Wednesday, October 29, 2008

My Children!

Back in April I shared some old photos of props I'd made over ten years ago and sold on Ebay. At the time I was heavily involved with a murder mystery dinner theater company and an associated Cthulhu LARP. As soon as we were done using a prop I usually sold it to help fund the production of even more props.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered that there's a photo set from Eric Augustson up on Flickr featuring some of those items. Keep in mind that these pictures were taken back when most people were still using dial-up internet services, so they're shockingly small compared to the kind of bandwidth devouring shots I post these days. Here's a sampling from the set:

The R'lyeh Tablet. Sculpey over armature wire with an inset glass gem. This is the front side.

A close-up showing the Elder Sign under the glass.

The back side of the tablet. I used a metallic green blend of Sculpey for the tablet and then coated it with about ten layers of clear acrylic. It wasn't until I was done that I realized it was so slick there was a good chance anyone handling it was going to drop it.

One of my "Ammonite" style Cthulhu idols. I still use this basic pattern with Cthulhu's head flowing out of a seashell shape because I think it looks interesting. The traditional "fat squid sitting on rock" depiction of Cthulhu is great, don't get me wrong, but I've always liked alternate interpretations.

If memory serves, the distance between the single eye in front and the back of the coiled seashell shape was only about 2 1/2 inches. This particular idol was an insanely detailed mass of tentacles.

From the front.

A faux-coral Cthulhu statuette. It took hours to create the thousands of pores in it using a tool crafted from toothpicks and a rubber band.

A copy of the Ponape Scriptures. The cover was finished in the faux-leather technique David Lowe used in his "creepy books" tutorial I linked to last month. The cover embellishment is a large glass gem surrounded by a Sculpey adornment.

A tribal-style Cthulhu sigil I came up with while fooling around with the Tattooz1 dingbat font. Most of the graphics in this particular book were created using combinations of characters in that font.

Check out the rest of the pictures in the set. You won't have the wave of nostalgia I had looking at them, but there's some interesting stuff to look at.

"At the Mountains of Madness" Elder Thing

The "At the Mountains of Madness" project continues to plod along.

The latest prop photograph I've been working on is a shot of one of the Elder Things. Someone with mad Photoshop skills could probably bang it out in a couple of hours, but that someone definitely ain't me. Nonetheless, I'm pretty happy with how it's progressing. Here's a shot of what I have so far:

The shading and contrast between the various elements still needs work, and there are quite a few things yet to be added, but it's slowly coming along.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Another "At the Mountains of Madness" Prop Photo

Technically, there's no way this photo could have been taken, but I'm still inordinately proud of it.

Sigil Of The All Seeing Eye

This is another graphic for dressing-up your occult documents and such, the "Sigil of the All Seeing Eye". As always, click through for the full sized version.

Sunday, October 26, 2008

This Week's Crass Commercialism, Featuring Miskatonic Madness!

I'm an idiot.

I was planning on tossing the last of the Miskatonic expedition patches up on Ebay tonight, but while I was revising the listing I learned my feeble feedback of "7" isn't high enough for a Dutch auction. Bleh. I didn't even think to check that ahead of time.

On the bright side, I finally replaced my horrible scanner shot of the patch with some much better pictures featuring some of my other ATMOM props. I still suck as a photographer, but I think the documents and items I've collected look pretty cool like this.

Clockwise from top left we have a brass surveyor's transit (meant to duplicate the one in the photo directly below it), Lake's preliminary sketch and notes on the anatomy of the Elder Things, a brass solar compass, 1914 pattern brass binoculars, three core samples from Pabodie's drilling rig, a navigator's compass, a photo of one of the dog teams transporting part of the drilling equipment, two crinoid fossils, a photograph of two expedition members taking solar readings, and another photo of one of the dog teams. Underneath everything is my aged and weathered period map of Antarctica.

If you'd like to create a similar display you'll find most of what you need right here. The photo's featured in the above layout are over here, while there's another set here. I haven't posted my 1920's era Antarctica map, but I do have an engraved map from 1855 that would make an awesome background for a shadowbox display. And, of course, you can buy a Miskatonic patch over here, or find it, along with a copy of my "Contact Deep Ones" scroll, on Ebay.

