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ODH Update

Confession time: I have not worked on Our Darkest Hour, the WWII sourcebook for the Delta Green setting of the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game and the purported purpose of this blog, in months. I haven't talked with anyone at Pagan Publishing about the project in an even longer span of time. I am not even certain if anyone in the initial team is still working on the book, as we have not discussed the status of our work since last year.

This project has been vaporware for years and by all standards should either be tabled or put into the hands of more efficient writers, but I've put far too much work and effort into it to just leave it at that. So starting today, I'm going to begin making a weekly update every Sunday on what work I'm doing and where I plan to be in the process by the following week.

Yesterday, I began working on ODH in earnest again, doing some editing to the master chronology of both factual and Mythos events I've been developing. I was in the process of adding events from Lovecraft's The Whisperer in Darkness to the chronology when I left it off, so that's where I'll begin again this week.

My goals for this coming week are to add that story completely to the chronology, and then get to work on adding The Haunter in the Dark. I also hope to get my Karotechia notes in order so I can begin working on a proper writeup for the organization. In terms of research, I will also return to reading The Master Race by Heather Pringle, which I only half-finished some months ago.
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Actual Play: The Dresden Files RPG

Last night, I ventured out to Endgame in Oakland to take part in an alpha-playtest of The Dresden Files role-playing game, coming sometime later in the year or early 2009 from Evil Hat Games. The game is based on Jim Butcher's series of novels about occult investigator Harry Dresden, which was adapted into a short-lived television series for the Sci-Fi Channel. While my wife Jeannine is a big fan of both the series and the books, I only know it from the TV show, and my interest in the game lies mainly in the fact that Jeannine would be very interested in playing it.

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Bottom line for me is that I can see the game working, but the "SotC mechanics packed into an occult investigation game" felt rather square peg into round hole to me. This may have been because I don't have a grounding in the books, because my first (and establishing) experience with FATE was SotC, because we didn't use enough social mechanics to see the genre-specific value in this system, or simply because this was an alpha-playtest. Ultimately, I'd want to read through all the Dresden books (I have Storm Front next in my reading queue), see the finished product, and play in a convention game or two with other GM's before making anything near a final decision on the system. And even then, from what I can see, I'd still buy the book for its massive Dresden-universe background material alone, and just run it with something like Unknown Armies or Savage Worlds if the system doesn't catch my fancy.
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Trail of Cthulhu: (Not) A Review

I was a player in two playtests of Trail of Cthulhu, and now I've GM'ed a game, this past Saturday with my monthly group in San Francisco; so I feel I've explored enough of the system to make some kind of judgment. However, after the debacle that resulted with my negative review of Secrets of Japan and a respect for what the authors of Trail of Cthulhu are trying to do, I'm not going to make a review. I'm simply going to leave it at this: this game is not for me.

All of the players in the Saturday game said they had much fun, but everyone agreed that the system was flawed. I've always felt that the investigative mechanic works, although it runs a bit dry in practice. My biggest concern from the playtest was that the players were never in much danger from death or insanity, but this was solved by using the optional caps on Health and Stability given in the book. That said, while I do think Trail of Cthulhu works systematically, it doesn't do anything for me that Call of Cthulhu does equally well or better for my sensibilities.

I will say this though: I don't think The Kingsbury Horror, the scenario given in the book, does a very good job showcasing the strengths of the system. The philosophy behind the GUMSHOE system is not just that clue-gathering should never become obstacles to the narrative, but also that the fun in investigative games is not the actual gathering of clues but what the characters do with those clues and what they mean. There is never any explanation for why the antagonist(s) in The Kingsbury Horror are committing the murders, so it really ends up boiling down to getting the clues which lead to an abrupt climax with an almost anonymous villain(s). I do admit that this kind of unsatisfactory scenario design is also endemic to many (if not most) Call of Cthulhu games (hell, I've run more than my share of this), but since the GUMSHOE mechanic works mostly as "there's clues and you always get them", that should cause Trail of Cthulhu to emphasize the "why" of the scenario rather than the "how".

