A Rum Bunch

Convicts & Cthulhu B&W Logo sml

This is our final “teaser” posting ahead of the release of Convicts & Cthulhu (which is still planned for sometime around June 1). This time around I thought I would provide a bit of an overview of exactly what era is covered in the book, and also what type of game resources we have included.

On the topic of exactly what constitutes the Convicts & Cthulhu “era” … while the era of convict transportation to the colonies of Australia covered quite a broad historical period (all the way from 1788 until the 1840s), we have chosen to concentrate on a much more specific time period, namely 1795-1810. This isn’t an arbitrary decision, but one made based on the fact that some rather unique events and alarming themes prevalent in this era make it an especially good setting for tales of darkness and evil.

Convicts & Cthulhu - Flinders Map

While there is a wealth of description in Convicts & Cthulhu, the early days of penal settlement in Australia can be summarised as an initial well-meaning plan which ran off the rails. Despite the fact that the entire idea of a prison settlement meant life was supposed to be hard (for the convicts at least) the first Governor of New South Wales, Arthur Phillip, was actually a somewhat enlightened and sympathetic man who aimed to run things as fairly as possible. Sadly, his tenure was cut short due to illness, leaving the colony somewhat unexpectedly in 1795. The speed of his departure created a problem … no successor had been appointed by the Colonial Office in Britain, thus the responsibility of running things fell to the heads of the military unit created to be gaolers to the convicts, the New South Wales Corps. As noted in the previous blog posting, these men were not especially capable and certainly not as highly principled as the departing Governor … so they did what any self-interested group would do when handed the power of government. They abused it, to make themselves extraordinarly wealthy.

The main way in which the corruption of the New South Wales Corps manifested was in their monopolistic practices and in particular the way in which they insisted on controlling the importation (and also price) of Rum, a popular commodity and trade good. Owing to a lack of coinage in the early colony, Rum was also a commodity that was used as a de facto currency, so controlling its price meant that the military could basically manipulate the “Rum Economy” to their benefit. The practice was not condoned by the Colonial Office back in England, who sent out a series of official Governors charged specifically with cracking down on this practice; but like any good cartel, the New South Wales Corps weren’t going to give up their cash cow without a fight. In the end this rising tension — inflamed by the extraordinary abrasiveness of Governor Bligh — led to actual insurrection, the military coup which is today called the “Rum Rebellion” of 1808. It wasn’t until order was restored two years later that things started on a more predictable and reasonable march towards Australia’s colonies becoming fully-fledged “civilised settlements.”

Convicts & Cthulhu - Illo D7

But who wants to set their tale of dark deeds and madness from beyond the stars in a time of law and order when there’s a decade of corruption and lawlessness on offer? Hence our decision to focus on this part of Australia’s convict history …

Before I sign off, I also wanted to share some information about what we have included in the 96 pages of Convicts & Cthulhu and how you might use it to kickstart a Convict era campaign. Here’s the Table of Contents:

Convicts & Cthulhu - Contents

As you’ll note we have tried to include all the normal sorts of things you might find in a Call of Cthulhu sourcebook, adapted for the setting … (so  much less focus on musty old tomes and libraries, and much more on eerie and remote places which have remained untouched since the dawn of time). We’ve deliberately aimed to support lots of different investigator roles — sure, some people will love to play convicts, but you can also play guards or settlers. Or if you are really adventurous you can also play an Aboriginal investigator. The book includes one complete scenario and six detailed scenario seeds (sort of like “Tales of Terror” from The Unspeakable Oath; horrific situations with multiple different Mythos explanations). There exists a much more epic Convicts & Cthulhu scenario, but that will appear in a later publication …

Of course, once Convicts & Cthulhu is in your hands we would also love to see other people contribute to the setting — the book will be released (like most things here on Cthulhu Reborn) under a Creative Commons license, so you can do whatever you like with it as long as you don’t ask for money.

Anyway … back to creating the last few pieces of art for Convicts & Cthulhu … watch this space for a download link in the near future!


