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

Saturday, 5 December 2020

Space Opera Smörgåsbord

Strange Stars: Game Setting Book is a systemless Science Fiction setting book published by the Hydra Cooperative, a publisher best known for its point-crawl fantasy scenarios such as Slumbering Ursine Dunes and What Ho, Frog Demons! – Further Adventures in Greater Marlinko Canton. It is very much written to appeal to the Old School Renaissance, being inspired by the televisual Science Fiction of the seventies and eighties, the works of authors such as E.C. Tubb and Jack Vance, and TSR, Inc.’s first Science Fiction roleplaying game, Star Frontiers, in particular. So, it is generally fairly light in its treatment of the genre. However, it includes more modern elements of the genre, most notably Transhumanism, including authors such as Peter Hamilton and Alistair Reynolds. Being systemless, it would work with Stars Without Number—and there is a rules companion for the Strange Stars setting using Stars Without Number, Savage Worlds, or Fate Core, but this is not as such a complete setting. Instead it details—although not in too much detail—elements of the far future setting, such as peoples, places, and technologies. There is no grand overview and as such is designed as a compendium of ideas and elements that evoke the period feel of its genre. So, there is no grand overview by design, leaving the Game Master and her with the space to fill in the details as necessary. Which means that it is not going to appeal to some gamers, whereas it will others.

It quickly dives into a very short history of the future of humanity. The Radiant Polity has arisen to claim stewardship of paleo-humanity and hyperspace travel following a Dark Age into which the mysterious Zurr crept across planet after planet, and the research-sadists known as Faceless Ones appeared, each of whom would replace their face with a powerful sensory apparatus. The Dark Age is said to have lasted a millennium or more, and to have come about after The Great Collapse of the Archaic Oikumene, a technologically advanced empire which conducted planetary-scale engineering, built floating, crystalline cities, and constructed the hyperspace network. The Archaic Oikumene may or may not have arisen in the cradle of humanity, but true knowledge of the Archaic Oikumene and Old Earth have been lost.

It also introduces three categories of ‘sophonts’—Biologics, Moravecs, and Infosophonts. Biologics, from Paleo-Humanity to Star Folk bioships, include the descendants of organisms—either from Old Earth originally or another world, designed organisms, and bioroids, or biologic androids. Moravecs, named for an Old Earth scientist-prophet, like the warrior-poets of Eridanus or Telosian Moravec-supremacists are self-replicating, sapient robots, whilst the Wanderers, the Wise Minds of Interzone, and the like, are Infosophonts, digital minds independent of physical form.

Interstellar travel is achieved via hyperspace gates which connect star systems—and these routes and their various travel times/speeds are marked on the polity maps throughout the book. No routes are given between these polities, so the Game Master can connect them in any fashion that she wants. What is interesting is that none of the states newly arisen in the wake The Dark Age have knowledge of how to construct starships—certainly not their star drives, which need to be salvaged from ships of the past. 

Six of the polities are given tw0-page spreads each—The Outer Rim, The Alliance, The Instrumentality, the Coreward Reach, The Vokun Empire, and The Zuran Expanse. Each is given a brief description, details of a native inhabitant, and more detailed writeups of its planets or major sophonts. So the Outer Rim, located on the frontiers of space, is dominated by an isolated trio of worlds—Boreas, an ice-covered ocean moon whose native, intelligent coral life have weaponised microbiota that can reanimate the dead to fight back against an invading sophonts, the blue-skinned humanoids known as Uldra; the Fortuna system is a gambler’s paradise and is home to The Wheel, a roulette wheel-shaped space station and Solitaire, a diamond planet; and Gogmagog, where giant robots inexplicably fight each other, the defeated machines scavenged by bot breaker teams for the advanced technology they can sell off world, before von Neumann scuttle out to make repairs! The individual detailed is Yeran Gar, a Djägga—a vaguely feline humanoid—who makes his living as a bounty hunter.

Of the other polities, The Alliance was formed in response to the lawlessness of The Zuran Expanse and religious strife of Radiant Polity, and consists of seven member sophonts, such as the Gnomee, a small hive-like sophonts who mine asteroids, the winged, angel-like Deva dedicated to repairing the ten moon-sized worlds in their home system, and the Neshekk, banking and investment clans who are intensely private. The Instrumentality of Aom is a theocracy home to the Circus, a ring world which is the largest habitat in known space. The Coreward Reach, currently threatened by the Locusts, space borne alien von Neumann machines which devour habitats, was once a major centre of human civilisation, but now lies on the very frontier, and whose worlds include Gaea, a mystery copy of Old Earth and Rune, a medieval world whose sorcerers use magic (or psionic powers) to fight dragons. The Vokun Empire was once fiercely expansionist, but its increasingly corpulent leaders, once great conquerors have turned inward and become obsessed with petty politics, but are still able to field their feared Kuath shock soldiers, each sheathed in a two-and-a-half meter tall bio-suit and use Voidgliders, vacuum-adapted humanoids to sniff out lost hyperspace nodes. Lastly, The Zuran Expanse is a ramshackle, lawless collection of worlds, thought to be the site of Old Earth and is home to the Library of Atoz-Theln and Deshret, a desert world slipping back into what it once was before being terraformed and is worked over by Sandminers sifting for fragments of code and lost artefacts.

