My Cthulhu Christmas

(with some awkward writing, assisted by rum)

Here's a Christmas memory with some Cthulhu in it. My friends all know this one; my friends out in yon Internet should know it too.

It was about thirty years ago. We lived in a rental house (low 400s on Miller Boulevard) in Havelock, North Carolina within easy driving distance of MCAS Cherry Point (where my father was stationed) and easy walking distance of Reader's Haven, the used-books/comics/game-shop where I stationed myself much of the time (in the "Slocum Village Shopping Center," a sad miniature strip-mall on the west side of Park Lane leading up to West Main). There were also two convenience stores and a small public library within easy hoofing, so it was a nice little spot to be a newbie gamer with a burgeoning research addiction.

It was to be my first Christmas completely alone. My parents had broken up years before, and my father had a long-term girlfriend in Virginia, and he'd decided he wanted to spend Christmas with her and her kids that year, leaving me the run of the house.

I oscillated between feeling sorry for myself for my first lonely Christmas, and feeling like a mouse in the proverbial cat's-away position for my first Christmas To Do Whatever I Wanted, but mostly I just felt the alone parts. I had some gamer-friends from school and from the shop, but they all had their own families to deal with and nobody needed an extra teenager hanging around, especially those weird ones with their TARDISes and X-Mens and things.

I spent Christmas Eve constructively (doing some game-mapping and comic-book reading and MTV-watching) but woke up on Christmas morning feeling a little under the weather both physically and emotionally. While I was only a teenager, I had, from my perspective, a lifetime of experience of Christmas Morning being this joyful, family thingy which culminated in food.

I was the cook of the house (Dad could make ice cubes or sandwiches if you left him a clearly-written recipe), but cooking a Feast For One didn't feel legit, so I made some Rice-A-Roni and a chunk of Mooki Meat (an oval patty of ground beef, seasoned with such eccentricity that it had to be the work of the infamous Mama Mooki, an imaginary cook I made frequent reference to because I was a weird teenager).

And then I got my jacket on, and walked to the base library. I'd read in the base paper they'd be open on Christmas Day, and being at the library (which I loved) sounded way better than just belching up Mooki Burps in an empty house on Christmas.

The walk did me a world of good. My under-the-weather glum got replaced by full-blast enjoying-the-weather brisk, and it was a walk of about 2.5 miles, which I suppose took me an hour. I enjoyed that route, in through the main gate (as a dependent, I could get in with my Marine Brat ID), past the base McDonald's (Google Maps says it's still there).

I didn't know what to expect. Being open on Christmas wasn't normal for the library; it's not very normal for any library, but I would learn that two of the librarians had just realized they had no big holiday plans, so they decided they'd donate their time to offer a little cheer to Marines who couldn't get home for the holidays.

So the scene was this library, with only half the lights on, and two librarians, and four young Marines far from home, and me. And, with further thanks to those two kind librarians, there was a tray of cheese and crackers, and a carton of eggnog, and some punch.

And I could barely keep from crying, I was so grateful. We sat in a circle of random library chairs and introduced each other and just chatted about nothing in particular and Christmas in general and we just thanked the librarians over and over.

I didn't keep from crying, exactly. I just held off 'til I was alone in the stacks, because these two angelic librarians didn't stop at cheese and crackers and refreshment. They said, if we wanted, we could check books out, too.

I picked two: one of the time-travel novels of George Alec Effinger, and one of the old Arkham House collections of H.P. Lovecraft stories.

I'd already been an Effinger fan for a few years, having consumed many of his short stories in the pages of IASFM since my first subscription around '84 (stories like White Hats and the Beast From One-Quarter Fathom, if I recall), but this would be my first time reading his novels.

Lovecraft, I'd never read before. But I had been reading a certain Chaosium roleplaying game, and Call of Cthulhu was stern and clear: I shouldn't consider GMing the game until I'd read at least half of [LIST OF RECOMMENDED STORIES] and lo and freakin' behold, this Arkham House book contained right around half of those, so: score. I could finally, legally be a Keeper.

