Monthly Archives: April 2013

Anatomy of a Newspaper Prop

As most readers of Cthulhu Reborn would be well aware, I really like the idea of creating realistic-looking props to enhance the play of Lovecraftian roleplaying games (heck, I even published a product to make it easier for people to make nice-looking 1920s newspaper props for just this purpose).

The other day I had the enjoyable experience of running the most venerable and often played Call of Cthulhu scenario — The Haunting — for a brand new gamer. It was, as always, a lot of fun. But while running the game I realized that despite there being several places in the scenario which incorporate clues from newspapers, town records, and the like … none of them are provided in the book as props.

After I finished the game, I googled around to see if anyone had every thought to create such items — it turns out that back in 2008 (and again in 2010) some folks over on Yog-Sothoth.com took on the task of putting together some nifty newspaper handouts. The guilty parties were Greg Phillips, Andy Miller, Alicorn, Andrew Brehaut and Matt Wilson and you can grab a PDF of their cool designs from the vaults of Yog-Sothoth.com.

Now these are pretty neat designs which incorporate some interpretation of scenarios details to flesh out the scenario’s sketchy details (e.g., the scenario says the House is in Boston, but never gives a street address or even neighborhood). To be perfectly honest I would be more than happy to use these handouts when playing The Haunting next time … but while looking through them I couldn’t help but wonder whether some of the older newspapers couldn’t be made still *more* realistic with a bit of historical research and judicious art design.

Fast forward a day or so … and my own experiments to create a period-specific design for the very earliest of the newspaper clues (from a Boston newspaper, dated 1835) were complete. Here’s a photo of the end result, printed out on the cheapest and nastiest paper I could find.

Haunting1835-PrintedIf you’d like to get the PDF of this two-sided design, feel free to click the download link below and you will have it. As with Yog-Sothoth.com design upon which this is partially based, this version of the 1835 handout is released under a creative commons licence.

Download the two-sided 1835 newspaper handout prop for “The Haunting”

Designing the 1835 Newspaper Prop

Now, while posting this design here is perhaps of slight interest to folks planning on running “The Haunting” in future … I thought this would be a great opportunity to show step-by-step how such a design gets created from scratch, sharing some of the tips & tricks that I have learned from making dozens of such prop Newspaper designs. Creating beautiful period prop designs is actually less work than most people would imagine … it’s all about knowing where to look for good source examples and design elements, and knowing what techniques mimic period design and typesetting practices/technology.

[A small disclaimer: while I will step through all the steps to create the design shown above, I am not going to go step-by-step through everything in terms of particular options or features of drawing software. For the record, everything shown here was created in Adobe Illustrator … although probably could have also been done in PhotoShop with some judicious choices. The same features that I’ve used from these products are almost certainly available in other packages as well; but you’ll need to figure that out for yourself if you want to emulate this process]

Courtesy: Cisticola at DeviantART

Step 1: Research

The first step in making something that looks authentic to a period … is to find out what “authentic” means by finding an example or two. For newspapers this is remarkably easy these days. There are loads of archival scans of old newspaper issues, many of them available for free. My favourite place to go trawling is Google News archives — this (discontinued?) service archives over 2000 newspapers of US and Canadian origin, dating back to 1738.

For this project I was interested in finding a newspaper published as close as possible to 1835 in a place as close as possible to Boston. Without going through the gory details, I looked over several candidates before settling on the Rhode Island Republican (which Google archives from 1801 to 1841 with 50 issues from 1835). While I would have preferred a Boston paper rather than one published in Newport, the survey that I’d done convinced me that this would be a good representative anyway.

Click Images for Enlarged Versions (which show much more detail)

Haunting1835-RI Republican 1

The first points I noted when looking through some issues of the Rhode Island Republican were:

  • It’s very much a “wall of text” kind of layout, broken up by a few simple icon graphics but nothing more elaborate
  • It doesn’t really have big screaming headlines with bold fonts; indeed headlines are in the same font as the body, just slightly larger and bolder

Haunting1835-RI Republican 2

The sections towards the back of the (4-page) newspaper seem to hold the advertisements, as pictured above. These aren’t very elaborate from a typesetting perspective but seem to involve the only major difference in font: the drop caps used at the beginning of the advertisments depart somewhat from the otherwise boring and “sensible” typography, being more ornamental.

