Categories
Comics

After 16 years, I was surprised to find myself reading the final pages of The Walking Dead

I’ve been reading The Walking Dead since the first TPB came out in 2004. As soon as the first 12-issue hardcover omnibus was released, I switched to that format and have collected the hardcovers ever since.

This morning, while reading volume 16 in the bath, I realized a major event that had been spoiled for me on Twitter was about to happen — and shortly after that, realized that holy shit this feels like it’s about to end.

And then…it ended.

After 16 years, it ended — and damn did it end perfectly.

One of the best rides in comic book history

Because I picked up a new hardcover every time I remembered to check on them, I was completely unaware the series had ended in single-issue format. From Kirkman’s afterword, it sounds like they solicited fake issues past the end date to pull it off as a surprise — and had been planning it for years.

Rating the final book ★★★★★ on Goodreads, I checked to confirm that my memory of this series being unerringly amazing was correct and was pleased to see that I’d rated every volume ★★★★★.

I can’t think of too many comic book series I’ve read that 1) were this good, for this long, consistently, without missing a single beat; 2) ended when they should have, rather than dragging on; and 3) stuck the motherfucking landing this well.

I don’t know how to feel right now. Mostly good, of course! This was a fantastic run, one of the all-time greats, and there were so many ways it could have gone awry. But it’s also been a part of my life for 16 years. I was reading TWD before I met my wife; I’ve been reading it longer than my daughter has been alive.

If you like horror comics in general, and zombie horror in particular (although this series is about so much more than that), I can’t recommend The Walking Dead highly enough.

Categories
Solo RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

RPG actual play: Thousand Year Old Vampire

I was going to do a Twitter thread while playing through Thousand Year Old Vampire (TYOV), a solo RPG by Tim Hutchings in which you’re an awful, awful vampire, but couldn’t figure out how to provide a meaningful content warning that would 1) persist and 2) allow people to avoid the whole thread while 3) still making it comprehensible. So here we are!

Content warning: violence, allusions to self-harm, gore, torture. Intended for a mature audience.

Also, this game is stunningly gorgeous and I highly recommend it. I posted about its beauty here on Yore; you can buy a copy from Tim on itch.io.

In this post I’m going to try to preserve the rapid-fire delivery of a Twitter thread because it suits the Quick Game for TYOV (one of its two modes of play) and my own inclinations.

Character creation

Your vampire is a collection of Memories, Experiences, Resources, Skills, other Characters, and the trait which identifies you as a vampire, your Mark. My first Experience is a character summary:

  • I am Garnier, son of Roland and Isabeau, born in southern Brittany in 14th Century France; I became a monk to avoid poverty but found strength in my faith

It’s around 1340 at the start of this playthrough; the Black Plague is just starting its grim march through Europe.

I also came up with three Skills, three Resources, and Characters — and four more Experiences, each tied to those people/things. Here are my starting Characters:

  • Melisende, a beautiful young woman in the village of Réconfort near the abbey; she visits regularly to transport wine made by the monks (mortal)
  • Brother Eudes, a beautiful young monk who is secretly my lover; he loathes himself for straying from God (mortal)
  • Abbot Roul, iron-fisted ruler of our abbey; he believes in harsh punishment for all offenses, no matter how minor (mortal)
  • Qadir, an ancient, withered, stick-like vampire who haunts the abbey’s library, feeding on the monks; it illuminates manuscripts in blood (immortal)

Resources are a secret copy of the key to the abbey’s forbidden book room, a love letter from Brother Eudes, and my personal Bible I am illuminating for the abbey’s collection. Skills are Conceal My True Feelings, True Prayer, Skulking About. My other four Experiences are:

  • Brother Eudes, at great personal risk, slips me a love letter during Mass; I feel truly alive for the first time
  • I press the abbot’s key to the forbidden book room into a bar of wax and carve a copy; my visits there are frequent
  • Melisende, to whom I am drawn, asks to see my illuminated Bible; I feel more strongly about my faith in God than I do about her
  • I sneak into the abbey’s forbidden book room for the first time and encounter Qadir, its eyes coal-black; it mocks my prayers and delicately slits each of my wrists

And finally, my Mark — Garnier’s “vampire tell”: The wounds in my wrists never heal, and must always be bound or blotted with cloth; I cover them with my sleeves and change the dressings often.

