Author Archives: Mark Morrison

About Mark Morrison

I have been writing and designing games for strange aeons, from tabletop (Call of Cthulhu scenarios) to digital (de Blob). I also help make Campaign Coins. I love all games.

A Visit to Chaosium

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Stained-glass Cthulhu at Chaosium

Penny and I have arrived in America on the first stop of our 2013 GenCon Horror on the Orient Express tour. We have even taken our first train, the BART (Bay Area Rapid Transit). It did not have  a salon car where white-clad waiters served champagne, but it did get us out to Charlie Krank’s place in Hayward from the airport. We’ve since been recovering from our jet lag, eating some amazing vegetarian food in the Bay Area and playing some games.

mark-at-chaosium

Back in the office at Chaosium, 2013

On Monday we visited the Chaosium offices, and for the first time saw a printout of the complete layout of Horror on the Orient Express, which Meghan has prepared to show everyone who comes to the Chaosium booth (#501) at GenCon Indy. It’s amazing to see the book printed out: a huge stack of paper larger than Beyond the Mountains of Madness. Meghan has done a fantastic job with the layout, and it was great to see the new art, particularly the new version of the Sedefkar Simulacrum, which is so blasphemous we can’t show you yet. We also met Nick, who showed us the Traveler’s Companion bound and printed up as a sample GenCon preview edition. We hope this little book that will be a useful player aid at the gaming table. It has a guide for each city on the route, accompanied by wonderful city maps by Steff Worthington.

We also got to go to the all-new expanded wing of the Chaosium warehouse to see boxes and boxes of Orient Express loot: T-shirts, medallions, commemorative coins, placemats, matchboxes, mugs, coasters and more. Chaosium have been sending out photos of all the merchandise as part of the Kickstarter updates, but it’s another thing again to see a massive wall of boxes. There’s so much stuff there you have to scale the front stack to get to the stack behind it.

OE-boxes

Boxes and boxes and boxes of Orient Express swag

The nearby row of mi-go brain cases made me wonder what if that’s what happened to previous writers who missed their deadlines, because I flubbed a few.

Assuming the vacant space on the bottom right is not reserved for me, we leave on Tuesday for the real world gibbering madness that is GenCon…

migo

Mi-go brain cases

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Horror on the convention season

PAX Australia 2013

PAX Australia panel “Writing for Tabletop RPGs” [Photo: Marion Anderson]

The manuscript is done. Done late, but it’s done. Now we’re laying out, tweaking and proofing, but at last the editing work is over. In its place, the convention scene has begun.

This weekend was the inaugural PAX Australia, and it was a beautiful thing. It’s the largest games convention ever held here, and the PAX banner brings in gamers of all stripes: PC, console, handheld and tabletop. Seeing the massive boardgames area, swathes of Magic the Gathering tables and the Pathfinder Society area booked solid was an amazing sight. I’m in awe of the efforts of the PAX Australia and US teams in staging this, with the sterling efforts of the local volunteer Enforcers in keeping everything so friendly and welcoming. It had an amazing vibe of gamers gaming together; everybody really would play anything, with anyone.

I proposed a panel on “Writing for Tabletop RPGs”, with an eye to encouraging other local writers to refine their work and take the step to get into print. I was joined by Patrick O’Duffy, one of the original writers of Green Ronin’s Freeport, and Matt Goodall, a homegrown winner of Paizo’s RPG Superstar competition. Between the three of us we have been published in around 50 RPG books over the years, and I learned tons from listening to Patrick and Matt (in fact, I really wanted to take notes, but that’s not the done thing when you’re on a panel!)

We talked about designing locations, so I chose Paris; I spoke about how research uncovers secrets about our own world and gives ideas for adventures. Marion Anderson (Orient Express author, and also The Cairo Guidebook) was able to get a few snaps of us talking away. So, up above is a sneak preview in a darkened room of Steff Worthington’s fantastic new Paris map (it’s the player version, so it’s spoiler free). That’s me on the left, Matt on the right, and Patrick is just out of shot.

