Arkham Horror’s Deepening Shadows Hide More Expansions

After Innsmouth Horror appeared, received wisdom among the Arkham Horror set was there were no more expansions to be had. Fantasy Flight had hit the major centers of mythos action — Dunwich, Kingsport and Innsmouth — and while there might be one or two more small boxes emphasizing a particular Ancient One, as The King in Yellow did for Hastur, the game line was essentially done.

Not so, the last couple weeks have revealed. Fantasy Flight had a one-two punch for intrepid investigators: first they announced Miskatonic Horror, a big box expansion, and then a week or two later came the revelation of a revised edition of Curse of the Dark Pharaoh. The latter was Arkham Horror‘s first expansion and as such, it’s become somewhat notorious for being plagued with badly written encounters and wonky mechanics.

I’m having a mixed reaction to this news so far. I more than kinda burned out on the seemingly limitless yet repetitive realms of Arkham Horror after playing with Lurker at the Threshold a bit and being disappointed by the same sorts of problems cropping up again, like new mechanics that hardly make an impact on the game.

Miskatonic Horror caught my interest at first, because it seemed like it could be the patch kit expansion for which completionists yearn; something that prevents the dampening of activity in expansion towns as their limited stack of mythos cards are slowly overwhelmed by cards from the more numerous Arkham-only expansions. What it seems to be, however, is mostly more. More encounters for locations, more madnesses and injuries and all the other fiddly little cards. And that’s pretty cool. But in a way it exacerbates the problem. If you throw all those new Arkham-only mythos cards in the stack, interesting things happen in Dunwich or Kingsport or Innsmouth even less frequently.

Now, Curse of the Dark Pharaoh almost interests me more, for some reason. The original expansion is probably my least favorite, mainly because the supposedly super special exhibit items are crap, sometimes you get barred from a neighborhood, which makes no in-world sense and the encounters that require you dig a specific creature out of the monster cup are irritating. But if the revision fixes those things and includes the Dark Pharaoh herald, which we already know it does, plus throws in some new stuff — or at least not encountering Cthulhu in an Other World, say — then I could become interested.

I’m not going to rush out and buy either of these. I would like to do so with Miskatonic Horror, because I would love to have more encounters for the expansion towns, and I want to show Fantasy Flight there is a market for expansions that expect a higher buy-in than the core set, which is their usual expansion philosophy. But I’m just not getting the plays out of Arkham Horror right now that would justify snapping it right now. And the same goes for the revised Curse of the Dark Pharaoh, which is more of a completionist’s purchase for me.

Honestly, what interests me more about Arkham Horror right now is Fantasy Flight’s recent foray into using print on demand for small product runs. They debuted a Death Angels expansion at PAX East that was a small pack of cards in a transparent wrapper, not unlike what Looney Labs did for their small Chrononauts expansions. If that same production model were applied to Arkham Horror, I think those “patch kit” expansions, designed to even out the frequency of gate and mythos activity in towns other than Arkham itself, would become feasible. And that would get me more excited about playing Arkham Horror again, if I knew there’d be a real hot time in Dunwich or Innsmouth.

Conspiracies and Secret Societies: The Complete Dossier

While laid low over the past weekend with a cold, I took the opportunity to delve into some books that lay untouched on my bookshelf for too long. One of them was Conspiracies and Secret Societies: The Complete Dossier by Brad and Sherry Steiger. It’s a massive tome that I picked up mostly because I kept hearing ads for it on some podcasts and at the time, I had more Paperbackswap credits than I had uses for.

As it turns out, it’s something of an informal encyclopedia on none other than conspiracies and secret societies in history. Rosicrucians, the Trilateral Commission, the Rockefellers, the assassination of political figures throughout the centuries; it’s all in there. Hundreds of oddball topics get some page time in this book. It’s a great way to skip around subjects. You can read up on the Theosophy movement and Madame Blavatsky, then move on to orgone radiation before taking in the Knights Templar.

It’s all grounded in historical fact, mind you. There are no flights of fancy or bisociation. The Steigers’ short articles, typically drawing on Internet resources, but also many traditional works, present the real world perspective as their book is nominally non-fiction — in that they don’t purport that the Hermetic Order of the Golden Dawn’s workings actually achieved anything, just that there was an order and its members did stuff like that.

Coming off Things That Never Were and my refresher course in Suppressed Transmission, this book reminded me that it’s not all about making stuff up for role-playing games. There’s still plenty of ideas to mine here, but it’s a sober testament to the fact this stuff changed real people’s real lives, for good or worse.

Conspiracies and Secret Societies: The Complete Dossier is published by Visible Ink Press and is available today.

