"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, February 21, 2020


SO FIRMLY ASSOCIATED with the Roaring Twenties and the Great Depression--the periods in which H.P. Lovecraft set the majority of his tales of cosmic horror--we forget that Call of Cthulhu has included a wide variety of time periods and settings over the years.  As early as 1986, just five years after the game's initial release, there was Cthulhu by Gaslight, moving the scene from the 1920s to the 1890s of Victorian England.  A year later was Cthulhu Now, which brought the game to the now quaint and archaic world of the 1980s.  In the wake of the X-FilesDelta Green (1997) edged the setting up to the end of the millennium.  Just over a decade later, Cthulhu Invictus (2009) set the story in ancient Rome.

We'll come back to Invictus--and its authors Chad J. Bowser and Andi Newton--in a moment, but we would be remiss to forget Stéphane Gesbert's Cthulhu Dark Ages.  Originally published in German by Pegasus Spiele, under the title Cthulhu 1000 A.D., Chaosium's English edition came soon after in 2004.  The book was at once familiar and horrifyingly alien; it took a milieu (medieval Europe) we had seen in literally hundreds of games and a mythos (Cthulhu) almost equally recognizable and made them, somehow, more than the sum of these parts.  It wasn't even remotely similar to the fantasy settings we came to expect to see monks and clerics and warriors in, but a realm of brooding, investigative horror against inhuman and incomprehensible forces.  For me, it is in those forces that Gesbert outdid himself.  The Bestiary chapter introduced both new creatures and reskinned old ones (see what I did there) to look like they had been lurking behind medieval folklore all along.  Dwarves, goblins, Elves, vampires, even Satan all became masks of alien terrors.  Sticking out in my memory are the Old Ones, servants of Yog-Sothoth who inspired legends of the Fae, angels, even valkyries.  The effect was really something quite singular in a Call of Cthulhu supplement; as players and their Investigators worked to get to the center of the mystery, it would often end up that the players finally recognized the horror they were up against while the Investigators saw it as something entirely else.  The disappearing children?  The Investigators discover they are being taken away by gossamer-winged fairies associated with hollow hills and curious mushrooms...but the players see them as Mi-Go.

Cthulhu Dark Ages was a success, enough of one that the newly invigorated post-2015 Chaosium decided to bring it back (before even a new edition of Gaslight, this author notes, glaring at Chaosium demandingly and tapping his fingers on the table).  A sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Keeper Rulebook (it is not a stand-alone game), Cthulhu Dark Ages 3rd Edition follows in the footsteps of 2018's Masks of Nyarlathotep in that it does not merely update the previous edition to be compatible with 7e, but instead is a major revision packed with all sorts of new material that the devious cultists operating the Chaosium know you will not be able to resist.  Going forward then, I will summarize the contents of the new edition for readers altogether new to Dark Ages, but point out the changes and additions for those returning to it.

The Cthulhu Dark Ages I am reviewing is a 274-page PDF, written by Chad Bowser and Andi Newton (the team responsible for Cthulhu Invictus), with James Holloway and Mike Mason. It is based on Stéphane Gesbert's original. Visually, it is everything we have come to expect from the Call of Cthulhu 7e game line. The parchment colored pages, the layout, typefaces, etc are all identical to Masks of Nyarlathotep, The Grand Grimoire of Mythos Magic, Berlin: The Wicked City, and so on. The art is largely black and white, with a liberal amount of full-page color pieces as well.

Before jumping in I think credit has to be given to line editor Mark Mason for the surprising thoroughness of the 7e setting books. Berlin was astounding in the depth and breadth of detail it gave the "Wicked City," to the extent that someone such as myself--who has visited Berlin but is largely unfamiliar with the city--could comfortably and confidently run a Cthulhu campaign it its Weimar era. Dark Ages is no less exhaustive, not just with maps and histories, but in depth sections on Dark Ages society, literacy, language, and culture. You get a very complete picture here, from taxes and the justice system to the games children play. In my first read through I kept forgetting--until later chapters--that I was reading a Call of Cthulhu book. It felt like a fascinating and immersive history. None of us are going to walk out of Cthulhu Dark Ages with a PhD in the period, but any of us could run a campaign without constantly having to run to the Internet for research. It is really that complete.

