Every Week It's Wibbley-Wobbley Timey-Wimey Pookie-Reviewery...

Wednesday, 31 October 2012

Cthulhu Construction Kit

A little knowledge is dangerous thing. You and your friends have been reading things that no man should. Now, armed with a family friendly copy of Das Necronomicon, you want to be the first to have your own Elder God, even if that means doing it in your own backyard. As a devoted cultist of unnameable things, you want to prove that devotion by being the first to build said Elder God. If that means taking your trusty Remington Autoloading Model 11-87™ shotgun, sneaking into their yards, and blasting a hole in the tentacles of their Elder Gods, well surely that is a sign of your true devotion, right?

This is the set-up for Building an Elder God – A Game of Lovecraftian Construction, the first game from Signal Fire Studios. Designed for play by two to five players, aged six and up, it is a casual card game can be played in about twenty minutes or so. The aim of the game is the first to build an Elder God of a certain length, this length varying according to the number of players. The play of the game means that a reasonably sized table is required.

The game consists of one-hundred-and-twenty full colour cards and a large, four-page rules leaflet. The cards consist of Monster, Damage, Immune, Elder Sign, and Necronomicon cards, with the Monster cards further divided in Body, Mouth, Tentacle, Split, Eyestalk, and Mouth cards. The Monster cards are what you use to build your Elder God; the Damage cards to blast holes in your rivals’ Elder Gods; the Immune cards to protect against Damage cards; and the Necronomicon cards are used to heal your Elder God when it takes damage. The Elder Sign cards are used in a variant to banish parts of both a rival’s Elder God and your Elder God. All of the cards are done in full colour, with the Monster cards depicting tentacular body parts in Mythosy green and the Damage cards being spattered with deep burgundy ichor.

Each player starts the game with a Body, a Mouth, and two Necronomicon cards, as well as a hand of five cards. The Body card is placed down on the table with the open end facing away from him. On a turn, a player draws a fresh card and then plays one card. This can be to grow his Elder God by adding a Tentacle, a Split, or an Eyestalk card. Any card played in this fashion must be played vertically, which means that each player’s Elder God will grow towards the centre of the table. If a player manages to lay down the number of Monster cards required to win, he can top off his Elder God with its Mouth after laying the last Monster card and can thus win the game.

Alternatively, a player can attack a rival’s Elder God by blasting a hole in it with a Damage card, or if a player’s Elder God is damaged, he can heal it. This can be done with either one of his Necronomicon cards or with a Body card that matches the damaged one.

And that is about that. Physically, Building an Elder God is an attractive game, although given its intended age range, it is a pity that the cards could not have been done on a glossy stock better able to handle sticky fingers. The rules are clearly written, though it would have been nice if they had been done in colour.

If there is an issue with Building an Elder God it is the intended age range. Whilst the game is simple enough, its subject matter might not be suitable to players as young as six years old. Unless of course, they have already been inducted into the worship of the Elder Gods. At the other end of the scale, Building an Elder God might be too casual a game and too light a treatment of its subject – even for what is a filler game. Otherwise, Building an Elder God – A Game of Lovecraftian Construction is something quick and simple, not to say undemanding, to play between or before other games.

Saturday, 27 October 2012

Pulp Cthulhu

It should be remembered that for twenty years, the only way to play Lovecraftian investigative horror was Chaosium Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu. In 2002, Wizards of the Coast’s d20 Cthulhu
 offered another option, and in the last decade we have been offered PelgranePress’ clue orientated Trail of Cthulhu; Reality Deviant Publications’ more structured Shadows of Cthulhu using the d20 System distilled True20; CthulhuTech, a combination of science-fiction and horror roleplaying from Wildfire LLC; Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s bureaucratic approach to fighting the Mythos with The Laundry; as well as Reality Blurs’ Realms of Cthulhu, which in being written for use with Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds, actually pre-empted the arrival of Pulp Cthulhu, a supplement that is yet to arrive for Call of Cthulhu. That supplement promises a new approach to playing Call of Cthulhu, one that is more action orientated, more cinematic, more adventurous… In the absence of that supplement, Realms of Cthulhu is quite possibly the pretender to its throne.

First published in 2003, Savage Worlds is a light, fast playing RPG that sets out to do two things – cinematic action and mass combat as well as handle roleplaying. In the past ten years, it has been used to power an array of settings and campaigns, the best known being Fifty Fathoms and Deadlands Reloaded, both also from Pinnacle Entertainment Group. For much of that time, Savage Worlds has been available in an Explorer Edition, a handy sized, inexpensive rulebook that provided the basics of the rules. The rules have since been republished in a new ThirdEdition, which saw some changes that do mean that Realms of Cthulhu is slightly incompatible with the new version of the rules, since Realms of Cthulhu was published in 2009. That said, the differences are slight.

The changes to Savage Worlds in order to make it one of Lovecraftian investigative horror start with character generation. The process in Savage Worlds involves assigning points to improve the die types for a character’s five traits and then more points to purchase skills, which are again measured by die type. Thus a skill of Shooting d8 is better than a Shooting of d6. In addition characters can have Edges and Hindrances – the equivalent of Advantages and Disadvantages in other RPGs – that set them apart from ordinary men and women. Apart from the addition of the skill, Knowledge (Mythos) – the equivalent of the Cthulhu Mythos skill in Call of Cthulhu, the major addition to character creation in Realms of Cthulhu is that of “Defining Interests.” In Savage Worlds a character usually speaks a number of languages equal to half of his Smarts die type, so three languages for Smarts d6 and so on, but in Realms of Cthulhu a character has a number of “Defining Interests,” hobbies, knowledges, crafts, and so on, again also equal to half of his Smarts die type. This factor also has to take a character’s languages as well, and for each Defining Interest, for example, Archaeology, City Knowledge (Boston), Electrical Repair, Oratory, and so on, he gains a bonus to his Common Knowledge rolls (this being the equivalent of a character’s Know roll in Call of Cthulhu). Now a character’s Defining Interests also encompass what languages that he knows, which does mean that a character has to choose between focusing on one or the other. That said, the addition of these Defining Interests takes into account the fact that Lovecraftian investigative horror is primarily about what you know, rather than what you can do. In contrast, Savage Worlds tends to be more about what you can do than what you know, which is the case with Call of Cthulhu.

