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Heidegger’s Critique of Liberalism

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Europe, it its unholy blindness always on the point of cutting its own throat, lies today in the pincers between Russia on one side and America on the other. Russia and America, seen metaphysically are both the same: the same hopeless frenzy of unchained technology and the rootless organization of the average man. When the farthest corner of the globe has been conquered technologically and can be exploited economically…when a boxer counts as a great man of a people; when the tallies of millions at mass meetings are a triumph; then, yes then, there still looms like a spector over all this uproar the question: what for?-where to?-and what then? The spiritual decline of the earth has progressed so far that peoples are in danger of losing their last spiritual strength, the strength that makes it possible even to see the decline.

Martin Heidegger, Introduction to Metaphysics 

Martin Heidegger is one of the most important thinkers of the 20th century and was a member and defender of the Nazi party. The jarring divide between these two facts has made many people uncomfortable. Historically the common mode of apology was to cordon off Heidegger’s thinking from his politics, insist they have little if anything to do with one another, and remind everyone that being a bad man has never been a barrier to writing good books. Heidegger himself cannily leaned into these exonerations, describing himself to friends and admirers as politically naïve—the charming philosopher king who, like Plato, lacked common sense in his everyday dealings.

On one of the few occasions where he discussed his Nazi past, a 1966 interview with Der Spiegel published after his death, Heidegger downplayed his commitments and even claimed that anyone who attended his 1936 lectures on Nietzsche would recognize that they constituted “a confrontation with National Socialism.” Nevertheless, Heidegger refused to apologize and even doubled down on many of his anti-democratic and illiberal sentiments. He observed that “the planetary movement of modern technology is a power whose great role in determining history can hardly be overestimated. A decisive question for me today is how a political system can be assigned to today’s technological age at all, and which political system would that be? I have no answer to this question. I am not convinced that it is democracy.” Without a doubt Heidegger was confident that the long sweep of history would prove he was right about the big picture as the living testaments to his great errors faded. 

This position has become harder and harder to defend. Firstly because the publication of many of Heidegger’s posthumous works testify to both the depth and virulence of his Nazism, and especially his antisemitism. Especially notorious are Heidegger’s “Black Books,” which include gems like “even the thought of an agreement with England, in the sense of a division of imperialist ‘jurisdictions,’ does not reach the essence of the historical process that England is now playing out to its end within Americanism and Bolshevism, and this at the same time means within world Jewry. The question of the role of world Jewry is not a racial question, but the metaphysical question about the kind of humanity that, without any restraints, can take over the uprooting of all beings from Being as its world-historical ‘task.” 

Secondly, recent academic works by serious scholars like Emmanuel Faye and Ronald Beiner have done a lot to showcase the depth of Heidegger’s political commitments in practice and demonstrate how much of this flows from his more technical philosophy. And third and most importantly, Heidegger’s writings have enjoyed a surging popularity in today’s far right and neofascist circles. In particular Russia’s post-modern fascist Alexander Dugin has written hagiographic books on Heideggerian politics which have had a cultish influence. As Alexander Reid Ross put it in Against the Fascist Creep, the far right lumps him in the “panoply of ‘great thinkers’ in the fascist pantheon-Heidegger, Evola, Nietzsche, Junger, and Schmitt…”

Heidegger on an authentic politics

Part of the difficulty in understanding his politics is that, unlike Nietzsche or Schmitt, Heidegger is rarely straightforward in presenting his views. There is rarely anything as purple as Nietzschean invective against the “lie of equality of souls.”  Heidegger’s writing tends to operate in three rhetorical modes: reactionary pastoralism, technical academese, and grandiose bombast.  None have the literary charms of Nietzsche’s writing. But let there be no doubt that Heidegger shares all the conventionally anti-egalitarian convictions of the far right. In one of the rare moments of political candor in Introduction to Metaphysics Heidegger rails against liberal and socialist metaphysics—“metaphysically the same”—because they “aggressively destroys all rank and all that is world-spiritual, and portrays these as a lie.” He gloomily observes that the “darkening of the world is happening. The essential happenings in this darkening are: the flight of the gods, the destruction of the earth, the reduction of human beings to a mass, [and] the pre-eminence of the mediocre.”

