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RPGs, science fiction, fantasy, gadgets, and anything else that comes up.Daniel Stacknoreply@blogger.comBlogger448125
Updated: 11 hours 9 min ago

Historical Gaming without Magic or Alternative History

Thu, 07/20/2017 - 02:30

If I see a game based on the Old West it's a pretty safe bet that the Confederacy is still alive and kicking. Similarly, there have been games set in the Roman Empire that have vampires and or beasties of the Cthulhu Mythos.

What I'm writing about is the tendency of historic RPGs to take place in an alternate past, usually with some fantastic elements. It's not a universal tendency - for example, TSR had both Boot Hill and Gangbusters, covering the Old West and the Prohibition-era. But I'm pretty sure that's a minority. And to be fair, there's not a lot of games set in the modern age that don't bend reality pretty hard - typically with a heavy dose of the supernatural or of superpowers.

I get the inclination to play with history and add the magic - setting a game in a historical era can feel a bit overwhelming and changing the past gives a lot more leeway for historical inaccuracy - "what do you mean you're upset that Perceval is listed as becoming Prime Minister in September instead of October of 1809 - the presence of dragons changes everything!"

That said, there's a few eras I'd love to see embraced as they were for gaming opportunities. The first of these would be the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Patrick O'Brian's Aubrey/Maturin series shows how exciting the era can be - there's room for naval battles, boarding actions, land combat, duels, courtship, politics, etc.

The Prohibition-era also seems to scream for a bit of love. It's likely players in such a game would be running the bad guys, but the gaming opportunities seem fantastic - build your gang from nothing to a criminal empire. Take on rival gangs. Make alliances. Avoid or bribe the law. Try to hold on to some moral code. I was a big fan of HBO's Boardwalk Empire which gave us a fictionalized account of Prohibition-era Atlantic City.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

A Woman as the Doctor

Tue, 07/18/2017 - 12:07

With Jodie Whittaker announced as the Doctor there have been a variety of reactions. This isn't too surprising - pretty much every new Doctor announcement has been met with reactions ranging from "this is the perfect Doctor" to "Doctor Who is ruined".

Unsurprisingly, the fact that a woman has been cast as the Doctor for the first time in the 50+ years of the show has a higher percentage of "Doctor Who is ruined" folks out there. It's definitely a big change in casting. I recall Usenet discussions in the 1990s about a hypothetical woman Doctor - and it should be noted there were people who questioned whether there could even be a non-white Doctor. Similarly, as the cast of Star Trek: Voyager was announced, some people went a little nuts at idea of a black Vulcan - Tuvok, as played by Tim Russ. It's worth noting that for me, Russ was one of the bright spots on what I saw as a fairly mediocre show. (I also greatly like Kate Mulgrew as an actress but found her character of Captain Janeway was inconsistently written).

So what about a lady Doctor? Well to begin, my daughter Jasmine was quite happy at the announcement. She's the science fiction fan of my two daughters. Her sister Victoria is passing familiar with Doctor Who and she was pleased too. There's something to being able to imagine yourself as the hero - and the Doctor is a great hero. Not using guns but his (or now, her) brains to fight evil. Sure they could someday to a spinoff with characters like Jenny, Clara, and Ashildr/Me. But Doctor Who is the core of a decades old institution.

Were they being social justice warriors? I don't know, and you know what, good on them if they were. I hate the use of that as an insult. It's great to have greater inclusivity and Doctor Who is a show whose format greatly lends itself to such a casting. Every few years a new actor takes over the role with no expectation of a resemblance in appearance - indeed the Doctors all look very distinct from one another and you'd never mistake one for another. The new show has clearly established Time Lords can change gender. Yes that's an addition to the show's mythology, but it contradicts nothing. And let's be honest, contradictions in Doctor Who are nothing new. Michelle Gomez's portrayal of a female Master, Missy, has been.. well, masterful. A homicidal Mary Poppins.

I can think of a million in-universe reasons why the Doctor has been male all this time and now has a female incarnation. It could be some Time Lords are more predisposed to a single gender and with a new cycle of regenerations the Doctor has changed. It seems Time Lords have some control over the regeneration process (the Master especially) and since the Doctor generally thought of himself as male, chose to stay male but has decided on a change. It could be a gazillion things.

What about Whittaker as an actress. Truth to tell, I know next to nothing about her. I've never seen Broadchurch, where she had a major role. It's one of those shows that has long been on my "to watch" queue so I imagine I'll get around to viewing it. Given new Doctor Who showrunner's Chris Chibnall's roles in the creation and production of Broadchurch it's clear that he has an actress whose work he is familiar and comfortable with, meaning it is quite likely the two will work well together to realize his vision of Doctor Who. Will it be any good? Will Whittaker? Time will tell. I hope so.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

OSR Innovations

Fri, 07/14/2017 - 02:34

One thing I've enjoyed in the OSR is how it's allowed fresh looks at the games many people first picked up in the 1970s and 1980s, taking those games in directions that were, at best, rarely explored in their original era.

Probably the innovation I've enjoyed the most is the emergence of products to support sandbox play. It's one thing to advise a GM to let the players wander the "map" freely. However, that isn't always all that easy in practice. Enter a number of products designed to support free ranging players. Companies like Sine Nomine Publishing, Lamentations of the Flame Princess, Autarch, and many others have all released products designed to give a GM tools for such adventures. Now that I think of it, this has even entered more "modern" style games. For example, The One Ring and Adventures in Middle Earth both have tools for wilderness adventure that have that old school hex crawl feel to them.

Old school D&D style games have also been taken to genres they had rarely, if ever, been taken to. Some flavors of the OSR have embraced more of a weird fantasy feel. Others dive into swords and sorcery. Games like Dungeon Crawl Classics and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea have felt comfortable at adding laser rifles right next to +1 swords. TSR made some efforts in the 1st and 2nd edition eras to fit D&D to other settings - Lankhmar is one such example as are the green historical references of AD&D 2nd edition. However in both cases it was a bit of a rough fit, whereas OGL-based games allow for a nice mixing and matching of the proper tools for a given genre.

The genres the OSR has supported are well beyond what we thought D&D could support back in the day. Stars Without Number and White Star have given a nice take on science fiction gaming. There are a number of games designed to emulate superheroes within the OSR. I'd've been shocked in 1983 at the idea of such a game.

This isn't to say the OSR is the one true way. My favorite game of all time is that living fossil, Call of Cthulhu. I've quite a bit of fun running a Star Wars game with Fate Accelerated. I'm going to try for a Golden Age Champions game at some point. And Cthulhu Dark is screaming to be tried at some point. An OSR horror game would feel very different from Call of Cthulhu which is different from Trail of Cthulhu and Cthulhu Dark. And at any given time I could be up for any or all of them.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Film Review: Spider-Man: Homecoming

Wed, 07/12/2017 - 03:21

Peter Parker is a high school sophomore in Queens. He's also Spider-Man and has just returned from a trip to Germany, recruited by Tony Stark/Iron Man to help in a superhero conflict against Captain America and his Avengers faction, as seen in Captain America: Civil War. [Note I'll try to steer clear of spoilers in this review but I'll of course have to say something about the plot to do a review...]

