PODs of Cthulhu

Like many other publishers, Chaosium have recently established the world of print-on-demand (POD) publishing. Really, for them this should have been a no-brainer: they’re a well-regarded company with a deep back catalogue, but these days people’s expectations of production values in the industry are pretty high and they also want to keep up a flow of new product. They need to be selective about what they give a full traditional print run to, and some products it just doesn’t make economical sense to keep in print and distributed in the traditional fashion.

This being the case, POD provides them with a pathway to making an ever-expanding proportion of their back catalogue available for people who want hard copies of the items in question rather than just getting a PDF, whilst at the same time reserving traditional print runs and distribution to brick and mortal game shops for perennial earners (like core rulebooks) or major releases with solid production values.

The major use of POD so far has been to make the full RuneQuest Classic line available in hard copy, but they have also put out a number of Call of Cthulhu products as POD. For this article I’ll review two of these and assess how suited they are to the POD setup.

Ripples From Carcosa

Ripples From Carcosa, primarily written by Oscar Rios, consists of three scenarios focusing on the whole Hastur/King In Yellow deal. This is a rather well-worn angle in Lovecraftian RPGs – it feels like everyone who decides they want to do something a bit different with all this cosmic horror stuff resorts, at a first impulse, to at least considering doing some Carcosa business, which ironically means it ends up as much of a cliché as “fish people” or “ghouls again” or “Nyarlathotep shows up in yet another fake moustache to fuck with people” or whatever.

However, Ripples tries to do something a bit different with it by having each scenario take place in a somewhat offbeat time period. There’s one adventure that uses the then-current iteration of Cthulhu Invictus, one using the then-current version of Cthulhu Dark Ages, and one using the setting from the End Time monograph.

Emerging in 2014, this was one of the last products released by Chaosium when it was primarily being managed by Charlie Krank; it was one of a trickle of 7th Edition adventure supplements that came out when Krank was, by any objective assessment, kind of bungling the fulfillment of the Horror On the Orient Express and Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Kickstarters. I’ve related that saga and the circumstances which led to Krank’s departure elsewhere, but it is worth keeping in mind because it really starkly shows the disparity in production values between “late Krank” Call of Cthulhu products and the sort of product we’re getting in the current era.

That isn’t to say that the product is badly presented – quite the opposite, it’s one of the nicer-looking products from this period. However, there’s no denying that it’s taking a cheap and cheerful approach – it’s the sort of product which could have just have happily been put out in the early 1990s as today. Desktop publishing software had moved on, better layout technology was in reach, and the production standards expected in the market had significantly inflated, but the book reflects none of that.

This may have something to do with its origins. See, although this version of Ripples From Carcosa originally came out in 2014, it is in fact a mild expansion of a monograph that originally came out in 2005. This would hardly be the first time that Chaosium had taken a monograph and had given it an aesthetic tidy-up and released it as a more professionally-edited product; the first edition of Cthulhu Invictus went through a similar process.

Nonetheless, the combination of this being a reheated monograph and the layout job having clearly been done in a quick and simple fashion all combines to give the unfortunate impression that this is shovelware. Not in the sense that Oscar Rios churned out crap when designing the original monograph, but in the sense that Chaosium needed to get some product out the door (perhaps to try and raise some capital to get those errant Kickstarters sorted), grabbed something from the monograph back catalogue, gave it a rapid clean-up and presto – instant product.

That said, the rather simple layout does mean that it was probably a breeze to set this up as a POD release, and the overall quality of the POD release is more or less on a par with the print quality of Call of Cthulhu products from the late 6th Edition period, so in that respect it’s a good candidate for release through POD. Certainly, I think keeping it available through traditional printing and distribution means would risk making it look bad next to nicer products on game shop shelves, but making it available for people who want it at least allows Chaosium to enjoy a long tail of POD sales.

The Cthulhu Invictus scenario has a couple of aspects I take issue with – one is really a minor quibble, the other is a more major structural problem with the scenario.

The minor quibble is that there’s several references to widespread purges of Republicans in the Empire as a part of the setting, but from internal evidence the scenario takes place during the reign of the Emperor Tiberius. That’s right towards the start of the Principate – a phase of the Roman Empire when the Emperors were at least giving lip service to the idea that the Republic still basically stood, with Augustus (and, somewhat less successfully, Tiberius) maintaining this pretence that the Emperor was merely a very esteemed public servant, with his authority being used to safeguard the Republic, not destroy it.

