Rogue Periscope

I’ve pledged to the Hillfolk kickstarter, and since I’ve read the pre-release draft version, I’ve had a couple of ideas for Series Pitches. Here’s the first one, in which I try to invoke movies like Crimson Tide, or books like Tom Clancy’s The Hunt for Red October, or Patrick Robinson’s Nimitz Class, Kilo Class or HMS Unseen.

Rogue Periscope

A DramaSystem Series Pitch



The crew of a nuclear submarine try to stay alive in a hostile ocean, after a new civil war breaks out in the USA.



The main cast are the key members of the submarine crew. Roles the players may adopt include:

  • The Captain
  • The First Officer
  • Senior officers
  • Senior NCOs
  • Junior specialist sailors



The unthinkable has happened: the United States of America has erupted into a full-scale civil war. Fighting on both sides is brutal and casualties are high.

What caused the civil war to start?

How are the sides distributed geographically?



The PCs are part of the crew of a nuclear submarine, capable of remaining submerged for weeks or months at a time, whilst on patrol.

What is the name of the submarine?

Does it belong to the former USA, or does it belong to another country?

Is it a missile boat, or an attack boat?

Is it steaming the Atlantic, Pacific or Indian Ocean?

Where is its home base? Is it still safe to visit?


The US Military has split into two factions, each supporting one side of the war, which it feels is morally correct in the current conflict.

Which side does the crew of the submarine support and why?


The rest of the world is trying to avoid being pulled into the conflict, for fear of sparking another World War. However, the war in the USA is sending shockwaves through global financial markets, which are now on the verge of collapse.

Which countries, if any, have been pulled into the conflict, and which side(s) are they supporting?

Have the foreign powers allied themselves against both sides of the conflict?

How aggressively are they protecting their own interests?


Communications to the submarine are very limited since the war broke out. Whereas before the war, the submarine was in constant communication with the land based military hierarchy, the submarine has only been getting patchy communications at best in recent weeks.

Which side controls most of the US Military communications network?

How actively is the other side trying to gain control of it, or disrupt it?


Submarines are being actively hunted by both sides, because of the risk they pose with their stealth ability and weapons loads.

How aggressively is your crew involved in the fighting?

Are they doing their best to remain hidden, or are they regularly engaged in combat against the enemy?



Episode themes participants could invoke include:

  • Allegiance: Which side does the crew pledge their allegiance to? Would they consider changing?
  • Diplomacy: Sometimes talking is a better solution to problems than fighting.
  • Hunted: No where is safe; someone is always trying to hunt down and destroy the submarine.
  • Isolation: The crew is all alone, without support, in the middle of very large ocean.
  • Loyalty: Who do the crew ally themselves with?
  • Morale: With the situation so volatile, how is the crew’s morale affected?
  • Mutiny: Will the whole crew act in unison, or will there be uprisings that need to be quashed?
  • Paranoia: No one can be sure which side former comrades are allied with. What used to be a friendly vessel or port may have turned against the crew since they were last encountered.
  • Recriminations: Will there be recriminations for the crew’s actions?
  • Rules of Warfare: What constitutes a legal order? Is there a point where the rules of warfare no longer apply?
  • Sabotage: Someone on board the submarine intentionally damages the vessel, putting everyone’s lives at risk.
  • Scarcity: Supplies could run low, or it may be even something as simple as fresh air.


Tightening The Screws

  • The submarine is badly damaged in a fight. Finding a safe port to make repairs is going to be hard.
  • The submarine is now being hunted by foreign naval forces after being blamed for sinking a civilian cruise ship.
  • Naval commanders order the submarine to do something that the crew find morally repugnant.
  • A vessel from the opposing side sends out a distress signal. Do the crew respond and save their former comrades, or do they go in for the kill?



Aaron Michaels Abril Lozano Andrea Zamora
Caleb Owens Carl Adams Dion Sims
Gabriel Padilla Hilary Abrahams Isaac Acevedo
Isaiah Boyd Jayla Brooks Jesus Garcia
Juan Saldana Justin Goldsworthy Kiara Washington
Madison Collins Makayla Hill Malik Wallace
Maria Carstairs Martina Castenada Megan Raymond
Phillip Jackson Ricardo Ochoa Ryan Campbell
Sara Rangel Sophie Zepeda Tara Vincent
Trinity Carter Tyler Daniels Erin Karlsson


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Creating The Saanich Cycle – Part 3 – Locations

OK, after a much longer delay than I would have liked – where life got in the way, as it often has a habit of doing – I’m back to working on creating The Saanich Cycle. For those who came in late, this is an attempt to use the city creation guidelines from the Dresden Files RPG to create a campaign framework for Trail of Cthulhu.

Last time, I went through the high level overview section and mentioned that using the city guidelines to create a framework for a mystery game doesn’t always mesh. The city guidelines are designed to create an environment that’s familiar to the players so they can hit the ground running when play starts and know who’s who, what’s going on and where the likely locations for those goings on are.

But in a mystery game, a lot of that sort of knowledge needs to be hidden away from the players at the beginning, so that they’ve got a structure to explore when play starts. It’s through the investigation that the information will come out.

Because of this, the descriptions of some of these locations might seem a bit odd at first. I don’t have the plot of the campaign in mind just yet (I expect that some of it will develop out of the information that I’m creation here; it’s just the way my mind works :), but I can create some recurring locations that will end up being reasonably central to the story arc as it develops.

Anyway, this time around, we’re up to creating the locations for the city. These are set pieces, that can become recurring scenes in the story, in much the same way that a TV series develops a collection of sets that they reuse fairly regularly.

The DFRPG guidelines recommends thinking up a group of locations that have connections to the supernatural somehow, and that would make interesting places to have reappear semi-regularly. For each one of these, we need to create a name and a brief description (only a sentence or two), then decide whether this is going to be a theme or a threat – just like the main citywide themes and threats – and then a quick sentence that sums up that theme or threat. Later on, in the next phase, we’ll also create NPCs that are important to these locations, but we won’t worry about that for the time being.

