Welcome Back to the Labyrinth

"We have been away far too long, my friends," Ashoka declared, his face lit by the eldritch green glow of his staff. "But we have finally returned to the labyrinth whence our adventures first began."

"Just imagine the treasures that lie within," said Yun Tai, flexing his mighty muscles. "Wealth enough to live in luxury the rest of our days."

"And arcane artifacts of great power," added Ashoka his words dripping with avarice. "All ours for the taking!"

"Umm...guys?" Nysa interrupted. "Do you hear something dripping?"

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Still Crazy After All These Years

When I started my recent Call of Cthulhu campaign I had every intention, as a good old-school curmudgeon, of sticking with my second edition rule book.  That resolution didn't last very long.  My curiosity quickly got the better of me; I cracked under the strain and bought the current sixth edition rules.

'New editions' have come to be a euphemism for 'completely unrelated game system bearing the same name' such as Wizards of the Coast regards them, or 'marketing tool to force people to buy the same game every four years' such as Games Workshop regards them.  It was refreshing and reassuring, therefore, to see that Call of Cthulhu has changed little over the past three decades and the sixth edition resembles the first edition so closely that the adventures for each are fully compatible.

The various editions of Call of Cthulhu have not changed the game so much as refined, elaborated upon, and expanded it.  It's the same game I've loved for decades, but with more spells, more weapons, and more creatures.  The skill list has been consolidated: zoology and botany have been replaced by biology, and where once there were two separate skills for reading and speaking a foreign language, you can now do both with a single skill rating.  Finally, there are now rules, skills, and equipment for running games in 1890's, 1920's, or modern settings.  So the sixth edition rules are the culmination of more than three decades of excellence in Lovecraftian role play.

It is also, unfortunately, a badly laid-out, disorganized mess.  The book's designer indulged in an orgy of excess.  The heading fonts are overly-elaborate and difficult to read, a condition which is exacerbated by embellishing them with drop-shadows.  The text is too small, and is often underlain by watermark images including, Nodens save me, latin text that makes reading the book a torturous ordeal.  Especially bad are the 'spot rules' side-bars which consist of white text printed in a miniscule font on a black background.  And then, just because the page isn't already busy enough, it is further embellished with faux burn marks along the margins and between the columns.  My poor aging eyes were bleeding after five minutes.  By the time I was done reading it I'd failed two consecutive SAN checks was gibbering madly.

The material is also very badly organized, making it very difficult to look things up even with the help of the index.  The insanity rules, for example are spread throughout the book instead of contained within a single chapter.  It would be ironic, but not surprising, if the insanity rules actually drove some Keeper insane.

I took sixth edition out for a spin at my last session and several times failed, after five minutes of fruitless searching, to find a given rule.  I then picked up my second edition rules and found what I needed in less than ten seconds.  Every time.

So, in a nutshell, Call of Cthulhu, sixth edition, is an excellent rule system flawed by incredibly poor design choices that make the book an absolute nightmare to read and use.  I'm glad to have the new rules, but hiring Abdul Alhazred to do the layout probably wasn't the wisest choice.  Hopefully, the forthcoming seventh edition will be designed to be read and used as a game book should be.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Session report: The Molay House Mystery

Our first session centered around an archetypal haunted house set in Boston in 1921, a premise that has kicked off many a Call of Cthulhu campaign.  A young woman, Vivian Molay, had recently inherited the estate of her late uncle Victor.  Vivian, who had grown up in this house, raised by her uncle and aunt, had only unhappy memories of her childhood and wanted to sort out her uncle's estate quickly and sell it off.  Victor ran an import company and was a collector of art and artifacts, and Vivian retained the services of antiquarian, Randal Ward, to assess the collection.  Because she had been harassed by various parties wishing to obtain artifacts from her late uncle's collection, she hired Morgan Lynch, a Boston area private investigator to provide security while she dealt with the estate.  Finally, her boyfriend, Damian Chase, a wealthy dilettante, was on hand to offer moral support.

The three investigators spent the whole first day inspecting the house and taking inventory of its contents, including an impressive collection of French impressionist paintings and ancient artifacts from around the world.  Morgan checked out the basement, which contained a coal room and furnace, a wine cellar, and a mysterious bricked-up crawl space.  The second floor contained the master bedroom, Vivian's childhood bedroom an empty bedroom and a study, and the attic contained Camille Molay's sick room and a store room.

While the others were inspecting the rest of the house, Morgan got some tools from the garden shed and got to work demolishing the bricked up space in the basement: he crawled through into a another small room and opened up a cellar door in the floor.  Dropping down into what looked like a cold room he was horrified to find the dessicated corpse of a teenaged boy chained to the floor.

