REVIEW: Sorrow in Tsavo

First published in 2020, written by Bridgett Jeffries with editing and layout work by Jared Smith, Sorrow in Tsavo is a single-session Call of Cthulhu adventure set in 1890s Colonial Africa. The PDF is 43-pages long and includes six pre-generated characters with specific ties to the story so it cannot be easily integrated into a campaign. Thoughtfully written and full of lovely touches, Sorrow in Tsavo is undoubtedly one of the best recent Call of Cthulhu adventures I have discovered on DriveThruRPG.

I have in the past remarked that Call of Cthulhu sourcebooks all too often feel like sourcebooks for a 1920s adventure game that just happens to contain elements of Lovecraftian horror.

This certainly rings true when you consider the way that setting books struggle to strike a balance between historical accuracy and game-relevant content meaning that sourcebooks dedicated to places like New York wind up feeling like Lonely Planet guides to a version of 1920s New York that was identical to our own except there’s a bunch of ghouls living in an old building.

To make matters worse, while Chaosium are undoubtedly more interested in history than horror, their engagement with the stuff of history is usually paper-thin and often amounts to little more than over-researched set dressing. Rare is the adventure or sourcebook that looks at a historical period and uses Lovecraft as a means of emphasising certain themes and ideas. Bridgett Jeffries’ Sorrow in Tsavo is a rare and refreshing exception to that depressing rule.

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GHR: Ecryme

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.

The Ecryme GM’s screen

Marxist Steampunks in Post-Apocalyptic 19th Century Paris.

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REVIEW: Refractions of Glasston

Written by Sam Guinsatao, Carson Jacobs, Joy Lemont, Elijah Oates, Rayce Patterson, Emily Pawlowski, and J. Tucker White, Refractions of Glasston was first published in April 2019 as a scenario for 1920s Call of Cthulhu. 46 pages long including illustrations, maps, hand-outs, and pre-rolled characters, this two session scenario is currently available to download from DriveThruRPG for free.

Set in Northwest Indiana, the adventure revolves around a glass company that claims to have created an unbreakable jar. Having arrived in town, the characters are encouraged to wander around talking to people and noticing things until they come to realise that the town’s booming glass industry has sinister underpinnings.

Okay… so that summary makes this adventure sound a little bit silly and that intuition is not without its merits. However, while Refractions of Glasston may have a few rough edges and boasts a number of perplexing creative decisions, both the peculiarity of its origins and the rigour of its execution make it an interesting piece in its own right and a fascinating counterpoint to Stygian Fox’s somewhat similar Under a Winter’s Snow (which I reviewed a couple of weeks ago).

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REVIEW: Dark Hollow by Brian Keene

Contrapoints once observed that the alt-right told on themselves when they adopted the term ‘cuck’ as their favoured insult.

What that choice revealed was a deep well-spring of insecurity. A lot has been said and written about the darker corners of the internet and how lonely, isolated men wind up stumbling into some weird, distasteful, and generally misguided ideas about women. For some, women are puzzles to be solved using a variety of techniques. For others, women are sadistic tyrants with standards so astronomically high that most men have no hope of ever finding love. Regardless of which variety of online misogyny you stumble into, they all share an understanding of women as territory that needs to be conquered and held. If this is how you see women then it follows that there is nothing more depraved and debased than a man who would willingly allow another man to have sex with ‘his’ woman.

The decision to place cuckolds in the lowest level of rhetorical hell speaks of sexual insecurity: A fear that your weaknesses (both physical and psychological) might translate into an inability to pleasure and hold onto a female partner and an even deeper fear that you might actually enjoy seeing your lover reach a level of pleasure and fulfilment that you could never hope to provide. The alt-right spit the word ‘cuck’ at each other as a way of warding off their own demons as well as their own hidden desires.

While the dark corners of the internet may encourage and amplify these fears beyond the point where they erupt in violence, fear of sexual inadequacy runs deep through all forms of toxic masculinity. It is, to a greater or lesser extent, part of the package when you start to internalise those values and forms of self-perception. To be a man is to be fearful that one can never be man enough.

While I love a monster story as much as… well… the next man… my preferred forms of horror are more psychological and rooted in the day-to-day. All speculative fiction is born of asking what if a particular thing were true, or false, or more exaggerated but the best horror takes real fears and turns them into something more concrete and threatening. That desire to make unspoken fears real is what drives Brian Keene’s Dark Hollow.

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REVIEW: The Cipher by Kathe Koja

Unlike a lot of people who write about horror, I will admit that I am not that widely read within the genre. I may have read a load of Stephen King novels as a teenager but I would say that my love of horror comes primarily from the artier end of cinema than literature.

When I decided to start reading horror novels as inspiration for my regular game, I went to a handful of big book-related websites and had a look at their semi-regular posts of books that the publishing industry expects us to get excited about. Based upon these recommendations, I made a few purchases and immediately remembered why I don’t often read books by people who write predominantly for children. There’s nothing wrong with writing books for kids, I just don’t happen to be one of them. Having read and been disappointed by two such novels, I decided to seek out something a bit more… edgy and I am so glad that I did.

