Monday, November 23, 2015

Last Night a d10 Saved My Life

I went to a birthday party a few days ago and it was awful. Well, to be fair, the party was fine but I went as a Plus One -- which is not to say that it was a Google-themed costume party -- and I didn't know anyone there. Some people are fine in that sort of situation, some people even thrive, but for me it was difficult, painful even.

I was a quiet child and while I had friends and I did spend time with them, I often preferred my own company, reading and drawing and using my toys to enact epic stories -- more often than not ripped off from Simon Furman's Transformers comics -- in which members of Action Force or the Rebel Alliance were recast as characters of my own making.

It will come as no surprise that I was bullied. Nothing too horrific but enough that it made an awkward and quiet child even more awkward and quiet, happier to stay in with a Fighting Fantasy gamebook rather than going out to play.

Things got better as I got older but it's fair to say that I have never quite overcome my social discomfort, as I showed at the aforementioned birthday party; even if I know you -- even if I know you well -- it's not uncommon for me to fumble and splutter through a conversation, like Hugh Grant with a head injury. Sometimes I just go quiet; I am not being unfriendly, I am just so scared of messing up that I mess up.

This doesn't happen with a game. I can sit around a dinner or pub table with a group and I will probably embarrass myself, but sit the same people around a board or role-playing game and something changes. That's not to say that a handful of dice is like Dumbo's magic feather and all of a sudden I'm sliding around the room gladhanding and hobnobbing, and it also doesn't mean that conversation is limited to the game, but the game becomes a sort of focus and that takes some of the pressure away; I don't have to entertain anyone or maintain their interest, because the game will carry that burden.

(And yes, I know there's no obligation to entertain anyone, but there's nothing rational about fear.)

When there's a game involved, the clumsiness and anxiety you would expect to see in me dissipate and I become more open and talkative; so much so that I have made good friends at the gaming table, and I even served as the best man at the wedding of one of them.

Perhaps it's a crutch. Perhaps I should try harder to deal with the anxiety because I can't lug a copy of Call of Cthulhu or Blood Bowl with me to every social gathering -- or can I? -- but perhaps it doesn't matter.

I don't know; I just wanted to get this out there. It's what blogs are for, after all.

Thursday, November 12, 2015

You're So Chuffing Special

Well well. Games Workshop has already surprised me once this year by producing a version of Warhammer Fantasy Battle with charm and character and -- most surprising of all -- a sensible price point. I thought that was a one-off and that the company would soon return to its predictable and unadventurous form, but it seems that I was quite wrong.

Back in the good old days Games Workshop produced all sorts of wonderful stuff but as time went on, more and more of the interesting games disappeared and the company began to focus its attentions on Warhammer 40,000 and Warhammer Fantasy Battle and, in later years, The Lord of the Rings. Some of those other games survived for a while as part of the so-called Specialist Games brand before that too shuffled off into oblivion.

The Specialist Games family included Blood Bowl -- one of the greatest board games ever created -- and Necromunda and Mordheim, two smaller-scale skirmish war games that I have never played but are always being discussed in glowing terms by those who have. The Specialist Games site also hosted the Dark Future rules as a free download for years after the game went out of print, a gesture that was so uncharacteristic of Games Workshop that it seemed like it could only be some sort of clerical error or cyber-vandalism.

Anyway, the point is that it was a sad day when the Specialist Games division disappeared.

Today, Games Workshop announced that it's setting up a new Specialist Design Studio and some of the upcoming titles include Blood Bowl and Necromunda. This has come as a bit of a surprise; even after the official announcement, it still feels like a hoax. Games Workshop said these games weren't worth supporting, that the cost was too much and the audience too small, and yet here we are.

I wonder if it's because this ponderous giant of an organisation that doesn't do market research and doesn't watch what its competitors are doing has at long last noticed that Fantasy Flight is making plenty money republishing old Games Workshop board games and role-playing games, that Hawk Wargames is doing well with something that looks a lot like Space Marine, and that Mantic has had considerable success with more or less reviving the entire Specialist Games range?