In Being and Time Heidegger takes aim at the philosophy of the subject which lies at the epicenter of liberal thinking from Descartes through Kant. He criticizes figures like Kant for assuming the basis of human experience is “reason,” and consequently putting the rational subject at the heart of social life. Instead Heidegger argues that our “structural primordiality” is in fact “care.” Before we reason about the world we are embedded within and care about it, which shapes everything from our perception to our experience of time. Heidegger criticizes Kant for assuming that human beings experience time in a linear fashion, proceeding from moment to moment. This has the moral consequence of inspiring us to think exclusively about the present, which obtains a reality denied to past and future. But in fact Heidegger insists human beings experience time “ecstatically” as a continuous fusion of past, present, and future. Think about a hockey player passing a puck. Yes she needs to apprehend the puck in front of her in the present moment. But she also draws deeply on her experiences and training past while projecting the puck into the future as she anticipates who to pass it to and how that will help the team win the game. 

This is in fact a profound contribution to the philosophy of the subject, and one doesn’t have to agree with Heidegger’s politics to profit from it. One of the great works of 20th century philosophy, Herbert Dreyfus’ classic What Computers Still Can’t Do, drew on Heidegger to critique AI theorists who assumed that consciousness was just a matter of being rational rather than embeddedness and care. The problem comes from how Heidegger interprets these phenomenological themes in terms of the inauthenticity of modern society. He argues that human beings (Dasein) experience tremendous angst or anxiety about the future, which makes us aware of our finitude by exposing us to the inevitability of death. As Macbeth once put it, the reality sinks in that death isn’t the shadow of life. Life is the shadow of death, and it will endure forever. 

For Heidegger, deeply impressed by modern liberal materialism and urbanism, most of us will choose to hide from the reality of our death in the world of the “they.” We become enamored of the “endless multiplicity of closest possibilities offering themselves—those of comfort, shirking, and taking things easy.” Paradoxically, in the pursuit of our individual comforts, we in fact become more and more indistinguishable from everyone else; caught up in the idle chatter of democratic mediocrity which imposes a levelling pressure. 

In Being and Time Heidegger holds out the possibility that, for some, confronting the reality of death might stir them to live more authentically by committing to great projects which would be elevating and distinct. Regarded in hindsight, successfully pulling off these projects can give them the impression and allure of a “destiny.” One might see in this Heideggerian emphasis on authenticity the seeds of a kind of romantic individualism or even a left wing critique of consumer society. But in fact Heidegger rejects these prospects, holding to the more volkish perspective that a “destiny” always belongs to a sufficiently worthy people. In this case the spiritually attuned Germans, whose metaphysical sensitivity elevates them far above the vulgarities of Russia and America.

 With this term [destiny], we designate the occurrence of the community of a people. Destiny is not composed of individual fates, nor can being-with-one another be conceived of as the mutual occurrence of several subjects.  These fates are already guided beforehand in being-with-one-another in the same world and in the resoluteness for definite possibilities. In communication and in the struggle the power of destiny first becomes free.

 When Hitler came to power Heidegger was enthusiastic, seeing in the Fuhrer the prospect of palingenetic ultranationalist renewal by committing the people to a destiny higher than the vulgar bohemian liberalism and socialism offered by the Weimar Republic. Upon assuming the Rectorship of the University of Freiburg and joining the Nazi Party Heidegger gave an infamous address which encouraged the students to submit to Hitler enthusiastically. He promised them they had a special role to play in the new order as the future “leaders and guardians of the destiny of the German people.” Their struggles on behalf of the new order would help bring about a new Germany whose job would be to save Western civilization from the decadent nihilism embodied in its geopolitical rivals. While Heidegger rarely succumbed to glorification of violence seen in other fascist thinkers, as Emmanuel Faye points out he nevertheless greeted the early triumph of Nazi arms as a confirmation of his theories. By contrast when the Second World War ended with Hitler foaming that his own people had failed, Heidegger’s response was to shrug and insist that it had proven nothing at a metaphysical level. As Ronald Beiner put it in Dangerous Minds:

On Heidegger’s view one needs to think in centuries. He assumed that people would be reading him for centuries (just as one continues to read Aristotle or Hegel). The twentieth century was a lost cause…But eventually people would forget Mussolini and Hitler and remember Heidegger. Three hundred years from now, people would see that philosophically, Heidegger was right, even if he made some tactical mistakes in the 30s. (Over the span of centuries, who would care what happened in the 1930s?) Gadamer once said (in the context of defending Heidegger!) that Heidegger, ‘true visionary’ that he was, was so preoccupied by modernity’s forgetfulness of Being that even the Nazi genocide ‘appeared to him as something minimal compared to the future that awaits us.’ That seems correct. For Heidegger, the extermination of European Jewry was ‘small change’ compared with what modernity is doing to the experience of Being.

