Art Projects Update

Any creative person knows of the struggle between Art and Commerce. One fulfills the soul, while the other pays the bills. If you’re lucky, you manage to merge the two into a seamless unity. Most of us, however, have to prioritize one above the other.

The Commerce side of things has overtaken my life for the past three months, leaving me little time for my Art projects. However, I have a break in the clouds for a few weeks and I’m relishing the chance to work on more personal things. “What does this mean?” you may rightfully ask.

Firstly, my snail mail thing (whose real title is only known to the chosen few who’ve sent me a SASE), which is running a month behind schedule, is getting the attention it deserves this week. No promises, but I hope to finish both parts of it by end of the month and start sending the SASE I have banked out by then. Also, if you’ve sent me personal correspondence and are waiting on a reply, I’ll be getting to that in the coming weeks and mailing out responses. I thank you for your patience.

If you’ve been putting off mailing me a SASE and want a copy of the first mailing I created, I’d send it to me much sooner rather than later. I can’t guarantee the inaugural mailing will be available once the next one is completed and my back stock of the first version is exhausted. The postal address to send your SASE is over there in the sidebar to the right.

Secondly, I’ve settled on a topic for Secret Antiquities #2 and will be starting preliminary writing and research on that in the near future. My goal is to have the second issue out for Gen Con at the latest, but I have to remember all the steps necessary to produce the damned thing. Yes, it’s been that long. Issue #2 will focus on occult locations and landmark in America and their role in the ongoing occult skirmish for the soul of the county. Ideas for converting those sites or their powers into more typical DCC RPG campaigns will be provided as well. I’m shooting for 10 to 12 sites described and it will likely be just the first installment in cataloguing and describing mystical, historical, and/or strategic locations of numinous importance.

More updates as things develop, and thanks for understanding that I enjoy things like electricity and food and have to make sacrifices that result in my personal Art being deferred.

The Future Needs More Tinfoil Hats

This is 2019, the year of Blade Runner and Akira. We’re living in the future and it’s only sensible that I find myself looking back at the past and wondering where it all went wrong.

For me, and perhaps for others in the same age bracket as myself, the future began in the 1990s with the shriek of a 56.6k modem and the greeting of “Welcome! You’ve got mail!” The adoption of the Internet into wide-scale use changed the world in a way few other events in the history of mankind have. It gave us untapped opportunities and a lot of us glimpsed the dawning of a bright future.

Twenty years later, I’m wondering where that went.

Oh, I know where it went: we’re humans and we squander everything we’re given. We find a way to turn opportunity for greatness into a means to subjugate the many and enrich the few. Instead of communicating, we instead form gangs and sharpen knives to wield against “the other side.” Our bright future is corroded by our worst inclinations and we end up with baubles instead of riches.

Ruminating on all this leads me to look up the 1990s with rose-colored glasses. I have no illusions that I’m indulging in strong nostalgia here, but a little self-delusion can be helpful from time to time. However, what I’m about to discuss is only slightly tinged with wistfulness, so I’ll continue on with my train of thought.

Of all the things that have gone wrong with our time, the one of the most disappointing to me is that fact that conspiracy theory isn’t fun anymore. (I also fully admit it just took three turns around the barn to get to what I set out to talk about).

pyramidConspiracy theory and humanity’s ability to draw divergent events and phenomena into a unified whole has fascinated me from the first time I learned what an urban legend was. As the years passed, I found myself exposed to all manner of Kennedy assassination theories, Illuminati lore, UFO sensationalism, and far stranger ideas. I’ve always enjoyed a good conspiracy yarn while remaining skeptical about everything I read. It’s no surprise that I have an ongoing fondness for Steve Jackson Games, whose mentality and celebration of the weird so closely mimics my own.

Before the dawn of the Internet, conspiracy theory was something you had to seek out. While everyone had an uncle or an older brother who was convinced that the government was UP TO SOMETHING, it took some doing to delve deeper into the conspiratorial mindset. One had to track down a copy of the Illuminatus! Trilogy or visit secondhand bookstores with a shelf in the back crammed with small press runs of crackpot books or send a check off to a tiny publisher who advertised in obscure interest magazines to get the real riches. You really had to work for it if you wanted to delve into the topic and it took an immense amount of money and not a few dollars to subject yourself to intense daily bombardment of the secret and the strange.

Because of this, I suspect that there was a good percentage of conspiracy theory enthusiasts who were like myself—interested but not influenced. It’s hard to take the subject matter seriously when you had a prolonged decompression period between finishing one crackpot work and tracking down the next one. Perhaps, although this is clearly influenced by nostalgia, we were more adept at evaluating the information presented to us before the firehose of the Internet drowned our culture in data and overwhelmed our ability to separate fact from fiction.

