RPG Review: Call of Cthulhu

So I have been running a Victorian era investigative game focused on the supernatural and featuring magic that corrupts and destroys its users. I had been doing so by taking an existing system not made for such tasks and crafting a homebrew out of it.  Things appeared to be going somewhat smoothly but I could see the fault lines in advance and decided to seek out a solution.

This led me to “Call of Cthulhu” an investigative game where magic and the supernatural will corrupt and destroy you. Presently I’m really digging it. Also, I’m not really sure why I’m reviewing this. Call of Cthulhu (henceforth CoC) has been around and popular for thirty years, longer than most of the people I know.

CoC is often cited as the go-to game for horror role-playing and features a sanity system that is something of a standard in similarly themed game systems. It is, of course, inspired by the works of H. P. Lovecraft and strives to emulate his tales closely. This includes main characters dying off or going completely insane. The game makes this work.

Character creation is a simple affair and, with a little understanding, new characters can be rolled up very quickly. To begin you roll up your initial physical stats, then your mental stats, and finally an education stat. These are used to derive three values and your starting hit points, magic, and sanity.  The player then picks a profession which will list eight skills that he gets to allocate points to. After that the player gets a second point total to spend on ‘personal interest’ skills. There are a couple more minor options, such as pay grade and personal details, but for the bulk of creation that’s it.

There is even a program available to make the process even easier and quicker. Even better, it’s free and has been checked and rechecked over the years.

Once into the game it becomes primarily about investigation. CoC features such skills as accounting, library use, and astrology and each of these could come in handy at anytime. The player’s primary goal is to uncover ancient plots and put a stop to them, hopefully without dying or going crazy. The game, and in fact the rulebook, makes a very strong point about the limits of combat. It is fast and deadly, and not something you want to encounter very often. The maximum hit points a character can receive at start is 18, the highest I have rolled is 13; a modest pistol does 1D6 damage, twice that if a critical is rolled. Imagine now going up against a group of crazy cultists, armed with shotguns and hiding in a barn. Combat is purposefully made to be unappealing. Add to this a person wielding a gun usually gets the chance to shoot not only first but multiple times in a combat round.

All that aside, this game features a really nice listing of weapons. This is a system that could have gotten away with a listing such as ‘small revolver, big revolver, pistol, shotgun, rifle…’ but instead it lists enough diversity to pepper the world and flesh it out, even if most of the people will be carrying a .32 cal revolver. Even better each weapon is given a malfunction percentage, a range of percentiles near the top where the gun will fail to work if rolled. I really love the weapon listing and am wondering how well CoC would handle a modern day crime thriller.

This is why the sanity system is truly a beautiful thing. Rather than an option to make the horror work, I feel the sanity acts as a horror themed life bar. Your time in CoC should be spent researching, investigating, and going into dark places armed with naught but a torch and possibly an old notebook. The situations you encounter and you preparedness for them are what affect sanity. On a kinder level, of sorts, this means your hero never has to really ‘die’ they just go crazy and get to spend their life in a safe place. This is why I think other games fail on the sanity mechanism: they view it as a necessary gimmick, but it’s really a replacement for a feature not needed.

Characters will go insane during the game however. Part of advancing in CoC is the discovery of ancient tomes and the reading thereof. The horrors in their volumes always dictates a sanity check, so while the hero gets stronger he balances it by walking close to insanity. The other method of advancement is pretty cool as well. If, during a game, the player succeeds at a skill in a sufficient way  (breaking down a door while being chased is good, fast talking your way into a bakery to get a free donut is not) the Keeper (CoC for DM) will ask him to mark the skill. At the end of an adventure the player gets to roll on any skill he has checked, if he fails (i.e. rolls higher than his skill level) that skill goes up. So the players learn by doing, and learn easier at lower levels.

