Machine King Lives!

Following on from the post earlier in the week … Cthulhu Reborn are delighted to announce that our fifth freebie PDF book — Geoff Gillan’s mind-blowing “The Machine King” — is now available for download. Scroll down to the bottom of this announcement for links (or if you’re impatient, just jump across to our Downloads page)

Machine King - Front Cover Mockup C

This book has been a long time in the making: the scenario was first written by Geoff back in 1995 and we have been working with him since April last year to revise the original text, give it a thorough editorial treatment and commission some art which realises the grand and imaginative vision of the scenario. For this latter task we were extremely fortunate in securing the talents of Cinthya Álvarez (aka CinTheBarbarian) whose moody portraits and depictions of mechanical monstrosities perfectly complements the themes in Geoff’s writing.

Although “The Machine King” was always envisaged as a freebie release, in terms of production values, we have treated it with exactly as much attention to detail as we would apply to a commercial release and we’re very pleased with the visual look that Cinthya’s amazing art has allowed us to achieve.

Machine King - The Cog Wheel Machine III (Cynthia)

In his Geoff’s author intro to “The Machine King”, Geoff describes the curious path by which this “musty old work” has finally made its way to publication:

For once when I say musty it is not hyperbole. The manuscript was feared lost when most of the contents of my home were destroyed back in the Wollongong floods of 1998. Since it was written years before, for a Chaosium Dreamlands book that never got beyond the planning stages, the typescript was the sole copy. After the flood cleanup it could not be found. I felt its loss quite keenly since unusually among my own works, I actually liked it. Years passed and my friend and brother in law, Martin Knight was clearing out his garage and found a garbage bag full of stuff from my flood cleanup. The cleanup had been a frantic drive to claw up as much as could be salvaged since we were warned by the cops that looters would be by as soon as the premises were left unattended. Boxes and bags were packed up and went in all directions. In the garbage bag were a bunch of my old manuscripts, still stinking of river mud but essentially intact. I rejoiced that some lost material had been found, but being then in the middle of yet another house move, I boxed it all up in an airtight container and promptly forgot about it.

Skip forward another decade and I was contacted by Dean who wanted to bring to life an old adventure of mine, The Past Is Doomed. I let him loose and in the process gained not just an editor and colleague but a good friend. As you all probably know Dean has an insatiable hunger for old Chthloid scribblings and is probably more to be pitied than shunned—in this spirit, when he asked me if I had more from the old days, I began to wonder. Was Machine King, the unwanted Dreamlands scenario still around? Could it be that Martin, ironically one of its original playtesters, had salvaged it unknowingly from the river muck? I had a vague feeling it was among those papers but it had been so long I could not honestly remember. So I rummaged through the papers in my current house in Brisbane and there after much digging in all the wrong boxes was a clean Manila envelope with an ancient manuscript inside. Also there were all the notes and photocopies of steam-age illustrations that had inspired it …


Machine King - Handout 2 - advertisement grey fx2

You can download your own ABSOLUTELY FREE copy of “The Machine King” using the links below. The difference between the two versions is simply that the “Printer-Friendly” version omits background textures and the ornate borders around text boxes to make them a little less “ink hungry”. Both versions are 65 Page full-production PDFs with colour covers and greyscale book interiors. Each PDF is a 17MB download.

As always with all content that published here on Cthulhu Reborn, this is provided as a copyrighted file but freely distributable under a Creative Commons license. That means basically, you can do whatever you want with this material … except make money out of it. In case it isn’t obvious, the copyright holder here is Geoff Gillan & Dean Engelhardt for the text and layout.

On a personal note, I would really like to thank Geoff for working with us so closely to adapt his remarkable adventure via the addition of a considerable amount of content, and also the re-imagining of the story in a different setting (the Gaslight era rather than the 1920s assumed by the 1990s Chaosium book). Thanks also to Andy Miller for his excellent work doing copy-editing for this book!

Preview: The Machine King

Machine King - Front Cover Mockup CWell, the good news is that it’s “Full Steam Ahead” on finishing up our next freebie CoC Scenario for release here on Cthulhu Reborn. As announced a little while back Geoff Gillan’s “The Machine King” is an absolute (almost) lost classic, written by one of the games most loved writers … so of course we are excited about the fact that we will be publishing it. Hopefully within the next week.

