Events, Playtest, Running Tabletop Games 0 comments on Cthulhu Hack at UK Games Expo ’17

Cthulhu Hack at UK Games Expo ’17

UK Games Expo sprawled across the last weekend. I have spent much of that time standing up, behind the Just Crunch Games stall, regaling people with the virtues of The Cthulhu Hack.

As if getting up at 6.30am to hit NEC Hall 1’s floor for 8.30am wasn’t enough, I also signed up to GM games in the 8pm slot (a scant two hours after the trading hall closedown at 6pm).

Evening Games

I ran two sessions of “Operation Header” from Cubicle 7’s ‘Covert Actions‘, a scenario supplement for the Kickstarter funded ‘World War Cthulhu: Cold War‘.

As it was only released to backers as a PDF last week, I figured (A) no one was likely to have read it and (B) I could show how easy it was to convert any Cthulhu game’s scenarios to TCH on the fly.

While I considered running a different adventure on the Saturday, I enjoyed the Friday game and it seemed silly to not give it another run out.

To be clear from the outset, the version of the adventure I ran stripped out a lot of the finer details from the adventure purely out of necessity. I had 4-hours (at most) to introduce the game, run a quick round of character generation, explain the mechanics, set the scene and get running. On both occasions, the preliminaries ran to no more than 20 – 25 minutes. Also on both occasions, the game ran through until almost midnight (after which I had to clear up and walk the trail back from the Hilton Metropole to my own hotel).

Running the game wasn’t the challenge on the Saturday; it was being heard over the hubbub of five other games running at the same time in a confined space!

Characters

I used the Classless Cthulhu generation process for Saves and Resources, but used a pre-generated selection of Abilities and Advantages (see the picture below).

This worked really well, although I didn’t get the explanation of the Resource selection perfect until the second night. Basically, I followed the standard process for Saves, but allowed the players to list six scores and assign them; then each player could assign 14 dice to the Resources (Flashlights, Smokes, Sanity, Hit Dice, Armed, Unarmed).

I have used the 14 dice idea before – but these two outing at Expo suggest to me that fourteen weighs in as “generous”. I think, if you want to provide a brutal game you can drop the number of dice to 12 or 13. That means that a group of players have to rely upon each other much more and cannot simply stand alone against the horror.

You can read about Classless Cthulhu in an early article on this blog, and it will appear in the upcoming version of the core rules (as yet hanging somewhere between a v1.5 and a full on v2).

Adventure

My prep for the adventure involved reading through the whole adventure once and then going back to map notes.

My notes consisted of an A6 sheet with a map of the main site of the adventure and character sketches – the briefest of thumbnails in keywords – scattered around it. I wrote a room or location, then added the thumbnail biographies within. On the map, I added a coloured dot to connect the two. I used a third colour (red, for good reason) to pick out the location of the threats in the adventure – whether living threats or potential hindrances from traps or security.

I prepared the pre-gens using cards and some typed notes on the personality and background of each individual (not shown on the image). I also printed out some suitable passport pictures of people from the mid-1970s, which for some seemed to provide an essential grounding point for character, atmosphere and tone. Admittedly, much of the tone came down to the fantastic 70s hairstyles and one character’s impressive moustache.

Most of the first hour of the game revolved around the briefing and travel to the adventure site. The next hour dealt with investigation of the keyed location. The final hour, the descent into madness and death. Well, for some at least. A coda at the end outlined the fate of those who survived.

In the session on Friday, one player noted – mid-coda – that the revelations must surely mean a Sanity role for his character. Reduced to just a 1d4 in his Sanity resource, he thankfully rolled a 1. To have rolled anything else would have been to spoil the moment, so I’m thankful to the Fates of the Die for watching over my games.

The Friday session ended with three dead, one permanently insane, and the final character alive, but sorely reduced in all aspects. The Saturday session ended with three dead and two survivors, both likely to never serve on active duties ever again — or even to fit well into ordinary open society.

Hit Die

I experimented in both sessions by making the Hit Die a resource rather than a simple method for calculating hit points. Struck by an enemy, the player rolled the Hit Die and a 1 or 2 indicated a decline in health. I don’t feel that the outcome worked, but want to give it more thought. It just seemed to make the characters too resilient — or maybe the players just rolled too well. It does mean that the characters can handle scuffles and physical confrontation without dying early in the adventure – while they have the opportunity to fail through the dwindling of their Sanity and Investigation resouces.

I won’t make a judgement on these two sessions alone. I might be tempted, as with rolling temporary insanities on a failed Sanity roll, to create a temporary injury table. Rolled a 1 or 2 on the Hit Die means not just a drop but a genuine temporary disability. If the horror snaps your arm when you roll a 1 or 2, you won’t push on and keep fighting — you’ll reassess your poor life decisions and try to find another way.