The sample character is Henry Brinded, one of my signature characters that I have used several times over the last decade or so. Indeed, he will be appearing as one of the starting pre-generated investigators in the forthcoming Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion for Call of Cthulhu. Of Boston Brahmin stock, Henry Brinded is a former Classics scholar at Yale who served as an artillery officer in the Great War. He returned partially deaf and with an aversion to loud noises, and unable to withstand the stress of continuing his studies, used his inheritance to open a small, antiquarian bookshop in his native Boston. He enjoys painting and sailing where he used to enjoy hunting, and employs one member of staff, Mrs. Rutherford, to help source and restore rare books.

Henry Brinded
Agility d6 Smarts d8 Spirit d6 Strength d4 Vigor d6
Edges:Linguist, Noble, Scholar
Hindrances: Curious (Major), Hard of Hearing (Minor), Pacifist (Minor)
Skills: Boating d4, Guts d6, Investigation d4, Knowledge (Ancient Greek) d6, Knowledge (History) d8, Knowledge (Latin) d8, Notice d4, Persuasion d4, Shooting d4
Defining Interests: Archaeology, Book Restoration, Etiquette, Painting
Languages: Arabic, French, German, Hebrew
Pace 6
Parry: 4 Charisma +2 Toughness 5
Sanity 5 Corruption 0

The second addition is the Sanity factor, which works much like Toughness. When inflicted physical damage exceeds a character’s Toughness, he can be “Shaken.” If the damage exceeds a character’s Toughness by a large amount, then he can be Wounded. When faced with a shocking incident or entity, a character will often be asked to make a Guts skill check. This is modified by the Terror or Fear strength of the situation or entity faced (Terror is actually explained on p.117 of Realms of Cthulhu, a fact that should be noted as it is not mentioned in the index and it is mentioned long before this). For example, encountering a Deep One forces a Guts skill check at a Terror penalty of –1. If the Guts skill check is failed, the mental damage inflicted on the frightened character is called Mental Anguish, which for the Deep One is “Spirit+d4” with the Deep One Spirit trait being d6. This means that both dice are rolled and result compared to the character’s Sanity. For every four points that the Mental Anguish roll exceeds his Sanity by, then the character suffers a point of Madness. A player character can suffer no more than four points of Madness before going insane. Each point of Madness inflicts a –1 penalty on a character’s Pace (movement) and all trait and skill rolls. This Madness can be addressed within the hour with immediate rest, reassurance, and the application of the Knowledge (Psychology) skill, success leading to the positive loss of points of Madness, or in time with recuperation. If driven insane though, a base Spirit roll is required by the character. Essentially, this roll is in effect made to determine how long the Mental Disorder suffered lasts for.

Although Realms of Cthulhu adds a number of new skills, edges, and hindrances, perhaps the most important addition is Knowledge (Mythos) – the equivalent of the Cthulhu Mythos skill in Call of Cthulhu. The treatment of knowledge of the Mythos in Realms of Cthulhu is perhaps where this version of Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying begins to diverge radically from the base line that is Call of Cthulhu. In Realms of Cthulhu, Knowledge (Mythos) is treated like any other skill, except that it is initially gained through certain circumstances during the play of the game, such as being sent insane for the time after encountering a Mythos entity or reading a Mythos Tome. Just as in Call of Cthulhu. Yet where in Call of Cthulhu an investigator receives “Cthulhu Mythos 05%,” in Realms of Cthulhu, he receives Knowledge (Mythos) d4. This does not sound like much, but when you consider that the base target for any skill roll in Savage Worlds
 is 4, then the character has a 1 in 4 chance of rolling that on his skill of Knowledge (Mythos) d4. This high degree of knowledge is further exacerbated because of how player characters make rolls in Savage Worlds. In the game, player characters are special and known as Wild Cards, and Wild Cards always roll an extra d6 – known as the “Wild Die” – and the highest die roll counts towards the total, then it is clear that even for a relatively minor encounter with the Mythos, an investigator can gain an awful lot of knowledge. This is further confirmed by the Realms of Cthulhu/Call of Cthulhu conversion guide, which lists a skill of d4 of being equal to 25% in Call of Cthulhu. That is a lot of Cthulhu Mythos…!

By reading further Mythos tomes or critically failing a Guts skill check as a result of an encounter with the Mythos, a character can gain further points of Knowledge (Mythos). Initially this will grant him a +1 bonus to any Knowledge (Mythos) check, but each time the bonus rises to +2, it changes the die type of the skill, from d4 to d6, to d8, and so on. Each rise in die type increases an investigator’s Corruption. Each point of Corruption decreases an investigator’s Sanity, further weakening his resolve against the Mythos. It is possible to increase an investigator’s Sanity, but it is difficult.

The given means of handling shock and horror in Savage Worlds has never been truly satisfying, and the Sanity mechanic in Realms of Cthulhu provides a more robust treatment of the subject. What the acquisition of the Knowledge (Mythos) skill demonstrates is the effect on Lovecraftian investigative horror from one system to another, from one ethos to another, from one style to another. The move from Call of Cthulhu to Savage Worlds is one of Purism to Pulp, of a binary yes/no realism to something a little more forgiving in terms of mechanics and player character survivability, and most of all, one of a granular mechanic and feel to one that is broader, but with a corresponding loss of detail. Which to be fair, is to be expected, given that Savage Worlds is a cinematic, Pulp genre, action orientated RPG. Yet the designer of Realms of Cthulhu gives the very means to counter this shift in tone and ethos.

