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

Saturday 29 April 2023

Magazine Madness 19: Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue

The gaming magazine is dead. After all, when was the last time that you were able to purchase a gaming magazine at your nearest newsagent? Games Workshop’s White Dwarf is of course the exception, but it has been over a decade since Dragon appeared in print. However, in more recent times, the hobby has found other means to bring the magazine format to the market. Digitally, of course, but publishers have also created their own in-house titles and sold them direct or through distribution. Another vehicle has been Kickststarter.com, which has allowed amateurs to write, create, fund, and publish titles of their own, much like the fanzines of Kickstarter’s ZineQuest. The resulting titles are not fanzines though, being longer, tackling broader subject matters, and more professional in terms of their layout and design.


Most magazines for the roleplaying hobby give the gamer support for the game of his choice, or at the very least, support for the hobby’s more popular roleplaying games. Whether that is new monsters, spells, treasures, reviews of newly released titles, scenarios, discussions of how to play, painting guides, and the like… That is how it has been all the way back to the earliest days of The Dragon and White Dwarf magazines. Wyrd Science is different—and Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue (Wyrd Science Vol. 1/Issue 3) is different in comparison to both Wyrd Science Session Zero and Wyrd Science – Expert Rules. Gone is the ‘BECMI’ colour coding of the colours and the focus upon fantasy and the Old School Renaissance. Instead, the issue focuses on a much darker genre—horror, and instead of providing new monsters or scenarios, it explores the genre which has threaded its way through roleplaying since 1981 with the publication of Call of Cthulhu with a range of interviews and articles. This is not say that other genres are completely ignored, but the emphasis in this issue is very much on the dark and the forbidding, the scary and the spinetingling, and the unknown and the uncertain.

Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue (Vol. 1/Issue 3) was published by Best in Show in September, 2021 following a successful Kickstarter campaign. There are some ten interviews in the issue, beginning with ‘Publish & Be Damned: The Merry Mushmen’, or rather Eric Nieudan and Olivier Revenu, the French publishers best known for Knock! #1 An Adventure Gaming Bric-à-Brac and its subsequent issues. They give a little of their history and how they came to work together and their interest in the Old School Renaissance, including both Knock! and other projects. ‘Cast Pod: the Vintage RPG Podcast’ continues the magazine’s showcasing of a podcast in each issue and this time it is the podcast, The Vintage RPG Podcast run by Stu Horvath and John ‘Hambome’ McGuire. The podcast is dedicated to the history and art of RPGs, but the interviewees explain how they came to hosting a podcast and how they about creating an episode and in the process create a community around themselves.

Two artists are interviewed in Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue. The first is Tazio Bettin in ‘Art of Darkness: Tazio Bettin – Fighting Fantasy’. An Italian artist, he is the illustrator of Secrets of Salmonis, one of the two titles released for the fortieth anniversary of the Fighting Fantasy series and the first to be written by the series’ co-creator, Steve Jackson. There is some fantastic artwork on show here alongside the interview, in which the artist talks about his work and his turning his interest and hobby into a full time occupation. The second is Jonathan Sacha. In ‘Monstrous Arcana: Goblins & Gardens’ we find out how he came to be interested in Tarot decks and adapting the monsters of Dungeons & Dragons in weirdly bucolic, but unsettling Tarot deck by combining them with a gardening book!

Where all of the previous interviews have been conducted by John Power Jr, the editor of the magazine, Will Salmon interviews David Hughes of Plumeria Pictures on the release on Blu-ray of the 1982 television film starring Tom Hanks, Monsters & Mazes. The interview provides some context for the film and is more positive about it than others might be.

The issue’s horror theme swings into action with ‘I Will Show You Fear In A Handful Of Games...’ by Shannon Appelcline, which takes the reader through a history of the horror genre in roleplaying. He does this in a series of one-page mini essays, each one dedicated to a particular ear. Thus we begin in the early days of the hobby and Dungeons & Dragons, in which its horror was best seen in modules such as X1 Isle of Dread and I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City veering towards the Lovecraftian, but quickly steering away following issues with Deities & Demigods and mostly adhering to Pulp horror. The title of the opening essay, ‘Dark Shadows: 1974-1986’ is a nice nod to the soap opera of the period. The article really takes off with the appearance of Call of Cthulhu, the Satanic Panic of the eighties (of which the aforementioned Mazes & Monsters was a partial instigator), and the appearance of Vampire: The Masquerade in 1990, tracing their evolution over the past forty years and coming up to date with the more recent broadening of means, such as the Jenga of Dread, and areas explore, like LGBT adolescence with Monsterhearts and the feminine fairytale in Bluebeard’s Bride. It is an excellent history and with any luck, should future issues of Wyrd Science explore other genres, there will be similar articles.