The long march of history

 In his later works Heidegger adopts a more mystical and historical approach, which has led some to characterize the post-1930s as a “turn” in his thought beginning with Contributions to Philosophy. There is a lot of truth to this, but even here Heidegger retains his smug conviction that only “great and unrevealed individuals” would be the ones to both comprehend his contributions and act on them. And in fact Heidegger’s historical writings have proven  a significant a source of inspiration to both progressives and the far right. Social democrats like Richard Rorty and critical deconstructionists like Jacques Derrida will be attracted to Heidegger’s radical critique of bourgeois society and his emphasis on the communal character of identity. They will often use the resources in Heidegger’s thinking to argue for more cooperative modes of life while preserving that they take to be valuable in the liberal tradition. But it is the far right that will more sincerely carry his legacy forward, with Dugin in particular greeting Heidegger’s call for a “new beginning” by developing the neofascist “fourth political theory.”  

Heidegger’s philosophy of history echoes Nietzsche’s in radically condemning Western  civilization as a whole. Unlike more timid reactionaries, who tend to cordon off a point in Western thought and say “after this, the fall,” for Heidegger the rot was present from the very beginning. Consequently it needs to be pulled up root and stem. In some respects this is refreshing. At the very least Heidegger is brave enough to acknowledge the deep linkages within Western thinking without giving into the lazy reactionary impulse of suggesting everything was going fine until Locke or Marx put pen to paper.

 For Heidegger the start of our troubles goes all the way back to Plato. Rather than contemplating the ontological question of Being directly, Plato reduced Being to the ideas of the “forms.” In so doing we saw the withdrawal of Being and a transition to the metaphysics of the “being of beings.” What exists are just separate entities whose characteristics can be understood and minced by reason. From there it was a long but rather inexorable slide to modern thinking inaugurated with Descartes, where a rational subject “enframes” the world as nothing more than a collection of things which can be technically manipulated to gratify banal human desires. As Heidegger puts it in The Question Concerning Technology, this modernist enframing “blocks the shining-forth and holding-sway of truth. The destining that sends into ordering is consequently the extreme danger. What is dangerous is not technology. There is no demonry of technology, but rather there is the mystery of its essence. The essence of technology, as a destining of revealing, is the danger…The threat to man does not come in the first instance from the potentially lethal machines and apparatuses of technology. The actual threat has already affected man in his essence. The rule of Enframing threatens man with the possibility that it could be denied to him to enter into a more original revealing and hance to experience the call of a more primal truth.”

This modernist Cartesian metaphysics lies at the basis of the great egalitarian and “humanist” doctrines of liberalism and socialism. Heidegger was profoundly unimpressed by the weight which unthinking partisans put on this dispute. From his perspective liberalism and socialism were metaphysically the same in viewing the world as a collection of things to be technically manipulated for human purposes. They only differed on the economic means to achieve this; seen philosophically their argument was about the best way to design and distribute can openers. Not coincidentally this kind of rhetoric lends itself very easily to fascist calls for a “third” or “fourth” way that rejects egalitarian humanism. 

While it is presented in very pregnant language, Heidegger’s exceptionally idealist philosophy of history compares very poorly to the vastly more sophisticated takes of Hegel, Marx, and even his major influence Nietzsche. This is because it outdoes Hegel in its idealist fixation on philosophy—and metaphysics in particular—as the Rosetta stone through which all other historical developments are to be read. The result is a cheesy and self-aggrandizing vision of Western history as essentially a series of footnotes to Plato’s Republic until we get to Heidegger’s own work.  Hediegger relegates all the geopolitical transitions, economic developments, and actual human suffering to second tier status. As Habermas puts it in The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity.

The history of philosophy had already become a key to philosophy of history for Hegel. The history of metaphysics holds a comparable rank for Heidegger; through it the philosopher masters the sources from which each epoch fatefully receives its own light. This idealistic perspective has consequences for Heidegger’s critique of modernity.

His idealist mania explains why Heidegger could make some truly stupid and deeply offensive conflations between the gas chambers of Auschwitz and mechanized farming, since both embodied the nihilistic metaphysics of modern technology. This only makes sense where one ascribes such paramount analytical importance to idealist metaphysics that the materiality of producing food to preserve life and murder on an industrial scale become undifferentiated; mere ontical phenomena of secondary importance compared to a new translation of Aristotle.