If you like the display make sure you stop by during the week. I have something I think you're really going to like.

Insanely Great Zombie Makeup

Nomad over at the FXLab forum has posted a tutorial on how to create some amazing zombie makeup. What makes it even more impressive is that it's done mostly with off-the-shelf materials like plastic wrap, available at any grocery store, and liquid latex, found in the molding and sculpture sections of most craft stores.

I've been experimenting with prop photos created using makeup and costumes, so this jumped right out at me when I saw it.

Saturday, October 25, 2008

Another Arcane Circle

This is another embellishment you can use to dress up your occult documents. It's either an arcane circle or a diagram of some kind of astronomical clock. I'm not sure which. As always, click through for the full-sized version.

Friday, October 24, 2008

Aging Metal

Risachantag over at Deviant Art has a great tutorial on creating realistic metal finishes on props. It's aimed at the cosplay/anime crowd, but the technique is applicable to anything that needs to look of real metal.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Miskatonic Patch, Part Deux

I'm going to be doing another run of Miskatonic expedition patches in time for Christmas, but I still have a few left over that I'm going to be offering here until Sunday the 26th. Anything left after that I'm going to toss up on Ebay.

If you're a collector this is going to be the last time you'll be able to buy the original version of the patch. Based on your feedback there will be a few changes to the design for the next run and I'll be using a different company to actually produce them. I should have samples up by the middle of November and actual patches available in early December.

More "At the Mountains of Madness" Prop Photos

Here are some more shots you can use as relics of the original Miskatonic expedition. I love photos like this for two reasons. First, they're cool. With a little physical weathering and a spritz of tea they become a convincing peek into what the day to day life of the expedition was like. Second, they're cheap. With digital prints costing about 15 cents you can put together an entire album of material for the price of a cup of coffee.

As always, click through on the pictures for the full-sized versions.

Wednesday, October 22, 2008

Master Of The Art

One of the things I've been trying to accomplish with my Call of Cthulhu props is a heightened sense of realism for players. Because of the relatively short time-frame of most scenarios both the tabletop and LARP styles of play have inherent problems when it comes to drawing players into the story. Props help alleviate that issue by providing a more immersive experience that helps ground the fantastic events of the story in a real world populated by real people.

That's not something unique to CoC, of course. It's the whole reason there's an entire industry busy providing props for films and theater. One of the masters of the art is Ross MacDonald, who helpfully provides an incredible look at some of the props he's produced at his website. You've probably seen his work before without even realizing it in films like "National Treasure: Book of Secrets", "Van Helsing", and "Zorro".

You'll find some amazing work over there, but I think the "Book of Secrets" and "Frankenstein's Diary" would be of particular interest. The level of detail and artistry is both inspiring and intimidating.

Friday, October 17, 2008

Period Missing Poster

It's not unusual for investigators to be looking for a missing person in a Call of Cthulhu scenario, but I was surprised to learn that the use of missing posters goes back well into the 19th century. Here's what one from the classic CoC era looks like:

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Making a Deep One

Okay, not exactly a "Deep One", but the latest backyard effects feature from IndyMogul does involve making a suprisingly effective Fish Man on a budget. (Via Lost in Schlock.)

The black and white footage at the end demonstrates that their technique has some real possibilities, particularly if you have the time to produce some prop photographs. Return to Innsmouth, anyone?

Autopsy Diagrams

This was posted at Yog-Sothoth a while ago, but I just came across it again while doing another search. It's a selection of autopsy related forms and diagrams from the Armed Forces Institute of Pathology. Just the thing to jazz up that mysterious death your investigators are looking into.

Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Ship Profiles and Deckplans

Considering how many CoC scenarios are tied to the sea it's surprising there aren't more resources describing ships from the 1920's. Here are a couple of scans of exactly that. The smaller ones are just profiles, but the largest is the full profile and deckplan from a period freighter working the lumber trade.

As always, click on the pictures here for the full sized version. I haven't cleaned these up at all so you may want to do a little retouching.

Monday, October 13, 2008

More Poison Labels

I've been on a jag for the last week or so collecting vintage labels for my Halloween display. While they don't have the allure of tentacles and ichor a couple of these can turn a bottle off your shelf into a great prop.

