Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Call of Cthulhu 7

The Kickstarter launched today.  I'm in for the two books in hardcover.

Looks like it will reach it's funding goal no later than tomorrow at the pace its setting.

FWIW, if the changes I'm hearing about are true, this will represent the first serious revision of the rules since Fifth Edition, almost 20 years ago  So far as I can tell, 6th Edition just took 5.6 and put it in a more indecipherable typeface.

Atomic Age Cthulhu: A Review

I'll admit it.  I'm a fan of modern gaming (with or without powers) and sci-fi gaming first, low fantasy a close second, and high fantasy not much at all.

This takes me to the Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying Game (hereafter titled as Call of Cthulhu).  Unfortunately, Call of Cthulhu is, by and large, stuck in the 1920's.  This is, in my opinion, an unfortunate decision.

Yes, H P Lovecraft wrote the bulk of the novellas and short stories that would inspire the game in the 1920's and 1930's.  But at the time Lovecraft wrote his stories, he was not writing historical fiction.  Lovecraft's stories included the latest technologies available or conceived of at the time, such as submarines, airships, airplanes, automobiles, trains, etc.  I think, if H P Lovecraft had lived long enough to see Call of Cthulhu come to fruition, he'd have been genuinely puzzled by Chaosium's being stuck in the 1920's.

I say this, because judging by the Kickstarter, Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition seems to be determined to be stuck in a historical timewarp that none of its players have ever lived in.  Frankly, my players can't relate to it for the most part, which has led to their enjoyment of Delta Green and modern scenarios far more than the 1920s.

So when I heard that Chaosium was publishing support for the Cold War Era of the 1950's with Atomic Age Cthulhu, I was rather intrigued.  Would it be a great book full of adventure hooks, source material, and maybe an adventure or two to give the keeper's some ideas of how this stuff might be worked into the game or was it going to be adventure heavy?  Let's take a look and find out.

Atomic-Age Cthulhu: Mythos Horror in the 1950's.
Authors: Too many to list

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
224 Pages, Perfectbound paperback
Retail: $31.95

General Layout and Design
The cover art is excellent, very evocative.  It sold me on the book pretty quickly.

The interior layout for the book, is, how do I say it, primitive.  It reminds me of RPG supplements done in the early 1980's (and not from the companies/games that survived into the 21st Century either).  Very art light, and were those actually Dot-Matrix Printer Jaggies on some of the larger font sizes?  Frankly, Chaosium should be a bit embarrassed at how far back they set the art of graphic design with this one.

Enough on the sizzle, let's look at the steak.  After a short introduction, the book is straight on to the first adventure, which to me is another questionable decision, but the reason why will become obvious in a few moments.

This Village Was Made for Us

I'll try to keep these scenario chapters as spoiler-free as possible, and merely describe the setup where possible.

This Village Was Made For Us is a scenario that could be very easily converted to a Delta Green Cowboy Years game.  Set in one of the small towns (Hanford, Washington) built up around a nuclear facility that grew out of the original Manhattan Project, it captures the feel of such a town excellently (I've spent some time in Los Alamos, New Mexico, another town that grew out of the Manhattan Project).  A nuclear scientist commits suicide, and its up to the investigators to find out why.  The group melds crazy cultists, the nuclear facility (still going strong at the time of the scenario), and the Mythos into a wonderful casserole of crazy.  Of the scenarios as written, this to me is the most intriguing of the bunch, and that's high praise.

TV Casualties

Having hooked into one of the 1950's nightmare scenarios (Great Old Ones and Nuclear Weapons Facilities) with the last scenario, TV Casualties picks up on one of the very real nightmares that parents, teachers, educators (not to mention movie theater owners, and sporting event ticket sellers), etc. thought was a nightmare from the 1950's.  This, of course, was television.

It's very easy, in this cynical, jaded, postmodern world to realize that there were actual living, breathing people who were convinced that television would be the downfall of humanity and America in particular.  This scenario, of course, takes those worst fears, adds a dose of the Mythos, and says, relax, everything you feared about television, well, it's all true.  The setup in this one is a small town that is seeing a sudden rash of violence.  A decently written scenario, the biggest thing will be convincing investigators it's not the joke we in the 21st Century now know the evils of television to be.

The Return of Old Reliable

The 1950's saw the dawn of the Space Race.  Missions to launch satellites (starting with Sputnik in 1957) and even animals into space happened with both the US and USSR, though sadly, the first human in space, Yuri Gagarin, didn't take place until 1961.

