Adapting, Thoughts 1 comment on Lost in the Lights

Lost in the Lights

I have been reading this modern day, Las Vegas-based adventure-supplement with interest. Part-background for a cult, part-adventure – it also contains a bunch of information and several spot rules – the last of which fits Call of Cthulhu, but has less value for The Cthulhu Hack.

Lost in the Lights – including the adventure Invisible Sun – provides a lot of potential. It has been available in a couple of formats in the past – physical and PDF. In the last week, it was released as a physical book in the UK.

For information, I have read this supplement through a couple of times with plans with run it in the near future. This is not a review – this is a view, based on my reading and interpretation of the materials.

First Impressions

In my opinion, the adventure won’t require much prep for The Cthulhu Hack – which I’ve always presented as the strong point of the system – as key clues and locations appear in small capitalised text and the few stat-blocked antagonists can slide over to TCH on the fly. At heart, the adventure either hurts hard or will require some cautious and somewhat structured investigation – you’ve no need to worry about complex conversion for prolonged gun battles or weird esoteric spell play.

You may want to highlight the clues in different colours to call them out for ease of visibility in play or make some additional notes. My personal favourite would be a combination of highlighting (or use of opaque Post-It markers) and some notes in the margin (or Post-Its, if you’re squirming at the prospect of writing in a book). With a PDF version, you could annotate the text on a tablet (though see below, as currently I don’t believe a PDF exists).

Some of what follows contains spoilers – so if you’re the perennial player and might end up being the investigator rather than the show runner, stop here!

Breakdown of a Cult

The supplement handles details of a new cult – and then the investigation sets out a faction of that cult in action. The source of the cult lies far away – so if the events go down and the protagonists in Las Vegas collapsed or implode, the threat remains. Indeed, what this cult believes could easily translate wholesale into other sects and realms of worship, possibly without any real understanding of the Mythos.

The first section of the book goes into considerable detail about the origins of the cult. With this material, not only can you rely on its remote source to keep it tenable, you have a timeline (and guidance) on having it as the antagonist for investigations stretching back through the ages.

As a GM of any game revolving around the Cthulhu Mythos you have to remember the long game. Very few of the entities of the Mythos keep to some 5-year plan! Indeed, it’s the cults, sects and covens that have the plans – as the entities themselves exhibit (rightly) an alien quality that defies reasoning in human terms. The people of Earth mean nothing to them – they might provide momentary sustenance or a trickle of extra-natural energies, but little else. For some, Earth might as well be a buffet, for others the timescape of our world provides a curious diversion or a convenient battleground.

The strangest thing about the cult herein relates to the mind set. The book goes to some effort explaining why the people in this cult pursue their worship of the Mythos entities. No sane or balanced individual would consider this worship as anything but suicidal. I found myself reading the explanation and still wondering why – and, in truth, my stance, I hope, means I lack the ingrained sociopathic world view. That’s a good thing. I get it that people exist on a spectrum and I’m holding on tight to the barrier well away from the need for death-defying thrills or adrenalin junkie-ism.

What Happens in Vegas

At heart, this investigation involves a missing girl. The way the player characters approach the investigations matters a lot. Careful and low key will make for an entirely different adventure to all guns blazing. Indeed, all guns blazing will end in a Total Party Kill 9 times out of 10, with certainty. The antagonists have no qualms about silencing those who would interfere – and anyone making noise will drown out the hushed cover-ups and clues, simply drawing attention without benefit.

The adventure contains a fair smattering of exposition, background reading and rule additions (for Call of Cthulhu 7e) at a tangent to the absolute necessary. The GM could skip a fair few pages and run the adventure without reading this material in detail – though it might make it harder to improvise and adapt to the unexpected. A section on the effects of radiation – in the real world and game terms – you could skip altogether and just run on the fly with typical preconceptions.