Genesis of the Convicts

Convicts & Cthulhu B&W Logo sml

Good news on the Convicts & Cthulhu front — layout is nearing completion, which means that we now have a final page count for the book. It will be a 96 page freebie, making it the most ambitious project we have undertaken (either free or paid). There’s still some work to be done redrawing maps etc, so I am still estimating a release date around June 1.

Given that it’s going to be out pretty darned soon, I figure I should provide a few more details about what this book aims to cover and how it come into existence. While I would love to be able to say that it was my brilliant idea to write something about the dark dealings of the Cthulhu Mythos in the convict colonies of Australia, that would be a complete fabrication. In fact it was Geoff Gillan who first approached me with the idea when I was running a project to create a book of Call of Cthulhu scenarios set in unusual eras of Australia’s short but lurid history. Geoff has a university degree in history, so he is always surprising me with amazing things about the past — in this case his first suggestion was to create a scenario or campaign revolving around the Rum Rebellion of 1808.

Now … for those of you who aren’t that familiar with the early history of Australia, let me summarise the fairly dark and scurrilous circumstances which led to the first European settlement on the Australian continent. It all came about because of two things that happened in the 1770s — the first was the discovery by England of the surprisingly fertile eastern coast of Australia; the second was the rather unsporting decision taken by Britain’s colonies in America that they would (thank you very much) really prefer to be independent. The first was important because until then the only parts of the Australian landmass that Europeans had encountered were not the sort of places they were enthusiastic about colonising. The second was important because the loss of the British colonies in America meant the end of the practice of transporting convicted criminals to serve sentences in America (a system that had proved successful in alleviating some of the crowding in London’s slums as well as removing “undesirables” from England althogether).

With the discovery of the fertile eastern coastline (dubbed “New South Wales” by Cook, its discoverer), Britain had a ready-made spot where it could continue to export all its less-than-upstanding citizens that fell afoul of the law. There are a number of common misconceptions about transportation: one is that those who were sent out to the Australian colonies were the very worst of the criminals. In fact, criminals who were convicted of *really* bad things like murder were much more likely to simply be executed in Britain … those who were sent out to Australia were more like petty thieves, those convicted of prostitution, or similar crimes. But this still constituted a very large number of rather shady characters. Another misconception is that everyone who came to the early Australian colonies was a criminal — in fact, right from the beginning the convict population only comprised about a third of the people in the colony. There were many, many military gaolers and almost as many free settlers (folks who saw the new colony as a chance to farm the land).

Convicts & Cthulhu page montage

In setting up the early colony, one of the hardest things was trying to find people who wanted to serve as its military gaolers. After all, the chance of being sent halfway around the world to look after a bunch of reprobate criminals was hardly the kind of assignment that many people would find an excellent career move. So, as a result the calibre of military personnel that came to serve in that capacity — forming the now-infamous New South Wales Corp — were not the most decorated of soldiers. In fact, most of them were only marginally less corrupt than the people they were guarding (and in many cases had been assigned the job as a punishment for some misdeed, often desertion).

All this created a rather unusual kind of environment … isolated, filled with degenerate people, and perched on the tip of a continent about which Europeans knew almost nothing. This is fertile fuel for tales of lurid depravity, dark deeds, and horrific encounters. In short, an environment well suited to being backdrop for a Call of Cthulhu story. To quote Convicts & Cthulhu:

Keepers seeking dark-hearted men and women to serve as adversaries in a Call of Cthulhu scenario will find a wealth of riches in the early penal settlements of New South Wales. Almost by design the majority of the population of this isolated place is made up of the detritus of Britain and its Empire – the inconvenient members of its society that do not fit into the accepted mould of respectability. Within this body of free-thinkers, rebels and reprobates there are no shortage of advocates of beliefs in strange and unnatural gods. Some of those keep their black religious practices to themselves, but others are eager that they spread out like a cancer. It is that latter group that is behind several different subversive “cults” currently thriving in New South Wales.

Australian Aeons Illo #D3

Tomorrow: the corruption of the early colony of New South Wales, and the circumstances leading to the military coup (!)

