Full Body Horror: Sensory Additions to Call of Cthulhu Announced!

Psychological implications are often the focus of publisher the tabletop roleplaying game Call of Cthulhu, but there’s something particularly icky about Lovecraftian horrors. These produce pleasingly visceral reactions in its investigators. To encourage full immersion, Chaosium has announced a partnership with the app Syrinscape. Keepers can now add official soundtracks to their CoC  games.

From the publisher:

The new edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep is a complete reanimation of the classic multi-part campaign for the Call of Cthulhu game, with a new chapter and full-color all new maps, handouts and artwork. Set in 1925, the steadfast investigators must unravel secrets and battle the minions of darkness in an attempt to stop world-shattering events from destroying humanity. The Masks of Nyarlahotep PDF will release in May 2018, with the published edition coming out at Gen Con 2018.

To accompany the new edition, Call of Cthulhu gets its first official sounds from Syrinscape in the Masks of Nyarlahotep SoundSet, which will be available for sale individually on Syrinscape.com or as part of a subscription. Set for release in conjunction with the module, gamers will be able to play Call of Cthulhu like never before in dynamic, realistic, cosmic horror sound.

“Call of Cthulhu is one of my top three games of all time and the opportunity to bring it to life through the power of Syrinscape sound is l’ mgfm’latghnanah!,” says Benjamin Loomes, CEO of Syrinscape.

As players take on the role of investigators to uncover the secrets of the cosmos, they find themselves battling against crazy cults and horrors from beyond space. Created by gaming legend Sandy Petersen and now in its seventh edition, Call of Cthulhu is the definitive horror RPG and has won over 90 awards including being inducted into the Academy of Adventure Gaming Art and Design Hall of Fame.

“Call of Cthulhu games often involve creating more of an immersive experience than many other types of games. Just like our games often feature elaborate handouts and props, we have also noticed that our players often crave soundtracks that help build that sense of unease, suspense and dread at the gaming table, punctuated by moments of horror and excitement! Syrinscape’s sounds provide exactly that, and we are proud to be partnering with them,” says Chaosium president, Rick Meints.

Syrinscape creates the official sounds of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game, Pathfinder RPG, Mutants & Masterminds RPG, Shadows of Esteren RPG, Boss Monster CCG and more, and also features a massive library of custom, realistic sounds, with new releases every month to accompany nearly any tabletop roleplaying, card or board game.

 

Planning for Fun: How to Start Your RPG Campaign

It. Finally. Happened. You did it! A group of people want to play a tabletop roleplaying game with you. Not just for a session. For an entire of campaign.

But where do you begin?

Planning for a campaign means establishing your characters and grounding them in the world you’ve created, but it also means establishing trust among the players and GM to provide a fun, respectful space to tell a story together. This may require a solid Session 0.

What is an RPG Session 0?

A 0 session is a session before the story of the main campaign starts. It can be a time to come together and craft characters, or polish ones that were created independently. It may be a chance to learn the geography of the world, or build it together as a group. Session 0 is also the time to establish the boundaries for your worlds without end.

Understanding the basics of the world is important to the ultimate success of the campaign, but many players also carry heavy burdens of negative experiences at the table. They also have certain themes that will place a burden on them mentally, emotionally, or cap the fun they feel they can have. Establish these at the beginning of your time together to reaffirm the agency of PCs and strengthen the relationship of everyone at your table.

I’ve created a 1 page guide to help you form your conversation around the PCs and themes that will be included in your adventure. Click on this link to download the Session 0 Worksheet.

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Taking the Terror Out of Error: Roleplaying Games, Queer Existence, & the Beauty of Failure

I have wondered for a long time what it is about roleplaying games that feels inherently queer to me. Something about the format of collaborative storytelling has always struck me as being a particularly sharp and insightful mode for telling queer stories. I thought, at first, that it might have something to do with the necessity of community, of the radical “camaraderie and companionship” Foucault cites as being central to queer life,1 with the way that collaboration is intimately connected to communities who need each other to survive.

I recently realized that it’s something much more simple than this: Roleplaying games de-privilege and decentralize the significance and necessity of success. They do not punish us for failing.

The word game, when talking about roleplaying games in this way, feels at first somewhat deceptive: games, we have been taught, have winners and losers. They have goals and win-conditions and we are conditioned to want to win.

