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!


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.

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.


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.

One-Pager, RPG Design 0 comments on Outpost Expansion

Outpost Expansion

The Outpost Generator release came from looking at maps of the settlements in the early period of the Australian colony while putting The Cthulhu Hack: Convicts and Cthulhu‘s adventure together. Most provided little more than a beach head for civilisation, as the British would have seen it, in a savage and challenging land. Meantime, the native people of this great land looked on – no doubt with a mixture of emotions and responses that would have grown more negative with time.

Sketch map of Coal River in New South Wales, Australia - 1803 - with some creative licence
Map by Paul Baldowski

Many of the outposts provided shelter to little more than a handful of often ill-prepared settlers or dangerous convicts and their guards. Some 100+ miles north of the centre of civilisation, King’s Town (variously Coal River, Newcastle and other names) housed a dozen convicts at first with half as many guards, the former held securely within a stockade when the Superintendent didn’t have them working long and dangerous hours in the mines down on the beach. Just a scattering of buildings and a wharf – the latter rotting away so quickly almost nothing remained after just a couple of years.

The Outpost Generator draws on some measure of reality, mixed with finer details intended to offer small nudges to the story or the character of the settlement. You can drop a few dice on the table to see what matters in the settlement, where the core purpose or focus lies. Having an office in the settlement with a cartographer on-site will have a different slant on the next adventure than an officious superintendent or a chaplain.

Having put the one-page drop table together, I already have thoughts on a second page – so, if you’ve picked it up alegacy, later adidn’t ions and tweaks will come to as updates.

When you print it out, either go big with A3 or print A4 set to borderless or Fit to Page. I have an A5 plastic box and the A4 Fit to Page, when you cut the table out, fits the box top. I even found that if you then pop dice in the box and close the lid, you can get a good shake and open it to a mystery settlement! (Without losing dice)


RPG Design 0 comments on Creative Mojo

Creative Mojo

There’s something vaguely satisfying about the order of things in the Hottest Small Press category… Although, I’m not sure on the criteria for Numenera belonging in there at all. The Cypher System has become more of a thing than the small press tag suggests, in my mind.

Anyway – after a week and a half, I’m really satisfied with the way things have worked out. I have a hack that I’m really happy with – both to play with and encourage others to do the same. I would recommend anyone pick up this and The Black Hack for those one-shot ad hoc gaming moments.

I think once you’ve read through it anyone can easily run both games on the fly, which is something not all basic game systems can necessarily claim. I have had good experience with on-the-fly conversions also – and that not even been from OSR-style material in the case of The Cthulhu Hack. As a tool to drive as much narrative as crunch, the Hacks strike just the right balance.

On the writing front, I have a few ideas cooking. I’m working on Der Unaussprechlichen Hack at the moment, to further expand the options, including ideas on more Classes, fewer Classes, extra tweaks in combat and investigation, plus a couple of adventures that offer different styles of play. I also want to put together a couple of separate adventures, possibly as one-pagers, but I’ll see.

I’ve also spent one too many long nights staying up until the wee hours of the morning working on things for UK Games Expo. I may have to squeeze in an extra game slot to run The Cthulhu Hack and I will have physical copies with me. While I shall be running games in the morning slots – mainly Symbaroum – I will be on the All Rolled Up stall (on X-Wing Avenue) in the NEC hall in the afternoons. Do come along, say hi, get yourself a nice new dice bag and grab a copy of the game.

It’s been an inspiring fortnight for my creative mojo.

You can get a copy of The Cthulhu Hack on RPGNow and I will have physical copies available to buy soon.

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.

Releases, RPG Design 1 comment on Twenty Years On

Twenty Years On


I ran a lot of play-by-mail games in the 1980s and 90s. I also wrote a fair amount about them in a column for Role Player Independent, one of the UKs many transistory role playing magazines.

My first PBM, Darklands, ran for more than ten years. It probably doesn’t warrant the term epic to describe it, but the fantasy story telling game must have resulted in 100,000+ words of stuff. One player managed to clock in almost 60 turns in that period – if nothing else, that seems indicative of the games often glacial pace. I hand-wrote most of the original stuff, something with carbon paper to maintain my own copies. Later, I employed the services of an Amstrad computer and a dot matrix printer.

Another series, the NXS games, focussed on science fiction. I think NXS 3 or 4 turned out to be a wargame with a modular rule set, which allowed me to port it across to different skins or themes. I ran games based on Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek and Star Wars (the Empire! game in the picture). Players submitted a range of movement commands for their armed forces, investigation angles for research and development, and some role playing to cover diplomacy. I charted the whole deal out in simplistic spreadsheets, copious notes, and push pins stabbed into a piece of cardboard overlayered with a map.

In the last few months I have sorted through a lot of the material I still have stored in boxes, folders, box files and bags. Many of those original game turns remain, both the incoming and the outgoing stuff. I also have tons of maps, notes, rulebooks and various supporting materials. I have found, in the latter, the potential for recycling, as much of the support material amounts to carefully crafted random tables or notes on possible encounters. I have taken a Travel Effects table from one of the NXS games and given it a thorough update with generic role playing encounters in mind. In many ways, I find a lot of this early material free from baggage – I had watched a lot less telly and read far fewer books back in the 80s and 90s. I can update the material now with an eye to expanding what I have in front of me, but not stuffing it with too many derivative ideas. I can polish what I have and come out with something very usable and handy for the rushed and struggling GM. As just such a GM, always preparing games up to the last moment, I can appreciate the occasional helping hand.

