Monday, September 5, 2011

CelestiCon 2011

Just back from CelestiCon, a (relatively) new gaming convention in the San Francisco Bay Area. This was my first year attending and I was mighty impressed by how it turned out. My usual Labor Day weekend gaming con has been PacifiCon, but after some lackluster years that have gotten so bad my face froze in horror, I decided to jump into CelestiCon just as it seemed to expand its presence.

And it was very worth it: CelestiCon ended up being just as good as DunDraCon and KublaCon, simply on a smaller but no less satisfying scale. There were plenty of good RPG games on the schedule, most of whom seemed to be getting filled up with players (something PacifiCon has had more and more of a problem with). Most of my games were played in an executive meeting space, but many were in communal rooms where the noise level got bad, but hopefully there can be more individual game rooms for RPGs in future cons. The dealer's room was tiny in comparison to other Bay Area cons, but I think that was mainly because CelestiCon and PacifiCon were splitting the available dealers between them, and, in talking to one of the dealers, they told me they had done good business. The con food was really bad (the usual fare of hot dogs and hamburgers was incredibly over-priced and somehow always cold), but the hotel was absolutely beautiful (yet the con rate for rooms was somehow the cheapest I've seen for any big Bay Area gaming con). I really wish I had taken photos of all the games and the gorgeous hotel, but the weekend was so jam-packed that it never slowed down long enough for me to do that.

Probably the biggest compliment I can pay CelestiCon is that I had an extremely rare perfect batting average when it came to the games itself. Besides my own game, I played in five games, which is great in itself considering I only played on Saturday and Sunday, and every single one was at the very least an excellent experience if not face-smashing awesome. Even when I was up in the wee hours of the morning operating on too little sleep, there was never a point in any game where I wished I was doing anything else. Outside of Dead of Winter and some smaller and more personal cons, it's been over a year of con gaming that I could really say that about another con.

Götterdämmerung, (Call of Cthulhu/Delta Green)
Berlin 1945: With the city surrounded by the Red Army, a lone glider flies into the flames and ruin, carrying a group of Allied agents, haunted veterans on a final mission that will take them from this world at war to a land of dreams, where the SS and their occult research division known as the Karotechia have built Project HODDMÍMIR, the final gambit to escape their reckoning.
This is the third time I've run this scenario, and I'd been concerned since its first running at KublaCon that it's too locked to the rails and doesn't give the players enough agency to choose their own path through the story. However, this is now the second time I've walked away with the sense that the players had a great time with it specifically because it was a rail-shooter that allowed them to focus on simply enjoying the ride without worrying that they were doing the right thing in every situation. As Götterdämmerung was initially inspired by Inception, there's still a part of me that wants to do that scenario, where OSS/Delta Green veterans are manipulating the Dreamlands to stop the Karotechia and get a final retribution against them, whereas this scenario is more along the lines of "journey through nightmarish Berlin and then see even more fucked-up wrongness in the Dreamlands." I don't know if I'll have the time to edit Götterdämmerung more towards the caper-inspired Inception version by Big Bad Con, but I'm going to try. Nevertheless, this run at CelestiCon has convinced me that the scenario is already good as is, as the players seemed to have a good time and the game felt like a winner.

Have Ship, Will Smuggle (FATE Star Wars)
Setbacks and differences of opinion have left your crew on the verge of selling off the ship and going your separate ways. But every smuggler worth his spice would be crazy not to compete in Thespa the Hutt’s Gunrunner’s Gauntlet, a high speed, high risk scavenger hunt set to rage across the galaxy. Perhaps the winning ship’s 6,000,000 purse and lucrative contract position is just what you need.
I'm not a huge Star Wars fan, but I played in a great game with this GM a few cons back and figured it would be solid. That it was and more, as we played the crew of a smuggling ship entered in race to gather certain items and find a course that would lead to riches and glory. The simple set-up was complicated by our individual goals, many of whom were against each other, as well as by the war raging around us between the Empire and the Rebel Alliance (the game was set between The Empire Strikes Back and Return of the Jedi, so there were lots of jokes about how the Imperials wouldn't be dumb enough to build another Death Star). Most of the characters were pretty good, but I didn't want to play the leader so after he was taken I let the other players choose who they wanted to play. I ended up with a Devaronian ex-pirate who sold his own crewmates into slavery after his former captain refused to sell the cargo of slaves they had captured. The GM used portraits of real actors morphed with Star Wars portraits (which was really well-done, better than my efforts of using Photoshop to morph actors into SS uniforms), so my Devaronian was a horned Willem Dafoe, who I played as an alien Bobby Peru with Norman Osborn's gravelly voice. My Devaronian was arrayed against the Han Solo-esque captain, having bought his share of the ship by taking on the gambling debts of the captain's father, and used every opportunity to get the crew into trouble (my "Trouble" aspect was something like "Cannot Shut Up"). I ended up getting his father deeper in debt, nearly destroying the ship of the captain's friend, and trying to double-deal the Rebel Alliance before the captain took his opportunity to sell me to my ex-pirate comrades. I made it back to the ship in the middle of a battle, where the Devaronian and the captain drew down in an epic gun duel that left us both badly wounded and only my character still in the game (the other player had to leave to prep his own game). That was my only regret of the game, as, being a Star Wars game, it felt like the not-Han-Solo captain should win out and put down the not-Greedo Devaronian. Still, it ended well with us selling our cargo of arms to the Rebel Alliance for our own reasons (the Devaronian got a privateer's license and surplus Rebel ships for his new pirate armada). FATE is the perfect system for sci-fi swashbuckling like Star Wars, especially as it so easily handles everything from a raging battle between spaceships to social combat and all in the same scene, making it a surprisingly rich game. I had no complaints, although my throat-box was ripped raw from channeling Willem Dafoe for hours.

