Category Archives: Playtesting

Posts about the playtest for the new edition.

Call of Cthulhu convention scenarios

We love to write and run Call of Cthulhu scenarios for conventions. We always have.

CarcosaCon in Poland was to be next week, but it’s not a great time to be travelling anywhere right now. Oh, but if you are drinking space mead and catching the next byakhee to the Outer Gulfs, you should be fine of course. The convention will now be held in 5-7 November 2020, and we look forwards to visiting in the late European autumn, our favourite time of year for shadows and spooks.

LOKALIZACJA_560x300

Czocha Castle, the venue for CarcosaCon

We were delving through the vaults the other day, one of us holding torch and the other the pitchfork – those ghouls just don’t know when to give in – and we found this little gem that Mark wrote in 1989 about writing and running Call of Cthulhu tournaments in Melbourne, Australia. (I know we look young but that is because we have a painting by George Upton Pickman stashed away that is very Picture of Dorian Gray.)

Anyway, here are Mark’s thoughts from that era, edited for clarity and condensed for a fun blog-sized read. This is from Dagon Magazine no. 25, the legendary Call of Cthulhu fanzine which burrowed out of the UK in the 1980s, edited by our dear friend, the late and forever great Carl T. Ford.

Some of the ideas are of their era, but others still stand, and are an insight into how we learned to run and write for this wonderful game.

Writing and running Call of Cthulhu tournaments

From Dagon 25, 1989

… First up, the objective is to have fun. The scenarios have to be as exciting, scary, tension-packed and as entertaining as possible. Keepers are free to add or embellish scenes, so long as they basically stick to the scenario for the convenience of those taking part in subsequent session(s).

Time elapsed plays no part in the scoring, so Keepers are able to pace it as they see fit, with only the real restraint of leaving enough time for a break before running their next team. Keeper intervention is encouraged to keep the game moving if the players are bogging down, rather than sitting and waiting for them to come up with a decision. This intervention ranges from the gentle introduction of extra evidence, to adding a conclusion the players may have missed via an Idea roll, right down to the large glowing hand which descends from the sky holding a sign saying THIS WAY FOLKS. (Such has been needed on occasion!)

One problem we always face is finding actual space to play at the venue. It’s fine to lump a whole heap of screaming D&Ders in one loud overheated room with each other, but each Cthulhu team needs seclusion, so that a proper atmosphere can be built up, and so they’re out of earshot of other players – overhearing something upcoming in a D&D adventure gives you a tactical advantage; in Call of Cthulhu, it spoils the fun.

In a con held in a hotel this can be tricky. Thus, tournament Cthulhu has been played in stairwells, basements, lofts, outside under the spreading dusk, in hotel bathrooms, corridors, store rooms, and stranger places; in truth, an odd environment adds to the atmosphere. Candles were standard equipment until one venue complained about the strange puddles of cooled wax left across the building. Anywhere it’s dark at a Melbourne con, you’re liable to hear screams issuing from it. Most con goers have learned to cope with this, and it helps the game’s mystique no end (“Why are those people in there screaming?”).

For scenario setting, we traditionally stick to the 20s, but we have made forays into the 50s, 60s, and early nineteenth century. The writing style tends to be sparse, so that the tournament in print is more of an outline which the Keeper supplements with their memory of the play-test and own diabolical ideas. As for content, we tend to skirt brand-name Mythos, finding it convenient to invent our own beings when needed. This helps us to throw the players. We’re also past masters of the art of vicious twist – players have been led to stop rituals that shouldn’t be stopped, perform rituals that shouldn’t be performed, they’ve been deliberately possessed (several times), they’ve discovered things about their own ancestry they rather they didn’t, they’ve had dreams without knowing it, they’ve been dragged into Dreamlands without wanting to go, they’ve been framed for crimes they didn’t commit, and in some cases they’ve been deliberately driven mad and killed and then pulled from the illusionary wreckage. In short, we’ve given them the worst good time we can manage.