Yesterday, I released Consult Appendix Z – No 1: Interstellar Travel Events based on my Travel Events table. I look at the table now and I remember laboriously typing this thing out on a big old electric typewriter, which always seemed to use up tremendous amounts of ink. I recall that I borrowed it from a friend, but ended up inheriting it when he got something new. I do remember it filling a space the size of a small suitcase. I have taken four pages of close-typed tabular randomness and produced this 18-page PDF – available right now on RPG Now and DriveThruRPG for $2.50. I hope you find it as useful as I did the original Travel Event table!

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RPG Design 0 comments on Project First-Quarter

Project First-Quarter

English: The "Darnley Portrait" of E...

In an attempt to generate some output, I’m trying to define a plan. I work better with deadlines. If I say that I’ll do something, but lack a drop dead date, I have a tendency to keep at it endlessly. Given a chance, I will edit and re-edit my work until it falls apart, like picking at the loose strings on a well worn jumper.

I have two immediate projects for the first quarter, both for Arion Games. We have the Maelstrom Sci-Fi Toolkit, that provides additional generic rules for Maelstrom to allow a group to run science fiction adventures. Then, I have plans to write a short piece about spying and espionage in Elizabethan England.

I have a strong suspicion aiming to get the second project done in the next three months presents an impossibility – so, my fallback will be to complete the Maelstrom Quarterly volume I have planned for the last year dealing with the Labourer living. Despite writing some two-thirds of the supplement, I have failed to budge beyond that threshold to a point where it might see the light of day. In a way, I have this problem quite a lot. I have this tendency to tinker and expand on something when I should just stop, publish, then move on to the next thing. If I want to expand a Maelstrom character living option – great. I need to get it done and out. I shouldn’t tag on any additional content like maps, adventure hooks or what have you.

So – the Sci-Fi Toolkit and one other supplement for Maelstrom – minimum – by the end of March 2013. I have made the commitment.

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RPG Design 0 comments on Voltari’s Respite

Voltari’s Respite

Gollum from The Lord of the Rings and The Hobb...

Yesterday, after spending most of the day scribbling, scrawling, drawing and fretting, I published a one-page encounter. Voltari’s Retreat isn’t a replacement for Stench of the Sea by any means, just something to tide people over while I finish my work.

Aaron McLin made a couple of very relevant points over at Google+ about Voltari’s Retreat. Firstly, the text should say garderobe, without the ‘U’. I will correct that in the next draft along with the errant spelling of Voltari (which becomes Viltori in several spots). While I hand-wrote all the text in the left panel of the one-pager, it shouldn’t pose much of a problem to make amends. A trifle of PhotoShop magic should suffice.

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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.

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RPG Design 0 comments on In Place, Typeface, White Space

In Place, Typeface, White Space

English: Waterstones

At the weekend, I spent some time wandering around Waterstones and a branch of W H Smith fingering my way through various books, manuals, magazines and newspapers. While I have a draft of my adventure module that stills demands attention, I admit to have become side-tracked with the business of layout.

I have been working on The Stench of the Sea as a boring old Word document. I’m looking to reformat into something slightly more appealing.

Continue Reading “In Place, Typeface, White Space”

RPG Design 1 comment on No Expense Spared

No Expense Spared

Character Sheet for Something I Made Up rule systemThe ‘No Expense Spared’ character sheet for the System I Made Up ruleset used for the playtest on Monday. Assign 3-2-1 to the top boxes, then choose four traits associated with those attributes.

Want to wrestle a giant crab? Then roll Body + Heave. How about working out what all that screaming might be about without getting too close? Maybe a Soul + Sense. Need to cast a quick sonic blast spell? Then get that Mind + Recall sorted sharpish.

Throw as many six-sided dice as your Attribute + Trait. Add more dice if you can justify an advantage, a useful piece of equipment or beneficial circumstance. Roll a 5 or 6, a success; but lose a success if you roll a 1 or 2. Compare against the successes of an opponent if doing something contested.

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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”

RPG Design 0 comments on Flashcards


scissors, playing cards and role playing itemsI have always believed in simplifying the role playing experience for myself whenever possible. The business of GMing a role playing game holds too many complexities and points of preparation to make it any harder. If I read an adventure, I will take notes. I will litter the text with highlighting, Post-It notes, sticky bookmarks or index slips. I will photocopy bits for personal reference, or transcribe important elements into a notebook. If I can photocopy three different bits and fit them on the same page, all the better. Actually, I have a thing I did for a Dragon Age adventure that ended up being a sort of booklet, containing snippets of rules, maps, characters and notes – all gathered into one spot. I wanted to fit it all in, so some of it didn’t even appear the right way up. I scanned one thing, then another – then cut them up and created a weird sort of GM support decoupage of something. All very crafty and chaotic – but, it helped a great deal in the end. Continue Reading “Flashcards”

RPG Design 1 comment on Much, Too Much or Much Less

Much, Too Much or Much Less

Blue square paper style dungeon mapI believe that different game-masters and storytellers seek varied levels of detail from the supplements, adventures and modules that they buy. I think some will appreciate layers of atmosphere and flavour, while others prefer sparse, concise descriptions that get the point across without labouring it. I know that I prefer something with a solid sentence or three of flavour, followed with reasonable detail on features and pertinent encounters.

Continue Reading “Much, Too Much or Much Less”