REVIEW: Game Wizards by Jon Peterson

Jon Peterson is rapidly making a name for himself as the foremost academic expert on Dungeons & Dragons. This rise to prominence may have started back in 2012 with a book about the history of Wargames and RPGs before a momentary detour into D&D-themed art books but the last couple of years have been spent doing serious groundwork not only into the history of Dungeons & Dragons but also the early years of the RPG hobby.

Game Wizards is not the first long-form history of D&D, it isn’t even the only book on the early history of D&D to be published this year, but its desire to move beyond the broad narrative strokes of cultural memory lays down a gauntlet for all future RPG historians: You must be at least this rigorous to pass muster.

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REVIEW: The Ultimate RPG Backstory Guide by James D’Amato

Back in 1955, Lawrence Olivier appeared in a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. His performance was so iconic that it defined how both the character and the historical figure would be seen for generations to come. By the time the 1980s rolled around, people in British theatre started to realise that they were going to have to start pushing back against the 50s epics lest they lose the characters forever. If every rendition of Richard III turns into an imitation of Lawrence Olivier, why bother going to see a live performance?

For their 1984 performance of Richard III, the Royal Shakespeare Company brought in an actor named Anthony Sher and gave him carte blanche to re-think the character from scratch. Years late, Sher would write a (thoroughly excellent) book entitled Year of the King describing his efforts to create a new Richard III. According to the book, Sher went out and researched different types of deformity before hitting on the idea of Richard as a huge tic-like spider. Working with choreographers and artists, Sher devised not just a look and a style of movement but an array of physical tics and movements so jarring that his time on stage ended with months of physiotherapy. Even before the first rehearsals or attempts at workshopping, Sher had already worked out what his Richard would sound like, what he would look like, and what he would wear. The process took months and the amount of creativity and preparation that went into the role absolutely beggar belief.

And yet, the amount of preparation that Sher put into his Richard III pales into insignificance when compared to the amount of preparation that James D’Amato invites us to put into our RPG characters. There’s over-preparation and then there’s the levels of preparation encouraged by The Ultimate RPG Backstory Guide.

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REVIEW: Dark Folklore by Mark Norman and Tracey Norman

I am the first to admit that I know very little about myth, legend, and folklore.

The closest I ever got to a historical interest in folklore was getting caught up in the 1990s UFO craze that was adjacent to the original transmission of the X-Files. I’ve watched a lot of dodgy TV programmes about ghosts, monsters, unexplained mysteries, and cattle mutilations but those kinds of TV programmes tend to approach those kinds of phenomena by ‘debating’ whether or not they are based on real-world events. This is only one of several ways in which odd beliefs might be interrogated.

Folklorists – on the other hand – seem to have little interest in whether or not an event actually happened. Rather than getting bogged down in the ‘soundness’ or ‘reasonableness’ of believing in ghosts or UFOs, folklorists tend to be in the business of cataloguing beliefs and interrogating their origins by considering the social, cultural, and psychological forces that might allow unusual beliefs to gain traction amongst a broader population.

Written as a collaboration between the historian and playwright Tracey Norman and the folklorist and podcaster Mark Norman, Dark Folklore is a short but evocative ramble through some of the darker corners of contemporary folklore; Emphasis on the ramble.

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REVIEW: H.P Lovecraft – A Short Biography by S.T. Joshi

I did not know which direction I was going to go when I first started working my way through all of Lovecraft’s stories. I started out by thinking of them as sources of ideas for games but the more I read, the more interested I became in Lovecraft as a creator. To become interested in Lovecraft is to become interested in his sensibility and one cannot engage with Lovecraft’s sensibility without knowing a little bit about his personal history and the social context in which he was writing.

Having read some commentary on Lovecraft’s stories and a lot of the discourse surrounding his racism, I already knew a few bits and pieces about his personal history. However, if I was going to work my way through all of Lovecraft’s stories and engage with Lovecraft the man, then I needed to make sure that I had at least most of the facts straight in my head.

The problem with this approach to the study of Lovecraft is that is a lot of scholarship out there. Joshi estimates that Lovecraft may have written upwards of 80,000 letters in his life and while most of them are lost, a lot of them remain and they are full to bursting with personal details, evolving ideas, and background details on his life and the creation of stories. Little wonder then that there is a real cottage industry when it comes to writings about Lovecraft the man. In principle, all you need is some of his published correspondence and a few ideas and you too can come up with a fresh biographically-inspired interpretation of the man’s work!

