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Lynn Willis
January 19, 2013 8:50 AM   Subscribe

Chaosium has announced the death of Lynn Willis. Willis was creator or co-creator of many boardgames and RPGs, including probably the most influential horror RPG, Call of Cthulhu, and my personal favorite, Ghostbusters. Obituary by Ken Hite.
posted by jiawen (53 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by Faint of Butt at 8:50 AM on January 19, 2013


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posted by graymouser at 8:51 AM on January 19, 2013


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posted by jquinby at 8:53 AM on January 19, 2013


(:-E
posted by Artw at 8:57 AM on January 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


An enthusiastic reader with a wide range of interests, he also helped inaugurate and shape Chaosium's fiction line, which by itself probably saved the company at least once.

I'd say that for better or worse that makes him the person who made Lovecraftian short fiction a ongoing and frequently anthologised subgenre, rather than an occasional favour of horror story.
posted by Artw at 9:04 AM on January 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


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posted by Mezentian at 9:09 AM on January 19, 2013


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posted by Monsieur Caution at 9:11 AM on January 19, 2013


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posted by Sticherbeast at 9:15 AM on January 19, 2013


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posted by tykky at 9:25 AM on January 19, 2013


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Gain 1d6+1 SAN SAD
posted by robocop is bleeding at 9:25 AM on January 19, 2013 [12 favorites]


My archaeologist doffs his hat.

(roll for tears)

He cries.
posted by Etrigan at 9:36 AM on January 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


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posted by jeffkramer at 9:37 AM on January 19, 2013


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posted by The Great Big Mulp at 9:38 AM on January 19, 2013


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posted by Smart Dalek at 9:48 AM on January 19, 2013


In addition to Call of Cthulhu and Ghostbusters, he also co-helmed the excellent adaptation of Michael Moorcock's Elric saga into the game Stormbriger. His rare talent for creating smooth-playing systems no matter what the source material helped elevate the whole RPG genre above hack 'n' slash D&D clones.
posted by Doktor Zed at 10:01 AM on January 19, 2013 [9 favorites]


Call of Cthulhu Designer's Notes by Lynn Willis
posted by Artw at 10:02 AM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Rest in peace, sir -- but if you come back as a zombie, all bets are off.
posted by Pallas Athena at 10:08 AM on January 19, 2013


His rare talent for creating smooth-playing systems no matter what the source material helped elevate the whole RPG genre above hack 'n' slash D&D clones.

I like the sound of both the premise and the minimalist ruleset on his Ghostbusters.
posted by Artw at 10:10 AM on January 19, 2013


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posted by doctornemo at 10:17 AM on January 19, 2013


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posted by immlass at 10:19 AM on January 19, 2013


At least tell me Sandy Peterson's alright.

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posted by Pope Guilty at 10:30 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


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Lynn Wills' influence shambles on.
posted by Loudmax at 10:31 AM on January 19, 2013


At least tell me Sandy Peterson's alright.

He's looking very distinguished.
posted by Artw at 10:48 AM on January 19, 2013


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posted by anansi at 11:00 AM on January 19, 2013


I have little use for most obituary posts. Politicians, celebrities, sports stars... really, who cares?

But there is a thin network of thinkers, of folks who prod the boundaries of the possible and ask themselves, and us, suppose this is true? And they invite us in, to ponder the possibilities that lie over the horizon, over the hills and far away.

Lynn was one of us. A good guy.
posted by SPrintF at 11:01 AM on January 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


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posted by Chichibio at 11:25 AM on January 19, 2013


I've come up with a solution! Quick, somebody reduce the body to its essential salts!

Curwen who? I'm Guilty. Pope Guilty. Really.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:34 AM on January 19, 2013 [8 favorites]


He did Arkham Horror? Oh, shame, good game.
posted by alasdair at 12:24 PM on January 19, 2013


I've been told that I'm one of the few people who still actually likes the original Runequest/Basic Role-Playing inspired Call of Cthulhu rules. It's a surprisingly rules-light system, readily adaptable to improvisation. It is probably my favorite pen-and-paper RPG system right now. Maybe some of the people who were in the Metafilter Call of Cthulhu game I ran last year could chime in here with their opinions?

