"Come now my child, if we were planning to harm you, do you think we'd be lurking here beside the path in the very darkest part of the forest..." - Kenneth Patchen, "Even So."
THIS IS A BLOG ABOUT STORIES AND STORYTELLING; some are true, some are false, and some are a matter of perspective. Herein the brave traveller shall find dark musings on horror, explorations of the occult, and wild flights of fantasy.
Friday, August 12, 2022
Thursday, August 4, 2022
IT IS GENERALLY AGREED that 1979's Alien is essentially H. P. Lovecraft in space. It's not a perfect match--HPL was not big on working class heroes and no one delivers long monologues on the insignificance of humanity or the benefits of ignorance--but hey, one of the survivors is a cat, and that he would have approved of. The gist of the film is a group of people are out traveling the space lanes when they run into something, well, alien. Not Star Trek or Star Wars alien, no, this is the kind of alien that the more you think about facehuggers the longer you are put off wanting sex. The kind of alien that you cannot wrap your brain around. The kind of alien that is inimical to humanity.
Now I mention Alien because the crew of the USCSS Nostromo are just hard-working folks out there in the middle of nowhere doing their jobs, people trying to put food on the table. They weren't asking for any of this. They are not big bad space marines out on a bug hunt (Aliens), psychopathic inmates (Alien 3), or military doctors looking for the ultimate biological weapon (Alien Resurrection). The Nostromo crew are just operating a space tug, bringing cargo from point A to point B. Basically, they are space truckers on a long, desert highway. Or, if you think about it, cowboys out on the range.
2017's Down Darker Trails brought Chaosium's Call of Cthulhu to the 19th century American West, but Trails paints with broad strokes, covering the entirety of the "Old West" setting. What John LeMaire's Get Along, Little Dogies--a new supplement for Down Darker Trails available from the Miskatonic Respository--does is to focus on one aspect of that setting. It is 134 pages zeroing in on the "cattle drive." In other words--and I swear this is the last time I will beat the Alien analogy like a dead horse--John is concentrating on the helplessness, the isolation, of crossing a wide, empty expanse and encountering the Mythos far from the streets of Kansas City or Tombstone.
Out on the range, no one can hear you scream.
If I lost you back there, let me explain. The Miskatonic Repository is the Call of Cthulhu equivalent of the Jonstown Compendium for RuneQuest. It is Chaosium's community content program for its immensely popular and venerable game of cosmic horror.
"Community content" is a slur in some circles, but those circles are continually getting smaller. With ENNIE award wins and bestselling titles, venues like Miskatonic and Jonstown are increasingly holding their own. As pointed out by Chaosium's own community ambassador Nick Brooke recently, they allow authors to do the kinds of projects that a publisher like Chaosium can't, either taking their games is bold new directions or diving deep into specific aspects of their settings. The latter is what John has done for Down Darker Trails.
In Part 1 Get Along, Little Dogies starts by giving you the reality. John provides a history of cattle drives in the American West and a discussion of their difficulty and necessity. There are in-depth explanations of where and when these drives happened, the various roles people played in them, and what it was actually like to be out there on the trail. All the terminology is there, the little details, and the author has to be commended for his exhaustive research. Useful spotlight rules are included, like a full page on lariat usage.
Chapter 4 presents a number of episodes, "mini-scenarios" like "Gathering Lost Cattle," "River Crossing," and "Stampede" that turn the realities of the cattle drive into gamable challenges to play out at your table. Reading this chapter I kept thinking how much fun it would be to spend an evening just roleplaying a cattle drive sans the Mythos.
But that isn't really what we are here for, and it is in Part 2 we are presented with a 40-page scenario that shows the Mythos colliding with characters just out there doing the job. Playable in a single session, "Get Them Dogies Rollin'" could easily be expanded with the episodes mentioned above, and could serve as a terrific springboard into a greater Down Darker Trails campaign.
