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

Wednesday, 25 May 2016

"Is this gonna be a standup fight, sir, or another bughunt?"

Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace is as straightforward a source book as you might want for a military Science Fiction game. It is the future. There are giant alien bugs trying to kill us in space. Go shoot things. More specifically, the setting for Bug Hunts is the 23rd Century. In the one hundred years and more since the invention of hypersleep technology made faster-than-light travel a possibility, mankind has established hundreds of colonies, outposts, and bases. Nowhere did mankind find intelligent life, but that would change in 2239 with an encounter with bug-like Xeno-Parasites on Draper’s World, followed in 2246 with the psychic, aggressive ‘Araknyds’, in the Centaurus Arm. In the forty years since the first encounter, mankind encounters multiple species, many capable of travel between worlds, some infecting whole colonies and outposts, others invading. This culminates in 2283 in a meteor strike on Earth, which turns out to be an invasion. 

Shortly after the encounter on Draper’s World, mankind’s leading corporation, STAR Industries, wins the bid to privatise interstellar defence. It establishes the STAR Pan-System Marine Corps or STAR Marines, who train to fight the bugs. Although it consists of multiple regiments, the STAR Marines’ primary deployment is as STAR Marine Expeditionary Units, each consisting of three platoons and three dropships plus a headquarters unit carried aboard a Demeter-class cruiser. Although every STAR Marine is a rifleman, four in each platoon are specialists. They operate heavy weapons in the main, but each is also capable of operating a Phalanx Combat Exo-suit, advanced, powered combat armour capable of wielding railguns, heavy auto-carbines, and flamethrowers.

This then is the setting for Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace, a Science Fiction source book published by Osprey Publishing under its Osprey Adventures imprint. Although the publisher is best known for its military source books, it has in recent years began publishing more esoteric source books on subjects such as Knights Templar: A Secret History and Steampunk Soldiers: Uniforms & Weapons from the Age of Steam; boardgames like They Come Unseen and the forthcoming new edition of Escape from Colditz; and wargames rules such as Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City.

Although Bug Hunts presents a future for mankind going out into space, it primarily focuses on our first, disastrous encounters with the various insectoid species, followed on our attempts to stop them. As well as timeline, it includes plenty of details of both sides in the ongoing war—each of the insect-like alien species as well as the STAR Pan-System Marine Corps. This covers the formation and organisation of the STAR Marines, plus their tactics and equipment. Particular attention is paid to the latter, complete with illustrations.

There is no denying that Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace is very obvious as a setting. Nor is it particularly original, given that it wears its influences in the head-up display of the STAR Pan-System Marine Corps MK II Tactical Helmet. These are the films Alien and Aliens as well as Paul Verhoeven’s Starship Troopers (as opposed to the book the film is based on by Robert A. Heinlein) with just a little hint of the classic board game, Space Hulk. The latter is of course no surprise, given that the author of Bug Hunts is a former editor of White Dwarf. Now despite the lack of originality, what this means that both the setting and the point of Bug Hunts are highly accessible and easy to grasp and then easy to adapt to the game system of your choice.

Physically, Bug Hunts is a nicely illustrated book. The writing is clear and the book’s content is easy to grasp. One issue might be that the book is perhaps underwritten, but if there really is an issue with Bug Hunts it is in the lack of the game system of your choice. Now obviously the book is written as a systemless setting, ready to adapt to said setting of your choice, but there is a complete dearth of advice or suggestions as what that system might be, of how to use it as a background for a game, and so on. It is not even as if Osprey Publishing publishes rules for the Bug Hunts setting or any Science Fiction setting. None of this should present too much of a challenge to an experienced gamer, but a gamer with less experience might have some difficulty in either choosing the right rules or adapting the setting of Bug Hunts to those rules. 

In terms of wargaming, Reviews from R’lyeh is not best placed to make suggestions as to what rules to use, although Northstar Figures and Copplestone Castings do manufacture some suitable minaitures. In terms of roleplaying, Savage Worlds is an obvious choice since it handles small scale skirmish engagements as well as roleplaying. It is probably best used in conjunction with the RPG's Science Fiction Companion since it will provide rules and mechanics for many of the elements of the Bug Hunts setting. Other generic RPGs would also be suitable, such as Steve Jackson Games’ GURPS or Mongoose Publishing’s version of Traveller.

