Monthly Archives: September 2019

Open Cthulhu: “Satan” or “Saviour”?

Or, An Investigation into the Provenance of the “Open Cthulhu SRD”

One of the most controversial things to happen this year in the world of Lovecraftian tabletop RPGs has been the (non-)release of the Open Cthulhu SRD and the subsequent debate about its alleged Intellectual Property infringements.

I don’t think there’s any value in rehashing the lengthy (and generally insightful) debate that transpired on the Yog-Sothoth Forum (you must sign-up for free forum membership to see this content). But as a brief capsule summary anyway:

  1. A group of (AFAIK) unknown game designers created a d100 game of Lovecraftian horror which they aimed to release under the OGL; they posted links to their file on YSDC and other forums.
  2. Moon Design (Chaosium) promptly contacted both the creators AND the sites which hosted this link and bluntly asserted this material was in breech of their Intellectual Property and also that of various Cthulhu Mythos fiction authors. Moon also asserted that Open Cthulhu’s use of material from Mongoose Publishing’s OGL version of Runequest was also illegal since that latter work’s OGL was no longer valid.
  3. The Open Cthulhu group re-worked their SRD and claimed to have removed all the references to Mythos creations by any authors other than Lovecraft (whose solo works are now indisputably in the Public Domain) and replaced all content drawn from the Mongoose Renaissance OGL with material from the Legend RPG (which is 100% OGL).
  4. Lively debate followed about trademarks, the nature of the OGL, and other topics concerning Intellectual Property; Moon Design also asserted that they had re-assessed the revised Open Cthulhu SRD and found it to still be in breach of their IP (without citing specifics).

One of the things that I have observed about the online debate about Open Cthulhu is that most of the comments made about it’s use of the OGL are, to some extent, hypothetical (including my own).There are plenty of opinions which are qualified along the lines of “If Open Cthulhu’s claims are true about it being derived from valid OGL content then …” or “If Open Cthulhu has copy/pasted text from Chaosium publications then …” The reason these are hypothetical is because nobody has (to my knowledge) gone through the Open Cthulhu SRD with a fine-toothed comb to try to unpick its provenance. That is, to unravel the DNA of this controversial newborn? (stillborn?) beast.

So, I decided I would sit down and do just that — opening up the latest Open Cthulhu SRD side-by-side with all of the OGL documents it claims as its ancestors AND copies of multiple editions of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu rules (specifically 4th, 5th, and 6th editions).

The analysis took me a LOT longer than I thought — several days of concerted effort — but at the end of it I have gained a fair degree of understanding of what this beast is, and where it’s various parts seem to have come from. In this post I’ll summarize some of those findings.

Quick Summary (or TL;DR)

  1. Open Cthulhu’s claim that it contains no references to non-Lovecraft Mythos elements is basically justified
  2. The OGL ancestry of Open Cthulhu, as stated in its own OGL License seems legitimate
    • Open Cthulhu draws in text from the Delta Green Agent’s Handbook (approx 16% of the Open Cthulhu wordcount), the Legend RPG (2% of the OC wordcount), Eldritch Tales and the Cthulhoid Bestiary for OSR (together 6% of the OC wordcount). Plus it has a smattering of text drawn from the Delta Green Quickstart
  3. While a significant part of the Open Cthulhu text comes from pre-existing OGL rules, two-thirds of its text is apparently new content.
  4. Some of the apparently new content represents rules/content that have no relationship at all with Call of Cthulhu (or any other Chaosium book I’m familiar with); however other pieces look like they are clearly intended to be “retro-clones” of pieces of older Call of Cthulhu editions.
    • In terms of wordcount, about 31% of Open Cthulhu SRD appears to have a “Chaosium influence,” versus 35% of the SRD text which is new content but not inspired by Chaosium’s rules (as far as I can tell)
  5. Looking very closely at the Chaosium-influenced parts of the Open Cthulhu there is no evidence I could find of a direct “copy/paste” anywhere but plenty of examples where similar rules have been re-written using different words


In order to analyze the provenance of different pieces of the Open Cthulhu SRD I decided to create a version of the OC text in a form that allowed me to “colour-code” different sections of text based on provenance. That is, whether it was directly (or almost-directly) copied from an OGL source, whether it was a wholly-original creation, or whether it was new wording attempting to reverse-engineer parallel text from Call of Cthulhu.

In the end my categorization scheme grew to recognize:

  • Five OGL “flavours”: Delta Green Agent’s Handbook, Delta Green Quickstart, Adaptations of Delta Green rules, Legend RPG, and Miscellaneous OGL material (covering Eldritch Tales and the Cthulhoid Bestiary)
  • Two Categories of original material: Entirely Original, Chaosium-influenced
  • Two Miscellaneous categories: H.P. Lovecraft Quotations, OGL License Text

Categorizing (colour-coding) the different sections of the Open Cthulhu SRD was undertaken by comparing the relevant rules/resources text side-by-side with each of the relevant OGL sources and then against the different editions of the Call of Cthulhu rules. Where no source had any clear resemblance to any of those sources I assumed it to be original to Open Cthulhu.

Once each word of the Open Cthulhu SRD had been allocated into one of the categories, statistics were gathered of the total number of words that had been assigned to each category and the proportion they represent of the total Open Cthulhu wordcount.

For a full table of raw data in PDF form, click here.

The Structure of the Open Cthulhu SRD

The Open Cthulhu SRD is structured as shown in the diagram below, being split into two main sections — a Rules Section (aka the Player section) and a Keeper Section.

Overall the Open Cthulhu SRD consists of 61,014 words.

In terms of wordcount, the rules make up about 40% of the total file, with the Keeper section making up the bulk of the rest. There’s a small amount of intro and outro material at the front and back of the file respectively; the outro is made up of the OGL license text.

