RPG Creations and Musings.

Archive for August, 2013

Trad and Indie, and the Heroine RPG

In a “traditional” RPG, there are several players and a game master (GM). In the game, each player controls the actions of a so-called player character (PC), who are the protagonists of an unfolding story, and the game master is responsible for the world and every other character. Each PC has a character sheet, where their skills and in general what they are capable and good at (or bad at) is detailed in terms of game-mechanics.

Within the traditional RPG there is a great variation. Some are quite simple, with the rules fitting into a few pages, and others are heavier on the rules front. Many many genres and settings are covered.

Then there are “indie” RPGs. I don’t like that term- there’s a confusion as to whether it’s used to denote something small-press and creator-owned or something with a certain philosophy of play that differs from the traditional. I’m using it in this post in the second sense (where there is a substantial overlap with the first, though there are many “traditional” RPGs that are also creator-owned). I’m using it because it’s probably the most commonly used term, and I don’t want to introduce more terminology, though Storygame seems to be reasonably popular, and Hippy Game, as used sometimes on UKRoleplayers, I quite like.

Indie RPGs move the focus away from the actions and abilities of the player characters to the story told as a group, to a greater or lesser extent. Some have players as well as the GM make contributions to the narrative rather than just PC actions. Character sheets can be simplified or even done away with entirely. Rules tend to be simple, but often a shared responsibility rather than adjudicated by the GM, who must abide by rules (possibly in a different form) just as much as the players. Some of them share GM responsibility, or do away with the GM entirely, with the rules structuring the story. Many Indie games are extremely focused on a specific type of story, with all of the rules going towards that.

I’m just describing what I see as trends in Indie RPGs here rather than trying to define anything- that’s a game I’m not going to go into. I’m also not going to go near the argument about whether or not some of them are RPGs- even if they’re not, according to whatever definition, they’re clearly closely related, and that’s enough for me. I should also comment that some traditional RPGs do take ideas from Indie RPGs and incorporate them into that framework. It’s not two camps, it’s a spectrum, and I’m most comfortable somewhere in the middle part of the spectrum in most of the RPGs I play, though there are always exceptions.

I mention all this as Josh Jordan has kindly given me an electronic copy of his RPG, Heroine, for review purposes. It’s Indie and it’s rather good, and I thought I’d give some context first.

So what’s it about? Well, there’s a number of pieces of fiction out there that involves a girl growing up who is somehow transported to another world, where she undergoes various heroic experiences in that world, before returning to the real world having learned something about herself, and maybe gaining a more mature perspective. Examples are of course The Wizard of Oz, but also Alice in Wonderland, Coraline, Labyrinth and Mirrormask.

That’s the set-up for the Heroine RPG– a Heroine begins with real life problems in the real world, before being transported, having adventures, facing an antagonist, and returning to the real world having grown more mature and able to cope with a real life obstacle. This is a single story, designed to play out in one game session, with a structure encoded by the game’s rules.

Amongst the players, one plays the Heroine herself, who is undeniably the central player in the narrative, but to a great extent is reacting against what the other players do. Another is the Narrator (basically, the GM). The others play Companions- people accompanying the Heroine in the otherworld. The game is divided into chapters, each of which ends in a central Challenge, which is described mechanically in terms of various “moves” the GM is allowed. The Companion players can simplify or complicate the challenge. The heroine is allowed various moves to respond to the Challenge. These Heroine moves are Be Heroic which means the heroine will behave admirably, but may or may not triumph, Be Successful, which means the heroine succeeds in the challenge, but might not come across very well, or Take a Chance which means the heroine either succeeds and looks brilliant, or fails and looks foolish, with slightly greater odds of the positive outcome than the other two moves.

That’s basically it. There are Drama Points for the Companion and Narrator players, which are needed for certain actions. One of these actions lets a Companion player take over as Narrator, with the Narrator playing a Companion. There are no character sheets- everything is described by the narration and decided by the various moves. You could easily play this with little or no preparation time, even as the Narrator.

By now, you probably know whether the game is for you or not. It’s an easy and clear read, being about sixty pages long, with separate chapters for the Heroine, Narrator and Companion players. It looks delightful, with a nice page background, crisp font, and art in the form of well-done photographs of models in costumes. The PDF is nicely hyperlinked. There’s no index, but it hardly seems needed. There are nice charts summarising the structure at the end. I like it a lot, and I look forward to trying it out in play with the right group.

