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Shadows of Cthulu
by Dan Repperger

If you’re into tentacles…and not like that…have I got a game for you!

I was just given a copy of Shadows of Cthulhu, a True20 rendering of Lovecraft horror. I want to open by mentioning this isn’t a complete RPG book; it’s a setting book for True20. If you buy this book alone, you might be able to fudge a game using nothing more than a familiarity with the d20 system. But to really mine it for all of it’s worth, you’ll need the True20 rules as well.

If you’re not familiar with Cthulhu or Lovecraft’s fiction, here’s the nickel tour.  You’re in America in the 1920s.  There’s success and opportunity all around you, but something dark is growing.  The professor at your university is experimenting with forces best left alone.  There’s a cult near the docks that thinks we’d be better off under some dark god.  And the farmers in the small town just to your south are slaves under the domination of a wretched demon.  You’re willing to stand up to these evils, but you’re not prepared.  How could you be?  You don’t have an unflinching psyche.  You don’t have a proton pack or any magical weapons.  All you have is your wits and maybe a few friends helping you face down nigthmares that no man was meant to see.  Even if you win this fight, there’s a good chance you’ll be permanently scarred in the process.

Shadows of Cthulhu opens with a full-page explanation of the intention behind the roleplaying game. I’ve seen that in other RPGs, but quite frankly, I wish it was typical of all games. When I pick up a new book, it’s fairly obvious which genre it’s for. But exactly what spin will they use? It’s a long walk between the science fiction of Arthur C. Clarke and George Lucas. A precursory look into the author’s mind saves me the need to study charts and tables before figuring out what this game is going for.

So what did I learn from the introduction? Let me quote just one paragraph.

“Call of Cthulhu did something no other roleplaying game had done up until that point. It made it all right to be afraid. By assuring that you were probably going to die or go insane, it eliminated the desperate need to develop your character’s abilities. But it replaced the drive for power and increasing numbers on a piece of paper with a true drive for character development and story. It made bad character traits and debilitating insanities fun.”

I like that.

I fully understand the desire to play a hero of great stature. I understand why people don’t want to play quadriplegic farmers (as some of FtB’s editorial has been polemically rendered). But weakness gives you a chance to explore parts of your roleplaying that have nothing to do with getting the biggest gun or tweaking your feats so you never fail a roll. And a game like Cthulhu gives you permission — nay, it requires you — to be weak. It’s ok to fail, because everyone else is too. And since you no longer have to min-max for that perfect character, you feel free to pick options that are interesting and colorful instead.

The book includes several new Backgrounds that are appropriate to 1920s pulp fiction. You can come into the game as a cultist, xenophobic yokel, gangster, or star athlete. If you’re not familiar with True20, expect that to work just like choosing your land of origin in D&D 3.0 Forgotten Realms. If you’re not familiar with that either, let’s use hand grenade accuracy and say it’s like picking an elf.

They also add classes for academics, investigators, and reverents (i.e. people of strong faith or conviction). I appreciate their handling of the latter. It’s rare to see a game where your faith has a real world effect, without becoming full-blown spells — your character isn’t a holy wizard, but that doesn’t mean God is silent.  My only regret here is that they didn’t offer a slightly better variety of powers, but I understand why they didn’t.  If you could drive back Cthulhu in the name of the Lord, it would defeat the point of the game.

Just in case you’re in a rut, they offer a variety of archetypes for each class, giving you different spins to consider. For example, the investigator could be a film noir detective, but he could also just be the town gossip.

If you’re not familiar with the time period, the book includes a four-page primer on 1920s America. There’s information on business, gangs, fashion, minorities, etc. The section does a fairly good job of giving you a taste of life in the decade, but it seems a bit short.  I wouldn’t advocate a droning history lecture, but giving some specifics on entertainers, politicians, events, and other nuances of the time period would help GMs make their setting pop by moving from generalities into the details of life. So you went to see a sports game, but who was the big star on the field everyone’s there to see? Fortunately, this is all information you can get from any public library or trip around the internet. And the information you can’t get as easily (i.e. the Cthulhu mythos) is spelled out in excellent detail in other chapters.

