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A digest of smaller Google+ RPG posts from 2012-2015

With the impending shutdown of Google+ — my primary (and generally only) social network and outlet for gaming chit-chat since 2012 — I’ve been slowly making my way through stuff I posted there which, in hindsight, I should just have posted here on Yore.

Some posts stood alone, and should just have been Yore posts all along. I moved those over on their original publication date or on whatever day I happened to be working on them, whichever made the most sense.

But after doing that I was left with a little collection of posts that I like best in digest format — a sort of snapshot of some of what I cared about, tabletop RPG-wise, over the past seven years. It’s as erratic and unfocused as my overall post history on G+, so it feels pretty apropos.

Here they are in chronological order, lightly edited for clarity and to provide context.

February 7, 2012

High school wasn’t very helpful in figuring out who I wanted to be (better at sorting out who I wasn’t) but it was great for figuring out what kind of gamer I was going to spend the next 10-15 years being.

The past few years have made me reassess all sorts of things about how I game and want to game, but the past week or so — a full-bore nosedive into OSR games, hex crawl design, research, and the minutiae of D&D editions — has been mind-blowing and, I strongly suspect, formative.

I’m really curious to see where this leads.

March 22, 2012

This superb definition of hit points over on THE LAND OF NOD would probably have improved most of my D&D games in the past 20 years.

Hit points don’t represent anything solid or real or concrete in and of themselves. Rather, they are part of a complex calculation that boils down to this: “What are the chances that the next moment of mortal peril you experience will be your last.” That mortal peril might be a sword fight, a poison needle, a trap door … anything that might kill you. Most often, hit points relate to combat.

August 16, 2012

All three Engine Publishing books on Studio 2 Publishing‘s shelves at Gen Con (booth 419). That really never gets old!

January 17, 2013

I would love to replace my amethyst Armory dice set someday. The dice at the bottom are all that remain; the rest were chased under couches by cats and lost at friends’ houses while gaming as a kid.

Above them are the closest I’ve been able to get: an orchid Koplow set. They’re really, really close.

And at the top are my very first gaming dice, the d10 and d20 from Lords of Creation (from the very box they’re sitting on). I inked them with modeling paint and sprayed them with matte sealant, which was a pretty terrible idea.

Feb 13, 2013

I started collecting the FR series in 1990 or 1991; I have a vivid memory of reading FR9: The Bloodstone Lands — still my favorite in the series — in the auditorium as a freshman in high school. The arrival of FR8: Cities of Mystery today, more than 20 years later, completes my set of FR1-FR16.

For my money, this is one of the best series of gaming books ever produced, and these little volumes have been a source of inspiration to me for nearly as long as I’ve been a gamer. It feels funny to have them all.

August 25, 2013

After four years, Engine Publishing has a warehouse!

It’s still the office closet, but instead of working out of stacks of boxes (containing books) and moving huge “cheese wheels” of bubble wrap every time I need to ship a book, I can just do it. I have no idea why I waited this long!

December 15, 2013

I just found this while working on the basement. I think I made these in 2006 or 2007 (certainly no later, as I stopped running TT in 2007).

That’s probably the last time I had a business card, come to think of it. I always get less use out of them than I think I will, as much as I like having them.

January 8, 2014

With a hat tip to Brendan S for the idea, here’s a rough breakdown of my 2013 gaming purchases by the categories that sort of made sense to me as I went through them.

There are probably lots of ways I could have done this better, but hopefully I’ll escape the notice of the RPGSTPD (RPG Stats Tracking Police Department) long enough for you to observe my dorkitude.

March 6, 2014

I grew up shopping at The Compleat Strategist in NYC, first at the one on 57th and then at the one on 33rd. Much of my early formative gaming originated from one of those stores.

My friend Stephan just sent me this picture: Engine Publishing‘s two most recent books, Odyssey and Never Unprepared, on the shelf at the 33rd street Compleat.

That right there is blowing my mind.

March 6, 2014

Space marine terminator: “Brother Leopold, I found a flat spot on my armor!

Brother Leopold: “This space hulk will keep — let’s bedazzle the shit out of that flat spot. For the emperor!

Me: “Fuck you, I’m painting that red.

Five years after buying Space Hulk, I’ve finally started painting my marines. As you may have guessed, miniatures aren’t really my wheelhouse.

March 10, 2014

Lords of Creation (1983, designed by Tom Moldvay) was my introduction to gaming in 1987. I never owned its three modules as a kid, but they were all surprisingly cheap so I closed out the line on eBay/Amazon.

Revel in those covers! They’re totally fucking glorious. Plus, the “-akron” in Omegakron is Akron, Ohio and The Yeti Sanction is (as Brad Murray pointed out) a parody of The Eiger Sanction; this isn’t a game that takes itself too seriously.

