Monday 29 November 2010

Hooks and the City - part 1

For this instalment in the Hooks series, I've taken the city encounter chart from the back of the DMG and tried to cook up some hooks for each of the encounters listed there. I've come up a blank on a few (my ideas for those were a bit lame) and so I've filled things out with some random tables of my own invention for making city life that little bit more eventful - for quite a few of these, I'm giving the d12 some Old School love.

Because the list is so big (it kind of grew in the writing) I'm posting four parts over the next few days; here is part one - I hope you get some use out of it.

(PS it should be noted that these hooks do not all refer to the same city. Just to clarify)

Assassin – Two assassins, an apprentice and master have arrived in the city. The apprentice has been chafing at the bit for a while and the master has been getting tired, wanting to retire. Then something happened – now they are at daggers drawn and trying to kill each other. Both are more or less as good as each other, so their schemes are razor-sharp and they both can see how the other thinks.
The party may well wander into the middle of it all or be used as patsies by one or the other.

Assassin 2 – an assassin on a job has had an accident and suffered amnesia as a result. He was taken in by a group of kindly clerics and has now found himself a niche working in a soup kitchen and doing good deeds for charity. However, his former associates are terrified that he’s going to turn them in to the authorities and have despatched men to take care of the problem. So far, the former assassin has run into two of them, and killed them both using skills he’d forgotten he had. He’s just marked it down as thugs trying to rob him but the clerics are perturbed and wonder what it is about their new brother that makes people want to kill him.

Assassin 3 – a gang of snyads has been hired by a vengeful patron to infiltrate and kill his enemy. The little menaces are perfect for worming their way through tiny holes, sneaking about and generally causing a whole heap of trouble. The party has been hired by the target to protect him as he’s heard that there’s an assassin on his trail but he has no idea what’s coming after him.

Bandit – after a bad encounter with law enforcement, a bandit is hiding up in the city until the heat dies down. There is a reward out for him, and members of his old gang suspect that he was complicit in the fight that broke up the band. He is starting to wonder if he has had enough of the bandit life and should turn himself in or flee the city.

Bandit 2 – a gang of rural bandits has kidnapped some travellers from a wagon train and is intending to ransom them. They have sent one of their number into the city to deliver the ransom and conduct the negotiations. Unfortunately for them, the person to whom the ransom has been delivered is a high-level evil priest (no-one knows this; he’s passing himself off as a businessman) and he intends to capture the bandit, turn him into an undead and use him to lead the priest’s minions (who include undead) back to the bandits’ camp.

Beggar – one of the cluster of beggars outside one of the city’s grander temples is in fact the temple’s god in disguise. He has decided to manifest to test the charity of the temple’s clerics and has so far found it wanting. He has taken to making arch comments every time he sees one of the clerics and they are getting a little narked off with this.

Beggar – some different types (1d12)
1. war wounded
2. child beggar
3. blind beggar
4. limbless beggar
5. lazy good for nothing beggar
6. mad beggar who is prone to weird (and occasionally relevant) outbursts
7. unfortunate victim of bad luck
8. beggar who has been cheated and screwed and wants revenge
9. undercover thief
10. undercover assassin
11. undercover city watchman
12. child selling knick knacks for food

Brigand – a rather ineffectual gang of brigands, who have regularly been defeated by the city guard and local forces so often that they are no longer taken seriously and now hire themselves out to frighten people rather than rob them. Recently, however, they have actually managed to capture a rather wimpy young man and his harridan of an aunt and the youth, a keen student of military history, has seized on this opportunity to forge the brigands into an effective fighting force, using the tactics and strategies of history. His hatred of his aunt led to her death at the hands of the brigands and he is now planning to launch an attack on a nearby militia outpost where he will seize more arms and use this victory as a recruiting drive. No-one even suspects that the joke brigands are a joke no longer until it’s too late.

