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

Sunday, 9 December 2018

Ave Cthulhu II

The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus: Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome is an update and expansion of Cthulhu Invictus, published in 2008 by Chaosium, Inc. for use with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, itself based on an Miskatonic University Library Association monograph published in 2004. Chaosium did a minor update of the setting to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition  with Cthulhu Through the Ages, but it is Golden Goblin Press that has published this more thorough update following a successful Kickstarter campaign. This is good news given that both publisher and author of Golden Goblin Press have experience with the setting, having published the more recent scenario anthology, De Horrore Cosmico for the period, and written the only campaign for the setting to date. This is the highly regarded The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, published by the much lamented Miskatonic River Press, one of the few campaigns for Call of Cthulhu to be set outside the Jazz Age of the 1920s.

The setting for Cthulhu Invictus is 145 AD, during the reign of Antonius Pius. It is a period of relative peace and stability, his rule being over an empire of over two million square miles and some one hundred million people, stretching from the Black Sea in the East to Britannia in the West, from the deserts of Africa in the south to the Rhine in the north. Yet this period is not without its dangers, for there is a ‘Shadow War’ going on, being fought by a few in the know, against an enemy that they barely understand—cults dedicated to Great Old Ones and Outer Gods, alien creatures and beings which prey upon the citizens of the Empire, and remnants of civilisations and empires from before the rise of man—known as ‘Lost Kingdoms and Fallen Empires’, many determined to destroy not just the empire, but also the known world… Many creatures are the basis for myths and legends from across the empire and are often as dangerous, if not more so, than the tales of them tell.

The ‘Shadow War’ provides a very loose framework for a Cthulhu Invictus campaign framework, loose because it involves investigations and acquisition of knowledge by disparate groups and individuals. Each is aware of some aspects of the Mythos, but not all and should any communicate with the others, they might just realise the true extent of threat that mankind faces. Cthulhu Invictus supports this in two ways. One is a ready selection of Patrons, Investigator Organisations, and NPCs. The NPCs were all added as part of the Kickstarter and include a very lucky potential mentor; an infamous pirate, scourge of ships and sea devils alike; and the world’s best linguist. The Patrons range from a renowned astrologer to a collector of strange tales, whilst the Investigator Organisations include ‘The Awoken’, all survivors of similar incidents who have a strange sense about the world; ‘The Army of Metilus’, a ghost who gathers ‘soldiers’ to fulfil dangerous missions; and more. These are nicely detailed and provide the Keeper with set-ups and NPCs around which to build scenarios and campaigns.

The ‘Shadow War’ is not the only aspect of Cthulhu Invictus that marks the setting as being different to other campaign settings for Call of Cthulhu. In the Roman Empire—and beyond of Cthulhu Invictus, magic is real and everyone believes in it. Indeed, although its practice is illegal, it is possible for certain investigator occupations to begin play with a spell or two, typically drawn from the folk magic given in The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic. As much as Cthulhu Invictus uses the ‘monsters’ of the Mythos, it also draws from Greek and Roman myth for its own monsters—Cyclops, Gorgons, Minotaurs, and so on—but reinterprets through the lens of the Mythos to create something new, but familiar (and of course, definitely deadly). There have been some changes in the background to Cthulhu Invictus from the original edition to this one, notably to omit the more fantastical Mythos activities in Greece. There is certainly Mythos activity the empire’s Greek provinces, much of it dating over the course of thousands of years, but it is more restrained in nature here.

Yet Cthulhu Invictus is a Call of Cthulhu campaign setting and it shares aspects familiar to other more modern campaign settings too. These include international travel, so that it is possible to do a Roman world-trotting campaign; Pulp or Purist tones—the former offering ‘Swords & Sandals versus the Mythos’; ready access to arms (mostly melee weapons and usually not much help against the forces of the Mythos) and armour; and opportunity still for research at libraries, even on scrolls and artefacts which date from the time of the ‘Lost Kingdoms and Fallen Empires’. That said, low literacy rates means that the researcher is even more of a specialist than he is in more modern settings. Nevertheless, the supplement supports the role with a solid selection of new scrolls and tomes particular to the period, as well as various new Mythos artefacts.

In terms of investigator options, Cthulhu Invictus provides almost sixty Occupations, from Advocate, Apothecary, and Archer to Thief, Vigilis, and Writer. They include Roman occupations such as Augur, Centurion, Gladiator, and Prefect, plus non-Roman ones like Barbarian and Druid. In the main, investigator creation ues the same rules as Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but where investigators in the standard game, here they have the Status skill. It serves a similar function, but fundamentally it indicates a character’s social class and place in Roman society and thus what Occupation an investigator might have. A simple labourer would have a Status of no more than twenty, whereas a Senator would a Status of between forty and seventy. Certain Occupations, such as Gladiator and Magus, are so lacking in respect that instead of Status, they have Infamy, representing their lack of legal protections within the empire and putting them on a par with slaves.

A guide to the various degrees of Status is given, from slave or destitute freeman vagabond right up to Imperial Domus, a member of the emperor’s family, although this is unobtainable for most investigators. Included in this guide are suggestions on how to handle the place of slaves and women in investigator groups in Roman times. This is to get around the social restrictions on both at the time and to provide a group with some roleplaying challenges too, since playing either will be different to playing men. Both issues are potentially difficult, but they maturely handled here.

An extensive set of tables enables both Keeper and her players to generate suitably Roman names whilst a smaller set provides inspiration and options for an investigator’s background. Options are included for creating experienced investigators. Being set in the ancient world, Cthulhu Invictus replaces a lot of skills with ones appropriate to both time and place. These include Empire—knowledge of the Roman Empire, and Other Kingdoms—knowledge of kingdoms beyond the empire’s borders; the addition of Astrology and Augury as specialisations of the Science skill; and the inclusion of the Oratory/Rhetoric skill as a noble art. Combat skills are all treated as specialisations of the Fighting skill, including missile weapons and siege weapons.

In general, investigator creation in Cthulhu Invictus is no more complex than that of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, requiring no more than a few extra rolls on the names tables. Our sample investigator is a simple labourer, in from the country and hoping to better herself. She is a skilled apiarist and knows the value of honey in medicine, having been taught by her late mother, who was a freed slave. She would like to know more and hopes to work for an apothecary or physician.

