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

Sunday, 29 May 2016

Faith Requires Faith

At some point in the future, mankind’s desire for resources drove society into near perpetual war, followed by collapse, and then tribalism. Mankind only reached the stars when the skies opened, an alien species known as the Corvo dropped onto the planet, established a base, and took humans back as genetically sterile mercenaries. They serve as soldiers in short, sharp deadly engagements in between being kept in cryogenic suspension. Their masters, the Corvo, are an insectoid-like species that has adapted to life in zero gravity, having shifted in their billions to a Dyson sphere constructed of spaceships that continues to grow. Adherents of the radical free market, their traditional enemies, the Iz’kal, are aquatic mammals capable of communicating with each other in a vast hive mind via a hyperlink, who embrace efficiency and state control to an equally radical degree. Other known species include the Raag, aggressive, but honourable clansmen who come from an ice world and use spaceships of ice to raid, search, and trade for goods and supplies to return to their home world. Lastly, the Ravagers consist of genetically acquisitive hives travel from world to world. The stars were reached not by Faster Than Light starships, but by accessing a network of wormholes called the Labyrinth, whose extent remains unknown. Mankind’s arrival upon this galactic stage took place three hundred years ago.

This is the set up for FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG, a Science Fiction RPG originally published in Spanish by Burning Games and then published in English following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Or at least it probably is, because FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG has a number of problems, the first of which is a lack of accessible background or future history. This is a pity because FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG is an attractive package, with superb artwork, a solid set of card driven mechanics, and an attractive set of components. These components consist of character sheets in thick cardboard into which can be slotted tokens for a character’s attributes and skills, affinity and favoured God, tech, bio, and Faith upgrades; Player Decks and Equipment Decks for both the players and the GM; and an NPC Deck for the GM. All of these come in rich, fully painted colour artwork, that do much, much more than the given background to evoke a far future alien setting. Now the background is more along the lines of the following, which is taken from the Kickstarter page for FAITH, but which is not replicated in the core rules, which only serves to make the RPG if not inaccessible, then at least obtuse.
“In FAITH, Gods live side by side with technology and bio experimentation inside the Labyrinth, a gigantic web of wormholes that connects the universe. Meanwhile, a mutant menace silently devours all worlds in its path, rapidly evolving. Welcome to the Universe of FAITH.
None of the species of FAITH have fulfilled the dream of comprehending the vastness of the Universe. It is still a place of wonder, a vast, dark pool of which very little is known, with only a small fraction charted. Only two species, the Corvo and the Iz’kal, are capable of opening wormholes by using enormous amounts of energy. However, they cannot decide where these wormholes will take them and their exits appear to be totally random.
Both species found the Labyrinth, a natural web of wormholes, and explored it from different exits unaware of each other, conquering and mining dozens of systems before coming face to face. Now they fight a cold war for its control, racing to conquer as many exits as they can before the other.”
Notably the opening sentence of this description is what marks FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG—“In FAITH, Gods live side by side with technology and bio experimentation…”—that and of course the game’s title. Most Science Fiction RPGs either tend to ignore religion, certainly as being intrinsic to a player character, or opt for monotheism, or set it in the very far future after some kind of disaster. GDW’s Traveller is an example of the first, Holistic Design’s Fading Suns an example of the second, and TSR, Inc.’s Empire of the Petal Throne: The World of Tékumel, an example of the third. Not so FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG, where gods and thus faith are part of the setting and the mechanics. Five are described. Ergon favours selflessness and happiness, Kavliva values strength and ambition, Vexal favours freedom and respect for individuality, Hexia values the pursuit of knowledge for the common good, and Ledger favours individualism above and the chaos it can reap. Of the five only Ledger does not have cults organised around his worship. Anyone who embodies the commandments of one of these gods may be granted gifts or Divine Upgrades and become a Soulbender. 

Now exactly how there came be gods in the setting of FAITH and how they came to be first encountered is never explored in FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG. Although they remain intangible, proof of their existence lies not just in the faith that their worshippers have in them, but also in the favours they grant. Especially to their soulbenders.

A character is defined by six attributes and ten skills. Of the attributes, ‘Link’ represents a character’s ability to understand and interact with technology as well as limiting the number of Tech Upgrades he can have, whilst ‘Faith’ defines his ability to connect or communicate with the Gods, his conviction in those Gods, and limits the number of Divine upgrades he can have. The skills are fairly broad, so Cunning covers all deception and stealth-related actions; Hacking covers breaking into electronic devices and computers as well as protecting them against such attempts; and Profession covers everything related to a character’s job, from knowledge to pay, but not an actual skill. So a character with the Piloting and Medical skills might take Emergency Medical Technician as his Profession or Mercenary if he had the Ballistic, Close Quarters Combat, and Athletic skills.

Each character also has an Affinity. This is for one of the four suits in each Player Deck—Nature, Urban, Space, and OS (Operating System)—representing where the character grew up, was trained, and so on. Of the five races available, the Corvo start the game cortex connector Tech Upgrade and can connect it to a device via their tails. The Corvo also have an innate Affinity for Space. The Iz’kal are amphibious and via a biological Hyperlink can connect to and form hive minds, although some lose this ability through trauma. Humans are resourceful and so hold more cards from their Player Decks in their hand and are always at an advantage when taking athletic actions. The Raag are simply large and tough, whilst the Ravagers can have more Bio Upgrades, can change them, and scavenge them by eating other characters. They also possess a natural LinkWave to communicate with each other, but this can be hacked. Ravagers come in a variety of forms, from Infiltrators and Ironskins to Swarmers and Technos.

Characters can also have upgrades. These can be Tech Upgrades, Bio Upgrades, or Divine Upgrades. Bio Upgrades available number twenty and include Echolocation, Improved Build, Powered Reflexes, Tissue Regeneration, and so on. Tech Upgrades number just twelve and range from Atomic Balance and Bionic Arm to Optical Disruptor and Shielded Skull. Basically, Bio Upgrades are bioware and Tech Upgrades are cyberware, both familiar from fiction and other RPGs, but Divine Upgrades are granted by one the five gods in FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG. They include Extended Awareness and Phantom from Kaliva; Gravity Shift and Planeswalker from Vexal; Altered Reality and Future Sight from Hexia; and so on. There are a total five Divine Upgrades for each of the five gods. Characters do not necessarily begin play with Divine Upgrades, but must roleplay adhering to the commandments of their chosen god in order to earn them. 

To create a character, a player selects a Species, an Affinity, a God, and sets his Skills—one at 5, one at 4, two at 3, two at 2, three at 1, and the  last three at 0; distribute ten points between his character’s Attributes and Upgrades; and lastly, purchase equipment. Once done these elements are represented by tokens that can be slotted into the character sheet. A character’s gear—smart suits, robots, armour, weapons, and more—are each represented by a card taken from the Gear Deck.

Our sample character is Ottilie Creagan, an Earth native who signed on with a mercenary company, the Leung Action Group, employed by the Corvo. She has been trained as an Emergency Medical Operative to work combat and/or high risk situations. Although the Leung Action Group has combat contracts with the Corvo, she is currently assigned to an Emergency Rescue Services contract in Tiantang, the near-Dyson Sphere that is home to the majority of the Corvo.

