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 (archive.org) 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 archive.org. 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 . . .


Gumbo Cthulhu: The Goblin’s Secret Recipe

It’s been pretty quiet here on Cthulhu Reborn … but as usual that isn’t a sign that we’re not working hard on Lovecraftian project but rather a sign that we’re TOO busy to find time to blog. Right now CR is working hard on multiple projects for Chaosium, something for Sixtystone and a project for Golden Goblin Press. On top of that we’ve been working in the background on some freebie projects for release here … and hope to make a big announcement on that front soon.

For now, though, I thought I would post a bit of information about the various commercial projects that will feature art or writing from us … starting with the excellent Tales of The Crescent City by Oscar Rios’ Golden Goblin Press.

Most folks would probably already know that Cthulhu Reborn was lucky enough to be involved with designing handouts/props for Golden Goblin Press’ first book, Island of Ignorance (which can be seen here … and downloaded in deluxe high-res format for free). Working on that book was a great experience, not least because the whole team — and Oscar in particular — was so damn enthusiastic and so devoted to making every aspect of the book the best it could POSSIBLY be. Ultimately that enthusiasm not only created an impressive book (which went on to win an award as Best Adventure published in 2013) but delivered it pretty much exactly to the original schedule. This is a feat which few Kickstarter projects EVER manage … and I’m very proud to have been a (small) part of the team which achieved it!

Obviously not content to rest on his laurels, Oscar is back again with a second Kickstarter, this time seeking to publish a book of scenarios set in 1920s New Orleans. And once again Cthulhu Reborn has been asked to contribute most of the handouts (some samples below).

Crescent City - Blood Lines 3a - French Journal from 1740s CTales of the Crescent City looks set to be another great book, and a project that I am very excited to be involved with for several reasons. For one, it takes as its template one of my favourite Call of Cthulhu scenario collections of recent years — Miskatonic River Press’ Tales of the Sleepless City. But maybe the biggest drawcard for me is that the New Orleans book revists one of my all-time favourite scenarios (by one of my all-time favourite writers): Kevin Ross’ 1989 adventure “Tell Me, Have You Seen The Yellow Sign.” Not only has Oscar somehow coaxed Kevin into writing a sequel adventure to this classic scenario of decadence and depravity, but as as stretch goal (already unlocked) he has arranged for Kevin to revise and remix the original scenario as well!

Crescent City - Blood Lines 2 - Family Tree E2 creasedI am really looking forward to really sinking my teeth into handout design for Tales of the Crescent City over the next couple of weeks … but in the meantime, the Kickstarter itself still has a few days to run (at the time I write this). So, if you are at all interested in Lovecraftian scenarios set on the crumbling streets and haunted environs of New Orleans … I’d suggest you definitely consider backing the project. While it funded within hours of going live, there are still additional stretch goals that will add even more scenarios … and that’s something that benefits all backers (including me! :-))


Look To The Future . . .

Welcome to 2014 … I hope it is all you want it to be.

The beginning of a new year is always a great opportunity to look back on everything that’s happened in the past 12 months … and for Cthulhu Reborn that has been a lot. We’ve launched our first commercial PDF product, run a series of interviews with some of the most influential Lovecraftian game designers, mapped out the evolution of Call of Cthulhu skills, created a family of insane handwriting fonts, and … er … a whole bunch of other stuff.

As always, more than half of what has kept us busy over 2013 is still in the pile marked “waiting to be released”, with our art, writing and design work currently upcoming in products from three or four different publishers, not to mention several projects we plan to release ourselves via this blog. It’s all rather dizzying in fact … but a good kind of dizzy (like when you’ve just finished your fifth Space Mead daiquiri). The pic below gives a few hints and teasers about things that are “coming soon” from Cthulhu Reborn, with a few other highlights from 2013 mixed in for good measure.

2013 Unreleased Sampler Montage


The Descent of Skills

(or more properly, “The Descent of Skills, and Selection in Relation to Call of Cthulhu)

So, the other day I was busy converting an old, old scenario across to work with one of the newer editions of the Call of Cthulhu rules. I’ve done this a few times and I am always amazed at how little change there has been to the core set of skills that Sandy Petersen dreamed up for the game over 30 years ago. In all that time, while there have been some additions and modifications to the set of non-combat skills, overall much more has stayed the same.

But, there are a couple of notable cases where things have just dropped off the radar completely … and one of these (Linguist) was something I stumbled across during my scenario conversion. That got me wondering … just how many tweaks and changes have there really been to the CoC skill set over the past 30 years? How many things have, like Linguist, sort of just disappeared never to be seen again. Curious, I embarked upon some research — pulling out a bunch of books and character sheets and lining them up against one another. Based on this I found I could draw up a nifty (if large) “family tree” for CoC skills, like this:

CoC Skill Family Tree(click on the image for a larger JPEG version)

Because it’s hard to see much detail when zoomed right out, here’s a close up section of the “family tree”:CoC Skill Family Tree (section2, sml)

So … what does this family tree say about the way in which Call of Cthulhu has evolved over the years? Well … I guess it largely confirms what I thought. There are a whole bunch of skills that are in the current edition (and even the forthcoming 7th edition) which hark all the way back to Sandy’s 1981 version of the game. A couple have gone through some minor but weird changes — who would have thought “Spot Hidden” was originally “Spot Hidden Object”? It used to be much easier to Dodge in 1st Edition CoC (base chance was DEX x 5 not DEX x 2).

How many things — other than Linguist — have gone the way of the Dodo? Well, not many really … Operate (other) died early on. Pick Pocket seems to died out with 5th Edition rules in 1992. A number of things have merged and changed name too.

I also discovered a few oddly persistant skills lurking somewhere around the periphery, occasionally dropping in and out. The weirdest one I noticed was Sailing: this was suggested in the 1920s Guidebook that came along with the 2nd Edition back in 1983, but never really made it onto any character sheets and was not carried into the 3rd Edition (1986). But in the same year, when the first Gaslight came out, Sailing was in there … but it dies out again when we come to 4th Edition (1989). Then, almost a decade later, Delta Green resurrects it again in both the core book (1997) and in Delta Green: Countdown (1999). Talk about a skill that just won’t give up and die!

Anyway … in case anyone has any use for this poster of the CoC Skill “family tree” … you can use either the larger image version obtained by clicking the image above. Or you can grab one of these PDFs:

  The Descent of Skills (as a single, gigantic page)

  The Descent of Skills (split over 12 pages, ideal substitute for wallpaper)


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