Just when you thought that pesky Hellmouth situation was over and done with, a new batch of Outer Gods shows up to ruin everything all over again. Well fear not, good citizen, for Blake Investigations has opened its doors once again – and if there’s one thing our highly skilled staff knows about, it’s Nocturnum: Rebirth, March’s Campaign of the Month! So take a seat and GM jasonvey will be right with you to shine a little light on this universe mashup.
Tell us about the person behind the GM screen. Where are you from? How did you get into RPGs? What do you do aside from gaming? Alter Egos? Where can we stalk you on the internet? Let us know if you feel so inclined!
I live in Pittsburgh, PA, with my wife Julie, who plays Darrek and co-plays Anita. I’ve been gaming since I was 5 years old in 1979. I started with AD&D first edition in my grandmother’s basement. My uncle used to play with his buddies when they were in high school. For my day job I am a former librarian and full-time web content writer, and a staff writer for Troll Lord Games. I am currently the sole writer for the Amazing Adventures game line, and I publish the Spellcraft & Swordplay RPG through my company, Elf Lair Games. You could say I write a lot. I can be found on Facebook, on Twitter and I have a blog but the latter two are updated far too infrequently.
You campaign is an awesome mishmash of many cool “modern occult” shared-worlds across the span of fandom. Can you tell us how you managed to incorporate it all into a cohesive setting? What were the big challenges? Was there anything from those different licenses you really wanted to bring into the campaign but couldn’t?
Honestly, and people are often shocked at this, it’s not difficult. I just jam anything I want right into it and handwave it away if it seems tough to integrate. I have on occasion told my players “don’t think too hard about it,” but that really is pretty rare. I have yet to find anything I can’t fit in somehow, though some things I hold off on for fear of getting too complex in a given season. Since my players will be reading this, I won’t say what those are right now!
When it comes to incorporating stuff from other games and other systems, you just have to be willing to hand-wave. People often ask me, “how did you ever convert [insert concept here] from [game A] to your game??” They rarely want to accept the answer, “I just do it. It’s not rocket science. Just make it fit and wing it where you need to.” But that’s the art of being a good GM and it comes with practice and experience. Don’t sweat the details of things like converting from other systems. Really, all you need in most cases is a couple combat numbers and you’re good to go. My golden rule in all things is to abide by the KISS principle. The more straightforward the solution the better, and the fewer dice rolls the better.
One of the great things about Obsidian Portal is the number of different gaming systems that it supports. Tell us about the system you use and why you chose it over some of the other popular games out there.
I’ve been using the Unisystem since about 2001 when my wife (then girlfriend) and I first demoed the Buffy the Vampire Slayer and C. J. Carella’s Witchcraft RPGs at Origins that year. I eventually ended up writing for Eden Studios and was the author or co-author on three All Flesh Must Be Eaten books–Dungeons & Zombies, All Tomorrow’s Zombies and Band of Zombies, plus a number of contributions in various publications of theirs. Eden was good to me and was my first “home” in the RPG industry. Unisystem is still one of my go-to gaming systems and always will be. It’s just very versatile, easy to play and run, and the system gets the heck out of the way so you can focus on character and story. It can handle any kind of game.
Any other systems you play, have played, or are interested in trying out?
Well obviously I play Amazing Adventures and Castles & Crusades. I run a bi-weekly D&D 5 game which is also chronicled on OP. I enjoy Shadowrun, Savage Worlds, Doctor Who, WEG D6, WotC Star Wars Saga Edition, every edition of D&D exept 4th (I run an Age of Conan game using original white box D&D which is currently on hiatus), a number of retro clone old school games, BRP, Classic Deadlands, Cortex classic, Mutants & Masterminds, Tri-Stat, Cartoon Action Hour, I’m a huge fan of Delta Green…I could probably go on and on.
How did you sell Nocturnum to your players and how long has the campaign been going on?
In some fashion or another the world of Nocturnum has been around since 2001. I ran a 7-year campaign back then, and we were one of the first groups to have a full and detailed website for our game. We were, to my knowledge, the first to do “opening credits” videos for our game, which took off among players of the Buffy RPG. That game ended around 2008, and I always thought it was my magnum opus game, the one I’d never beat. I tried a sequel game in about 2011 with a different group, but it kind of crashed and burned.