Fate RPG Magic

I’ve liked the Fate RPG engine for a long time- long before the latest iteration came out to play. I liked it so much, I cowrote my own Fate-powered RPG.  But that’s not what this post is about.  What it’s about is sharing a magic system I designed for Fate before Fate Core was around.  I’m not currently using it for anything at the moment, but would if I wanted something a bit more like “typical” RPG magic in a Fate game.  Here you go…

* * * * * *

Elemental Sorcery- A magic system for FATE

Under this system, there are three magical skills. They replace the Mysteries skill.



The sorcery skill is used to cast spells. Any character can learn this skill; however, without certain stunts, he is restricted to common magic, and can only cast spell from one of the five domains: energy, life, matter, mind, space. The element must be chosen when this skill is taken.

The character knows one common spell per level of his sorcery skill. 


The countermagic spell is used to defend against a magical attack made against the character. Any spell affecting the character can be neutralised, even if he is not the only target. However, indirect attacks cannot be defended against with this skill. Further, without certain stunts, existing spells are unaffected.

Magic Sensitivity

A magic sensitivity skill check is made to sense the presence of magic, a character casting a spell, or magical creatures or objects, even if hidden from ordinary sight. If applicable, the character can sense the element involved in the magic.

The scope of this skill can be increased using stunts.


Spellcasting Stunts

Adept (requires a relevant aspect)

An adept is not restricted to common spells, and can learn those labelled as adept spells. The character gains one adept spell for free when this stunt is taken.

Not every character can become an adept- it requires special talent and training. The knowledge required to train an adept is usually restricted to those in power; most adepts are either nobles or have a noble patron. In any case, a character needs a relevant aspect to take this stunt.


A character with this stunt can use the Countermagic skill to affect spells that have already been cast. Each Countermagic action affects a single spell.

Extra Spells

This stunt grants a character a number of common spells equal to his sorcery skill, of any type available. Adept spells and magus spells can also be learnt with this stunt; however, an adept spell counts as two common spells, and a magus spell as three common spells.


A character with this stunt can identify the precise spell used when using the Magic Sensitivity skill. When he comes across a magical item, he has a general idea what it does and how to use it.

Magus (requires the Adept stunt)

The most powerful sorcerers of all are termed magi. This stunt means a character can cast magus-level spells- the most powerful available. Further, he gains on magus spell for free when this stunt is taken.

New Domain

This stunt simply enables a character to learn spells from a new domain. Further, when it is taken, one spell of the new element is gained.

It can be taken up to four times, meaning a character has access to all five domains.

* * *

Unless otherwise noted, spells can be cast fairly quickly; casting a spell is no different to taking any other action in a conflict. A sorcery skill check against difficulty 0 is made to cast a spell.

However, magic has a cost. Casting a spell inflicts damage to the magus’ composure stress track. The damage is 2 stress for a common spell, 4 stress for an adept spell, and 6 stress for a magus spell. The stress is reduced by one for each level of success.

Countermagic has the same stress cost as the spell being neutralised, with each level of success reducing the cost by one.

A failed attempt to cast a spell or use countermagic costs 1 stress.


Common Spells

Electric Charge (Range: Self)

Causes the caster to crackle with electricity for a scene. Any hand to hand attacks have a +2 damage bonus.

Environmental Protection (Range: Same zone)

Up to one target per sorcery level is unaffected by natural extremes of heat and cold for half a day. Either the number affected or the duration is doubled on a critical success.

Extinguish (Range: One zone)

Puts out all fires within a zone.

Fiery Bolt (Range: Two zones)

A victim is struck by a fiery bolt; this is a normal attack that ignores armour, and has a +1 bonus to damage.

Flame Blade (Range: Touch)

Enchants a weapon so that it blazes with fire for a scene. Any attacks have a +2 damage bonus.

Resist Fire and Cold (Range: Touch)

The beneficiary is immune to the effects of ordinary heat, fire, and cold, and takes half damage from magical fire and cold for one scene.

Silence of the Grave (Range: Two zones)

This spell creates an area of silence within a zone. No sound can be heard at all within this area, or can pass out of or into the shielded area. This spell lasts for an hour.

