The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

An Interview with writer Kenneth Hite

Kenneth Hite is designing Trail of Cthulhu – a licensed version of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu. Here, Ken answers questions posed by our redoubtable forum members.

1. How will sanity and madness be handled- especially as they relate to the fairly strong link in Lovecraft’s fiction between Finding Things Out and Going Crackers. Might sanity be treated as a resource that can be used up to help in an investigation? Or rather, less cynically, will there be some (perhaps dubious) advantage or beneficial side-effect in losing sanity?

In Trail of Cthulhu, Sanity is separate from the GUMSHOE trait Stability. Sanity measures your ability to believe in limited human reality; Stability is a mental health rating. (Dr. Armitage, from”Dunwich Horror,” has a very low Sanity, but a fairly high Stability,for example.) Using your Cthulhu Mythos skill helps with an investigation, but such “piecing together of dissociated knowledge”costs Sanity, and potentially Stability as well.

2. Will there be an introduction adventure included in the book as with the “Esoterrorists” and “GuH” book?

There will be an all-new introductory adventure in the Trail of Cthulhu core book.

3. Do you plan to include an default setting and background organization (a la Delta Green or Ordo Veritatis from Esoterrorists) or will it be a setting without background organization (like in CoC or GuH)?

My current plan is to include three separate narrative structures in the Trail of Cthulhu core book, and give some guidelines for constructing your own. Of course, Keepers and players will be welcome to follow the venerable Call of Cthulhu model of “you all meet at the reading of a will/museum opening/seance” if they like.

4. Will the book be written entirely from the viewpoint of those combating the unspeakable horrors or will there be focus on those who embrace the truth about Cthulhu & the mythos?

This book will be entirely about Investigators who discover, suffer from, and combat the horrors of the Mythos. Players who want to take the role of soulless inhuman monsters have a plenitude of other roleplaying choices in other roleplaying games.

5. Will the works of other Mythos writers such as Ramsey Campbell & August Derleth feature in or influence Trail of Cthulhu?

As with Call of Cthulhu , the entire Mythos will provide potential material for Trail of Cthulhu games. That said, the core ruleset will be primarily influenced by Lovecraft and Howard, with nods to otherwriters (I just wrote a fairly nice treatment of Campbell’s /Revelations of Glaaki/ if I do say so myself), including Derleth. The game is named after a Derleth story-cycle, after all, so it would be churlish to leave him out.

6. Do you think the Mythos has losts its power to inspire fear? Was the horror of the Mythos ever fully expressed in Call of Cthulhu?

The Mythos, like any other literary or artistic material, depends on the skill of its author and the acceptance of its audience for its power. This is true in roleplaying games as well as novels or short stories.The game Call of Cthulhu — SAN rewards, Elder Signs and all –expresses the maltheist, implacable core of the Mythos to a remarkable degree, and many of the published scenarios are quite terrifying to run or play. Assuming the Keeper is any good, and that the players aren’t being jerks, of course.

7. How much power do you think PCs should have over the Mythos? Will you present elder signs, for instance, as standard issue equipment or as arcane mysteries?

This is a Keeper call; the rules will support whichever flavor she wants for her game. We’re including special hard-core rules for Purists, and easier-going, more adventurous rules for Pulpier games. There will be Elder Signs in the game — they appear in Lovecraft, after all — but their narrative role and general availability is up to the Keeper.

8. You’ve said in the past that Call of Cthulhu is your favourite game. How will Trail of Cthulhu improve on CoC?

It won’t “improve on” Call of Cthulhu across the board; it will do some things more easily, and with a different feel or emphasis. The 1966 Shelby Mustang is my favorite car, but it’s not a particularly good SUV. Sashimi is my favorite food, but it’s not what I necessarily want for breakfast.

9. If I disagree with the central premise that Cthulhu (or investigation-centric) games have traditionally been stopped by a failed die roll, what else does GUMSHOE and Trail of Cthulhu offer me?

Trail of Cthulhu, specifically, offers you a number of interesting character filips, from core Drives (why are you in this ruined crypt,anyhow?) to personal Pillars of Sanity, as well as having my own delightful prose throughout. GUMSHOE, of course, offers an elegant, quick-to-learn ruleset focused for investigation and mystery narratives.

10. Are there any obscure corners of the Mythos you plan to give greating-than-usual attention (I hope)? If so, mind telling us which ones, or at least giving us a few hints to salivate over?

I think there’s plenty of interesting stuff we can do with some of the old standards yet, and hopefully my takes on Hastur, Nyarlathotep, andso forth will pique your saliva. That said, nobody ever seems to give Quachil Uttaus enough love.

11. Will this game have a grittier take on combat than Esoterrorists?

There will be a few new rules for combat in Trail of Cthulhu, covering Tommy guns, explosives, and other necessities of shoggoth-hunting, but in the main Esoterrorists combat system strikes me as admirably clean, staying out of my way while I’m trying to scare people half to death, so I’m sticking pretty closely to it.

12. Will Trail of Cthulhu give an overview of the Mythos, or will it be designed to focus on just a small slice?

The corebook will give an overview of the Mythos, although by now even focusing on Lovecraft’s creations is “just a small slice.”

13. Is Trail of Cthulhu designed to be a one-shot game or the first in a series of Cthulhu products?

All the plans I’m privy to indicate that Pelgrane intends to put out a series of products in the line, but Simon would be the person to ask about that.

[Ed: Ken, Robin Laws and others will be working on supplements for Trail of Cthulhu]

14. I’m partial to Robert E. Howard’s Cthulhu writings, so I was wondering if the game would be exclusive to Lovecraftian Cthulhu or if it would encompass parts of other writers as well?

A Cthulhu game without Robert E. Howard is like a day without sunshine.As I mentioned above, Trail of Cthulhu will have not just some of Howard’s monsters and tomes, but mechanical rules switches: flick them on to make the game feel more Pulpy and Howardian; leave them off for full-on tweedy collapse in Purist late-Lovecraft style.

14. Which period will this be set in? If you are thinking of Between the Wars, do you see a principal difference between 20’s and 30’s games? Will Gaslight or Modern be supported at all?

Trail of Cthulhu assumes a default setting of the 1930s, which was a darker, more desperate decade than the one before, what with the Depression, Hitler, Stalin, and so forth. Lovecraft’s stories begin to show the difference, and I’ll try to capture that difference in the setting material. I don’t know if Pelgrane intends to expand the line into other eras just yet, although adapting the ruleset to other decades should be fairly simple.

14. How does Gumshoe support period play? In other words, does Gumshoe allow modifications that can support different periods, or can Gumshoe be altered so that it actually enhances the period feel needed for a particular era?

Given the intentional compression of the GUMSHOE weapons table, the primary ways to alter setting feel mechanically are in the ability rules. In Trail of Cthulhu, the various abilities provide only period knowledge, of course. The Credit Rating ability can be used (if the Keeper so wishes) to enforce different social realities across decades. I think the biggest change is that Explosives has become a chancy General ability, not an automatic Investigative one. But really, the best way to support period feel is to write and run adventures dripping with it. That said, though, say good-bye to bulletproof vests!


