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: Ghost Hunters by Ed Warren, Lorraine Warren, and Robert David Chase

Ghost Hunters is wonderfully strange piece of writing, even by the standards of books on the paranormal.

The book recalls a series of psychical investigations conducted by Ed and Lorraine Warren. The Warrens were a pair of American ghost-hunters who first shot to fame in the 1970s based on their involvement in the infamous Amityville haunting. Their lives and exploits then went on to form the basis for the interlocking Conjuring and Annabel series of horror movies. Ghost Hunters is actually the second in a series of six books, all of which were published in the 80’s and 90’s, after the couple’s star had begun to fall.

The first intriguing thing about this series of books is the weirdness of the format. Books about the paranormal are in and of themselves an interesting edge-case when it comes to categorisation: Are they fiction? Are they non-fiction? Are they memoir? Depending upon the rhetorical style adopted by the author, there’s actually a good deal of variation in how information is presented and, by extension, which literary genre the books most closely resemble.

This book presents as a series of case files from the Warrens’ archives that are basically self-contained short stories. Despite supposedly being co-written by the Warrens, different stories contain either extended quotes attributed to the Warrens or weird little vignettes where someone is asking them questions. Once you move beyond the Warrens’ own words (more on which later), the book is not just well-written but written with a good deal of literary panache. In fact, I’d even go so far as to say that Ghost Hunters works better as an accessible horror short-fiction collection than it does as a book about paranormal investigation.

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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.

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Into The OSR: Gygax ’75 (Week 2) – Rosemere

Into the OSR is an occasional series in which I write up some of the creative decisions I have made in the preparation of my old school sandbox D&D style fantasy RPG campaign. The rest of the series can be found here

Last week I wrote a bit about how I was using the Gygax ’75 framework to provide some structure for the work I am doing on a new OSR campaign that I am going to be running next spring.

Week 2 of Gygax ’75 is all about drawing a map that is of a particular size and which has a certain number of features. While I could have drawn the map in a notebook, I decided to use this week as an opportunity to acquire some new skills and so I downloaded and taught myself to use Cone of Negative Energy’s neat little map-drawing app Hex kit.

While I may yet wind up writing a proper review of Hex Kit, I was really surprised by how easy it was to use as I have tried downloading mapping software before and found those apps way too complicated for a brain addled by too much speed and Japanese pornography.

In truth, my only complaint so far is that I really regret using the Fantasyland tile set as the intense vibrancy of the colour palette has produced something that looks less like a map and more like a clown’s jizz-rag. I used to think that the limited colour scheme of maps in old school war-gaming was a failure to be evocative but I now realise that this simplicity was just a product of wanting something that was easy to parse without being overly busy and I think my map of the island of Rosemere demonstrates the wisdom of those design principles.

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WTD: Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi

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 website TV Tropes often talks about tropes originating in particular properties and then being codified by others. What they mean by this is that while some ideas have been around literally forever, their cultural presence can often be traced back to one particular use of said idea that proved so hugely popular and influential that everyone wound up using the idea in the exact same way.

I am still not sure how I feel about the assumptions and social-mechanics informing the TV Tropes website, but I do enjoy the way that these kinds of discussions often wind up feeling like people discussing the lineages of race horses, pedigree dogs, or Royal houses. Even serious literary scholars codify and legitimise cultural scenes by trying to come up with lists of literary ancestors, influences who did the same thing in another place and another time. But if we can talk about ancestors, can we not also talk about orphans?

For example, we can talk about occult detectives and how the sub-genre was ‘sired’ by Sheridan Le Fanu and then ‘codified’ by Bram Stoker but can we not also talk about the extinction of that particular cultural line? Consider for example the way that the original Buffy the Vampire Slayer film turned up at a time when the Occult Detective series was almost completely dead on its arse. In fact, the sub-genre had so little salience at the time that both the film and the TV series spent a lot of time dunking on traditional Occult Detectives in the form of the Watchers. One could even say that the central meta-textual theme of the Buffy the Vampire Slayer was a popular feminist take on the idea that stories about Occult Detectives are lame compared to stories about teenaged super-heroes and it’s time for the dusty-old detective dudes to step aside. Thus the Occult Detective sub-genre was broken down for parts and separated from its roots in Horror and Crime Fiction so that its ideas could be cannibalised and resold under the guise of Urban Fantasy. In other words, Buffy was a series that made orphans… it was so popular and so influential that it made the Occult Detective genre disappear and made it impossible to tell those kinds of stories without magic swords, lightening-bolts, and bantering heroes in trench-coats or leather trousers.

Kôji Shiraishi is a director with the power to make orphans. Best known in the West for his films Noroi and Occult he tells Occult Detective stories with such a clear and timely vision that it is difficult to imagine telling similar stories without at least acknowledging that sensibility. In fact, at this point, the only thing preventing him from launching a new golden age of Occult Detective stories is the fact that his films and TV series are almost impossible to find in English. I was lucky enough to stumble upon full subtitled run of Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi uploaded to YouTube but they now appear to have disappeared again.

Senritsu Kaiki File Kowasugi is everything you want from both Japanese horror and an Occult Detective series: It is weird, it is visually striking, it is mind-bending, and (like many of Shiraishi’s other films) it ends with a spiral down into conspiracy theories, cosmic horror, and really quite unpleasant depictions of mental illness. This is the Occult Detective genre stripped back to its basics and made new again.

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Into The OSR: Gygax ’75 (Week 1)

Into the OSR is an occasional series in which I write up some of the creative decisions I have made in the preparation of my old school sandbox D&D style fantasy RPG campaign. The rest of the series can be found here

One of the things that has surprised and delighted me upon returning to the hobby has been the sheer amount of RPG-related stuff that people have been uploading to YouTube.

Don’t get me wrong… wanting access to RPG-related stuff was one of the primary engines behind my first forays online in the late 1990s. There have always been RPG-related blogs and websites but one of the more interesting things to emerge from the rise of RPG-adjacent YouTube has been the willingness to internalise YouTube’s fondness for how-to videos. As a result, you don’t just get reviews and opinion-pieces delivered to camera, you also get introductory videos addressing such perennial questions as ‘how to write and adventure’ or ‘how to start designing your own campaign setting’.

I got the idea for this series of posts from the YouTube channel Questing Beast who made a video about writing your first campaign and referred to a document known to the OSR community as Gygax ’75.

Gygax ’75 is based upon an article written by Gary Gygax less than a year after the original publication of D&D. Back then, the hobby was growing so quickly that the need for instructional content was outstripping both the material made available by TSR and the hobby’s ability to ‘teach-by-doing’. As a result, Gygax wrote an article listing a few ways in which you might get the ball rolling and start designing your own campaign world. This article was re-discovered under the auspices of the OSR and passed back and forth a few times before being updated and codified into a document by Ray Otus (downloadable here).

While this is not my first romp around the paddock when it comes to designing campaign settings and writing my own adventures, I have decided to take my cues from the Gygax ’75 workbook as a way of giving myself both a bit of structure and an excuse to acquire some new skills that I would probably try to skirt around if left to my own devices. While I won’t necessarily be in a position to post one of these every single week, I am going to try to abide by the work-rate suggested in the document.

Week one is all about basic ideas and sources of inspiration.

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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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