The problem with taking this approach to Lovecraft’s work is that a lot of people got there before you and so many biographical details will have been mined for literary significance. For example, back when I was writing about “Polaris”, I came across a reference to someone suggesting that the story might have been inspired by lingering guilt over Lovecraft’s failure to fight in World War I. To my mind, this seems utterly ludicrous as Lovecraft had not only failed to bear the emotional burdens of high school; he also tended to be remarkably downbeat when it came to recognising of his own limits. A young man who struggled with high-school and beat himself up about it would not then think that he could have made a meaningful contribution on the Western Front. This being said, the person who made that claim about “Polaris” could probably point to Lovecraft’s repeated attempts to join the Rhode Island National Guard as well as a number of letters as proof that he had serious martial ambitions. Now… as someone who has always been more interested in critical interpretation than in biographical trainspotting, I would argue that regretting that one did not have the chance to become a celebrated soldier is not the same thing as seriously entertaining fighting in World War I but it would be interesting to know what Lovecraft actually said or did about serving in the military.

The problem with taking an interest in a historical figure whose life has already been subjected to serious scrutiny is where to start. At first, I thought that I might take a run at Joshi’s big biography but that thing is about as thick as a phonebook and full of footnotes. Similarly, if I wanted to wade into the correspondence then I would be confronted with a series of books, all quite thick and often collected according to the person with whom Lovecraft happened to be corresponding. All of these texts may be available, but I all I want is a means of putting meat on the bones of psychological speculation. I want to know more about Lovecraft but I’m not sure I’m ready to learn everything about him just yet. Thankfully, Joshi has written a book providing newbs like me with a short, engaging and accessible on-ramp to the world of Lovecraft scholarship.

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REVIEW: The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide by James D’Amato

I’ll open with four basic observations about this book:

Firstly, The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide is not a beginner’s guide to RPGs or one of those ‘how to run a regular game’ books like The Lazy DM’s Guide. Nor is it an introduction to the act of roleplaying that tells you how to put on a funny voice or develop a character concept. The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide is best thought of as an assortment of guided exercises and theoretical essays designed to help improve your game by making you a better participant in RPGs in that the advice this book is relevant to both players and GMs.

Secondly, the author of this book James D’Amato is not a game designer but rather the creator of a series of successful actual play podcasts. He is also someone who has been formally trained in improvisational comedy by a number of august educational institutions.

Thirdly, despite having been published by Simon and Schuster and having enough of a marketing push behind it that I actually found my copy of this book in a generalist bookshop in a small British town, The Ultimate RPG Gameplay Guide is by far and away the single worse-organised piece of non-fiction writing I have ever encountered.

Fourthly, once you move beyond the fact that D’Amato is bad at both articulating his ideas and presenting said ideas in a logical fashion, this book is surprisingly good.

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REVIEW: Empire of Imagination by Michael Witwer

At some point, someone is going to publish a history of Dungeons & Dragons that does not simply stop at the point when E. Gary Gygax was forced out of TSR. At some point, someone is going to write a history of Dungeons & Dragons that engages with the creative process and tries to understand why the game assumed the shape it did.

We have not yet reached that point.

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REVIEW: Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt

A book that talks as much about the history of Dungeons & Dragons as it does about the book’s author. One of these subjects is considerably more interesting than the other.

Dungeons & Dragons seems to be doing pretty well for itself nowadays. The game’s fifth edition is said to be its most popular ever, people pull down six figure salaries for playing their games in public and entire online platforms exist just to help you find players and run games over the internet. It is easy to forget, but this present was not unavoidable.

Back in 2013, D&D was in trouble. An unpopular fourth edition had failed to rally the troops let alone gain purchase with people outside the hobby and a large chunk of the game’s existing audience had been lured away to Pathfinder. These were thin years for D&D, years without professional DMs or streaming audiences large enough to allow people to quit their day jobs.

In 2021, Dungeons & Dragons is dangerously close to being cool. In 2013, it was what might be referred to as a low-status pastime. The associated feelings of shame cast a long shadow over Of Dice and Men, a book that is as much about the history of Dungeons & Dragons as it is about the author’s conflicted feelings about his love for the game.

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REVIEW: The Elusive Shift by Jon Peterson

I was an undergraduate when I first became aware of the fact that people outside the hobby wrote books about roleplaying games.

Back in the days before Amazon, these books were virtually impossible to find and if you did manage to track any of them down you discovered that had all been written decades previously for lay audience. I can still remember using an inter-library loan programme to get hold of a copy of Gary Alan Fine’s Shared Fantasy hoping for some academic-level analysis of RPGs only to discover a weird collection of anecdotes about Americans playing Empire of the Petal Throne at some point in the early 1980s.

However, in the twenty-or-so years since that first encounter with RPG scholarship, academic institutions have tried to catch up.

Like all human institutions, academia is an expansionist project. Always desperate for more money, prestige, and resources, academic departments invariably recruit more graduate students that they need and so each new generation of graduate students faces greater pressure when it comes to finding jobs, building careers, and carving out professional niches. As a result of these economic and social pressures, each new generation of academics is forced to push the boat out just that little bit further in search of virgin subject matter that can be mined for articles, books, research fellowships, and undergraduate courses.

Evidently, all of the intellectual land east of the D&D has now been settled and the covered wagons are starting to trundle across the plains of Roleplaying.

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