REVIEW: Improv for Gamers by Karen Twelves

Improv for Gamers started life as a series of seminars that Twelves ran at game conventions. As someone who is both a teacher and trained at Improv, Twelves would rock up at conventions and run gamers through a series of exercises designed to teach them a few improvisation techniques and generally improve their confidence when it comes to making shit up on the fly.

These seminars were evidently a success and people started asking Twelves for her lesson plans, this forced her to actually sit down and work them out and the result was Improv for Gamers, which is now in its second edition and published by Evil Hat Productions, the people who put out Fate, Blades in the Dark, and a load of Powered by the Apocalypse stuff.

Despite the book’s title, this is by no means the only book about RPGs and improvisation. For example, James D’Amato had a big success with The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide while Graham Walmsley put out a book called Play Unsafe that approached the question from an entirely different angle.

Twelves’ Improv for Gamers is a lot closer to D’Amato’s book than it is to Walmsley’s in so far as both D’Amato and Twelves have been trained in Improv and are trying to take what they learned from those studies and sell that expertise on to people with an interest in RPGs.

The problem is evident from the title alone: What does it mean to write a book about Improv for gamers? Is it an introduction to Improv for people who happen to be gamers, or is it a book that takes the ideas behind Improv and applies them RPGs? D’Amato’s book is definitely an example of the latter and my first read through of Improv for Gamers left the impression that it had a similar aim. However, the more I think about it, the more I think that we need to bear in mind how this book started out: As a series of classes that were content with introducing Improv to gamers without making any grandiose claims as to how one discipline might learn from another.

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REVIEW: Ladies’ Night by Jack Ketchum

First published in 1997, Ladies’ Night was the tenth Jack Ketchum novel to see print but the second to be written. Ketchum’s introduction mentions that the original form of the novel was far longer than the 166-odd pages that would eventually see print nearly two decades after it was originally written. While I assumed this meant that Ketchum had written the novel and stuck it in a drawer, his Wikipedia page alludes to the shorter version of the story being a re-working of an unreleased Balantine Press manuscript. This suggests that the decision to stick this novel in a drawer might have come from the publishers rather than the author himself.

While the fate of the original version of Ladies’ Night is ultimately both immaterial and ancient history, it is interesting to think that Balantine Press might wave through a novel as gloriously violent as Ketchum’s debut Off Season only to draw the line at Ladies’ Night. Maybe the original form of the narrative was too long and maybe 1980s Ketchum was too prideful to make the sorts of cuts that he would eventually wind-up making prior to the release of this much truncated version. These are both distinct possibilities… Or maybe Balantine Press flinched from the choice of subject matter as Ladies’ Night is essentially a version of Night of the Living Dead in which only women are affected and men are forced to violently put them down.

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GHR: Animonde

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

Animonde was first published in 1988 and was the second RPG to be created by the legendary French game designer Croc. Animonde was originally self-published in the form of an 88-page booklet, which was soon followed by a supplement describing the game world and a collection of pre-written adventures. An attempt was made in the mid-to-late 2000s to produce a second edition but this soon fell by the way-side.

While Croc’s first RPG (Bitume) was an enormously cynical and violent post-apocalyptic game that is best described as what if Fallout and Mad Max hooked up and had a really sarcastic Gitanes-smoking French kid, his second game demonstrated an aesthetic reversal so radical that its basic ideas have yet to be fully understood or processed. Even in an age where is bursting at the seams with soft, smol bean, queer-friendly indie games about finding love and found family, Animonde still has the power to surprise and delight.

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On “The Crawling Chaos” by H.P. Lovecraft and Winifred V. Jackson

Canon Fodder is an occasional series in which I write about classic works of horror fiction. This particular part of the series is devoted to the complete published works of H.P. Lovecraft, which I will slowly be working my way through.

A bad trip into the outer darkness.

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REVIEW: Evil Archaeology by Heather Lynn

I’ve written before about the way that certain cultural spaces back-onto each other and how the varying proximities of different cultural scenes results in changes to the scenes themselves.

In the case of roleplaying-games, the scene started out backing-onto the world of wargames before drifting a lot closer to the world of literary SFF before moving closer to the world of computer RPGs and board-games. Each set of proximities shaped the internal culture of the RPG scene and each change in cultural proximities resulted in changes to how people made games, thought about games, and experienced games.

Similarly, science-fiction started out as adjacent to scientific non-fiction magazines before drifting closer to mainstream literature and then much closer first to Young Adult fiction and then to Romance. This isn’t to say that entire genres and marketplaces change overnight, just that smaller, less-stable marketplaces will often find themselves trapped in the gravity well of much larger cultural scenes that will inevitably result in people from the larger scenes crossing over as well as people from the smaller scene trying to connect with the larger marketplace.