Step 2: Picking Fonts

One of the most important choices to be made when making these kinds of layouts is deciding on fonts to use. Ideally I try to pick things as close as possible to the source material, although that can sometimes be quite difficult. One tool I’ve found that helps is the website Identifont, which goes through an adaptive Q&A process to identify a font based on its combination of key features. Using this site I found a dozen or so named fonts that could serve as a representative of the body text — looking though my old font CDROMs I found that I had access to a version one of them: Scotch Text.

I followed a similar process on the ornamental drop caps in the advertisements (harder, since there are fewer letter samples — though Identifont has a special “limited characters” option that guides the search using only the letters available). It became obvious that these were some form of Bodoni font.

Haunting1835-Prop1Armed with these fonts, it’s a simple matter to take the text from the Yog-Sothoth version of the handout and render them using these fonts (see above).

Now, even by itself that looks pretty good, but one thing that stands out is that the letters look very crisp … which isn’t surprising since that’s one of the goals of modern fontography and typesetting. But something more smudgy would look closer to the 1835 samples. I’ve found through experience that it’s possible to significantly reduce the crispness of text either through blurring (a fairly crude weapon) or by adding a stroke to the outside of the lettering.

The samples below show the same text with a 0.5pt or 0.75pt stroke applied to the text. As you can see, this makes the handout sample text look much less crisp.

Haunting1835-Prop2Step 3: Placing it in a Page

I always like wherever possible to put some “context” around a prop by typesetting other parts of the page (or book) that they came from. The Yog-Sothoth version of the 1835 newspaper already included a bunch of excellent “context” articles around the “WEBBER HOUSE SOLD” clue-text … so I though I would add those into the layout. But I also wanted to add some other items inspired from the Rhode Island Republican as well … like this advertisement for a “House to Let”.

Haunting1835-Prop3Placing the articles and advertisements into columns, it doesn’t take long before a full-page handout is constructed.

Haunting1835-Prop4Step 4: Creating a Reverse Side

For newspapers I think it’s always a nice touch to print clippings with some additional “context” detail on the reverse side. This is particularly useful when the prop is to be printed on low-grade paper like newsprint. In that case, the reverse side is often visible “bleeing through” indistinctly behind the main design. This gives a nicely authentic appearance.

After clipping the front side design to a rectangular region, I created a second “page” of the design to the right and copied that rectangular region (plus the vertical column lines) over onto that page. With a bit of care (or some basic maths) it’s pretty easy to position the reverse side material at exactly the location that will be behind the front-side of the design when printed in duplex.

Haunting1835-Prop5After filling in more news articles on the reverse side, I decided to stress the printed text and lines on both sides by introducing some grainy blotches which make small sections opaque. This simulates dust and other matter on the printing press that cause ink to be unevenly applied to paper, as well as worn-out metal type. I won’t go into the specific technique I use for this (since it’s specific to Adobe products — basically involving the Mezzotint filter and opacity masks), but any option that lets you knock out random or localised clustered sections would work ok. If you click the above sample to see it scaled up, you’ll see some of the grainy artifacts that this technique introduces.

Step 5: Adding a Paper Texture

Finally, I added some background texture by placing an image of some old paper behind the design and making all the text, lines and icon illustrations slightly transparent (multiply at 95% opacity works well). The end result looks like this:

Haunting1835-Prop6So, anyway, that’s my little experiment with making a newspaper prop from 1835 New England … I’m pretty happy with the result, but even more happy to share some “behind the scenes” info on how it was created. I hope that someone out there will find this info helpful to their own prop projects!

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The Goblin Has Risen

Readers of Cthulhu Reborn will likely recall the interview we published a couple of months ago with Oscar Rios, incredibly talent (and prolific) writer of creepy Lovecraftian scenarios.

In the intervening time, Oscar has been busy. He has founded his own publishing company, Golden Goblin Press, and launched a Kickstarter for their product Island of Ignorance (The Third Cthulhu Companion).

