Category Archives: RPGs

Survey: Conflict and Bleed in Role-Playing

Dr. Sarah Lynne Bowman, Austin Community College and Dr. Michał Mochocki, Kazimierz Wielki University in Bydgoszcz are launching a survey on conflict and bleed in role-playing communities. The survey is addressed to players with experience in larp, tabletop RPG, freeform or online role-playing. Click this link to enter the survey.

Interview with Scott Dorward

Is is a great honour and pleasure to announce that Scott Dorward, a prolific freelance writer and editor best known for his work on a number of games with Cthulhu in the name, has agreed to give us a short interview. Scott is also the author of Fairyland, a terrific scenario, the review of which you may read here.

Writer, editor, line developer, podcast presenter – when it comes to Cthulhu you have done it all, not to mention the things you have done outside the franchise. Yet – correct me if I am wrong – being a game developer has not been your first career choice. It follows that one does not necessarily need to be professionally educated in game dev in order to be successful designer. What is your opinion on comprehensive – although not exhaustive – game dev education available nowadays?

Certainly, the idea appeals to me greatly. I’ve worked with a lot of different people over the years, almost of them being self-taught. There are certain skills which people had to learn the hard way by doing lots of things wrong or by honing their skills gradually over time. I think that education would help people get over those initial hurdles – that’s almost certainly a good thing.

What skills would you say could help young game developers to achieve some degree of success in the field of role-playing games?

That is a combination of things. As writers – just understanding the craft to begin with. Not necessarily how to tell a story, because role-playing games are strange like that: instead of telling a story you are giving other people tools to tell their stories. You need to understand how stories work and you need to understand what the building blocks are. And you need to be able to communicate clearly.

As an editor, you need to know all those things and you need to understand how to manage people, how to organize projects. It’s a combination of a lot of different skills. The other important thing is to be able to learn by doing. I think a big part of game development that various people struggle with over time is the act of actually playing the games and developing them through play. I think that’s a huge part of it, a skill in itself. That, I think, forms the bedrock, and writing and organization sits on top of that. First of all, you’ve got to understand and love gaming.

Fairyland seems to have been written specifically for Cthulhu Dark game system developed by Graham Walmsley. Is it in fact so or have you adapted an already formulated idea to suit these particular mechanics?

No, this one was written specifically for the Cthulhu Dark. And there were a few things that led to it being very specifically for that. The first was that I read Graham Walmsley’s rather excellent book on lovecraftian gaming called Stealing Cthulhu. It’s got all sorts of ideas about using standard lovecraftian creatures in different ways. I started thinking very much about a particular kind of creature and how I wanted to try something very, very different with it.

The other is that there is a very simple thing in Cthulhu Dark that I feel shapes the way games go. There is this one rule in the combat system: if you fight a monster, you die. And a lot of lovecraftian games I’ve played over the years have involved a lot of combat. That changed the tone of those games, made them less horrific and more “let’s find out what’s going on and then deal with it like heroes”. And I wanted a horror game where the protagonist always felt like he was on the back foot, where he was nervous about what was going on, where the odds seemed overwhelming and bleak. Cthulhu Dark seemed like the perfect system for that because fighting back was never going to be an option. The best you could do was to find what was going on and survive it.

I daresay that Fairyland has a moderately low entry threshold. What was your target audience and do you feel that you have met their requirements?

I very rarely think of things in terms of trying to write for a particular audience. I get ideas for scenarios or game settings, I just develop the ideas and hope that they will find an audience. Fundamentally, I suppose I’m just writing for the people I normally game with, either in my local groups or at conventions. I assume that there are other people like that around the world who will enjoy it.

So you had specific players in mind.

Oh, yes. Because I tend to run many games at conventions, I very rarely know who I’m going to be running stuff for. I also run many games online as well, so I’ve played with people all around the world, lots of whom I’ve never met before. At the same time I play with a lot of people I know fairly well.

If you don’t know the kind of audience you’re taking your game to, you tend to have to try to make it as flexible as possible. This goes back to what I was saying before about not necessarily trying to write stories but rather giving GMs the tools they need in order to run the stories or create their own. I think that this degree of flexibility is absolutely essential to make role-playing games fun for as many people as possible. Obviously, you can’t please everyone, but I think on the whole I’m trying to make things as universal as possible. The only real audience I’m trying to write for most of the time are people who like horror stories.