Perhaps it's something more boring about maintaining copyrights and trademarks, or maybe there's someone new in charge who has a fondness for the old days. Perhaps the company is desperate and is trying anything to win back customers. Whatever the reasons behind the move, it's exciting news and I'll be watching this new studio with interest.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

Die Drop Campaign Maps at the Whistle Stop Cafe

In 13th Age, the icons are the setting's powerful non-player characters. They are not the Drizzt types who go off and have adventures at the expense of the player-characters, rather they are the rulers and wizards that send the player-characters on quests, or that send agents of their own to thwart them. An icon could be an end-of-campaign boss, or an ally against one.

Each player-character gets a number of relationship points to allocate to the various icons, so Alice of Zengis could have a two point relationship with the Dwarf King, for example. Each relationship is also defined as positive, ambiguous, or negative; if Alice's relationship with the Dwarf King is negative, it suggests that she hates dwarves, or he has betrayed her, or umpteen other potential disagreements.

For each relationship point a character has they get a six-sided relationship die; these are used in a number of ways but one of the more common is to determine which icons are going to be involved in that session's adventure. Everyone rolls their dice and each die that comes up as a 5 or 6 means that the relevant icon has taken an interest in events; a 6 means that the player-character will receive some sort of benefit from their relationship, while a 5 means that the benefit has some sort of cost.

The benefit could be something as prosaic as a bag of cash, or it could be something more narrative based; perhaps the wraith recognises the player-character as an agent of the Lich King and so lets him pass untouched and unleveldrained. Negative relationships tend to suggest that the benefit comes at a cost to the icon; Alice may use her Dwarf King 6 to recall that she knows a secret entrance into a dwarven fort, for example, allowing the party to bypass the guards. Ambiguous relationships could go either way, depending on context.

When I run 13th Age I tend to ask for these rolls at the end of a session so that I have some time to tie them into next week's adventuring, but the other day I wondered about using them at the start of a campaign; I was also thinking about die drop tables and the combination of the two trains of thought has resulted in this hideous chimera.

First of all grab a map from somewhere. You don't want too much detail, as the dice will be telling you where to put things.

Then each player -- or the GM on the player's behalf, but I think it would be more fun to involve the players -- takes it in turns to roll their relationship dice on the map. You want to know which dice are associated with each icon; roll them in separate chunks or use different colours, or something like that. Each die's final position determines a location associated with the relevant icon.

A 6 indicates that the location is some sort of stronghold of the icon. It could be a literal stronghold, or it could just be a town where everyone thinks the Crusader is a swell guy. A 5 suggests that while the place is associated with an icon, there's something else going on; perhaps the location is a new fortress and the local area has not yet been tamed. A roll of 1 to 4 indicates that the location is associated with the icon, but that there is little of campaign-level interest there, although something may come up in an individual adventure.

A negative die probably indicates that the location has been abandoned, or is in fact associated with one of that icon's enemies, or something like that. An ambiguous die suggests that the icon's control and influence over that location is not absolute; perhaps it's been conquered and the locals aren't too happy with the new regime.

Then you do the same again for the next icon.

If dice from two -- or more! -- separate icons share the same space then things get even more interesting. Perhaps that location is held in an alliance between two icons, or perhaps it's the site of a conflict between them. Maybe their forces are fighting a guerilla war in the streets of a ruined city, or the location is a dungeon into which both icons are sending adventurers to look for a great treasure.

Carry on until all the player-characters have rolled all their icon dice and you have something like this.

Bosh! There's your campaign map. You know where the major points of interest are, now it's time to tidy it up and expand as desired. If you started with a blank map, you could put forests wherever Druid or Elf Queen dice landed, or mountain ranges wherever the Dwarf King or Orc Lord dice fell.

Like the relationship dice themselves, this should be easy enough to use outside 13th Age; all you need to do is define your important factions and then give your players a number of points to spend on positive, negative, and ambiguous relationships with those factions. I suggest using at least seven icons so that there's plenty of potential for complexity.

As ever, if you do give this a try, let me know how you get on!