Meanwhile, Vivian disclosed why she was so uncomfortable in the house: at the age of thirteen she was forced to care for her invalid aunt Camille, who was confined to a bedroom in the attic.  As her aunt's illness progressed, her mind began to slip, and caring for her became an increasingly unpleasant task - the old woman sat alone in her rocking chair, staring out the window and demanding tea.  One day, Vivian brought the afternoon tea only to find that her aunt's body hanging from a home-made noose, her limp body twisting slowly from the rafters.  Vivian swore, though it was likely the fancy of a traumatized young girl, that her dead aunt then opened her eyes and stared accusingly at her niece.  The episode left Vivian in Ravensview Asylum for a time, to treat her mental trauma, before releasing her to a girl's boarding school; she had not been back to the house since.

Later that afternoon, there was a visit from a mobster who claimed be collecting $500 that Victor Molay owed to  Mr. Gambini.  He also mentioned, in an off-hand manner, that Mr. Gambini had purchased an antique silver chalice from Molay, and would appreciate its delivery as soon as it was located.  Since Molay's receipts made no mention of an outstanding debt to Gambini, the investigators assumed that the chalice was the real reason for the visit.

Over dinner it was noticed that the silverware bore the Molay family coat of arms with the inscription, do your duty, come what may, which Randal recognized as the motto of the Knights Templar.

Late in the day the investigators heard a rhythmic creaking coming from the third floor attic.  When they went up stairs they were able to determine that the sound was coming from Camille Molay's bedroom.  Opening the door they were stepped into the room, which was now stiflingly warm and heavy with the smell of camphor, and they could see someone sitting in the rocking chair, rocking back and forth, but there was no response to their queries.  Cautiously, Damian worked his away around the room to get a view of the chair's occupant and found Vivian, herself, sitting in a daze, completely unaware of her surroundings.  When he shook her and shouted her name, she came to herself and, horrified to find herself in her aunt's bedroom, she burst into tears, afraid and confused.

After calming Vivian down and getting her to bed, the investigators continued to search the house.  One of them searched an attic store room, which contained Camille's old clothes and effects, and hidden behind some boxes, the noose she had used to hang herself.  Meanwhile, an investigation of Victory Molay's office yielded recent receipts of import shipments to the Church of the Celestial Redeemer on Battery Street, a church that  was gutted three years ago in a tragic fire.  There were also receipts of payments made to a Tony Gambini under the heading 'customs inspection'.  Gambini was known to Morgan Lynch as a local mob boss with ties to New York's Marolto Family.

A concealed door in Victor's study led to a small library containing an esoteric collection of books on the occult, erotica, and pornography, including works by Aleister Crowley and the Marquis de Sade.  On one of the shelves was the silver chalice mentioned by the mobster, which Randal Ward recognized as the Chalice of Antioch, which the Knights Templar brought back from Outremere, and was once thought to be the holy Grail, itself - a notion dismissed by contemporary scholars. Also in the library was Victory Molay's journal in which the investigators that Vivian's parents were killed in a fire and that she and her twin brother Daniel had come to live with their aunt and uncle. Daniel had become fascinated first with his uncle's pornography collection, and later with his occult books.  Sometime later Victor caught Daniel and Vivian in the garden shed, naked.  Vivian was in a daze, apparently under her brother's mental control and had no memory of the incident.  After this, Daniel was sent to a succession of boarding schools, from each of which he was soon expelled.  As Daniel became gradually more recalcitrant, rebellious and dangerous, Victor finally locked him up in the basement.

The investigators met with Gambini at his offices in the back rooms of the speakeasy he operated, and asked him about his business relationship with Victor Molay.  Gambini told them that he had been paid, on several occasions, to use his influence on the docks to make sure that customs inspectors passed over certain of Molay's shipments.  When questioned about the chalice, Gambini said that it was merely a curio he payed Molay to import from the old country.  Molay's records made no mention of such a transaction, and the story contradicted Vivian's assertion that she remembered the chalice from her childhood and that it was supposedly an old family heirloom.

Next, the investigators went to check out the Church of the Celestial Redeemer, which was indeed a burned-out shell.  They attempted to enter, but found that the doors were chained and padlocked.  They asked locals if anyone had noticed recent deliveries made to the church, and were told rumours that the church might soon be renovated and reopened.  A limousine pulled up to the investigators on the street and they were invited in to speak with a heavy-set elderly man named Sebastian Crawe who offered them $8,000 for the chalice.  He gave them his card and left them to contemplate his offer.  Morgan Lynch demanded that Vivian come clean and stop treating them like saps.  He wasn't buying her story that she had no memory of a twin brother and had no idea why so many people were after the chalice.  Damian was angered by Morgan's brusque manner and took Vivian home, leaving Morgan and Randal to find their own way back.

