Monthly Archives: March 2013

State of the Tentacle: Christian Lehmann

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For this installment of the State of the Tentacle series, we are going abroad … leaving behind the confines of the comfortable world of English-language Call of Cthulhu publishing to talk with Dr Christian Lehmann, a man with an uncommonly keen knowledge of the past, present (and perhaps future) of CoC in France.

squadlala the 13th, deviantart

When I first conceived of the idea of this interview series, one of my goals was to be as inclusive as possible … trying to bring out the views of ALL of the different creative folk who are driving the development of Lovecraftian roleplaying. Those of us in the English-speaking world tend to sort of ignore what is going on in the realms of non-English publications for the game … or at least we *used to* until we started seeing the jaw-dropping production values which European publishers are now bringing to their game books.

So I am quite pleased to be able to break down these invisible barriers a little by talking with Christian, who has had a long-running relationship with French-language CoC pretty much since its beginning in the 1980s. I am hoping to follow this up with some further interviews with current European publishers … just so those of us who never spent points to develop an Other Language skill for ourselves can get a sense of how the endlessly creative minds behind those beautiful rulebooks and supplements view the future of Lovecraftian gaming.

Introduction

Christian Lehmann would already be known to many from his active presence on Lovecraftian gaming forums. In real life he is a trained medical doctor … who CLAIMS to only use his skilled detailed knowledge of the human form in service to his local community (near Paris) as a GP. Any suggestions of strange chitterings coming from his basement laboratory are always soundly refuted, although one wonders exactly how many Jacob’s Ladders one man needs for decoration 🙂

In addition to his day job, Christian is also an accomplished novelist, with over twenty books published in French. At least one of these has been made into a film.

In the 1980s Christian published a well regarded French-language RPG magazine called Chroniques d’Outre-Monde whose mission was to broach more adult themes in RPGs. During the several years the magazine was published, Christian befriended many of the “Great Old Ones” at and around Chaosium in the 80’s (Greg Stafford, Lynn Willis, Keith Herber, Mark Morrisson, etc…), also arranging for numerous English-language Call of Cthulhu scenarios to be translated and published in French. During this time he was also part of the team which incubated the classic Horror on the Orient Express campaign. In recent years Christian has scanned and published many of the letters and faxes that shot around the world during the creation of this monumental box set (this log of correspondence being a fascinating read for anyone who wants to know how such things really come together behind-the-scenes; highly recommended).

And with the rebirth of Horror on the Orient Express as a massively expanded Kickstarter 2nd Edition, Christian has been roped in once again … this time in a more substantial writing role. While us mere mortals are waiting to see the fruits of his labours (and those of many other talented folk) in print, Christian has this keen advice about what to expect from the new edition: “from what I’ve seen, it will kick shoggoth ass.” Enough said.

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?

Christian: Role-playing trickled down into France slowly at the end of the seventies. In effect, RPGs meant D&D. Until Chaosium put out Call of Cthulhu and changed things completely.

France has a strange relationship with fantasy, and an even stranger relationship with Lovecraft. Even though Maupassant and other writers have written about the supernatural, «fantasy» in France had a bad press in the second half of the twentieth century and was considered as a sub-genre. Who could seriously give a hoot about elves and orcs and rings of power in the land of existentialism? Dunsany, Howard, Tolkien et al were frowned upon, and their works were not easily attainable.

Lovecraft was another matter: his peculiar brand of pessimism, his depiction of an uncaring universe struck a chord with the French intellectuals and he was always highly thought of, the subject of many a pamphlet or discourse. When Chaosium published CoC, the game became a long-time hit in France, and its rapid translation in French by Jeux Descartes, who was then a publisher and a series of brick and mortar shops all over France, was instrumental in its success. Not only did «Descartes» as they were called (and it’s funny to think that THE French RPG company in those days had the name of a French rational thinker from long ago) import the English-language supplements, but they translated the Chaosium scenarios, as well as scenarios from less-known publishers, like TOME. Arkham Evil and Pursuit to Kadath are thus better known in France than in their native USA ;-).

There were very few original French scenarios published outside of Casus Belli, the Jeux Descartes monthly magazine, so Keepers and players were totally dependent on the original Chaosium output and there was a long period of drought when Chaosium seemed on the brink of collapse at the end of the eighties.

sott - chroniques-d-outre-mondeBy that time, I had put out a professional rpg magazine «Chroniques d’Outre-Monde», and for the fourteen issues that it lasted, I used my friendly connections with English-speaking authors to publish Carl Ford, Mark Morrisson and Keith Herber in French.

I don’t think the Cthulhu collecting-card game had much following in France, and it certainly didn’t help the hobby as rpgs were for a time pushed back to make way for wave after wave of collectible card-games. sott - chroniques-d-outre-monde 2Cthulhu d20 was not a success either, and there were long intervals when no new scenario appeared, and Descartes, never managing to reach a sufficient audience to become profitable enough, started to close down shops, and stopped translating new Chaosium material.