Saturday, October 17, 2015

Scarface Was a Good One

Remakes are weird. Cover versions of songs are accepted and often applauded but in film -- a few exceptions aside -- the words "remake" or "reboot" are more often than not greeted with an all-consuming dread. Remakes seem to be far more uncommon in the literary world, beyond retellings of the classics, but I could be wrong about that because I am rubbish at reading.

Unless you count new editions of rulebooks, remakes don't seem to be that common in tabletop games either. Yes, there are umpteen versions of Keep on the Borderlands, the D&D people do love to rehash the big name classics every so often, and I have seen a few bloggers dissecting various adventures and offering suggestions for improvement -- one of my favourite things Zak S has done was when he condensed the aforementioned Keep into two one page dungeons -- but I can't think of many instances of an actual full remake of a role-playing adventure.

At this point, I expect the comments to be full of the many rpg remakes I have overlooked in my ignorance. It's okay, I am prepared.

I considered it myself after I played the Pathfinder campaign adventure path Carrion Crown; it has a good central idea but the structure of the campaign adventure path ruins everything, so I thought it would be worth a rewrite. I put that project aside for boring mathematical reasons that aren't relevant right now because I want to look at King for a Day.

(Or KIIng for a Day. No, I don't know why.)

According to the notes by the author Jim Pinto, King for a Day started out as the AD&D2 campaign Night Below, but as he tinkered and tweaked the adventure ready for play, Pinto realised he was more or less rewriting the whole thing and decided to release it as a unique product.

I played Night Below once in 1998, I think. I remember playing a fighter with 10 or 11 in all his statistics and I remember our party getting ambushed by bandits as we crossed a river. I recall nothing else about the campaign, so perhaps that encounter ended in a TPK, or maybe we all decided it was naff and we'd play Shadowrun or Call of Cthulhu the next week. As such I can't make a full comparison between the original campaign and the remake, but from what I can tell -- see Charles' discussion of one element of Night Below here for an example -- King for a Day does feature more or less the same individual elements as the original campaign, arranged in a different order, with different connections between them and different consequences attached.

One notable difference is that King for a Day puts much more emphasis on events above ground; most of the book's 300ish pages consists of an exhaustive gazetteer of people, places, and plots in a remote rural valley, but the original campaign devoted only a third of its overall page count to its equivalent.

(This isn't a review as such, but the formatting of the gazetteer is strange because it's written as if it's a web page, with lots of hyperlinks; a location, for example, will have links -- complete with little icons -- to the people that can be found there and the plots that involve the place, but of course none of the hyperlinks work because, well, it's a book. The detail-obsessive part of me appreciates the structure of this even if in practical terms it is bonkers.)

Once events draw the player-characters underground, King for a Day seems to be in a rush; there is a handful of locations -- albeit a couple of them are vast -- and then BOOM! there's the climax and it's done. Again, this isn't a review, but the underground bits do feel a bit underwritten, in particular the finale; I don't know what happens at the end of Night Below but I hope it's a bit more of a meaty finish.

The end result of all of this is that the remake seems broad but shallow; I don't mean this as a complaint, because it would be churlish and inaccurate to claim that the huge amount of content Pinto has generated for the main, above ground, part of the campaign is in any way superficial. Rather it's an observation on the structure of the adventure; it is more of a sprawling rural sandbox with a small but significant jaunt underground, and as such is more or less a total inversion of the original.

That's what I find most interesting about King for a Day. It is still recognisable as Night Below -- even to someone like me who has little knowledge of the original -- but at the same time it's quite different and you could play both and still be surprised. Reluctant as I am to encourage remakes, the success of King for a Day as a proof of concept makes me wonder what else is possible; maybe that Carrion Crown rewrite isn't such a bad idea after all.

Wednesday, October 14, 2015


Right then, first things first, I am involved in one of the stretch goals for Mike Evans' Kickstarter so I have an interest in seeing it succeed.

That said, it's heading into its third week and has around 95% of its funding It achieved its initial funding goal between drafts of this post; my maths skills are terrible but I think it will need to get to 175% in the next twelve days before I am activated or unlocked or whatever happens to me, and I don't know if there's enough time left for that.

