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Monday, 18 November 2019

A Cthulhu Collectanea I

As its title suggests Bayt al Azif – A magazine for Cthulhu Mythos roleplaying games is a magazine dedicated to roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Published by Bayt al Azif it includes content for both Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition from Chaosium, Inc. and Trail of Cthulhu from Pelgrane Press, which means that its content can also be used with Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game and The Fall of DELTA GREEN. Published in October, 2018, Bayt al Azif Issue 01 includes four scenarios, reviews of classic titles for Call of Cthulhu, new rules, interviews, an overview of Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying in 2017, and more. All of which comes packaged in a solid, full colour, Print On Demand book.

Bayt al Azif Issue 01 opens with an editorial, ‘Houses of the Unholy’, which manages to explore both the meaning and origins of the magazine’s title and perhaps suggest a possible scenario seed drawn’ like said title, from the life of eighteenth century novelist and antiquarian, William Thomas Beckford, and the infamous gothic folly, Fonthill Abbey. This would some development upon the part of the Keeper, but the editorial certainly provides some pointers. It is followed by ‘Sacrifices’, the magazine’s letters page, the missives here posted in response to the preview of the first issue, and ‘How to play’, by the editor, Jared Smith. This is serviceable enough, starting with the fiction and a discussion of the themes found in Call of Cthulhu, but it has dated given that it does not take into account the number of scenarios available from various publishers to help prospective players and Keepers started.

Dean Englehardt of CthulhuReborn.com—publisher of Convicts & Cthulhu: Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying in the Penal Colonies of 18th Century Australia—presents ‘CthuReview 2017’, a look back from 2018 of the previous year in terms of Lovecraftian investigative horror and its associated segment of the gaming hobby. It covers the notable figures and their doings as well as the various publishers, projects, Kickstarters, and more. It is a rather useful overview which nicely chronicles the year keeps us abreast of anything that we may have missed or forgotten. It is notable for including several Kickstarter projects which have to be fulfilled.

In terms of gaming content, the first scenario in Bayt al Azif Issue 01 is ‘A Conspiracy in Damascus’, again by Jared Smith. It casts the investigators as members of the Diwan al-Barid, the courier service of the Muslim caliphate in the eighth century, tasked with discovering the nature of a large object a group of Bedouin from an unknown tribe transported to the city and then transfered to a local merchant who bribed a guard to let it pass through uninspected. This is a swords and sand investigation, with opportunities for roleplay and combat and a nice feel for the history of the city which goes all the way back to Roman era. This period of history, post-Cthulhu Invictus, but pre-Cthulhu Dark Ages is is sadly unexplored in terms of Lovecraftian investigative horror, so this scenario is to be welcomed. That said, advice is given on how to adapt it to other periods, including Cthulhu by Gaslight and the relatively recent here and now.

The second scenario is also by Jared Smith, as is the third. ‘Double Dare’ is a modern-set, single-night one-shot scenario, initially written for play on Halloween. It casts the investigators as teenagers, bullied into spending a night in a reputedly haunted schoolhouse on Halloween. This is a thoroughly creepy piece with a constricting mechanic driving the narrative, necessary for a one-shot. Not a scenario for anyone who suffers from automatonophobia. This also benefits from a good handful of handouts. The third scenario. ‘Overdue’, is a short, fifty-entry solo adventure set in the library at Miskatonic University where the player character is a custodian, cleaning and tidying up after the students and academic staff each day. Of course, nasty thing are afoot as the library lives up to its terrifying reputation. This is a short, brutal scenario, stripped down in its mechanics to really just sanity, but easy to replay if the investigator dies.

The fourth scenario, ‘Easier to Fill the Ocean with Stones’ is written by Rich McKee rather than Jared Smith. This is set in Vietnam in 1968 and sends the investigators into a war zone where American forces may have committed an atrocity. Tasked with determining what happened, the investigators must chase after the potential perpetrators as North Vietnamese and other forces descend on the region. This is a murky, messy scenario and suitably so. It can be run on its own or adapted to run with Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game or The Fall of DELTA GREEN, made easier by having GUMSHOE System mechanics.

Stu Horvath offers two reviews under the ‘Vintage RPG’ title, one of Arkham Unveiled, the other of Escape from Innsmouth. Each is only a single page, and unfortunately, with both pages in each case consisting of more pictures than text, there is little depth to either. Disappointing in both cases when really two pages could have been devoted to either and even then neither would have been  explored in sufficient depth or thought. Fortunately, Jason Smith’s ‘Sites of Antiquity’ more than makes up for it, exploring the much re-purposed archaeological site of Husn Suleiman, as well as suggesting some Mythos connections. The inclusion of actual photographs of the site and a map adds to the verisimilitude. Equally, Catherine Ramen’s ‘Rebooting Campaigns with a Modern Sensibility’ is just as good, if in a different way. It highlights some of the prejudices and discrimination present in the classic period of the 1920s (and elsewhen) and thus, if unintentionally, in Call of Cthulhu and its supplements, and then addresses how to adjust what has always been a historical game by increasing diversity and representation. A welcome companion piece to Darker Hue Studios’ Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games.

The full title of ‘Clerical Cosmic Horror: The Brief Era of the Cthulhu Mythos as Dungeons & Dragons Pantheon’ gives away the subject of Zach Howard’s article. It is a good history of the Cthulhu mythos in the hobby prior to the publication of Call of Cthulhu in 1981, and again, a good companion piece to the more recent The Making and Breaking of Deities & Demigods by James M. Ward.

There are two interviews in Bayt al Azif Issue 01. The first and longer one is ‘Going Rogue – An interview with Rogue Cthulhu’. This is a team of Keepers and scenario authors who run their creation at conventions such as GenCon and elsewhere. Based and operating solely in the USA, this is a good look at the fan side of the hobby and Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. It gives the team their due and highlights how the fans bring Call of Cthulhu to life. Sadly, the interview with Chris Spivey of Darker Hue Studios in ‘Harlem Renaissance’ is half the length of the other interview and as informative as it is, the length of the first interview does leave the reader wanting more. 

Jensine Eckwall’s ‘Character Creation’ is the first of two cartoons in Bayt al Azif Issue 01. It is short and sweet, but the horror is decently done. The likewise short ‘Grave Spirits’ takes the central character of a doctor into Red Hook, but lacks the punch of ‘Character Creation’. Hopefully future installments will develop from the set-up presented here. Lastly, ‘Run for it! – Random Tables for Chases’ provides obstacles, hazards, and barriers for chases on foot. This is very useful article, handily supplementing the chase mechanics in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

Physically, Bayt al Azif Issue 01 lacks polish, having the somewhat rougher feel of a fanzine. In another publication, this might be seen as charming, but here it is more something for the publisher and authors to strive to overcome. It could also benefit from a better choice and use of artwork, some of it feeling as if it is there because the designers could rather than because it is suitable. In general, the layout of Bayt al Azif Issue 01 feels inconsistent and could do with a stronger layout style.