That doesn’t mean, of course, that it’s entirely inappropriate to have secret groups in the setting intending to overthrow the office of Imperator entirely and restore the pre-Caesar version of the Republic – the original Cthulhu Invictus supplement presents its Republican conspiracy in just this fashion. What it does mean that the sort of widespread purges (reminiscent more of modern police states than of ancient Rome) of Republicans wouldn’t fly in the era in question – the Emperors themselves were paying lip-service to Republican sentiment at this time, after all! – so this aspect of the scenario (which ultimately doesn’t go anywhere) doesn’t ring true.

The big structural problem is that it’s too easy for the player characters to end up missing the climactic events of the scenario entirely in the setup as written – worse, they might do so as the result of entirely understandable choices made at the crucial point of the scenario, or as the result of failed skill rolls.

Let me lay out the problem. In the scenario, the PCs are all enjoying a holiday in a small resort town. At a critical point in the scenario, they are returning to town after enjoying a riverboat ride on a barge owned and operated by their host. This is not a dinky little boat the PCs can operate themselves – it has an entire deck of slaves running it. As they return to town, it rapidly becomes apparent that civil order has utterly failed and mass violence has broken out.

Now, what is supposed to happen at this point is that the player characters prevail on their host to let them get off the barge; the pregenerated characters left their kids at their host’s villa, you see, and the assumption is that they will want to rescue them. Their host, however, must somehow be swayed into agreeing to this via a dice roll, since he will believe that the best thing to do is turn the dang barge around and get away quickly.

There’s a bunch of issues with this. Firstly, what if none of the PCs have kids left behind in town because you opted to make this an incident in an ongoing Cthulhu Invictus campaign rather than a one-off? No consideration is given to this possibility and no suggestions are offered as to what form of collateral you should devise to hold over the player characters’ heads. Nor is there any warning given to referees that they shouldn’t run the adventure for existing PCs instead of using the pregens – in fact, in the introduction it specifically says that referees should allow players to use their own characters if they wish.

Even if you are using the pregenerated characters, three of the six provided don’t have kids, and there’s no admonition to the Keeper to make sure they assign the ones with kids to the players. If one is playing with a group of two or three (or running the scenario one-to-one), it is entirely possible that none of the PCs even have kids, even if you are using the pre-gens!

Secondly, what if none of the PCs have kids left behind in town because they decided to take them with them on the boat? This is less likely because the module encourages the Keeper to give the players every reason to believe that the kids will be safe – the villa is well-fortified, and is close to a vigiles outpost. However, by this time the player characters will have seen some bizarre stuff happening in town, including at least one encounter suggesting a threat to children, and it’s not beyond the realm of possibility that they’d say “nuh-uh, we are taking our kids with us everywhere at this point”.

Thirdly, and perhaps a more likely option: what if the PCs didn’t get on the damn boat in the first place? Again, before they even get on the thing it has been made blatantly obvious to them that something bad is happening in town, and it is likely they will have strong reason to believe that the centre of it all is a play which is going to be staged in town. Why would characters who have become motivated to investigate this situation willingly join what is scheduled to be an hours-long trip out of town rather than staying in town to investigate?

The scenario doesn’t consider that they might do this for a second. At most, there’s a sidebar noting that player characters may well suss out at this point that the play that’s being put on in town is dodgy and so it might be worth their while to find a way to disrupt it. No consideration is given to making this possibility challenging but possible: instead, the sidebar shuts it down altogether. The overriding assumption is that they get on the barge, despite the scenario having already given them extremely good reasons to not get on the barge; if they insist on not getting on the barge, what’s their host going to do? Kidnap them?

Fourthly, what if the PCs are on the boat, the kids are at the villa, but the PCs make the reluctant – but not wholly irrational – decision to leave on the barge? This might on a superficial level seem monstrous, but let’s remember that the PCs have quite likely been reassured that the villa is the safest possible place for the kids – well-fortified, and with vigiles nearby. It will be readily apparent that more or less everywhere else in the town is not safe – there’s roving violent mobs and whatnot. This being the case, I can completely see a party of worried PC parents making this strategic calculation:

  • If the villa is safe, then trying to get the kids out of the villa and transport them through the town would massively endanger them for no reason – just the six of us are not going to be enough to safely escort the number of children who were left behind at the villa through a town in the middle of a riot. What we need to do is get a message out quickly so that troops can come in and restore order, and the fastest way to do that is to have this barge punt full speed to the next town or fort. We help the children best by seeking help for the town.
  • If the villa is not safe, and the children are in the town somewhere, the six of us are not enough to face down the rioters ourselves – we need to get reinforcements – and we must reluctantly but stoically steel ourselves for the possibility that the children are already dead. We honour them best by summoning troops to bring Imperial vengeance upon the heads of these rioters.

