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

Saturday, 10 February 2018

The Magic of Now

Magic items have been a feature of roleplaying games since 1974 and the publication of Dungeons & Dragons and over the years they have been supported with supplement after supplement. For games set in the contemporary or modern era, such supplements are rare, and whilst there is nothing to stop a Game Master from updating items from the fantasy to the modern setting, the release of The Book of Contemporary Magical Things: A Collection of Mundane Items Imbued With Magical Power For Use In Contemporary Horror And Fantasy Roleplaying Games from Stygian Fox Publishing is more than welcome. The supplement presents almost one-hundred-and-twenty of varying power, from a Hot Spoon which always stirs your tea just right to Delgado’s Orrery which is capable of aligning the planets with many, many items in between, plus antagonists and rivals for their possession. What is important to know is that all of these items and personalities are presented in a systemless fashion, so a Game Master can take an item, write it up for the rules of his choice, and add it to his campaign as his wont.

The background to The Book of Contemporary Magical Things is simple. Since 1945, magical artefacts have begun to appear. Not the great artefacts of legends past, but common or garden items, like boxes of matches and boxes of nails, handbags, torches, stools, sunglasses, caps, trainers, rings, SIM cards, goop, cooking pots, fishing nets, watches, door handles, lamps, bookcases, laser pointers, snow globes, handkerchiefs, pistols, and on. As these have come to the attention and notice of collectors and those in the know, they have not only been sought after, but classified according to their power. The power scale runs from Mina or Cantrips up to Cosmica via Minora, Media, Majora, Maxima, Magisteria, Magnifica, and Miracula. An example Mina would be the Silver Cat Statue, which when dropped or knocked over, sends out dreams calling for kittens—it is marked with the word “Ulthar” on its base; The Senator’s Pastime are a sample Minora, an item of everyday power, cigarettes that grant the ability to sense the intent of others; and an example Media, an item of uncommon power, would be ‘Lucky’ Kowalski’s Luger, a hand built fully functional replica pistol which fires bullets that most of the time pass around cover. An example passion made corporeal or Majora, would be Grandmother Edith’s Rocking Chair which when sat in and rocked allows the rocker to see out of the nearest window and into the future or the past; an example of disaster or Maxima would Jimmy Walsh’s Flight-stick, a flight-sim joystick capable of flying any real world aerial vehicle; and The Underwater Porsche would be an example of a Magisteria or the height of mortal power. The Power Armour of Ebony Harris, a surprisingly powerful and capable cosplay suit is a sample of a Magnifica, an item with power of demi-gods, currently being used by a vigilante; the wrath of deities or Miraxula is wrapped up in something like The Bed of Ressurection; and of course, Delgado’s Orrery or ‘The Devil’s Instrument’ embodies Cosmica, both destruction and creation.

Throughout, the detailed descriptions of these items are colour coded: green for the beneficial effects of an artefact, red as a warning to its dangers, and blue for interesting facts. These are easy to spot by the reader, as is the number for each entry which keys to the maps at the back of the book marking where everything is. It is clear that the authors are having fun with the entries in The Book of Contemporary Magical Things. In some cases, they can be very specific about the details, such as Potter’s Dice, a set of polyhedrals with a twenty-sided die that can grant either good or very bad luck for a day, which can be found in the Birmingham games shop, Wayland’s Forge. Then there are some very knowing creations too, such as the Book of Laminated Dreams, a catalogue which provides the owner with the luxury goods they pick from its content, though where they come from is another matter, and Janie’s Magic Torch, which always shines brighter when pointed in the direction of what the owner is looking for.

Rounding out The Book of Contemporary Magical Things are notes on conjunctions—how certain devices work when brought together—and NPCs and organisations with an interest in the artefacts. Such persons are known as Curators, and on the rare occasions when they work together, as Guilds. They include the Gatecrashers, a trio operating out of a Paris hotel in the hunt for artefacts; Nur Allah, a radical terrorist organisation who use artefacts in its campaigns of terror; and Alice ‘Little Red Riding’ Hood, an orphaned young woman who hunts monsters using the White Flame Sword

Physically, The Book of Contemporary Magical Things is nicely presented. The layout is clean and the illustrations are excellent throughout. This is a good-looking book and yet… The Book of Contemporary Magical Things made this reviewer—and editor—want to cry. The problem is that the supplement is horribly overwritten and so much time is wasted saying very little. For example:
“In 1947 somewhere in Norfolk, England there was an old seaman’s chest. It passed down from an elderly man to his nephew when the old man died. The seaman’s chest had strict instructions left on it, in the man’s will, only his nephew could open it on his 20th Birthday. So in 1950 when Dan Hughes took possession of the chest, aged 20, he was able to see what all the fuss was about.
It was late one in the Hughes Estate when the young man, who could not sleep, opened the chest in his room and found it contained a letter from the old man. The letter was written in his usual cursive script, without a typewriter and using a beautiful calligraphy pen for the header.”
Alternatively,
“In 1947, in Norfolk, England, Dan Hughes inherited an old seaman’s chest from his uncle. According to the old man’s will, Dan was not allowed to open it until his 20th birthday. It would be another three years before the young man could open the chest and when he did, the first thing he discovered was a letter addressed to him, written in uncle’s familiar hand.”
Despite the disappointing quality of the writing, and indeed, the editing, The Book of Contemporary Magical Things is rife with interesting objects and intriguing artefacts. There is plenty here ready for the Game Master to bring to his campaign whether that is for an urban fantasy, horror, or superhero game. Thus, the supplement’s contents would work with campaigns similar to Supernatural, The Librarians, or The Lost Room, as well as roleplaying games like Evil Hat Productions’ The Dresden Files Roleplaying Game, Catalyst Game Lab’s Shadowrun, Onyx Path Publishing’s World of Darkness, and so on. Overall though, appreciate the art, idolise the ideas, but weep for the writing and what the writers wanted The Book of Contemporary Magical Things: A Collection of Mundane Items Imbued With Magical Power For Use In Contemporary Horror And Fantasy Roleplaying Games to be, for it is just lacks polish.