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

Monday, 31 October 2016

The Ubiquity of the Gothic

Leagues of Adventure: A Rip-Roaring Setting of Exploration and Derring Do in the Late Victorian Age! is Triple Ace Games’ RPG of globetrotting adventure and mystery. Set during the 1890s, it brings together the greatest heroes and villains of the era—Sherlock Holmes and Doctor John Watson, Allan Quatermain, Phileas Fogg, Abraham van Helsing, and more—with the player characters and flings them to the four corners of the world to explore the unknown, make great discoveries, and uncover dark mysteries. Unlike other titles from Triple Ace Games, Leagues of Adventures uses the Ubiquity System first seen in ExileStudio’s Hollow Earth Expedition. The result was an RPG of pulp action in a mannered age and like all RPGs published by Triple Ace Games is ably supported with a raft of supplements and adventures.

Now Leagues of Adventure is heading into all new territory and an all new genre—gothic horror! Where Leagues of Adventure draws heavily upon Victorian era fiction, the supplement Leagues of Gothic Horror draws upon one particular genre of fiction—the Gothic! Works such as Vathek, The Monkey’s Paw, Frankenstein or, a Modern Prometheus, The Castle of Oranto, Dracula, and more, and pitches the player characters or Globetrotters against black dogs and disembodied hands, Frankenstein’s Monster and Count Dracula, ghouls and golems, Jack the Ripper and Mr. Hyde, mummies and wendigo; takes them to dark places and involves them in sinister cults; and arms them with magic and psychic powers. In doing so, it pushes back at the science and reason of Leagues of Adventure, for magic and monsters are real rather than myth.

For the player character, Leagues of Gothic Horror provides eight new archetypes such as the Gypsy and the Mentalist, the Monster Slayer and the Mystic, and so on; new skills such as Alienism and Magic; exotic Talents like Dowser, Exorcist, Fortune-Telling, Medium, Mentalism, and Second Sight alongside the mundane Talents of Alternate Identity, Rabble-Rouser, and Unflappable; and Flaws that cover the physical (Albino), mental (Disbeliever and Highly Strung), Social (Doomsayer and Meddler), and miscellaneous (Weirdness Magnetic). In addition, Globetrotters can join and enjoy the benefits of a host of new Leagues—as clubs are known in Leagues of Adventure—such as The Ancient Order of Druids, The Frankenstein Guild, The Golden Circle, The Hellfire Club, The Society for Rational Explanations, and so on. Two in particular stand out. One is the The Ministry of Unusual Affairs for when the GM needs some ‘Gentlemen in Black’, the other is The Vengeants’ Guild, the membership of which consists of those who have lost ones to the supernatural and desire revenge.

As to gear, of course Leagues of Gothic Horror includes such mundane items as holy water, leather neck guard, morphine, opium, and a vampire hunting kit. All right some of those items are not exactly mundane, but once you add Weird Science to the mix and the author clearly has had a lot of fun retrofitting items from other sources back to the 1890s. Need to take out a ghost, then an Etheric Energy Dissipation Ray (and its hand-cranked backpack power unit) is wha want; similarly, the Gas Powered Automatic Crossbow is very much your friend when faced by a vampire horde; and do you get in a tiz when confronted by a ghost, werewolf, or strangeness? Then wear an Unflapilator on your head and you will be the bravest of souls!

Mechanically, the primary addition to Leagues of Gothic Horror are the rules for Sanity, Shock, and Corruption. Each Globetrotter is given a new derived stat called Sanity—equal to their Charisma plus their Willpower—and as long as it stays above zero he is fine. At zero, a character is shaken; below that, he is driven unconscious through shock; and at -5 or less, he is utterly mad. Sanity is lost by failing Horror checks. Each monster in Leagues of Gothic Horror has a Horror rating, for example, Horror 2 for a Disembodied Hand and Horror 4 for Count Dracula, as can various phenomena. In such encounters, a character rolls double his Will. Succeed and he is fine, but fail and he loses Sanity equal to the difference. Means of recovering Sanity includes drugs (but these can be addictive), roleplaying a character’s Motivation—this is instead their gaining a Style Point as is standard in the Ubiquity System, psychotherapy, rest, and of course, success in an adventure.

Characters can also gain Corruption that can eventually lead to their gaining further Flaws like Flea-Infested, Callous, or Disfigured. This is done by acting evil acts—and Leagues of Gothic Horror draws a distinction here between acts of necessary evil and avoidable acts of evil, a character gaining Corruption for the latter—and can only be removed by undertaking morally worthwhile acts.

Since there are monsters in Leagues of Gothic Horror, there is also Magic and Mentalism. Both are real. Magic comes in numerous traditions, including Animism, Black Magic, Ceremonial magic, Natural Magic, and Old Ways. Magic is not cast easily or quickly and is not the wizardly flash of fantasy magic. Magic has ritualistic feel with rules for casting in the right place and at the right time, for example at the confluence of Ley Lines on solstices. Rituals include Augury, Banish Spirit, Premonition, Raise Dead, Seal Portal, and even Stage Magic. Magic is also supported by numerous examples of magical texts and occult relics and on the whole is neither easy to learn nor practise. Mentalism has a slightly more scientific feel and covers ESP, Precognition, Telepathy, and so on.