April 27, 2014

Behold! For I am all of Spelljammer, and I am totally fucking awesome (and underrated).

I’ve loved Spelljammer since I first picked up the boxed set in 1989 or 1990 and moved my campaign there (as I did every time a new setting came out), and as of this weekend I finally closed out the line.

May 19, 2014

It’s 1989. A pimply-faced, floppy-haired Martin, age 12 or 13, was introduced to D&D a few months ago.

He’s standing in The Compleat Strategist on 57th Street in NYC, picking out dice to go with his AD&D 2e PHB, DMG, MC, and Time of the Dragon.

He picks these.

I knew if I was patient I’d eventually find the exact pack my first dice came in. I still have a few of the actual dice; some were stolen by cats or lost under friends’ couches. It’s like stepping into a time machine!

July 12, 2014

I first heard of Living Steel around the time I started gaming, when I was in my early teens. I picked up the boxed set and hardcover rulebook in college, back in Michigan (mid-1990s), and have been slowly acquiring the other supplements ever since.

Today I closed out the line.

It’s so not my kind of game mechanically, but the hook and the vibe and the guts of it are fabulous. I’d love to play it as written and using a lighter system someday.

July 31, 2014

I stumbled into collecting U.S. editions of Call of Cthulhu back in high school and have been slowly doing so ever since. It’s one of my favorite RPGs, and has been for over 20 years. I also enjoy the irony that until the forthcoming 7th edition its rules have remained basically unchanged for 30 years, making it one of relatively few games where there’s no compelling reason to own multiple editions.

Today I added an edition I thought I’d never see, the 25th anniversary edition (white hardcover), and thought that deserved a quick picture. Right to left, top to bottom: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, UK 3rd (also available here, so I mostly count it); 4th, 5th, 5.1; 5.5, 5.6, 20th anniversary, 6th softcover; 6th hardcover, 25th anniversary, 30th anniversary.

To my knowledge, I’m only missing two editions, and my odds of acquiring them seem poor: the designer’s edition of 2e, of which only 200 copies were made, and the “more limited” 20th anniversary edition (gold Elder Sign on the cover).

September 13, 2014

My desk, where I do Engine Publishing and Gnome Stew work, in the state it’s in about 50% of the time. The other 50% of the time there aren’t any piles on the end.

The piles are books I’m reading, need to shelve, need to review, or otherwise am currently using in some form.

November 17, 2015

From this excellent post about sales stats for RPG retailer BlackDiamondGames.com:

Also, because I know you guys like lists, here are our top 10 titles with the extremely high 17-40 turn rates:


1. D&D Next: Dungeon Master’s Screen
2. D&D Next RPG: Dungeon Masters Guide
3. Pathfinder RPG: Strategy Guide
4. Unframed: The Art of Improvisation for Game Masters

Wait wait wait. What?! One of these things is not like the others.

Closing remarks

On balance, I greatly enjoyed my time on Google+. It had a huge impact on my gaming, from meeting my current Seattle group to learning about all sorts of cool products to making friends to changing my gaming philosophy over time.

But having gone cold turkey a month or so ago, when my gaming group stopped using G+ to schedule our sessions, there’s a flipside: I’ve found that I don’t miss checking G+ nearly as much as I thought I would.

That gnawing feeling of a social network needing to be checked, maintained, curated, and managed, and of needing to deal with the small percentage of assholes I encountered there (who consume an outsized amount of time and energy) — I don’t miss that at all.

Nonetheless, though: On balance, G+ was seven years largely well spent, and I’ll miss the connections and gaming choices it helped me to make. I’m taking a social network break, maybe for good, but I’ll still be posting here and I’m quietly active on RPGnet and RPGGeek.

Categories
Books Tabletop RPGs

Steam locomotives powered by burning mummies

My kiddo checked Claire Llewellyn’s The Big Book of Mummies (paid link) out of the library this week, and we’ve been reading it at bedtime.

Apart from being interesting in its own right, I was thrilled to find that it contained four fantastically gameable ideas — beyond the obvious, that is (mummies are cool, pyramids were full of traps, etc.).

Breeding animals to mummify

Ancient Egyptians mummified a shitload of animals:

Sacred animals were mummified on an almost unimaginable scale; in fact, some were bred specifically for mummification. Thousands upon thousands of corpses […] were buried in special animal cemeteries, located in sacred sites. […] A single cemetery in Egypt was found to contain more than a million embalmed ibises (birds), each in its individual pot.

My mind fixated first on “bred specifically for mummification,” which is creepy in a very Antiviral sort of way, and second on those million ibises.

