Looking back over the scenario reviews that I have published on this site, I am struck by the fact that most published scenarios seem to miss my personal sweet-spot when it comes to the trade-off between providing content and empowering GMs to create their own content: Those scenarios that go long on detail feel restrictive and that sense of restriction makes me second-guess and resent the author’s creative decisions. Meanwhile, those scenarios that are short on detail under the guise of allowing GMs more freedom to write and/or improvise often feel thin, poorly structured, and a waste of money. I would argue that this sense of dissatisfaction is inevitable and unavoidable.
The problem is that every group has its own energy and every GM has their own creative workflow. Indeed, before we even address the question of what constitutes a ‘creative workflow’ we need to recognise that while some groups are happy taking action and driving their own narratives, other groups will be much happier sitting back and allowing GMs to narrate a story around them. Back in the day, we would have said that the first group were simply better or more experienced players but my time in the hobby inclines me to think that this is as much a reflection of personality as it is of experience. Either way, a group of people who are happy to have a story told to them are going to want something very different from a scenario than a group that wants to create its own stories. There is no such thing as a one-size fits all published scenario. Even the greatest and most legendary of campaigns is likely to fall flat if your group don’t vibe with the type of story that a campaign contains.
Moving beyond the players to the people running the games, I think that different GMs have different levels of comfort with the idea of a mutable text. Even GMs who do enjoy improvising will sometimes struggle to deal with groups that depart too violently from narratives laid out in published materials and some people do not want to improvise at all. Indeed, if you look at your average published dungeon crawl you will find very little room for ambiguity or the kinds of mutable narratives that are unlikely to survive initial contact with a group of players determined to pursue their own goals and create their own stories. I am even tempted to say that the emergence of a non-traditional RPG scene has allowed traditional RPG designers to double-down on the use of linear narratives. After all, if you want your players to assume control over the narrative, why not play a game that explicitly gives them narrative powers?
The best RPG sessions I have ever run were those in which the players were free to explore and engage with the things that were of interest to them. While it would be impossible to produce a published scenario that allowed for every possible narrative swerve groups throw at their GMs, it should be possible to produce published adventures rich enough to encourage player agency whilst supporting a GM’s ability to deal with that freedom. This is what I mean when I talk about my personal sweet-spot for adventure design and I find it really interesting that so few scenarios and campaigns have any interest in positioning themselves anywhere near it.
Reflecting on this point, I tried to remember which (if any) published adventures manage to get that balance right and while my first thoughts went to Gary Gygax’s The Village of Hommlet (opening chapter of his famous Temple of Elemental Evil module) I then remembered the first supplement put out in support of the original French edition of Nephilim.
The original vision for this blog was a place for me to write about ‘hauntings’ in the most expansive sense of the word. What I mean by that is that while I definitely wanted to write about ghosts and ghost-stories, I also wanted to write about memory, trauma, and all the ways in which the past imposes itself upon the present and helps to shape the future. While this original vision may have never come fully to pass, I remain deeply fascinated by this more expansive conception of the haunting. Evidently I am not alone in this fascination as Ghosts of the Tsunami is a book about just such a form of haunting written by the Asia editor of the London Times.
As I worked my way through Eric LaRocca’s second novella Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke, I kept amusing myself with the idea that someone was going to cancel LaRocca for committing an act of cultural appropriation against people with picrew avatars. Well… it turns out that I was pretty much bang on the money.
Things is an interesting example of how the market for horror rebuilding itself by seeking out new audiences and creating new systems of cultural reproduction. Published in June 2021 by Weirdpunk Books, LaRocca’s novella found its way onto subscription services that seem to be more interested in Instagram and Tiktok than Twitter or Facebook. By avoiding traditional avenues of bookish publicity, the book wound up getting pushed into the faces of people who were perhaps not all that familiar with the more extreme forms of literary horror and so people unaccustomed to that kind of literary affect got angry and tried to argue that LaRocca was smearing and stereotyping lesbians by writing a book about an insanely abusive and co-dependent online relationship. It is now a year later and the calls for cancellation have been buried under a flood of gleeful disgust but it is worth acknowledging that Things Have Gotten Worse Since We Last Spoke is not only an enjoyably gross and fucked-up horror novella, it is also an incisive piece of social satire inspired by spaces where the language of acceptance often masks the reality of social bonds with hidden costs.
Depending upon who you ask and where you look, the Mothman was first spotted either by a crew of grave-diggers or a bunch of teenagers hanging out near the dis-used munitions storage facilities on the outskirts of Point Pleasant, West Virginia. Both sets of sightings describe a large man-sized creature with glowing red eyes and huge bat-like wings. The first sighting of the Mothman was in November 1966 and dozens of near-identical sightings would follow before dropping off almost completely in December 1967.
Over the years, various attempts have been made to account for these sightings; Wild-life experts have claimed that when the residents of Point Pleasant claimed to have seen a man-sized bat-winged creature with glowing red eyes, they were actually seeing either large barn owls or a type of crane with distinctive red plumage on its head. Psychologists have claimed that regardless of what it was that the original witnesses saw, many of the dozens of subsequent reports were results of either hoaxing or a kind of mass-hysteria wherein everyone decided that they too wanted to be part of something that was garnering national attention. The debate still rages at a level sufficient to have established the Mothman as a solid second-tier cryptid: Sure he’s no Bigfoot or Nessie, but he’s easily bigger than the Skunk Apes of Florida or the Ogopogo lake monster.
The thing is that while Mothman is a cool creature and the weird mass-hysteria following the initial sightings is interesting enough to sustain the occasional fresh book or documentary series, the Mothman himself is really only the tip of a much larger and weirder iceberg.
Tickets Please is a self-contained Call of Cthulhu adventure that is part of Type40’s ‘Adventure Seed’ series of scenarios. Like the other instalments in the series, Tickets Please is short and relies on superior production values to convince buyers that a series of really quite sparse notes are actually a viable adventure.
Nearly sixteen years after her untimely death, Octavia Butler is having a bit of a moment. Over the last few years, a concerted effort has been made to re-discover and re-claim the legacy of the first ever science fiction author to receive a MacArthur fellowship.
It is not hard to see why this would happen… Though widely-respected and a winner of various awards during her lifetime, Butler’s name has started to fade from view for the simple reason that she was never one of the four or five (predominantly white and male) authors whose continued sales keep the lights on for genre publishing. The institutions of SFF publishing are barely interested in live mid-list authors, so why would they give a shit about dead ones? Especially when the dead mid-list authors in question write books as difficult, problematic and profoundly unfashionable as Fledgling.
Given that I didn’t think that much of The Twisted Ones, I was surprised to find myself reading T. Kingfisher’s second horror novel The Hollow Places.
Perhaps I am growing generous in my old age but I did quite enjoy some of that book’s characterisation and while I felt that Kingfisher lacked the stomach to engage the book’s darker themes and images, I was at least impressed by her ability to locate these themes in the first place. Sadly, The Hollow Places is not an improvement on The Twisted Ones as while the worse bits of that novel are (thankfully) not replicated in this one, this relative easing of the reader’s burdens comes at the expense of much of what made The Twisted Ones interesting. Like islands on the Danube, my interest in this author’s output has now slipped beneath the waves.