Monday 17 March 2014

A brief interruption of service

Dear all, 

You’ve probably noticed that there hasn’t been much activity on the blog this week. This is because I am simultaneously dealing with a huge project at work and apartment-hunting. It’s been a busy week and it looks to be another. However, I promise that normal service will be restored shortly. (Of course, getting the internet working the new place etc. etc. yadda yadda, but we’ll figure something out.)

In the meantime, don't forget that entries for the Two-Dollar Monster Challenge are due on Friday the 21st! I mean, if you're like a day or so late, no big deal. Especially considering everything else I've just said. But around then, please!

Wednesday 12 March 2014

Games that are good: the Cthulhus

This is my gaming bookshelf. The highlighted sections are Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu. Oh, and Cthulhu Live.

Welcome to Games That Are Good, an irregular series in which I look at the games on my shelf and explain why you oughta like 'em. As you can see, the shelf is actually pretty small -- over the years, I've moved many times, including back and forth between Britain and the US more than once. As a result, I went through a period of keeping things light. Many of my gaming books were boxed up and left in my family's garage the last time I moved out here. Bit by bit I've begun to reassemble the collection, but I still have a lot of books on PDF. 

Regardless, you can see from the image above that there are some trends observable even in my small collection. The heavy presence of Call of Cthulhu and its descendants Trail of Cthulhu and Cthulhu Live is pretty obvious, for instance. 

I said that this blog was going to be about history, and obvious these games are pretty tied in to that -- playing Call of Cthulhu in high school was one of the things that really made me want to study history. Partly, of course, it's that the game's default setting is the era in which H.P. Lovecraft himself was writing, the 1920s (or the 1930s in the case of Trail). Even Live, which is much more concerned with modern-day play, also talks not only about the 1920s era but has a series of other historical settings, including scenarios set in a sort of Ellroy 1950s and in the Pacific Theatre during WW2. 

There are some people who don't like the historical setting -- they argue that Lovecraft was writing in his "modern day" and that the perceived artificiality of the 20s setting removes some of the impact of the horror. I'm open to that argument, but not persuaded by it, possibly because I don't think the setting is artificial and possibly because I love the game the way I first encountered it. I still prefer the 4th edition rulebook to any other, because that's the one I read through in increasing awe in my cousin's room in Mexico City when I was 12 or 13 or so. 

Regardless, I think that one of the things I really like about CoC is that so many of the scenarios -- and when we say we love the game we're often saying we love its scenarios -- hit the sweet spot of that historian-as-detective bit. I've never been wholly convinced by the exploring-strange-landscapes scenarios, your Pits of Bendal-Dolums and what have you. For me, the archetypal CoC scenario is the one where the investigators have a big pile of letters, diaries and newspaper clippings and gradually come to the realisation that things in this place are very fucked up and have been fucked up for a long time. Bonus points if, as I advocated in my Treadwell's talk, they discover that they themselves are fucked up as a result. 

Not "fucked." I'm taking that one for granted. 

Anyway, I guess what I'm saying here is that I really like this game and, in the amazingly unlikely event that you like history and RPGs but don't already play it, you might too. 

However, if you do like the game already, stay tuned, because our next post is going to be about using palimpsests in your game. Honestly, in any game. 

Monday 10 March 2014

Two dollar monster challenge: some inspirational material

I was out and about on Saturday, and every time I passed by a Poundland or something I popped in to snap a few quick pictures. I was also in a zoo gift shop, which was a place with lots of good stuff, although perhaps on the pricey side. Most of these are very large, but I bet there's still a lot that could be done with them. 
If any Chinese toy company wants their box copy
rewritten in something approximating the English
language, they should know that I work cheap.

I'm not Shakespeare, but I bet I could do better
than "The World of Biological Series."
Dire Weasels ripped my flesh!

Friday 7 March 2014

More combi-weapons and the random Renaissance bionic arm

I spent some time in a local museum the other day and snapped some photographs which had possible relevance to games and the blog!
Axe-gun, like in this post.
I think in order for this to be good in games, you'd need a
game that has drawing a weapon as a slow action.
I find the idea of a blunderbuss with a bayonet hilarious for some reason.
"Ha ha! You thought I had a gun, but actually it's ... a knife ..."
OK, so those are my flashbacks. On to the meat of the post. I also saw this prosthetic hand -- there were actually two, but I don't think my photo of the other came out well enough. As you can see, this is an iron prosthetic from the Renaissance, and it's pretty cool-looking. From the description on the card, it doesn't sound like it was actually very functional, but we can beef it up for gaming a little bit. But we don't want bionic hands to just work like replacement hands; how boring would that be? 

