Wednesday, 14 March 2018

The Crasta Demon at Airecon

Airecon last year
Last weekend was Airecon in Harrogate, and I ran The Crasta Demon. I would have liked to have run at least one other game over the weekend, but I could only attend Airecon on the Saturday during the day as I had other commitments.

The Craster Demon went really well.

I turned up to discover that six people had signed up to my five-player game, so I quickly created a 6th character: Apprentice Pike. Juggling six players is always a bit of a challenge, so I had to keep everything brief and didn't let anyone avoid the spotlight.

Some Crasta Demon highlights:
Apprentice Pike

  • Only one of the players was familiar with Fate Accelerated, but they all picked up the system really quickly. Nobody had a problem with approaches, or a lack of skills. Five of the players already knew each other, which helped the dynamic around the table.
  • This time I tried using Bonds (inspired by Dungeon World) instead of DramaAspects, and they worked really well. Simple, and I think more effective than DramaAspects, so I shall carry on using them for one-shot games.
  • The first time I ran the game, I didn’t roll for the opposition (I assumed everyone rolled zero). This time I did roll - and my first roll for the goblin attack (my first roll of the game) was +4 - so the goblins were attacking at +8 for that round. That resulted in quite a bit of damage - but it was nothing the players couldn’t handle.
  • As his trouble, Wickham chose I have family obligations. He played on that a couple of times, and used it to bring in a family member in the lynchmob scene. So while the rest of the team was all for a rescue (as expected), I tempted him with a fate point by compelling him and his family obligations. He refused…
  • After a good first round against the goblins, Loxley had a miserable set of dice rolls and really struggled to inflict damage against his enemies. Yet he was the one who finally killed the Crasta demon. (During the battle, I suggested that they start creating advantages, and his final shot was at +17 or something like that).
  • Apprentice Pike ended up being played by the youngest player (well, he looked youngest to me), and I really liked how he fitted into the game (given that it was a handwritten, last-minute character sheet).
  • Wickham invented a secret passage into the castle that he would have known about, which was an interesting twist. I love it when the players come up with things that I hadn't planned.

Overall it went really well. It took a little over two hours and the players seemed to enjoy themselves (as did I).

I did spot a couple of minor glitches to the scenario, which I’ve now updated (along with Apprentice Pike).

The rest of Airecon

I enjoyed the rest of Airecon as well. I played Thunderbirds and Swords and Bagpipes, and I taught someone D-Day Dice. The food was good - better than last year. Next time hopefully I’ll get there for both days.
Saving disasters with Thunderbirds

Saturday, 3 March 2018

Contingency Envelopes

Contingency envelopes have been a staple of freeforms ever since I started playing them.

If you're unfamiliar with them, they consist of an envelope (or folded sheet of paper) with an instruction for when to open the envelope. It will typically be something like "Open this if you see item 56". If you see item 56, then you open the envelope and hopefully learn something that will help your game.

And I usually like contingency envelopes - particularly when I learn something new, or something that's timed. But poorly designed contingency envelopes offer nothing new, and there's an argument that you don't even need them.

The main advantage that contingency envelopes bring is that they drip feed information into a game without requiring significant GM involvement (which can be a scarce resource). But they also have their downsides.


Recently I played in Shogun, a weekend long freeform (larp) for 70 or so players organised by uk-freeforms. Shogun was epic, expansive and filled with all the glorious goodness we hope for in a weekend larp and I wrote about it recently.

I played Kinyu, the cold moneylender. I wasn't evil, but I only had my own interests at heart.

And, along with pretty much everyone else, I had some contingency envelopes.


One was a timed envelope, for me to open during a particular event. This revealed the identity of a particular character who was important to me but who was in disguise at the start of the game. It was a failsafe to make sure that I actually met this character. (It's entirely possible in a game the size of Shogun for characters to never interact - there were lots of people I never spoke to in game.)

I have no problem with that kind of envelope, although unfortunately the way the contingency was labelled (linking it to a theatrical event) telegraphed who that character actually was.

In hindsight I think it would have been better if it had simply said "If you do not know who Yamamoto is by 11am Saturday, open this envelope."

Item (or person) 79

My other contingency said "Open this envelope if you see Item 79"

Inside, was a detailed description of an item, and what was special about it that my character would know but others wouldn't.

A quick aside: in freeforms it is usual to have an item card representing items (which could be a ship, a sextant, a gun, some wood, a tattoo - pretty much anything you can imagine really) rather than a prop. This helps distinguishes those items that are key to plots from costume props or scenery.