Overall Observations and Analyses

Looking at the Open Cthulhu SRD in its entirety, the breakdown of words assigned into each of the nine categories is as follows:

OGL Categories

Content from Delta Green Agent’s Handbook: 9,520 words (15.6%)
Content from Delta Green Quickstart: 270 words (0.4%)
Content extrapolated/adapted from Delta Green Agent’s Handbook: 2,978 words (4.9%)


Content from Legend RPG: 1,368 words (2.2%)
Content from Miscellaneous OGL sources: 3,837 words (6.3%)

Original Content Catgories

Entirely Original Content: 21299 words (34.9%)
Chaosium-inspired Content: 19052 words (31.2%)

Miscellaneous Categories

H.P. Lovecraft Quotations: 1736 words (2.8%)
OGL License Text: 954 words (1.6%)

Use of OGL Material

It is clear that large sections of the Open Cthulhu rules section — especially the combat and sanity rules — are copied directly from OGL content in Delta Green. In some cases this material has been edited down to simplify rules or to omit particular parts altogether. For example, Open Cthulhu does not make use of the Character Bonds mechanic at all and all references to it have been edited out. Similarly, the combat rules in Open Cthulhu simplify some of the ways in which high-tech weaponry and/or militaristic weapons are represented.

On the other hand, there are places in Open Cthulhu where the core concepts introduced in Delta Green have been adapted or extrapolated. These are mostly minor, for example the renaming of DG’s “combat turn” to OC’s “combat round” or the expanded set of descriptions for how Lethal Damage affects different types of Mythos creatures.

Leaving aside Delta Green, it is clear that Open Cthulhu’s use of other OGL sources is more slight than might otherwise be assumed. In particular its direct inheritance from the Legend RPG is really very small and is mostly concerning game stats and character creation. The material which is sourced from Eldritch Tales is mostly short descriptions of different Great Old Ones, Mythos Creatures, and Eldritch Artifacts. Open Cthulhu’s borrowing from the Cthuloid Bestiary for OSR is similar, albeit on a much smaller scale — it draws upon descriptions of several Mythos monsters that are not mentioned in Eldritch Tales.

Original vs Chaosium-Inspired

As noted above despite its reliance on OGL sources for the bulk of its rules, more than two-thirds of the words in the Open Cthulhu SRD would seem to be new content (i.e., not derived from an OGL source). One of the more difficult aspects of this analysis was trying to separate out which parts of these non-OGL-derived sections represent entirely original ideas and which are intended to be similar-but-not-identical versions of rules from Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu game.

It is very clear that both types of text appear in the Open Cthulhu SRD.

As evidence of entirely original content, I would point at things like Open Cthulhu’s rather intriguing new take on game stats for Great Old Ones (which it terms “Mythos Powers”). Rather than giving these entities full game stats, as Call of Cthulhu does, OC characterizes them more by the perils of mental contact and the raw Lethality of their physical forms (as a single game stat). Another idea that is (to the best of my knowledge) original to Open Cthulhu is the concept of Investigators needing to make a roll to become “immersed” in a Mythos Tome (i.e., truly believe it isn’t gobbledygook) before they can research its contents.

On the other hand, it is equally clear that there are many cases where Open Cthulhu has introduced rules which are obviously inspired by Call of Cthulhu. Examples which come to mind include the specific skills breakdown in Open Cthulhu which, while not a complete copy of the skills list in early Call of Cthulhu, preserves some of the quirkiness of those editions’ characterization of Investigator knowledge. Another clear example is the inclusion of a brief set of game rules for running Dreamlands adventures which seems closely analogous to rules in Chaosium’s H.P. Lovecrafts Dreamlands (and latter editions of the CoC rules).

A Breach of Copyright?

One thing that is very clear upon a close reading of the Open Cthulhu SRD is that it definitely *is* aiming to be a “retro clone” of pre-7th Edition Call of Cthulhu, in the sense that its rules are similar enough that they could be used to play supplements released for those editions. Arguably, given the slow and slight way in which rules change between different editions of Call of Cthulhu, this also means one could (without too much work) use the Open Cthulhu SRD rules to run more recently-published scenarios as well (which would make it a not-so-retro clone, as others have pointed out).

The big question to be answered when it comes to these “Chaosium inspired” sections is … whether or not they are breaches of the copyrights held by Moon Design? While I searched long and hard for a “smoking gun” which would show there had been literal copy/pasting of sections out of Call of Cthulhu (the most unambiguous form of breach), I didn’t really find anything that absolutely qualifies as such. Yes, there are stat blocks for monsters and for Lovecraft NPCs that use the same set of numbers against the same characteristics, but I’m not sure that qualifies as breach of copyright (since arguably the numbers and the names of the characteristics are both pieces of game rules … or at least that’s how they’ve been interpreted in the cases of other “retro-clones”).

In terms of narrative text in Open Cthulhu that is a literal copy of Chaosium text … I couldn’t find any examples. Of course there are *plenty* of examples where the Open Cthulhu SRD uses different words to describe effectively the same game mechanic found in Call of Cthulhu, but once again I don’t know that this is a copyright breach since rules themselves cannot be copyrighted only their textual expression. As an example of the use of different language to describe similar rules, here is the parallel text describing how Investigators gain percentiles in the Cthulhu Mythos skill when they suffer insanity:

Call of Cthulhu 6th Edition

(© Chaosium, quoted here under fair use)

Open Cthulhu

(© Open Cthulhu, used under OGL)

Insanity and the Cthulhu Mythos

Insanity stemming from non-Mythos causes yields no Cthulhu Mythos knowledge. But each time an investigator reels from Mythos-induced trauma, he or she learns more of the Mythos, and this is reflected in the arcane Cthulhu Mythos skill.

The first instance of Mythos-related insanity always adds 5 points to Cthulhu Mythos. Further episodes of Mythos-induced insanity each add 1 point to the skill.

Understanding the Cthulhu Mythos

Whenever an Investigator goes Temporarily Insane or develops a Disorder due to an encounter with the Cthulhu Mythos, he or she also gains some deeper understanding of the true nature of reality. On the first such occasion, the Investigator gains 5 percentiles in the Cthulhu Mythos skill; each subsequent occasion grants a further 1 percentile. This increase also serves to reduce the Investigator’s maximum SAN (and if current SAN is higher than this value, also causes it to drop to the new maximum).

