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

Friday, 11 August 2017

The Eighth Doctor

With the publication of The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary for the Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game finds itself in a limbo between the last hurrah of Classic Who and the launch of ‘Nu Who’. The former was of course detailed in The Seventh Doctor Sourcebook and the arrival of the latter is covered in The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook. This limbo is a reflection of the history of the television series, cancelled in 1989 and relaunched in 2005, with a sixteen-year gap during which the only canonical Doctor Who story was a certain television movie. Released in 1996, Doctor Who: The Movie was a made for television movie that marked the regeneration of the Seventh Doctor into the Eighth Doctor, the reappearance of the Master, and laid the groundwork for what the BBC hoped to be a new series. Unfortunately, the film was a failure, being reviled by the fans and seen as being too American. It also condemned the Eighth Doctor to a single canonical appearance.

Except not. For whilst the Eighth Doctor would continue to have multiple adventures in audio via Big Finish, he would have one last canonical outing in The Night of the Doctor that would see him regenerate in the events that lead up to The Day of the Doctor, the actual fiftieth anniversary episode for Doctor Who. It is thus Doctor Who: The Movie and The Night of the Doctor that The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook bounces between in exploring the adventures of the Eighth Doctor. As with the other books in the series, the first few chapters explore who this incarnation of the Doctor is, who is companions are, what his TARDIS is like, and what his adventures are like with a view to designing them. Yet from the very first page, the authors are forced to deal with the paucity of information about the Eighth Doctor and each of these topics, and their answer in most cases, is to stretch the source material about as far as they can. So, for example, Doctor Grace Holloway and the gang member from Doctor Who: The Movie, Chang Lee, are treated as Companions, but in the classic sense neither are. What the authors do is suggest that they are because they have access to the TARDIS, but since neither travels in the TARDIS, are they really? Well, no… Now the Eighth Doctor is not exactly lacking in Companions, as the phrase taken from The Night of the Doctor and included in the sourcebook here, “Charley, C’rizz, Lucie, Tamsin, Molly, friends, companions I’ve known, I salute you...” suggests. These are of course Companions that have travelled with the Eighth Doctor in the audio adventures published by Big Finish, but are not cannon, so cannot be included in The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook.

Similarly, the other suggested Companion, Cass, from The Night of the Doctor, is not a Companion, but the authors do at least suggest how she might be a Companion—and it is a whole lot more interesting than the explanations for Doctor Grace Holloway and Chang Lee as Companions, tying in as it does, to The Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords. What this showcases is how the authors and the publishers are actually more interested in The Night of the Doctor than they are in Doctor Who: The Movie. This can be seen throughout the sourcebook, starting with the cover, which although includes a photo of Eric Roberts as the Master from Doctor Who: The Movie, uses a photo from The Night of the Doctor to illustrate the Doctor. It can be seen in how the authors manage to squeeze a page-and-a-half of information out of the eight minutes of The Night of the Doctor versus the nine pages they get out of Doctor Who: The Movie—and even then, those nine pages feel stretched. Yet it still has to cover the movie and the authors definitely want to get through it in order to get to the interesting stuff, even if they are forced to explain why the Doctor might be half-human as claimed in Doctor Who: The Movie. The best said about the explanation is that it is what it is and move on. The idea was silly enough and whilst the explanation is reasonable enough given that silliness, it just reminds the reader of that silliness. 

The paucity of source material also means that the section on adventures for the Eighth Doctor is also rather stretched thin because as the authors make clear, there is not much to go on. What the sourcebook suggests is that the Eighth Doctor’s time is initially marked with an innocence exuberance for life, but that this innocence is lost as he witnesses the effects of the Time War, and ultimately, forced to pick a side. And that is about that, because there are no adventures to go on.

So what of the other four fifths of The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook? Well, one of the upsides of having so little material to draw upon is that the authors can make stuff up and what they make up is ‘Doom of the Daleks’, a twelve-part campaign which is a consequence of the Time War, involves the Doctor, and takes its structure from The Key to Time story arc for the Fourth Doctor. The time travelers, be they the Doctor and his Companions, other Time Lords and their Companions, associates of the Doctor—for which read members of UNIT, Torchwood, or the Paternoster Gang—or non-associates of the Doctor—for which read other characters the players have created, get a message or a visit and are given a great quest. The Doctor has been shot with a Dalek weapon that is erasing him from Time and to prevent this from happening, the weapon needs to be destroyed. Which requires using a Temporal Trace Locator to find traces of the Doctor up and down his timeline and once it has enough traces, quadrangulate the location of the weapon, and then destroy it. Essentially, a big McGuffin hunt and an excuse to emulate the styles of each of the first eleven Doctors’ adventures.

