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This details the last session of the Call of Cthulhu game set in 1880 Chicago we played in 2012.

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The party arrives at the Darrow residence, which is a large city house with grounds, much older and more stately than the Livingstone residence - why, it must be twenty years old! A footman helps them alight from the Victoria and another escorts them to the front door, where the Professor hands the doorman his card. They are escorted into the sitting room and wait only a few minutes before David Darrow himself comes to greet them, which is unorthodox but seems to be in keeping with Mr. Darrow’s informal manner. He greets them warmly and with apparent affection, though he doesn’t know who they are or why they’ve come. When the Professor explains that they are friends of his cousin Georgette (and Miss Mars explains that she’s gone missing with another friend, a Miss Rutherford, both of whom they are anxious to find), Mr. Darrow allows that this may be a longer conversation and invites them to his parlor to be more comfortable. They move to the parlor, where the butler (“Yuri”) serves drinks, and Mr. Darrow explains that he has not seen Georgette for close to a year, though he has recently been regretting that interval and has just now been considering how to best restore their community. He asks how she’s been, and the party feels the need to admit that Livingstone is dead.

Oh dear!” Darrow commiserates, “That must have been a terrible shock to Georgette! How is she now?

Miss Mars replies, somewhat archly, “We don’t know; as we mentioned, we haven’t seen her since we found her husband hacked to death in his home.

But how was she when last you saw her? Was she doing well? Did she seem distressed? That would have been, what? ...Tuesday, or...?Professor Spriggan admits, “We haven’t seen her since last night, when I escorted Miss Rutherford to the Livingstone’s front door.I see. This is terrible news. Terrible news.

After a pregnant pause, the Professor adds, “So we came to ask you if you’d seen her, or if you knew her whereabouts...?

No, no, no, I said I haven’t seen Georgette for months. But you can be sure I will be beating the brush to find her now. I’m sure she could use the company of loving family at a time like this...even if I haven’t been the best of family to her in the past, I’m more than ready to make up for it now. Terrible business. Terrible.” Darrow takes a breath, lets it out. “So, do you have any other ideas where she might be? Where have you looked so far?

The Professor replies, “Well, as soon as we learned of family in town, we came straight here. There is one other thing, though: the Livingstones had a small, locked and painted box. It recently went missing, and they’d asked me to assist in its recovery.

Ah, yes, our family heirlooms. Missing, you say? Indeed! Well, no matter. It’s all bunk and hokum in any case.

Ah! You know of this box?

Know of it! Every one in the family has one. It’s a big ritual for us Darrows; has been for generations. When the child comes of age, he is taken aside and given a box to keep safe, so that it can protect him for ever more.” Darrow chuckles. “Ridiculous superstition. There’s no such thing as protective magic!

The Professor responds: “You say everyone in the family has one? We were looking through Hendrickson’s Emporium and found these” - here Crivens steps forward and drops the bag containing the three caskets on the side table - “Do you have any idea to whom these belonged?

Oh...” Darrow peers at the boxes avariciously, “You have three of them! How extraordinary!” He rummages at a credenza and pulls out his own box, which matches the others quite well. “They are each much like mine, though of course mine has been opened.

He swings the lid open and waves it at the Professor. “I imagine that these others belonged to some members of my family or other. Perhaps they fell on hard times and had to sell them. More power to them - the boxes are completely useless, after all. I only hold on to mine for amusement, and perhaps a little sentimental value...

You’ve opened yours?” the Professor is hard-pressed to keep the shock from his voice.

Hmm?” Darrow looks up from examining the three boxes. “Oh, yes. Very disappointing, that. Contains nothing but old bits of bone and hair, cloth and metal talismans, fetishes, all sorts of folderol supposed to have magic properties.

The group risks glancing into the profferred open casket. Indeed, it appears that small dusty things have died in there, a long time past. The smell is sweet, however, a bit like incense or toilet water.

Miss Mars is impatient. “So you have no idea where Georgette is?

None at all. But I hope to find her soon. Very soon.

Miss Mars is curt. “Very well. Professor, I believe we are finished here.

Darrow is taken aback. “Please, Miss Mars, Professor! If it would not be too troublesome, would you join me for dinner? I’d love to hear more about cousin Georgette, as well as get to know you all better.

The Professor agrees, and Yuri escorts them to the dining room. Miss Mars goes with poor grace, Mr. Guld ever at her elbow. Crivens, failing to correct the assumption that he is a servant, gets directed to the kitchens to help prepare the meal while Yuri begins to serve drinks.


Down a flight of stairs in the kitchens, Crivens tries not to get in the way of the bustling servants preparing the noon meal (dinner). Soon it becomes apparent that they are preparing four dishes, rather than three. “Four dishes?” Crivens remarks to one of the maids. Is Mr. Guld going to get a meal whilst poor Gregory Crivens is stuck down in the scullery again?
Yes,” the maid explains, “A dish for Mr. Darrow, for Miss Mars, for Professor Spriggan, and for the Master.
You said that twice.”
Said what twice?” replies the maid, perplexed.
The Master. You already said Mr. Darrow, so who’s the fourth setting for?” Crivens speaks slowly, as even servants sometimes have a hard time understanding his attempts at speaking English, though usually other Irish people are able to discern meaning.
For the Master.” she repeats.
Not Mr. Darrow, then?
No, we always set a place for the Master, though he rarely joins in the meals.
Where is this Master?

The maid squints at him suspiciously, “You certainly have a lot of questions, me bucko!” Then her face relaxes into a smile. “But you’ll be meeting the Master soon enough to answer all of your questions.” Suddenly the three male servants grab Crivens, smiling all the while. “Yes, we’ll take you to him!

Crivens shrugs them off, pulls out his gun and clubs one of the servants with it. The man reels back, but the other two grab him again. Crivens’ arm is jerked around behind him, and he squeezes the trigger, unleashing a thunderous blast that deafens them all and sends a bullet tearing through the leg of the man to his right. That man shrieks and falls in agony, and Crivens grapples briefly with the remaining servant, finally clubbing him backward long enough for Crivens to leap onto the kitchen counter. He sees that he could take the exit to the outside, or go back up the inside stairs. He decides on the inside stairs and pounds up the steps, the sounds of pursuit filled with screaming and the clash of pots, pans and cutlery. It’s like they’re tearing up the kitchen in their eagerness to get at him...


David Darrow is trying to charm Miss Mars, inquiring after her start, and how she became a detective, when they all hear a loud gunshot. The Professor and Miss Mars leap to their feet (Mr. Guld never sat), and Darrow reassures them that it “was probably just one of the servants dropping another dish on the stairs. They do that occasionally, but rest assured they are disciplined for such mistakes!

Darrow tries to usher them back to their seats, but they’re having none of it. They push past Darrow into the hall. Crivens leaps through the door from the stairs, sees Yuri standing there, and shoots Yuri in the chest. Yuri drops, and as Darrow is catching the slumping body of Yuri, Crivens can see the silhouettes of other men fighting at the front doors. He calls out to the rest of the group, and Miss Mars and Mr. Guld begin to run to the exit. As Crivens makes to follow, the Professor sees a large segmented leg stab through the doorway and into the floor. Three other legs follow, and a huge globular bag of a body is hauled through the doorway on those legs, apparently in pursuit of Crivens. The very sight of the thing dims his vision, his head swims with revulsion, and he almost faints dead away from the very offense against nature embodied in the vile creature. But to the Professor, that’s comparable to reading Dostoyevsky, and so he recovers his senses with only a momentary shudder.


In the foyer, the front doors have been bashed open, and the footman and doorman are in mortal combat with three wild men wielding Indian war clubs (which are essentially battle axes). As Mr. Guld runs up, the footman is felled with a club embedded in his chest. Miss Mars stares in surprise to see the doorman wielding an 18th century spadroon with proficiency enough to keep the three attackers at bay. While they watch, he cuts down one of the attackers without missing a beat in his defense. His sword mastery is a wonder to behold.


The Professor sees the Thing scuttle-dragging its way toward Crivens, and he grabs his assistant and shoves him toward the front door. “Run!” the Professor yells, “Get out of the house! Now! Don’t look back - just run!

