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.
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.
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.
By 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. Cthulhu 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?
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.