Ultimately the problem with Bug Hunts is twofold. The first is its content, which far from being being unusable or unplayable, feels more familiar than it does fresh. The second is its lack of application and suggestions as to how the content is used, the inclusion of which might have countered the problem with the familiar feel of the content. The combination of both issues means that Bug Hunts: Surviving and Combating the Alien Menace is more likely to underwhelm than it is enthrall.

—oOo


Osprey Publishing will at UK Games Expo.



Sunday, 22 May 2016

Game 'Old Style' like its 2013

The Black Hack could be described as being like Original Dungeons & Dragons, but… Published by Gold Piece Publications following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the ‘but…’ involves the adoption of two modern design features that serve to streamline the senisibilities and structure of the original RPG without losing either. These two design features consist of having a single integrated mechanic and making play player facing. The result is a slick, simple addition to the Old School Renaissance family that can be used to run any scenario for Basic Dungeons & Dragons or its Retroclone derivatives.

The easiest way to explore The Black Hack is to look at a character. A character has the same six attributes as Dungeons & Dragons, but there are no attribute bonuses. It should be noted that whilst the basic roll to determine the value of an attribute is the traditional 3d6, it switches to 2d6+2 for the next attribute roll before switching back to 3d6. This is an odd mechanic, but it mostly serves as a balancing factor in a retroclone where a character’s attributes play a major role. Also noticeably absent is Armour Class. Instead a character has Armour Points derived from the armour he is wearing and these points are ablative. 

Rogi the Brave
First Level Warrior
STR 15 DEX 10 CON 10
INT 10 WIS 12 CHA 13

Hit Points: 12
Armour Points: 12 (Plate & Mail, Large Shield)
Weapons: Sword (1d8)

Every character also has a Class and since The Black Hack is derived from Original Dungeons & Dragons, there are only four and none represent the classic fantasy races of Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings as in Basic Dungeons & Dragons. Indeed, The Black Hack is entirely humanocentric, its four Classes being Warrior, Cleric, Thief, and Conjurer. (There is already one expansion, The Race Hack, published by Cross Planes Game Studio, which addresses this issue with two options, one being to combine Class and Race as in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, the other being to allow Race to be played as a Class as per Basic Dungeons & Dragons. The first option presents nine Races—drakes, dwarves, elves, gnomes, half-elves, halfling, half-orcs, humans, and tiefling, whilst the second offers the Dwarf, the Elf, and the Halfling. A second expansion, The Class Hack, adds another ten Classes, mostly inspired by Advanced Dungeons & Dragons.) Each Class determines a character’s Hit Points, the arms he can use and armour he can wear, how much damage he does—character do damage by Class rather than weapon type, special features, and bonuses when leveling up. 

So for example, the Warrior uses the ten-sided die for Hit Points and Hit Point recovery, can use all arms and armour, does 1d8 damage with any weapon or 1d6 when unarmed, makes one attack per level, can sunder and have destroyed his shield to ignore any damage suffered in combat, and rolls twice for his Strength and Dexterity when leveling up. Of course the Warrior is the simplest Class, whereas the other Classes have to account for limited use of arms and armour, different special features, for example, the Thief’s attacks from behind and the Divine and Arcane spellcasting of the Cleric and Conjurer respectively.

The core mechanic in The Black Hack is rolling under an attribute on a twenty-sided die. Need to make an attack roll to hit that marauding Orc? Roll under your character’s Strength. If you want to throw a dagger at the Orc, then roll under your character’s Dexterity. Need to avoid an incoming blow? Then roll under your character’s Dexterity. A roll of one is a critical success, whereas a roll of twenty is a fumble, whilst any difficulty is represented by a penalty that is added to the player’s roll. This difficulty—and its associated penalty—can represent a more difficult monster faced by the characters or the level of a spells that a character is trying to cast. The traditional saving throws of Dungeons & Dragons are replaced by saves made directly against a character’s attribute. For example, rolls are made against Charisma to to save against Charm effects and Intelligence for spells and other magical effects.

In addition, if a character has the advantage in a situation, then the GM can award him an Advantage die, a second twenty-sided die to roll on the action,the better result being used to determine the outcome of the action. The Disadvantage die works in a similar fashion, but in reverse. For example, the Thief gains an Advantage die when testing his Dexterity to avoid damage or effects from traps and magical devices, or when attacking from behind. This is essentially the same mechanic as Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

The core mechanic of having the players roll for everything—to hit, to avoid being hit, and so on—is very similar to that found in Monte Cook Games’ Numenera. Like the Cypher rules, this means that The Black Hack is essentially player facing. That is, the player has to make all of the rolls rather than the GM, which reduces his workload and allows him to focus solely on running the game.