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following news items and diary entries originally appeared on DyingEarth.com in 2001 and 2002.

You can find the entries for 1998-2000 here.

You can find the entries for 2006-2009 here.

Editor’s note: A few of these news items were not categorized by month or year – I have done my best to approximate their chronology, and have marked them with a small sun symbol.

2001

7th March

Phil Masters has sent his final draft for his section of “Cugel’s Compendium of Indispensable Advantages“. Magic items include “The Ruby of Lucent Absorption” and “Peltaron’s Rapier of Plangent Glaciation”. Included is a section on costume, and Tweaks such as “The Balance of Fortune and Mischance” and “Dour Determination” Phil’s work did not require much editing, as he has grasped the spirit of Cugel-level adventures admirably.

Aaron Allston, who did the Quick Start rules has been commissioned to write the rest of this tome including
*How to negotiate with innkeepers, merchants, teamsters, and others intent on separating you from your terces.
*How to get your fellow players to take all the risks, without their noticing your skilful shirking.
*The fine art of seduction.
*Confidence tricks, as well as a bunch of other bits and pieces.

8th March

We received the final proof copies through – the book looks very attractive, although the spine is a little bigger than I expected. The printers will do the next batch as a free reprint with a slightly smaller spine – they really are admirable people with whom to work. We will be exhibiting at the GAMA trade show in Las Vegas later in the month with the 5 copies we have.

12th March

We received pre-orders for the DE RPG from retailers and distributors. Wizard’s Attic, store and ship all Pelgrane’s stock, arrange for invoicing, and then send us the money. For a small RPG company, it’s a good way of doing things. The pre-orders were pretty good, but we hope that the GAMA Trade Show will improve this.

16th March-25th March

With both my ProFantasy hat and Pelgrane press hat on, I am attending the GAMA Trade Show along with Sasha Bilton a fellow Pelgrane director, and Mark Fulford, the joint MD of ProFantasy Software. Mark has been travelling around the world for a year, and this is his first taste of work for some time. The game goes down well with retailers and distributors, and all promise to order copies. Those large distributors who initially ordered very small numbers I collared, and using techniques inspired by the Dying Earth, tried intimidation, glibness and shame until they agreed to order more. Mike Webb of Alliance Games is a great enthusiast, and I thank him for promoting the game so well.

2nd April

The books have arrived in the UK, including a few signed by Jack Vance, Robin Laws and other contributors. I am thrilled that so much work by so many contributors has finally come to fruition. Piles of attractive-looking books are stacked up in the offer, and I showed them off to everyone in ProFantasy and Hogshead, too. Esdevium Games (the UK’s largest games distributor) have placed a large order and will be collecting it shortly.

5th April

The books are now at Wizard’s Attic in the States and presumably are shipping out to distributors. We’ve had our first on-line orders direct from the website and shipped them out. What will people think of it?

12th April

Thanks to the work of Liz Fulda of Sphinx Group who is doing our publicity and presumably our efforts at GTS, our retailer pre-orders have doubled!

14th April

XPS 2 is ready to go to the printers. Gary Gygax has written a fascinating article about the influence of Vance on the D&D game, the origins of the magic system and his encounters with Vance. Robin has written a 6000-word Rhialto-level adventure, and Steve Long has added a gambling den. Artwork by Ralph, Hilary and newcomer Dave Bezzina is apropos.

As Jim Webster, the editor says “…after many years of good service you will pass it on to your grandchildren who will likewise treasure it as an irreplaceable resource.”

20th April

We are on the front cover of the French magazine Backstab along with an interview with Robin Laws. Next month they feature a review. Cassus Belli, another French magazine has a review, too, next month.

I can’t wait to see some reviews.

23rd April

Esdevium (the main UK distributor) have sold out, as have Alliance. The level of re-orders will tell us how successful we have been. Overall, I am very pleased with our progress.

May-September

The diary appears to have transmuted into a memoir. I am using hard evidence, combined with my infallible memory to reconstruct what has happened over the last few months.

May-July

Reviews! We have lots of reviews, now – all favourable.

Realms of Fantasy described it as “.. a joy to read” and “everything players and a GM need to create a successful Campaign in one of the seminal gaming fantasy worlds”. Yes, these quotes are selective, but no one said anything unpleasant. Backstab used French words that may or may not be bad, but they did give us the Golden Dagger and five stars. Kenneth Hite, industry guru, wrote one of the reviewers and has subsequently agreed to write an article for the XPS. He said he would write a sourcebook “If we agreed to fly him to the UK.”

The Excellent Prismatic Spray II was released in July. It’s bulkier (and more expensive) than XPS 1. It has an air of self-confident formality, with its thick cream cover and old-fashioned text and layout. We really need to do more to encourage subscribers – we are making very little margin on this issue, and need to sell 900 distributor copies just to break even. We are having a few problems with the perception of the XPS – it’s not a fanzine – the articles are of a similar quality to the main rules; it’s timeless – there are few if any time sensitive articles, and it is full of adventure material. I hope that word will spread. Initial orders are very good, but I underestimated the print costs, so we need to sell 800 to break even, unless we can increase the number of subscribers.

The Players’ Guide to White-Walled Kaiin

The manuscript for the Kaiin sourcebook arrived from Robin Laws. It is written from an original perspective and is designed to demonstrate the joys of long-term adventuring in Vance’s world. The book is designed to be perused by players during the game; it is assumed that your PCs are long term residents of Kaiin, and know how things go. You can visit contacts, pick adventure hooks, and share much more of the creativity with the GM. It is over 100,000 words long, and none of it is wasted. Play test response has been very good; we’ve received a few minor requests for additional material and one correction. Jim Webster, editor of the Excellent Prismatic Spray, is a beef farmer, and he pointed out that the fodder requirements for the animals described for the Kaiin supplement are ludicrously low. In the interest of satisfying the large Beef Farmer – Jack Vance fan crossover market, we have corrected these errors.

August

The efficient team of Jim Webster and Sarah Wroot have put XPS 3 together in record time (a record that is perhaps undermined the number of previous attempts.) It gets better each time. Peter Freeman’s exposition of the Valley of the Graven Tombs, illustrated by Sarah is sublime. It won’t be released for a while, but I’m very pleased it is ready to go. This should reassure our potential subscribers.

GenCon 2001 US

The morose David Thomas braved illness, and a woefully low profile (my fault) to represent Pelgrane Press alone at GenCon 2001. I am told by freelancers and other publishers that we did rather well, but we were not buried in terces, and hope to do better next year. A few demo games and suitable clothing might help next time! Strangely, only half of our customers are Americans – this is very unusual for a roleplaying game, particularly one based on a license from a US author. Maybe GenCon will help spread the word. For most companies, the US is 80% of the market. Still Ed Greenwood of Forgotten Realms notoriety took out a subscription, and both he and Jonathan Tweet praised the game.