Provenance of Rules vs Provenance of Keeper-Resources

One thing that is quite clear when looking closely at the Open Cthulhu SRD is that there is a sharp difference between the way in which it derives its “rules” content versus its material for Keeper Resources (Mythos Entities, Creatures, Spells etc).

The Rules section borrows very heavily from existing OGL rulesets — most notably Delta Green. If taken in isolation, the rules section of Open Cthulhu has about 47% of its text derived from Delta Green with another 6% from Legend. That leaves 45% of the rules-section text which doesn’t come from any OGL source. This is mostly made up of skills descriptions, rules for skills improvement, sample weapons table, and examples of rules being used. While the example text used to illustrate and clarify rules is entirely original, most of the other areas identified above are a mix of Chaosium-influenced rules and entirely original rules.

Things are quite different when it comes to Keeper Resources, largely because the primary two OGL sources — Delta Green and Legend RPG — have no OGL content for Mythos entities. In the case of Legend it’s not a Mythos game, so that isn’t surprising. In the case of Delta Green, its own OGL makes it clear that those parts of the Agent’s Handbook are off-limits when it comes to OGL re-use. This seems to have forced the Open Cthulhu writers to (a) create more “new” text, and (b) seek out some alternative OSR rulesets which have small fragments of descriptive text about Mythos creations.

The provenance of the Keeper’s section of Open Cthulhu is broken down as shown below.

The small amount of “Delta Green Adapted” material shown here represents the text supplied for each Mythos creature which describes how it should be considered in terms of the Lethality combat mechanic borrowed from Delta Green. As can be seen, when it comes to Keeper resources, there seems to be a lot which is consciously inspired by Chaosium material, although it must also be said that there is a lot of really interesting material which seems quite distinct from how Call of Cthulhu handles situations (e.g., a different take on Great Old Ones, a more restrained approach to magic, and a set of nifty guidelines for making a brand new setting for Lovecraftian gaming and adapting the Open Cthulhu rules to work with it).

One thing for which Moon Design (and others) chastised the Open Cthulhu crew upon their first SRD release was the inclusion of Mythos elements which derive from works still under copyright (e.g., those of Brian Lumley, Ramsay Campbell, etc.). The Open Cthulhu team claimed to expunge all such mentions in their second SRD … so the question is, did they succeed? In general I would have to say that they did — there are no mentions by name of non-Lovecraft Great Old Ones, Mythos creatures, or Tomes. In fact the list of Mythos entities looks surprisingly similar to that published online for the German-language FHTAGN game (which probably isn’t surprising, since that game was held up during the YSDC discussions as an example of good practice in this area). The only qualifier I would place on my observations in this regard is that Open Cthulhu — like many other games — has rolled in several unnamed or generic Mythos creature categories (e.g., “Winged Servants” or “Hounds of Time”) which seem, to a greater or lesser extent, to be allusions to specific Mythos creations without actually claiming a direct relationship to those creations. It’s another “grey area” from an IP perspective I suppose.


The point of this exercise was to look at the Open Cthulhu SRD in detail to see whether its claims of OGL provenance check out, whether Chaosium’s claims of IP violation are backed up by examples, and whether Open Cthulhu was intended as a true “retro-clone” of older Call of Cthulhu editions.

I think that the analysis I’ve presented above answers many of those questions, although the question about IP violation is obviously a multi-faceted thing. I can certainly see why Moon Design has not been forthcoming with a laundry list of claimed copyright “violations” — since such a thing would be open to argument on both sides, which likely isn’t how they would wish to pursue the matter.

Above all this, however, I would have to say that a close examination of the Open Cthulhu SRD has surprised me in a couple of ways. Firstly, it’s really apparent that the writers of this system have put a lot of effort into it — I was expecting a shoddily slapped-together affair with little consideration for gameplay, but in fact the current rules show a deft and experienced hand at work judiciously picking pieces from several sources and assembling them carefully. The second way that the SRD has surprised me is in its aim to be more setting-independent and all-purpose than the thing it seems to be trying to copy — if the goal was to provide a basic engine to power a broad range of Lovecraftian d100 games, then it substantially succeeds, although obviously would need extrapolation to meaningfully work outside its stated range of eras (early twentieth century to modern day).

It’s a real shame that Open Cthulhu has wound up in such troubled straits, since otherwise it’s just the sort of thing I would recommend to game designers looking for an adaptable d100/Lovecraft base from which to build their own creations. As it is, though, it would be a brave person that took on such an endeavour . . .


[Raw data for the statistical analysis available here; marked up version of the Open Cthulhu SRD for peer-review available on request]

NecronomiCon: An Acolyte’s View, part 3

In the first part of my (entirely-subjective) review of NecronomiCon Providence 2019, I tried to capture some of the overall impressions I had of Providence and the convention overall. One of the key observations in that overview was that in many ways NecronomiCon felt to me a lot more like multiple concurrent conventions — a literary/HPL conference, a game convention, a trade show, and a bunch of affiliated weird-fiction-y events and performances. In part two I talked a little about my impressions of the gaming aspects of the conference — in this final part I’ll focus on the literary angle, and the even more important topic of extracurricular social activities!

Once again I should emphasize that my account of NecronomiCon is necessarily idiosyncratic, based purely on what I was personally able to cram into my 4 days at the event. There was so much other material I wanted to see but couldn’t, and a vast number of other sessions and auxiliary events which happened in parallel with things I saw.

Literary and Biographical Panels

Somebody perusing the website for NecronomiCon Providence 2019 might be forgiven for coming to the conclusion that the event is a literary show first, and a more general appreciation of Lovecraft-inspired things second. Based on lurking around different parts of the conference/convention I would say this is a fair conclusion. There are certainly a great number of people who come to NecronomiCon to listen to fiction publishers, authors, Lovecraft scholars, and other folks who delve into weird literary criticism.

Pretty much all of the literary aspects of the convention take place as a jam-packed schedule of panel discussions and presentations (with a few author readings thrown in for good measure). While I say “literary,” it’s probably more accurate to say that there are a couple of different flavours of such sessions — some aim to be true literary discussions about weird fiction (either the fiction of a particular author, or fiction covering a theme or topic) while other sessions provide handy educational information about Lovecraft and the world he inhabited. I tried to sample a little of each type of session, but as a new visitor to Lovecraft’s hometown I especially wanted to make it to the sessions about HPL’s Providence.

