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

Monday, 30 December 2013

An Apology

I am sorry that there have been no posts of late. Unfortunately my laptop is currently unable to boot, which means I have limited access to the Internet. It also means that I cannot access the reviews I have ready to run and I have to start over. Persevere with me and I will post reviews as soon as I can.

ln the meantime, I want to thank you for bearing with me through a busy year which has meant that I have not been able to post as often as I would like. Thank you for taking the time to read my reviews and for those that have, for commenting too.

Saturday, 21 December 2013

Reviews from R'lyeh Christmas Dozen 2013

Since 2001, I have contributed to a series of lists in December at Ogrecave.com, suggesting not necessarily the best board and roleplaying games of the preceding year, but the titles that you might like to receive and give. Initiating a break with tradition – in that the following is just the one list and in that for reasons beyond its control, OgreCave.com is not running its own lists – Reviews from R’lyeh would once again like present its own list. Further, as is also traditional, Reviews from R’lyeh has not devolved into the need to cast about “Baleful Blandishments” to all concerned or otherwise based upon the arbitrary organisation of days. So as Reviews from R’lyeh presents the what is my dozenth’s Christmas List Dozen, I can only hope that the twelve below includes one of your favourites, or even better still, includes a game that you do not have and someone is happy to hide in gaudy paper and place under that dead tree for you.

Tales of the Sleepless City 
(Miskatonic River Press), $29.95/£21.99
It is sad news indeed that Tales of the Sleepless City, an anthology of scenarios set in New York during the Jazz Age, is Miskatonic River Press’ swansong for Call of Cthulhu. This beautifully presented book contains six scenarios that bring the Big Apple to life like no supplement for Call of Cthulhu before! Let your investigators discover how far reactionaries will go to preserve the fabric of New York, expose them to bloody horrors in the museum, or have them experience Harlem in mourning. Send them into Hell’s Kitchen to live in a slum tenement owned by the worst slum landlord possible, have them expose a dark future for one young child in Chinatown, or let them truly enjoy a night at the opera… Tales of the Sleepless City is the best Call of Cthulhu title of 2013 – it is such a pity that we shall not see its like again from Miskatonic River Press.

Hanabi (Cocktail Games), $11.99/£8.99
Remember how 7 Wonders made the Ogrecave.com Christmas list back in 2011 after not winning the ‘Spiel des Jahres’ (German ‘Game of the Year’), but winning its new bigger brother award, the ‘Kennerspiel des Jahres’ (roughly ‘Connoisseur-Enthusiast Game of the Year’)? Well this year we include an actual ‘Spiel des Jahres’ winner, one from the designer of 7 Wonders – Antoine Bauz. His award winning design is Hanabi, a clever game in which the players race to bring about the most impressive fireworks display. This requires that the players work together in order to launch the fireworks in the right order, which means everyone playing their cards in the right order. The twist in this co-operative card game is that everyone can see each other’s cards, but they cannot see their own! This is a clever little card game about communicating the right information with your other players in order to win the game.

13th Age (Pelgrane Press), $44.95/£39.99
What do you get when a designer of Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and a designer of Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition decide to create a fantasy RPG together? The result is Rob Heinsoo and Jonathon Tweet’s 13th Age, a furiously fun take upon playing Dungeons & Dragons. It still uses the d20 System, but streamlines the mechanics and play style for faster game, combining well-designed character Classes with story-telling aspects that both tie the heroes into the broadly drawn setting and make them stand out as potentially epic champions. With Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition not out until GenCon 2014, 13th Age is the freshest take upon Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying in years.

Ogre Designer’s Edition
(Steve Jackson Games), $100/£85
If in 2013 the gaming hobby, the elephant in the room that is Dungeons & Dragons was on holiday, then pound for pound, its spot was occupied by a 26 lbs. tank. Big enough and heavy enough to scare your game’s collection, the Ogre Designer’s Edition brings back Steve Jackson’s first game design in a very complete combination of the original classic Ogre and G.E.V. two-player game, plus more. Five maps, hundreds of counters, and over seventy 3D Ogres and buildings, all in a big box! What’s an ‘Ogre’ you ask? A big tank, a big damned tank under the command of an A.I. and bristling with big guns, big rockets, and big nukes, all rumbling towards you… Can you stop it before it stops the units under your command…?

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords - Base Set 
(Paizo Publishing), $59.99/£49.99
Remember the original Adventure Path campaign for Rise of the Runelords and how we liked it last year enough to include Rise of the Runelords Adventure Path Anniversary Edition on the 2012 Ogrecave.com Christmas List? This year, you get to play it all over again with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game: Rise of the Runelords, a game that distils the essence of both the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Rise of the Runelords into an elegant and quick playing deck-building card game that plays equally well for four players as it does for the single player. The game pitches a party of adventurers in a series of scenarios against various villains and their henchmen who are hidden – find the henchmen and the heroes have a chance of finding and defeating the villain. The adventurers need to have the right skills, right spells, and right equipment all at the right time – and if they succeed they get better. All represented on the cards, which makes for both slick game play and extended game play over the course of the Rise of the Runelords campaign.

Firefly: The Game
(Gale Force Nine), $50/£44.99 
If there is one RPG that we are looking forward to in 2014, it is Margaret Weis Productions’ Firefly Role-Playing Game – of which you can find a taster here – but that is coming in 2014. In the meantime, you can fly the ‘friendly’ ‘Verse in search of a profit aboard your own Firefly Class transport in this well-appointed boardgame from Gale Force Nine. Some jobs will be legal, some jobs will be illegal, and some may bring the attention of the Alliance or worse, Reavers! All you need is the right ship, the right crew, and the right job – maybe it’s a job for Badger, maybe for Niska, but it just needs to go shiny. The game does not always go smooth, but if you are a fan of the television series, then is exactly what you want. Find a crew. Find a job. Keep flying…

Fate Core System (Evil Hat Productions), $25/£16.99
In most RPGs you sit down, create a character and start playing a world of the GM’s creation (or purchase). In Fate Core System, the new edition of the Fate System first seen in Spirit of the Century, you sit down and work with your fellow players and the GM to decide upon a world and the elements in it. This presents enormous flexibility in creating the game that everyone wants to play, whether that is protecting small town Texas from the scum of the universe in 1961, strapping on a jetpack to free the Solar System from the yoke of the Mongol Horde, or wielding the arcane arts against the greatest of Napoleon Bonaparte’s sorcerers! It means that right from the start, the players have narrative control of who their characters are and what their place in the world is, the GM taking his cue from these characters and the narrative that they demand. This is a game about dramatic characters and their adventures and the means to build and run them. (Two supplements – Fate Worlds: Worlds on Fire and Fate Worlds: Worlds in Shadow each come with six ready-to-play settings should the GM and his players not have the time to create worlds of their own, or just want to cut to the chase).

Love Letter (Alderac Entertainment Group), $11.99/£7.99
Princess Annette is unhappy and has locked herself away in the castle; as a suitor can you make her happy once again? To do that you need to get a love letter to her, but between you and the Princess stands the palace bureaucracy – from the lowly guards and priests up through the barons, handmaidens, the King, and the Prince to the Countess and the Princess herself. Each and every one of these august – and not august personages – has a special ability that will advance or block your path to the Princess, but no suitor knows whose favours his rivals currently possess. This is a quick-playing game of bluff and deduction that plays perfectly between other games.