I’m going to let you in on a source for cheap role-playing books: Like the name implies, it’s a website that abstracts swapping books. You list the books you no longer want and create a list of those you do. As people request books from you, which you mail off to them, you get credits, which can be spent to get the books on your wish list or you find via browsing. Think of it as turning one book into another for the cost of packing and postage.

In addition to my fiction and non-fiction reading, Paperbackswap has turned out to be a resource for picking up role-playing books on the cheap. Plus, a couple titles I threw on my list for fun — GURPS Technomancer and GURPS Voodoo — both appeared. Battle-worn, well-loved copies, but still there. Most of what I’ve picked up are GURPS supplements, but I also acquired Uresia: Grave of Heaven.

There are, however, two provisos. This is not a speedy process. Most of the role-playing books I’ve acquired through Paperbackswap sat on my wish list for a year or more before someone happened to list the book, or it became my turn to receive a copy. You have to be prepared to play the long game. It doesn’t hurt to have GURPS Places of Mystery in my queue, no matter how long it takes to show up, if ever.

Two, these books are typically not in collection-grade condition. In fact, if a role-playing book has gotten to the point that the owner is willing to list it on Paperbackswap, it’s probably seen a lot of action. Which can work out great, if it’s a title that normally demands high prices. You get the content with none of the worries about maintaining the book’s condition or feeling bad about how much you paid.

Paperbackswap isn’t a guarantee of getting cheap role-playing books, but it never hurts to set up that wish list. You even get two credits to start off when you sign up.

Melting Down Middlebury

Ilsley Library is rocking.

Ilsley Library is rocking.

I didn’t get to attend the game day this past weekend. But Chuck of the Green Mountain Gamers did. And he snapped pictures and blogged about it over on the Green Mountain Gamers website. So check that out instead of reading my typical natterings about these days. Let someone else tell you how much fun it was instead!

[Scions of Time] The Crystal Sphere

Due to the blizzard two Mondays ago, we tried to have a make-up Scions of Time game this past Monday. That wound up being me, Nonny and Munk due to scheduling. So we had a mini adventure in which Munk’s incarnation of the Time Lord, dubbed Challenger because no one’s come up with a title they like, met Stacy the airhead car hop waitress at a dusty drive-in somewhere on the Extraterrestrial Highway in Nevada in the 1950s.

As he ordered a milkshake, Challenger and Stacy got to talking about going places and doing things beyond Nevada. She’d started in Chicago and headed west, intending to get to Hollywood to become famous. When a pair of soldiers from the nearby base showed up to apprehend Challenger, he fled to his ship outside, taking Stacy with him on the promise of taking her to Paris.

Where they wound up was the USS Paris, a scout ship orbiting a crystalline stellar object sometime in the future. They explored the ship a bit, met the crew, were brigged for a bit and then discovered the star system was entirely enclosed in a crystalline sphere that hadn’t been there a week ago. The sudden appearance of the sphere alone was interesting enough to attract the attention of a scout ship. The odd crystal object orbiting one of the inner planets they discovered once they burned their way in was even more interesting.

We left off with the crystalline object reacting rather poorly to Challenger and Stacy’s EVA. I’m not sure if we’ll ever get back to that cliffhanger, as we’re not likely to have just Nonny and Munk at the table again. Maybe a future or past set of characters could happen across that moment and cross their timelines for some Blinovitch Limitation Effect fun.

This session highlighted something about this group that we need to work out: everyone has a reactionary play style. I’m reactionary in that I feel I’m at my best when bouncing back from what the players do. And these players seem to wait for things to happen to them. This runs counter to my own conceptions of how an itinerant Time Lord behaves: being nosy, taking the lead in interactions and so on.

So there’s a gap between expectations here. We talked a bit about it after the game, how it’s in genre for more proactivity and nosiness on the players’ part. To my mind, landing on a ship orbiting an interesting thing should be more than enough to get player characters curious, but I am steeped in the many veins of lore of Doctor Who, in which “wander around and get captured” is a valid method of information gathering and getting captured means the Doctor runs rings around his supposed custodians. That’s not every player’s style, though. My hope is that these things will emerge and even themselves out in play.

And I will continue to fight against the GM ADD that whispers in my ear, “Hey, why not switch over to that other campaign idea? That’d be fun and everyone would dig it way more than this Doctor Who mess.”

Let the Spring Meltdown Commence

March 19th in Middlebury, Vermont.

My corner of Vermont has been in thaw for the last week, which is a fine prelude to Spring Meltdown, the fourth of the Green Mountain Gamers’ seasonal game days.

Tomorrow morning, I and some of the Burlington crowd will truck down to Middlebury, where we hope to meet the fine game-playing denizens of Addison, southern Chittenden and northern Rutland counties.