This looks like it will be a superb book … and one that carries on a time-honoured tradition dating back to the earliest days of Call of Cthulhu. One of the very first supplements published for the game was The Cthulhu Companion (1983), followed up a couple of years later with Fragments of Fear: The Second Cthulhu Companion (1985). Both these books were inspiring grab-bags combining lots of source material, a few scenarios and the occasional helpful essay on the Cthulhu Mythos. The Golden Goblin book follows very much in this tradition offering four detailed articles, three scenarios and a raft of pre-generated Call of Cthulhu Investigator characters. The third companion even has an alliterative title that harks back to its predecessor.

Golden Goblin idol; a limited edition of 12 available via the Kickstarter

So … if you’re after a miscellany of material written by some of the best of the current batch of authors, I’d strongly suggest checking out this Kickstarter (which runs another month or so). Backers at higher levels also receive a mystery “bonus” scenario key features of which they themselves can vote into existence from a range of options. Interesting idea!


State of the Tentacle: Heiko Gill

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Those of us in the English-speaking world who play (or write) Call of Cthulhu books tend to think of our hobby as being made up of a community of publishers in the US and UK who produce all the wonderful books we know so well. BUT … this viewpoint does conveniently ignore the fact that in addition to all those books we see being published in English, these days there are also a whole bunch of original Call of Cthulhu titles being published in other languages by European game publishers. While the current French CoC licensee Sans Detour has nabbed a bit of attention recently with its snazzy-looking books … it may surprise some that by far the most active non-English publishers of Cthulhu material is actually German licensee Pegasus Press. Since taking over the German-language license for Call of Cthulhu in 2000, Pegasus have put the publication of original (i.e., non-translated) Cthulhu material serious on steriods … to the extent that there is now a vast array of products and even a successful German-language magazine devoted to Cthulhuoid gaming.

One of the goals of the State of the Tentacle interview series is to try to get out and talk to as many people who make creative decisions about the future of Lovecraftian gaming … no matter what flavour. To that end I am absolutely delighted to be able to speak today with Heiko Gill, the current chief editor of the Cthulhu roleplaying line at Pegasus Press. Pegasus, like several of the European Cthulhu game publishers, have earned an enviable reputataion for the quality of the books they create. Their translations of Chaosium titles like Horror on the Orient Express have set new high watermarks for art and other production values, and their original German gaming material … well to someone who only slightly speaks the language, I’d have to say it sure LOOKS enticing and exciting. So, with all this in mind, I was very keen to see what Heiko — the guy at the helm of this enviable engine of creativity — thinks is important to the future of Lovecraftian gaming!

Introduction

Montage-GermanCoversVertHeiko Gill is a long-term member of the International Cthulhu Cult. Born in 1962, Heiko first encountered the writings of H.P. Lovecraft in 1979 but by the end of 1980 had already read every piece of Lovecraft fiction that had been translated into the German language. By chance, during a holiday to San Francisco in 1985 he stumbled upon the 2nd Edition of the Call of Cthulhu RPG. Ever since that fateful day he has been a Keeper in an ongoing gaming group that has played *a lot* of Cthulhu roleplaying.

Heiko got involved with the “other side” of the CoC world (i.e., producing game material) in the early 1990s by writing an adventure called “New Eden” which centred around some very nasty goings-on during the Boer War. He then submitted a scenario to an adventure-writing competition (a nasty piece about German mass-murderer Fritz Haarmann) and won. Subsequently he was recruited by Pegasus Press in 2002 as a freelance writer, later joined the editorial staff … and since the end of 2011 has served as the chief editor of the Cthulhu product line produced by Pegasus.

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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?

Heiko: The greatest “Plus” that Call of Cthulhu has maintained over the years is the continual backwards-compatibility of its published material. Using the current rules, you can easily still play stuff from decades and decades ago … What other game can you say that about? I think of this as an “ongoing-milestone”. Individual milestones were the great campaigns (Day of the Beast, Orient Express and so on) and the development of the whole Lovecraft Country setting.

In Germany the greatest milestone was, of course, the granting of a licence to Pegasus Press, which allowed a whole bunch of enthusiasts to create lots of useful stuff.

A Mis-step, if you can call it that, was the late 1990’s slowdown in the rate of new material being published for the game (not felt so much in Germany, which by that time was already producing a significant amount of its own original German-language material to fill the gap).

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?