As any roleplayer knows, the real trademark of Cthulhu games are their rules for handling insanity. Mental illness is one of the areas I’ve thought RPGs never handled very well. Most games screw up either the explanation of a condition or its root causes. I remember famously playing Rifts, only to encounter some great beast whose visage left me with an incurable fear of boats.  I wish I was joking.

While this game isn’t perfect, I’ll give it credit for doing a better job than most. For example, if you develop a panic disorder, you make Will saves when under great stress. If you fail, you become stricken with panic. With real panic disorder, one of the most important traits of the condition is that the sufferer has attacks when there’s no obvious reason to be frightened. To people who are detail-oriented, stuff like this might bug you. But, in my opinion, it’s close enough to work. After all, this is a Lovecraft RPG, not the newest edition of the DSM.

Sanity saves are relatively simple. You don’t have point pools or anything similar to keep track of. Instead, when a stressor appears, you make a single save. If successful, all is well. If unsuccessful, you’re mentally scarred by the event. From there, you have to determine which condition the unfortunate character receives. While there are charts for random rolls, most monsters and situations come with some common sense rules to help GMs pick the right condition. A nightmarish beast should no longer cause a crushing fear of boats. Unless it’s a boat mimic, in which case that might make sense.

The game uses an Awareness mechanic to show the double-edged sword of exploring the unknown. Reading a tome that describes the horrors lurking in our universe may twist your mind to the breaking point. But you’re also growing from those experiences. Awareness points represent that growth, allowing you to buy down mental problems or unlock forbidden powers to help in your quest.

The layout of the book is clean and easy to follow, and I’m pleased to see an index in the back. I find it very frustrating when an RPG book doesn’t have one.

As I mentioned before, you’re presumed to be familiar with the True20 rules.  There are numerous references (both implied and explicit) to those rules, so if you don’t know them, the book may feel a bit incomplete.

In conclusion, if you’re not into Lovecraft, you prefer playing the ass-kicking hero, or you’re completely satisfied with a previous incarnation of Cthulhu games, this is probably not for you. But if you like the d20 system, enjoy investigative games, and are either new to the series or looking for an update, I think you’ll be pleased with Shadows of Cthulhu.

Want to learn more about Shadows of Cthulhu? Read on…

Or pick up a copy at RPG Now!

A Truly Dark Game
by Digga Dominus

When setting the scenes of an enemies’ habitat — common to many fantasy RPG worlds — it’s important to really wow the players who are often veterans of many dark campaigns. Torture chambers are done. Corpses on pikes are played. Another gate to the unspeakable bowels of hell? Yawn.

Narrate your players rounding a corner of some orc/goblin/hobgoblin/feral culture we’re justified-in-destroying lair and show them an exciting pastime of evil creatures, and simultaneously reveal the source of such seemingly innate depravity: Baby Battles!

Toddler Tournament Mini-game for 4th edition.

Wranglers or parents are in charge of toddlers – their mentors, trainers and owners. They drink, yell instructions to the kids, place bets and often fight with spectators or other wranglers – serving as role models to their charges.

Toddlers have much fewer options in combat because of their young age and lack of training. They have the basic array of action choices – Standard, Move and Minor – but can’t pull off any maneuvers save those detailed below. These young battlers roll a d6 instead of a d20 because really there‘s not a lot a variety in their tactics or capabilities. Natural sixes can‘t result in a critical hit – let‘s not be ridiculous.

Their level is determined by their age in months past 11 months. So, a 15 month old is a level 4 toddler and adds 2 (half level) to their rolls. At 24 months, they become kids, and you’ll need to create a new system for kid fighting. Any roll versus an older-than-toddler target uses zero as the level modifier.

Distribute 5 points between four core ability statistics to determine their modifiers:

Hitty – The amount of pain a toddler can dish out to another. Roll this stat (1d6 + half level + Hitty modifier) versus the target’s Quickness defense (3 + half level + Quickness modifier) to determine if they hit. If Hitty beats Quickness, compare the roll to the target’s Hardheaded defense ( 3 + half level + Hardheaded modifier).  If beaten, the target receives an Owie. After a toddler gets three Owies, they’re out of the fight and may be removed from the pen and consoled – or punished – by their wrangler/parent.

