"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, January 10, 2020

THE SMOKING RUIN & OTHER STORIES: A REVIEW (okay not a review so much as a love letter because I couldn't find a damn thing wrong with it)

THERE IS A LINE on the dust jacket of the Guide to Glorantha that reads; "Glorantha is the technicolor cure for bland, pseudo-medieval generic fantasy."  Normally when you read something like this, you can be forgiven for thinking it is self-aggrandizing, pretentious crap.  Not in this case.  If you have any doubts, all you need do is look at exhibit A, The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories.  Seriously.  You can open to any random page and find proof that--yes Toto--you aren't in Thedas, or Middle-earth, or Faerûn any more.

Written by Christopher Klug, Steve Perrin, Jeff Richard, Greg Stafford, and Jason Durall, The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories (hereafter just TSR) is a collection of adventures for Chaosium's RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Set in the South Wilds of Dragon Pass, the book details that region and contains three--no, I am not going to use the word "scenarios" here, they deserve better than that--three fables which unfold there. We are not talking about stories where you sit in a tavern and overhear dwarves talking about a dungeon filled with orcs and treasure here. We are talking about stories in which your priestess of the Earth Mother sends you to recover artifacts in a ruin where the cursed bodies of massacred trolls have been damned to burn for centuries, their spirits trapped agonizingly within. We are talking about stories in which you find yourself in a hidden valley besieged by mercenary Beast Men, a valley whose ancient guardian has gone missing and needs you to find him. We are talking about about Elves--oh no, my friend, not those Elves...I mean a race of animated dryads with wood for bones and sap for blood--attempting to plant a sacred tree that will bless and spawn a new Elf Wood. In short, we are talking about stories that really could only happen on a flat world under a sky dome, a Bronze Age world that eschews physics for mythology. These are stories that could only happen in Greg Stafford's Glorantha.

Coming in at about 192 pages TSR is a bold attempt to remind you why RuneQuest is a gaming legend.  The South Wilds, the Lost Valley, the Wild Temple are all settings as exotic as they come, settings in which the mountains can casually be described as "the backbone of the dragon Sh’harkazeel, covered in earth and vegetation."  Here the Pure Horse People graze their herds and defend them against dinosaurs and smilodons.  Here the numerous types of Beast Men--centaurs, satyrs, and far stranger--gather at a spiraling network of megalithic standing stones to worship the Mother of Nature.  Here there is a valley shrouded from the rest of the world.  The locations and their denizens are all richly detailed with full statistics in grand Chaosium style (the company has several decades of reviews praising them for meticulous craftsmanship and hardly needs me to join that chorus).  What I will say instead is that Chaosium products have never looked as stunning as they have in the last couple of years, and that Olivier Sanfilippo has my blessing to continue doing Gloranthan maps for the rest of eternity.  The talents of Dimitrina Angelska, Antonia Doncheva, Jon Hodgson, Jennifer Lange, Pat Loboyko, Eli Maffei, Magdalena Mieszczak, Sara Otterstätter, Scott Purdy, Corey Trego-Erdner, and Chris Waller make this a beautiful book to look at as well as play.

On the subject of shout-outs to contributors, I would be failing miserably at my job if I didn't single out industry legend Christopher Klug.  Author of The Smoking Ruin, the longest and central fable in this collection, Klug really should need no introduction, but for my younger audience, Christopher Klug is the man responsible (amidst a great many other achievements) for 1983's James Bond 007 RPG, a game design so brilliant you can pull it off your shelf today and play it and think it was cutting edge.  If you have ever played an RPG with the concept of hero points in it, write a thank you letter to Klug right now.   

Now look, gentle reader, I know what you are thinking; "is this a review or a love letter?"  But the fact remains that I struggled long and hard to come up with flaws--spelling mistakes, typos, botched index references, anything--so that I didn't come off as a lovesick school boy, but alas, here we are.  The worst I can say of TSR is that if you like your fantasy medieval, with knights and goblins and trap doors, ignore the book and go play Pathfinder.

