John Tynes On Narrative Sandboxes

John Tynes just wrote a very fascinating essay on his “narrative sandbox” approach to writing investigative scenarios. It was posted as an update to the Delta Green: The Labyrinth Kickstarter, but it’s sufficiently interesting (particularly in the light of my own issues with how GUMSHOE does things) that I don’t think it deserves to linger there.

In particular, he aptly describes how his approach differs from the GUMSHOE approach: as he describes it, the narrative sandbox is much more like the process of actually investigating something yourself, whereas the GUMSHOE method is really more about getting across the feel of watching an investigation-themed movie or television show.

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Kickstopper: Cthulhu & Commies

Yesterday I started a survey of Cubicle 7’s major Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstarters by picking apart Cthulhu Britannica: London and its associated products. Today, I’ll finish the process by tackling the second Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstater of theirs I backed – that for World War Cthulhu: Cold War.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

It had always been Cubicle 7’s intention to do four sub-product lines for World War Cthulhu; one for World War I (potentially very useful for people wanting to play Great War veterans in 1920s-based games), one for World War II, one for the Cold War and one for World War III. The World War II line, World War Cthulhu: Darkest Hour, I covered in my review of the Achtung! Cthulhu Kickstarter, due to them coming out close to each other and having very similar themes, and that might be why Darkest Hour didn’t have a Kickstarter associated with it – it would have looked too much like a hop onboard the Modiphius bandwagon, even though so far as I am aware the two game lines are a matter of parallel evolution rather than one ripping off the other.

Of course, Cold War material hasn’t exactly been overlooked by Call of Cthulhu publishers either; the new Delta Green product line includes The Fall of Delta Green, a standalone GUMSHOE-powered game set in the 1960s. However, that’s narrow enough in terms of focus and time period (and setting assumptions) to leave ample room for alternate takes on the Cold War through a Mythos lens. The World War Cthulhu: Cold War Kickstarter was intended to fund not just the core book but, through stretch goals, help make a call on what support materials to produce and how many resources to throw at them. (For instance, several stretch goals involved budgeting for a higher page count for Yesterday’s Men, the big fat super-campaign that was going to be part of the line.) Unlike Cthulhu Britannica: London, there was no talk of making card decks or big fancy boxed sets – just simple books like Cubicle 7 are used to producing – so I anticipated that it would be subjected to less delays than that campaign.

What Level I Backed At

SECTION HEAD – Everything! The standard edition World War Cthulhu: Cold War core setting book plus the 4 supplements – the actual physical books and the PDFs, and your name in the book!

Delivering the Goods

The estimated delivery date of my tier was April 2016, and I actually got the core book in November of that year, so that’s a seven month delay – shorter than the delay on Cthulhu Britannica: London, mind. As previously, reasonable amounts of communication were maintained to keep everyone in the loop, and with the PDF of the core setting book delivered in May 2016 we at least got something to sink our teeth into whilst we waited for our hard copies. One supplement, Our American Cousins, managed to get delivered to us as the end of Cubicle 7’s Call of Cthulhu licence started to bite, so I suspect that few people who weren’t Kickstarter backers got much of a chance to buy that one. As for the epic Yesterday’s Men campaign… I’ll get to that when I get to it.

Reviewing the Swag

World War Cthulhu: Cold War

The main book is a chunky hardcover beast, weighing in at over 200 pages and presenting a lot of material in that space. The interiors are black-and-white, generally quite readable, with art that isn’t mindblowing but is generally effective.

The basic conceit of the supplement is that it’s the 1970s, and Network N has metamorphosed into Section 46, a segment of the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, popularly known as MI6) which, as well as handling conventional work, also fights the Mythos under N’s direction. There’s also the option to play members of the CIA friendly to N’s cause, though the Our American Cousins supplement is meant to give more full support for that. As well as providing background information on the workings of intelligence agencies during the era, the supplement also provides some useful guidance on how to handle various common espionage escapades using the Call of Cthulhu system.