Conclusion 

In his great book Heidegger and Politics Alexander Duff rightly points out that Heidegger’s thinking is not “coextensive” with Nazism and should not be treated as such. It would be going too far to say with Rorty that the challenge of our time is that our greatest philosopher was a Nazi. But unlike cheap court philosophers like Alfred Roseberg, Evola, or Dugin, Heidegger was legitimately a profound thinker whose work contains insights few serious analysts can ignore. My personal conviction is that the insightful core of Heidegger’s critique of the rational subject can readily be saved and given a liberal and materialist twist; for instance by following De Beauvoir and Merleau Ponty in foregrounding the role the body plays in shaping our experiences of the world. Doing this helps rescue Heideggerian thought from its addiction to idealist grandiosity and brings it back down to earth where real people live, work and often suffer needlessly.

But that doesn’t mean letting Heidegger off the hook for his brutality. In The Jargon of Authenticity and Negative Dialectics Adorno recognized that the failures in Heidegger’s project lay in ascribing a kind of aesthetic grandiosity to his flavor of authenticity. While for others living authentically might mean rejecting tyranny, Heidegger carefully tames any such emancipatory potential by insisting that authenticity is where an individual and indeed the community’s whole being becomes totally committed to a “destiny.” And not any destiny, let alone one they democratically set for themselves. Instead a destiny considered worthy by a philosopher like Heidegger. But a philosopher will never be able to compel the mediocre masses to their destiny on his own. He’ll need to use the political power of the state, and if that means allying with authoritarianism then so be it.  But since Heidegger had no real understanding of the brutalities of power, he failed to recognize how the exercise of authoritarian power would warp the soul and body of ordinary Germans to transform them into banal servants of the Fuhrer’s will. In this way a philosophical enterprise that initially set itself against the triteness of the everyday came to lend ideological support to the most monstrous kind of inauthenticity the world has ever seen. 

What Heidegger, with all his anti-democratic inegalitarianism, never understood is that the most important kind of democracy is the democracy of the human soul. We are each of us divided into many parts, which confront and live in one another to produce the drama that makes us human. The jargon of authenticity which wishes to smelt the democracy of the soul into a singular will commanded by the philosopher or dictator distorts us. The irony is that when power demands authenticity from those who cannot will otherwise is it destroys the very possibility of living a life of integrity.


Featured Image by Andreas Praefcke

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@eigenrobot “Why would you put 100% of your character points into gaining root on $INSTITUTION?” “I don’t understand that question. What is another use of character points?” “Well you could raise a family or be involved in your church or…” “In what ways do those further my objectives?”

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@eigenrobot “Why would you put 100% of your character points into gaining root on $INSTITUTION?” “I don’t understand that question. What is another use of character points?” “Well you could raise a family or be involved in your church or…” “In what ways do those further my objectives?”




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Bean Week

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Editor’s note: Readers protested vigorously when they saw that we had left Ali Baba off our list, so we’ve put him back on the list, by popular demand.

Istanbul’s eaters are spoiled by opportunities to eat great beans – and in the Turkish kitchen that means white beans, in particular, and if you’re lucky, the şeker fasulye type grown in Eastern Turkey’s İspir region.

We’ve tried countless subtle variations on roughly the same recipe and, wiping mouth on sleeve after a bowl, declared that we could eat beans every single day of the week. We’ve spent a lot of time comparing almost identical-tasting Black Sea-style beans and hunted down those that are harder to categorize. Taking part in the bean discourse is a great pleasure of ours and we are not alone in doing so. Turkish newspapers regularly run features analyzing the baked bean, featuring inserts ranking the best beans, nationally, by a panel of judges. It’s a gas.

In this roundup we’ve compiled our favorite beans in different styles. Though the gold standard achieved by standouts Hüsrev and Fasuli is widely agreed to be the best in show, we’ve included a couple of quirky beaneries in our list of favorites, because, in reality, you can’t eat the same beans every day.

Hüsrev
A severe man in a monogrammed blazer stands at the door to Hüsrev, greeting important patrons who walk in and check their coats without pausing from their telephone conversations. Eavesdrop and you’ll probably overhear major business deals being closed. It’s easy to get so caught up in the charged atmosphere that you forget that everyone has ordered nothing more than a bowl of beans accompanied by a salty yogurt drink. But that’s what’s so pleasurable about Hüsrev, which calls itself the “world’s bean gentleman.”

From Hong Kong to Houston, a high-powered business lunch is propelled by a big steak and stiff drinks, but here, deals are sealed over beans. The blond and creamy legumes, bathed in a rich, red gravy, are certainly worthy of their dedicated following. We got the feeling that every variable in the recipe is tightly controlled by a board of ustas in white coats. With such resources, how could these not be the best beans in Turkey? Indeed, though we could not identify a single flaw, we were a little disappointed to find them only delicious. We were hoping for magic beans that would transform us into rich and successful people like everyone else at Hüsrev. But even though they were the most expensive beans we’d ever eaten, we weren’t that much poorer leaving the place.