By the end of the game I hadn't seen item 79, so I opened the envelope - at which point I realised that I HAD seen it. At least, I'd seen the prop - but because its item card had been mislaid, I didn't know that it was the item that would have triggered that knowledge. (And that's a shame, because it would have created some plot for me.)

If the envelope had said "Open this envelope if you see Item 79 (a sextant)" then I would have kept my eye out for a sextant and if I'd seen one I'd have thought to have find out exactly what Item number it was. It's much easier for me to remember a thing than a number. (It wasn't a sextant, by the way.)

Similarly, some characters had contingencies that said "Open this envelope if you see person 237". Again, I suspect it would have helped to know if person 237 was a merchant, or a samurai, or a foreigner.

High Trust Option

A high-trust option would be to eliminate contingency envelopes completely. I could imagine my character sheet saying:

"Yamamoto starts the game as Akira. If Yamamoto has not introduced himself to you, we trust you to find a dramatically appropriate time to recognise him after 11am Saturday morning."

In fact, because I had worked out who was playing this character before the game started, this is exactly what happened (although Akira approached me first). In hindsight, though, I would rather have had the surprise.

"If you see an old battered sextant (item 33), you recognise it as originally belonging to Blackbeard."

This would have worked out just fine for me - I have no problem ignoring knowledge that I know but my character doesn't, and it means that I would have been drawn to check out any sextants just in case.

(Interestingly, I made a similar point in my reflection of Once Upon A Time in Tombstone.)

Being a high trust player

While I think we can improve the design of contingency envelopes, perhaps we don't have to go that far. Perhaps I just need to be a high-trust player.

After all, I could just open all my contingency envelopes before the game starts. Nobody can stop me, and I know I wouldn't abuse that information. It might even improve my game - I'd probably try and steer things and put myself in plot's way (much easier to do when you can see it coming).

In hindsight, I wish I'd done that in Shogun: I had guessed one envelope, and not opening the other meant I missed out on something that might have dragged me into a new plot.

Key takeaways

So my key takeaways from all this are:

  • Think about whether you really need a contingency at all. Can you trust the player not to abuse that information instead?
  • Be careful not to telegraph the envelope’s contents in advance.
  • When looking for an item/person number, give players a clue as to what they are looking for.

Second Watch

If I sound like I'm going into this in a bit more detail than it really warrants, you might be right. But part of that is that I'm currently working on Second Watch, a game I co-wrote last year at Peaky that we're preparing for publication.

Second Watch is a suspense-horror game set on a spaceship - inspired by movies such as Alien and Event Horizon. Figuring out what's going on is part of the game.

In an ideal world you'd play Second Watch in a completely immersive environment and a team of GMs. But it's not an ideal world and so we need Second Watch to be runnable with just two GMs (possibly just one - although that might be asking a bit much).

As the game involves visiting different parts of the spaceship, and doing tasks that have set results, we're using contingency envelopes to drip feed the information (and to free up the GMs for their other duties).

Here's the sort of contingency envelopes we’re using:

  • Medical tests: the crew start the game coming out of cryosleep, and one of the tasks the ship’s doctor has to do is undertake a medical examination of everyone to make sure they’re okay. It’s a bit of roleplaying for them, and there may be clues (and red herrings) in the test results. The subject of the examination starts with the contingency, and then gives it to the doctor during the examination.
  • Systems checks: The crew has some systems checks to do to make sure the ship is still working fine. Rather than create a queue at the GM desk for resolving this, we’re doing it with contingency envelopes.
  • Experiments: While the crew are checking systems, the scientists are checking their experiments. There may be clues there…

Some of the contingencies are purely down to pacing. If we just put the information on the character sheet, the game is likely to move faster than we would like - we’re aiming for a slow build up of suspense, and hopefully the contingency envelopes will help us do that.

And while we’ll review them in light of the takeaways above, I suspect we’ll keep most of them.

Open this if you’ve reached the bottom of this post

So while for most freeforms I would advocate sticking to my three key takeaways, obviously there are times when you should ignore them.

Like all good rules, the trick is to know when to break them.

Wednesday, 21 February 2018


Kabuki actor or moneylender?
So last weekend I made my annual pilgrimage to Retford for a weekend freeform larp. Last year it was Across the Universe, the year before that I helped run Once Upon A Time in Tombstone, and this year it was Shogun.