Ultimately, the originality, and in some cases, the unique nature of the scenarios make the first issue of Bayt al Azif worth the price of admission and all come with pre-generated investigators ready to download, whilst many of the extras are informative or useful, if not both. If this first issue lacks polish, then that means that future issues can only look and feel better, for Bayt al Azif Issue 01 is a solid first issue. And that bodes well for Bayt al Azif Issue 02

Sunday, 17 November 2019

Risking the Old School Renaissance

If you have The Black Hack and Whitehack, then surely you must have the ‘Grey Hack’. Well no, what you have instead is Macchiato Monsters: Rules for Adventures In a Dungeonverse You Build Together, an Old School Renaissance roleplaying game which draws from both to provide simple mechanics, freedom of character design, streamlined combat, and freeform magic, plus an emphasis upon risk and the use of resources. Now that latter aspect sounds like the play of Macchiato Monsters involves some kind of crunchy of resource management, but nothing could be further from the truth, for Macchiato Monsters uses dice—indicated as Δ4, Δ6, Δ8, and so on—throughout to handle each player character’s resources and more… Macchiato Monsters is published by Lost Pages and is available here.

Character creation in Macchiato Monsters is straightforward enough. A player rolls three six-sided dice for the six traditional statistics—Strength, Intelligence, Wisdom, Dexterity, Constitution, and Charisma. A player is then free to swap any two of these. Then he invents a Trait. This can be a race, an occupation, a background, a faction, and so on. Hit Points are rolled on a six-sided die, this die type also representing a character’s Hit Dice and as his martial prowess, this is also his ability to wield better or more efficient arms and armour. A character is given two options which can be to add the roll of a six-sided die to a stat under ten; gain another trait or another Hit Die; take martial training and increase his Hit Dice; and undertake Specialist Training and create an ability which can be used once per day or undertake Magic Training and create two spells which can be used once per day.

Next—and instead of choosing equipment—a player rolls for it. There are nine tables to roll on, each with twenty entries, covering equipment and food, wealth and valuables, mêlée weapons, missile weapons, armour, magical trinkets, heirlooms and heritage, and faith. The player assigns one die type to each table—four-sided, six-sided, eight-sided, ten-sided, and so on—and rolls on the table. This represents the equipment that a beginning character has been able to muster before stepping out on his adventuring career. 

Our sample character is a re-interpretation of the treasure hunter created for the review of Whitehack, but where Whitehack has Classes—broad Classes, but Classes nonetheless—Macchiato Monsters has none and is even more open in terms of character design and possibilities. Both though, enable Referee and players alike to start world building at the point of contact, of character creation.

Thurston Smyth
Strength 08 Intelligence 17 Wisdom 11 
Dexterity 14 Constitution 07 Charisma 16 

Hit Dice: d8 Hit Points: 7

Trait: Sage of the Last University
Magic Training—Illuminate the Path, Soporific Field 
Martial Training (Master of the Whip)

Languages: Draconic, Elvish

Equipment: Infaillible Darts (damage Δ10), whip (d4), Hide tunic and fur hat Δ4, Funeral urns worth silver Δ6, a noble title (Rais, Viscount, Duchess, Khan...) and a bodyguard (Δ10), and jar of snail soup Δ6, old ox, rolled up carpet, 2 sacks, crowbar.

Mechanically, Macchiato Monsters uses the roll under a statistic mechanic, with the results of one being a critical success and twenty being a fumble. It also uses the Advantage and Disadvantage mechanic of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition and The Black Hack. A trait, whether that is an occupation, a background, a faction, and so on, will not give a character any bonuses in combat, but for non-combat circumstances, it will grant a character the Advantage for a roll or enable him to undertake actions that another character would not be able to.

Combat is designed to be flexible and simple. First, it is possible to set up situations to a combatant’s benefit, but there is always an element of tactical risk to such a situation. Thus, it requires a roll against an appropriate statistic—for example, against Intelligence or Wisdom to determine a good ambush site or placement of some defences—and if successful, the combatant would have an advantage the following turn. However, fail and the combatant will have disadvantage the following turn, and perhaps other negative effects. For example, the ambushers might not be in position when the attackers appear and so cannot concentrate their fire and are in the open they are attacked. Attack rolls are made against Strength for mêlée attacks, Dexterity for missile attacks. Damage is rolled by weapon die type, but with disadvantage if the weapon die type is larger than the attacker’s Hit Die type. Similarly, if an attacker is faced by an opponent whose Hit Dice are higher than his or opponents whose total Hit Dice are greater than the party’s, then the attack is rolled with disadvantage.

Instead of Armour Class, Macchiato Monsters uses a die type for any armour worn. When a character is first attacked and hit, his player rolls the die type for the armour worn. This determines the number of points of damage that the armour will stop that fight. It is quick, it is brutal, and to an extent cinematic with elements like shields being smashed or fried to stop overwhelming damage from one source. Similarly, it is easy to handle complex actions such as escaping a burning, collapsing building whilst grabbing the Lost Proclamations of Oshun the Minor.

Much like Whitehack, magic in Macchiato Monsters is freeform, player-Referee negotiated, and deleterious to the character’s Hit Points. Only a critical result of a statistic check will the caster not lose any Hit Points. A more generically worded spell, instantaneous casting, extra range and targets, increased duration, and so on, will increase the Hit Point cost, but similar to Whitehack, the Hit Point cost cast can be alleviated by using a focus, reagents, and materials—as well as if the caster is using specialist magic or using faith, depending if the caster is a specialist or has faith. Even if the spell fails, the caster can choose to roll the Chaos die, a twelve-sided die, on the spell mishap table. The clever thing is though, the negotiation process between Referee and player as to the nature and Hit Point cost of the spell enables the spell-casting player to establish a cost of that spell when his character wants to cast it again. Do this a few times with different spells and variations in their effect and casting, and what the player character has is his own personal, even unique spellbook.
For example, Thurston Smyth is being chased by his arch-rival, Ronson Ballard, who also wants the Lost Proclamations of Oshun the Minor. Ballard has persuaded a tribe of Kobolds that he speaks for their god since he can shoot fire from his hands and together they are chasing Smyth as he runs away. Smyth decides that now is the time to cast Soporific Field. The extra targets and wide field add two Hit Points to the base single Hit Point cost, as do the higher Hit Dice of the targets and the instantaneous cast. So four Hit Points. Fortunately Smyth has this and can use his magic focus, a wand to lower the cost by a Hit Point to just three. Unfortunately, Smyth’s player fails the check against his Intelligence, but desperate to get away, the player calls upon the Chaos of magic…! The result of the Chaos Risk die is a twelve—and BAM! The effect is to double the area, number of targets, or area of the spell. Thurston could not hope for a better result as all of the chasing Kobolds as well as Ballard suddenly collapse. A bit tired and exhausted, Smyth turns round and walks over to a sleeping Ballard and proceeds to rifle through his pockets…
The Black Hack added another mechanic for handling consumables. It gives each Consumable a die type, for example, a flask of oil has a Usage Die of d6, and then handles their use as dice rolls. When each is used, its die type is rolled and if the result is one or two, the Usage Die is stepped down to a lower die type. In the case of the flask of oil, from d6 to d4. After the d4, the Consumable is consumed. Macchiato Monsters uses this mechanic, but applies it on a wider scale and exacerbates its effects. So food, armour in combat, faith and reagents when casting magic, missiles, holy water, even followers (after all, they can get tired!), can all be handled using a similar mechanic, called the Risk die. When the Risk die is rolled, instead of being stepped down to the next die type on a one or two, it is stepped down on a result of a one, two, or three. Further, the result of a one is worse than a two, which is worse than a three, and so on, for narrating the effects of the step down. A maximum result on the Risk die indicates a lucky break, though what that means is up to the players and the Referee to decide.