Adventures in Kaphornia 01 – Draconian Rhapsody: A Fantasy Movie For Your Game Table (Chronicle City), $19.99/£13.99
Sadly, roleplaying takes time and there are times when it would be great to have something that you can pick and play with a minimum of preparation. Originally published in German by Ulisses Spiele GmbH, Draconian Rhapsody is just one solution. It is not an RPG as such, but rather a scenario that comes with everything necessary to play – except dice of course! It includes ready-to-play characters, simple rules, and of course an adventure that everyone can jump straight into. Arriving in Kaphornia, through circumstances beyond their control the adventurers discover that Countess Esmeralda of Belzheim needs a dragon, alive and inside of a week. Can they capture the dragon for her in this definitely cinematic, if slightly humorous adventure? Draconian Rhapsody is at its heart a fantasy action movie that you can play through in an evening.

Numenera (Monte Cook Games), $59.99/£39.99
Were the people of the Ninth Age ignorant of the past, then perhaps Clarke’s Law, that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic” might be true. In the very far future of the Ninth Age, humanity is surrounded by the fragments and remains of the previous ages – swirls of nanotechnology, impossibly manicured buildings and landscapes, creatures and peoples bio-engineered to some unknown ends, data streams from still-orbiting satellites, and devices and objects weird and wondrous. Such devices, known as the ‘numenera’, can often be used by the peoples of the Ninth Age, or if not, adapted to a new purpose – perhaps by the Amber Priests. With Numenera, the author’s first RPG of his own design, Monte Cook lets us explore a world of fantastical science to build a bright new future.

Eternal Lies (Pelgrane Press), $49.95/£32.95 
In the 1920s, doughty and stalwart men and women banded together to investigate and thwart the menace presented by threats beyond mankind’s understanding and sanity. We have played out such attempts in Masks of Nyarlathotep, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth, and The Day of the Beast, each in their own way classic campaigns for Call of Cthulhu, but there is one question that has never been asked. What if they failed? This is the set-up for Eternal Lies, the first full campaign for Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane Press’ RPG of clue-orientated Lovecraftian investigative horror. In this globe-spanning campaign, the investigators must follow in the footsteps of their predecessors, uncovering clues old and new, not just to reveal the nature of the menace, but to determine where their predecessors went wrong. This is superb interpretation of a classic format that promises month after month of sanity searing play around the world.

Star Wars: Edge of the Empire Roleplaying Game (Fantasy Flight Games), $59.95/£39.99
The gaming hobby feels all the better for having an RPG based in the Star Wars universe on its shelves and in Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, Fantasy Flight Games gives us the first of a trilogy of new Star Wars RPGs. In the one you play Bounty Hunters, Colonists, Explorers, Hired Guns, Smugglers, and Technicians attempting to get by on the Outer Rim, far from the centre of the galaxy, but not so far that the Empire is no longer a threat. The new mechanics use a set of dice particular to the game whose results drive the adventure onwards with results that might ensure a hero’s successes whilst upping the threat or giving him an advantage, all in support of the game’s cinematic style of play. Already supported with several supplements, the Star Wars: Edge of the Empire – Beginner Game is also available to help you get started.

Against the Slave Lords
(Wizards of the Coast), $49.95/£34.99 
With no new official Dungeons & Dragons titles of note this year, perhaps the best were the nostalgia titles repackaged and re-released by Wizards of the Coast. Against the Slave Lords collates four scenarios – A1: Slave Pits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade, A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons First Edition. Previously released as the collection, Scourge of the Slave Lords (A1–4) which was voted the twentieth greatest Dungeons & Dragons scenario of all time, Against the Slave Lords is a campaign for characters of fourth through seventh levels set in the World of Greyhawk that pitches them against an insidious gang of slavers. Presented as a pleasing hardback that not contains the original four scenarios, but also adds a fifth scenario designed to introduce player characters to the campaign, which means that Against the Slave Lords can not only be played by us old nostalgic players, but new ones too.

Wednesday, 18 December 2013

The Fate of Arthur

In roleplaying, many genres come to be dominated by the one title. For example, zombie roleplaying games are dominated by Eden Studios’ All Flesh Must be Eaten and West End Games’ Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game is regarded as the perfect Space Opera RPG. So when it comes to the Arthurian RPG, there is only the one title that deserving of the crown – King Arthur Pendragon, originally from Chaosium, Inc., but since published by others. In truth, there have been few pretenders to the throne over the years. For example, I, Mordred: The Fall and Rise of Camelot from Avalanche Press and Legends of Excalibur: Arthurian Adventures from RPGObjects both offered d20 System options for Arthurian roleplaying, the latter sourcebook ultimately more interesting and better than the former. Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS Camelot offered an overview of the genre, whilst Once and Future King, published by TSR for the Amazing Engine rules, transplanted the legend into the far future. With the latest version of King Arthur Pendragon from Nocturnal Media currently available only as a PDF or via Print On Demand, there is another young pretender to the throne – Age of Arthur: Heroism in the Dark Ages.

Published by Wordplay Games, Age of Arthur: Heroism in the Dark Ages approaches the legend of King Arthur from a historical standpoint. It is set firmly in a post-Romano-Britain Britannia, some two generations after the withdrawal of the Roman Empire towards the end of the fifth century A.D. What was once a united province that had the support of Rome and in turn stood against Rome’s enemies, is now rent by religious and political differences; assailed by barbarians to the north, the west, and the east; and touched once again by magic, much to the dismay of the Christian church. In the province’s stead have arisen old tribal kingdoms, some of which adhere to the customs of Rome, others to the old ways. Picts threaten from the north; pagan Gaels, exiled from staunchly Christian Hibernia, raid in the west; and Saxons from old Germania cross the sea to glory in the raid and the plunder and take the kingdoms that they want. The peoples of Britannia are forced to choose between the faith of Rome and following the old gods, as in Rome’s absence, the Druids and bards return bringing their magic with them, whilst barely beyond his imagination, the fae would play their alien games with man… Britain stands ready to slip away into the Dark Ages, but perhaps there are yet men and women who would unite the tribes and kingdoms, and together stave off the dark and withstand the threats that assail the land. Perhaps such a man might be Artorios Aurelianus as advised by the fae-blooded druid, Myrddin, but conceivably it might be someone else. The player characters, perhaps?