At this, Miss Mars pulls out her reticule pistol and shoots the doorman in the back with it. He collapses and the two Indian attackers immediately sidle into the house, circling around the party to run down the hall at the abomination. The group runs out the door, but the Professor stops and kneels down to examine the felled attacker. He wears a stone emblazoned with the sign of the coyote tied around his neck with a leather thong. While screams echo within the house, he quickly field bandages the man’s gashes and calls the stout Miss Mars over to help him bear the body aloft. They three hobble to the Victoria and climb into the back. Mr Guld and Crivens leap onto the buckboard and send the horses off at a gallop. While they ride pell-mell through the streets of Chicago, the Professor and Miss Mars interview the man. He reveals that he is an Illinek with the sacred duty of fighting the Dark. When he realizes that they’ve left the house, he objects, and only Miss Mars’ firm grip keeps him from leaping out of the Victoria to run back to the house. “We must fight the servant of Raven!” he insists. “We will, my man. We will.” the Professor soothes.

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Unfortunately, at this point, my wife lost interest in the game and we have yet to resume the campaign.

Call of Cthulhu: Chicago 1880, session four

This details the events of the fourth of five sessions we played of Call of Cthulhu back in 2012.

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A Trail of Bodies

The group agrees to call it a night and reconvene in the morning. Professor has Crivens drive Mr. Guld and Miss Mars to their respective residences, and then takes Liliana to the Livingstone residence. Both Mr. Guld and Miss Mars have had messages left for them from the Pinkerton Agency, which amounts to a summons for local agents to assist in the investigation of a series of local grisly murders. The Professor alights from the Victoria with Liliana, and then ascend the steps to the Livingstones’ front door, but no footman greets them. It is late at night, they allow, but even so, they’re taken aback at the indignity of having to bang on the door themselves. More distressing, no one answers the door for some time. The quality of servants really has diminished! Eventually, they are astounded that Mrs. Livingstone herself actually answers the door. She thanks the Professor effusively for his kindness and is delighted that Liliana has been returned safe and sound. She’s so relieved, and makes sure to invite the Professor and his man to come visit them again in daylight. The Professor bids the women good night and leaves for his apartments with Crivens at the

reins.


The next morning, the PCs all arise in their residences, ablute, dress, break fast and otherwise prepare for the day. On exiting, each

finds that a symbol has been painted onto their doors: sort of “a star with an extra slash”. In addition, Mr. Guld finds a mangled lump of flesh which he determines with close inspection was once a human hand. He points this out to Miss Mars when she arrives. They are both strangely unfazed by this, and proceed to the abode of Professor Spriggan. No mention of the severed hand is made, but the Professor has reproduced the painted symbol before they leave. They set out in the Victoria for Hendrickson’s Curiosities Emporium.


They arrive at the Emporium, which is a large house converted to a jumble shop. Each room is filled with cast-off junk in no discernible order, and various people rove about sifting through it. The Professor, an old hand at this sort of thing, immediately

dives in and starts searching. Miss Mars takes the rendition of the casket to Mr. Hendrickson, a stooped old man who is so busy buying and selling items that she must wait for some minutes to talk to him. He recognizes the design and leads her through the various rooms, apparently following a complicated map in his head, and pulls out three nearly identical little cases that match the illustration. With Mr. Guld’s help, she takes these to the Professor, who has since glommed onto a set of ‘A Historie of the Indian Peoples of the Americas,’ a multi-volume work that absorbs nearly all of his attention for the remainder of the session. Crivens attempts to assist, and he discerns that the boxes are identical except for age, which he is able to judge by the peeling of the paint, the fragility of the wood, the style of woodworking, the thickness of dust in the cracks, the number of worm holes, etc. The youngest is probably a hundred years old, which would put it at about the time of the Revolution. The oldest seems somehow heavier, almost as if it resists moving through the air. Each box is identical in the sigils painted on it and the wax sealing the lid to the body. Crivens wrestles mightily with the temptation to open one of the boxes “for the Professor,” and in the end does not.


The Professor continues to read about the sigils that were painted on their doors, and in so doing is learning about the native tribes. The Illinek were an ancient tribe, considered the enemy of the Potawatomi, the savages who lived here before the city was founded. The Illinek had a particular fondness for Potawatomi women, trying to steal them away. The Professor looks for information about the sigils. They are very similar to the ideogram for “Coyote,” patron of one of the subdivisions of the Potawatomi tribe. The Potawatomi split according to different castes, each associated with a different animal/patron god. The Raven were the leaders/rulers (as Raven is considered the father of the Potawatomi), the Trout were hunters/food preparers, and the Coyote were a warrior caste (distinct from hunters, interestingly), whose primary purpose was to protect invasion by other tribes, by either killing the invaders or capturing them as slaves. Finally, the Professor reads that the Potawatomi had another division in their tribal structure: white and black. The offspring of the Potawatomi are divided by birth order: the first born (and all odd-numbered children thereafter) is Black (associated with Raven, fatherhood, aggression and masculinity), the second (and all even-numbered thereafter) is White, associated with Malawea (the feminine ancestor from whom all Potawatomi descend, so associated with femininity, community and nurturing).


The Professor ignores all attempts to get him into conversation while he reads, but he allows Crivens to guide him around, and so he doesn’t look up until they arrive at the Livingstones’ house again. It’s now mid-afternoon, and there is still no footman. The doorman doesn’t answer the door. The group stands there, perplexed, until Mr. Guld brazens his way forward and opens the door himself. Inside they find the doorman brutally murdered, apparently with a large blade. The Professor makes sure he’s dead, and they wait a few moments to see whether the body starts moving.

Nothing.

They search the house,
finding a terrified cook hiding in the pantry downstairs, completely hysterical and incoherent. Crivens, on edge, cracks her on the head with the butt of his pistol, silencing her gibbering for the moment.

They resume searching. At the top of the stairs, they find Alexander Livingstone, also hacked to death. A trail of blood spatters leads from his body to the bedroom, where the door shows clear signs of being hacked and chopped open. Inside is the butler, also chopped and cut to death. There is no sign of Georgette or Liliana in the house.


The group briefly considers how to contact the police, but then Crivens points out that it might look suspicious if they notify the

police of the murder of Mr. Livingstone after the police were reassured just the night before that they were not involved in the

death of Mr. Drummond by none other than Mr. Livingstone himself. Instead, they leave everything as they found it and return to the

house of Dr. Deighton.


Deighton is looking a little diminished from his extreme vigor of the night before, more like he was when they first met him at the dinner party. He’s thunderstruck when he hears the news that Alexander is dead, but revives when the Professor produces the boxes. He’s fascinated that there’s more than one box, and he clearly covets them, for they represent (as he explains) the physical embodiment of the contract entered into by people and “Dark Beings,” and their efficacy is directly linked to the physical proximity (ie, possession) of the boxes. So someone who had one of these boxes would have connection and some power over the Dark Being of the contract, though of course the one or ones who actually created the contract would have the most connection. “They’re very dangerous, these contracts, of course. Not at all like the partnership I’ve entered into, which I expressly looked to form so as to avoid a servant/Master relationship (they have such a tendency to reverse so that the roles are unclear).” After that, Deighton warms his way up to inviting the Professor to join him in his partnership, and before he allows them to leave, he extracts a promise from the Professor that he will talk more about the partnership when next they meet.


The group heads to the census office, considering that the other boxes may be from other descendants of Lumiere Darrow. They find mentions of several Darrows, but only one local: David Darrow. They then cross-reference that name with local stories in the newspapers and find that David Darrow is Georgette's cousin who lives across town. Thinking that Georgette may have gone there, they set out for the Darrow residence. On the way there, the Victoria has to slow to a crawl due to heavy traffic. In the end, Mr. Crivens and Mr. Guld have to lead the horses through a thick crowd of people lollygagging at the sight of a ring of police men. The Professor and Miss Mars alight and then push their way to the cordon while Crivens and Isaac maneuver with the Victoria. The police push them back, too, until Veronica shows them her Pinkerton papers. They let her through, and they get the distinct impression that the police men are uncomfortable with what’s in the center of the ring and are eager to be shut of it. A doctor is there, examining a badly hacked and bludgeoned human body which has had the skin and a good part of the flesh of its face peeled off and removed. The Professor beats Miss Mars to the victim’s pockets, in which he finds various papers/letters suggesting he was John Stonecrow, an Indian (albeit civilized, to judge by his suit) of the Illinek tribe. Crivens and Mr. Guld arrive, having worked back through the crowd after finding a safe place to hitch the wagon. Crivens (!) recognizes the Illinek as one of the oldest native tribes, which has dwindled away over the past hundred years. They take the papers and leave the police with their crowd-control problem.


The group leaves and considers what to do next.

Call of Cthulhu: Chicago 1880, session 3

This is the account of our third session of the five sessions we've played so far of the Call of Cthulhu game, back in 2012.