Vintage Poison Label:

Vintage Spanish Poison Label:

Sunday, October 12, 2008

This Week's Crass Commercialism

I have two items up on Ebay this week: one of the "Miskatonic University Antarctic Expedition" patches and a copy of the "Ponape Scriptures Scroll" I was working on last week. You can find my Ebay listings here.

If you like the scroll you can download the "Seal of Dagon" from it over here.


Saturday, October 11, 2008

"Thing in a Jar" Tutorial

Baron Von Fogel has put together an excellent tutorial on creating extremely realistic things in a jar at the IndyMogul forums. While it's intended for use by low-budget filmmakers it doesn't take much imagination to see how they could be adapted to produce some incredible "Call of Cthulhu" props.

Thursday, October 9, 2008

"At the Mountains of Madness" Antarctic Map

When I first had the idea for the Miskatonic Antarctic Expedition patches I was worried that the things would never sell and I'd be out a couple of hundred bucks when all was said and done. Luckily, that project turned out to be a huge success. This is what I'd like to do as a follow up:

Here's a closeup of the area roughly marked in red. Considering this is an area of about 1.5" by 2.5" on the original the hand engraved details are simply amazing. Click through on the thumbnail to see the full version:

It's a 17.5" x 22.5" map of Antarctica based on the one done by John Bartholomew for the 1922 "Times Survey Atlas of the World". Original copies of the map can be found on Ebay for anywhere from $30-$60 depending on condition, which is how I obtained mine. There's even a reproduction available from Euriskodata, a great Ebay seller that offers incredible collections of public domain books on CD that would be of interest to "Call of Cthulhu" players. You can view his listing for the map here. It's priced at just $9.99, which is very reasonable, but it does have the drawback of being a direct scan with a very visible fold line running down the middle of the map. That said, it's still a great prop as-is for anyone running "Beyond the Mountains of Madness".

My version is based on the same source map, but with the resulting scan cleaned up and the fold line down the middle of the original removed. Over the next couple of days I'll be getting some figures on how much it's going to cost to do a limited run and deciding if it's economically justifiable. Again, I want to emphasize that my whole goal is to make affordable props for "Call of Cthulhu" gamers. To me that means $10 or less. At this point I know I can produce copies for $15 using an on-demand printer with a large-format plotter. Going through a traditional printer would bring the cost down under the $10 price point, but it's also going to require a pretty substantial initial investment that I have some doubts about earning back.

Since you're the target customer, what do you think? If I can offer the cleaned up map for around $7-$9 plus shipping would you be interested? Would you prefer it plain, as pictured above, or would you find one stamped "Property Miskatonic University Antarctic Expedition" more collectible? Please leave a comment or send me an email with your thoughts.

Update: From the feedback I've received so far it looks like there's some definite interest in a map, but not enough to justify an actual print run. From the email conversations I've had people would prefer a heavily themed ATMOM map (Misktonic ownership stamp, scribbled notes, actual plot of story locations) over a plain version, so I'll see about offering something along those lines sometime in the future.

Update: A PDF file of the map is now available at Scribd. Keep in mind that it's 89 megs in size, so it will likely take some time to download.

I Give You...Cthulhu!

Well, I'm not the one giving it to you, but I do have a link to a cool little papercraft Cthulhu model from One Monk Miniatures.

They also have hundreds of other paper miniatures for your tabletop including about two dozen additional freebies. I like the "Deep Ones" set in particular.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Arcane Circle

Nothing fancy today, just an arcane circle you can use to dress up your blasphemous tome or scroll. As always, just click through for the full sized version.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

If At First You Don't Succeed, Part Four

The saga continues! You can see the first three parts of project here: Part One, Part Deux, Part Three.

My walnut ink crystals finally arrived, so it's time to tackle aging my paper. The crystals themselves are a fine, black granular powder that reminds me of the instant tea powder I've used to acid age documents in the past. The difference being, at least if the tutorial pages I linked to earlier are accurate, that the ink produced when you mix the crystals with water is actually a brown dye instead of the tannic acid solution produced by tea.

