Trail of Cthulhu - Kenneth Hite

This role playing game system is a mix of the Call of Cthulhu horror game with the Gumshoe hard boiled detective game by Robin D Laws. There is a lot to like about this as it both boils down the elements of the Lovecraftian horror to its mysterious and terrible core and simplifies the gaming system in order to get through some of the problems of clue finding that the original CoC RPG has been struggling with for decades (eg, A player looks for the secret passage and fails the roll...now what?). On the negative side it does invite some weakness on the playing side as I can see investigators being spoon fed information. There is also a system of sanity verses stability, which is largely how crazy you are verses how crazy you seem, yet one of the points pushed by this system is the emphasis on roleplaying (so why can't you just roleplay if your character is visibly crazy or not?!). I definitely want to try this system out, but a have to say that the organization of the game book is sanity destroying horrible. In the future tell us first how the system works and then talk about the different roles players can take. Thanks to Joe for giving me this game book.

Dork Covenant (The Collected Dork Tower, vol 1) - John Kovalic

I wanted to like this comic more than I did, and I should have. Silly drawings of nerdy guys talking about role playing games and their geek pop culture world, what's not to love?! Yet I just didn't find it quite silly or funny enough, sorry. It is the first collection of a series that has been going on for a while, so there is a good chance I'll grab another collection and find that one to be better than this and thus like it even more. I'll keep you posted. 

Masks of Nyarlathotep: A Call of Cthulhu Campaign

A generation ago a friend gave me the complete Masks adventure book for the Lovecraft inspired horror role playing game with the caveat that I must run it. He should have been more specific. Last night, after some two years of monthly or so game sessions, I and a group of intrepid adventurers (Cory, Davf, Drace, Jon, and Kym) finished the deadly, world encompassing, adventure, and foiled the plans of the dark god who would usher in the end of human life. Well, foiled for now. The game is quite intense, taking the investigators to different continents to discover various cults that all worship distinct aspects of the same evil that is Nyarlathotep. The campaign is very good at killing characters and/or driving them insane, perhaps more than is necessary. Players uncover and oppose demented cultists, shady characters, supposed upstanding citizens, and horrific monsters from this and other realities and times (all the while learning about different cultures!). The investigators attempt to unravel the events surrounding the fate of the Carlyle expedition that disappeared in the jungles of Africa some 6 years (game time) earlier, how it is related to the repulsive murder of a friend, why it ties to seemingly unrelated events/places/people throughout the world, and how it might lead to the destruction of humanity itself--and what the players might do to stop the unstoppable. There are issues I had with the adventure as there are a number of typos and missing illustrations/maps that would have helped, plus the pictures/descriptions do not always match the statistical information about the characters. In other words, a rewrite would have done wonders. Still, for an epic campaign it was impressive and well designed.

As for the actual playing, I had two newbies, who did remarkably well (perhaps due to a lack of RPG preconceptions/bagage), but only having 5 players meant allowing them 2 characters each to deal with split activities and injuries. There were bizarre happenings with the game as my group tended to over-think events to the point of paralysis or blindly jumping into fire (sometimes literally). It was enjoyable to watch as they did things completely unexpectedly, for example following adventures paths in illogical order ("we have all this evidence linked to Egypt and it's right next door, so let's go to China since we have only one rumor about it"), or completely missing huge events (they managed to by-pass 80% of the encounters in Egypt), or undermining incredible dangerous encounters by using a stumbled upon magic item ("instead of dealing with the possibility of an ambush, let's use X to assassinate the possible cult leader from 200 miles away"). I had linked the Masks with two other adventures from the original Call of Cthulhu source book and I think it added to the experience, but in any event I think the campaign was interesting and exciting all on it's own.

I must admit that the final session (which took us three sessions to do) did end somewhat anti-climatically, although it oddly added realism. After all, you have a group of investigators that managed to (temporarily) defeat the forces of evil and what do they have to show for it? A death toll of characters and associates that numbered in the hundreds (seriously, with over a dozen dead player characters alone!) and nothing to show for it except insanity, poverty, permanent injuries, criminal records, and a story no one will believe. Ending at 2 am with two dozen empty soda cans skattered about, the actual player's exhaustion mirrored their character's.