Combat in The Black Hack adds a couple of twists. To start with, a Dexterity check is made to determine initiative. Succeed and a character goes before the monsters, fail and the monsters go before the character. Then instead of Armour Class, a character wears armour and this Armour Points. These are lost when a character is successfully attacked and once lost, any further damage inflicted is taken off a character’s Hit Points. These Armour Points are regained after a character rests. What this represents is the character’s endurance in wearing and fighting in his armour, as the fight progresses, he becomes tired and cannot make effective use of his armour in combat. Lastly, two-handed weapons are represented by a +2 bonus to damage rolls, but a +2 penalty to rolls to represent that the weapon is harder to use.

Consumables in The Black Hack are also handled as dice rolls. Each Consumable has a die type, for example, a flask of oil has a Usage Die of d6. When used rolled and the result is one or two, the Usage Die switches to a lower type. In the case of the flask of oil, from d6 to d4. After the d4, the Consumable is consumed.

Lastly, The Black Hack does not use Experience Points. Instead, the GM decides when the characters level up. This can be after every session, dungeon level, quest, or major event, but it is up to the GM to decide. When this happens, each character rolls against each of his attributes. Roll over any one of them and the attribute goes up by one with each Class able to roll against one of a pair of attributes, for example, Intelligence or Wisdom for the Conjurer.

The Black Hack provides for ten experience levels, plus up to seventh level spells for both the Cleric and the Conjurer. For the GM there are forty or monsters against which to pitch his players and their adventurers. There is no advice for the GM, but this is not really an issue given that The Black Hack is designed for experienced GMs and players.

Physically, The Black Hack is a twenty-page, digest-sized black and white booklet. It is not illustrated, but the layout is clean and tidy. The booklet is an easy read and any experienced GM will be able to pick these rules up with ease.

The Black Hack is designed to handle Old School gaming in as unfussy and nontechnical a manner as is possible. This it does with a solid and contemporary set of player-facing mechanics that both support its play and acknowledge that ‘modern’ can be better whilst adhering to an Old School style. Plus the the mechanics do mean that the players get make all the rolls, leaving the GM to get on and run the game. The result is that The Black Hack is a slick, streamlined treatment of Dungeons & Dragons-style role playing that looks back to 1974 before just yelling, “Just get on with it!”.

—oOo


Gold Piece Publications will be at UK Games Expo.

Tuesday, 17 May 2016

Out of the Sands, into the Fire...

Tales from the Sands is a supplement for Hellfrost: Land of Fire, the Arabian Nights style campaign setting published by Triple Ace Games for use with Savage Worlds. It collects four scenarios written for slightly experienced player characters that have previously been available only as a PDF titles. Written by the designer of the Hellfrost and Hellfrost: Land of Fire, Paul ‘Wiggy’ Wade-Williams, they see the heroes uncover a strange new cult, find evidence of an old one, go in search of legend, and stop the ‘Land of Fire from going up, well, in flames… 

In doing so, they draw from material previously presented in various supplements for Hellfrost: Land of Fire, including  Realm Guide #11: The Grazelands, Region Guide #11: Ertha’s Realm, and whilst they will be useful in running the scenarios in this anthology, they are not absolutely necessary. The GM will require Realm Guide #5: The Southern Ocean to effectively run the third adventure, ‘The Last Voyage of Sinbad’. The quartet requires characters of both Novice and Seasoned Ranks.

The collection opens with ‘The Golden Queen’, in which an all too curious scholar comes to the attention of a misguided priestess who has subverted a cult devoted to an aspect of Ashtart. Unfortunately, the scholar also happens to be the player characters’ employer and now her attentions are turned to them… Where this adventure shines is in the application of its theme—bees and honey—and its subversion of that theme. This leads to some delightfully horrific moments, such as the birth of giant bees a la Alien and facing the mellified dead, zombies preserved in honey. The adventure’s dungeon continues this theme, but feels somewhat linear as it forces the adventurers down certain paths. Nevertheless, the background to this scenario feels well-researched and the theme is well handled throughout—enough to give the heroes melissophobia.