This is a game about surprising yourself, and forgetting

As you move through the game’s prompts (with die rolls determining where you land), each will fuel a new bit of your story and require you to create an Experience. Some will prompt you to check off a Skill or Resource; the game ends when you must do that and cannot.

You’re not in complete control of your character. You make many of their decisions, but not all of them; it’s intended to make you uncomfortable, and it works.

When you gain enough Experiences, you’re forced to discard your Memories — flitting through the centuries, you cease to be who you were. Although, cruelly, you may retain legacies of those memories: people you used to know, skills you still possess despite having forgotten how you gained them, etc.

I’m not going to write out a whole journal here, nor give away Tim’s farm — rather, I’ll try to give you a sense for how the game plays and feels by sharing what came of the prompts I encountered on Garnier’s journey.

Prompt me, baby

The first prompt is always the same supposed to be rolled, but I picked prompt #1: you kill a mortal Character close to you, and gain the Bloodthirsty skill. (Updated because Tim mentioned on Twitter that the first prompt is the result of a die roll, like all the others.)

I kill Melisende the next time she comes to the abbey to collect the wine, drinking the blood from her wrists the way Qadir taught me; I feel nothing

Garnier

From there, die rolls lead you forward or back through the prompts — and each prompt is layered, so if you land on it again you can pick a new layer to explore.

My second was about being exposed:

I am found out to be a killer, and convince Eudes to run away with me, lying to him about everything; we pose as itinerant monks — I am now Roland

Garnier, now called Roland

I put that one under my Memory about my beloved Eudes. Unfortunately, he got the next prompt as well:

Unable to live with our many sins, my beloved Eudes threatens to reveal me; I kill him, and drink because I hunger

Roland (Garnier)

At this point I have 2/4 Skills checked and 0/3 Resources checked. These are still Garnier’s salad days.

Decades later, Garnier has forgotten all about the abbey’s forbidden book room (although not about Qadir) and the Plague has largely ended. He blends in for many years. Until:

I sneak into a monastery and drain every last monk; I leave the last one alive for days, draining him and watching, and then steal all their gold

Garnier

A couple observations

In solo games I tend to create the biggest piece of shit I can think of and then see what it’s like to live their life. I want to be uncomfortable, yet also delighted — in a slasher movie sort of way — at my character’s awfulness. TYOV is very much my jam.

TYOV is also an evil game. It fucks with you. It fucks with itself. It fucks with its own rules. It places you in discomfiting situations and makes you proceed.

For example: A century or more has passed and Garnier is now on his fourth name. He has fled to a foreign land, a place where he knows no one and doesn’t speak the language. I have to write an Experience for that . . . but if I fill up my first Memory, the one which appears first in this post, that will put me perilously close to forgetting who I am.

I don’t want to fill that slot.

Which, of course, is exactly the kind of gleefully wicked friction TYOV is designed to create.

Checking in with Garnier

A couple of centuries have passed. Garnier now lives in Greece. He has renounced God, discarding his 200-year-old personally illuminated Bible — which I chose to destroy over the letter from Brother Eudes.

One: holy shit, that’s making me feel things.

Two: how did Garnier preserve any faith for 200 years of being as evil as he is?

By the 17th Century, I no longer remember being Garnier at all. I strive to live an unremarkable mortal existence to avoid detection. In addition to my suppurating wrist wounds, I walk in an animal crouch and see Melisende — my first victim, who I no longer recall — in half the people I meet. I have been ground down by what feels like the inevitability of time, the curse of immortality weighing on me.

I’ve been happy precisely twice in 400 years: When Brother Eudes (who I later killed) confessed his love, and when I slipped into a 200-year torpor and felt nothing.