Torch without Fire (Range: Short)

Enchants an object so that it casts light within the same zone for a week.

Unnatural Darkness (Range: One zone)

This spell creates an area of darkness covering everything within one zone. Normal sight within the area is impossible. Lasts for a day.


Adept Spells

Bolt of Lightning (Range: Two zones)

A victim is struck by a bolt of lightning; this is a normal attack that ignores armour, and has a +3 bonus to damage.

Barrier of Fire (Range: Two zones)

Creates a wall of fire up to 60m long. A ring up to 6m across per skill rank is also a possibility. The barrier lasts lasts for half a day. Crossing the wall of fire needs a Superb athletics check; each level of failure inflicts 2 points of damage.

Up to 1 target per sorcery level can be trapped in a ring; each is allowed an opposed athletics check to avoid this.

Burst of Light (Range: Two zones)

Light blazes out from the caster, affecting up to one victim per sorcery level. This is an attack, with a +2 bonus to damage, but only affects undead creatures, demons, and similar creatures of darkness.

Flame Breath (Range: One zone)

The caster can breathe fire, affecting up to one victim per sorcery level. This is an attack, with a +1 bonus to damage.

Scorching Blast (Range: Two zones)

A victim is struck by fire; this is a normal attack that ignores armour, and has a +3 bonus to damage.

Shield of Flame (Range: Self)

The caster is surrounded by fire for a scene. The fires do not harm him, but any within melee range take 1 damage each round.

Magus Spells

Fiery Devastation (Range: Three zones)

Explosions affect up to one target per sorcery level. This is an attack, with a +3 bonus to damage.

Incinerate (Range: Long)

This spell is typically used as an attack against a single target. It has a +5 bonus to damage, and armour is ignored. A target who is taken out is turned to ash.


Common Spells

Circle of Protection (Range: Self)

Undead creatures, demons, and so on cannot approach within the same zone as the caster for a scene.

Protection from Poison and Disease (Range: Same zone)

The target is immune from poison and disease for a day.

Skin of Stone (Range: Touch)

The target gains a +2 bonus to armour for a scene.

Touch of the Void (Range: Two zones)

An attack with a +1 bonus to damage that ignores armour. Damage from this spell leaves no mark.

Adept Spells

Dead Men Walking (Range: Short)

Animates one corpse per skill rank as a zombie- an unintelligent undead being capable of obeying simple commands from the caster.

The corpses remain animated for a week.

Eternal Rest (Range: Three zones)

This spell is an attack only affecting undead creatures. It has a +3 bonus to damage, and ignores armour.

This spell can also be cast on a corpse, or on a location where someone died. In this case, the departed can never return as an undead being, be raised from the dead, or contacted with Whispers from Beyond the Grave.

Internal Alchemy (Range: Touch)

Reduces the effects of a poison or disease in a victim touched from major to minor, or from minor to none.

The Leeching Spell (Range: One zone)

This spell is an attack against a victim. Any damage inflicted is healed by the caster. The character can in fact reverse this spell, draining himself in order to heal another.

Two points of damage healed can reverse a minor consequence, four points a major consequence, and six points a severe consequence.

Rooted to the Earth (Range: Two zones)

A victim of this spell can resist with the athletics skill. He cannot move from where he stands for a scene, gaining a “Rooted to the Earth” aspect, but can otherwise act normally.

This spell typically affects a single victim. However, one extra target is affected per level of spin.

Water Breathing (Range: Same zone)

The target can breathe underwater for a day.

Magus Spells

Curse of Undeath (Range: Same zone)

This spell must be cast on a dead body. It animates the body in the form of a wight. A wight is an undead being with a shadow of its old personality and a hatred for the living. It must obey commands from the caster, although instructions can be twisted and perverted.

However, the caster can keep control of no more than one wight per sorcery level. If he creates more wights, control of those created first is lost first.

Defy Death (Range: Same zone)

This spell lasts for one scene. While it is in effect, the recipient will not die, regardless of damage taken. However, if he has taken enough damage to kill him, he dies when the scene is over.

Immortality (Range: Touch)

The target stops ageing from the moment the spell is in effect. It costs a Fate Point, and permanently lowers the casters maximum Fate point total by one.

