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

Saturday, 26 December 2015

The Sorting Scenario

Although there is no scenario in the rulebook for Shadow of the Demon Lord, the first RPG released by Schwalb Entertainment following a successful Kickstarter campaign, one of the excellent decisions upon the part of the designer has been to release support—and release it early—in the form of scenarios for the game. This way a gaming group can get playing quickly, even if they are just using the core rules presented in Victims of the Demon Lord: Starter Guide and an adventure. In addition, the publisher has also released Tales of the Demon Lord, a complete mini-campaign that takes a party of characters from Zero Level up to Eleventh Level. In the meantime, the first adventure is Survival of the Fittest.

Designed for Zero Level characters and players new to Shadow of the Demon, the adventure comes as an eight-page, 9.9 MB PDF. As it opens it finds the adventurers under the eaves of the Old Wood, having fled there following a bandit attack on the coach they were travelling on. They had been bound for the settlement of Fletcher’s Rest, but now find themselves in a forest with a dark reputation. Lost and desperate, the travellers need to find their way out of the woods if they are to get to the safety of sanctuary at Fletcher’s Rest, itself a rough little hamlet built around the tomb of a martyr to the New God.

Survival of the Fittest is a mini-sandbox which consists of ten locations, including Fletcher’s Rest. The others range from the Ambush Site and the Bandits’ Camp to a blighted Misty Clearing and the Lonely Cottage of a hermit. Getting through the Old Woods, with its dense tangle of oaks, maples, and elms, will be slow going and there is the danger of random encounters as well as bandits still looking for victims to rob and kill. Some of the individual encounter locations are nicely done, the Fungal Patch in particular a potentially bloody, foul, and messy experience. Others are simply eerie or benign, but all are easy to run and elaborate upon by the Game Master.

Unfortunately, as a sandbox scenario in which the characters can just wander around seeing what happens, Survival of the Fittest is not the best of scenarios for a beginning Game Master to run or beginning players to play. It has no plot or intrinsic direction, which may mean leave the players and their characters just wandering around with nothing happening and nothing to do. An experienced Game Master might instead take these encounters and perhaps move them around to give his players and their characters something to do and perhaps help drive them on towards the intended destination of Fletcher’s Rest. Also, as a scenario for Level Zero characters it does not quite serve the need to expose the characters to elements that will influence their decision in choosing their Novice Path—Magician, Priest, Rogue, or Warrior.

Physically, Survival of the Fittest is nicely presented and clearly written. Almost half of it is devoted to its monsters and threats and that does mean that it is lacking in terms of advice for the Game Master. Another reason then, why Survival of the Fittest is not quite suitable for an inexperienced Game Master. The map has a lovely feel to it, though the numbers of the various locations are perhaps a little difficult to read in places. Nevertheless, Survival of the Fittest has a grim, dark atmosphere that the rules of Shadow of the Demon Lord readily support and there is everything here for a gaming group to have fun with this. 

Friday, 25 December 2015

An Arkham Asset #3

The Arkham Gazette #3 is the third issue of the magazine devoted to Lovecraft Country for Call of Cthulhu published by Sentinel Hill Press and the first to see print. Funded following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is, like previous issues devoted to specific aspects of Lovecraft Country, that mouldering corner of New England home to old money, old prejudices, and ancient evils. Where previous dealt with places in Lovecraft Country—issue #0 took us along The Aylesbury Pike, issues #1 and #2 visited the towns of Arkham and Innsmouth respectively, The Arkham Gazette #3 explores that most New England of phenomena and does so in depth. That phenomena consists of witches and witchcraft. Of course witches are not unique to New England, but the Salem Witch Trials of 1692 continue to fascinate in the three centuries since their occurence, having figured most famously in Arthur Miller’s The Crucible and more recently in episodes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Bewitched, and Bones, amongst others, as well as being the subject of their own RPG, StatCom Simulations’ 1983 Witch Hunt.

Witches and witchcraft of course figure in H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction, most notably ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’, ‘The Dreams in the Witch-House’, and ‘The Unnamable’. Equally they figure in scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, specifically in Lovecraft Country such as ‘The Condemned’ from Arkham Unveiled and ‘Malice Everlasting’ from Miskatonic River Press’ New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley, then further afield with ‘Wail of the Witch’ from The Curse of Cthulhu and Coming Full Circle from Pagan Publishing. The editor of The Arkham Gazette #3, Bret Kramer—who pens much of the issue, along with various authors, draws deeply from these as well as historical sources to present an in-depth exploration of witches and witchcraft in Lovecraft Country. Although officially a magazine, The Arkham Gazette #3 is very much a Call of Cthulhu supplement in its own right. (Note that unless specifically attributed, all articles in The Arkham Gazette #3 are authored by Bret Kramer.)

The Arkham Gazette #3 opens with ‘New England’s Witch Trials’, which examines the history of the region’s witch trials, from decades before 1692 to decades after. The Salem Witch Trials figure prominently, but other trials and investigations across Massachusetts and the other colonies are also discussed. Detailed are included of a witch hunter’s tools of the trade so that investigators can use them in a game, or indeed can have them used against themselves. ‘Witchcraft in Lovecraft Country’ is the fictional counterpart to the historical fact of ‘New England’s Witch Trials’, focusing primarily upon Arkham, Dunwich, and Kingsport to look at known outbreaks of witchcraft, avenues of research in the modern day of the Jazz Age, particular covens and cults, as well as notable locations. These two, quite detailed articles lay the groundwork for much of the issue, first placing witchcraft in the context of the period of the Salem Witch Trials before moving it into the twentieth century. 

Bret Kramer works with several co-authors in The Arkham Gazette #3. The first of these is Tyler Hudak for ‘Building a Better Witch’ which suggests the types of witch a Keeper could create for a scenario or campaign—white, grey, black, or even false witch—as well as possible sources of power and grimoires, before presenting several new spells such as Animal Form, Enchant Poppet, and Witch. This is the first of a series of articles that guide the Keeper through the creation of a witch NPC and is supported by ‘Gods of the Witches’, a guide to the entities often worshipped by witches. This includes both ‘deities’ and species, and range from Azathoth and Yog-Sothoth to Elder Things and Shoggoths, the choice affecting the nature of the relationship between witch and entity and suggesting what the witch might know and have been taught. Witches also have familiars, traditionally black cats, but in Lovecraft lore the traditional familiar is the Rat-Thing as inspired by Keziah Mason’s familiar Brown Jenkin. Chris Huth, together with Bret Kramer, give an exploration of the Rat-Thing and its variations, in ‘Rat-Things and Worse Horrors: Familiars and the Mythos’. The article details their genesis, and because players are going to be players, it suggests the forensic traces that such creatures might leave and how they might be interpreted, and besides giving Rat-Thing statistics, it lists possible other shapes—Bat-Thing, Toad-Thing, Spider-Thing, and so on. They are supported by several memorable examples of varying degrees of vileness. Lastly, Graeme Price’s ‘Marked by the Devil: Lessons in Lesions’ looks at one archetypal indication that a woman might be a witch, that is, the ‘witch’s mark’. These are primary the ‘blew spot’ and the ‘witch’s teat’, these being discussed as evidence of the Devil’s touch, though medical explanations are also given. The author also suggests links to the Mythos, the ‘witch’s teat’ being a possible link to Shub-Niggurath and her Mother’s Milk, whilst ‘witch’s mark’ might be linked to Hastaur.

