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

Friday, 11 December 2009

Behind The Peacock Spray

As much as we are fascinated by the exoticism of the East, our gaze rarely strays from the furthest extent of the Orient. China and Japan are our pre-occupation, which explains the number of RPGs and supplements devoted to both countries, but it also ignores the myriad lands that lie between the occidental and the oriental. When such lands are detailed, then it is invariably Egypt that figures first, because if anything it is as equally exotic. Beyond that lie the lands of Araby, the Middle East, the Caucasus, and the many places along the fabled Silk Road. In gaming, supplements devoted to these regions are far and few between. When Gravity Falls for Cyberpunk 2013 – based on the novel of the same name by George Alec Effinger, The Cairo Sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu, and A Magical Society: Silk Road all spring to mind, still there could be more, and while they could all be written by Ken Hite, that is too much to hope for. Fortunately, the newest supplement to explore the Near East is written by Ken Hite, but he is not taking us to Araby, but rather to Persia.

Tehran: Nest of Spies ($7.95, Atomic Overmind Press) is the first supplement for The Day After Ragnarok, Ken Hite’s post-WW2, post-apocalypse, post-Ragnarok campaign setting for the popular Shane Hensley’s Savage Worlds rules set that is also available for the HERO System. It describes a world devastated after the Serpentfall, an event caused by the detonation of the Trinity Device within the brain of the Midguard Serpent, unleashed by Hitler in an attempt to initiate Götterdämmerung. Best summed up as “Mad Max meets Conan” or “Submachine Guns & Sorcery,” The Day After Ragnarok is a rich, frothy, and exciting pulp setting, and what Tehran: Nest of Spies sets out to do is provide a more focused setting within which to game.

A 34-page, 4.24 Mb PDF, Tehran: Nest of Spies comes with a little history, a description of the city and its major locations, descriptions of the major factions operating in the city, a short bestiary, and a guide to adventures in the city, plus a complete “Savage Tale” starter or adventure. It is written for the Savage Worlds version of the game, but doubtless the HERO System version will follow.

The Tehran of The Day After Ragnarok is a place of some importance, being caught between the recently expanded Azerbaijan Soviet Socialist Republic to the North and the jewel in the crown of the British Empire, India, to the South. The significance of this fact is that the Soviet border is not impenetrable, spies can get in and information can get out (and vice versa), unlike in Europe where East and West are separated by the Serpent Curtain. Thus the city has become a maelstrom of intrigue and espionage, a continuation of the Great Game between the British and Russian Empires, and all that in addition to the city’s own domestic problems. There is the continuing tension between the Western oilmen, its Modern facing ruler, Mohammed Reza Shah Pahlavi, and the city’s cosmopolitan middle classes on the one hand, and the old Qajar aristocracy, the various pro-Communist factions, the fundamentalist Fadayun-e-Islam (assassins, terrorists, or martyrs depending on your allegiance), and the conservative poor on the other. Of course, that forgets other factions in the city such as MAH, the Turkish intelligence service; pro-French refugees from Beirut; the Nazi-backed, pro-nationalist Ba’ath Party; and the staunchly anti-Communist Polish Free Army based in the city. It also simplifies matters a little, because a pro-Communist faction is unlikely to ally itself with the Fadayun-e-Islam, and so on.

After just a little history, Hite gets down to describing what might be found in the city. What he does here is map the various locations that he describes back onto the “City Location Table” found in The Day After Ragnarok. Which is a neat way not to replicate that table in this supplement, but it is about Tehran, so we are also told what makes such places different and particular to this city. This is followed by a description of the many factions and personalities caught up in the politics of the city, including all of those mentioned above. Into that cocktail Hite also throws in one or two historical figures into the mix. The first is Iran’s then head of its gendarmerie, an American called Colonel H. Norman Schwarzkopf – father of the famous general, chief investigator in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in 1932, and the man who really did re-organise the Iranian police after 1941, while the second is Ruhollah Khomeini, a religious leader and Islamic scholar who would go on to play a significant role in world politics come 1979. Only his stats and basic history are given, and while that might be seen as bad enough in the eyes of some, Hite leaves it up to the GM to court controversy around the gaming table by deciding what Khomeini’s agenda might be. The author does give you options though...