Trail of Cthulhu might end up more satisfactory for me if I could take greater agency by running a scenario of my own design. Here I went from being a player to running it, but I was still running off a canned scenario. My problem is that I don't feel comfortable running something (either for my friends or for hapless strangers at a convention) that I'm not 100% sold on to begin with. So I'm probably done with Trail of Cthulhu, although I am glad I bought it. At the very least, it has caused me to examine the importance of investigative design in my games, and there is a lot within the system (the Preparedness skill, how Mythos madness is handled, Ken Hite's descriptions of the Cthulhu Mythos, and the division between Mythos-weakened Sanity and mundane-shocked Stability) that I want to homebrew into Call of Cthulhu. So I would encourage any and all Cthulhu-philes to check it out and give it a fair chance.
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Endgame Mini-Con Spring 2008

Yesterday I attended the Spring Mini-Con at Endgame, a gaming store in Oakland. These mini-cons, which are run periodically throughout the year, host three 4-hour slots of RPG sweetness, focusing mostly on indie games. This year I only took part in two games, as I'd been up too late the previous night for there to be any hope of making the morning sessions.

Red-eye Flight (World of Darkness) - This game had originally been listed as using Spirit of the Century rules, but when the con organizer corrected that typo, I decided to stick with it as I knew the GM to be top-notch. It was a good call, as this was a very fun game, packed with roleplaying and suspense even though the whole thing lasted only about three-&-half hours. I don't have much experience with nWoD, but what I've seen of it has been pleasant. The mechanics are clean and simple, and, although I somehow manage to forget the rules shortly after playing them, they remain very easy to pick up once the game gets going. The game itself involved a passenger flight being possessed by ghastly apparitions, where I played the 15-year-old female gymnast/physics student overachiever - a stretch pour moi, but it was fun to change things up.

The Bad Man Over Your Shoulder (Don't Rest Your Head) - This was my first time playing DRYH and I was impressed. I had a chance to read the entire book in between my afternoon and evening games, and it strikes me mostly as a cross between the film Dark City, a steampunk version of H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, and Carcosa. I was a little worried in reading over the mechanics, which seems confusing and cumbersome in the book; but, in play, they worked very well, and were picked up easily. We played very young children brought over by "The Bad Man" who sought to eat us and our loved ones, and only two of us made it out of the Mad City (my character, with his Superman cape, turned into a monstrous superbeing while fighting off the monsters come to devour his sleeping friends). I can see how the game can be brutal, and I'm eager to pick the book up and maybe play around with using it as alternative mechanics for Call of Cthulhu characters when trapped in a Dreaming state.

The next mini-con at Endgame will be the Good Omens Con in June. I would encourage anyone in the Bay Area around that time to check it out, as these things have consistently been a blast, full of interesting games (many with systems not often run at the larger conventions).
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Gender, Race, and Historical Realism in RPGs

I've been sluggish this week, which means I've barely started reading through Trail of Cthulhu, which, by the first eleven pages (sluggish may be an understatement), seems pretty good. That eleventh page has a particularly striking section on occupations and gender in the period (the 1930's), where the author Kenneth Hite rolls off statistics on female employment (or lack thereof) back then before adroitly dismissing their relevance:
This means exactly nothing for players of Trail of Cthulhu. The default option (and the publisher's assumption) is that if you can suspend your disbelief sufficiently to imagine giant betentacled monstrosities, then a female doctor should be no problem.
It always seems that when gamers focus on historical accuracy, they do so mostly to preserve stereotypical attitudes of sexism and racism (and the minutiae of gun manufacture, but that's for another post). Very little thought is given to the complexities of these attitudes, to the differences between private thought and public demeanor, or how these attitudes are actually translated into action (for example, how an anti-Semite could end up marrying a Jew). Even less thought is given to how these attempts to preserve an often ill-researched model of historical accuracy ("women were always subservient back then" or "blacks were always disenfranchised") affect party dynamics, creating a bad gaming experience for others. And it should be remembered that the whole point of all this is not to, for example, completely simulate gender politics among upper middle-class academics in 1930's New England, but to have fun.

