GHR: Torg

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.

First published in 1990 by West End Games, Torg was a game so conceptually dense and full of innovation that it was actually quite difficult to play the game as intended.

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ZC: Bayt al Azif – Issue 2

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.

Published in August 2019, the second issue of Jared Smith’s Bayt al Azif continues the excellent work started in the first issue.

As with BAA1, the zine offers an intriguing blend of self-contained scenarios, reviews, inspirational material, and non-fiction stuff including commentary and interviews. Despite being four years old, this issue of Bayt al Azif remains useful, thought-provoking and really reasonably priced given what you can expect to pay for a single scenario.

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REVIEW – Dangerous Games by Joseph P. Laycock

My first attempt at reading Dangerous Games – What the Moral Panic over Role-Playing Games Says about Play, Religion, and Imagined Worlds ended in ignominious defeat as I read the introduction and abandoned the book in disgust. Thankfully, this pain (like all pain) turned out to be transitory as the book improves once you get past the introduction.

The book’s analysis comprises three broad moves: The first is to provide a potted history of RPGs and explain how roleplaying games wound up getting sucked into the 1980s Satanic Panic. Having laid out a lot of the facts regarding the conflict and provided a bit of historical context, Laycock attempts to account for this conflict in terms of a territorial dispute between two sets of institutions with broadly similar cultural functions. The book’s remaining moves are all about unpacking and supporting that highly counter-intuitive piece of historical framing as the second move involves establishing that playing RPGs is a form of religious practice while the third move involves arguing that being a right-wing fundamentalist Christian culture warrior is a bit like playing an RPG.

I did not abandon Dangerous Games because it was poorly written. For the most part, Laycock writes in an admirably clear manner and moves quite smoothly from an in-depth coverage of the historical record to spirited engagement with a range of quite complex philosophical issues without ever missing a beat. This book may have been published by an academic press but it is eminently accessible to a lay audience.

My disgust was born neither of the writing nor of the subject matter but rather from the manner in which Laycock chooses to frame his investigation: Laycock wrote a book about the Culture Wars of the 1980s but positions himself as a sort of enlightened Centrist. He is a man who can compare a bunch of dishonest, deranged, and deeply bigoted reactionaries to a group of slightly introverted people playing board-games and conclude that they are both engaging in the same sort of activity. As Dril might have put it:

The wise assistant professor of Religious Studies at Texas State University bowed his head solemnly and spoke: “There’s actually zero difference between good & bad things: You imbecile. You fucking moron.”

Seeing as I don’t like wasting money (particularly on books that seem like they might be interesting), I decided to give this book a second try and I am very glad that I did as the introductory tone of detached centrism, moral equivalence, and black-eyed Christian apologetics is not borne out by the body of the text. I can understand why a man teaching Religious Studies at a Southern university might feel the need to present himself as someone who is above the fray and critical of both the religious right and their victims but if you look beyond the centrist posturing you’ll find a book that not only has a lot of interesting things to say about irony, play, escapism and religious attitudes towards truth but which is also absolutely scathing in its depiction of 1980s religious conservatism as a bunch of self-righteous LARPers.

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REVIEW: Hauntology by Merlin Coverley

People (like me) who have put a lot of time and energy into writing reviews will often argue that criticism should be understood not merely as a reaction to existing works of art, but as an art form in its own right. In fact, one of the reasons for talking about ‘criticism’ as opposed to ‘reviews’ is that ‘criticism’ seems less culturally derivative. I would push this argument even further: I would argue that if we accept that criticism is its own cultural form, then the same must also be true of Theory-craft and Merlin Coverley’s Hauntology is a superb example of how much fun you can have mucking about with Theory.

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REVIEW: Dungeons & Dragons – Honor among Thieves

When I started this blog, I decided not to do straight film reviews. I have spent a long time writing film reviews and when I took an extended break from blogging, I decided to start afresh with something new. That methodological firewall has held strong for a number of years now but then a film comes along and you need to write about it but it simply does not fit into any of your existing pigeon-holes.

In this case, that film is Dungeons & Dragons: Honor among Thieves, a hyper-commercial, hyper-saturated Hollywood blockbuster built around corporate IP that I should (by all accounts) loathe but somehow wound up absolutely adoring.

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INSPO: Elizabeth R

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.

Like most living entities, Britain has a tendency to assemble its identity from episodes cherry-picked from its own past. In some cases, episodes have been selected to fit the vibes of a particular moment only for these moments and their cultural signifiers to be discarded when the vibes change and the old memories no longer serve as a buttress for who we want to be.

This practice is most evident in the case of modern Britain’s relationship with the Victorian era where growing awkwardness about Britain’s blood-spattered colonial history has resulted in whole facets of Victorian life being either ignored or quietly memory-holed until all that’s left of the British empire is some vaguely Dickensian imagery in a Christmas supermarket advert for Oreo-flavoured mince pies.

One of the biggest differences between today’s Britain and Britain in the 1990s is a change in its favoured royal spirit-animal. Contemporary Britain finds solace in the idea of an obese and visibly drunk Henry VIII driving a digger through a load of boxes and declaring his intention to get Brexit done and by formally severing all ecclesiastical ties between Rome and the Church of England. Back in the 1990s, people tended to look to the reign of Elizabeth I as the early stages of Britain’s colonial project seemed to chime with British companies outsourcing all of their manufacturing capacity to Third World sweatshops. Elizabeth I also seems ‘liberal’ by the standards of British monarchs but I suspect that was mostly down to the fact that she ended her half-sister’s policy of torturing Protestants and burning them at the stake. The British royal family doesn’t get many W’s when it comes to being progressive but not having town councils burn people alive was definitely one of them. Kudos Good Queen Bess… welcome to the Resistance.

The 90s reclamation of Elizabeth and all things Elizabethan resulted in a number of film and TV series including Shekhar Kapur’s Elizabeth starring Cate Blanchette. The success of Elizabeth meant that Kapur and Blanchette were able to team up again to produce a sequel entitled Elizabeth: The Golden Age that featured a more mature and confident Elizabeth facing down the might of Spain.  The Golden Age has less of a cultural finger-print than the original partly by virtue of the fact that it appeared nine years later and partly by virtue of the fact that the film’s bright and hyper-saturated visual palette was so radically at odds with the shadowy grimness of the original that it felt like a completely unrelated project. This was deliberate as while the first film is all about Elizabeth trying to secure and hold onto her throne, the second film is about high-level strategic decisions made by a woman who was in absolute control of her body-politic.

This deliberate tonal shift intended to represent different stages of Elizabeth’s life was not entirely original. Though well-remembered and well-loved, Elizabeth is a film that borrowed quite freely from a much older TV adaptation of Elizabeth’s life entitled Elizabeth R. This is a series that has much to teach us about an interesting approach to structuring campaigns.

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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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