Ottilie Creagan (Specialist/1)
Affinity: Space
God: Ergon

Agility 02 Constitution 02 Dexterity 03
Link 02 Mind 02 Faith 02

Physical Health: 4
Neural Health: 4

Ballistic 1, Close Quarters Combat 2, Hacking 0, Piloting 2, Cunning 0, Survival 0, Initiative 1, Athletic 3, Medical 5, Technical 3, Extravehicular Activity 4, Profession 1 (Emergency Rescue Operative)

Bio Upgrades:
Tech Upgrades: Bionic Arm (Surgery Kit), Cortex Connector

To undertake an action, a character uses cards from a Player Deck. Each player, plus the GM, receives one of these, a fifty-four card deck divided into the four suits—Urban, Wilderness, Spaces, and OS—plus two Jokers. All of the Jokers go into the GM’s Player Deck. Note that each Player Deck is a similar to a standard deck of playing card and if a player does not have one to hand, he can use a standard deck instead of a Player Deck. A character will draw from his Player Deck so that he has seven cards in his hand at the start of a session and then at the start of each scene. He will play cards from this hand whenever there is Confrontation and his action is opposed. Starting with an Action Value equal to the total of the appropriate Attribute and Skills, for example Dexterity and Piloting to manoeuvre a shuttle into a field of debris, a character can play cards from his hand to increase the total of the Action Value. The maximum number of cards he can play being limited by the Attribute.

Unless opposed by another player character, the total that a character has to beat is set by the GM playing cards from his Player Deck. The GM is limited to an Attribute value equal to the player character he is confronting, but no skill. He also has the benefit of Jokers which can negate the value of the last card played by a character and of two Advantages which the character has to overcome by countering them with Advantages granted by equipment and Upgrades lest he be in ‘Inferiority’ and have the number of cards he can play reduced by one. If a character’s Action Value exceeds the opposing value by five, he achieves a decisive success and a critical success if the Action Value exceeds the value by ten.

Ambience and Affinity add a pair of interesting wrinkles to a player’s management of his hand. Play a card whose suit matches the environment and a player can immediately draw a new card, but if he plays a card whose suit matches both the environment and his designated Affinity, he gets to draw two cards and keep one. Proficiency, that is, playing a card equal to or less than the skill a character is using in a Confrontation, he is being proficient and the effort has not yet exhausted himself, so again, he can draw a card.
For example, Ottilie Creagan is on a rescue mission aboard a spaceship that has suffered a reactor failure. She has located one of the engineers, badly injured and in a compartment that is in danger of imminent explosive decompression. She needs to stabilise him fast if she is to get him out of danger. The GM determines that this is a Confrontation. Ottilie has a starting Action Value of 8, equal to her Dexterity and Medical, and can play a total of three cards. The GM has a starting Action Value of 3, equal to Ottilie’s Dexterity and can also play a total of three cards. This being aboard a spaceship, the environment is Space, which matches Ottilie’s Affinity.
Although Ottilie has a Bionic Arm Tech Upgrade with Surgery Kit, this is not enough to counter the GM’s Advantages, so she is in Inferiority and can only play two cards instead of three. Fortunately, she can pull out a shot of Nano Surgeons from her medical kit and deliver those. This allows her to draw more cards from her Player Deck.
The aim of these card driven mechanics is not to negate the presence of luck or chance in the game, but to favour a player in handling his character’s luck from scene to scene. A player will always start a scene with seven cards in his hand and they become the resources he has to manage for that scene. Of course, chance is involved in drawing cards when refreshing his hand from scene to scene, but under the right circumstances this can be offset by Ambience, Affinity, and Proficiency that will enable him to keep drawing cards as he plays them. Further, since a player knows what is in his Player Deck, he at least knows what he has used and is thus still available as the game progresses until the Player Deck is emptied and the discard pile reshuffled.

Physically FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG is actually physically imposing, coming as it does in a large, square board game-like box. Inside can be found cards galore—the Player Decks, the Gear and NPC Decks, the thick cardboard character sheets, and the tokens to slot into the sheets. All of which are done in gorgeous full colour with fantastic artwork. The writing in general is clear, but really it could do with more examples, a fuller example of play, of character generation, and of course, a history and some objectives… let alone an adventure or two.

Ultimately what sells FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG is its art and its art alone. This is not because it is the only thing that the designers got right. There are after all, plenty of things that the designers also got right—the mechanics, the background of the various races, and so on. What the designers got wrong is the lack of an elevator pitch with which to sell the game, a lack of history to the game, a lack of background to the game, a lack of purpose to the game, and lastly, a lack of coordination that ties everything together into a cohesive whole. Essentially, FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG is a game without a frame to hold everything together. The individual parts do work together, so that the rules work with the characters and the races and the gods, and so on, but in doing so the game feels fragile and incomplete because there is sense of history or story to the setting.

Simple, beautiful, and not without promise, FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG is far from unplayable, but it is undeveloped and leaves more work for the GM to do than it should.


In the meantime, Burning Games has launched a Kickstarter campaign for FAITH: A Garden in Hell - Starter Set, which aims to address the problems in the core set. By presenting an overhauled ruleset and a complete campaign set a world in danger of falling to a Ravager Hive, it will also provide a more accessible means of getting into FAITH: the Sci-Fi RPG. The publisher also has plans later in the year to kickstart FAITH: Gates to the Universe, a sourcebook for the game’s setting.


Burning Games will be at UK Games Expo.

Saturday, 28 May 2016

Shoulderpads Against Evil

Best known for publishing Acthung! Cthulhu, the Call of Cthulhu campaign set during World War II, in 2013, Modiphius Entertainment has diversified into board games, miniatures games, and RPGs old and new. The new might be Fragged Empire and the forthcoming Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, the old is definitely Mutant Chronicles: Techno Fantasy Roleplaying Game. Originally published in Sweden in 1993 by Target Games and subsequently translated into English, the setting of the RPG was also developed into a collectible card game, a miniatures wargame, a video game, a film, and more. Following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Modiphius Entertainment has published the Third Edition.

With the publication of the Third Edition, the RPG has been given a full development and presentation of the Mutant Chronicles future history and background, a new set of mechanics, and an expanded set of playing options. The new mechanics come courtesy of Jay Little, whose credits include Star Wars Edge of the Empire Roleplaying, the Star Wars Edge of the Empire Beginner Game, Star Wars Age of Rebellion Roleplaying, and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay 3rd Edition, and new rulebook comes packaged in a dense, full colour, four-hundred-and-ninety-four rulebook.

The future history of Mutant Chronicles begins in the late twenty-first century as the competition for depleted resources and environmental collapse drives political power into the hands of four corporations—Bauhaus, Capitol, Imperial, and Mishima. Within two centuries they will have replaced Earth governments, explored and initiated terraforming projects across the inner Solar System, and then evacuated Earth. By the twenty-fifth century, the Germanic and European-influenced Bauhaus has bioengineered Venus into a lush jungle world; the American-influenced Capitol has turned the Martian plains into mankind’s new food basket; the British and Commonwealth-influenced Imperial, more a coalition of smaller corporations and clans has spread itself through the Asteroid Belt; and the Japanese Mishima has made its home on Mercury. At the height of mankind’s technological ‘Golden Age’ with the construction of SolarComm, a Solar System-wide communication system and the first computer intelligences, an Imperial survey mission to Pluto uncovers an artifact that unleashes the ‘Big Scream’ that corrupts A.I.s and advanced electronics, causing the collapse of the intersystem finance system and corporate society,  and forcing everyone to downgrade to older, more reliable technology. This is known as the ‘Fall’.

