Professor Longfellow and the Ghost Bride

The Ghost Bride made a beeline for Professor Longfellow while everyone else was trapped in the basement with no way out, thanks to the Collapsed Room, Coal Chute, Mystic Slide and Mystic Elevator. She rushed him through the rites of matrimony in record time.

Zero Hour: Survival Horror Card Game

Two character cards from Zero Hour, with period photographs of two children.Last night, library game night kicked off with Zero Hour, a card game based on the Slender Man mythos. In short, each player has a ensemble of young children, led by an older young adult with a psychic ability, that must be shepherded through a night wandering through the woods, stalked by the Slender Man, and hope to make it until the morning. Each surviving child is worth so many points, plus any interesting items they may have picked up along the way, which determines the winner at the end.

It’s a decent premise, but holy cow, the game itself is long and uninteresting. A turn consists of drawing an exploration card for each child in your charge, which is most likely to injure their sanity score, or have some other negative effect. Rolling a d6 to beat a variable target number resolves those effects. So the game is wholly luck-driven and very repetitive: draw an exploration card for a child, typically roll a die to determine success or failure, repeat for each child in your group. And as the number of players increases, so does the wait between each of your turns.

Zero Hour has an interesting theme — mainly with regard to how a deliberately invented mythos from the 2000s is slowly becoming part of our culture — but the game play itself is practically non-existent. There are few choices, and none of them felt very significant. This is the kind of game that plays around you while chatting with other players until the turn comes around, you do your business and return to chatting, waiting to be tapped on the shoulder because it’s your turn or someone’s targeted you with an effect.

#RPGaDay2015 21: Favorite RPG Setting

RPG-a-day-2015The cover of GURPS Cabal. Four supernatural creatures gaze out menacingly.This is another of those topics where I can hardly choose a single favorite. Not least because I feel like I don’t have enough exposure to settings in play, as opposed to having read the book and shelved it. So with the caveat that it’s one of my favorites mostly because it’s a fun read, I nominate GURPS Cabal.

The Cabal began as a mini-setting in the second edition of GURPS Horror, but it was Ken Hite’s expansion of the original material into a full supplement of its own, along with the usual GURPS rules expansion, that made reading about the Cabal so amazing. Hite took the basic framework of a mutual aid society for sorcerers, monsters, faeries, reptoids and so many others from the depths of classic and modern supernatural stories and blended it with real world history and occult traditions, with an especial focus on the Hermetic worldview.

There’s a dizzying secret history of the world, varied cast of characters to run up against and a cosmology straight out of the kabbalah. In short, it’s an intimidating setting to consider using in a game — I dabbled a couple times in different ways and didn’t feel very successful, relative to the bar of imagination and creativity that I felt the book set[1] — but it’s a damn fine read, and always an excellent source of ideas. But then the hard work — and I maintain it’s hard work, even as other people like to throw “Well, if you can’t figure it out, you’re just not trying” with this kind of high detail, low hand-holding material — of turning it into decisions and characters that will engage the players is still left to be done.

That said, I wish there had been more follow-up material to GURPS Cabal to read, at least. The Cabal gets a mention now and again in fourth edition GURPS material, as they became a new player in the Infinite Earths landscape and figure in the scant setting material in GURPS Thaumatology, but that’s about it, unless it’s all showing up in issues of Pyramid.


[1] I borrowed heavily for Mage: The Suppressed Transmission, and developed the Broken Spokes framework for a campaign that didn’t get past the first session and then a convention one-shot that I still feel embarrassed about.

#RPGaDay2015 20: Favorite Horror RPG

RPG-a-day-2015I feel like there are the games we call horror games, and the games that are truly horror games. People call Mage: the Ascension a horror game, because it’s a cousin of Vampire: the Masquerade and it has themes of the consequences of hubris, a la Frankenstein. And then we have the personal horror of Vampire itself, where the player’s character is the source of repugnance. Beyond that is the cosmic horror of Call of Cthulhu, in which characters discover the full dimensions of their insignificance in comparison to the true powers of the cosmos.

Which of those we find truly horrifying depends on the person. I have a friend who maintains Lovecraft’s conception of the universe is not horrifying, because as of the 21st century, we have assimilated what his characters dreaded to be the case as reality. It can’t be horrifying because it’s not unknown. My point of dissent with her argument is that regardless of what we think we know, there’s always a bigger issue, a bigger shell around what we know, that we don’t know. And the contents of that bigger shell are still unknown and still horrifying.

What that has to say about my favorite horror role-playing game is left as an exercise for the reader. If you’ve been reading Held Action for a while, you can probably figure it out.

Mage 20th Anniversary’s PDF Materializes

Given the lack of substantive news on the development of Mage‘s 20th anniversary edition — “It’s in yet another round in editing!” was the refrain that I picked out from most of the backer updates — and that I don’t follow news from Onyx Path, I will cop to being downright astonished yesterday afternoon when the email came through with a link to the PDF version of the core book. The Mage anniversary project was something I backed almost out of thoughtless reflex. I don’t know that I ever expected it to truly be done, and certainly not within the time frame they estimated.

And while the project certainly isn’t done, the PDF release is a significant, publicly visible milestone to reach. As in, “Oh yeah, this thing is going to be real! Some day, there will be a new, big, fat purple book on my shelf.”

I only skimmed a few pages last night, but wow. Talk about diving right back into the thick of 1990s White Wolf role-playing material. All that defiant, first-person writing in italicized capital letters, occasionally with lots of exclamation points, really stirs up memories. (And gets the eyes rolling, but Mage as written is what it is, until I make it suit my preferences.)

