Monday, November 24, 2014

The Wretched of R'lyeh

This is a repost of something I wrote on the forums, because I think some people might be able to make use of it.
Problems you might find just wandering around R'lyeh:

Distortions of Space: One person unwittingly takes a wrong turn in 5-d space. If they take a "corner," it appears to the others he just vanishes, but to him, it looks like the others have gone. (Check out this game level.) If they take a "ramp" or a "slope," on the other hand, then the effects take longer to perceive: the victim has to walk farther than the rest to keep up, they shoot at something they see as nearby but the bullet loses velocity on the invisibly-long distance. Visually, perspective is all weird, like a convex or converse lens. They appear far away despite being close. They might even slide into adjacent dimensions, like Tillinghast's ultraviolet or whatever plane the Mind Parasites live on.

Distortions of Time: Individuals end up with vastly different senses of time passing. One person in the party has to make a CONx3 roll or collapse, exhausted, after what everyone else thought was a short walk down a hallway. People approaching from different angles might see each other as slowed-down processions, or half-real staccato flashes. Ghostly echoes of yourselves walk around corners. Reflective surfaces are a whole second delayed, or even seem to play faster or slower than you based on an unseen rhythm. Human tools corrode and rust as if ancient, while your flesh pulses with unwholesome vitality and oozes an oily sweat as if freshly decanted.

You could even make it a mechanical thing:

Every time a 'direction' is decided on—go left or right, climb over or turn around, stairs up or stairs down—the players must roll SAN. If they fail, they accrue 1d6 points of Lost (as in, Lost in Time and Space). If they critically fail, they gain 2d6 points. If they ever get 5 points of Lost at once, they experience a Minor effect. Once their Lost points equal their POW (or POW divided by 5 in 7th ed) they experience a Major effect.

Minor effects cost 1/1d6 SAN to experience (undeniably weird, but not immediately imperilling), while Major ones should be like 1d3/1d10 (they're weird, and they directly threaten your life.)

Minor effects mean that they and their companions are out of sync, but still sort of present—a mismatch of time passage, a sense of being distant despite closeness, slight dimensional interphase—while Major effects are getting separated unexpectedly, or suddenly being hit with damage from aging years at once, or losing all your stuff to a timewarp, or being afflicted with Deep One taint (see below). Minor effects may be good or bad depending on context—if you are out of phase with the Deep One attacking you, you get an armour bonus vs the attack, but the reverse also applies, or your increased rate of time flow means you can look ahead and warn your fellows about something, but you get hit with events like a rockfall before everyone else (so your Spot Hidden better be good)—but Major ones separate you from the party or have a chance of making you dead, incapacitated, or even a monster the PCs now have to deal with.

Once you experience a Major effect, your Lost points reset to 0. The Keeper may also provide things that reduce Lost points, like a landmark that resyncs everyone and resets Lost to 0 for the whole party (something like the monolith in "The Rise of R'lyeh" or the crypt of Cthulhu itself, which is the lynchpin of R'lyeh) or an impale on current SAN when rolling removing 1d6 Lost points.

Something else to consider:

Cthulhu and his ilk are described as "seeping" down from the stars. That might just be an extra-creepy verb to use, but what if it is meant literally? Merely being on or near R'lyeh—or any of the star-spawn—may infect you with their hideous plasticity, like a virus injected into you via extradimensional space. People who spend too long in R'lyeh start accruing Deep One taint, or some other mutation (lloigor tentacles, jellyfish-like growths, whatever sea life you hate the most). You can make this a CON roll to resist or just hit them with it when it seems dramatic.

Really, the thing to remember is that in Call of Cthulhu, R'lyeh should be the worst place on Earth. Your PCs should loathe it and fear it above all else.

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Throwback Thursday

The world map from the first campaign I played in during high school. I was the group cartographer by virtue of being the best at Photoshop, I think. This version was based off the GM's map, and I basically just added crazy coastlines to everything.

The campaign's GM got one half of the planet (the west half) and another group member got the east half, and was also planning to run a campaign set there, but that one didn't get off the ground, probably just because of group focus issues. A third player, if I recall correctly, enforced dwarven orthodoxy to the Warhammerian mold (and is now a blacksmith). I think I pestered them into giving me nominal responsibility for the middle-southern peninsula, which, as the name implies, was the faux-Orient of the world. (Oriental Adventures 3e had just came out, and I was enamoured of their cool dragons and spider-ladies.) Aside from the "Hey, hobgoblins should be a PC race!" thing I didn't end up doing much, and anything I ran would have to compete with one actual and another theoretic campaign for time.

