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Saturday, 31 October 2015

Call of Cthulhu II (Part the Second)

So it is at long last that Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, is a reality. The venerable and inaugural roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror receives not only a new edition, but also an update and an upgrade—and proper updates and upgrades in either case. For this is not a mere case of intermittent creep between reprints or makeovers of the current rules with relatively minor changes in the rules, an issue that has beset previous editions of Call of Cthulhu. Rather Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is a full rewrite and design of the game, the mechanics, and how the game is played, arguably something that it has not been given in some two decades—if not longer. In the process, the designers—Mike Mason and Paul Fricker working from the earlier editions designed by Sandy Petersen and the late Lynn Willis—have sought to address some fundamental issues that have arisen in over thirty years of game play, to make the game more accessible, and more attractive to an audience of the twenty-first century. The result is a relatively radical redesign whose differences—despite it fundamentally being compatible with previous editions of the game—have proved to be slightly contentious given the game’s thirty year history and whilst they may not necessarily be to the taste of every player or Keeper, they do make sense.

Published by Chaosium, Inc. after a very successful—although subsequently difficult—Kickstarter campaign, the very first thing that you notice about Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is that rules have been split into two books—the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook – A Core Game Book for Players and the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook. Of these two, the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook focuses upon everything that a player needs to play Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition—barring a clear and simple explanation of the rules—including investigator creation, skills, a wide array of investigator Occupations, and historical background. All that without being exposed to the secrets of the Mythos and its effects that are detailed in the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook. It is this book that is being reviewed here.

Just as with the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook, the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook is presented in full colour—here a soft blue as opposed to the sandy tan of the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook. The use of colour is not extensive, but the use of double page spreads at the start of each chapter gives the book a certain grandeur, whilst the use of pages torn from a notebook to hold sidebar text gives a sense of marginalia, of extra esoteric details added by an ‘occult expert.

For the most part, much of the first fifth of the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook is the same as the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook, but there are differences enough to make reading one of these books after the other less of a repetitive experience. So whilst there are overviews and examples of play in both books, each is slightly different. What is noticeable by its absence in these opening pages is H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’. Indeed there is no fiction present at all, that being left to  the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook and its inclusion of ‘The Dunwich Horror’. Now this is lamentable, but given the limitations of the space in the book and the amount of material that has to go into the book, it is at least understandable.

Instead of H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Call of Cthulhu’, the chapter ‘H.P. Lovecraft and the
Cthulhu Mythos’ examines the author and his influences, the creation of the Cthulhu Mythos, the development of the Mythos before and after his death, and the Mythos itself. Others author covered include August Derleth, Robert Bloch, Ramsey Campbell, and more, but the focus is soundly on Lovecraft himself. That said, it does not deal with the more reprehensible aspects of Lovecraft’s character and thus his fiction, but that is probably best left for another discussion. Notably what it does highlight are the decisions made by Sandy Petersen in designing the Mythos for Call of Cthulhu, essentially stripping out the ‘war in heaven’ concept that has the Great Old Ones battling the Elder Gods, the arbitrary division of these ‘gods’ into good and evil, and the association of the elements with certain Great Old Ones. The result was, and is, starker, more ‘Lovecraftian’, and more evocative of Cosmic Horror as well as being satisfyingly familiar.

The investigator creation rules in the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook are the same as those in the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook, but with a stripped down list of Occupations—less than thirty as opposed to the hundred or so in the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook. So whilst it is perfectly possible to create investigators using the rules found in the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook,  the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook gives more options. Similarly, the list of skills is almost the same as in the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook, the additions being mostly more mechanical details for each skill—the effects of ‘pushing’ that skill and setting some opposing skill difficulties as guidelines for the Keeper.

At its most basic, Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is mechanically no different to previous editions of the game. It uses percentile dice to roll under a value—typically a skill, an investigator’s Sanity, and so on. These values are joined in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition by an investigator’s attributes, now expressed as percentile values rather than between three and eighteen. The values have also been graded—Regular for under the full value, Hard for under half of the value, and Extreme for under a fifth of the value—for easy determination of the difficulty of any roll and the success of its outcome. This has also been supported by the new character sheet which has space for all three values for all of the game’s attributes and skills.

The new rules encourage increased player agency. Prior to a skill roll, the player and Keeper can agree upon the possible outcome of a successful skill roll. If the skill roll is successful, the player can narrate the outcome, but if the roll is failed, then the Keeper narrates the outcome. This agency does not apply to every situation, and similarly, it does not always apply to the new type of roll in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.  This is the capacity to ‘Push a Roll’. This addresses the issue of failure in previous editions of the game wherein if a player failed a roll, there was no way around the problem and this could be an issue when the investigator was trying to find an important clue, such that the Keeper would have to find a way around this roadblock in order for the game to progress. In Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition a player can ‘Push a Roll’. What this means is that if a player fails a roll, then he can roll again. He needs to explain what his investigator is doing differently to earn the right to Push a Roll and he also needs to negotiate with the Keeper what the consequences of failure are. This is not a rewind of events, but rather a second, desperate attempt.
For example, Sergeant Install is a bomb disposal officer working to deactivate a bomb that has been attached to the underside of the driver’s seat of a nice Mercedes. Unfortunately, the car’s owner, Mr. Alexander is sat in the car, unable to move lest the device detonate. Sergeant Install has Demolitions 70%, and because the bomb is in an awkward place to get at, the Keeper rules that the Difficulty of the task is Hard, or half the skill. So in Sergeant Install’s case, this will be 35%. Unfortunately, his player fails the roll.
 Sergeant Install’s player decides to push the roll, explaining that the Sergeant will draw upon his previous experience with this type of device to determine the correct course of action. The Keeper accepts this and together they negotiate the terms of possible failure—the countdown will suddenly speed up. Fortunately, Sergeant Install’s player makes the roll and both he and Mr. Alexander are safe.
Even if the second ‘Pushed Roll’ fails, the investigator need not necessarily ‘fail’ at the intended action. Rather he can instead both succeed and suffer the consequences of his failure to ‘Push a Roll’. In other words, he succeeds, but opens himself up to all of the horror that the Keeper can inflict upon him. In this, the designers are drawing upon the storytelling maxim of “Yes, but…” wherein a new element is added to a story by one storyteller and then accepted by a second storyteller who further embellishes the new element. In Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the step from the ‘yes’ to the ‘but’ is not one step, but two dice rolls and some negotiation, but the result is that the infamous ‘Clue Roadblock’ of previous editions has been removed. If necessary an investigator is always going to get the clue he is looking for—if it is there, that is—but the consequences or embellishments of his failed rolls are invariably horrific and Sanity-sapping... 

Combat rolls cannot be Pushed in this fashion, but like the right to narrate the outcome of successful skill rolls, ‘Pushing a Roll’ is another storytelling mechanic. Most obviously it is a means to get around the problem of failed rolls, but it has another effect—it makes the play of the game less black and white, giving a greater flexibility in the outcome of skill rolls and so moving Call of Cthulhu towards a slightly pulpier feel. Examples of Pushed rolls and the consequences of their failure are given for each skill in the skills list.

Lastly, ‘Pushing a Roll’ is not the only means included in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition to counter failed rolls. There is also Luck. This is probably the most controversial new mechanic in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. In the new rules, it is a stat or attribute that is rolled just like the Luck roll was in previous editions of the game, but in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, Luck is also a resource that can be expended to improve rolls, for example, from a failure to a Regular success, from a Regular to a Hard success, and so on. This does not include attempts to ‘Push a Roll’, on which Luck cannot be spent in this fashion. When Luck is spent, it is on a one-for-one point basis and once spent, the points are gone and the Luck stat is permanently reduced, although it can be recovered at the end of a scenario or campaign.

