Video Blog: The RPG Social Contract

After some prodding from my wife, I’ll be releasing a series of blogs concerning Role Playing Games, such as reviews, tips, and overall philosophies I have. Instead of my normal blog format, I’ll be doing most of these as videos.

The first of which is my thoughts on the social contract concerning the responsibilities and expectations that players and game-masters agree to when joining or forming a RPG group.


This is a topic I’ve discussed several times over the years with various players and GM’s and it was good to finally organize and articulate it all in one place. Hopefully others will enjoy it.

The Great Roleplaying Experiment – 5e D&D versus Call of Cthulhu 7e

As I’ve said before, I’m a massive roleplaying fan.  I’ve been gaming since I was 13 and I hope to continue until my dying days.

Two years ago, I posted how I was running a Pulp-Era game that was essentially mixing Call of Cthulhu and old horror movies using a modified Cyberpunk 2020 Interlock system.  It was a fun game and very rewarding to build something new. I also have even more respect for RPG designers, since there is a whole lot of work that goes into tiny details.  But the game kicked butt and we were having fun (Having a player take down a charging T-Rex with a tommy gun was a dream I never knew I had until it was fulfilled).

5th EdThen my friend and fellow author Clay Sanger sold me on trying the new Dungeons & Dragons 5th Edition.  It took some convincing, but I gave it a shot and spent all of 2015 playing D&D.  It’s a clean system and it’s very apparent that they put a lot of work into making it Dungeon Master Friendly instead of only focusing on it being Player Friendly (after all, who cares how bad ass a system is if no one is willing to endure the nightmare of running it?). Also, I judge an RPG by its art and layout, and the aesthetics of 5e D&D is seriously top-notch.  But after several months of playing, a few problems began to surface.

Nothing against the game at all. As a die-hard First Edition player, I’ll admit that 5th Edition D&D is amazing. Its just that a level-based game that focuses on combat in order to gain more powers doesn’t appeal to me as much as it once did.  The other issue was that the character personalities were not as good as they should be.  That’s no fault of D&D, but it is more common in it since Feats and Abilities can overshadow a player’s attention to the character itself. Something needed to change.  I was about to kill that campaign and start a new one, letting everyone write fresh characters now that we all had a better understanding of the game mechanics. But then something happened.

Cthulhu called me home. 7th Ed

Now, I hadn’t been looking to leave D&D. My players and I had finally gotten proficient enough with the new system that we were really stretching our legs with it.  But I was on the Chaosium email list and I read a few of their updates on the release for their new 7th Edition and I decided to give it a look.

Quite simply, it’s beautiful.

First, Call of Cthulhu is really more of my kind of game right now.  Being skill-based, players aren’t restricted by character classes where they only advance once they’ve achieved a set number of Experience Points. Characters can use any skill and advance in those individual skills as they use them. That was my favorite aspect of Cyberpunk. Second, combat is less important than the story, and man, they made the system great for storytelling.

Character creation is wonderful, and they offer a lot of tools to make it easy.  A player can quickly make a character with intimate details in a way that’s easy and very personable. Cyberpunk had a great character creation system too, but CoC’s is much easier to use not only during creation, but within the game itself.  I don’t have to remind any of them about character histories because they are so well ingrained and easy to reference. They players instantly fell in love with their characters not because of their racial or class abilities, but because of who their characters were.

Like with Interlock or previous CoC editions, combat in 7th Edition is nasty.  Characters do not magically gain hit-points like they do in D&D, so they’re always weak and a small weapon is seriously scary (No matter how awesome you are, a hobo with a shank will still fuck you up).  Also, things like Healing Potions, or Cure Wound spells are absent, which means getting hurt is a big deal.  Taking away their safety nets makes the player much more cautious and play smarter. Over they years, I’ve noticed D&D players become more careless as their characters’ accrue a good number of hit-points and armor. In systems without hit point increases, they become more careful the longer they play because they are more attached to their character who are still just as squishy as a 2nd level D&D character. The other great thing about CoC combat is that it’s extremely simple. Combat is fast-paced and easy to learn.

ChasesOne of the biggest selling points for me was the Chase Rules.  Normally, chases in an RPGs are handled by taking Initiative and Movement Rate. Fastest movement wins. Pretty simple. It’s also kinda boring.  But Chaosium knew that with combat being so brutal, and most of the monsters being so deadly, that characters would spend more time running from baddies than they would fighting them. So they made Chases a large part of the game (as large as Combat), and man they’re fun.

The Idea Roll is also another thing I appreciate. Since most adventures center on investigation and cleverness, if the PC’s find themselves against a wall because no one thinks of the right thing to do or they missed a clue, the Idea Roll can save the day without anyone feeling like the GM is just bailing them out.

