Where you write is often what you write.
In 1983 I moved into a share house in Carnegie with my high school mate Brad and my university friend Leigh. Our landlord’s name was Walter Dodge. The joint was so easy to break into we didn’t bother locking it and just left the back door wide open. Leigh found a small ziplock bag of powder in the back of his wardrobe, around the time we learned from Walter that the place was once raided by the police for drugs. Naturally, Leigh sold it to a work colleague in a government department. We had no phone, but used to call parents from the public booth in a wide green park directly opposite, rendering us uncontactable in those days except by mail. It was an old house full of stories, and the plaster in the walls was cracking above our heads.
It’s still standing. The photo above was cribbed from Google Street View. The wonders of a close crop and a black and white filter to deliver faux history.
We played our first ever games of Call of Cthulhu by candelight in that house, so when I decided to write for the game, I only had to look up to get my inspiration.
“The Crack’d and Crook’d Manse” was my first scenario for Call of Cthulhu, written for Phantastacon 84. I rocked up in the morning hoping someone would be interested in playing, and the organisers said “you’ve got three teams booked in for 1pm, and more tomorrow”. So I cancelled the rest of that day’s bookings, instead grabbing four friends with the introduction “Come play this, you’re running it tomorrow”. Then I went home and typed all night so that they would have a legible outline to run from. That was the origin story of the Cthulhu Conglomerate, our crew of convention Keepers who ran events from 1984 to 1994, spawning a tomb herd of new scenario writers.
The scenario was fun to run. I was pleased with it then, and I still am now. The mystery is buried deep with a few layers to uncover, and I still like the reveal, and the solution. The end is always exciting. I’m a sucker for frenzied yelling at the players to really ramp up the tension while dice skitter all over the table.
Out of the walls and into print
I then wrote the scenario out in full for the local games zine Multiverse Issue 3 (1984) edited by Robert Mun, with maps and illustration by Brad. (Brad didn’t do the magazine cover, but I’m pleased to see an investigator in the lineup anyway. Investigators are always the doomed one.) I can’t for the life of me recall if this was a paid gig. Zines were always a labour of love, but I am unbelievably glad I did it, as it was a brilliant example to show to Chaosium when I first started pitching to them. They accepted my pitch for H.P. Loveraft’s Dreamlands, and in time they bought this scenario too.
It was published in 1990 for Mansions of Madness, a rather splendid collection of haunted house scenarios edited by William Dunn and Keith Herber. Keith always had an instinct for what would make a book useful and playable. (He also wrote the best house for the game in my opinion, with the unequivocal title “The Haunted House” in Trail of Tsathoggua). Mansions of Madness had five scenarios with a brilliant cover by Lee Gibbons, maps by Carol Triplett-Smith and layout and “more good ideas” from Zombie Ben Monroe.
Mansions of Madness Second Edition appeared in 2007, and included a sixth scenario, “The Old Damned House” by Liam Routt and Penny Love (of this very blog). Their scenario was “The Old Damned House” and it was also a Cthulhu Conglomerate tournament from 1992, so a nice circular inclusion. Liam was one of the stalwarts of our Melbourne scene, even sending back his scenario “The Haitian Horror” when he went off to the US to study in Chicago. I first met Liam while running AD&D at Phantastacon ’82, a notable event for so many reasons: our lifelong friendship, but also the AD&D tournament format was so utterly unlike why I loved RPGs that it inspired me to start writing in the first place. In those days roleplaying tournaments were more like wargaming tournaments, if the clock ran out you stopped mid dungeon. I craved a story with a beginning, middle and end, where characterisation was more important than tactical spell use. My first tournament “It’s a Living” featured six thieves on a heist. It’s no wonder I jumped ship to Chaosium games once I found them.
You can’t keep an old haunt down
Chaosium have published “The Crack’d and Crook’d Manse” again for 7th edition in Mansions of Madness Vol 1: Behind Closed Doors. I’m so happy about this. I think it works well as an introductory scenario, because it was written immediately after my first contact with both the roleplaying game and the Mythos at large, so I had just sponged up all that inspiration. For that reason, I think it’s closer to HPL than anything I’ve done since.
It is one of two scenarios included from the first edition, along with three brand new ones, so a great mix of classic scenario writing and more modern approaches. The new maps, art and handouts are incredible, the editorial by Lynne Hardy and Mike Mason is first rate, and the layout by Nicholas Nacario looks easy to use in the dark. I love so many things about it but the best by far is Lynne & Mike’s recasting the librarian and reporter characters as African-American, an obvious choice that this very white Aussie boy did not think of at 20 years of age. Scenarios really are better these days.
That difference of approach is right on the cover, once again by Lee Gibbons. Here they are, side by side. As per usual the investigator is doomed, but the new chap on the right is putting up a mighty fight and might just make it. At least he has backup, if you can call holding the torch and looking alarmed backup.
Many investigators have gone into the house over the decades, and a few have actually come out. My favourite moment when running actually took place nowhere near the house. A friend was playing Call of Cthulhu for the first time, and he visited the graveyard to do some research. I described the dead trees as I pressed play on my go-to spooky soundtrack at the time, Name of the Rose by the late great James Horner. “Nope” he said, and got straight back into his auto.
Here’s some trivia for you; I didn’t realise until I was getting the books out to reminisce about good times in dangerous buildings that the French edition from the 1990s flipped the artwork, cropped it closer and lightened it up. All that extra detail just adds to the doom. (The gatefold for reference is from the inside of the new edition, because Chaosium books are full colour on the inside now too.)
A visit to the manse
A wonderful aspect of nowadays is actual play of Call of Cthulhu scenarios, which acts as both entertainment and also example. Filmed play wasn’t around in 1984, when we had to read books and make it up. Chaosium have the weekly #StreamOfChaos on the Chaosium Twitch channel, and the redoubtable crew of Art, David, Jackson & James have just started playing it; you can catch the Stream every Friday night/Saturday morning depending where you are, and Episode 1 is already up on YouTube. I happen to know that the plaster in the room that Jackson plays in is starting to bulge, so history repeats itself.
Click the link above to read and enjoy, but here’s a sample:
As to whether there is indeed a horse or not, you’ll have to read, play or watch the scenario.
I’m so pleased that this peculiar literary parallel of my first share house is once again open for visitors. Wipe your feet and leave a will.
HERE BE SPOILERS
For fun, here’s a map comparison: Multiverse (Brad’s redraw of my original sketch), Carol Triplett-Smith in 1990, and the latest version by Miska Fredman. One of the many joys of writing is seeing your words transformed into images. Get the flashlight, let’s see what’s inside…