Call of Cthulhu Investigator Relationships, Fiasco-style

April 12th, 2012 No comments

Masks: Behold the epicness.

After years of D&D, Eclipse Phase, and Pathfinder, my gaming group is finally getting down to some Call of Cthulhu. And since we’re not fucking about, I’ll be running Chaosium’s legendary Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign.

I played my first game of Fiasco at PAX East last weekend. I decided on the spur of the moment to grease the wheels on our character creation session a bit by stealing Fiasco’s index card method for setting up relationships between characters.

I put an index card between each player at the table. Their PC would have a strong tie to the person on their left, and to the person on their right — strong enough that following them to chase down murderous cultists wouldn’t be implausible.

It worked great! We ended up with the following PCs and relationships:

  • A skeptical ex-soldier who’d been conscripted into the Great War early in his university years, employee of a wealthy antiquarian.
  • The antiquarian, once an artifact hunter for a government agency, now a supplier of ancient curiosities to museums and collectors. He in turn regularly employed…
  • …a smuggler, formerly an acquirer of officer luxuries for the Army quartermaster corps during the Great War.
  • The smuggler’s uncle, a successful lawyer, who during the War gave legal counsel to the skeptical soldier.

I started with the obvious ones.

My fifth player wasn’t present, but to keep things symmetrical, her character will know exactly two other PCs.

Since it’s a globetrotting CoC game, I then had the group come up with one NPC contact on each continent (they don’t yet know which ones will be relevant). Each of these NPCs has a strong connection to at least one PC — strong enough to step in as a group member if anyone dies or goes insane far from the investigators’ home base in Chicago.

I didn’t have a chart of relationships handy for our group, but here’s one you can use for Masks,  or for just about any 1920s CoC campaign.

It’s given in the numbered format used by Fiasco playsets, but I don’t actually recommend randomizing like you’d do in Fiasco. Give it to players as inspiration. Unlike Fiasco relationship charts, these relationships are designed to encourage cooperation between investigators, rather than setting them up for later conflict.

  1. Home Town
    1. Aunt/Uncle & Nephew/Niece
    2. Old School Chums
    3. Spiritual Leader & Congregant
    4. Businessperson & Employee
    5. Shopkeeper & Supplier
    6. Secret Society Members
  2. Academia
    1. Colleagues
    2. Student & Advisor
    3. Museum Curator & Acquirer
    4. Doctor & Patient
    5. Librarian & Researcher
    6. Greek House Members
  3. Chattering Classes & Bohemians
    1. Correspondent & Editor
    2. Entertainer & Fan
    3. Reporter & Source
    4. Artist & Patron
    5. Revolutionary & Tradesperson
    6. Occultist & Aspirant
  4. Government
    1. Officer & Soldier
    2. Comrades in Arms
    3. Civil Servant & Official
    4. Cop & PI
    5. Party Operative & Supporter
    6. Agent & Asset
  5. Gangland
    1. Fence & Contact
    2. Smuggler & Customer
    3. Prostitute & Client
    4. Lawyer & Defendant
    5. Hired Gun & Boss
    6. Detective & Snitch
  6. The Smart Set
    1. Sporting Partners
    2. Financial Professional & Client
    3. Alienist & Patient
    4. Dilettante & Bodyguard
    5. Collector & Antiquarian
    6. Heir/Heiress & Advisor

Important thing to keep in mind: These relationships don’t have to be in the present; they could well be in the characters’ pasts. But if so, they should have been strong enough for the characters to trust each other and work together years later.

Going insane is so much better among friends, after all.

Categories: RPG Tags: ,

Five Cool Things I Read This Week

March 2nd, 2012 No comments

Economy got you down? More worried about buying groceries than buying a house? You ain’t alone, bruthah. April Wolfe on The Rise of the Privileged Poor in GOOD.

Dryococelus australis, thought extinct for 80 years

Dryococelus australis, thought extinct for 80 years (image from Wikimedia Commons)

What if you could grow algae in IV bags, farm it massively to release oxygen, and even feed it CO2 through breathing tubes? Wouldn’t it be even cooler if you could monitor it with smart phones. Yeah, it would, and the HORTUS project is all about that shit.

TSA Is Useless, says this Boingboing post, paraphrasing the statement of a former FBI anti-terrorism expert about the organization’s bloated, inflexible bureaucracy.

