Awarding Soldiers of Pen and Ink a 10/10, kafka says,
“Gauntlett marvelously captures this mood and weaves a Mythos tale of intrigue and clandestine activity with the strong affinity of good Mythos literature”
“Players looking for the buzz of an alternative and peculiar locale outside Lovecraft country … should look into Soldiers of Pen and Ink.”
Regarding the Purist and Pulp modes, kafka assures players, “In my humble opinion, this adventure transverses both worlds giving players a chance to experience both.”
“This is an excellent scenario set in the chaos of the Spanish Civil War… it harkens to a time when suspicious was rife and a new world seemed to emerging on the horizon. Instead, it was a clash of totalitarianisms and a prelude for the titanic struggle that was the Second World War.”
Read the entire review here. Pick up Soldiers of Pen and Ink at the shop.
On the Flames Rising blog, reviewer Steven Dawes says about the epic Eternal Lies campaign:
“Eternal Lies is simply the most well developed and well designed adventure book I’ve ever seen!”
Steven adds, “The campaign storyline is loyal to and very worthy of the Cthulhu Mythos. The rules and organization of the book are easy to follow, and even the artwork and illustrations in the book were perfectly for the settling. Everything you need for an epic mythos adventure is in this outstanding book! But the authors and the maniacs who run Pelgrane Press must have fallen in love with this book just as much as I did…”
Finally, “Eternal Lies really raises the bar for RPG campaign books. Kudos to the authors, Pelgrane Press and everyone who was involved with (or is still involved with) this incredible book.”
You can read the full review on the Flames Rising blog here.
Jason Thompson, over on his blog, mockman.com, reviews The Dreamhounds of Paris. Jason says,
“This is great stuff. The Surrealists and the Mythos belong together.”
Adding, “The idea of the Surrealists being Randolph-Carter-level Dreamers (or even better than that Carter dude) is genius; I can’t imagine historical figures who fit the role more.”
“In short, this is a fascinating, challenging campaign that pays homage to Lovecraft’s ‘canon’ Dreamlands, but, since it simultaneously upends and mutates them, might be just as well suited to people who *hate* the Dreamlands (shame on you). If I had one wish, I could have used more of everything…”
You can check out the full review here. You can purchase the Dreamhounds of Paris Bundle, featuring The Book of Ants, at the shop.
Well, it’s almost that time, the turning of the Ken Writes About Stuff volume year. If you’ve been a subscriber in the past, many thanks for your support. If you’re a subscriber in the future, future thanks — the first issue of KWAS Volume Three is Hideous Creatures: Tcho-Tchos, which you should get by April 1. (The “bonus content” for KWAS Volume Two subscribers, Foul Congeries 2, is coming after we get Dracula properly staked and in his coffin.) I didn’t have the word count in that issue to cover all the possible varietals of Tcho-Tcho, so here’s another shoot from that dubious vine.
In his 1931 novella “The Horror From the Hills,” Frank Belknap Long mentions a tribe of abominable (and amphibian) dwarves who worship Chaugnar Faugn on the hideous Plateau of Tsang in Tibet, implying their descent from the “Miri Nigri,” a black, stunted tribe of the Pyrenees dreamed up (literally!) by H.P. Lovecraft. I believe it was William Barton (in his Call of Cthulhu adventure “The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn”) who decided that Lovecraft and Long’s black, “squinty-eyed” tribe and Derleth’s Tcho-Tchos were one and the same people, at opposite ends of their migration, in a sort of conservation of cannibal pygmies principle.
If we take, for the time being, this insight as useful, what we need to go looking for is some indication of the Tcho-Tchos among the peoples of the Pyrenees. Millennia before Lovecraft’s beloved Indo-Europeans got to the western edge of Europe, those hills were home to the Basques, whose antiquity can be judged by the Basque saying: “God made man out of bones from a Basque graveyard.” And what do we find up in the Pyreneean hills, shunned by even those ancient folk, but an even more obscure people called the Cagots — a word multiply etymologized, often from gahets meaning “lepers,” although I like cas Got or “dogs of the Goths” best, as having that inhuman touch we need for our Tcho-Tchos. The Cagots were shunned and persecuted by their Basque and other neighbors for reasons nobody seemed to be able to articulate (although they were accused of being Cathars 300 years after the fact).