And as the librarians ran the books through the magnetic thingamajig and I shook the hands again of the young Marines and thanked everybody and wished everybody a Merry Christmas, we just stood there as the lights went out, recognizing that without a doubt, we were having one. And it became the best ever, in a way.

The walk home was a mixed bag. Those two and a half miles felt a bit longer with only the empty house to get back to, and it was later, and darker, and colder, and I was carrying books. Plus, that under-the-weather-feeling from earlier? Turned out it wasn't just me being glum, it was me feeling the first pangs of some kind of viral crud.

My bedroom was on a corner and got colder than dad's, so I decided I'd go ahead and swipe his for the night, with blankets from both to keep warm, and I curled up all snug, getting sicker and reading Lovecraft stories and then falling asleep to my first-ever genuine HPL nightmare. Pretty sure it was The Picture in the House that did it. Here, young Sir, don’t git skeert. Victuals, etc.

So maybe not the best ending, and maybe not the best beginning, but right there in the middle, it was a beautiful Christmas. I'm not done being grateful for it, and I don't plan to be. Thank you, angel librarians. Thank you, young Marines with your stories of home. And even thanks to the pulpiest of the pulpsters for giving me nightmares, and the great and lovely Effinger for that novel and so many others. Still so very grateful.

Hope today finds you well, whenever today turns out to be.


My Memory Has Peed

Okay, so I'm dashing this out in the moment to record what just happened in my brain because my brain is ridiculous.

I've got a wallpaper right now that's a screenshot from Dishonored 2, because of course I do, and it's a night shot alongside the Dreadful Wale, looking in to the lights of Karnaca.

I like it as a wallpaper because it's a bit dark and because the hull almost frames my left-hand Windows icons (not shown), none of which is relevant.

I'm staring idly at the wallpaper deciding if I should work next on Intruder Moon or one of my Risus projects or the Shadow River map or something else, and I notice the little areas of flat white foam along the surface of some of those waves in the water, and I think "that's a nice little bit of water-detail" and I briefly wonder if the water surface has just one texture or multiple textures and if it's multiple how they're layered and so on ...

And then my brain just jumps to something I haven't consciously considered since approximately the 5th grade: a pen-and-ink-drawing of ocean water in a cartoony style that had cool little arcs in the linework to indicate those same flat areas of foam or comparable variations in the water's reflective surface. And I remember it was an interior illustration from a book-and-record set starring Popeye.

And I remember that this illustration was the work of an artist named George Peed, because (A) the audio part of the book-and-record told me so, every time I listened to it and (B) Mr. Peed had a very clearly-legible signature on most of his work, and I had noticed it also on some of my other children's records, back in those merry days of vinyl.

And I'm stunned at my weird-ass memory for suddenly remembering George Peed when I know for certain he's not crossed my mind since 5th Grade, in my bedroom back in Cumberland, Maryland (which, if you were wondering, yes).

So I grab my phone and Google him because I'm certain the Internet will have George Peed fan-pages or something (right now as I'm typing this it occurs to me to look for Roy Doty as well, because apparently my brain was hoovering up illustrators' names as a child and I just never paid any attention to how much attention I paid). And yes, the Internet does.

But that's when the actual weird part happened. It occurs to me, right now, in the winter of 2018, that back in 5th Grade and 4th Grade and prior grades when looking at all those George Peed drawings, it never occurred to me to find his name funny.

Note That Clear Signature on Yon Merrye Tombstone


Five Elements of Commercial Appeal in RPG Design

Would-be reader Jeff Bernstein, from the inbox today:

Hello. I'm reading an essay on convention game session design and there's a glowing reference to your "Five Elements of Commercially Viable RPG Design". Is this available anywhere for download?

And that, dear readers, is probably going to be how I decide which old articles are plucked from the wreckage of the Blue Room.

Here's a re-posting of a distilled re-telling of something I wrote more than twenty-five years ago in a letter to Loyd Blankenship, and related nonsense I was spouting on convention panels and in emails with friends and colleagues for a few years thereafter. It is, in some circles, mildly infamous, mainly for my determination never, ever, ever to publish it. Ever-ever, amen.