Heiko: As a representative of a Chaosium licensee I must confess, that I have only very limited insights in the other “new” Lovecraftian RPGs, because we are bound exclusively to Chaosium’s set of rules. (Which, in the spirit of backwards-compatibility, is no problem at all.)

courtesy mlvwrites.com

It seems to me that these other versions focus individually on other aspects of the game than the “mother-ruleset”, but that is okay, as long as the players are interested in the same kinds of things as the people who designed those games (e.g., Gumshoe and its strong focus on clues and detective work).

Right now, there’s work going on to make a “7.0 ruleset”. From what I know of this material (and I was a playtester last year), there are great improvements possible, but also – maybe – some problems with respect to my Holy Grail (which, as you may know by now is backwards compatibility with earlier material).

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

Heiko: I wish I could say something ethical, esoterical or simply philanthropical, but I think the main factor shaping something is money. If you can make more money by leaving everything as it is – you will do that, if you can make more money by changing, you will change something. My personal position is, that there is always room for a change, if it enhances the gaming-fun of the players/Keepers (therefore in Germany we’ve had over the years a series of “optional rules” to try this out).

courtesy theorderoftheironphoenix.com

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

Heiko: Backwards compatibility. Nothing else. That must be a part of every change. It is the one and only unique characteristic of Call of Cthulhu.

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?

Achtung! Cthulhu miniature sold by modiphius

Heiko: I’d love to see more of the German-language Call of Cthulhu stuff translated into English. Ok, that sounds selfish. But it wasn’t meant to be.

And I’d like Cthulhu Stuff set in WW2 (though in Germany you couldn’t do that because of the problems you may run into by using the obvious Nazi-background). That may be on its way already with “Achtung! Cthulhu”.

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?

Heiko: I see an established 7.0 Rulebook and in a perfect world (as we live in) it will be backwards compatible.

CR: Thanks Heiko for being Cthulhu’s “German ambassador”!


A Second Lash at: Kenneth Hite

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A month or so ago, gaming legend Kenneth Hite dropped by to share his thoughts on the past, present and possible future of Lovecraftian Roleplaying. If you missed that fantastic interview, you can read it here. So popular was this entry into the “State of the Tentacle” series that we couldn’t wait to get Kenneth back to share some more of his insightful views on the Cthulhu world. Thankfully he was willing to oblige.

sott-cthulhu-dagon-change-into-a-fish-l1CR: The (proposed) 7th Edition of Call of Cthulhu seems to have sprung from the premise that there is potential benefit to be had in reforming the venerable mechanics by either streamlining them or making them more player-facing. Notwithstanding the perils of radical redesign, are there any obvious features from more recent RPGs that you believe could potentially enhance CoC? Any lessons from the ill-supported d20 Cthulhu rules that could be usefully rolled back into the parent game?

Kenneth: With Call of Cthulhu as perfect as it is, I hesitate to suggest changes at all. Any changes you might make would work for some sorts of campaigns, but be needless cruft for others. That said, introducing “cell system” mechanics a la Conspiracy X for organized investigation groups, or the mass-combat system from Savage Worlds for high-action games, or the Madness Meters from Unknown Armies for games focusing on the Investigators’ own spiral into insanity, or Passions from Pendragon for games more about interpersonal conflict, the character generation in-process from Rafael Chandler’s Scorn, tactical rotes from Hunter: the Vigil — lots of good games have at least one good mechanic you could attach to Call of Cthulhu to further focus play, if you liked.

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As far as d20 Call of Cthulhu, it was so focused on translating the game into levels-and-XP language that I don’t think it had any spare energy for adding better mechanics. However, Scott Glancy’s setting chapter in that book should be required reading for anyone writing a setting of any kind, and could be nigh-seamlessly ported into a new Call of Cthulhu edition.

CR: At present Trail of Cthulhu is arguably  the Lovecraftian game which is experimenting most with pushing the boundaries of traditional Cthulhu gaming formats. Going forward, do you imagine that the game will continue to “hop around” as it has between a diverse range of innovative but disconnected new re-imaginings of Lovecraft? Or do you imagine growing some of the more successful books (e.g., Bookhounds)  into supported “product lines” of their own?