So in France, only the advent of the internet and the possibility of getting in touch with brick and mortar stores outside the country, and to keep in touch with the CoC community worldwide, helped to maintain the game alive. To my mind, the arrival of such communities as «TOC, Trouver Object Caché» (french translation for Spot Hidden Object) and yog-sothoth.com is a very important factor for the game. I can now keep in touch with what is happening worldwide, know very quickly when a new supplement or comic or novel or film is in the works. That’s incredibly cool. I mean… I can’t imagine a world without yog-sothoth.com, it’d be a huge disappointment if we one day failed to maintain that sense of community.

Lately, of course, the big big change in France is the arrival on the scene three years ago of a new publisher, Sans Detour, who started to publish translations of Chaosium scenarios in lavish hardback productions, and then new French creations, books for Keepers as well as new scenarios ( from Tristan Lhomme, long-time writer of shorter scenarios for Casus Belli, who took the opportunity given him of writing longer stuff). Sans Detour has prospered, its long term bet of producing beautiful well laid-out supplements proving a great success. I don’t know how they do it, I don’t know what they’ve sacrificed to become such a success while churning out beautiful well-produced books at reasonable prices, but they seem to thrive. At the same time, Trail of Cthulhu and its supplements came out, and continue to come out, practically in synch with the English language line.

Among the missteps, I can’t fail to mention the monograph line, which to my mind is a failure. Publishing is not just making material available, it’s a real work of editing and rewriting and laying-out worthwile material. Chaosium’s decision to do a «quick and dirty» has produced some gems (Oscar Rios’s haunting Ripples From Carcosa springs to mind) but some duds and has, I think, not helped the trademark at all.

Quite problematic too, I find, is the fact that many authors have complained about their dealings with Chaosium, over the years. And I think that Lynn Willis’s passing must be mourned not only because he was a great human being but also because he WAS the Call of Cthulhu editor supreme, and he has not been replaced.

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?

Christian: The industry has survived, and surviving is a success in itself. Chaosium’s decision to open up the licence to other companies has helped the game tremendously, but it has had another effect which I’m not sure they foresaw: everybody’s standards have gone up. When you open up one of the books from Miskatonic River Press or Cubicle 7, you start to expect from all the players, and specially THE major player, excellent quality of writing and layout… Why ask gifted illustrators to paint fantastic drawings if they print out like a grey smudge on a coal-bed?

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

Christian: I find that each line reflects in a way the world-view of its seminal authors. Herber and Di Tillio and Ross and Willis crafted the Chaosium line of scenarios: whether they are globe spanning adventures or backwards Lovecraft Country one-shots, they have a certain feel, in which the humanity of the PCs and NPCs, the care for the fate of individuals, are paramount. The Pagan Publishing boys were a different matter entirely, their scenarios were more ruthless, the uncaring universe was back in force, people would be trampled down in the course of things without much wringing of hands. ( Though John H. Crowe’s Coming Full Circle is more Chaosium than Pagan in its care for a very small family of «banal» people around whom the whole campaign will revolve). Trail of Cthulhu has put the Purist back in Lovecraft, The Laundry mingles some of the DG hi-tech cloak and dagger stuff with a very peculiar British humour about bureaucracy and civil servants… Even though they all hail from Lovecraft, they are all products of very diffe-rent writers, and I find them as diverse as books from different novelists working in the same genre.

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

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Christian: In the eighties, we briefly thought, and fervently hoped, rpgs would become mainstream. They didn’t. Videogames happened along the way, and they kidnapped Lovecraft, Tolkien etc..; and took them in another dimension. Videogames are fun, videogames are easy to play, video-games don’t need hours of preparation, etc… and their industry thrives on rehashing concepts that have already worked. So… RPGs, and Lovecraftian RPGs, are a niche. Well, that’s good, actually. Because in a niche you don’t have to pander to the needs and diktats of producers and moneymakers. You can write what you want to write, and expect a small but reasonable financial return on your intellectual investment. What I mean is that people in the RPG field don’t get rich, but they can create without barriers. As long as publishers do their job well… The big problem is that the end of many brick and mortar shops make many of us dependent on postage prices and we have seen recently how much this can become a problem. Kickstarter makes it easier for the community to help projects get done, but what happens when a great part of the profit is swallowed up by postage? PDFs are somehow not the same as deadtree editions, I find, and I hope that print-on-demand options will in the near future become more readily available worldwide. That would help the hobby enormously, I think.

I was thrilled when Greg Stoltze and Dennis Detwiller started tu use a Pledge system to get new work in print, and now Kickstarter seems like a very promising venture for the future, but I’m a bit wary of becoming too complacent about KS and having authors and companies compete for donors only to take ages to deliver the final product. I think it is very important to give pledgers a reasonable timing for «when will that f$$$****ing book/game come out?» and I find it is not always the case. KS is a contract, of sorts, and it’s very important not to mess with pledger’s expectations.

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?

Christian: I think what is missing at the moment is an incentive to draw more new players into the game. Obviously a Del Toro “Mountains of Madness” movie would have that kind of effect. So would novels based on the existing scenarios. I found Nick Marsh’s Horror on the Orient-Express novel [titled The Express Diaries] a great read and it’s a beautiful book, but I’m afraid it’s not well-known enough outside of the circle of players. I would love to write a novel based on my Beyond The Mountains Of Madness campaign, and have talked with Chaz Engan about it from time to time but find it tricky to embark on such a monu-mental task at present.