Petrification (Range: Three zones)

This spell is typically used as an attack against a single target. It has a +5 bonus to damage, and armour is ignored.

This spell can also reverse the effects of petrification, but any damage to the statue remains when the victim is restored (although the Instant Repair spell can potentially fix this). No time passes for the victim while in this state.

Finally, the caster can also partially petrify a victim, turning him to stone from the waist down. He does not age, and need not eat or sleep in this state, drawing sustenance from the earth. An unwilling victim who succeeds in an endurance check at the usual penalties takes no damage from this variant.

Return from Death (Range: Same zone)

This spell restores an individual to life who recently died, provided his body is largely intact. The victim can have been dead for no more than the last day. It costs a Fate Point.


Common Spells

Charm of Opening and Sealing (Range: Same zone)

The opening charm causes any door, lock, or knot to spring open.

The sealing charm seals a makes a door or other opening as strong as the surrounding material, and turns a number of objects chosen by the caster into keys; the maximum number of keys is the caster’s skill rank. Only an individual carrying a key can open a sealed door. The effects last for up to one day per level.

Clear Sailing (Range: Self)

This spell protects a ship from storms and hostile currents (including the Turbulence spell), and ensures good sailing conditions for the next day. The caster must be on board for this spell to work.

Cloud of Mist (Range: One zone)

This spell creates an area of dense fog covering everything within one zone. Normal sight within the area is impossible. Lasts for a day.

Favourable Winds (Range: Self)

The caster can dictate the direction and speed of wind around him for the next day. This spell is not powerful enough to create gales and hurricanes, but can, for example, always ensure favourable sailing conditions.

Instant Repair (Range: Touch)

Repairs all damage to a small object. This spell can also be used on larger structures, in which case the number of hit points of damage repaired is d6+1 per rank (double with a critical success). Only inanimate objects can be affected.

Local Storm (Range: Three zones)

Engulfs a target in battering winds for a scene. If flying, the target needs to make an athletics check each round, or be forced to land. Further, all actions made by the target have a -1 penalty.

Razor Sharpness (Range: Touch)

Turns an object into a tool that can cut through anything for one scene. If used on a weapon, it has a +1 bonus to damage, and ignores armour.

Repel Water (Range: Touch)

This spell lasts for half a day. While it is in effect, the recipient stays perfectly dry, water being repelled from his body. Perhaps more importantly, the repulsion is strong enough that he can even walk on water.

Shatter (Range: Two zones)

Destroys a small inanimate object dramatically. Shatter can also be used as an attack against larger objects, in which case it inflicts stress damage rather than causing instant destruction.

Sudden Deluge (Range: Self)

Causes it to rain, snow, or hail for the next day in an area within 1km of the caster per skill rank. The type of precipitation is whatever is natural to the region and season.

Sorcerous Craftsmanship (Range: Self)

The magecraft spell lets a character work earth, stone, metal, or wood at an impressive rate for one minute per skill rank, without using any tools. He can do as much work in each minute as he normally could in an hour.

Winds of Protection (Range: Touch)

All attacks made against the target have a -1 penalty for a scene.

Adept Spells

Barrier of Stone (Range: One zone)

Creates a stone wall up to 1m thick and 30m long. The wall can be up to 20m high, and can be any shape. The wall begins to crumble after one day per sorcery level.

Ice Storm (Range: Two zones)

Falling ice affects up to one target per sorcery level. This is an attack, with a +1 bonus to damage.

Ice Structure (Range: One zone)

Creates an ice wall, bridge, crude building, or similar structure up to 30m and 20m high. It begins to melt after a few hours.

Incorporeality (Range: Self)

This spell turns the character and everything worn or carried into a cloud of dark gas. While incorporeal, the character can pass through solid objects. His senses are normal. However, he cannot interact physically with the material world. Even spells with physical effects are insubstantial, although other magic works normally.

However, while incorporeal, the character can only be damaged by magical weapons or spells. Damaging spells work normally. This spell lasts for one scene, or until the caster chooses to end it.

Water Jet (Range: One zone)

Blasts a victim with a jet of water; the force is enough that an opposed athletics check is needed for him to stay on his feet.

It is possible to use less force, using this spell simply to create drinkable water. In this case, up to one day’s water for a single person per sorcery level is produced.

