Andrew Grondin’s Delirium combines European fairy tales and Lovecraftian existential horror. Inside that Venn diagram is a surprisingly encouraging message about the nature of power.
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Andrew Grondin: [00:00:31] The Duke of Vigils can appear anywhere at any time, watching from the shadows and acting as the man behind the throne. Whipoorwill itself is avoidable. It would be extremely unlikely for most people to even see the Duke in person, but its presence and manipulations can be felt across the world. It is impossible to determine whippoorwills true motivations or desires. Its every action and movement is made to advance its own agendas, which are merely cogs in more complex agendas still. It has infiltrated the power structure of all the other Lords using their powers alongside or against each other in subtle maneuvers. Its position among the cult of its peers is commonly known; if Whippoorwill or one of his many simulacra appear before the servants of another Lord, it’s never treated as anything less than the blessing it is.
The Democratization of Storytelling
Lucas: [00:01:14] Hello, and welcome back to Making a Monster, the bite-sized podcast where game designers show us their favorite monster, and we discover how it works, why it works and what it means. I’m Lucas Zellers.
This podcast does much better when I talk about D&D by about 20% more downloads per episode, in fact. But fairytale monsters don’t just belong to Wizards of the Coast and Lovecraftian horror doesn’t just belong to Chaosium, publishers of Call of Cthulhu. These stories are the rich loam in which a new generation of storytellers is growing a whole new ecosystem of creativity. And it belongs to all of us. In other words, while D and D is the granddaddy of all role-playing games, the kids are all right.
In that spirit, I’d like to introduce you to an author who is doing something really unique with characters from both influences a note about this interview. It was recorded so long ago that my half of the conversation is lost.
Andrew Grondin: [00:02:14] My name is Andrew Grondin. I am a tabletop designer, short story author and video content producer. That focuses on not just analyzing, what makes games good, but also their impact, on the individual. I’ve been doing let’s plays, for six years now. Um, um, I generally do quick looks on stuff. And, I kinda like to have a focus on, indie creators and especially PoC and LGBTQ plus creators.
Lucas: [00:02:48] I met Andrew during a City of Mist charity stream with the tabletop Twitch group, Friends who Roll Dice.
Andrew Grondin: [00:02:54] Which I sincerely thank you for playing in.
Lucas: [00:02:56] Andrew pitched me a monster that filled a really interesting gap in the bestiary this show has assembled so far, namely, a monster that explicitly combines two figures from mythology, or as I like to put it, “Por que no los dos?”
The Fallen States of America
Andrew Grondin: [00:03:10] So this comes from Delirium, an experimental reach into a new mechanic system. this specifically came from a desire to make a game
where the impossible is real. Not just because you, the player character are empowered in a certain way, you are, but also because the world itself is not so much falling apart, but growing thin if the laws of reality are falling away, then the laws of narrative begin to step in.
Lucas: [00:03:44] Every role-playing game has three things, a setting that defines the genre expectations and what players can expect to find in the world, a chance operator that helps players and game masters tell the story together, and the mechanics that players can use to influence the world around them. The setting of Delirium is an empty American landscape, visually similar to Netflix is love and monsters or the 2018 film Annihilation. Illustrations by Cory Goodwin set the tone for the game as just on the wrong side of the uncanny valley, unsettling and surreal
Andrew Grondin: [00:04:20] The Fallen States are what remains the United States after most of the world population disappeared functionally overnight. There was a critical shakeup of both infrastructure, and populace even before the Outside began to encroach in our world. Once it began to twist our reality to make us look like it, things got even worse.
All of the seven largest cities in the United States have now just become the Cities, capitalized: Nightmare City, Steel City, Gulf City. They’re entities unto themselves. Nothing lives in them, but they are still occupied and we don’t get to live there anymore. So people have been forced out into the wilderness and the forgotten spaces and these liminal parts of the Fallen States.
All players are Blessed. They are people who are supernaturally powered and they conceptualize this power using a a thing called the Black Tarot. And they experienced sort of a day to day life in a post apocalypse, living and surviving in a place that has far fewer people and far more monsters.
And that’s sort of the, design approach that I take for every one of my games is to have a central idea and expanding out from that with a frankly shameful amount of bullet points and tables that then become prettified as the game gets more and more refined. If you were to see my notes for the original version of any of my game, it’s basically just Be like, these are my six notes. I’ll get back to these later.
