Cthulhu in 2018: A Retrospective, part 5 (END)

In the first blog posting in this series I provided the “helicopter-view” of the year’s releases, which is probably the place to look if you want a quick overview. The rest of this series consists of more details analysis of 2018 releases.

The Dark Future: Kickstarters yet to fulfil

So far, this review has described products which have made their ways into customers’ hands in some form or other. Another interesting thing to look at is the products that are still in the process of breaking through into our reality … namely, the Kickstarters that are yet to be fulfilled. Some of these are older campaigns that were supposed to have completed in 2018 (or even earlier); others are campaigns run in 2018 for products that won’t grace the gaming table until 2019 or later.

Before summarizing the list of Kickstarters-in-waiting, special attention should first be given to one KS campaign: Pagan Publishing’s Horrors of War. This originally funded back in September 2014 with an estimated fulfillment date of February 2015. Despite making apparent progress, this campaign has now taken the non-coveted crown for “most delayed” (now that Punktown, the previous title holder, has been released). In 2018, as part of a general “call to action” to the operators of several much-delayed Kickstarters, Chaosium gave Pagan Publishing an ultimatum – release Horrors of War before the end of 2018 or lose the license to release it as a Call of Cthulhu title at all. For much of 2018, progress was reported towards meeting that date, as well as paying refunds to a number of backers who requested them. But in November, the wheels seemed to fall off: Pagan made a backer update that announced that due to unspecified “serious problems” with the project, it would no longer be possible to hit the date laid down by Chaosium. At least part of the problem seems to have been created by one of the original key writers (a long-time Pagan stalwart) withdrawing his three scenarios – this meant that on top of other delays, three new scenarios needed to be written to replace them. The inability to meet the mandated deadline left Pagan looking into “other ways to continue the project” – one might assume that to mean potentially transferring the book to use a non-Chaosium-licensed game system. Ultimately, however, the crisis was averted a few days later when Chaosium unilaterally acted to extend the license for Horrors of War until June 30, 2019. Finger-crossed that this is enough time for the team to wrap up this fine-looking book. Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/460966263/horrors-of-war-a-convenant-with-death

Other Kickstarters that were originally targeting a 2018 date but have yet to release:

  • The Dare (Sentinel Hill Press): The Kickstarter campaign to reprint The Dare, a classic-era scenario by Kevin Ross, funded in October 2017 with an estimated fulfilment of November 2017 (always an ambitious target). Sentinel Hill have been good in giving backers in-progress versions of the full scenario text and partial-layouts, however the finished product is still pending. Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/562089942/the-dare-a-call-of-cthulhu-1-shot-revised-for-7th
  • Unspeakable Sign & Sigil (Cubicle 7 & Make Believe Games): This was a hugely publicised Kickstarter jointly run by two sizeable game companies – Cubicle 7 (publishers of the current Tolkien games amongst other titles) had teamed up with Mark Rein*Hagen’s latest game company to produce a game of Lovecraftian horror … from the perspective of player-character cultists. The campaign funded in May 2017 with an estimated fulfilment in March 2018; to the best of my knowledge backers are still waiting. Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/461807648/sigil-and-sign-cthulhu-mythos-rpg-where-you-play-t
  • H. P. Lovecraft Preparatory Academy (Third Eye Games using PDQ & Savage Worlds rules): This is a project which bills itself as the creation of “a cheerfully macabre game of schoolyard horror”. The general concept is that players take on the roles of students at a school with weird Lovecraftian goings-on. The Kickstarter for this book funded in March 2018 with an estimated fulfilment of April 2018. To my knowledge it is still being finalised, although backers have received a rather advanced “ashcan” layout which looks pretty close to being done. Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/eloylasanta/h-p-lovecraft-preparatory-academy-tabletop-rpg/description
  • The Idol of Cthulhu (Delphes Desvoivres): Arguably this campaign doesn’t belong in this review (since I’m trying to focus solely on products which have direct game content); however, one part of the Idol of Cthulhu campaign is a brand-new licensed Call of Cthulhu scenario by Matthew Sanderson. This Kickstarter funded in December 2017 with an estimated fulfilment of Sep 2018 … but calamity struck late in 2018 when Delphes’ art studio was robbed, thieves taking expensive components for the final idol statuettes. That has forced delays. Original KS links: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/195095939/the-idol-of-cthulhu-a-scenario-and-props-for-call
  • The Sassoon Files (Sons of the Singularity): This campaign aims to create a licensed Call of Cthulhu book with scenarios based in 1920s Shanghai. It is the first licensed title by Sons of the Singularity, and was funded on Kickstarter in October 2018 for an estimated fulfilment in December 2018. That didn’t happen, although every indication is that things aren’t too far away from a book materialising soon. Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1918458549/the-sassoon-files

These campaigns were run in 2018 for products to be released later in 2019:

  • The Wild Hunt (Stygian Fox): The goal of this project was to create a lengthy (90+ page) licensed Call of Cthulhu adventure loosely inspired by Celtic mythology. The campaign funded in March 2018 with an estimated fulfilment in January 2019. Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/stephaniemcalea/the-wild-hunt-for-call-of-cthulhu
  • New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley (Stygian Fox): The original version of New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley was a Call of Cthulhu scenario anthology published by Miskatonic River Press in 2008. With MRP sadly long gone (though still lamented), Stygian announced that they had licensed the rights to reprint some of the MRP titles. This Kickstarter campaign, which funded in June 2018 for a fulfilment in January 2019, was the first such reprint. The project also aims to add one brand-new scenario to the original running order – set in the Innsmouth region and written by Seth Skorkowski (celebrity YouTuber). Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/stephaniemcalea/new-tales-of-the-miskatonic-valley-2ed-for-call-of
  • Cathulhu – Tails of Valor (Golden Goblin): Perhaps one of the more unexpected Lovecraftian game Kickstarters in 2018 was that run by Golden Goblin for scenarios set in Sixtystone Press’ Cathulhu setting (players take on the roles of feline investigators). The campaign included both a fiction book and an RPG book. It funded in July 2018 with an estimated fulfilment of February 2019. Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/golden-goblin-press/cathulhu-tails-of-valor-and-terror

  • Delta Green: Labyrinth (Arc Dream): Certainly the biggest of the Lovecraftian tabletop Kickstarters run in 2018, Arc Dream’s campaign to expand support for its Delta Green RPG raised over $150,000. It was notable for several reasons, one being that it marked the return to game writing of the legendary John Scott Tynes. In similar fashion to the previous Delta Green KS, this began as a fundraiser to create one book but unlocked an entire product-line of other books along the way. As well as the titular book, by my count backers will receive six additional scenario (optionally collected in a hardback book) plus another hardback book and a lengthy campaign. Plus handout sets for several of these. Whew. The Kickstarter was run in August 2018 with an estimated fulfilment in April 2019. Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/arcdream/delta-green-the-labyrinth
  • Occam’s Razor (Stygian Fox): The last of Stygian Fox’s three Kickstarter campaigns for 2018 was a fundraiser to create another book of six modern-day Call of Cthulhu scenarios (a genre which Stygian has successfully explored twice already). This book is spearheaded by long-time Chaosium writer Brian Sammons, who wrote all six scenarios. The campaign funded in October 2018 with an estimated fulfilment in June 2019. Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/stephaniemcalea/occams-razor-a-collection-of-scenarios-for-call-of
  • Leagues of Cthulhu: Codicil (Triple Ace Games; for the Ubiquity ruleset): Triple Ace Games ran a Kickstarter campaign back in 2017 to add a Lovecraft-themed adjunct to their Leagues of Gothic Horror line (powered by an in-house rule system called Ubiquity). On the back of the success of that campaign, a follow-up was run in November 2018 for more Leagues of Cthulhu content. The new book was estimated to be fulfilled in May 2019. Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1588759266/leagues-of-cthulhu-codicil
  • Never Going Home: WW 1 Occult Roleplaying (Wet Ink Games using in-house system): This Kickstarter flew under the radar in the standard Lovecraftian forums and social media, but I’ve included it in this list since it has some affiliation with familiar horror themes. As best I can tell this is intended to be a game set in an alternative WW1 where arcane forces have broken through to afflict the fighting forces on the battlefield, in subtle ways. The campaign funded in December 2018 with an estimated fulfilment in August 2019. Original KS link: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/2103068465/never-going-home-world-war-occult-role-playing

Trends, Observations and Conclusions

This review has aimed to shine an Elder Sign into the numerous different corners of the tabletop gaming world to unearth the 2018 releases which have some stated connection to Lovecraft’s vision or creations. There are – it seems – quite a lot of these. But after looking at all of these individual products and Kickstarters, are there any clear themes or observations to be drawn? I will give a few of my own thoughts, but equally I would be happy to hear what others can discern (use the comments section at the end of this post).