Realms of Cthulhu gives the Keeper the tools to set the tone of his campaign, by setting its Physical and Mental play factors, either Gritty or Pulpy. The Pulpy option is essentially the Savage Worlds default, but the Gritty option gives a more Purist, harsher, and less survivable gaming experience. By setting the two play factors, a Keeper can access four different play styles, from the Physical Pulpy/Mental Pulpy of Heroic Horror with its high action adventure to the Physical Gritty/Mental Gritty of Dark Spiral, with its dangerous descent into madness and maiming when faced with the Mythos. Obviously, the first represents the Pulpy style of play, whilst the latter is Purist. Between two are the Slippery Slope (Physical Pulpy/Mental Gritty) and Dangerous Action (Physical Gritty/Mental Pulpy) styles. The first of these allows for investigators who can take a punch or two, but not the stress of encountering the Mythos, whilst the second is deadlier, but the Mythos has a less deleterious effect. These are only the base lines for the four campaign style, the Keeper being given a number of further options with which to tweak his campaign’s style.

The four styles are further discussed in the Keeper’s Section, primarily in the context of period – the 1890s, the 1920s, and the here and now – and the bond which brings the investigators together. Supporting this discussion is a quartet of Campaign Frameworks, one for each of the three eras and one that could be run in any era. The more original of the four lie at the extremes. The Heroic Horror framework is “Seekers of Lost Fortune,” in which the investigators must obtain and destroy dangerous artefacts in the 1920s; while the pleasing “The Frequency of Madness” is a Dark Spiral framework that can be set in any period and casts the investigators as incarcerated asylum inmates who have experience of the Mythos and escape to save not just mankind, but themselves too. Every character in this framework starts play with both the Knowledge (Mythos) skill and a mental disorder.

As expected for an RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Realms of Cthulhu includes the expected sections on magic and spells, tomes, and Mythos entities. Oddly the spells section includes those such as Armour, Bolt, Greater Healing, and Stun, all listed under Combat Spells and all taken from the Savage Worlds rules. Unless the style of game is extremely Pulpy, these are really out of place within Lovecraftian investigative horror, and even if the Keeper deems them appropriate, it is suggested that they are kept well away from player access.

Where Realms of Cthulhu is really useful for the Keeper is in the next set of tools it gives him. These are Mythos generators, which with a few rolls, a Keeper can create a Mythos Tale, a Mythos Creature, and a Mythos Tome. Or rather the broad outline, as the Keeper still has to flesh each of these out. For example, generating a Mythos Tome, which is detailed first in Realms of Cthulhu has the Keeper roll for its language, period of publication, Arcane Lore (essentially how easy it is to learn from it), and possible number of spells and type of spells – the Keeper will need to refer to the book’s chapter on magic for actual details of the tome’s spells. Beyond these basics, the Keeper will need to decide the book’s author, year of publication, title, and content. The Keeper will need to do the same when generating a Mythos Tale or Mythos Creature, the latter covering not just “Tainted” humans (as in my example), complete with “Dark Gifts,” but also Servitors and Independent Races, and who if at all, they serve. Pleasingly, with a few rolls and a bit of thought, a Keeper can switch back and forth between the three sets of tables using the results of each create a Tome, a Creature, and a Tale. 
The Lure of the Long Beasts
Hook: Caught up in Events
Lynchpin: Person
Location: Important Building/Landmark
Plot Type: Descension
Ally: Policeman
Plot Complication: Discovery
The investigators are on holiday in the county of Derbyshire. Following a tourist guide they decide to visit the world famous Blue John Caves near the town of Castleton, but get caught up in a disagreement between the locals and a visiting team of archaeologists from nearby Victoria University of Manchester, led by Professor Terence Chile Oakley. The professor is interested in the folklore and pre-Christian history of the area after reading a monograph entitled Secretis Druidum. The locals object to the professor’s interests and his plans to enact Druidic rites near the caves and the situation has developed into a stand-off between the two groups. The archaeologists have reported attacks in the night and possessions being stolen, and some of the students report suffering from headaches, but the local constable, Herbert Atteberry is at a loss as to what is going on.

Secretis Druidum: Trans Specubus veracis Populis Western Britanniam
Privately published in 1912, this monograph describes the folklore of the rural inhabitants of the British Isles, particularly around mountainous or hilly regions known for their network of caves. It includes several legends about enormous serpents that live underground and who worship one giant serpent, and how in the past the druids actually worshipped and sacrificed to both. The author lists several chants that he states that he was warned against uttering at particular cave mouths at certain times of the year. The author was last seen in the Derbyshire Peak District in England in 1914. The book is bound in oddly translucent leather. The only copy known to exist can be found in the anthropology section of the library of Victoria University of Manchester.
Author: Nicholas Checkley

Language: Latin
Year: c. 1912
Arcane Lore: +2
Spells: Claudens diu bestia (Elder Sign), Fascino lamina (Enchant Blade), Vocate ad diu bestia (Contact Chthonian), Longa ferae Domini invocabo (Contact Shudde M’ell)

Jack Royse (Seasoned)
Agility d8 Smarts d4 Spirit d4 Strength d8 Vigor d8
Edges: Brawny, Mighty Blow, Quick
Hindrances: Death Wish, Mean
Gifts: Immunity to Cold (Minor), Low Light Vision (Minor)
Skills: Climbing d8, Fighting d8, Guts d4, Intimidation d8, Knowledge (Mining) d6, Knowledge (Mythos) d6, Repair d4, Stealth d6
Pace 6
Parry: 6 Charisma -2 Toughness 7
Sanity 2 Corruption 2
A native of Derbyshire, Jack Royse is a “Tainted” human who worships the long beasts below and follows their directives exactly. A miner by trade, under his masters’ influence he will do anything. Some would say that he has spent too much time in the caves below, but not to his face. He almost never seems to blink, but dislikes bright light and he seems unnaturally muscular.