City Guard v City Watch – the boundaries of responsibility have grown up over the decades, as have the rivalries and enmities that exist between the two forces. Each is trying to make the other one look bad, sabotaging investigations, making witnesses disappear. Each has its particular rackets that go on and each is trying to eat into the other’s territory. Because of the way that the city’s judicial system works, guard and watch have responsibility for some very odd aspects of city life – policing of lunatics, dealing with drunks, the maintenance of the city walls, the upkeep of the gates, licensing of taverns and brothels, fire fighting (this is a lucrative source of protection money as businesses and homes have to work out in whose territory they find themselves on a weekly basis and ensure that the appropriate premiums are paid).

City Official (1d12)

1. Debt chaser and collector – chasing up debt orders from the city courts. He could either be pursuing the party for unpaid debts or asking for their help in taking down a particularly big or powerful debtor who is laughing in the face of the city authorities
2. Constable – often commanded the city guard or city watch. What if he has two or more lieutenants who are keen to take on his mantle and something happens to him – might the city guard/watch disintegrate into a bloody civil war inside the city?
3. Steward of a noble household – what about if he’s being blackmailed to allow an assassin inside the house, or perhaps the noble suspects him of fiddling the accounts and wants him investigated to find out where the money’s going?
4. Officers of the Exchequer – perhaps a minor official of the exchequer is asked to undertake a bog-standard audit and uncovers evidence of high-level corruption. He takes it to his boss but the boss is in on it and bingo, assassins are on the official’s tail. The party might need to protect him and get him to testify in safety and see justice done
5. Tax collector
6. Customs inspectors – usually stationed at the city gates to check on suspicious loads, packages and carts covered with hay. The party could get caught in the crossfire between them and their arch-enemies, the smugglers who might try to hide contraband inside something the party is – innocently – escorting back to the city or perhaps have just looted from a dungeon and be taking to sell
7. Jailer – he and his men might be the ones locking up one of the party for some offence or other, or perhaps they might need help to defend the prison against a bunch of heavies intent on remaking Rio Bravo.
8. Judge – they like to think of themselves as incorruptible but they might also be seen as oppressors of the people, enforcing the city’s laws rather than justice. Are they appointed by the city’s rulers or do they form an independent judiciary?
9. Magistrate – making local decisions on minor quarrels and cases would tend to bring them into contact with the party or their friends, especially if the party was involved in some sort of altercation and got arrested
10. Liner - an officer in charge of tracing property boundaries in the city. Depending on which side of the line a property is, its owners might stand to lose a lot of money. People who make those sorts of decisions might become unpopular. They might need protection or help.
11. Summoner - officer of the court who served subpoenas. He might need help serving his summons in the rougher parts of town or finding a witness or some such who has gone missing.
12. Coroner
During the Middle Ages, coroners had numerous legal duties that went beyond investigating sudden, violent or suspicious deaths. In some areas, the coroner was responsible for investigating all crimes that carried the death penalty. The coroner had to record details of all deaths he investigated on his rolls. The process was so cumbersome and convoluted that it often resulted in errors. As a result witnesses and other people involved in the investigation were often fined.

This led to cases of people hiding dead bodies to avoid an inquest. Some people would even drag a corpse by night to another village or hundred, so that they would not be burdened with the problem. Even where no guilt lay, to be involved in a death, even a sudden, natural one, caused endless trouble and usually financial loss.

This cries out for adventures!

City Watchman – a member of the watch has a near-death experience during the course of his duties and Comes Back Wrong. Now he can control the undead who worship him as a King. He uses these powers to take down hoods, criminals and gangsters. The city likes the cut in crime that results from this, but the dead criminals become undead themselves and the churches are getting edgy about the new wave of walking dead, who, while they are not fighting crime, are behaving like undead normally do.

City Watch 2
A city watchman has had a tip from a seer that a big shipment of drugs is coming into the city. He has taken this news to his captain who has ordered tougher searches of all convoys and shipments.
The truth of the matter is that a band of pilgrims is bringing the mummified corpse of their cult leader into the city for a ‘religious ceremony’. During the ceremony, the mummy will be broken down and ground up into powder which the cultists will imbibe to partake of a mystical visionary experience. This will fade away after a few hours and they will leave. If they are prevented from going through with the ceremony or if the mummy is interfered with, they will get very angry and violent. Their home country may get to hear about it.