In the interests of providing loyal readers of the blog with a few “sneak peeks” at this book before its release, I’ve put a few (hopefully spoiler-free or at least spoiler-light) snippets from the book layout below. Readers of Geoff’s previous scenario work for Call of Cthulhu (e.g., his pivotal work on “Horror on the Orient Express” or his often-cited war scenario “Regiment of Dread”, and our own “The Past Is Doomed”) will know that his stories are always packed to bursting with imaginative and dark ideas. If you’ve been lucky enough to read his published fiction (e.g., his wonderful, yet hard-to-find fantasy novel “Envious Gods”) you’ll know that this frenzied and vivid tone is something they too share. So, it’s no surprise that “The Machine King” is darkly baroque, offbeat, extravagant occasionally whimsical — all the things that define classic Gillan.

It starts with a horrifying dream vision (here depicted by commissioned art from the talented Cinthya Álvarez)

Machine King sample 03… and if the Investigators cannot put a stop to the bizarre (and old) machinations behind the vision, they might be unlucky enough to witness some very odd mechanical intrusions into the real-world of Victorian London:

Machine King Bomb Beast Compose 4

Scenario Summary

Here’s how the scenario is described in the (spoiler-free) blurb from the back cover:

A Mechanical Nightmare Awakens

Victorian London: Heart of the most industrialised empire the world has ever seen. A heart that pounds to the rhythms of steam hammers,  pistons, and whirring cogs.

Since the time of the Industrial Revolution over a century ago, London has been at the forefront of mechanisation. Every facet of life now brings men of all stations into daily contact with the coldly implacable machines which free them from the back-breaking labours of earlier generations.

The rise of the machines cemented Britain’s dominance over the world … but has it made men slaves to the very machines that were built to liberate them? And do the machines have their own cruel ambitions and dreams?

Curious reports have begun to circulate London claiming the impossible: machines have been witnessed acting on their own volition, attacking innocent men and women.
What strange power drives otherwise unremarkable lumps of cold metal to murder? What fuels the odd machine-haunted dreams that nightly plague hundreds of Londoners?

In a world ruled by machines . . . who rules the machines?

The Machine King

Page Layouts

To give you an idea of how the book design has turned out, below are a couple of page spreads from the finished layout (featuring more art from Cinthya Álvarez as well as my own humble map-work). Some text is blurred to avoid spoilers.

Machine King sample 28-29 blurred @150

Machine King sample 21

Machine King sample 36-37 blurred@150

Coming Soon: Geoff Gillan’s “Machine King”

When Cthulhu Reborn was created — way back in the mists of time (well, 2011 to be exact) — it’s principal mission was to be a vehicle for publishing high-quality, professionally-designed, and above all FREE material for Lovecraftian tabletop gaming. And while we’ve done a reasonable job at creating a few highly-regarded titles (see our downloads page for the full list), we would have to admit that it HAS been a while since we last released a freebie title. This isn’t a deliberate decision … lots of other stuff has kept the Cthulhu Reborn minions fully occupied for quite some time. It has always been our goal, though, to release more free stuff under the Cthulhu Reborn imprint.

Today we are incredibly, INCREDIBLY happy to be announcing the next title in our line of free scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, Geoff Gillan’s incredible “almost lost work”, The Machine King.

Machine King - Front Cover Mockup C
The story behind this scenario’s long journey to publication is almost as convoluted as the tale itself. Originally commisioned in the mid 1990s by Lynn Willis for an abandoned Chaosium book of “alternative dreamlands” scenarios, Geoff’s sole copy of its typescript has certainly been through the wringer over the intervening years. Most notably it was believed for many years to have been destroyed when Geoff’s home in Wollongong was one of many inundated by damaging floodwaters in 1998. But you can’t kill a truly horrific Lovecraftian tale that easily … and thanks to some detective work worthy of a Spot Hidden check (or maybe a Rummage Through Garbage Bags check), the manuscript was rediscovered a year or so ago. Since then, Cthulhu Reborn has been working closely with Geoff to polish the original text, put it through several more rounds of editing, and finally commission some brand new custom art to do justice to the insane world described in Geoff’s scenario.

Machine King Scared_Woman_cinthebarbarian-d7redd6

All that work is now mostly finished: the text is locked down and proofed, the layout is complete and we are just waiting on a couple of pieces of final art … and then we will unleash “The Machine King” upon the world as a free, fully-illustrated, deluxe 64 page PDF. Fingers crossed for a late August or early September release date! We will be offering a few sneak peaks at the wonderful custom artwork (by long-time Cthulhu Reborn art department stalwart Cinthya A.) and page layouts … so … watch this space :)


From Russia With Menace

This post is perhaps a bit left-field for Cthulhu Reborn, but I figure that if there’s one thing that every reader of this blog wouldn’t mind hearing more about … it’s free stuff that can potentially be useful in enhancing Lovecraftian tabletop RPG sessions.