This dichotomy, between the big and the little, is at the heart of Homecoming. Peter wants to be an Avenger. However, Tony Stark keeps him at arm's length. One gets the sense that Tony is perhaps rethinking the wisdom of having brought a kid into the super-powered big leagues.

While waiting in vain for "the call" Spider-Man is keeping his friendly neighborhood safe. He stops bicycle thieves and carjackers. But he soon discovers some ATM thieves packing some superscience hardware.

In parallel to Spider-Man's street level tale we have that of Adrian Toomes/the Vulture. In the opening scenes of the film we have a flashback of Toomes running a cleanup crew in aftermath of the Battle of New York in the first Avengers film. But his crew gets the boot after Stark's Damage Control subsidiary takes over the cleanup. Toomes however secretly keeps the superscience gadgets he's recovered and gets into the business of acquiring more. In this, the Vulture has a double-meaning - he has a flying suit, but he is also a vulture, scavenging alien technologies. Michael Keaton, no stranger to comic book movies, is superb as Toomes and the Vulture. He's not an evil world conqueror. He can be ruthless but he is also loyal to his men and his family. He is like Peter in a number of ways - he hides his double-life from his family, he feels he has been left behind by Tony Stark.

Peter really is a teenager. Yes, he is played by Tom Holland, in his early twenties, but Holland plays a believable 15-year old. He has a high voice. He is earnest. He is excited. He sometimes screws up but he wants to do what is right. Neither Homecoming nor Civil War rehash the origin story (bit by a radioactive spider, didn't stop a crook when he could, said crook kills Uncle Ben, great power, great responsibility). It's clearly part of his background - both in his conversation with Tony Stark from Civil War and in Homecoming when Peter never hesitates about doing what is right, even when stepping aside would be safer. And Peter gets overwhelmed - both in navigating his life at school and his life as a superhero. He gets terrified when he is nearly killed in a battle. He gets awkward when talking to Liz Allan, a girl two years ahead of him who he has a crush on.

Peter has a great supporting cast. His high school setting, a techie-oriented magnet school, is quite believable. Flash Thompson is still there, still a bully, but more the intellectual kind. I'd already mentioned Liz, who is captain of his school's academic decathlon team. His best friend is Ned Leeds, though Ned seems strongly inspired by Ganke Lee, best friend of the Miles Morales of the Ultimate Spider-Man universe. Early on Ned becomes Peter's secret keeper (hopefully I'm not giving anything away - this was straight out of the trailer) and he geeks out about Peter being Spider-Man as much, if not more so, than Peter. Zendaya plays another classmate, Michelle. who is incredibly snarky, brilliant, observant, and a delight to watch. The supporting cast is very diverse, though I have to admit I'm hoping someday to see the Miles Morales Spider-Man make his way to the big screen. This is to take away nothing from Tom Holland who totally owned the role - he could be cocky, brilliant, vulnerable, foolish, selfish, and caring - all within a one-minute window. As a parent of a 12-year old and a 15-year old, I can totally believe that.

His adult supporting cast fits in wonderfully as well. Marisa Tomei plays Aunt May - quite a bit younger than most Aunt May's - but she is a believable early-50's woman, which seems to be a realistic age to be Peter's Aunt. She takes a lot from the Ultimate version of Aunt May, a bit of an aging hippie. There's great chemistry between Peter and May - she's aware there's something going on in his life but she doesn't quite know what it is. She's fairly recently widowed but is moving on with her life (and catches the eye of many men, from the staff at a Thai restaurant to Tony Stark).

Robert Downey, Jr. has been playing Tony Stark for nearly a decade and was born to play the role. But here he has an unusual role - that of mentor. He acknowledges he might not be so good at it, what with him having his own distant father. He feels responsible for Peter and, as I mentioned, while it is never said outright, I sense he regrets taking Peter to Germany. Not out of any lack of respect for Peter, but because he remembers that Peter is still just a kid and learning.

Homecoming fully brought Spider-Man into the Marvel Cinematic Universe due to Marvel and Sony coming to a new agreement on the rights to the character after Amazing Spider-Man 2 misfired. His placement in a larger universe was used well - the legacy of the invasion in The Avengers was able to drive many plot points without the need to create new MacGuffins and both Spider-Man and the Vulture feel left behind by Tony Stark. Yet the film is not buried under continuity - the greater universe serves to enhance a story told at a smaller and more intimate scale.

Family note - daughter Jasmine, aged 12, mainly a DC girl, enjoyed the movie a lot, though she still prefers Wonder Woman. Her and I both noticed that Zendaya's Michelle really captured Jasmine's personality...

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Mapping the Dungeon

Sun, 07/09/2017 - 03:10

It's been a long time since I've made a dungeon map for D&D or similar games. I suspect my copy of Campaign Cartographer was rather sleepy when it got taken for a spin for a dungeon map.

I love maps - which in gaming can be a blessing and a curse. I was the kid who tried his hand at making his own track maps of the New York City subway (and making suggestions to my grandfather as to places we should go based on that).

So I like maps as entities unto themselves as well as serving as tools - whether in real life or in gaming. In the living room I'm writing this I can see hanging on the walls a 1970's New York City subway map and a map of Colonial-era New York City. When I was a teenager there was a map of the World of Greyhawk hanging up on my wall.

That said... my own artistic ability is crap. I've seen some absolutely gorgeous hand-drawn maps that absolutely fill me with envy. I've even supported some cartographers via Patreon. Over the past few years I've played a lot of Call of Cthulhu, Star Wars, and superhero gaming. These settings all lend themselves well to making use of pre-made maps or rough sketches made on the fly. For the AS&SH campaign I'm readying, I'm planning a mix of my own adventures as well as AS&SH/early D&D adventures. For my own adventures, I realized I wanted to make my own maps. That's what finally made me break out ProFantasy's Campaign Cartographer again.

I reviewed CC3 several years ago and most of my comments are largely still valid for its newest version, CC3+. It's got a rough learning curve, being essentially a CAD program. But you can do some pretty amazing things with it. I'm a decent user at it - there are people who can make their own symbol sets and styles - I'm nowhere near that level of skill. But I can make a pretty decent map with the various styles that ProFantasy provides. I subscribe to their annuals - every month they release an "issue" which typically contains some new map style. At the end of the year all the issues are bundled into a single package. The map shown at the top of this post is from their January 2015 issue, a style for OSR-style dungeons. After much mulling over I decided this was the style I wanted to go with for my dungeon. It's a nice mix of style and functionality. One of the dangers I find when prepping maps for my own adventures is the perfect can too often become the enemy of the good. I'm rather pleased with the way this one is coming out. I'll soon be ready to stock the dungeon with zombies, orcs, and brigands. And treasure too, I suppose...
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Adventuring in the Partially Abandoned City of Khromarium

Fri, 07/07/2017 - 03:14

During the Roman Empire, the city of Rome reached a peak population of around a million people. However during the Middle Ages its population dropped to the tens of thousands of people. One source I've seen says 20,000, another 50,000 - in any case, a monumental decline). The Coliseum at one point served as a landfill.

