Friday, November 30, 2012

Gaslight Musings on a New Campaign

I'd done some soliciting recently for a Call of Cthulhu game. A little less than two weeks ago we kicked off our first session. I believe it went pretty well, especially considering some brand new faces at the virtual gaming table.

I'll confess to having mixed feelings about gaming on the internet. There is something really nice about having people around a physical table, the sound of rolling dice, the shared meals. That said I would have a difficult time pulling that off at this stage of my life. And there are some definite advantages to gaming online. The pool of players is greatly expanded - at our most recent game we had players from the American South and Southwest with my brother and I here in Massachusetts. It's allowed me to stay in touch with players who have moved away, whether they continue gaming with me or not.

The past few months have been abysmal as far as keeping to a regular schedule on this blog. Life happens. My wife is working again which is absolutely fantastic for us it does make home-life a bit more chaotic with everyone darting out in the morning and scrambling to get stuff done after work. Add to that Girl Scouts, activities at the local Boys & Girls Club, a wife correcting papers and getting ready for parent teacher conferences, and my life as a software engineer doing one of those periodic shifts into "crunch mode".

I've been doing some fun stuff as well. I've been reading through some Call of Cthulhu materials and have obtained a lot of Chaosium's Gaslight-era products. Though I'd been familiar with it for years (well decades) it is only in the past few years that I've really gotten some serious time in Call of Cthulhu games and I can definitely say it is one of my favorite games. The rules system that powers the game doesn't seem all that impressive when you read it but, at least for me, it plays absolutely fantastically. I'm certain it's not the most realistic engine, it lacks a lot of things that modern games have, but it just seems to work.

I've also been embedding myself in the era. I've listened to some Sherlock Holmes audiobooks and gotten some used (and cheap!) copies of annotated books for works like Sherlock Holmes, Dracula, Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. I've also been able to do some Jules Verne reading, engaging in one of my periodic wishes that I spoke fluent French and didn't have to rely on translators. I've also purchased my first fountain pen - I wanted to experience what it felt like to write with a nib point. I was frankly surprised to discover I really enjoyed the experience - when funds permit there's some fancy ones out there I'm anxious to try.

Though there are only some thirty years separating the Cthulhu by Gaslight decade of the 1890s from the default era of the 1920s there is definitely a very noticeable difference in the way those too eras feel. I get the feeling of being in the transitional period from an older world to our modern world. It is perhaps a stretch to call the 1920s "modern" but in my experience in the twenties one gets the feeling of being at the dawn of our modern world. Sure there's no internet, no cellular phones, no television. But you get the birth of all that, a fast-paced world with fast cars, fancy radios, telephones being relatively common in urban areas, etc. In the 1890s you are just beginning to get there but those sorts of elements have not yet entered the popular culture.

I'm hoping this campaign gets some legs to it - the Dungeon Crawl Classics game I'd kicked off in the spring and summer was great fun but really couldn't get to a needed quorum. I'd love to try it again at some point. And if you feel like joining in, give a holler and we'll see if we can find you a spot at our electronic table.

That is not dead which can eternal lie,
And with strange aeons even death may die.

Thursday, November 22, 2012

Settling Fantasy America

Today is Thanksgiving here in the United States. Our Canadian neighbors celebrated it a month ago. Here in the United States the general story is the Pilgrims who settled at Plymouth and the Wampanoag tribe had a feast of thanksgiving.

Being the history geek that I am I've done some reading on what the European settlement of America was like. As a gamer, I'd often thought of doing a game along those lines and did run a brief one about a fantasy version of a Viking settlement in a fantasy analogue of Manhattan.

My own research has revealed an awful lot of myths about the European settlement of the Americas. The biggest one in my opinion is that the Americas were an untamed wilderness. The Native American method of using the land was definitely different from the European one but they most definitely made large changes to the land - one of the better known things they did was perform controlled forest burnings.

