State of the Tentacle: Cynthia Celeste Miller

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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.

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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 :-)]

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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.

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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.

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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!

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