Almost a third of Leagues of Gothic Horror is devoted to fiends and foes. From Animated Ivy and Bat Swarm to Wolf and Zombie/Skeleton, the supplement gives the stats and descriptions for monster after monster. Pride of place in this bestiary goes to the descriptions of ghosts and vampires, as they are no mere write-ups, but more toolkits with which the GM can tailor and design different versions of each. This also allows the GM to create ghost or vampire foes that will challenge players who are overly familiar with them as well as regional variants. There is not much help towards the latter goal, which is a pity, but some research upon the part of the GM will solve that. Allies and mortal foes come in the form of mediums and police constables, tyrannical lords and necromancers, as well as several of the characters from Dracula. The Count himself makes an appearance alongside a number of major foes and this is followed by some cults to pitch against the Globetrotters. These are huge fun and each comes with a sample NPC important in the cult and a minor member too. Any one of the cults given, such as the freak show La Cirque Díabolique or the finger-munching Wendigo Society, could be worked up into a fuller threat to support a campaign by themselves.

In comparison to the bestiary, the list of gothic or dark places, feels all too short. It only covers a few actual places around the world, the most exotic being the Flying Dutchman. Several generic places are also given, all suitably dark and gothic. Fortunately plenty of these places are easy to research, but Triple Ace Games has a published a number of PDFs that would support a Leagues of Gothic Horror campaign. For example, Globetrotters Guide to Unusual Places and Globetrotters' Guide to Cads & Cultists, as well various guides to monsters.

Rounding Leagues of Gothic Horror is a solid bibliography and example campaign ideas and adventure seeds. The GM is also given an essay that provides a good overview of the Gothic genre and a discussion of the types of campaign that can be run, for example, action-adventure, comedic, dark, or true Gothic horror. These include guidelines on how to adjust character generation and the rules  to it in each case.

Physically, Leagues of Gothic Horror feels as if it needs an edit or two in places and the gothic script makes some titles difficult to read, but otherwise it is well presented and well written. The artwork is suitably dark and foreboding, but much of it feels like it should be in colour.

It would be unfair to state that Leagues of Gothic Horror is not quite as thorough a treatment of the Gothic genre for Leagues of Adventure and thus the Ubiquity System as it could have been. True there are aspects that could have been presented in more depth—the means to tailor monsters to particular regional legends and more places—but to be fair, those are probably best left as the subject of more detailed supplements that support this one. Putting that aside, and indeed, Leagues of Gothic Horror is thorough treatment of classic horror. It has rules for fear, for magic and its dangers, and it has lots of classic monsters that fit the period (but can be used in other periods too). Given the inclusion of those classic monsters and the supplement has the feel of both Hammer Horror and Universal Monster movies, but then they are drawing from the same source. Leagues of Gothic Horror though draws more heavily upon the works of Gothic fiction and gives the GM more means to do so. Overall, Leagues of Gothic Horror provides everything a GM needs to bring the supernatural and the horrifying to Leagues of Adventure (and other Ubiquity System RPGs).

Sunday, 30 October 2016

Mythic Horror for Halloween

Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Mythic Adventures takes adventurers in Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game not into ‘Epic’ tiers above Twentieth Level, but down dual tracks, one standard, the other Mythic. The latter becomes accessible once the characters have undergone ascension, perhaps after encountering a god or acquiring a mythic artifact and once on that track, the characters undergo various mythic trials to advance through the tiers. With Mythic status, characters can go on even more fantastic, grander adventures, and face even more incredible foes, many of which are adaptations of classic monsters to the Mythic. Now as good as Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Mythic Adventures is, it does not and cannot detail all of the beasts and monsters that have been presented for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game over the past decade or so. This is because, well, there are six volumes of the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Bestiary, and not one of them is anything other than a weighty tome.

This is where Legendary Games comes to the fore. A third party publisher that provides support for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game in the form of adventures, supplements, and in particular, plug-ins. These provide direct support for supplements published by Paizo Publishing, for example, the Mythic Monsters line, which slots the very many monsters from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Bestiary line into the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Mythic Adventures line. It does this by adapting monsters  from the Bestiary series so that they can be faced by player characters who are on Mythic Tiers. What you get are the straight monster stats. There is no background. There are, well almost no illustrations. As the publisher likes to explain, those elements can be found elsewhere. So “Just the stats, ma’am.” 

In the three years since the publication of Mythic Adventures, Legendary Games has supported the line with over forty titles, of Mythic Monsters 42: Halloween is the latest. Just in time for the autumnal season it presents fifteen monsters taken from the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Bestiary, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Bestiary 2, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Bestiary 3, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Bestiary 4, and Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Bestiary 5. Like all entries in the line it assigns its monsters two important ratings. One is the Mythic Rating, indicating which Mythic Tier it fits and provides a challenge for. The other is the Challenge Rating, the standard indicator in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and similar games as to what level it provides a challenge to. Thus the Mythic Soulbound Doll is CR 3 and MR 1, The Mythic Hangman Tree CR 8 and MR 3, and so on. What this means is that the GM can use these monsters in the game without using Mythic Monsters. The monsters are just more of a threat.