Flash forward to 2016, and I ran a PREQUEL game with my Sunday group set in the Wild West, which was a proof of concept to see if it’d work. My Sunday group is technically the same group as in 2001, but there’s only one truly original player left, and three who played in that original game, so I wasn’t sure. The magic was there, though, so after that was done I planned Nocturnum: Rebirth, which forms the sequel series to that original game. There’s plenty of info about the original group and campaign on the site, and we even did a “special TV movie reunion” with the original cast, who all came back to play their original characters for a one-off that ties into the overall story of this. Some people have D&D worlds that they put their entire gaming life into building. I guess Nocturnum is my lifelong campaign world. So really, I didn’t have to sell it. My Sunday group rocks. They are all willing to dive in and try just about anything and they have a chemistry that is truly rare among gaming groups. I’m a fortunate guy.
How regularly do you play, and where do you play?
We play at my house every week, but we switch off between two GMs and two games, so Nocturnum is bi-weekly. Our other bi-weekly campaign at the moment is run by my buddy Mike and can be found here on OP. On occasion, people can’t make it so we do a board game night. I can’t do online play. I did do a freeform Play by Post based on Palladium’s works way back in the mid-late 90s through early 2000s, but I just don’t get anything out of virtual gaming. I’m not denigrating it in any way, mind. I get that people really dig it. It’s just not for me. I need my friends right there, around the table, smiling and laughing and sharing food and drinks–we have a cooking rotation where one person cooks for the group (or otherwise provides food if they don’t cook) every week. It’s all about the in-person fellowship for me.
Your opening credits video is awesome! How did you do it?
Another surprising fact–I just use a YouTube downloader, Audacity for music editing, and Windows Movie Maker. It’s not hard, but it is painstaking and takes a lot of time and patience to put it together. I enjoy it, though, and we play the opening credits before the session to get us into the mood every week. I recommend it to any GM who has trouble getting their players in the mood. It’s like opening a door or throwing a switch. The credits roll and everyone instantly gets into character, like magic.
How long have you been using Obsidian Portal? What brought you to the site and what keeps bringing you back?
It’s on a year, now. I think my subscription just renewed. Well, we did a website for the old game and when it came time to do this one I wanted to do that again, but I don’t have the time to build and maintain websites like I did in the old days, so I started looking at wiki options. A friend had told me about OP a couple years back, and I remembered, so I looked into it, and it was a godsend.
Every great GM seems to have one of those campaigns that never quite got off the ground for whatever reason. What’s yours, and what did you learn from it?
Assuming we’re talking about campaigns I started but aborted, and not ones I always wanted to run but didn’t (which numbers in the dozens)…that would be my aborted first attempt at a Nocturnum sequel about 6 years ago. It was a different group (at the time we had a Thursday game), and they just didn’t have the chemistry or the right kind of outlook on gaming. Also, I was too “kitchen sink” with them. I told them to come up with any kind of character they’d always wanted to play. As a result I ended up with a bizarre group of characters who just weren’t suited to work together very well, and it just didn’t work. I got through one season–and it is canon in my current campaign world. In fact, the current game is dealing with the consequences of things THAT group let out into the world. What I learned is that you have to know your group. You have to know what kind of games and campaigns are right for them, and adapt your style of storytelling to suit.
Seems Cthulhu Mythos elements are popping up everywhere in game systems and campaigns. Why do you suppose Lovecraftian elements resonate so deeply amongst roleplaying gamers today and what do those themes and ideas add to Nocturnum?
Well, currently we’re not using the Cthulhu Mythos, per se. At least, not actively. We’re focused on the Hastur, or Yellow, Mythos. It’s a common misconception that Hastur is part of the Lovecraft Mythos, because people like August Derleth jammed it in (and really, got it all wrong). Lovecraft himself only name-dropped a few elements once or twice in tribute to Chambers. Our version of the Hastur Mythos is tied strictly to Ambrose Bierce and Robert W. Chambers and even within our game is stated to be separate and distinct from the Cthulhu Mythos. Hastur, for example, is not a Great Old One. It’s a planet located in the Aldebaran star system.