In terms of actual Mythos Tales, Realms of Cthulhu is a mixed bag, consisting of four short two-page Tales and one long twelve-page one. The first two-page tale is “Fragments of Mu,” which is nothing more than an slightly extended encounter in purely Pulp vein, whilst “Paradise Lost” is a more pleasing Lovecraftian encounter with a classic feel, though despite what it says, it is set in the Arctic – no Eskimos in the Antarctic! “False Idols” feels more like a modern, grittier affair, but at two pages feels like it was shoehorned into place. The last of the quartet of shorts is the best, “Bayhaven Lights,” a still slight tale, but one with a weird vibe and a subtlety that is missing from the others. The Mythos Tales are rounded with “Mysteries of Drake Manor,” which describes the estate and inhabitants of Drake Manor, as well the mysteries that surround both before describing a few short tales that suggest how the set up can be used. Unfortunately, there is no subtlety to “Mysteries of Drake Manor” which overeggs both the mysteries and the Mythos content. If there is a real issue with these Mythos Tales, it is that apart from “Paradise Lost” all are set in Charleston, South Carolina. There is nothing intrinsically wrong with this, as Lovecraftian investigative horror only infrequently strays below the Mason–Dixon Line, and visiting a new city is always interesting. What is wrong with this choice is that the designer tells us nothing about Charleston whatsoever when a single page of information could have covered all three periods…

Physically, Realms of Cthulhu is a relatively thin if sturdy hardback. The book on the whole is well written and decently presented in full colour with some nice illustrations. Some of the content could have been better organised though, some terms and elements being mentioned far before they are actually explained, this not being helped by a sometimes unhelpful index.

Overall, Realms of Cthulhu is a likeable, if far from perfect product. One of the issues with Realms of Cthulhu is the lack of advice on investigator generation. This is necessary because creating and playing an investigator is very different to doing either in most other RPGs. There is advice, it is true, but it amounts to list of roles that a player could create rather than actual, useful advice on doing so. The most useful advice on investigator generation is placed some twenty pages away from the rules on actual character generation, all but an afterthought. Another issue is that it is Americentric when Lovecraftian investigative horror tends to be more Anglophile in outlook. Realms of Cthulhu does feel in places as if it is written solely with an American audience in mind.

Perhaps the biggest issue with Realms of Cthulhu is in its choice of rules system. This is not denigrate the Savage Worlds rules, as they offer solid mechanics that emulate a slightly Pulp style, cinematic style of play, and there is, of course, nothing wrong in that. The issue is more whether or not the Savage Worlds rules can handle Lovecraftian investigative horror, and arguably, they cannot. At least not without a degree of tweaking and adjustment to advance the rules to a grittier style of game, and with that tweaking and adjustment comes more rules and more complexity, both of which are at odds with the “Fast! Furious! and Fun!” the Savage Worlds rules. Even with said degree of tweaking and adjustment, Realms of Cthulhu is still not a wholly Purist RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror. There is still a little of the Pulp left, which is unsurprising given that it is written into the soul of the Savage Worlds rules.

Yet when Realms of Cthulhu reins in Savage Worlds back towards its natural inclination, the result does not feel as forced. In its natural state it can do “Pulp Cthulhu” and do it well, offering a means handle a more action orientated game that offers its player characters a degree of survivability and elasticity in their actions that the binary mechanics of Call of Cthulhu lacks. The investigators are no longer ordinary men and women, but more special, more heroic. In addition, for the Savage Worlds GM, Realms of Cthulhu also grants access to the Cthulhu Mythos, its contents easily plugging into Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Weird Wars: Tour of Darkness and Weird Wars: Weird War II supplements, as well as the Savage Worlds versions of Modiphius Press’ Achtung! Cthulhu line. And of course, Realms of Cthulhu does give Savage Worlds a bona fide Sanity mechanic, something that it has lacked since its first edition.

In terms of support for the Keeper and the player, Realms of Cthulhu is underwhelming, this most obvious in the given Mythos Tales and the advice for the player. Where Realms of Cthulhu works is not just as a cinematic, action-orientated treatment of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but as a set of tools to create and run a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror in the Pulp mode.

Monday, 22 October 2012

It's a Corpse Cavalcade II

When the apocalypse comes – and surely it will whether it is tomorrow, next week, or yesterday – and the dead rise to shamble across the Earth, the “lucky” survivors are barely going to have enough time to grab their trusty .45 handguns, first aid kits, complete sets of Elvis Presley on vinyl, iPods and iPhones, and whatnot before the cast of the corpse cortege are upon them. And before they know it, Grandma is down amongst the dead… Only to get back up again and be coming around for a bite out of her late dearest and nearest. Once past their flesh-eating Grandmothers, most survivors are going to looking to the government for help. Then the army. Then anyone. Which is when they discover that their survival is down to them and their decisions. All they can do is hope that their decisions are anything other than stupid, as stupid can get them dead…

So with everyone still occupied with the daily needs for survival and fending off the brain feeding zombies, it will be the rare dreamer or philosopher who has the time or inclination to ask that all important question, “How did this happen?” That might not be a question asked in the zombie apocalypses you might see depicted in books or on television, but when it comes to roleplaying it is a question that not only has to be asked, it has to be answered too. Especially in playing out a zombie apocalypse over the long term. The reason is simple. Whilst in a roleplaying campaign the survival needs have to be addressed, entirely focusing on soon becomes repetitive and quickly lose their drama. Need shelter? Kill zombies. Find shelter. Need fuel? Kill zombies. Find fuel. Need food? Kill zombies. Find food. Need ammunition? Kill zombies. Find ammunition. Wash, rinse, repeat, as necessary. Which is repetitive and dull.