Fasuli's beans, photo by Ansel MullinsFasuli
The beans at Fasuli Lokantası glow unbelievably orange, as if the chef slipped a little something radioactive in the pot. Whatever the recipe, these beans are among the best we’ve had in Istanbul. Stiffened by a whole lot of butter, the gravy and beans achieve almost the same creamy consistency. The cool, crisp raw onions and pickled hot peppers are a welcome balance to the richness of the dish, although their aroma stays with you long after your meal. We’ve been dining at the swishy Tophane location with its white tablecloths and bow-tied waiters, but recently stopped in for a bowl of beans at the Çapa branch. We find the cozy and rustic atmosphere at this location more befitting the beans on the table, as high-class as they are.

Balkan, photo by Ansel MullinsBalkan Lokantası (Beyoğlu)
Less a hole-in-the-wall than a crack between two buildings in the fish market of Beyoğlu, this friendly little tradesmen’s chain has been a fallback of ours for years, the place we go for a quick lunch – hot, cheap, and reliable – while our fishmonger or butcher up the street is filleting that night’s dinner. Balkan’s beans are nothing to behold and, anyway, the family running Balkan does not put on airs like that. The beans or the chickpeas are generally regarded as something to drizzle over rice, essential but barely worth mentioning. Before we’ve settled at a common table, the waiter belts out our order toward the kitchen at the front – “Bir kuru! Az pilav!” – and seconds later it’s there in front of us. Small white beans bobbing in a runny, pale-red sauce, steaming. Raked over buttery rice and consumed quickly, it is a tasty but not overly tasty fill that we’ve come to rely on as much as we do our butcher’s deft hand. If we didn’t live among so many master bean makers, this is probably the bean we’d try to make at home, and maybe even succeed.

Çanak Mangalda's beans with pastırma, photo by Ansel MullinsÇanak Mangalda
Consider the white beans with pastırma (seasoned air-cured beef) served at Çanak Mangalda a novelty bean. In place of butter they use olive oil, lightening the gravy significantly, and then, shockingly, they mix in a few slices of pastırma. Once you’ve tasted pastırma, with its pungent rind of fenugreek, cumin, red peppers and garlic, it is hard to forget. In a bowl of beans, it’s just as powerful: Every bean and drop of liquid is informed by the spicy flavor of that pastırma rind. Cemil Demirkan, owner of the place, said that for a family like his, which has its roots in Kosovo, it’s natural to slip a little pastırma in for “extra flavor,” and these beans have become Çanak’s signature. They cook these beans in a big pot on a charcoal grill out back by remnants of the old Byzantine city walls. In front, traffic whizzes past on the Golden Horn coastal road. Aside from Çanak Mangalda and its unique approach to cooking beans, this part of town is well-known for its muffler shops.

Çömlek
You can’t miss the huge, red clay cauldron sitting behind the counter at Çömlek. The fellow with the big ladle says it’s the pot that makes these beans better than the rest. Cooking vessel aside, a serving of these beans also has the highest meat count of any we’ve tasted in Istanbul. Whereas most beans might have a shred or at best a few nuggets of tender roasted beef in there for flavor, Çömlek’s are crowned with a generous helping of meat. In such a rich dish the meat satisfyingly offsets the cloying beans, leaving the meek still able to walk away and the strong-willed able to order up another half portion. The restaurant, said to be controversial President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s favorite beanery, is located on the wooded slopes above Üsküdar on the Asian side, making it a bit out of the way (for now: per Erdogan’s orders, a giant mosque complex is being built in the area). But for us, these are beans at their best and worth the trip.

Erzincanlı Ali Baba
According to historians, Tiryaki Sokak (“Addicts’ Alley”) got its name from the opium served up in its coffeehouses during Ottoman times. Though that substance has long been banned, since 1924 Ali Baba has been ladling out something equally addictive from a great copper pot: Erzincan-style baked beans. Ingredients such as onion, tomato and chili pepper are more recognizable in the soupy base, as the bean is bigger than its Black Sea counterpart. Though we remain junkies of the Black Sea variety, the Erzincan preparation is a nice change of pace and there’s no better place to try a bowl than sitting on Ali Baba’s squat stools in the shadow of the minarets of the sublime Süleymaniye Mosque.

This article was originally published on January 30, 2015.

The post Bean Week appeared first on Culinary Backstreets.

