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

Saturday, 21 September 2019

A Poseidon Adventure in Space

Last Voyage of the Ghazali is a scenario for use with the Middle East-influenced Science Fiction roleplaying game, Coriolis: The Third Horizon. Originally published in Swedish by Free League Publishing, but since published in English, and then distributed by Modiphius Entertainment, and presents a short adventure which can be run in a single good session or two. It can easily be run after ‘The Statuette of Zhar’, the short scenario in the back of the core rules, but also after the events of The Dying Ship or Aram’s Secret. Or indeed, those scenarios could be run after Last Voyage of the Ghazali, especially if the player characters do not have their own ship. Although the scenario can be run as a standalone adventure, it is really designed as a prequel to Emissary Lost, the first part in the Mercy of the Icons campaign for Coriolis: The Third Horizon.

When the colony in the Taoan system transmits a distress call and then goes silent, the factions and authorities Coriolis station rush to launch a rescue mission. Leading this is the Ghazali, a decommissioned cruise liner, rushed back into service and used as a tug to ferry other ships and crews as well as actual rescue service personnel. Many have joined the mission out of a sense of altruism or duty, others for the fame or reputation to be gained with a successful mission, others for their own nefarious ends… Whatever their reasons, all aboard the Ghazali are put on ‘ice’ as the journey begins—and that is the last thing the player characters remember…

The scenario actually begins with the player characters waking up in darkness, alarms blaring, and no-one around. Initially, they will be unable to discover what has happened, but eventually finding a working computer terminal, the ship’s computer, the avuncular Suleiman, will inform them of the perilous situation they find themselves in. The Ghazali is crippled and adrift, most of the ship’s compartments flooded with hard radiation… The player characters will need to find their way to bridge to gain more information and perhaps control of the ship. As they make their way through the darkness and wreckage, the player characters will find other survivors, whose reactions to the situation they and the player characters find themselves in, will vary. Throughout, there is a sense of urgency and impending doom as the superstructure of the Ghazali groans around the survivors and there are signs of things out there, lurking in the darkness. Eventually, the player characters will find their way to the bridge and…

This is, of course, a classic set-up and has been used in previous supplements for other Science Fiction RPGs, like ‘One Crowded Hour’ from Crowded HoursLast Voyage of the Ghazali handles the situation very nicely, providing the Game Master with encounters and events to inflict on his player characters—panicked survivors, desperate survivors, and more. There is a lot of action involved and plenty of potential for roleplaying too, with only a relatively slight chance of combat. In general, combat-oriented characters and pilots will not have their skills too sorely taxed in Last Voyage of the Ghazali, but technical characters will have a lot to do.

Last Voyage of the Ghazali provides a great deal of support for its plot. There are several locations aboard the ex-passenger liner given detailed deck plans, but not an overall, detailed plan of the ship as a whole. It is simply too large and to be fair, the player characters will mostly be working their way along corridors and up and down access shafts from compartment to compartment, rather than individual locations. Plus, of course, the Ghazali is not destined to survive the scenario… That said, if the player characters lack a ship, then there were plenty docked with the Ghazali when she departed from Coriolis, the massive station at the heart of the Third Horizon, and some of them at least, should have survived the disaster which struck the ex-liner. To that end, Fatima’s Bounty, a fully detailed freight ship with a full set of deck plans is included in the scenario, all in readiness for the player characters to play Emissary Lost. Should the player characters be actually worried (!) about the legitimacy of having a spaceship fall into their laps, then the scenario provides a solution to that problem too.

There is also staging advice for the Game Master, which primarily covers the countdown of events in the scenario and the various NPCs. The latter are all nicely detailed and illustrated, with strong motivations. The advice is short and to the point, enough for handling the events of the scenario. If there is an issue, it is the direct nature of the plot, which does force the player characters down certain paths, so some players may be unhappy with their lack of choices, but really the choices occur along that path and they affect the final outcome.

Beyond the events in Last Voyage of the Ghazali, the likelihood is that the player characters will have made big names for themselves—might even be heroes. They might even have made some money if they are canny, but what happened to the Ghazili will remain a mystery—for the moment. In addition, the Hamura System is fully detailed. The system is noted for just how close its gas giant is to its star and for a water world where the rich come for cruises, the marine megafauna, and the spa treatments. There are several scenario hooks listed too, which the Game Master can develop into full adventures.

Physically, Last Voyage of the Ghazali is an attractive book. It needs an edit in place, but the artwork is excellent and the deck plans nicely done. It is intended that the centre of the book be pried apart and the deck plans be separated to placed on the table where everyone can see it. That said, should the Game Master purchase the scenario direct from the publisher and she will also receive the PDF and so can print out the deck plans.

The plot and set-up for Last Voyage of the Ghazali is so familiar that it is a cliché, after all, the scenario is The Poseidon Adventure in space. This though, does not mean that the story and plot is not well handled or well written. In fact, the direct nature of the plot makes Last Voyage of the Ghazali relatively easy to run and add to a campaign—or even start one! Playable in one single session—two at most—Last Voyage of the Ghazali is an exciting, action-packed scenario or campaign starter designed to set the player characters up as heroes.

Friday, 20 September 2019

'B2' Series: B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands

The reputation of B2 Keep on the Borderlands and its influence on fantasy roleplaying is such that publishers keep returning to it. TSR, Inc. of course published the original as well as including it in the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set, which is where many gamers encountered it. The publisher would also revisit it with Return to the Keep on the Borderlands for its twenty-fifth anniversary, and the module would serve as the basis for Keep on the Borderlands, part of Wizards of the Coast’s ‘Encounters Program’ for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition. Yet before that, another publisher would revisit B2 Keep on the Borderlands not once, but twice. The second time was in 2009 with Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure, but the first was in 2002, with B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands: An Introductory Module for Characters Level 1–4, upon which Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure was based.