Here Be Dragons (Call of Cthulhu/Dark Ages)
The dragon banners of King Alfred have defeated the Viking/Danish forces at Ethandun, making their leader, Guthrum the Unlucky, bend the knee and receive baptism as a sign of his goodwill. During this peaceful time a group of fledgling investigators are given leave to go on holiday. One of the investigators has an invitation to a village wedding and he's gracious enough to invite the other investigators along. But holidays aren't always what they're expected to be and dark forces could be at work that make certain Alfred's dream of a united England never come to fruition.
I'd been trying to play this game for awhile, as I'd been jonesing for some Dark Age axe-on-cultist mayhem. The game was more investigative than that, although I got plenty of shield wall-action by choosing one of the warrior characters. After the rich roleplaying of the previous Star Wars game, I wanted to play a simpler character, especially not a female one as, knowing the GM, I figured those characters would have romantic complications I was uninterested in playing out tonight. I ended up accidentally choosing a woman-in-disguise, although my romantic complications were with a long-dead NPC allowing me to mix that in at my leisure. I used it instead to support a romance between two other characters, which I had a lot of fun with. I would've expected a ten-hour game to drag, but the game went by surprisingly fast and my energy level never flagged, and between the strong attention to detail by the GM and the great role-playing by my fellow players, we put together a pretty nice story with well-realized characters.

A Jury of Your Fears (Wraith: the Oblivion)
As the Empire of the Dead crumbles beneath the weight of corruption, ossification, and external aggression, six wraiths struggle to survive the end of everything.
After staying up until 3AM playing that epic Cthulhu Dark Ages game and failing to submit my signup slip for the session, I had no intention of gaming on Sunday morning and thought to sleep in. My natural clock wouldn't let me, and as I was wandering the main foyer, I crossed the GM looking for an extra player or the game might not run. As I knew my roommate Basil was in the game, I decided to play, especially as it was short enough to still make my next game. It ended up a happy circumstance, as the game was great. I've never played Wraith, but the setting was interestingly gloomy, as we four players either played Wraiths in the San Jose Necropolis out to capture a haunted train to ferry people out of the doomed city then under attack from Wraiths from the Jade Sea, or we played Spectres tied somehow to the Wraith PC's by their past. Essentially we were two couples with competing goals to bring the other closer to oblivion or away from it, and were faced with scenes full of metaphorical imagery on our way to capture the train. My only regret with the game is that I had to leave a few minutes before the ending, as it went a little over time.

Operation Atomic Wichita (Leverage)
World War II is heating up! The Axis powers recently captured Paris, and with it, France. And it looks like the war's about to get worse, if what's rumored is true. A motley crew of Allied commandos is tasked with making their way to a ruined castle where the Nazi occultists known as the Thule Society are working on some sinister project. Maybe they're deluded, but Command is taking no chances. Get it, deal with the problem, and get out. Salute!
This was the kind of a game where we started out parachuting into the Black Forest and getting attacked by a bear in assless lederhosen, only for my character to end up bitten by a werewolf and shoving a gold Star of David necklace into the mouth of an undead Nazi sorcerer as his malfunctioning jet-pack exploded in mid-air and falling to safety by landing on the canopy of an Allied fighter plane. And by that I mean the face-melting sweetness kind of a game. I played Cornelius Lipshitz, an Ethiopian Jewish commando Hitter blaxploitation lovechild of Officer URL and Omar Little (there was a scene where Lipshitz is strolling through the Nazi castle yelling "Cornelius coming... Cornelius coming...")

This was my second time playing Leverage and, while I'm definitely impressed with the mechanics, I'm still unsure how useful it would be to the kind of things I want to do with it. I want a capers game with exactly the kind of rules that Leverage has for turning failure into interesting complications rather than a binary yes/no, but also something a little more gritty and less over-the-top. I think Leverage can do that fine so long as the players understand those limitations and buy into the genre ("I can use a Plot Point to set up a flashback that will get me past this security guard, but not to drop-kick the moon with my big toe."), but once a supernatural aspect gets dropped into the mix and there are vaguer limits to reality, things can quickly go from gritty to gonzo, especially when there is a narcissistic nutjob like myself at the table. Still, between this and my experience playing the game at the last Endgame MiniCon, I've become quite enamored with Leverage and will look to purchase and run it at the earliest convenience.

Spirit of Metal (FATE)
You are a piece of mortal sludge that has somehow washed up on the bloodspattered shores of The Metal Realms, where Brutal Legends clash with an animated classic, featuring the vile machinations of the Loc-Nar. Bring your lyrics, guitar, sword, axe, or battle drum. It’s time to rock!
I've never played Brutal Legend and this was the last song I was listening to on my iPod before the game, but I love the fuck out of Heavy Metal, so a chance to play mere mortals-turned-rock gods fighting the Loc-Nar to free our metal realms from its corruption was something I wasn't going to miss. And Ozzy-dammit if this game didn't bring it hard. The GM was fully-prepped, laying out the world and mixing it with the FATE rules that it felt like the game had been made for just this kind of setting, infusing the room with a strong energy towards metal-mayhem, and delivering some of the finest metal tunes on his soundtrack that I think there's about a dozen or more songs I'm going to be adding to my iPod soon. The players were equally bringing it, creating characters and aspects based on metal songs and lyrics to either build archetypal rock characters like Den the Barbarian or something straight off an Iron Maiden cover, or they were simply born as Matt Steele. For the first six hours of this game, it was a one-way ticket to midnight, as we slayed hordes of animal men, banged bat-winged succubi, turned into a metal man made from WWI tanks and pissed napalm on ancient tomes, defeated castrating goat-woman roadhouse owners, freed southern belles in daisy dukes from meth-dealing Klan scum, brought the cowbell down to make the Reaper fear us in a battle of the bands, and unleashed Godzilla on Tokyo in a final apocalyptic battle against the Loc-Nar.

