Sunday, December 29, 2013

Run A Game At Kapcon

Kapcon needs more games!   If you're thinking of trying out a new game, or published scenario, or even something of your own creation, Kapcon will supply you with a dedicated room, players and promotion for your offering.  Just sign up here.  If you are interested in offering a session of EPOCH please drop me a line, as I'm offering some additional support for folks who run my game.

Kapcon has been a staple of the Wellington, and the New Zealand convention gaming scene for a fair while now, and seems to grow larger with each passing year.  I've attended Kapcon for many years and had a great time - you can read about my past experiences here.  I hope to see you there in a couple of weeks time...

Friday, December 6, 2013

A Nightmare Before Christmas

I recently released the EPOCH Christmas Special Silent Night, a scenario which is a collaboration with the esteemed Morgan Davie, with all the proceeds going to charity.  This is the 16th published EPOCH scenario, and as you’d expect, it has a distinctly Christmas flavour.
The playtest of this scenario was a lot of fun.  The players decided that a family group would be appropriate for a Christmas scenario, so they created some excellent characters including:
Rose McIntyre - Grandmother and family matriarch, Rose had recently buried her husband and wanted to take her two adult sons and Granddaughter back to Patterson's Fork for Christmas (Secret: Rose has terminal caner and only a year to live)
Patrick McIntyre - A protective father (son of Rose, father of Abigail) and computer software engineer (Secret: Patrick's wife has been kidnapped, and the kidnappers are holding her for ransom, forcing him to hack into bank accounts)
Philip McIntyre - Patrick's brother (son of Rose), who recently abandoned his white collar job and embraced an eastern philosophy which he seeks to share with everyone he meets (Secret: Philip is Abigail's real Dad, but abandoned his old life when Patrick's wife wouldn't leave him once she became pregnant)
Abigal McIntyre - An teenage girl. (Secret: She has a tattoo and belly button piercing)
Nazomi - A Japanese foreign exchange student living with Abigail and Patrick (Secret: She was forced to come to America by her family to remove the influence of Japanese gangsters).
As you might imagine, a great deal of the scenario was spent exploring these stories against the backdrop of the horror unfolding around them.  From the initial cast, only Rose and Abigail survived to secure a total victory, allowing them to narrate their own ending for their characters.  Abigail opened a tattoo parlour near a large West Coast beach and got her father and uncles face tattooed on her back.  Rose visited the graves of her husband and sons to lay flowers, both buried next to where her own headstone was already prepared…
It's stories like that that make running EPOCH an enjoyable and unique experience every time.  And while I’m talking about EPOCH, let me point you in the direction of Mash’s excellent analysis on activating players.

Thursday, November 14, 2013

The Stars Are (Coming) Right

Following my post about new Horror Games I thought it might be appropriate to post about the Call of Cthulhu renaissance that seems to be underway.  I’ve previously posted about both how I enjoy Call of Cthulhu, but also about how it has many old-school elements, which if played as written, are likely to create a less than optimal experience for many players. 

What is clear is that there is an enduring fan-base who enjoy playing the game and will support it despite some of these drawbacks.  I have personally been surprised at the consistent number of downloads of my free Call of Cthulhu scenario Sundown set in the Old West (it has been downloaded around 600 times via DriveThruRPG over the last 2 years – not bad considering Sundown is also available for free on the Chaosium website).

2013 has seen a number of interesting developments.  Firstly, the licensed Call of Cthulhu products have continued in leaps and bounds – with products like “Tales of the Sleepless City” from Miskatonic River Press, “Island of Ignorance” from Golden Goblin press and the previously mentioned World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour and Achtung! Cthulhu having maintained a high standard of quality.

In addition, Chaosium have been pretty active, with a number of new Call of Cthulhu releases including scenario collection “House of R’yleh”, stand-alone scenario “Canis Mysterium”  and new setting and scenario collection “Atomic Age Cthulhu”.

The excellent analysis via Yog-Sothoth provided by Dean (from Adelaide) shows that the number of scenarios for Call of Cthulhu published in books has jumped markedly in 2013, reaching a point near the high-water mark of the 1990’s. 

When you then consider the picture for 2014, with the release of the very successful Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarter, and the refresh of the epic Horror on the Orient Express campaign, as well as the new Cthulhu Britannica: London (which is currently funded and on track to deliver and old-style premium box set), it seems that the stars may finally be right for Call of Cthulhu to enjoy an upsurge in popularity. 