Cugel’s Compendium update

Cugel’s Compendium is nearly ready to go – I am just awaiting a quote from the printer. Allen Varney has completed the layout in a similar style to the main rules, and Ralph’s artwork is better than ever. It’s Robin’s idea, written primarily by him, Aaron Allston and Phil Masters. However, the excellent Dying Earth Magazine mailing list contributed additional material. It is a book of goodies for players. It includes new items, both magical and mundane, new cantraps, confidence tricks, negotiation strategies, a costume generator, and Tweaks. Tweaks are powers that can be used to amusing effect at a small cost in points. Here are a couple more examples:

Volcanic Umbrage

Situation: You have just discovered that you have been cheated or conned. The individual responsible for doing this still stands within throttling range.
Description: You fly into a titanic, blustering rage, waving your arms about and spitting out barely coherent threats. Even if you are a mild-looking person not known for violence, your aspect temporarily becomes so alarming that even a hardened warrior will flee from you in instinctive fear .
Benefit: The person who cheated you must run away from you at his best possible speed, in the direction best calculated to put the maximum distance between himself and your raging, lunatic self. After one minute, he can stop his flight by making a successful Wherewithal or Persuasion (Intimidating) roll. If he wants to make that a Wallop instead of a roll, he compares his Wherewithal or Persuasion (Intimidating) rating to your Rebuff (Wary) rating.

“Please Forgive My Companion, Who Was Dropped At Birth”

Situation: A member of your group has just committed a terrible social faux pas. He may have offended the attendees at an elevated social function, insulted an influential potential patron, or annoyed a hot-tempered person who is even now reaching for his rapier.

Description: You can mollify the insulted party or parties by smoothly pointing out that your companion is either a halfwit or foreigner, and is therefore not fully responsible for his errors of etiquette. Given their source, you explain, the offended persons need not consider his words any kind of meaningful insult; they can safely ignore him without damage to their reputations or honor.

Benefit: You may spend 1 Etiquette point to eliminate the adverse consequences of another character’s Etiquette failure. Treat this as an automatic action, not requiring a roll.

The Scaum Valley Gazetteer

This supplement will describe the centre of civilization in the Dying Earth, the Scaum Valley. Jim Webster wrote the bulk of the material before the rules were even started. David Thomas and Steve Dempsey added more material. David Thomas and I have been slowly editing and re-writing this 90,000-word manuscript, adding more material than we remove. This supplement is less rigidly planned than Kaiin and the Compendium, so it will take more time to polish. It is full of adventure material and background information, and includes the manse of many of the major Arch-Magicians. We’ve had to deal with certain minor discrepancies in the novels; what is unimportant to the reader of a novel becomes very important in an RPG. For example, Iucounu’s manse is described as overlooking two different rivers in Eyes of the Overworld and Cugel’s Saga. We don’t want to get uptight about it – you should hardly notice such discrepancies.

6th September

We ran out of XPS 1 some time ago, and people are still asking for a copy free with the rules. We aren’t going to do another re-print; we can’t afford not to charge, and people would be upset if we did. I’ve decided to put a PDF up on the website. This will keep current players happy and, with luck, increase the number of subscribers.

1st December

Dragonmeet was fun – we sold out of the new releases, literally rather than metaphorically. We dsiplayed a marvelous four tiered hat created by Magot, and Matt Goodman of Heliograph modelled it splendid effect at one of the seminars. John Kovalic was swamped by hundred’s of fans, and nearly lost the use of his writing hand and voice. The estimable James Wallis of Hogshead Publishing presided over the auction, and we were treated to a glimpse of his games designer’s torso. Luckily, no one bid high enough to see his Doomstones.

10th December

The Player’s Guide to Kaiin is in the hands of Sarah Wroot, the XPS layout artist. However, she has also been working on XPS Online, a web-based supplement for subscribers to the Excellent Prismatic Spray. This has ballooned and now includes additional websites for the Scholasticarium, Wakdun the Panderer. Whilst this will provide new material of the highest caliber, it has delayed Kaiin.

2002

Kaiin and Kaiin map released. The Player’s Guide to Kaiin is on general release. A limited edition full-color map is available from our order page.

19th January

The Scaum Valley Gazetteer has gone out for play testing again. It has been substantially rewritten to provide a better balance between the adventures and source material. We’ve added more taglines, spells and items and toned down certain death for PCs to to likely humiliation.

23rd January

XPS 3 and Cugel’s Compendium were printed back in November, and we had 30 of each shipped by airmail to us to sell at Dragonmeet. Unfortunately, we were unable to get the rest out in time for Christmas. The delay was further compounded by a miscommunication betweeen the printers, their shippers and Wizard’s Attic which means that they only arrived in the States on 20th January. Still, they are here now.

25th January

The XPS 3 subscription copies have gone out worldwide, and Cugel’s Compendium and XPS 3 are available in the States. Wizard’s Attic are shipping copies of each supplement to the UK for distribution to the rest of the world. We should have them over here by mid-February. I think that Leisure Games, who purchased some stock at Dragonmeet might have some copies for those in the UK and rest of the world who are desperate to get them.


The Dying Earth — and its rules-lighter version the Revivification Folio — take you into the world of master fantasist Jack Vance, where a flashing sword is less important than nimble wits, persuasive words,and a fine sense of fashion. Survive by your cunning, search for lost lore, or command the omnipotent but quarrelsome sandestins. Purchase The Dying Earth or the Revivification Folio in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

The following article originally appeared on an earlier iteration of See Page XX in October 2007. 

News from Pelgrane Press

Since the last missive, we’ve attended GenCon, released three new books and playtested the first pass of Trail of Cthulhu. Three new manuscripts have been laid out and are queued for printing, one awaits layout and another is queued for playtesting. Jérome Huguenin has been doing amazing work, illustrating and laying books out. New products have been added to the store, and they’ll soon be available for sale in retailers. Finally, the collected wisdom of Robin D Laws first twenty-four columns are available from rpgnow.com. (Ed. – These articles are now being released into the main Pelgrane Press blog feed.)

GenCon

I haven’t been to GenCon since the first Indy, and it was a real pleasure to see all the people I haven’t seen for years, and meet for the first time fellow industry professionals and players I’ve got to know online. Robin Laws spent a decent amount of time behind the stand, and Ken Hite did a Trail of Cthulhu Q&A. It was great to see so many excellent games rewarded at the Ennie Awards, in particular Qin, published by French publishers 7ème Cercle. They have done a great  job translating Esoterrorists and Fear Itself, and they are aiming to publish Trail of Cthulhu in French simultanously with us.

New Releases

The Book of Unremitting Horror a crossover book for Fear Itself and The Esoterrorists is now out. For the first time, it is released simultaneously as a PDF and print book. For the Dying Earth RPG, the paperback version of the Compendium of Universal Knowledge is also out. The hardback has been delayed due to printing issues.

Printing Problems

Problems with the printer mean that there has been a delay in publishing GUMSHOE Unremitting Horror and The Compendium of Universal Knowledge. A few were delivered to GenCon, and these are the ones available from our store . I do hope that the others will delivered to Impressions, our fulfilment agent so we can get retailers stocked soon.

Reviews

A review (and mini-review) of all of our GUMSHOE releases here. Fear Itself has been reviewed here on rpg.net.

Laid Out and Ready to Go

Now ready to print are:

Ready to Lay Out

Leonard Balsera has completed Profane Miracles, a short Esoterrorists adventure, which is being illustrated and laid out now.