Like B1 In Search of the Unknown before it, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is written for use with written for with HackMaster, Fourth Edition, Kenzer & Company’s retroclone based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, but ultimately derived from the parody of Dungeons & Dragons played by the characters of the Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip. (A review of HackMaster Basic, the introductory rules to HackMaster, Fifth Edition can be found here.) Where B1 Quest for the Unknown is not a parody of B1 In Search of the Unknown, so B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is not a parody of B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Like B1 Quest for the Unknown it is rather, a mostly faithful adaptation from Basic Dungeons & Dragons to HackMaster, Fourth Edition—and more. In B1 Quest for the Unknown that more was only slightly more; in B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands, that more is a whole lot more!

Beyond the obvious pink colouring of the trade dress—an obvious nod to B2 Keep on the Borderlands—the first thing that you notice about B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is the size. The original B2 Keep on the Borderlands was a mere thirty-two pages, but at one-hundred-and-forty-four pages, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is over four-and-a-half times the length. That sounds like a lot, but actually, some fifty of those pages consist of detachable Battle Sheets listing the stats for the various NPCs, monsters, and creatures, along with the ImageQuest Adventure Illustrator. The latter is a set of seventeen images which the Game Master is prompted to show the players when their characters come upon a particular scene or locale, much like S1 Tomb of Horrors and the other scenarios in the ‘S’ series. Instead, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is about two-and-a-half time the length of the original. The other noticeable thing about B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is the cover, which depicts a rather bloody encounter between a group of adventurers and an Owlbear. Like the cover to B1 Quest for the Unknown, this is a rather grisly cover and hints at things to come inside the cover of B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands. The back cover though, lovingly recreates the actual cover of B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

The set-up for B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands will be familiar to many. A lonely outpost located in the hinterland between civilisation and orc or goblin infested wilderness. Unbeknownst to the soldiery and inhabitants of the keep, dangers lie close by and a serious threat is readying itself to sack the keep and sweep down on the civilised lands—just as the orcs and goblins did years ago. It is to this keep that the adventurers will come and in the course of interacting with its inhabitants will learn rumours and pick up small tasks that will eventually lead them to not only uncovering this threat, but thwarting it too. So saving the keep, its inhabitants, and the civilised lands behind the keep. The likelihood is that this will take multiple sessions of play and multiple excursions from the Keep out into the wilderness, and certainly, the scenario’s Level range of 1–4 lends itself to that…

In fact, as written, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is really designed for characters of Second to Fourth Level. Now the scenario can be run and played as an introduction to HackMaster, Fourth Level, with the player characters having made their way from civilisation to have their adventure and make their first mark on the frontier. Really though, the intent is that the Game Master will have run and the player characters completed B1 Quest for the Unknown first. After the events inside Quasqueton—and this is not the only link between B1 Quest for the Unknown and B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands—it is inferred that they will have fled into the wilderness and after wandering in the region for a while, will have finally have come across one last bastion of civilisation. Which of course, is Frandor’s Keep, standing on an island atop the Tan’Gra Falls. 

The first quarter of the actual content in B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is devoted to describing Frandor’s Keep and its inhabitants, a history of the region, and more. The history places Frandor’s Keep and the surrounding region in HackMaster’s ‘Garweeze Wurld’ setting—as opposed to the Kingdoms of Kalamar of Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure—hinting in particular why the inhabitants and soldiery of the keep have little or no idea as to the existence of the nearby Mines of Chaos. Located in the valley known as Hell’s Throat, the keep has protected a major access route down to the civilised and so has been targeted by Orcs again and again. They have successfully laid waste to the keep and so presumably the knowledge was lost… 

Frandor’s Keep consists of an Outer Bailey, Lower Bailey, Middle Bailey, and Upper Bailey. Its various buildings and inhabitants are described in some detail, but the buildings themselves are not individually mapped. Fans of Glorantha and Apple Lane (and thus RuneQuest) will enjoy the inclusion of Gwindle’s Pawnshop, but the keep is also home to a jewel merchant, a charter house for all guilds—including adventuring party guilds, a fortune teller, traders of various skill levels and demeanour, taverns of varying character and price, and more. There is a wide variety of NPCs here for the player characters to interact with, which ideally will ultimately be with the Keep’s commandant if they are of good character. Further, these are fun NPCs for the Game Master to portray and roleplay. Mixed in with this is a notice board of announcements and job adverts—also available as a ImageQUEST illustration so that the players have a handout—that should provide various story hooks and links into the scenario. One aspect of the set-up in Frandor’s Keep that some may find disquieting is an institutional distrust of Demi-Humans—Dwarves, Elves, Gnomes, Halflings, and Pixie Fairies—are begrudgingly tolerated, but Half-Orcs, Half-Ogres, and Grel are not and refused entry. Except if they are bounty hunters, and that means bounty hunting on Orcs, Lizardmen, and other Demi-Humans. In fact, the player characters could make some money by handing in Demi-Human ears…

Beyond the walls of Frandor’s Keep, the surrounding area is lightly sketched out. The Caverns of Quasqueton—as detailed in B1 Quest for the Unknown—are marked, as are various other adventure sites not detailed in B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands, but elsewhere. Just a few locations are detailed in the campaign supplement, perhaps the most fun of them being a nice little nod to the cover of the Player’s Handbook for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. This again sets up another plot strand, but one that lurks in the background of the campaign, rather than the one that is ongoing in the keep.

