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: The Wombwell Stones

Set in early 1920s Britain, A Very British Horror is an on-going series of adventures (half of which have been published at time of writing) designed to either stand alone or function as an extended campaign. The first volume, The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild is set in a decaying B&B in the Cotswolds and it involves a traumatised friend, a deranged husband, family secrets, and a sinister cult with ties to the British establishment. I thought it very good when I played it, I thought it even better when I sat down to write about it, and I remember it now as one of the few published Call of Cthulhu adventures to really grasp the unique horrors of Britishness.

However, while The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild may be a fantastic stand-alone adventure and a great place to start a Call of Cthulhu campaign set in 1920s Britain, the second volume in the series is something of a disappointment.

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REVIEW: Hand of Glory

Hand of Glory is part of Type40’s ongoing series of ‘adventure seeds’.

What you get for your $9 is a short, single-session adventure designed to be run with minimal preparation. You also get a set of pre-gens, and a selection of beautifully-designed handouts. What you do not get is very much of anything else.

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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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REVIEW: The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild

Iain Ross’s The Folly of Ponsonby-Wild is the first volume in a series of Call of Cthulhu adventures that will eventually come to form a campaign entitled A Very British Horror. At time of writing, three of the planned four volumes have been published and while I have yet to take a look at any these later episodes, I can confirm that the first episode plays very well indeed. In fact, I would even go so far as to describe this adventure as a delight.

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REVIEW: Endless Light

Endless Light is the second Call of Cthulhu ‘seed’ adventure published by Australian nerd-tat purveyors Type40. 

The format is largely unchanged from that pioneered by The Mummy of Pemberley Grange: $9 gets you a short, simple adventure built around a single planned encounter and supported by some high-quality handouts and a group of pre-generated characters.

The format is best understood as a radical departure from the approach to adventure design favoured by Chaosium and echoed by most people publishing adventures in and around Call of Cthulhu. The difference is that while traditional Call of Cthulhu adventures tend to be highly contextualised and incredibly detailed, Type40 adventures tend to be simple, abstract, and stripped of any broader context.

The result is a series of adventures that can either be run in a couple of hours with almost no preparation, or be expanded into something a bit more substantial through the addition of a pre-amble and the introduction of connections to an on-going campaign. Your mileage will obviously vary but while the first possibility does not interest me at all, I have found the second possibility extraordinarily rewarding. My players enjoy the simplicity, I enjoy having something solid upon which to expand but one man’s solid is another man’s ill-smelling goo.

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REVIEW: One Less Grave

I must admit that Type40’s first adventure The Mummy of Pemberley Grange left me feeling somewhat ambivalent. On the one hand, I am still a bit sore about paying $9 for the privilege of receiving some hand-outs and an adventure that boiled down to ‘the group are invited to a party and get attacked by a mummy’. On the other hand, my group enjoyed playing the adventure and the lack of detail provided in the PDF did encourage me to write my own stuff albeit within a set of structures provided by the adventure.

I have spent a few weeks trying to resolve my feelings of ambivalence and the closest I have come is the realisation that adventures do not need to read well in order to be useful. I can already think of about a dozen different ways in which to unpack and explore this idea but I’ll just leave it sitting there for now and return to it at another point. In the meantime, I have decided to give Type40 another try and see if some pretty hand-outs and a decent set of writing cues do actually result in better gaming experiences for my group.

Also retailing for $9, One Less Grave is another ‘adventure seed’ comprising a set of beautifully designed handouts, a single encounter, and a set of pre-generated player characters.

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REVIEW: Secrets of New York

There have been several waves of Call of Cthulhu setting books, often coinciding with the release of a new edition. Seventh edition has stuff like the Weimar and Harlem books, fifth edition had the Guidebook series and the sixth edition had the Secrets books. I must admit that while I have been buying Cthulhu setting books for almost as long as I have been running Call of Cthulhu, I have never actually bothered to sit down and read any of them. This reluctance is partly a result of my long-standing preference for setting games in my local area and partly a result of spending loads of money on AD&D setting books as a teenager only to discover that they were nothing more than lists of taverns bookended by the occasional stat block.

Despite habitually buying the bloody things, I have never been clear on what purpose these books are intended to serve… Contemporary authors may lavish attention on their fictional worlds but Lovecraft appeared to have little interest in place. Generations of scholars and game designers have tried to stitch HPL’s fictional towns and counties into some sort of cohesive setting but the results are always thin, contradictory and little more substantial than pointing at some random place on a map and adding some made up names. With a few notable exceptions, Lovecraft’s narratives tended to be rooted in people rather than places to the point where they could easily be transplanted to any time and place where upper middle-class people are forced to contend with an Unspeakable Other. I mean… I can understand not wanting to run a Lord of the Rings RPG without an atlas to Middle Earth but I can’t imagine anyone thinking that the only thing preventing them from writing a Call of Cthulhu adventure was the lack of a 150-page book chiefly comprising paragraph-long descriptions of 1920s New York neighbourhoods.

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