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RPGs, science fiction, fantasy, gadgets, and anything else that comes up.Daniel Stacknoreply@blogger.comBlogger547125
Updated: 1 day 21 hours ago

Fiction Review: 14

Thu, 12/06/2018 - 02:33

This July I started a new job. Beyond the cool work, free food, and awesome headquarters, there's a ton of interesting social groups that meet physically and/or on Slack. One group I'm in is a reading group which has introduced me to fiction that is of interest to me but that I might not have otherwise read.

Earlier this year we read Peter Clines' 14. It is a book about a group of people in a very strange Las Angeles apartment building. The rent is very cheap but it's never advertised - people always hear about it via word of mouth. The apartments are weird and unique. One is always very cool - the same constant temperature, no matter what. Another has a kitchen where any light bulb is always extremely dim. Another has a layout where nothing is directly connected to a wall - power outlets are on the floor, kitchen counters are a few inches away from the walls, etc. And is is two stories tall for some reason.

Our main protagonist is Nate, a data entry temp (who has been at the same place for years) at some minor Hollywood trade magazine. Many of the other characters are odd - religious zealot, weird artist, recently divorced older dude who seems to be good at everything.

Published in 2012 it really evokes its time. It's at the tail end of the Great Recession, and none of the characters are well-off. Many work for some Hollywood-related industry, though none are actors.

Nate is obsessed with the weirdness of the building. He wants to understand why it is the way it is, who owns it, etc. He also really wants some purpose in his life. He hates his job. Uncovering the mystery of the building becomes that purpose. Others in the building join him, becoming a "Scooby gang".

I'm hesitant to give many more details, but it has a strong Lovecraftian influence, along with some strong doses of weird science - the Tesla seen in Atomic Robo and The Prestige would be right at home here. There is a lot of weirdness here. I'd call it "Lovecraft Lite" - I don't mean that in a bad way, rather a lot of weirdness, a lot of danger, some horrible fates and cosmic horror, but the possibility of something resembling a happy ending - for some of the characters.

I enjoyed reading this. Some people in my reading group compared it to Lost - I never really got into Lost so I can't speak to that. I was pleased that the mystery built up but much of it was explained as the book progressed. I was also able to predict some plot developments - areas where Clines dropped some hints beforehand. I also enjoyed his realization of Las Angeles - being a New Yorker originally and having been in the Boston area for over two decades now, I kinda consider anything west of the Hudson River to be "the west". But Clines' LA seemed real - not the glitzy Hollywood version, but the one in which many people live and work.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Ripping from the Headlines - Raiding Old Newspapers for Call of Cthulhu

Mon, 12/03/2018 - 13:51
One of the challenges I found in setting a Call of Cthulhu campaign in Boston was in understanding what the city was really like around a century ago. Sometimes I find it easier to do things in a fictional city or in one I've never been in than as opposed to one some 25 miles away from me - a city I go to regularly and which is the cultural center of my area.

I've found raiding Boston Globe archives to have been an awesome exercise. Check out the following weather forecast from August 14, 1914.

So what's interesting to me? First, as someone who is obsessed with details, it's nice to have. To be honest, if an adventure would work better with different weather, I'd happily use the different weather and get it "wrong". A heatwave instead of the modest temperatures in this forecast wouldn't cause a game to self-destruct.
But what really got my attention was "The Temperature Yesterday at Thompson's Spa. Going through the archives of 1914 it seems every issue gave that as the baseline for the weather. And I found myself wondering "what was Thompson's Spa". Apparently in New England "spa" became used as a soda fountain. The first reference to it seems to be from a Pennsylvania newspaper article in 1895 about Boston - "In Boston, Thompson’s Spa, the greatest soda resort at the Hub, easily clears for its owners 50 thousand dollars a year" (Why Are Some Boston Area Convenience Stores Called Spas?) From some more browsing I've discovered Thompson's Spa was an incredibly popular soda fountain/restaurant. It was also in Newspaper Row, right across the street from the Boston Globe, per this January 2, 1917 Globe article:

These sorts of insights are great for background. The papers are also great inspiration for adventures. Consider the following minor story from the August 14, 1914 Boston Globe
I didn't find any follow-up to this. So stolen jewelry? The little article is rife for Mythos implications. Perhaps the jewelry is the type favored by Deep Ones. Or sacred to the King in Yellow. Was the owner aware of their significance? Did he come by it legitimately? Or did he steal it and it was stolen back? I find I like these types of articles, rife for being filled in. 

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Call of Cthulhu Actual Play - Ashes of the Feast

Mon, 12/03/2018 - 02:03
The world doesn't know it yet, but the shots which will trigger the Great War have just been fired. In Boston, the Hub of the Universe, massive construction projects are underway, building the infrastructure which will serve the city for the rest of this century and beyond. However, that construction has unearthed a hidden evil...

Setting: Boston. Monday, June 29, 1914

Cast of Characters:

  • Colin O'Connor: Civil engineer from Dunmore, Ireland. Working on the Dorchester Tunnel.
  • Lola Diaz Azar: Archaeologist hailing from Puerto Rico, born of a Puerto Rican mother and Middle Eastern father.
  • Nathaniel Quincy, MD, Captain, US Army (Ret.) Former army doctor, served in Nicaragua and the Philippines.