Simple, but effective. This is a line I feel captures the game as a whole. And it should, with three decades of writing and research behind this thing it is nearly as honed as it can be. I own version 5.5, beyond that is 5.6 and 6. From my understanding I am missing little and at this point they simply correct typos, recheck rules, and continue to cram more and more stuff into the book. This ‘stuff’ is pretty awesome in its own right.

The rule book contains the entire short story “Call of Cthulhu” and a nicely sized bestiary. There is also a  huge write up on insanity and a sizable spell selection. Even better as the line has progressed there have been certain supplements that have been included into the rulebook. Two such supplements are “Cthulhu by gaslight” and “Cthulhu NOW” both of which give information on how to play a game in either 1890 or 1990, as opposed to the traditional 1920. I really enjoy that they resisted the urge to update the supplements and instead put them in the core rule book.

“Call of Cthulhu” is one of the legendary games, a long standing king in this hobby of ours. I wish I had not taken so long to obtain a copy but now that I have I find it to be a robust system easily ran and picked up. The fact that the rules are streamlined and simple and that two-thirds of the book is dedicated towards helping you capture the mood is a great value for the cash. And with thirty years of publishing the amount of supplements, both fan and pro is plentiful. A fantastic game and well worth the price.

 

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On boardgames, a random selection

So…it’s been awhile.

In an effort to ‘jump back in’ so to speak I thought I would spend a post away from my usual fare. No movies, television shows, or video games. Today I’m going to talk about board games, a subject too often neglected.

I have mentioned before that I love all kinds of games, board games included. I actually have one or two that I take wherever I go, in case the party winds down and we need something to do. Whilst loading up groceries it occurred to me that I have been toting around four games for a while. I thought today, as a minor means of randomness, I would give a mini review of each product.

 

Betrayal at House on the Hill. I have written about this game before, but it deserves a second look. This is my current favorite board game. Most of the people whom have played it enjoy the experience; the crew at my local library liked it enough to buy a copy and make it a staple of their game days.

In betrayal a game consists of two sections: exploration and the haunt. In the beginning the players work together, exploring the house and gathering weapons and clues. In the second half one of these players will turn traitor and the houses mystical nature will fall upon them. Then it’s time for action, where the traitor tries to murder the players and the players tries to survive.

Survival is determined by which of the 50 random missions to get. Adding to this, Betrayal’s tile-based modular board very nearly ensures that you will never have the same game twice. It’s a fun game, dripping with style and atmosphere. The characters are likable, if not crazy, the scenarios are inventive, and the wealth of quests and random nature make this one of the few high-end games to justify its price.

I take it everywhere I go, and I try to spread the word to everyone.

 

Monopoly. A classic staple of the board game world and how I hate it. The cutthroat atmosphere is almost certain to provoke arguments, and with a smart group of players (or just some really dumb ones) the game can last forever. Perhaps I’m just bitter, this game is popular and well known so it’s possible I just have a bad taste left over from childhood.

I bought this copy because I ran into a friend who had never played Monopoly. I figure everyone deserves the chance to hate their friends, so I bought a copy. We played, there was some antagonism and the game was not finished, but it was mostly an enjoyable experience.

Also, to be fair, Monopoly does feature easy-to-understand rules, and an open-ended and evolving board. It’s a classic for a reason: it’s more complex than a majority of its brethren yet remains simple enough to teach in a night. The version I bought also includes a ‘speed die’ to help speed up the game, a feature I really want to try. It’s also interesting to read the full rules from an adult perspective; the makers of Monopoly are not stupid and know how the game gets played so there is an entire section devoted to shooting down popular house rules such as ‘teaming up’ or ‘free parking gives cash’

I’m not a big fan, but still it is Monopoly and it deserves a spot in my trunk.

 

Bump in the Night. As much as I love Betrayal there still comes the point where you want to try something new. As a fan of co-operative gameplay, a horror theme, and tile based/modular gameplay, I began looking towards “Arkham Horror.” Seeing it listed as a 60 dollar game caused me to stop looking. Instead I picked up this 20 dollar entry.