Can you imagine a cemetery with a million bird-graves? What would happen if something brought them all back to life? What might it mean if they all went missing?

The Valley of the Golden Mummies

Indiana Jones and the Valley of the Golden Mummies:

Early investigation suggests the cemetery holds up to 10,000 mummies, many of them covered with golden masks. […] These mummies have lain untouched for over 2,000 years.

I know what the average party of murderhoboes would do with that information[1], and as a GM I think Barrowmaze would be the tip of the iceberg in terms of what horrors might await them there.

The walls have mummies

Catacombs are creepy enough, but bodies and bones stacked in little niches have nothing on this:

(Photo by Christopher Cormack)

What’s going on in that photo? This:

Underneath a church in Palermo, Sicily, is an underground cemetery containing about 6,000 mummies. The cemetery is a catacomb — a series of passages that are not only stacked with coffins and tombs, but where mummies hang from the walls.

Generations of monks have been interred there, along with doctors, lawyers, and other folks who were jazzed about getting preserved, dressed in their finest, and hung from the walls — and people used to bring their kids down there for picnics. Love it!

Mummy-powered locomotives

There’s a whole campaign in these two sentences:

During the 19th Century, the great stock of mummies in Egypt was used for fuel for the steam boilers of railway engines on the Cairo-Khartoum line! The ancient resins used as a coating on the mummies meant they burned extremely well.

What if mummies were the only thing that could power steam engines — the infrastructure of the world’s commerce? And what if they were running out?

Alternately, isn’t “You’re aboard a train that runs on mummies . . .” a delightful opener for a Call of Cthulhu (paid link) scenario?

Update: Over on G+. Jeff Sparks noted that mummy-powered trains were apparently not a real thing, dating back to Mark Twain’s The Innocents Abroad. He also noted, and I completely agree, that this in no way diminishes its appeal as a plot hook. Thanks, Jeff!

I’m sure there are bigger, better books about mummies out there with even more juicy, gameable stuff in them, but I was excited to turn up four complete surprises in The Big Book of Mummies (paid link).

[1] Set phasers to “loot.”

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

Call of Cthulhu 7e: How much of this do I need to run the game?

Lately, when I read a new game (or assess one before buying it), I find myself asking this question: “How much of this do I need to run the game?

I’ve still got Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition on the brain, and it’s really fucking huge — particularly compared to earlier editions. But is it usefully huge, or annoyingly huge?

I prefer short rulebooks to longer ones. The shorter the better. But not all lengthy rulebooks are created equal. For example, I can condense the DCC RPG — nearly 500 pages — into just 18 pages of rules I need to actually run the game.[1]

16 pages of chase rules

A post Kelvin Green made yesterday, The Stars Are Right(ish), gave me pause: He mentions that there are 16 pages of rules for car and foot chases in 7th edition. Sixteen pages!

A portion of those 16 pages are devoted to providing examples, something 7th edition is splendid about. There’s an example for everything. If a mechanic involves multiple steps, there’s an example for each step, and then an overall example pulling things together. Sometimes that feels overdone, but it’s hard to judge without playing the game.

Half a page is given over to examples of hazards in foot and car chases, things like “Cyclists in the road,” in list format. That’s a waste of space for me; a paragraph with an example or two would have done the job. But a first-time GM might enjoy it, and some folks might find the list format useful as opposed to wasteful.

But the simple fact that resolving a chase might make use of 16 pages of rules is a huge turn-off for me.

Bug or feature?

In that same vein, opinions will differ on whether a combat flowchart is a bug or a feature.

I almost closed the book and put it back on the shelf when I saw that. Seriously, a fucking flowchart!?

Maybe it’s a newbie/veteran thing again, though. Like, combat’s not all that complicated, but some people learn visually so let’s have a flowchart? Maybe! I hope so. Bad first impressions don’t always stick, as I saw over the course of two tremulus campaigns.

At this point, I’m still giving 7e the benefit of the doubt, but it’s starting to feel like Stockholm syndrome.

Apples to apples

I wanted to see if I was just getting off on the wrong foot with 7e, so I ran a quick comparison: core rules in another edition vs. core rules in this one.

When I run CoC, I reach for 4th edition. 7th edition is split into two rulebooks, but the Keeper Rulebook contains the core rules. As it notes on the back cover, though, you do also need a copy of the Investigator Handbook, which isn’t just a retreading of the same stuff minus the monsters and spells.[2]

Kelvin chalks up 130 pages of “actual game mechanics.” If I were printing out pages from the PDF for a condensed edition in the vein of DCC, though, I’d do pp.82-99 (core mechanics) and pp.102-129 (combat). I don’t need chase rules unless we’re having one. I don’t need sanity unless it comes up. Ditto magic, etc.