Vibia Durmilla 
age 19, Labourer
STR 70 SIZ 80 CON 35 DEX 65
APP 45 INT 60 POW 65 EDU 25
SAN 58 Luck 70 Damage Bonus +1d4 Build 1
Move 7 HP 11

Status: Poor

Brawl 40% (20/8), damage 1D3+db, or by weapon type
Dodge 32% (16/6)

Skills: Appraise 15%, Art/Craft (Apiculture) 65%, Art/Craft (Potions) 25%, Drive/Teamster 30%, Empire 15%, Fast Talk 15%, Fighting (Brawl) 35%, First Aid 50%, Listen 50%, Medicine 26%, Natural World 50%, Occult 21%, Repair/Devise 35%, Sleight of Hand 35%, Spot Hidden 45%, Status 20%, Stealth 20%, Track 20%

Backstory
Personal Description: Ordinary looking woman who is overweight and who is never without a satchel containing a jar of honey and a small knife
Ideology: All happens according to the will of the gods
Traits: Stoic
Significant Person: Paulinia, a close friend in whose footsteps you are following
Meaningful Location: Tending to the beehives with her mother
Treasured Possession: Family Lares statues

To reflect the dangerous and different world of Cthulhu Invictus gives a number of rules and options that make the setting even more lethal, more difficult, and more different than in traditional Call of Cthulhu. These allow for wounds to become infected, for the religiously devout to gain a bonus when spending Luck points and the religiously indifferent to gain a penalty when spending Luck points—both reflecting the importance of belief in the gods in the Roman world and beyond; and different means of regaining lost Sanity, including home care, and humane, mystical, and agitation treatment. The Sanity gains from any of these methods is not great, no more than a four-sided die, and even then, they are not guaranteed to work, but that fits the setting and if the investigators are devout—and several faiths and philosophies are detailed to that end, they do get that Luck benefit as some kind of compensation at least.

One major difference between Cthulhu Invictus and Call of Cthulhu is that most people are superstitious and genuinely believe in gods, magic, and monsters. Not only do they worship the gods, but the stories they hear from cradle to the grave are those of myth and legend, including as they do numerous fantastic creatures. Yet these creatures are not just those of myth, but of the Mythos. Cthulhu Invictus very much presents centaurs, cyclops, harpies, gorgons, et al, as monsters, though some, like Dryads and Pegasi, are not monstrously dangerous. Other entries in this bestiary are not just monsters, but leftovers from the Fallen Kingdoms, such as the Izdonarii, the last defenders of the Lomarrians. As well as these monsters, Cthulhu Invictus presents several cults as potential threats for the Keeper to pose to her players and their investigators. These are found scattered throughout the empire, from Heralds of the Deep, which secretly worships Cthulhu, to The Eternal Fellowship, whose members seek immortality through any means.

In terms of mundane support, the supplement includes equipment lists, and guides to the Roman Legions, the Roman provinces, and Rome itself. The latter is described as a ‘brief tour’ and ‘brief’ is really how these chapters feel. This is not really a criticism of the content, since the Roman Empire is huge and consequently, there is a huge range of background to cover. Too much, of course, to really cover in the one supplement. It does mean however, that the Keeper may want or need to do further research, whether from history books or other roleplaying supplements.

Rounding out Cthulhu Invictus are are two good scenarios, both of them set in Rome, which makes them easy to run as part of a campaign. They can though, be easily set elsewhere in the empire in any big city. ‘Blood & Glory’ concerns strange goings on at an amphitheatre and a gladiatorial school and consists of two strong investigative strands, nicely encompassing both gender and status. Depending upon how the scenario plays out, it could actually be run a second time, though there should definitely be a break between the two should this happen. The second scenario, ‘Food for Worms’, does plague meets The Walking Dead in Rome. This is no simple zombie tale though and is very much the better for it.

Physically, Cthulhu Invictus is sturdy softback book. It needs a slight edit in places and its layout is perhaps slightly cramped in places, but is otherwise well written and an easy read. In terms of appearance though, it is clear that Golden Goblin Press is working to improve the look and production values of its books. Not only is it printed on better paper, Cthulhu Invictus is the publisher’s first full colour tome, but that colour is used judiciously, mostly for photographs and images of period artefacts and artwork. The remaining artwork gives the look of Cthulhu Invictus a pleasingly uniform look and style—especially following the exploits of an investigative party as commanded by their stalwart leader, Brita.

The advantage of a Cthulhu Invictus campaign is that it is very familiar to us from our history lessons and our epic films and television series set in the Roman world. Yet as familiar as it is, the Roman world presents its own challenges in terms of roleplaying and investigating Cosmic horror. These manifest primarily as social differences and different attitudes in terms of gender, religion, and philosophy—all of which Cthulhu Invictus explains and in the scenarios, showcases. What this highlights is that Golden Goblin Press has always had a better appreciation and understanding of the Cthulhu Invictus setting, and if the resulting supplement can never hope—or be expected—to cover everything about the Roman world, The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus: Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome is a more than handsome introduction to Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying in the Ancient World.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Lamentations of the Flame Punchinello

The Punchline is a scenario for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, designed by Zzarchov Kowolski, the author of the highly regarded Scenic Dunnsmouth. Like other scenarios published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, it is set in the early modern period of the opening decades of the seventeenth century. In particular, a small alpine village suddenly striven by fear, doubt, and hysteria. This is Forkton, a settlement where rumours of missing children and of the plague in other towns and villages are rife, where the priest stirs up hatred of other faiths with warnings of devil worship and black rites in rage-fuelled rants, and distrust of the outsider runs rampant. Unfortunately, there is more than a grain of truth to these fears and rumours—children are missing, devil-worship is occurring in the valley, outsiders are not to be trusted, and the plague does stalk the land. Which is when the player characters enter the village of Forkton.

The Punchline is a written for play with characters of low Level, but it is not a traditional scripted scenario in that the player characters will follow a relatively tight plot line. Rather, it is more of a mini-sandbox, or given that it takes place in the Alps, a ‘valley-box’. The player characters are free to wander as is their wont, encounter who they want, loot what they want, since they probably going to be more powerful than most of the individuals they encounter. This does not mean that The Punchline lacks a plot, but it is not a plot that relies upon the players and their characters. Its events will play out unless someone intervenes to stop them, with its terrible consequences only serving to add to the terrible things already going on in the valley.