It should be made very clear that this expenditure of Luck is an option. Neither the Keeper nor his players have to use it in their game. What its use does though is move—much as ‘Pushing a Roll’ does—Call of Cthulhu towards a pulpier style of game in which there is a little more give in terms of investigator survival. In a sense, when spending Luck, an investigator is ‘pushing his luck’ and quite literally, his luck can ‘run out’. In play Luck actually becomes a resource to be managed, the player judging when the time is right to ‘push his luck’, more judgement being used in an ongoing campaign game than in a one-shot or convention where he will throw caution to the wind and is unlikely to play that investigator again.

Just as Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition has made changes to the core mechanics and skills, so too have changes been made to combat. Whilst the DEX rank means of determining initiative has not changed, the first change is to fist and melee fights to avoid the ‘back and forth  series of attacks and dodges’ of the previous editions. Now in a fist fight, the attacker and defender make opposed Fighting (Brawl) skill rolls with the better roll determining who is successful and can thus inflict damage. What a combatant cannot do is attack and parry—all of that is figured into the single roll. A combatant can also dodge and this again is handled with opposed Fighting (Brawl)/Dodge skill rolls. In a stand up fight, draws favour the attacker or the defender if he is dodging. This also applies to the use of melee weapons. 

In a brawl, combatants effectively get two actions—once when they attack and then again when they defend. If a combatant has already tried to attack and then tries to dodge an attack, then he does so with a Penalty die. What this means is that fist fights and melees are faster—in terms of telling the story, if not necessarily mechanically—because investigators get to roll twice in a round, once as an attacker and once as a defender with possibility that an investigator might roll well and inflict damage in both instances.

Where melee combat consists of opposed skill rolls, ranged combat, including firearms, does not, primarily because combatants are not acting on the same initiative order or able to react with the same immediacy as in a fist fight. In fact the only reaction a combatant can have is to dodge—as he throws himself to the ground or ducks behind a wall—and that is all that he can do. The most obvious change to the rules for shootouts is for weapons that can be fired more than once in a round. They still can, but every shot after the first is with a Penalty die. The autofire mechanics receive the most attention and seem workable enough, though as with any set of autofire rules, they are bound not to satisfy everyone.

What comes across throughout is that combat and damage are deadlier than before. Primarily because characters can suffer major wounds—damage equal to, or greater than half of a character’s Hit Points—which will knock them prone and possibly render them unconscious. Then because attacks made at Extreme level of success inflict maximum damage, including the Damage Bonus, if a blunt force trauma attack, but maximum damage, plus a damage roll, if an impaling attack such as a knife or a gunshot. Further, it takes a long time to recover from any damage—the First Aid skill only grants a single Hit Point back and the Medicine skill requires time and rest upon the part of the injured investigator.

Lastly, options are included for hit locations, knock-outs, spending Luck to remain conscious, suppressed fire, and more. Overall, the combat rules feel relatively simple and straightforward. Notably though, they are very nicely illustrated with some fully worked out and very helpful examples.

Inspired by ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’, the chase mechanics in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition get their own chapter. This abstracts the route of the chase into a line of dots—or locations—along which the Keeper can track the progress of both the investigators and the NPCs. All of the participants in a chase get a minimum of one action or Move each round, but the faster of them will get more. These Moves can be used to move forward; to mount an attack—using the Fighting, Firearms, or Drive (Auto) skills; cast a spell; overcome hazards—traffic jam, patch of mud, a fence, or even two men with a pane of glass, and so forth. All of which use the game’s main rules as normal. So far so good. The chase rules are a reasonable attempt to cover a common situation, but two problems arise. First, when a chase involves multiple participants or splits into more than one chase, they become more complex for the Keeper to keep track of. Second, when vehicles are used they use the same rules, but the only stat for vehicles that matter in a chase—when determining movement and the number of Moves available—is their Move stat. There is no stat that accounts for a vehicle’s mechanical handling, that would make it better at performing maneuvres. Now Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is not Car Wars, but given the advances in technology and the differences in vehicles in both the 1920s and the modern eras, it seems an odd omission.

Naturally, Sanity is as important to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition as it to previous editions of the game. Mechanically, the Sanity rules have not changed, but they have been rewritten for clarity. Primarily this has been done to make clear what an investigator’s mental state is, whether that is suffering from temporary, indefinite, or permanent insanity and which phase of the reaction to a sanity depleting experience he is in—‘A Bout of Madness’ or ‘Underlying Sanity’. If in the former phase, the player still passes control of his investigator to the Keeper as in previous editions and the investigator may come to later on to find himself in a perilous situation—as shown in some terrific examples. If the latter phase, then the investigator is more prone to suffering from delusions or the effects of an existing phobia or mania—thus making it easier to portray either under both normal and insane circumstances. The effects of insanity are also applied directly to an investigator and his backstory. Essentially exposure to the Mythos can alter aspects of an investigator’s backstory—his physical appearance, ideology and beliefs, relationships with significant people, meaningful locations, treasured possessions, and personal traits. The exact Sanity warping or corrupting effect of exposure to the Mythos to these elements is a matter of negotiation between the player and the Keeper, but the Keeper is also free to add new elements to an investigator’s backstory. Lastly, one of these elements—an investigator’s key connection—can be relied upon for comfort and succor in times of mental stress. Perhaps a religious investigator goes on retreat or one who values his parents spends time at home. Either way, the investigator may regain lost Sanity this way—though woe betide an investigator who loses such a key connection. Fortunately, losing a key connection is fairly difficult and cannot be lost at the arbitrary whim of the Keeper, it must be played out within the game.

Over all, the Sanity rules feel little changed. They do however, feel better explained, more organised, and thus streamlined. Where they are definitely improved is in the number examples that show how they work and in showing how insanity directly affects an investigator through the elements of—or roleplaying hooks from—his backstory. Now this may feel familiar from other RPGs, perhaps even other RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but this does not mean that they are not needed or unwelcome in Call of Cthulhu.

The oddly named ‘Playing the Game’—surely this chapter should have been called ‘Running the Game’ given that the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook is primarily for the Keeper?—is full of advice pitched along two different lines. The first is for those Keepers new to Call of Cthulhu, whilst the second is for those Keepers who are new to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Thus the advice covers setting up a group, setting up a scenario, creating investigators and investigator groups, handling  and portraying NPCs, making the most of an investigator’s backstory, and even corrupting the investigator’s backstory via the Mythos… It also goes over the mechanics—when to roll the dice, ‘Pushing a Roll’, ‘Pushing a Perception Roll’, and so on. In some ways it feels very basic, but that is born out of familiarity rather than contempt.  

Nevertheless, it is in this chapter that the Idea Roll makes its appearance in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. No longer is it up front and part of the investigator creation process or on the investigator sheet. Here it has been relegated to a roll of last resort, when the players have been run out ideas and have no idea what to do and so want to hand the fate of their investigators to the Keeper. Importantly, whatever the roll, the investigators get the clue or spur that they need, but if the r0ll is failed, they are placing their fate in the hands of the Keeper. This is in keeping with the story driven outcomes of failed rolls for ‘Pushing a Roll’, suffering a ‘Bout of Madness’, and so on.

