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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