Instead of a plotted scenario, The Punchline is really a toolkit for the Game Master to run a bloody red scenario for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. She is provided with a dozen NPCs of note to roleplay, descriptions of the ‘villains’ of the piece, maps and descriptions of various locations in the valley, and a full write-up of the ‘Red Plague’ which stalks the land. She is accorded some advice both as to the true nature of scenario and as to how to run, the latter essentially to really ‘ham it up!’. This is for a good reason, since the antagonists at the heart of the scenario are actually a troupe of killer clowns—and no, this is not a spoiler, as it is mentioned on the back cover.

Physically, The Punchline is a handy, digest-sized hardback. It is painted in full colour throughout, drenched in red to reflect its ‘Red Plague’ plotline. The contents are decently organised and details of the scenario’s dozen or so NPCs are handily listed inside the front cover, whilst those for its antagonists are listed inside the back cover. Running to less than forty pages, the scenario is quite short, and the writing is quite punchy in style.

The Punchline is a horror scenario and none of its cast, the NPCs and of course, the antagonists are particularly pleasant individuals, but there is one individual who is particularly unpleasant, such that some Game Masters may have difficulties portraying him. This individual, one of the NPCs, is an anti-Semite. Now despite it being a historical scenario and anti-Semitism being an unfortunate part of that history, this is an issue that the Game Master should approach with care and may even want to avoid portraying all together lest offence be readily caused.

The Punchline is a location adventure, ostensibly set in the Alps, but easily relocated to any mountainous region. It is also easy to drop into an ongoing campaign as somewhere the player characters might stop off at overnight as they travel from one location to another. Similarly, it is easy to run with other retroclones, but its plot also works with the recently released Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, because it takes place in a similar time and place. It is merely a matter of changing names and stats.

The Punchlinee is a ‘killer clown’-themed sequel to The Mask of the Red Death. It is a short, one-night, two-sessions at most, tale of desperation, superstition, and evisceration. It just needs the Game Master and players alike to ham it up into the bloody B-movie it is written to be.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

1993: Magic: The Gathering

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

—oOo—

Normally, this series examines a particular game from a particular year, moving forward, decade by decade, but this review, although very much part of the series, is a little different. First, it includes a half decade instead of just whole decades and second, it is not of a particular game, but of a history of a particular game. The game is Magic: The Gathering, the ground-breaking collectible card game from Wizards of the Coast, which in 2018 is twenty-five years old. Just as with Dungeons & Dragons almost twenty years before it, the game’s design and the way in which it was played was unique, creating a format and a type of play that many have tried to emulate, but few have been as successful as Magic: The Gathering. Its theme of rival wizards—known as ‘planeswalkers’—duelling each other using spells which inflict damage on an opponent, provide protection against an opponent, and summon creatures was certainly familiar at the time of its release and remains so today, drawing on the fantasy stylings of Dungeons & Dragons. In 1993, its design and game play were radical, but easy to grasp, with players using card decks they could design and build themselves, then design again after each play to match and tweak a strategy. This was supported by the game being highly expandable, Wizards of the Coast designing and releasing new expansion sets on a regular basis, enabling a player to adjust and redesign his deck or design anew, the result being that it can evolve as the game itself evolves. Lastly, Magic: The Gathering is collectible as well as playable, every card being illustrated with a beautiful piece of artwork and like trading cards, categorised as being rare, uncommon, or common.

Magic: The Gathering would win the Origins Awards for Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Board game of 1993 and Best Graphic Presentation of a Board game of 1993 in 1994, with many of its expansions winning Origins awards since then. In the quarter of a century since its first release, Magic: The Gathering has seen many of its players become professional players of the game, made its designers and publishers wealthy, and cemented its place as the definitive collectible or trading card game.

The history is Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering. From its beginnings at the meeting between Richard Garfield and Peter Adkison in 1991, its development and pre-release playtesting to its release at GenCon 1993, and then meteoritic rise in popularity to the establishment of the Pro Tour, the move on-line, and the current state of the game, Generation Decks charts the history of Magic: The Gathering. The game’s early history has, of course, much been written about, but it deserves re-examining and there is a giddy frisson to the book’s opening chapters as the designers, playtesters, and publishers get to grips with Richard Garfield’s unique creation. This almost comes to an abrupt stop with the realisation that the culture at Wizards of the Coast fostered by Peter Adkison is ill-suited to bring Magic: The Gathering to a wider audience and needs to take a mature approach in order to become a professional entity. Fortunately, the excitement returns when the book enters the Pro-Tour world and charts the rise of professional players of the game, the author obtaining some excellent interviews with those players who dominated the professional game in its early years, both in terms of their personalities and their deck designs. These include its heroes—Kai Budde and Jon Finkel, and its villains—Mike Long and Mark Justice.

Similarly, the rise of hobby is equally as interesting, seeing how players came to engage with the game, whether that is creating safe spaces in which to play, setting up websites where the fans could discuss the game and learn more about it, and so on. Yet, in comparison with earlier chapters which explore the early history of the game in some detail, the later chapters feel hurried and as if they gloss over some of the difficulties that the game and its development has faced as it has moved online and the difficulties of it becoming more than a fad confined to its all too male, all too nerdy community. This highlights an issue with Magic: The Gathering, because for the most part, the history of the game has been a male one and perhaps one of the best chapters in Generation Decks about the current state of the game is the involvement of women in it. Or rather the lack of women in it. This is despite the involvement of women like Lisa Stevens—now the CEO of Paizo Publishing—in bringing Magic: The Gathering to market and beyond, but as Chalk explores, there are relatively few women who actively play the game and even fewer who have succeeded on the Pro Tour. The author takes the time to talk to those who are involved to get their opinions and their experiences. Unfortunately, what this again highlights is that like so many other hobbies, too many men are ill-prepared to accept women into ‘their’ hobby. This is one of the few places in the book where the author is less than positive about the hobby and several suggestions are made as to how Wizards of the Coast and the hobby might overcome this issue and it will be interesting to see if they are implemented and the issue is addressed in a future history.

