Posts in RPG Life

Chupacabracon Recap

I just returned from a 5-day trip to Chupacabracon IX. While I was there, I GMed three games— Necronautilus, Cthulhu Dark, and Dread—and each one provided a positive experience. In fact, I am still riding on good feelings from the con—to a point where, despite the somewhat punishing workload, (I never learn!) I came home feeling rejuvenated and ready to explore new gaming territory.

For me, it is a remarkable shift. I generally run at least two games a week—one of them public and open to strangers—so nothing I did as a GM at the con was atypical overall. And while Texas may be very different from Illinois, I don’t think that a change of venue is what really led to my positive feelings. I owe most of these to 14 very cool players.

One very important characteristic of players at conventions: they choose the games they play from a very wide range of options. If they show up at your table, it means they are there to play your game, which may sound facile, but what I mean is this: they are committed to playing your game. Sure, they can get up and walk away, but generally, in my experience, they don’t And their commitment means you can run the games as intended—you should. It’s what they want, or they wouldn’t be there.

Necronautilus is an unusual game with rules that can be challenging to pick up quickly. I made sure that everyone knew that I loved the game, and that if they gave it a shot, I’d do everything in my power to make it a good game. I almost didn’t need to say any of it. In the interest of full disclosure, I acknowledged that the game was weird. (It is.). One player said, “Then it’s the perfect game to play at a con.” He was right. Why not throw yourself into something new and really try to play it wholeheartedly? They all did, and after they’d finished burning down a massive dollhouse and putting an end to the machinations of the Heretical Doll-maker who lived inside it, they talked about what an interesting game it was, and how it had encouraged creativity in all of them. One of the players immediately bought the game.

That was my first game, and I would’ve thought the rest of the con might be an anticlimax. Game #2 happened that same evening. It was Cthulhu Dark, and it proved to be anything but anticlimactic. I ran a scenario that I wrote in which all of the player characters are women in the early 1960s. (You know, in the same way that they’re mostly all men in most RPG scenarios 😉 My table was entirely male, and they dug into the pre-generated characters with a lot of energy and depth. I’d kept the number of players low, as I wanted this game to play more intimately and to allow the players plenty of room to go big with their RP. They did—and it being a very rules light, horror heavy game—we had plenty of room to draw drama and catharsis out of the game. I am really proud of it—not in the least because it was the second game of the day for me—but, even more so, I was impressed by my players and grateful for the degree to which they bought into the basic premise of the game. We were all gonna hit the bar at the end and debrief, but the evil hotel had closed it down for the night. It wasn’t even midnight yet!

But it was all OK, because the next afternoon I GMed another really good game, thanks to the buy-in of my players. This one was a custom Dread scenario that pays tribute to bad shark movies that are set on yachts. Dread is a fun game to play, when you just want to screw around, and I intended this particular game to just be dumb fun. How seriously can you take an RPG that uses a Jenga tower to resolve tasks? All my players bought into the setting and the humor with loads of energy. They picked up my premise and carried it past “dumb fun” to something that was really remarkably comic. I had a great time in the midst of a highly improvisational game filled with Australian gangsters, pirate ghosts, and (yes, sorry,) coke-addled dolphins. I think they all did as well.

So thanks to all my players at Chupacabracon. You restored my faith in the whole gaming thing. To my players at home: I like you just as much as ever—which is a lot—and hope that you’ll believe me when I say that I’m grateful for all of you as well. You are very fun, very cool people who have enabled my excursions into…well, all sorts of weird places. I’m looking forward to coming back to the home games and bringing a little something extra to them. See you soon!

System versus Synthesis

Not too long ago, I became preoccupied by how permeable the popular notions of system and setting seemed to have become in mainstream TTRPGs. I’m not talking specifically about the idea of a “traditional” universal system, such as GURPS, BRP, Cypher, Savage Worlds, etc. (Thankfully, ‘cuz blecchh!) Neither, particularly, am I talking about systems that foreground “story mechanics,” such as Fate, Powered by the Apocalypse, Forged in the Dark, etc. (Though I like them a good deal more than the blecchh stuff…) All of these systems have small to medium sized armies of adherents and sit above any infinitesimal objections I might raise toward them. Hmm…so why am I writing this?