Mythic Monsters: Halloween details some fifteen monsters, ranging from CR 1 to CR 17, from MR 1 to MR 7, from the Mythic Beheaded to the Mythic Nightshade. They include monsters that are simple, that are dismembered body parts, that are body parts stitched together, the creepy, the murderous, and the generous. The simple are the Bat Swarms, while the dismembered body parts are the Beheaded with it screams and skull splitting, the Crawling Hand with its terror-inducing grasp, and the Giant Crawling Hand that grasps and crushes as well as inducing terror and tomb rot. Carrion Golems are rotten, roughly stitched-together body parts reeking of foulness and virulent plague. The Hangman Tree sends its noose-tipped vines forth to drag its victims up to swing murderously from its branches, while the Jack-O’-Lantern is an evil  pumpkin that feeds on fear and nightmare. The creepy includes the Attic Whisperer, seemingly abandoned at the top of the house, but ready to steal both breath and voice; the Shadow Collector steals shadows and uses them as its own or as accomplices, as well as being able to draw and steal its enemies and their possessions into the Plane of Shadows; and the Soulbound Doll might be good or it might be evil, but that does not stop it being creepy. The generous Leshy Gourd can pluck out its seeds and transform them into magical treats that it will hand out. Lastly, two versions of the Torch-Wielding Mob are provided, one made up of villagers, the other fanatics. The other is typically made up of peasants, the other of cultists.

In each case, Mythic Monsters: Halloween gives mythic power to its monsters. For example, the the Mythic Shadow Collector can expend mythic power to cast the mythic versions of its spells, the Jack-O’-Lantern can expend mythic power on its death to implant a nightmare that if not resisted will result it coming back to life; and if a Carrion Golem strikes the same target twice in a round, it can expend mythic power to rip limbs of its target! All powerful abilities, though the GM will need to give a careful to pick up on all of their details and those of the other entries in the supplement.

This is not to say that Mythic Monsters 42: Halloween is all old made anew. It does contain some new content. This comes in the form of new magic items such as Ghostly Gossamer, which disguises the wearer as a ghost and even surrounds them with other ghosts or makes him incorporeal or a Goblin Mask that make the wearer appear to be a harmlessly innocent goblin or a horrific and intimidating goblin. A Sack of Gluttony produces sweets and illusions that force others to gorge themselves on the faux treats or with a resolute shaking, sweets that replicate the effects of potions and elixirs placed inside the bag, while the Witch’s Broom is everything that would expect and a Witch would want. These are powerful magical items in their own right, almost artifact-like in their multiple uses. They perhaps be a little silly for a standard Pathfinder campaign, but for one that involves horror they more than suit.

To get the fullest out of Mythic Monsters 42: Halloween, the GM will not only need access to the first five in the Bestiary series, but also the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Advanced Class Guide, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Advanced Player’s Guide, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Advanced Race Guide, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Occult Adventures, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Ultimate Combat, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Ultimate Equipment, and Pathfinder Roleplaying Game Ultimate Magic as well as of course, Pathfinder Roleplaying Game: Mythic Adventures. And quite possibly the Mythic Hero’s Handbook and Path of the Stranger also, as well as Legendary Games’ own Mythic Monster Manual. Which is a lot of supplements. It highlights a problem with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game line in that there are a lot—and by that, I do mean a lot—of supplements. Now to be fair, any GM buying Mythic Monsters 42: Halloween will probably have most of those rulebooks and supplements anyway and it is them that this mini-supplement is really aimed at.

Mythic Monsters 42: Halloween comes as a thirty-two page, .2 Mb PDF. It is cleanly laid out and clearly written. It is done in full colour and comes with some excellent fully painted illustrations. There is roughly one entry per page, so only about two thirds of the supplement is given over to the introduction, advertising, and so on.

Obviously Mythic Monsters 42: Halloween is a niche supplement, hence it being released—and reviewed—just before Halloween. It is in turns whimsical and horrific, mostly horrific. Both draw very much from the American tradition of Halloween—the whimsical in particular—but there is more than enough horror here if you are not necessarily American or whimsical. Outside of Halloween, there are plenty of good monsters in Mythic Monsters 42: Halloween to add challenge to any horror game, Mythic or not.

Sunday, 23 October 2016

More Rootin', Tootin', Shootin', Stealin' Fun!

Tired of running from one carriage to the next and robbing the passengers? Tired of jumping from one carriage roof to the next? Tired of punching and shooting your fellow bandits and getting punched and shot at in return? Tired of dodging Marshall Sam whose bullets will send you racing to the roof? Tired of having your plans disrupted and messed up by your fellow bandits so that your rivals make off with the passengers’ purses and jewels and even the strongbox containing the payroll—worth $1000—for the local mine? Want to try something different? Leap onto a horse and ride it alongside the train and then leap off again? Check! Leap onto a horse and ride it alongside a stagecoach to swing inside and take a hostage? Check! Leap from the top of the locomotive onto the stagecoach, duke it out with the guard and grab the strongbox—containing another $1000—that the shotgun-wielding guard was protecting? Check! These are the core additions to be found in Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach, the first expansion for Colt Express, the 2015 Spiel des Jahres winner.

There is no denying that Colt Express is huge fun. It is a programmed movement and action game in which bandits attempt to rob a train—the passengers of their purses and their jewels and Marshall Sam of the local mine’s payroll. They can move from carriage to carriage, climb up and down onto carriage roofs, shoot and punch their rival bandits, and hopefully dodge the Marshall when another Bandit moves him! The fun of game comes in both a well-conceived plan executed perfectly and in a well-conceived plan coming into contact with the plans of rivals and being thoroughly disrupted—especially when they affect another Bandit instead of the intended target. It is a Wild West game of Old School movie action and the fact that it comes with a cardboard model Train as the playing area makes it a highly attractive looking game.

With Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach, an actual stagecoach cardboard model can be added to the game as well as wooden horses. Bandits can use the new Ride action card to leap onto a Horse adjacent to a carriage—either from inside a carriage or from its roof—and ride it alongside the Train, either to move back or forward along the carriage and then reboard the train. This provides a new movement action to the game, plus it allows players to leap from a horse and get inside the Stagecoach. Alternatively, a Bandit can use a Movement card to leap from the roof of an adjacent carriage onto the roof of the Stagecoach—or vice versa. Once inside the Stagecoach, a Bandit can take one of its passengers hostage. There are eight Hostage cards in the game, but only five are available during a game. A Bandit can only take one who remains with him throughout the game. At game’s end, a Hostage will earn a Bandit more money, but not without a penalty. For example, ‘The Lady’s Poodle’ earns a player $1000 at game’s end, but he suffers a Bullet card at the beginning of any Round because the yappy little dog keeps biting him!

The Horses are also used to determine Bandit placement at the beginning of the game. Each player takes his Bandit pawn and a Horse and hides them in his fist. He selects which one to reveal. If he reveals his Bandit pawn, it is placed in the most rearward carriage. If he reveals a Horse, his Bandit keeps riding forward alongside the Train. The process is repeated and any Bandits revealed are placed in the next forward carriage. This process continues until all of the Bandits have been placed. Essentially this spreads out the placement of the Bandits at the start of the game. The advantage of being placed further forward is quicker access to carriages containing Jewels and even the Strongbox in the Locomotive, but the Bandit at the rear of the Train will go first.

Atop the Stagecoach is a guard with a Shotgun—presumably a grizzled old veteran seeing out his time as a stagecoach guard—who has been trusted to protect a second Strongbox, also worth a $1000. He will not act unless a player tries to steal this Strongbox, in which he shoots the player who takes a neutral Bullet card just as if he had been shot by Marshall Sam. It takes a Punch action to knock the Shotgun onto the roof of the carriage adjacent to the Stagecoach. There he takes potshots at anyone who lands on the same roof, but his absence on the Stagecoach means that the Strongbox he was guarding is now available to steal.  Any player atop the Stagecoach can be shot at from anywhere on the roof of the Train and can likewise shoot anyone on any any carriage roof of the Train.

Colt Express is not quite perfect though… There is an issue in the game where a player has a bad hand of cards, sometimes because he has too many Bullets in his hand after getting shot once too many, other times because the cards he holds mean actions that make no sense in the current situation, and thus he cannot act—at least not logically. In the base game, a player can give up an action to draw three new cards, but losing an action can be almost as bad as having no suitable cards to play. In addition to the new things that players can do in Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach, it also adds a means to counter this issue. This is a number of Whiskey Flasks littered throughout the Carriages. These are picked up using Robbery Action cards—just as a Bandit can to pick up Purses and Jewels—and come in two types. The Normal Whiskey Flask enables a Bandit to draw three Action cards and play an Action card instead of playing an Action card as normal. The Old Whiskey Flask enables a Bandit to play two Action cards instead of the usual one. In either case, a Whiskey Flask can be used twice before it has to be discarded. 

Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach adds several new Events to the game that can occur at the end of each Round and/or game. These include ‘Sharing the Loot’ in which any Bandit with a Strongbox is forced to share it with a rival Bandit who ends the game with him in the same carriage; ‘Escape’ in which all Bandits must leave the Train by game’s end or risk being arrested and thus be prevented from winning the game; and ‘A Shot of Whiskey for the Marshall’ in which the Marshall picks up a Whiskey Flask—if there is one in the carriage—and moves towards the Caboose at the rear of the Train, shooting any Bandit he comes across. Presumably in a drunken rage!

One last set of mechanics that Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach adds is rules for team play wherein each player controls two Bandits who work together in robbing the Train. In each Phase of a Round, all of the players put an Action card down for their  ‘A’ Bandits first and once done, they take in turn to put down an Action card for their ‘B’ Bandits. Play is otherwise as per Colt Express, but at game end, the Bandit pair with the most money will be the winner. This set of mechanics lets fewer players play a fuller game with more Bandits and more actions so that they get to play the game at its fullest.

Physically, Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach is as well designed as you would expect. The Stagecoach is bright and colourful, the Horses are fun (if only because a Bandit can sit on them), and the new cards are clear and easy to understand.

Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach takes Colt Express and just adds more of what makes Colt Express fun. More Actions, more to do, and more theme—and it also helps  alleviate the issue of a Bandit having a bad hand of Action cards. Plus the Horses and the Stagecoach look great on the table. If you have Colt Express then robbing the Stagecoach is just as much fun!

Saturday, 22 October 2016

Advanced Dungeons & Dragons & Weird

In the Old School Renaissance, the truth is that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons does not get as much love as other versions of the classic fantasy RPG. The problem is that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons is the more complex than the other versions of the classic fantasy RPG, it is not as flexible, and it shows its wargaming roots more clearly. In comparison, both Dungeons & Dragons and Basic Dungeons & Dragons are simpler, more malleable, and have proved the easier basis for multiple Retroclones, from OSRIC and Swords & Wizardry to Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Role-Playing. Yet this does not mean that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons has not formed the basis for Retroclones, most notably Advanced Labyrinth Lord and Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea. The former is a close emulation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, building from Labyrinth Lord, whilst the latter is not just an emulation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but also a development of it, both in terms of mechanics and setting.

