Lessons From the Dinner Table 5: LARPing, Blackballing, and the Price of Doing Business

Welcome back to an occasional series of posts where the joke is I am taking a gag strip about tabletop RPGs entirely too seriously. Specifically, Lessons From the Dinner Table is where I like to look over old Knights of the Dinner Table compilations and ponder what sort of lessons applicable to real-world gaming we can take from them – whether it comes to storytelling considerations of how the issues themselves are written, gaming techniques used (or abused) in the comic, or ideas concerning larger gaming communities which the series touches on.

Bundle of Trouble 16

There’s two plot threads in this Bundle I want to highlight, one of which isn’t so good, the other of which pretty funny, and a lesson that can be drawn from how each of them landed.

The not so good one is an entry in the occasional “retro KODT” series of strips set earlier in the continuity, which are usually thrown in so that each issue can have a more small-scale story not bound to the longer-form storytelling in the main strips. In this case, they’re an expanded sequel to the old strip where Dave and Bob join a Vampire LARP and start acting weird. Back in the day, the original strip wasn’t so annoying, mostly because it was too brief to expose the weakness of the writing – and in particular, the comparatively shallow level of understanding of LARP on the part of the Knights of the Dinner Table team, which is exposed here.

This isn’t me being overly defensive – there’s some good satire you could do about the quirks of the LARP community, particularly the drama-prone world of Vampire-inspired games. But you need to really know the scene to produce something which isn’t outright shallow, just like you need to know tabletop RPGs to make something like Knights of the Dinner Table‘s usual fare. The plot here fails to convince me that it’s the product of sufficient research.

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A Long-Standing Conflict of Interest At Kickstarter Has Been Corrected

Long-term readers of this blog – or people stumbling across it in Google results – may recall two previous articles about controversies involving Luke Crane’s Kickstarters, the first concerning the Burning Wheel refund controversy and the second concerning the kerfuffle over The Perfect RPG, the latter in my view being somewhat more egregious in the grand scheme of things.

One of the conclusions I reached in connection to those two situations was that Luke Crane’s role at Kickstarter seemed to involve some inherent conflicts of interest – first having authority over the gaming division before reaching the rank of Vice President. During both Kickstarters, his role meant that he would have significant influence over the very section of the site his projects would be classified in.

(OK, sure, once he was a Vice President he was no longer specifically in charge of the games side of stuff – but if you’re running the games division at Kickstarter and a VP instructed you to do something, would you feel obliged to do it? I’d certainly think there’d be an expectation I would follow instructions given by someone on that level.)

In the case of The Perfect RPG, despite that project only being up for a scarce few hours, it very quickly gained the “Projects We Love” tag, which carries with it some benefits in terms of both being a perceived endorsement from Kickstarter and some benefits in Kickstarter’s promotional algorithms compared to projects that don’t have the accolade.

As I previously said, I think the only really tenable way for Kickstarter to operate would be to say that Kickstarter staff should not also run Kickstarters. Permitting this allows the same sort of blurring of the rules as, say, when gamekeepers and poachers start getting very comfortable relationships with each other. Even if nothing corrupt happens as a result, it creates a perception of nepotism and corruption which can almost be as damaging as the actual thing.

I also felt that if Kickstarter did not feel able to impose such a restriction on their staff, then they at the very least should expect their staff to regard themselves as on the clock when running their Kickstarters, and to run them in a comprehensively exemplary fashion, because if Kickstarter staff can get away with shitty practices or dodgy communication when running their own projects that either sends a message that it’s OK for anyone to do it, or (if other people get punished for the same nonsense) that Kickstarter staff get special benefits when running projects that other project owners simply don’t – which is nepotism and corruption, pure and simple.

Well, it’s resolved now, Luke is out, as per a statement to Polygon from Kickstarter, so the conflict of interest with respect to him is now gone.

I note that in his latest update to The Perfect RPG, apologising for the project, Luke addresses various subjects to varying degrees of effectiveness. He does not comment on his role at Kickstarter in any respect – not even to mention he is stepping away from it, despite Kickstarter announcing his departure to Polygon – let alone give any thought to the conflict of interest it represented.