Shogun is a 72 player freeform that conceived and written by Nathan Richards, Richard Salmon & Richard Perry, with additional material by Chad Brinkley, A.J. Smith and Carol Johnson.

I played Kinyu, a lowly moneylender whose heart had been hardened by a previous romance and who was now only interested in making money.


Moneylending: I enjoyed being a moneylender, and collected all of my debts - bar a tiny debt to an actor that I never managed to track down. One of the nice things about moneylending was that I got to work with some of the criminal types who I used to enforce my debts. Sadly, most people paid up on time so I didn’t get to use them much.

(And sorry Brian for inflicting them on you before asking you first myself!)

During the game itself I only lent money once - 6 Oban (quite a lot) to the Shogun’s heir. That cleared me out at the time, and although I asked for 10 (a princely sum) in return (on Sunday morning), I really didn’t expect to be repaid. I was delighted to be proved wrong.

Kabuki: I done acting! I don’t ever do acting in freeforms - I just don’t. But in Shogun, I did.

I asked the actor Shoji if he knew the actor that owed me money. Shoji didn’t, but suggested that I attend the auditions for the Kabuki theatre as it was the sort of place an actor might go to.

So I turned up to the auditions and joined in. Auditioning turned out to be a bit of fun, and before I know it Chen (the leader of the troupe) had selected me as one of the three villains. Happily, it was a non-speaking part - we merely acted out the story while a narrator read the script.

Showtime came and I decided it was in for a penny, in for a pound and I let Malk paint my face. That’s another first. (I thought I would wash it off straight away - but to my surprise I kept it on.)

So yes, I have now done acting in a show in a freeform. Maybe I’ll do it again.

The Tattooed Men: One of my plots involved solving a puzzle that took the form of a tattoo on my back. I don’t mind puzzles in freeforms, although if they’re too hard they can be very frustrating. This one was about right - once we had all the pieces it was fairly easy to solve. We did spend some time heading in the wrong direction (consulting the astrologer for inspiration, for example), but that was before we found the final piece of the puzzle.

Doomed Romance: Shogun used the romance tasks system that I first saw in The King’s Musketeers (and I think was most successful in Into the Woods). However, I didn’t really engage with the romance rules - because my character had already fallen in love.

Before Shogun started, I had fallen in love with a woman who broke my heart by disappearing without trace. As a result, my heart was scarred and I was bitter.

Of course, this being a freeform, she turned up during the course of the game and we had an emotional reunion. Unfortunately, she then found her husband (who she had thought was dead but still loved) and chose him over me.

So I ended up with my heart even more broken, and I spent the rest of the game telling everyone that love was nothing but pain and heartache and misery…

(We didn’t use the romance rules for any of that - they didn’t seem necessary.)

But I still got married! But I still ended up married. Towards the end of Saturday night I was discussing love and romance with Satomi, the pawnbroker. She was recently divorced, and we knew each other of old. We were both friends, both of us were scarred from romance and we weren’t trying to win each other’s heart.

But it made economic sense for us to pool our interests and get married. We shook on it, sought a blessing from a priest, and told anyone who would listen.

Geisha: I spent a very pleasant twenty minutes enjoying Chie-Chie’s hospitality in the geisha house, along with fellow actors Chen and Otomo. We drank jasmine tea and talked of this and that. Very restful.

What didn’t work quite so well

Apart from a couple of minor technical issues, my main problem in Shogun was that I sped through some of my plots - mainly because I got lucky. For example, I picked up an infection from somewhere, and the first person I approached afterwards was talking to a priest about malaria. Moments later, I was cured. And late on Friday night the first person I spoke to about my tattoo also had a similar tattoo.

I also had a couple of plots that didn’t really fire - but I’m not sure if that’s my fault or whether the plot was never likely to kick off. For example, I had a goal to be promoted into the samurai class. I pursued this only half-heartedly (and by the end of the game decided that I was glad to be a merchant), but it would have been hard work to persuade anyone because of the drop in honour that a clan would suffer by adopting a merchant.

That meant that I didn’t have too much to do on Sunday morning except relax and enjoy the dramatic final scenes of sumo wrestling, ninja battles, numerous showdowns, and several acts of seppuku. So maybe that was a good thing!

Monday, 1 January 2018

Achtung! Cthulhu: The Fate Guides to the Secret War

I didn’t know much about the Achtung! Cthulhu line, but the artwork made me think that it was a pulp game of fighting the Cthulhu Mythos during WW2 in the spirit of Hellboy. So when the Fate book was recently on sale, I picked it up as Fate (or at least Fate Accelerated) is currently my system of choice.