Kenneth: Although Simon makes all final decisions at Pelgrane, I think we’re very unlikely to fork our own audience by creating sub-lines. Bookhounds of London remains its own thing; Robin’s upcoming Dreamhounds of Paris likewise for Surrealist dreamscaping; my upcoming Deathless China won’t spawn a line of wuxia supplements. 1890s Trail LogoThe “product line” mentality, I suspect, is one of those things we need to wean ourselves (and our audiences) off of in the publishing side. Plenty of novels and films stand alone; we should try to create RPG books that can do likewise, and I think the Pelgrane “setting-driven campaign frame” model is a real winner in that regard. I’d much rather put my own creativity into coming up with a new and innovative re-imagining of the source material, as you put it, than grinding out “Bookhounds of Los Angeles” and “Bookhounds of Zagreb” and so forth.

That said, the PDF supplement is the ideal means of testing the waters, or of getting one good idea or adventure out there. It’s not at all unlikely that I might provide some more Bookhounds-centric or at least very Bookhounds-useful material, for example, in an upcoming issue of Ken Writes About Stuff.

CR: How much priority do you think publishers of Lovecraftian roleplaying games should put on recruiting new gamers to the Cthulhu-end of the RPG hobby? Any thoughts on what might make such games more attractive to brand new people? What about existing gamers who have never dipped their toe into Lovecraftian horror? And, any ideas about how to entice more of the “big name” game designers to want to spend some time with Cthulhu?

Kenneth: I think every publisher should at least think about recruiting new gamers, or at the very least try to avoid driving away new gamers. But that said, realistically, there aren’t any Lovecraftian-side publishers with the resources to adequately test, develop, and market an introductory product. Also, Call of Cthulhu is a pretty successful introductory game as is: short rules section, easy-to-understand core mechanic. It could use a presentation makeover (remember how very lovely the d20 Call of Cthulhu book was?), but other than that I don’t have any good ideas about how to make such things more attractive to new gamers: I suspect the answer is “a very expensive targeted marketing campaign.”

For existing gamers, if they haven’t heard of Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhu-gaming in general, they aren’t going to leave their dungeon no matter how nicely someone asks. If they have heard of it, the almost entirely positive word of mouth Call of Cthulhu (and, gratifyingly, Trail of Cthulhu) has received will tempt them or it won’t. There’s very little I or anyone can do besides work very hard to make good games, and build the network of players — the more people play your game, the more people want to play your game. A lot of that latter component is very hard, very thankless work: recruiting people to run games at GenCon and other conventions, prize support, demos in game stores, and on and on. Every company could be doing more of that, especially and including us.

Per your last question, some of the biggest names — Monte Cook, Robin Laws, Mike Selinker, Reiner Knizia, John Scott Tynes — have already designed Cthulhoid games! For those who haven’t, I suspect the answer to that question is “pay them or challenge them,” just like it is in any field. This is why the absence of major indie-game designers in the Cthulhuvian lists is so surprising: Cthulhu is a reliable sales driver at their level of the market, and successfully transferring Lovecraft’s cosmic horror into narrative game play is incredibly challenging.

CR: Thanks, Kenneth for coming back! Now I guess we better let you go and actually write some of this wonderful-soundings stuff!


State of the Tentacle: Paul Fricker

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Hot on the heels of our interview earlier this week with Mike Mason, one half of the design team for the draft 7th Edition Call of Cthulhu, we are extremely pleased to welcome the other half of that team, Paul Fricker. Paul has done a significant amount of remarkable writing for the game even prior to taking on the challenge of revising its rules. His contribution to Chaosium’s monograph line is consistently named as one of the highlights of that range and his mind-bending scenario writing has received much praise, not least for his self-published Dockside Dogs PDF which has already raised over £1000 for charity.

With all that experience writing, playing and Keeping Call of Cthulhu … not to mention continually challenging the limits of the game … we were very interested to hear about how Paul thinks sees the past, present and future of Lovecraftian gaming in general.

Introduction

Dockside Dogs - Front Cover (500)Paul Fricker has spent the last few years working on the 7th edition of Call of Cthulhu. Prior to that he was part of the UK group, The Kult of Keepers, writing and running scenarios at numerous games conventions in England and Germany. Some of those scenarios were published, the first of which was Gatsby and the Great Race (a Chaosium MULA). Gatsby’s unique selling point is that it blends multiple games for up to 24 players at once. ‘My Little Sister Wants You to Suffer’, a science-fiction scenario, was published in Cthulhu Britannica by Cubicle 7. Last year Paul published Dockside Dogs, a modern-day gangster scenario, in aid of Cancer Research. You can buy a copy from DrivethruRPG — all the money raised goes to Cancer Research.