Cleric – a new cleric from an out of town sect has been sent to the city to preach to lost souls but he’s making a right mess of it and can’t fill a pew, let alone a temple. He needs ideas. Perhaps the party might assist?

Cleric 2 – this cleric belongs to a religion that is perceived as perfectly harmless, preaching peace and harmony. 99% of the time, they are. Unfortunately, in order to maintain harmony, their doctrine demands a human sacrifice at the forthcoming festival and the party are just what the doctor ordered. He needs to lure them to his temple and incapacitate them.

Cleric 3 – a down on his luck con-man has decided to make some money by starting up a new religion. He’s pretty good at the patter and has started to attract followers from the indigent and hopeless. Although it’s all a con, he is liking the attention and wants to keep going rather than take the money and run. And the belief and worship of his followers is beginning to form power on the spirit plane, giving him actual but unfocused energy. The city authorities are keeping a watchful eye on the movement, worried about its potential for causing trouble amongst the underclasses.

Cleric 4 – unlike Cleric 1, this guy has charisma and lots of it. He is, however, a preacher pure and simple and regards organised churches as an institutional evil. He will have a strong influence on those who listen to him long enough (including the party) but every time the authorities turn up to try and stop him, he seems to slip away. Is he just a manic street preacher or is there more to him than meets the eye?

Demon – a summoning spell has gone wrong and a demon is now trapped in the body of a gerbil. It’s a mean and evil gerbil but a gerbil nonetheless and the cult are looking for it to release the demon within. Big city, small gerbil – it could be anywhere.

Devil – a delivery of stone statues of angels, gargoyles and such like is expected at the big Lawful Good cathedral in the city. An evil cultist is planning to conduct a ceremony whereby he anoints them with innocent blood and other magical ingredients and causes them to come to life just when the high priest and his friends are having their main ceremony of the year. The statues are devils of some kind who have been ‘petrified’ or placed into some sort of pseudo-petrification stasis for the plan.

A doppelganger has taken the place of a kidnapped girl in order to infiltrate her family and rob it from the inside but whilst there, the doppelganger starts to take to the life and in fact wants to stay there. Meanwhile, one of the family suspects that all is not what it seems and hires the party to track down the real girl who is being held in some sort of tough prison. When they eventually get her out, the doppelganger has the family member killed off or disposed of and then challenges the party to prove that the girl is not a doppelganger herself.

Doppelganger 2
A nobleman returns from war and a few months later, a raggedy man who looks very like him arrives, claiming to be him and alleging that the other one is a doppelganger who had him kidnapped and imprisoned. Which is the real one?

Druid – what’s a druid doing in a city? Well, that’s a long story. The druid is on a quest to uncover and restore a sacred spring that has long been built over and by so doing release the spirit of the waters. Unfortunately, the spring is now deep within the city’s sewers and catacombs and is in fact under a subterranean fastness built by wererats. The druid is a bit of an idealist but not above using the power of fiction to persuade parties to follow him and help him fulfil his quest.

Fighter – a travelling show has come to town and they have a new attraction this year – in a cage, they have a huge and brawny man who, they claim is a champion fighter. Anyone who can take him on and beat him will win a handsome purse.
The fighter is indeed tough – at least three levels higher than whoever decides to challenge him. If any of the party is going to beat him, it’ll have to be by luck and guile.
If anyone does beat him – and it’ll be a fight to the death – there is a surprise coming because the travelling showmen have enchanted the coins in the purse and the night before they leave the city, they will track down the winner and kidnap him. The first he’ll know about it is when he wakes up in the cage on the way to the next city.

Gentleman –
A farmer has found out that he is descended from nobility albeit many generations removed. He is determined that his son should aspire to be a gentleman and sends him to the city to a finishing school. For a while, letters arrive home but after some time, they stop and he does not know what has become of his son. He suspects that the boy has now become a gentleman and is ashamed of his family but determines to find out, therefore spends his hard-earned cash on good quality clothes, a haircut and a trip to the city.
When he gets there, he finds that no-one has heard of the finishing school and that there is no sign of his son. He starts to ask questions and make a nuisance of himself and when the party encounter him, he is in the process of being beaten up.
The ‘finishing school’ is of course a con – its operators take the money and either imprison or sell the hapless would-be gentlemen into slavery for profit.