In addition to officiating the Endeavor tournament, I will have a number of role-playing-like things in my bag: the Ghostbusters adventure Pumpkin Jack, Fiasco with my as yet playtested science fiction set and Inspectres, which I picked up at PAX East last weekend. So at least I’ll have some reading material if I find myself with downtime.

If you’re in the area, or even just slightly out of it and have an itch to do some traveling, I hope you’ll come out for a bit.

PAX East 2011 Travelogue

Last week, I traveled down to PAX East in Boston, the eastern cousin of PAX (Penny Arcade Expo), a game and media show put on — ultimately — by the authors of the Penny Arcade web comic. All things considered, it was a really good weekend. PAX East was easily the biggest convention I’ve ever attended; I’ve seen a figure of 69,500 attendees, but that must be turnstile, rather than unique individuals. At any rate, the joint was huge and so were the teeming throngs of conventioneers.

In spite of pumping contacts who’d gone to the previous PAX East for information, I had difficulty envisioning just what to expect. How much tabletop gaming would there actually be, given the undeniable prevalence of electronic games in the Penny Arcade community? A lot, as it turned out.

A whole slice of the main hall outside the main exhibition area was given over to tabletop games. Wizards of the Coast had dozens of tables running their Dungeons & Dragons encounter series, Fantasy Flight Games spent the weekend in the expo area teaching Civilization, Mansions of Madness and Death Angels, Steve Jackson Games had a booth for demoing their newest games, Z-Man Games had an extraordinary selection of titles to show and sell, Indie Press Revolution and another unnamed group of independent role-playing game publishers were showing off their games. Plus there were more demos of board games by Days of Wonder, Gamewright, Looney Labs and other independent outfits whose names I didn’t catch. Plus, the Tabletop Headquarters had a fair size game library for attendees to browse, including a number of titles that must have been donated by companies demonstrating at the show.

Basically, there were a lot of damn tabletop games to play. I didn’t do everything on my hit list — I skipped the Action Castle panel on Friday, but got a quick ten minute try-out the next morning at the booth — but then I tried things I didn’t expect, either, like a preview of Ice Dice from a Looney Labs volunteer, or a Rogue Trader adventure run by gaming gadabout Bob. If you want to see the full list of things I played, visit my play log at Boardgame- and RPGGeek.

Of the panels I did attend, there was the rather civil Dungeons & Dragons Edition Wars; the Rat Bastard’s Guide to Long Campaigns, which was somewhat misleading in its title, given the lack of rat bastardry; Publish Your Own RPG — And Don’t Go Broke Doing It!, which let me down because a lot of the advice boiled down to “get on the internet; use free tools and media”; and Careers in Paper Gaming, which also contained a lot of familiar advice. I’m probably a outlier due to paying attention to shop-talk discussion threads in the various role-playing forums out there, so I hope plenty of other people found those panels enlightening.

Social media played a role in the convention that I expected, but underestimated. Sure, there was the #paxeast hash tag, but there was a lot more whizzing around through cell networks and the convention center’s wifi — which was frustrating in its spottiness, but hardly surprising given the number of devices probably trying to make use of it. Gamers used Twitter to find extra players for games; companies used it to announce deals. On returning from Boston, I belatedly discovered the bustling forum community that used the PAX event as an umbrella under which to organize their own activities.

And in spite of all that, I only saw a portion of the whole show. There was the whole world of electronic gaming that I essentially ignored. The only time I went near it was to attend Bill Amend‘s Further Greetings from a Dead Tree Dinosaur Cartoonist panel on Sunday in the main theater. Then I remembered, “Oh yes, there’s console gaming and PC gaming and look, stand-up arcade machines!”

In short, PAX East was an instance of “far more to see and do than you can cram into a weekend, so don’t sweat it.” It was a fun experience and now I have an idea of what to expect next year and how to go about getting what I want out of the experience.

Below the jump, you’ll find a smattering of pictures I snapped over the weekend.

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The Dilemma of Supplements

There is a dilemma in which I find myself trapped again and again when it comes to new role-playing games. A new game comes out whose premise I dig, so I pick it up. It turns out I like the game and then I look forward to picking future supplements expanding on that game. Only . . . the supplements get trapped in the pipeline or they don’t cover topics of interest to me.

In the first case, I’m a fan of WitchCraft and Conspiracy X, two games published by Eden Studios. Both have had chronic issues with Eden getting supplements through development and into the market. As I’ve seen it related on web forums, they need an infusion of cash to pay the printer for a run of a supplement, so they knock out an All Flesh Must Be Eaten book to generate that sum. But somehow that doesn’t work out due to time and energy concerns, so books like The Book of Geburah and Grace & Guidance linger in development hell.

In the second case, consider The Day After Ragnarok, published by Atomic Overmind Press. I love the primary setting book. It’s awesome stuff. The published supplementary materials available so far which I . . . don’t really care about. Sten guns? Monster Island? Not for me.

