Thursday, September 29, 2016

Observations from Penny Dreadful Cthulhu Character Generation

As a reminder, Penny Dreadful Cthulhu = Pulp Cthulhu By Gaslight. Given that the Penny Dreadfuls were the forerunners to the later Pulps, it's not a particularly large leap.

This week we kicked off character generation. Here's who we have so far:

  • A noble whose older brother has the seat in the House of Lords and whose parents were killed about ten years ago by criminals. 
  • The noble's valet. He served the noble's father. Dad was a diplomat and the valet was actually a spy in the Great Game. Valet now secretly seeks vengeance on the criminal element for killing his friend.
  • A muckraking journalist who has made a bit of a name for himself covering the valet's vigilante activities.
This weekend we'll be making the final character, an Irish-American Catholic priest who after an unpleasant encounter in the United States (where he ran into the noble on an American tour), is traveling to London in search of answers. Though the player in question is unfamiliar with 'Salem's Lot, it sounded a bit like poor Father Callahan of the Lot. 

I did a little bit of modifying the standard Call of Cthulhu 7th edition Roll20 character sheets, most importantly having an option to double hit points (I've submitted a pull request to have that specific change incorporated into the main sheet). After some discussion we decided to go the full pulp route which includes double hit points and a pair of possibly (though minorly) supernatural talents. 

Looking over the characters generated thus far they don't seem quite as tough as I'd have anticipated. They're certainly not pushovers, what with having better stats, higher hit points, and more skills than your typical Call of Cthulhu characters. Yet while tough, none of them seems immortal. Most have hit point ranges in the 20s. However, with firearms doing around 1d8 or 1d10 of damage per non-critical hit, a few shots will really mess up a character's day. However, I suspect it is in the area of Luck, with more options to spend Luck to stay alive and sane as well was an easier time refreshing, that will be the most noticeably different from a "typical" Call of Cthulhu game. In addition to prepping for the first adventure, I'll be doing some study of the new Luck rules from Pulp Cthulhu

Image from League of Extraordinary Gentlemen 

Friday, September 23, 2016

The Wider World of 1889

One thing I'd like to do in my Penny Dreadful Cthulhu game (i.e. Pulp Cthulhu by Gaslight) is be a bit more cosmopolitan than my previous exploration of the era. That doesn't necessarily mean even leaving London (though I plan on having the characters do so). I keep thinking of a scene in From Hell when early on in the investigation Inspector Abberline investigates the possibility that the murder (only one at this point) was done by one of Buffalo Bill's "red Indians". As it turns out Bill is off in Paris at the time, with "Mexico Joe" doing a variant show. I just like the reminder of how the Old West (rapidly falling into history at this point) was viewed by the rest of the world.

So what's going on in the world of 1889? Some of these events might be for adventure ideas, others just happen to be out there in the background - not everything is the fault of Nyaralthotep - or is it? Wikipedia tells me some things I might want in my game...

  • The Ghost Dance movement begins. Probably too sad to touch in a game...
  • In the Samoan Crisis, a standoff between German and American warships, a cyclone blows in and wrecks almost all the ships.
  • The Eiffel tower opens and is used as the entry arch for the Exposition Universelle. Seems a great place to have an adventure.
  • Late summer's London Dock Strike.
  • Panama Canal is under construction. And has been for a while. And will continue to be. Hopefully nothing horrible is unearthed in the digging.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Understanding Bell Curves at Age 11 - Math from D&D

I'd planned on writing some more about Call of Cthulhu this evening but a combination of family and homework have occupied my evening and necessitate a bit of a brief post tonight.

And it's homework that got me thinking about statistics and RPGs. Currently I'm taking a Statistics class as part of my Strategic Analytics Master's program at Brandeis University. I'm diving deep into data science. My current statistics course is less focused with performing various statistical operations (though that is part of it) but rather with how best to present them. 

The diagram I show above is a simple comparison of a bell curve and a linear distribution from the 1st edition of the AD&D Dungeon Masters Guide. I seem to recall picking it up in 5th grade or maybe the summer before 6th grade. And the curve was a bit of a mystery to me. It seems obvious now, but a probability curve was some heavy math for an 11-year old. After some heavy duty analysis (for an 11-year old) as well as experimenting with dice and then jotting down lists of combinations (I think I did indeed write out 216 entries) I finally got it. I thought it was the coolest thing how rolling multiple dice forced the likely roll towards the middle whereas rolling a single die would have all outcomes equally likely. I'd been playing for 2-3 years so I understood that intuitively but to finally get the math behind it was awesome.