As an RPG, Age of Arthur uses the Fate system, the Fudge variant first seen in Evil Hat Productions’ award-winning Spirit of the Century. Not the latest iteration of the rules, the recently released Fate Core, but Fate 3.0 as seen in Diaspora and Chronica Feudalis: A Game of Imagined Adventure in Medieval Europe, as well as 2012’s Agents of SWING. At its heart lie the Fate Points that push and pull the play of the game onwards. Just as in many other RPGs they can be spent to gain a bonus to a roll or to re-roll the dice, but here they have a greater versatility. Like many ‘Indie’ style games, a player can spend them to create and bring small elements into the game, what is known as ‘dramatic editing,’ but under the Fate system, Fate Points can do a whole lot more. They can be spent to Invoke a character Aspect and bring it into play, to Compel another character or location related Aspect to bring it into play, and to Compel the story and add to the narration. The Fate system also ditches traditional attributes, instead defining characters by Skills, Aspects, and Stunts. It plays fast and easy. The player rolls four Fudge dice or ‘4dF’ – six-sided dice marked with pluses on two sides and minuses on two sides with other two sides being left blank and applies the result, along with any bonuses derived from Skills, Aspects, or Stunts to try and beat a target number, or to roll higher than an opponent in a contested roll. In a contested roll, the amount by which one side beats the other determines the amount of damage or Stress inflicted, whether Physical or Composure, the latter representing mental and social stress. A player can roll a Manoeuvre to place a temporary Aspect on a scene that can be Invoked once for free and then again at the cost of a Fate Point.
For example, Sullio ap Hywel, a Briton who served Rome as an engineer has returned to home to find the former province in a perilous state. Visiting an ally of his uncle in Durnovaria, in the south of the province, Sullio has learned that Saxon raiders have landed in the wide bay to the east and are travelling by river to attack the wealthy market town. Unimpressed by Durnovaria’s defences, Sullio petitions the local chief to give him the men to shore up the defences. Sullio has the skill Profession [Engineer] +5 and the Aspect, ‘Engineering is an exact science’ as well as Charm +3 and the Stunt, ‘Specialism: Persuasion (+1)’. 
First, Sullio needs to convince the local chief that the town’s defences are inadequate to the task ahead. The Storyteller rules that the chief is preoccupied by the need to defend Durnovaria, and is too busy to take notice of what a Roman busybody wants and sets the Difficulty at 4 for his Charm +3 skill roll. To this roll, Sullio’s player will add in his ‘Specialism: Persuasion (+1)’. He rolls 4dF and gets +, –, and two blanks. This gives him a result of zero to add to his Charm +3, not enough normally to equal the Difficulty, but because he invoked his Specialism, he increases his roll to +4 and matches the Difficulty. The chief listens to Sullio and allows him to assemble a work force to prepare the defences properly, but because Sullio only managed to meet the value of the task’s Difficulty, there is a complication. The Storyteller decides that he is not assigned enough men and increases the Difficulty of the engineering task.
As he directs the bolstering of the defences, the Storyteller Compels Sullio’s Aspect of ‘Engineering is an exact science’ to affect the length of time it take to complete the task. Sullio accepts the Compel and its accompanying Fate Point, but decides that he wants to set up a Manoeuvre that he and his fellow defenders can Invoke during the coming battle. He rolls 4dF and adds his skill of Profession [Engineer] +5 to the roll to beat the Difficulty, which is again 4. He rolls, +, +, and two blanks, which gives him a total of +7. Sullio succeeds and creates the temporary Aspect of ‘These walls will hold’ which he applies to the defences. In addition, Sullio rolled three more than the Difficulty which is a Critical result and will thus give him a +1 on a subsequent roll. Sullio has successfully bolstered the defences, but this has taken too much time and as the last of the work party scrambles back over the walls, the vanguard of the Saxon raiders are at the walls and Sullio is caught outside them!
A character is defined by his Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. Skills are areas in which a character is trained in, his knowledge and expertise; his Stunts are related to his Skills and grant a character small bonuses or permissions within the game; while Aspects define the character in some way, such as ‘Girl in every port’ or ‘Pious’, and work as the more interactive elements within the game. A player can spend a Fate Point to Invoke one of his character’s Aspects or an Aspect particular to a location, and so get a bonus to a roll, but the Storyteller could Compel either Aspect to add a problem to a character’s situation and so drive the story along. If a player accepts the Compel and the resulting problem, he is awarded a Fate Point. When choosing Aspects for a character, they should never be boring and it should always be possible to view an Aspect in both a positive and a negative light. Otherwise, a character cannot participate in the game’s Fate Point economy – bring negative Aspects into the game and letting it act as a story hook, gets a character more Fate Points to spend in his favour.

At its most basic, character creation is simply a matter of choosing Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. A player could just select all of them, but the intent of Age of Arthur is that the players each tell tales about their characters, creating connections between their characters in the process as they occur suitably, and selecting equally as suitable Aspects for each of their tales. The four tales cover a character’s beginnings, what he did at a major event, how he became the hero that he is, and a significant event, while an optional fifth tale details an Oath made by the character and how he came to make it. The resulting character begins play with fifteen skills of varying levels, five Aspects, and five Stunts that come of, and support, the tales told during the creation process. In addition, suggested Stunts can be found throughout Age of Arthur, such as ‘Dark Adapted Eye’ for a priest of Arawn, King of the Dead, though primarily in the sample characters and numerous NPCs.

Our sample character is Sullio ap Hywel, a Briton who served Rome as an engineer has returned to home to find the former province in a perilous state. The son of Hywel ap Senorix, a nobleman of Siluria, Sullio was sent to Rome as a ward of Decius Vodinius Sapens, an ally of the tribe to whom a favour was owed. The young man grew up in the greatest city in the world and embraced its culture as much as he could, eventually following his ward into the military. He became a legionary in Rome’s great armies and trained as an engineer. More recently he has returned home after twenty years, following the death of his father. It is his uncle, Andoc ap Senorix, who is now the head of the household, a man ill-disposed towards Rome and his nephew. Andoc’s son, Ban ap Andoc is of a similar mind, though his sister, Belicia is more sympathetic.

Name: Sullio ap Hywel
Aspects: Son of Britannia, Man of Rome
                   Engineering is an exact science
                   Loyal to his friends and family
                   Distrusting of Saxons

Oaths: To serve Siluria as my father did

Skills: Level 5 Profession – Engineering
              Level 4 Leadership, Melee Combat
              Level 3 Agility, Charm, Strategy & Tactics
              Level 2 Gaming, Investigation, Languages, Willpower 
              Level 1 Awareness, Contacts, Ride, Strength, Wealth

Stunts: Specialism: Persuasion (+1)
                Tough [Extra Capacity]
                Rally [New Skill Use]
                Danger Sense [Ignore Difficulty or Restriction]
                Extra Refresh (+1 Refresh Rate)

Composure:Refresh Rate: 6
Languages: Brythonic, Latin, Latin Literacy, Ogham
Equipment: Spatha (Damage 3), Riding horse, Surveying Equipment, Small collection of history books, Dagger (Damage 1, can throw), Expensive clothes (suitable for court)

The Age of Arthur is also an age in which magic returned and Age of Arthur lets a player character be capable of using magic that in the setting comes in several forms. These are Divination, such as astrology, dream visions, and ectomancy – the character needs to define which; Druidic Magic, the worship of the old gods; Faith, the worship of the Christian god; Glamour, the magic of the Fae and those with Fae blood; Plant and Root, which covers both ordinary and magical herbalism; Rune Magic, the power that can imbue places or objects with potent magic; and Shapechanging, the ability to turn into various animal forms. Both Rune Magic and Shapechanging were brought to Britannia by the Saxons. All require the ‘Magical Calling’ Stunt, which then lets a character take the appropriate skill. In addition, Bards may know some Druidic Magic, but to a much lesser extent than a fully trained Druid, plus they have their own suggested Stunts, Bardic Knowledge, Bardic Protection, Biting Satire, Jack of All Trades, and Song of Battle.

Our second sample character is capable of using magic. Rosula has no idea of her parentage, but she grew up as a slave of the Saxons in the household of Eadgar, mistreated and often abused. In time, he took her as his mistress and for his amusement began to teach her the rudiments of magic when he discovered both her curiosity and her intelligence. She learned to read the stars and foretell the future, and already deceitful and mistrusting, began to deceive her master as to his future and his wife as to their affair. She also watched Eadgar take on the form of an animal, a bear, and other creatures, and after obtaining a wolf pelt, managed to mimic her master in secret. How she came to escape is not a subject that Rosula volunteers to talk about, but she harbours a hatred of both men and Saxons in general. Sullio ap Hywel is an exception to this hatred, his having saved her from bandits on the road.

