15
Jul

Obsidian Portal Campaign of the Month July 2017 – The Miskatonic Society

Welcome to Arkham gentle reader. Ordinarily, I’d say you look as though you’ve seen a ghost, but I know better than that. You’ve seen something worse, haven’t you? Much worse. Something that pulls at your mind in ways you don’t understand, threatening to drive you mad. There there, don’t cry, that’s why we’ve come to Dewitt House, home of The Miskatonic Society, July’s Campaign of the Month! So dry your eyes and hold tightly to your sanity, Showrunner barrelv waits just inside.

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To get the ball rolling, tell us a bit about yourself. Where are you from? What do you do aside from gaming? Where else might we follow your work on the internet? Let us know if you feel so inclined!

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Minus a few years in Washington DC, I’ve lived in various parts of North Carolina my entire life. The last 10 years have been in the Triangle, an area comprised of the cities of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill. It’s home to major universities and colleges, as well as numerous tech companies. As you can imagine, this means there are a lot of roleplayers in the area. A lot of my time is spent as a volunteer organizer for the area’s RPG community, Raleigh Tabletop Roleplaying. We’re on Facebook and Meetup.

 

Within RTR, I handle our Semi-Organized Play campaigns. Here’s links to some of the others on Obsidian Portal as well:

 

 

When not working or playing RPGs, I also play video games, read a bunch (mostly trashy fiction), and hike around the Appalachian Mountains as much as I can. Escape Rooms have become my newest hobby.

What’s the story behind your introduction to RPGs and tabletop gaming? How long was it before you knew this was your kind of hobby? How long before you ran your first game?

I got a taste of RPGs with D&D while in high school, like a lot of us. But my first deep foray into the hobby was in college with White Wolf’s various games and it was the Storyteller systems that hooked me. We played things like Mage the Ascension, Exalted, and Changeling the Lost in years-long campaigns. I also spent a lot of time playing in Play-By-Email and Play-By-Post RPGs, both of which really built my love for storytelling.

 

I had probably been playing other people’s games for several months in college before I tried my hand at a short Mage the Ascension game. It was terrible. I made about every mistake you can as a new Game Master, but my friends put up with me and gave good feedback. Over the years, I ran short games (a few months here and there, mostly drawing from modules) between my friends running much longer and much more involved games. It’s during those games I really started to get into game organization. When you have games that run for 3 – 4 years (sometimes with 6 month breaks between story arcs), it’s hard to keep up with all of the details, so I spent time designing and maintaining a private MediaWiki site for my gaming group. It became a nearly invaluable resource for us and I loved filling that role in our roleplaying community.

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I understand your campaign site here on Obsidian Portal is actually a repository for a semi-organized play community rather than an individual campaign. Can you tell us more about the Miskatonic Society, and how it came to be?

The Miskatonic Society predates my involvement. I came in as a player for Season 2 and then took over for the previous Showrunner in Season 3. We wrapped Season 4 back in March and are already planning for Season 5.

 

The Semi-Organized Play concept was the brainchild of Eric and Allie, two of the organizers for Raleigh Tabletop Roleplaying. They wanted something like the Living Forgotten Realms and the Pathfinder Society organized play systems, but for other games. Something lighter than a home game and accessible to a lot of players, but in a shared setting we could easily reuse. But, let’s be realistic – we weren’t going to do anything as complex as PFS or LFG. So, it’s Semi-Organized.

 

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Their first Semi Organized Play campaign was a Call of Cthulhu setting they named “Miskatonic Society”. It was a group of like-minded people based out of the fictional town of Arkham, Mass. The Society is a social club dealing with the weird and occult. Currently, the game is set in the 1920s, but we’re talking about playing in the 1940s next season.

For any readers out there who have never been involved with semi-organized play like the Miskatonic Society before, how does it work? And how does one get involved?

We have four 3-month slots each year where we put on a “Season” using a different gaming setting. Some, like Miskatonic Society, happen every year in the same spot and have multiple Seasons. Others we cycle in and out based on player interest. Each season is 6 sessions: we play twice a month, plus a Session Zero at the very beginning for Character Creation. (side note, if you’re not using the concept of Session Zero for your home games, go read up on it asap) For each of the six sessions, we offer multiple tables, usually 2 or 3. So players can expect 12 – 18 different stories to pick from in each season. Players use our Meetup site to read table descriptions and sign up. We partner with local gaming stores for play space and encourage our player base to buy dice, rule books, and snacks from the stores.

 

If a reader is in the Triangle area and is interested in RPGs, I strongly recommend joining our Meetup and Facebook sites. Not only do we have the SOP program, we have variety of other RPG-related events going on, from our big themed Quarterly Events (our summer event, Tales of the Crimson Boar, is July 22nd, with 10 games to choose from), workshops for new and experienced gamers and a host of other events like Try It Out Tuesdays and social gatherings. We even help match players and GMs.

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Melissa (standing, a Game Master for Miskatonic Society), Allison and Will (sitting, players). They’re hamming it up with prop cigarettes that another player brought to the game

What brought you and the Society to Obsidian Portal? Are there substantial differences in using the site for a Society versus using it for a single campaign?