I also ran an RPG session, the first time doing so at a con in many years; I ran A Cold Death, the free scenario I wrote for Pedro Ziviani’s  Mythic Iceland, which has just been nominated for an ENnie (go Pedro!). I played with brand new friends and Cthulhoid cultists Tristan and Eric from Adelaide, and we also kidnapped four players at random who were all fairly new to roleplaying. It was an absolute blast, and once they got into their characters and the story kicked in I completely forgot we were in the massive big top exhibition building surrounded by thousands of gamers; it was just us six, on a mountain in Iceland. That’s the magic circle that surrounds us when we roleplay, and why I still love this pastime after 33 years.

Anyway, I need the practice; con season has begun. Next month it’s GenCon Indy and then NecronomiCon Providence. I’m down for a new scenario at each, so break’s over, I have some more writing to do!

PAX 005

Gaming in the Big Top at PAX Australia 2013.

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Period photos galore

Serbian police [Source: Horror on the Orient Express blog]

The photo above comes from Wolfram’s splendid Horror on the Orient Express blog. Bookmark it right now, and go there often. Wolfram is looking forwards to running the campaign, so he is amassing period photos and posters, and collecting them all together so that everyone can benefit. So, do take advantage of his good work. Many thanks to our friend Jeff Carey for sending this one our way. He found it while prepping the luxury playthrough he is presenting at GenCon for our exceptional backers.

The photo is timely for this week’s playtest. The investigators are in Vinkovci in the Kingdom of Serbs, Croats and Slovenes, and the town is filled with Serbian police intent on finding the perpetrators of a recent outrage. Oscar Rios has outdone himself with this scenario. Listening to the criticism that the 1991 campaign is too linear, he has crafted a piece with so many different strands of investigation that the players have no shortage of things to do. They’re loving it.

Thanks Oscar. Thanks Jeff. Thanks Wolfram. We love our new international community of train friends!

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Orient Express, Guangzhou

A menu to remember

This train arrives in the most unexpected destinations.

Christian is one of our playtesters, but he is currently away for a month while travelling in Hong Kong and China. He just emailed us: “While missing the games back in Melb, I’m currently eating in the ‘Orient Express’ in Guangzhou!”

What did he eat? “It’s French cuisine – owner is a French guy. It’s located in the old French concession on Shamian island as Guangzhou used to be quite colonised like Shanghai.”

The Orient Express: wherever you go, there it is.

The dining car

The dining car

Paris via Guangzhou

Paris via Guangzhou

Venice via Guangzhou

Venice via Guangzhou

Istanbul via Guangzhou

Istanbul via Guangzhou

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Coffee of Cthulhu

The black brew

Ph’nglui mglw’nafh Cthulhu R’lyeh wgah’nagl espresso

So, this is the black brew that will keep ye Editor going between now and submission date. I thank the kind relatives who donated this set-up to me a few months ago; without this I’d be a smouldering pile of Essential Saltes by now.

I am not alone in my slavery to the bean. Oscar Rios is another famously caffeinated author, who is using the dark beverage to power him through many a pre-dawn editing session as he finishes a killer trilogy of rewrites:  Sofia, Invictus and Vinkovci. I can’t wait to unleash them. The Invictus session last weekend was gruesome fun, and my 1920s players reach Vinkovci this Thursday for an unexpected stop and a whole lotta horror.

Coffee, Rios style. [Photo: Oscar Rios]

The prospect of finishing up on Horror on the Orient Express has not inspired Oscar to take a well-earned rest; instead, he’ll be making many a pot of coffee to keep him going as he launches Golden Goblin Press, his own publishing imprint. His first release will be Island of Ignorance, the Third Cthulhu Companion.

The Cthulhu Companion [Chaosium, 1983]

I have such strong and happy memories from the 1980s, buying The Cthulhu Companion (wow, I thought, that guy is never getting out of that well…) and Fragments of Fear (zombies! cool…)

Fragments of Fear [Chaosium, 1985]

I can still clearly picture the layout of the store where I bought them (the Games Shop in Royal Arcade, Melbourne). The store is still there 30 years later, still cozy, but it’s all Catan and Scrabble and jigsaws these days (not that I am complaining; my Deluxe Scrabble from there was a great surprise Christmas present, even though I have yet to drop SQUAMOUS on a Triple Word score).