Where does such an idea originate? Here I'm not particularly authoritative. If I were to guess, I can think of two reasons. The first is it just makes one feel better to have settled in an untamed wilderness rather than squat in land that had been originally cultivated by others. The other reason I believe is how  decimated the native population was after exposure to European disease. Cracked had one of the best descriptions in their article 6 Ridiculous Lies You Believe About the Founding of America:
There's a pretty important detail our movies and textbooks left out of the handoff from Native Americans to white European settlers: It begins in the immediate aftermath of a full-blown apocalypse. In the decades between Columbus' discovery of America and the Mayflower landing at Plymouth Rock, the most devastating plague in human history raced up the East Coast of America. Just two years before the pilgrims started the tape recorder on New England's written history, the plague wiped out about 96 percent of the Indians in Massachusetts. 
In the years before the plague turned America into The Stand, a sailor named Giovanni da Verrazzano sailed up the East Coast and described it as "densely populated" and so "smoky with Indian bonfires" that you could smell them burning hundreds of miles out at sea. Using your history books to understand what America was like in the 100 years after Columbus landed there is like trying to understand what modern day Manhattan is like based on the post-apocalyptic scenes from I Am Legend.
This is something to keep in mind when considering a fantasy game based on the Americas. Suppose you give the fantasy analogue or version of the Native Americans use of real magic - if they have the ability to cure diseases there's a pretty decent chance they'd have been able to keep the settlers/invaders out - or at the very least, make such a settlement a very expensive undertaking. After all, these are the same people who made the Vikings decide perhaps they'd rather go elsewhere.

I seem to recall a few ideas floating on the internet about using elves as a fantasy analogue for Native Americans. What I would prefer to do instead is make the natives of a New World to be of the same races that can be found in the Old World. I believe it makes such people more real - there's a tendency to oversimplify the original Americans - either as magical people who lived in perfect harmony or as savages who lacked the technical know-how to fight off the Europeans. In reality they were people, just like the European settlers were people. Some honest, some deceitful. Some friendly, some standoffish. I believe the "elves=native nature lovers" shorthand greatly oversimplifies an entire group of civilizations. This falls into advice I've mentioned before from James Raggi of Lamentations of the Flame Princess fame - only use non-humans in a fantasy game if there is a very compelling reason to do so. In my Vikings in Fantasy North America game I did actually use dwarfs - dwarfs like those of Norse myth, living within mountains. They were very, very different form the natives, based off of the Lenape Indians and the Viking settlers had a much easier time dealing with the Lenape than the dwarfs.

There's a number of works I've read that I believe give a good foundation of life in North America before or shortly after European settlement. Some of these include:

  • Charles C. Mann's 1491: New Revelations of the Americas Before Columbus. An excellent view of the empires and other civilizations present in the Americas. The Incan Empire seems like it'd make for an awesome inspiration for a fantasy civilization - an empire centered around a mountain range, far longer than wide, presenting lots of unexplored places just a few days travel.
  • Nathaniel Philbrick's Mayflower: A Story of Courage, Community, and War. Perhaps most interesting is the examination of the decades following the famous "first" Thanksgiving (it's far from the first, but it is the one everyone thinks of). With the outbreak of King Phillip's War we see the son of Massasoit, who helped the Pilgrims survive, led Native Americans into war against the settlers of New England.
  • James Horn's A Land as God Made It. An examination of the Jamestown settlement. You quickly see how there is no way the English would have survived without help. And as in Mayflower, you'll see leaders who want to use the settlers for their own benefit against nearby rivals. One interesting fact that came out in my reading of this book - the native's small arms, their bows and arrows, were typically superior to the muskets of the settlers. 

Sunday, November 4, 2012

RPG Review: Call of Cthulhu 3rd Edition

I've already done a review of Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu game. But given I've been a bit AWOL in my blog of late and part of the reason has been prep for a Cthulhu game it seemed reasonable to do a review of one of the older versions of the game.

For me, this was my first exposure to Call of Cthulhu. I received it as a Christmas gift from my parents back when I was in high school in the mid- to late-80s. (Now that I think of it I also once received a complete Edgar Allan Poe collection from my wife - I get some creepy gifts.) This was not my Chaosium RPG now that I think on it - I know I had Ringworld and had also played Elfquest by this point. (Elfquest is another property I'll need to discuss at some point - as I recall it was rather big back in the 80s.)