So, let’s get on with it and start creating some locations.

Name: Victorian Paranormal Society Headquarters
Description: Small office suite, upstairs in an older part of the downtown core. It has several rooms:

  • A “main” office for general administration
  • a meeting and interview room
  • a library and filing room, containing many filing cabinets filled with case notes from past society cases.
  • a small room containing a limited amount of scientific equipment.

Theme/Threat: Theme – Holding it all together. The leadership of the society tries its hardest to keep the different factions together, by empahsising teamwork as best it can. Because there are casefiles for all of the past cases that the society has worked on, the HQ suite is also a repository of knowledge, providing investigators with historical information and details about past weirdness.

Name: Colquitz Centre for the Criminally Insane 1, 2
Description: A large, castle-like, multi-storey brick building, situated in a ten-acre fenced compound. The prison is home to over 100 inmates, who are not necessarily well taken care of.
Threat/Theme: Theme – The Law Takes A Dim View. Investigators who go in guns blazing and end up killing people, guilty or otherwise, will more than likely end up in this institution.

Name: Beacon Hill Park
Description: Beautifully landscaped 200 acre gardens, complete with ponds, streams and a small zoo. It also has several native burial sites, although this is not widely known. Something of a hotbed of paranormal activity, with many strange sightings there.
Theme/Threat: Threat – Not safe after dark. The park is something of a magnet for homeless people, who camp out in the gardens. They’re often desperate, and will mug passers by to get enough money to buy booze. In recent months, there have been several unexplained deaths in the park as well.

Name: Occultist’s Library
Description: Private library in an expensive home. The occultist – who is in his early sixties – has been collecting books and other written information sources for several decades and has a very impressive collection, including many hard to find tomes. However, access to the collection is very limited and the identity of the owner is known only to a couple of individuals within the Society (not the PCs, initially).
Theme/Threat: Theme – Knowledge comes with a price. Getting access to the library is going to cost the PCs; they’re going to have to share what they know with the occultist, or they are going to have to owe the occultist one or more favours for the future. The knowledge that he has stored in his library may also cost the investigators some sanity.

Name: Curiosity Shop 3
Description: Cramped little dusty shop, tucked away in a corner of the downtown area. Full of all sorts of bizarre items, which the owner knows all the stories about. Sometimes, there are surprisingly useful – or surprisingly dangerous – items for sale in the shop, if you know what you’re looking for and are trusted by the owner.
Theme/Threat: Theme – Maybe you’ll get what you’re looking for… The curiosity shop is something of a mixed bag; it may have some odd artifacts in store, or it might be a wild goose chase. It’s also slightly inspired by Pelgrane Press’ Bookhounds of London, so the shop may be able to source items that would be hard to come across otherwise, including books of forbidden knowledge.

Name: Underground Tunnels
Description: For years, there have been rumours of a network of tunnels under downtown Victoria. Some people claim to know others who have been in them. There are some who even believe that the network is in the shape of a giant pentagram and they’re used by Satanists for black magic rituals.
Theme/Threat: Threat – The hidden menace underneath the city. At the beginning of the campaign, the existence of the tunnels is still going to be speculation, because no one that the PCs know will be able to prove that the tunnels actually exist. At least one of the Victorian Paranormal Society members is going to be obsessed with locating and mapping the tunnels, believing that they are the key to understanding what’s going on in the city.

Name: Tod House 4
Description: An older house in Oak Bay. People staying in the house have described feeling the presence of someone being there, but not being able to see anyone. Recently, there has been an increase in poltergeist activity in the house, which has been scaring the current residents.
Theme/Threat: Threat – The spirit world is angry for some reason. I think this would be a great story to start the campaign with, as it would set the scene for how the ghosts are becoming far more malevolent in recent times. However, whether I use this location early on, or save it for later remains to be seen.

Name: Old Opium Den
Description: Until the early days of the twentieth century, opium was legal in Canada, and there was a solid trade for it, especially in the Chinatown district in the downtown area. Victoria was the largest centre of opium refining outside of Asia until 1908, when opium was made illegal in Canada. This old opium den saw a lot of use in the late nineteenth century, and remained in use after opium was made illegal. But as demand died out, it fell into disuse. Sensitives who visit this old den say that they can feel the presence of the old addicts who got high here.
Theme/Threat: Theme – People imprint their emotions on locations. I like the idea of this happening and want to explore this as part of the game story – that not only do people remember, but under the right conditions, places and objects can remember things too, but there is a cost for recovering that information.

Name: Ross Bay Cemetery
Description: large garden cemetery not too far from the downtown area, Ross Bay Cemetery is the final resting place of many of the province’s politicians. Most people find the cemetery creepy during the day, and it’s even worse at night. Ross Bay Cemetery has also had several ghost sightings. Several people have seen apparitions in the cemetery after dark, and here are also rumours of the grounds being used for Satanist rituals.
Theme/Threat: Threat – The dead centre of Victoria. Cemeteries are places that creep many people out. The graves and mausoleums of the Ross Bay cemetery will be no exception to this and there may be important things buried along with some of the bodies, so there will be the moral questions of whether or not the characters are prepared to do whatever it takes to get what they need.

Name: Newspaper Archives
Description: The Daily Times (established in 1884) is one of Victoria’s two newspapers (the other being the British Colonist, which was started in 1858). The Daily Times has a collection of every single newspaper going back to their first issue. Access to the stacks is generally restricted to those working for the newspaper, or local historians. People with the right connection can get access to the stacks for a limited period of time.
Theme/Threat: Theme – There’s a lot of history here, and who knows what’s buried in it? Newspaper archives are going to be a valuable resource for figuring out clues, and gaining extra information about particular cases, so it makes sense to create this as a location now.