Hite continues the “Top Five” lists begun in The Day After Ragnarock – such as Top Five Places To Stomp Nazis and Top Five Secret Bases, but as is to be expected for a city source book, the focus is much tighter. In Tehran: Nest of Spies the lists amount to just two – “Top Five Tehran Touches” and “Top Five Tehran Sights,” both a little more mundane than those found in The Day After Ragnarock itself. Nevertheless, both are useful with the first, “Top Five Tehran Touches,” doing a nice job of helping the GM add colour to his game.

Although Iran was not directly affected by the Serpentfall, it did suffer from a series of earthquakes and various snake cults and creatures in its wake. Only three are described here, the first being the serpentine Ganj or “jewel serpent,” which hunts down concentrations of gems and jewels, making it a regular threat to Tehran’s banks and jewellers. Both occasionally hire parties to hunt these creatures in the qanats (underground aqueducts) and cellars below the city, which amusingly, means that the player characters have the opportunity to do a “dungeon bash” in 1948! The other two are the Kil-barak, an army of dog-headed men sealed behind a great gate by Alexander the Great and let loose after the Serpentfall broke the seal, and the Symir, an emergent consciousness embodied in the city’s or the country’s birds.

The standard Savage Worlds Adventure Generator is, like the “City Location Table” above, altered and extended for use in Tehran: Nest of Spies, becoming the “Tehran Urban Adventure Generator.” It is a little short and really only gets going when used with the book’s “Encounter Table.” In Tehran, it is not just a case of who you might run into, but also a matter of who they owe their allegiance to, who they really owe their allegiance to, what they are up to, and how and why they might betray you. Again, it is another useful little tool kit that does much of the work for the GM, though to get the fullest out of it, it will probably be best to use advance.

The supplement is rounded out with “A Key for the Peacock,” a Savage Scenario Starter. It is more of a toolkit than a straightforward scenario, providing option upon option for how the ornate “Peakcock Key” comes into the possession of the player characters, who wants it, and what the key is, and what it opens. At its heart is a Mcguffin, which in true Hitchcock style throws the characters in at the deep end and forces them to sink or swim in a rich soup of intrigue and factional rivalries.

What Tehran: Nest of Spies is not, is a history book. Rather it gives a playable snapshot of the city for The Day After Ragnarok in 1948, supported by a ready set of tools that help it be different from the Tehran of our 1948. Nor does it actually add a great deal to the overall setting that is The Day After Ragnarok, almost as if the Tehran after the Serpentfall exists in isolation with little regard for what happens beyond its outskirts. Arguably that is a “Concentrated Isolation,” one that echoes the mindset of the espionage world of our own twentieth century Cold War. This does not mean though, that the information in Tehran: Nest of Spies is not useful. In fact, its contents are all useful, and I can see this supplement being useful (as my friend Dave suggested) for when a GM wants to take his Cold City game on holiday from its natural home in Berlin. Which is no surprise given that Hite describes Tehran in his “Inspirations” as being Berlin’s equivalent in The Day After Ragnarok setting, it being the closest non-Soviet capital with an accessible border to the Soviet Union.

Although Tehran makes perfect sense as the Berlin of the post-Ragnarok, it seems an odd choice given the author’s own leanings in the core setting book for the “Conan meets Mad Max” in the ravaged America of the Mayoralties. Perhaps such a setting will be the subject for the next sourcebook? As to this sourcebook, given its price and format, you are getting quite a lot for your monies with Tehran: Nest of Spies, especially as it comes with the means to use its contents in the form of the location and encounter tools or tables. Yet in terms of background, the book feels underwritten and the likelihood is that the GM is going to need access to the Lonely Planet Iran if he wants more detail. Hite though, makes Tehran: Nest of Spies a terrific little setting in which get involved in the grand intrigues, rivalries, and politics of the post-apocalyptic world of The Day After Ragnarok