Of course, the adventures can be played in any order, because this is time travel, but are presented in order, one through eleven in the sourcebook. The first few adventures do fit the style of their relevant Doctors, but there is a bit of a mix and match of dangers between regenerations. So whilst ‘Down and Away Below’ is a classic historical adventure in the style of the First Doctor, involving pirates and the Caribbean, it actually involves a classic Third Doctor monster, the Sea Devils. Similarly, ‘The Space Trap’, a classic Second Doctor murder mystery aboard a space station, involves monsters from the Third Doctor’s and the Fourth Doctor’s eras, the Sontarans and the Rutans respectively, though of course, a Third Doctor adventure would not be so without the involvement of UNIT and the Master, which is exactly what ‘The Tendrils of Neox’ involves and a jolly romp it is too. ‘Nowhere’ takes its cue from ‘The Face of the Enemy’, a sort of sandbox affair festooned with Fourth Doctor iconography and has an oddly Dickensian feel rather than the obvious Gothic stylings that the authors might have opted for. For the Fifth Doctor, ‘The Coils of the Serpent’ is a direct sequel to two highly regarded episodes, ‘Kinda’ and ‘Snakedance’ and is none the worse for that, and at least it does provide an opportunity for one player to roleplay some scenery chewing evil. The odd one out in the first six is ‘Lunchtime of the Dead’, which though written for the Sixth Doctor and is a sequel of sorts to ‘The Twin Dilemma’, feels like it should have been written for the Fourth Doctor. This is because it is actually a parody of Douglas Adams’ The Restaurant at the End of the Universe and since Adams’ tenure was under the Fourth Doctor… Anyway, it is so thick with puns and references to the actual Restaurant at the End of the Universe, that the Game Master should probably run it as such and just go with the consequences—bombast and all!

The scenarios take a notable down turn in quality for the second half and as written, they are just not quite as much fun. ‘The Matter of Silver’ for the Seventh Doctor plays on the Arthurian motifs as the player characters themselves in a castle in a pocket dimension besieged by demons, whilst ‘The Patchwork Man’ is really only a scenario for the Eighth Doctor because it is set in the same hospital as Doctor Who: The Movie. The adventure does least begin to bring thing back to the authors’ efforts to tie the adventures of the Eighth Doctor into the Time War and it at least it includes an appearance by the villains of the campaign—the Daleks! Their influence continues in ‘Marked’, a decidedly deadly, combat orientated game show set adventure for the Ninth Doctor. Being set in a deadly game show a la ‘Bad Wolf’ results in feeling like heavy-handed commentary on early twenty-first century reality television, though the ‘Diary Room’ does give the opportunity for the Game Master to set up some fun roleplaying. ‘Ice’ for the Tenth Doctor is modelled upon ‘Silence in the Library’ and ‘Forest of the Dead’ and although it has an environmentally interesting timing mechanism, is okay. The penultimate adventure, for the Eleventh Doctor, is ‘The Face in the Mirror’, a locked room affair in a country manor in a branching timeline with a healthy dose of ‘timey-wimey’ in the Edwardian era. It is quite a fun mystery, though the Game Master will need to work very hard so as not to reveal the identity of the true monster too early lest the player characters run around panicking! Lastly, there is ‘Neverwas’, the climax to ‘Doom of the Daleks’, which the Game Master will need to be careful for it to fizz rather than fizzle… Disappointingly, the very, very end is underwritten given all that effort that the Game Master has put in over the course of the preceding twelve episodes.

Physically, The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook is as well presented as the other books in the series. It is liberally illustrated and it needs an edit here and there, but what cartography there is, is plain and dull. One issue is the inappropriate use of illustrations, so that for an illustration of a pirate in ‘Down and Away Below’, a photo of Captain Henry Avery from ‘The Curse of the Black Spot’ and ‘A Good Man Goes to War’, despite the fact that he does not appear in the adventure. This happens again and again throughout the book. The problem is that Cubicle Seven Entertainment cannot use anything other than photos from the series to illustrate the books, so as much as the photos are illustrative, they invariably do not illustrate what is in each adventure.

To be fair, The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook is not a good sourcebook for the Eighth Doctor. Then again, how could it be with so little to draw upon? The authors do try their very best and whilst not great, it is about as good as could be expected. In the meantime, it does give the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game something it does not have—a campaign! Now even though the campaign is not quite as good as it could be, but it is a more than reasonable solution to the question, “What shall we do with a sourcebook when we really, really having nothing to fill it with?” The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook is a curate’s egg, but then Doctor Who is not always perfect either, and if some of the adventures underwhelm, some of them can still entertain.

Free RPG Day 2017: Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires

Now in its tenth year, Free RPG Day offers up a variety of different titles for different games, typically introductory rule sets, also known as quickstarts, or scenarios. The scenarios are of course for existing games, but whilst the quickstarts may likewise also be for existing games, many are for forthcoming games, giving gamers a chance to experience a new game or setting before they released. RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is one such release, as is Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires.

Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is a one shot scenario and taster for Through the Breach, a roleplaying game set in the Victorian-era city of Malifaux and published by Wyrd Miniatures, LLC. Malifaux is a Gothic city of steam power, magic, monsters, Victorian horror, and the wild west which can be accessed from our Earth. In Through the Breach, the players take the roles of the Fated, those men and women whose destinies are tied to series of vague and cryptic clues, yet who can choose to embrace or reject their destinies. In Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires, the player characters are new recruits of the Ten Thunders, an Asian crime syndicate which operates in the lawless Little Kingdom slum as both oppressor and benefactor. Currently, they are students at the Sango Temple, training to serve the Ten Thunders. Five pre-generated player characters are given. They include a boisterous Japanese acrobat who makes himself the centre of attention; an American wastrel with the luck of the draw; a Vietnamese scrapper with anger issues; an imposing Japanese guard; and a Chinese dabbler in magic who is ashamed of her poisonous spells. 

Through the Breach uses cards instead of dice to resolve conflicts. These are divided into four suits—Crows (Spades), Masks (Diamonds), Rams (Hearts), and Tomes (Clubs)—and two types of decks. One is the Fate Deck, which is the communal deck, and is the same size as a standard deck of cards. The other is the Twist Deck. Each player has one of these, which consists of just thirteen cards. To undertake an action with a risk of failure, a character  engages in a Challenge Duel. The Fatemaster—as the Game Master is known in Through the Breach—sets a Target Number for the Challenge Duel, whilst the player flips one card from the Fate Deck and totals its value with his character’s relevant Aspect and Skill in order to beat the Target Number. 

The two Jokers in the Fate Deck indicate great success or great failure, the Red Joker the former, the Black Joker the latter. If drawn, the Black Joker must be played. Further, Fate Modifiers—positive and negative—indicate whether a Challenge Duel is is easier is harder to overcome. They cancel each other out, but any remaining modifiers increase the number of extra cards a player draws from the Fate Deck, up to a maximum of three. If the remaining Fate Modifiers are negative, the player must use the card with the lowest value, but if positive, the player is free to choose which card he uses.

A player will also have a hand of three or more cards drawn from his Twist Deck. A player can use a card in his hand drawn from his Twist Deck to enable his character to Cheat Fate by replacing the card flipped from the Fate Deck. Some characters possess Triggers, extra effects or actions that come into play when a Challenge Duel is resolved and a card of the Trigger’s Suit—Crows, Masks, Rams, or Tomes—is used to overcome the Challenge Duel. For example, in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires, the pre-generated character, Mai Pham, has the Vengeful Crane Kick which has a Jump Kick Trigger. It triggers if Mai Pham succeeds in a martial attack and the Rams Suite is used in the attack and enables her to make a second Martial Arts attack on the same target.

Combat in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires uses the same mechanics, but the number by which the attacker beats the defender determines the Damage Flip Modifier. This is the equivalent of Fate Modifiers, but specifically for damage. This determines the number of cards to be drawn from the Fate Deck and the value of the one selected by the player will determine if the character will inflict Weak, Moderate, or Severe damage. If a member of the Fated suffers damage enough to reduce his wounds to zero, then further damage suffered will have Critical effects.

The rules presented in Combat in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires are not too complex, although the Fatemaster and players alike will need to make some adjustment if they are used to playing roleplaying games with dice rather than cards. They will also need to make careful reading of the pre-generated characters and their abilities to get the most effective use out of them.

The adventure in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is of course, ‘Unearthly Desires’. It is a short, three-act affair which begins with Sango Temple where the player character Fated are studying, coming under attack and their master being all but killed. This reveals Master Lo’s true purpose—keeping a demon bound in place. Whether or not they succeed in saving his life, Master Lo instructs the Fated to save the perpetrators and stop the demon from wreaking its havoc on the city.

Physically, Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is nicely presented as a full colour, sturdy booklet. The illustrations are excellent, though the booklet will require a read to grasp how it played. Probably two, which means that the preparation time for the adventure is quite high given how long the adventure actually is. In addition, each player as well as the Fatemaster will need his own deck of cards. The players to create their individual Twist Decks and the Fatemaster the Fate Deck.

There is certainly a good two hour adventure to be had in Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires though it is one that focuses more on combat than on investigation or roleplaying. That said, it does a nice job of introducing the mechanics to Through the Breach and at least a little of the setting. The only real downside is the preparation time and the time needed to find and set up the number of required card decks. More challenging—at least mechanically—than most entries for Free RPG Day 2017, Penny Dreadful One Shot: Earthly Desires is decent introduction to Through the Breach that definitely serves up the action.

Sunday, 6 August 2017

Smoke & Mirrors

Designed to be used with the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules published by Goblinoid Games—best known for the Old School Renaissance Retroclone, Labyrinth LordThe Fenworthy Inheritance proved to be an interesting scenario that was almost, but not quite a Call of Cthulhu scenario. Set in the 1920s, The Fenworthy Inheritance is a one-shot scenario set in England’s West Country in which a walking holiday goes awry when the characters encounter death on the road, rural superstition, village politics, and revenge from down the years… Compatible with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition—and with some effort with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition—the scenario came with pre-generated characters and some excellent artwork. Although hampered by some poor production values, The Fenworthy Inheritance was a worthy first horror scenario from MontiDots Ltd. Now it has a sequel—The Smoking Mirror.