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Heart, the City Beneath

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Heart is a roleplaying game of weird dungeondelving about doomed people getting exactly what they desire, no matter how badly it turns out for them. It is published by Rowan, Rook and Decard and is set in the same world as (and directly beneath) another of their games, Spire.

Full page illustration. Spire, a kilometer-tall structure, is dwarfed by the sprawling underground caverns.

Everything in the book drips with flavor, and, often, blood. The Heart is a tear in reality deep under the city of Spire. Above ground, dark elves struggle to free themselves from the colonialist oppression of aelfir, gnolls fight for their independence, and humans are just doing their own archeotech thing. None of this matters below, in the City Beneath.

Near the surface, it’s still somewhat sensible, caverns and tunnels and cursed train networks. Things get increasingly surreal as you delve deeper, closer to the irreality of the Heart itself. Absolutely anything can be found here: predatory libraries, assorted heavens and hells, mythic beasts, wild forests, the True Moon. It used to be a slightly more sensible place, before an overambitious engineering project of the aelfir ruptured the Heart 150 years ago, causing it to spew its weirdness far and wide. Now, populated havens and landmarks are scattered throughout the underworld, each place living by its own logic.

No one knows what the Heart actually is. Many people think they do. The very nature of the Heart means any of them could be correct at any given time, no matter how contradictory their theories. Alien terraforming mechanism, a nascent god, a benevolent slow-rolling apocalypse. The only things most agree on: it changes reality, it doesn’t understand us, it will give you what you want.

The player characters are the ones desperate, driven, or deranged enough to take the Heart up on this promise. They want the impossible, and they will go through the phantasmagoric hell to get it. The character classes can be thought of as D&D analogues thoroughly infected by the Heart. Instead of a ranger you get Cleaver, a possibly cannibalistic hunter that derives memoreis from the things they eat and becomes a progressively more fucked up were-beast. Instead of a rogue you get Deadwalker, stalked by their own death, and Incarnadine, a priest of the god of debt. Deep Apiarist, Heart’s druid, has a beehive in their ribcage and strives to maintain order in the ever-changing chaos. Junk Mage is a fairly straightforward warlock, if you discount the “junkie” part of it, borrowing power from a patron or three. Hound is a fighter that’s joined a loosely associated citizen militia of the Heart, while Vermissian Knight is a fighter that likes trains so much they wear one. Finally, Heretic is, unsurprisingly, a cleric that worships an underground, “true” moon; and Witch is a spellcaster infected by heartsblood itself, with barely any side effects at all, so long as they don’t ever experience any kind of strain.

Aside from classes, characters get an ancestry and a calling. Ancestry has no mechanical bearing, but offers characterisation ideas and asks how you got into the Heart. Calling is the reason you’re there, and is the basis of character advancement. To me, it is the standout feature of the system. Each calling comes with an ability and a big list of minor, major, and zenith story beats. The beats are various accomplishments, and range from “charm someone with tales of your exploits”

A genius bit happens here, a ludonarrative assonance: players tell the GM what they want their characters to experience, the GM, as the Heart, does their best to match these desires, warping the reality of the game in the process. Do you want to kick someone off a high place? There will be a high place where you’re going. That’s why Heart doesn’t have a stable map, only a list of landmarks.

Zenith beats, like the final secret one I mentioned, are very hard to achieve, and not everyone will manage to do so before their untimely but likely deserved death. The reward for doing so, a zenith ability, is incredibly powerful but typically lethal as well, or at least transformative enough to remove the character from play. It gives you a chance to completely steal the scene, overcome impossible odds, and end your character’s (adventuring) life on your terms.

Zenith abilities are cool and flavourful (though a few too many of them are essentially “you utterly destroy a place and yourself in the process”), but come a scene too late. You get them as a reward for accomplishing your utlimate task, but they would have been so much more useful while you were trying to accomplish your ultimate task. Even if the character still wants something after their main goal is met, do they want it enough to destroy themselves to get it?

It’s obviously possible for the GM/Heart to pull out some greater calamity to threaten their success or someone they came to care about, but to do so without it feeling cheap takes more skill than I had mustered for our campaign. It took quite a bit of effort to bring even two of the PCs’ stories to culmination simultaneously. The one that “ascended” first did use their zenith ability to help out the other, but it was mostly to show off. This meant the game had run its course, even though the third character still had goals to attain: with 2 of 3 characters retiring, we saw no reason to continue for another session or three with substitutes.