In ‘Darkness at Darshab’, the heroes come upon a village that is slowly retreating into sullen wariness and distrust as a horrid cult subverts the inhabitants. Villages falling prey to a ghastly cult is a gaming cliche, although it can be well done, as in N1, Against the Cult of the Reptile God for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. This adventure though comes with a set of reasonable hooks to get the heroes to the village and once there, presents an array of NPCs to interact with and acquire clues from. There are ways in which this scenario can go wrong during this investigative phase, but eventually the player characters will learn of the real threat behind the village’s malaise. This involves a descent into an underground lair that is not a dungeon in the classic worked stone style, but a system of rough, often wet caves. The scenario makes great play of the differences between the two and the challenges involved in delving into territory where your foe knows the terrain and the darkness far better than the heroes do. Thus ‘Darkness at Darshab’ is a scenario of two halves, both of which are really rather good.

The chance to meet one of the land’s greatest heroes, a figure out of legend, is what drives the heroes to undertake ‘The Last Voyage of Sindbad’. This is an island-hopping quest to open a portal and hopefully rescue the great sailor and adventurer. It is also an excuse to present four different mini-adventures on four different islands, each time facing different threats and challenges. They include stopping an island of Orc raiders and their masters; discovering that sometimes even true love can be too much; helping to lift a curse from a young lady who rejected the advances of a sinister suitor; and discovering an ancient, long forgotten ancient cult. Each of the little adventures is a relatively straightforward affair and can be played in any order. To make the scenario a little more interesting, the GM is given a set of optional encounters that can be used to add colour to the player characters’ voyages. The climax of the adventure is a little underwhelming, but each of the mini-adventures is decent. Maps of each of the islands would have been nice.

Lastly, as the lands seems to warm unpleasantly in ‘Reign of Fire’, the heroes find that weather seems to have turned against the land with clouds from which fall droplets of fire and that creatures of fire—long ago pushed back into the mountains and the hottest of plains—are once again abroad. Unfortunately the local ruler seems concerned with other things, such as a flying carpet race, but if the heroes enter the race and win, then perhaps they will gain his attention? ‘Reign of Fire’ harks back to the War of Copper Jars when the prophet Suleiman the Great overthrew the great Jinn and bound them in copper jars. Perhaps the great Jinn that once enslaved the now free peoples have escaped and plan to rule again? There are some fun moments in ‘Reign of Fire’, such as the flying carpet race and encounters with less inimical Jinn that will firmly put the heroes outside of their comfort zone. In some ways it does feel a little short though, as if it should be the climax of a great campaign, ending it does with a big ‘big boss’ fight in a set of underground volcanic caverns.

Physically, Tales from the Sands is, unfortunately, slightly disappointing. Although well written, the collection suffers from some really poor editing in places and the maps are a little dark to be presented in greyscale.

Unlike the various Realm Guides, none of the four scenarios in Hellfrost: Land of Fire – Tales from the Sands is available individually. Only in this collection. Nevertheless, which ones are worthy of the GM’s attention? Simply NF3, The Golden Queen and NF2, Darkness at Darshab stand out as the better half, but then SF1, The Last Voyage of Sindbad and SF2, Reign of Fire are far from terrible scenarios. If there is anything missing from the collection it is a guide to running them as a campaign, though again, ‘The Golden Queen’ and ‘Darkness at Darshab’ are probably easier to run after the other than the second pair of scenarios. Together though, Hellfrost: Land of Fire – Tales from the Sands is a solid quartet of scenarios for the Hellfrost: Land of Fire setting.

—oOo


Triple Ace Games will be at UK Games Expo.



Monday, 16 May 2016

Time Sensitive Cthulhu

Since the publication of White Dwarf #42 in June, 1983, and the subsequent publication of On the Trail of the Loathsome Slime in 1985, the flexibility of when and where Call of Cthulhu can be set has never been in doubt. The publisher of the venerable RPG, Chaosium, Inc., capitalised on this flexibility, offering first boxed sets that explored the Dreamlands and Victorian England with H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands and Cthulhu by Gaslight respectively, followed later by the modern era set Cthulhu Now, scenarios set in times past and future with Strange Aeons and Strange Aeons II, the end of the first millennium with Cthulhu: Dark Ages, and Imperial Rome with Cthulhu Invictus. Further, publishers as diverse as Pagan Publishing, Modiphius Entertainment, and Cubicle Seven Entertainment have all developed their own settings using Call of Cthulhu. Yet with the publication of the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Investigator Handbook and the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Keeper Rulebook, only two eras are as yet supported—Call of Cthulhu’s classic period of the 1920s and the contemporary era—whereas previous editions of the RPG had supported other eras, Cthulhu by Gaslight and H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands in particular.

