Month: December 2015

RPG First Look: Fugue

James Wallis’ Alas Vegas kickstarter was fantastically successful with a backing of 8 times its initial goal. It was also fantastically optimistic with delivery dates with an estimate of June 2013 for hard copies and December 2013 for the Alas Vegas novel. Some people are reasonably irked about the delays, and some have found creative ways to express frustration.

We are receiving some content, slowly. September 2014 got us a partial preview, and as of November 2015 the Fugue rules are “locked” and have been released under the Creative Commons license, so I’m going to look at those.

Alas Vegas


Ocean’s Eleven directed by David Lynch. Fear And Loathing in Las Vegas by way of Dante’s Inferno. The Hangover meets The Prisoner. A new style of RPG by James Wallis, named by Robin D. Laws as ‘the godfather of indie-game design’, with art from this year’s winner of the World Fantasy Award, John Coulthart.

In the backer’s preview (Septemer 2014) James Wallis reasonably asks bloggers, reviewers and the like to hold fire for a couple of years on any of Alas Vegas’ secrets, and as I can’t stand spoilers I’ll do my best not to spoil anything.

Here’s the problem. I’d like to talk about the Fugue system, but the examples I’d reach for are off-limits — both for the reader, and for me, the backer. I’m allowed to read the setting and the first act (the owner of the book gets to be the first Dealer), but not much more than that.

So, this is a review and commentary on the Fugue system in general, but a lot of it will be around what my expectations of the system are, which is something I won’t be able to realise until the release. Alas Vegas and Fugue in general assumes a relationship between GM and game author that I don’t think I’ve seen anywhere else. I’ll talk about that in a bit.

Content Sets

There are three operating constraints on Fugue games:

  1. Your characters have no memory of who they are, how they got where they are, or any skills beyond the most basic (speak language, eat, breathe) at time in.
  2. Play happens over a short, defined span of sessions (“like a HBO miniseries”), typically four.
  3. The GM (“Dealer”) role rotates around the group.

There are some implied thematic constraints too, such as the use of the Tarot in setting elements — since there’s an Alas Vegas set of Major Arcana by John Coulthart, this isn’t much of a spoiler.

There are three “Content Sets” in addition to Alas Vegas (all stretch goal offerings from the Kickstarter). I’m going to assume these sets all obey the same constraints for now.

Now, here’s the problem. The Fugue rules tell us how to negotiate some of the operating constraints, but not all. I assume those gaps have been deferred to the Content Sets, but since (a) we only have half of a draft of Alas Vegas and none of the others and (b) I wouldn’t be able to read them anyway without spoiling it for myself, I can’t say for certain. Anyway…

The Fugue Rules

I went through the Fugue document and made this cognitive map:


(pdf version here) Here is what you’ll find in the Fugue rules:

  1. What you need to play (pens, paper, a tarot deck, etc.)
  2. How and when to do flashbacks (lead by the Dealer, the player of the Persona, and other players; or triggered by the game content). The mechanism for exploring the first operational constraint is almost all there, with one key exception which I’ll discuss later.
  3. The principles of play, such as not contradicting players with flashbacks and One More Thing; and how much of the Content Set the players (who are Dealers) are allowed to read.
  4. How to do all kinds of contested actions, a Blackjack mini-game, and so on, including narrating the outcome based on the Tarot draw.

Now, here’s what you don’t find in the Fugue document:

  1. There’s nothing about weaving flashbacks and abilities into the narrative.
  2. What do to with the Dealer’s “persona” (PC) when it’s their turn to run an act.
  3. How to hedge on facts as the Dealer, when you don’t have enough objective information to provide the answers.
  4. How to hand over between sessions.
  5. How to write Content Sets.

While the player-led narrative control sounds like the new indie school, all of this freedom is entirely around the flashback mechanism and turning the Tarot strings into a narrative. It’s totally freeform, but it’s not dissimilar to other minimalist designs from the 90s like Over the Edge and Everway.