I have a strong feeling that you could, with consideration and a careful eye on timing, run this adventure in a single session. You might, with a secure grip on the reins, reach a conclusion in a convention slot. However, the wealth of material here means you could also run this with less pace and more emphasis on atmosphere. Heck, you might go all David Lynch on this bad boy and turn it into something very peculiar (why not turn on a loop video of a long dark road and just walk away from the table for 10-minutes?).

In terms of characters, you can approach this with existing groups or generate something on the spot. The adventure allows for – and supports – groups with or without law enforcement powers. Actually, possession of some measure of authority serves to simplify and complicate. It can mean getting easier access to people and locations to pose questions, but more often than not puts them on edge.

Hand-outs Galore

The book closes with a gathering of hand-outs, otherwise scattered around the text at relevant points. I like that. Yes it takes up a bunch pages with duplicated material, but Lost in the Lights has made some seriously immersive and engaging hand-outs. As a modern adventure, you can find clues scattered everywhere – news footage, web pages, text messages.

The adventure was originally released a few years ago as a PDF by Sixtystone Press. At the time of that release they also made an enhanced hand-out pack available, which allowed the GM to tweak the details – like changing dates or specific references. That level of personalisation appeals to me – but, the website offers only dead links for the PDF and enhanced hand-outs.

I have dropped them a note to see whether these will become available again, as the hand-out personalisation takes things to a whole new level. I can see why the PDF might be unavailable at the moment, with the recent release into print for this updated 7th edition version, but I’m not certain why the hand-outs have disappeared, as these are not system dependent.

Stays in Vegas

I like the potential of this investigation because it offers a slice of lore, a chapter in the existence of a cult that has persisted through centuries and won’t fall because the investigators poked out a block in the Jenga tower. Thro’ Centuries Fixed references the use of an adventure as a sort of teaser, a glimpse of a broader campaign. Well, Lost in the Lights does more than offer a passing reference to the idea in the margins – with the detail and timeline about the cult, you have the basic building blocks to create call backs and echoes long after the dust has settled in Vegas.

That the book sells itself as both adventure and supplement means you have more than just a one-off when you make this purchase. The inclusion of all the additional material around the cult, the worshippers, their motivations and so forth means that Invisible Sun can serve as a first step in a longer campaign arc. The cult could serve as a focus or a sub-plot recurring malefactor. On the caveat of this being a view rather than a review, I give this a thumbs up.

Check out Lost in the Lights on the Sixtystone Press website, and in PDF through RPG Now.

Adapting, Random Tables 0 comments on Your Haunter May Vary

Your Haunter May Vary

All Haunters are not born equal. The cosmic horror value of your Haunter may go up as well as down.

You know the drill, right?

You play a game and when the bad guys make their first tentative appearance the players read between the lines and leap ahead to tactics and strategies. They know how to handle a Deep One or a Shoggoth – and even though the antagonist hasn’t reared so much as a finger or eye lid yet, they’re ready for action with Plans A through G.

Disappointing show, anyone?

The Cthulhu Hack has this covered from two angles – and you should always consider adding your own spice into the mix. The cosmic horror should never become commonplace or boring; nor should the Lovecraft aficionado in your group present an insurmountable barrier to generating fresh new challenge.

On the one hand, you have the generic assistance of From Unformed Realms.

When I discuss this book at conventions, my pitch centres on the value of these tables as a way to create not only whole new monsters but to adjust the features or even just the spoor of the horror.

The spoor, you say?

Well, if you have a creature that attacks with acid or secretes strange pheromones, then the Investigator might find partially digested meat or note a queer sensation of homeliness about a place, something warm and comforting. It should seem and feel odd, but at the same time it only hints at the entity, as the Investigator find – the spoor of the beast – is second-hand.

You can achieve that with the roll of three six-sided dice on the main table in From Unformed Realms. It’s all about the spice, turning the ordinary and expected into something different. Why note Deep Ones that owe more to sharks or pikes? How about a Shoggoth composed of biological waste or chemical effluent? Once you start changing a key feature, the physical appearance alters with it and how the entity interacts with the environment.

