Cthulhu Dark – GenCon 2012 Edition

Cthulhu Dark GenCon 2012

Cthulhu Dark GenCon 2012

Having wrapped up a Dungeon World session and concurrently facilitating two games of Fiasco for Games on Demand, I was ready for playing a game. Fortunately, Terry Romero was recruiting players to join in a session of Graham Walmsley‘s Cthulhu Dark. Stras Acimovic, Ryan Roth, myself, and a native Indianapolis GenCon volunteer with a penchant for 1930s history – her name eludes me.

This was the first Cthulhu RPG that I had played. There was a session or two where a D&D campaign villain had a god of knowledge named Nyarlathotep, but I hardly think that counts.

Bare Metal Cthulhu

Graham Walmsley groks the intersection of Cthulhu and gaming. He even wrote the book on it – Stealing Cthulhu (of which I IndieGoGo-ed). His wonderfully concise Cthulhu Dark distills several important concepts that I believe are integral to a Cthulhu game: Insanity, Investigative success, and you can’t beat the creatures of the Mythos.

The insanity mechanic simultaneously creates an impending sense of doom, a resource you can risk, and a means of abating disaster. But the cold truth is, sanity is fleeting.

The investigative mechanic is simple. If you roll the dice, you will succeed, but the degree of success is uncertain. You can risk your sanity, but that is a precious resource.

And you can’t beat the mythos. No matter the weapons at your disposal, the mythos can kill you if it chooses. But more likely, you will be its play thing.

The game is elegant and simple. A game that so adeptly models the desired play of a Cthulhu scenario.

On to the Con

Our characters were in motion, with common cause. Son, childhood friend, rival, and current friend. Each thrown into a bizarre scenario. Unprepared for what came.

I’ll spare you the gory details, but I will add my observation. Having played several games of Fiasco I found myself ready to embrace catastrophe for my character. In fact, my character made a bee line to Insanity 4 while the others maintained their sanity.

As the scenario played out, I worked hard to determine when my character would be lucid and when his insanity would manifest. Terry kept moving things forward even though I was seeking a bit of self-destruction for my character.

The scenes that stuck out were the paired scenes. First was Stras’ character still technically more sane than my character puffing at pipe on a cliff’s edge. My character approached to calm the doctor down.

Then, as my character slipped further to insanity, I took a cue and had my character puff on a pipe to calm. Stras then reversed our roles from previous scenes, providing succor.

Early on, I decided I was going to write session notes, and use my normal handwriting for moments of lucidity and ever degrading handwriting as the insanity took hold. I now have an artifact that I can keep in memory of a great Cthulhu session in which my character didn’t escape.

Unrelated but Useful

If you are a pen and paper and not on Google+ consider joining, as there are LOTS of us interacting. You may need to do some work up front, but I can assure you there are lots of conversations going on.

Stealing Cthulhu by Graham Walmsley

Back before GenCon 2011, I went on a bit of a Crowdfunding spree, sponsoring Do: Pilgrims of the Flying TempleBulldogs!Technoir RPG, and Stealing Cthulhu.  Today, the last of the lot has arrived all the way from the British Isles — Stealing Cthulhu is here!  This is more a recounting the pilgrimage of Stealing Cthulhu than a proper review.

From Graham Walmsley‘s Thieves of Time site:

The book is 175 pages and 30,000 words long (6 by 9 inches), with original art by Jennifer Rodgers and . It is annotated throughout by Kenneth Hite, Gareth Hanrahan and Jason Morningstar. It’s designed for use with any roleplaying system: Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, Nemesis, Cthulhu Dark or whatever you enjoy playing.

I’ve never played a game of the venerable Call of Cthulhu nor any of it’s relatives (i.e. Trail of Cthulhu, Delta Green, Cthulhutech, d20 Cthulhu, or Cthulhu Dark), but have always been intrigued.

In fact, I’ve only read a few of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories.  But the Cthulhu Mythos permeates the modern geek culture.  Something about slipping into madness and ancient beings from beyond time and space with inhuman motivations resonates with the zeitgeist of today.

Why Did I Buy It?

Earlier in the year, I purchased Graham Walmsley’s “Play Unsafe“, a book about improvising in role-playing games.  It is exceptionally well written, with ample advice for sharing in a collaborative

I then traded to get a copy of Graham Walmsley’s “A Taste for Murder.” It is a wonderfully well written game that melds the “Importance of Being Ernest” with a murder mystery.  “A Taste For Murder” builds on Graham’s “Play Unsafe” book.  I even used the book when I demonstrated “how to protect your game books.”

So when I saw that Graham was running an IndieGoGo crowd-funding campaign for running Cthulhu games, I pulled the trigger and sponsored the project.

First Came the PDF

After the project was funded and the book was edited, Graham provided the backers with the PDF version of the book.

Graham breaks down the components of a Lovecraftian story and translates them to their RPG counterpart – Stealing Scenarios, Locations, Patterns, and Descriptions.  I read the book on my tablet and found the PDF version a bit more challenging to read.

In part, the pages have hand-written annotations that are a bit harder to read in electronic form. The bigger problem, by far, is that I personally have a hard time reading on my tablet.  I get distracted and start checking Twitter or my RSS feed.

Then Came the Wait

The PDF was released to backers on June 17, 2011.  The book was available for purchase at GenCon 2011 — This was a decision made by Graham that raised some ire.

While I certainly wanted my “shiny” right away, I also knew that Graham uses his trips to the US as a means of transporting small press books across the Atlantic.  He was able to bring copies of Stealing Cthulhu to sell at GenCon at Pelgrane Press’s booth.  He was then able to return to Britain with small press books to sell in his webstore.  This service has helped bring small press books to European fans by greatly reducing international shipping costs.

Knowing this, and honestly having lots of other books to read, I simply waited.  I trusted Graham, having briefly talked with him at GenCon, would get the books to me as soon as was humanly feasible.

Then Came the Book

Today, December 1st, 2011, and I have received my physical copy.  Given that I haven’t yet finished reading the book, I can’t do a proper review.  However, since I accidentally published this article, I figured I’d better write something about Stealing Cthulhu.

The physical book is fantastic!  And flipping through the book, the hand-written annotations evoke an ominous tone — Herein lies the madness of delving too deeply into the mythos.

Stealing Cthulhu argues that many Cthulhu scenarios are very cliched and original scenarios can be found in Lovecraft’s writings. Stealing Cthulhu is intended as a guide for crafting these adventures.  The book provides tools, insights, and prompts for the disassembly of the short-stories and reassembly into scenarios.

Though it may be a bit premature…”catacomb.”

Other Books by Graham Walmsley