Undoubtedly the absolutely most essential informational sessions presented at NecronomiCon 2019 (and I imagine at previous incarnations as well) were those run by Donovan Loucks, concerning Providence locations important to H.P. Lovecraft. Donovan is a national treasure of Lovecraft scholarship, having set himself up as the premiere authority on “Lovecraft Geography” — real world places that played a part in Lovecraft’s life, or upon which he based fictional locations in his tales. Donovan created the walking tour map/guide of Providence’s College Hill that appears for free in the NecronomiCon guidebook (also available online) and runs 3-hour guided walking tours during the conference. I had been told previously that the tours personally led by Donovan are wonderfully informative — but for the 2019 event only one of the walking tours was led by him personally, with the rest being run by other knowledgeable colleagues.

Instead of booking into one of those, though, I dropped by the two back-to-back presentation sessions (each ~90 minutes) where Donovan took the audience on a photographic “sitting tour” through locations of significance. The first of the timeslots was devoted to locations around Providence, with the order or presentation linked to a chronological walk through HPL’s life. The second timeslot was a virtual tour of other New England locations of importance to Lovecraft — especially focussing on coastal Massachusetts places (e.g., Marblehead) that held especial fascination for him. Both of these sessions were fantastically informative, and I would definitely recommend any newcomer to Providence and NecronomiCon have them on their calendar.

Another biographical-type session I went to was a panel session on Sonia Greene, the remarkable woman who was Lovecraft’s wife for a few years and who enticed him to leave Providence and briefly move to New York City. This session was more of an information-dump than a true panel session, with one of the panelist (who I assume has done some detailed research on the topic) delivering a monologue recounting Greene’s life with other panelists chiming in occasionally with observations or personal impressions. While it was an enlightening session, the mode of presentation felt like it could have been a lot more dynamic.

Leaving aside the biographical sessions, I also dipped briefly into both the more “academic” parts of the NecronomiCon programming (the so-called Armitage Symposium) and the general literary sessions. The former I found a little light-weight (at least by the standards of true academic conferences), but that might have just been the specific session I attended. As a taster of the general literary panels, I sat in on a session entitled “Endarkenment: Nihilism as Liberation in Weird Fiction.” This was quite an intriguing if somewhat heavy session, which touched on philosophy, existential angst, the fiction and non-fiction of Thomas Ligotti, and darker more personal topics. This was probably the best of the panels (literary or gaming) that I attended.

The Unstoppable HPL Historical Society

The NecronomiCon “External Programming” schedule is quite a formidable beast in itself, being made up of all the events that aren’t organized by the Necro conference committee but take place at the same time, sometimes in locations in the main conference hotels. Of the many and varied things that are on this program, some of the most well-attended must surely be the performances by the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society (HPLHS).

For the 2019 convention, the HPLHS had two scheduled slots for live performances of recent radio drama adaptations of Lovecraft tales — drawn from their incredibly well-done Dark Adventure Radio Theater range. The first of these was a live version of their recent CD rendition of “The Lurking Fear” while the second was a live version of their newest CD title “Mad Science” (which rolls in elements of 3 shorter HPL tales). Both of these live sessions were held in one of the large side ballrooms on Level 2 of the Graduate/Biltmore … and both were absolutely packed-to-the-rafters. Clearly the HPLHS performances — a staple at all recent NecronomiCons — have built up a dedicated following. I was only able to make it to half of “Lurking Fear” and none of “Mad Science” (because of clashes with gaming sessions I was scheduled to run) but from what I saw the live performances were top notch and the method of engaging the audience as a source of “special effects” was both fun and effective. I can certainly see why these live radio drama performances attract so many convention-goers … they are unmissable spectacles (which, sadly, I largely missed).

On Saturday night the HPLHS folks also put on another event, the “sea shanty singalong” in the basement of a nearby Irish Pub. I tried to get into this also, but had no luck — the basement was jam-packed with people well before I arrived. I heard later that the “sea shanty” singing was more than a little difficult with so many people packed into the venue that Sean and Andrew could scarce be heard. Such is the price of popularity I guess.

Tours of Lovecraft’s Providence

The opportunity to visit Lovecraft’s local haunts while in Providence is a tantalizing proposition. Thankfully, there are a few different ways of satisfying that urge while at NecronomiCon. Firstly, as noted above, there are 3-hour guided walking tours of College Hill. These sounded fantastic, but with the conference schedule being so crammed already, finding three hours (two panel slots, or most of a gaming session) free is pretty challenging. For this reason, I opted not to book into one of these walking tours instead hoping that I could use the map and information on Donovan’s website to trawl College Hill on a post-conference day when things are less hectic. This plan turned out to work quite well, although a long trawl up and down the streets of this part of Providence left me with pretty sore legs thanks to its many steep hilly roads.

Lovecraft’s Grave

As a complement to the walking tours, the NecronomiCon extended schedule also included shorter (~90 minute) bus tours. These are a bit more geographically far-ranging, heading out past the locations on Angell Street where Lovecraft lived for most of his life, dropping by the Ladd Observatory, and making a stop at HPL’s grave in the Swan Point Cemetery. I booked into one of these tours early in the convention and found it a pretty handy way to get a quick overview of the College Hill area and some of the key sites of relevance to Lovecraft. The Ladd Observatory — still owned and run by Brown University — had made special arrangement to be open during the times when the bus tours were operating, which meant groups could go into the observatory and climb up to the telescopes where a young HPL had spent some of his formative teenage years staring out into the inky uncaring cosmos.

An FAQ on the NecronomiCon site answered the question as to whether the walking tour or the bus tour is “better,” by saying that both are quite different experiences and if given the opportunity convention-goers should do both. I would second that assessment!