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?

Christian: I hope to see more new companies, I hope to see work from fantastic authors like Oscar Rios ans David Conyers and Kevin Ross and others actually getting into print. I mean, I’m not going to live eternally, and I won’t find much use if my heirs slip a copy of Kevin Ross’s Colonial era supplements in my coffin ( maybe the ghouls will…). I hope that as we grow older, I can still play with my friends, even if we drift apart geographically, by using the Internet. My current group has four players around a table near Paris, and a friend who has moved near Brussels and plays through Skype. I tend to forget he’s not there physically. And I guess this is a great way to connect Keepers and players as new programs help us to transfer the rpg experience through the Internet.

CR: Thanks for your time, Christian!


“What Happens in Vegas”

As I’ve mentioned here on the blog before, over the past couple of years I have been invited by several different game publishers to produce designs for handouts/props for future releases. Most of these books have yet to see the light of day … but yesterday one of them crawled free from its musty tomb and went on sale to the Cthulhu-loving public.

I’m talking about Sixtystone Press’ book “Lost in the Lights” (by Jeff Moeller). It’s for sale now as a PDF over on DrivethruRPG — a printed book will be released in the second-half of this year.

This is a pretty cool book, and something quite different from your run-of-the-mill Call of Cthulhu investigative romp through New England. While it still retains all the best elements of the classic Cthulhuoid investigation, it transplants them to modern-day Las Vegas … or more correctly the literary/movie version of modern-day Las Vegas. So, there’s lots of glitz, glamour, Elvis impersonators, and opportunities for insanely-convoluted heists. But behind the gaudy facade there lies some really repulsive horrors … so, even if it is in lurid Technicolor, you know it’s still good-ol Call of Cthulhu.

My own role on this book was to design most of the handouts … which was actually no mean feat (indeed it was one of the most challenging projects I’ve undertaken). Jeff had some neat ideas about using modern electronic means of delivering clues — so there’s text messages, web pages, wikipedia entries … and video clips. The last of these alone took forever to create — after all you can’t just go out and find stock images of a Hazmat team romping through Las Vegas’s Greyhound bus depot; these things need to be built up as a Photoshop montage of found elements. In the end I also added in some original photographs of my own (by lurking around my local bus depot with a camera, doubtlessly looking very suspicious).

LitL Handouts Montage

I can’t show all the handouts here — you’ll need to go buy the book to get those. Or even better, buy the interactive PDF version of the handouts which lets you tweak some aspects of the dates/times/TV logos on the handouts to help customize them to your game. Above, I have put together a montage of SOME of the handout images that I contributed to Lost in the Lights (click for a larger version). I hope those that buy this great book enjoy my small contribution … and that players everywhere will enjoy the realism that I’ve tried to bring to the handouts, even if they do get creeped out when they recognize their local bus depot 🙂


Arkham Investigator: A New Investigation Board Game

Some readers of Cthulhu Reborn may know Hal Eccles’ (aka AirborneXO on YSDC) for his excellent video production work and his fan-produced add-on to Arkham Horror. What you may not know is that Hal has recently self-published Arkham Investigator, a mystery-investigation boardgame in the style of Sleuth Publications’ “Sherlock Holmes Consulting Detective” game from the 1980s.

For those who aren’t familiar with the Sherlock Holmes game … the essence of the gameplay involves a group of players trying to solve a mystery by taking turns visiting one of hundreds of possible locations on a large city map. The game can be played either co-operatively (which is how I always played it) or competitively. Players are guided in their choices by a starting description of the mystery they must solve (which contains names and places worthy of investigation), a collection of “standard go-to resources” they can always ask for help, and a city directory which gives location addresses for a huge variety of people and companies. The players also have access to a newspaper for the day of the case, which usually contains one or more clues embedded somewhere in amongst all the day-to-day news and advertisements. When players visit a location they get to open up the “case book” for that particular mystery to the designated entry — a bit like flipping through a choose-your-own-adventure book — and read out the encounter that proceeds when the investigator calls upon the witness or suspect. This description usually opens up more possible locations / people to investigate. And so on, and so on until the players think they have solved the mystery.

Hal’s re-imagining of this gameplay seems pretty true to the original, but transplants it from Gaslight London to 1920s Arkham. He has put together a beautiful colour map of Arkham and some nicely designed booklets for the rules, directory and first case book. The case also includes a large two-page issue of the Arkham Advertiser which also looks very attractive.

