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

Monday, 17 June 2019

Miskatonic Monday #16: Call of Poolthulhu

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 Invictus, The Pastores, Primal State, Ripples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in Egypt, Return of the Ripper, Rise of the Dead, Rise 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.

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Name: Call of Poolthulhu: A Call of Cthulhu classic-era scenario for 2-5 investigators

Publisher: Passe Gaming
Author: Anthony Berandine

Setting: Jazz Age (Contemporary), Near Lovecraft Country
Product: Scenario
What You Get: 650 KB, ten-page black & white PDF
Elevator Pitch: A totally free case of stationary madness played out by the poolside

Plot Hook: A mad professor
Plot Development: A fouled den and a deadly sickness
Plot Support: Very straightforward plot, two handouts, several NPC descriptions.
Production Values: Needs another edit and another spellcheck.

Pros
# Straightforward, simplistic plot
# Easy for the Keeper to develop or adapt
# Minimum skill rolls required
# Minimum dice rolls required
# Suitable for beginning players and investigators
# Nicely underplayed ending
# Playable in one session
# Free to purchase
# Suitable for play by one or two Investigators and Keeper
# Suitable for playing by the pool

Cons
# Investigator involvement underwritten and clichéd
# Uneven anachronistic tone
# No Sanity rewards
# Dreadfully silly title

Conclusion
# Straightforward, simplistic plot
# Easy to run
# Free to purchase

Sunday, 16 June 2019

Screen Shot VIII & Apple Lane III

How do you like your GM Screen?

The GM Screen is essentially a reference sheet, comprised of several card sheets that fold out and can be stood up to serve another purpose, that is, to hide the GM’s notes and dice rolls. On the inside, the side facing the GM are listed all of the tables that the GM might want or need at a glance without the need to have to leaf quickly through the core rulebook. On the outside, facing the players, is either more tables for their benefit or representative artwork for the game itself. This is both the basic function and the basic format of the screen, neither of which has changed very little over the years. Beyond the basic format, much has changed though.

To begin with the general format has split, between portrait and landscape formats. The result of the landscape format is a lower screen, and if not a sturdier screen, than at least one that is less prone to being knocked over. Another change has been in the weight of card used to construct the screen. Exile Studios pioneered a new sturdier and durable screen when its printers took two covers from the Hollow Earth Expedition core rule book and literally turned them into the game's screen. This marked a change from the earlier and flimsier screens that had been done in too light a cardstock, and many publishers have followed suit.

Once you have decided upon your screen format, the next question is what you have put with it. Do you include a poster or poster map, such as Chaosium, Inc.’s last screen for Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition?  Or a reference work like the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu? Or scenarios such as ‘Blackwater Creek’ and ‘Missed Dues’ from the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition? In general, the heavier and sturdier the screen, the more likely it is that the screen will be sold unaccompanied, such as those published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for the Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game  and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPG.

So how do I like my GM Screen?



I like my Screen to come with something. Not a poster or poster map, but some form of reference material. Which is why I am fond of both the Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune and the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu. Nevertheless, I also like GM Screens when they come with a scenario, which is one reason why I like the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack for use with the new edition of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, published by Chaosium, Inc.. For not only does the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack include a Game Master’s Screen, it includes the ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster Adventures’ book which contains not just one or two adventures, but three adventures and background material aplenty to support both these three adventures and play beyond them. That would seem enough, and if the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack consisted of just the Game Master’s Screen and the Adventures Book, that would have made a handsome enough package. Yet besides the Game Master’s Screen and the ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster Adventures’ book, the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack contains a whole lot more.

The screen itself is a four-panel full colour affair in landscape format. The front depicts the God’s Wall in Dara Happa. On the reverse it collates numerous tables from RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, including the Resistance Table, the Augments Table, Attack & Parry Results, Dodge Results, Fumbles, Ritual Preparation, and more. It also summarises melee and combat results, the Special Damage results, Magic Use, and so on. It is all done in full colour, is easy to read, and reference in play. The only issue with the screen is that it could have included the page numbers for what the tables appear in the core rules for easy reference by the Game Master.

In addition to the Game Master’s Screen and the ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster Adventures’ book, the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack contains a wealth of useful references and other bits and pieces. These start with the  ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster References’ booklet, which contains all of the tables from RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, including the Skills List, the Resistance Table, the Runes and Cults tables, Attack & Parry Results, Fumbles, Weapons, Spirit Magic Spells, Rune Spells, and more. The Gloranthan Calendar is simply brilliant in its usefulness and really should be upgraded to an actual calendar that the Game Master can put on her wall. There are two foldout character sheets in the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack, both combining the standard character sheet and the family sheet, one in full colour and one in black and white. The seven pre-generated characters are fully illustrated and come with complete backgrounds ready to play, specifically coming from the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – QuickStart Rules and Adventure and so are ready to play ‘The Broken Tower’. A separate sheet is provided for NPCs and Squads. The six maps in the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack cover Apple Lane, Clearwine, Dragon Pass, and the Lunar Empire. They include the classic maps of Dragon Pass, and the Lunar Empire, new maps of Apple Lane and Clearwine, a map of the Colymar lands, and a full foldout map of Dragon Pass, essentially the same as in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, but here so much larger and clearer. All together, this provides the Game Master with a lot of supporting material to help her run her game. 