As fate and chance would have it, my last remaining skill is True Prayer. I’ve met my progenitor, the impossibly ancient vampire Qadir, and found in him now a kindred spirit. Little more than Qadir’s protection (which I’ve taken as a Resource) stands between me and the final death.

TYOV’s mechanics are deceptively simple. The natural probability of the roll you make every turn tends to drive you deeper into the book (though you do backtrack as well, just less often). The deeper you go, the more the prompts trend towards an ending — or an Ending, if you prefer.

I hit my final prompt and said aloud, “Holy shit, this is it.” And I knew instantly just what shitty, terrible form this ending would take for Theodorus — the name Garnier adopted in the 1600s and will now keep, eternally in the thrall of Qadir, the vampire who made him what he is.

My final Experience was this:

I am Qadir’s thrall, only his protection, his care, can stave off the final death; I live only to live, feeling nothing save the desire to continue being, forever

Theodorus

Fuuuuuuuuuuck that’s bleak.

Friends, Thousand Year Old Vampire is extraordinary. I’ve played a ton of solo RPGs, and this one does things I’ve never seen before. It lays out its goals and accomplishes all of them; it’s rewarding and moving and disturbing to play; and at the end of my first playthrough I feel wrung out.

This game rocks.

Categories
Solo RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Thousand Year Old Vampire is one of the most gorgeous RPG books I’ve ever seen

My copy of Tim Hutchings’ Thousand Year Old Vampire came in the mail, and daaaaaaaaaamn this book slaps.

AAAAAAAAHHHHHHHH!

That spot foil — the gold bits — looks like kintsugi. The stamps look so real I want to peel them off.

So subtle, yet so convincing

I opened the front cover and literally went, “What the hell, why did Tim write in this and why does it say $125 . . . OHHHHHH.”

Interior page spread

Every page is a work of art. The whole is a work of art. Thousand Year Old Vampire is a master class in how to make a print RPG book 1) look and feel amazing and 2) look like an artifact from the world it contains.

I’ve seen some gorgeous gaming books in the past, but very, very few are in this one’s league. If you want to know more, or buy a copy, hit up Tim’s itch.io page for the book.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Monsterhearts 2 is a scintillating jewel

Hot damn is Monsterhearts 2 a good book. (It’s also an amazing game in play, but right now I just want to talk about the book itself.)

It’s lean, without an ounce of cruft anywhere on its frame. It’s devoid of blather. This is a bullshit-free presentation honed by years of actual play, design chops, and feedback from others. It’s fucking beautiful.

It’s also packed with advice delivered in the best way possible for an RPG: conversationally but directly, with its intended audiences in mind. I love design notes and anything that brings in all the stuff that exists on the edges of the actual text — like intent — and MH2 makes so much explicit so well that it just rocks.

MH2 connects with me on many levels, some of them much deeper than most RPG texts. This is rare, and I appreciate it. But it’s also a fun game that hits so many personal high notes for what I like in an RPG, and the book expresses those things clearly and without pretension.

As a physical object, the book is equally great. I love simple hardcovers with gilt, so I love this. I generally hate dust jackets on gaming books, but in this size, and executed this well, I love this one. (It makes a perfect bookmark.)

This is one of the best gaming books I’ve encountered, full stop. It’s exactly and precisely what it wants and needs to be.

Huge props to Avery Alder.

Categories
PbtA Story games Tabletop RPGs

Urban Shadows is fantastic for spinning up a sandbox game

I love sandbox games and urban horror, and at that intersection sits the absolutely stellar PbtA RPG Urban Shadows (paid link).

I expected Urban Shadows to be good at facilitating sandbox play, but I wasn’t prepared for just how good it is. Since the proof is in the pudding, below is the brief recap of goings-on in El Paso, Texas that I provided to my players after our fifth session. For context, session one was character creation; we did start-of-session moves for sessions two and five (rather than every session); and our sessions are 3 hours tops, usually more like 2-2.5 hours.