Surviving The Call of Cthulhu: Advice for new players of the roll playing game

Call of Cthulhu is not an easy game. Instead of leveling up like in D&D, any increase in power is checked by, in the very least, a deteriorating mind. It's a real challenge to roll play realistically a character the player knows is doomed. So I thought I'd write up a couple of notes that might help. 1 Be prepared. Boy scouts got it right. Have a plan, have a backup plan, and have one for when those two don't work (and they won't). Do your research and scout things out. When do you want to learn that the warehouse you just broke into has a security force inside? When do you want to start reading the mythos tome with the binding spell for the monster that the cultist just summoned? Don't get yourself into anything that you aren't ready to handle. Only fools rush in.

2 Delay at your own risk. What, you think the bad guys are waiting for you to gear up? Act with the tools on hand. If you don't have what it takes to deal with the cultists while they are summoning monsters, then you really don't have what it takes to stop them after the creatures get summoned.

3 The authorities are your friends. You pay your taxes. Who do you think is better able to shut down the midnight ceremony in the museum of those dozen cultists who are murdering children? You?! If you can show the cops that illegal crap is going down, let them kick in the doors and unload their shotguns. That what they're there for.

4 Trust no one. Do you really want to explain to the cops how you are trying to save the world from evil gods? What do you think is going to happen when Johnny Law gets a look at your mythos tomes an alien tech? If civilian leadership could handle this stuff they would have thousands of years ago. And just imagine the Bush II administration with the Necronomicon! Remember, the end of Raiders of the Lost Arc was probably a best case scenario.

5 Guns don't kill people... Hell yeah they do, but then again you are people too. A bullet to the head is great against the magic using high priest of Yog-Sothoth. But know your level of firepower. Sometimes a couple of dotty old professors with handguns can deal with the situation; sometimes you need to hire a goon to trigger the dynamite. This is not a treasure hunt; you can't worry about what will be lost if you burn a temple to the dark gods to the ground. Nuke the site from orbit as Ripley suggested in Aliens and you won't retrieved any goodies, but you also won't lose lives.

6 Knowledge is power. To defeat the mythos you must know the mythos. It is a sad reality but there it is. Bullets don't do anything against Yog-Sothoth. The reason why the mythos drives people mad is because it both totally contradicts all human notions of reality and triggers DNA level instincts of flight. But only it has the knowledge to counter what is happening. Don't discount using the same books and artifacts cultists use. Beg, borrow, and steal what you need. Corpses are great to ransack, but you can't find anything in a pile of ashes.

7 Out of sight, out of mind. The mythos causes insanity; is that something you really want to delve into? The reason why the mythos drives people mad is because it both totally contradicts all human notions of reality and trigger DNA level instincts of flight. Ignorance is bliss; avoid what you can, it's much safer that way.

8 Never surrender. You are going to save the world; there is no one else. Having your head in the sand won't change anything. It's all or nothing, do or die. Cthulhu doesn't care if you were involved in the attempt to stop it or not; either way you aren't safe.

9 Crazy is as crazy does. Don't expect cultists or mythos creatures to be predictable. Charles Manson is too put together to worship the likes of Azathoth, and alien beings are just that. Expected the unexpected and throw those preconceptions out the window.

10 Focus, Grasshopper. CoC isn't D&D but that doesn't mean you are powerless. Remember what your characters can do and get use to standardizing actions and calling for rolls. The mythos is pretty predictable: cultists are insane and the beings they serve just want destruction, this gives you the edge of rationalism. Use it to you advantage.

Sewer Art: Fun with Propaganda

 

-------------------------------------------------------- FEEDBACK

Cej sez:

Dreaming of You 1) Again, it’s nice to know that not all of our comics are “one-offs,” and yes, I was happy to see T-Rex again, even if he should have stayed in the closet.

2) Your art continues to improve.  I think that it’s a combination of less hesitancy on your part and a bolder line in your line work.  This may be caused partly by doing the 1:1 ratio, I don’t know.  Is there any reason that you’re not doing them larger?  The art is simple and clean, which allows it to get to the point.  I think I tend to overthink my lights and darks and thus wind up doing a disservice to the art.  I’m not saying that your art looks rushed; I’m saying that it is looking stronger and more confident.  The minimalist approach is certainly valid and I personally have nothing against it.  It just isn’t my style.  As strange as it sounds, you might look at Little Lulu and Henry or any Harvey comics for inspiration and ideas.  I’ll see if I can send you some.