Tenuous Ties to Tarantino

Convicts & Cthulhu B&W Logo sml

One of the things that Geoff and I have tried to do in writing the Convicts & Cthulhu sourcebook is to make sure that the historical detail included for the setting is more than just the facts and figures. It’s easy enough for Keepers to look up mountains of that kind of information themselves using Wikipedia or many other online sources. And while that stuff is interesting and helpful, it doesn’t do much to give you a sense of what life was really like in the historical setting. Finding and capturing that kind of detail is much harder.

A source that I have found especially rich for the Australian convict era has been the sometimes lurid folk tales and folk songs that were created by the convicts of the day and passed down the generations (verbally at first, then published in the late 19th Century). I happened upon one great example late in the writing of Convicts & Cthulhu — the Ballad of Jim Jones at Botany Bay. It’s lyrics offer an insight into the harshness and dangers of the convict life, as well as the uncertainty of being sent half-way round the world to the infamous prison colony. All of that stuff is what makes this era such a great one for Call of Cthulhu (in my humble opinion, of course :)).

The Ballad of Jim Jones at Botany Bay

Come gather round and listen lads, and hear me tell m’ tale,
How across the sea from England I was condemned to sail.
The jury found me guilty, and then says the judge, says he,
Oh for life, Jim Jones, I’m sending you across the stormy sea.
But take a tip before you ship to join the iron gang,
Don’t get too gay in Botany Bay, or else you’ll surely hang.
Or else you’ll surely hang, he says, and after that, Jim Jones,
Way up high upon yon gallows tree, the crows will pick your bones.

Our ship was high upon the seas when pirates came along,
But the soldiers on our convict ship were full five hundred strong;
They opened fire and so they drove that pirate ship away
But I’d rather joined that pirate ship than gone to Botany Bay.
With the storms a-raging round us, and the winds a-blowing gales
I’d rather drowned in misery than gone to New South Wales.
There’s no time for mischief there, remember that, they say
Oh they’ll flog the poaching out of you down there in Botany Bay.

Day and night in irons clad we like poor galley slaves
Will toil and toil our lives away to fill dishonored graves;
But by and by I’ll slip m’ chains and to the bush I’ll go
And I’ll join the brave bushrangers there, Jack Donahue and Co.
And some dark night all is right and quiet in the town,
I’ll get the bastards one and all, I’ll gun the floggers down.
I’ll give them all a little treat, remember what I say
And they’ll yet regret they sent Jim Jones in chains to Botany Bay.

Ironically, it was only after reading this folk song lyric that I realised that not only did I own a recording of it (by Bob Dylan in 1992) but I had also recently heard it in a major film … Quentin Tarantino’s sort-of-Western crime thingamy “The Hateful Eight.”


If you’ve seen the film, you’ll know that at a pivotal point in the plot (just before all Hell breaks loose) Jennifer Jason Leigh’s character — a captured criminal — sings a haunting song (and plays it on an antique guitar). Although it’s hard to make out the words … that’s “Jim Jones at Botany Bay” (even though the film has nothing to do whatsoever with Australian convicts; you’re welcome to speculate for yourself why it was included).

[Trivia Note: this scene was also famous because due to a miscommunication on set it also ended with Kurt Russell destroying an antique 1870s guitar on loan from the museum of manufacturer Martin. Ooops!]

Convicts Being Released Soon

Thanks to everyone who got in touch about our announcement for our next freebie PDF product, Convicts & Cthulhu. It seems that even despite the setting (Australia’s early colonial prisons) not necessarily being something too familiar to everyone, people can see the potential for this grim setting to work as the backdrop for a Lovecraftian campaign or scenario. That certainly matches the experiences of playtesters who have found the historical darkness and debauchery of the setting serves as a convenient and believable “camouflage” for all sorts of cult and otherworldly manifestations.

As of today, Convicts & Cthulhu has officially entered layout; it also has a cover — see below.