In terms of setting material, to a large extent the lead of World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour is followed, with notes on significant Mythos forces provided as well as an overview of various countries PCs might undertake missions in, with examples offered in each of both conventional tasks and Mythos-related missions. The major difference is, of course, the time period, and the murky nature of the Cold War which by its nature raises far more “Are we really on the right side here?” questions than the World War II setting. (Take, for instance, the entry on South Africa, which doesn’t flinch from reminding the reader that apartheid was very much the major story out of that quarter of the world and something which intelligence agents may well have deep qualms about interacting with, especially since the apartheid regime is in principle an ally of the West and the anti-apartheid forces are widely held to be backed by the Soviets.)

The sense of paranoia is heightened by a shift in the dynamics of N’s network. As well as N himself becoming older and frailer, and thus having less direct control of the network, there’s another force exerting its influence over matters: a mysterious woman nicknamed “H” by Section 46, who has taken to appearing in the dreams of some of the network’s agents. The fact that any player character could be unconsciously passing information to H in their dreams – or even be subverted into doing work for her – adds a paranoid dimension that nicely contrasts with the more “We’re all in this together” camaraderie of The Darkest Hour’s World War II setting.

Although the book assumes you are running it in the 1970s, it really shouldn’t be that hard to use it to run a game set at any earlier or later phase of the Cold War; because the Internet age hadn’t really kicked off by the time the Iron Curtain fell and the Soviet Union collapsed, the overall technological paradigm of the book is broadly applicable for any time from the late 1940s to early 1990s. (You could very easily run a game inspired by Edge of Darkness with this supplement.) That said, the reasons given for picking the 1970s are sound – in the wake of the Kim Philby affair and other scandals in the UK, and the exposure of various CIA misdeeds in the USA, the West’s intelligence communities are under intense scrutiny during the time period in question, which adds a potential further complication to Section 46’s work.

The material offered here is capped off with Intersections, a sandbox espionage campaign set in Istanbul. This is a bit of a daunting prospect to run, since it moslty offers a bunch of NPCs and locations and some pointers on things which are likely to happen once the PCs are set loose, but I tend to regard that as good adventure design and expect it to be an interesting experience to run if you get your head around the way it’s presented.

Section 46 Operations Manual

This is for the most part a player-facing book-length handout – nothing less than an espionage manual, written like the sort that characters might plausibly study, with annotations from N and other Section 46 high-ups to discuss particular wrinkles that the pursuit of Our Other Enemy adds to tradecraft. There are also a range of sidebars offering brief rules suggestions of how to resolve some of the activities described there in a game context.

The supplement is an excellent resource for looking at how espionage agencies of the era would handle particular things, and is particularly handy for anyone interested in playing in an espionage-themed RPG campaign (especially a Cold War-era one, though not exclusively), but who feels constrained by a lack of prior knowledge about how espionage works.

Our American Cousins

Only the most uncritical patriot would claim that the US intelligence apparatus gained an incredibly grubby reputation in the 1970s. With extensive CIA misdeeds ranging from assassinations to illegal domestic operations to wild nonsense like MK-ULTRA exposed, Watergate destroying people’s belief in the good intentions of the federal government, and the idealism of the 1960s decaying into the malaise of the 1970s, it’s about as far from their finest hour as you can hope to get.

That’s what makes American agencies like the CIA fertile ground for exploration in the World War Cthulhu: Cold War setting. Our American Cousins discusses the American intelligence structure, how N can call on favours from its operatives, and the Mythos threats they face alongside their domestic and international operations.

This is hardly the first time that gaming products have explored the intersection of the US alphabet soup of intelligence agencies and the Cthulhu Mythos, of course – Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green line is all over that business. At the same time, Our American Cousins offers a very different interpretation of the concept. Rather than the US government being host to competing conspiracies rife with Mythos knowledge – from the sinister collaborators of Majestic-12 to the outlawed Delta Green – here the US government is presented as being overall ignorant of the Mythos, and N’s network putting a lot of effort to ensure that the dots do not get connected to a sufficient extent to lead the federal government down a seriously dark path. (At the same time, the 1970s setting means that Majestic-12’s security has never been tighter, and Delta Green has been officially shut down and its renegade mambers have not yet gotten the underground version of the project up to speed, so you could conceivably reconcile the two books by saying that N is not aware of Majestic-12 and isn’t trusted enough by the outlaw Delta Green to be taken into their confidence.