Other organisations or groups are not ignored either, whether that is Nomads like the Kosmoniks, traders and occasional pirates who live aboard rune-inscribed spaceships who communicate via sign-language or translators, or the S’ta Zoku, star folk who travel between worlds where they declare great festivals of music, sensory experiences, and more. Threats include pirates, criminals, and hostile sophonts. The pirates include the Zao Corsairs, who operate out of a rogue asteroid and are notorious for capturing and looting ships, holding their passengers to ransom or selling them into slavery—even selling the bodies of the captured passengers separate to their uploaded minds! The criminals include the Pharesmid Syndicate whose members are all bio-clones or mind copies of its founder, terrorist Ulm Pharesm, along with a list of most wanted, whilst the Ksaa and the Ssraad are sophonts inimical to galactic society at large. The Ssraad claim The Zuran Expanse and come in three colours—the Green who launch raids against other sophonts from their orbital stations and whose extending tongues can deliver a paralysing venom, the vicious Red employed as shock troops by the Green and mercenaries for the Blue, and the Blue, who steal ships and technology, and then force captives to remodel before killing them. Lastly, Strange Stars covers psionics—though only in a basic way, gives a pronunciation guide, and suggests some one-line adventure ideas.

Throughout, there is a wealth of tiny details which add to the Strange Stars setting and suggest adventure ideas. For example, the owner of Solitaire organises races run via remote operation and psionic control for the patrons of The Wheel, leases mining rights on the diamond planet, and is rumoured to harbour a data vault deep underground. Opportunities to gamble, race, and even hunt for and break into the data vault all lend themselves to adventure ideas. Similarly, under the description of starships and travel, that the holy grail of any salvager is one of the ancient battleships the size of a city and possessing a sophont mind. There were twelve of these, but some are known to have been destroyed, the others lost.

Where perhaps the Strange Stars: Game Setting Book is lacking is the corporate elements of the setting—there are no corporations in this future. A few scenario more developed hooks would have been nice too and as much as starship travel figures in the setting, you never get a feel for what the ships themselves look like.

Physically, the Strange Stars: Game Setting Book is stunning. The artwork evokes the sources that it draws from, whether that is Stella Starlight, starship captain of the Motherless Child, who all flairs, platform heels, and high collars, looks like she stepped out of a Blaxploitation Sci-Fi film, or Sianna Elizond, Special Operative for The Instrumentality, whose weapon echoes that of Princess Leia Organa from Star Wars, whilst her look is that of Jessica 6, from the film Logan’s Run. The Ssaad are reminiscent of the Slaad of Dungeons & Dragons, whilst the exceptional back cover artwork manages to give nods to the trading cards, electronic game cartridges, and the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure’ books, all of the late seventies and early eighties. The book itself is well written and engaging, and with everything in full colour, it looks stunning.

At first, it is a little difficult to know quite what to make of Strange Stars: Game Setting Book, in the main because it is a book of parts that connect, but remain separate. So initially, it feels as if there should be a whole setting here, complete with histories and grand maps, but for which, thirty-two pages were not enough. That though, is not the point of it being that book of parts and because it is a book of parts,  Strange Stars: Game Setting Book works on two levels. First, as a whole setting, one in which the Game Master can freely inject content of her because there is so much space—figuratively and narratively—to work in. Second, as a source of ideas and elements that she can plunder or be inspired by to add to her own game, and this is made all the easier because the content is compartmentalised throughout—not just in the writing, but in the layout too. Overall, Strange Stars: Game Setting Book is a Space Opera setting rich with ideas ready for the Game Master to develop or source for a setting of her own design. All it needs is the rules set of the Game Master’s choice.

Friday, 4 December 2020

Friday Filler: Pirates of Penryn

Published by SeaGriffin Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Pirates of Penryn – A game of Charm & Ferocity Upon Cornish Waters is a game of rum running on the Cornish coast in the eighteenth century. Designed for between two and five players—or Captains, aged nine and up, each takes command of two ships. One is a galleon, loaded down with rum, ready to smuggle up the Penryn River to the towns of Falmouth, Flushing, and Penryn, where a good price can be fetched for the illegal liquor. However, the waters of the Penryn River are too shallow for the galleon, so they must send their other vessel, the smaller RumRunner ashore with the illicit cargo. They must brave the dangerous waters with their whirlpools which bring as much good fortune as they do bad, avoid the piggish predations of dread sea serpent Morgawr, take advantage of the wind the best that they can, and avoid getting caught aground when the tide ebbs away to sea. Perhaps they will be able to sail all the way up the Penryn River to Penryn itself where they are bound to get a good price for their rum, but the waters are dread shallow the further up the river you go, and on the way back to their galleon, there is every likelihood that your RumRunner will be attacked by a rival crew, ready to steal the monies made! If a Captain can successfully empty all the rum aboard his galleon, sell as much as he can, and have his RumRunner return—hopefully with florins aplenty—then he can declare the end of the game. The winner will be the Captain with most florins aboard his galleon.