The campaign was mostly adventures from Dungeon tied together by a chain of hunt-the-artifact voyages. My character joined midway through "Raiders of Galath's Roost," just in time to wipe out an entire fortress from the inside due to PCs understanding bottlenecking better than the guy who drew that map. The adventure, says, "The adventure ends when the PCs leave the fortress," somehow assuming that we'd pass up a free fortress, and significant planning went into rearming and restaffing the place on the assumption that... we'd... uh... I don't know, but we had a castle, dammit. The next high point came during that 4th level sweet spot and the little slice of Fantasy Fucking Vietnam that was "Rana Mor." We fought a chuul on our riverboat, and that particular near-TPK was probably one of the best (read: most interesting, most desperate) fights I've played in any RPG since. I triple-critted a giant snake, too. That was nice. And to cap it all off, we figured out some stupid loophole in the trap at the end of the adventure which let us get away with approximately 13 times the amount of treasure intended.

I ended up dropping out of the campaign after getting fed up with high-level 3rd edition. Girallons are a stupid monster and I don't know why they'd be janitors for a vampire. Apparently not long after that, the party got TPK'd by some frost worms. Considering how often character deaths and extra-brutal fights started happening once we hit 10th level, I think there was something mechanical going on. Aside from me (dwarf fighter/cleric/rogue... with the Run feat!) the rest of the party was pretty thoroughly minmaxed—hell, they made 20th level characters to 'spar' while waiting for people to show up. Anyway, the frost-worm thing coincided with people going to university, and the campaign was one of those save-the-world dealies where ignominious TPKs not only made it a huge hassle to restart, it also messed with the tone enough to put people off.

This is kind of a companion post to Evan's 3e nostalgia.

Saturday, August 23, 2014

Making Sense of Delta Green

From a birds-eye view, the setting of Delta Green might seem to have a problem in the sheer amount of conspiracies fighting or exploiting the Mythos. Those twelve guys in robes next to a freezer full of babies don't stand a chance, right? There's no way they can escape the notice of the FBI's Occult Crime Lab, the NSA's zombie-scanners, MJ-12's psychic monitoring systems...

This isn't actually what the books say, but plenty of people have gotten that impression both from people talking about DG as a setting, skimming the sourcebooks with all their 'Organization Resources' headers, and assumptions based on X-Files or other conspiracy-based RPG settings. And maybe actual campaigns, I don't know.

For myself, there's three lenses that I find the setting makes more sense, both in regard to a campaign's bureaucratic verisimilitude and a campaign's horror dramaturgy. And I use the word lens in both the 'rose-tinted' sense of giving everything an emotional hue, and the 'magnifying' sense of making clearer something hidden within.

The first lens is assuming that each agency has a very specific version of 'the supernatural' which is their lens for viewing strange things through. They don't perceive 'the mythos' as a cohesive set of things or an alternative cosmology (and Keepers shouldn't either, really), just a series of strange events. This human ignorance is partly the specifics of each groups' history, partly just human frailty, and partly the flying epistemological debris from the impact of any unknowable horrors.

• One of the parts of the setting that protagonizes Delta Green over the other groups is their—for lack of a better term—institutional paranoid schizophrenia. The history of types of contact with weird things they have had gives them a cult-centric focus, or one which tends to view the activities of supernatural beings as 'invasive' and 'infectious.' It's easier for them to identify patterns of bad weirdness: cults are isolated, travel in groups, hide their true non-homo-sapiens biology. The details of their practices and how they interrelate might be a mystery, but since the agents usually come from some sort of counterintelligence or criminal investigation background they can shift from crimes committed with a weapon to crimes committed with an alien servitor more easily.
• MJ-12 has an alternative mythos already, one which can deal with one half of the situation quite readily (anything that looks like an 'alien') but which might default to rationalization or total ignorance when confronted with a classical occult gloss to it (like trying to figure out a Resurrection spell).
• The Karotechia has the entirety of Aryo-Theosophy to frame their worldview, and lucky them, it's a lot of the same stuff which inspired/fed HPL et al in the first place. No wonder they make such good villains.
• PISCES, on the other hand, can be read as having a focus on identifying and exploiting or neutralizing human mutations, be they psychics or blessed of Shub-Niggurath.
• GRU-SV8's origin parallels Delta Green, and along with it can help them see the weird as an invasive or corrupting force, associated with cannibalism, the dead and the un-living, which leads to some version of classical criminal activity.
• M-EPIC is essentially a law enforcement version of the Residential Schools Act. (I'm Canadian so I might have more complex opinions about M-EPIC than the rest... also there's the [SPOILERS])
One of the Directives From A-Cell, this one focusing on semi-aware mythos groups includes a cool idea for a French group whose 'exposure' consists of whatever they've stolen from MJ-12. This makes them second-hand dupes, and an illustration of how to draw in new groups without having to come up with a whole new overlay: they just steal someone else's.