Obviously I am going to get necessarily vague here to avoid spoilers, but I will say the scenario is a memorable one, both for the uniqueness of the situation and setting and the way John has woven those all-too-familiar Lovecraftian tropes into the mix. The story provides a number of challenges both real and Cthulhian, and an escalating sense of dread.
The book rounds out with tons of NPC statistics, as well as stats for cattle, horses, and the scenario's new creatures. A few premade settings are offered to launch the story, a mix of believable historical ones and...well shall we say a "darker" option.
Get Along, Little Dogies holds its own nicely against any 7th edition Call of Cthulhu title, and that is a remarkable achievement for a one-man operation. It looks and feels like a 7e title should (and given the praise I have lavished on 7e products here that is saying something). Full of maps, detailed statistics, and a plethora of character hand-outs it is clear that the author has put the work in. There is art on nearly every page, a mixture of period pieces and the author's own work. If you like Down Darker Trails you are going to want Get Along, Little Dogies. It is a terrific expansion full of ideas to be mined. As mentioned its core concept--you out there in the desert, in the darkness, isolated and alone--ratchets up the horror. Yet even Basic Roleplaying players interested in historical roleplaying (or players of a game like Deadlands for that matter) will not be disappointed by this title. The author has clearly already put in the blood, sweat, and tears of research so you don't have to.
Sunday, July 24, 2022
Well. That was a long absence. Apologies to my readers. This year I was working on two different RuneQuest projects for Chaosium, one for Call of Cthulhu, and finishing up the third and final book in the Six Seasons in Sartar series, The Seven Tailed Wolf. Wolf is now nearly there, so I will be trying to make up for lost time on the blog. I thank you for your forbearance and patience.
IS RUNEQUEST AN "OLD SCHOOL" RPG? It might seem an odd question to ask about a game which has been around since 1978, just four years shy of Dungeons & Dragons and contemporary with AD&D. By a chronological measure, it almost certainly is Old School.
But we are talking here about "Old School" from a game-play and game design perspective, and that has a more specific meaning. Just exactly what that meaning is is still being debated, but there are general criteria that can be pinned down.
The terms "Old School" and "OSR" (either "Old School Revival" or "Old School Renaissance") date back to the turn of the century (the 21st, not the 20th). When Wizards of the Coast acquired Dungeons & Dragons and released their "third edition"*, they also instituted the OGL or "Open-Gaming License." The idea here was to allow third-party designers to make supplements that were compatible with the new edition of D&D. But the Wizards of the Coast third edition (hereafter just 3e) was a radical departure from all previous editions of the game, which were, by and large, all compatible with each other. There was a general sense that D&D needed to be "modernized" to make it more similar to contemporary RPGs. Not all the D&D community agreed, however. A movement started in which the OGL was used not to make products compatible with 3e, but to recreate out-of-print editions of the game. These "retro-clones" were faithful adaptations of the original game, the various Basic editions, and the advanced. Aside from bringing older editions back into print, this new "Old School Renaissance" also started fruitful conversations on what exactly Old School gaming was, and what made it different.
Defining the Terms
As I said, opinions differ, but a general consensus exists on the following points.
SURVIVAL: Old School games, particularly for starting characters, were lethal. Modern games tend to define a "campaign" as a set of stories following the exploits of a specific cast of characters. They are the heroes, the protagonists, of the story. This was not the case with the earliest RPGs. The characters were inhabitants of the setting struggling to survive and carve out a name for themselves. They were not "heroes" and there was no "plot armor." Old School games embraced a kind of literary naturalism, the type best exemplified by Jack London and Stephen Crane, but which made its way into the hobby via pulp authors like Howard, Lieber, or Lovecraft. Naturalism was the attitude that the universe is impartial, uncaring. It does not favor the protagonists. It is neutral whether they succeed or fail. In game terms, this meant systems that were neutral, that did not favor the player characters over any other NPC. While modern games trend towards treating player characters like the Enterprise bridge crew, expected to return week after week, in Old School games everyone is a "red shirt."
