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Critics & Criticism
Folk horror in the woods, demons in the mountains and bugbears in the cultural landscape...
Hello! First off a big thank you to everyone that contacted us after last week’s Gazetteer, especially those who generously offered us Bluesky invites, and you can find us there now at wyrdscience.bsky.social. Our inbox is always open and we love to hear what you think about the Gazetteer, Wyrd Science or just the world in general, please do drop us a line anytime or comment below.
Before we get to the good stuff I wanted to highlight an interesting piece on The Guardian this week on the subject of film criticism, how the studios are sidelining film critics in favour of “influencers” and the effect this is having on both. It doesn’t make for particularly fun reading but does raise a lot of important points about the role and perceived value of cultural criticism today.
Of course it’s an issue by no means limited to the film industry. Whilst - barring Wizards and Games Workshop - the tabletop game industry’s total revenue probably equates to Barbie’s catering budget there are still many parallels with our corner of the world.
Indeed the relatively small size and nature of the tabletop industry - whether that’s RPGs, wargames or board games - both compounds these issues and throws up many of its own complications.
We swim in an infinitely wide, yet infinitesimally shallow pool where games and gamers with, often diametrically, opposed aesthetics, philosophies and intentions must share the same space and compete for any attention not hoovered up by the industry’s few behemoths.
This does have some benefits; there’s a tendency to silo ourselves off into distinct, discrete gaming camps and cliques, one that I suspect would only be exacerbated were people given the chance. That unreconstructed dungeon crawls must rub up against unapologetically arty experiments, and vice versa, is probably no bad thing. For all the grief it can cause the creative tension that creates can be equally inspiring.
At the same time the distinction between audience, creators and critics, amateurs and professionals is blurred in a way you see in few other areas (and I say that as someone who for many years was a, reasonably, successful DJ). Inevitably many of us slip between these roles like greased pigs.
Whilst that can, occasionally, make for a convivial atmosphere it generally doesn’t engender one that is receptive to a culture of robust criticism. This is especially the case when when you consider how much time it can take to properly learn, evaluate and write about a game; it’s probably fair to say that most people doing so can only dream of making a living that way.
In many ways I don’t blame larger games publishers for taking the easier option of working with influencers. Their job, after all, is to sell games and still be around next year to sell more. If you can achieve that goal sending product to someone to uncritically unbox rather than people who might raise awkward questions then for many that won’t be much of a dilemma.
This is especially the case when, historically speaking, we’ve barely had a truly independent gaming press. When the largest - and often most loved - publications have more been owned by games publishers, it’s easy to see why many of the guardrails that, at least nominally, exist in traditional media remain underdeveloped.
From the publications point of view it can be equally complicated. For all our highfalutin mission statements about celebrating tabletop culture our ultimate goal must be much the same as the game publishers, to somehow make enough money to still be around in 12 months time.
This is, it must be said, no easy job. In an attention economy, and where the vast majority of games on DriveThruRPG - “The Largest RPG Download Store!” - sell less than 50 copies, trade offs over what you cover, and how, have to be made.
We’ve always tried to find the right balance between featuring the games that stand the best chance of pulling in an audience whilst also representing the breadth of diversity that exists in gaming today, championing the creators and games we love without acting like mindless hype-men, or treating games seriously whilst not losing sight of the inherent, and wonderful, ridiculousness of many of them.
How successful we’ve been at all that I’ll leave up to you, I myself have mixed feelings and continue to look at everything we do as a work in progress. Ultimately though, irrespective of what we do, how things progress isn’t up to publishers or the media but you.
If people would rather watch someone in elf ears unwrap a box then that’s fair enough, I happily consume more than enough nonsense myself not to judge and as Pierre’s wonderful comic constantly reminds me it’s our choice to do this, but if there’s an appetite for more you will, I’m very afraid, need to be increasingly vocal about it as the headwinds are against us all.
That does mean though that I must again sincerely thank you. Whether you buy or subscribe to the magazine itself or just read this newsletter, we can only do what little we do with your support, financial or moral, and as precarious as everything is we’ve already achieved more than I hoped for when we started this adventure.
Right, next week, for all our sakes, I shall do my best to keep this section down to just a few paragraphs and stick with something less self-serving and introspective, but till then thanks again, enjoy the rest of this week’s Gazetteer, have a great weekend and do stay curious.