Of course, half of the actual content of B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is dedicated to the infamous Mines of Chaos, home to a plethora of Demi-Human tribes, including Kobolds, Goblins, Orcs, Hobgoblins, Gnolls, and Bugbears, just as in the original scenario. In comparison to the original module, the Mines of Chaos have been switched to run West to East rather than East to West, with several of the individual complexes split across two levels. Then below that there is another series of caverns. The individual tribal complexes will be familiar to anyone who knows the previous versions of the module. This does not mean that there are not differences. The most obvious is in the individual location descriptions, which start with detailed lists of the location’s contents in terms of their monetary value and denizens in terms of their Experience Point value. Basically, these work as checklists for the benefit of the Game Master who can return to each location after her player characters have explored it and then work out how many Experience Points they have earned and what goods and items they have discovered. The other major change is to the temple of evil, which here is tied into ‘Garweeze Wurld’ with the substitution of the Shrine of the Ape Gawd, served by several Ape priests. Throughout though, there is plenty of flavourful description, a great deal of effort is put into making the tribes different—the various slogans of the disciplined Hobgoblins are hilarious, and many of the monsters are given motivations and personalities, so that as much as HackMaster is a roleplaying game of ‘dungeon hacking’, it is also possible to interact with many of the inhabitants of the Mines of Chaos rather than hack at them.

The other connection between B1 Quest for the Unknown and B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is an NPC, Melanee. Like B1 Quest for the Unknown, she does not actually appear in B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands, but Melanee her presence and influence in Frandor’s Keep has consequences which will affect everyone in the keep, including the Player Characters. Having fled Quasqueton, abandoning her former boyfriend in favour of his henchman, she has dumped him, taken up with the commandant of Frandor’s Keep, made him pay for the luxury to which she is accustomed, and is now on extended ‘holiday’ in the nearest big city… Her plot intersects with another ongoing plot in the scenario and the consequences ripple all the way through the adventure. If anyone had sympathies for Melanee after playing through B1 Quest for the Unknown, the likelihood is that they will have evaporated after learning of her exploits at Frandor’s Keep.

Physically, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is an impressive book. The contents are clean and tidy and in general, well written. The book includes a detailed index and barring the ImageQUEST illustrations is lightly illustrated, some of it having a rather cartoon-like quality. The maps, although readable, are a little cramped and it would have been nice if the area map around the Mines of Chaos had been produced larger so that the Game Master could better understand the relationship between the two levels of the various cave and mine networks. Of course, all of the stats, maps, and the ImageQUEST illustrations are neatly organised ready for the Game Master to pull out of the book should she so desire.

In comparison to earlier interpretations of B2 Keep on the Borderlands, the tone of B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is more mature and does involve content of a more adult, even prurient nature. They include elements of necrophagy and male rape, which are likely to sit uncomfortablely in today’s gaming culture. It should be noted that B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands lacks the sheen of the scenario it is based on—and similar adventures, and many locations, especially the Mines of Chaos, are mucky, dirty, and vile. This is reflected in there being an increased chance of the adventurers of catching diseases from the unclean locations detailed in the pages of B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands.

As much as B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is based upon B2 Keep on the Borderlands, the adventure it feels like it draws from more heavily is Return to the Keep on the Borderlands, primarily because of the detailed and named NPCs at the keep and because of the stronger story threads that run throughout B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands. Not as strong or as well handled as they are in the subsequent Frandor’s Keep: An immersive setting for adventure, but they are present. B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands also feels quite self-contained—despite the links to B1 Quest for the Unknown—primarily because of the tight network of valleys that represent the playing region in comparison to the more open nature of the playing region in B2 Keep on the Borderlands.

B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands greatly develops B2 Keep on the Borderlands, filling in a great many of the details, in particular, fully populating and naming the many notable NPCs residing at Frandor’s Keep. It also adds strong plotlines to the scenario’s exploratory and combat elements, which all together provide quite a lot of strong play over the course of the player characters’ first four Levels. The module does lack the advice of B1 Quest for the Unknown, but as much as it is designed as an introductory module, the Game Master may need a little experience under her belt—and may well have got that running B1 Quest for the Unknown.

Now of course, in terms of the Old School Renaissance, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands has been surpassed by Goodman Games’ more recent Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands and were a Game Master to want to run a version of B2 Keep on the Borderlands, that would probably be the obvious choice. Were a Game Master be interested in examining a developed version of B2 Keep on the Borderlands then perhaps B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands might be of interest to her. Ultimately though, B2 Little Keep on the Borderlands is a HackMaster scenario first and foremost—and a suitable first exploration and combat adventure, plus quite a lot of plot, for that roleplaying game.

Monday, 16 September 2019

Miskatonic Monday #27: The Unravelling

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.


Name: The Unravelling: A Starting Point for 1890s Adventures

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Genevieve Coulter

Setting: Cthulhu by Gaslight
Product: Campaign Starter
What You Get: 0.92 MB, 7-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: A mummy’s gripping unraveling for discerning gentlemen ...and ladies.

Plot Hook: At midnight, their occult interest will unleash a priest from the past.
Plot Development: A suggestion or two.
Plot Support: A midnight meeting, four NPCs, a potential campaign villain

# First release in ‘The Miskatonic Files’ series
# Establishes The Order of the Midnight Circle as an organisation
# Potential for a Pulp or Purist threat
# Campaign opener 
# Potential for long term consequences for the investigators
# Strong set-up

# Sanity losses too harsh
# Not enough development for the new Keeper
# Links to the wider Call of Cthulhu mythos (not THE Mythos) and cannon mentioned, but undeveloped.