In the wake of the ‘Fall’, heightened tensions drive the corporations to armed conflict with each other in the first of a series of corporate wars. Initially, the technological regression caused by the Fall hampers the war, but the discovery of the Rift Drive enables faster travel across the Solar System and spreads the fight. The First Corporate War is brought to end by a new religion that warns of the true threat behind the Fall and the war, the Dark Symmetry. Revealing both this truth and their abilities to combat the Dark Symmetry, known as the ‘Art’, the religion’s founders established The Brotherhood in 2580 AD and with it the beginning of a new calendar. Even as Nathaniel Durand, the first Cardinal of the Brotherhood preached against the Dark Symmetry, the First Seal of Repulsion would be broken within a decade on the newly discovered planet of Nero and unleash its physical power—the Dark Legions. Led by four Dark Apostles—Ilian, Mistress of the Dark Symmetry, Algeroth, Apostle of War, Muawijhe, the Apostle of Madness, and Semai, the Apostle of Spite—Dark Citadels are dropped upon world upon world to unleash horrifying armies that spread chaos and horror. The armies of the Dark Apostles are comprised of Legionnaires, the resurrected corpses of fallen soldiery; the humanoid, though hideously modified Necromutants; the towering and much feared humanoids known as Nepharites; and the Centurions, the field commanders for the Apostles. Only by cooperating with each other and the Brotherhood are the Dark Legions driven back. 

The Dark Legions would openly attack humanity twice more over the course of the next millennium and continue to lure humanity with promises of great power at other times. Although they would also go to war with each other also, the corporations were driven to work together, even going so far as to form the Cartel, a neutral venue to handle diplomatic relations and coordinate military and law enforcement activities. This includes the elite Doomtroopers, soldiers recruited from the best of the corporations’ militaries, and Luna PD, charged to keep the peace in Luna City, now regarded as mankind’s new home. They are also joined by two new corporations, Whitestar, a Russian corporation that has survived the nuclear winter on Earth, and Cybertronic, a secretive corporation distrusted for its use of advanced technologies and artificial intelligences.

This is set-up for Mutant Chronicles, an RPG of inter-corporate rivalry and conflict whilst under the threat of a corrupting evil. Campaigns can focus on the corporate conflict and espionage; on the fight against the Dark Legions with the corporations or Doomtroopers; on protecting mankind as Luna PD operatives or Brotherhood acolytes; and more. The RPG allows for play during more than one era—the Dark Legion era, a millennium after the founding of the Brotherhood and the original period for Mutant Chronicles; the Dark Symmetry era that runs from a period of high technology through the Fall and beyond; and the Dark Eden era, a time of high conflict which is only hinted at in the core rules.

Mutant Chronicles supports this with detailed background material for each the corporations—Bauhaus, Capitol, cybertronic, Imperial, and Mishima—as well each of the other factions. This includes the Brotherhood, Luna PD—the city of Luna is also detailed and given a map, the Cartel, and Whitestar, plus each of the Dark Apostles and their Dark Legions. Although there are sourcebooks forthcoming for the RPG and its various factions, there is enough information here to support various styles of games, whether fighting the Dark Legions or fighting between the corporations. Potential iconic roles possible for the player characters include Heretics; Inquisitors, Mortificators, and Mystics of the Brotherhood; Conquistadors—explorers, spies, and traders; Murders & Acquisitions Agents or Blood Berets—both working for Imperial; Corporate Samurai, Shadow Walkers, or Triad Enforcers of Mishima; Technological Archaeologists, Security, Warfare, and Intelligence Cyber-Infiltrators, and Cyberscientists of Cybertronic; Bone Hussars, Resectors, and Night Witches of Whitestar; Luna PD Detectives and Doomtroopers of Luna PD and the Cartel; Celebrities, Politicians, and Freedom Brigade soldiers of Capitol; and Venusian Marshals, Merchant Captains, and Rakes of Bauhaus. All these roles are available to play in Mutant Chronicles.

A character in Mutant Chronicles is defined by eight attributes—Agility, Awareness, Coordination, Intelligence, Mental Strength, Personality, Physique and Strength. They typically range between six and twelve with higher values being better. He will also have any number of skills, each defined by two factors, Expertise and Focus. Expertise represents general training, whilst Focus is disciplined practice necessary to most of a skill. Both range between one and three, but a character can have up to three signature skills that can have an Expertise and a Focus of five each. In addition many skills have associated Talents. For example, the Survival skill related Talents begin with ‘Self Sufficient’ and have ‘Risks’ ‘Remedies’, and ‘Rewards’ on one branch, ‘Tracker’ on the second, and ‘Scrounger’ and ‘Provider’ on the third. Most Talents have prerequisites in terms of skills and often Talents too.

Creating a character in Mutant Chronicles involves putting him through a Lifepath consisting of eight decisions. Taking a character through all eight decisions—Attributes, Birth Faction, Status, Environment, Education, Primary Career, and Iconic Careers—generates his background, attributes, skills, and talents. Throughout a player is free to choose from the options available in terms of attributes, skills, and talents, but each time a decision comes up, a player must decide to roll randomly to determine what happens, although certain decisions, such as those related to a character’s careers, he can instead spend a Life point to choose himself. The latter is the only way of creating certain types of character, for example, a member of the Brotherhood. Life points can also be spent to take more careers. Any Life points left unspent at the end of the process can be used to improve the Expertise or Focus of any skill or to purchase assets.

Our sample character is Harold Jones, a Blood Beret with ten years service with Imperial military, two of them as a Blood Beret. He was conscripted into the military in return for the remainder of his prison sentence being commuted. The exact details of his crime has been sealed. Part of the sentence being commuted also involved medical research, but exactly what Jones does not know.

Harold Jones
Age: 32
Agility 10 Awareness 09 Coordination 10 Intelligence 09
Mental Strength 08 Personality 06 Physique 12 Strength 12

Chronicle Points: 4

Head: 4, Torso: 9, Arms 6, Legs: 7
Serious: 8 Critical: 5
Mental Wounds: 08
Bonus Damage: +3
Influence: +0

Faction: Freelancer
Heritage: Corporation (Imperial)
Faction Event: Grandfather’s Pistol (Old Aggressor)
Status: Working Lower Class
Earnings: 2 (Average)
Environment: Victoria (Asteroid Belt)
Education: Technical On-the-Job Training
Career: Technical
Primary Career: Military (Basic)
Primary Career: Unemployed
Primary Career Event: They’re on to me!; Helped Solve a serious crime
Iconic Career: Blood Beret
Iconic Career Event: Volunteered for a successful military experiment

Languages: Imperial, Luna Patois

Acrobatics (Expertise 3, Focus 0), Athletics (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Close Combat (Expertise 3, Focus 2), Command (Expertise 2, Focus 0), Education (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Lifestyle (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Mechanics (Expertise 3, Focus 1), Observation (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Pilot (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Ranged Weapons (Expertise 4, Focus 3), Resistance (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Stealth (Expertise 2, Focus 0), Survival (Expertise 2, Focus 0), Thievery (Expertise 1, Focus 0)

Under the Radar, Criminal Record, Paranoid, Curse of the Mayfly; Good Impression (Lifestyle); No Mercy, Deflection (Close Combat); Sniper (Ranged Combat); Scout (Stealth); Natural Engineer (Mechanics)