Here’s the really cool story of how scientists rediscovered a population of giant stick insects, thought extinct, all living under a single bush on a volcanic spire in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. They’ve got them breeding in captivity now, but what do they do next?

Finally, GOOD reported on this bad-ass essay by a 13 year old black student, comparing conditions in her poorly managed school to the efforts of antebellum southern plantation owners to keep their slaves uneducated. Rather than responding in any productive way, the school teachers and administration harassed her until her parents were forced to withdraw her from the school. This was a public school, by the way (which I don’t think should make a difference, but the fact is that private schools are legally allowed to get away with crap like this). Pretty outrageous, but to the kid, I say: way to go. If she was enough of a self starter to pen an essay like this while the kids around her could barely read, she’ll do fine, idiot school administrators be damned.

Categories: Uncategorized Tags:

Boskone 49!

February 23rd, 2012 No comments

I’m not sure how I’ve lived in Boston for seven years and had never been to Boskone before this year. Maybe the frequent laments from the fan community that this con ain’t what it used to be kept me away. I shouldn’t have listened. Boskone still attracts some people you really want to hear sharing their ideas, as evidenced by the day of panels I went to on Saturday, February 18.

The Highest Frontier (cover)

The Highest Frontier (J. Slonczewski), a Luna-as-Ark novel

First up was Occupy Luna with Vince Docherty, Allen M. Steele, Ian Randal Strock, and Alexander Jablokov. The panel topic was how to create a progressive, non-coercive society on Luna. I had high hopes for this one, and while it was a really interesting panel, it didn’t generate a lot of discussion of the central topic. It touched a little on anarchocapitalist/libertarian versus anarchosyndicalist/anarchocommunist ideas about what a Lunar society could look like (Lunar offshore banks vs. energy collectives, for example). But the discussion got bogged down in correcting misconceptions (mostly voiced by the audience) about the technical details of founding a Lunar colony.

As someone who’s spent a lot of time learning about this, I found the discussion of topics like why doming Lunar cities wouldn’t work to be kind of a snore. I’d like to see a discussion like this again — maybe with the moderator working more to keep it on political topics.

I did catch one interesting book mention: Joan Slonczewski’s The Highest Frontier (right), a post-climate change Luna-as-ark novel. (Slonczewski was on a panel about climate change later in the day; read on).

The next panel was The Year in Astronomy & Physics with Mark L. Olson, Jeff Hecht, and Guy Consolmagno. Topics ranged from FTL neutrinos (debunked two days later!) to the recent banquet of exoplanet data we’ve been getting from the Kepler and other sources.

The data on exoplanets we’re not getting disrupts current models of planet formation. The long-held model of how Earth’s solar system formed from a stellar accretion disc explains why we have small terrestrial planets and metals close to the sun, with gas/ice giants, silicates, and water ice farther out. Finding exoplanetary systems that look nothing like this has called that model into question. At the same time, it offers tantalizing possible explanations of  things like why Mars is so small and why Uranus and Neptune have unusual orbits. Astronomers are only in the first stages of puzzling out what it all means, though.

Brother Astronomer, by Guy Consolmagno (cover)

Brother Astronomer, by Guy Consolmagno

My favorite person on this panel was Guy Consolmagno, curator of meteors at the Vatican observatory, so later in the day, I went to his solo talk, Discarded Images: Astronomical Ideas That Were Almost Correct. Wow. If you ever get a chance to see this guy talk, jump at it. He’s a font of knowledge, from stories of bartering with shadowy European collectors for access to their privately held meteorites, to tracing the winding path to a heliocentric view of the solar system. He’s also a Jesuit, and by the end, I wanted to go up and wish him Good Apert to see if he got the joke.

Next up was How Not to Produce an E-Book with Stephen Segal, Neil Clarke, and Teresa Nielsen Hayden. This panel was mostly a technical download, and while I could have learned a lot of this stuff if I got off my butt and googled it, it was good hearing opinions on the various technologies out there from people who’ve been doing it successfully.

I’ll post what I learned on this panel next week. Clarke in particular had a lot of good info to share.