What I do need comes to 46 pages. How does that stack up to 4th Edition?

In 4th, I wouldn’t print a damned thing, because in 4e those same rules — core mechanics and combat — fit into 8 pages, and that’s being generous. It’s really 7 pages, plus a paragraph on the 8th page. There’s a stray page in the Sanity section I’d like, too, so let’s call it 9 pages.

How about 4e vs. 6e?

Hang on a minute, though. 4th and 7th have two full editions in between, plus several “.X” editions. Maybe the Girthening of Cthulhu happened in 5th or 6th edition, and I’ve just forgotten about it?

I’d love to compare every edition, really, but all but a couple of my copies of the core rules are in storage. I do have a copy of 6th edition I can get to, though.

6e is 320 pages, compared to 4e’s 192, so there’s been an increase in page count. But I’ve never cracked open any 1st-6th edition CoC rulebook and thought, “Boy, they’ve added a bunch of rules!”

Usually, they’ve added stuff: a full Lovecraft tale, more monsters, resources that used to be part of the Companions, etc. This is a game famous for having many editions with no substantial mechanical changes in 30 years, after all.

The core rules in 6e take up 11 pages. 12 if I throw in a bonus page from the Sanity section (like I did with 4e). Blergh.

Comparing 7e to both 4e and 6e, the mechanical complexity hasn’t changed dramatically. But it has changed. There’s more to do, more special cases are spelled out, there are more examples, and in the end, there are more numbers on the character sheet.

Different, I was interested in; more, not so much.

Hmmmm

I won’t know if a sixfold increase in pages devoted to core rules (7e vs. 4e), or even a fourfold increase (7e vs. 6e), is actually a problem in play until I play the game. But it does sap my interest in playing at all, as does the overall size of this two-book edition.

I love CoC, and I like what I’ve seen of the new rules — bonus dice are particularly clever, and pushing skill rolls looks like a great addition. I’m not sure I’ll keep poking at 7th edition, though.

[1] DCC is a special case for other reasons, too. Each spell takes up a full page, most of which is a chart; that’s over a hundred pages right there, and you don’t need all or even most of it at any given time. Art is another reason: squished together, there’s about a hundred pages of artwork in the book. I still find it overlarge at the table, hence the condensed version.

[2] I’m largely taking that as an article of faith, although a skim of the Investigator Handbook suggests that there’s nothing in there one absolutely needs to run the game.

Categories
Tabletop RPGs

The beast that broke Chaosium shambles forth: Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition

Hot on the heels of yesterday’s tremulus retrospective, in which I said “All of that combines to facilitate Lovecraftian horror so well that as much as I love Call of Cthulhu, I’m pretty sure I’d reach for tremulus first,” my Kickstarted copy of Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition arrived last night.

This feels weird!

Estimated Kickstarter delivery: November 2013. So there’s that.

One of two straws which apparently nearly bankrupted Chaosium, one of the oldest and most storied companies in the RPG industry. So there’s that, too.

But there’s also this: It’s the 7th edition of one of my most-loved RPGs of all time — the one that gave me my first horizon-expanding “Whoa, what?!” realization about RPGs in general.[1] That was back in 1992 or so, and I’ve been playing Call of Cthulhu (and reading Lovecraft) ever since.

Lo, these many years

I started collecting US editions of Call of Cthulhu in high school. Back in 2014, I rounded them all up for a photo:

(Right to left, top to bottom: 1st, 2nd, 3rd, UK 3rd; 4th, 5th, 5.1; 5.5, 5.6, 20th anniversary, 6th softcover; 6th hardcover, 25th anniversary, 30th anniversary.)

That’s also when I learned that I was missing more editions than I thought, and just how out of reach the missing ones really were.[2] I stopped collecting them then — or at least made peace with the fact that my collection would never be complete.

Part of what I enjoy about collecting copies of CoC is the irony: For six editions spanning 30 years, CoC has been a game that really doesn’t change much from edition to edition. You can play any 1st through 6th edition scenario with any edition.

7th Edition is the first one that promised more of an overhaul — maybe not as dramatic as the shifts between major editions of D&D, but more dramatic than any non-cosmetic edition changes Chaosium has made in the past three decades.[3]

It sure is pretty

I can see where a lot of the budget went: into the artwork. Here are two of my favorite full-color pieces.

The spot-color pieces are great, too.

As is the layout. Production values are top-notch across the board.

That extends to the non-core books, too — here’s one of my favorite creatures, and illustrations, from the new Field Guide.

A lot of the creatures are like that: more artistic, interpretive takes on classic Lovecraftian entities. I like this mi-go, and I like many of the others, too.

Mas gordo

I went in for the leatherbound edition (as well as the softcovers — I was still collecting editions when I pledged for this), and man are they gorgeous.