But the BEST thing about Hal’s game … is that he is releasing the core rules and first case ENTIRELY free. Because we here at Cthulhu Reborn like freebies we asked Hal if we could re-host his nifty game. So here are some links to the version hosted here. The Core Rules for the game (Rulebook, Large Map of Arkham, Arkham Directory) plus the first Case, A Grain of Evil, are available in two versions, each catering to a different paper size:

If you do decide to play this game … and you definitely SHOULD … can I urge you to jump across to its entry on boardgame geek and consider rating it or reviewing it. Independently produced games like rely on your word of mouth to flourish … and this one deserves to 🙂


State of the Tentacle: Sandy Petersen

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For the tenth installment of the “State of the Tentacle” interview series we are very pleased to be able to go aaaaaall the way back to the very source of Lovecraftian roleplaying by talking with the man who is responsible for it all, Sandy Petersen. While Sandy left the pen-and-paper gaming industry many years ago to become an incredibly successful video game designer, he still plays Call of Cthulhu regularly. Both because of his inside knowledge of the hobby’s genesis, and also because of his current interests in bringing Cthulhu back to the gaming table (albeit in a slightly different form), we were very eager to have Sandy along to chew the tentacle for a bit. Thankfully he agreed (even before we applied the mind control sorcery :-)).

Introduction

Sandy Petersen is someone whose work should really be very well known to every reader of this blog. But just in case you’ve accidentally stumbled upon this page while searching for knitting patterns or something, here’s a capsule summary of what Sandy has contributed to Lovecraftian gaming. In 1981 he was the original author of the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, adapting mechanics from Chaosium’s Basic Roleplaying System to deliver a frightening and erudite world in which gamers could roleplay investigators of arcane Lovecraftian horrors. sott-Montage-PetersenCoversThis was at a time when mainstream RPGs were little more than hack-and-slash dungeon crawls, so for a game to propose characters that were physically (and often mentally) frail fighting against odds that were likely to eventually overwhelm them … that was pretty radical. Some would say that it still is.

Sandy remained at Chaosium for the next seven years, acting as both a key writer for Call of Cthulhu and editor of the line. During that period many of the titles that are still regarded as unrivalled classics of the game were published — including the Masks of Nyarlathotep and Shadows of Yog-Sothoth campaigns and the alternate Modern-day, Gaslight and Dreamlands settings. In fact, pretty much every Lovecraftian product released by Chaosium between 1981 and 1989 has Sandy’s fingerprints all over it in some form or other.

Sandy left the world of pen-and-paper gaming, lured to the world of computer games (which was, in some ways, still in its infancy). His first job in this heady industry was with Microprose where he worked on Darklands, Hyperspeed, and even Civilization. He then moved on to a small company called id Software that was just about to launch a first-person shooter called “Doom” that was kind of a horror-story set in space. Sandy brought quite a significant amount of Cthulhu-oid madness to the monsters and levels of Doom, and later applied that to the worlds of Quake. The rest, as they say, is history. But these are but a handful of the highlights of Sandy’s extraordinary gaming credits. He also worked for Ensemble Studios and was a key designer on such genre-defining titles as the Age of Empires series, and Halo Wars.

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On the success of this career, Sandy also spent two years teaching game design to graduate students at Southern Methodist University.

At present, Sandy is again back in the world of hands-on game design. He is a partner in a small startup firm preparing a Lovecraftian-themed boardgame for Kickstarter funding. If the Kickstarter campaign isn’t already active by the time you read this … it will be soon! The game is titled Cthulhu Wars, and it has received rave reviews from playtesters … some folks saying that it is the best thing Sandy has done since Call of Cthulhu. And it’s easy to see why, judging from the initial photos that have been released of the game board and the monstrous miniatures (montaged below … but click on the link above to see more).

As they say … Watch the Skies!

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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?

Call of Cthulhu (role-playing game)

Sandy: It might sound self-serving, but the obvious key milestone was the publication of Call of Cthulhu – there really wasn’t any horror gaming before then, and not only was this horror-based, but it was honest-to-goodness Lovecraft, at least as I misunderstood it at the time (I was only 26!).

I think the next big milestone was the development of video graphics and sound to the point that a digital game could be made that was genuinely frightening. This was a gradual process, but certainly by 1993, there were games that creeped people out.

The third important development was the creation of tabletop card & boardgames that successfully channelled Lovecraft. The most obvious success is the Arkham Horror game, but there are others.

Another important step has been the spread of the Lovecraft influence into other genres. There are lots of games nowadays which, while not explicitly Cthulhu Mythos-based, obviously are under the shadow of the Man from Providence.

sott-lucca-cult-cthulhuAnd one of the biggest upcoming improvements I believe to be the continued expansion of Lovecraft LARPs [Live-Action Role Playing games]. While I have played in, and written, several of these, my trip to the Italian Lucca game convention last year was a real eye-opener. Those Italians are hard-core – EVERYONE in the LARP was in full 1930s costume (including Italian police in what looked to me like fascist uniforms, women with fake mink stoles, you name it). They had even hired a live band to play dance music! The culmination of the evening was a guy wearing a complete Mi-Go “costume” coming out of the night to annihilate the other gamers – he had to walk on stilts for his hands & legs, and even had a voice-box changer to make weird insect-like noises. Must have cost a fortune. The guy who invited me to this told me that in an earlier LARP he ran, his job was to lay sprawled out, a bullet-wound in his head, throughout the four hours of the game. Shades of SAW. Those Italians left me in awe.