One would hope that, even if Luke is not thinking about conflicts of interest at all, others at Kickstarter are.

Delta Green’s Nocturnal Songs, Deadly Experiments, and Dark Locales

To round off this catch-up series on the Delta Green RPG (remember, I covered the core rules and some supplemental material in the previous two parts of this series), I’m going to cover here three scenario collections. A Night At the Opera and Black Sites are largely compilations of material previously released as individual scenarios, but I think smart buyers will prefer the collections to getting the individual ones. Both of them are quite diverse collections, and as a result there will probably be some scenarios you like and some which don’t appeal to you – but if you buy a collection then you can run the scenarios you like and strip-mine the others for what material you can, whereas if I am putting money down for a single scenario I want to be fairly sure it’s one I enjoy and will be appropriate for my table.

Control Group, on the other hand, is a sort-of campaign. I say “sort of” because each of the scenarios in it can be run individually as one-offs (or, in the case of the final scenario, slotted into a long-running Delta Green game without having to play through any of the others), but it’s presented as a series of scenarios all designed by Greg Stolze.

A Night At the Opera

As mentioned, this is a hardcover compilation of various adventures, many of which are stretch goals funded by the original Delta Green Kickstarter campaign. I got free PDFs of many of the adventures in question through my pledge level, and I liked more of them than I disliked and therefore preordered the hardcover compilation when Arc Dream presented the opportunity to do so.

(In case you were wondering: the title comes from the euphemism used in Delta Green to inform Agents that they are required for an operation. Though I’ve used the term in my home campaign, it always reminds my players of Queen albums and Marx Brothers movies; I’ve informed them that their PCs should be really worried if they ever get a message about “A Day At the Races”.)

It kicks off with Reverberations by Shane Ivey, a brief but decent introductory mission marred by the fact that it’s entwined with the Tcho-Tcho concept – and, in particular, the unreconstructed version of the concept from August Derleth and earlier iterations of Call of Cthulhu. It should be viable to tweak the investigation to make it less reliant on a “this entire ethnicity is evil and genociding them would have some positive aspects” trope – but Arc Dream haven’t done that, so still leaves a bad taste in the mouth, especially in a time when Chaosium have backed away from the more unacceptable implications of the Tcho-Tcho idea.

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Delta Green’s Garden of Forking Paths

As promised, here’s part 2 of my catch-up article on the current Delta Green product line – last article I did the core rules, so this time I’m concentrating on supplemental material other than fully-developed scenarios (which I’ll cover next article) along with an entire standalone companion game.

The Complex

So, over the course of the Kickstarter for the Delta Green core rules four PDF articles were funded. The pieces in the Redacted series were all intended to provide a set of thematically-related player-facing writeups of US government agencies (and private contractors), along the lines of the agency writeups in the Agent’s Handbook. These are useful for players and referees alike – since the writeups provide guidelines for PC careers in the bodies in question, and also provide a basis for working out the capabilities of NPCs hailing from those agencies and ideas for what they might get involved in.

As it stands, it just made sense to combine the four documents into a single supplement – The Complex – and make it available via PDF or print-on-demand, and it’s well worth it. The chart of agencies towards the beginning, which helpfully points to their writeup in The Complex or The Agent’s Handbook, vividly establishes just how much The Complex extends the game. Some of the agencies are are a bit specialist or off the beaten path – making the material here perfect if you want to add an NPC (or even a temporary PC) to the game who has specialist knowledge they can use on a consultant basis, or if you want to incorporate a player character with an odd set of skills without departing entirely from the assumed “government employee/contractor” status of Delta Green agents.

You could even use the supplement to run games where all the PCs come from a specific agency – say, NASA for some spacefaring fun, or the National Parks Service for a Delta Green investigation into the whole Missing 411 thing.

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Delta Green’s Return To Duty

For some 4-5 years or so now, Delta Green has been reactivated. Previously a run of critically acclaimed third party supplements for Call of CthulhuDelta Green is now a standalone game, with both its core materials and major new tentpole supplements funded from two Kickstarters. The major product on the first Kickstarter was the core system; on the second, The Labyrinth, one of the new supplements. An extensive number of other supplements, scenarios, and other bits and pieces of supporting material were funded as stretch goals to those Kickstarters.