Magus Spells

Earthquake (Range: Self)

The earthquake spell affects an area 1km across centred on the caster. In that area, normal buildings are destroyed, and fortified buildings are damaged (and treated as normal buildings until repaired). A victim caught within a collapsing building must make a Superb athletics check, suffering one point of damage per level of failure.

At sea, all boats and ships are capsized or sunk, depending on size. This spell costs a Fate point.

Parting the Waves (Range: Three zones)

This spell causes water to flow away from an area up to 100m across per skill rank, exposing the river or sea bed. The spell lasts for a day.

Although dramatic, this spell is too slow to threaten ships and swimmers, although it can create a barrier.

Turbulence (Range: Long)

Surrounds a ship by pounding waves and hostile currents, meaning an opposed Sailing check is needed not to capsize or sink. Swimmers in the water need similar checks to avoid drowning.

Weather Control (Range: Self)

The caster can control the weather in an area up to 1km across per sorcery level. Storms can be created or safely dispersed. Any unusual weather lasts for a day.

Violent weather does no damage to living targets, but can make combat or even movement effectively impossible in the area affected. Other possible effects of created storms include the following.

  1. Flying creatures: Flying creatures are forced to land, and must make an athletics check to avoid falling damage from whatever height they are flying.

  1. Ships: The pilot of a ship must make a skill check to avoid capsizing or sinking, depending on size.

  1. Buildings: Normal buildings are destroyed, and fortified buildings are damaged (and treated as normal buildings until repaired).


Common Spells

Dark Adapted Eye (Range: Touch)

A beneficiary can see in the dark for a day.

Dark Command (Range: One zone)

Forces an undead being to obey a single spoken command. An opposed Resolve check is allowed to resist.

Heart’s Fire (Range: Same zone)

Any effects of fear on targets chosen within the same zone, either natural or supernatural, are negated.

Adept Spells

Whispers from Beyond the Grave (Range: Same zone)

This spell summons a shade of a departed being. It must either be cast on the corpse (actually, the head or skull of the corpse suffices), or at the location where the deceased actually passed away.

The shade remains for a scene, and can converse with the caster and others, although it cannot otherwise affect the material world. The shade has the same personality it had in life, and knows what it knew at the moment of death. It may or may not be cooperative when asking questions, although other spells can be used to compel it.

Words in the Wind (Range: Special)

The caster sends a short message to a fixed location within 10km per rank. It can be heard by anyone at the location.

Magus Spells

Mists of Confusion (Range: Self)

This spell surrounds the caster’s current location with mists in a radius of up to rank km, or twice that with a critical success. The mists are almost impossible to navigate; finding the location needs a critical success on a Navigation skill check. Only one attempt is allowed.

Even escaping the mists requires a Navigation skill check at a -2 penalty. Only one attempt per day is allowed for a particular individual or group.

This spell lasts for a year. The caster, and a number of others equal to the sorcery skill level are unaffected by the mists.

Rouse Unquiet Spirit (Range: Same zone)

This spell must be at the location where a particular individual died. It creates a wraith. A wraith is an incorporeal undead being with a shadow of its old personality and a hatred for the living. It must obey commands from the caster, although instructions can be twisted and perverted.

However, the caster can keep control of no more than one wraith per sorcery skill level. If he creates more wights, control of those created earlier is lost first.


Commmon Spells

Clear Passage (Range: Same zone)

The caster, and one follower per sorcery skill level, can travel over any terrain as if it were clear flat level ground. The spell lasts for as long as the caster continues to travel without interruption. 

Hand of Air (Range: Two zones)

For one scene, the character can manipulate objects within range as if using one hand. Direct attacks made by this spell are resolved in the same way as unarmed combat. A weapon can also be wielded using this spell. This spell does not grant extra actions; ranged actions are instead of normal actions.

Penetrating Gaze (Range: Self)

The character can see through solid obstructions up to 1m thick per skill level for as long as he concentrates on the spell, doing nothing apart from looking. 

Spell of Seeking (Range: Special)

The spell of seeking locates an object, location, or material. It finds both the direction and the distance to the target. The caster needs a metaphysical connection to the object sought to use this spell. For example, the character could find a lost earring if he has the other one of the pair. A character can use this spell even with a poor choice of concection on a critical success.