Ghost – on their way from somewhere to somewhere else in the city, the party is jostled by some urchins and a small but significant item is taken from one of their pockets or pouches. The urchins run at full pelt and despite the party’s best efforts, the urchins give them the slip in some warren of alleyways and back streets.
A few days later, the party catches sight of the urchins again, following and taunting them. This time, the party can follow them for longer before they lose track of them. The area is more run-down and derelict, with a level of poverty that makes civilised men shudder. Nevertheless, the urchins still manage to vanish.
This is repeated and this time, the last of the urchins is seen vanishing into a run-down building, a warehouse or townhouse that has definitely seen better days. If the party go in, they can hear the sound of laughter and movement that seems to be leading them down to the cellars. When they get down there, all that can be found is empty cellars.
The fact of the matter is that the urchins are ghosts – formerly street kids, they were causing a nuisance to local businesses and ‘respectable’ folk and so a committee of concerned citizens (aka vigilantes) tracked them down to their hideout and – realising that they would stand no chance in the warren of tunnels under the house – walled up the only exit, leaving the urchins to starve to death. The urchins’ ghosts have prowled the city, trying to lure someone to the site of their deaths so that their bones can be uncovered, huddled together in death, and given the proper funeral rites. However, investigations into the house and what went on there will alarm the original vigilantes who might want to take steps to ensure that their crimes are kept covered up.

Monday 15 November 2010

Would it be so terrible if I never rolled to hit again?

During my ongoing CoC pbem, I’ve been having a few thoughts about the raison d’etre of the adventures I'm running and those I'm planning.

For many, many weeks, the brave investigators have probed the mysteries, followed the clues, talked to the NPCs and been led a merry dance by the twists and turns of the plot. There’s only been one gunfight, and that lasted all of two rounds. And they seem to be loving it.

I’m also working on a module that is very light on combat. There’s a lot of location-based investigation, magic, weird goings-on and of course talking to lots and lots of people. And its follow-up will be similarly combat-light.

Even Death Frost Doom (to take one of the flagships of the OSR's output) is more about atmosphere and ambiance than sword-swinging and axe-hacking (although there is the potential for that). From the reviews, it seems to me that a careful party that is not too greedy and not too foolish can actually get in, get loot and get out again. With no combat.

When I was playing first time around in the good old days, it was taken for granted that we were there to kill things and take their stuff. D&D or Traveller, the tactics were the same, it was just the weapons that differed. Guys wanted bigger guns to make bigger bangs and blow bigger holes in bigger opponents.

However, recent anecdotal evidence points me towards a view that there is a sizeable proportion of players out there (it seems to be female gamers, but I'm sure that there are males who would agree) who would get just as much enjoyment out of a game where there is as little combat as possible, and the main thrust is on interaction, investigation and problem-solving using brain rather than brawn.

The raison d’etre of D&D and indeed Old School dungeons is exploration but it’s implicit in the rules and the way that the characters are established (hit points, armour class, weapons, damage, enemies whose first resort seems to be fighting, stats for monsters which list AC, HD, Att) that combat is going to be taking up a lot of that exploration-centred activity. Cure Light Wounds implies that wounds are going to be suffered, after all.

So I find myself thinking – am I shifting focus to a genre of role-playing that eschews violence? Is it a mark of getting old and finding continual hack-and-slay boring or am I undergoing a fundamental paradigm shift?

Being a writer, I'm aware that the main feature of any story is conflict - the same applies to adventures. In days gone by, perhaps we took that word a little too literally. I know that I did - although towards the end of my first stint of gaming, back in the late 1980s, we were starting to move towards a style of play whereby we felt that if we had to draw our swords, we had failed to achieve our ends successfully. Admittedly, that was a city-based campaign where the opportunities for role-playing non-combat situations were somewhat heavier on the ground than they might have been if we were exploring the wilderness.