When it comes to Dealer behaviour, other than being prompted for flashbacks when a Significator comes up it’s very traditional, authoritarian GM stuff. The first act I read is not completely railroaded to hell, but it’s not far off. It’s been structured with scene-by-scene set pieces, drip feeding the plot to the players as you go on.

Now, thinking about the constraints above — 4 sessions, 3 hours each, and rotating Dealer with deliberate obfuscation of objective facts in the early acts — I am not sure if it could be done another way. But this raises some interesting questions about the relationship between game author and GM. The author of any Content Set is going to be unable to playtest their own game in the way it’s supposed to be presented to the players according to the Fugue rules.

This is an adventure-as-novel style, heavily plotted, a 90s throwback. There are other clues in the document — the way the Dealer is advised to make the Personas’ lives a misery, but stop short of actually killing them; the way the Dealer is advised to put off the players’ difficult questions, to restrict their movements, because where they’re supposed to be is defined by the act they’re playing in. Honestly? It reminds me of Vampire. Not a metaplotted to hell Vampire, but the intensely personal, introspective, first-edition Vampire. The version I actually like.

Closing Remarks

Thanks to this design, Alas Vegas could never have taken advantage of crowd-sourced playtesting. This is because the Fugue rules are only half of the required mechanism in any Fugue game; the other half is the Content Set.

I expect the Content Set to plug these gaps:

  • weave the Personas back into the narrative. I guess the logical place this will happen is where there are Flashback triggers written into each Act. I don’t see any dynamic, player-led linkage.
  • handover from Dealer to Dealer between sessions. The game may well assume this “just happens” because “the GM knows how to do this kind of thing”. But actually I think this is non-trivial; what if the Dealer played the cards close to their chest and didn’t reveal everything in the previous session? What if the party refused to go where the Dealer was supposed to send them? What if a later Dealer forgot some vital plot from the previous session? Consensus is needed.

Time will tell if this is successful; but these are the criteria I will be using to judge all four content sets when we finally see them. But considering a Content Set needs to plug these gaps and provide a snappy, structured four-act game, I’m not surprised that the initial delivery dates proved ambitious.

I’d compare Fugue to Hillfolk (with its Series Pitches) or WaRP or possibly GUMSHOE. Ostensibly freeform, but from a school of heavy up-front plotting. Like I said, a 90s throwback. Fugue is the antithesis of modern emergent design; it isn’t is Fiasco or Monsterhearts or (ironically) Penny For My Thoughts. The controls on the Dealer authority are baked into the Content Set but instead of mechanistic controls (e.g. the way PbtA limits MC moves) the controls are entirely fictional, deliberately limiting context.

I’m still very optimistic about the final product. Partly because I’ve done this kind of game in the past — when four of us played four Eternal Champions back in the 90s, where we muddled through four sessions, rotating the GM role. Almost entirely free-form, with no controls on how far each GM could go aside from trust and a shared commitment.

As for the Fugue system itself, I think there would be no problem in running a game with a very traditional structure, avoiding the whole rotating Dealers thing. The flashback mechanics and the action rules still work, compartmentalised from the Content Set. I’m sorry I didn’t do that a year ago when we had the first document.

Stop the Madness

When I ran Department V I made a kind of Sanity mechanic for contact with supernatural (the “Atlantean colonies”). I called it Exposure, and (because it was The Sweeney investigating the World of Darkness) it was an amalgamation of the Delerium (from Werewolf), Masquerade (from Vampire) and Arete (from Mage). Basically this:

  • Contact with Atlanteans elicited a physiological response in humans (not sure if it was poisoning, or an autoimmune response) which resulted in hallucination
  • Atlanteans relied on this to keep up their “masquerade”.
  • Humans marked by the Atlantean virus could become more susceptible to later infection and control, much like the Code 5 virus in Ultraviolet.
  • But, humans could build up a tolerance to the virus/poison/hormone and use their Exposure to do magic (being Awakened to the magical possibilities of the world).

