Yellow Dawn is a Lovecraftian post-apocalyptic near future scifi tabletop RPG campaign setting. Black Lake is one of several novels David J Rodger wrote within his Yellow Dawn setting. I should preface this by saying that I have not played the game or read the setting book.
In 2015, David J Rodger was working on a 3rd edition of the game, and had supposedly completed a first draft of it, but soon after committed suicide. The 3rd edition was never released.
2015 was around the time I was first starting to explore the greater RPG scene online and expose myself to new games, and this came on my radar. It was scifi, it was Lovecraftian, but most interesting to me was that other than Hastur (the Yellow in Yellow Dawn) and few others, most of the Lovecraftian entities were original creations. I can appreciate the classics as much as anyone, but I've already read Lovecraft; when I see an original campaign setting, I want it to be something actually new.
It intrigued me, but I wanted to wait for the 3rd edition, which never came, and then it just fell off my radar. Every once in a while I would post around reddit or elsewhere asking about it, to no avail. Even the 2.5 edition is not available on drivethrurpg or digitally elsewhere. It's available on lulu for print on demand, and I may end up buying it eventually, even though I generally prefer digital, but anyway all of his novels are available on kindle, so I bought his three books set in the world of Yellow Dawn. Apparently all of his novels are set in a shared universe and it's just a matter of whether they're pre- or post-Yellow Dawn, so I'll probably pick up the others eventually.
If I'm being honest, there's more to this than just that it intrigued me. He wrote several novels, he wrote 3 (if you count 2.5) or 4 (if you count the unfinished 3rd edition) RPG books, as well as several blog articles and free online supplements, and he also wrote professionally on other projects. He is a more accomplished creator than I will likely ever be, both in terms of the quantity of creative output and in its commercial success and cultural impact. I don't know why he committed suicide, maybe it had nothing to do with his writing or career, but he killed himself, and nobody bothered to publish his apparently mostly finished 3rd Edition game. I don't mean to blame anyone, there may be logistical reasons why this couldn't have been published or would be exorbitantly difficult to publish, but all the same, he's dead, and it's like his creative vision immediately died with him, and that makes me sad.
So despite the fact that I have absolutely no memory for details, I'm going to try to write a brief review of his novel Black Lake. I hope this brings attention to him and his world. I hope this can get a conversation going, and maybe his materials can be made available digitally (and by extension more affordably) and maybe his 3rd Edition can finally get published in some capacity or another.
I've never played Call of Cthulhu or the Basic Roleplaying System, and generally don't like to GM pre-existing settings (my favorite part about RPGs is worldbuilding after all), but I would be willing to learn CoC/BRP to run or play in a game, even if it wasn't entirely set in Yellow Dawn per se, that incorporated elements of Rodger's world. To be honest, I don't really have much faith in my ability to impact the RPG culture on my own, and maybe it's selfish or childish or unrealistic to even want that, but in any case, if I can't do it for myself, I would at least like to do it for someone else, and I guess maybe I'm hoping we can all be champions of each other. If I suddenly fell off a cliff, I'd like to think maybe someone would do this for me.
Black Lake Review
This review may contain minor spoilers. It is intended as a broad-level discussion of the book and not a detailed plot synopsis.
On the one hand, I was a little disappointed that the book was so removed from what I imagine is the core of the setting, but on the other hand, what we do learn about the setting from this book succeeded in making me interested to learn more. I appreciate the fact that while it is post-apocalyptic, it doesn't revel in the escapist fantasy of "reverting to a simpler time". The zombie genre was originally intended as a critique of mindless consumerism, which makes it so ironic and gross that much of the post-apocalyptic zombie literature today is itself so lacking in self-awareness. In fact, the world as it is presented in this book almost feels optimistic, more like an equivalent to the early industrial era.
They have all sorts of near-future technologies, but with such a relatively low population and poor global infrastructure, there is a sense of the unknown, and wonder, and even danger, although by and large people must still deal with the realities of civilization and day-to-day life. While it's not impossible to do truly post-apocalyptic horror (existential or otherwise), I think juxtaposing a world of promise with existential horror makes the horror more salient. I was worried that Yellow Dawn was going to be just another zombie setting by another name, but that does not seem to be the case.
The writing itself was solid. It didn't blow me away, but it was rare that the writing got in its own way. It felt similar to Laird Barron. I can't honestly say it's as strong as Laird Barron, but that's a high bar and this should be taken as praise. He also describes the technologies and scenes well, without over-writing. I could tell that he was interested in the hard scifi / near-future technological aspect of the setting, but whereas many writers get fetishistic about it or overly detailed, he provides just the right amount of detail to enrich the world without dragging on about it.
Considering the limited scope of the island setting and the small handful of characters, he manages to keep the plot moving and keep things interesting. It starts off a bit slow, but basically everything after they get to the island is entertaining and engaging, even when not much is happening. He plays well with tension, building and releasing and re-building it in organic ways. I rarely feel a sense of dread or horror when I read horror stories, but this book got me as close to that feeling as I've felt from a novel in quite a while.
If I had one major complaint, it's that he provides a (comparatively) major exposition / lore-dump towards the end of the book. It certainly whet my appetite for the setting, but I wish that lore had been spread out over the course of the book, more like At the Mountains of Madness. Likewise, none of that lore meaningfully contributed to the plot or the eldritch threat, making the exposition dump feel even more out of place. I think he would have been better off either leaving the lore out entirely and letting the eldritch threat be vague and mysterious, or connected the eldritch threat and the lore in a way that felt more substantive.
So with all that, I would say that on the whole, if you like Lovecraftian horror or stories about isolation, I would recommend this book. If you're interested in learning more about the Yellow Dawn setting, it'll give you some details but it's not the most efficient way to go about it. It doesn't do anything new, but it does what it intends to do well. Being a part of an interesting setting, even if only tangentially, I think works to its benefit. I've already started reading one of his other novels, Dog Eat Dog, so I suppose that alone speaks to my enjoyment of this book.
So with all that said, I would encourage others to read his books and to talk about their experiences with the game. Please, if you know anyone or know anyone who may know someone who could maybe get this published, please let me know! I'd love to see Yellow Dawn 2.5 on drivethrurpg at least, or Yellow Dawn 3e released in some capacity. I'd even be open to trying to put together some kind of indiegogo or kickstarter if money is a problem, assuming it at least exists somewhere. I've also downloaded most of the pdf game supplements on his website and even converted the raw HTML of some of his game supplement blog posts into text files, just in case his website ever gets pulled, or just to make it easier to compile everything later. If this is something you would like to see happen, please speak out!