More kickstarters have been hinted at, refreshing other old campaigns, Pulp Cthulhu might allow a more heroic style of play, drawing in those turned-off by the purist character path (a downward spiral into insanity), and the new edition should make the game more accessible to players.

It will be interesting to see if these new products actually result in a spread of Call of Cthulhu, introducing new players to the game, or if they actually reflect publishers finding more effective methods of tapping into the existing fan-base, and leveraging an aging gaming community who now have more disposable income which they are willing to spend on direct sales. 

When I look at my local gaming community, there is not a single Call of Cthulhu scenario currently offered in the major local gaming convention in January, nor was there a Call of Cthulhu offering at the Horror Convention in October.   Perhaps this will change over time, and perhaps more gamers will be inspired to pull a Call of Cthulhu scenario off the shelf in 2014, and give it a try… or perhaps contemporary gamers expect more than a mere makeover of such a traditional game to fire their imagination and Call of Cthulhu is still dreaming in the dark?

Sunday, November 3, 2013

New and Noteworthy Horror

Over on NZRaG Luke has begun his annual ranking of the top games & products of 2013.  When I looked at my own top picks, all of them were horror.  I found that little surprising - I don't exclusively read horror games, and I feel that several other products I've purchased have been of high particularly quality (e.g. Doctor Source Books for the Doctor Who Adventure in Time and Space RPG, The Laundry and Mutants & Masterminds products).

So, what (other than EPOCH) made the top of my list?

1. Eternal Lies.  The true test of a campaign like this is actually running it, but the sheer quality, size and attention to detail evident in this product are amazing.  Then, to top it off, Pelgrane offer additional support, including a soundtrack, map, comprehensive conversion notes for Call of Cthulhu, plus NPC portraits.  Truly a masterful product.

2. World War Cthulhu: Darkest Hour.  So far I only have this in PDF, so can't comment on the quality of the physical book but this seems like an interesting take on Delta Green style gaming in WWII, and the first in a series of Cthulhu war books. I'm not sure how easily this setup would mesh with the history of WWII - history buffs often have high levels of expectation about integrating games like this into the context of such a well-known conflict, and may therefore have trouble suspending disbelief - for example if the characters fail to prevent the horror from manifesting, how does this not have a visible impact on the war?  Interestingly with the parallel release of Achutung! Cthulhu you can choose whether you prefer a pulp or purist take on Cthulhu in WWII.

3. Esoterrorists 2nd Edition a refresh of the Gumshoe system in this clever and compelling contemporary horror setting.  I love the idea of the Esoterrorists setting, albeit not wildly dissimilar to Delta Green or The Laundry.  However, some of the scenarios have been very well executed, and this is a game I'd like to run more of.  I find the basic Gumshoe combat system a little clunky, so i'd be interested to see how this edition improves on that.