That the players do have a good time is stamped on their faces. I have seen them leap back in horror; scream (genuinely); read a ritual in the dark with only five matches to use (they cheated, they lit the box); chant hoarsely twenty times; and look at each other in stunned disbelief. Perhaps our best example of player absorption: the Keeper was running for a group of young players in a darkened room. The designer of the session stole softly in to listen, and by and by they all forgot he was there. When there was a sudden event, he thought he’d make it dramatic by suddenly stretching out his hands and screaming “Yaarrrr!”. Three of the players leaped out of their skins, but the fourth, on reflex, spun in the chair and landed a neat right hook that decked the intruder!

The last and worst remains to be discussed; the means of the characters’ destruction. The plots are usually fairly linear, as these are easier to run and take less words to explain. As per usual, clue-following trails link strong scenes of horror – heads flying through restaurant windows, zombies walking backwards in the moonlight, black things sitting on the wings of aircraft, a high chapel full of slowly falling black drapes. What is especially liberating about writing for a tournament is that it is a one-off scenario, so you can do whatever you like with the characters in shaping their prior life and future destiny. You needn’t stay your hand out of compassion that it’s a four years’ running character. At the end you can cheerfully put them through the grinder and watch them squirm…

Dagon_Magazine_25

That’s an edited excerpt. If you’d like to read the full article, Paul MacLean of Yog-Sothoth.com created a PDF of the original, and has graciously granted us permission to host it here. Here’s it is, including descriptions of all the events we ran from 1984 to 1988:

Writing and Running Call of Cthulhu Tournaments (PDF)

Crawl back to your crypts then, and remember to always keep your players in the dark…

 

 

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A Most Bloody, Horrid and Lamentable Account of a Popish Plot Against James I of England and VI of Scotland, with many curious Particulars

After writing Call of Cthulhu scenarios in the 1890s, 1920s and the French Revolution I decided to explore a new historical period. I’ve long had a fascination with Restoration London (1660s) probably thanks to my father who spent of the latter part of his life on a definitive volume of the works of John Wilmot, Earl of Rochester, and favorite of King Charles II. I have read and re-read Journal of the Plague Year by Daniel Defoe, and I have a deep and abiding fondness for the period diarist, that old rogue Samuel Pepys – nor am I alone, see the wonderful @samuelpepys where internet snark meets 17th century morals.

Samuel_Pepys

Portrait of Pepys in 1666 by John Hayls (1600–1679)

My first scenario set in Restoration London has the brief – for the period – title “A Most Bloody, Horrid and Lamentable Account of a Popish Plot Against James I of England and VI of Scotland, with many curious Particulars” (on the grounds that Particulars are all the more Curious when Capitalised). My playtesters created an intrepid family of investigators, Kentish apothecaries who farmed the medicinal Romsey Marsh leech and were keen to bring their strictly scientific leech-based cure to the London.  Here’s a sample of some of the other medicines from the time:

  • MOSS – Dried and powdered moss grown on the skull (used in many pills);
  • SNAILS – to remove warts, take three snails and gash them, then take the liquor that comes out of them and anoint your warts.
  • SIR DIGBY’S WEAPON SALVE – if wounded rub this salve upon the weapon that hurt you and your wound will be cured; also an infallible remedy for toothache.

I disinterred Black Dog Court and Seething Lane, long buried under the ashes of the Great Fire and the skyscrapers of modern London, as a setting for the investigators to rent their new house in.

Chaosium ran the scenario for Arcanacon in Melbourne and I’ve had good reports all round – my favorite response was the anguished cry of a 17th century apothecary, “It’s science but not as we know it!’.