So these are my thoughts on Achtung! Cthulhu: The Fate Guides to the Secret War (or A!C:FGSW from now on).

TL;DR: Too much background, not enough game.

It turns out that A!C: FGSW isn’t very pulpy at all. Instead it’s a hugely detailed look at what the world (or at least the Western Front) was like during WW2. There are, for example, four pages describing the German military organisation, and another four pages detailing the different German units. And similar detail covering Allied units. There are pages and pages of detail about the different weapons and vehicles used in WW2.

A!C: FGSW also contains a wealth of information about life on the home front. For example, there’s half a page on music and songs of the era, and a section listing American/British/French/German movies.

(And there are four different timelines. Four! A general chronology of events from 1918 to 1945, plus a Britain specific chronology, plus a USA specific chronology, PLUS one for the Secret War.)

And I have to be honest, none of this was very useful for me. I already have a pretty good familiarity with most of this stuff - and if there was stuff I didn’t know I’d rather look it up in a “proper” reference book rather than a gamebook.

More importantly, I’ve never found this information particularly relevant to running a game. It’s just not necessary. And if that means that occasionally when I’m GM-ing and I don't know something, I would rather make something up and keep the game going rather than interrupt play to look something up.

Not enough game

By “game”, here I mean material to inspire me to run a game. I don’t mean character generation stuff and new rules and statistics for monsters. Those don't actually explain to me how the designer of the game is expecting Achtung! Cthulhu to be played.

All we have are some evocative captions to some of the pictures, and seven pages of (very brief) scenario seeds. Now I know I created Tales of Terror, but they were always meant to supplement the existing game materials, and not be the only inspiration.

So for me, there isn’t enough game material. The scenario seeds are fine, but I would also have liked to see two or three fully fleshed out scenarios as well.

(I think the answer to my question of “How does the designer expect me to play Achtung! Cthulhu?” is that the designer doesn’t have any intention of telling me how to play. A!C: FGSW contains advice for different modes (pulp action, military narrative, Lovecraftian bleakness, etc) and different USA and British organisations to employ the PCs. So it’s clearly there to support whatever style of game I want. But I’d still like to see some scenarios and adventures.)

Physically, what do you get?

Physically, A!C: FGSW is a 376 page softback book. The cover is colour, but the interiors are all black and white (although the pdf is full colour throughout). The art is lovely, although it’s a bit dark in the paperback (it’s much better in the pdf, where it is in full colour). The font, however, is tiny; for my eyes, I need to read it in good light.

This is a colour photo - honest!
The internal design is okay. Most modern RPGs are over-designed to my eyes, but this is relatively subdued with good contrast between font and background (if only the font were bigger!). The tables, illustrations and illustrations are held in place with tape or paperclips, giving it the feel of a briefing dossier, which I Iike.

The book is heavy - it’s heavier than the hardback Cthulhu Dark.

A!C: FGSW is split into two books. The first is the investigators’ guide, and the second is for the Keeper. So there’s a bit of duplication (and that’s why it contains more than one timetable).

Overall, with it’s teeny font, significant heft, and huge page count, A!C: FGSW feels intimidating to me.

The mythos and the war

Achtung! Cthulhu, in an essay by Ken Hite, cautions against using the Cthulhu Mythos to excuse the Nazi atrocities. Instead, several mythos-aware organisations are presented: Section M, the American Majestic (American), Cult of the Black Sun (Nazi) and Nachtwolfe (Nazi - a spinoff from the Black Sun). These are presented in the same detail as the rest of the history, including their founding and the different personalities (with statistics) involved.

Unfortunately there’s one sidebar detailing Codename: Starfish which involves using a colour out of space for British night-time aerial defence. Unfortunately this turns a creature of the Cthulhu Mythos into being horrific into just being a tool. It’s very pulpy, and is quite different to the tone in the rest of the book.

A!C: FGSW also includes 22 pages of mythos creatures, all with Fate statistics, stunts and other abilities. To be honest, that’s more crunch than I can manage - one of the reasons I prefer simpler, more free-form systems is that I can’t remember the crunch.

And what about the Fate stuff?

A!C: FGSW contains good rules for kicking off an adventure, including advice on modes (as mentioned above) and character creation. Fate Core’s phase trio is amended to include a reason why the PC has come to the attention of either Section M or Majestic, life before the war, and crossing paths with the other PCs.