Sunday, October 20, 2013

Fright Night VII

On the weekend I attended Fright Night 7, a one night ‘con which offers a range of horror themed games.  This was my first time attending the ‘con where I wasn’t either running the ‘con, or facilitating games, so I was looking forward to enjoying the total player experience.
Round 1: Vampire Weekend
"Four friends, united in their love of vampire movies, gather annually for a weekend of watching movies, excessive drinking and catching up on each others lives. They each take turns choosing the location for this weekend of decadence. This year the gathering will take place at an isolated house in the mountains. This year will be different."
Mike opened this game by referencing how there were some components in the game borrowed from EPOCH including a ‘flashback’ card, and his own ‘timely intervention’ and ‘lucky escape’ cards, as well as 3 hit points.  The game asked for the players to generate characters at the table (i.e. name, job and relationship to one another, and significant person from your past), and also asked the players to establish the setting themselves, with the caveat that the characters gathered annually to watch vampire movies in a remote location with no communication to the outside world.  Mike ran the game fast and free, with a minimum of preparation, which enabled him to tailor the scenario to the characters.
The flipside is that I’m not sure a GM less experienced than he could easily replicate this game, and the lack of structure did lead to some uncertainty from the players and create an initial load of creative work which might turn some folks off.  That said, with the players gathered around the table, this didn’t prove a problem, and we soon had a dysfunctional group of friends from Wellington who regularly travel to a huge, luxurious, and very well stocked batch in the Marlborough Sounds.
As the other characters were almost all fairly strong alpha types, I soon realised my character ‘Caleb’ needed to play up some vulnerabilities in order for the horror to have a deeper impact for all the characters, and thus he started to freak out early at a series of events which, although benign, would foreshadow the coming horror.  The main body of the game (which took most of the allotted time) was therefore spent with the characters exploring their relationships through a haze of alcohol, barbecue and vampire movies, punctuated by Caleb occasionally freaking out.
This was a fun time, and the interplay with the other characters was good, although I think the characters might have been even stronger, and the relationships more fraught, if they had spent more time developing their shared past together, and explored some vulnerabilities to heighten the drama – e.g. no flashbacks were played as there was no explicit reward or benefit for doing so (in hindsight, using Mike’s system, I might have started the characters with 1 hit point, and then rewarded players who framed meaningful flashbacks with an additional hit point or card).  This meant it was it was a little hard to imagine why this collection of characters would chose to spend any time together, let alone going away for the weekend together to watch movies.  However, each character was fairly well developed and interesting.
As Mike said after the game, the true horror manifested much later than expected, leaving the end of the game a little rushed.  The shy girl from Caleb’s new-age-church background was found in the extensive wine cellar and attacked or brutalised all of the characters, although ultimately the characters escaped their brush with the horror and fled into the night.  The game was a lot of fun, and despite the erratic pacing, it felt like a complete movie experience (although more art-house than slasher in style).
Round 2: Silenced Night
"When a major property developer shows up on your doorstep two days before Christmas offering triple overtime rate for a couple of weeks work, you don’t say no. Even if the property in question is a town that’s been forgotten for decades in the snowy northern reaches of Maine. You definitely don’t stop and smirk to yourself as you pack, and think how much this whole situation is starting to sound like the plot to a bad horror movie.
But you should have.
As your friends are dropping around you and the snow is turning red, do you have what it takes to survive where thousands of drunken teenagers before you have failed?
Its time to find out…"
This game used a new system called ‘Slasher’, created by Aaron which is intended to replicate a slasher movie experience (you can currently buy the PDF here via Drivethru).  The system is straightforward, there are 4 basic stats, and you then choose (or are assigned) an archetype (hottie, hardcore, coward etc.) which modifies the mix of stats slightly. The system then works through a series of opposed tests, with the expectation that the characters will be eliminated frequently and new characters will ‘arrive’.  Characters also accrue ‘marked for death’ (MFD) points which are used by the GM.
The system seemed good and simple in practise, but the application of the dice mechanic was hindered, in my opinion, by a lack of clarity about target numbers, or what the GM had rolled (GM rolls seemed to be secret).  Accordingly it was never clear when you rolled an average result if this meant that your character would be killed, badly wounded or escape. In my opinion, had this been more transparent I think the game would have had an additional level of tension.  
The character archetypes seemed a little open to interpretation, so it might have been nice to have some other elements to help illustrate the GM’s idea of how “Hardcore” differed from “Hero” and these differed from “Jock” for example.  Rapidly churning through characters can be a fun experience though, and put me in mind of playing  Purgatory 13 – Descent to Abraxus In my opinion the weakness of many survival horror games is that they fail to apply horror movie style consequences, by eliminating characters - Slasher does this, and I think that and the simple, but evocative system is a real strength. 
The scenario setup was that a company had purchased a large abandoned town, buried by  perpetual snow in Maine(??), and was scrambling a large team of surveyors, engineers and historians to comb through the town (which had been abandoned since the 1920’s) and prepare for excavation.  It was a setup that reminded me strongly of the opening scenes of Aliens vs Predator, and so it seemed clear that the characters would soon meet a grisly fate.  As it turned out, the horror began much sooner than I expected, as Emma’s first character suffered a serious injury almost as soon as we entered the town.
The highlight of the game (for me) was the terrific characters generated from the sparse backgrounds provided.  Igor and Andrew did an amazing mean-girls double act while Leonie and Emma simultaneously did a fair impression of misogynist males, however just as we were getting to see more of these characters, there were brutal eliminations and new characters entered.  These included Andrew’s action focussed bad-ass, Igor’s hapless narcolepsy prone historian, who was killed in short order by Emma's hardcore yokel “Spare Rib,” and then there was the memorable transient grifter mother and daughter combo played by Igor and Leonie.
For my own part, after several eliminations, my most enduring character was the ‘cowardly’ Professor Green, who acted in much the same way as movie academics, explaining what was occurring as though he was an expert, but without providing any greater insight than was already evident.  When Green actually realised what was going on in the town, and saw an opportunity to seize immortality for himself as part of a ritual to thwart the source of the horror, so betrayed the other characters in the final scenes – and suffered his just deserts as a consequence.
I had great fun, and it was good to talk to Aaron after the game about his game, and the scenario, and to hear how other runs of the game had gone before.
So, the games were great.  The ‘con was smoothly run, the venue was neat and I had a good time.  Roll on Fright Night 8!
Previous posts about Fright Night:

Thursday, October 17, 2013

What Tabletop Games can learn from LARP

I had been planning a post on tabletop gaming versus live-action gaming, then Jenni went and stole my thunder.  However, the more I thought about it, the more I realised that what I actually wanted to explore was what lessons I think tabletop games can learn from theatre-form LARP.

LARP killed the tabletop star?
In my local roleplaying community LARP has been on the rise over recent years, and tabletop games and events have suffered diminished attendance when tabletop and LARP events clash.  Some tabletop GMs I know have complained that this has meant some of the more creative and immersive gamers in the community are now less likely to pull up a chair at their tabletop games at a ‘con when offered a LARP in the same slot.  Certainly the LARP community has been growing and flourishing in a way that the local tabletop community has not.  Why is this?  What makes LARP more appealing to some players than a tabletop experience?

There are many differences; some people enjoy costuming and set dressing (perhaps better termed 'immersion'), others prefer romance or intrigue plots, which are more elegantly executed in a live setting with a larger cast, than across a table with the GM playing multiple NPCs.  There’s not much tabletop can do to compete with this, but I do think there are some other things that tabletop can learn from the LARP experience.

Character Agency
In most parlour style LARPs players are given a high level of character agency.  They usually have a background, contacts and goals to try and achieve during the game.  From that point on, the player has almost complete control of their character.   There is usually little or no GM moderation, and often no interaction with a GM at all.   The players are effectively in charge of creating their own fun. This is a pretty big challenge to traditional tabletop games, although much less so to indie games.

This freedom can be very liberating, and I think the thing that tabletop games can take away from this is that many players enjoy a high degree of freedom in the way they explore their characters, and interact with plot.  To my mind this is pretty much the opposite of the ‘railroading’ common in many traditional tabletop outings.  Although I don’t think this means traditional games should move away from railroading entirely, I do think that there is cause to examine just how many assumptions, set-piece scenes and pre-determined outcomes feature in tabletop scenarios.  Do the characters genuinely have agency? If not, can some elements be constructed more flexibly to allow other outcomes?  Ideally a scenario should have a number of moving pieces, which can be added, removed, shifted, or replaced with entirely new character-generated pieces as required.

Rules Lite
Systems and rules are often extremely light in LARP.  In general they follow a principal that the rules should be secondary to interaction between characters and have as light a touch on the game as possible.  I think this is a principal that would enhance tabletop games for many players.  To be clear, some player like rules, mechanics and dice irrespective of the game or setting, but others are much more focused on story character and drama.  If you want your game to appeal to these players, the rules should support and enhance the game, not shackle and slow it. 

There are so many different rules and hacks available, that it should be possible to find the right kind of rules, for the right kind of game.  For example, in Trail of Cthulhu, a game about following clues, characters spend a relevant investigative point, mark it off their sheets, and narrate how it manifests, automatically earning the clue.  The system supports players rapidly accessing clues, and building some narrative details into the experience, while balancing their actions against a finite pool.  In EPOCH, during a Challenge Round players choose the level of injury or trauma their character sustains from cards in their hand, then narrate how this comes to pass  -the focus is on the impact of the challenge for the character, not the mechanical resolution to achieve this outcome.  In wrestling game Piledrivers and Powerbombs, ring scenes are simple and fast flowing, with players drawing playing cards, then holding or folding – promoting a narrative style combat without slowing the game for mathematical calculations, or the translation of actions into game-terms to apply a resolution.

So the question I think a tabletop GM should ask themselves of a scenario is: ‘what is the core activity of this scenario for the characters?’ then ensure the system being used is optimised or streamlined to enhance and support this activity.  It can be tough – we all have our favourite systems, but unless your players share this love, it is worth at least investigating other possibilities.