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Calling on Dr. Deighton

Miss Veronica has claimed Liliana’s paperwork from Mr. Guld and looks through it as the Victoria bounces and jounces down the midnight streets. Up front, Crivens and Mr. Guld each hear the other muttering and whispering when they’re not looking. Listening more carefully after slowing the horses somewhat, Crivens is able to discern a voice declaring “The darkness is coming. The darkness is waiting. The darkness surrounds you.” As he listens, it rises in intensity. He attempts to question Mr. Guld on his meaning, but Mr. Guld is unable to make himself understood in English. Mr. Guld, meanwhile, has been hearing Crivens mutter similar phrases in French; he complains to Crivens, and the two of them each try to get the other to explain just what in blazes they’re doing, muttering about darkness on a wild midnight ride through Chicago. As they gaze at each other in bewilderment, each turns to the other and speaks distinctly and precisely in the native tongue of the listener with intense eye contact: “The darkness is coming... for you.” and then resume their resentful glowering as if nothing untoward had happened.


Just then, they arrive at Dr. Deighton’s town house. For some reason, Professor Spriggan entreats Miss Veronica to attempt to rouse the household at night, so the girl steps up and raps on the door. Dr. Deighton’s butler answers the door, Miss Veronica presents her card, and he shows the four of them (Crivens stays with the Victoria) into the front sitting room while he enquires whether the Master will see them now. Everything is comfortably familiar to the others, but Miss Veronica’s practiced eye notices something slightly off about the room, eventually determining that the shadows are so dark and the boundary between gaslight and shadow so sharp one could shave with it (figuratively speaking, of course).


The Butler reappears and escorts them to the upstairs parlor, where a shrunken, infirm husk of Dr. Deighton awaits them, shrouded in shawls and blankets, and hunched in an upholstered chair. The Professor inquires as to the Doctor’s health, while the butler leaves to fetch a brandy (“socially-acceptable-beverage-of-choice”) for him. The Doctor does admit that he’s “a bit tired” while gasping and wheezing like a torn bellows. Spriggan then questions Deighton about his knowledge of the occult in general. Deighton announces that he’s long been fascinated by the superstitions and spiritualism of primitive societies, and has devoted his spare time to their study these last few years. The Professor segues into an inquiry about the Darrow casket. The butler arrives with the brandy and then produces paper and pens for Spriggan to draw his rendition of the portrait containing the casket. As he draws, the coughing and shaking Doctor watches with interest. In particular, he’s interested in two of the sigils or runes depicted on the lid, which are “...similar to Atakapa pictograms while still bearing some similarity to Yoruba characters. Interestingly, there is some overlap...” He pulls out several battered leather tomes of unusual dimensions and flips through them to cross-reference the symbols. Professor Spriggan knows from his own experiences that such books are repositories of much arcane lore, as combinations of both almanacs, dictionaries, guide books and magic recipe lists, possibly containing incantations and rituals of a practical as well as esoteric interest (in other words, spells), and he itches to look through one himself. The wracking hacks and whistling breathing of the Doctor interrupt his reverie.


Once he regains his ability to speak, Doctor Deighton shows Spriggan a couple of places in the books that present similar symbols. “See? This one almost certainly refers to capture, or containment, or binding...Primitive people would often attempt to contact beings from Other Places, which they believed existed all around us. These beings, if drawn from their abodes to our world, would have capabilities beyond our own, and a lot of these primitive practices revolved around trying to contain such beings, and to harness them to further their own ends. The problem was, that these beings were often inimical to human concerns, and they didn’t want to be captured. Ah, you see here: this second glyph represents “ones who are abyssal” or maybe “profound” or “deep”...this is just the sort of thing I meant. This seems to refer to a kind of thing from an Other Place, a Dark Place, that is very dangerous...”


Meanwhile, outside, Crivens became aware that there were gradually more shadows than light sources on the empty streets around him. He took one of the lanterns from the front of the Victoria and walked it down the street to inspect this phenomenon. The shadows appeared to be cast by animate forms which were themselves invisible. Crivens, alarmed, performed the ward against the evil eye, spit, and the shadows accelerated away from him over to Dr. Deighton’s house, sliding up the walls to an upstairs window. Crivens ran back to the Victoria to retrieve his gun, then ran to the house and hammered on the front door.


Back in the parlor, Dr. Deighton was shuddering and wheezing, forcing our protagonists to lean in to hear him as he described his own approach: “I have investigated these sorts of contracts where you force such dangerous beings into a subservient relationship, and they’re too perilous. In my research, I’ve found other beings who are not so dark, and it’s preferable to form more of a partnership in such circumstances.” The group then observed that the room was filled with extra shadows - each person had a second shadow - and they started in alarm. But then the shadows slid across the room and wrapped around Dr. Deighton, completely shrouding him in deepest darkness. Then the shadows either burrowed into his flesh or were sucked in, as with liquid twisting down drains situated over his body. After the last of the shadows disappeared into his body, Dr. Deighton stood up energetically from his chair, stout, healthy and hale - fairly glowing with good health - “Ahh! That’s better!” The players get very nervous at this point, and beg to leave. Dr. Deighton requests and receives the Professor’s card, so that he can notify the Professor when and if he discovers anything further about the casket. The players leave with all decent haste.

Call of Cthulhu: Chicago 1880s, session two

This post continues the account of the Call of Cthulhu game we played back in 2012, with the second session. For the first session, refer to http://spaceseekerxix.livejournal.com/10062.html.

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Catching up to Liliana

Descending to the street, Professor Spriggan admonishes his assistant Crivens to take them to the Palladium, and to not drink too much. After a bit of confusion regarding the correct direction and how to hold the reins, Crivens gets them going. Miss Veronica Mars, meanwhile, has gone to the Central train station to meet with her hired muscle, Isaac Alphonse Guld, a hulking brute of a Canadian. Together they return to the Palladium to see if there's any further evidence or, perhaps, to find Liliana herself. They arrive just as Crivens pulls the Victoria to a drunken halt. The four investigators enter the theater; it is after the final show of the evening and most people have left. The limping figure of the stage manager appears, and escorts them to Liliana's dressing room. The

backstage areas of the theater are a confused warren of nonsensical chambers, corridors, stairs, portals and ladders, and they are grateful for the stage manager's guidance, as they would surely be lost in the maze otherwise. Professor Spriggan distracts the stage manager whilst Mr. Guld and Mr. Crivens rifle the dressing room. Between the two of them, they find a cache of letters, receipts, and account books, suggesting that Liliana has been ingratiating herself with various benefactors for charity donations for some time, under different names. The names suggest a number of other avenues of investigation, but they decide to try the address Mr. Livingstone gave them. On leaving the dressing room, Mr. Crivens feels a chill and looks back to see the shadows squirming at the edge of the lamplight. He spits and gives the sign of protection against the evil eye and the sensation diminishes.


Mr. Crivens and Mr. Guld ride up top, and Miss Veronica and Professor Spriggan ride inside the Victoria. They head to the address, which turns out to be an enormous apartment complex, like none they've seen before. They get a boy to watch the horses in front, and enter the building. There is a front desk, with message board and attendant, as well as an appalling cacophany of people living together in tight quarters, like chickens in a hen house. A boy is sent to announce the visitors to Miss Rutherford, who invites them up to the third floor (room 38). Mr. Crivens remains behind, expecting that Miss Rutherford will try to scarper on them. After some surreptitious snooping, he realizes that there is only one egress/exit to the whole building, which is through this one door. The windows are all too small to admit an adult body, there are no balconies, and no other doors are evident. Meanwhile, the rest of the group arrives on the third floor, feeling winded from the climb and somewhat oppressed by the din of all the people living in such scandalously close proximity. On approaching room 38, they all overhear the end of a spirited conversation between Terrence Johnstone, the landlord, and Liliana. She declines his offer, putting him off until tomorrow, using the visitors as an excuse. The PCs obligingly knock on the door. Liliana greets them warmly and invites them into her modest apartment. She introduces them to Mr. Johnstone, who is so unremarkable that they immediately begin to forget what he looks like. He exchanges pleasantries and begs his leave. Mr. Crivens arrives (somewhat winded and oppressed) just as Terrence Johnstone is leaving. Mr. Crivens sees a disturbing trail of shadows following behind the most unremarkable man he's ever seen. Though he gets no impression of Terrence himself, Mr. Crivens feels the intent scrutiny of the shadows clinging to the man, so that he spits and does the ward against the evil eye, at which point the sense of baleful inspection diminishes.


Shaken, Crivens arrives in the room just as Miss Veronica is laying it on the line: "I'm here by request of your father, Colonel Walters."