Now I had been able to get a little rest after the Leverage game, but I was still running on fumes when I started this game on Sunday evening. It is to the game's credit that, even though I was exhausted when it began, after the game reached its scheduled six hours and still had a lot of game left to play, I was disappointed because I wanted to keep going. And the game did keep going, but it was around then that I hit the two-fisted walls of sleep deprivation and the FATE point economy.

FATE (in over-the-top balls-to-the-wall incarnations like this) is a great system, but it strongly depends on the players constantly using FATE points to power their abilities to be awesome and the GM refreshing those points in exchange for the players trying to be awesome. I've never seen that done really right (mostly because it depends on both the GM being able to run a great game and do point-banking adminstrativa at the same time, as well as the players never hoarding chips), but the GM here did something fantastic in the form of "Fan Mail" (I think he took it from Prime-Time Adventures) where the players had a pool of slightly-stunted FATE Points to share among ourselves for players being awesome. Unfortunately, due mainly to my sharing the Fan Mail points perhaps too freely with everyone else and not getting many myself, and the "Bane" aspect I created (which the GM would use to compel me with regular FATE points) frankly sucking, I was left halfway through the game without any kind of points. Normally that would've been fine and I would be cool with fading into the wallpaper to emphasize everyone else being cool, but I had brung it pretty hard up until then and I could tell other players were now looking at me to be bringing the awesome. Since I had neither the points nor the energy to bring said awesome anymore, it left me a little frustrated and the GM sensed that. He efficiently dealt with the FATE point situation, but there was nothing to be done about the sleepiness, so the game didn't end on the high note for me that it so richly deserved. Still, even that tinge of negativity could merely bring this game from Godlike to Fuckin' Legendary on the ladder.

In between the Leverage and FATE Metal game, I got a chance to briefly sit and talk with Kenneth Hite about Night's Black Agents, World War Cthulhu, the next Delta Green book, and his future plans for Project COVENANT and Thirties' espionage in Trail of Cthulhu. It was a short but informative conversation, and while I was most interested in the stuff most-related to Our Darkest Hour, my biggest takeaway was Ken's description of Night's Black Agents. I think the game is going to be much more visceral than I initially appreciated, and I'm now really pumped to see it come out (hopefully sometime early next year). I had a strange nexus when I returned to my room to relax and eat lunch, and was listening to my iPod full of Massive Attack, The Heavy, Rob Dougan, and Crystal Method, and watched (with the sound off) what looked like a spy-fi film with a vaguely European setting filled with black-ops secret agents shooting and staking leather-clad techno-vampires shot with cool filtered cameras and shadowy angles that was looking great until Steven Seagal suddenly appeared in his goth-Tibetan-black muumuu and began doing his patty-cake aikido fat ninja-fu and ruined everything. So I'm already starting to groove with what I might do with "Jason Bourne vs. vampires" of Night's Black Agents.

So that was CelestiCon 2011. CelestiCon 2012 will have some big shoes to fill. My next con will be Big Bad Con in October, which with its stellar slate of RPGs is looking to overload me yet again with even more gaming goodness. Between DunDraCon, KublaCon, CelestiCon, Big Bad Con, Dead of Winter, and the Endgame MiniCons, truly do I live in gamer-paradise here on the Bay.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Who Owns P Division?

Arc Dream and Pagan Publishing have recently announced that they will be producing their own RPG system for an updated iteration of Delta Green, which might also mean that Arc Dream/Pagan may no longer be using Chaosium intellectual property in the setting. Based on the GenCon seminar where this was announced, this doesn't seem like a big loss to the Delta Green crew, but it did get me to wonder just who has done what with one particular aspect: P Division.

P Division is a department within the Office of Naval Intelligence responsible for investigating the paranormal, particularly as it applies to naval concerns. Created during the First World War, P Division truly becomes a going concern with their participation in the raid on Innsmouth in 1928. Shortly after American entry into the Second World War, P Division is transferred to the Office of Strategic Services, where its files and operations are given the security classification DELTA GREEN. Eventually, the organization becomes more well-known as OSS/Delta Green than its original (and still official) title of P Division. The unit is disbanded along with the rest of the OSS with the end of the war, but is later resurrected in 1947 to control public knowledge of the Roswell incident. Now simply titled Delta Green, the unit remains an official section reporting to the Joint Chiefs of Staff until a disastrous operation in Cambodia causes its disbandment in 1970. The veterans of Delta Green decide to continue the fight as an illegal conspiracy, which continues up until the latest iteration of Delta Green (circa 1999).

That's the gist of P Div, but it gets muddied when we start separating who has created what in terms of the unit and its history. The following goes into all that, and contains spoilers for the books Adventures in Arkham Country, Delta Green, and Escape from Innsmouth.