  1. The (Lovecraftian RPG) world is an amazing, diverse place: It’s easy when reading through online forums and communities about Lovecraftian RPGs to conclude that most of what has been published comes from a handful of campaigns or scenario anthologies or companies. There are definite “old favourites” that attract a lot of attention, sometimes disproportionately so. But each time I undertake the research for one of these retrospective articles I am reminded that the world of Lovecraft-influenced RPGs is much, much, larger than those small set of Cthulhu’s “greatest hits.” That is, I would contend, a good thing – because any time you tire of any one specific author’s or publisher’s interpretation of HPL’s ideas, there is always a host of *other* variant RPG interpretations you can read for inspiration. This is especially true if you’re willing to take scenarios/campaigns from different game systems (which may not to your liking) and repurpose them. While some people shy away from ripping and remixing content like that, I would strongly encourage GMs everywhere to consider giving it a try. Because most Lovecraftian investigative scenarios comprise about 75%+ non-mechanical content (plot, character motivation etc.) the task of adapting is much less than for other genres where mechanics are everything.
  2. Licensed releases by larger established companies are down: If you look back just a handful of years, there were a half-dozen or more largish established game companies producing Chaosium licensed material in English. Over the past couple of years that number has dropped off rapidly, until in 2018 the only publisher fitting that bill who produced any licensed content at all was Pelgrane Press (a couple of Trail of Cthulhu titles). While this may be just a temporary anomaly, the messaging from those companies that had historically been big producers of licensed content makes one wonder whether they are deprioritizing licensed content in favour of other types of non-licensed Lovecraftian material. The most recent such announcement is by Modiphius who will be creating its future Achtung! Cthulhu content primarily for its in-house 2d20 system with only a modest commitment to BRP.
  3. Mid-sized licensees are sticking to their successful formulae: Licensees like Stygian Fox, Golden Goblin Press, and Sentinel Hill Press have continued to be active, and have charted a course which builds on past successes. For the most part all of them have built substantial followings of Kickstarter backers, with each successive campaign building in terms of numbers and overall funds raised. This is a healthy position for these companies, although all of the three publishers mentioned above have struck difficulties with Kickstarter delays and managing the expectations of their backers (and indeed Golden Goblin appears to have slowed its tempo of Kickstarters in order to “catch up” on older commitments; while Stygian Fox conversely has ramped up its frequency of campaigns).
  4. Chaosium is striking a difficult balance between customers old and new: While it’s true that the new management at Chaosium assumed the reins of the company back in 2015, it’s probably fair to say that during the first couple of years of their operation they weren’t setting the direction for the CoC line. They inherited an off-the-rails Kickstarter (for 7th Edition CoC) which needed to be closely managed, and then they had a pipeline of previously approved projects to work through. It’s only been in the last year or so that the new management would have been in a position to set the agenda for how *they* want Call of Cthulhu to be. So … what does that look like? Well, if you draw inference from 2018’s releases – and even those from late 2017 – you might conclude that the new Chaosium are very actively pursuing brand-new CoC players. Certainly, the CoC Starter Kit is a product aimed at such gamers; but arguably so too is Pulp Cthulhu, Doors To Darkness, and even the new edition of Masks (since most existing players already own at least one edition whose content is not far different from the expensive new brick). Doubtless the goal of attracting new players to CoC has some sound basis in business – indeed, it seems part of a broader Chaosium agenda to “get big”. But the pursuit of such a goal has its perils, too, the greatest one being the need to also keep the existing customer-base satisfied. After all, there is no point in attracting an army of new customers while losing your existing customer-base in the process. Success will require a deft balancing act to keep both camps appropriately supported.

The Final Wrap

In the final analysis it’s fair to say that 2018 was another great year for Lovecraftian RPGs, providing further evidence that HPL’s influence is strong and insidiously clawing its way throughout the tabletop world. Here’s hoping that 2019 continues that wonderful, if horrifying, trend . . .


Cthulhu in 2018: A Retrospective, part 4

In the first blog posting in this series I provided the “helicopter-view” of the year’s releases, which is probably the place to look if you want a quick overview. The rest of this series will consist of more details about individual 2018 releases.

The Miskatonic Repository

Chaosium launched its online community publishing portal, the “Miskatonic Repository,” just a few days before the end of 2017. Thus, 2018 was really the first year that a large number of titles has been made available via this channel. So, with the benefit of 12 months of operation, how has the Miskatonic Repository evolved?

As mentioned in the summary introduction for this review, quite a number of products have been made available via the Miskatonic Repository in 2018 – about 44 titles with English-language content (plus two or three that are exclusively in other languages). Now obviously that’s far too many titles to describe each individually, but here are some general trends.

  • Paid titles versus Free/PWYW: when the MiskRepo launched, much was made about the choices afforded to creators about asking a fixed fee for their PDF, offering it for free, or making it a “Pay-What-You-Want” title. In 2018 some 25 of the 44 titles were offered on a fixed fee basis, 6 were entirely free, and the remaining (13) were Pay-What-You-Want.
  • Brand New content versus Reprinted content: Most of the items added to the MiskRepo were items that (as best I can tell) had never been published before. There were some exceptions: like Jim Phillips’ “Legs” which has been a free PDF on other sites previously, as had several titles by Dr. Michael LaBossiere. All of these reprints are, however, either free of PWYW.
  • Established Writers versus New Talent: The majority of new PDFs on the MiskRepo seem to have been written by authors who have not previously published game material (for Call of Cthulhu at least). Notable exceptions are the two scenarios by Adam Gauntlett (The Man Downstairs and Hocus Pocus), one by Jon Hook (The Night Door), and a scenario by John Almack (Moonglow).
  • Classic Era, Modern, or something Weird: There has been a typical spread of different time periods and settings explored in 2018 MiskRepo titles – numerous classic-era scenarios and campaigns, several modern-day titles, and a few with more exotic settings (one in the 1980s, and a couple set in World War II).
  • Standout Titles: It’s quite hard to pick standout titles without having read every PDF, but if I had to mention a few that look quite promising I’d pick: Tomes of Terror, The Man Downstairs, A Light In Darkness, and The Night Door.

From Black and Distant Orbits

Most of the 2018 releases discussed so far in the review have come from a “family tree” of games which has its root in the venerable Call of Cthulhu (but which now has branches that sprawl far beyond). However, the RPG world is a diverse place and there’s a lot published outside that “family tree” which also has ties to Lovecraft in some way, shape, or form. It’s obviously far harder to pin down a definitive list of such titles, but here’s a (possibly imperfect) summary.