Looking over the contents again now, I see that The Cthulhu Companion features a Mythos creature who gets a starring role in one of the chapters of Horror on the Orient Express, so it was inspirational in more ways than one.

Island of Ignorance [Golden Goblin Press, forthcoming]

I look forwards to that same thrill when I get my copy of the Island of Ignorance, the Third Cthulhu Companion later this year, and see what Oscar and his coven have cooked up. I’d love to be part of it, but I have a train to catch.

To keep in touch with Oscar’s Cthulhu happenings, follow his excellent blog Minion of Cthulhu.

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Need more bulldog clips

Orient Express manuscript pile

So this is what a four-inch high pile of Orient Express manuscript looks like.

Bottle of Glenfiddich included for scale, and for editorial courage.

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Secrets of play testing

Dark Ages play test

Behind the medieval Keeper’s Screen for the Cthulhu Dark Ages play test, set in Constantinople 1204

Last night we played “The Dark Crusader” by Geoff Gillan, the brand new Cthulhu Dark Ages scenario for Horror on the Orient Express. It was an interesting group, as only one of our regular 1920s group play testers could make it. Of the others, one knew of the 1991 campaign from years ago, one had read it recently, one knew nothing at all, and one was Penny… who we can say knows more than a bit (although nothing about “The Dark Crusader”).

It worked really well; Geoff has outdone himself. The clues and drama moved the players seamlessly from one location to the next, the backdrop of the Fourth Crusade was rife with tragedy and horror, and there were some scenes that were creeping me out, and I was the one running it. The players praised it at the end, particularly the regular play tester, who thought it blended really well with the larger story. I timed the play test so that it ran the Saturday after the 1920s group found the illuminated 13th century manuscript in the Wednesday game.

The historical scenarios are not dreams nor past lives nor out of body experiences; they are in effect playable player handouts, with pre-generated characters. In this case the characters were mostly created by Geoff’s original play testers (including Cthulhu Reborn meister Dean), and the personalities were great. I was not so convinced by their skill chances, so I’ll be increasing some of those so that each player can shine when his or her character’s specialty is called upon.

I have not run Cthulhu Dark Ages before, and to be frank (actually, the players were Franks – oh stop, I’m killing me – Frankish knights, geddit? – I’ll be here all week, try the chicken) I found that combat ran a little slow. Armour is good at soaking medieval amounts of damage (who knew?) so even the simplest battle encounter slowed the game down for me. In the edits, I’ll add suggestions for Keepers as to what the key is for winning each fight, so that players do not need to kill everything in all scenes. I’ve co-opted this from the “out” suggested for Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition fights, from work by Michael Shea and others. (And yes, that is indeed a D&D screen in the photo above; it seemed like the right choice for an adventure set during a medieval siege. It’s the most ridiculous RPG accessory I own, but in my defence I got it on special from a store which was closing down where I had $100 credit to burn. Don’t judge me.)

Backing up to the point above: our Orient Express play test games are not proper RPG sessions. We simply don’t have time, as we need to knock over a city a night. Hence my impatience with combat length. This ticking clock applies to all scenes. I’ve asked the players to focus their roleplaying on the plot at hand, and not to introduce sub-plots and dynamics from their own characters. I also don’t have time for the usual to and fro around the table where the players decide what to do; you know how it goes, an issue comes up with a few different approaches, no-one agrees, the discussion starts going around and around with plenty of repetition but no resolution in what Danny Bilson once called “a cycle of failure”. And there’s me, watching the clock, thinking If they just decided on something we could all see what happens, instead of sitting here deciding what won’t.

Hence the decision totem.