Either way, it’s a grimy slice of period flavour that nicely rounds out the Cold War line.

Covert Actions

This is a collection of missions spanning the 1970s, which between them offer a pretty solid set of investigations. Generally they are quite open-ended, with the starting situation artfully laid out (along with both the official SIS mission and the Mythos-related Section 46 investigation that the characters are tasked with), and then quite nicely stepping back to let the players’ actions drive the action whilst giving you enough material to help you judge how those actions affect the situation.

Some scenarios offer mostly-original situations – for instance, Puddles Become Lakes feels like any number of Cold War-era scandals whilst not being clearly based on one over the others – whilst others riff on events of the era. The Forcing Move, for instance, unfolds in the shadows of the 1972 World Chess Tournament featuring Bobby Fischer’s legendary confrontation with Boris Spassky, whilst Cadenza is set during the Turkish invasion of Cyprus in 1974.

In dealing with real-life situations the supplement is reasonably conscious of where it gets into contentious issues – for instance, the implication of The Forcing Move is that Bobby Fischer’s increasingly eccentric behaviour at the tournament and in the subsequent years was the result of mental illness and existing tendencies to embrace far-right conspiracy theories exacerbated by contact with the Mythos, and it is suggested that groups not comfortable with that approach may wish to replace him with a fictional chess player. Likewise, Cadenza doesn’t brush over atrocities committed during the Cyprus crisis, but leaves it down to personal taste how much these figure in the investigation.

Other missions are clumsier. Guardians of the Forest takes place against the backdrop of Indonesia’s 1975 invasion of East Timor, and is rooted in the racist old “uncontacted tribe worship alien monstrosities en mass” trope that really needs to get out of Lovecraftiana already, whilst Operation Header is based on a similarly dodgy “bloodline tainted by racial miscegenation” angle. (Header also suffers from perhaps the highest density of typos and the least polished writing of all the missions, like they just plain forgot to do an editing pass on it or something.)

Similarly apparently sloppy editing afflicts The Unclean, an adventure that has the player characters operating within Moscow itself but doesn’t really offer much in the way of support in terms of what resources they have access to or how operating in the Soviet capital works for CIA/SIS agents. (Indeed, it doesn’t seem entirely clear whether the adventure is intended for SIS or CIA agents.) There’s also major angles in the adventure which simply don’t get developed – for instance, it more or less directs by designer fiat that in a particular scene a major NPC gets shot in the head by a sniper, but doesn’t at all consider what the implications for the rest of the mission is.

With three solid but not exceptional missions and three missions I don’t care much for Covert Actions is a supplement I am glad to own in PDF but which I probably won’t be keeping hold of the hard copy version of.

Yesterday’s Men

This was supposed to be the big fat 1970s Cthulhu-espionage campaign. (This despite the fact that the title has me thinking in much more of a 1960s direction.) The basic premise sounded delicious; so far as I can piece together from the hints we were given, the essential idea was that Network N had a cell based in the divided city of Berlin which, prior to the beginning of the campaign, had gone dark, and N sends the player characters to try and work out what happened to the cell, what they’d been investigation, what needs to be done to tie up loose ends, whether there are any survivors of the cell and whether there should be any survivors of the cell.

The thing is, it never got released. Cubicle 7 made the decision to can it when not one but two teams failed to make sufficient headway on it. The first team assembled included Mike Mason (Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu line editor), Paul Fricker (who had co-designed 7th Edition with Mason), Cubicle 7’s own Scott Dorward (who was the overall World War Cthulhu line editor) and Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, who’s a normally very reliable industry freelancer. That’s a solid set of people, but it’s also a very busy set of people, so I could see how they could struggle to prioritise Yesterday’s Men. We know less about the second team to be assigned the project beyond that Jason Durrall, a trusted designer in BRP circles, was at the helm. Simultaneously, though, Durrall had been tasked with guiding the design process of Chaosium’s new edition of RuneQuest.

