How Would You Stop the Seasons? A Conversation with Kevin A. Ross
Kevin Ross is back. Miskatonic River Press is back. With a Call of Cthulhu license from Chaosium, Cthulhu is once again dreaming, and all across the world, investigators are being scared witless.
A veteran horror RPG writer, Ross has contributed to over 30 products, for companies such as Chaosium, Pagan Publishing, and Miskatonic River Press. However, his recent Our Ladies of Sorrow was delayed last spring by the death of Keith “Doc” Herber, the founder of Miskatonic River Press and former editor on Call of Cthulhu.
But now it’s here!
“Our Ladies of Sorrow is a non-Lovecraftian horror book. Very supernatural rather than cosmic,” said Ross. “It’s flat out the scariest book I’ve ever written. It’s by turns scary, creepy, and downright weird. It’s also full of really strange dreams and nightmares, including a couple of real Zodiac-mind-f*** moments in the finale, when the investigators find themselves acting out elements of dreams they had had much earlier in the campaign. Bwah-hah!”
Below, Ross and I talk about horror RPGs, Call of Cthulhu, Our Ladies, and his good friend, Herber.
Jones: What is it about Call of Cthulhu that appeals to you as a player and as a designer?
Ross: I was a fan of horror and Lovecraft back in grade school, and I got into RPGs in college. That was about the time Call of Cthulhu came out, and I jumped on it right away. It was very different from the D&D we had been playing, but since nobody else was as much of a horror fan, I didn’t get to play much. I still collected the game material, though, and after a couple of years, I started writing it myself. Eventually I sent some of the stuff I’d written to Chaosium and started corresponding with Sandy Petersen. I met Sandy and the gang at GenCon a few times before I finally got published.
Call of Cthulhu really was a different animal among RPGs, and it still is. In most other games, the PCs/investigators are more powerful than normal people, but in Call of Cthulhu, they’re just normal Joes up against these incredible alien forces whose mere presence can destroy a man’s mind. That’s what horror is all about, and that’s why Call of Cthulhu is such a good game. It captures the whole “little-man-against-the-uncaring-and-hostile-universe” attitude and does it without a bunch of fancy mechanics that can bog down play and derail the story and atmosphere. For me it hits just the right level of die rolling: dice-less games seem too arbitrary, and dice-bidding games ruin the atmosphere, as far as I’m concerned.
I really think it’s the perfect system for straight out horror roleplaying, Cthulhoid or otherwise. I really wish somebody would recognize this and do a book or line of books of stand-alone scenarios that would be basically like horror movies playable in an evening or two. The PCs would be tied into the plot, and you could do anything and everything you could imagine, from 19th century Gothic horror to modern slasher to exploration in the Arctic, on an oil rig, on a ship, in a zombie holocaust, with children as PCs, in a ghost story—anything. I think it would be a great way to get people into the game; not everyone is into horror campaigning, but surely, most folks would at least try it for a session or two. The best roleplaying experiences I’ve had were all one-off tournament games, and that’s the type of thing I’m talking about here.
Jones: Are Call of Cthulhu players… different from other RPG players? What’s it like writing for them?
Ross: Call of Cthulhu players tend to be older than the average gamer. In the old days, you could sort of fake your way through some of the research and little details, but I think folks are getting a lot more discriminatory about those little things. In some cases they might be too nitpicky. You have to remember the writer is trying to strike a balance between covering every eventuality and not bogging down the storyline with every possible story-branch. Ultimately, a scenario is just a keeper’s toolkit for telling the story, and every keeper is going to run it differently according to his or her own whims and the party’s playing style. Writing game scenarios is hard, and I don’t think the writers get enough credit for what they do. But I would say that, wouldn’t I?
Jones: What was it like working with Keith Herber?
Ross: I was friends with Keith Herber for over 20 years. I first met him at GenCon, and I’d always been a huge fan of his work, so we hit it off. He sent me a copy of the manuscript he was working on at the time: Arkham Unveiled. I’ve still got it. Since he and I saw eye to eye on a lot of matters Lovecraftian, he encouraged my writing and helped get me published. At about the same time he was writing Arkham Unveiled, I had run a couple of little adventures set in Kingsport, and since he had plans for expanding Lovecraft Country, he brought me aboard.
Working with Doc back then was great. He put his writers in touch with each other, so they could trade manuscripts and comment on each others’ work. We’re talking about people from all over the country, and England and Australia as well. This was in the days before email, so you’d be snail-mailing packages all over hell, and it was really a treat when you got something from Scott Aniolowski in New York, or Mark Morrison or Richard Watts from Down Under. It really formed a sort of new Lovecraft circle based on the game. Great times.
I think Keith not only understood Lovecraft better than most people writing for the game up to that point, he also knew how to translate Lovecraft’s concepts into the game. There were a lot of silly dungeon crawls and big pulp gunfights up to that point—I always felt that was more August Derleth and Indiana Jones than HPL. Keith reined that in, gave the game a home base, and made the NPCs more realistic.