Still, the space program as it existed in the 1950's is the subject of this scenario.  The scenario mixes a test animal launched into outer space, and creatures from beyond time and space together and launch a plot that could easily destroy the world.  Much like This Village Was Made For Us, this one could be easily converted to a Delta Green cowboy years game, or run as a straight up FBI investigation.

Forgotten Wars

The Korean War gets short-shrift in a lot of ways.  So far as I know, this book may be the first published scenario I've ever seen for an RPG set in that conflict, and it's a gem.  Forgotten Wars sets the players as the crew of an M4 Sherman Tank.  Light on investigation, and heavy on combat and survival horror, it involves crazy cultists, a powerful Korean sorcerer using the Korean Conflict as an excuse for his plot to bring about the end of the world, and oh, yeah, there's a war going on that the crew is in the middle of.  If you've ever wanted to see how a Sherman Tank would do up against a Great Old One, here's your chance.

High Octane

In the 1950's, two new social phenomena appeared.  The rise of mass car culture, and similarly, the rise of the first motorcycle gangs.  Oh yeah, and more than half of America thought Joseph Stalin or Nikita Khruschev was going to jump out of the broom closet and go Boo!  Mix all of these elements together, add somebody getting a hold of the wrong sort of books, and you've got High Octane.

L A Diabolical

If The Call of Cthulhu (the story) and L A Confidential (the film) had kids, they would look a lot like L A Diabolical.  The only question left is why did it take Chaosium 32 two years to do the chocolate in my peanut butter thing with film noir and Lovecraft.  Oh well, at least we've finally got it.

Destroying Paradise, Hawai'ian Style

If L A Diabolical is a crazy mix of film noir and the Mythos, this one takes another 1950's staple, the teen-oriented surfing movie (in this case, a surfing movie being produced in pre-statehood Hawaii) puts it into the blender with the Mythos, and hits frappe.  The results are about what you would expect.

1950's Sinister Seeds

A short 5 pages, this provides some adventure hooks for the time period.  They're OK, not great, but OK.

1950's Sourcebook

And this is where the wheels come off the horsecart.  First, when buying a book about Mythos Horror in the 1950's (it's in the title, Chaosium), it seems to me this chapter should be fairly meaty and deep.  After all, the 1950's were 60 years ago at this point.  A teenager growing up in the 1950's would be pushing 80, or over 80 by now.  Instead, we get 25 pages, near the end of the book.  The handout pages from the various scenarios at the back of book get almost as much space. 

Now don't get me wrong, what's here is solid.  The bulk of that 25 pages is writeups of various topics of interest during the period, the same sort of general cultural stuff one finds in the 1920's Investigator's Companion, or Cthulhu By Gaslight.  Finally, the section ends with some new professions tailored more toward the era.  What's disappointing is that this chapter could be so much more.

Missing (and seemingly strangely), first and foremost, are a firearms and equipment section.  If I'm thinking of running a game in the 1950's, it might be nice to have a list of generally available firearms during the period.  While there are some mixed in the scenarios, they are not exhaustive lists, and even for weapons that might carry over from the 1920's, prices would be nice.  And a list of generally available equipment (with prices) would also seem like a necessity.

Finally, I'd have liked to have seen a few of the more iconic movie monsters get a treatment anywhere in this book.  The 1950's were pretty much a Golden Age for B Grade Sci-Fi and Horror Films.  Giant, irradiated ants, cockroaches, rats, and even terrible lizards off the coast of Japan would seem to be a must for the era.

Honestly, I'd have been happier seeing the size of the Sourcebook section doubled, even at the expense of cutting one or two of the scenarios.

So what's the bottom line?  Here goes.


Several of the scenarios appear to be first-rate, and they do cover a broad brush of Americana circa the mid-1950's.  Though I haven't run any of them, there's a few I look forward to running when I get the opportunity.


The Sourcebook section needs more meat.  I can write scenarios.  What I really need is the setting material to properly run games in the era.  Sadly some of this was lacking in Atomic Age Cthulhu.

Finally, the ratings:

Style: 2 of 5

The 1980's called and said they want their dot-matrix printer desktop publishing tools back.  Seriously, Chaosium ought to be embarrassed at the layout of this one.  I expect this sort of stuff in a monograph.  Not so much in an actual Chaosium imprint.

Substance: 3 of 5

Really, the scenarios here aren't the problem.  They're easily a 4 out of 5, maybe even 5 out of 5.  However the thin page count of the setting material, and all the things that could have been part of it but weren't are where the problem lies and its tough to overlook.

The Bottom Line:

If you like the 1950s, and are looking for some Call of Cthulhu scenarios set in the era (and don't mind lazy layout) this is the book for you.