The very first thing that you notice about the Pirates of Penryn is the art. Its style echoes that of Oliver Postgate and Peter Firmin, of their series Ivor the Engine and Noggin the Nog. However, it is brasher in style, more cartoonish, and not as charming, and worse suggests that Pirates of Penryn is a game for children. Whilst there are rules for playing with younger Captains, the standard game of Pirates of Penryn is not for children. Combining hand management mechanics with a pickup and deliver mechanic, Pirates of Penryn can be a cutthroat race for gold, one in which the Captains can raid their rival RumRunners and engage in skirmishes and duels with them, sneak in Morgawr’s cave and steal from her hoard, all before racing back to their galleons. Play lasts about an hour or so, and is much more fun with more Captains than with fewer.

The very first thing you notice upon opening Pirates of Penryn is the board, or ‘sailcloth’ map of Penryn River. In fact, this is a neoprene cloth, done in full colour which depicts Penryn River marked in squares—thankfully movement is both orthogonal and diagonal rather than just orthogonal—in three shades of blue. The deeper the shade of blue, the deeper the water. Close into the shore and on several sandbanks, there are areas where a RumRunner may find itself run aground, forcing its Captain to miss a turn or two until the flow of the tide back up the river refloats the boat. Some of these low-lying areas will also deny a Captain access to Flushing and Penryn. Dotted up and down the river are a number of whirlpools—of varying size, and crossing one of these may bring a RumRunner a boon, but it may also place it in peril. The actual playing surface is actually quite small—or narrow, and the waters of the Penryn River become tighter and tighter the more Captains there are playing.

Along the coast are three towns—in ascending value of the florins they will pay for rum, of Falmouth, Flushing, and Penryn, as well as the smuggler’s haven of Ponsharden where new members of crew can be press ganged into service aboard a RumRunner. Also along the coast is Morgawr’s cave, the sea serpent who can be drawn out into Penryn River with a sacrifice of a crewmember and sent into the path of a rival RumRunner, and if a RumRunner does get too close, will snap pirates and florins from aboard the vessel and secret them away in her lair. Later on, and if Morgawr is away from her cave, then a Captain can sail his RumRunner into her cave and raid her treasure hoard! Around the edge of the board are spaces for the game’s cards—sold cargo, Morgawr’s hoard, whirlpools, crewmembers, and florins. One roundel tracks the direction of the wind, whilst another the ebb and flow of the tide. 

The other components include four decks of cards—sixty crew cards, sixty cargo cards, ninety florin cards, and forty-two whirlpool cards. All of the crew cards are individualised with illustrations and a bit of biographical trivia. The trivia can easily add some table talk and a little roleplaying if a Captain wants it, and the illustrations work better here in black and white. Each also has different levels of Charm and Ferocity, these being used when facing whirlpools and skirmishing with rival RumRunners, whilst a Pistol-Cutlass-Parrot symbol indicates their weapon of choice in duel with a rival pirate. Some also have a tattoo marked on their cards, indicating a special skill useful in dealing with Whirlpool cards. The Whirlpool cards typically grant a ‘Lucky Rascal!’ one-time bonus or some form of ‘Peril & Strife’ which must be overcome. For example, ‘Tame the TideMaid’ is a ‘Lucky Rascal!’ card which allows a Captain to adjust the TideMaid on the tide rounded in his favour, whilst the ‘Torrential Excrement’ explains how a rogue flock of seagulls has unloaded in a Captain’s RumRunner and loaded it down with guano! The problem can be overcome by either sufficient Charm or Ferocity or the tattoo needed to avoid the problem all together. In this instance, a total of eight Ferocity or the Animal Magick tattoo. If a Captain cannot overcome the problem, then his RumRunner must lose some Rum—in this case, two barrels of it. One issue with the Whirlpool cards is that they are text heavy, but there is both flavour and humour on each one.

Lastly there are cards for each Captain’s galleon and RumRunner. Cards under the galleon card are not in play, and therefore safe, but those under the RumRunner card are in play and are not safe—they can be lost in skirmishes and duels, dumped overboard because a Captain failed to overcome a ‘Peril & Strife!’ Whirlpool card, or snapped up by Morgawr! Each Captain has his own RumRunner piece, and there are also pieces for both Morgawr and the TideMaid, a Windicator used to show the direction of the wind, and the Skull & Crosswinds Coin flipped to determine the change in direction of the wind.

Set-up is fairly simple. Everything—both cards and playing pieces are placed on their correct positions one the map, and each Captain receives twelve Cargo cards, three Florin cards, and three Crew cards. All of these go under his galleon card. A Captain selects nine cards from these cards and loads them into his RumRunner. These can be of any combination, but the rules suggest a starting hand during a Captain’s first game. A Captain’s hand cannot be more than nine cards in total and a Captain will find himself balancing the three types of cards in hand throughout the game. He needs to carry rum to the shore, pirate crew to protect his RumRunner—and even attack a rival Captain, florins with which to hire crew, and of course, space to carry those florins back to the safety of his galleon.

