Monthly Archives: February 2013

A Second Lash at: Graham Walmsley

SotT-LargeLogo-GrahamW-SecondLash

When we interviewed Graham Walmsley (of Trail of Cthulhu, Cthulhu Dark and Stealing Cthulhu fame) a couple of weeks back, he had lots of intriguing and thought-provoking things to say about Lovecraftian gaming. He also had a wealth of well-considered things to say about publishing, and in particular small-press or self-publication of gaming material. We thought it would be great to get Graham back to answer another couple of questions about the intersection of these two topics … publishing Lovecraftian stuff.

Here’s what happened.

CR: Knowing Lovecraftian gamers, I would imagine that many readers would have, at one time or another, given thought to self-publication of their own-written material. As someone who has been more successful than most in establishing their own small press, what do you think are the key challenges to making a self-published book a success? Is it different for PDF publishing vs print publishing?

There are the practical things: playtesting, layout, art, printing. But those are fairly simple. (And, if people are looking to get started, I’m always happy to talk people through the process. I’d love to see more self-publishing.)

But the difficult part is finding an audience. What you must do, here, is engage with people: go to conventions, run your scenarios for people, get them excited about your stuff. Until you’ve got that excitement, you’re sunk.

Too many people write something on their own, then hope they can find an audience for it. That’s all wrong. You need to be engaging with people from the start.

CR: In talking about publishers engaging better with what’s happening with their games at the grassroots level, do you have any thoughts about ways in which companies can better tap into this (largely underutilized) source of product inspiration?

It’s funny. I rarely see publishers playing games at conventions. I genuinely don’t understand it. How can you find out what’s going on if you don’t play? So that’s the first thing: I think they should play more.

I’d also like to see projects originating from writers. When I’ve worked for larger companies, what has often happened is: they give me a brief and a word limit. I then write whatever they ask me to write. I’d like to see writers proposing projects.

And, to be fair, I’ve seen that happen, but I’d like to see more of it. There are such talented writers out there, with such amazing ideas. I’d love them to have more of a free rein.

CR: Well thanks for that, Graham … I guess we had better send the shoggoth off to catch some other poor unfortunate! You are free to go (but watch the Hound of Tindalos on your way out).

Advertisements

State of the Tentacle: Cynthia Celeste Miller

SotT-LargeLogo-CynthiaCM

When we kicked off the “State of the Tentacle” interviews, we deliberately cast a fairly wide net in relation to the types of Lovecraftian roleplaying games that were up for discussion. We didn’t just want it to be a discussion about where things are at with Call of Cthulhu — Lovecraftian gaming moved beyond the confines of just a single game some time back (when most of us weren’t looking!). There are now a whole variety of ideas out there about how the elusive yet enticing prose of Lovecraft can be translated to the gaming table, and ideally we would like these interviews to take in ALL of those different perspectives.

Introduction

Today’s guest interviewee, Cynthia Celeste Miller, is the creative force behind one of the more established of the “new crop” of Lovecraftian RPGs, Macabre Tales. Cynthia is the president of Spectrum Games, a company known specifically for faithfully emulating various genres with their game rules.

sott-macabre-preview1-montage

For folks who have not dipped their toes to test the Macabre Tales water (and you really should) … it represents quite a different take on Lovecraftian gaming than either of the two major games, Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu. For starters it prides itself not on being a “Cthulhu Mythos game”, but a “Lovecraft game” :sott-macabre-preview3 that means that a lot of the weird and wonderful (and sometimes slightly dubious) additions to the Lovecraft universe made by later authors such as August Derleth and Brian Lumley are simply not part of the game. In style it is a narrative-driven game (rather than a simulation-driven one) and it is specifically tailored to being run by a Keeper for a solo Investigator. Indeed, the default rules for the game assume there is only one player … the rationale being that almost all of Lovecraft’s stories feature a central narrator or character (who foolishly investigates things that man was not meant to know). But if you want to run Macabre Tales for more than one player, there are also some optional rules for doing that too.

One of the aspects of the game which is oft-talked about is its unusual central game mechanic which uses dominoes rather than dice as the mechanism by which the outcome of a challenge is determined. [And in case there’s any confusion whatsoever, we’re talking here about dominos the game pieces … not anything to do with pizza, although I guess you could eat pizza while playing too :-)]

sott-Dominos

Each adventure specifically has a classic three-act structure and the game mechanics function slightly differently in each of the acts (to simulate the rising danger as the horror unfolds). When things get truly pulse-pounding the game’s “tension scene” mechanic kicks in delivering a short and suspenseful piece of action during which things can get more deadly again.