The same dynamic is also at work in the world of what might be called paranormal non-fiction. Anyone who visited Forbidden Planet in the 1990s and 00s will remember that, despite focusing on SFF, comics, and nerd tat, Forbidden Planet also used to have a section devoted to books about UFOs.  That section was a product of a time when stuff like The X-Files saw the worlds of genre media and SFF drifting closer to the world of UFO literature.

While UFO literature has flirted with the mainstream a number of times (most recently in the 1990s), it tends to orbit a gravity well best referred to as ‘woo-woo bullshit’. The thing about woo-woo bullshit is that the gravity curve is very steep: You start with books about UFO sightings, then you start speculating about what these UFOs might be, then you start suggesting that the government is lying about the existence of aliens, and then you’re off to the races with the idea that the Earth was actually colonised by aliens and their cities are buried under the ice of the Antarctic. Venture any further down that particular slope and you get into talk of new age magic, and conspiracy theories involving lizard overlords. It’s all good fun but if you’re not careful you’ll start out reading works of speculative history like Fingerprints of the Gods and wind up reading about creationists debunking the fossil record. One of the best things about John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies is that it starts out as a book about a series of cryptid sightings and then descends into what can only be called paranoid woo-woo bullshit.

Heather Lynn’s Evil Archaeology is like the creepy space station at the beginning of the 1970s science-fiction film The Black Hole in that it seems to sit far enough from the event horizon that you feel like you can engage with it without getting sucked into the swirling vortex of bullshit that lies just beyond. You might even read the first few chapters and start to feel that this is a pretty solid work of popular scholarship but then the standards start to slip, the subject matter starts to drift and the book gets progressively sillier until you find yourself hip-deep in weird Christian nonsense.

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ZC: Weird Walk, number 6 (Winter 2022/23)

Zine Corner is an occasional series in which I talk about individual issues of zines I have come across on my travels. Some of these will be about RPGs, some of them will be about horror, some of them will be about folklore, and some of them will just be weird and cool. The rest of the series can be found here.

To say that Britain is a country drunk on nostalgia would be to downplay the scale of the problem. At this point, Britain isn’t so much drunkenly sharing amusing anecdotes about the good old days or even falling asleep on a tube platform after necking a bottle of White Lightening on the way to work. When it comes to nostalgia, Britain has moved on to the harder stuff, blown through all of its credit cards, lost its home, alienated its family, and is seriously considering taking that YouTuber up on his offer to pay it to get a swastika tattooed on its face. Just one more fix and then we’ll get clean… Who remembers the cockle man? Britannia rules the waves, right lads? Another blown out vein… get Brexit done.

Now that the Corbyn project and progressive politics in general have been safely nuked from orbit and the ‘adults’ are back in charge, nostalgia is the currency of the realm and people have started reaching back in search of an alternative; another Britain, a weirder Britain, a Britain that doesn’t suck quite as much as the one that has been forced upon us by the Establishment and their anxious upper middle-class allies.

This current of alternative nostalgia is partly a product of changes in fashion and organic generational shifts bringing the 1990s into cultural focus in the same way as the 1950s overshadowed the 1980s and the 1990s themselves were overshadowed by the 1960s. However, this wave of nostalgia feels less interested in pining after lost youth and more interested in winding back the clock and seeking out the jonbar hinge that gave birth to the current cursed timeline. I can remember a 1990s that was stranger, wilder, and more interesting than the one dominated by Britpop, New Labour and glossy lad mags. What happened to that version of the 1990s? Can we go back?

Owen Tromans, Alex Hornsby, and James Nicholls’ Weird Walk is one of a number of zines that form the tip of a cultural iceberg dedicated to re-discovering, re-making, and re-claiming a weirder version of Britain.

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REVIEW: Stealing Cthulhu by Graham Walmsley

First published in 2011, Stealing Cthulhu is a guide that teaches you to produce Lovecraftian narratives by breaking down Lovecraft’s short stories and re-mixing the component parts. Written by Graham Walmsley author of well-received Call of Cthulhu-clone Cthulhu Dark as well as a number of books for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu and a book about how to improvise as a GM, Stealing Cthulhu is aimed quite squarely at the RPG market and therein lays both its utility and its limitations.

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REVIEW: The Dark between the Trees by Fiona Barnett

A French literary critic whose name currently escapes me once argued that all genre storytelling resembles a jewel necklace in so far as it can be seen as a series of eye-catching jewels held together by a tiny thread. There are no structural differences between genres; the only things that change are the colour of the jewels.

