State of the Tentacle: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

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When we kicked off the “State of the Tentacle” series, one of the goals was to cast a net further than just Call of Cthulhu and to try to get some opionions from folks in the broader “Lovecraftian RPG” field. With this fourth installment we have certainly succeeded in this endeavour … for trapped in the bottom of our net (trying desperately to swim back to the nearest Deep One metropolis) we find Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan.

Lovecraftian gamers will certainly know Gareth from his recent work as the “Laundry Guy” and for Trail of Cthulhu. But for gamers who are a little longer in the tooth (or is that tentacle?) his name will certainly be also recognizable as the “Paranoia reboot” guy and the “new Traveller edition” guy and many other epithets besides. All this experience — both inside and outside our little corner of the gaming universe — makes him an interesting person to quiz about the future of Lovecraftian games, so we are really happy that our net held true and we were able to compel some interesting answers from Gareth in exchange for his liberty.

Introduction

Gareth is a writer and game designer based in Ireland. While innocently starting out writing Cthulhu scenarios (irishgaming.com) for conventions, he wandered into a career in gaming by accident. These days, he is a line manager at Cubicle 7 (for The Laundry and other properties) and a freelancer for other companies, notably Pelgrane Press.

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Gareth has worked on all the Laundry Files books –that’s The Laundry Files Core Rulebook, the excellent Laundry scenario compendium Black Bag Jobs, The Laundry Agent’s Handbook, License to Summon, Mythos Dossiers, GOD GAME BLACK and the yet-to-be-released Cultists Under The Bed for those keeping score. He’s also written Arkham Detective Tales and has taken over responsibilities in writing the latter chapters of the much-loved Cthulhu Apocalypse campaign for Pelgrane Press. Gareth also contributed to the Maelstrom anthology of Mythos fiction and to the marginalia for Graham Walmsley’s insanely useful Stealing Cthulhu guide to building Lovecraftian tales by … well, er, stealing.

And all this in the last couple of years. Clearly Gareth is either a man who believes sleep is for the weak, some form of military AI experiment, or a Beowulf cluster of Mi-go brain cylinders. Even after interviewing him, we’re not really sure which.

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Outside the Mythos, Gareth is also famous for having written new editions of Traveller and Paranoia for Mongoose Publishing (and is proud of the fact that he added the “Servants of Cthulhu” as a secret society in Paranoia: Internal Security), He has also contributed to many, many more game lines than we could possibly mention here, written a licensed novel (Paranoia: Reality Optional) and is currently working on a FATE-powered game of lurid Georgian-era occult horror called Rakehell as well as many, many other things.

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Gareth blogs (infrequently) at www.milkyfish.com, but can be found more regularly on twitter and other forums, where he usually goes by the name “mytholder”.

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?

Gareth: Lovecraft bestrides the gaming world like some shambling colossus. There are few genres or types of game that don’t have at least a nod in the direction of ancient tentacled horrors. Not just roleplaying games – I’ve got shelves full of Lovecraftian board games, card games, computer gamesplush toys, even. Lovecraft’s a geek shibboleth.

(Of course, calling most of these ‘Lovecraftian’ is arguable a misnomer. If you say ‘Mythos’ roleplaying, you’re on safer ground. A lot of games don’t capture Lovecraft’s artful dread, but have the tropes of tentacled monsters, musty books and madmen down pat.)

The key milestones have to include the publication of Call of Cthulhu, of course, but I think the Deities and Demigods printing of the Mythos gods was also very important, as it seeded the idea that Lovecraft could be added to any game, instead of just being restricted to a single setting. Did that primordial miscegenation open up Lovecraftian horror to strange new vistas of gaming?

Given the huge success of Lovecraftian roleplaying, pointing out missteps feels like nitpicking. “Lovecraftian roleplaying has been a pillar of gaming for decades, hugely well-respected with a sturdy ruleset that’s hardly dated, a host of fans and a reputation for immensely rewarding play – where did it all go wrong?”

If I must answer – the game never really embraced one-shots as much as it should have, the character generation rules are… quaint, but notoriously time-consuming given how quickly investigators can perish, and there’s been a paucity of good advice for Keepers on how to keep a campaign going.

I worry about some of what I’ve heard about the 7th edition rules. Updating a classic ruleset like that is a very, very tricky job – look at the current debates over the direction of Dungeons and Dragons, for example. I worked on a new edition of Traveller a few years ago, and that was a harrowing experience. I feel you have to see yourself as a custodian of the game, not an architect – make tweaks rather than large-scale changes unless you can clearly identify sections that need improvement. It’s doubly hard with CoC, as the basic engine is so transparent and simple. “Here’s your skill, roll under it” is hard to improve upon.

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?

Gareth: The glib answer is “it’s doing well by surviving” in this grim times. The various publishers all seem to be ploughing their own fields quite nicely. Even if you restrict it to BRP-compatible material, everyone’s got their Unique Selling Point – hard-edged modern-day black-helicopter stuff in Delta Green, Lovecraft-country at Miskatonic River Press, 1920s England at Cthulhu Britanica and so on.

We do need more innovation. More player-facing books, for example. Robin Laws’ Armitage Files suggests a fantastic way of presenting investigative adventures, and I’d love to see something like that applied to classic Cthulhu. The big challenges in roleplaying writing are structuring information so it can be referenced quickly in play while still being clear and entertaining, and harnessing the creativity and enthusiasm of the players while still preserving a meaningful investigation.