You can read a much more detailed description of the intriguing mechanics of Macabre Tales, as well as the features of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction which inspired them, in this essay penned by Cynthia herself.

sott-Montage-MacabreTales

In addition to their genre emulation of Lovecraft’s universe, Cynthia’s company also produces other games which aim to faithfully recreate other fictional genres: Superheroes, 1980s Action Cartoons, Slasher Movies, and (coming this year) 1970s Sci-Fi. You can find out more at Spectrum Games’ website or Facebook page.

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?

Cynthia: The publication of Call of Cthulhu has to be considered the most important milestone, at least in my mind. That is the point where roleplaying and Lovecraft truly and fully melded into one tentacle-laden abomination. While other games may have contained some Lovecraftian entities and monsters, it wasn’t until CoC that an entire game focused on bringing H.P. Lovecraft’s lore to life. So, to me, that was the milestone.

sott-tremulus-logoAside from that, there have certainly been milestones of note, though mostly in terms of devising new ways to translate HPL’s work to tabletop gaming (e.g., Trail of Cthulhu’s ingenious use of clues and Tremulus story-driven approach, etc.). For so long, the RPG industry was content with mostly allowing CoC to be the final word in Lovecraftian roleplaying. In recent years, designers/companies have taken it upon themselves to add their own voices to the mix by releasing new Lovecraftian RPGs and I think that’s fantastic!

As for missteps, well, that’s a tough call. At the risk of seeming non-committal, I don’t feel that there have been any missteps of note. The way I see it, every designer has his or her own vision of what Lovecraftian roleplaying should be all about – whether it’s simply staying within context of HPL’s tales or adding major twists to the whole shebang (mechs, for example). There’s no right or wrong in this, so I can’t really say any of these things could be classified as a misstep.

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?

Cynthia: The fact that such a tiny niche within a niche is still thriving and growing exponentially proves, as far as I’m concerned, that the mini-industry is doing a lot of things right. For starters, a ton of Lovecraftian RPG material can easily be found, which is a huge plus. Another plus is that new material is being churned out every month. This persistence can only serve to keep Lovecraftian gaming alive.

sott-coc-book-ends

What could be done better? I would like to see more non-CoC Lovecraftian RPGs on store shelves. Many gamers (especially the more casual gamers who don’t haunt RPG websites) think that CoC is the only RPG of this nature and that, to me, is a shame. Not that CoC is a bad game or anything; it’s just that people should be aware that it’s only one of many options available for those wanting to channel HPL into their gaming activities.

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now?

Cynthia: It’s an exciting time right now, because more Lovecraftian games are hitting the market than ever before. Much of this stems from the fact that HPL’s work is becoming increasingly well known in popular media, creating more of a demand for such products.

I feel that designers are really asking themselves how to best translate Lovecraft’s style into game mechanics. This is certainly something I’ve noticed and I can’t stress enough how happy that makes me. It’s this line of thinking that leads to innovation.

CR: What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

Cynthia: The relatively recent surge of Lovecraft-based RPG products has a dark side. Many of these products are well thought out, laboriously researched and worthwhile products. However, as with anything, there has been a regrettable portion of less-than-stellar material being released. This is the nature of the beast, given that nearly anyone can publish products, due to crowdfunding, print-on-demand and PDF technology. The challenge publishers and designers face is to make their work stand out and thus rise to the top of the heap.

Image: Phil Slattery’s Art of Horror (wordpress)

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?

sott-One-Shot-LogoCynthia: I would like to see a stronger emphasis on one-shot adventures rather than campaigns. I’m of the opinion that campaigns go directly against Lovecraft’s philosophy that humans are insignificant in the grand scheme of the cosmos. In his tales, the protagonists just weren’t that important. We weren’t meant to empathize with them and, in truth, they were little more than plot devices used so that the reader could experience these horrific concepts and entities. In a campaign situation, the spotlight is, by necessity, on the protagonists. It’s a chronicle of their continued exploits and I don’t think it conveys the Lovecraftian themes as well as one-shots do.

