REVIEW: The Hole by PYUN Hye-Young

There is a tendency for journalists to write in the passive voice. This is most obvious when journalists are writing about atrocities and crimes perpetrated by those allied to or acting on behalf of the status quo: The police never kill an unarmed Black man just as the Israeli military never shoot peaceful protestors. Instead, the unarmed Black men are always killed after someone calls the police. Similarly, Palestinian protesters wind up dead after a tense encounter with the Israeli defence forces.

The problem is that active voice implies not only cause-and-effect but also guilt and responsibility. To say that the police killed an unarmed man implies that the police took out their guns and murdered a man who posed little to no danger. Similarly, to say that the Israeli military killed hundreds of peaceful protesters implies deliberate cold-blooded murder. It’s not that these things do not happen (because they manifestly do)… it’s just that saying that they did can be both legally and politically embarrassing.

This critique is not new, people are well aware of the tendency to report the actions of institutions in the passive voice, but what of using the passive voice to describe the actions of a single person? What about a life described entirely in the passive voice? Are we responsible for our actions or do things just happen to us? This is a question raised by the winner of the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award. Written by the South Korean author PYUN Hye-Young and translated by Sora Kim-Russell.

Continue reading “REVIEW: The Hole by PYUN Hye-Young”

REVIEW: People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry

In May 2000, Lucie Blackman and Louise Philips left the UK for Japan. Friends since childhood, the pair had been working as flight attendants and when that career path didn’t work out, they decided to take some time and travel around Asia. Their first port of call was Tokyo where they secured work as hostesses in a bar where Japanese men would pay to get drunk in the company of beautiful Western women. Two months after taking the job in the Roppongi district of Tokyo, Lucie Blackman left for a meeting with a client. That evening, Lucie called home to inform her flat-mate that she was visiting the sea-side with a client. She was never seen again.

A few days after Lucie’s disappearance, Louise was contacted by a man who claimed to be a member of a cult that Lucie had recently joined. According to this man, Lucie had embarked on a new stage of her life and wished to have no further contact with her old friends and family. Seven months later, Lucie’s dismembered body was found in a cave 200 yards from the home of Joji Obara, a once-phenomenally successful property tycoon whose phone Lucie used to call home the evening of her disappearance. When the police searched Obara’s home, they found detailed records of Obara’s sexual history including references to somewhere between 150 and 400 women who had all been befriended, drugged and raped as part of Obara’s fondness for what he referred to as ‘conquest play’.

Written by the Times’ Asian editor Richard Lloyd Parry, People Who Eat Darkness is the story of Lucie’s abduction, her family’s search for justice, and the weird Japanese demi-monde that first put Lucie in contact with Obara.

Continue reading “REVIEW: People Who Eat Darkness by Richard Lloyd Parry”

Thoughts on Platforms, Monetisation and the D&D Community

So, last week news began to leak out about an investors’ conference call at which Hasbro CEO Chris Cocks and Wizards of the Coast CEO Cynthia Williams commented that while D&D is a popular brand with loads of fans and a ton of active engagement, “the brand is really under-monetised”.

This has apparently sent very online D&D nerds into a bit of a tizzy as people have started catastrophizing about what this judgement will mean for the new generation of D&D that is due to drop next year. For example, Williams added that while only 20% of D&D players run games, those that do account for the vast majority of D&D-related spending. People have taken this to mean that WOTC might be looking for ways to include player-facing micro-transactions in their online gaming platforms. The range of hypothetical player-facing products range from dice skins, improved character animations, and higher-powered character creation options all the way through to in-game buffs, magical items, and additional gold pieces that you can buy straight from the platform.

As someone who has minimal investment in the D&D5 ecosystem, I don’t really care but I think that people’s fears are genuine because the move that Hasbro is preparing to make has already been made a number of times.

Continue reading “Thoughts on Platforms, Monetisation and the D&D Community”

REVIEW: Dice Men – The Origin story of Games Workshop by Ian Livingstone with Steve Jackson

Games Workshop occupies a bit of a weird space in my relationship to gaming history: On the one hand, I have always really loved the art design of Games Workshop products and I remember loving the idea of Warhammer 40K and Space Marines long before I ever became aware of RPGs or even miniature-based games. Having grown up in Britain in the 1990s, it was not possible to be interested in this kind of stuff without encountering the vibes and visuals that radiated off of Games Workshop’s products. On the other hand, I became aware of RPGs a little too late to remember the days when Games Workshop were a presence in the RPG landscape and so, as far as I am concerned, Games Workshop is just that place on the high street that sells really well-designed but horrifically overpriced miniatures used in a series of really rather dull and uninteresting war-games.

Because of this slightly weird relationship with Games Workshop, I did not buy Dice Men: The Origin Story of Games Workshop out of a sense of nostalgia but rather out of a desire to learn a little bit more about the early days of the British RPG scene. It turns out that this was a bit of a mistake as while Livingstone does mention RPGs, it is merely as part of a list of products produced by a company that Livingstone happened to set up. Those expecting insights into the RPG industry or even social history are doomed to be disappointed as Dice Men reads less like a personal slice of geek history and more like a polite and really rather mundane business memoir written by a man who entered and exited the world of table-top games without much in the way of emotional attachment one way or the other. While this is a bit of a disappointment, it is also a refreshing change from the high-pitched melodrama that tends to echo through the pages of every published history of Dungeons & Dragons. This being said, the book is not without its own brand of quiet revelations.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Dice Men – The Origin story of Games Workshop by Ian Livingstone with Steve Jackson”

FR: My Experiences Ghost-Hunting

For Real is an occasional series about scary, horrific, and unsettling stuff that presents itself as non-fiction. This might include the paranormal as well as true crime and odd occurrences. The rest of the series can be found here.