The three investigators had assembled at a home in South Boston on Summer Street. With the Dorchester tunnel extension to the Cambridge Subway being built a number of homes were being moved. Under one of them the house movers had found a hidden chamber of horrors. The three had special skills.  O'Connor was an engineer working on the tunnel. Azar had worked with O'Connor before when the Tremont Street Tunnel uncovered ancient fishweirs. Doctor Quincy had treated a number of the injured from the construction - and handled his fair share of corpses.
The house had belonged to Finn O’Riabhaigh, who was killed in an apparent power struggle in his anarchist organization back in 1910. He was also apparently the "cannibal killer" who had terrorized Boston and surrounding area in the noughties and early 1910 - apparently operating in the basement of his anarchist publication. He had at least one accomplice - Sergey Baranov, who oddly enough was in the newspaper headlines today, though less prevalently than that of assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Hungary.
Unfortunately, the basement was discovered on Friday and over the weekend a guard had been killed - his throat slit - and some items likely removed from the basement.

Relevant articles found in the newspaper included:

May 11, 1910 
ANARCHIST HORROR IN SOUTH BOSTON CANNIBAL KILLER SLAIN, ACCOMPLICE IN COMA  Responding to reports of a struggle, police found a gruesome scene in the basements of an anarchist newsletter headquarters. In the basement of the “Universal Brotherhood”, the organization’s leader, Finn O'Riabhaigh was found dead, with his throat slit. He had apparently been in the act of consuming a human corpse, that of Mister Rocco Altieri, a southern Italian immigrant. This bizarre murder matches the modus operandi of several unsolved murders over the past five years in the city and surrounding communities. 
Also found was Sergey Baranov, with both a similar wound to the throat and a gunshot wound. At the time of this writing Baranov was in surgery with an unclear prognosis. 
O’Riabhaigh was editor and publisher of the anarchist newsletter, the “Universal Brotherhood”. He had previously been charged with a variety of misdemeanors. Evidence collected in the basement linked him to several other killings. A search of the building revealed the newsletter’s mailing list to be missing. No such list was found in O’Riabhaigh's home on Summer Street. Police Lieutenant Brian McShane indicated this horror was further evidence “of the anarchist depravity infesting Boston”.
  May 14, 1910 Baranov Charged as Accessory  At his hospital bed in Boston City Hospital, police Lieutenant Brian McShane formally arrested Sergey Baranov as an accessory to the murder of Rocco Altieri.  Unable to speak due to a severed larynx, Baranov gave a plea of not guilty in writing. 
December 6, 1910 Sergey Baranov Found Guilty  After a two-week trial and only four hours of deliberations, a jury found Sergey Baranov guilty of being an accessory to the murder of Rocco Altieri. Baranov remained silent as he heard the verdict – as he had throughout the trial – not only did he not testify in his own defense, he remains unable to speak due to his larynx having been damaged beyond the ability of his doctors to repair. Judge Charles Jenney had agreed to allow Baranov to testify with pad and paper should it have been necessary.   Attorney General Dana Malone had also unsuccessfully pursued a charge of first-degree murder. 
 December 13, 1910  Sergey Baranov Sentenced  Sergey Baranov, convicted accomplice in the Anarchist Cannibal Killings, was sentenced to 25 years as an accomplish to murder. He began his sentence at Charlestown State Prison.  
June 29, 1914  Sergey Baranov Seriously Ill  Notorious participant in the Anarchist Cannibal Killings, Sergey Baranov was transferred to the Charlestown State Prison’s infirmary yesterday, having contracted an unknown disease with symptoms similar to that of malaria.  
Though the police had been unable to find the anarchist member list, the investigators did - in the hidden basement. They also found signs of cannibal activities here - a holding cell, tables with manacles, and lots of blades.
Interestingly, the anarchist member list was in alphabetical order by first name, aside from the first two names - his two main lieutenants perhaps?

The second name was the accomplice, Baranov. Perhaps Gallagher would be a name worth checking. Research indicated it was indeed a worthwhile name to look into:
Boston Globe, January 10, 1911
During this investigation, their liaison with the police, Brian McShane, now a captain, informed them that former Attorney General, Dana Malone, had been taken to the hospital - suffering from the same mysterious illness that Baranov had.
They paid a visit to Easmon Gallagher's Back Bay house - failing to break into it or bluff their way in they wound up entering via the roof after gaining entry to a neighbor's house. Unfortunately, they were quickly discovered by Gallagher, holding a deadly looking knife, He cheerfully acknowledged he was a member of the Universal Brotherhood - and through communion with human flesh, would live forever - as well as having the power to infect others with horrid diseases. To illustrate his power (and insanity - he was not a quiet type of insane cultist) he called upon "the great fist of Yog-Sothoth", and with a wave of his hand, Azar flew off the stairwell balcony to the floor below, screaming in pain as her ankle fractured. He waved off bullets from Quincy's guns although he and O'Connor were able to eventually stop him - though fatally, as he fought like an insane maniac. 
In Gallagher's library they found The Book of the Flesh. It was a bit of a horrific tome, talking about how to eat people for eternal life. It also discussed diseases. Quincy and O'Connor couldn't comprehend it but Azar finally was able to understand it well enough to use it to reverse the effects on former AG Malone - though it was too late for Baranov - no great loss.
Captain McShane and Dana Malone were able to shield the trio from major legal consequences of their actions, though they all found themselves out of jobs - and soon working for either the state or the city in various functions - so as to be on hand should similar eldritch horrors plague the commonwealth...
Keeper NotesThis was the kick-off of a new game. It was inspired by a picture of a house being moved as part of the construction of the Dorchester Tunnel extension to the Cambridge Subway - today's Red Line. Though the picture is now in the public domain, I found it in Boston's Red Line: Bridging the Charles from Alewife to Braintree (Images of America).
The anarchists in question are quite fictional, though in the early 20th century anarchists were the terrorists of the day. Boston was a major location of anarchist activity, attracting the attention of anarchist leaders such as Luigi Galleani, 
Captain McShane is fictional, However, Dana Malone was a real person, having served in the Massachusetts legislature and was District Attorney for the Northwest District and Attorney General of Massachusetts.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