In Playtesting

Trail of Cthulhu has completed its first round of playtesting, and is waiting on Kenneth Hite’s next draft to enter the second round. In addition, I’ll be soliciting for Mutant City Blues playtesters shortly.

This post originally appeared on DyingEarth.com between 2004 and 2007. 

A column about roleplaying

by Robin D. Laws

Last summer’s Origins convention in Columbus, Ohio gave me a platform for an eye-opening experience, and not an especially pleasant one, at that. It made me want to sharpen my own game as a designer and self-promoter, and to urge my colleagues to do the same.

As part of the con’s seminar track, I rounded up some of my fellow guests of honor for an event called Gaming Gurus Pick the Goods. Designer extraordinaire Jonathan Tweet, GenCon honcho Peter Adkison and supreme muskrat purveyor John Kovalic and I crawled the dealer’s hall looking for new, cool products to plug during a subsequent seminar.

We were looking for new and newish releases, so our recommendations had to be based on a quick initial impression. We didn’t have time to play games in detail and winkle out their hidden flaws. If a product caught the fancy of any expedition member, it won a spot on the pile. This is the lowest possible bar for product evaluation. Even so, we were devoting more concentrated energy to the hunt for hidden gems than any right-minded person would in a dealer’s room of that size.

I was shocked by what we encountered. At booth after booth, we had to wade through lazy, confused, indifferent and just plain non-existent product pitches. We presented ourselves at each dealer’s tables with way more energy and eagerness than most wary buyers. We didn’t need to be drawn in; we were serving ourselves up on a silver platter. Granted, some booth staffers knew us as industry types and may have figured an actual cash sale was not in the offing. Still, it was positively gobsmacking to ask the question “What have you got that’s new and w wonderful?” and hear, “Ehh, not much,” or, even more devastating, “Oh, the same old junk.”

Other bloodcurdling non-replies included “I really don’t know, I’m just working the booth,” and the time-honored, “I’m the girlfriend, you’ll have to ask him.” (A few weeks later Jonathan, Kenneth Hite and I repeated the event at GenCon; you really don’t want to hear the worst pitch from that event.)

Except for a small handful of well-staffed companies, most game manufacturers couldn’t run booths without volunteer labor, whether those roped in are friends, freelance creators, fans, or significant others. What our little adventure inadvertently highlighted was that most don’t take the time to provide even a minimal level of briefing to their conscripts before leaving them exposed to the teeming public. Projecting a welcoming persona does not necessarily come naturally to members of our glorious geek tribe. Many of us are alternately aloof or overly voluble, and either have a hard time speaking up, or of staying on point.

Anybody with any responsibility for running a booth at a show should be terrified that their booth staff, whether employees or volunteers, is giving the public dispiriting answers like the above. My hair stood on end. It made me question my own booth-weaseling skills, and whether I’ve become complacent after having been, in my early years, an energetic and successful pitchman.

Any booth runner, before every show, positively must, must, must, gather his volunteers together for a meeting. If they’re roleplayers, by golly, make ‘em roleplay. Run them through a scenario in which they pitch the product to you, the quasi-interested customer. Make sure they know what they need to about each product. Don’t let anyone work your booth till you can pull them aside and hone their spiel. Nobody wants an over-eager lunatic leaping into the aisle to corral unwilling participants, but you do need someone who can, once prompted, infuse the customer with the same enthusiasm about the product that led you to produce it in the first place. Do what any booth runner for any real industry trade show would do — give them a script! You don’t want them to robotically parrot it, but they need to know the bullet points.

That’s the second deadly, and far more common, sin we saw out there in the dealer’s hall that day. When prompted, most booth denizens were indeed able to reach for their newest, coolest thing — but almost none of them were able to quickly encapsulate its basic hook.

The successful marketing of any product starts with a unique selling point. What is it about this item that makes somebody want to buy it, instead of something like it? A unique selling point should be a quick, punchy sentence laden with both promise and information. Twenty-five words or less, preferably less.

We heard a lot of answers that didn’t at all resemble selling points. We were told that a certain book had a cult following because it was very popular in a particular country in the eighties. Sometimes the pitchman would flip through the rules book to his favorite game mechanic and then begin to describe it in detail — as he would if he were teaching the game, but devoid of all context. Or we would be told how incredibly great and different a product was, with the exact nature of this difference remaining elusive.

On several occasions I tried repeatedly to wrest a selling point from a struggling pitchman. With a roleplaying game there are lots of ways to phrase the question: “What do the characters actually do in the game world?” “I’m a GM; how do I convince my players to try this?” “How does this differ from D&D?” Or the blatant: “Tell me about it in 25 words or less.”

In some cases it was clear that there was a hook, and the booth guy hadn’t been properly prepared to supply it. Far grimmer was the realization that many of the books, cards, and playing boards strewn out on the tables had been envisioned, playtested, invested in, manufactured and brought to market without a valid, unique reason for being. The products had no immediately gripping points of distinction from the established games already dominating their respective categories.

The time to compose the 25-word encapsulation of your hook is not when you show up at the convention where your big product is due (gods of printing and courier services willing) for release. It’s about three minutes after you first conceive the desire to create and market the thing.

A handful of folks passed our test with flying colors. Their products immediately wound up on our plug piles. If you ever want to see how it’s done, try and get Alderac kingpin John Zinser to demo his company’s latest game for you. He’s a man who knows why you want to buy his game.

The impulse to create a game is a pure and beautiful thing, but if you want to sell it to other people (and spend money to do it) mere desire is not enough. We of the geek tribe adore elaboration and surface detail. We love to tinker and fix things. We may dig a particular game except for one apparently broken element. Though valid, most of these impulses should lead to the creation of a web page, not an expensively published game.

If you’re a civilian — that is, a gamer who quite sensibly wants only to play games and never design or publish them — you may be wondering why you should care about this at all. Maybe you shouldn’t. You certainly don’t owe anything to the folks who staff their booths with well-meaning but ineffectual volunteers, or who blow wads of dough on ill-conceived publishing ventures.

The value of a game to you, however, is directly related to your ability to find other people to play it with. The best way to predict whether a new game will yield a ready crop of fellow players is to ask the tough question: what’s the hook? What is it about this game that makes it different? Is the hook appealing enough to repay my investment of time and money?

Forget the health of the industry, or the financial well-being of new manufacturers. If we all get just a wee tougher about this, the games will get better.

“Professor Webb had been engaged, forty-eight years before, in a tour of Greenland and Iceland in search of some Runic inscriptions which he failed to unearth …”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Call of Cthulhu”

Instead of “Runic inscriptions,” in 1860 Professor Webb finds Cthulhu in West Greenland, on a rocky ledge in the cold. But by the 1930s the trail of runes runs hot … as does the Trail of Cthulhu. The SS teaches its officers rune science, while its Ahnenerbe office (ToC, p. 160) gathers runic material from all over Europe and the North. Ahnenerbe directors Hermann Wirth and Wolfram Sievers investigate (and vandalize) runes and petroglyphs at Bohuslän in Sweden in August 1936 to kick off an expedition into the wilds of Scandinavia.