It seems like that there was no stage in its development process when Yesterday’s Men was actually the number one priority of any of the named designers. That isn’t necessarily going to be a problem for a project; lots of people in the gaming industry need to have multiple irons in the fire if they’re going to have sufficient income to feed themselves, after all. At the same time, it sounds like Yesterday’s Men was always intended to be a truly ambitious project, a real major undertaking – and it seems to me that if you are going to produce something that ambitious, then at least someone on the team needs to feel as though it is their personal magnum opus. You can have people largely working by themselves and then submit their chapters and turn the project in if your campaign isn’t working on any sort of especially complex or innovative structure, but everything we’d heard so far about Yesterday’s Men suggested that it actually was intended to have quite an intricate structure, and for that sort of project you really need someone stepping up to drive it and devote a lot of brain space to it. It doesn’t sound like that was the case here.

That said, the cancellation may have had factors involved beyond the designers being a little slow. It was announced in November 2017, which was of course very shortly before the announcement of the end of Cubicle 7’s Call of Cthulhu licence, so it may be that it was simply easier to terminate the project them so as to allow for a clean divorce rather than allow the outstanding project to complicate matters.

Either way, Cubicle 7 made sure that backers who’d been expecting Yesterday’s Men were not left high and dry – we could either accept a 100% refund on it through PayPal, or a 150% refund as Cubicle 7 store credit. For my part, I took the store credit so as to subsidise my purchase of 4th edition WFRP.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

I’m fine with having my name on this – although the lack of Yesterday’s Men means that the Cold War line is without a truly compelling campaign adventure, and the demise of the Cubicle 7 licence and the time it’d take for them to come up with some sort of OGL-derived equivalent system as a flag to reprint this material under means that I’m not entirely sure we will ever see one. However, the core book is very decent and it’s that that my name is on.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I’d say Just Right, considering that I liked more of the products that I received than I disliked and I got a big fat refund for the product I didn’t get.

Would Back Again?

Absolutely. Cubicle 7’s development process may be prone to delays, but they always keep you in the loop and between this and the London boxed set I think they have shown that they always do right by their Kickstarter backers in the end. The refunds on Yesterday’s Men are a particularly classy touch.

Kickstopper: Cthulhu Britannica London

So, once upon a time Cubicle 7 had a licence to put out third-party Call of Cthulhu products. They do not have the licence any more; word is that they are going to put out their own D100-based system to allow them to reissue properties dependent on the licence at some point in the near future, though given that they have major game lines like Doctor WhoThe One Ring, the absurdly lucrative cash cow which is Adventures In Middle-Earth, and the probably cash cow which is the 4th edition of WFRP on the horizon, plus significant projects like the official Warhammer: Age of Sigmar RPG, I suspect that such a project will be remarkably low on their order of priorities.

We don’t know the inside story of why the licence ended, or who made the decision to kill it. It is possible that the long time it took to deliver the final rewards of two Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstarters – Cthulhu Britannica: London and World War Cthulhu: Cold War – may have been a contributing factor. Having been made cautious by their own Kickstarter experiences, the new regime at Chaosium have made a point of, from time to time, checking in on licensees’ Kickstarter projects and exerting what influence they can to try and ensure that wayward projects come to an acceptable outcome. (And why shouldn’t they? Dicking around with someone else’s reputation isn’t cool, and that’s what you do if you accept a third party licence to produce game material for someone else’s product line and then shit the bed on Kickstarter delivery.)

Then again, by and large Chaosium seem to have been quite reasonable and understanding about delays, and it’s not like both projects didn’t deliver their main product successfully. It is equally possible that Cubicle 7 had simply become tired of either the costs involved in maintaining the licence or, considering the many demands on their time, the extra work involved in the approvals process. Either way, there’s a cruel irony that the last few rewards to be delivered on these Kickstarters should have slipped out shortly before the licence itself died.