Delta Green in Beta Test

Arc Dream Publishing opened the new Delta Green role-playing game to beta testing yesterday. You can add the playtest files to your Dropbox, or download a zip archive to your computer. The files include an introductory readme explaining the feedback Arc Dream wants from playtesters, and in what form. It also asks that people not redistribute the files, which is an interesting request in an open process.

I desperately wish I had the time and energy to read the rules and conscript a playtest group, as I’ve been listening to people like Adam Scott Glancy, Kenneth Hite and Shane Ivey talk about the development of Delta Green‘s very own role-playing game for what seems like years now, on podcasts like Role Playing Public Radio and Unspeakable! I will settle for skimming the documents when I have a few minutes with a computer.

The rest of you, though, have until November 23rd to run some sessions using the beta rules and existing free Delta Green material like Night Floors and Music from a Darkened Room. and then get feedback to Arc Dream.

[Hat tip to Paul of Cthulhu for sharing the news.]

#RPGaDAY 28: Scariest Game You’ve Played

#RPGaDAY prompts.

The #RPGaDAY prompt was concocted by Dave Chapman of Autocratik. Grab the list and join in!

The scariest role-playing game I ever partook in was not scary due to the adventure or other prepared material. Rather, it was the use of lights, music and sound effects that got me during the adventure’s climax. The GM did an excellent job of using rhythm and dissonance to get the heart pounding and me feeling off-kilter.

Once was enough for that sort of thing.

#RPGaDAY 4: Most Recent RPG Purchase

#RPGaDAY prompts.

The #RPGaDAY prompt was concocted by Dave Chapman of Autocratik. Grab the list and join in!

My role-playing purchases have dwindled precipitously in the past few years. I recognized that I was buying far more books than I had energy even to read, let alone put to use in role-playing campaigns. Additionally, I noticed I was buying books covering basically the same topics and rules niches: mechanically light, historical or modern fantasy, etc. How many times did I need to buy a book telling me how to run a game about wizards and vampires in a variation of our world? So I shifted from “that sounds interesting, I’ll buy it” to watching a few particular writers’ output for items of note. So up until now, the last role-playing purchase I made was probably nearly two years ago, when Night’s Black Agents came out.

GURPS Horror: The Madness Dossier cover.Bearing that in mind, how surprising is it that my most recent acquisition was the recently released standalone edition of Kenneth Hite’s The Madness Dossier? It’s an analogue of the real world, in which the survivors of a temporal cataclysm try to wrest history as we know back to the way they know it, where humanity is ground under the heel of godlike beings who control the very means of thought and perception with hard-coded neurolinguistic programming, a la Snow Crash. So naturally humanity fights back, using the enemy’s own weapons against them, while searching for more information about the lost history and how to ensure it stays lost.

Madness Dossier started out as a mini-setting in the third edition of GURPS Horror, with a handful of pages of text, some lightly sketched antagonists and plot seeds. I dug it a lot — albeit knowing all the time I’d never run it as dark as it was written. Instead, I seized on the idea of crossing the setting with GURPS Cabal. The reality quake and slumbering deities of History B made their way into the Broken Spokes campaign I wrote up notes for, where the Annunaku of Madness Dossier become the fallen archangels of the First Creation, and the reality quake took the form of the biblical deluge that flushed them out of the cosmos.

The campaign frame never really took off, even as one-shot scenarios, in part because I never felt inventive enough to expand Madness Dossier or Cabal sufficiently to run a game. Now the expanded edition has far more content about what neurolinguistic programming looks like mechanically, the antagonists that members of Project SANDMAN might encounter and what it is they do, to call back the old quandary about Mage: the Ascension. And because I can’t let life be simple, of course, I’m mentally making notes about how to port the setting over to Conspiracy X 2.0, to reach that trifecta of modern fantasy in a low crunch rules structure.

The Madness Dossier Opens

GURPS Horror: The Madness Dossier cover.I think we can all agree that the arrival of The Madness Dossier revised and expanded is simultaneously bone-chilling in its cosmological implications and a joy for anyone who’s been hoping for this since it first appeared as a mini-setting in GURPS Horror for third edition.

Green Mountain Gamers’ Game ‘n Grill 2014

The 2011 Game 'n Grill, going down at the Upper Valley Grange in Norwich, Vermont.

Summer Game ‘n Grill 2014.

Yesterday, Green Mountain Gamers hosted their summer game day, complete with grill for flame-based food preparation. I got to play:

  1. Coconuts: a dexterity game of monkeys catapulting suspiciously squishy “coconuts” into baskets, which get built into pyramids. Lots of stealing baskets and angling to take coconuts out of commission.
  2. Sentinels of the Multiverse: on my fourth and fifth plays, I’m really starting to get this game. Enough that I led the second game, and spent some of today thinking it would be a great solo game for when I can’t find anyone else free to flop cards.
  3. Betrayal at House on the Hill: always a treat, especially with two scenarios I’ve never played before, one of which was traitor-less. I still feel like the winner was a traitor, though.
  4. Mansions of Madness: the previous time I thought I played this game might have been a dream. This time, we played The Yellow Sign scenario, which occasionally intersected with the fustercluck of investigators and cultists that clogged up the main hallway of said disturbed domicile for most of the game. The investigators won, though, so that was a change from my conception of this as a one-versus-many heavily tilted toward the one — which is, admittedly, in keeping with the Lovecraft themes.
  5. Bluff / Liar’s Dice: this version had a board with a track that made the rules of betting make a great deal more sense. Still not a game I’d suggest.

It was an ungodly gorgeous day outside, but we had a lot of fun hanging out at the Vergennes’ Congregational Church. The venue is very nice, the organizers had everything together — especially the lead, Chuck — and the snacks were better than ever. Green Mountain Gamers put on these free events, running off donations, and they’re always a great time. Congratulations to them for making them happen all year round.