The Smoking Mirror is not a one-shot and is very much designed as a sequel to The Fenworthy Inheritance. This does not mean that it cannot be run as a one-shot or as part of an ongoing campaign, but it requires experienced investigators and the need to remove or change any reference to the seven pre-generated investigators that are included and which are part of the series. Besides these seven pre-generated investigators, it comes with ten or so decently done handouts, a sheaf of maps, and some excellent illustrations. It also includes a quick guide to the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules, to which are added rules for reading occult tomes, as well as casting various spells. 

The scenario takes place in the last week of August, 1922. It takes the investigators away from the countryside of The Fenworthy Inheritance to the cultural high spots and low spots of the Big Smoke. Just as the British Museum has taken delivery of a consignment of artefacts from a newly discovered city in Honduras, one of its employees from the Department of the Americas goes missing. Tristam Soames is a specialist in hieroglyphics and his father, Lord Soames, is worried enough to hire the investigators rather than the police. Their investigative efforts will hopefully reveal a plot involving Doctor John Dee, Aztec cosmology, the Bright Young Things, and potentially, the wish that the Spanish Armada really had invaded England in 1588. Not only is the plot timed, being a race against the clock, there is even potential for the scenario to get all ‘time-wimey’ and the investigators to get a second go at solving the mystery and thwarting the threat should they fail the first time around.

The Smoking Mirror is quite a tight little scenario, both geographically and chronologically. The latter because it takes place over three days and the former because it mainly takes place in Bloomsbury and Soho, though there is the possibility of a day trip out to Oxford. The tight time frame also means that the Game Master needs to keep track of where each of the NPCs are at any one time. Thankfully, the tight nature of the scenario also means that there are only a few NPCs that the Game Master must keep track of, but doing so is important because it determines what they know and consequently, what their actions will be.

In terms of its plot, The Smoking Mirror is nothing that we have not seen before, but many elements of said plot benefit from a fresh pair of eyes. That said, it has the potential to overburden the investigators with books, many of which take days to fully understand and there may not be enough time to really benefit from their contents. Also, the climax—the summoning of a very bloody god—could have been better handled and more clearly presented and the scenario leaves what happens if the investigators succeed up to the Game Master to determine. These will not necessarily be much of an issue for the experienced Game Master, but anyone less experienced may have a problem presenting or developing solutions to these problems. 

Physically, The Smoking Mirror is a mixed bag. Both the layout and the floor plans are clean if perfunctory, whilst the artwork is excellent. The latter should be no surprise given that the author is also a published artist. Unfortunately, The Smoking Mirror is in need of two things being fixed to make it a decent scenario. One is the better handling of the climax and its aftermath. The second is its editing. The Smoking Mirror suffers from a case of too many homonyms and too many awkward phrasings. Now none of this is sufficient to hinder someone from running The Smoking Mirror, but in several places a Game Master will need to pause to check and see if that is what the author really meant to say. 

There is much to like about The Smoking Mirror. It has some lovely illustrations, it has a solid, playable plot, and it makes good use of the locations it details. Certainly, the scenario handles its visits to the British Museum in a far better manner than the previous efforts of Lovecraftian investigative horror—Madness in London Town and Five Go Mad in Egypt—and the limited selection of locations and their descriptions make them easy to bring into a game. That said, the scenario could have benefited from another editorial, if not a developmental, pass—perhaps two. Then perhaps, the scenario will be as professional a release as the author and artist wants it to be. The Smoking Mirror is not unplayable and it is not unenjoyable, it is just not as polished as the author intended it to be.


—oOo—


At the time of publication, MontiDots Ltd. did not have a website. It does however, have a presence on Facebook and the author can be contacted directly via email: info@montidots.co.uk. As of September, 2016, MontiDotsLtd. titles are available on RPGnow, including both The Fenworthy Inheritance and The Smoking Mirror.

Saturday, 5 August 2017

Free RPG Day 2017: Starfinder: First Contact

Now in its tenth year, Saturday, June 17th is Free RPG Day and with it comes an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera. The scenarios are of course for existing games, but whilst the quickstarts may likewise also be for existing games, many are for forthcoming games, giving gamers a chance to experience a new game or setting before they are released. One such title is neither a scenario nor a quickstart, but a teaser, introducing elements of a forthcoming roleplaying game. That title is Starfinder: First Contact.

Since 2009, Paizo Publishing has been releasing and supporting material for its Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, a Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying game and in fact, the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game remains one of the best supported games currently available, with innumerable supplements, scenarios, and campaigns. In previous years, Paizo Publishing has supported Free RPG Day with scenarios like We Be Goblins. For 2017, Paizo Publishing released Starfinder: First Contact. This is a teaser for Starfinder, Paizo Publishing’s Science Fantasy roleplaying game which takes the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game forward thousands and thousands of years and to the stars. To some extent, the genre of ‘Dungeons & Dragons in Space!’ has been explored before, most notably with TSR, Inc.’s Spelljammer in 1989 and then with the Dragonstar Starfarer's Handbook from Fantasy Flight Games in 2001.