There is something nearly effortless in the way that the text is structured. Was it a conscious decision to organize it like that or is it simply your usual style?

It’s very similar to my usual style. Fairyland was actually one of the earliest scenarios that I wrote for publication and well, I’ve had a lot more practice since then. But text structure is something that I feel strongly about. The purpose of a scenario as a written text is to explain things as easily as possible to the person that will end up running it and presenting it to another group. You are not writing a story, you are not doing anything clever with the text and you are not necessarily making it fun to read the same way you’d do with a bit of fiction. There may be great surprises or reveals in the scenario, but you don’t want those to be surprises to the GM as he or she is reading through it. Because again, the game has to be explained as clearly as possible.

It is a very conscious thing for me to make things as easy as possible to absorb. It is what I as a GM would want to get in someone else’s scenarios. Certainly, as an editor, this is something that I insist on. I’ll simplify the prose, I’ll restructure things so that the ideas flow in a more natural form. It’s got to the stage where I’ve actually written quite a lengthy document for people who write for World War Cthulhu about exactly how I want the scenarios to be structured, how I want them to explain things, what I expect from the prose and so on.

Europe Ablaze, an adventure anthology for World War Cthulhu – of which you are the line developer – contains six SOE-centric scenarios set in the Second World War. It is true that it offers much variety, yet, mayhap, not as much as one might expect. Those six scenarios are set in Spain, France, Belgium, Norway, Italy and Greece. Will there be a continuation and if so, can we hope for at least one scenario set in Eastern Europe? Operation Anthropoid, Krystyna Skarbek and her exploits, Slovak National Uprising – surely there is no shortage of inspiration there.

I don’t think this has ever been officially announced but there is a half-written campaign which got delayed because of the Cold War material and it is actually inspired by Operation Anthropoid. I hope it will come out either towards the end of this year or perhaps early next year. I always very much wanted to do something set in Poland, just haven’t had the chance yet because the Cold War Kickstarter came along. We have developed a few Darkest Hour books and suddenly the focus was on developing this new line.

And now, for a harder question: what, in your opinion, makes a Cthulhu scenario marketable? What does a modern Cthulhu enthusiast yearn for in a scenario?

This may sound like an evasion but it’s not. I don’t think that there is any “one size fits all” solution. Different groups want vastly different things from games. I’ve played with players who very much see Call of Cthulhu as an action-adventure game, see the scenarios as things to win and monsters as things to be beaten and overcome. I’ve also played with groups who play in a much more emotionally-driven and character-driven mode. They see it as being about desperate last stands, acts of heroism or just doomed characters on their final death spirals down into oblivion. I think that the appetite for all those things is there as much as it has always been.

In the 1980s a lot of the scenarios were generally more action-oriented. There was the expectation that you’d go out there, you’d learn all the details, you’d find out what the threat to be beaten was. Then you’d stock up on shotguns and dynamite and go and blow it up. There are still plenty of scenarios coming out like that. I think that Pulp Cthulhu – which has just been released in PDF form – is going to revitalize that side of play. And that’s great.

But I also think that there is perhaps a bit more of an appetite for what Pelgrane Press in the Trail of Cthulhu game and Graham Walmsley in particular started to do as purist games. There is an anthology called Nameless Horrors that I did with Paul Fricker and Matthew Sanderson. It is very much an attempt to do those very grim, very downbeat personal and emotional horror games and make Call of Cthulhu frightening again. It will be very interesting to see how well that’s received.

To publish commercially or not publish at all – that is the question. Should young game designers publish their work under Creative Commons and can it truly help to launch their career later on?

I think yes. The environment that got me into game design was very much like that. I started getting into role-playing games back in the early 80s and it never really occurred to me to write stuff for publication until ten years ago. The thing that set me on that path was a group in UK, starting around 2003 or 2004, called The Collective Endeavour. They developed their own games and instead of going out to other publishers they’d publish them themselves in very professional formats. Among them were people like Malcolm Craig who did a/state, Cold City, Hot War and Gregory Hutton who did 3:16 and Best Friends. What they did was show that people who were self-publishing were capable of producing games that played as well and looked as polished as anything that’s coming out of larger publishers. That was something of a revelation to me and I became friends with lots of these people by gaming with them at conventions. And that convinced me that self-publishing is a valid option, and not just for people who are starting out on their writing careers and are looking to build a reputation for themselves.

