These are my pre-play and post-play thoughts on Cthulhu Confidential, a GUMSHOE game from Pelgrane Press. It’s by Robin Laws, Chris Spivey, and Ruth Tillman. Short version: if you want a sourcebook for noir Cthulhu Mythos play, it’s great, and it works way better than I expected for one-on-one roleplaying.
My 200 word RPG is up. I’ll move a copy here at some point but right now, let’s go over to the main site to read it, check out a couple more microRPGs, all that stuff.
The Widening Gyre is basically a sidestep away from a mechanic I was thinking about for Feng Shui, which I basically lifted from Blades in the Dark. Asymmetric relationship stats for the win. I think it’s basically playable although I did not work out the math.
There’s this cool story about a pair of gamblers who figured out how to beat the odds at the Jockey Club in Hong Kong. Read it if you like that sort of story. If you’re a Feng Shui player, first read it, then have five plot hooks:
- Your friend Bill Menter, professional gambler and statistician, calls you. His system is failing for the first time ever and someone’s clearly messing with the odds. As it turns out, it’s a Lotus sorcerer making some cash to fund a more dire scheme. If a player character is a Gambler, the system may be an unnecessary component of this plot hook.
- No, the system really is bullshit. Bill Menter is a front for the Jammers and he’s been screwing with the odds by implanting cyber tech into horses. Your friend at the Jockey Club knows something is wrong and needs you to fix it. (The falling out between Bill and his partner was really because his partner went with the New Simian Army.)
- Bill has cause and effect reversed. His code is interacting with the complex Chi flows of Hong Kong in such a manner as to create a temporary feng shui site, which the Ascended notice and object to. You are making some extra cash as a runner when they show up to shut the operation down.
- Yeah, that whole story about how Bill didn’t cash in that winning ticket? That’s a lie. Bill is using it as a prize in a martial arts tournament, with the intention of trying to hire the winner for certain plans of his own. But the real prize would be stealing his methodology, and some of the tournament competitors know that.
- The system really works by stealing luck away from other people — but not in the current day. Rather, the horses Bill bets on are stealing luck from the past. Much to nobody’s pleasure, they’re specifically stealing Wong Fei Hong’s luck — the young Wong Fei Hong played by Jackie Chan. The Guiding Hand cannot allow this to stand.
Apocalypse World introduced the concept of clocks to tabletop gaming. They’re basically a countdown timer; you increment the clock by a bit every time someone gets closer to a goal. They’re also used as health bars. Not insanely novel but it’s useful to have a visual representation of impending doom or success, as the case may be.
In my Bookhounds of London game this weekend, I ad hoc used a six sided die as a clock. I hadn’t been planning on it, but a chase scene arose spontaneously and the 13th Age escalation die came to mind, so I plopped down a six-sider with 1 showing. Then I said “OK, the one goon just vanished around the corner while the other goon stands to hold the hallway against you,” and flipped the die to 2. My players needed no other explanation.
So that’s a cool trick.
I picked up a bunch of Cthulhu Britannica material in a Bundle of Holding sale a while back. Glad I did, since Cubicle 7 has pulled the line after their license expired. As a sort of a warm up exercise for my efforts to write more, I started working through the original book to convert the adventures into Trail of Cthulhu.
It’s unclear how many I’ll get through, but I had an excellent time converting the first scenario, Bad Company. The work necessary to understand and adapt the scenario turned out to be a great way to internalize the material. Wish I had a good place to run it; alas, it doesn’t fit into my current campaign.
True fact: tens of thousands of Londoners happily attended professional wrestling shows during the 1930s. This resurgence in the “sport” was thanks to one Sir Edward Atholl Oakeley, whose autobiography I really gotta read. (In his later years, long after his wrestling career ended, he became the 7th Baronet of Shrewsbury. Wild life story.) He dubbed his wrestling style “All-In,” since it allowed for wrestlers from a variety of traditions. Sir Oakeley always maintained he was promoting real sporting matches, but given that US pro wrestling had already become mostly staged by 1930, it seems pretty likely that All-In wrestling matches were also fixed.
This phase of British professional wrestling history lasted under a decade. By 1940, the quality of the wrestling had degenerated as demand rose. It became more a spectacle, less a sport, and unacceptable in the eyes of civil society. By the time promoters were running mixed gender matches, judges were handing down decrees preventing public shows.
Let’s talk about gaming!
My friend Pongo wrote an artist’s statement about Ingress. She speaks truth: I have worked with Pongo for over a year now and her ability to infuse the canvas of the game with story is inherently artistic.
I play for different reasons than she does. I’ve been coordinating the actions of teams for 20 years now, at first on AmberMUSH but soon thereafter in my professional career. I’m good at it. Ingress is a difficult but satisfying instance of that task, in a framework that requires me to think on several different layers (people, logistics, tactics, and on occasion grand strategy).
It’s really interesting to consider the game in artistic terms, though.
(“Hey, why did you pick up the blog again?” “Some of my friends are sufficiently artistic to make me feel bad about letting my writing go fallow.”)
In 1857, a French photographer named René Dagron combined the hot new fad of microphotography and a 50 year old magnifying device called a Stanhope lens to come up with a simple inexpensive way of embedding tiny photographs into a wide range of gewgaws. Stanhope lenses are small enough to embed within rings, watch keys, pocket knives, charms, and so on. Dagron was also an entrepreneur: he ran a mail order business selling the things. Since they were cheap enough to market as souvenirs, they became fairly common fairly quickly.