Liliana visibly deflates and catches herself in a seat at this news. Miss Veronica puts it to her that she “would be better off returning home to her family and the people who love her. Wouldn't it be better to return to the bosom of her family than to continue in uncertain virtue in this cold, unfeeling northern land, trying to scrabble for a living?"


Liliana replies, "I would rather starve than return to those people."


"But," Miss Veronica observes, "Clearly, your father misses you so, for all the money he's laid out."


"Money," Liliana replies, "Yes. My father has no shortage of money."


"Well," Miss Veronica replies, "What do you want me to tell your father?"


Liliana is amazed, "You mean, you're not going to take me back?"


Miss Veronica replies that she certainly couldn't take Miss Rutherford against her will...though she does point out that Mr. Guld certainly could. "Thank you." Liliana breathes, "I shall write a letter." She pulls out her writing kit, clears a space on her desk, arranges the paper and ink pot, and begins to write.


Meanwhile, Mr. Crivens has been snooping through the room trying to find the Darrow family casket, but there's no trace of it. Just then, the gas lamps dim and Miss Rutherford exclaims in her perturbation "Oh! Oh! The lights are dimming again! Bother!" Alert listeners hear what they believe to be the shrieking of a woman in mortal agony as the lights are dim.


"I see that you are disturbed at the noise," Miss Rutherford observes, "I was, too...at first. There's so much noise here, it can be overwhelming at times. But you do get used to it after a while." The screaming ceases and the lights recover to their usual brilliance again. After a brief pause during which Miss Rutherford resumes writing, Mr. Crivens asks her about the casket and Liliana denies any awareness of it, wishing the group luck in finding it for the Livingstones. He presses her a little further, and Miss Rutherford doesn't envy them their task, as such an item would probably be sold by a burglar for gold dollars. Professor Spriggan innocently inquires as to whether anyone would know where someone might attempt to sell such stolen goods, and Miss Rutherford allows “I am ashamed to admit that I do know of some second-hand shops, such as "Hendrickson's Curiosities" on Empire street." The Professor gallantly invites the young lady to accompany them to the shop, which she graciously accepts, as, being an actress, she is used to keeping such late hours in the evening. Miss Rutherford completes her letter, blots the ink with sand, seals it, and passes it to Miss Veronica for delivery. Then they all leave together.


On descending the claustrophobically-narrow stairs, the group alights in the lobby, where the clerk is tacking up a "Rooms to Let" sign on the bulletin board. As they traverse the lobby, Terrence Johnstone enters the lobby with a charming young lady on his arm - in fact, she's so charming that they hardly notice him at all. Mr. Crivens overhears a snippet of their conversation as they pass: "Now let me show you the rooms for rent, my dear, I'm confident you will find them most comfortable..."


The group crams into the Professor's Victoria and drive off, first to visit Dr. Deighton and thence to the curiosities shop.

Call of Cthulhu: Chicago 1880, session 1

Miss Veronica has been following the trail of Samantha Walters across many states and almost as many pseudonyms. After months of travel, she has followed Miss Abigail Thornton (nee Mary Johnson, nee Samantha Walters) to Chicago. She checked there with the local Pinkerton offices, where she found that there have been a number of missing girls recently, all recently arrived with no family to speak of, fair complected and between the ages of 17 and 25. The official assumption is that they've voluntarily left the city for a more comfortable (or less scandalous) life elsewhere. Miss Veronica has proceeded to ingratiate herself with various families, both high and low, in her quest for her "lost cousin," whose picture she carries in a locket. In trolling the dance halls (where the play H.M.S. Pinafore is all the rage), Miss Mars came to the Palladium, where one of the performers recognized the picture as that of a Miss Liliana Rutherford (Miss Mars takes this as a sign of Samantha's lack of imagination, given that the President is Rutherford Hayes), another actress in the play. Her patron is Mr. Livingstone. Miss Veronica arranges an introduction to Mr. Livingstone, and he invites her to join he and his wife in a little soiree they have planned that night before dismissing her.

Alexander Livingstone: a self-made man, Livingstone inherited only a small fortune from his father, who owned coal mines in the Appalachians. Livingstone grew that pittance into a vast fortune, first by investing in the Great Lakes canal and then by creating a variety of interwoven shipping companies that take advantage of Chicago's position as the spider lurking in the web of commerce. At 50, he is a man of fine distinction and an appreciation of the finer things in life. But as a man with pride in the city where he's lived most of his life, Livingstone is eager to promote Chicago as the seat of innovation and capital. As such he is interested in promoting both science and spiritualism in his quest. He is completely besotten with his young wife, Georgette.

Georgette Livingstone (nee Darrow):  daughter of the owner of the Chicago Tribune, Charles Darrow, Georgette met and was wooed by Alexander Livingstone as a young woman of sixteen, when many of the men had run off to fight in the War and the then-37-year-old Alexander had his pick of the pack. Georgette still strikes a stunning figure at 33. As the wife of an important figure in Chicago, she maintains a large household in the city and the country, as well as leading various civic projects for the beautification and improvement of the Shining City that is Chicago. Publicly, she is passionate and determined while remaining charmingly soft-spoken, and in private her tea parties are all the rage. She comports herself with gentility and compassion in all things, but is also prone to fads. Just now there is a particular fad in occultism.

Professor Spriggan has been invited to another one of Mrs. Livingstone's parties, for finger sandwiches, cards, and "other entertainments." He and Crivens arrive. Spriggan enjoys the Livingstone hospitality whilst Crivens lurks in the background with the servants. While not a servant himself, Crivens often finds it convenient to avoid situations where he'd have to talk and thus reveal his shameful ancestry.  Miss Veronica arrives, as do the other guests:
Barnett Drummond, the famous architect formerly of New York whom Livingstone has managed to convince to move to the west;
Francis Deighton, a noted doctor;
Liliana Rutherford, the celebrated actress;
and Madame Delphinia Barstone, the infamous medium.  They exchange light conversation over a meal (Miss Veronica is burning with impatience, while Miss Rutherford eyes her anxiously), then move to the parlor for a seance led by Mme. Barstone. The seance proceeds as normal for such affairs, by Professor Spriggan's experience, but then the gas lamps flare up, dim, and a sepulchral voice emanates from Georgette, who seems to be undergoing a slow seizure.  It begins to tell the fortunes of those present: “Your (pointing at Drummond) future will end tonight, Your (pointing at Lilianna) end is soon, You (Livingstone) will die alone and without your ill-gotten gains, You (Deighton) have made your own fortune and will reap the reward, and You, Barbara Jones (addressing Madame Barstone), will see…
the lights flicker and return to normal after Georgette screams and collapses, interrupting whatever was to come next. The men leap to her aid, Liliana (Samantha) rushes out the door with Miss Veronica in hot pursuit, and Barnett Drummond blusters for a few moments, objecting strenuously, and then expires across the table.

Miss Veronica is blocked from her pursuit by the well-meaning butler, who is concerned for the young lady's safety after hearing the screams and other commotion. Miss Veronica stomps back upstairs in an ill-temper, hoping to quiz Livingstone about Liliana's whereabouts. While Doctor Deighton steps back to chant strange foreign words under his breath (sounding something like “Itchy Chihuahua!”), Professor Spriggan does his job for him, checking to see if Drummond is alive...

Nope; he's dead. But then the body jerks and rises up just as Miss Veronica re-enters the room. The servant Jarvis attempts to assist Mr. Drummond, and Drummond's dead hand strikes him down with impunity, snapping his neck with a horribly audible crack! Drummond's body walks purposefully, and at first they think it is towards Professor Spriggan, and then toward Livingstone. But it actually appears to be focused on Mrs. Livingstone, as she screams about how "it's gone missing" and attempts to rush out of the room. The doors slams shut and Miss Veronica confirms that it cannot be opened - an intangible force is holding it fast. Crivens strikes the cadaver and it shrugs him off, turning to flip the solid mahogany table out of its way. Professor Spriggan smashes it with a chair and it is undeterred. Miss Veronica races over to the curtains, and flings them open, letting in a generous amount of moonlight and allowing her to smash out the window and crawl down the side of the building more like a monkey than a respectable young lady of good standing. The rush of moonlight coalesces around Dr. Deighton, settling on him like a shroud and
wrapping around his arms like bandages. He steps forward to confront the corpse. The gas lamps fluctuate, modulating their hiss to form ghastly sibilant speech. The voice repudiates Dr. Deighton: "Spawn of Selune, you have no business here!" The two bodies lock in sinew-popping struggle, while, outside, Miss Veronica rushes around the house to the front, where she passes through a shimmering curtain surrounding the house. She continues to flee across town, back to the Palladium, but on opening the door, she finds herself back in the Livingstones' front entrance hall.