Anyway, what I'm saying is that I recommend you back it with no expectation that you'll put in enough cash that it benefits me. That's as unbiased a recommendation as I can give.

Mike will probably hate me for saying so but he's a lovely bloke, and in my few brief chats with him about the Hubris project he has shown great enthusiasm that I am certain will show in the final product. He's been blogging about it for ages so you can go and read a couple of posts to see if it's the sort of thing you'll like.

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Rolling in the Old World

My opponent has three dice and needs to roll fours, fives or sixes to hit my armies. Each six counts as a hit and allows him to roll another die.


No matter, I still have a good chance of scoring a couple of hits on my four dice.

This sort of thing is why, if you want to win at a board game, you choose me as your opponent.

Saturday, September 12, 2015

A Different Age

I am sorry it's been so quiet around here of late. Most of my gaming group has been jetting around Europe so I have been playing a few board games here and there, but I didn't think anyone needed to read about how bad I am at Netrunner or Blood Bowl.

Well okay, I managed to lose a Blood Bowl match against an orc team playing a passing game, that's how bad I am. Let's leave it there for now.

Well, except that I'm tempted by a vampire team as they seem like unpredictable fun, or maybe a dwarf team, because I've never tried them.


As the school term begins, the group returns to home base and so we met again last night for the first time in weeks to try the Dragon Age role-playing game by Green Ronin. I've had the quickstart rules and the first boxed set as pdfs for ages -- ho ho -- but it's taken a while for us to get around to playing.

I don't remember how I first encountered the game; although I consider Baldur's Gate II to be one of the greatest computer games of all time I lost track of Bioware's output some time after Neverwinter Nights, when I lacked hardware powerful enough to play any of their games. As such, I only started playing Dragon Age -- the digital version -- a few months ago and I haven't got very far, so I don't know it well enough to consider myself a fan and I don't know why I bought the tabletop version all that time ago.

Yet I did and I found a simple ruleset similar in many ways to old Red Box D&D but cleaned up and with some modern ideas like a stunt mechanic; that ticked all sorts of boxes for me and I went to my group with all sorts of enthusiasm but they weren't interested at the time.

Now in 2015, we as a group have developed a taste for something lighter and less complex for our fantasy gaming, and the recent release of the generic Fantasy AGE rules -- Dragon Age with the Dragon Age bits taken out -- brought the game back to our attention, so I dug out the files and we played the quickstart adventure yesterday.

It's good! Having played the game, it now reminds me less of Red Box D&D and more of Savage Worlds, except less wild and unpredictable; it's perhaps a little less fun as a result, but not to a significant extent, and I'm sure some people would prefer the consistency the AGE system brings. The stunt mechanic is a good example; there's an element of randomness in determining whether a stunt occurs -- like the Aces in Savage Worlds in some ways -- but then the player gets to decide how it manifests by spending points to buy special effects from a menu. It's a nice blend of unpredictability and control.

That blend is also present in the basic 3d6 task resolution mechanic; you know that 11 is the most common result on three dice so you can plan around that, but nothing is guaranteed and there's always the chance of a different outcome. This sort of thinking carries through into character generation too; we used the characters provided in the quickstart set but there are some semi-random elements when creating one's own character, so that the majority of elves -- for example -- will have similar traits but some will have more uncommon abilities.

I ran the game so I didn't get to play around with the options available to the others but they seemed to have fun; after the game there were some concerns that the characters may be too flat and samey, but that could be a perception based on the pre-generated set of beginning characters. As the gamemaster I found it easy to run with little in the way of book-keeping and my main difficulty was grappling with the layout of the adventure, and even that is a minor complaint.

Monsters are easy to run and I like the way that some creatures have unique stunts not available to player-characters -- I'm fond of these sorts of asymmetrical mechanics and I should write a post about it some day -- and it reminded me a little of the way monsters work in 13th Age, albeit not quite on the same bonkers scale. The statistic blocks are larger and more detailed than those of 13th Age and basic D&D, but didn't strike me as cumbersome in play, although I didn't need to make much use of them; perhaps that's a design flaw and they could be condensed even further. Monsters aside, I didn't need to engage with the rules much; it seemed to be a case of setting a task difficulty and letting the players get on with it, which is just the sort of hands-off approach I like. I imagine the proper rules go into more detail but I can't see heaps of complexity being added.

