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Desert island dungeons (2)

July 30, 2012

Continued from here.

6. Call of Cthulhu 2e

I’m pretty certain that Call of Cthulhu was the first non-D&D RPG I bought. It’s certainly the game, other than D&D, that I’ve played the most. Or rather GMed (“Keepered”? “Kept”?) the most, because to the best of my recollection I’ve only been a Call of Cthulhu player once, in the session at a friend’s house in 1984 or thereabouts that introduced me to the game. In that session my investigator learned the spell Summon Byakhee and, for reasons I can’t recall, cast it while travelling on board a train somewhere in New England. He failed to bind it though (or didn’t know how) so things got messy pretty quickly. I didn’t have a clue what I was doing, or what was going on. I’d never read Lovecraft. But the game was great fun, with a unique atmosphere, and very playable. (My only prior experience with the Chaosium family of games had been with RuneQuest, which never clicked with me.) I went to the local library and found an HPL anthology containing “The Shadow Over Innsmouth” and “The Shadow Out of Time”, among others, which I devoured greedily. Then I bought Call of Cthulhu (the Games Workshop boxed set of the second edition, with the rulebook, the 1920s sourcebook and the world map inside) and proceeded to run it, stringing a loose campaign together from many of the published Chaosium adventures, those appearing in White Dwarf, and some of my own efforts. Those were good and memorable times!

Call of Cthulhu is quite simply superb. I remember that in the mid-1980s, when White Dwarf conducted a readers’ poll, it was voted Best RPG, much to the chagrin of some dyed-in-the-wool D&Ders. (I think AD&D and RuneQuest took silver and bronze respectively, with Traveller presumably not far behind.) Alright, maybe the game is too Derleth-ified. Maybe it doesn’t do a great job of modelling Lovecraft’s style or tone, but frankly that’s a feature, as they say, not a bug. I’m afraid you can’t be precious about Lovecraft and play Call of Cthulhu. Quite apart from anything else, despite (or perhaps because of) it being ostensibly a “horror” game, Call of Cthulhu is frequently hilarious in play. The byakhee incident mentioned above comes to mind, but there was also the time when Paddy O’Toole, a journalist with a single point of SAN remaining (he’d read far too many blasphemous tomes), was holed up in his Arkham hotel room while the town was terrorised by shoggoths. He drew the curtains and hunkered down, eyes closed and covering his ears to avoid hearing (a) the piteous screams of the citizens outside, and (b) the voice of his squat, inhuman familiar, urging, “Go on, take a look. Just a little peek!”

Anyway, it’s a beauty. Back in 1981 Sandy Petersen wrote a clear, streamlined, tightly focussed game, which has barely changed since – because it doesn’t need to. With a copy of the Call of Cthulhu rulebook, you or I can run sanity-shattering cosmic horror science fantasy games until the cows come home … or until the stars are right.

7. BRP “Big Gold Book”

If I could change one thing about the OSR, it would be to raise its collective gaze from the gaming omphalos that is D&D (which I love) and get it to embrace, or at least consider, some of the Other Old Ways. (Aye, OK, I know you like Warhammer FRP. Fine. Whatever.) As well as Call of Cthulhu, another Chaosium game I played and GMed quite a lot back in the 1980s was Stormbringer, which was a wonderfully dark and brutal system for sword-and-sorcery gaming, whether set in Moorcock’s Young Kingdoms or elsewhere. Stormbringer, like Call of Cthulhu and several other games (including RuneQuest) was powered by Chaosium’s house system, which became known as Basic Roleplaying (BRP). Now, I happen to think this system has much to recommend it. Without getting bogged down in details, here are four good things about BRP: an intuitive percentile system (everyone can understand what Listen 25% or Climb 70% means), the fact that almost all the information needed to play the game is right there on the character sheet or in the monster’s stat block (obviating any requirement to look up rules or tables during play), great genre flexibility (fantasy, sf, horror, western, gangsters, superheroes, and pretty much anything else you can think of), and – lastly but by no means least – modularity. That’s right, the thing that keeps getting brought up when people talk about D&D 5e. When Chaosium published the generic Basic Roleplaying rules in 2008 – the single-volume edition with a version of Vitruvian Man on the cover that quickly became known as the Big Gold Book – they placed a toolkit in the hands of GMs. The default game mechanics are presented, along with a shitload of optional rules to cover (or so they claim) “every roleplaying style”. Certainly, using the contents of this book, you could play a clean and streamlined game like Call of Cthulhu, or you could add optional rules (skill category modifiers, fatigue points, strike ranks, hit locations, etc.) and end up with something as complex and “crunchy” as RuneQuest. My own preference lies, Stormbringer-like, somewhere between these extremes, and that’s also easy to achieve. Not that I have anything invested in D&D 5e, but I can only hope that those entrusted with its design might take a look at the Big Gold Book and recognise its potential value as a template for a modular game engine.