Under the Moons of Mars (cover), edited by John Joseph Adams

Under the Moons of Mars, edited by John Joseph Adams

After lunch, I hit up John Joseph Adams’ reading from the new Under the Moons of Mars anthology. I’m a sucker for this one; I loved the John Carter stories and went back to them when I was working on Mars for Eclipse Phase. This antho will definitely be on my to-get list (it’s got a Peter Beagle story!), although unfortunately it wasn’t on sale at the con.

Adams chose to read the story Three Deaths by David Barr Kirtley. It’s a tale told from the perspective of a green Martian who loses a fight to John Carter, and it’s pitch-perfect.

After that was the panel Environmental Rearguarding: What to Do After It’s Too Late, with Alexander Jablokov moderating, Jorin T. Kare, Jeff Hecht, Tom Easton, and Joan Slonczewski. The topic was great: how do we adapt, and even profit, if climate change gets completely out of control? Unfortunately, both the panel and audience seemed more interested in talking about ways of stopping climate change. Hey, I love the progressivism of sci-fi, too — but I wanted to hear more about evil profiteering! Jablokov kept trying to steer the panel back that way, but it didn’t take. Oh well. I learned some interesting stuff from the engineer on the panel about proposals for seeding clouds with various albedo-raising substances (some of the proposals were crazy — pipeline to the clouds, anyone?).

The audience for this panel tripped one of my pet peeves. Please, don’t be that person who sits in the front row and tries to have a dialog with the panel. It’s just rude, both to the panelists, and to the rest of the audience. I don’t care how knowledgeable you are. And if you’re a panelist, don’t enable this behavior. You might think you’re being nice, but you’re not doing anyone any favors.

I finished off with Creating Worlds for Online Gaming, with Brianna Spacekat Wu moderating, Melinda Snodgrass, Walter H. Hunt, Timothy P. Szczesuil, and Margaret Ronald. I’d meant to avoid gaming panels (especially a month before PAX), but the panel I was originally going to had really loud filk right next door. (A pox upon filk — and also upon anime credit music singalongs, which seem to be the younger generation’s equivalent). Although I picked up a lot of interesting information about the gaming biz, my favorite part of this panel might have been Hunt, a voice actor, discussing how he had one recording session that was nothing but him grunting thirty different ways to simulate the character getting beaten on in combat.

Beyond panels, the con had a decent-sized huckster room, where I somehow managed to contain my book addiction long enough to make it to the door.

So I’m not sure why rumors of this con’s demise still circulate. It might be smaller than it once was, but I won’t be missing it next year.


Game concept: Three Little Pigs

February 15th, 2012 No comments

This is a storybook combined with a structural engineering game for kids. It could be a tablet app, or it could (once prices come down) be a physical game with location-aware pieces and an AR overlay to represent characters.

The player is given three types of blocks: straw, sticks, bricks. The blocks are aware of their location relative to one another. On each level, the player has to build a house for the piglet out of one of the materials. They have a limited number of blocks with which to shape a house.

When they’re done building, the wolf appears and tries to blow down the house. Certain shapes will resist the wolf’s breath; others will be blown over. Parental controls decide how graphical the latter outcome is. ;)

This idea got fired off while I was taking Latitude Research’s Future of Storytelling survey, and it was too fun not to post.

Categories: Uncategorized, video games Tags: ,

Incheon Trench Knife Stew

November 17th, 2011 No comments
Incheon Trench Knife Stew, Ommegang Rare Vos, Brown Bread

Incheon Trench Knife Stew, Ommegang Rare Vos, Brown Bread


1 package baby portobello ‘shrooms, stems cut off & halved

1 small onion, sliced

1 small potato, cubed

1 can chickpeas, rinsed & drained

1/2 cup oatmeal

2 cubes beef bullion (or veggie bullion to make this a veggie recipe)

about a stick of butter’s volume of Colombian queso blanco, cut into little cubes

6 cloves garlic, sliced

3 tbsp crushed red pepper

6 tbsp soy sauce

4 tbsp olive oil

4 oz. chili-garlic sauce

red kimchi to taste


Heat up the olive oil. Sauté mushrooms, garlic, onion, chili sauce in a sauce pan or soup pot for 5-7 minutes over medium heat. Add soy sauce, potato & chickpeas. Your eyes should water if you stick your face over the pot at this point — even if you’re me. Sauté another 10 minutes, or until ‘shrooms have lost a fair amount of their water. Pour in three cups of water, bring to a boil. Add bullion and oatmeal. Let boil for a couple minutes, then reduce to a simmer. Add cheese (Colombian queso blanco is different from the Mexican kind; it doesn’t really melt. You could experiment with other cheeses like paneer, I suppose). Simmer 20-40 minutes.