[1] Yes, this place really existed and was actually named that. I kid you not. The building’s architecture is really cool. I found a geocache hidden on the front gate in 2007, although by that time, it had been renamed to the Vancouver Island Regional Correction Centre, although it was more commonly referred to as the Wilkinson Road Jail.

[2] When I first thought this one up, I just wanted to have it as a regular prison, where investigators who break the law end up. The PCs may have to go there to investigate former members of the society who have been incarcerated. But I’ve also realised that prisons typically tend to be haunted, so we may end up with a ghost problem in this location as well. It does double duty, which is also neat.

[3] I’m going to have to come up with a better name for this place, but it will do for now.

[4] Tod House actually is a well document case of a haunting, although that was not until the 1940s. It’s worth reading up on.

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Creating The Saanich Cycle – Part 2 – The High Level View

In case you missed part 1, I’m in the process of creating a Trail of Cthulhu campaign framework using the city creation guidelines from the Dresden Files RPG. Why? Well, basically, I’ve found that I typically don’t do enough prep work for games – in terms of creating NPCs and locations for the PCs to interact with during the game, and I sometimes have trouble coming up with good stuff on the fly.

By having some design work done ahead of time, and knowing how the different NPCs think about a range of issues, it will (hopefully) make my life easier and the game seem a little more real.1 I had thought about developing my own system for doing this until I realised that the guidelines in the DFRPG were pretty good and could be bent a little to create game settings for other systems without too much hassle. So, this series of blog posts is my attempt to create an interesting campaign setting for ToC using those guidelines. Also, by blogging this stuff, it gives me an extra bit of motivation to work on this stuff.

One thing I did neglect to mention last time is when I’m setting this campaign framework. I’ve decided to stick with the default 1930s setting that Trail of Cthulhu uses, rather than do this in the modern day. Hopefully, it will help keep the usual Cthulhuesque feel to the game.

OK, when we left off the other night, I’d come up with the themes and threat for the city of Victoria, B.C. The next phase of the city creation rules are to take a high level view of the city and to come up with the different factions and where they stand on the supernatural status quo.

Of all the sections in the city creation rules, this one is probably the one that doesn’t work overly well for Trail of Cthulhu. In the Dresden Files universe, there are a set of well known groups – the different courts of Vampires and Fae, as well as the White Council of Wizards and all that sort of thing. When you’re creating a city for DFRPG, you start plugging in whichever of those groups takes your fancy, and it’s fairly easy.

DFRPG also runs with the assumption that the PCs are going to be enmeshed in whatever supernatural shenanigans are going on in their city and will have a far better grasp on the truth than the vast majority of the mundane population.

But in Trail of Cthulhu, we don’t have those pre-existing groups to fall back on, and the PCs are part of the mundane population. They do have some knowledge of the supernatural side of things, but it’s a very different viewpoint to the one in the Dresden Files. ToC is also based on the premise that the PCs don’t really know what’s going on and that’s why they’re investigating.

Now, my first thought was to just skip over this section of the guidelines and go on with something else instead. But the more I thought about it, the more it made sense to have a go at it and come up with some different groups within the city that all have some interest or experience of the supernatural (to different degrees).

Now, this stuff is probably going to be a bit rough in this early stage, because I’m creating these groups from scratch, rather than going on material someone else has already come up with. But, at the same time, I’ll build on this stuff in the later sections to help build a stronger and more interesting framework at the later stages.

The aim of the exercise is to come up with a list of groups that are important to the city and what’s going on there, but are related to the themes and threats that we created in the first part of the process. There’s no point in creating, for example, a gardening society if they’re not going to have anything to do with the ghosts or the paranormal.

So, I started to brainstorm a bit about the sorts of groups of people who are going to be important to the storyline as I currently see it.

The Victorian Paranormal Society
The first group is the Victorian Paranormal Society itself. It was mentioned in the second theme of the city, so I figured that it’s important to start there. But I had also said that they are a house divided, and that there are factions within the society that don’t get along so well. This got me thinking about ways to split the group along ideological lines.

To begin with, I think I’ll split the society into two main factions: the “spiritualists” and the “scientists”.

The “spiritualists” will be the group who believe that the ghosts are the spirits of the dead, who are trying to communicate with the living, particularly those that were left behind. They’ll be most concerned with conducting seances and the like, and trying to find ways to understand what the ghosts want and what the living need to do to help them move on.

The “scientists” are those that aren’t really sure what the ghosts are, but they believe that there’s a logical, rational explanation for their appearances. They’re the group that are more likely to use scientific equipment to figure out where the ghosts are and what effect they have on the “real” world.

Given the differences of approaches between the two groups, there’s going to be a fair bit of antagonism between them. They will share information about various cases, but there’s still going to be friction.

I’ll probably think up further divisions for the Society as I go along, but this will do as a starting point.

The Skeptics
Now, to counterpoint the Paranormal Society, I’m going to include a group of skeptics. They don’t believe in the paranormal in any form and take great delight in debunking whatever theories people have and proving them to be hoaxes. They’re also going to be doing their best to destroy the reputations of the Paranormal Society members, so that people won’t take them seriously. Given that the main threat of the campaign framework is going to be that ghosts are real, I don’t see the skeptics as playing a massive part in the story. However, they may well make good antagonists for a couple of the episodes, throwing spanners in the plans of the PCs at inopportune times.

The Chinese
Victoria had a large Chinese population in the 1930s, with a vibrant Chinatown district in the downtown core. In the earliest part of the Twentieth Century, the district had been filled with underground opium dens and illicit prostitution, which is great fodder for creating restless spirits. The population of Victoria’s Chinatown was falling in the 1930s from the heights it reached in the mid-Twenties. By including elements of Chinese mysticism and their beliefs on spirits and the afterlife, we can provide a counterpoint to the more Western ideas of the Paranormal society.

