Saturday, March 6, 2021

Call of Cthulhu Houserules

I'm running a CoC (6e) campaign now and players are having a blast. That includes me. It is a homebrew story called Eyes of Nyarlothep, where players are tracking down the titular stones in a race against Nazis and conquistador cults. So far they've had shoot outs in El Paso, fought eldritch owl-things in the Antarctic, talked to ghouls under the streets of Paris, and are currently stuck on the moon in the antediluvian past.

I might publish this at some point. 

I have a terrible memory, so I've storified & simplified the rules. Suppose I should have used Trail of Cthulhu, but don't have enough confidence in knowing the system yet.

Maybe my next campaign?

Anyway, here are some houserules we've agreed on:


Every week we decide on an MVP - someone whose roleplaying contributed most to the session, either in terms of fun or story progression. We've decided a d10 SAN recovery for this henceforth.


I use Luck rolls like Oracles in Ironsworn to decide things. Whenever players are assuming things about NPCs or the world, I ask what they expect, then tell that what I think is more probable. Then they roll a Luck roll to see whether their or my interpretation is what we go with. This gives them some agency, but also means the gameworld is as mysterious to me as to them, keeping me improvising and interested. I also adjust the Luck roll down (ie from POW x 5% to x3%) if they assumption is a slim chance or unrealistic. For instance, at the German Antarctic colony of Neu Schwabenland where they were, they wanted a CB radio. They failed their Luck roll, and had to find other ways of getting a message out, which I decided was via the German radio office.


Since players had no idea what skills they would need when they chose characters, I allow them to do a one time irreversible change of a skill to suit a need they encounter. Thus far two have changed a language skill to Spanish, which they needed to read an ancient conquistador's diary.


Last, I allow players to choose to 'burn' an Appearance point to get a reliable contact, be it an old colleague, friend, family, or ally. This doesn't reduce the App number, just the pool of contacts they can call on. For instance, the old professor tacitly heading the party announced he had a dear friend and colleague at Miskatonic U where they headed with their cursed tome. He had an Appearance of 10, so can choose 9 other contacts in future.


Dear reader, are there any houserules that make CoC a better experience for you? Feel free to drop some wisdom in the comments.

Saturday, February 27, 2021


 So, I played in my second session of Mork Borg last night. What a blast!

For those of you out of the loop, Mork Borg is a Swedish OSR style rules lite art house RPG.

It is more art book and inspiration than rules compendium, but has  a flavour in both the art and random tables that is very Nordic death metal. Think Death Frost Doom but better illustrated and less slavish to OD&D.

My esoteric hermit, Jotna, and his small but vicious dog Tiddles (created from a random generator HERE) awoke to find themselves in some dark hell dimension, with they and their traveling companions under attack by bloody skeletons. Battles ensued, paths were walked, traps were sprung, and goblins and fishmen were slain. In addition, undying prisoners breathed cryptic clues before jumping into lava, and grotesque or cursed magic items both helped and hindered the party in their quest to recover the lost monarch, his crown, or the way to call the spring.

All in all, it had the most OSR feel of wonder and terror I have ever experienced. At the end of the session, when we determined only two of us could return to the land of the living, Jotna nonchalantly offered to stay and meditate, as it was no worse than his mountain cave.

Anyway, give it a gander if you haven't already.

Monday, February 22, 2021

Emergent Storytelling - Crayon Shinchan vs Alien

So, I just started watching this Crayon Shinchan vs Alien movie (short version available HERE) with my little boy on our Japanese satellite TV.

It is a masterclass in emergent storytelling, and has lots of implications for RPGs.

Basically, the Crayon Shinchan family wakes up in the cryosleep booths from Alien on an unknown spaceship

Their annoying cuddly couple neighbors are there, as well as three unknown characters - an old lady, a scarfaced tough guy, and a skinny hysteric fellow. They get dressed and are attacked by a strange alien-robot.

From then on the show spirals between comedy, tension and paranoia. Without giving too much away, there are encounters with other mysterious characters, hidden rooms, betrayals, weird alien technology, and hidden alien infections.

Basically, the amnesiac in cryosleep chambers plot device is perfect for emergent stories, and the tongue in cheek tone keeps the action fun while the reversals and dangers are genuinely exciting.

Definitely, give it a watch.