Published in 2012 by North Wind Adventures following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A Roleplaying Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Wierd Fantasy takes its cues from two sources. Mechanically, it takes its mechanical cue from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but streamlines many of the mechanics in play, from Saving Throws to the infamous ‘THACO’, whilst also adding a simple resolution system for actions that take place out of combat or do not specifically pertain to a Class and its abilities. Inspirationally, it also takes its cue from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, specifically certain books suggested in Appendix N, that is the weird fiction of Robert E. Howard, H.P. Lovecraft, and Clark Ashton Smith, and this is expressed most obviously in its default setting of Hyperborea and in the creatures and entities drawn from Lovecraftian fiction that populate its setting.

Currently, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is only available as a PDF, but originally it was published as a deep boxed set containing a pair of digest-sized spiral bound  books. One was the two-hundred-and-fifty-two page Players’ Manual, the other the two-hundred-and-thirty-six page Referee’s Manual. Besides this, the box contained a poster map of Hperborea, six character sheets, and a set of polyhedral dice. Each of the spiral bound books is divided into three volumes. The Players’ Manual is divided into Volume I: Swordsmen & Sorcery, Volume II: Sorcery, and Volume III: Adventure & Combat, whilst the Referee’s Manual is divided into Volume IV: Bestiary, Volume V: Treasure, and Volume VI: Hyperborea Gazetteer. It is this boxed set that Reviews from R’lyeh will be reviewing.

With an RPG like Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, the place to start is with the types of characters that can be played. In terms of Race, the Hyperborea setting gives nine pure races of mankind—Amazon, Atlantean, Esquimaux, Hyperborean, Ixian, Kelt, Kimmerian, Pict, and Viking as well as two distinct mixed races, Kimmeri-Kelt and Half-Blood Pict. In addition to these, men of indeterminate ancestry are simply of ‘Common’ stock. What is important to note about all of these Races is that none of them provide anything in the way of mechanical benefit and they are simply integral to the Hyperborea setting. They are also the only player characters Races available as Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea does not include any non-humans as playable Races.

In terms of Classes, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea gives the four basics—Fighter, Magician, Cleric, and Thief—and then a whole lot more. For each of the four basic Classes, there are four or five Subclasses. Thus for the Fighter there is the Barbarian, the Berserker, the Cataphract, the Ranger, and the Warlock; along with the Magician there is the Illusionist, Necromancer, Pyromancer, and Witch; the Cleric includes the Druid, Monk, Priest, and Shaman; and for the Thief, there is the Assassin, the Bard, the Legerdemainist, and the Scout. Most of these look very much like their counterparts in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but some need a little explanation.  The Cataphract is  warrior-knight or cavalryman, the Warlock is a spell-casting fighter; the Necromancer practices black magic and consorts with the undead, the Pyromancer specialises in fire magic, and the Witch specialises in potions, portents, and curses; the Priest is more mystic than warrior, and the Shaman, or Witch Doctor, communes with ancestral and totem spirits; and the Bard or Skald is a warrior, scholar, and master of music, the Legerdemainist is a Thief who uses sorcery, and the Scout is an explorer and intelligence gatherer. The use of these Subclasses is regarded as an option rather the default. Beyond this, a character in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea can only advance as high as Twelfth Level, shares the same attributes as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, uses Hit Points and descending Armour Class, and so on, but there are notable differences as can be seen below.

Olaf the Short
Race: Viking Age: 17
Height: 5’ 6” Weight: 145 lbs.
Hair: Blond Eyes: Brown

Languages: Common, Old Norse
Secondary Skills: Boatwright, Whaler

Alignment: Chaotic Good

Strength 16
+1 Mêlée To Hit, +1 Damage Adjustment, 3:6 Test of Strength, Extraordinary Feat of Strength 24%
Dexterity 16
+0 Missile To Hit, +0 Defence Adjustment, 3:6 Test of Dexterity, Extraordinary Feat of Dexterity 16%
Constitution 10
+0 Hit Point Adjustment, +0 Poison Adjustment, Trauma Survival: 75%, 3:6 Test of Constitution, Extraordinary Feat of Constitution 04%
Intelligence 09
+0 Languages, – Magician’s Bonus Spells Cast per Day, Magician’s Chance to Learn New Spells 50%
Wisdom 14
+0 Willpower Adjustment, One Level 1 Cleric’s Bonus Spells Cast per Day, Cleric’s Chance to Learn New Spells 65%
Charisma 11
+0 Reaction/Loyalty Adjustment, Maximum Number of Henchmen 4, +0 Turning Undead Adjustment

Fighter Level 1
Attack Rate 1/1, Heroic Fighting (Attack Rate 2/1 versus 1 HD or less), Weapon Mastery (+1 Hit, +1 Damage with Spear and Axe)
Fighting Ability: 1
Armour Class: 4/3
Hit Dice: 1d10 Hit Points: 9

Saving Throw: 16
Saving Throw Modifiers: Death +2, Transformation +2

2×Hand Axe (1d6, WC 1), Short Spear (1d6/1d8, WC 3); Chainmail, Large Shield (+1/+2)

What is noticeable about the derived factors from the attributes is that Strength differentiates between the To Hit and Damage bonuses and has both Test of Strength and Extraordinary Feat of Strength factors. These equate to Open Doors and Bend Bars/Lift Gates respectively in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the Test of Strength being rolled on a six sided die and the Extraordinary Feat of Strength rolled as a percentile. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea goes further and applies the two resolution mechanisms to Dexterity and Constitution as well as  Strength. The ‘Test of…’ is a way of handling a character who wants to take a non-standard action that relates to a physical attribute, whilst the ‘Extraordinary Feat of…’ represents a player character undertaking a superhuman action.