The core mechanics of Heart are very similar to Spire. You still assemble a die pool of d10s, one for free, one more if you have an appropriate skill (what you do), one more if you have an appropriate domain (where/to whom you do it), and another one for mastery (circumstance or abilities). Highest die determines whether the action ends in success, success at a cost, or failure. Difficulty works slightly differently: instead of reducing the die pool by one or two dice in Risky or Dangerous situations, Heart takes away one or two of the best dice after the roll. It is, as you can imagine, quite punishing, but countered by having high-quality equipment.

Much like in Spire, failure and success at a cost give the character stress in one of five tracks: Blood, Echo, Mind, Fortune, and Supplies. After a character gains stress, the GM rolls a d12. If the roll is less or equal to the total stress the character has, they suffer a Fallout, minor on a roll of 6 or less, major otherwise. This means even a character overflowing with stress has even odds of only suffering a minor fallout, making Heart characters quite resilient. Furthermore, the only way to suffer a severe fallout that likely ends the character is for a player to choose to upgrade a major fallout after suffering another major fallout. In Spire, the fallout die is d10, and the severity of the fallout depends on total stress at the time, not the roll, with 9+ stress guaranteeing a severe, character-ending fallout.

There’s a list of fallouts for each category, some are immediate and others last until dealt with, likely at a haven, in exchange for resources – useful stuff you scavenge, loot, or butcher along the way. Each resource has a die rating measuring its potency, from d4 to d12, a domain it belongs to, and sometimes a tag. For instance, you might have a Harpy’s Heart (d6, Wild, Deteriorating). A lot of character abilities interact with resources in some manner, e.g. a Cleaver can eat any resource to gain corresponding domain for a scene.

Finally, stress recovers differently. In Spire, you cleared an amount of stress depending on the severity of fallout you suffered, and could engage in character-specific activities to relieve stress or even hide away and let time pass, clearing it all. In Heart, you clear all stress from the track you just took a hit to on a minor fallout, and all stress from all tracks on a major fallout. You can also use equipment and abilities to clear stress, but that usually involves a check, which means the risk of further stress.

The main reason for all the changes is the larger amount of checks players are likely to make in Heart. Spire is typically a game of intrigue and investigation. Any misstep could spell your doom, so you tread carefully. Characters slowly accumulate stress until everything goes wrong for them at once.

In contrast, Heart is often a game of reckless violence. You’re already doomed, you’re already in Hell looking for your own personal Heaven, what’s one more gunshot wound. Stress comes and goes frequently, it’s the fallouts that stick around, and you have to make it to the next haven to fix them.

Combat is frequent, and it is quite swingy. You can overcome even a dangerous foe with only a couple of good rolls, or you might flail at them ineffectually for a while, suffering multiple fallouts. It’s a bit of an issue, as every fallout suffered pauses the game as the GM flips through the book looking for one that fits the situation. This didn’t feel quite so disruptive in Spire, because there weren’t as many rolls.

Combat is also, unfortunately, not quite deep enough. No matter what cool abilities you might have, how imaginative the monsters are, or how impactful the fallouts, at the end of the day you’ll be rolling Kill checks until the enemy is dispatched – and, again, the combat is quite swingy, so sometimes it takes a while. In addition, not all classes have good access to the skill. Usually, advances that grant you a skill come loaded with some kind of flavourful side benefit, like the ability to see in the dark or harmlessly fall from significant heights. Then they have a more generic advance that simply grants one of a few skills or domains that are not as fitting for your class – and for some classes that includes Kill. Spending an advance on it just doesn’t feel as satisfying. You can get away with playing the supporting role in a fight occasionally, or have an objective other than killing whatever’s trying to kill you, but most of the time it’s Kill or be Killed, and characters that are bad at it feel like they’re not pulling their weight.

While other fallout categories are fairly straightforward – your Blood is spilled, Supplies run low, etc., Fortune is the odd one out. It mostly deals with the consequences of poor decisions made (or just plain bad luck). You might take the wrong turn and extend your journey, piss off the locals, or become their unwilling messiah. In addition, some places and creatures have their own custom fallouts associated with them, like a mind-controlling location seeping deeper into your brain, or a ghost possessing your body. These don’t always work seamlessly, and sometimes mean the signature threat of a scene is never realized simply because the dice didn’t cooperate, but it’s a very interesting idea nonetheless, and something I’d like to see more of in future supplements, should they happen.

Fallouts are tricky in general. There’s an art to picking them so as not to overwhelm the characters. At one point, the entire party in our game was suffering so much it became comical, with multiple broken limbs, ragged nerves, blinded eyes, weird growths, etc.. This isn’t an issue with the rules, there are many once-and-done fallouts I could have given them instead, just something to keep in mind. The maleable nature of the Heart offers a fix for this as well, you just have to be flexible enough to take it. Does the party desperately need a break? The Heart can provide a haven that wasn’t there a moment ago, perhaps an all-too-convenient pub with absolutley no dark secrets hidden in its cellar.