Given that the focus of The Arkham Gazette is Lovecraft Country and thus the Mythos in the region and New England, it is no surprise that the majority of its witches are of the Mythos variety. This need not be the case, with white or grey witches perhaps having no knowledge of the Mythos, but possibly knowing other magic or something being seen as akin to it. ‘Colonial Folk Magic’ gives options for this, including astrology, healing, wards, and counter-spells. The spells for these are given in the earlier ‘Building a Better Witch’ article. Where ‘Colonial Folk Magic’  perhaps hints at links to the Mythos, Christopher Smith Adair’s ‘Touched by the Fairies’ builds links between the Mythos and legends of the faeries and changelings through the long association of the ghouls with humanity. 

The author and editor, Bret Kramer delves into two minor elements of Lovecraft lore. The first is August Derleth’s The Lurker at the Threshold, developed from an unfinished fragment written by H.P. Lovecraft, to give us the tome, ‘Of Evill Sorceries Done in New-England of Daemons in no Humane Shape’. This explores the provenance and details of the eponymous book—much in the same format as that developed by the author for the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. The work is either a part of, or a companion volume to, the famed Thaumaturgical Prodigies in the New-England Canaan and may be seen also as an alternative to that work. The second element is another of Derleth origins, that of ‘Witches’ Hollow’, located just outside of Arkham. Here it is described in some detail and accorded a scenario seed or two. A further three seeds are presented by L.T. Barker in The Dried Cat’, all built around the origins and purpose of the desiccated remains of a cat found built into a house being demolished. They include it being a protective ward against black magic, the remains of a familiar, and it having been brought from further afield. Alternative suggestions detail how to use the seed with Sixtystone Press’ The Call of Cathulhu. There are plenty of ideas here that the Keeper can develop as needed, as an addition to an existing scenario, a minor foray into the Mythos, or a fuller affair, perhaps using the material given elsewhere in the magazine.

The Arkham Gazette #3 contains a single scenario, ‘The Queen of Night’, which thirty-eight pages long, comprises of nearly a third of the issue. Co-authored by Chris Huth and Bret Kramer it concerns the links between a murder and the questionable parentage of a witch’s line. Set in and around Arkham, it begins with a gruesome, perhap ritualised, death, the scenario pulls the investigators into a rich melange of clues that not only leads them to the culprit, but also points them to something deeper, something more obviously outré in nature. Ideally investigation of the first will lead to the second, the danger being that some investigators may see the identification and apprehension of the culprit as the culmination of the scenario. This, of course, is not the case and investigating the vile cause behind the murder will take no little effort and players who enjoy the investigative process will find something to get their teeth into. ‘The Queen of Night’ is a rich, meaty, if challenging scenario—both to play and run, but is well organised and presented to help the Keeper maintain control of the plot, the clues, and the antagonists. There is the possibility to involve the members of the notorious Arkham witch-cult, though this is not specifically part of the scenario. Doing so enables to tie the Keeper to tie the scenario into a Lovecraft Country campaign. ‘The Queen of Night’ is clearly the highlight of The Arkham Gazette #3, involving a solidly done plot, a set of well realised NPCs and motivations, and an array of difficult choices for the players whilst showcasing how much can be done without recourse to the use of significant Mythos entities.

Rounding out The Arkham Gazette #3 is an annotated bibliography of scenarios and fiction. The former draws from both Lovecraft Country supplements and more diverse supplements to create its list of witch-related scenarios, it is presented in a similar format developed for the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, giving a summary, location and entity details, noted tomes, plus notes. The list is not quite comprehensive, notably missing ‘An Invitation to the Dance’ from the Miskatonic Library University Monograph, The Primal State.

Physically, The Arkham Gazette #3 looks and feels very much like a twenty-year old release from Chaosium, Inc. for Call of Cthulhu as it apes the style of supplements from the early 1990s for the Lovecraft Country line. This includes the use of Cristoforo, Thomas Phinney’s expanded version of the Columbus font which does much to add authenticity to The Arkham Gazette #3. Yet The Arkham Gazette #3 definitely needs a second edit and some of the artwork is rather bland by Call of Cthulhu standards, but the handouts for the players, not just for the scenario ‘The Queen of Night’ and the scenario seed, The Dried Cat’, but also for the article,‘Witchcraft in Lovecraft Country’, are all excellent.

The downside to any magazine devoted to a single issue is that its subject matter may not be of interest to every Keeper, but it should be to the Keeper of any RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror with an interest in Lovecraft Country or said subject matter. There is content enough that can be adapted to other Lovecraftian RPGs as well as applied to periods outside of the classic Jazz Age era, and equally, this content can be run as easily with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition as it can with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition. There is the means here for the Keeper to create a variety of witches, each of which would be memorable in their own way, whether of faith, methodology, or associations. Indeed, some of those associations, the witches’  familiars, are interesting enough in themselves to support either their mistress or a scenario by themselves. Further much of the contents of The Arkham Gazette #3 would be useful in campaigns for Cthulhu by Gaslight as well as classic Call of Cthulhu. The scenario would need some work, but again, the contents of The Arkham Gazette #3 would also work for scenarios set in the seventeenth century, perhaps even for Colonial Lovecraft Country. Where perhaps there is fault with The Arkham Gazette #3 is that as exhaustive and as well researched a treatment as it is of witches and witchcraft, some of the writing is dry, even a little stodgy. Nevertheless, The Arkham Gazette #3 is as definitive a treatment and exploration of witches and witchcraft as there is—and there needs to be—for both Lovecraft Country and Call of Cthulhu.

Monday, 21 December 2015

Harrisburg or London? London.