In fact, so deep is the bench of existing and incoming Delta Green material that I have thrown up my hands and given up on doing a conventional Kickstopper article on the subject. Instead, I’m going to do a little trilogy of articles to cover major releases in the line so far. First up, in this article I will cover the core system. Next article, I will take a look at a few scenario-agnostic supplements and The Fall of Delta Green – a GUMSHOE-powered companion game. Finally, I will cover three scenario collections which between them incorporate a good chunk of the scenarios so far released for this edition of the game.

To summarise the premise of the game, for those that haven’t bothered to read my review of the older supplements: back when the FBI raid on Innsmouth uncovered only ye liveliest awfulness, the US government began covertly investigating the Cthulhu Mythos. This program of investigation, containment, and suppression of Mythos threats was known by various names over the years, but the iconic name is Delta Green – named for the triangular green stickers added to the personnel files of agents to denote their membership.

Delta Green was not the only conspiracy within the Federal government to delve into the paranormal, however. In the wake of Roswell, the Majestic-12 conspiracy – yes, the one some actual UFOlogists claim was real and which provided much of the basis for the backstory to The X-Files – was performing its own work. Delta Green and MJ-12, however, had very different attitudes; the former wanted to destroy and suppress alien technology, the latter wanted to exploit it. (If this is all sounding rather Conspiracy X, it’s almost certainly a matter of parallel evolution, overlapping influences, and maybe a touch of the Conspiracy X authors being inspired by some of the early Delta Green material in The Unspeakable Oath magazine.)

In the 1970s, Delta Green overstepped its mark; the catastrophically violent results of some of its operations gave Majestic-12 the leverage it needed to argue that Delta Green was a haphazard, borderline-renegade operation which needed to be brought to heel. The gambit worked beautifully, and Delta Green was shut down… officially. Unofficially, many of its members organised themselves into a cell structure and kept the project going, too aware of the potential consequences of if they didn’t. Right through the 1990s into the new millennium, Delta Green was an illegal cross-agency clique operating without legitimacy or sanction. Now read on…

Agent’s Handbook

The player’s guide to the standalone Delta Green RPG contains more or less no setting information beyond flavourful snippets of fiction; it is clear that players will rely on the referee (or “Handler”) for all their information about the Delta Green conspiracy itself. What you do get here is a nice, simple, elegantly presented, very easy to understand fork of the Call of Cthulhu game system, developing it in a different direction from 7th Edition and one better suited to the specific style of Delta Green.

Character generation is streamlined in some quite nice ways: you pick an occupation, that sets some of your skills to different base levels than they otherwise would be at, then you pick 8 skills to add 20% to. This takes the place of the awkward point-spending process of earlier Call of Cthulhu editions, at the cost of losing some fine granularity and the option to go very specialised in some areas in character creation. It also means that characters with a high Education and Intelligence scores don’t end up with a massive advantage – in fact, along with the Appearance stat, the Education stat is entirely gone. (7th Edition Call of Cthulhu has resolved this problem in a slightly different way by providing careers where your career skills don’t wholly depend on the Education stat.)

Continue reading “Delta Green’s Return To Duty”

Why You Might Be Hearing Some Fuss About Another Luke Crane Kickstarter

Update 28/03/2021: Luke Crane has now left Kickstarter.

A while ago I backed a Luke Crane project on Kickstarter. It didn’t end well, for reasons I have outlined elsewhere.

Now Luke Crane is running his Perfect RPG Kickstarter, a little zine of fun little micro-RPGs based around a droll little joke “Perfect RPG” concept. It’s a neat idea, but it’s kicked off more controversy.

I have not backed The Perfect RPG because Luke Crane has made it clear he doesn’t want my money, and I’m happy to go with that. But I figure since “Luke Crane Kickstarter controversy” might be a common search term in the near future, I’d throw up my view on what’s currently going on so people who make their way to these parts as a result of that needn’t feel like their time was wholly wasted.

