JP On Gaming

Monday, February 23, 2015

Interview with Bret Kramer about the Masks Companion Kickstarter

The Masks of Nyarlathotep, hands down the best RPG campaign ever produced, all games together. It has everything: adventure, pulpy goodness, investigation, B&E, death, and a plot to save the world... if you can.

I was lucky enough to be able to run it three times, each with varying results, but each time it was awesome and fun. Brutal, mind-shattering fun. If you have never played it, find yourself a good GM and play it. Pay the Gm if you have to. You will NOT regret it. Each interation was not only better, but also added to my notes, research, side treks, and handouts. The old school atlas (now over 25 years old) still holds most of that, but it is filled to the brim.

I first "met" Bret Kramer back in 2008-09 on At the time he was looking for fellow GMs to create a companion to the Masks of Nyarlathotep. I told him I would be willing to help and provide some material for the book.

We talked a little and I provided him with a small chapter on Hong Kong, focusing on story elements and the history, focusing on things a Keeper can use to drive the action. After all, everyone of my players had gone there looking for [[Something important]]. Never having had the chance to go to Hong Kong (yet), I spent a lot of time reading about it. There is a lot of material available online.

But enough about me, you (and I) want to know about Bret's kickstarter.

JP Who are you?

BK My name is Bret Kramer. I’m an rpg author and the editor (and sole staff member) for Sentinel Hill Press.

JP How did you get into RPG?

BK Oh man… it must have been 1981 I suppose. My dad picked up a copy of this new game he’d heard a lot about – Dungeons and Dragons, the boxed set with the Sutherland cover. He was gravely disappointed it wasn’t a board game, as he’d assumed, so it set it aside. I was already a fan of the Hobbit (the Rankin Bass one) so it piqued my very young interest. That boxed set vanished off elsewhere so I asked for my own copy, ended up with the Red Box version for Christmas or my birthday in 1982. I’ve been gaming ever since.

JP What is your RPG pedigree?

BK I played at a hobby shop for many years, so I played most of the systems that were out there in from about 1985 to the early 1990s. I’ve always found that a good game master and open-minded group can make most games work. Except TORG, that was rubbish.

Since then I’ve most played Call of Cthulhu, which is where all of my professional work has appeared. My RPG CV is here - Link

I am probably best known for my monograph Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37, my various Shotgun scenario submissions to the Delta Green Mailing List (Link) and most recently the Arkham Gazette, a magazine all about the Lovecraft Country setting for Call of Cthulhu (Link). And the Masks Companion now, hopefully.

JP What is your favorite RPG?

BK Another fun question… the one I’ve played the most would definitely been Call of Cthulhu. It has that blend of history and adventure, plus I’m very fond of games where the players are fighting at a disadvantage, desperate for any chance of winning, rather than just ceaseless monster-bashing. The real world is a fantastic setting for adventure and you can build whole campaigns out of a strategic visit to the library or a couple web sites.

That said, I definitely have a soft-spot for post-apocalyptic games like Gamma World or the Morrow Project, the old WEG version of Star Wars, and old school AD&D. Oh, and Teenagers from Outer Space – that was a lot of fun.

JP Quite simply: Why did you get into a project like this?

BK In the fall of 2006, if memory serves, was having a fund-raising auction and I had the idea that perhaps some of the members there might collaborate and produce a monograph, donating the meager payment ($250) to the site to cover some of the costs of operation. I considered a few options, wanting a project that could attract a larger body of contributors but was also amenable to short articles, rather than longer scenarios or the like.

Earlier Paul Maclean of YSDC had put me in touch with David Conyers, as both of us had been working on separate projects providing background material about Jackson Elias, the macguffin NPC of the whole Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign. We had both become too busy to complete that project, but it inspired me to wonder what might we do if we drew from the vast pool of Keeper knowledge in the running of MoN. That was the nucleus of the idea of the Companion – a collection of Keeper tips based on the experience of YSDC members.

One element I wanted to include was something from my own experience running the campaign – when the players got ahold of the Pnakotic Manuscript, they asked what it was about and I had absolutely no idea. At the time I extrapolated a bit from the short note about the tome in the CoC rulebook. I did some digging, first in my personal library, then at some actual libraries, and found out a bit more about the tome, which I feed to my players a bit at a time, seeding some useful clues into the campaign and giving him some reason to keep on reading the book that took many months of study (and was effectively otherwise useless) that they had worked so hard to get hold of.

JP Who else is involved in this project?