SJWs, Alt-Right, and Fascists, Oh My! Real World Horrors in RPGs

Mon, 11/19/2018 - 00:43

There's a lot of controversy going on with the latest incarnation of Vampire: The Masquerade. Apparently, in the new Camarilla book Vampires are posited as being behind the Chehen anti-gay purges - somehow related to hiding the true threat of Sharia law or something. To be honest, I found the editing of the text a little hard to follow.

White Wolf's owners, Paradox Interactive, has announced they are recalling a pair of books with such offending text as well as exercising greater control over White Wolf and no longer developing products in-house.

The backlash has ranged from "about time" to "they're not really taking responsibility" to "they are caving into social justice warriors".

I'm thinking a bit about what I would consider to be, at best, a horribly clumsy attempt at including real-world horrors into an RPG. At worst, it was an act of ill intent, trivializing the real suffering of LGBT people to push an agenda I find abhorrent. Truthfully, I'm not familiar enough with the particulars to judge. It's something I've really only seen at the periphery. I do know that I'm not fond of a number of people involved in the 5th edition - but I'm not certain as to their current status.

I also know that when I was most familiar with Vampire:the Masquerade, in the early to mid-1990s, the audience was a very diverse group. I knew a number of women who were fans of the game. Ditto many people of LGBT identity. Lots of goths. When I attended a Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie concert in 1995 there were a lot of Vampire: the Masquerade t-shirts in the audience.

I'm a proud "social justice warrior". I've protested Trump's anti-immigration and refugee policies at Copley Square. I've attended Pride parades in Boston. I fall pretty much on the side of "WTF were they thinking?" I've friends of a variety of politics. I freely acknowledge that it is possible for people of good conscience to disagree with each other. I was once a Libertarian-leaning Republican who is now a liberal Democrat. But I draw the line at people who embrace hatred and cruelty. Much to my shock and horror, I've encountered a few actual, "Hitler was right" fascists. And there I don't have tolerance.

There's a lot real-life horrible stuff happening in Chechnya, particularly to people of LGBT identity. A horror game will likely find itself face to face with real-world horrors. But what does one do about it? I get the argument that a game - or fiction - is not obligated to ignore such horrors. And I'd understand people not wanting to read or watch them. But if such horrors are included, I believe they need to be done with care and sensitivity that was clearly not shown here. Again, assuming no ill intent.

Where I think White Wolf went wrong is turning acts of real-world horror into "a vampire did it". When I play historical games I avoid making supernatural beings the causes for real-world horrors. In my opinion, it cheapens them. It takes away from the fact that real people chose to perpetrate horrors such as the Killing Fields, the Holocaust, American slavery, Native American genocide, Armenian genocide, trench warfare, etc.

I find fiction works better when they keep that maxim in mind. For example, the recent Wonder Woman film rejected the notion that Ares, god of war, was behind World War I. He took advantage of the war, but humanity caused the war without any divine help. In Atomic Robo, Baron Heinrich von Helsingard allied himself with the Nazis to be able to use their resources, but he was not behind their atrocities. He was a monster of a human being who had no problem dealing out death and destruction. But he was not some man behind the shadows causing the Third Reich so as to have a smoke screen for his work.

I want to touch on the "snowflake" pejorative. Not wanting one's entertainment to be filled with real-world horrors does not make one a snowflake. You're not weak if you are triggered by something horrible. I've family who deal with PTSD - they're not weak for avoiding things that trigger them. It's reasonable for a parent of young children to not want to play a game that features the death/kidnapping of children. With an LGBT player in my group, I don't believe I'd use an adventure that involved the killings of such people. I'd exercise an abundance of caution about introducing things that might trigger friends and family. And if as GM you shove such things down your players throats, knowing such sensitivities, that makes you an asshole.
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1910s vs. 1920s United States in Call of Cthulhu - A Quick Overview

Fri, 11/16/2018 - 01:30

The default era in the Call of Cthulhu RPG is the 1920s. The 1930s, a common era for pulp campaigns, is another well known era. I've kicked off a 1910s campaign. One of the things that I'm working on is making the period stand out differently. This is an incredibly brief, stream of consciousness capsule - any of these paragraphs could be an entire post - or book! This is a fairly US-centric blog post.

What are the important differences? Let's start off with the my starting year of 1914. Very quickly, immigration is going to drop off. The Great War helps bring about a drop-off, with European nations occupied with war. However, immigration laws in 1921 and 1924 will do even more of a job in slamming the door on immigration, specifically targeting "undesirable" immigrants such as Italians, Slavs, Poles, and Jews from Eastern Europe. It also reinforced bans on Asian immigration.

Politics are a bit different. The German, Ottoman, Russian, and Austro-Hungarian Empires will all fall as a result of the Great War. A variety of new nations will emerge from these empires.