These products, while separate from the main body of traditional “Cthulhu” titles still retain some kind of link back to it.

Punktown (Miskatonic River Press / Chronicle City): The cyberpunk setting book Punktown (based on the fiction of Jeffrey Thomas) has a long and storied history. Funded through a successful Kickstarter campaign in late 2012, Punktown was billed as a sourcebook which could be used for either Call of Cthulhu or Chaosium’s more general-purpose Basic Role Playing (BRP) game. While the support for the Kickstarter campaign was strong, it was run at a time when Tom Lynch, operator of Miskatonic River Press, was seeking to wind down the company’s activities (to pursue some real-world goals). To enable Punktown to go ahead, Miskatonic River cut a deal with a UK-based publisher and distributor, Chronicle City. Not too long after that deal was struck, the Punktown project disappeared into a kind of limbo … where it stayed for many years. For a time it became one of those titles discussed as a “white whale” that many thought might never be caught – and indeed, the new Chaosium management at one point sought guarantees that the long-delayed Kickstarter would eventually be fulfilled. In 2018, Punktown finally clawed its way into the world, doubtless to the relief of Tom Lynch (whose project updates seemed to reflect his own frustrations with delays and sketchy information from those finalising the book). The end result is a generally-attractive book which delivers on the original promise of a cyberpunk setting – for a more detailed summary of its contents see: https://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/17/17751.phtml

[Full disclosure: I designed a character sheet which appears in Punktown.]

Renaissance – A Clockwork of Orange II: The Köln Machinations (Cakebread & Walton): Another game that is derived from the BRP system but separate from it is the Renaissance system by Cakebread & Walton, used for a couple of different Lovecraftian settings – Dark Streets (17th Century England) and Clockwork & Cthulhu (English Civil War). In 2017 Cakebread & Walton kicked of the publication of a four-part campaign for Clockwork & Cthulhu called “A Clockwork of Orange.” This sprawling campaign is set in 1610 and takes characters across many regions of continental Europe. It has a very deep and rich historical tone to it. Part 2 of this campaign came out in 2018 and features some alchemical action in the free city of Köln.

Cthulhu Dark (Thieves of Time): Graham Walmsley’s super-minimalist game system Cthulhu Dark has been out for quite some time, with its glossy hardcover book having been successfully delivered in 2017. However, pieces of that Kickstarted project – in particular, PDFs included as part of the backstage “season pass” purchased by some backers – trickled into early 2018. “As Good As A Feast” by Mo Holkar is a 1930s scenario in which hungry travellers from the central US ‘dust bowl’ seek out a better life. “The Whole Is Greater” by Chris Spivey is a mystery set on the fields of WW1 France and features the African-American soldiers of the Harlem Hellfighters (also written about by Chris in 2017’s Harlem Unbound).

Nameless: In early 2018 the Innsmouth House Players, the high-profile troupe of gamers who regularly make Actual Play recordings of their playthroughs of Lovecraftian games and share them via the Yog-Sothoth.com online community – announced they were ceasing their 13-year run of recording Call of Cthulhu games. In place of those recordings (which are much loved by many), the group announced that it would be creating its own “house system” for use in future Lovecraftian game recordings. This new system came to be called “nameless” and while it has never been published or released, the 20+ recordings of games using nameless make it fairly easy to figure out how this rules-light/roleplaying-heavy game works. So far, the recordings of nameless games have only been released to YSDC patrons, however if you are such a member they are free downloads and well worth a listen (in particular the Manderley Mysteries series of recordings).

Cthulhu Reborn: While firmly in the small-independent-publisher camp, Cthulhu Reborn has been quite active in putting out new Lovecraftian material in 2018, much of it free or “pay-what-you-want.” Readers interested in the list of titles published in the past year are referred to this post: https://cthulhureborn.wordpress.com/2018/12/31/looking-back-at-2018-and-forward/

[Full Disclosure: pretty much everything that comes out of Cthulhu Reborn has my fingerprints on it.]

Familiar Horrors, Different Systems

Other game titles were published in 2018 with strong Lovecraftian pedigree but which really have no connection with the “family tree” of games derived from Call of Cthulhu. Rather they are games or supplements where a bright designer has taken an entirely different ruleset of style of tabletop gaming and cross-pollinated it with ideas from Lovecraft’s bleak cosmic view. Or just added his be-tentacled monstrosities in for effect.

Knowing where to draw the line with including games for such a list is extremely difficult and for my own sanity I’ve only mentioned games and products which explicitly claim some kind of connection with Lovecraft’s writings. There are literally dozens of additional games which somehow bake Lovecraftian ideas into their core DNA without mentioning it explicitly but tracking all those down would take a lifetime.

(I would however like to mention a couple of ‘boundary cases’ which I was tempted to include, namely the beautifully-illustrated LexOccultum from Swedish company RiotMinds – a game of 18th Century Occult Investigation – and the ongoing excellent support for Atlas Games’ modern-day urban occult game Unknown Armies).

Eldritch Tales (Raven God Games; using Swords & Wizardry White-Box Rules): Folks who follow the tabletop RPG industry more broadly will doubtless be well aware of the “revolution” surrounding the OSR (“Old School Revival”) movement. In a nutshell, this is an effort to recreate some of the styles of play typical of early editions of D&D and AD&D. In 2018, a team of folks created an OSR game which is inspired by the writings of Lovecraft and set in the “classic era” of the 1920s. That game is called Eldritch Tales, published as a 218-page book which serves as a standalone game (although deriving mechanics from the Swords & Wizardry White-Box, which themselves derive from D&D). It’s quite a well-produced and attractive title and covers the usual range of topics you’d expect in a core ruleset (characters, skills, magic, adversaries, eldritch artefacts). Basically, it feels exactly like what Call of Cthulhu would have felt like in 1983 had it had been built as a clone of D&D with eldritch influences. One notable thing about this extensive ruleset is that a significant amount of it is published under the OGL, making the possibility of extended OSR-related titles much more possible.

Herald: Lovecraft & Tesla (Ravendesk Games; using the Savage Worlds rules): There have been previous attempts to create Lovecraftian games using the cross-genre Savage Worlds rules, most notably 2009’s Realms of Cthulhu. But the 2018 release of Herald: Lovecraft & Tesla is something quite different, an exercise in taking a comic franchise and using its backstory and characters to build out a gaming world. Those familiar with the “Herald: Lovecraft & Tesla” comic (published by Action Lab comics from 2014 to 2016) will know that it’s set in the “roaring twenties” and the tone of storytelling is very much in the high-pulp mode, with historical figures being repurposed as needed to make for a ripping yarn. Thus, the protagonists of the comics are Nikola Tesla and H.P. Lovecraft and their adventures have them crossing paths with pulpified versions of Amelia Earhart, Harry Houdini, and the like. In many ways the world of Herald: Lovecraft & Tesla is what Chaosium’s Pulp Cthulhu is striving to be, although perhaps even moreso. The nature of the Savage Worlds rules – themselves more than a little pulpy – makes this kind of storytelling feel a lot more natural than it does with BRP. The rulebook for Herald: Lovecraft & Tesla is beautifully illustrated and contains all the character-related and setting-related information you’d need (obviously you also need the Savage Worlds rulebook). The book also contains six “one-shots” (short scenario sketches) as well as five longer adventures.

Spiralis – A Lovecraftian Roleplaying Game (Trail of Dice): As mentioned above, the publication of Cthulhu Dark several years back has proven that Lovecraftian tabletop RPGs don’t need to be mechanically complex to still convey the looming-sense-of-doom that is important to the HPL “mood.” Cthulhu Dark is, however, very minimalist – perhaps too much so for some gamers. For such folk Spiralis, published in 2018, presents a similar type of game but with a little bit more mechanical “crunch.”  Inspired directly by both Cthulhu Dark and the family of “Powered by the Apocalypse” games, Spiralis features player characters largely defined by three variable statistics (sanity, stamina, and standing) which can go down as the result of unfavourable outcomes. Die types are associated with each (D6, D8, D10) and any of them can function like an Insight Die in Cthulhu Dark, offering a higher chance of success at the risk of a dangerously bad outcome.

