I almost couldn’t believe it when I saw the news that finally, after all these years, the stars are finally right to create an expansion to my favourite ever board game: Betrayal at the House on the Hill. This has me utterly overjoyed for a number of reasons, but mostly because I’ve had so many great and just plain hilarious memories from this game in the past. For those of you who have never played it before, Betrayal at the House on the Hill is a procedural generated board game involving assembling a house from different room tiles (at random). As you go around exploring, you encounter various items, events, secret things and eventually omens.
A long time ago, when I was starting to get into Night’s Black Agents I had an important question on my mind: Did I mix my peanut butter with my delicious chocolate? Notably, do I start bleeding together the worlds of my Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents games? Trail of Cthulhu is a very deliberate, slow and highly investigative orientated game. Subsequently, GUMSHOE as presented in Trail is more about the discovery of terrible mysteries about the nature of man and the insane world locked behind the curtain of our minds. Night’s Black Agents takes a different approach, with the characters being more like the protagonists of a spy thriller. High tech gadgets, high speed chases and intense combat scenes against villains – human or vampiric – are the order of the day. Investigative skills tend to get toned down, or at least aren’t the inherent focus of the game.
But what if we genuinely combined these two excellent GUMSHOE systems together? My initial thought was making the two worlds I had created coterminous would be entirely logical, until I started doing it. What I quickly found was that there were aspects of my NBA campaigns that, quite frankly, didn’t fit with the slow methodical cosmic horror of Trail of Cthulhu. Most notably is the power disparity between the inherent antagonists of the two games: Vampires are kind of small time when placed against the mythos gods, which is emphasized even more when you start saying “Vampires and the Gods of the mythos are inherently linked”. In effect, making everything the result of mythos magic seemed to diminish vampires as the core antagonists of NBA.
That felt to me like I was losing a lot of what made Night’s Black Agents, by itself, a compelling game and experience. So I decided to separate my universes back into a set “Night’s Black Agents techno spy vampire thriller world” and “Trail of Cthulhu slow horrifying cosmic horror world”. After much thought, I considered if I had perhaps given up too easily and perhaps there was a lot of merit to the idea? One thing that stood out to me at the time, was how much my players were disappointed that I didn’t actually go ahead and do this. Most of my NBA and Trail of Cthulhu players were excited by the idea of having their Cthulhu and Vampire puddings mixed together. Here are some of my ideas that I have come up with on this issue, for your digestion as well.
While scanning twitter tonight, I saw someone talking about a “GMless” Cthulhu roleplaying system called “Lovecraftesque”. Although it is certainly a rather crowded market, with numerous excellent options to chose from with Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu my personal favorites, I was still intrigued. After checking out their kickstarter, I felt there was a really interesting idea and wanted to highlight it on the blog. By far and away what sets this game apart from other Cthulhu based RPGs, is the unique “single character” structure and “GMless” system they have developed. You might wonder how this is supposed to work with a group of people, who are all playing the same character and this is where I think their idea is great.
This book is actually a fantastic creation of a very talented artist (who I sadly can’t find right now) and it’s my goal to one day have props/books this brilliant to use in my own games.
As I have often said several times on this blog, there is one thing that can’t be beaten at a gaming table and that’s physical props. Unfortunately, it can often be hard to acquire, outright expensive or just time consuming to make your own tomes/books (like the header image). Thankfully today I was linked to a really fantastic resource called Dark Books, which has a wide collection of PDFs of public domain old spell and occult books. Of particular interest to those of us keen on Cthulhu, is an “English Translation” of the Necronomicon by John Dee. This is the sort of thing that even if you only print off a few pages to use, can really enhance a game and give your players a much higher feeling of verisimilitude. It’s also just a fantastic resource to mine for ideas on describing mythos spells and similar, here is a sample after the jump:
Firstly, this is the 200th post on the Roleplayer’s Guild! To celebrate, I’m going to talk about the fantastic recently released horror game SOMA. Made by the talented folks who made the equally excellent Amnesia: The Dark Descent, SOMA improves on that game in a variety of ways – especially in the department of storytelling. In fact, one of the most refreshing things about SOMA is that it moves away from the recent “Youtube” orientated view of horror games. Most notably, it’s not simply a non-stop series of cheap jump scares every few seconds. Instead it returns to fundamentals of excellent atmosphere, an oppressive strange situation and terrific storytelling.
Naturally in order to talk about this game properly, I have to spoil a lot of what makes SOMA an incredibly compelling game and experience. Absolutely do not read this if you intend to play and experience this fantastic game for yourself. For anyone else though, there is a lot you can learn from SOMA in terms of atmosphere, the way monsters are used and yes, even how Lovecraftian the game is in so many ways.
Hangman: Operation Rising Tide
In the previous play report for Night’s Black Agents, I felt I had to delay a conclusion much more than I would have liked. This ended up making the narrative hard to follow and caused a few problems with how “overdone” the operation felt. Thankfully on my second session and with all of the players present, I was able to fix that to create a fairly action orientated scenario. In many ways, I feel this would have been a much better “opening” to the game than Awakened Dragon, but hindsight is always 20/20. This operation began more “In medias res” to get the action flowing and the players immediately invested in what was going on.
It turns out trying to infiltrate ships used by supernatural monsters to smuggle people around Europe is pretty tricky. Especially when you infiltrate the place as a chef using a cover identity, but not have much actual infiltration when it comes to sneaking off that same ship….