One thing about 1920s characters is it is easy to explain any previous military experience - having served in the Great War. The United States was officially neutral in the Great War until 1917 and did not engage in earnest until 1918. Prior to that it had a fairly small military. With that caveat, there are some military conflicts the United States was involved in. 1898 saw the Spanish-American War, giving the United States an empire. Many of these acquisitions were no happier about being part of the United States than they were as being part of the Spanish Empire. The military was actively involved in suppressing rebellion in places like the Philippines and Cuba. The United States occupied Nicaragua in 1912, an occupation lasting until 1933 (with a brief break). The US also backed the independence of Panama from Colombia to facilitate the building of the Panama Canal. The United States became involved in the Mexican Revolution, including a 1916 Punitive Expedition (which is an important aspect of the 1920s Trail of Cthulhu adventure Many Fires).

Economically, the Great War introduces rapid inflation which continues after the war. A dollar in 1914 is worth $1.16 in 1917 and $1.37 in 1918. It peaks in 1921 with a 1914 dollar worth nearly twice that of a 1921 one -  $1.94.  It dips a bit as the decade continues - in 1928 dollars, a common starting year for Cthulhu campaigns, it is worth $1.73. Economics seems boring from an RPG perspective, but it caused quite a bit of pain, especially in cases where payroll did not keep up with inflation. This was a major contributing factor of the 1919 Boston Police Strike, with Boston's police officers living on poverty wages. While employment was good during the war, after the war the US economy struggled to absorb returning veterans. There was a brief recession from August 1918 to March 1919 followed by a more severe one (sometimes considered a depression), from January 1920 to July 1921. After this the Roaring Twenties kicked off, economically speaking.

This era saw much more anarchist activity and the socialist party was very active. 1910 saw the first socialist elected to the US Congress, with the election of Victor Berger as a Representative from Wisconsin. He ran afoul of the Espionage Act in 1919 and was blocked from his seat. Socialist Eugene Debs ran for president several times, getting 6% of the vote in 1912 - and was arrested in 1918 for violating the Sedition Act.

Race relations were not particularly good during this era. (Nor were they good in the 1920s for that matter). President Wilson was racist, even by the standards of the day. He introduced segregation to the Federal government - as a result of Reconstruction, the Federal government was actually integrated far more than society at large. Wilson also fired 15 out of 17 African-American supervisors within the Federal government. The Great Migration began in 1916, with many African-Americans  moving out of the rural southern United States. 1919 unfortunately saw the "Red Summer", with many race riots. To quote W.E.B. DuBois's poem "Returning Soldiers":
We return. We return from fighting. We return fighting. Make way for Democracy! We saved it in France, and by the Great Jehovah, we will save it in the United States of America, or know the reason why.Not all states allowed women to vote in the 1910s - prior to 1910 only four did. Voting rights were inconsistent - none in some states, presidential elections only in others, primaries, in others, etc. It wasn't until 1920 that the passage of the 19th Amendment granted women nationwide full voting rights.

The technology isn't radically different but there are some highlights. There is no consumer radio. The best that can be done for portable music is the 78 rpm disc record - often no more than 3 minutes in length per side. The automobile is present but not to the dominant levels that the 1920s will see. Movie studios began moving from New York to California in the 1910s. Longer films ("feature length") came to prominence in this decade and it was the 1910s that saw actors getting credit for their roles.

This is a stream of consciousness post so it's hard to think of a good way to close, as I jump from topic to topic. But one thing which comes to mind - Americans loved to drink. As I've been diving through 1910s Boston Globe issues on line, I've been seeing a lot of advertisements for beer and spirits - some on the front page. Some fortification is probably in order before facing a shoggoth...

Photo Credit - Tremont Street, Boston, circa 1910. Boston Public Library.

Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Introducing Cthulhu Boston: 1914

Mon, 11/12/2018 - 03:38

After mulling over a few options for gaming this autumn and winter, I'm kicking off a game set in Boston of 1914. The First World War has been in the news a lot lately, with today being the centennial of the armistice. I came across a quote by Lt. Colonel William Murray which struck me - "No more horrors. No more mud and misery. Just everlasting peace."

I don't plan on setting the bulk of the game in Europe. It is set in Boston. Here in the United States we sat out much of the war, joining it in spring of 1917 and not being in Europe in earnest until near the end of the conflict.

I've been looking through old newspapers - our game will be starting on June 29, 1914 - the day after the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife. It is noteworthy that while this was certainly seen as a major event, there was no clue that the spark which would ignite the world into war had just gone off. You see that in the papers over the next few days, with the story fading until the saber-rattling began to get obvious.

I've been doing a lot of research on Boston of the 1920s for my regular Call of Cthulhu game. I was surprised how much the years prior to the 1920s caught me. It's not that the 1920s in Boston were boring - far from it. But the 1910s spoke to me - screamed at me really, with ideas for adventures. Physically, Boston was "under construction", with elevated trains and subways rapidly expanding. A story about a fish weir being discovered in 1913 as part of the construction of the Boylston Street Tunnel caught my eye - .Deep Ones perhaps?

Boston was also home to a lot of political unrest, with Boston being a hotbed of the anarchist movement.

As the timeline moves forward I've a number of ideas. My initial inclination was, should the game make it to 1917, have the characters spend some time in Europe. That's still on the table, but I've also been learning about the home front and there was a lot going on, with America rapidly mobilized - and not welcoming dissent at all, with the remnants of John Adams' Alien and Sedition Acts being re-weaponized. Not everyone was caught up in the draft, with many eligible Americans being viewed as essential on the home front. Could not investigators find themselves recruited into investigating why Innsmouth is ignoring the draft?