Shortly after Damian and Vivian arrived back at the house, a pair of armed gunmen burst in and demanded the chalice. Damian led them upstairs to the study, trying to delay the thugs as long as possible.  Morgan and Randal arrived at the house and saw a strange car in the driveway and the open front door of the house.  Wary for trouble, Morgan readied his Colt .45 and they crept into the house and followed the voices upstairs where they were able to surprise the gunmen.  A short fight ensued in which both intruders were killed, though Morgan was shot twice.  He dismissed his injuries as mere flesh wounds, and settled for having his wounds cleaned and bandaged instead of seeking medical attention.  A search of the bodies revealed that both had a tattoo of a flaming crucifix on his wrist, which Damien recognized from his occult dabbling as the sign of a cult known as the Ashen Brotherhood.  The bodies were dragged downstairs and dumped in the basement.

That night, after everyone else had gone to sleep, Damian sat up perusing occult tomes in the library, and decided to check on Vivian.  She was not in her bedroom and, suspicious, Damian ran upstairs to Camille's bedroom where he found her, wearing one of Camille's old dressing-gowns, throwing the end of the hangman's noose over a rafter.  She broke down in hysterics when she awoke from her trance, and Damian spent the rest of the night watching over her.

The next day Morgan left the house to stake out Sebastian Crawe's manor.  Damian went down to the basement to further inspect the corpses of the cultists and to his horror they rose up and shambled after him. He fled up the stairs into the kitchen and slammed the door, and held it shut while screaming to Randal for help.  The corpses soon battered their way through the door, however then fell upon Damien and tore him apart with their bare hands.  Randal, meanwhile fetched a quilt, set it on fire then threw it over the heads of the undead horrors, and then fled as the house went up in flames.

Thus endeth the session, with Damian dead, Morgan on a stakeout, and Randal running down the street screaming in terror.  It remains to be seen whether Vivian escaped the burning house, the flaming corpses, and the vengeful spirit of her twin brother.  The mystery of why so many people are after the Chalice of Antioch remains to be solved.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Out of the Dungeon

After many years of running fantasy campaigns, I'm suffering from dungeon burn-out.  I just can't muster the enthusiasm that I need to run a good campaign, so I've decided to put my fantasy campaign on hiatus, shift gears and trade in the swords and armour for Tommy Guns and Elder Signs.

So I dusted off my old Call of Cthulhu boxed set and tried running a session of Lovecraftian horror for the first time in nearly thirty years.  I bought this game, on the advice of the game store owner, sometime in 1983 or 1984, and it was my introduction to the works of H.P. Lovecraft.  To say that it captured my imagination would be a gross understatement.  I spent countless hours reading and rereading the rule book and supplements, marveling at the mythos creatures, the sinister spells, and the tomes of forbidden lore.  It is fair to say that Call of Cthulhu has influenced every roleplaying campaign I've run since but, ironically, I've only ever actually run one or two sessions of Call of Cthulhu, back when I first bought it.

It's not always easy to find a group of players willing to give Call of Cthulhu a shot.  Let's face it, the game can be a tough sell to a lot of gamers.  Many of us engage in the hobby for the sense of wish-fulfillment it gives us: finding treasure, leveling up, and actually killing monsters.  It's a much smaller subset of gamers who get off on being messily torn apart, or going mad, whose only pay-off for successful play is living just long enough to uncover the next layer of the conspiracy.

Yet, there are enough such players to have kept Call of Cthulhu alive and well, and essentially unchanged, for more than three decades, which is an impressive accomplishment in the gaming industry - a testament to the lure of Lovecraft's mythos.

It was a challenge to run a good session, though.  Horror is hard enough to write, let alone to play.  In addition to the game master's normal duties of adjudicating player actions, keeping track of NPCs and running combats, you must also set the tone of the adventure, control the pacing, and provide enough clues for players to unravel the mystery.  That's quite a lot to manage and my old, long-vanquished stage fright made an unwelcome encore.

There are just so many things that can spoil a CoC session, and having uncooperative players practically guarantees failure.  Goofing around at the wrong time can spoil the mood, and rebelling against genre conventions, instead of embracing them, can ruin the game for everyone.  Horror genre gaming requires a lot more cooperation and collaboration between the players and GM than in many other types of gaming, especially a typical fantasy dungeon adventure, where part of the challenge and the fun is the almost adversarial stance of beating the GM's dungeon.  CoC requires a whole different outlook and style of play and it can be delicate juggling act, but I was fortunate in having a group of players who were willing to play along, buy into the premise, and work to make the session a success.

Consequently, the first session was a great deal of fun and, as all good adventures should, left the investigators with more questions than answers.

Until next time, save the last bullet for yourself.