Just as the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack is no simple RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack, the ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster Adventures’ book is no mere book of adventures. It is both a setting book and a book of adventures, detailing the region in which the adventures are set. These are the lands of the Colymar tribe, one of the earliest groups of settlers in Sartar following the Dragonkill War. A full history of the tribe is given, explaining how it came to possess the winter-grown grapes the tribe is famous for, as well as its rivalry with Malani tribe, before coming up to date with the invasion of the Lunar Empire, the rebellions under Lunar occupation, and the recent Dragonrise. Also covered are region’s geography and climate, temples major and minor, the tribe’s population, and its Wyter, its guardian spirit. All twelve clans of the tribe are described, as is the capital, the small city of Clearwine. This is done in some detail and accompanied by some lovely three-dimensional maps of both the city and the palace, plus several persons of note are accorded full descriptions and sets of full stats. This includes Leika Black Spear, Queen of the Colymar tribe, Asborn Thriceborn, the High Priest of Orlanth Thunderous, Ereneva Chan, the High Priestess of Ernalda, and more. Thus we get to see characters who are Rune Lords and Rune Priests for the first time in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

Beyond detailing the peoples and places of Clearwine, ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster Adventures’ book looks at the tribal lands occupied by the Colymar and the places of interest found within its borders. Longtime Gloranthaphiles will recognise Apple Lane and Rainbow Mounds from Apple Lane, as well as the Broken Tower from the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – QuickStart Rules and Adventure, but almost forty locations are detailed in a gazetteer of short paragraph entries. Several of the locations are expanded, including an encounter with DragonNewts and Apple Lane. The latter is actually updated from the Apple Lane to take account of events in recent years, so that anyone familiar with having played through the ‘Gringle’s Pawnshop’ adventure will now find it in ruins. Similarly, they will also recognise several of the NPCs still residing in the trading settlement, which much like the rest of Sartar has suffered under Lunar occupation.

Apple Lane is also the focus of the three scenarios in the ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster Adventures’ book. The first, ‘Defending Apple Lane’ echoes ‘Gringle’s Pawnshop’  from Apple Lane in having the player characters come to the hamlet’s defence, but this time not from bandits and baboons, but from fearsome Tusk Riders. This is most obviously a combat scenario, but it also serves to introduce the player characters and the locals to each other. At the end of the scenario, the player characters are asked to stay and so are in a position to play the subsequent two scenarios. If there is an issue with the scenario it is that hook to get the player characters involved is uninspiring.

Not so in the second scenario, ‘Cattle Raid’, which in comparison gives several detailed reasons for the player characters’ involvement. Again, the inhabitants of Apple Lane ask for their help. A pair of saber-toothed cats have been preying on the local clan’s sacred cattle. What initially seems a simple task quickly escalates into a confrontation with a rival tribe for possession of the cattle. This is a relatively simple scenario, but it nicely gives a chance for the player characters to show off their political skills as one means of resolving  the situation. The Game Master also has a decent cast of NPCs to portray.

The third and final adventure, ‘The Dragon of Thunder Hills’ is the longest and most complex. After encountering the aftermath of a dragon attack, Queen Leika tasks the player characters with helping to locate the dragon and perhaps the means to deal with it. This is a confrontation with one of Glorantha’s most mythical of beasts and will take far more than brute force to defeat it. The scenario also makes use of several of the other locations and encounters previously described in the book and presents the opportunity for the player characters to make some interesting allies or some interesting enemies…

These are all good scenarios, in turn showcasing both the dangers of Dragon Pass and how its society works, whether that is the custom involved in cattle rustling in ‘Cattle Raid’ or confrontation with a dragon in ‘The Dragon of Thunder Hills’. The three have a fairly simple set of requirements, essentially that one of the player characters be a worshipper of Orlanth or an associated cult and that one be a member of the Colymar tribe. The three can also be easily run following the events of ‘The Broken Tower’, whether using the pre-generated characters from the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – QuickStart Rules and Adventure—which are reprinted in full colour for inclusion in the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack—or ones the player have created.

In addition, the ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster Adventures’ book includes nine adventure seeds in an appendix and some one hundred rumours, ready for the Game Master to develop into full adventures. Of course, the Game Master is definitely left wanting more scenarios in and around Apple Lane despite their inclusion. In addition, the ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster Adventures’ book comes with a second appendix which details rune metals and magic crystals.

Physically, RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack is an impressive package. The screen itself is sturdy and easy to read, the maps and other reference material are all printed on glossy paper and very nicely produced, and the ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster Adventures’ book is a softback book literally brimming with colour. The NPC illustrations are particularly good, serving to highlight how the world of Glorantha is different to that of both our world and other fantasy roleplaying games. The cartography in the ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster Adventures’ book is also nicely done.

What physical issues there are with the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack are twofold and minor at best. One is that the ‘RuneQuest Gamemaster Adventures’ is not a hardback so does not feel as sturdy as recent books from the publisher. The other is with the physical packaging. It all comes in holder and is designed to slot into the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha slipcase, along with the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha core rulebook and RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary. Now both books fit fine, but with its separate contents, some care needs to be taken with the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack when putting it back into the slipcase. Of course, as good as the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha slipcase is, there is the niggly feeling that could have been better protected if it had come in a box of its own.