Something of this concept sits in the middle of The Haunter of the Dark. That lurking horror at the heart of Providence – what if it isn’t what you expected? If you read into the nature of the entity, what else might it be? Given the unreliable narrator – the journal of an insane artist – why accept the whole winged monstrosity or the three-lobed eye?

The Haunter of the Dark contains a short chapter that outlines what else it might be – drawing on Lovecraft’s wider Mythos to present other options. In turn, by changing the nature of the entity, you tweak the sect that worship it. The chapter names the horror and explains how it varies from the entity at the heart of the original tale and why; then, briefly, it indicates the special qualities of the followers, their nature and intentions.

Again, it turns the situation around on the ‘expert’ who can no longer rely on the second-hand knowledge of reading the original. Indeed, the included investigation assumes that the Investigators might find the journal of Robert Blake at some point – meaning they can read Lovecraft’s story as a hand-out. However, it may become clear that perceptions of the unfiltered mind can become horribly distorted by the cosmic truth of the uncaring universe, cold, alien and anathema to humanity.

Take care now!

Adapting 0 comments on The Price of Evil

The Price of Evil

The Price of Evil provides an interesting mechanical approach for generating spirit infested real estate on the fly. Written by Zzarchov Kowolski for Neoclassical Geek Revival and other Old School Renaissance games, The Price of Evil is a handy tool for The Cthulhu Hack.

The Toolkit

To create a haunted house you need a pack of cards. You can generate a house in advance or, at a pinch, do something on the fly. You follow one of the standard layouts provided – including fixed features like a lobby and master bedroom – dealing out cards and interpreting the value and suit to determine the purpose and contents. A heart denotes the default states, while the other suits equate to valuables (diamonds), accoutrements of the occult (spades) or damage (clubs), whether through vandalism, infestation, the elements, or the passage of time.

The play of cards determines the presence of certain rooms depending on the floor, all drawn within the limitations of the layout. Drawing more than one Unique Room leads to the presence of a Junk Room instead – which reminded me of investigating the old Corbitt House in The Haunting.

The sort of house generated suits those Lovecraft would have been familiar with in his time, with gabled roof, expansive attics and cellars, and impressive entrance halls. You can certainly tweak the state and descriptions to suit countries other than the US.

Currency

Written for a fantasy role playing game, the text uses coins of differing value by metal. For general reference and conversion, assume that a Gold Piece = a Dollar, so that gold, silver and copper pieces directly convert to dollars, dimes and pennies. Therefore, if the characters discover 120 copper pieces in a locked box, they in fact have found a bunch of coins, mostly pennies, that amount to $1.20 in value. Dollar values might be in bills or coin, with the former more likely to suffer destruction where vandalism or possession have occurred (or occur).

Throughout the house, the values assume that the property lies within a good district and the previous owner purchased quality products. Half the values for a more standard affair or cut to a third in poorer districts. Whatever the value of individual goods, a character selling anything on will need to find a buyer and few will offer catalogue/shop window prices for anything.

For characters looking to “flip” a property – or assist a landlord in doing the same – the overall value of a house depends on overall condition, sound construction, fittings and reputation. If the characters takes weeks or months to resolve the “issues” associated with a property, they’re as likely to rubbish its reputation and leave it devalued.

Anachronisms

Originally written with a fantasy setting in mind, most rooms nevertheless translate seamlessly to a more modern setting. However, where anachronisms exist, either allow for them with rumours of odd behaviour in previous occupants or update the offending articles.

If your house includes an Armoury, for example, replace the content with suitable alternatives, like survival/hunting gear, revolvers, shotguns, and so forth. Drawing diamonds in this instance might suggest a selection of antiques, explaining the oddities – and necessitating an adjustment in market value. Drawing spades could suggest oddities, artefacts from overseas, esoteric paraphernalia or simply signs of the unhinged and weird.