Lovecraft and specifically Call of Cthulhu gets a bad rep for heavy handed treatment of mental illness. Part of the problem is the way CoC calls this property Sanity, when it’s really a response to cosmic horror, which is about comprehension and entirely rational. The response to losing SAN points is the issue: “madness” is really the Delerium, a short-term chemical or biological response. So I think the solutions are fairly simple:

  • stop using Madness, Insanity or similar labels for something that’s a short term effect of a chemical imbalance.
  • stop equating horror with insanity. If you want to make some point about the way society perceives mental illness as other and can do it sensitively, OK. But that horror, like any horror, is entirely rational.

The Squid Abides

My first Dragonmeet happened. Highlight was the announcement of Seven Wonders, and even better the con-only print run sold out by lunchtime!

I attended the What’s Hot seminar and the What Would Jackson Elias Do? session (available here and here respectively) and played Blades in the Dark for the first time, and bought stuff:



Cosmic Fear

An eclectic mix, but a nice spread of OSR and storygame type stuff, plus All Rolled Up’s fantastically useful accessories.

Graham Walmsley was kind to autograph our copy of Stealing Cthulhu which I’ve wanted forever:


Graham asked us what our favourite monster was, and why (I assume he asks that of all his customers). I said The Colour Out Of Space, for a couple of reasons (which might not have been coherent at the time):

  1. Colours don’t get a treatment in my 4th edition CoC, and tend to get glossed over in favour of tentacles (they don’t make any of The Good Friends’ top three, for example).
  2. The Lovecraftian Science blog dissects the origins of Colours nicely and appeals to me as a scientist. Quantum life-forms would not be out of place in Star Trek, either.
  3. The Corruption trope is (like Cosmic Horror) seductive in an abstract, all-encompassing way — we love the stench of Chaos in the Warhammer universe, for example, and the way it perverts the natural.

As Graham says on p.85:

Since the Colour is more dreamlike than horrific, the final horror is probably a victim of the Colour, rather than the Colour itself.

Putting a human context on horror is essential for it to be horrific; without that, it’s weird science fiction — or in other words, horror is sensation, sci-fi is genre. And while Lovecraftian roleplaying has moved into the realm of pulp with Dark Young being answered with shotguns, the Colour remains nihilistic and faithful to Lovecraftian sensations of alien wrongness, promising a thoroughly miserable gaming experience. That’s a great monster.

The other Dragonmeet find was The Grognard Files who were promoting themselves with a neat little booklet and also plugged by Scott Dorward. I’m pleased to add them to my subscription to UK RPG podcasts. I guess the appeal will be limited to gamers of a certain age, but with the US-centric OSR it’s nice to have a British perspective on gaming nostalgia. If you want a run-down of the history of Runequest, Call of Cthulhu and others (I can’t wait for their take on Stormbringer) in the British RPG scene from the early 80s onwards, it’s recommended.


Their second podcast features a Call of Cthulhu retrospective, and name-checks several White Dwarf contributions including The Horse of the Invisible from WD66 and Ghosties, Ghoulies and Squid by Simon Nicholson from WD91 (July 1987 — just before White Dwarf’s peak and sharp decline).


Let’s put that article in context: CoC was released in 1981, and I guess will have been available in the early 80s in the UK — but the edition that raised its profile here will have been Games Workshop’s 3rd edition hardback in 1986. That was the first time I’d heard of Lovecraft, and like Dirk I also looked for Lovecraft books in shops and the library, and found those same Grafton omnibuses with the awful and unrepresentative covers:

Lovecraft Omnibus

Given that Cthulhu gaming is maybe a decade old at this point (if you count Appendix N references) Nicholson’s article is fairly cutting-edge stuff. He nails the fundamentals of the Lovecraftian worldview:

  • God and the Devil are human constructs
  • The universe in vast and humanity is insignificant
  • There are aliens, who have motives and societies that we can’t hope to understand
  • Human life is a chance event

And so on. Nicholson also differentiates between the Derlethian (black and white) vs Lovecraftian (shades of grey) outlook. He does call Lovecraft “an athiest, materialist, and nihilist” (implied but by no means proven), “not a great writer… his characters were two-dimensional at best” (a matter of taste), and maintains that the horror in Lovecraft’s tales comes from a bleak, nihilistic vision (I don’t agree). But Nicholson also recommends taking conventional monsters (vampires, werewolves, ghosts) and regarding them — and magic — from a scientific point of view, which is a great piece of advice espectially looking forward to the 90s where contemporary urban horror fantasy becomes the mainstay of gaming and characters have access to scientific techniques and seek explanations (arguably my Department V game was more Lovecraft than World of Darkness, with its focus on alien forensics).