In this article, I’ll cover the Cthulhu Britannica: London Kickstarter; in a later article (probably going live tomorrow), I’ll do World War Cthulhu: Cold War.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: Cthulhu Britannica London”

Kickstopper: The Things We Leave Behind

So, a while back I published my Kickstopper article on the Hudson & Brand Kickstarter. I now realise that I had another article mostly written on a previous Stygian Fox Kickstarter which I never got around to publishing – so let’s take a look at this Thing I’ve Left Behind, as we step into a world of modern-day horror.

Continue reading “Kickstopper: The Things We Leave Behind”

Kickstopper: Harlem Hardbound

Despite the occasional temper tantrum by his more obnoxious defenders, the fact that H.P. Lovecraft was an enormous racist is pretty generally accepted. (If you need convincing, this game by Zoe Quinn – a vocally enthusiastic Call of Cthulhu referee – ought to cover most of the bases.) If you dig into his biography, you’ll also know that he ended up having a severe dislike of New York, and whilst that might in part have arisen from his life in New York being pretty miserable (due to a near-total failure to find paying work combined with the collapse of his marriage), his dislike of the town got quite tightly intertwined with his racism. The Horror At Red Hook – a story Lovecraft himself considered to be one of his worst – pretty much exists to scream about how scary it is that immigrants are… just kind of living their lives and practising their culture over there.

Foe a good long while the standard response by Call of Cthulhu designers and referees has been to appreciate what they can about Lovecraft but put the racism aside when it comes to bringing his works to life in their games. Harlem Unbound, however, takes a different approach – using the racism of Lovecraft’s era to take a journey deep into the New York scene which he hated, to find what cosmic horror might look like from the perspective of its residents, and in particular its black residents.

Usual Note On Methodology

Just in case this is the first Kickstopper article you’ve read, there’s a few things I should establish first. As always, different backers on a Kickstarter will often have very different experiences and I make no guarantee that my experience with this Kickstarter is representative of everyone else’s. In particular, I’m only able to review these things based on the tier I actually backed at, and I can’t review rewards I didn’t actually receive.

The format of a Kickstopper goes like this: first, I talk about the crowdfunding campaign period itself, then I note what level I backed at and give the lowdown on how the actual delivery process went. Then, I review what I’ve received as a result of the Kickstarter and see if I like what my money has enabled. Lots of Kickstarters present a list of backers as part of the final product; where this is the case, the “Name, DNA and Fingerprints” section notes whether I’m embarrassed by my association with the product.

Towards the end of the review, I’ll be giving a judgement based on my personal rating system for Kickstarters. Higher means that I wish I’d bid at a higher reward level, a sign that I loved more or less everything I got from the campaign and regret not getting more stuff. Lower means that whilst I did get stuff that I liked out of the campaign, I would have probably been satisfied with one of the lower reward levels. Just Right means I feel that I backed at just the right level to get everything I wanted, whilst Just Wrong means that I regret being entangled in this mess and wish I’d never backed the project in the first place. After that, I give my judgement on whether I’d back another project run by the same parties involved, and give final thoughts on the whole deal.

The Campaign

The Harlem Unbound Kickstarter campaign is the first Kickstarter undertaken by Darker Hue Studios, a small press RPG publisher helmed by Chris Spivey. An African American war veteran, Spivey’s declared purpose in founding Darker Hue is to promote diversity within gaming; as he asks in his official bio on the Darker Hue website, “Why is it that in worlds filled with aliens, foreign landscapes, and fictional universes, the primary antagonists are predominantly hetero white males? And why, when I sit down to game with a new group, do people look at me with that oh-man-does-this-guy-even-know-how-to-game look?”

The answer to those questions are, to be honest, there to uncover if you do your research, but they don’t leave geekdom covered in glory; by providing a platform for diverse voices, Darker Hue intends to make a difference, and by specifically producing a Lovecraftian horror supplement called Harlem Unbound Darker Hue demonstrates its willingness to address the elephant in the room. Over 600 backers contributed a total of $38,698 to see this happen; that isn’t epic as far as Call of Cthulhu-related Kickstarters go, but it’s no slouch either – eyeballing it, I’d say it’s about what you would expect for a new publisher with not much of a prior publishing history putting out a licensed Call of Cthulhu product.

