Thursday, March 28, 2013

The smartest Investigators in the room.

Colin Powel once said - Surround yourself with people who take their work seriously, but not themselves, those who work hard and play hard.

It's very true. Good players will make you a better keeper, and if your writing your own scenarios, a better writer. They'll keep you honest, call you on your shit, and make you write outside of your comfort zone. You'll love players like this and you'll want to impress them, because they challenge you as an artist. When you find a player like that, it's an amazing moment. I've been lucky enough to find more than my fair share of such players, but today I am going to talk about one in particular.

Dr. Ryan Roth, the smartest investigator in the room.

Yes, he's a doctor, a physical engineer. I sort of know what he does for a living but it's hard to wrap your head around. He's one of those guys who's going to perfect the artificial intelligence that'll start the robotic rebellion that ends humanity. Yeah, he's one of THOSE guys. He’s a super-nerd, made in a libratory out of the parts of lesser nerds. He's also one of the best friends, who I love like a brother.

We met across the Keeper's screen, playing Call of Cthulhu at a six week gaming event called Gotham Gaming Guild. I was running Tales of the Sleepless City, a campaign set in 1920's New York. He was playing Theodore Caldwell III, a lawyer and political activist. We played, "A Family Way" (a great game which I'll probably NEVER publish due to serious content) and moved onto "The Tenement" (which is now published by Miskatonic River Press, part of their Tales from the Sleepless City book).

I won't give away any spoilers, but let’s just say there comes a time in that scenario where the war between the investigators and the bad guys is getting very heated. Then, the bad guys seem to blink; they invite the investigators for a sit down and a non-violent resolution to the issue. They are willing to give the players what they want, and a way out of the war between them.

In this game all the investigators were by then terrified. They were ready to leap at this offer, end the conflict and save their lives. All but one... Theodore Caldwell. Ryan calmly said, "No, we can't do this" and everyone stopped to listen. He made a dignified, passionate argument that this wasn't about one building, but exposing a slum lord to public scrutiny. He said it was about knocking down his house of cards, dragging all his dirty secrets and dealing into the light of a court of law.

Everyone was silent, including me. The players all took a deep breath and followed his lead. They rejected the meeting and continued the war. They won, but not without casualties. The meeting was a trap, and Theo kept them from walking into it. They finished the war, on their terms, not their enemies.

I'd never seen such a powerful moment at a Call of Cthulhu game, before or after. There wasn't even a monster or combat involved. Theo was fighting against fear, fighting to raise the moral of a group of completely demoralized investigators who just wanted to survive the scenario at that point. But he showed them that survival was less important than doing what was right and making a difference. Not for any reward or recognition, but for the greater good. Theo is a true hero, and I was proud to write him in as an NPC to the published version of the scenario.

Ryan and I have been friends every since. I've probably invited him to every single call of Cthulhu game I've even written since then. He's smart, very smart, and it's often difficult to challenge him in scenarios. But it's something I strive for, because that’s the art, the dance, the relationship between players, keepers and scenario writers.

Countless players across the world owe Dr. Ryan Roth their thanks from the streets of 1920's Arkham to the sewers of Ancient Rome. Good players make better keepers, and better writers.

Thank you Dr. Ryan Roth. Ia Ia


Tuesday, March 26, 2013

The Murder of Mateo Luna

For years people had told me I should be writing down my adventures and trying to get them published, but I just didn’t have the confidence to try.  If you try, and fail, your dream is dead.  If you never try, you never fail, and your dream never dies.  It’s kinda emo, and a total cop-out loser philosophy; but it’s one I had all through my 20’s.

When I got a little older two major things changed.  I stopped playing AD&D 2nd Edition, because 3rd edition came out and I WAS NOT buying all those freaking books again.  I started playing Call of Cthulhu as my main RPG.   The other major change in my life was entering the world of Medieval Reenacting.   Yes, for several years I got dressed up in medieval garb, ate weird food, became an archer, fought in a reenactment of the battle of Hastings (as a Saxon Archer, we lost, again… L  )  I stormed castles, shot arrows, became the Baron of Tyre, a royal Seneschal and the Captain of Archers. I was known as Mateo Luna. 