P Division first appeared in 1993, with the publication by Chaosium of Adventures in Arkham Country. Within that book of scenarios was a three-part mini-campaign titled "With Malice Aforethought," written by Andrew Leman and Jaime Anderson, which is set at some indetermined point in the 1920s. In the first act, the investigators are relatives of inmates at the Arkham Sanitarium, where a Dreamlands sorcerer has taken on human form as a doctor and plans to use the inmates as part of a mad scheme to open a gate for his lords to come into the waking world and conquer it. In the course of the adventure, the investigators come across a Mythos tome titled Synarchobiblaron. In the second adventure, the investigators are detained by the Arkham police and charged with the murders that took place at the sanitarium. The Synarchobiblaron is locked by the police in the evidence vault of the Essex County courthouse in Salem, where it is potentially used against the investigators at their trial (as evidence of their Satanic worship as motive). Either the investigators are found not guilty or a new set of investigators are introduced to exonerate them in the third act, the Dreamlands sorcerer strikes again, using his agents to return him to the waking world where he can reenact the ritual to open the gate, a plan that requires him to reacquire the Synarchobiblaron. Stopping that plan also requires the Synarchobiblaron, as it contains the necessary spell in "The Banishment of Yde' Edat." In the way of both the antagonist and the investigators is Lieutenant Edward Brookstone and P Division, who arrive in Salem to confiscate the Synarchobiblaron "for use in an ongoing investigation." This is the first mention of P Division:
Lieutenant Brookstone is in charge of a small subsection of U.S. Naval Intelligence known as P Division. Informally organized during the War to look into certain bizarre occurrences in central Europe, the division is currently investigating bizarre and paranormal phenomena. The details of the Halloween trial attracted the attention of the division and the evidence has been seized as part of an ongoing inquiry into cultist activity.
Lt. Brookstone and a team of U.S. Marshals take the evidence, and load it into a Navy truck to drive it back to Boston for a flight back to Washington. What happens from there is up to the investigators, although, as Brookstone is mentioned as being able to get them all pardons from the governor of Massachusetts, it is implied that P Division is convinced to aid the investigators in their fight against the sorcerer.

This is the only mention of P Division anywhere in a Chaosium book, including Escape from Innsmouth. In that book, published by Chaosium in 1992, the man "in charge of the military contribution" to the raid on Innsmouth is cigar-chomping USMC "Colonel James Rothler of Naval Intelligence." While Rothler is described as working for naval intelligence, he is never explicitly tied to P Division. Escape from Innsmouth does create the code-name used for the raid on Innsmouth: Project COVENANT, with those involved identifying themselves with the phrase "Samson" to pass through the roadblocks set up around the town. The book also creates "The Book of Dagon," five conical stones covered with R'lyeh glyphs which Robert Marsh, the high priest of the Esoteric Order of Dagon, had been attempting to decipher when interrupted by the raiders. Finally, Escape from Innsmouth establishes the fate of the Innsmouth prisoners as being shipped to "various clandestine camps and military prisons across the country" before " a secret desert detainment camp is set up and all prisoners are confined" there, although nothing is said of it being in Arizona.

Then, in 1996 (or maybe earlier, depending on any pre-release write-ups of Delta Green in The Unspeakable Oath), Delta Green establishes the meat-&-potatoes of P Division. Fully titled for the first time as the Parapsychology, Paranormal, and Psychic Phenomena Division, P Division's history is laid out in the most significant detail it's received before or since. Delta Green ties P Division into Escape from Innsmouth by stating that it was headed by "Marine Colonel James Whelan, the ranking military officer of Project COVENANT," which re-names Rothler and makes him the head of P Division. The Book of Dagon is also mentioned, with its decoding by the Black Chamber causing the Navy to fully-support P Division and its fight against the Deep Ones. Delta Green also follows through on the containment of the Deep One hybrids, placed here in a secret containment facility disguised as a Naval Air Station in Arizona.

Since then, no book outside of those published for Delta Green have really addressed P Division. The Cthulhu Live books, the LARP version of Delta Green and Shades of Grey, each mention P Division, but neither expand beyond what was written previously in Pagan's Delta Green. Kenneth Hite's Trail of Cthulhu has an entire section on Project COVENANT, but it's not as simple as it might appear:
With former President Coolidge's death on January 5, 1933, the survivors of Project Covenant have nowhere left to turn when they start seeing the same sorts of things they saw that cold night in Innsmouth. Except to each other. They form a secret cabal within the US military and intelligence services, and provide cover and leads for each other where they can. They call themselves "Covenanters" or "Friends of Ezra" (after Ezra Weeden, an 18th century patriot who defeated a wizard), and use variations on "Ezra," "Samson," and the Ark of the Covenant as code words, contact signals, and warning signs.
While a cursory glance might see this as Trail of Cthulhu's version of P Division, it is in fact something entirely different: a secret and illegal conspiracy running parallel to the open (if nominally covert) and authorized operation that is P Division as described in Delta Green. It is instead Trail of Cthulhu's own 1930s version of Delta Green, which even utilizes its own network of "friendlies" in American and foreign embassies. Hite notes that Project Covenant can be "an official (though still secret) operation within the FBI and Navy bureaucracies," but he also states this as a "different sort of style," connoting that its default status is unofficial. Trail of Cthulhu doesn't add many details than those already established in Escape from Innsmouth, except to name certain NPCs differently than the way they were named in Delta Green (Treasury Agent Wade becomes Agent Drew, Rothler who is Whelan in Delta Green is renamed Maines in Trail of Cthulhu).