As a first glance, Starfinder: First Contact does three things. First and second, it introduces us to what is different in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game in comparison to the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and it tells us what is new in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game. Third, it introduces us to eleven monsters and creatures that are home not just to Golarion—the campaign setting for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game—but the Golarion solar system. Much of what is different as presented in Starfinder: First Contact relates to how monsters and creatures are presented in Starfinder. So, taking its cue from Pathfinder Unchained, the monster stat block in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game is slimmed down, for example, only listing ability modifiers and not ability scores; only listing feats that let a monster do something, whilst subsuming feats that grant bonuses into the relevant statistic; and the unification of the various types of sense beyond the basics into blindsight and blindsense. The new comes in the form of Class Abilities like the Cloaking Field, a kinetically rechargeable device that grants a bonus to the Stealth skill, and Grenade Expert, being able to throw a grenade further and jury-rig a small grenade within a few minutes; Universal Monster rules such as Limited Telepathy and Unliving; and weapon abilities, like Arc, Burn, and Explode, representing how much deadlier weapons—especially guns and energy weapons—are in the Starfinder Roleplaying Game.

Perhaps though, the most interesting suggestion in Starfinder: First Contact and thus Starfinder Roleplaying Game is that the new roleplaying game is going to allow the players to roleplay a great many of the races as aliens. Now they are weaker versions of the standard interpretations of the races, but enable a player to take the role of a Space Goblin junker, a Ratfolk mechanic, spellhacking Lashunta technomancer, and so on. Eleven races are given in Starfinder: First Contact—Bloodbrother, Contemplative, Ellicoth, Haan, Ksarik, Necrovite, Orocoran, Sarcesian, Security Robot, Space Goblin, and Space Pirate. Ranging from 1/3 to 13 in terms of C/R, the Contemplative, Haan, Sarcesian, and Space Goblin are given Racial Traits to allow them to be played as Alien player characters.

Unfortunately, there is nothing of the background of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game to be found in the pages of Starfinder: First Contact. That said, a very little of the background can be gleaned from the monster and creature descriptions. For example, the importance of Absalom Station, infested as it is with Space Goblins who use it as a staging point from where they can hijack ships and travel to the stars and how security on the station is handled by Security Robots, whilst some gangs have hacked some Security Robots and used them to protect their own interests. Unfortunately, all a little too slight to give much of the flavour and the feel of the Starfinder Roleplaying Game.

Being a release from Paizo Publishing, it should be no surprise that Starfinder: First Contact is a slickly produced and well-presented booklet. In comparison to other releases for Free RPG Day 2017, Starfinder: First Contact is very technical in nature and has little to offer the casual gamer beyond perhaps being a little intriguing. For the devotee of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game there is much in the pages of Starfinder: First Contact to entice their interest, especially if they are looking to expand their genre from fantasy to science fantasy and to see the future of Golarion pushed thousands of years into the future.

Sunday, 30 July 2017

Far from the Sure

Behind an impressive looking cover that echoes the Call of Cthulhu titles of the 1980s, The Star on the Shore is ambitious first scenario which sets out to a create a sandbox investigation set in New England. Unfortunately, whilst it has just about everything that a Keeper needs to run the scenario, The Star on the Shore is hampered by a lack of development, organisation, and ultimately, editing. The truth is, The Star on the Shore is a first scenario from a new publishing venture and it very much shows.

What strikes you first though about The Star on the Shore are its production values, which are high indeed. A slim hardback printed on high-grade paper, it has gorgeous, full colour painted covers front and back; it is full colour throughout with illustrations aplenty; and the maps feel lovely, especially the pull-out town map whose style echoes that of the Lovecraft Country line. That said, whilst none of the artwork is bad, some of it is not as good as the book’s best and feels as it should have been in a pulpier, more traditional style of horror roleplaying game rather than Call of Cthulhu.

Written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and published by Dark Cult Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Star on the Shore can be run as sequel to classic ‘The Haunting’ scenario—now found in the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quick-Start Rules—or as standalone scenario, although given that it takes place in Rockport, Massachusetts, on the New England coast, it could be added to a Lovecraft Country campaign also. Actually, to say that it is a sequel to ‘The Haunting’ is not really true. Only one element of the plot of The Star on the Shore is tied back to ‘The Haunting’, and then only to the background of 'The Haunting', not the actual scenario that the players and their investigators play through. 

