State of the Tentacle: Mike Mason

SotT-LargeLogo-MikeM

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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