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?

sott-giant-cthulhu-diceCynthia: With time becoming more and more of a precious commodity these days, I can see a move toward games that require little preparation – fast character creation, modular plot seeds, fast resolution, etc. In fact, this trend has already started to take hold. If pen-and-paper RPGs are to thoroughly prosper in the future, I believe this is the route that needs to be taken. In a day and age where someone can just sit down at a computer and immerse themselves in an MMORPG with zero prep time, we need to be able to follow suit, at least to some degree.

sott-cthulhufishAm I saying that MMORPGs are going to spell doom for tabletop roleplaying? Not at all. They are still two very different experiences. It’s like saying that hotdogs and hamburgers can’t co-exist. What I am saying is that we as an industry/hobby have to continue to evolve… and I think we are. If we stagnate and lose touch with the times, things could go very sour. Fortunately, I don’t see that happening.

CR: Thanks Cynthia for coming along to chat about the future of Lovecraftian gaming!


A Second Lash at: Dan Harms

SotT-LargeLogo-DanH-SecondLash

Of all the interviews we have run so far in the “State of the Tenacle” series, probably the one we have received the most feedback about is our chat with Dan Harms, renowned expert on all things Cthulhu Mythos. Spurred on by that interest, we were very eager to get Dan back in the interview seat for a couple more questions. We were lucky enough to grab a little bit of his time the other day … but there were so many questions we wanted to ask that we couldn’t pick just two. He is, after all, an interesting guy to quiz . . .

CR: You mention the Chaosium Monograph line as a “mis-step”, at least in its current form. Could you elaborate a little on what you think does and doesn’t work about this line … and can you see any way the monograph publishing system could work better?

Dan: When I say the monograph line is a “mis-step,” mind you, I’m basing it on what monographs I have read,  the reactions I’ve heard to the others, and my creative philosophy.  Maybe they make a good amount of money, and if so they’re a success from a business perspective.

In my experience, you should believe in what you’re creating, if you’re an author, an illustrator, a publisher, or a programmer.  That’s not to say it’s not possible to get by without it, especially if you’re talented, but bringing that perspective to a project always leads to its improvement.  When you’re just putting a product on paper and shipping it out, without really getting behind it, people will start becoming skeptical about that line as a whole.

To me, the place for a monograph series is between what you believe in and what can be marketed.  For example, someone could write a wonderful Gaslight sourcebook for Buffalo, New York.  No matter how great it is, it’ll always be a product appealing to a very small niche, which makes it suitable as a small-scale Print On Demand book rather than a general release.  If the sales reveal some interest, then the book can be expanded and published on a broader scale.

I do think there are products in the monograph line that meet my criteria – off the top of my head, Machine Tractor Station Kharkov 37, The Abbey, and The Parapsychologist’s Handbook.  It also includes those that simply don’t.

CR: You make the distinction between true innovation and simply “applying window-dressing” to the familiar genre conventions. Do you have any thoughts on ways that a designer might approach the development of a genuinely innocative product line? Do you need to completely throw out or challenge entrenched gaming stereotypes? Go back to literary sources to mine for other narrative voices?

Dan: I think to work with Lovecraft, you have to get back to his writing and accept its viewpoint as a baseline.  That means getting beyond the trappings and asking what the story says about the universe itself.  For example, Pathfinder includes Mythos creatures among its monsters.  Fighting them is probably fun, but their presence doesn’t equate to a Lovecraftian game.

Now, that doesn’t mean accepting an indifferent cosmos, necessarily; after all, Lovecraft’s tales of Randolph Carter are certainly not about that.  Yet if you’re not letting Lovecraft set the vision on a fundamental level, you either have a bunch of ideas thrown together because they’re neat, or you let the other elements set the tone, at which point you’re back to using the Mythos as a monster manual.

Does that mean we’re committed to rehashing Lovecraft again and again?  Certainly not.  The next question is how the genre, or the characters within it, act within that setting.  Both Delta Green and Bookhounds [of London] do that well, with Delta Green working to answer why the characters fight the Mythos, and Bookhounds asking whether it isn’t so bad every so often to make a pound or two off those terrors.  Some answers are easier than others – it’d be much easier to write Lovecraftian noir than Lovecraftian pulp or four-color superheroics – but that’s not to say it couldn’t be done.

I’d also encourage authors to think of this from a campaign perspective – how does that tone come through when the initial novelty of the setting wears off?