The Church
The Church – in its various denominations – provides a couple of different approaches to dealing with ghosts. By and large, most of them would consider ghosts to be evil and related to the Devil somehow. Depending on the views and experience of the priest, exorcisms could be provided as an option, but by and large, the church is going to discourage belief and investigation of ghosts as much as possible.

I’m also going to have to divide this section down into the different denominations, as they can have quite different views at times.

The First Nations Bands
Before European Settlement of Vancouver Island and the founding of Victoria in the Eighteenth Century, the region was the home to several bands of First Nations people. The Songhees lived around what is now Victoria’s Inner Harbour and there are burial grounds and other important sites dating back thousands of years all over the lower part of Vancouver Island. The First Nations have their own views on spirits and ghosts and it would be remiss of me to not include some of those ideas into the story.

The Police
The police are going to be in the skeptical camp, but because there are going to be deaths involved in the storyline, they’re going to be getting involved in the investigations. The PCs and other members of the Paranormal Society may well run across the police in the course of their own investigations and the cops could make certain activities much harder, if not impossible. I’m thinking of making it that the investigators won’t get a whole lot of leeway with the law when it comes to breaking and entering, or worse – murder if they go shooting someone – which will add further complications to their investigations.2

I have in mind some other people who probably could be written up in this section, but I’m going to keep these close to my chest for the time being, as a means of building the mystery that underlies this campaign framework. Again, this is really a case of how the needs of ToC don’t like up all that well with the intentions of the DFRPG.

Now, in the DFRPG, there’s a chart divided into four quadrants, which is designed to map out how much people know about the supernatural on one axis (ranging from nothing at the top to everything at the bottom), and how much they want to rock the boat on the other axis (from not at all on the left, through to major revolutions on the right.

I haven’t decided as yet whether I’m going to use this chart at all in this game, as the premise that I’m working on doesn’t really line up with the underlying design principles that the chart was created to capture. So, for the time being, I’m not going to be using it, although I may change my mind on this later on.

I’ll admit that this all still feels a little disjointed at the moment. Some of the groups aren’t really related to each other at this stage, but I’m including them now to create plot elements that can be woven into the storyline later on. But, I’m reasonably confident that by the time I’m done, things will come together nicely.

Next time, I’ll start creating significant locations for the story. Some of them will be related to the main themes and threats of the city, while others will be more related to the factions that I’ve created here.


[1] I refuse to use the word “verisimilitude”, mainly because I can’t stand it. I think it’s a complete load of wank.


[2] I should say “his” investigations, because I’m planning this campaign framework for a game with only one character in it initially.

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Creating The Saanich Cycle

This is going to be the first in a series of posts where I talk about creating a new campaign framework for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu roleplaying game. With a bit of luck, I should hopefully be running a campaign based on this material in the not-too-distant future.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’m something of a packrat when it comes to roleplaying games. I have a fairly large collection of RPG books – well over sixty different systems last time I bothered to count, which was (admittedly) quite a while ago now. I definitely not one of these people who sells off his RPG books as soon as he loses interest in them.

I’m also the sort of person who often finds ways to cross-pollinate ideas between gaming systems1. I’m finding that I’m forever digging out old gaming books to pinch ideas from, even if those ideas need a bit of bashing into shape in order to get them to work for the game I’m interested in at the moment. But at the end of the day, a good idea is a good idea and it doesn’t take much work to translate those ideas and find new uses for them.

Last week, while I was working on writing a standalone Trail of Cthulhu adventure, I started getting all sorts of weird ideas on how I could expand the basic hook of the adventure and expand it into a campaign framework for ToC. I grabbed a new notebook and started scribbling some notes down, as is my wont.

One of the first things I realised is that I needed to come up with a collection of non-player characters and locations that would fit into the framework to make it seem more robust and interesting. At first, this seemed like a fairly daunting prospect, as I was staring at a blank page and wondering what the heck to write about. So, I made the mental note that I should think about a process for building these sorts of things, so that I could do again later on if a different set of ideas struck me.2, 3

It was about at that point that I realised that such a framework already existed: the city creation rules in Evil Hat Games’ Dresden Files RPG.4 I had used the city creation guidelines last year to create a setting for a DFRPG game that never managed to get started.5 I figured that if I tilted my head and squinted a bit, I could use the DFRPG stuff to create a Mythos related campaign framework for Trail of Cthulhu that would have all sorts of locations and characters baked into it from the beginning and give me a much stronger base to start gaming on.

So, that’s what we’re going to do in this series of posts. We’re going to (mostly) develop a ToC campaign framework using the DFRPG city creation guidelines. I say “mostly” because I am going to be keeping some of the ideas under my hat in case my player stumbles across these notes. A lot of stuff that I’m going to be coming up with I’m going to be sharing with him before play starts, but some of it I want to keep as a surprise to keep some of the mystery that a GUMSHOE game actually needs.6

Ok, the first step in the city creation rules is to pick a city to play with. I’d already done that: Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. There were a couple of reasons for this. The biggest one is that it’s the city my wife is from and I spent a wonderful few days there back in 2007 and would go back there in a heartbeat. It’s got some very cool landmarks and historical facts about it, and it just felt like it would be a neat place to set a game.7

I also chose Victoria because the standalone Trail of Cthulhu scenario I’m writing is set further north on Vancouver Island, and in trying to figure out why a set of player characters would get involved in the investigation, I came to the realisation that if there was a society for investigating paranormal activity in Victoria, some of the members could potentially travel up island to start poking their noses into weird things that are happening up in the mountain forests. 8

It was the idea of having a campaign framework based around a group of part-time paranormal investigators that got me started on this project. I’m also lucky in that my wife has a couple of books on ghost stories from British Columbia, and many of them are from Victoria and the surrounding districts.