There are plenty of NPCs presented - either key figures from history (Barnes Wallis’ aspects are brilliant all-around engineer, willing to get my hands dirty, highly sought after for my mind), example characters, or villains. I don’t always find it easy to come up with new aspects, so I liked having lots of examples to choose from.

The chapter on sanity tries to fit Call of Cthulhu’s sanity rules into Fate. I’m not sure how successful this is - my personal feeling is that if you want to model Call of Cthulhu’s sanity rules, you’d be better off playing Call of Cthulhu. If I were running a pulp game I’d just use mental stress and consequences as per Fate.

(As an aside, I have never been a fan of the sanity system - to me it always felt like another set of hit points to keep track of. And personally I’d rather my investigators make it through the scenario rather than go insane part way through. But that’s a topic for another time.)

There are some new crunchy rules to reflect the nature of warfare in WW2. The most interesting of these is Scale - which one side gets when it has an overwhelming advantage (say a tank against an infantryman). Scale gives the side that has it a +4 shift bonus. There are also rules for armour, artillery and other crunchy stuff that I will probably forget (for the reasons mentioned above).

I’ve mentioned creatures above, but it’s worth mentioning that as well as having +6 “Rend and destroy all around”, shoggoths also have Scale… Best run away then.

There is also the obligatory list of tomes and spells (17 pages of spells!), all set up for use in Fate. A!C: FGSW introduces a magic point system for spells, a bit like Call of Cthulhu’s POW. Despite running and writing several Call of Cthulhu adventures, I’ve never actually let my players use magic and cast spells.

So who is Achtung! Cthulhu for?

As far as I can tell, the best use for Achtung! Cthulhu would be a great reference if you wanted to run a Call of Cthulhu game during WW2. There’s loads of detail, and a couple of mythos organisations to use either as employers or opponents.

But you don’t actually need Achtung! Cthulhu to do that. You could just use Call of Cthulhu and a couple of history books of your choice.

So who is A!C: FGSW for?

I have no idea. I've not tried using Fate for horror, but I'm not convinced it would work. Instead, I would use Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Dark. (I do wonder if part of the problem is that A!C: FGSW started life as a stretch goal for the Achtung! Cthulhu Kickstarter. It was therefore always an add on.)

I can imagine running a Hellboy-esque game of pulp horror set in WW2, but there’s very little in A!C: FGSW that I would need for that.

Which is a bit of a shame, as clearly so much effort has gone into it.

Sunday, 31 December 2017

My favourite books of 2017

I’ve read (or listened to, via Audible) 67 books in 2017. These were my favourites:

Armada by Ernest Cline. I enjoyed Ready Player One (which, with its mix of computer games, roleplaying games and Rush felt like it was written just for me) so when Armada turned up on Audible’s deal of the day, buying it was an easy decision. The story has a lot of similarities with The Last Starfighter (but the games are on a bigger scale) and Wil Wheaton’s narration is just perfect.

Sleeping Giants by Sylvain Neuvel. A first contact novel in which a strange alien artefact is discovered piece by piece. Unusually it’s written entirely using interview transcripts (with a very enigmatic interviewer) and journal entries. The sequel isn’t quite as good, unfortunately.

Hunting Hitler's Nukes: The Secret Mission to Sabotage Hitler's Deadliest Weapon by Damien Lewis. I’ve written previously about this.

The Nightmare Stacks by Charles Stross. Probably my favourite Laundry Files book so far, and not only because it features scary elves attacking Leeds (which is where I live). I think the only geographical mistake I saw is the reference to the Odeon, which hasn’t been in city centre for some quite (I think it must be at least a decade since it was turned into a department store).

Masters of Doom: How Two Guys Created an Empire and Transformed Pop Culture by David Kushner. I’ve written about this previously as well.

Old Man’s War by John Scalzi. This was a pleasant surprise at how much I enjoyed this. I picked it up as I spotted it was cheap for the Kindle, and I’d already read a couple of others of his so I knew it wouldn’t be awful. But I didn’t expect it to be as good as it was. It’s basically old people sent into space to fight, and makes a pleasant change from young kids doing all the heroic stuff. (The old people get new bodies, but retain their memories and perspective.) It turns out that I'm not the only one who liked this as it was Hugo nominated and generated a bunch of sequels. I gather Netflix may be turning it into a tv series.

