[GUM] Casting the Runes - quick review

(I said on another thread that I'd give thoughts when I'd read it, so here you are.)

This is a new horror rpg published by The Design Mechanism, based on the work of MR James and other British ghost/supernatural story writers, set in the Edwardian period around 1910. It uses the Gumshoe system. I have the pdf (print coming later).

I was keen to see this, as a fan of James’ stories. His signature touch is dissonance - a sense impression that’s out of place, economically described and carefully timed, contrasting with the build-up of ordinary life in the period; or a piece of information that changes the way we see the situation. It’s very different from Cthulhu mythos stories, which even when they’re good are usually very in-your-face, and often boil down to survival horror. But the two share a similar issue: how do you take stories that are often a one-off inner journey by a single protagonist, and turn them into a satisfying experience for a gaming group?

I was cautiously hopeful that Casting the Runes would give me a framework to answer that question. I’m afraid I’m disappointed.

It’s very - how to say - externally focused. The James atmosphere is lauded in the foreword by Ramsey Campbell, mentioned in the introduction, then left in the background for the rest of the book. There’s a chapter on campaign planning, talking about different types of clues in Gumshoe, but it doesn’t really make clear how you use that theoretical schema (and Gumshoe has a tendency to be a bit academic) to create satisfying ghost stories. And there’s no GMing guidance on creating the appropriate atmosphere - eg on using varied sense impressions, which are absolutely key to James. There’s a monsters section with a sampling of entities from James, Hodgson, Machen, etc - but it feels a little like a monster manual presenting them to be beaten up. I didn't notice a discussion of the metaphysics of the setting anywhere: some creatures assume a Christianish cosmology, others an alternate one (Carnacki) and others no particular one at all (James).

The book also needed more polish in editing, and structuring information. My doubts first set in reading the chapter on character creation - the instructions on how to do it were hard to understand. There were similar problems in the combat rules; and in the magic chapter, which I read last - I'd have to reread it carefully to work out what's supposed to be going on. One of the issues is that the book often feels like it’s addressing fans of Gumshoe products, so that it only needs to describe how this one differs, rather than taking full care of new readers. Also, there are a few too many typos and other errors - it would have been good to fix more of those.

Not to rag on it too much: it’s nice as a product. Just over 200 pages, which pleases me as a fan of short game books. It’s got a simple, clear and attractive layout, slightly cramped and using typography to give a period feel - though I don’t like the squashed spacing around images and their captions, even if that is authentic. It's black and white throughout, with decent illustrations of sample characters doing things related to the text as well as historical pieces. There’s a useful section on life in the period, though it could have used less word count on politics and more on the trappings and feel of everyday life. A list of sources and references is handy for anyone who wants to delve in to the stories and their background.

There are two short adventures in the back. The first has a very overt threat, perhaps more suited to Hodgson's Carnacki stories, and feels quite railroady. The second is a haunted house mystery with a lot more atmosphere (based on a story by EF Benson, another author of the period).

So overall... it’s perhaps most useful as a supplement (eg for Trail of Cthulhu fans) that gives many of the elements for a game in this style and period, without quite managing to access the full juice. I'm unsure whether I will run it, in the end - probably needs renewed noodling over the rulesy bits to get a better feel of how helpful they are, perhaps when the print copy arrives.