Saturday, February 13, 2021

Stormbringer Redux #1 - Regional Weapons & Troops

After re-reading the game, I realized that it doesn't really have many mechanics modeling the larger struggle of Law and Chaos, the Champion Eternal, and the Multiverse / Thousand Spheres. I've put out a request on the I'm Begging You To Play Another RPG Facebook page for suggestions tackling these larger issues, and will get to them when I have ideas.

For my first foray into re-designing Stormbringer, I thought I'd start with something small.  One thing I always loved about the old game was the combat rules for Beggars.

This is a wonderful rule both for its inherent flavour, as well as its creation of a reason for the same 'class' to adventure together, in direct opposition to D&D's varied party model. It is a shame they didn't have more of this type of rich mechanic for the game, so I've decided to adapt it for my re-creation to give a bonus for regional weapons and units consisting of them. This is not only flavourful for the Young Kingdoms, it also echoes real-world regional troops like the Gherkas of Nepal and Swiss pikemen, to name a few.


If you wield the weapon of the region from which you come, you get 10% to skill and +1 to damage. Obvious examples are a Melnibonean wielding a bone bow, a Filkharian using a pike from his homeland, a Weeping Waster with a desert bow,  and a Lormyrian with a local ax. To this I would add Nadsokhorians with daggers, Oinish or Yurits with spears of local make, and Orgish with hatchets from their homeland.


In addition to these individual bonuses, for every member past one of the same nation fighting together and using their home weapon, they get +1% to their weapon skill. This is doubled if they are all Warriors, to reflect their training and cohesion as a unit.

For example, if three PCs travelling together are from Lormyr and all wield axes, they each get +2% to their skill. If they are all Warriors, this is doubled to +4%.

It might seem a small bonus in modern game terms, but fits well with the Old School aesthetic of small advances, is in keeping with the pre-existing Beggar rules, and just feels right.

Wednesday, February 3, 2021

Making Good Enemies With The Nemesis System

This is a great video of how the Nemesis system in the Mordor games creates stories.

Basically, it does this in a few ways that a game master can steal:

1 Let the gameworld use the character's actions against them. If they run from an encounter with orcs, the next encounter may start with taunts of "Coward!" If they kill a 1 HD mook, their 2HD brother will come looking for blood.

2 Brings back enemies who are better or stronger. Wipe out a group of 1HD mooks? As noted, their brothers will be 2HD and geared for a revenge quest.

3 Give each major enemy a unique trait. They may have a mutant power or magic weapon, which they boast about and use in combat.

Side note, I remember one of the first D&D games I played, we pooled our money and gave the ranger a composite bow. It didn't help us, and we suffered a TPK. We rolled up new characters and went to their stronghold, but now had to face orcs with a composite bow, forcing us to be stealthier.

4 Let memorable enemies cheat death, then reappear at inopportune times. Maybe they feigned death and are now back immune to what supposedly killed them, or else they have a smoke bomb or knowledge of hidden doors needed to get away. This smacks of Quantum ogre a bit, but I think it is necessary in terms of engaging story.

Video is HERE

Wednesday, January 27, 2021

Re-creating Stormbringer RPG

It is no surprise that I love the Stormbringer RPG.

I read all of Moorcock's books I could find at an early age.

I collected the comics, Thomas & Russel's Elric, Mignola's Corum, and the varying others.

Stormbringer 3e in the green cover was my first non-D&D RPG. It was stolen out from under me. I had Elric! and that too disappeared.

(If you have an old copy of any edition and want to support me, drop me a DM. I'm willing to trade or pay a fair price).

Now, I am into story games and modern game design.

I think I will try my hand at re-creating Stormbringer using the insights I have gleaned from games like Swords of the Serpentime, Powered by the Apocalypse, and Alien. 

Where to Start?

My first instinct is to look at the skills list, but this is a misstep. Stormbringer isn't about skills, it is about the conflict between Law and Chaos, one that has reverberated through roleplaying since the beginning of the hobby. Each edition of Stormbringer had its own incomplete and poorly implemented take on allegience to these powers.

This is where I will start. If I can untangle the concepts and how they were implemented, maybe I can find the way in to this maze.

Wish me luck!

The Tyranny of Backstory and the Freedom of Emergent Roleplaying

I HATE backstory.