Bump in the Night has its heart in the right place, but it just never sticks the landing. In this game you play as the ghosts and are annoyed to find that a group of girls have invaded your home. The goal is to use your varied monsters to scare the girls into running away or passing out. It’s an awesome premise, but it soon falls apart.

Firstly, each player is in competition with each other, owning duplicate sets of monsters the focus is not on ‘getting the invaders out’ but instead ‘getting more out than your friends.’ It’s not a deal breaker, but in actual play it lessens the atmosphere. The invaders consist of 20 identical little girls, which seems to fit the atmosphere but then you wonder how so many grade-schoolers got so lost. Using a group of varied NPCs seems a better option, with each character having various phobias and fears.

On the monster side of the deal things are a bit dry. The monsters look cool, but their actual abilities vary little, mostly just in ‘how scary’ they are. To scare a girl out of the house you have to set up a system of monsters and locked doors, so that the girls will run from room to room, encountering new monsters, and will hopefully be lead outside. It’s an interesting mechanic, but it really feels like you are just opening paths for the rats.

It’s a shame really; the game is pretty well made. The board consists of six tiles that, while having to be placed in the same place each time, have two sides to them which gives a decent amount of randomness. I also give full marks for including plastic minis for the girls and the monsters, the game would have worked just as well, and could have been manufactured cheaper, if the pieces had been cardboard, but the plastic really ups the scale of the game. My one complaint, content wise, is that game set up calls for a random number between 1 and 6 to be decided. They do so by having numbers printed at the bottom of the action cards and having you drawn an amount of these and use those numbers for randomization. For a game this well manufactured the inclusion of a simple six-sided die should have been a no-brainer. Granted I have a bajillion D6s laying around, but it’s the oversight I question.

Anyways, Bump in the Night is a beautiful game at an affordable price. It just never nails the atmosphere it was going for and feels more like an inverted game of pac-man. I’d recommend it with the hope that some fans could work up alternate play modes for it.

 

Malarkey. The final game currently in my trunk is a party game, vaguely concerned with trivia. I say vaguely because the trivia included is barely useful to know and serves only to support the real nature of this game: outright lies.

Play begins when one players pulls a trivia card which could be something like, What happens to the holes that get punched out of binder paper? Once the question has been read the player puts the card into one of many identical holders, shuffles them, and hands them out. The players then check their holders to see if they got the correct answer, or nothing. Play continues with each person either: giving the right answer but in their own words, or making up something convincing should they not have the answer. Once everyone has answered players then bet on who had the most convincing answer. Points are awarded for receiving bets or for betting on the right answer.

Sometimes, due to the random dealing, a player who doesn’t have the answer will make up the real answer before the truth holder’s turn. Duplicate answers are not allowed meaning the truth holder must now make up a convincing lie. This is where the game name comes from as it is called ‘pulling a malarkey.’ In this instance the truth holder gains double points, but will lose points if no one votes for him.

It’s a fun game, especially if you have a group of creative individuals who can think on their feet.

 

And that’s what I got in my trunk.

Scream: the whole series

The more I stare at the word ‘scream’ the weirder it looks.

 

Yes it’s time I covered the Scream series. It has its detractors but it was a pretty big deal when it hit and it did chance the face of horror, a face that had become stagnant. Not all of the fallout was pretty but it shook things up and it was none too soon.

I’m not going to hide it, I love the first Scream movie. The actors nailed their parts, the kills were effective, and the score honestly really got to me. I always feel a nice bit of catharsis at the end of the film, and the score really helps with that.

Of course this movie is known for being self-referential and laying out ‘the rules.’ I call BS on that. No one ever claims to be in a movie, or seems to break the fourth wall. It’s really just a matter of of the film allowing these kids to know, and have seen, horror movies before. Think about a vampire movie and eventually someone will have to discover that the creature is a vampire and how to stop it. That would never happen in the real world; we have vampire movies. This is part of my love for Fright Night because it acknowledged that the main characters had seen vampire movies and knew what they were. Same deal here, the teens in Scream have all seen horror movies so they recognize when a slasher starts hitting the streets.