I've been thinking about this as I prep for a campaign in Hyperborea. There, the largest city is Khromarium, with a population of around 30,000. However, a reading of the Referee's Manual for AS&SH shows how much Khromarium has fallen from its peak. Depopulated twice - once upon the advent of the Ashen Worm, with Khromarium buried under ice. The second time, in more recent history, in the aftermath of the Green Death.

Having once been the capital of the Hyperborean Kingdom - for "untold millennia" I picture it also having once had a population in excess of a million. Reduced to 30,000, that is perhaps 3% of its former glory. Page 208 of the Referee's Manual gives us a nice mental picture:
Presently Khromarium is a dismal, seedy place, choked by the smoke of its factories. Some 30,000 or more individuals reside in the city, but as poverty and homelessness are alarmingly high, reckoning an accurate census is difficult. The bulk of the populace dwells at the south side of the city, close to the harbour. Twisting towers of black gneiss dominate the north side of Khromarium; this is called the “Old City”, where large groups live on the streets in tents and ramshackle dwellings, afraid to enter the towers (which are commonly held to be haunted). From coast to coast, like a great semicircle, Khromarium is walled in, protecting it from the beasts and horrors of the Lug Wasteland and the savage barbarian nations farther north. All manner of siege engines are mounted on these walls, and where the walls and towers meet the sea, these may be unleashed on enemy vessels.
I visualize almost two cities. A dense cluster close to the harbour. Perhaps even with its own walls - or at the very least carefully patrolled. And a much larger city with ruins, haunted towers, creepy monsters, wandering brigands, etc. It's almost like the rest of the city is its own wilderness, a bit like the old RuneQuest setting of Pavis and Big Rubble. Yet we have the suggestion that the outer wall is patrolled to protect it from the barbarians to the north. It is understandable that they'd not withdraw to the core - that would allow the barbarians to get a foothold in the city proper.

As a boy originally from New York City, I picture it as if the population of Manhattan has been reduced to a tiny fraction of its former self and confined to Battery Park. The rest of the city is for the most part abandoned but the entrances - the bridges and the like - are still carefully guarded.

This is an area ripe for adventure. Its size is comparable to that of Greyhawk - the 1st edition Gazeteer gave it a population of 53,000 - bigger than Khromarium, though not by orders of magnitude (and the population estimate for Khromarium is very rough). This makes the city a good place for urban adventures like those seen in Lankhmar. But for dungeon crawls, there's no need for a long journey in the wilderness - there's plenty of ruins to explore within the Old City. That's not to say adventure in the wider world isn't a possibility, but it does give the characters a nearby home base for their dungeon excursions.

What I'm doing for my own campaign prep is working on a tower and dungeon complex below. I'm not picturing a massive megadungeon but one with several levels - enough to get our adventurers up a few levels. It's got me thinking about the dungeon ecology - who is in the ruined tower, who is in the upper levels of the dungeon, who is in the lower levels, etc.? Do they know about each other? Do they fear each other? Who might move into the upper levels if the characters clear it out?

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Colonial Gothic July 2017 Bundle of Holding

Tue, 07/04/2017 - 02:42

I don't think I've ever pitched a Bundle of Holding before but I'd encourage people to check out the Colonial Gothic Bundle of Holding, valid for the next 15 or so days. Richard Iorio II, owner of Rogue Games, is donating 100% of his proceeds, to the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention. Richard lost three friends in succession to suicide in 2015. Having dealt with mental health issues and a daughter dealing with depression and suicidal ideation it is a cause quite dear to my heart.

Colonial Gothic is a great reference for gaming in Colonial America in the period of and around the American Revolution (with expansions covering other periods). Even if the rules don't grab you it provides a massive amount of information and inspiration for gaming in the period. The rules and supplements cover Native American and colonist characters, French North America, British North America, the French and Indian War, the American Revolution, etc. And of course there's a supplement if you want to add Lovecraft's Cthulhu Mythos to your game - a logical addition, given works by Lovecraft having connections to the period (see for example "Dreams in the Witch House" and The Case of Charles Dexter Ward).

A Colonial-era game has long been on my "some day" list of games to play - it's a great deal to get all of the books at a low price and help a worthy cause.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Reviewing Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea in Preparation for a Campaign

Mon, 07/03/2017 - 03:09

It's been a while since I've done an old school D&D style campaign. I'm in the process of prepping it, aiming to kick it off some time later this month (or early in the next).

We'll be using Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. AS&SH is awfully close to 1st edition AD&D, at least mechanically. However, there's a number of key differences I'm keeping in mind:

  • The game is closely linked to the Hyperborean setting. This is strongly inspired by Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborean stories (no real surprise there), with some good does of Robert E. Howard, HP Lovecraft, and Fritz Leiber (among others). It wouldn't be impossible to pull from the setting, but the setting is a great old school setting, one which on its own is very flexible and easily fine-tuneable by the GM.
  • All the characters are human, though there are different human ethnicities or races.
  • Like the Holmes edition of D&D, there are five, not three or nine alignments. They are Lawful Good, Chaotic Good, Neutral, Lawful Evil, and Chaotic Evil. 
  • There is no multiclassing. However, the main four classes all have subclasses which simulate the most common multiclass options - it's easy to make a fighter/magic-user type for example, as well as magic-user/thief characters (good for your Grey Mouser for example).
  • While there is no skill system, the physical abilities have rules for various physical tasks. 
  • Classes like magicians and thieves are more useful at first level.
  • While combat is not as crunchy at it would be in 3.x rules, combat rules are less fuzzy than earlier editions of AD&D and D&D (this is true of a lot of rules - there is a lot of tightening up of rules).
  • Outside of potions and scrolls, no one knows how to make magic items any more. Aside from perhaps the creepy dwarfs living underground. 
  • The world is fairly small, not much more land mass than that of the "Known World" of the D&D Expert Set. You can sail to the borders of the flat realm, taking you to waterfalls dropping into infinity. This is not a good idea.
  • Winter is coming. The world's true year is actually 13 "years" long. The land exists as if it is north of the Arctic Circle. As a result one out of every thirteen years is dark all the time. And one year out of every thirteen is daylight all the time. I initially wasn't too crazy about this, finding the idea of a year-long winter makes suspending my disbelief difficult, but I'm starting to get some interesting ideas from this.
  • The world is only now beginning to recover from a plague that wiped out perhaps 90% of humanity. This is rather handy for ruins, partially empty cities, etc.
  • While it is a world of magic, there are also traces of long-lost super-science.
So how do I plan on using this? Perhaps the most important thing is it is "close enough" to traditional D&D that most old adventures will work just fine with it, albeit with some modifications. For example, I could see using classics like In Search of the Unknown and Against the Slave Lords adventures in Hyperborea. This is especially handy with grad school starting up again soon for me. Five more classes to go.
However, I do have some ideas germinating to take advantage of the setting. There's got to be some people on Hyperborea who want to return it to Earth. That could make for some interesting adventures - I wonder what year it is on Earth? Having just watched Peter Capaldi's last two regular Doctor Who episodes (just a Christmas special to come), I've got Cybermen on my mind. I wonder what some mad scientist or sorcerer might cook up to make his people better able to survive Hyperborea's brutal winters? Cybermen and zombies! 
I also enjoy the literary aspects that AS&SH emulates. While I'm not too up on Robert E. Howard, I greatly enjoy the tales of Leiber, Lovecraft, and Smith and will do my best to integrate their ideas into the game.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Revisiting Hyperborea

Fri, 06/30/2017 - 01:52

Revisiting is a strange word, as I've never actually played Astonishing Swordsmen and Sorcerers of Hyperborea (AS&SH). I reviewed it several years ago and I liked what I read, though I wound up using ACKS and Dungeon Crawl Classics. It's been a while since I played an OSR game but as I evaluated options for our upcoming game, I found myself coming back to it a lot. There's a new edition of it due within a few months but this new edition is designed to be fully compatible with the first edition. I will confess that I'll miss the boxed set and coil-bound rulebooks but as a backer of the Kickstarter I'm definitely looking forward to it.