Now, ghosts are a funny thing as far as the Cthulhu Mythos is concerned. While there are rules for them in both the BRP and D20 versions of Call of Cthulhu, there isn’t even a mention of them that I could find in Trail of Cthulhu. This may be because H.P. Lovecraft himself apparently didn’t believe in life after death and thought the idea was preposterous.

But, on the other hand, ghosts have been a staple of horror fiction for a very long time, including stories by people who inspired Lovecraft himself. When I started thinking about basing a campaign around ghosts and other paranormal activities, I put aside my Lovecraft reading for a while and dug out my copy of Colllected Ghost Stories by M.R. James. It’s proving to be excellent reading and acting as wonderful inspiration for this campaign framework.9

So, I’ve got a city and a particular lens through which to view it. This puts me in a pretty good position to start moving forward with the steps of the DFRPG city creation rules.

The first thing that it suggests doing (and this is really all I’m going to cover tonight) is thinking up the Themes and Threats that will underpin the whole game. The themes are elements that provide the status quo in the city; they sum up how things are right now. Threats, as the name suggests, are elements that will ultimately drive the story forward through the long term story arc and have the potential to upset the status quo and to make life difficult for the player characters.

The guidelines say to think up a total of three (combined) themes and threats, and write down a brief sentence for each one. After a bit of thinking, I settled on two themes and one threat:

Theme: Victoria is one of the most haunted cities in British Columbia, if not all of Canada.

This one is actually reasonably accurate, if you believe in actual ghost sightings. Victoria does have a fair number of haunted buildings and ghost sightings. The paranormal is one of the things that’s providing the main inspiration for this campaign framework, so it make sense to make it one of the central themes.

Theme: The Victorian Paranormal Society is a house divided

This theme ties in with the ideas from the Trail of Cthulhu campaign framework worksheet, in that the Victorian Paranormal Society is going to be a group of people who investigate paranormal activity in and around Victoria and will be the organisation to which the player characters will belong. But, to make things more interesting and to let me create a wide variety of non-player characters to act as both allies and antagonists, I felt it was better to set the organisation up to have several different factions within it, who argue about what the true nature of the paranormal is and even the best ways to go about investigating it. I’ll expand more on this theme in later posts, but for now, it just seems as though it’s going to provide a whole lot of colour to bring into the campaign down the line.

Threat: The Paranormal has been far more disturbed of late

If you read “real” ghost stories, they’re fairly tame. People talk about feeling odd presences, or hearing strange noises, or even seeing the occasional apparation. But very few of these stories are really all that scary. But we’re working on a framework for Trail of Cthulhu, which is based around having fun with characters who get the crap scared out of them and descend inevitably into madness. Because of this, we need to make the paranormal the PCs are going to be investigating more malevolent and scary, so that we can have some interesting stories to tell.

I do have to admit that I have a long term basis for the threat in my head, but I’m keeping that under wraps for now. I may not actually divulge what it is until I get a chance to run this campaign. I will say, however, that I’ve linked it back to the more traditional Mythos threats and plan on having a bit of fun with it.

Anyway, that’s probably more than enough stuff for the first post in this series. I plan on blogging the rest of the city creation process as I work through it, so that others can follow along with it and maybe even get some inspiration for themselves. Next time, we’ll start building stuff on top of these three core themes and threats and see what we can come up with.

Oh yeah, one last thing: the title of the campaign. The Saanich Cycle. Saanich is actually a district which forms part of greater Victoria. It also sounds vaguely Mythosy, so it seemed like a cool name for the campaign, even if it only ends up being a working title. :)


[1] Or even to crosspollinate from fields completely unrelated to gaming into gaming terms. I did, after all, use fuzzy cognitive map theory from a relatively obscure corner of computer science to create a GMing tool when I was writing the community rules for the Gamma World D20 Players’ Handbook back in 2003.

[2] Yes, I know there’s the campaign framework worksheet in the main Trail of Cthulhu workbook. It’s actually not too bad, but it doesn’t go deep enough into the sorts of things that I wanted to create. I will be using some of the ideas on that sheet in this process, but it will be part of a larger design process.

[3] Part of my day job is writing software. I’m quite keen on object oriented software design, part of which involves figuring out commonalities between potentially diverse things and abstracting those commonalities into “base classes” which can be used as a framework for creating a more specific object later on, without having to completely reinvent the wheel. If you do it well, it can speed up your software development time quite considerably.

[4] I also realised at the same time that the DFRPG city creation stuff would be just as useful for designing a Consillium for White Wolf’s Mage: the Awakening, or a freehold for Changeling: the Lost, and would probably have applications for a whole bunch of other similar styles of games.

[5] The stillbirth of gaming campaigns is something that I’ve been cursed with quite badly over the past couple of years, but that’s a rant for another time and place.

[6] This is already one place where I’ll be departing slightly from the DFRPG guidelines. To use the system properly as per that book, the players are involved in that process and they help to create locations and characters and the GM later builds on that stuff to create the adventures. But some of the antagonists are already known to the players before play starts, which isn’t really what I want in this particular case.

[7] I also think it would be a great city to set a Changeling: the Lost game in. But that’s not important right now.

[8] I’ll say more about this particular adventure another time. It’s still a work in progress which I really should get around to finishing some time soon.

[9] The other major influence on the framework is actually Japanese Horror movies. I’m quite partial to them, even if I do think the American version of The Ring is probably better. I’ll probably talk more on this aspect later on.


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Scribbles On A Page

(Originally published 4th July, 2007)

The Written Word. Have you ever stopped to wonder about how what are essentially random squiggles on a page or a computer screen can suddenly take on so much meaning?

I’ve been guilty over the years of taking reading for granted. After all, I started reading when I was about four. Some of my earliest memories at school are of asking my teacher how to spell a particular dinosaur name and then looking at the word she gave me back and saying, “no, that’s not spelled right.” I didn’t know how to spell the word, but I recognised when it was spelled incorrectly. I knew what the squiggles meant, even if I couldn’t remember how to create them myself.