In my gaming sessions with Junior Grognard, the mix for the Training Dungeon was combat and puzzles, physical obstacles and features that challenged his thinking abilities as much as his dice-rolling. Yet if I'm selling D&D to kids, it's going to be pitched at the "Are you a Warrior or a Wizard? Find out with Dungeons and Dragons" tagline level - hack 'em or zap 'em, it's still combat. Where's the alternative? For seven-year-olds, the level of patience and social sophistication needed to run an adventure on non-combat lines is still lacking - they want to hit things with things.

I suppose it all depends - there is no "right" balance - the tastes of the DM and his players, the type of campaign and terrain in which the action takes place all play a part in determining how often the cry goes up

"Roll to hit!"

What's your view? Do you like a good bit of bloodshed or is it better to talk than fight? Would adventures that are less combat-oriented help to attract women into the game? And should adventures be slanted towards situations that can only be solved by combat or should the non-violent options be given equal chance?

Friday 12 November 2010

Fear on Friday - Facing my childhood nightmares

When I was young (okay, around nine or ten) the British publisher Armada, who regularly brought out titles for kids, had a series going called the Ghost Books. They were compilations of short stories on a spectral theme, edited by Mary Danby who also kept the editor's seat warm at Fontana's Horror Stories department.

The stories were pretty good for kids' fiction (as we've seen on Fridays past, the British of the 1970s had a peculiar notion of what was suitable for children) and the covers were a mixed bunch that probably didn't do the contents justice.

Except for this one..

I'm not sure what it was about it - the sickly green background, the skeleton rider reaching out menacingly or the look of sheer malevolence on what was left of its face but that cover absolutely terrified me.

In fact, it frightened me so much that my sister, whose copy it was, had to cover it in brown paper so that I didn't catch sight of it by accident. When I went into the school bookshop to browse (I must have been thirteen or so) I caught a glimpse of it on the shelves, fled and didn't come back for a long time.

Flash forward to 2010 and the middle-aged me is trying to think up a subject for the Fear on Friday slot. I'd seen the cover previously in thumbnail on Google images and if truth be told, I had a shiver even then. Was it still as scary as back in 1974 or was it just my memory of being so very scared that was making me edgy now?

Well, I bit the bullet and whilst it's an unpleasant image to contemplate (and I can see why it might have given a nine-year old a fright) it's no longer the stuff of nightmares.

But if I'd steered clear of that picture because of what I remembered feeling, part of me would always be nine years old and terrified.

Wednesday 10 November 2010

I need to talk about Howard

As you will probably know, I’m currently running a Call of Cthulhu pbem set in 1920. I’ve known Lovecraft’s work for years now but because of my involvement in this campaign, I’ve been steadily re-reading his stories over the past couple of months and have noticed that there’s a problem.

I’ve got no trouble recreating the look and feel of the 1920s – sources of research information and pictures are readily available on the internet and many a happy hour I’ve spent finding out the minutiae which will lend an air of historical verisimilitude to the world with which the players are interacting. I even have no problem with my characters, both PC and NPC smoking cigarettes.

No, what I’ve got a problem with is the degree to which the game itself and those who play it can ever hope to accurately recreate the world in which Lovecraft set his stories. Not the historical but the psychological and social world that he created.

That world is not the world that really existed at the time; of course, I’m not referring to the fact that there is no R’lyeh, no Cthulhu, no Great Race, no Mountains of Madness. I’m referring to the very concepts that powered Lovecraft’s vision.

This post is not the place to debate whether Lovecraft was racist – that’s another debate for someone else’s blog. What I’m interested in is whether it is possible for 21st century players and Keepers to get inside the mindset of someone who wrote perhaps eighty to ninety years ago and take on board and accept as normal the memes and tropes that he embodied in his work and which are taken as fact by those who inhabit the world that exists within that work.

Under siege

Lovecraft’s characters inhabit a world in which the white, intellectual Anglo-Saxon Protestant is under siege. The siege mentality pervades the narrative; the protagonists of the stories hold the line in an attempt (often vain) to stem the tide of an encroaching and threatening darkness. Those who stand against this tide are heroic if ultimately aware of the fact that doom is ineluctable. Those who work with the forces of darkness are the seething mass of miscegenated savages, their alien ways and unspeakable ceremonies truly terrifying to those who know what is out there. Lovecraft uses words such as brute, savage, creature, animal and of course mongrel to describe them and the stories take their cue from this particular vision.