Name: Rosula
Aspects: Former Saxon Slave
                  Wiser than any man
                  The truth always lies in the future
                  My looks belie my brains

Oaths: To drive the Saxons from Britannia

Skills: Level 5 Deception
              Level 4 Empathy, Divination [Astrology]
              Level 3 Agility, Charm, Healing
              Level 2 Brawling, Lore: Folklore, Performance: Storytelling, Willpower 
              Level 1 Awareness, Languages, Melee Combat, Shapechanging: Wolf, Wealth

Stunts: Diviner [Magical Calling]
                Strong-Willed [Extra Capacity]
                Skin Changer [Magical Calling] 
                Dirty Fighter [Brawling]
                Extra Refresh (+1 Refresh Rate)

Health:Composure:Refresh Rate: 6
Languages: Brythonic, Latin, Saxon
Equipment: Dagger (Damage 1, can throw), Ordinary clothes, Expensive clothes (suitable for court)

The Age of Arthur is of course one of conflict. The rules already support this on a personal level, covering physical and mental conflicts that a character can become enmeshed in. With internecine fights between the kingdoms of Britannia common and with threats on three of her borders, such conflicts can be fought out on a much larger scale. Age of Arthur handles this with a well thought out set of rules for battles and mass combat that allows plenty of personal involvement upon the part of the player characters. A detailed example supports these rules.

The setting itself is supported with background material that covers kings and warriors, religion, everyday life, as well as some information on the other peoples of Britannia – the Gaels, the Picts, and the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes. A timeline projects the future up to the year 556 AD while a gazetteer covers the kingdoms that have arisen in the wake of Rome’s departure and the state of the various towns and cities across the former province. Various sites of importance, either former Roman sites or pagan sites, like Stonehenge or the northerly Wall of Antonine, are also described. Each of the kingdoms, towns, and sites are accompanied by location related Aspects, such as ‘Heavy walls and fortifications’ for Cameludunum or Colchester, or ‘The gods are close’ for Stonehenge. These Aspects can of course, be Invoked or Compelled during a game.

The ‘Allies and Adversaries’ chapter includes both the ordinary and the outré. So not just animals and simple beggars and bandits, but also the Fae, giants, and more, in particular the major figures of the Age of Arthur. These include Artorios Aurelianus, Gwenhwyfar, Lancelot, Morgan Le Fay, and Myrddin. Age of Arthur presents an interesting take on the Fae, making them powerful, but flawed in that they are capable of repetition and imitation, but not originality. Their magic is Glamour, the ability to cast illusions that deceive any sense. All Fae know some Glamour and the Fae-blooded have the capacity to learn it with the selection of the right Stunt.

Rounding out Age of Arthur is a full length scenario, ‘Escorting the Princess'. King Agricola of Urbe Legionis wishes to give the hand of his daughter, Gwenhwyfar, to King Caradoc Strongarm of Siluria in return for an alliance against the Kingdom of Powys. Gwenhwyfar wishes to meet King Caradoc and see Siluria before she agrees to marry him. The player characters are to escort the potential bride to Siluria. It is written with a group of pre-generated investigators in mind, so will require some adjustment by the Storyteller to run it for other players. Although a map of the travel routes would have been useful, the scenario does a good job of showcasing of the game that should last a session or two. In addition, Age of Arthur comes with seven scenario outlines and a discussion of some of the themes that Age of Arthur scenarios typically involve. 

There is advice throughout Age of Arthur on how to run the game mechanically, how to handle Stunts and Aspects, and Fate Points in particular. Not only that, but the rules are supported by numerous examples that help make understanding the game much easier than it might have been. The given advice on running the game is clear, simple, and to the point. Rounding out the book is a quick reference for the game that sums up the rules and setting in just a few pages.

Physically, Age of Arthur is a nicely presented hardback. Notably, it is very lightly illustrated, the art consisting of chapter frontispieces, each done in evocative full colour. The lack of art is initially off-putting, but the writing style is light and layout quite open, so it is not as challenging as it could have been had it consisted of solid blocks of text. The book also includes a handy index.

It should be remembered that when it was published back in 1985, Chaosium, Inc.’s King Arthur Pendragon was a markedly radical RPG. It invoked a particular genre as never before and moreover, it encouraged, even enforced the behaviour of the player characters to conform to the accepted standards and attitudes of their respective cultures. It remains the premiere treatment of the genre in terms of RPGs, but Age of Arthur is a worthy addition to the limited selection of Arthurian RPGs. It is a broader, less focused, more contemporary treatment of the genre; a less romantic and grittier treatment of the genre, being more grounded in the grim history of the period; and a more accessible set of rules, a set that encourages player participation in the telling of tales set during the Age of Arthur. Without a doubt, King Arthur Pendragon remains on the throne of the Arthurian RPG, but the darker, grimmer, more player involving Age of Arthur: Heroism in the Dark Ages is a worthy prince.

Sunday, 15 December 2013

Viking Orders

Mijnlieff is an award-winning game from Hopwood Games, designed Andy Hopwood, a boardgame designer who lives local to me. Winner of the Best Abstract Game at the UK Games Expo 2010, Mijnlieff is all about controlling your opponent’s turns, forcing where they can play a piece whilst you try and lay the most lines of three. Designed for two players, Mijnlieff has a Viking theme and is essentially a variant of ‘Noughts & Crosses’ or ‘tic tac toe’, but a very clever one at that.

The game consists of four plain playing squares, each marked with four squares, and two sets of eight playing pieces, one white, the other red. The playing squares are usually laid out to create a four-by-four square grid, but other layouts are possible. Each set of playing pieces consists of four tiles – two Straights, two Diagonals, two Pullers, and two Pushers. When played, each tile tells an opponent where he must place his next tile. A Straight tile forces the other player to play a tile orthogonally to the one played; a Diagonal forces him to play a tile diagonally to the one played; a Puller forces him to play a tile adjacent to the one played; and a Pusher forces him to play a tile away rather than adjacent to the tile played. The playing tiles are clearly marked and easy to understand.

Each turn a player places a single tile. If a player cannot place a tile because he is blocked, then he loses a turn. For each line of three tiles – orthogonally or diagonally – that a player can lay, he scores a point. The player with the most points wins the game.

Mijnlieff is a simple game, but it does force a player to think about the consequences of his next move. Not only that, but he needs to think about what his opponent will play and how he can stop him. It is thus much thoughtful a game than the traditional ‘Noughts & Crosses’ or ‘tic tac toe’ and as a consequence takes a little longer to play. It is still a quick game though, and several games can be played in quick succession.

If there is an issue with Mijnlieff, it is that it is only available from Hopwood Games, but the good news is that Astraware has adapted the game as an app available for iOS and Android devices. It is free to download, but to get the very fullest use of the game does require in-game purchases – these include being able to play against more than two opponents at a time and to be able to rearrange the board other than a square. Once downloaded, the tutorial quickly teaches you how to play and then you are off, defeating – or not, one Viking after another, each progressively a more challenging opponent. In addition, you can play against your friends, random opponents, or with an opponent with the device between you. Visually, the game is well presented, there being a satisfying heft and click as the playing tiles are played and a slightly sharp ringing sound as lines are scored.

Either version of Mijnlieff is worth adding to your games collection. Both serve as an excellent, if thoughtful filler game for two players – there being advantages to both versions. It is a clever variation upon a very basic game, the one that we first played when we were children, that in Mijnlieff offers more play and more challenge.

Thursday, 5 December 2013

Nasties & Nazis Primer

Osprey Publishing is best known for its military history books, each diligently researched and meticulously illustrated with period photographs and fully painted colour plates. Over the years, its books have proved useful to historians and gamers alike, primarily wargamers, but on occasion to roleplayers too. It is to the latter that a new series from the publisher is likely to appeal. Where in the past, Osprey Publishing’s books have presented facts and analysis, each entry in the ‘Dark Osprey’ series goes beyond the facts to meld it with fiction. One of the first entries in the series delves into as ‘dark’ subject as you can imagine and the publisher got the right man to write it.