As you'll see, it's pretty innocuous. Like the Necronomicon or Monty Python's “Killer Joke,” it's something that's only sinister if you keep it off-stage. I never intended for it to be sinister, it just became so because - well, mainly because one of the nice folks who attended one of the convention panels never forgot it, and brought it up every now and then online. He even offered to pay me to write it into an article, once (guess I should've taken the offer - d'oh). Also, some colleagues (Bruce Baugh, Kenneth Hite, others I'm forgetting) have talked about it to others.

I finally published it to the web in 2008, after fifteen years of avoiding it. Why? We'll get to that after. Here goes:

If we examine the games and game-worlds that have come and gone, patterns emerge and it becomes easy to spot dozens of elements shared by those with the widest appeal. Here are five I consider crucial:



The value of cliché - the use of stock imagery and other familiar elements - is accessibility and mutual understanding. If the Game Master tells you the new campaign is to be set in the "Duchy of Crows" and concerns an evil priest gathering the Hill Ogres to his cause, that may sound a bit threadbare, but it also provides a reliable common ground. Everyone can jump right in and focus on what the game is really about: the PCs and their adventures. If, by contrast, the GM tells you the new campaign takes place in the Shining Tertiary Plane of Tsalvanithra, a science-fantasy blend of Mayan mythology, Depression-era satire, 16th-century French politics and Japanese courtly manners, you're in for some research before you dare put a mark on the character sheet. The most popular games rely on stock images as a language for skipping to the good parts (and for sharing in a celebration of things gamers enjoy celebrating). Games that make a point of shunning cliché tend to be more niche.


Nothing's very dramatic (or funny, or scary) without some kind of conflict, and RPGs thrive on every sort. But the specific value of combat depends as much on game-structure as the visceral appeal of a fight scene. In gameable terms, most forms of conflict are best defined as a single instant (sneaking past a guard, casting a healing spell) - we gain nothing by breaking the action down into its component steps, because the steps themselves are seldom infused with drama without forcing the issue. But in a fight - whether it's swordplay, a tavern brawl, a superhero slugfest or a psychic showdown - every swing of fist or sword, every blast of energy, is something dangerous and potentially important. That packs a fight with a series of choices and consequences, providing fertile ground for enjoyable game mechanics. What's more, it provides a stage on which the PCs can cooperate and act as a team. Only a few other kinds of action can rival this under the right conditions, and none can trump it with any consistency.


RPGs are an ensemble medium; the core experience is that of a fellowship of PCs cooperating (more or less) toward a common goal. The most successful RPGs embrace this, provide tools to enhance the group experience, and build system and setting assumptions around it. This means providing for variety, both in terms of character concepts and their viability (it's well and good to say you can play a Librarian, but the game-world must also provide opportunities and challenges appropriate to the Librarian's skills). This element skews the genre-leanings of successful RPGs to some extent, because there are some popular genres (espionage and mysteries, most notably) that require some re-tooling before they comfortably support the concept of a half-dozen diverse PCs working together. Similarly, some stock character types (lone-wolf vigilantes, burglars, assassins) become notably chummier in RPGs, seen more often clubbing with a team than brooding indulgently in the shadows. RPGs gain a lot of mileage and color from the ubiquity of "strange bedfellows."


RPGs need rules at the table level, but they thrive on anarchy at the character level. The most successful RPGs are built on the assumption that - once the adventure is in full swing - the PCs are on their own, free to make their own solutions. Games that impose chains of command, or require PCs to check with "headquarters" before they do anything questionable, limit their audience in the process. Even a Call of Cthulhu session set in the straight-laced reality of 1920's New England is traditionally an exercise in the ritual abolition of order - In the early stages of the adventure, it's all urbane wit and let's-call-the-police, but once the tentacles start dragging people screaming into the dark, propriety and legality evaporate to irrelevance, and it's an anarchic fight for survival and sanity. Games with a military or pseudo-military premise likewise benefit from this kind of collapse. This taps into what may be the most unique feature of RPGs: tactical infinity. In Chess, the White Queen can't sweet-talk a Black Knight into leaving her be; in Squad Leader, a group of soldiers can't sneak through an occupied village dressed as nuns. In an RPG, you really can try anything you can think of, and that's a feature that thrives on anarchy.