At its time of publication, some of the issues with the new edition of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha were that it was too humanocentric, that it lacked NPCs, foes, and monsters, and that it lacked a starting adventure. Rightly, the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary addressed all but the latter issue and so is a nigh on indispensable supplement for the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha Game Master. Of course, the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack addresses the latter by providing not just one, but three scenarios, enough with which to begin a mini-campaign and all set in and around a classic setting that will be familiar to long time Gloranthaphiles. Further, it provides solid support for the Game Master, again not just with the sturdy Game Master Screen, but also a sheaf of reference sheets, character sheets, maps, and a really nicely done calendar. Now where RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary is indispensable for any Game Master running a RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha campaign, the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack is not, but it is undeniably, very, very useful. Indeed, together, the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha core rulebook, the RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary, and the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack form the core of the game and provide everything that the Game Master needs to get a game going.

As to the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack itself, it is a well designed, well put together, highly attractive package. As well as being the support that every RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha Game Master deserves, the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack also sets a benchmark by which every other Game Master Screen and support pack will be measured.

Saturday, 15 June 2019

Droned to Failure

The latest scenario The Cthulhu Hack from Just Crunch Games is Valkyrie Nine. The winner of both the UK Games Expo 2019 Best Roleplaying Adventure and UK Games Expo 2019 People’s Choice Awards Best Roleplaying Adventure at UK Games Expo 2019 is a one-shot Science Fiction scenario of cosmic horror set some fifty years into the future. It is 2072. Two years ago the European Space Agency initiated its Valkyrie project, establishing a series of automated stations on the Lunar surface to mine for its mineral wealth. One year ago monitoring and maintenance teams were assigned to each of the stations. Unfortunately, as the scenario begins, the Valkyrie Nine mining station has suffered a calamitous event of an unknown nature and it is up to the player characters to determine the cause and nature of the event and save the rest of the crew.

Although it can be played by fewer players, Valkyrie Nine is best played by five players. What they play are not members of Valkyrie Nine’s crew, but instead the station’s maintenance drones. To that end, five pre-generated drones are provided—an Emergency Unit, a Build Unit, a Medical Unit, a Service Unit, and a Survey Unit—and the means to modify them. As drones, the characters have the Saves Durability, Integrity, Cognition, and Expertise, instead of Strength, Constitution, Intelligence, and Dexterity. Instead of Hit Points they have Structure and instead of Flashlights and Smokes Resources—the ability to spot things or conduct research and learn from others respectively—they have Spatial Acuity and Relational Code, whilst a third, Database Access, represents a Drone’s ability to cope with data dissonance. Plus each drone type has its own features and two Modules—selected from a range of four—which work much an ordinary investigator’s Occupation in providing an Advantage when making an associated Save. 

Valkyrie Nine
Rescue-One
Emergency Unit

Durability 8 Integrity 6 Cognition 13 Expertise 13

Spatial Acuity d8
Relational Code d8
Database Access d4

Structure 6

Features
Heat Shield (d8, plus Rad hardened), Tripod (Extendable, unstable), Prehensile (Long gathering grippers), Siren (Warning, plus vocal unit)

Modules
Biometrics [X] Override [X] Suppression [O] Structural [O]

At the beginning of Valkyrie Nine the player character drones are activated following an incomplete recharging cycle to find the mining station in near darkness bar emergency lighting, the air filled with smoke, and a siren blaring. There are no signs of the crew. The task before the drones is to establish the nature of the emergency, conduct repairs as necessary, locate the crew and render aid as required. Their progress is hampered by a station-wide power reset, locked doors and hatches, and more. As they progress through the station, it soon becomes apparent that something strange is going on…

Valkyrie Nine is a sandbox-style investigation in which the drones are free to explore the limits of the station in any order their players desire. The base consists of three domes—Crew, Command, and Research—around a central Core dome below which is the Geo-Dig into the Lunar surface. Each of the locations, from dome to dome is described in some detail and what the drones might find at each.

The horror in Valkyrie Nine is of a slow build and reveal, the drones working from dome to dome uncovering more clues as to what has happened, some of them mundane, some of course, quite weird. Each of the locations is quite detailed and pleasingly, many of them are accompanied by play-test notes from the author which not only add a personal touch, but also help the Game Master stage and run the game.

There are two potential issues with Valkyrie Nine. One is that experienced players may guess or deduce the nature of the mystery at the heart of the scenario. There is no way to avoid this, except for such players to be good sports and roleplay their determining the nature of the mystery. Realising the true nature of the situation does not necessarily confer any advantage though… The other is that whilst the investigation process is well handled, the revelation of the scenario’s mystery is not as strongly supported as it could be. There is Game Master advice on how to handle this in drip feed fashion, but given that the scenario is written as a one-shot, it would have been helpful for the Game Master other than the author if some nudges and hints tailored to the player characters had been provided. To counter this, it might be a good idea for the Game Master to prepare some prior to her running Valkyrie Nine.