I genuinely think that players may reasonably, in good faith, and without deliberately trying to buck the premise of the scenario decide that it’s genuinely better for them to go try and raise some troops from the nearest town or fort instead of going into the town as a small squad. This is especially the case since the Keeper has been specifically instructed to emphasise to them how safe and secure the kids are in the villa – and to do so directly. This isn’t an instruction along the lines of “A (fallible) NPC will opine that the villa is safe”, the exhortation is “Keepers should try to reassure those investigators with children that they are safe and well protected at Ravulus”.

This is essentially an exhortation to the referee to OOC try and persuade the players of something which – spoilers – isn’t true, and I feel like that sort of technique is a breach of trust. Rather than getting player buy-in to make a suboptimal choice for the sake of keeping the scenario on the rails, the Keeper is supposed to give the players every reassurance necessary to get them on the boat even if they think that’s a stupid idea.

I think this is poor design for a horror scenario, because when the bad thing the player was dreading happens actually happens their reaction isn’t “Oh God, how horrifying, how could I have let this come to pass?” – it’s “Oh God, how deeply annoying and frustrating, I could absolutely tell that this was going to happen but I wasn’t allowed to do anything to prevent it. Wasn’t this supposed to be a game where I made choices on my character’s behalf?”

In addition to all this, the soldier among the pregenerated characters is given the information that the militia at the town is about twice the size than would usually be deployed at a location of this type. It would be not unreasonable for them to come to the conclusion that if they have not been able to restore order, the situation in the town has gotten seriously bad – and therefore it’s even more important to get word out to the Roman military so that they can bring the hammer down in response. This may particularly be the case if they believe that the individual behind the play is a Republican out to overthrow the Emperor – as they have been primed to in part by the rumours given to them on their character sheets and during the scenario!

Since one of the PCs is a centurion and another is the daughter of a senator, they may well feel that they should lend their voices to cries for aid as the best way to get the authorities to take the situation seriously; the centurion may well be keen to command the troops going in! Not only will he be disappointed in this, but also the information about the inflated militia will be entirely wasted; aside from physically preventing the PCs from derailing the scenario by disrupting the play, so his little dose of rumours going into the scenario is wholly useless information.

I feel like there is a strong possibility that players who have decided to, you know, roleplay their characters and therefore play them in accordance with the values of the era rather than the values of today might legitimately decide that their characters place the interests of Rome above their own interests as a family, and therefore – again – put a priority on seeking military aid and coming back with troops to suppress this apparent revolt over saving their own offspring (especially if, as above, they have been given laborious reassurances that the kids will probably be safe!). Does this seem shocking by modern values? Yes – but the PCs are not modern people.

As it stands, no consideration is given to what happens if the PCs go for this option; nor is there a striking reason given in the scenario as to why it’s an unacceptable idea (aside from the kids – but again, to drive the point home, the players and PCs have been assured that the kids will be safe in the villa). Even at later stages of the railroad, where the PCs might plausibly think “Wait, rather than diving in just ourselves let’s see if we can find any of the militia who are holding out so we can go in with backup”, there’s no consideration given to that. The PCs are expected to go directly from location to location in the scenario with, in its second half, more or less no deviation from the assigned route allowed.

Fifth and finally, what if the PCs have kids in the town, want to go rescue the kids themselves (and therefore are happy to get off the barge now), but then fail the rolls necessary to convince their host to let them off the barge? The scenario tells you that they need to roll to do that but gives no consideration for what the consequences are if they fail. It’s an utterly pointless roll. What’s the referee going to do – wrap up the scenario with an anticlimactic failure because the PCs failed their persuade roll? Give them a chance to jump off the barge and swim to shore and then have a PC drown because they rolled really badly?

It’s bad design like this which prompted the design of the GUMSHOE system in the first place, but as I’ve laboriously said previously it’s really a refereeing and scenario design problem more than it is a system problem: don’t fucking call for rolls if you are not interested in supporting the consequences if the rolls fail. I tend to feel that most systems just need that advice built in, rather than hardwiring the system so that an entire category of roll cannot fail – not least because the latter gets into the awkward space of “why is an anticlimactic scenario-ending failure as a result of a botched investigative skill roll unacceptable, but an anticlimactic scenario-ending failure as a result of a botched roll of a different type acceptable?” – but when you have official products promoting bad practice in this way you can see why a firm overcorrection may be necessary for a temporary period of time before the message gets across and people get perspective.