I've a number of inspirations for this era. First, I need to point out Dennis Lehane's novel, The Given Day, set in post-World War 1 Boston. It covers the Influenza Epidemic, the Molasses Flood, anarchist terrorism, and climaxes with the Boston Police Strike of 1919. From a non-fiction perspective, I've been slowly working my way through David Kennedy's Over Here: The First World War and American Society. It's a little dry at points, but it gives a nice overview of World War 1 America. I managed to snag the six-volume Our Times by Mark Sullivan, written in the 1930s and covering America from the 1890s to the the 1920s. It's a bit too long for me to commit to reading from start to finish but I'm finding it a nice reference with a contemporary perspective, giving insight as to what the people who lived through the era considered important. I've also been raiding the Images of America series - for example, Boston's Red Line: Bridging the Charles from Alewife to Briantree is loaded with inspiration. A picture of a house literally being moved to make room for the digging of a subway tunnel gave me an idea for an adventure. Way back in 1996 I watched the PBS/BBC production The Great War and the Shaping of the 20th Century. It's never been made available for streaming or DVD, tough two years ago I stumbled across a DVD version of questionable legality.

As far as official materials for the RPG go, it's a fairly untapped era. Chaosium did do a single adventure, No Man's Land. Pelgrane Press has a number of Great War adventures for Trail of Cthulhu that could conceivably be adapted. And there are a lot of 1920s scenarios that could be moved a decade earlier without any ill effect. I do have a bit more free time than I did a few months ago, allowing me to flex my creative muscles a bit more than I have in quite some time.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Summary of my 1920s Call of Cthulhu Campaign

Mon, 10/29/2018 - 00:31

Going over my notes I'm a little surprised to discover I've had a Call of Cthulhu campaign that's reached a decent length. It seemed reasonable for my own purposes to summarize and it might be of interest to others... The more recent adventures have writeups at this site, the older ones have rougher writeups I might post at some point.

No Man's Land Parts 1-2Setting: October 2-4, 1918; Argonne ForestInvestigators:  Radford Brown, Jonathan Clark, Eli Cornish, Antonio Manzi, Fredrick Tardiff 
American soldiers vs. Illoigor
Under the BlackSetting: January 19-20, 1919; Boston and ArkhamInvestigators: Radford Brown, Jonathan Clark, Eli Cornish, Pietro Gorgonza, Antonio Manzi, Kirk Schroeder (RIP), Fredrick Tardiff
The Great Molasses Flood provides slays a cultist and unleashes out of control Dark Spawn.
The House on the EdgeSetting: March 21-24, 1919; KingsportInvestigators: Radford Brown (RIP), Eli Cornish, Pietro Gorgonza, Antonio Manzi, Fredrick Tardiff
A mystical house is occasionally on the edge of the bluff over Kingsport.

The Trail of Zhothaqquah Parts 1-2Setting: April 1-May 5, 1919; GreenlandInvestigators: Bjorn Ericsson (RIP), Pietro Gorgonza (Retired), Antonio Manzi (Retired), Grant Oil, Fredrick Tardiff 
A sanity-blasting adventure in Greenland tracking an ancient civilization.
The Haunted Landscape of Ka'toriSetting: June 15-20, 1920; Kingsport and the planet Ka'toriInvestigators: Grant Oil (Retired), Fredrick Tardiff
A painting contains a gate leading to another planet.
The Art of Madness Parts 1-2Setting: December 1, 1920; BostonInvestigators: Earl Crowley, Jordaine Furst, Fredrick Tardiff
Students and a professor go missing from the Boston Museum of Fine Arts leading to the discovery of a city of ghouls beneath Boston.
Tell Me, Have You Seen the Yellow Sign Parts 1-3Setting: January 28 - February 5, 1921; Boston, New Orleans, and surrounding areasInvestigators: Earl Crowley, Jordaine Furst, Fredrick Tardiff
The investigators confront a cult dedicated to bringing the King in Yellow to our world.
One in Darkness Parts 1 - 2Setting: April 20-21, 1921; BostonInvestigators: Earl Crowley (Retired), Jordaine Furst, Fredrick Tardiff (Retired)
The investigators help the police dealing with the Crimson Gang

The Spawn Parts 1 - 2
Setting: June 20 - July 2, 1921; Copperstown, New MexicoCharacters: Jordaine Furst, Dora Martin (RIP), Liam Maguire
A labor dispute in Copperstown is revealed to conceal underground horrors. Note - I've not had an opportunity to do the writeup for part 2. In brief, they escaped from the mansion with the help of servants. Professor Freeborn took them to a dig which revealed the threat - underground beings (known as Cthonians in the literature but never referred to as such in the adventure). They also learned of the need to use water to defeat them. They were able to do this but in the process Dora and Jose fell in battle.

