NoD #133 — New Cthulhu

I’m visiting Helsinki tomorrow for a couple of days to see an ailing relative. Remains to be seen how that affects the writing routines.

The Thursday Meet

Our local game group has been spinning loose for a few months now; we decided to end our fork of the Coup (old school D&D) campaign in the fall due to slowly draining momentum, and then did a couple of months of boardgame nights to see if new faces could be chipped out from the casual masses to join in. The boardgaming didn’t really pan out; nothing wrong with it per se, but we got neither the participant numbers or the creative passion to make it worthwhile long-term. I’d rather not waste my time on a gaming night that’s almost just a casual beer-drinking sit-down, with some arbitrary game serving as a facile distraction.

As we’d discussed before the holiday break, the group would meet up in January and pick out something more substantial. The meeting was this week, and I went there with a prepared palette of game suggestions, things we could play next. My two foremost pitches were Transforcerers, a Sorcerer campaign in the world of the Transformers, and Wizards Diceless, an Amber Diceless variant set in Middle-Earth. Worthwile projects both, whence my interest.

The voting, where I focused on discovering the most-popular least-hated idea, narrowed us down on two main options. One was the Wizards idea that I discussed in the last newsletter, and the other was a black horse candidate of sorts: apparently the players here have a latent desire to play Call of Cthulhu, because the very vague and off-hand mention of that being a possibility (Antti suggested it, I think), and my confirming that yeah, I could do Cthulhu, suddenly elevated that into nigh-on consensual supremacy. Clearly there’s something there.

I ultimately chose in favour of Cthulhu on the premise that it’s more pick-uppable and shorter (albeit with options for extension, certainly), so generally easier on the social capital. We don’t have that many players right now, and there’s new players and players of uncertain regularity in the current make-up of the team, so some ~3 session Cthulhu thing is probably going to be better than Amber’s high social capital requirements.

(Amber Diceless expects like 5–8 players, everybody present for the first session, and regular participation after that for at least say 10 sessions to make it worth it. You could fit like four Cthulhu scenarios in one Amber scenario, in terms of social footprint.)

Suddenly, Cthulhu

Potentially short (even one-shot) as Cthulhu may be, a trivial undertaking it is not, and the set-up overhead is more like a set-up lifestyle; I don’t believe that you as much learn Cthulhu as you live it. Study the Mythos as a school of philosophy, perfect your roleplaying to be able to bring it to the table.

So being suddenly asked for some Cthulhu is, of course, an interesting challenge. I called off on starting right next week mainly on account of the hospital vigil I have coming, but it also certainly doesn’t hurt to have some time to put a thing together. We’ll have our first session on Tuesday 17.1., so that’s the deadline here.

The group seems to be slighly more favourable to vanilla 1920s Cthulhu than Delta Green, which is what I’ve been more concerned over myself recently, but overall I find the milieu unlikely to prove decisive for success or failure here. I am inclined to set the game in a Finnish setting, get a bit of distance from New England and make room for more original Mythos stylings.

I haven’t got a full picture on this yet, but I at least managed to decide what kind of Cthulhu I’ll be trying to do. CoC is a notoriously incoherent game text, with a bunch of different games potentially on offer there. I think what I’ll be trying for is a continuity-heavy “Mythos Investigation” game, a Simulationistic setting and character focused affair that chronicles the way humans can awaken to the realities of the cosmos, and what they do about it. This is different from the operational investigative wargaming focus that CoC sometimes has, but also distinct from the usual horror story oneshot approach. I’ll no doubt write more about it if I can pull a coherent campaign together.

Cthulhu Redux?

One idea that keeps pestering me is that I should maybe implement my CRedux mechanics for this campaign. I’m far from fond of BRP, the misbegotten mechanical chassis of Call of Cthulhu, but I also feel that the kind of campaign I want to run is not decently captured by traditional alternative rules… they’re too streamlined, generally speaking. Trail of Cthulhu is maybe the likeliest alternative for me, and even there I feel like I should get on board with the Gumshoe artistic program for it to make any sense to use it. If I want to do my own thing, it should probably be either with BRP rules or implementing something fresh, which might as well be CRedux.