First off, obviously the fantasy replacement hand is made of metal, so it has some good points: great for opening poison-needle traps with, for instance. Probably not great on the ol' dexterity, though, so you probably don't want to be trying to open traps that work by explosives or deadfalls. I assume they probably take Dex penalties for tasks performed with that hand? I'll think of it when I get to it.

Anyway, I like the idea that these things are made individually by local smiths, so no two of them are the same. With that in mind, I have created the Random Mechanical Hand Table. It is designed for my home D&D game, which is like d20 but I ignore the complicated bits. I think that PCs should be able to try to influence the outcome -- maybe you can get a second roll on the table, but it costs extra? Anyway:

Random Mechanical Hand Table

Roll d10 once for each section.


  1. Decorative inlay. Looks really cool. 
  2. Knuckle spikes. Unarmed strikes do an additional d4 damage. 
  3. Integral multitool. Saw, screwdriver, pliers, little knife, etc. Gives +2 bonus on crafty skills, handy for cutting ropes, etc. 
  4. Hidden finger compartment. Secrete one small object -- a note, a few gems, some lockpicks. 
  5. Joint lock. Set to hold hand in one position. +2 to resist disarm, but needs to be reset before you can do anything else with it. 
  6. Integral dart launcher. Compressed-air charge fires a single dart; provide your own poison. Reloading takes several minutes, tools and removing the hand. 
  7. Armoured plating. Counts as a buckler in combat. 
  8. Exotic construction. Double base cost. 1-2: Silver. 3-4: Meteoric iron. 5: Bones of a saint / cursed relics. 6: Bamboo, whalebone and exotic hardwoods. 
  9. Magnetised plate. Good for attracting small metal objects. Can be inconvenient. 
  10. Cable reel. Works like a grappling hook. 

  1. Decorative inlay is highly offensive in a randomly-determined language or carries symbols of hated cult/insurgency/noble house/whatever. 
  2. Joints squeak unless regularly oiled. -2 on stealthy stuff unless regularly maintained. 
  3. Loose fit. If you land a critical hit with this hand, roll d6. On a 1, the hand falls off. 
  4. Tight fit. Bites into the arm, causing irritation. -2 to any rolls involving remaining calm (like resisting Rage spells). 
  5. Evil. 
  6. Shoddy construction. When putting high pressure on the hand (e.g. carrying a heavy object, clinging to a cliff edge), roll d6: 1-3 no effect. 4-5 minor damage; -2 on all rolls with this hand until repaired. 6 catastrophic failure. 
  7. Rough finish. Wears away at ropes. Apply a penalty to skills using ropes or 10% chance of snapping rope when used with this hand if skills aren't your bag. 
  8. Non-retractable spikes: not bad as a weapon, but don't shake hands with people, as this hand is covered in jagged blades and spikes. 
  9. Crooked smith concealed valuable information/stolen goods in hidden compartment; dangerous people and/or the law are desperate to retrieve it. 
  10. Unpredictable lock. As with grip lock above, but roll d6 when trying to unlock the hand: on a 4-6 it remains stuck and has to be opened by painstakingly dismantling the lock mechanism. 

Monday 3 March 2014

Two-dollar monster challenge: the rules!

OK, so here's the part where you come in!

In the spirit of my previous post, I want to see the monsters you create from cheap toys and junk. I am therefore holding a contest: THE TWO-DOLLAR MONSTER CHALLENGE! There will be fabulous prizes for the winners! Well, prizes anyway. I think you'll like 'em.