Physically, Valkyrie Nine feels somewhat cramped, but then it has a lot of information to impart to the Game Master. It is lightly illustrated with a nice pair of pieces that can be shown to the players at the appropriate time. There are more handouts than illustrations, these reflecting the bland, almost bureaucratic nature of the Valkyrie Nine facility. Well, it is a European Space Agency programme after all…

Valkyrie Nine presents an intriguing mystery and roleplaying challenge for the players in roleplaying drones presented with a disaster situation of unknown cause. For the Game Master, Valkyrie Nine is a challenge to prepare, present, and run—as a sandbox more challenging than a straightforward investigation—but overall, this is a superb little horror one-shot scenario which feels inspired by the films Moon and Alien as if played by Huey, Dewey, and Louie from Silent Running.

Friday, 14 June 2019

On the Buses

The very latest entry in the Ticket to Ride franchise is Ticket to Ride: London. Like those other Ticket to Ride games, it is another card-drawing, route-claiming board game based around transport links and like those other Ticket to Ride games, it uses the same mechanics. Thus the players will draw Transportation cards and then use them to claim Routes and by claiming Routes, link the two locations marked on Destination Tickets, the aim being to gain as many points as possible by claiming Routes and completing Destination Tickets, whilst avoiding losing by failing to complete Destination Tickets. Yet rather than being another big box game like the original Ticket to Ride, Ticket to Ride: Europe, or Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries, it takes its cue from Ticket to Ride: New York. It is thus a smaller game designed for fewer players with a shorter playing time, a game based around a city rather than a country or a continent. 

Published by Days of Wonder and designed for play by two to four players, aged eight and up, Ticket to Ride: London is easy to learn, can be played out of the box in five minutes, and played through in less than twenty minutes. Now where Ticket to Ride: New York had the players racing across Manhattan attempting to connect its various tourist hotspots going via taxis rather than trains, Ticket to Ride: London has the players racing across London attempting to connect its various tourist hotspots going via buses rather than trains or taxes. Thus the players are attempting to connect the British Museum to Waterloo, Hyde Park to Covent Garden, Baker Street to Trafalgar Square, and so on.


Inside the small box can be found be small board which depicts the centre of London, from Brick Lane in the northeast and Elephant & Castle in the south to Hyde Park and Buckingham Palace in the southwest to Baker Street and Regent’s Park in the northwest. All of the Locations are clearly marked and all are marked with a number between one and five. These are clustered together to form Districts, so Buckingham Palace, Piccadilly Circus, Big Ben, and Trafalgar Square are all marked with ‘2’, whilst Covent Garden and the British Museum are both marked with a ‘1’. If a player manages to claim routes which connect all of the Locations within a District, then he will score points equal to the District’s value, so just one point for Covent Garden and the British Museum. Of course, the higher a District’s value, the more difficult it is to complete. One notable feature of the board in Ticket to Ride: London is that it comes with a scoring track, something that was missing from the board in Ticket to Ride: New York, here nicely marked in bus tickets!

Besides the board map of London, Ticket to Ride: London comes with sixty-eight plastic Buses—seventeen in each colour as well as a scoring marker for each colour, forty-four Transportation cards—in six colours plus the multi-coloured wild cards, twenty Destination Tickets, and the rules leaflet. The latter is clearly written, easy to understand, and the pening pages show how to set up the game. It can be read through in mere minutes and played started all but immediately.

Play in Ticket to Ride: London is the same as standard Ticket to Ride. Each player starts the game with some Destination Tickets and some Transportation cards. On his turn, a player can take one of three actions. Either draw two Transportation cards; draw two Destination Tickets and either keep one or two, but must keep one; or claim a route between two connected Locations. To claim a route, a player must expend a number of cards equal to its length, either matching the colour of the route or a mix of matching colour cards and the multi-coloured cards, which essentially act as wild cards. Some routes are marked in grey and so can use any set of colours or multi-coloured cards. No route is longer than four spaces and a player will score points for each route claimed.

All of which points to standard Ticket to Ride game play. Now as with Ticket to Ride: New York, what marks Ticket to Ride: London as being different from that standard game play is most obviously its size, but once it reaches the table, what marks it out as being different is its speed of play. With fewer bus pieces per player—seventeen as opposed to the forty-five in standard Ticket to Ride—a player has fewer resources and with fewer routes to claim, play is quick. The shortness of the routes means that a player will spend less time drawing Transportation cards, rather than having to draw again and again in order to have the right number of Transportation cards needed for long routes—routes five, six, and seven spaces in length are common in standard Ticket to Ride. With fewer Locations, fewer Destination Tickets, and fewer Buses with which to claim them, a player will probably be aiming to complete no more than three or four Destination Tickets—probably fewer given how tight and competitive the board map is, especially when the players want to start competing for the Districts.

As with Ticket to Ride: New York, the playing time for Ticket to Ride: London is listed as being between ten and fifteen minutes. For experienced gamers this is about right. Anyone new to the game or at the younger age of its suggested age range might increase that a little.

