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

Saturday, 25 January 2020

The Barbaric North

Image result for conan the barbarian+rpgConan the Barbarian is a supplement for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of published by Modiphius Entertainment. It is the first in the ‘Conan the…’ series of supplements which focus on and take their inspiration from Conan himself at various stages of his life and what he was doing. Over this series, the supplements will track our titular character’s growth and progress as he gains in skills and abilities and talents. Thus this first supplement looks at Conan as a young man and his life among the people of his homeland, at the beginning of his career which will take him from barbarian to king, essentially the equivalent of a starting player character. Yet whilst the stats for Conan himself at this stage of his life do appear in the pages of Conan the Barbarian, they are more a side note than a feature, for the supplement is an examination of the countries of the north in the Hyperborean Age—Asgard, Cimmeria, Hyperborea, and Vanaheim. It includes new archetypes, talents, backgrounds, and equipment to help players create more varied barbarian characters and Game Masters more varied barbarian NPCs; a gazetteer and guide to the bleak lands of the north, either shrouded in fog or smothered in snow and; an array of detailed NPCs and monsters, including unique nemeses; and mechanics to help bring barbarian activities and attitudes to your game, including raids, contests, battle tactics, and more.

Conan the Barbarian opens with four new Barbarian castes and some changes to the castes given in the core rulebook for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. The latter are minor in nature, mostly name changes and slight adjustments in terms of Social Standing, whereas the five new castes are Barbaric, Law-speaker, Renegade, and Skald, each supported by new Talents, such as Savage Dignity and Uncivilised for the Barbaric caste, followed by Stories for each of the new castes enabling the creation of backstories for the characters of said castes. These are followed by four archetypes—Bard, Hunter, Raider, and Slaver, In addition, there are Barbarian Natures and Educations, and Talents, the latter the Skald and the Bard. Along with a small selection of equipment, including sun stones used as navigation aids and several sorcerous items, these options combine with those of the core rulebook to provide greater choice in creating characters from the barbaric north. This can be simply to create and play something different from the core rulebook, but it could also provide the diversity needed to create a party of barbarians from the north, whether for a campaign set there or looking to escape the frozen north…

Supporting these new character options is a gazetteer of the north. Beginning with the coming of the barbarians it looks in turn at the peoples, way of life, geography, and places of note in Cimmeria, Nordheim, and Hyperborea, with Nordheim being rent into two by great rivalry between Asgard and Vanaheim. Although other nations may look at the north as being wholly barbaric, the gazetteer begins to separate the four peoples and so emphasise their differences. So the Cimmerians live in clans belonging to four tribes and mainly live in independent villages dotted across the dreary Cimmerian Marches, their inhabitants only coming together when invaders, like the Aquilonnians, attempt to capture or colonise what the Cimmerians regard as their territory. The inhabitants of southern Nordheim recognise kings, queen, jarls, and more, whereas those of the north band together in nomadic tribes, constantly moving across the icy reaches of the north. Vanaheim also has a coast, enabling its inhabitants to build boats and fish and raid—their raiding ships with their carved figureheads being known as the ‘dragons of the sea’, whereas Asgard does not. To the East, the land of Hyperborea is known for its fortified cities and its participation in the slave trade. Again, there is a lot here to brought into a game, whether it is rolling on the Cimmerian village generator or nomad camp features table, or visiting the charm-bedecked Witch-Oak in Cimmeria said to be home to a witch, a crone to some, matronly to others, capable of lifting and bestowing curses.

If the gazetteer explores the cultures and places of the north, ‘Events’ describes the regular doings of the north. First and foremost is the ‘Thing’, a combined festival, council, and reunion, held by kings as much by lesser nobles. Here disputes and other matters are settled, to which the Game Master can add events from the accompanying table. Equally dramatic is the decision of a Nordheim tribe to migrate its camp across the snowy wastes or the members of Vanaheim village deciding to build a ship and conduct raids further along the coast. These are raids akin to those of the Vikings, rather than piracy, which will of course be covered in more detailed in Conan the Pirate, including ship-to-ship combat. There is a lot here to make all of these exciting and involving. 

The often dreary and unforgiving nature of life in the north is reflected in the discussion of its peoples’ gods and legends in ‘Myth & Magic’. None more so than the Cimmerian afterlife, which is even more dismal and dreary than their actual lives! Vahalla, the Hall of the Mighty is a more inviting prospect amongst the valorous of Nordheim. As well gods and legends, it presents rules for using geases and taboos, and Runes and inscribing them onto objects for one-off or even permanent benefits and the first Nemesis NPC in Conan the Barbarian. This is Atali, the Frost Giant’s Daughter, who plagues and plays with the lives of mortals. The following chapter, ‘Encounters’, includes even more Nemesis NPCs, from the generic Chieftain and Witch to the Lindorm, a two-legged serpent, a solitary hunter through the snow, and Bragi the Unloved, a seasoned chieftain who usurped his predecessor and who rules with an iron first, his ambition driving him to declare on his neighbours. This is in addition to the other thirty or so NPCs and creatures of varying capability. Not just Snow Apes, Boars, and Mammoths, but also Banshees, Draugrs, Were-Bears, and Wyrms. 

Rounding out Conan the Barbarian is ‘Hither Came Conan…’ which places our titular hero in the context of the supplement and provides a playable version of him early in his long career, rough equal to that of a beginning character. Running campaigns set in the north are explored in ‘The Barbarian Way’, discussing campaign set-ups—warbands and raiding parties in the main, whether the player characters part of or leading them, plus missionary and colonisation expeditions into the north; barbaric rites and traditions, and war and carousing, the latter including a lengthy table of carousing events. Lastly, Ali is a presented as a ‘Hero of the Age’, a female hero born to chattel slavery, a potential player character or an NPC, developed by a backer for the Kickstarter campaign for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of.

Physically, Conan the Barbarian is a slim hardback, presented in full colour, illustrated with an excellent range of fully painted artwork. It is well written, although it needs to be edited in places. Otherwise, it is accessible and comes with a reasonable index.

As is, there is not really anything missing in Conan the Barbarian. There are plenty of ideas, places, NPCs, and monsters in its pages to spur a Game Master’s imagination, but perhaps for the neophyte Game Master, new to running Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, some scenario hooks or adventure seeds would have been useful. Nevertheless, it is clear from Conan the Barbarian that its author has delved deep into Hyperborean lore and presented much of it in what is a multifaceted supplement. Although based on Conan’s early life, it goes beyond that to bring the world around him not just to life, but also to make it accessible and playable. Whether that is as Conan himself, using the provided write-up, or more obviously, as player characters. For the player who wants to create a barbarian character from the north, Conan the Barbarian offers welcome options, but for the Game Master wanting to run or take her Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of in or to the frozen, savage north, Conan the Barbarian is an excellent sourcebook.

Friday, 24 January 2020

Future History is a Killer

Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones is the seventh release for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, the spiritual successor to Gamma World published by Goodman Games. It is the second adventure to be designed for use with player characters who are Zero Level after the first, Mutant Crawl Classics #1: Hive of the Overmind. What this means is that it is a Character Funnel, one of the 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. Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones differs from Mutant Crawl Classics #1: Hive of the Overmind and other Character Funnels, in that it is designed for play under certain circumstances, with multiple players and characters, and in the case of the characters—none of them are expected to survive!

In the classic Character Funnel, each player begins play with three or four Level Zero characters and roleplays them from the start of the scenario until the end, hoping that one or more survives to accrue enough Experience Points to achieve First Level. In Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones, each player gets one Zero Level character, not three or four, and when that character dies—which is highly likely in Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones—his player is out of the scenario and leaves the table whilst a new player with a new character takes his place. When a second character dies and his player leaves the table, another player can join the table and take his place, including any player who has already lost a character during play. However, each time a new player—whether completely new or returning to the game after having lost a previous character—sits down and joins the game, he does so with a completely new, Zero Level character.

Essentially, Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones is designed for high character and high player turnover. In order to facilitate this, a Judge wanting to run this will need a lot of players. The scenario is written for between eight and ten players, but that is just the number of players sat at the table, for the Judge will need half of that again—if not the same number to get the fullest use out of the scenario—in order to have a sufficient supply of replacement players. (The Judge will also have to prepare numerous Zero Level player characters.) This supports the play of Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones as a tournament scenario at a convention. The winners of which will be the players who either had the most characters survive, or rather, killed the least number of characters.

To support all of this death and mayhem, Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones is the post apocalyptic equivalent of the funhouse dungeon, a madhouse carnival of death, in which the player characters will fumble their way through, all but blindly making mistakes which hopefully, the other characters—either those currently in play or those waiting to be played by the players ready to step in with the death of the next characters—will learn from. In other words, this is an adventure in which the characters and their players learn from the deaths of other characters and the temporary ejection of their players from the game.

The adventure itself begins with an earthquake which exposes an artefact, some kind of portal, of the Ancients. It leads to a strange chamber beyond from which various rooms can be accessed, one at a time, almost at random. These locations, most of them single rooms, are of all historical significance, enabling the characters to explore some of the events which led up to the Great Disaster that resulted in Terra, A.D.—Terra ‘After Disaster’—the world in which the characters live. Most of them are fairly detailed and many of them have a puzzle element to them, as well as a combat element. In keeping with the tone and design of the ‘dungeon’ or complex, most are also deadly. Many of the encounters heavily reference an array of Science Fiction films old and new, and both Judge and players will enjoy spotting them, whilst the Judge will enjoy roleplaying these references. More obvious references are made in the actual random encounters, many of which can be played as is, or expanded upon by the Judge. There is also scope here for the Judge to create his own encounters, again drawing from iconic Science Fiction movies and other settings.

Interestingly, Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones does something which few if any other scenarios for the post apocalyptic roleplaying do and that is, enable a player character to make contact with an AI patron. This is particularly important for the Shaman character Class, which specialises in ancient lore and knowledge and serves a god—or AI patron—which will in return grant wetware programs of great power as well as the Invoke Patron AI program. This always seems glossed over in Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, so it is interesting to see it presented here, though a Shaman choosing and making first contact with his AI patron has the potential to be an adventure in itself.

Physically, Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones is well presented. The artwork is a variety of styles, but all of it fitting. The centrespread map is clear and easy to read. If there is an issue with the scenario in terms of its presentation, it is that it is brought to an end somewhat abruptly.

Rounding out Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones is a set of advice and notes on running it as a tournament adventure. These highlight how useful and useless the scenario actually is. Useful if the Judge wants to run a demonstration or tournament scenario at a convention involving a larger number of players than a scenario for almost any roleplaying game would normally ask for. Unfortunately that calls for certain circumstances and for the most part, because those numbers do not fit the standard pattern of six players and one Game Master, such numbers are rarely called for in convention scenarios and difficult to organise. Useless because this is not a scenario that can easily be run at home using the given format, so the Judge will need to adjust the player and character numbers accordingly.

Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones is a mad funhouse dungeon comprised of excerpts from our future prior to the Great Disaster. It has some delightful Science Fiction film references that the Judge will enjoy bringing into play and the players will find themselves roleplaying encounters from those and other films as they explore the location. Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones is deadly, fun, and silly, but ultimately of limited utility.

Monday, 20 January 2020

Jonstown Jottings #7: Rocks Fall

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 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.

—oOo—

What is it?
Rocks Fall: A slot-in scenario for Runequest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is a short, one-session scenario set in Dragon Pass wherever Trolls may be found.

It is a sixteen page, full colour, 22.96 MB PDF.

Rocks Fall is well presented and decently written, but needs an edit in places. Both illustrations and cartography are decent, the maps being particularly clear.

Where is it set?
Rocks Fall is set in a dry, rocky place anywhere Trolls might be found and so can easily be slotted into most campaigns.

Who do you play?
The scenario is combat-focused, so warriors and combat capable characters are recommended. The scenario will hold significance to Ernalda and Babeester Gor worshippers.

What do you need?
Rocks Fall can be run using just RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. For more information about Trolls, the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary may be useful.

What do you get?
Rock Falls is a combat heavy scenario set in a small cave and temple complex which a Troll band is excavating and will defend any attempt to intrude upon their efforts. The complex has just nine locations and is linear in nature, although it does make good use of vertical space. Each of the locations is decently described. Also detailed is the reason of the Trolls’ activity in the complex and some hints as what the complex was prior to its partial collapse.

The opposition consists of several Dark Trolls and a mixed band of Food, Value, and Warrior Trollkin. The Trollkin are not initiates, but advice is given on each of their tactics and how to scale both them and the Dark Trolls in order to make them more of a challenge. In addition, each of the Dark Trolls and Trollkins has its own character standup. These accompany the large, but simple maps of the complex.

One issue with Rocks Fall is the overview of the scenario is underwritten and could have done with a stronger explanation, especially concerning the reasons why the Trolls are digging there and possible legends related to the complex. That would have expanded the versatility of the scenario, perhaps giving a good hook for Ernalda and Babeester Gor worshippers to seek out the complex or for a rival band of Trolls.

Is it worth your time?
Yes. As a ‘Slot-in’ scenario, as a short and location scenario, Rock Falls is easy to insert into an ongoing campaign. It is particularly suitable for a combat orientated group of player characters or a combat capable group looking for a change of pace.
No. Less combat capable player characters will find Rock Falls a challenge, if not deadly.
Maybe. The background to Rocks Fall is lightly drawn, giving scope for development by the Game Master.

Sunday, 19 January 2020

Mining the Beyond

Riot at Red Plank is a scenario written and published for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition by Golden Goblin Press. Like the earlier Riding the Northbound: A Hobo OdysseyRiot at Red Plank was released as a stretch goal for the Kickstarter campaign for the scenario, Cold Warning: A chilling 7th Edition scenario, and like Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey it is a one-shot scenario which explores a different aspect of American history. Where Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey explored the lives of Hobos, Tramps, and Bums in the desperate decade of the 1930s, Riot at Red Plank takes in the first decade of the twentieth century in the mines worked by and company towns lived in by immigrant workers amidst growing labour unrest, union agitation, and the often armed response of the mine owners.

Riot at Red Plank takes place in 1904 and is set on the Keweenaw Peninsula on Lake Superior in Northern Michigan where a number of copper mines are worked by immigrants from Scandianavia and Northern Europe. One of these is the Hecate or ‘heck-eight’ mine, worked by mostly Finnish immigrants. Two years ago it was purchased by the Monadnock Trust, a Boston-based cartel of investors, which has appointed a new mine agent, Hiram Noyes. Since then, Noyes has made many changes, replacing seasoned miners with his own men, and cutting corners which ultimately lead to a disaster and several deaths. He also began testing the use of one-man pneumatic drills, the introduction of which would likely lead to the loss of jobs from amongst the workforce. This has resulted in discontent among the miners, many contemplating unionisation and forcing an independent inspection of the mine. This is where the Riot at Red Plank opens…

In fact, Riot at Red Plank opens with a bang. In the default set-up, the player characters—for they are not investigators in the traditional sense of Call of Cthulhu—are mine workers of various types, including actual miners, carpenters, track layers, and trammers. (Suggestions are given as alternative characters should the players not want to all play miners.) Either way, they are assigned to accompany the mine inspector when disaster strikes and an explosion separates them in a cave from the rest of the mine where they discover a strange mineral and encounter monsters from beyond. When this results in the death of the inspector, the other miners blame Noyes and tensions escalate as the miners agitate for strike. Noyes’ response only makes the situation worse and as labour relations collapse, there remains the question, what was the mineral that the miners found in cave and just what killed the mine inspector?

Riot at Red Plank is a relatively short scenario, a one-shot investigation which has the players take the roles of miners—not investigators—and has them do something that they would ordinarily avoid. That is, conduct an investigation into the mine manager’s anti-labour activities and the horrifying weird events at the mine. They are hampered by the Keweenaw Peninsula isolated location, so getting outside help may prove difficult, but potential help may come from an unexpected quarter (but also sets up a possible sequel in both the 1920s and the modern era). To support this, Riot at Red Plank provides not just the seven pre-generated mine workers, each complete with detailed backgrounds, but also information about the Keweenaw Peninsula, the Hecate mine, and how mining is conducted during this period. Further support comes in the form of maps, terminology guide, and a number of decent handouts.

Physically, Riot at Red Plank is very nicely presented. Reuben Dodd’s artwork is excellent as ever, Stephanie’s McAlea’s cartography is decent, and the layout is clean and tidy. The writing is good too. The cover though does give away who the Mythos villains are in Riot at Red Plank.

Structurally, Riot at Red Plank is different not just because it gets the players to take roles different to those of standard Call of Cthulhu investigators and its places them in an interesting period of the USA’s social history—much like Golden Goblin Press’ Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey—but also because it delivers a short, sharp horrifying shock right from the outset. This shock sets up the mystery which pervades the whole of the scenario and lies behind all of the antagonists’ motives. Suitable as a one-shot or a convention scenario, Riot at Red Plank is an effective piece of corporatised horror which forces the labour force to confront the Mythos.

Saturday, 18 January 2020

Escaping the End of the World

In classic post apocalypse gaming—by which we mean Gamma World—players get to roleplay a variety of character types Humans, Mutants, Mutated Animals, and Mutated Plants. Although it seems highly unlikely that players will get to roleplay Mutated Plants in the Mutant: Year Zero series, so far in the Swedish post apocalypse roleplaying game, Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, players have got to play Mutants, leaving the Ark that is their home to explore the Zone beyond and the metaplot which underlies the setting—a search for Eden and perhaps the fate of the Ancients. Then with Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, they got to play mutated animals, living in Paradise Valley under the careful eye of the metallic Watchers from their base in the Labyrinth. This was followed by Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying in which the players roleplayed not Androids, but robots, suddenly self-aware sent out to prevent other robots from achieving self-awareness, in a giant undersea manufacturing dome whose facilities have long begun to deteriorate. This only left the Humans. Just where are the Humans in the future of Mutant: Year Zero? All that is explained in the setting’s latest expansion and fourth standalone roleplaying game in the line, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium. Like those previous expansions and roleplaying games, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium includes everything necessary to play—character generation, rules, and a complete campaign, all of which leads up to the start of something new…

The last of humanity has ridden out the worst of the apocalypse in an enclave dug deep into the bowels of the earth. This is Elysium I—named after the meadows of eternal Spring of Greek mythology—founded by four powerful industrial and financial dynasties that continue to rule the enclave to this day. Decades after the end of the world, contact has been lost with the other enclaves, resources are growing scarce, the enclave is close to losing its manufacturing capabilities, and the four great houses—Warburg, Fortescue, Morningstar, and Kilgore—plot and feud against each whilst other putting on a public face of co-operation and optimism. Meanwhile, the workers agitate for better conditions, criminal gangs seem to have free reign, acts of sabotage seem to go unchecked, and rumours abound that the surface might be safe to walk upon and the air clean enough to breathe, a paradise awaiting the first footsteps of humanity once again. In response, the four houses have established a force of Judicators tasked with preserving law and order in the enclave.

The players take the role of members of the four houses—junior members or heirs—who have been assigned to the Judicators, every Judicator patrol consisting of at least one officer from each of the houses. Their loyalties are, of course, to their patrol and the Judicators, but in secret, they report to, and take orders from their house, which often means they have to follow agendas at odds with the rival houses, if not the fellow Judicators in their patrol. Effectively, this means that at any one time, one of the player characters in a patrol will be a double agent! In essence, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium has much in common with Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron. The player characters are tasked with policing and dealing with an issue that they are either part of or responsible for. In Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron it is dealing with difficult situations caused by self-aware robots, whilst also being self-aware, whilst in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium, the Judicators are investigating acts of sabotage, whilst one of their number is supporting or conducting similar acts of sabotage in the name of their House. If Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium can be described in terms of other roleplaying games, it is Mongoose Publishing’s Paranoia meets EN Publishing’s Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000AD and Contested Ground Studios’ Cold City. All of which is played out in a giant inverted underground city equipped with advanced, but increasingly decrepit technology and infrastructure and the look and style of late-nineteenth century, though more central Europe than the Victorian era of Great Britain.

As with player characters in the other Mutant: Year Zero roleplaying games, characters in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium have four attributes—Strength, Agility, Wits, and Empathy. Each attribute has three basic skills associated with it. Instead of the Mutations of Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days, the species of Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, and chassis and models of Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron, characters or Judicators in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium are all Human. They belong to one of the houses—Warburg, Fortescue, Morningstar, and Kilgore—each of which favours one of the four attributes. They also belong to one of six professions—Investigator, Officer, Procurator, Scholar, Soldier, and Technician. A seventh option is a Psionic, but the playing group will need access to Mutant: Year Zero in order to use such powers of the mind. Each profession provides a single professional skill, for example, Investigate for the Investigator and Command for the Officer, plus options in terms of a Judicator’s appearance, talents, relationships to the other player characters and NPCs, objectives, and equipment.

Unlike the previous roleplaying games and expansions in the Mutant: Year Zero family, the Humans of the Enclave I in general do not have any ‘special’ powers, such as the mutations of the mutants in Mutant: Year Zero. Exceptions to this are the aforementioned Psionics from Mutant: Year Zero and Biomechatronics—cybernetic implants, such as Data Banks, Polygraph, or Heat Vision. Their use though has the potential to cause Machine Fever in those implanted with them. It could be argued though, that the Contacts that each Judicar has, for example, ‘Deadbeat Child’, ‘Grandfather’s Trove’, or ‘Loan Shark’, are the equivalent of ‘special’ powers, but with more social rather than physical or mental effects. Similarly, like the use of Biomechatronics, the use of Contacts is not without its potential backlash.

To create a Judicator a player selects a House and Profession, making choices from the options that these provide. This includes one of the three talents available for the profession, for example, Defender, Pettifogger, and Public Servant for the Procurator. When a character gains experience, he can choose more of these profession-only talents, as well as talents from a wider selection, such as Double Wielder, Machine at Heart, and Rot Resistant. He also assigns points to both attributes and skills, the points for each varying according to a character’s age. A younger character will have more points to assign to his attributes and fewer to his skills, whilst the reverse is the case for an older character. In addition, a player also selects his Judicator’s contacts and what he thinks of them. These are important because they form the pool of NPCs in ‘Guardians of the Fall’, the campaign in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium.

Our sample character is Horatio Kilgore, a historian who has written a number of books about society before the Titan conflict. The recent circulation of rumours about the surface world being safe made the head of the Judicars wonder where they might be coming from and what they might be based on. So, an expert on the past was requested and unfortunately, Horatio, was reassigned. Much to his dislike, he finds himself having to get out and about instead of spending his days reading and teaching. 

Commissar Horatio Kilgore
House Kilgore
Profession: Scholar
Appearance: Glasses, Hunched build, Smooth and buttoned uniform
Age: 52

Attributes
Strength 2, Agility 3, Wits 5, Empathy 4

Talents
Crucial Insight

Skills 11
Enlighten 4, Fight 1, Shoot 1, Comprehend 3, Know the Zone 3, Manipulate 2

Relationships (Fellow Judicars)
Niamh Warburg is your apprentice and you wish to teach her everything you know.
David Fortescue is ill-mannered and should be disciplined.
Lulu Morningstar has knowledge you thought was unimportant that proved to be otherwise.

Relationships (Contacts)
You hate Theodora Warburg, a fellow Scholar and former colleague. An imbecile, totally undeserving of the career at the academy which should have been yours.
You want to protect Melina Fortescue, a brilliant scholar at the academy and your former teacher.

Your Big Dream
To learn about the surface world and maybe even experience it. You suspect that the Council is not saying everything they know on the subject.

Gear
Stun gun, E-pack, emergency rations, Class IV ID card, comm radio, 9 Credits

Mechanically, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium uses the same system as Mutant: Year Zero—a mix of specialised dice and cards, also published by Free League Publishing and distributed Modiphius Entertainment. The content of the cards though, in the main artefacts as in Mutant: Year Zero, are reproduced in the pages of Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium and so are not absolutely necessary to play the game. Indeed, arguably, the artefacts do not play as strong a role in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium as they do in other roleplaying games and expansions in the line. The dice are another matter. All six-sided dice, they are divided into three types—the yellow Base dice, the green Skill dice, and the black Gear dice. In addition to the number six, all dice are marked with the radiation symbol on that face. This indicates a success when rolled. On the one face of the yellow Base dice there is a biohazard symbol, whilst on the one face of the black Gear dice, there is an explosion symbol. Rolling either symbol is counted as a failure. The green Skill dice do not have an extra symbol of their one faces. Now a game of Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium can be run without using the specific Mutant: Year Zero dice, but it does at least require pools of the three different coloured dice to represent the Base, Skill, and Gear dice.

To undertake an action, a Judicator’s player assembles a dice pool consisting of Base, Skill, and Gear. These should be yellow Base dice equal to the attribute used, green Skill dice equal to his skill, and black Gear dice equal to the Bonus for the item of any Gear used. A roll of six (radiation) on any of the dice rolled counts as a success, but rolling more successes are better as these can be spent on stunts. The types of stunt available are listed skill by skill. So with the Fight, you might inflict extra damage, grab an opponent’s weapon, or knock it over, while with Know the Zone, you would not only work out what a creature or phenomenon is, but also whether or not it could hurt you or you could hurt it. If no sixes are rolled, then the action is a failure. The results are even worse if ones or biohazard symbols on the yellow Base dice or explosion symbols on the black Gear dice are rolled. If a player fails to roll any radiation symbols—or not enough, he can push the roll and reroll any dice that did came up as Biohazard, Explosion, or Radiation symbols. Even if a player makes a successful roll, his Judicator can still suffer trauma for any Biohazard symbols rolled.

For the most part, combat in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium works in the same way as it does in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, with one major exception. Characters have access to advanced healing, although it takes time. Social conflicts use the same mechanics as physical combat.

The play of Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium differs significantly ways both minor and major. The first and minor difference is that where in Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha, the player characters were trying to improve their lives and those of their community by inventing new technologies and building devices, here they are attempting to hold back the enclave’s ruin and eventual collapse. Instead of working to raise Development Levels, here the player characters are attempting to prevent them from degrading, though ultimately, this is unlikely. This sets up one half of the conflict that lies at the core of Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium. The other is that the player characters, the Judicars, are often expected to place their loyalties to their respective Houses above their loyalty to the enclave and the last of humanity overall. When asked to do so by their House, the Judicar becomes, in effect, a traitor to his patrol and fellow Judicars, and the enclave in general.

This core conflict is supported by the roleplaying game’s set-up and play, which again is different to that of Mutant: Year Zero – Roleplaying at the End of Days and Mutant: Year Zero – Genlab Alpha. Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium is best played by four players so that their patrol is comprised of one heir from each of the four houses. Play is divided into Strategic and non-Strategic rounds. Strategic rounds are player controlled and are when each represents not his characters, but his whole House. They plan and stage Incidents which will hopefully either increase their respective House’s Control or decrease the Control of a rival House in a sector. By increasing a House’s Control in a sector, the more Influence Points a character has during play, which enables him to bring in more of his contacts into play. Each House’s degree of Control is also used when voting to determine which Incident is assigned to the Judicar squad that the player characters are in. Each Incident will have a starting effect which is unavoidable and a final effect which will take place if the Judicars fail to deal with it—and that is in addition to the final effects of the Incidents which take place at the same time as the Incident being investigated, and which the Judicars do not deal with. Thus there is a constant sense of ongoing decline and decay that the Judicars just cannot hold despite their best efforts—which are often undermined.

At this point, the Strategic round pauses, the non-Strategic round begins, essentially normal play with each player roleplaying his character conducting the investigation of the Incident. This includes one of the squad being a double agent who is following his House’s agenda rather than that of the squad or the enclave. Following the resolution of the Incident, the players get to vote on who they think the double agent is and can get Experience Points if they all do. An exposed double agent is punished for misconduct and can be imprisoned for multiple infractions.

All of this is supported not just by a detailed description of Enclave I, sector by sector, and solid advice for the Game Master, but also the ‘Guardians of the Fall’ campaign. It is built around fifteen key NPCs and eleven Incidents, divided into eight standard Incidents and three Special Incidents. The eight standard Incidents will occur again and again up and down the Enclave, until such times as the Judicars investigate them and then they do not occur again. As the Incidents pile up and Enclave I begins to degrade, the Special Incidents occur. These tie the events of the  ‘Guardians of the Fall’ campaign into previous events in other Mutant: Year Zero campaigns and ultimately will push the Judicars out of Enclave I. The ‘Guardians of the Fall’ campaign is generally very good, but it does feel relatively short at eleven episodes and its constant focus on the debilitating effects of the Houses undermining each other, does make it a bit of grind with no let up. Now the Game Master is provided with the means to create other Incidents, which are really necessary if she wants to run Incidents that are normal in comparison, but it would be nice to see ordinary Incidents as detailed as those in the campaign. Especially as that would also allow the Game Master and her players to involve their characters more in what is the nicely detailed and rich setting of Enclave I. The last part of ‘Guardians of the Fall’ campaign takes the whole of the Mutant: Year Zero into the future, but hopefully there will be support for that future from Free League Publishing.

Physically, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium is of the same standard as the rest of the Mutant: Year Zero line. Although it needs an edit in places, the writing is decent, the cartography is clear, and the artwork is excellent, the latter including a rather nice pastiche. Lastly, it comes with a good index.

Although, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium bears similarities to Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying, it is a very different campaign in tone and nature. It is divisive—it is House against House, and thus player character against player character; it is collective in nature—each Judicar’s House matters more than the individual or the Enclave; is is oppressive—the Judicators are officers of an autocratic state; the enemies are internal—that is, the inhabitants of Enclave I—rather than external; and ultimately, the Humans of the future of Mutant: Year Zero are committing the errors of the past once again. Also the satirical aspect previously seen in Mutant: Year Zero – Mechatron – Rise of the Robots Roleplaying is not as strong in Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium and there is a darker, more oppressive feel to both setting and campaign. That said, the campaign does end on a wondrous and positive note, and perhaps the fact that it is short at just eleven episodes is something of a relief given its oppressive feel. It will be interesting to see how all of these differences are contrasted and handled in future releases for the Mutant: Year Zero line.

If a Game Master and her players have played through the first three Mutant: Year Zero roleplaying games, then they will certainly want to play Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium, but be warned, it is radically different in terms of tone and play than the others. It would also work as a one-shot campaign, but is best played as the fourth part of the Mutant: Year Zero line because it is so different. Darker, decaying, and Dickensian, Mutant: Year Zero – Elysium takes the Mutant: Year Zero in a wholly new direction, just as each of the Mutant: Year Zero titles have done before it. This is the Mutant: Year Zero which brings them all together and which sets up what will hopefully be the next chapter. 

Friday, 17 January 2020

Friday Fantasy: Gauntlet of Spiragos

Until one hundred and fifty years ago, the world of Scarn was rent by a horrific war between the Gods and Titans, as the Gods, the children of the Titans, sought to rid the land of their whimsical and dangerous parents. Yet even as the battles raged and the mortals suffered beneath the combatants’ notice, the Gods found they could not kill the Titans. As its creators, the essence of the titans is inseparably bound to the world of Scarn, and destroy them, and the world is also destroyed. So instead of killing them, the Gods simply sought to incapacitate their parents, either chaining them in place or hacking them apart, their bodies and body parts becoming part of Scarn’s landscape where they fell. Now decades later, the felled titans are the targets of titan-worshippers wanting to resurrect their masters and the divine races to continue their war against the titanic abominations.

This is the set-up for the Scarred Lands, originally a setting for the d20 System published by White Wolf Publishing under its Sword and Sorcery Studios imprint since the year 2000. Now published by Onyx Path Publishing for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition as a Scarred Lands Player’s Guide, but a gaming group need not grab this rulebook in order to get a taster and a feel for this post-apocalyptic fantasy setting. The alternative is Gauntlet of Spiragos: An Introductory Adventure for 1st-Level Characters, an adventure designed to take a quartet of adventurers from First Level to Third Level. Advice is included to help a Dungeon Master adjust the scenario to make it more or less of a challenge as required.

The focus of Gauntlet of Spiragos is the Chasm of Flies, a crack in the earth left when the titan Spiragos the Ambusher was smote down by one of the young gods, Vangal the Ravager. The location is now is inhabited by spider-eye goblins and their spider allies, but has long been rumoured to be the resting place of powerful artefacts leftover from the Divine War. A torn and stained map has fallen into the hands of the Player Characters which possibly shows the location of a cleft or chasm in the Devil’s March and depicts what could be three magical items. The Player Characters are presented with three ways of discerning about information about the map, the Devil’s March, and the cleft in the ground. The first is from their general knowledge, whilst the second is to examine the map and work out the meaning of its various clues, and to that end, the designers have provided a number of skill tests for the players to roll and discover what their characters can learn. The other is to go to the edge of the Bronze Hills and Creagfort, which lies a few miles south of the Devil’s March and perhaps learn what those posted there know. This is optional, but the scenario assumes that the Player Characters will start there anyway, and to be honest, this is really the only opportunity for any roleplaying to take place in the adventure.

Unfortunately, after this, Gauntlet of Spiragos takes on a rather singular note with a series of combat encounters between Creagfort and the Chasm of Flies with an extra optional one should the Party be making easy progress. This optional encounter introduces an NPC which could be used to harass the Player Characters’ progress, but as written this option is one that the Dungeon Master will need to develop herself because he is only present to increase the number of combat challenges. This is a missed opportunity since it might have given something or someone for the Player Characters to interact with and oppose, and something or someone for the Dungeon Master to roleplay.

The Chasm of Flies presents an interesting physical challenge for the Player Characters, consisting of a pair of parallel columns which descend into the darkness, festooned with webs. This gives it an eerie atmosphere with a verticality derived for what the ‘dungeon’ actually is, something entirely in keeping with the setting and the consequences of the Divine war. Yet the encounters in the Chasm of Flies are not all that interesting in themselves, being again combat orientated and singular in nature. Nevertheless, the objects indicated on the map at the start of the adventure, the reasons for the Player Characters to undertake the journey are actually very nicely done, quite powerful and flavoursome given the low Level nature of the scenario.

Physically, Gauntlet of Spiragos is something of a mixed bag. Some of the artwork is excellent, but some of it is cartoonish. Likewise, some of the cartography is murky and a waste of space, in fact, the best map in the scenario is actually the player handout given out at the scenario. Similarly, the scenario suffers from being overwritten and dense in places, hampering the efforts of the Dungeon Master to extract material from the book and present it to her players.

There are some great elements in Gauntlet of Spiragos—the nature of the dungeon, the excellent magical artefacts, and the map handout as a means of delivering clues and information—which together do impart some of the feel and flavour of the world of the Scarred Lands. In fact, the importance of the magical artefacts come into play in Dagger of Spiragos and Ring of Spiragos, the two sequels to Gauntlet of Spiragos.) As an introduction, they work well, but they are hampered by the scenario’s linear design, lack of variety in terms of play, and the sometimes stodgy writing, the ultimate effect being that Gauntlet of Spiragos is not as interesting and as dynamic as an introduction to Scarred Lands it deserves to be. This should not be taken as Gauntlet of Spiragos: An Introductory Adventure for 1st-Level Characters being a complete disaster, for it is far from that. Rather it is a scenario that will work better with some tinkering and adjustment upon the part of the Dungeon Master.

Monday, 13 January 2020

Miskatonic Monday #32: We Are All Savages

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the depths of the Miskatonic Repository.

—oOo—

Name: We Are All Savages: A Colonial Scenario for Call of Cthulhu, 7th Edition

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: William Adcock

Setting: The French and Indian War

Product: Scenario
What You Get: 29.01 MB thirty seven-page, full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: Survival Horror in the Snow
Plot Hook: Snow, Scurvy, Starvation, and Worse at the far of the British Empire.
Plot Development: Missing supplies, blood on the snow, the worst winter, and a terrible confrontation.
Plot Support: Floorplans of Fort Niagra, six pre-generated characters, six illustrations, musket stats.

Pros
# One-two session one-shot
# Unique historical location
# Strong use of weather and location
# Strongly plotted
# Potential convention scenario
# Technology presents its own challenges
# Six solid pre-generated characters
# Potential Colonial Gothic one-shot

Cons
Tightly plotted
# Unfamiliar setting to non-Americans
# Not suitable for the new Keeper
# Works best with six players
# Limited options for the players
# Military scenario

Conclusion
# Strong use of weather and location
# Military scenario in an unfamiliar period and setting
Potential one-session one-shot convention scenario