This is the eighth in my series of capsule reviews of non-fiction books from my library that would be useful or inspiring in RPGs – Weird Books for Gamers
High Weirdness: Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experiences in the Seventies by Erik Davis (Goodreads)
It’s a study of three figures – Robert Anton Wilson, Phillip K. Dick, and Terence McKenna and their influences from, and on the druggy, esoteric, and occult culture of early 1970s California. It chronicles each of them undergoing their own individual encounters with the weird, and how it affected them and their work. Through their stories, it explores how strange underground ideas start to diffuse into the wider culture.
The book is somewhat academic, having it’s origins as Erik Davis’s PhD thesis. It can be a little dense, with quite a bit of jargon, both academic and esoteric. But if you’re running any sort of of modern weird/supernatural game, there’s tons of weird ideas, and even better, weirder language you can use for your own purposes. For example:
…the psychofluid could be generated through the particular vocal effect he had discovered, a “psycho-audible warp phenomenon” that generated “a specific kind of energy field which can rupture three-dimensional space
What does that mean? I’m not entirely sure. It does, however, sound cool. If you brought a “psycho-audible warp phenomenon” into a game, it would definitely set a very specific tone.
Here’s an extract from the book over at Longreads.
Here’s some of the more gameable bits:
The Experiment at La Chorrera – In a remote jungle location in Columbia, Terence McKenna and his brother Dennis started experimenting with psychoactive mushrooms. They reported contacting otherworldly beings, including a “transhuman intelligence” called Teacher via some kind of psychic radio. Sounds like the sort of thing PCs should be putting a stop to.
The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss – Not a Mörk Borg supplement. This is what the McKenna brothers called their group of psychonaut explorers.
The Sirius Transmissions and the Chapel Perilous – Robert Anton Wilson spent a number of years in something he referred to as the Chapel Perilous, a ongoing mental state in which an alien intelligence from Sirius communicated with him telepathically.
The Number 23 – Timothy Leary and Robert Anton Wilson both reported running into strange coincidences all involving the number 23. This idea was later made into a terrible Jim Carrey movie.
Comet Kohoutek – It passed by Earth in 73. Originally reported as the “Comet of the Century”. It turned out to be a dud, but there was a cult that believed it heralded the end of the world. Perhaps it would have been, but maybe someone (your PCs?) stopped it.
The Solid State Intelligence – The scientist John Lily claimed to have received a threatening psychic message from something called the “Solid State Intelligence” while observing the comet Kohoutek. He tried to warn the authorities, but was put into a mental institution.
2-3-74 – In February and March of 1974 Philip K Dick entered a kind of religious mania in which he conflated his life in 1970s America with an imagined life as a oppressed Christian in 1st century Ancient Rome. He put forth that Time essentially stopped in 73AD, and we were still living in the Roman Empire.
VALIS – Dick claimed that his visions were sent to him by an entity he called the Vast Active Living Intelligence System, or VALIS. He eventually put his experiences into a novel of the same name.
The Exegesis: Philip K. Dick kept a record of his mystic and religious experiences he called the Exegesis. Only small portions of this work have been published. The original, unexpurgated version has never been seen publicly. In my mind, that makes it a Mythos book.
There’s tons of stuff in this book that could be easily ported into any modern occult/supernatural RPG setting. I’ve always wanted to run some kind of strange 1970s occult/weird science game. Here’s some ideas how one could use some of this material in different games:
Mage: Terence McKenna is obviously a Cult of Ecstasy member. Philip K. Dick, with his religious visions, seems closer to the Celestial Chorus. All of these psychic phenomena and general weirdness could be Tradition activity designed to Awaken the masses, or it could be the influence of the Nephandi. Either way, the Technocracy has to spend much of the 1970s battling back the weirdness.
Call of Cthulhu, Delta Green: Wilson, Dick, and McKenna all had weird, life-changing experiences in roughly the same period of time. This brings to mind the bit in Call of Cthulhu (the story, not the game) where all of the “artists and poets” in the world were psychically affected by the rise of Cthulhu. One could imagine a 1970s globe-hopping Masks of Nylarhotep-style campaign where players are bouncing around from one weird counter-cultural location to another to stop some psychedelic enthusiasts from summoning something horrific. Perhaps something in Comet Kohoutek?.
Unknown Armies: The fusion of science and mysticism that Wilson, McKenna, and Dick personified seem virtually tailor-made for a UA game. Narco-Alchemy probably began in the 1970s. Perhaps the Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss had something to do with it.
Atomic Robo: If there are extra-dimensional UFOs, or real transmissions from Sirius, Tesladyne would most likely get involved. You could make the McKenna brothers actual members of Tesladyne.
Esoterrorists: Virtually everything in High Weirdness seems like a Esoterrorist plot. All of the subjects of this book would certainly be on a Ordo Veritatis watch list.
Over The Edge: What was Al Amarja like in the 1970s? Weird, of course, but a particular 70s kind of weird. All of the people in this book probably ended up on Al Amarja at one time or another – probably at the same time.
Mortal Coil: In Mortal Coil, the players and GMs design their own magical world. One could take everything from this book and make some kind of 1970s Mystic California theme for a campaign. All the PCs are psychedelic wizards dealing with extra-dimensional spirits like VALIS or the Chapel Perilous.
Spirit of 77: I’m tempted to put together Conspiracy Theorist, Psychonaut, and Mystic playbooks
GURPS Illuminati: As this GURPS supplement was heavily based of Robert Anton Wilson’s works, a good amount of this will already be familiar. However, it’s useful to see the source of those ideas.
Here’s some links to other reviews of High Weirdness:
An interview with Erik Davis about the book: https://aquariumdrunkard.com/2019/10/04/erik-davis-on-high-weirdness-drugs-esoterica-and-visionary-experience-in-the-seventies/
One thought on “Weird Books for Gamers VIII: High Weirdness – Drugs, Esoterica, and Visionary Experiences in the Seventies”
Thanks for the shoutout, glad you got something out of my review. I don’t game as much as I used to, but while reading “High Weirdness” I thought a lot about Steve Jackson Games and it’s roots in freak/head culture…