CR: One thing that featured heavily in early Call of Cthulhu products, but which has largely disappeared is gaming material themed around travelling to otherworldly or “Mythos” locations. Why do you think that exotic locales for Cthulhuoid adventuring have gradually been replaced by scenarios set in more mundane places, and is there a case for revisiting some of those outre places?

Dan: Why we don’t see more alien settings in Cthulhu games? They’re really hard to write about.  I wrote a chapter for Fury of Yig that used a classic HPL location as the setting.  Going in, I realized that I had to knock that chapter out of the park, or that I had to let it go.  It has to be genuinely unnerving and alien and significant to the plot, and that can be quite tough.  If other writers feel the same way, I’m not surprised they’ve decided to take their writing elsewhere.

image: brezelberg on deviantart

CR: You have a significant professional background in one of the themes that turn up frequently in Lovecraft’s fiction: old books.  How well do you think existing Lovecraftian RPGs embrace the way “eldritch tomes” are used in Mythos fiction? Have you ever tried anything different in your own gaming to better capture the Lovecraftian fascination with research?

Dan: Tomes are used very differently in Mythos stories than in the games.  In the works of Lovecraft and other authors, these books are treated as sources of information.  In Call of Cthulhu, they are rewards, insofar as they provide the Cthulhu Mythos skill and spells after the events of the session are over.   In addition, the adventures and campaigns have not been built to take them into account.  Even in a gripping long-term campaign like Masks [of Nyarlathotep], reading the tomes you find doesn’t tell you anything directly useful to your investigations.

A clear sign that this is a problem are the changes in the rules to get past it.  Back in the day, people would write scenarios with notes like, “Oh, most books take long periods of time to read, but this one only takes 24 hours.”  Later we got rules about skimming and reducing tome reading times, all of which are attempts to mitigate how those rules work.

My quick survey of the other Lovecraftian RPGs on my shelf (and it’s not a complete collection, I should add) is that everyone else treats them the same way, if not in terms of time, then in terms of benefits.  I think this is a major detriment, as it really makes tomes optional to the course of play.  You lose the element of characters saying, “The knowledge in these books is dangerous – but knowing it could be crucial to our struggles!”

Then, of course, you have Keepers who want to keep tomes and spells away from characters because it might make them too powerful.  I suppose you could do that.  In terms of genre emulation, it’s like deciding that soldier characters in a modern battlefield game shouldn’t have grenades and machine guns because they might derail the plot.

If you want to get a good idea of how I think tomes should be treated in games, I’d suggest picking up The Unspeakable Oath 21 and looking at Bret Kramer’s article on “Saucer Attack 1928!”  The tome is Bret’s inspiration, but the format comes from our discussions about how books should be used in the game.  Fury of Yig, when it appears, should give some examples of how they can be placed into a game.

I don’t know if the rules for handling tomes need to be more complex, necessarily, but it would be better if they or the scenarios were geared to encourage a player to behave like a character in a Lovecraft story.

CR: Dan … thanks so much for coming back and offering another great set of answers! Our tentacles are in your debt …


State of the Tentacle: Oscar Rios

SotT-LargeLogo-OscarR

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. Invictus Logo btransFortunately 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.

Introduction

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.

sott-Montage-MULAcovers

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?

Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth

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.

sott-Skype-of-Cthulhu-logo

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.

sott-Orient-Express-Writers-Blog

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?

sott-i-hate-ia-iaOscar: 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.

sott-hplhs-postage-stamps

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.

sott-usps-boxSo, 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?

Round Wax Seal - Elder SignOscar: 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?

Oscar: OK


A Second Lash at: Stuart Boon

SotT-LargeLogo-StuartB-SecondLash

A few weeks back we interviewed Stuart Boon, line director of Cubicle 7’s Cthulhu Britannica line and award-winning writer of Shadows Over Scotland. Lots of folks seem to have enjoyed reading Stuart’s comments, so we thought we would invite him back to answer a couple more questions . . .

CR: One of the most praised aspects of Shadows Over Scotland is the way it tackles presenting source material in a informative, exhaustive but also more entertaining way than many of the Cthulhu location books from recent history. Did you have any particular approach or methodology you applied to writing those sections of the book? Were there any particular sources of inspiration that helped in creating an innovative presentation of sourcebook material?

