Thoughts on Adventure Design and Nephilim’s “Les Veilleurs”

Looking back over the scenario reviews that I have published on this site, I am struck by the fact that most published scenarios seem to miss my personal sweet-spot when it comes to the trade-off between providing content and empowering GMs to create their own content: Those scenarios that go long on detail feel restrictive and that sense of restriction makes me second-guess and resent the author’s creative decisions. Meanwhile, those scenarios that are short on detail under the guise of allowing GMs more freedom to write and/or improvise often feel thin, poorly structured, and a waste of money. I would argue that this sense of dissatisfaction is inevitable and unavoidable.

The problem is that every group has its own energy and every GM has their own creative workflow. Indeed, before we even address the question of what constitutes a ‘creative workflow’ we need to recognise that while some groups are happy taking action and driving their own narratives, other groups will be much happier sitting back and allowing GMs to narrate a story around them. Back in the day, we would have said that the first group were simply better or more experienced players but my time in the hobby inclines me to think that this is as much a reflection of personality as it is of experience. Either way, a group of people who are happy to have a story told to them are going to want something very different from a scenario than a group that wants to create its own stories. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all published scenario. Even the greatest and most legendary of campaigns is likely to fall flat if your group don’t vibe with the type of story that a campaign contains.

Moving beyond the players to the people running the games, I think that different GMs have different levels of comfort with the idea of a mutable text. Even GMs who do enjoy improvising will sometimes struggle to deal with groups that depart too violently from narratives laid out in published materials and some people do not want to improvise at all. Indeed, if you look at your average published dungeon crawl you will find very little room for ambiguity or the kinds of mutable narratives that are unlikely to survive initial contact with a group of players determined to pursue their own goals and create their own stories. I am even tempted to say that the emergence of a non-traditional RPG scene has allowed traditional RPG designers to double-down on the use of linear narratives. After all, if you want your players to assume control over the narrative, why not play a game that explicitly gives them narrative powers?

The best RPG sessions I have ever run were those in which the players were free to explore and engage with the things that were of interest to them. While it would be impossible to produce a published scenario that allowed for every possible narrative swerve groups throw at their GMs, it should be possible to produce published adventures rich enough to encourage player agency whilst supporting a GM’s ability to deal with that freedom. This is what I mean when I talk about my personal sweet-spot for adventure design and I find it really interesting that so few scenarios and campaigns have any interest in positioning themselves anywhere near it.

Reflecting on this point, I tried to remember which (if any) published adventures manage to get that balance right and while my first thoughts went to Gary Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet (opening chapter of his famous Temple of Elemental Evil module) I then remembered the first supplement put out in support of the original French edition of Nephilim.

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REVIEW: The Mothman Prophecies by John A. Keel

Depending upon who you ask and where you look, the Mothman was first spotted either by a crew of grave-diggers or a bunch of teenagers hanging out near the dis-used munitions storage facilities on the outskirts of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Both sets of sightings describe a large man-sized creature with glowing red eyes and huge bat-like wings. The first sighting of the Mothman was in November 1966 and dozens of near-identical sightings would follow before dropping off almost completely in December 1967.

Over the years, various attempts have been made to account for these sightings; Wild-life experts have claimed that when the residents of Point Pleasant claimed to have seen a man-sized bat-winged creature with glowing red eyes, they were actually seeing either large barn owls or a type of crane with distinctive red plumage on its head. Psychologists have claimed that regardless of what it was that the original witnesses saw, many of the dozens of subsequent reports were results of either hoaxing or a kind of mass-hysteria wherein everyone decided that they too wanted to be part of something that was garnering national attention. The debate still rages at a level sufficient to have established the Mothman as a solid second-tier cryptid: Sure he’s no Bigfoot or Nessie, but he’s easily bigger than the Skunk Apes of Florida or the Ogopogo lake monster.

The thing is that while Mothman is a cool creature and the weird mass-hysteria following the initial sightings is interesting enough to sustain the occasional fresh book or documentary series, the Mothman himself is really only the tip of a much larger and weirder iceberg.

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INSPO: Crimson Rivers

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.

Based on a 1998 French crime novel by Jean-Christophe Grangé,the Rivières Pourpres or Crimson Rivers franchise offers us an interesting snapshot of French genre film-making as well as the forms in which it makes it is allowed to make its way out of France and into English-speaking homes. In order to understand how and why this series exists, it is first necessary to know a bit about the market for French film.

French situation has a reputation for being a lot artier than the films produced in either the US or the UK. While a lot of that is down to the ongoing legacy of the French New Wave and how it inspired the American new wave whose collapse in the late 1970s laid the foundation for the corporate hell-scape that is contemporary Hollywood, a lot of it is down to the fact that the backbone of the French film industry is made up of smaller dramas and comedies rather than billion-dollar franchises. The reason for this is that French cinemas and TV stations are legally obliged to carry a certain percentage of French-made films and so the French film industry has been forced to actively maintain an audience for low-budget films and it does this by producing a steady stream of well-written, well-acted, and well-shot dramas and comedies that regularly fill cinemas and draw decent ratings but rarely travel beyond the borders of French-speaking Europe.

There is no denying the artistic and economic successes of this model but it is not without its detractors and the late 1990s in particular saw the emergence of a group of directors intent upon pushing-back the boundaries of what was expected of French cinema. In some cases, this involved challenging the insipient bourgeois whiteness of French cultural institutions, and in others it involved making greater use of genre elements and trying to produce films that could be viewed outside of France. Looking back on this period, its most enduring successes include the horror films of the New French Extremity but there were also a number of intriguing thrillers including Matthieu Kassovitz’s adaptation of Jean-Christophe Grangé’s Les Rivières Pourpres.

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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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