Weirdly Social

While there was plenty of NecronomiCon things to do during the day (and, for the Gaming Hall, late into the night as well), quite a lot of additional socializing took place after things had wound up at the official venues. I am sure that different groups of conference goers convened at various different Providence drinking establishments; the gaming crew seemed to mostly gravitate to a pair of Irish Pubs — Blake’s and Murphy’s — a couple of blocks from the Biltmore. Most evenings there was lively discussion, drinking, and general stupidity of the kind you’d probably expect. It was quite a privilege to hang out and drink with some of the great writers of Lovecraftian RPG titles, as well as meet up with some of those who publish such games. Truly a joy …. even if it did lead to a kind of happy sleep-deprivation which only got worse as Necro went on.

On the Sunday morning, there was a separately-ticketed “Cthulhu Prayer Breakfast” which was quite an unusual event where convention-goers could grab some (marginally uninspiring) breakfast food, juice, and coffee and sit and watch while several “priests” of Cthulhu provided “sermons” and led the assembled hordes in some “hymns.” As tongue-in-cheek jokey things go it was kind of fun, but I don’t think I’d be in a hurry to wake up early to get to another one. NecronomiCon attendees who signed up for the special (Gold Key or Silver Key) limited levels had the “privilege” of dressing up in robes and being in the choir for this prayer breakfast.

On the very last night of NecronomiCon, a special event was held at an old movie theatre a mile or two from the convention hotels. This was the Dunwich Horror Picture Show, which was … rather a surreal affair. The basic idea was that convention-goers could go along to watch the (rather terrible) 1960s movie adaptation of The Dunwich Horror (the one with Dean Stockwell). To make this a more bearable experience, though, there was a live score played by a band perched below the silver screen. Audience-goers were also encouraged to call out amusing riffs or quips to offset the film’s general awfulness. The movie has some extended “trippy” sequences at various points throughout — and kindly the organizers had arranged for weird person-sized Lovecraftian puppet things to burst forth from the boxes to the left and right of the screen and cavort menacingly. It was … quite an experience.

The NecronomiCon-Vibe

One thing I wasn’t too sure about heading into NecronomiCon was what the general vibe would be like. I mean *some* of the folks who go to the event are serious scholars of Lovecraft who regularly write serious books on the subject. Would that mean that the event would be organized in a way which treated the Old Man of Providence in a “hagiographic” light? Well … turns out that is definitely *not* how NecronomiCon works. As an event it actually embraces a lot of different attitudes to Lovecraft and his work, and if anything is quick to bring out a lighter side to his horrific vision of the university whenever possible. I guess this is a good thing in that it allows a vastly diverse community of different people — all of whom are united by their enjoyment of weird fiction (even if they otherwise don’t have too much in common). In that sense I think that NecronomiCon does actually live up to its somewhat lofty goals of being an inclusive home for all kinds of weird.

The Wrap-Up: So … Would I Do It Again?

In the final analysis, my exercise in getting half-way around the world was a rather complex and costly thing … but the experience of being at NeconomiCon for 4 days of gaming, panels, tours, and events more than made up for that expense and hassle. The real icing on the cake, though, was the socializing and networking — just being able to spend some time chatting with so many key gaming industry types.

If the stars align again for me in 2021, I will definitely look forward to repeating the experience! Always assuming that the Great Old Ones haven’t devoured the world before then . . .


NecronomiCon: An Acolyte’s View, part 2

In the first part of my (entirely-subjective) review of NecronomiCon Providence 2019, I tried to capture some of the overall impressions I had of Providence and the convention overall. One of the key observations in that overview was that in many ways NecronomiCon felt to me a lot more like multiple concurrent conventions — a literary/HPL conference, a game convention, a trade show, and a bunch of affiliated weird-fiction-y events and performances. Given this general impression, it’s probably worth diving into a description of how each of these different parts worked in practice. In this post I’ll try to cover all the game-related stuff.

I should state at the outset that (as should be obvious from this blog) my primary interest in weird fiction these days is in its potential to fuel great gaming experiences. I am interested in HPL and his fiction, but the literary criticism angle and discussion of new weird fiction writers is less my thing. Hence, my view of things will be a little skewed towards the gaming side of things, although I spent time dipping into both aspects of Necro19. The other thing I should highlight is that, clearly, my impressions are going to be idiosyncratic and based on the games/panels/events I was able to attend (which was only a subset of what I would like to have seen, and very much a tiny proportion of what was on offer over the 4 days) — so keep that in mind.

When The Working Gets Weird

Before I launch into a description of the gaming aspect of NecronomiCon, I really should spend some time talking about WeirdWorks. If you aren’t familiar with this (non-commercial) association of amateur-creatives/small-scale horror publishers, it’s a wonderfully broad and diverse group of people who throw around ideas for gaming projects, trade information about industry trends, incubate collaborative efforts, and the like. The group also have a strong association with NecronomiCon, being formed largely as a collection of like-minded folks who wanted to release a zine at NecronomiCon 2017. I wasn’t a part of any of that, but I’ve been loosely kicking around with the WeirdWorkers for a while.

At Necro 2019, WeirdWorks upped the ante a bit: not only did a bunch of WeirdWorkers band together to make another zine (Hypergraphia Issue #2) to debut at the con, but the group hosted a networking event on Thursday afternoon, just prior to the official convention opening. This was an open event which any curious conference-goer could attend to chew the fat about the process of creating weird-fiction games. Because I had been corresponding with the WeirdWorks folks for quite some time, I was quite familiar with many of the active members including the WW event organizers Charles Gerard and Matt Puccio. Of course I had never met *any* of the WeirdWorks folks in person (since hardly anyone is in my part of the globe), so attending this event — to put faces to names — was an absolute must for me.

Even beyond this personally satisfying aspect of the WeirdWorks function, there was another cool aspect to the event — getting signed up for their convention meta-game “Rock, Paper, Cultists!” All registered players were issued with free decks of cards which could be used to challenge other signed-up folks to a simple game (each pick a card from their deck, compare cards using rules printed on the card back, winner takes both). The idea behind it was to encourage folks to chat with other convention-goers … and from what I can tell this worked pretty well. I saw quite a number of folks playing this game all the way through Necro, with a few collecting vast quantities of cards.