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?

Paul: First and foremost, all credit to Sandy Petersen for creating the game. Since then, if there has been evolution, its been in scenario design. Thankfully some writers have moved away from the rigid scenario structure that was so prevalent in the 80s, in which players are moved as if on a conveyor belt from one location to the next; pick up the clue–move from location A to location B, pick up the next clue – move from B to C, and so on. Of course there have always been good scenarios with a more open plan structure, just take a look at The Haunting [one of the scenarios in the Call of Cthulhu rulebook, called “The Haunted House” in early editions]. When you begin play you’re told about that house, and as soon as you set foot it in you’re screwed!

sott-delta-green-through-glass-darkly-dennis-detwiller-paperback-cover-artFor me, the key milestone in Lovecraftian Roleplaying is the work of Pagan Publishing. Those early days of The Unspeakable Oath were exciting times. I recall discovering an issue in the Virgin store in Meadowhall, Sheffield, if memory serves me right. I ran ‘Convergence’ (the scenario that spawned Delta Green) in the early 90s, it really was a breath of fresh air. There is a lot of bad mythos fiction out there, but I love the Delta Green fiction, which for my money is better than the game books they produced. I’m just finishing Detwiller’s latest novel, Through A Glass, Darkly, and the quality has not diminished.

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?

Paul: Even back in the pre-internet-1980s there was a circulation of photocopied fanzines and the like, but nowadays people have the means of production and distribution literally at their fingertips. This is a mixed blessing; hopefully the good stuff rises to the top of the pile. The outcome is that there can be a game to satisfy every niche, and I think that is a good thing. I see many of the new small press games more akin to a Call of Cthulhu Scenario in terms of the investment in preparation and playing time. This makes them easy to pick up, play a few sessions then move on to something else, just as we would with a traditional scenario.

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

Paul: The main factor that is shaping the direction of Lovecraftian RPGs is all the previously published material and our preconceptions about how to play. We’re all immersed in what has gone before and see that as the way that things should be done. There are good things in the Call of Cthulhu back catalogue, but I’m sure there are many innovations for us to look forward to. I do not mean change for the sake of change, but genuinely new and exciting ideas. The game I’m most excited about right now is Monsterhearts. I’ve sat down and played it a few times at conventions and in the space of 4-hours we’ve created characters and a story from scratch. The game mechanics and the fiction just flow seamlessly together, supporting one another effortlessly. It’s a great example of innovative game design.

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

Paul: Seems there’s a flip-side to every challenge. One might argue that computer gaming has drawn people away from pen-and-paper rpgs, but on the other hand, computers have also been a great boon in enabling roleplayers to get in touch with one another.

sott-popular-front-of-judeaOne of the sad things I see is the self-imposed divisions among roleplayers. For goodness sake folks, we’re a niche hobby. When I hear people complaining about ‘indie-gamers’ or ‘trad-gamers’ doing it ‘wrong’, I’m reminded of the Judean People’s Front in [Monty Python’s] Life of Brian. Splitters.

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-Call of Cthulhu, 2nd EditionPaul: Much as I love Call of Cthulhu, I think the size of the book is enough to put off some people nowadays. When I began with second edition, it was a slim volume that I read cover to cover. Seems to me that people have more things to do with their free time now than they ever have, so you have to grab them quick or they move on. So I think there’s an opportunity for slim, grabby products. The irony does not escape me; 7th edition Call of Cthulhu will be a big book. I would also like to see a slimmed down version, something a bit more than the quickstart rules, more akin to the second edition that I started with.

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?

Paul: One thing I see now is an increased use of Skype and Google Plus hangouts for gaming. I figure not many people are willing to drive 100 miles to a stranger’s house for a game, but would be happy to join the same people for an online game. That said, I think there will always be a place for face-to-face gaming. There is no replacement for sharing leisure time with friends.

CR: Thanks Paul!