Response

The players all appeared to enjoy their sessions and many commented favourably on the lightweight system. One noted that he’d only played one Mythos-themed game before, with Call of Cthulhu 6th edition, and had struggled with the sheer weight of numbered presented on a single character sheet. The Cthulhu Hack obviously sways wildly in the opposite direction – and that made it an easy in for newcomers and those put off by mechanical complexity.

On top of good feedback, several players also came around the next day to pick up copies for themselves. The white Slim Box version with the new green tentacle halo around the Elder Sign sold particularly well – with only two copies left at the close of the weekend. I’m really happy with the outcome of the whole weekend — and I hope that those who picked up a copy of the game have the chance to play and enjoy it themselves.

But, if you didn’t pick up a copy, remember that DriveThruRPG and RPGNow’s OSR Extravaganza has the core Cthulhu Hack books available for 15% off (or more) until June 11th. Pick up The Cthulhu Hack, From Unformed RealmsThe Haunter of the Dark, Save Innsmouth and Thro’ Centuries Fixed from the Just Crunch Games page for at least 15% off.

Mechanics, Playtest 2 comments on Classless Save

Classless Save

daughters-of-doom-threat-classlessCharacter generation for The Cthulhu Hack opens up to a classless approach to shift from the Old School roots of warriors and thieves. It makes sense – and I have had some comments on why I adhered to the Class-based approach. The truth? At the time it seemed to make sense to stick with The Black Hack‘s simplicity and work from there.

And in tinkering with the character generation system and enlightened by my adventure in gaslit alleys earlier in the week, I thought it worth reminding you that a Save is a matter of life and death. If you want to play cards to win possession of an ancient relic, make a Smokes roll; but, if you need to wrestle the artefact from the hands of a cultist, that’s a Strength Save with repercussions.

Going Classless

After a couple of dozen adventures, both as player and GM, and some feedback in reviews, it makes much more sense to break it down and take an approach with more flexibility. I have done this in other systems, like Vortex and Gumshoe, so it seemed right here.

The system still involves dice throws to determine Saves and Occupation-related randomness, but Special Features and resources – like Sanity and Hit Dice – require the player to make some decisions about the sort of character they want to play. When they level up, a character grows a little – surviving an adventure against of the forces of the Mythos ensures you grow up quick. The playtest document suggests level up after each adventure, but you might want to slow that down to every other adventure or based on game play time with a character.

At the moment, I’m tinkering with the idea and you can access the playtest document through the Cthulhu Hack Community on Google+. In the short term, expect this to appear in Unaussprechlichen Hack early in 2017. In the longer term, expect a polished and refined version to figure in a second edition of The Cthulhu Hack.

Save Yourself

One thing that came up in my last game session, but also occurred to me while putting the Classless playtest document together, is that The Cthulhu Hack doesn’t use attributes to determine simple successes. You roll against Strength or Wisdom to save yourself – or someone else; that’s why they’re called Saves.

If you go into a library to seek out lore on a creature of the Mythos, you roll Flashlights. If you ask a researcher at the university what they know about Starry Wisdom, you roll a Smokes. If you need to find a ward that will protect you from a slavering ghoul racing straight at you, make an Intelligence Save. If you need to sway a lowly adherent of a cult to turn against their uncaring masters, make a Charisma Save.

What’s the difference?

A roll on Flashlights or Smokes won’t hurt if you fail. Indeed, they don’t fail. When you roll a 1 or 2, you wear your patience thin, burn a contact, or spend a sleepless night finding the information.

If you fail that Save, it’s going to hurt. Indeed, before you make a Save, you and the GM should agree on what you’re doing and how it’s going to hurt if you fail. If you fail to find the ward, the ghoul will attack you and you won’t have time to defend, taking damage as per a normal attack. If you can’t sway the adherent, they call for back-up and strike with sudden ferocity, forcing a DEX Save at Disadvantage – or they burn the precious Book of Unholy Prayer in their possession, forcing you to lose a Flashlight die.

A failed Save is a setback, a punishing event that should serve to remind you what you’re up against. You’re not investigating a philandering husband or solving a cold case – someone has plans to let loose the Elder Gods or rend your consciousness clean out of your soggy brain matter and project it, irrevocably, into an alien, sanity-shattering future.

Playtest 0 comments on Each To Their Own

Each To Their Own

DetectiveBook_confession-of-a-corpseLast night, at my local gaming group, I ran The Keepers of the Woods – the winner of the RPG Geek One Sheet GUMSHOE adventure contest last year, written for Trail of Cthulhu. The investigators head down to Devon to following up a postcard from Professor Margaret Blackwood and a report of her demise in the road accident.