Oppression

Where the text references Oppression inflicted by events or haunting entities, assume a test of Sanity. If the Oppression inflicted equals or exceeds half the highest value of the die thrown, roll with Disadvantage.

For example, shaky investigator Henry Alwood – Sanity d6 – enters the vaulted observatory, perched on the top floor of the house, in the middle of the night. The oppressive forces of the house twist the fabric of the room, causing the rug-strewn timber floor to dissolve beneath Henry’s feet, threatening to drop him into the unforgiving void. The manifestation rates three skulls – meaning the Oppression matches half the highest value of the character’s Sanity Die (max value of 6 divided by 2 = 3). The player rolls two six-sided dice instead of one and the GM will force them to use the worst result.

Gameplay

I suspect, given a little thought, you might find a way to run solo adventures using The Cthulhu Hack and a house generated with this excellent toolkit. You might also wanted to seek out suitable ‘solo gaming tools‘ to stand in as GM for your session.

For group gaming, it means you can spice up a session with a genuinely odd and unexpected haunted home; or, perhaps, the investigators can face the challenge of ridding a property they own of unwanted spirits. When they get that letter about their recently departed great uncle, the envelope weighted down by an odd looking key, the value of the inheritance may depend on their surviving a night in the property – or slogging through months of research and effort.

A haunted house might even serve as a quirky sub-plot; perhaps something in the house could serve to benefit them in handling another case.

As Zzarchov wrote The Price of Evil for the OSR, you can use any stats provided for spirits straight off the page, referring to the antagonist table in the core rules to determine baseline damage for any direct corporeal attacks or even indirect assaults.

If you want to flesh out a manifestation, a roll or two in the horror generator of From Unformed Realms can provide the taint or spoor of evil; enough detail to provide a clue or flesh out the fleshless dead without needing a full blown entity.

You can purchase The Price of Evil from RPGNow and DriveThruRPG.

Adapting 0 comments on Occupational Colour

Occupational Colour

Roman_soldier_in_lorica_segmentataThere are two layers to a character in The Cthulhu Hack that mean if you want to emulate Other Game Systems of Unspeakable Alien Horror.

Class sets down the skeleton of the character. Class determines basic things like Hit Points, Hit Dice (relevant to healing and levelling up), expertise with arms and armor (the latter less relevant and discounted in 1920s games) and Special Features.

(Der Unaussprechlichen Hack will propose the options of doing away with all but one Class or adding more. All good things to those who wait…)

Occupation skins a Class. Occupation adds on the fluff of a career, with Starting Gear and cash in hand. In principle, Occupation does not show you’re any better or worse in the skills you possess, as Class determines Flashlight and Smokes Die. You certainly could argue with the GM that a Linguist will know more languages than a Medium, but an investigation doesn’t work that way. A Flashlight roll might mean what the Linguist discovers in a book written in an archaic Welsh dialect the Medium finds in notes from a séance they held in 1916 in a manor house outside Cardiff.

Anyway, I’m drifting off topic.

Occupation sets the colour of a character while Class sets down the crunch. If you want to handle a quick and easy shift of setting, from 1920s Boston to 78AD Ercolano in the shadow of Vesuvius you keep the Classes and reset the Occupation table. If you plan to run a game where everyone has a role within the Roman army, you may switch out Astronomer, Alienist, Sleuth, Charlatan and Soldier for Actarius (a military clerk), Clincus (a medic), Venator (a hunter), Praefectus Castrorum (a line officer and quartermaster) and Hastiliarius (a weapons instructor). You can go through the table and add as many options to each column (Class) as you care. Or just create a list, sub-divided by Class, for the players to choose from.

The equipment means the character hits the game with a bit of personality. The ideal gear includes slightly odd stuff or flavourful additions. Yes, they might have a revolver or a pilum, but it makes it more fun if they have a rune-etched medallion or a mirror blessed by Trivia.

