Call of Cthulhu: Iconoclasts

iconoclastsA group of useful idiots from the West have journeyed to war-torn Iraq in search of power and fame as soldiers of ISIS. Barely speaking the local language, they are used as pawns and propaganda tools. Their latest mission seems like a cakewalk – search an old man’s mansion for possible hidden antiquities and artifacts. The man is unarmed, assisted by a few servants, one of whom is an informant for ISIS. Ancient artifacts can be sold on the black market or smashed on video for propaganda, both valuable to the terrorist organization. Little do they realize that some artifacts are not meant to be sold or broken.

This game was recorded at Gen Con 2015 in an open gaming room, so there will be background noise. Sorry!

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  1. Loved it! Not only for the obvious Glancy-runs-Delta Green thing, but for the interesting psychology of guys who ordinarily don’t blink an eye at playing hardass bad guys getting all worked up over playing loser ISIS propaganda kids.

  2. I like CoC scenarios in which the investigators are all nasty people who thoroughly deserve the fate in store for them.

    Spoiler if you haven’t listened yet, but — I think the Father of Knives is one of the scariest new monsters I’ve heard of in a long while. Great name, great concept, great backstory — well done, Glancy.

  3. This was a special treat. My favorite thing was looking at the time and seeing there was 40 minutes left and you guys had yet to off anyone and then those last 40 minutes… by god! Father of Knives is awesome and creepy and I love it! And the info about the prehistoric obsidian industry, I’m floored by the cool stuff I learn in Glancy games.

  4. This is a fantastic episode. Even by Glancy-run standards.

    The monster was creepy as all hell and will be thrown at my regular table group and likely at my Con players next month.

  5. Really cool concepts and twists, Glancy does historical connections so well.

    About playing IS fighters: as cool as operation black dolphin was, Calebs character kills a bunch of teenagers with an IED and neither he nor his character seems to have any problem with this which really surprised me, even more in contrast with this LP.

  6. That was a really cool episode. Do you guys intend to play the scenario that Glancy mentioned? That sounds really interesting

  7. Morality, like offense, is relative. I was killing a bunch of teenagers in thrall to a vampire conspiracy that had tried to kill my character multiple times. There were many layers of knowledge, both in and out of character, between the game and actual violence. There were layers in Glancy’s game as well, but none that my character knew. He knew he was ISIS, knew what ISIS did, and had no conception of the mythos. Out-of-character, I knew the character would likely die horribly, but that was the only thing separating me from the conscience decision to play such a character.

    Like the game where Tom had us playing Nazi spies, I’m uncomfortable with that little distance between a bad character and the person portraying it. This is not because I question my own morality or intentions; I am keenly aware of how others do not share the same trust I have in myself. Offense does not have to be intended to be taken, nor are the circumstances of what caused the offense debatable.

    So I love Glancy, and it was a great game that ultimately satisfied every definition of Gardner’s “moral fiction,” but I was initially skeptical for those reasons.

  8. I’m pretty much of the same mind as Caleb on this, if maybe for different reasons, and it’s part why I haven’t jumped on this AP yet (the other side of it being that it’s a con game and the background noise being really deleterious to my enjoyment of sessions).

    There’s lines in play here between what Western culture has ingrained as acceptable violence (and of course the relative morality of a do or die or self defense scenario, which can quite handily shift what counts as transgressive or reprehensible violence), the classic PC mentality, the ISIS issue in question, and I’d say Nazis as well.

    Murderhobos don’t push the same buttons, at least if the players aren’t being juvenile and edgy, because there is an instant line of separation inherent to the behavior: this is a game, these people aren’t real, I’m just doing it for shits and giggles and for the loot/xp. You don’t (usually) feel bad for the tigerzebras in an MMO when you kill them for their 10% drop spleens for a quest. There has to be an effort to humanize for it to have a chance to push past this.

    Nazis kind of blur the line, because we’re pushing on 80 years since, and while the atrocities are real and still felt to various degrees, they aren’t quite so immediate by now. There’s almost an air of fiction to them now for the people who’ve been born these last few decades, partly as a result of them being handy shorthand in various media for disposable badguys.

    ISIS, on the other hand, is very real right now, very nasty, and very much against conventional or base Western morality. Unless there’s something there to mitigate it, playing an ISIS member can be uncomfortable for many, especially if the character is willing and there out of their free will, believing in it. It punches through the defensive, separating layer of fiction by the sheer unpleasant realness of it. You’re not playing a hero, a good guy, an affable guy, or even a morally grey character, not in name, function or detail. You are not the protagonist of a story. You are playing a real world terrorist with seriously questionable worldviews, actions and…well, generally everything.