Conivcts & Cthulhu - Draft Cover v2

The text of Convicts & Cthulhu runs a little over 50,000 words and includes a mountain of historical info, lots of ideas for Cthulhu Mythos manifestations and worshippers in the colony, six detailed plot seeds (each with three variant versions) and a fully-fledged introductory scenario. Plus there will be custom CoC 7th Edition character sheets (actually these are already designed). All-up we’re guessing that the sourcebook will be about 64 pages brimming with convict-era horrors, and it will be available free of charge here on the blog or via RPGNow. We are currently aiming for a release in early June … in the lead up to that, however, I am hoping to post a number of “sneak peeks” here on Cthulhu Reborn, to help you decide whether you want to download Convicts & Cthulhu when it hits the streets (we obviously hope you will!)

Villa in France, One Peculiar Owner

Recently I was chatting with Chad Bowser — Call of Cthulhu writer extraordinare, inventor of Cthulhu Invictus, and sometimes collaborator on Cthulhu Reborn projects. Chad was bemoaning the fact that despite the fact that the recent Chaosium update of Horror on the Orient Express is an absolutely super-deluxe reimagining of the 90’s classic, most of the handouts didn’t get much revamping or update. Having recently (finally) found time to read through my own HotOE box, I’d have to say I agree.

One specific problem that Chad’s group had run into was the fact that while in the Paris chapter of the campaign (“Les Fleurs du Mal”) they had fixated slightly on the 17th Century Villa constructed by the Comte Fenalique. Investigators researching this can readily turn up the floorplans to this unusual building … but sadly it isn’t included as a handout. Chad asked me if I had any way of putting together a semi-realistic looking old document bearing the floorplan of a French Villa in Poissy. Here’s what I came up with:

HotOE Addon - Handout - Fenalik's Villa Floorplan (sml)

(click here download a higher-res version)

After sketching it out I thought maybe it should be a bit more beaten and weathered-looking, so I roughened and aged it some more:

HotOE Addon - Handout - Fenalik's Villa Floorplan, Aged (sml)

(click here download a higher-res version)

If you’d like to use this image as a handout to enhance your games of Horror on the Orient Express (1st or 2nd Edition) … feel free! Equally, if you want to remix it into some other prop of your own creation, that’s also cool with me. If you get a visit in the night from a shadowy  fiend, though, it’s not MY fault …:)

Terror From Down Under (Coming Soon)

Once again, months have come and gone and there have been no updates to the Cthulhu Reborn blog. I imagine many of you out there in blog-land (or wherever you are) might take this as a sign that there has been no activity at Cthulhu Reborn. In fact the exact opposite is true — we have been hard at work on a number of different projects, some for other people and a few destined for release under our own banner. My usual policy, though, is to not jinx any work in progress by announcing anything too soon, hence the occasional periods of radio silence.

But, there are a few recent developments that are probably worth sharing with you good folks … including an announcement about an upcoming major freebie release from Cthulhu Reborn.

First off I should mention a few of the cool projects that we’ve been involved in over the past few months … if for no other reason because they are neat projects which you might want to check out for yourself.

The first is A Time To Harvest, Chaosium’s first ever Organized Play campaign (in six chapters).

We were asked to contribute all the maps for the numerous campaign chapters, which was quite a significant task (since there are something like 15 or 16 maps, some of which needed to be drawn in various different versions). But it was a fun thing to be involved in, and I will certainly be interested to hear how the Organized Play aspect works. If you’re at all interested in participating, I would strongly urge you to scoot over to this page on the Chaosium website and read more about it. Basically, if you are willing to sign up to Chaosium’s “Cult of Chaos” — basically become a registered part of their GM and advocacy programme, you can get access to this campaign in six chapters (delivered one per month) for absolutely no cost, except for the requirement to submit some play reports back to Chaosium. Sounds like a pretty cool deal.

Another extremely cool thing that Cthulhu Reborn got involved in unexpectedly was The Things They Leave Behind, the successful Kickstarter project by brand new licensee Stygian Fox.