On a turn, a Captain does two actions, but has scope to do a lot more. First he moves the TideMaid round the Tide roundel to determine the level of the tide, and then he flips the Skull & Crosswinds Coin to see which direction the wind blows that turn. He can then Set Sail, making up to nine moves. He can move two squares per move if this is a ‘Run’ in the direction of the wind, one square if a ‘Yaw’ and any direction not influenced by the wind, but cannot move in the direction opposite to the wind. If he moves adjacent to Morgawr, she will steal a card from the Captain, and if across a whirlpool, then he draws a Whirlpool card. A ‘Peril & Strife’ Whirlpool card must be dealt with at the end of his turn. A Captain can even sacrifice a crew member to Morgawr to move her anywhere on the map, or a florin card to her to gain extra moves. 

Other actions depend upon where a RumRummer is. If at a Port, a Captain can sell Rum, buy crew, and change florins—the latter useful to make space for other cards. If at Morgawr’s Cave, a Captain can peek at the riches she has in her hoard and then steal some—even some a Captain might have sacrificed earlier in the game! If alongside another RumRunner, a Captain can mount a raid. This can be a skirmish in which the raiding Captain attempts to beat the defending Captain using the total of either Charm or Ferocity icons on his crews’ cards, or a duel in which a single crew member from each RumRunner goes head-to-head, comparing their Pistol-Cutlass-Parrot symbols in rock-paper-scissors style—pistol beats cutlass, cutlass beats parrot, and parrots being parrots, parrot beats pistol. A successful skirmish garners the winner two random cards from the loser’s hand, a duel just the one. Lastly, when at his galleon, a Captain can stow florins—they are now safe, swap his crew, and load his RumRunner with rum if he still has some to take ashore.

There is a lot going on in Pirates of Penryn and a Captain has a lot of that he can do. The one thing that he will need to do is balance his hand between the choice of Crew, Florins, and Rum. All will be necessary to win the game, but focus on one to the detriment of the others and a Captain may not be able to make Rum sales quickly enough, be able to deal with raids or whirlpools, or defend against raids. A Captain can also use Morgawr to his advantage—move her to block, threaten, or attack another Captain, or to gain extra movement when it counts! Thematically though, it all feels suitably fitting and fun, emphasising the skill and ability of a Captain to deal with the random fortunes of the changing tide and wind, as well as making the best use of his crew. There is not a high degree of randomness or luck to the game, but there is just enough to make play challenging when it counts.

Physically, Pirates of Penryn is well presented and all of the components are of a reasonable quality—cardboard pieces rather than plastic or wood. If the artwork is perhaps a little twee, the game play will quickly disabuse any Captain that playing Pirates of Penryn is also twee. The rulebook—although it looks a bit too busy, takes the time to explain its rules and give examples of the rules in play. It also includes rules for playing the game with children, a two-Captain variant, and some optional rules to make it more of a challenge. These include the barrels of rum having different values and even being able to buy rum at one port town and sell it at another!

Pirates of Penryn – A game of Charm & Ferocity Upon Cornish Waters is a surprisingly challenging and fun game—the cover of the box simply does not suggest how fun it actually is. A Captain’s objective may be simple, and he really only has to do one thing, but there are plenty of things he can do to make it easier for himself and harder for his rivals, plus Pirates of Penryn makes great use of its theme, and there is nothing stop the Captains going all piratical themselves, such as speaking a West Country accent, bringing their crew members to life during play, and more. Doing so gives the Captains a chance to tell the story of their RumRunner’s daring exploits and smuggling runs and make Pirates of Penryn – A game of Charm & Ferocity Upon Cornish Waters an even better game.

Monday, 30 November 2020

Jonstown Jottings #32: Air Toads!

Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the Jonstown Compendium is a curated platform for user-made content, but for material set in Greg Stafford’s mythic universe of Glorantha. It enables creators to sell their own original content for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha13th Age Glorantha, and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds). This can include original scenarios, background material, cults, mythology, details of NPCs and monsters, and so on, but none of this content should be considered to be ‘canon’, but rather fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’. This means that there is still scope for the authors to create interesting and useful content that others can bring to their Glorantha-set campaigns.


What is it?

Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads! presents a sort of inflatable batrachian bomb with which to confound your Player Characters for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is an thirteen-page, full colour, 1.24 MB PDF.

The layout is clean and tidy, and the illustrations reasonable.

Where is it set?
Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads! can be set almost anywhere, but particularly where Cliff Toads may also be found.

Who do you play?
No specific character types are required when encountering Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads!. Having a hunter amongst the party may be useful and the likelihood is that any Eurmali will enjoy the possibility of an encounter with these creatures going off with a bang!

What do you need?
Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads! requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. The RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary will also useful for details of Cliff Toads.

What do you get?
Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads! provides the Game Master with an utterly weird, almost confounding, certainly ridiculous monster. A toad, that like its Cliff Toad cousin, can look like a rock and squeeze its way through relatively narrow cracks and crevices, has a long tongue it uses to capture and then swallow its prey, but if punctured, can explode with a big whoosh of air and a bang! And not only that, but can inflate and float away into the sky!