Serve piping hot, topped with cold red kimchi to taste & hold on to your tenders. Pairs well with dense brown bread and hoppy beer. Serves 4, if they’re intrepid capsaicin masochists.

Categories: Cookerie Tags:

Eclipse Phase: Panopticon & Broken Time Blues Go Live

August 17th, 2011 No comments
Panopticon cover

Eclipse Phase: Panopticon. Is that a monkey & an octopus in a pit fight? You bet your sweet ass it is, paatno-san.

The new Eclipse Phase hardcover, Panopticon: A Focused Eye on Transhumanity, Vol. I, went live for PDF sales on today. It’s available as both a standalone PDF and a Creative Commons-licensed hack pack so that players & GMs can mash up the art for their own use.

Physical copies of Panopticon will be available in  gaming stores (at least in the U.S.) on August 31. Support your FLGS! But if you just can’t wait that long, or don’t have a game store that stocks Eclipse Phase, it’s also available through Indie Press Revolution.

Panopticon features new material on uplifted animals, ubiquitous surveillance, and space habitats (the chapter I co-authored with Justin Kugler). Along with beautiful art and detailed setting information, it’s packed with new morphs, new gear, and new mechanics of use to both players and GMs. This is a great book to own if you’re into the high tech dungeon crawl or political aspects of the game, and the chapter on sentient animals is essential reading if your campaign involves uplifts. And the opening story, El Destino Verde, also written by me, ain’t too shabby, either… in my entirely humble opinion.

# # #

Broken Time Blues cover art

Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales in the Roaring Twenties

Meanwhile, on the fiction front, my story Der Graue Engel appears in Broken Time Blues: Fantastic Tales in the Roaring ’20s. It’s got a little bit of Fritz Lang, a little bit of Cabaret, and a little bit of LeGuin’s Hainish Cycle, all turned loose in a Weimar Germany that’s about to hit the skids big time. I can’t wait to get my hands on the book myself, because it’s also got stories by three of my Clarion West 2010 classmates — Frank Ard, John Remy, and Andrew Romine — as well as by Paizo’s fiction editor, the estimable James Sutter. Keen-as-hell art by Galen Dara ices the cake. Our editors, Jaym Gates and Erika Holt, themed their last anthology, Rigor Amortis, around zombie erotica, so I highly doubt they pulled any punches on this one.

All right, enough marketing. I’ve got another chapter of Eclipse Phase: Rimward to polish off tonight…

NPR’s Top 100 Sci-Fi Novels Ever

August 11th, 2011 2 comments

I really should read more Asimov. And Bradbury. And... yeah, you get the idea.

Locus Magazine reported on Twitter that NPR had done a listener poll asking people to nominate and rank the best 100 SF books of all time. Of course, this makes it a popularity content, but the 60,000 respondents were enough to represent an interesting sample size.

Here’s what they picked.

No huge surprises, although I was disappointed to see Ender’s Game, a book I enjoyed but feel is overrated, in the #3 spot. I was also surprised that Neal Stephenson’s books didn’t rank higher, and that Neuromancer, a pretty important book even in a post-VR world, didn’t make the top ten.

That said, this inspired me to collate (following NPR listeners’ rankings) my…

List of Important Fantasy & SF Books I Still Need to Read
(According to NPR Readers, Who May or May Not Be Trustworthy)

  1. The Foundation Trilogy, Asimov
  2. American Gods, Gaiman
  3. I, Robot, Asmiov
  4. The Handmaid’s Tale, Atwood
  5. The Martian Chronicles, Bradbury
  6. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, Heinlein
  7. The Mists of Avalon, Bradley
  8. The Once & Future King, White
  9. Childhood’s End, Clarke
  10. Cryptonomicon, Stephenson
  11. World War Z, Brooks
  12. The Last Unicorn, Beagle
  13. The Forever War, Haldeman
  14. Small Gods, Pratchett
  15. The Mote in God’s Eye, Niven/Pournelle
  16. The Road, McCarthy
  17. Old Man’s War, Scalzi
  18. The Dispossessed, LeGuin (just started reading this one a few days ago, actually)
  19. Something Wicked This Way Comes, Bradbury
  20. The Culture Series, Banks
  21. The Illustrated Man, Bradbury
  22. Red Mars, Robinson
  23. Doomsday Book, Willis
  24. Perdido Street Station, Mieville

But it shouldn’t surprise anyone to hear that I’ve got about two dozen books queued up on my shelf that I should probably get to before I run out & buy these…

…and a fine Gen Con was had by all!