Sandy delivering a Masterclass at the Lucca Comics & Games Convention

I think the biggest mistake in Lovecraft gaming is the tendency for many designers to try to transform the players into some sort of “special agent” or super-skilled person with access to tools and techniques far beyond the grasp of we mere mortals. Horror, by its nature, needs to be seen to affect normal humans. In retrospect, looking back at my 26-year old self, I salute him for seeing the need to have the investigators be Jes’ Folks – not government spooks, or privately-funded mercenaries, but doctors, private eyes, and the like.

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?

Sandy: I think the more variety that is offered players in game systems, miniature figures, toys, and fun stuff, the better it is for the entire hobby. I am constantly thrilled when I see something new in this field.

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

Sandy: You got me, pal. For roleplaying Lovecraft, I pretty much just play Call of Cthulhu. After all, it is, in effect, my own “house rules”. And learning a new roleplaying system hasn’t been attractive to me since my college days.

<in the voice of the Frankenstein Monster> “Change bad!”

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

Sandy: The tendency for humor to start taking over Lovecraftian themes. Look – the Mythos is obviously easy to make fun of (as is all horror). And that is not a bad thing. But I think it would be sad if Cthulhu becomes more of a comedy figure than a terrifying one.

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?

Sandy: I want to see Halloween costumes. Get with it, guys.

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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?

Sandy: I think that the game will spread to far more use of Skype-like resources, with people playing over distances. Cthulhu fans tend to be more mature than typical RPGers, and so we are frequently married, with careers and lives, rather than college kids living in a dorm. As a result, we are scattered far and wide, and it is physically harder for us to get together for our Lovecraft gaming fix. Technology is just now able to solve this problem, and I’m happy about it. Now old friends who live hundreds, even thousands of miles away, will be able to get together to play games.

Maybe there will even be a MMORPG [Massive Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game] based on Call of Cthulhu one day. That is a holy grail worth waiting for.

CR: Thanks for your time, Sandy! Are you willing to come back and answer a few follow-up questions?

Sandy: You bet!

[ If there’s something you would like us to quiz Sandy about when we catch up with him again for a follow-up interview, either leave them as comments to this post, PM them user “dce” on either YSDC or rpg.net or email them to questions AT cthulhureborn.com ]


State of the Tentacle: Scott David Aniolowski

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Hot on the heels of our recent brush with Mr Kenneth Hite (and his twitter-loving cult of followers :-)), we are pleased to be able to present yet ANOTHER big name for the “State of the Tentacle” interviews. Today, Scott David Aniolowski has fallen into the clutches of one of the Lesser Servitor Races that we always keep around Cthulhu Reborn central just to keep the tentacle grass down. You would have thought that Scott — the man who wrote the very book on Call of Cthulhu monsters (Malleus Monstrorum) — might have spotted the tell-tale signs: stench of rotting flesh, dripping ichor, putrescent liquifying fleshy tendrils. Maybe he mistook the beast for a Hollywood starlet after one too many cosmetic procedures? Who knows … but we consider ourselves very fortunate that we were able to snag Scott and extract this most excellent confession .. er .. interview before he was able to break free of his chains!

Introduction

Scott David Aniolowski is one of the Grand Old Gents of Call of Cthulhu (or allegedly one of “The Great Old Ones” according to some young upstarts!), having first been published by Chaosium in 1986. That makes him the longest-published CoC designer still (occasionally) writing for the game. He has written dozens of scenarios, articles and books for CoC and is probably best known as the author of Chaosium’s acclaimed book of Cthulhu Mythos monsters The Malleus Monstrorum. Over the many years of his game designing, Scott has produced work for Chaosium, Pagan Publishing, Miskatonic River Press (MRP) and Triad Entertainments (and possibly a few other brand new publishers who have queried him about working for their imprint). He has had the pleasure of working with iconic CoC designers and editors Sandy Petersen, Keith Herber, Lynn Willis, Kevin Ross and John Tynes, and has assembled and edited books of his own for various publishers.

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Scott has also been active in fiction, his short stories and poems having been published by Chaosium, MRP, Barnes & Noble, PS Publishing and various magazines and other publishers. He has edited several fiction anthologies, including Made in Goatswood, Singers of Strange Songs, Horror for the Holidays and others.

Scott is an Executive Chef by vocation, an Anglophile, “Ripperologist”, fan of all things Victorian, insatiable bibliophile, horror/weird/dark fiction enthusiast and author/poet, diehard new wave and punk fan, lifelong bigfoot geek, and student of Chinese cuisine, culture and language. Scott is a collector of jack o’lanterns and bigfoot movies, and works extensively to restore his old Colonial home (“The House of Secrets”) to its former original period splendour. Scott’s blog, “Whispers from the House of Secrets,” where he blathers on about writing, rails against the mundane world, waxes nostalgic and otherwise makes noise can be found at: http://scottdavidaniolowski.blogspot.com/

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?