Physically, Ticket to Ride: New York is very nicely produced. Everything is very bright and breezy. The bus playing pieces are cute, the cards are very clear and easy to read, if perhaps a little small in the hand, and the rules leaflet short, but easy to understand. Yet, where the re-theming of Ticket to Ride: New York to the Big Apple and the nineteen sixties added a certain charm, the designers of Ticket to Ride: London have gone overboard for its theme, stating on the back, “Welcome to the ’70s world capital of fashion and music.” 

Yet apart from a decimal ten pence piece on the board map, all of the iconography in Ticket to Ride: London says ‘swinging sixties’, not seventies. This begins with the cover of the box, which depicts a bowler-hatted gentleman a la John Steed of The Avengers, a hippie who may or may not be John Lennon, a girl in a minidress, and a woman who may or not be Queen Elizabeth II, but whom everyone agreed was probably Princess Margaret, because Princess Margaret would… Then there are the Transportation Cards which depict iconic forms of London travel. So the multi-coloured wild card shows a classic Routemaster London bus, the blue card an electric milk float, the green card a Lotus Seven S II a la The Prisoner television series, the yellow card a yellow submarine, the black card a London black cab, and so on. With the green card a reference to The Prisoner television series of 1967 and the yellow card to The Beatles: Yellow Submarine of 1968, Ticket to Ride: London definitely, definitely says sixties rather than seventies!

Both Ticket to Ride: New York and Ticket to Ride: London offer all of the play of Ticket to Ride in a smaller, faster playing version, that easy to learn and easy to transport. But where Ticket to Ride: New York brought the sheen of the Big Apple to the Ticket to Ride family, Ticket to Ride: London brings a bus load of ‘The Big Smoke’s’ charm to Ticket to Ride and does so in a family friendly filler game.

Bud’s RPG Review for Free RPG Day

Now in its twelfth year, Saturday, June 15th is Free RPG Day, and to promote tomorrow’s event, Reviews from R'lyeh has got together with Bud of the YouTube channel, Bud’s RPG Review to share each other’s review of a highlight of a previous year’s Free RPG Day. Our choice is The Derelict: A Tale of Terror for Call of Cthulhu, the first release for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition from Chaosium, Inc., now available as part of the anthology, Petersen’s Abominations: Five Epic Tales of Modern Horror.

Bud has been kind enough to present a video of my review from Friday, 19th August 2016 which you can watch here as well as find other great videos of his hands giving insightful thoughts on roleplaying games, card games, and board games. In return, Reviews from R’lyeh presents the text of Bud’s own review from Tuesday, September 6th, 2016.

—oOo—

Hello, and welcome to Bud’s RPG review where I give my thoughts on roleplaying games, card games, and board games.

Today’s review is the Free RPG day adventure The Derelict by Chaosium for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. In the UK, Free RPG Day is something I have difficulty with. In the city of Liverpool, we don’t have any gaming shops that support it – the nearest shop is Fanboy3 which is 45 miles away in Manchester, so the logistics involved in getting to the shop in order to get a free adventure, even for a collector like myself, were just not feasible. I searched eBay for this, to no avail. So, you can imagine my delight then when Chaosium announced that they would make this available to buy on Print-On-Demand from Lulu. This was further bolstered by the news that the adventure was written by the Godfather of Call of Cthulhu (as it says on the cover), Sandy Petersen with Mike Mason.

Now, I have never bought a POD title before and I have to say, I am fairly impressed. The book itself was £3.16 (just over $4) and the postage was £2.99 (about $3.90). That is less than it would have cost me to drive to Manchester and back and pay for parking – so no complaints on the price. Having not seen the free version, I can only imagine that it looks pretty much the same as this version. 

Right – from this point there will be spoilers, so if you have plans to play this, then this is your one and only warning to stop.

So to the cover – I noticed the absence of the Call of Cthulhu logo on the front – for some reason they have only put it on the back. Not sure why. Onto the art – I love this cover. For me, it harkens to the golden age of roleplaying and those early 1980s adventures.

Okay – so onto the inside. There are spoilers from this point forward, so don’t say you weren’t warned. 

The basic premise of the adventure is a combination of John Carpenter’s The Thing combined with a slasher flick. One scenario has the group – a gang of rich Hollywood stars travelling across the Atlantic to the port of Liverpool on an expensive yacht in order for the owner to sell it to a buyer there. On the way, they stumble upon a refrigerated cargo liner called the Groenland Tropisch between Greenland and Iceland that has run aground of an iceberg and looks deserted. The salvage for towing a huge ship like this back to report is a lot, so the guy who owns the boat decides to investigate.

The second scenario they present is one of a salvage team that has been sent to collect the vessel and tow it back to port.

All good so far.

Upon boarding the ship, the investigators find it in a state similar to the Norwegian’s camp in The Thing – blood and damage everywhere.

Unbeknownst to the investigators, the ship and its crew stumbled across a creature from Norse mythology called the Sciapod, which the writers have pulled from Erik the Red’s Saga. The Sciapod itself is a fearsome opponent that has to be defeated by the investigators by using guile and coming up with a plan – which is hinted at using the C02 bottles contained within the cargo hold – I imagine a straight fight with the Sciapod would lead to a few party deaths.