The Ballad of Halo Jones by Alan Moore and Ian Gibson. Best comic book series ever, as far as I’m concerned. A lot of praise goes to Alan Moore, but I am just as much a fan of Ian Gibson’s artwork (I’ve always enjoyed his art). I resubscribed to 2000AD a year or so ago and there has been nothing recently to match Halo Jones. It’s interesting how spare the dialogue is - there’s very little wasted, and some of the modern strips seem wordy by comparison.

This was a re-read, as part of the current 2000AD partwork. It was nice to read the series in one hardcover volume, but being slightly smaller than the original and now being the wrong side of 50, I found the fonts a bit too small for comfort (so I’m not replacing my original Titan copies). Rebellion are preparing a colourised version for 2018. I’m not sure what I think of that as I really like the black and white art - I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

The Night Without Stars by Peter F Hamilton. Second (and final) book in The Chronicle of the Fallers, this is a huge improvement on The Abyss Beyond Dreams, which I found a little slow. I like Hamilton - he writes well and his SF is full of augmented humans and other craziness. A good place to start is the thoroughly epic Pandora’s Star (and its sequel Judas Unchained).

The Year of Living Danishly by Helen Russell. This is Helen Russell’s delightful account of a year of living in Denmark. Her husband gets a job with Lego, and they both move to Denmark and embrace the happiest country in the world. I loved it - lots of laugh out loud moments as cultures clash and they try to fit in. I wouldn’t normally have chosen something like this, but Mrs H wanted to listen to it on Audible, and I thought I’d give it a try. I’m glad I did.

The Clever Guts Diet by Dr Michael Mosley. It’s really not a diet book, it’s instead an exploration of your biome and what it does for you and how to keep it healthy (TL;DR eat lots of veg, lots of variety, with occasional fasting). A healthy biome helps us lose weight, keeps us healthy. There are a small handful of recipes, but I didn’t read those. I preferred this over Gut by Giulia Enders as it’s easier to read, and seems more up to date.

Empire Games by Charles Stross. Excellent start to a new series in his Merchant Princes series (the one where the USA carpet-nuked one faction out of existence). The world-hoppers are back and trouble is brewing with two aggressive nuclear superpowers in two separate timelines. I don’t know if you need to read the previous series (starting with The Bloodline Feud), but I found that it helped.

So it seems I particularly enjoyed science fiction in 2017. I wonder what 2018 will bring...

Wednesday, 20 December 2017

#RPG12 Q12: Looking forward to 2018

Name an RPG, setting, or adventure you haven't run or played before, but really want to try out in 2018. What particularly appeals about it?

I’ve got a few things I’d like to try - not necessarily in 2018, but they’re on the wishlist.

One hour one shots: Guy Milner has talked about one hour one shots on his blog, and I’d like to both play and run one. It would be interesting to limit myself to an hour, because I have a tendency to let the players go where they want.

Fiasco: I’ve never played Fiasco and I’d like to.

Monster of the Week: Another game I think I might enjoy. I’ve yet to play a PbtA game that has felt “right”. I’m not sure what’s not working, though.

Cthulhu Dark: Now that I have Cthulhu Dark (my thoughts on it here) I want to run it, and play it.

Follow: I intend to play Follow at some point during the year.

And two games that I’ve played, but would like to play more of:

Monsterhearts: I’ve played this once, and I’d like to play it some more.

Hillfolk: I’ve played this once at a convention - I want  to play more. If I had a regular face to face group I’d love to run it (although it feels like it has a steep learning curve - but that might just be in my imagination).

But frankly, I'll play pretty much anything.

Cthulhu Dark: some thoughts

Scaring players is hard. I've been roleplaying for over 35 years now (admittedly with some long gaps) but I can only remember two occasions of real fearfulness.

In the first, I was a player. I can't remember the details of the game, but we were playing Call of Cthulhu and we were exhuming the body of what we thought was a sorcerer. And I remember being on the edge of my seat as I imagined what we would find.

In the second, I was running Call of Cthulhu and the players were exploring the derelict half of an old mansion. There was nothing there for them to find, but I just made it as creepy and unsettling as I could. The players soon fled. I might be wrong, but it seemed to me that the players fear of what they might find overcame their boldness and they retreated to safety.

So my experience of playing and running Call of Cthulhu (and writing adventures for it) is that most scenarios involve solving a complicated puzzle - one with monsters. But they're not actually scary.

Cthulhu Dark is different.


Cthulhu Dark is Graham Walmsley's cut-down rules set for playing Lovecraftian horror. He first published them as a free pdf in 2010, and in 2017 he Kickstarted a full hardback, which I backed.

