FR: Fascinating Horror

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.

The British stand-up comedian Stewart Lee once did a routine about British attitudes towards political correctness. While the term ‘politically correct’ has been partially replaced by ‘woke’, there’s a similar degree of confusion as to what this concept actually means. In Britain, political correctness started out as an attempt to confront overt racism by claiming that the use of racist, sexist, or homophobic language falls outside of the boundaries of polite discourse. Regardless of whether or not it’s morally wrong to hurl slurs at your co-workers, it’s kind of rude. Over the years, as boundaries of politeness started to shift, people began using the term ‘political correctness’ to refer to any kind of bureaucratic meddling in existing processes. Thus, according to Lee, was born a generation of people who seem to confuse political correctness with health and safety legislation.

The reason for this slippage is that most people only encounter health and safety legislation in the context of being told that they aren’t allowed to do something they want to do. Thus, the fictional bureaucrat informing you that you’re not allowed to black up for the Christmas party has merged with the fictional bureaucrat informing you that you’re not allowed to do tequila slammers while operating a chainsaw.

But what would the world look like if we didn’t have health and safety legislation? Let Fascinating Horror entertain and inform you…

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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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REVIEW: Empire of Imagination by Michael Witwer

At some point, someone is going to publish a history of Dungeons & Dragons that does not simply stop at the point when E. Gary Gygax was forced out of TSR. At some point, someone is going to write a history of Dungeons & Dragons that engages with the creative process and tries to understand why the game assumed the shape it did.

We have not yet reached that point.

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REVIEW: Of Dice and Men by David M. Ewalt

A book that talks as much about the history of Dungeons & Dragons as it does about the book’s author. One of these subjects is considerably more interesting than the other.

Dungeons & Dragons seems to be doing pretty well for itself nowadays. The game’s fifth edition is said to be its most popular ever, people pull down six figure salaries for playing their games in public and entire online platforms exist just to help you find players and run games over the internet. It is easy to forget, but this present was not unavoidable.

Back in 2013, D&D was in trouble. An unpopular fourth edition had failed to rally the troops let alone gain purchase with people outside the hobby and a large chunk of the game’s existing audience had been lured away to Pathfinder. These were thin years for D&D, years without professional DMs or streaming audiences large enough to allow people to quit their day jobs.

In 2021, Dungeons & Dragons is dangerously close to being cool. In 2013, it was what might be referred to as a low-status pastime. The associated feelings of shame cast a long shadow over Of Dice and Men, a book that is as much about the history of Dungeons & Dragons as it is about the author’s conflicted feelings about his love for the game.

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FR: Strange Familiars

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.

Back when I started this blog, I made a decision to avoid silos. I wanted to write about RPGs without becoming an RPG blog. I wanted to write about horror films without becoming a horror blog. I wanted to write about the paranormal without becoming a paranormal blog. My job as a blogger is to seek inspiration and report on my findings. Turns out that some journey take me further afield than others.

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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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