Playing D&D helped me a lot as the math got more complicated in middle school. Needless to say, when the bell curve came up I was more than ready. It also helped me level up my geekiness. To this day I actually enjoy working through problems with probability, determining distributions, etc. Heck, when I help my kids with algebra homework I enjoy setting up the equations. It's only fair to point out the geekiness went full circle as in fall of 2015 I quoted The Dracula Dossier campaign in a data science class discussion...

Saturday, September 17, 2016

I Might Need to Work on My Cockney Accent: Penny Dreadful Cthulhu

We're still finalizing plans and I'm giving my players a bit longer to weigh in, but in a recent email to my group I offered the possibility that a Pulp Cthulhu game could be slightly repurposed to take place a few decades earlier, in Victorian London of the late 1880s and the 1890s.

What would that mean for a campaign? To begin, the name would change a bit, from Pulp Cthulhu to Penny Dreadful Cthulhu. This isn't in reference to the recently ended Showtime series (which I'll need to view after finishing Ripper Street) but rather from the same source it got its name from - the cheap one penny serialized stories that tended towards sensational topics.

One nice aspect about the period is it clears away the impending event of World War II. World War I is about 25 years away from a start date of 1889. The Victorian Age itself comes to an end in the early 20th century but the Edwardian Age would absolutely be workable as well, with many of the same resources applicable. For example, while Sherlock Holmes is considered primarily a Victorian character, many of his canonical tales were written in the Edwardian Age and beyond - as far as 1927!

Many of the adventures I've been giving thought to are absolutely still applicable - for example, I've thought about a visit to an island akin to Skull Island in King Kong. I am still gravitating to something of a pulp feel - more a gritty pulp. I want the characters to still run from horrible monsters and still need to think twice before taking on a group of armed adversaries. Pulp Cthulhu introduces a number of additions to improve character survivability and competence:

  • Double the number of hit points
  • Archetypes which provide more skill points
  • Talents which serve as a sort of minor league superpower
  • Luck as a flexible resource to lessen the impacts of being hurt in combat and having one's sanity blasted
I'm mulling over each of those options. Pulp Cthulhu encourages experimenting with these dials to find what works best for a given group. I lean a bit for the lower pulp game that Pulp Cthulhu proposes which includes:
  • Keep hit points as standard (vs. doubling)
  • Use archetypes (I like the additional level of competence) but stay clear of psychic powers and weird science inventions.
  • While a standard pulp game provides players with 2 talents, a lower one goes with 0 or 1. I might be ok with 1 talent.
  • Prohibit Luck from being used to avoid certain death. I actually lean towards keeping this aspect of the rules - it costs all of your Luck points and is only usable above a certain threshold. I may keep Luck refresh closer to what it is in the standard game such that while Luck has a lot of power, it is a very finite resource.
I'll certainly play with these options to see what works best for our group. My hunch is it is easier to make things more pulpy as the game goes on - in a sense, allowing the players to "unlock" certain modes of play.

I do want to stay a bit clear of steampunk which probably explains my hesitance towards the weird science. I'd like the technology to be a bit more grounded, albeit with the strange devices of beings such as the Mi-Go. 

While London is the home base, a little bit of globetrotting is absolutely proper - both to unknown lands and to other settled places such as New York City and Arkham in the United States. 

And even if we do end up using the 1930s I'm still going to finish Ripper Street...

Tuesday, September 13, 2016

Researching for a Pulp Cthulhu Game

After a lot of discussion (sometimes with other people and not just me talking to myself) it looks like our next game will be a Pulp Cthulhu game, set in the early 1930's - far enough in that the effects of the Great Depression are being felt but not so far as to make World War II be right around the corner.

I've limited experience with pulp gaming in the 1930's - my group did a few one-shots using the Thrilling Adventures minigame from Dungeon/Polyhedron magazine in the early 2000's. My recollection is it was a lot of fun, with some larger than life battles with evil Nazis.

I think part of the reason I've shied away from the 1930's is that giant border that is September 1, 1939, marking the outbreak of World War II (though those living in China might prefer a much earlier date). One could perhaps stretch the era to December of 1941, as the USA was supposedly a neutral power up until that point, but for all intents and purposes it was an ally of the UK.

Does pulp have to end with World War II? Probably not - after all, larger than life adventures can take place in any era. For example, I could see using the rules in Pulp Cthulhu to run a modern-day game in the style of Buffy the Vampire Slayer.