So, in the spirit of sharing links to (potentially) useful freebie things, I’m going to talk for a bit about a source for limitless FREE (and good) Dark Ambient music. Now I know the idea of using spooky or atmospheric music to “set the tone” for a gaming session is certainly nothing new. I have read lots of posts on forums over the years with recommendations for movie soundtracks and the like which would make great backdrops to a Cthulhu game gathering. Heck, there have even been a few commercial CDs specifically put out to accompany Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu books.

Over the years I’ve tracked down loads of excellent CDs and MP3s from artists in the curious musical sub-genre called “Dark Ambient” — it’s that sort of intersection of minimalistic background sounds with drony hypnotic sounds and general disturbing spookiness. I was even remarkably fortunate enough last year to see one of the geniuses of this style of music — Lustmord — perform live [here's a snippet of his live show on YouTube].

Anyway … up until recently, my collection of Dark Ambient music has been limited to what I could easily track down (and buy). But then, by chance I stumbled upon the existence of an incredible resource: a net-label called “GV Sound”. Now a net-label, for those who haven’t run into one before, is a kind of record label that exists only online and (usually) releases stuff for free. They are usually themed around a musical style or collection of styles, and the label adds value by only releasing things that are .. well up to their standards. So, grabbing music from one of these labels is much less hit-or-miss than just randomly downloading an MP3 released independently by “some random guy or girl”. But it’s still free music.

I don’t really know much about the “GV Sound” net-label except what it says on their website: “GV Sound Netlabel is open to Dark Ambient, Drone, Noise, Ambient Music.
We provide free distribution of independent Music under Creative Commons License with free dowloads.” The label seems to be based in either Russia or Ukraine, and a lot of the music it releases also seems to come from that part of the world, and has been releasing free music at a rapdily-increasing pace since 2011. At the time I write this they’ve clocked up 294 releases totalling over 2200 files (a little of 11 DAYS of music, of varying types of darkish ambientness).

If this sounds like your sort of thing, I would very much suggest scooting over to the Internet Archive ( which collects most of the GV Sound releases on this page. You can download ZIP versions of entire albums, or listen to the music online using an in-browser player supplied by If you just want to a quick sample of what this is about, maybe this page would give you a taste of what this label is all about. The same music is also available on other music sharing sites like Bandcamp. I’ve listened to just a fraction of what’s available for free … but I’m very impressed with the general quality. Releases vary in style across everything from pure drones to spooky piano pieces to noisy and disturbing soundscapes. Lots of it could be suitable for use in Lovecraftian games. Some of the track titles (at least the ones that aren’t in Cyrillic letters) seem to hint at Cthulhu-related inspiration to some of the music, too.

One of the more remarkable of the GV Sound releases was a compilation of different forms of Ambient music they put out to celebrate the numerologically signiciant date 11 November 2011 (11/11/11). This compilation runs for … well 24 hours, covering the entire day in 11 minute chunks. The “Light Side” half consists of 56 tracks and the “Night Side” half has 70. Quite an achievement.

On a related (but not quite freebie) note … I should also give a mention to another Cthulhu-related ambient musical artist, who has also released some great music intended to be either a background soundtrack to Lovecraftian games or just music to listen to while you read HPL’s fiction. The music is released under the name Seesar, and here’s a link to my favourite of his (their?) releases on Bandcamp.

So … I guess there’s no reason NOT to try to scare the bejeebus out of your players next time you gather together (in a darkened room) to roll the dice to save the world from the Great Old Ones. Save it for another week, anyway :-)


Nobody Wants A Hungry Shoggoth!

This just in.

Plucky American game designer and layout artist Badger McInnes has just launched a startling humanitarian fund raising drive … to FEED THE SHOGGOTH.

Yes, that’s right. Finally, the world will be uniting to FEED THE SHOGGOTH. Finally a cause that we can ALL get behind.

For many years scientists world-wide have slaved in vain, pouring coloured liquids from one test tube to another, in an effort to finally once and for all find the solution to ending global Shoggoth hunger. And now, finally, somebody is doing something about it! More power to you, Mr McInnes!

Or … maybe I am reading FAR TOO MUCH into Badger’s Kickstarter, launched today:

Either way … I would highly recommend anyone who is EITHER interested in high quality Cthulhu-themed card games OR interested in ensuring Shoggoths everywhere don’t need to go to sleep hungry tonight, check out Badger’s most excellent Kickstarter campaign. Some of the rewards at higher backing tiers look especially awesome, and unlike several other recent KS campaigns which I have opted out of, non-US postage is not insanely over the top!