As pretty as the books are, though, I’m not sure I love the quantity as much as I love the quality.

My favorite edition, 4th, comes in at 192 pages. The most recent edition I have on my shelf, the 30th Anniversary Edition, is 320 pages.

7th Edition is two books, rather than one: a 448-page Keeper Rulebook and a 288-page Investigator Handbook. At 736 total pages, that’s a 544-page increase over 4th, and 416 pages more than the 30th Anniversary rules.

2016 Martin isn’t nearly as excited about huge rulebooks as 2013 Martin was, and even 2013 Martin was cooling on them. The amount of pure, unfiltered joy I get out of, say, Psi-Run, which is a whopping 60 digest-size pages, sets a pretty high bar in terms of reading/work/rules:fun ratios.

Hmmmm

I spent some time last night documenting damage and contacting Chaosium about it (not a problem unique to my shipment, unfortunately, but they seem to be on top of it), and I’ve got an — unrelated — splitting headache as I type this, so that’s where I’m going to stop for now.

It’s a lot to take in. A heady brew, long overdue, and, unexpectedly, I’m less confident that Call of Cthulhu is my go-to game for Lovecraftian horror than I was when I backed it three years ago. I need to spend some more time with these books.

[1] As a kid, I mostly played D&D and similar games. CoC flipped those on their heads by encouraging players to embrace the frailty of their characters and have fun descending into madness and death, fighting against impossible foes, rather than cunningly evading the grim reaper at every turn. It blew my mind.

[2] The last time I saw one of the convention editions for sale, it went for $600. And the 7th Edition Kickstarter offered a $1,000 pledge level that included a hand-bound Temple Edition copy of the rulebooks.

[3] The cosmetic differences are fun, though, and the presentation has gotten slicker and more polished over the years. It’s the rules that basically stay the same.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

tremulus after two campaigns

I wrapped up a second campaign of tremulus, a Powered by the Apocalypse RPG of Lovecraftian horror by Sean Preston, this past Tuesday night. I’ve been meaning to write about tremulus for some time, because it’s a great game, it’s underrated, and I initially underrated it myself.

It’s basically “Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World,” which sounded like chocolate meets peanut butter to me when it popped up on Kickstarter back in 2012. After 19 sessions across two campaigns (one playing, one GMing), I’m ready to talk about it here on Yore.

First impression

My initial impression wasn’t favorable.

One of the things I love about being an avid RPGGeek[1] user is that when I want to know what I thought about a game four years ago, it’s easy to find out. Here’s what I said about it after one session:

I’ve played one session of tremulus, character creation plus an hour or so of play that was purely introductory. I can’t shake the sense that this isn’t a great implementation of Apocalypse World, but I’ll give it a more thorough shakedown as the campaign progresses.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement! My initial rating was a 7 out of 10, which was giving it the benefit of the doubt.

(Quoting myself seems insufferably pretentious, but I want to show how my thinking on tremulus changed over time, and it’s the easiest and most direct way to do that.)

Second impression

I stuck to my guns and gave it more thought as that campaign progressed, and things changed:

Several sessions in, I’m enjoying the game largely despite the system. It’s just not a particularly deft or interesting AW hack. There are some good bits, to be sure, but not as many as I’d like. The playbooks are mostly pretty boring and same-y, and I’d likely be having just as much fun with the same good group and a different system.

I enjoy PbtA games enough to like the core of what I’m getting here despite the fact that it’s surrounded with a fair amount of blah. The non-blah, for me, remains the Ebon Eaves playset aspect — that’s quite cool.

When I wrote that, I revised my rating downwards from a 7 to a 6.

It kept gnawing at me

But I couldn’t get that campaign out of my head, and it started to become clear to me that there was more there than I’d thought.

Months later, looking back on one of my favorite campaigns, I see that I’m conflicted about this game. Humdrum rules, but it’s fun to play. Do I wish the rules were more interesting? Yep. But Call of Cthulhu by way of Apocalypse World is pretty awesome.

New rating: 8.

Running tremulus

My online group enjoyed our first campaign, and I was itching to run an extended PbtA game, so we circled back to it with me in the GM’s chair. This showed me a whole different side of the game.

Yeah, there’s more in here that I love — the framework/thread/hazard tech is EXCELLENT. Doesn’t take long to pull together, dovetails beautifully with the playsets, and balances inspiration with prescriptive elements beautifully.

There are a lot more playbooks now, too, including many more with interesting features/rules — which were lacking in the core rules. The “tremulus ecosystem” has expanded into something very cool.

I love the “structured takeoff” provided by a playset + framework + playbooks. Lots of guidance, but no railroading or plotting things out. I see how the rules connect with that now, too, and overall I like the game a lot.