It is an issue addressed and not addressed in War of the Dead: Chapter Two, which as the title suggests is the second release in the series. Published by Daring Entertainment through Cubicle Seven Entertainment, this is a fifty-two part campaign that charts the adventures and travails of a group of survivors in the face of the rise of the dead and the fall of civilisation. Written for use with Pinnacle Entertainment Group’s Savage Worlds, the campaign offers one adventure per week so that a group could play it out over the course of a whole year. Each adventure does not actually represent a week’s worth of game time, but anywhere from a few hours to a few days, essentially enough material that can be played through in a session or two.

The campaign was originally released as a series of fifty-two PDFs, and is now complete. Cubicle Seven Entertainment has divided the campaign into four parts, each collating thirteen episodes. To date, only War of the Dead: Chapter One and War of the Dead: Chapter Two have been released. The campaign began with the player characters – all ordinary men and women – aboard a cruise liner on holiday. It quickly became apparent that the suspected outbreak of an illness aboard the ship was something more, and very quickly the player characters found themselves to be no longer passengers but survivors aboard a vessel of the walking dead. Eventually as War of the Dead: Chapter One drew to a close, the player characters made it ashore only to discover that the infection was not confined to the ship and that everywhere the dead has arisen.

Subtitled “Sanctuary and Loss,” War of the Dead: Chapter Two opens two months into the end of the world. The player characters have been on the road for a month after the events that lead to failure of their first refuge, the town of Dalesbury, as described in the final weeks of War of the Dead: Chapter One. Theirs is a nomadic existence, forced on the road in the search for supplies – food, fuel, and ammunition – that across this Hell on Earth have become increasingly scarce as the cities have become the domain of the Living Dead. As the group makes its way from one desperate situation, it begins to learn of events further afield, including news of where the President went – Colorado, which becomes a much discussed objective as the events of War of the Dead: Chapter Two progress. After all, this is where the government went and it surely must be able to see to the needs of the survivors, right?

In the interim, the group also learns of possible salvation – Sanctuary. A nearby city has been supplying the few outlying communities of survivors with supplies. If the city has been cleared of the Living Dead and is in a position to supply food, could it be the refuge that the player characters have been looking for? Could it be the first signs of government since the characters came ashore? Well, the answer to both questions, is a qualified “yes and no.” Sanctuary is in the hands of UniMed, a pharmaceuticals corporation that has created a safe zone protected by the remnants of a US Army battalion. It is even hinted that the UniMed CEO had information about the Living Dead that the President needed to hear.

Nothing is quite what it seems. Of course it is not. It is true though that Sanctuary offers a degree of respite from the horrors without. Unfortunately, Sanctuary is the focus of new horrors and ultimately, the characters will find themselves on the road again, ready for the events of War of the Dead: Chapter Three.

War of the Dead: Chapter Two wastes no time in getting down to the adventure. There is almost no preamble before the GM and the players are thrown into the difficulty of the apocalypse. It makes a much fuller use of the Savages Worlds rules, in particular the Mass Combat rules, as the battles in War of the Dead: Chapter Two escalate in scale and take a more military feel when compared to the skirmishes of War of the Dead: Chapter One. If there was a lot of combat in War of the Dead: Chapter One, then War of the Dead: Chapter Two ups this, not just in terms of the hardware to hand, but also the foes faced.

Physically, War of the Dead: Chapter Two is somewhat perfunctorily presented. What little art there is, is grim, if sketchy. The writing though, is rough around the edges and it could have done with a closer edit. There is some repetition and inconsistency between sections that the GM will have to adjudicate on. As with the previous chapter, War of the Dead: Chapter Two could do with maps to make it easier for the GM to run.

Similarly, War of the Dead: Chapter Two suffers from many of issues that were a problem in the previous chapter. It is linear in nature and it is heavily scripted in places, and it suffers from repetition in terms of structure and in its encounters. Primarily, it is heavily combative in nature and this becomes both wearisome and grim. Then again, this is a world in which the dead walk the earth… That said, the over arcing plot does introduce several twists to its exploration of the zombie genre and in between the gunfights, there are numerous NPCs to interact with, many of them quite memorable.

At the start of this review, it was stated that War of the Dead: Chapter Two both addressed and failed to address the repetitious play of the genre and the question of why the post-apocalypse came about. It addresses the repetition essentially by replacing it with different forms of repetition, but ones that still revolve around the slaughtering of the Living Dead. It addresses the question of “why” only so far, and that is not really a failure upon the author’s part. After all, this is only the second part of the campaign and as such, is far too early to fully answer such questions.  They will only come in War of the Dead: Chapter Three and War of the Dead: Chapter Four. In the meantime, War of the Dead: Chapter Two is as good as the previous chapter, which means more good, but not quite perfect zombie roleplaying fodder.

Friday, 19 October 2012


With Sisters of Sorrow, Adam Gauntlett takes Trail of Cthulhu and Pelgrane Press back to the Great War for a third time. Previously, in Not So Quiet – available in the anthology, Out of Time, the author had us visit a field hospital on the Western Front, whilst he let us take to the air in Flying Coffins to serve with the Royal Flying Corps and face an aerial antagonist the like of which the pilots had never seen. For this third scenario, the author switches to not just another theatre of war, but another side too! The protagonists of Sisters of Sorrow are part of the crew of UC-12, a U-Boot in the service of the Kaiserliche Marine. In other words, the players get to be the Germans! This is not as radical as it sounds, after all, the very first story that H.P. Lovecraft had published was “The Temple,” which related the events that led to the loss of the U-29.