Since 2007, the 2004 Spiel des Jahres award-winning board game Ticket to Ride from Days of Wonder, has been supported with new maps, begining with Ticket to Ride: Switzerland. That new map would be collected in the Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 2 – India & Switzerland, the second entry in the Map Collection series begun in Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 1 – Team Asia & Legendary Asia. Both of these have proved to be worthy additions to the Ticket to Ride line, whereas the more recent Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa and Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 4 – Nederland have proved to add more challenging game play, but at a cost in terms of engaging game play. Further given that they included just the one map in the third and fourth volumes rather than the two in each of the first two, neither felt as if they provided as much value either. Fortunately this is not an issue with the latest release in the line, Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 5: United Kingdom + Pennsylvania, which as its title suggests includes two maps. Which just leaves the question of how well both maps play…

To begin with, Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 5: United Kingdom + Pennsylvania includes the one map that I have wanted since the game’s publication in 2004—a map of the United Kingdom. After all, the United Kingdom was the birthplace of the railways, so a specific map the British Isles always seemed like a good idea. The second map is Pennsylvania, thus providing the first ‘small’ location for Ticket to Ride, that is a US state rather than a country or continent as with other maps for the game. Yet these are not just extra maps, for both come with new rules that echo those of more complex railway games such as 1829 and Railways of the World. The Pennsylvania map adds Stock Shares that will grant you extra points, whilst the United Kingdom map includes technologies and improvements that a player will need to purchase if he wants to progress beyond England. 

As with previous entries in the Map Collection series, Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 5: United Kingdom + Pennsylvania requires the trains and scoring markers from one of the base sets, either Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Ride Europe. It will also need a full set of Train cards from one of the base games, though only for the Pennsylvania map, though it can get away without them. Inside the box, in addition to the double-sided map, can be found the rulebooks and the Tickets for each map. For the Pennsylvania map there is also a set of Stock Share cards, whilst for the United Kingdom map, there is a set of Technology cards and and a new set of Train cards. It feels quite a lot for an entry in the Ticket to Ride Map Collection series and it is pleasing to note that everything fits neatly in the box—an issue in some entries in the Map Collection series.

The Pennsylvania map not only depicts the state of Pennsylvania, it also covers much of the state of New York and also Canada in the form of Ontario. It is a two to five player map that plays much like standard Ticket to Ride, but with three notable additions. The first is that it includes ferry routes, first seen in Ticket to Ride: Europe. There are two ferry routes, both of which connect Pennsylvania to Ontario, but which are not connected to each other. The second is a new Ticket type, one that connects a city to a country, or in this case, another city to Ontario. Tickets that connect a city to a country or a country to a country are not new to Ticket to Ride, having first appeared in Ticket to Ride: Switzerland, but here you have Tickets that in effect connect to a location—that is, Ontario—twice. Of course, technically they do not connect twice because Ontario is in effect two locations, but with Tickets such as ‘Ontario – Syracuse’ and ‘Ontario – Pittsburgh’, it feels as if they do.

The third addition is in the form Stock Share cards. There are sixty of these, for companies such as the ‘Baltimore & Ohio Railroad’, the ‘Pennsylvania Railroad’, and the ‘New York Central System’. These vary in number according to the railroad company, so for example, the ‘Pennsylvania Railroad’ has fifteen, whereas the ‘New York Central System’ has five. Each set of Stock Share cards is numbered sequentially, from one through to the maximum number. Prominent on the Stock Share cards are the company logos and these also appear alongside many of the routes on the map. When a player claims a route that has one of the logos next to it, he can claim a corresponding Stock Share card. At the end of the game, in addition to checking and scoring for complete and incomplete Ticket cards, each player counts up the number of Stock Share cards he has. The player with the most Stock Shares in each Railroad receives the most points (as shown on that Railroad’s cards) followed by the player with the second most Shares, and so on. The outcome of ties are determined by whomever has the lowest number Stock Share card, this indicating that a player invested in that company first.

At their most basic, the Stock Share rules add an alternative means of scoring to Ticket to Ride, but what they also do is add an investment element. Share Stocks are worth investing in because they are can score a player a lot of points, as much as twenty or thirty points in some cases. This gives a player another choice to make—how much effort should he put into investing in Stock Shares, even if sometimes, that means claiming a route simply for the Share Stock alone.

Where the Pennsylvania map provides a few changes, the United Kingdom provides a lot, starting with the fact that it is two to four players rather than the standard two to five. The second big change in the United Kingdom map is that it is in portrait format rather than the usual landscape format. It depicts the British Isles—England, Scotland, Wales, and Ireland—and the tip of northern France. In fact, it depicts the tip of Northern France twice so that the country can be connected via two different destinations. This also means that the map includes the new city to country Tickets types and what are in effect, the new country to country Tickets, much as the Pennsylvania map does. The individual countries are different colours for several reasons—ease of identification, the limitations of technology, and so on. The third change is that like the Pennsylvania map, the United Kingdom map includes ferry routes, but because the British Isles are islands, they include more of them. Notably, there is one ferry route that is an incredible ten Trains long! This runs from Southampton off the board in the direction of New York and the USA—and is worth a total of forty points!

In addition to the map, the United Kingdom comes with its own set of Train cards that include more Locomotive or ‘wild’ cards than the standard deck. This is because of the way in which the fourth and biggest change works—Technology. What Technology does in the game is give the players permission to claim certain types of routes or grant them extra points as it maps out the historical and technological progress of the railways in the United Kingdom. Initially, the players can claim routes in England, just one or two trains long. To claim routes three trains long, a player needs to purchase a ‘Mechanical Stoker’; to claim routes four or more trains long, a player needs to purchase a ‘Superheated Steam Boiler’; and to claim ferry routes, a player much purchase ‘Propellers’, though this Technology is not necessary should a player want to claim the long route between Southampton and New York. There are also concessions to Wales, Scotland, and Ireland/France which are needed to claim routes within those countries and to claim routes between them and England. Other Technologies grant extra points, for example, ‘Boiler Lagging’ gives a player an extra point for each route claimed, whilst ‘Double Heading’ gives a player two extra points for each Ticket claimed. There is also the ‘Right of Way’ Technology, which enables a player to build alongside an already claimed route, but this must be purchased, used, and returned to table on the same turn to be available on the next turn.

Each Technology needs to be purchased, the cost being paid for with Locomotive cards. The price ranges from one to four Locomotive cards, a player being able to purchase a Technology before he takes his turn. This is in addition to the standard use of Locomotive cards, including the claiming of Ferry routes, emphasising the importance of the Locomotive cards more than any other map. To offset this importance, each player begins the game with a Locomotive card in addition to the standard selection of Train cards. Also there are five extra Locomotive cards in the Train card deck that comes with this map Collection set (these can be removed and the deck used with the Pennsylvania map) and when three Locomotive cards are on display, they remain there rather than going into the discard deck and new cards being drawn. Also, if a player lacks Locomotive cards, he can substitute four ordinary Train cards instead.