But roleplaying games — or, at least, the best of them — don’t feel like this. You don’t win a roleplaying game; when the dice don’t come up in your favor, bad things happen, but they move the story along. A bad dice roll does not mean you lose, it just means the story carries on in a different direction than you anticipated. It isn’t a loss, it’s an unexpected complication. At the end of a session, or the end of a campaign, or the end of a story, the players are not divided up into winners and losers. Roleplaying games are not designed to be won.

Or, and perhaps this distinction is important, they have different win-conditions than triumphing over the people at the table with you.

Usually, in a roleplaying game, the person setting the win-conditions is you or your party. You set personal goals, both mechanically and narratively: I want to get enough money to buy this cool item, I want to level my character up enough to get this power, I want my character absolved of their crimes, I want my character to get vengeance on the person who killed her family. I want my character to find a new family. I want my character to realize that their distrust of their party members is holding them back and learn to trust. I want my character to come up against and overcome their fatal flaw. I want to have a funny story to tell after the game is over.

Good game design knows what it wants its players to accomplish, and it rewards them for accomplishing those things. Whether it’s fighting and slaying monsters, like in Dungeons & Dragons, or something a little more nuanced, like strengthening character relationships (Apocalypse World’s Hx mechanics, Dungeon World’s bonds), or playing truthfully to your character’s flaws even when it gets you in trouble (The Sprawl’s Personal Directives, etc.), a good roleplaying game rewards you for pursuing what you want to pursue. And many of them reward you for failing.

What appeals to me about roleplaying games is that we are mechanically encouraged to fail. In fact, the rules (of the game, of the universe) require it: no one will succeed every time. And so, as players, we are permitted to make mistakes without worrying that those mistakes will cost us the game.

After all, what’s the worst thing that can happen in a roleplaying game? Your character dies, and you roll a new one, joining into the story again with a fresh perspective and a chance to explore new angles, new dynamics, and often — in the case of games with differing classes or playbooks — new mechanics to explore.

There is something appealing, something almost liberating, about a game that not only allows you to go with the flow, but forces you to; about a game which doesn’t give you full control and, thus, never expects unconditional success. By setting up failure as something that not only can happen, but will and must happen, roleplaying games free us from the burden of success, and the pressure that comes with it.

There is a book that I think about a lot, with regards to failure: Jack Halberstam’s The Queer Art of Failure, a whirlwind of a book which explores not only failure but everything from anti-capitalism in animated films to temporality in Dude Where’s My Car. In it, Halberstam vocalizes a celebration of failure, and what failure can offer us.

He writes:

“Failing is something queers do and have always done exceptionally well; for queers  failure can be a style, to cite Quentin Crisp, or a way of life, to cite Foucault, and it can stand in contrast to the grim scenarios of success that depend upon ‘trying and trying again.’ In fact if success requires so much effort, then maybe failure is easier in the long run and offers different rewards.”2

These “different rewards,” for Halberstam, are everything from alternative family structures to alternative concepts of labor production, new ways of relating to one another that can allow us to escape the oppressive institutions of heteropatriarchal capitalism.

These “different rewards,” for me, are the itch that roleplaying games scratch. Narrative complications, unexpected character development, tough decisions that illuminate things about our characters and stories we never would have imagined if we had just been allowed to succeed at every pass. They are the things that make our stories lifelike, and keep us coming back to the table week after week.

In Sara Ahmed’s Living a Feminist Life, Ahmed works to redefine the idea of happiness: it has become, she argues, an end goal which revolves around leading a life that is shaped to certain expectations, certain win-conditions which are set for us. Happiness, however, should not be an end goal, predetermined, but something else, something situational and not bound by artificially imposed limitations and expectations.

As she beautifully writes in her conclusion, “Killjoy Manifesto”:

“I stumble; maybe by stumbling I found you, maybe by stumbling I stumbled on happiness, a hap-full happiness; a happiness that is as fragile as the bodies we love and cherish.”3

This hap, this stumbling, is what roleplaying games at their best are all about. Happenstance and mishap, what delightful accidents can happen when we let go of the reins of narrative control and cede them over to a healthy mix of fate (dice, cards, etc) and trust (in the GM, in the other players, in the game itself and its designer, in the story we want to tell).