Any of these above five situations – the PCs don’t have any kids, or they didn’t leave any kids in the villa, or they think the best way to help the kids is to go and get help elsewhere and hope that the vigiles are keeping the children safe in the villa, or the PCs are entirely willing to go rushing into town to grab their kids but fail to do so, or the PCs never got on the damn boat after all – will completely derail the scenario, and I think all of them are legitimate possibilities.

See, the major problem I have with this scenario is not that it’s a railroad – there is nothing wrong with a linear, railroaded scenario in principle so long as the players have bought into it. It’s more that it’s a badly designed railroad – a railroad which goes off on this essentially time-wasting barge diversion in order to deny the player characters any agency when it comes to preventing the performance (the premiere of the play happens when they are on the barge, so they miss it), and then requires the players to shunt back to attending to matters in town again, with multiple highly foreseeable points of failure when it comes to getting the PCs to go back into town to begin with.

When it comes to the other scenarios, I thought the Cthulhu Dark Ages one was probably the best in the collection, if only because it doesn’t quite have the same “wonky railroad” problem. The End Time scenario not only requires you to buy into the End Time setting concept (complete with friendly-ish Mi-Go and Elder Things and whatnot), an ending which seems to sow seeds of hope which don’t really fit the cosmic horror ethos of Call of Cthulhu (and especially doesn’t fit the whole King In Yellow thing, which tends to err towards the less pulpy and more grimly hopeless interpretations of cosmic horror), and the concept of a sequel play to The King In Yellow which reflects later political developments in Carcosa after the ending of that play. I feel like by far the least interesting interpretation of the dreadful sanity-blasting play The King In Yellow is to treat it like an actual narration of an actual series of events, like it’s one of Shakepeare’s history plays or something.

All three of the scenarios in Ripples From Carcosa are essentially this type of railroad. It’s a type of railroaded scenario I’ve seen in horror games which I’d describe as a Ghost Train: the point isn’t to have lots of player agency to go and make some decisions and have a wide choice of approaches to approaching the scenario and so on, the point is to shunt them from spooky set piece to spooky set piece until you get to the end of the railroad.

What these Ripples From Carcosa Ghost Train modules aren’t so good for is an actual investigative RPG experience. Player characters are essentially unable to change the course of events through investigation, and – as in the Roman scenario – any effort to go off the reservation for the sake of gathering information, even once it’s apparent that something is there to investigate, is often shut down. In addition, the set pieces have their best impact if the player characters already know the things which the scenario wants them to know, or haven’t uncovered the things the scenario doesn’t want to them to uncover, when they experience them.

I’ve seen some Ghost Train-type scenarios do better at incorporating some form of investigation by essentially treating the stops on the railroad as opportunities to gather clues, so your outcome at the end of the scenario will be strongly influenced by how much information you have and what courses of action that suggests. Ripples is rather variable in the extent to which it does this, though; the Invictus-era scenario, in particular, doesn’t seem to have much possible variation in the final resolution which depends on the players having meaningfully found anything out in the earlier phases.

I actually think these scenarios would work better in Trail of Cthulhu than Call of Cthulhu. The GUMSHOE system is, as I say at length in that article and in other instances when I’ve talked about it, better at some interpretations of “investigative scenario” than others. John Tynes has talked about a type of investigative scenario he calls the “narrative sandbox” which is pretty much the reverse of the Ghost Train approach and is a type of investigative scenario which GUMSHOE really doesn’t support, because GUMSHOE has as a basic principle that you always give the player the information they need to get to the “next scene”, whereas the basis of a sandbox is that the “next scene” is determined by what the players choose to look at next, which might relate to information they have just received or might involve them looping around to look at some other thing and work a parallel strand of investigation or even go off and look into a different matter entirely with the intent of coming back to the current investigation later.

What GUMSHOE is really good at, then, is the sort of trail-of-breadcrumbs investigative process which the scenarios in Ripples From Carcosa more or less all use. (“Trail” is even in the title of Trail of Cthulhu, after all!) It’s pretty evident that in designing this scenario Rios had a very clear idea at all times of where each scenario would ultimately go, and which linear series of steps the players would go through to get there; Trail is more or less literally built for that.

In listening to the yog-sothoth.com actual play podcast of them playing through the Tatters of the King campaign (after I’d played it myself so I wouldn’t spoiler myself on it by listening to their own playthrough), there’s one part they reached where one of the player characters had gone cracked enough to write a King In Yellow-inspired play and had the other players do a little parlour readthrough of their script, which then prompted them to go through the scenarios in Ripples From Carcosa as a sort of bizarre dream sequence.