BK Our contributors are numerous and unruly… but very greatly appreciated! Matthew Pook, RPG reviewer extraordinaire, served as an editor for the project and sounding board for me, as well as crafting 27 unique pre-generated characters (all laid out by Jon Potter) and notes on how to replace lost investigators in play. Adam Crossingham, of Sixtystone Press, did the book’s entire layout, quite a task considering the length. Our location overview chapters were by Chad Bowser (Cthulhu Invictus and Cthulhu Dark Ages, coming soon) who did Cairo; Anthony Warren wrote both London and Shanghai (and a masterful take on The Seven Cryptical Books of Hsan among others), JP Chapleau (that’s you!) and Hal Eccles combined efforts on Hong Kong. We have stand-alone scenarios from Don Coatar and Matthew Gregory (and Anthony Warren as well!). Hans-Christian Vortisch provided a whole article on the Shanghai Municipal Police… Keeper’s tips and New York encounters from Mike Czaplinski (He Who Laughs Last)… that’s just the longest bunch of articles! We also had art and maps from Steff Worthington, Chris Spatola, Jani Savolainen, a few from David Lee Ingersoll, a cover by Eric Smith… Let’s just say the cost of contributor copies alone was rather steep. I know I’ve left more than a few people out but I don’t want to turn your site into our credits page. For a full list see this link.

It was a real mix of old and new writers, some of whom have gone on to greater things in RPG writings even while the book was in its slow development. I am eternally grateful for their work and support these past seven or so years.

JP The Companion was originally released for free to the crowd on Why should I pay for it now?

BK There is a practical reason and an altruistic reason. The practical reason is that the book has been fine-tuned since the 0.9 release, corrected, revised, and amended. While most of the content appeared in the earlier book, percentage-wise, we’ve still added a little new material to keep the book fresh and fill in some gaps that persisted. The Kickstarter spells out some of these new bits, like additional information on other certain special military units in Shanghai… each international enclave had its own of course… so give that a look to see specifics. This is also your best chance to actually have the book in print!

As for the altruistic reason – the proceeds of the project, after printing costs, Kickstarter costs, fees to Chaosium, etc, will go to the operation of If you find that site to be a resource, as I do, consider backing this project as a way to fund the site in a concrete way. We actually pointed people towards the YSDC donations box when we released the 0.9 version in 2013 when various difficulties made it seem like a regular release was not possible. I won’t say an exact number, but let us say the ration of donations versus the number of downloads would not buy you a postage stamp. The Companion is a tribute to both the storied Masks campaign as well as to the YSDC community so able fostered by Paul Maclean and all of our members. I have no doubt that Call of Cthulhu would not exist today, as robustly, and as multifacetedly, without that community. Please help keep it going.

JP Why Kickstarter?

BK Simply put, the buy in costs of publishing are simply too high for a small press to take on this project. If it was not successful, it would bankrupt them. A kickstarter protects Sixtystone Press while also helping to keep shipping costs relatively low (thanks to having it printed on demand in the US and UK). It also allows flexibility, since we will print based on demand – which has been excitingly high!

JP Why not publish it through Chaosium?

BK Ultimately MoN is Chaosium’s book and we could not do this without their support, for which we are grateful. They are in the midst of releasing 7th edition still and have just wrapped up (hopefully) the release of Horror on the Orient Express 2.0. Their publishing roster is far too full for a project like this and the costs for them of printing at as a monograph (and the reward for us as mentioned above) was less than ideal. We have discussed how some of the material from the Companion might be incorporated into a future revamp of MoN, but at that is for the future. They will receive, as part of our licensing agreement, a limited number of copies of the Companion for sale, of course.

JP Is there a story behind that?

BK None that I want to get into in any detail. Considering that the late lamented Lynn Willis was still an active staff member there when this project started give you an idea of how long this as been in development.

JP What are the main differences between the original version and the kickstarter?

BK Other than a general improvement in layout and correcting all the devilish typos, there will hopefully be an index! Additionally we are a few bit of additional material that will either be included as part of the Companion or in PDF form to backers:
  -  Chapter by chapter clue sheets by G. Roby
  -  An article on the Japanese Rikusentai (equivalent of marines) and an article about the USMC Leathernecks in China, both by Hans-Christian Vortisch
  -  Ben Patey (who did the recent Masks of N. prop kickstarter) will design the dustcovers of Jackson Elias’s books, the hand-outs for the Cat’s Cradle scenario and a bust of Bast. These will be available as separate add-ons.
  -  I will complete my Jackson Elias introductory scenario “The Smoking Heart”, likely as its own PDF.
  -  An information packet on the Dark Mistress, Sir Aubrey Penhew’s yacht
  -  James Haughton, assuming we break a few more stretch goals, will write up an article on Australian science fiction, especially “lost city” mysteries that hint about the dark secrets of the Great Sandy Desert, a full description of the device of rods and wheels, and “The 1922 Relativity Expedition and the 1925 Anti-Relativity Expedition”. (The theory of relativity was proved in 1922 by an international team deep in the Australian desert. In 1925 a group German academics are there to disprove it).
  -  More items are possible, depending on our stretch goals.