To get this kind of depth though required this edition of Cthulhu Dark Ages to narrow its focus somewhat. While the previous editions were a more general overview of the period, focused primarily on the Continent, this new edition concentrates squarely on Anglo-Saxon England in the century running from 950 to 1050 CE. The first chapter, Anglo-Saxon England, is 34 pages detailing the region, and the eighth, Totburh, presents a fully realized Anglo-Saxon community as the Investigators' base of operations. The choice of Anglo-Saxon England seems a bit of a no-brainer given the tastes and obsessions of Lovecraft himself, and by selecting a single region to focus on, it allows this edition to do what previous ones couldn't...namely give you a living, breathing macrocosm of the period.

Chapter two, however, gives us a much broader look at the period with A - Z of the Dark Ages. The role here is to make it clear to the reader what the "Dark Ages" is, how it differs from the High Middle Ages (the period most gamers, after 40 years of conditioning, are more accustomed to). This was one of my favorite sections, and the one I feel most likely to periodically revisit. The section on "Magic" alone is worth the price of admission, right down to sample folk charms.

Chapter three is Dark Age Investigators, walking us through the process of making Call of Cthulhu characters for the setting. There are a host of occupations suited to the period, from beggars and clerics to free farmers, heretics, minstrels, and warriors, and a large table of "Life Events" that add background color. Perhaps you had the pox as a child, was raised in a monastery, or born under a gibbous moon. There are tons of colorful entries here along with the effects they have on your character. Additional tables present your character's Beliefs, Significant People, Meaningful Locations, Treasured Possessions, etc. All these may be selected or randomly determined. Naturally there are a broad selection of names offered as well. 

Then comes a long section of adapting Cthulhu skills to the setting, including new ones. To reflect the widespread illiteracy of the period, speaking a language and reading and writing it are separate things, for example. Melee combat skills are expanded, skills like Medicine more restricted. With a nod to Basic RolePlaying, "Status" replaces "Credit Rating." Investigator organizations also come in this chapter, giving the characters an in-world connection to each other. Finally we find weapons and equipment.

Chapter 4 is the Game System, with some interesting innovations here. Anyone has played Call of Cthulhu knows that at some point ponderous tomes of forbidden lore have to be consulted...but how does this work in a world where most Investigators cannot read? "The Oral Tradition" comes into play here, providing new ways for Investigators to discern critical Mythos secrets from folklore and oral accounts. Combat comes soon after, with a focus on the very familiar RPG tropes of sword, spear, and shield fighting, mounted combat, etc. There is an expanded section on disease.

Finally, as the centerpiece of Call of Cthulhu, "Sanity" is revisited. The more you think about it, the more obvious the need to adapt the concept to the period is. There is no psychoanalysis in the Dark Ages, and indeed in a world where acceptance of the supernatural is rampant, the stressors are very different. Thus we are introduced to the concepts of "Idiocy" and "Lunacy," the four humors and their imbalance, and of how "bouts of madness" might work in the setting.

Chapter 5 is Investigative Horror in the Dark Ages. This Keeper-oriented chapter gets under the hood of running a Dark Ages game, with special attention giving to using Oral Tradition in place of the more standard Cthulhu practice of heading to the library. There is also good advice on how not to run the game, to avoid it turning into a medieval fantasy RPG rather than weird horror. Chapter 6, The Cthulhu Mythos in the Dark Ages, broadens the scope well beyond Anglo-Saxon England to discuss centers of Mythos activity across the continent (and beyond). We are introduced to cults active during the period, and how the gods of the Mythos are viewed in the Dark Ages world. For characters who are literate, there is a selection of Mythos tomes around during the period, including occult tomes and poems (think "epic poem" here, the preferred narrative style in the days before novels). There is a long discussion on folk magic and witchcraft, and an extensive list of new spells. 

Then at last we come to Chapter 7, the Bestiary. This is where the third edition draws most heavily on the editions before it, with Stéphane Gesbert's terrific menagerie of Cthulhu horrors adapted to this setting, as well as an expanded selection new to this volume. Folkloric beings, such as the dragon from Beowulf or the pre-Dracula vampire, appear as well. I will not be spoiling the surprise, but the book provides its own vampire lord in the personage of a historical figure, a surprise that brought a wicked grin to my face.