That, I thought, worked better than treating them as conventional scenarios. It’s generally accepted that a dream sequence will not necessarily give you the same freedom that acting in the real world world, and you can railroad people in dreams much more smoothly and in a way which doesn’t make it feel like you have taken away a choice their player character would have had by exploiting the misty discontinuities which exist in dreams. You can narrate stuff like “One moment, you’re stood on the barge, watching the town burn, then the next instant you’re walking through the town itself, with a vague sense that you need to find your children…”, and it seems appropriately spooky and dreamy and glosses over weaknesses in the railroad nicely.

Still, if the best way to interact with this product is to present the material in it as ephemeral dream imagery which might highlight some of the themes of a more solidly-written campaign, that doesn’t speak highly of the whole package. As one of the last hurrahs of the Krank regime, it’s not exactly going down in a blaze of glory.

Scritch Scratch

This is a modern-day scenario which was originally whipped together in a hurry by Lynne Hardy, Chaosium’s Associate Editor for the Call of Cthulhu line, to run at a convention she was attending: a guest who’d committed to running a scenario for some Kickstarter backers was no longer able to honour that commitment, and the convention organisers were hoping to find some suitable Call of Cthulhu figure to run a little something for the backers in question.

As Hardy explains it, she decided to take the premise of one of her short stories and reframe it in such a way as to make it a suitable Call of Cthulhu one-off scenario. The end result, hastily thrown together though it was, ended up being reasonably successful, and after being run at other conventions was then worked up for official release as a Free RPG Day release in 2018. After the original Free RPG Day stock ran out, it was made available via POD on Lulu, who are actually Chaosium’s partners for their new, broader POD lineup, so it evidently was also used as a test balloon in the process of getting that set up.

In a useful contrast to Ripples From Carcosa, which goes out of its way to say “Ignore the pregens if you want and use your player’s own character concepts, it’s no problem” whilst failing to highlight how that might actually be kind of a problem, the scenario strongly encourages you to use the pregenerated characters in question, and though it provides some alternate suggestions for group concepts which would make the scenario work, it does make it clear what you’d need to do to make those alternate concept works and it doesn’t pretend that the scenario can just be dropped into an existing campaign unchanged and still work.

Another distinction between Scritch Scratch and Ripples is that it’s much less keen to impose a particular order of events – it provides some locations to investigate, which should work well to establish dread and foreboding prior to you unleashing the scenario’s big jump scare, and that’s it. This is fairly simple, and deliberately so because it was designed as a convention scenario which could be meaningfully played through in a single session.

There’s a whole spur of the locations out in the nearby market town where deep background research is possible, though I suspect that if you are running with the default pregenerated characters (a cleaning company who’s taken on a job from the local council, and a reality TV crew who are following them around for some cheap shovelware programming) it’s quite likely that your party may miss it entirely if they decide to just focus on the job they are there to do and get out of there. But that’s fine – having that aspect there is useful (and may see more play with other suggested concepts, like folklorists investigating unique architectural features of the local church), but you don’t need it to give the playing group a quick scare, which is what a scenario of this size and scope is primarily aiming to do.

The provided pregenerated characters have rather terse background sections provided, which I think ended up glossing over important details; rather than feeling bound to fit the backgrounds onto the standard character sheet, I think it would have been helpful to have a separate briefing sheet to give each player to give them a rundown of who their character is, how they relate to the other characters (this being the part which I think is particularly missing), what the deal with the reality TV show is, and so on. Otherwise, this is a terse but solidly-executed scenario.

In terms of production values, we’re talking black and white interior artwork of a decent quality, nice layout, page backgrounds that are flavourful and unobtrusive, and so on. It’s not a glamourous full-colour release, but equally it would probably be silly to make it one – this makes most sense as a cheap and cheerful product, not as a big-budget major release, which I guess is why it makes more sense to make this available via the POD route than to give it a conventional release. (I don’t think this has ever had a traditional print run unless you count the original Free RPG Day release; I don’t, since that doesn’t entail the product being released through the usual distribution methods.)

2 thoughts on “PODs of Cthulhu

  1. Are you not counting the Free RPG Day version of SCRITCH SCRATCH as a traditional print run? I don’t have my copy to hand for verification, but I don’t *think* it’s POD…

    1. To my mind Free RPG Day isn’t really a traditional print run, in part because it doesn’t go through the usual distribution process – but I’ll clarify.

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