  9. See, I always try to make a horrible investigator when I hear “Cthulhu One-shot.” It’s kind of cathartic to drive someone right into the hands of madness and death. Though I will say I try to keep them alive, just within the bounds of their own horribleness.

  10. “This is not because I question my own morality or intentions; I am keenly aware of how others do not share the same trust I have in myself. Offense does not have to be intended to be taken, nor are the circumstances of what caused the offense debatable.”

    An understandable reaction. Me, now, I care less about that sort of thing. RPG’s and acting have a lot of commonalities, and anyone who gets mad at an actor portraying a bad guy…..ah well. Different strokes/folks, etc.

    Anyways, the setting was interesting and I’d even say unique, the characters more suitable for pity than burning at the stake, and the only false note in the whole thing for me is the by now routine tossing of CoC plot down the toilet in a race to see who will get killed first or who will go insane first.

  11. @Ross

    We need the names of those metal bands. Couldn’t hear them for the din. But I know in my soul that I need to hear them.

  12. “RPG’s and acting have a lot of commonalities, and anyone who gets mad at an actor portraying a bad guy…..ah well. Different strokes/folks, etc.”

    That’s completely true, but an actor portraying Dracula on a Saturday Morning cartoon can ham it up and get into character as much as he wants (bring on the terrible blood puns!). An actor playing Mengele or bin Laden or Pol Pot in any serious production that isn’t a shock-jock-comedy had better be ready to give a more nuanced performance.

  13. @Fridrik I’m pretty sure he was talking about Laibach, the guys mentioned here
    On the topic of the game, absolutely loved it, and I can see why Caleb went in a little worried about the game. If I sat down at a con and got handed a character sheet while being told “Your character is a fighter with ISIS” I’d be more than a little worried myself

  14. Yeah – this is the kind of thing that gets a lot of flak from people who just don’t get it from every part of the spectrum, and for every reason. From “turrurrism isn’t no joke or no game, that’s mighty hurtful to everyone who’s died” to “offensive portrayal of ethnic minorities”. While the characters themselves are rather simple douchebags, this is a complicated kind of evil being portrayed. Few people think it’s wrong for someone to fight for their heritage or their culture, which is what ISIS claims it does and part of what motivates people to join it. The reality is that the PCs, like most Westerners who go to join ISIS, have much baser motives (women, power, cred, and getting taken seriously by their parents), and ISIS itself destroys the heritage and culture of the peoples who live in the territory it controls. On the flipside, they’re not actually the most serious power in the Middle East (at the moment most people acknowledge Iran as stronger and more likely to wind up dominating the region), and by being so evil, they give people who would promote some broader negative stereotypes something to hold up as evidence. They’re one of the few completely black hats in a land with many, many grey hats.

  15. Based on the site’s comments in general, I’d like to think the average RPPR listener is not going to foam at the mouth and throw kneejerk reactions at an interesting thing, even if it is out of some people’s comfort zone.

  16. Even though I didn’t have anything like the reaction that Caleb was talking about, I cant totally understand the issue we’re discussing here. I wouldn’t bat an eye at playing an “evil campaign” in D&D where we’re all cultists and warlords trying to blow up the world for evil gods. But if my GM said, “In tonight’s scenario, you’re all Catholic priests who’ve molested boys, and this game takes place at the ‘rehabilitation retreat’ you’ve been sent to,” uh……yeah, I’m not sure I’d want to play that game. I’d have to really think about it.

    Gaming, especially in established story genres like fantasy or sci-fi, often lets us confront moral issues with a high degree of displacement and distance. The classic example is always-evil orcs who it’s okay to rob and kill, who are partially proxies for the way our culture used to treat Native Americans and other subjects of colonial oppression. But games set in the “real world” like Delta Green can sometimes break down that distance, by involving actual real horrors. That can be quite jarring. But on the other hand, sometimes it can give us a great opportunity to examine those horrors through a new lens.

  17. damn militant atheist glass shoggoths

  18. I found a lot of the discomfort regarding ISIS vanished the moment it was clear that the characters were – at their heart – simply a pile of suppurating douchbags, and the ISIS aspect was almost secondary; they were simply generic gangsters hustling a wealthy geezer in their territory, which just happened to be the middle east.

    The fact that they were utterly incompetent was the icing on the failure-cake. It was like a lovecraftian frat-hazing.

  19. DAT ENDING. What a brilliant setup.

  20. I loved this setup. And even though many of the players had their characters “racing towards death,” their characters behaviour seemed mostly plausible for a bunch of overconfident/uncautious ISIS goons. I just wish Caleb had gotten the data out (apparently you CAN stop the signal).

  21. Another great ASG podcast with a great group of players.

    Audio quality was 80-90% listenable and it increased in clarity as con goers left.

    Loved (and was disturbed by) the historical accuracy.

    This was a neat twist on the “haunted house” concept, and an interesting contrast to The Haunting as an introductory adventure.