The ‘Grimoire’ of spells has been expanded to allow for ‘deeper’ versions of various spells. Such versions are typically known by insane wizards, but it is possible for an investigator to learn such versions when he too is insane—either temporarily or indefinitely. For example, Body Warping of Gorgoroth enables the caster to alter his shape and appearance, whether to that of an object or another person, but the ‘deeper’ version lets the caster change himself into a true replica of another person.In addition, the chapter also explores the idea that its many spells can be redesigned so that the Keeper can create one more suited to his game. The example development of Create Zombie into Graveyard KissGrey Binding, and Create Zombi illustrates the flexibility of the idea. Nevertheless, the spells will be familiar from previous editions of Call of Cthulhu, as are the selections of Mythos Tomes, artefacts and alien devices, and  monsters, beasts, and alien gods. There are changes here and there. For example, the Mythos Tomes can be read again and again to gain more understanding of the Mythos, but this takes longer and longer each time with diminishing returns each time up to a maximum amount that can be learned. 

Another change echoes the efforts of Sandy Peterson, the original designer of Call of Cthulhu to declutter the Mythos away from the supposed ‘Good/Bad’ leanings of various Mythos entities and races, and that is the removal of the classifications for said entities and races. Thus in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, they are no longer explicitly categorised as Independent Races, Lesser Servitors, Greater Servitors, Elder Gods, Outer Gods, Great Old Ones, and so on. This is primarily because H.P. Lovecraft was himself inconsistent about the application of such categories, particularly the Elder Gods, Outer Gods, and Great Old Ones. The effect is to free up how the Keeper both thinks about and uses these entities in his game, although for those not new to the game, the ‘monster’ classification of the older editions of Call of Cthulhu is discussed as an option.

The last major change to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition over previous editions of Call of Cthulhu is to the scenarios. ‘The Haunting’, after three decades of very worthy service has been made freely available as part of the Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition Quick-Start Rules PDF. Similarly ‘The Madman’, ‘Dead Man Stomp’, and ‘Edge of Darkness’ have been excised after decades of worthy service in favour of two new scenarios. The first of these is ‘Amidst Ancient Trees’, a standalone scenario that places an emphasis on physical rather than the more  traditional investigative skills of the classic Call of Cthulhu scenario. Thus Tracking, Spot Hidden, Listen, Stealth, Fighting, and Firearms skills are more useful than say Library Use or Other Language (Latin). Set in Vermont in 1925, it opens with the news of a gunfight on the edge of Bennington between the police and the gang who kidnapped the daughter of a prominent businessman, Lucas Strong. The gang got away with the ransom money, but did not hand over his daughter, and now Mr. Strong is hiring men to form search parties to find her. The resulting tramp into the woods is a somewhat linear affair, but it is nicely staged and it makes solid use of an entity* that is usually confined to the English countryside. A nice touch is that there are notes on the negative outcomes of ‘Pushing a Roll’ in certain situations. Nor this need be a one-shot as Vermont is in New England and it is just over the state line from Lovecraft Country, so a Keeper could easily add this to an existing campaign set in either location.** 

*At this point I wanted to write Great Old One, but such a term is optional under Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

**Anyone with access to The Primal State, the Miskatonic University Library Association Monograph available as a PDF should consider adding ‘Amidst Ancient Trees’ to that mini-campaign.

The second scenario, ‘Crimson Letters,’ takes place at Arkham’s famed Miskatonic University and in Call of Cthulhu terms, is much more of a traditional investigative affair. The investigators are called in to look into the circumstances of the death of a young university professor who died under mysterious circumstances to ensure that there is no ensuing scandal. The scenario comes with various NPCs and locations and is more of a sandbox than the structured affair that is ‘Amidst Ancient Trees’. What this means is that there is a lot more preparation required by the Keeper and this not helped by the sizeable cast of NPCs and motivations that he will have to handle. The scenario would also certainly have benefited from a jumping-off or starting point for the Keeper to work from and thus provide a hook for the investigators. Overall, as good as  ‘Crimson Letters’ has the potential to be, it does feel a bit too much like a tool kit for the Keeper rather than an actual scenario.

Whilst there is nothing intrinsically wrong in changing the scenarios from one edition of Call of Cthulhu to another, neither scenario feels right for the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Rulebook. In the hands of an experienced Keeper both scenarios are perfectly fine, but for the inexperienced or neophyte Keeper both represent a challenge, especially ‘Crimson Letters’ which possesses a complexity that is arguably too much for a scenario in a core rulebook. The first problem essentially is that neither is really an introductory scenario—or just quite an intermediary scenario if the Keeper and his players have played ‘The Haunting’. The second problem is that both scenarios are written with the experienced Keeper in mind, that is, the traditional audience who has been playing Call of Cthulhu for as much as thirty years or more, though more so in the case of ‘Crimson Letters’ than ‘Amidst Ancient Trees’.

Arguably, these scenarios are the only real misstep in the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook. Their inclusion and the lack of scenarios designed to ease a Keeper—whether a Keeper new to Call of Cthulhu or just the new edition—into running Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is both disappointing and out of step with the effort made by the rest of both the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook and the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Rulebook to both teach and showcase the new rules. Rounding out the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Rulebook is a set of extensive appendices. These include a glossary, a a conversion guide from previous editions to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, equipment lists, rules summaries, and more.

Physically, the  Call of Cthulhu Rulebook suffers from the same organisational oddities as the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook. Where that volume has the ‘Life As An Investigator’ and ‘Advice For Players’ chapters separated by a chapter on ‘The Roaring Twenties’, here the chapter on Magic—covering the reading and study of Mythos Tomes and the learning and casting of spells—is separated from the subsequent chapters that detail the Tomes of Eldritch Lore and the Grimoire of spells by the chapter on running the game, itself oddly named ‘Playing the Game’.  So there is an odd bump in the narrative flow of reading and learning the game and again, a organisation that is not as logical as it should be. That said, the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook is physically well presented and comes with some decent artwork, although various pieces are somewhat scrappy and lack the assured atmosphere of the old pen and ink pieces of the previous editions of the game. Although the editing wavers towards the book’s end a little, overall the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook is well written, the rules benefiting greatly  from the  efforts of the authors to explain the rules through copious examples—to the point where there are almost too many examples.


In coming to the end of any review it is usually a simple matter of drawing it to a close with a simple conclusion. This is not possible with what is a radically new and different take upon as venerable a game as Call of Cthulhu. Thus this review will draw not one conclusion, but several in pulling together my thoughts about Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

Most obviously, the biggest changes to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition are its mechanics. Their effect is to move it towards the Pulp style and feel, but it is not a wholly Pulp style game. Certainly ‘Pushing a Roll’ does move the game towards the Pulp and arguably away from the uncaring nature of a Lovecraftian universe, as does the expenditure of Luck and various other optional rules, but apart from ‘Pushing a Roll’, all of these are optional rules. In other words, the Keeper and his players does not have to use them. It is at best, slightly pulpy, and should a Keeper want a more Purist style of game, then the best option would probably be to ignore the optional rules. On the other hand, combat is now deadlier than before and healing greatly slowed, so the survivability of an investigator does feel as if has been substantially reduced. Which certainly makes it feel more like a Purist game and may be seen as a counter to the slightly pulpy ‘Pushing a Roll’ mechanic.

Of the optional rules, being able to spend Luck to adjust dice rolls has the most noticeable effect upon how people play Call of Cthulhu. This is because Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition turns Luck into a valuable resource, one that can be spent to effectively push an investigator’s luck and when low after having been spent, reflects the fact that an investigator’s luck really has run out. Now in a convention game or one-shot, Luck is there to spent. After all, the scenario will be over in four hours and that investigator is never going to be played again, so a player can be more daring, perhaps devil may care, with the life of his investigator. Luck though exacerbates this feeling, whereas in a campaign, Luck becomes much more of a precious resource, with limited refreshes of it at the end of scenario or part of a campaign. So Luck is something to be hoarded rather than spent, a player saving it until the moment when his investigator really, really needs it. What this means is that in an one-shot game, Luck makes a scenario much more of a Pulp game than a Purist.