Carved By The Garden
Cassi Mothwin’s Carved By The Garden is a solo, folk horror journalling game where you must put yourself into the, probably if not inevitably, doomed shoes of someone who lives on the edge of a dark, ancient wood. Which - speaking as someone who does live on the edge of a dark, ancient wood - is a whole vibe.
Despite the best attempts of those you live with, every day you find yourself drawn into this sinister sylvan environment where old gods play, restless ghosts linger and strange rites are enacted under glowering bowers, and should one night you not return your journal is the only record of your daily revels. Something which I’m sure will be of immense comfort for your loved ones.
Powered by Chris Bissette’s Wretched & Alone system, Carved By The Garden guides you as you pull cards, follow the books prompts, and record your characters thoughts and impressions of your experiences in the woods. Of course being a W&A game you must also remove block after block from the Jenga tower thats increasingly precarious state represents your inexorable path towards one of the game’s ten different endings.
If you you’re a fan of sinister folk horror stories, such as The Witch, and enjoy creative writing exercises, building your own lore and, lets face it, probably trying to creep yourself out then Carved By The Garden could be a worthwhile addition to your shelf.
Campaign Ends: August 5
Tales of the Burned Stones
A few months ago now we recommended you check out René-Pier Deshaies-Gélinas’ Stoneburner, a “a Solo-Friendly TTRPG of Demon Hunting and Community Building in a Dwarven Asteroid Mine”, which as elevator pitches go still remains the best I’ve heard for a long time.
Anyway, it turns out that quite a lot of you did in fact check it out and so as a thank you René-Pier has just released a prequel, Tales of the Burned Stones, that you can go and download, right now, for free and be playing this weekend.
Powered by the same Breathless system as Stoneburner where, to cut a long story short, the dice you use to resolve challenges by hitting a target number steps down one level (D12>D8 etc) after every roll, until you can take a break.
As we said before in a game focused on exploring dangerous environments it’s a neat little tension building mechanic as ideally those rests will be few and far between, especially the deeper you delve.
Anyway Tales… begins with a mountain being split asunder and a demonic invasion laying waste to your home, leaving you but a lifeless corpse. Luckily this being an RPG that’s just a minor inconvenience and thanks to a mysterious witch cult you’re soon back on your feet, only now an ever respawning remnant, ready to explore this daemon damned world and salvage what you can from its ruins.
The setting is lightly sketched but evocative and really just one big prompt for you to bounce off. Like Stoneburner this is designed for both solo & group play and very much falls into the narrative games camp as, despite the optional presence of a GM, you’ll be creating much of the setting and how you engage with it at the table in a collaborative manner.
For a free game there’s actually a fair amount here and the game stretches to some 70+ pages, with rules for character creation and development, combat and exploration, tables for generating locations, NPCs, story prompts on the fly, an introductory adventure and lots more.
Now, admittedly most of that can be filed under the category of “vibes” rather than hard and fast rules for every possible event and to get the most out if this you definitely need a table prepared to roll up their sleeves and do some creative heavy lifting rather than expecting the GM runs the show.
Still there’s plenty to chew over here and if you’re fine with filling in the many blanks yourself as you go along and up for a spot of “swimming in a pool of stories”, as Tales… puts it, then this could make for and enjoyable session or two or an introduction to a more freeform style of play in a comfortably familiar setting.
We’ve mentioned the Explorers Design project a few times recently but, at the risk of sounding like a stuck record, Clayton Notestine has just launched a Substack to accompany the project and we think you really should check it out.
Kicking things off Clayton takes us on dive into the old school weirdness that is Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics, a game that can easily both infuriate and delight with its absolute commitment to the bit.
It is, as he smartly puts it, “the Nic Cage of RPGs” and Clayton breezily runs us through the game’s history, the old school style of play it aims for and its roots in pulp sword & sorcery fiction and, as you’d expect, the graphic design and artistic choices that work towards that goal.
Smart, incisive and offering a perspective on some of the aspects of an RPG’s design that often get skipped over, this will be well worth subscribing to and we’re looking forward to what comes next.