Stuart: My intention with writing Shadows Over Scotland was always to write the book ‘for Keepers’ — that is, to write for an audience that is looking to acquire and make use of detailed, informative, and evocative source material, but who also want to be entertained in the process. These days it is easy enough to dial up information on people, places, events, etc. in Wikipedia or the like, so I personally don’t think it is enough for sourcebooks to be mere repositories of information. That said, a lot of sourcebooks I own and have read are written solely to disseminate information and care little for engaging readers. When the opportunity to write Shadows came up, I planned from the beginning to write a book that had the material (e.g. histories, events, local knowledge, etc.), but that would situate it within a larger story (that of a Mythos-infused Scotland in the 1920s) and emphasise atmosphere and drama over sheer quantity of information. So, from the get-go, I was very conscious of writing a book that would be entertaining, and hopefully inspirational, for Keepers.

In terms of my own inspiration, I’ve been certainly influenced by all the early Call of Cthulhu writers and designers (e.g. Keith Herber, Sandy Petersen, Lynn Willis, etc.), but more particularly by H.P. Lovecraft himself who wrote wonderfully verbose and detailed stories full of tension, atmosphere, and verisimilitude. Much of Lovecraft’s style can be transposed to writing source material, if you think about it, but for me what matters most in terms of presentation is thinking carefully about your purpose and your audience. Everything else should fall into place after that.

CR: Why do you think there is such a vast difference between the production standards applied to recent European Cthulhu editions (French, German, Spanish) and those produced for the English Language? Do those publishers just have bigger art budgets, or a buying public that will pay at a higher price point for quality products, or are they just more creative at applying their art budget to produce more beautiful results?

Stuart: Hmm, that’s a hard question to answer from a desk in Scotland. It would be fascinating to get an answer from the French, Spanish, and German designers themselves. For one, however, I suspect there is a very different approach to production design in those European editions. I think the European design houses have tapped into the fact that the relatively small, but very loyal Call of Cthulhu fan base is willing, and has the disposable income, to purchase prestige products.

sott-masques_collector_montage

So, to answer your question, I think they are designed differently from English publications at the outset. They may well have different approaches to the use of art, but I think what drives them is their ability to produce attractive, specialised products for a targeted audience. They may well be selling lower numbers, but making a modest profit and the final products that we’ve seen so far have been truly spectacular. I can see little reason why such an approach could not be adopted by an English language publisher, but no one as yet has made the effort.

CR: Thanks for allowing yourself to be dragged back by Cthulhu’s tentacles for a second round. Best of luck on the First Aid and Psychoanalysis rolls 🙂


State of the Tentacle: Graham Walmsley

state-of-the-tentacle-graham-walmsley

Cthulhu Reborn is pleased to welcome Graham Walmsley as our fifth interviewee in the “State of the Tentacle” series. Graham kindly agreed to drop by our dimly-lit half-forgotten headquarters high on a Wooded Hill overgrown with trees unnaturally thick. And if it sounds like that is a description lifted from Graham’s own book Stealing Cthulhu — well, that’s just a coincidence.

Stealing CthulhuWhen we were formulating a dream list of people to interview, Graham was one of the first entries … Although he has only been writing for Lovecraftian RPGs for a few years, he has already left quite an impression in terms of creating a manifestly different type of roleplaying experience which is distinctly more “Lovecrafty” than almost anything that has gone before. Protagonists in his scenarios are just that more certainly doomed than in most scenarios — and the horrors they face are just that bit more elusive and “unknowable” in the same way that many of the finer details of the supernatural manifestations in Lovecraft’s tales were never properly explained. This is really what the Trail of Cthulhu creators were thinking when they coined the term “purist.”

We figured that with such a fresh and innovative take on translating Mythos to the gaming table, Graham was sure to have some interesting things to say about the future of Lovecraftian gaming. As you’ll see below … we were right.

Introduction

sott-play-unsafeBy way of introductions … Graham is the author of the much-acclaimed (and insanely useful) Stealing Cthulhu, a guide to Lovecraftian storytelling in games. He is also the creator of the free, rules-light system Cthulhu Dark which has been garnering significant attention among gamers intrigued by its simplicity and deadliness. He has written many products for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu and has also written for Cubicle 7’s The Laundry.

Graham is passionate about self-publishing: as well as Stealing Cthulhu and Cthulhu Dark, he wrote and published the storytelling guide Play Unsafe and the murder mystery game A Taste For Murder.

Graham’s work is regularly nominated for awards and, last year, won a Gold Ennie award.

CthulhuReborn: 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?