Playing a TTRPG with cards instead of dice
Lucas: [00:05:58] For its chance operator, Delirium uses a deck of cards to reflect the use of tarot cards in the story.
Andrew Grondin: [00:06:04] Delirium’s whole mechanical thrust is built around building poker hands, and modifying what your hand is and what your opponent’s hand is to make the best poker hand or poker hands available to you. Because of how weirdly the rules are though, this can go up to a six of a kind.
A lot of the players powers are either going to be, I can do something amazing or I can manipulate my draw. For example, you can draw more cards. You can declare cards to be wild. You can declare a redraw. Because this uses a modification of Texas Hold’em. You can also say I get to use this card exclusively or this card is unavailable to a certain subset of people, who are operating using that,
Lucas: [00:06:57] In Delirium, you play as a Blessed, Fallen America’s last hope against the Chimera.
Andrew Grondin: [00:07:03] The Chimera are a loose force of entities that range from encroaching foliage to animalistic creatures all the way up to actual gods.
So today we are going to be discussing Whippoorwill, or the Duke of Vigils. It takes up the “duke” position in this hierarchy. So there is a King, a Queen, a Duke that serves as their sort of liaison between, the vassals and the royalty and then a series of middlemen that each have their own various functions in the court of the King and the queen. It’s a crude and unfocused reflection of a feudal society. And that is by design.
Whippoowill: Combining Puck and Nyarlhotep
From a design standpoint, all of the monsters in this game are a combination of a piece of European folklore and a eldritch horror and Whippoorwill is Puck ,the mischievous and antagonistic fey that was featured in a Midsummer Night’s Dream and Nyarlhotep, the Black Pharaoh from let’s say other books beyond the core Lovecraft mythos.
He also does have a bit of a smattering of the Great God Pan by Arthur Mansion. But that’s just because there are a bit of thematic overlay between Pan and Puck that is not able to be discounted in the context of this story.
There is a long and storied history of inspiration that is in the mansion and the house on the borderlands that sort of pulp horror era that could legitimately fill up a documentary series to horror today.
You as a group of adventurers may have gone out and done a great mission: broken the foothold of a cult or reclaimed some great artifact or even just ventured into one of the cities of the Fallen States and gotten something out or put something in. Upon your return, home and triumphant, you realize that the person who helped you along the way, or the person who gave you the quest or the person who has just been a face in the crowd, guiding you along. That was Whippoorwill, That was Whippoorwill the entire time guiding you towards his end game. So it’s hard to say like, you’ll throw a punch at this guy.
Because when you’ve got the manipulators, when you have those people that operate in the background, they’re so powerful from a narrative standpoint, because every time they get away, the players of this have a further motivation. We’ll get that guy.
But in the moment, it’s just yeah. And you got played. You got played super hard and that, that stings because how do you respond to that?
I really drew Puck from a Midsummer Night’s Dream. He is the trickster, he’s the manipulator. He’s, he’s a guy with a plan, even if you don’t know what that plan is, even he, if he doesn’t know what that plan is.
He’s the man not even behind the throne, he’s the man in front of the throne. He has the powers of the royalty implicit to his position, but he is still free enough to act on his own whims. Being like you got it, boss time for me to twist your words to my own end
And to an extent Nyarlhotep does serve in a similar function. He is sort of a, a planner. He’s a schemer. He’s got plans that he wants that facilitate Nyarlhotep’s own ends, but most of his use most of his utility in the narrative exists as a means for him to bridge a gap between us and them. For him to guide someone into the clutches of another Old One or for him to be a messenger to the rest of the uh, the elder things. If you need to talk to Azeroth or if you need to talk to, you know, something that will cause you to melt just by looking at it you could, you would use Nyarlh otep to to facilitate that message.
And in contemporary media he does show up as more of a clever sort of Satan analog where he beguiles you with something that you want, and then you pay a terrible price for it.
He’s the most human of, of all the Lords. And that’s what makes him the most dangerous is because he is if you come at the King, you best not miss, like he’ll, he’ll take
you out just because he’s so much better than you. The Forest Mother legitimately can just crush anything in a quarter mile radius of her gigantic kaiju-sized body.
The other Lords all either want something very specific, like the Lord Under the Mountain and the Candlelight Earl, or they’re too alien to even begin to comprehend like the Many-Angled Baroness. When it comes to Whipoorwill,, he’s ultimately human. He’s obviously something, something ancient and powerful and beyond the very concept of, of our world, but he’s also a guy and he’s a guy with a plan and whatever his plan is, it’s going to be bad for everybody who’s not named Whipoorwill. So he can manipulate people to his own ends just by using what people want against them.