The Air Toad is likely to be more nuisance than threat per se, but it is still dangerous and if being hunted or simply found in the area where the Player Characters are, then any attempt at stealth is likely to be thwarted should one or more of them explode. Besides being a nuisance though, Air Toads are valued for their body parts. Their eyes, for example, all three of themwhich enable an adult Air Toad to see in every direction and thus make it very hard to sneak up on—are valued by sorcerers for their use in illusion spells, whilst alchemists use them to make floatwine, an intoxicating concoction that enables the imbiber to fly! However, recovery of such parts require that the Air Toad has not exploded and that needs bludgeoning weapons. Thus for many Player Characters, with their reliance on piercing and slashing weapons, going on an Air Toad hunt is a whole other challenge...

As well as its stats and biology, Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads! gives the Mythos & History for the Air Toad—unsurprisingly given the absurdity of the creature, Eurmal was involved—as well as adventure seeds (mostly as nuisance and prey for the hunt), a table of rumours, and a discussion of the different perspectives that other races have on the Air Toad. Notably, in Prax, this includes the Cult of the Storm Bull-Frog, a relatively temporary spirit cult, allied with Storm Bull, which dedicates it itself to the care and worship of a particular Air Toad. Along the way there is some scholarly discussion of the creature which adds another perspective or two and so should engage any Grey Beard amongst the Player Characters upon the subject.

Is it worth your time?
YesMonster of the Month #11: Air Toads! presents toads which go bang, and who would deny that the levity of their game would not be improved with the addition of batrachian bombs?
NoMonster of the Month #11: Air Toads! is a ridiculous idea. Honestly, who thought of such an idea?
MaybeMonster of the Month #11: Air Toads! is relatively easy to use, but the absurdity of it may change the tone of a campaign and even then, such batrachian bombs are not something that you can include too often in a campaign. It definitely falls under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’ and it may even fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Really Vary’.

Sunday, 29 November 2020

A Sex Horrificam II

Fronti Nulla Fides—or ‘there is no trusting appearances’—is an anthology of six scenarios for The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus: Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Published by Golden Goblin Press, this setting presents new challenges in investigating and confronting the Mythos in Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying, shorn of its reliance upon libraries, newspaper archives, and Mythos tomes, instead requiring the investigators to ask others lots and lots of questions, do an awful lot of watching, and sneak about a fair bit. In other words, more detective legwork rather than research. Similarly, the reliance upon firearms found in conducting investigations in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, makes such investigations and confrontations with the Mythos more fraught affairs. The sextet in Fronti Nulla Fides see the investigators conducting a raid on a house of tinkers, a rescue mission to a city of white apes, a terrible sea journey, and in turn, hunts for a slave, a dragon, and a barbarian.

The anthology opens with ‘The Clockwork Oracle’, the first of three contributions by  publisher Oscar Rios. This is set in Corinth in Greece—though it could easily be moved to another city—and has the Investigators hired by a trio of brothers and sisters whose father has become obsessed with mechanisms and clockwork devices, in particular, a mechanical jay known as The Clockwork Oracle, which he believes can tell the future. This obsession has grown to the point that he is spending much of his wealth upon them, has allowed a gifted tinker to move into his home, and when confronted by his children, threw them out of the house. Amongst other things, siblings want the tinker removed from the house, their father separated from The Clockwork Oracle, both him and the household slaves kept safe, their family’s financial records secured, and more. Of these other objectives, each of the siblings has his or own objective and the scenario divides them between the Investigators, so adding a slight divisive element when it comes to the scenario’s set piece. Oddly, the biggest challenge in the scenario for the Keeper is portraying the squabbling siblings as they talk across each other, but otherwise this a short and straightforward scenario that provides an opportunity for the Investigators to conduct some classic detective work before the scenario’s grand set piece—the raid on the house. Here the scenario is almost Dungeons & Dragons-like, with much more of an emphasis on stealth and combat in comparison to scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, but this should make for a fun change of pace. The scenario also has numerous different aspects to its outcome which will need to be worked through, depending upon how successful the Investigators have been. Overall, ‘The Clockwork Oracle’ has a two-fisted muscularity to it, but still packs in plenty of story.

Jeffrey Moeller’s ‘Goddess of the White Apes’ is a sequel to his ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’ from De Horrore Cosmico. ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’ is an interpretation of ‘Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family’ in which the Investigators look into the background of Marius Asina to determine if he is suitable for elevation beyond his current rank of senator. Of course, he was not, since neither Marius Asina nor his family turned out to human, let alone barely Roman citizens! ‘Goddess of the White Apes’ leans into the pulpiness of the ‘Swords & Sandals’ genre, but combines it with weird miscegenation and horror, as the Investigators are directed to rescue from the nephew of the emperor from a city to the far south beyond the furthest reaches of the empire. There they find a city which is rapidly coming to ape Rome itself as the leader of the White Apes attempts to make both their home and their society more ‘civilised’! Here the Investigators—after the travails of their long journey south (though a means of cutting the journey time is explored)—must deal with a leader more capricious than a Roman Emperor and effect an escape. The set-up of ‘Goddess of the White Apes’ allows it to be run as a standalone scenario, but it works better as a sequel to ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’.