Otherwise, just buy the damn thing.  

Wednesday, January 8, 2020



When the French government seized the translated copies which had just arrived in Paris, London, of course, became eager to read it. It is well known how the book spread like an infectious disease, from city to city, from continent to continent, barred out here, confiscated there, denounced by press and pulpit, censured even by the most advanced of literary anarchists...

Chambers, “The Repairer of Reputations”

THE FORBIDDEN TOME—and establishment attempts to ban, burn, or blot it out of existence—is a staple so common in what has come to be known as Cthulhu Mythos fiction that it runs the risk of being cliche.  Yet in an example of life imitating art that is exactly what happened to The Sassoon Files, a sourcebook by Sons of the Singularity for Call of Cthulhu or the Gumshoe system (Trail of Cthulhu being he likeliest suspect).  Sassoon is a collection of scenarios and campaign resources set in 1920s Shanghai, and when Chinese censors got wind of it, they ordered every copy of it burned.  Not that Sassoon was driving hordes of innocent gamers mad—the book was ordered destroyed while it was still at the publisher—but in a nation where the government has ordered a ban on time travel fiction because it “disrespects history,” one must imagine that an alternate Chinese history crawling with nameless cosmic powers would also be verboten.   It’s hard not to be reminded of the 1990 Secret Service raid on Steve Jackson Games, when the American government mistook GURPS Cyberpunk for a manual on hacking.  No one seemed to explain to the Chinese government however that in the age of PDFs burning books is archaic enough to be quaint, and fortunately Sons of the Singularity found publishers for print copies elsewhere.

I say “fortunately” because The Sassoon Files is a gritty, evocative take on a setting we have seen before in Cthulhu gaming, but never in such detail or with such awareness.  What is immediately clear here is that the writing team knows their subject matter intimately; in fact the project began as campaigns played by gamers living in the People’s Republic of China.  This insider’s take on the setting is one of the book’s strongest features.  Instead of overwhelming you with facts and figures, the writers have cherry picked the juiciest bits.  They know what makes this a unique setting, and concentrate on bringing you those elements.  The result is a campaign book that is primarily ethos, with just enough support to evoke that ethos at your gaming table.


…At Shanghai’s Great World Amusement Arcade, across from the horse tracks, prostitutes sought out high-rollers while politicians made deals with gangsters. One-armed bandits cranked and whirled, occasionally vomiting just enough coin to keep players hooked. Ghosts, Spiders, and Phantoms lined up outside the casino in a makeshift parking lot. Those who braved the alley behind the casino may have noticed the rickety metal stairwell precariously hanging off the five-story building that housed the Great World Amusement Arcade. Residents called these stairs the “stairs to heaven”, and told tales of men jumping to their deaths. This is Shanghai; Victor Sassoon’s Shanghai. 
Introduction, p. 1

As mentioned, The Sassoon Files takes Mythos roleplaying back to Shanghai, a setting first visited in 1984’s Masks of Nyarlathotep.  Yet like Victor Sassoon (1881-1961), the hotelier and real estate tycoon who for all intents and purposes built modern Shanghai, The Sassoon Files isn’t just visiting the city, it has moved into Shanghai and made it home.  The book provides everything a Keeper might need to run a Shanghai-based campaign, including four scenarios (“Strange Gates, Hidden Demons,” “Let Sleeping Dogs Lie,” “There is This One Girl,” and the scenario that probably got the sourcebook banned, “Curse of the Peacock’s Eye”).  All of the materials are modular; you could use the setting and characters in the book and never run the scenarios, or so could run one or more of the scenarios and skip the others.  Nor are you required to play them in any given order.  To help you expand on these scenarios there are “campaign drivers,” suggested lists of events which arise as a consequence of the characters’ choices and actions, and an extensive and colorful cast of NPCs that help bring the setting alive.  Depending on your tastes, the campaign is designed to fit both “pulp” and Lovecraft “purist” styles.  