Whatever the reason, I feel that twenty years ago we could entertain a well-constructed—or even a poorly concocted one if it entertained—conspiracy idea without it harming anyone. I could sit in a movie theater and notice when groups of five people came into it (2+3=5 and if you don’t know the significance of that, you’re missing out). I could drink beers with you and talk about Freemasonry and black helicopters and why no one would help this poor widow’s son and it would be a time for laughter and a little smugness in knowing we were aware of something not everyone else knew about. And that, at its heart, is the appeal of the conspiracy theory.

The dawn of the Internet didn’t change all that at first. If anything, it was a golden age for those of us who loved to swim in the shallow waters of conspiracy theory. I fondly recall Steve Jackson Games’ Daily Illuminator’s “Illuminated Site of the Week” which regularly drew my attention to some poorly-designed web site written by a true believer or, better yet, the work of a fellow conspiracy aficionado clearly spreading some bit of secret wisdom with tongue firmly in cheek.

Although the World Wide Web gave us as-yet unimagined access to the weird and conspiratorial, it still took some doing on the part of both the seeker and the disseminator, who had to possess at least rudimentary knowledge of HTML and the building and hosting a web site—which wasn’t widespread yet in the early to mid-1990s. Conspiracy aficionados remained a small majority of the masses and we could still relish in our elite status as either knowing more than the guy next door or at least being in on the joke.

Fast-forward two decades and look what’s happened.

There have been THIRTEEN seasons so far of “Ancient Aliens.” Alex Jones, once a somewhat enjoyable crackpot from the fringe, built a media empire to spread vileness and many people took it to be a real news source. There are honest-to-Bob folks who bought into PizzaGate whole-heartedly and we have the occupant of the highest office labeling anything he doesn’t like as “fake news.” Otherwise sensible ignore evidence of everything from falsified vaccination papers to global warming. My nine year old nephew knows what the Illuminati is.

The once refreshing waters of the conspiracy theory pond have swelled to a troubled sea filled with sharks.

At the real risk of sounding like a hipster holding court at the back of the new vinyl record shop, I liked it better before everyone was into this thing. I feel like the pranksters and the fans have been muscled out by the true believers, the paranoiacs, and those looking for evidence to further strengthen their hate and their fear. It’s hard to polish up your golden apple and demand your Slack when the guy next to you honestly believes in the Deep State and that QAnon is speaking the suppressed truth.

Apologies if you came here expecting elf game stuff, but this has been weighing on me as I consider what’s next for me in the field of fictional worlds and gaming material.

I don’t see any easy way out of this, no way to reset the tone of the room. I’d like to let my freak flag fly a little higher, but I fear who might come along to salute it.

This is a subject I’ll likely return to in the future. My thoughts are still in flux and will continue to evolve, but I needed to work out a starting point from which to build. So in true conspiratorial fashion, I’ll slip back into the shadows, giving you time to consider what you’ve learned.

Leave a coded message for me in the back of Village Voice if you need to contact me. Until then, fight the future.

Early Thoughts on Gaming-Related New Year’s Resolutions

There’s still some weeks and a whole major holiday between me and 2019, but I’ve already begun thinking about what to do in the coming year and what needs to change. I’m not making any major resolutions aside from getting caught up on some projects that have been proposed and/or announced and got sidetracked by DCC Lankhmar (Hello, The Four Phantasmagorias, announced maybe four years ago. One of the original playtesters was in pigtails then and is now driving).

Resolution-wise, and this ties into the shift in my own preferences these days when it comes to the gaming table, I intend to limit the amount of “genre” fiction I consume. I’ve read a lot of a fantasy over the past several years, largely to cover the Appendix N list for numerous work-related projects, and I need a detox for my brain. I suspect this overload of swords-and-sorcery is responsible for the sudden desire that hit me a few weeks ago to suddenly get into WWII wargaming. I’m suffering from
“imagination malnutrition” and need some vitamins that fantasy fiction isn’t providing.

My plan is to replace the genre literature I normally consume with more non-fiction, figuring that anything I read can serve as inspiration and that I once devoured non-fiction voraciously. I’m missing the pleasure of armchair scholarship that comes with a well-written non-fiction work about a subject I’m interested in and would like to exercise the old noggin a bit more.