Perhaps the biggest change in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is the addition of Fighting Ability. Every character has this. It does two things. First, it simply measures how good the character is at physical combat when compared to a Fighter-type Class of the same Level. The Fighting Ability of a Fighter will always increase as he goes up a Level, up to the maximum of Twelfth Level, but a Cleric or a Magician will not. Thus a Thief will have Fighting Ability of 1 at First Level, of 2 at Third Level, of 3 at Level Four, and so on. Second, it simply serves as a Class’ bonus to hit at any one particular Level, this bonus or Fighting Ability being applied to the one table. All Classes possess the Fighting Ability, but some Classes also have the Casting Ability, the capacity to use sorcery (which will be examined later), and Turning Ability, the capacity to turn or control the undead. However, Fighting Ability is so beautiful in its elegance and simplicity, let alone the fact that it deals away with multiple tables for handling combat.

Armour Class works as you would expect, but minor tweaks. Notably that it provides some damage reduction, whilst larger shields provide better Armour Class adjustment against missile attacks. 

Saving Throws are also streamlined. In Advanced Dungeons & Dragons there are five categories of Saving Throw—‘Paralyzation, Poison, or Death Magic’, ‘Rod, Staff, or Wand’, ‘Petrification or Polymorph’, ‘Breath Weapon’, and ‘Spells’. In Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea there is just one generic Saving Throw for all Classes which improves as a player character goes up in Levels. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea also breaks its Saving Throws down in five categories—Death, Transformation, Device, Avoidance, and Sorcery—but rather they become modifiers to the core Saving Throw. The type of modifier a player character has will depend upon his Class. For example, Olaf the Short, is a Fighter and therefore receives the modifiers Death +2 and Transformation +2. A character’s Attributes may also provide additional modifiers. Like the Fighting Ability and Casting Ability, this is a streamlined and elegant method of handling an old mechanism that also avoids the need for big tables.

Alignment is similarly streamlined. Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea reduces the seven options found in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons to just five—Lawful Good, Lawful Evil, Chaotic Good, Chaotic Evil, and Neutral. It removes the purity of both Law and Chaos and perhaps may not be as nuanced as some Gamemasters and their campaigns, might like.

The approach to skills in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is ambivalent. Just like Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, the Thief Class in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea includes a list of skills useful to all aspects of theft and stealth and detecting traps and so on. This is rolled on a twelve-sided die, not percentile dice, and may be modified by a Thief’s Dexterity if high enough. So for example, a First Level Thief would have skills of Climb 8:12, Decipher Script 0:12, Discern Noise 4:12, Hide 5:12, Manipulate Traps 3:12, Move Silently 5:12, Open Locks 3:12, Pick Pockets 4:12, and Read Scrolls –. The Ranger’s Track ability works in a similar fashion.

In addition, there is a mechanic for a character undertaking an action not covered by his Class, that is, a nonstandard action. For example, a Magician might want to pick the pockets of a merchant or a Bard wants to recall what he knows about a hero of old. The chance of this is expressed much like the Test of Strength, but is typically low, for example, 1:6. At least there is a mechanic for this, but why not turn it into a unified task resolution and have the Test of Strength, the Thief’s skills, the Ranger’s Track ability, and this unskilled test all resolved on a twelve-sided die and allow a character’s Attributes to modify the results? Having separate small mechanisms in this fashion is an annoying hangover from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons and makes no sense in terms of aesthetics or design.

Combat is for the most part little different to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, with attack rolls on a twenty-sided die made against an opponent’s Armour Class, with damage inflicted then being deducted from his Hit points. The rules cover most eventualities, notably unarmed combat—always an issue in Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, whilst the advanced rules cover a variety of options and manoeuvres from Arrow Setting and Disarm to Throw and Attack and Two-Weapon Fighting, as well as Critical Hits. Initiative is handled normally, except that a combatant armed with longer weapon against one armed with a shorter weapon, may be able to strike first. 

Perhaps the first real disappointment with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is in its approach to sorcery. It provides spell lists for each of its various spell-casting Classes, the spells starting at First Level and ending at Sixth Level, as well as covering learning and casting spells, researching spells, and so on. Now this is all well and good, but the spells do not inspire and they do not feel appropriate to the genre that Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is based upon. Magic in Swords & Sorcery is typically dangerous, not just to those it is cast upon, but also upon the caster, and the magic in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is never that. This is because it does not really deviate from the magic of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, of E. Gary Gygax and Jack Vance.

Xanthe Pontos
Race: Atlantean Age: 17
Height: 5’ 5” Weight: 140 lbs.
Hair: Black Eyes: Yellow

Languages: Common, Hellenic (Atlantean Dialect), Keltish (Pictish Dialect)
Secondary Skills: Messenger, Bookbinder

Alignment: Lawful Evil

Strength 13
+0 Mêlée To Hit, +1 Damage Adjustment, 3:6 Test of Strength, Extraordinary Feat of Strength 08%
Dexterity 10
+0 Missile To Hit, +0 Defence Adjustment, 2:6 Test of Dexterity, Extraordinary Feat of Dexterity 04%
Constitution 18
+3 Hit Point Adjustment, +2 Poison Adjustment, Trauma Survival: 95%, 5:6 Test of Constitution, Extraordinary Feat of Constitution 32%
Intelligence 16
+1 Languages, 1 Level One, 1 Level Two Magician’s Bonus Spells Cast per Day, Magician’s Chance to Learn New Spells 75%
Wisdom 12
+0 Willpower Adjustment, – Cleric’s Bonus Spells Cast per Day, Cleric’s Chance to Learn New Spells 50%
Charisma 15
+1 Reaction/Loyalty Adjustment, Maximum Number of Henchmen 8, +1 Turning Undead Adjustment