    I have to credit the writer for putting in the mechanics of a language barrier and placing the adventure in a foreign setting (to most players). These elements strongly emphasize the feeling of “other” and creepiness. This is really driven home when players are failing or marginally succeeding at their language rolls to understand conversations and thus have to rely on the NPCs gesticulations and overt pantomimes of friendliness to interpret what to do next and determine who is friend or foe. Listening to this reminded me of situations where I’ve traveled to countries where I am not a native speaker. I re-experienced the unnerving sense of internal constant watchfulness and low grade stress you have when relying on strangers and you are trying to navigate an unfamiliar place as a dumb tourist. It also dredged up memories of difficulties of depending on body language when trying to communicate with a dear relative with whom there is a language barrier. Outstanding.

    The pool filled with sand seemed like a little too obvious of a clue for players; but in a convention game, or as we found out, an abbreviated introductory scenario to a longer campaign, that does make the scenario clear and short.
    With regards to the players required to play despicable characters (ISIS flunkies), this was an edgy choice and for several reasons it works in this adventure’s context.
    First of all I remember a little adventure called In Media Res when I was but a wee lad and purchased one of my first Unspeakable Oaths (by Pagan Publishing). I was very excited to have a new adventure that did not start with a relative dying.

    After a through read, I solemnly sliced the adventure out of the book with scissors and walked down the street to dispose of the pages in a neighbor’s trash. This was to ensure that a religious relative didn’t accidently come across the adventure and shut down my roleplaying activities entirely. Without spoiling too much, let’s just say some of the provided player characters are happy serial killers and the adventure gets more exceptionally detailed from there. The fact that I can remember the title after more than a decade should give some hint as to the impression it made on me. Since I assume that ASG was part of the original Pagan Publishing group he is no stranger to making players uncomfortable by immediately throwing them a detestable backstory and saying “Action!” while grinning like a maniac.

    There is a functional reason for doing this. Things like making players take on a role that makes them uncomfortable (but not repulsing them), making communication difficult with strangers by way of plot and mechanics, and setting an adventure in a foreign environ which then forces the players to listen carefully to the Keeper’s descriptions, all contribute to and compound with each other to make a player experience disquiet. It perceptibly raises the tension in the room and allows for a satisfying climax when the cosmic horror is revealed.

    The second payoff to having player roleplay historical bastards is to emphasize how petty human evil (and by extension, human ideology in general) is in contrast to cosmic forces like the Mythos. Lovecraft used this technique in The Temple. Altberg, a lieutenant-commander of a German submarine in WWI, shoots enemy lifeboats and casually commits other atrocities, and even he, despite his “superior German breeding” which is endlessly repeated, succumbs to and is proven utterly impotent by the powers of the Mythos.

    Third, the destruction of the ISIS benchwarmers by Mythos powers after a couple hours of play may make a player a little disappointed that their character died. If the player then recoils from the fact that they are having a moment of sympathy for a villain, this again adds to the player’s disquiet and so much the better. Sympathy for the Devil is emotionally conflicting.

    The Father of Knives as a new Mask of N is a fantastic unique idea that fits in perfectly with the Mythos. I didn’t know there was mass production of obsidian blades in prehistoric times. It reminds me of the McCarthy line “War was always here. Before man was, war waited for him. The ultimate trade awaiting its ultimate practitioner.” I always appreciate it when an author goes back to the primal for a Call of Cthulhu idea like Caleb did in Preemptive Revenge and Wives of March.

    Tangentially, this made me think “what if this factory of obsidian blades was used for extermination of other members of the human genus like Neanderthal?” What lies did Nyarlathotep whisper to the doomed species? What pacts did our primordial ancestors make with that mocking being that will come due in modern times? There is a story there somewhere.

    Lastly, the revelation that this adventure is found footage is very cool and a great way to immediately invest the players in the subsequent campaign. Particularly if they are feeling guilty that they opened the box.

  22. Twisting H- wow, that was a lot of text. 🙂

    I approached this one with a little skepticism that it would be a good scenario, considering the story subject. I was wrong, it was a great scenario, with a very interesting setup/backstory/npc/monster/conclusion.

    Awesome one, Glancy, and all the players!

  23. Twisting H- I have no doubt that John Tynes, the author of In Media Res will greatly appreciate the story of your excising his scenario, and I compliment your good tradecraft in disposing of it in the neighbor’s trash. I will pass it on at our next meeting.

  24. Love this AP, love the ending & as many other convention games, really enjoyed hearing how some of the others went. Also I for one would enjoy seeing more games like this (on the nature of the scenario how it goes with other ones…not trying to spoil it). Always pondered the idea of doing that & seems that the idea works pretty damn well. Nicely run game everyone!!

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