Elizabeth Gaskell of all people wrote an essay on the Cagots, enthrallingly titled “An Accursed Race,” from which we learn wondrous facts like the Cagots’ reputation for sorcery and alarming body heat (even withering apples by their touch), their reputed cannibalism and tainted smell, and the near-universal prohibition on allowing the Cagots to drink from town water supplies or even use the same holy water fonts in the churches — which Cagots had to enter through special, lower doors. They also had to wear a red duck-foot symbol, or even the webbed foot of an actual duck. The laws in some towns forcing the Cagots to remain shod at all times likewise imply their webbed or inhuman feet, and perhaps more Deep One ancestry than Tcho-Tcho, although there’s no reason not to link Cthulhu and Zhar-Lloigor, for instance. As a point in our favor here, I’ll mention that the suggestive Basque word txoko means both “cuttlefish” and “angle,” which gets us not just Cthulhu but Lloigor, the Many-Angled One. Similarly, the Cagots’ cultural role as woodworkers and carpenters might tie them to Shub-Niggurath cultism.
The best thing about the Cagots, from a Tcho-Tcho adventure design utility standpoint anyhow, is that they can infiltrate Basque, Spanish, and French populations and from thence travel to America in the 15th century. (Basque sailors served with Columbus, and Basque fishermen almost certainly found Newfoundland’s Grand Banks by 1475 and just didn’t say anything about it. While I’m inside this parenthesis, Basque whalers traded with the Greenland Inuit in the 17th century, another possible Cthulhuvian cult connection.) You can thus put Cagot-Tcho-Tcho (Tchogot?) clans in Quebec, Boston, and Boise, Idaho (home to the largest Basque population in the U.S.). They’re also pretty unmistakably white (indeed sometimes described as pale compared to their Basque neighbors), which can take some of the sting off the Tcho-Tchos’ “yellow peril” origins.
True, the Cagots are sometimes described as taller than average — although those little doors might indicate otherwise — but I think we can let that pass. They’re also described as red-haired and bristly-haired, as sickly and as stocky, as dark and as grey-eyed, as thin-fingered and as thick-footed. This only shows the Tcho-Tcho tendency to blend in, or the truly amphibian nature of their Miri-Nigri DNA. The only true test of the Cagot (besides the tainted aura and the “invisible leprosy” they carry) is this: Their ears are “differently shaped from those of other people; being round and gristly, without the lobe of flesh into which the ear-ring is inserted.” The Comtes de Bleuville in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service (born without earlobes, as Blofeld discovers) are thus exposed as ancestral Tcho-Tchos — and if Blofeld’s imposture bears even a hint of truth, perhaps the next Tcho-Tcho villain in your campaign can run a network of master criminals from a hidden modernist fortress while petting a white (Saturnian?) cat.
Forget your shrooms, your blotter dots. For me the opener to the gateway of creativity was always speed. Gobble a handful of bennies and work through the night boom flash bang. Only problem I faced or so I thought was making sure I had enough canvases on hand to last through a period of explosive muse channeling. Crank up the Skrillex, grab the paintbrushes and go. At the time I was going through a real surrealist phase. Giorgio de Chirico in particular. I was looking at so much of his work so intensely that his subject matter, those puppet-like figures, the vast empty vistas, started to creep into my own work. But what the hell call it remix culture, call it appropriation and keep painting man, that’s what I kept telling myself.
At some point the zone of chemically pure work flow takes a left turn, or at least it did for me, and the lines between sleeping and waking got blurry. I’d come to, lying on the floor in a pool of my own drool, and all over my images the wooden puppet men danced. Faceless and staring out at me, like expecting me to let them loose from the canvas. I got mad at them and repainted all of their hands to look kinda like dicks but they seemed to like that.
I take a commission to mural a door at the Cafe Arabica. So I paint the penis-handed dolls on it, piloting a ship. As I painted the finishing touches I somehow realized I’d given them permission to take me somewhere.
A couple of days later I take a turn on Queen West and all of a sudden I realize I’m dreaming. One minute I know I’m in Paris. Only not the Paris of today, but way back before World War II. Then I’m somewhere else again, on a windswept plaza. Sitting at a cafe table under a Greek statue wearing shades is this woebegone dude. I realize it’s my hero, de Chirico. Who died in the seventies. I sit down next to him to quiz him, and he’s all, oh no, now I’m bring them back in time. It was bad enough already.
That’s when my Dreamlands adventures began. It was the 21st century in my waking life but the early thirties when I dreamt, in this weirdo place, haunted not only by de Chirico but all these other platinum names from the art history books.
When Kuranes blasted my brain and I couldn’t dream any more, I woke up that morning and standing over me were the members of my old band. Gez, Marcos and Sarah. I said you were there, you were there, and you were there. You were Buñuel, Éluard and Gala.