Each character has like 30 or so skills, which cover a surprising amount of the scope of human endeavor (in addition to RPG standbys like Listen, Spot Hidden, Persuade and of course combat skills) there's also Chemistry and Astronomy and other hard sciences, as well as a variety of languages. But there is no reason a keeper can't make up more on the fly; each skill is a simple number from 0 to 100. Roll beneath the skill on D% to pass. Players are even indirectly encouraged to invent new skills; in the stat blocks of most monsters in the game there are several "joke" skills and scores attached to them, that can be used in play if need be, and such is the wonderful clarity of the rules that you can usually figure out how they work just from the name of the skill.

Character advancement is one of my favorite things about the system. There are no experience points, no levels, no endless treadmill of character improvement; in fact, the longer a character survives the less numerically capable he tends to be, from loss of characteristics and sanity. Instead, if you succeed at using a skill in an important circumstance, or roll 1/5 or less of your skill, you earn an "experience check," a written checkmark beside that skill on your character sheet. At the end of the session, you "roll your checks," which is mechanically identical to making a skill roll except you're trying to fail. If you roll ABOVE your skill, you gain 1D10 (or 1D6 in earlier editions) skill points. You can only ever have one check at a time in a skill, and once you roll the check, you erase it and have to earn a new check to advance again. There, in a nutshell, is the simplest, most useable skill-based RPG system I have ever seen: because you can't get more than one check in a skill and it usually requires an important roll (the keeper determines what's important or not) to earn one players can't "farm" skills to improve them; the skills that are most important to investigators tend to be improved the most over time; and there's a nice balancing of skill growth, since at low skill it's hard to earn checks but easy to earn skill points, and vice versa.

Call of Cthulhu gave players a system in which no one ever gained maximum hit points, 18 was the absolute maximum in human stamina while common weapons (shotguns) did 4D6 of damage, and regaining even small numbers of hit points required long hospital stays. The rules for firearms in particular are amazingly precise and realistic; handguns generally do 1D8 damage, but rolling within 1/5 of your skill triples damage, and players can get off up to three shots per round. Shotguns don't have the damage tripling effect; they just do 4D8! The problem is, enemy cultists are as likely as the players to have guns, turning situation resolution with firearms a recipe for high player causalities. The rules state plainly: "Gunfights are signs the players have made bad decisions." So they are.

Call of Cthulhu is one of a minority of games (many of the others are also Lovecraft-based) that prize investigation as a primary game activity. In D&D and other hack-and-slash fantasy games, roleplaying and discovering facts are usually what tell the players what the quest is, who then go in and do the real work with attack rolls and weapon swings. In Call of Cthulhu, if it comes down to a fight, it's often with an entity with high armor, or sweeping immunities, or can drive the players insane just at the sight of it. The real meat of the game is in the investigation; you do the research in order to discover means of dealing with the problem without fighting, if you can help it, and the actual combat is more like a measure of how well the players have done the legwork beforehand.

There are so many other great touches; the Luck Roll functions as a kind of universal saving throw. The Idea Roll has been criticized as being a "roll to advance the story" mechanic, but I find it an excellent tool for giving stuck players a nudge in the right direction. And the rules are the clearest, best-written RPG rules I have ever seen, obviously written by someone with a great appreciation for the English language. (This is better in earlier editions; later ones harm the prose a little with their attempts to cover piddling cases, and annoying font choices.)