Masks of the Dreamer: Recovery of U-571 Part 3This excellent piece of concept art comes from a very exciting and now released horror video game, called Soma. It’s also very good and I recommend anyone interested in horror and science fiction play it!
The finale of this investigation has a few bits that feel forced or disjointed, mostly because of my previously discussed error. The error being that I didn’t give the investigators much of an incentive to communicate with the discovery channel crew. As a result a certain “plot” twist here is going to feel like it comes out of absolutely nowhere. On the other hand, this finale to the investigation worked out really well on several levels and developed with some interesting tension between certain PCs. This tension though was quite palpable and almost a bit too much, so I needed to keep everyone a bit after the game to talk about the “Traitor” mechanic present in the game.
Even though the landing of some of the events in this wasn’t quite what I was hoping for, it still worked well enough and conveyed some worrying secrets to the players – without giving the full story away (just yet, we’re almost at the end of this campaign).
The Lost Expedition (Modern Day) with Blood and Ink (1930s Africa).
I love this image, which is from Fantasy Flight Games excellent Cthulhu card game.
For my next Trail of Cthulhu campaign, I decided I wanted to actually split “The Lost Expedition” into two simultaneous parts and have my players make characters for both. The first was my current “established” modern Cthulhu horror, which I have developed over the past few years and didn’t want to let go over a “historic” setting. Setting my Cthulhu horror games in the modern era, as opposed to the more classic historic 1920s or 1930s assumptions, has proven to have several advantages. By far the most important advantage, is that by giving my players a world identical to ours it really helps people “Get into character”. There isn’t any need to know about the culture of 1930s New York to get a feel for how they should think and act.
I also find the large amount of reliance on “current” technology that characters often develop to be just as useful for building tension. You should, as much as possible, let things like cell phones be integral parts of the game and not impede their function. Let players become as reliant on their characters phones as their actual player possibly is in reality. Then at the right moment, turn their electronics against them by having a phone ring at the wrong moment, or the device simply outright doesn’t work or even worse, cultists hack their metadata and track them right down to their hideout. In essence, the more you turn players current understanding of the world and their reliance on real things, like cellphones, against them the better the tension/horror.
On the other hand, there is a considerable attraction to me in running a historical campaign because of the interesting possibilities for different stories and roleplaying. While it can be harder to get into the idea of roleplaying characters from a different time and worldview, this problem is increasingly mitigated by numerous excellent free resources on history on the internet. While Wikipedia isn’t always 100% accurate, it’s often a very good “One stop shop” for a rough idea about where to start for storylines to pursue and general events, which occurred in your chosen regions time period. Historic storylines often exploit the lack of technology, enhanced difficulty of travel and slower means of communication of the time to build tension/horror.
This is why when I wrote the original “Staring New Campaigns” post, I decided to use True Detective as a kind of inspiration behind this campaign. In the first season of True Detective, two former police detectives are interviewed by their modern counterparts about an old cold case series of murders. During these interviews, the former detectives give some embellished and often outright lie filled accounts of their previous actions. This creates an interesting contrast, between how reliable the detectives stories are about the events of the 1990s and how in the modern era they eventually resolve the case. In The Lost Expedition I wanted to create a similar kind of unknown, where the players need to rely on accounts about what happened in the 1930s from “unreliable” sources. Essentially setting up the campaign this way I get my tension filled modern horror game style I like, while getting to have my side cake of pulpy style 1930s historic horror.
The first week of “Ask the Guild” is now here and let’s begin with some a fairly straightforward batch today. Note that in some cases I have abridged questions or only quoted the “question” part of an email or message. Questions are in bold and the answers are below!
Masks of the Dreamer: Recovery of U-571: Part 2This excellent piece of concept art comes from a very exciting upcoming horror video game, called Soma.
When I last left this game, the investigators had broken into the ships cult “Idol” room, with the two statue fetishes of Father Dagon and Mother Hydra. After seeing the statue move and even excrete some liquid like stuff, they were now faced with the prospect of confronting some of the crew in here. Thankfully for the investigators it was actually not an entirely angry bunch of fishy crew, but rather the confused but stern face of the expeditions lead, Joleen. I allowed the investigators to bluff their way past Joleen, but only to an extent and she did give them some further information. Most importantly, Joleen was surprised about how much they wanted to know about Father Dagon and Mother Hydra, so I used this as a chance to give the investigators a little more information about them.
After this scene and the investigators being escorted back to their rooms, while also being forbidden to return to the lower decks without permission, attention turned to Zachary. Zachary was the fellow in charge of the discovery channel crew and they did get some time to roleplay interactions with him. These interactions revealed some important clues about Zachary’s purpose on the ship and his past. Here I made a reference to my previous campaign and the origin of one of the villains, where Zachary had led a group down into South America to go looking for missing archaeologists. Although Zachary didn’t reveal much about what they found, the investigators gathered it was bad from the evasive answers and haunted look he gave.
Unfortunately, here I let myself down a bit because I didn’t emphasize how odd this behavior was strongly enough. In reality, I wanted to get the investigators really curious about what happened to Zachary and start asking questions of his crew. This is particularly important, because one of the discovery camera crew Anitas, has a particularly interesting “hobby”. As I mentioned in the previous session’s write up, the lack of emphasis on Zachary and the discovery channel crew’s odd behavior, meant I gave little motivation for the investigators to dig into them more. The net effect of this is that something that happens towards the end of the investigation feels very “out of left field”, instead of being more set up and alluded to.