We’ll be running the scenario again for CarcosaCon in Czocha Castle, Poland, in March and Chaosium Con DownUnder in May. I look forward to seeing how it is received and to writing more scenarios for this fascinating time, so no spoilers for now, except for a quote from Defoe:

Another ran about Naked, except a pair of Drawers about his Waste, crying Day and Night… this poor naked Creature cry’d in the streets O! The Great, and the Dreadful God! And said no more, but repeated these words continually, with a Voice and a Countenance full of horror, and no Body cou’d ever find him to stop, or rest, or take any Sustenance…

Finally, this long view of London etched by Wenceslaus Hollar in 1647 is a Keeper’s screen waiting to happen. (You can download it in its full 72 MB high res glory here.)

Hollar_London_1647

Wenceslaus Hollar’s view of London 1647

 

 

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The horror to end all horrors

World War One Cthulhu image (c) 2011 Red Wasp Design for The Wasted Land computer game

World War One Cthulhu image (c) 2011 Red Wasp Design for The Wasted Land computer game

It’s 2014 and, at last, the train is arriving. Download codes for the final PDF of Horror on the Orient Express have just been sent out to all backers (check your emails), and the Chaosium crew are gearing up for a frenzy of collating as they put together the packages for everyone, with an estimated release date of 17 October. The final boxed set weighs in at over 3 kilograms, so while it has been a while coming, it will definitely land with a thump. Charlie had a shrink wrapped box mockup at Gen Con, and it is not so much a roleplaying supplement as a murder weapon. Don’t drop it on your foot.

100 years ago it was 1914, and the calamity of war broke out across Europe. The scars of that hideous disaster last to this day, as it sowed the seeds for even worse horrors to come. In Horror on the Orient Express many of the scenarios deal with the effects of the Great War, both on the psyche of those who survived, or in the changing face of the nations involved. The Lausanne, Dreamlands, Venice and Vinkovci chapters all speak directly of the experience of the veterans. We have done our best to write about these complex situations with respect for those involved, and the true horror of what they went through.

It is something that Penny and I feel most keenly, as both of our grandfathers fought in the First World War. My grandfather Ward Morrison from Wodonga served in the Australian Light Horse, and was posted to Egypt in 1915 and then on to the Western Front in 1916, until the end of the war. He was on leave in Scotland on Armistice Day in 1918, and thus made it through alive and unscathed – unlike his cousin Hawton, dead just one month before the end of the war.

These extraordinary events make you as a descendant feel both small and scared, but luckily both our grandfathers came home again. Even though they did not know each other, both were present on the Front on the day that Von Richtofen was shot down, and Ward’s best friend swore black and blue that he sighted his rifle and fired at the very moment that the Red Baron’s plane dipped, a claim no doubt made by thousands of the other Aussie soldiers taking pot shots that day.

Death of Baron von Richthofen, by A. Henry Fullwood. Source: Australian War Memorial.

Death of Baron von Richthofen, by A. Henry Fullwood. Source: Australian War Memorial.

When I ran the playtest for Horror on the Orient Express, we gave the investigators an existing friendship, and a prior encounter with the Mythos. I wanted to avoid the typical roadblocks at the start of a horror scenario: “Why should I trust you people?” and “This can’t be happening, I don’t believe it.”

Given that the campaign is set in Europe 1923, it seemed ideal to establish that they were all in France 1918. Harry Fitz-Alan was a Captain in the British Army, and Dr. Thomas Harrington was the surgeon who rebuilt Fitz-Alan’s features after he was hideously injured in an explosion. James O’Hara was an American newspaperman covering the war, and Ernest Wellman was an American airman who flew with the Lafayette Escadrille.

Each of the players chose a period photo for their investigator, and I put these on the Keeper’s Screen during our sessions. Here’s a photo of the screen at the end of the campaign. As you can see from the amendments, the war changed them, but the Express warped them.

Keeper's screen with period photos

Keeper’s screen during playtests, with period photos

We did not play an actual scenario set in the Great War, we just described the events of one fateful day leading up to the explosion which maimed Fitz-Alan, a terrible encounter with flesh-eating men behind the lines, men who would lope and gibber and not fall down when shot repeatedly, men who were not men at all.