After mixing a heaping tablespoon of the crystals with two cups of warm water I waited the recommended half hour and then started the aging process. Most of the tutorials I've seen for aging paper use a shallow baking pan to hold the aging solution, but I prefer to do the entire process on a glass cutting board with a pebbled texture. I saturate a sponge with the walnut ink and then swab down the cutting board with it to create a layer of liquid on the glass. Then I carefully lay my paper, in this case a 12 x 18 sheet of heavyweight drawing paper, on the sheet.

As the fibers in the paper begin to absorb the ink already on the glass I use my sponge to dampen the top of the paper. Once the sheet is fully saturated I carefully lift it off the glass and then re-apply it so that it "sticks" to the glass, using the sponge to press out any air bubbles trapped under the paper. When I'm done with this step I have a smooth sheet of wet paper that is effectively molded to the glass sheet.

See that excess liquid in the lower left hand corner? After taking this picture I went around the paper and sponged all that extra ink up. Then I walked away for a half hour and let osmosis and surface tension distribute the ink across the paper while it began to dry.

When I came back the paper was still damp, but well on the way to drying out. At this stage I did the final grunging of the sheet, splattering it with some fine droplets of bleach and a sprinkling of ink crystals. I didn't snap any pictures of this step, being leery of handling a camera with water, bleach, and fine ink crystals on my gloves, but the results looked terrible. All blotchy and nasty looking. Trust me, this is normal and nothing to worry about- as the paper dries those nasty variations will naturally tone down. After finishing the grunging treatment I went to bed, leaving the paper to dry overnight.

The next morning, this was the result:

I liked it. I liked it a lot. The paper had a wonderful mottled appearance with specks of faux-foxing from the ink crystals, while the edges of the sheet had an absolutely perfect oxidation effect from the ink being wicked there while the sheet dried. I'm so happy with that edge treatment that I'm not going to go through with the deckled finish I had planned on earlier.

Before I run the sheet through the printer I do have to do a little prep work. First, I use a stiff brush to remove any paper or ink residue from the surface of the paper. Then I use the steam from a tea kettle to lightly dampen the paper and press it under some books to make sure it's flat and won't jam on the way through. After all that I finally print out my scroll for summoning Deep Ones:

Monday, October 6, 2008

Arkham Sanitarium Case Notes

I don't know how I missed this back in July when he first put it up, but Derek Mayne has posted a handy PDF of an Arkham Sanitarium admission form. Be sure to poke around while you're there- he has a ton of cool resources.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

1855 Antarctic Map

I probably won't be able to post anything tomorrow, so I wanted to get this up today.

Not to give any spoilers, but if you're running an adventure that might be enhanced by a map of Antarctica from the mid 1800's this may be useful. As usual, click through for the full size version. It's around 11" by 12" at 300 dpi and should be printed out on at least an 11" by 17" sheet of paper. Smaller than that and the writing becomes difficult to read. It even comes pre-aged!

Spoilers Ahead!

Spoilers Ahead!

You have been warned!

During the running of "Beyond the Mountains of Madness" this map was included with the papers relating to Mr. Pym's long lost scribblings, with "It changed!" scrawled on the back.

Update: In response to an emailed question, this isn't something I created. It's a scan of an actual map.

Friday, October 3, 2008

If At First You Don't Succeed, Part Three

My supply of walnut ink crystals is still in transit, so I won't be distressing my "Ponape Scriptures" project today.

Instead, I want to work on the actual graphic and try fixing the problems that were bugging me over the weekend. Before I start I want to make one thing clear- I'm not an artist. I don't have any training in art and don't have any particular talent for it, but I ended up doing stuff like this because no one else was making the things I wanted. So if you think I'm full of crap, or you have a better way of doing things, please feel free to drop me a line with some pointers. You're not going to hurt my feelings by pointing out I'm a hack. I know I am. Part of the fun for me is that I just keep hack, hack, hackin' till I get the results I want.