These days, I’m forever reading and writing. I’ve had material published. I read stuff every day, whether it be old fashioned dead-tree books, or stuff that’s purely electronic on the Internet. I take it as much for granted as I do breathing or walking. About a decade ago, I even did a speed reading course at work, and managed to get my reading speed up to about 900+ words per minute.

But recently, I’ve been forced to consider the whole process of reading. My son’s struggling with his reading at school and I’m trying to find ways to help him out. I’ve even gone so far as to write a sight words computer program for him, so that we can practice his basic words and hopefully start to make things a little easier for him.

It’s made me stop and think about what it is that I do so much about. How do I see the words written in front of me and instinctively know what it is that the author is trying to say?

Part of it is memory – I see a word and my subconscious mind remembers how to pronounce the word and even what it means. It does this so fast that I don’t even realise what it’s doing. I just recognise the word, understand what it means and just get on with the next thing.

But there’s more to it than that. Somewhere along the line, lost in the sands of time, someone decided that creating particular shaped squiggles on a page was a good idea. Writing things down isn’t particularly new – after all, the ancient Egyptians are well-known for their hieroglyphics. But somewhere along the line, someone decided to simplify the whole letter thing and we eventually ended up with the alphabet as we know it today.

The thing that gets me is who decided that the letters we write down and read back were to be shaped the way they are? Why are there 26 letters in the alphabet we use in English, and a distinct lack of accent symbols, whereas other languages and cultures use more? Heck, some cultures use a form of written symbology that doesn’t even come close to resembling the alphabet that this piece is written in. You only have to look at scripts like Chinese, Japanese or Thai to recognise that different cultures put their emphasis on the written word in different areas.

It doesn’t take much to destroy the meaning of the written word either. Try reading something in a language that you don’t understand. If your only language is English, then reading something written in a language like French, German or Spanish is going to confuse you. You might be able to recognise some words as similar to the English ones, but much of it’s going to look like gibberish. If you move away from the alphabet that we’re familiar with and look at something like Cyrillic or Arabic, then it really is going to look just like scribbles on a page. And yet, there are people who can interpret those same squiggles and extract meaningful information from them.

Why is any given word spelled the way it is? How did that particular combination of letters come to be instilled with a special meaning, so that when other people see it written down, they understand what the author was trying to say. Who decides these things and why did they do it in the first place?

As Stephen King said in his autobiography, On Writing, writing is a form of telepathy – it’s the transferring of ideas from one human mind to another freed from the boundaries of space and time.

This all blows my mind. The ultimate arbitrariness of the written word fascinates me. It all reinforces to me the concept that all systems are arbitrary, as Serge Kahili King once wrote. All it takes for a particular set of squiggles to gain or lose meaning is the ability of the reader to be able to recognise and interpret the shapes that they see. What might be unintelligible nonsense to one person might be a beautifully profound piece of poetry to someone else.

To me, that’s a wonderful thing.

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Things That Go Bump In The Night

(Originally published 7th June, 2007)

Ghosts, ghouls, goblins, vampires, werewolves and all the things that just go bump in the night. What is it about horror stories that keeps us going back for more?

Since ancient times, people have been telling each other scary stories – or at least stories with scary elements in them – so there’s got to be some part of the human psyche that is attracted to those sorts of things. Plenty of myths and legends have a supernatural element to them, with all sorts of mystical creatures that wanted to destroy the hero of the story, only to be vanquished by the end of the tale.

Even in modern times, horror novels and movies remain popular, with new titles coming out all the time. People like Steven King, Dean Koontz and Wes Craven have made careers out of trying to scare people.

So, what’s the attraction? Why do we keep subjecting ourselves to things that are going to give us the creeps, or in some cases, even give us nightmares?

Well, I think some of it’s got to do with the physical reactions our bodies generate when faced with a scary experience. When something spooks us, adrenaline and a bunch of other hormones are injected into our bloodstreams and our hearts start to race. It’s a rush, pure and simple. It’s the same reason why roller coasters and extreme sports are popular – it gives people a chance to get a natural high from all the chemicals that are circulating in their blood.

But I think there’s more to it than just that. On a deeper level, I think we need scary stories to help us face our shadows. Every one of us has a dark corner of our psyche where we hide all the things that we don’t want to face. It might not be particularly big in the greater scheme of things, but everyone’s got some situation or thing that fills them with dread every time they encounter them – or perhaps even think about it.

Horror stories allow us a safer way to go into the darker reaches of our minds and explore the darkness. It brings some light into those corners where we normally fear to tread. They give us a way to explore our own mortality vicariously through the lives of the characters on the screen.

Going even further than that, I think there’s plenty of life lessons that can be learned from horror stories. In just about every case, the hero of the story will overcome the evil forces by summoning their courage and dealing with the problem head on. For a lot of us, we don’t do that with our fears. We bury them and try to pretend they don’t exist, thereby giving a lot of power to those things to come back and scare the bejeezus out of us the next time. But if we face those fears and make a different decision about them, then we’re going to be able to overcome them and lead a healthier, happier life in the long run.

Courage can come from the strangest places. It doesn’t have to be a big, grandiose deal. It’s just the point at which we decide to take back the personal power that we had previously surrendered to something that used to scare us. Once we make that decision and face the dark parts of our minds, the power those things had drains away and we find that our lives get better. It’s like Eleanor Roosevelt said, “You gain strength, courage and confidence by every experience in which you really stop to look fear in the face. You are able to say to yourself, ‘I have lived through this horror. I can take the next thing that comes along.’ You must do the thing you think you cannot do.”

So, maybe it’s time to embrace the darkness within. Go watch a horror movie and keep an eye out for a chance to kick whatever scares you in the nuts.

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We Don’t Need Another Hero… Or Do We?