Third Place sports trophy, work goggles (cracked lenses), dad’s wrench (cudgel), video of grandad meeting someone important, cabin class ticket to Luna (50% paid), fast food chain loyalty discount card, dog tags; owed favour; basic repair kit; basic, worn clothing; small suburban apartment; Mk. XLIII Plasma Carbine, Mk. XIV Aggressor Pistol, Mk. III Combat Armour, Dagger

Mutant Chronicles uses the 2d20 System—and was the first to do so. Simply each time a character wants to take an action, he rolls two twenty-sided dice, aiming to roll low. This roll is made against an attribute or against an attribute plus the Expertise value of a skill. Each roll under this value generates a success. Further successes can be generated if the roll is also under the Focus value of a skill. The number of successes are measured against the Difficulty Rating of the task, one being average. Any successes generated above the Difficulty Rating are counted as Momentum and these can be spent for various effects. For example, to learn more information, reduce time taken, improve the quality of the check, and so on, whilst in combat they could be used to increase the damage, target a specific area, or disarm an opponent. A player character also has access to Chronicle Points. A player character typically enters play with between two and four of these and can earn more for good roleplaying, clever plans, teamwork, overcoming challenges, and so on. When spent they can be used to add an extra twenty-sided die and gain an automatic success of one; perform an additional action; and recover from Light Wounds.
For example, Harold Jones needs to fix a truck fast. The GM assigns it a Difficulty Rating of one. Harold’s target is twelve—equal to his Intelligence plus the Expertise value for his Mechanic skill—and rolls two twenty-sided dice. He rolls a 9 and a 1. The 9 is a success, but the 1 is equal to Harold’s Focus for the skill and this not only generates a success, it generates an extra success. Harold has three successes. These are counted against the task’s Difficulty Rating and the excess gives him two Momentum to spend. Harold spends one to improve the quality of the repair—it will hold if the truck gets damaged—and the other to cut the time taken to do the repair.
Where the players have their Chronicle Points, the GM has a pool of Dark Symmetry points. These are gained when a player character suffers repercussions after a failed skill roll—invariably when a natural twenty is rolled, decides to voluntarily fail rather than fail badly because the odds are against him, or needs more dice to roll on a difficult skill check. They can also be gained from dark artefacts or cursed locations, and there are even enemies that can generate them. The GM can then spend them to activate NPC abilities, interrupt the player characters with a complication, or to trigger a complication.

Besides the standard twenty-sided dice, Mutant Chronicles uses Dark Symmetry dice. These are six-sided dice where only the rolls of one, two, or six count. In general, they are used as effect dice, for example, when rolling damage in combat. Here rolls of one and two represent extra damage and rolls of six trigger special effects. The dice themselves are marked with one and two star-like symbols and then the Dark Symmetry symbol for the six. The dice have the numbers three, four, and five on them, but these have no effect and are ignored. 

The rules are quite complex, which is no surprise given what they have to cover and the RPG’s origins. So combat has to not only detail fights between individuals, but also between vehicles and between spacecraft, and not just madness, but also the possibility and effects of corruption and falling into darkness. The corruptive influence of the Dark Symmetry will constantly weigh upon the minds of the player characters when they find themselves facing its servants. For the corrupt and heretical cultists of the Dark Symmetry and its Apostles, there are some nasty ‘Gifts’ they can be granted. These are of course intended for use by the NPCs, but should a player character fall prey to the Dark Symmetry… Each of the Apostles and the various soldiery of their Legions are also described and detailed.

Fortunately, the player characters have plenty of guns to array against the Dark Legions—and Mutant Chronicles includes an extensive list of arms and armour with which to equip the militaries of the five corporations and the four Drak Legions, and also the player characters—but when they fail, there is also the Art of the Light. Most of its practitioners are inducted into the Brotherhood in childhood and given further training, learning how to cast an array of spells and to spot the influence of the Dark Symmetry. A few spells are known to all Mystics of the Brotherhood, but most are broken into Aspects, including Kinetics, Mentalism, Exorcism, and Manipulation. Like skills, each Aspect has its own associated Talents. Mysticism and membership of the Brotherhood is only open to the player characters during character generation and a Mystic character has to be wholly designed rather than be left to chance.

Our sample member of the Brotherhood grew up sequestered on Earth in a wealthy Whitestar affiliated family until the Brotherhood came for her. Bronya does not know why her parents did not refuse the Brotherhood’s request, but wonders if this was due to the strange ability she has to mimic the abilities of others… Prior to being appointed as a Mystic, Bronya has spent a relatively cloistered life, although in order to gain an understanding of life for the common man, she has worked for two years as a Medical Responder in Luna City.

Bronya Leung
Age: 24
Agility 07 Awareness 13 Coordination 08 Intelligence 13
Mental Strength 15 Personality 08 Physique 07 Strength 05

Chronicle Points: 2

Head: 2, Torso: 6, Arms 3, Legs: 4
Serious: 5 Critical: 3
Mental Wounds: 15
Bonus Damage: +0
Influence: +0

Faction: Whitestar
Faction Event: Given a Dark Eden Survival Kit
Status: Upper
Earnings: 4 (Affluent)
Environment: Sequestered (Central Bunkers)
Education: Brotherhood Apprenticeship
Career: Academic
Primary Career: Academic (Researcher)
Primary Career: Medical (First Responder)
Primary Career Event: Someone is keeping an eye on me!
Iconic Career: Mystic
Iconic Career Event: Volunteered for a successful military experiment

Languages: RussoMandarin, Luna Patois

Athletics (Expertise 2, Focus 0), Close Combat (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Education (Expertise 5, Focus 2), Insight (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Lifestyle (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Linguistics (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Medicine (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Mysticism (Expertise 2, Focus 1),  Observation (Expertise 3, Focus 0), Persuade (Expertise 2, Focus 0), Psychotherapy (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Resistance (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Sciences (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Survival (Expertise 1, Focus 0), Treatment (Expertise 2, Focus 1), Willpower (Expertise 2, Focus 0)

Comrade-Citizen of Whitestar, Right of Adoption, Mystic, Mutant, Spiritual Understanding, Disciplined Student, Spot Context, Physician , Under Surveillance, Sharp Senses, Arts (Blessing), Violaceum Minoris (Inner Gaze spell)

Basic Survival Kit; Statuette of someone famous, VIP club membership card, grandmother’s ceremonial sword, family portrait; large wardrobe; large apartment in exclusive tenement in city centre; High society clothing, relic, meditation room, personal library; Brotherhood symbol pendant, Brotherhood robes, Book of the Law; Hospital Class Medkit, ballistic medic’s uniform; Power controller, armoured robes, combat helmet

Besides the three basic spells—Blessing, Contempt, and Succour, the Art is divided into various Aspects including Kinetics, Mentalism, Exorcism, and Manipulation. Each Aspect consists of a series of twinned Talents and spells, so that when a new Talent is taken, the Brother also receives the associated spell, for example, the Rubrum Minoris Talent from the Aspect of Kinetics grants the spell Impel. In play when a Mystic of the Brotherhood casts a spell he has another means to gain extra twenty-sided dice—he can voluntarily suffer mental wounds. He can still gain extra dice by adding points to the GM’s Dark Symmetry pool, but for each die gained, the Dark Symmetry pool gains two points. This of course reflects the Dark Symmetry’s willingness to subvert wielders the Arts of Light. Repercussions suffered when attempting to cast spells typically the form of Mental Wounds and other debilitating mental effects. Spellcasting is mechanically no more complex than any other action, but it does feel odd to have characters casting spells in a Science Fiction setting and by members of a monotheistic faith...   