When I first reviewed AS&SH I wasn't particularly familiar with Clark Ashton Smith. However, over the past several years I've read a number of his works and his writings have had a large influence on my Call of Cthulhu gaming. The Book of Eibon had an important role in my campaign as has his creation, Tsathoggua, As my familiarity with Smith increased, my appreciation for AS&SH has gone up. One of Smith's creations was his land of Hyperborea. Once a land dominated by jungles and dinosaur remnants, over time it becomes threatened by an ice age. By the modern day, Hyperborea is no more, all that remains of it is modern Greenland.

In AS&SH Hyperborea has found its way to the center of a hexagon-shaped world - almost like a demiplane. The Hyperboreans are a dying race,  though the world is inhabited by others from Earth as well - Vikings, Amazons, Kelts, Picts, etc. It has a number of features that make it conducive to adventure - a Green Plague wiped out most life centuries ago and the world has not fully recovered, leaving many ruins, cities not fully populated, etc. The secrets for creating major magic items have been lost - no one even knows how to make a lowly +1 sword anymore.

AS&SH's Hyperborea, like that of Clark Ashton Smith, is threatened by extreme weather. It isn't threatened by an ice age (though its overall climate is cool) - rather its year which lasts about 13 Earth-years, leads to an odd cycle (for the most part years in the setting refer to our traditional year length, with 13 making up the cycle). One of these thirteen years is daylight almost all the time. Another is a year of constant night. I was initially a bit hesitant to embrace this part of the setting - it makes my suspension of disbelief a bit stretched that such a night could be survived. However, the more I think of it the more ways I can think of to make the challenge of surviving such an event to be conducive to adventure.

I've done a bit of polling for interest in a game of AS&SH on Google+ and I've been pleased at the interest I've heard, so it's looking promising for a game of this with some new folks in the group (we've been running a bit small which works nicely for Call of Cthulhu but I'd like a few more folks for OSR games). If anyone is interested, feel free to give me a holler.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Looking for the Perfect OSR Game

Sat, 06/24/2017 - 02:26

Objectively, of course, there's no such thing. So what's perfect for me?
I'm giving it some thought as my gaming group will embarking on an old school campaign this summer. There's a few I'm considering - links go to reviews on this blog. 
High up on the list is ACKS - Adventurer Conqueror King. I've had a lot of fun playing it in the past. It's based on what is probably my favorite version of D&D, the old B/X variant, but adds the sort of crunch that I like. It operates on the premise that characters will eventually become movers and shakers in the world, with rules for running domains, thieves' guilds, etc. On the negative side for ACKS advancement takes a while and it does require a bit more prep than most OSR style game. Prep time is something of a premium for me, as after a break of a few months I'll be resuming part-time pursuit of my Master's at Brandeis this July. My own experience is the prep time does yield excellent dividends, granting a lot of play time.
Another game probably just as high is Dungeon Crawl Classics, another game I've had some good experiences with. It is also the game where I GM-ed my first (and thus far only) total party kill. Sorry about that guys. I like the feel of DCC - a bit looser than ACKS, which reduces the prep time considerably. I do sometimes find myself wishing for a bit more crunch - there's quite a bit "make it up yourself" in DCC. I just received my pdf backer copy of Mutant Crawl Classics, a Gamma World-like game, which looks rather promising, though the pdf itself isn't generally available.
Those two are probably my top tier, though there's a few more I'm giving a bit of a flip through. The various incarnations of Swords & Wizardry give an experience a bit closer to pure old school D&D. Lamentations of the Flame Princess has a great take on emphasizing weird fantasy, something very usable even without the grindhouse elements which aren't quite my thing (nothing wrong with such elements, just a matter of personal preference. I've also been revisiting the excellent Astounding Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea - a nice tightening of the 1st edition AD&D rules in a default setting very reminiscent of Clark Ashton Smith's Hyperborea stories. 
I'll probably spend another few days mulling over my game options before committing. It's fun research. It's odd taking a look at reviews I made several years ago.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Call of Cthulhu Actual Play: The Haunted Landscape of Ka'tori

Mon, 06/19/2017 - 02:33

Tuesday, June 15, 1920. Kingsport, Massachusetts

Evelyn Mercer, director of the Mercer Art Gallery had engaged the services of one of her occasional artists, Fredrik Tardiff, to solve a mystery in line with his experiences. Tardiff had been recovering from bouts with the supernatural - he'd returned from Greenland about a year ago after uncovering signs of the lost Hyperborean civilization. Spending the next six months pouring over the Book of Eibon he'd acquired was perhaps not the best idea for his mental well being but he had spent the past several months focused on mundane painting. Unfortunately, most of his former companions were unavailable - some having wisely retired from supernatural investigation, others taking advantage of Prohibition to pursue a life of mundane crime. He'd made the acquaintance of an antiquarian but he was apparently spending time abroad, currently in a yurt in Mongolia uncovering the history of an ancestor who had spent time living among the Khalkha. Grant Oil, Miskatonic Librarian by day and jazz player by night was available and he made a motorcycle ride to Arkham to pick him up.

Mrs. Mercer explained to Oil and Tardiff that industrialist Archibald Collins had acquired Paesaggio Sinistro di Ka'tori, "The Haunted Landscape of Ka'tori", painted by the mad Italian artist Timoteo Colasanti in 1503. Rebuffed by New York's Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and Boston's Museum of Fine Art, he had chosen to show it at the Mercer Gallery.

The painted presented an alien landscape. Tragedy had befallen many of its owners, though the painting itself has miraculously survived all of these - the Great Fire of London, the wreck of the East Indiaman Doddington, the slave revolt at the Castairs Plantation in 1860.

And now Archibald Collins had vanished. And the painting... well the room in the gallery it was in was now filled by alien plant life which seemed to almost be a continuation of the plants in the painting. The pair examined it... It was as if a jungle had been in the gallery for years. A hostile jungle, as the vines snaked around Tardiff's throat though he was able to escape with Oil's help.

Archibald's wife, Rachel, explained that her husband had been obsessed with some manuscript he'd been studying at the Miskatonic University's Orne Library. Early yesterday morning he'd picked up some documents from their room but she hadn't seen him since they went to bed Sunday night - she recalled his actions slightly waking her from her slumber in the room they'd rented in the Harbor Place Hotel but she'd gone right back to sleep.