I actually like the image of Buffy for a Pulp Cthulhu sort of game, with heroes who are extraordinarily gifted but face foes beyond their abilities, forcing them to be smart. At the end of the day, I still want the game to feel like Call of Cthulhu - yes, our heroes are quite a bit tougher, but Cthulhu can still kick all their asses.

What makes for good inspiration? I'm not planning on doing a ton of homework, given I have real homework in my grad school classes. But I might review some of the books and films I've made use of in the past, primarily for my own entertainment. Off the top of my head, some of the resources I really enjoy that shape my views of the genre and era include:
  • The Indiana Jones movies.
  • King Kong - especially the original version. While the Peter Jackson version was massively bloated, it did result in an awesome reference book called The World of Kong : A Natural History of Skull Island. I could easily see an expedition from the Miskatonic University ending up at a place like that.
  • It's Superman by Tom De Haven - a retelling of the origin of Superman, restoring him to his native Great Depression-era origins. His power level is definitely over the top for a pulp game, but it's a nice take on the era and his version of Lex Luthor would make for a worthy pulp villain.
  • The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay by Michael Chabon - a tale of the creators of superheroes, going from the 1930's to the 1950's.
  • Freedom from Fear: The American People in Depression and War, 1929-1945 by David M. Kennedy - exactly what it says on the tin, a great overview of the era from the American perspective.
  • The Dark Valley: A Panorama of the 1930s by Piers Brendon - another good overview of the era, this time with a more international perspective, showing us the world falling apart.
  • All the King's Men by Robert Penn Warren - a novel of southern politics in the 1920's and 30's. 
  • Third Reich Trilogy by Richard Evans - three books which show the Nazis rising up, being in power, and taking Germany to war.
  • Memories of my grandfather. Though he died shortly before the turn of the century, my grandfather was a lifelong New Yorker who lived through this era. Through his tales, often told in snippets or anecdotes, the New York City of decades past was a real place inhabited by real people.
Oddly, as far as the pulps themselves are concerned, I enjoy the occasional reading of them but I'm far from an expert on them. I really wish the Doc Savage and Shadow stories from the era were available in a legal electronic form.

Image from Pulp Cthulhu p. 89

Sunday, September 11, 2016

Ghostbusters Actual Play: Ghost Toasties Part I

Based on the West End Games Adventure by Scott Haring et al.

Cast of Characters:
  • Ethan Sharp, smooth-talking wheel-man
  • Mike Slade, brawny brainiac
Wednesday, September 11, 1985. Brooklyn, New York. 7 AM.

The Brooklyn Ghostbusters had just moved into their headquarters in Kings Plaza mall. They had had quite the moving celebration, with the extended staff joining them - though come to think of it, they weren't there for the heavy lifting...  Slade and Sharp had retired to their bunk room after a healthy diet of takeout Chinese food and questionable recreational beverage. True by a strict reading of the law their lease might look unkindly on their sleeping in the mall. But once you have unlicensed particle accelerators as part of your kit a little lease violation was a small thing.

Slade woke first and noticing the phone off the hook he replaced it and immediately received a call from Fred Lunt of the Yum-Mee Food Palace on Ocean Avenue - it turned out they had a bit of a ghost problem. Despite the lack of coffee, Sharp limped into their Ectomobile and they made off for the supermarket.

They arrived to a large crowd and a small Lunt limping out of the supermarket, all covered in white himself. It was fortunate he wasn't mistaken for a ghost.

As they walked in they found the place had been turned into some horrid form of abstract art, with bizarre food patterns all over the ground. They found a flier which was certainly a clue given their GM pointed it out to them...

The sugary foods seemed to be the most heavily ransacked, especially the cereal section, where a vacuum-cleaner ghost with four hands, no body, and a vacuum tube going into nowhere was breaking open boxes and sucking in their contents. Below the floating apparition was an unconscious cashier. They pulled her to safety and awoke the young Daphne (assuming her nametag told the truth). She told how the ghost came out of nowhere and began ransacking everything. And someone kept chanting "hey ghost!" over and over. She also had a horrible valley girl accent.

They did some scouting around but eventually the ghost got nervous and grabbed Sharp, who got thrown into a variety of sticky and slimy foods and wrapped in aluminum foil. They used a combination of proton packs and healthy vegetables to immobilize the ghost and pull it into their ghost trap.

As Sharp got cleaned up back at headquarters, they got a call from Louis Tully who indicated that supermarkets across the country were being hit by the cereal vacuuming ghosts and President Reagan himself had contacted Louis (who gave the president free tax advice). Louis promised big bucks to the franchise that got to the bottom of this. Ron was counting on them.