As well as the extensive background to the setting and factions of Mutant Chronicles, including a map and lengthy description of Luna City, the GM is given numerous NPC descriptions and write-ups that can be found throughout the book. These nicely colour and a personal touch to the setting. The GM is also accorded extensive advice and support that covers how to run the game and how to be a GM; how to set up and run scenes, for example, chase, investigation, and exploration scenes; the types of games that can be run, such as character drama, action and heroics, hardboiled investigation, and merciless boardroom; and the types of campaign that can be run. Of course being a larger book allows Mutant Chronicles to explore all of this in some detail and in the process really help a GM set up his Mutant Chronicles game.

Physically, Mutant Chronicles is a dense, full colour hardback. The book is well written and organised, in particular, the secrets of the setting being very clearly marked. Though their placement, sometimes a bit too close to information that will be read by the players, like that of the secrets of the setting’s timeline, which is placed very close to the front of the book. If anything lets down the presentation of Mutant Chronicles, it is the variable quality of the book’s artwork. Much of it is very good and captures the scale, feel, and horror of the setting, but elsewhere it is often too cartoon-like in style, especially in its depiction of the oversize shoulder pads that seem to proliferate the artwork.

Mutant Chronicles draws comparison with two other RPGs. One is Fantasy Flight Games' Dark Heresy, the other is Fading Suns from Holistic Designs. All three possess similar elements—societies that have suffered traumas and infighting, high technologies that have been lost or discarded, and religions that are fundamental to seeking out and thwarting an evil that threatens to destroy mankind. Both Fading Suns and Dark Heresy are baroque in tone and feel, both are set in the far, far future, both are set across multiple star systems, plus the setting of Dark Heresy involves more traditional fantasy elements, such as Orcs and Elves and so on… In comparison, Mutant Chronicles is set in a relatively more immediate future, is limited to just the Solar System, its threats are of a familiar nature, and so the setting is much, much more accessible.

Another aspect that separates Mutant Chronicles is its approach to technology. It ‘Dieselpunk’ aesthetic is not just for show. In the future of the Mutant Chronicles, technology has regress because of the ability of the Dark Symmetry to subvert sophisticated electronics, forcing society to rely on heavier, bulkier, and sturdier designs more akin to that of the mid-twentieth century. Advanced, sometimes ancient technology does exist—and later in the setting sophisticated technology does make a return with the foundation of Cybertronic—it is still feared for its ‘unreliability’ and its ‘untrustworthiness’.

Despite the redesign, Mutant Chronicles still cannot escape a certain sense of familiarity in terms of tone and setting. This is of course due to its set-up of inter-corporate rivalries in the face of a bigger, external threat, which comes from it being based upon a miniatures wargame and thus the wargame needing reasons for the factions and thus the players to fight. The bigger, external threat, Dark Symmetry and its Dark Legions, provide much of the tone, the need for the grime and the diesel-punk grit, a demonic evil represented a ‘four horsemen of the apocalypse’ (from another dimension), but without the need for inherent chaos or spikes. If the Mutant Chronicles RPG of the 1990s was really an adjunct to the miniatures game, Modiphius Entertainment’s Mutant Chronicles: Techno Fantasy Roleplaying Game is a muscular redevelopment, presenting a set of rules that provide the grit and the detail you would want from a wargame-inspired RPG, yet still with capacity for cinematic play and player input via the application of Momentum. This is backed up with background, NPCs, and inspiration in abundance.


Modiphius Entertainment will be at UK Games Expo.

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

"Is this gonna be a standup fight, sir, or another bughunt?"

Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace is as straightforward a source book as you might want for a military Science Fiction game. It is the future. There are giant alien bugs trying to kill us in space. Go shoot things. More specifically, the setting for Bug Hunts is the 23rd Century. In the one hundred years and more since the invention of hypersleep technology made faster-than-light travel a possibility, mankind has established hundreds of colonies, outposts, and bases. Nowhere did mankind find intelligent life, but that would change in 2239 with an encounter with bug-like Xeno-Parasites on Draper’s World, followed in 2246 with the psychic, aggressive ‘Araknyds’, in the Centaurus Arm. In the forty years since the first encounter, mankind encounters multiple species, many capable of travel between worlds, some infecting whole colonies and outposts, others invading. This culminates in 2283 in a meteor strike on Earth, which turns out to be an invasion. 

Shortly after the encounter on Draper’s World, mankind’s leading corporation, STAR Industries, wins the bid to privatise interstellar defence. It establishes the STAR Pan-System Marine Corps or STAR Marines, who train to fight the bugs. Although it consists of multiple regiments, the STAR Marines’ primary deployment is as STAR Marine Expeditionary Units, each consisting of three platoons and three dropships plus a headquarters unit carried aboard a Demeter-class cruiser. Although every STAR Marine is a rifleman, four in each platoon are specialists. They operate heavy weapons in the main, but each is also capable of operating a Phalanx Combat Exo-suit, advanced, powered combat armour capable of wielding railguns, heavy auto-carbines, and flamethrowers.

This then is the setting for Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace, a Science Fiction source book published by Osprey Publishing under its Osprey Adventures imprint. Although the publisher is best known for its military source books, it has in recent years began publishing more esoteric source books on subjects such as Knights Templar: A Secret History and Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam; boardgames like They Come Unseen and the forthcoming new edition of Escape from Colditz; and wargames rules such as Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City.

Although Bug Hunts presents a future for mankind going out into space, it primarily focuses on our first, disastrous encounters with the various insectoid species, followed on our attempts to stop them. As well as timeline, it includes plenty of details of both sides in the ongoing war—each of the insect-like alien species as well as the STAR Pan-System Marine Corps. This covers the formation and organisation of the STAR Marines, plus their tactics and equipment. Particular attention is paid to the latter, complete with illustrations.

There is no denying that Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace is very obvious as a setting. Nor is it particularly original, given that it wears its influences in the head-up display of the STAR Pan-System Marine Corps MK II Tactical Helmet. These are the films Alien and Aliens as well as Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (as opposed to the book the film is based on by Robert A. Heinlein) with just a little hint of the classic board game, Space Hulk. The latter is of course no surprise, given that the author of Bug Hunts is a former editor of White Dwarf. Now despite the lack of originality, what this means that both the setting and the point of Bug Hunts are highly accessible and easy to grasp and then easy to adapt to the game system of your choice.

Physically, Bug Hunts is a nicely illustrated book. The writing is clear and the book’s content is easy to grasp. One issue might be that the book is perhaps underwritten, but if there really is an issue with Bug Hunts it is in the lack of the game system of your choice. Now obviously the book is written as a systemless setting, ready to adapt to said setting of your choice, but there is a complete dearth of advice or suggestions as what that system might be, of how to use it as a background for a game, and so on. It is not even as if Osprey Publishing publishes rules for the Bug Hunts setting or any Science Fiction setting. None of this should present too much of a challenge to an experienced gamer, but a gamer with less experience might have some difficulty in either choosing the right rules or adapting the setting of Bug Hunts to those rules. 

In terms of wargaming, Reviews from R’lyeh is not best placed to make suggestions as to what rules to use, although Northstar Figures and Copplestone Castings do manufacture some suitable minaitures. In terms of roleplaying, Savage Worlds is an obvious choice since it handles small scale skirmish engagements as well as roleplaying. It is probably best used in conjunction with the RPG's Science Fiction Companion since it will provide rules and mechanics for many of the elements of the Bug Hunts setting. Other generic RPGs would also be suitable, such as Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS or Mongoose Publishing’s version of Traveller.