Hardheaded – The willfulness of a toddler is reflected in this stat. Hardheaded defense must be beaten by Hitty rolls to cause Owies and Loudness rolls to scold. This modifier adds to the DC of a wrangler’s

Quickness – Speed of toddling and comprehension. Roll this to determine initiative. Roll opposed Quickness to determine if the aggressor can close with their target. If the target isn’t fleeing, they close automatically. Quickness defense is the DC a Hitty roll must beat to hit.

This is also a measure of how responsive a toddler is to instruction from their wrangler. Quickness can be rolled versus a flat difficulty that varies directly with the complexity of their command. Add the toddler’s Hardheaded modifier to this DC. “Pulls his ears!“ may be DC 5, while “Put’em in a Crucifix hold!“ could have a DC of 15. The toddler gets a +1 to their Hitty rolls if they beat the DC. The bonus applies during their turn. A wrangler can make one command at the start of a toddler’s turn.

Loudness – The loudness of a toddler can break the will of even the biggest grown up, let alone their opponents. On their turn, a toddler can roll Loudness (1d6 + half level + modifier) opposed by a foe’s Hardheaded defense to Scold them: “Hit’in izzint rite!” If they succeed, the opponent is Stunned until the end of scolder‘s next turn. If the scolder then tries to hit that foe or another, all future scoldings about hitting are -3 and a new subject must be chosen to avoid the hypocritical penalty in future scoldings.

A toddler can attack their wrangler with Loudness as well. If their roll beats an adult’s Will defense, the child will be pulled out of the battle and consoled. The toddler’s level modifier is added to this check, despite it being used against an adult. This reflects the pathetic cuteness a child can wield.

Do not play-test with actual children!

About the author: Digga Dominus is not a parent but gives birth to insightful humor on his blog of geek commentary on entertainment and society DaDominion.com/blog/

Episode 124 – marketing RPGs
by Dan Repperger

* This episode was recorded in Seattle, so I was away from my normal equipment.  Tex and I were joined by Ed Healy from Atomic Array.

* Kobold Quarterly’s place among gaming magazines.

* Game days versus major cons.  You can find information on the Emerald City Game Fest here.

* A shout-out to Heath White and Shawn (or Sean or however you spell his name).

* Marketing and promoting a roleplaying game.  If you’ve never heard of the Pareto Principle, you can learn more here.  And you can find Marketing Over Coffee here.

Hosts: Dan, Ed, Tex

The Emerald City
by Dan Repperger

As I write this article, I’m flying back to St. Louis from Seattle.  I’m also having my first experience flying first class.  I’ve flown quite a bit for business and pleasure, but I’ve always done so in coach or third class (or whatever inoffensive name they’re using for it now).  When I went to check in for this flight, they offered to upgrade me from a middle seat in coach to a window seat in first class.  The fee was quite reasonable, so this was a no-brainer.

Nothing about the experience screams, “luxury,” to me.  Instead, you get the basic dignities I think every passenger should have: leg room, food, drink, ample space for baggage, and attentive stewards.  I understand the reasons that necessitate cheaper seats on the airplane, but I raise this gin and tonic (in a real glass!) to a day when $400 gets you more than a cramped seat and honey peanuts.

I had a great time in Seattle.  It was my second time there, and my first on pleasure.  I didn’t get out to see much of the city, but I’m not a touristy guy to begin with.  Instead, I spent most of my time visiting with Tex and his girlfriend.  We did dinner in several spots around the city, and we also played through the entirety of Gears of War 2.  The story was a bit flimsy, but the cooperative play through the campaign is a fantastic experience.

Friday night, we went to a party at the home of Wolfgang Baur.  People from several gaming companies were there, including Kobold, Paizo, and Wizards of the Coast.  It was quite a bit of fun.  We were joined for the evening by Keith Curtis, who I’ve known for about two years but never met until now.  His artistry and beard precede him.  No interesting news came out of the party, but it was a social mixer rather than a professional networking opportunity, so I expected no different.

