CthuReview 2017, part 1 – People & Companies

So, normally around this time of the year I like to look back over the previous 12 months and reflect on all the things that have happened in the world of Lovecraftian tabletop RPGs — all the new products, Kickstarters, and so on. Problem is, looking back over 2017 … there were a *lot* of things that happened in the Cthulhu gaming world, probably far too much to summarise in a single blog posting. So, I have been procrastinating about it instead.

However, in the interests of getting *something* written (and published in a time-frame that doesn’t entirely miss the season for “new year reflections”), I’ve decided to split the review over a few parts and tackle them one at a time.

For Part 1, I’d like to try to sum up 2017 events relating to People and Companies (in particular licensees). Subsequent posts will do the round-up of products (for Call of Cthulhu as well as all other gaming systems) and Kickstarters that were run in 2017.

Cthulhu’s People

In a community as small and tight-knit as the Lovecraftian gaming world, the most important element is people — and in particular the personalities whose passion for Lovecraftian games drives thing forward. And while 2017 was, generally a great year for drawing some of the most experienced Call of Cthulhu writers of the game’s “golden era” back into print, it was also a year marked by some sad news.

In November, the passing of Carl T. Ford — the founder and long-time publisher of the Dagon Fanzine — was announced. While those new to the hobby may never have heard of Dagon of of Carl, I think it is fair to say that the Lovecraftian RPG world owes a huge debt to both of them. At the very beginning of Call of Cthulhu’s success, there really was no forum for fans to discuss the game, to publish their own scenarios and thoughts about rules, and to generally hone their skills as producers of game material. Semi-professional magazines like “The Unspeakable Oath” were still a glimmer in the eye of a few young fans, and even the concept of online discussion forums or communities was something akin to science-fiction. In that environment, the Dagon fanzine — an amateur publication, mimeographed and mailed out to subscribers — provided some extremely valuable “glue” to bind a nascent community together. If you’ve never skimmed an issue of this (now highly-collectible) mag, but are curious about what it contained, there are summaries of each of its 25 issues (1982-1990) available from this page. Several of the big names who went on to become major writers for Call of Cthulhu in the 1990s, first published in the pages of Dagon … and so its legacy as a fanzine cannot be underestimated. And neither can the importance of Carl’s passion and dedication to tirelessly producing it, and bringing the Call of Cthulhu writing and playing world closer together. He will be missed by many.

Leaving aside the sad news about Carl Ford, 2017 was generally a very happy year when it comes to famous creators of Call of Cthulhu material — no less than four legends of the game all published new scenarios for the first time in many years. Perhaps the most notable of these was Kevin Ross, whose “old west” setting for Call of CthulhuDown Darker Trails — has been long in the making, and eagerly awaited by all those who knew of its existence. Here’s hoping that Chaosium pushes forward quickly with the publication of the two follow-up books of scenarios and mini-campaigns that are still sitting in the shed. Ironically, Kevin’s classic-era writing also seems to have received some renewed attention in 2017, with the highly-successful Sentinel Hill Press Kickstarter to republish his 1980s-era scenario “The Dare”. So, who knows, perhaps we are on the brink of a (much-welcomed) Kevin Ross avalanche πŸ™‚

In a similar vein, Scott David Aniolowski, a close cohort of Kevin’s and another extremely well-accomplished writer from the 1980s and 1990s had one of his older (yet previously unpublished) pieces released as part of a Kickstarter. The campaign, run by Golden Goblin Press, funded not only the release Scott’s scenario Cold Warning but a few others as well (although those unlocked scenarios have yet to be released).

A surprising publication from Chaosium in 2017 was Reign of Terror, a French Revolution-era off-shoot of the Horror on the Orient Express 2e campaign. This was notable because it represents the first new writing for Call of Cthulhu by Mark Morrison, one of the most popular writers of the “golden age” of Chaosium’s line, in many years.

Finally, Sandy Petersen, primary writer of the first few editions of the Call of Cthulhu rules also returned to the world of scenario writing thanks to Petersen’s Abominations, a volume that was co-written by Mike Mason (based largely on the sketch notes Sandy had created to run these scenarios at conventions).