Fantasy/Horror Crossover

One might argue that the cross-pollination of Lovecraftian creatures into fantasy RPGs goes all the way back to the (brief and controversial) inclusion of the Cthulhu Mythos in the AD&D Deities and Demigods back in 1980. However, in more recent years, the trend towards borrowing Mythos creatures for games such as Pathfinder have become a much more standard practice. Indeed 2017’s rather inappropriately named Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos for Pathfinder set the stage for the Mythos to be a more mainstream ongoing element of fantasy games.

Here’s (some of) the fantasy/horror crossovers published in 2018 which featured the Cthulhu Mythos in some way.

Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos: As mentioned above, the Pathfinder edition of this inexpertly-titled 500-page tome was a massive Kickstarter success in 2017. In 2018, Sandy went back to the same well and ran another Kickstarter to fund the creation of a version of this book for D&D 5th Edition – that KS campaign was also a huge success, attracting over 4,000 backers. In addition to this, Petersen Games also published its first scenario tied in to Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos, Silence from Sommerisk. This 34-page adventure (statted for Pathfinder) revolves around a region in a typical fantasy world which has become overlapped with the reality of H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands setting.

Modiphius’ Horrors of the Hyborian Age (for the Conan 2d20 RPG): The newly-rebooted Conan RPG published by Modiphius (Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of) has spawned a long list of supplements in a relatively short space of time. These have covered all manner of topics derived from Robert E. Howard’s fiction. In 2018, Horrors of the Hyborian Age was published as a bestiary of dark and horrific entities. Some of these resemble traditional horrors, but many others have a definite Lovecraftian flavour (Byakhee, Children of N’Kai, Yithians, Dimensional Shamblers, Hounds of Tindalos, Hunting Horrors, Mi-Go, etc.).

The Sunken Temple (Ember’s Design Studios): A Kickstarter campaign was run in 2016 for the creation of a horror-themed fantasy scenario called The Sunken Temple, with different published versions catering to Pathfinder, D&D 5e, and W.O.I.N. rulesets. In 2018 versions of the scenario made their way to backers along with a second book unlocked as a stretch goal (The Black Book of B’Nar, a bestiary of Lovecraftian nasties).

The Shadow Over Dunsmore Point (John R. Davis): This mini-campaign, written for use with the D&D 5e rules claims direct influence from Lovecraft’s fiction as well as the first edition AD&D modules Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (U1) and Against The Cult of the Reptile God (N1). http://www.lulu.com/shop/john-r-davis/the-shadow-over-dunsmore-point/paperback/product-23947477.html

“The Horror” expansion for the Expedition RPG (Fabricate): Expedition is a very simple card-based RPG which exists as a freely-downloadable print & play game or as a professionally produced deck of cards. In 2018, “The Horror,” an expansion to this RPG, was produced as the result of a successful Kickstarter.

 

<< That’s it for part four of this retrospective series; in part five we’ll wrap up the review with a look at Kickstarter campaigns that are still in the process of being fulfilled — future horrors waiting for the stars to be right! >>


Cthulhu in 2018: A Retrospective, part 3

In the first blog posting in this series I provided the “helicopter-view” of the year’s releases, which is probably the place to look if you want a quick overview. The rest of this series will consist of more details about individual 2018 releases.

Call of Cthulhu Licensee Releases

Ever since the “golden age” of 1990s, the notion of some kind of licensing model has been an important part of the Call of Cthulhu publishing ecosystem. Licensees provide Chaosium with a very handy supplemental product line to keep the game supported even at times when Chaosium itself is otherwise occupied. In recent times, licensees have been made up of two distinct classes – established game professional companies (e.g., Modiphius, Goodman Games) who wish to create Call of Cthulhu content, and smaller indie presses (e.g., Golden Goblin, Stygian Fox) who exist mostly to put out CoC content.

As noted in previous parts of this review, 2018 was a year when Chaosium itself had most of its production resources tied up with creating a single large-scale title. In such an environment, the output of Licensees is arguably even more important to the overall output of the extended CoC product line. Interestingly, the last two of the professional-sized companies with CoC licenses (mentioned above) put out nothing during 2018. Three of the smaller indie licensees did, however, create some great new content for the game.

Fear’s Sharp Little Needles (Stygian Fox): Stygian Fox, owned and operated by Stephanie McAlea, burst onto the CoC licensee scene in 2016 with The Things We Leave Behind, perhaps the best modern-day scenario collection published in a long time. Fear’s Sharp Little Needles (FSLN from here on) is a kind of spiritual successor to that book, in that it likewise aims to present the modern setting through a gritty and grown-up kind of lens. Whereas the earlier book was made up of normal scenarios, FSLN is a collection of small “mini-scenarios” each only about five pages long – but it contains a LOT of them. In all there are 25 of these mini-scenarios plus one longer scenario by Jeff Moeller. Stygian have done a great job at pulling together a talented and varied line-up of writers which lends the book a kind of breadth of vision which few scenario books can boast. It’s full-colour interior also looks great. Overall, I would rate this as the classiest of the CoC licensee products for 2018. One small blight that seemed to impact the final production of FSLN was some last-minute hiccups which created some late delays and frayed nerves.

[Full Disclosure: I created the handouts for Stygian Fox’s Fear’s Sharp Little Needles]

The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus (Golden Goblin): Back in late 2016 Chaosium announced that Golden Goblin Press, owned and operated by Oscar Rios, had been granted an exclusive license to produce CoC material in the Invictus (Ancient Rome) setting. Previously there had been two editions of Cthulhu Invictus – the first as a Miskatonic University Monograph, the second as part of the main CoC product line. Both of those books were written by Chad Bowser and Andi Newton. Oscar Rios has himself written and published a huge amount of content for the Invictus setting and doubtless his track record played an important part in Golden Goblin securing the licensing rights. In early 2017, a Kickstarter was run to fund the creation of a new edition of Cthulhu Invictus, this time targeting the current (7th) edition Call of Cthulhu rules. Interestingly, the decision was taken not to adapt the previous edition’s text but to rewrite everything from scratch. The resulting book, The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus finally emerged in print in late 2018 after a few production delays. The resulting book is an attractive and information-packed guide which gives you everything you’d need to get started playing in Ancient Rome. Interestingly it has full-colour interiors despite the Kickstarter only funding it for black-and-white: that’s a win for backers and other purchasers I guess. It also has a brand-new scenario from one of the original Invictus creators, Chad Bowser.

Devil’s Swamp (New Comet Games): Ben Burns previously published a licensed CoC title (The Star on the Shore) in 2017 under the imprint Dark Cult Games. With a brand-new company name, Ben ran a successful Kickstarter campaign in October 2017 for the creation of Devil’s Swamp.  The core concept behind this project was to construct a 1920s scenario anthology in which each tale is set in or around the Hockomock Swamp in Massachusetts. Thanks to hitting numerous stretch goals, this book blossomed from being a modest one to being something much larger which also brought in the talents of other writers. Rather than attempt to summarize the scenarios, interested readers are directed to this online review: http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.com/2018/10/undeveloped-territory.html . One interesting aspect of the publication of Devil’s Swamp is that, like another title, it too was hit with an unexplained 11th hour delay at the final Chaosium approvals stage (in the same week, no less) which caused a week or two’s rework.