In Sisters of Sorrow, the UC-12 is a mine laying Unterseeboot, an unarmed submarine tasked by the Kaiserliche Marine to cut its way through the nets that protect England’s harbours and lay mines as close as possible to disrupt shipping. This is a dangerous task. Not only is there the possibility of the detection and being sunk by the Royal Navy, but the actual laying of the mines can sink the submarine too! There is supposed to be a delay before a laid mine rises to the surface, but sometimes the delaying mechanism fails and the mine rises under the submarine and detonates! (This is where the title of the scenario comes from, for such mine-laying vessels were known as “Sisters of Sorrow”). For the crew, live aboard is damp, smelly, and unpleasant.

Assigned to penetrate the North Sea defensive zone and lay mines off Tyneside, UC-12 and her crew must contend with more than the routine of avoiding the Royal Navy and other shipping on its way to England. Strange noises seem to reverberate through the hull from the outside – could they really be whale song? This and other strangeness seems to be affecting the crew – have they been cooped up too long in the noxiously narrow atmosphere of UC-12? Or is it that water has been splashed on the batteries and they are giving off chlorine gas?

Structurally, Sisters of Sorrow is a reasonably straightforward, somewhat linear adventure. That though, is due to it being a military based adventure and not a criticism. Within the linear structure though, there is never time for the story to lag and there is always something for the player characters to do. If there is a criticism of the scenario structure it is that the player character roles are primarily reactive, although this is primarily aimed at building atmosphere and tension before there is the opportunity for more proactive play towards the scenario’s climax.

One interesting aspect to Sisters of Sorrow is when it is set. Not just during the Great War, but in the war’s early years. The submarines of the Kaiserliche Marine follow a nineteenth century Prize Code under which her crews must warn those of the ships that they attack so that due time is allowed for them to abandon ship. Although the UC-12 does have a machine gun, it is by no means an attack boat, which together with the terms of the Prize Code mean that the crews’ actions will be limited against the outré threats faced in Sisters of Sorrow. This complication, in combination with the descriptions of life aboard the Unterseeboot, is counter to the romantic, almost chivalrous notions that we have about submarine warfare.

Sisters of Sorrow is a one-shot scenario designed for play with six characters, that should not last more than two sessions. The scenario includes six pre-generated “investigators” – the Executive Officer, Chief Engineer, Radio Operator, Helmsman, Engineer, and Mechanic. As written, the scenario tells the story of their first, and quite possibly their last, mission. No advice is given on how to create characters if the players do not like the pre-generated ones included, as essentially they could take the role of any one of the fourteen man complement of UC-12. That said, the Military Template given in Trail of Cthulhu will probably be all that a Keeper and player alike will need. It is intimated though, that the role of the Kapitan be not taken by a player, primarily in the short set of play test notes that should help the Keeper further when it comes to running Sisters of Sorrow.

Although there are no notes on whether or not it could be run using a British crew and a British submarine, there is nothing to stop an inventive Keeper from adapting it so. Similarly, an inventive Keeper could easily adjust it to the Second World War if he so chose. One of the issues in changing both sides and period is that the limitations of the design of UC-12 would be lifted. Submarines operated by the Royal Navy in the Great War, and by all sides in World War Two were substantially better armed and this has the potential to curtail certain elements of the scenario.

Physically, Sisters of Sorrow is a twenty-three page, 4.26 Mb PDF. Done in murky grays and greens throughout, it is well written and neatly presented. It is lightly illustrated, but every piece by Phil Reeves is excellent, and even if the cover is perhaps tentacularly misleading, elsewhere he draws more inventively from the text to more disquieting effect.

Like the previous adventures, Not So Quiet and Flying Coffins, this scenario could easily work as a flashback to explain how a character became aware of the Mythos. The character does not even have to have been aboard UC-12. It could be that the character’s brother or father was aboard and that in playing Sisters of Sorrow, what is being played is not a flashback, but the events of the father’s or brother’s journal which was recovered… Sisters of Sorrow is all about the infectiousness of paranoia and desperation in confined spaces. After all, nowhere could be more confined than an Unterseeboot in the middle of a Royal Navy blockade in the North Sea when the danger comes from below.

Sunday, 14 October 2012

Between States II

Five hundred years ago Eschaton occurred. As asteroids fell to Earth, the sky boiled. Their impact cracked the Earth open, causing earthquakes to ripple and volcanoes to boil over. Fires raged and both poisonous gases and dust were thrown up into the sky. The planet’s ecosystem was wrecked and human civilisation shattered, Europe being hit the worst. Worse was to come through; an ice age descended upon the survivors and they would have to struggle against an altered climate that would radically shift the balance of power. As the climates of Europe and South Africa cooled, so did that of central Africa and when combined with the rains blown in from the Atlantic, the Sahara bloomed and the peoples of Africa, underwent a renaissance as they threw off the yoke of Europe. In the years to come they would swarm across the soupy Mediterranean to plunder the belly of Europe for technology, trade, and slaves.

In the five centuries since Eschaton, seven Cultures and thirteen Cults have arisen to dominate the new world. Directing Africa’s revenge on Europe are the Neolibyans, ultra-capitalists that divide the known world into trade regions and drive hard bargains, and are known for their ostentatious spending and charity. If the Neolibyans are Africa’s heart, then her claws are Scourgers, mercenaries in the pay of the Neolibyans, ferocious soldiers armed with multi-thonged whips who protect Neolibyan trade trips and raid Europe for slaves. The Anubians are the continent’s spirit and heart, shaman that see themselves as humanity’s guardians.