As mentioned in the core rules, some settings or campaigns might not favour a certain Class – like a strongly investigative campaign where anyone playing a Bruiser would feel positively unloved; but, removing or changing a Class should be something given long consideration. Reskinning the Starting Gear table with a couple of dozen new occupations and equipment sets represents a much less invasive and onerous means of adding colour and entertainment to a Cthulhu Hack game.

Adapting, Adventures 0 comments on Adopt, Adapt and Overcome

Adopt, Adapt and Overcome

old-manor-and-graveyardWhile clearly named The Cthulhu Hack, in honour of the dread Old One, the nature of the Hack means you can handle any investigation using the system’s associated mechanics. Both Smokes and Flashlights serve as a medium for a little luck, a bit of insight and a knack for finding the half-hidden or forgotten.

Like the investigators in a US procedural or a British Christie-style murder mystery, the Cthulhu Hack‘s investigation rules give essential clues mixed with the tension of a dwindling pool. In a non-Mythos game, you could swap out Sanity for Fatigue or Stress – they all stem from the same source, but Sanity has a strong connection with certain types of game.

There’s also nothing stopping you from folding the idea back into The Black Hack or one of the other derivatives – or using The Cthulhu Hack system with fantasy or sci-fi trappings. The Career Paths might need a tweak and you’ll need to improvise the equipment list a bit – but you could also just co-opt that sort of thing from a favoured setting.

Blood and Lumber

Take the Shadow of the Demon Lord, for example. The recently released adventure Blood Will Run involves the characters investigating the disappearance of twin boys in a small village. Stereotypical genre tropes can get the investigators on board, with a letter from their uncle, a newspaper cutting or some other tenuous association with the settlement.

Before running the session, the GM needs to read through the adventure – and I would recommend printing it out and have two colours of highlighter to hand. Three if you can manage.

As you read through, highlight any sentence where the investigators might:

Spot, uncover, trip over, research, stumble, recall or otherwise discover something – that’s a FLASHLIGHT.

Overhear, carouse, interrogate, coerce, fast talk, bribe, claim common kinship or otherwise extract information through social connection – that’s a SMOKE.

If you have that third highlighter in hand – mark any instance where the adventure either threatens direct harm or would cause pain, damage, distress or similar. That sounds like either a SAVE or a test of SANITY – in either case, the player will need to roll.

Some Examples

Reading from the beginning, I started making notes, some of which I include below. In reading, if you get any sense of a piece of information, a find, a muttered word or a threat of danger – highlight it!

  • FLASHLIGHT   The village of Cheqwood has a long history in the lumber trade, providing highly prized wood to craftspeople and artists far and wide. The limited supply makes for fierce, even violent, competition.
  • FLASHLIGHT   An ancient charter, signed centuries ago, limits the quantity of lumber the village can take from the wood, backed by royal decree. The inhabitants have never tested these limits and the settlement has never really grown much as a result.
  • FLASHLIGHT   One of the glass panes in the windows bears the slightly greasy, smudged handprints of a child; it appears as if one pressed close to the window to spy any activity within.
  • SMOKES   Someone has been disturbing graves of the departed in a disused private ground near the old manor. When the village turned out to find the missing boys they found several graves dug up and desecrated.
  • SMOKES   Clyde, something of a spokesperson for the community, had a raging argument with the local blacksmith, out in the street in front of The Black and Staff pub. The ‘smith claims Clyde’s children stole from him, but absolutely denies any responsibility for their disappearance.
  • CHA SAVE   Speaking with Clyde runs the risk of pulling too many chains and turning his stress into outright rage. A thumper by nature with the physique to match, failure to make the Save will shift him to hostile reactions until calmed by a local or restrained.

And so on… I don’t want to spoil the adventure, but you’ll have opportunities to test Sanity and a possible fight or two to keep the Bruisers entertained.

The adventure in this example needs some tweaking to remove fantasy elements – like elves – but the core of an abduction and a stressed out community stands. With little more effort than reading the adventure – and a few highlighters or similar in hand – you have a fresh adventure to add to the stable.