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The aim of doing using Kickstarter for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition was always to produce the best quality of book production. Chaosium are understandably risk-averse, and would not seek to publish a deluxe hardcover book without the assurance that it would sell.

Thus, when the Kickstarter began the options were limited to softcover or hardcover books, each limited to black and white interior layout. As the project progressed and money was pledged, stretch goals were met. First the Arkham Country Map and floor plans, fairly modest proposals, but nice additions to the book. Then at 70K we saw the addition of colour plates to the Keeper’s Rulebook. This would provide something akin to the old Gaslight book.

gaslight2

Next came a slipcase, the promise of a comprehensive index (linking from the Keeper’s Rulebook and the Investigator’s Handbook) and a big art boost.

A few days in to the Kickstarter Chaosium posted the pledge level for the deluxe editions. These are superior quality hardcover books, not true leather, but leatherette. There were a lot of requests for stitched bindings from the backers. What this means is that the pages are printed and folded, then stitched rather than glued together, producing a much stronger book. Before long Chaosium announced that all the hardcovers would have stitched binding.

The next upgrade was from black and white to two-colour. The latter is black and white plus one other colour. It’s a halfway house between monochrome and colour.

There was little else that could be done to improve the quality of the books. Little else that is aside from one major thing; full colour. This step required careful consideration. If the full colour route was adopted this would require a longer development time to create more colour artwork and would then set the printing schedule back a couple of months. Would the backers accept this? The only solution was to poll the backers and get their thoughts.

Spanish art

Illustration from the Spanish edition

I thought the backers would be all for full colour. Over the last few years I’ve seen many posts about how wonderful the French edition is. Then there’s the equally beautiful Spanish edition. The poll came out approximately 50-50. The comments that accompanied the poll revealed that the backers priority was for clarity, and that many feared that colour would produce a pretty, but less usable rulebook. A very real concern and one that Chaosium shared.

Work is now in progress on samples of the colour layout and it would be great to get them to a stage to show the backers. A small sample was posted with the stretch goal, and that displayed the restrained use of colour that I expect to see in the final books.

Full colour!

It’s perhaps worth mentioning the Petersen’s Field Guides at this point. They will also be full colour, will use colour in a more extravagant style. I don’t think it’s been confirmed yet, but rumour has it that these books will be produced by the French licensee.

This would give us the best of both worlds – a rulebook that provides the rules in a clear manner that is pleasing to the eye, along with the ability to insert colour illustrations and colour plates wherever they are best suited. Alongside these there would be the more colourful field guides which look as if they have been used in the field, resplendent in full-colour art and handwritten notes for the reader to wonder over!

SPan MoN

Double page spread from the Spanish Masks of Nyarlathotep

If you’ve followed the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter, you may have noticed that one of the funded stretch goals is a collection of scenarios called Nameless Horrors. This is a project that Matt, Paul and I have worked on for a while. Each scenario follows a few specific design constraints, inspired by years of playing and running Call of Cthulhu.

Call of Cthulhu has been around for a long time by RPG standards — 32 years at the time of writing — and it has a dedicated following of players steeped in the game and the Mythos. Many of these players have read the core rulebook and played a fair number of published scenarios, giving them a good knowledge of the canon creatures.

This introduces a problem. On the whole, creating an atmosphere of unease relies on a fear of the unknown. As soon as you can identify a threat and name it, you stop seeing it as something mysterious and sinister and start looking at it as a problem to solve. If you are trying to keep your games horrifying, you need to be creative about how you handle Mythos entities.

There are a few ways to do this. The easiest is to keep descriptions vague and never mention monsters by name. A twisted shape crouching in the darkness, a flash of inhuman eyes that catch the light like cat’s, and the sweet stench of rotting meat all hint at the nature of the ghoul stalking the investigators. As soon as you mention the word “ghoul”, however, the tension evaporates. Experienced Call of Cthulhu players start making mental notes about firearms damage and average numbers of hit points instead of wondering if their characters should run for their lives.

Hiding the identities of creatures is difficult is when players are experienced enough to guess them from hints, the evidence in the scenario or even the context (“We’re by the sea. I bet it’s deep ones.”). There are only so many ways you can obfuscate clues, although misdirection sometimes works well.

There was one specific event that inspired me to pitch Nameless Horrors to Paul and Matt. I was playing Call of Cthulhu at the Milton Keynes club. Our investigators were poking around in some tunnels, and started having problems with headaches, weakness and lost time. Unbidden, part of my mind said, “It’s a lloigor” and from that point a large part of the tension and excitement of the game was lost.

The reason that this collection is called Nameless Horrors is that the Mythos entities portrayed are entirely new and, in most cases, have no names. They are strange, alien and unpredictable.  At no point should your players find themselves on familiar ground.

Another constraint was that there should be no easy solutions. A lot of the scenarios I played and ran when I was young involved spending the first three-quarters of the game gathering enough information to know what and where the threat was before stocking up on shotguns and dynamite to destroy it. You were expected to resolve the situation through violence, and while there may be a heavy toll in death and madness, the investigators would probably triumph.

While some of the scenarios in Nameless Horrors may end in violence, depending on how the players approach them, setting things on fire or blowing them up won’t necessarily leave the investigators better off. It may be possible for them to survive and save the day to some extent, but their lives will be changed by the experience.