Given how much of a redesign and a rewrite Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is, it is no surprise that there was just not the space to devote to these other eras—as lamentable as their omissions are. Fortunately, Chaosium has taken steps to address this lack with a slim supplement that serves as an introduction and primer to Call of Cthulhu in other times and places. In doing so though, it does create issues and problems of its own, the solutions to which will ultimately render this supplement redundant. Cthulhu Through the Ages: Guidelines for Playing Call of Cthulhu in Seven Different Eras presents four settings in the past, one setting that will never be in the here and now, and two future settings. They are in turn and mostly chronological order, Cthulhu Invictus, Cthulhu Dark Ages, Mythic Iceland, H.P. Lovecraft's Dreamlands, Cthulhu by Gaslight, Cthulhu Icarus, and The Reaping. Of the seven, only one of the settings is new to Call of Cthulhu—though not Chaosium, one is new to Chaosium, and one is new to print for Call of Cthulhu outside of a Monograph.

Each of the seven settings runs to no more than seven pages, providing in turn a modicum of background, a list of the skills pertinent to the setting, some Backstory suggestions and a handful of Occupations, a discussion of the Mythos in the period, a plot seed, and perhaps some setting appropriate Mythos monsters or investigator organisations. They begin with ‘Cthulhu Invictus’, which presents Call of Cthulhu at the height of Imperial Rome. So the Backstory suggestions include patron god, meaningful locations, and treasured possessions, whilst a player can also roll for his investigator’s birth portents. The sample nine Occupations range from Augur and Courtesan to Speculatore and Surgeon, whilst skills include Art and Craft (Poisons) and Status. There are no sample investigator organisations, but the type of organisations possible are discussed. Although a serviceable introduction to the setting, the good news is that although not for written for use with Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition, Cthulhu Invictus is still in print and available, although its best support—The Legacy of Arrius Lurco and De Horrore Cosmico—has come from third party publishers.

Unfortunately the same cannot be said of the second setting, ‘The Dark Ages’. This is based on the supplement Cthulhu Dark Ages, originally published in German as Cthulhu 1000 AD, the English version, published in 2004, has been out print for a decade and even then, was ill-realised and ill-supported. The good news is that Cthulhu Dark Ages, Second Edition has the focus and realisation that the original edition lacked, although it is not yet in print. This primer has its Backstory suggestions and Life Events table, plus Occupations such as Beggar, Cleric, Monk/Nun, and Woodsman/Fisherman. The skills are very similar to those given for Cthulhu Invictus and the discussion of investigator organisations is about community rather than actual organisations. Perhaps the most interesting element to the setting is the worldview versus the Mythos, that of a religious rationale rather the scientific one of the twentieth century.

The third setting, ‘Mythic Iceland’ is a corollary to ‘The Dark Ages’ and thus Cthulhu Dark Ages, being set in the same time period. It is new to Call of Cthulhu, but not Chaosium, its origins lying in a supplement for Basic Roleplaying of the same name. The settings makes two fundamental changes to the rules for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. First, Luck when spent to adjust rolls as per the optional rule in the new edition, it cannot be regained. Once it is gone, it is gone. This reflects the Icelanic view that every man has a finite amount of luck. Second, it dispenses with Occupations because Icelandic society was not structured enough to support specialised professionals. Its treatment of the Mythos is not as expansive, but it is not detailed enough to be focused either, instead just pointing towards the involvement of certain entities. This though should be enough for an experienced Keeper to develop scenarios from. There is certainly some potential in ‘Mythic Iceland’ as it could also take the investigators from Iceland to Greenland and even pre-colonial North America.

The fourth setting is ‘Gaslight’, a primer for the recently published Cthulhu by Gaslight, Second Edition. Of the seven settings described in Cthulhu Through the Ages, it is chronologically the closest to the default Jazz Age of Call of Cthulhu and thus mechanically the most similar in terms of skills and Occupations. The section’s focus is primarily on the differences—mainly an emphasis on social class, so the Credit Rating skill is particularly important. It includes a few archetypal Occupations, such as the Adventuress, the Consulting Detective, Inquiry Agent, and so on, plus a pair of Investigator Organisations. The latter are given more space than the Mythos in the period, but that can accounted for the short gap between it and the Jazz Age. Nevertheless, at four pages in length, this is a short section and both feels and is brief.