Traveling back to the Orne Library they found Collins had been researching the Colasanti Manuscript - having had a photostat of the brief document made of it. Moreover, it seemed he'd torn out the last page of it, one they could have used...

Manuscript of Timoteo Colasanti, circa 1503. Translated from Italian.
Night after night I dreamed of the realm of Ka’tori. A world like our own, but far more ancient and hiding great secrets of power. A world known to Eibon of old Hyperborea and Cykranosh. It is real, quite real. Pope Alexander VI, once Rodrigo de Borja, did all he could to prevent me from accessing the wisdom of Eibon so I could find lost Ka’tori. I have visited Ka’tori. Not just in my mind but in the flesh. I have used all my talents to make a painting so real that it can be used to visit Ka’tori. I have found an ancient tower of Eibon there – little more than ruins with the passage of aeons, but what I have learned from those ruins has given me power to dwarf that of the shepherd god of fat Rodrigo! On the second page of this manuscript I have drawn the chant required to make the passage depending on the position of the sun and the moon. But be warned – the chant will work and only one as powerful as I or Eibon should make this passage. I have used my fortune obtain the pigments detailed on the third page of this manuscript – if followed precisely any such painting will be nigh indestructible save for the solvent I have described on the fourth page.  I do not fear committing this to writing for only one who has dreamt of Ka’tori would know what to draw with the pigments. And only one as talented as I could give it the breath of life needed to bridge the ether between the worlds. Ulnagr Tsathoggua! Covfefe Yog-Sothoth! [No translation available]
With some work, Tardiff was able to translate the code that would open a passage to Ka'tori based on the solar and lunar positions. As the original charts were based on the Julian Calendar, it seemed possible that Collins may have neglected to account for that. In such a case, Tardiff believed the portal would still be opened but it would not close properly, occasionally opening for brief moments, explaining the strange plant life.

Returning to Kingsport early in the morning of the 16th, they found the plants were thankfully dormant in the cooler night air. Tardiff made the necessary chant and the painting turned into a portal, pulling them across the light years to Ka'tori. Both felt weak by the transition, Tardiff especially so.The portal on Ka'tori took the form of a stone archway. And no sooner had they arrived but they found themselves under attack by the plants. Oil readied his Great War rifle but did not need to use it - they were rescued by an elderly man and two younger men, all armed with torches. It turned out that the elderly man went by the name of Scipio and had been a slave in the Castairs Plantation back in 1860 - and had been a ringleader in the revolt. Most of the slaves had survived and had settled here on Ka'tori where the few remaining lived with their descendants.

Scipio explained they had no desire to return to Earth but they would gladly give information to stop the white devil who had recently arrived from Earth. Collins had slain one of their number and rose up his corpse as a type of zombie.

Oil and Tardiff made their way to Eibon's ruined observatory, little more than a ruined pile of rubble. Veterans of the Great War, they were able to approach stealthily, avoiding the zombie sentry (Tardiff with help from Oil). They heard Collins arguing with himself - enraged there were no tomes to be found here - apparently Colasanti had taken them all back to Earth. They worked there way into the observatory to confront Collins who was indeed now mad. Reason not working, Tardiff attempted to grapple him before he could get off any of his vile sorcery. Unfortunately Collins drained much of the life out of Tardiff, nearly killing him. Oil shot Collins in the head with his rifle, a shot that barely penetrated his magical protection. Before Collins could recover from the headshot Oil killed him with his bayonet and gave first aid to Tardiff. They found the final page of the manuscript on Collins' person and were able to gather the necessary materials to destroy the painting. Though sickened and weak, Tardiff was able to make it back to the portal with Oil's help.

Casting the portal spell again, they traveled back to Earth, another harrowing journey which nearly killed the weakened Tardiff. They used the solvents they had gathered to destroy the painting, cutting off the connection to Ka'tori. They explained to Mrs. Mercer and Mrs. Collins that regretfully Mr. Collins had expired and there was nothing they could have done to save him.

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Fiction Review: Thirteen Reasons Why

Sun, 06/18/2017 - 15:11

This is a little out of scope for my blog but I'm aware a number of my readers are the same age as me - somewhere in their forties or fifties with adolescent children. This is a review of Jay Asher's novel which is the basis for the Netflix series of the same name.

Thirteen Reasons Why is the story of Hannah Baker, a high school student who committed suicide. She left behind a set of thirteen audio tapes, explaining why she killed herself and the people who contributed to that. She claims the recipients are being watched and if they don't listen and pass them on the tapes will be released publicly. The novel follows the most recent recipient Clay Jensen, who does not understand why he is considered part of the reason she killed herself, as he cared about her though was never as close to her as he wanted to be.

Hannah feels trapped and betrayed. She has the reputation of a slut, despite having only gone so far as to kiss a few boys and nothing more. She feels betrayed in friendships, was the victim of a peeping tom, witnessed a rape, and various other dark moments which the tapes detail.

The novel and the series have generated a fair amount of controversy, being accused of glamorizing a suicide. I've mixed views on this. I do not like the near-supernatural power she seems to exude in death, able to force these people to listen to her tapes and pass them on. On the other hand, it also shows some very realistic reactions to the event. Clay is crushed - not only is he crushed, he is angry, as he would have been there for her had she let him. They made out at a party shortly before her death but she then pulled away from him, for reasons he could not understand.

As an adult, it seems easy to view Hannah's suicide as extreme. She won't be in high school forever, she does have people who care about her. Though it's decades away, I still remember high school well enough to remember how it is very much your entire world and the thought of life after it seem foreign. Moreover, it is very likely she's suffering from depression and would have benefited greatly from therapy. She never does pursue therapy, though she does make one attempt to get help from a guidance counselor, though it is a last-ditch effort, after she has largely made up her mind - essentially, unless he can fix everything in a single conversation she is committed to ending her life.

Should parents allow their kids to read this (and watch the series, of which I've seen enough episodes to know that while not identical, they are very similar)? It's a tough call. My own kids had begun watching the show on Netflix before I was aware of it and while I generally give them a wide latitude in their reading and viewing, I'd've been hesitant about this one - especially with one of my kids suffering from depression and having had instances of suicidal ideation. I spoke about it with her therapist who wasn't a big fan of the show but felt that forbidding it would turn it into a "forbidden fruit" and instead encouraged me to also watch and/or read it so I could discuss it with my kids. I have completed reading the book and have been working my way through the Netflix series.

And I think that's where the critical point is - adolescents at risk for suicide absolutely should not watch the series in isolation. However, suicide is a real and large problem and it does provide a starting point for conversations. We've talked about what other options Hannah had, we've questioned whether she really gets closure from the events which hurt her by killing herself and releasing the tapes. From that perspective, it is a useful tool. And I'm very pleased with how damn angry it showed Clay - he was sad, but he was also pissed at Hannah as he absolutely would have been there for her.

While I'm not against physician-assisted suicide in the case of fatal and painful diseases, suicide is often a part of a mental illness, and in such cases it is the mental illness that should be treated.