This is a pretty cool artifact; in 1989 I wrote a tournament module called Persons Unknown set in 1980s Scotland about a group of amnesiacs in an asylum. Marion Anderson had a tremendously cool idea for our trophies: she made an Elder Sign brand, and burned the image into our wooden book trophies. There was a spare left over, and Marion was kind enough to give it to me. It’s been a keepsake all these years, and now it’s a prop.

It sits on the table in front of one player. So, when the players are in a cycle of failure, I quickly summarise the options they have proposed, look at the person with the decision totem and say “Choose”. He chooses, then moves the totem widdershins around the table to the next player, and the game moves on.

Call of Cthulhu trophy, made by Marion Anderson for Arcanacon VII (Melbourne, 1989)

Call of Cthulhu trophy with Elder Sign brand, made by Marion Anderson for Arcanacon VII (Melbourne, 1989)

Our play testers are tainted, in any event. Not morally, but they know they are play testing Horror on the Orient Express, so they are the most diligent, focused, fantastic set of players you could ask for; they take their job seriously, so they are very attentive to all clues. I wish you the same luck with whoever you run the campaign for (Rule One: No smartphones in the 1920s), but suggest you contract with them before you start. If everyone pays attention, stays in character and takes the game seriously, it is better by a margin of strange aeons.

It’s a heady brew: the combination of such great players, such detailed material, the worldwide support of gamer investors and the thrill of an engaging and deep creative project. This is turning out to be one of the best campaigns I’ve ever run. I hope it is the same for you.

Oh, and a postscript: While my players in Melbourne Australia were in Constantinople 1204, at that exact hour on the other side of the planet, Oscar Rios’s players in New York were in Vinkovci 1923. Two Keepers, two groups, two cities, two Cthulhu eras, but the same campaign. That felt good.

vinkovci009

Vinkovci train station. [Source: StareSlike.com]

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Attenzione! Cthulhu

When I asked Pookie to update the list of English-language European Call of Cthulhu scenarios  for the “Continent of Horrors” essay in Horror on the Orient Express, I was looking forwards to hearing about dozens of new adventures that I had missed in my years in the wilderness.

Pookie did his job with flair and diligence, and recently turned in the revised manuscript. Alas, my imagined dozens did not appear. In fact, excluding our campaign, we ended up with less than 20 European scenarios in total for the 30-year life of the game and many of those are now out of print. Has anyone out there played a T.O.M.E. scenario lately?

Glozel est Authentique, by Stephen Rawling. [Source: Grognardia blog]

Instead, good ol’ Lovecraft Country remains the firm favourite for writers (and, I presume, players), with so many scenarios now set in Arkham that frankly, if I lived there, I would goddam move.

Looking back, this makes me even prouder of what we managed with Horror on the Orient Express, which alone seems to contain nearly one-third of all English-language scenarios ever set in Europe. This is made slightly more odd by the fact that it is mostly written by Australians; but then, as a culture we are often looking somewhere else. You get a good view when you’re living at the end of the world.

Eddie Izzard has a line where he says “I’m from Europe, where the history comes from”. You could just as well say that Europe is where the horror comes from.

Vampires and werewolves slaughtered their way across that blood-soaked continent centuries before they all got stylists and agents and underage paramours, and Elizabeth Bathory and Vlad the Impaler did not start their dark exploits in New England. The tales of Guy de Maupassant and Hoffman, the novel Der Golem and the films Nosferatu and The Cabinet of Dr Caligari; these are all European nightmares. Fulci and Argento and Bava were serious about their cinematic horror, and Del Toro is at his best in the Spanish settings of The Devil’s Backbone and Pan’s Labyrinth.

Black Sunday, dir. Mario Bava. [Image from Art of the Beautiful-Grotesque blog]

European editions of Cthulhu have been supplemented with new scenarios set in those countries, but I’m not aware of any of these ever having been translated back into English. It’s our loss, really; furthermore, the Spanish and French editions of the game are beautiful.