This is the second great death the CoC community has suffered; the first was Keith "Doc" Herber, who wrote many classic adventures in addition to the awesome sourcebook on Arkham. Now the co-creator of the game has passed. I'm keeping my fingers crossed on behalf of Petersen. (Minor asides: Did you know that Sandy Petersen also worked on the computer game Doom? Or that he's a Mormon?)
posted by JHarris at 12:41 PM on January 19, 2013 [21 favorites]


The younger generation of gamers is here. I hope that the genre is passed on...
posted by Chuffy at 1:06 PM on January 19, 2013


Somebody asked Sandy Peterson if his being a Mormon bothered him when he was working on the demon-filled Doom. His response was something to the effect of "You know the demons are the bad guys, right?"
posted by Pope Guilty at 1:06 PM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


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posted by newdaddy at 1:13 PM on January 19, 2013


Just the other day I was thinking about how much fun I had with the original BRP and the "Worlds of Wonder" box. Thanks, Lynn.
posted by maurice at 1:21 PM on January 19, 2013


The Chaosium RPGs were probably the reason my high school gaming group graduated to a more mature style of gaming rather than finding other things to do with our time. I feel like many of the mechanics are rather obsolete today (the Gumshoe system has, to my mind, revolutionized investigation-style RPGs), but one would expect progress in the last three decades. In a very real way, Willis was a major reason why I still play RPGs. So my hat is off to you, Mr. Willis.
posted by GenjiandProust at 1:55 PM on January 19, 2013


His wargames Godsfire, Holy War, and Bloodtree Rebellion are classics. He will be missed.
posted by Nyrath at 2:50 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


But there is no reason a keeper can't make up more on the fly; each skill is a simple number from 0 to 100. Roll beneath the skill on D% to pass. Players are even indirectly encouraged to invent new skills; in the stat blocks of most monsters in the game there are several "joke" skills and scores attached to them, that can be used in play if need be, and such is the wonderful clarity of the rules that you can usually figure out how they work just from the name of the skill.

Huh. I thought Unknown Armies invented that mechanic.

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posted by Charlemagne In Sweatpants at 2:53 PM on January 19, 2013


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posted by belarius at 3:30 PM on January 19, 2013


His legacy leaves me in awe, and I'm a games industry professional.

If you had to point the finger at the person responsible for Cthulhu being almost a household word today, Lynn Willis might not be the one you were aiming at but he would certainly be in the blast radius.

Ghostbusters is an amazing RPG. It bucked pretty much every industry trend going—including the one about licensed RPGs being awful—and introduced innovations in design that are still used today. It earned a place in the book Hobby Games: The 100 Best, and I'm proud to say that I was the guy who put it there.
posted by Hogshead at 3:41 PM on January 19, 2013 [4 favorites]


Particularly, the "brownie points" used in Ghostbusters surfaced semi-recently as "perversity points" in Mongoose's revival of Paranoia.
posted by JHarris at 3:56 PM on January 19, 2013


I'd say that for better or worse that makes him the person who made Lovecraftian short fiction a ongoing and frequently anthologised subgenre,

is just not correct. That would be August Derleth.

But I loved the game Call of Cthulhu - particularly the inevitable and unstoppable path to madness built into the rules for each character...
posted by lupus_yonderboy at 4:13 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I've been told that I'm one of the few people who still actually likes the original Runequest/Basic Role-Playing inspired Call of Cthulhu rules. It's a surprisingly rules-light system, readily adaptable to improvisation. It is probably my favorite pen-and-paper RPG system right now. Maybe some of the people who were in the Metafilter Call of Cthulhu game I ran last year could chime in here with their opinions?

Nah, BRP is a fantastic system; and I say that as a big fan of more modern games like 4e D&D. Flexible, fast, evocative. Also deadly as buggery; we played a oneshot Elric game and my four players got through seven characters between them. IIRC, there was a 50% chance of dying when you went up a level as a sorcerer in that game. Hardcore.
posted by Sebmojo at 4:26 PM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]


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posted by porpoise at 4:34 PM on January 19, 2013


is just not correct. That would be August Derleth.

