Monday, March 28, 2011

Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu is one of my favourite RPG’s of all time. For me it hits the right balance between horror and suspense, between character focus and realism, system simplicity and enough crunch to be satisfying. But even I have to admit –the grim reputation of the game aside – the anatomy of a standard Call of Cthulhu adventure leaves much to be desired.

The adventure normally starts with a hook, often these are derivative or poorly thought out. There is an underlying assumption that the PC’s will choose to investigate a mystery despite their better judgement. Modern scenarios make better use of in media res to lever the action, but the difficulty remains - if you let players generate their own characters, how do you involve them without either railroading, or shattering player reality? Why do these characters continue to work together? There is a fine balance between the collective suspension of disbelief, and getting a viable group of characters to work together.

Next, the investigation phase. Old-School investigation games are like contrived intelligence tests. The players must ‘investigate’ following clues to get closer to the source of the mystery. If they don’t think of something, then they may miss out on a vital clue, and thus either get stalled, or be unprepared for the final scene. Often scenarios incorporate author assumptions that are flat-out unrealistic or unlikely, making further work for the GM. Options do exist in the game for the GM to prompt action, but these may well spoil the GM’s sense of reality. In addition, the ultimate result of such investigation hinges on some kind of successful skill test – a mechanical and luck driven intervention – in order to secure the information.

Obviously it’s in the GM’s interests for the PC’s to obtain the clues they need, but if such clues are made readily available, you once again risk the shared collective suspension of disbelief. Games like Trail of Cthulhu have highlighted this problem and made strong inroads on this aspect of the game, but the fact remains that making the investigation phase both challenging and rewarding without being boring or contrived requires considerable experience and skill and a high degree of flexibility on the part of the GM.

Finally, the conclusion – usually a confrontation with some action and probably some kind of strange monster. Again, the plausible ‘excuses’ the characters might have for venturing into the basement/secret chamber/old warehouse, and risking life and limb are probably thin at best. Considering the brutal nature of combat, and the imperviousness of many Mythos beasts, and the potential for losing a character to sudden temporary insanity - it’s likely to be a sticky end for some or all of the characters. If run straight, such a conclusion might be disheartening, un-empowering and feel like the work leading up to the climax was a waste of time. An experienced GM can work to make such a conclusion exciting, dangerous and meaningful, but I’ve come to realise that you’ve really got to have experienced Call of Cthulhu as a player first, in order to understand this fine balance.

And then, inevitably, the debrief – what was really going on? Why was it occurring and what could the investigators have done about it? Often frustrating, and an aspect of the game that really reinforces the old-school values of Cthulhu – the players encountered the plot, like some kind of giant, fast moving river, and were rapidly swept to the end, without really understanding what was happening or why. Sometimes these revelations are illuminating, but I always feel that they’d be so much better if they could be drawn out during the game, rather than afterwards.

I don’t want you to think I’m picking on Call of Cthulhu – many other games suffer from these kinds of issues, but what I conclude from this analysis is that most Call of Cthulhu games, if run as written, leave a lot to be desired, and have the potential to actually spoil the enjoyment of the players. To shape the adventure into the flexible and adaptive form it needs to be in order to negate such issues, requires a considerable degree of experience and skill. I guess, for my money, the problem is that this kind of consideration and discussion is not something that forms a core part of the game, and is certainly not an aspect of most published adventures.

Thursday, March 10, 2011

One Year Old Today

Today TPK turns one!
Over the last 12 months 45 posts have been made here including reviews of games, actual play reports, ‘con reports, promoting published materials and my own musings on the nature of gaming, and how it can be improved. A total of 178 comments have been made to challenge, support, edify or inform these posts. Thanks to everyone who has been a part of the discussion, or even just idly skimmed the material.

The most viewed post? Oddly, One Night as A SuperVillain – Part 2, weighing in at 147 views, with Kapcon 20 - Part 2 the runner up with 107 views. In total so far TPK has had around 3,500 page views.