JP An important one: how far along are you with the writing/re-writing?

BK Adam Crossingham would know this best, but we are limiting add ons to expedite the release. The text and layout of the main body of the work is already complete, however. Everyone who backs the project at Carlyle Expedition level (£15) and above immediately get a PDF copy of the 0.9 version immediately upon backing, so hopefully 572 pages of content will keep you going for a little while. I know my bonus scenario “The Smoking Heart” was set aside about 2/3 of the way through the writing process, when I received Don Coatar’s exciting “God of Mitnal”. I’ve just started rereading and revising my piece now, but, making some allowances for my other projects, I want to get that ready as soon as possible.

JP Art. A huge part of a project like this... What part does art play into the project?

BK Well, the bulk of our contributors were authors rather than artists, but we do have some original art. As I mentioned above, we have maps from Steff Worthington (and one map from Secrets of Kenya that David Conyers let us reuse). Chris Spatola did NPC portraits and some item illustrations. Each of our chapter headers was created by Jani Savolainen. Eric Smith, who did art for The Express Diaries, created our cover. David Lee Ingersoll provided us a wonderful illustration of Nyarlathotep and permitted us to use a great Yithian piece- oh and Dennis Detwiller allowed us to reprint his illustration Nyarlathotep #2. [I will send you a link to a dropbox with our illustration)

We also certainly were very fortunate to be able to draw upon a lot of fantastic online period photographs, such as the massive collection at the Library of Congress. Such are the advantages of a game set in the real world!

JP Do you have any links for people wanting to know/see more

BK They should definitely have a look at our Kickstater, if they have not yet. Also, please visit, the web’s premiere site for Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraftian gaming. I have a personal blog (in dire need of an update) at this link as well as a site for my Chaosium licensee Sentinel Hill press at this link. The Arkham Gazette itself, the primary publication of SHP has a G+ and Facebook page as well. Oh and SHP is on twitter too. I’d love some actual human followers there.

JP Will you be making any appearance at major cons to promote the book?

BK Have a lot of familiar obligations that limit my chance to attend cons – hopefully I can get to Necronomicon 2015 and perhaps Origins. Unfortunately I cannot plan anything at this point.

JP Do you have any projects beyond this one in the works?

BK As previously mentioned, I’m the editor of the Arkham Gazette, and we are in the final stages of completing our next issue of that magazine, issue #3 ‘Witches and Witchcraft’. I’m hoping to get a rough draft out to backers soon – see this link for updates. Once that gets a general release, I’ll be moving on to our next issue, the topic of which will be determined by submissions, so long as it is about Lovecraft Country. We have a couple of other projects in development – a sourcebook about New England graveyards would be first – and I have a few other projects I might mention in my blog from time to time, but nothing is set for those, yet.

JP Are you in need of prospective author/artist?

BK Always! I’m very interested in anything for the Lovecraft country setting for the Arkham Gazette, text or art. See here for submission guidelines… those should be updated soon as well. I will post a general solicitation for articles for future issues once we have a draft of issue #3 completed and will definitely let you and your readers know. The only thing we are not in need of is fiction or reviews.

JP How would they get in touch with you?

BK You can contact me at (I’m WinstonP there), via my blogs, on G+ or Facebook, or email at this link. Or use Send Dreams.

JP Any parting words?

BK I’d like to repeat my profound thanks to everyone who helped make the Companion a reality, from writers and artists, to our editors, proof-readers, etc etc. Please consider joining our Kickstarter to receive an amazing product of the love we have for one campaign (and one website).

Additionally, in our small community, I hope that people find the time to reach out to the creators whose works have entertained or touched them over the years. Since we started the Companion, the Call of Cthulhu community (for example) has lost both Lynn Willis and Keith Herber, which highlights the importance, to me, of making sure to share your appreciation with these people while we still can. No one is doing this to get rich, they are doing it because it brings them happiness. If something someone else has made does that for you, tell them.

Thanks for providing me this venue to talk about the project as well!

Wow... I am off to Kickstarter to throw my money at him. I got to have me one of these!

This has funded! So join in for some ASSURE Kickstarter goodness! Your Keeper will reward you for giving this to him... by inflicting insanity and death up on you. And you will love him for it.



1 comment:

  1. Awesome, great conversation!!.I was searching for a new and updated articles on creating a crowdfunding campaign for my project...

    James Morrison