A blog about games, gamers, and various and sundry geek culture-related ephemera and paraphernalia.

Tuesday, March 20, 2018

Why I Haven't Played Call of Cthulhu in Three Years...

... or,There's Something Fishy on Gilbert Island.

Seriously - up until just this past Saturday, my players and I haven't played one of my all-time favorite RPGs - thanks entirely to the last game we played, some three years ago.

None of this was for the reasons one would expect, however. There was no infighting that caused the group to fall apart; no dislike for the game system, or the genre, or the themes; no other game that caught our collective eye and dragged us away to greener pastures.

No, the reason we haven't played Call of Cthulhu since 2015 is: the adventure was too damn good.

I know the logic sounds flawed. "If it was so good," you're asking, "Why didn't you keep playing it?"

It's a valid question. And, to be honest, there was nothing to really write home about when it comes to the simple structure of the adventure. There was an island (some interesting background on that, at the end of this post) with a dark secret that was really as obvious as the nose on your face, at least to any Lovecraft readers out there.

The game used a simple hook: the PCs were tracking down an artist, one R. U. Pickman, who appeared to have ties with a colony of cannibalistic, humanoid, underground dwellers with which the PCs had recently had a rather nasty run-in. They found out that he'd been invited to sell one of his works at an auction on an island off the coast of Maine - Gilbert Island, it was called - and that he had apparently taken an underage girl with him.

I used the set up for Chaosium's scenario, aptly named "The Auction," as the basis for the first part of the adventure. Set on a fictional island that was deeply inspired by Portland's Peaks Island, the adventure involved the PCs, relative mythos noobs, hobnobbing with the rich and famous on "Maine's Coney Island." The had tea and biscuits with the Fitzgeralds and Hemingway. They drank gin and danced with filthy rich businessmen and their mistresses. They helped a gumshoe try to find a missing girl. They got mixed up in a bootlegging investigation. And one of them, a British gentleman and former Great War fighter pilot, started to fall for the beautiful, vivacious, heiress to the island's benefactors, the Gilbert family.

For three game sessions, around 24 hours, they lived and breathed the Roaring Twenties. It was very good.

In fact, the adventure was so good that it spoiled the game for us, for a few reasons:

First, it was unbelivably taxing on me, the Keeper. Breathing that sort of life into a game is no mean feat. I had to keep dozens of NPCs real and distinct from one another; had to manage the unseen machinations of the shadowed force behind the island; and had to bring the locale and the time period to life for the players.

For three game sessions, over 24 hours over the course of three weeks, I had to make a fantasy world seem real and alive. It was exhausting.

Second, we were all, Investigators and Keeper alike, so totally immersed in the adventure, so committed to the story, that every moment of the three-session adventure seemed real. The NPCs and their locale lived and breathed, and the PCs were right their alongside them.

When it was over, it seemed like we'd set the bar for a Call of Cthulhu adventure so high, nothing we could do afterward would be worth the effort.

Third and probably the biggest reason we all had to walk away from the game: because of that immersion and commitment, the adventure's final dark truth, when revealed, caused the players themselves to experience actual revulsion and horror. And I'm pretty sure that when I showed him the true face of the young woman his character had been falling for over the course of 24+ hours of play, the player playing the aforementioned young British gentleman lost more SAN than his character did.

By the end of the third session, we were all so worn out - physically, creatively, psychologically - that I think we all understood, even as we made plans for the next adventure, that we were done with Call of Cthulhu for the foreseeable future.

As it turns out, it took us all three years to recover. We've looked back during the intervening time and reminisced about that adventure many times over the years with a mixture of fondness, pride, humor, horror, and all of the other feelings one feels from a treasured shared (nightmarish) experience.

But only recently have we finally found ourselves able and willing to dip our toes once more into those dark, still waters...

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Addendum: An interesting note about the inspiration for Gilbert Island - and another reason I love role playing games!

The Gilbert Island adventure we played was based on an adventure I'd devised almost 30 years ago (!) for Bureau 13: Stalking the Night Fantastic. When we decided to undertake a game of Call of Cthulhu, I decided early in the process that I wanted to use Gilbert Island for it, but I wanted to update the adventure, to bring a bit more life to it.

To that end, I started looking for a better map to put in front of the players. I had plans for props to bring the game to life (including a printed booklet of the items for sale in "The Auction" and a framed sketch by the infamous Pickman) and wanted the map to be one of them.

In searching for a good island map to use as a source for my adventure, I stumbled upon the following:

Inspired by this period map pf Peaks Island, Maine, I turned it into Gilbert Island, and upgraded the community on the island from the sleepy, Deep One-haunted fishing community it had been to the Call of Cthulhu-Earth version of Peaks Island - the "Coney Island of Maine - now with fish-men!" if you will.

What I didn't realize at the time, but would soon discover, is that my own family's history has intimate ties to the real-Earth island, going all the way back to some of its earliest European residents, and that my family was a significant force on the island for many, many years afterward. In fact, my surname is at this moment on a prominent avenue that cuts across the island, a church, and a cemetery.