As previously discussed, chapter 8 is the Totburh setting, populated by a ton of colorful NPCs. The book concludes with three scenarios, a Glossary, Timeline, Who's Who, and Bibliography.

The creative team here has delivered a terrific product. Both Bowser and Holloway bring academic credentials in the subject to Dark Ages, and the authenticity shows. Newton's storytelling skills give the characters and scenarios here depth, and Mason brings the same skills he did to the 7e rulebook. Call of Cthulhu has been Chaosium's flagship for decades now, and the work being done in its recent projects is as superb as it has ever been (the production values are the best we have seen). Cthulhu Dark Ages is a brilliant addition to the line, a book anyone who loves the game needs on their shelf...well, when it materializes in dead tree form. It has everything the previous edition has and more. 

Just buy it already.   

Tuesday, February 11, 2020



This is not a review.

Think of it as a conversation instead.  There is a fair bit of history in here, and an overview of the game system for people new to it, but the author is painfully aware most readers will have played one or more incarnations of this legendary game system already.   The goal then isn't necessarily to sell you on the system, but rather to persuade you why it would be a very good idea to have a copy of Basic Roleplaying: The Chaosium Role-playing System on your shelf or in your PDF collection.  Some of it will be addressed to newcomers, some to RuneQuest or Call of Cthulhu players.  This book is a toolkit, a Rosetta Stone.  With it you can craft nearly any campaign you can imagine, but it also allows you to get under the hood of other Chaosium games and tinker with them, adjusting them to taste.

So grab some coffee, a nice cuppa, or whatever libation is your fancy and join me on a walk through this extraordinary piece of game design.



A lot of thought has gone into this game.  It shows.  It is playable yet realistic.  You don't need several supplement books to play it.  Even though it was designed to fit one particular world, it could easily be used for any world.  Since this game contains a logical system, almost anything could be added to the matrix it represents.  A gem of a game.  You won't be disappointed.

The Space Gamer, September-October 1978

Holm was reviewing RuneQuest, an RPG published by a new game studio called the Chaosium.  Designed by Steve Perrin and Ray Turney, with help from Steve Henderson and Warren James, RuneQuest had been written to bring Greg Stafford's Glorantha to the gaming table.  Yet as Holm pointed out, the system they created was flexible enough for any setting, and not just that, any genre.  Stafford, founder and president of Chaosium, clearly agreed.  Within two years, Basic Role-Playing, a "Gloranthaless" iteration of the rules was published, and the following year saw this system as the engine of both Michael Moorcock's baroque fantasy Stormbringer and H.P. Lovecraft's horror Call of Cthulhu (by Ken St. Andre and Sandy Petersen respectively).  Basic Role-Playing (BRP) became the in-house game system for most of Chaosium's subsequent games.  In 1982, with the release of Worlds of Wonder--a boxed set containing the BRP rules and three genre books for fantasy, science-fiction, and super-heroes--BRP officially became the first "universal system."

Two decades after that Space Gamer review, however, Chaosium hit its iceberg.  After a long string of critically acclaimed RPGs, the studio jumped on the collectible card game (CCG) bandwagon with Mythos.  It was a disaster.  As Shannon Appelcline writes in his terrific history of the RPG industry;

CCG losses usually run at a scale much higher than RPG losses. Hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of inventory were tied up on the warehouse floor and the result was devastating for Chaosium... (By) 1998 there was no one remaining who was actually taking a paycheck. Again, Chaosium responded by shutting down several of its lines, this time Pendragon, Elric!, Nephilim, and Mythos itself. By 1997 Chaosium once more cut back to being solely a Call of Cthulhu publisher...

Designers & Dragons: The 70s, p. 274

In the wake of this, Greg Stafford left the house he had built, along with Sandy Petersen.  Charlie Krank and Lynn Willis were left struggling to pull the company back from the brink. Stafford had taken Glorantha with him, and all the licensed games--Stormbringer, Elfquest, Ringworld, Hawkmoon--were long gone or about to be lost.  Green Knight gained the rights to King Arthur Pendragon as the result of a defaulted loan.  Call of Cthulhu was the lifeboat keeping Chaosium afloat.  Yet in this very dark period one of my favorite Chaosium products appeared.