And yes, there is a sequence where a character exposes the ‘rules’ but it’s also shown that these rules don’t apply to what passes for real life in the film. It was a reflection of our culture at the time, we had seen it all and we fall back on what we know when challenged. It reminds me of a time that the owner of a local arcade suggested that he wouldn’t be afraid in a horror movie because he had basically seen them all. It’s a type of insulated arrogance that lacks any real substance. I’ve seen all the Halloween movies but you can bet the last donut that if Myers was walking towards me I’d be terrified. Because that doesn’t happen and my knowledge of movies doesn’t’ exactly translate into a real life and death scenario.

So what was Scream? It was a slick, smart slasher that examined horror set in a world of people who know better. It was plausible, it was fun, and it hit the scene like an atomic bomb.

So it had to have a sequel. Scream 2, which thankfully didn’t have a weird subtitle-y name, is not as good as the first film. It starts off really well, set during opening night of a movie made about the killings from the first movie. It carefully recreates a few moments from the opening of the original while showing us how humans get far too excited about real world tragedy…until it hits them in the face.

It’s a strong opening and it quickly gets us back into this world while still holding onto the subtext of the first film. Unfortunately the rest of the film doesn’t hold up as well. There is too much playing to the ‘rules’ concept and a lot of the situations seem contrived. We get a suspect breakdown via ‘who it would be in a movie’ that seems to be a serious conversation instead of rejected right out and several characters seem to end up in the same building for various non-sensical reasons in time for the big finish.

It’s not all bad though; there is some real suspense about the killer due to a few nicely writer characters. In particular I enjoyed the character of Cotton Weary who comes across as a greedy, selfish bastard who really doesn’t want to hurt anyone…or does he?

To be honest Scream 2 is a good slasher, the pacing is tight, the kills are decent, and it stays interesting. The real problem is it’s a sequel to a great game changer and it just doesn’t hold up.

But it did well, so they gave us Scream 3. This movie is simply not very good. The insistence on movie rules applying to real life in horribly forced in, possibly to lampshade some questionable plot developments. The kills are boring and horribly placed, with much of the movie laboring under the absence of any real action. It also ups the ‘meta’ content by taking place during the filming of a sequel to the fictional movie and thus having a bunch of new characters whose only character traits are that they play versions of the real characters. Toss in random celebrity cameos and a voice changer that can miraculously mimic any voice and you get a poorly written cash in.

The series was dead in the water for a while but recently we finally got Scream 4. And they very nearly pulled off a great movie. But they didn’t.

Scream took the horror genre and twisted it, for the fourth movie to survive it needed to do the same thing. When Scream 4 hit we were in the midst of a huge ‘reboot’ or ‘remake’ craze and it feels like this film really wanted to go for that. A reboot in the notion that the plot is essentially the same as the first film; remake because there is a cast of characters that very much resembles the characters from the first movie. But this time instead of authority figures who don’t know how to handle things we have the original cast back.

This could have been the best way to give the old crew their fade out and build a new set of characters. Simply focus on the new teens and have them dealing with the deaths while around them there are all these famous people who have survived this kind of thing in the past. It would give the old heroes a strong, but supporting, role and allow us new blood and a new direction. A sort of ‘real life reboot’

Unfortunately this movie revolves around the standard heroes and the new guys barely amount to anything. I love Sydney but by this point I tend to not fear for her life. Putting her back in center stage honestly lowered the tension, and keeping the entire group of new teens open to suspicion meant lots of options making it too hard to try and pick a killer. Plus there is one of the dumbest deaths scenes in a slasher ever. In a serious movie it ranks up there with Wile E. Cayote falling from a cliff after running on air for a minute. What’s worse is that it could have been truly horrific, but then the actor speaks.