As adventures go, I can’t imagine this lasting any more than three nights. It’s pretty straightforward as Call of Cthulhu adventures go – but that is not to say it is poor. It is really well fleshed out throughout – even the pre-generated characters are pretty well done, and all have interesting back stories. One interesting point to note is that the adventure is set in 2007-8, which would imply that it is Delta Green friendly, but I – m not entirely convinced that it is suited to that setting.

In conclusion, this is not a bad excursion. If I had received this on Free RPG Day, I would be pretty pleased as it is pretty decent and it is for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition which doesn't have an abundance of adventures available for it currently. As a free RPG, I would give this an 8 out of 10 – as a paid for adventure, I will give it a 7 out of 10. It really is for collectors only, but you shouldn’t feel like it isn’t worth buying – it is quite cheap.

Sunday, 9 June 2019

Miskatonic Monday #15: The Saltwater Inheritance

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 them with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu Invictus, The Pastores, Primal State, Ripples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in Egypt, Return of the Ripper, Rise of the Dead, Rise 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, Seventh Edition 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 far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.

—oOo—

Between June 1983 and March 1988, the British roleplaying magazine White Dwarf  supported Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium, Inc.’s roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror with almost thirty-five articles and scenarios, beginning with the first part of Marcus L. Rowland’s ‘Cthulhu Now!’ in White Dwarf #42 and ending with the scenario ‘Spirit of the Mountain’ by Graeme Davis in White Dwarf #99. But there should have been one more.

Treasure Trap was regular department in White Dwarf which included content based on readers’ idea. In January 1985, in White Dwarf #61, the department instead offered a scenario design competition in which the winning submission would garner the winner £150 and three runners up a year’s subscription to White Dwarf. The adventure was to be based around a map showing Saltwater Village and nearby Saltwater Bay as well as d’Estrier Manor on a headland. The winning entry was ‘Plague from the Past’, an Advanced Dungeons & Dragons adventure which would appear in September 1985 in White Dwarf 69, but devotees of Call of Cthulhu, the entry by one of the runners up, Mark Morrison, was far more interesting.

Except the competition entry by the co-designer of Horror on the Orient Express was never published—until now that is. Instead of being published in White Dwarf—and of course that would never happen today—the scenario has been published as part of the Miskatonic Repository and is available as a fifteen-page, 8.45 MB, full colour PDF. It has been updated for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, presented with new artwork, and given a new map that is almost, but not quite the same as the one that appeared in Treasure Trap in White Dwarf #61. This is, of course, for copyright reasons.

The Saltwater Inheritance takes place in 1925, probably on England’s East Coast. The investigators—presumed to be academics at some university or other—are given a paid holiday in the village of Saltwater in return for conducting some research at the nearby D’Estrier Manor. In particular, the English History Department is interested in the family library as it may contain further information about William D’Estrier, a supposed sorcerer of no little skill and power in the medieval period. Thus they might be historians, parapsychologists, researchers, librarians, philosophers, cataloguers, and so on. Whatever their exact occupation, their host, Simon D’Estrier is welcoming and takes an interest in their researches in the family library

Arriving in early October, the players will actually have very little to do at first. In fact, the first half of the scenario is rather mundane, really only turning up one or two oddities amongst all of the research and a rash of recent drownings—including their host’s late father. Beyond that, their host is welcoming and most of the villagers are friendly, and really, there is very little going on. Even unearthing hints that William D’Estrier might actually have been a sorcerer—hints that will be accompanied by knowing nods round the table from experienced Call of Cthulhu players as will the fact that someone named Baskerville owns an isolated farm outside the village—will not get the investigators very far. In fact, there is very little for the players and their characters to react to or against in the scenario’s opening scenes.

One possibility to make this more interesting might be to focus on the finds at the D’Estrier Manor and increase the number of them. These should not necessarily be tomes or artefacts of actual Mythos nature, at best they should hint at it as several of the handouts do in The Saltwater Inheritance. One useful supplement to that end would be the Keeper’s Compendium, which includes an extensive list of non-Mythos tomes. (As an aside, the emphasis on the library in The Saltwater Inheritance along with this extra focus on old books would make the scenario suitable for play using the Bookhounds of London campaign framework for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu.)

All that changes though come the end of the month. One of the villagers approaches the investigators and warns them that whatever they have uncovered in their researches is real and he fears that it is returning to the village of Saltwater. This marks an abrupt change in tone and content in The Saltwater Inheritance. Previously, it was mundane and bucolic—even boring—now weird events come crashing down again and again upon the investigators and villagers, driving both player characters and plot to the scenario’s denouement.

Had The Saltwater Inheritance been published in 1985 or 1986, it would be remembered as one of several scenarios published in White Dwarf magazine during its first incarnation. It would not have been remembered as a great scenario or a classic scenario—look to ‘The Curse of the Bone’ and ‘Draw the Blinds on Yesterday’, both by Marcus L. Rowland, for that—for the truth is, The Saltwater Inheritance is the author’s second Call of Cthulhu scenario and it is rough around the edges. As stated at the start of the scenario, “At first, there is no scenario as such…” and until such times as the villager approaches the investigators three weeks almost nothing happens and there is almost nothing for the players and their investigators to do. Once the villager does approach them, the scenario is a pell mell race to the climax.