We were asked to contribute just a handful of handouts for the various modern-day scenarios which make up this book. There were a few interesting challenges associated with creating things like realistic handout mockups of a Reddit thread and an online newspaper website; both were sort of fun to do. If you were a backer of this Kickstarter, you will see these designs when the book comes out. If you weren’t a backer but have an interest in innovative (and dark) modern-day scenarios for CoC, you may want to read some more about this project on the KS page … and if it sounds cool to you then I am sure that you could get in touch with the ever-wonderful CEO of Stygian Fox, Stephanie McAlea, and find out how you can buy the book.

And Finally … the Announcement

One of the things we have been hard at work on here at Cthulhu Reborn is developing material for playing Call of Cthulhu stories set in Australia. Given how many of the great CoC scenario writers are Aussies, it seems quite peculiar that the only significant mention that the “Land Down Under” has ever received is the long, LONG, out of print Terror Australis from 1987. Cthulhu Reborn got involved with a project back in 2012 to begin to redress this, initially to simply update and revamp the old Chaosium book and bring it up to the standard of the “Secrets of X” line of sourcebooks. That goal was achieved some time back (although the manuscript is still waiting in Chaosium’s internal queue) … but most of the participants didn’t want to stop there. Instead, writers have been busily working away on a whole bunch of different Australian-themed Cthulhu projects … and one of them seems likely to be our next freebie release on Cthulhu Reborn.

Convicts & Cthulhu Logo 2

Convicts & Cthulhu is a sizeable sourcebook (exact page count to be finalised, but probably 50-60 pages) which allows Keepers to run Call of Cthulhu games during the early days of Australia’s life as a British penal settlement. If this sounds like an odd time and place to set a Lovecraftian game, consider this: the early colonies of Australia were founded to be the dumping grounds for the most dark-hearted criminals to be found in Britain, and were overseen by guards who were not much better than those they guarded. In a land thousands of miles from civilisation, there are many opportunities for mundane cruelty and evil, but also for the darkness than men brought with them to flourish in unsuspecting ways.

We hope to release Convicts and Cthulhu later this year … and there will doubtless be more blog postings to come which shine some more light on what we have planned.


Welcome to a New Year of Horrors

Happy New Year from all of us here at Cthulhu Reborn! May 2016 bring you all the horrors you wish …

I thought that it would be a great idea to kick off the new year in style by releasing something that’s been sitting around on our hard disks for a while gathering dust — a customised 7th Edition character sheet, skinned with a “Masks of Nyarlathotep” theme.

MoN 7e Sheet - letter - Front sml

Where did this come from? Well … a bit over a year ago I was contacted by Ben Patey, whose ill-fated Kickstarter to create a physical prop set for Masks has been well documented over on YSDC and other blogs (so I won’t rehash its tale of woe here). Ben wanted to have a special “Masks of Nyarlathotep” character sheet designed as a reward to go along with the props. He had previously run an online poll to see whether people wanted a sheet aimed at the older (6th) edition of the rules, or the new (7th) edition — most people wanted the latter, hence this sheet was born.

I believe that some physical character sheets were produced and included along with the prop sets for the small number of backers who have received them. Since there is no current time-line on when any of the other backers (of which I myself am one) will be getting their props, I thought I would go ahead and release these sheets as free downloads for backers of Ben’s Kickstarter and anyone else who might like a Masks themed character sheet. You can grab the sheet either as a pair of high-resolution PNG images (front and back, 300 DPI colour) or you can download the PDF version which has the same autocalc logic as the official Chaosium 7th Edition character sheets.

Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Masks of Nyarlathotep Sheet (front side)

Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Masks of Nyarlathotep Sheet (reverse side)

  Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Character Sheet, 2 sided – Masks of Nyarlathotep edition (autocalc) 

Like all the official CoC 7th Edition PDF sheets, this one will probably only work properly when opened with Adobe’s free PDF Reader or with Adobe Acrobat. It uses a whole bunch of dynamic mojo that most PDF software doesn’t support.

As with every free download provided here on Cthulhu Reborn, this sheet is released under a Creative Commons Attribution license — that means you can do pretty much anything you like with these files, as long as it is not for commercial purposes. I hope folks find this a useful addition to their collection of Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition character sheets:)


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