Paralleling the history of Magic: The Gathering in Generation Decks is the story of the author. Notably, he is the son of games designer and illustrator, Gary Chalk, and his story is of a peripatetic upbringing—from the UK to New Zealand, to France, and back to the UK—and of his first encountering Magic: The Gathering to his reengaging with it again and again which parallels the history of the game. Intended to bring a personal touch to the history of the game and certainly, gamers of a similar age will probably recognise some of themselves in the author’s experiences, it is though, very much the book’s ‘B’ plot, not as interesting as the history and downbeat in tone. This personal strand and the history come together at the end of the book when the author gets to meet Richard Garfield himself, and for both author and reader it is an underwhelming experience, cementing the downbeat tone of the personal story with the history.

Unfortunately, Generation Decks has been written inside a bubble—that bubble being Magic: The Gathering itself. Although as mentioned, the book explores how the game’s release and rise in popularity parallels the rise of the digital age, the history it all but completely ignores is that of the greater gaming hobby. Certainly, it acknowledges the game’s debt to Dungeons & Dragons and it covers the rise and popularity of the Pokemon collective card game, but what it ignores is the impact that Magic: The Gathering had upon both gaming industry and gaming hobby. It ignores the many attempts by other publishers to bring similar games to the market, it ignores how this would lead to a bubble that when it burst would bankrupt some companies and drive others to near bankruptcy, and how almost overnight, the gaming hobby became a Magic: The Gathering hobby. (For that the Dungeons & Designers series is undoubtedly a better history.)

For the most part, this is an interesting and enjoyable read, but not a great read. Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering might be an ‘Unofficial History’ of the game, but it is more story than history—after all, if it was a history, it would have an index and it would focus less on the author’s own history. Further, it is not quite a hagiography, but it is perhaps too reverent of its subject to be a good history. The definitive history of Magic: The Gathering remains to be written, but in the meantime, Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering is a peripatetic telling of its story.

Friday, 30 November 2018

1998: The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen


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


—oOo—

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is probably the only the roleplaying game where good manners, fine breeding, good company, and fine wine are de rigueur as are unparalleled skill with a sword and just in case, an invasion plan of Belgium. Published by the late, lamented Hogshead Publishing in 1998, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen both is and is not a roleplaying game, but it is definitely a game. It is also most definitely is a conceit worthy of any of the tales told by the Baron himself, and its focus on storytelling—literally in the case of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen—would prefigure the storytelling, ‘indie-style’ roleplaying games of the next century. Indeed, the publication of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen would lead to the establishment of Hogshead Publishing’s ‘New Style’ line of roleplaying games which would include John Scott Tynes’ Puppetland, Greg Costikyan’s Violence, Robin D. Laws’ Pantheon and Other Roleplaying Games, and Michael Oracz’s De Profundis.

The situation is this. Of an evening, sometime in 17—, men and women of refinement and good breeding—possibly stranded in a snow-drift near Salzburg—shall gather in the nearest inn to regale each with the tales of their extraordinary adventures, much in the vein of the good Baron himself. They shall take it in turns to tell of tale that another has asked them of, the listeners occasionally interrupting to offer objections and corrections, and perhaps to proffer a wager or two as to a particular detail in the story being told. Should a disagreement come about over such objections and corrections because neither side will back down, then a duel may follow. Only to first blood of course and so honour is settled, the veracity of the tale is concluded, and the stake—that which is wagered—is accepted by the loser who adds it to his or her purse. For fairness’ sake, everyone begins play with a purse of the same value. Then the next participant tells a tale of the same extraordinary scale, and the next, and the next, until all sitting round the table have had an equal turn at entertaining their fellows. In the finality, all decide who entertained them the best with the most enjoyable story by pledging their purses to them and the storyteller who has the largest purse at the end of the game not only wins, but readily pays for a round of drinks or the current bill from newly enlarged purse.

This then is The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen: A Game of Tall Tales and Playing Roles as told by James Wallis. It is a storytelling game of magnificent adventures, enticing escapades and escapes, derring-do and dangerous drama, and of “How did you get out of that?” (or “…into that?). Of honour and nobility, of courtesy and comradeship—especially to the ladies, and of being rude to the French. Particularly, the latter. It is best played by a handful of players, five being a good starting figure. They will need no more than a handful coins (or tokens) equal to the number of players. This is their purse.

At the start of the game, each player will take a name and title. This may be their own if they are already of the nobility, hold military rank, or are a member of the clergy. Alternatively, for the purposes of the game, they may adopt such a nom de guerre for so long as they are playing. Then, the person who last filled everyone’s glass turns to the person on his or her right and asks them to tell a tale of their exploits, which of course, must be fantastic. For example, “Tell me, Baron Fromager, how you came to be in possession of the light of Pharos and how you used it at the Siege of Vienna to save the day?” The player of Baron Fromager then tells the tale, hopefully in an entertaining fashion. In particular of how the dastardly Turks stole it from Alexandria and used it light their way across the world on dreaded night attacks when all good folk should abed and so expand their empire greatly.

However, another player in his character as a person of good birth or station, may raise an objection or suggest a correction to the Baron Fromager during his telling. Continuing the example, Lady Trumpton may interject with, “But surely my dear Baron, how could you steal it from the hands of the Ottoman Empire if they could see you coming miles away by its very light?” Lady Trumpton must, since she is raising an objection, proffer a wager of a coin (or token if no coins are being used). This sets the stake. The storyteller can accept both this and the object, adding the stake to his purse and working the objection into the continuing narrative of his story. Alternatively, he can naysay the interruption and add his own coin to the stake. In this case replying, “I fear my dear lady, that perhaps the fine bouquet of our wine has tonight overcome your senses, for you forget that it was not I who was seen approaching the Turks, but my good companion, Riccardo, renowned in all of Christendom for the strength of his bite and the mirror-like sheen of his teeth. So when he smiled, The Light of Pharos was reflected back at the Turks, temporarily blinding them and so I was able to sneak in and steal the light without them seeing me.” At this point Lady Trumpton may elect to accept both explanation and the stake, or she may escalate the objection, adding yet another coin to the stake. This can continue until one side backs down and accepts the stake, or one side runs out of coins and will not back down or the exchange leads to the slighting of a participant’s honour. In the case of the latter two, satisfaction is demanded, and a duel will ensue.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen has much to say on the matter of duelling—indeed, it has a lot to say upon a great many number of things—but what it boils down to is a duel with swords to first blood. If one or neither of the duellists have the requisite schooling in the art of swordsmanship, it is recommended that they wait until both are sufficiently skilled, which should take about fifteen years. If that improves an unviable option, then rules are provided as to ‘Duelling for Cowards’. Which involves several rounds of ‘Stone—Knife—Paper’ until there is a winner and honour is satisfied. The loser gives his purse to the winner and his involvement in the game ends.

