Horror in Plastic

Horror in Plastic

In 2015 Petersen Games published the game Cthulhu Wars, which included 72 plastic figures, all in 28mm scale. Since then we have produced dozens of expansions and supplements, almost all of which feature additional plastic figures in that scale.

Eventually, we realized that we accumulated the most complete range of Lovecraft’s Cthulhu Mythos figures ever made, ranging from obscure entities such as Eihort and Ghatanothoa to better-known creatures such as Shoggoths and the King in Yellow. Many, if not most, of these figures have never been seen before as figurines.

In league with Chaosium, Petersen Games is now releasing these figures in blister packs as an official Call of Cthulhu figure line. Now, roleplayers of all types can acquire these figures separately. Or really, anyone who has need of some fungous horror in their games.

Creating Lovecraft’s Universe

I am of course an obsessed fan of Lovecraft’s work, and so even small details of the figures were scrutinized to ensure their successful creation. For example, look at this starspawn figure:

You can see that the creature tails off into a rather grub-like stump, and that its brain-case is open, as though its head is not yet complete. The idea here is not that this is a “small Cthulhu”, but that this is a larval Cthulhu, which will someday perhaps grow up into a Cthulhu – a terrifying thought.

In another example, these Undead are not zombies, but are covered in mummy-like wrappings.

These wrappings not only give the undead a more ancient, occult feel, but also echo the tattered ribbons that cloak the King in Yellow figure, a possible origin for these undead horrors.

In yet another case that of the Deep Ones, I took care to have these creatures be portrayed as quadrupeds. Lovecraft specifically states in his texts that the Deep Ones are largely quadrupedal, yet they are almost never portrayed in this way. I wanted to be the first.  

Some creatures from the Lovecraft universe are notoriously difficult to portray. One example is Ramsey Campbell’s Daoloth entity, which is described as a mass of rods and spheres, yet with an impression of peeping eyes between the elements.

We created Daoloth as a twisted mass of rods, but when viewed from one specific direction, it can be perceived as an eye.

Lately we have started to also produce figures of the Elder Gods – a pantheon apparently at least in part opposed to the Great Old Ones. Our first was Nodens, who is an ancient Celtic God also known as Nuada. Lovecraft describes him as riding in a seashell, but I didn’t want this being to just look like some beardo in a chariot. 

So, drawing up on his description as an “Elder God,” he is mummified and sere, hooded, and creepy, but without tentacles, which are the hallmark of the Great Old Ones, his rivals. Instead of a normal seashell, he is emerging from a gigantic extinct ammonite.

Because Nodens in Celtic myth is described as having an artificial silver hand, I gave Nodens a technological weapon as one of his hands, perhaps some kind of energy weapon or sensor. This also helps differentiate it from the Great Old Ones, which are ­wholly biological. I intend to continue this art style for future Elder Gods.

Nodens (CW-U28)

But, of course no one has to know the backstory of a particular figure to find it useful in a tabletop game, or to enjoy painting it.

About Sandy Petersen

Sandy got his start in the game industry at Chaosium in 1980, working on tabletop roleplaying games. His best-known work from that time is the cult game Call of Cthulhu, which has been translated into many languages and is still played worldwide.

He also worked on many other published projects, such as Runequest, Stormbringer, Elfquest and even the Ghostbusters RPG, and was instrumental in the creation of dozens of scenario packs and expansions. He also acted as developer on the original Arkham Horror board game.

In 2013 he founded Petersen Games which has released a series of highly successful boardgame projects, including The Gods War, Evil High Priest, and the much-admired Cthulhu Wars. His games have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, and he has received dozens of awards from the game industry.

“Gloranthan” Esoterica and The Gods War

“Gloranthan” Esoterica and The Gods War

Glorantha: The Gods War is an asymmetrical strategy game at the end of the universe – or perhaps the beginning of a new one. Each player takes the role of one of the vast elemental powers battling to determine the fate of the cosmos. It features large, colorful painstakingly-sculpted figurines; lots of interaction, both diplomatic and aggressive; and uniquely different empires. For example, a player taking the role of Storm will need to play very differently from the Sun or Earth player.

Glorantha: The Gods War is set in the mythic realm of Glorantha, a setting first introduced to the world by Greg Stafford in 1975. Glorantha and its inhabitants have been featured in novels, art, and role-playing, board, and computer games. In my first full-time job as a game designer, in the 1980s, I was heavily involved in Glorantha’s development and expansion, which helped to launch my career. Now, with The Gods War, I have returned to this legendary setting. I have loved working on this game and I am excited to see it finally see the light of day.