La llamada de Cthulhu

La llamada de Cthulhu (Spanish edition from Edge Entertainment]

Once you step away from the 1920s period though, the European setting opens up. Naturally, Cthulhu Invictus and Cthulhu Dark Ages are all about European history, and there are excellent scenarios and campaigns for both. That was a direct inspiration for us to use those settings to reveal the dark history of the artifact at the heart of Horror on the Orient Express, and we were fortunate to snag Oscar Rios, the foremost scenario writer for Invictus. Both scenarios are now completed and I’m looking forwards to running them over the next few weekends.

After the 1920s, Europe has its darkest hour. Our campaign is set in 1923, just as the Deutschmark is at its lowest ebb. (As P.F. informed me in an email, German hyperinflation had reached a point where they stopped printing serial numbers on the  currency because they were not worth forging.) The seeds were sown then for the worst horrors of all: the Second World War and the final solution.

It’s hard to think of anything more evil than real-world Nazism, but Modiphius are giving it a crack by adding in the Mythos with their Call of Cthulhu setting Achtung Cthulhu, which is now on Kickstarter. This looks to be a tentacle-stepping thrill ride of pulpy goodness; I always figured Hitler must have had some Deep One blood in him. The first campaign Zero Point by Sarah Newton is out in PDF and it’s  great. Part One: Three Kings is set in Czechoslovakia, Part Two: Heroes of the Sea is in Dunkirk, and the upcoming Part Three: Code of Honour promises to bring us Istanbul in 1941 (“city of spies, intrigue and adventure!”)

The printed versions are coming, so get on the backing wagon. Perhaps after their trials on the Orient Express, your 1923 investigators (or their sons and daughters) can take up the fight against the Mythos once again when the dark and Stuka-filled skies of 1939 roll around.

It seems like  European Cthulhu gaming is finally kicking into gear. Achtung!

Achtung Cthulhu Investigator’s Guide & Keeper’s Guide [Modiphius]

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Infamous Orient Express Editor

Dean from Cthulhu Reborn was recently going through a cache of old documents handed to him by Horror on the Orient Express writer Geoff Gillan, and found the following epistle. It is addressed “Dear Famous Orient Express Author” and signed “Infamous Orient Express Editor”.

I had forgotten all about this. It’s the form letter I included when I sent out the 8 numbered editions of the typescript manuscript for the original campaign. This was the version before it left Australia and went to Lynn for editing. I donated my copy of the ms. a while back to Paul of Cthulhu for the archives at Innsmouth House, aka the home of Yog-Sothoth.com.

Here is Dean’s scan and typescript of the letter. It’s not quite a Letter of Note, but it was cool to see this again after 20+ years. Warning, it contains a Bad Word.

HotOE-Editor-letter

Letter to the authors, 1991.

Dear Famous Orient Express Author,

This is it, your personal copy of the entire manuscript. Hang on to it, because whatever Lynn publishes, it's going to be different in many billion ways. The Willis Edit is going to be as different from the Morrison Edit as, say, the Morrison Edit was from your own work.

Which brings me to my next point. I'm sorry, but I did what I hadn't planned to do when I started out on this: I changed things. In some cases not much, in some cases quite a bit. These were my objectives:

  • To try to keep the page length down. Where something was said twice, or perhaps not said in the most economical way, I pared it back.
  • To mesh with the entire back story, as interpereted by me. If your scenario tossed up something that I couldn't work with, it went.
  • To conform to certain conventions that I developed while working on this. The principal one was, I wanted to avoid predicting the investigator's emotions and actions as much as possible.
  • Unless the plot required it, or something needed to be explained a bit, I did my level best to avoid inserting anything new into your work. I hope you can still look at all (or, at least, most) of it and think, yep, I did that.

    I've had my own scenarios rewritten. I've found in them things that I would not have put there myself. Some added to the work, and some detracted from it. In one case I found something in there which I found morally repugnant (I may be on thin ice here. I set a horrible situation up; the editor just explained it in a way that I would never have). So I know that when someone has been clomping through your prose, it's a bastard of a thing to have to look at. But I also came to understand that, when you're editing a roleplaying book, which is after all a product to be marketed, you have to shape it in the way that makes most sense to you. So I did.