We treated the setting as a bit of a joke; we weren't having any of that "genlock" business so the adventure was populated by not-orcs, not-goblins, and not-wargs, as appropriate. To be fair Stuart did make use of a key setting concept when making a pivotal choice in the adventure, so we didn't treat the whole thing with contempt,but it's safe to say that the release of a setting-agnostic version of the rules is welcome.

The AGE system hasn't displaced 13th Age or LotFP as my favourite D&D-like fantasy rpg but I like it enough to be keen to give the rules another try. I've had some vague plans to return to Titan -- the setting of our D&D5 game from last year -- for some further adventures, and I had my eye on Savage Worlds for that, but based on last night's game I wonder if Fantasy AGE may not be a better choice. I look forward to finding out.

Sunday, August 23, 2015

The Infantry Squad of Extraordinary Gentlemen

One thing I like to do with my Sunday mornings is catch up with the latest content on Hardcore Gaming 101. I like the general structure of their historical approach and it's always interesting to see comparisons between the various versions of older games, from a time when it was possible that the same title could be quite different depending on what system was running it.

The site's writing isn't always that good, alas, and the way that most of the contributors are focussed so much on the US and Japanese markets that they are dismissive of the European gaming scene can be both sad -- almost everything is rubbish in comparison to the blessed NES -- and funny; the idea of using a joystick to play a game and pushing up to jump seems to drive some writers into paroxysms of confusion and fury for some reason.

Flaws aside the site is doing something no one else is and it's easy to get lost for hours reading about old games, then following links to other articles, then following even more links to even more articles, and oh look, it's three in the morning and you still have eight tabs open. Oops.

Even though the site has a nostalgic focus, there have been four decades or so of computer gaming and no one person has played everything so it's not difficult to discover something new on the site; for example, having never owned any of the erratically-numbered X-Boxes I would never have found out about the 360-exclusive Operation Darkness had I not been reading the site over breakfast.

It's a turn-based tactical combat game -- they tend to be called "tactical rpgs", probably because of the influence over the genre of Final Fantasy Tactics, but I think they're closer to football management sims -- set during an alternative World War II in which immortal werewolves fight for the Allies against the Axis forces and the vampire cult that aids them.

That would be enough for some developers, and I'm sure you could get a good game out of that, but it wasn't enough for Success Corporation, oh no. The rag-tag group of misfits put under the player's control in this game not only contains werewolves but also features pyrokinetic young women, Frankenstein's monster, Abraham Van Helsing's grand-daughter, a direct descendant of Sir Lancelot, Jack the Ripper Mêlée Specialist, and Herbert West, who is the team's field medic.

I don't even care what the game is like; the bonkers audacity of putting that cast in that setting is enough to win me over. In the past few days I've been planning a follow-up to the World War Cthulhu game I ran earlier in the year and I've also been thinking of running Pelgrane Press' upcoming Dracula Dossier at some point; as of this morning I'm now thinking of mixing the two together to see what happens.

Saturday, August 08, 2015

Why I Gave My Soul to Cthulhu

I have posted about why Call of Cthulhu is my favourite role-playing game before but Charles’ project over at Dyvers has given me the opportunity to go into a bit more detail about why it is so ace and why everyone should give it a try.

Call of Cthulhu was an instant hit with my original gaming group. We played a lot of games back then, even if a lot of them were one-offs, but the most played were Shadowrun and Call of Cthulhu. The group formed around Shadowrun and our gamemaster Tim was a keen fan of the game, but aside from a couple of somewhat unsuccessful sessions I ran, Tim was also the only member of the group who had the enthusiasm to run it; the rest of us were content to play. By contrast Call of Cthulhu spread through our group like gonorrhoea in university freshers’ week. Every one of us tried running it at least once, often for multiple sessions, and this was a bunch of stinky teenagers who had never heard of HP Lovecraft. Well, I had but that’s because my mother had a vast horror library and I remembered the name from that, although I’d not read the books on which the name appeared.