A little research revealed:

  • Flakey Jake Barley Flakes (now with more sugar) seemed to be the most heavily desired cereal of the ghosts
  • "Hey ghost" could very well refer to an ancient Incan god-demon Hagost which was an agriculture deity, specifically of sugarcane
  • As it turned out, Westerfoods, Inc. had been sponsoring a treasure hunt for a real and authentic ancient Incan gemstone, found within one box of Flakey Jake Barley Flakes.

A few phone calls to Westerfoods led to massive frustration, but in the process they learned that young Jason Greer, a third grader at Fritz Mondale Elementary School in Yonkers had found the Incan gemstone and there was going to be an end of the day assembly to celebrate the finding - with Jerome Westerbrook III to award Jason the award of "World's Greatest Treasure Hunter" and to provide some educational content, telling how he found the gem. The assembly was due to start at 2 PM. (They caught the end of the news story when Sharp picked up a new tv at Crazy Eddie's across the street.)

They traveled to the assembly where Westerbrook spoke in the gymnasium on a small stage, with an oddly glassy-eyed Jason and four executives, constantly amazed by odd sights such as their chairs, their ties, etc. Westerbrook explained how he had led an archaeological expedition to Peru (the executives, clearly possessed by something, chanted "Peroooooooo, our destiny is in Perooooo"). He was the sole survivor of a freak mudslide. It revealed a hidden temple where he found the crystal (the executives chimed in "Hagost's Crystal! Hagost unknowable, Hagost all-powerful! Our destiny lies with Hagost in Peru! Peroooooo!"  

PKE meters were going off the scale when Jason approached the microphone and shouted "Bring servants to the eternal Hagost!" as he and the executives floated up to a blue light near the ceiling and vanished, leading to cries of "my baby!" and "my executives!" 

Strange hands emerged from the floor and began tossing kids through the blue portal. While West End Games planned on the portal closing and the characters unable to reach it, forcing a trip to Peru, they did not anticipate our players who brought alpine gear. They sent a grappling hook to the ductwok near the ceiling and climbed up, Sharp needing some help from Slade to make it through.

They went poof through the portal and found themselves in a trippy cartoon land with a leprechaun greeting them...

To be continued...

Wednesday, September 7, 2016

Seeing the 1980's in Stranger Things

The Netflix show Stranger Things takes place in autumn of 1983. The main protagonists are around twelve years old. As I watched it, the odd realization dawned on me that in autumn of 1983, I was twelve years old.

I watched many of the episodes with my 14-year old daughter. I amused her when I had an epiphany that I actually owned one of the shirts that Mike wore. It was one of the most accurate depictions of the 1980's I've seen on television. There were some anachronisms here and there, but it was for the most part spot-on. Mike and his friends were a lot like me and my friends - not social outcasts but definitely not the cool kids. We played Dungeons & Dragons - and like Mike and company, mixed Advanced Dungeons & Dragons concepts (like Demogorgon) in our D&D games. Though I held out upgrading my 1981 version of the D&D Expert Set for several more years. As a short cut we'd often travel through wooded areas behind houses. I lived in an incredibly hilly area so alas we weren't able to bike everywhere, but we did ride our bikes all over the place. And I definitely had a Trapper Keeper in middle school.

The choice of setting the show in the early 1980's definitely had implications for communications. No cell phones of course. But also, no one I knew had an answering machine. Of course, the nice thing was the phone ringing was someone who you knew (or a dreaded bill collector). Alas, my friends and I lacked walkie talkies. I remember how much more complicated coordinating meeting with friends used to be.

Beyond being a great show, it was nice to see Stranger Things depict an era when people lived vs. one made up of big hair, giant shoulder pads, and Hawaiian shirts (all of which did exist as well...)

Monday, September 5, 2016

From a Camera on the Map to the Virtual Tabletop

I submitted my first GitHub pull request for Roll20 this evening - an update to the Ghostbusters character sheet to support ghost characters (making this Ghostmaster's life easier). As I did so I reflected on how much remote tabletop RPGs have changed over the years.

The first time I ever had to do remote gaming was after a player moved away but wanted to stay in the group. We wound up using a webcam that either pointed at us or at the physical tabletop and generally trusted him on his rolling. We tried a variety of early virtual tabletop tools but we found they suffered from problems like doing too little (why not just use Skype?), were too complicated (performing surgery on my router settings is not a fun activity), and too specialized for a given game or set of games.