Another side effect of the publication of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is that it fosters ‘edition wars’, that is, disagreements between one version of a game and another. It is perhaps more prevalent between versions of Dungeons & Dragons and of Old School Renaissance ‘retroclones’, but the differences between Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and its previous iterations are enough to inflame one over your favourite version of Call of Cthulhu. Whatever you feel about Call of Cthulhu, the game has been in print—more or less—for over thirty years and in that time it has been very well supported with a lot of highly playable material. Of course the publication of the new edition will mean that those previous editions of the game will no longer be supported, but that it is less of a handicap than some might think. 

Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is compatible with the previous editions and vice versa. If a Keeper and his players can handle simple arithmetic, then running any scenario for Call of Cthulhu under Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition will not be a challenge. The extra preparation required by the Keeper will not add much to the extra required to ready a scenario anyway and for the most part, a Keeper could run any almost any scenario published in the last thirty five years without any difficulty or even preparation, whether that is from The Asylum and Other TalesThe Stars Are Right, or Tales of the Sleepless City. It means that old material is still available and accessible and playable using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It means that your library of Call of Cthulhu books, campaigns, and scenarios and the material contained in them are still valid and definitely have not made redundant purely because of the publication of a new edition.* Likewise, a Keeper can just as easily take a scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, for example, Cold Harvest or Dead Light, and run it using Call of Cthulhu, Sixth EditionCall of Cthulhu, Fifth Edition, and so on.

*It is fair to say that there are exceptions. For example, The 1920's Investigator's Companion, Vol. 11920's Investigator's Companion, Vol. 2, and The 1920's Investigator's Companion are all redundant with the publication on the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition Investigator Book.


So at this point in the review, I want to step away from the analysis of the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook and talk about my emotional response to the new edition of the game after playing it several times. I was a play-tester—like many people—and I was a Kickstarter backer—again like so many people, and of the playtesting groups, we were the only ones to record those sessions. In playing both through the playtest sessions and various games since, at no time has it never felt like I was not playing Call of Cthulhu. True, it felt fiddly in places and the Investigator sheet looked fussy, but this never translated into play. Nor did any of the investigators I played feel less or more competent. In places the rules did feel slightly more complex, especially the Chase mechanics and whilst investigator creation looks more complex, the numbers are simple and the choices of Occupations excellent—especially if you have the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Book.

A more considered and thoughtful question arises when I come to review titles for Call of Cthulhu other than Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. This is, “Can I run this using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition?” Every time, whether the book is The Asylum & Other TalesGreen and Pleasant Land, or Tatters of the King, the answer is “Yes.”

However, I do have strong feelings about the changes to the content of the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook. Simply, I am saddened by the omission of the short story ‘The Call of Cthulhu’ and the loss of the scenarios—‘The Haunting’, ‘The Madman’, ‘Dead Man Stomp’, and ‘Edge of Darkness’. Of course, I still have them in previous editions of the game, but a Call of Cthulhu rulebook without them seems lacking.


Penultimately, in reviewing Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, there is the matter of the title of these reviews—Call of Cthulhu II (Part the First) and Call of Cthulhu II (Part the Second). It is the ‘Call of Cthulhu II’ that is important here, for although the reviews of both the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook and the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook, are together a review of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, arguably they are not Seventh Edition at all. Rather they are Call of Cthulhu, Second Edition—the real Second Edition and not the one published in 1983. For all of the editions published between 1981 and 2005—from Call of Cthulhu to Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, are really one game with just minor changes between editions, a contention only exacerbated by the number of minor editions released for the Fifth Edition. The publication of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is a radical design in comparison to those previous editions, it is as a thorough a rethink of the way in which the game is played as it has ever received.* It is as thorough a reexamination of the rules and the issues of the rules as the RPG has ever had and indicates a major step in the game’s evolution and history.

*Arguably several of the other RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror can also be seen as radical responses to decades of Call of Cthulhu. Take your pick as to which... 

Ultimately, the question you have to answer is this… “Should Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition have been just another reprint with minor tweaks made to the rules and a new layout that pleased no one, or should the designers have actually addressed issues with the game that had arisen after thirty years of gaming?” The question hardly warrants an answer, because it cannot be denied that Call of Cthulhu needed an update, a redesign, a rethink—and not just because it was being funded via Kickstarter. The resulting Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition has been updated, redesigned, rethought, and the end result is a far more resilient, more nuanced game, but with options included to allow a Keeper to run the game how he wants. If the designers of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition had to get one thing right it was addressing the issue of failed skill rolls and in the ‘Pushing a Roll’ mechanic, the designers absolutely have. The mechanic is simple, elegant, and in keeping with the designers’ efforts to give the players greater agency during the game. This is balanced by the granting of agency back to the Keeper when ‘Pushing a Roll’ or an Idea roll are failed. The other mechanical changes evolve from previous editions of the game and are logical and standardised, making the game easier to learn and play. Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is also easier to learn because the rewriting of both the Call of Cthulhu Rulebook and the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook includes copious examples of the rules and play, and all together, Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is more accessible for Keeper and player alike.

The  fact that it is an evolution of the previous rules, means that the thirty years of previous supplements, scenarios, and campaigns are still accessible and playable using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, yet Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is also a great jumping on point for the game. Whilst Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition brings many changes to the venerable RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, this is without fundamentally changing what Call of Cthulhu was—and is, the preeminent RPG of Cosmic Horror.

Friday, 30 October 2015

Cthulhu Classics IV

From one week to the next, Reviews from R’lyeh writes reviews of new games and supplements with an emphasis on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. The Cthulhu Classics series concentrates on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but not those recently released, but those of the past. There have been innumerable titles published over the years and this is an opportunity to appraise them anew, often decades after they were first released.

For the fourth entry in this series, Reviews of R’lyeh turns to another innovative title, The Asylum & Other Tales. When this was published in 1983 by Chaosium, Inc., it was the second release for Call of Cthulhu following the first release and first campaign for the RPG, Shadows of Yog-Sothoth. This was at a time when scenarios—typified by those published by TSR, Inc. for Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons—appeared as single adventures. Not collections, not anthologies, but single affairs that if there were follow-ups, then they too, would appear as single adventures. So a collection of unconnected scenarios was something of an innovation in 1983. Subtitled “Seven Common Situations as Viewed through the Cthulhu Mythos”, The Asylum & Other Tales was also innovative in terms of the stories it was telling, presenting themes and ideas that were new to roleplaying and to Call of Cthulhu just two years after the RPG’s publication in 1981, but which have been revisited again and again in the three decades since the publication of The Asylum & Other Tales. Thus we have scenarios that deal with auctions, madness—yes, literally, a sea voyage, and a haunted house. If these sound like cliches, remember that in Call of Cthulhu terms, these scenarios were here first.

The Asylum & Other Tales opens with Randy McCall’s first contribution to the anthology. ‘The Auction’ is about an auction, but one set in Vienna, Austria, where there will be an array of occult artefacts and tomes available to bid upon. The investigators are invited to attend, either as proxy for another party or in their own right. This is a high class soiree where the investigators need to mind their manners, but their reputations and even their uncouth skills are put to use when the head of the auction house asks them to investigate the death of an employee and the theft of one of the artefacts up for auction. ‘The Auction’ has the reputation of being a classic scenario and it is a reputation that it still deserves. It comes with a decent cast of well drawn NPCs—an absolute must at an auction, it includes enough detail to touch upon the difficult economic conditions in Austria following the Great War, and the murder mystery is creepy and atmospheric—and ultimately sad.