The Cults of Europe resist these African incursions as best they can, but rarely with any unity, though their interests do on occasion coincide. The Anabaptists seek to purify through fire the Earth of the taint of an ancient deity they call the Demiurge and see as the destroyer of the world and the root of all evil. The Apocalyptiks are Europe’s gypsies, promising pleasures through gambling, prostitution, fortune telling, and the drug “Burn,” but often seen as bringing addiction instead. The Ashen are descended from those that took refuge underground before Eschaton, pale creatures biding their time until they can rule the world again. The masked Chroniclers are obsessed with finding and hoarding the knowledge lost in the Eschaton with the aim of restoring civilisation. Standing at the crossroads are Hellvetics, the most efficient and capable military force in Europe, which honourably maintains its neutrality by charging a toll to cross its territory to European and African alike. The Jehammedans are fanatics wanting to dominate Eastern Europe and bring their faith to all. The Marshals dispense a forceful if grim peace in central Europe based on a strict code of laws. Scrappers are not so much a Cult, but a way of life for individuals who delve into the ruins of Europe in search of lost artefacts, ready to sell to the highest bidder. The Spitalians are a militant medical caste, dedicated to burning out the poisoned lands, and batt­ling the spore fields and their mutant armies with fungicides and fire. Living between all of these Cults are the Tribals, small clans each with their own beliefs and ways of life.

The seven Cultures of the new world include Africa, Balkhan, Borca, Franka, Hybrispania, Pollen, and Purgare. Africa is a united Culture of three Cults, though threatened by strange bloodthirsty mutant plants called psychovors that swallow the land and alter it forever. Balkhan is wild country, its people untamed and passionate, permanently divided unless threatened by others, most recently from Purgare in the West and by the Jehammedans from the East. Borca sits across most of Europe south of the ice, but is divided by the Reaper’s Blow, the colossal fault smashed open by asteroid impact. To the West of the fault, the peoples are obsessed with finding traces of their ancestors, whilst to the East, they are mostly nomads driving herds of oxen unconcerned with the past. The people of Franka are rebuilding after the Neolibyans have plundered their relics and their old capital, Paris, was lost to hordes of insects and renamed Parasite. Hybrispania is also divided, but by war rather than by a fault. The natives have been fighting a guerilla war for years against the invaders from Africa while Jehammedan pilgrims try to convert the natives. Pollen is a land of nomads, driving armoured caravans from one fertile patch of ground to the next, hoping to harvest a crop before the ground spoils into rotted wasteland overnight. Lastly, claimed by the Anabaptists, Purgare is divided along its spine, the western side poisoned ruins, whilst to the East they battle with the Balkhani for the rich soils between their lands.

The effects of Eschaton are longer lasting though. In Europe and Africa, the impact craters are the source of a Foulness that grows and spews out Spores that mutate flora, fauna, and humanity’s children. Initially appearing normal, these children grow distant from their families as their newfound ‘demonic’ abilities also grow. Known as ‘psychonauts,’ by adolescence these children are often abandoned by their families and flee into the wilderness, there to hide and scavenge until they find others of their kind. There are five great craters, known collectively as the Earth Chakra, each spewing a different type of Foulness that mutates the psychonauts in different ways.

This is the setting for Degenesis: Primal Punk Roleplaying, an RPG published by Posthuman StudiosLLC, best known for the award winning Eclipse Phase RPG. It is an RPG of primeval savagery and wild abandon set in an epic post-apocalyptic survival drama, though one that suggests at an approaching singularity, although whether that singularity is devolutionary or evolutionary in nature, is yet to be determined by the few that are aware of the threat and have examined it in any detail. The publication of Degenesis Core Rulebook Primer Edition by Posthuman Studios marks the game’s first appearance in English, for Degenesis originally appeared a decade ago in 2001 in Germany, published by Sighpress. It joins what are merely a handful of German RPGs to appear in English language versions, the most well-known being Engel, published by the Sword & Sorcery Studio, and The Dark Eye, published by FanPro. Less well known, but more recent is Western City, a GM-less RPG published by Redbrick. The game’s origins and history have a marked effect on Degenesis, but I will come to those effects after looking more closely at the game.

Character creation involves selecting a Culture, a Concept, and a Cult. The Culture must be one of the seven given in the setting, which then determines the choice of Cults available. For example, someone of the Purgare Culture can choose from the Anabaptist, Apocalyptik, Hellevetic, Scrapper, Spitalian, or Tribal Cults. The Concept suggests the situation under which a character grows up – Compulsion, Decay, Lust, Madness, Pain, Peace, Quarantine, and Wealth. Every character begins with the same values for his attributes, but to raise one, he must lower another. He will receive bonuses to the attributes from the selected Culture and Concept, but not Cult. At each stage a character also receives a few points to spend on skills, and although these can be assigned to any skill, only those skills listed under the selected Culture, Concept, and Cult can be raised by more than a single point. In addition, a character must also select a Principle from those listed for the selected Culture, Concept, and Cult. These provide no mechanical benefit, nor are they defined within the rules as they are simple roleplaying hooks, although they are briefly discussed. Lastly each character checks to see where he or she stands within their selected Cults. For example, a Hellvetic with Firearms (3) is a Private, First Class, and is equipped with twenty rounds and 500 Chronicreds, while an Anubian with Domination (2), Empathy (1), and Faith (4) is regarded as a Guide of the Dead.

Our sample character is a NeoLibyan Writer, ambitious yet unable to win a bid for one of the annually auctioned trade missions. With Accounting (2) and Writing (2), the sample character qualifies as a Writer, and has a 1000 Dinar, but if he had Accounting (3) and Negotiation (3), he would qualify as a Trader and possess 10000 Dinar. Every NeoLibyan owns an Accounting Journal. He has been hired to work as a geographer and negotiator for his first trip to Europe.