The fifth setting, ‘The Dreamlands’ is likewise as short, but where ‘Gaslight’ will be historically familiar to players and Keepers of Call of Cthulhu, this section will be the most familiar in Cthulhu Through the Ages in game terms. After all, H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands has gone through five editions and been supported with innumerable  scenarios. So it is not surprising that it just covers the basics—how to get into the Dreamlands, the Dreaming skill, and dying in the Dreamlands. There is also a map of the Dreamlands, plus new creatures not found in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook—Gugs, Moon-Beasts, and Zoogs. Given that this runs to barely five pages—including the map—it seems odd that this section was not included in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook.

The last two settings pitch Cthulhu Through the Ages into the future. ‘Cthulhu Icarus – A Futuristic Micro Setting for Call of Cthulhu’ originally appeared the magazine, Worlds of Cthulhu #2 and is the closest that the supplement has to an actual scenario. It casts the Investigators as part of the multi-national, multi-corporation crew of the Icarus, a spaceship exploring the outer reaches of the Solar System. Their discoveries though no less scientific, will point towards the horrors in the darkness of Space. The section includes three possible scenarios, each more or less, a one-shot. Despite this being the nearest to a complete setting in the supplement, there is potential here for more than just one-shots and it is a pity that this micro setting does not explore it further.

The second of the futuristic settings will be familiar to anyone with a degree of Call of Cthulhu lore. ‘The Reaping’ is set during the Cthulhu End Times, the near future when the Stars have come Right and the Great Old Ones have risen to devastate the Earth and cause the collapse of human civilisation. This period of the Earth’s history has been much discussed by Call of Cthulhu devotees in the past, but although there was talk of a supplement, the only thing to materialise was the Monograph, End Times, published in 2003. As a post-apocalyptic, Call of Cthulhu setting, this is perhaps the most interesting one—it is certainly the most original one—in the supplement, the entities and forces of the Mythos openly moving across the land whilst survivors hide in outpost sanctuaries, trying not to acknowledge the madness and insanity outside of their walls. The investigators—Healers, Lore Seekers, Scavengers, and more—might seeking ancient for their own purposes, searching for a sanctuary, or even attempting to thwart one of the many cults that hold power now. ‘The Reaping’ feels fresh and interesting and deserves more than just these few pages.

In addition, Cthulhu Through the Ages presents a guide to combat in the Cthulhu Invictus, Cthulhu Dark Ages, and Mythic Iceland settings. It is short and serviceable. The supplement is rounded out with Investigator sheets for each of the seven periods detailed in its pages.

Arguably, the book could have been better organised in that the skills from each individual setting chapter could have been collected into a chapter dedicated to just skills—just as Cthulhu Through the Ages does with ‘Swords and Arrows’, which gives combat rules for use with Cthulhu Invictus, Cthulhu Dark Ages, and Mythic Iceland. Such a chapter would simply list all of the skills in alphabetical order with an indication as to which setting they are used in. This would have prevented the repetition of the skills such as Drive Horse/Oxen, Fighting (Shield), Insight, Repair/Devise, and Status from the chapters devoted to Cthulhu Invictus and Cthulhu: Dark Ages at the very least. Plus it would have freed up more space for more background material and perhaps more adventure seeds. 

In terms of artwork as well as space, Cthulhu Through The Age is poorly served. Now the full pages that preface each chapter are fine, especially where the covers of the core books for each of the settings are used, are fine. Yet other art does nothing but take take up space, which along with the white space, could have been used to better sell the settings that the book is intended to promote.

Overall, Cthulhu Through the Ages is something of a mixed bag. Both ‘Cthulhu Icarus – A Futuristic Micro Setting for Call of Cthulhu’ and ‘The Reaping’ are relatively new  and feel full of untapped potential. Of the two, ‘The Reaping’ deserves a supplement of its own. The other five settings either have, or have had, supplements of their own and this is something of a problem. For example, both Cthulhu Dark Ages and H.P. Lovecraft’s Dreamlands are out of print, so there is no way for the Keeper to find out more information without some searching. Once they are in print for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, their content will make that contained in the particular sections of Cthulhu Through the Ages redundant. Further, for all five of these settings, it feels as if there is not enough information to do very much with any of them and does not help that these are not full adaptations from Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but merely sliver-like tasters for each of them.

Ultimately, Cthulhu Through the Ages is a supplement for the experienced Keeper and his players as it presents the way in which each of its settings should be adapted to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition—and from this starting point, the resourceful Keeper can do the rest. That is, until editions of the particular supplements appear for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. For the neophyte Keeper it is much less useful, not having neither quite enough detail to be really helpful or to really hint at how good these settings can be.