Ignore the specifics and think broad — just look how much stuff is happening all over the city after this little play (bold names are PCs):

  • The Warden militia group gunning for Carmen and trying to make Angels’ Triangle their base in the city
  • A new vampire in town, Orlando Cranshaw, who wants to shake things up
  • Another vamp, Carlos de la Rosa, who is a rival to Desmond
  • Katya Ulanov, another demonic soul-trader who shares Nick‘s patron, who wants Nick’s territory
  • Mason Black’s coyote goons after Hector
  • Kyle‘s missing friend, Brandon, who was abducted by the wizard Mason Black
  • A group of coyotes who also want the Paper Shop building for their own, who have struck a deal with Orlando for protection
  • A missing senator’s son, Diego Hernandez
  • An extremely competent cover-up of the killing at Midnight
  • ICE on the prowl for Carmen, so they can deport her like the rest of her family
  • Veronica‘s visions: the Warden skinning Carmen in about a month, after assassinating Father Riley; Hector being choked to death by White Eyes in the sheriff’s office jail; and Father Riley’s death

And how much of that did I come up with, as the MC, before the start of the campaign? Zero.

Player backgrounds, and the Q&A we did for everyone during character creation, produced many of those elements. The first time we did start-of-session moves, several more came into play — including the opening scene for the campaign, another thing I hadn’t prepped in advance. Around session three or four, I generated Threats from all of the sandbox elements my players had created, and fleshed them out a bit with my own ideas. The rest grew out of session five’s start-of-session moves.

The mechanics of the game combined with the energy and creativity of the players produce a sandbox organically and with minimal effort. It’s clever, and it works beautifully in practice.

So far, I fucking love Urban Shadows (paid link).

Categories
Free RPGs Story games Tabletop RPGs

Soylent Platinum

On the day the UK voted to leave the EU, which happened to be the day after I read a heartbreaking investigative piece on private prisons, I woke up thinking about corporate greed, economic collapse, the excesses of the rich, Donald Trump, and human awfulness. And I thought, “I should design a game about eating the rich.

A bit later, I thought, “No, I should design a game about the rich eating other people. Kind of like Soylent Green, except there’s no way the rich would eat poor people. So who would they eat?

Soylent Platinum is the result: a free RPG about the rich eating the famous.

Soylent Platinum is designed for 3-6 players, with no GM. Everyone plays an obscenely wealthy person bidding for the privilege of kidnapping, killing, and eating the most famous celebrity in the world — while destroying the global economy for their own benefit.

As social commentary, it’s a lot less subtle than The Thief, my previous free RPG. As a game, it’s short-form, and there’s a bit of one of my favorite roleplaying poems, Stoke-Birmingham 0-0, in its DNA. Like the other games I’ve designed, it started as an idea that wouldn’t let go of my brain until I sat down and turned it into a game.

Alongside Stoke (which features a conversation with rules about tone) and Soylent Green, Soylent Platinum’s inspirations were the films Antiviral and Hostel and the RPGs Dark Conspiracy (paid link) — mainly its proles — and Dog Eat Dog (which weaves discomfort into its mechanics). It took me about three hours to design and another three hours or so to assemble, polish, and proofread.

If you give Soylent Platinum a whirl, I’d love to hear who you ate, how it felt, and what you thought about the game.

Categories
GURPS Tabletop RPGs

GURPS Creatures of the Night offers up some creepy gems

I snagged a copy of GURPS Creatures of the Night (paid link), by Scott Paul Maykrantz, because I love monster books and it sounded like this one might be full of weird and wonderful oddballs. Not all of its monsters grab me, but there are some delightfully disturbing creatures in here.

My copy was a whopping $4, and I kind of like that the cover features neither creatures nor night.[1]

Two short of a good sixty-nine joke

CotN presents 67 monsters, each of which gets at least a page; most run two pages, and a few run longer than that. The layout is utilitarian, but gets the job done:

(Artists are credited, but not by image; I don’t know whose work this is)

They’re all but stat-free, which is perfect since I don’t play GURPS — for me, this is a sourcebook for other games.