Oh yeah! Because I want to provide a public service, I think, and I’m just monomaniacal enough and needlessly analytic enough to do so. So listen up, I’m gonna break it down… None of those systems matter anymore than the other. Don’t care who’s moving the most units or occupying the greatest numbers of shelfies… If you’ll allow an argument that might seem initially facile… systems are not the same thing as story concepts, genres, or settings. If you are in love with, say, the steampunk meets heist movie optics of Blades in the Dark, that does not necessarily mean that you love the Forged in the Dark system, mechanically. If you’re enthusiastic enough about the former, you might work around, or at the very least forgive, the inevitable bumpiness of the latter. I’m not denigrating FitD. All systems are more or less bumpy here and there. (Except for Rifts, obviously. My heart broke the day they ported that shit to Savage Worlds 🙁 ) I am saying that, in itself, it does not guarantee a fully satisfying experience of the Blades setting.

Let’s pretend, for a moment, that we live in a world without FitD. If someone had the vision to develop the Doskvol world and then left it stat-less—or system agnostic or mechanically inert or whatever—how do you think it’d’ve sold? My guess is: not very well, for two reasons. First, people are presented with Blades in the Dark as a solid product, wherein system and setting determine one another. (Not true!) Second, because people are intimidated by adapting story elements to a system. These fictional “people” aren’t lazy—however much they might (tend to) otherwise insist. In my experience, they are intimidated. It’s understandable—remember the Mercer Effect? Some people are so gifted when it comes to building worlds, so adept at ushering them from system to system, and so annoyingly charismatic that they can flood a whole (admittedly small) industry with romance. Screw Wizards or Paizo—without the evangelization of Mercer, many of us aren’t doing this hobby. And if Mercer can move a gateway drug that leads people to, say, Dialect, I’m not gonna hate him.

But what about the example of Blades? Well, back in this part of my life in which I used to worry about people mistaking system with setting with scenario, etc., I would get frustrated with how many systems were springing up. Most of them, it seemed, weren’t really contributing anything to an existing set of resources and were, sometimes, exploiting that gamer who didn’t want to port things from one system to another or to hack an existing system into something that would better suit a setting or individuated styles of play or whatever. To be fair to myself, my frustration was largely the frustration of a consumer…one who found himself studying —and shelling out for—system after system—many of them dubious— when really the established field of systems was, if not wholly adequate to every fictional notion, at least robust enough to allow for a good pairing of baseline mechanics to fictional setting.

There is a problem here, and I think some very good games are looking ahead to one kind of a solution. (Some examples would be Brindlewood Bay, Blades in the Dark, and Trophy, which, in turn, pull together elements from existing design systems like Cthulhu Dark, PbtA, and, by extension, Fate.) What we need is not more systems, but rather a lot of solid synthesis of existing rules. The path to every kind of gaming setting you like is right there…you just have to figure out how to follow it.

A Certain Tendency in Investigative Horror Scenario Design

So…remember that last blog post, in which I threw aspersions and praise on Arc Dream? (Me neither, but let’s pretend!) It occurs to me that my entire take on the published investigative horror scenario might seem negative. It’s one thing to go poking at scenarios in hopes of exposing their decrepit foundations. It’s something else altogether to have anything constructive to say about what you discover.

Here is a hypothesis: the more complex a mystery is, the more simply it must be laid out for anyone other than its contriver to understand it. And yet, the tradition of classic Cthulhu-type scenarios is baroque on every level, especially in the presentation of information. It’s probably got something to do with all the flapper girls, Model T’s and other Roaring 20s semantic elements that Chaosium used to colonize our consciousness. Cthulhu games often feel like they are shooting for qualities like excess and decadence. (In fact, I’m half-tempted to get into another lecture about why investigative scenarios so disproportionately seem to happen to rich, stylish characters…certainly not to anyone who’s truly poor—unless you’re playing Cthulhu Dark or something like that—and let’s face it, not enough of you are.)

Everything in mainstream investigative horror scenarios is rich and overstuffed, especially the copy! Content may be limited by all important trigger warnings, but few ideas, characters, or words are—even extra letters are left in…outside of investigative horror scenario writers, wtf says “amongst?” (If you just indignantly said “I do!” but don’t write horror scenarios, then may I suggest that you have just found your true calling.)

Most investigative horror scenarios seem to proceed from a notion that mystery is equivalent to complexity. In terms of a good, solid investigative scenario, I would, in fact, argue for simplicity since, the GM and players will certainly complicate any mystery just by playing through it. So there’s often little justification for lengthy NPC bios, elaborate bits of cosmic lore that have no chance of coming up, or dense descriptions of places the PCs may never visit. I think that most of these ideas about mystery and complexity are derived from mystery fiction, wherein the Twist is often the thing, (just ask Chubby Checker) and the accrual of narrative material adds gravity and an air of unpredictability to the mystery.