This runestone in Uppsala probably doesn’t depict a winding nest of tentacles

If the Investigators follow the trail of the runes to Sweden themselves, they quite likely encounter Sigurd Agrell (1881-1937). And if they don’t, they surely encounter a runologist who warns them that Sigurd Agrell is a dangerous crank with unsound theories. In the Thirties, he’s a rabbity-looking, bespectacled man with a domed forehead and a truly luxurious black beard. Agrell spent his twenties between Paris and Uppsala University, a member of the decadent Symbolist poetic group Les quatre diables. But he seemingly put such things behind him, getting his doctorate in Slavic philology at Lund University in 1909, translating Russian literature, and going on to become full professor of Slavic Languages at Lund in 1921.

Then something happened in 1925, possibly connected with an earthquake in the Pacific and a wave of dreams around the world. Agrell suddenly became obsessed with the runes, the script of various Germanic languages invented (according to orthodox history) around 200 B.C. Agrell uses the name “Sigurobald” (and possibly uses opium) while studying the runes, and teases out a new theory: that they descend from Greek letters, and (more importantly) that they encode Mithraic wisdom. In 1931, he publishes his third runological text: Mystery Religions of Late Antiquity and Nordic Rune Magic, in which he reveals his discovery: the order of the runes was deliberately hidden.

Agrell argues that the standard ‘Elder Futhark’ order of runes (named for the first six runes: F, U, Th, A, R, K) conceals the true first rune: Ur, the rune of the aurochs, signifying the First Cow Audhumbla who licked the giant Ymir out of ice and also the Primal Bull of the Mithraic Mysteries often represented by Taurus. Hence the true runic alphabet is the Uthark, and the F rune (Feh, representing wealth) is not the first but actually the twenty-fourth. This, for example, explains the mystifying Norse good-luck runic inscription ALU; under the new numbering, its values add to 24, the number of all the runes and (now) of wealth.

Runing With the Devil, or, Too Many Olauses

“I had read only the least fragment of that blasphemous rune before closing the book and bringing it away.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Book”

Is Agrell merely a classic academic crank, a specialist hubristically tempted to theorize outside his expertise? Or is he the secret (unconscious? dreaming?) heir to Sweden’s long tradition of esoteric rune lore? Study of the runes begins with the Swedish historian, cartographer, and cryptozoologist Olaus Magnus (1490-1557) exiled to Poland (and eventually to Rome) in 1530 for his religion (and probably not for his investigations of mermaids – or Deep Ones) along with his brother Johannes Magnus (1488-1544) the erstwhile archbishop of (Agrell’s city) Uppsala. Olaus posthumously publishes his brother’s the History of the Goths and Swedes, which uses runic inscriptions that Johannes dated to 2000 B.C.

Uppsala-born Johannes Bureus (1568-1652) began studying the runes in 1594, compiling a runography in 1599. He became a tutor to the future King Gustavus Adolphus in 1602, and perhaps his teaching explains the wide use of runes as battlefield codes (and spells?) by the Swedish Army in the Thirty Years’ War. He dedicated his masterwork, the “Gothic Cabbala” Adalruna rediviva, to one of that war’s generals, Count Jacob de la Gardie (1583-1652), reputed to be an alchemist himself. (Jacob’s son, Count Magnus de la Gardie, became the namesake of M.R. James’ revenant, although Jacob better fits the model of a hideous necromancer.) Bureus believed the runes encoded noble truths of a supersensible realm, and carried on a runic rivalry with his Danish counterpart the anatomist Olaus Wormius (1588-1654), the translator of the Necronomicon into Latin in 1628 (Lovecraft’s 1228 date is clearly an error). Wormius’ runic compilation Runir seu appeared the year before (and perhaps caused?) Bureus’ death.

Bureus’ successors as court antiquarian and royal archaeologist avoided mention of the runes’ esoteric side. In 1675, the Swedish antiquarian and archivist Olaus Verelius published Manductio ad runographiam, which warned of runic black magic and necromancy. Verelius attempted to locate the site of the immense pagan temple to Thor, Odin, and Freyr in Uppsala (burnt in the 11th century); he also identified Sweden as Hyperborea. Olaus Rudbeck (1630-1702), a Swedish anatomist and runologist like Wormius, identified Sweden as both Hyperborea and Hades in his Atlantica (4 vols, 1679-1702), which also attempted to prove by runes that Atlantis was in Sweden. Rudbeck’s library burned up in a 1702 fire that devastated Uppsala and destroyed his house; he died before finishing his fifth volume.

A thin thread of esoteric runology survived Rudbeck’s fire: Erik Julius Björner (1696-1750) believed in primeval nature of runes, and the esoteric cabbalist Johan Göransson (1712-1769) also catalogued all known Swedish runic inscriptions in Bautil (1750). The Romantic nationalist impulse revived esoteric runology; the artistic Gothic League (1811-1844) rhapsodized about runes and their quasi-Masonic counterparts the Manhem League (1815-1823) created runic initiatory degrees (prefiguring Agrell’s Mithraic rune mysteries) and studied Old Norse sagas and fairy tales. Around that time (1812), one of the seven known manuscripts of Bureus’ Adulruna rediviva disappeared from the National Library of Sweden. In 1932, the Stockholm construction magnate (and Olympic gymnast) Carl-Ehrenfried Carlberg revives the Manhem League as a fascist occult physical-culture movement with runic ritual elements.

Rune Messiah, or, Going Cabbalistic

“The writing was in red, and varied from Arabic to Greek, Roman, and Hebrew letters. Malone could not read much of it, but what he did decipher was portentous and cabbalistic enough.”

— H.P. Lovecraft, “The Horror at Red Hook”

So we have at least two creepy Nazi rune societies, an opium-soaked crank, a missing magic book, a burned library, and a possible line of occult descent from the Renaissance to the Thirties. What more could you want? Well, if you’re anything like William Hamblin, author of the excellent old-school Call of Cthulhu adventure “The City Without a Name,” you want arbitrary cabbalistic calculations aplenty! It should go without saying that you’re free to shift up the orthography and the math to suit your own campaign or your own list of ominous numbers.

With that said:

Agrell’s Uthark system not only re-numbers the runes but also interprets them as stages in a cosmic ritual cycle. Agrell’s Uthark nicely limns not just Mithra and Odin but another, older god.

The fifth rune, Kaun (K) means “ulcer” or “boil” although it’s usually interpreted as “torch” – meaning inspiration?

The second rune, Thurs (Th) means “giant,” and I note that combining ‘Thurs’ with the next rune As (meaning “god”) yields a partial anagram for [h]asthur.

We’ve covered the first rune, Ur (U), but Agrell also interprets it to mean “water” as in “primordial ice” or “primal chaos.”

The twentieth rune Logr (L) means “waterfall, lake” but Agrell also associates it with the sea gods Aegir and Ran.

The eighth rune Hagal (H) means “hail,” but also, to Agrell, “crystal” – as in a divinatory crystal? Or a Trapezohedron, perhaps?

K + Th + U + L + H + U = 5+2+1+20+8+1 = 37

I don’t have anything particularly special to say about 37, except that multiplied by 18 (aeons? runes of the Hyperborean Futhark?) it becomes 666.