2013 has been a great year if you want Nazis in your games. Both Achtung! Cthulhu: Investigator’s Guide to the Secret War from Modiphius Press and World War Cthulhu: The Darkest Hour from Cubicle Seven Entertainment put the knowledge of the Cthulhu Mythos within the grasp of the Nazis, whilst in the recently released Band of Zombies, Eden Studios, Inc. let the Nazis unleash zombies on the Allies, and that is not forgetting Hite’s own GURPS WW2-Weird War Two supplement. Which just goes to show how we love mixing up the weird with our Nazis when it comes to our games and have done so ever since E. Gary Gygax sent his wizards and warriors to fight a German patrol and Indiana Jones uncovered the Nazi’s plans for the Ark of the Covenant in the 1981 movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark. What is so fascinating about this frothy mix of the utterly evil and the weird is it has some basis in truth – the Nazis had an interest in the occult and much of what they were grew out of occult interests following the foundation of Germany in 1871. This is the basis for The Nazi Occult, the first in the Dark Osprey series written by Kenneth Hite, the author of two great RPGs in the form of Trail of Cthulhu and Night’s Black Agents.

Hite does not so much chart the history and origins of the Nazis’ interest in the occult as race through it. Within a few pages, the reader is swept through the völkisch movement and its Aryan ideologies into the volatile politics of post-Great War Germany that saw the rise of the Nazis. Once the Nazis are in power, the founding of the Ahnenerbe is detailed as well as its occult equivalent to the Grand Tour. This takes in Finland, Brazil, Sweden, Bolivia, Iceland, Greece, Iraq, and Afghanistan, but most famously visits Tibet – indeed, a whole chapter is devoted to that expedition and its search for Agartha, the other secret kingdom. Similarly, another chapter devotes itself to the Nazi hunt for the great artefacts – the Ark of the Covenant, the Holy Grail, and the Spear of Destiny, while others examines the application of the Nazis’ acquired occult knowledge, primarily in the form of the vril-powered vaguely bell-shaped flying saucers and the post-defeat, last stand, Werwolf program. Of course, with the fall of the Third Reich, the Fourth Reich could be founded, and the last chapter is devoted to its refuge, Point 211, in Antarctica, where it manages to withstand an American response…

Rounding out The Nazi Occult is a short bibliography of books and films as well as an equally short ludography of suitable games. It is followed by a short glossary. Both are necessary, the bibliography if only to aid the reader in expanding upon the book’s contents and confirming fact from fiction; in providing further visual stimulus; and in helping a GM put numbers to the book’s contents. The glossary of course is a handy point of reference for the numerous ‘technical’ terms used throughout The Nazi Occult.

So the question is, how do you use The Nazi Occult? At its most base use, the book is a primer, an introduction to its subject matter, the bibliography providing further pointers as to suggested reading. Its most obvious use is as background to a game of the GM's devising, whether that is in the heyday of the Nazi's occult world tour of the 1930s, during fraught years of World War Two, or in the desperate years following the end of the war. The GM need not use the background wholesale, but instead cherry pick the elements that he wants to use, either as scenario seeds or just simple details. The book is rich in such detail and potential ideas.

What The Nazi Occult is not, is a gaming supplement in the strictest sense. It contains no gaming stats or write-ups – for any gaming system. Such information is for the GM to devise, though certain supplements will no doubt have such information already prepared. What The Nazi Occult is, is an overview and an introduction to the weirder, not to say bonkers, ideology of the Nazis and how they applied it. It also manages to be a history of the Nazi Occult whilst also not being a history of the Nazi Occult. The point being that Hite speculates beyond the actual history, not only filling in the blanks, but going so far as to describe the culmination of the Nazi occultists’ wish fulfilment – the Werwolf program and its actual lycanthropes; the vehicles of Projekt Saucer; and so on. The problem is that whilst such operations and creations are not only fanciful and fictional – and obviously so – it is not so easy to spot the divide between the fact and the fiction elsewhere in the book. 

How much of an issue that will be, will vary from one reader to the next, but it is an issue that needs to be highlighted. Osprey Publishing’s books are history books, and as much history as there is in The Nazi Occult, it diverges from the history and does not say where it does. Still it does at least state in the introduction that in places the act of writing history is by necessity an act of the imagination. Arguably though, a disclaimer of some kind could have been displayed somewhere.

Physically, The Nazi Occult is up to the usual standards of Osprey Books’ layout and presentation. It is superbly illustrated, both the full paintings by Darren Tan and the numerous period book covers and photographs ably supporting the text. The paintings in particular do much to support the more fantastic elements of Hite’s amplified history – the deadly effect of casting spells, the protection of the City of the Birds from the SS by a djinn guardian, a street battle between US Army soldiers and Wolfen resistance, and so on. At just eighty pages, Hite does throw name after name and weirdness after weirdness at the reader at a tumultuous pace, and whilst he does have a lot to cram into those eighty pages, it does leave the reader with a lot to take in…

The Nazi Occult is either a primer on its subject matter or a full roleplaying game background yet to be written up with game stats or a history thick with plot ideas and details ready to be developed and added to an existing roleplaying campaign. It depends upon the reader and the GM of course, but either way, The Nazi Occult is a richly detailed introduction to a fascinating if quite bonkers aspect of history.

Sunday, 1 December 2013

Way Out Weird West

Just when you think that Pelgrane Press has made an awfully big bang with its re-energising of the d20 System and Dungeons & Dragons-style gaming in the form of 13th Age, it slips out another Class and Level d20 System RPG. One that is much smaller and one that is much more oddly named. Owl Hoot Trail promises to be “Rules-Light, Western-Heavy, and Full of Fantasy”. What Owl Hoot Trail is, is a stripped down d20 System RPG that takes as its setting the Wild West and adds many of the traditional elements of Dungeons & DragonsDwarves Hill Folk, Elves Shee, Halflings Half’ins, Humans, and Orcs, as well as Vampire Lords, Dragons, Harpies, Owlbears, and more. This is a Wild West in which the Shee live way out West, and in which Gunslingers, Marshals, Ruffians, and Scoundrels ride the range and mosey on up to the bar alongside Gadgeteers with their amazing inventions, Mentalists who command great magics, Preachers who bring both the word and the power of the Almighty, and Shaman entreat the spirits for their aid. The frontier is a wild place, but out on the Owl Hoot Trail, the heroes have a chance to tame it!

To create a character in Owl Hoot Trail, a player selects a Race and an Origin, either a Greenhorn or a Native, and then a Class. Three points are assigned to three Abilities – Grit, how tough the character is, Draw, how fast, and Wits, how sharp. A character’s Race, Origin, and Class will determine any benefit to the game’s five skills – Amity, Learning, Toughness, Wile, and Wilderness, otherwise he has a score equal to his Level in all five skills. Each character also receives $100 ($150 if he is Human) to spend on equipment. Our sample character is a big, butch pistol-wielding Orc gunslinger with an ornery demeanour and an extreme dislike of liars and cheats. When she cannot rely on her gun, she likes to bring a big, heavy hammer to a fight. Both of her lower teeth are heavily cracked, hence her being labelled ‘ugly’.