The quality of enigma is - inevitably - the most elusive of these elements. In literal terms, it means any quality of the game-world that the Game Master is presumed to understand on a level the players never can. In many worlds, this means magic. In others, it may mean an alien society freshly met from another galaxy, or the labyrinthine mysteries of conspiratorial politics. Beyond the enduring appeal of a mystery, this is a quiet, foundational tool for the Game Master, who can exploit this consensual "shadow zone" as a spawning ground for scenarios that play fun even if they wouldn't otherwise make sense, and a place where plot-threads can vanish if they become distracting instead of exciting. From within the enigma the GM can pluck both questions and answers, making adventure design and campaign management less of a chore. The benefits to a game's appeal are vast, because any RPG that eases a GM's stage-fright (and opens up his creative latitude) is an RPG built to please.

These elements aren't keys to quality ... a game can be crummy with them and excellent without them. They are, though, a useful window into the appeal of RPGs as games, into the conventions of RPGs as a fictional medium, and into the considerations that make the design of a game world a beast distinct from other kinds of world design.

Okay, the original was a lot longer, a lot ramblier, and went on at the end into some of the many other elements (power-climb, exploring social fantasies, etc). The original was a mess - a fun mess in its way, but a mess, and I don't feel like digging into my archives for it anyway. Worth noting, though, is the absolute lack of the word "the" in the title. There are a lot more than five such elements; these are just five I feel are worth attention in that special tummy-rub way.

The reason I'm finally publishing it is because Kenneth Hite is basically outing me on it. I got an email recently [this is me back in 2008, you understand] from a guy publishing a - I guess a kind of coffee-table book of game-related observations. Mostly pretty basic stuff, but it looks fun enough. Might be a good conversation piece. Anyway, the guy had asked Ken to provide some digestible insights, and Ken told him about this thing (among others), and -- in a nice way, I'm sure -- basically threatened to contribute his own version if I wouldn't agree to contribute mine.

I'm pretty sure Ken didn't mean it to feel so ultimatum-ish (Ken maybe just wanted to get me included - we may not be buds anymore but we maintain a mutual respect for each others' writing). But, regardless of intent, it did create a bottom line: see someone else say it, or say it myself. Okay, then.

So, that's why it's here. This is the micro-distilled version I wrote by invitation for the coffee-table thing. But why did I never want it to be here - or anywhere? What's so big and scary about yet another pithy, piddly little bullet-list of RPG overgeneralization in a world chock full of 'em? Probably nothing, I know. But ...

Here's one reason I'm uncomfortable with it: nobody I've ever told it to seems to get that it isn't about good gameworld design, or at least it isn't meant to be. It's entirely meant as an eye squinted curiously at those things that make a game the most commercially viable, which is - as far as I'm concerned at least - an axis unrelated to a design's value at the gaming table. I'm not an anti-commercial cynic - I don't think commercial viability harms quality, but I also don't think it indicates it. They're different things, easily conflated in advertisements and proselytizing - but beginning back in the day with Loyd Blankenship and continuing to last week with that email from the book guy, this has been characterized/responded to as some kind of game-design or setting-design guide/principle thingy. It isn't one.

So, I beg, seriously: take heed of that closing paragraph in the thingy itself. A game can be crummy with 'em and excellent without 'em. This isn't - at all - about quality (the degree to which it overlaps with quality concerns is the question it's meant to stimulate thought on - not any kind of conclusion it's meant to encourage).

And yeah, it's an overreaction; I know. But I fret because I love, and gaming's one of the loves of my life (not on the Sandra level, obviously, but she's much cuter than gaming). So there's that. Anyway, hope you like this distilled version because, I gotta say - I think I do, now that it's in front of me. I'm glad it's here, and (despite my kvetching) I'm glad you're here to read it. Hi! Drop me a line sometime; we'll chat about design!