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REVIEW: Under a Winter’s Snow

Written by Nathan Ross, Under a Winter’s Snow was first published by Stygian Fox in February 2020 as a scenario for what is referred as ‘Classic Era’ (i.e. 1920s) Call of Cthulhu. Twenty pages long and illustrated with an array of drawings, photographs, and hand-outs, this single-session scenario is currently available for download from DriveThruRPG for the entirely reasonable sum of $4.95.

Set in small-town North Dakota in the midst of a snow storm, Under a Winter’s Snow invites players to investigate the source of a mysterious and lethal pandemic. Long on investigation and short on monster-stomping, the scenario is timely, thematically rich and full of human tragedy. The only thing that lets this scenario down is the disordered and incomplete nature of the text.

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REVIEW: The Twisted Ones by T. Kingfisher

Genre publishing is a scene killer.

Back in the 1970s, a successful horror novel could sell in the hundreds of thousands of copies, the best-known writers were house-hold names and Hollywood producers were falling over themselves to sign the rights to anything even remotely decent. These were not just good years, they were fat years.

The problem was that for every world-famous author rubbing shoulders with movie stars on late-night TV there were literally dozens if not hundreds of authors who were… well… shit. When a book hits big, readers will walk into a book shop and say they want more of the same. Sometimes, successful authors will have back-catalogues that can satiate an audience’s desire but more often than not, great books are kind of hard to find. Publishing tries to solve this problem by publishing books that are a bit like something successful. Quite often, the people in publishing won’t be able to tell you why a particular book sold a million copies and so they spend a lot of their time trying to strike a balance between ‘more of the same’ and ‘might actually strike a nerve’. The problem is that, if none of those new books does strike a nerve and break out, the lack of new trends means that publishers wind up throwing more and more money after stuff whose moment has already passed.

One side effect of this strategy is that everything fresh and good inevitably winds up being buried in shit as publishing companies desperately churn out photocopies of photocopies until even the most devoted of readers tune out and the entire scene comes crashing down around their pointy little heads.

This is what happened to the horror genre. Desperate to replicate big successes, publishing companies would put their money behind any old shit with a monster or a murder. While this approach undoubtedly resulted in the publication of some amazing books, it also submerged the horror genre in a river of shit so deep that it has taken literally decades for fans and authors to dig it back out.

Since then, similar things have happened first in the world of Paranormal Romance, and more recently in the world of Young Adult fiction where the vast success of a small number of titles resulted in publishers filling the shelves with so many derivative works that markets collapsed. The rise and fall of Young Adult is a major problem for publishing as a lot of genre publishers pivoted hard towards YA when first the science fiction and then the fantasy genres began to decline. Desperate for a professional life raft, many YA authors have tried to re-invent themselves as adult-oriented writers and many younger authors have reacted with fury to the suggestion that they might ever have considered writing YA.

Genre publishing seems to be in the early stages of a pivot towards horror. This poses something of a challenge as the dark and jagged emotional aesthetics of horror are very different to the uplifting moral simplicity that followed the YA crowd into adult genre publishing. How do you sell horror to people who argue that one cannot depict abuse without endorsing it? How do you sell horror to people who have convinced themselves that morally-upstanding escapism is the only legitimate literary form? I’m not sure that publishing has a solution to this yet; the old world is dying but the new world still struggles to be born.

The Twisted Ones is a novel born of this interregnum. Written under a pseudonym by a Hugo-winning author best known for books aimed at children, this novel feels like fantasy but is being marketed as horror. Unfortunately, despite the dark cover, the evocative title, and the cover blurbs stressing the book’s terrifying affect, The Twisted Ones is more amiably beige than it is dark and disturbing.

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REVIEW: The Ultimate RPG Backstory Guide by James D’Amato

Back in 1955, Lawrence Olivier appeared in a cinematic adaptation of Shakespeare’s Richard III. His performance was so iconic that it defined how both the character and the historical figure would be seen for generations to come. By the time the 1980s rolled around, people in British theatre started to realise that they were going to have to start pushing back against the 50s epics lest they lose the characters forever. If every rendition of Richard III turns into an imitation of Lawrence Olivier, why bother going to see a live performance?

For their 1984 performance of Richard III, the Royal Shakespeare Company brought in an actor named Anthony Sher and gave him carte blanche to re-think the character from scratch. Years late, Sher would write a (thoroughly excellent) book entitled Year of the King describing his efforts to create a new Richard III. According to the book, Sher went out and researched different types of deformity before hitting on the idea of Richard as a huge tic-like spider. Working with choreographers and artists, Sher devised not just a look and a style of movement but an array of physical tics and movements so jarring that his time on stage ended with months of physiotherapy. Even before the first rehearsals or attempts at workshopping, Sher had already worked out what his Richard would sound like, what he would look like, and what he would wear. The process took months and the amount of creativity and preparation that went into the role absolutely beggar belief.

And yet, the amount of preparation that Sher put into his Richard III pales into insignificance when compared to the amount of preparation that James D’Amato invites us to put into our RPG characters. There’s over-preparation and then there’s the levels of preparation encouraged by The Ultimate RPG Backstory Guide.

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