That being said, we do indeed have Cthulhu Mythos elements in our game. I think it’s just universally attractive because it’s at the core of a lot of the horror elements we have across the board today. Horror is all about “the Other,” that thing that’s out there in the dark which is alien and anathema to everything you know. Vampires, werewolves, zombies, they all have that element of something that is unnatural at its core. The Mythos is all that, but goes even further. It’s not just something that has the unnatural about it, it is purely unnatural. It comes from the spaces between spaces. It’s like matter and anti-matter–sanity and anti-sanity. Not just madness, but the pure opposite of rationality.
It’s hard to do it right, which is why Cthulhu has become cuddly in the past two decades or so, but if you can get it right, it’s the very essence of horror. But then you combine it with the Buffyverse, where people don’t waste away to madness, but can stand up and beat back the darkness, and it’s just a recipe for great drama. I call my games Howardian as opposed to Lovecraftian. In Robert E. Howard’s mythos tales, his heroes grab a sword off the mantel and refuse to go quietly into that good night. They might not succeed, but they’ll battle till the bitter end.
What does the future have in store for the characters in Nocturnum? Without giving the game away, is there anything you’re looking forward to?
MADNESS, I TELL YOU! MADNESS! APOCALYPTIC, EXPLOSIVE MADNESS! Cassilda is coming, and everyone had better watch out! Also, starting in season 2 (which won’t be for a good while yet) I’m planning a big storyline involving a good old-fashioned vampire conspiracy. As I said to my group, “I know! A Buffy game about vampires?? The Hell you say!”
If you had to pick just one thing, what would you say Obsidian Portal helps you with the most?
Oh, hands down it’s the ability to have my players collaborate on the campaign. Like I said, it’s been a godsend. In fact, my players (particularly Robert and Julie) are the ones who actually write and format our episode logs. Julie deserves a lot of credit for all the work she’s put into creating NPC pages for characters that were brought over from our original campaign. These days I just don’t have the hours of free time I had in my 20s to put into maintaining a full campaign website, so the ability for my players to collaborate on such a huge scale is amazing.
For the GM, what kind of prep goes into a typical Nocturnum session?
Depends greatly on the session. I very often dig up pre-written adventure scenarios for a variety of games that basically fit my theme and campaign outline, and convert them on the fly. For those I just need to read the adventure and jot down a few quick notes for changing locations, characters, plot points, etc. When I write my own scenarios, it can take hours throughout the two weeks between sessions. But the Obsidian Portal page is a hobby unto itself for my wife and I, and to a lesser extent, the full group, so we’re often updating characters, running side bits using the Player Secret function, and tweaking things outside of gaming sessions.
For the players, what inspires your characters and roleplaying?
One of my favorite things about the Nocturnumverse is the characters, and especially the relationships between the characters and how they develop throughout the story. That really inspires me as a player. I think Jas is extraordinarily gifted at supporting character development…even though sometimes it can be quite difficult and painful for the characters themselves, but it also provides for really good drama in the story. This is the second campaign that I have played Darrek in, and I played Anita in the original campaign (and at times will make brief ‘cameo’ appearances as her in the current campaign when Jas asks me to). As I was thinking about this question, I realized that both of those characters share a lot of commonalities in terms of stuff that motivates them and drives their actions, the main two being themes of loss and love. I’d say my role playing is very much inspired by Darrek’s relationships with the other characters. I’m particularly enjoying watching his relationship with Henry unfolding. Personally, I’m quite fond of really getting into my character’s heads and figuring out their inner workings psychologically which also informs how I role play them in the game, and I think that’s a talent I bring as a player to the game.
Algizsage (Jing Yun-Xun):
Usually, I look at the wealth of characters in stories around me. When it comes time for a new game, I take some archetypal traits that I like and create a skeleton. Then I start talking about the character. It is talking with my friends that this skeleton takes on more substantial shape and form.
The genre and setting of the game is the primary point of inspiration. Once I have a general idea of the type of character, then I work up a background, always trying to have that one aspect that is a good sport for the group.
I’d rather not get into the inspirations for Henry specifically since he’s actually a deeply personal character for me. Suffice to say, he’s kind of a reflection of what I wished I could have been at his age. For characters in general, I can’t pin down any specific inspiration. I usually languish over what I want to play when I’m gearing up for a new game, and then suddenly something just hits me in a flash of insight, and I run with it.