The second change I’ve been anticipating is running a short campaign as a temporary breather from our regular The One Ring game. It will be one year of TOR at the end of January so a brief vacation from Middle-earth is in order. I believe I’ve settled on doing a six session GUMSHOE arc, since the last few sessions of TOR have been investigative-focused and both my players and I have enjoyed the social interaction, planning, and problem-solving that’s come out of it. GUMSHOE is something we’ve played briefly and it’s a system I want to get more of a handle on, if only because there’s some great material out there for it.

At the moment, I’m torn between three potential ideas and will likely present them to the players in January when we come back from our holiday break. One involves a Fall of Delta Green campaign that’s mashed up with Cthulhu City and a bit of The Prisoner thrown in for good measure. The second in a 1970s UFO-themed game with the PCs as Men in Black type investigators and trouble-shooters (perhaps even literally). The last is a more traditional Trail of Cthulhu game that skews into Hastur country.

There’s a third thing that’s been brewing over the last couple of days and it might be the off-the-books game I run on the road this year. I’m still doing some prep work, but if I remain excited about it through New Year’s, I think it has legs and could be a lot of fun. It’s definitely a change of pace for me in some ways, but pure Curtis in others. Stay tuned for more on that as it develops.

My Ten Influential RPGs

There’s a meme floating around the social networks asking people to name the ten role-playing games that had the most influence on them. To me, this isn’t the same as asking for their ten favorite ones. The meme is interesting in that it presents the opportunity to examine what certain games taught us—for better or for worse.

I spent some time today thinking about my now (sheesh) soon-to-be thirty-nine years of RPG hobby involvement and almost a decade working on the professional side of things and what games have had the biggest impact on me both professionally and as a gamer. In order of least importance but still impactful to highest importance, here’s my list and why.

10) Gamma World: The first edition of Gamma World was the second RPG I ever owned. While the rules were similar to D&D and the post-apocalyptic setting was a little too different from what you thought the world after a nuclear apocalypse was supposed to look like if you were a kid in the early 1980s, Gamma World taught me there were other RPGs beyond D&D and other settings besides fantasy. I was a fan of Gamma World for many years, but I have to admit it has slipped from my list of favorites these days. Maybe the appeal of a dying world isn’t quite as fun when your world is actually on the ropes?

9) Top Secret: I’ve never been a huge spy fan outside of the James Bond movies, but Top Secret was the game that taught me RPGs could use game mechanics to adjudicate success besides a simple “X in 6” chance or comparing a die roll to a “to hit” table. While percentile-based thieves skills have (almost) always been a part of D&D, Top Secret was the first game that made broad use of a percentile skills not directly tied to a class-based advancement system. To this day, I still prefer it when a game allows you to customize your areas of expertise and advance them free of class progression restrictions.

8) GURPS: I’ve never actually played GURPS. Much like Champions, I’ve made up a GURPS character or two, but they never made it into actual play. Yet GURPS remains influential because it demonstrated to me what a setting splatbook should be. I own GURPS books and mined them heavily for ideas and inspiration for countless campaigns using everything but GURPS. They remain some of the few RPG books I can read for sheer reading enjoyment rather than practical use.

7) Shadowrun: Shadowrun taught me how a single image could capture the imagination and build up anticipation for a game you knew nothing about. Larry Elmore’s cover illustration, used as a teaser in the pages of Dragon magazine, blew the minds of myself and my friends. “Is that an elf with a computer? Are those orcs with guns? A magic-user in Daisy Dukes?!!!” We knew nothing about the game when we saw that art except for the fact we we’re going to play the HELL OUT OF IT when it came out. And we did.

6) Star Wars (West End Games): I played a lot of Star Wars in high school and in college and it never bothered me that I wasn’t playing the heroes of the movies. The Star Wars universe was so huge that there was plenty of room to tell other stories with heroes just as capable and daring as Leia, Luke, and Han. While seemingly a no-brainer when it comes to game design, The Adventures of Indiana Jones would stumble over this very issue. When we sat down to design DCC Lankhmar, a world with its own large-than-life heroes, I made it clear from the beginning that Fafhrd and the Gray Mouser were intended to be either not present or second bananas to the player’s PCs.

5) The One Ring: Say what you like about Tolkien’s work and whether you like it or not, but The One Ring is an exceptional example of using game mechanics to convey the feel of an existing work rather than modifying an existing work to convey the feel of a setting. MERPs is an example of what can go wrong when you’re dealing with the second case. In comparison, The One Ring was built from the ground up to invoke Middle-earth and succeeds admirably. TOR has become a favorite among my regular gaming group and its mixture of old school dice mechanics and new school narrative story aspects is scratching all the right itches. It might even be higher on my list one day should I ever get around to experimenting with adapting its rule system to similar non-Tolkien genres like historical Dark Ages Europe or other analogous campaign premises.