Here's how to play:

  • Get yourself a cheap toy monster. I'm not going to set a hard price limit, but we're looking for things that cost no more than a few dollars/pounds/whatever. 
  • Modify it in any way you desire. Again, proper advanced modelling with loads of spare kit parts is probably outside the scope of this project, but on the other hand what the hell. 
  • Take a photograph of the model. If you've messed with it, take a before/after photo. If you can put a regular 28mm scale figure next to it to show how big it is, that would be great. 
  • Write a description of the monster. What is it? Where did it come from? What's it do? All that stuff. 
  • Stat the monster for your favourite RPG. This could be anything -- D&D, Call of Cthulhu, Esoterrorists, World of Darkness, FATE, Synnibarr, your own homebrew system, whatever. Anything goes. 
  • Email the description, photos and stats to me at gonzohistory AT gmail. If you can, include info on where you got the figure, how much it cost, etc., so that people who want to can get one of their own.
  • Enter more than once if you want to, but you can only win once. 
  • If you have a link to your blog or site that you want included in your entry, just say so!
Send your entries to me by Friday, March 21st! I and my panel of celebrity judges, who will be announced as soon as I actually have some, will pick our favourites. The three top entrants will each receive an official Gonzo History Gaming prize pack full of ... I dunno, stuff. Toys, models, smelly old fantasy paperbacks, dice ... whatever we have that we think you might enjoy. All entries will be posted on the blog; I'm hoping the final results will be up the following Friday, March 28th.

Sound like fun? Dig out those old toys and get cracking.

Here are a few more photos that I took for the previous post but didn't use, featuring charity shop or Poundland toys and Torchy the Torchbearer. Who is going back on the painting table, because his nose looks awful.

Cybermats: I got a pack of like 20 for £4 in the toy section at TK Maxx.
This dragon's expression seems familiar.
Another Poundland toy; I think it came together with the one above.

All of these creepy-crawlies came in a single pack from Poundland at Halloween (with lots more).
The maggots are all squishy and gross. 
This is part of the same toyline as the ape monster and likewise cost £1.
My assumption is it was designed by a 10-year-old who'd had a lot of cough syrup.
It's like a crystal blue dimetrodon with a buzzsaw for a fin?
I got it from the 10p toy basket at the Salvation Army shop.
Anyway, I look forward to seeing your entries!

Two-dollar monster challenge: Intro

In the early days of RPGs -- indeed, even before there were RPGs per se -- fantasy gamers struggled to find miniatures they could use in their games. There weren't really fantasy figure manufacturers like there are today. We knew that early fantasy wargames were set in Conan-type worlds that were full of human nations modelled on historical societies, the better to use collections of Greeks and Vikings and so on.

When it came to monsters, however, things got complicated. Gary Gygax described using Airfix Romans as orcs and making dragons out of plastic dinosaur toys. And once D&D was a going concern, coming up with new monsters meant getting very creative. Check out this excellent post on the origins of the bulette, the rust monster and the owlbear, which were made from dime-store "prehistoric animal" toys. 

Nowadays, of course, you can get bulettes, rust monsters and owlbears in a hundred places, where official D&D miniatures, loving old-school homages or very similar knockoffs. And that's great. Nothing wrong with having options. If the wargamers of that 60s-70s generation could see the variety available now, they'd go green with envy. And it isn't just miniatures -- even if you don't use a lot of figures in your games, chances are you've cussed out a rust monster at least once. 

And yet ... and yet ... 

There is a difference between making monsters from cheap toys you found at the drugstore and celebrating the monsters that other people made from cheap drugstore toys. Making stuff from junk is a grand tradition in the wargaming world, and ought to be encouraged everywhere. Therefore, I am holding a contest! With fabulous prizes to be won, although I haven't actually decided what they are yet. I will begin with an example, though. 

This crazy-ass-looking ape thing, seen here next to GHG mascot Torchy the Torchbearer, was found at Poundland and cost, well, a pound. I think we can all agree that it is amazing. If I put this on the table, my players would crap themselves. But what is it? Here's my example, roughly statted out for d20, which is what I use in my Wednesday night game.

Bonegarden Infestation

Developed by Imperial court wizards working hand-in-hand with the Night-black Cenacle, the Bonegarden infestation is an advanced form of the combat zoanthropy surgeries already used on many Imperial soldiers. It was intended to create a method of inducing rapid-onset mutation without the need for lengthy individual procedures. Unfortunately, an attempted raid by Immortal Buffalo Legion troops on the base where the Bonegarden organism was being developed led to its escape into the wild. Naturally, each general blames the other for the resulting problem.

When the Bonegarden infestation enters a living host, it carries out a series of more-or-less standard metamorphoses, promoting sudden growth of bone spikes or weapons and altering the host's brain to produce increased aggression and decreased sensitivity to pain. The infestation process takes 2d6 days + the victim's Con modifier. Adequate medical care or disease-affecting spells can stop the infestation, although the victim will take d8 damage, +1 per day the infestation has been developing.