I guess I’ll write more about that if it’s the direction I’ll take. Or, if I stick with BRP, then that’ll mean a fair bit of restructuring to get rid of the dumb stuff and make the math work and so on.

Coup de Main in Greyhawk

We play old school D&D regularly. The game’s open to visitors, newcomers, inexperienced players, cats and dogs.

Sunday Basic session #X is scheduled for today, Sunday 7.1., starting around 16:00 UTC. Teemu usually GMs Sunday Basic, but he’s diseased today, so I hear Tommi will be running Maure Castle instead.

Monday Coup is this coming week on account of my hospital vigil. We’ll get back to this in a week.

And, play reports on past glories:

Coup de Main #92

The Knights Temp making hay in the Gnarley Forest, specifically the Incandescent Grottoes. As per Tuomas:

Knights Temp continued from the quicksave in middle of the dungeon. They had encountered several troglodytes and a suspicious wizard lady last time, now they pondered on continuing their assault on the troglodytes.

Knights Temp scouted another chamber with three troglodytes in the middle of a meal. Thrumhal and Rob arranged an ambush with missile weapons, and the trogs went down without a real danger to the Knights. At the back of the room Knights found a dwarf imprisoned into a pit. The fellow was in bad shape but alive.

Knights administered first aid and gave beer to the dwarf miner, who told them that he had come to prospect the crystals in the caves with his fellows, but couldn’t tell anything else useful. Knights shoved their maps to him, and he could point out the places he had been, but there weren’t any areas that the Knights hadn’t seen. They escorted the dwarf out to their camp to recover while continuing their exploration.

Knights scouted another room with single troglodyte and a metal cube. Rob didn’t manage to surprise the trog this time, but he wasn’t initially hostile. After brief conversation he asked for help with the metal cube, apparently it was a puzzle box of some kind. After seeing just how many there were in the Knights’ party, the trog got alarmed and tried to bully them away from his treasure, but ended up running away himself. Not easy finding yourself outnumbered 6 to 1.

After some inspection Rob figured out the riddle carved on the iron puzzle box and managed to open it while rest of the party was safe in previous room. Inside was small treasure, some gold, jewelry and magic items. Knights packed their filthy lucre and moved on.

Knights moved to explore a wide constructed corridor leading out of one of the troglodyte caves. It seemed ominous, walls covered in carvings of screaming faces, and whispers of doom and death could be heard in their heads. Piece of the corridor had collapsed, underground river was running under it, but it didn’t prove to be a much of problem; the trogs had a convenient plank ready to cross the chasm.

Behind the collapsed section the wall carving changed, now they showed a pictorial sequence of man turning into slime monsters. At the end was grand arched doorway to a big room with statues of slime monsters, large skeletons and grand double door carved of obsidian. In front of the door was a corpse with arrow sticking out of its back.

Knights were highly suspicious at this point. They used a grappling hook to pull the corpse away from the door and skeleton statues to loot it, netting them some equipment, cash and magical amulet.

Knights steeled themselves and approached the skeleton statues and the double obsidian doors. Nothing bad happened and finally they pulled one of the doors open. It seemed to have mechanism to close itself after short time, so they secured it open with spikes and tying the handle to a statue plinth.

Rob carefully entered an ominous room. The floor tiles were black and had engraved screaming faces. Acrid smell came from the darkness, and the Knights concluded that the acid pit Thrumhal had taken a dive in was below this room. After proceeding bit further Rob found an open pit in the floor which seemed to be the source of the acrid smell.