Lovecraft-related Stuff from Pelgrane Press

While Pelgrane Press are probably best known in Cthulhu circles as the publishers of the Gumshoe-fuelled 1930s investigative game Trail of Cthulhu, in the last year or two they have been experimenting with other types of Lovecraftian content. One of the outputs of this mad-scientist’s laboratory is The Fall of Delta Green which we already discussed in Part 2 of this review; other creations from 2018 are described below.

[Note: there is some complexity to how Pelgrane has approached licensing from Chaosium – as best I can tell anything which comes out under the name “Trail of Cthulhu” is a licensed property, but any other kind of Lovecraftian release from Pelgrane is entirely independent of licensing. The latter includes 2017’s Cthulhu Confidential as well as The Fall of Delta Green and The Yellow King RPG.]

Cthulhu City (Pelgrane, Trail of Cthulhu): Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan’s Cthulhu City is a strange beast to be sure. It is a detailed sand-box-style setting which aims to present “Great Arkham” – an amalgam of all of the fictional Massachusetts locations of Lovecraft’s tales: Arkham, Kingsport, etc., as seen through the lens of a dark and slightly-surreal dream. It’s an Arkham where the witch-haunted gambrels sit side-by-side with windowless cyclopean skyscrapers; where the normal folk rub shoulders with weird and sinister people and things which defy easy categorisation. If you’ve ever seen the movie Dark City (1998) the best way describe Cthulhu City is to imagine what would emerge if a fevered writer binge-read the collected works of HPL on the same weekend as he or she watched Dark City on a loop … and then allowed all those different ideas to mash together in their mind, possibly with some chemical assistance.  I’ll be honest: when I first heard about this book I thought I would absolutely hate it, as I am a bit of a purist about the Herber/Ross invention of Lovecraft Country from the 1990s. But reading through Gareth’s vast and idea-rich depiction of a nightmarish riff on everything Lovecraftian, I eventually fell in love with it. The format for the “sourcebook” takes its cues more from loose improvisational toolkits like The Armitage Files or the Dracula Dossier than it does from traditional location sourcebooks. Thus, rather than trying to describe every key location in the vast and sprawling city, it divides the settlement up into regions and then describes a combination of specific landmarks, reusable stock locations, and a plethora of character types and weird phenomena that could be dropped in as needed. The intent is that the weird “Great Arkham” can serve as a setting for an entire surreal story, or act as a kind of dream-mirror to the real-world Arkham in some not-quite-definable way. In its own way Cthulhu City is a masterpiece, but admittedly it’s a quirky masterpiece which serves a narrow purpose extremely well.

Hideous Creatures (Pelgrane; Trail of Cthulhu): Between 2013 and 2016 Kenneth Hite, one of Pelgrane’s star writers, ran a PDF subscription series of monthly snippets of game source material. That (award-winning) series was called Ken Writes About Stuff. About half of the issues were pieces which focussed on revisiting Lovecraft’s horrific creations and breathing new life into them. Fast forward a few years and Pelgrane Press has decided to collect these popular pieces about Lovecraftian monsters both common (e.g., Deep Ones, Shoggoths, Byakhee) and previously unseen (e.g., Vampirish Vapours, Ultraviolet Devourers) under a single cover. The resulting book is Hideous Creatures – subtitled “A Bestiary of the Cthulhu Mythos.” Rather than simply reprint the material from the earlier PDFs, Pelgrane have made the decision to overhaul and in some cases vastly expand the descriptions of the creatures. They have also created a set of “in world” prop documents – one set per creature type – which provide a portentous account of someone’s encounter with the weird. In all, the book describes 31 different Mythos beasties: for each of them there are Trail of Cthulhu statistics, but most of the page count is given over to non-mechanical description. These sections include ways to vary the monstrosity to present a different version to players, real-world myths that might somehow be connected to the terror, forms of clues that a GM could drop into an investigation, and a few non-statted scenario ideas which portray the creature in a different light. Basically, a good proportion of this is useful regardless of whichever Lovecraftian game you’re playing … especially if your goal is to portray the different horrors of the Mythos in ways that riff on the original writings of HPL rather than remaining tied chapter-and-verse to a rulebook’s depiction.

[Full Disclosure: I did most of the interior layout, some art composition, and all the handouts for this book. While a PDF version has gone out to pre-orderers a general release is still pending as is the final print release.]

Cthulhu Confidential: The Shadow Over Washington (Pelgrane): Back in 2017 Pelgrane launched a new product line called Gumshoe One-2-One which is basically an adaptation of the investigative ruleset specifically designed for situations when there is one GM and one player. The system was launched via the publication of Cthulhu Confidential, a standalone Lovecraftian game of film noir-ish crime and detection. Set in either the late 1930s – the same setting as Pelgrane’s Trail of Cthulhu titles – or the early 1940s, the style of the game has a distinct Raymond Chandler overtone which sets it apart from any previous game. Since the release of Cthulhu Confidential, Pelgrane have put out several PDFs each of which contains an additional case for one of the hardboiled detectives featured in the core ruleset (LA shamus Dex Raymond, NYC crusading journalist Vivian Sinclair, and African-American WW2 vet Langston Wright from Washington DC). Five of those supplements came out in mid-to-late 2017, but a sixth was released in early 2018 – The Shadow Over Washington, a Langston Wright case written by Chris Spivey.

Skirmisher’s Cthulhu Live (LARP) Scripts

While necessarily not on the radar for the mainstream of Lovecraftian gamers, indie publisher Skirmisher Publishing continues its long mission to create and publish new scripts for Cthulhu Live, the LARP ruleset for Lovecraftian gaming. Cthulhu Live has been around since the late 1990s and one of its edition was even published by Chaosium – but these days it seems like it’s something that Skirmisher alone are supporting.

In 2018 two new scripts were released for Cthulhu Live:

  • The Ageless: A 1920s script based around an Egyptian sarcophagus and the mummy contained therein.
  • One Starry Night: A modern-day script (which also suggests it can be played as a tabletop Call of Cthulhu game) set in Arkham, MA. A friendly scientist recently returned from the excavation of G’harne in western Africa asks the investigators over for tea …

Magazines

In the 1980s and 90s, gaming magazines were a favourite medium for publishing shorter Call of Cthulhu content, although this practice died off somewhat with the advent of the Internet and easy online self-publication. More recently again, gaming magazines seem to have made a resurgence in the last few years. Indeed, 2018 was perhaps the best year for Cthulhu tabletop gaming magazines in quite a long time – with three separate titles each releasing an issue.

The Unspeakable Oath, Issue #25 (Arc Dream / Pagan Publishing): The venerable old Unspeakable Oath, it seems, just won’t die. After being on hiatus for nine years (2001 to 2010) it was resurrected and published on a semi-orderly schedule until 2014 when it appeared to once again be put on indefinite hold. In July 2018 to many people’s surprise, it sprang up with little warning and released a brand-new issue (PDF and print). Issue #25 is an attractive if slim production, the first issue of TUO to feature a full-colour interior. Perhaps the most interesting thing about it is its split between material written for Call of Cthulhu and material written for Arc Dream’s own Delta Green RPG (described in Part 2 of this review). While the magazine contains some of each, it’s clear that the focus for scenarios and other longer content is on the Delta Green system. Also interesting is that at the same time as releasing TUO #25, Arc Dream announced that this will be the final publication under the old subscription model – the suggestion is that in future content might be made available under some kind of Patreon model.

