already been catalogued by our fellow Spanish gamers. As interest grows in the game expect to see this history, and I do mean all the applicable facts come to life.
2. Don’t Mess with the Magic..
“But the history books lied to us. There is another world, older and by far more savage than the petty cruelties of Man. A world of fantasy and legend, of magic and madness, deeply hidden in dark wilderness from the prying eyes of the rational. A world nonetheless capable of invading, by night and by dream, the new cities of Man. We speak not here of simple magics and desires, but of feits that bring endless power, of spells that rend the basic fabric of ones sanity, of inhuman servants, sexual acts of uncompromising fulfillment. Here we speak of darkness, here we speak of the Devil.”
Oh boy that’s right; they said sex. And though the magic system isn’t pornographic it’s accurate rendering of medieval magic, and population of scary monsters and super freaks from Iberian myth and legend deserve faithful treatment. To ask if North American gamers are ready to summon Lucifer by sacrificing an infant is besides the point. It isn’t that either English or Spanish speaking players are hopelessly relativistic and amoral. But this game takes narrative role play to another level of moral discussion. If we can arm gamers with all the accoutrements to enact Evil, how can we then avoid provisioning them to enact Good? Apparently the Third Edition has some “Divine Magic” clerics of the various faiths can cast. If the Spaniards haven’t I pray Nocturnal Media also requisitions a good list of Angels and Saints for adventurers to call if they need a hand.
(Oh, and don’t worry – although drawn from actual descriptions of medieval magic your kids can’t use the stuff in Aquelarre to do anything more than scare each other. Authors exclude the language and visual components that in legend comprised most of any given spell. The kids will be fine, and probably better off than spending another moment playing Call of Duty..)
3. .. But Please Improve the Mechanics!
“With AQUELARRE you will live adventures precariously balanced between two worlds; in a land forgotten by the scholastics and history books alike, but nonetheless illustrated in hundreds of songs and legends. All you need to play is book one (Aquelarre) and a set of polygonal dice.”
Well, not exactly. While the magic came straight out of the Wolfsthurn Manual the rest of the system left something to be desired. To call it a derivative of BRP insults the august nature of that system. The First Edition rules were uninspired, borrowing dribs and drabs from BRP and GURPS, and in the process mounting a roll play experience that was pretty forgettable. Ballistics were a nightmare. And while the character classes, beginning monies, and skill sets hinted at the rigid social structure of the Lower Middle Ages the first three books provided precious few opportunities to explore that structure and its resulting narrative tensions in detail (see my first point).
One game mechanic I pray Nosolorol either reformed or banished was the Rationality measure. Based loosely on CoC’s Sanity, Rationality ostensibly factored how faithful, loyal and reasonable your character remained after encounters in that “dark wilderness.” The more “irracional” you became, the better able your character became at casting spells, but they may have to avoid churches. Honestly the measure always annoyed me. We understand Rationality in English as an intellectual practice of rigorous logical deduction from first principles. Few people still really exercise this faculty, programmers and lawyers notwithstanding. And while a historical subtext exists pitting the Aristotelian, erudite Catholicism of medieval Rome against the older Mozarab influenced Iberian christianity, opportunities to explore it with your Jewish scribe or Muslim merchant character seem rather limited. Nocturnal may see fit to simply substitute Sanity, but I feel this would simply gloss a deeper problem in the narrative development of a character’s psychology. I look forward to seeing how Nosolorol addresses this ‘issue.’
Conclusion: With All Due Respect
…And so the vampires ride, freely mingling with the White Company that will sack Castile; The Lobisome howls in Galicia, while ghouls ply the tombstones like dark snakes in the land once called Al-Andalus. Lamias haunt ill used roads, waiting to devour the unwary. Peter the Cruel conspires in lofty castles with the Black Prince of Wales, conspiracies that may just cost him throne and soul alike…
And the Devil laughs, while his mages prepare the AQUELARRE!
I feel now the same rush reading the back cover of that first edition I did then. This wasn’t just the Succubus of the Monster Manual, or the terror of the Corbitt House in Call of Cthulhu. Mix these with the opening strings of Die Valkure, or Sammy Hagar’s Heavy Metal and history of this magnitude becomes pure gaming nitro. I pray most fervently the publishers respect the spirit of the game for this reason. The many dark conflicts, and yes heartwarming examples of cooperation and cultural diversity all deserve respectful treatment. Arabic or Galician, Jewish or Muslim, Catholic of the highest Aristotelian order or Mozarab parish priest the possible religions, languages and roles your character may inhabit are vast; their transgression at the hands of political and ecclesiastical authority, merciless. It was at this point in European history people really began transcending their homelands, village faiths and mother tongues to see a larger world, and behold its diversity and complexity. According to history this didn’t end well for the Diversity side. But maybe, just maybe there was another world, your imagination, where those of the Old Faith still find a home in Asturias, a place where Muslims, Jews and Christians peacefully if inventively coexist, a place where even Peter the Cruel can improve.
I have a lot of respect for the achievements of Lester Smith and Martin Weick. You couldn’t really find a better duo to bring this fascinating game to English speaking gamers. Expect improvements, faithful rendering of the games better features and a respect for Iberian peoples and history from these two.