How does Gloranthan “lore” figure in The Gods War? My goal was to keep it low-key – the players who care about it will see its effects, and the players who only care about the fun strategies will effortlessly sail past.

The best way to explain it is to use an example from other common war-themed board games. I play a lot of wargames, many of which take place in WW2. One of my pet peeves about WW2 games is when they strongarm the players into making only historically “correct” moves. Even when the reality was full of surprises and unexpected turnabouts.

For example, in the actual war, both Hitler and Churchill were quite concerned about Turkey’s position. Both made extensive efforts and concessions to get Turkey to join the war on their side and, clearly, both believed this to be a real possibility. But most strategic wargames don’t even permit this as an option when, plainly, it could have happened.

In one of my favorite games on the topic, Turkey CAN join the war. But it almost never does, because both the Axis and Allied players seek to pull them to their side, and this balances out, keeping Turkey neutral. So, the effect in this game is that Turkey stays neutral, just as in the other games. It’s just done in a different way, and feels more “natural,” rather than a constraint.

This is the policy I’ve tried to generally follow in The Gods War. Let’s take just one example – an important event in Gloranthan mythology is the Lightbringer Quest, which saved the Sun God, Yelm, from hell.

In the game, the Sun God starts in hell, and his faction wants his release. In theory, anyone could release him. But who is likeliest? Only units with a Combat of two or more can do this. The likeliest empire to release Sun God from Hell in most games is Storm (I would say at least half the time, Storm acts as liberator). Why?

Storm generally has his Champion out turn two, who can move super-fast, so he can reach Hell without delay. Also, since he can free his own units from Hell using Thunder King, he’s not as fearful of being stranded himself. This is actually what happens in the Gloranthan myths – Thunder King goes to Hell and lets out the Sun God.

Thus, the mythic reality is reinforced by the game reality. But not with clumsy rules systems. Why can’t Darkness or Sea free the Sun God instead? Well, the only Darkness unit with a combat of 2+ is her Greater Goddess. And Sea’s greater god has a Combat of one in the early game, and he doesn’t summon his hero (the Kraken) till later, due to other responsibilities.

So, in the game, these factions, actually foes of Sky in the legends, are the least likely to free Sun God from hell. Again, mythically appropriate but reinforced by the game. This makes it feel authentic to Glorantha fans, but not heavy-handed to most players.

About Sandy Petersen

Sandy got his start in the game industry at Chaosium in 1980, working on tabletop roleplaying games. His best-known work from that time is the cult game Call of Cthulhu, which has been translated into many languages and is still played worldwide.

He also worked on many other published projects, such as Runequest, Stormbringer, Elfquest and even the Ghostbusters RPG, and was instrumental in the creation of dozens of scenario packs and expansions. He also acted as developer on the original Arkham Horror board game.

In 2013 he founded Petersen Games which has released a series of highly successful boardgame projects, including Theomachy, Orcs Must Die! the board game, and the much-admired Cthulhu Wars. His games have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, and he has received dozens of awards from the game industry.

Unlocking Insanity – Dice Vermiis

Unlocking Insanity – Dice Vermiis

Last year two game designers, Tony Mastrangeli and Jeff Petersen had the following conversation regarding Evil High Priest:

Tony: “What about making a Roll and Write based on Evil High Priest?” 

Jeff: “I have no idea what you are talking about! Evil High Priest is a worker placement, how do I translate it to a Roll and Write?” 

Tony: “I trust you. You will figure it out” 

Thus, Dice Vermiis was started, but took time to become a finished product.

It started as a tree-based game that tasked you with trying to release an Elder God. Players sought three different resources to build rooms that would lead to a Portal Chamber. It was fun, but it felt too closed. You had to follow a pathway to get to the end. We went through many iterations of playtesting, with some versions being better than others.

Jeff is grateful for his wife who finally told him that it just wouldn’t work. So, Jeff told Tony, “It just won’t translate. I want to try another approach.”

A New Start

Jeff considered what effects joining a cult of Cthulhu and the information gained might have on one’s mind. So, he grabbed a brain overlay, and was pleased to see that it broke the mind into five distinct parts, each individual areas controlling different parts of the human being. Five parts equal five dice colors. “I think we’re on to something.” he chortled when he brought it back to Tony. 