State of the Tentacle: Mike Mason

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One of the ‘hot topics’ in the Call of Cthulhu world right now is the proposed 7th Edition of the game. It has been debated ad-infinitum on online forums and referenced several times in earlier interviews in this series. Because of this level of interest, we here at Cthulhu Reborn were keen to speak with the creators of this next step in the evolution of the most venerable Lovecraftian RPG … not to quiz them about what the new rules might be (you can read information about that lots of other places), but to get a bit of an insight into their creative vision of Cthulhoid gaming and where it might be going longer-term.

We are very pleased today to be interviewing Mike Mason, one half of the core design team for Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition … but also an experienced writer and publisher with a long association with Lovecraftian roleplaying and the broader RPG industry.

Introduction

Mike Mason is the co-writer of Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Rulebook and co-writer of the (also upcoming) Call of Cthulhu Investigator’s Handbook. Previously, Mike was the developer, editor and co-author of Black Industries (now FFG) 40K RPG DarK Heresy. His stint at Black Industries included working on and publishing The Inquisitor’s Handbook, Disciples of the Dark Gods, GM Screen & Pack, and Purge the Unclean. Mike also published the small press zine The Whisperer, which focused on Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraftian things, bringing out Gaslight and Dreamlands specials in the zine’s run. Previous work for Chaosium included editing on the Ramsey Campbell’s Goatswood scenario book.

Mike has also worked for Games Workshop, managing the annual Games Day & Golden Demon show, running numerous 40K and Warhammer tournaments, as well as setting up a UK gaming community programme to support gaming clubs in schools, colleges and libraries. In his spare time he also set up and ran the UK’s Kult of Keepers; a cadre of writers and keepers who organised and ran numerous Call of Cthulhu games across UK and German RPG conventions.

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?

Mike: It’s all very subjective as something liked by one person can easily be disliked by another. For me, highlights would be sitting down to play Masks of Nyarlathotep for the first time and my character finding himself on the (very) wrong end of an Outer God. Another highlight is Sandy’s Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, which is often (wrongly in my opinion) seen as a poorer cousin to Masks. I’m looking forward to the revamped Horror on the Orient Express – having run it all the way through twice for two very different groups I’m keen to see it back in print. I think a key milestone was Chaosium’s opening-up of their licensee arrangements, which has resulted in some cool companies doing some cool products.

obsidianportal.com

I’m not sure the MULAs were a misstep as they have provided an accessible entry point for new writers – which is important and should be applauded. However, it would be nice if MULAs could receive some editing and development work prior to print. I would advise all potential MULA authors to visit the forums and see if they can’t find someone willing to read and edit their work before sending it to Chaosium.

Obviously Sandy’s work on the Call of Cthulhu rules are a key milestone. Both myself and Paul (Fricker) took them very seriously when working on the 7th edition. It’s kinda surprising to see how the rules have actually grown between the 1st and 6th editions. Numerous additions have been bolted on, some as core content, others as Spot Rules, and so on. In my experience and in conversation with numerous players, much of this added content was either forgotten or ignored in the heat of playing the game. 7th edition has been about trying to restructure the rulebook so that all the rules are in one place in a logical order. sott - Call of Cthulhu, 1st ed coverAllowing players to choose the optionality they like has also been important – everyone plays Call of Cthulhu in ‘their own way’ – so ensuring the rulebook worked for as near as 100% of people as possible was a major task. Having a world-wide play test was always something I wanted to do, and I’m pleased that so many gaming groups answered the call and joined in the play test – my thanks to them. Everyone’s feedback was useful and provided good food for thought.

Early on, when we had prepared the first draft of the rulebook, the ideas were pretty radical and the reaction by some quarters of the Cthulhu community was certainly vocal! That’s a good thing as it allowed us to test the water and then redraft. Working on anything 30 years old with such a huge community of fans was always going to be like walking a tight-rope. Some want real change, whilst others would be happy by simply changing the book’s cover and keeping all the content the same. For redraft, we’ve kept the core rules as simple and straight forward as possible, whilst also providing keepers with additional, optional material that can be used if it suits their style of play and gaming group – a toolkit in other words.

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?