The Star on the Shore begins in Boston in 1921. The Boston Museum of Fine Arts has hired a member of the Dark Wing Detectives to conduct a survey and excavation of the ruins of Chapel of Contemplation, the baleful church at the end of the lane from Mister Corbbit once lived. It is these ruins that the investigators may have had the chance to visit during the events of ‘The Haunting’. In the meantime, the excavation has uncovered a hidden annexe in which was found a statue of an obnoxiously octopodid being, carved in granite and weighing several hundred pounds. Unfortunately, someone sneaked into the Chapel of Contemplation, killed the nightguard, and stole the statue. The question is, who were they and why would they want the statue enough to kill for it? (The scenario does not address how a three-hundred-pound statue was got out of the basement room it was in or whether anyone noticed it being moved.) The investigators—who are described as a “crack team of investigators”—are hired to find the statue, but not by the Boston Museum of Fine Arts, but by the representative of the Dark Wing Detectives that the museum hired. (The scenario does not address why a member of a group of detectives is hiring other detectives and it does not explain who or what the Dark Wing Detectives are either.) Clues point to the town of Rockport on the Massachusetts coast. Oddly, the hirer will happily inform the investigators of a strange light seen to crash into the sea off the coast of New England, but not of the nightguard’s death. Which suggests a certain duplicity upon his part, and whilst there may not be any intended, this is certainly how the players are likely to interpret it. Another clue to Rockport, ‘Motif Number 1’ could also have been better explained without the need to look it up.

It is in the description of a strangely-befogged Rockport itself that the sandbox element of The Star on the Shore comes into play. Almost half of the book is given over to describing the major locations and their inhabitants in, off, and under the town. These vary in length, detail, and relevancy, but each entry suffers from a complete lack of organisation. They are written in an almost ‘stream of consciousness’ fashion so that every entry reads like a little sandbox itself that you have to investigate in order to put all of the information together and then be able to impart to the players and their investigators as the Keeper. It does not help that there is no real description of Rockport itself so that it will be difficult to describe the town to the players.

The Star on the Shore does include some notes on running the scenario and they are useful. These cover the course of events over the three days that the investigators are supposed to be in Rockport, the dreams they will suffer whilst there (this the first time that the dreams are mentioned), a list of the notable cultists, spells, and possible outcomes. Ideally, the list of cultists should have been a bit more upfront along with more details of the cult organisation and what each knows, all for easy and quick reference. One nice touch is that the stat boxes for the NPCs are colour-coded per their relationship with the cult which dominates Rockport, but this only explicitly made clear after the description of the town and its inhabitants. Also, a list of clues would not have gone amiss, as there are a lot of them spread about the town such that they are awkward for the Keeper to maintain a track of. There are also a lot of locations for the investigators to visit over the course of the three days and there are some locations that seem to have no reason for the investigators to visit despite how interesting the clues to be found there actually are…

Although the scenario addresses possible outcomes, it only addresses the possible outcomes of the dénouement against the Mythos threat. It does not address what happens afterwards in terms of the cult and its influence if the investigators succeed and it does not really address what happens if they fail. Either way, there are no indications as to what Sanity rewards or losses should be given out once the scenario is finished.

The scenario is supported by some twenty or so handouts, all of them done in full colour. Most of them are nicely done, but some are rather bland and one contains a really odd anachronism. The maps though, as mentioned previously, are really very nice. In addition, The Star on the Shore includes some ten pre-generated investigators. To a man and a woman both, these tend towards a pulp-style and are somewhat underwritten. As a set of pre-generated investigators, they are merely okay, but as a set of pre-generated investigators specifically written for use for The Star on the Shore, they are definitely underwritten.

In addition, The Star on the Shore comes with a second scenario, ‘Key to the Abyss’, which concerns itself with ordnance leftover from the War of 1812. It is set in Rockport still and can be run as part of, or separate to, The Star on the Shore. The problem with that is that it lengthens the scenario and distracts from the main plot. Also, it is written without any explanation until you read the handout, so its set-up also is rather confusing and lacking in answers to any questions you might have.

As for The Star on the Shore, there is a decent plot to the scenario. It probably tends towards the Pulp style in tone, certainly as evidenced by some of the artwork. There is also doubtless a good game to be got from the pages of The Star on the Shore, but ultimately, it fails to do what a good scenario should do—and that is, present its information in such a way that the Keeper can readily absorb it and then be able to present it to his players and their investigators during the game. This is due to three factors. The first is ‘stretch goal creep’, the concentration of a creator upon giving the backers of a Kickstarter campaign more and prettier rewards, so that once funded he is concentrating upon getting them all together, rather than concentrating upon getting the basics right. Which leads to the second and third factors, a lack of development and a lack of editing.

In the end, The Star on the Shore as written is simply not a good scenario. Undoubtedly, there is a good scenario and a good game to be got from the pages of The Star on the Shore, but it does not even start to do enough to make that process easy. As lovely as The Star on the Shore looks, it would be unfair to describe it as ‘all style, no substance’, but ‘nice style, hidden substance’ would be more accurate.

Friday, 28 July 2017

Free RPG Day 2017: Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure

Now in its tenth year, Saturday, June 17th is Free RPG Day and with it comes an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera. One of the regular pieces of support for an existing roleplaying game in 2017 is the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure, which serves as an introduction to one of the leading Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying games published by Goodman Games. It takes its cue from Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Adventure Starter published in 2011, but has been greatly expanded to the rules enough to take characters from Zero Level to Second Level, provide two adventures, and introduce the key concepts to the roleplaying game. Thus, it has been expanded from sixteen to forty-eight pages.