Sharing the Spotlight
Due to the high level of character agency in LARP, and the ability for multiple conversations and encounters to happen simultaneously, the amount of down-time in LARP can be pretty low.  Compare this with a tabletop game of say, 5 players where it is unlikely that more than 1 or 2 characters are narrating actions or speaking at once, and often the GM is speaking and all of the players are listening.  In this situation there is a high level of down-time for some players – particularly if there are folks in the game who enjoy the spotlight, and others who are quieter or more retiring. 

In some games, a less description from a player equates to a lower levels of action involving their character, meaning that both player and character are less involved in the scenario if they are overshadowed by others.  Both traditional and some indie games have tried to correct this balance through mechanics (e.g. combat rounds & character-specific powers or story points & narrative negotiations).  Nevertheless, there is generally going to be a higher degree of downtime in a tabletop game for the players.

In my view, the key to achieving a better balance is through game management by the GM – which is to say being aware of the amount of spotlight time each player/character is getting, and trying to balance this as much as possible.  In addition, encouraging the players to share or build on one-another’s narration, and interact more is likely to reduce downtime and mean the players are more engaged.  It’s not always easy, but it is an important step in making sure all the players are having a great time.

Thursday, October 10, 2013

One Year as a Micro-Publisher

This October marks the one year anniversary of my entry to the world of RPG publishing.  It has been an interesting 12 months, and I thought it might be useful for those interested in RPG publishing to post about what I did, what I didn’t do, and why.

To set the scene, my game EPOCH is about one-shot survival horror.  It is a traditional game (in that it has a GM and pre-written scenarios) but it doesn’t use dice, instead using a card based mechanism, controlled by the players, to determine character survival.  It doesn’t have a specific setting, rather it is a game about movie style horror.  A fuller description is here.  In addition to publishing in PDF form, the game also features print-on-demand softcover books and card decks. 

Things I Did

Regular Releases.  Taking a page from Fiasco, I wanted to maintain the momentum of EPOCH from the outset.  Therefore, I observed a fairly regular release schedule, which hopefully illustrated my commitment to the game and expanded the support to would-be purchasers, increasing the scenario count from 3 at launch, to 15.  Here is the schedule of the last 12 months:
  • October 2012 – EPOCH PDF
  • November 2012 – Fever Pitch Scenario PDF
  • December 2012 – Road Trip Scenario PDF
  • February 2013 – EPOCH Book and Cards Revised to include new art and formatting
  • March 2013 – EPOCH Print on Demand Book & Card Deck
  • March 2013 – Frontier of Fear Scenario Collection PDF
  • April 2013 – The Cold Shore Scenario PDF
  • June 2013 – Printer Friendly Cards Released for all PDF products
  • August 2013 – Frontier of Fear Print on Demand Book & Card Deck
  • September 2013 – War Stories Scenario Collection PDF
  • October 2013 – Shadows of Yesterday Scenario PDF
  • October 2013 – War Stories Print on Demand Book & Card Deck
Gave it away for free.  Right from the outset I wanted to give my rules maximum exposure and allow people to try them without having to pay anything.  Therefore, I released 3 scenarios, each with quick start rules and cards.  Did it work?  I really don’t know.  People have certainly been downloading the free products (free scenarios have been downloaded at a rate 3 times greater than EPOCH sales), but I haven’t heard much discussion of the free products, or received any reviews.  I assume people have downloaded them for a future rainy day…

Solicited Reviews.  Early on I identified independent and established folks who had reviewed other games, and approached a number to see if they’d be interested in reviewing EPOCH.  A number were and I was very pleased to receive some very positive reviews (collected here).

Talked about the game and why I created it.  I was approached for a couple of interviews (here and here), and had one of my posts on this blog about the creation of EPOCH incorporated into the RPG Review.

Ran my Game.  During this period I took EPOCH to local roleplaying conventions including Kapcon, Fright Night and Buckets of Dice.

Used the Marketing Materials.  I fully availed myself of the publisher points and marketing options available via DriveThruRPG and RPGNow.  Most successful were sending out e-mails to customers about new releases and being featured in the e-mail newsletter.  Less effective (for me at least) were the banner and featured product options.

Discounted my game.  I took part in a number of sales during the 12 month period, and these did generate additional sales.

Maintained a web presence.  I have a simple blog website for EPOCH, and post regularly there.  As people have pointed out to me this is not exactly an elegant site, and I don’t even have a dedicated URL, but it is easy to maintain, free and updated regularly.