Arguably, but Arkham House's profile was pretty flat by the 80s, and they only did so many collections of Lovecraft, Derleth (generally awful) and others (mixed bag) - the Chaosium RPG and collections kicked it up considerably.
posted by Artw at 4:37 PM on January 19, 2013


(Also acceptable as an answer: Robert M. Price)
posted by Artw at 4:44 PM on January 19, 2013


Maybe some of the people who were in the Metafilter Call of Cthulhu game I ran last year could chime in here with their opinions?

Your summoning succeeds.

I really enjoyed that game, and I quite liked the rules we played with. It was flexible enough to allow you to play the characters as you conceptualized them. Any time you couldn't do something it was the character's own limits of skill, attitude and experience that was to blame, and never the sort of "your character type can't do X" that so annoys me about some games.

The investigation/combat balance was nice, too: unlike many games, you can really feel like combat is something to be avoided if at all possible without feeling like you're not moving forward. I think a game could actually feel quite complete without ever actually fighting a monster, which certainly wouldn't be true of a D&D campaign. In the MeFi game, I did not want to be in combat, and wanted to kick myself for getting into the situation.

That said, the combat was close and not to be taken lightly but not an automatic killer. One thing I think is worth pointing out is that I don't see how any character ever gets to the point where they could take combat lightly. I see that as a good thing: you never end up with enough hit points to laugh at a dagger to the stomach. Things like the immunities do shift the parameters somewhat, though: you have to make different sorts of combat decisions. I recall that I could be pretty damned sure of hitting my opponent with just about every shot, but had no idea if I should maybe run instead, because it might be impervious to bullets.

The sanity track sounds like a real negative but even that wasn't that bad. My own character was merrily moving down the road to insanity while being utterly convinced that she was heading in the right direction. By any objective standard her life was probably worse off, but she was pleased as punch with herself. She may have even broken even on sanity points, but was definitely a bit off-kilter.

The "idea" rolls could be used as crutch, sure, but mostly, I think, it gives the GM a fairly subtle, but defined, way to keep the characters on track. You could run a game without them, but you'd waste a lot of time on dead ends.

So, all in all, I was very happy with that set of rules. I admit, though, that I generally prefer fairly open systems like this to ones where there's not as much discretion, so other people's mileage may vary.
posted by tyllwin at 6:17 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I hate that it so often takes an obit for these wonderful celebratory posts happen. They really need to start warning us a couple of weeks in advance before someone dies, so we can talk about a person's work while they're still with us.
posted by JHarris at 6:18 PM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm glad you enjoyed it! I'd like to do it again sometime, but looking for work and stuff are pretty consuming right now. We couldn't have done it, of course, without Willis' work. (pouring out a cup of space mead in his honor)
posted by JHarris at 6:26 PM on January 19, 2013


The State of the Tentacle, 2013
posted by Artw at 7:00 PM on January 19, 2013


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One of my favourit games, and one my group discovered pretty much by accident. A damn fine one for introducing new people to the hobby with as well.
posted by Canageek at 7:58 PM on January 19, 2013


JHarris, I like the skill based advancement games better than the level based ones, but it sometimes require a bit more thought from the GM to balance difficulty against a diverse set of players.
posted by BrotherCaine at 9:25 PM on January 19, 2013


I hate that it so often takes an obit for these wonderful celebratory posts happen. They really need to start warning us a couple of weeks in advance before someone dies, so we can talk about a person's work while they're still with us.

It would be really creepy if the guy in the OP showed up.
posted by Pope Guilty at 11:49 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]


Creepy, but in this case, thematically appropriate.
posted by JHarris at 12:52 AM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


I'm not a big fan of Call of Cthulhu, but I have to acknoledge how influential it's been. And Ghostbusters? It spawned an entirely different style of game rules, that influenced the entire indie movement. there's very few games out there now that don't owe a debt to Ghostbusters.

Lynn Willis left a hell of a legacy- modern gaming as a whole.
posted by happyroach at 2:46 AM on January 20, 2013 [1 favorite]


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