Cast of CharactersWe've been playing for a while, with some characters who were only in one or two adventures. Going as far back as 1920 they are:
  • Earl Crowley - Antiquarian from Arkham. Retired after nearly going insane upon meeting a minor avatar of Nyarlathotep.
  • Jordaine Furst - Young woman from the Alsace-Lorraine region of France. Spy during the Great War against the German Empire.
  • Liam Maguire - Former Boston police officer turned private detective after losing his job when all striking police officers were fired in 1919. 
  • Dora Martin - Investigative reporter. Died in battle with Cthonians.
  • Grant Oil - Low-level troublemaker from Harlem. Served in the Great War. Showed talent as a librarian and researcher. Spent some time as a librarian in Arkham. Returned home to Harlem with his sanity intact.
  • Fredrick Tardiff - Artist. Longest survivor of the original group which assembled in France during the Great War. Has settled in Boston after initial residence in Kingsport. His studio serves as an unofficial headquarters. Retired after sensing his luck had just about run out after encountering a minor avatar of Nyarlathotep.
ThoughtsLooking at this summary, that's about sixteen sessions of play, plus some time for character generation and other tasks. It certainly pales in comparison to eight decade long Pendragon epics but I'm pleased with how it's gone. We've done other games - including other Cthulhu campaigns - thrown in with this but the classic era does seem always fun to come back to.
It's interesting to see how deadly a game Call of Cthulhu is - a lot of fatalities and a lot of characters forced to retire. Most of our adventures have been either in Lovecraft Country or Boston, with occasional sojourns to New Mexico, France, and Greenland.
Categories: Tabletop Gaming Blogs

Banned in Boston and the Cthulhu Mythos

Sun, 10/21/2018 - 23:42

While Boston has a modern reputation as a liberal bastion (though it pales next to its neighbor, the People's Republic of Cambridge), embedded in its history is a strong undercurrent of conservatism. One example of this is the crusade launched by Anthony Comstock and embraced the New England Watch and Ward Society. Under this regime, books, plays, films, music, etc. of objectionable moral character would be banned in Boston.

Some of the works banned in Boston include:

  • Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman
  • The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
  • Oil! by Upton Sinclair
  • Strange Interlude by Eugene O'Neill
  • Strange Fruit by Lillian Smith
  • A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway
When I was a kid, the Howard Johnson's restaurant chain was still popular, though by the 1990s they were undergoing a rapid decline and the chain no longe exists today. However, its initial success is due to the Banned in Boston movement - in 1929 the play Strange Interlude being unable to be performed in Boston so it relocated to nearby Quincy. The play was five hours long with a dinner break intermission. Across the street from the theatre it was performed in was the first Howard Johnson's restaurant - giving it a massive boost.
One thing I find myself wondering is what this movement would mean for the tomes of the Cthulhu Mythos. One can certainly say these tomes are of objectionable material. Now the Watch and Ward Society was primarily concerned with in-print works and ongoing productions, so it's unlikely they would visit Brattle Book Shop to search for copies of the Necronomicon. At least the core of the organization would not be likely to.
I could see members of the organization using it as a pretense to finding such tomes - a bit like the Bookhounds of London campaign for Trail of Cthulhu. Perhaps they are cultists trying to find such tomes. Perhaps they are player investigators trying to keep humanity safe from such works. Perhaps someone like Henry Armitage from Arkham feeds the organization information about such books.
Neil Miller's book Banned in Boston: The Watch and Ward Society's Crusade against Books, Burlesque, and the Social Evil, pictured at the top of this post, is a great resource for this activity and a good glimpse of late 19th century and early 20th century Boston. Obviously it doesn't delve into the Cthulhu Mythos...

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Hooray, I Have Time for a New Campaign

Thu, 10/18/2018 - 02:03

The past few months and years have been busy and I'm finally starting to see things loosening up. I've completed my last graduate class and endured a mercifully brief bout of unemployment.

I'm at the point of feeling able to actually plan out a bit more ambitious game. Most of my thoughts are in the Chaosium-family of games.

The most likely is probably a continuation of my ongoing Call of Cthulhu game, which began at the end of World War I and has reached mid-1921. I've some of the original players but, as is typical for Call of Cthulhu, none of the original characters are active. One is still around but after sanity and luck-blasting adventures, has retired from active adventuring. I've toyed with a global-spanning campaign like Masks of Nyarlathotep but find myself thinking a lot about focusing the game on Boston - certainly with forays into the wider world as appropriate.

Frustrated with the lack of an official Boston supplement for Call of Cthulhu, I've been doing a ton of research on Boston of the early 20th century and I'd like to start putting that to use.

In the back of my mind is actually something a little bit earlier. The latter half of the 1910s were rather eventful for Boston, with events like a police station blown up, a molasses flood, and a police strike. Cthulhu Dark with its focus on the downtrodden seems a possible tool for such a game.

Leaving the world of Cthulhu I've been thinking about other settings. Pendragon has long been on my bucket-list. I find myself wondering if I could pull off a multigenerational game ranging from Uther's reign to the death of King Arthur. One of my kids has joined us and she is fascinated by paganism, giving me ideas on focusing on the different religions of the era.

There's a few possible twists to that idea. Escaping from the legend of King Arthur but keeping the same rules set is Paladin, set during the reign of Charlemagne. One could keep the Arthurian setting but lighten up the rules with the Prince Valiant game - a game I recently picked up and am fascinated by. As a kid, I remember my grandfather and the funny pages. He loved Dick Tracy and Prince Valiant.

Going for a totally fictional setting lies a final option, adventure in the world of Glorantha. The new RuneQuest borrows a lot from Pendragon, with passions, family lineages, etc. It makes for a more mythic experience than previous versions of the game in my opinion.
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Remembering Greg Stafford

Sat, 10/13/2018 - 21:58

Greg Stafford passed away on October 11, 2018.