What Level I Backed At

Langston Hughes: Receive a hard cover sourcebook, a digital copy of the sourcebook, and your name will be listed on the book’s Acknowledgements page. This backer level includes all digital stretch goal items and allows physical add-on items.

Delivering the Goods

Delivery was estimated for July 2017, with the Kickstarter funding period in January 2017. That six month turnaround was always a little ambitious, and as it turned out I ended up getting my book in December 2017 – a bit of a delay, but not one I would consider absurd on a project as ambitious as this one. It certainly helped that electronic backer copies ended up coming out in June 2017, which was slightly later than the planned PDF release date but still very close to it; at least then the backers had the knowledge that a finished product had been written and any delays could be ascribed to the well-known stumbling blocks that can come about in the process of taking a PDF and making a hardcover book out of it. Regular updates from Darker Hue kept everyone in the loop nicely.

Reviewing the Swag

Harlem Unbound largely does what it says in the front cover – namely, it offers an in-depth look at Harlem as it existed from the Harlem Renaissance of 1919-ish to the 1930s, with an eye to highlighting interesting stuff for the purposes of Lovecraftian investigations. The book is dual-statted for Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu, the latter thanks to Pelgrane putting out an open gaming licence for the GUMSHOE system.

This is a downright excellent concept for a supplement. It’s an interesting place at a time that coincides with the classic periods of Call/Trail play, and a history which has largely been overlooked. The intellectual and political flowering of Harlem at the time also stands as a compelling and necessary counterpoint to Lovecraft’s depiction of ethnicity-based enclaves in New York – one of the most offensive and unfortunate intrusions of his racist views into his fiction.

It’s a great help that Spivey, as primary author, clearly has a lot of enthusiasm for the subject matter. (In particular, his own experience as a military veteran has evidently made him interested in the Harlemites who signed on to the US Army during World War I and the experiences they had overseas, subjected to an extent of segregation by the US authorities which shocked even the not-exactly-innocent European colonial powers, amd how they fared when they came home.)

Spivey also very eloquently communicates the black American experience of institutionalised societal racism as it was at the time, and as it all too often still is today. The supplement works on the assumption that all PCs and NPCs in a Harlem-focused campaign are going to be black unless specifically stated otherwise, and to support this Spivey gives some pointers on how players who are not black may approach this. Some advice is stuff which really should be obvious, but which I suspect reflects common enough problems that it needs to be overtly stated, like “don’t do a stereotypically ‘black’ voice”, whilst other advice may well make you realise aspects of how black people experience American culture which hadn’t occurred to you.

It would be a mistake to regard Spivey as some sort of appointed ambassador of black America to geek culture who can personally give you permission to play such characters on behalf of all people of colour. You shouldn’t assume that just because you follow the advice in this book your depiction of black characters won’t somehow end up racist anyway. Certainly, as a pasty white English child of the 1980s I’m not brilliantly placed to judge how authentic this book is at depicting the experience of people of a different race living on a different continent about a century away. Nonetheless, Spivey’s advice challenges you to not just present a racially homogeneous range of NPCs but to actually engage with these subjects, and creates a cogent argument that doing so enriches our gaming experiences. Spivey goes so far as to suggest optional rules to represent societal racism in the era, though he does emphasise that these are optional in nature and you can just leave them out and drink in the flavour of Harlem in the era.

Between this and the in-depth look at the neighbourhood, this has the makings of an excellent sourcebook. This original release of it, however, has certain issues. The Kickstarter money has clearly gone on giving it striking art and chunky hardcover binding, which makes it an attractive product on the outside, but the layout and formatting on the inside is plain and functional.

This would be less of an issue in a book where the text was uncluttered and straightforward, but there’s a snag here – the dual-statting makes the text quite untidy in places. Early on in the book it mentions that GUMSHOE-specific details would be printed in red, which would be good if red were used solely for that purpose and if that were consistently applied to the GUMSHOE stuff, but unfortunately neither of these things are the case. Furthermore, the mass transplanting of material from the GUMSHOE SRD is both unnecessary and acts as a serious burden on the flow of the text which is unhelpful.