The thing that I am most proud of during my life as Mateo Luna was bardcraft.   I entered the bardic guild, quickly rising through the ranks to become a master bard, and then the Master of the Bardic Guild.  I didn’t sing, or play music, like other bards.  I was just a story teller.  Bardcraft came easy to me, in the classic Celtic sense.  Bards were part of the Druidic Faith; they were the voice, living history and spirit of their people.  They were guides and teachers, the living connection between the three worlds.  It was taboo to harm a bard, for fear what they could do to your reputation with satire.  A bard could turn a warrior into a king, and a king into a mythical figure.  I loved being a bard, I learned how to tell a story, how to hold an audience, how to pace things, and I started writing my own stories and satires. Dressing in a full length tunic, telling an ancient celtic story to a packed hall lit by hundreds of candles was magic, and several times I felt the power of the ancient druidic faith flowing through me.   I guess most artists feel that way when they are in the zone.

But few, if any, found bardcraft as interesting as I did.  For many the re-enactment group was a place to socialize, to put on armor, grab a stick wrapped in duck tape and beat on people weaker than themselves.  The group had a lot of bullies, both intellectually and physically.    For example, I had prepared for weeks to take my bardic trials, which had to be judged by the three sitting masters.  One of the three masters left the event early after he spent several hours fighting in armor.  He just left… sorry Mateo, I got better things to do... maybe next event.  

Then the end came.   I was at an event, telling a story.  The room was filled with people, many of whom had spent the day fighting mock battles.  One woman, a stocky fighter bigger than most of the men at arms, began talking louder and louder at her table.  She was drunk, stinking and unwashed from her battle, and angry.  Soon she was yelling across her table, and then yelling at me, telling me to tell my story more quietly because the people at her table were trying to have a conversation. 

If we were going by the rules she would have NEVER DARED do such a thing to a bard.  I should have written the worst, more horrific parody of her for the next event, shaming her and tarnishing her name for all time.  But she was a “fighter” and the group would have never allowed it.  She was “important”, I was not.   To this day it makes me angry, as a bard I curse her name, even though I no longer remember it.  I still think of that horrific, disgusting woman, screaming drunkenly at me in her dirty stinking tunic. She remains one of the most revolting people I have ever encountered in my entire life.  Bards are trained to feel, everything around them, deeply, to be raw nerves and open to the world around them even at the emotional cost to their own well being.   I left the group and medieval reenactment altogether, shortly thereafter.  Baron Mateo Luna was dead; there was no place in the Kingdom of Acre for me any longer.

But I’d learned so much.  I was a bard, spiritually connected to the cosmic forces of creation.  In my heart I’d always be a bard, I had stories to tell and lessons to teach.  I started writing, in a serious manner, and was soon publishing Call of Cthulhu scenarios.  I never lost the bards love of history, the art and magic of storytelling or the importance of teaching through my art.  I stopped being Mateo Luna, I started being Oscar Rios, I never gave up thinking of myself as a Bard.

Friday, March 22, 2013

Growing, Brewing, Cooking and the Call of Cthulhu

So I need a break today after a busy week of editing. 

I decided to set up the seedling boxes for my family’s backyard garden.  Last year we got seedling, but the choice was limited.  This year I picked up the seeds, boxes and soil to do it myself.  I got sweet Spanish onions, two types of tomatoes and two types of peppers.  My wife asked about cucumbers and zucchini, but I don’t really like those vegetable so they weren’t even on my radar. It was nice and relaxing, working with the soil, counting out the seeds, watering everything and finding a sunny spot for it all in the front window to let nature do it’s magic.  It got me thinking.

I like plants, always have, since I was a child.  I own a spider fern; I’ve probably had it for most of my life.  It’s from a cutting of my mother’s spider fern, which is a plant older than I am.  Those things never die, if you take care of them.  Water, soil, sun, it’s a peaceful thing caring for plants. It’s not quick, or flashy, but I really like it.  It’s comforting, Zen I guess. 

