REVIEW: Keeper’s Tips – Collected Wisdom on Running Games

Produced to celebrate the 40th anniversary of Call of Cthulhu, Keeper Tips was edited by current CoC line editor Mike Mason and is made up of dozens of short paragraph-long pieces of advice for how to run Call of Cthulhu in particular and RPGs more generally.

Individual tips are not attributed to anyone directly but the book credits them collectively as “The collected wisdom of Scott David Aniolowski, Sean Branney, Allan Carey, Keris McDonald, Jason Durall, Paul Fricker, Bob Geis, Lynne Hardy, Bridgett Jeffries, Jo Kreil, Daviud Larkins, Mike Mason, Mark Morrison, Thom Raley, Matthew Sanderson, Becca Smith, and Seth Skorkowsky”.

The book comes in the form of a small, pocket-sized notebook with a fake leather and gold-embossed cover. There’s also a place-holding ribbon that matches the maroon coloration of the inside cover. The book contains 113 pages of content and a load of pages for notes. The 113 pages also include lengthy biographies for all of the contributors and a list of online resources that you can use when running Call of Cthulhu. The remaining 99 or so pages are divided up into a series of chapters with titles like “Ground Rules”, “Designing Scenarios”, “Inclusivity”, “Horror” and “Sanity”.

The introduction makes it clear that there was no real attempt to curate or rationalise the collected tips. The tips come from multiple people who all have different and not-necessarily-consistent ideas about how to run the game and so these tips do not amount to a coherent vision, let alone an ex-cathedra official set of guidelines on how to run the game.

The aim of the game is not so much to be authoritative as to present a load of little ideas, tips, and strategies that you can briefly dip into when riding the bus, sitting on a toilet, or waiting for your turn at the glory-hole. In terms of seriousness and authoritativeness in GMing advice, this is less a Gygax-era AD&D Dungeon Master’s Guide than it is the Call of Cthulhu equivalent of a Little Book of Calm or a collection of Buddhist Koans.

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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: 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: Evil Archaeology by Heather Lynn

I’ve written before about the way that certain cultural spaces back-onto each other and how the varying proximities of different cultural scenes results in changes to the scenes themselves.

In the case of roleplaying-games, the scene started out backing-onto the world of wargames before drifting a lot closer to the world of literary SFF before moving closer to the world of computer RPGs and board-games. Each set of proximities shaped the internal culture of the RPG scene and each change in cultural proximities resulted in changes to how people made games, thought about games, and experienced games.

Similarly, science-fiction started out as adjacent to scientific non-fiction magazines before drifting closer to mainstream literature and then much closer first to Young Adult fiction and then to Romance. This isn’t to say that entire genres and marketplaces change overnight, just that smaller, less-stable marketplaces will often find themselves trapped in the gravity well of much larger cultural scenes that will inevitably result in people from the larger scenes crossing over as well as people from the smaller scene trying to connect with the larger marketplace.

The same dynamic is also at work in the world of what might be called paranormal non-fiction. Anyone who visited Forbidden Planet in the 1990s and 00s will remember that, despite focusing on SFF, comics, and nerd tat, Forbidden Planet also used to have a section devoted to books about UFOs.  That section was a product of a time when stuff like The X-Files saw the worlds of genre media and SFF drifting closer to the world of UFO literature.

While UFO literature has flirted with the mainstream a number of times (most recently in the 1990s), it tends to orbit a gravity well best referred to as ‘woo-woo bullshit’. The thing about woo-woo bullshit is that the gravity curve is very steep: You start with books about UFO sightings, then you start speculating about what these UFOs might be, then you start suggesting that the government is lying about the existence of aliens, and then you’re off to the races with the idea that the Earth was actually colonised by aliens and their cities are buried under the ice of the Antarctic. Venture any further down that particular slope and you get into talk of new age magic, and conspiracy theories involving lizard overlords. It’s all good fun but if you’re not careful you’ll start out reading works of speculative history like Fingerprints of the Gods and wind up reading about creationists debunking the fossil record. One of the best things about John Keel’s The Mothman Prophecies is that it starts out as a book about a series of cryptid sightings and then descends into what can only be called paranoid woo-woo bullshit.

