Sunday, 13 September 2015

Review: Weird Adventures

Trey Causey's Weird Adventures is a work of wonder. I say this on a number of levels. Firstly, it is long. It makes me wonder how long it took to write such a voluminous and inspired piece (see what I did there?). Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, it is incredibly imaginative. I was somewhat cheeky and asked Trey for a copy of his Strange Stars for review. Trey not only obliged graciously, but actually suggested Weird Adventures may be more aligned with my predilections — hinting I review this instead.

At first I was not quite sure what he meant. Sure, I'm a fan of pulp tales. I like my 1930s weird fiction as much as the next nerd, but I didn't fully click on why I may enjoy Weird Adventures especially. Before delving into specifics, let me first identify what Weird Adventures most reminds me of: Deadlands Noir. Deadlands Noir is a Savage Worlds setting is based on a fictitious rendition of North America circa-1930 in an alternate future. Think hardboiled detectives in New Orleans and you're on the right track. It's pulpy. Weird Tales is highly suggestive of the same, yet extends this idea (in my opinion) much further.

Mechanically, there is little to suggest any particular system over another (the exception is the "Weird Menaces" section which I will discuss later). Rather than being problematic, this is instead a boon. One of my key gripes with Deadlands Noir was that it contains enough mechanical information to shoe-horn the reader into a particular conception of the setting, or an understanding of how a Deadlands Noir game could play out. Weird Adventures, by contrast, is purposefully broad and insinuating. It never quite locks the reader into a hard-and-fast "this is Weird Adventures". Rather, and fortuitously, it leaves a lot of things unsaid. I do not mean to suggest this book is devoid of assertive content, not at all, but the information and the ideas it does present are like adventure hooks rather than stat blocks. See the difference? One gets the imagination fired up, allowing linkages between your own game and the piece you are reading. The other tells you the system you'll be using, and how a particular scenario may go down.

By and large, Weird Adventures proposes an alternative reality to our own. It is kind-of Europe, and kind-of Africa, and kind-of America, but it's also not. It hints at a world-shaking event, containing enough catastrophe and apocalypse to dismember our "real" world, while retaining identifiable semblances to our own reality. The mood of Weird Adventures is successfully reflective of the various pulp tales I have read. It contains excitement, adventure, notions of "other", malevolent forces, turbaned sikhs, weird dimensions, and the astonishment and over-the-topness of every good pulp tale. Other prevalent themes throughout Weird Adventures include: progress, technology, innovation, sexuality, bureaucracy, the optimistic booming of economy, mysticism versus thaumaturgy (intuited magic versus applied magic), planes and the supernatural. In this sense it successfully melds the tropes of sword & sorcery (and therefore D&D) with the "real world" — albeit in a fictitious time period some 70-80 years past. It taps into the collective unconscious of the pulp tales: the economic concerns of the depression, the devastating effects of the Civil and World Wars, the proto-future and golden age of the Art Deco era, the unsuppressed optimism and faith in industry, mass production, consumerism, and finally, the ideals of Fordism. 

But why is this important or desirable? Serious gamers who inject cultural- or self-examination and retrospection into their games will surely enjoy the ability to navigate these themes within a unified game world. By contrast, those who prefer the frivolity and entertainment of role-playing games — the murderhobosim, misadventure, excitement, and the ability to roll some dice with friends — will enjoy the potential of this setting. It is the sort of location, that while making suggestions, invites and stimulates the imagination. It gets me thinking: "That's cool, but imagine if I..." or: "Whoa. If I changed that organisation into a cult, and this city was situated here...".

Causey maintains the pulpy vibes throughout the book, extending to the visual nature of Weird Adventures. He has (presumably) commissioned artwork for this setting, and it matches the appeal of the setting perfectly. Public domain artwork has been used, which I've repeatedly discussed my own disliking of. Like Dark Albion however, I think this is entirely topical and appropriate. In fact, except in a few instances, I could not determine which art was public domain, and which was commissioned. At times there were some slight visual inconsistencies — the style of the maps contrasted with certain illustrations, or two "menaces" were composed by different artists. The layout, the organisation, and the aesthetic was all purposeful and effective. The cover is reminiscent of the iconic demon statue painted on the Advanced Dungeons & Dragons Players Handbook, yet could just as easily be found in an Indiana Jones-esque tomb. 

"Weird Menaces" is a section relegated to the end portion of the book. It describes "fearsome creatures and strange encounters" within the Weird Adventures paradigm. This portion is really the only section which presumes the reader will be using one type of gaming system over another. By implication, a vintage edition of D&D or a comparable retroclone is assumed. This may be limiting to some readers, especially those expecting a d20-type write up. For most of the readership however, I think this decision will match their expectations.

I do not have anything negative to say about Weird Adventures. I was pleasantly surprised by how much I enjoyed it. That said, there was one small issue worth mentioning for prospective buyers. At times certain wordings or coined expression, unique to the setting, became detractive. As in Strange Stars, Causey makes no hesitations injecting his own unique vernacular into the setting. In principle I have no issue with this (quite the contrary). However, at times these peculiarities could be clandestine or obfuscating.

Anyone with a love of pulp fiction/fantasy would not go amiss by obtaining a copy of Weird Adventures. It's an inspiring piece, brimming with fun ideas. Because I'm in the middle of a Savage Worlds campaign, I can see how nicely Weird Adventures would work as a standalone setting for an alt-reality pulp game, or in conjunction with Deadlands Noir. Those running fantasy games will probably find something useful about this work too: maybe the characters are switched to another dimension and end up in the Weird Adventures milieu. Otherwise, there are new monsters (or "menaces") to be pilfered for existing fantasy campaigns. Those with a strict adherence to one genre or another may not find the pastiche of ideas to their tastes; it gathers ideas broadly. Me? I like it. Trey Causey's Weird Adventures gets a big thumbs up. I highly recommend it, not only for its applicability, but also as an interesting narrative. Sure, many of the ideas have been purveyed from other literature, but Causey is original in his interpretation, amalgamation, and expansion of these ideas, creating something unique and fun in the process.