I think that novelty was a big part of the game’s success in winning us over. Even then the game stood out as different and unknown. We’d been raised on Fighting Fantasy and Games Workshop and Knightmare so we knew about orcs and dragons and death traps and dungeons, everyone had seen Star Wars, and enough of us had seen enough dodgy 90’s anime to work out how cyberpunk was supposed to feel, but Call of Cthulhu was new. It was about normal people facing the supernatural, but not the vampires and werewolves of classic horror, but strange unknowable things from beyond the stars that owed more to science fiction than the Gothic tradition.

It is a game with quite a different feel to almost anything else. Player-characters in Call of Cthulhu are not superheroes or barbarian kings or powerful wizards -- although the latter is a possible but probably unwanted character development -- but ordinary people. You do sometimes get the odd soldier or police officer but for the most part Call of Cthulhu characters are historians, doctors, priests, or librarians. Their skills are based on knowledge and observation rather than shooting or stabbing, and indeed shooting or stabbing is often the worst thing to do in the game, unless it’s shooting or stabbing another member of the party because they’ve gone insane and are coming at your character with a rusty claw hammer, their knuckles bloody, their eyes wild, and their lips flecked with foamy spittle.


With this emphasis on more cerebral skills the tone and pace of the game is different to others. The obstacles in the game are not for the most part physical -- although there are plenty of opportunities for climbing walls, picking locks, and, perhaps most of all, hiding -- but mental and social. It’s a game of investigation, of talking to the right people, of looking in the right places, and of knowing the right facts, and the payoff to all this -- the game’s equivalent of the treasure room or boss fight -- is the revelation of why uncle Oswald disappeared, or why farmer Dougal’s cattle are unwell, and so on, and that revelation is often one that is inimical to the player-characters.

There is something of a contradiction inherent in the game; it’s all about investigation, but it could be argued that the player-characters are often better off being unsuccessful in their investigations. I think this tension -- although it emulates the source material well -- is what gives Call of Cthulhu a reputation as a game in which it’s expected for characters to die or go mad, and I have seen that conception mutate into an assumption that the game is best played in a sort of humorous Paranoia way, with everyone trying to kill the player-characters off in the most gruesome way possible. I’m not some boring purist who thinks that such an approach damages the game’s stature and that it should only be approached in a serious and literary manner; it’s a valid way of playing, I’ve played it this way, and it’s great fun, but it’s not the only way to play.

For me Call of Cthulhu is about ultimate heroism. The characters are ordinary people, often academics, and are about as unsuited as possible to oppose the actions of alien deities and their servants, actions that are often apocalyptic in scope, and yet with all that stacked against them, they still try. If you were a glass half empty sort -- as I suspect Lovecraft himself was -- then this can seem like an exercise in futility and nihilism; why waste time and energy fighting a fight that cannot be won? I don’t see it that way; perhaps it is inevitable that the stars will become right and humanity will be obliterated either by itself or gribbly space gods, but in this place and in this time the player-characters can still save lives and keep the darkness at bay for one more day, even if they give their lives doing so. It’s a game in which every session can be a heroic last stand and there’s something great about that.

That’s not to say that it’s not dark. It’s the only role-playing game in which I’ve felt fear; my friend Paul wrote an adventure about a witch and towards the end as she advanced down a tunnel towards our characters, scraping a knife along the stone wall and hissing, with our rifle and shotgun blasts bouncing off her withered flesh, I must admit that I started to feel real panic. Paul’s description of what the witch did to our characters with that knife stayed with us for weeks after and made us shudder every time we remembered it. Although maybe that was just Paul. He’s an archaeologist now; I like to think his career choice was inspired by Call of Cthulhu.