I am reviewing here the 209-page PDF, which retails at $19.99 US.

Victor Sassoon is the default organizing principle in the campaign.  Here, this colorful historical figure is a correspondent of one Dr. Henry Armitage, and the two share a common goal of opposing the Mythos.  Sassoon is primarily concerned with keeping its baleful influence out of “his” city, and to that end has assembled “professors, detectives, debunkers, muscles, guns, criminals and other problem solvers,” including the player characters, to fight it.  However, if you want a more exotic spin on your campaign, two other lenses are provided.  Player characters could instead be part of the Green Gang, a Triad controlling the city’s opium trade, or underground members of the Communist Party, just one of many factions vying for the soul of the nation.  The default “Sassoon” option leads to a far more familiar Cthulhu campaign, the other lenses are far more setting-specific.

The book hits the ground running with “The Century of Humiliation,” the Chinese designation for the 110 years between 1839 and 1949, characterized by a China abused by Western powers and finally Japan.  These three pages set the stage for the campaign in a concise, very readable history told in a prose style that manages to be factual without ever getting dry.  This history is followed by a biography of the titular character, Victor Sassoon.  Sassoon’s presence in the book is emblematic of what makes The Sassoon Files as good as it is, blending historicity with fiction in equal measures.  It would be impossible to really do justice to Shanghai in the 20s without his presence; he invested millions in creating the modern city, owning nearly 2000 properties in it.  Employing the fiction of having him aware of the Mythos, and employing the player characters to stave it off, makes terrific sense (more in the archaic sense!).

After this discussion of Victor follows a collection of Mythos story hooks you can use to develop your own stories in the greater campaign, and a concise timeline.  This is followed by sections on pronunciation, playing Chinese characters, and a note on the colonialism and racism of the period. 

The table is thus set for “Shanghai: The Pearl of the East,” a chapter that goes neighborhood by neighborhood in giving an overview of the city, and then a listing of historical personages as well as the fictional characters introduced in the campaign.  The latter are organized by which scenario in which they first appear, making it easier for the GM to keep track of when they were introduced.  A little over 40 important locations are described here, their descriptions never more than a paragraph in length, as well as a general description of the area of the city itself.  Much like in the historical and setting details, The Sassoon Files is very efficient here, focusing on what you need to know to game the location, rather than overloading you with extraneous details.  Some GMs might prefer a shade more information—for example, maps—but these have rarely been essential to a Cthulhu campaign.  


The bulk of the book, from page 21 to 180, is given over to the four scenarios that form the core of the campaign.  Ironically, this is the section I will be talking about the least, as to not give the plots away.  

Strange Gates, Hidden Demons is chronologically the earliest of the episodes and tells the story of a Jesuit priest who unwittingly unleashes a Mythos terror.  This is concealed by the authorities under the fiction of a cholera outbreak, and forces the player characters to deal both with the horror summoned into this world and the gate through which it passed.

Let Sleeping Dogs Lie begins with a Chinese general who pillages the tomb of a Chinese empress.  The player characters descend into the criminal underworld in search of a relic from that tomb, and come face to face with a Triad run by a woman who claims to be that dead empress.  Is she?

There is this One Girl starts off with the Investigators asked to look into cheating at the casinos and dog races.  A Triad is behind the scam, but what is the source of their uncanny foresight?  

Curse of the Peacock’s Eye is probably the most ambitious and epic of the tales, and as mentioned before the one I suspect got the book banned in China (make of that what you will).  Mythos mastermind Lao Che seeks the Peacock’s Eye in the Lost City of Golden Sands.  This story serves up black lotus, a hideous curse, and the chance to leave the realm of 1920s Shanghai for somewhere a bit…different.