Before moving on, I should mention that a 48-page Quickstart version of the BRP rules (which obviously doesn’t have any of the bells and whistles of the BGB, but which does include several mini-adventures in different genres) is available FREE from BRP Central, the friendly forum for all things percentile. Download it here.

8. Skyrealms of Jorune 3e

9. The Sholari’s Companion

Regular readers of this blog (assuming for the sake of argument that such creatures exist) and anyone who’s ended up here from the Facebook group I started back when Facebook was fun, Shambo in the Shenters, will be aware of my long-time Jorune fixation. It’s been one of my favourite game settings for over twenty-five years now. I wrote about it here in the context of my much-delayed D100 conversion. I don’t have much to add, except to say that I actually prefer the second edition of Skyrealms of Jorune (1985, revised 1986) but that was three books and an adventure module in a box, so – since I don’t want to jettison Carcosa or anything else from my top ten – I’m choosing the one-volume third edition (1992), which also allows me to take The Sholari’s Companion by Joseph Steven Coleman aka Joseph K. Adams. This latter work is indispensible to the Sholari (GM), as it provides errata and a comprehensive index (why was there no index in the rulebook, for Iscin’s sake?) in addition to a 17-page glossary of Jorune nomenclature, a 7-page gazetteer of the planet’s known realms, a very useful timeline covering 6,600 years of history, a calendar, and numerous rules clarifications and revisions. It’s not a perfect analogy, but Joe is like the J. Eric Holmes of Skyrealms of Jorune. He came along as a fan, took a game that was overly complex and poorly organised and made it a lot more accessible.

10. Faerie Wood

I wrote about it, appropriately perhaps, on Beltane. (Read that here.) I should write some more. I have a signed copy that I bought from the author (my friend Garry Robson) in a pub in Portsmouth in 1993. The game is charming and funny, and the book itself is a rare and beautiful thing. Of course I’m taking Faerie Wood.

Ten more off the top of my head:

Monster Manual, B2: The Keep on the Borderlands, X1: The Isle of Dread, Stonehell Dungeon, The Dungeon Alphabet, Vornheim, Stars Without Number, Paranoia, The Dying Earth RPG, and a binder with printouts of all the maps from The Mines of Khunmar.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. July 31, 2012 8:23 pm

    Call of Cthulhu is quite simply superb. I remember that in the mid-1980s, when White Dwarf conducted a readers’ poll, it was voted Best RPG, much to the chagrin of some dyed-in-the-wool D&Ders.

    When Arcane ran their survey of their readers’ hundred favourite rpgs, D&D came second, and I remember the article saying something along the lines of “If you’re wondering why D&D is only second, it’s because Call of Cthulhu is better.” Of course, they rather gave it away by having Cthulhu on the cover of the magazine, but so it goes.

    It is probably my favourite rpg. I say “probably” because Pendragon is perhaps a better game, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay is beautiful, but I don’t love them as much as I do Call of Cthulhu.

    I’ve told this before, but it seems relevant; here’s my favourite Call of Cthulhu story:

    I am about eighteen or nineteen, running Horror on the Orient Express. The vampire Fenalik is on the train, in the corridor outside the players’ cabin. The players are inside, with the MacGuffin Fenalik wants. He attempts to charm them, but he’s a rotten, haggard old thing, and no Christopher Lee. He gets increasingly angry with them, as they get increasingly amused by his impotent rage. Because, of course, he can’t enter their cabin without an invitation.

    Finally, his patience gone, Fenalik assures them that though he can’t touch them now, he will soon kill them all in the most gory way imaginable. They laugh at him, then one — caught up in the moment — responds:

    “Just come in and try it!”

    How we laughed.

    You’re dead right about BRP too. I’ve never used it as the core rules for a game, but I’ve pulled bits and pieces from it to bolt onto my Call of Cthulhu games. I also agree that it’s a shame that there’s not a lot of BRP love in the OSR community; perhaps the release of RuneQuest 6 and Call of Cthulhu 7 will change that.

  2. November 20, 2013 7:55 pm

    “I’m afraid you can’t be precious about Lovecraft and play Call of Cthulhu.”

    That seems to be a minority report, but a good and important one.

    I own that edition of Jorune, but have never played or GMed it.

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