# Good set-up
# Needs stronger hooks into Call of Cthulhu cannon
# More suitable for the experienced Keeper

Sunday, 15 September 2019

An Orphic Odyssey

The Persephone Extraction is another campaign for one of the best RPGs—certainly the finest espionage and finest espionage/horror RPG—of 2012, Night’s Black Agents: the Vampire Spy Thriller RPG. Written by Ken Hite and published by Pelgrane Press, the roleplaying game casts the player characters as ex-secret agents who have learned that their former employers are controlled by vampires and decide to take down the vampiric conspiracy before the vampires take them. As much a toolkit as an RPG, it gives everything that the Director needs to design and create his game, allowing him to design the vampire conspiracy and the vampire threat, from psychic alien leeches to the traditional children of Transylvania, and set the tone and style of espionage, from the high octane of the James Bond franchise to the dry and mundane grittiness of Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. Essentially, Night’s Black Agents is your ‘Schweizer Offiziersmesser’ of vampires and espionage.

As with both Night’s Black Agents itself and The Zalozhniy Quartet, the roleplaying game’s first campaign, The Persephone Extraction is a toolkit. It presents another five, high octane scenarios in the vein of The Bourne Identity and its sequels—extending all the way up to the Bond series of films—that can be run more or less in any order. Actually, much like The Zalozhniy Quartet, it is really the middle scenarios which can be run in any order with the beginning scenario run first and the ending scenario run last. Unlike The Zalozhniy Quartet, there is no discussion of the type of vampires that can be used in The Persephone Extraction—supernatural, damned, alien, or mutant in nature—as they are definitely of a supernatural and damned nature. Similarly, it does not give any guidance as to what psychological (and action) Mode—Burn, Dust, Mirror, or (High) Stakes Mode—to run The Persephone Extraction in. The tone of the scenarios though would suggest somewhere between Mirror Mode, the genre’s “wilderness of mirrors” world of shifting allegiances and hidden agendas as exemplified by the best of John Le Carré’s fiction, and the (High) Stakes Mode patriotism of the novels of both Tom Clancy and Ian Fleming. From staging the defence of a secret base in Siberia to an aerial drop onto an extremely isolated Greek monastery, The Persephone Extraction certainly involves a lot of high action, but is leavened by interesting moral choices deep into the campaign and plenty of infiltration—both physical and digital—missions, including deep into legend…

Of course, The Persephone Extraction involves a plot about an ancient vampiric conspiracy, one it combines with a modern conspiracy of bioterrorism, but at its heart is a rich vein of Greek mythology, specifically that of Orphic Traditions. These draw from the legends of Orpheus descending into the Underworld where the Souls of the dead lie. And if you are not thinking about the vampiric possibilities of untold numbers of Souls wanting to return to the world of the living, even if that means coming back as one of the blood sucking undead, then perhaps you are running low on sanguinary sustenance yourself? Yet The Persephone Extraction involves not one conspiracy, but multiple conspiracies in a weirdly contemporary parallel to British politics, and in order to unravel it, the agents will find themselves in Paris first and Greece last, but before they get there, they will have travelled to Barcelona, Moscow and points further east, and Istanbul, though not necessarily in that order…

The campaign opens with Emma Marlow’s ‘The Persephone Extraction’ which takes place in Paris. The Agents are drawn to the city when they learn that someone is using their identities and covers, but to what end? It quickly becomes apparent that they are being set up and clues point to a biological research laboratory in the city and one particular researcher. Who is using the Agents and what do they want from the biological research laboratory and the researcher? This sets up the campaign as the Agents are put on the researcher’s trail after an assassination attempt on her life and she goes on the run. The trail will lead into the laboratory where research into Cold War viruses is conducted as well as deep underground—an aspect that will occur again and again throughout the campaign—and into Paris’ famous catacombs. The involvement of the Agents in what looks like some kind of bioterrorism plot also brings down a great deal of Heat upon them and this will hound throughout the campaign. This means that the Agents will need to make some effort to reduce this Heat as they continue their investigative efforts from country to country, lest the authorities catch up with them.

If ‘The Persephone Extraction’ takes the Agents into the underworld, financial clues point to Barcelona and ‘The Pale Agenda’ by Bill White. This is the shortest of the five scenarios in The Persephone Extraction, involving the world of high finance and more hints that there appears to be more than one conspiracy involved in the plot revolving around the research at the laboratory in Paris. This is the first chance for the Agents to really harm one conspiracy or another, but importantly, learn where the Cold War era viruses came from. This is from Soviet Era Russia and in Will Plant’s ‘Sleeping Giants’, the Agents track the source first to Moscow and then up into the Arctic Circle in an underground facility near a closed city. The latter is a holdover from the Soviet Era, but of course, it is a new era and the workers are no longer working at the mercy of the KGB, but instead live and work in a company town and their employer cares about profit rather than ideology. ‘Sleeping Giants’ has some nicely creepy moments, but then, this is a vampiric campaign, and it also has some fun James Bond moments as it turns up the heat by having the Agents direct the defences of the facility against attack. The advice on handling the defence against the assault is nicely done. By now it should be obvious that the vampires are desperate to obtain this virus.