3) This was a pretty good joke, and I always like these kind of side-by-side comparisons that take advantage of the medium.  You make a simple statement through two pictures that would have taken a lot more effort and explaining in words.  I like how it gets right to the point but still gives you a lot of meat to chew on.  The art isn’t super detailed, but there are enough details to carry the message, like the program on the TV.

Wake Up, Sucka 1) Again, this was one of those jokes that could have been done “straight.”  That is, you could have made it about “real” monsters and their actual life, or about CIA badness and the reality.  This isn’t really a negative criticism; it’s just a comment that, although your jokes are based in a world that very few people know about, the actual structure of the joke is pretty accessible.  So it isn’t too far of a stretch to see that by making the Nosferatu world a little more “understandable” to the layman (without having it over obvious to the player), you’d get a good synthesis of players and non-players who can appreciate the joke.  Frankly, this one is pretty accessible already.

2) I can’t decide on the layout of the interior pictures.  I didn’t have a problem with the “nonrealistic” approach, because I think that you’re right that it is clear what is going on in the picture, and also who the people are and what they are doing.  Nevertheless, I think that more detail might have been nice such that the individual pictures weren’t floating so much.  What I mean is that it’s okay that the pictures “float” between one another, but a little more background to each one would have fleshed them out a little better: a road for T-Rex to walk on, a room for the TV watcher to sit in.  Or at least suggest these things.  I realize that this is picky; it’s basically the same note that I made last time about “placing” the characters.

I thought that there could have been even more contrast between the two pictures.  The images are certainly contrasting in terms of what each monster is doing, but you might consider how differences in the art could add to the effect.  I know that you’re going for a Minimalist approach, but keep in mind that it may not always be the best.  If panel one were dark and dense it would contrast that much more with panel two if it were open, light and airy.  I’m not saying that this would necessarily have been better, but I think that it is worth considering given that the joke is largely about contrast.

Sewer Art: Vigilant Vampires

Background: To give an introduction to the first part of this AR (which is to say that at this point I hope to be sending 2 comics to you), I am in a LARP, which stands for Live Action Roll Playing. You may not know (and definitely don’t care) what this is so I shall explain. No, to difficult, let me sum up. LARPing is where you take games like Cthulhu, Dungeon and Dragons, Vampire, etc. and you reshape it into a “smaller” form that can be acted out like a play, rather than around a table. You may have heard of such things from reports on the news, as it would seem that every teen that kills someone is 90% certain to be a Goth and/or a LARPer. This is a change from our days when the psychos would be metal heads and into D&D, but hey, times change, but I digress. A LARP is like a Renaissance fare (and as realistic) where people will dress the part and pretend to be actors for their characters (which are usually Vampires (as White Wolf’s Vampire: The Masquerade is the most popular due to the Goth crossover appeal. I was suppose to do some work with White Wolf but Harry and the crew (the fat people from DC) cut me out of the contract after taking some of my ideas. But again I digress.)) and the “play” is improvised as the characters interact. There are plots involved but it changes as the actors “write” the script. If you are wondering how the dice rolling is done, it is by rock-papper-scicors modified by abilities/traits that the characters have. If you care enough to know more, let me know and I will give more detail but this is probably much more than you care to know right now anyway. The point is that I am in a Vampire LARP where I play the leader of the Nosferatu (ugly information gatherers who live in sewers and hang with rats) clan in NYC. My character is called T-Rex due to his deformed arms and reptilian head. There are various clans and stuff goes on blah, blah, blah but the point is that I’m having conflict with another group of vampires known as the Ventrue (the Donald Trumps of the undead). The players of the Ventrue are cheesy in that they came to the game with the sole intent to work as a unit and take over the “city”. I say it’s cheesy only because they designed characters that covered all bases and yet are 100% loyal to their leader. In the gaming world, we call this power gaming; in the real world, we call it having no life. Seeing that all the scheming I was doing was still falling short (I am one vs. their 8 but the bets are still on as to who’s deviousness is winning the game (the guys running the game figure the odds are 2 to 1 against me but that’s not bad considering)) I decided to throw my experience points towards turning T-Rex into a devastating fighting force. In this way, I can even out the odds by simply “removing” rivals the old fashion way. Now that you understand all this, the comic might make a little more sense.