Bone HillFinally, the coolest thing about 7th Edition CoC is that it’s backwards compatible.  Meaning that a GM can pick up a 1980’s adventure module and can convert the game to 7th Edition in their head. It take a little getting used to, and it isn’t my ideal way of running a module, but it’s also awesome.  That means that any CoC adventure that has ever been written over the last 35 years are still available for Game Masters to use.  One of the things that saddened me when we started 5th Edition D&D was that all of the modules and supplements for each previous edition (many of which I owned) were completely obsolete and that future generations of players would never know them.  In fact, when we played 5th Edition D&D, I had converted The Secret of Bone Hill, a classic 1st Edition adventure that I loved, to 5th Edition. The conversion process was hell. It was insanely difficult and took a lot of time. The results were fantastic, but I’d be real hesitant to convert any other adventures to 5th Edition after that.

deadlightSo far this year, we’ve played four Call of Cthulhu adventures:  The Haunting and Dead Light, which are 7th Edition, Crack’d and Crook’d Manse (6th Edition), and Edge of Darkness (5th Edition). All have been a massive success.  In fact, with Edge of Darkness being an adventure that’s been around so long, there were some great fan-made supplements and handouts for it.

And since I mentioned my affection for great art and layout, the art was what drew me in in the first place.  Chaosium has done an outstanding job making the book easy to learn from and with plenty of great art to fuel that creative fire.

Both Dungeons & Dragons 5e and Call of Cthulhu 7e are brilliant in their executions and feel like they are written not as a cash-grab to strong-arm players into buying all new books, but as a real evolution of the games with 35+ years of experience behind them.  I’d gladly recommend either of them. But as a story-based GM, I prefer Call of Cthulhu.

Edge of Darkness

Now nothing is perfect, and CoC’s biggest hindrance is that the physical copies of the books are still not available (though they should be very shortly). However, the PDF Copies are out there and the 7th Edition Quickstart rules are totally free to download (and come with The Haunting adventure).  I strongly urge Game Masters to check it out if they’re looking for something fun.

And if you’re a fan of Penny Dreadful, then you have to check out Cthulhu by Gaslight.


UPDATE:  So the same day that I posted how Call of Cthulhu’s biggest hindrance was a lack of physical books, Chaosium released their 7th Edition Pre-Order.  Already ordered mine. Books expected this May. 


Role Playing Games – What I Play

Hi all,

Tabletop Role Playing Games have been a huge part of my life for over 20 years, now.   Some of my closest friendships have been forged over the gaming table. Because RPGs have been such an influence, I figured I’d write a little bit about what I like to play.

Like most gaD&D Box Setmers, my love affair with RPGs began with Dungeons & Dragons. When I was 13, my mother bought me the D&D box set.  It came with some basic rules, a poster, some dice, and a little adventure.  (That red dragon poster lived on my wall until I was 22.) Shortly after that, I found some friends that played in my Boy Scout troop, and one of the dads was an experienced DM.  He opened my head to the awesome possibilities of gaming.

Second Edition D&D had just come out, and my DM refused to buy new books, so we plundered garage sales and used book stores.  Even today, when I play D&D, it’s 95% First Edition (talking it back to the old school ’cause I’m an old fool)

cyberpunk rpg

A few years later, when I was 18, a friend introduced me to a completely different type of game, Cyberpunk 2020.  Cyberpunk is a near-future setting featuring evil mega-corporations, cyber technology, and punk-rock attitude.  The rule-system itself was brilliantly simple and I enjoyed it.  In fact, the Cyberpunk universe is the most well-crafted game setting world I’ve ever encountered.  However, D&D was still my true love and Cyberpunk was usually reserved for special occasions.

Over the years, my friends and I would occasionally try out 1-off games on the side. We did vampire hunters, zombie apocalypse survivors, battled Nazi mummies, and other fun scenarios.  For those we used the Cyberpunk 2020 Interlock rules.  It was the most versatile system, and makes combat extremely cinematic and brutal.

Eventually I got frustrated with D&D and decided to run Cyberpunk 2020 as a primary game.  I picked up the remaining few books that I didn’t already own and started running a campaign.  Around this time, I found Datafortress2020, which is an amazing fan-run site.  Among their resources is an improved rules system called Interlock Unlimited (IU).  IU uses all the simplicity of the original Interlock system, but streamlines it, making it usable for any setting and situation.  I was in love.


After running a couple campaigns of Cyberpunk using the IU rules, we switched to a historic fantasy setting for about a year.  It was fun, but just wasn’t D&D (you can’t mess with the king).  Meanwhile, I was reading Lovecraft for the first time (yeah, I’m a late bloomer) and went on some crazed Hellraiser/horror movie bender on Netflix.  Then I discovered Call of Cthulhu

Call of Cthulhu 1920’s isCthulhu Chaosium a historic horror RPG that focuses primarily on story, investigation, and role-playing.  It’s not very combat-oriented (Most of the monsters will simply shatter your mind and eat your face.  So it’s best to avoid them directly).  It was exactly what I needed. 

The only problem I saw with it was that playing in a strictly Lovecraftian setting would quickly bore me.  I wanted to bring in The Mummy, The Shadow, King Kong, Tales of the Golden Monkey, Indiana Jones, and all the other 20’s and 30’s pulp adventures, as wells as some classics baddies like vampires and lycanthropes.  So again…Interlock Unlimited to the rescue.

It took me a few months to convert and write rules, but we now have a fully-functional game set in 1925.  I call it Pulp-Era Unlimited, but when people ask me what I play, I simply tell them Call of Cthulhu.  That’s a lot easier than saying that I play a home-made game inspired by Call of Cthulhu and Brendan Fraser movies that uses a fan-modified Cyberpunk 2020 rule system.

So there it is.  I’m a massive nerd.  I admit it.