He was a loathsome, gorilla-like thing, with abnormally long arms which I could not help calling fore legs, and a face that conjured up thoughts of unspeakable Congo secrets and tom-tom poundings under an eerie moon. (Herbert West – Re-animator)

certain nameless and unclassified Asian dregs wisely turned back by Ellis Island.
(The Horror at Red Hook)

an Arab with a hatefully negroid mouth,
(The Horror at Red Hook)

the prisoners all proved to be men of a very low, mixed-blooded, and mentally aberrant type. Most were seamen, and a sprinkling of negroes and mulattoes, largely West Indians or Brava Portuguese from the Cape Verde Islands, gave a colouring of voodooism to the heterogeneous cult. But before many questions were asked, it became manifest that something far deeper and older than negro fetichism was involved. Degraded and ignorant as they were, the creatures held with surprising consistency to the central idea of their loathsome faith.
(The Call of Cthulhu)

When we came to know the squatters better, we found them curiously likeable in many ways. Simple animals they were, gently descending the evolutionary scale because of their unfortunate ancestry and stultifying isolation. (The Lurking Fear)

Let’s look at this section of the Wikipedia entry on Lovecraft:

Though little known to his fan base, Lovecraft was familiar with the work of the German conservative-revolutionary theorist Oswald Spengler. Spengler's pessimistic thesis of the decadence of the modern West formed a crucial element in Lovecraft's overall anti-modern, conservative worldview. Lovecraft was also acquainted with the writings of another German intellectual who dealt with civilised decadence in philosophical terms: Friederich Nietzsche.
Lovecraft frequently dealt with the idea of civilisation struggling against more barbaric, primitive elements. In some stories this struggle is at an individual level; many of his protagonists are cultured, highly-educated men who are gradually corrupted by some obscure and feared influence.

The stories, set in the years just after the First World War, a war that was graphically portrayed as a battle of Good versus Evil, draw on this moral dichotomy and the taking of sides, albeit reluctantly to fight against that which seems too horrible to be allowed to live may well mirror the American attitude in 1917 – dragged into a war that they would rather not have joined. Those who returned from Europe were marked by a vision of hell as close to reality as could be possible. The influenza epidemic at the end of the war can only have confirmed to many that the alien, the outsider was coming, bringing with them this disease that would scythe through young and old alike.

As well as the emotional impact of the war on those who fought in it, there was also the geopolitical fallout that ensued. Communism, bogeyman of the political establishment had broken out of its manifesto cage and infected the minds of millions of Russians and, as far as the politicians were concerned, threatened to do so to the minds of British, American, European and other workers worldwide. The Palmer raids in 1919 and 1920 were a response to terrorism perpetrated by anarchists, linked in the minds of Americans with the menace of Bolshevism.

That the world of 1920 was not that of 1914 was painfully obvious to many – the old certainties had been overthrown and whilst it was not dead, the old social order had been badly wounded by the ruthless way in which obedience to authority, once the bulwark of the establishment, had been revealed to be one of the prime movers in sending millions to their deaths in Europe and beyond. There was no longer a sense that one’s social inferiors would accept their position in life merely because that was the way that it had always been. Another threat to the very people already terrified by the spectre of influenza and the Red scare.

Eighty or ninety years on, the Red scare has come and gone, social mobility has swept the old order away and science has, to a greater or lesser extent, brought epidemics under control with vaccines. Are these neuroses of Lovecraft’s world still the terrors that once they were?

The bleakness

In the 1920s, society was still vastly Christian, with a very particular, almost solipsistic view of man’s place in the cosmos and the universe as a whole. Indeed, the understanding of the cosmos, Einstein notwithstanding was very much more limited than we have today. As such, the notion of man as cosmologically insignificant in a vast, uncaring, indifferent universe would have filled people of Lovecraft’s era with a horror that seems baffling by today’s standards. The notion of almost immeasurable distances of time and space holds more fascination than horror for us in the 21st century and I view this aspect of Lovecraft’s works with a quaint interest rather than a shudder of terror.

That having been said, the bleakness does horrify some people. Here’s James Maliszewksi on it in 2008.