But the GM who bought your scenario wasn’t shelling out for a collection of your short stories. They’re shelling out for a scenario that they can run at their table, and to expect them to do a lot of work to translate your short story into an RPG scenario isn’t necessarily unconscionable, but, well, I think you should feel pretty bad about it.

If I sound like I’m being that one asshole in your novel writing workshop, I apologize—because the writing is not the only thing about these scenarios that is overly busy. The graphic design often lines right up, with redundant sidebars, stat blocks, and props. The unfortunately predominant state of mind seems to be: this scenario is good, therefore it can’t be short.

As a GM, I want my scenario to be short, but deep. Give me a good clear summary of a situation and some evocative possibilities about where it might go. If you sketch it well, the GM will gratefully unroll your scenario in front of their players, and then, it is likely that everyone will have fun. But here’s the thing, in my opinion: sketch. Leave room for all of it to breathe— the players, scenario, and especially the poor GM who shelled out for your work. Your name will be sung gratefully in these parts!

As to what that sketching might look like…well, I‘ll try to get to that soon, but I am pretty certain that it will involve a magical concept known as bullet points…

The La Brea Tar Pit of Investigative Horror Scenario Design

I thought it would be a real fun idea to run the 96-page Delta Green scenario Jack Frost at a local bar. So I set out to prep it for about 3 weeks. To be blunt, it was a  headache. I run this kind of mystery/horror scenario quite frequently, but have gotten out of the habit a bit just recently. Jack Frost is an excellent reminder of why I got tired of prepping these things. First of all, working with a scenario like Jack Frost feels more like excavation than preparation. The story concepts are very compelling, and if you focus on them in isolation, then you may find yourself pedal to the metal, making arrangements to get some players, print out sheafs of props and cheat sheets and whatnot—most of which are thoughtfully provided by Arc Dream Publishing—and get that monster rolling at your table. 

And it is a monster—make no mistake. In fact there are several of them, ranging from predatory reanimated animals to the the most lethal of men in black. It all ends in a show-stopping full blown manifestation of the Great Old One, Ithaqua, the Walker on the Winds, that is beautifully set up throughout the scenario, so that when it lands, it is with dreadful impact. In fact, I’d go so far as to say it’s the best full blown confrontation with Ithaqua I have seen in an RPG scenario.

That said, remember my reference to excavation above? Here is the problem with Jack Frost, from my very practical perspective: in order to have the scenario ready to actually run, I had to first perform an autopsy on it. Not just read it and take notes and prepare a cheat sheet or two—I had to scoop out its narrative innards and then set them aside from loads of what I felt was superfluous data about mission command structure, and folkloric background material that was so anonymous as to be irrelevant. Given the volume of material, it was hard not to become impatient. I briefly considered chucking most of it, and just suturing the good parts into my own unrelated scenario, but so much time had been invested in Jack Frost already—and, as I said, the basic concepts are so good that I hated to let any of them go. So I waded through badly presented story elements, with far too many sidebars interrupting blocks of text. I flipped pages and fumbled about trying to follow the line of text I was reading, and just made due. (By the way, I bought print and PDF, and found the print scenario easier to deal with, but only just barely.)

So my verdict for Jack Frost is 5 stars for imagery, set pieces, and concepts (including some fantastically researched scientific material); 1 star for layout, organization, and textual restraint. It is an amazing scenario, but I can’t recommend it. I have powerful feelings about it…I am inspired. At the same time, it reminds me why I am sick of the standards of organization and presentation in published investigative scenarios. It’s time for somebody to just really take a blow torch to the whole form. Maybe if we melt and reshape it enough, it can evolve out of the 1990s and into something that feels less like a sloppy short story and more like a playable RPG scenario. In the meantime, I am going to think twice before I shell out for another scenario that’s going to take me weeks to process—not because of the scope of the ideas therein, but because there are such low standards for the editing and presentation of scenarios.


For several years now, I have run at least two weekly TTRPG sessions. I tend to mix up systems and settings a great deal, while coming back to  some games out of preference, convenience or some combination thereof. I consider myself lucky, because I’m generally able to run whatever I want without worrying about getting a table full of players, and I’ve tried to take advantage of this luck to explore as much as possible. That said, you can become a victim of your own ambition when GMing, just as you can in anything else. As a matter of fact, GMing has many, many pitfalls—many ways for your hubris, lack of self-awareness, curiosity, etc. to take you down—and I ran up against one of these this week.