The Gaming Hall

The heart of the gaming side of NecronomiCon is the gaming hall, located on the top (18th) floor of the Biltmore/Graduate Hotel. Most of this floor is set up as a single open ballroom with views out over most of Providence. It’s a stunning place to do some gaming, especially if you happen to be in a session around sunset. The gaming hall is filled with a large number of round tables, each big enough for a gaming group of 7 or 8 players. When it was busy — which was most of the time — this was a noisy place to be, with the tables being close enough together that ambient noise spilled from all the surrounding tables to yours. While this isn’t ideal — and definitely strained my voice when I was GM for a couple of sessions — this same issue affects pretty much every game convention I’ve been at, and at least the Biltmore hall had some soft surfaces to absorb some of the sound (as opposed to lots of convention centres where blank concrete surfaces reflect and amplify sound into a wash).

In addition to the open area, the 18th Floor has a number of smaller enclosed rooms along one side of the hall — these seem to have been booked for games sponsored or run by Chaosium. I didn’t personally get to game in those spaces, but they likely would have been quieter.

The View from the Gaming Table (Graduate, L18)

Gaming sessions at Necro were organized into a programme of sessions that GMs had previously nominated. The scheduling of sessions was based on some general preferences for days and time (morning vs afternoon), but was (necessarily, I guess) independent of all other streams of activities at the convention. This meant that my own two sessions (a 4-hour Dateline: Lovecraft game on Friday night and a 2-hour Convicts & Cthulhu game on Saturday night) clashed with other popular things that *I* wished I could go to as well. I guess that’s just how things go. This year for the first time, NecronomiCon convention-goers who wanted to book into game sessions could do so using a third party website. Bookings were free of charge, but you needed to register on the booking website and lock in a seat for the sessions you planned to attend. A lot of the sessions by more popular/well-known GMs sold out within an hour or so of going live (several weeks before the convention). But quite a number of sessions, including one of mine, only partly filled up and even supposedly “full” games often had people who failed to show up — so if you’re keen for a particular game it’s worthwhile lurking around at the time it’s scheduled to start, just in case a place frees up.

In addition to the scheduled games, the gaming hall is set up to allow people to also create ad hoc (“pickup”) games by speaking with the minions and finding a free table at any time. I think there was also a library of boardgames that groups could book out for sessions, too.

All the game sessions I ran or played in went really well. Both sessions I GMed had surprising players — two out of three of my Dateline players had never played Call of Cthulhu before (one had never played an RPG before); two of my Convicts players turned out to be ex-pat Aussies living in exile in the USA! I was also fortunate enough to play in a World War 2 era scenario which featured a mysterious German U-Boat that had spontaneously appeared in a Scottish Loch. This mind-bending scenario was written by an author whose work we hope to soon feature on Cthulhu Reborn. In the dying hours on the very last day of the convention I also managed to inveigle myself into a game of Cthulhu Dark (a scenario from Hypergraphia #2, run by the author no less!)

Panels About Gaming

Aside from the very active gaming hall, there was a small amount of game-related content buried away in the programme of NecronomiCon panel discussion/presentations. If I am being honest, this was the only truly disappointing element of the convention programme, not because of a lack of interesting speakers but because of the commercial focus of most of the panel topics.

Some of the gaming panels were held in smaller rooms in the Omni hotel (on Level 2) with others held in larger spaces (ballrooms) in the Biltmore/Graduate. All up there were six gaming-related panels at NecronomiCon 2019:

  • Creating Historical Settings for Call of Cthulhu (Saturday; panelists Lynne Hardy, Mike Mason, Oscar Rios, Christopher Smith Adair)
  • Victory at Home and Beyond: Investigators for Social Equality (Saturday; panelists Gwen Callahan, Charles Gerard, Lynne Hardy, Andrew Leman, Jeffrey Moeller, Nicholas Nacario, Oscar Rios)
  • A Taste of Ashes: DELTA GREEN (Sunday; panelists A. Scott Glancy, Daniel Harms, Kenneth Hite, Shane Ivey)
  • Cosmic Horror of the Warhammer Universe (Sunday; panelists John Goodrich, Niels Hobbs, Nicholas Kaufmann, Mike Mason, Molly Tanzer)
  • How To Game The Weird (Sunday; panelists Fiona Maeve Geist, Dan Harms, Kenneth Hite, Shane Ivey, Badger McInnes, Sandy Petersen)
  • Favorite Call of Cthulhu Scenarios (Sunday; panelists Sean Branney, Paul Fricker, Jon Hook, Mike Mason, Matthew Sanderson)

Having been to more than my fair share of game convention panels, I have come to appreciate that there are two general categories — panels which exist primarily to promote the selling of game books, and others that aim to promote an exchange of ideas intended to educate or be thought-provoking for the audience. The former are great if you are unfamiliar with a particular game or game setting and want to hear some of the creators share some broad descriptions of what they think is great about their creation. The latter are great if you are already acquainted with the game/setting but want to hear panelists challenge one another with different ideas to explore the defining ideas in new and interesting ways. I have come to learn that game publishers greatly prefer the former type of panels (since they see them as a vehicle for snagging new recruits to their game and thereby selling books). On the other hand, as someone who tries to stay informed about all the different Lovecraftian RPG product lines that are out there, I really prefer the latter.

Ken Hite “Necro2019 Guest of Honor” Portrait

Even in the lead-up to NecronomiCon 2019, when the schedule of panels was published, I suspected that I would be out of luck when it came to seeing thought-provoking panel discussions about RPG lines. This was confirmed by the one session I *was* able to attend — the Saturday panel relating to historical settings, which had some great panelists, but was clearly limited to discussing product-lines currently being sold by Chaosium and Golden Goblin Press. I would love to have heard the same folks talking about the topic more generally (e.g., the challenges of creating game scenarios for entirely original times and places), but that was plainly not the intent of this session. I am hopeful that some of the other sessions were more educational/enlightening — certainly the inclusion of the impressively erudite Kenneth Hite on a couple of them would have upped the odds of that kind of discussion breaking through.