Mike: I think expanding the concept of how scenarios are written and run is a good thing. All too often many scenarios follow the same pattern and I like to see new takes on how scenarios are run and put together. Whilst I love big campaigns, I think Cthulhu is often at its best with the one-shot approach, allowing a writer to do something different and put the players in unfamiliar or unconventional situations that differ from investigating the haunted house and so on. I think smaller publishers may have an advantage in being able to be quite radical in the material they could published, whereas there are certain expectations for a Chaosium publication.

Shoggoth depicted by eclectixx @ deviantart

Within 7th edition, we’ve been at pains to advise keepers that what is important in scenario design is their story and not necessarily Lovecraft’s or Chaosium’s story. Whilst the rules provide the standard template for what a shoggoth is, etc., it doesn’t mean that ‘your’ shoggoth has to be the same. If you have a cool idea that is left-field of the standard, then why not go with it? Especially if it’s going to perplex and scare your players. HPL didn’t worry about standardising the Mythos, so don’t feel like you have to sweat it either.

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

Probably not the 7th Ed Cover

Mike: Well I guess 7th edition when it finally arrives will give some shape to that question. At the moment, a few people seem overly worried, but really there’s nothing to worry about. It’s totally backwards compatible with previous Call of Cthulhu material (just some minor maths on stat blocks which can be done in the head whilst playing). Also, as I said earlier, we have dialled back the more radical stuff from the first draft. The rule for spending Luck points on altering dice rolls is now a totally optional rule – some groups love this, others prefer to play without it – either way is fine. The pushing rule can really ratchet up the tension in a game, whilst also proving some really memorable experiences.

I think it’s going to be interesting to see how the new Delta Green RPG shapes up, especially as it will no longer be the Call of Cthulhu ruleset.

With all the many different publishers each doing their own settings, its a great time.

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

Mike: Well every convention I go to there seems to be a seminar or panel of experts talking about the death of the RPG hobby. Its been the same for well over ten years now and to be honest, nothing has changed in this regard. Computer games haven’t killed the hobby, neither has iPhones, Kindles or motorbikes (etc…)

The key challenge has always been ensuring games are accessible to new players. Some people have the ‘RPG gene’, some don’t. Just like some have the ‘bird watching gene’ and some don’t. We have to ensure that those with the gaming gene have the opportunity to play a game and discover for themselves that they like it. Making sure RPGs are available and accessible is important. That’s often why gaming clubs are important as they provide a way-in for new and returning gamers. The Internet is obviously a big help too – as are podcasts like YSDC and MU Podcast.

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?

Mike: One of the things I was pleased to write was the chapter on investigator organisation in the 7th edition Investigator’s Handbook. We have a limited number of these existing, Delta Green being the most famous. In the chapter I wanted to open up the possibilities for every group to feel that it was ok for them to create their own organisation, or at least give them a range of ideas that they could build on. Thus, in the chapter, we have all manner of organisations that the investigators could be a part of, including a travelling circus, the R&D wing of a multi-national business, an esoteric order, a collection of ex-military comrades, and many others. I think this opens out the possibilities and I’d love to see what different gaming groups do with these ideas. In time, I could envision some cool campaigns to stem from these ideas, and I’d love to see more published materials along these lines.

I’d like to see a complete revamp of the Dreamlands setting. The stuff Dennis Detwiller has been doing looks great. Like some of your other interviewees, Clark Ashton Smith is a big favourite of mine and I would love to be involved in bringing CAS to life in a Cthulhu setting or supplement. It’s such a rich potential that’s just waiting to be explored. The kick-starter for Achtung! Cthulhu signals another setting that’s been crying out for treatment and I look forward to seeing WWII material. Having said that, there’s plenty that could also be done for WWI of course. I’m also a fan of Gaslight so would love to see more exploration of that setting.

Obviously 7th edition is an opportunity and I hope everyone, whether they are a steadfast player or new to the hobby, finds something they like in there and inspires them to ‘cthulhu’.

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?

Mike: In five years time I imagine all the initial fuss over 7th edition will be long forgotten and people will just be continuing to play Call of Cthulhu. An explosion of cool settings, new scenarios and a couple of new big campaigns will be good. An investigator generator should hopefully be available for PC, Mac, iPad, iPhone and Android by then too (well, at least I hope so!).

CR: Thanks Mike!


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