The quandary for me in both situations is this: I want more books to do with the game in question. I understand I need to vote with my dollars to make that happen. But buying the things available seemingly sends the wrong message. In the case of WitchCraft and Conspiracy X, there is nothing to buy; supporting them would mean buying All Flesh Must Be Eaten books; and an uptick in sales for that line isn’t going to help its beleaguered siblings. Similarly for The Day After Ragnarok, if I buy the existing supplements, it tells Atomic Overmind two things: I am interested in those topics — when really I am not — and I buy PDFs — when really I do so only under duress. Additionally, my luxury cash is not so plentiful that I can buy books willy-nilly without having any interest in the content.

So it’s a bit of a bind. Buy stuff I don’t particularly want in the hopes that the rising effect somehow affects the products I’m really interested in — or could be, if they existed — or buy nothing but the books I want and watch the line quietly taper into “Sure do wish they’d published some more books that . . . what was it called again?”

(There are the other options of buying extra copies of the core books, which leads back to needless waste of limited cash, and running the game to get other people into buying the books. Grassroots promotion is probably the best route, but it’s so time intensive compared to buying a book, you know? Really though, that’s probably the way to go, so long as the books are actually still available for purchase.)

Gone to PAX East

I’ve gone to PAX East for the weekend. Things I hope to achieve:

  • Admire the Sultan from Geek Chic.
  • Check out Microsoft’s Surface . . . thingy.
  • See if Fantasy Flight Games has any interesting previews in their booth.
  • Glimpse how Action Castle actually works.
  • Catch the Dungeons & Dragons Edition Wars panel.
  • Hustle for Carnage.
  • Say hi to some of the people with whom I’ve only interacted on the internet so far.
  • Find some Boston microbrews to try.

Depending on wifi availability, you may hear from me via Twitter during the weekend. Follow @heldaction for on the spot updates, not dissimilar from “Wow, the Sultan is beautiful!” and “This place is big and noisy.”

Things That Never Were

“Call it speculative nonfiction, or cryptojournalism, or historico-literary ranting, or guided daydreaming or collective-unconscious channeling, or edutainment disinformation, or fabulaic mimesis, or polymorphously perverse media-jamming, or any other semi-oxymoronic term you care to employ, so long as the new phrase conveys the proper sense of daring, erudition, obstinate refusal to accept consensus reality, playfulness, willingness to go out on a limb then saw the limb away, and all the other qualities traditionally associated with humanity’s greatest rebels, outcasts, eccentrics, visionaries, saints, madmen and plain old bullgoose loonies.”

That’s just the start of a glowing introduction from Paul di Filippo to Matthew Rossi’s Things That Never Were, a collection of short essays that range across the fields of history, science and their pseudo-counterparts. In one, he cobbles together an expedition team including Ehrich Weiss, H. P. Lovecraft and Robert E. Howard among others who delve into the caverns of Pellucidar and Atvatabari to stop the dero threat once and for all. In another, he posits a war of espionage between Roger Bacon and Kubilai Khan, the greatest minds of the west and east, respectively.

Every essay is a freewheeling mish-mash of ideas ranging from the ultimate fate of the Library of Alexandria — hidden in a dimensional fold by genius mathematician Hypatia — to a bevvy of potential causes of the Tunguska blast of 1908 — too numerous to sum up. Rossi pulls from a wide variety of esoteric source of information without much discernment. The writing of Theosophists are as much fair game as The Dictionary of Imaginary Places. In short, it’s a smorgasbord of ideas ripe for the picking for a role-playing campaign.

As fun as Rossi’s rapid-fire, scattershot mingling of fact, fiction and supposition is to read and feel your brain prickle at the madness of it all, it can be daunting to pick out the one or two things one wants from an essay while the author pinwheels around, invoking as many geek touchstones as possible, particularly Lovecraft’s mythos. Rossi usually cites his sources, particularly with extensive quotes to set the stage, but I often found myself wishing for annotations expanding on a throwaway namecheck, references to other essays in the book — he often brings a name or topic up “as I’ve mentioned before” when they appear later in the book — and footnotes of further books to research.

It’s fun, it’s readable and it’s so similar to some of the plot seeds I’ve written here that I think we’ve both drawn from the same inspirational well, the Suppressed Transmission column by Kenneth Hite. But that’s fine. There’s more than enough weirdness in the world for everyone to write about. And I appreciated being reminded about this book on a recent thread lamenting the unavailability of unpublished transmissions; it was a lot like stumbling onto Suppressed Transmission‘s cousin and being just as enraptured.

Things That Never Were is published by Monkeybrain Books and can be purchased on Amazon — and possibly conventional retailers; I didn’t check.