I’m passionate about other things too, like coffee.  I own a coffee maker, but I only use it for big gatherings.  No k-cups for me.   I have a well stocked coffee corner, with mason jars of beans, a grinder and a French press coffee maker.  Every morning I grind my beans, get the water to a rolling boil, let everything brew slowly before depressing the plunger and finally enjoy a few really good cups of coffee.  For me it’s a beautiful ritual, like a Japanese tea ceremony.  It slows you down, makes you really appreciate that cup of coffee.

Then I was thinking about the plants I'd chosen, onions, peppers, tomatoes… and realized I'd unconsciously chosen the ingredients of another of my passions, making Chili. It took me years to perfect the art, and it is an art.  Not from a can, not from a package of mixes, but honest, homemade chili.  Yeah, I use beans, I’m an easterner and that’s how we make it here. It takes a LONG time to make, cutting, browning, mixing, chopping, seasoning and slooooow cooking.  I stir every 15 minutes, for 3-4 hours, after about 90 minutes of just getting everything into the pots.  No two batches are every the same. I am very proud of my chili.

At that point, something dawned on me… 

My last edits were harder than usual, because my editor wanted me to add a big shocking gross out scene early in my scenario. I didn’t want to argue about it, but neither did I want to add it.  I’ve played scenarios that start with explosions; my friend Dan Harms wrote one like that which I was lucky enough to be a play-tester for.  Those scenes are great, effective, enjoyable… but that’s not how I do things.

My scenarios start slowly, trying to allow the players to get a feel for things.  I want them to calm down, to role play, to live as that person they are trying to portray, to let their guards down before anything dangerous or unnatural happens.  Then, when bad things do start happening, it’s often a more brutal shock.  Players go, “What that HELL?!?!” and I point to the Keeper’s screen and smile.  “Oh yeah, we’re playing Call of Cthulhu” they sometimes say.  I don’t say my way is better than scenarios that start with a bang; it’s just not how I like to do things.   Not my style… 

I grow plants.  I brew my own coffee.  I’ll spend an entire day making pots of slow cooked chili.  I write scenarios where the suspense and tension build slowly.

I love seeing my plants grow and enjoying the vegetables they sometimes produce.  I adore a cup of freshly brewed, freshly ground coffee.  A bowl of homemade slow cooked chili you made yourself is a meal beyond compare to any other.  The reaction of a player who’s slowly gotten into character, been teased by properly maintained tension when the monster finally does attack, or the ghost manifests, or the person they are talking to drops their mask to unveil a face made of tentacles… that’s priceless. 

For me, it’s all connected.  People say I write a lot but I never really rush things.  It all happens as it’s meant to.   For all things there is a season and a time for every purpose under the sun.


Saturday, March 16, 2013

The First Ripple

Many years ago I fell in love with the Call of Cthulhu RPG. I ran loads of publish scenarios, reading as many as I could get my hands on through E-bay and running what I considered the best ones. My friends and I were having a great time but two problems were beginning to take shape.
#1 – I was running out of good scenarios.
#2 – I never got to be an investigator.
I went to a local gaming event, called Recess, and discovered that someone was running a Call of Cthulhu game! I was thrilled. It was in the Gaslight Period, which I’d never ran or read, but at that point I’d play anything to be on the other side of the Keeper’s screen. So I signed up for it and got in. Soon, I was portraying an immigrant coal miner in 1880’s America. There were corrupt mine owners and union organizers fighting it out, and of course the Cthulhu Mythos lurking just beyond the veil. It was a wonderful game, everyone had a great time. We broke the scenario, meaning we went off script but the Keeper didn’t even break stride. He wrote new handouts on the fly and kept going. I was very impressed and that’s when it hit me…
“This is your scenario?” I asked, “You wrote this?”
He said yes and for me the world was never the same.
His name is Phredd Groves. He was just a guy, a role player, like me and he’d created something amazing. It wasn’t cheap or dumb, but well thought out and researched. The game was a political statement and history lesson, wrapped in the cosmic horror of the Cthulhu Mythos and creatures from other dimensions. This wasn’t a throw away art form, this was something more. It was something important, a game I’d likely never forget (and to this day I haven’t).