At first, Tony was nostalgic for the original Evil High Priest theme, but finally was convinced to roll down this new road. When the prototype was finalized, it featured five positive and five negative dice with different places to put the values. It worked–but was still pretty raw. 

Player Choices

After repeated playtesting, Tony realized that the choices in the game were too obvious. A player would roll a die and always take the highest positive number and the lowest negative number. That was lame. Who wants a game that plays itself? To add more interesting decision making to the game, the Target Bonus mechanic was born.

Now, players not only had a goal to work towards, but also had an excellent reason to not always take the highest (or lowest) number on each roll. If you succeeded, you’d double your score in that brain region, which was a big deal – emphatically making it worth the risk of spreading out your choices. 

Insanity

In the early stages, insanity was always bad. This made sense, because who wants to go crazy? Unfortunately, this played into the well-known flaw, common to many games, of “the rich getting richer.” If a player went insane, he or she would fall behind due to the penalties, and that was it – the game was over for them. Not ideal. A designer wants all players engaged until the very end of the game. That’s where the First to Insanity Bonus sprang from. Now, the first player to go insane in a particular color gets an immediate bonus and a once per game neat-o power. Sure, they still suffer the penalty (at least until they are out of the negative), but now those players at least have a cool power to soften the blow. 

Doubles

While playtesting the game with the staff of Petersen Games, Lincoln gave us a great idea. He proposed that we make all the numbers even. One of the painful parts of the game was doing lots of math. Adding numbers all over the place was … frankly … a little tiresome. By doubling the values, all of a sudden, all numbers were even. Try to add up random numbers from 1-6. Now, instead go to that value counting by 2s and 4s.

It was surprisingly easier to go by doubles. Counting by 2s is so easy that it streamlined and improved the game, adding that final touch of polish that brings a game from near-greatness to greatness.

With all of that work, Unlocking Insanity: Dice Vermiis Mysteriis was at last birthed. Now we get to share our insanity with the rest of the world. Can you handle the teachings of the Great Old One?

You might go insane, or if you’re lucky, just get a touch of madness, but as long as you prove your mastery, you will be welcomed as the newest neophyte of Cthulhu. 

Call of Cthulhu: Interview with the Creator Sandy Petersen

Call of Cthulhu: Interview with the Creator Sandy Petersen

CALL OF CTHULHU is Chaosium’s classic roleplaying game of Lovecraftian horror in which ordinary people are confronted by the terrifying and alien forces of the Cthulhu Mythos. It’s Creator, Sandy Petersen, got his start in the game industry at Chaosium in 1980, and recently was interviewed regarding the creation of this RPG masterpiece.

In your opinion, what makes COC so different from the other role-playing games?

Sandy: It is contrarian. Instead of your heroes being superior to average people, they ARE average people. Instead of killing a constant stream of enemies for experience, the very weakest opponent you can face is a cultist, who is just as smart and well-armed as the heroes, and probably better-organized and more numerous. So combat is terrifying. Instead of your heroes getting better over time, they tend to get worse, to accumulate curses and madness. Magic spells are a threat, not a tool. Your rewards are not treasure but saving the planet. The big confrontation is likely to be something along the lines of dropping a keg of gunpowder into a well.  

BUT – here’s the deal. If you want a game in which you have the same old steroid-pumped champions confronting the baddies, every other RPG can provide this. But if you want a game in which the emphasis is far more cerebral, and more dangerous, and in which the enemies pose an existential threat – there is only Call of Cthulhu.

You recently released Petersen’s Abomination, a book full of scenarios aimed at convention play. Could you explain how they came to life?

Sandy: Every year I attend several conventions. Whenever I’m a guest of honor, the convention asks me to run a Call of Cthulhu scenario. Naturally I have to write my own. I will write one up, then use it for several conventions in a row, then write another, and so forth. This way no one ever gets a repeat adventure. Because they’re intended to run at conventions, these scenarios all include pre-made investigators (though they can be run with your own), have pretty weird settings (on an iceberg, inner-city gang strife, etc.) and are all intended to be run in a single evening. Also, they’re super-deadly, because everyone seems to want to get killed by Sandy Petersen in an adventure. That’s another reason to use my pre-made investigators!  

Could you share a few tips and tricks on how you go about writing scenarios, and what makes a good scenario?