Arkham Gazette, Issue #2 (Sentinel Hill Press; KS updated version): For some time, Sentinel Hill Press have been working on updated versions of older issues of their Arkham Gazette gaming magazine for both PDF and print release. This work began back on 2014 when Sentinel Hill ran a successful Kickstarter to find the creation of Issue #3 of the Gazette – and as a stretch goal to also revise and re-release all preceding issues. In 2018 the last of these reissues came out – Issue #2: Innsmouth. True to their track record, this re-release is a thoroughly-researched and scholarly piece which nicely distils the horrors of Innsmouth into bite-sized chunks that could be useful in games of Lovecraftian investigation. It features more source material than you could shake a Deep One thighbone at, as well as a lengthy scenario by Sentinel Hill head honcho Bret Kramer.

[Full disclosure: Arkham Gazette, Issue #2 contains several handouts designed by me.]

Bayt al Azif, Issue #1 (Jared Smith): Perhaps one of the more surprising releases of 2018 was the first issue of a brand-new magazine for Lovecraftian tabletop gaming, Bayt al Azif. The brainchild of Jared Smith, the first issue of Bayt is simply dripping with old-school nostalgia while also having a contemporary full-colour interior. The issue contains a variety of different content, ranging from scenarios (a solo scenario set in Miskatonic U, a Dark Ages scenario, and a modern scenario), source material, ideas for running games, and even an interview with Chris Spivey. Rather than try to summarize the whole thing here, we suggest you check out this review: https://www.rpg.net/reviews/archive/17/17904.phtml

[Full disclosure: The Bayt al Azif article “CthuReview 2017” is a reprint of text that first appeared here on Cthulhu Reborn, written by me. It was reprinted with my permission.]

Zines: Those who came to gaming since 2000 or so might struggle to believe that once-upon-a-time a lot of the really interesting new writing in the RPG world took place on the pages on small amateur semi-periodicals hand-printed, stapled, and sent from the editor’s basement. Those shoddily-printed super-small-press publications were called “fanzines” or simply “zines.” Believe it or not, the gaming Zine phenomenon is starting to make a bit of a comeback, and even intruding into the Cthulhu world. In 2018 at least five Zines with Lovecraft-related game-content were circulated:

 

<< That’s it for part three of this retrospective series; in part four we’ll cast our eye further afield to try to summarize some of the Lovecraft-inspired products produced for other RPG systems >>


Cthulhu in 2018: A Retrospective, part 2

In the preceding blog posting I started off this retrospective series about Lovecraftian tabletop RPG releases that came out in 2018. That posting provides the “helicopter-view” of the year’s releases, which is probably the place to look if you want a quick overview. The rest of this series will consist of more details about the 2018 releases.

While there were literally dozens of Lovecraftian tabletop RPG products released in 2018, perhaps the best place to start is with the handful of “marquee” titles that stand out as major highlight achievements. This year, I can count three products or product lines that fit that bill: the Delta Green range, Chaosium’s new Masks of Nyarlathotep, and Pelgrane’s Yellow King RPG.

Highlight #1: Delta Green & The Fall of Delta Green

It’s no secret that 2018 was a bumper year for Delta Green, Arc Dream’s modern-day Lovecraftian RPG of conspiracy/spy/military horror. When the Kickstarter for the standalone Delta Green RPG funded back in October 2015 I am sure that most people expected a good solid set of rules and a professional level of scenario support. I don’t think many would have expected the juggernaut of constant new releases that have emerged at a steady pace ever since.

While it’s taken Arc Dream a couple of years to push the Delta Green core RPG through to a glossy two-hardcover printed set (in a nifty slipcase), 2018 is the year when that goal was finally achieved. It was also the year in which two of the Delta Green hardbacks were recognized at the ENnies, taking out a total of six awards.

In previous years, the core ruleset for Delta Green had already been published in both quickstart form (Delta Green: Need to Know) and as the Delta Green Agent’s Handbook. There had also been some slim hardcopy publications of individual scenarios. In 2018, the whole thing was brought together in a more serious way through two hardback print publications, the Delta Green Handler’s Guide (setting information, Mythos creature stats, spells, etc) and A Night At The Opera (a hardback scenario anthology collecting and reprinting many of the same scenarios previously printed individually). Arc Dream also released a slipcase set including both the Agent’s Handbook and the Handler’s Guide under the title Delta Green: The RPG. All of these titles were well received. A Night At The Opera won the 2018 Gold ENnie for Best Electronic Book and the Silver ENnie for Best Adventure. The slipcase set won two Gold ENnies (Best Rules and Best Production Values) and two Silvers ENnies (Best Game and Product of the Year). This was by far the best awarded Lovecraftian product range in 2018.

One of the more curious additional items also to emerge during 2018 was a further book that was unlocked as part of the original Delta Green Kickstarter … but published by a different company entirely and using a different rules system. That product was The Fall of Delta Green, written by industry heavyweight Kenneth Hite. The concept for this book is that it is set during an unusual era – the 1960s – during a point in the Delta Green chronology when the titular secret organisation is in the process of unravelling alongside the covert undercurrents of the Vietnam War. This book was created and produced by Pelgrane Press and utilizes the same Gumshoe system found in some of their previous Lovecraftian (and other) games including Trail of Cthulhu – although notably Fall is not a Trail of Cthulhu title.

The Fall of Delta Green is actually a self-contained game system in its own right containing everything you’d need to run 1960s military-spy-themed games with ties to the Delta Green chronology and universe. It’s an oddity to be sure, being the intersection of a couple of different spheres … but it’s also a gorgeously illustrated product and for all its quirkiness the book does deliver what it says on the tin. For Delta Green fans, there are even conversion notes on adapting the material to work with Arc Dream’s system.

As well as all those big heavy hardcover books, there were also some smaller releases to round out the Delta Green cavalcade for 2018. These include an anthology of short fiction pieces by Dennis Detwiller (The Way It Went Down), a new version of the scenario The Last Equation, and updated second chapter of the serial campaign Future/Perfect. There may even have been other small products as well – to be honest the sheer pace of releases has been quite hard to keep up with even for diehard Delta Green fans.

Doubtless buoyed by the success of all of these publication efforts, Arc Dream ran a second successful Delta Green Kickstarter in 2018 for a core product called Delta Green: The Labyrinth. The most exciting part of that campaign is the news that the legendary John Scott Tynes has been lured back to write the core book and some of the other items unlocked as stretch goals. Folks who remember as far back as the early days of Delta Green and Pagan Publishing will doubtless remember John as one of the key pillars of the early writing teams, and also one of the great scenario writers for the Lovecraftian form (well in my opinion, anyway). I’m sure a lot of people will be looking forward to some of the outputs from that Kickstarter materializing in 2019 and beyond.

Highlight #2: Chaosium’s New Edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep

Virtually everyone who has ever played Call of Cthulhu will have heard of Masks of Nyarlathotep. First published in 1984, Masks is a globe-trotting campaign that in many ways defined and cemented the stereotypical form of Call of Cthulhu campaigns. It’s also one of the most widely-acclaimed tabletop roleplaying products of all time. For all these reasons and more, it should not come as a surprise to anyone that fresh off the success of its conversion of the classic Horror on the Orient Express to the most recent (7th Edition) ruleset, Chaosium would set its sights on a similar revamp of Masks. In 2018 this re-mastering of Call of Cthulhu’s “greatest hit” was the flagship product for the company’s Lovecraftian line-up. Rather than simply reprinting the venerable campaign – which has already gone through four editions, some with substantial additions – line editor Mike Mason chose to do some more in-depth tinkering to try to resolve some of the points that had proven divisive about the Masks backstory.

The product of all this work is a massive brick of a slipcase set, comprising some 670-pages split over two hardback full-colour books plus a 96-page loose-leaf collection of handouts and maps. To say that the campaign has been given the “deluxe” treatment is probably an understatement – the finished slipcase set feels more like a “no expenses spared” production. Doubtless, true fans of the campaign will find this very much to their liking – although the lavish production has left the product with a rather hefty price-tag, and it also had a massively disruptive effect on Chaosium’s overall output for 2018 (chewing up the majority of production resources for most of the year).