Submitted the game for awards.  Being nominated for a clutch of ENnie awards significantly increased sales in my products.  Obviously being nominated was hugely gratifying and as submitting an electronic product is free, this was a pretty great outcome.  The flip side, of course, is that given my following, relative to other nominees, winning an award was pretty much out of the question.  But a pretty dream nonetheless.

Things I Didn’t Do

Actively talked about my game in online fora.  I don’t have much of a profile in online RPG communities, and so have no reputation to speak of.  Talking about your game in a forum where you have no reputation, and have made no previous contribution is pretty poor form (in my opinion).  This means that in the majority of online RPG communities there has been no discussion about EPOCH, and without this word-of-mouth it is hard for any game to grow a following.

Made a video.  One comment I have received from several people is that they understand the game, but want to see how it actually works in practise and a video of a game session or similar could be a major asset.  I have thought about the idea, but video editing and appearing on camera is not something I am excited about, so it hasn’t happened yet.

Utilise social media.  I haven’t utilised Facebook for EPOCH (and only recently experimented with G+), and accept that this might be denying easy access and free marketing to interested folks.  Social media isn’t something I’m personally interested in.  I do use Twitter for regular updates about the game, although I’m not sure many folks beyond my immediate circle of friends pay much attention to my tweets.

Ran my game at major international conventions.  I would have loved to attend major ‘cons overseas to run sessions of EPOCH, and show off the game.  Unfortunately the cost of travel abroad is simply too high to justify such an extravagance.  I approached some Australian RPG conventions on Sydney and Melbourne to see if they’d be interested in having me attend and run games, as flights across the Tasman are more manageable, but my e-mails went unanswered.

Kickstarted.  A Kickstarter was not really an option for me (as it is not yet available to folks in Australasia) and I have no significant reputation or license to cash-in on.

Sold my game through other channels.  I have yet to branch out to sell EPOCH through other channels (including direct sales) and I’m not sure if it’s likely to have much impact considering the work involved.

State of Play

So, what next?  I have more EPOCH products planned, and have a lot of confidence in the quality of the game, and its ability to deliver what it promises.  I have yet to facilitate a bad session of EPOCH (although as Marcus has said, this may be because playing any game with its creator is likely to be fun, and is no guarantee that others can replicate the experience).

In terms of future sales, I am fairly sure that I have yet to break into the collective consciousness of the mainstream international RPG community.   My game is very specific, and tailored for a unique market (single-session non-traditional survival horror). Without influential folks who relentlessly champion your game online, to their friends and gaming communities, I don’t think it’s possible to make this leap, and I don’t seem to have reached many people who are active in this context beyond NZ.

Can I reach these folks?  Perhaps.  My game has a lot of moving parts, and unless you play or run it, I think it is hard to envisage how everything comes together. And it is hard for me to convince these folks to take the time to do this when I have no credible means to reach them - especially as there are so many other games out there. 

The flip side of this argument (evidenced by the reviews and award nominations), is that I think EPOCH is a strong enough offering that, if you do manage to play or run it, it will convince you of its merits.  So, perhaps there is some future potential to break into the mainstream market.  I guess time will tell.

Please feel free to post any questions or comments.

Thursday, October 3, 2013

Favourite Monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos

As October rolls around my thoughts turn to Halloween.  This time last year, I was publishing EPOCH, my game of survival horror, and I’ll be posting here shortly about my thoughts on being a micro-publisher and publishing games one year on.  For now, to get warmed up for Halloween, let’s look at my favourite monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos.

There are many monsters of the Cthulhu Mythos – some derived directly from the work of Lovecraft, and others drawn from other sources. Indeed the venerable Ken Hite tells us there are 38 monsters listed in the Call of Cthulhu core rulebook, and a further 98 listed in the Malleus Monstrorum.

I’ve used many of these monsters when running games, and more besides, as many Call of Cthulhu scenarios like to introduce unique monsters of their own.  However, over the years I’ve come to be fond of some, more than others.

In my view a truly great Cthulhu Mythos monster has the ability to be terrifying, (not just in terms of mechanical San loss for the investigators, but also in the way in which it is encountered) and balances this either with either a mortality that puts it on a par with an armed human, or, it can be outrun if the investigators take to their heels.  Here are my top 5 creatures of the Cthulhu Mythos:

1. Bhyakee: A great stalwart of the game, the insectoid, winged Bhyakee can be used to stalk its prey (for example see ‘A Happy Family’ in Adventures in Arkham Country),  and can be a fearsome opponent for lightly armed investigators.  Even better, Bhyakee can be summoned and bound by investigators willing to plunge into the fearful tomes of the Mythos, serving as a potential assassin, or even a means of transport.