Derived from the d20 System, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game sits somewhere between Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in terms of its complexity. The most radical step in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is the starting point. Players begin by playing not one, but several Zero Level characters, each each a serf or peasant looking beyond a life tied to the fields and the seasons or the forge and the hammer to prove themselves and perhaps progress enough to become a skilled adventurer and eventually make a name for themselves. Unfortunately, delving into tombs and the lairs of both men and beasts is a risky venture and death is all but a certainty for the lone delver… In numbers, there is the chance that one or more will survive long enough to go onto greater things! This is what the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game terms a ‘Character Creation Funnel’.

Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure provides rules for the creation process, player rolling for six Abilities—Strength, Agility, Stamina, Personality, Intelligence, and Luck—in strict order on three six-sided dice, plus Hit Points on a four-sided die and an occupation. The latter will determine the character’s Race—Race is a Class in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game just as it was in Basic Dungeons & Dragons, a weapon, and a possession related to his occupation.

Bert Truss
Zero Level Human Caravan Guard
STR 13 (+1) AGL 15 (+1) STM 8 (-1)
PER 13 (+1) INT 12 (+0) LCK 10 (+0)
Hit Points: 3
Saving Throws
Fortitude -1 Reflex +1 Willpower +1
Alignment: Lawful
Birth Augur: Unholy House
Luck Benefit: Corruption Rolls
Weapon: Short Sword (1d6)
Equipment: Linen (1 yard)
41cp

Of the stats, only Luck requires any explanation. It can be used for various skill checks and rolls, but its primary use is for each character’s single Luck Benefit—in Bert’s case, for rolls against corruption. It is burned when used in this fashion and can only be regained by a player roleplaying his character to his Alignment. The Luck bonus also applies to critical hit, fumble, and corruption rolls as well as various Class-based rolls. For example, the Elf receives it as a bonus to rolls for one single spell and a Warrior to rolls for a single weapon such as a longsword or a war hammer. Further, both the Thief and the Halfling Classes are exceptionally lucky. Not only are their Luck bonuses doubled when they burn Luck, they actually regain Luck each day equal to their Level. In addition, if a party has a Halfling amongst its numbers that Halfling can pass his expended Luck to other members of the party!

Mechanically, for a character to do anything, whether Sneak Silently, cast a spell, or make an attack, a player rolls a twenty-sided die and after adding any bonuses hopes to beat a Difficulty Class or an Armor Class. Rolls of one are a fumble and rolls of a twenty are a critical. The Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure includes a Fumble Table as well Critical Hit Tables for each of the Classes. Famously, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game also uses a multitude of dice, including three, five, seven, fourteen, sixteen, twenty-four, and thirty-sided dice as well as the standard polyhedral dice. Although penalties and bonuses can be applied to dice rolls, the dice themselves can get better or worse, stepping up or stepping down a size depending upon the situation. For example, a Warrior can attack twice in a Round instead of attacking and moving, but makes the first attack using a twenty-sided die and the second attack using a sixteen-sided die. 

Magic works differently to the Vancian arrangement typically seen in Dungeons & Dragons. Magic is mercurial. What this means is that from casting of a spell to the next, a spell can have different results. For example, the classic standby of First Level Wizards everywhere, Magic Missile, might manifest as a meteor, a screaming, clawing eagle, a ray of frost, a force axe, or so on. When cast, a Wizard might throw a single Magic Missile that only does a single point of damage; one that might do normal damage; multiple missiles or a single powerful one; and so on. Alternatively, the Wizard’s casting might result in a Misfire, which for Magic Missile might cause the caster’s allies or himself to be hit by multiple Magic Missiles, or to blow a hole under the caster’s feet! Worse, the casting of the spell might have a Corrupting influence upon the caster, which for Magic Missile might cause the skin of the caster’s hands and forearms to change colour to acid green or become translucent or to become invisible every time he casts Magic Missile! This is in addition to the chances of the Wizard suffering from Major or even Greater Corruption… Some ten spells are detailed Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure, taking up roughly, a quarter of the booklet.

Once past the funnel, the characters can move up to First Level and acquire a proper Class—either Cleric, Thief, Warrior, or Wizard, or one of the Races, Dwarf, Elf, or Halfling. Further information is provided so that a character can progress to Second Level. The adventures in Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure should be enough for a character to reach First Level and definitely progress towards Second Level.

Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure includes two adventures. The first, which immediately follows the rules is ‘The Portal Under The Stairs’, which appeared in the original Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Adventure Starter back in 2011. This has the would-be adventures venturing into an ancient war-wizard’s tomb after its entryway becomes open when the stars come right. Designed for Zero Level and First Level characters this is short, just ten location dungeon primarily consisting of traps and puzzles with some deadly combat encounters thrown in. Its three pages are short enough that a group could roll up their characters and funnel them through the adventure to see who survives in a single session. The second scenario, located on the opposite side of Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure is ‘Gnole House’.