Further onward the room rose 5 feet to reveal an obsidian altar with golden chalices and another slime statue, behind it stood another two stone skeletons. Knights carefully approached but were caught completely by surprise when the slime statue opened dozens of eyes and mouth and started to babble incoherently with all of them.

Knights were made of stern stuff, only few of them succumbed to the babbling madness. Thrumhal just stared the slime monster, Gotdorf fled (sensible fellow) and their poacher henchman tried to hit Thrumhal in the back but just poked his plate mail.

Ah, a “gibbering mouther”, one of those quintessential dungeon fantasy aberration monsters. I’m not surprised that the adventurers were surprised, nobody surely expects a vaguely alive tentacle blob that causes magical confusion by “babbling”.

Rob was peppering the monstrosity with arrows, so it lurched forward and tried to bite Rob with its many mouths. One grabbed hold of him and chaotic melee began. Most of the Knights joined in and most of them got bitten and gnawed by the slime terror, but in the end it was hacked down without losses.

After taking a brief breather the Knights started exploring the altar. Kenna confirmed that one of the chalices was magical and that the plinth under one of the skeleton statues had something magical inside it. Rob checked the plinth but couldn’t find anything.

The Knights were greedy and paranoid, they weren’t going to leave the obviously valuable chalices on the altar; they made a quick plan. Everyone backed out of the room to the door that was trying swing shut and ready to release it. Rob would grab the chalices and dash out of the room as fast as possible, while the others would release the door after he got out. And they checked their escape routes in case the statues animated and tried to follow them.

Rob executed his part flawlessly and the door slammed shut with Rob and the chalices outside. No one had noticed anything strange going on in the room while Rob was dashing out, but they didn’t want to push their luck.

Knights Temp returned to their base camp to make plans about possible trip back to town or continuing the delve immediately. What they end doing happens next time on Coup-de-Gnarley.

Coup in Sunndi #66

In the Sunndi campaign fork, we finally returned to advancing the epic “Doom of Naerie” adventure arc. Two temple guardians of Rao, along with random ne’er-do-wells, were striving to marshal the forces of the good and decent against a great doom expected to rise in the Hollow Hills. Last time we’d gotten the city of Naerie itself more or less preparing for the coming storm, so the adventurers left to travel the Hollow Hills, intent on mustering the barbarian clans that would surely be equally just as doomed as their ancestral low-land enemies if the ancient evil of Duvan’Ku got its way.

The party traveled first to touch base with the Hakadaro Clan, that one highlands clan that had suffered a major assault of the undead only to beat it back handily. They live almost in the shadow of the cursed mountain, have a significant Good religious movement among them (Pelorian sun worship), and are otherwise probably a bit of a “done deal” politically when it comes to supporting any initiatives against the cursed mountain.

This all proved to be generally the case, so no surprises there. The next step in mobilizing the clans, though, seemed like it would have to be leveraging the ethnic religious institution that the clans all shared and respected: the Temple of the Bee Queen was a sacred location commonly supported by the clans, dedicated to the ecological preservation of the kinda borderline natural conditions of the Hollow Hills. The Temple was some ways off, basically a week’s travel or so from the cursed mountain, across the inhospitable Hollow Hills, but the sheer scale of the undertaking here certainly motivated the adventurers; can’t raise an army without journeying to and fro.

The trip undertaken, the Temple itself proved to exist just outside the Hollow Hills proper, embedded comfortably in the southern edge of the Rieuwood, a major wilderness north of the Hills. It’s not very far from the main Sunndian borderlands fort used to control the Hollow Hills, really. The barbarians apparently maintain a sort of temple guardian corps of woodsmen who observe and limit entry to the temple itself, stopping foreigners and ensuring that clansmen arrive with proper reverence and peaceful intentions.

The foreign paladins were received with a fair bit of suspicion, but at least they were allowed to approach the temple itself. We found that the Temple of the Bee Queen was a bit of a self-sufficient monastery community, with the temple itself a surprisingly grandiose structure for these barbarians, built of white stone in the middle of ambitious farmworks and, of course, dozens if not hundreds of bee hives. A wealthy and prosperous place that the barbarians clearly maintained to magnificent standards.