New rating: 9 out of 10. I’ve played 104 different RPGs as of this writing, and I rate 19 of them a 9 (and zero of them a 10).[2]

For me, this is a good example of how hard it is to assess an RPG without playing it. Which, you know, duh — but short of buying every book you ever see, you have to assess games you haven’t played.

My initial assessment of tremulus might have kept me from playing it, and I’d have missed out on a great game.

What I love about tremulus

The main thing I love is how it plays. I don’t do session prep, and when I GM I love sitting down at every session just like I was a player: not knowing what’s going to happen, and not having done any work between sessions. tremulus is fantastic for that.

It also delivers on what it promises: Lovecraftian horror with the trappings you expect from Call of Cthulhu, but all of the player agency, surprises, and not-plotting-things-out-in-advance you expect from a PbtA game.

tremulus also makes the clever choice to leave the amount of Lovecraft in your game up to you. By default, it assumes your group will be creating its own entities, cults, mysteries, and other setting elements in a Lovecraftian vein, rather than using deep ones, Yog-Sothoth, and all the rest. But if you’d prefer to play “straight CoC,” it supports that option as well.

The fourth biggie is the tremulus ecosystem. If you got into the game now, you’d have access to a wealth of playbooks, playsets, and other content that didn’t exist back when I first picked up the core book. The supplemental playbooks in particular are more interesting than the initial ones.

My group has played two playsets: Ebon Eaves, the peculiar town featured in the core book, and Frozen Wasteland, which is in the vein of At the Mountains of Madness (paid link). Both are excellent, and playsets are a huge part of what I love about tremulus.

Before you start in-character play, the players choose three options from the “What you think to be real” list and three from the “What weirdness you’ve heard” list about Ebon Eaves (or about whatever playset you’re using). Here’s the second list:

Those six choices (three from each list) produce two letter codes, like “ACG” or “BDE,” and those codes all have brief write-ups in the book. Every combination is unique, and quite different — two groups playing a tremulus game set in Ebon Eaves won’t play the same game unless they choose the exact same codes.

As a player, this approach produced the seeds of a town with several mysteries that were all spooky and creepy and interesting to poke at. As a GM, it gave me more than enough to chew on when setting up the game — which ties into another thing I love about tremulus.

To create the default setup (e.g., Ebon Eaves, an antarctic expedition), you prep only the questions that pop out at you — the starting point for the mysteries and weirdness, but no further. For example, in our Frozen Wastes game, one question was “Why is Professor Crawford so desperate to rediscover Hyperborea?” I didn’t know the answer until, through actual play, my players’ choices combined with my improvisation produced one.

All of that combines to facilitate Lovecraftian horror so well that as much as I love Call of Cthulhu, I’m pretty sure I’d reach for tremulus first.

Ia! Ia! tremulus fhtagn!

tremulus is a superb game.

It’s underrated, and it doesn’t get the attention I think it deserves. If “Call of Cthulhu + Apocalypse World” sounds appealing, I suspect you’ll like it.

[1] AKA the most useful RPG tool you’re not using.

[2] It’s also one of an even smaller number of games of which I own multiple copies. It’s got enough moving parts that I found it helpful to have two books on hand when running it.

Categories
Books Reading Appendix N

Reading Appendix N: The Dunwich Horror and Others, by H.P. Lovecraft

There’s a long gap between my first Appendix N book, The Hobbit (paid link) — which was also my first Reading Appendix N book post, as I’m going in the order I read them — and my next one. One of my best friends in high school, Stephan, introduced me to H.P. Lovecraft by way of Call of Cthulhu (paid link), which he ran for my high school gaming group. I asked Stephan if reading some Lovecraft would diminish my enjoyment of the game, and he said it might, just a little, but it would be worth it; he was right about it being worth it.

I snagged this collected edition, which is neither special or definitive, and read it so often that it now looks like this:

That book led me down the rabbit hole, and Lovecraft became one of my favorite authors. Over the next several years, I tracked down and read all of his fiction — and continued playing Call of Cthulhu, which remains one of my all-time favorite RPGs. My Lovecraft library, which includes several other authors in his circle, spans a shelf and a half in our library. It’s a special pleasure to have a chance to write about Lovecraft’s work in the context of Reading Appendix N.

Why This Book?

Lovecraft is among those authors in Appendix N for whom Gary didn’t recommend a specific title or series. Following my own guidelines for this project, I recommended a specific Lovecraft work based on personal experience: The Dunwich Horror and Others (paid link). Of all of the personal recommendations I made on the 100-book Appendix N reading list, this was the most difficult one to make.

