Between Then and Now – Part 1

I hadn’t written anything here in over a year until yesterday, but my gaming life has been full in that time, and some of it worth sharing. So I want to take a few posts to quickly cover what my players and I have been up to.

The last games I recorded here were Pathfinder-to-Dungeon-World campaign I ran for a year and a half, and a play-by-post game of a Dungeon World hack. For the Pathfinder game, I used the Kingmaker Adventure Path, which I chose after reading many reviews of the various Paizo offerings. After about a year of getting increasingly annoyed with the extreme fiddliness and tedium of the Pathfinder rules, I managed to sidestep GM burnout by converting everything to Dungeon World. It worked great for a few months, but then some members of the group moved away and the campaign came to an ignominious end.

Those of us that remained then started the classic Spawn of Azathoth campaign for Call of Cthulhu, using the Trail of Cthulhu rules.

One of the many excellent props available from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society.

Again, I had done my homework: read the reviews, read discussions of the system’s pros and cons on RPGGeek, listened to some actual play podcasts. But despite my due diligence, I became annoyed and disenchanted with ToC pretty quickly in play—to me at the time it seemed like a codification and commercialization of what could have just as easily been a single, solid essay of GM advice. More crucially, the rules felt neither intuitive nor immersive, which made it feel like they were getting in the way when I wanted them to be falling back.

Providence, Rhode Island circa 1937 

Now, it’s clear that thousands of people play and enjoy Trail of Cthulhu, and that Kenneth Hite and Robin Laws are super-smart, good guys with tons of experience who are not by any stretch trying to pull a Cthulhu cash-in (as one listen to their superlative podcast will prove). In retrospect, I see that my personal sensibility and encountering the system at the wrong time combined to thwart my enjoyment.

A small part of the old white-guy supporting cast.

Unfortunately, that “wrong time” appears to extend from the point I first played Dungeon World (or more accurately, Adventures on Dungeon Planet) into the foreseeable future. Because once Vincent Baker showed me that parallel *World, I didn’t want to go back. Or, to use a different and even less clear metaphor, when someone hands you a knife, you want to cut everything up into poetry.

A selection of unspeakable excerpts, still awaiting discovery.

In practical terms, this meant that after three sessions of our Cthulhu game I yanked it into that other *World, just like I had done with our Pathfinder campaign before. You can read my rough and overcooked version of the rules here. I’ve learned a lot since then, but it was a part of my learning process, and it did the job at the time; the campaign ran for another five highly entertaining sessions.

Visionary. Frightening. Kind of a mess.

Ultimately, real life reared up again and some of our group left town, so we abandoned the characters at an observatory in Montana. Which is just as well, because after reading and rereading the published campaign material, I ended up feeling that Spawn of Azathoth was kind of a mess in terms of its internal logic. Ahead of its time in many respects, but ultimately too dependent on coincidence and an incoherent plot to give me satisfaction without a lot of extra work on my part.

My day job is teaching how to write and draw comics at the Center for Cartoon Studies, one of the great side benefits of which is an annual influx of geeks who have either played RPGs before, or have always wanted to try. This means there is no shortage of players for my games, but turnover is high, so it’s proven hard to play a campaign to completion. However, without skipping a beat we had another full table the week after our leap into Lovecraft ended, and for a while we played a bunch of shorter stuff.

In Part 2 I’ll write about what we did after Cthulhu.

What do you do, after Cthulhu,
After Cthulhu, what do you do?
Stare into the Void for eons on end,
Hoping Shub-Niggurath will wgah’nagl fhtagn

One thought on “Between Then and Now – Part 1

Comments are closed.