Macchiato Monsters steps up its use of the Risk die to handle weather, applying a die type according to the season and then when a Risk die is stepped down the weather gets worse. A similar mechanic is used for wilderness encounters, the die type varying according to the terrain type, whilst the Risk die is also used for off-screen expeditions, carousing and nights out, building and controlling domains—like an assassins’ guild or a wizard’s tower, the stability of a region, and more. Notably, the Risk die is used to handle money, so one character might possess a bag of silver Δ6 and use that to purchase a good quality black powder pistol, whilst another might have a bag of gold Δ6 and spend it to take a luxury room at a hotel. Each time a character makes a purchase, the Risk die is rolled and in effect, really only spends the money if the die is stepped down… It is also possible to split, merge, and exchange such bags of coin, but these rules, as clever as they are, do feel counter-intuitive, mostly because they make something which should be a number into an abstract. There is nothing to say that they will not work, but when it comes to the financial aspects of the roleplaying game, they take some adjusting to. In addition, Macchiato Monsters provides simple rules for handling monsters as well as a list of ‘Fifty Shades of Macchiato Monsters’, and then tables and tables for creating townsfolk, plots, factions, adventure locations, creatures, items, and treasures. 

Physically, Macchiato Monsters is a neat, tidy, and readable black and white book. Although lightly illustrated, its contents are neatly organised and laid out. It is a pity that the book is not available in a ‘lie flat’ book as the Referee will find herself rolling on a lot of tables during play and being able to play directly from the book would have made it easier.

Of course, there is risk involved in dungeoneering—and to a varying degree, there always has been, ever since the publication of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974. As with Whitehack it hands Referee and players alike a high degree of freedom in what they play and the world in which the characters adventure, but Macchiato Monsters makes the degree of risk in not just dungeoneering, but in every aspect of adventuring, travelling, organising, hiring, and more, explicit in the use of the Risk die. It lies at the heart of Macchiato Monsters, using it as a means to drive stories and to push the adventurers to desperation as bad events come about as Risk dice are stepped down and ‘resources’ are essentially expended.

Macchiato Monsters: Rules for Adventures In a Dungeonverse You Build Together could have been simply an amalgam of The Black Hack and Whitehack, but it is very much its own take upon the best elements of both. In particular, its application of the Risk die makes for much more fraught playing experience and makes adventuring ‘risky’ once again.

Saturday, 16 November 2019

1959: Diplomacy

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


—oOo—


1959 marks the publication of two classic wargames. One is Diplomacy: A Game of International Intrigue, Trust, and Treachery, the other is Risk: The Continental Game. Although they are both set in past times, one Napoleonic, one Edwardian, they could not be more different. One is card and dice driven and has been hugely successful, probably the most successful mass market wargame ever published, but the other is entirely trust and decision driven. The former is Risk, the latter Diplomacy. Both are sixty years old in 2019.

Published in 1959 by Games Research Inc. and later Avalon Hill, but now Wizards of the Coast under the Avalon Hill brand, Diplomacy is the grandfather of grand strategy games, an exploration of European national and political tensions prior to the Great War. A game of trust and negotiation, it appeals to the historian and the diplomat, whether that is the armchair historian or diplomat—like you and I, or the actual historian or diplomat—famously John F. Kennedy and Henry Kissinger. It is a game of decision and trust and negotiation, there being no dice or luck involved whatsoever. Designed for two to seven players aged twelve and over, in Diplomacy each player will control one of the great European powers—Austria-Hungary, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, and Turkey—and will have under his command a number of armies and fleets. He will also hold his traditional or home provinces that his country held in Europe at the beginning of the twentieth century. Between them are several neutral provinces, such as Norway, Tunisia, Portugal, Bulgaria, and so on. Switzerland is also neutral, but cannot be entered by any army. Some of these provinces, both home and neutral, are supply centres. Possession of these enable a power to build another army or fleet, likewise loss of these will force a power to disband an army or fleet. There are a total of thirty four such supply centres on Diplomacy’s map of Europe. If one player or power controls eighteen of these, then he wins the game. Winning though, is far from easy, and can take anywhere from between four and twelve hours—Diplomacy is a long game and it takes dedication to play.

Diplomacy is played out year by year, with two turns—Spring and Fall (Autumn)—per year beginning in 1901. On his turn, a player writes orders to each of his fleets and armies. These are to Hold (stay in position), Move (to an adjacent province), Support (support another army or fleet in moving into a province), or Convoy (a fleet transports an army across a sea province to another land province). Once written down, the orders from all powers are resolved simultaneously and this sets up the primary difficulty in taking provinces. All units are of equal strength or value—there is no rolling of dice or means to determine the strength of an attack or unit—and so when two opposing units attempt to capture the same province or one attempts to force another from a province, nothing happens. To successfully attack and hold a province, a player needs to support the attacking unit with another unit in another province. This can be a unit belonging to the attacking player or that of an ally. If successful, the defending unit can be forced to retreat, the attacking unit taking the province.

These orders are issued twice a year, but after the Fall turn, if a player has captured a Supply Centre, he can build a new army or fleet in one of his home provinces. If a player has lost a Supply Centre, he loses a unit. Play proceeds like this, from year to year until one player or power captures the eighteen supply centres necessary to win the game.

Now mechanically, this sounds simple enough, and it is. Within a turn or two though, as the powers send their armies and fleets out to capture first the supply centres in neutral territories they will clash with rival powers. Then, once the neutral supply centres have been captured, the powers will be brought into direct confrontation, and at this point, a stalemate is likely to ensue… In order to break such a stalemate, the powers and thus the players will have to co-operate and form alliances, much like the Entente Cordiale between France and Great Britain and the Triple Alliance formed between Germany, Austria-Hungary, and Italy. This is where Diplomacy begins to get interesting, challenging, and duplicitous.