So far as I can tell, the sequence of events is this:

  • The Perfect RPG Kickstarter goes live.
  • People notice that Adam Koebel is listed as one of the contributors to the project.
  • People remember that Adam did a really shitty thing on a livestream a while back, and followed it up with apologies which many felt didn’t ring true or came across as somewhat self-centred.
  • People ask Luke and other contributors about this.
  • A non-zero number of those other contributors say “Wait, Adam Koebel is contributing to this?” and yank their contributions.
  • Luke cancels the project hours after it opened.

There are some further wrinkles which may come up in whatever report on this has prompted your curiosity about this, which I may as well address.

Continue reading “Why You Might Be Hearing Some Fuss About Another Luke Crane Kickstarter”

Dynamism In Investigative Scenario Design

A discussion on Facebook prompted a textwall from me about investigative scenario design. I’ve banged on about some of these ideas on here before, but I thought I may as well also post this here for referring back to.

For my purposes the key things I think about when designing an investigative scenario are:

  • How do the players first become aware of this mystery?
  • What is at the heart of the mystery, and how can that be meaningfully interacted with?
  • What is dynamic about this mystery?

The last bit is key. 99% of mystery scenarios need some sort of dynamism to them, by which I mean there needs to be stuff happening independent of the PCs, and which will keep happening unless the PCs actually stop it or prompt it to change course.

Continue reading “Dynamism In Investigative Scenario Design”

A Bestiary Refined

Chaosium have gotten around to updating the Malleus Monstrorum. Previously published for the 6th Edition of Call of Cthulhu, having been compiled by Scott David Aniolowski, the original version was an impressively expansive book crammed with stats culled from publications of the whole of the game’s history, both of full-blown Mythos deities and of the various gribbly monsters that fill out the intervening parts of the food chain between the Old Ones and humans.

Naturally, the new revision entails updating the presentation to the new higher standards Chaosium have adopted for 7th Edition, and the book is both very nicely presented and substantially better laid out than the original. In addition, it is now divided into two volumes – one for monsters, creatures of folklore, and conventional animals, and one for Mythos deities.

Whilst some might regard this as a price gouge – selling two books where previously they’d only sold one – I actually think the division is extremely sensible, because it emphasises that you are going to get very, very different uses out of the different halves of the Malleus. In effect, volume 1 is now devoted to detailing creatures which you might consider throwing into a Call of Cthulhu scenario for the PCs to directly encounter, volume 2 is now a catalogue of entities whose direct appearance is probably a campaign-ending moment, but which will more typically have an indirect effect via humans and aliens who worship them or otherwise interact with them in inadvisable ways.

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Worlds of Mythras

The story so far: Mythras is the Design Mechanism’s fantasy RPG designed by Lawrence Whitaker and Pete Nash. It was formerly known as RuneQuest 6, but then when Moon Design Publications (owners of the RuneQuest IP rights) took over control of Chaosium they elected to wind down the RuneQuest trademark licence so that they could use the name for their own new Glorantha-focused edition of the game. Mythras is, as I’ve outlined before, one fantasy-oriented Basic Roleplaying-esque system out of many. There’s some system aspects to it which make it stand out, like special moves in combat, but I don’t think it’s so much better than, say, OpenQuest or Magic World or the new or classic iterations of RuneQuest that these aspects alone provide a decisive advantage.

Indeed, as the proliferation of BRP/RuneQuest-inspired systems demonstrates, it’s wickedly hard to retain proprietary control over a particular rules concept in tabletop RPGs; you can stop people ripping off your text exactly with copyright provisions, but nothing stops others from taking the underlying idea and reimplementing it. The new regime at Chaosium have followed a policy of tying their games to distinctive, exciting game settings, perhaps realising that you need a combination of a hot setting and an interesting system to really catch people’s eyes in today’s RPG market.

The Design Mechanism are not unaware of this, and have spent some energy on developing new setting books for Mythras; here’s a look at a sample of them.