Physically, the book is lovely. It has a gloriously understated cover by George Cotronis, black and white full page illustrations by Matteo Bocci, and maps by Stentor Danielson. The text is simply black on white, with the occasional boxed text.

If I had to pick one word for it, that word would be elegant.

The rules are wonderfully simple, and distils the Gumshoe "you never fail to find a clue" system to its essence. I won't describe them - you can read them here (it will be quicker for you to read them than it is for me to explain them).

As the basic rules take up two pages in the hardback, the rest of the 190 page hardback book is taken up with a more detailed review of the rules, excellent advice on constructing a horror scenario, a look at Lovecraft's creations and how to use them in Cthulhu Dark, and four settings, each with a detailed scenario.

The Cthulhu Dark Philosophy

What the full Cthulhu Dark book brings is its philosophy (which the free pdf doesn't explain). This philosophy can be summarised by three statements:

  • The investigators are doomed.
  • Investigators should be powerless.
  • This game is meant to be scary.

There's nothing stopping you from playing Cthulhu Dark using the basic free rules and treating it just like Call of Cthulhu. But I think you're missing a trick if you do.

Doomed investigators

Most of the Call of Cthulhu scenarios that I've written can be "won" in one way or another. There's a solution, an evil to be defeated. And that's fine - I'm happy with them all.

But my favourite Call of Cthulhu scenario (of the ones I've written) doesn't have a happy ending, and that's In Whom We Trust. That scenario typically ends with most of the investigators dead or having succumbed to a foul great old one. (If you want to see what I mean, you can find it here.)

And that's the Cthulhu Dark philosophy - investigators are doomed. The mythos threats are not there to be beaten, they're immense forces of darkness. The scenarios are about the investigators uncovering a truth that dooms them. (So much closer to Lovecraft's stories.)

Next time I run In Whom We Trust, I will probably use Cthulhu Dark. (But more on that below.)

Powerless Investigators

Cthulhu Dark recommends that you play powerless characters. In his design notes, Graham Walmsley notes that this came about following his response to the usual dilettante Call of Cthulhu characters. So instead, Cthulhu Dark is full of the poor and working class.

Aside from any social commentary, I do think that taking power away from investigators increases the fear and horror. I approve of that.

As example, Alien features powerless working-class space-truckers, and is exquisitely scary. Aliens, on the other hand, is filled with powerful space marines. Aliens is a thrilling ride, but Alien is the scarier of the two.

And if you don’t like the idea of powerless characters, there’s nothing in the rules preventing you from playing the usual dilettantes if you want.

This is a scary game

Cthulhu Dark contains 38 pages of Director’s advice about creating a scary game. That’s something that was missing in Call of Cthulhu (although as I haven’t seen the latest edition, maybe that’s changed). Still, I’ve not seen such advice elsewhere. Such advice includes:

Lovecraftian Threats: There are no statistics in Cthulhu Dark’s list of monsters. Instead it is much more interesting and instead includes discusses how the threats might be used in a story. Cthulhu Dark limits itself purely to original Lovecraft (no Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath here), but also pushes that limit by including less obvious threats like the rats in the walls and reanimation solution.

Creeping horrors: Creeping horrors are “unexplained, unsettling moments of weirdness, which repeat throughout the mystery.” Their purpose is to unsettle the players. Cthulhu Dark suggests creeping horrors for each of the threats, such as the stink of the sea (deep ones) or sudden darkness (shining trapezohedron).

Themes: Themes are the topics that a scenario explores, what it’s really about. Again, themes are suggested for each threat. Suggested themes for the elder things are doomed civilisation and imitation (in relation to shoggoths).

Scenario/story design: Cthulhu Dark’s story/scenario advice is superb - I think it’s the best I’ve seen. This section covers themes, creeping horrors, locations, final horrors - and more. And it’s then followed by a way to look at your potential story from different perspectives. For example, The Descent suggests imagining your mystery as a descent into darkness. I am now tempted to go back to some of my old Call of Cthulhu adventures and “darken” them. (And I don’t think for a minute that’s as easy as just removing the stats.)

London 1851, Arkham 1692, Jaiwo 2017, Mumbai 2037

I have previously stated that I don’t like reading backgrounds, so for me, the four Cthulhu Dark backgrounds are mercifully short.