“Perhaps because of this, I find the bleakness of Lovecraft's imaginary creation truly horrific. Were the universe as he describes it reality, I have little doubt that I'd be driven to depths of despair the likes of which I've never experienced (and never hope to). I find Lovecraft's stark, uncaring universe a source of profound terror for me.

I suppose that horror, like comedy is subjective.

Allied with the bleakness is the futility of many of the protagonists’ efforts to combat the dark forces menacing them from the Beyond. Many of the stories end with a solitary narrator penning his final thoughts as the monsters close in or knowing that despite his best efforts, they are still out there and there is nothing that can be done.

Unknown horrors
Since the 1920s and 1930s, we’ve reduced the unknown areas on the map to practically zero. What we can’t get to, our satellites can see. The only mystery left is the ocean depths and even there, we are fairly sure about what isn’t, even if we don’t know what is. There’s no R’lyeh, no mysterious islands that might be there, it’s so remote. In effect, the word remote has become devalued. We can no longer look to the blank spaces on the map or the depths of the ocean for the lurking horror that may wake to destroy the planet. Instead, our eyes turn outwards to the stars, scanning the sky for those colossal (dare I say Cyclopean) lumps of rock which could arrive tomorrow to obliterate entire cities, continents or worse. I wouldn’t be surprised if one of the thousands of asteroids out there has the name Cthulhu on it. As a parallel for indifferent, uncaring nemesis, a Doomsday Asteroid is right up there with the Great Old Ones.

I believe, although it is a subjective point of view, that the fears that gripped, informed and shaped the psyche of the post-war society that would have consumed Lovecraft’s work and been chilled thereby have long since faded from the public consciousness. To attempt to immerse oneself in that society, to replicate its mores and its nightmares is as much an experiment in imaginative acting as it would be to try and think oneself into the mindset of a mediaeval knight or man-at-arms for Dungeons and Dragons.

Yet if we remove, or fail to include the themes and aspects of the world of Lovecraft’s fiction that trouble us, that are deemed non-PC or towards which we feel a fundamental discomfort, are we in fact neutering the very powerhouse of the game itself? Are we playing a watered-down version of the game? Is it no longer connected to the fiction that gave it birth? And is this such a bad thing?

So what’s your take on the mindset of the Lovecraftian oeuvre and can we (or should we want to) get into it if we want a wholly realistic Call of Cthulhu game? What modern-day horrors, terrors and fears can we use to replace those of the 1920s and make our investigators that little bit more realistic?

Or do you disagree with me and believe that Lovecraft’s original horrors still have the power to truly terrify?

Let me know what you think - feel free to give my ideas a good kicking; I'm happy to have everyone's opinion on this and to have my own opinions challenged and changed.

Friday 5 November 2010

Fear on Friday - Apaches

You may have had this experience in dungeons past; setting out with a strong, confident party, optimistic and looking forward to some good old-fashioned monster hacking and gold-garnering.

But then it all starts to go wrong. Someone fails a save or a monster gets maximum damage or a trap that no-one spotted claims its first victim. Then someone else falls to the capricious dice of doom and before you know it, you're stuck in a dungeon that's somehow acquired a personality - that of a serial killer.

Now, it's not so much "Will we get out alive?" but "Who will be the last to die?"

It's a routine that's familiar to slasher movies since time immemorial but in those movies, there is usually more than one survivor to bear witness to the horror that they've just experienced.

So now, let's take a look at Apaches - a public information film for children, made in 1977. This tells the story of a bunch of kids who decide that a farm is a great place for games of Cowboys and Indians.

Bad move.

We soon see that the farm is the countryside version of Tomb of Horrors as one by one, the children fall victim to the Grim Reaper in some pretty gruesome ways. Watch out for the slurry pit!

Stuff like this, with its impending sense of doom, and The Spirit of Dark and Lonely Water that we saw last week must have had some traumatising effects on kids back in the 1970s. I remember a film that we were shown at school about the risks of bad driving that put me off learning to drive until well into my twenties. Perhaps the British attitude to health and safety stems from the generation whose elders thought it a good idea to show them this sort of thing...