Writing the orders for each turn—Spring and Fall (Autumn)—per year takes a few minutes, but a fifteen minute phase is allowed before this for negotiation between players. During this time, they can negotiate what they will write as their respective orders, reach agreements, form alliances, and so on. This might be to support an allied player’s move into a particular province, hold against an enemy, allow a convoy move for an ally, and so on. Forming alliances makes their member players very powerful, but the question is, how far can they trust each other? For not only is it within the rules of Diplomacy to reach agreements and make alliances, it is within the rules to break them as well. A betrayal and a breaking of an alliance at the right time can break a stalemate and hopefully give the betrayer the advantage to defeat his former ally, who is unlikely to make the same mistake of trusting the betrayer twice...

It is this capacity to break alliances, typically to the detriment of one member over another, to betray the trust between allies, which gives Diplomacy its primary reputation, that of being a game which breaks friendships. That though, is really down to the friendship rather than the game itself, because the game can be played by more mature players who will not necessarily put their friendships to the test by playing Diplomacy. By modern standards, if you can play The Resistance or Battlestar Galactica, both with built traitor mechanics, then Diplomacy should not be so of a test of friendships. But arguably, those games have traitors built into them by design and from the start, so the players know what to expect and can blame the game’s mechanics as much as the player betraying them. In Diplomacy is there no inbuilt mechanic for there being a traitor and it comes about through play and duplicity rather than anything else. Further, because of the trust placed in fellow allies, the betrayal of trust is likely to be all that more painful…

Nevertheless, forging the trust between players and building alliances is very much part of the play and the skill in Diplomacy. For it is a game built around negotiation and interaction as much as it is ordering fleets and armies across Europe—and in fact the need to make those order calls for that negotiation and interaction. 

In the sixty years since it was first published, there have been many editions of Diplomacy, published by many different publishers. The current version is the fiftieth anniversary edition published by Wizards of the Coast as part of its Avalon Hill imprint. It comes with eighty-four army counters and eighty-four fleet counts for the seven great power; one-hundred-and-forty-seven control markers to indicate who has control of the various supply centres; a large game board depicting Europe marked with the provinces held by the great powers at game’s start and the neutral provinces; a pad of maps for marking up orders; and the rulebook.

All of the components are solid, although it would have been nice if the armies and fleets had been wooden rather than the sturdy cardboard they are. The map is very clear and easy to read. As is the rulebook, although it would have been nice if some colour had been included in the maps used to show the examples of play. Although the rules are simple, time is taken to go through them with plenty of examples and explanations. There is also advice on how to play with fewer players and an example play through of the first seven turns of the game. This is a typical race for the supply centres in neutral territory. It is a pity that there are no illustrations for these moves, but it encourages the player to act them in order to see how the game plays.

Diplomacy is a game which demands the full seven players—it is not as fun with fewer—and the time in which to play it to its final outcome. Of course, few of us have that opportunity as often as we would like and almost from almost the very start, the play of Diplomacy was conducted via the post and in fanzines, then later online, so that games can be conducted at a more leisurely pace with greater scope for negotiation (and betrayal). Its age, its theme, and its set-up means that there has probably been more written about Diplomacy and how it can be played than any other game, except Chess (which of course, is centuries older). By modern standards, at the height of the Eurogame, Diplomacy is too confrontational, too much the wargame. It could be argued that from the start, though not necessarily later on in the game, its situation places the players and their powers finely balanced against each other. Breaking that is part of winning the game and even though Diplomacy is not strictly a wargame, it is not a Eurogame either. 

The lightness of the mechanics and the historical set-up, means that Diplomacy has the capacity to be something more. As a game of confrontation and negotiation between the European powers prior to the Great War, it has the capacity to work as an exploration of the nationalism, the politics, aims, and international relations between the powers. There is scope here for roleplaying too, as the players take on the roles of the Kings, Emperors, Sultans, Czars, and Presidents leading the great powers , and by increasing the number of players, perhaps their various ministers and generals. Such scope lies outside of Diplomacy as it comes in the box and arguably it would also require at least one Game Master.

Again by modern standards, Diplomacy is a game design with flaws. Its ts play is too long and by its very nature, will lead to player elimination who will have nothing to do whilst the surviving powers jockey for position and then confront each other. These are likely to be contributing factors to the game not being as popular as it once was. Another factor may well be the theme to Diplomacy, that of the great powers of Europe prior to the Great War, no longer having the significance that it once had, as those events were within living memory when the game was first published. And yet, Diplomacy: A Game of International Intrigue, Trust, and Treachery remains a classic because it emphasises the negotiation and interaction aspects of playing it as being key to the wargame aspect and mastering that is the path to victory—eventually. 

Friday, 15 November 2019

Friday Fantasy: Monsters & Creatures

There is no denying the continued and growing popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, with it having appeared on the television series Stranger Things and it no longer being seen as a hobby solely the preserve of typically male, nerdy teenagers and young adults. Yet as acceptable a hobby as roleplaying and in particular, playing Dungeons & Dragons has become, getting into the hobby is still a daunting prospect. Imagine if you will, being faced with making your first character for your first game of Dungeons & Dragons? Then what monsters will face? What adventures will you have? For nearly all of us, answering these questions are not all that far from being a challenge, for all started somewhere and we all had to make that first step—making our first character, entering our first dungeon, and encountering our first monster. As well written as both Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the Player’s Handbook are, both still present the prospective reader and player with a lot of choices, but without really answering these questions in an easy to read and reference fashion.

Step forward the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ published by Ten Speed Press. This is a series of introductory guides to Dungeons & Dragons, designed as primers to various aspects of the world’s leading roleplaying game. Each in the series is profusely illustrated, no page consisting entirely of text. The artwork is all drawn from and matches the style of Dungeon & Dragons, Fifth Edition, so as much as it provides an introduction to the different aspects of the roleplaying game covered in each book in the series, it provides an introduction to the look of the roleplaying game, so providing continuity between the other books in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ and the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the core rulebooks. This use of art and the digest size of the book means that from the start, every entry in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ is an attractive little package.

The first in the series, Warriors & Weapons provided an introduction to the various Races of Dungeons & Dragons, the martial character Classes, and the equipment they use. Second is not Wizards & Spells, the companion to Warriors & Weapons which covers Clerics, Sorcerers, and Wizards, or indeed any of the other spellcasting character types in Dungeons & Dragons. Instead the second book in the series is Monsters & Creatures. As the title suggests, this presents an introduction to the monsters, creatures, and animals that the prospective player may well have his character encounter on his adventures, many of them—like the Beholder, the Mind Flayer, the Owl Bear, and more—iconic to Dungeons & Dragons.

