Sunday, February 24, 2019

Kickstarter for a print-on-demand version of Soth is running until 26 March 2019

I've just launched a kickstarter for a print-on-demand version of Soth with upgraded art.

Soth is my tabletop roleplaying game about cultists in small-town America. The players' goal is for their characters to summon a dark god without making them family and neighbours suspicious. (Think of it as a cross between Breaking Bad and the Cthulhu mythos.)

The kickstarter is here: Soth: a game of cultists vs investigators

After less than a day, we're nearly at our goal (to pay the game's artists at their full commercial rate).

The new version of the game will have:

  • 5 pieces of new interior art 
  • Professional graphic design and layout 
  • A new, full-colour front and back cover image (depending on stretch goals) 

This is not a second edition (or even a 1.5 edition): the gameplay will be the same. However, the rules will get a few minor clarifications and (depending on funding levels) the handouts will receive some professional graphic design.

Here's a snippet of new art:

Thursday, November 5, 2015

A review of the Bundle of Tentacles (the Bonus collection)

Here are some mini-reviews of games and adventures in the Bundle of Holding's latest offering of Cthulhu-related products. (I reviewed the Bundle's 'Starter Collection' yesterday.)

Money from this latest bundle goes towards the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which defends digital civil liberties.

Disclosure: my game Soth is in this bundle, so I'll financially benefit from sales.

In this post, I'll take a look at all the products in the Bundle's 'Bonus Collection':

  • World War Cthulhu - The Darkest Hour: This complete game (based on the Call of Cthulhu RPG) sets the battle against Great Old Ones and Elder Things in the arena of World War 2. It gives you everything you'd want, including a full multi-session, an open-ended adventure, and excellent inspiration for creating your own scenarios.
  • World War Cthulhu - Europe Ablaze: Six World War 2 adventures that contain some interesting ideas. They range from standard Lovecraftian ideas in a war setting to material that's more brutal and unfair.
  • Tales of the Crescent City: Six noir-esque adventures set in New Orleans. Features three adventures I'd like to run right now.
  • A Dream of Japan: A creepy trap of an adventure that contains the seeds of an epic campaign.
Reading through these supplements and adventures I've seen examples of at least seven types of Call of Cthulhu adventure:
  • The action-adventure
  • The noir 
  • The exploration
  • The war-stor
  • The trap
  • The doom
  • The investigation
Between the Starter Collection and The Bonus Collection, there's more than enough material to create an anthologised Call of Cthulhu campaign.

You can find the Bundle of Holding here:

Here are some other things I noted about each of the supplements in the Starter Collection

World War Cthulhu - The Darkest Hour

  • I didn't know this, but World War Cthulhu (WWC) is a series of settings that puts Cthulhu tropes into different 20th century conflicts.
  • The Darkest Hour is set in World War 2, where you play intelligence agents who are also occult investigators (a pitch that reminds me quite a bit of Tim Powers' Declare). It's a strong device to justify investigators working together on multiple missions (if they survive and remain sane).
  • This supplement is sort of a replacement for the main Call of Cthulhu (CoC) rules. Starting WWC investigators will be slightly more powerful and competent than standard investigators
  • This book gives me everything I'd want, including a full multi-session and open-ended adventure.
  • There's excellent inspiration for creating scenarios. It talks about basic military and espionage plots, and then does the same for basic Lovecraftian plots. It also provides a number of initial situations in different military theatres of operation
  • I was also interesting in the short updates on what various monsters and cultures are trying to achieve during World War 2
  • It's an easy read: clearly laid-out, nicely broken up by headings and sub-headings, and a logical order to things.

World War Cthulhu - Europe Ablaze

  • This is a set of six adventures set during World War 2.
  • There's something about this wartime setting that feels right to me. It gives adventures two tracks to worry about. It gives a sense of realistic consequences to the action and the NPCs. It creates interesting ironies, subtext and choices.
  • 'Sleeper Agents' sounds like it'll be brutal: a mix of Spielberg's Munich coupled with an internal logic that will lead to the investigators almost certainly murdering a lot of people
  • 'The Play Is The Thing' makes me think it would be possible to run a whole series of published CoC adventures dealing with various performances of 'The King In Yellow' (there are similar adventures in the next supplement I'm reading, Tales of the Crescent City)
  • 'We Will Remember Them' has a interesting flashback structure and promises to fundamentally change investigators who participate. The flashbacks feel a bit like the opening cinematic to a video game, and the whole module reads like it'll take agency from the investigators in an interesting way.
  • The final three scenarios are tight monster-hunts and military operations.