Coming off a stint designing Labyrinth Lord creatures, which need a paragraph or two of text at most (plus the stat block), the length of each CotN critter’s entry is a blessing and a curse.

When they’re good, it rocks. My favorite CotN creatures are the ones you could build an adventure, sandbox, or campaign around, and knowing how they tick is fantastic. But when they don’t blow my skirt up, the entries feel overlong.

Onwards!

A side order of campaign concepts

CotN opens with some introductory material, the best of which is a rundown of four monster-heavy campaign concepts:

  • Darwin by Night features scientist PCs investigating the supernatural, with a focus on gathering information. What I like is the spin, which is sort of “Scully meets Indiana Jones.”
  • In Demon Hunters, the PCs are the marines in Aliens fighting monsters from Call of Cthulhu, more or less. It’s got a darker edge than Ghostbusters or Buffy.
  • Seeking the Source postulates that every monster is related to every other monster, all serving the same master — or masters. That’s a neat hook!
  • The Impostor Wars is basically an Illuminati campaign, but the secret masters are puppeteer-type monsters.

This section is only two pages long, but it packs a nice punch — and I love that it provides excuses to use two of my favorite GURPS books, Warehouse 23 (paid link) and Illuminati (paid link), the latter of which would go great with The Impostor Wars.

After that, it’s on to the monsters. Here are five of my favorite entities from Creatures of the Night:

Betweeners

The name doesn’t convey how cool betweeners are:

Betweeners are giant creatures that float in orbit, between the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space. They are made of a delicate, crystal-like substance. […] Betweeners absorb genetic information from any creature they can capture. […] Betweeners snare the captured specimen in glass tentacles and slice it to pieces. The genetic information is absorbed by the crystal and stored in the betweener’s consciousness.

Once creatures are absorbed, Betweeners send them to Earth as scions, many of whom don’t know they’re working for a betweener. Betweeners accomplish this through a variety of supernatural means, and can themselves be the source of just about any monster-centric or conspiracy-related myth you choose.

And if you want to figure out what a betweener is, you may have to go inside it, which feels like a very “2001: A Space Odyssey plus Call of Cthulhu” moment waiting to happen.

Corpse-Kissers

Apart from a great name, corpse-kissers are both gross and creepy:

These are black centipede-like insects that invade corpses, reproducing rapidly as they eat the organs and bones inside. Leaving only the husk of outer flesh, they continue to multiply until they form a tightly packed mass.

Ewwww.[2] In the best way! But it gets better:

Static stimulates corpse-bugs to secrete their precious fluid. They thrive on the sound of radios tuned between stations and televisions showing “snow.”

I love these dudes. I also love the adventure seed “Fingered,” which accompanies them: All Secret Service agents, and many other spooks, are actually corpse-kissers. But why? And to what end? I’d play that campaign.

Darklings

Beings connected to the “darksome” — living darkness — the darklings harvest human organs. Not that weird, right?

The darksome becomes stronger when it can focus its power through human viscera. As it breathes through stolen lungs, pumps blood through stolen hearts, and twitches stolen muscles, it gains power in the world, which it transfers to the darklings.

Darklings replace their victims’ organs with “shadow” versions, fully functional — and nicely baffling for, say, a PC doctor who encounters a patient with one of these shadow-organs.

Lodgers

Another innocuous name, another killer concept:

A lodger is a sentient, insubstantial being that takes control of an inhabited structure to survive — a “haunted house.” The inhabited structure (a house, hotel, castle, RV, etc.) becomes the lodger’s body.

I love this explanation for haunted places — and how great it is that you can have a haunted RV? And like the best monsters in CotN, the lodger has another layer: As it consumes the emotions of those inside it (the more intense, the better), you track that in percentile terms.

Every time it hits 100%, it gets a new psychic ability and the counter resets. The older the haunted house, the worse the hauntings become.

