Thursday, August 11, 2011

The Secret Fire: More Than Meets The Eye

I'm a sucker for weirdness. Weird people, weird clothes, weird books, weird movies, weird music, weird circumstances--heck if it's strange and different and in some way slightly magical I'm intrigued. You've got me. I'm hooked. At least for awhile. Alot of weird things in life are just transient phenomena. Style shifts, fads, overreaching, poor imitations at creativity, shallow, bad interpretation, faulty sensors or basically not at all weird upon second look. And then there's real weirdness. I'm not sure I've blogged about it much, but I am an amateur paranormal investigator, and an open minded skeptic. In fact I sort of subscribe to the Zetetic philosophy where such phenomena occur. I also hold some rather unconventional beliefs about role playing games that I don't talk alot about, well ... 'cause they're weird. And not everyone likes weird like I like weird. Weird can be a little scary to some people. Who'm I kidding? It's scary to me sometimes. At any rate, this may seem like a weird introduction to a role playing game shout out, but it actually fits. 'Cause "Secret Fire" is more than passing strange.

First this little post is just that, a shout out. I haven't purchased the game yet, so I can't give it a proper review. I'm going strictly on the hype, what others are saying and what comes from George Strayton's website. But this is what I take away from the game concept. First, the mechanics are touted as being based on encouraging roleplaying within the game. Which sounds like a cool concept. This is mainly accomplished via energy points which are gained as you get into your character. For those who may find it difficult players are given lines to recite when they attack or defend. Certain keywords or phrases in a description let others in the group know exactly to what you are referring. An example from the site reads,

--Dave shouts out, “Using my muscular strength, I slash at the Goblin with my longsword Garm’s Tooth, landing a serious blow for 10 points of damage! I finish the attack by slamming my shoulder into the Goblin’s chest, knocking it to the ground!”--

The template for such actions is described on the character sheet as,

"Using my (ability descriptor) (ability), I (landing/inflicting/etc.) a (damage descriptor) (blow/fireball/etc.) that inflicts (X) damage and (additional energy point effects)."

Now, some may blanch at the idea of using such arguably contrived and pre-written roleplay dialogue. However, George makes it clear that such lines will eventually be improvised and elaborated upon in the course of play. The entire point of such dialogue-based mechanics is to increase and reward roleplay within the game. And the fact is the game aims to "teach" roleplaying as an integral part of the game. You really don't seem to be able to play Secret Fire very well without roleplaying. So you either rely on stock dialogue or you get good at acting your role, or you die. Heck, you may die anyway--but you'll evidently do it with style.

So far, not too weird, right? Well it gets better. George and his development team have included some fairly overt references to the occult within the game. Now I personally don't a problem with this. In fact I think it poses some interesting questions about the game. But the picture of Baphomet from Eliphas Levi's book was an interesting choice for what basically amounts to the title page. As was the strange inclusion of the evocational sigil of the Heptogram, sometimes known as the Devil's Trap. Was this intentional or did it just look cool? I have yet to translate the Greek on the title page, and the other passages are in alphabets with which I am unfamiliar. George has said that there is a puzzle within the game, which if folks solve will unlock bonuses of some sort or other. His open inclusion of powerful occult imagery may be nothing more than following in Gary's footsteps when he did the same in D&D back in the '70s. Or it may be something more.

Then there is the strange "deleted comment" where a reader supposedly asked whether the game was a "satire" on Mazes & Monsters aiming at a spiritual experience. ... What?! To which George gives a slanted sort of response about how the game is designed to evoke a powerful experience much like great movies. A later comment by another reader speculates that the deleted comment was referring to LARPing, to which George says no. SF is played "like D&D" around a table.

And then there is his dedication. One of the more noble and strange dedications I have come across in an RPG.

"Dedicated to the work of E. Gary Gygax, Plato, Will Shakespeare, J. Krishnamurti, The Secret Society of Neo-Platonists, Eckhart Tolle, Joseph Campbell, J. R. R. Tolkien, George Lucas, Carl Jung, Thich Nhat Hanh, D.T. Suzuki, Ralph Waldo Emerson"

Which brings me to a slight hint about my own theories on roleplaying. RPGs, being rooted in the storytelling tradition which is rooted in the mythic tradition and by relation the religious or spiritual tradition, have a very powerful effect that few realize. At the least George seems to recognize this by referring to several spiritual teachers in his dedication. Not the least of which are Carl Jung and Joesph Campbell, that I've blogged about before. He is clearly connecting the power of roleplaying to its archetypal roots. While doing so he is employing powerful occult imagery that evokes a primal response in all of us on one level or another. Jung was about exploring the depths of our unconscious and the manifestations within ourselves of the greater collective unconscious. This shadowy "other-realm" is indeed an enchanted land where we, for a time at least, touched the Gods and were touched by them. Keep that in mind as you think about this quote from George,

"The foundation for TSF lies with the unknown, the dark and dangerous subworld which we all fear and yet desire to inhabit, if only for a brief time (so that we may survive and return to the world above and repeat). With that, we begin our journey…."

Subworld ... Very interesting verbal construction. Dungeon exploration = subconscious ... Underworld ... Baphomet ... Devil's Trap. It makes you think, eh? Especially if you know anything about western esoteric traditions. Fascinating stuff. Absolutely fascinating.

Now, George is not, I think, insidious. I don't subscribe some hideous ulterior motive to him or his game. Neither am I downing his game. It likely has no more subtle agenda than does White Wolf with Masquerade and Mage. But taken altogether the game strikes me as very different from our usual fare in the Fantasy RPG market. There are also diceless and player driven storyline games out there. Games that focus much more on player narrative than on GM world design. Whether he has incorporated such approaches and to what extent I still remain uncertain. I'm just gonna have to buy the book. The quality of the game appears high, and as I said it has more than its share of the weird factor.

George is apparently making a plea to become "the" game though. Not sure how that will go. He has evidently come up with a novel approach. Unless the TSF play experience is as fundamentally different as D&D was from everything else in its day remains to be seen. Somehow I doubt that it is. But I can't help but wonder. It is after all still an RPG played with dice around a table. Which says nothing against it. Just that it is yet another variation in the venerable tradition which Gary started. Which brings me to my last point. Gail Gygax's endorsement. I didn't expect to see that. The only reason I can think of to explain that is because George appears to be involved in a biopic of Gary's life. At least he seems to allude to that on his site.

So, this amazing new RPG has me intrigued to say the least. It's moniker may even come from The Secret Fire of Tolkien which represented the life force of Middle Earth itself. Whether the game lives up to that lofty ideal time will tell. But either way you can bet I'm putting this game on my to buy list.

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