Now where The Saltwater Inheritance is interesting is not in the scenario itself, but in its afterword. Here the author explains the scenario’s history, how it came to be submitted to White Dwarf magazine back in 1985, and how it came to be published as part of the Miskatonic Repository some thirty years later. Here he highlights in hindsight how impressed he was with the sandbox nature of the initial part of the scenario—and yes, despite very little of interesting going on—this is decently done. Likewise, he highlights and is annoyed by his “...[U]tterly lazy Mythos Monster Manual approach.” to his choice of antagonists in the scenario—a mix of Deep Ones and the Crawling Chaos. Whilst there is an element of truth to this, it is unfair, if you take into account the then experience of the author, the amateurish nature of the scenario, and the fact that professionally published scenarios have actually taken what he calls his “Mythos Monster Manual” approach and applied it to its utmost. Plus, given the scenario’s east coast of England location, one does have wonder about the influence of ‘The Watchers of Walberswick’, the first scenario for Call of Cthulhu to appear in the pages of White Dwarf in its fiftieth issue and which also involved Deep Ones.

Physically, The Saltwater Inheritance is decently presented, it is an easy read, and it is nicely illustrated. A good job has been done of representing the map from White Dwarf #61. As to the scenario itself, The Saltwater Inheritance is not unplayable—at worst it is amateurish, at best, a rough and ready affair. That though just reflects its origins and its provenance which are more interesting than the scenario itself. 

A Disorderly Foursome

The Zalozhniy Quartet is the first set of scenarios 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 the 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.

The Zalozhniy Quartet is, much like Night’s Black Agents itself, a toolkit. At its heart are four, 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 in any order and can be adjusted to whatever type of campaign or vampire that the Director is already running. So that is either Burn, Dust, Mirror, or (High) Stakes Mode, with vampires at the heart of the conspiracy either being supernatural, damned, alien, or mutant in nature. That said, the almost alchemical nature of some The Zalozhniy Quartet’s MacGuffins means that some types vampire are better suited than others, in particular, the supernatural or damned types. This enables the four scenarios to be added to the Director’s own campaign with relative ease. Although the tone and drive are all high action and a nod to modern espionage films, the underlying plot is dryer, more measured and restrained, inspired more by the works of authors John Le Carre and Eric Ambler, and this is apparent in some of the scenarios more than others. This combination also reflects the way in which the campaign was written—Gareth Ryder Hanrahan developing and writing from a story design worthy of a Suppressed Transmission by Night’s Black Agents’ author, Kenneth Hite.

The Zalozhniy Quartet starts in quick fashion with an explanation of the conspiracy, its aims, its origins, its participants, and its vampires. The conspiracy is an attempt to take control of one the global levers of economic and thus political power; its origins lie in the post-colonial division of the Middle East and the meddling of an infamous traitor; its participants are the Lisky Bratva, a major Russian mafiya brotherhood; and whatever their exact nature—supernatural, damned, alien, or mutant, as decided by the Director—the vampires have an odd time signature. The latter are the Zalozhniye of the title which actually refers to the number of scenarios in the book, rather than the number of vampires. Rest assured, there are more than just Zalozhniye in The Zalozhniy Quartet. All of this is set up with history, stats for the various NPCs, separate diagrams showing the connections between the NPCs and the arms of the organisation, and so on. 

In addition, The Zalozhniy Quartet includes a sextet of pre-generated player characters. As with other pre-generated player characters in scenarios for the Gumshoe System, these will require some adjustment upon the part of the players—assigning further points, establishing connections and levels of Trust between each other, and so on. Each also comes with a short background, although this is separate from the character sheets. Maps are provided for each of the five main cities that the player characters will visit over the course of the campaign, but not for any of the individual locations that they will visit.

The Zalozhniy Quartet opens in Bourne-style with ‘The Zalozhniy Sanction’. The player characters are employed by independent contractor, Donald Caroll*, to infiltrate a warehouse in Odessa believed to be one more stop on a gun-smuggling operation shifting stolen weapons out of Baghdad and into Europe. This will be their first encounter with both the Lisky Bratva and the Zalozhniye and it will go horribly wrong for both them and their employer. With the Lisky Bratva and the Zalozhniye in hot pursuit, the player characters are forced to go on the run. Their employer will be able to impart the location of his safehouse in Vienna—fortunately considered neutral ground by the espionage world—before he is caught, but getting out of Odessa and across Eastern Europe is challenge in itself even before taking into account the mafiya and the vampires on their tail.

* Man from U.N.C.L.E. fans may just want to change his name to Leo.

There are easy routes out of Odessa, but they are likely to be watched, so the player characters will probably take the scenic route and that means going via some of Eastern Europe’s weirder non-tourist spots. Primarily an extended escape and chase sequence interrupted by border crossings—recognised and unrecognised—‘The Zalozhniy Sanction’ also provides opportunities for the player characters to investigate and disrupt some Lisky Bratva operations along the way before they reach Vienna. These are almost mini-scenarios in themselves, one consisting of a fun attempt to disrupt a sporting event, another uncovering a foul Zalozhniye research site.