Ugly Bly Dooley
Race: Orc
Origins: Native
Class: Gunslinger Level: 1
Grit +1 Draw +2 Wits 0
Amity +1, Learning +1, Toughness +4, Wile +1, Wilderness +2
Melee Attack Bonus: +2 Missile Attack Bonus: +3 Power Attack Bonus: +1
Defence: 13 Mental Defence: 11 Initiative: +2
Hit Points: 11
Power: Hardy 1
Equipment: Mustang’s Army Service Pistol .41 cal (2d4), Lump Hammer (1d6+1), $27

Skill tests involve adding a skill rank and an appropriate ability plus the result of a twenty-sided die roll to beat a Difficulty Class with DC 15 being the norm. For example, Amity + Wits would be used to notice lies or be persuasive, Toughness + Draw for dodging, wrestling a steer to the ground, or bull rushing an enemy, and so on. The possible combination of the three Abilities and five skills covers a lot of situations. The competitive rules cover gambling, whilst those for duels combine slightly modified initiative rules with the combat rules. The latter designed to be quick and easy, and potentially deadly. In particular, when a character’s Hit Points drop below zero or he suffers a Critical Hit, a roll must be made on the Injury Table, one of the results is instant death. All rounds fired in a duel count as Critical results!

Magic in Owl Hoot Trail comes in four flavours. A Gageteer uses devices such as the Phosphorus Agitator and the Personal Ornithopter, which each time he uses one of them, they have a chance of burning out. A simple recharging of the batteries will give the Gadgeteer the use of the device once again, but this costs money and the Gadgeteer may want to spend time to recharge the batteries instead. In addition, the Gadgeteer has the Brilliant Improvisation ability which allows him to reconfigure his devices to allow him to use lesser effects. For example, Jackass Justice Blake has a multipurpose device capable of projecting a Pyromatic Seeking-Sphere, but suddenly caught in a mine without light the Gadgeteer reconfigures the device with his Brilliant Improvisation and holds the sphere of fire in place to use it as a Phosphorescence Agitator. The Shaman, capable of calling upon spirits such as the Spirit of the Tangling Thorn and Spears of the Earth, also has a similar chance of burnout for each spirit and must essentially placate the spirits to call upon them again.

The Mentalist can cast Tricks like Hypnotic Pattern and Clairvoyance, whilst the Preacher has Prayers like Inspire and Create Food and Water. Instead of rolling for Burnout, it takes physical strain for both the Mentalist and the Preacher to use their Tricks and their Prayers respectively, that is, in game terms, they lose Hit Points! In addition, the Preacher can Rebuke sinners and his enemies with the Word of the Almighty, which might force them to surrender or to flee. All of these Classes – the Gadgeteer, the Mentalist, the Preacher, and the Shaman can have signature Powers of their players’ choice. Such Powers are more effective and are either easier to use or cause less strain.

The sample Power user is a Gadgeteer, One Horse Randolph LaRue. A member of the Hillfolk from the South, he has come to the Frontier to prove that horses are redundant! Randolph hates horses as he is allergic to them. 

One Horse Randolph LaRue
Race: Hillfolk
Origins: Greenhorn
Class: Gadgeteer Level: 1
Grit +1 Draw +1 Wits +2
Amity +1, Learning +5, Toughness +2, Wile +1, Wilderness +1
Melee Attack Bonus: +2 Missile Attack Bonus: +2 Power Attack Bonus: +3
Defence: 12 Mental Defence: 13
Hit Points: 11
Power: Brilliant Improvisation
Gadgets: Deflector Coil, Horseless Freightwagon (Signature Gadget)
Equipment: Wyvern Breech-Loading Shotgun (3d6/2d4/1d6),  $50

In addition to the cowpokes, cowpunchers, and bandits that the player characters are likely to encounter, the Frontier is home to untold numbers and types of critters. Some come straight out the Wild West genre – the Creek Demon, the Chupacabra, the Hangman Tree, and so on, whilst the Goblin, the Landshark, and the Owlbear come from Dungeons & Dragons. Others, like the Goliath Rat, Sand Dragon, and the Prairie Troll combine the genres. The monsters are nothing more than the bare boned stats, but there is pleasing advice on customising monsters to fit the GM’s Owl Hoot Trail game, including a good example using the Harpy. Elsewhere there is advice for players who have characters with Powers to roleplay their use of Gadgets, Prayers, Spirits, and Tricks as much as roll them. The advice for the GM is short and to the point, it also includes guidelines for setting the tone – ‘Damn Near Realistic’, ‘Horror And Wonder’, and ‘Magic, Like Dust’. The default tone for Owl Hoot Trail is ‘Horror And Wonder’, easily represented by the monsters in the Foes and Monsters chapter. 

Rounding out Owl Hoot Trail is ‘They Rode to Perdition’. Set in and around the town of Perdition, this is a surprisingly lengthy scenario that takes up half of the book! It includes a description of the town and its inhabitants as well as a three act scenario. As written, the town of Perdition is intended to be used after the scenario has been played.

Physically, Owl Hoot Trail is a black and tan affair illustrated with line art, some of it used more than once. The book has a familiar look to it in its choice of typefaces and layout, the effect being to evoke the look of the West, but overall, Owl Hoot Trail is an easy read.

Owl Hoot Trail is a succinct combination of the lovingly familiar – the familiarity of the Wild West, the familiarity of Dungeons & Dragons fantasy, and the familiarity of the d20 System. It brings the flavour and ‘Horror and Wonder’ – and plenty of it – of Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy to the Wild West and keeps it light, cinematic, and flexible. The result is a laidback game that is easy to pick up and grasp, and quick to play and enjoy. Let us hope that Pelgrane Press will let us ride the Owl Hoot Trail again and out onto the range with further releases.

Saturday, 30 November 2013

Misappropriating the Mythos

With a game as old as Call of Cthulhu, it is no surprise that over the years its adventures and scenarios have fallen prey to cliché. Not every adventure and not every scenario to be sure, but too many end up relying on clichés that see the investigators blaze away with their Tommy guns at monsters and madmen alike; cast rituals with little or no consequences; and unearth, if not deities, then alien beings that are all too often like the last alien being they unearthed… Such clichés detract from the intent of such scenarios – to instil horror and dread in the investigators, if not the players. In a quartet of scenarios – The Dying of St. Margarets, The Watchers in the Sky, The Dance in the Blood, and The Rending Box – author Graham Walmsley has previously presented the antithesis to such clichés. Each of the four scenarios, recently collected in the volume, The Final Revelation, is designed for Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane Press’ clue-orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror and written in the game’s Purist mode, a mode in which survival in the face of the unknowable is unlikely… 

Not content with writing scenarios in this purist mode, Walmsley has gone one step further in presenting a means by which we can also think about writing our own – Stealing Cthulhu. Originally funded through IndieGoGo in 2011, Stealing Cthulhu is not a guide to writing scenarios for Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu, or indeed any one of the several RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror currently available. Rather it is a way to look at writing scenarios, specifically Purist scenarios, for any one of them, for Stealing Cthulhu is completely systems neutral, even right down to not supporting Walmsley’s own RPG which is included in the pages of Stealing Cthulhu – ‘Cthulhu Dark’. 

The concept at the heart of Stealing Cthulhu is suggested in the title, and yes, it does involve the theft of Cthulhu. Well almost, for what it actually involves is the theft of ideas from Lovecraft’s original fiction. The author suggests that the Keeper not only go back and reread Lovecraft’s fiction, but having done so, steal his ideas, and then adapt and reuse them, emphasising different aspects, combining different ideas or swapping them, even developing or twisting them in directions that Lovecraft never considered. To illustrate and discuss how this is done, the author draws on a particular type of Lovecraftian tale. Unsurprisingly, that type is Purist in tone and feel and consists of At the Mountains of Madness, The Call of Cthulhu, The Colour Out of Space, The Dreams in the Witch House, Nyarlathotep, The Shadow Out of Time, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and The Whisperer in Darkness. The author in turn steals creatures, scenarios, locations, patterns, themes, and descriptions. 