All of this, I discovered while doing research for a role playing game. How freaking cool is that??

As a result of my newfound knowledge, my partner and I will be taking a trip to Maine and spending a few nights on the island this summer. (And visiting Rye, where a historical site exists marking the massacre of my first American ancestor and members of his family. In a place called "Massacre Marsh." I can't make up this shit. Fun stuff.)

Together we shall go to marvel-shadowed Peaks Island. We shall swim out and we shall dive down through black abysses to Cyclopean and many-columned Y’ha-nthlei, and in that lair of the Deep Ones we shall dwell amidst wonder and glory for ever...

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Thursday, March 1, 2018

Good and Evil Go to War for the World of Greyhawk...

The struggle against the Dark Lord moves out of the shadows and war engulfs Greyhawk!

Monday, January 8, 2018

Somewhere far below Cold Mountain...

A small army of PCs and their allies mount a rescue of the elf queen from the Lord of the Pit (aka Orcus)...

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Tuesday, October 31, 2017

How We Roll

In a sense, the D&D game has no rules, only rule suggestions. No rule is inviolate, particularly if a new or altered rule will encourage creativity and imagination.
Says it all....

...And, it's why I love B/X Dungeons & Dragons - it's easy to alter or create a rule without causing massive structural flaws in the system.

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Tuesday, August 15, 2017

Holy flurging shnit!

Pinch me... I must be dreaming...

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Public Service Announcement...

... for my fellow Acquisitions Incorporated fans out there:

Maybe I'm late to the party, but I just discovered that Acquisitions Inc. has a new website - and a new weekly series!

Check it out:

I have to tell you, I love the mid-nineties aesthetic of the site, right down to a "talking assistant" and a spinning 3-D web graphic. (Although the ubiquitous spinning, flaming skulls are notably absent.) It takes me back to the humble beginnings of my career, when the web was the "World Wide Web," and we adventurous designers and developers were taking the first steps into a brave new virtual world, assisted by tools such as Homesite and POV-Ray. (And those in the know shunned FrontPage for the evil it wrought on the world!)

But I digress. The important thing is: no more watching reruns of live D&D games at PAX to get our Acquisitions Inc. fix! (Now, I'll just have to watch them to get my Aeofel fix...)

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Saturday, December 24, 2016

"The greatest Christmas gift I had ever received, or would ever receive"

Christmas Day, 35 years ago - 1981. I imagine there were more gifts than the three I recall clearly - most likely a variety of Star Wars toys, very few of the origins of which I can mentally track due to the sheer volume I've collected over the years. But these items were the big three that year, two of them still see semi-regular use to this day, and the first one is the greatest Christmas gift I've ever had the good fortune to be given:

The D&D Basic Set ("Moldvay" Basic)
Where it all started for me. This was my introduction to the rules of the game, and will forever be what first comes to mind when I think of D&D. Clean and concise, easy to understand, and oozing with character, the Moldvay Basic rule book is, in my opinion, the pinnacle of D&D evolution. I'm sure that opinion is based upon a good amount of nostalgic bias, but you have to at least agree that the "red book" is a worthy entry into the game's pantheon of rule books. Every time I play another form of the game, no matter how much I'm enjoying it - be it AD&D, the Rules Cyclopedia, 3.x, 5E, or even one of the retro-clones - I find myself occasionally having to suppress the urge to ditch what I'm doing and pull out that beloved red book...

Grenadier's "Denizens of the Swamp" Set
Prior to Christmas that year, I'd discovered that a local store carried a small variety of Grenadier's AD&D miniatures. I'd never seen game miniatures before and - being in the early stages of D&D mania - found myself coveting each and every set in stock. I managed somehow - I've since forgotten how - to score a set called "Specialists" before Christmas. As the holiday approached, I recognized the need to provide opponents for the heroes in said set, and that's how "Denizens" ended up on my Christmas list. Out of the box, one of the lizard men refused to stand, the basilisk's horn was broken off, and I thought the troll was too goofy for words - but I loved the set, nonetheless; especially the gnoll with the cross-dagger! Alas, I parted with many of these minis several years ago, but I still recall them fondly.

Milton Bradley's Dark Tower
What can I say? Dark Tower rocked, plain and simple. I recall suffering near unbearable angst as my brothers attempted to repair the game Christmas morning; it didn't work out of the box. This was a recurring theme for my childhood Christmases and birthdays, so by 1981 I was more or less used to this scenario. Fortunately, they successfully repaired it. (Much more successfully than earlier Christmases, where such repair efforts often left toys scarred or barely functioning, and less than enjoyable to play with.) When our first attempt to play D&D resulted in a boring session of murdering and looting the bodies of residents of the Keep on the Borderlands, this was the game that we turned to. It was - and still is, when I can get it to function - an immensely enjoyable way to pass the time with friends and family. (And the game's artwork still inspires me.)