And that, as far as I know, is entirely it for P Division. Secrets of Morocco makes some mention of the Office of Naval Intelligence, but no other book outside of those published for Delta Green make any reference to the organization. Still, even though the vast majority of what was written about P Division was created by the authors of Delta Green, it may not be so easy to separate it from Chaosium's IP. The name itself was created by Chaosium, as was it's pre-Innsmouth history, although that only amounts to the "bizarre occurrences in central Europe" that inspired its creation in 1917 (and it is Delta Green that is responsible for fixing that date to 1917) and the Brookstone affair in Adventures in Arkham Country. Everything post-Innsmouth, which represents most of what has been written about P Division was created by Pagan Publishing. So what can Arc Dream/Pagan do in terms of separating themselves from Chaosium IP while preserving the history of Delta Green? Well, going back to the source, this is what Lovecraft wrote in The Shadow Over Innsmouth:
During the winter of 1927-28 officials of the Federal government made a strange and secret investigation of certain conditions in the ancient Massachusetts seaport of Innsmouth. The public first learned of it in February, when a vast series of raids and arrests occurred, followed by the deliberate burning and dynamiting - under suitable precautions - of an enormous number of crumbling, worm-eaten, and supposedly empty houses along the waterfront.
Lovecraft also speaks of the captives of the raid being dispersed to "various naval and military prisons," and he does establish the Navy's involvement in the raid by mentioning the "deep-diving submarine that discharged torpedoes downward in the marine abyss jsut beyond Devil Reef.

Based on all that, it's reasonable that, strictly from The Shadow Over Innsmouth alone, the Navy was involved in the raid on Innsmouth. As the Office of Naval Intelligence was obsessed with domestic intelligence during the interwar period, it's actually likely that ONI officers would take the lead when Navy and Marine troops are dispatched against the town. The Shadow Over Innsmouth also establishes that the prisoners from Innsmouth were sent to military facilities. From this, Delta Green can safely be descended from an ONI unit that took part in the raid on Innsmouth. Calling that unit "P Division" and code-naming the operation "Project COVENANT" are probably not kosher. The same goes for "The Book of Dagon" (although there's nothing to say that vaguely described artifacts recovered from Innsmouth were deciphered by the Black Chamber) or that the naval intelligence unit was created during the First World War specifically due to "bizarre occurrences in central Europe," although Central Europe is a big place and it was Delta Green that established 1917 as the date of P Division's creation.

All that said, I happen to like canon specifically when it raises questions, within which lie opportunities to create stories; and there are a lot of such questions that disappear when what's been written on P Division starts to get fragmented. What were the bizarre occurrences in Central Europe that lead the U.S. Navy to create of something as fanciful as the Parapsychology, Paranormal, and Psychic Phenomena Division? What happened to the "intimidating" Lieutenant Brookstone so that the cartoonish Marine Colonel Rothler/Whelan/Maines (who seems so paranoid that he can't go anywhere without an alias) took over P Division within the (no more than) eight years between Adventures in Arkham Country and Escape from Innsmouth? What happened to the Colonel so that the lower ranking Lieutenant Commander Martin Cook had taken over by 1942? How did P Division going from investigating the Dreamlands with the Synarchobiblaron to focusing intently on Deep Ones affect the unit and its officers? Why do the officers involved in Project COVENANT abandon P Division en masse following 1933 and begin a new illegal conspiracy? How does J. Edgar Hoover go from the careerist afraid to tell President Hoover the truth of Innsmouth in 1928 to the regular visitor to the Arizona containment facility in the 1930s? Why would the conspirators of Project Covenant be unwilling to brief President Roosevelt on the Innsmouth raid in 1933, especially as FDR was historically closed to tied to naval intelligence, and how does Project Covenant react when P Division moves to the OSS and (supposedly) briefs President Roosevelt in full on what they've discovered?

It's a bit of shame that I can't easily see a book that covers all of P Division's history from 1917 to 1942, but that's mitigated by the fact that there's nothing stopping Chaosium from producing a book on P Division from 1917 to 1928 (thereby avoiding entangling themselves with all the background created by Pagan Publishing post-Innsmouth). Nor is there anything stopping Arc Dream/Pagan from retconning their own work, renaming P Division to something else and leaving its pre-Innsmouth history as "a strange division of naval intelligence created in 1917 to investigate the paranormal that was reorganized and renamed to [INSERT NEW NAME HERE] following the Innsmouth operation." And Trail of Cthulhu has already side-stepped most of this, as Project Covenant remains this separate conspiracy leading from Innsmouth that hasn't been connected to P Division since then. As for all the interesting questions that arise from the various melding of what's been written about P Division, the bad news might be that the publishers can't steal each other's IP to play around with it, but the good news, and what really matters, is that Keepers can always do it for themselves.

Tuesday, May 31, 2011

KublaCon 2011

For the second year in a row, I came out of KublaCon without playing in a single bad game. Some were better than others, but none of them were stinkers and at no time did I ever want a game to end just to move on to something else.

The Wolves of St. Croix (Godlike)
Winter, 1944. As the sky turns grey and snow blankets the French countryside, Patton’s Third Army creeps forward against orders during an uneasy winter stalemate. Your Talent Operation Group has been assigned to vanguard elements of the 25th Cavalry Recon Squadron, currently deployed in hills above the provincial village of Frahan. The last patrol sent to reconnoiter the surrounding forest hasn’t report in and you’re being sent into those dark woods to find out why.
Friday involved a very horrible choice: there were nine games I would've loved to play that evening, all of them in competing slots. I settled on Jack Young's Godlike game as my first choice mostly due to knowing Jack to be a great GM, loving the setting, and wanting to get my One Roll Engine experience under my belt. I was not disappointed, as this was a fantastic game and, besides my own game, the highlight of the con for me. It was a damn good bunch of players, and we gelled quickly as a group. Some of the best moments include the badger (our TOG mascot) that a character kept in his backpack that we addicted to morphine to keep it sedated, my secretly homosexual character (something I added, which Matt Steele pointed out that I often add to my characters... odd) who kept having to deal with innuendo about cigars and pinup girls, and my most metal moment of the con... after getting set on fire, my character dropped his B.A.R. and charged a Nazi brainwashing Talent, brass-knuckled trench knives in hand, screaming "BADGERS GO FIRST!" (the TOG motto is "Talents Go First") that soon degenerated through pain to "BADGER! BADGER! BADGER!" and finally punching dead the Nazi (who has pissed his pants due to failing Will vs. Will contests) through the face as he simultaneously shot me dead through the face. A thing of beauty.