Should the storyteller have been victorious, then he may continue in its telling and preferably within five minutes bring it to a rousing conclusion to the pleasure of everyone else round the table. He then has the duty of turning to the player on his right and asking him or her to tell a suitable tale of such and such… This continues until the end when everyone has had their turn and then they get to vote for the greatest tale pledging the whole of their purses to their preferred tale. The person with the most coins at game’s end is the victor.

These then, are the rules to The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and simple they are too. Simple though, does not mean simplistic, for they are also elegant and easy to grasp, which when combined with the good Baron’s words and advice help encourage the participants to get into their selected roles and attempt to tell entertaining tall tales. This simplicity and this elegance makes the eminently portable and easy to run with little in the way of preparation. It helps that the tome comes with two appendices. The first, ‘Tell us, Baron, the story of…’, lists some two hundred ideas for those participants unfortunately bereft of imagination, whilst the second, ‘The Rules in Brief’, should be obvious to anyone in its intent. But these are handy references to have in mid-game and a bookmark is probably a useful tool to mark their pages.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is not a game without tactics, but like its rules, these are equally as light. They come down to maintaining a balance between having coins in your purse so that you may object to or correct an aspect of a rival storyteller’s tale—for if you have none, you can do neither—and filling the purses of the other participants for it is their purses that will decide the winner at the end of the game. This is not a means of guaranteeing a victory though, for it must be backed up with a story that others have found entertaining enough to favour—and remember at the end of the evening. Of course, building a large purse to be able to influence the decision of who told the best tale and so avoid having to pay for the next round of drinks is an ignoble tactic worthy of accountants and poltroons.

Then there is that conceit. Which of course, is that Baron Munchausen himself dictated the rules of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen to the designer’s eighteenth-century ancestors, who also happened to be games designers and publishers, but never actually published them at the time. Of course, some two hundred years later they fell into the hands of the designer and so Hogshead Publishing was able to release the game, somewhat late, in 1998. The conceit has a quite singular effect—it enables the author to engage us by writing in the good Baron’s voice, which he does at length, because the rules to The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen really amount to no more than a page or two in length. The effect of that voice is not only to hide the author’s own—more readily apparent in his recent Alas Vegas, but also to give context to the game’s rules and to very much set its irreverent tone. That tone of course, matching that of the Terry Gilliam 1988 film of the same name such that you wished that the late John Neville would join you for a late-night game.

As to whether The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is or is not a roleplaying game, the answer is ‘yes’. Yes, it is a roleplaying game because the participants are playing a role, that of a noblemen, soldiers, clergymen, or other persons of good character, and yes, it not a roleplaying game because the characters have no stats or abilities in terms of mechanics, they do not progress in terms of those abilities, and despite the fact that stories and adventures are involved, there is no progression between them, and lastly, because there is no Game Master or referee. The atmosphere in which it was played and the lack of structure in comparison to other roleplaying games also lent credence to the idea that it might be a ‘party game’ rather than a roleplaying game. Yet there is nothing casual about The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It takes wit and imagination to play and ultimately roleplaying, for you are not telling a tale, but roleplaying someone who is.

It is also definitely a game, a structured form of play and entertainment, with rules—very light rules—and tactics—very light tactics—in which the players (and their characters) compete against each other and from which there can be a winner. Which of course, in 1998, ran counter to the core concept at the heart of any roleplaying game in which there is no single winner, but that we are all winners. This marked The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen as something radically different to the traditional roleplaying games released alongside it that year, and although it was well received, even being nominated for the Origins Award for Best New Roleplaying Game in 1999, it did not win. It was though, included in Green Ronin Publishing’s 2007 Hobby Games: The 100 Best, wherein Allen Varney championed it as an “...[S]trikingly original exercise in competitive storytelling…”

It is impossible to disagree with Mister Varney, but not impossible to elaborate. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen was not only ‘strikingly original’, but also very simply put, ‘unique’. It introduced a new way to both roleplay and play games in a genre that was all its very own and it was also the perfect ‘beer and pretzels’ game—or rather ‘wine and canapés’ game, in that it could—and can—be played in a bar with no more than a few tokens and a tipple of your choice.

—oOo—

Of course, just like the good Baron himself, this was not the end of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, for a second edition was published by Mongoose Publishing in 2008. It expanded greatly upon the twenty-four pages of the original edition, introducing what would turn out to be the first of many variants upon the original rules. The first variant would be ‘Es-Sindibad’s Rules’, accompanied, of course, by an account of the Baron’s adventures in Araby. The variant is played with tea and dates instead of alcohol and wagers and sees the participants telling their own stories whilst also incorporating the stories of those persons who were telling stories before them. The other two variants—really variants upon each other—of ‘My Uncle the Baron’, are designed to be played by younger storytellers or those who are somewhat the worse for wear. These are essentially games of one-upmanship in which the participants attempt to outdoor each other in simply describing the fantastic feats of their esteemed uncle. Examples are of course included. Again, the new edition was well received and was nominated for an award, this time the ENnie for Best Writing in 2009, but again, sadly, it did not win. 