Another somewhat gaming-related session that I was able to attend was the lunchtime “battle” between two of the leading podcasts of the Lovecraftian RPG world: the Miskatonic University Podcast vs the Good Friends of Jackson Elias. This was a fun session, with both teams of podcasters up on a stage engaging in a series of semi-serious/semi-mock debates on a range of gaming-related topics. I’m not sure that any of the debates really settled anything (even the weighty question of whether Dunwich Horror’s Prof Armitage was a hero or villain), but it was a fun hour regardless (audio recording here).

The Vendor Hall

As I mentioned in the convention overview in part one, another very active part of NecronomiCon 2019 was the promoting and selling of Lovecraftian-related items in the Vendor Hall. This was a large open space (a vast ballroom) on the ground floor of the Omni Hotel. Packed into this large room was a veritable treasure-trove of weird horror-related swag. I spent quite some time trawling through the several rows of vendor tables looking at the impressive diversity of things on sale. There were definitely a lot of weird-fiction related books being sold, but also a fair number of game publishers had tables offering their recent products (Chaosium had a sizeable one, as did the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society; Arc Dream and Squamous Studios both had smaller tables; strangely Golden Goblin Press was entirely unrepresented in the vendor hall). Aside from games and fiction books there were lots of T-Shirts on sale, as well as physical props and DVDs of H.P. Lovecraft Film Festival highlights. There was undoubtedly a lot of other weirdness that defies categorization as well.

Lovecraft’s notes for “Mountains of Madness.” How the heck did he read that?

There were three particular highlights for me in the vendor hall. One was dropping by and meeting the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society guys (Sean and Andrew). I have been a big fan of their work since their earliest days producing physical morsels of weirdness, and have corresponded a little with Andrew sharing prop-making tips (aka being eclipsed by his vast experience in the domain). So it was great to meet the guys in person. Unfortunately I couldn’t buy anything from their stacks of amazing products, since I already owned (or had pre-ordered) one of every item on display. Well, that’s not quite true — I did buy one of their amazing replicas of Lovecraft’s literal “back of the envelope” outline for “At the Mountains of Madness” (pictured nearby).

Arkham Relic Hunt (being Kickstartered by Squamous right now)

Another highlight was meeting the Squamous Studio guys — Badger and Damon, who I had also corresponded with a little bit over the years. Damon was especially keen to get me into a round of his new card game “Arkham Relic Hunt” (which is still on Kickstarter, with a few days left to go at the time of writing). The game is a very fast-paced exercise in exploring various locations around Arkham to discover relics/spells which you can use to snipe the other players who are engaged in exactly the same mission. It’s anarchic fun, which has the potential for a lot of “hey let’s all pile up on player X” type action. Badger and Damon thoughtfully let me be “player X” in this scenario … for pretty much the entire time I was playing at their table. But despite all that kindness I still didn’t get the lowest final score (thanks to some last minute luck and perhaps skill). Anyway, it’s a game I’d definitely recommend checking out on Kickstarter if rapid-fire competitive play is your thing.

Jason Thompson’s awesome graphic novel of HPL’s Dreamquest

The last of the vendor hall highlights for me was dropping by the table run by Jason Thompson, famous for his graphic novel version of HPL’s Dreamland tales as well as creating one of the most amazing maps of the Dreamlands. (He’s also the talent who drew an impressively-huge number of popular “walkthrough” map/posters for classic 80’s D&D modules and even for the classic “Haunting” scenario featured at the back of virtually every Call of Cthulhu rulebook edition). Unbeknownst to me prior to NecronomiCon, Jason has recently been developing a Dreamlands RPG which aims to differ from previous gaming depictions in that it aims to capture the wonder and whimsy of the Dunsanian/Lovecraftian dream cycles as much as the nightmarish aspects. The new RPG is designed such that most of the gameplay takes place in the Dreamlands. The mechanics, as described to me by Jason, focus on the power of words and memories as resources that dreamers can spend to influence their dream experience — but if anyone spends *too many* they risk losing the very memories which tie them back to reality. Jason ran three sessions of his game in the Gaming Hall but unfortunately all were at times when I was either busy elsewhere or actually running my own games nearby — so I never got to see this new Dreamland RPG in action, but it sounds pretty interesting. Definitely something to watch out for when it gets released (or Kickstartered).

Watch This Space

In the third and final part of this NecronomiCon wrap-up, I will attempt to try to capture some personal impressions of the literary and biographical parts of the convention … as well as the ever-important “extracurricular” aspects (including the weird prayer breakfast and the surreal Dunwich picture show).



NecronomiCon: An Acolyte’s View, part 1

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be able to attend NecronomiCon Providence for the first time. This particular conference/convention has always held some special intrigue for me, as (from the outside at least) it looks to be the coming together of pretty much all the divergent “flavours” of Lovecraft-inspired fandom. Not to mention also being a haunting ground for Lovecraft and associated weird fiction scholars and game designers.

For various personal reasons, I haven’t been in a position to attend any of the previous “rebooted” NecronomiCons (which started in 2013 and are held every second year). Coming from far, far away – almost literally the opposite side of the world – makes the pilgrimage to Providence a significantly complicated undertaking from both a logistical and financial perspective. But in 2019, the stars were finally right.

Because I have been a “curious outsider” to previous NecronomiCon Providence events, I thought it might be nice to write a couple of blog postings which aim to capture my impressions of the conference/convention – as a first-time attendee. Hopefully these posts might be useful to other folks who haven’t been able to make the event, as well as anyone who is contemplating making the journey to Providence for the next (2021) NecronomiCon.

Some Words About Providence

Pretty much every account I’ve ever read about fan visits to Lovecraft’s hometown of Providence have described the city as a beautiful place. That was also my impression of the downtown areas of Providence: charming and elegant in their own way, and with just the right mix of greenery, historical buildings, and modern facilities. The central part of Providence – where NecronomiCon is held – is also surprisingly compact, meaning that all the conference venues places of HPL-significance are within easy walking distance of one another.

Providence Skyline (as seen from the Gaming Hall)

The majority of NecronomiCon is held in a pair of hotels – the Biltmore (now the Graduate Providence), a large 1920s high-rise gem, and the Omni Providence, a modern-style high-rise. The two locations are about 3- or 4-minutes’ walk apart, and during the event there is a steady stream of people moving back and forth between the two. Both hotels are in the downtown area of Providence, quite close to a large and greenly-attractive park which also doubles as a kind of public transport hub.