Name: Dumisani
Culture: Africa
Concept: Wealth
Cult: Neolibyan

Cultural Principle: Bonds of Kinship
Concept Principle: Obsessed with Status
Cult Principle: Good Samaritan

Skills: AGI 5 + Unarmed Combat 1 (AV 6); BOD 4 + Mobility 1 (AV 5); CHA 7 + Etiquette 2 (AV 9); CHA 7 + Negotiation 5 (AV 12); INT 6 + Accounting 2 (AV 8); INT 6 + Geography 2 (AV 8); INT 6 + Language (Borcan) 1 (AV 7); INT 6 + Language (Purgar) 1 (AV 7); INT 6 + Survival 1 (AV 7); INT 6 + Writing 2 (AV 8); PSY 5 + Perception 1 (AV 6); PSY 5 + Self Mastery 1 (AV 6)
Flesh Wounds: Head 1; Torso 2; Legs 1
Trauma Wounds: 5
Vitality: 4

Overall character generation is quick and easy, and the three steps of Culture, Concept, and Cult do lead to characters that fit the setting. The result though does not lead to characters that are necessarily competent, especially if a character is created as a generalist. This quickly comes to light in the game’s mechanics, called the CatharSys. To undertake an action, a character must roll two ten-sided dice, aiming to roll over the Difficulty value, but under the character’s Action Value for that skill or action. Difficulty values range from Easy (4) and Tricky (6) to Nearly Impossible (14) and Miraculous (16), whilst the Action Value is a combination of the relevant Attribute and Skill. A character with an Action Value of eight or more is seen as Experienced, whilst an Expert would have an Action Value of thirteen or more. For example, Dumisani is in Purgare and encountered a Scrapper who has artefacts to sell. He does not know what the artefacts are – he does not have the Artefact Lore skill, but he thinks that they might valuable and attempts to negotiate a deal. The GM sets the Difficulty at Hard (6) because Dumisani has no idea as to the actual value. Setting this against his Negotiation AV of 12, the player must roll 2d10 and roll over the Difficulty (6), but under the AV (12), which with a range of 7 to 12, gives him a 30% chance of success. Roll over the AV and he fails, roll under the Difficulty and he also fails, but can roll again if the GM allows, though this will be at a higher Difficulty. If he rolls doubles (4, 4; 5, 5; 6, 6) and succeeds, then the result is a Critical Success, but fail and roll doubles, and that is a Critical Failure.

The example is for a character that is at least Experienced in one of the skills for his Cult. Outside of this skill and the character’s chances of success at even Easy Difficulty are severely curtailed. With this lowered chance of success comes the greater chance of failure and thus Critical Failure. It is almost as if the CatharSys is setting the characters up for failure. This is only exacerbated in combat. The sample character is geared towards interaction and not combat, but with that focus comes an incompetency when it comes to combat and an inability to withstand any wounds taken in a fight. This is because in order to improve a character’s capability to withstand even the most minimum of damage, points have to put into the Toughness skill, and that takes away from what the character is supposed to be good at. Given that combat can be deadly once weapons are brought to bear, characters can either be barely competent – and arguably not even then – at their Cult skills and useless at everything else, or take skills to enhance their capability and survivability in combat and lose their supposed competency. Whether characters are underskilled or the Difficulty values are too high – a 4-point (20%) penalty for even an Easy task – and the CatharSys just sets up to fail. Which given the relative simplicity of the CatharSys, is just so disappointing.

Physically, the Degenesis Core Rulebook Primer Edition is a 376-page perfect bound book (also available as a hardback) done in greyscale throughout. It is done in black and white and greyscale throughout, profusely illustrated by Marko Djurdjević to great effect. The book is densely written with chapters interspersed with pieces of setting fiction and verse. The background is explored in some depth with some two hundred pages devoted to the setting and background before the reader reaches the mechanics, combat, and character generation of the CatharSys are even mentioned. Beyond the rules themselves, the GM is given the expected bestiary and selection of foes, an equipment section, details about the psychonauts, a discussion of some of the setting’s secrets and history, plus a short scenario.

The density of the Degenesis Core Rulebook Primer Edition is something of an impediment to the reader. There is almost too much to read and understand before the reader begins to grasp a feel and an understanding of the setting, as if the game is written to be read by an inhabitant of 2585 rather than one of 2012. This is not helped by either the writing, which often feels flat, or the lack of any frame of reference, so that the reader is often left wondering what is going on. It is only much later in the book that it becomes clear where the places described earlier actually are.

Degenesis is a distinctly European RPG. Indeed there is almost no mention at all of what happened to anywhere apart from Europe and Africa during the Eschaton and beyond. It also shows in the artwork, which has a high degree of flesh on show. The setting has an earthy feel, a grubbiness not found in many American designed RPGs. For a game with as dense a setting and a setting as rife with secrets, it is daunting to know where to start. The included scenario helps, but the wealth of player character Cults and Cultures is another issue as many of them are openly antagonistic towards one another, and getting them to work together is likely to prove a problem during play.

Upon first tackling the Degenesis Core Rulebook Primer Edition, the setting and book had the feel of a classic White Wolf RPG, especially in its organisation of the thirteen Cults and the seven Cultures. The extensive use of in-game fiction and verse also contributed to that feeling. Yet the effect of that feeling is that Degenesis is an old game, not a new one. For as much as the game felt similar to a White Wolf RPG, it was as equally reminiscent of another German RPG, Engel. Which is not surprising, since the English version of Engel was published by an imprint of White Wolf, but the settings are different. Engel is a post-apocalyptic millenarian RPG, part of a rash of similar RPGs that appeared before and after the year 2000, while Degenesis is also post-apocalyptic, it focuses more on horror and near transhuman themes. That said, both games date from the same period, the original Degenesis - ein Stern wird fallen appearing in 2001, followed by second edition in 2004 along with supplements.

It is rare for an RPG to be translated from another language into English, so it is good to see Posthuman Studios publish the Degenesis Core Rulebook Primer Edition. Yet the translation fails to overcome the game’s handicaps – the density of the setting, the openly antagonistic character options, the flatness of the writing, and worst of all, the inherent incompetency of player characters built into the CatharSys, which devalues player agency in the game and exacerbates the grim nature of the setting. It is the setting though, that saves the game. It is rich, it is detailed, and it deserves to be explored. From that point of view, Degenesis is worth examining at the very least.