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

Saturday, 26 June 2010

Falling Scales...

One of the most of inventive settings of the last year is Ken Hite’s The Day After Ragnarok, which 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,” this alternate Earth of 1948 from Atomic Overmind Press is a rich and frothy pulp setting for which we are still waiting the definitive campaign from the illuminated mind of Ken Hite. We already have had a scenario – Tehran: Nest of Spies – and now we have a series of articles known as Serpent Scales: Fragments from the World After the Serpentfall.

Each of these articles is designed to focus on particular aspects of the weird new world of 1948 that though of interest to The Day After Ragnarok GM, are not quite worthy of a full supplement. They are thus of a varying length – the shortest of the first three available being only six pages long, while the longest is almost five times that length. This varied length is reflected in the price, but on length and price alone, these are not cheap PDFs. That said, when you consider that each is written by Ken Hite and that the series promises to deliver a consistent diet of content rather than fluff, paying that little bit extra is probably worth taking into consideration. As with the core book, all three supplements are available for both Shane Hensley’s Savage Worlds and HERO System.

The series starts out with as unpalatable a subject as you would imagine, but it definitely provides details of an enemy that you can get away with despising and not suffer any comeback for it. The New Konfederacy details the third rise of the Klu Klax Klan out of Atlanta following the Serpentfall and its founding of the Grand Kounty of Birmingham, Alabama following the conquest of “The Magic City” back in 1947. Now flying the “Stars and Bars” flag, the New Konfederacy is a bastion of law and order in the Poisoned Lands, even if that law and order comes with an alliance with Nazi ex-POWs, the re-establishment of America’s most peculiar institution, and labour battalions that work for food. Meanwhile, radio station WKKK broadcasts “Birmingham’s American Voice” a thousand miles in all directions serving up a diet of pro-white, anti-non-white, anti-non-Protestant, anti-Jewish, anti-Catholic, anti-Communist propaganda alongside good old Bible thumping sermons and wholesome Country Music. The radio station claim to be the voice of an “Invisible Empire” across ravaged America, complete with a million-man army, might be propaganda, but the reach of the new Klu Klux Khan is long enough, and that is before you take into account the various White Supremacy groups that have sprung up across of the Mayoralties in the wake of the Serpentfall.

Just as you would want, the article details the Klan’s organisational structure – komplete with silly names that begin with the latter “k,” its leaders and agendas, its rivals, and its secrets – not as many of those as you might think. These are supported with the stats for a Klan super agent (or is he?), an atypical White Supremacist night-rider (not always affiliated with the Klan, so without the “k”), the Klommando and the Klandestine Agent (which are affiliated with the Army of the New Konfederacy, so do come with the silly “k”), and lastly the Haint, true Confederate ghosts riding spectral horses, and the only supernatural element described in the article.

The article sees the return of Hite’s “Savage Shortlist,” a quick pick listing of the “Top Five” elements pertaining to the subject in hand. This time around, the Top Five are the “Top Five Klan Plans,” more specific aims than just enslaving and oppressing the right minorities for the good of America. Essentially each is reason enough for a scenario or two, if not a mini-campaign, and while each is just a thumbnail sketch, they are also good starting points. Also included are a set of tables to help a GM determine just how deep the Konfederacy’s influence might be in a town out in the Mayoralties. Of course, subverting every town out in the Mayoralties is part of The Big Klan Plan. The “Town Subversion Generator” is an extension of the detailed encounter tables to be found in the core book, and as the author makes clear can just as easily be used with any other organisation, be it the Reds or the snake cultists, with just a change of a term or name or two. Either way, the “Town Subversion Generator” is neat means by which to create an encounter or scenario with relatively little effort.

What is obvious from this Serpent Scales is the author’s distaste for the subject matter, and to be fair, I do not envy the research he had to do in order to write about The New Konfederacy, even if the author is having fun with the latter “k.” Even as Hite is describing a villain as crass and as odious as the new born Klu Klux Klan, he is also making suggestions as how they can be used, some of them surprisingly subtle in comparison to the Klan’s reputation. Despite sharing the author’s distaste, this is much to be taken from The New Konfederacy, especially if the GM is running a game set in Mayoralties.

The second article is entitled (Happiness is a) Sten Gun. At just six pages, this is the shortest of the three articles available, and as its title suggests, is devoted to the humble Sten Gun, the cheaply and easily manufactured submachine gun that was a symbol of British stubbornness and Resistance defiance in the face of Nazi oppression during World War II. While its durability and simple functionality earned a place in the hearts of all who used it, the Sten Gun also had a reputation for unreliability at the wrong moment. It might be that the SMG jammed at a crucial moment; that it discharged a round at if jarred or knocked badly; or that discharged the whole of the magazine in one go! That said, it could be highly effective and very reliable once a user had mastered the Sten Gun’s quirks. Lastly, a Sten Gun only has two machined parts, so it is possible to scavenge the remaining parts if you have to.