That said it isn’t a bad movie. I could see where it was trying to go and I border on placing it above part 2, but in the end even though it had its teeth back it still hug it’s hat on the old ways but the point was ‘time has moved on.’ You can see glimpses of what might have been, especially with an awesome dig at all the remakes late in the movie, but in the end we are left with a simple finish and not the grand slam this series deserved.

Scary Movie time, also October.

Halloween creeps upon us and I stand here ready to fulfill my obligation of watching a bunch of scary movies.

Last year I covered what I felt to be the three classic series in modern horror. It was a rough ride but I still feel pride about them.

This year my plans are somewhat less ambitious, but I will still try and get two updates a week up during October.

I plan to cover movies that played a part in revitalizing the horror genre. It’s a loose plan, and some may have problems with my pics, but still I will push on.

This week I will cover a well known series. The next two weeks will be slashers and japanese horror. Torture porn has no place here so expect no Saw.

On the final week I will post reviews for the two films I suggest everyone watch this year, my top pics.

A Discussion of Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark

Looking away from the dark, scary hole is a bad idea...

Usually I just talk about the movies here from my own perspective. That’s how this works. But when I watched “Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark” I was not alone, and the reactions of myself and my girlfriend were very different. With this in mind I must lay out both sets of opinions to give a full view.

First we will talk about me, because I’m writing this.

This movie is a lot like a robot playing the violin. Technically it’s perfect, but not an ounce of soul. The camera work is good, everything looks rich and dark, and it’s a good kind of dark, the spooky kind. The monsters are mostly hinted at and feel pretty creepy. That said I wish they would have kept with the whispering more and less of the generic shrieking, but still they were creepy little buggers.

The acting was very solid. Though it’s hard to see from the trailers but the father here is played by Guy Pierce and it’s awesome to see him back in film. Unfortunately he’s playing the generic haunted house movie father which makes him less likable. He does what he can with the part but in the end it’s a thankless task, but again it’s good to see him again. Katie Holmes felt real good here. I liked her back in the “Disturbing Behavior” day but always felt she stuck out like a bad thumb when hanging around Aaron Eckhart or Christian Bale. Here, in a scary movie setting, she fit right in and I found myself cheering her on. She plays a generic character, as all the characters here are, but she does it well and it’s nice to see her and not hate her.

Also the little girl, played by Bailee Madison, is awesome. She doesn’t exactly act as a kid her age would (case in point, she goes into the dark, scary hole, I’d set it on fire and run) but that’s a script problem and not an actor problem. I found her likable and not at all annoying.

But on the whole this movie had amazing sets, good actors, and apparently a competent man behind the camera…it just felt very generic. It’s worth a watch but it won’t shake your world.

On the other hand…It scared the hell out of my girlfriend. She could barely watch the movie and I thought I was going to have to leave simply to preserve her sanity.

Maybe the movie just failed to faze me and it’s my fault, because at least one person was scared by it. I still think it missed the mark and likely would have been better served by being a horror-comedy like “House” or “Gremlins.” But as a straight up scary movie I can’t help but feel it missed the mark, it’s still good though.

A Discussion of Let the Right One In

Best part of the film, right here.

 

I assume the title was a warning telling me to put something else in the DVD player and not the crap composed on this disk. Alas I actually watched Let the Right One In and I must say I am not impressed with Sweden.

I hate movies that are based on one remarkable trait and then spend forever building up to it as if it’s some kind of awesome mystery. It’s billed as one of the most amazing vampire movies ever, but we spend most of the movie with a psychopath in the making on his slow path to making friends with someone who might be (IS!) a vampire.

And yes, the little albino boy here is a psycho, but worse he’s an ineffective one. Bullied in school he pretends each night of using his knife to eviscerate his classmates while demanding they squeal. But then he gets beat up. But then we get a vamp- no wait, first we get the most useless serial killer ever. But then a vamp- no, idiot towns people…

But then the vampire shows up and we spend a painful bit of film talking about a rubiks cube and then the words “Here, I’ll show you.” And we have to watch an albino teach a vampire how to use a rubiks cube!