Mythic Britain

Mythic Britain is the first of a series of Mythic (Place) supplements for Mythras. It makes sense that Design Mechanism would produce such releases; as well as being of general interest as culture sourcebooks, such materials helps them position themselves as the inheritors of the “fantasy Earth” setting that Avalon Hill tried to push as a default for RuneQuest 3rd Edition before they belatedly pivoted back hard towards Glorantha in the later phases of that product line.

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Mini-Review: Choose Your Own Pounding In the Frozen Lake

After two expeditions to more far-flung locations, Chuck Tingle’s Select Your Own Timeline series of gamebooks has returned to the familiar territory of Billings, Montana – the core locale of the Tingleverse RPG and a major landmark of Chuck’s wider body of work – for Expedition to the Frozen Lake. This casts you as a retired archaeology professor from Montana State University who is called on by Noro Bibble (an activist Bigfoot) to help oppose the devilish Cobbler Industries, who are drilling for chocolate milk reserves they believe are found underneath the Frozen Lake just outside of town.

To prevent the environmental devastation the drilling will cause, Noro wants you to see if any interesting artifacts can be found in the Frozen Lake, since if there archaeological finds in the lake there will be a legal basis to block the drilling. It won’t be easy, though; whilst there is indeed a temple of the legendary true buckaroos down there, there’s also the force of the Void itself – and cultists eager to serve its whims. And that’s not taking into account professional saboteurs from Cobbler Industries, or the mysterious, murderous Apple Trapper…

If you’ve followed Chuck Tingle for a while – particularly his social media presence – the Frozen Lake will be familiar to you as a signature locale in his personal mythology. From time to time he will Tweet about Sweet Barbara, lost to the mortal world in some disaster and now residing in the lake as a curious entity, her nature partaking of both the conventional Tingleverse and the Void but belonging wholly to neither, speaking with a voice like grinding marbles. She gets to be the cover star this time, and naturally, you get to meet her in this book – as well as facing down the forces of the Void, well-established as being a baleful force. (Those who’ve read The Void Campaign Setting will find its themes make a return here.)

Four books into the Select Your Own Timeline series, Dr. Tingle now seems to have enough of a grasp of gamebook design to try out some really neat experiments. For instance, there’s one point in the book where if you also have Escape From the Billings Mall, you can be dispatched to endure that adventure before continuing this one – because, of course, that timeline includes a Void incursion, so it makes sense that Void cultists from this particular timeline would be able to propel you there. Since the Void’s followers are a bit more aware of the fourth wall than others, their interest in you is in part due to the fact that they have identified you not just as a person intending to meddle with a site important to the Void, but also a gamebook reader – and thus someone capable of steering the timeline of the gamebook. (Chuck reminds us that we have a similar ability to steer our own lives.)

In addition, replay value is added by having some plot elements which can be pieced together to tell a larger story, but which you can only wholly put together if you play the book multiple times. See, there’s two ways you can end up going down into the Lake itself in your adventure: either using Noro’s submarine, or with a more haphazard diving setup provided by the Apple Trapper, who if you make certain choices can end up capturing you for her own purposes. There’s a backstory to the Apple Trapper which makes sense of her motives, but it only becomes evident if you took Noro’s route and discovered a disturbing photograph carried by one of Cobbler Industries’ sadistic agents.

The book is structured such that, if you survive to get back to Billings, you will almost certainly have at least one item of a nature which prompts a halt to the drilling process; what this means for which ending you get depends on the item in question. Maybe you end up on a Delta Green-esque anti-Void task force, captured once again by the Apple Trapper, confronted with your self from a different timeline, or any number of alternatives. On my first playthrough, when I made the choices which seemed best to me before I went back and started experiment to see what else was in here, I ended up Mayor of Billings and was fairly content with that.

But the task force ending is interesting to me; it implies more continuity with Escape From the Billings MallExpedition To the Frozen Lake is not just a fun gamebook in its own right, but also has me intrigued to see just how far Chuck is going to take this gamebook line. By and large I trust Chuck to move on before they get stale, but he’s also got a good knack for keeping a good thing rolling and constantly reinventing it. (His basic Tingler schtick remains funny some six to seven years after its inception. for instance.) Let’s see just how deep this spaghetti-like entanglement of timelines goes…