It’s probably not worth trying to cover the contents of the Masks slipcase in detail here, since there are existing reviews which devote much more space to dissecting the contents than we would be able to here. For example: http://rlyehreviews.blogspot.com/2018/07/the-greatest-roleplaying-campaign-ever.html

For those who have read any of Chaosium’s recent hardback releases and who are also familiar with previous editions of Masks of Nyarlathotep will probably find this new version is exactly what they would expect/hope it to be. It has all the production values and glossy full-colour interior trade dress that have now been a staple of Call of Cthulhu releases for a couple of years. In terms of content, the new edition does include some items that are brand new – most notably an all-new prequel chapter (set in Peru) which allows investigators to meet Jackson Elias well ahead of the events which see him deceased at the beginning of the main Masks campaign. That new chapter was written by Scott Dorward. Also new to this edition are scatterings of notes to help a Keeper run the campaign using Pulp Cthulhu – this is an interesting proposition: since Masks is already a campaign which owes as much to Indiana Jones as it does to HPL, one wonders exactly how “over-the-top” it might veer when the Investigators are Pulpy powerhouses. I guess it’s an interesting option to have, nonetheless.

While it is tempting to look at the sheer bulk of the new Masks slipcase and assume that since it is well over twice the page-count of the previous (4th) edition there must be oodles of new game content – that might be a slightly flawed assumption. Yes, there are a lot more pages, but the new Chaosium trade dress tends to fit less content on each page plus the new edition is much much more lavish when it comes to interior illustration. All of this makes for a nicer final product, but at the game table may not much alter the way the campaign plays out.

One thing that is greatly beefed-up is the quality and quantity of player handouts. This is thanks to the involvement of the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (and in particular Andrew Leman). Those guys are literally the best Lovecraft prop-makers on the planet, so having them involved was a major win for Chaosium. In addition to designing many of the handouts that went into the core product, the HPLHS folk also crafted several tiers of deluxe prop kits which can be ordered direct from them. Also, there is an audioplay adaptation of Masks of Nyarlathotep created as part of the HPLHS’s amazing Dark Adventure Radio Theater — certain of their prop kits also tie in to that recording.

The Chaosium revision of a classic fan-favourite like Masks of Nyarlathotep was never going to happen without its critics, and a few minor problems and issues were raised as a result of some of the “in progress” content shared by Chaosium for promotional purposes. The biggest of these – which was subsequently remediated to an extent by Chaosium – related to some of the artwork commissioned for the campaign. These “epic horror” pieces veered strongly into stylistic territory more closely reminiscent of a Pathfinder horror supplement than something for Call of Cthulhu, which seemed to bother some old-school fans. Smaller concern were voiced around the editorial reworking of some of the details of the original campaign, in particular making Jackson Elias unequivocally African-American (instead of vaguely hinting as much). Another gripe voiced by a few people is the rather conscious decision taken during the revision to somewhat ignore the massive body of work that went into the fan-community-written Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion (which now is partially out-of-step with the as-published campaign). All of these quibbles, however were small blips on the radar and overall fan reaction to the new edition has been quite positive.

Highlight #3: Pelgrane’s Yellow King RPG

Pelgrane Press have established themselves in recent years as a mid-sized publisher that isn’t afraid to take on some absolutely massive honking projects, and largely deliver them on time. A couple of years back their Dracula Dossier product (line) for Night’s Black Agents was a modest Kickstarter which escalated into something bigger than Ben Hur. Their current Kickstarter – for Robin D. Laws’ Yellow King RPG seems somewhat cut from a similar cloth, aiming as it does to create a brand-new RPG with not one but four variant historical settings, each of them a wildly different take on the King in Yellow mythology of Robert W. Chambers.

Strictly speaking, the weird fiction of Robert Chambers is not part of the standard Cthulhu Mythos cycle of stories, but it’s been so closely rolled into virtually every Lovecraftian RPG that I think it’s reasonable to consider it, if not precisely “Lovecraftian” then at least a near neighbour.

Pelgrane’s Kickstarter for the Yellow King RPG funded in July 2017 but had an estimated fulfilment date of December 2018. This is a long lead time for a gaming project (which may have put off some), but it has proven a fairly accurate schedule – the final PDFs for all parts of the game being delivered in early December. Printed versions of the books are still pending.

Trying to describe the Yellow King RPG is not an easy task. On one level it’s easy to understand: it’s yet another Gumshoe-based game of weird investigation. It’s the style of investigative settings and adversaries that makes it something quite unique. Whereas pretty much all existing investigative Lovecraftian games have aimed to set their tales of dark cosmic horror in a recognizable historical or current real-world setting, the Yellow King RPG revels instead on putting players into slightly surreal worlds where normal history has been subverted by the influences of the King in Yellow. If you’ve ever read the original cycle of four “King in Yellow” stories by Chambers, you’ll probably recall how they seem to be set in slightly unsettling versions of the present or near future (e.g., a version of America where there is a Royal family and suicide booths on street corners). The core concept is that the influence of the King in Yellow (the entity, the play, both) is corrosive to normality and causes weird decadence to seep in and warp reality.

Thus, in the first book of the Yellow King RPG, players take on the roles of art students in a warped version of 1890’s Paris. Amid the fin-de-siecle decadence of the “yellow decade” they can run into manifestations which hint that things are not as they should be. The publication of a play called “The King in Yellow” has started to overwrite reality with an alien world called Carcosa. The second book in the Yellow King RPG set (titled The Wars) presents an entirely different set-up but one that is equally warped from established history – it is a version of 1947 where World War 2 has been extended by the alien influences of the Yellow King. Players take on the roles of soldiers fighting on these battlefields of shattered Europe investigating instances of weird supernatural manifestations.

Books Three and Four (Aftermath and This is Normal Now, respectively) provide two different “modern day” types of setting – or rather, places and times which are “twilight zone”-similar to reality as we know it. But in different ways. In Aftermath, the players take on the roles of survivors of the Continental War from Book Two, now living in the 2010s … but the devastating influence of the wars means that “modern day” America is a kind of brutalist totalitarian state where propaganda and society has a more 1950s bent and technology has languished in the 1980s. Conversely, This is Normal Now presents a world that seems on the surface like it is our familiar “real world” of the 2010s (or whenever the game is played) but weirdness and dark secrets lurk not far below – the discovery of which will expose the truth that this world is really nothing like the world we know.

It’s entirely possible to just pick one setting and run a game limited to just that, but the Yellow King RPG is written with an eye to linking the characters from different eras/realities to one another. This could be as a kind of epic multi-setting campaign, or via parallel concurrent game realities intersecting and interweaving with one another. In each of the four settings, the same Gumshoe-based rules are the order of the day, but most of the novelty of the game isn’t in the rules but in the ways in which the setting is presented. As such, it is conceivable that you could ignore the Gumshoe aspects entirely (if that system isn’t to your liking) and use the core material as a sourcebook for whichever weird investigative system you prefer. (But don’t tell Robin Laws I said that.)

In addition to the main four books which make up the Yellow King RPG there are two additional books unlocked during the Kickstarter – one is a book of fiction, while the other is a large “in world” game prop for the 1890s Paris setting. I can’t really comment much on either of those (since I haven’t read the fiction and was involved heavily in the creation of the prop).

Other Chaosium Call of Cthulhu Releases for 2018

In addition to putting out the brick-sized revised Masks of Nyarlathotep, Chaosium did also have a modest output of other Call of Cthulhu titles in 2018. Most of these were released towards the end of the year, after Masks had made it out to release.