Graham: First, there was Call of Cthulhu, the game I grew up with, which scared me. And then, honestly, I lost touch for a few years. All I remember was this scary, scary game.

When I got back into gaming, I was most interested in smaller games. So I liked Malcolm Craig’s Cold City, which doesn’t explicitly reference Lovecraft, but has soldiers fighting tentacled monsters in Berlin. And I liked Jared Sorensen’s Unspeakable, a Lovecraftian investigation game, in which you make up the horror as you go along. And other horror games like Dread and Dead of Night.

If you’ve played those games, you’ll know how different they are from Call of Cthulhu or other traditional games. Not better, just different. And I think they show that you can do horror games in a new way.

Walmsely-collectedtocworks

Five years ago, there was Trail of Cthulhu. That did two things: it gave Ken Hite’s take on the Mythos, which was utterly beautiful, making the creatures unknowable and twisted; and it specified a “Purist” style of play. I think that was important. It gave the idea that Cthulhu games needn’t be about shooting cultists: they could be about incomphrensible, insoluble horror.

Since then, there’s been a mini-explosion in Cthulhu games: CthulhuTech, Realms of Cthulhu, my own Cthulhu Dark. Is that a good thing? I don’t know. On the negative side, it’s become a bandwagon. On the positive side, there are lots of games, each offering their own take on Lovecraftian gaming.

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?

Graham: Man. I hate talking about the industry. When we talk about the industry, we tend to focus on the bigger companies and the products they’re releasing. But, for me, that’s not where the interesting stuff is coming from.

sott-lamentations-of-the-flame-princessFor me, the interesting stuff comes from smaller publishers. For example, James Raggi’s Lamentations of the Flame Princess has some great Mythos stuff in it.

Even more interesting is the stuff that comes from Keepers and players. For example, I’m excited about Scott Dorward’s scenarios, which he runs at conventions in the UK. And I’m excited about the stuff Terry Romero is doing with Cthulhu games in the States.

So, to answer your question: what’s the industry doing well? It’s doing well at a grassroots level. Keepers are producing great stuff, small publishers are producing great stuff. What could the industry do better? Engage with that grassroots stuff.

Let me give you an example. One of my favourite publications, at the moment, is Arc Dream’s The Unspeakable Oath. It’s a magazine that contains adventure seeds, scenarios and other things related to Lovecraftian games. What makes it so good? Everything is written by writers who genuinely care about what they’re writing. (Here’s what doesn’t happen: The Oath invents a theme; writers pitch scenario based on that theme; the Oath pays writers to write those scenarios. Instead, writers are writing what they want to write, which is what makes it so good.)

CR: What do you see as the main factors shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs right now? What do you see as the main challenges currently facing the continued prosperity/growth of the hobby?

sott-jim-phillips-Legs-coverGraham: It’s easier to publish that it’s ever been. That means: it’s easier to publish Cthulhu stuff than it has ever been. And services like Kickstarter make it even easier. This is all good.

What I see, at the moment, is a groundswell of people publishing their own stuff. Often, it’s as good as the products produced by bigger companies. Often, it’s better: because they love what they’re publishing, people playtest it more, research it more, polish it more.

For me, that’s where we’re going. It’s a world of little, innovative home-produced products. I’m excited.

So where does that leave the bigger companies? In some ways, they’re getting more innovative. Pelgrane Press are working with individual writers to produce a range of strange and creative scenarios (Jason Morningstar’s The Black Drop, Bill White’s The Big Hoodoo, Robin Laws’ The Repairer of Reputations). Cubicle 7 are building product lines around British folktales and World War II. And we’ll see what happens with Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition, but I’m excited that two long-standing British Keepers are writing it.

In some ways, however, the things published today aren’t innovative. They resemble the things published twenty or thirty years ago. I’d like more innovation.

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?

Graham: Let’s see. I’m tempted to reply in generalisations, but that’s dull. It’s more fun if I tell you exactly what I think the major product lines should do. Let’s do that.