National Suicide Prevention HotlineCall 1-800-273-8255Chat
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Musings on Cthulhu in Colonial America

Wed, 06/14/2017 - 01:38

I say to you againe, doe not call up Any that you cannot put downe; by the Which I mean, Any that can in Turne call up somewhat against you, whereby your Powerfullest Devices may not be of use. Ask of the Lesser, lest the Greater shall not wish to answer, and shall commande more than you.- HP Lovecraft, The Case of Charles Dexter Ward 
I was talking with one of the players in my gaming group about Call of Cthulhu in Colonial America - specifically the 17th and 18th centuries. Sixtystone Press has a Colonial Lovecraft Country on their production schedule but it is likely safe to say it is a ways out so any Keeper is on his or her own.

I wrote about general gaming in Colonial America last year whilst in Colonial Williamsburg - Another Bucket List Setting - Colonial America. Not a lot has changed on the material available gaming in Colonial America. As I see it, the main products currently usable include:

  • Colonial Gothic - A game dedicated specifically to gaming in British North America. It includes a supplement entitled Lovecraft which, unsurprisingly, is all about injecting the Cthulhu Mythos into a Colonial Gothic game. While I've never been too crazy about the game engine the game and its supplements make for fantastic source material.
  • Renaissance - The Renaissance RPG, most specifically with its Clockwork & Cthulhu supplement, is all about gaming in the era I've discussed. Renaissance is an engine based off of OpenQuest which in turn is based off of the Moongoose incarnation of RuneQuest, making it a close cousin of the Call of Cthulhu game. It isn't a colonial game, but rather is set in England. 
Additionally, Cthulhu Dark will include as one of its settings late 17th century Arkham. The 1990 Chaosium adventure anthology Fatal Experiments includes rules for black powder weapons - it's for the 4th edition of the game, but rereading it nothing about it seems impossibly difficult to I've recently read The Case of Charles Dexter Ward for the first time - I knew the basic plot but it was one of those stories that I just never got around to reading. The backplot, which receives about as much attention as does the main one, deals with evil sorcerers from the colonial era and their evil experiments. The conspiracy to stop Joseph Curwen has all the makings of a Call of Cthulhu adventure. 
One challenge that occurs to me is avoiding mapping all superstitions of the era directly to the Cthulhu Mythos. The people of that age absolutely believed in witchcraft and believed that Curwen engaged in such activities. However, Curwen and his allies were not witches in the sense that the people of that age believed in. They certainly had dark powers, but they made no bargains with Old Scratch. Mythos entities such as Yog-Sothoth are certainly horrifying but they are not the analogous to Satan. Of course townspeople looking to burn someone at the stake might not make such a distinction.
An appealing aspect of this is the fact that often investigators find themselves needing to learn Mythos lore and magic - running the risk of they themselves being accused of witchcraft. 
How might such a game differ form a traditional Call of Cthulhu one? I think the biggest difference is the general acceptance of the existence of the supernatural. This is not to say that the people of the age have a better innate understanding of the Mythos - Lovecraft's universe is not a Judeo-Christian one - Cotton Mather would be quite horrified to learn of the origins of humanity in "At the Mountains of Madness". One of the horrifying aspects of the Cthulhu Mythos is just how little we understand the universe. The science of the 17th and 18th centuries are no more accurate than that of later era in understanding the deeper origins of the universe. 
It is also a setting with even slower communications than the Victorian era. No telegraph, no railroad, no steam engine. It is possible for an immortal to vanish for a while and return as a descendant - assuming that, unlike Curwen, one could afford to leave one's business for a time. 
A possible way of introducing a Colonial game would be to embed it within a modern adventure. For example, were one to be playing The Case of Charles Dexter Ward, one could actually play out the flashbacks to the Colonial era, where Curwen was defeated - at least for a century and a half. 

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Adam West Was My First Batman

Mon, 06/12/2017 - 02:04

Like many, I was saddened yesterday when I read of the passing of Adam West. When I was a young child, I have to confess I never saw the 1960s Batman series as campy. I treated those zany adventures with absolute seriousness. Of course I laughed, but much as one might laugh in a modern superhero movie with its funny moments.

A large part of that had to be how much Adam West put into his role of Batman. The show itself was awesomely campy but Batman always was serious. A noble crimefighter who would make certain he contributed to the healthy development of his young ward. Who would always do the right thing.

It was popular in the late 1980s and early 1990s to rail against the old Batman show. How Batman wasn't really like that, but rather he was a grim avenger of the night. I couldn't really get into that - I love The Dark Knight Returns and similar takes on Batman but I had too fond memories of the classic 1960s show to ever speak against it. When Adam West spoke at the UConn Student Union in fall of 1989, my freshman year, I was sure to be there. It was shortly after the Michael Keaton  Batman movie had come out. He was great fun to listen to - he spoke how he'd have loved a scene where the classic Batmobile rolled out with the classic Batman driving. He did an impersonation of the wall-climbing from the old show, asking us to turn our heads to assist with the special effects.

It's hard to know how the man really felt about being typecast as Batman for the rest of his life - I hope and suspect he knew how much joy he brought to people.

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Defending in Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

Thu, 06/08/2017 - 01:52

Having resumed playing Call of Cthulhu I thought I'd reflect a little bit on the rules changes in the 7th edition - specifically, related to defending. Previous editions of the game were always a little bit vague as to when you could defend. This post is a little bit wonky and probably of most interest to people considering the game.

I'll begin with a little bit of review of how dice rolling works in the 7th edition. In most situations you simply roll percentile dice, trying to roll equal to or below your skill or ability score. There are three types of success:

  • Normal - you roll equal to or lower than your score
  • Hard - you roll equal to or under half your score
  • Extreme - you roll equal to or under a fifth of your score
The game also introduces penalty or bonus dice. When you roll you might have one or more bonus or penalty dice. If you have a bonus die you roll three dice - two dice for your ten's digit and one die for your one's digit. You keep the lower of the two ten's digit dice. A penalty die is the opposite - you keep the higher of the two ten's digit dice.
The Keeper's Rulebook illustrates this nicely:

In the case of rolling a bonus die in Figure 1 above, the roll would be a 24. In the case of a penalty die, as seen in Figure 2, the roll is a 41. (I think they'd've been better off keeping the one's digit the same in both examples.)
So with these rules additions above previous editions, the 7th edition handles a number of things rather smoothly. For example, if you need to defend more than once in a round (i.e. opponents are ganging up on you) you begin adding penalty dice to your defense roll.
Similarly, when you defend, whoever gets a better success wins (i.e. normal, hard, or extreme). What about ties? In the case of a tie, if the defender is dodging the defender wins. On the other hand, instead of dodging a character can choose to fight back. In that case if the two characters get the same success levels the attacker wins. If the defender gets a higher success then he or she actually scores a hit against the attacker (a minor hit - a critical is not possible in such a case).
Maneuvers are handled in a similar manner - they are used to grapple, disarm, etc. When someone is performing a maneuver against you you can choose to dodge, you can fight back, or you can attempt your own maneuver. Successful maneuvers can cause characters to be disarmed, be pinned and therefore have penalty dice, etc. 
I did mess up a little in this week's game, allowing an evil sorcerer to attempt to dodge gunfire. Like previous versions of the game, you actually can't dodge such an attack, you can only dive for cover, which requires a dodge roll and uses your next action. If you succeed and get to cover your opponent gets a penalty die.
As I get more experience with the 7th edition I'm finding it is a nice improvement over previous versions. The new dice rolling mechanisms are smooth and don't really slow down play at all. They avoid turning the game into a wargame but they do add a nice amount of tactics to combat - which, like previous versions of the game, remains very dangerous. 