Heather Lynn’s Evil Archaeology is like the creepy space station at the beginning of the 1970s science-fiction film The Black Hole in that it seems to sit far enough from the event horizon that you feel like you can engage with it without getting sucked into the swirling vortex of bullshit that lies just beyond. You might even read the first few chapters and start to feel that this is a pretty solid work of popular scholarship but then the standards start to slip, the subject matter starts to drift and the book gets progressively sillier until you find yourself hip-deep in weird Christian nonsense.

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ZC: Weird Walk, number 6 (Winter 2022/23)

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.

To say that Britain is a country drunk on nostalgia would be to downplay the scale of the problem. At this point, Britain isn’t so much drunkenly sharing amusing anecdotes about the good old days or even falling asleep on a tube platform after necking a bottle of White Lightening on the way to work. When it comes to nostalgia, Britain has moved on to the harder stuff, blown through all of its credit cards, lost its home, alienated its family, and is seriously considering taking that YouTuber up on his offer to pay it to get a swastika tattooed on its face. Just one more fix and then we’ll get clean… Who remembers the cockle man? Britannia rules the waves, right lads? Another blown out vein… get Brexit done.

Now that the Corbyn project and progressive politics in general have been safely nuked from orbit and the ‘adults’ are back in charge, nostalgia is the currency of the realm and people have started reaching back in search of an alternative; another Britain, a weirder Britain, a Britain that doesn’t suck quite as much as the one that has been forced upon us by the Establishment and their anxious upper middle-class allies.

This current of alternative nostalgia is partly a product of changes in fashion and organic generational shifts bringing the 1990s into cultural focus in the same way as the 1950s overshadowed the 1980s and the 1990s themselves were overshadowed by the 1960s. However, this wave of nostalgia feels less interested in pining after lost youth and more interested in winding back the clock and seeking out the jonbar hinge that gave birth to the current cursed timeline. I can remember a 1990s that was stranger, wilder, and more interesting than the one dominated by Britpop, New Labour and glossy lad mags. What happened to that version of the 1990s? Can we go back?

Owen Tromans, Alex Hornsby, and James Nicholls’ Weird Walk is one of a number of zines that form the tip of a cultural iceberg dedicated to re-discovering, re-making, and re-claiming a weirder version of Britain.

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REVIEW: Stealing Cthulhu by Graham Walmsley

First published in 2011, Stealing Cthulhu is a guide that teaches you to produce Lovecraftian narratives by breaking down Lovecraft’s short stories and re-mixing the component parts. Written by Graham Walmsley author of well-received Call of Cthulhu-clone Cthulhu Dark as well as a number of books for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu and a book about how to improvise as a GM, Stealing Cthulhu is aimed quite squarely at the RPG market and therein lays both its utility and its limitations.

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REVIEW: Keeper Reflections – Call of Cthulhu Campaigning by Michael Fryda

The more time I spend reviewing RPGs and RPG-related products, the more I am convinced that roleplaying is primarily an oral culture.

The problem is not just that RPG texts tend to be quite poor at articulating how it is that specific games are supposed to be played, it’s also that most people’s first contact with a new game is to sit down at a table and go with the flow. This results in a degree of cultural conservatism that goes some way to explaining a lot of the backlash against both non-traditional indie RPGs and more recent attempts by RPG culture to address not only toxic power-dynamics but also the questionable politics of some RPG texts.

It’s not that people necessarily think that GMs should have more power than players or that marginalised people should pull themselves together and stop complaining, it’s more that people aren’t used to asking questions and once questions are asked, they lack a theoretical vocabulary with which to respond.

Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu is a game with a remarkably conservative (some might even say stagnant) playing culture. Despite producing seven different editions in over forty years, Chaosium have never shown much interest in re-examining any of the game’s core concepts and any supplements the company produces for the game tend to be either re-editions of existing books or variations on existing themes. Tinker, tinker, but never fix.

While some might argue that the recent explosion in the number of Lovecraft-inspired investigative horror games is a reflection of the dubious ethics of previous Chaosium management teams, I suspect that some of it is simply down to the fact that while people love the idea of Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu is starting to show its age and would benefit from a bit of a re-think.

One area in grave need of some fresh thinking is the question of what a Call of Cthulhu campaign is actually supposed to look like. Regardless of the edition, people know what a Dungeons & Dragons campaign is supposed to look like and the cycle that has you learning your character, acquiring XPs, and improving your character before going back to learning your character has proved remarkably robust. So… given that Call of Cthulhu is now over forty years old, what is a Call of Cthulhu campaign supposed to look like?