IMBALANCED: This flows from the previous point, but Old School games were not particularly interested in "balance." These were games primarily about exploration, not combat. There was never any guarantee that a fight would be "fair." Ben Milton, author of games like Knave, Maze Rats, and co-author of the Labyrinth adventure game, emphasizes that Old School games treat combat like "war," not "sport." What he means of course is that modern RPG players expect combat to be fair, played out on a level playing field. It's a sport. Old School games saw combat as unfair, messy, and lethal, and you did whatever you had to to win. Better still, you avoided combat unless you were absolutely sure you could win it. Negotiation, surrender, and retreat were all viable options. Likewise, the ideal that all player characters should be equal was also absent. These games often focused on the setting, and in some of these, some species or professions were simply better than others. That was just a fact of life. This didn't mean a "weaker" character was a liability, however, because...
PLAYER OVER CHARACTER: To my mind the most critical difference between Old School and modern game design is that the former challenged the player, while the latter tests the characters. Early rule systems and character sheets were surprisingly sparse. There were not rules to cover every situation, by design. Instead, players were supposed to come up with creative solutions and the GM would then come up with a way to adjudicate them. While modern players just roll some sort of perception check to look for traps, Old School players had to come up with ways for finding them. This led to the "ten-foot pole" trope, with players poking and prodding the dungeon floor ahead of them as they went. Instead of rolling to see if your character persuaded the guard, you role-played out the situation and the group decided how you did. Some of this is to do the lethality. Character creation had to be fast, roll a few dice and you are done. In modern games, where characters are the assumed protagonists, a player can lavish hours building the "perfect" character, and this necessitates all sorts of skills, buffs, and options that simply did not exist in older games. In Old School gaming, a clever player, regardless of their character's attributes, stood a better chance or surviving than a careless player with higher stats.
There are other common features, such as sandbox-style play and greater player agency in co-creating the setting, but these points are the Big Three. Now that we have them out there, we can return to the question of RuneQuest.
Is RuneQuest Old School?
RuneQuest easily matches two thirds of the description above. It is, famously, a system known for lethality. Unlike other RPGs, RQ characters do not really gain "hit points" as they adventure, and there is always a chance that a lucky blow or a failed defense roll could result in the death of the character. Particularly in the older editions, typified by RQ2, characters started with very low skills and barely any magic. Survival was a genuine struggle and at the heart of the game. In this way it captured perfectly the feel of the pulps referenced as inspiration in its "Appendix N." Howard, Leiber, Moorcock, Smith all get their mentions here. Of course there are other inspirations mentioned here...The Saga of Grettir the Strong, Njal's Saga, Le Morte D'Arthur, King Harald's Saga, not to mention those referenced in its board game predecessor White Bear and Red Moon (the Iliad, the Mahabharata). These were ancient examples of epic literature, heroic literature, but notably not super-heroic literature. All of the sources mentioned above dealt with death as a grisly and ever-present possibility, and their protagonists become heroes by facing death, not benefiting from plot armor.
Another way RuneQuest differed (though I would argue just slightly) is that its naturalism was Gloranthan naturalism. The player characters were not favored by the cosmos, and it was indeed indifferent to their survival, but the scientific or sometimes pseudo-scientific elements of naturalism were replaced here by a mythic and magic reality. I don't think this had a substantial effect on play, but it did contribute greatly to the sense of awe and wonder in the setting.
On the question of game balance--or the lack thereof--RQ was again decidedly Old School. The playable character species are not balanced against each other in any way. Dark Trolls are simply bigger and stronger than humans. The Agimori even moreso. Ducks are smaller and weaker. Likewise, not all cults are equal. Some offer more magic than others, or magic more conducive to adventuring. RQ is extremely Old School in the assumption that the game is about playing your characters, not about making certain it is fair. The game is prioritizing the setting, Glorantha, and trying to represent what life is really like there. Likewise, in RQ2 and today in the current edition, there is no interest in "balanced encounters." Again, the game is prioritizing the inherent realism of the setting. The Glorantha Bestiary clearly tells player characters that running away is a sound option, and that combat should never be entered into lightly.