We just made that up quickly, but it was such good setup for the characters that I wish we had played a Great War scenario out in full. But you can take this option if you back the new Pagan Publishing scenario collection Horrors of War: A Covenant with Death, which is on Kickstarter now (but not for long, it ends 30 September). 

Horrors of War: A Covenant with Death, from Pagan Publishing

Scott Glancy and John H. Crowe have actually been writing Call of Cthulhu scenarios set during the Great War for seven years now, so they have a strong collection of adventures already playtested and ready to go. This would be the perfect prequel for your Horror on the Orient Express campaign. If the campaign reaches its major stretch goal in the next two days then Scott will throw in Volume 2 for free to all who back at the appropriate level.  I hope you will consider supporting this excellent project.

We’re now shovelling coal into the furnace of our writer’s blog to get back up to steam to celebrate the impending and long awaited release of Horror on the Orient Express. Next time, Penny will be taking you back to Ancient Rome, to talk about another great project on Kickstarter right now. Ave, Cthulhu!

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We Can Hear the Train A Coming

Clouds of soot and steam are billowing through the tunnel and a whistle is wailing close at hand. Or is it a train whistle? Possibly it is the thin, monotonous piping of an unseen flute… Here are some reviews, previews and Kickstarters that have got us really excited!

Horror on the Orient Express –
Die Hard Game Fan preview by Alex Lucard

Horror on the Orient Express - Campaign Book

Horror on the Orient Express – Campaign Book

Alex from Die Hard Game Fan is a huge Call of Cthulhu fan, and he has compiled an exhaustive and detailed preview of all the books. It’s great to see him get all fired up over our remixed beast. He gets a couple of little details wrong here and there but you can’t deny the man’s enthusiasm. It’s great to see the new work getting so much attention. But, a warning for those contemplating playing the campaign: Alex tries to be spoiler-lite, but really, there are still plenty of spoilers. Players had best avoid his preview.

Book I
Book II
Book III
Book IV
Items and props

Mr Shiny Playtest image 2013

Mr Shiny Playtest image 2013

Once again the redoubtable Mr Shiny, aka Jeff Carey, is sending six foolhardy, I mean brave, investigators from London to Constantinople on a deluxe play through of the entire campaign. He has launched a Kickstarter to fund the game: Jeff will take up to six players (and up to 10 more as non-player characters towards the end of the campaign) on a longer journey, delving into some of the new horrors, I mean chapters, that were not yet available last year.

The main players will be able to develop their own characters for this epic event to be held from Saturday 8 August through Wednesday 13 August 2014 (immediately before the Gen Con game fair) in Indianapolis.
We visited Jeff’s game at GenCon 2013 and it was incredible. The props, atmosphere and dedication by all involved made this a memorable experience for the players. Indeed, their gaunt and horrified faces, not to mention the loss of several visible limbs, were the talk of GenCon. This year, it could be you!

The Good Friends of Jackson Elias podcast –
Episode 26 “The Good Friends ride the Orient Express”

The Good Friends of Jackson Elias

The Good Friends of Jackson Elias

Scott Dorward interviews Keeper Matt Nott and his players (including Paul Fricker, Call of Cthulhu 7th edition author) about playing through the new revised edition, using 7th edition rules. Matt’s investigators were one of two groups to playtest the entire campaign for us. There are many cool things that come up in their discussion which we wish we’d put in (who knew what other horrors lurked out on the Lido?) A great listen, but did we say SPOILERS? Oh my yes, for Keepers only this one!

Tales of the Crescent City

Tales of the Crescent City

Tales of the Crescent City

Our good friend and fellow train scenario writer Oscar Rios is nearing the end of his second Kickstarter with Golden Goblin Press, a collection of scenarios set in 1920s New Orleans. What’s particularly exciting about this one is that our original Cthulhu co-conspirator Kevin A. Ross has not only fully revised his seminal scenario “Tell Me Have You Seen the Yellow Sign?” for this book, he’s also gone ahead and written a sequel. If you’ve ever seen that three-armed squiggly version of the Yellow Sign, yup, that was Kevin’s.