Scott: Well, certainly milestones would be the releases of such classic and literally game-changing products as Pagan’s Delta Green and Chaosium’s fan favourites, the BIG campaigns such as Masks of Nyarlathotep and Horror on the Orient Express. Personally, I’m not a fan of any of that stuff but the buying public sure are, and at the end of the day that’s pretty much all that counts from a business point of view. Campaigns – even shorter ones – fly against the intrinsic theme of Lovecraft’s work that mankind is but a speck in an uncaring universe, powerless to affect any real changes on the true Powers that froth and caper just out of our sight. Grand adventures to save mankind – and I’ve been a part of some campaign designing, so I’m not throwing stones here – bring to mind more the pulp adventures of the 1940’s than Lovecraft’s nihilistic worldview. If you look at Lovecraft’s bigger “adventures” – “The Shadow Over Innsmouth,” “At the Mountains of Madness,” “The Shadow Out of Time,” etc. – the protagonists may have saved themselves (usually at the cost of their own sanity), but they didn’t really save mankind because in the end those blasphemous secrets are still out there just waiting patiently to rise up again. But from a purely gaming point of view, big campaigns can be great fun and offer the chance to explore Indiana Jones-style in far-off and exotic locations, so I totally understand their appeal. Who doesn’t love that sort of stuff?

As for the Delta Green milieu, I can’t say much about it as I haven’t been involved in any of that as either a game designer or a player, but what I’ve seen and read of the material is quite good and offers a completely different style of play for CoC fans. Interestingly, I know that John (Tynes) and gang had the idea and the start of their Delta Green universe before X-Files came on the scene, so for those who always assumed X-Files inspired Delta Green let me set the record straight [indeed “Convergence”, the scenario which introduced the idea of Delta Green was published in The Unspeakable Oath Issue 7, a full year before X-Files premiered – CR]. Something I really like about Delta Green is that it provides a modern world for investigators to adventure in; Chaosium’s Cthulhu Now didn’t really have a distinct voice of its own and never created that world – it was pretty much just standard 1920’s Call of Cthulhu with some modern technology and themes thrown in to make it “modern” (but is now mostly very dated because it lacked its own unique voice).

Now, missteps are another whole matter. I don’t know as you can point to any particular Lovecraftian product and call it a misstep as that’s all a matter of personal taste. There are products which I loathe and think are just terrible, but to call them missteps would be unfair as that’s just my own personal opinion. The true missteps have been in the business handling of particular companies, and to get into specifics of that is to open up a rather large can of worms. Let me just say that certain companies have a longstanding reputation for having very poor business practices and have sadly driven away some very talented authors and artists.

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The only specific project I will refer to when speaking of missteps is a proposed new [7th Edition] version of Call of Cthulhu. I was part of a hand-picked cabal of CoC designers chosen by Chaosium and the authors to read and review the manuscript, and we pretty much all came away very unhappy with the bulk of what was being proposed. I see it as too radical a departure from the basic, well-honed and well-loved BRP CoC rules, and foresee it creating a split in CoC fans – those who will endorse and play the new rules and those who will loyally stay with the existing ruleset. Such a division is not what a small sub-genre of an already shrinking hobby needs. The proposed changes over-complicate much of the rules, which has always been CoC’s charm, in that the game system fades quietly into the background without a lot of dice rolling, number crunching and rule referencing. In fairness to the authors, however, it was obvious to us all that they spent a great deal of time and put a lot of thought into their material. After the cabal’s comments the authors were going to take another look at their manuscript and make adjustments. I do not know where it stands presently as we have not been updated at this point.

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?

Scott: I can’t really comment on much of anything outside of the Call of Cthulhu game, as I don’t follow the other systems, but I think Chaosium’s recent licensing deals with various and sundry new upstart publishers is a good thing as it brings in lots of new blood with fresh ideas and perspectives. I haven’t liked all of what these new guys have done, but some of them have produced some exceptional products. I think the late Keith Herber’s Miskatonic River Press rises to the top of the crowd and has produced unquestionably the best licensed CoC material in the past several years. RPG output there has slowed nearly to a stop, however, and it looks like the company is moving more into fiction production, so we’ll see what the future holds for CoC at MRP. But there are new Lovecraft/Cthulhu gaming publishing houses cropping up all the time and I anticipate, knowing many of the people involved, good things.

I think one thing that could be done better is supporting new lines and CoC setting books. Historically, new setting books come out and then are either never supported with another product, or the support comes a very long time later. I think the best way to do something like that is to release your new setting book and immediately follow it up with a book of scenarios. If that proves successful follow it with a campaign and perhaps a companion to gather and add new rules, occupations, monsters, villains, etc. to the particular setting. Chaosium, for example, has never really done much to support either the Dreamlands setting (although ironically, that book has been reprinted a number of times and had several updated editions) or their Gaslight era book (or Invictus or Dark Ages….). Fellow-dinosaur and Elder Statesman of CoC, Kevin Ross wrote, assembled and edited a series of Colonial America CoC setting books (and a Western CoC line, incidentally) for a licensee which includes the core setting sourcebook, a book of scenarios, and a campaign. That’s how it should be done… although when or if that material will ever actually be published is another question long waiting to be answered.