These scenarios all work perfectly in the overall feel of the campaign, one of a crowded and bustling city overlaying a criminal underworld of gambling, opium, and Mythos horror.  The Sassoon Files is very noir in its approach, leaning at times perhaps more towards pulp than purist but never so far that it can’t be run as a very straight, deadly, Lovecraftian campaign.  It does what Cthulhu has always done well, using the period setting to spice up the horrors.  It mixes both the exotic and the familiar, the glittering and the grotesque.

As mentioned at the start, this campaign is written both for GUMSHOE and for 7th edition Call of Cthulhu.  As one would expect, key antagonists and NPCs are given stats for both game systems.  The scenarios are very clearly laid out, with a core spine of clues to follow and plenty of detail.  With just a little work, some of them could even be adapted to other settings, though really the star of the show here is Shanghai itself.


“Write what you know” is what they tell aspiring authors, and this is what makes The Sassoon Files such an interesting product.  Not that the creative team behind it necessarily deals with Mythos horrors or recalls the 1920s, but it is clear they know the setting well enough to boil it down to what will best serve your gaming table.  The Shanghai in these pages is a superb mixture of stereotype and reality, history and horror.  It’s a polished, good looking product as well.  The layout is clear and readable, the art an excellent mix of photography and original works.  If you are looking for something a bit different for your Cthulhu campaign, you really can’t go wrong with this one.   

Monday, January 6, 2020


The following is a "rethink" on the previous blog post and how I plan on going forward in my campaign.


PROBABLY THE SINGLE most important rule in HeroQuest is the "credibility test" (HQ p. 74, HQG p. 113). On this subject, author Robin Laws writes;

In works of fiction, it is the author’s job to maintain the illusion of fictional reality by presenting the reader only with events that seem credible within the rules of reality they’ve established for their world. ...(a)s Narrator, you are never obligated to allow a contest just because two characters have abilities that can be brought into conflict.  If the character’s proposed result would seem absurd, you disallow the contest, period...(d)on’t make the mistake of assigning a high resistance to avoid an impossible outcome—lucky rolls and hero points can make your world seem suddenly ridiculous.  (HQ, p. 74)

The credibility test is vital because of the essential relativity of the system.  Assume two characters both operate in the same four-color comic book city of Metropolis.  There is no way that the first one, a "Professional Bodybuilder 7W2,” could use his Ability to stop a runaway locomotive, but the Daily Planet’s newest reporter could use his “Last Son of Krypton 17” to try.  It doesn’t matter that the bodybuilder’s Ability is far higher than the reporter’s; what matters is that by the rules of the setting Kryptonians are superhumanly strong.  Their comparative strength ratings have nothing to do with it.

The importance of the credibility test cannot be overstated, because it is often the only tool the rules give you to define your game.  

I ran afoul of this recently in my current HeroQuest Glorantha campaign.  I’ve been running Gloranthan games for 37 years, including three editions of RuneQuest, Hero Wars, HeroQuest, and even a GURPS conversion, but this was my first lengthy HeroQuest Glorantha campaign.  The error I made was in assuming it operated more or less along the same lines as Hero Wars and first edition HeroQuest, which of course it does not.  

The first six sessions of the campaign featured the player characters as un-initiated youths, without magic of any kind.  The next few sessions after that, they were using Basic Magic to augment their abilities.  The trouble began only after they started getting initiated, and getting access to Rune Magic.  This is how I learned the value of the credibility test.


As the rules are written, once your HeroQuest Glorantha character becomes a cult initiate;

You may now use all the Runes you share with your god directly, as you would any other ability…you may describe actions and contest results as overtly supernatural…credibility tests do not apply to them as long as your use is within the scope of the Rune…
(HQG p. 144) 

Now, in other Gloranthan games, two central themes defined Rune magic; its immense power and its scarcity.  Everyone used magic in Glorantha, but Rune Magic was your Big Gun, the thing you held on to and unleashed only at your most desperate moment.  In the days of RQ2, cult initiates paid dearly for Rune magic with permanent sacrifices of personal Power, and once they used it, it was gone for good.  Even then, “(m)ost cults restrict this to initiates going on cult missions, or as a rewards to trusted and long-standing members” (RQ2 p. 59).  Even Rune Priests—masters of this sort of magic and the emissaries of the gods—had to spend entire days in worship at a temple or shrine before they could use any Rune magic again, deterring them “from casting Rune magic frivolously (RQ2 p. 64). The latest edition of the game, RuneQuest Roleplaying in Glorantha, was considerably more generous with Rune magic, but still the rules required you to replenish your magic in worship and sacrifice on holy days.