August 10th, 2011 3 comments
Panopticon cover

"Two uplift enter, one uplift resleeve!"

Thing with Gen Con: it’s always been too damned short. When I was a kid, it always seemed like Sunday came too soon. And now that I’m going as a game designer, ironically, it seems even shorter (you’d think all that work would make it seem longer, but no!). I didn’t see even half of the people or things I wanted to, but it was a blast all the same.

The biggest news from my court was the release of the latest Eclipse Phase hardcover, Panopticon: A Focused Eye on Transhumanity, Vol. I. We had pre-release copies of the book on sale in the Posthuman Studios booth for those lucky enough to be at Gen Con.

Like every Eclipse Phase book to date, it’s gorgeous, with yet another Stephan MARTINIÈRE cover icing the cake (I’ll capitalize his last name, because he’s French, and that’s how they roll). The writing ain’t too shabby, either, although as co-author of the section on space habitats, I’m clearly biased. The other two sections of the book deal with uplifted animals and ubiquitous surveillance. No street date yet, but EP fans may be assured that we’ve delivered the goods on this one. Can’t wait to see the forum threads on how people use these imaginings in actual play!

ENnie 2011

Posthuman be bringin' home ENnies.

I also finally got my hands on a physical copy of Gatecrashing, and it, too, is pretty darned sweet. And Posthuman won another Gold ENnie, this one for Continuity, Marc & Leah Huete’s excellent scenario from last year’s Gen Con. Congrats to them on taking one of Eclipse Phase’s core concepts — body-hopping — and building an intense scenario around it.

Other acquisitions this year included one of Dragonchow’s beautifully made limited edition Eclipse Phase dice bags; Pathfinder: Ultimate Combat (congrats to Jason & team on another great rulebook); and, from the ENnies benefit auction, a bundle of everything currently available for the Dragon Age tabletop RPG. I have to admit I’m always suspicious of RPGs licensed from a big non-tabletop RPG product, but if you look at the names in the credits (Pramas, Kenson, Kulp, Tidball, to name several), it’s clear Green Ronin wasn’t relying on a franchise name to carry this line.

Meanwhile, my girlfriend grabbed a copy of Don’t Rest Your Head RPG and its companion volume Don’t Lose Your Mind and is threatening to run it, a development I’d welcome. We gave this game a spin at Paizo Con back in June, and it’s a great little design.

Additional awesome things I did or saw, in no particular order…

Giant Robo Rally

Giant Roborally with Mindstorm Robots. Squeee!

Some brilliant genius/maniacs who apparently live at the sweet spot between Maker Fair projects and extreme geek love brought a giant Roborally board to the con and had huge Lego Mindstorm robots tooling around it. I was running by on my way to the Posthuman booth when I spotted it, but Father Fletch (of PAX Tabletop Enforcer fame) was nice enough to let me borrow his photo of it, so that y’all may know this awesomeness wasn’t just something I hallucinated after 3 days of Gen Con sleep dep.

I ran a lot of Eclipse Phase, as Posthuman was short on GMs this year. Last year I spent almost all of my time in the booth, pitching the books, so it was great to get out and game with the fans. I mostly ran Xenovore, the fan-inspired scenario I wrote and ran at East Coast cons earlier this year. Hopefully I’ll get it published some time soon.

Jesus Store

Welcome to Indianapolis, Land of Jesus Stores & Ranch Dressing

And I pitched a board game designed by Nathaniel Dean & I. Far too early to talk about what the project is, but we felt the pitch went well. It was my first experience pitching a new game of my own to a serious potential publisher, and I think my co-designer and I took a lot away from the experience.