If there is an issue with ‘The Auction’ it is the number of ‘magical’ items on display. In any other scenario they would probably overwhelm the adventure, but here they are the point of the scenario. All of them are nicely described, their descriptions adding further depth to the scenario and possibly future scenarios should they come into the investigators’ possession. ‘The Auction’ is still a classic and undoubtedly the star of the anthology.

It is followed by Mark Harmon’s ‘The Madman’ which is set in the quiet town of Black Knob. It is here that a friend of the investigators, Adam Smythe, has retired following one too many a mental shock after an investigation into the unknown. Unfortunately a series of disappearances in the town forces Adam to alert the investigators, but as they will soon discover, Adam has another side to him. Scenarios for Call of Cthulhu rarely deal with the effects of investigating the Mythos and the resulting loss of Sanity as directly as this, but as simple an idea as ‘The Madman’ is, the execution required is more complex than it at first seems. The Keeper needs to be careful in portraying this NPC without giving the game away, whilst the option of having a player bring out an old investigator out of retirement again needs careful handling for the same reasons. One issue with ‘The Madman’ is that it does overegg the Mythos slightly, but the removal of a single Mythos creature is easily done and should be enough to address this issue.

The third scenario, ‘Black Devil Mountain’, has a justifiably and uneviable record as one of the worst scenarios ever published for Call of Cthulhu. Written by Dave Hargrave, the designer of The Arduin Trilogy and author of ‘Dark Carnival’ from Curse of the Cthonians, ‘Black Devil Mountain’ opens with much promise. The brother of one of the investigators has died, leaving him a cabin and some land on the side of Black Devil Mountain in New England. The circumstances behind the brother’s death are not exactly clear and when the investigators begin to look into it, they find themselves shunned by the local townsfolk. Yet careful interaction with some of the more welcoming townsfolk will grant them some information, whilst a guide, Ol’ Tom, promises to take them up the mountain to the brother’s land. Up until this point, the scenario has been progressing well, providing various avenues of investigation and several nicely done encounters with the townsfolk. Sadly, with the arrival of Ol’ Tom the quality of the scenario plummets. The depiction of this NPC verges on racism and then there is the Mound atop Black Devil Mountain. Within is not the lair of some dark beast, but a veritable menagerie of Mythos creatures, seemingly added without rhyme nor reason. Not only is the effect of this—along with various traps—to turn the investigators’ delvings into a series of deadly encounters, it essentially turns the Mound into the equivalent of a Mythos dungeon, home to enraged bears, zombies, ghouls, and cthonians of different sizes, which the investigators are expected to return to again and again in order to deal with the problem. Which is unlikely given that the investigators are unlikely to survive their first delve let alone a second…

Where ‘The Madman’ overeggs the Mythos, ‘Black Devil Mountain’ shovels in the Mythos equivalent of a full English breakfast. This only serves to highlight a lack of understanding upon the part of the author as to what a Call of Cthulhu adventure is not. Sadly not even its decent beginning can rescue what is a deadly, dull adventure written in the mode of Dungeons & Dragons rather than Call of Cthulhu which deserves all of the opprobrium heaped upon it.

Randy McCall’s ‘The Asylum’ is his second contribution to this anthology, but it is a less interesting and less effective affair. It is set in an asylum where its psychiatrist has been conducting experiments into the Mythos. Thus it is just the place to send an investigator once he has been sent insane by one too many an encounter with the Mythos, but this really is the only way to use ‘The Asylum’. Otherwise, this is more of a set-up or situation awaiting some kind of a hook to get the investigators involved. Another issue is that it overdoes the Mythos in the number of books and artefacts to be found and they feel too much like random treasure rather than things to worry the investigators and their players with.

Similarly, ‘The Mauretania’ by M.B. Willner suffers from the same problem, but it is a case of too many Mythos Tomes and too many artefacts. Plus ‘The Mauretania’ also has a plot or two strand too many which if used makes the journey presented in ‘The Mauretania’ all too busy for just a six day voyage. Nevertheless, ‘The Mauretania’ is regarded as another classic, though more because it concerns itself with a voyage across the Atlantic aboard one of the ‘Queens of the Sea’ as a means of getting from New York to England (and Europe)—typically as part of The Masks of Nyarlathotep campaign—rather than taking the trip for one's health—as suggested in the text. What ‘The Mauretania’ packs into the six-day trip includes assassins, scholars of the Mythos, cultists of the Mythos, investigators of the Mythos, and a mad killer in the mode of Jack the Ripper. (See what I mean by “a plot or two strand too many…”?) Shorn of the extraneous plots and ‘The Mauretania’ is a solid affair.

In the introduction to The Asylum & Other Tales, it states that “The Gate spell has proved to be one of the more durable spells in Call of Cthulhu.”, which sort of suggests that players are having their investigators cast Create Gate and the consequences be damned. In John Scott Clegg’s ‘Gate from the Past’, the investigators are hired by Miskatonic University after strange lights on a hill outside town have sent a local man mad. The problem with ‘Gate from the Past’ is that it throws the investigators up against a threat that they are entirely unprepared for and even if they were, are wholly incapable of dealing with it. This threat comes in the form of Elder Things escaping from the past who due to a mix up with the Create Gate spell are followed by a dinosaur and six Shoggoths! Really!? The investigators could easily follow the ceratosaur back into the past and this is certainly hinted at by the scenario’s artwork, which depicts the investigators dressed for a safari being chased by the ceratosaur. Sadly though, as much as ‘Gate from the Past’ is an interesting idea, here its execution manages to underwhelm the Keeper and player alike as much as the investigators will probably be overwhelmed by the Shoggoths. Interestingly, this scenario includes playtest notes, surely a first…?

Rounding out The Asylum & Other Tales, ‘The Westchester House’ is a ghost hunt written by Elizabeth A Woolcott. Part of the pleasure of this scenario is that it is based upon a real location—the Winchester Mystery House—and a real person—Sarah Winchester. The action though is moved to San Francisco rather than San Jose where the investigators are hired to investigate strange knocks in the home of a wealthy heiress who has an unwavering belief in ghosts. This combines strange goings on with a backstory that involves murder, forgeries, and weird child mediums. What the scenario does not involve is the Mythos, the result being a deliciously frothy mix that can serve as a ‘vanilla’ palate cleanser between more ‘mundane’ confrontations with the Mythos.

Physically, The Asylum & Other Tales, like many of Chaosium Inc.’s early books for Call of Cthulhu has a slightly rough around the edges feel. Both the artwork and cartography are a little scrappy, but a lot of it is nicely atmospheric. The writing though could be much tighter and there is a lot information—particularly in the form of spells and books—that is repeated again and again from the core rulebook. The book also includes a selection of handouts stapled into its centre, the best of which is the catalogue for the auction in ‘The Auction’.

The real issue with The Asylum & Other Tales is that too many of its scenarios overuse the Mythos. Typically, one type of Mythos entity too many—especially Ghouls, too many Mythos tomes lying around for the investigators to find them, and the NPCs knowing far too much Cthulhu Mythos skill. This of course does not affect ‘The Westchester House’ and of course ‘Black Devil Mountain’ is case all on its own, but this is certainly the case in scenario after scenario in this anthology. That said, The Asylum & Other Tales was written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Second Edition at a time when the only model for writing scenarios was Dungeons & Dragons and the proliferation of Mythos artefacts and tomes does feel like treasure waiting to be found…

Anders Swenson reviewed The Asylum & Other Tales in Different Worlds #35 (July/August 1984), stating that “The Asylum has some of the same problems as its predecessor Shadows of Yog-Sothoth: some of the scenario chapters are poorly organized, and some sanity-loss situations are down-right silly.” before concluding with “Overall, this is a fine collection of Lovecraftian adventures will worth the attention of enthusiastic keepers and completist fans of H.P. Lovecraft.”