The backgrounds are London 1851, Arkham 1692 (written by Kathryn Jenkins), Jaiwo 2017 (a fictional African country written by Helen Gould), and Mumbai 2037. So that’s two “standard” horror settings, and two unusual horror settings. I was pleased to see that Cthulhu Dark omitted the usual 1920s and 1930s settings; I think enough has been written about them already.

Each background is 10-20 pages long, including a full page map. Over half of the background information is given to typical investigator occupations, and ideas for making sure their occupation is relevant in your mystery.

The occupations themselves are unusual - so the London 1851 setting includes cleaners, costermongers, mudlarks, housewives and toshers. Not your usual RPG characters then.

The rest of the setting provides enough to be able to run a game, and there’s a bibliography for each if you want to dive deeper. From my perspective, that’s just about enough background for me - if I need more I can look it up (or make it up).

The mysteries

Cthulhu Dark contains four mysteries: Screams of the Children (London 1851), The Doors Beyond Time (Arkham 1692), The Curse of the Zimba (Jaiwo 2017), and Consume (Mumbai 2037).

The scenarios are all equally doom laden as the investigators work their way to the final horror. There are no happy endings for anyone. I think they’re great, with Screams of the Children and The Doors Beyond Time standing out as the creepiest.

I also like the fact that the mysteries are usually longer than the setting material. That’s the right mix of setting and background in my opinion!

However, I have two criticisms of the mysteries.

The first is that, for a book with “Cthulhu” in the title, none of them use any of the threats described in the rules. I actually think that the mysteries are all the more effective for that (and I can’t really complain about not using mythos creatures - I’ve done that myself). But it does seem odd that none of the mysteries in Cthulhu Dark uses the threats (with the exception of a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it reference to “man-faced rats” in The Doors Beyond Time).

My second criticism is layout, which doesn’t look as if it will help actual play. Cthulhu Dark is laid out in elegant blocks of text that are somewhat stark and minimalist. I really like it for most of the book - but not the mysteries, which need to be easier laid out so that information can be quickly found during an adventure. Here’s an example page:

Okay, I admit that I chose a particularly bad page here, but that’s not how I like my scenarios to be formatted.

I’ve not tried playing any of these - but if I do I’m going to have to make lots of highlights and notes to make it easier to run.

From Call of Cthulhu to Cthulhu Dark

I really like Cthulhu Dark - it’s a simple elegant system and next time I run a Call of Cthulhu adventure I’d like to use the Cthulhu Dark rules.

Which of course I can - I can use them for exactly that. (And I probably will, as I’m not as familiar with Call of Cthulhu as I once was.)

But I think I’d be missing out on Cthulhu Dark’s philosophy of personal, doomed horror.

So I’ve been thinking about running In Whom We Trust again. And while I could run it exactly as written using the Cthulhu Dark rules (it is almost systemless as it is), I feel that if I did so I’d need to add creeping horrors, themes and think about what rolling a 6 means. I then started thinking about more structural changes to suit Cthulhu Dark’s philosophy, but then I may as well write a new mystery from scratch.

The fifth mystery - and a nagging problem

As part of the Kickstarter, Cthulhu Dark includes Mo Holkar’s As Good as a Feast pdf, a mystery set in dust bowl America that, again, doesn’t use any of the Lovecraftian threats. It’s laid out just like the mysteries in Cthulhu Dark itself. I don’t know if it will be available separately.

However, it was as I was reading As Good as a Feast, something else started to nag at me: all the mysteries are basically the same. All five are basically railroads where the investigators start to discover something untoward and are slowly drawn in before facing an evil entity. I don’t mind that as a storyline in itself, but I would have liked to have seen some variety. Maybe that’s what happens when your mysteries feature doomed, powerless, characters. But I hope not.


I really like Cthulhu Dark. It has done something few other games have done: it’s changed how I think about roleplaying. Before, I didn’t really find horror roleplaying scary. As I’ve said before, most gaming really isn’t scary at all - horror or otherwise.

But Cthulhu Dark has given me the tools to create unsettling, creepy games. And while I may use Cthulhu Dark’s elegantly simple ruleset, I suspect I will find those techniques creeping into my other games as well.

My biggest complaint is that about the sample scenarios/mysteries. I would like to see some variety, so maybe I won’t change In Whom We Trust too much. I like its current structure, but I think I can darken it and make it more unsettling.

As for the layout not being easy for me to run, maybe that’s just me. After all, I have read reports of people running the scenarios successfully. So perhaps I should get over myself and just run one.

When I do, I’ll report back here...