I became friends with that Keeper and within two weeks I was writing my own scenarios. First came The Case of Sally Carmichael, next I hand wrote a little scenario on three sheets of paper called The Hopeful (A scenario I’d later re-write, expand and publish with Miskatonic River Press). When I ran The Hopeful one of my players asked, “This was really good, which book did it come from?” I answered that I’d wrote it, and he was shocked. Inside something fell into place. Like that keeper I’d played with a few weeks ago, I could do this too.

Soon I was writing scenarios for the Chaosium Missionary Program. A few months later I was writing “Ripples from Carcosa”, my first monograph. I was fortunate enough that the Keeper who so inspired me was one of my play testers. His participation helped make that monograph even better.

Eventually my friend moved overseas and for several years lived in England, studying landscape archeology (What is it with Archeologists and Call of Cthulhu?). But then, a few months ago, he moved back to New York and we're playing Call of Cthulhu together again.  He's now back on my play test team and his investigators is traveling through Eastern Europe on the Orient Express.  His investigator just lost on eye in Bulgaria. 

I honestly don’t know if he’s aware of how deeply his one scenario affected the course of my life. I’m writing this to make sure that he does and to say Thank You from the bottom of my heart. I will never be able to repay that great gift he game me so many years ago.

 Phredd Groves, my dear friend.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

When the Student is Ready the Master Appears.

            A little over a decade ago I started writing Call of Cthulhu scenarios.  I was part of the Chaosium Missionary Program, a group of authors putting together scenarios for Keepers to run as official Chaosium rounds at conventions around the world.  I wrote The Unsung Saga for this program, which went on to become the first of three scenarios in my monograph, The Ravenar Sagas.   Once ever few months they’d pick a winner, who got I think $100 Chaosium store credit, it might have been $50… It the money wasn’t the point, it still isn’t for the most part.  It was writing and having your work evaluated. I won a few, and lost a few, usually to my rival Chad Bowser.  Chad came out of the program to build a name in this industry, like me.  We remain friends and I suspect quiet rivals.

            After a while writing I wanted to write something more, something epic, spanning time and space, something beautiful and haunting and terrible.  Something like -“Tatterdemalion”, an amazing Hastur scenario written by Richard Watts.  So I came up with an idea about six souls trapped by fate, to find one another lifetime to lifetime, and to end up encountering different Avatars of Hastur, over and over again.  It was a heroic, existential nightmare, where the characters started to remember their past lives once they saw the Yellow Sign.  The three scenarios took place in Ancient Rome (when Cthulhu Invictus was still a monograph), The Dark Ages and the Far Future.  This campaign became the monograph called “Ripples from Carcosa”.

            So, I am just finishing up writing this all up, and I am reading  I see a poster with a striking screen name…  It turned out to be Richard Watts, one of my favorite scenario authors!  I went fan-boy and wrote him, telling how awesome he was, how much I loved his work and that I just finished a Hastur campaign inspired by his scenario Tatterdemalion.  He answered me back!  He even asked to see the manuscript to maybe give me a few pointers before I sent it in.  This was incredible!  I quickly sent him the files.
Richard Watts

            A couple of days later he replied.  He wrote four paragraphs telling me how great the campaign was and what he liked.  Those four paragraphs were followed by four pages telling me everything that was wrong, every opportunity I missed and suggestions on how I could fix it.  Not once did I feel criticized or belittled, his letter was written in the warmest most supportive tone.  This man, this stranger, had given me a truly amazing gift, for no real reason.  There is a Buddhist proverb – When the student is ready the master appears. I had found my mentor, my father in the art of writing and a man I would be forever grateful to.
            I read and re-read the letter.  I made the changes needed.  I learned more about writing in that four page email than most people will learn in a college creative writing program.  “Ripples from Carcosa” was well received by fans and critics, and I’ve been writing ever since.