My desk where I prep the games I'm GMing

Everybody likes Mörk Borg, right? That’s a rhetorical question. I’m aware that there are people who do not, but my impression is that almost everyone would at least extend grudging respect toward Mörk Borg. I will go on record as being an enthusiast. I consider it a guilty pleasure, but in the context of TTRPGs, there’s almost nothing but—whatever else you may aspire into in this arena, you gotta acknowledge that games are games. So Mörk Borg is fun. Sure, it places style so far above substance that it can get nearly impossible to orient yourself—if you’re using the default setting or one of the more veritable hacks. But it is clean and practical enough to knock out a very fun gaming session in a way that feels almost effortless.

And yet, however elegant Mörk Borg may be as a game engine, a diet of nothing but can leave you feeling sluggish and slow when you return to other games. No matter how many times you’ve run, say, PbtA games, you may still find yourself fumbling about, if you are returning to them after a week and three straight sessions of Mörk Borg—which is exactly the situation I found myself in this week. I returned to a recently established Masks game, after two weeks off, and found the game to be alarmingly blurry. Whenever a ruling materialized, my responses ranged from just adequate to fumbling. Fortunately, I had a table of players who were patient. When I got lost in my cheat sheets, once out twice, they helpfully steered me in the right direction. I was a bit embarrassed, and it isn’t how you generally want a session of GMing to go, but everyone was cool about it. And the story, at least, I had a solid grasp on, and overall, everyone seemed to have a lot of fun.

By the way, I would give the Masks core rule book some credit for game’s narrative flow, which is probably something worth talking about in the future—the value of games that present you with a solid approach. Rules are nice, but without some thought about how to apply them, it doesn’t really matter how perfect they are. Games don’t run or play themselves.

Anyway, if I may offer some wholly unsolicited advice to whoever would care to take it in: take a few days off between intense run-throughs of different systems, if you can. Then take a solid session of prep to re-read some rules. Otherwise, while you’re trying to fall asleep and escape memories of the day’s humiliations, the spirits of NPCs Past will come back to laugh at you!

Assembling the Super Team!

In Masks, the players take the part of young superheroes, generally 16-20 years old. By default, you all live in Halcyon City, a metropolis that has been living with superheroes and villains since the 1940s, along with the various peculiar occult, futuristic, and just plain bizarre things that go along with a tradition of super heroism/ villainy.

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New Year, New Blog Posts…

I plan on updating my blog more frequently in the upcoming year. I thought it might be useful, to anyone who stops in and reads, to know what I do and how I do it. My intention is to offer a sketch of how I come into each game I run, and then a reflection about how the game actually plays out—a sort of “Before/After” snapshot. I thought my reflections might be useful, or at least distracting, for some of you who know me. This here will be the longest entry that I will make. (I promise!) But I feel like I need to provide some context before I move forward.

So I am a GM, first and foremost. I aspire to other things—mostly to do with game design—but at the moment, GMing is mostly where it’s at. By almost any standard, I GM in high volume, which is to say I average two games a week, but sometimes end up doing up to five games, and these games run the gamut from storytelling games like, say, Dialect, (which, I know, is GMless, but come on…) to traditional RPGs like everyone’s favorite (haha sort of) Mörk Borg. I have run Bluebeard’s Bride, Hypertellurians, Dread, Better Angels, the Everything of Cthulhu, and, of course, The World’s Most Cough Cough Speak Not Its Name…

I have run a lot personal games at my house, in which the players and I have gone all over the place, doing all sorts of things, and that overall experience has been amazing. I’ve also run a lot of public/gig-type games and learned to appreciate the shotgun wedding nature of a good, random one-shot. I like to think that the time I’ve put in has granted me a certain amount of patience and, maybe, insight—not so much because I’m the brightest bulb in the box. More to the point, if you practice as much as I have—eventually something useful takes hold.

I also like to think that all of this GMing hasn’t dulled my passion for the whole experience—even if, at times, it’s led me to become a little more pragmatic. TTRPGs are awesome, to my way of thinking. They can be a frontier of consciousness, where you are whatever you want to be and/or catch glimpses of who or what you could be. They are also a habit that can lead to aberrant and antisocial behavior—oh yeah, and they’re a bankable, if somewhat picayune, industry.

I’m a cog in this wheel, but who cares? I’m looking forward to the games I currently have lined up for 2023. If nothing else, my friends and I enjoy them, so I thought it might be worth telling you about them, from the GM’s perspective. So next time around, I’ll describe my upcoming mini-campaign of the super-hero game Masks, which will kick off the year for my public group. I’m really looking forward to it. I am mostly a guileless person, and I’ll tell you upfront that I’m amped about this game, because it is about being young and figuring things out. It seems like a great place to start a new year. I’ll let you know what my setup is sometime soon. Then, if you’re still reading, I’ll tell you how things go, somewhere down the line.

Meanwhile, Happy New Year!