I initially chose At the Mountains of Madness (paid link), which features one specific tale that feels very Appendix N-y to me: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath, a Dreamlands story of strange and peculiar lands and peoples. After some deliberation, though, I settled on The Dunwich Horror and Others because it includes four of my personal favorite Lovecraft stories — Pickman’s Model, The Colour Out of Space, The Whisperer in Darkness, and The Shadow Out of Time — as well as the seminal The Call of Cthulhu, and because it offers a sampling of different elements of Lovecraft’s approach to weird horror.

If you’re new to Lovecraft, this book is a great place to start. It’s packed with excellent stories, including many that I can still picture in my mind many years after my last reading (which is true of all the ones I listed above). They’re vivid, creepy, and fantastic.

With a gun to my head, I’d pick The Whisperer in Darkness as my overall favorite Lovecraft story, though it’s in close competition with At the Mountains of Madness and The Colour Out of Space. Here are two quotes from its first couple of pages which, without spoiling the story, are emblematic of Lovecraft in their own ways. First, the opening line:

Bear in mind closely that I did not see any actual visual horror at the end. To say that a mental shock was the cause of what I inferred–that last straw which sent me racing out of the lonely Akeley farmhouse and through the wild domed hills of Vermont in a commandeered motor at night–is to ignore the plainest facts of my final experience.

…and then the initial third-hand glimpses of strangeness in the hills, reported in the aftermath of a great flood:

What people thought they saw were organic shapes not quite like any they had ever seen before. Naturally, there were many human bodies washed along by the streams in that tragic period; but those who described these strange shapes felt quite sure that they were not human, despite some superficial resemblances in size and general outline. Nor, said the witnesses, could they have been any kind of animal known to Vermont. They were pinkish things about five feet long; with crustaceous bodies bearing vast pairs of dorsal fins or membranous wings and several sets of articulated limbs, and with a sort of convoluted ellipsoid, covered with multitudes of very short antennae, where a head would normally be.

One thing I love about Lovecraft’s stories set in New England — “Lovecraft Country” — is how grounded in, and evocative of, that part of the country they are. Having grown up in New York, and spent many happy days traipsing and driving around in New England, that region is now inextricably linked to Lovecraft for me. I also love his use of language, which is sometimes criticized for being overblown and overly long on description; his style works beautifully for the kinds of stories he writes.

I also love Lovecraft’s nihilistic universe — the elder gods and things between the stars aren’t evil, or out to get us; they know and care as little about us as we do about ants. It’s only when people begin worshiping them, learning from them, and misunderstanding them that evil enters into the picture. Even 70-plus years after many of these stories were written, that vision of the universe still feels fresh to me.

Above all, though, Lovecraft is a master of the weird, and of introducing the weird into the ordinary world of the 1920s and ’30s in horrifying ways. His protagonists tend to be bookish types, and given to curiosity past the point of caution; the more they learn, the worse things get. Sometimes they can’t help it, as in The Shadow Out of Time, wherein Nathaniel Peaslee’s mind is whisked out of his body and transplanted into a rubbery, tentacled, conical alien form light years away, and quite often they don’t entirely know what to make of the events that transpired, or how to continue on in a world whose veils have been drawn back for them.

In other words, he’s a damned fine horror writer, and his brand of horror is evocative and strange and wonderful and compelling — and it sticks with you. For my money, The Dunwich Horror and Others showcases all of those qualities superbly.

The Dunwich Horror and Others and AD&D

I’m fascinated about why Lovecraft made it into Appendix N, and I can only guess as the answer — assuming, of course, that the answer is other than the most basic option: Gary Gygax was influenced by Lovecraft in a non-specific way, and that influence informed the creation of AD&D. My best guess at a more direct connection, if indeed there is one, is the notion of protagonists ill-equipped to face the challenges ahead, trapped in a universe where the gods don’t care about them, who nonetheless explore cyclopean tombs and alien locales — often going mad, dying, or otherwise being irrevocably changed by their experiences — which matches up pretty well with old-school D&D.

Consider the average low-level adventuring party, little more than peasants with swords and the occasional spell, yet willing to delve into dark and dangerous dungeons, face unknown threats — often threats which far outclass them — and being changed by their experiences; squint a bit, and that’s a Lovecraft story. I could be way off-base, but when I look at Lovecraft’s tales and AD&D side by side, that’s the strongest connection I see. Others, like the presence of monsters and magic, seem a bit too general to explain why Lovecraft is part of Appendix N.

Later on, of course, came a much more obvious connection: Lovecraft’s gods made their way into the AD&D supplement Deities & Demigods (paid link). For legal reasons, the Cthulhu Mythos section was removed from later printings, turning the early ones into one of the best-known D&D collectibles.

Which edition?