Tales Of The Crescent City

  • A book of six adventures set in 1920s New Orleans (one of my favourite CoC settings, from my days where this was my RPG of choice)
  • It contains a revised version of a classic CoC adventure ('Tell Me, Have You Seen The Yellow Sign') as well as a sequel adventure written by the same author.
  • Tales of the Crescent City efficiently orients you to New Orleans. I'd like a player handout that gives you a quick bullet-pointed summary of basic facts about the city, but it's very easy to do that with the material provided here.
  • On first glance, 'Tell Me, Have You Seen The Yellow Sign' (TMHYSTYM) feels like a noir. There are lots of characters, each of whom has interesting secrets. It's also a bit of a sequel to Lovecraft's story 'The Call of Cthulhu'. I love the stakes for failing in this adventure: the relentless spread of the King in Yellow's rule.
  • In fact, framing most of these these adventures through a noir lens feels pretty good choice to me.
  • I love a good disease story and 'The Quickening Spiral' delivers. It feels like this mystery could be quite open-ended, though ... and I wonder if selecting appropriately skilled and motivated investigators (physicians, city officials) could be important to its success.
  • 'Song and Dance' features my favourite Great Old One: it's a creepy and distressing old acquaintance that warms my heart every time I see it appear. I really dig the idea behind this scenario, which involves artists, muses, and has a faint 'disease' / epidemiological vibe to it.
  • 'Five Lights At The Crossroads' has a hell of an opening scene. This is a tightly-focused manhunt where everything's pretty obvious but tricky to resolve. I liked it a lot.
  • 'Asylum: The Return of the Yellow Sign' is set two years after TMHYSTYM. It's good but I like the faint suggestion that there might be a parallel world where the events of the previous adventure ended in success for the King in Yellow and now those successes could be bleeding through into our world. That threat undercuts any feeling of success and satisfaction the investigators have--and I think CoC plays best when the investigators are unsettled. Features a nightmarish and brilliant finale.

A Dream of Japan

  • An adventure set around Aokigahara Forest. I expect it'll be made famous (outside of Japan) in this movie due to be released in 2016...
  • It promises to enmesh the investigators in a plan that has been playing out for thousands of years, that they are pawns in.
  • A Dream of Japan contains content involving insanity and suicides, and deals with it through the lenses of pulp and horror, rather than realistically and with emotional weight.
  • The implications in this adventure's final two pages point to an amazing second act of the adventure / way to resolve the situation.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

A review of the Bundle of Tentacles (Starter Collection)

I wanted to share some first-impression mini-reviews of the Bundle of Holding's latest offering of Cthulhu-related products.

The Bundles of Holding collections raise money for charity and distribute profits to game designers. Money from this latest bundle goes towards the Electronic Freedom Foundation, which defends digital civil liberties.

Disclosure: my game Soth is in this bundle, so I'll financially benefit from sales.

In this post, I'll take a look at all the products in the Bundle's 'starter collection':

  • Cthulhu Live: A Call of Cthulhu (CoC) Live Action Roleplaying (LARP) system that features amazing advice for creating makeup and costumes for Lovecraftian monsters
  • Islands of Ignorance - The 3rd Cthulhu Companion: a collection of essays (including some great advice for creating war veterans and hobos using the Call of Cthulhu rules) and 1920s-set scenarios (including a nasty ghost/possession scenario set in a luxury resort)
  • Age of Cthulhu - The Long Reach of Evil: A 1920s adventure anthology set in non-Western locations.
  • Mythos Society Guide to New England: A dense reference book that will be a useful read for a campaign based in New England. Contains a very useable, gameifiable timeline of events between 1919 and 1938, along with articles on New England's pre-European colonisation history and occult events in the centuries leading up to the 1920s.

You can find the Bundle of Holding here:

I'll look at the games in the bonus collection in another post, and then I'll choose one of the supplements to focus on in more detail.

In the meantime, here are some other things I noted about each of the supplements in the Starter Collection

Cthulhu Live

  • This delivers a streamlined CoC experience. I'd love to see how its slow-motion combat system plays out.
  • Seems to come from a different LARP culture than the ones I'm familiar with (Jeepform and NZ motivation-heavy, rules-light LARPs). The rules here rely on you having a full character sheet with stats and skills that are quickly referenced in play.
  • I'm fascinated to know what using the Accountancy skill looks like in a LARP.
  • The more practical this system was, the better I liked it. For instance, I loved the section on monsters, complete with advice on make-up, costuming and practical effects to create shoggoths and gigantic creatures. The advice on choosing a location for the game and decorating the sets was also great.
  • There's nothing here about adventure design or how to set-up/structure a session