—oOo—

And there The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen would have rested, but like the Baron’s tales grow in the telling, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen grows with each new edition. The 2008 edition was followed by a third edition in 2016, this time published by Fantasy Flight Games. Where the Mongoose Publishing added a mere three variants, the third edition adds a round dozen. Spurred on by an encounter with the Baron’s modern descendant, the author takes the rules of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and adapts theme after theme to them. They start off with ‘Soviet It Goes’, in which the Comrades tell of their equal feats in service of the Motherland, such as ‘Tell me Comrade, how did you persuade that great Soviet musician, John Lenin, to be Back in the USSR?” and run through a gamut of genres both grand and parochial. The grand is ‘Guttenberg’s Revenge’, a game of literary figures and their mixed adventures across the novels of other figures, the parochial is ‘Munchausen Crescent’, in which the storytellers tell of their amazing adventures around the public transport system of London. These are a fine mix of variants and themes, but there is a point at which they become just a little far-fetched and perhaps their titles are puns too far…

This, the third edition of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen comes as a digest-sized hardback, which points to the portability of the game. Done in full colour, the fully painted illustrations, all of Baron Munchausen himself, are simply exquisite. But then there is the writing. It is all conceit at best, all balderdash at worst, but it never lets up and it perfectly captures the voice and attitude of the Baron himself, so that even if you could take the original rules and fifteen variants and pare them down to fit in the twenty-four pages of the game’s first edition, you would still want the other one hundred pages or so of the third edition, because they are nothing less than  verisimilitude upon verisimilitude which is such a delight to read.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is quite possibly the cleverest storytelling game you have never heard of, prefiguring as it did, and perhaps being eclipsed by the very many storytelling games that have followed in its wake. Its core idea is simple, its mechanics are both simple and elegant, the verisimilitude of the writing perfect, but its theme is magnificent. The resulting combination is a thoroughly civilised roleplaying game, both in design and character.

Friday Filler: Big Trouble

Although the ‘Choose Your Adventure’ style of gamebooks had been around by the time The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was published in 1982, the first Fighting Fantasy title was groundbreaking. It allowed gamers to play in their own time, complete with a solid set of rules so that it felt like a roleplaying adventure, and the success of the series meant the adventures were readily available in bookshops and high street shops rather than in just speciality shops. In comparison, the Endless Quest series, published by TSR, Inc. were no match, for whilst their stories took place in the worlds of the publisher’s various settings, they were all text, did not come with any mechanics, and so did not feel like a game. TSR, Inc. published two series of the books and its successor, Wizards of the Coast also published its own beginning in 2008. Now the publisher has returned to the series with a new quartet of titles, all tied with Dungeons & Dragons and all set in its default setting of Faerûn in the Forgotten Realms.

Written by Matt Forbeck—best known as the designer of the roleplaying game, Brave New World—each of the quartet focuses upon a core Class and a core Race found in Dungeons & Dragons. So there is a title involving a Cleric, a Fighter, a Rogue, and a Wizard and a title involving a Dwarf, an Elf, a Halfling, and a Human. These are combined into the classic pairings found in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, so the four books in turn tell of the adventures of a Dwarf Cleric, an Elf Wizard, a Halfling Rogue, and a Human Fighter. Each comes as a sturdy little hardback, illustrated in full colour with artwork drawn from the current version of Dungeons & Dragons, including lots and lots of monsters. Each book contains some sixty or so entries and is written for a young teenage audience, so they are suitable for those coming to Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. This does not mean that there is nothing of interest for veteran players of Dungeons & Dragons to be found in the pages of these solo adventures. Being set above, below, and across Faerûn, the protagonists of each book will have the opportunity to visit various locations familiar from both the novels set in the Forgotten Realms and the game supplements too.

Having explored the adventures of the Human Fighter in the underworld in Escape the Underdark, the adventures of a Dwarf Cleric in Into the Jungle, and the adventures of a Halfling Rogue in To Catch a Thief, you follow the adventures of an Elf Wizard in Big Trouble. As the protagonist, you are a young Elf living with your younger brother and parents in the Ardeep Forest where you are studying to be a wizard. Unfortunately, your idyll is broken by the crashing and cracking of trees as your home comes under attack by some quite voracious giants! In the aftermath of the attack—as with the previous books in the series—you are given two fundamental choices. In this case, which parent to go after, as both are missing! Go one way and you will find yourself at the home of the giants and dealing with a creature that is so greedy, so vile, he is worthy of a Roald Dahl story. Go the other way and you run into some good company along the way to Eye of All Father in search of help. In between, there are encounters with kobolds and goblins, dragons and barbarians, and more, including with one of the greatest figures in all the Forgotten Realms. Indeed, greater than that encountered in To Catch a Thief.

In many ways, Big Trouble is very different to the other titles. The protagonist is not some lone adventurer trying to escape, on an assignment for the organisation he works for, or forced on a mission to pay for his crimes, but rather a wouldbe adventurer searching for his family. This makes the quest far more personal and important and it makes the choices presented seem all the more difficult and all the more desperate. It should be noted that not all of the choices offered end in the protagonist’s death, but whilst many do, there are many that also end, if not on a happy note, then not on an unhappy one either. Even with the most positive of outcomes the story does not have a truly happy ending either, the single splitting path structure of the Endless Quest format prevents the reader from switching back to the search for the other parent. On the plus side, the protagonist does get to cast some spells, just as a wizard should and some of them are recognisable as Dungeons & Dragons spells.

Big Trouble takes the protagonist into the wilds north and south of the Ardeep Forest, so unlike To Catch a Thief, the locations visited in the main, are less familiar than those of Waterdeep. Like the other books in the series, the book is very nicely illustrated with art taken from an array of Dungeons & Dragons books. It also contains some memorable encounters, both good and bad, though the bad are of course, the most entertaining ones.

One issue with Big Trouble—and thus the Endless Quest series—is the lack of replay value. Once read through, the lack of variability that a set of rules or mechanics, means that there is no longer the challenge to be found in the book and thus a strong issue to read it again. To be fair, mechanics or rules were never a feature of the Endless Quest series and so there is no expectation that they should be in this new series. Just that in comparison with other solo adventures, they are not as sophisticated and so are suited to a younger audience.

In terms of tone, Big Trouble is not as dour or as grim as either Escape the Underworld or Into the Jungle, nor is there the devil may care attitude to be found in To Catch a Thief. There is an air of desperation to its story though and the protagonist is understandably earnest and desperate to find his family. The personal nature of the story means that the reader can more readily identify with the protagonist than he can with the protagonists of the other three new Endless Quest titles. In addition, the lack of familiarity to the places it takes the protagonist to means that it is not as good an introduction to the Forgotten Realms as Escape the Underworld or To Catch a Thief are. Nevertheless, Big Trouble is an adventure that the older reader will enjoy and which should provide inspiration for when they get to the gaming table and play Dungeons & Dragons for real.