Also whilst we’re at it there’s around 4 days left to go on the game jam Clayton is hosting based around his recently released Classic Explorers template, so check that out too, if you haven’t already, so I don’t have to plug it again…
A collection of other things, both interesting and inspiring, gaming related and not, culled from around the web...
We’re big fans of Bitmap Books who since 2014 have published a series of beautiful looking titles covering the history of video games whether that’s taking a deep dive into the workings of machines like the ZX Spectrum or documenting different genres from Computer RPGs to Side Scrolling Beat Em Ups.
Their latest title, out this month and up for pre-order now, is The Art of the Box, a lavish tribute to video game cover art from that which packaged early Atari cartridges right up to today’s AAA titles and looks fantastic.
If last week’s inchoate intro hasn’t put you off the subject Dicebreaker have published a good piece on how those working in indie games are taking the ongoing, increasing enshittification of social media.
Long term readers might possibly be aware of my love of anarchic pop-rave duo/illuminated wizards/performance artists The KLF and so we’re very excited to find out that the best book on the band John Higgs’ The KLF: Chaos, Magic and the Band who Burned a Million Pounds has just had an expanded re-release on its 10th anniversary. If you read one book (loosely) about music this year, please make it this one.
If that wasn’t enough Higgs has partnered with the brilliant 1 of 100, makers of some of our favourite limited edition t-shirts to produce a suitably in your face t-shirt to accompany the new book. Bonus points for RPG fans as it could probably double as a particularly strange(r) MORK BÖRG tee.
We often talk about the importance of zines in the early days of RPGs for disseminating information and codifying many of the early modes of play but of course their significance goes way beyond that. Long before RPG zines existed a vibrant community of DIY publications devoted to science-fiction & fantasy existed in the US and it was the convergence of this scene with the wargaming one that really created roleplaying games as we know them (and led to half the arguments we’re still having).
Anyway, going to show that UK nerds were just as committed to stapling together xeroxed pages filled with amateur appreciation of the stranger things in life is this great looking new book from Alistair McGown looking at 3 decades of Doctor Who zines, from titles like Skaro through to the refreshingly unpolished Ark in Space. Wonderful!
Sticking with Doctor Who and it’s oft odd amateur appreciators, we were delighted to find out this week that thanks to fan logic the English alphabet has a subtly different order in the “Whoniverse”.
After giving us official Royal Mail Warhammer stamps earlier this year it looks like we’re now getting a set to mark the 40 years since the publication of the first of Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels.
David Blandy, whose ECO MOFOS!! Kickstarter campaign we featured a couple of weeks ago is hosting a one day symposium in that there London on September 2nd, entitled Areas Of Effect: Planar Systems, Critical Roles, and Gaming Imaginaries.
Featuring an absolutely stellar lineup of TTRPG’s great & the good, they’ll be digging into the intersection of art and games, whether games can be a tool for activism and even if they can, and I quote, “temporarily untether us from the stagnant imaginaries of a post-capitalist inertia?” Can’t wait to find out the answer to that one.
Stu & Hambone from the excellent Vintage RPG podcast (see our feature here for more on them) take a look at Skerples’ new bestiary The Monster Overhaul this week. We were really excited about this when it was on Kickstarter and then managed to miss out backing it because we got our dates wrong, so it’s good to hear that it both lives up to the hype and copies are available for non-backers now (or soon in the case of us impoverished old worlders).
Staying with podcasts the latest dive into The Grognard Files is, as ever, a delight and this month Dirk and Blythy dig into British urban fantasy RPG Liminal and speak to the game’s creator, Paul Mitchener.
A mix of Buffy, Neil Gaiman and the venerable Reader’s Digest Folklore, Myths & Legends of Britain, it’s been one of our favourite games of the past few years and should you so desire you can read our look at its London supplement here, our interview with Becky Annison about its recent werewolf supplement in our most recent issue and for good measure our interview with Dirk about The Grognard Files here.
Finally, made it this far then please do treat yourself this weekend to the full, unexpurgated, Cosgrave Hall adaptation of The Wind in the Willows from 1983. One of my favourite ever books I vividly remember watching this as a kid but until now had never seen this full, and I believe un-broadcast, version that notably includes the deeply eerie, beautiful and often bowdlerised Piper at the Gates of Dawn chapter. Pretty special.
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