If you are looking for games and information on how to create 1950's Call of Cthulhu scenarios (and frankly have no idea about the time period), this book alone isn't going to do it for you.

After the brilliant successes that were Cthulhu Invictus and the new Cthulhu By Gaslight, this book is a letdown.  I know the bulk of their resources are devoted to Horror on the Orient Express and 7th Edition, but Chaosium really should have taken a closer look at this one before shoving it out the door.  With a little more care, this could have been so much better.

Monday, May 20, 2013

FATE Core PDFs available to Kickstarter Backers.

For those of you who kicked into the FATE Core Kickstarter, check your Kickstarter Activity thread.  The FATE Core and FATE Accelerated books are available for download.

They look pretty darn good.

Yeah, I know I'm late with an Atomic Age Cthulhu review.  I'm reading as fast as I can.  :)

Thursday, May 16, 2013

For Your Reading and Entertainment Pleasure.

Arc Dream Publishing has an excellent article on creating adventures for Better Angels.  It seems to draw heavily on the same sort of ideas that I discovered running my first session of the game last Friday.  It's well worth the read.

Coming this weekend:

An article on the preparation for the first game that is con-ready, Lover in Little Altamira, a Call of Cthulhu adventure set in 1960's Brazil.

A review of Atomic Age Cthulhu, Chaosium's 1950's Era Scenario Collection and sourcebook.

Weekend Gaming

The homegroup has a chance to playtest a scenario for Arc Dream Publishing and The Unspeakable Oath.  I'm reluctant to talk more about it much beyond it's for Call of Cthulhu in the Delta Green setting.

My family loves the heck out of Delta Green, so I'm looking forward to running this one.

I will also post about the status of prep for the con games later this year.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Previews of Coming Distractions

Yep, it's time I gave that blogging thing a try again.

Accordingly, expect a few posts on con game prep.

I'm running five scenarios in two days at MaricopaCon in August.

I'll be detailing progress on them in the next few posts.  Stay tuned.

Better Angels: A Review/After Action Report

Better Angels
by Greg Stolze
Arc Dream Publishing
176 pages
PDF available via RPGNow
Full Color Hardcover available soon through Arc Dream's online store.

Warning: The following anecdote will likely offend tree-hugging liberals, and fans of former Vice President Dick Cheney (I'm sure there's at least one or two, right?).  In other words, though my own views are left of center, in this case, I'm an equal opportunity offender.  Fair and Balanced...That's Me.

There are transcendental moments in gaming.  Hopefully, you know the moment when players, game master, story, and the fickle fingers of fate in the form of combinations of one or more polyhedrons combine to create those moments in time where you have created a truly great scene or moment, and you wish you could bottle it, or know exactly what formula was needed to create such a memorable experience.

Ironically, I've had this feeling more with Call of Cthulhu than any other system, mostly that dawning moment of realization and terror where the player realizes just how over the heads a predicament her character is in. But I've seen it in others.  The OGL 3.5 Midnight campaign I ran where the players realized that everything they've encountered before has all been manipulated to bring them (and the villain) to one place and moment in time.  The Star Wars Alternate Timeline campaign when I brought a player to tears with the revelation that someone had murdered Senator Amidala.  The point is they're rare, they're difficult to achieve, and they're why, after 30+ years as a GM, player, and in some cases freelance writer in the hobby, that I keep coming back, keep buying books, and dice, and accessories, and all the other accoutrement of gaming.

And I was very fortunate to have one of those moments (indeed, a few of them) last Friday night.

Recently, I've been kicking into a few Kickstarters.  Hebanon Games' No Security package of PDF scenarios...systemless, but most screaming for a Call of Cthulhu treatment.  Chaosium's revamp, rerelease of the classic Call of Cthulhu campaign, Horror on the Orient Express, Evil Hat's FATE Core system.  Onyx Path/White Wolf's newest new World of Darkness corebook, Mummy the Curse.  And finally, the subject, of this return from blogging hiatus after 9 months to tell you about it, I kicked in to the Kickstarter for Better Angels.

And that's where that latest transcendental moment happened...but first, I need to tell you a bit about Better Angels.

Better Angels is a roleplaying game that is the latest work of genius by Greg Stolze, the man behind some Old World of Darkness books, as well as the excellent Unknown Armies.  In recent years, Stolze has done a number of books using his excellent One Roll Engine.  First developed for use in the World War II Supers game, Godlike (in conjunction with Dennis Detwiller), various iterations of the engine have been the guts of other supers games (Wild Talents and its various settings, eCollapse, Grim War, Progenitor, This Favored Land, The Kerberos Club), Sword and Board fantasy with the excellent Reign, Horror with the free for the download Nemesis, the Kids with Monsters theme so popular in Japanese anime and a certain subgenre of children's literature, Monsters and Other Childish Things, and finally, film noir, with my all-time favorite system, A Dirty World.

