Table-top RPGs from back in the day and today.

This interview features in the November Webzine for Patreons. Paul (Cthulhu Hack) Baldowski is launching a new Kickstarter for his RPG set against the backdrop of Elizabethan England. I recommended Derek Jarman’s JUBILEE as a good source of a potential scenarios, let’s see how that idea is getting along as well as the rest of the development:

What’s the pitch for the Dee Sanction – why should people back it?

On the one hand, I hope that people will back the game on Kickstarter or pick up the game afterwards because I’ve written it. It feels sort of egotistical to say — that’s not me at all! — but The Cthulhu Hack has won several awards, and The Haunter of the Dark was nominated for an ENnie.

The pitch is a standalone tabletop role-playing game of traitors seeking absolution through investigation and magic in the age of Doctor John Dee.

This is a game set within a tumultuous period of history. The status quo, on so many levels across the breadth of society, was changing for everyone, from the bottom to the top. Traditions, privileges, rights, beliefs – they were all in doubt, and it’s that doubt that has allowed magic and creatures of the supernatural to proliferate throughout the land.

Is it built on Cthulhu Hack mechanics, are these now the house rules for Just Crunch?

That’s a simple question to which I can offer a long and odd answer. The quick response would be No on House Rules.

A couple of years ago, someone on Google+ (remember that) asked if The Cthulhu Hack could be run without the Investigative Resources. For context, the base game is a D20 roll for Threats — where you need to roll under to avoid harm or hindrance — and a roll on a Resource where discoveries might tax your humanity. The Resources include Sanity and the investigative values of Flashlights and Smokes, and you roll a die and hope to avoid a 1 or 2. You progress regardless, but that low roll means the value of the die drops to the next down in the series, say a D4 from a D6. I came up with some rules for just using the D20 mechanic.

The Dee Sanction started — back in 2013 — with the principle of ordinary people who were reasonably capable of doing some things. A lot of other RPGs are like that, but I wanted a simple way to simulate it. The original idea was to roll 2D6, and a 7 represented a success. Everything else failed. If you had a skill, you could succeed on a 6, 7 or 8. I had it boiled down to percentages really; characters could have a chance of success on almost anything and a fair chance with something they were good at.

It sort of worked, but I never really settled on it. Then 2016, The Cthulhu Hack happens, and 2018, that question came up about blending investigation into the D20. And something clicked. What about going the other way and using elements of the Resource die? That’s what The Dee Sanction does. You have core abilities with a die value, like D6. When you try to do something where failure is a possibility, you roll. You always make progress, but if you roll a 1 or 2, you will have to fix or fail forward—success with a price or complication. Circumstances may raise or drop the die; preparation or assistance might allow you to roll a D8, while a powerful foe or a challenging environment could force you down to a D4.

I like messing with game mechanics. I have been developing this system — the Utility System — as a separate document with a plan to use it as a sort of House System going forward. It’s a simple idea, and I like that at the tabletop; just enough crunch to make it a game rather than a story.

What’s the core activity of the PCs?

The player characters are traitors who have narrowly avoided the noose. They work for the Queen now to defend the realm against the unknown and the unknowable. That might be something entirely ordinary like spies or assassins, or it could be supernatural threats like witches or Fae. The European landscape in The Dee Sanction is dotted with individuals dabbling in the occult arts, whether for power, wealth or some other more obscure cause.

The PCs might find themselves sent to find someone or something for Dee or Walsingham, or they could get mixed up in strange goings-on that develops more organically around them. There’s also a possibility of something akin to dungeoneering, treasure-hunting in the monastic ruins of England, for example.

Bottom line, the PCs are an expendable asset doing their bit for the Crown in pursuit of a pardon. Beyond that, there’s potential for arcs and campaigns, as well as one-shots.

Will there be supporting scenarios?

Absolutely. I’ve spent several years toying with the concept, struggling to come up with a mechanic that satisfied me. As a result, I have run many sessions of the game playtesting those ideas, usually running the same adventures time and again to determine whether the mechanics do what I’d hoped. I have many ideas, a few of which will appear as stretch goals in the Kickstarter if it raises enough interest and pledges.

The core book itself includes an adventure — Lost in Translation — to get you started, along with some thoughts about repurposing adventures from other games. The Dee Sanction is close enough to the periphery of fantasy, horror and modern espionage that conversion and plot theft represent a genuine possibility.

Why does Dee have such an enduring appeal?

He’s a man who feels like he should have existed on the periphery of the Court at best. However, he was an extraordinary polymath who could turn his impressive knowledge to all purposes—alchemy, astrology, geography, maths, cryptography, theology, and, with some infamy, angelology and the pursuit of the original pre-Babel language. I’ve read various studies and books about the Elizabethan Court, and Dee’s influence always lingers somewhere in the background, even if just in passing with something like his reputed astrological reading to define the best date for the Queen’s coronation. He studied the fringe lore of the time and things like scrying and cryptography have suggested a connection with espionage and intelligence. At the same time, alchemy and geometry offered means to refill the near-empty coffers of the Court, either through the philosopher’s stone or discovering new lands filled with precious metal through his Paradoxical Compass. I have found almost every reference I read about him reveals something strange, rife with potential for gaming.

Please give an idea of the ‘Appendix N’ for this – what should I be watching / reading to get me in the mood?

In a way, that’s a tough one. It depends. Viewing is as simple as: Fringe, The X-Files, or, probably more thematically, Constantine or Supernatural. I get it that only one of those series is “recent”, but what I’m trying to suggest is weird and supernatural investigation represent the touchstone for play. Really, Fringe and X-Files make better sense because the protagonists possess a base level of knowledge but lack the tools and the means to “win”, or at least to absolutely overcome the adversary. To grasp the actual historical themes, try Mary, Queen of Scots or Elizabeth. I cannot recommend Jubilee, though Richard O’Brien made a fantastic John Dee. It’s just too weird.

For reading, I recommend The Arch-Conjuror of England, by Glyn Parry, for the core non-player character; The Elizabethan World Picture, by E. M. W. Tillyard, for the frame of thinking; and something pretty straightforward as background reading, like Ian Mortimer’s The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England. The game doesn’t expect in-depth knowledge, but the more you know the greater the potential for creating your own adventures and campaign.

What are the Kickstarter details?

The Kickstarter starts on 1st November and runs for three weeks. You will find it here:

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