The thirty or so entries in Monsters & Creatures are divided according to their environment. So under Caverns & Dark Places there are entries for the Beholder, the Carrion Crawler, and the Myconid and under Forests, Mountains & Other Terrain, there are entries for the Centaur, the Sprite, and the Treant, as well as six types of Giants. Banshee, Skeletons, and Vampires can be found in Moors, Bogs, & Boneyards, whilst the Aboleth, the Dragon Turtle, and the Merrow are found in Oceans, Lakes, & Waterways. Lastly, the Griffon and the Pegasus are sighted Mountain Peaks & Open Sky along with Dragons of all colours… Every entry is given a double page spread, the left hand page showing an illustration of the creature or monster, a listing of its special powers, a description of its size, and an indication of its Danger Level, from ‘0’ or harmless to ‘5’ for really nasty. On the right hand page there is a description of the monster or creature and its lair, accompanied by a list of things to do or not do when dealing with it.

So for the iconic Beholder, the given Danger Level is ‘4’ and its Special Powers, from Telekinesis and Enervation to Disintegration and Petrification, are described eye stalk by eye stalk. The description is fairly broad, as much hints as straight facts, since after all, this Monsters & Creatures is not the Monster Manual. Their lairs are given as remote caves or abandoned ruins, their floors often covered in the equipment and treasure of adventurers who faced the Beholder and were killed. The advice when facing a Beholder is that the adventurers should fight magic with magic, distract the Beholder, and get in close inside the range of their eyestalks, but never ignore the feeling of being watched and never stay put!

Monsters & Creatures includes a little extra beyond just the thirty or so entries. After a select few, an entry is given for a legendary threat, one of the famous beings from Dungeons & Dragons cannon. So for the Dragons, this is Tiamat, The Queen of Evil Dragons, so Monsters & Creatures also serves as an introduction to the campaign, Hoard of the Dragon Queen, and for the Vampires, it is Count Strahd von Zarovich, so this book also works as an introduction to the campaign, Curse of Strahd. These legendary creatures are foes that the adventurers are unlikely to face for a very long time, but they are ones to be whispered about in hushed tones… Then there the encounter descriptions after every section, such as Half-Orc Barbarian’s encounter in a Myconid Colony who can sense an action she took in another colony years past. This short piece of fiction sets up a question or situation which the reader can answer or deal with by referring back to the entries earlier in the tome. These are a nice break from the somewhat comparatively dry monster descriptions, posing the reader with a situation that his adventurer might face in the future.

Just as in Warriors & Weapons, the last words in Monsters & Creatures are some last words about building a hero, that the reader is on his first steps to composing his adventurer’s story. It opens up a little to ask the player to wonder about the other heroes his character will adventure alongside, what and where his adventures take place, and of course, why? It explains a bit more about the play of Dungeons & Dragons, so serving as a light primer before the player gets to the table.

There are just two issues with Monsters & Creatures—one minor, one not so minor. The minor issue is the inclusion of the Flumph as an entry. It is just a little too obscure, a bit too odd to sit alongside the other entries. The not so minor issue is that the fact that the book includes an anachronism or two when it comes to describing the size of the monsters and creatures in the book. A Treant is described as being taller than a logging truck, whilst the Storm Giant is described as being taller than a London bus. The inclusion of such modernisms breaks the verisimilitude of the book, making very much a reference work out of the game when it could have been a reference work both out of the game and in the game.

Physically, Monsters & Creatures is an attractive little hardback. It is bright, it is breezy, and it shows a prospective player what his character might face, both in the art and the writing. Further, the art shows lots of adventuring scenes which can only spur the prospective player’s imagination.

Now obviously, Monsters & Creatures is designed to showcase Dungeons & Dragons and introduce the prospective player to what his character might encounter. Now because some of the entries in the volume are particular to Dungeon & Dragons, it means that not all of the content of Monsters & Creatures is quite so useful in other roleplaying games, but nevertheless, it would an introduction to Dungeons & Dragons-style retroclones, though in its look, it is brighter and breezier than the style and tone of the typical fantasy roleplaying game from the Old School Renaissance.

Warriors & Weapons did a decent job of introducing players to the martial Classes. Likewise, Monsters & Creatures does a good job of introducing the prospective player to just a tiny, but often iconic, few of the monsters and creatures in Dungeons & Dragons. It is though, more of a general reference work, perhaps more useful than Warriors & Weapons, since its contents pertain to the play of Dungeons & Dragons rather than the creation of characters in readiness for that play. This makes it an even better book to have at the table during play, since its contents can serve as the legends and the folklore that a player character in a fantasy world might have learned about said monsters and creatures as he was growing up. Even if not that, then the readers for whom Monsters & Creatures is written for, are at least going to wowed by its contents and perhaps be fascinated by them to want to know more about Dungeons & Dragons

Again, Monsters & Creatures is a bright and easy read, the next part of what should serve as a light introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. One that nicely works as a gift as much as it does a useful reference work.

Monday, 11 November 2019

Miskatonic Monday #29: A Colour in a Dark Age

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: A Colour in a Dark Age

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Jonathan Baxter

Setting: Cthulhu Dark Ages or Cthulhu Through the Ages: Guidelines for Playing Call of Cthulhu in Seven Different Eras
Product: Scenario
What You Get: 28.29 MB nineteen-page, full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: In the Dark Ages there is only one colour between them.
Plot Hook: 
A draining experience could be spreading...
Plot Development: Warring factions, cowed villagers, heresy, religious persecution, a siege, and a cookbook.
Plot Support: Investigator strategies, sixteen fully-stated up NPCs, and seven full colour maps.

Pros
# Support for Cthulhu Dark Ages# Can be played just using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition
# Designed for three players (but playable by more)
# Creepy opening scenes
# Open-ended design
# Scope for scenery-chewing NPCs
# Scope for inter-factional skulduggery
# Big climax


Cons
Support for Cthulhu Dark Ages
# Poorly explained set-up
# Open-ended plot
# Not suitable for the new Keeper
# Possible party split
# Potentially easy access to powerful Mythos tomes

Conclusion
# Unfamiliar setting
# Underwritten set-up
# The Mythos meets B-Movie, blood & guts, hack & slash with a whiff of a rose!

Sunday, 10 November 2019

2009: Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

—oOo

The very first adventure that roleplaying hobby gave us was the dungeon and the purest form of the dungeon is the megadungeon. The megadungeon is like a dungeon, a complex of rooms and corridors beneath the earth populated by traps, puzzles, treasure, and monsters, but on a larger scale. Often a much larger scale—a scale large enough that the dungeon itself becomes the focus of the campaign. In such a megadungeon, the player characters will either visit the dungeon again and again, returning to the surface regularly to rest, resupply, and research, or there may be areas within the dungeon where they can rest or even resupply, so that they rarely return to the surface. Although other fantasy and fantasy-like roleplaying games do do dungeons or dungeons that are not ‘dungeons’—for example, Numenera and Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne—the megadungeon remains very much the province of Dungeons & Dragons and its various editions and iterations. The Old School Renaissance—a period so far contemporaneous with Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition and Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition—has been the greater source of the megadungeon in the last fifteen years. Notable examples include Barrowmaze and Dwimmermount, both published for use with Labyrinth Lord, both large tomes in themselves, but another megadungeon, Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, offers much more stripped back play.