Whether as crew or passengers, the Investigators find themselves in peril at sea in Charles Gerard’s ‘Following Seas’. As they sail aboard the Minerva from Antioch in Syria Palestina to Ostia, the port which serves Rome, the ship’s captain veers between depression and irrationality, his mood and actions upsetting the crew as strange energies are seen to swirl about the ship’s rigging. Both investigation and action will take place aboard the Minerva in what is classic, ‘ship in a bottle’ scenario, one that quickly pushes its narrative to an action-packed dénouement. Along the way, there is room for unsettling flashbacks, either ones which have happened in earlier encounters with the Mythos or ones which each player can create for their Investigator on the spot. ‘Following Seas’ is a decent scenario, one which is easily run as the Investigators are travelling between locations—perhaps in a campaign, perhaps between other scenarios, and which can easily be transferred to times and locations which involve sailing ships and sea voyages.

Oscar Rios’ second scenario is ‘Manumission’, in which Rome’s practice of slavery is put to a vile purpose. A vigilis—the equivalent of the police in the Roman Empire, comes to the Investigators for their help. In fact, he comes to them for their help because they owe him a favour or two, so ‘Manumission’ works best later in a campaign when the Investigators who have had a run in with the authorities. The vigilis wants them to help a friend of his whose nephew has been sold into slavery by his drunkard father. Quick investigation reveals that the boy has already been sold and the buyer is not prepared to sell him back. In order to rescue the boy, the Investigators will have to follow the seller and perhaps steal him back. However, in the process, they will discover why the boy was sold and that adds a degree of urgency to the rescue attempt. This is a solid piece of nastiness, nicely set up and waiting for the Investigator to do the right thing.

‘The Dragon of Cambria’ by William Adcock takes the Investigators to the west of Britannia and into Wales where a rich lead mine has unleashed a dragon! This is a classic monster hunt in Dungeons & Dragons-style, but one scaled to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, which means that the Investigators are likely to be snapped up in a straight fight between themselves and the creature. They will have to use their guile and planning to defeat the creature, though their efforts are likely to be hindered by rival hunters and locals interpreting the appearance of the dragon as heralding a rebellion against the Roman authorities.

Lastly, Oscar Rios’ third scenario takes the Investigators to the province of Germania Superior and beyond! In ‘The Blood Sword of Emeric’, a German tribal leader has risen in rebellion and is attacking locals and Romans alike, but is said to have a blood red sword capable of killing at a single cut and slicing through chainmail. Whether as agents employed by a merchant to recover a missing shipment, the head of a local fort beset by refugees wanting someone to bring him the head of Emeric, or even as agents of an occult society interested in rumours of the sword, the Investigators will need to get what information they can from the refugees, find a guide, and strike out beyond the frontier. The scenario is again quite straightforward and quite action orientated, but it does a nice bait and switch on the Investigators—not once, but twice!

Physically, Fronti Nulla Fides is well presented and edited. Each scenario begins with a full list of its NPCs and each scenario’s maps are generally good, and the illustrations, although having a slightly cartoonish feel to them, are excellent throughout.

Each of the six scenarios in Fronti Nulla Fides should take no longer than a session or two to play, each is different, and even despite their being quite short, time is taken to explore the possible outcomes and ramifications of each. Their length also makes them easy to fit into an ongoing campaign, either between longer, more involved scenarios or chapters of an actual campaign. They also provide a decent amount of physical and interpersonal investigation, showcasing just how rare it is that Lovecraftian investigating roleplaying at the height of the Roman Empire rarely involves visits to libraries or poring over Mythos tomes. Overall, Fronti Nulla Fides not only lives up to its title, but also provides the Keeper of a Cthulhu Invictus campaign with a set of six short, but enjoyably action-orientated and punchy scenarios.

Saturday, 28 November 2020

Winter's Woe

Under a Winter’s Snow: Death & Disease in North Dakota is a scenario for use Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Published by Stygian Fox, it is set early in the Jazz Age in North Dakota in the wake of the Great War and the 1918 Pandemic. Amidst a flurry of snow and ice in January, 1921, the inhabitants of the town of Eisner have been struck by a strange disease which leaves them sweating, shivering, and penultimately delirious before they die. The local doctor has been overwhelmed by the rash of deaths, which he fears to be another outbreak of the Spanish Flu. However, in the victims’ delirium, they whisper of a shrouded man seen in both their dreams and on the streets of Eisner, and of superstitions long forgotten in this modern age…

It should be noted that Under a Winter’s Snow deals with an outbreak of a disease with flu-like symptoms. Published in 2020, but before the outbreak of the current pandemic, it means that it has strong parallels with contemporary events. The scenario’s themes of disease, infection, and contamination may mean it is not suitable for some players. The Keeper is advised to consider the ramifications of such themes before deciding to run Under a Winter’s Snow.