Mooring trees

Mooring trees like to strike deals with murderers. What sort of deals?

The name comes from their ability to act as a supernatural anchor for anyone who strikes the deal — if the person commits murder, he can be instantly transported back to the tree.

That’d make a great hook for a string of “disappearing murderers,” an unsolved chain of serial killings, or a one-off monster of the week session. It’s a versatile concept, and I like it a lot.

(Artists are credited in the book, but not by image)

I can’t recommend GURPS Creatures of the Night (paid link) without reservation — many of the monsters don’t really grab me, and it’s overlong in places. But some of the creatures in this book are just sublime.

The best ones (and there are more than five I’d put in this category) have a strong, unique concept underpinned by just the right amount of depth and complexity, and the length of the write-ups gives them room to breathe.

Just writing up the five I like best has filled my head with ideas I’d love to use in a horror game.

[1] Twilight, at most.

[2] The Husk of Outer Flesh would make a great band name.

Categories
Books Tabletop RPGs

Steam locomotives powered by burning mummies (not real, but a fun idea)

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.).

“There were never steam locomotives powered by mummies” 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!

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 (paid link) 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?

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

The ripperbox: Rippers Resurrected as a sandbox campaign

My booty from the Rippers Resurrected Kickstarter came in on Tuesday, and I’ve had a chance to spend a bit of time with all three books. As is so often the case, my first thought was, “How well would Rippers work as a sandbox?

All of the ingredients are there, and the hook is so damned sexy — I suspect the answer is “really, really well.”

From lodges to social status mechanics to calling in favors, the setting deftly hooks into the system to add mechanical weight to fun things the PCs would be likely to do anyway. And the setting itself, with rippertech (bits of monsters you extract and graft onto yourself) and a delightful “kitchen sink” approach to Victorian-era monster hunting, is just fantastic.

The books

The Rippers Resurrected line kicks off with three books and a screen. The books are the Player’s Guide (paid link),  Game Master’s Handbook (paid link), and Frightful Expeditions (paid link).

If this sandbox — “ripperbox” — were a hearty meal, the meat would be in the Player’s Guide, the potatoes would be in the Game Master’s Guide, and the gravy would be in Frightful Expeditions.

All three books are gorgeous: full-color, great artwork, clean layout and design, lovely graphic novel format, and available in hardcover (limited) and softcover (unlimited). Like most SW settings, the core rules (paid link) are also needed to play.[1]

For context

I’ve played two city-based, sandbox, supernatural horror campaigns in the past few years:

  • A Dresden Files RPG (paid link) campaign in which the PCs came together to clean up Dresdenverse Boston, which was dominated by witches and snake-people. (This one also involved round-robin GMing and used Microscope (paid link) to gin up our version of Boston.)
  • A Hunter: The Reckoning (paid link) game where the PCs were mortal monster hunters in the World of Darkness version of San Francisco, wildly outclassed by all of its myriad horrors. This one was dark, and mixed “here’s tonight’s adventure hook” sessions with pure sandbox “we, the players, are going to do This Thing That Interests Us” sessions.

Both of those experiences inform how I’m thinking about a possible ripperbox, as does the setup for Rippers itself: proactive PCs, a home base, and a world full of evil that needs smiting — plus many, many ways for the PCs to get themselves in trouble.

Ripperbox ingredients

Rippers Resurrected assumes you want plotted adventures, and offers a wealth of support — including a complete Plot Point campaign — for that mode of play. I don’t want that, so for me most of that support exists as imagination fuel and ready-made resources for sandbox play. Which is great! I’m happy to have it; that’s why I bought all three books.

(There’s no artist credit accompanying the image, but I love this illustration of a Ripper lodge.)