My favourite posts have been those about the nature of gaming, particularly in a 'con setting:

So looking ahead, what for the next 12 months? Well it’d be a brave person to predict this blog will continue at the same pace, but my gaming goals for the next year are:

- Continue to run my Kingsport Tales campaign.
- Run Masks of Nyarlathotep – Pulp Edition.
- Run a Rogue Trader mini-series.
- Run a Superhero mini-series.
- Attend upcoming Wellington tabletop roleplaying conventions.
- Write and publish EPOCH
- Write and submit a scenario for Fear Itself
- Write and submit another scenario for ICONS
- Write and submit a monograph or scenario for Call of Cthulhu

What about you?

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Be A Hero

Last week I wrote an adventure for ICONSAdamant Entertainment’s Superhero Roleplaying system. This wasn’t something I’d planned, or even considered, before doing it - I’ve played just one ICONS adventure, and never written up a supers adventure before. However, during the e-mails about setting up the RPGNow Bundle, Gareth-Michael Skarka suggested that we produce a “Be a Hero” New Zealand ICONS adventure with proceeds going to Christchurch earthquake relief – an idea I thought was fantastic!

On Wednesday the 23rd I visited Morgue for a brainstorming session, and left his place with a draft outline. We wanted something over the top (4-colour) which dealt with New Zealand in a way that was authentic and respectful, and also fitted within the genre. The feedback from Gareth was that our draft outline was a little ambitious for the time available. So, on Thursday I sat down and wrote the first draft, condensing the action to a single region and two scenes. Morgue kicked into high-gear on Friday fleshing out the characters and providing system details, then it was on to Cam for editing and the Adamant team for art and layout.

Our finished product, The Aotearoa Gambit is now available from RPGNow and DriveThruRpg, with all proceeds going to real New Zealand heroes who were in the thick of the Christchurch Earthquake response – St. John’s. Thanks to Morgue, Cam Banks, Dan Houser and Gareth-Michael Skarka for making this happen.


Adamant Entertainment is proud to present an adventure for ICONS: Superpowered Roleplaying produced especially as a charity fundraiser for St. John New Zealand.

St. John New Zealand are volunteer first responders and health care providers, currently operating the remaining welfare centre currently operating in the aftermath of the Christchurch earthquake. This 25-page ICONS adventure was written and edited by New Zealanders Dale Elvy, Morgan Davie and Cam Banks, who join Adamant Entertainment in donating all proceeds from this product, in perpetuity, to St John New Zealand.

The Aotearoa Gambit is a fast-paced adventure which takes place in New Zealand (Aotearoa) and after some initial scene setting, presents the players with 3 possible encounters, which they can choose to resolve in any order. Each encounter is structured to have possible alternate solutions, other than brute force, and also to increase in difficulty if not resolved immediately, making some tough choices for the heroes. These encounters should ultimately lead to a final scene which features a showdown with the main villain – an encounter which will determine the fate of an entire nation!

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Thank You

The RPGNow and DriveThruRPG Earthquake Relief bundle to support the New Zealand Red Cross raised US$46,125, buying just over NZ$60,000! This is a spectacular and special thing for our community of imagineers. Although Morgue has downplayed his role, I think he deserves a special vote of thanks for helping to organise this, as do Gregor Hutton, Malcolm Craig, Paul at Contested Ground Studios and Gareth-Michael Skarka. The willingness to help and goodwill on display during the e-mails to get this up and running, was humbling.

Most of all I'd like to pay tribute to all the publishers that helped make this happen - especially Kiwi publishers like Jenni and Red-Brick. Finally, this entire effort is due to the amazing efforts of Matt McElroy at, and of course, eveyone who purchased the bundle.

Gareth, Morgue and I have been working on another RPG effort to support some of the first responders to the Christchurch earthquake - more about that soon.