They laughed said I was still high, and I was. But for the last time. The same magic of Celephaïs that stole my ability to enter the Dreamlands took away my body’s response to mind altering substances. Not even caffeine works on me any more. And my work’s nothing now, a boring retread of what used to be great.
Tomorrow I start my first shift at Starbucks.
The following memo was found in the archives of the Russian Academy of Sciences. It sheds light on the complicated relationship between the surrealist Dreamhounds of Paris and both the French Communist Party (PCF) and the intelligence arm of its Soviet masters.
July 6, 1932
To: Trofim Lysenko, Russian Academy of Sciences
From: Konstantin Strezhakov, Inostranny Otdel, NKVD
Regarding your request for information arising from my office’s ongoing operation against the French so-called surrealists, I am authorized by my superiors to share the following.
First, our office agrees with your assertion, in your memo of June 21st, that the sealing of the Dream Zone remains an utmost security priority of the Soviet state. The threat of supernatural forces becoming manifest in this world undermines the dialectic and our officially held doctrine of materialism. In particular the prospect of workers being able to depart this realm for another of infinite color and wonder is one which, as your message underlines, a threat to productivity we can ill afford as we struggle to increase crop yields.
We continue to work through a valued asset in the field, Elsa Triolet. Now married to surrealist poet Louis Aragon, she encourages him to undermine and discredit the group. Once it has burst apart it is our hope that its members will, unable to form a psychic collective, lose the ability to transmit themselves into the Zone. This will, we predict, close it off and eliminate it as a danger.
Unfortunately Aragon’s new-found dedication to Stalinism has decisively parted him from the group, when we would prefer him to weaken it from the inside. In January Aragon attempted to republish a poem, “Red Front”, advocating the shooting of police. This led to his indictment on sedition charges. Local party officials unaware of this office’s aims and activities repudiated Aragon’s gesture as an act of childish stunting. They further scolded him for a pornographic daydream by the Spaniard Salvador Dalí, published in a recent surrealist propaganda organ. (Dalí is the most potent of surrealist magicians, against whom we may soon contemplate decisive action.) Aragon conveyed to surrealist commandant André Breton the PCF complaint that such obscene sexual fantasy complicates what should be simple relations between men and women. An inexplicably amused Breton then mockingly included this phrase in one of his publications. (Though also a PCF member, Breton has long marched to an unacceptably eccentric beat.) Aragon has now split from Breton, blaming him for revealing internal party communications.
In short, a rupture has now opened between Aragon and Breton. Triolet pushes him toward reconciliation but the long-fraying bonds of friendship and rivalry between the two poets may well preclude this.
It is this office’s contention that relations between the local party and surrealists be taken out of PCF hands and placed in ours, preventing further unfortunate tactical confusion. If you could use your influence to recommend this transfer of authority, I am confident that our position against the Dream Zone and its art magicians would be strengthened considerably.
a column on roleplaying
by Robin D. Laws
Looking for a new way to spark ideas for your next player character? Consider stealing a dramatic pole from classic literature.
As Hillfolk players know, a dramatic pole is the essential opposition that defines a character tuned for, you guessed it, dramatic storytelling. It allows the character to be pulled in two directions through the course of the story, fueling inner conflict.
Is Huckleberry Finn innocent, or corrupt?
Is Don Draper real, or an advertising image for a created self?
Is Rick Blaine of Casablanca selfish or altruistic?
You can usually define any classic character in a couple of ways. How you nail this down reveals your perspective on the work and the character. What matters is that you identify a key opposition that spurs the character to pursue emotional goals. This pursuit becomes the action of the story.
Shakespeare serves as a deep mine of classic internal oppositions. As a dramatist, he has to get his characters moving and into collision with one another.
Is Hamlet a man of action, or a man of contemplation?
Is Lear a king or a fool?
Is Brutus an idealist or a betrayer?
Is Juliet a loyal daughter or a romantic lover?
Let’s take Caliban from The Tempest. You could define him in a couple of ways. Rebel vs. servant would work, for example.
For this article, let’s pick another: man or monster. This one reverberates down through the story tradition. We see it again with Frankenstein’s monster, The Wolfman, and “Dexter.” A huge swathe of Marvel comics heroes use the man or monster opposition: the Hulk, the Thing, the Beast, Nightcrawler, and many more.
(To digress for a moment, if you want to sum up the difference between the Marvel and DC heroes, Stan Lee’s creations tend to have dramatic poles, whereas the earlier DC characters don’t so much. Spider-Man’s hero vs loser opposition takes center stage. Superman’s divided nature doesn’t get much play until much later revisionist takes like Man of Steel. The inherent wrongness of that film suggests that the character wasn’t built to support an internal opposition and can’t stand having one bolted onto it retrospect.)