Concept: The main guy running the LARP has a website that I have been pushing him to update. That led to him asking if people had ideas/art etc. to make the renovation worth his time. I know that I’m no artist but I also know that I want to do comics. I figured I might be able to do a comic for the LARP. Since T-Rex has deformed arms, I first thought I’d pretend that it was him drawing the comic and do a kind of stick figure, “T-Rex smash puny Ventrue” comic. As explained in the Background, I was having problems thinking of ways to counter the Ventrue threat to my clan. I realized that they could always “outbid” anything my clan was trying to manipulate so I decided to cut to the chase. Ventrues hate to get their hands dirty and realized that I was mis-focusing my efforts. I was riding the subway (this is where is spend far too much time and often do a lot of my thinking because I have nothing else to do on it) when I was realizing how much economic power the Ventrue controlled and that I couldn’t catch up. “If only I could just get rid of there leader,” I thought, and then realized “wait, I can kill the little bitch!” Soon I realized that this could be the topic of the comic I wanted and, having a little note pad with me, I started to write out what I had been thinking. It was pretty basic, I just set down the problem (the Ventrue control so much) and countered it with the solution (the Nosferatu can kill the Ventrue). It all came very fast, and was probable influenced by daily comics (in that the beginning of the comic always sets up for the twist/punch-line).

Layout: I knew I wanted the comic to be simple (2 guys talking) so it was just a matter of how many panels. When I wrote the 1st of the 2 drafts of monologue the number worked out nicely and just went for the 6 box format. I typed up the lettering to see how much room I would need and based the panels around that size that would still fit on a regular piece of paper.

Pencil: I didn’t think of this as a “real” comic at first and didn’t want to use my “special” paper. I had sketched out some drawings of the 2 characters after I didn’t like the look of the stick figure idea. I felt I had the general look and got to drawing. There were some problems, but I wasn’t totally displeased with the results. I used a regular #2 pencil for this as I was going for a non-artistic art look. For erasing I used either good old pinkie or Pentel’s Hi-Ploymer plastic eraser which is rather smooth. Even still, I had some mishaps as the paper bent while erasing excess lines.

Ink: I had a few problems here. I was using my .01 pen for the art and my .7 for the borders. The borders got screwed when I had to stop and start and the paper would suck up some of the ink upon initial contact or if I stopped for a length of time. It looked better when in pencil as I had this real sketchy quality to it that I can’t explain beyond that it looked like a sketch and it looked fun (as “good” is not the proper word).

Lettering: As mentioned, I did this first and on computer. I cut the words out with an xacto knife and used my glue stick to glue the words. I used a ruler to try to keep things straight but who knows how successful that was. Also, the glue got stuck at one point and bent the words, a real pain in the ass.

Reproduction: This was easy as it was the same size, but when I made a couple of copies the toner was low so it came out bad.

Extras: I wanted to have a comic that could be more than just an inside joke. I think that I have that to the degree of people that know Vampire. I feel that any of those people can read this and laugh without knowing such details like who the people involved are. Ideally it would be a universal joke but we can’t have everything.

--------------------------------------------------------------

FEEDBACK

Cej sez:

Suck on This 1) Proud to see that you’re continuing your series, and I look forward to continued exploits in this realm.  I’d recommend that you do continue and that we start to see some return characters (is that possible? or is everyone dying off?).  I realize that it’s probably too much to ask to see an actual “full length” story about this realm, but I would like to learn more about this realm, and I suspect that there is a lot more to tell that could take on a larger life than just these “one-off” jokes (which is not to say that there’s anything wrong with a joke…)

2) The art looks pretty loose, but it also seems pretty clear and straightforward.  I’m not quite sure how to express it, but it seems a lot less timid than some of the earlier stuff.  Maybe it’s because it looks like it was drawn quickly, but competently. It may be the heavier line weight or the heavier boarder.  I like it.