All this is covered and more in (Happiness is a) Sten Gun. It tells you where the Sten Gun might be found – throughout the British Commonwealth and anywhere that MI6 might be shipping the weapon to support an insurrection or the United Kingdom’s allies. If found in the USA, the likelihood is that it is somewhere near Toronto where they are manufactured for the standard 9mm Parabellum ammunition , or if nowhere near Canada, then guns have been adapted to a different calibre. What there is not in (Happiness is a) Sten Gun, is one of Hite’s superlative “Savage Shortlists,” but to be fair, there is hardly room for that in its six pages. Instead, there are rules for the SMG’s quirks and how to fix them to make it a really good gun, three scenario seeds (one including how to redo The Magnificent Seven with Sten Guns!), and lastly, a guide to give the Sten Gun a damned tune up. Essentially to make it a +1 Sten Gun of Serpent Slaying! Only with a bit more imagination...

The third and longest of the Serpent Scales articles adds a whole genre all its very own to the world of The Day After Ragnarok. Deep within the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere lies Bradbury Island or as the Japanese call it, Kaijūshima. Which just happens to translate as “Strange Beast” or “Monster” Island and “Monster Island” just happens to be part of title for Return to Monster Island, the title for the second Serpent Scales article. Kaijūshima is perhaps one of the strangest islands in the Pacific, being home to giant beasts, dinosaurs, and other strangeness all by the way of special effects by both Ray Harryhausen and Ishirō Honda.

Originally discovered by American whalers in the last century, but in Japanese hands since 1914, Kaijūshima is damned difficult to get to, and to get on to. Partly fortified (on the safe side of the island), remote, and protected by a surrounding natural boat bottom ripping coral reef, about the easiest way to get there is fly over and land by parachute. That or enlist in the Imperial Japanese Navy... Nevertheless, there are hooks aplenty to get the heroes there, whether it involves going after a missing mentor or girlfriend, being hit by a pterodactyl and forced to land, investigating Soviet interest in the island or just going to make a big damned movie, the heroes are going get there...

Once they do get there, Return to Monster Island comes with a “ready-to-play, throw the kitchen sink and its crockery at the players” scenario that lets them run a giant monster fight as their heroes run around underfoot! Actually, “Deploy All Monsters” is more of a Savage Scenario Starter, but in the hands of a good GM plugging in the other contents to be found in this Serpent Scales article, it should be hectic fun.

In addition to describing each of Kaijūshima’s major locations, each complete with suggestions as to what might be encountered there, Return to Monster Island lives up to its title and gives you monsters, or rather, daikaijū! Not just gigantically monstrous creatures native to the island, but also the creations and discoveries of the Soviet Institute for Genetics, and that is all before you get to the dinosaurs! And dinosaurs are so ubiquitous that you can put them anywhere as evidenced by the subject of this article’s “Savage Shortlist.” With “Top Five Places to Fight Dinosaurs” that takes you from Antarctica to China and from Africa to South America. As with every other “Savage Shortlist,” the five entries are quick and dirty, but that is in keeping with the “fast, furious, fun” ethos of Savage Worlds, and certainly much of the contents of Return to Monster Island plugs into those five entries.

Return to Monster Island pretty much wears its influences on its sleeve – or is that scales? – to present pulpy, two-fisted lost world action in the vein of Doug McClure and Edgar Rice Burroughs, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and Professor Challenger, Godzilla and King Kong, all richly spread over an island that is one part Skull Island and the other Ponape. Of the three Serpent Scales to date, it happens to be the most versatile, the most pulpy, and the least setting specific. Which means that you could take it and drop it into any pulp action setting you care to name – could one of the island’s volcanoes hide a fissure that if followed would lead you on a Hollow Earth Expedition? – which the author acknowledges by suggesting how Return to Monster Island can be dropped into other Savage Worlds settings, from Rippers and Realms of Cthulhu to Weird War II and Weird War: Tour of Darkness.

So the question is, after having looked at each of the Serpent Scales articles released so far, do I recommend that you rush out and buy them? As an unabashed fan of both Ken Hite and his The Day After Ragnarok, I would say absolutely, but then that would hardly be fair. Thus I need to give you a more considered answer. Well, as interesting as (Happiness is a) Sten Gun is and as much solid content as it contains, it really is only of minor interest when compared to the other two. Of those two, The New Konfederacy does a fine job of both presenting a set of villains that GM and players alike will love to hate and providing support for the GM running a campaign set in the Mayoralties, the Eastern third of the USA that is one of the major settings in The Day After Ragnarok. The likelihood is that the GM will get a great deal of long term use out of this Serpent Scales. It is not as good though, as Return to Monster Island, which not only gives a good pulpy adventure location for The Day After Ragnarok, but also for any pulp action setting; manages to tag more pulp references than the other two; and lastly, has the potential to be just plain more fun.