Now, where RQ differed from other "Old School" games is in the third criteria. While RQ cannot really be called "rules-heavy," even back in 1978 there was a lot happening on the character sheet. RuneQuest did have--then and now--a unified dice mechanic that reasonably covered most situations. GMs were not encouraged to improvise random die rolls, those are pretty much covered. Further it was RQ that really pioneered the skill system, so that a character rolled Orate or Spot Trap, putting less pressure on the player to come up with inventive ideas. What we are seeing here, I think, is a difference in design philosophy. Consider Gary Gygax in the 1979 Dungeon Master's Guide;
"Of the two approaches to hobby games today, one is best defined as the realism-simulation school and the other as the game school. AD&D is surely an adherent of the latter school." (p.9)
Gygax goes on to defend at length his decisions, why he prefers the archetypical simplicity of class, the concept of levels, the lack of skills and the like. While I feel he was specifically addressing RQ (already well on its way to becoming D&D's only real rival at the time), what is clear is that it is a matter of taste. Steve Perrin leans squarely towards simulation and realism. His combat system exemplifies that. Greg Stafford was keen on simulation as well...if not of our reality than of Gloranthan reality. So in this third criteria, this is where RQ departs from the Old School. It was a game specifically designed to model Glorantha, not to be a free-wheeling-do-it-yourself fantasy game kit.
What About The Modern Game?
In keeping pretty much the entire engine that drove RQ2, RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha is keeping it Old School. On the other hand, the new edition embraces many features that move it further away from Old School than ever before.
Personality: With the exception of "alignment," Old School games were loathe to put personality traits down on the character sheet. Gygax recommended that for NPCs, but never PCs. RQ2 shared this feature. There was nothing really on the sheet that told you how the character should act...that was left to pure roleplaying and the details of the setting. In drawing on Stafford's Pendragon, however, RQG has Passions and Rune affinities that suggest how the character should act.
More Heroic: The inclusion of augmenting in the game, as well as the much greater accessibility to powerful magic, definitely shifts RQ further from the gritty "survival" style of play and towards something more epic. That having been said, I think this can be justified in the thematic backdrop of the setting...the Hero Wars. RQG remains far more lethal than, say, 5e, but it is far more epic and heroic than RQ2 was.
More Skills, More Background: If you compare the skill lists on an RQ2 character sheet and RQG, it is clear that skills have proliferated and become even more integral to the game. Instead of just Oratory, for example, we now have Bargain, Charm, Fast Talk, Intimidate, and Orate. Skills are easier to get in character creation and start at higher levels as well. Couple this with the detailed Family History phase of play, and it is clear that players are investing a lot more time into character creation than before, and far more than would be considered desirable from the point of view of Old School play. I think this is again RQG leaning into "simulation." The skill proliferation deepens the understanding of the setting, what characters do there. The Family History (and personality traits mentioned early) better integrate the character into the setting as well. This is very clearly a game about living in Glorantha rather than exploring ruins in search of glory and treasure. That is is a feature of the game too, but more than ever RQG prioritizes the setting.
In the final analysis I would say that RQG is still deeply Old School, but was never totally a part of it. The ways that RQ differed in 1978 are still the ways it differs now, though RQG doubles down on them. Having said this, I think there is still tremendous crossover between RQ fans and Old School gaming fans (or vice versa...I have never been a committed D&D player but I would readily play AD&D or the Rules Cyclopedia over the current incarnation of the game). And with that in mind, I offer the following little "hack"...
An RQ Old School Hack
The following is actually a sidebar in an up-coming adventure I am writing for the Jonstown Compendium, but why not add it here?