2. Ghouls: Ghouls are great.  They lurk beneath cities and towns, and sometimes even infiltrate society.  They are not necessarily deadly, but when encountered en-masse, or in their natural environment, they can be terrifying.  In addition they have a link to the underworld of the Dreamlands, livening any expedition into a ghoul warrens.  Then, of course, there’s that potential for human fascination and even devolution (see: Pickman’s Model).

3. Insects from Shaggi: A monster which hides inside people is a terrific idea.  There are several mythos monsters that do this, but these are my favourites.  Forcing their victims to perform terrible acts, any monster which promotes trepanation must be pretty terrible.  Several scenarios have made great use of these monsters, but my favourite remains Hobo Quest by Joseph Donaghue, which features in the Cthulhu Masters 05 monograph.

4. Dimensional Shambler:  A monster which can appear anywhere, and which drags its victims into another dimension?  Fantastic!  The shambler is great for stalking investigators and is a versatile foe, which emphasises the supernatural nature of the Mythos threat.

5. Shoggoth, what’s not to like about a bubbling, acidic creature that rolls like a monstrous freight train?  Okay, they're hunting cry is a little fruity, and because of their lethality the Shoggoth is often featured at the conclusion of scenarios, and can seem overpowering to players.  However, if you can manage some foreshadowing, and construct an environment which promotes investigator options, encounters need not be fatal. Surviving an encounter with a Shoggoth is a true badge of honour for any investigator.

Wednesday, September 25, 2013

The Art of Game Preparation

In my opinion, the essence of a good roleplaying game is preparation.  In the past I’ve discussed a some essential elements for any convention RPG, including constructing a solid pitch the role of chance in your game, constructing memorable scenes, and running action sequences.  Today I’ll look at some of the small, but essential elements that can really enhance a game experience, if you take the time to prepare them beforehand.  While I wrote this from the perspective of running a scenario at a convention, the same level of preparation also enhances any campaign:

A Pre-Flight Checklist – I don’t leave home without a one-page sheet which summarises everything I want to convey to the players from the moment they sit down at the table.   I've previously described this in detail here.  By setting this down in dot points I make sure I don’t forget anything important, or have to slow the pace of the game later to cover off something I’ve forgotten to mention from the beginning.  I find the list helps me structure what would otherwise be a bit of a rambling monologue.

Timekeeping – a watch or clock is essential.  It can be remarkably hard to keep a track of time when facilitating a game, and it is fairly crucial that you keep your game to time, and aren’t forced to rush through the final scenes.  Timing is not an exact science, and checking your watch will likely mean the players check theirs and start thinking about their next game, so I usually try and be discreet about it.  I’ve noticed (as a player) that often somewhere between a quarter and a third of the total time allocation is spent on initial introductions and explanations.  In a game where establishing the characters is important (Fiasco, Apoclypse World, EPOCH) this is fine, but in more traditional games with pre-generated characters this often means that the final scenes suffer.

Maps – Maps serve two important functions.  First they obviously convey relative information about places, which can be useful to emphasise information already provided or illustrate simply something which would be complex to describe.  Second, they implicitly tell the players that their characters are on the right track or operating within the anticipated scope of the scenario.  I often find that maps can be a useful synopsis of key information both at player and character level.  The key is to have them be as simple as possible, to avoid having the map become a distraction for the players.

Pictures or Art – as with a map, a picture can convey a lot in a much simpler and more artful way than can easily be described aloud.  I particularly use pictures when there are multiple NPC’s in the scenario (and hold up a picture of which NPC is talking to be absolutely clear for the players) or when there are monsters which might prove challenging to describe (stay tuned for my forthcoming post on Cthulhu Mythos monsters as an example).  Art can also be useful to convey mood and setting information, something I note that the grand experiment has made particular use of when running his scenarios.  When I picked up his scenario to run at short notice, the pictures included instantly and powerfully communicated a lot of information about the style, setting and intent of the scenario.

Name Tags – regardless of whether the players know each other before your game, they will soon ideally be referring to their characters by name.  To enhance and encourage this, you ideally want to provide name tags so that players can read, at a glance, character names.  Whether these are labels, folded pieces of card or laminated badges, a small effort before the game can make it that much easier to embrace characterisation. 