There is no mechanic for scarcity in HQG, however.  While RuneQuest counts every hit point lost, every coin spent, every arrow fired, in HQG you don’t run out of these things unless you are defeated in a Contest and the Narrator decides the consequence of defeat is losing one of these resources.  The same applies for Rune magic.  There really is no reason for an Orlanth initiate to ever use a spear, when he can hurl lightning bolts instead.  There is no reason to walk home after a day of farming out in the fields when he can just teleport.  Mechanically, the only risk is that his player might fail the roll and the Ability is compromised.

Most players—even those drawn to more narrative-driven games like HQG—love to game the system.  It’s a natural instinct.  Given the way Difficulty works in HQG, the higher an Ability the increasingly less likely the character will fail and ever lose it…even for Nearly Impossible tasks. So what I began to see in my campaign then was other Abilities languishing while the players poured all their Hero Points into improving their Runes.  Rune magic increasingly became the answer to every problem.  All this might have been fine—resorting to powerful magic might have made perfect sense if these characters were Heroes or even Rune masters—but these were brand new initiates.  The internal logic of the setting began to fall apart.


What constitutes a credible action may vary from one campaign to the next.  A campaign centered around a group of desperate treasure hunters in the Big Rubble may have a very different definition of credible than a campaign centered on the eschatological conflicts of the Hero Wars…  (HQG, p. 114)

It was this single passage above that provided the answer I was looking for.  Unlike most game systems, the solution wasn’t in what the rules allow, but what is credible for your campaign.  The Rune magic rules are a generalization meant to model how this type of magic works for all levels of play—from new initiates to Heroes like Argrath.  The only way to create a distinction between a Hero and an initiate then is the credibility test.  

As a Game Master though I was still needed the conceptual architecture to justify this distinction. How much magic could an initiate use before credibility comes into play?  What is the limiting factor within the setting itself?  In RuneQuest, the question had always been “how much have you sacrificed?”  It is a very transactional relationship between the worshipper and the god; you give this much and get that much in return.  Yet in HeroQuest there was no way to effectively model this, you don’t acquire the spell first and then use it, you are asking for the spell right then and there.  So it occurred to me the new question the god had to be asking was “is this a worthy use of my power?”

In English, the word “worship” comes from the Old English weorð and -scipe, meaning together “the condition of being worthy.”  This struck me as the credibility test that I needed.  When attempting to perform Rune magic, if the deity finds the character unworthy of the magic, or doesn’t find this particular use of its power worthy, it doesn’t have to happen.  The deity can simply say “no.”

To determine if a use of Rune magic is worthy, then, we needed some criteria.  After some thought, I boiled it down to three;

  1. Does this use of magic further the aims of the deity, expand its influence, or protect its cult in the world?  Remember always that the character serves the deity, not the other way around.
  2. Is there another way for the same effect to be accomplished that doesn’t involve the deity expending its power?  Keep in mind that gods are “fueled” by worship and sacrifice, and that every expenditure of power diminishes them. 
  3. Is the worshipper worthy of this magic; i.e. does the character behave consistently according to its divine Rune affinity, does the character regularly worship and sacrifice, does the character hold any position in the cult (priest? Rune master?  Devotee?)?  The more important an instrument the character is, the more likely a deity will be to act. 

If the answer to one or more of these questions is “no,” GMs are well within their rights to impose a stretch penalty or to simply say the magic does not work.