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Friday 8 December 2023

Monsters, Aliens, and Holes in the Ground

If you're looking for a last-minute Christmas present for a friend who's interested in the history and cultural context of roleplaying games, MIT Press have just released Monsters, Aliens, and Holes in the Ground: A Guide to Tabletop Roleplaying Games from D&D to Mothership by Stu Horvath. (Now on sale from Amazon US, Barnes & Noble, Amazon UK and Blackwell's.)

It's not the kind of roleplaying analysis you tend to get here on the FL blog. What I like about playing RPGs is thinking and behaving as people unlike myself, and what interests me about roleplaying as an art form is that RPGs provide a medium for creating multi-person emergent narratives that are very different from old storytelling media with their three-act structures and whatnot.

This book comes at roleplaying from a whole other angle: the social history of the hobby along with a thorough analysis of its evolution. Gamebooks are discussed too. Be advised that Mr Horvath admits to not being fully comprehensive in his coverage; there are, indeed, holes in this ground. Empire of the Petal Throne, a big early release from TSR and a major event in original worldbuilding, is omitted because of accusations that M A R Barker held clandestine antisemitic beliefs. I have no tolerance for antisemitism myself, most especially not in view of the appalling rise in hate crime against Jews that we've seen in the wake of Hamas's terrorist atrocities on 7 October, but it is nonsensical to write EPT out of roleplaying history on that account. The art is not the artist, and the book is supposed to be a history of the hobby not a teenager's diary. At least, thankfully, Call of Cthulhu is covered here, possibly not so much because the Cthulhu Mythos has had multiple contributors as because HPL's legacy is simply too influential to ignore.

Anyway, those are quibbles -- and frankly, while I was a big fan of Tekumel back in the day, I concede that Barker poisoned his own reputation by signing a deal with a neo-Nazi publisher (we won't get back into the unanswerable question of whether he was actually a sympathizer or just foolishly imagined he was playing them) and consequently if the rest of his work is going to get cancelled as collateral damage, knee-jerk though such reasoning usually is, Barker only has himself to blame. (Game designer Pauli Kidd makes some good points about the ensuing debate here. And if you are interested in how Empire of the Petal Throne fits into roleplaying history, here's a quick overview by Juhana Pettersson.) Meanwhile there are lots of other great roleplaying games to talk about, most of them written by unarguably decent and right-thinking folks, and Mr Horvath's well-researched and in-depth survey of the field should give you hours of interesting reading while you wait for the turkey to finish roasting.

The book does come with a pretty weighty price tag, but it sounds like it's worth it. A friend who bought a copy (he's much richer than I am) commented:

"The book is entirely commendable as an exhaustive archive save for the glaring omission of EPT. It’s a coffee table compendium and a fine gift."

I do have to point out, though, that on Christmas morning for just about the same money you could be unwrapping four Vulcanverse books or the whole Blood Sword series. Sadly there's no chance now of getting the Blood Sword 5e book this Christmas, which would have been my dream come true, but hopefully by next year... (Possibly. Maybe. Who's got the wishbone?) In the meantime let's all try and stay on Santa's Nice list.


  1. Got Blood Sword, just discovered the series (and recently gamebooks overall). This is stellar work, I am enjoying it very much. If this was turned into a boardgame with high-quality miniatures and a reworked battle system, THE WORLD WOULD BE READY FOR IT

    Will there be any hardcover releases of the books? I would love to buy

    (Writing here since it doesn't seem possible to e-mail you. I used the contact e-mail on this website but it bounces back errors stating the info-adress does not exist)

    1. Hi Arash -- I did see your email and was about to reply, but I'll reply here instead because it might be of interest to other blog readers. Blood Sword really ought to have been a boardgame, with all those tactical maps. Currently there aren't any hardback editions (except for the limited edition of book 5 from the Kickstarter a while back) but I'm thinking of doing a collected version with all five books in one volume, so maybe that should be a hardcover.

      There's also the 5e conversion of the books (with a lot of artistic licence) from Tambu, though it looks like the English translation of that won't be published till sometime next year. I hope you'll also take a look at some of my other gamebooks like Heart of Ice and Down Among the Dead Men (both a lot lighter on rules than Blood Sword, though).