Ultimately the problem with Bug Hunts is twofold. The first is its content, which far from being being unusable or unplayable, feels more familiar than it does fresh. The second is its lack of application and suggestions as to how the content is used, the inclusion of which might have countered the problem with the familiar feel of the content. The combination of both issues means that Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace is more likely to underwhelm than it is enthrall.


Osprey Publishing will at UK Games Expo.

Sunday, 22 May 2016

Game 'Old Style' like its 2013

The Black Hack could be described as being like Original Dungeons & Dragons, but… Published by Gold Piece Publications following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the ‘but…’ involves the adoption of two modern design features that serve to streamline the senisibilities and structure of the original RPG without losing either. These two design features consist of having a single integrated mechanic and making play player facing. The result is a slick, simple addition to the Old School Renaissance family that can be used to run any scenario for Basic Dungeons & Dragons or its Retroclone derivatives.

The easiest way to explore The Black Hack is to look at a character. A character has the same six attributes as Dungeons & Dragons, but there are no attribute bonuses. It should be noted that whilst the basic roll to determine the value of an attribute is the traditional 3d6, it switches to 2d6+2 for the next attribute roll if the previous roll resulted in fifteen or more, before switching back to 3d6. This is an odd mechanic, but it mostly serves as a balancing factor in a retroclone where a character’s attributes play a major role. Also noticeably absent is Armour Class. Instead a character has Armour Points derived from the armour he is wearing and these points are ablative. 

Rogi the Brave
First Level Warrior
STR 15 DEX 10 CON 10
INT 10 WIS 12 CHA 13

Hit Points: 12
Armour Points: 12 (Plate & Mail, Large Shield)
Weapons: Sword (1d8)

Every character also has a Class and since The Black Hack is derived from Original Dungeons & Dragons, there are only four and none represent the classic fantasy races of Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings as in Basic Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, The Black Hack is entirely humanocentric, its four Classes being Warrior, Cleric, Thief, and Conjurer. (There is already one expansion, The Race Hack, published by Cross Planes Game Studio, which addresses this issue with two options, one being to combine Class and Race as in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, the other being to allow Race to be played as a Class as per Basic Dungeons & Dragons. The first option presents nine Races—drakes, dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, halfling, half-orcs, humans, and tiefling, whilst the second offers the Dwarf, the Elf, and the Halfling. A second expansion, The Class Hack, adds another ten Classes, mostly inspired by Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.) Each Class determines a character’s Hit Points, the arms he can use and armour he can wear, how much damage he does—character do damage by Class rather than weapon type, special features, and bonuses when leveling up. 

So for example, the Warrior uses the ten-sided die for Hit Points and Hit Point recovery, can use all arms and armour, does 1d8 damage with any weapon or 1d6 when unarmed, makes one attack per level, can sunder and have destroyed his shield to ignore any damage suffered in combat, and rolls twice for his Strength and Dexterity when leveling up. Of course the Warrior is the simplest Class, whereas the other Classes have to account for limited use of arms and armour, different special features, for example, the Thief’s attacks from behind and the Divine and Arcane spellcasting of the Cleric and Conjurer respectively.

The core mechanic in The Black Hack is rolling under an attribute on a twenty-sided die. Need to make an attack roll to hit that marauding Orc? Roll under your character’s Strength. If you want to throw a dagger at the Orc, then roll under your character’s Dexterity. Need to avoid an incoming blow? Then roll under your character’s Dexterity. A roll of one is a critical success, whereas a roll of twenty is a fumble, whilst any difficulty is represented by a penalty that is added to the player’s roll. This difficulty—and its associated penalty—can represent a more difficult monster faced by the characters or the level of a spells that a character is trying to cast. The traditional saving throws of Dungeons & Dragons are replaced by saves made directly against a character’s attribute. For example, rolls are made against Charisma to to save against Charm effects and Intelligence for spells and other magical effects.

In addition, if a character has the advantage in a situation, then the GM can award him an Advantage die, a second twenty-sided die to roll on the action,the better result being used to determine the outcome of the action. The Disadvantage die works in a similar fashion, but in reverse. For example, the Thief gains an Advantage die when testing his Dexterity to avoid damage or effects from traps and magical devices, or when attacking from behind. This is essentially the same mechanic as Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

The core mechanic of having the players roll for everything—to hit, to avoid being hit, and so on—is very similar to that found in Monte Cook Games’ Numenera. Like the Cypher rules, this means that The Black Hack is essentially player facing. That is, the player has to make all of the rolls rather than the GM, which reduces his workload and allows him to focus solely on running the game.

Combat in The Black Hack adds a couple of twists. To start with, a Dexterity check is made to determine initiative. Succeed and a character goes before the monsters, fail and the monsters go before the character. Then instead of Armour Class, a character wears armour and this Armour Points. These are lost when a character is successfully attacked and once lost, any further damage inflicted is taken off a character’s Hit Points. These Armour Points are regained after a character rests. What this represents is the character’s endurance in wearing and fighting in his armour, as the fight progresses, he becomes tired and cannot make effective use of his armour in combat. Lastly, two-handed weapons are represented by a +2 bonus to damage rolls, but a +2 penalty to rolls to represent that the weapon is harder to use.

Consumables in The Black Hack are also handled as dice rolls. Each Consumable has a die type, for example, a flask of oil has a Usage Die of d6. When used rolled and the result is one or two, the Usage Die switches to a lower type. In the case of the flask of oil, from d6 to d4. After the d4, the Consumable is consumed.

Lastly, The Black Hack does not use Experience Points. Instead, the GM decides when the characters level up. This can be after every session, dungeon level, quest, or major event, but it is up to the GM to decide. When this happens, each character rolls against each of his attributes. Roll over any one of them and the attribute goes up by one with each Class able to roll against one of a pair of attributes, for example, Intelligence or Wisdom for the Conjurer.

The Black Hack provides for ten experience levels, plus up to seventh level spells for both the Cleric and the Conjurer. For the GM there are forty or monsters against which to pitch his players and their adventurers. There is no advice for the GM, but this is not really an issue given that The Black Hack is designed for experienced GMs and players.

Physically, The Black Hack is a twenty-page, digest-sized black and white booklet. It is not illustrated, but the layout is clean and tidy. The booklet is an easy read and any experienced GM will be able to pick these rules up with ease.

The Black Hack is designed to handle Old School gaming in as unfussy and nontechnical a manner as is possible. This it does with a solid and contemporary set of player-facing mechanics that both support its play and acknowledge that ‘modern’ can be better whilst adhering to an Old School style. Plus the the mechanics do mean that the players get make all the rolls, leaving the GM to get on and run the game. The result is that The Black Hack is a slick, streamlined treatment of Dungeons & Dragons-style role playing that looks back to 1974 before just yelling, “Just get on with it!”.


Gold Piece Publications will be at UK Games Expo.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Out of the Sands, into the Fire...