Island of Ignorance: The Third Cthulhu Companion

  • I think how useful and enjoyable you find each of the articles at the front of this companion will be very dependent on personal taste. I really like the essay describing an unearthly opera, which detailed its history, plot, and contained an adventure seed.
  • Similarly, I liked the description of an occult tome called the Knjiga Mrvta. Again it contains a mix of history about the tome's author, some adventure seeds and information about different editions.
  • A new spell to create a portal had hints of super-science (an advanced technology that's indistinguishable from magic) about it. I liked that, but wasn't so sure about the article giving hints about the biography of Abdul Alhazared (I prefer to leave that stuff mysterious rather than create fan-canon)  
  • The advice for creating an investigator with a military / Great War background is simple, clear, and logical. The information about hoboes and hobo culture was detailed. 
  • I'm not going into too much detail about the premises of the four scenarios or how they play out. One of them contains a trigger warning for sexual violence and child abuse. One of them has a great setting (investigating an apparently haunted lighthouse). The final one is a creepy haunting / possession story - I like the way this one is presented, few NPCs, simple drives, nasty backstory

Age of Cthulhu - The Long Reach of Evil 

  • This is an adventure anthology set in non-American, non-Western locales. 
  • There are some excellent and solid premises here: a cult kidnapping, an investigation into the suicide of a friend, and dealing with the consequences of unleashing a long-buried threat
  • Each adventure assumes the investigators are outsiders to the location. I immediately wanted to invert that and have the investigators be familiar with the general locale.
  • In fact, this anthology has inspired me. I'd love to do a loosely connected, shared-world campaign, where you play specific adventurers for each new adventure. The world changes as a result of any failures in an adventure, and after a while you do an Avengers-like team up of favourite surviving investigators for a suitably epic adventure or campaign.

Mythos Society Guide to New England

  • I found this instantly educational: I wasn't aware that New England was a term for a collection of states.
  • There's a fantastic timeline of events around New England between 1919 and 1938. Feels like it'd be very easy to pick a few of these to flesh out a scenario.
  • The guide also contains a comprehensive introduction to the non-European, pre-colonisation history of New England and an overview of monsters, occultists, and paranormal events (many of these are pre-20th century).

Wednesday, September 9, 2015

Cartel: thoughts on prepping for the first session of a crime drama

I ran Cartel last night, a game for telling crime soap operas in the spirit of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and The Wire. It's set inside the world of Mexican drug cartels.

It was a really successful session -- successful enough that what I thought might be a one-shot is going to turn into at least a two session thing.

I spent a lot of time thinking about how to make sure this session hit the ground running. I combined Cartel's advice with my experiences running Monsterhearts at conventions and came up with this:

* clearly pitch the genre and set expectations for where the conflict will come from

* identify the fundamental conflicts for each playbook

turn each player's selected playbook moves into a conflict or situation that needs to be dealt with

* enmesh the playbooks' NPCs into problematic situations

* turn the characters' histories with each other into active bits of the game's opening

By doing all of this, I created a list of bangs I could use if I needed to. I also created a list of bangs from the crime fiction I've been reading and watching (The Power of the Dog, Savages, Traffic).
Stuff like a drug shipment being observed by the DEA, a money mule taking off with cash you paid them in advance. That gave me a ready-made supply of bangs to introduce into the game if I needed them.

That took quite a lot of set-up time (maybe an hour?), but paid off brilliantly. When combined with the choices each player made about their characters and the series of botched beginning-of-session moves to set the scen, we had a lot of immediate trouble going on:

* Jolanda, the wife of the cartel boss, had a secret second family, which the DEA decided to use as blackmail to turn her into an informant. Pepa, a dirty cop and Jolanda's former lover, had to decide what to do with this information

* The two least-capable characters (Diego the street kid and Hector the meth cook) found themselves trapped in their underground meth lab as two enforcers from a rival cartel broke in to kill and rob them

In more detail, this is what I did:

When we sat down, I told the players that this is a crime soap opera, in the vein of The Sopranos, Breaking Bad, and The Wire. You play the criminals and your lives will inherently be difficult, with competing demands from family, the cartel, and law enforcement.

As a soap opera, you should not play safe. Each playbook has sources of trouble embedded into it: you'll be expected to embrace that trouble.

Then I took a trick from how I like to run Monsterhearts at conventions. During character creation (especially when we're figuring out the histories between characters), I find the moments of crisis. Then I bring them up in play immediately. In Monsterhearts' supernatural romance, that's stuff like being seen watching a neighbour through a window or discovered over a dead body.