The last aspect of trying to make the scenarios as unnerving as possible was that they all be standalone one-shots. While there are many classic Call of Cthulhu campaigns, the games I always remember most fondly are those that felt like short, intense horror movies, with everything on the line for a group of characters in a desperate situation. There is no expectation that you will protect your investigator’s life and mind so that they can continue to the next adventure.

We hope that these constraints have led to a collection of scenarios that will surprise your group and keep them watching the shadows with fear and suspicion. There are many new terrors to be encountered, and while you don’t know their names, they know yours.

When I first read about it, I dismissed the television series The Vampire Diaries as very much not aimed at me. It sounded like a teen drama that was cashing in on the success of Twilight (which, to be fair, it is) and I assumed that it would have little to appeal to a middle-aged bloke. The involvement of Kevin Williamson, the creator of the Scream films, piqued my interest a bit, but not enough for me to actually watch the damn thing.

Then my friend Seana recommended it to me. Seana has been quite good at gauging my tastes in the past, hooking me on programmes as diverse as The Good Wife and Paranoia Agent. There were two complete series of The Vampire Diaries at this stage, and I watched the first few episodes half-heartedly. Before long, though, I was hooked. While the premise is pretty standard for urban fantasy, the writers do two main things that set the programme apart from most television — things that I wish I saw in more roleplaying campaigns.

I’ve joked a few times that The Vampire Diaries has a rate of attrition that would give George R R Martin pause. This is only a slight overstatement — characters, even ones who seem integral to the plot, are all fair game. They die suddenly, brutally and unexpectedly. This applies to allies, antagonists and unaligned characters equally.

I'm sorry. Was that your favourite NPC?

I’m sorry. Was that your favourite NPC?

The GM section in Apocalypse World tells you to look at all NPCs through cross hairs, and this is exactly how the writers of The Vampire Diaries seem to approach things. This creates a real feeling of danger. There is never the safe expectation that the protagonists will prevail, and every conflict carries the risk of death.

In my opinion, there is a balance to be found in horror games, and it’s a tricky one: if the characters seem invulnerable, or at least relatively safe, dangerous situations just become exercises in showing off how cool they are and often feel flat; if the game is a meat grinder, chewing through player characters every session, then the players never grow attached to their PCs and their deaths are emotionless inconveniences. Player characters should feel vulnerable, but not disposable. Using the deaths of major NPCs to show them the stakes can help with this.

Having NPCs be vulnerable to the actions of player characters, monsters and other NPCs helps raise the tension, but only if they are characters that the players have come to care about.  If an NPC has been in play for a while, and the players have grown used to their presence, their sudden and bloody death can prove a strong reminder than no one is safe. Of course, the death of a player character is an even stronger reminder, but it can undermine the game if it feels pointless or arbitrary.

The main aspect of The Vampire diaries that appeals to me ties in to the entry I wrote about purist adventures last week. As I mentioned then, one of my main frustrations with many RPG scenarios is that they are about stopping an interesting event from occurring. A coven is trying to raise a centuries-dead necromancer from the grave, so that he will tear down the veil between life and death. Of course, it is the job of the player characters to stop this. Most of the time they will succeed, often in a dramatic showdown during the final ritual, and the status quo will be preserved. If they fail, that is the end of the campaign, and while the players may enjoy the spectacle of their failure, it is unusual for their characters to have to deal with the consequences.

There was an episode of Doctor Who a few years ago which disappointment me. It was called The End of Time, and part of it dealt with the impending return of the Time Lords from the annihilation that the Doctor had brought on them. Throughout the episode they were pictured as moving ever closer to our reality, and I was genuinely excited, thinking that their return could make for an exciting arc as the Doctor had to deal with the threat they would pose to time, space and his own existence. Their return is prevented at the last minute, though, and everything goes back to normal. Everyone is safe and there is no on-going drama. It felt like a major let-down.

Doctor_Who_-_Time_Lords_in_The_End_of_Time

Not coming to a reality near you.

In The Vampire Diaries, when a threat is foreshadowed, it is almost inevitable that it will come to pass and the protagonists will have their lives changed by it. If a powerful new entity is being summoned, the summoning will succeed and the entity will insinuate itself into the fabric of everyone’s lives. If someone is preparing a ritual that will change the world for the worse, the ritual will succeed and the characters will have to deal with it as best they can. The most interesting outcome always happens.

The most impressive trick that the writers of the The Vampire Diaries pull off is not to make the efforts of the protagonists seem ineffectual in the face of this. Sometimes they are simply outclassed or out-manoeuvred. Other times they choose a more personal victory, such as saving a loved one in the face of the larger catastrophe. The protagonists then move on to adapting to the new threat and the altered status quo. Having things go the way of the protagonists can be satisfying, but failures and unforeseen complications make for much richer drama.

Having major bad things happen in a campaign doesn’t have to feel disempowering for the players. Maybe a ritual happens off-screen or has already finished by the time the players hear about it; maybe their goal is to undo the damage done rather than prevent it from happening in the first place; some of the PCs may find aspects of the outcome beneficial to them despite the wider damage done, making it a hard choice. However you approach it, the important thing is not to leave everyone feeling disappointed that they didn’t get to see the world change in an interesting and exciting way. Keep their lives interesting, even when it hurts.