This weekend sees the release of a new investigation, Valkyrie-9. After a bunch of playtesting sessions, the time seemed at hand to set the adventure loose on the unsuspecting public. I had a lot of fun running the adventure across several events, each time with a completely different experience and outcome.
Valkyrie-9 finds the players taking on the roles of support drones on a Moon base experiencing massive power and systems failure. Emerging from re-charging into a clear emergency, they have to piece together the thread of events and seek to restore order.
However, something I heard around the sign up sheets was – “I don’t do robots” or “I don’t do science fiction.“
Character Character Character
There’s not much I can do about the whole business of not wanting to play a mechanical drone, beyond asking, “Why?”
Role playing games constantly ask that you put yourself in the place of an unfamiliar character with motivations and beliefs that cannot possibly map to your own.
In this instance, the adventure is about the investigation and the strange situation – but the GM can also reinforce that these drones are advanced and highly capable constructs. Think R2-D2 from Star Wars or Huey, Dewey and Louie from Silent Running – or somewhere between the two.
It’s a one-shot, so they’re not committed to running an artificial character long term – and little about the character imposes restrictions on how the player plays them. Yes, they won’t be engaging in emotional responses or spawning some budding romance, but they’re not cold and indifferent. The drones have been around the Valkyrie site for almost two years and spent time in the company of the crew for half of that; they’re stalwart companions with a vested interested in resolving the current emergency.
Not Science Fiction?
Is the year 2073 science fiction to begin with? Or simply Near Future?
Many players expect all Lovecraftian tales to take place in the past – which probably represents a more alien environment that 50 years into the future! The GM selling that time difference must surely be simpler than understanding life 100 years in the past?
If 2073 causes genuine consternation, you could run the adventure in 2020, using a blend of alternate timelines and a healthy splash of real world conspiracy theory.
While one conspiracy suggests that the whole landing on the Moon business never happened, another suggests that visits to the Moon never stopped in the Seventies.
While we see efforts to colonise the Moon as works in progress or simple pipe-dreams, others believe that the apparent loss of interest in lunar exploration amounts to nothing more than a cover-up for a thriving Moon community, possibly funded by more than one Superpower.
In that case, set the investigation in an alternate now, where colonisation of the Moon continued to fascinate the Superpowers and their scientists, but the efforts became secret. It might even tie in more effectively as a Lovecraftian adventure that what should be in plain sight has been obfuscated from the masses.
Perhaps the Valkyrie project seeks to find more than just rare minerals – it might have an imperative tied into the imminent collapse of Earth’s eco-system, seeking sources of minerals, water, power or other resources.
Valkyrie-9 is available to download, as a PDF, from DriveThruRPG. The investigation will also see release in print through All Rolled Up.
If we look too deeply into the roiling chaos of reality, chaos may look back.
I ran the Delta Green adventure Observer Effect for Free RPG Day. I had intended to run a couple of sessions, but on the day we didn’t start until an hour after I’d planned – and as it turned out, I ended up running the single session for almost 5 hours. Listening to an Actual Play of the adventure that ran to just 3 hours, I must have got lulled into a state of false certainty that the same would be possible on the day. However, I ran the game with six players, with the AP version ran with just three.
Observer Effect could work well as a two session investigation, but I think it probably has greatest impact served up in a single sitting. On the one hand, if you can get to just the right spot, it makes for a perfect and exasperating cliffhanger; on the other, the same spot might just be the perfect break to grab a beverage refresh and a trip to the loo.
(Well, other than the obvious fact that I’m the author of TCH and therefore have a vested interest in promoted it!)
First and foremost, I wanted to showcase the essential selling point of TCH, which is the simple and flavourful mechanics, designed to chart the spiral into darkness and desperation as the investigators get closer to the truth. People did, indeed, go insane during this investigation – in fact, it was insanity that made for the satisfying denouement.
… how would you contrast TCH vs DG ruleset? That is, what did TCH bring to the table that DG does not?