-oOo-

Chaosium, Inc. will be at UK Games Expo.

Things Better Than Crypts

UKM1: Tomb of the Necromancers is a scenario for Crypts & Things, the Swords & Sorcery inspired variant of Mythmere Games’ Swords & Wizardry published by D101 Games. Designed for four to six characters of Sixth to Eighth Level, Tomb of the Necromancers takes place in the north of the Continent of Terrors default setting. There the ruins of the Unknown City sit at the edge of the Death Wind Steppe, surrounded by the foothills of the Wolf Head Mountains. Now all that stands in the ruins is the fishing village of Tetronis, protecting the secrets of the great and terrible, but now lost, god known as Orlusz—and his worship.

The player characters are hired to explore a hidden building below the ruins surrounding Tetronis. By the time they reach the village, someone has got there before the adventurers and put many of its inhabitants to the sword. Thus the party will need to deal with this problem if its erstwhile employer is to be found and its members are to progress into the dungeon. This has some nasty moments and fun encounters and these have the grim feeling of the Conan tales. Once they get past these—plus a well handled revelation—Tomb of the Necromancers becomes a whole lot less interesting. The dungeon of the scenario’s title is bland in comparison, barring an encounter or two. The whole of the dungeon feels like it should be baroque and ornate, but it is far from that. 

Unfortunately, in terms of physical presentation and production, Tomb of the Necromancers has a number of issues. Whilst the artwork is good, the scenario’s cartography is inconsistent—the map of the village is much, much better than that of the dungeon. In fact, the map of the dungeon is just simply bland. Worse, the scenario reads like a first draft and really, really needs a good edit. Barring a couple of issues, the poor editing will not get in the way of running the adventure, but without it, Tomb of the Necromancers is just not as professional as it should be.

Further, Tomb of the Necromancers is a scenario of two halves. The first half, getting to the village of Tetronis and dealing with the threats and dangers above ground is more interesting than the second half, that is, the dungeon below which never quite rises above being just another Dungeons & Dragons dungeon. This is primarily because above ground scenes make much more use of Crypts & Things’ Continent of Terrors setting. Despite these issues and the lack of a professional presentation, Tomb of the Necromancers is welcome as an adventure for higher level adventurers.

-oOo-

D101 Games will be at UK Games Expo.

Thursday, 12 May 2016

The Wrong Father's Day

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide plus the adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the eighteenth adventure is Feast of the Father.

Feast of the Father is written by Jason Bulmahn, co-author of various titles for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, most notably Expedition to the Ruins of Castle Greyhawk. It is the sixth adventure written for characters who have entered the Expert Path, that is of Third Level or higher, and comes as an eight page, 13.22 MB PDF. It is designed as a standalone adventure that slots easily into a campaign as an encounter when the player characters are travelling, especially near the coast or other large body of water.

It takes place in the small fishing port of Argron’s Dock, a settlement whose isolation has forced the inhabitants to their own traditions and faiths to keep them safe. For the people of Argron’s Dock, their faith is placed not in the Cult of the New God, but a god they call The Father. Every few months they hold a holy day upon which they give thanks to The Father for his bounties from the sea and receive further gifts. It is on one of these holy days that the adventurers find their way to Argron’s Dock. It is not a welcoming place. It is run down, parts of it have burnt down, and its inhabitants are a slovenly, lumpen lot, suffering it seems from a lassitude. Nevertheless, the player characters are invited to join in the festivities by the locals.

As a scenario, Feast of the Father is little more than a single session in length, its structure and plot echoing that of so many other scenarios in which an isolated village turns to another faith and becomes a nest of cultists, unguided or otherwise. In fact, the scenario could all but be described as a cliche--and in various ways it is. That said, Feast of the Father lifts itself above such clichés with a strong vein of body horror and the sense of listlessness that pervades the community. Over all, a short but enjoyable combination of the bilious and the sluggishness.

Sunday, 8 May 2016

The 13th Age Starts Here

Shadows of Eldolan is the first scenario published for use with 13th Age, the Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG with an emphasis on storytelling as well as high action published by Pelgrane Press. An investigative and combat orientated adventure written for use with five or six characters of First Level, it is designed to ease the GM into running 13th Age—in particular the use of the RPG’s Icons to bring in story elements—and thus perhaps lay foundations for a campaign. 