Under this view, the character of each genre is determined by the appetites to which the various jewels appeal: A work of erotic fiction is a series of sex-scenes strung together to create a story. A work of science-fiction is a series of speculative set-pieces strung together to create a story. A work of horror is a series of terrifying interludes strung together to produce a story. A work of traditional literary fiction is a series of psychological interludes strung together to produce a story.

If we accept this characterisation of genre story-telling, then it makes sense to distinguish between a story’s affective payload and the technical proficiency with which it is delivered. It follows from this that there are two primary failure modes for genre story-telling: Firstly, there are stories that have the wrong affective payload for their designated genre. Secondly, there are stories that are so technically flawed that the audience never gets to connect with whatever it is that the author wants to show us.

While Fiona Barnett’s debut novel The Dark between the Trees is too well-structured to be an example of the latter, I do have serious questions as to the nature of its affective payload. Which jewels are supposed to be catching our eye? The publishers seem unsure as despite its dark cover and a blurb that speaks of witches and sinister forests, the book is not being marketed as horror. Instead, much like Francis Toon’s excellent Pine, The Dark between the Trees is being marketed as something called a Gothic Thriller.

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REVIEW: Keeper Reflections – Call of Cthulhu Campaigning by Michael Fryda

The more time I spend reviewing RPGs and RPG-related products, the more I am convinced that roleplaying is primarily an oral culture.

The problem is not just that RPG texts tend to be quite poor at articulating how it is that specific games are supposed to be played, it’s also that most people’s first contact with a new game is to sit down at a table and go with the flow. This results in a degree of cultural conservatism that goes some way to explaining a lot of the backlash against both non-traditional indie RPGs and more recent attempts by RPG culture to address not only toxic power-dynamics but also the questionable politics of some RPG texts.

It’s not that people necessarily think that GMs should have more power than players or that marginalised people should pull themselves together and stop complaining, it’s more that people aren’t used to asking questions and once questions are asked, they lack a theoretical vocabulary with which to respond.

Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu is a game with a remarkably conservative (some might even say stagnant) playing culture. Despite producing seven different editions in over forty years, Chaosium have never shown much interest in re-examining any of the game’s core concepts and any supplements the company produces for the game tend to be either re-editions of existing books or variations on existing themes. Tinker, tinker, but never fix.

While some might argue that the recent explosion in the number of Lovecraft-inspired investigative horror games is a reflection of the dubious ethics of previous Chaosium management teams, I suspect that some of it is simply down to the fact that while people love the idea of Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu is starting to show its age and would benefit from a bit of a re-think.

One area in grave need of some fresh thinking is the question of what a Call of Cthulhu campaign is actually supposed to look like. Regardless of the edition, people know what a Dungeons & Dragons campaign is supposed to look like and the cycle that has you learning your character, acquiring XPs, and improving your character before going back to learning your character has proved remarkably robust. So… given that Call of Cthulhu is now over forty years old, what is a Call of Cthulhu campaign supposed to look like?

A while ago, I wrote a piece about what I called the ‘Standard Model’ of Call of Cthulhu and how Chaosium’s vision of a Call of Cthulhu campaign is for you to play a brilliantly simple scenario called “The Haunting” and then move on to these vast and hugely expensive globe-trotting meat-grinder campaigns that are difficult to run even for experienced GMs with devoted groups of players. For a long time, the only alternative to the Standard Model of Call of Cthulhu was to play self-contained stand-alone scenarios with pre-rolled player characters. A tacit acceptance that Call of Cthulhu is primarily a game you play as a special event or as part of a break from your regular campaign.

To their credit, Chaosium have been trying to address this problem by drifting away from their traditional ‘Rough guide to 1920s New York’ style of setting book and putting out a load of sourcebooks that present themselves as settings but are actually better understood as short campaigns with some additional setting and character-creation material.

The second you move beyond the adventures provided in the books, you run into the same question that Call of Cthulhu has always faced: What does a home-made Call of Cthulhu campaign actually look like?

Michael Fryda has published a handful of Call of Cthulhu adventures and runs the Youtube channel RPG Imaginings. He has also run a Call of Cthulhu campaign that lasted over fifty sessions and Keeper Reflections: Call of Cthulhu Campaigning is an attempt to explain how he did it by codifying and unpacking some of the lessons he learned and the changes he made. Though somewhat uneven and in need of some external editing, the lessons, advice, and ideas contained in this document are streets ahead of anything you will find in the seventh edition core rulebooks.

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