What it tells you about the world that you live in now, is that. There are things more dangerous than the giant Kaiju stomping around in what used to be Canada. There is something more dangerous than animalistic creatures and anarchy, and that is someone intelligent malicious and sadistic. His whole thing is empowering people who already have power. The people who worship Whippoorwill, the Black Pharaohs, they’re they’re leaders of communities, they’re people of authority. There are people who can do great harm to the community. And because they have this empowerment, they, they can take everything they want and face no repercussions. And that is something that unfortunately is the thing that happens in the real world. So there is a reflection on that in, in, in these characters. That is completely off of skated from the common man. Yeah, you have no input on something that will affect you and it will likely affect you negatively.
Horror stories with a happy ending
I write horror stories with happy endings. Not consistently, but I do prefer a, comedy when it comes to a horror story than rather than a tragedy. If you want to see somebody just get continually beaten down, just look out the window. you don’t have to go into narrative as an escape to see something horrible happen.
So ultimately, yes. And this is described in the book, but it’s in the narrator section. So I’ll just give the players a little peek behind the curtain. All of the Lords, all of the entities that are the ones who have the most power here operate on narrative.
They operate on something that is intrinsic to themselves. They are powerful because their stories say they’re powerful. So if you change their narrative, you can ultimately make a significant and powerful change. You could kill these things or you could reform them because all they are are stories and ideas.
There is a grant. And a wonderful power that comes from the common man’s unification. Whether it be in your community in your state or across your country, there is a grand and wonderful power that exists when we come together and work for the common good.
it it’s something that if I were to have written this game, now, there would be more there would be more focus on community and, and the uh, the individual functioning As part of a greater whole again, I wrote this five years ago, it’s, it’s one of those things where it’s like, Oh yeah, horror, horror, horror. Here’s the comical, caricature of something I see in the real world that I can use as a villain. Oh dear God things have gone terribly awry
but these are all, I would say that all of these creatures represent some, some adult fear. Everything is basic as the fear of fire. Taking everything you owned the fear of the unknown, the fear of the dark and the fear of unknown places and all the way up to you losing what you love.
One of the terrifying things about European fairies is the fact that they would come and spirit away children. And there are a couple of characters that are a couple of monsters that reflect that in this. So each of these is a, in an indistinct way, the fear of something and. Whippoorwill is, is at his core, the fear of an unknowable uncaring and actively malicious authority figure.
Lucas: [00:16:21] Andrew’s work on Delirium is a great example of what inspires me about independent game design. The oldest tradition of storytelling – retelling – is happening again. A new generation of storytellers are taking the most compelling ideas at the core of cosmic horror and telling them without Lovecraft’s racism, xenophobia, and eugenics. For more about that, and there is a lot more about that, check out my episodes from season one on Dagon with Alex Clippinger.
Andrew Grondin: [00:16:50] The thing Lovecraft did is crystallized what existential horror is: there are things greater than you , and they could wipe you out without even noticing or realizing it. There’s a lot of contemporaries that took that crystallized idea that they now have permission to use because Lovecraft was so humongously popular that they can now say, okay, this is what I say in this same context. And I, I, I do feel like when that’s effective it can make for some of the most disturbing stories.
Lucas: [00:17:30] Using just the parts of their stories, where Shakespeare’s Puck and Lovecraft’s, Nyarlhotep intersect makes Delirium a part of the conversation with both authors. Like science fiction from the sixties, it’s the past in conversation with the future and making this a tabletop role-playing game lets players retell those stories themselves, making us a part of the conversation as well. And Andrew didn’t need a AAA budget or years of development to do it. I want to hear the stories so haunting and so compelling that their authors are rolling out of bed at four o’clock in the morning and hammering away at a keyboard. You can find out more about delirium by following the link in the show notes or visiting the show’s website at scintilla.studio/monster that’s S C I O. N T I L L a.studio/monster. There you’ll find a link to the game along with art of Whippoorwill and some of the other monsters in the game like the Forest Mother, the Black Hound and the Highway, Stalker drawn by Corey Goodwin: https://twitter.com/MC_Goodwin
Lucas: [00:18:51] My guest is Andrew Grondin, tabletop designer, short story author, and a video content producer. Here’s where to find him online:ttps://s-15studios.itch.io/delirium
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