I was prepared for the temple to take some convincing, xenophobic and suspicious of Sunndians as they were. The Hollow Hills barbarians are ethnically related to the Sunndian peoples, and the region is considered by most to be part of the cultural-political region of Sunndi, but the locals beg to differ; their herding lifestyle, ancient language and particular religious ways make them quite distinct from the lowlanders. They fight as mercenaries for distant princes and grudgingly adapt to the great mining works that imperiums bring to the Hills, but that’s not the same as loyalty and friendship.

Young Ben, one of the two temple guardians of Rao, shuffled the deck for me with a religious feat, though. Ben has a bit of history of successful meditation-based magical sensitivity at this point, and he did once again succeed grandly here, coming into direct contact with the Bee Queen, the Great Spirit glorified by this temple community. The Queen proved nigh-incomprehensible in communication, but it did indicate its favour to Ben by revealing a secret: an important relic of the temple was hidden inside one of the many bee hives dotting the landscape around the temple. By finding said item, Ben could prove to the temple hierarchy that his mission had the favour of the Queen!

So that short-circuited much of the diplomatic dickering that might have been the order of the day with the temple authorities. When Ben dug up the Staff of Perpetual Spring from its hiding place, he certainly show-cased divine favour, but he was also proposing to risk one of the greatest treasures of the temple: the Staff was a sort of magical battery maintained by the temple for emergencies and great magical workings, slowly charged in hiding over years and decades in between being in use.

As the heroes found out more about the situation, it only grew more complicated: the Staff was not trivial to use, and Ben was neither initiated or even of the correct Alignment (as a paladin Ben’s Lawful Good, while the Bee Queen and its workings are True Neutral). Traditionally the Staff would be used by an Oracle of the Bee Queen, a kind of sacred Summoner (variant Cleric), but the temple was very leery about letting either of its two Oracles go with the adventurers, what with their ritual purity (virginity; this is one of those anime teenage temple girl deals) at risk and the Oracles being essential to deciphering the otherwise unintelligible desires of the Bee Queen.

Having the Staff and an Oracle to wield it would be super-useful for sealing the cursed mountain and its ancient Duvan’Ku evil, though, everybody agreed. Apparently the Staff had traveled to the mountain to put it down last time, ~30 years ago when the clans had last mustered to cleanse the mountain of its evil. The signs of this being necessary once again were there for the faithful, but the temple also had plenty of more practical types in it, so the political situation was kinda interesting in that regard.

The players even did some lightweight industrial espionage while waiting for the temple to make up its mind about supporting the cause, sending one of the party “specialists” to spy on the temple elders. Notathief (he’s an Assassin) discovered that the elders were essentially split on this affair because their own divinations had not predicted the cursed mountain rising again. Instead, they were very worried about the new Sunndian border fort and its “Iron Duke”, whose intentions might well include attacking the temple to take an aggressive stance on the highland clans. Perhaps force them into submission.

(This Iron Duke stuff is completely unrelated to the cursed mountain scenario here, but it does hint at a couple of other adventure modules that I had prepared in the area. The fact that the temple’s divinations were so very different to what the temple of Wee Jas in Naerie had divined, and what the paladin PCs themselves had felt, was a major clue to what was actually going on in this adventure.)

Part of the fun (really, I thought that this entire situation with the temple of the Bee Queen was quite amusing) was that the two Oracle girls that were used as pawns in this affair had their own opinions about things. The brunette self-confident ambitious one was of course very angry at the foreigners who were threatening to take “her” staff away; she should of course go with the staff. Meanwhile the blonde good girl Oracle was being illicitly foisted upon the adventurers by her mother, one of the elder priesthood; she was convinced that it was fated for the Staff to seal the Duvan’Ku threat once again, see, so she was willing to go against the hierarchy on that and give her daughter to the care of the adventurers for the purpose.

