For our sixth interview in the State of the Tentacle series, we are very excited to be speaking with one of Call of Cthulhu‘s hardest-working and prolific writers of recent years, Oscar Rios. Heck, in terms of the total volume of superb scenario material he has produced, he is likely one of the game’s most prolific writers of all time. Couple that with the fact that unlike most writers, Oscar hasn’t been content to concentrate his writing on just one favourite game setting … instead he has written material for just about every setting that has ever been published. His work appears in an impressive array of different scenario collections. He also represents the major success-story of Chaosium’s (sometime’s maligned) Monograph series, having contributed to many of the most popular titles in that line.
With all that wealth of diverse experience, Oscar was someone we were very eager to quiz about the future of Lovecraftian gaming. Fortunately for us, we caught him just as his gladiatorial chariot hit a pot-hole in the Via Appia, and in a stunned daze he was unable to escape our clutches. What transpired appears below.
Oscar Rios is an author of horror fiction and role playing scenarios for the Call of Cthulhu RPG. Since 2002 he has written sixty three (and counting) Call of Cthulhu scenarios, and has written for nearly every historical era possible. He’s written five monographs for Chaosium, including Ripples from Carcosa and The Ravenar Saga. His scenarios appear in various Chaosium monograph collections, including every Halloween themed one produced to date. Oscar has a scenario in Chaosium’s latest publication, Atomic Age Cthulhu. His work has appeared in The Unspeakable Oath, Worlds of Cthulhu and Independent Roleplaying Magazine (IRM).
Oscar began working for Miskatonic River Press, as a staff writer and editor. His scenarios appear in MRP’s offerings More Adventures in Arkham Country, New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, Lux in Tenebras and the upcoming Tales of the Sleepless City. He is the author of The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, a Miskatonic River Press campaign for Cthulhu Invictus that in some ways put the Roman era on the map as a seriously supported setting for Call of Cthulhu .
In addition to his gaming work, Oscar has branched out into the realm of Lovecraftian fiction, with short stories in Cthulhu’s Dark Cults, Horror for the Holidays, and the upcoming collections Undead and Unbound and Cthulhu’s Dark Cults II. He has also further branched out into the world of Fantasy RPG’s, writing A Faceless Enemy for Chapter 13 Press, as part of Tales From the Fallen Empire: Post-Apocalyptic Sword and Sorcery Setting for the Dungeon Crawl Classics RPG (coming soon).
On the strength of his unassailable reputation as a writer of excellent Invictus-era adventures for Call of Cthulhu, he was recently invited to become the first “new face” to join the team writing additional material for Chaosium’s 2nd edition of the classic campaign, Horror on the Orient Express. Impressed with the awesomeness of his Roman prequel chapter (Sanguis Omnia Vincet), the Orient Express folks invited him back to write another (non-Roman) chapter for the campaign, entitled Bread or Stone.
At his core Oscar remains an avid gamer, running and playing Call of Cthulhu whenever possible.
Cthulhu Reborn: With over three decades of history to Lovecraftian Roleplaying, what do you see as the key milestones and mis-steps that have been made during its evolution?
Oscar: Strangely enough some of the milestones and mis-steps are one and the same. Every time something went “wrong” it opened up new opportunities. Some of those opportunities carried Lovecraftian Roleplaying in new directions. These sped up the evolution of Cosmic Horror RPG’s.
Chaosium’s monograph program offered new authors a chance to get their work out there. Those products allowed the voices of new authors to be heard. Some of those books weren’t well received by fans for various reasons. Those instances likely caused a lot of harm to the new authors’ careers in particular and Mythos gaming in general. Other books were warmly received by the fans and established a solid foundation for several new authors to build upon.
Another milestone would have to be the publication of the epic campaigns, such as Horror on the Orient Express and the Beyond the Mountains of Madness. These were audacious project that became legendary among the fans. The publication of the setting books, such as Kingsport and Arkham, helped the average Keeper turn his occasional horror game into real campaigns. Expanding Mythos Gaming into other historical eras, like modern times, the 1890’s, the Dark Ages and the time of the Roman Empire gave greater depth to the genre.
Key missteps… I think too many people consider Cosmic Horror RPG’s as a throw away art form. Not enough care is taken with regards to historical accuracy, editing and proof reading, play testing, layout and product development. Books also come out far too infrequently, with some sitting in limbo for years or even decades. Then, when a product is released, there’s this huge expectation that it’ll be wonderful, because so much time has gone by since the last book came out. If it turns out the book isn’t wonderful, whoa boy… I love CoC fans, I am a HUGE CoC fan myself, but we can be brutal with our opinions at times.
And you know… The collectable card game fiasco. I won’t go there, that horse won’t get any deader if I join my colleagues in beating on it.
CR: Given the many and varied publishers and product lines that exist in 2013 to support the hobby, what things do you think this “mini-industry” is doing well and what could be done better?
Oscar: There isn’t one type of Call of Cthulhu fan, there are many. There are the X-File investigators, the two-fisted pulp investigators, the survival horror guys and the grim old school purists who like short lives, shattered minds and spectacular deaths. Most fans shift between several of these types, depending on their mood. I think most of the new publishers have realized this and are putting out products directed at a target fan type. Since the fans shift between types, they’ll purchase products from this company AND that one, depending on what the Keeper wants to run and the sort of players they have. There is enough room in Cosmic Horror RPG’s for everyone to do well.