I've had the good fortune to have enjoyed many good Christmases as a child, but none seem to stand out so clearly as this one - the "D&D Christmas" of 1981...
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(Last photo borrowed from gamehermit.com)

Here's hoping your holiday marks as wonderful a beginning for you, as well.

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Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Fred Carter and the Mardi Gras Monster: There's More Than One Way to Skin a Gator

The saga of Fred Carter continues with today's installment, Fred Carter and the Mardi Gras Monster:  There's More Than One Way to Skin a Gator

Who is Fred Carter? You can find the answer to that question here.

What's Fred Carter and the Mardi Gras Monster? That one's answered here.


Fred Carter and the Mardi Gras Monster
Part 3: There's More Than One Way to Skin a Gator

I thought for sure I was done for as the lizard-gator-man-thing prepared to clamp its massive, tooth-filled maw over my head.

Then, just as the thing was about to bite my head off, a machete seemed to appear out of nowhere and embed itself deep in its neck. A gout of black, brackish blood spewed upward and splashed across the bare fluorescent bulbs above. The beast reared back, a gurgling hiss issuing from its mouth. It let go of me as it started flailing at the blade. Its head rolled to one side, as half of the muscles that held it in place had just been cleanly severed.

I rolled away, and realized that the machete was attached to a man: the bruised and battered archaeologist dude.

As the creature frantically attempted to simultaneously halt the spray of blood that had begun spurting from its neck and keep its head from flopping to the side, the dude worked the massive blade loose and brought it down, again. This time, the thing's head fell right off. It stood there for a couple of seconds, flailing at the stump, then dropped to its knees and fell in front of me - spraying me again with the dark ichor that passed for its blood.

I stared at it for a moment, then heaved a heavy sigh of relief, as I realized that was the last of the monsters. As if in response, the headless body lurched up, and a massive, scaly skinned arm reached out for me. Its hand curled around my leg, and the corpse jerked forward as if to pull itself on top of me. I beat it with my fists and kicked it with my free leg, but it held tight.

The dude jumped on the thing's back and brought the heavy blade of the machete down on it again and again and again, chopping its hands from its arms. Then, its arms from its body. Finally, he up-ended the blade and drove it straight down between its shoulder blades.

The corpse twitched twice, then lay still. Its severed hand was still tightly wrapped around my calf.

"A little help here," I said to the dude as I tried to force the  disembodied hand to release my leg. He knelt down and the two of us began removing the hand, one broken finger at a time. Fortunately, there were only three of them.

"Colorado Jake," he said, helping me to my feet.

"Carter. Fred."

Jake looked around, found his brown fedora. I looked around, found Jeanine. She was sitting - dazed - against the side of the Honda, where she'd fallen when she tripped. I helped her up.

"You okay-"

"Look what you did to my car!" she snapped. She pulled herself away from me and punched me in the chest. "You wrecked it!"

"In my defense, we were being chased by swamp monsters," I said, not that I thought it would help much.

She didn't seem to care - she stood looking at her car, her back to me. She shook her head.

"I just made the second payment," she said. "Now look at my baby."

"You must be Jeanine," Jake said, extending his hand.

"This is as much your fault as it is his!" she barked, slapping his hand away. "If I hadn't come looking for your missing ass, none of this would have happened."

She turned and went to the beast she'd capped. She kicked it in anger and turned again to face us.

"And what the Hell are these things? Huh? Frickin' swamp creatures? What's up with that?"

Suddenly, her expression changed, as her brain switched gears - from stress-induced anger to sudden realization of what had just happened. Then, her eyelids fluttered and her eyes rolled back into her head. Jake and I caught her as she wilted to the pavement.

Continue reading...

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Monday, October 17, 2016

A Lesson in Humility

We wrapped up our Beyond the Supernatural adventure Saturday night: a cosmic horror was trying to force its way into our world, and our intrepid heroes stopped it in its tracks with a liberal application of psionics, magic, gunfire and dynamite.

At the climax of the game, It became visible and tangible, and any player character looking upon it had his or her sanity pushed to its limits. Madness was a real possibility.

So, I asked each player who decided to look (three out of four) and whose character failed the abysmally high Horror Factor check (all of those who looked at it, as it turns out) to make a roll under their character's Mental Endurance score.

The first made it with a critical roll (a natural 1, since they needed to roll low); the second failed and would face temporary insanity; and the third, well... herein lieth a lesson, my children:
Player: I automatically pass - my ME's 23. 
Me: Nope - you still have to roll. You could roll a fumble - a natural 20. 
Player (rolling his eyes and rolling the die): Not a problem!

Every person at the table - including the player in question, who - too late - recognized his hubris - knew from the moment the die fell casually from his fingertips what the result was going to be:

To add insult to injury, in a game where a natural 20 is usually an awesome thing, this was the only natural 20 he rolled during the entire game session.

The moral of today's lesson: the Dice Gods giveth, and the Dice Gods taketh away. And perhaps most importantly: the Dice Gods do not suffer hubris lightly.

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