A Knight's Tale (Savage Worlds)
When two monks ask Sir David of Winchester and his entourage for help it seems like a righteous quest is beginning. But the monks of Muchelney Abbey lead a colorful and interesting life, and their problem is no earthly one. To save the monks physical bodies, and maybe their eternal souls, the knights must deal with a divine servant who guards a holy weapon and a French raiding party attacking southern England before facing down the true monster.
Somehow Saturday turned out to be all Savage Worlds, all the time. My first game involved a knight (played by me) and his retainers competing in a tournament before getting recruited Magnificent Seven-style by some drunken, lascivious monks to defend their abbey from having its new construction torn down by a woodland demon. Evidently a published scenario, the game was okay but made much better by having great players at the table, as almost everyone (one player kind of checked out) just dived into their characters. We never encountered a French raiding party, and getting the holy weapon was pretty easy (although it was interesting when my squire, secretly a girl in disguise, failed to pass the test of morality to enter the tomb and was nearly attacked by an angel, while the lascivious, morally-loose herald entered with ease), but the fight with the wood-demon was intense and I felt satisfied after the game. In fact, after my experience running Savage Worlds at Dead of Winter, I was almost lured into again believing that the system could be simple, light, and easy...

The Witch of November (Realms of Cthulhu)
Early November, 1975. You and your crew are about to embark on a routine journey across Lake Superior with a full load of taconite ore pellets in the belly of your freighter. The National Weather Service has predicted clear skies with the nearest storm passing safely to the south... But there is something deep under the water that defies logic and nature. The witch of November is about to come stealing... And she's hungry.
... but then I played this game and quickly returned to reality. It was quite a good game, and I had a lot of fun, but I sat between the GM and someone who mentioned doing editing work for the game, both of whom seemed very familiar with the system, and there were several times when they had to reach for their books to look up rules. There was even a time or two when I knew what the rule was in a situation and they weren't immediately aware of it. If even people like this haven't mastered the system, what hope is there for rules-retards like me?

The game itself was decent. As I suspected, it was based on a rather famous song, so I knew how things were probably going to end from the very beginning. SPOILERS! We were sailors on the Edmund Fitzgerald, so we were all going to die. It ended up being a run-&-fight kind of game, and since I had no melee skills and many of the players had handguns while I didn't, I felt pretty limited in what I could do. On top of that, since I suspected MORE SPOILERS! we were all going to die and survival really wasn't an option, I spent the game waiting for an objective different than "survive," which didn't come until the end of the last combat round in the game. I came away respecting Realms of Cthulhu for its lethality ("gritty" damage rules where you can't Soak damage with bennies are indeed quite gritty) and its Sanity mechanic, but the highly tactical nature of the combat serves more to draw me out of the game than into it. I think I'm done with any notion of running Savage Worlds, although I'm still happy to play in games that use the system.

Fighting for Freedom (Exalted)
Ever felt like you were a demi-god? In Exalted, you are! Your character has been blessed with godlike powers by the Unconquered Sun. However, you've been captured by a rival Solars who feel that only the strongest of your kind should survive to take over the world. Do you fight in their tournament to prove you're the best, or do you fight your captors for your freedom? The choices are yours in this game of Exalted.
I tried to crash in 4 games on Sunday morning: I spent nearly an hour camping to get into a Doctor Who game (which filled up with all its signed-up players, although I was okay with that when I found it the characters would all be from the show rather than original), then a Dark Heresy game that a friend was also trying to crash (who also failed), then a Star Trek game using one of my favorite systems (Cinematic Unisystem) that I thought would be full (and was right), then a Hellcats & Hockeysticks game that sounded so quirky I thought there might be a chance (there wasn't), before my friend from the Dark Heresy game and I ran into an RPG coordinator who told us this Exalted game needed players.

This was an odd game, but a fun one. Talking it over with a friend later, it almost seemed like the GM would've preferred if there hadn't been enough players to run the game, and once we got past the initial set-up, there didn't seem to be much more to the game. Regardless, it was still pretty awesome, as we ripped out trees and beat the Solar into submission with them. I've played Exalted before, which is a strange mix of this interesting setting of highly empowered characters that should be able to pull off amazing stunts and would be an easy fit for something like FATE, but is mated to this incredibly crunchy White Wolf system that goes into far too much detail than is actually required. Still, it works in play, especially under an efficient GM, which this one was, and, after we all picked up the system, it ran smoothly.

Operation Albion (Delta Green)
Delta Green cell Kilo is activated to investigate the odd remains of several animals found in Albion, Washington. Kilo cell is a group of experienced federal law enforcement agents who have worked successfully on supernatural cases in the past. The cell is called to the Hyatt Regency, Burlingame for a briefing provided by A cell.
The Exalted game ended so quickly that I was still able to get into "Apocalypse Tao," a Savage Worlds game using the Tour of Darkness setting. After only one other player and myself showed up, the game had to be cancelled for lack of players. While unfortunate, that did allow me to play in a Delta Green game, a very rare treat for me as I almost always have to run Delta Green myself to see it on a schedule.