Written and published by the author of The Dungeon Alphabet: An A-Z Reference for Classic Dungeon Design for use with Labyrinth Lord in 2009, Stonehell Dungeon offers a constrained five level dungeon with some seven hundred locations, complete with a detailed history, numerous factions, and a surprisingly reasonable rationale for its existence. And all that in just one hundred and thirty four pages. Plus that is only half of the dungeon as another five Levels and another six hundred locations are detailed in the second part, Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell. This sounds like an awful lot and an awful lot in relatively few pages. The question is, how does it manage to do what sounds like an all but impossible task?

Stonehell Dungeon does this by using the one-page dungeon format—best seen in the One-Page Contest—designed to fit a complete, compact adventure on a single page which a Labyrinth Lord can read and prepare in a few minutes before running it for her players in a session (or two). Thus the Labyrinth Lord has to pack in the monsters, the treasure, the puzzles, the traps, and the story into as tight a space as possible and it still offer a high degree of playability. Now the design of Stonehell Dungeon does not strictly adhere to the one-page dungeon format, but the fact that it does is not without its consequences, both good and bad,

Since Stonehell Dungeon is a megadungeon, it cannot simply fit one level into the one-page dungeon format, so instead it divides each level into four quadrants, each of which receives not the one-page dungeon treatment, but a double-page spread treatment—twice. The first of these highlights the salient features and nature of the quadrant with an overview, a description of its population, special dungeon notes, important NPCs, and any new monsters, spells, or magic items. This is the main body of the text for the quadrant, for the second double-page spread gives a map of the quadrant, tables for elements such as wandering monsters and random crypt contents, lists its notable features, and then provides a room key for all of the quadrant’s notable locations. This last feature is highly economical with its words, according each or location no more than three sentences each—and rarely that. What is this means that Stonehell Dungeon manages to pack in descriptions—thumbnail descriptions, but descriptions nonetheless—of thirty to forty rooms in just over page! 

Now what the room descriptions do not include are any monster stats. These are are included in a double-page spread given for the level and all four of its quadrants as a whole. This double-page spread shows the four quadrant maps together as a whole so that the Labyrinth Lord can see their connection and this is accompanied by an overview of the level as a whole and a full monster list for the level, including their stats. What this means is that the Referee is not going to be running Stonehell Dungeon from just the double-page spread of the quadrant map and room list, but will still need to refer to the overviews of both the quadrant and the level. That said, the format means that this cross-referencing is kept to a minimum and with a printout of the monster list to hand the Labyrinth Lord could just work from just the double-page spread of the quadrant map and the room list.

What this means is that Stonehell Dungeon can be run with the minimum of fuss, quadrant by quadrant, level by level. Even preparation is relatively light, since the quadrants, for the most part, are fairly self-contained, with little overlap from quadrant to another, though there is some overlap in the deeper levels. This almost compartmentalisation means that it is relatively easy for the Labyrinth Lord excise a quadrant from Stonehell Dungeon and run it elsewhere or on its own. On the downside, it means that the story and the narrative in the dungeon can also become compartmentalised because the connections between individual quadrants are also limited. Now to be fair, there are story and plot elements in Stonehell Dungeon mostly through the hooks which pull the adventurers into the dungeons, but this being a dungeon for the Old School Renaissance, there is less of an emphasis upon plot and more on what the players and their characters bring to the adventure and dungeon.

As to the plot and rationale of Stonehell Dungeon, it is a former prison, a penal solution for a tyrant some three centuries ago who had too many enemies and not enough gaol space. Begun as an experiment, the tyrant fed in more and more prisoners who had to dig and expand its confines in order to make space. The prison was also self-governing, the guards only there to prevent escapes and as ever greater numbers have been forced in, a malign society of rival gangs was formed. When the tyrant and his regime was overthrown, the prison was abandoned, few escaped, and the limited reform or rescue teams sent in, never returned. Those who remained went mad and many descended into cannibalism as something seemed to feed on and exacerbate the madness and later spread Chaos… In the centuries since Stonehell Dungeon was abandoned, it has been a base for bandits and brigands, a destination for adventurers, and more. Today, its location is well-known, lying at the far end of a gorge when the ruins of the prison’s fortifications and above ground facilities now stand. Together, these serve as Level 0 for the dungeon.

Beyond the abandoned and explored and re-explored opening ‘Hell’s Antechamber’ inside Stonehell Dungeon’s entrance, once the adventurers are in, there is the neutral ground of a Kobold Village of dungeon caretakers to be found, a Hobgoblin army preparing for conquest, a Dwarf on an architectural survey expedition to be joined, a former serpentine temple which adds an element of Cosmic Horror, an asylum, Wererat mercenaries and spies, a ghost funeral skiff whose crew are still looking looking to take away the dead—and the not-so-dead, whilst the laboratory of the Plated Mage and a strange alien race push Stonehell Dungeon into weird Science Fantasy territory. Not all of this is all that interesting, in general, barring the Kobold Village, any section involving races like Orcs and Hobgoblins feels like they have to be there in order to counterpoint the odder and more interesting aspects of Stonehell Dungeon where the author has been freer with his imagination. Even then, Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is not as weird as it could be, for there are another five levels to come in Stonehell Dungeon: Into the Heart of Hell, and even by the fifth level of the dungeon, very little of weirdness has been touched upon. Of course, if the Labyrinth Lord decides to end the megadungeon playthrough there, it does end with a confrontation with a very well handled monster.

Physically, Stonehell Dungeon is a surprisingly slim book given what it provides. It is lightly illustrated, primarily with publicly available artwork. The writing and editing are generally decent, though the near adherence to the one-page dungeon format does mean that the content feels cramped in places. Another issue is that in the overview pages, elements are typically discussed before their placement in the room lists for each quadrant, so Labyrinth Lord will need to get used to that format rather than the sequential format of other adventures and campaigns.

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is not necessarily the perfect example of a megadungeon to come out of the Old School Renaissance, but it is undeniably a good one. It offers the means to use the stripped back mechanics beloved of the Old School Renaissance which leave room for the Labyrinth Lord’s and her players’ own rulings and input respectively. As much as it is representative of the Old School Renaissance, it is equally of another aspect of the hobby—that nothing new goes out of print. Stonehell Dungeon was published in 2009 and Print on Demand means that a decade on it is still available.

Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls manages to achieve control of its content via the one-page dungeon format which prevents it from sprawling unnecessarily, which means that it is easier for the Labyrinth Lord to run the megadungeon quadrant by quadrant. Yet at the same time that format places constraints upon its storytelling possibilities and perhaps plots that all too often fight to escape beyond their quadrants. Overall, Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls is an incredible piece of design, economical of format and word count in a way which helps the Labyrinth Lord run the dungeon off the page.

Saturday, 9 November 2019

Freeing the Old School Renaissance

Whitehack is a retroclone, a hack, a rough cut of Dungeons & Dragons which sets out to bring a higher degree of flexibility and design than most other roleplaying games of the Old School Renaissance. It bears some mechanical similarities to The Black Hack, but there are more differences than similarities. The Black Hack focuses on dungeon delving and traditional Dungeons & Dragons-style of play with traditional elements such as the Races and Classes found in Dungeons & Dragons, but with mechanics similar to that of Numenera to support player-focused play. Whitehack can do that, but is designed to do Races, Classes, and magic of the players’ and Referee’s choice combined with a simple mechanic, and as much as this provides player and Referee alike with a huge amount of creative freedom, it also comes with a certain degree of conceptual complexity.

A character in Whitehack looks much like a Dungeons & Dragons character, but not. A character has six characteristics—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma, plus a Class and Level, Armour Class, Hit Points, and so on. Value for various factors, including Hit Points, along with Attack Value—representing a character’s martial prowess, Saving Throw—rolled to avoid dangers and hazards, Slots—special abilities, and Groups—origins/links/professions, are provided by a character’s Class. Instead of traditional fantasy Classes like Fighter, Cleric, Thief, and Wizard, Whitehack has three, all with just ten Levels—Deft, Strong, and Wise. Each Class has some core abilities. Thus Deft characters can roll for double damage when attacking from a dexterously advantageous position, attune themselves to certain objects or animals to do amazing things with them; Strong characters are good in melee and get better such as being able to climb and fight huge opponents or attack with two weapons, and can even learn attack moves from opponents they kill; and Wise characters can do magic, whether that is prayers, spells, rituals, and so forth.

So far, so simple, and so far, not that interesting, but exactly what the Classes, the Slots, and the Groups represent is where Whitehack begins to get interesting. This is because it is entirely up to each player to decide what they are. So a Deft character might be a swashbuckling duellist, a wandering monk from faraway, an agile thief; a Strong character could be a mighty-thewed barbarian, a gigantic prehistoric hominid named Joe Miller, a loyal knight; and a Wise could be a wizard, a priest, a druid, or even a mad scientist. Slots are both special abilities and the number of times that a character can use a special per day, so it is possible to know more than one special ability, but be limited in the number of uses. The player of course tailors the Slots to the character, a Deft archer might know trick shots or jungle acrobat be accompanied by a loyal panther; a charismatic Strong character might boost morale or instil fear, whilst a loyal Strong character could protect others; and a Wise summoner might call things from the netherworld or a Wise steampunk tinkerer might fiddle with a Universal Engine to get any number of effects. 

Then a character has Groups. Every character starts with two of these, representing his Species—if other human, his vocation, or an affiliation with a guild or tribe or school or whatever. An affiliation might even be a strong personality trait or belief, such as Lawful, Evil, or Hesta will always guide me. Whatever the Group, it is always associated with an attribute and whenever the player has to make a check against an attribute when its associated group comes into play, it is always with a bonus. 

Thurston Smith
Level 1 Deft Hero
Hit Dice 1 Attack Value 10 
Move Value 25 Saving Throw 7 
Armour Class 3 Hit Points 5 

Strength 08 
Dexterity 15 (+1 to Initiative) [Treasure Hunter]
Constitution 13 
Intelligence 17 [The Last University]
Wisdom 07 
Charisma 14

Languages: Draconic, Underearth, Common

Special Abilities
Master of the Whip

Whilst Hit Points and weapon damage in Whitehack is rolled on six-sided dice, the roleplaying game’s mechanic uses a twenty-sided die—or two. For his hero to undertake an action, a player rolls a twenty-sided die and attempts to roll equal to or under the appropriate attribute. A roll of twenty is a fumble, but a roll equal to the value of the attribute is a critical success. The Referee can make this task easier or harder by increasing or decreasing the value of the attribute for the purposes of the task. If a character has an appropriate group next to the attribute being rolled against, then the player can make a ‘positive double roll’ and roll two twenty-sided dice with only one needing to be equal to or under the attribute for the character to succeed. (Other roleplaying games would call this ‘rolling with advantage’.) If though,  pairs are rolled on ‘positive double roll’ equal to or under the attribute then the character gains an extra bonus of some kind, but if the pairs are over the attribute, he suffers an extra detrimental effect in addition to his failure.
For example, Thurston Smith is on an archaeological expedition and is exploring a necropolis in search of the tomb of Naranda, Lord of the White Scales, an infamous White Dragon cultist. Searching a catacomb complex he comes across the sarcophagus of another potentially important cultist. The stone coffin is carved as if the occupant was wrapped in the wings of a dragon and engraved in the Draconic tongue. Thurston speaks Draconic, but the engravings are faded and the Draconic an ancient variant. To read what it says, Thurston’s player will need to make an Intelligence check. Which for Thurston will be seventeen. Thurston also has an appropriate Group attached to his Intelligence—The Last University—so his player gets to make a ‘double positive roll’. The Referee states that the condition of the engravings makes it harder to read them and levies a penalty. So now Thurston’s player much make a ‘Double Positive Roll’ against a target of fifteen. He rolls six and six—a positive, but not critical success. The Referee identifies the tomb as belonging to Oshun the Minor, another cultist, but one who was part the schism that killed Naranda, Lord of the White Scales and was said to have gone to the grave with some of his enemy’s secrets.
Whitehack uses the same mechanic for attacking in combat, but with an adjustment to how Armour Class is handled. The Armour Class scale in Whitehack is ascending, but ascends from zero, indicating no armour, then two for Cloth, three for Leather, and so on. Shields increase Armour Class by one. (A table provides a means of conversion from traditional ascending and descending Armour Class scales found in other fantasy roleplaying games.) When a character attacks an opponent wearing armour or with an Armour Class value, his player is rolling against both the character’s attribute and the opponent’s Armour Class. If the player rolls equal to or under his character’s attribute, but above the Armour Class value, then the attack is successful, but if the roll is under both the attribute and the Armour Class value, then the attack fails.
For example, Thurston, having opened up the sarcophagus of Oshun the Minor, is confronted with the corpse of the long dead priest, reanimated as an Ice Zombie. Thurston quickly draws his flintlock pistol and fires at the looming desiccated ice figure. Thurston’s attack will go first because he is using a firearm and the player will be rolling against Thurston’s Dexterity. However, the Oshun the Minor is flesh and bone hardened by ice, which gives him an Armour Class of three. Any roll of four to sixteen will mean that Thurston’s shot has hit, but a roll of seventeen or more means a miss, and a roll of three or lower means that he has hit Oshun the Minor, but the Ice Zombie’s frozen skin has stopped the ball from Thurston’s handgun.
Contests between characters or NPCs can be handled via the simple comparison of attribute rolls, but for longer contests an Auction mechanic can be used. Each participant rolls a six-sided die and keeping the result a secret, bids the value of the number rolled or less as a qualifier much like Armour Class. For example, if Thurston wanted to escape the cold clutches of Oshun the Minor, his player might roll a four on the six-sided die, and bid a three to escape, meaning that he has to roll under Thurston’s Dexterity of seventeen, but over the bid of three to succeed. If he fails, then the Referee gets to bid for Oshun the Minor to catch him… 