This hap, too, is what queer lives are about. None of us asked for this but still we make the most of it every day, embracing the small bits of luck we are granted. While others might see queerness as inherently unhappy — thanks to media which perpetuates the idea that the only outcomes to queer life are tragedy via early death or tragedy via personal loss — queer life is often centered around making the best out of bad situations, around building a life which accounts for mistakes, around redefining success.

It’s about rejecting the implicit win-conditions of life — settling down with a nice, heteronormative nuclear family — and setting our own win-conditions, whatever they may be.

As Joseph Litvak writes, “a lot of queer energy, later on, goes into . . . practices aimed at taking the terror out of error, at making the making of mistakes sexy, creative, even cognitively powerful. Doesn’t reading queer mean learning, among other things, that mistakes can be good rather than bad surprises?”4

Doesn’t playing queer mean learning these same things?

Playing roleplaying games, where our success at any action or decision is ultimately left up to chance — a roll of the dice or the drawing of a card, or the whims of another player — forces us to be open to not only the possibility of failure, but to be open to the good surprises that can come from the unexpected. It embraces the queer mode of failure and builds successful stories out of the inherent messiness of real life. It allows us to take our failures, whatever they may be — and, like in life, there will always be many — and find and embrace those different rewards.

Sources:

  1. Foucault, Michel. “Friendship as a Way of Life.” Foucault Live (Interviews, 1961-1984). Ed. Sylvère Lotringer. Trans. Lysa Hochroth and John Johnston. New York: Semiotext(e), 1996. 308-12.
  1. Halberstam, J. The Queer Art of Failure. Durham: Duke University Press, 2011.
  2. Ahmed, Sara. Living a Feminist Life. Durham: Duke University Press, 2017.
  3. Litvak, Joseph. Caught in the Act: Theatricality in the Nineteenth Century English Novel. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1991. Qtd. in: Sedgwick, Eve Kosofsky. Touching Feeling: Affect, Pedagogy, Performativity. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003.

Christine Prevas is a writer, graduate student, perpetual GM, and host of the delightfully queer actual play podcast The Unexplored Places.

What I Learned Playing Pacifist D&D

The city of Betz is known for the beauty of its people, the quality of goods for sale in its many bazaars, and The Temple- a complex of gambling tables and gaming dens. Elsewhere in the world, there is war. Betz is an international safe zone, free from the tethers of allegiances.

This does not mean it is without violence. Between crime factions, the loosely webbed network of thieves, and the easily bribed city guards, there are plenty of fights to get into.

The world of Dungeons & Dragons is often a brutal one. Many games involve massive amounts of violence meted out indiscriminately and in creative ways against nondescript monsters. What would a player do without their trusty sword or stable of spells to protect them? A few weeks ago, I found out during a 5th Edition D&D adventure with pacifism as one of the rules.

For this adventure, I did not think removing the threat of violence would serve our purpose. I wanted to see how players solved typical D&D problems nonviolently, not pick daisies for several hours. The city I created, is as violent as one can expect from a seaside city of sin with a multi tiered power struggle in the city government and underworld.

The first thing I realized when creating a Pacifist adventure was that players must have a well developed background, morals, and ethical reasoning. I left this largely up to them, and a good chunk of the beginning of our session was spent fleshing out the level 5 characters before dropping them into the scenario.

Developing the Characters

Engaging your party in a setting that appears low-action can be difficult. This requires utilizing unexpected skills, and encouraging players to solve problems in creative ways. I also kept interactions with characters’ backstories more than incidental.

Our adventure began in an empty jail cell. The window was too tiny to let anyone out. However, the party soon discovered the door was unlocked!

The point of this was to get players thinking about their characters and their relationship to non violence. They will never be immersed if they are not faced with hard decisions. In this case, players knew they had been arrested. Are they law-abiding? Was it unfair? Would they wait out their sentence, or try to escape?

In this session, some of the players immediately attracted the interest of the guards by exiting the room and making a lot of noise. Another quandary: do they fight or return to their cell? This situation called for some pretty immediate morality decisions that could define the character for the rest of the game.

Keep the action rolling

In prep, I had built up a pretty intense political drama. However, my characters (some of them with very low intelligence and wisdom scores) did not ask too many questions. They wanted to do things and make rolls. At one point, one of the players began chanting “Please let’s roll initiative” under their breath.