On Saturday, advance copies of Degenesis showed up at the Posthuman booth. Gorgeous art; weird, weird setting. I was joking with booth visitors that we only do RPGs about the end of the world. Davidson & Seth, the line developers, took a really tough translation project and made it sing. Unfortunately, I forgot my copy at the booth when I rushed off to the airport, so I’ll have to wait to read it!

Some people say Gen Con leaves them exhausted. True for me, physically, but on a creative level, I find it incredibly energizing. I went home very much revved up for another year of writin’ and schemin’.

PAX, a brief spell of Minecraft addiction, PaizoCon, Firefly & Points Beyond

July 21st, 2011 No comments
El Destino Verde cover

El Destino Verde, part one of an Eclipse Phase novelette

Stuff I’ve done the last few months…

  • Ran some games at TempleCon, including Eclipse Phase and the AD&D 1st Edition module White Plume Mountain (one of my all time favorites).
  • Spoke/discussed/brawled in panels at PAX (which we shall now call Prime rather than East, because it is bigger) and Total Confusion.
  • Played Minecraft until it warped my perceptions of the real world. (But I’m better now. I swear.)
  • Headed out to Seattle with my girlfriend to experience the novelty of a gaming con (PaizoCon) where I don’t do any work. Well, minimal work. Before heading back to Bahston, we spent a day in Seattle visiting friends & a few of my Clarion West haunts.
  • Built a giant bug (actually, it was a mammoth, but… long story… anyway) out of forest deadfall & burned it whilst a bunch of hippies danced semi-clad around it with fire.
  • The usual feverish writing in my off hours, including Eclipse Phase: Rimward.
  • My first piece of Eclipse Phase fiction, “El Destino Verde” came out in e-book. It’s the opening fiction for Eclipse Phase: The Panopticon, as well as first of a three part novelette. You can get it from both DriveThru RPG and the Amazon Kindle store.).

Stuff I’ll be up to…

  • Gen Con! I’m rather excited about it. I actually get to GM Eclipse Phase this year (as opposed to being in the booth the whole con). And I’ve even convinced a few people to observe the ancient Gen Con tradition of playing Dawn Patrol (aka, Fight in the Skies) on Saturday morning. Other than that, I’ll be in the Posthuman Studios booth much of the time.
  • Broken Time Blues, the anthology containing my story “Der Graue Engle” will be coming out soon. I’ll devote a post to it once I know the release date.

Panels at TotalConfusion (Massachusetts, Feb. 26)

February 17th, 2011 No comments

Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to get Eclipse Phase onto the schedule for TotalConfusion this year, but I was asked to sit on a few of their panels on Saturday, 2/26. So I’m going to be placed at a table with other RPG writers, where we will hold forth on the following topics…

Making Great Adventures, Saturday 11:00-Noon

Our panel of esteemed guests will discuss adventure design. Listen in as we discuss the success and pitfalls of adventure design and learn what it takes to make epic adventures. We will cover everything from the one-shot to the epic campaign. Don’t miss this opportunity to get access to some of the greats. Audience participation is highly encouraged, so bring along some questions for our panel.

Gaming and the Media, Saturday 3:00-4:00pm

Game design is only the beginning of any company’s efforts to be successful. Once the product is out, it needs to be promoted and supported. This has changed vastly over the years from primarily print to primarily electronic. Join our panelists as they discuss how the process has changed over the years. Come to enjoy the “war stories” from the trenches of gaming media and get great insight on what works best for promoting your own product. We’ll be discussing print magazines, the evolution of the pdf model, webzines, podcasts, and more. Audience participation is highly encouraged, so bring along some questions for our panel.

Overcoming Gamer/Geek Stereotypes (with Ethan Gilsdorf, author of Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks)

What does it mean to be a geek? This seminar tackles that question with strength and dexterity. . . . part personal odyssey, part medieval mid-life crisis, and part wide-ranging survey of all things freaky and geeky … playful … funny and poignant … It’s a fun ride and it poses a question that goes to the very heart of fantasy, namely: What does the urge to become someone else tell us about ourselves?”

I’m especially excited about this last one. I haven’t gotten to read Ethan’s book yet, but it sounds like part Napoleon Dynamite autobiography, part journalism, part soul searching.

Hope to see some folks at TotalCon!