Things ultimately worked out such that the adventurers agreed to a holy Oath in exchange for being allowed to take the Staff with them; it was chained on the wrist of Ben the Paladin to make sure it wouldn’t get lost. Fun times having a battery with ~1000 hit points worth of magical radiation chained to your wrist when you’re of an essentially opposed Alignment to it yourself. The temple authorities did try to buy off the adventurers with more concrete kinds of material and diplomatic support, but apparently the players believed in the Staff as something that could blow up a Lich (the current best guess of what the vaguely defined “doom” was) more than they believed in gathering an army of highlanders.

The oracle idea, on the other hand, was called off by the PCs; apparently they believed themselves capable enough of utilizing the Staff without having a sacred deredere (or not, there’s even two oracles to choose from in this dating sim) girl tagging along to operate it. They made vague plans to maybe come back to pick up an oracle later, once they saw how things were proceeding.

State of the Productive Facilities

I’ve been exercising every damn day since my lumbago pain receded; my brother has this theory about avoiding back pains via sports torture. I think it’s eating into my writing time a bit, because while the actual ski’ing/gym/hiking doesn’t take more than an hour or two per day, I’m frequently only too satisfied to sit around doing nothing afterwards. I guess I can afford to be a bit unproductive right now, so whatever. I hear that some people actually gain in productivity by exercising constantly.

Other than that, I’ll be out of town for a couple of days, so that probably ensures that little will get done meanwhile. We’ll see, I’ll at least try to publish a newsletter mid-week.

8 thoughts on “NoD #133 — New Cthulhu”

  1. I’d love to read a post-mortem of the D&D campaign that ended (i.e. the hows and whys).
    That said, the upcoming Cthulhu game is likely to monopolize your time — and I’m looking forward to your design choices and insights, too!
    Regarding productivity, I find that sports activities that allow you to let your mind wander (e.g. cycling) are ideal to think about RPGs…

  2. Sorry to comment here no an old essay, but I just read your CP2020 Redux treatment from way back in 2020 and I thought you might be interested in two historical notes regarding the original Cyberpunk release by R. Talsorian Games (set in 2013) and the intermediate step it represents in the transition from early-D&D design sensibilities to the high-trad sensibility of its sequel, CP2020:

    1. The Lifepath system in CP2013 was actually core to the crunchy bits of character creation, as in Traveler, WFRP, and your own CP2020 Redux. As I recall, there was very little randomness involved, and so it was essentially a structured form of point-buy: start at age 16, each lifepath segment adds 4 years and lets you increase N number of skills selected from a segment-specific subset by +2 (I believe the segments were: military, higher education, street). You were supposed to stop at age 28 (so +6 as the max starting skill level), although you had the option of stopping earlier — notably, 28 is the age of the protagonist Case in Neuromancer, an age his hard-boiled narration characterizes as over the hill for a netrunner.

    2. Furthermore, the special skill granted to each Role (the special Solo skill, the special Corporate skill, etc.) started play at a flat +2, as opposed to the point-buy system in CP2020 which practically required any self-respecting min-maxer to buy it up to +10 in order to maximize the PC’s starting money.

    3. Finally, the combat system in CP2013 (which had its own name, Friday Night Firefight, clearly begun as a military-sim system by Mike Pondsmith in the tradition of Twilight: 2000) had a wonderfully baroque and punishing set of modifiers to combat rolls to account for adverse fighting conditions, in particular a massive penalty applied to inexperienced combatants to account for their lack of cool under fire: something like -8 applied to all rolls in a PC’s first combat, with the penalty decreasing by 1 for every fight or two the PC had under his belt. Or perhaps the initial penalty was based on the PC’s Cool stat?