Earlier, I mentioned how I ran a private wiki for my gaming group in college. Eric and Allie saw a similar need when they started the SOP program and Obsidian Portal was the best site out there to meet their needs. With a rotating cast of GMs and 20+ players, we needed a good way to store character sheets, session summaries, notes on important locations, etc.

 

We probably use the site like a lot of other Campaigns, just… more. More characters, more Adventure Logs, more Wiki pages. Characters die pretty quick in the Call of Cthulhu universe, so we have a creative way of labeling their profile pic when that happens. We reward players for filling out Adventure Logs with free re-rolls at the table, so sometimes you’ll see letters, postcards, and diary entries in there. The only piece of Obsidian Portal we don’t really use is the Calendar function. Instead, we rely on Meetup.com, a service with a more robust event management system.

So can you bring us up to speed on what’s been going on in the most recent season? Any spoiler free hints on what the future might hold?

The most recent season went back to the roots of the Cthulhu mythos. While in the past we’ve done ‘based on’ and ‘feels like’ sessions, this year we really focused on the source material. We played in places like Dunwich and Arkham and pulled for sources like “At the Mountains of Madness” and “Imprisoned with the Pharaohs”.

 

After 4 seasons in the 1920s, we polled our players and are going to try something different next season. We’re planning to set Season Four in 1940s Europe and play around with new inspirational material like Achtung! Cthulhu and World War Cthulhu.

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In terms of design, does developing a Society style game (or season) differ drastically from more traditional or standard games? Why or why not?

It’s similar to most game design but has some very specific peculiarities. We know the season length at the start: 6 sessions, 2 – 3 games a session. That really frames how you approach the Season design. Any over-arching story has to start and finish in that window, and be understandable to players who might not make every session. Individual session design is the same: your story has to complete in that 4 – 5-hour window. No picking it back up next time. It really makes you have a solid understanding of your game when you set down at the table.

 

The “play the table you want” design means you can’t plan anything to depend on certain characters at your table. We sometimes show our hand a bit in the session descriptions, alerting players if a table will be heavily based in things like research, combat, or the like. However, generally speaking we have to make stories that any group of Society members can tackle and enjoy.

With the Miskatonic Society being Cthulhu-oriented, there’s obviously a ton of great inspirational material out there, do you have any particular favorites or sources that you avoid? Any recommendations for those who may be considering running a campaign of this sort?

We have an entire page dedicated to inspirational material for our players and GMs. I love radio dramas for inspiration and the people at the HP Lovecraft Historical Society (linked on our wiki page) do an amazing job with theirs. They also have a great collection of game aids and props that inspire a lot of the props we use in-game. I’m a big fan of props for Cthulhu games – I like giving my players letters, newspaper clippings, telegrams, etc. and letting them find the important parts themselves. There are some great products out there on sites like HPLHS and even DriveThruRPG for creating period-appropriate handouts.

 

If anyone’s looking to get into running Call of Cthulhu games, I highly recommend Chaosium’s deep collections of prebuilt modules as a starting point. Their Doors to Darkness supplement for 7th Edition is fantastic and we’ve used a few modules out of it for Miskatonic Society. Additionally, my digital copy of the Cthulhu Mythos Encyclopedia is indispensable.

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What would you say has been the single biggest highlight or best moment from Society play for you so far?

There are two. My Season 3 finale game involved the Investigators fighting with a dream cult in the bell tower of an asylum while a Star Spawn bashed its way through the grounds towards them. It had every element I love for Call of Cthulhu – impossible odds, an iconic Cthulhu monster, characters going insane, and unexpected solutions from the players that saved the day. It was high-stakes and the players really felt the tension.

 

My second one was my finale for Season 4. The Society went to Egypt to track down stolen artifacts from the University museum and quickly found themselves in the middle of a plot between worshipers of The Black Pharaoh and the Queen of the Ghuls. My players were all female and so were their characters. They turned the pulpy Indiana Jones/The Mummy trope I had planned for the session on its head. They mocked the ‘brave hero’ NPC types for rushing off to battle against impossible odds while they snuck around and did what needed doing. They even managed to dismantle the doomsday McGuffin with some great slapstick creativity that would have felt right at home in an Abbott and Costello movie. They retitled my session “No One Prepared for the Female Element” and it was fantastic.

Okay, before we get out of here, give us some of your best GMing pearls of wisdom?

Find someone you trust to give you brutally honest feedback on your games (either in person or online) before you run them. It’s so easy to be blind to huge plot holes or confusing elements in your story, because it’s rolling around in your head, complete. Your players will come at everything from a different perspective and usually it’s obvious to anyone not yourself.

 

Learn to improv. This skill alone will let you calmly walk through the bonfire the players just made of your session design, get them back on track, and they never be the wiser.

 

It’s their story. We, as GMs, help tell it, but ultimately what they’ll remember are the times their PCs triumphed over impossible odds, died heroic deaths, and made lasting connections, most of which will be unplanned. Give space for that to grow.

Regrettably, we’ve come to the end of our stay at Dewitt House. Hopefully more readers than not have managed to retain their grip on sanity, but either way, you can take comfort in the knowledge that we’ll be back next month with another featured campaign. Until then, keep those nominations coming, and fear not the incomprehensible horrors lurking just out of sight, for the Miskatonic Society is on the case!

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