On Saturday, Tex and I attended the Emerald City Game Fest, which is a local game day.  If you live in the Seattle area, you should check this group out.  In addition to the game days, they also have gatherings every week.  While pick-up games have some serious suck potential — as we’ve mentioned on the show many times — there’s charm in their variety and non-committal atmosphere.  It’s also a great way to meet new gamers for your gaming group (or meet new gaming groups if you don’t have one).

While at the Fest, we played a GURPS game for several hours before we had to leave for a recording.  It was my first time using the GURPS Psionic rules, but I didn’t use them thoroughly enough to develop an opinion.  They seemed sufficient, but that’s really all I can say.  I also purchased a copy of Descent.  As a fan of cooperative games, I can’t wait to take this one for a spin!  I’ve been told Descent is to D&D what Arkham Horror is to Call of Cthulu.  Though unlike Arkham Horror, one player is a DM, making him the sole opponent player.

The episode for this week was recorded by me, Tex, and Ed Healy.  We talk about the game day and also get some insight from Ed on RPG marketing.  Given how little most most gamers (myself included) see the business side of gaming, I find conversations like this absolutely fascinating.

When You Don’t Fit In
by Trampas Whiteman

Recently, I was reading a thread online from a person whose character just did not fit in with the group dynamic. I had thought back to times when I had a similar situation myself.

I once played in a Star Wars game a friend ran using a variant of White Wolf’s Storyteller system. Since it was Star Wars, I naturally wanted to play a Jedi (or at least a guy trying to become a Jedi). I had settled on a wookiee who was searching to become a Jedi. I had a nifty dynamic of wookiee rage vs. Jedi control.

There was some good storytelling, but some of the other players played mercenary-style characters. So my wookiee Jedi didn’t fit in. It ended with a battle between my Jedi and one of the player characters (a Twi’lek bounty hunter) who had it in for my character. Both characters lived, but my guy was effectively out of the game.

I tried a mechanic for a short bit, but didn’t care for him. So then I created another Jedi, but this one was very much a scoundrel as well. This guy fit in with the group and the game much better.

Later on, I ran a Star Wars game with the DM from that game and the player I mentioned in it. They played bounty hunter types while my friend played a Jedi. Again, there was conflict. My game came to a halt that night.

What I have learned from these experiences is that DMs and players must talk first about the type of game they are running, what the characters are going to be like (i.e. heroic, mercenary, etc.), and what some of the themes are. It isn’t that any one style of play is better than another. We just all game a little differently and sometimes character concepts just don’t work together.

What I also discovered is that if a character doesn’t work in one game, try another game. My wookiee Jedi thrived in a few other games another friend of mine ran. I’m playing him to this day via e-mail. While I hated the way the wookiee ended in the one game, he’s had tremendous growth in the other game. Recycling can apply to characters too.

Also, don’t settle on something just to fit in. Play what you want. Otherwise, you may resent the character. Nothing is worse than playing a character you don’t want to play. If the game isn’t accommodating to you as a player to play what you want (within reason), then maybe the game isn’t the best for you in general.

And don’t be afraid to recognize when the group isn’t working. I like my friends who play the mercenary types, but I don’t like gaming with them so much these days since my style is different from theirs. And that’s okay. We’re still friends; we just realize we have different styles of play. There is no shame in admitting when something isn’t working.

Likewise, if a character isn’t working, then talk to the GM and see if he can help you to create a new character you like that may work better in the group template. In the realm of fantasy, you may have several options.

Know your group dynamic as much as possible as you go in to play. Talk to your DM about the type of character you want to play and see if that will fit the group template. If you get stuck in a game like this, then see about other options. Above all, remember that the game should be fun.

Episode 123 – adversarial player-characters
by Dan Repperger

* If you haven’t already, be sure to visit the blog!  You can find Dragonlance Canticle here.

* Chris and his photon torpedo.

* John’s confession.

* Tom Bombadil and other things regarding Lord of the Rings.