Touch not the Earth (Range: Touch)

This spell affects a single individual touched, and lasts for one scene. While it is in effect, when he walks, his feet do not actually touch the ground, staying an inch or so above it. He can walk across any substance- even water- without sinking, leaving any sort of impression, or even touching it.

Adept Spells

Burst of Speed (Range: Same zone)

A target can move with incredible speed for a scene. A +2 bonus applies to initiative, and he can take two actions in a combat round. Further, actions such as running (using the athletics skill) have a +2 bonus.

Flight (Range: Self)

The caster can fly for up to an hour. Normal flying is as strenuous as walking, and is approximately the same speed. Faster flight is certainly possible, but is as strenuous as running at the same speed.

Forcewall (Range: Two zones)

Creates a barrier of impenetrable force up to 10m long per skill rank. The wall can be up to 20m high. A dome up to 3m across per skill rank is also a possibility. The barrier lasts for half a day.

Up to 1 target per 2 skill ranks can be trapped in a dome; each is allowed an Evasion check at a -2 penalty to avoid this. A further -4 penalty applies to the check if the caster achieves a critical success.

Scrying Pool (Range: Special)

This spell conjures up an image of a distant place, object, or person in a pool of water. The target can be viewed for the next few minutes.

The caster needs a metaphysical connection to the target to use this spell. For example, an item of clothing suffices to magically spy on its wearer. A character can use this spell even with a poor choice of concection on a critical success.

Magus Spells

Gravity Reversal (Range: Three zones)

Gravity is temporarily reversed within a zone. The reversal catches up to one target per sorcery. Victims are hurled up into the air before falling to the ground. The effect is that a victim cannot act for a round (losing their next action), and take damage as if suffering from an attack. An athletics check is allowed to defend against the damage.

My Writing Business (Part 1)

If you’re reading this, you probably know I’ve written a few published RPG products- it’s not something I’m particularly shy of mentioning. If you didn’t know that, you do now. The plan in this post is to talk about my various writing projects, and how they came to be.

I think one key reason I broke into writing things professionally (by professionally, I mean being paid, rather than it being my job) is that I’ve always written a lot when running RPGs, filling folders and folders with material. If someone else could read my handwriting, they could run one of “my” games. It was in some ways a short step from that to typing things up, polishing and sending to a publisher. In other ways it was a giant leap, but the things I write for my own use are already part way to something I write for publication. Of course, one of these is a subset of the other- I’m not going to seek to publish anything I don’t like and use myself.

Another consequence of this start is that I’m generally happy writing setting and adventure material for games, and playing with the mechanics, for example adapting mechanics to a particular setting or coming up with subsystems or lists of funky powers. I’ve not got so much interest in coming up with mechanics from scratch. That’s not the sort of designer I am.

One piece of dabbling I did a few years before my first published work was a column for RPG.net. Some of what I wrote there seems quite painfully naive to me now, but some bits I still stand by. I think having the column to point out stood me in good stead when I made my first pitch to a publisher.

That publisher was Arc Dream. The pitch was for Blood of the Gods. The start of it was me deciding to run a Wild Talents game involving demigods and mythological monsters in ancient Greece. Kind of sending superheroes back to one of their original roots. There was nothing like that in print, so I wrote stuff over a couple of weekends, and it felt rather complete to me and possibly useful to others. I then mentioned on the Gaming Tavern (the actual discussion is now lost to the mists of time, otherwise I’d link to it) that I thought I’d written a game supplement. The response there was overwhelmingly positive, and I was then encouraged to do to something with it.

So I did, pitching the a game supplement to Arc Dream, the publishers of Wild Talents. I didn’t remotely expect them to say yes, but they did after asking to see what I’d written so far. There followed feedback, a couple more weekends of work, and I had a draft to e-mail. In the mean-time I’d run my game with my gaming buddies, and made a couple of changes of things that didn’t work.

The document was tweaked in response to the editor, James Knevitt, though I don’t recall any massive changes. It then went out to external playtesters for play and criticism. It got criticism in spades, chiefly for there not being enough information on the Greek gods or Greek culture, and for one particular demigod power being “broken”. The last bit of feedback came from more than one playtester, so the power was fixed, and I spend a couple of weekends writing more on the background in Greek mythology and history.