My response mirrored my initial intent in bringing a Delta Green adventure run with The Cthulhu Hack to the event:
I’m not suggesting that I can replace any other rule set. I believe The Cthulhu Hack offers an experience tooled to provide Lovecraftian research with a minimal, but potentially rich, mechanic for discovery and revelations. It has an extremely fast character generation that, nevertheless, offers differentiation between characters in the output. And that it intentional hews towards emulating the spiralling decline of Lovecraft’s own protagonists. It’s also incredibly easy to convert characters and scenario essentials from other systems to TCH.
I’d like people to consider adding TCH to their RPG armoury rather than replacing anything, as I believe it has a place and a value when time is short, a gaming session looms and you just want to play an investigation without needing specific pre-gens or tons of prep.
Having looked [at a specific page in The Agent’s Handbook handling skill use], TCH is more narratively forgiving in investigation. You’re not defining a deep knowledge of anthropology or Ancient Sumerian at the outset. Your investigative resource rolls test your capacity to find out what you know.
That’s the approach I always take when discussing the game with people at events or after con games. I don’t imagine that if you already play a game of Cthulhu-focused horror that you can pick The Cthulhu Hack and throw your favourite books away. What I envisage is that it should fill the same role as, say, Fate Accelerated as a go to system for a quick game, but with a little more focus to the type of game you’re going to run. Stripped down simple mechanics that do a job and get it going quickly.
While I didn’t spend any time doing conversion of mechanics – handling that on-the-fly during the session – I did spend some time creating props, which I’m happy to share. I also created a matrix of clues, personalities and locations for quick consultation during the game – which I recommend. Once you’ve read the Observer Effect investigation itself, you’ll understand why. As this condenses a lot of material from the book itself, I won’t be sharing it – but essentially it just noted the key personalities, their personal tics and tells, their location when first met, and the key information they have to hand.
What I can share are some ID badges for the non-player characters, along with a map of the area and main location (ZIP file 1, 1MB), a bunch of random sheets for printing out and dropping on the table (at a specific point in the investigation) to momentarily entertain the players (ZIP file 2, 2MB), and a set of six pre-generated characters, based on the agents included in the excellent Need to Know Delta Green quickstart with matching ID badges emblazoned with appropriate cover story decals (ZIP file 3, 3MB).
On the day, I want to get the game going immediately by handing out characters on nice sheets with suitable logos, but The Cthulhu Hack can very much handle random generation of completely new characters. Here, I was aiming to wow with some bling – capturing the interest and attention of both newcomers to the game/genre and veterans alike.
I believe random tables have their place in the creative process.
Like my collection of Rory’s Story Cubes or my three volumes in the classic Central Casting books by Jennell Jacquays, the table often provides an essential spark to my creative process.
I don’t always include a random table in my books, but when I do there’s a damned good reason for it – it’s about introducing a spark or adding some spice.
The Haunter of the Dark has 9-pages of random tables sandwiched between the guidance on creating and structuring adventures and the annotated story of the fate of Robert Blake.
Each of these tables ties neatly – and intentionally – into the story.
Entered a site with a century long tie to a strange sect? Rummaging through the drawers of a forlorn artist? Tracking down a disgruntled ex-cultist? Broken into the cellar of an abandoned building? Picking up a copy of a local paper? Stumbled through the door to find a crumpled note lying in the dust?
It’s all here and more.
Whether you’re creating your own adventure or filling out the grey areas in a pre-written investigation, there are 20 short tables here (almost all of them needing only a 6-sided die throw) to get your creative spark glowing.
Why such short tables?
Personally, the bigger the table the greater the stretch in content quality and focus. Even in From Unformed Realms, I used 6-sided dice as the basis of every roll and drilled down with the levels of detail.
It keeps things tight without any opportunity to resort to padding.
And you needn’t stop at the result thrown. I mean, you’re not beholden to the random, right? You can just choose something that seems right. Or, like a Story Cube, you can riff off the result and turn it into something that fits.
