What if horror games are actually driven by banality? Is Call of Cthulhu best when it’s mostly full of the everyday?Continue reading
Tag Archives: Unknown Armies
A House With Good Bones, by T. Kingfisher
My experience of reading A House With Good Bones was weird, because I made some silly assumptions. It was also fun, and good, and I’d recommend the book. However, this isn’t an in-depth review; I’ll share more about this book elsewhere through GeeklyInc, so I’m focusing on my reading experience here. When I dive deep into the book, I’ll let you know.
I’ve previously read and enjoyed several other books from T. Kingfisher (Ursula Vernon). I’ve come to expect, for better or worse, a certain flavor of genre fiction. Her Saint of Steel series and her Clocktaur War books are all fantasy romance with other genres laced in (murder mystery, adventure, horror, etc). I foolishly allowed myself to think that everything she published as T. Kingfisher would therefore also have strong romance genre elements, and would feel like romance overall.
I was wrong!
Okay, I wasn’t that wrong. There are still hints of romance genre conventions here. There are plenty of things in this story that feel like they belong in a romance novel. They’re fun when they show up and they help lighten the mood. But the book doesn’t deliver all the requisite story beats for it to feel like or qualify as romance. Instead, it has just enough romance to allow the audience to enjoy a little bit of that flavor while enjoying all the rest of what the book is really about.
Which is horror. Spooky, weird horror. Spooky, weird gradual horror that reminds me powerfully of the RPG Unknown Armies, which is in turn inspired by the fiction of Tim Powers (who you’ll be shocked to know also writes some spooky, weird horror).
And Ursula Vernon, aka T. Kingfisher, is good at writing this horror.
I already knew she was good at other flavors of horror. Her Saint of Steel books revolve around the murder mystery and fantasy horror genres (yes, with romance), and I had a grand time with those. But the horror of those books is different from the horror of A House With Good Bones. And that difference, plus the less-present romance, threw me for a loop.
To dig into that flavor metaphor, I took my first bite of this dish thinking I was eating Italian and found out I was eating Indian. Sure, both words start with “I,” both cuisines make good use of tomatoes, and both are delicious—but what I got was not what I was expecting.
I figured out what was going on pretty quickly. I was happy with it. I spent a good portion of my time with this book smacking my lips and saying “huh!” and trying to suss out the different ingredients.
So. Yes, I recommend this book when it comes out. Yes, I had fun with it. Yes, if you like T. Kingfisher’s other work you’ll probably enjoy this too. But keep in mind that this is—first and foremost—something besides romance. With that, I think you’ll have a good time.
Finding a way into D&D 5e
My partner is curious about RPGs but didn’t reliably click with D&D when we played online over the first year of the pandemic. Some of this is no doubt an artifact of that group and its dynamics, and my partner only knowing one other player in that group. Some of it came from their struggles to find the sweet spot for playing their character and engaging with the story. We spoke about that a good deal.
But I think it was also due to D&D simply being… not simple. It’s not straightforward, or intuitive, or streamlined, or… any of that. My impression of 5e as an “easy” system is grounded in decades of playing RPGs, starting with 2nd ed. AD&D before I could reliably read or write. And while a different system wouldn’t have removed any of the hurdles posed by story, character, or group dynamics, I can’t help but wonder whether it would have made the other issues feel more approachable or less insurmountable.
There are plenty of other RPGs to play. The very narrative-focused systems which have grown from the indie RPG scene would offer games more focused on the character and story. Any number of Powered by the Apocalypse (PbtA) systems would have given my partner a more mechanically streamlined introduction to gaming. Hell, I love Monsterhearts and would happily play that all the time, and my partner enjoyed playing that for a little while too (though that group fell apart due to COVID).
We could have gone with Call of Cthulhu or Unknown Armies, for the straightforward percentile-rated skill-based gameplay with no (or very few) special abilities. I even could have used an extremely simplified GURPS—presumably with plenty of help during character creation, because that system feels like it’s intended to train future CPAs, and navigating all the possibilities of GURPS is a headache in its own right. What I’m trying to say is, I have a laundry list of RPGs that I’ve played and run before. At last count, most of a decade ago, I’d run more than a dozen systems and played close to thirty… and a lot of them were easier to engage with than D&D. That isn’t necessarily true for every step of playing them, but many have a lower mandatory cognitive load for “effective” play. Unlike with D&D, you don’t always have to keep track of an ever-growing collection of powers and abilities with hyper-specific uses.
But none of those other games are D&D. And that’s the problem. In so many other contexts, in pop culture, with other groups, or just playing with me and my sibs, my partner knows they’re going to run into D&D. And they’re abundantly aware that, for that to be accessible to them in the future, they need to pick up the basics at some point.
Which brings me back to the issue at hand. What other game might I run for them first, to give them a better feel for RPGs before they try D&D again? How might I run D&D differently to better engage them, and to help them feel their way into familiarity with the system?
I have some ideas.
We can talk through what genres my partner is excited to play, and choose a system with mechanics which fit. We can try some solo-play, to give my partner experience with a system without the distraction of larger group dynamics. And we can try a couple different one-shots or brief stories, to let us more-quickly sample the many different flavors available. Just jumping in and trying different systems and genres is probably our best bet.
D&D 5e doesn’t work equally well for everything, I’m very aware. But hopefully we can find ways to play that my partner enjoys, and give them the background to feel comfortable with D&D even if it’s not their game of choice. Wish us luck.
What Flavor Is Your Game?
I like vanilla ice cream. I have for a very long time. Before I knew my alphabet, much less how to read, I knew that hearing my older brother spell out “I-C-E-C-R-E-A-M” meant that I should start asking Mom for ice cream too. Better yet, as I got older and discovered the joys of living in Vermont (home of Ben & Jerry’s before it was bought out by Unilever), I learned that there were far more flavors of ice cream available, and that many of them were exceedingly tasty as well.
When I was little, I played make-believe all the time. A number of my friends simply couldn’t understand the appeal, and stopped playing with me, but at the tender age of seven my older brothers harnessed my ambitions and introduced me to 2nd Edition AD&D. My introduction might actually have been earlier, but that year was the first time I can remember staying up until midnight to play RPGs with them. Over the next few years, I was introduced to Vampire: The Masquerade (along with a bundle of other White Wolf games), D&D’s 3rd Edition, In Nomine, and GURPS. More other games followed. Just like with ice cream, I had discovered a whole new world of flavors to choose from. I was very nearly overwhelmed by my enthusiasm. These days, some people refer to me as an RPG snob. I much prefer the term ‘connoisseur’: through dedicated consumption, I have built an appreciation for the inherent flavors of different game systems.
But what the heck do I mean by “flavor”? And how do you figure out what a game’s flavor is?