Heather Albano’s ‘Clean-Heeled Achilles’ is where the campaign gets weird. A combination of missing people and possible archaeological malfeasance sends the Agents to Istanbul, where a monastery stands on the coast guarded by private security behind barbed wire. For Agents and players alike, this is where the mythological aspects of the campaign are at their most prominent as the Agents really descend into the Underworld. Getting in is not easy, but getting out is going to be a real challenge as the Agents confront countless restless souls. This is the weirdest, possibly creepiest sequence in the campaign—and quite possibly in Night’s Black Agents—as the Agents find themselves replicating myth in what is essentially an Ancient Greek Orphic heroquest. As part of this the Agents re-enact the heroic figures of Orphic myth and the Director is given advice on assigning these unknowing roles depending upon each Agent’s backstory, Drives, Solaces, and so on. This exacerbates the unworldly nature of the descent and the return, but it would have been good to see these roles foreshadowed much earlier in the campaign.

Lastly, ‘The People of Ash’ by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan brings the campaign to a close in Greece as the conspiracy’s rich and elite gather to bring its plans to fruition. The finale of the James Bond movie, For Your Eyes Only, comes to mind as the Agents conduct an assault on the vampire’s ancient eyrie. The campaign should ideally end with a bang and ultimately, the Agents may succeed in defeating the greater conspiracy, but not the whole conspiracy. Defeating the greater evil will be enough to save the world, but ultimately it may still leave an evil in place. A ‘lesser’ evil, but an evil nonetheless…

As with previous campaigns for Night’s Black Agents, the middle three scenarios are designed to be played in any order, there being clues from one scenario to another, but the smoother path will be in the order as they appear in the book. Similarly all five scenarios are written such that they can be run as standalone adventures, but really this would be to ignore the greater conspiracy and the greater story that would come with them being played in order. This would be particularly obvious in ‘Clean-Heeled Achilles’ because its emulation of myth would lack the context of the previous episodes, and similarly, playing it early in the campaign may mean that the context has not yet developed enough to quite give it the impact it should.

All five scenarios are well organised, with clear explanations of the spine of each episode, the connections between the scenarios, the various NPCs, and quick and dirty briefings on each of the cities where the scenarios are set. Similarly, the set-up for the campaign is decently done with explanations of the campaign’s plots, conspiracies, conspyramid—the diagram of the conspiracy’s overall organisation, and also a Vampyramid. The latter employs mechanics from the supplement Double Tap to track the blowback and fallout of the Agents’ actions as they investigate the conspiracy. This models the conspiracy’s reactions to the Agents and as much as it makes them organic rather than static, it does add one more thing for the Director to keep track of throughout the game. Lastly, there are the vampires of the conspiracy itself, a seeming series of contradictions—arthritic and old, but breathtakingly fast; pale and spindly, but inhumanly strong; and fearful of death, but have long forgotten being alive. Similarly, they are at their weakest when insubstantial, but all but invulnerable and at their strongest when solid, but then at their most vulnerable.

Lastly, The Persephone Extraction comes with six pre-generated Agents, one of which will require some further details that the others have already figured in. They include a range of nationalities and covers, and can be easily personalised by the players. Physically, The Persephone Extraction feels somewhat rushed. The editing is not as tight as it could be and there is text missing in places. The artwork is not always of the highest quality either and in comparison to other Pelgrane Press titles, it does not feel quite as assured.

Ultimately, The Persephone Extraction is not quite the toolkit that The Zalozhniy Quartet is, for it very much feels more like a traditional, linear campaign. This should not be held against it, because The Persephone Extraction is a solid affair which draws from an unexpected source which the authors have developed into an exciting and genuinely surprising campaign.

Saturday, 14 September 2019

'B1' Series: B1 Quest for the Unknown

The ‘B’ series, the series of modules published by TSR, Inc. for Basic Dungeons & Dragons did not begin with B2 Keep on the Borderlands. That much is obvious, but there is no denying that it feels that way. This is not surprising given that it was packaged with the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set between 1979 and 1983, it is estimated that more than a million copies of B2 Keep on the Borderlands were printed, and for a great many gamers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was their introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. Yet before this, there was another scenario, also part of the ‘B’ series, and also packaged with Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set until it was replaced with B2 Keep on the Borderlands. That module was B1 In Search of the Unknown.

First published in 1979 as an introductory adventure for the first Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set that had appeared the year before, B1 In Search of the Unknown set out to provide an adventure that could be run by the novice Dungeon Master and played by novice roleplayers, both just setting out on their first foray into the world of dungeoneering. Thus it is designed to challenge Dungeon Master and players alike and to be instructive for both, but it is not designed to be particularly deadly as a dungeon for experienced players might be. Yet where in the decades since its original publication B2 Keep on the Borderlands has been visited and revisited, from Return to the Keep on the Borderlands to the Keep on the Borderlands series for the Encounters Program for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, the fact is that B1 In Search of the Unknown has been all but ignored by both TSR, Inc. and Wizards of the Coast. Instead it has been third party publishers who have revisited the first entry in the ‘B’ series. Most notably and recently, of course, by Goodman Games with  Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands, which covered both B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 Keep on the Borderlands. Before that though, in 2002, Kenzer & Company published B1 Quest for the Unknown.