The author of Cthulhu by Gaslight, William A. Barton, reviewed The Asylum & Other Tales in Fantasy Gamer #5 (April/May 1984). He described the scenarios as “well thought out” and found “"The Auction" and ''The Asylum" perhaps the most interesting.” He did however, have minor problems with the anthology—“The "weird geometry" of the Winchester House would be easier to portray had plans of more than one hall been provided. Several Mythos books in "Mauretania" have more spells listed than the game rules allow.” and he would “...[H]ave rather seen more scenario description and fewer notes on the playtests in "Gate," given the scenario's shortness. Nevertheless, he concluded with “In spite of these minor flaws , The Asylum & Other Tales is a worthy addition to the Cthulhu Mythos and should be snatched up hand and tentacle by all CoC Keepers.”

Writing in White Dwarf #47 (November, 1983), Jon Sutherland gave The Asylum & Other Tales nine out of ten and wrote, “In conclusion Asylum is a neat collection providing short interesting adventures. I have always thought that scenarios go on too long and the vitality of the story and the players tail off. Black Devil Mountain and Asylum are the strongest of the group. Quality-wide it compares very favourably with Shadows. Don’t get put off the price!” (Note that the price for The Asylum & Other Tales was £7.95 in 1983 and by ‘Shadows’, the reviewer is referring to Shadows of Yog-Sothoth.) It is fair to say that with the benefit of hindsight, The Asylum & Other Tales does not deserve so high a grade and ‘Devil Black Mountain’ cannot be described in any way shape or form as “...the strongest of the group.” Never have I disagreed with the opinion of another review more than I do with Jon Sutherland here. Even if you consider that in 1983, there was so very little for the reviewer to compare one Call of Cthulhu scenario with another, comparing ‘Black Devil Mountain’ with the other scenarios in this anthology would have been enough to determine how dreadful this scenario is.

All seven scenarios from The Asylum & Other Tales would reprinted in 1990’s The Cthulhu Casebook along with ‘The Curse of Chaugnar Faugn’ and ‘Thoth's Dagger’ from Curse of the Cthonians. Looking at them thirty years on, the seven scenarios in The Asylum & Other Tales are a mixed bag. ‘Black Devil Mountain’ was and still is a contender for one of the worst scenarios ever published for Call of Cthulhu, but the remaining six are solid affairs of which ‘The Auction’ and ‘The Mauretania’ are classics. Certainly both of the latter could be run today using the new Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition without the players noticing any difference—and arguably any of the scenarios could being updated and published for the new edition.‘Black Devil Mountain’ being the notable exception as it would require a lot of effort, but then all of the scenarios here would require an edit and a scaling back of their Mythos quotas before being published anew.

All together the seven scenarios in The Asylum & Other Tales present a snapshot of Call of Cthulhu writing as it was in 1983, just as the writers were laying down many of the ideas that authors have since revisited again and again. They feel rough and ready, but no less playable and whilst it it might one of the worst scenarios ever published for Call of Cthulhu, it is fortunate that all of the other scenarios in The Asylum & Other Tales more than make up for ‘Black Devil Mountain’.


With thanks to Dean Engelhardt and Chitin who both graciously took the time to provide access to contemporary reviews of The Asylum & Other Tales. Dean was able to furnish me with the review from Fantasy Gamer #5 and Chitin Proctor with the review from Different Worlds #35.

Wednesday, 28 October 2015

Machi Koro Disestablishmentarianism

The 2015 Spiel des Jahres nominated Machi Koro is a beautifully simple game that was made all the better with the addition of the expansion of Machi Koro: Harbour Expansion. The expansion opened up the number of paths to victory, whilst countering the core game’s limited number of paths to victory, making gameplay more random, and giving a more satisfying playing experience. Now, the second of the expansions of the Japanese ‘dice and card building’ game published by IDW Games is available in English. The question is, if Machi Koro: Harbour Expansion made Machi Koro better, can Machi Koro: Millionaire’s Row—known as Japan as Machi Koro Sharp—do the same?

If Machi Koro: Harbour Expansion took Machi Koro out to sea and back again, then Machi Koro: Millionaire’s Row gives an opportunity for the players to gentrify their towns. They can add Vineyards and Wineries, French Restaurants and Member’s Only Clubs, Demolition Companies and Renovation Companies, and more. All of these are new Establishments—there are no new Landmarks in this expansion. Fundamentally, the cards in Millionaire’s Row are more conditional and are as much about demolishing and decommissioning buildings as it is about building them.

The key condition that some of the Establishments work off in Millionaire’s Row is the number of Landmarks that a player has built. So the Green Card ‘General Store’ gives a player two coins from the bank when he rolls it, but only if he has less than two constructed Landmarks and the similar Blue Card ‘Corn Field’ gives every ‘Corn Field’ owner one coin from the Bank when anyone rolls it, but only if each owner has less than two constructed Landmarks. The Red Card ‘French Restaurant’ only activates when the player who rolls it has two or more constructed Landmarks; he must give the owning player five coins. The similar ‘Member’s Only Club’ requires the player who rolls it to have three or more constructed Landmarks; he must give all of his coins to the owning player.

The primary new mechanic introduced in Millionaire’s Row is that of deconstruction and renovation, that is, both Establishments and Landmarks can be deconstructed as well as constructed. Thus the Green Card ‘Demolition Company’ forces a player to demolish one of his Landmarks, though he does get eight coins and he can reconstruct the Landmark later. Establishments are not deconstructed, but rather closed for renovation. Thus the Green Card ‘Winery’ gives a player six coins when rolled for each Vineyard he owns, but then it closes for Renovation. When rolled, the Purple Card ‘Renovation Company’ allows a player to choose one type of Establishment in play and force all of them to close for Renovation, including those owned by other players. The rolling player gets one coin for each Establishment closed in this fashion. Any Establishment that is closed for Renovation receives a Renovation token and needs to be rolled again for the token to be removed. Until the Renovation token is removed, an Establishment cannot generate any income.

Not all of the new Establishments are always beneficial. The already mentioned Green Card ‘General Store’ only benefits a player when he has less than two constructed Landmarks, whilst the Green Card ‘Loan Office’ grants a player five coins when constructed (it is free to purchase), but makes him pay two coins back to the Bank when rolled on subsequent turns. Cards like this are primary candidates for use with the Green Card ‘Moving Company’ and the similar Purple Card ‘Business Centre’ from the core game that enable a player to move an Establishment to another player or swap one of his Establishments with that of another player. Here the ‘Moving Company’ gives a player four coins when he does this.

Lastly, the Purple Cards, ‘Park’ and ‘Tech Startups’, are interesting ways of getting more coins. The ‘Park’ forces all players’ coins to be collected and redistributed equally between all of the players, whilst at the end of each turn, a player can choose to place a single coin on the ‘Tech Startup’. Each time the ‘Tech Startup’ is rolled, coins equal to the number of coins on the card is collected from each of the other players.