A player’s choice of Technology will be dictated by his Tickets, for example, a player with the ‘Cardiff – Reading’ needs the ‘Wales Concession’ Technology, whereas if he had the ‘Londonderry – Birmingham’ Ticket he would require the ‘Ireland/France Concession’ to claim routes in Ireland and the ‘Propellers’ Technology to cross the Irish Sea. The ‘Mechanical Stoker’ Technology will probably also be useful as it allows a player to claim three Train routes.

Lastly, in addition to the standard eleven Technology cards, the United Kingdom also includes five Advanced Technology cards. Their inclusion is optional and there is not enough of each for every player in a full game, but they make for a much more competitive game. Two are bets, for example, the ‘Equalising Beam’ gives a player fifteen points if he has the longest route, but penalises him fifteen points if he does not. Of the five one is arguably too powerful. This is ‘Water Tenders’, which lets a player draw three cards blind rather than the two as standard. This is a big advantage and perhaps the group want to think about including it. I would suggest making it more powerful, for example drawing four cards instead of three from the top of the Train deck, but have it as a one use card that must be returned to the table so that it is available to the other players.

Physically, Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 5: United Kingdom + Pennsylvania is all but up to the usual standards of the Ticket to Ride line. The Pennsylvania map is perhaps a little bland and it it lacks the scoring list typically placed on Ticket to Ride maps. The United Kingdom does include the scoring map and is a more colourful affair. A nice touch is that the towns and cities of each country is marked by the flag for that country, so the ‘Y Ddraig Goch’ of Wales, ‘The Saltire’ of Scotland, and so on.

Where Ticket to Ride has the feel of the late Victorian age—the ‘Gay Nineties’ or ‘Naughty Nineties’—Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 5: United Kingdom + Pennsylvania has the feel of an earlier age, the early to mid Victorian age. While the Pennsylvania map adds a pleasing addition to the scoring methods in Ticket to Ride, the United Kingdom map gives the game a sense of narrative progression as advances are made in technology. In terms of game play, the Tickets a player has will determine what Technology he has to purchase, rather than Technology determining game play. Whilst Technology makes the game play more complex, it is a more straightforward complexity when compared to the conceptual complexity of the Mandalas of the India map of Ticket to Ride Map Collection: Volume 2 – India & Switzerland. It also makes the game feel much like a more traditional train-themed game, but again without the arch-complexity of those games. Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 5: United Kingdom + Pennsylvania is a great addition to the Ticket to Ride Map Collection series and the Ticket to Ride family because finally—finally—Ticket to Ride not only gets a British map, it also gets to feel and play just a little like a train game.

Saturday, 19 December 2015

Beneath a Dark Umbra

Robert J. Schwalb is best known as the designer of Green Ronin Publishing’s A Song of Ice and Fire Roleplaying: A Game of Thrones Edition and as one of the designers of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Now he has launched his own roleplaying game company—Schwalb Entertainment—and designed and funded his first release via Kickstarter. The result is Shadow of the Demon Lord, a roleplaying game of dark fantasy and horror set in the last days of a dying world. As the Demon Lord rattles at the last bars that keep him imprisoned in the Void, his influence continues to despoil land and mind alike. Under this seeping ‘Shadow’, demons stalk the ruins of the last great empire of mankind, men fall into the worship of dark cults, the undead have arisen to roam the land, and magic twists into forms strange and best unknown. The end of the world is only a catastrophe or more away, though there may yet be heroes whose actions may avert such disasters and thus stave off the coming of the Demon Lord.

This the set-up for Shadow of the Demon Lord, an RPG that feels like Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and the Dungeons & Dragons Ravenloft setting that is slipping towards Fantasy Flight Games’ Midnight setting by way of The Dying Earth and some steampunk elements and an unhealthy dose of Heavy Metal. It has a number of notable features. First, character generation is fast, taking no more than five minutes. Second, a character starts out simple, but as he progresses, a player has plenty of choices in what he becomes. Third, a campaign starts with characters at Zero Level and ends with characters at Tenth Level, a group of characters going up in Level at end of each adventure so that a campaign can be played in just eleven sessions or scenarios. Fourth and last, the ‘Shadow’ of the Demon Lord and its effect upon the world can be adjusted and set by the Game Master—it can be something hinted at in prophecies, a rumour threatening in the background, an imminent disaster, or a catastrophe such as a pandemic, famine, earthquakes, the dead living and walking, the Wild hunt abroad in the land, a sudden winter out of season, wild magic warping all and sundry… and more.

Character creation starts by selecting an Ancestry—the equivalent of Race in Shadow of the Demon Lord, noting down the stats for the Ancestry, and then rolling for the character’s Age, Build, Distinctive Appearance, Odd Habit, Background, Wealth and Equipment, and an Interesting Thing or possession. Lastly, each character has a randomly determined Profession—from the Academic, Common, Criminal, Martial, Religious, or Wilderness categories—that grants minor benefits. Over a hundred professions are listed, from a scholar of Architecture, Religion, or War, gambler, informant, or urchin, and drover, valet, or apothecary to slave, detective, or peasant conscript, exile, hermit, or rustler, and flagellant, inquisitor’s henchman, and temple ward. They are nothing more than the names of professions, but their presence shows the influence of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and its Careers upon Shadow of the Demon Lord.

Shadow of the Demon Lord gives six Ancestries. They include Humans and Dwarves, as well as Goblins and Orcs from traditional fantasy, but no Elves or Hobbits/Halflings—though Halflings do appear in the game’s background (and are detailed in the Demon Lord's Companion). Goblins are a filthy, grubby people of low character and malicious disposition who have been exiled from the realms of faerie, whilst Orcs are brutish, strong, and violent, having originally been transformed by dark magics from giant-blooded Jotun warriors into fearsomely murderous warriors. Two other Ancestries are unique to Shadow of the Demon Lord. These are the Changelings and Clockworks. The former are created by the Faerie to conceal the absence of children they steal and can change their hideous natural appearance and identity, whilst Clockworks are mechanical constructs that can range in size from tiny be-winged things up to centaur-sized behemoths into which souls stolen from the Underworld have been bound.

Our sample character is Rash the Goblin. He is whipcord thin, from his head to his fingers—particularly his fingers. He wears the clothing of an office peon, having been apprenticed as a law clerk. He was also been apprenticed to a cult, although which cult and which deity or entity it was devoted to, Rash could not tell you. He likes spiders, especially ones he can crack open and suck out the juices.

Ancestry Goblin 
Strength 8 Agility 12 Intellect 10 Will 9
Perception 11
Defense 12
Health 8
Healing Rate 2
Size 1/2 Speed 10 Power 0
Damage 0 Insanity 0 Corruption 0
Languages & Professions
Common Tongue, Elvish (literate in both); Academic – Law; Criminal – Cultist
Immune damage from disease; charmed, diseased
Iron Vulnerability (Impaired while in contact with iron.)
Shadowsight (Can see in areas obscured by shadows as if those areas were lit.)
Sneaky (Rolls to become hidden or move silently are an Agility challenge roll with 1 boon.)