Even though they had lost all the licenses and settings, the one thing Chaosium retained was BRP, the engine that had driven most of them.  More to the point, they had two decades of variations, sub-systems, options, and add-ons to BRP.  The decision was made to gather all of this into one book (by way, first, of a long string of monographs).  Jason Durall and Sam Johnson joined Krank and Willis to produce the definitive incarnation of BRP, Basic RolePlaying: The Chaosium RolePlaying System (2008).


Currently available in PDF or softcover (I have a hardcover edition as well that appears to be out of print), BRP (italicized I am specifically referring to the 2008 book, as "BRP" I refer to the game system) weighs in at 400 pages with black and white illustrations.  The layout is clean, double-columned, with very few typos.  The hardcover is beautifully bound with glossy pages, and the softcover has an equally durable binding.  I've used both for over ten years now and they still look like new.  The cover is a parchment-colored rendition of da Vinci's Vitruvian Man with a twist; different parts of his body are suggestive of the various genres you might game in.   Whil we are not talking the stunning production values of more recent Chaosium lines, BRP is still a very attractive product.

Chapters one through eight are for both players and gamemasters.  They cover in order; an Introduction to BRP and its history, Character Creation, Skills, Powers (Magic, Mutations, Psychic Abilities, Sorcery, and Super Powers), the game System, Combat, Spot Rules (covering a number of specific events not covered in the general rules), and Equipment.  Chapters nine through twelve are for the gamemaster alone.  There is a chapter on how to GM the game, a terrific chapter on Settings (from Prehistoric to Space Opera, arranged in roughly chronological order and with sections on things like Noir, Pulp Era, Westerns, Age of Sail, etc), a Bestiary covering monsters and NPCs from various genres, and the Appendices that include conversion notes, charts and tables, character and NPC forms, and an extensive index.


What Durall and the Chaosium team managed to do was to synthesize a "core" version of BRP from almost three decades of versions, and then to collect all the various sub-systems and variations to present them as options.

Characters--and by this I mean also animals, monsters, and NPCs--are represented by Characteristics and Skills.  There are seven core Characteristics--Strength, Constitution, Size, Dexterity and Intelligence, Power, Appearance.  The first four are physical traits (and in humans have a maximum of 21) while the second three are mental (with no upper limits).  Obviously nonhumans and superhumans have different minimums and maximums.  The Characteristics represent in order how strong, hardy, big, agile, intelligent, powerful, and charismatic a being is.  "Power" is a tricky attribute, representing willpower and mental fortitude, as well as magical potency in fantasy settings, psychic power in science fiction, or "energy" in a superhero setting.

Options come into play here in how Characteristics are generated, either by dice rolls or point-buy systems, depending on your tastes.  Another option is an eighth Characteristic, Education, suitable for more modern and futuristic settings with widespread educational systems.

These core Characteristics determine both Derived Characteristics and Characteristic Rolls.  Derived characteristics include your damage bonus, determined by your Strength and Size; your hit points, determined by Size and Constitution; your Power Points, equal to your Power Characteristic, and an experience bonus equal to one half your Intelligence.  These are all measures of how much damage you dish out in unarmed or melee combat, how much damage you can take, how much "magic" or "psychic" energy at your disposal, and how well you learn from exercising your skills.

On the subject of Skills, the Characteristic Rolls are determined by multiplying your base Characteristic by 5 percentiles.  So if your Appearance is 13, you have a Characteristic Roll of 65% in that.  As a side note, Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition (the first post-BRP edition of the venerable game) adopts the Characteristic Roll by just making all the Characteristics percentiles.

As you might have surmised from this segue, in BRP "Skills" are all rated in percentiles.  Unlike Characteristics, which are common to all characters, Skills are learned abilities and vary tremendously from character to character.  They are divided into six broad groupings, each optionally connected to Primary and Secondary Characteristics.  These groups are Combat, Communication, Manipulation, Mental, Perception, and Physical Skills.  For example, for Communication Skills, Intelligence is primary with Power and Appearance as secondary characteristics.  Again, and this is an optional system for those who like depth and realism, skill modifiers are generated from the applicable Characteristics and applied to all Skills in that group.  For example, a character is an INT of 15, a POW of 13, and an APP of 12 would apply a bonus of +5 to all Communication Skills.  For play groups who prioritize speed and simplicity of play, this option is skipped.