Lovecraft was bound for likely obscurity when his work, largely unrecognized, was returned to print and eventually to the American consciousness by August Derleth. Derlath founded Arkham House, produced many editions of Lovecraft’s work, and championed him as one of the founding fathers of horror.

Unfortunately, he also altered the cosmology of Lovecraft’s universe to assign asinine elemental aspects (which didn’t exist in the originals) to beings like Cthulhu, and then introduced his own works to “fill in” the “gaps.” For better or worse, the term he coined to describe the mythology created in Lovecraft’s stories, “Cthulhu Mythos,” has stuck. (Lovecraft himself called his works in this vein “Yog-Sothothery.”)

Between those efforts and the vagaries of reprinting any author’s work many times over many years, and through many publishers, many older editions of Lovecraft’s tales aren’t accurate. Luckily, Arkham House retained S.T. Joshi to edit Lovecraft’s work, and Joshi’s fidelity to his source material is, frankly, fucking amazing. He’s a scholar, detail-oriented and dedicated to preserving Lovecraft as Lovecraft, and his editions are both excellent and definitive.

With all of that in mind, I recommend this Arkham House edition of The Dunwich Horror and Others (paid link). It’s the one I own, and if you like it there are three more Arkham House editions which together comprise all of Lovecraft’s fiction: At the Mountains of Madness (paid link) — which, disappointingly, I couldn’t locate on Amazon; this link is to a different edition — Dagon and Other Macabre Tales (paid link), and The Horror in the Museum (paid link). Finding them used at reasonable prices can sometimes be challenging, but it’s worth it.

Those four books are the core of my Lovecraft library:

I also recommend S.T. Joshi’s annotated editions, which feature notes, photos, and other scholarship that’s anything but dry and boring: The Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (paid link) and More Annotated H.P. Lovecraft (paid link). I especially like the photos of locations that featured prominently in Lovecraft’s life and stories.

And, of course, as with most Appendix N books I’ve encountered so far the final recommendation is just read it. It doesn’t really matter which Lovecraft collection you start with — just start somewhere. If you love his tales as much as I do, you’ll quickly find yourself with plenty more to read.

Categories
Board games

My first solo board gaming experience: Arkham Horror

I’ve been curious about solo (or solitaire) board gaming for a while now, and while I recognize that it likely sounds weird to folks who aren’t into board games — and, honestly, it still seemed a bit odd even to me until I tried it — it really isn’t much different than sitting down to play a video game.

Having debated different options and discarded them all for one reason or another, I hit on Arkham Horror (paid link).

I’m a huge fan of H.P. Lovecraft, and of Call of Cthulhu (paid link), so from that standpoint it seemed like a great fit. But I’d also heard that it takes forever — 4-6 hours depending on the number of players and other factors — and has a high luck factor, something I don’t usually enjoy in games. Still, I like trying new things, especially games, and it seemed like a chance worth taking.

When it arrived, I read the rules and set it up on my desk — which it fills almost completely, leaving just enough space to work.

I started the game over the weekend, taking a few turns while everyone else was asleep, and finished it up on Wednesday night. It took about three hours altogether; I played with two investigators (Darrell and Drake, chosen randomly) and probably screwed up a rule or two here and there.

It’s a fantastically evocative game. One of the coolest things I’d heard about it was that it tells a story, and that was absolutely true. The mood and feel are Lovecraftian — shading into Pulp, and perhaps closer in tone to the RPG than the stories — and the flow of the game is unique. I would have been happy to lose, and expected to several times; the story would have been just as interesting.

As it was, Darrell and Drake stumbled around at first, literally clueless, as Azathoth stirred and gates opened all across Arkham. They both went insane and had to recover at Arkham Sanitarium, and that combined with Nodens’ Favor turned the tide. As townsfolk (and Allies, and shopkeepers) fled the city, Darrell became a police deputy and started driving his police car through gates to other worlds and back again. (It eventually broke down.) Drake joined the Silver Twilight Lodge and gathered clues to pass along, and Darrell closed and sealed the remaining gates — sealing the sixth with the terror level at 9, Arkham nearly overrun with monsters. The last defenders of Arkham, armed with forbidden lore, managed to save the city.

And it didn’t feel weird. Really no different than jumping into a video game, prepping an adventure for next week’s gaming session, or any other similar solo creative play-type activity. I’ve always looked at board games as a fundamentally social activity, but I’m glad I expanded that view. Playing solo, particularly in short bursts over several days, was fun in its own way.

I’d love to try it again with a group of like-minded folks, expecting a longer game, but I’m also looking forward to playing it again solo. If you’re in the market for a solitaire-friendly game and like HPL, Call of Cthulhu, or adventure-style games in general, Arkham Horror is worth checking out.