The list above shows us that Caliban’s man or monster opposition serves as a rugged chassis for genre characters.
Most but by no means all genre characters appear in procedural stories, which are mostly about the overcoming of external obstacles. Very often the character appears in a serial format, undergoing multiple distinct adventures. This is the pattern that all traditional roleplaying games emulate.
As the Marvel examples show, serial characters who star in procedural stories can still use dramatic oppositions to hold our interest. However, if they’re to continue their adventures, the opposition can never truly resolve itself. Should Bruce Banner get cured, he becomes 100% man and 0% monster, but that means no more Hulk stories. That’s why experienced comics readers know that a new cure for Banner’s condition will never last very long. It’s just a temporary way of finding a fresh angle on man versus monster theme.
If you start with the idea of playing a man or monster PC, the task of adapting it to various genres falls readily into place.
In a fantasy game, you can literally be a monstrous being, whether an orc or minotaur, who aspires to acceptance and a higher self. If you’re playing 13th Age, you could select icon relationships that heighten the opposition. A fraught relationship with the Lich King, Orc Lord, Diabolist or Three could represent your monster side, even as you aspire to a greater connection to the Emperor, Elf Queen, or Priestess.
Science fiction dramatic poles often center around the nature of humanity. Your monstrous side might be represented as a grotesque or brutish alien morphology, or as extensive cybernetic implants.
Some horror games might permit you to have a bit of monster in you already as you start play. In Trail of Cthulhu, give yourself the drive “In the Blood” and you’re off to the Innsmouth races.
To use the opposition in Mutant City Blues, select mutant powers that make you look freakish, and make sure your powers grant you a defect allowing the question of your slow mental or physical deterioration to drive personal subplots.
When a setting doesn’t allow for literal monstrosity, you can always go for the metaphorical kind. As a cursory glance at history tells us, the real monsters out there are all people. To go back to Shakepeare, his portrayal of Richard III could easily be classified as having a man/monster opposition. (Like pretty well all of the history plays you could also give him just ruler vs. tyrant, but since that fits them all it fails the specificity test of great storytelling choices.)
Your ultra-competent agent in The Esoterrorists could have passed Ordo Veritatis psych evaluation by cleverly hiding her psychopathic nature. She starts out as a sociopath for the forces of good, just like 007 in his classic conception. But what happens when her Stability starts to slide below 0?
Any opposition you can find in literature can work in DramaSystem. The settings described in the various series pitches merely dictate whether the monster side of you is literal or metaphorical.
So for the core Hillfolk setting, as well as other non-fantastical pitches like “Brigades”, “Maroons” and “The White Dog Runs at Night” reality as we know it restricts you to the limits of human deformity. You might give your character a curved spine, paralyzed hand or missing eye in order to underline the monstrous side of his dramatic pole. Or you might find the way it associates disability with monstrosity unnecessarily stigmatizing and decide to chuck this longstanding literary trope into the dustbin. In that case you’ll make your character monstrous by action but not by outward appearance.
Other DramaSystem series pitches draw on genre elements allowing literal monstrosity. Your “Alma Mater Magica” or “Under Hallowed Hills” character could be half human, half goblin. A mecha pilot from “Article 9” could be infected with an advanced case of ATI (anime tentacle ichor.) In “Against Hali” you could be emotionally warped by exposure to the banned play, The King in Yellow. “Transcend”, with its theme of extreme futuristic body modification, revolves around this opposition. If you’re the central character, you might not see yourself as part monster, but family members run by the other players might.
Likewise you can take any of the other oppositions mentioned here and use them as a springboard for your character. The intersection between pitch and opposition makes for a different character each time. Your choice of family vs. love leads you to create a quite different character in the Icelandic saga of “Blood on the Snow” than it would amid the smoky cross-cultural intrigue of “Shanghai 1930,” because the historical contexts are so different.
While running Trail of Cthulhu for the first time might be intimidating, never fear – there are a wealth of resources to guide you through your first games:
If you still have questions, the friendly people at the Trail of Cthulhu forums, Facebook page, Google+ page and on Twitter are always happy to help.
Dreamhounds of Paris already stretches Trail of Cthulhu’s default time frame by covering events of the surrealist movement from the 1920s. While researching the book I found some details ripe for Lovecraftian parallel that fell on the other side of the time divide.