Basically, it is a rules hack ideal for those times when you want to run a mindless Gloranthan dungeon crawl (or ruins crawl, or Big Rubble crawl). It doesn't change the system in any way, it just cheats a little so you can spit out brand new characters faster for the meat-grinder. It is by no means a substitute for RQ campaigning! Try it on a beer n' pretzels night.
Here is the hack. To create a character;
1. Roll your Characteristics up normally, based on species.
2. Figure Hit Points, Magic Points, and Spirit Combat Damage normally.
3. Now we get funky. Average your STR and DEX for a "Combat Value." Write that down on your sheet.
4. Pick a Homeland and an Occupation.
5. Pick a Cult.
6. Rune Affinities and Passions are optional.
7. Grab spells and equipment.
Great Orlanth! Where are my skills?!?!
Breathe. We are deviating a bit from the realism-simulation part of the game. For the hack, when your character wants to attempt to do something, explain to your GM what it is and how you are trying to pull it off. The GM will then decide that Characteristic you are testing.
The standard roll is your Characteristic x 2. However, if you have an applicable Homeland, Cult, or Occupation, bump the roll up a "step" (x 1) for each.
Let's say you want to barter with a merchant. The standard test might be CHA x 2. If you are a Merchant, that becomes CHA x 3. If you are an Issaries as well, CHA x 4.
Same logic applies to your Combat Value. Let say the average of your STR and DEX is 14. basic combat rolls then would be 28% (x 2). But wait! Let's say you are using a sword. Are you from Sartar? Broadsword is a Homeland skill so now your chance is 42% (x 3). Are you a Warrior (x 4 or 56%)? Orlanth Adventurous or Humakt (x 5 or 70%).
Once you get the hang of it, you will figure out most values fairly quickly. The GM always has final say in how many bumps you get.
While we intended this hack for only a few sessions, if you do get attached to your character and continue on, roll 1D4+1 at the end of every season. These don't change your characteristics, but they are skill bumps. Each is equal to 5%.
For example, you spend 3 or them on Broadsword. Make a note on your character sheet, Broadsword +3 (+15%). Add that to your Characteristic whenever you make a specific roll. essentially we are removing skills from the character creation process and easing them in as you go. To keep things at a slower pace, limit skill increases by +1 a Season.
Note that nothing else changes. You are just freewheeling things a bit with the whole skill use.
* The "third edition" designation has always been a bit confusing. TSR published two parallel D&D games, the basic line which consists of the original game (1974), the Holmes boxed set (1977), the Moldvay/Cook boxed sets (1981), and the Mentzer boxed sets (1983) culminating in the 1991 Rules Cyclopedia. By this reckoning, the Wizards of the Coast "third" edition would have to actually be the fifth or possibly sixth. But starting in 1977, TSR also published Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, which saw two editions. So technically the Wizards game was a sequel to AD&D, they just dropped the "A" from the title.
Friday, January 14, 2022
HORROR HAS BEEN A CONSTANT since the earliest days of cinema. 1896 saw the three-minute long Le Manoir du Diable, created by pioneer filmmaker Georges Méliès. Just two years later, in Japan, Ejiro Hatta filmed Shinin no Shosei, about a corpse that returns to life. Lon Chaney's silent Phantom of the Opera was a sensation that put Universal Studios on the map. This in turn led to two decades of classic Universal horror pictures, with competitors like RKO producing their own share of surprising classics, including Val Lewton's superb Cat People, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Seventh Victim. The war brought a lull to this, and in the shadow of Hiroshima and Nagasaki the monsters became atomic. Fueled by the Cold War, weird cinema turned to alien invasions and mad science. But just when you thought the supernatural monsters were down, they struck back with a surprising revenge.
Hammer Films started with post-War science fiction, their Quartermass films and X the Unknown making a name for themselves. But it was their decision to cover the same gothic ground the Universal classics first marked out, this time in glorious color and with buckets of blood, that summoned the horror picture back from the abyss. 1956 saw The Curse of Frankenstein and '58 saw The Horror of Dracula, and with these there was no longer any returning the genie to the bottle. Pandora's Box was open, and the 60s and 70s saw a superb and terrifying flowering of the horror genre. Not just Hammer, but AIP's terrific Roger Corman Poe Cycle and Italian giallo made these decades a macabre golden age of terror.
