Monday, July 2, 2012

Belated Weird Adventures Review


"I take SPACE to be the central fact to man born in America. I spell it large because it comes large here. Large and without mercy" - Charles Olson, 1970

Since the Internet seems to have an insatiable hunger for my maunderings about DYI game products I've decided I will put up another review for an excellent OSR product that I have purchased.  Trey of Sorcerer's Skull has produced "Weird Adventures" a campaign book/gazetteer for a fantastical 1930's America.  It's a commingling of Pulp Science Fantasy and Pulp Detective/Adventure and is the most compelling “Diesel Punk” settling I’ve seen, as it’s well rooted in weird Americana, horror and New York’s anarchic past.

Gratuitous Gun Moll
Now I've always liked Pulp detective stories of the 30's/40's and I think it's been because they evoke a sense of place. In my favorites - the Phillip Marlowe of Chandler comes to mind, one can almost smell the sun baked concrete of 1930's Los Angeles. Weird Adventures has this feel as well, putting setting first - a setting that has internal logic, and is perverse reflection of out own history, but changed enough not to be a simple dribbling of fantasy over interwar America.  The book touches a little bit on the hinterlands and wildernesses of the world, and in general is good at giving a feeling of a larger globe beyond "The City" (New York) through small adventure seeds and notes. Buoyed by this believability and feeling of place, the vast majority of the book is devoted to an almost block by block survey of the City that contains a fair number of ideas to spark adventure.
It is good that place is central to Weird Adventures, because I fear that for most RPG types Weird Adventures offers no easily accessible base from which to launch play ideas.  A less charitable way (to gamers, not Weird Adventures) of saying this is to say that it contains few or none of the standard gaming cliches. For example: demihuman races are hinted at (one might be a part demon gangster, some kind of fey, hillybilly giant, ghoul or a man-beast, maybe even a merman) but they aren't really generally quantified, and elves, dwarfs and hobbits (or hobbit replacements) are nowhere in evidence. Without fantasy tropes Weird Adventures relies on noir, American folk tale and horror for popularly accessible content.  Weird Adventures is an America that exists in tall-tales: John Henry, Stack-o-Lee, John the Balladeer, and Mike Hammer could all co-exist in Weird adventures (Actually that would make a great Weird Adventure's party - if short on magic).

Very little strict “game content” is included, as Weird Adventures is refreshingly system agnostic (though the limited number of monsters included are stated in a generic D&D based manner – which is likely the easiest to convert to whatever one wants to use anyway).  Some might fault Weird Adventures for this lack of system content, but I personally don’t, thirty pages of firearms rules (no matter how interesting) would leave less room for the richness of the setting. That's really what this book offers, a detailed setting rooted in American culture, not the niche culture of Tolkien, Arthurian Legend and Icelandic saga that most fantasy gaming depends on. The description of the city is dense, and maybe confusingly so for some, but this is both a factor of the setting (A modern city is dense, but thoroughly mapped - unlike a fantasy metropolis, say Vornheim) and the need for place. Even if one is uninterested in playing in "The City itself" the setting is useful as a marker of how to slip modern/pulp elements into a solidly fantasy setting while retaining a "dungeon-crawl/OSR" atmosphere.  Weird Adventures avoids the stilted "urban fantasy" cliches as much as it avoids high-fantasy ones and has a real feel for Americana that successfully balances the mundane with the fantastical.

As an artifact, the PDF of Weird Adventures is well laid out, with solid writing (a good selection of it directly from the blog "From the Sorcerer's Skull") and a variety of art from various artists and vintage sources. 

My own inclination is towards a more 1860’s New York, full of police riots and warring gangs (The Great Police Riot would make excellent adventure fodder), but Weird Adventures would still be a great source book for such a campaign world - one would just have to pull the city back in time a few hundred years.  Another inclination of mine - spurred on by Weird Adventures - is what a science-fantasy WWI would look like.  Weird Adventures has one, though it's distant and seems to have turned 1/2 the world into a Boschian hellscape.  Weird Adventures also makes me want to turn the slightly troubling musical "Progy and Bess" into a adventure with the vengeful spirit of Crown summoned by a spell casting Sportin' Life.  So yeah, even if one doesn't feel a huge impulse to run a Weird Adventures game the book is still fascinating and a worthwhile read.

Importantly Weird Adventures manages not to mess up the gist of what makes America interesting, as described in the Charles Olson quote at top, and still manages to make Olson's observation apply to a fantastical adventure setting.


  1. Somehow I missed this when you posted it. Belated, thanks for the kind words. It's funny you mention a more mid-"19th century" City. There are, of course, hint dropped in the text (riots mentioned, disappearing theater stars, etc.) about this era in the City and writing it made me think about what an interesting time that might have been.

    1. It's true those echos of a Boyo past are in weird adventures. I'm really not sure how an 1860's NYC fantasy would play out. It'd be easy to get too steampunk, but if you've read Luc Sante or Herbert Ashby on the time period the protagonists sound almost straight out of D&D.

      My own ASE campaign has been moving a bit that direction - with Plug Ugly mercenaries, the Old Brewery and a brewing police riot storyline if my players can't get enough intrigue.