    I don't really mean to grovel or snarl here, I just wanted to let you know that things happened. I reckon that, as it stands, it's a fucking great book. I hope you'll agree, without a diminished sense of your own invaluable contribution to it.

    Cheers,

(signed)

    Mark
    Infamous Orient Express Editor

There it is, 1991 Morrison trying to placate the authors. You’d have to ask them if it worked or not. I’ll write more about editing then and now in a future post.

And, as for the “morally repugnant” scenario, I think I know the one I was referring to, and I ran it again recently without thinking twice about the content. 1991 Morrison was so sensitive. Looking at it again, I think the editor really did just come out and say what I’d put in there psychologically, and in doing so made the scenario more true. If you can’t stand the horror, stay out of the abattoir.

Thanks again to Dean from Cthulhu Reborn for dragging this missive out of the archives for me. He does splendid work, and has recently cooked up some super PDF versions of three of our scenarios from long ago, originally published on Shannon Appel’s Chaosium Digest:

Free Call of Cthulhu  PDF scenarios by Gillan, Love & Morrison, from Cthulhu Reborn

Call of Cthulhu scenarios in PDF by Love, Gillan & Morrison [from Cthulhu Reborn]

The PDFs are all free, so go and download ’em!

 Dean has just put out his first full commercial release. Mutable Deceptions Volume 1: Jazz Age Newspapers is a nifty PDF generator for creating your own 1920s and 1930s style newspaper handouts for Call of Cthulhu or other games. I’m using it to make additional newspaper articles for the current Horror on the Orient Express playtest. It’s swanky. And, at just US $5.95, a bargain.
Mutable Deceptions Volume 1: Jazz Age Newspapers

Mutable Deceptions Volume 1: Jazz Age Newspapers

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Dance of the dead

Dead Can Dance

Dead Can Dance (Palais Theatre, Melbourne 2013)

Last night Penny and I fulfilled a 20 year musical ambition by finally getting to see the remarkable band Dead Can Dance play here in Melbourne. They’re a musical duo, but I have always preferred the ethereal vocal tracks sung by Lisa Gerrard in a language of her own design to the earnest ambient folk songs of Brendan Perry. Hearing Gerrard sing “Now We Are Free” from Gladiator was one of the highlights of my gig-going life; I think the hairs on the back of my neck are still up.

Dead Can Dance have many gothic ambient tracks suitable for roleplaying game sessions. The right music is the secret of my success as a Keeper; it lifts a session well above the ordinary, and players admire any sync between the story and the soundtrack as evidence of your genius (it is in fact luck, although the right playlist helps). Gerrard’s soaring emotional track “Sanvean” is perfect for, say, when the investigators must break the hard wintry ground of Europe 1923 to bury one of their own. (Not that we’re saying that is a certainty. Did we mention we are adding a new Investigator Survival Guide?)

I’m always on the lookout for ambient music for writing and for gaming, so when we were in Istanbul I was keen to get some Turkish music. Istanbul Encounter from Lonely Planet recommended Lale Plak up in the Beyoğlu shopping district; we were heading up there anyway in search of a painting of tortoises. The shop was crammed with jazz, ambient and more, and there was a cat asleep in a box full of vinyl.

Lale Plak

Lale Plak music store (Istanbul, 2010)

The friendly owner suggested Mercan Dede, a project by Turkish-born DJ Arkin Allen who embellishes his electronic ambience with traditional instruments and Sufi lyrics. It takes me straight back to the Bosporous whenever I listen to it, and I look forwards to using some of the tunes in the playtest when the investigators reach the Golden Horn. Here’s a sample from Breath (2007). Imagine the investigators plunging into the Grand Bazaar. Are they being followed? Surely not…

Horror on the Orient Express already has its own soundtrack, composed by Alex Otterlei. He is working with Chaosium for a new special issue release to coincide with the boxed set. You can hear samples from the current version on CD Baby and iTunes. It’s an honour to work on such a project with so many fantastic creative people bringing our train to life.

Horror on the Orient Express soundtrack

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