Thank you very much.

Author: Urszula Chmielewska

There is such a place as Fairyland

The Angel of the Abyss is not the only Cthulhu scenario to be reviewed this week. Gamedec students have also managed to get their paws on Fairyland by Scott Dorward. It must be played to be believed, but for now, please, enjoy the review.

And here you will find an interview with Scott Dorward, the author of Fairyland.

It is no secret that many Cthulhu adventures leave the players with little hope to win and Fairyland by Scott Dorward is no different. In fact, there seems to be no possibility whatsoever of ending the scenario in question on a happy note. But then, horror games in general and Call of Cthulhu in particular are great for those players who enjoy playing to lose. After all, there is much fun to be had while sliding down the scales of madness.

Before one delves into the scenario, it is worth noting that it has been written specifically for Cthulhu Dark – a rules-light Cthulhu game system developed by Graham Walmsley. That in itself – especially for those in any way familiar with Cthulhu Dark – should give a sufficiently complete idea as to what to expect: a Mythos-heavy rail-based game with an undeniably lovecraftian atmosphere.

And that is exactly what Fairyland offers, all neatly packaged into sixteen pages – or, in fact, a little less than that, since the scenario is supplemented with several high-resolution eerie graphics. It also contains the rules of Cthulhu Dark as compiled by Graham Walmsley plus a Fairyland-specific special rule regarding laudanum use.

Fairyland takes place in Cullingstone, a small village in the Borders of Scotland, in the year of 1897, which puts the adventure firmly in the late Victorian era. Since 1849 a young girl goes missing from the village every three years. No matter how strict and vigilant the parents are, one of the children always wanders into the woods. It is said that Hobs Wood, on the edge of which Cullingstone is located, hides the door to Fairyland. This appears to be true as all the missing girls return eventually, yet they are changed forever by their ordeal. Scottish legends provide a clear explanation: changelings, that is what comes back; not quite human, yet bearing familiar form. Moreover, the fairies can be cruel when they are not paid their due. And so the local families, terrified of losing more children and wary of supernatural vengeance, keep the secret. Especially as a young couple with a daughter has just moved into The Rambles…

There are no ready-made character sheets and there is a reason for that. Cthulhu Dark requires little in the way of such things; the only thing needed is a short history of each Investigator including their area of expertise. Instead, the author gives precise guidelines as to how construct the team and provides five samples of Investigators from within The Rambles and outside. The trial run conducted for the purpose of this review has shown that while including both types gives the Investigators a direct channel into the village, not to speak of another point of view, there may be some problems with the issue of splitting the team for long stretches of time. There is nothing reprehensible or impossible about running two separate groups, yet not every Secret Keeper is capable of such or likes to do so. Furthermore, a team consisting purely or mostly of household dwellers has the added value of family drama.

In my opinion, the unique advantage of Fairyland lies in its approach to the Mythos-related threat. In no way is the real culprit shown or correctly named until the very end. Furthermore, the Secret Keeper is advised to conceal its nature by all means, forcing the Investigators to move within the realm of legends and folk tales. This makes a startling amount of sense, seeing as none of the Investigators is meant to be a seasoned supernatural sleuth. Besides, the predominant theme of fairies and changelings gives the scenario an eerie quality, which can be amplified by providing appropriate musical accompaniment.

There is much to be said for the structure and layout of the text. There is no separate chapter pertaining to non-player characters, nor has the outline of Cullingstone and its environs been virtually isolated from the plot by being put it into one or more frames. Full descriptions of characters and places are woven into the plot and not only do they constitute its intrinsic  parts, they also provide a clear-cut structure. The organization of the text goes in the following order: chronologically and then according to spatial criteria. Non-player characters are assigned to specific sites depending on their social role and/or their usual location. Such a structure prevents situations where the Secret Keepers is forced to jump from one chapter to another and makes it easier to build a fully realized image of the area in one’s mind.