I'll grant that some verisimilitude must be preserved to maintain a suspension of disbelief necessary to enjoy the experience. I've had my own little history tantrums when trains appear in Lhasa, Tibet in the mid-1930s, or when a Shinto chaplain is assigned to an American submarine during WWII. However, as Hite well points out, if you have more of a problem believing in Edith the female police detective than the squamous horror that was once your Uncle Winthrop, you're letting your peeves get in the way of your fun. Hite also points out that the movies and fiction of that period were full of strong, independent female protagonists (which were also full of minority protagonists, raunchy sex and other adult themes); so, if the racists and sexists believed to be everywhere in early twentieth-century Western culture could suspend their disbeliefs, why can't modern gamers?
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Project Covenant

So in between a beloved sports figure retiring, the death of the creator of the hobby that dominates my life, and the recurring saga of Ohio screwing over the nation at the ballot box (way to go folks - "No, We Can't!"), this has been a pretty shitty week so far. All that may have changed as I now have my hands on Trail of Cthulhu, an attempt by Ken Hite and Robin Laws to rewrite the rules on Lovecraftian investigation.

I playtested the ToC rules twice (as a player) and both times found it sorely lacking. While I admit that I may simply not buy into the central paradigm of the rules ("the way to solve investigation games that come to a halt when a skill roll fails is to make those kind of skill rolls impossible to fail"), my real complaint was with the combat rules, which were equally confusing and absurdly easy to survive. That said, the approach towards Sanity mechanics was refreshing, and for all I know, the combat rules have been fixed. I'll hold off on any final verdicts until I've had a chance to read the book thoroughly and playtest it at least once as a GM.

One interesting addition is a campaign for "Project Covenant" - the codename for the raid on Innsmouth. It's basically a two page version of Delta Green for the 1930's, positing that a conspiracy of military intelligence and FBI veterans of Innsmouth decide to continue investigating the Mythos, calling themselves "Covenanters" or (my favorite) "Friends of Ezra", for Ezra Weeden (the guy who Lovecraft wrote as leading the18th century raid on Joseph Curwen in The Case of Charles Dexter Ward). He gives full names for all the major NPCs in the raid section from Escape From Innsmouth, which is what the short chapter seems most based upon, although it ultimately feels like Delta Green with serial numbers filed off, which it admits, stating it's pitch as "It's The Untouchables meets Delta Green!"

There was only one glaringly wrong note in all this, that being the statement that Credit Rating for Covenanters should be capped at 5 because "not until 1942, when William Donovan creates the OSS from his Yale banker contacts, does the wealthy aristocrat enter the US intelligence world." The Office of Naval Intelligence during the First World War was practically staffed entirely by wealthy aristocrats, brought in under pre-war reserve training programs established with the help of Franklin D. Roosevelt as Assistant Secretary of the Navy. In fact, much of the intelligence being gathered by the US during the 1930's was by wealthy patriots who used their own business activities as cover overseas. Before the Second World War, that's basically who carried out espionage for all sides: dilettantes with guns.

Anyways, I plan to run the Cleveland Torso Killer scenario in the book with one of my gaming groups soon, so I'll post how it went and if the combat rules have been sufficiently fixed at some later date.
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WonderCon 2008

Yesterday, Jeannine and I made our way to WonderCon 2008, the biggest comics convention held in the San Francisco Bay Area. It was an anniversary present to each other, as we are both huge X-Files fans and there would be a Q-&-A panel held for the upcoming film sequel.