Which is something to keep in mind: even without axes smashing through heads, your players crave action. In this case, it was goofy action like rolling a monster up in a rug, but the adventure could easily have turned into a macabre exploration of the underbelly of a gambling town by a few principled thugs.

Some players love hearing your narrative description of the ins and outs of a city’s history, but others just want to kick down some doors! This means focus on rolling when characters have to talk their way out of a situation, or figure out a problem, even when outside of Initiative.

Challenges

5th Edition’s simplified skills turned out to be a hindrance to the play style of my group. The groupings are very broad, which makes non violent skill use difficult to specialize within a roll. You have to be creative in how skills are presented, getting specific about what is covered by each skill set.

Ask your players to describe how they are using a roll. For instance, “investigate” in the Dark Bazaar becomes “questioning shopkeepers while pretending to look for a love potion,” while another character “rifles through unattended wares for clues.”

Being specific about the physicality of their actions is important, too. “Searching” a room should mean rifling through the objects on a table, or feeling the wall for hidden doors, but not both. Doing both will take time and must be done each in its turn. This ensures the action keeps rolling and remains engaging.

Graph it Out

I am a confident storyteller, but collaborating at the table can be another game entirely. The biggest thing I learned was to have lots of objects and detailed Non Player Characters available for players to interact with. This means a lot of prep on behalf of the GM, or a lot of tables at hand to quickly come up with random set pieces. The most rewarding thing about this adventure was having a player pick up on a random detail I had placed and run with it in an unexpected way.


Josephine Maria is the founder of PanopLit and has been playing tabletop RPGs for 22 years.

This is not the Gay Future I Imagined

Several months ago, I posted about imagining gay futures through science fiction. That vision also includes more gay content in all settings, not excluding roleplaying games. While we may be having more LGBTQ+ media representation these days, much of it paints us in the same tired light as an American 1940s cautionary tale.

I touched on Star Trek: Discovery in the previous post, which features a male/male couple (with on screen kissing!!!). [Spoiler alert] One half of the couple dies. After the traumatic murder at the hands of a Manchurian candidate of the most bizarre variety (who we’re then supposed to forgive completely), the Emperor is introduced when the Discovery is thrown into an alternate universe.

The return of Michelle Yeoh was triumphant, especially when her character is triumphantly revealed to be bisexual when she decides to have a mixed gender threesome in the middle of a Starfleet mission. However, this triumvairing (I tried?!) ends when the Emperor pulls a weapon on the two she just made love to and coerces information out of them. The extreme use of force, and implied brutality of the character it cruelly offset by the revelation of their bisexuality.

Instead of fleshing out a more complex personality (which we were granted flashes of during her development with main character Burnham, played by Sonequa Martin-Green), the Emperor seems without real motive and instead follows their gut down a disastrous path. Every possible shortcut is taken to show them as bad, including painting their bisexual tendencies in an amoral light when they jeopardize the mission to follow their own fancies.

Depicting bisexuality as an accessory to a lack of morality is not exclusive to science fiction. Games published Wizards of the Coast made waves when they rereleased the notorious adventure, “Curse of Strahd”, including LGBTQ+ subtext. Many reporting outlets picked up the story that the adventures for Dungeons & Dragons‘ 5th edition would be more gay, more diverse, more queer. But that’s proven, and continues to be, problematic.

Taylor of Riverhouse games threw a quote from Curse up on twitter and commented on the depictions of bisexuals in media:

Don’t get me wrong. Complex LGBTQ+ villains of all identities are really important. I want to see them. Other genres are already giving us these. For instance, the terribly sexist show Versaillefeatures one of the most well depicted homosexual relationships and complex bad guys I have perhaps ever seen on television in Philippe and the Chevalier (also named Philippe).

Varied depictions are also not completely absent from Fantasy. The wildly successful A Song of Ice and Fire adaptation, Game of Thrones, wisely decided not to remove the complicated love affair of Lord (KING) Renly and Loras Tyrell. I think we’ve come far enough to where we should not longer have to grasp at straws. I think Wizards of the Coast and other games publishers can make our future roleplaying a hell of a lot more postively queer.