Tales from the Sands is a supplement for Hellfrost: Land of Fire, the Arabian Nights style campaign setting published by Triple Ace Games for use with Savage Worlds. It collects four scenarios written for slightly experienced player characters that have previously been available only as a PDF titles. Written by the designer of the Hellfrost and Hellfrost: Land of Fire, Paul ‘Wiggy’ Wade-Williams, they see the heroes uncover a strange new cult, find evidence of an old one, go in search of legend, and stop the ‘Land of Fire from going up, well, in flames… 

In doing so, they draw from material previously presented in various supplements for Hellfrost: Land of Fire, including  Realm Guide #11: The Grazelands, Region Guide #11: Ertha’s Realm, and whilst they will be useful in running the scenarios in this anthology, they are not absolutely necessary. The GM will require Realm Guide #5: The Southern Ocean to effectively run the third adventure, ‘The Last Voyage of Sinbad’. The quartet requires characters of both Novice and Seasoned Ranks.

The collection opens with ‘The Golden Queen’, in which an all too curious scholar comes to the attention of a misguided priestess who has subverted a cult devoted to an aspect of Ashtart. Unfortunately, the scholar also happens to be the player characters’ employer and now her attentions are turned to them… Where this adventure shines is in the application of its theme—bees and honey—and its subversion of that theme. This leads to some delightfully horrific moments, such as the birth of giant bees a la Alien and facing the mellified dead, zombies preserved in honey. The adventure’s dungeon continues this theme, but feels somewhat linear as it forces the adventurers down certain paths. Nevertheless, the background to this scenario feels well-researched and the theme is well handled throughout—enough to give the heroes melissophobia.

In ‘Darkness at Darshab’, the heroes come upon a village that is slowly retreating into sullen wariness and distrust as a horrid cult subverts the inhabitants. Villages falling prey to a ghastly cult is a gaming cliche, although it can be well done, as in N1, Against the Cult of the Reptile God for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. This adventure though comes with a set of reasonable hooks to get the heroes to the village and once there, presents an array of NPCs to interact with and acquire clues from. There are ways in which this scenario can go wrong during this investigative phase, but eventually the player characters will learn of the real threat behind the village’s malaise. This involves a descent into an underground lair that is not a dungeon in the classic worked stone style, but a system of rough, often wet caves. The scenario makes great play of the differences between the two and the challenges involved in delving into territory where your foe knows the terrain and the darkness far better than the heroes do. Thus ‘Darkness at Darshab’ is a scenario of two halves, both of which are really rather good.

The chance to meet one of the land’s greatest heroes, a figure out of legend, is what drives the heroes to undertake ‘The Last Voyage of Sindbad’. This is an island-hopping quest to open a portal and hopefully rescue the great sailor and adventurer. It is also an excuse to present four different mini-adventures on four different islands, each time facing different threats and challenges. They include stopping an island of Orc raiders and their masters; discovering that sometimes even true love can be too much; helping to lift a curse from a young lady who rejected the advances of a sinister suitor; and discovering an ancient, long forgotten ancient cult. Each of the little adventures is a relatively straightforward affair and can be played in any order. To make the scenario a little more interesting, the GM is given a set of optional encounters that can be used to add colour to the player characters’ voyages. The climax of the adventure is a little underwhelming, but each of the mini-adventures is decent. Maps of each of the islands would have been nice.

Lastly, as the lands seems to warm unpleasantly in ‘Reign of Fire’, the heroes find that weather seems to have turned against the land with clouds from which fall droplets of fire and that creatures of fire—long ago pushed back into the mountains and the hottest of plains—are once again abroad. Unfortunately the local ruler seems concerned with other things, such as a flying carpet race, but if the heroes enter the race and win, then perhaps they will gain his attention? ‘Reign of Fire’ harks back to the War of Copper Jars when the prophet Suleiman the Great overthrew the great Jinn and bound them in copper jars. Perhaps the great Jinn that once enslaved the now free peoples have escaped and plan to rule again? There are some fun moments in ‘Reign of Fire’, such as the flying carpet race and encounters with less inimical Jinn that will firmly put the heroes outside of their comfort zone. In some ways it does feel a little short though, as if it should be the climax of a great campaign, ending it does with a big ‘big boss’ fight in a set of underground volcanic caverns.

Physically, Tales from the Sands is, unfortunately, slightly disappointing. Although well written, the collection suffers from some really poor editing in places and the maps are a little dark to be presented in greyscale.

Unlike the various Realm Guides, none of the four scenarios in Hellfrost: Land of Fire – Tales from the Sands is available individually. Only in this collection. Nevertheless, which ones are worthy of the GM’s attention? Simply NF3, The Golden Queen and NF2, Darkness at Darshab stand out as the better half, but then SF1, The Last Voyage of Sindbad and SF2, Reign of Fire are far from terrible scenarios. If there is anything missing from the collection it is a guide to running them as a campaign, though again, ‘The Golden Queen’ and ‘Darkness at Darshab’ are probably easier to run after the other than the second pair of scenarios. Together though, Hellfrost: Land of Fire – Tales from the Sands is a solid quartet of scenarios for the Hellfrost: Land of Fire setting.


Triple Ace Games will be at UK Games Expo.

Monday, 16 May 2016

Time Sensitive Cthulhu

Since the publication of White Dwarf #42 in June, 1983, and the subsequent publication of On the Trail of the Loathsome Slime in 1985, the flexibility of when and where Call of Cthulhu can be set has never been in doubt. The publisher of the venerable RPG, Chaosium, Inc., capitalised on this flexibility, offering first boxed sets that explored the Dreamlands and Victorian England with H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and Cthulhu by Gaslight respectively, followed later by the modern era set Cthulhu Now, scenarios set in times past and future with Strange Aeons and Strange Aeons II, the end of the first millennium with Cthulhu: Dark Ages, and Imperial Rome with Cthulhu Invictus. Further, publishers as diverse as Pagan Publishing, Modiphius Entertainment, and Cubicle Seven Entertainment have all developed their own settings using Call of Cthulhu. Yet with the publication of the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Investigator Handbook and the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Keeper Rulebook, only two eras are as yet supported—Call of Cthulhu’s classic period of the 1920s and the contemporary era—whereas previous editions of the RPG had supported other eras, Cthulhu by Gaslight and H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands in particular.

Given how much of a redesign and a rewrite Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is, it is no surprise that there was just not the space to devote to these other eras—as lamentable as their omissions are. Fortunately, Chaosium has taken steps to address this lack with a slim supplement that serves as an introduction and primer to Call of Cthulhu in other times and places. In doing so though, it does create issues and problems of its own, the solutions to which will ultimately render this supplement redundant. Cthulhu Through the Ages: Guidelines for Playing Call of Cthulhu in Seven Different Eras presents four settings in the past, one setting that will never be in the here and now, and two future settings. They are in turn and mostly chronological order, Cthulhu Invictus, Cthulhu Dark Ages, Mythic Iceland, H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, Cthulhu by Gaslight, Cthulhu Icarus, and The Reaping. Of the seven, only one of the settings is new to Call of Cthulhu—though not Chaosium, one is new to Chaosium, and one is new to print for Call of Cthulhu outside of a Monograph.