Back in the day when I played GURPS, I spent a day making a PC with a great backstory. He was a delusional bard who thought he was a king, and was searching for the lost kingdom of Wallachia to reclaim his throne.

He was killed by another PC, an assassin minmax killing machine made by an A-hole friend of a friend, during the first session.

I played 5e once, and was given 4 pages of character sheet with a list of useless stuff and overblown backstory. None of it was used in the session.

Before either of these games, I had played OD&D, with zero backstory, just a half empty character sheet to start with. There was something liberating about rolling dice 6 times, adding one name, some gear, then jumping into the game. Backstory was something we made as we played, old adventures we told newbies who came to our table. 


Let's think about this through the lens of fiction.

What if, before you went to see the first Star Wars movie, you got this backstory:

"Luke Skywalker is a Tatooine farmboy who rose from humble beginnings to become one of the greatest Jedi the galaxy has ever known. Along with his friends Princess Leia, who is really his sister, and Han Solo, Luke battles the evil Empire, which is lead by his father Darth Vader, and fights to end the tyranny of the Sith, lead the Emperor Palpatine, who was a senator in the Old Republic."

If you read that first, would you want to go see the movie? Now you understand how I feel.


The way I see it, there are three issues with backstory in RPGs.

1 Backstory robs characters of mystery

Just as the mystery of Luke's family is an integral part to the appeal of Star Wars, leaving the mystery of your character's background is part of roleplaying's charm. The point is to fill in the blanks as you play, to let the GM suggest or surprise you, just as Luke was shocked at discovering his father and sister's identity.

2 Backstory makes it harder to kill PCs

There is a correlation and tension between the length of character generation and how much you want to keep the character alive. When I played 4e, it took over an hour to make a character, and every battle felt like a slog with an inevitable victory at the end. There was none of the challenge or risk of other games I had played. We were a party of Mary Sues, to all intents and purposes, with the GM afraid to kill us off lest we abandon the game after the time we had invested in it.

This is not unique to D&D. Traveler is an exception, generating a character history loose enough to let dots be connected interestingly.

3 Backstory is not earned

Back in the day, no one would ever think of starting at any level but 1. Now, I have been at tables where newbies start with multiple levels and randomly rolled magic items and other gear. To me, this feels like a cheap cheat, a subversion of the very sense of accomplishment leveling up in D&D had back in the day.


One solution is to embrace what I call emergent roleplaying. Beyond the most basic of information (first name, gear, profession), a character sheet should start blank, and be gradually filled in as play progresses.

What would emergent play look like? It would have to be a collaborative act between GM and players, who must always agree on details that arise. The surprise of some details would make the play as emergent and exciting for GMs as it would be for players.


Although different RPGs promote emergent play to different degrees, here are some suggested practices that can turn any game into an emergent play RPG.

1) Leave the character sheet blank. In OD&D, we started with the 6 stats, a name, and a kit of starting gear. This was all we needed. You might want to have players add a detail for every level gained, and make a list of suggestion as follows:

Hometown / Family / Phobias / Favorite weapon / Pet or steed / Best friend / Rival / Favorite drink

2) Don't decide everything at once. I am running Call of Cthulhu now, and players are using pregenerated characters. None of them have the Spanish language skill they need to decipher the tome they have found. I suggested that players change other language skills to Spanish, in other words, retcon their PC skills. Although they were reticent at first, two have already done so, and one has finished his reading (and Sanity loss from) the ancient book. Players can't foresee what they'll need in an adventure, so give them the leeway to change skill choices to ensure their success in pushing the adventure forward. Especially useful / necessary in investigative games.

3) Discuss filling in the blanks together. When I played Ironsworn a few weeks back, the first session was spent filling in the gameworld together. This made us invested in the world from the get go, and as we played, we interpreted Oracle and other rolls in ways that accorded with this interest in the gameworld, and prized the emergence of the character in it. GMs could tell players that flashbacks are allowed to explain new details, so long as it fits the spirit of the game and the emergence of the character. In the Swords of the Serpentine game I ran last year, there was a power that let PCs relate a flashback showing how they had prepared for the situation at hand. This is seen often in heist or adventure movies, so is a good fit for RPGs as well.

Try emergent roleplaying. The only thing you have to lose is the baggage of backstory.