In a certain way, Heart is the polar opposite of OSR in this regard. OSR, generally speaking, wants to establish the dungeon, draw the map, provide random encounter tables, then watch the characters deal with the problems as they come, in a “fair” fashion. Heart makes everything up as it goes. Do you need healing? Here’s a haven. You picked a beat to punish someone? Meet an absolute bastard of a person. Low on resources? Well go get them, that cursed plesudodeer isn’t using its bones for anything significant.

Broadly speaking, there are two kinds of campaigns you can run in Heart, both centered around travel. The first, and the kind we played, is a one-way descent. Somewhere deep within, the characters will find what they’re looking for, even if they don’t know what it is yet. The other focuses on a hub, probably a haven, that you try to protect by venturing back and forth. Should you be interested in it, you’ll probably want to pick up Sanctum, a small supplement written just for this. Either way, journeys play a significant role. The book is filled with unique locations and it is a delight to explore them. In fact, our campaign went for longer than it probably should have simply because I wanted to fit more landmarks into it. Even then, we haven’t even seen a third it.

It’s a shame, then, that my biggest issue with the game is the way it handles the actual journeys between the landmarks, the delves. When the GM prepares a delve, they determine the length of its resistance track, which functions much like a health pool, tracking the overall progress of the trip. As the party overcomes challenges on the way, they inflict stress on the delve, filling the track. Once the track is filled, the delve is over. Just like combat, this is very swingy: normally you inflict 1d4 stress, with a typical delve having 8-12 resistance. But while a combat taking an extra roll or three to finish is not a big deal, a delve requiring more obstacles than you have prepared means you need to rapidly improvise. And there’s no random encounter tables or even a roll to suggest the nature of the next obstacle – which is fine so long as the GM/Heart knows what should happen next, but leaves them floundering otherwise.

One of the reasons for this rule was giving meaning to delve items: grappling hooks, compasses, air-tanks, etc.. When you use a Delve item in overcoming an obstacle, you use this item’s die rating instead of the default d4 – they’re a direct analogue of Kill items i.e. weapons. Except thematically this doesn’t actually work. Having a grappling hook doesn’t make the check for climbing up a wall any easier. Instead, it means you’re likely to face fewer obstacles after you’ve climbed the wall.

Every time our party overcame an obstacle, inflicting stress on the delve was an afterthought, the least interesting part of the situation that was also the most mechanically significant one. By the second half of the campaign I had given up on tracking delve resistance, instead simply declaring the party had arrived at their destination as soon as I had used up the ideas I had for travel encounters. Thankfully, none of the characters had taken any abilities interacting with this part of the rules, so this wasn’t a problem. Still, completely cutting out the mechanic for the main activity of the game is not great.

Despite the game’s flaws – and to be clear, most of them are quite minor – I loved my time running it. In a hobby drowning in dungeoncrawling games, in grimdark and despair and lovecraftian horror, Heart offers a unique experience. Wonder and horror, grime and grandeur, hope and tragedy, alien and personal. Every monster is utterly sad, but it will still try to eat your face. Everything has gone wrong, yet people still live there. Not just live, they make art, they aspire. The characters are doomed, but they’re powerful. It’s their humanity that drives them towards becoming inhuman. Drives them deeper into the Heart.

Perhaps you’ll find what you’re looking for in Heart, too.

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denubis
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2/ The practice of requiring people to have an exit visa to leave Russia was aba...

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2/ The practice of requiring people to have an exit visa to leave Russia was abandoned after the fall of the USSR. However, it's effectively being reintroduced by the back door, by a new law that has been introduced into the State Duma. It will take effect from 1 March.

The proposed law requires anyone resident in Russia to pre-book the date and time for crossing the state border in a vehicle, supposedly to improve the "throughput of international automobile checkpoints."

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denubis
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"What would you put in What You Didn't Learn Doing Your CS Degree?" All of the parts of being a professional software engineer that we expect to be taught by apprenticeship and not by explicit instruction, like e.g. git usage, how to write good pull requests and emails, etc.

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"What would you put in What You Didn't Learn Doing Your CS Degree?"

All of the parts of being a professional software engineer that we expect to be taught by apprenticeship and not by explicit instruction, like e.g. git usage, how to write good pull requests and emails, etc.




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denubis
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