He was a giant in the gaming industry. He created the world of Glorantha. He founded Chaosium and Issaries. He created or co-created countless role-playing, board, and computer games. Among these are RuneQuest, Ghostbusters, Prince Valiant, Pendragon, and HeroQuest. He helped boil down RuneQuest into its essentials, creating the Basic Role-Playing game. As head of Chaosium, he published the first Call of Cthulhu RPG and made the decision to publish Mythos fiction.

That's an amazing resume. So many of his games are noteworthy. Ghostbusters, written by Chaosium for West End Games, was the origin of the D6 System which went on to power Star Wars - and was a superb game in its own right. RuneQuest was a new way of looking at fantasy RPGs, being entirely skill-based, with no character classes or levels. It is most people's introduction to Glorantha, a world infused with myth and magic. Pendragon was unique in being a generational game - in a successful game, your knight would die and you would take over with his heir. And with his grandchild in all probability.

He was also responsible, together with Sandy Petersen, for the Chaosium renaissance of the past several years, returning to take back ownership of it. It was through these efforts that Call of Cthulhu 7th edition was finally released as well as RuneQuest returning to Chaosium after a long journey away from it.

In the 1980s, it was difficult for me to get ahold of RPGs. I always loved games from Chaosium. It was like unearthing a treasure trove. I always enjoyed his personal web page, where he wrote of his history in the gaming industry.

I can't claim to have met with him and I don't believe I ever corresponded with him - unless he participated in a message board thread I was involved in. But he played a huge role in my favorite hobby and through his efforts brought me and so many others countless hours of enjoyment. He took us beyond searching for treasure and into worlds of heroism and myth.

Greg Stafford was a practicing shaman and I'll close with a quote of his from Pagan Paths - "In Shamanic activity the mythic is experienced, and the impossible can be felt.We must be prepared to feel the impossible."

Thanks Greg for all the myths.

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Meditations on Lankhmar Gaming

Fri, 10/12/2018 - 01:52

I recently took my backer draft copy of the DCC Lankhmar set out for a few adventures. It's been fun - I find DCC to be a pretty good system for the setting.

This got me thinking of my own history with Lankhmar - an experience which, judging by articles and interviews, is similar to DCC Lankhmar author Michael Curtis'. I first encountered Nehwon, the world of Lankhmar, in the pages of AD&D's 1st edition Deities and Demigods. It gave stats for Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, the gods of Nehwon, various creatures, and gave an extremely high level overview of some of the organizations to be found there. It also mentioned the books these stories could be found in. Books I could not find.

A few years later TSR came out with a Lankhmar: City of Adventure supplement for AD&D. I loved it - a guide to Lankhmar and Nehwon. Lots of new rules for PCs. Looking back it did have the oddity of re-skinning white magic to be clerical magic and black magic to be standard magic-user magic. It greatly hobbled such characters with much longer casting times. But I really liked the idea of a low-magic setting for adventurers. Unfortunately I still couldn't find the darn books.

In the 1990s White Wolf began publishing hardcover editions of the Lankhmar novels. I was finally able to read the books. I did indeed enjoy them for the most part - they were uneven, with some fantastic stories and some that were... ok. Overall I really enjoyed them. I was pretty spoiled from having read the TSR sourcebooks but I still enjoyed the reading. I was a bit surprised by some heavy doses of BDSM in some of the stories. I think, overall, I enjoyed the fun the two had in their adventures - and misadventures. They messed up a lot - they lost their trueloves while they were making a drunken raid on the Thieves' Guild. There was an undercurrent of the protagonists doing what they wanted to be doing, something I didn't always find in swords and sorcery fiction.

Lankhmar has a bit of a mixed record in RPGs. I liked the AD&D Lankhmar, especially for non-magic characters. When Mongoose Publishing had the RuneQuest license they published some Lankhmar material. I think RuneQuest is a great fit for Lankhmar but I found the Mongoose lacking in quality. Pinnacle has done a series of Lankhmar books for Savage Worlds - I'm not intimately familiar with them but they seem to be of good quality.

Overall, I probably consider DCC and RuneQuest the best possible matches for Lankhmar. DCC is awfully close to what I'd consider the perfect system for Lankhmar out of the box - it doesn't require extensive modification. It does include rules for luckier and more bad-ass characters, dispensing with the zero-level funnel. It also makes it easier for characters to heal without the benefit of clerics. Adventures are designed for parties of varying sizes, including very small parties of two or three characters, very much in keeping with the setting.

There's a few things that I've found a bit rough with DCC Lankhmar. It's been a lot harder on PCs than I'd've expected. There's been no fatalities yet but some pretty major/permanent style injuries. The rules do have some options for a bit less deadly game. I'd glossed over them, deciding to try the rules as written, but I think should we do some more adventures I might try them out.
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Fiction Review: The War of the Worlds

Tue, 10/09/2018 - 21:35

My first encounter with H.G. Wells' classic The War of the Worlds was as a broadcast of the 1950s film version of it - on WPIX Channel 11 in New York I believe. I later read the novel for a high school book report and greatly enjoyed. It remains a favorite of mine to this day - every few years I find myself rereading it.

The novel tells of the invasion of then-modern England - the suburbs around London in the late 19th century - by Martians. It is told by an unnamed narrator, a journalist by trade, and how he and his wife dealt with the invasion. It also gives a view of the invasion in London from the perspective of the narrator's brother, a medical student.