Saturday, 24 November 2018

FAITH unfulfilled

Tiantang is the first supplement to be released for FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG. The Spanish Science Fiction Roleplaying Game from Burning Games presented an intriguing far future setting in which Humanity plays a relatively minor role and which mixes themes of rampant capitalism and individualism, the greater good of the community, strength and honour, and faith in gods, which when strong enough in their believers can grant them gifts strong enough to change the universe as Soulbenders. Beyond the core book and the FAITH: A Garden in Hell - RPG Starter Set, the roleplaying is not particularly well supported, which is why is the Tiantang sourcebook is such a welcome addition to the line.

At the core of the setting is Tiantang, the near-Dyson Sphere which is home to the Corvo, the technological, capitalist, and expansionist insectoid-like species. It is a huge Dyson Ring—one that is slowly expanding into a full Dyson Sphere—that is home to billions and billions of Corvo, the bulk of them of living in vast agglomerations of Zero-G habitats which have accreted from the debris of old spaceships, space stations, and more as well as the corporate purpose-built modules. Most of the inhabitants of these slums derive their income from ‘skulling’, the practise of plugging in and selling their time and brain as computing capacity for Corvosphere’s three mega-corporations and their many subsidiaries. Whilst all Corvo are used to living or spending time in zero gravity, the middle classes can afford to live on giant multi-level stations called ‘gyro-zhans’, which spin fast enough to generate artificial gravity. Whilst all gyro-zhans have some accommodation for those who work there, many are all but wholly devoted to particular aspects of Corvo life and Corvosphere corporate culture. Thus there are whole gyro-zhans dedicated to handling the Corvosphere’s stock exchange, corporate headquarters and offices, manufacturing, algae farms, research and development, tourism and entertainment, and so on. Then there are the rich. Some have villas in the most well-to-do gyro-zhans, but the richest own palace-ships from which they conduct their day-to-day lives, some never leaving and some running the huge mega-corporations which dominate Corvo life.

Tiantang is broken down into Ten Sectors, including Shiyan, the academic and scientific research sector; Xiao, a Zer0-G slum dominated by Mob activity, and Taiyang, a trade and entertainment centre which attracts most of the tourists coming to Tiantang. Each of Corvosphere’s three mega-corporations—The Union Megacorp, Wang Megacorp, and Nation’s Solution Megacorp—has its own sector headquarters, and there is also an eleventh sector, Tiantang CS, a neutral ground for all of the mega-corporations and corporations in the Dyson Sphere, which is not counted as part of the Ten Sectors. As with the rest of Corvospace, there is no central government or polity on Tiantang, each sector typically being governed by either corporate or criminal interests. Although there is plenty of travel within most sectors, travel between sectors is prohibitively expensive to prevent the mass movement of labour forces. Although there are forms of mass transit found in many of the sectors, most travel within each sector and between sectors is achieved via spaceships—commuter spaceships each ferry thousands of workers each day—and Tiantang has a very high volume of spaceship traffic in transit at any one time. This includes to and from the Mehdi Gate, the wormhole access to The Labyrinth, which in turn provides interstellar travel to the rest of the Corvosphere and beyond. Traffic in and out of the Mehdi Gate is heavily policed and organised to prevent it becoming clogged—though accidents do happen.

Each of the individual sectors, plus Tiantang CS, is given a full write-up, highlighting important NPCs, districts—each sector further consists of hundreds of districts, particular locations and organisations. So for example, Gu is Tiantang’s largest slum, the first stop for immigrants, squatters, and the desperate. Essentially a massive hive-like cluster of habitats and repurposed industrial detritus, it is all but ignored by the corporations who little or no influence here and if there is any sector management or authority, it lies in hands of Gentleman Dao, a captain of the Hwang Tong, who wants to purge the sector of all other criminal activity. Unlike other sectors there are no districts, but there are still persons and places of note. These include Little Heimis, an ex-ice fortress that is home to Tiantang’s Raag community—whom the corporations employ as mercenaries and the gangs and the Tongs avoid; the Egui Building, supposedly haunted, but definitely home to unexplained weirdness; and the Death Dancers, a reformed gang that now carries out acts of terrorism against the corporations. Stats are given for a typical Death Dancer, and adventures seeds suggest the player characters could become involved in gang warfare, earn bounties looking for policemen missing in Gu, get involved in a Romeo and Juliet set-up within the Hwang Tong, and even signing on to help establish corporate law in the sector. Tiangtang does this again and again for each sector, so that as a supplement it presents adventure hooks and ideas aplenty, many of which would lead to interesting encounters and situations.

Rounding out Tiantang is the adventure, ‘Secret of the Yinshen Shi’. This is a murder mystery, set in the Nongchang sector, a residential and cultural hotspot sector which is on the up as the various mega-corporations attempt to gentrify it. The adventure is decent enough and has a Film Noir quality to it, but does not feel very strongly tied to the sector it is set in.

To work with both the adventure and the supplement in general, stats are provided for some nine generic NPCs, such as High Class Corvo, Mob Boss, and Human Merc, plus some new equipment. This is in addition to stats provided for the various NPCs detailed in the sector chapters. One nice touch is that there is an index of these at the back of the book.

The final page of Tiantang provides some new rules for gaming in the mammoth Dyson Sphere, covering the ease of obtaining goods and listing the prices for services such as ambulance, remote first aid, military aid, remote hacking, and so on. There is even a cabaret crew to hire which will provide an impromptu street performance as a distraction from whatever mission the player characters are undertaking. Barring the last service, these very much have the feel of earlier Cyberpunk roleplaying games such as R. Talsorian Games, Inc.’s Cyberpunk 2.0.2.0. and Shadowrun from Catalyst Game Labs.

Physically, Tiantang is a lovely, if slim hardback. Like all releases for FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG, the artwork is superb, something that all fans of good Science Fiction art will appreciate. The book also includes a mini-poster which shows cross sections of a gyro-zhan and a space slum, which are fantastic in beginning to show some of the detail of Tiantang. On the other hand, as good as the presentation is, the writing suffers from a lack of editing and reads rather oddly in places. There is also a lack of a general index and a glossary. Several new terms are mentioned and a point of reference for them would have been useful.