In Cartel, the histories are filled with situations like starting to deal with another criminal organisation, forming a plan to make some real money, and suspecting someone is undercover.

(I really hope there's an 'undercover' playbook. If not, I suspect I'll want to write one!)

Anyway, turning the histories into active bits of the game's opening are a great creative support for those initial scenes where everyone's finding their feet and the fiction's still coming alive. There are also a few options that aren't so appropriate for openings, but holding onto them for later created explosive scenes.

* Diego is high on pain-killers after getting shot in the meth lab and from injuring himself racing to get a gas mask when Hector created a toxic gas out of some leaking chemical. That's the worst time for him to meet his cousin Jolanda who wants him out of the business. Slapping, bribery and public screaming ensued in a crowded cafe while cartel enforcers watched the whole thing.

Of course, some of the playbooks have beginning of session moves that destabilise things too. The boss finds out if they're in control of their territory or whether there's trouble brewing. In our session, we had the meth lab break down, the cop fail to find out that the police are moving in on the cartel, and the cartel boss lose control of his territory which triggered a robbery.

The playbooks also contain three other elements it'll be essential to draw on (and these are either directly stated or implied by the rules):

* The basic concept of the playbook: if you've chosen it, you'll want to deal with the conflicts inherent in it. A halcon may have to deal with someone short-counting them, a sicario will have to enforce the jefe's will.

* the moves each player selects: I've started listing those moves out, and finding ways to dramatise them into a conflict or situation that needs to be dealt with

* the NPCs: most of the playbooks have some great NPCs you can enmesh into problematic situations. Making a note of those and then either bringing them into the game or having them make conflict-generating off-screen actions will be essential.

We ended the game with three crises unfolding:

*The street kid with ambitions to move up the chain of command had just gotten together with his gang to snatch one of the military-trained enforcers from the rival cartel

*The hitman had followed the cook who's been kidnapped by enforcers from a rival cartel. He's about to shoot his way into a rescue.

* The cartel boss had just learned (from the dirty cop) that his wife was going to inform on him, just as she had seduced one of his enforcers to let her into the boss' office to search for information.

---   ---   ---

How would you prep for a game of Cartel or for a convention session of an Apocalypse World hack?

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

The Warren: First Impressions and preparing to play tonight

I've been interested in running The Warren (formerly Lapins and Lairs) for a couple of years. It's a game inspired by Watership Down and other 'intelligent rabbit' stories.

Hopefully I'll get to take it for a spin tonight. I've already had a quick read through it and it seemed well organised and logical. Now I'm going to dig a bit deeper. I'll post comments as I go, reflecting on the game.

I'll link, here, to any actual play write-ups or reviews that I do.

The Warren is being kickstarted right now.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Psi*Run: Actual Play

We played Psi*Run last night (I was GMing).

You play ‘Runners’: amnesiacs with super-powers. The game begins with you escaping … and you’re being chased by a shadowy organisation (the ‘Chasers’). The game has a tension between whether the Chasers will capture you or whether you’ll answer enough questions about your past to be able to escape them.

The players all commented on Psi*Run’s brutal, brilliant resolution system. One player said it gave him the opportunity to fail in five different ways on the same roll. Another player said it was so good, it should be in many many more games: he saw it as a worker-placement mechanic.

I’m a huge fan of modern, urban chases, so in terms of Colour this game was pretty easy to GM. I applied a lot of setting details from my recent trip to Auckland: a crash on the beach near the Mission Bay clubbing district, nosy beach-living neighbours, a guard dog from the awesome B&B we stayed at (who was turned into a cuddly zombie by the misapplication of empathic projection powers).

Runners were separated from each other. One of them turned a few drinking teenagers into a kill-squad through switching his danger sense from passive to active mode.

What I learned as the GM

This is a game I feel like I should be able to GM well, but I need to apply a few techniques to in order to make it easy and fun for me.

Throughout it, though I felt like I needed to create more sources of GM antagonism in the story. Without constant tension, there are few reasons for the players to make dice rolls (which create jeopardy and advance the game). Some of the rolls I called for felt a bit arbitrary to me.

Anyone, some potential sources of antagonism include:
  • the chasers (which, of course, are central to the game)
  • traditional law enforcement
  • civilians
  • on-going blowback from psi-powers.

I also felt that ‘Advance the Chasers’ needed to be a GM move: if there's a pause in the game and the players turn to the GM expecting them to say something, advance the chasers by one location. (And the same for if the characters don't move at all: there’s a paragraph about this in the game, but it’s not specific.)