Do I believe that, when our body dies, it is survived by some form of immaterial essence? No. Do I believe that the spirits of the dead persist on Earth in such a way that they periodically reveal themselves to the living? No.

And yet I believe in ghosts.

To my mind, ghosts are psychological phenomena born of intense emotion. In some cases, a ghost is a manifestation of emotional trauma. In other cases, a ghost is a passing re-connection with either a memory or an earlier emotional state. I believe that there are places that are haunted by the sheer weight of history and I believe that some of us are followed around by the fragments of trauma, longing, and loss. Ghosts can be summoned and spoken to. Ghosts can be so persistent that they require some form of exorcism to remove them from people’s lives. Ghosts can be seen when we baffle our perceptions with enough ambiguity that our minds step in to fill the blanks.

I have been going on ghost-hunts for about a decade now. I started out going on ghost-walks before paying to go on organised hunts and I now go on one every couple of years, usually when I can convince someone to go with me. I do this because I find ghost-hunts to be these endlessly fascinating collections of psychological phenomena that reveal a lot about not only the ambiguities of human perception but also about group-dynamics, and the eccentricities of post-religious spiritual experience. Oh… and if you’ll let it… ghost-hunting will also tell you a lot about how to run an RPG.

Continue reading “FR: My Experiences Ghost-Hunting”

On “Celephaïs” by H.P. Lovecraft

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.

Escapism only works if you’re able to escape.

Continue reading “On “Celephaïs” by H.P. Lovecraft”

REVIEW: The Spirit by Thomas Page

The Spirit is a short (but not particularly lean) novel about two ostensibly very different men coming together to hunt Bigfoot. In terms of genre topography, the novel owes less to traditional horror and more to the kinds of films that used to be made by people like Walter Miller. Think Deliverance, Rambo: First Blood, or Southern Comfort and you have the precise vibe of this novel. This is a book of low budgets, simmering male rage, and just enough insight to lend a sense of gravitas and poignancy to what could so easily have wound up feeling like a load of ludicrous nonsense.

The Spirit was first published in 1977 and is one of a number of weird-and-wonderful novels to have been re-discovered and re-released after receiving a positive mention in Grady Hendrix’s Paperbacks from Hell. I mention this as awareness of the book’s publication history is really useful when trying to understand what it is that this book set out to achieve. Indeed, while The Spirit can definitely be understood as a Bigfoot horror novel, the book is a lot more interested in the men doing the hunting and how Bigfoot mythology is shaped and re-shaped by the needs of different sets of people.

Continue reading “REVIEW: The Spirit by Thomas Page”

REVIEW: Sigil & Shadow

Like most milieus, the RPG scene is subject to the winds of fashion and one of the areas in which changes in fashion are most visual is the balance struck between what is colloquially known as crunch and fluff. For example, while original D&D may have had a setting that was implied both by the rules and by the inspirational source material, there was no ‘official’ setting in which D&D campaigns were supposed to take place and so people built their own dungeons, their own towns, and eventually their own worlds. Fast forward a few decades and the balance between crunch and fluff had shifted so radically that people in the 00s would often buy RPG books and read them like novels, knowing full well that the books would never translate into actual game sessions.

The movement between these two extremes of fashion and design philosophy is so pronounced that people entering the hobby at one point in its history can often be quite surprised by approaches taken in the past. For example, someone raised to expect a balance of fluff and crunch similar to that built into the World of Darkness games would most likely be appalled by the dryness of a GURPS manual while someone used to the focused design philosophies of 21st Century story games would probably be appalled by the amount of useless background and setting-cruft that filled the pages of RPG books from the late 1990s. Fashions change, people change, and perceptions of games change with them.

As someone who first encountered the scene in the early 1990s, I have come to expect a certain amount of fluff as a means of providing GMs with some sort of steer when it comes to the kinds of adventures they might want to run with a particular game. A game doesn’t need to do a lot but it does need to tell me what kind of stories it is intended to help me tell and provide a few setting details to help inspire me to write my own adventures.

While Sigil & Shadow was first published in 2021 by Osprey Games, the book’s acknowledgements make it clear that the game started life in 2014 as an attempt to create a contemporary occult RPG from the distillation of two distinct systems, one devoted to fantasy and the other devoted to espionage. I mention this as Sigil & Shadow is a book so dry that it feels like a weird hybrid of 1970s writing and 2020s desk-top publishing.

Continue reading “REVIEW: Sigil & Shadow”

On “Poetry and the Gods” by H.P. Lovecraft

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.

Someone tell Howard to log-off… he’s posting cringe on the APAs.

Continue reading “On “Poetry and the Gods” by H.P. Lovecraft”

INSPO: The A-Team

INSPO is a series of posts about non-horror topics that could nonetheless be used as inspiration for a horror game. The rest of the series can be found here.

I am not clear on where we currently stand in the cycle of fashionable attitudes regarding the A-Team. Are we on ironic appreciation, nostalgic re-appropriation, or overly-sincere adoration? To be perfectly honest, I am not clear on where my own attitudes towards the original series lie. As with many of these kinds of series, I suspect I like them more in theory than I do in practice but the theory is so sound that it makes a great subject for a series of articles about using non-horrific media as inspiration for a horror RPG.

Continue reading “INSPO: The A-Team”