Unfortunately, Doc was eventually pushed out of Chaosium for a variety of reasons, and he was bitter about it for a long time. He had produced a lot of great material for the game in just a few years, and now he was out. And he couldn’t get back in until Chaosium opened up the licenses last year. Doc was on it in a heartbeat. He was chomping at the bit to get back into Call of Cthulhu. He had a lot of plans, and I think Miskatonic River Press would have easily become the premiere Call of Cthulhu licensee under his direction. I think that’s still likely, since Tom Lynch and Oscar Rios are going to be producing the books Keith had planned, and they share many of his philosophies about Lovecraft, gaming, and publishing in general.
Jones: What can you tell me about Our Lady of Sorrows?
Ross: Think modern Japanese horror cinema mixed with Neil Gaiman-esque mythology and that’ll give you some idea of what’s in store. It’s based on Thomas de Quincey’s short story “Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow,” which was also the basis for Fritz Leiber’s novel Our Lady of Darkness and Dario Argento’s Three Mothers film trilogy. Basically, the Sorrows are these ancient spirits or goddesses who have preyed on man for millennia. They are the basis for mythological entities such as the Fates, the Furies, the Gorgons, the Norns, and hundreds and thousands of others. They may be three, or they may all be facets of a single entity. That entity might be Lilith, or Hecate, or, if you want to follow it far enough, maybe even that Mythos fella with all the masks. It’s all deliberately vague, as I think that adds to the horror and mystery of the book’s mythology.
Unlike most Call of Cthulhu books, Our Ladies is pure supernatural ghost story-type horror. There aren’t any cults or insane sorcerer-priests here, and not many monsters at all. And while most Call of Cthulhu adventures have the investigators pursuing the horrors, in many ways the opposite is true here. Once the investigators stumble onto the Sorrows’ trail, the scenarios become cat and mouse games with these ancient spirits or goddesses or what have you toying with the investigators. This is a different take on horror gaming, I think. There aren’t any pat answers here, no handy Mythos tome passages telling you how to destroy this or that entity. How would you go about destroying the Furies? Or as it’s asked in the book, how would you stop the seasons? Or the moon?
Jones: What are you working on now?
Ross: I’m working on a three-book series for Sixtystone Press set in Colonial era (18th century) Lovecraft Country. I’ve finished writing and editing the big sourcebook, along with Scott Aniolowski, Fred Behrendt, and Todd Woods, and am currently assembling a collection of Colonial era scenarios and a Colonial era campaign. The sourcebook has rules for Colonial characters, some history, and lengthy chapters on Arkham, Boston, Dunwich, Kingsport, Providence, and Salem, along with a bunch of Mythos information and a couple of introductory scenarios. The scenario collection (tentatively titled The Devil’s Wedding and Other Tales) looks like it’ll be eight scenarios, some by me, and others by Scott and Fred, and Dan Harms as well. The Curwen Conspiracies campaign was originally conceived by Gary Sumpter and one of his mates but ended up in my editorial hands through various means and with Gary’s blessing. That one follows the machinations of Joseph Curwen and his sorcerous associates from Salem to Providence to England, Prague, and Transylvania. The investigators even get to take part in the raid on Curwen’s farm—and that’s just the beginning! That book is being written by Brian Courtemanche, Dave Hallett, Glyn White, Robert Parker, and myself. The series should start seeing release next year sometime. I’m really looking forward to it; this stuff has been a blast to write.
After the Colonial books, I’m going to start writing and editing Shiva, In Silvered Glass for Miskatonic River Press. This is a Gaslight campaign set in London, and deals with the Trismegistus Club: an organization of mystics, stage magicians, and other weird characters. It begins with the investigators coming upon the scene of a séance in which several people are killed and others are missing or changed.
We’ve also just started taking submissions for Dead But Dreaming 2, the follow-up to the Cthulhu Mythos fiction anthology I edited for Keith and which Miskatonic River Press reprinted last year. The first volume has sold really well and is frequently cited as the best Lovecraftian fiction anthology of the past decade. Miskatonic River Press hopes to get the second volume published later next year.
After that, I’m either going to take a vacation or go insane. Possibly both. Probably at the same time.
For more Cthulhu goodness, make sure to check out Open Design’s own Red Eye of Azathoth, our first ever Cthulhu patron project!
Want to learn more about Our Ladies of Sorrow? Read on…
- Atomic Array: Our Ladies of Sorrow (Atomic Array 033)
- All Games Considered: A More Intimate Horror
- Apathy Blogs: Modern Maidens of Myth
- Critical Hits: Modern Gaming Scary Women
- Gnome Stew: by Matthew Neagley
- Kobold Quarterly: How Would You Stop The Seasons?
- Bartleby: Levana and Our Ladies of Sorrow
Drop by Miskatonic River Press today!