Sandy: well some basic tips are:

First, the opponent must be malign. Nothing destroys the feel of terror more than finding out the monster just wants to return to its home in outer space, or be laid to rest, or whatever.

Second, I work visually, so I think of a cool scene from a book or a movie or whatever and try to incorporate that into the scenario at some point. Then I design the storyline so it leads to that scene, or away from it. For example, I designed the MOHOLE scenario in Petersen’s Abominations about the time of the BP disaster in the Gulf of Mexico. The thought of being trapped on an oil platform during a catastrophe seemed exciting for a plot. So, I posited the concept of an abandoned oil platform in the North Sea, which had been repurposed for a nuclear-powered super-drill as a scientific experiment. Obviously, something goes horribly wrong when the drill starts breaking through the earth’s crust and mayhem ensues.

You have adapted the monsters from the Cthulhu mythos to Pathfinder and more recently to D&D. Do they fit easily in the fantasy world? Are you planning to release scenarios for these systems using Mythos monsters?

Sandy: of course, as monsters they can fit into a fantasy world. Fantasy and horror have long been bedmates. My theory is that you can use the Cthulhu Mythos elements in a high fantasy game in two ways. First, you can simply add them into an existing campaign as more player races, spells, magic items, and opponents. Second, you can base a whole campaign around some element of the Mythos – such as Cthulhu rising from the deep, or Ithaqua bringing an Ice Age to the world.

Do you want to present or discuss any upcoming projects you are currently working on?

Sandy: yes indeed. We are adapting our Planet Apocalypse universe for D&D and that will be made available later this year (2019). And our most exciting new board game is Hyperspace, a 4-X game of space strategy and battle which also incorporates some Lovecraft races. After all, Lovecraft thought he was writing science fiction. 

About Sandy Petersen

Sandy got his start in the game industry at Chaosium in 1980, working on tabletop roleplaying games. His best-known work from that time is the cult game Call of Cthulhu, which has been translated into many languages and is still played worldwide.

He also worked on many other published projects, such as Runequest, Stormbringer, Elfquest and even the Ghostbusters RPG, and was instrumental in the creation of dozens of scenario packs and expansions. He also acted as developer on the original Arkham Horror board game.

In 2013 he founded Petersen Games which has released a series of highly successful boardgame projects, including The Gods War, Evil High Priest, and the much-admired Cthulhu Wars. His games have sold tens of millions of copies worldwide, and he has received dozens of awards from the game industry.

How I Designed Planet Apocalyse

How I Designed Planet Apocalyse

Let’s go through the process I followed in creating Planet Apocalypse!

The Idea

Way back in 2013, when Cthulhu Wars had just funded, I was already planning what my next game might be. I’d learned while working on computer games that games have a certain flow. One of the most famous games I worked on was Doom and MAN it had a killer concept. Demons fighting space marines. I wanted to use that idea in a board game. So, what would this entail?

Well, first off, I decided not to use space marines. I felt that if the demons were actually invading the Earth of today, they would be far scarier. So that gave me the setting. Hell, versus modern people.

Next, I decided the game should be co-op, with everyone playing humans. This is because I wanted truly scary demons, and if they are the only enemies, I can have them be as gross and unbalanced and terrifyingly powerful as I like. They are after all just a challenge for the players, and bigger and bigger challenges lay ahead.

Third, I wanted the players to be individual people, leading squads of soldiers. This way I could mix up the gameplay because each hero would get his or her own quirks, bonuses, and tricks.

Early Design

One of the things I often do when creating a new game is to write the rules first! I know this sounds backward, but for me, at least, it helps understand a lot of details about the game. Early in the rulebook is a list of components, so I make a first stab at components. What does the game need, physically? Well, Planet Apocalypse needed a game board. It needed figures for the heroes and the demons. And what should the demons be? I thought “Doom has a hierarchy, and so does Hell,” so I sorted the demons into first circle, second circle, and so forth. I figured the lowest order demons would be easy to beat, but they would be the most numerous.

I tried to come up with a turn structure. Obviously, the players would take their turns, and then the enemies would have a turn. But how would the enemies be controlled on their turn? Well, before making any real headway on Planet Apocalypse I took about a two-year break and created the game Orcs Must Die! (tabletop version), based off a computer game that was part tower defense, part battle. I felt I did a good job on my tabletop rendition, but also thought I could improve on it. So, I applied the tower defense concept to Planet Apocalypse. Now I knew what the enemies would do in-game – advance inexorably down the map.