* Chris gets a gaming date.

* Playing music while you game.

* Player-characters as adversaries.  You can learn about the etymology of MacGuffin here and here.  Searching around more, I learned the original term for this sort of plot device: weenie.   I’m not sure I want an RPG plot about chasing the bad guy’s weenie.

* Strange things we’ve seen kill games.

* Coming soon to Fear the Boot: WIN CHRIS’ BATTLETECH ROMANCE LETTER!!!

Hosts: Chad, Chris, Dan, John, Pat

Dragonhelm’s Take on Star Trek: Voyager
by Trampas Whiteman

In my last blog entry, I voiced my criticisms on Star Trek: Voyager.  See the comments section for details.  I was asked what my take would be, so I thought I would share it with all of you.

Star Trek is the idealized and hopeful future. What if that concept is thrown on its head, and we find out that not everything is peaches and cream? What if Star Trek boldly went where it hadn’t before?

I imagined Voyager as a show where there would be a lot of philosophical debates going on. I imagined that some elements would be explored more, and gone into depth.

For example, one would think that two groups of humans would put aside differences to get home, but can old animosities ever be dropped? I would like to see this developed at a slower pace. Yes, the end result is the same, but there would be some disagreements between the crews. Maquis who don’t want to show up to work in uniform. Federation vs. Maquis arguments popping up. Chakotay having to get in the face of the Maquis crew members to calm them down, then someone turning against him. In the end, the two sides are somehow forced to work together for survival. A common enemy – perhaps Ceska?

I would have liked to see Tom Paris as more of a “bad boy”, and having to be reined in. I’d like to see him evolve more. Likewise, Harry Kim needed to face some tough things, even tougher than he faced in the series.

I wanted to see Janeway having to make those tough choices, and instead of siding with the Prime Directive, purposefully breaking it one time for the sake of her crew, then questioning herself afterwards. She was a good captain, don’t get me wrong. She was a tough female character, who remained feminine.

Neelix – Great character overall. However, limited in scope. I would have liked to see him become more of a horse trader, bargaining with the seedy crowd to get the supplies Voyager needed.

Kes – I really wished she had lasted the whole show. Seeing that short lifespan played out throughout the series would have resonated better.

The two-part Year of Hell is more of what I imagined for the show. Voyager would go through tough times, be forced to make the hard decisions in order to survive. There would be some exploration, but make the Prime Directive something that may require interpretation and that may need to be broken. Make the show edgier. Integrate alien technologies with Voyager’s more, especially since there was no spacedock.

Something to that effect. Basically, take the extra leap and go the distance.

Bonus Episode 23 – listener GM profiles
by Dan Repperger

We put out the call for listener-submitted GM profiles, and we got some excellent entries!  Check out the show and then head over to the forum to vote for the profiles you thought were the best.  A big thanks to Brian, Chris, Geoff, John, Keith, Nicholas, and Sam for their entries!

Where Star Trek: Voyager Went Wrong
by Trampas Whiteman

Like many of you, I grew up watching the original Star Trek series. I came to love The Next Generation as well, and got enthused when I saw Deep Space 9.

When Star Trek: Voyager came along, it held a lot of promise. This was the ship that was on its own in an uncharted part of the galaxy, trying to get home. The journey would take decades, and the Federation and Maquis crews would have to learn to live together.

This produced what should have been an excellent story, yet it couldn’t get past several boundaries. Where was the Maquis mutiny? It never happened, yet the possibility was mentioned by Tuvok on an episode. The Prime Directive. I wanted Janeway to have to struggle with breaking the Prime Directive, then doing so for the sake of her people. Yeah, they benefited, but she would have to live with the guilt. The opportunity was there, but in the end, Janeway is a goody-two-shoes. It was an opportunity lost, in my opinion.

Don’t even get me started on the Borg. There was an enemy that went from fearful in ‘The Best of Both Worlds’ (TNG 2-part episode) to just another alien on the block. I don’t know about anyone else, but I got tired of the Borg.