Here’s a great article from Cthulhu Reborn friend Dean Englehardt where he talks about making the props for Oscar’s new book.

One of Dean Engelhardt's handout for Tales of the Crescent City

One of Dean Engelhardt’s handout for Tales of the Crescent City

Meanwhile at Chaosium, Meghan keeps feeding the beast… every day the book gets better, and it will soon be off to the printer. Many thanks to all of the backers who took the extra time to send in corrections for us!

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Island of Ignorance

‘We live on a placid island of ignorance in the midst of black seas of infinity and it was not meant that we should voyage far…’ – H.P. Lovecraft, The Call of Cthulhu

Island of Ignorance - the Third Cthulhu Companion, Golden Goblin Press

We’re delighted to spread the world that Golden Goblin’s Island of Ignorance is now out in PDF with the physical books soon to follow. Island of Ignorance kicks off with essays on fiendish cultists, devilish artefacts and new Mythos beings. Geoff Gillan’s essay on the Golden Goblin is expansive and entertaining, taking in the origin of the Goblin, its various manifestations, and its chequered history as mascot of a fictitious and ill-fated publishing company.

Scott David Anolowski’s essay on the Devil’s opera, ‘Requiem for Shaggai’, tells of a cursed opera that dooms all who try to produce it. I’m a big fan of the documentary, The Curse of the Gothic Opera, which follows the travails of an eclectic band of musical enthusiasts as they try to mount a production of Havergal Brian’s ‘impossible’ First Symphony. I could immediately see a similar scenario involving the investigators in ‘Requiem’.

‘With Blue Uncertain Stumbling’ by Jeff Moeller is a creepy and atmospheric scenario with a terrific back story that makes excellent use of what I assume are genuine myths of the island of Key West. I can really see the players and Keeper having a whale of a time with this one. Just mind the flies.

‘Consumption’ by Brian M. Sammons is a gleeful tale of small town conspiracy which offers a different play experience and would provide a change of pace for seasoned investigators who don’t mind a little, er, meat in their scenarios.

‘Darkness Illuminated’ by Jon Hook makes ingenious use of a morally ambiguous narrative – there are no good guys in this scenario, possibly not even the investigators.

‘The Lonely Point Lighthouse’ by Oscar Rios has a stand out setting, however the back story had plot holes that interfered with my enjoyment as a reader. A seasoned Keeper should be able to focus on the setting and situation, which offer plenty of opportunities to scare the crap out of the players.

‘Let the Children Come to Me’ by Mark Shireman uses child abuse. It has a trigger warning but this did not prepare me for the fetishizing of the description of the abuse in a section that only Keepers are going to read. This should have been edited out. I couldn’t read past the first page and thus can’t comment on the scenario.

To sum up Island of Ignorance has terrific scenarios but out of five scenarios, two use the disempowerment of powerful females as a theme, and two use the degradation of children. My feeling is that in the end the multiple calls on these themes unbalance the book.

What I love about this project is that  Golden Goblin ran a model Kickstarter campaign. It was well organised, had regular updates, and delivered on schedule. As final touch Oscar Rios and the gang thank their Kickstarter backers right out of the gates on the first page, giving straight back to those whose generosity supported the project. We know from experience that this takes dedication, time and effort.

I look forward to the next book about New Orleans, Tales of the Crescent City. I am also very happy that we have the good fortune to have one of our scenarios appearing in the next Golden Goblin Cthulhu Invictus  book, De Horrore Cosmico. This is scheduled for release in 2014. So keep an eye out for more Kickstarter Campaigns coming soon from Golden Goblin. Assuming there isn’t a repeat of than unfortunate incident where the entire warehouse burned down leaving behind two corpses, each clutching a statuette of a Golden Goblin…

Tales of the Crescent City

Tales of the Crescent City

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GenCon Penultimate Trip Playtest

Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Downtown Union Station. The hotel had once been a train station.  After working on the Horror on the Orient Express for so long, anything to do with trains makes us anxious. The staff in the lobby seemed friendly. Or did their smiling faces mask some deep seated, potentially train-related, evil?