Age: You are a young adult, 11 to 25 years old.
Build: You are wiry.
Distinctive Appearance: You have long, slender fingers.
Odd Habit: You eat a bit of flesh from any living thing you kill.
Background: You are an unrepentant criminal.
Wealth: Getting By. You earn enough to meet all your expenses.
Equipment: club, basic clothing, a backpack, a week of rations, a waterskin, a tinderbox, 1d3 torches, and a pouch containing 1d6 cp.
Interesting Things: A book written in an unknown language or a book containing things you never wanted to know.

This though is a character at Level Zero who is no more than a prior profession and some potential experience. At Level One, a character enters a Novice Path—Magician, Priest, Rogue, or Warrior—and gains its benefits as well as extra benefits at Level Two, Level Five, and Level Eight. At Level Three, a character enters an Expert Path and gains its benefits as well as extra benefits at Level Six and Level Nine. Lastly, at Level Seven, a character enters a Master Path and gains its benefits as well as extra benefits at Level Ten. The choice of Paths available widens from Novice to Expert to Master, giving a player more and more options. A player could even decide to select a second Expert Path instead of a Master Path at Level Seven, offering further choice and flexibility. So a character who selected Priest as his Novice Path could choose from Cleric, Druid, Oracle, or Paladin from the Paths of Faith as his Expert Path, but then he might become a Chaplain, Exorcist, Zealot when he selects his Master Path. Or alternatively, he could go off in a different Paths, the choice and flexibility already being there.

Ancestry Goblin Level 1
Novice Path: Magician
Strength 8 Agility 13 Intellect 11 Will 9
Perception 12
Defense 13
Health 10
Healing Rate 2
Size 1/2 Speed 10 Power 1
Damage 0 Insanity 0 Corruption 0
Languages & Professions
Common Tongue, Elvish (literate in both); Academic – Law, Occult; Criminal – Cultist
Immune damage from disease; charmed, diseased
Iron Vulnerability (Impaired while in contact with iron.)
Shadowsight (Can see in areas obscured by shadows as if those areas were lit.)
Sneaky (Rolls to become hidden or move silently are an Agility challenge roll with 1 boon.)
Magical Traditions & Spells
Sense Magic (Level 0)
Conjuration—Direct Conjuration (Level 0); Conjure Small Monster (Level 1)
Divination—Epiphany (Level 0); Foretell (Level 1)

Age: You are a young adult, 11 to 25 years old.
Build: You are wiry.
Distinctive Appearance: You have long, slender fingers.
Odd Habit: You eat a bit of flesh from any living thing you kill.
Background: You are an unrepentant criminal.
Wealth: Getting By. You earn enough to meet all your expenses.
Equipment: club, basic clothing, a backpack, a week of rations, a waterskin, a tinderbox, 1d3 torches, and a pouch containing 1d6 cp.
Interesting Things: A book written in an unknown language or a book containing things you never wanted to know.

In going from the sixteen Expert Paths to the sixty-four Master Paths, Shadow of the Demon Lord not offers choice, it also adds flavour. For example, both the Berserker Expert Path and the Oracle Expert Path grant fantastic abilities, but at the cost of going insane. So when Berserk, the Berserker gains health, inflicts extra damage, but is not as proficient a fighter and must attack each round—and when he leaves the state he is fatigued and may gain an Insanity point. Similarly, the Oracle accepts the divine into his body to gain their power and wisdom, gaining similar benefits, but once free of the possession, is also fatigued and may gain an Insanity point. Other Paths push the RPG into Steampunk territory—though not as much as some would like, the Artificer Expert Path enabling a character to build arms, armour, ammunition, and devices on the fly and even create servants and spll storage devices; the Spellbinder casts magic into his weapon for a greater hit chance and damage as well as learning spells; and the Engineer Master Path enables a player to build and then pilot an ‘eidolon’, a mechanical servant. Most of the Expert Paths and Master Paths are specialist paths, enabling a character to focus on a particular aspect of the game, for example, an Aeromancer casting Air spells or a Scout tracking, hiding, and observing, but other like the more generic Fighter Expert Path and Thief Expert Path provide Talents that a player can choose from.

All attributes—Strength, Agility, Intellect, and Will—range in value between one and twenty and along with their derived characteristics, start at a value of ten. Attributes with values above or below ten give modifiers to both derived characteristics. So for example, our sample character, Rash the Goblin has an Agility of 12, which gives him a modifier of +2 in ranged attacks and other Agility based activities as well as a Defence of 12. Conversely, his Strength of 8 gives him a -2 penalty on melee attack rolls and reduces his Health to 8. A character’s Ancestry can modify both attributes and characteristics as will the Paths he selects at future levels.

The basic mechanic in Shadow of the Demon Lord is simple and straightforward, whether you are making the equivalent of a saving throw, a skill check, or an attack roll. Roll a twenty-sided die and add any Attribute bonuses or penalties, and if the result is ten or more, then you succeed. The target may not always be ten—it can go up or down, a target’s Defence typically being higher than ten. In addition a character can also have Boons or Banes—each a six-sided die—that he can add to, or subtract from, the roll. These may come from a Path, for example, the Warrior Path grants a Boon with any attack with a weapon; from a Profession, such as Academic — Law when searching a lawyer’s dusty offices for a clue; and from certain situations (as the example below shows). Banes and Boons cancel each other out prior to rolling, but when rolling multiples of either type, only the highest number rolled counts. The Game Master can also decide that if a character has a relevant profession then he automatically succeeds at an action.

For example, Rash has got into a fight with some Mushroom Men. Whilst his fellow party members rush forward to attack, Rash loads up his sling, swings it in the air, takes aim, and lets fly. His player states that he is going to make a Called Shot. This is made with a single Bane. So Rash rolls the twenty-sided die and adds +3 because this is an Agility based attack, but rolls a six-sided die from the total. He rolls 17 on the twenty-sided die and adds the Agility bonus to get a result of 20. From this he subtracts the result of the Bane die, 5, to get a total of 15. The result of the Bane die is bad, but not bad enough for Rash to miss. Rash’s player suggests that the sling stone has struck the tentacle of one of the Mushroom Men, forcing it to use it with a Bane if it wants to attack again.

Although a character does not begin play with any, during the game, whenever a character pulls off a remarkable stunt, or when a player has a great idea or makes the game more fun to play, the Game Master can award him Fortune. When spent, this little bit of luck can turn any failed dice roll into a success, but it can also be spent to grant two Boons any other player when he rolls or to turn the roll of any six-sided die—made by any player—into a result of a six. These rules are simple enough, but the capacity to spend Fortune on other players for an extra benefit nicely encourages more social play.