Necromancer Level 1
Read Magic, Scribe Scroll, Sorcery 
Fighting Ability: 0
Casting Ability: 1
Turning Ability: – 
Armour Class: 9
Hit Dice: 1d4 Hit Points: 6

First Level: Animate Carrien

Saving Throw: 16
Saving Throw Modifiers: Death +2, Sorcery +2

Quarterstaff (1d6, WC 3), Dagger (1d4, WC 1)

The bestiary in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is a mix of the old and the new, or rather the old and the weird. What is noticeable by their absence is the Goblinoid family of foes—Goblins, Hobgoblins, and Bugbears—although Gnolls, here called Hyæna Men, and Orcs, here called Dæmon-Picts, are present and take on a more bestial and more demonic natures respectively. The rest is mix of the traditional Dungeons & Dragons creatures and the weird of Cthulhu Mythos. So we have the Aboleth, the Black Pudding, the Chimæra, the Gargoyle, the Gelatinous Cube, and so on from Dungeons & Dragons, whilst the Deep Dweller, the Elder Thing, the Great Race, the Night-Gaunt, the Shoggoth, and so on, from the Cthulhu Mythos. There are some changes and new entries too. For example, Hill Giants are known as Formorians and Golems are called Automata, and whilst the materials they are constructed from remain the same, whether clay, flesh, iron, or stone, take on the feel of ancient technology rather than magical constructs. New creatures include Leaper Camels (a kangaroo-like marsupial ridden by the Abominable Snow-Men and the Men of leng), Lotus Women (plant-like vampires that lure their prey with lamenting song), Minotrons (bronze clockworks in the form of Minotaurs), Oon (subterranean humanoids who serve the Mi-Go), and Thew Wagons (bequilled slug-like beasts that can be trained as giant beasts of burden). It is a delightful mix and in a great many cases, the monsters from Dungeons & Dragons do not look out of place alongside those from the Cthulhu Mythos.

Again treasure in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea feels the same as Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but different. So alongside Plate Mail +1, Sword +2, Flame Tongue, Potion of Gaseous Form, Ring of Water Walking, Staff of the Snake, Boots of Speed, IOUN Stones, there is also the Girdle of Golden Serpents (creates a greater globe of invulnerability that has a chance of ceasing function for its current wearer, but will work for the next wearer), the Sphere of Blackness (grants use of various shadow-related spells), and the Vacuous Grimoire (reduces the Intelligence and Wisdom of the reader). Other items of treasure draw from the Pulp Sci-Fi genre, for example, the Sword +2, Laser—Star Wars eat your heart out, but then the weapon has always been there at the periphery of the Science Fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons. Other Science Fantasy weapons include the Paralysing Pistol and the Radium Pistol.

Overall, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea presents a good mix of magical items, but not necessarily a great one. Again, the issue is that they are too much like Dungeons & Dragons and not weird enough, not dangerous enough. The Hyperborea of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea feels as if there should be a danger to using any one of the magical items, but unless they are specifically cursed, there is very little of that. Also missing is a means for the player characters to create magical items beyond potions and scrolls, which befits the ancient, but lost knowledge aspect of the Hyperborea setting. Of course, that is only lost to mankind. Some of the older and ‘elder’ races, such as the Deep-Dwellers, Dwarves—here described as “...foot-long, sickly yellow maggots” and “...cunning, evil, greedy, and lecherous; equally they are tireless forgers and brilliant dweomercafters”, Elder Things, and members of the Great Race, may have the means to create such magical or scientific devices.

Rounding out Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is the Hyperborea Gazetteer, which details and describes the mythic ‘micro-setting’ that is Hyperborea, that might be a land long lost to Earth or a land that lies at the North Pole. Wherever it lies, Hyperborea is an ancient land over which a giant red sun hangs, around which it has a thirteen year orbit which includes one year of midnight sun and one year of polar night. It was once home to a great race, the Ancient Hyperboreans, but whilst they were able to survive an Ice Age, their civilisation did not survive a  plague known as the Green Death. There are few Ancient Hyperborean survivors and their once great civilisation now consists of ruins to be picked over by other men. The Gazetteer covers everything from Hyperborea’s astronomy and calendar to its races and religions—many of the latter including faiths and devoted to Great Old Ones like Kthulhu and Azathoth. It provides a thorough overview of Hperborea, including some mysteries and marvels, such as the great black obelisks and ancient R’lyeh.

So the question is, what do adventurers do in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea? According to the website, they “...delve dungeons filled with horrifying monsters, lethal traps, and bewildering puzzles; they explore savage wilderness frontiers and hostile borderlands; they probe ancient ruins and investigate cursed tombs; they match steel against sorcery, and sorcery against steel; and they plunder for gold, gems, and magical treasure in a decaying world inhabited by bloodthirsty monsters and weird, alien beings.” The next question is, how does this differ from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons? The answer to that is that it does not and this is disappointing. It does not help that there is no adventure included in the Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea boxed set, an adventure that would showcase the game in action. (The box though, does include a poster map of Hyperborea, a set of character sheet pamphlets, and a set of polyhedral dice.)