Bonegarden Infestation is a template that can be added to any creature. It has the following effects:

  • Change the creature's type to Outsider. 
  • +2 AC as the infestation produces thick deposits of bone and scar tissue. 
  • +10 HP 
  • If the host did not already have natural weapons, it gains claws which do d6 damage. If it does have natural weapons, they do an additional +2 damage. 
  • The host organism gains the ability to Rage as a barbarian. 
  • On a successful grapple, the host may make a bite attack with its chest maw at +2. If it hits, the attack does d4 damage (plus appropriate modifiers) and the victim must make a Fortitude save, DC 18, or become the host for a Bonegarden infestation. 
  • Bonegarden-infested creatures gain Regeneration 3.
  • Creatures suffering a Bonegarden infestation become irritable and aggressive but peculiarly biddable. They suffer a -4 penalty on all Will saves as well as a -8 penalty on all skill checks related to social interaction and a -4 penalty on all Intelligence-based skills. 
  • Bonegarden infestation is invariably fatal after d10+2 months. 

Bonegarden-infested Dire Ape

Bonegarden infestation is particularly common among the dire apes of the Blue Isle where the Cenacle's research centre was based. However, because the infestation is so deadly, these creatures may soon be extinct.

Size/Type: Large Outsider
Hit Dice: 5d8+23 (45 HP)
Initiative: +2
Speed: 30, climb 15
AC: 17/11/15
Base Attack: +3, Grapple +13
Attack: Claw +8, d6+8
Full: 2 x claw +8,. d6+8, bite +3, d8+3 OR maw +5. d4+6 and special as above
Space/Reach: 10/10
Special: Rend 2d6+9
Special Qualities: Low-light vision, scent, Regeneration 3, others as above
Saves: Fort +6, Ref +6, Will +3
Feats: Alertness, Toughness
Organization: Solitary

OK, that's my example. Tomorrow, we ask for yours!

Sunday 2 March 2014

The Three Burials of Dark Lord Zergathrax

I have written on my proper history blog about the crazy shit that people have historically been willing to do to a dead body. Some of these have pretty good monster potential from a gaming standpoint. You not uncommonly find burials that have had some kind of "protective" measure applied to them -- buried with a big rock on them, feet cut off, head cut off, something jammed in the mouth (at least, this is a common explanation for these practices; obviously you can't say with total certainty). But these, to me, seem like things that happen at the end of the scenario -- our heroes beat Dark Lord Zergathrax and make sure he's buried with a bucket on his head or whatever.