The Martians arrive in meteor-like cylinders which serve as small bases of operations for their invasion. The Martians march across the landscape on nimble tripods. These tripods carry various weapons - most notably a heat ray and "black smoke" projectors - a type of poison gas. Red weeds from Mars proliferate wherever they go. We also get glimpses of the Martians themselves as they toil under Earth's greater gravity. We learn the Martians do not eat but rather exist in a vampiric existence - taking nutrition by blood transfusions - and they have a taste for human blood it seems.

We see the British army confidently standing up to the Martians - and getting their collective arses kicked. We see civilian populations fleeing as the invaders approach -  with many dying from poison gas. These types of scenes that would become all too common in the real-world wars that were to come.

There are moments of heroism. British artillery manages to bring down one tripod and in the Thames, H.M.S. Thunderchild boldly rams a tripod, allowing refugees to escape - and providing a name for a starship in Star Trek. But for the most part the British military and civilians don't stand much a chance. The narrator is trapped in a house partially destroyed by a cylinder landing for two weeks, much of that time spent with a curate he comes to despise. He also meets a surviving artilleryman who concocts bold yet unpractical plans for generations of resistance. In the end the Martians are defeated by bacteria - it's not that they have no immunity to Earth's bacteria specifically but rather they have no immunity to any bacteria.

Why do I find the novel so appealing? I find it offers a lot - and what one gets out of it in one reading may be different from other readings. There are many mysteries to it - and finding one's own answers can be part of the appeal. Why, for example, is the invasion centered around London? Did the invaders recognize the United Kingdom as the primary world power and decide to knock it out first? What sort of commentary is intended? For example, what is to make of the negative portrayal of the curate and the animosity the narrator feels towards him?

The novel is a great source of inspiration. It's been adopted as a famous radio play and has had multiple movies made about it - my favorite easily being the classic 1950s one. And there have been numerous expansions of it. Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen has a storyline taking place around the invasion and dives into the Martian biological vulnerabilities. There is a great Elseworlds Superman story which features Superman facing up against the Martians. They appear in various RPGs. Chaosium has included them in one of my favorite 6th edition supplements, Malleus Monstrorum. There really is something Lovecraftian about uncaring aliens that invade the Earth and view humanity not with hate but rather as a food source. Golden Age Champions makes stopping the Martian invasion of 1938 a potential storyline to bring about a superhero team.

I think Wells would like his creation being used in RPGs, considering he created one of the first (if not the first) wargames, Little Wars.
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Actual Play: The Madhouse Meet

Mon, 09/10/2018 - 01:48

With my degree pursuit entering the home stretch, posting has been pretty anemic. But I wanted to give a very brief write-up of our first adventure playing with DCC Lankhmar. This is our playing of The Madhouse Meet from the 2016 Free RPG Day book from Goodman Games. 
Cast of Characters:
  • الموت (Almawt) - Daughter of Lankhmarts who settled in the Eastern Lands. Abandoned her designated role as a squire to study magic under Sheelba of the Eyeless Face. 
  • Ганзориг (Ganzorig) - Unlucky and dim-witted Mingol warrior, deadly with his battle axe. Challenge to speak with given his lack of speaking the common Low Lankhmarese. 
  • Phlegm - Lankhmar-native. Smuggler, independent thief who has reached an accommodation with the Thieves' Guild of Lankhmar.

The trio did not meet in a tavern. They were however all captured from the same tavern, the Heavy Lion, in the slums near the Marsh Gate of the Temple Quarter. The wizard Tulmakiz had been experimenting on transients in the slums but he needed some heartier subjects for his foul experiments. He drugged the drinks of Almawt, Ganzorig, and Phlegm and had his hairless goons drag their unconscious bodies to his base, a long-abandoned insane asylum.
Almawt and Ganzorig awoke in the same cell, chained to the walls - Almawt, identified as a wizard, was also gagged. As was her familiar, a psuedodragon. A goon fed them some gruel and departed - with the wizard Tulmakiz watching.
Ganzorig was able to break them free of their chains and bash the door open. Though they could barely understand one another, they clearly had a common purpose - escape. They wandered their way past vacant cells into their jailor's quarters - they caught him by surprise and were able to slay him - Ganzorig wielding his chains as weapons and Almawt invoking deadly icy magic missiles.
Before working their way upstairs they encountered the thief Plegm who had also been making his escape. They also found their weapons and other gear in their jailor's quarters.
Upstairs they explored, defeating a cook, a goon, and looting Tulmakiz's quarters. They found Tulmakiz in his laboratory, planning to do all manner of vile experiments upon them. After defeating him, his nearby guards fled, though they did need to do battle with a final quartet of guards who blocked their passage to the smelly streets of Lankhmar's slums.
Though they'd met through misfortune, it had been a profitable meeting. Perhaps it would be worth adventuring together in the future.
Loot of Note
  • Silver smerduks - 127
  • Gold Rilks - 132
  • Eevamarensee Green Coins - 11, worth 20 gold rilks each
  • Silver Thieves' Guild Dagger
  • Parchment written to the Overlord's Chief of Spies detailing the movements of the minor noble Baron Nayari
  • Scrolls detailing Eevamarensee pain sorcery, including Mouse's Painful Suffering
  • Four vials of Eevamarensee slumber powder - contact or ingested, DC 15 Fortitude save of sleep 2d6 hours
  • Healing ungent
  • Three vials of Eevamarensee liquid fire

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