Private Rooms: Gender, RPGs, & MUDs

CN: Author describes nonconsensual sexual experience that happened virtually while they were underage.


While browsing my usual internet sources, I found myself on Panoplit.org. On there, the founder posed a series of questions near the end of her article “What Do I Write About?. One thing she asked really stuck with me and I felt compelled to respond. After receiving a reply, I felt encouraged to tell a story.

My first experience playing an RPG (unless you count Rogue on the computer…does that count?) was Advanced Dungeons and Dragons. I bought it while perusing the computer software section at Barnes & Nobles (does anyone else remember when B&N stores used to have a software section?).

My sister and I always loved games and eagerly cracked it open at home. We found something unlike any other game we had ever seen. There were figures, books, pictures, maps, and numbers. So many numbers, yet also so much freedom. “Make your own adventures” the guidebook said. So we did. She took the role of Dungeon Master and I took Slinker the thief (no girls in this game, unless you count the drow in the Monster Manual). I don my sneaky black cloak and enter the gates of a broken castle, my eyes set on finding treasure and adventure. I meet my first monster three steps in: a horrible gargoyle! Slash slash went my dagger! …nothing. Bite bite went the Gargoyle.

Game Over.

We switch sides. She took the Cleric (also not a girl). She met her first monster: a Gnoll. Bash bash and she won. Roll for treasure: 100. On a d100. Three diamonds, netting her 3,000 gp in the first room. I was so jealous.

Fast forward a few years.

I’m now a freshman in high school. I still love RPGs. My sister and I have played 3rd edition Dungeons and Dragons with her friend’s dad as DM. Final Fantasy VIII takes up much of my time outside of school, but I have also discovered text based RPGs called MUDs, Multi-User Dungeons. I spend many of my study periods in the compute lab “studying”. I created a male cleric and it took me some time to get out of the training areas.

I made a few mistakes and got bored of the character once I figured out the game better. I made a new character, and pause when it asks for the character’s gender. For the first time, the question strikes me as odd. For the cleric, I had just typed in ‘m’ because I guess I was used to male heroes. Or maybe because I was afraid? I don’t know. This time I pressed the ‘f’ key. A strange feeling goes through my body: almost like a mixture between fear and relief, I can’t really explain it.

I begin to play my female bard. I spend my study periods questing, getting better equipment and levelling up. I learn how to use the ‘charm’ spell to force NPC to type things into chat. It is hilarious. The other players are friendly and helpful. A few of them are very friendly. Much more friendly than they were to my cleric.

This goes on for a couple months until I was a regular. People cheered when I came online, and I cheered for them. We chatted a lot. I began to private chat with some of them. Some of the private chats became much more personal. I do not give out personal information.

One of my game friends wanted to show me an area of the game I have not seen before. The admins have made a section with apartments that players can purchase with gold. They have a lockable door, and players can use these apartments to sleep when they log off or to safely drop off items that they don’t want to carry around. I thought it was cool he had so much gold. He took me to his apartment. He has customized it with a beautiful description. I told him I think it is so cool. He gave me a flower. I said thank you. He locked the door. He used local chat to say he is happy we could have some alone time. I agreed. We chatted a little more. He asked me a lot of questions about if I liked parts of his apartment. He gave me a cookie item from a Valentine’s day event.

I am young and inexperienced and I do not know what is going on until he emotes to kiss me. I stared at the screen. I had never been kissed before, irl or in a game. I am nervous, but also really curious. I saw no harm in emoting kissing back. Then the emotes traveled south. I was confused and a little scared. I thought I understood what is going on because I have watched movies and heard stories from friends’ older siblings. I feel awkward. This is someone who has been very friendly to me. I feel bad and do not want him to feel the same awkwardness. I feel like this is somehow my fault.

I emote back some kind of response based on what I think an experienced girl would do in this situation. He does not respond for a bit. I sat there staring at the rated R material on my screen in the high school computer lab. He responded by asking how old I was. I type 16 (this is a lie). He was silent again for a time. Then he unlocked the door, said he was sorry, and left. We did not have private chats anymore. I did not tell anyone.

I went back to playing my cleric for a little. People were friendly, but not overly so. There were very few private chats. There were no invitations back to private apartments.