3) I like how well the “story” flows.  Although the way that the characters look is not 100% consistent, it is still very clear what is going on.  The action moves quickly, but smoothly because of good panel-to-panel transition.  It may be hard for you to tell, but this looks quite good.  The distinctive clothing also helps to clarify who’s who.

Bite Me

1) I’m not sure that an arrow is the best mode for showing action/direction, but it’s not bad.  I think it might help to make the end of the arrow wider than the point of the arrow (perspective kinda thing).

2) I don’t really “get” the joke.  I’m not sure if the punch line refers to 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous or if it’s a reference to something that I just don’t know about.  Don’t get me wrong, I don’t think that you need to dumb it down for me or for anyone, but you might consider ways that you could give the reader more background info inside of the comic so that you could still tell the stories/jokes that you want, but still make this world more accessible to other readers.  Little things can go a long way—like having things in the background of the panel.  Just by having the Sheriff come out of the sewer, tells me that this is a different world.  (Still, I’m not sure if “Sheriff” is the guy’s name, his occupation, or just some shirt that he’s wearing.)

Now that your art is getting stronger (and it really is—compare this one to your first comic), I feel I can be more brutal.  As I mentioned in #2, some other stuff in the panels would go a long way toward “placing” these characters.  The street(?) and the manhole cover(?) in panel one help tremendously—give me some more clues in the other panels.  But panel one ain’t perfect: does Sheriff have legs or not?  We never see below his waist, so it’s hard to tell.

Sewer Art: Un-Life Among the Primogens

_________________________________

Feedback

Cej sez:

LARPing sounds cool.  Be sure to go into more detail in your next tape.  My life is pretty mundane, so it’s nice to hear that someone gets to live out a fantasy life.

Into the Gutter 1) I’m assuming that “Sewer Art” is the name for (one of) your series.  That’s cool.  I like how we’re getting into producing some on-going strips, even if they aren’t truly consecutive.

2) I think that you have made a good start here with “talking heads.”  What I mean is that this strip is basically two heads talking (okay, maybe one talking and one biting), and it could easily have been fairly uninteresting to look at, but you managed to show some real difference between the panels.  That is, you switch from head and torso shots in panels 1 to 4 to (almost) full body shots in panels 5 and 6.  Plus, you’ve made good use of changing facial expressions to show difference between the panels and to show growing glee (madness?).  I would encourage you to continue in this vein.  That means, as you find yourself doing more “low action” strips, you should look for these kinds of subtle (yet important) differences to add more depth and life to your strip.

3) The “dialogue” is pretty good and interesting

Eat a Rat 1) I guess I’m torn over whether this strip should be more accessible or not.  On the one hand, I think that you could have fairly easily made the T-Rex guy into a lowly bum or something, and then he could hit the Ventrue guy over the head.  This would give you greater understandability with basically the same joke.  On the other hand, I see no reason for you not to follow your interests by making comics that speak to you and people you know.  I would tend toward the latter—because you should be true to yourself—but keep in mind that you are limiting your audience.

2) In contrast to #2 from above, I think that the strip is a little unclear.  (Now keep in mind that I’m not a LARPer) Why would this man (is he supposed to be a vampire?) be standing in front of this monster?  Who is he talking to?  In panel 1 he seems to be talking to T-rex; then he turns (and seems) to talk to the audience; then he turns back to the T-rex.  Don’t get me wrong, this isn’t a major problem.  It might be helped by more background detail (i.e., stuff behind the characters, not more exposition about the characters).  You got a lot of mileage out of your backgrounds in “Ivan: part One,” and I’d encourage you to keep exploring.  Yeah, yeah, I know it takes longer…

Titles and word bubbles are okay, but they’re just kind of floating.  I’d recommend placing the Title on top and increasing the font size.  For the word bubbles, I’d recommend enclosing them.  You still have a lot of white space, and making them into true bubbles would help eat up some of that space.  On a completely different tack, this might have been a good one to practice some lettering on.  In particular, I know you hate lettering, but this one could have captured even more emotion by having lettering that suggested the speaker’s state of mind.  For example, the lettering getting bigger and bolder (harsher?) with each panel, until the end it is devoured in one big CHOMP!