GM Screen or Rules Reference – only rarely do I use a GM screen raised at the table as I think it dampens down the collegiality of the game (and I never roll dice behind a screen), but I often leave it lying flat and use the table for rules quick reference, but even having post-it notes in a rulebook would suffice.  The secret is to flag any rules which are complex and likely to crop up during the scenario, so the exact text is at your fingertips.  Ideally you will make the core rules accessible to the players as well, either by putting them on character sheets in short form, or creating tabletop quick reference guides.

The Basics – There are a couple of more basic things you should also cover off for an optimal experience; if your game uses dice, bring enough dice for everyone, you don’t want the game being slowed at a crucial moment while people go searching for their dice, or ask to borrow some.  Bring enough pens or pencils for all the players - again, waiting to get a pencil to track damage or write a note can slow the flow of a game. Consider laminating handouts or other materials to try and avoid the table becoming a sea of paper and minimise the damage of an inevitable drink spill incident.  Have a copy of the ‘con timetable nearby so that you know when your round begins and ends as well as small scraps of paper for notes (both for yourself and the players).  And obviously make sure you have a copy of the scenario, relevant rules and character sheets ready to go.

Is there anything I’ve missed?  Feel free to add your own tips on game prep, or comment on mine. 

Sunday, September 8, 2013

EPOCH Goes To War

Today I released War Stories, the second scenario collection for the EPOCH survival horror roleplaying game.  As the title suggests, War Stories features scenarios set during wartime, and covers conflicts which span more than ninety years – from the horrors of trench warfare in WWI through to the complexities of peace-operations in the Democratic Republic of Congo.
War Stories features the works of some very talented RPG writers including: Monster of the Week author Michael Sands, the co-author of Call of Cthulhu’s Monophobia  Marcus D. Bone, Frontier of Fear contributors Andrew Millar and Liam Jones, and, of course,  yours truly. 
Each of these scenarios offers something different; a unique take on war and the role of the characters as soldiers and civilians in the context of wartime.  I think there are hours of great gaming to be had exploring each of them – I certainly had a blast during the playtesting process.
The collection has been beautifully illustrated by talented artist Doug Royson.  I think it’s evident that his art has gone from strength to strength with each piece in this collection, and the extremely evocative cover is truly outstanding. 
Behind the Scenes
Assembling this collection was more time consuming than I had expected.  This is the largest EPOCH scenario collection to date, and each author has put considerable thought and effort into their offering.  The collection comes in at 155 pages and a little under 60,000 words, and it took a fair while for the authors to design, playtest, write-up and submit their work.  Then each scenario was edited by me, which involved a fair bit of back-and-forth with the author, to ensure a level of consistency with other EPOCH scenarios, while staying true to their vision, and then a detailed edit was done by Andrew Smith, who also flagged any questions he had regarding content.   
Writing an EPOCH scenario is both simple and extremely tricky.  On the one hand, EPOCH allows a high level of flexibility which allows an author to adapt virtually any horror premise.  The source of the horror (and associated effects) merely need to threaten the physical or mental wellbeing of the characters on 6 specific occasions, ideally culminating in a dramatic climax.   As the players will apply and describe the suffering of their own characters during these challenges, there is no need for complex mechanical detail (stat blocks, skill checks and difficulties etc.).

On the other hand, EPOCH is about empowering the players to create any character they wish, and makes the development of these characters the core focus of the game.  Therefore, it can never be assumed that characters will investigate explore or endanger themselves voluntarily – which is the central tension of most horror games.  In EPOCH the source of the horror, and the scenario setup, must either be tailored to threaten the characters irrespective of their actions, or the characters must seek an escape which puts them into the path of the horror – or some combination of the two.
This character focus means that the scenario is actually more of a framework to provide ever increasing tension and drama to force character development, rather than a detailed story to be explored in-and-of itself, and I think this can be challenging to write – particularly if you have a strong vision for how you want the scenario to play out.  So, although scripting an EPOCH scenario seems simple at first, creating a scenario with sufficient adaptability to suit a diversity characters can be a challenging undertaking.
War Stories brings the total of published EPOCH scenarios to 14, featuring the work of 7 individual authors.  Needless to say, I am extremely grateful for the contribution of these talented folks to the game, and I hope you’ll take the time to check out their work.