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The watchtower remains, therefore we shall

next steps divine. To mine the Temple Earth

or brook Water’s rush? Dig shafts vertical

to plumb what yonder pile will not bring forth?

Bending bars and lifting gates only

reveal’d sharp teeth for gnashing delver’s tools

‘gainst serried ranks of men. Verily

those rocks spout spears, arrows that fools

may rush and we, avoid. Now to

the question. Snuff Temple Fire for good,

inhale foul Airs, or consider anew

further depths, great mysteries that could

reveal four pillars’ plateau? Feign

not remorse at yon failure, those watchtower remains.

 

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 Image result for Joc Internacional, catalogthrough 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).

Image result for aquelarre, first editionOne 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.

 

We had a good game last week, first in a while really.  Gathering more than a half dozen adults around a table to do something other than eat, drink, work or watch television is no mean feat.  And it was a good game besides; everyone invested, interested and having a great time!  The previous session hadn’t gone well, so last Wednesday night was a real treat.

As Dungeon Master I feel responsible to the entertainment of my friends, so these sessions, the good and the bad got me thinking.  And it seems to me all of us, yes me but you too, worked hard, felt committed to the game, and something more.  The story.  Lots of words have been let to describe RPGs as storytelling.  Games like Fiasco and Future Shock, Robin Laws recent work all simply and elegantly bring groups to a place where they can tell stories.  But I’m fairly convinced the central driver isn’t the mechanics of the game, but the people playing it, or more to the point how they’ve chosen to play together.  My experience, and if there’s a place I can make that claim it’s here, suggests groups play well when their members strive to-

  1. Guide the narrative, beyond the characters player and non,  the treasures and traps there’s the story.  Death and destruction,  fortune and glory are not assured at this table. What is certain is the chance to discover who we are together, and what we should do.  Let’s each tell our part.
  2. Respect the rules,  for how else here or in any game do we know we’re playing together?   Marking down arrows and hit points lost and gold spent simply and elegantly ensures you and I are telling the same story.  How lonely Lance Armstrong must feel competing all those years by himself..
  3. Maintain focus,  regardless of our desires and intentions only word and deed move this story along.  And we can’t all talk at once.   Let’s attend the story instead,  and give it and who has it now our full attention.
  4. Remember time and place,  be glad for where you are now.  Stories, not characters jump moments and locales.   As you release the narrative for others to carry may it return to you.
  5. Enjoy good company!  Writing and speaking this way brings me joy.  Let’s enjoy the game together.   And should rules stymy us let us change them!

All these elements of course work together.  Remembering you’re character isn’t in the same corridor where your friends currently battle zombies allows you to enjoy the melee and give them the focus they need to maintain a dramatic tone.  Running out of arrows or forgetting to don armor before battle can take a bad turn – or make a real statement.  Think Sel walking into the Temple grounds in a flowing dress surrounded by wolves and followed by an arrow storm.  Fucking cool.  Your oversight just made the story that much better.

Don’t think I as the DM am above this advice.  I cannot enforce these points as a creed; I won’t.  But I will take responsibility for my part.  Here that means returning to adjudicating rules in a combat round or less.  But it also means spending my time to set the scene so everyone can work that time and place into the story.  I also think I’ll keep my liquor until after play on game nights.  Beer makes me slow, and you’re quite the crowd to pursue.

Hopefully you’ll excuse the paucity of this creed, this covenant for play.  I choose my words carefully.  May this note help you better enjoy the game. It isn’t that I cannot tell this story without you.   I cannot tell this story at all.   So let us at it!

Sel, ghost to the ferry’s decks she doth glide

like a deer to the hunters gaze,

alert, awareness full, but dead inside

to the peace of autumns shorten’d days.

Spell book in hand, yet adorned in dolls dresses

whose trains thrash aside the leaves of patchwall

dances she to wrack Cyndor’s pace.  Tresses

long, flailing declaim a tranquil dawn

to life returned.  Must be her dogs of war

doth haunt this very run, past ‘Bonc and Imeryds

way.  Long Nulb’s own creek and frozen bars

have Dain, Cyril and crew puzzl’d her weird

to no refrain.  ‘Tis plain, without a doubt;

to still her hounds, she must get in, to get out!