The only notable feature in combat in Shadow of the Demon Lord is the use of Fast Turns and Slow Turns. When a character uses a Fast Action, he can only choose to attack, take an action, or move. When he uses a Slow Action, he can move and attack or move and take an action. Of course, Fast Actions take place before Slow Actions and unless they have been surprised, player characters act before any NPCs. So player characters take their Fast Actions, then the NPCs do, after which any other player characters take their Slow Actions followed by the NPCs. This is a surprisingly simple and unfussy way of handling both initiative, turn order, and actions in combat.

Magic in Shadow of the Demon Lord comes in thirty flavours or ‘Traditions’. They are associated either with the Intellect or Will Attributes—the Battle, Necromancy, and Technomancy Traditions are associated with Intellect, whilst the Chaos, Song, and Water Traditions are associated with Will. Some Traditions—Curse, Forbidden, and Necromancy Traditions are Dark Magic and spells learned from these Traditions corrupt the practitioner. Most spells require speaking aloud, an implement, and a free Casting. A caster’s Power determines the number of spells he can cast per spell rank. Thus a caster with Power of 0 can cast a Rank 0 spell or cantrip once between rests, but at Power 1, he has two castings of Rank 0 spells and one casting of Rank 1 spells between rests. Each Tradition comes with eleven spells, ranging from Rank 0 up to Rank 5, though the game suggests that Ranks 6 and above are possible*.

*Given that the chapter for the Game Master, ‘Running the Game’, states that future supplements will allow characters to rise above Tenth level, then spell Ranks 6 and above seem all the more likely.

Whether from casting spells, going berserk, being exposed to shocks and horrors, a character can go insane. Resisting against this requires a roll against a character’s Will, but each time a character gains Insanity points he is frightened and cannot act for a few rounds. After this, he has two choices. The first is to take a Quirk such as Addiction, Narcolepsy, or Unhinged Acceptance and so negate the gained Insanity point, but the second is let his Insanity points build up equal to his Will attribute, go mad, and potentially suffer death, be stricken, suffer a panic attack, or self-mutilate, but actually lose Insanity points. In addition, should a character commit one or more vile deeds, he will acquire Corruption points that poison his soul, making him more difficult to get on with, twisting him physically, and blighting his fate (or die rolls). He might even gain a ‘Mark of Darkness’, perhaps a sixth finger on each hand, a wound that oozes black and never heals, or you weep blood. It is possible to atone for such iniquitous actions, but this is far from easy. 

Shadow of the Demon Lord is set on the world of Urth on the continent of Rûl, a land in which magic is real, terrible monsters abound, the gods are far away, and the discovery of black powder, clockwork, and steam power promises an imminent industrial revolution. The latter though is stalled, the Empire of Caecras having fallen into disarray after Orc King rose up at the head of a slave rebellion and strangled the Emperor before taking the Alabaster Throne for himself. The primary setting for the game is the backwater province of Northern Reach, the last region conquered by the Empire and once home to the Lands of Summer, the last great realm of the faerie folk. Roughly divided equally between civilised and wilderland areas, its governor lacks the funds to maintain law and order, there are tensions between the followers of the Cult of the New God and the Old Faith, whilst from her hidden kingdom of Alfheim, the Faerie Queen watches the doings of the younger races. 

The advice for the Game Master is decently done, with an optional rule pleasingly adding a degree of player agency to the game via Opportunities and Setbacks. These make successes and failures more interesting. Essentially a player gives up a Boon to gain an Opportunity if the roll is successful.  The exact nature of Opportunity should be agreed on beforehand by the player and Game Master and grant the player an extra effect. Likewise, a Bane can be given up to gain a Setback if the roll is successful, the Setback being a previously agreed upon negative effect. Essentially, Opportunities are the narrative equivalent of answering “Yes and...” in narrative storytelling, whereas Setbacks are the equivalent of “Yes, but…”. As well as basic advice, Shadow of the Demon Lord also covers possible styles of horror, setting up and running both campaigns and scenarios, the types of adventures at different levels, and so on as well as more mechanical advice.

Descriptions of the game suggest that the apocalyptic tone in Shadow of the Demon Lord is a dial that the Game Master can adjust, so that if he prefers not to impose disaster or catastrophe upon the players just yet, he can tone it down for a less perilous game and then perhaps build back up to it. Well it is in that the Game Master can decide how much influence he wants the Demon Lord to have over the game and can then randomly—or choose—from the table of twenty effects. These include Infectious madness, an invasive Bloom of plant life, a Black Sun, the Fall of Civilisation, Demonic Incursion, Corrupted Organisation, and so on. The greater the influence that the Game Master wants, the more times he rolls or selects. What they are not is ‘templates’, the term used in the descriptions of the game. They are not models or preset formats that the Game Master can work from. Which is disappointing because if they were, it would have meant that Shadow of the Demon Lord was more sophisticated in its design. This is not to say that the given effects are not interesting or useful—they are, but are tools in themselves.

The bestiary in Shadow of the Demon Lord includes descriptions of some ninety creatures plus variants and then another fourteen Characters. Thus for the Ogre also includes stats and descriptions of the Ettin and Horned Ogre as well as the Ogre, and the Fomor, the Warg, and the Minotaur under the Beastman heading. Some entries are deliberately generic, such as the write-ups for Tiny, Small, Medium, Large, and Huge Monsters all under the Monster heading. the same is done for the Animal and Demon headings. In either case, both can be easily modified by the Game Master using the guidelines for customising creatures. Characters can be modified using Templates. The bestiary is a good mix of entries from classic myth, folklore, and fantasy, such as the Barghest, the Gorgon, the Jack-O’-Lantern, and the Redcap. Others are of course new to Shadow of the Demon Lord, such as the Bloody Bones that flense skin of their victims to replace theirs lost due to curse; Dread Mothers, winged humanoid things that strike with their prehensile tongues to incapacitate their victims and then inject eggs carried in their distended bellies; and Harvesters, ancient creatures that as Organ Filches haunt cities in search of replacement body parts or a Tear Thieves, inflict great pain so that victims cry, their harvested tears being concocted into an elixir that grants the ability to feel emotions again. There is a gruesomeness to these creatures that feels fresh and fiendish.

The one major element that Shadow of the Demon Lord is missing is a scenario or adventure. Whilst this is disappointing, the publisher has funded several scenarios as part of the game’s Kickstarter campaign, several of them designed for beginning characters. In addition, Tales of the Demon Lord, a full, eleven-part campaign, has also been funded via the Kickstarter campaign and is available.

Shadow of the Demon Lord bears some resemblance to Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game in its Zero to Level One character funnel, but without the need for multiple characters per player. In tone, it also feels like another Retroclone, that of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying such that many of the adventures published for that game could be adapted to be run with Shadow of the Demon Lord. Its core influence though, is Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, tempered it has to be said by Dungeons & Dragons in its slicker play style and its profusion of magic and magical traditions.It is essentially an American RPG with European sensibilities, again typified by Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying and the ‘U’ and ‘UK’ series of modules published for Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition.

Ultimately, if there is a single weakness to Shadow of the Demon Lord, it is in the handling of its titular antagonist. This could have been stronger and better structured as the idea that the use of template suggests and thus been more helpful to Game Masters of any experience. If there is a second weakness to Shadow of the Demon Lord, it is in the slightly underwritten background which lacks the depth of its chief inspiration, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. (As a corollary to this, the setting’s technological aspects—clockwork, steam and steampunk, and gunpowder—also feel underwritten.) Yet this makes the games rules much easier to port over to a setting of the Game Master’s own devising and if the setting itself is not one of ‘Perilous Adventure’, the rules themselves (along with many of the monsters) all support a game of ‘Perilous Adventure’. The rules to Shadow of the Demon Lord are pleasingly simple and perfect for running an atmospherically grim and dark fantasy game of horror—the impending doom will just have to wait a little longer for better support.

Reviews from R'lyeh Christmas Dozen 2015

Since 2001, I have contributed to a series of Christmas lists at Ogrecave.com—and at RPGaction before that, suggesting not necessarily the best board and roleplaying games of the preceding year, but the titles from the last twelve months that you might like to receive and give. Continuing the break with tradition—in that the following is just the one list and in that for reasons beyond its control, OgreCave.com is not running its own lists—Reviews from R’lyeh would once again like present its own list. Further, as is also traditional, Reviews from R’lyeh has not devolved into the need to cast about ‘Baleful Blandishments’ to all concerned or otherwise based upon the arbitrary organisation of days. So as Reviews from R’lyeh presents its annual Christmas Dozen, I can only hope that the following list includes one of your favourites, or even better still, includes a game that you do not have and someone is happy to hide in gaudy paper and place under that dead tree for you.


Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City
(Osprey Publishing) $24.99/£14.99
In a first for Reviews from R’lyeh, a set of wargames rules makes its annual Christmas Dozen. Frostgrave is a skirmish miniatures game in which rival wizards and their apprentices lead warbands into the icebound city of ‘Frostgrave’ in search of treasure, relics, and knowledge lost to the cold centuries before. Both the background and the rules are simple, making it easy to learn by experienced wargamers and novices alike—and making it easier to teach too! The buy-in cost is also low, each warband needing just ten figures, and because the rules give plenty of options, it means that one warband is rarely going to be the same as any other. Frostgrave can be played in single one-off skirmishes, but the game gets better when played as a campaign because a wizard can learn from his experience and not only gain more spells, but get better at casting them! Miniatures are available for the game—though any can be used—as is a fiction anthology, Frostgrave - Tales of the Frozen City, and the first campaign, Frostgrave: Thaw of the Lich Lord.

Ticket to Ride Map Collection Vol. 5: United Kingdom + Pennsylvania
(Days of Wonder) $40/£25.99
New boards are always welcome for the classic Ticket to Ride board game and never more so with the line’s Map Collection series. The fifth and very latest Map Collection addition, not only adds two new map boards, it adds technology and shares, elements usually found in more complex train games. Even better, the new map boards includes a map of the United Kingdom so that now you can play across the nation that gave the birth to railways! On the Pennsylvania map, players now compete for shares as well as routes, giving them new ways to score points, whilst on the United Kingdom map, players need buy technological advances to build beyond England to Wales, Scotland, Ireland, and further… For long time Ticket to Ride fans, this expansion adds new rules and challenges, but without adding too much complexity that would make it that much more difficult for casual players.

Shadow of the Demon Lord
(Schwalb Entertainment) $49.99/£39.95
The end of the world is nigh! All that stands between the world and its destruction is the Veil, yet the Demon Lord rends at it, weakening it and spreading his influence in the real world beyond. Thus the trolls come out of the mountains, beastmen out of the Badlands, zombies from the grave, and cultists out of the shadows to spread fear and chaos, hearkened by the coming of their master. Perhaps though, there is a chance, just a slim one, that the Demon Lord can be stopped—and if not that, then at least the chaos and the horror held off, at least for a little while… This is the set up for Shadow of the Demon Lord, a dark horror fantasy RPG from the co-designer of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, inspired in part by his love of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay. Its focus is entirely upon the characters and the horrors they face, even beginning the game not knowing what career they will follow let alone what madness they will have to deal with, but once they progress, they are free to choose their path as they want. The RPG offers a wide choice of career paths, simple mechanics, and simplified level progression that means that characters gain a level every adventure! Perhaps the end is just the beginning?

Thunderbirds Co-operative Board Game
(Modiphius Entertainment) $69.99/£45
Calling International Rescue! 

Only the Tracy family and the amazing vehicles and gadgets of International Rescue stand between the disasters and the plans of the nefarious Hood that beset the future of 2065. In this co-operative boardgame, the players work together as the Tracy brothers, along with Lady Penelope, racing to stop one disaster after another whilst working to thwart the plans of the criminal mastermind known as the Hood. Based on Gerry Anderson’s classic 1965 Thunderbirds television series, the game comes with the famous vehicles, each a fantastic little model, and the disasters that we remember from on-screen. Designed by Matt Leacock—a name known for designing co-operative boardgames like Pandemic and Forbidden Island—the Thunderbirds Co-operative Board Game not only has charm and nostalgia in abundance, but succinctly captures the feel and style of the television series.

Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach
(Ludonaute) $19.99/£14.99
The trainrobbers are back! Plus they brought their horses with them and there is a stagecoach to rob too.

The Spiel des Jahres award winning Colt Express was one of the best board games of 2014, so it was no wonder that it was included 0n the Reviews from R’lyeh Christmas list of 2014. It is still a great game, but this year we got the first expansion—Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach—which enables the players to not only rob the train of the core game, but leap from the train onto horseback, ride the length of the train, and then leap back aboard, or leap onto the stagecoach and rob that! There are more jewels and money to be stolen, hostages to be taken, an ornery old man armed with shotgun to contend with, and when things get bad, flasks of whiskey for a bandit to imbibe and refresh himself with. More options mean more chaos means more fun!

White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying
(Barrel Rider Games) $34.99
Taking the Old School Renaissance to the stars, White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying is inspired by sources including Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who and Firefly, but at its heart, this Swords & Wizardry-powered RPG is a Space Opera game through and through. Wearing its inspirations upon its sleeve, White Star devotes time aplenty to exploring the genre and its variations and different story types in depth and then discuss how to do them using the rules. This is helped by the familiar Dungeons & Dragons-style mechanics that also make White Star easy to play and easy to run, but there are plenty of optional rules that enable the GM to tweak the game to his tastes. (The designer has promised us a White Star Companion which will include more options and support. Lastly, the retro-future feel of White Star is echoed in its simple design, making it feel like the 1977 Sci-Fi RPG we never had.