For example, what would happen if the incidents described in The Shadow Over Innsmouth are recast in Venice Beach, California or Weymouth (your choice of the original Weymouth in Dorset, or in Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tasmania, Auckland, or Barbados, though the Massachusetts might a bit too close to Innsmouth)? How would this change those events? What if instead of a Mi-Go corpse being found washed up on the banks of a river in Vermont as in The Whisperer in Darkness, it was found washed ashore on the beach at Venice Beach or Weymouth? Then again, what if a corpse was found, not with her brain precisely and surgically removed as in The Whisperer in Darkness, but with her reproductive organs missing in a similar manner? Just by thinking through the switching of details and elements, their theft from the original stories begins to open up new scenarios to explore and run. 

In stealing each of these elements, Walmsley does something more – he analyses them, he places them in context, where he can he shows how they can be reconfigured, and he explains why and how they work. He draws parallels – for example, between Colours Out of Space and Lloigor – between elements to illustrate how they can be interchanged and he also suggests what to avoid, such as fish puns in a scenario involving Deep Ones. Lovecraft’s style is not ignored either, Walmsley also dissecting how the author begins and ends a story, creates and maintains horror before increasing it. At every turn Walmsley gives an example to support his ‘criminal’ process of theft and commingling, such that interspersed throughout the tome are a number of detailed scenario outlines that a Keeper worth his essential saltes should be able to develop further.

In examining the primary entities of the Mythos, Walmsley goes beyond Lovecraft’s creations to look at those of Blackwood, Campbell, Chambers, Lumley, and Wilson as well as Lovecraft’s. He still adheres to the key story where they appeared. Despite Stealing Cthulhu’s remit to explore Lovecraft’s Purist tales as they and their elements can be used in RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the book does not ignore those elements that might be seen as their antitheses. More commonly found in the Pulp style of story and thus many a Call of Cthulhu scenario, most notably Masks of Nyarlathotep, they are ‘Fights’, ‘Cultists’, and ‘Rituals’, what Stealing Cthulhu terms ‘Anomalies’. This is not to say that they do not appear in Lovecraft’s stories, but what the author suggests is reinvent them or replace so that they better fit the Purist style.

Rounding out the volume is a trio of appendices. These include a miscellany, a bibliography, and a complete game, ‘Cthulhu Dark’. A version of the latter has since been republished in The Unspeakable Oath #22, but here is the original version. It is a light story telling system that is wholly Purist and ultimately quite unforgiving in its play.

Lightly, but pleasingly illustrated, Stealing Cthulhu is simply laid out, more written as a set of notes or a journal, one in which the author’s voice shines strongly throughout – even though said author’s voice is mild and scholarly – constantly asking the reader, “What if you do this?”. His though is not the only voice in the book. Almost like a Mythos tome itself, there is a version of Stealing Cthulhu that has been annotated, not by one author, but three. Gareth Hanrahan, Ken Hite, and Jason Morningstar, each an author of Mythos related tomes in their own right, adds their own opinions, suggestions, and even counterpoints to Walmsley’s analysis and reconfiguration, and that in addition to the footnotes Walmsley makes on nearly every page. Their commentary expands greatly upon the author’s and furthers his ideas and their application.

Stealing Cthulhu is not a comprehensive tome. It does not deal with each and every one of Lovecraft’s stories nor does it examine all of Lovecraft’s creations, the creatures and entities of the Mythos – yet so many of them are interchangeable that this is a moot point. It focuses solely on the Purist tale, but that is its remit, and anyway so much of its contents could be applied to the Pulp style, were a Keeper so inclined, that again such an issue is moot. It lacks an index, but the layout and organisation is so light that its contents are easy to find.

In the past, attempts at giving advice on creating and running scenarios of Lovecraftian investigative horror, too be honest never more than mere essays, have invariably approached it from a gaming angle. With Stealing Cthulhu the approach is a literary one, one that begins almost a literary analysis of the source material, but the difference is that Walmsley does more than analyse – he applies it, or at least questions and suggests how it can be applied. In doing so, he does not provide the Keeper with a guide to creating and running scenarios of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but rather he gives us the tools and the prompts to think about the process. It may well be a manifesto, or a love letter to the Purist tale, but Stealing Cthulhu resurrects the essential saltes of Lovecraft’s original fiction from the catacombs that the clichés of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying has oft consigned it. Having done so, Stealing Cthulhu thoughtfully and artfully prompts us to sift those saltes into something playable. 

Tuesday, 26 November 2013

The Lion After The Serpent

If you were wondering what had become of The Day After Ragnarok, the 2009 Savage Worlds setting created and written by Ken Hite and published by Atomic Overmind Press, then you are not alone. The award-winning post-WW2, post-apocalypse, post-Ragnarok campaign setting, which has since been adapted for use with Hero Games’ Hero Sixth Edition and more recently for use with Evil Hat Games’ Fate Core, has not received the support that it truly deserves. Ideally, that would be a Plot Point campaign, but in the meantime, the setting has been supported with a half dozen ‘One-Sheet’ adventures and three entries in the Serpent Scales: Fragments From The World After The Serpentfall series. To date, these have visited the rise of the Klan in Serpent Scales #1: The New Konfederacy; examined the STEN Gun in Serpent Scales #2: (Happiness is a) Sten Gun; and even gone ashore in Serpent Scales #3: Return to Monster Island. Now there is a fourth entry in the series, one which comes with a little bit of history of its own.

Available for Savage Worlds and Fate Core, Issue #4 in the Serpent Scales: Fragments From The World After The Serpentfall series is The Lion in Fimbulwinter: Sweden After the Serpentfall. It began life as a Ken Hite authored contribution to the Swedish gaming magazine FENIX for its ‘post-holocaust’ issue, and after all, there is no post-holocaust setting like The Day After Ragnarok. Atomic Overmind Press has taken Hite’s original article and developed it into this fourth entry in the Serpent Scales series. It describes the events in the July 1945 Serpent Fall as they fell upon Sweden, taking them up to the current situation in Sweden in 1948.

Of all the countries of Scandinavia, Sweden is the only one to survive nearly intact. To the west, Denmark and Norway took the brunt of the tsunami that flowed east and west in the wake of Jörmungandr’s atomic-fire induced plummet to earth. Sweden could not avoid the earthquakes or the torrential rain that followed, but despite hundreds of thousands that died, Sweden survived as a nation, although a politically unstable one. Placed east of the Serpent Curtain, Sweden is almost but not quite a client state of Moscow, which cannot be said of its neighbours – Norway and Denmark are both People’s Republics garrisoned by Soviet troops, whilst Stalin incorporated Finland into the USSR directly as the Karelo-Finnish SSR. At home, Sweden remains a monarchy although King Gustav VI Adolf or ‘Comrade G’ was forced to retreat from public life by a Communist government that has since been replaced by a left wing alliance that avoids making radical decisions that might break the government and force external intervention…

Meanwhile, the king’s son, Crown Prince Gustav Adolf, has decamped to the once-German island of Heligoland in the North Sea with much of the Swedish Navy and air force, and declared himself the Royal Governor of Heligoland. It has become a major staging post for ships of the British Royal Navy and for refugees getting out of Soviet occupied Germany – whatever their ‘former’ political allegiances. The British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, supports anti-Communist activities in Sweden, the country serving as the perfect jumping off point to get spies through the Serpent Curtain and back out again. This activity includes research into the oldest runic symbols in Europe; the very ones that the Ahnenerbe scholars are said to have used to summon the Midgard Serpent! Monsters are everywhere, just like the rest of the world, whether that be sinuous serpents newly returned to Sweden’s lakes or the trolls and even more fearsome troll wives that do the bidding of their Frost Giant masters.