The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set: Despite the fact that Call of Cthulhu has existed for some 36 years, one thing It has never had is a kit specifically designed to introduce new players to the game. With the resurgence of tabletop roleplaying more generally (thanks mostly to renewed interest in D&D 5e bringing new players or bringing back old players) the idea of a “starter set” seems to be on the minds of many publishers. Late in 2018 Chaosium released their boxed Call of Cthulhu Starter Set to some fanfare. Inside the attractive box are four slim books, a set of dice, and a handful of loose character sheets (five of them printed with an assortment of suitably diverse pre-generated investigators). The first book is a revised version of the solo scenario “Alone Against the Flames” (which has been a free download previously). The second booklet includes a cut-down version of the Call of Cthulhu 7th edition rules, fitting the whole process of Investigator creation, skill system, combat, and sanity into 24 pages! The largest of the books is Book 3: Scenarios which includes three full scenarios reprinted and revised from previous sources. These are “Paper Chase”, “Edge of Darkness”, and “Dead Man Stomp”. The most notable of these is Dead Man Stomp which has been augmented with some new material about race and racism courtesy of Chris Spivey (author of Harlem Unbound).

Terror Australis, Revised Edition: In the early days of Call of Cthulhu’s publication history, Penny Love and Mark Morrison wrote a sourcebook for 1920s Australia. Long out of print, that book was called Terror Australis. After decades, Chaosium have revamped this material … or, more accurately, rewritten most of it from scratch. This revised edition of Terror Australis isn’t something I can independently comment on too much since it has my personal fingerprints all over it. But I can say that its depiction of the 1920s Australian setting is vastly more detailed than what was possible in the modest page count afforded to the 1980s original. The systems and depictions surrounding Aboriginal Dreamlines and the like have also been radically overhauled, hopefully to be more sympathetic to the real-world belief systems of living Aboriginal cultures. Finally, the two scenarios in the book are both brand new.

Scritch Scratch (Free RPG Day 2018): For the last two or three years Chaosium has participated in Free RPG Day, offering small original titles to be sent to bricks and mortar stores to be given away to customers on Free RPG Day in June. This year, Chaosium’s title was a single-scenario book called Scritch Scratch written by Lynne Hardy. It is a modern-day scenario set in rural England and draws upon some real-world folk beliefs. While the title was primarily for Free RPG Day, it is also available as a free PDF download direct from Chaosium, or as a Print On Demand physical book via Lulu.

 

<< That’s it for part two of this retrospective series; in part three we’ll turn our attention to Call of Cthulhu licensees, Magazines, and other Lovecraftian stuff from Pelgrane >>


Cthulhu in 2018: A Retrospective, part 1

About this time last year I posted a short series of articles summarizing the Lovecraftian tabletop RPG products that had been released in the preceding year. That summary proved quite popular and was ultimately reprinted in the first issue of Bayt al Azif (a new RPG magazine, launched in 2018). Given that response, I thought it might be fitting to try to pull together a similar retrospective covering the diverse range of gaming releases that came out in 2018.

The task of trying to track down everything released in the past year with a “Lovecraftian” type of influence or flavour is a huge undertaking, so I will caveat this series of articles up front as being an attempt to summarize things that outright claim a connection to HPL’s writings (in some form or other). Even with that restriction in place, there are still a LOT of different and diverse things that came out in 2018, some of which I’ve personally read (or written!) and others which I only know by reputation. I’ll do the best I can to give some hint of what each product is about, and hyperlinks to reviews or product pages wherever I can.

As with last year’s review, this summary will – by necessity (and sanity) – be split over multiple blog postings. In this first post I’ll tackle a quick helicopter-level “capsule summary” of the whole year. If you’re daunted by the full review, just reading the quick summary will give you the big-picture. Most of what follows will just be additional detail. In other words, the capsule summary is your “TL;DR” version.

Capsule Summary (or the TL; DR version)

Compared to recent history, 2018 was a somewhat atypical year for Lovecraftian releases. For the last several years we’ve been used to seeing the list of new titles dominated by a steady stream of Call of Cthulhu titles from Chaosium, reinforced by a healthy supply of professional licensed titles from other established game companies, and then topped up by a trickle of Kickstarter releases from small press publishers. That wasn’t what 2018 was like. Instead:

  • Chaosium’s output – in terms of number of titles at least – was way down, largely due to the amount of effort consumed with creating the mega-brick new Masks of Nyarlathotep.
  • The list of larger established companies which are publishing licensed Call of Cthulhu has declined a little over recent years, hence while those publishers were quite active they were creating content that was a bit further removed from the traditional “heart” of Lovecraftian gaming.
  • Small-scale CoC licensees (like Stygian Fox and Golden Goblin) also seemed a little bit sluggish in getting Kickstarters finalised, thus also contributed a lower-than-normal number of releases to fill out the CoC

In numbers, there were only 10 new titles for Call of Cthulhu released in 2018 compared with 16 new titles in 2017. This included four titles by Chaosium (including aforementioned brick), one release each by Stygian and Golden Goblin, a release by New Comet Games, two new Cthulhu Live scripts from Skirmisher and the long-long-delayed Punktown (from the long-long-dead Miskatonic River Press). Interestingly there were zero releases from Modiphius and Goodman Games (the last two established publishers who are current CoC licensees after the departure of Cubicle7 in late 2017).

So, Call of Cthulhu output (in terms of new titles) was down … does that mean it was a fallow year for Lovecraftian gaming? Well no, not at all. It just means that the interesting stuff was happening in less traditional places. In particular:

  • The year 2018 was an absolute bumper year for Delta Green, not only for releases using Arc Dream’s own system but also the unexpected 1960’s era DG book The Fall of Delta Green (Pelgrane; Trail of Cthulhu rules).
  • It was also the year when Pelgrane made good on their promise to release Robin D. Laws’ Yellow King RPG in all its four-book glory (plus extras).
  • Pelgrane also published a couple of new Trail of Cthulhu titles (Cthulhu City and Hideous Creatures) as well as new supporting material for Cthulhu Confidential.
  • The year 2018 was also a surprisingly good year for magazines and smaller zines with Lovecraftian focus. In the first category there were new issues released by the Arkham Gazette, The Unspeakable Oath (first new issue in 4 years!), and a new mag called Bayt al Azif. On the Zine front there were issues of ongoing zines The Blasphemous Tome, Hypergraphia, and a first issue of Crawl-thulhu (for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG)

As well as all those slightly left-of-centre releases, 2018 also continued a growing trend towards fantasy games (Pathfinder, D&D5e, and even W.O.I.N.) dipping their toe into Lovecraftian ichor – as well as some of the OSR community deciding to play a little in the eldritch space as well. There was even a somewhat Lovecraft-inspired game released for the Savage Worlds ruleset and a very Lovecraftian title released for the Conan 2d20 game. This gives some indication of how diverse the spread of the HPL influence has become in gaming more generally.

On top of all that there were numerous titles released in 2018 under Chaosium’s community programme, the Miskatonic Repository. Overall the frequency of releases and their quality has been very uneven, but doubtless the MiskRepo has served its purpose in giving new creators a venue for getting scenarios and other content (but mostly scenarios) out to the buying public. In 2018 there were some 44 English-language titles added to the repository, some 19 of which were either free or Pay-What-You-Want. Chaosium have not released any statistics about earnings for creators, though there were some suggestions that the best-selling of the MiskRepo titles had earned its creator hundreds of dollars in sales.

<< That’s it for part 1 – I’ll continue the 2018 Retrospective in part 2 with some more detailed information about the three “marquee” products for the year and a run-through of the other CoC titles published by Chaosium and others >>


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