In Johannes Bureus’ Adulrunic cabbala, Great Cthulhu signifies thusly:

Kyn (10) + Tors (5) + Vr (3) + Lagher (700) + Haghall (30) + Vr (3) = 751

Hebrew Gematria

Let’s back up a bit, to the godfather of all cabbalism, the Hebrew mystical practice known as gematria. Gematria goes back at least to the Assyrians, which implies the Hebrews learned it during their Babylonian Exile in the 6th century B.C. – about the same time the similar Greek number system and occult practice (isopsephia) takes off.

Spelling ‘Cthulhu’ in Hebrew is even more fraught than in Runic, given the absence of vowels and many choices for transliteration. Two common variants both start with Cheth (but you could use Kaph or Qoph) and include Waw twice:

Ch (8) + T (9) + W (6) + L (30) + W (6) = 59

Ch (8) + Th (400) + W (6) + L (30) + H (5) + W (6) = 467

However you might want Scriptural backing for your spelling, in which case you can look to Isaiah 38:11: “I shall look upon man no more among the inhabitants of Chadel.” Chadel means “rest” or “cessation,” and is usually interpreted here to mean either “the land of the dead” or “this world” as a pun on Cheled (“the earth”). But if we look at the Ch-D-L root, or at Cthulhu as “resting,” we get:

Ch (8) + D (4) + L (30) = 42

Or put the vowels in (Aleph and Yod, since a diacritical in that text of Isaiah sometimes means there’s a ‘hidden’ Yod): + A (1) and Y (10) = 53

53 also turns out to be Hamblin’s value for ‘Cthulhu’ in “The City Without a Name,” as he transliterated the dread name ChDWLH:

Ch (8) + D (4) + W (6) + L (30) + H (5) = 53

Hamblin also mentions other gematriac methods in the adventure. “Small number” gematria reduces values to single digits; the value of Lamedh (30) becomes 3, for example, and ChDWLH yields 26. “Squares” gematria involves taking the square of each letter’s value, then adding them; ChDWLH squares to 1,041. “Series” gematria adds up all the previous letter values for each letter; A is 1, B is 2+1, D is 4+3+2+1, etc. In series, ChDWLH becomes 187. “Filled value” gematria uses the gematriac value of each letter as its final value; Heh (H-H) becomes 5+5, and ChDWLH fills to 958. You can arbitrarily add the number of letters in a name to any of these methods; plus five letters yields 963.

Arabic Gematria

The Koranic testimony to Cthulhu appears in 25:29: “For mankind, Satan is Khadhulan [the forsaker].” The Arabic version of gematria is called Abjad (after its first four letters), although cabbalists use a different “serial” version in Morocco. Breaking down ‘Khadhulan’ to its root, with Abjad values first and Moroccan serial values after the slash, you get:

Kh (600/7) + Dh (700/9) + L (30/500) = 1,330/516

Expanding ‘Khadhulhu’ with analogous but arbitrary vowels and aspirants borrowed from the Hebrew transliteration:

Kh (600/7) + Dh (700/9) + W (6/900) + L (30/500) + H (5/800) + W (6/900) = 1,347/3,116

Greek Isopsephia

The Greek Nekronomikon surely fooled around with this stuff. Greek numbers formed before their alphabet finalized; the now nonexistent letter digamma (pronounced like W in Homeric Greek) marks the place of 6. I’ve used upsilon (‘U) for the final phoneme in the Dread Name, because it was aspirated in older Greek (as in the first letter of Hyperborea). I’ve used Ch for Chi not the actual X, to avoid confusion with Xi.

Ch (600) + Th (9) + W (digamma, 6) + L (30) + ‘U (400) = 1,045

Latin Aequicalculus

Latin scholars, beginning in the 10th century, began applying Greek values to Latin letters for their own gematriac calculations. At first, they skipped the value for 6, because there was no Latin version of digamma, which is why H is 9 not 8. For the rest of these, I’m adopting Professor Angell’s transcription of the Dread Name, on the grounds that he was an expert linguist.

C (3) + T (300) + H (9) + V (400) + L (30) + H (9) + V (400) = 1,151

In 1499, the cryptographer Trithemius (1462-1516) developed a ‘simplex’ version based on a 22-letter Latin alphabet (omitting K and W and blending I/J and U/V).

C (3) + T (18) + H (8) + V (19) + L (10) + H (8) + V (19) = 85

Agrippa’s early 16th-century ‘Cabala Ordinis’ added K, but a variant German version did not. Cthulhu appears with the German variant value after the slash:

C (3) + T (100/90) + H (8) + V (200/100) + L (20/10) + H (8) + V (200/100) = 539/319

The German mathematician Michael Stifel (1487-1567) applied Hebrew gematriac methods and simplex letter values to Latin. The results for CTHVLHV appear below.

Triangular (series gematria) = 6 + 190 + 36 + 210 + 66 + 36 + 210 = 754

Quadrangular (squares gematria) = 9 + 361 + 64 + 400 + 121 + 64 + 400 = 1,419

Pentagonal (Quadrangular times two, minus Triangular) = 12 + 532 + 92 + 590 + 176 + 92 + 590 = 2,084

Masonic Gematria

The Protestant pastor of Quedlingburg, Johann Henning (1645-1695) created a Masonic code that basically adapted Trithemius’ simplex to the German alphabet.

C (3) + T (19) + H (8) + U (20) + L (11) + H (8) + U (20) = 89

The Golden Dawn created their own version of “English Qabala” gematria, basing it on Hebrew values:

C (3) + T (300) + H (8) + U (400) + L (30) + H (8) + U (400) = 1,149

For far more than you want or need to know about this stuff, with far less sourcing than you want or need, I recommend the two-volume polyglot numerological text The Key of it All, by David Allen Hulse.


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

 

When Ken selects his favorite monster, he goes for creepy crawlies with a viewpoint. Plus special bonus F20 monster!


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu and its many supplements and adventures in the Pelgrane Shop.

“Monk was asking Vida Carlaw, ‘Do you believe a mysterious jellylike creature did any killing?’ The girl hesitated, nipping at her lips. ‘You probably think I’m foolish, but, after all, no one really knows what is in the depths of the earth. Of course, scientists have a general idea, but there may be—things—down there that they don’t know anything about.'”

— Lester Dent, The Derrick Devil (Doc Savage Magazine, Feb 1937)

Cthulhu and his mythos emerged from the same news stands that produced the Shadow, Doc Savage, and lots of other larger-than-life characters who vastly outsold Cthulhu. Trail of Cthulhu honors that heroic origin by presenting rules and even gods in both Pulp and Purist categories, and Robin Laws especially honored it by presenting four straight-up pulp tribute adventures in Stunning Eldritch Tales. In the third adventure, “Death Laughs Last,” your heroes solved the mysterious death of milllionaire philanthropist Addison Bright, who fought crime in secret as … the Penitent!

Some detectives are stranger than others.