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One recentish development that I really dislike is Chaosium’s line of monographs. These books are produced wholly by the author and Chaosium only publishes the material as they receive it, with no editing, layout or other professional assistance provided. This has resulted in a hodge-podge of material varying from horrible and amateurish to darn-near professional and everything in between. I’m sure it’s a thrill for new authors and nascent game designers to produce (or sometimes cobble together) their own books and see them in print, unfortunately it’s rather analogous to the self-publishing craze which has been glutting the market with sub-par, near-illiterate dribble. If Chaosium or any other professional company is going to publish something and put their name on it then they should take the time to ensure the material gets a look from editorial and layout people so that the product is worthy of what their customers have come to expect from them. Producing and selling sub-par books looks bad for any company, even if it is understood that it is basically a do-it-yourself self-publishing deal.

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

Scott: Undoubtedly it’s the newfound popularity and recognisability of Cthulhu. The big guy has reached the celebrity status of some unscrupulous and smarmy reality tv “star.” Twenty-odd years ago when I was a fledgling CoC designer I would have never thought that I would see the day when Cthulhu and Lovecraft were pop culture icons, appearing on everything from the once-scandalous South Park to the angsty Supernatural and all manner of shows in between. Where in the 1970’s and 1980’s finding Lovecraftian/Mythos material was like a glorious and elusive treasure hunt, today one just has to browse through the local comic or book shop to find numerous mentions of HPL and his cosmic sprattlings. And the explosive bloom of Mythos anthologies, collections and novels is mind-numbing; I clearly remember a time not so very long ago when most book and magazine submission guidelines specifically said “NO LOVECRAFT/CTHULHU STORIES.” The day was when you would mention “Lovecraft” or “Cthulhu” and people would look at you oddly and you would grin knowingly, but now you can’t swing a cat without hitting some self-proclaimed Lovecraft fan (or worse, “Lovecraft scholar”) or Mythos aficionado. It’s crazy! And not in the good, drooling from mind-blasted insanity way! Maybe I’m just an old curmudgeon unhappy that his special little private club has opened its doors to the public? It just seems that the wider the popularity spreads the more watered down and inane the whole thing gets.

So, with the newfound popularity of all things Lovecraft comes a melding of modern ideas and technology into the Mythos, and we’re seeing Cthulhutechy things and Cthulhu anime and other new sub-genres inspired by modern culture. Cthulhu, in his own little way, has become a pop culture icon. Some think it’s great and have made a name for themselves with it, which I certainly don’t begrudge. Others are less enthusiastic, like my old pal Kevin Ross who likes to say “don’t y’all think this Lovecraft shit has done got out of hand?” Pushed to take a side, I think I’d have to agree with Kevin.

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

Scott: Well, the hobby itself is in danger of extinction just because games in general have moved from the table top and into the computer. In an impatient video generation imagination and personal interaction has taken a back seat to instant gratification on screen either alone or with an unseen stranger on the other side of the globe. The monsters and gore are all displayed in glorious on-screen colour and details so that the player doesn’t have to think for himself and imagine what it all must be like. It makes me sad: nothing any computer graphics designer creates can match what I see in my mind’s eye. But then I pre-date the computer age by several centuries (see “curmudgeon,” above!), so my tastes tend to be for things of a bygone age.

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?

Scott: As I mentioned elsewhere, I think product lines should be developed and supported. I would love to see more Gaslight era material, both scenarios or campaigns and more source material. I think the British Empire needs to be addressed in a Victorian setting. Although not a big fan of the Dreamlands, it would be fun to see more Dreamland adventuring. This I always saw as Chaosium’s chance to take a little bite out of the Sword and Sorcery/AD&D market with Cthulhu. I can see Dreamlands making a name for itself as heroic fantasy adventuring in the right hands and taken in the right direction. Of course, I’m very impatiently waiting to see the Colonial era CoC material see print, and I think that will be an exciting new stage for players who love history and Mythos investigation.

Something I would also love to see (and to be a part of) would be CoC source material for other author’s worlds. Clark Ashton Smith is the most obvious one, as he had several fantastic realms and worlds in which he wrote: Hyperborea, Mars, Averoigne, Zothique, etc. A two-fisted pulpy Robert E. Howard book could supply more action-oriented CoC gaming. Of course, I did a Ramsey Campbell book several years ago, and have always wanted to return to Ramsey’s creations. There has long been talk of me doing a more Lovecraft Countrified book set in Campbell Country in the default CoC 1920’s era. That is what I had originally pitched and what ultimately became Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood and Less Pleasant Places, a modern campaign. I’ve never been really happy with that one and would love to go back to Ramsey’s haunted Severn Valley and do what I had originally set out to do.

Also, I’d love to see some of the original books produced by the foreign licensees translated into English. The Germans, particularly, have an awful lot of original material that non-German speaking gamers are missing out on. And although it’s a matter of debate and personal preferences, I think the foreign editions tend to look a lot nicer than the American ones. I’m not a fan of the wholesale replacement of existing artwork with photographs, but I do think adding period photos into the mix (while retaining the original art) is a really nice touch.

Beyond that, I think just producing quality material is the way to go to ensure a future for CoC and Lovecraftian games.

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?