I just didn’t care about anyone. I cheered when people died. I get the strong impression that this is the wrong thing to do, I think I’m supposed to have developed a connection to these characters. I’ve heard the two kids had awesome acting skills…but I don’t speak Swedish, and the girls voice was dubbed, so how could I tell?

Occasionally we get a cool bit with the vamp climbing a wall or demonstrating what happens when they aren’t invited in, but mostly it’s a slow moving, uninspired film about buddies bonding…and one of them is a psycho. The other is a vampire.

Perhaps I should give the remake a chance. It’s gotten good press, and I hear a lot of it is shot for shot and it replaces idiot towns people for a cop…you know someone who would investigate the murders that are being committed in the sloppiest ways possible. I may still yet watch that one. And then rant on it…it’s beginning to feel like a vampire month.

A Discussion of Fright Night

A remake that does not suck; except for blood. See, the movies about vampires, so I needed a joke about sucking.

But seriously, Fright Night is pretty awesome. I give the original points for having a neat concept and basically retelling Dracula in the suburbs but this movie takes that concept and hones it to a fine edge.

Short story version, if you got a need to see a vampire movie go check this one out. It has fun with the genre but treats things pretty seriously, the comedy here coming more from absurdidy of the situation and not from a mockery of the source material. This movie is ‘Dracula in the suburbs’ and it’s pretty effective. It’s nearly my favorite vampire film since Lost Boys. That’s not an insult, Lost Boys is awesome.

Long story? I love how they took a story with a great idea and recut it, keeping key scenes and elements but using this time to really perfect the story. In the old film it begins with the hero ignoring his girlfriend and obsessed with the notion that his neighbor is a vampire. It gives us the premise but then drags on with the whole “no one believes me” aspect. In the new film that scene is mid movie, and it makes much more sense as we have followed this kid on the journey and know that is at risk. They improved the plot, tossed out the trash, and kicked in some pretty awesome elements. The car chase was pretty awesome and really hammers in the theme of “You can’t run away.” The original film played with mixing the old traditions in a modern world, this one gives the vampire the benefit of the doubt and has his screw with the heads of mortals who dare oppose him.

These changes provide a lot of fuel for the remake. In the 1985 film Evil Ed was just ‘the best friend’ who existed to help the hero with something he should have already known. Also his voice was really annoying and he failed to do anything of any merit in the course of the film. Here he grounds the main character, and really kick starts the whole plot. Plus he engages in nerd blackmail and that’s pretty awesome. As for the hero, he gets a bit of a short stick being surrounded by people who get to play with their archetypes. He has to be the dependable hero, a role Yelchin dives into pretty well. I really like Yelchin, who, in Terminator Salvation managed to do a perfect Kyle Reese impersonation. The boy has a knack for tackling icons and he does it well.

But to hell with the heroes, the best bits of this movie are owned by Colin Farrell and David Tennant. Farrell brings a huge change as Jerry the Vampire. Far from the suave, suit wearing euro vamp he has learned to adapt to his new surroundings. He plays the vampire as a true predator, out for the hunt and nearly removed from humanity. He’s not an alpha dog, he’s the only dog and he doesn’t care who he challenges. It’s pretty cool, and I love watching him try and weasel his way into the hero’s house.

Tennant also mixes things up, mostly because there aren’t a lot of horror movie hosts in the world anymore. But here he plays a man with his own Las Vegas stage show. His theme is vampires and he sells himself as an expert, but behind closed doors he’s just a shade away from alcoholism and true cowardice. Tennant is an amazing actor, and I love watching him have fun with his roles. He seems to truly enjoy inhabiting a role and making it his.

So yeah, this flick takes a good story, switches it up and improves on it in nearly every respect. Sure there is a bit of dodgy CGI and…actually I can’t think of anything else. I disliked a bit of the CGI, but even the original vamps went over the top so I’m pretty happy. This movie rocks.