    The combination of these three factors gave CP2013 a really interesting feel in terms of character creation and advancement that was something closer to early D&D: you started with almost no money and you were really terrible at combat. But if you managed to survive your first half-dozen firefights, your combat capabilities improved dramatically, to the point where facing off against superior numbers of inexperienced street punks or rent-a-cops became a real possibility. But this initial surge in advancement plateaued pretty quickly, after which you would have to start on the long, slow road to improving your underlying skills and acquiring cash to upgrade your gear and start purchasing some real cyberware. This playstyle was significantly altered by CP2020, in which, as your essays document, the bad-ass high-concept princess play mid-game was repositioned as the immediate outcome of character creation. A great illustration of the evolution of game design sensibilities in the 80s, within a single non-D&D franchise.

    1. Huh, that’s super-interesting actually. I had no idea that the first edition was so different in those respects. I clearly should read that one as well before proceeding further with CRedux.

  3. I played Cyberpunkg in the early nineties. Great times! I wonder which version we played — I remember somebody’s starting character, a solo, starting with skill 10 and being very effective (and being ruthlessly sacrificed the fixer he was protecting). This would point toward 2020 or not using the “inexperienced” modifieres for combat… In any case, that was a great write-up, Picador!

    1. That’s surely the 2020 (2nd) edition. Playing a Solo with 10 combat instinct is basically what you do in that game, in that disappointingly simplistic minmax fashion that the game encourages. I suppose you could view it as being a kind of implicit statement about what it is that character class means in that game: it means that you have a special skill value (basically, a special task you can perform) and it’s always +10 because there’s lots of these character classes and surely one of them has the exact talent that you actually want to exemplify in the game, so why not max that so your character can actually perform it. Setting the role skill to max you sort of ensure that the role has some mechanical backing to it: your character actually is fairly good at getting the first shot or manipulating the bureaucracy or whatever your chosen Role is about. You’ll of course want to max the associated ability score as well, because this is intelligent gaming we’re doing here, with meaningful choices about shit. And the GM wants to hike up the target numbers on that thing you do, so the dicing keeps being exciting (~50% success chance, give or take a bit) despite your number games. It is a thing for sure.

      Also, on the basis of nothing more than having lived through the era, it feels to me like the 1st edition was kinda rare compared to the 2nd. I don’t think I’ve ever seen the 1st edition rulebook or anything like that, for instance, while the 2nd edition was fairly well-attested in our part of the world. It seems to me to be similar to e.g. Paranoia in that the 1st edition was so much smaller than the 2nd that most people are surely familiar with the latter rather than the former. So just on that basis I’d expect that a random attestation of having played Cyberpunk is talking about the 2nd edition.

      1. Eero has it all correct here. CP2020, first released in 1990 (set 30 years in the future) took off way beyond the limited scope of CP2013 released in 1988 (set 25 years in the future).

        You can still find a few supplements for the original edition floating around: “Solo of Fortune” was an in-game simulacrum of a “Soldier of Fortune” magazine (but supplemented by in-game stats accompanying the “articles”), there was some kind of hard-sci-fi near-Earth-orbit space supplement, there was a setting book transposing the game from Night City to the world of the novel Hardwired… but getting your hands on the original edition itself seems to be difficult, as the web tells me it’s been out of print (even in PDF) since 2018. Bad timing.

        The original edition was three booklets in a boxed set. I might still have my books stashed away somewhere… if I find them, I may try to find a way to ship them to Finland, as Eero has proved himself a worthy custodian of RPG history. Another option would be to write up an extensive historical review of the booklets, and perhaps put together a retro-clone of the RAW. Eero, if I wrote up something like this, would you have any interest in hosting it (or adapting it to your own purposes)? I’m not in the internet publishing business.

        1. Surely we’d get it up online somehow. It’s not that difficult in today’s world. If nothing else, do a bit of a layout and put it up at DrivethruRPG for free, as I’ve been doing myself lately. Easy enough, and gets somebody else to pay the hosting.

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