(Originally published 23rd May, 2007)

Is the world now bereft of heroes or do they still exist to show us the way? Are there people still out there who epitomise the essence of the hero archetype?

It seems that every time we turn on the news, we’re inundated with just how bad the world is at the moment. We’re constantly being bombarded with stories about death, war, famine, global warming and all sorts of other catastrophes that make life on Earth somewhat of a living hell.

Sometimes I wonder if all the doom and gloom is only causing us to nose dive into an endlessly self-fulfilling prophecy. The more we concentrate on the negative things in the world, the more likely we are to encounter them.

It seems to me that the world now is in need of some old-school heroes, people who can inspire the general populace and turn the world around again.

In the strictest sense, a hero is someone who goes on some sort of journey and learns some new ways of dealing with the world. The journey need not be a physical one, but can instead be an intellectual or spiritual one. The main criteria is that they learn to look at the world differently and in the end, they use their new knowledge to help their communities improve.

It seems to me that we’ve lost a lot of the community spirit that used to exist – or perhaps it’s just changed shape. Whereas before we used to have a lot of local community groups and neighbours used to spend a lot more time together, these days people spend to find like minded groups of people to spend their time with. It might be things like church or sporting groups, or increasingly, you’re seeing online communities form with people with similar interests all around the world joining together.

But the other thing you’re seeing a lot of these days is endless squabbling and flamewars. People argue and fight over the most ridiculous things. They often don’t even stop to think before they start typing and don’t bother to even consider what the other person is saying.

It seems to me that we need now, more than ever, a new breed of heroes to come and inspire people to make their lives better. I’m not talking necessarily about superheroes or pulp heroes – although perhaps they might work to some extent – but simply people who can find a way to start changing the mindset of the general populace.

Changing the way you look at the world is hard enough. Changing the way that other people look at it is even harder, particularly when people have trouble realising that their own thinking needs to change. I think most of us would normally believe that there’s nothing wrong with our current way of thinking and would react harshly to anyone who would suggest otherwise. I think that’s why we need some new heroes who lead by example, and just believe in what they are doing so much that people automatically want to emulate them and their way of thinking.

Now, it doesn’t matter if those heroes are real people or not. People can learn just as much from fictional examples as they do from real life ones. After all, the subconscious mind really can’t tell fantasy from reality anyway. But what we need are characters that people will want to emulate in their own lives, and in doing so, will make their own lives better.

Heroes don’t do what they do to change the world. They often just do it to make their own lives better and in the process, inspire other people to do the same. That just makes things better for everyone in the long term.

Maybe all the world needs right now is a big, healthy dose of positive inspiration. Something to think about anyway…

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The Power Of Questions

(Originally published 9th May, 2007)

How do people come up with certain ideas? What makes them think about things in a way that lets them come up with the answers? How do people learn new things in general, whether they be a small child or someone in the twilight of their lives?

The answer is actually quite simple: they ask questions.

Questions are perhaps one of the most fundamental building blocks of human communication. I don’t know if you’ve ever sat in a group of people and just observed the interplay between the people involved, but you can pretty much guarantee that what’s going to be happening most of the time is everyone who’s actively involved will be asking questions, listening to the answers and then coming up with related thoughts. Others will then ask questions and from there, the conversation naturally flows.

But, oddly enough, questions are incredibly powerful things. You see, by simply asking a question, it focuses your mind on the topic at hand and immediately reduces your mental focus on anything else around. By asking the right questions, it helps your mind focus on creative solutions to the problems at hand.

A classic example is during the Apollo 13 moonshot. After an explosion in the capsule’s service module left the crew with dwindling oxygen supplies, the engineers back on Earth were presented with every piece of equipment that the astronauts had at their disposal and were asked how the astronauts could rig something that would make it possible for them to get back home again. Through the combined genius of the people involved, they were able to come up with a solution and the three men made it home safely.

What would have happened if they the people on the ground hadn’t asked what could be done? What if they had instantly gone into a blame-hunting mode and asking who was responsible for the problem? Would the three astronauts have perished in space?

Questions focus our thoughts. It’s as simple as that. The sorts of questions that you ask yourself constantly can have a dramatic effect on your thinking. If you’re stuck in an emotional rut and you’re constantly asking yourself why this sort of thing keeps happening to you all the time, you’re keeping your mind focused on the problem and how big it seems. All you’re really going to do is make it seem all that much bigger.

But as soon as you start asking how you can get out of the situation that you’re in, you’ll find that things can start to change. Answers to the new questions will start to appear, often extremely quickly and if you take action and follow through on those answers, you can turn things around and make a new life for yourself.

Strangely enough, even the tone of question can have a major impact on the answers you’re going to get. A question asked with a stern, angry tone of voice is going to get a very different response that if it was asked with a happy, carefree tone, even though the words might end up being the same. The intent of the question itself is as much a part of the question as the words themselves, because it helps focus people’s minds in a particular way.

So, if you’re not getting the answers you need in any area of your life, perhaps it’s time for you to start asking the questions differently, or perhaps, it’s time to start asking a completely different set of questions altogether. If you’re having a rough trot, start asking how you can make things better. If you’re actually in a good spot, ask how you can sustain the position that you’re in for as long as possible.

It’s like the old saying goes, “Ask, and ye shall receive.”

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Where Do Thoughts Come From?

(Originally published 4th May, 2007)

Where do ideas come from? When I’m writing, what part of me comes up with the words to type?

Sometimes, it feels as though there’s someone else trapped inside my brain, trying to find an opening to come out and be heard. There might be something in that, too. In her book, The Journey from Abandonment to Healing, Susan Anderson recommends giving free rein to the little voice in your head and having a whole question and answer session with it, in order to try to uncover where some of your emotional land mines are. I’ve tried it, and it does seem to work to some extent. Once you get stuff out in the open, it loses its potency.

