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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GHR: Cold City

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

A game with intriguing mechanics and a fantastic setting that could have re-written the history of RPGs.

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REVIEW: The Dragon of Wantley

Written by SR Sellens with interior art by Lydia Baldwin and cover art by Vitogh, The Dragon of Wantley is a Call of Cthulhu scenario set in 1920s Yorkshire.

I purchased the scenario for $5 through DriveThruRPG and received a 58-page PDF including a good deal of historical background information, full-colour handouts, a suite of pre-generated player characters, an audio recording of a song referred to in the scenario, and a set of files allowing you to 3D print an additional handout. The DTRPG page includes a 5-page preview that is perfectly representative of the product you get.

The Dragon of Wantley is a beautifully-produced PDF: It uses a similar sepia-toned and textured background to the 7th edition Call of Cthulhu rulebooks and the artwork is of a singularly high standard. The handouts are well-designed and copious; the NPCs are all fully fleshed out and even include tips on how to play them. Every town has a map, and every building has a plan. All of the primary NPCs have not only pictures but lengthy character sketches and one of them even has a family tree stretching back about a dozen generations. Having reviewed a number of Call of Cthulhu modules that amounted to little more than a set of writing cues, it was interesting to immerse myself in the text of a scenario that offers you all the information you could possibly want and then some.

The Dragon of Wantley is a scenario produced to a professional level… in fact, it even looks better than some of the scenarios that Chaosium produces. The problem with The Dragon of Wantley is not the amount of material it includes… the problem with The Dragon of Wantley is that the material it includes is an absolute crushing bore.

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GHR: Torg

Games Half Remembered is an occasional series about old games. Some of these games I have played, others I have merely admired, but all of them have stuck in my memory for one reason or another.  The rest of the series can be found here.

First published in 1990 by West End Games, Torg was a game so conceptually dense and full of innovation that it was actually quite difficult to play the game as intended.

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ZC: Bayt al Azif – Issue 2

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.

Published in August 2019, the second issue of Jared Smith’s Bayt al Azif continues the excellent work started in the first issue.

As with BAA1, the zine offers an intriguing blend of self-contained scenarios, reviews, inspirational material, and non-fiction stuff including commentary and interviews. Despite being four years old, this issue of Bayt al Azif remains useful, thought-provoking and really reasonably priced given what you can expect to pay for a single scenario.

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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: Dungeons & Dragons – Honor among Thieves

When I started this blog, I decided not to do straight film reviews. I have spent a long time writing film reviews and when I took an extended break from blogging, I decided to start afresh with something new. That methodological firewall has held strong for a number of years now but then a film comes along and you need to write about it but it simply does not fit into any of your existing pigeon-holes.

In this case, that film is Dungeons & Dragons: Honor among Thieves, a hyper-commercial, hyper-saturated Hollywood blockbuster built around corporate IP that I should (by all accounts) loathe but somehow wound up absolutely adoring.

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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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