Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Nasties & Nazis Primer

Osprey Publishing is best known for its military history books, each diligently researched and meticulously illustrated with period photographs and fully painted colour plates. Over the years, its books have proved useful to historians and gamers alike, primarily wargamers, but on occasion to roleplayers too. It is to the latter that a new series from the publisher is likely to appeal. Where in the past, Osprey Publishing’s books have presented facts and analysis, each entry in the ‘Dark Osprey’ series goes beyond the facts to meld it with fiction. One of the first entries in the series delves into as ‘dark’ subject as you can imagine and the publisher got the right man to write it.

2013 has been a great year if you want Nazis in your games. Both Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War from Modiphius Press and World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour from Cubicle Seven Entertainment put the knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos within the grasp of the Nazis, whilst in the recently released Band of Zombies, Eden Studios, Inc. let the Nazis unleash zombies on the Allies, and that is not forgetting Hite’s own GURPS WW2-Weird War Two supplement. Which just goes to show how we love mixing up the weird with our Nazis when it comes to our games and have done so ever since E. Gary Gygax sent his wizards and warriors to fight a German patrol and Indiana Jones uncovered the Nazi’s plans for the Ark of the Covenant in the 1981 movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. What is so fascinating about this frothy mix of the utterly evil and the weird is it has some basis in truth – the Nazis had an interest in the occult and much of what they were grew out of occult interests following the foundation of Germany in 1871. This is the basis for The Nazi Occult, the first in the Dark Osprey series written by Kenneth Hite, the author of two great RPGs in the form of Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents.

Hite does not so much chart the history and origins of the Nazis’ interest in the occult as race through it. Within a few pages, the reader is swept through the völkisch movement and its Aryan ideologies into the volatile politics of post-Great War Germany that saw the rise of the Nazis. Once the Nazis are in power, the founding of the Ahnenerbe is detailed as well as its occult equivalent to the Grand Tour. This takes in Finland, Brazil, Sweden, Bolivia, Iceland, Greece, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but most famously visits Tibet – indeed, a whole chapter is devoted to that expedition and its search for Agartha, the other secret kingdom. Similarly, another chapter devotes itself to the Nazi hunt for the great artefacts – the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and the Spear of Destiny, while others examines the application of the Nazis’ acquired occult knowledge, primarily in the form of the vril-powered vaguely bell-shaped flying saucers and the post-defeat, last stand, Werwolf program. Of course, with the fall of the Third Reich, the Fourth Reich could be founded, and the last chapter is devoted to its refuge, Point 211, in Antarctica, where it manages to withstand an American response…

Rounding out The Nazi Occult is a short bibliography of books and films as well as an equally short ludography of suitable games. It is followed by a short glossary. Both are necessary, the bibliography if only to aid the reader in expanding upon the book’s contents and confirming fact from fiction; in providing further visual stimulus; and in helping a GM put numbers to the book’s contents. The glossary of course is a handy point of reference for the numerous ‘technical’ terms used throughout The Nazi Occult.

So the question is, how do you use The Nazi Occult? At its most base use, the book is a primer, an introduction to its subject matter, the bibliography providing further pointers as to suggested reading. Its most obvious use is as background to a game of the GM's devising, whether that is in the heyday of the Nazi's occult world tour of the 1930s, during fraught years of World War Two, or in the desperate years following the end of the war. The GM need not use the background wholesale, but instead cherry pick the elements that he wants to use, either as scenario seeds or just simple details. The book is rich in such detail and potential ideas.

What The Nazi Occult is not, is a gaming supplement in the strictest sense. It contains no gaming stats or write-ups – for any gaming system. Such information is for the GM to devise, though certain supplements will no doubt have such information already prepared. What The Nazi Occult is, is an overview and an introduction to the weirder, not to say bonkers, ideology of the Nazis and how they applied it. It also manages to be a history of the Nazi Occult whilst also not being a history of the Nazi Occult. The point being that Hite speculates beyond the actual history, not only filling in the blanks, but going so far as to describe the culmination of the Nazi occultists’ wish fulfilment – the Werwolf program and its actual lycanthropes; the vehicles of Projekt Saucer; and so on. The problem is that whilst such operations and creations are not only fanciful and fictional – and obviously so – it is not so easy to spot the divide between the fact and the fiction elsewhere in the book. 

How much of an issue that will be, will vary from one reader to the next, but it is an issue that needs to be highlighted. Osprey Publishing’s books are history books, and as much history as there is in The Nazi Occult, it diverges from the history and does not say where it does. Still it does at least state in the introduction that in places the act of writing history is by necessity an act of the imagination. Arguably though, a disclaimer of some kind could have been displayed somewhere.

Physically, The Nazi Occult is up to the usual standards of Osprey Books’ layout and presentation. It is superbly illustrated, both the full paintings by Darren Tan and the numerous period book covers and photographs ably supporting the text. The paintings in particular do much to support the more fantastic elements of Hite’s amplified history – the deadly effect of casting spells, the protection of the City of the Birds from the SS by a djinn guardian, a street battle between US Army soldiers and Wolfen resistance, and so on. At just eighty pages, Hite does throw name after name and weirdness after weirdness at the reader at a tumultuous pace, and whilst he does have a lot to cram into those eighty pages, it does leave the reader with a lot to take in…

The Nazi Occult is either a primer on its subject matter or a full roleplaying game background yet to be written up with game stats or a history thick with plot ideas and details ready to be developed and added to an existing roleplaying campaign. It depends upon the reader and the GM of course, but either way, The Nazi Occult is a richly detailed introduction to a fascinating if quite bonkers aspect of history.