This was a good game, but it was one of those situations where I got a little pissy over planning details with a couple of players as I kept getting called on the carpet for my character's decisions. It's very difficult, especially in a con setting where you don't often know the other players, to differentiate when a player is calling your character a moron or when they are calling you personally a moron. It's made even harder when the offended player doesn't really act out their character, using the same tone of voice and perspective whether in-character or otherwise. I'm an immersive role-player, so when I role-play characters in stressful situations that go temporarily insane, I'm not focused on what's the best tactical option but what is the most interesting response. And I'm a geek with self-esteem issues, creating a toxic mix when combined with criticism. I do think that a myopic focus on getting just the right plan in a horror game is rather silly, as no matter what you plan, it's all going to end up going wrong somehow. Nevertheless, I wish I hadn't let it get to me, and while I didn't go into a full-blown funk, I still wish I'd found a way to ignore it completely.

For the most part though, the game was a lot of fun, and had some great moments. I got to yell "The pudding's gone bad!" as my character went crazy and ran away from the protoplasmic monster. One player got killed half-way through by said pudding, and then his replacement character failed a Climb roll and fell to his death about a minute after coming into the game. Another player had an absolutely metal moment where he went nuts and charged the pudding, guns blazing and yelling "I can take it!" as my character grappled with him to hold him back from certain doom.

Götterdämmerung (Delta Green)
Berlin 1945: As the city collapses before the advancing Red Army, a lone glider flies into the flames and ruin. Onboard are a small desperate group of Allied agents disguised as German paratroopers, who must journey through Hel to breach the final stronghold of the SS occult research division known as the Karotechia, where Projekt HODDMÍMIR waits to open the way for the Third Reich to escape its reckoning, as others arrive to reap what black science the Karotechia has sown.
This was my game, and the first time I've run it anywhere. It went very well, in no small part due to an awesome group of players. I'll break it all down...

The Good
Everybody (including myself) had fun, which is the most important thing. A very solid story was created by the end of the game, and most of the characters ran through some kind of personal arc. As the game ran through without any major hitches, I left it confident in my GM'ing abilities, which is the first time I can say that about a con game since... well, the last KublaCon. I was really surprised to see that I almost brought it in on-time (6 hours) without having to sacrifice too much, although the early scenes in Berlin do have to get trimmed and character introduction took way too long. The props came out well and it was good to see that the Soldbuch character sheets held up under use. Listening to it on the drive to KublaCon, I was afraid the soundtrack I'd put together was less than optimal, but it turned out to be okay.

The Bad
At the end of the game, one of the players said he would've paid good money to see this scenario if it were a movie. That made my day, but I also felt like I kind of did run it as a movie, as in it was all very scripted. I didn't give the players enough chances to roleplay their characters (although the players made the most of the few chances I did give), and the game itself pretty tightly runs on rails so that there are too few opportunities for the players to make choices within it. This is something that I can definitely edit in the game, so it'll ultimately be stronger for it.

The Awesome
Like I said, I had great group of players for this one, everyone at the table brought something to the game. One player interpreted his character on a much deeper level than I expected (and I wish I'd been better prepared for that). Another player really followed through on some aspects I was prepared for (and hoping to see), but when something happened (which I had pre-scripted in a dumb way, so it's all on me) to cause almost everyone to drop to zero SAN, that story got ended prematurely.

One thing that I learned from this game was that I never want to run on a Monday ever again. I was on high-energy throughout the game, but I completely crashed after it was over and was at the most tired I'd been in a very long time. It was also weird having a bunch of folks telling me how much they wanted to play in my game, which felt great for my ego but also built up the pressure to deliver. I'd much prefer to run on Friday, release that anxiety, and spend the rest of the con just enjoying the games I'm playing in.

In general terms, KublaCon delivered once again, but I do think there is room for improvement. Unlike DunDraCon, KublaCon uses a wholly electronic sign-up system through off-line terminals at the registration desk. This makes signing-up for games during the con difficult, as a bunch of folks will have only 4 terminals to work with any time and queues can develop. What's more, I'm certain the system could be used on-line, as it's possible to sign-up through their website for a short period before the con starts. If the system were on-line throughout the con, there'd be less need to queue up at the kiosk, and it'd be much easier to change sign-up choices if you get into one game that will overlap with games you signed-up for in the next.

I also feel like the con was very front-loaded this year, with 9 great games on Friday for me, and then fewer great ones (but still several okay choices) the rest of the con. There might've been less games than last year, but I have no data to back that up.

In the dealer's room, I avoided making purchases, but it was a tough job to do so. I thumbed through Black Devil's Brigade and am seriously considering getting it and creating a short-lived group to run it as a mini-campaign. It will probably be a bit raw to begin with before I master the rules, but I'm coming around to the idea that the only way I'll ever master the One Roll Engine is to just jump in and run it a bunch of times.

So, all in all, another great time from KublaCon. It was my first and it remains my favorite. I can't wait to go back next year.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

SS Soldbuch Investigator "Sheet"

In less than a week at KublaCon, I'll be running Götterdämmerung, a Call of Cthulhu scenario set during the Battle of Berlin, where OSS/Delta Green agents, disguised as Waffen-SS paratroopers, infiltrate Berlin (which is surrounded by the Red Army) and try to stop the final machinations of the SS occult division known as the Karotechia. I got the idea to mock up an abbreviated and simplified version of an SS Soldbuch (a pay book carried by German soldiers which included unit information, issued equipment, and various other stuff), since the Soldbuch was also used as a kind of identity card, figuring it might make a nice prop for the investigators' cover identities.

Then I got another idea: why not turn the whole thing into a character sheet?

This was a lot of work. I used Word to create most of it, put into a PDF (the raw files are here), and printed it with the cover on grey card stock (which looks much less grey than it actually is in the photos) and the rest on light beige paper. Then I "bound" it with a long-reach stapler, and covered the spine (and hid the exterior of the staples) with black fabric tape.