It’s also the only game in which I’ve caused fear at the table. I still have fond memories of the players of my second and current group looking at me in shock and dread when I announced that they were being assaulted not by a tentacled horror from beyond the stars but a deranged human being with a fire axe. I’m sure it’s possible to scare players in any game but I have only ever seen it happen in Call of Cthulhu. Perhaps it’s because player-characters are so fragile; a Call of Cthulhu investigator doesn’t get stronger like a Dungeons & Dragons character does -- unless it’s the d20 version from 2001 but we don’t talk about that -- so that first level feel, that sense that any wrong step could spell the end for the character, never goes away. Games like RuneQuest or Stormbringer, though they share the same basic ruleset as Call of Cthulhu, allow characters to rise in power and strength; even Traveller, a game with no advancement mechanism as such, gives characters opportunities to gather power through accumulation of money, technology, and influence.

In Call of Cthulhu, money, technology, and influence are of little use against eldritch forces, and increasing one’s Photography skill from 67% to 72% will be of no use when a strange dog-human hybrid thing is chewing off the top of Professor Woodman’s skull. Investigators can arm themselves with mystical weapons and arcane spells, but all have significant drawbacks, and those drawbacks create interesting decision points in the game; casting Bulwark Against the Denizens of the Outer Dark may save your life, but if it fries your brain and leaves you insane, is it worth the cost?

I say yes, because if nothing else, it’s fun. It probably makes me a horrible person but one of the most fun aspects of the game for me is the collection of mental and physical injuries and disorders the player-characters pick up over the course of a campaign; if Father Bowden’s encounter with deep ones in a previous investigation has left him with a phobia of large bodies of water and the next adventure is set on the shores of a Norwegian lake, then that’s a recipe for a great evening of gaming. What Call of Cthulhu characters lack in +1 swords, gold pieces, and strongholds, they make up for with missing limbs and phobias; I know I sort of dismissed the suicidal mode of play above but even in more serious games there’s some pride to be had in a long list of ailments on one’s character sheet.

Call of Cthulhu is based on Chaosium’s d100 system in which most tests are a roll of percentile dice against a simple target number; if your Chemistry skill is 65% then you need to roll 65 or less on a d100 to identify the mysterious compound you just found. There are a few more wrinkles to the system -- although not many, as it’s a simplified version of the original d100 system as seen in RuneQuest and elsewhere -- but that’s more or less it; the complete rules of the game fit into 48 pages in my preferred edition and everything else is background or GM advice, making it one of the most coherent and comprehensive single-volume role-playing games I’ve seen. It is a simple game and with simplicity comes flexibility, so that it is not too difficult to take the game out of the assumed 1920’s setting and plonk it somewhere else.

The 1890’s and 1990’s -- or the modern day -- have been supported as core settings in most editions, but the only real differences in the game’s rules are that each era presents a different set of player-character skills and a different equipment list; this makes adaptation to any location or era a simple matter of doing a few minutes of research. There are few role-playing systems that are so flexible and easy to adapt.

At the time of writing I have just finished running a game in which my players are agents of the Special Operations Executive running about in Vichy France, but I have in the past run a campaign in which they’ve been supernatural investigators in modern Britain, as well as a sprawling pan-European campaign set in the classic 1920’s era. I have played in countless games, but one recent favourite has been Cthulhu Invictus, because who doesn’t want to play a Roman centurion battling the minions of the Mythos? Perhaps one day I’ll finish putting together my notes on a swinging 60’s superspies version of the game; I’m thinking it may be called The Shadow Over Portmeirion.

That campaign idea has been bubbling along since about 2002 but I will come back to it because I keep coming back to Call of Cthulhu, twenty years after I was introduced to it. No other game has held my interest and attention like Call of Cthulhu; in comparison I haven’t played Shadowrun in fifteen years, sorry Tim. The game is part of me now; I can run it almost without looking at the rules, and when I write adventures for other games, they always seem to be Call of Cthulhu investigations in disguise. It’s my favourite role-playing game by far, and I hope I’ve been able to convey at least some of what thrills and excites me about it, even two decades after my first investigator walked through the front door of that haunted house in Boston.

At some point soon this paragraph right here, the one you're reading right now, will disappear and in its place will be a list of links to other blogs that have taken part in the project. Look out for it!