Then, some more editing and it was ready for the artist, Todd Shearer. The supplement’s 36 pages long, and it took quite a long time to get out (surprisingly long to me at the time, though I now fully understand why) and it took me about six weekends of work. I like the people at Arc Dream, and I like their games. Since Blood of the Gods, I’ve pitched another couple of book length things for them- Ninth Legion, which is written, but waiting those later stages, and another project I’m keeping under my hat until it’s further developed. I’m mysterious that way.

Besides Arc Dream, I’ve written and cowritten things for D101 games and self-published Age of Arthur jointly with Graham Spearing. Having a coauthor is a different dynamic, though one I quite like. But talking about coauthors, D101 and self-publishing can wait for another blog post.

Cthulhu and Me

When I wrote the title of this entry, I wondered whether it should really be “Cthulhu and I” but then I remembered how different grammatical cases work.

Ahem. Well, in case it wasn’t obvious from the title, this is a post about the game Call of Cthulhu, and H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction.

First the fiction. The best of Lovecraft’s stories are darkly terrifying, yet absorbing when I’m in the right mood. What fascinates me still is the idea that some knowledge is just wrong– seeing and knowing some things are incompatible with being able to function in normal human society.

As Stephen King says in Danse Macabre, there’s nothing quite as frightening as a closed door beyond with all you know is that something terrifying lurks. No description of the monster could be quite as bad as the fear of the unknown, and a good Lovecraft story opens the door a crack- just the minimum amount that what you know is…what’s seen is so awful it unhinges the mind. It’s not about gore- gore doesn’t scare me, though it can make me cringe. It’s not about making me jump- that works for films, but not prose. It’s about dread.

Further, in the right mood, there’s something horrific to me about, for example, the geometry being wrong, for example the angles of a triangle adding up to something other than one hundred and eighty degrees. Madness inducing. Of course, in the wrong mood, it’s all a bit silly- I’m a mathematician, and I’ve studied non-Euclidean geometry after all. I’ve even taught students such dark arts. And in the wrong mood, Lovecraft’s baroque prose and inability to handle dialogue is hard to cope with. But in the right mood, a Lovecraft story is delicious dread.

When I first came across the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game, I was enchanted. It codified the Cthulhu Mythos– the setting for Lovecraft’s fiction- for me, and the Sanity rules seemed to provide the ideal vehicle for Lovecraft-style stories, and something refreshingly different to more heroic roleplaying.

I say different to heroic roleplaying, but my ideal take on Call of Cthulhu is heroic, in the sense that the player characters (termed investigators in the game, so I’ll use that term here) are the ones fighting the horror, and they are doing so without remarkable talents because they are the only ones who are in a position to do so. After all, if the very knowledge of the horrors of the Cthulhu Mythos is damaging to sanity, who else can you tell? By definition, no sane authority could believe you.

And fighting the Mythos, while necessary, means putting not just your life, but your very mind on the line. When it comes down to it, what could be more heroic? Another fun thing with a horror scenario is that everything is up for grabs, every victory is hard-won, the player characters are just as likely to lose as to win, and even if they do win, not everyone is likely to come out intact.

My first experience of Call of Cthulhu was running it in a one on one game over about four or so sessions. It was absorbing and horrifying, with a sense of creeping dread. It ended with the half-insane investigator blowing up the Empire State Building before it could be completed, thus prevanting the calling down of the great horror, but dying, buried under the rubble. Maybe I’m idealising it now, but it was perfect.

Since then I’ve played and run a fair bit of Call of Cthulhu, but nothing matched that first encounter, and for a while it hasn’t been the same. Maybe it’s the fact that most groups of players treat it as a black comedy, which rather ruins the atmosphere of creeping dread. Maybe it’s familiarity breeding contempt. Maybe it’s a number of minor problems adding up, such as little bits in the rules that grate and the fact that it’s work to come up with good reasons for investigators to, well, investigate, and to introduce new characters.

Now, the black comedy angle is cut down when the player character group isn’t too big; my personal preference for horror is for no more than three or so players, and based on my first Call of Cthulhu experience it works well one on one. Finding reasons for investigators to investigate is also easily dealt with- though next time I introduce an organisation that employs people to look into strange things, I need to insist player characters belong to it rather than just suggest it. With hindsight, that’s fairly obvious, and another story.