The number of percentiles you receive to distribute to your Skills depends on the "power level" of the campaign.  These levels are Normal, Heroic, Epic, and Superhuman and will also affect Powers (see below).

In the end, your Skills will be rated from 0 to 100, though again as another option Skills can actually go above 100.  In a Superhuman campaign, Skills of 150%, 200%, or higher would not be uncommon.  To test each Skill, the GM first determines the difficulty. Automatic means no roll is required, you simply succeed; Easy means your base percentage is doubled; Average means your percentage remains as if; Difficult means your percentage is halved; and Impossible requires a roll of 01% or none at all.  The player then rolls percentile dice against this percentage.  Note that in campaigns and play styles more simulationist in nature, the GM might assign these difficulties based on circumstance and complicating factors, but for groups with more narrative-driven tastes, the difficulties could just as easily be assigned based on the needs of the story,

After difficulties are assigned, you roll under this percentage to succeed, and if you roll over and you fail.  Note, however, there are three other "levels" of results; a Critical, a Special, and a Fumble.  A critical is the best possible result, a special is a particularly good result, and a fumble is a disaster.  Depending on your skill rating, chances of these special results fluctuate.  If you have a skill rating of 50%, a roll of 01 to 03 is critical, 01 to 10 is special, and 98 to 00 is a fumble.  If your skill rating is 100%, criticals result on 01 to 05, specials on 01 to 20, and fumbles on 00 alone.  This is why in more Epic and Superhuman campaigns, skills above 100% remain useful.

Famously, BRP has always eschewed class, experience points, and levels.  When you use a skill successfully, you check it.  After play, your character has a chance to learn from experience and increase that skill.  Depending on the setting, it is also possible to purchase skill or characteristic training in-world.  This makes BRP games organic.  They feel natural. The characters grow in logical and sometimes surprising ways.

Note too it does not use systems of advantages or disadvantages.  Being poor, or sickly, or having some disability are all covered in the skill and characteristic systems, as are their opposites.  Again this reduces the "mechanistic" aspects of the role-play experience for something more intuitive.


Combat in various BRP games has varied considerably, from the gritty and detailed RuneQuest to the more cinematic Stormbringer or four-color comic Superworld.  BRP allows you to tailor combat for your campaign then through its system of checking options.

At the core, however, the attacker makes a Combat skill roll, the defender either rolls to parry (block the attack) or dodge (evade the attack).  The better roll wins (a critical beats a special, a special beats a success, a success beats a failure, a failure beats a fumble).  The degree of success also matters; an attacker who gets a critical against a defender who gets a fumble will end with the defender in a world of hurt.  Once the attacker lands a successful blow, he or she rolls damage based on the weapon used and the character's damage bonus.  The defender checks his or her armor (if any) and subtracts that from the damage total, applying the rest to his or her hit points.

Everything else depends on what options you have chosen to play by.

For example, for a detailed, gritty, simulation-heavy play style the order of combat (who goes first) might be determined by Strike Ranks, calculated by DEX and SIZ and the reach of your weapon.  You might employ the Hit Location system, in which hit points are listed for each arm, leg, your head, chest, and abdomen.  A d20 roll determines where each blow lands.  Unrealistic rules, like dodging missile fire, are not employed.

In a superhero campaign, however, you might go in order of highest DEX down, or even roll for initiative.  You would ignore Hit Locations (in fact, you probably use the option where hit points are calculated by adding CON and SIZ instead of averaging them).  You would likely use the dodging missile fire option, so your characters can roll and tumble out of the way of gunfire, and you might even want to use the Fate Points option where you can spend some of your Power Points for re-rolls or the lessen damage.

In short, how combat plays depends entirely on what options you have chosen to sculpt the play style you want.


Most campaigns feature some sort of paranormal, superhuman abilities, and BRP offers a host of them.  Again, the number of these you start with, and their beginning strength, depends on the power level of the campaign (Normal, Heroic, Epic, Superhuman).