Drummond's body continues to wrestle with the incredibly strong Dr. Deighton, and Professor Spriggan turns off the gas valves one by one as the sibilant voice (like a pipe organ driven by gas) continues:
"You can stop me now, but the Spawn of Darkur will end…" whereupon Crivens shoots Drummond's body in the head, splattering it around the room. The voice stops, the lights return to normal (except those that the Professor had extinguished), and downstairs, the curtain around the house disappears. Miss Veronica decides that discretion remains the majority of valor and forgoes a return to the crazy parlor games upstairs, opting to return instead to the Palladium. She finds the stage manager there, who reveals with a bit of persuasion that Liliana has been staying at Ma Russell's boarding house in a more disreputable (read: Irish) neighborhood. Miss Veronica goes to Ma Russell's and fast talks Ma Russell herself as to Liliana's whereabouts. Ma Russell is only too happy to gossip about that "trollop, who went off gallivanting with the 'igh-and-migh'y Mr. Alexander Livingstone himsel' (oppressor of the working man that 'e is). Why, she's even ha' 'er mail forwar'ed to 'is 'ouse!" Miss Veronica is disgruntled that Samantha Walters would be so gauche as to have an affair with Livingstone (and is incredulous that Mrs. Livingstone would stand for it), but she's especially put out that she has to return to the nightmarish Livingstone house. She was so close to finishing her job!

Professor Spriggan re-confirms that Drummond is dead, then confirms that Jarvis is dead, then goes to assist Livingstone and his wife. The police arrive and begin to investigate. Livingstone takes the inspectors aside and convinces them that none of his guests are to blame for the dead bodies. Meanwhile, Professor Spriggan converses with Mrs. Livingstone. With a little prodding, Georgette reveals that she had a sealed silver casket - a small case - that was one of several items passed down through her family for generations. It was reputed to come down from Captain Lumiere Darrow, a freebooter out of Louisiana. Like the generations before her, Georgette was importuned to always keep the casket at hand, but the Livingstones had kept it in the attic or in dusty storerooms for years. She made sure to save it from the Great Fire, but in recent years she'd forgotten about it. A few weeks ago there was a burglary - a good deal of their fancy silver was stolen, but they thought nothing else was missing. Now she fears the worst. A servant rushes to confirm that the casket is nowhere to be found. Livingstone, after the events of the evening now willing to believe his wife's superstitions, implores Professor Spriggan to find the casket and to find "my dear Liliana, who is like a daughter to me!" Spriggan asks him for details about Liliana, and Livingstone tells the story of how he and Georgette saw the production of H.M.S. Pinafore last year, went to congratulate the cast, and found themselves engaged by Liliana's bright conversation and endearing manner. They've had her over for tea numerous times, and have tried to help her in her financial difficulties, including helping her find better lodgings (she'd fallen on such hard times, she was living with the Irish!). Livingstone
provides the address of her new quarters. Professor Spriggan tells the servants to bring his Victoria around, while Crivens gets everyone a restorative drink and pockets some of the bottles of liquor as a precautionary measure. On a final note, Livingstone asks the Professor whether he knows anything about what Dr. Deighton was doing - he clearly did something to distract/delay Drummond's attack, and since Spriggan is an expert, Livingstone'd thought he'd ask, as any tools that would work in their favor would be welcome. Spriggan avers he knows nothing of Dr. Deighton's actions, but assures his friend that he will investigate further.

Call of Cthulhu: 2012

...until this year, at any rate.

In the last several years, there's been a series of popular board and card games that are also based on the Cthulhu Mythos as realized in the Call of Cthulhu role-playing game. There's Arkham Horror, which has been so successful for Fantasy Flight Games that there have been eight (that's right, EIGHT) expansions released for the game since it came out in 2005, and Elder Sign, Cthulhu-themed dice game, which came out last year. My friend Fred got so enthused playing these games the past couple of years that he said "You know what? We should try to play Call of Cthulhu!" 

After missing the deadline to run a game for DunDraCon this year (long story there, too), I was certainly ready to play something, and memories of that "one of the best game sessions ever" resurfaced. I agreed, and - somewhat to my surprise - my wife was also into the idea. So I prepared to run both of them in Call of Cthulhu starting the next Tuesday night.

When you run any game, you have to determine what the setting is going to be. Call of Cthulhu is interesting, in part because there are multiple settings that can be adapted very easily to the game. The settings are always in the game version of our real world, but can be at any point in history that has books and handguns (I suppose one could run a Call of Cthulhu game in earlier time periods, but then the creeping dread loses something - part of the horror in the game is the contrast between the succor of civilized amenities and the fell abominations lurking behind them). I couldn't decide whether to do a late 19th-century game, or a 1920s game (which is the basic setting).

In the end, I decided to do both, conceiving a campaign that would blend adventures from each decade, possibly requiring the players to rotate to new characters once the old ones became too old or infirm. So we met the following Tuesday, and starting the game in Chicago of 1880, we generated characters.

To prepare for this, I did a bit of reading about Chicago, so that I could better paint the picture by portraying what life was like there and then. It was fascinating, but, like most GM preparation, I got the most out of it as the GM.

Still, they seemed to enjoy it, too. 

Fred made Professor Trevor Spriggan. A professor of Chinese and a student and enthusiast of the developing field of Egyptology, the Professor has traveled the world to study ancient artifacts and decipher obscure tomes, scrolls and tablets. A Chicago native, the Professor is an associate and confidant of Alexander Livingstone, Chicago shipping tycoon and fan of the mysterious.

Darcy drew up Miss Veronica Mars, a native of some southern state (we don't know which, and it is impolite to inquire of a lady's background). Miss Mars has been tasked by Colonel Walters (of the Great Republic of South Carolina) to track down and return his wayward daughter, Samantha. As an employee of the grand and somewhat infamous Pinkerton Detective Agency, Miss Mars has made a name for herself for her dogged determination, certain results, and generous discretion. Colonel Walters is counting on that last, as he wants his dear Samantha returned with a minimum of scandal. Ostensibly, she is "staying with cousins in Atlanta," but that excuse is wearing thin, especially as the city of Atlanta has largely recovered from the War by now and society is beginning to reconnect with the rest of the world.

Fred is adept at Boring (a common meta-game term for generating characters), so while Darcy was allocating skill points to Miss Mars, he drew up
Mr. Gregory Crivens: an Irish man, assistant to Professor Spriggan. He left Ireland at some point in the past, and has ended up in Chicago, where he attempts to blend in with the native Irish population. The Professor honors him with what little trust he bestows. Crivens is more than capable, for a Mick. He hardly drinks at all, and his English is most comprehensible. Further, he has a network of contacts with servants, laborers and other disreputable characters that has proven useful from time to time, along with his facility with the gigantic hand cannon he carries.

As is often the case with Call of Cthulhu games, there's a good blend of characters who know Unnatural Things, and danger-worthy characters who can better withstand the Unspeakable. Typically, the studious types drive a lot of the action, as they're the ones who can find the next clues, use research to figure out what's happening, and direct the group there. Essentially, every Call of Cthulhu game is a mystery game at least as much as it is a horror game.

Where have you set your Call of Cthulhu games, if you've run any? And in which time period was it set? How many Call of Cthulhu games have you played?

The next few entries on Call of Cthulhu will be accounts of the game sessions.

Call of Cthulhu: my past

Every role-playing game ever made has a different focus; their systems are each distinct in that they each try to facilitate some particular aspect of the collaborative story-telling that is role-playing. "Paranoia" and "Toon" are designed for silliness (albeit in very distinct ways), "Rolemaster" seems designed for outrageously specific, deadly and detailed combat (to the point that it is the universal butt of jokes for its "endless charts and graphs"), "Land of Og" and "Kobolds Ate My Baby" are meant for brief tongue-in-cheek games, "Hong Kong Action Theater" is meant for lots of very stylish action, and so on.

"Call of Cthulhu" is about descending into madness. "Call of Cthulhu" was originally the title of a short story by a little-known author named Lovecraft. One of the main reasons that you've heard of Lovecraft - assuming you have - is because the 1970s saw a resurgence of interest in the author, similar to but much smaller in scale the rediscovery of Tolkein's work in the previous decade. Authors in particular were tickled by Lovecraft's singular take on science fiction: a blending of incomprehensible alien technology and the supernatural in order to evoke a sense of creeping dread and inevitable doom. Authors in the 70s did a lot of homages to Lovecraft's writing, and these were popular enough that the game company Chaosium decided to publish a role-playing game. They worked with the estate and licensed the name "Call of Cthulhu" for their product, and this ended up making Lovecraft's work even more widely known.