The part of Providence where HPL spent most of his life is immediately to the east of the centre of town, just across the water. This is College Hill, the site of Brown University and all of the various places where Lovecraft lived while in Providence. It’s a charming and picturesque neighbourhood made up almost-entirely of different styles of historic architecture, most dating back to the Victorian age, some well into the 18th century or earlier. The NecronomiCon opening ceremony was held in the stunning First Baptist Church which is located in this part of town. It is very easy to walk to College Hill from the central part of town – it’s maybe a 10 minute walk – but be warned that exploring the neighbourhood can be strenuous as some of the streets are steep.

Getting To Providence / Accommodation Options

Because Providence is a smaller US city, the number of flights that fly direct into its airport are fewer than for major destinations like nearby Boston. For this reason, some NecronomiCon attendees fly into/out of Providence directly but many journey to Boston and complete their trip by road or rail. I took the latter option, choosing to end my international flight in Boston and then (after a day’s stopover there) take the train from Boston South Station to Providence – a trip of about 40 minutes. This worked out very well and brought me right into the heart of Providence, a short walk from the convention hotels. Other people I spoke to at NecronomiCon rented cars from Boston and drove down themselves.

Outside the Graduate (left) with the Omni in the background (centre)

Because most of the activity at NecronomiCon takes place in the Biltmore/Graduate and the Omni, the most convenient – but probably also the most expensive – option for accommodation is to get a room in one of those hotels. The conference had a limited block booking in both, but I didn’t get in early enough to take advantage of that rate. Regardless I decided to book some nights’ accommodation in each of the two. The Biltmore/Graduate is by far the more luxurious (and expensive), having gorgeously appointed rooms in an artsy/preppy kind of theme. My room at the Omni was a typical example of a modern hotel room, but was more spacious than my room at the Graduate. The convenience of being able to stop by your accommodation in-between conference sessions, or to drop off purchases made in the vendor hall, was great – but obviously comes with a cost.

Speaking with other attendees, it seems that a lot of groups band together and hire out AirBnB house accommodation to share among everyone. Some of those AirBnB’s seemed to be quite conveniently located to the convention, a short bus ride away or similar, but others opted for places that were a little more distant. Given that most days the convention started around 8:30 or 9AM and socializing frequently stretched late into the night (I was out til ~2AM on Friday and Saturday nights), sleep is already at a premium. I would imagine that adding travel to/from outlying AirBnBs might exacerbate that even more.

One Convention? Two Conventions? More?

NecronomiCon bills itself as a kind of one-stop event that takes in all aspects of literature, games, media, and … miscellaneous stuff … all which is somehow associated with Lovecraft. Actually, it’s even broader than that, encompassing anything with a “weird fiction” pedigree. With such a broad (some might say catholic) focus, I was quite interested to see how a single event could somehow roll in everything from hard literary criticism, through new weird fiction, through Lovecraft-inspired games, through art and film projects, through to heavy-metal music. Of course the answer is that while all of those things are included in some way … the resulting amalgam doesn’t truly feel like a single homogenous conference or convention, but more like a conglomerate of a few independent “sub-conventions.” A thing of many semi-independent parts, if you will.

A Strange Providence Public Artwork (aka the donut that could consume YOU!)

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the relationship between the literature/biographical stream of NecronomiCon and the gaming stream. Both are sizeable, but are run as largely independent events (with the main cross-over points being the rather sparse and lacklustre programme of gaming panels). That’s not to say that attendees entirely go for one side of the convention or the other, but there definitely seems to be some degree of separation between “literary nerds” and “gamer nerds.”

In addition to the two major streams of the convention, there is a very active “trade show” type vendor hall where folks sign up to sell their weird-horror wares – some game-related, some fiction-related, some altogether unrelated to either.

At the same time as the very active programme of literature talks/panels, gaming sessions, and vendor selling is happening, NecronomiCon also has a very full programme of “external events.” These include things like live podcast recordings, performances by the HPLHS of their audio dramas, film stuff, art stuff, weird masquerade balls, tours of HPL sites in Providence, meet ups of different communities, life-sized weird horror puppets, and metal music performances. And probably more too.

Weirdness, Weirdness All Around

With all those different streams of Lovecraft (and weird-fiction) inspired stuff going on at the same time, it’s fair to say that there is never a shortage of things to do. I was warned ahead of time by folks that had been to previous NecronomiCons that it is very easy to overcommit on one aspect of the convention (e.g., booking into lots of game sessions) and missing out on other things because their timings clashed. On the other hand, there are some things – like the bus tours of Providence – that tend to sell out quickly, so there’s a need to commit to some of those well ahead of the convention.

A Lobster Hat Was Somehow Important to the Opening Ceremony

So … how did it feel to be awash in such a sea of interesting “things to do” (most of which are included in the cost of the convention sign-up)? Well, speaking as someone who came to NecronomiCon hoping to dip into parts of *all* of the different streams of activities … I found the experience rather overwhelming. One could liken it to trying to drink from a firehose … although I would probably go further and say it’s like trying to multitask between drinking from three or four firehoses at the same time. While I’ve been to lots of academic-style conferences and a fair share of game conventions, I don’t think I have ever felt this torn between different things that I wanted to see and do. I guess that’s an endorsement of the richness of the NecronomiCon programme … but it also has the effect that no matter how you dash from session to session to best use your time, you’ll inevitably still miss a fair number of things you’d really like to have seen or been part of. Ultimately, I guess it’s better to have “feast” rather than “famine” even if that means a certain amount of disappointment.

Speaking with others whose travel plans caused them to leave a little earlier – missing part of Sunday (a quieter day, but still pretty hectic) – the general sense is that its preferable to stick around until the last hurrah, even if only for the opportunity to network and socialize. Thankfully my own plans were made based on the wisdom of friends who were old Necro-hands, so not only was I able to take in the full 4-day experience but also to stick around for additional “rest days” in Providence afterwards.

Watch This Space

In the second part of this NecronomiCon wrap-up, I will attempt to try to capture some personal impressions of the game-related elements of the convention.

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