With that in mind, I think it’s fair to mention Ghosties, Ghoulies and Squid in the same breath as Stealing Cthuhlu. Walmsley’s book is more mature — as you would expect, with 30 years of collective experience in Call of Cthulhu as a roleplaying exercise, and the ways the narrative may be subverted. Both works advocate deconstruction of the genre, getting back to the fundamentals, the expectations of players and how to subvert them. Just as Silent Legions deconstructs the elements of Lovecraftian (and other horror) worldbuilding, these texts are a critical eye on the elements of the Lovecraftian narrative.

At the end of the Smart Party/Jackson Elias podcast (around 59 mins) there’s this quote from Scott Dorward:

I think we’ve barely scratched the surface of what Lovecraft can offer in Roleplaying games… when you think adding Cthulhu to a game, don’t think of there being too many tentacles or Deep Ones, think of what else Lovecraft and his ideas and tropes can add to your games

Cthulhu as a pulpy tentacled monster is indisputably played out; but Lovecraft as a genre still has legs, and the analysis in Stealing Cthulhu and Ghosties, Ghoulies and Squid are the kinds of discourse that keeps it fresh, peeling the genre back to the authorial intent and fundamentals. This kind of deconstruction is what enables new ground to be broken in the Lovecraftian genre with games like Lovecraftesque.

Just don’t call it horror. Horror is an emotional response; this is science fiction. In any other game a starship’s crew will look upon the pulsing nuclear chaos of a black hole with wonder, not horror. They will transplant their consciouses from one body to another in transhuman societies, without a thought for what this means for their identity. They will accept that the universe is vast and contains many other races, for whom Humanity is an irrelevance. The first spell I encountered playing CoC was Brew Space Mead; the idea that a traveller could reach distant worlds in the arms of a byakhee or star vampire filled me with curiosity, not dread.


Nihilism, Cthulhu and Me

Call of Cthulhu is a great fantasy game, a great sci-fi game, a great pulp adventure game, and crucially a great investigative game. It is a terrible horror game.

Let’s qualify “terrible”. The enduring power of the Lovecraftian mythos is Cosmic Horror. The sheer scope of cosmic horror makes it a terrific high concept for the GM and author and reader, incredibly seductive as a backdrop. But (I’m going to stick my neck out here) thanks to that scope it’s almost impossible to translate that to the RPG table and call it horror. It’s too far away from any human context to be horrific.

So, CoC (and stablemates) have a reputation on delivering horror on this grand scale, a nearly impossible task in practice. I’m not talking about the horror genre, I’m talking about the emotional response. This is the Paranoia fallacy that because a game is purported to be darkly comedic or horrific, it will elicit that emotional respose. CoC’s mechanism for tackling fear and horror is Sanity, a one-dimensional resource that lacks subtlety or empathy (or respect for mental health issues). More to the point, it doesn’t really reflect the bleak, nihilistic horror that the setting promises — just a slow spiral into subjective madness punctuated by periods of loss of control.

Of course CoC at the time was working with the best tools available. Chaosium’s model was to provide adventures, and that’s where the visceral and spooky thrills would be baked in (much like LofFP does now). Outside of that, CoC was a book of weird monsters and spells, fine for pulp science fantasy but it’s a mythology, not horrific in itself. And as far as I can see 7th edition doesn’t change this formula.