And all this to try and explain Onyx Path Publishing's They Came from Beyond the Grave!
They Came From Beyond the Grave! is in the publisher's own words "a dramatic, hammy, and horrifying tabletop roleplaying game encompassing the shock, terror, eroticism, and humor of 1970s horror." It is, as they say, "a mix of serious threat, unmitigated ham, and nonsensical farce." If you know horror from that period, it was a cocktail of chills and camp that Grave! does a terrific job of emulating. It is, to put it mildly, an odd duck of a game.
The product I am looking at is a 311-page PDF, 40-odd pages of which are Trope and Quip cards meant to be printed out for play. The engine is the Storypath System, an evolution of the Storytelling System popularized in the 1990s by White Wolf. The book is lavish, full color, and incredibly evocative of the source material.
Characters come in two parallel forms...1970s characters and their late 19th century counterparts. Essentially this is because so many horror films of that period were gothics set a century before. There are various ways you could relate these two characters. One could be an ancestor of the other (perhaps even a reincarnation, a la Dark Shadows), or simply just a 19th century doppelganger. The characters are characters in movies, after all. This picture could be set in the 70s and the next in the 1800s. Depending on play style, a group might weave the lives of these two sets of characters together in a single story, or not.
Players will select from archetypes that embody the stock characters of films like these. The Dupe is Joe or Jane Average, a normal person caught up in terrors beyond their ken. The Hunter is a monster hunter. Maybe they bag werewolves, maybe fearless vampire hunting is their thing. The Mystic dabbles in the supernatural, the Professor is the expert, and the Raconteur is the eccentric detective. Each comes with special tricks, called trademarks and tropes, that define them. This is where the cards come in. Tropes trigger some sort of stylish and characteristic benefit. The Hunter, for example, can use "Listen Here, Kid" and inspire a young supporting character to do what you tell them. The Dupe might use "I Didn't Sign Up For This" which allows them to escape a dangerous scene. Archetypes also get a number of Quip cards, one-liners they can deliver in play at an appropriate time and earn a temporary benefit.
The game also has a system of "rewrites" that allow players--not their characters--to step out and direct a scene. These are the Cinematic Powers that make the game so distinctive. Spend 3 rewrites for a Deus Ex Machina, a stroke of luck that saves your party from certain doom. 2 rewrites can buy you a Musical Montage in which you prepare for something. I am particularly fond of Summon the Stuntman, in which if you are not up for a physical confrontation or athletic challenge replaces you with a stunt double who is. Rewrites are a limited resource, and you won't be falling back on these cinematic saves all the time, but they do a terrific job of adding color and emulating the genre.
This is, of course, a game of supernatural horror and it comes fully loaded with all the monsters you might expect. Dracula is in these pages, and the Brides of Dracula. There are Ghosts and Mummies and Possessed Dolls and THE DEVIL HIMSELF (caps not mine, it is how he is referred to the entire text). Monsters all have special rules that apply to them to make them unique. They also come with both 197os and Victorian modes. All together there are around 30 of these beasties, and all the ones you would expect.
The Director's (GM's) chapter has terrific advice on the genre and running the game. There are tons of "sets," stock locations featured in films like these for both eras. There are also two scenarios that are terrific, ghoulish fun.
The result is a game that manages to be much more than the sum of its weird little parts. They Came From Beyond The Grave! does not pretend to be something for everyone. It has a very specific focus and style and it nails it. Reading it, I couldn't help but think of those little Peter Vincent scenes 1985's Fright Night used to send up 70s horror. If you like Hammer, Dark Shadows, Amicus or AIP, this is the game for you. A slick piece of design that is a loving and loyal tribute to the films that inspired it.