But what kind of pulp hero has only one adventure? (Most of them, sadly. Heroism was an unrewarding business, then as now.) The Penitent may be dead (for now) but if your Investigators acquired a taste for the lurid life, there’s more where he came from in the yellowed pages around them. Robert E. Howard alone provides plenty of inciting GMCs in need of two-fisted backup: River Street police detective Steve Harrison, boxer Kid Allison, sailor and boxer Steve Costigan, and that’s before you even get to Irish occultist John Kirowan or aging mercenary Kirby O’Donnell. Your heroes might cross cerebral swords with super detective Nick Carter, the young (ish) and (always) hungry Nero Wolfe, or any one of a hundred figures right out of Jess Nevins’ encyclopedias.

Compared to their descendants in the superhero comics, few actual pulp super villains survived more than one adventure. (Plenty of pre-pulp anti-heroes, such as Dr. Nikola, Dr. Quartz, Zenith the Albino, and Fu Manchu seemingly carried whole series by themselves, of course; classic pulps that attempted to recapture that spirit usually failed after a few numbers.) All their creators needed was a name and a gimmick — which is all a Keeper needs in a pinch, to be fair. So heroes are plentiful, and villains die fast — but which is which? Here’s a spinner rack full of pulp GMCs, packed like pulp-revival Ace Doubles, with both a hero side and a villain side. But even the heroes here have just a shmear of Purist flavor, meaning your Investigators might find themselves cast as the villains of this month’s exciting issue.

A-10

Decorated Great War ace turned barnstormer turned adventurer, “A-10” uses that code name when carrying out jobs for the FBI or the State Department with one of many state-of-the-art airplanes. Surveillance autogiros, speed-record interceptors, flying boats, even drone craft: A-10 can fly any of them better than any man alive.

Hero: Letitia Coolidge, self-taught electrical engineer, pulled an avionics control box out of a crashed disc-shaped craft in Vermont, put it in her second-hand Curtiss “Jenny,” and took off. She never gets used to having to plug wires from the stick into her brain, but the results are worth it … so far. Some of her “government orders” just come in on her airplane radio, a buzzing voice on a box …

Villain: Morland Harding flew too high over Brazil during an air show altitude contest, and made a deal with a Gaseous Wraith (Hideous Creatures, p. 108). All it wants is human sacrifices, and as long as he keeps killing people above 30,000 feet its vapors keep Harding literally at the top of his profession.

Fu Mien-chü

His name translates as “man who is a mask,” and his role in New York’s Chinatown is appropriately opaque. He has agents in every obscure temple, criminal gang, and house of ill fame in the district — and in every hospital, political campaign, and scientific laboratory. He holds at least two doctorates, in endocrinology and entomology, and speaks perfect un-accented baritone English.

Hero: This is the alias of the brilliant psychologist Dr. Fo-Lan, kidnapped by the Tcho-Tcho in 1902, who escaped them in 1906 by summoning the Elder Gods from Orion to destroy their city. Now, he investigates New York’s cult underground, warring against inhuman infiltrators and determining whether he needs to destroy yet another city to save the world …

Villain: “Fu” is either the Scorpion himself, Hsieh-Tzu (which is to say, L’mur-Kathulos of Atlantis), or one of his most trusted body doubles running the American branch of the Hsieh-Tzu Fan (Bookhounds of London, p. 63).

Jenna of the Jungle

Normally Jenna stays in her forest home in the Congo, but sometimes she visits New York in the company of her latest good-looking conquest. Both a wealthy English aristocrat and a jungle queen, she keeps a penthouse on Central Park West where she grows wild tropical plants and flowers, and where her pet panther Menes can sleep in the sun. Her prodigious strength keeps the mashers at bay when Menes isn’t around.

Hero: Born Geneva Jermyn, of the aristocratic Huntingdonshire Jermyns, she escaped the “Jermyn curse” of simian looks; although her arms and legs aren’t quite normally proportioned, and her nose is a little upturned, on her it looks amazing. When her cousin Arthur committed suicide and burned down the family mansion in 1920, she went to Africa to find out why. She came out a decade later, looking not a day older.

Villain: Did she visit the Anzique country on the way? Her boyfriends don’t last long, after all … Alternatively, perhaps she embraced the “White God” of Dzéwa, gaining her powers over plants and animals from its Xiclotli servitors (Shadows Over Filmland, p. 103).

Hugo “Doc” Woesten

There’s nothing he can’t do: scientist, surgeon, explorer, Doc Woesten embodies the perfect physical and mental development of the species. Using his “mental radio” at the top of the Empire State Building to receive uncanny distress signals from all over the world, Doc and his five assistants are always there when something weird and menacing threatens an heiress or endangers an archaeological dig. Only Doc’s assistants know what goes on in his secret psychic college beneath the New York State Psychopathic Institute in the Catskills.

Hero: Doc owes his abilities to alien possession: while experimenting with his mental radio during the 1927 nova XX Tauri, a “brother of light” incarnated into him. His operations on criminal brains further the “brother’s” search for minds possessed by Algol, Alphecca, or other “demon stars.”

Villain: Doc is a van Kauran on his mother’s side, from a long line of Mythos magicians in upstate New York. Henrietta raised him using twenty-one years of rituals and following every stricture in the Book of Eibon to create a “star child.” Doc travels the world “rescuing” artifacts (and eliminating rivals) to eventually bring about a new Hyperborean Age and make his mother proud of him.


Trail of Cthulhu is an award-winning 1930s horror roleplaying game by Kenneth Hite, produced under license from Chaosium. Whether you’re playing in two-fisted Pulp mode or sanity-shredding Purist mode, its GUMSHOE system enables taut, thrilling investigative adventures where the challenge is in interpreting clues, not finding them. Purchase Trail of Cthulhu, and its many supplements and adventures, in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Beat the scores of our top single or team contestants as our Virtual Pub Quiz unleashes fiendish questions from Robin D. Laws, Kenneth Hite, Rob Heinsoo, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan, Cat Tobin, and Wade Rockett.

Is that dolphin charismatic or sinister? Grab a glass, virtual or actual, and find out.

Our virtual panel series cleans ichor from its blades as very special guest Sandy Petersen joins Swords of the Serpentine designers Kevin Kulp and Emily Dresner, along with Kenneth Hite, Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and moderator Robin D. Laws to provide tips and hooks for mixing swords and eldtrichery.

“My shadowy visage, grey with grief,
In sunken waters walled with sand,
I see — where all mine ancient land
Lies yellow like an autumn leaf.”

— Clark Ashton Smith, “The Kingdom of Shadows”

Robin has staked out Paris with his customary élan, and Robert Chambers has toured us through Brittany, but there’s at least one more stretch of French countryside redolent with time-slips, dangerous romances, and werewolves. I speak of course of Auvergne, nestled atop the Massif Central, a volcanic upthrust covered even in 1895 with forests as deep as they were two thousand years ago when the Arverni arrived from the east.