Although the surrealist movement never recovers from the Occupation and the flight of key figures out of Paris, their lives don’t end there. André Breton, the stuffy, bullying chief ideologue of surrealism, winds up in New York City in 1941. He does not enjoy it there. He makes little attempt to learn the language. In the face of American informality, his ultra-serious, parliamentary way of running surrealist meetings seem patently ridiculous, even to him.
One pleasure occupies his unhappy days in the Big Apple. Throughout his career he has been fascinated by non-Western artifacts, venerating the superior wisdom of the cultures that created them. Rare ethnographic objects litter the shelves of New York antique shops. No one else yet shows much interest in them, so he is able to amass an impressive collection of authentic pieces for a pittance.
Breton, never been able to travel to the Dreamlands, now denounces dream imagery as useless. He declares that surrealism must return to the magic of its earlier automatism period, when the group met to conduct seances. Can this be anything other than the influence of ancient items of power among his tribal antiquities?
In 1942, he declares the need to create a new mythology. He proposes the existence of the Great Invisibles, undetectable beings who surround humanity at all times. Without clearly spelling out whether they’re a metaphor or a force he literally believes in, he describes them as “insubstantial nodal points of human desires and aspirations toward the marvelous.”
Investigators steeped in Mythos knowledge, who bump into Breton and his new myth maybe in a one-shot sequel scenario, feel their hackles rising at the sound of this. Is this Yog-Sothoth posing as a positive force? A fresh scheme of Nyarlathotep’s?
Shortly after the war, Breton’s inquiries take him to Haiti, where he witnesses a voodoo ceremony. Something he sees changes him.
After returning to Paris, he announces that surrealism is no longer about ending the world as it is known, and that the apocalyptic voices they once followed lead to a path of destruction. He delves further than ever into alchemy and the esoteric. In 1953, he starts work on L’Art magique, a book on the connection between magic and art. He finds it tough going, in part because one of his voodoo dolls doesn’t want him to write it, and keeps staring him down from its perch on his office shelf. Acknowledging in 1956 that his tribal fetish objects control his life, he keeps trying to rearrange them in hopes of restoring himself back to health and mental focus.
This might inspire another one-shot sequel investigation. Do the PCs free Breton from the bondage of these objects, or decide that he must be contained by them in order for the world to go on living?
by Scott Dorward
A Poison Tree, which was announced late last year, is an epic campaign for Trail of Cthulhu. This takes the form of a generational saga that spans the globe and 350 years of history. Matthew Sanderson, Paul Fricker and I have been developing it for the last 18 months, and we are now well into internal playtesting. While this isn’t the first campaign we have co-authored, it is the most ambitious in size, scope and structure.
The campaign is made up of seven chapters and eight vignettes, beginning in rural Wales in the seventeenth century, passing through settings as diverse as revolutionary-era Massachusetts, the Welsh settlement of Patagonia, France at the tail end of World War I and Berkeley in the full psychedelic throes of the 1960s, and culminating in world-changing events in the present day. If our playtesting is any indication, this will take around 50 three-hour sessions to play through.
The varied time periods and the strange abilities of the family whose tainted bloodline drives the story have demanded some minor tailoring of the GUMSHOE mechanics. These new options should provide some entertaining twists, even for experienced Trail of Cthulhu players.
A Poison Tree is the fifth book that Paul, Matt and I have worked on together. The fact that we all live within ten miles of each other helps greatly with our collaborations. This allows us to meet in person for regular planning meetings, usually at Buskers, our favourite café in Wolverton.
We divide the writing between us by each of us taking ownership of individual chapters and vignettes. We brainstorm these chapters at our planning meetings, but the owner of each is ultimately responsible for its content.
We also meet weekly to record our podcast (The Good Friends of Jackson Elias) and use this opportunity to discuss how playtesting is going.
Playtesting is the foundation of our development process. We all run the entire campaign for our own groups, making copious notes. This gives each of us a second chance to shape the content of each others’ chapters, based on what we have learned in play. Some of our best ideas come from moments of improvisation at the gaming table. This proves especially useful when one of us discovers a new way to link parts of the campaign together in an unexpected manner. This process means that every part of the campaign is a collaboration between all three of us.
Based on previous experience, by the time the campaign has been through all this planning, testing and honing, actually writing it up will be straightforward, although time-consuming simply because of the sheer size of the project. Once we have done this, it will be ready for third-party playtesting, followed by rewrites based on this feedback.
Growing this Poison Tree is not a fast process. It will be at least another year before we finish our own playtesting, and then another few months to write it all up. The feedback from our internal playtesters has been encouragingly positive so far, and we believe that we are creating something quite unique. We can’t wait to share the fruits with you.