Unfortunately, Tiantang is ultimately hampered by size—the size of Tiantang the Dyson Sphere versus the size of Tiantang the supplement. At just over one hundred pages, there is just not the room in the book to really present a Dyson Sphere in any detail and this lack of detail shows. There is flavour and there are hooks, but Tiantang is never more than a very broad overview of the biggest artificial structure in the Corvosphere. There is no sense of what the inhabitants’ day-to-day lives are like, how they get around, what they do, what they buy, what they watch, and so on, so it feels just a bit too impersonal. There is some colour fiction in the opening pages of the book, but that is really the only time where you get an individual view. More of that would have helped Tiantang come to life.The same can be said of the mega-corporations, which operate from sector to sector, district to district, but will probably be easier for the Game Master to provide that information herself rather than what individual life is like.

Ultimately, given the size of what Tiangtang is setting out to describe as a supplement, it is never going to be more than underwhelming. Some of the content in its pages is both good and gameable, and any FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Game master is going to want this supplement, but to really bring it to life, she is going to have to provide some of the nuts and bolts herself.

de Harken Inheritance III

Previous adventures from Montidots Limited for the Old School Renaissance have been set in the valley of Highcliff Gard, a minor feudal holding at the heart of which stands the village of Highcliff Gard. The personal fiefdom of the de Harken family, it lies nestled on the western slopes of the White Mountains to the south of the Kingdom of Yeorlingard and north of the clan lands of Kaldemar, and east of the great Hundreness Forest. It is humanocentric setting, the people of Highcliff Gard holding a particular prejudice against the ‘Erle Folk’—Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, and the like. Unfortunately, the de Harken family lives under a curse. No male member of the family lives to see their fortieth year. This curse, its cause, and perhaps a means to lift it, are the subject of the first two fantasy scenarios from Montidots Limited, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane. The first adventure is written for use with First Level and Second Level characters, the second adventure for use with characters of between Third Level and Fifth Level, the suggested ruleset being Knights & Knaves’ OSRIC™ System (Old School Reference and Index Compilation), but of course, this being an Old School Renaissance setting, it is easily adapted to the retroclone of the Game Master’s choice. A planned third part in the trilogy, MD5 Tantulus, is yet to appear, but in the meantime, to literally fill in that gap in the series, there is MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard – A MontiDots adventure suppliment for early versions of Fantasy Role-playing games.

MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard is the setting supplement for use with both MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane. It expands upon the background material given in both adventures, but more importantly is set prior to the events of both. As written, it is designed to provide enough information and adventuring hooks for a party to arrive in Highcliff Gard and for its members to make it their base of operations as go off on adventures, some of which will lead them outside the valley, but most of them will keep them within its confines. At the core of those adventures are MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, but in addition those, MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard provides further adventures, encounters, hooks, and seeds which the Game Master can weave in between the two core adventures. These include an introductory courier mission over the mountains to bring the player characters into the valley; children whose ambitions are at odds with those that their parents have for them; rival kingdoms with designs on the valley ; a ruined tower which conceals a secret at the heart of Highcliff Gard; a cult working to overthrow the social order in the valley; and a former necromancer’s dungeon—sealed up for centuries, but from behind whose doors come the occasional sounds of bangs, screams, and roars—which can easily be expanded upon by the Game Master.

These are not the only adventures, encounters, hooks, and seeds to found in MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard, but it is a shame that one fully detailed encounter is reprinted wholesale from MD3 Necromancer’s Bane rather new content being provided. All of them though, including the two previously published full adventures, are designed to be built around a campaign framework whose plots see the valley and its inhabitants suffer from a dreadful winter, which makes their lives more difficult and exacerbates their innate xenophobia. The framework is designed to give a sense of urgency to the playthrough of the ‘Highcliff Gard’ trilogy, but as presented will need an experienced Game Master to be properly handled. This is primarily because there really is not the advice to help those with less experience.

MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard greatly expands upon the background material presented in the earlier two modules. This includes a timeline of its history, more background—especially beyond the confines of Highcliff Gard, and detailed descriptions of notable locations within the valley. The latter consist of Harken Hall—family seat of the de Harken family, the Halister Mill Tavern, and the Cumfrey Swails’ Herbery. Each is fully mapped out and although the floor plans of Harken Hall are rather plain, those of the other locations are nicely detailed.

Rounding out the supplement is an encounter table and a number of new rules. These expand the rules for alchemy, enabling First Level Magic-Users to brew potions—including weak healing potions, increased rates of fire for archers, polytheistic priests, and a note on necromancy. Also discussed are the Erle Folk, the version of Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Halflings found in the setting for MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard and much distrusted by the folk who live there. For the most part, they are not intended as Races for player characters, the setting being humanocentric in the main.

Physically, MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard is not a case of style over substance, but it does have an issue or two in terms of presentation and writing. Coming as a spiral-bound book, MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard is illustrated with some excellent pieces of artwork—the image of the corpse of a dragon being fed upon by scavengers is particularly striking. Some of it has appeared in the previous two scenarios, but that still does not mean that those pieces are bad. Where the cartography contains detail, the floor plans are also good, being easy to read and use. The issue though is not so much with the writing as the editing and the development of the supplement. MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard simply needs another edit, but really what it deserves is more development. This would enable the author to give more structure and more staging advice to the campaign framework that the plots suggest and to help the Game Master handle events in and around MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, as well as help her in the lead up to MD5 Tantulus. Perhaps it would also give time to develop new material to replace content repeated from the two scenarios unnecessarily and possibly rethink the inclusion of one of the dungeons which adds little to the supplement overall.

MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard is a nice looking book and it contains a lot of solid material. The latter certainly supports both MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, and it should also support the forthcoming MD5 Tantulus. This includes further background information—the material describing the area beyond the confines of Highcliff Gard is especially welcome—and the various plots. It can also work as a standalone supplement, but that leaves more work for the Game Master to undertake to develop scenarios and encounters around the suggested plots, when really, it is designed to work with both modules. Nevertheless, it still requires a fair degree of preparation and effort upon the part of the Game Master if its contents are to fully support MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane. Overall, MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard – A MontiDots adventure suppliment for early versions of Fantasy Role-playing games is full of interesting and useful content which requires an experienced Game Master to get the most out of its pages.