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

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