This was only the first experience of many to come. Over the next years, I join other online RPGs, but I begin to see a pattern. Whenever I am a boy, I can hide in the crowd unnoticed. Whenever I am a girl, there always seems to be a group of boys trying to stick their parts into mine. I do not “send pics”. I use the block or mute button when it is available. I stay off of voice chat.

Now I play D&D 5e with a group who is very open to players and characters who do not conform to binary gender expectations. I think I am lucky. But that is a story for another time.


Artemis V. is a writer, designer, and avid tabletop gamer.

“The Quest to be myself in a Magical World”

I first rolled the dice at age 15. My friends and I were teens with big dreams, so we each rolled characters who were idealized versions of ourselves. My friend Brent, who wanted all to view him as a gentle giant, rolled the half-orc Grobath, a barbarian with a gruff exterior but a heart of gold. Josh, the charismatic smart aleck, became the charming rogue Jack Wylder. Ben, who prided himself on his vast stores of knowledge, rolled the elf wizard Leewon. I—filled with fury, and always feeling like an outsider—created the half-elf sorceress Ceridwen.

As I neared thirty, finally coming to terms with my gender and sexuality, a powerful wave of nostalgia engulfed me. I wanted to make up for the dice-slinging adolescence I’d lost while living as a confused, angry girl. However, I now faced the dilemma of rolling a character who felt like me—a gay trans man—in a medieval-style world of hijinks, mishaps, and magical transformations.

Playing a transsexual character in the world of Dungeons and Dragons is quite like wearing a sign that reads, “Use me as a Plot Device!” You risk being discovered and exposed for what you “really” are. There’s also a good chance you’ll become the butt of hackneyed jokes. Worst of all, you risk losing whatever magical or physical changes you’ve accomplished to make your body more comfortable. Do you take a potion every morning to keep your manly physique? Well, now your supply has been stolen, and your party must catch the thief; all the while, you’re jogging around in the womanly curves you thought you’d finally escaped.

However, the thought of playing a male character who has never shared my struggles with gender did not appeal to me, either. A gay man who is not transgender might approach the world in a fundamentally different way than I do. Absent might be that maelstrom of confusion that kept me so long from realizing not only that I am a man but one that likes other men as well. I knew that, in order to solve this issue, I would have to travel back to my past as that furious young girl to discover how I could be myself in the world of D&D.

Ceridwen did fulfill some emotional needs for me, after all. I was an angry kid, and she had explosive fire spells in her arsenal and cast fireball every chance she got. As a Charisma-based caster, she had the ability to make others bend to her will, something I’d always felt inadequate in as a nerdy young pipsqueak. She was a half-elf, too—an eternal outsider in both human and elf societies. It bothered me deeply, however, that Ceridwen was apparently heart-stoppingly gorgeous. That’s typically what happens when you have an astronomical Charisma score. I didn’t know what to call it at the time, but I’d always experienced the most powerful dysphoria in relation to prettiness. It’s hard enough dealing with beauty as a young girl, and I can guarantee it’s no easier when you throw gender dysphoria into the mix.

As I tried to envision Ceridwen as a half-elf male, I realized playing such a character would present precisely that confusing, complicated relationship to masculinity I know so well. Now, I have no patience for thinly-veiled allegories; in other words, I would never posit that half-elves are the transgender people of this world—just writing that makes me want to fireball something. Nevertheless, certain details about how this half-elf would relate to human masculinity feel quite similar to how I relate. Corvus, as I’ve decided to call him, is slightly smaller than your average human guy. He’s somewhat delicate-looking, and his beard took far too long to grow in properly. In the elf village where he grew up, Corvus was too loud, too awkward, too hairy and smelly, but in the face of burly human men, he can’t help but wonder, “How could I ever be considered one of them?”

Thankfully Corvus, like myself and Ceridwen before him, wears his outsider status as a badge of honor. Traditional society is simply too small to contain him. He is charismatic in a witty sense, can talk his way out of anything, and is handsome in his own way.  The elves and humans of that world may treat him with disdain, but that only fuels Corvus’ desire to become more skilled and powerful than ever before. He is, unapologetically, himself—and thus he allows me to be myself as well.


Jonathan Smith is a Cajun Ravenclaw living in Texas who loves craft beer, shrimp tacos, and reading nonfiction.