Planted, firm the halberdiers stood,

a miniature line, prepped and shined

to dull day’s violent breach with steel and wood.

Archers three, strings taught played the second line.

Shafts quarreled thrust tall from the gravel quarry

awaiting bowman’s pluck to sing songs martial.

Midwives strange, the men at arms would dally

not to proof the Ogre’s rush with tactics final.

Mother’s dying cries broke ‘gainst basalt

scarp and roused the astrologer to birth.

Varena Liga, launched into the frays tumult

from malevolent mosaics came forth

a changed man.  A scholar of astral pattern

he would now study blood and iron.

 

 

Tall tales, whiskey and blood doth Mazy’s spray! When clear’d espy those absent of third place; home to Robert Footswift, Bob’s own table. ‘Twixt tankards would spread crimes and plans most foul; were braggards’ left to catch the cutpurse’s pick. Would Bob himself remain to falsify, yet Patchwall’s coming sees none left but porters..

Bear silently your bards acrid tongue!  Well now you’ve burst the sack ‘fore Wenta’s gaze, and what say she?  ‘To lords and land for mercy’ doth cry her dun shirted acolytes to the man.  Welfare welfare you’ll cry, Istus turned north while still you grasp a Commons’ cup.  Adventurer’s, ye!?  Back to stables and pastures with ye then!  Leave my horn alone.

Empty, Bob’s own, you ask thy bard?  As the Porters’ work call fest’s curtain shall I detail this board’s recent hist’ry.  This week did speak of employ lucrative, a dangerous course to move your feet this fall south and east, yeah south and east said they.

And now they’ve gone; flown to, where to?  Know not.
Yet mark the scales of Obad Hai doth settle
in their wake.  They have fled so soon Bob’s
round that still there stands a queue, mettle
and more to test!  Mine own verse to employ
would vanity stand for litmus, but hark!
Criers shriek of robbery in The Quarters, boys
speak of beasts, Ourang-Otans to guard
dark secrets loos’d, river pirates and
sewers stalked.  At Brewfeasts end?  And flown
the coop a Temple Army new!  Forfend,
Pholtus, ‘gainst Syrul’s lies fully sown
across our streets!  Alas the porters’
silence grows more questions than answers.

 

Tall tales, whiskey and blood doth Mazy’s spray! When clear’d espy those drinking at third place; home to Robert Footswift, Bob’s own table. ‘Twixt tankards do spread crimes and plans most foul; those caught bragging catch the cutpurse’s pick. Worse Bob himself may flay standing liars and cheats caught dressing the table in brass; dress your tales plain ‘fore jousting this drake sooth.

Hear now then news from your bards faithful tongue!  Now that gold burst sacks  from  honest work, the fairgrounds neat, stalls pitched and prey espied we might, on this eve of viscount’s tourney turn anxious eyes to fear a Patchwall’s dawn.  Ha ha ha we, rogues, sharpers and robbers all, fear?  Drink!  Devour!  Shoot forth thy sacks bounty on yonder doxy’s rouged and faithless cheeks.  Live!  And to Istus a shill for morrow’s turn.  Still know thou Brewfeasts tithes for drunken turns; Trithereon’s week shows poorly Wenta’s flow’ring, and poor delvers are turn’d ‘way first at Needfest.

Well now fear not, pick not thy true bard!  Hear ye now promising news of employ.  Has it sooth patrons few a plan; a project lucrative and dangerous.  Adventure, southern and east of Hommlet, east of Hommlet say I this humble bard!  Dip now tankards full and toast to pleasure, and realize,

Small pieces and patience mend broken walls,
with flocks of strong hands working the pace.
Patient Cyril does promise together on call
a company to work that wretched space
while Rufus works practice martial anew,
turning eyes and minds in the aging sun.
Dain tinkers scrap through word and gift into
cuirass and greave in prime condition.
Long tales share secrets in summer’s twilight
through amber ales to dungeons sealed
by might and sacrifice true, lifting night
that cooks and squires take right to field
phalanxes strong. A temple army, forsooth
to rend winters sinful silence with truth!

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