I don’t want to be too harsh here – this is Darker Hue’s first product and it’s an ambitious one too. Precisely because they are that ambitious, though, they’ve ended up running before they learned to walk in terms of layout and presentation. Producing a product of this size is a big job; producing a product of this size and making it easy to navigate and find what you want in it is even harder.

However, that doesn’t change the fact that the essays on the Harlem Renaissance and portraying black characters are deeply fascinating reads, to the point where even if the book itself would be a pain to make use of in actual play it remains of profound and enduring interest – its nomination for the Diana Jones Award is well-deserved. I hope future products Darker Hue get the formatting and layout polished up because the material here doesn’t deserve to be overlooked to this extent. Even if Harlem is not going to be a central focal point of your Call of Cthulhu campaign, there’s no getting around the fact that it remains an absolutely iconic 1920s location, and any visit your characters make to the neighborhood will be greatly enhanced by the information provided here.

Name, DNA, and Fingerprints

Well, the supplement has ended up being added to the special collections of multiple museums, as well as being nominated for the prestigious Diana Jones Award, so I’m pretty pleased with having my name associated with it.

Higher, Lower, Just Right or Just Wrong?

I’d say I got this one Just Right; the hardcover book, once you set aside some interior layout issues, really is a nice piece of work and I’m glad to own it, but I don’t feel much need for any of the extra add-ons like the GM screen offered to higher tiers.

Would Back Again?

Given the brisk efficiency with which the PDF came out, and the clear communication over the process of manufacturing the hardback, I’d feel entirely comfortable backing projects by Spivey or Darker Hue in future.

The Archival Call

Recently I got a chance to pick up a copy of Games Workshop’s 3rd edition of Call of Cthulhu from 1986. Much as with their edition of Stormbringer, this is a handsome hardcover presentation of what had been a boxed set of core rules and a separate supplement (the Cthulhu Companion) in the US.

As far as the core rules go, this is effectively a reprint of the 2nd Edition rules from 1983, which in turn were really no different from 1981’s first edition rules. As with Stormbringer, the first edition of Call of Cthulhu included the original Basic Roleplaying rules booklet, and a second rules booklet that adapted the rules for Call of Cthulhu purposes and a booklet providing source material for the assumed 1920s setting. Though both games were hot sellers, it must have quickly become apparent that juggling the Basic Roleplaying pamphlet and the game-specific rulebook was a royal pain, so in 1983 when they both came up for a reprint they got bold new 2nd editions in which the required information from Basic Roleplaying was fully integrated into the text of the main rules booklet.

Continue reading “The Archival Call”

Kickstopper: Hudson and Brand Are Dead

Although the 1920s (Lovecraft’s own era) and the modern day (for obvious reasons of participant familiarity) remain the most popular eras for Call of Cthulhu play, the late 19th Century has persistently remained another one. Chaosium has recently given an official treatment to a Lovecraftian spin on the Wild West in Down Darker Trails, and before that both Chaosium and third parties have given Victorian London a close look in supplements like Cthulhu By Gaslight and The Golden Dawn; Victorian London is also one of the sample settings in Cthulhu Dark.

Playing in the era involves treading on some potential live wires – there’s a certain juggling act involved in roleplaying people (of various social origins and standings) who believe a range of things which may be wildly objectionable to our modern standards without turning the game into an exercise in simply recapitulating those beliefs. If you get it wrong then you end up with something like Richard Marsh’s The Beetle – in which whatever power the horror depicted has ends up being spoiled horribly by a gleeful embrace of the most simplistic social prejudices of the era. On the other hand, if you get it right, you get something like the best work of Arthur Machen – grabbing the neuroses and prejudices held by the Victorians (and still, reshaped by time, often held by us in the modern day) by the tail and giving them a good hard yank.

With this recently-fulfilled Kickstarter project, small press Stygian Fox offer a rare third party release for the Cthulhu By Gaslight setting, treading into these waters with an offering which, like Pagan Publishing’s much celebrated (and, sadly, long out of print) Golden Dawn supplement, is intended to provide a suitable structure and home base to form an 1890s London campaign around.

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