Better Nihilism

There are better games to communicate the absolute bleakness of existence in a RPG. Two spring to mind:

Unknown Armies has a much more sophisticated take on deterioration. There are five scales of Madness (Self, Isolation, Violence, the Unknown, and Helplessness) but the genius is not only that PCs can become subjected to different stresses with the usual deleterious effects — they also become hardened to them to the point that they become unfeeling, ascetic, joyless agents of chaos. This is Vampire’s Humanity in reverse. This is also a very objective way of looking at things, and objectivity is what makes the nihilistic view horrible. It’s a slow battering down of all the defences against that crushing certainty — all of the mechanisms of family and relationships, societal norms and faith in order being stripped away. It’s delicious.


The other game is Wraith, a much looser and much more subjective and personal view. Wraith’s high concept — the idea that the afterlife is no more than a slow decline, waiting to be consumed by Oblivion and feeding off weaker wraiths, sometimes clawing your way back to the living — gives the Lovecraftian cosmic worldview a run for its money.


Wraith isn’t as mechanically tight as UA but its use of Passions and Fetters — the former being diminished by harrowings — gives a context for the character’s place in an uncaring cosmos. Passions are the defining emotional ties of the character but can be stripped away by Spectres, neglect, or by the environment itself; they rarely get stronger. Hope is a slender thing.

Love’s Cruft

This is a nihilistic storygame about the end of life. I recommend a Lines and Veils conversation up front, as is best practice.


This is a game about looking back over the life of someone and examining all the ways they’ve touched people, the things they’ve built, and the ideas they’ve had.

You will need:

  • A deck of cards
  • Pencils and index cards or scraps of paper

For as many players as you like, it doesn’t really make any difference.

Step One — The principal

Your principal is old, but they have accomplished much in their lifetime — they have touched many people, had grand ideas, built great things. They are in a place they call home, safe for now, with time to reflect.

As a group:

  1. Name your principal.
  2. Decide how the world saw them. Examples:
    • An explorer
    • A pioneer
    • An inventor or researcher
    • A philanthropist
    • An industry leader
    • An architect
    • A politician
  3. Describe their house. Is it in the city or the country? Which country?

Write the answers to the above on an index card, then go to Step Two.

Step Two — Cruft

When a card is drawn, both the suit and the number may be used. See below.

  1. A player takes the deck of cards and draws one, placing it in the middle of the table.
  2. With the suit in mind, the player to their right describes an object that exists in the principal’s house. Write it on an index card.
  3. The next player to the right explains the significance of the object — what event, relationship, place or idea, and who or what it affected. Add that to the index card.
  4. The next player to the right then explains how that achievement ultimately amounts to nothing in the bleak and baleful eye of an uncaring universe. The numbers on the card are a guide (see below). Add the text to the index card.
  5. Continue for as many rounds as the players can be bothered. The first player to say “sod this, what’s the point” ends this phase, and has to make the tea.
  6. Proceed to Step Three.

The suit has the following significance:

  • Hearts are about love, emotions and relationships with the principal.
  • Diamonds are about the principal’s imagination; ideas and concepts that have been adopted by others.
  • Clubs are about physical things that have been constructed (directly or indirectly) by the principal.
  • Spades are about people (cultures, groups) that have been influenced by the principal.

Card numbers as a guide:

  • 2, 3, or 4: describe how a person or thing came to harm or ruin in spite of the ideals of the achievement
  • 5, 6, or 7: describe how this thing was twisted from its original meaning by self-serving opportunism
  • 8, 9 or 10: move forward in time (decades, centuries, millenia) to describe how this thing has been forgotten or failed to influence anything
  • J, Q or K: describe a pastiche on another world or dimension. It should be brutal, alien, or unfair; it shows how the achievement is ultimately irrelevent.
  • Ace: Wild card. This card allows the player to retcon any one narration into something life-affirming and optimistic (if an Ace is the first draw, hold for later). For more optimism, add Jokers with the same function. For less optimism, take the aces out of the deck.

Step Three — Memorial

Together, the players recite the following:

“Here lies (principal’s name), who never amounted to anything in the eyes of a bleak uncaring cosmos.”

Alternative version — if you used the wild cards, append

“except for (Wild Card retcon), that was quite uplifting.”

Afterwards you can sit and stare at each other, if you like

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