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Film Review: Wonder Woman

Mon, 06/05/2017 - 00:30

After a number of tries, I think the DC Universe films have finally managed to release a film firing on all cylinders. I think Man of Steel had a lot of good points but I think it was a missed opportunity, not showing just how good Superman is. Batman v. Superman was in my mind an improvement but I think it would have benefited from some tightening - the distrust of Superman seemed forced, the incident that caused the Congressional Inquiry was a bit confusing, and it really packed an awful lot into it. On the plus side, Ben Afleck made for a fantastic aged Batman and Gal Gadot's debut as Wonder Woman was a highlight. Suicide Squad seemed primarily to suffer from not knowing what kind of movie it wanted to be, though my younger daughter Jasmine loved it - Harley Quinn is her favorite comic book character. Jasmine and I saw Wonder Woman today and while Harley remains her favorite character, she definitely liked Wonder Woman better than Suicide Squad or any of the DC movies (she's a DC girl).

I'm far from an expert on the Wonder Woman comics - when I was in high school I was more on the Marvel side of the fence and as I got into DC I tended more towards Superman, Batman, and Green Lantern. I'm going to have to check out the George Perez Wonder Woman of the 1980s along with the more recent Greg Rucka stories - I've recently read his Batwoman Detective Comics run and thought it was superb.

So with the disclaimer as to my not being an expert on the Wonder Woman "canon" out of the way, I'll say that I had a smile on my face for much of the movie. It shows us Diana (she's never referred to as "Wonder Woman" in the film) leaving her home to accompany Steve Trevor back to the world of men, convinced that Ares is behind the Great War that is currently raging. The film moves Wonder Woman's origin back from its original World War 2 era to the closing days of World War 1.

The film captured both a bit of innocence and wonder as Diana learned of the world - for example, she is amazed at discovering ice cream. She is also just so good in a way that Man of Steel missed in my opinion. When she sees innocents suffering she cannot do nothing, she cannot pursue a greater good. She must act. Perhaps my favorite scene is when she, alone, emerges from the trenches at the Western Front, to cross no-man's land and rescue a town from the German forces.

However, the world is not all sunshine. Some of her battles are heartbreakingly in vain. She is rarely in much physical danger, with only one foe who is truly a match for her. But that is not to the detriment of the film in the slightest. Diana is forced to consider the possibility that perhaps humans don't need the intervention of gods to kill each other.

It was also refreshing to see a nice amount of humor without it being reduced to slapstick. There was the occasional laugh but never at the expense of the characters' integrity. But even with its setting in the Great War, it did not descend to the darkness that all too often is a part of the DC Universe films. Diana is a hero.

Beyond Gal Gadot's masterful performance as Diana, Chris Pine was a great Steve Trevor. As the sidekick/guide to the world he could have been either lost in the background or usurped her role. He did neither. He quickly realized just how talented she was and always treated her with respect. Despite his awareness of just how "super" she is, he is never threatened by her.

The film also showed Diana functioning in a world dominated by men. Her way of dealing with it was to... well, to take no shit from anyone. She would always do what was right and would defy anyone to do so, whether that person be her mother or the leaders of the British government. I'm a man and probably can't appreciate just what an inspiration she is, to finally see a female superhero - and one done so exceptionally well. I know my daughter walked out of it inspired and I keep thinking of this photo I've seen make its rounds around the internet - I think it sums up what Diana means perfectly...

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More Suspense, Less Punching - Revisiting Call of Cthulhu Scenario Creation

Sun, 06/04/2017 - 01:57

I'm finishing prepping the adventure to resume our old Call of Cthulhu game. One of my exercises was to take a bit of a machete to it, removing mandatory combat encounters and dialing up the suspense. In many games, a handy technique to get the action moving is to throw a bunch of ninjas in. In most games for the Cthulhu Mythos, that's a dangerous undertaking - a bunch of ninjas have a good chance in killing the characters. Unless of course you are going for a Pulp Cthulhu sort of game. In which case throw in the ninjas. Or Nazis. No one ever need feel guilty about punching a Nazi.

What has helped me get back into the frame of mind has been some Lovecraftian reading as well as going through some inspirational material. I love the cover to the GDW/Chaosium 3rd edition Call of Cthulhu rules - the investigators exploring a mysterious keep, looking more like regular people than hardened adventurers. Lovecraft's The Case of Charles Dexter Ward had been on my "need to read" pile to years and I finally got around to reading it recently - the manner in which Ward's doctor, Willett, learns what happened to Ward and learns the necessary magic to triumph, at great mental cost to himself. Indeed, the name of the characters, investigators, gives an idea as to the adventure structure. Similarly, The Shadow Over Innsmouth shows some high intensity action with the narrator making a daring escape from his hotel and avoiding pursuit afterwards - but no actual fighting.

This isn't to say I view combat an impossibility - but Call of Cthulhu makes it something not to be done casually, with characters being quite mortal. Avoiding combat is usually safer...
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Cthulhu Dark Kickstarter and Impressions

Thu, 06/01/2017 - 22:56

Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu is probably my favorite RPG. It has a system very well matched for its genre and it realizes its genre fantastically well.

It's definitely an old-school game - in many ways it is a living fossil - you could take an adventure for its 1st edition from the 1980s and very easily use it with the most recent 7th edition, converting things on the fly. If you come from a D&D background, the rules are pretty easy to pick up (I'd argue that Call of Cthulhu is easier to pick up than D&D).

But there are other ways to play a game of Lovecraftian horror, and reasons you'd want to go in that direction, depending on what you are looking for in a game. Call of Cthulhu is very traditional, giving players minimal narrative control. Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu injects a laser focus on investigation, insuring that no game comes to a halt because of a failed skill roll. One can see that Trail had an influence on the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu.

Graham Walmsley has written a number of adventures for Trail of Cthulhu, written in the "purist" mode - games where achieving survival and sanity are extremely unlikely. They're fantastic adventures, filled with great atmosphere. My own tastes lean a little pulpier - less pulp than Pulp Cthulhu, more like your "Dunwich Horror" where some form of victory is possible if the investigators are careful and lucky.

He's also written Stealing Cthulhu, a system-less sourcebook on using various themes from Lovecraft and remixing them. My own games have benefited tremendously from this thin volume. I really enjoy Walmsley's style - it's a sort of "let's chat, here's an idea to consider - if you don't go with it that's fine, just give it some thought". I've read blogs and books filled with "one true way" to game that will condemn your BadWrongFun. Stealing Cthulhu is nothing like that - and my occasional interactions with Walmsley online have all been extremely pleasant and informative.