Found a keepsake? You should tie it intimately into the backstory of the owner, or compare it to something that an investigator carries – something they inherited or acquired.
Discovered margin notes in a well-thumbed book? Make the ink or hand-writing match something [Flashlight] found earlier in the session – or in a previous adventure!
Rolled a reference to decay? Make it mildewed wallpaper with odd stains that suggest electrical burning, or the sickly smell of food pulled into the holes behind the walls by vermin… who knows what else they might have carried back there.
Go with the flow of the dice, but don’t let it stop there. Adding the stamp of connectivity or some subtle reference to an ongoing presence or conspiracy can make all the difference – and I, in putting the table together, can’t add that essential and personal touch.
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).
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!
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).
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.
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.
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 Realms, The Haunter of the Dark, Save Innsmouth and Thro’ Centuries Fixed from the Just Crunch Games page for at least 15% off.
Nobody said it was easy / No one ever said it would be this hard…
The Cthulhu Hack includes a section on Advantage and Disadvantage that I think warrants a little consideration.
To be clear, Coldplay got this one spot on. Top marks to them.
When you see a character Class offering Advantage on something, it isn’t because the character finds it easy. A character with a Special Feature that offers Advantage does so because they’re prepared. A character’s occupation or background offers them a perspective or a professional appreciation of something that means when they come to try and exercise their skills under pressure, they do so with benefit.
If you, as a GM, believe that a threat is easy to avoid, don’t ask for a roll. To return to the example from the last article about a hole to climb down, if that hole is rough, sloped or has corroded rungs hammered into the side, don’t ask for a roll. It’s easy – so, throwing dice won’t add anything to the experience. Indeed, you may well find that throwing dice breaks the narrative flow. Have the players describe what they do when they reach the hole – and you can add some zest with a description of the distant sound of their adversaries. The hard stuff will be here soon enough to take them down a peg or two.
Now, if the same character were being pursued through the tunnels and they didn’t have any climbing gear or a decent light source — maybe they just have a Zippo lighter — then, yes, that’s a Disadvantage. Unprepared and truly ill-equipped, they absolutely warrant a Disadvantage on their roll. Further to the last article, I think the GM could argue against the scholarly types making that roll with an INT Save, because they don’t have time to ponder the best route down. If they insist on going down that hole in a hurry, in the flickering light of a Zippo without any proper climbing equipment, that’s a DEX Save with Disadvantage and not doubt.
A really zealous player with a mountain climber character might argue, but at best I’d suggest you let her roll a straight DEX Save — any Advantage simply cancelling out the Disadvantage. Otherwise, the cirumstances amount to enough negatives in respect of prep to impact everyone.
As a GM, you should let the players make the call whether they want to risk the climb down or stand and fight. Don’t wait until they’re committed to the foolhardy descent before revealing they’re going to die!
When they make their decision, they’ll have only themselves to blame; next time, they might prepare a bit better before going down any holes in pursuit of the Mythos.
As a GM, just remember that Advantage and Disadvantage relate to preparation. If a task is easy, don’t roll. If it’s really hard, don’t let them roll — tell the player of the antiquarian that if they insist on climbing down a hole in the dark without a rope, they’re going to slip, fall and die. If circumstances are testing — like darkness or high winds — then preparation will determine whether to apply Advantage and Disadvantage.
Characters in The Cthulhu Hack handle Threats in different ways. Sometimes, the situation doesn’t allow any kind of decision making; or at least, it doesn’t allow any careful finessing. A teacher battering seven shades of hell out of a bully in a car park might Save versus the Threat with Strength or Dexterity, dependent on if the teacher choosing to wrestle or evade.
The same teacher faced with a ragged hole in the ground and no rope or climbing gear to speak of might also look for options. Strength and Dexterity, again, might prove the most obvious approaches, but maybe Intelligence would allow a teacher to eke out some assistance from the environment – roots, for example, or the careful knotting of torn fabric from an overcoat.