The game mechanics are simple, with very little focus on rules for movement, maneuvering, attacks or damage, building fortifications, character generation, character advancement, or the like. In fact, the portion of the rules that covers these aspects of the game - which in another game would be the majority of the rules - is about eight pages long. The thing that makes Call of Cthulhu unique is its new mechanic: the character resource of sanity. In addition to hit points or stamina - resources just about anyone knows - each character has a finite amount of sanity. Every exposure to anything shocking or weird reduces that amount, and when the character runs out of sanity or loses too much sanity in a short period of time, the character will go insane. The rules for insanity are at least four times as long as all the rest of the rules combined, and that's still only about a third of the book: the remainder is crammed with information about the things creeping in the darkness which Man Was Not Meant To Know...basically, ideas for things that would erode PC sanity.

It's a cute mechanic, and a very compelling premise for a game. One of the best role-playing gaming sessions I've ever experienced was a gargantuan Call of Cthulhu game as the DunDraCon convention in 1993 or 1994. It shouldn't have been a great game; it shouldn't have even been a satisfactory game, since the organizers had set so many obstacles to success. They had one GM (which is Call of Cthulhu is called a Keeper) with two assistants, they were playing at a makeshift round table at the end of a hallway (not even in a room) in front of the hotel doors leading out to a patio, the game involved an incredibly intricate plot involving three different factions of NPCs, combating villains, and a terrorist attack on a nuclear power plant. Worst of all, there were more than twenty players who registered for the game - more than half of whom (like me) had never ever played the game before - and several more arrived to "drop in" as the game started. But it was incredible: these guys managed to pull it off in such a way that every single one of us players was delighted with the experience, though only three characters survived and two of them were completely insane by the end. The guy running the game truly was a Master at the craft, and I left that convention convinced that Call of Cthulhu was an incredible vehicle for making astounding stories to shock and amaze anyone. 

I talked it up so much that, a year or two later, a bunch of friends and I signed up to all play a big Call of Cthulhu game at DunDraCon together. That, in comparison, was one of the worst role-playing game sessions I've ever attended - one of only two games where I actually walked out of the session and didn't go back. My friends ribbed me about this for years afterward, and it was hard to generate any enthusiasm for Call of Cthulhu again after that. Of course, I should've known that the GM has much more effect than the system on whether a game works or not, and I had had plenty of clues that this particular GM was bad news (in the GM briefing before the start of the con, this particular GM complained that Roderick had reduced his game length to "only twelve hours") but I'd ignored them in my enthusiasm.

I licked my wounds for a long time after that, and I soon realized that there was no way that my friends were ever going to venture to try Call of Cthulhu at a convention again. So I had to do it myself. I got a copy of the rules, I worked to flesh out some ideas, and I prepared a session for Andy, Dan and Fred - the guys who were my regular Space Seekers gaming buddies at the time. I talked them into it, and we set a date for the game. Fred mentioned that he thought some friends of his from work might like to join us, and I said that was fine. Game night came around, and something in excess of twelve people arrived, many of whom were strangers to me. I was overwhelmed and the group had a very hard time focusing - it was more a party than a gaming group - and the game never got off the ground.

That was the last time I tried to run or play Call of Cthulhu.

A note about Space Seekers

An aside: while I was moping in the fifth grade and first discovering Dungeons & Dragons, two older boys named Dan and Jim were also trying it for the first time. I met them many years later, but at the time (1981?) role-playing was new to them, too. They tried D&D and didn't care for it - it was long, poorly organized, overly complicated, focused too much on combat, and, worst of all, the rules got in the way of what they really wanted to do: tell cool stories about other worlds. So they started The Game.

Liberally incorporating elements from all kinds of science fiction books, TV shows and films, The Game involved the players being Recruited from Earth by a interstellar force of warriors whose goal was the promotion of peace and safety for the galaxy. In this way, the players could play themselves, rather than a created character with artificial background and motivations, thrust into a new world and dangerous situations. It was a cross between The Last Starfighter, "Star Blazers", and the "Legion of Super Heroes," and it came to be called Project: Space Seekers, after the initial project that the scientist Zatazan created to make amends for some of the villains he had unwittingly released on the galaxy. Each player had a fairly standard experience at the start of the game: initial abduction, figuring out what's going on, getting some training, experimenting with advanced-technology equipment (almost everyone in The Game has had the experience of flailing out of control while tearing through the sky on rocket boots, which was imitated in the "Iron Man" movie), then meeting more senior Space Seekers while combating some villain or other inimical threat. The other novel thing is that it has been diceless from the very beginning more than thirty years ago, almost certainly making it the first diceless (it also does not use cards or other randomizers) RPG ever.

I wasn't Recruited into Space Seekers until 1992 or 1993, but by that time Space Seekers had already developed one of the most involved and compelling sets of stories of any role-playing game I've ever seen or heard. It's only improved since then. I'll write more snippets of some of my favorite sessions here, both recalling past greats and recording more recent adventures. But it's also important to keep in mind as you read about other games in this journal, as everyone who has ever played The Game for any length of time finds it colors all of their gaming afterward.

Finally, you can read more about Project: Space Seekers here: http://spaceseekers.com (though mostly you can gape at the galleries, which contain a very small sampling of Dan's artwork of The Game).

Role-playing vs. RPG-ing

Recently, I've felt I had to distinguish between different kinds of RPG games on my iPhone. I hope to start reviewing them in this space soon, but suffice it to say, I have a bunch of games I enjoy that can generally be called RPGs. But they're quite disparate: 100 Rogues, The Quest, and Dungeon Raid are all RPGs of sorts, but they are very, very different games. So I've labeled them as Roguelike, Role-playing, and RPG-like, respectively, and each category has several other similar games that join those in their respective "folders" on my iPhone. This need to distinguish between different varieties of role-playing games on my mobile device has also got me thinking about the distinction between electronic role-playing games and the tabletop games which inspired them (at least initially).

So, in an arbitrary way, I've come to think of "role-playing" as connoting more of an interactive experience in which you as the player can have more of playing a character/role that develops over time, and "RPG-ing" as more of a mechanical experience where you are looking to explore and improve stats, because your sense of a character is limited to a set of numbers. That distinction divides quite neatly along tabletop and electronic lines, incidentally. Note that neither definition mentions story, though I believe that story is a necessary element for a real role-playing game (and that's why "Dungeon Raid" is labeled "RPG-like" on my iPhone). Story is not mentioned because story can be engaging in both "role-playing" and "RPGs;" the distinction is really about the manner of engagement with the character.

Both forms start with the tabletop games, of course, going back to the beginning of modern role-playing games: the Chainmail supplement and Dungeons & Dragons which grew out of it. When I was a kid in grade school, academics came very easily to me, and I did so well that by fourth grade the school district informed my folks that I was eligible to attend "Gifted and Talented Education" (the acronym GATE) at another school. My parents eagerly accepted and I was shipped away from all my friends for fifth grade. Only one element of the academics of GATE do I remember now: a science period in which I demonstrated the expansion of gases to the class by shooting carrots across the room using the bunsen burners installed in the classroom. But five non-academic things stick out for me from that year at GATE: the novel aggravation of having to ride a bus across town to school (this was the first but not the last time, of course: I continued to ride the bus to school, on and off, for the next eleven years), taking part in the school play, the weirdness of having combined classes (sharing the classroom with the fourth-graders), sex education (I don't remember any of the actual education, but I remember the nervous hilarity of the whole set-up, what with the genders separating to go watch ancient film-projected movies. In retrospect, it's weird that we did this at all, because we got formal sex ed again in high school), and Dungeons & Dragons.

See, there was this quiet kid - I have no idea what his name was now, but let's call him Allen - who kept to himself during recess and read books from this red box that he carried around with him. This was, of course, the D&D Basic Set, which both introduced the concept of role-playing-as-entertainment to the world, and explained how to create, adventure, and level characters from 1st to 3rd level. I didn't interact with Allen much before this, but I found myself drifting over and sitting with him on the aluminum benches he frequented, and absorbing the early role-playing game concepts. So then I had some idea what was going on when I later visited my friend Russell (though I went to a different school now, I tried for some time to maintain my friendships with the kids I'd known since kindergarten who lived in my neighborhood) and we went over to see Kenny. The three of us then went over to Jeff's house, joined by Jimmy. Jeff was running a Dungeons & Dragons game. It was a weird experience. Kenny, Russell and I had been the Three Amigos since kindergarten, yet now they had this intimate, shared experience of role-playing with Jimmy and Jeff, kids who had always struck me as a little weird before. The game was weird, too, because Jeff had, like all DMs before and since, had to deal with players who just didn't get it and couldn't see the clues in front of their faces. His solution was novel, however: each player had a guardian angel he could call on a certain number of times each session, who would come down (in the form of Jeff taking the kid aside into his room) and explain exactly what the character should do next. Yes, there were spells in the game rules, but this talk of angels was alarming: the first mention of the supernatural/spiritual in my experience of role-playing. I hadn't been asked to join the game - going to another school, I was now the outsider and was only allowed to watch that one session - and that was the last of it for some time.

But on a shopping trip with my mom some time later - it could even have been the following summer - we happened across a copy of the Basic Set in the clearance bin at either BEST or Service Merchandise (both chains long out of business now) and I managed to scrape together enough allowance (with a loan from my mom) to pay the $5 to get it. I took it home and read through the books again and again, paying particular attention to "The Keep on the Borderlands" (an introductory adventure that TSR included in the box). "The Keep on the Borderlands" is a terrible adventure: there's no role-playing hooks in it at all, and no attempt at explaining how the ravine was filled with so many caves, let alone how so many different monsters have come to live in all those caves in such close proximity. It's really just an excuse to test the combat mechanics of D&D in a variety of ways unthinkable in many other role-playing games (even versions of D&D from 3rd edition onward), and this was necessary because the Basic Set really only presented combat mechanics for the characters and little else; players needed to buy the Dungeons & Dragons Expert Set (covering levels 4-14) to get information about role-playing, reaching name level, attracting followers, traveling between locations, building a stronghold, and designing a game campaign. Around this time, my parents visited another of their MENSA friends, and I was intrigued to see that she had obviously been playing D&D: she had a collection of Dragon Magazine issues in her house, and polyhedral dice. She encouraged me to look at the stuff. I was shy about expressing my own interest, but was encouraged and excited to know that adults played the game, too.

Here my memory gets a little hazy: these things happened at approximately the same time, in my mind: I started seventh grade (sixth grade I'd insisted to my parents to be returned to my original school, only to be disappointed: the cliques broken by my leaving had reformed without me, and I never really fit in with my old friends again. So sixth grade was spent with me resentfully building up my skills in Butt's-up as an outlet, taking the lead in the school play, and falling into at least one crush), I bought the Expert Set, I bought Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, I started hanging out with Fred, we started gaming. At school I was still playing a lot of Butt's-up (we had three free-standing handball walls on the playground, and I would run games with up to seventeen tennis balls and/or racquetballs on those courts with half the boys at recess), but often after school we'd talk role-playing. Fred had been going to the same school as me since kindergarten, but we'd never really spent much time together until seventh grade. He'd run in different circles: he'd been in scouts and little league while the rest of us boys were running around in a pack in the neighborhood between Columbus and Hillview. But his year away at GATE changed him, too: forging him into another outcast, another kid bewildered by his outsider status after just one year. Or so it seemed to me. You'd have to ask him. But however it was, we hit it off when he came back: we had shared amusement at the weirdness of GATE (he's told me that he had an additional weirdness: the kids at GATE all told him he reminded them of me), we didn't have a strong clique, and we both enjoyed role-playing games. So there was social connection tied up with gaming, too. Another draw was the connection with fantasy. In sixth grade, the school started to split the classes up for different subjects; at a set time each day, I was sent with a group of others to Mrs. Rice's seventh grade class to do the English curriculum. It was at the end of one of these sessions that Mrs. Rice pulled me aside and handed me "A Spell for Chameleon," assuring me that I "would like it."  I did like it (though I've since thought it a little weird for a teacher to peddle that book), and it was my very first fantasy novel. Before then, I hadn't really read any science fiction, either (though I was crazy about it, as every boy who grew up during the 70s was), and I'd been playing a fantasy game without really knowing any of the tropes from the fiction.

We played a lot, Fred and I, and since he was an older brother, we got Ben as captive and willing participant in most of our games, too. There were others that came and went in our games: Frankie and Richard spring to mind, but mostly it was just Fred, Ben and I. We were happy with that RPG aspect of gaming: exploring, fighting, sometimes figuring out solutions to puzzles or traps, and (at least in theory) gaining experience to increase our stats. We did all the goofy immature things that every kid does with RPGs in the beginning: riding on Tenser's Floating Disc, trapping enemies with chained dimension doors (I was mystified at the huge amount of praise for "Portal" a few years ago: the game was fun, but in a very nostalgic way. There was certainly nothing particularly innovative in the concepts. I mean, didn't everybody use magic gates in exactly the same ways, playing RPGs in their youth?), conveniently ignoring encumbrance rules to carry "just another twelve iron spikes and a 10' pole," poring through the treasure tables at the back of the AD&D Monster Manual, creating random dungeons with the AD&D Dungeon Master's Guide so we could play "solo," generating character after character to "test-drive" how each would feel/perform...

It probably wasn't until high school that I started really getting interested in the role-playing aspect of the game, or creating interesting campaigns of my own (rather than just playing a series of modules). One of the many distractions (school, girls, reading, TV shows, cross-country running, tennis, watching "Doctor Who" and other science fiction shows on TV) was actually other role-playing games. It got so I read new game systems as much as played any of them.

Some were better suited to role-playing than others, with some games clearly oriented toward RPG-ing. I particularly enjoyed reading and running games in "Paranoia," which I started to run in official games at PacifiCon the first year I went and continued to run at every convention well into my 30s.

That's a small slice of my story, and I may tell more in future.

There's something marvelous about the shared experience of storytelling, and playing a tabletop role-playing game (whether it is oriented toward role-playing or RPG-ing) really facilitates this sort of shared experience. I have many friends that I would never have befriended (and many of whom I would never have met) if not for role-playing. I love role-playing, though I haven't been able to do much in recent years. I'm trying to change that, and you'll probably read about it here.

The Myth of Casual Games

You've all heard of "casual games," but what are they? Does "casual games" extend to online games like Zynga games on Facebook, or is the term applicable to just video games that involve "match 3" mechanics? If you're like me, you have problems knowing what people mean when they talk or write about "casual games." But that's OK, because the term is meaningless.

The video games industry - by which I mean the "big players" like EA, Ubisoft, Sony, Microsoft and the gaming press that writes about video games - were horrified a few years back when PopCap created a thunderstorm with Bejeweled (and since then, with Zuma, Bookworm, Peggle and Plants vs. Zombies), and they all rushed to dismiss "that kind of game" by labeling it as somehow something separate from the real games they made and/or were interested in; that is to say, they created the name "casual games," as if to say a person couldn't get just as invested in Bookworm as with a game that took millions of dollars to create like "Gears of War 3" or the latest NFL crap from EA (sorry, my own bias against sports games here). It's not a real game, it's a casual game: something you might play when a real game isn't available. But that's just not true, and hopefully everyone realizes it. "Casual games" is both useless and insulting as a label for games. You may have sunk hundreds of hours into leveling your character in Castle Age, the thinking goes, but it's just a casual game. You see how stupid that is? 

"Casual" is a term that can describe the attitude of the player playing it, but it's not an objective term that can be applied to any game.  Anyone can be indifferent and uninterested in a game, playing it to pass the time, no matter what the game is. I've played a lot of "Halo" over the years - and "Halo" is a game that people rabidly love as one of the best first-person shooters ever made - but for me, I couldn't care much less whether I play it or not. It literally is a way to pass the time, and not something that I get very engaged in (though I do appreciate the improvements that "Halo" introduced in target-finding/assist over previous console shooters). I have even less interest in the Nintendo 64 game "GoldenEye," which is another Best. Game. EVER. contender for many, many people (I thought of it because it doesn't have that assist that "Halo" introduced, and so I found it frustrating as well as drab, featureless and uninspired). On the other hand, people can get rabidly competitive about games that others debate can even be called games, like Double Fine Happy Action Theater. I know at least two people who get completely bent out of shape with how important it is for them to succeed in this game. Can either one then be categorized as a casual game? No, not really. No game can, because some people with love it and others will be indifferent and still others will hate it.

"Casual games" is a term most often applied to games from companies like PopCap: games with a high degree of random chance that determines the order or frequency of objects in the game which then must be manipulated in one way or another, be they gems, letters or zombies. The problem is that calling such games "casual games" is to call all the arcade games ever made "casual," and perhaps even the first twenty years or so of video games. What difference is there, really, between Missile Command and Zuma, aside from subject matter? Mortal Kombat and Bookworm Adventures are surprisingly similar (the big difference is that Bookworm Adventures is turn-based), but no one would call Mortal Kombat or Missile Command "casual games."

When I was a kid, it was a known fact that anyone could learn Assembly language, gather some donations from friends and family, and manufacture and market a game he wrote himself, and people would buy it, play it and enjoy it (or not). Let's not forget that most of the big game companies today all got their starts from just such enterprises. id Software made its impact through self-publishing shareware. Ubisoft was started by a teenager who thought "I could make a zombie game!" and roped his family members into starting a company with him. Most of the older game studios have similar stories. What's the problem, then? Why can't people remember that games are games, and one isn't more worthwhile than another? In a word: graphics.

In many ways, the video game industry drives both the computer and consumer electronics industries. That's a bigger point, and one which I hope to explore in a later post. Suffice it to say that most development of electronics technology that is incorporated into consumer devices either comes from government-funded NASA or military research, or from video games. So let's talk about video games, since I know a bit more about that.

Video games are constantly evolving and advancing. The thing is, there is no need for this beyond a business case. That is to say, we as humans could enjoy games like "Space War," "Pong," or "Combat" just as much today as we did when they were new. Humanity has not evolved a higher sensibility that requires a different kind of game to satisfy. The reason that games change is that there is a business need to keep selling products. The easiest way to do this is to sell new video game systems: with new video game systems, people are forced to buy new video games to go along with them. That keeps money on the table for game professionals, so they can feed their families and afford health care and the like. Sometimes it even makes a profit! But for that to work, there has to be a reason for the consumer to want to buy a new game system, when they've been perfectly happy playing "Pong" and "Space War" up until now. Put simply, the game industry has to create a desire for the new hardware. That's difficult, though: "Pong" and "Space War" are great games, and people could play them for their whole lives, the way they do baseball or hockey, tennis or lacrosse. So not only does the game industry have to create desire for new game hardware, it has to make that desire more powerful than the enjoyment of the games the consumer is already playing. How do you do that? You have to convince the consumer that the new games are somehow better than the existing ones.

What can you improve to convince consumers that the new games are better? Well, you can improve the complexity of the story and/or setting of the game...and early video games did this with the creation of text adventure games. But after a certain point, you're not going to be sure to be able to write a better story than what has come before. Those Infocomm games were pretty great, in terms of story, and beyond a certain binary consideration (is there a story? Yes/No), quality in story is very subjective. So that's iffy at best as a goad for consumers to buy newer games. You can improve the sound in video games, up to a point. "Doom" and "Myst" both were lauded for their immersive sound effects when they were released. But again, you quickly hit that subjective barrier: is the orchestral soundtrack to Wing Commander 3 any less good than the orchestral soundtrack to World of Warcraft: Cataclysm? Only if you like the style of one over the other, because even though eighteen years separate the two games, you can't really evolve orchestral scores or improve music in an objective or quantifiable way. You can improve the mechanisms for control and/or game input, and that is done...occasionally. Historically, though, it's a hard sell, and often backfires more often than not. The manufacturers put a lot of effort into developing a new controller, say, and then it's at least as likely to bomb and to succeed in enticing new game purchases. No, the most efficient way to increase desire for new games is through the graphics. Humans are largely visually oriented; our sight is our dominant sense and the primary way we perceive the world around us. As such, our sight is refined to the point that we can make precise distinctions and judgments about the things we see, and it predisposes us to be impressed if a product "looks better." 

So with game hardware, the development of new graphics chips actually often takes precedence over the computing processor, because in many ways, the improvements we see in game (and other) software from one year to the next are often in very little other than the graphical presentation. The primary difference between "Gears of War" and "Time Crisis" is the graphics (which is not to say that there aren't other, more minor differences in sound and story, too): both are one- or two-player games where the player wanders through the game, aiming and shooting at bad guys and taking cover from return fire to reload. Is Gears of War better than Time Crisis? Most would say a resounding "Yes!" (and I would agree), but that's primarily because of graphics. Mechanically, the games really are VERY similar. But Gears of War "looks better," so it's more immersive, even though aiming in "Time Crisis" is more naturalistic and intuitive (using a gun controller). Gears of War looks better, so I'm better able to suspend my disbelief and feel like I'm "there" in the game.

Graphics are easy to quantify: it either looks the same, less like real life, or more like real life. So every video game manufacturer advertises the graphics for their product, whether it is a game, an expansion, an update, or a new console. New consoles primarily exist as platforms for introducing better graphics chipsets, because better graphics sell games, and developers quickly reach the limit of how much they can easily improve graphics on existing hardware. That is to say, developers can continue to improve graphics using existing chipsets (up to a point - you couldn't get a game that looked like "Oblivion" on an Atari 5200 no matter how long you worked on it), but each improvement takes more and more development time. It's much easier to provide hardware updates to keep the graphics improvements coming at a fast pace. But that means that you have this whole idea of console "generations" - each console company has to release new hardware roughly at the same time as the others or risk being left behind as all the consumers abandon their existing games to go for the prettiest graphics on the newest hardware. So they're all trying to incorporate new graphics chips into hardware first, while making sure that they have enough games software to take advantage of the new graphics capabilities to make the new purchase a compelling one for the consumer before they "launch" the new system. So there's a ton of pressure for the game companies to constantly create prettier games, for the console companies to make machines that can provide prettier graphics, for chip manufacturers to continually improve chips to enable better graphics processing, for monitors and TV manufacturers to make new screens with higher resolution (or "innovations" like 3D viewing) to support better graphics, for ISPs to provide more bandwidth for these bigger games (better graphics require more code), for storage manufacturers to make larger and faster hard drives, optical disks, flash drives, RAM, and so on. The list starts with graphics and cascades from there through the entire electronics industry, driven by the need to improve graphics in video games. 

So imagine that you work in some area of consumer electronics. Your life and livelihood are, to greater or lesser degree, dependent on this cycle of improving graphics for video games, because the whole industry is built around and operates on that fundamental assumption. Imagine then that someone comes along and makes a game that would look at home on an Atari ST, circa 1987. So what? you think. Amateurs are everywhere, and more power to them. Everybody has to start somewhere. But imagine further that this game, with the "crappy 1987-era graphics," gets played by millions of people around the world and outsells nearly all of the releases of the current "generation" of gaming hardware. That makes no sense, right? But we've got "Bejeweled," exactly as I've just described. It doesn't use 3D hardware graphics acceleration, cel-shaders, lens flare, real-time lighting effects, or any of the other folderol that they've created to accompany the last several generations of graphics chips. But people play it. Massively. Constantly. By the millions. If you're working in an industry that is built around the assumption that graphics improvements are necessary to drive growth, you've got one of two reactions: either this is an anomaly, or the whole premise that you've been operating under for years is wrong. Clearly, the game industry has chosen the first option. At first, reactions to Bejeweled were that it was a fluke, and it was dismissed, even though it did monster business. Then others started imitating Bejeweled and made other games just as compelling that did not have all the graphical engines that require teams of developers working fourteen months straight to develop, and these sold, too. What the heck was going on? The game industry people had to wonder, and they had to be worried. If people started choosing games that didn't require better graphics (and better hardware, and software, and media, and so forth), the industry would be in danger. So they had to do damage control, and the damage control they hit upon was to create a different, somewhat contemptuous category for such games...called "casual games." 

This approach has worked...to an extent. There is a lot of user contempt for games that are called "casual" these days, to the point where consumers actually berate and belittle themselves for wasting so much time on such a "trifling game," and people talk about addiction when playing "casual games" for a couple of hours in a day, in a way they don't talk about it if they played "Modern Warfare" for that same amount of time. The behavior is the same, but the attitude has been subtly affected, in part by the label of "casual games." But at the same time, game companies have realized that the strategy of marginalizing these games has not fully worked, so they've attempted to absorb them. Electronic Arts, one of the biggest game companies, is an example. In 2007, EA split its operations into four distinct divisions, each with a different charter. One was The Sims, another was EA Sports (both of those make sense, as distinct sub-genres of video games that EA sells), one was EA games, and the last was EA Casual Entertainment. What the distinction is between the products of these latter two is unclear, but it is certainly clear that EA wishes to strengthen the concept that "casual games" are distinct from "real games," indeed somewhat lesser, to the point that the "casual games" division doesn't even have "games" in the title! "They're not real games," this seems to suggest, "They're not even really games at all! They're something else entirely. So play them if you like, but keep buying our new games. Did you know that we've improved facial animations on the characters in this one for even more realism?"

Games are games are games, folks. It doesn't matter if you go back and play cartridges on your old Atari VCS (before they even called it the 2600): "Haunted House" is just as much a game worthy of your respect and enjoyment as "Skyrim." There's no such thing as a "casual game."