There is an Improv principal that it takes two traits to make a character. For Hilda, the traits that immediately stood out to me where being the Slayer and being both feminine and militant at the same time. From that, I found the character’s voice and then built her background. By the time I was done writing up her background, I had a very good feel for who she was and what she wanted. Of course, every character comes with their own surprises even after development, and Hilda continues to grow.
What would you say the single biggest highlight from your game has been so far?
As a GM, I honestly don’t have one. Every week brings new surprises and new highlights. I might at this point have to go with the most recent session wherein to protect an important NPC from a hail of gunfire, Henry grabbed her and jumped out of a 22nd-floor window, using scaffolding, flag poles, window ledges, patios, and liberal use of elemental air magic and a Drama Point (which is a cinematic Unisystem system device) to cushion their fall so that it wouldn’t be fatal. It was still very nearly fatal for both of them, but it ended up being a rather epic success. But just check out the quotes and great moments sections at the bottom of each of our episode logs and you’ll see what I mean.
That’s a really tough question. If we’re talking about character highlights, Darrek’s had some really great moments (when he exorcised the ghost at Grisson Manor, when he banished the Dullahan) where he’s surprised both the group and himself with his magical prowess, being an otherwise fairly unassuming chap. As a group, one of my favorite episodes this season (so far) was The Night Stone, because I felt like each character really had an opportunity to shine and we all worked together and were successful in achieving our objective. Plus, vampires, because they are always fun. One of my favorite things about our group is our humor. We have a really good time together, and we have a lot of laughs. And we’re really good at surprising Jas sometimes, as much as he surprises us, so that’s fun too.
Algizsage (Jing Yun-Xun):
There are too many to recount. Maybe that’s a good thing!
Biggest highlight?? This whole adventure… each episode had its highlights.. read them for yourselves!!
For a Henry-specific moment, probably in the last episode. You know, when Henry grabbed Doctor Oddmouth and jumped out a 20th story window with her. Pure action film baddassery there. For the game as a whole, even though we screwed up royally, I think the ritual with Papa Screech and that whole scenario was a great gaming moment. It really showcased the way the party thinks and interacts, which each individual playing up their own obsession, pathoi, strengths and weaknesses.
Probably my favorite sequence for the season was the whole scene where Hilda had to take the play The King in Yellow away from Darrek. It was a very close thing as the play almost overwhelmed Hilda when she got it. Can’t go into too many details as there are things player to player that have not been revealed yet. But it was a very intense scene with some great role playing.
Okay, before we get out of here, give us some of your best GMing pearls of wisdom.
There’s a quote in the Castles & Crusades Player’s Handbook which is the very core of good GMing: “The rules are your servant, not your master!” Don’t get so hung up on what the rules say and the minutiae of plot points. It’s not about whether you can maximize the numbers on your sheet, or how you can “game the system.” It’s about telling a good story and having fun. The power levels in my Nocturnum game are wildly diverse, but everyone loves playing their character because it’s about character and story, not about how much damage you can dish out and suck up. Often, when I’m trying a new system, I don’t let my players look at the rulebook before they make a character. I make them create their character first…then we deal with stats. Numbers-based gaming where there’s a rule for everything and it’s all about breaking the system may be a valid approach for some folks…but not at our table.
When it comes to storytelling, be flexible and think on your feet. That being said, there is nothing wrong with having a story–you as the GM are not there to simply let your players run the show. You’re a storyteller, and it’s okay to plot out your adventure. The only time “railroading” is a thing is when you take away player choice. That’s why you need to be willing to adapt your story in terms of locations and player choices.
Don’t try to restrain your players, but don’t be afraid to give glues and signposts for them to follow or ignore as they see fit. There is no encounter that can’t be moved or adapted to fit what your players are doing. If you had planned an encounter on a train but your characters take an airplane, move the encounter to the airplane and adapt to the new circumstances. If they do manage to skip over something you had planned, so be it! If it was that good, save that bit for another game, another day.
This is about telling a fun story in collaboration with your players and creating drama and emotion. If everyone isn’t having fun–that means you, the GM, too–then the game’s failing. Your job is not JUST to provide a good time for the players. You’re allowed to enjoy the play, too. Once again, never, ever be afraid to handwave when you need to move on.
And with that, we’ll say so long for this month. Make sure to check back next time when we bring you another great campaign. If you have a favorite that you’d like to see featured here, drop us a notice in the nomination thread over on the forums. Take care!