Just ten pages long, The Lion in Fimbulwinter is a 2.42 Mb, black and white PDF. It not includes a succinctly written, but nevertheless rich description of a country that is rarely visited in gaming. This presents a fraught nation, desperately trying to rebuild following the Serpentfall whilst staving off the seemingly inevitable Soviet annexation. Although it maintains the high quality in terms of content – content that should spark ideas aplenty for the GM – seen in previous The Day After Ragnarok titles, barring a somewhat silly final scenario seed, what The Lion in Fimbulwinter really lacks is ‘the Top Five’ lists begun in The Day After Ragnarock – such as Top Five Places To Stomp Nazis and Top Five Secret Bases. That said, it is a shorter piece than other titles in the series.

What Serpent Scales #4: The Lion in Fimbulwinter – Sweden presents is the Berlin of the post-Ragnarok world. Which is a little odd given that Hite has already described the city of Tehran, as detailed in his Tehran – Nest of Spies, as being Berlin’s equivalent in The Day After Ragnarok setting, it being the closest non-Soviet capital with an accessible border to the Soviet Union. Perhaps the Berlin of the North of the post-Ragnarok world? If there is a thematic similarity, then the flavour and the tone of The Lion in Fimbulwinter are very different, not as exotic, much dryer, even starker, and colder than Tehran – Nest of Spies

Wednesday, 20 November 2013

Curse of Chaosium V

I begin this review with a confession. As much as I love reading and reviewing titles for Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, and other RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror, I have become loathe to review titles released by the premier publisher for Call of Cthulhu, such that I have two outstanding titles to review – The House of R'lyeh and Atomic Age Cthulhu. The issue is that with each of the previous four titles I reviewed – Curse of the Chthonians: Four Odysseys Into Deadly Intrigue, the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen, the Cthulhu Invictus Companion, and Terror from the Skies: A Race to Save Humanity from a Dark Future – have warranted a singular label, ‘Curse of Chaosium’. In each and every case of these reviews, the titles have been flawed, mishandled, and ill judged, issues that in each and every case can solely be placed at Chaosium’s door. Having to write reviews of such books – books from a publisher whose previous titles I hold in high esteem – is a thrillingly unpleasant exercise in pedantry. Not only do you have to tell the reader that such a book is dreadful and anything other than worthwhile purchase, but you have to catalogue exactly why. To do otherwise, would be a disservice to anyone reading the review.

Thus the ground is laid for me to review the very latest scenario to be released by Chaosium, Inc. for Call of Cthulhu. I approached the prospect of reviewing Canis Mysterium: A Scenario With Bite, which at just thirty-two pages, is perhaps the shortest single scenario ever published, with a certain weariness for Call of Cthulhu. After all, how bad could it be? It certainly could be no worse than the execrable Terror from the Skies, a book so incompetently handled that Chaosium owes an apology to the campaign’s authors. On the other hand, it might surprise me and be as joyously rife with potential as say, the Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep or Tatters of the King. Sadly, Canis Mysterium is nowhere as good as either of those, but then neither is it as appallingly awful as Terror from the Skies. In truth, it is something else, something that we have seen before.

Canis Mysterium is the first scenario to be published by Chaosium in over a decade that visits Lovecraft Country during the Jazz Age, though very late in the Jazz Age, being set in late 1930. True, there have been visits paid by scenarios in Chaosium’s Miskatonic University Library Association Monograph series, though none of those have reached the shelves of your local friendly gaming store; and true, the soon to be lamented Miskatonic River Press has published two excellent books set there – New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley and More Adventures in Arkham Country. Still, Canis Mysterium is the first scenario to be published by Chaosium in over a decade that visits Lovecraft Country during the Jazz Age. It also takes the Keeper and his players to a wholly new part of Lovecraft Country.

Coldwater Falls lies to the lies west of Arkham on the Aylesbury Pike road and Miskatonic River between Dean’s Corners and Dunwich. Primarily a farming town with a textile mill, there is little to distinguish it from its often dark, dismal, and dangerous neighbours. That is until the investigators are summoned to the offices of the University President of Miskatonic University. They are members of the university’s School of Biology, specifically the Department of Psychology, who are asked by the University President to visit Coldwater Falls where the local constable wants help in dealing with a madman who has murdered and partially eaten a young girl.

What the investigators discover is a madman, one who is suffering from the delusion that he is a wolf! The mystery and direction of the investigation in Canis Mysterium concern themselves with how the madman came to suffer his delusion. Discovering this information will require their talking to a few of the inhabitants of the town. For the most part, this is fairly straightforward process apart from getting to one NPC, though this addressed somewhat bluntly towards the scenario’s end.

Canis Mysterium is not a subtle affair. True it foregoes much of Call of Cthulhu’s traditional investigative process, with little in the way of books or newspapers for the characters to peruse, instead opting for a more interactive means of gathering clues. Yet these all but matter not, for in the penultimate scene an NPC that has been pointedly kept away from the investigators, simply turns up and hands them the clue they need. Then in the scenario’s dénouement, the only means presented of the investigators defeating the threat is through violence. Given that in the default set-up for the scenario, the investigators are meant to be students and doctors at Miskatonic University’s Department of Biology, they are very probably ill-suited to such a situation. A situation that is deadly and likely to result in fatalities.

Not that the villain of the piece, or his Ghoul ally – and that is not a spoiler, it appears on the cover – and their plan for revenge on Coldwater Falls are particularly interesting or subtle either. In fact, the plan is straight off of page one of the horror villain’s book of revenge plans. What is vaguely interesting is that if the Keeper wants the investigators to experience this revenge being brought to fruition, he will have to do it all by himself. There are no notes included as to how to do it. That said, if the investigators do bypass the showdown with the villain, then the epilogue at least sees them suffer the consequences of their inaction, though even that is underwritten.

Another problem with Canis Mysterium is Coldwater Falls. It is barely sketched out and leaves little for the Keeper to work with. This raises the question as to why the town is located in Lovecraft Country. It has no bearing upon the scenario such that its plot could be moved to any other town without any changes whatsoever and the investigators could simply work at or be studying at a university other than Miskatonic. 

Physically, the problems with Canis Mysterium start with the cover. It is not a bad cover per se, nor a particularly good cover, it simply gives the scenario away. Inside, the book is neatly and cleanly laid out, though let down by oppressively unsubtle internal illustrations and inexpertly applied editing. Further, the scenario completely lacks maps. There is no plan of the town and there is no floor plan of any of the locations that the investigators will visit. Now the Keeper can get away with running the scenario without any maps, and if it helps, he could just point to the book’s front cover and say to his players, “Your investigators are fighting here!” at the dénouement of Canis Mysterium. Yet if the Keeper wants his investigators to visit Coldwater Falls again, and the means are provided with the scenario seeds included at the back of the book, it would have been useful to have had maps included.

In tone and feel, Canis Mysterium wants to be a Purist affair, but its plot and antagonists are Pulp. It also has the feel of something else, that of a scenario to be found in one of Chaosium’s Miskatonic University Library Association Monographs. Which is not necessarily a sign of quality. Had  Canis Mysterium appeared in a Monograph, then the scenario would not have really stood out from the others in such a volume. Releasing it as a single scenario means it is placed centre stage where its flaws can nothing but stand out. Canis Mysterium: A Scenario With Bite is underdeveloped in terms of support and it underwhelms as a whole, failing to stand out from the pack and more gums at you than bites.