It cannot be denied that Fairyland perfectly suits its chosen mechanics. Cthulhu Dark works best for Mythos-heavy scenarios, seeing as it provides little in the way of rules for purely human conflict. It also serves best when applied to story-driven adventures. There is no meat for gamists  here – any undertaken action is always successful, the only question is what degree of success the Investigator will enjoy.  Unless, of course, somebody thinks that the story would improve, if the action fails.  The story is paramount. There is one more limitation: Cthulhu Dark seems to be most suited for oneshots. The reason for this  is the rapid sanity slippage induced by the use of Insanity Die. Case in point : during the trial run one of the Investigators went mad halfway through the adventure and promptly committed suicide.

It is important to note that while the adventure has been written specifically for Cthulhu Dark, it is wholly possible to run it using any other Cthulhu game system. Furthermore,  this  option is fully supported by the text; all instances necessitating rule usage are accompanied by tips which provide for both options. That, in turn, raises the question whether, and to what extent , does the choice of game system influence the game.

One must appreciate how neatly the author has managed to incorporate indications as to when and how apply the rules of either Cthulhu Dark or any other Cthulhu game system into the scenario. There are no verbal hints in the text proper; instead, one should watch out for different symbols placed on the margins. These, depending on the precise symbol used, show whether something is a clue or a threat to an Investigator’s Sanity. Or possibly both at the same time. Furthermore, in order to avoid any confusion, those parts of the text to which the symbols apply are italicized.

The advantage of this particular solution is twofold. Not only does it allow the Secret Keeper to identify the key parts of the investigation by merely glancing at the page, it also helps to improve the flow of the text and makes for much shorter and more concise paragraphs. That, in turn, should shorten  the time necessary for preparation and make the process of getting to know the plot much easier.

That said, one must commend the author for the overall quality of tips aimed at prospective Secret Keepers. Not only do they provide hints as to how to approach and describe certain events and characters in order to maximize the player’s experience, they also show the obvious care taken in testing the scenario thoroughly.

Taking into account all the aforementioned factors, one simply cannot deny that Fairyland is a truly interesting short scenario and any Cthulhu-enthusiast would be well served by looking into it. Its moderately low entry threshold should appeal to those Secret Keepers and players who want to begin or have just begun their adventure with Cthulhu. On the other hand, the undeniable lovecraftian atmosphere and eerie quality exuded by the adventure will not leave the purists disappointed.

I owe Adrian Andryśkiewicz, Kinga Gajdel, Anna Kwapiszewska and Mateusz Chenc many thanks. Without them, this review would have never come into existence.

Author: Urszula Chmielewska

The Angel of the Abyss is flying high

Here you can read an interview with Matthew Sanderson, the author of The Angel of the Abyss.

World War Cthulhu has enjoyed no small popularity since the very announcement of its pending publication. This Call of Cthulhu setting can boast some  truly amazing projects, many of which are still in development. It is hard to predict how far and in what direction will the line expand in the future.

For now, let us take a look at the first scenario book for World War Cthulhu, Europe Ablaze and, more specifically, at the adventure which enabled it to launch with a considerable degree of success: The Angel of the Abyss by Matthew Sanderson, offered as a free sample to mark the pre-release of the supplement itself.

Europe Ablaze comprises six complete adventures set in the Second World War. All of them are firmly rooted in the reality of war some taking inspiration from actual historical events and operations.  The Angel of the Abyss is one of the latter, being based around Operation Harling, a major sabotage act by British Special Operations Executive carried out in cooperation with the Greek Resistance Movement.

It must be mentioned that in its entirety World War Cthulhu appears to have side-stepped the obvious approach that one might take when mixing Cthulhu Mythos and World War II, unlike the concurrent Cthulhu expansion Achtung! Cthulhu. In doing so, it has remained highly respectful towards its historical background. Taking into account the relative recency of the events in question as well as their socio-cultural impact, it surely seems to be the most appropriate approach. Furthermore, some players tend to experience trouble when faced with Mythos-imbued Nazi forces. That is why World War Cthulhu makes an effort not to merge the all too real human evil with supernatural threats. The whole issue is handled with great delicacy and resolved by supporting plots that are dual in nature: the official mission given to the Investigators tends to be wholly anchored in the political and military spheres while the supernatural is relegated to a secondary underlying plot layer.