The overall effect of Millionaire Row’s cards is to slow game play in two fundamental ways. The first is that many of the cards are designed to slow player down, particularly any runaway leader, the latter always a possibility in Machi Koro, especially if the Harbour Expansion is being used. Second, it increases the number of cards in play and can thus be drawn into the Marketplace, especially if the Harbour Expansion is being used. This can lead to situations where the only cards available for purchase can be two expensive and even when bought, may not generate income for a player. To an extent, this is countered by the free-to-buy ‘General Store’ and ‘Loan Office’ cards, but really this is an issue with Millionaire Row’s that could have been addressed.

Millionaire’s Row adds lots of interesting cards to the play of Machi Koro, but these add complexity and fundamentally slow gameplay down as does the profusion of cards being fed into the Marketplace. The complexity makes Machi Koro more of a gamer’s game than a family game, whilst the overstuffed Marketplace is a problem in search of a solution.

Saturday, 24 October 2015

Harbouring Machi Koro

The 2015 Spiel des Jahres nominated Machi Koro is a beautifully simple game with a problem. The Japanese ‘dice and card building’ game published by IDW Games has proved to be a hit and a very good gateway to Japon games. The problem is that the game has a limited number of paths to victory. Either a player opts to buy Cheese Factories and powers them with Ranches or he opts to buy Furniture Factories and powers them with Mines and Forests. During the game, because all of Machi Koro's cards are laid out to buy, the game has a static feel with there being nothing to stop another player from selecting these paths to victory. This limits the game’s replayability, which is a shame, because Machi Koro's design is still good. It just needs something to take that good design and turn it into a good game that people will come back to.

Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion is the first expansion for the game. It adds coins worth twenty coins each. More importantly, it does several things with its sixty-eight cards, but does it address the problem at the heart of the game?

The very first thing that Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion does is provide the means to add a fifth player to the base game. On one level, this simply means another set of the four Landmark cards—a Station, a Shopping Mall, an Amusement Park, and a Radio Tower—that need to be built to win the game and the two starting cards for generating income—a Wheat Field and a Bakery. That though is for the base game, because after that is where Machi Koro: Harbor Expansion gets interesting.

Second, it adds three new Landmark cards. The first of these is City Hall, which enters play face up and can be used from the start of the game. It generates money if a player does not have any money before he purchases an Establishment. The second, the Harbor, is what the expansion is named for and activates a number of fishing related  Establishments once purchased. Where the Harbor is cheap to buy, the third Landmark, the Airport is not. It gives a player coins when he does not buy anything, though given its cost, the Airport’s effect will rarely enter play as most players will purchase it to win the game. There are of course, enough of the new Landmark cards for five players.

Third, it adds a swathe of new Establishment cards. The Red-coloured food outlets—Hamburger Stands, Pizza Joints, and Sushi Bars—give more means to force a player to pay their owners when their numbers are rolled. Both of the new Green-coloured cards—Food Warehouse and Flower Shop—are powered by other cards rather themselves. Apart from the Flower Shop, the other Blue-coloured cards—Mackerel Boat and Tuna Boat—require the Harbor to have been bought if they are to work. Lastly, the new Purple-coloured Special cards—Publisher and Tax Office—give news means to take money from the other players. Some of these cards are powerful, for example, the Tax Office takes half of the coins of any player who has ten coins or more, whilst the Tuna Boat grants a player two dice’ worth of coins. The new cards also strengthen the numbers available, for example, the Flower Shop can rolled on a six; they oppose other cards, for example, the Wheat Field is countered by the Sushi Bar, one generates money, the other taxes the player who rolled, both require a roll of one; and with the Tuna Boat they extend the number range from one to twelve to one to fourteen. This only comes into play if a player has a bought a Harbor which grants a bonus to a player’s roll if he rolls a ten or more.

Fourth and last, Machi Koro: Harbor makes a radical to the Market Place—the place from where the players purchase Establishments. In the base game every type of Establishment card is available to buy, but this expansion limits the Market Place to just ten unique Establishments at a time. These are set up at game start, with duplicate Establishments forming their own card piles. As soon as the last of an unique Establishment is purchased, a new one is drawn. If a duplicate is drawn, it is added to its own pile and Establishments are are drawn until there are ten unique ones in the Market Place. What this does is prevent easy access to particular paths to victory—for example, purchasing Cheese Factories and powering them with Ranches, or with this expansion, Flower Shops powered by Flower Orchards, Food Warehouses powered by by food outlets like Cafes, Family Restaurants, Hamburger Stands, Pizza Joints, and Sushi Bars, and so on. It does not prevent total access, but forces the players to generalise and adapt to the cards available rather than cherry picking. It also makes game play random.

There is a great deal to like about Machi Koro: Harbor. It mixes game play up, adding a much needed random element and countering the original game’s paths to victory. It thus makes the game less predictable and longer to play, but gives a more satisfying playing experience. It makes Machi Koro a much, much better game. You may play Machi Koro a few times, but with Machi Koro: Harbor, you will play again and again.

The 1980s Horror RPG

The best known title published by Pacesetter Ltd. is 1984’s Chill: Adventures into the Unknown, a horror roleplaying game that drew its inspiration from horror movies of the twentieth century and pitched stalwart heroes against such foes as vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, goblins, and ghouls. Chill also introduced us to S.A.V.E. (Societas Argenti Viae Eternitata or The Eternal Society of the Silver Way), a secret society dedicated to protecting innocents from the creatures of the Unknown. Although there is a new edition of Chill 3rd Edition: A Horror Roleplaying Game about to be published following a successful Kickstarter campaign and a new S.A.V.E. sourcebook currently being funded, it should be pointed out that there other horror roleplaying games that use the same mechanics as Chill: Adventures into the Unknown.

Rotworld: A Game of Survival Horror Against Undead Flesh Eaters is one, and Cryptworld: Chilling Adventures into the Unexplained is the other. Both are published by Goblinoid Games, which is best known for releasing the Retroclone, Labyrinth Lord. Although Goblinoid Games does not own the rights to Chill, it does own the rights to a number of the former publisher’s other games as well as the associated mechanics and the Pacesetter Ltd. name. Thus we have both Rotworld and Cryptworld and a number of games, including Timemaster: Adventures in the 4th Dimension, Sandman: Map of Halaal, and Majus: Magic Noir Adventures of Supernatural Intrigue. Of these five RPGs, Cryptworld is the most like its forebear, being a horror roleplaying game in which the player characters investigate and hunt the forces of the unexplained. In doing so they may face classic Gothic monsters of the page and screen—vampires, werewolves, and mummies; the lone stalker, the scary neighbour, and crazed cannibals of the Slasher flick; and monsters from the unknown—alien blobs, extraterrestrial invaders, the Chupacabra, and more.