Once the player characters reach Vienna, there is a radical shift in tone and adventure type with ‘Out of the House of Ashes’. It is a classic Cold War scenario a la John le Carre, an extraction mission in which the player characters need to get Arkady Shevlenko, a retired KGB general, out of the city before he can give them the information he wants. He also represents the first link into the conspiracy’s origins, and so the Listky Bratva want him as do the CIA, though for different reasons. All the while, the FSB wants to stop them all… This played out against the backdrop of international diplomacy and a economic conference. Where ‘The Zalozhniy Sanction’ is all action, ‘Out of the House of Ashes’ is mostly intrigue and betrayal and counter-betrayal, with the possibility of the player characters needing to make multiple attempts to get Arkady Shevlenko out of the city safely.

The Zalozhniy Quartet again switches to another city, another tone, and another mission type for the third scenario, ‘The Boxmen’. The city is Zurich, the tone a little slicker a la Mission Impossible or Ocean’s 11, and the mission is a classic heist. Of course, it has the capacity to go wrong in the mode of Reservoir Dogs. By now the player characters will have learned that the Lisky Bratva is planning to buy a bank in the city, the same bank that they want to get into themselves to locate one of The Zalozhniy Quartet’s various MacGuffins. So this is very much a matter of casing the joint, gathering intelligence on the bank’s current owners—a family whose members cannot all agree on on the sale, and so on. This is complicated by a rival gang of thieves, the notoriously robust response of the authorities to any threat to its banking industry, and of course, the Lisky Bratva absolutely wanting the sale to go through… This is a much more restrained scenario than either ‘The Zalozhniy Sanction’ or ‘Out of the House of Ashes’, even in its action scenes, but again expect another shift in tone and style for the last part of the campaign.

‘Treason in the Blood’ brings The Zalozhniy Quartet to climax by piling on the action and upping the number of supernatural threats the player characters will face, much in the style of a James Bond movie. Taking them from Baghdad to Beirut to Riyadh, with possible diversion to Cyprus, it includes encounters with the fallout from conspiracy plot’s originators, fearsome monsters—some worse than the Zalozhniye, and of course, the inevitable, one last betrayal…

The Zalozhniy Quartet is thoroughly detailed throughout, such that it is a little overwhelming in places, especially with the number of NPCs that the Director needs to keep track of in some of the scenarios. Any one of the four will take multiple sessions to play through, but the advice and options given are never less than helpful. Whilst the most obvious order in which to play the four scenarios is in the order given—‘The Zalozhniy Sanction’, ‘Out of the House of Ashes’, ‘The Boxmen’, and ‘Treason in the Blood’—they are designed to be played in any order and to that end, links from the other three scenarios are listed at the beginning of each scenario to help the Director run one scenario after another as seamlessly as possible. They also serve as a useful recap.

Although clever, the structure of The Zalozhniy Quartet gives rise to two issues. The first is that, obviously, it does not form a ‘Conspyramid’, the interconnected pyramid structure which the player characters will work their way around and up as they investigate the entwining of vampires, governments, and organisations in order to uncover the bloodsucking conspiracy. This is intended as the classic structure for a Night’s Black Agents campaign, so it is somewhat disappointing not to see it supported in what is really the first set of scenarios released for the horror-espionage roleplaying game. Now that said, the Director can use The Zalozhniy Quartet as is—that is, as a campaign consisting of four, reasonably lengthy and interconnected scenarios, but she can instead take them and slot them into the ‘Conspyramid’ she has created as her own campaign. Then she can forge links of varying strength between these four scenarios and the other nodes in her ‘Conspyramid’. With strong links, The Zalozhniy Quartet becomes an integral part of the Director’s ‘Conspyramid’, but with weaker links, The Zalozhniy Quartet becomes a conspiracy within a ‘Conspyramid’.

The other issue is with the campaign’s climax—or rather with four of them. Each of the four scenarios in The Zalozhniy Quartet has its own climax—or capstone as they are called here—as expected, but depending upon the order in which they are played, the last capstone in the final scenario is upgraded to the campaign’s climax. The problem is that they feel like the finales to scenarios rather than a campaign, and really only the climax to the final scenario, ‘Treason in the Blood’, fully matches the intended scope.

Physically, The Zalozhniy Quartet is well written, fantastically presented and organised, and comes with very helpful staging advice aplenty. It is lightly illustrated, but the black and white artwork is decent. Although there are decent maps of the cities involved in the campaign, what the campaign lacks are maps of individual locations. For the most part, the Director can find or create maps of her own when running The Zalozhniy Quartet, as the descriptions of said locations are sufficiently detailed, but there are locations, such as the bank in ‘The Boxmen’ and the archival storage facilities in ‘Treason in the Blood’ which could have benefited from being supported by their own maps. 

So The Zalozhniy Quartet is not the massive ‘Conspyramid’ campaign that Night’s Black Agents deserves, but that does not mean that it does not present a superbly well realised conspiracy and threat to the future of the world and the means for the player characters to thwart the plot, if not take the conspiracy down. The shifts in tone and adventure type from one scenario to the next are a refreshing change of pace, present opportunities for different player characters to shine, and pleasing encompass a range of espionage styles. Overall, whether as a standalone or a plug-in to the Director’s own campaign, The Zalozhniy Quartet is epic in scope, a gloriously grand affair which showcases how to write and run a horror-espionage campaign.