If the teacher gives lessons in Physical Education and opts for Strength, the GM could offer an Advantage. If the character was a stevedore or sailor, the GM might offer Advantage to make the Intelligence Save.
A player might also offer strong argument about time. Time offers a way to relieve a degree of pressure without necessarily reducing the threat – or possibly haggling for an increase in potential harm. The GM doesn’t have to agree to a bargain like this if it doesn’t make sense. Maybe the only way forward has to be through physical stress and the Threat won’t wait; or, if the character takes too long researching in the library, the Threat will escalate to encompass a wider area of impact or an adversary will claim a victory unopposed, complicating a later encounter.
If a teacher of the Classics opts to climb with a physical Save – despite low scores – the player could argue that the teacher simply takes his time to make the descent. The GM might agree to offer an Advantage, but bargain that a failure will not be from a damaging fall, but capture by the strange pursuer crawling through the shadows of the tunnel.
I suggest that players have plenty of opportunity to get themselves hospitalised or institutionalised during the course of an adventure in The Cthulhu Hack without robbing them of some sense of progress. If you follow the path of nurturing a more Lovecraftian approach of intellectual characters over sluggers and brutes, asking for Strength Saves every 10 minutes seems churlish.
Save Innsmouth benefits heavily from listening to and acting on the players’ responses. A Gamemaster should always be listening and taking notes, but noting the mood, tone, individual response and banter can prove valuable tools in setting the dials and measuring the pace for the adventure. A tired group of players need more push and adrenalin, while an inquisitive party might still want push, but also deserve the attention to detail they desire.
When I ran Save Innsmouth at Dragonmeet, I asked about the relationships of the characters at the start as we generated their stats in session. I had them give me a narrative synopsis of the character before the game and chose Abilities and Advantages using the Classless Cthulhu guidelines. As they settled in and had a look at the Abilities, they started to bounce off each other a bit. I let them choose their gear, so they opted for things like an iPad, digital camera and so forth, as well as camping gear.
When the adventure started proper, I asked them what they were doing — and over the next few minutes added a player, got feedback on their mindset and first action, then moved on. This allowed me to get a handle on each player as much as their character.
Save opens the possibility of investigating retrospectively. By asking a question about existing knowledge, the characters have the opportunity to roll Flashlight or Smokes to find out something BEFORE the adventure started. Rather than make this an info dump – which it absolutely could be – you can run these as mini-scenes with one or more character involved. I got the feel that the sense of urgency in this group was stronger than the desire for more information – survival mattered more as the situation panned out and the environment became more clearly defined.
However, the digital camera and iPad allowed for other opportunities to do flashbacks, as confused characters checked back through their footage looking for things that they might have missed on the outward journey to the start of the adventure.
As we progressed through the adventure, I continued to read the players rather like checking the dials and readings as you drive. Speed, temperature, fuel – they’re all relevant to both! As it happens, I could see the players enjoyed the fast pace and didn’t need a break, so we pushed on. It kept the action flowing and the tone of the game fast-paced, while also considering each player and their character. Individuals have their own tells that you need to be attentive to, ensuring you don’t hold the spotlight too long in one place, or giving leave to lead where the players seem receptive and open to it.
Save on this occasion ran to just over three hours, at a fair pace. With more background detail and a little physical conflict, that could easily increase to four or five hours. I wrote it for a single session – and my experiences so far have always involved a brief introduction and character generation. The Cthulhu Hack is quick to start-up and a little pre-session prep can keep their intro short and tight. If you get The Cthulhu Hack Quickstart, it explains the core mechanics in two short A5 pages. If you’re running the game for the first time, it might be useful to have that to hand and tick off the words in bold – I usually highlight key terms that way to make it easier for the GM to spot.
I find the feedback I have had from groups that have run it useful – and aim to use those responses to improve the focus and support in future adventures. I aim to release more short adventures in 2017, intended for one or two short sessions or a long one – with room to shorten or expand as the situation allows. I recommend you join The Cthulhu Hack Google+ Community if you have any questions or want to provide feedback.