A while ago, I wrote a piece about what I called the ‘Standard Model’ of Call of Cthulhu and how Chaosium’s vision of a Call of Cthulhu campaign is for you to play a brilliantly simple scenario called “The Haunting” and then move on to these vast and hugely expensive globe-trotting meat-grinder campaigns that are difficult to run even for experienced GMs with devoted groups of players. For a long time, the only alternative to the Standard Model of Call of Cthulhu was to play self-contained stand-alone scenarios with pre-rolled player characters. A tacit acceptance that Call of Cthulhu is primarily a game you play as a special event or as part of a break from your regular campaign.

To their credit, Chaosium have been trying to address this problem by drifting away from their traditional ‘Rough guide to 1920s New York’ style of setting book and putting out a load of sourcebooks that present themselves as settings but are actually better understood as short campaigns with some additional setting and character-creation material.

The second you move beyond the adventures provided in the books, you run into the same question that Call of Cthulhu has always faced: What does a home-made Call of Cthulhu campaign actually look like?

Michael Fryda has published a handful of Call of Cthulhu adventures and runs the Youtube channel RPG Imaginings. He has also run a Call of Cthulhu campaign that lasted over fifty sessions and Keeper Reflections: Call of Cthulhu Campaigning is an attempt to explain how he did it by codifying and unpacking some of the lessons he learned and the changes he made. Though somewhat uneven and in need of some external editing, the lessons, advice, and ideas contained in this document are streets ahead of anything you will find in the seventh edition core rulebooks.

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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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FR: The Witch Farm

For Real is an occasional series about scary, horrific, and unsettling stuff that presents itself as non-fiction. This might include the paranormal as well as true crime and odd occurrences. The rest of the series can be found here.

Early in 2021, the BBC launched a series of podcasts written and presented by someone called Danny Robins. At that point, Robins was already a playwright and he had helmed a series of episodic podcasts called Haunted. Though well-produced and centred on the UK, Haunted was not all that different to any of the hundreds of paranormal podcasts that remain scattered across the internet: You had an attempt at re-creation, you had interviews with people who may or may not be disturbed, and you have the familiar paranormal framing device of pretending the whole thing is some kind of open-minded scientific investigation whereas in fact it’s just an excuse to tell ghost stories. Haunted was not a huge success but Robins’ connections and the series production values were enough to turn some heads at the BBC and so Radio 4 commissioned what would wind up becoming a bit of a break-through hit in so far as lots of the people who listened to The Battersea Poltergeist would not otherwise listen to a podcast with paranormal themes.

 In hindsight, it is pretty obvious why The Battersea Poltergeist became a global success: The production values were superb, the dramatizations included serious acting talent, and Robins himself was an engaging active host who pushed the series relentlessly on social media. However, over and above the formal successes of The Battersea Poltergeist, I think the series real success lays in the way that it reached beyond the merely paranormal to the psychological forces at work within the family. To this day, I frequently think of the way that the girl who was once at the centre of the hauntings seemed to just ‘grow out’ of ghosts and went on to live a normal life while the professional ghost-hunter spent years returning and returning to the house in the hope of re-establishing contact with what was manifestly nothing more than a pre-teen girl’s need for attention. I actually wrote something about The Battersea Poltergeist last year and my feelings about the series have only grown warmer with the passage of time.

Robins launched another podcast named Uncanny for Halloween 2021. It returned to the episodic structure of Haunted and failed to re-capture that broader audience. To be honest, I listened to the first few episodes and rapidly lost interest as the format of dramatic re-creation, interviews, discussion, and frequent online calls to action seemed to overwhelm the content and served to compress each story down to the point where everything felt really insubstantial and rushed. I also found the constant musical stings and Robins’ attempts to drive audience engagement quite irritating.

For Halloween 2022, Robins has ditched the stand-alone episode format of Haunted and Uncanny in favour of the more sustained examination of a single case that worked so well on The Battersea Poltergeist. However, despite again boasting some real acting talent and showing signs of evolving the formula, I don’t think that Robins’ The Witch Farm is anywhere near as fun or as thought-provoking as The Battersea Poltergeist. It all feels a bit too… well… glib for my liking.

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