The X-Files is what brought Jeannine and I together. Once upon a time, I created a website for Chris Carter's other show Millennium shortly before it premiered. A few images I had taken from newspaper and magazine ads caused Rupert and his thugs to go ballistic over copyright infringement, and created such a furor that CNet brought me to San Francisco for an interview. While here, I got in touch with a couple of local X-Files fans, one of whom was Jeannine. The rest is history, actually nine years of blissfully wedded history this Tuesday, so it was natural that, when we heard that not only David Duchovny (Mulder) and Gillian Anderson (Scully) but major showrunners Chris Carter and Frank Spotnitz would be attending the local WonderCon, we forego'ed the usual anniversary presents of books and DVDs and instead gave each other a one-day pass.

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Lots more pictures, mostly of The X-Files panel can be found here at my Flickr account.

So, all in all, money well spent, but it weren't much fun beyond the X-Files panel. There was nothing in the Dealer Room that I couldn't purchase cheaper on Ebay, and my plan of "general cons okay, gaming cons no way" for any future involvement of my future offspring in this slice of my geekery was ended quickly upon witnessing softcore (and maybe even hardish-core) porn being peddled in the Dealer Room. I might spring for another one-day pass should a great panel again be assembled or an artist like George Perez or Mike Deodato (two whom Jeannine mentioned as being interested in buying original art from) attends, but otherwise, I will stick to my gaming cons from now on.
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DunDraCon 2008

DunDraCon  was pretty damn good this year. I ran my game - Toteninsel, a WWII-era Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green game - and played in a few others, including a LARP, a first for me. My only regret is that, with the exception of the LARP, I didn't play anything I hadn't done before. I really regret not trying out the Warhammer 40k Dark Heresy game, which one friend described as "Call of Cthulhu in space." Still, good times pretty much throughout, and even when the games were less than stellar, the experience itself never ventured into the "painful" range.

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Besides the games, I also picked up the fifth issue of Worlds of Cthulhu (which others remarked was gorgeous, so maybe the mag will pick up a few new buyers), as well as the latest Miskatonic U. Monograph from Chaosium, Shadows of War, a collection of Call of Cthulhu scenarios set around and during the Second World War. I've only scanned it but it looks pretty solid. Expect a more detailed review once I get the chance.
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Government Teat, Here I Come!

After over ten years in the San Francisco Bay Area, I feel like I've shed most of my lingering Texan-ness to become one with my adopted home: I have a left-leaning political bumper sticker on my car, my next car will probably be a greener-than-thou Prius, and, as of today, I can finally say that I've been laid-off from a failed Internet start-up. It's not entirely failed (which is also why, as my severance package suggests, that I won't name said Internet start-up), but everyone in the US office that isn't a VP has been fired and the office itself is closing. It wasn't unexpected and not entirely unwelcome - I really need to get my teaching career started and I might even end making more money subbing till I can get certified.

But first, I'm going to do something I've never done before, and take unemployment for a few weeks. I figure I've voted Democrat enough times that I deserve to let my bleeding-heart tendencies subsidize my failure for a change, rather the failure of others. And while I'm on the dole, I can do some much-needed writing on ODH. I haven't even had a chance to keep up reading through my research pile while I've been working, so this'll be a nice change.
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Various Sundries: Beowulf

Attend! The missus and I went into the city to see the Xmas tree-lighting tonight, so we made a day of it by catching a movie and dinner. The movie was Beowulf, the super-dooper 3D Imax version which involved us putting on gigantic gag-style sunglasses to watch Ray Winstone's computer-generated butt thrust uncomfortably at our eyes. I didn't have a lot of expectations for Beowulf, and I got pretty much what I expected, that being the absolute best video game cut-scene I've ever seen.

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So Beowulf was big and fun, but it could have been so much more. The creators of the film "got" the poem on a certain level, but whatever subtext is there is buried behind still-plastic-looking animation and "This is Sparta!"-style Eros=Thanatos adolescent sexual confusion. I would have loved to have seen an honest attempt to recreate 6th century Northern European warrior culture in live-action (the 2005 adaptation was close to this but burdened by turgid direction and a lifeless script), and watching real actors emoting might've given the film the punch it needed to be more memorable. Still... fun.