Another thing I’d do differently next time: each Runner has questions they need to answer about themselves. I should've drawn on those questions when they were read out for the first time, writing them down as potential situations to throw the Runners into.

A few rules questions
  • Can the characters narrate advancing through multiple locations quickly, putting lots of distance between them and the Chasers? I think so, but that’s where I need to introduce more antagonism (as above)
  • If a Runner establishes a barricade (as in one of the game’s examples) does it have any effect when the Chasers reach it? The Chasers’ success in bypassing the barricade depends on what d6 the Runner puts into 'Chase' rather than the Runner’s initial success with the goal of ‘Create a barricade’, right?
  • How can one character help another?
  • Has anyone give any thought as to how you’d play a sequel game where the Runners turn the tables on the Chasers? Would it just be the same rules? Would the ‘Chase’ part of resolution system still apply?

(Psi*Run is available here. It’s Game 28 in my Play 51 Games in 2015 challenge.)

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

Undying: a hyper-focused vampire RPG about power (review)

Undying by Paul Riddle is a diceless RPG about vampires. It's on Kickstarter at the moment, with a couple of days to go.

Undying is about vampires as predators

It's natural to compare Undying to White Wolf's Vampire or Urban Shadows. However, Undying is a simpler game, focused on two aspects: preying on humans and the way predators fight each other for dominance.

Here are some exercepts from the rules that establish what it's about:

"You are a predator: a vampire who stalks human prey in the night, feasting on their blood. ... Predators are misanthropic, but not solitary. They are a pack of wolves.

"[In this pack of predators], the most cunning and ruthless is the alpha. All predators envy that power and prestige. Each hopes to one night rule the pack. Thus, from the greatest predator to the least, all are embroiled in a ceaseless conflict of intrigue and bloodshed.

"Game play revolves around brief periods of intense conflict, where old rivalries and new slights spark an inferno, and long stretches of intrigue, where intricate plots are set in motion. ... During the course of one or two sessions, the PCs experience tumultuous events initiated by a galvanizing crisis. The story unfolds hour-by-hour, night-by-night until the conflict resolves with a new status quo."

Undying's simplicity also comes from the way there are only a few 'dials' to keep track of: humanity, blood, debts (to other vampires), and status (relative to other vampires). Coupled with a fast moving conflict resolution system to deal with violence and with interfering in another vampire's plan, Undying looks like it will play quickly and create nasty conflicts of interest between the characters.

Predators are not inherently sympathetic characters

I initially thought this game would be perfectly tailored to my tastes. I like the idea of vampire conflicts (both political and physical), and the relationships between vampires over decades and centuries. 

This game deals with that time-frame: it divides the action into 'nightly play' where a conflict is resolved, and 'downtime play', where years can pass in a few minutes of real-time, vampires execute a long-term plot or strategy, and a new crisis is created. That new crisis becomes the basis for another round of nightly play.

It's a well-executed structure for a game.

However, I had a really unsettling reaction to the character creation section. The game's playbooks (character classes) are things like the Devil, the Nightmare, the Puppet-Master,

Reading them, I recoiled and went "I don't like most of these archetypes". As in, when I'm reading/watching fiction involving these sorts of characters, I think of them as the 'enemy'. After reflecting on what I liked about the Vampire games I played in the 90s, I realised I liked seeing new vampires caught between their old human society and the new and alien vampire society. Tested loyalties, tough choices, terrible mistakes in ettiquette and alliances.

So, Undying is nailing its vision of play: these characters in this situation aren't wish-fulfilling gothic superheroes. They are predators ... and they prey on humans and on each other.

The closest match in fiction I can think of to what a game of Undying looks like is the vampire plot in the first Blade movie. You focus on the soap opera of the entitled and ambitious vampires, screwing with each other for dominance.

The GM prep advice seems perfect for engineering these sorts of situations.

Undying is really about power

Thinking more about why I was alienated, I realised characters in Undying still have 'humanity' (which varies between 0 to 3). So, despite each playbook's theme, you're able to be human inside that

And each playbook showcases one way of handling power.

That opened my eyes. The game is about power, and now I can see other playbooks in that space that I'd love to have in a game of Undying.

  • The Diplomat - who builds alliances between groups
  • The Follower - who works as a soldier for someone more powerful
  • The Kingpin - who relies on brute strength to intimidate others
  • The Anarchist - who tries to destroy the power structure
  • The Outsider - who tries to remain aloof, unaffected and neutral.

I've written more about my thoughts on Undying here. It's a brilliantly-crafted game. I can only imagine the amount of playtesting that's gone on in order to focus on its core so successfully. I'm looking forward to playing it.