Crowne Plaza Indianapolis Donwtown Union Station

The roof looked solid enough.

We nervously followed the hand-scrawled directions we had been given to our destination. The door was ajar…

Penultimate playtest door

We sensed something was wrong as soon as we arrived.

It was Gencon Indy 2013 and beyond that unhallowed entrance, Jeff “Mr. Shiny” Carey and his stalwart fellow Keepers, Brandon  and Joe, were running the Kickstarter Horror on the Orient Express GenCon Penultimate Trip for six intrepid, and perhaps ever so slightly insane players, Paul, Marc, Samuel, Steve, Graham and Suzanne.

These hardy souls played for five days and nights, and when I mean, nights, I am talking 4 am in the morning. We arrived on the third day to find the players in good spirits, although their investigators were starting to fray at the edges.  The Keepers were displaying incredible stamina as they steamed remorselessly onward to Constantinople.

The playtest was also incredibly useful for us as we were able to make several important edits that will help the final book, based on player feedback.

In the photographs below I am going to show some of the room, players, Keepers, props and handouts. If you are going to play Horror on the Orient Express stop reading now for fear of the forbidden knowledge you may accidentally glean from these blasphemous images.

Jeff and his fellows Keepers had done an amazing job and must have spent hours lovingly recreating handouts and props. It was a huge thrill, and truly humbling, to see our work reproduced in such meticulous style.  The room was atmospherically lit.

The Unhallowed Shrine, er, Playtest

The Exit Sign was clearly marked. Why, oh why, did they not use it?

The props were gorgeous. The players informed us in hushed and worried tones that their full-size Simulacrum had a disconcerting habit of reassembling itself when they went out for meals. No matter how scattered its components around the room, when they returned it was always neatly arrayed in the center of the table.

TThe Unseen Forces were tidy souls.

The Unseen Forces were tidy souls.

The handouts were wonderful. Again people, the following image contains a massive spoiler so please do not not look unless you are genuinely never going to play Horror on the Orient Express for as long as you live, and peeking between fingers doesn’t work. By the way, I know you’re going to look anyway so I blurred the particularly blasphemous part.

Devils Simulare

That was when he wished he had never learned Latin.

In honor of the hotel’s history some of the rooms were immaculately restored Pullman cars. Jeff and his family were staying in one of these cars and in a truly heroic act of generosity Jeff offered his room to Mark to play his Kickstarter Secret Orient Express History game.  This meant neither Jeff nor his folks got to bed until after midnight. It is not often that a Pullman car represents a heart-warming gift to a fellow Keeper.

Jeff's Pullman Car

Jeff’s Pullman Car, with Mark and the Secret History players in the foreground

And yes, these four players now know a secret of the history of the Horror on the Orient Express than no-one else will ever know. You can see by their worried faces that the knowledge is already taking its toll. Thank you, Jeff and family, for sharing the horror.

Graham’s Flickr album for the Horror on the Orient Express contains some evocative photographs of the game, players and Keepers, but again there are spoilers galore so don’t look if you are planning to play the scenarios.

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A New York Family in Venice 1923

In this charming home movie, a family catch a gondola ride in Venice while the the narrator, Naomi Bloom Rothschild, at  the ripe age of 89 years, gazes in wonder at her 3-year old self. In passing she speculates on the likely damp nature of the cellars in Venice. Clearly a native born New Yorker, it would be heresy to imagine a whole city without cellars.

The fashions are wonderful, and Venice has aged gracefully in the intervening decades. San Marco Square and the Rialto bridge look the same as they do today but with fewer tourists thronging the narrow ways.

We found it moving to look at the very canals and alleys where the investigators will run in such terror in our fictional visit to Venice.

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