Consider the following story:
“That very same day on which they were interred they appeared at evening, while the sun was still up, at Drakelow, carrying on their shoulders the wooden coffins in which they had been buried. The whole following night they walked through the paths and fields of the village, now in the shape of men carrying wooden coffins on their shoulders, now in the likeness of bears or dogs or other animals. … When these astonishing events had taken place … for some time, such a disease afflicted the village that all the peasants fell into desperate straits and within a few days all except three … perished by sudden death in a remarkable way.
… they received permission from the bishop to go to their graves and dig them up. They found them intact, but the linen cloths over their faces were stained with blood. They cut off the men's heads and placed them in the graves between their legs, tore out the hearts from their corpses, and covered the bodies with earth again. They brought the hearts to the place called Dodecrossefora … and there burned them from morning until evening. When they had at last been burned up, they cracked with a great sound and everyone there saw an evil spirit in the form of a crow fly from the flames.”
- Geoffrey of Burton, Life and Miracles of St Modwenna
Or this one!
“At this time in the county of Buckinghamshire … a certain man died, and his wife, an honourable woman, and his family took care to bury him with full customary rites on the feast of the Lord's Ascension. But the very next night he entered the bedchamber of his sleeping wife. … When the dead man came back, he was greeted by the alarmed shouts of the watchmen, and, unable to cause any more mischief, went away. Repelled in this way by his wife, he became a nuisance to his brothers … 
Still the dead man arrived each night, making as if to seize those who were sleeping, but the vigilance and strength of those on watch kept him away. Then he took to prancing among the animals in the byre and the fields around the house … 
The bishop was just as amazed as everybody else, but was told by some of his advisers that such things had often happened in England (emphasis mine), and that the usual remedy (which gave comfort and reassurance to a frightened community) was to dig up the body of whichever miserable person was causing the nuisance and cremate it. 
Such a solution seemed to the bishop both unseemly and sacrilegious, and so instead he prepared a scroll of absolution and gave it to the archdeacon with the instructions that the dead man's grave should be opened, the scroll placed on his chest, and the grave closed up again. … All was done according to these instructions, and with the scroll placed upon the cadaver … the dead man never wandered again … “. 
- William of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum
This one's my favourite:
“... the next night, destitute of Christian grace, and a prey to his well-earned misfortunes, he shared the deep slumber of death. A Christian burial, indeed, he received, though unworthy of it; but it did not much benefit him: for issuing, by the handiwork of Satan, from his grave at night-time, and pursued by a pack of dogs with horrible barkings, he wandered through the courts and around the houses while all men made fast their doors, and did not dare to go abroad on any errand whatever from the beginning of the night until the sunrise, for fear of meeting and being beaten black and blue by this vagrant monster. But those precautions were of no avail ; for the atmosphere, poisoned by the vagaries of this foul carcass, filled every house with disease and death by its pestiferous breath.
… While they were thus banqueting, two young men (brothers), who had lost their father by this plague, mutually encouraging one another, said, "This monster has already destroyed our father, and will speedily destroy us also, unless we take steps to prevent it. Let us, therefore, do some bold action which will at once ensure our own safety and revenge our father's death ..."
... hastening to the cemetery, they began to dig … they suddenly, before much of the earth had been removed, laid bare the corpse, swollen to an enormous corpulence, with its countenance beyond measure turgid and suffused with blood; while the napkin in which it had been wrapped appeared nearly torn to pieces. The young men, however, spurred on by wrath, feared not, and inflicted a wound upon the senseless carcass, out of which incontinently flowed such a stream of blood, that it might have been taken for a leech filled with the blood of many persons. Then, dragging it beyond the village, they speedily constructed a funeral pile; and upon one of them saying that the pestilential body would not burn unless its heart were torn out, the other laid open its side by repeated blows of the blunted spade, and, thrusting in his hand, dragged out the accursed heart. ”
- William of Newburgh, Historia Rerum Anglicarum
Not all weird burials are to do with stopping someone from coming back to life. For some people, they were just a matter of practicality. For instance, Richard the Lionheart's guts were buried where he died, but his body was transported from there to be buried next to his father, presumably because they wanted to preserve him for the journey. However, his heart was also sent to be buried in Rouen, the capital of Normandy. Similarly, Robert the Bruce had his heart removed from his body; it's buried at Melrose Abbey.

Richard I's heart in lead casket. 
Some hearts were kept in heart-shaped reliquaries or cists: here's an example from Ireland, now in the Pitt-Rivers Museum in Oxford. If you're interested in hear burials in general, there's a fun article here.

OK, so people were sometimes cut up and had different bits buried in different places. You can read more about it on my history blog. But what can you do with this in a game? I think there are a couple of interesting options.

  • Robert the Bruce's embalmed heart was supposed to be taken on crusade to the Holy Sepulchre in Jerusalem to fulfil a vow he'd made while he was alive. It never actually made it, because the guy who was supposed to take it died along the way. But in a game, a heart like this could make a fun quest object -- deliver the heart to such-and-such a place (or prevent it being delivered), particularly if the vow is punished or rewarded in some supernatural way. I quite like the idea of finding a party of paladins or whatever who have all died and this heart in a casket is among their belongings. 
  • Of course, in a modern horror game a mummified heart in a heart-shaped reliquary makes a great item, particularly because you're going to have the absolute hell of a time explaining what it is and where you got it. Obviously, if it's the heart of a saint or something it makes a great weapon against the forces of darkness, but you could also have some evil cult types going around murdering people to feed the reliquary. The PCs are sitting there looking at the grave of Zergathrax, totally baffled about why he's getting stronger when they've been guarding it the whole time. 

Reliquary containing the heart of St Vincent de Paul, Lyons.
Baller cleric weapon: you could club a vampire to death pretty good with that thing!

  • I'm particularly enamoured of the idea of some guy getting resurrected, only he's in pieces -- so you have his head somewhere telling blasphemous secrets, his body stumbling around looking for its head, and his entrails ... probably not doing a lot. I guess that's arguably the guy from Re-Animator. Or Vecna. 
  • To kill a vampire, you destroy its heart, but an interesting variation would be a creature where you actually have to restore its heart in order to kill it -- like a mummy with its organs in canopic jars or something, or anything where the restoration of the heart sort of rehumanises it.