  • sott-MULA-logoCall of Cthulhu: I’d like an explosion of new monographs, in which up-and-coming writers cover new historical eras and aspects of the occult. In particular, I’d like monographs that don’t take a British or American perspective. For example, I’d love an Indian monograph written from the point of view of Indian people, rather than Westerners.
  • Trail of Cthulhu: I’d like to see a new edition, which shakes up the GUMSHOE system, keeping the best bits and tweaking the rest to make it even better. Meanwhile, I’d like them to keep working with writers and publishing exciting stuff.
  • Delta Green: I’m looking forward to the new edition. For me, the most exciting thing about Delta Green is that it’s a military setting. I’d like them to use more military history, with stories from soldiers and support staff we haven’t heard before.
  • Cthulhu Dark: I’m planning to publish a Cthulhu Dark rulebook. In addition, I’d like people to use Cthulhu Dark to publish their own scenarios and sourcebooks. As above, I’m especially interested in non-Western perspectives. Or at least stories and settings we haven’t heard before.

sott-cthulhu-dark-logo

CR: What do you mean, non-Western perspectives?

sott-moplah-prisonersGraham: Most Cthulhu material has focussed on Brits and Americans. Even when a product focusses on a foreign country, it takes a British or American perspective. (It’s usually British for Gaslight material, American for later material).

This is both a problem and an opportunity. It’s a problem, because we only hear a Western perspective. It’s like nobody else exists. It’s also a problem because it tends to romanticise history. There were some deeply problematic things happening in the 1890s and 1920s (which I won’t spell out for you). We don’t hear about them.

sott-victorian-mud-larkSo, I’d like to hear the stories we don’t normally hear. More widely, I’d like to hear stories about people we don’t usually hear. We hear a lot about Victorian gentlemen, but not about Victorian market traders, Victorian mistresses or Victorian mudlarks, even though their stories are probably more interesting.

And it’s an opportunity, because there are so many more stories to tell. I want to hear stories we haven’t heard before, from people we don’t usually hear from.

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?

Graham: There’ll be more small publishers, more exciting new scenarios and more focus on horror that’s close to Lovecraft but not Lovecraft. Poe? M R James? Stephen King? Thomas Ligotti? I don’t know, but I’m looking forward to finding out.

CR:Us too! Thanks for your time, Graham! I’m sure that there’s a whole range of things you’ve mentioned that readers might want to quiz you further on. Are you willing to come back to answer a couple more questions?

Graham: OK.


Time To Get Atomic

Fifties Logo (sml)

Those who have been following Chaosium’s website press-releases or the Yog-Sothoth forums will know that a few days ago, Chaosium released a book called Atomic Age Cthulhu which brings Call of Cthulhu roleplaying into a brand new era … the 1950s. I’ve had a quick chance to skim through the PDF version of the book … and I’d have to say that it looks brimming with potential (I can’t wait to get my hands on a print version to read through properly).

People that have been following the State of the Tentacle interview series here on Cthulhu Reborn will probably remember that Atomic Age Cthulhu is one of several projects shepherded into this world by the necromantic hand of Brian Sammons. You can read our interview with Brian, where he talks about this book and many others, over on this blog post.

Long-time readers of Cthulhu Reborn may remember that waaaay back in June 2011, we released a design for a 1950s “Atomic Age” character sheet for Call of Cthulhu. While I was hoping that this sheet may have made it into the Chaosium book, it seems to have missed out on inclusion …. I’m guessing for space reasons (since it’s already a pretty hefty book, weighting in at 228 pages).

Anyway, far be it from me to deny the world the chance to use this character sheet design … so below there’s a link to an updated version of the original PDF that includes a couple of new skills found in some of the Atomic Age Cthulhu book. I’ve even updated it to be a fillable PDF sheet. Download it. Use it in your games. Share it with your friends. Print out a double-sided copy and staple it into the back of your copy of Atomic Age Cthulhu. Go crazy, Daddy-O.

Pictures of the Sheet

Just so you know what you’ll be getting if you download the 1950s PDF character sheet … here are pictures of both the front and back (click for larger versions of the images).

chaosium atomic age sheet - front

Download Links

There are two versions, one which includes a small amount of autocalculation of fields (Idea, Luck, Know, 99-Cthulhu) and another which has no autocalculation:

Both files are 6.7MB in size, and have been granted the right holy Adobe incantations to allow you to fill them in and save the form complete with input (kinda useful for a char sheet).

These files are copyright to Cthulhu Reborn but released for non-commercial use under a Creative Commons License. That means, you can do pretty much whatever you like with them … except make money.

Duck and Cover

I hope folks get some use out of these (semi-official) sheets for Chaosium’s “Atomic Age” setting for Call of Cthulhu. If you use them for anything truly epic … feel free to let us know and we’ll share your magnificence with the world 🙂


%d bloggers like this: