Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Science Fiction Hobby Games: A First Survey

Before I begin, I should be upfront: I’ve known the author for many years, so I’m inclined to be favourable. Readers should be skeptical of reviews anyway, but there’s good reason to be in this instance.

That said, I’m going to tell you why this book is worth your time.


Science Fiction Hobby Games: A First Survey (hereafter SFHG) follows the style of the Encyclopedia of Science Fiction (and its sibling, the Encyclopedia of Fantasy). Unsurprising, as Neal Tringham contributed to the Second and Third editions of that book and indeed some of the game content in the encyclopedia has been collected into this book.

However this book isn’t a stripped down encyclopedia; it’s more a catalogue of games that fit under the broad heading of “Hobby Games” that includes RPGs, board games, wargames, and even PBM. It doesn’t include video games although there are numerous references in the text concerning the influence of/on video games and parallel development.

Citation is thorough (as is found in its sf-encyclopedia parent). Individual entries are longer than encyclopedic ones and presented as short essays. There’s a bibliography, and a nice glossary that includes not only roleplaying terms but definitions of many SF tropes, which are then used in the entries to differentiate the sub-genres each game emulates. These include entries on genre taxonomy (Cyberpunk, Transhuman), game terminology (“massively multiplayer”, “interactive narrative”), and references to fiction in fantasy, SF and even comic genre. If you have the epub version, these are all nicely hyperlinked from entries to glossary.

The book is split into several sections: initial essays on How To Read This Book (citations and naming conventions), brief discussions on games and game worlds, and then several large sections on types of games. RPGs come first, then Wargames, then Board Games, Gamebooks, and PBM. The glossary and bibliography completes the book. Here I confess I’ve only read the RPG section and dipped into the others as I have little interest in wargames (aside from WH40K).

It’s not complete. John Snead’s Eldrich Skies and VSCA’s Diaspora are not included, for example (although Shock: Social Science Fiction is). But it’s a first survey, and the main value is commentary on titles that have either disappeared into obscurity (e.g. The Morrow Project) or ones with a diverse heritage that benefit from a thorough analysis (Traveller). Each entry covers the objectives of the game, literary heritage, game system, SF themes and other related works (board games, video games, etc.). Overall I found the approach to be very consistent and mature, although some games have more to say about them than others.

There are several types of gamer this book might appeal to. If you really love SF and if in particular you want to either (a) pick a game that emulates a particular type of SF or (b) read more widely on the sub-genre of a particular game, this book is very worthwhile.

If you’re interested in the history of our hobby, and particularly in SF games which usually play second fiddle to D&D and other fantasy games in historical analysis, this is also very good. There is plenty of stuff from the early days of the hobby to satisfy both a young player’s curiosity and an older player’s need for gratification and self-congratulation (ahem).

What about the future? It would be nice to see a second survey to expand the initial group of games. Since Neal has included Call of Cthulhu perhaps the Superhero or Pulp genres are ripe for inclusion too. I would love to read Neal’s take on Synnibarr (and he does cover some obscure stuff, for example Continuum: Roleplaying in the Yet). But sourcing these games and much less playing some of them (shudder) is not a trivial undertaking.

In summary: there is nothing like this book anywhere else. If you want a wealth of information and opinion on our hobby games (especially the more obscure elements) from an author who has contributed to entries to the SF Encyclopedia, this is worth your time.

Saturday, 9 February 2013

Impressionable Youth

For any gamer growing up in the UK in the late 70s to 80s, Fighting Fantasy was probably your gateway drug to the hobby. For me, the crowning achievement of Fighting Fantasy was Steve Jackson’s Sorcery! series.

Setting aside the four-book story, the multiple pathways (many ending in complete failure, endings all the more poignant for having succeeded in the earlier books), and the wonderful spell system, the impact of that series came from John Blanche.


This image is taken from a forum post in 2010 from a user called “Gambit37”, who has taken the image from the front and back of The Shamutanti Hills and photoshopped it a bit (update: cleaned up by another user “cowsmanaut” – lovely). I think you’ll agree they’ve done a great job, and it showcases Blanche beautifully. The town in the middle looks as though it’s influenced by Roger Dean, who was responsible for my Prog Rock habit later in life. Less said about that the better, I think.

This fellow makes a nice, succinct post on Blanche, and comments on his right-to-left style and the way it draws the reader’s eye. Though of course the above is a book cover–the book wouldn’t have looked nearly as cool with a couple of giant mushrooms on the front (unless you’re mycophobic).

I recently discovered the gothic punk tumblr for Blanche’s work (it’s been around for some time according to the Tears of Envy blog), so take a look if you like that sort of thing. A picture is worth a thousand words, after all.

Another illustrator from my childhood is Gary Chalk, who drew similarly distinctive images in the Lone Wolf and other Magnamund books. Project Aon appears to be re-publishing old Lone Wolf material, though I don’t know if it will include Chalk’s illustrations, but I hope so:


Now our gamebooks have entered the electronic age. It was inevitable. It is a good thing: a precious gateway to gaming that can be enjoyed by young and old is preserved. On the other hand I don’t get what Eddie Sharam’s gif illustrations add to Blanche’s original work. I see that the Forest of Doom has also been given a makeover too, with Martin McKenna’s cover a duplicate of Iain McCaig’s original shapeshifter. I don’t see the point unless it was to overcome a legal obstacle.

With the recent Old School Renaissance and the focus of LotFP on “weird”, artwork has become edgy once more. It’s a refreshing departure from the glossy comic-book style rut of the D&D era. Artists like Jason Rainville and Cynthia Sheppard manage distinctive styles that evoke a particular flavour of fantasy.

But Blanche and Chalk and McCaig and Archilleos and Miller did this already. Blanche’s art is weird, full stop. Blanche and Miller contribute massively to the feel of Warhammer Fantasy Role Play, more than the game’s career system or its over-use of umlauts. The OSR movement for discovering the “old ways” of playing is laudible, but its true value is in opening paths back to ┬ádistinctive art and feel–the art that drew some of us to the hobby in the first place–and away from the sanitised, fantasy-by-numbers tripe that plagues the likes of Exalted, D&D and the rest of the post-Tolkien rubbish.