            Jump forward to 2013, I am working on new material for the re-release of Horror on the Orient Express.  It’s a dream project for any Cthulhu nerd. I was asked to write one scenario, which became two scenarios, which then became two scenarios and the re-write for a third.  The re-write turns out to be Repossession, written by none other than Richard Watts.  Richard Watts, my mentor, the man that turned me from being a madman screaming in the wilderness into the cultists I am today.  I agree to do it but only if Richard gave his blessings, which he did.

            I spoke to Richard about it before I got started, and he said if I needed any help, advice or a sounding board to bounce ideas off of he’d be glad to help.  I replied that I already figured out what I wanted to write, adding cheekily, “It’s sort of what I do Richard, I had a good teacher.”  In a few short hours I’ll be running Repossession 2.0, by Richard Watts and Oscar Rios.  I hope by the laughs, gasps and screams of my players I will know that I have done my master proud. 

            Mr. Watts, thank you for your guidance, kindness and faith in me.  I remain your grateful student. 

Wednesday, March 6, 2013

The Revised Railroad

I’m proud to announce, now that I can talk about it, what I’ve been up to since finishing the Vinkovci chapter of Horror on the Orient Express.  In addition to new material being added to Horror on the Orient Express some of the original scenarios are getting updates.  Certain scenarios are having some of their issues fixed.   These scenarios are being expanded to give investigators more options and control over their fate.   For the most part the original authors are coming in to do these revisions.  Unfortunately, at least one of them is unable to do so at this time.  That man is Richard Watts, a man near and dear to my heart for reasons I’ll get into another time.  He is a friend and an author whom I consider my mentor.

Richard is the author of Repossession, the Sofia Bulgaria chapter of Horror on the Orient Express.  Repossession is a very famous scenario, known for being possibly the deadliest one on the entire campaign.  It’s a meat-grinder, an old school bad ass investigator killer, pure and simple.  But it has problems and has been criticized for not giving players much to do or an ability to affect the investigation’s outcome.  Mark Morrison has seen this and decided to change it.

The Universe has come full circle.  Ten years ago Richard Watts helped me become a writer; today I am revising a scenario he wrote.   I am deeply honored to have the opportunity to do so, even more so that my old friend is perfectly happy to allow me to remake one of his creations.  I keep thinking my involvement couldn’t possibly get any cooler, and I keep being proven wrong.  My name will appear beside that of my mentor’s, something I’d always hoped would happen in the fullness of time. 

I am blessed, and happy…  And oh so freaking busy! May all those things always remain so.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Evil, Bloodstained Old School Map

Writing has been going great.  Filling in the encounter stats for the latest project, which I am play testing this weekend.  Got about half way done with the stats then moved onto my day, trip to the dentist, took a break and back to work... BUT... I had to do a map.

I don't really do maps, I mean I can, and I kinda like to, but it takes time.  That's time I could be writing, so... I don't do maps.  BUT... an editor asked me to do a couple of hand drawn maps so a real artist could work from them and make something for this exciting old school fantasy project I wrote back in November.  

I don't want to give away spoilers but there one of the maps is for an evil temple, a really evil temple, filled with demon orgies, abyssal armies and surrounded by a horde of zombies.  Yeah, it's way over the top, so what!  They call stuff like this "Classic" for a reason, because it's awesome. 

So, as I am finishing up my cat, Carmine Kimmie Tsathoggua McFatass Rios comes over for some love.  I pet him, we do some play fighting and then we both go back to what we were doing. Suddenly there is a reddish brow smudge on the map... it's a bloodstain!  The cat scratched a hole in my finger and as I finished drawing I smeared the map with my blood...

So, I just finished work on an old school map of an evil temple, complete with bloodstains.

Like I said... they call shit like this "Classic" for a reason.

Ia Ia.