Such is the case with The Angel of the Abyss. The Investigators are given a mission to support two disparate resistance groups on the eve of the attack on the Gorgopotamos Bridge. It is worth to mention that the author chose to adhere to historical determinism – it seems that whatever the players do, the attack will succeed. Such an approach enhances the realism of the adventure and affirms the feeling of the scale and scope of the setting.

One cannot help but admire the sheer amount of research that must have gone into the scenario, especially when it comes to creating a complete picture of the area. Although, it must be said that not all of the facts provided within the scenario will necessarily come into use. It appears to depend on the level of interest and capability for absorbing information exhibited by the individual groups of players. Still, based on a trial run conducted for the purposes of this review, historically-minded Secret Keepers will truly enjoy the multitude of details included in the adventure.

Despite its obvious quality, it is not the research that constitutes the main value of the scenario. The real strength of The Angel of the Abyss lies within the creation of non-player characters. Make no mistake – most Secret Keepers will be hard pressed to do justice to the vibrant images of the Greek Resistance fighters and certainly none will manage without sufficient preparation. Simply memorising all the fighters is already a challenge.

Fortunately, the author provides tips for playing each of the non-player characters, which relieves the Secret Keeper of having to come up with so many acting styles. At the same time, those Secret Keepers who normally do not rely on acting all that much will feel obliged to at least try. And that is truly a good thing, for one must admit that showing the conflict between ELAS and EDES – two politically divergent Greek Resistance movements – makes for the most engaging scenes and ones that seems to be greatly appreciated by the players.

The text of the adventure proper is organized chronologically, which is at least partly due to the non-negotiable timeline determined by historical events. The significance of the passage of time generates additional tension and furtherly provides the game with realism. The text is generously embedded with clear instructions as to how to use the game mechanics in order to move to plot forward. It is much appreciated as some of the rolls will be made for actions rarely seen in other Cthulhu settings.

The secondary layer of the plot ties itself seamlessly into the primary one and there is little that could be improved when it comes to the latter. The only quibble is the way that the sermon plays out like a cutscene. True, since the Investigators act under orders which require them to preserve their cover, they should not react. However it all depends on how much any given player understands the setting. For example, some character-driven players will claim that their Investigators would not stand and look helplessly at a priest being beaten, special training or no. But such occurrences are in no way a fault of the scenario itself.

The Angel of the Abyss is a great adventure for showing all the intensity and gritty realism that may be achieved within the given setting. Moreover, it shows perfectly how should the duality of the plot inherent to SOE-centric missions play out. Yet at the same time its entry threshold is not low. I daresay that it is much higher for the players as Secret Keepers capable of processing the amount of information provided within the scenario will be unable to help but buy into its atmosphere. Players, on the other hand, will need to either be already familiar with World War Cthulhu, have some basic historical knowledge or be thoroughly briefed in advance. In a nutshell, The Angel of the Abyss is a highly playable scenario which fulfills its role admirably.

Many thanks are owed to my players: Natalia Białopiotrowicz, Sylwia ‘Nefariel’ Bogdańska, Ewa Kieferling and Anna ‘Merrik’ Kwapiszewska, who graciously came and played what proved to be a very enjoyable RPG session indeed.

Author: Urszula Chmielewska

GameNight and Pog(R)adajmy Coming Soon

pogradajmy bdg

Pog(R)adajmy X-Mas Edition

10th Dec in Wiatrakowa Club

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GameNight: Nightly Theater of Imagination, fifth edition

12th Dec in UKW Main Library

click for FB fanpage

Gamedec with Wolsung

vanderbook

Pre-selection of short stories for Antologia Wolsung literary competition has ended. Contestants submitted stories set in the world of Wolsung: Steam Pulp Fantasy RPG. Last year, gamedecs had Wolsung RPG on mandatory “reading list” for the course in Role Playing Games Design. Now, four of them were on the pre-selection team. The competition was organised by Wydawnictwo Van Der Book – Kuźnia Gier Michał Stachyra.