As my gaming group grew more dispersed the ability to use a virtual tabletop became more important. We had a lot of early success with Fantasy Grounds and I'd certainly have no objection to using it again for a supported game. In the games they have an official license for the virtual tabletop tends to be superb - you typically get all the rules built in to the program. Spells, weapons, initiative trackers, etc. were all baked right in. The frustration I had with Fantasy Grounds was that it was very hard to customize - the tools you could purchase for it were first rate, but when it came to going on your own I found modifications to existing games and creating entirely new games to be very difficult. This may have changed since last I used it.

What I've used most over the past several years is Roll20. Like Fantasy Grounds, Roll20 has both community and officially licensed rule sets. These tend to be centered around the character sheet for the game. For me, I've had better luck using Roll20 - there are a lot of community supported rule sets and I've also found it easier to customize rule sets for my own games. Moreover, I'm getting more proficient at modifying character sheets in HTML and CSS, a domain where my background in software development has been quite useful. 

I suspect the community development model will remain quite popular. I also think it behooves RPG publishers to assist in the creation of extensions for popular virtual tabletop programs to support their games. 

Saturday, September 3, 2016

First Thoughts on Pulp Cthulhu

Pulp Chtulhu was originally announced for "summer 2002" and was to have supported both d20 and BRP Call of Cthulhu, this supplement for Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition is at last available, at least in electronic form. With a Mythos game appearing as a likelihood this autumn, I've been flipping through its electronic pages. I'm not yet ready to give it a full review, but I've had enough time to get some basic impressions.

As a supplement, Pulp Cthulhu provides a number of dials to decide just how pulpy one wants his or her game to be. Off the top of my head, the big differences seem to be:
  • Starting characters are far tougher, with more skills and better ability scores
  • PC and major NPC hit points are doubled (in pre-7e terms, hit points are the sum of Strength and Size, in 7e (Str+Siz)/5).
  • Characters have access to talents - typically giving a character a bonus die under certain circumstances (for those new to 7th edition, this means when making a percentile roll, you roll two dice for the tens digit and keep the more advantageous roll). By default, characters have two talents.
  • Luck can be used for many more purposes (avoiding damage, protecting sanity, etc.) and replenishes at a far greater rate.
  • Characters can have access to psychic powers.
As a result of all this and more, characters in Pulp Cthulhu are much, much tougher. They are more competent (due to having many more skill points), can take a lot more damage, and can use luck to protect them from the dangers of your typical Call of Cthulhu game. They're not superheroes, but Doc Savage might recognize them as kindred spirits.

This would seem to be most noticeable when confronting cultists and minor Mythos entities such as Deep Ones. A single bullet has nearly no chance to kill an unwounded investigator whereas in the regular game, a lucky shot from a pistol could kill most characters (it usually won't, but that risk cannot be ignored).

It is still Call of Cthulhu in many ways. While characters are much tougher when it comes to mortal foes, the likes of Cthulhu and company are still orders of magnitude tougher than the best Pulp PC. While characters have buffers from sanity damage, these buffers can be exhausted. I could see a campaign such as The Masks of Nyarlathotep being very well-suited for a Pulp Cthulhu game.

For myself, I'm debating whether or not to take the rules for a spin this fall. I'm far from a Lovecaft purist but I do feel the deadliness of even combat against mooks is one of the things I enjoy about Call of Cthulhu. Of course, we have also lost a number of PCs to such mundane threats, I am pleased that no PC is going kill Shub Niggurath with a well-placed pistol shot and magic still remains dangerous. More analysis required before I can make a final call...

Friday, September 2, 2016

Exploding Batteries or a Secret Copy of the Necronomicon?

Sure Samsung claims the batteries are overheating and causing their phones to melt... But isn't it just as likely that some cultist burned a copy of the Necronomicon into all Galaxy Note 7 phones?

I've been getting my brain back into a Cthulhu state of mind (I guess one can do that by failing a SAN check). One of our possible games is a 21st century Delta Green game, dealing with a top secret organization dedicated to fighting the Cthulhu Mythos. One interesting exercise when dealing with a modern take on the Mythos is finding a conspiracy explanation for news stories. As I received a Galaxy Note 7 upgrade as a birthday gift, the fact that the batteries can potentially go boom got my attention...

Putting on my Delta Green conspiracy hat (lined with foil) I thought of an alternate take. What if some cultist infiltrated the phone assembly factories and burned a copy of some secret tome into it - or, borrowing a page from Charles Stross' Atrocity Archives, a computer program designed to cast some dread summoning spell on a certain date, with all phones invoking the necessary calculations simultaneously at a predefined time - when the stars are right. Picture being Delta Green agents trying to convince a company to perform a recall on over a million units to prevent the magic spell from being cast...