Speaking of Call of Cthulhu…

I agree with those who think it’s a mistake to play that game with miniatures, because the imagination is so powerful in interpreting “ineffable” horrors. However, I adore 1920s-era miniatures, especially those by the genius Bob Murch, who sculpted many of the classic RAFM figures and also his own line of Pulp-era minis. I have loads of Bob’s and other sculptors’s minis yet to paint, but once I’ve finished a hundred or so, I’ll be ready to jump back into Horror on the Orient Express and Masks of Nyarlathotep, two of my favorite roleplaying campaigns that I’ve never actually played to completion.

Do you play CoC with or without miniatures? What’s your opinion on using them without diminishing the power of imagining creatures and scenes that are best not reduced to game tokens?

#RPGaDay: Favorite RPG of All Time

31. Favorite RPG of All Time. This is a tough one to answer, because there are many lesser-known RPGs that I admire a great deal. And it’s tempting to cite D&D in all its incarnations, since it was the focus of my day job for a decade and the origin of many of my favorite settings, including those for which I’ve written tie-in novels.

Yet I’m going with Call of Cthulhu for several reasons.

It’s a great example—perhaps the greatest—of a designer’s translating the essential concept of a milieu, in this case cosmic horror, into an elegant game mechanic. While my teenage self found a Sanity stat laughable, I eventually realized its brilliance, especially in the simple balance between sanity and knowing the truth about the Mythos.

It offers gamers a simple paradigm every bit as compelling as fighting monsters and gathering treasure in D&D. Call of Cthulhu entices investigators with clues to a secret world of eldritch horror. Their objective is often simply to survive long enough to give the survivors a chance to prevent worse horrors from devastating the world. The thrill is to ride that razor’s edge between knowledge and sanity.

Especially with the “default” setting of the 1920s, Call of Cthulhu takes advantage of history in ways other games seldom do. Introducing the characters to Ernest Hemingway in or sending them to Weimar Germany or placing them on the Titanic adds dramatic tension at the same time as it appeals to readers of historical fiction.

Finally, the Call of Cthulhu game is a portal into the best parts of H.P. Lovecraft’s imagination without his often disappointing storytelling and prose (but what a delightful vocabulary!), not to mention his racist views. It’s a great tool to separate the good from the bad from a complicated author whose best ideas inspired countless others to expand and improve upon the fruit of his damaged psyche.

#RPGaDay: Coolest Character Sheet

26. Coolest Character Sheet. One of the most common reactions to discovering D&D in the late 70s and 80s was to create your own character sheets. While printed sheets were available, we were kids with small or nonexistent allowances. But I had a typewriter and access to a mimeograph machine. Soon I discovered lots of fellow gamers had the same idea, and we had dozens of options for character sheets.

But my favorite character sheet is one I prepared for a Call of Cthulhu campaign yet still haven’t run on account of moving out of town. I’d planned the game for a group including casual and non-gamers. To make things easier for them, and to mask a lot of the mechanics, I prepared a notebook and an index card.

On the card I provided a short description of the characters’ abilities: “You’re an excellent archeologist with above-average experience as a researcher. You can handle a pistol, but you’re a crack shot with a rifle. You can operate a radio but would have a hard time repairing one.” That sort of thing.

The notebook was blank. I expected the characters to keep notes on their investigations, writing down addresses of NPCs and sketching items they discovered. Each game session also came with a homework assignment. For instance, before the first session, it was, “Find a photograph—perhaps from newspaper archives or other historical sources—that represents your character. Paste it onto page one.” Later it was things like, “Write a letter to a colleague back home,” or “Compose a telegram requesting information from the British Museum.” Maybe “List the steps to clean and load your weapon.” Evolving over the course of the campaign, the notebooks would become the character sheets, while that index card, remaining vague, would contain all the disguised game mechanics.

#RPGaDay: Game Will Still Play in 20 Years’ Time

20. Game Will Still Play in 20 Years’ Time. This one is a toss-up between some iteration of D&D/Pathfinder, since it’s the one burned into my brain these past forty-some years, or Call of Cthulhu. In both cases, the reason is that I have a large stash of scenarios, miniatures, terrain, handouts, and whatever else I might like to take with me to the old folks’ home.

If I had to pick just one, I’d say probably CoC, since they’ll probably assign me to a small, padded room.


#RPGaDay: Favorite Published Adventure

19. Favorite Published Adventure. At last, an easy one!

While I’ve read and played many great adventures for various systems, none stands out as vividly as Masks of Nyarlathotep by Larry DiTillio, with development from other contributors who expanded a great story with generous amounts of  research, not to mention a large and excellent collection of player handouts. Fans of the adventure have even compiled a companion several times longer than the adventure itself.

Call of Cthulhu enjoys a wealth of great scenarios, but Masks is the most epic and globe-spanning, which for me is a huge appeal. Players start in New York City, but depending on which clues they follow, they can travel to London, Cairo, Nairobi, Darwin, Shanghai, and points between.

Without abandoning the sense of horror key to a great CoC adventure, Masks veers deep into pulp adventure territory, giving the players the (often illusory) feeling that they have more in common with Indiana Jones than with Charles Dexter Ward. Beware, however; those who go in with bullwhip snapping and pistol waving will be fortunate if the only result is a sudden death.

#RPGaDay: Favorite Game System

18. Favorite Game System. Unfair! Too hard to answer.

While I have long been a story-over-mechanics guy, there was a time when I admired nothing better than an elegant die mechanic. West End’s Star Wars, FASA’s Shadowrun, Mike Nystul’s Whispering Vault, and lesser-known games like Don’t Look Back: Terror Is Never Far Behind impressed me as much with their rules as with their settings—although in most cases, I liked both. I could make a long list before coming close to a true favorite.

Another stand-out is Call of Cthulhu, which I initially dismissed because of my loathing for d% systems. Once I looked at it, however, the simple beauty of the insanity/mythos mechanic won me over.

Of course, as my first and most-often-played game, D&D has long held a special place in my heart, even for its hoary mechanics. I even liked many of the innovations of the reviled 4th Edition, but I agree with the many who felt they began to fail after the lowest levels of play.

With that in mind, my choice will be the Star Wars Saga edition, which married the virtues of 3rd Edition with a few of the best elements of the then-nascent 4th Edition. I make this choice with a certain amount of practical ignorance, for while I’ve read a great deal of the Saga material, I’ve yet to run a campaign.