It provided me with the opportunity to run an adventure on the fly using The Cthulhu Hack, the rules for which have got to the almost-done stage. I have been looking to some close gaming friends for feedback and a bit of light proof-reading, so I hope to have the hack out today or tomorrow.

The group generated characters at the start of the session and we plunged into the adventure after 10 minutes of dice-rolling and traditional Old School bemoaning-poor-rolls. We had an Archaeologist (Norris), a Bodyguard (Jack) and a Professor of Folklore (Gwen). Most of them had weak-to-average stats and the Bodyguard managed to roll just 6 hit points, so they had all they needed for combat-lite investigation.

The session went well. Flashlights and Smokes slid easily into place whenever the adventure offered the chance to glean information. Jack managed a single Flashlight roll before rolling a 2, which left him unable to offer much assistance with finding anything for the rest of the adventure. Those better suited to the task stepped down a die or two, but they can probably expect to reach the end of the adventure without ending up completely in the dark. Unless they have a TPK, which might be the more likely end game given their weak physical potential.

After the session, we had a discussion about whether the game needed five Classes. Oddly enough, the Bruiser had target written all over it for this question. Does a Lovecraftian game need a warrior class?

The Bruiser works like a standard The Black Hack Warrior with all the same Special Features and the minimum Usage Die for investigative skills. In other words, they have a 50-50 chance of failing either Flashlights or Smokes tests from the start. Once those go, the Bruiser player has to hope for a fight or some straightforward intimidation. Once burned out on these tests, they don’t come back until the next adventure under normal circumstances.

Firstly, if you compare with classic Call of Cthulhu, having a 50% chance of doing something off-career – like Library Use for a Soldier – sounds like good odds. How many combat-focussed characters in CoC put more than a smattering of points in the scholarly pursuits?

Secondly, if you want to investigate, be an investigator. While you roll for your stats randomly, as per The Black Hack core, you choose your Class. Even if you roll STR and DEX as your best stats, you have the option to swap two scores – so, exchange STR for WIS and be a rogue-type instead.

Thirdly, you need to have some table banter going and the GM needs to be upfront about the adventure. Will the investigation have an opportunity for brawling? If not, don’t make the Bruiser an option; recommend the alternatives and walk the player through the options. If the adventure has pulp elements, fine – a Bruiser will work. In a classic Lovecraftian exploration of esoteric literature and non-Euclidean property management, choose something else.

Beyond 1st level (I like to think most games of The Cthulhu Hack won’t need to refer to the sections of Experience and Advancement much), the Bruiser has an extra attack per level and can add dice to the pools for Flashlights and Smokes. Survivors learn to get better and that includes the fighting-types who realise that all avenues can’t end with a fist fight.

Playtest 0 comments on Sense of Purpose

Sense of Purpose

One Of My Favourite Pictures Of Graham

While I didn’t manage to run a playtest session last night, I did participate in a Cthulhu Dark (Graham Walmsley’s excellent one-page system for running uncompromising Mythos sessions) adventure. While the Keeper (probably) had a plan and a map, I don’t think the adventure had much more preparation. No, I tell a lie – a sensed a hint of a Esoterrorist adventure in there with one very specific and memorable scene.

Basically the adventure had a very vague premise and characters with an awareness of each other and no common purpose. We had a reverend, a funeral director, a lady ex-drug addict, a hostillier, and an ice cream vendor – in a run-down, has-been village. The mayor announced a plan to bring fresh blood to the area with a coach load of immigrants or students (a little confused on the details from the beginning). When they arrived, the village held a fair, but the students (definitely students) seemed to be more interested in visiting a local lighthouse. The reverend (Reverend Ginger) witnessed their visit to the lighthouse and sensed something thoroughly disquieting about the whole affair. Anyway… I digress from the point.

Purpose. That’s my point.

Continue Reading “Sense of Purpose”

Playtest 2 comments on Playtesting the Stench

Playtesting the Stench

Role Playing | Technology
Photo credit: Daniele Muscetta

If the game session last night has anything to teach me it is that you can’t underestimate the value of a playtest with a diverse group of players. I had a group of four and we played the initial element of the Stench of the Sea adventure module I have been working on. I think we may have worked our way through about two or three pages of the module proper. Given that we played for two hours, that might say more about the focus of my group than the practical longevity of the game. However, the game did support that length of play with locations, people and a combat encounter, so the text of the adventure did add into the mix. Continue Reading “Playtesting the Stench”