In terms of ripperbox ingredients, here’s what jumps straight out at me (with each element’s book, or books, of origin in parentheses):

  • That sexy, sexy hook (Player’s Guide): In Rippers, the PCs are monster hunters in the late 19th century, balancing their role as fighters of evil with their place in Victorian society. There are different factions of Rippers, and pretty much any classic monster you can think of is out there somewhere, doing evil.
  • Lodges (Player’s Guide): Each group of Rippers, including the PCs, once they’re Seasoned, has a lodge — their home base. Whenever the PCs earn an Advance, they each also earn a Lodge Point; those are spent upgrade the lodge with labs, workshops, etc. A home base with a base-building mechanic is pure gold in a sandbox game, and the lodge system is clever. There are sample lodges in this book, plus more in the other two books.
  • Status and favors (Player’s Guide): What do PCs do? Get themselves into trouble, often while helping people. Both of those things involve one’s status in Victorian society, and that in turn brings favors into play. Help someone (particularly if they’re all fancy), and you earn Favors; do something scandalous, and you have to spend Favors to smooth things over. You can also call in Favors to get help from others. Tying things that will already happen in a sandbox into a fun mechanic which presents further hooks for adventure is a fantastic way to glue things together.
  • Lots of monsters (Game Master’s Handbook, Frightful Expeditions): If it’s found in classical literature (Dracula, Frankenstein’s monster, Jekyll and Hyde), the real world (Jack the Ripper), a pulp yarn (mummies, evil wizards), or a Hammer Horror film (skeletons!), it’d fit right into the Rippers setting — and the stats are probably in one of these two books. That makes it dead simple to populate the world with threats. SW is on the outer edge of my personal sweet spot for mechanical complexity, so having monsters already created for me is a big plus.
  • Adventure generators (Game Master’s Handbook): The GMH includes a chart for random encounters during travel (for example: “Fortuitous Find: Someone on the trip has something the heroes want. How they get it is up to them; just decide how they learn of the object.“), and there’s a whole section on rolling up different kinds of adventures. In a ripperbox, I’d recast these as adventure hooks, give the PCs lots of ways to learn about them, and too many of them to possibly follow up on them all — and not plot any outcomes, of course.
  • Lots of world info (Game Master’s Handbook, Frightful Expeditions): There’s an assumption of globe-trotting built into Rippers (although I think it’d work great as a city-based game with only occasional travel, too), and that generates a need for concise, gameable setting material — but not too much of it. Day After Ragnarok (paid link) nails this a bit better than Rippers Resurrected, providing so very much in so few pages, but the looser approach here works quite well. If there’s an iconic pulp location, it’s likely to be covered here through the Rippers “lens.”
  • Rippertech and chances to get in trouble (Player’s Guide, a bit in the Game Master’s Handbook): The titular setting element, rippertech, is the thing that originally drew me to the setting: The PCs can literally harvest the monsters they kill and impant those bits in themselves. Want improved poison resistance? Replace some of your organs with preserved organs from a mummy. Want tentacles that can burst from your chest to attack your foes? Rip ’em out of a demon and stick ’em on in there. There are costs, of course, both social and mechanical — and that’s what makes it work. Giving the players plenty of tempting opportunities to get themselves into trouble, which have a variety of meaningful consequences in the game mechanics, is sandbox gold.[2]

It’d be fun to play other ways, too — the setting is just so good! — but for me, Rippers Resurrected cries out for the ripperbox treatment. All three main books (all paid links: Player’s Guide, Game Master’s Handbook, and Frightful Expeditions) would be useful for making it into a ripperbox, although in a pinch you could get by with just the Player’s Guide and some old-fashioned research into locations and monsters.

However you use it, Rippers Resurrected is awesome. It’s a quirky setting that nicely balances existing material with new elements, giving you lots to work with, and it does so in a way that leverages the crunchiness of Savage Worlds to give player agency meaningful mechanical consequences.

[1] And at a mere $10, it would be a crime not to coil-bind that sucker, making it one of the best deals in gaming.

[2] It’s also a big part of why, despite preferring lighter rules, I’d probably run a ripperbox with Savage Worlds: SW has enough mechanical complexity to give grafting demon organs some mechanical heft, and connects that heft to other parts of the rules — without bogging itself down in the process.

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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 (paid link) 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.