Each of the seven settings runs to no more than seven pages, providing in turn a modicum of background, a list of the skills pertinent to the setting, some Backstory suggestions and a handful of Occupations, a discussion of the Mythos in the period, a plot seed, and perhaps some setting appropriate Mythos monsters or investigator organisations. They begin with ‘Cthulhu Invictus’, which presents Call of Cthulhu at the height of Imperial Rome. So the Backstory suggestions include patron god, meaningful locations, and treasured possessions, whilst a player can also roll for his investigator’s birth portents. The sample nine Occupations range from Augur and Courtesan to Speculatore and Surgeon, whilst skills include Art and Craft (Poisons) and Status. There are no sample investigator organisations, but the type of organisations possible are discussed. Although a serviceable introduction to the setting, the good news is that although not for written for use with Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition, Cthulhu Invictus is still in print and available, although its best support—The Legacy of Arrius Lurco and De Horrore Cosmico—has come from third party publishers.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the second setting, ‘The Dark Ages’. This is based on the supplement Cthulhu Dark Ages, originally published in German as Cthulhu 1000 AD, the English version, published in 2004, has been out print for a decade and even then, was ill-realised and ill-supported. The good news is that Cthulhu Dark Ages, Second Edition has the focus and realisation that the original edition lacked, although it is not yet in print. This primer has its Backstory suggestions and Life Events table, plus Occupations such as Beggar, Cleric, Monk/Nun, and Woodsman/Fisherman. The skills are very similar to those given for Cthulhu Invictus and the discussion of investigator organisations is about community rather than actual organisations. Perhaps the most interesting element to the setting is the worldview versus the Mythos, that of a religious rationale rather the scientific one of the twentieth century.

The third setting, ‘Mythic Iceland’ is a corollary to ‘The Dark Ages’ and thus Cthulhu Dark Ages, being set in the same time period. It is new to Call of Cthulhu, but not Chaosium, its origins lying in a supplement for Basic Roleplaying of the same name. The settings makes two fundamental changes to the rules for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. First, Luck when spent to adjust rolls as per the optional rule in the new edition, it cannot be regained. Once it is gone, it is gone. This reflects the Icelanic view that every man has a finite amount of luck. Second, it dispenses with Occupations because Icelandic society was not structured enough to support specialised professionals. Its treatment of the Mythos is not as expansive, but it is not detailed enough to be focused either, instead just pointing towards the involvement of certain entities. This though should be enough for an experienced Keeper to develop scenarios from. There is certainly some potential in ‘Mythic Iceland’ as it could also take the investigators from Iceland to Greenland and even pre-colonial North America.

The fourth setting is ‘Gaslight’, a primer for the recently published Cthulhu by Gaslight, Second Edition. Of the seven settings described in Cthulhu Through the Ages, it is chronologically the closest to the default Jazz Age of Call of Cthulhu and thus mechanically the most similar in terms of skills and Occupations. The section’s focus is primarily on the differences—mainly an emphasis on social class, so the Credit Rating skill is particularly important. It includes a few archetypal Occupations, such as the Adventuress, the Consulting Detective, Inquiry Agent, and so on, plus a pair of Investigator Organisations. The latter are given more space than the Mythos in the period, but that can accounted for the short gap between it and the Jazz Age. Nevertheless, at four pages in length, this is a short section and both feels and is brief.

The fifth setting, ‘The Dreamlands’ is likewise as short, but where ‘Gaslight’ will be historically familiar to players and Keepers of Call of Cthulhu, this section will be the most familiar in Cthulhu Through the Ages in game terms. After all, H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands has gone through five editions and been supported with innumerable  scenarios. So it is not surprising that it just covers the basics—how to get into the Dreamlands, the Dreaming skill, and dying in the Dreamlands. There is also a map of the Dreamlands, plus new creatures not found in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook—Gugs, Moon-Beasts, and Zoogs. Given that this runs to barely five pages—including the map—it seems odd that this section was not included in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook.

The last two settings pitch Cthulhu Through the Ages into the future. ‘Cthulhu Icarus – A Futuristic Micro Setting for Call of Cthulhu’ originally appeared the magazine, Worlds of Cthulhu #2 and is the closest that the supplement has to an actual scenario. It casts the Investigators as part of the multi-national, multi-corporation crew of the Icarus, a spaceship exploring the outer reaches of the Solar System. Their discoveries though no less scientific, will point towards the horrors in the darkness of Space. The section includes three possible scenarios, each more or less, a one-shot. Despite this being the nearest to a complete setting in the supplement, there is potential here for more than just one-shots and it is a pity that this micro setting does not explore it further.

The second of the futuristic settings will be familiar to anyone with a degree of Call of Cthulhu lore. ‘The Reaping’ is set during the Cthulhu End Times, the near future when the Stars have come Right and the Great Old Ones have risen to devastate the Earth and cause the collapse of human civilisation. This period of the Earth’s history has been much discussed by Call of Cthulhu devotees in the past, but although there was talk of a supplement, the only thing to materialise was the Monograph, End Times, published in 2003. As a post-apocalyptic, Call of Cthulhu setting, this is perhaps the most interesting one—it is certainly the most original one—in the supplement, the entities and forces of the Mythos openly moving across the land whilst survivors hide in outpost sanctuaries, trying not to acknowledge the madness and insanity outside of their walls. The investigators—Healers, Lore Seekers, Scavengers, and more—might seeking ancient for their own purposes, searching for a sanctuary, or even attempting to thwart one of the many cults that hold power now. ‘The Reaping’ feels fresh and interesting and deserves more than just these few pages.

In addition, Cthulhu Through the Ages presents a guide to combat in the Cthulhu Invictus, Cthulhu Dark Ages, and Mythic Iceland settings. It is short and serviceable. The supplement is rounded out with Investigator sheets for each of the seven periods detailed in its pages.

Arguably, the book could have been better organised in that the skills from each individual setting chapter could have been collected into a chapter dedicated to just skills—just as Cthulhu Through the Ages does with ‘Swords and Arrows’, which gives combat rules for use with Cthulhu Invictus, Cthulhu Dark Ages, and Mythic Iceland. Such a chapter would simply list all of the skills in alphabetical order with an indication as to which setting they are used in. This would have prevented the repetition of the skills such as Drive Horse/Oxen, Fighting (Shield), Insight, Repair/Devise, and Status from the chapters devoted to Cthulhu Invictus and Cthulhu: Dark Ages at the very least. Plus it would have freed up more space for more background material and perhaps more adventure seeds. 

In terms of artwork as well as space, Cthulhu Through The Age is poorly served. Now the full pages that preface each chapter are fine, especially where the covers of the core books for each of the settings are used, are fine. Yet other art does nothing but take take up space, which along with the white space, could have been used to better sell the settings that the book is intended to promote.

Overall, Cthulhu Through the Ages is something of a mixed bag. Both ‘Cthulhu Icarus – A Futuristic Micro Setting for Call of Cthulhu’ and ‘The Reaping’ are relatively new  and feel full of untapped potential. Of the two, ‘The Reaping’ deserves a supplement of its own. The other five settings either have, or have had, supplements of their own and this is something of a problem. For example, both Cthulhu Dark Ages and H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands are out of print, so there is no way for the Keeper to find out more information without some searching. Once they are in print for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, their content will make that contained in the particular sections of Cthulhu Through the Ages redundant. Further, for all five of these settings, it feels as if there is not enough information to do very much with any of them and does not help that these are not full adaptations from Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but merely sliver-like tasters for each of them.

Ultimately, Cthulhu Through the Ages is a supplement for the experienced Keeper and his players as it presents the way in which each of its settings should be adapted to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition—and from this starting point, the resourceful Keeper can do the rest. That is, until editions of the particular supplements appear for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. For the neophyte Keeper it is much less useful, not having neither quite enough detail to be really helpful or to really hint at how good these settings can be.


Chaosium, Inc. will be at UK Games Expo.