Chromolithograph of Tournoël Castle, c. 1895

Even in 1895, the railways connect only the bigger towns: Vichy (pop. 12,300) in the north, St.-Etienne (pop. 133,400) in the southeast, Aurillac (pop. 16,500) in the southwest, Clermont-Ferrand (pop. 51,000) in the Allier valley in the middle. Although Michelin’s tire plant in Clermont-Ferrand and Thiers’ knife factories bring outside investment, art students in The Yellow King RPG know the region primarily as a source of mineral water, charcuterie, cheese, and a very affordable vin gris. (Americans might appreciate Chavaniac-Lafayette, named for its most famous son, in the forested southeast.) It hasn’t been really fashionable for painters since Theodore Rousseau and the Romantics two generations ago — although a few Barbizon school devotees still chase the region’s ineffable dapple of trees and mountains. The rich and the elderly take the cure in springs at Vichy and Mont-Dome; nothing could be less au courant.

People

Edgar Degas, 61 (1834-1917; Paris p. 117)

In August 1895, Degas takes the water cure at Mont-Dore. While here, he continues to practice photography, including experimenting with moonlit exposures using “panchromatic plates.” He may bring the characters along as assistants, or they may hear of strange yellow streaks appearing in his images — Degas writes home to Paris complaining of his many spoiled prints and negatives.

Armand Guillaumin, 54 (1841-1927)

An o.g. Impressionist and friend of Pissarro and Cézanne, Guillaumin wins the lottery in 1891. He quits his job at the railway and retires to Creuse, just west of Auvergne, to become the center of the Crozant School in that town. He paints in Auvergne in 1895, as might other Crozantistes such as Maurice Leloir, 41 (1853-1940) who avidly researches and photographs ancient and medieval costumes; and the occult-minded Swedish lithographer and painter Allan Österlind, 39 (1855-1938) who embraces Spiritism while on an island off Brittany in 1886.

Auguste and Louis Lumière, 34 and 32 (1862-1954 and 1864-1948)

In 1895, the Lumière brothers of Lyon experiment with their new motion picture camera, and with color photography, before triumphantly debuting their movies in Paris that December. History does not record whether they venture into Auvergne for some nature shoots that summer, or why they abruptly abandoned motion pictures and refused to sell their camera to other film-makers.

Auguste Michel-Lévy, 51 (1844-1911)

Geologist, Inspector of Mines, and director of the Geological Survey of France, Michel-Lévy develops the interference color chart, using birefringence of cross-polarized light to identify minerals. In 1895 he studies extinct volcanoes in Auvergne; minerals from the region such as amesite and pargasite both display as yellow in cross-polarized light. (A newly discovered mineral, lawsonite, also displays as yellow; it first appears in 1895 in Marin County, California and soon after in Brittany.)

Émile Munier, 55 (1840-1895)

A great friend of Bougereau with many American clients, Munier has painted in the Auvergne since 1886. His Academic paintings increasingly depict angels and cupids, possibly an attempt to domesticate Carcosan figures he perceives — he dies of cerebral congestion in Paris on June 29. His death might be what points the group to the Auvergne influx — or perhaps he makes an abrupt “recovery” and returns to Auvergne a changed man.

Felix Thiollier, 53 (1842-1914)

After making his fortune in ribbon manufacturing in St.-Etienne, Thiollier retires at 35 to take photographs in the Auvergne. He lives in a former Hospitaller commandery in Verrieres; his many interests include Celtic archaeology and medieval art. Perhaps he notices towers or hillsides changing in his photographs, or sees carnivorous toads labeled SADOGUI in an illuminated manuscript.

Other artists painting in the Auvergne in 1895 include the painters Adolphe Appian, 75 (1819-1898) and Victor Charreton, 31 (1864-1936), both based in Lyon. If you’re looking for some meddling kids, you have your choice of the odious, spoiled Pierre Laval, 12 (1883-1945) in Chateldone near Vichy, and the mystical Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, 14 (1881-1955) home for the summer at Orcines near Clermont-Ferrand from studying mathematics at a Jesuit college. At a remove, two native Auvergnois might send home a useful or terrifying discovery: the diplomat Henri Pognon, 42 (1853-1921) unearths Aramaic manuscripts and Assyrian tablets while consul in Baghdad and Aleppo; and the engineer Nicole Auguste Pomel, 74 (1821-1898) excavates giant rhinoceri in Algeria that remind him of the woolly rhinoceros that roamed Auvergne in the Ice Age.

The Occult

Characters looking for the Rosicrucians and other occult societies should look to Lyon (pop. 450,000), 165 km east of Clermont-Ferrand and several hours journey by train around the black-forested Monts du Madeleine between them. Rich and sociable, Lyon boasts several flourishing, bickering secret societies, tracing themselves back to Cagliostro, Saint-Martin, or even Agrippa. The AGLA society, if it exists as anything more than an old printers’ guild, claims all three as members.

Though Aurillac produced a sorcerer Pope (Sylvester II) who read mysterious Arabic books, Auvergne doesn’t hold with such citified occult fripperies. The Auvergnois hold to the Old Ways. Here, the Druids outlasted the Romans, and country folk still follow old customs at standing stones and deep wells — lighting fires to Grannus, singing to Pan, leaving offerings to Sadoqua.

A Rendezvous in Auvergne

Sadoqua, or Sadogui as the inquisitors referred to him while hunting the stubborn witch- and werewolf-cults of Auvergne, may have been a local version of Sucellus, a god of wine, or the name under which the Arverni and Averones worshiped “Gallic Mercury,” a shape-shifting god of prophecy. Under those names or another, he sees Carcosan energies fracturing reality, and presses his bat-like ears and toad-like tongue to the cracks. Clearly the multiplicity of images — of rocks under cross-polarized light, of anomalous photographs, of paintings iterating the same dark valleys for decades — speak both to Carcosan unreality and to Sadoqua’s plasticity.

Is the sudden phylloxera outbreak in Auvergne’s vineyards a Carcosan strike at Sadoqua’s vintage? (The blight had avoided Auvergne until 1895.) Can the AGLA cult tempt the players with a quest for the lost monastery library of Abbot Hilaire, broken up after the Revolution but rumored to contain a book of Hyperborean rituals that can re-make an un-made world? Does Carcosa manifest here through the seductive world of Sylaire, visible in lenses that have read the birefringence of Druidic menhirs or the gargoyles atop Notre-Dame du Port in Clermont-Ferrand? Do the lamias and succubae that lurk in Auvergne’s ruins serve Cassilda or Sadoqua? Or is Carcosa actually Cykranosh, sacred planet of Tsathoggua? When the players emerge, will the maps have changed: Le Puy become Ximes, Clermont-Ferrand become Vyônes, the Allier flows as the Isoile, the sparkling water labeled Ylourgne instead of Vichy, St.-Etienne now St.-Azédarac, and Auvergne rejoicing once more in its true name of Averoigne?

 


 

The Yellow King Roleplaying Game takes you on a brain-bending spiral through multiple selves and timelines, pitting characters against the reality-altering horror of The King in Yellow. When read, this suppressed play invites madness, and remolds our world into a colony of the alien planet Carcosa. Four core books, served up together in a beautiful slipcase, confront layers with an epic journey into horror in four alternate-reality settings: Belle Epoque Paris, The Wars, Aftermath, and This Is Normal Now. Purchase The Yellow King Roleplaying Game in print and PDF at the Pelgrane Shop.

Previous Entries Next Entries