Scott: The hobby itself I expect to have shrunken in five years. It’s a sad truth that as technology advances table top RPGs just aren’t as popular as computer and video games. Dead tree publishing in general is not in the best of health: “print is dead” and all of that twaddle. As for CoC, unless someone does something monumentally stupid or there’s some cataclysmic shake-up, I don’t see as it will be much different than it is today. The game has survived pretty much unchanged since 1981, so barring a tragically radical new edition, I don’t foresee any great changes.

CR: Thanks, Scott! Are you willing to stick around and answer a few follow-up questions?

Scott: OK


A Second Lash at: Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan

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A month back we were fortunate enough to interview Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan (chief Laundrarian and writer of some nifty Trail of Cthulhu material also). Since then he has become father to a pair of twins … Now you’d think that this would be enough to keep any sane person have pretty much occupied for every waking moment. But not Gareth: not only has he just signed on to write a bunch of stuff for a cool-sounding (recently-finished) Kickstarter, but he has kindly agreed to come back for a quick follow-up interview. The man is unstoppable!

CR: Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu are fairly atypical game lines in that unlike most their published support material is extremely heavily weighted towards “ready-to-run” scenarios/campaigns rather than rules expansions or source material. Do you think that bias is driven by what followers of those games will buy? Or are publishers missing out on opportunities to sell different types of books in addition to scenarion anthologies?

sott-achtung-antarcticaGareth: To a degree, that’s an artefact of the structure of the game. The player characters are ordinary people; the setting is the real world, more or less, and it’s hard to provide information about the Mythos without bludgeoning the mystery to death with concrete facts. You might get away with a book on, say, Ghouls or Deep Ones or Arkham or Antarctica, but not The Complete Guide to Elder Things or a Rlyeh setting book. Lovecraftian gaming is about singular moments of revelation, not a deep exploration of setting. Fear comes from wondering what’s behind that shadowed door, so you’ve got to leave shadows.

I think there’s scope for other material – I’ll point to Stealing Cthulhu, for example – but it has to be done very carefully in order to keep the mystery.

CR: You mention the Call of Cthulhu character creation rules as being slow, and perhaps a barrier to entry for players who just want a “quick fix”. Do you have any thoughts on ways in which they might be streamlined? Alternative optional chargen rules for “instant gratification” gamers?

Gareth: Pregenerated or partially pregenerated characters are an easy solution. Have a set of Lovecraftian investigator archetypes – the Antiquarian, the Private Detective, the Dilettante and so on – with most of their stats and skills precalculated. Let the player spend a few points on skills to customise the character, maybe have a bunch of background hooks and character quirks to pick from, and off you go.

Cthulhu characters tend to be pretty bland by design, anyway. They’re ordinary people at the start – it’s their decisions and experiences in the game (and horrible fates) that make them memorable, not their backstories.

CR: Regarding the inexorable move toward PDF-only electronic publishing, how receptive do you think the current gamer community is to the thought of entirely abandoning “dead-tree” versions of their products? Looking at current Kickstarters, it seems that the majority of the backers still want to buy printed books … but how practical do you think that is that in a world where international shipping is getting expensive? Are people just going to have to get used to the idea of electronic-only releases?

Gareth: The rise of Print-on-Demand means that there’ll always be physical books for those who want them, and while they’ll certainly be expensive, especially with the rising cost of shipping, I still think roleplaying works out as a moderately cheap hobby if you’re actually playing with the books. Say a new prestige-format rulebook costs me $100 – if I run a 10-session campaign with that book, and each session is four hour’s long, then that’s a reasonable $2.50 an hour for my entertainment.

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I think it’ll fall into physical books for collecting, pdfs for reading. Books or pdfs-on-tablet for play, depending on your tastes.

CR: Thank you so much for making the time to come back! Now … go get some sleep, man! 🙂


Squamous But True: Devil Worshippers

While the Cthulhu Reborn blog has been dominated over recent weeks with the “State of the Tentacle” interviews, that doesn’t mean that things haven’t been chugging away with several other projects which will ultimately be released via this perfidious source. There are at least two more scenarios currently, both written by big names in the Call of Cthulhu world, that are being worked on as future Cthulhu Reborn released as well as a whole bunch of other weirdness.

Just to convince everyone that there’s more to Cthulhu Reborn than wonderful interviews … here’s another entry in the rather sporadic series of real-world newspaper articles that read like they *could* have been Call of Cthulhu scenarios (and indeed can be, if you want them to be). The article below was originally published in several newspapers around March 25, 1926 … you’ll need to click on the article to read it (unless your eyesight is really, really good).

Click the image below to view a larger (aka actually readable) version of the article

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Note that this is actually a recreation of the original news article, created using Cthulhu Reborn’s very own (commercially-released) PDF toolkit for make-your-own Jazz-Age newspaper props, available via RPGNow and DrivethruRPG for a smallish sum. Of course you can go straight to the source and nab the original scan of the newspaper if you want to see what it *really* looked like: here’s a link to the version published by the Youngstown (Ohio) Vindicator … great name for a newspaper. While you’re there you can also read the story about the drunken LA bank robber or the visit to town by the self-proclaimed “director of Hobo College, Chicago” 🙂


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