Shadows of Eldolan comes as a seventy-two page greyscale book that contains both the adventure and a description of the town of Eldolan. This description is not of the whole town, only those parts which are pertinent to the adventure, although an overview of the town is given. Eldolan itself is a small port along the coast from the city of Horizon, located in a flat gap between the cliffs. The town is best known for its wizard academies and guilds, their strong influence upon the town’s politics and the fact that much of the town is kept lit at night by network of magical street lights maintained by the Lamplighters’ Guild. The player characters come to Eldolan for a meeting with someone connected to their Icon relationships, but before they get to the meeting, its location is attacked by zombies! The question is, who in a town dominated by wizards—and thus where the Archmage is an important Icon—would be creating zombies, a task more associated with the Lich King?

Answering this question lies at the heart of Shadows of Eldolan. There are four clues to investigate, each of which leads the adventurers down certain plotlines. These are are designed so that getting to the end of one can lead to another and so on and so on until the player characters can find the clues that will lead it on to the revelations that lead to the climax of the scenario. The four can be played in any order, there being notes for the GM as to what clue to use to send the player characters onto the next plot thread and then eventually onto the final clues and subsequent showdown.

The scenario has a reasonable balance between combat and investigative encounters. Some effort has gone into making the combat encounters exciting and a little different, for example, the pumpkin-throwing zombie in the first encounter and the use of stage scenery in a later encounter. The party will also face a good mix of monsters and combatants, nicely showcasing the capabilities of the antagonists in 13th Age in just a few lines in each case that make them ever so easy to use. That said, some of the combat encounter set-ups are repetitive, such as the adventurers being ambushed from both ahead and behind them at the same time. Notably, the scenario makes great use of having the party ‘fail it forward’, that is, when the party fails to find a clue or undertake an action with any degree of success, have them actually succeed, but with subsequent consequences, such as having to face more foes in a later combat.

The 13th Age RPG brings two particular elements to Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying that actively work to engage the player characters in the story and the setting—Icons and ‘One Unique Thing’. The former are archetypal beings or personalities that mold part of the world, driving and directing it. They include the Archmage, the Diabolist, the Emperor, and others, and each player will have a relationship with one, two, or three of these. The latter is what makes each player character stand out in the world of the 13th Age. Now the scenario cannot make much use of the ‘One Unique Thing’ element of each character, because there are just too many for both the author and the publisher of the scenario to take account of. What they can do though, is bring in each of the characters’ Icon relationships. Each session the player roll their ‘relationship’ dice, with any result of ‘6’ granting a player a boon and any result of ‘5’ granting a player both a boon and a complication. What the GM has to do here is create or improvise what these boons and complications might be. Now this will not be an issue for the experienced GM, and whilst there are notes on involving the player characters’ Icon relationships at certain points—particularly when it comes to finding clues, but for the less experienced GM, a few more suggestions might not have gone amiss.

There is also no doubt that Shadows of Eldolan needs these Icon relationships. They serve to pull the player characters into the scenario and involve them further in the plot and hunt for clues. Without them and the input of the GM, the adventure does otherwise feel slightly flat and bland in places. Further, although Shadows of Eldolan is well-plotted and there is plenty of advice on handling its plot, there is one plot point that may annoy the players. The problem is that the villain gets away at the end—and this is built into the plot. Of course, this lends itself to the villain’s reappearance later as a recurring villain and that is no bad thing. Nevertheless, there will be some playing groups that will find this dissatisfying, despite 13th Age being much about storytelling and action as opposed to just the action...

Physically Shadows of Eldolan is slightly disappointing. It is not a bad looking book, but it does need another edit. Although there are stylistic issues, the real problem lies with the adventure’s maps and their descriptions. The maps are decent enough—no surprise given that Pelgrane Press’ sister company is ProFantasy Software—and whilst it would have been nice of them to have been in colour, that they are in greyscale is understandable—though colour maps are available to download for all purchasers, the problem is that they are unnumbered. Although the maps are not necessarily difficult to read, their accompanying descriptions do not readily or easily match the maps. This is disappointing and it does make the adventure just ever slightly harder to run.

Although Shadows of Eldolan takes place in what a ‘high fantasy, high magic’ town, the plot of the scenario takes the adventurers some way away from the bright lights of the well lit town. It is a self-contained affair, with plenty of room for both combat (or not, depending upon the player characters’ actions) and investigation, and if it feels a little flat in places, then there means are still there to make it a more memorable adventure by involving the Icons and their relationship with the player characters. Overall, Shadows of Eldolan is a solid first adventure for players new to 13th Age with the GM being accorded good advice on running it.