In the default set-up for Under a Winter’s Snow, the Investigators are county officials sent into help with the outbreak. Alternatively, they might be law enforcement tracking a strange individual who has been spreading chaos and madness since his return from the Great War or standard Call of Cthulhu Investigators who have been caught in Eisner during the dreadful weather. A fourth is given, that of the players taking the roles of members of the local youth, caught up in the winter and the dreadful situation with the disease. This though, is not the advised option as the Investigators are not meant to be residents of the town and is not supported by the scenario itself.

Under a Winter’s Snow is relatively short and it is very likely that the Investigators are going to be quickly mystified as to the cause of the disease and its source. This being a scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, of course means that the disease has an unnatural cause, but getting to that source is going to be challenging for the players and their Investigators, whilst presenting the clues to that end, is going to be challenging for the Keeper. The scenario has a timed element, one that sees both more and more of the townsfolk infected and some of the Investigators infected. A nice touch is that being infected may actually open up some clues to the Investigators as well as drive them to investigate first the disease, and then perhaps beyond the disease itself… However, the scenario ultimately turns on the activities of a single NPC which the Keeper will have to very carefully roleplay—first portraying the NPC as innocuous, even helpful, but later as seeming to know more, until it is clear that the NPC is somehow involved. Here perhaps the Keeper can have some fun roleplaying an NPC who despite being insane might actually help the Investigators and in return, want their help, but not necessarily from the same motive.

Physically, Under a Winter’s Snow is tidily presented, but is lightly illustrated and needs another edit. The handouts are reasonable, but there is no map of the town. One of the handouts sort of doubles as a map, but only after the Investigators have done a particular action, and then it is a hand drawn piece, very rough, and very much at odds with the cartographic standards usually set by Stygian Fox.

Originally published as part of Stygian Fox’s Patreon, Under a Winter’s Snow feels rushed and not sufficiently developed to stand on its own as a scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It leaves too much for the Keeper to detail herself, whether that is the town of Eisner, a map of the town of Eisner, the names of the victims of the disease, the names of various NPCs, and so on. It could have included pre-generated Investigators, especially if they have been sent by the county authorities to help the town’s doctor, and if not that, then at least given some suggested roles and Occupations. Either option would have worked if the scenario is being run as a one-shot. If not as a one-shot, as written the time period of the early nineteen twenties and remote location of North Dakota makes Under a Winter’s Snow difficult to bring into a campaign, but ultimately, the location is irrelevant because the scenario does nothing with it and so is easy to shift elsewhere, whether that is Lovecraft Country, the north of England, rural France, or even Germany.

Under a Winter’s Snow is not as fleshed out as it could be and feels much more of a magazine scenario than one that warranted a release on its own. It offers an interesting roleplaying challenge for the players and their Investigators in dealing with an NPC who has succumbed to the Mythos, but will require some effort upon the part of the Keeper to bring both setting and plot to the table.

Friday, 27 November 2020

Glitter on the Water

Dead in the Water is a scenario for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, the spiritual successor to Gamma World published by Goodman Games. It is designed for Zero Level player characters, what this means is that Dead in the Water is a Character Funnel, one of the signature features of both the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game it is mechanically based upon—in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. In terms of the setting, known as Terra A.D., or ‘Terra After Disaster’, this is a ‘Rite of Passage’ and in Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients, the stress of it will trigger ‘Metagenesis’, their DNA expressing itself and their mutations blossoming forth.

Dead in the Water is published by Savage AfterWorld and is a scenario for between twelve and sixteen Zero Level Player Characters—so three or four players, which takes place on and off the coast of The Rainbow Sea in the light of the ‘Horizon Star’ which causes the sea to glitter… The scenario begins in the fishing village of Narleen, with the Zero Level Player Characters either as residents or visitors. Either way, the Player Characters are present when screams are heard, and the village’s alarm bell is sounded. When they respond, they discover several waterlogged corpses dragging themselves out of the surf and into the village, where they claw at and grapple several of the inhabitants. The Player Characters have the opportunity to help here and in doing so come to the attention of Narleen’s village headman. Examination of the strange corpses discovers a strange thing—each corpse is host to a small squid-like creature residing in its mouth and also reeks of a powerful odour, the same as a flammable liquid to be found on The Island of Fire, a forbidden isle in The Rainbow Sea. This means that the source of the waterlogged, but animated corpses that have attacked Narleen and other villages, must be The Island of Fire, and so the village headman tasks the Player Characters with going to The Island of Fire and put an end to the attacks. This will be their Rite of Passage.

If the attack on Narleen is the first act of Dead in the Water, then the second is the sea journey to The Island of Fire and the third is exploring The Island of the Fire. The sea journey will be for the most part, quite straight forward, there is a chance for further attacks from the swimming corpses and other things, but perhaps the most fun (or frustration) will come when roleplaying and interacting with the captain of the boat they take to the island. The simple fact is that he cannot speak, so players and Judge will need to engage in a round or two of miming and hand signals!

The Island of Fire turns out to be a Site of the Ancients. There is an ecological feel to the initial exploration, but once inside the towering structure at the centre of the small island, it is revealed to be a technological site. There are some secrets to be discovered, as well as various artefacts, which are appropriate to the location rather than just random. Now despite The Island of Fire having a limited number of locations, there is a pleasing sense of scale to them and at least one of them should invoke a sense of wonder in both the players and their characters. However, this sense of wonder quickly turns to horror as the antagonist at the heart of scenario literally looms into view. The climax on—well, technically, under—The Island of Fire should be frantic, desperate, ad dangerous, whether it involves fight or flight! The Player Characters should ideally prepare themselves by grabbing whatever artefacts they can and by the end of the scenario, will hopefully have survived and gained enough Experience Points to become First Level.

Dead in the Water is just sixteen pages long and reasonably well illustrated and edited, and the maps decent. Some of the illustrations capture some of the adventure’s scale, but some are just a little silly. Just what are Beavis and Butthead doing in Terra A.D. and arguably, do you just not want the waterlogged corpses to grab them and pull them overboard? If there is anything missing in Dead in the Water, it is perhaps that it would have been nice to have seen more of the base presented—though there is nothing to stop the Judge from expanding it herself.

Whether played as a Character  Funnel, or even as a short encounter for First Level mutants, Dead in the Water is a likeable scenario which should offer a session or two’s worth of play. Dig into it and it has a combination of a zombie film meets Alien in its feel, which is nicely transposed to an interesting environment, making Dead in the Water a slightly creepy mix of Science Fiction and Horror.

Friday Fantasy: The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location

 Waterdeep is a city of many faiths, yet there are many in the City of Splendours that lack wealth, influence, or congregation to build a temple of their own, let alone a cathedral. Each year though, on Plinth Day, the adherents of such faiths compete in displays of devotion in order to awarded one of the twenty shrines within the building known as the Plinth. This is a six-storey tower, slim, but with many balconies and home to the aforementioned shrines where those of the faiths that were successful on Plinth Day may come to worship without fear of condemnation or prosecution—whether be followers of Law or Chaos, or Good or Evil. Since the faiths with shrines in the Plinth must adhere to the rule of tolerance, civility, and respect, the multi-denominational, square tower is somewhere the agents of faiths and other organisations come to meet—though there is no knowing who might be watching, inside or out… The tallest building in Waterdeep, the Plinth is not only a well-known landmark, it is also home to a griffon cavalry guard station, a plum assignment for any member of the city’s griffon riders.

The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location is published by The Eldritch Press and as the title suggests, describes a location in the City of Splendours, perhaps the most important city in all of Faerûn. Thus it is a supplement for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, one that details the building itself, the occupants of the twenty shrines—from Auril, goddess of winter and Azuth, god of wizards to Talos, god of storms and Umberlee, goddess of the sea, descriptions of four NPCs and stats for a total of eleven, four quests, floorplans of all six levels of the Plinth, and a heresy. The NPC stats include generic characters and creatures such as the Flight Captain and Griffon Mount, but also entries tied to the quests, such as the Green Ghost which rises from the City of the Dead and everywhere it wanders, it withers the greenery and fresh flowers placed by the faithful of Eldath, goddess of peace, at the graves, and the Southern Assassins and Southern Rogues who will be instructed to deal with the Player Characters should they be taking too much of an interest in the fact that the masters of the Southern Assassins and Southern Rogues have been seen buying poison! Of course, The Emerald Enclave would like the Green Ghost laid to rest and The Lords’ Alliance would be very interested to learn about the purchase of certain poisons… The four quests range from Second Level up to Seventh Level, so the likelihood is that if the Dungeon Master uses all four, the Player Characters will be coming back to the Plinth more than once.

Perhaps the longest section in The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location—certainly the longest section of text—is dedicated to the Mother Source Heresy. Prior to its adoption as a multi-denominational establishment, the Plinth was a sacred monument to the goddess Selûne. Acolytes of the Seekers of Selûne are known to visit and wander the Plinth, communing with the building and chanting verses, sometimes even being struck by profound visions. Their activities are linked to holy fragments of a magical earthen vessel, known as the Mother Source Fragments, that suggest that there was an ultimate godhead and primeval Source-of-Realms to an unknown Goddess. Or it might be an aspect of an existing goddess, such as Selûne or Mystra and this interpretation has led to the rivals claiming that the interpretation is heretical.

The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location is very nicely presented. The artwork is excellent and the layout clean and tidy. Overall, this is a highly attractive supplement.

The obvious ties of The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location to Waterdeep make it difficult to use elsewhere and whilst it will be easy enough for the Dungeon Master to develop the four quests, it is pity that they do not tie into the Plinth as strongly as they should. Similarly, for all that the Mother Source Heresy is interesting, there are no quests actually using it or involving the Player Characters in it, so unlike the quests, it is not going to be all that easy to bring into a game or campaign. Perhaps in need of a little more development and support for the Dungeon Master, The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location does a decent job of presenting an interesting location and handful of NPCs—and presenting in a highly attractive fashion.