Also … in related news … the inestimable Mr McInnes has just recently posted on his blog some neat details of the design work he did for Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition rules. If you have an interest in gaining an insight into the many, MANY little design decisions that go into producing a beautiful layout for a game book, you could do far worse than check out Badger’s blog.

That’s me, signing out … back to feed my pair of Welsh Highland Shoggoths before taking them on a walk to the albino penguin pits!

The Cat Is Out Of The Bag

I’ve mentioned previously on this blog that Cthulhu Reborn has been busy over the past year or so working on a range of different projects for Call of Cthulhu publishers. Well, guess what … one of them finally got released :-)

Cathulhu Cover (sml)

Cathulhu is a 68 page book from Sixtystone Press which offers a rather unique setting for Call of Cthulhu — one on which the players take on the roles of Feline Investigators, battling the forces of the Cthulhu Mythos with poise, elegance and velvet paws. It’s a pretty unusual little sub-universe for CoC gaming, but strangely one that actually quite works. I have to admit I was slightly skeptical … and then I read the scenario included in the book, and it all clicked into place. Ah, so … it’s just like a traditional investigation … only with cats and cat-related antagonists.

Anyway … my involvement with Cathulhu began almost a year ago when Sixtystone commissioned Cthulhu Reborn to design a character sheet for the book. From there it sort of snowballed until we ended up in the position of providing not only the entire book layout, both covers … and about 2/3rds of the interior art. In case you’re curious about how the book looks, I’ve put together a montage of a few randomly-chosen pages:

Cathulhu Layout Montage

Cathulhu is available right now from RPGNow and DriveThruRPG. You can buy it either as a PDF or a softcover book (or a bundle of the two).

BTW: you shouldn’t confuse this book with Call of Catthulhu, which is a non-BRP system from Faster Monkey Games for playing Lovecraftian-themed games with cat characters. That game, recently expanded via a successful Kickstarter, also looks good — but I prefer the Sixtystone book. I guess you’d expect that :-)

I hope that folks enjoy Sixtystone’s Cathulhu, and that people find the layout and art scheme we have chosen to be one which adds to the idiosyncratic “vibe” of the setting. And Catnip for all!

Making Brand New Antiques

The other day I promised to provide a few hints about projects that Cthulhu Reborn has been working on for different Call of Cthulhu publishers … and in a few days I hope to be able to provide a bunch of information about something special that I have been working on for Sixtystone, that is veeeeery close to being ready to go. The great thing about that project is that not only have I done some funky work on character sheet design … but Sixtystone have also trusted me to completely design the look of the book, create the layout and provide most of the art! Watch this space for more soon!

In the meantime, though, I thought I would talk a bit about something altogether different … I am working on a project for Chaosium (as yet unannounced, so I can’t say too much) that involves creating a mountain of prop documents with a “1920s Arkham, MA” feel to them. Readers of this blog will know that I’ve done lots of period props before … but the sheer scale of this particular job was quite astounding. Below is an example of the kind of thing that I have created.

New Antique Tut - 7 - Final

Doing a lot of this type of work in a short time frame has been quite an interesting experience, and it has really honed my skills at … well, at making brand new things that look like they are really old. Over time I have developed quite a selection of techniques for using digital tools — designed to make crisp and precise artworks — to make things that are not at all crisp or precise. I thought that folks might be interested in seeing how different techniques can come together to make something like the example above look old … so here’s a quick run-through of how I approach creating designs like this.

Although the techniques I mention below make particular reference to features in Adobe Illustrator (my tool of choice), I’m sure that most if not all of them are also available in other drawing packages. BTW: for all images shown on this page, you can click to see larger versions.

The first key design decision for prop documents is the choice of fonts … its usually pretty easy to find fonts that look vaguely period-specific, even using free fonts or the standard set that comes with modern Operating Systems. Usually I try to find a period-specific referemce image of the type of prop I’m designing, then pick fonts that are “close enough”. Here’s the “Burial or Removal Permit” prop in its raw form — just a bunch of text formatted with some vaguely 1920s-looking fonts:

New Antique Tut - 1 - PreTrackingWhile that already looks pretty reasonable, there are a few things that stop it looking truly vintage. One of the first things I like to do is to tweak the inter-character spacing in text (technically called the “tracking”) of the text. Modern fonts and computer typesetting seems to usually create text where the letters are quite tightly spaced, but old hand-set type was much, much looser — doubtless there’s some historical reason for this. Once you’re used to looking at true vintage typography, samples spaced in a “modern” way just jump out at you as non-authentic. Fortunately, modern drawing and typesetting tools give you a fair amount of control over a number of parameters (including tracking), so you can tweak away to create that wider-spaced look. Here’s a screenshot of Adobe Illustrator’s way of doing this:

New Antique Tut - 1a - Set Tracking

And here’s what our sample looks like with some wider character spacing for most of the text:

New Antique Tut - 2 - PreStrokeTo my eyes, this is already starting to look more like an old document. The next thing to address, though, is the crispness of the lettering — most fonts (and typesetting software) aim to create things that look crisp, but here we want something that looks a bit rough around the edges. One easy way we can make things look less crisp is by adding a stroke (basically a line) to the outside of the text. Adobe Illustrator lets you pick the width of the stroke as well as its colour, so you can achieve several different degrees of de-crisping:

New Antique Tut - 2a - Add Stroke

And here’s our prop with thin black outline strokes added to all the lettering.

New Antique Tut - 3 - PreRoughenSee how that beautiful crispness of the original typeset text has been grunged up a little? But we can go even further … Old typesetting methods were pretty error-prone: real-world offset type would pick up ink unevenly and if there was dust or other grime around the place it was pretty easy for lots of randomness to creep into the outline of letters. If you don’t believe me, go look at some scans of 1920s newspapers! Adobe Illustrator has a nifty way of similarly adding randomness to shapes — and thankfully also to lettering — by means of its “roughen” filter. This basically divides up a shape or letter outline into lots of small segments and randomly perturbs each one by an amount within a range you specify. Here’s how you can use it to add some randomness to our text:

New Antique Tut - 3a - Add Roughen

And here’s what the prop looks like with everything grunged up just a bit. This effect can easily go overboard, so it’s important to show some restraint (otherwise the text can get entirely unreadable) — here I am telling Illustrator that it can only perturb the outline of text by at most 0.1mm but that it can randomly shunt things around 79 spots per inch around the perimeter of the letter.

New Antique Tut - 4 - PreOpacityThe next thing I usually do to make text seem even more “indistinct” (in a vintage printing kind of way) is to give it a variable level of opacity to model the differing amounts of ink that were picked up by different parts of the type. While some letters will have picked up a whole bunch of ink, dust and grime will have caused other letters to pick up less than they should, and in extreme cases maybe left part of the letter entirely free of ink. We can digitally do something similar using my all-time favourite feature of Adobe Illustrator — the Opacity Mask. You can read detailed descriptions of what these are elsewhere I’m sure … but effectively Opacity Masks let you specify how see-through an object should be at different points across its surface by providing ANOTHER monochrome bitmap or shape (the mask). Wherever the mask is white, the original image will show through perfectly; where it’s grey it will show through partially, and where the mask is black the source image won’t be visible at all. When your mask looks like this:

New Antique Tut - 4a - Opacity Stress

you can create a subtle effect which makes you subconsciously see grimy old type instead of nice, new computer typeset type. You put the mask on top of the text you want to make grungy, select the two and tell Illustrator to go:

New Antique Tut - 4b - Make Opacity Mask

Here’s the result for our prop — it’s pretty subtle, but quite effective.

New Antique Tut - 5 - PreGlowThere’s still another way in which we can try to emulate some of the grungy effects of real-world printing. Depending on the type of paper being used, real-world samples tend to bleed a little bit around the edges (this happens even with inkjet printers a bit) — that makes the edges seem sort of a bit blurry or faded. We can model this using an “outer glow” effect in digital drawing tools. Here’s the same prop but with a small amount of black outer glow added to all text:

New Antique Tut - 6 - PrePaperNotice how this makes everything seem just slightly blurry … but in a way which looks like something printed a long time ago. Finally, we can add in some realistic paper texture to make things looks like a real-world document:

New Antique Tut - 7 - FinalWhen adding paper, I have found it is usually a good idea to make the text ever-so-slightly transparent (maybe setting opacity at 90%). That way, some of the paper texture still shows through even in the printed parts, and it generally looks more like a printed document instead of a piece of paper with some text perched in front of it.

And that’s our prop … I hope this brief tutorial walk-through of the vintage prop creation process is helpful or instructive to other designers and artists out there. I have used all of these techniques (sometimes separately, sometimes together) to create a LOT of different period props — when it works, they can look very convincing indeed! At least to my eyes . . .


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