Roleplaying games and the Gothic collide in Jack Shear’s ‘Wuthering Frights’. Here he looks at his favorite setting, Ravenloft. First seen in the 1983 module, I6 Ravenloft, this would be later developed into a full setting with the Realm of Terror boxed set in 1990. Shear examines the origins of Dungeons & Dragons’ signature villain, Count Strahd von Zarovich, of I6 Ravenloft fame,
in Dracula and then each of the other Domains and their villains more recently for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition presented in Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft. A clearer bibliography might have helped what is otherwise an informative article and useful accompaniment to whichever version of the Ravenloft setting that the Dungeon Master is using.

Just as horror roleplaying games have changed over the decade, so have their portrayal of mental health. After all, the nature of the genre is all about the loss of self and control—physically, emotionally, and mentally. However, as Stuart Martyn points out in ‘Mind Games’, the portrayal of that loss, especially the mental loss, has not always been an accurate one, often leading to the enforcement of stereotypes about mental health and a lack of understanding of those suffering from poor mental health. To be fair, much of this can be explained by a game’s age. Call of Cthulhu is rightfully acknowledged as the first roleplaying game to explore fear and model the loss of control through its Sanity mechanics, but Call of Cthulhu and Vampire: The Masquerade are singled out as leading examples poor portrayals of mental health. However, as the article moves into the twenty-first century and comes up-to-date, it makes clear that modern iterations of these roleplaying games, as well as others, designers have shown more awareness and understanding of the subject and better tried to reflect that in their games. This is a fascinating look at a key mechanic, or least concept, that almost no roleplaying game can really avoid dealing with, and how it has changed over the years.

John Power Jr. takes us temporarily to the Mythic North’ of Scandinavia, before returning to the British Isles in ‘This Septic Isle’ and an interview with Graeme Davis about Mythic Britain & Ireland, his supplement for Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying. This highlights the stronger tensions and divisions present in nineteenth century Britain, discusses some of the new Vaesen to be found in the new setting, and interestingly, suggests how the limited geography of the setting can lead to distinct variations upon the Vaesen within only a few miles. Davis also draws the distinction between the horror of Vaesen – Nordic Horror Roleplaying and the horror of Call of Cthulhu, primarily in that the later the aim at best is not to lose, whilst in the former, it is possible to resolve situations without necessarily resorting to despair. A different type of horror roleplaying game, Campfire, is discussed in ‘Flames of Fear!’, Samantha Nelson’s interview with its creators, Adam Vass and Will Jobst. Campfire is a storytelling game inspired by the horror anthologies such as Creepshow and Are You Afraid Of The Dark? The game uses decks of cards as prompts to encourage the players to tell horror stories about the protagonists rather than a single character each and also allows the players to step back from the story itself to comment upon the ongoing narrative as they are watching it unfold. This is shared storytelling and designed for shorter sessions than most roleplaying games.

Just as Call of Cthulhu remains the template for horror roleplaying in general, Ridley Scott’s 1979 Alien remains the template for all Science Fiction horror games. John Power Jr.’s ‘Dark Future’ looks the three roleplaying games and how they handle horror and fear in examining this meeting of genres. Most obvious here is Free League Publishing’s Alien: The Roleplaying Game, but Mothership Sci-Fi Horror RPG – Player’s Survival Guide is also inspired by the film too. The third roleplaying game is The Wretched, a solo-journalling game about the last survivor aboard a spaceship whose crew was killed by alien monstrosity except for the survivor. One aspect of these settings that the article does not really explore is the class distinction between these and other horror roleplaying games. These are all Blue-Collar sci-Fi horror roleplaying games whereas many horror roleplaying games are not. Again, this is a legacy of the film Alien. Featuring interviews with the designers of three roleplaying games, article however, does nicely balance the unknown, but not cosmic, nature of the sub-genre’s horror against the possibility of survival—and even hope.

Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue also interviews the team at Rowan, Rook, & Deckard. They talk to Luke Frostick in ‘The Importance of Powerful Deaths’ about the origins of Spire: The City Must Fall and the consequences that its protagonists—Drow rebels seen as terrorists by the High Elf state—suffer in acting against the regime. Spire is not necessarily seen as a horror roleplaying game, at least not in the traditional sense, but the article makes it clear that it has strong horror elements. The article explores how the team works together and some of the ideas and concepts which make it into the setting, but without restricting the setting for the Game Master and her creativity. The issue returns to the Old School Renaissance with ‘In The Darkest Recesses of Ourselves’, an interview by Walton Wood with Paolo Greco of Lost Pages about The Book of Gaub. This brings out the horrific nature of the book and its spells and their broader effect upon a campaign. It is a pity that this book comes from Old School Renaissance, because being systems agnostic it can have a wider use in non-fantasy genres and settings too. The interview does not necessarily suggest this, but it highlights the nature of the book and will hopefully bring it to the attention of a wider audience. The interview by John Power Jr. of Guilherme Gontijo, in ‘Silver Scream’ turns to mundane horror, but horror, nonetheless. Blurred Lines – Giallo Detective Solo RPG is the Brazilian designer’s solo journalling game designed by the Italian giallo cinema of the sixties in which the protagonist is a crime scene photographer who hunting, and in turn being hunted, by a serial killer. Like the earlier The Wretched, this explores the notion of playing alone and at night, how that can immerse the player deeper into the game. The interview also notes the difficulty in bringing designs from Latin America to the English-speaking hobby and various attempts to support this.

The last two articles in Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue do not switch subject, but they do switch format under discussion. In ‘Roll & Fright’, Dan Thurot asks whether a sense of horror can be created in playing a board game, pointing to hidden identity or movement games such as Fury of Dracula or Battlestar Galactica, as possible vehicles as they both add a high degree of uncertainty to play. Whilst he acknowledges that most horror board games are merely themed, adding the veneer of the genre, he ultimately concludes that it is possible, if only under its terms. The challenge being that sense of immersion and the loss of control at the heart of the genre makes it all the more difficult to do in a board game. The last interview in the magazine is again by John Power Jr. and with wargames designer, Joseph McCullough. In ‘A Field of Horror’, the designer of the highly regarded Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City talks about his latest design, The Silver Bayonet, which fuses Napoleonic wargaming with horror and narrative storytelling. This looks to be a fascinating setting and with rules for solo play included suggests it can be played on a more casual basis without the need for more confrontational play of traditional wargaming.

Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue is rounded out with ‘Hit Points’, its extensive reviews sections. It includes reviews of wargames such as Warlord Games’ Sláine – Kiss My Axe Starter Set, roleplaying games like the RuneQuest Starter set from Chaosium, Inc. and Orbital Blues from Soulmuppet Publishing, board games such as Tales From The Loop: The Boardgame from Free League Publishing, and a range solo games (all revewed by Anna Blackwell), like Be Like a Crow and Bucket of Bolts, before looking at Christopher Frayling’s Vampire Cinema – The First one Hundred Years and various films and television series, which has a report from the FrightFest 2022. Two of the more interesting reviews here are of The Elusive Shift: How Role-Playing Games Forged Their Identity by Jon Peterson and Slaying the Dragon: A Secret History of Dungeons & Dragons by Ben Riggs, pleasingly placed opposite each other in an entirely appropriate pairing. Lastly, the issue catches up with the adventures of Mira Manga in ‘Appendix M’. It adds a personal touch to the magazine and brings it to a close.

Physically, Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue is impressively bright and breezy—despite its subject matter. The layout is clean and tidy, but the issue does need another edit in places though.

Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue covers a wide range of roleplaying games in exploring the issue’s genre. Some of the roleplaying games and supplements, such as Call of Cthulhu, Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft, and Mythic Britain & Ireland obviously fall into the horror genre, others less obviously so, for example, The Book of Gaub. There is a lot to read and discover in the pages of the magazine and that is where it is at its best, finding out about a game you never heard of or wanted to know more about. Yet the format of the magazine, or at least this issue, makes it unbalanced and often not as engaging to read as it deserves to be. There are simply too many interviews in the issue compared to other articles, so that the other articles, whether Shannon Appelcline’s ‘I Will Show You Fear In A Handful Of Games...’ and Jack Shear’s ‘Wuthering Frights’ stand out more because they are different rather just because they are both interesting and informative. Consequently, whilst the issue is interesting and informative, providing an engaging look at a particular genre in roleplaying, Wyrd Science – The Horror Issue is better for what it covers rather than the way it covers its content.

No comments:

Post a Comment