At the heart of Cryptworld, and of course, its raison d'être, is its Action Table. With a roll against this table, a player or the Crypt Master can reasonably quick discover the result and effects of a roll. The system uses ten-sided dice, with percentile rolls for all actions. In most instances, a character can get away with simply rolling under the value of his attribute or skill, but if he needs to know how well he did, he simply deducts the number rolled from his skill to get a Margin of Success. In combat, this Margin of Success becomes his Attack Margin, the result cross referenced against the difficulty or Defence Column. This gets a result ranging from a simple scratch to a crushing or crippling blow that knocks the defendant down.
For example, our first sample character, Chris Kettley, has been investigating the disappearances of homeless people in Las Vegas’ Downtown South district and tracked them to a warehouse owned by Toledo Trucking. Having eased himself over the fence, he does not get very far before a Hillbilly Cannibal—who has come in from the desert to feed on the homeless, leaps out at him, axe raised, and with a clang, brings the weapon down on the concrete having missed the journalist.
In response, Chris flails widely at the buck-toothed, roughly dressed guard. He rolls his Unskilled Melee of 53 and gets a result of 29. The Margin of Success—Chris’ Unskilled Melee of 53 minus the result of 29—is 24. This is compared to the randomly determined Defence Column, which is 7, to get a result of ‘LK’. This is ‘L’ for Light Damage (2-20 points of Stamina lost) and ‘K’ for the defender being knocked down. Chris’ flailing arms push the guard over who falls back and is winded… Chris takes the opportunity to run back towards the fence.
The mechanics, with their use of the Action Table, look more complex than they are in practice. The problem with both the mechanics and their use of the Action Table is twofold. First, there is an almost bewildering number of conditional rules that apply to the various situations and skills that can come up in play. Second, the Action Table is essentially focused on combat. It is meant to, and it does, work with the use of skills, but to actually interpret the results of any skill roll the Crypt Master has to look elsewhere in the book. Which can only slow gameplay down…

That said, when it comes to combat, perhaps the aspect that players today will find the oddest is that mechanically, no weapon in the game does any damage. Rather, the damage is essentially derived entirely from the results of the skill roll. Thus the weaponry tables in Cryptworld are all about range modifiers (which do affect skill), reload time, and rate of fire. One interesting mechanic using the Action Table involves a defendant’s action when being fired upon. When this occurs, the defending character has to roll a ten-sided die to determine the Defence Column that the attacker is rolling against, but can influence this by expending Luck to make it a higher Defence Column and thus make himself harder to hit. This is a pleasing way of handling a character’s attempt to dodge.

Character generation in Cryptworld again looks more complex than it is, in part because it involves a degree of arithmetic. Eight attributes, each ranging in value between twenty-six and eighty, are rolled for randomly, with a number of factors being derived from these attributes. These factors include secondary factors such as Penetration Bonus and Wounds, and also the unskilled values for various skills. The most jarring aspect of character creation is that the number of skills a character starts the game with is randomly determined, so that one character might start the game with three skills or as many as six. Like attributes, skills expressed as percentiles, with the unskilled value for any skill being equal to the average of two or three attributes.

The majority of the skills listed would cover any time within the last fifty years, but with the inclusion of the Beam Weapons skill could enable a Cryptworld campaign to be set in the future, whilst the inclusion of the Horseman’s Lance, Mounted Melee, and Bow skills mean that it could easily be set in the past. From the skill list there is the one odd omission—that of a Drive skill. Every character has base chance when driving—equal to the average of his Agility and Perception attributes, yet in order to improve upon that, a character has to purchase the Stunt Driving skill.

Our example character is an investigative journalist, Chris Kettley. An ex-reporter for the Las Vegas CityLife, he has gone freelance after the editor decided that some of his stories were too fanciful. Nevertheless, his curiosity is such that he thinks that there is more to such stories.

Chris Kettley
Strength 48 Dexterity 58 Agility 58 Personality 68
Willpower 60 Perception 72 Luck 64 Stamina 56
Unskilled Melee: 53
Penetration Bonus: +0
Stamina Recovery Rate: 4
Wounds: 13
Gambling 83, Investigation 81, Journalism 85, Language (Spanish) 81, Social Sciences (Psychology) 81

As an option, characters can also possess Paranormal Talents such as ‘Precognition’, ‘Ignore Pain’, ‘Distance Viewing’, and ‘Telepathic Sending’. These are joined by a few that will be familiar from Rotworld, such as ‘Speak with Dead’ and ‘Corpse State’. Unlike skills whose number is randomly determined, the number of Paranormal Talents that a character can have is determined by his Perception and Willpower, up to a maximum of three. It costs Willpower to use Paranormal Talents, and although a character’s Willpower will refresh, the relatively high cost will preclude their being over used.

The chapter of ‘Things’—monsters, threats, and more—draws heavily upon the Gothic tradition, Myth, and movies of the last seventy years for its inspiration. So from the first there are the Mummy, the Vampire, and the Werewolf; from the second there are the Chuacabra, the Gorgon, and the Jersey Devil; and the Gillman, the Puppet Master, and the Space Blob from the third. It is easy to spot the inspiration for many of these Things, so the Ankle Biters are from Critters, the Criswell from Plan 9 From Outer Space, the Puppet Master from Chuckie, and the Trilliad from The Day of the Triffids. Spotting these inspirations is part of the fun of playing these monsters as the Crypt Master and facing against them as the players. There are over thirty Things included in Cryptworld, but with a game like Cryptworld the Crypt Master is going to want more.

As a horror game, Cryptworld does include a mechanic for handling Fear, rolling on the Action Table to get a result, primarily being a loss of Willpower points. It seems odd though that the rules for Fear are given as an option rather than being a featre of the game itself. Advice for the Crypt Master examines setting the tone of the game, the core elements of the Horror genre, and possible themes. At just a couple of pages, it is short and succinct, if aimed at the more experienced Referee, but then Cryptworld is definitely an RPG for the experienced Referee rather than the beginner. It would have been nice if the tones, elements, and themes had been illustrated by the example movies that the RPG itself draws from. Where Chill has S.A.V.E., Cryptworld presents a number of options and ideas for organisations that investigate the wierd. Thus you have an academic department (the International Society of Crptozoology and Xenobiology), a government agency (Defense Against Paranormal Agencies), a secret society (Societas Malleus et Sudis or the Society of Hammer & Stake), and so on. 

Rounding out Cryptworld is the adventure ‘Red Eye’. This is an introductory adventure that can be played with characters who have never encountered the supernatural or the occult, but it can also be played by characters who have. It is also good for throwing diverse unrelated characters together because all they need is a reason to be aboard an overnight flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, also aboard is the supernatural’s answer to the apex predator—hell bent on not being discovered and killing everyone if it is—and doubly unfortunately, anything that the player characters might usually use to combat this outre threat is unlikely to been allowed on board in their hand luggage… So when a body is discovered not long after take off, the player characters will not only have to scavenge the contents of a long haul passenger jet, but will have to rely upon their wits to defeat the creature locked in the pressurised metal tube with them. ‘Red Eye’ is a solid, fraught adventure which works  as well as a one-shot as it does an introduction to a campaign.

Physically, Cryptworld is well presented, decently written, and nicely illustrated. In particular, the illustrations by Jim Holloway give the book a solid period feel. The rest of the artwork, by Brian Thomas and Tim Tyler, is a match for that period also.

Chill and Pacesetter Ltd. and thus the ethos and feel of Cryptworld date from after the gaming hobby’s ‘Golden Age’ of its first ten years. This was from a time when there was a push for complexity and realism, for a universal mechanic, and it shows in Cryptworld as a fairly heavy, if not complex, set of mechanics, at least by contemporary standards. The complexity primarily shows in its use and application of the universal mechanic is hampered by numerable situational rules and the need to reference individual rules for far too many things. This only slows the play of the game down, as does the fact that the Action Table itself is printed in greyscale in the back of the book rather than in full colour on the back cover.

Of course the truth is that Cryptworld is going to be eclipsed by the release of Chill 3rd Edition: A Horror Roleplaying Game. After all, Chill is a name that the gaming knows and recognises, but whilst Chill and Cryptworld share the same mechanics, Chill comes with a background and in the form of S.A.V.E., something ready to build a game around. Cryptworld lacks both, but neither lack is reason enough to dismiss Cryptworld out of hand, for it has merits of its own. With a clean presentation of its rules, a decent selection of Things (or monsters), and a little advice on running horror games, Cryptworld: Chilling Adventures into the Unexplained is well done, generic, horror gaming kit.