What could all these companies do better? Well, they could put out more products. When a fan hears about a great book, sees an amazing cover, and gets all excited that the product will be out in four months everything is cool. When a year or two goes by and that book still isn’t out that fan is no longer excited. They might not even be interested anymore. Hell, it’s possible they don’t even remember the project or if they do their angry about it. Some of these have become almost Urban Legends within the Call of Cthulhu RPG. Want to start a heated discussion among a group of CoC players, just say “Hey, Pulp Cthulhu [A Chaosium project “delayed” by over a decade – CR], what’s up with that?” and watch the sparks fly. Bad things happen; it’s not a perfect universe, I get that. I’ve been on both sides of this, as a publisher and a fan. I’ve been a victim of it and I’ve been guilty of doing it. When you tell people a book should be out on X-day… and then X-day +2 years later that book isn’t out… well, that sucks. It happens.
CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?
Oscar: The Cthulhu Mythos has always been a shared universe, since the early days of the Lovecraft Circle. Now, Lovecraftian RPG’s are becoming the same way. You can get players on three different continents investigating a scenario over Skype, recording it and putting it on a podcast.
You can get authors, artists and publishers from all over the world brainstorming together to produce truly amazing things. Authors who produced some of the golden age classic scenarios and campaigns are back writing new material. Newer authors are working on projects with them. New publishers are adding their voices and visions to the genre.
There’s a new energy and a lot of new material is being produced. Some of it is going to be great; some of it is going to be crap; and everyone will disagree on which is which. And that’s FINE! What’s shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPG’s? Everyone is! What is that direction? A 365 degree outward expansion. It’s a great time to be a fan of Lovecraftian RPG.
CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?
Oscar: If I had to pick three words, they would be Courtesy, Professionalism and Postage. I’ll get to the last one in a minute. When a bad product comes out the fans take it as a personal slight. They spent money on this and take their disappointment to the Internet, spitting venom and frustration in their statuses and on message boards. Is that fair? Who should we feel for? The company that put out a less-than-perfect product or the disgruntled fan lashing out? I will say that both sides are in the wrong.
We, as an industry and a fan base, can do better than this. More care needs to be given to these projects by various publishers. Fans need to understand that it is impossible to please everyone and their disappointment doesn’t give them a “licence to kill” on the Internet. The same goes for those working together on projects within the industry as well. We can all treat one another with a little more respect. Again, I am not perfect nor innocent of any of the things I’ve just mentioned. However, I am trying to do better. I want fans to be happy, but I know no matter what anyone does you can’t please everyone. I am trying to be a better colleague to my industry brothers and sisters as well.
And so we come to my last obstacle, Postage. If a great book comes out in one country of course fans in other countries will want it. The fans are very connected because the Internet makes the entire planet feel like a small village. But these fans live in many different countries, some of which are separated by oceans and rest on far off continents.
So, these fans try to order the book and what happens? Suddenly they realize they’ll have to pay MORE to get the book shipped to them than the book actually costs. That sucks. If that book is damaged while being shipped of course they’ll want a new one mailed out to them. They’ll expect the publisher to send them one and eat the shipping costs. So that cost the publisher, many of whom are now small independent licensees, an entire new book plus the wildly expensive shipping. This soon becomes such a spiralling pit of financial loss that international fans and small publishers simply can’t afford to support one another. I wish I had a solution but I don’t.
Yes, I know about PDF’s… but physical books… call me old school but I hate running a scenario off my laptop. No I don’t want to print 100+ pages off my printer.
CR: If it was up to you, where would you like to see the product lines of Lovecraftian RPGs (whether it’s the games themselves or their support products) go next?
Oscar: I would like to see all the companies, both parent and licensee, communicate and coordinate in the support of all the established eras. This way every year or two there would be at least one book out for each of the major settings; a new Dark Ages book, an new Invictus Book, a new Gaslight book, A new Modern Era book, maybe even support for Old West, Far Future and Colonial Eras. All of these setting are wonderful and deserve support. No matter how much fans love them and play them, if they aren’t supported they’ll die. The industry has planted an amazing orchard of Cosmic Horror Gaming settings; we need to start watering all those trees with scenario collections, campaigns and settings.
CR:Hypothetically, if you were to gaze into a crystal ball and look five years into the future of the hobby, what do you expect you’d see had changed in that time?
Oscar: I’ve often been criticized for being a Mythos writer who has hope for mankind. When I look into the future I see what I want to see, much like someone failing a Sanity Roll AND the following INT check. So here it goes –
I see Del Toro getting a green light for At The Mountains of Madness because of the success of Pacific Rim. At The Mountains of Madness does for Mythos Horror what The Lord of the Rings did for Fantasy. The way everyone knows what Hobbits are now, people will know what a Shoggoth, Mi-Go and The Great Race of Yith are. They start picking out just which of their friends have the Innsmouth Look. Mythos Horror explodes in popularity and people like us all grumble saying “We loved H.P. Lovecraft before it was cool”.
What will that mean for the hobby? It will be more popular than ever, crossing over into high budget video games, motion pictures, MMRPG’s and cable TV mini-series. Yeah, maybe even some mock reality shows like the Real Housewives of Arkham or Innsmouth Shore… hehehehehehe
(He is suddenly tackled by men in white coats and dragged off screaming)
No wait, it’ll happen! Really! Just wait! I’m not insane, I’m Not INSANE!
CR: Thanks Oscar! Are you willing to stick around to answer a few more questions?