The last few pages of Stealing Cthulhu had the rules for Cthulhu Dark, a 2 page RPG for playing Lovecraftian horror. Your investigator has two statistics - a textual occupation and an INsight score . When you perform a task you roll at least one six-sided die - your "human" die. If your occupation is applicable you roll a second die. And if you want to risk your sanity you roll an insight die. Your highest die roll determines how well you succeed (or how awfully you fail if everyone things failure is more interesting). It's a very loose process - a roll of "1" isn't allowed to block the game - if you are investigating something you find the bare minimum needed to move the plot forward. If you jump out a window to escape you make a huge racket and everyone sees you.

There's a few catches though. If you rolled an Insight die and it is your highest roll, you have to make an Insight check. If you rolled a 6 on any die you have to make an Insight check. When you make an Insight check you roll a die and if it is higher than your current Insight (starting at 1) your Insight goes up by 1. If it hits 6...
When your Insight reaches 6, you understand the full horror behind the Universe and leave everyday life behind. To the outside world, you appear insane. This is a special moment: everyone focusses on your character’s last moments of lucidity. Go out however you want: fight, scream, run, collapse or go eerily silent.Cthulhu Dark is a really simple game. I've not had an opportunity to play it yet but my read of it is that it could do a lot of stuff really well. If you're looking for detail on how you fight cultists or want skill checks, it won't work - and truthfully, that is often what I do want. Nevertheless, I can see how one could really have a blast going for a moody, dark scenario. Or even a campaign in such a style. It could, for example, do a fantastic job with The Case of Charles Dexter Ward or The Shadow Over Innsmouth.

You don't have a lot of guidance on how to handle combat - the idea is if you fight a Mythos horror you die. So you should run. However, I do regret a little not having much for a fight with your cultist foe, though admittedly that is more a function of how I game and not particularly Lovecrafitan. (Confession time - I'm a huge Clark Ashton Smith fan whose stories have protagonists who are a bit more resilient - and that definitely impacts how I run Cthulhu games.) But it doesn't seem difficult to add, for example, a "Body" score to go with your "Insight" one, to represent risks to your physical well-being as well as your mental.

I do like the fact that Cthulhu Dark stays clear of detailed insanity - having dealt with mental health issues, both in myself and with family, I'm a bit sensitive to seeing things like "OCD" appearing on a random table. Indeed your investigator might not be insane - he might just understand what it is he is witnessing.

I also like the way in which your Insight score will go up rapidly at first and then slow down, though you'll reach a point where a single roll will have a 1-in-6 chance of taking you out.

As far as the Kickstarter goes, you can check it out here: Cthulhu Dark. It seems odd to have a Kickstarter for a two-page set of rules (which you can download from the Kickstarter page) but the Kickstarter also brings you lots of player and keeper (GM) advice on using the rules and crafting scenarios, along with various settings for Cthulhu Dark. Based on the quality of Walmsley's previous work (and the preview material at the Kickstarter page) I'm really looking forward to it. Even if I never play a game of Cthulhu Dark (which writing this has really filled me with an urge to try out) I'm certain I'll be getting my money's worth from this one.

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Resuming a Classic-Era Cthulhu Campaign

Tue, 05/30/2017 - 01:39

After some discussion with the group, for our Call of Cthulhu game we decided to bring back some characters from our campaign which took place in 1918-1919, beginning with an adventure set during the Great War (Chaosium's No Mans' Land).

I've been giving some thoughts as to the best way to do this. It's been about two years in real time since we last played that game. I'm definitely going to take advantage of that gap and will be introducing a one to two year gap in the game as well, pushing the timeline to 1920 or 1921. I think the passage in time can be used for a number of purposes.

We've three regular players in the game plus myself. One of the players has decided to go for a new character, having recently torn through HP Lovecraft's works (having previous familiarity form the game) - he's been eyeing an antiquarian. Another of the characters has been learning about the Cthulhu Mythos, having delved into the Book of Eibon. That time is useful to give him time to fully read the tome and to learn a spell or two. He's also a bit on the unstable side and may be able to take advantage of that downtime to indulge in some sanity-boosting activities to delay the inevitable slide into madness. Finally we've a young budding librarian from Harlem who might spend some time studying at the Miskatonic University.

As I review our old campaign material and consider where to go from there I'm reminded of a few ideas I had from our previous game. The first of which is that HP Lovecraft was an unreliable narrator. The stories he wrote were true... to the best of his knowledge. This means names, dates, and places may have some inaccuracies to them. This means, for example, it might be our characters who face "The Dunwich Horror" - and it also means the dates ascribed to his tales might be wrong. If it serves the campaign to have the raid on Innsmouth take place in 1921 then we can do so.

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Fiction Review: Lovecraft Country

Wed, 05/24/2017 - 02:45

“Arkham,” Atticus said. “The letter says Mom’s ancestors come from Arkham, Massachusetts.” Arkham: home of the corpse reanimator Herbert West, and of Miskatonic University, which had sponsored the fossil-hunting expedition to the mountains of madness. “It is made up, right? I mean—”  “Oh, yeah,” George said. “Lovecraft based it on Salem, I think, but it’s not a real place . . . Let me see that letter.” Atticus handed it to him and George studied it, squinting and tilting his head side to side. “It’s a ‘d,’” he said finally.
Matt Ruff's Lovecraft Country is an unusual novel - it is a collection of interconnected tales about Atticus Turner and his friends and family in the 1950s.

Atticus is an African-American from Chicago. He is from an upper middle class family, with an uncle who owns a travel agency and publishes the Safe Negro Travel Guide, based upon the real world Negro Motorist Green Book which provided African-American travelers advice on what businesses would service their vehicles, where they could stay and eat on the road, etc. It's depressing as hell to reflect that there was a need for such a book.

Atticus is a veteran of the Korean War. He'd spent some time working in Florida but living in the south did not agree with him so when he received a strange letter from his estranged father he jumped at the excuse to head back home. Atticus loves science fiction, a love he shares with his uncle George. His father, Montrose, is less a fan of such works - he especially dislikes Lovecraft, having dug up some of Lovecraft's nastier writings on African-Americans.

However, Montrose is missing, having traveled to Ardham, Massachusetts, tracking down his late wife's family background. We learn that she (and Atticus) are descended from a powerful sorcerer and his slave - a slave who ran off around the same time that sorcerer performed  a disastrous experiment. This makes Attiucs the sole surviving direct descendant of that sorcerer and of great interest to the sorcerers (they prefer the term "natural philosophers") who have reformed it. The current head is a member of that family, but not a direct descendant like Atticus.

The novel tells the tale of Atticus, along with his family and friends, as they deal with both the supernatural and the reality of being black men and women living in a world where racism is comfortably institutionalized. The stories in the novel run the gamut of HP Lovecraft's tales - secret cults, ghost stories, physical transformation, visits to far off alien worlds, etc.

I greatly enjoyed the use of Lovecraftian ideas in a story with African-American protagonists, given Lovecraft's own racist views. Montrose berates his son for his fondness of Lovecraft, uncovering Lovecraft's poem "On the Creation of Niggers" as evidence.

These stories also make for great inspiration for a Call of Cthulhu game. Atticus and company have multiple contacts with the supernatural over a period of several months, similar to how a group of Call of Cthulhu investigators will have multiple adventures.

Jordan Peele is making this novel into an HBO series. I think it has the potential to be a great show and will be looking forward to it.
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