Monday, 27 March 2017

A Hubristic, Misty and False Review

Three products I have read recently (ish) and very much enjoyed, reviewed for your edification. BE EDIFIED.

I think of Hubris as being the quintessence of a modern OSR product. It is hackable and customisable. It is weird and owes much (much) more to Lovecraft and Warhammer than it does to Tolkien. It has the kind of production values that once could only have been dreamed of for a DIY product. Above all, it is a book in which the author's voice and vision are completely undiluted. This is very clearly Mike Evans' creation. It's what he wanted, and it's what he's written. This is a lot of what makes it so enjoyable and endearing (perhaps an odd adjective to use in a game supplement containing a character class called 'Murder Machine') - the enthusiasm and energy the author brings to the table.

What do you get out of Hubris? A big, fat, plentiful and generous-spirited book that has everything in it from new classes to random spell-book generators to lists of gods ("The Stillborn Unwanted Child" is a particular favourite and also pretty much encapsulates the turned-to-11 nature of the setting) to huge swatches of useful tables (covering diseases, "A Vial of...?", "What are these strange and ominous ruins?" and much more besides). There is barely a page that does not have a random table on it - this is a book which takes the virtues of customisability and hackability to entirely new levels. 

It is also a testament to the importance of tone and personality. In a sense Hubris is a kitchen sink setting. There is a frozen waste with frost giants. There is an island called "Fetid Corpse Island". There is a vampire realm built inside the burrow of a giant worm. You can play as an alchemist or bird-man illusionist. You can worship The Corpulent One, and you can also worship Set. You can get weird mutations. There is almost no restraint in terms of what has gone into the book. But it is very tonally unified book because while it is stuffed to the gills with different concepts, nothing is out of place - Mike's personality stitches it all together. 

Somewhere - on G+ I think - I called Misty Isles of the Eld the best realised OSR product I've read. I don't want to appear as though I am over-egging it, but I would now go further than that; I actually have a hard time thinking of a better D&D adventure module, released at any time. At least, across all the measures that really matter - playability, readability, coherence, ease of use, I-would-never-have-thought-of-this-myself-ness. (I am coining that as a descriptive noun.) 

Aesthetics are important here, of course. How can one describe the visual style of this book? It's unique in an RPG product, at least in recent years, but it has a strange kind of familiarity to it nonetheless - like a discovered artifact from 1969 if only RPGs had been invented in the 30s. Like a mixture of the Yellow Submarine, Star Trek TOS, Buck Rogers and Dan Dare. The visuals fit seamlessly with the content, which is like distilled 60/70s pulp - Moorcock and Vance's weird vat-bred dream-child.

There is little else to say except that what is most impressive about the book is how playable it is. Reading it, you not only immediately want to run it, but you very quickly also know how to run it. It is seriously impressive stuff.

False Readings is a book which couldn't have existed prior to about 2010. It is a book of fiction, much of it half-finished and experimental, which was written by an RPG nerd and published by another RPG nerd who met him online, and printed on demand. Fiction can actually be produced that way now. It shows how much book publishing has changed and is changing.

How to describe the fiction in it? Well, if you know Patrick you would say it is very Patrick, but that probably doesn't help a great deal. Let's give it a go:
  • It is speculative fiction, in the broadest possible sense. Speculative fiction is usually a way of saying "fantasy and SF" without having to say the hideous unclean words "fantasy and SF". Here it means fiction that is really, truly speculative - as in "Here's an idea nobody has ever though of - I'm going to write it."
  • By the same token, it is wonderfully ambitious. The first story is written in duelling second-person narratives, one in prose and the other poetry. It is like something written by Gertrude Stein, but actually readable. It has a play in it which is also kind of a game, and which I don't really understand. Many of the stories are great ideas which were tried out but couldn't quite get finished - including, at the end, the beginning of something which looks like it could rival A Song of Ice and Fire if it got past the first chapter. Reading through it, you are confronted at every turn by the author shooting as absolutely high as he can possibly go. This makes it very inspiring.
  • It is...odd. You've heard of people talking about weird fiction. I want to coin a phrase to describe the genre of this book, and I want to call it odd fiction. It has a story in it about knights who ride snails. It has choose-your-own-adventure poetry.
  • Surprising. I recently read Ray Bradbury's The Illustrated Man - a collection of his short stories. It is a little hit-and-miss, but I derived a great amount of pleasure from reading it and, with each story, wondering what on earth Ray had dreamed up. Some writers - Lovecraft, let's say, as a classic example - are very predictable. You know broadly what is going to happen in every story. Ray Bradbury is the opposite; you have no idea what the next story will be like. False Readings is like this. 
It is a really interesting and strange experience to read, and what more can you ask for, really? (Except for Patrick to finish "Thieves in the Empire of Glass" and "The Death of the King of Ants".) 


  1. Iwnhtotmness "maybe 'eew-nih-taught'm-ness". I like that ;-)

  2. I don't understand a lot of the things you say, miss certain references; but I seriously like what I DO. I like your style of review, it's about some kind of esoteric feeling, texture; stuff we RPG folk get, so I trust your recommendations more than any. Plus you seem very impartial (If that's not the right word, use 'non-shill' ;-)
    Thanks, been wavering on Misty Isles, and hadn't heard of the others.
    Btw, have you heard of Elven Tower? Some Mexican dude that makes super cool maps and accompanying setups, stories, ideas, sparks... Really good stuff IMHO, been shooting through the roof on Patreon, maybe see what you think?