B1 Quest for the Unknown: An Introductory Adventure for Characters Level 1-3 is written for with HackMaster, Fourth Edition, Kenzer & Company’s retroclone based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but ultimately derived from the parody of Dungeons & Dragons played by the characters of the Knights of the Dinner Table comic strip. (A review of HackMaster Basic, the introductory rules to HackMaster, Fifth Edition can be found here.) B1 Quest for the Unknown is not a parody of B1 In Search of the Unknown, but is a mostly faithful adaptation from Basic Dungeons & Dragons to HackMaster, Fourth Edition. Except in one important detail that was a significant feature of B1 In Search of the Unknown, but which is wholly absent from B1 Quest for the Unknown

The notable feature about B1 In Search of the Unknown is that none of the rooms—barring the bats in the caves below—have any monsters or any treasure. This is where the scenario’s innovation comes in because it does have both monsters and treasure, but both given in a pair of lists at the back of the module. From these lists the Dungeon Master’s primary task in preparing B1 In Search of the Unknown is to populate the two levels of the dungeon and seed it with treasure. Twenty-five monster options are given along with thirty-four items of treasure, but since the module advises that only sixteen to twenty of them be used between the two levels, there will be certain sections of the dungeon that will be empty. There are slots with each room or location description to record the Dungeon Master’s choice of monsters and treasure taken from the two lists. This innovation is designed to help the Dungeon Master learn the craft of dungeon creation and to an extent, it works since the Dungeon Master is working with the author of the module to fully detail the dungeon. Yet it is also a handicap to the full design of the dungeon because it effectively ignores story or plot and it can lead—at least in the hands of a neophyte Dungeon Master, for whom the dungeon is actually written—to it being populated with a random assortment of monsters and creatures.

B1 Quest for the Unknown entirely eschews that option and populates the dungeon with a range of creatures from the roleplaying game’s series of Hacklopedia of Beasts bestiaries. All the stats for both levels of the dungeon are collected in four pages of pullout ‘battle sheets’ at the end of the module. Even so, the issue with this is that the Game Master will need access to all eight volumes volumes to use all of the creatures B1 Quest for the Unknown. That said, a HackMaster Game Master is likely to have those anyway, but a Dungeon Master could easily take each of the monsters in the module and find their analogue in Dungeons & Dragons or the retroclone of her choice and run B1 Quest for the Unknown using rules other than HackMaster. Now there are easily recognisable monsters like Orcs, rats, bats, Troglodytes, and so, but there are lots of odd vermin, such as Giant Dire Cockroaches, Giant Kangaroo Fleas, and so on. Unfortunately, some of the creatures and encounters used are rather puerile in nature. So there is the inclusion of a Feces-Flinging Lemur as a random encounter, but early on in the dungeon the player encounters will encounter a pair of Magic Mouths. In B1 In Search of the Unknown they shout out simple warnings and they do so here, but here they have gone wild. One is described as a Rogue magic Mouth and the other as a Sassy Magic Mouth. Whilst the Sassy Magic Mouth will simply be obnoxious to the player characters, the Rogue Magic Mouth is described as focusing its attention on any female characters and going through a series of ‘pick-up’ lines that it will use on them. Arguably the latter is more obnoxious than the former and if you think back to the time of B1 Quest for the Unknown’s publication in 2002 and just how few female roleplayers there were in comparison to today, this implied attitude towards women—even through an NPC—would have been highly off putting. Just as it would today, but perhaps back then it was simply carry over from the comic that HackMaster drew so strongly from? It is almost as bad for the Game Master who is expected to come up with these pick-up lines. Certainly this is one detail about the module which is worthwhile changing.

In ignoring the salient design feature of the original module, what B1 Quest for the Unknown actually allows to come to the fore, at least to some extent, is story. Now there was some story to B1 In Search of the Unknown in that Rogahn the Fearless, a Fighter, and Zelligar the Unknown, a Wizard,  the Wizard, the legendary owners and designers of Quasqueton—as the dungeon in both B1 In Search of the Unknown and B1 Quest for the Unknown is called—have disappeared, as has Rogahn’s girlfriend, Melanee. It is also hinted at that Melanee was being unfaithful. B1 Quest for the Unknown has this and more, actively making the discovery of this story and the reasons behind the current state of Quasqueton an important part of the playthrough of B1 Quest for the Unknown important by including Experience Point rewards for each fact gleaned and surmised.

As well as the lists of monsters with which to populate the dungeon as per B1 In Search of the Unknown, what B1 Quest for the Unknown is also missing is a list of pre-generated player characters and NPC hirelings. Again, much like the absent lists of monsters, the lack of pre-generated player characters is not really an issue, but the lack of hirelings is slightly disappointing, in part because there is advice for the Game Master on how to handle NPCs and hirelings during the play of the module. There is nothing of course to stop the Game Master creating her own, but their inclusion would have been useful alongside the monsters the designers populate the dungeon with. The advice though, in keeping with the intention that B1 Quest for the Unknown is an introductory module for both Game Master and players, also covers how to be an effective Game Master, discussing the type of features that the player characters might typically find in a dungeon—and in this one, how to handle the passage of time—fairly tightly in this instance, how to be an effective Game Master, and so on. As with B1 In Search of the Unknown, this advice is accompanied by a double-sided detachable for the players. On the one side is the background that their player characters would know, whilst on the other is a list of tips on how to be a good player. Of course, in B1 In Search of the Unknown this was as a good player of Basic Dungeons & Dragons, but in B1 Quest for the Unknown this is as a good player of HackMaster. Which means that as reasonable as some of the advice is, there is a certain tone to it, highlighting the adversarial nature of play between the Game Master and her players in HackMaster. So be an organised player and keep an accurate record of your character lest you be unprepared for an audit; pace yourself lest you be too slow in play and bore the Game Master who might send more wandering monsters to kill your character; avoid arguments in the dungeon as that will also attract more wandering monsters; and so on.