The images are remarkably clear and detailed despite their tiny size. One could, hypothetically, put quite a bit of text in one of these. During the Franco-Prussian War of 1870, Dagron refined his microphotography process to generate carrier pigeon messages. This usage didn’t require Stanhope lenses in reality. Who knows what might have happened in a slightly different time stream?
The fad was mostly over by World War I, but there are plenty of the things floating around during the 1930s era of Trail of Cthulhu. If you’re running a Night’s Black Agents game, you’ll be happy to know that Stanhopes still turn up all the time in the wild in 2018. Also fun: it’s not obvious when an object has a Stanhope embedded within it. The photographs are 1/10th of an inch in diameter and a mere quarter of an inch long; modern collectors often miss the presence of a Stanhope. This makes them awesome as unexpected surprises for an investigatory game.
Based on a few hours of Web surfing, I can’t find any evidence that anyone put a Stanhope into a book spine — but someone really should have. This is an easy Bookhounds of London hook. The book itself is something anodyne and unremarkable, but the spine contains images of a horrible crime. Who took them? Why were they preserved in this manner? What’s casting that terrifying shadow in the background?
For a conventional Trail of Cthulhu game, stick the same images in a more traditional Stanhope carrier. Want something more outré? Consider the pocket knife with a small glass aperture at one end. If you look into the glass aperture, what looks back out at you? The Stanhope brooch is the only path this creature has to reach the outer world, and it’s been trapped in there for decades. It will not be grateful to you.
Wait: this Stanhope shows a moving picture. Something strange. It’s the Dreamlands, or Carcosa if you’re into Hastur.
For Night’s Black Agents, a Stanhope would be a great way to introduce a picture of a prominent NPC. Who, of course, looks the same in the picture as he does now. Most photographic evidence of his earlier life was destroyed, but Stanhopes are easy to miss. Or you can go straight espionage, and have one contain microfilm as an information carrier. Also, since we’re talking vampires, I should note that there were plenty of Stanhopes built into crosses. One common cross had seven Stanhopes in it, each one depicting one of the Seven Sorrows of the Virgin Mary. Any vampire game ought to be able to do something useful with that.
Skill-wise, a Trail of Cthulhu character needs Art History or a Evidence Collection spend to notice one of these things. Craft could also work given the right specialty. Bookhounds could use Document Analysis. For Night’s Black Agents, a Notice spend can stand in for Evidence Collection. Art History remains preferable — give those PCs some payoff for all those years spent in museums.
There’s a book on these, which looks really interesting but I’m not sure about giving into temptation. It has pictures, though. Tempting.
Susan and I went up to OrcaCon for the weekend. It’s a local gaming convention in its second year, with an emphasis on diversity and creating a safe space for gaming. It ran Friday through Sunday, 1/13 through 1/15, at the Holiday Inn Downtown in Everett, WA. Rumor is that it had around 1,000 attendees. I am no good at judging crowd sizes but that sounds about right to me.
Check out the cool program book there! (Oooh, visual aids.) Not only was there an awesome map, but the back six pages or so were a Mutants & Masterminds quick-start. This is the most useful con program book I’ve ever seen.
If you are too busy to read through the thousand words or so that follow, my quick recommendation: this con is definitely a must if you’re in the Seattle area, and it’s worth some travel if you like really well-run regional gaming conventions.
I got busy during the fall. What can I say? RuneQuest originally came out almost forty years ago so the extra few months won’t have hurt much.
The Mechanics and Melee chapter starts out pretty normally. You have time, including the concept of turns and melee rounds. There’s a note about how a real day should equal one game week, which is a bit of old school detail I always liked. You also have three scales of movement: daily movement, scenario movement, and of course melee movement. Then, like all good systems, it goes into encumbrance. Here we get all narrative: encumbrance (which has an abbreviation, as do all important elements of old school RPGs), is measured in “things.” Way simpler than pounds and ounces. The motivation for this is explained up front: “Ideally, an ENC rule for a role-playing game should read, ‘Characters may not carry more than they should be reasonably be expected to carry under normal conditions.'” That’s the plaint of a man who was tired of too many rules. I think I liked this a great deal at the time.
The rest of the chapter covers melee — the total is about three and a half pages, which is pretty concise. It’s pretty straight-forward, in the way one might expect from the author of that quote on encumberance. Hit rolls are a d100, affected by the opponent’s Defense. You can try and parry, which introduces the possibility of either attacker or defender’s weapon taking some damage.
Initiative, here called strike rank, is deterministic and based on weapon and stats. Strike ranks are also subunits of time during a combat round, in case someone wants to draw a new weapon or something. This is also where we start talking about magic in combat: there are attack spells and ways of enchanting weapons mid-combat, which is cool. Evocative sentence regarding enchantment: “This is because a character will normally immediately carve the appropriate focuses on the weapons the minute he obtains it.” There are hit locations, and some funky bits where each location has hit points but the character as a whole also has hit points. This is pleasingly deadly.
Overall this is different enough from D&D to be interesting. Like Tunnels & Trolls, the basics are similar but the implementation details were refreshingly new. RuneQuest was also way crunchier than Tunnels & Trolls, in a way I still find I like.
It is perhaps a bit optimistic to have called this chapter “Mechanics and Melee,” since chapter 4 is called “Combat Skills.” Next time: fumbles! Impaling! Criticals! And a tiny bit of world building.