4) Vampire: the Masquerade: The Storytelling system introduced me to both the concept of “succeeding at a game mechanic without the need to roll dice” and taught me how to look at adventure design as story design. While that’s anathema to some old school RPGers, who prefer emergent storytelling, as I get older, I appreciate the need for creating concise campaigns with a beginning, middle, and an end. Doing that keys heavily into the same skill set as writing a story or designing a story-arc adventure. V:tM also kept me in the hobby for nearly ten years when I was ready to drop out of role-playing for good.

3) Mind’s Eye Theatre: I went back and forth on whether this belongs under the rubric of V:tM, but ultimately decided the lessons learned and the influence it had were monumental enough to be its own entry. Despite a brief dalliance with the SCA in my freshman year of college, I never had much desire for Live Action Role-Playing, which back then was largely hitting each other with sticks. Then The Masquerade, the first MET title came along and I was certain I’d seen the future of role-playing games. The rock-paper-scissors mechanic was brilliant and the fact that it was socially driven meant that you could get dressed up in cool clothes and engage in scintillating conversation with other people—especially those of your preferred gender for romantic liaisons. While it’s been a long, long time since I did any LARP gaming, I’m still known to get people standing up and away from the table when playing out a scene. The lessons I learned in designing MET games has also served me well in tabletop gaming. Intrigue at the Court of Chaos, for example, wouldn’t have been possible without my experience in putting characters at cross-purposes and how effective introducing a secret agendas can be.

2) Call of Cthulhu: I was a relative latecomer to CoC, picking up the 4th edition as my first version and not actually playing the game for many years afterward. Despite a late start, CoC remains one of my top five RPGs. Until recently, the game saw minimum changes, demonstrating exactly how solid a game design Sandy Peterson created in 1981. As I mentioned above, any game with a percentile-based skill system is going to have me rooting for it and CoC’s skills and progression mechanic was miles beyond Top Secret. Call of Cthulhu also features “average people” as the heroes and it’s far more satisfying to beat the bad guys (or at least stave off the end of the world for another week) when you’re the underdog.

1) Dungeons & Dragons: Without D&D, there would be no RPGs—at least on the level of exposure the world knows them today. And while the rules have changed and design goals vary from edition to edition, to me they’re all manifestations of that thing which is Dungeons & Dragons. Every edition from 0 to 5—and all those retro clones in between—has taught me something about not only our hobby, but myself and those who share my enthusiasm for it. It might not necessarily be my go to game these days, but it will never be surpassed for the influence it’s had on me.

I find it curious that out of these ten titles, I only currently play three of them. The rest have fallen to the wayside and the reason in every case is my growing older. I couldn’t imagine trying to play, let alone run, a game with mechanics like Shadowrun’s dice pools or Top Secret’s baroque array of modifiers to base skill chances. I might play Star Wars again one day, but frankly the Galaxy Far, Far Away is feeling a little oversaturated ever since Disney acquired it. I’m burned out on Star Wars, but may change my mind once my nephews get a little older. Vampire will always be an old love, but one I’m not likely to shack up with again unless the conditions were perfect.

A Word about Social Media and Me

I’m extremely lucky to have a number of people who enjoy my work. Not a day passes that I’m not thankful that there are people in this world who’ll buy a book simply because my name is on the cover. The day I take that for granted is that day I deserve to go back to working in the warehouse and being yelled at by a boss I despise. I try my best to make time for my fans and well-wishers when I’m out at conventions, but there’s only so much time in the world and often I’m in the midst of two pressing matters and have to rush off. Nevertheless, I’m happy to meet people in person both at and away from the gaming table.

That being said, I realized a few years ago that I needed to separate my work and my personal life in order to maintain my own sanity and not shatter anyone else’s illusions about me (he said, tongue firmly in cheek). I often joke that I’ve entered the J.D. Salinger/Thomas Pinchon stage of my career.

To this end, I generally don’t accept Facebook friend requests from people not in my immediate circle of friends, family, and old acquaintances. If we strike up a friendship at a convention, I might reach out to you and send a friend request, but I purposely keep my Facebook list small. Please don’t take me not responding to your friend request personally. I think you’re cool and I’m glad you want to be connected with me, but I have to maintain some privacy. Google+ was the exception to this rule and I actively cultivated a network of gamers in my circles. Unfortunately, with G+ going away, this blog will have to take its place. It’s not the perfect solution, but I have no plans to join another social media network at this moment, largely for the reason I just described.

Until I find an alternative that fits me perfectly, consider this blog to be you and me sitting around, smoking and joking, and talking about gaming stuff. I’m glad you’re here.