For the most part, the background to B1 Quest for the Unknown is the same as B1 In Search of the Unknown. Rogahn the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown are friends renowned for throwing back a great Gnome-Titan invasion—the Gnome-Titans of HackMaster’s ‘Garweeze Wurld’ setting being the equivalent of the barbarians in B1 In Search of the Unknown—which threatened the land and taking their well-earned reward into the wilderness where it is said that they had a hideaway. More recently it is said that they lost their lives in a great battle in the Gnome-Titan lands and then a map marked with a ‘Q’ falls into the hands of the player characters. Could this be the hideaway, Quasqueton, of the famous victors over the Gnome-Titans?

Open up the B1 Quest for the Unknown and inside both the front and back covers are the same maps as in B1 In Search of the Unknown. So notably that includes the maze-like twisting corridors, rooms full of lumber and building materials, the overgrown garden room, and of course, the infamous Room of Pools with its shallow stone pools containing all manner of liquids—bane, bland, and bountiful. The descriptions given of individual locations are rich in detail, not just the aforementioned rooms, but also the living quarters of Rogahn, Zelligar, Melanee, and their staff. It is here that the majority of the clues will be found that will help the player characters discover the story and the reasons behind the current state of Quasqueton and so earn Experience Points other than for hacking through the dungeon.

Now of course, much of the details and rich descriptions are a holdover from B1 In Search of the Unknown and they worked in the original just as they do in B1 Quest for the Unknown. Yet B1 Quest for the Unknown adds further detail. For example, it takes the books found in Zelligar’s library and develops them for use with HackMaster, making them valuable not just in terms of what could be sold for, but in terms of what a player character might learn from them and improve his skills. The books receive a page all of their own and there is a lot of detail here that the Game Master can draw from them and develop in her campaign. There are also actual explanations of why certain dungeon features exist, such as the spiral corridor which goes nowhere. In B1 In Search of the Unknown it goes unexplained, but in B1 Quest for the Unknown a believable, if somewhat mundane explanation is given.

Another consequence of B1 Quest for the Unknown being fully stocked is the addition of the Homunculus, Mister Pleasington. Essentially, he is an annoying rather than helpful Wizard’s Familiar, which explains why he did not accompany Zelligar on his excursion into the Gnome-Titan lands. The fact that he is alive when Zelligar is supposedly dead… Well that presents one further plot hook at least, especially should the Wizard return and discover that someone has been plundering his home, let alone wandering around its halls uninvited. Mister Pleasington is designed as an irritant, but he is one of the few actual NPCs rather than monsters in the adventure that the Game Master will have to portray if found.

Physically, B1 Quest for the Unknown is neatly and cleanly presented with array of decent illustrations. There are two issues with the artwork, one the front cover, the other the back cover. The fully painted front cover illustration is not only grisly, but gives away a notable secret of the Room of Pools. It is in effect a spoiler, but arguably, this was a spoiler for a module which was an adaptation of a scenario which in 2002, was some twenty-four years old. The cartoon-like back cover illustration is a colourised version of an illustration inside the book which depicts an early encounter in the dungeon. It shows a bloody and again a grisly scene, but here presented in a rather cartoonish fashion. That aside, the writing inside is decent, though the room descriptions—marked in grey boxes for easy reading—feels more like bullet points in places.

Of course, B1 Quest for the Unknown fills in all of the spaces and populates the two levels of its dungeon so that the Game Master does not have to. In some ways, this takes away the very purpose of the module it is aping. After all, B1 In Search of the Unknown is designed as an introductory module through and through. B1 Quest for the Unknown still is designed as an introductory module, and has good advice for players and Game Master alike, but it is designed for the somewhat more arcane retroclone that is HackMaster. Yet as much as it apes an earlier module with an emphasis on exploration rather than plot, B1 Quest for the Unknown nevertheless emphasises plot—not as strongly as it does exploration, but the emphasis is there. This shows in the Experience Rewards for uncovering the story behind the current situation in Quasqueton.

Now of course, in terms of the Old School Renaissance, B1 Quest for the Unknown has been surpassed by Goodman Games’ more recent Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands and were a Game Master to want to run a version of B1 In Search of the Unknown, that would probably be the obvious choice. Were a Game Master be interested in examining an example, filled in version of B1 In Search of the Unknown, then perhaps B1 Quest for the Unknown might be of interest to her. Ultimately though, B1 Quest for the Unknown is a HackMaster scenario first and foremost—and a suitable first exploration adventure, plus a little plot, for that roleplaying game.

Friday, 13 September 2019

A Sweet Mission

Operation Peardrop is a scenario for use with WWII: Operation Whitebox, Small Niche Games’ adaptation of Mythmere Games’ Swords & Wizardry for special forces missions during World War II. Designed for three to six characters of First to Third Level, it is based on Operation Acid Drop, a pair of hit and run missions in the Pas-de-Calais of occupied France by members of No. 5 Commando which ultimately failed to achieve their objectives. In Operation Peardrop a squad of commandos is sent across the English Channel and put ashore on the French coast where it is to conduct activities overnight in and around the town of Allmont-sur-Mer. The commandos’ orders are assess the enemy’s strength and presence in the town of Allmont-sur-Mer, provide Intelligence on key locations in the town, and potentially capture an enemy soldier for interrogation; identify antiaircraft artillery sites around the town on behalf of the RAF; attempt to make contact with the French Resistance in the area; and lastly, fly the flag, by which is meant, conduct useful acts of sabotage.

The set-up for Operation Peardrop quickly gets the players in making decisions for their commandos. This includes equipping them—it is advised that they travel light—and choosing their landing spot on the French coast. The closer the landing site is to the town, the more likely it is to be guarded or patrolled, but the further away from the town, the greater the number of patrols that might be encountered. There is capacity here for one or more of the Commandos operate undercover if they are wearing civilian rather than military and perhaps be able to slip past the notice of the German occupying forces and make contact with the local inhabitants.