By mixing up the enemies, the players would be forced to move around the map, dropping off ambushes (which were the “towers”) and taking out particularly dangerous enemies. Plus, they could only recruit new troopers in the start area, which basically forced the players to move back and forth across the map in a general flow.

One of my ideas early on was to add what I called 4th circle demons, which would be uniquely powerful. I made these mini-bosses, who basically changed the entire map by somehow affecting everything. Thus, when a 4th circle demon appeared, the players would focus their attention on it – either trying to kill it as fast as possible or seeking to avoid it. Either way, they were game changers.

So now I had a working game of sorts. Time to create it, so I built a prototype copy with figures from other games, sleeved cards, and maps cobbled together from bits of boxes. I used the color-coded knights from Shadows Over Camelot for my heroes, and Cthulhu Wars critters for the demons. One thing this taught me is that I wanted the different categories of demons to be different colors, so they are identifiable at-a-glance. I also learned that I wanted each different type of dice to be a different color because for an unknown reason some players can’t tell the difference between a D8 and a D10 without picking it up and inspecting it closely. But if the D8s are green, and the D10s blue, there’s no issue.

Advanced Design

I needed an artistic vision. I got in touch with Keith Thompson, who’d worked in film (and still does), also done game art, and had a really interesting style. I flew Keith out to my house, and we met for a weekend together. I made it clear the game look and feel was to be HIS vision, and I just explained what the world was supposed to be like. Keith “got it” and created a look and feel which is unique, distinctive, creepy, and arcanely medieval. Everyone has strong opinions about the art – usually something along the lines of “These are great! But I don’t want my kids to see them; they’ll get nightmares.”

I also needed to start padding out the world. I started working on new maps, new Demon Lords, new 4th circle demons, new types of troops. I had the idea that each map could happen in specific regions of the world – so if you wanted you could play with United Kingdom troopers, or with French, or Russian, depending on where you decided to set the map. This can lead to some odd match-ups, for example if you are playing on the “Washington D.C.” map with German soldiers, but whatever. Maybe the Germans sent a strike force coming to save us Americans.

I also wanted the heroes to advance in power during the game, so I created advancement charts. I had the idea for every hero’s advancement chart to differ from every other hero, and of course this was a nightmare to design and balance. But, also a joy. I’ve gotten a lot of positive feedback from the game’s advancement system.

Padding out the game, now that the rules were mostly done, took quite a bit of time. At this point the game was actively in playtest, and playing the game about three times a week, with three different groups. So, I spent a lot of time balancing the heroes, the gift cards, and the troopers. All needed for game polish.

Final Playtesting

The rules, heroes, demons, and other parts were all written up. I go into “final playtesting” when I think these main game parts are done, and then of course as I playtest I keep making more and more changes. So, three times a week, in the evening, I kept playing this game. It became grueling for me over time, but of course each individual gaming group only had to work once a week, so it was fun for them!

I’d watch the games, go home and make changes, print out the changes, modify my prototype, then try it again next week. This kept on going for months.

Eventually I managed to get through several playtests in a row without making any changes at all. This is when I pulled the trigger.

The game was now in final playtesting, and I didn’t need to spend quite as much creative time on it (still a lot of actual time, since it was half of my evenings), I started work on a new game – Hyperspace, which will no doubt grace the pages of this magazine some day soon.

Production

The designer is heavily involved for most of the game process, but eventually it gets handed over to artists, graphic designers, and production managers, and then you are merely on call for occasional questions (“How big is this token supposed to be? Must the map be two-sided? What color is a byakhee?”). For that matter, even during final playtest your creative involvement is limited, and all you do is make sure that game errors and imbalances are caught. Realistically, this means as a designer you can start designing your next game long before the previous one is done.

I went to my production manager, Arthur, and let him know that IMO Planet Apocalypse was as done as it was ever going to be. Time to make it happen, but most of my job as a designer was done. Though the production part of the game is HUGE, involving far more people than any previous stage, it is largely out of my hands at that point. Once the layout was done, and everything set up, we launched the Kickstarter campaign. But by that time, I’d been done with Planet Apocalypse for almost two months.

I had already started moving on to my next game during Final Playtest, and now during Production I ramped the Hyperspace design schedule up to the Advanced Design stage.