Drawing on the writings of Lord Dunsany, it presents a bucolic, moss festooned house infested by Gnoles, grubby little creatures with a love of hats, scarves, and eating other humanoids. The legend of Gnole House tells of the house and its inhabitants in the woods, of missing merchants and travellers, and of the emeralds and other treasures. This is reason enough for the adventurers to investigate. What they find is a house of horror hidden under a veneer of gentility. It is definitely not a dungeon in the classic sense, but should be played as it is, having many of the classic dungeon features. Again, there is a good session or two involved in the adventure, a good mix of exploration and examination with some combat and a little roleplaying.

Physically, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure is well presented, the writing is clear, and artwork is in general excellent throughout, echoing the style and ethos of the three core rulebooks for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. If there is an issue with the layout it that it could have been better organised with stopping for the Game Master and the players so that they do not need to read everything to the play of the game and are ready to jump into ‘The Portal Under The Stairs’ adventure as soon as the Zero Level characters have been created. Then there could have been another section dealing with going up a Level and creating First Level characters already to play ‘Gnole House’. This would have made it a better introduction, a more organised introduction, and better suited to those with less experience of roleplaying.

Although it is not quite perfect, the Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure is a thoroughly good package. The rules are nicely explained, the style of game is nicely explained, the artwork is good, the two adventures are good. Any player or Game Master with any experience of Dungeons & Dragons will pick this up with ease and be able to bring it to the table with relatively little experience—and once the first adventure is complete, only a bit more preparation is required to play the second adventure. The Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game Quick Start Rules & Intro Adventure is simply a good introduction to the game and a little bit more.

Thursday, 20 July 2017

The Innsmouth Project

In terms of Lovecraftian investigative horror, salt-sodden Innsmouth is an outlier, a place where the Mythos walks wild, its true batrachian nature hidden behind a  veneer of pretense to human civilisation. So of all the places in the Call of Cthulhu canon, it is relatively little visited. There is the campaign Escape from Innsmouth and the anthology, Before the Fall, both published by Chaosium, Inc., but scenarios are far and few between in comparison to the many other locations visited in Lovecraft Country. Further, the fate of Innsmouth remains unexplored and unvisited, the proposed 1998 supplement, Children of the Deep, never having materialised. That is until the release of Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary in 2016.

Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary is a short, one-session, one-shot of survival horror scenario for use with Just Crunch Games’ The Cthulhu Hack. Based on The Black Hack, The Cthulhu Hack is a rules, light set of player facing mechanics that handle investigation, sanity loss, action, and combat with relative ease. Investigator creation is also easy, so a group could create their investigators and get playing in a very time. Similarly, the scenario is straightforward and simple enough that the Game Master could adapt it to the rules of his choice, whether a Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying game or not.

Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary takes its cue from the dilapidated and crumbling nature of post-financial crash Detroit and the loss of its history with the loss of its architecture. In the early twenty-first century, Innsmouth has been abandoned for some ninety years, raided and cleaned out by the FBI as part of Prohibition. Now some developer wants to move and regenerate the town, meaning the loss of the remaining architecture which dates from the period of Prohibition and even older. Keen to document and explore this rare remanent of the twentieth century before it is lost, a group of students and ‘urban explorers’ from Miskatonic University in Arkham—the player characters—have made the trip north. Yet as the scenario opens, they find themselves at the bottom of a briny hole, battered and bruised, with only one way out...

Beginning in media res, Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary is at its heart a linear affair, a set of underground tunnels, cellars, and caverns that ultimately do lead to an exit. The investigators do no more than follow this labyrinth—the Game Master can arrange these as he likes, but the tunnels will lead to this exit anyway—perhaps piecing together Innsmouth’s secret history from the clues found at several of the locations in the labyrinth, eventually either escaping via a flooded cavern, dying in the attempt, or being consumed by the tunnels’ other inhabitant. The Game Master is free to run this how he likes, but a time mechanism or countdown is provided to speed the scenario up.

The problem with Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary is that although it has the means to break up the monotony of the escape attempt, it does not develop or handle them as well as it should. The scenario includes some eleven points that the investigators are supposed to know or have experienced prior to the start of the scenario. These can be given out as is, but it is suggested that they be played out as flashbacks. In fact, this should have been more than a suggestion—it should have been a recommendation, perhaps with advice on how to present them and more detail which would have both fleshed them and the scenario out. Together they would have helped to bring the current state of Innsmouth to light, as currently this feels overlooked—or at least, underdeveloped.

Another issue really left up to the players to decide is what their investigators are carrying. They are allowed the gear necessary to help them document or explore the soon to be bulldozed town of Innsmouth plus a luxury item. Some advice as to both would not have been unwelcome and would have made the scenario easier and quicker to set up. Certainly some equipment suggestions would have helped. That said, the character creation process is otherwise well done and includes a means to establish relationships between the characters in readiness for their ordeal.

Physically, Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary is a simple, eight-page booklet, unillustrated and done on glossy paper behind a good, brochure-like cover. At the core of Save Innsmouth: A Student Documentary is a good scenario, but it misses opportunities to flesh the scenario out and to bring the dilapidated current state of Innsmouth to life as much as it does its past.