That said, here's the original graphic:

It's not bad, but I just wasn't happy with the end result. It looks like something produced by a desktop publishing program instead of an eldritch scroll written with squid ink using a sharpened fish spine for a pen. To break it up a bit more I'm going to try a couple of different things. First, a fourth graphic element, some kind of astronomical calculator or orrery, to break up the blocky layout. Second, the overly-large font needs to be toned down a bit while the layout of the text needs to be more irregular. Third, the text itself needs to look more natural and hand-written. Here's what I came up with after fiddling around for a while:

Much better. The text looks hand-written without looking like a meaningless scrawl and the orrery figure at the top really breaks things up and adds some visual interest. The only problem is that it still looks too fresh and clean. Realistically, those blocks of solid black ink need to have some fading and flaking added. A little blur, a little noise, some texture, and we get this:

It might look too light in pure black and white, but that's won't be a problem when it's printed on the aged paper. In my experience solid black ink looks far more jarring and artificial.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

If At First You Don't Succeed, Part Deux

So, how to dirty up and distress my page from the Ponape Scriptures?

First off, I'm going to try using a dye stain technique instead of the tea staining technique I've used for years. Curious Goods has an excellent description of the basic method using walnut ink crystals, and I Googled up a few more pages describing variations aimed at scrapbookers here and here. Unfortunately, none of the local arts and crafts stores carried the crystals, so I had to buy some off Ebay. That means I'll be waiting a few days before I can tackle that aspect.

In the meantime I decided to work on the edge treatment. There's nothing inherently wrong with leaving the paper edges un-distressed, but I think roughing them up a bit will make the finished prop more believable. At the same time I want to avoid the over distressing that some propmakers, myself included, are sometimes prone to. By that I mean the grotesquely worn and excessively oxidized edges that scream "fake", particularly when the rest of the paper prop has little or no distressing. I want a happy middle ground- enough wear and oxidation to imply age, but not so much that it looks ridiculous.

That's why I decided on a faux-deckled edge treatment. Deckling is the rough, fibrous edge produced during the traditional manufacture of paper as the loose pulp is scooped up to form the sheet. There are a number of tools available to produce the effect, most of them consisting of scissors or rulers with some kind of rough edge that cuts the paper. I'm inherently cheap, so instead of buying any of the over-priced gadgets I just made one myself.

On the top, a cheap aluminum ruler I bought for $1.50 at WalMart.

On the bottom, the same ruler after a few minutes of work with my beloved Dremel motor tool.

Tada! A faux-deckling cutter for the price of a cup of coffee. After trying it out on a few different weights of paper I was pretty happy with the results. It might need to be ground out a bit more in the future, but it's perfect for the light touch I'm looking for on this project.

Update: I just realized I never described how the cutter is used. In case you were confused, you lay it flat on your document and then tear the paper along the roughened edge. The tear will then follow the little nicks and crannies of the cutting edge, as opposed to the strait tear you would get using the normal edge of the ruler.

Wednesday, October 1, 2008

If At First You Don't Succeed

This particular project has been driving me crazy.

On Saturday I decided I wanted a scroll or parchment seized during the raid on Innsmouth. I already had a few design elements finished, most notably the "Seal of Dagon" I posted last week, but I hadn't put any of them together into some kind of cohesive whole. So I fire up the scanner, break out the graphics editor, and start fiddling around.

This is the result:

Yes, that is indeed my shop light in the lower left hand corner. Manse Propnomicon's photography "studio" isn't a very high-tech affair.

That aside, I just hate the results. Let me count the ways:

1. While the individual elements turned out well (the Dagon seal, the tribal-style deep one, and the stylized R'lyeh) I'm not happy with how I put them together. The design gets across my vague conception of a "Contact Deep One" scroll, but there's still something missing.

2. The font is just too big and layed out in too regular a fashion. It needs more randomness.

3. The whole thing looks way too fresh and clean.

Most of this week's posts will probably involve attempts to fix the various problems. The biggest is the need to make it look more distressed and ancient, since my traditional acid staining of the paper just isn't cutting it. I used a basic dip-and-dry technique, saturating the paper with tea and then drying it on a flat glass plate, followed up by some spot applications of tea crystals to the damp paper to produce age staining. The results seem flat, so I'm going to try a full blown dye treatment followed by some spot bleaching, a grunge wash, and a faux-deckled edge with staining.

We'll start that tomorrow.