A second lens through which to see Delta Green is that the history of these groups all stem from events that happen in the first half of the 20th century. (Glancy mentions this in the aforementioned Directive From A-Cell.) WWI birthed Delta Green and GRU SV-8, WWII fostered PISCES, the birth of the Cold War was the cradle of MJ-12—and I like to think that if any of those groups go down, there's not going to be anyone in the governmental sphere replacing them. They're becoming corrupted, breaking apart, or falling over each other.

In anticipation of the new DG RPG, I made a few alterations to the background for my last Delta Green game: replaced MJ-12 with a constellation of military contractors and biotech companies, which Kroft funnelled patents and materials into before being purged himself.

A third lens for our microscope of horrors—any of the above groups can be reinterpreted as an infection of a government by a cult. Most of them are already described as such. Others (i.e. Delta Green) can be turned into villains simply by taking their standard operating procedure to the ultimate extreme. Abducted by aliens? They shoot you. Found an artefact which has some weird snake glyphs? They smash it, your notes are stolen, and their friendlies in academia kibosh your future funding grants.

Without the proper magnification, the groups that make up the Delta Green milieu look fearsome and hardy, ready to take on all comers with ferocity. But when you get up close enough to peer into their cellular matter, you can see the weakness in their flesh.

While I'm here, I might as well plug The Unspeakable Oath to anyone who isn't already a buyer/subscriber. For $5 an issue you can get 60-odd pages of some of the finest horror roleplaying stuff being produced today. 

Sunday, July 6, 2014

Call of Cthulhu: Eye of Amara — Meet the Characters

One of the groups I regularly play in—Evan's Nightwick/Uz/Et Cetera group—has taken a brief campaign hiatus, and I've stepped in to run some Call of Cthulhu. This will be only the second time I've run Call of Cthulhu scenarios using the BRP rules, after a short and violent experiment with Masks of Nyarlathotep last year, which I would get back to, at some point. Most of the time I use Trail of Cthulhu. I suspect the first couple sessions will be a little rough going, as I work out differences in the skill lists and assumptions of character competency.

Our first session was  players voted from three options for campaign organizations to belong to—and promptly tied all three. The choices were:

• A group of students at Miskatonic University.

The Eye of Amara Society, a group of aesthetes, eccentrics and seekers who share their theories of, and experiences with, the supernatural.

• Members of a particular long-standing Arkham family, named at character generation. Characters can be related either through blood or marriage, or rely on them for employment.

After some tie-braking dice rolls and hem-hawing from the Keeper we settled on using the Eye of Amara as out base organization, but as you'll see, the stamp of Misk. U. is not absent from party.

The Eye of Amara Society (from Keith Herber's seminal Arkham Unveiled) is a small occult discussion group led by the theatrical, indolent Jason Gaspard. I'll post a more detailed look at them later.

Our party:

Pip Huxley III is a perpetual grad student in the Department of Classical Studies at Miskatonic University. He funds his long-running, wide-ranging thesis on the cuneiform of cylindrical seals ("Cylindrical Seals: A Circular Argument?") with his family's funds, gleaned from the unending river of profit that is the stock market. He lives in a the boarding house near the Misk. U. campus and spends his time off in a blind pig north of the river.

Professor Lancelot F. Simms has seen better days. Since the death of his wife, his monomaniacal devotion to illuminating the world with psychoanalysis has dominated his entire waking life, to the exclusion of his two grown children and his former associates at the Miskatonic Club. He's joined the Eye of Amara society as part of a project to expose their flimflammery and write a popular book on the subject along with the head of the . Since letting go his house staff, his Victorian mansion at the corner of West Washington Street and Hill Street has begun to resemble its owner in crumbling decay.

Robert L. Ashton, a pulp writer of some voluminousness, if not renown, has ended up in a tenement at 615 S. French Hill Street in Arkham, which he shares with his cat. He scuttles about the town's libraries, bookshops and the Exhibit Museum doing research and seeking inspiration for his weird adventure tales.