Better Angels began as a discussion thread on RPGNet regarding possible settings for Wild Talents (the thread can still be found).  While it never became a Wild Talents setting, Stolze did take the greatly modified One Roll Engine version in A Dirty World, and adapt it to become Better Angels.

The central idea of Better Angels (and this can be found in that original RPGNet thread), is a world where Superpowers are granted by Angels and Demons, who effectively meld with an ordinary human.  In return for the ability to treat the laws of physics as little more than guidelines, the human must negotiate with the angel or demon riding shotgun.  More specifically, Better Angels focuses on the demons, and tries to reflect on why comic book supervillains are, well, not to put too fine a point on it, rather inept at villainy.

Borrowing heavily from an idea first tried in White Wolf's Old World of Darkness game, Wraith the Oblivion, each character in Better Angels is played by two people.  Each player in Better Angels has a hand in playing two characters, his human, and the demon of the player to his right.

That's right, characters consist of the human host (who represents goodness and light), and the demon. Depending on the moral compass of the character at a given time, the demon may have more or less say in what happens in the situation, though if the human uses a demonic power (and there is no other kind available) in a scene, the demon gets let out of the cage for the rest of that scene.  What this results in is a situation where the character is trying to walk a narrow tightrope between not being so evil that he gets first-class ticket on the Express Train to Hell, yet he needs to be just evil enough to keep his demon entertained so he can play with all the new, cool, superpowered toys.

In practice, this means that the human and demon halves of the character are constantly negotiating with themselves, the demon trying to entice the human with bargains for greater powers, the human trying to walk at least righteous enough a path to not board that Express Train to the Ninth Circle I mentioned a bit earlier.

And that's where the transcendental moment came on Friday night.

I had written what I figured was a one-shot scenario for the game.  I won't reveal the title, or much of the plot, since some of my players may read this, but after a character generation session, I dropped the characters into the New Arcadia Museum of Art.  Specifically, one of their demons had become aware of the existence of a particular artifact, an ornately crafted jewel encrusted golden statuette, supposedly of Set, at the museum's display of a touring exhibition from the Egyptian Museum of Antiquities.

The characters did not know each other at game's beginning (other than a couple of them), but had all found reasons to be there.  I set the opening scene.  It was a Wednesday during the school year  I described a typical downtown museum on a school day in a large metropolis...school buses in the parking lot, a ton of adolescents and younger touring with their classes, grade school and middle school teachers, parent chaperones, and museum employees and tour guides all milling through the special displays...and one deluded Hellbound who had fashioned herself as a gritty hero, but who frankly was beginning to lose even the pretensions of being a hero.  And then, I set them all after the artifact.

I actually have a plot written.  It will have several scenes.  It was supposed to finish in one night.  Instead, we spent nearly four hours on one scene.  And they were four of the best hours of gaming I've even enjoyed.

Before I tell of that transcendental moment though, let me introduce you to my players, and more specifically, their villain/human/demon combos:

My four players, first names only, were Jason, my wife Suz, Eric, and my youngest son Grant.  Here's who they played.

Human Name (Player)/Villain Name/Demon Name (Player)
Magni Eriksson (Jason)/Magnus Minimus/Mighty Shrinky Dink (Suz)
Keila Montrose (Suz)/Skinwalker/Wixalin (Eric)
Malcolm Raines (Eric)/Bullwing/Clarence from the Nether Realm (Grant)
Jim Rainer (Grant)/The Buggerer/Dick Cheney (Jason)

I'd have to pull character sheets to give you the full scoop of what they were capable of, but each of them used one or more powers or aspects to great effect.  Magnus Minimus didn't actually use powers much, though he did use Ghost Form to good effect at least once to escape the museum.  Skinwalker's schtick was Ghost Form (a popular power, as it turned out).  Bullwing used Animal Form and Ghost Form to great effect, though the comedy of trying to watch him fly through crowded doorways in a museum made it entertaining.  Finally there was Jim Rainer, whose Dominator Strike, led to the transcendental moment I spoke about.