Where Voyager shined the best was in a two-part episode called ‘Year of Hell.’ This episode showed Voyager in a two-part alternate reality where the ship had been beaten up for an entire year. By year’s end, it was unlivable. The storytelling was great, and this was the sort of turmoil I wanted Voyager to go through! It was a shame that, at the end, the timeline is fixed and none of it happened. That kind of cheapened the efforts of the crew. However, I can overlook this

The cast was formulaic. We got to see our first female captain, which was awesome. Yet I felt like she was designed to be “she-Kirk.” Anyone else notice the initials? JK (James Kirk) and KJ (Kathryn Janeway). Uh…yeah. Then we have our gratuitous Klingon in the form of B’Elanna Torres. She doubled up as the gratuitous half-breed. The humans were largely forgettable. Harry Kim was so generic it wasn’t funny. Tom Paris could have been the bad boy, but that was hardly touched. I always felt that it wasn’t the actors’ fault here. Rather, the humans were not allowed to shine.

Tuvok was the gratuitous Vulcan, yet I’m not too critical of him. Tim Russ did an excellent job of portraying a Vulcan whose focus was security, not science. Was it realistic having a black Vulcan? Not every Earth race has a duplicate on other worlds. Yet despite this, I have to applaud Paramount for showcasing that there could be more than one brand of Vulcan.

Neelix was a fun alien, though the writers had to think about his purpose after he was no longer useful as a guide. And did Kes have a point? She was nice, and a short-lived race was cool. Still, she could have grown further.

Then there’s Seven of Nine. She was nice eye candy. I’ll give her that. However, I think they made the Borg to human transition way too quickly. Had it happened in the span of a year, I could see it more. I really could not believe that she was once Borg.

Of all the characters, Chakotay was my least favorite. I had a hard time believing he was Native American. My take is that he should have been one of the Native Americans that Picard ran across, who now live in Cardassian territory. Add more spiritualism to him, and he would have been fine.

Of all the characters, my favorite has to be the Doctor. Yes, he’s the gratuitous artificial life form looking to become more human. That being said, his character was a novel concept and Robert Picardo was so much fun. The mobile EMH transmitter seemed a bit hokey, but then again, he needed to get out of sick bay once in a while. My favorite aspect of him was when they added the emergency engineering and command subroutines so that he could take on new roles.

Two more items: the ship and the theme song. I have to say that I truly enjoyed the theme song. Very nice composition. The Intrepid-class Voyager was a nifty design, though I didn’t care for the miniature warp nacelles. Still, I liked watching them fold ala the Klingon Bird of Prey. All in all, a good design.

Between the subpar goody-two-shoes writing, the ‘greatest hits of Star Trek’ casting, the idea that they were going in the wrong direction (to Earth, not away!), and not allowing the cast to really shine, Voyager had many faults. It took what could have been a phenomenal series and dumbed it down to a so-so Trek series at best. Even though I enjoyed Voyager, I kept re-writing it in my head.

While the suits shot for the elements of classic Trek and TNG that made both of them a success, the suits just weren’t able to achieve that kind of magic. That being said, I still enjoyed Voyager, though it could have been so much more.

Playing collectible games for a fraction of the price?
by Dan Repperger

I’ve never been a big fan of collectible games.  That’s not because I don’t like the games.  To the contrary, companies have turned out some really excellent, entertaining ideas.  I just don’t like the idea of spending gobs of money on mounds of crap I don’t want, in hopes there might be one gem buried in there I’ll actually use.

I just got a message from Chris Engler, aka Kapnkrunch, the mind behind Wapcaplets.  He’s affiliated with a website that allows people to trade their collectible game material.  He’s in charge of a Monsterpocalypse section, which is great, because that’s one of the collectible games I’m really interested in picking up but haven’t for the aforementioned reason.

The concept is really simple.  Go out and buy a couple packs of whatever.  Then hop on there and trade your X for someone else’s Y.  It’s like Ebay, except the currency is the final product itself.  So at long last those goblins you’re not employing can be used for something other than burying in a drawer or hitting with a hammer when you’re mad!

If this is your sort of thing (collecting that is, not hitting stuff with hammers) check it out!

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