REVIEW: Psychogeography by Merlin Coverley

Given that this site is primarily about RPGs, you might be forgiven for thinking that a book about psychogeography is some distance ‘out of my lane’.

My justification for covering this book is two-fold: Firstly, I wrote about Coverley’s more recent book Occult London and found it to be a really good fit for the type of stuff I have been writing about. Secondly, my recent attempts to review Call of Cthulhu supplements left me feeling that I needed to have a bit of a think about the creative processes through which real-world cities are turned into venues for Horrific and Fantastical stories, and that process of re-invention and re-imagination is precisely what psychogeography is all about.

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WTD: Harry Price – Ghost Hunter (2015)

Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.

There is something deeply satisfying about the on-going relevance of Harry Price. Price was born in 1881 and died in 1948 meaning that his career as a ghost-hunter straddled a period in which British ideas about ghosts transitioned from the earnest sub-Christian spirituality of the Victorian era to something more fluid and complex. This relevance is satisfying because, if you consider Price’s career and his various writings on the subject of ghosts, you will find ideas and attitudes consistent with every single point on the spectrum between absolute scepticism and utter credulity.

Harry Price was a passionately idealistic cynic and a laughably credulous sceptic at the same time except for those moments in which he was the opposite. His life and actions are peppered with so many lies, reversions, rebuttals, and inconsistencies that it is almost impossible to work out where genuine belief ended and cynical pragmatism began.

When viewed from a historical perspective, Price’s inconsistencies are fascinating as the contradictions in his thoughts and deeds often serve to highlight tensions that are still present in the beliefs of people who claim to believe in ghosts. For example, Price’s tendency to double down on his own claims whilst rigorously debunking the claims of others reflects the way that people who believe in the paranormal will often make a great show of their own studious scepticism. I mean… sure… I believe that the spirit of my dead grandmother is feeding me the week’s lottery numbers but at least I’m not a credulous imbecile like those Bigfoot wankers! When viewed from a dramatic perspective, Price’s inconsistencies and reversals are almost unfathomable. How can you make sense of a man who seemed to believe both in everything and nothing at all?

Harry Price: Ghost Hunter is a 2015 TV movie inspired by a series of novels by Neil Spring. The film tried to account for Price’s ideological mercuriality in terms of lingering trauma, financial necessity, and something far more engagingly pragmatic. The result was a short film that really should have become a longer series as its vision of Price was just as compelling as its willingness to engage with the idea of spiritualism as a form of ersatz psychotherapy.

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REVIEW: Play Unsafe by Graham Walmsley

First published in 2007 and based upon a series of threads posted on the old Story Games forum, Graham Walmsley’s Play Unsafe is a book about how to use improvisation to run RPG sessions. Only 74 pages long, the book is short on detail and substance but long on wisdom and insight.

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On Early, Mid, and End-Games in RPG campaigns

A little while ago, I wrote a piece about the World of Darkness Documentary and I noted that while I was never able to get a game off the ground, I did buy pretty much all of the original World of Darkness titles. Given that one of the reasons for never successfully getting a game off the ground was my profound antipathy to the old Storyteller system, it is interesting that I persisted with buying the products.

One reason for continuing to hand over my money was that the World of Darkness games were all pretty to look at and pretty well-written at a time when neither of those things were particularly common in the RPG industry. Even if you never actually sat down to play a WoD title, you could still look at the art, read the introductory short-story, and generally explore the very clear thematic vibe that each game put out.

Another (not unrelated) reason was that reading the books would inspire you to not only create characters but also to imagine how those characters might evolve over time. You could imagine a Vampire rising through the ranks of the local Camarilla but you could also imagine playing a Werewolf or a Mage and reaching the point where you got access to very specific powers. You could imagine your character changing and the games you played changing with them. It is interesting how few options there are for marking the passage of time and allowing your gameplay to evolve alongside your characters.

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WTD: David Ash

Watching the Detectives is a series of posts about drawing inspiration from fictitious paranormal investigators, occult detectives, police psychics, and monster hunters. The rest of the series can be found here.

The further we advance into the 21st Century, the shorter our memories become. Social media platforms run on engagement and engagement demands content. This perpetual demand for greater and greater amounts of content has resulted in hype cycles that last days, trends that burn out after a couple of weeks, and identities that collapse after a few months: Blink and you’ll miss a punk-pop revival or a 90s fashion flashback.

We live in an age of ever-accelerating cultural churn. A churn designed to produce cultural moments that matter intensely right up until the second they are dropped and everyone moves on. Back in October, saying that the trailers for Marvel’s Eternals looked terrible would get you denounced in the worst terms imaginable and then everyone just stopped caring and moved on to the next vale of tears.

This sense of perpetual acceleration can make it intensely strange to look back at older cultural products. Some IP is forever green because people have devoted billions to ensure it stays that way but move beyond the narrow range of intellectual property supported by 21st Century capitalism and you start stumbling across stuff that feels like it might have fallen through the cracks from another universe.

For example, James Herbert began his writing career in the 1970s and went on to sell 54 Million books in dozens of different languages. The son of a market trader who insisted upon designing all of his own covers, Herbert died in 2012 a multi-millionaire with an OBE and yet, for all the excitement his name bears in the 21st Century, he might as well have been a 1980s TV presenter or one of the Tudor playwrights who didn’t happen to be either Marlowe or Shakespeare.

What little fame the Herbert name retains is born of his first two novels; The Rats and The Fog. However, Herbert would go on to write a further 21 novels of which the David Ash series comprises three: Haunted, The Ghosts of Sleath, and Herbert’s last novel Ash. Though the series may have begun in the late 1980s and spanned four decades, the vibe of the series remained rooted in the 1970s of tight trousers and shirts unbuttoned to reveal suggestive amounts of chest hair.

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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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