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

Gareth: There’s the X + Cthulhu approach, adding the Mythos to different settings or genres. Cthulhu plus space, Cthulhu plus mecha, Cthulhu plus spies, Cthulhu plus WWII, Cthulhu plus Regency England. The right combination can, I think, spark something wonderful – if you can find unexpected and fruitful resonances between the Mythos and your chosen X, it makes for great gaming. It’s also possible to come up with new and interesting perspectives on the Mythos – look at John Snead’s Eldritch Skies, which recasts the Mythos races as aliens to be encountered and explored, as opposed to fundamentally incomprehensible horrors.

Eldritch Skies

The downside is that it can be all too easy to rely on Mythos tropes to provide the bad guys for your setting, which can result in retelling The Shadow Over Innsmouth over and over, only the bad guys have different hats. Any worthwhile combination should bring something new to the Mythos. (I was very pleased when reviews of the Black Bag Jobs anthology for the Laundry observed that it would be hard to adapt those adventures for a regular Cthulhu campaign, as they were so tied to the Laundry setting while still using classic Mythos concepts like Deep Ones or cultists.)

There’s also Kickstarter, which may have a big influence on the direction of games, but I’ll get to that later on.

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

Gareth: I note the distinction between ‘prosperity’ and ‘growth’. I’ll also draw a distinction between ‘hobby’ and ‘industry’.

The industry’s gotten very good at surviving and even prospering on small margins. The average book sells far fewer copies than a comparable release a decade ago, but there are more books, and they’re more efficiently produced. The industry will continue to prosper, within its own little niche, possibly becoming every more indistinguishable from ‘hobby’. I think the games and adventures coming out these days are richer and better-designed than any before, and there’s more analysis, discussion and refinement going on than ever before, thanks to the Internet.

Growth, though, is harder to achieve. One of the biggest obstacles for roleplaying games is time. I may get a deeper and more interesting experience out of a D&D campaign with six friends than I do out of popping Skyrim into my Xbox – but the latter takes only ten seconds, as opposed to the hours of wrangling, scheduling, postponement and logistical issues needed to get seven busy people into the same room for four hours. Gaming requires a huge investment of time, and that’s a big obstacle for new players.

Call of Cthulhu and its ilk actually do moderately well on this score. The Cthulhu character generation rules are rather slow, but the rules can be explained in a few seconds. There’s a wealth of scenarios available for busy Keepers, and Cthulhu lends itself very well to the one-shot game or a campaign where you can drop in pre-written scenarios.

I’d love to see something with the visuals and props of, say, Arkham Horror but with the structure and interactivity of a roleplaying game…but we’re crossing over into opportunities here. So, one of the obstacles is the lack of an appealing entry-level game, and one of the opportunities is the production of an appealing entry-level game!

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?

Gareth: Well, one corner of our quaint, witch-haunted town is under my tyrannical reign – I’m line manager for the Laundry Files, the game based on the novels of Charles Stross. While the novels determine the overall trajectory of the line (towards CASE NIGHTMARE GREEN [the Laundryverse name for the imminent catastrophe “when the stars come right” –CR]), we get to explore other aspects of the setting, and that normally involves adding a little more Mythos. This year, we’re working on a guide to the military and political aspects of the Laundryverse, another adventure anthology, and a guide to cults called Cultists Under The Bed, which uses a similar format to the Mythos Dossiers with lots of player handouts.

Other lines I wouldn’t want to dictate, save perhaps to hurry them along (Eternal Lies, for example, is something I’d really like to run at some point). There are lots of very strong designers working in the shadow of Lovecraft.

I’d love to see something that’s really quick to pick up and play, while still keeping all the strengths of a roleplaying game. Cthulhu Dark or Tremulus might come close.

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?

ipad-art-deco-coc-sheetGareth: There’ll be more integration of electronic media and support. The balance of the industry is shifting towards PDFs. These days, if I buy a new game to read, I’ll buy it in PDF, and only get a print version if I want to actually play it. You still can’t beat print for ease of use at a gaming table (at least, not yet — playing “the five year future of consumer electronics, especially tablets” is a whole other blog post). There’ll also be more use of character trackers, virtual handouts, and so on, especially for games set in the modern era.

Right now, Kickstarter’s exerting a huge gravitational pull over the industry. Bigger companies like WotC have enough financial mass to ignore it, but it’s virtually irresistible for smaller companies and hobbyist publishers. The lure of a enthused, connected, invested fanbase PLUS money up front PLUS a financing system that rewards clever ideas and gaming the system… that’s very attractive.

There are three ways this can go.

sott - Kickstarter Growth TentaclesFirstly, the kickstarter bubble might just burst. If a number of high-profile projects don’t deliver, then people may decide that investing money in a game that might never materialise just isn’t worth the risk. A badly managed successful Kickstarter can be much worse than a failed project.

In this scenario, the landscape looks much as it does now. Some product lines will have closed down, others opened up, but I wouldn’t expect any large-scale changes.

Secondly, Kickstart might just tick along, in which case it effectively becomes a pre-order/market testing system. Someone has an idea for a book, up it goes on Kickstarter, and if it funds, it gets published. It gives companies cash flow and lets them avoid sinking thousands into a book that no-one wants. Everyone wins, especially publishers with good track records.

Scenario three is that we keep getting these huge spikes of funding for high-profile projects with thousands of backers. That would open the door to a scenario where there are fewer but much bigger and more impressive products instead of a steady stream of books.

The Kickstarter phenomenon is especially relevant to Mythos gaming, because… well, Cthulhu’s popular and instantly recognisable. We’re a meme.

CR: A meme indeed … Thanks for your time, Gareth!

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2 responses to “State of the Tentacle: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

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