Having given the players the freedom to imagine and design their characters how they like just using the three Classes, Whitehack gives the Wise Class and thus spellcasters the freedom to create almost any magic that they like. The downside is that casting spells, doing prayers, performing rituals, and so on costs the caster Hit Points—and the more complex the spell and its effects, the more Hit Points it costs. Now the Wise character does get these Hit Points back faster than any other Class—though not from his own magic—and he can mitigate the Hit Point loss. This might be through the use of the right equipment or tools, ingredients, place, gestures, and so on.
For example, Darius the Spider Mage wants to sneak past some guards in a torchlit cavern. He decides to cast Move Like an Arachnid and climb up the walls and along the ceiling. The Referee states that this will cost Darius 1d6+2 in Hit Points to cast. Darius’ player says that the Spider Mage will make it appear that he has eight legs as part of the casting and rub crushed spiders into his hands and feet. For the first, the Referee agrees to reduce the cost to 1d6+1 and then to 1d6 for the second. Darius’ player rolls the die and loses three Hit Points, but successfully casts the spell...
Essentially, spellcasting in Whitehack is a negotiation between the player and the Referee, the player aiming to cast a spell closest to the desired effect, whilst losing as few Hit Points as possible, whereas the Referee is aiming to have the Wise character cast something plausible taking into account the character’s concept, Level, and Groups. This works whatever type of spell or effect the Wise character is aiming for, including the creation of artefacts, although this costs the caster permanent Hit Points rather than temporary ones. For those who like the traditional spells of Dungeons & Dragons and other retroclones, Whitehack includes a list for the players and Referee as a reference to aid them in a more traditional style of fantasy roleplaying game.

Beyond these core rules, Whitehack provides rules for corruption and then four new Classes. The first two are the Brave and the Fortunate, whilst the Dagonite and the Marionette are given as two examples of Race of Class. All four are slightly more complex Classes, the first two designed to be used as replacements should a player character die during the game, the second two to fit the campaign setting given at the end of the Whitehack. All four though, work as examples for the Referee to design her own. Whitehack also provides the Referee on advice when running the game, covering designing or adapting settings, creating adventures and constructing dungeons, and handling campaigns.

Although a full list of monsters is included in Whitehack, it is very much a list and a list a traditional monsters, and given that they are traditional monsters, they do not really anything in the way of an explanation. Instead, Whitehack focuses on building monsters, including ‘Boss’ monsters which have to be taken down stage by stage. The monsters given as an example include Mountain Orcs—stealthy cannibals who are rumoured to be lycanthropes, Rock Snails—beasts of burden whose shells are used as shelter by the travellers they carry; and Whitecloaks, a lawful religious cult dedicated to fighting and curing the corrupted and the cursed. These monsters, much like the artefacts given in Whitehack such as the Dagonite Needle Gun and the Ghost Box—a device for speaking to the undead spirits trapped within, are part of ‘The White Curse’, the campaign setting included in Whitehack.

‘The White Curse’ is a post-apocalypse fantasy setting in which the blood of an evil Witch King seeped into the ground, causing a terrible cold to spread and many of its inhabitants to suffer from a curse that turns them into the Twisted. As the Witch King works to return to the mortal world, one cult known as the Watchers attempts to stop it whilst the Witch Cult works for its master. The world is one of shattered cities buried under ice and freezing seas forcing the amphibious Dagonites to seek refuge on the land, as the Witch Cult searches the ruins for ancient artefacts and the Watchers attempt to stop them. The set-up suggests that the player character party could be part of either organisation which lends itself to some interesting roleplaying possibilities.

Whitehack comes with a scenario, ‘The Chapterhouse Murders’, set within the enclosed chapterhouse of the Whitecloaks. The player characters will need to conduct their investigations outside the chapterhouse in the gorge city of Ode and then find their way inside to continue. Much of the scenario is built around a mindmap of relationships that the Referee will need to work from, with the investigation inside the chapterhouse combining a dungeon crawl and a murder mystery, but playd out with stealth. Clues learned in ‘The Chapterhouse Murders’ will lead the player characters out of the city of Ode and after a murderous MacGuffin, the significance of which will vary according to which side the player characters are working for. ‘The White Curse’ provides impressive support for Whitehack, solid playable fantasy content with both steampunk-esque and Lovecraftian elements.

Whitehack is available in a variety of formats, but the simplest and handiest is a sixty-four page digest-sized book. All versions are illustrated, but the layout is clean and tidy and whilst it needs an edit here and there, the writing is engaging. One issue is with the organisation which puts all of the play examples together in one place and not with the rules they illustrate. This means that grasping the rules is not as immediately as easy as it should be and that is at odds with the simplicity and intent of Whitehack.

As much as many retroclones are designed to emulate particular iterations of Dungeons & Dragons and in many cases, it is claimed that they can do a variety of different types and styles of fantasy too. Now Whitehack can do the traditional fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons and the support and scenarios for traditional Dungeons & Dragons and other retroclones can be adapted to Whitehack—a matter of the Referee making the adjustment of the mechanics and numbers from the other to Whitehack, which can be done on the fly once she is used to it—what Whitehack offers is the flexibility and freedom to do more. Not just for the Referee, but the players who have the freedom to create the characters they want without the constraints of traditional fantasy. On the downside though, the freedom means a lack of options to choose from and for some players and Referees this can be paralysing. (In which case, Whitehack may not be for such players and Referees and perhaps The Black Hack would be a more suitable choice as it is more traditional in the options and fantasy it offers.)

Whitehack is a retroclone package in two parts. The first the rules, simple and easy, but unconstrained in terms of what each player wants in his character and the Referee wants in the design of her fantasy world. The second is an example setting and scenario combination showcase with enough content to get a game of Whitehack going, yet with room enough for the Referee to expand and develop as is her wont. Overall, Whitehack is a great retroclone for giving player and Referee design freedom alike—and then showcasing how it can be done.