Monday, April 18, 2011

A recent thread on inspired me to do a little bit of Internet necromancy and try to find the earliest mention by Pagan Publishing about Our Darkest Hour.
From: on behalf of
Sent: Wednesday, March 15, 2000 6:15 PM
Subject: Re: DG: Books?

The following books are ready for printing:

DG Eyes Only 3 Project Rainbow: Which is going to press on friday.

DG: Dark Theaters trade paperback: This revised edition will be available soon, most likely by the end of next month.

The following books are in production:

Delta Green: From an Dim and Ultimate Thule: A WWII era Delta Green novel dealing with the Great Race, Deep Ones and other nastiness. This should go to press some time the in the forseeable future, maybe within the next three months...

There are several DG: Eyes Only volumes in the works including:

Agents, Friendlies and Bronsons: 41+ Fully detailed NPCs for any Delta Green campaign.

Black Cod Island: An ancient Deep One colony located in southern Alaska still survives today, despite an attempt by the Haida indians of the northwest to stomp out the alien threat in the 1730's.

As far as big books go, the next planned biggie which is already underway is

Delta Green: Our Darkest Hour, a sourcebook for playing DG during WWII. Most likely it will make Countdown look like a slim little volume.

Cult of Transcendence is in the middle of its endless rewrite as we speak, no definite idea on when (or if) it will ever be released.

Other plans include a large campaign (modern day) for DG and more fiction.

Suggestions are welcome.

Dennis Detwiller.
Art Director/Co-Creator of Delta Green/Silly Rabbit
Pagan Publishing
But that's not the earliest mention of Our Darkest Hour, as there are posts as early as April 2000 mentioning the product. I purchased Delta Green sometime after August 1997, when I moved out to the San Francisco Bay Area, and I almost immediately got the idea for running a WWII campaign with it. I had created a website (two actually: one for WWII Delta Green, the other for Delta Green set before the Second World War), but I shuttered it when Dennis Detwiller announced on the DGML that Our Darkest Hour was in production... and that announcement was not in this email above.

That means that ODH has been announced for at least 11 years, and maybe even as long as 13 years. That's about the time it took the actual war to be fought twice over. All I can say is that both Scott Glancy and Shane Ivey have recently expressed strong interest in getting the book done, and not in the long-term but in the immediate future. I have delivered my own (very) rough draft of the OSS/Delta Green chapter, and have been working on similar drafts for the other "organization" chapters. Still, more definitely needs to be done, at least on my end.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Charlie's in the wire!

It's looks like the Vietnam War issue of The Black Seal, which has been in production for a very long time, is finally nearing publication. Instead of being issue #4 of TBS, it'll be it's own book, two in fact: Cthulhu by Arclight and Missing in Action. Considering one of those volumes should include the article I wrote on the Tcho-Tcho in Vietnam, I'm quite excited to see it finished and finally see something of mine in print.

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

To Portrait or Not to Portrait...

[I have no idea where to put this, and it's a question I can't get out of my head, so I'm slapping it here.]

I've submitted a game for KublaCon, which has put me knee-deep into creating characters. Set during the Battle of Berlin, the Call of Cthulhu game will involve OSS/Delta Green agents (dressed as SS-Fallschirmjäger) flying a glider into the besieged city to infiltrate the Berlin headquarters of the Karotechia. Right now, the characters are:
2 veteran OSS/Delta Green field operatives
1 OSS/Delta Green research specialist
1 former Karotechia research subject
1 US Army glider pilot
1 US Army Japanese-American infantryman
Of these six characters, two are definitively male but the rest are gender-neutral. Whereas the glider pilot and the infantryman have to be men, any of the OSS/Delta Green personnel could be either male or female.

Now this would not be an issue if I simply used tent cards which gave the character's last name, organization, and nationality. In that case, the player could choose what gender they want for their character and could create a physical description of them on their own terms, both for themselves and the other players.

However, I've become enamored of using character portraits that are put in clear plastic photo stands instead of tent cards. Here is an example from the Call of Cthulhu scenario "The Burning Stars" in Terrors from Beyond:
And here's another example, from a Vietnam War Call of Cthulhu game I ran involving the disastrous Cambodian operation that lead to Delta Green being deactivated in 1970:And here is a character portrait from a Deadlands Reloaded game I ran at Dead of Winter:

I find these props much more evocative than simple tent cards, and, in the case of the Deadlands characters, capable of conveying important game information (the portrait shows the characters vice/virtue and the white space is where that character's particular "demon card" from a poker deck is supposed to go).

My problem is that when I create a character as gender-neutral, it means I have to create 2 sets of portraits for that character. I could simply fix the gender to one or the other, but then I run into the issue of forcing players into certain roles based on their gender preferences at the table. Even if I create an equal number of male and female characters, I'm still forcing a player that is comfortable with a certain gender to pick from a less than possible pool of characters.

There's also the rougher problem that it is just damn hard to find character portraits for the kind of female roles I need. In the case of my KublaCon game, it is relatively easy to find 4 sets of portraits of Waffen-SS soldiers (for the gender-neutral characters' disguises), but it's tough as hell to find even 1 decent portrait of an SS-Helferin.

Compounding the problem is that I don't like to use historical photos for character portraits, preferring instead to use photos from movies and television shows. It's partially because it feels a little like disrespecting the dead (or in the case of using Nazi photos, just plain creepy), but it's mostly because I'm really trying to emulate a fictional portrayal of the period rather than history wie es eigentlich gewesen. I wasn't a WWII spy and I doubt anyone else at the gaming table was either, so what we're really working off of is the fictional portrayal of the war as seen in movies, books, and tv shows.

I have no idea where I was going with this. It's just something I needed to write down, and maybe get other GM's opinions on. I'll probably end up using tent cards.