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Friday, 9 January 2015

Thule Squared

Thulian Echoes is a scenario for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, the Old School Renaissance RPG that embraces both the weird and unforgiving bloody horror. Like last year’s well-received Scenic Dunnsmouthwhich in the interests of disclosure it should be noted that I edited and developedit draws from the works of H.P. Lovecraft for its inspiration. In Scenic Dunnsmouth that inspiration was the short stories The Dunwich Horror and The Shadow Over Innsmouth; in Thulian Echoes the inspiration is At the Mountains of Madness amongst others, though it could be said that Beyond the Mountains of Madness for Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu is also an inspiration. For just as in Beyond the Mountains of Madness, in Thulian Echoes the player characters are on the trail of a lost expedition. The author though, pushes this idea further into a clever conceitthe players not only roleplay their characters going in search of the lost expedition, they also get to roleplay the lost expedition into the bargain !

For the player characters, the scenario begins with their discovery of an ancient journal, one that describes the events of a forgotten expedition to a previously unknown, fog-shrouded island south of Iceland. In the year 200 AD, a group comprised of Roman ex-Legionary, a Gladiator, a Rabbi, a Sorcerer, a Pict, and an Engineer along with their henchmen sailed to this island in search of a Greek wizard called Xenophon, who is said to have absconded with a hoard of silver in the wake of the Emperor Titus’ sacking of Jerusalem. Once on the island they penetrated Xenophon’s labyrinth to discover strange machinery, a route deep into the bowels of the Earth, and perhaps the fate of the wizard himself. All of these events are described in detail in the journal, but in actuality the players roleplay the members of this expedition and it is their adventures that are described in the journal.

Where Thulian Echoes gets interesting is that the original adventurers are likely to have a permanent effect upon both the island and the dungeon. Actually, that is not the interesting fact about Thulian Echoes because once some adventurers enter a dungeonany dungeonthen they will have an effect upon said dungeon. No, where Thulian Echoes is interesting is the fact that ‘modern’ adventurers come to the island and dungeon and actually see and experience the effect that the original adventurers had upon it. In the scenario, this is represented by TAGs, each essentially a conditional state imposed by the original adventurers’ actions. For example, the original adventurers bring several dogs with them. If they are left on the island when the original adventurers depart, then they breed and give the island the ‘FERAL DOGS’ TAG. This gives the DM some bookkeeping to do between the first and second time that he runs the adventure. It also allows the players to ‘meta-game’ the scenario, that is, to have the original adventurers set up certain events that the player characters can take advantage of when they come to the island a thousand years later. Whilst this may mean that the player characters get their hands on a big pile of loot, the likelihood is that the original adventurers will have left the player characters with plenty of TAGs or the consequences of their actions, to deal with…

As much as the idea behind Thulian Echoes is clever, the overall effect is somewhat flat. Part of it is due to the fact that original adventurers are no more than outlines for which the players will need to generate attributes and Hit Points. Now the fact that they are labelled Legionary, Gladiator, Rabbi, Sorcerer, Pict, and Engineer gives a little colour that a player draw upon for inspiration, but they are not interesting in and of themselves. It does not help that they lack motivation beyond the simplistic desire to steal Xenophon’s treasure. Of course, there is nothing to stop the DM adding details to any of the given pre-generated original adventurers, but some information to that end could have been included. The real issue is that the dungeon itself is not interesting. It is not interesting as a dungeon and it is not interesting as a dungeon compared to the others published by Lamentations of the Flame Princessand Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying is definitely known for the quality of its dungeons (in the interests of disclosure, I should know, I have edited some of them).

Then of course there is the title of the scenario. ‘Thulian’ does not refer to the shade of pink, but to the far off island of Thule, perhaps Iceland, perhaps Greenland if Ultima Thule, certainly beyond the borders of the known world. Yet ‘Thulian’ is also a nod towards the Cthulhu Mythos, though even with the inclusion of the Elder Things in depths below the island, Thulian Echoes is somewhat light in terms of the Mythos. Rather it is a shading of the scenario, not its focus, which is of course, 'Echoes of Thule'.

Physically, Thulian Echoes is a slim booklet. The writing needs an edit here and there, but the artwork has a cartoony, even clunky look that is nicely pleasing on the eye. The cartography is certainly pretty, but the DM will need to pay it careful attend as it is not always easy to read.

There is undoubtedly an interesting idea at the heart of Thulian Echoes. Indeed, the idea at its core would work in number of different settings, whether that is Call of Cthulhu, Numenera, or Leagues of Adventure. Given the brevity of the booklet, the idea is reasonably implemented in Thulian Echoes, but nevertheless, the DM will need to pay very careful attention to the TAGs that are put into effect when the original adventurers play through the scenario. Ultimately and despite its clever idea, Thulian Echoes is perhaps something for the DM to develop further himself.