The rules issues are minor. For the record (if you’re familiar with the game), I never liked the Resistance Table, the number of unarmed combat skills is silly, and I don’t like the Luck, Know and Idea rolls. I’m pleased with what I’ve heard about the next edition of Call of Cthulhu.

However, the issue of things being over-familiar is the hardest for me to overcome. I must have played in at least four different scenarios where the Mi Go were responsible for the strangeness. The Yellow Sign is a cliche. Cthulhu isn’t scary when you can buy Cthulhu cuddly toys. The “finding out that the Mythos is real” scene is utterly overplayed.

At the moment I’m enjoying other investigative horror games, which are bringing some of the freshness back. But I miss the feeling I first had with Call of Cthulhu, and haven’t given up hope of recapturing it.

Let me please introduce myself

Hello, everybody, and welcome to my blog! My name is Paul Mitchener, known as dr_mitch on most online forums I frequent, and I’ll be your host here. I will mainly be writing about roleplaying games (RPGs) here. I’m interested in the sitting around a table with friends, acting things out and following written rules to determine outcomes variety, rather than computer games. If you don’t know what I’m talking about- maybe you’ve been directed here as a cruel joke- there are many people far better at explaining the concept than me. The wikepedia article I’ve linked to is a reasonable start. In any case, explaining RPGs is not what this first post is about.

This first post is about me. I promise to get onto more interesting subjects later on, but what about me? I’m a university mathematics lecturer, which must impact my world view more than I’d care to admit. The mathematical sciences are one of my obsessions. My other obsession is what I’m writing about here…gaming! So enough of the general stuff- let me talk about my gaming history.

I first got into gaming when I was 13 or so, when a mate sold me the D&D Basic and Expert boxed sets and formed up a gaming group. After a couple of weeks of that I tried my hand at DMing for the first time, having created my own world to boot. I say my own world- it was a desert full of the undead and a magic item shop in the middle of nowhere, which the player characters promptly looted having knocked out the owner. I’ve improved since, though there was a fine cliffhanger when the magic user who owned the shop came back for revenge. Notes were passed around between the players all week at school with plans on how to get out of the situation.

I can’t remember how they managed it. The campaign died a couple of weeks later, though the group continued with a more experienced GM before I got another turn in the hot seat. My next game went on for quite a while too, before a total party kill ended it all when the party were level seven or so. Simpler times, but happy ones.

For years and years my system of choice when running games was D&D or AD&D. The main setting I used for my last big D&D excursion as DM was Planescape, which is still my favourite setting ever. Eventually, though, I got annoyed with some D&D concepts, and when I’d house ruled to get rid of classes and levels I knew it was time for a change.

Over the D&D years I dabbled in a few other systems, some of which I took to, some of which I didn’t I played Paranoia, Cyberpunk 2020 and Rolemaster. I ran Call of Cthulhu, Over the Edge, Unknown Armies and a couple of monstrosities I’d designed myself. I think I’d only gone to the effort of designing games in ignorance of the number of games out there that might have suited my needs. On reflection, nothing I’d written back then was usable by anyone who wasn’t me. Which was fine- I had no greater ambitions. Those came later.

Everything changed, and my gaming experience opened up immensely in 2007 when I attended my first convention, Furnace. It was amazing, and the number of games and play styles I’ve experienced went through the roof, both at the convention and later conventions, and with groups I’ve played with since. I do, if this isn’t clear, highly recommend the convention experience if you haven’t tried it. Not just for the games- I’ve made a lot of friends.

Since 2007 I’ve played and run more different systems than I can easily keep track of. Some of them I’ve now written for professionally- Wild Talents, Reign, Wordplay, Openquest, Fate and Crypts and Things. I’ve run campaigns of Call of Cthulhu, Reign, Openquest and Age of Arthur (the thing I worked on for Fate), played in Pathfinder campaigns, have just started a Night’s Black Agents campaign, and I’ve played and run too many one shots to count. Remember, that’s quite a few- I’m a mathematician. For me these days, variety is king, and the way I enjoy myself and keep things fresh.

I no longer build systems on the back of house-ruling D&D to get rid of classes and levels, and no longer design settings with deserts full of undead with lone magic item shops in the middle, but those are my roots, and I’m not ashamed of them. Well, not very much anyway.