New Year
My game wall from mid-pandemic…about the only thing I miss about running my games online

Eternal Lies – Session 25

JANUARY 1, 1935, TUESDAY: Amid the bloody chaos at the Mercy Hill Mental Institution, the Investigators convinced their former guide ABAI to travel to London. Once there, he would wait for them to get him out of the country. James “Tick Tock” Cohan expressed hope for and disappointment in Abai.

At the hotel, Dorothy perused the comic she purchased at Yellowtree Books and was drawn into a state of heightened arousal. Chantelle Perreault kept watch over Dorothy, while Luke Davis and James meditated in their room. In the morning, the group met PROFESSOR ORWELL SANGSTER at Brichester University. They headed into the countryside to find Deepfall Lake, the center of a dense body of local legend. The lake was lined with trees, and on one side, six houses stood. These were built in the 18th century by the followers of a strange pastor named THOMAS LEE. They came seeking something called GLA’AKI, which they venerated, but they soon disappeared. The houses were also the site of a series of disappearances happened in the area in the 1890s, and the houses have been abandoned ever since. Their last owner, GILBERT CELESTE, was accused of murdering the missing people. He was dubbed “The Ripper of the Lake,” and was executed in 1893.

As they approached, Sangster lectured them about the history of the area. He and James parked the car up the road from the houses and kept watch, as the party had noted strange, human-shaped forms moving in the trees across the lake. James noticed the water stirring and smelled a terrible odor coming from the lake. Beneath its surface, he saw the outlines of strange buildings, but these disappeared. Later, a large eye stalk emerged from the water to look at him. The human-shaped figures moved closer. One of them appeared to be missing archaeologist HUSAIN SOLIMAN still strangely transformed.Orwell Sangster fired his gun at Soliman, who appeared to catch a bullet and flick it aside. Soliman told them to leave.

Meanwhile, Dorothy, Luke, and Chantelle went about exploring the derelict houses. Aside from dust and an air of abandonment, they found a scrap of paper wedged between some floorboards. It mentioned “the green decay” and warned its reader to leave. The group also found the remnants of a base camp, probably belong to the Emporium of Bangkok Antiquities. It appeared that a scene of violence had occurred, leaving an outer wall and one of the bedrooms badly damaged. Strange writing lined the walls and stairs. Words had been spread around in a strange green and silver medium: THEY HAVE STOLEN THE BOOKS LAUGHTON SAW THE HELIX TRUTH. In another house, new furnishings had been installed, but peculiarly organized. A neatly made bed was in the kitchen, while an unplugged refrigerator with rotting food rested in a bath tub.

Hearing gunshots, Dorothy, Luke, and Chantelle emerged to find Sangster and James engaged with Soliman and the other strange forms. Terrified, the group got to their car and fled. Suddenly they found themselves driving in a different area, near Brichester and several miles away from Deepfall Lake.

Eternal Lies – Session 24

DECEMBER 31, 1934, MONDAY: The Investigators returned to Brichester University to meet PROFESSOR ORWELL SANGSTER of the Classical Languages Department. As an expert in the ancient Roman presence in the area, Sangster is also an authority concerning local folklore. He described the Severn Valley as a nexus of sorts for bizarre pagan beliefs and noted.

Sangster also confirmed that archaeologist HUSAIN SOLIMAN had questioned him concerning several locally mythologized landmarks, among them remote, wooded Deepfall Lake. The Investigators believe this is the lake which appeared in the dream of Chantelle Perreault and in warnings they received at Mercy Hill Institution for the Mentally Disturbed. A 18th century cult believed it to be a site of significance to the entity known as GLA’AKI. It is a godlike being that may be related to the 1924 ritual that took the life of VINCE STACK and possibly the mind or soul of WALTER WINSTON. Sangster agreed to travel with the Investigators to Deepfall Lake on New Years Day.

The Investigators returned to Mercy Hill in hopes of speaking with ABAI, their guide from Axum. He had been traveling with Hussain Soliman, and they were hoping to question him about the recent activities of the Emporium of Bangkok Antiquities, the mysterious organization they crossed paths with in Axum. The Investigators suspect these activities are linked to whatever has caused Abai to be institutionalized and has led to the transformation of Soliman into the strange mossy figure they have seen following them in both their dreams and waking lives.

On arrival, the Investigators found Mercy Hill in a state of chaos. Terrified staff members told them that a madman was running loose with a knife. Several corpses lay in the halls of the asylum. They had been stabbed repeatedly. The Investigators eventually found Abai and convinced him to hand over his knife. Before he gave it up, he cut the corners of his mouth open with its tip.