The "gritty hero" in this case is a character who had earned something of a reputation as "Flamethrower Faith".  She'd become known as something of a vigilante, killing rapists, drug dealers, prostitutes, pimps, johns, and even torching a branch of the First National Bank of New Arcadia in the process of foiling a bank robbery.  Intend on stealing the statuette, she robbed the display case, but didn't make it out of the room she stole it in before one of the villains (BullWing) stole it, only to lose it back to Faith, who then in turn lost it to The Buggerer.  All this time, alarms are going off, powers are being flung around a room filled to near standing room only with grade school kids, panicky teachers, and useless museum personnel.

Fortunately for the innocent bystanders, I had my usual run of bad luck for the most part when making collateral damage rolls, and other than one museum security guard (targeted by the Buggerer to obtain a change of clothes), and a hapless liberal tree-hugger trying to escape the row in the parking lot in her Toyota Prius (the Buggerer again), nobody innocent was harmed.

The museum security guard had a particularly bad day.  First robbed of his clothing by The Buggerer (Dick Cheney didn't have to put him up to this), he then was groped and beat up by Skinwalker (as part of a deal with her demon) while he was merely trying to head to the locker room to get his second uniform.  I'm fairly certain that he turned in his resignation the following morning.

As for the liberal, she was doomed to death by The Buggerer.  Specificaly, Dick Cheney agreed to offer The Buggerer the use of Ghost Form only if he hurt somebody.  This led Jim Rainer/The Buggerer to look for a target in a parking lot to amuse Dick Cheney with.  As a result, The Buggerer set his eyes on the Liberal.

She never had a name, and I feel a bit bad about that.  She was just this cute, adorable looking museum employee, a tour guide I made up on the spot, and threw a couple of stats at.  Late 20s.  Still living at home. Still single.  Still paying off her usurious student debt, and regretting having not gone back for her Ph.D. Earnest.  Sweet.  The kind of girl you'd take home to meet mom in a heartbeat (unless mom was Lynne Cheney, I suppose).  She had the Obama/Biden 2012 bumper sticker on the car.  A Coexist bumper sticker on the car.  A Sierra Club bumper sticker.  And the car, just to complete the cliche, was a late model blue Toyota Prius.  She was already freaked out by the experience of her narrow escape, and just wanted to get home.

And then, enter the Buggerer.  Egged on by Dick Cheney (waving a liberal in the face of the demon was like waving a thick porterhouse steak in front of a pair of ravenous rottweilers), The Buggerer threw his power of Dominator Strike at her.  Now, I should say that Dominator Strike is a ranged attack.  Energy beams, gouts of flame, sprays of ice, beams of molten lava are all Dominator Strike.  Well, in this case, my son, aka Jim Rainer/The Buggerer, defined the weapon as hypersonic rubber bands dipped in lemon juice.

So if you can imagine a freaked out young woman trying to start her hybrid car, fumbling with the ignition, hands shaking, tears running down her eyes like a torrential rain, and all of a sudden her driver side window shatters in a hail of lemony rubber band fire.  She gets lightly wounded by the glass and the bands.  Cheney eggs the Buggerer on.  The Buggerer fires another round of lemon juice rubber bands.  The liberal, her fact shoulders and neck a wreck from the cut of a million citric acid-laced rubber bands, slumps forward on the steering wheel...where suddenly the airbag deploys, bruising her face further.

Realizing to his horror that he stands a good chance of just having killed the woman, Jim stops, opens the driver side door of the car, and begins to render first aid.  At which point, Dick Cheney, realizing that The Buggerer still had one more use of Ghost Form left, just as Jim begins to render first aid, suddenly makes the Buggerer go immaterial again via Ghost Form, making it impossible for Jim to care for her.  It was at this point that I realized that I wasn't really part of the story here.  In fact, I never ran a story.  I ran one scene, and enough chaos flowed from that scene to fill a gaming session.  And it was the best gaming session I ever ran.

There were several times during the course of the evening, as the characters were dealing with the chaos around them, and frankly, sometimes just the consequences of their own poor choices, that I realized I had reached one of those moments where all I had to do was just introduce new elements to the chaos, and the players would thoroughly entertain themselves.  It's a feeling I've had only a few times in RPGs EVER and then only for a few fleeting moments.

With Better Angels, I had that feeling for three hours last Friday.  It should be noted that several of my players were lukewarm on playing the game at all.  By the end of it, now that they'd learned the system, and discovered some of their errors in building their first characters, they couldn't wait to play it again.

In conclusion, Better Angels is a unique take on what is, in general, a pretty tired gaming genre (supers), at least as run by a lot of GMs.  It's a brilliant idea, with brilliant mechanics, and frankly, the best game I will have purchased in 2013.  Don't walk, but run, and buy it.  You won't be disappointed.