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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REVIEW: Occult London by Merlin Coverley

One of the nice things about returning to an old hobby is discovering the way that time and emotional detachment translate into critical distance.

When Lockdown gave me the excuse/opportunity to start a regular RPG campaign, my first instinct was to approach writing a game in the way that RPG publishers suggest. In other words, I chose a game, then some setting books, and then I tried to find a story I wanted to tell using that game and that setting. However, the second I sat down and started reading, I remembered why I tended not to make much use of setting books…

I was always happy to spend money on RPG supplements but when the time came to actually sit down and prepare a session, I always wound up looking elsewhere for my inspiration. At the time, I assumed that this was down to my being either lazy or inattentive but revisiting these kinds of books as a mature adult has really brought home the profound mediocrity of your average RPG: Poorly written, poorly organised, under-imagined, and almost completely devoid of useful information, your average RPG supplement promises to save you time but inevitably turns out to be little more than a waste of money.

However, rather than turning myself into a purveyor of hatchet jobs, I thought it might be useful to cast the net a little wider and take a look at books which, though not written with games in mind, could be used as inspiration for your campaigns. Who knows… reading more abstract source material might even help me work out what I actually want from RPG supplements in future.

Merlin Coverley is a British author best known for his book on psychogeography, a literary tradition best described as producing essays about place that draw as much upon first-person experience of these places as they do from conceptual frameworks dreamt up by critical theorists. If this sounds rather like using a sledgehammer to crack an egg then you are already most of the way towards grasping the aesthetics of the form as psychogeography is all about bringing together the visceral, the mundane, and the impossibly high-minded.

What this means in practice is that psychogeographers often wind up writing about the present in terms of abandoned pasts and potential futures, and this is where the connection with RPG setting books becomes most obvious as it turns out that there is a long tradition of writing about London in terms of its occult history. Coverley’s Occult London offers an entertaining, accessible, and fascinating overview of London’s occult history that could easily inspire any number of RPG supplements let alone sessions.

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