Michael Domeyko Rowland once said that we often repress emotions and it’s like holding a beach ball underwater. It wants to float to the surface and be released, but over time, we hold it down, repressing it because we think that facing that emotion is going to be too hard or too painful. In the process, we tie up a lot of extra emotional energy and end up making ourselves sick in the process.

Are our thoughts the same thing? Do we already possess and know all the things that we need in order to get us through life and if we’d just shut up for a second and let that stuff out, we’d find that life is actually a whole lot easier than we thought?

I know that in the past I’ve had times when I’ve been able to instantly recall all sorts of knowledge at exactly the right time, and then wondered where the hell it came from. It always freaks me out a little when it happens, because it shows me that there’s more to my mind than the stuff I can consciously recall easily.

What else is trapped in our minds that we don’t let out? I’ve heard that some people believe that we never really forget anything – that, under the right circumstances – we can recall everything we’ve ever experienced. You hear of people going under hypnosis and being able to remember all sorts of details about things that they’ve forgotten completely in their normal waking world.

Are we so afraid of succeeding that we subconsciously block certain information from our conscious minds in order to fail? It seems a little weird at first, but there are times when I do think that’s precisely what we do. We downplay our own abilities and knowledge, so that we don’t have to worry about making other people jealous, or so that we don’t have to worry about what they might think of us. If we keep our mouths shut, then we won’t upset anyone and we won’t get into trouble.

Strange thing is, that sort of behaviour is remarkably self-limiting. It holds us back and strangles our creativity. It stops us from reaching our full potential in whatever it is we’re trying to do.

So friends, maybe it’s time for all of us to stop getting in our own way and to let out some of the stuff that’s welling up inside us all the time. After all, once you give your imagination its head, it can often come up with some truly magnificent ideas. If even one of those ideas improves your own life or the life of someone else, then it will have been worth the effort.

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Lest We Forget

(Originally published 25th April, 2007)

Today, in Australia, is Anzac Day. More than just a public holiday, it’s a time when the nation remembers the Australian and New Zealand soldiers who have found and died in the wars of the 20th Century.

On this day in 1915, the first wave of Australian and New Zealand troops landed on a beach on the Gallipoli Peninsula in Turkey. They were there under the overall command of the British, who were trying to smash their way through to capture Istanbul. Young men who had gone off to war thinking they were going to have a grand old adventure were suddenly thrust into a hellish and largely pointless situation.

Over the next eight months, over 8,000 Australians and 2,700 New Zealanders would die at Gallipoli. In the end, the Commonwealth forces abandoned their positions, having achieved nothing in the way over military significance.

By the end of the Great War, over 60,000 Australians had died. In terms of men killed as a percentage of the country’s population, Australia suffered the highest casualty rate of the war.

It had a profound effect on what was still a young nation. As early as 1916, people back home were already holding commemorative services to remember those who had been killed in action. By the 1920s, Anzac Day services and parades were being held around the country to honour those who had served and to remember those who had died.

As the 20th Century wore on and more servicemen and women went off to fight in a collection of wars around the world, Anzac Day expanded to remember those as well. Over 100,000 Australians have died in military actions since Gallipoli. Anzac Day gets bigger every year, with more and more people turning out to remember the fallen. For me, that’s a wonderful thing, because more and more people are really taking this seriously.

But who are these men and women who have died in combat? Are they just names on a roll of honour?

There’s a little room in the World War II wing of the Australian War Memorial here in Canberra that commemorates the Australian soldiers who died at the hands of the Japanese in the Sandakan Death March in Borneo. But rather than just listing their names, the military id photos of every man – all 1,787 of them – are posted up on the wall, from floor to ceiling. None of the photos are particularly good. Every one of them shows a man who looks bored or even numb. They stare straight into the camera without a smile or often without any expression on their face at all.

For me, it’s one of the most chilling things I’ve ever experienced. Standing in that room and looking at those faces, I realised that every single one of them died under terrible conditions and it touched me deeply. Their lives had been snuffed out, and with them, their memories, experiences and dreams. None of those guys ever came home from war. Sometimes I wonder if they knew they weren’t that when those photos were taken. It’s a lot more personal than just a list of names. Looking into the eyes of those guys almost lets them talk to you personally.

I know that every time I go into that room, I can’t help but be reminded of how much of a senseless waste of human life a war really is. It might – eventually – stop injustice and bring change for the better, but at what cost? The people who make the decisions go to war don’t see the real cost to those who actually have to put themselves in harm’s way. All they see is the abstracted figures and it’s too impersonal.

Even a list of names of the casualties doesn’t hammer home the cost. It doesn’t say anything about who these people were and what else they contributed to the world. It doesn’t say anything about the loved ones and friends they left behind and the emptiness that their deaths must have caused. It doesn’t bring home the fact that the world is now a little bit poorer because these guy aren’t with us any more.

Too often I can’t help but wonder why. I can’t help but think that all those deaths really did mean nothing. But as the guys from Carbon Leaf sing in “The War Was In Color”:

What good did it do?
Well hopefully for you,
A world without war,
A life full of color.

Wars create pain, massive amounts of it. It might be emotional pain on the part of those who lost relatives and friends. But on a larger scale, wars create financial and humanitarian pain for both the winners and the losers.

And pain is one of the biggest motivators in human existence. The human mind is designed to move away from pain and towards pleasure. Wars ultimately change the minds of the human race and drive us to realise that such activities are ultimately pointless and need to stop. Sometimes it takes death and destruction on a mind-blowing scale to make that happen, because some people are just too stupid or too proud – or both – to look at things any other way.

So on days like Anzac Day, I urge you to remember those who have fallen. Not in an abstract way, but a personal one. Find their names. Even better, find their photos and look into their eyes. But more than anything else, honour their spirits, so that they won’t be forgotten.

They shall not grow old, as we who are left grow old.
Age shall not weary them, nor the years condemn,
At the going down of the sun, and in the morning.
We will remember them

Lest we forget

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