Companies

Perhaps the biggest single change that occurred in the world of Lovecraftian RPGs in 2017 came about as a result of Chaosium’s radical rewriting of the landscape surrounding licensed Call of Cthulhu products. Hunter S. Thompson once wrote “When the going gets weird, the weird turn pro” … and the sentiment behind that quotation seem to resonate strongly with the changes that have reshaped Chaosium as a company in 2017.

To set some context: throughout most of its lifetime, the Call of Cthulhu line has supported some level of licensee model. This is basically a way for other companies to legally publish material for the game and even make some use of the core intellectual property contained within the game rules. Historically, Chaosium have approached licensing in a fairly laid-back way with most licenses giving the publishers freedom to create whatever they wanted within some pre-defined limits (usually this was a fixed number of product releases per year, to avoid any one company saturating the market). Because small publishers are typically cash-strapped Chaosium introduced the notion that the “license fee” for using the Call of Cthulhu name could be paid in product — that is, a certain percentage of the print run would be supplied to Chaosium for them to sell via their web store. Licensee contracts usually allowed individual publishers to retain copyright in the material they had produced, providing they continued to pay the license fee (in books).

Fast forward to 2015, and Chaosium as a company found themselves on the brink of financial collapse (again) … and also heavily committed to deliver on not one, but two very large and expansive Kickstarter campaigns. To save the company — and also complete the Kickstarters — required an outside party to pretty much “buy out” Chaosium and its debts. That company was Moon Design, who to all intents-and-purposes are the “New Chaosium”.

For the first year or two following the Chaosium buy-out, the new management focussed very heavily on finishing up the wayward Kickstarter campaigns, and to their credit they delivered to the satisfaction of most backers (eventually). With those heavy millstones lifted from their necks in late 2016, they started planning for how the company — and its licensees — should operate moving forward. This planning has lead to a few different announcements, and some knock-on effects.

The biggest single change has been the replacement of the previous (relatively “hands off”) licensing model with one that has three different tiers:

  • Larger companies can still secure a full commercial license; this allows them to publish books by paying a fixed % of profits (not product) to Chaosium. Such publishers are also permitted to run Kickstarter campaigns;
  • Smaller companies can secure a “Small Publisher” license which has some hard limits on the maximum income that can be earned, a % profit payable to Chaosium, and a limited period for which the publisher can make money from their creation. Small publishers can’t run Kickstarters;
  • Individuals can create their own content and publish using a “fan license”, as long as they do not charge money and include a boilerplate paragraph. Fans can’t run Kickstarters.

For commercial licenses, the previously permissive approach to copyright, line management, and other moral rights has been significantly rewritten, with a focus on control and ownership falling to Chaosium. The notion of paying a licensee fee by product is no longer really viable or desirable for anyone (in part because of rising shipping costs), so has been dropped altogether.

To further complicate the picture (or, alternatively, to give people even more options) Chaosium also announced in December an entirely separate community for publishing original Call of Cthulhu material — the Miskatonic Repository. This community is based on similar successful online publication portals such as the “DM’s Guild” for D&D5, and has its own set of terms and conditions.

Overall, the longer term impacts of these changes — whether good or ill — have largely yet to be felt. We’ve already written here on the blog about some of the complexities that the new Chaosium licenses pose for smaller operators (so we won’t rehash that here), but we were also very interested to see announcements in early December that Cubicle 7 (by far the most prolific of the current Call of Cthulhu licensees) has decided to not renew its licenses with Chaosium for both Call of Cthulhu and Basic Roleplaying. Other publishers, conversely, seem to be thriving under the new rules, including smaller operators like Stygian Fox, Weird 8, and Sentinel Hill Press. There have even been a couple of brand new smaller publishers that have popped up during 2017. This, coupled with a reasonable volume of material available on launch of the Miskatonic Repository, suggests that overall the revamping of licensing is largely delivering Chaosium the desired outcome. Though, only time will tell …

 

To be continued …

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