I really don't know how it was my parents came across this version of Call of Cthulhu - it is my understanding that the 3rd edition was the Games Workshop version and was a UK-based release (though I am pretty certain they bought it from a local Waldenbooks so perhaps it was released in the US as well).

One thing which amazes me is how little the game has changed across editions. I could make a character with this version of the game, published over 25 years ago, and bring him easily into the most recent version of the game. I've also used scenarios from this book for 6th edition Cthulhu games.

Be that as it may, let's take a look at the game on its own merits. It is a hardcover book, a bit longer than a normal US RPG book, with black & white pages with color plates inserted. The book is divided into "sub-books" - basically it's as if the contents of a boxed set were bound up into a hardcover book (though it took me as a new player a little bit of time to figure that out). The "books" contained within are:

  • Investigator's Book: Under 30 pages long, contains rules for creating characters, action and skill resolution, sanity rules.
  • Keeper's Book: About 50 pages long, rules for the Cthulhu mythos, magic, and introduction on how to run the game. Includes three sample scenarios including the classic "The Haunted House" which has probably begun more Cthulhu campaigns than any other scenario.
  • Sourcebook for the 1920s: The 3rd edition generally assumes a 192s setting and these 30-ish pages include information on life in the 1920s. 
  • Cthulhu Companion: As I recall, this is pretty much the 2nd edition Cthulhu Companion, with information on the Mythos in Mesoamerica, new scenarios, sourcebook additions, etc. For some reason one thing which really stuck with me was a list of prions in the 1920s, with one sounding like it would fit perfectly in the film The Dark Knight Rises.
As far as rules go, not a whole lot has changed between this and the 6th edition. Books are rated on how well they impart new spells, something later dropped form the game, but aside from that the game has changed more in the form of tweaks and clarifications. It still has characteristics rather similar to games like D&D, ranging from 3-18 in most cases. The characteristics don't make a huge difference, though the Education and Intelligence stats do play a large roll in your number of starting skills. The game still uses a simple percentile skill system with no real difficulty system added to it - though every game I've been in has used various modifiers to indicate difficulties when needed. Though I've needed to use that rarely - generally I assume if you need to roll the task by its nature is already difficult. 

One thing I think later versions of the game do a little bit better is impart the feel of Lovecradtian horror up front. I think that's mainly due to their inclusion of Lovecraft's tale The Call of Cthulhu. Truth be told I was unfamiliar with Lovecraft when I first got the game. I'd just heard a lot about the game from Dragon magazine and other gamers and was curious. Don't misunderstand me - the game does a good job with its atmosphere, I just think later versions do it better. It becomes very clear from looking at the stats of creatures of the Mythos and the sanity rules of the game that this is not a game where you kill the monsters and take their stuff. You're more likely to blow your own brains out in an attempt to avoid becoming an insane slave of some Mythos creature.

As with all versions of the game I feel one of the best things it has going for it is the inclusion of several scenarios. There are some in this book that to the best of my knowledge have not been reprinted in later versions of the game - though I do lack a copy of the 4th edition. Some of the scenarios are quite unusual. There is one featuring a ghoul whose main objective is getting lots of books for his library. Two other scenarios take place in unusual locations - The Mystery of Loch Feinn taking place in Scotland (and would make for a good Gaslight scenario as well) and one of my favorites, The Secret of Castronegro, taking place in New Mexico. This scenario also fits in well with the Mesoamerican Mythos information found in the Cthulhu Companion book.

Like most Chasosium games, Call of Cthulhu 3rd Edition has a ton of information within it. You could run a very enjoyable campaign with just this book (a fact true of later versions as well). For modern gamers, the rules have changed very little. However, some of the articles and scenarios which seem to have not found their way to later incarnations of the game remain very usable and worthwhile. While there is no digital reprint of this version of the game available you can get a lot of the unique information from the 2nd edition Cthulhu Companion. The 2nd edition rules had been available from RPGNow but looking now it appears they are no longer there.