Instead of a single system that models all possibilities, BRP offers 5 distinct Power sets, all that feel and operate differently.  Supplements offer even more systems.  The ones included are Magic, the most typical fantasy RPG sort of spell system, Mutations both beneficial and negative, useful in grim fantasy for the touch of Chaos or in radioactive futures, Psychic Abilities good for the superhero and horror genres, Sorcery, a more baroque magic system including the conjuration of elementals, gods, and demons, and Super Powers perfect for comic book games or mythic ones.  Depending on your campaign, one or more of these might be used.  In most cases (though not all) use of a Power requires a skill roll and the expenditure of Power Points.  This is not always the case, however.  For example, the Super Characteristic "Super Power" enables you to increase your STR Characteristic permanently and far beyond mortal levels.  This works automatically, is always active, and costs no Power Points to use.

This is a different approach from many other universal systems, such as Cypher or Savage Worlds, but the advantage is--as with all options in the game--that each BRP campaign will feel unique.


Newcomers.  If you are new to gaming, or even just new to this particular system, you are never going to find a game system this organic, this logical, this easy to grasp.  Don't take my word on that; just go back over the three decades of accolades and awards the system has garnered.  This is a storied game system whose influence upon the entire industry can barely be measured.  There are reasons for that. The rules are a bit like a fine Napoleon brandy.

Wait...stop rolling your eyes.  That wasn't hyperbole, I am going somewhere with it.  Many, many years ago a friend who bartended in an upscale hotel poured me a glass of a Napoleon brandy too expensive for mere mortals such as myself to ever dream of purchasing.  I will never forget the experience; I do not recall swallowing...the stuff just seemed to evaporate in my mouth.

And this brings me to the point.  BRP has always been a system that just "evaporates" in play, leaving the taste and the warmth behind.  The mechanics fade into the background allowing the play experience, the characters and the story, to come first.  There are no time-stopping calculations, no head-scratching.  The system makes sense and it is very easy to make rulings everyone can agree on without pouring through the rulebook.

Finally, its modular nature really does allow you to experiment, to design exactly the tone and feel of the campaign you want.  The core rules are so simply they once were squeezed into a 16-page rulebook, so the 400 pages of BRP are really just a giant buffet of picking and choosing what your game needs to be the game you want.

Call of Cthulhu, RuneQuest, and Other BRP Players.  For the rest of you then the core issue here is compatibility.

You already know how well Chaosium games "play nice" with each other.  In college, for example, I ran a Stormbringer campaign that sailed the player characters into the Call of Cthulhu Dreamlands.  Earlier in high school, my Superworld players defended San Francisco against the rise of Great Cthulhu.  This is what I meant by BRP being a Rosetta Stone; it's a terrific tool for translation.

Let's say you want your Call of Cthulhu campaign to feature the psychic vampires of the True Knot feeding on child psychics (a la Doctor Sleep), or you want your Investigators to be psychics themselves.  There is a complete system waiting for you in BRP ready to be popped right into your campaign.  Let's say you want things a bit more Gothic horror; the demon summoning rules in the Sorcery section can help.

RuneQuest Glorantha players, how are you handling powers gained during "heroquests?"  Back in college I used the Super Powers from Superworld to design them for my RQ2 campaign, and it is even easier to do now with BRP.  Has your Orlanthi gotten the ability to throw bolts of lightning?  Easily done!  Have your characters become champions of their clans, their cities, their nations?  Do they have supporters and worshippers sacrificing POW to them?  Adapt the "Extra Energy" Super Power to model a growing pool of Magic Points available to them.  Or what if you want to run a campaign that is just a bit less RuneQuest and a bit more HeroQuest or even White Bear & Red Moon?  Drop the hit locations and use some of the more cinematic options in BRP to create an RQ game just a bit more "juiced."  Heck, why not run a full on campaign at the power level of Jar-Eel or Harrek?  Easy to do with BRP.

The point is, of course, that despite not having Call of Cthulhu or RuneQuest in the title, BRP is a terrific sourcebook for both games.  Decades of options are in there, from Pendragon's personality traits to Stormbringer's Allegiance and Cthulhu's Sanity.