As a scenario, Operation Peardrop is essentially a small sandbox, the Commandos being free to conduct the mission however they want. There are though several sites of interest outside of Allmont-sur-Mer that have been marked for their attention, and one ashore, the Commandos will find clues and mysteries which will pull them further into the sandbox. The primary focus is the town itself though, as the scenario’s plots run into and out of Allmont-sur-Mer.

The tone of Operation Peardrop is fairly positive, matching that of the British black and white war movies of the period. There is a determined grimness to whole affair though, perfectly in keeping with the tone and the deeds that every stalwart Englishman (and Welshman and Scotsman and Irishman) has to carry out as part of his duty to King and country.

Technically, the Game Master has everything that she needs to run Operation Peardrop. So there are stats for all of the NPCs—both civilian and military, as well as dogs and various military—mostly utility—vehicles operated by the occupying forces. The Game Master might want to add a scientist or engineer NPC for certain scenes in the scenario, but they should be easy to create. A couple of probable encounters are detailed as well, which again will drive the mission forward. One important aspect missing from the major NPCs are physical descriptions and roleplaying notes on how to portray them. To offset this, the Game Master may need to make some roleplaying notes on most of them, lest she fall back on cliches. Another thing that is missing from Operation Peardrop which would have increased its utility is a set of pre-generated Commandos. Had they been included, then Operation Peardrop as a whole, would have made for a good convention scenario, which is how it has been playtested.

Physically, Operation Peardrop is well presented. The twenty-four page, 4.5 MB full-colour PDF is well written, neatly laid out, and has some decent maps, though the Game Master may want to add a few interior floor plans herself.

Operation Peardrop is a nicely contained, low Level mini-sandbox. The various plot strands are simple enough to adapt to the roleplaying game of the Game Master’s choice, but it brings a grim if determined tone to WWII: Operation Whitebox, one that deserves to be portrayed in black and white rather than colour. John Mills optional...

Monday, 9 September 2019

7th Sea's 7

Like the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons  and the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, there is also the Explorer’s Society for 7th Sea. It provides an outlet for fans and writers of the preeminent roleplaying game of swashbuckling action, adventure, and storytelling in Théah, an alternate and fantastical version of Europe and beyond in the seventeenth century. Inspired by films such as Ocean’s Eleven, Evan Perlman’s Sea’s 7 published by Chaosium, Inc. is a heist adventure set in a grand casino. Which means high stakes gambling, intrigue, secrets, lies, spies, dangerous liaisons, and more—but above all, rising tension as the heroes case the joint, devise and then execute the plan, doubtless ending in a flurry of action and consequences as they get away with it (or not)!

Ideally, the Game Master should have access to the Pirate Nations sourcebook, for the Queen of the Pirates has a problem and needs a favour. Someone swindled the Pirate Republic’s dock workers out of a considerable amount of money and to avoid any embarrassment, she and the Brotherhood of the Coast want it returned. Now the perpetrator has been traced to the Montaigne colony of Sylviette where she has resurfaced as the Comtesse du Janvier, operator of its newest, hottest social destination—the Casino Impérial. The Queen of the Pirates not only wants the money back, but the Comtesse du Janvier ruined. It sounds like a simple job, but security is tight, the company charming if duplicitous, and there is bound to be a plot twist or along the way. If not written into the plot, then probably due to the Heroes’ involvement.

Sea’s 7 is a two-Step, four-Scene adventure. In the first two scenes, the Heroes start planning the heist and spend a night at the casino looking for ways to get into the vault and the money out. In the second two steps, events escalate as the Heroes carry out their plan in the face of cruel opposition and a rival ‘heist’ before making their getaway as everything goes awry around them. The description of the Casino Impérial and its layout are detailed enough for the Game Master to run the Heroes through all four scenes, although the promised map is strangely absent. Of course, much of the action and story will be player-led, so there are lots of NPCs for their Heroes to interact with, from a nobleman on a stag do to a possible Fate Witch who is all too successful at the gaming tables; Opportunities aplenty to divert attention, uncover secrets, recruit allies, and more; Consequences to suffer, including stumbling into a tryst, getting caught sneaking around, being mistaken for someone’s enemy—did I mention that everyone at the Casino Impérial wears a mask?—and so on; plus secrets galore to uncover... There is a lot here for the Heroes to get involved in should they go looking—and they probably will—in addition to their actually robbing the place and ruining a reputation. 

Physically, Sea’s 7 comes as a 4.08 MB, full colour PDF. It is lightly illustrated, really just chapter headers showing period scenes of gambling and carousing. All very suitable and all very chaste, though doubtless, the events surrounding the Heroes’ heist attempt on the Casino Impérial will involve romantic entanglements, if not actual trysts.

With plot hooks, a handful of given nicely detailed villains, and example lists of approaches, Consequences, Opportunities, NPCs, secrets, and more, as well as solid staging advice, Sea’s 7 is a really superb toolkit for running heists in 7th Sea. There is so much information here that it is unlikely that the Game Master will use it all, though to do that, she would have to find a way to run it twice! In fact were the Game Master to run it more than once—perhaps as a convention scenario (all it would need is a good set of pre-generated Heroes)—it is unlikely that Sea’s 7 would play out the same way twice. Any 7th Sea Game Master wanting to run a heist will find Sea’s 7 invaluable and for any 7th Sea Game Master needing a short scenario to add to her campaign, Sea’s 7 is a good choice.