Read the review here.

Machi Koro: Harbour Expansion
(IDW Games) $19.99/£14.99
One of the best games of 2014 was Machi Koro, the 2015 Spiel des Jahres nominated dice and card game about building your Japanese town better and faster than your rivals. Which is why it made the Reviews from R’lyeh Christmas list of 2014. As much fun as the base game is, it needed more Landmarks to make your town stand out and more Establishments to generate the income needed to buy those Landmarks. In 2015, Machi Koro received two expansions that did exactly that—Machi Koro: Harbour Expansion and Machi Koro: Millionaire’s Row. Of the two, Machi Koro: Harbour Expansion is the better expansion, slickly adding not only the cards needed for a fifth player, but a swathe of new Establishment cards that interact with each other and the cards in the base set. Even better though are the new rules that modify the Marketplace where the players can buy their Establishment cards. It just limits those available at any one time to just ten types—rather than all of them as in the base game—which forces the players to make more careful choices and breaks up the easy paths to victory of the base game. The result is a much improved, slicker game. If you own only Machi Koro, then definitely add Machi Koro: Harbour Expansion (and possibly think about Machi Koro: Millionaire’s Row), but if not, then Machi Koro: Deluxe Edition is the perfect choice (plus it comes in a tin!).

Read the review here.

The Dracula Dossier
(Pelgrane Press) $74.95/£49.95

In 2012, Review from R’lyeh liked Night’s Black Agents so much that it made the Reviews from R’lyeh Christmas list of 2012. It set the secret agents a la James Bond and Jason Bourne not against the traditional mundane conspiracy, but against a conspiracy headed by vampires! Now the horror-espionage RPG lives up to the author’s pitch for it as “The Bourne Identity meets Dracula” with The Dracula Dossier. This huge sandbox campaign works from the idea that Bram Stoker’s Dracula was a fictionalised account of an attempt by British Naval Intelligence to recruit the infamous vampire that failed… Repeated recruiting attempts during World War Two and the War on Terror have only turned the vampire’s antipathy against us and now it is your turn to deal with the threat. This is of course going to be a mammoth undertaking and the campaign is equally as large—a giant set of clues, people, locations, and more designed to support the GM in running an improvised campaign and in doing so, complementing the toolkit aspect of Night’s Black Agents. It is also a fearsome work of the imagination that comes with gaming’s biggest set of clues—the annotated and redacted version of Bram Stoker’s Dracula!

The Metagame
(Local No. 12, LLC.) $25.00

2015 was a good year for party style games, with Code Names, Love 2 Hate, and Spyfall all being released and all being good games, but there was one card game in 2015 that outshone them all—The Metagame. This big box of cards might look like the infamous Cards Against Humanity, but where that game was in black and white and contains one basic game in a big box, The Metagame comes in a white box, its cards in colour and black and white, and it comes with six games rather than one. The cards are divided between Opinion cards—such as  “Which is the most useful on a desert island?” and “More Myth Than Fact”, and Culture cards that range from Enron, Brie Cheese, and World of Warcraft to The Vagina Monologues, Riverdance, and Romeo and Juliet. The games include trying to match Opinion cards with Culture cards, guessing when the things on Culture cards appeared, debating both Opinion cards and Culture cards—and more! The Science Fiction Expansion Pack and the Film 101 Expansion Pack are both available and add to the mix and the fun. The Metagame is both a good family and a good party game and can be played with anyone.

Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade
(Vigilance Press) $44.95/£29.99

With the release of Jadepunk: Tales From Kausao City and Feng Shui 2: Action Movie Roleplaying, 2015 was a great year for the wuxia genre, but if Reviews from R'lyeh had to choose one, it would be Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade. The setting is the classic Jiāngzhōu, the ‘border land’ on the edge of the ‘Divine Realm’, which has a reputation for banditry, gangsters, and corruption. Pirates, like the Blue Carp Brotherhood, led by the infamous pirate king, Fish-Eye Cheng, prey upon the boats moving up and down the Silk River whilst Five Demon Forest is known to be a haven for the bandits and thieves that prey upon the Jade Road, but is reputed to be haunted too. Jiāngzhōu is also home to the Wuxia, the ‘Wandering Swordsmen’ and ‘Knight Errants’ who lead lives often independent of society. Many are mercenaries, some follow their own paths, but all seek to become masters of Kung Fu. This broadly drawn setting is ably supported by delightfully cinematic Fate Core rules and solidly done new martial arts rules which in combination emulate the classic tales and action of the Wuxia genre.

Read the full review here.

Eyes of the Stone Thief
(Pelgrane Press) $49.95/£32.95

In traditional Dungeons & Dragons the megadungeon is a static construct, a fixed structure dug deep into the earth that bold adventurers will delve into again and again, exploring its secrets and facing its threats. Plus, if it is a ‘Living dungeon’ then perhaps its denizens will change and react in response to the player characters’ action. In 13th Age, the storytelling, action orientated interpretation of Dungeons & Dragons-style gaming, the dungeon is definitely living and it is far static, swimming to the surface to devour whole towns and cities. Designed for characters of Fourth to Eighth Level, Eyes of the Stone Thief, at first the adventurers will have to venture inside to rescue someone, but once it has their scent, the dungeon will begin hunting the adventurers! Which means that the adventurers will have to go back in to stop themselves from being hunted down… Can they stop this 'Moby Dick' of a dungeon before it gets them?

Pandemic Legacy
(Z-Man Games) $69.99/£54.99

Since 2008, Pandemic has been the touchstone by which all co-operative boardgames have been measured. It set the standard, combining an engaging theme with elegant mechanics that see the players trying to find the cures necessary to stop four diseases that threaten to become pandemics and overwhelm the world. Last year Reviews from R’lyeh liked the stripped down, faster playing dice-based variant of Pandemic the Cure, but this year Pandemic fans were faced by not just a new challenge, but a whole new set of challenges joined by secrets and surprises. For Pandemic Legacy answers the question, “What would happen if what you did in one game of Pandemic carried over to the next… and the next?” In other words, with Pandemic Legacy, the original Pandemic becomes a campaign, with chances that the characters played in game being hurt, killed, or hopefully getting more capable, with diseases becoming more virulent or less deadly, cities being saved or lost, and even worse, government funding being cut—all depending upon how well the players do! Ultimately every copy of Pandemic Legacy becomes a game of its very own, unique to the playing group that played through it.