Given the presence of the weird and certainly the Cthulhu Mythos in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea it seems odd that there are no rules for handling the weird and the uncanny. There are essentially no Sanity mechanics and that, when combined with the lack of threat in spellcasters using magic, points to the flaw in the RPG’s design—it never makes the weird feel personal and so never quite really brings the character Classes provided into the Hyperborea setting. Lastly it would have been nice if an equivalent of Appendix N from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons could have been provided as inspiration for the Gamemaster.

Physically, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea is very ably presented. It is well written and everything is well explained, the language in places being mature and rich enough, that in places it was necessary for Reviews from R’lyeh to look up the meanings of certain words. Both volumes of the rules are nicely illustrated by Ian Baggley, his dark pencils nicely depicting the dark dangers of Hyperborea.

As a retroclone, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea had the potential to be a superb development of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but unfortunately, it never gets quite beyond interesting. Mechanically the RPG provides interesting choices and some elegant redesigns of standard Dungeons & Dragons mechanisms, and there is potential in both the setting of Hyperborea and the threats it should present. Yet for all that potential, Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea never quite escapes the bonds of Dungeons & Dragons and never quite fully embraces the weird of its inspirational genre.


The second edition of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea: A Roleplaying Game of Swords, Sorcery, and Wierd Fantasy is currently funding on Kickstarter. Please check it out.

Sunday, 16 October 2016

Your Fault

Launched at UK Games Expo 2016 prior to a successful Kickstarter campaign, The Game of Blame: A Card Game About Shirking Your Duty is a card game of memory and card counting published by Warm Acre. Designed for between two and four players, it is a quick filler of game that is easy to learn, easy to play, and easy in terms of its theme. The players take the roles of courtiers at the court of a capricious, unpredictable, and fickle Queen who is ready to appoint and reappoint them to various positions at her court—and then mete out terrible punishments for those that disappoint her.

Game of Blame consists of fifty or so cards. Six of these are Role cards, Archbishop, General, Spymaster, Treasurer, Viceroy, and Wizard, each of which has its own colour. The bulk of the cards consist of Issues cards, such as ‘Another Holy War’, ‘Faulty Golems’, ‘Scandalous Gossip’, ‘The Treasury is Empty!’, ‘Vampire Rampage’, and ‘We’re Doomed!’. Each Issues card has one or two Seals on it and the colour of these Seals match the Role cards, denoting the responsibility of the Role for that Issues card. There are also Treason cards. These have no Seals on them, but can count as any Seal (so they are essentially wild cards).

The aim of The Game of Blame is end the game with the least number of Issues that match that match your Role. At game start, each player receives a Role card, which is placed in front of them, and three Issues cards, whilst a single Issues card is drawn and played face up to form the Blame pile.

On his turn, a player must play between zero and three cards on the Blame pile. As each Issues card is played, one of its Seals must match the colour of one of the Seals of the Issues card it is played onto. How cards played determines a player’s second action. If he played zero cards, he must draw three new Issues cards; if he played one, then he must draw one; if he played two, then he can swap any two Roles—this can be between himself and another player, between any two players, and one of the Role cards can be one not in play; and if he played three Issues, then he can Accuse someone!

To Accuse someone, a player chooses another player to blame and then together they compare the number of Seals in the Blame pile that match their current respective Roles. The player who has the most Seals in the Blame pile literally takes the Blame and adds the pile of cards to his hand. Everyone else, including the successful Accuser, can bury one of their Issues cards, including a Treason card, into a personal Secrets pile. All Issues in a Secrets pile are safe and do not play any further role in the game.

 This is the heart of The Game of Blame. The problem though, is that because Roles can swap from one turn to the next, remembering exactly what Issues and thus which Seals—and how many—are in the Blame pile, can be difficult to remember! This is intentionally made difficult because the players cannot look through the Blame pile. Plus having all of those Issues cards in your hand at game’s end is really bad, because the more Issues cards a player has in his hand that match his current Role card, the worse his fate is… Each matching Issues card is worth a point, Treason cards are worth six points! The player with the least number of Issues cards that match his current his current Role card in his hand, will win, but his fate is still down to the Queen’s temper…

The Game of Blame is deceptively simple and deceptively tactical. Counting the Issues as they go into the Blame pile is as important as knowing when to swap Roles—your own as well as anyone else’s. Getting this right means that you can avoid the Blame and place it on someone else! There is also room for some tactical play too, stacking the Blame pile with Issues of one colour, then switching Roles so that another player’s Role matches those Issues, just as much as there is for throwing back and forth the Accusations. Though the likelihood is that a game will involve more of the latter than the former.

The game’s advanced rules allow the Roles to do a whole more than just be swapped or matched. Each one has a special function, for example, the General has ‘Honour’ and cannot be Accused if he has no Secrets and the Wizard’s ‘Sorcery’ enables him to swap hands with another player instead of Roles when he plays two cards. These make the Roles ever so slightly more important and Kickstarter edition of the game adds a further handful of Role cards.

Physically, The Game of Blame is nicely presented. The cards all feel like medieval documents—though sadly, the body text on is faded and difficult to read when we really wanted to read it—and this adds much to the game’s theme. In fact, The Game of Blame would be bland without its fantasy theme—as light as it is—and with that theme, it actually encourages a little light roleplaying and table talk.

Lasting no longer than twenty minutes, The Game of Blame: A Card Game About Shirking Your Duty is a light and lightly themed game that works as a solid filler.

Friday, 14 October 2016

Your First Miniatures Wargame Campaign

Thaw of the Lich Lord is the first release for Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City, the fantasy skirmish Wargames rules published by Osprey Games. It presents a ten-part campaign that charts the rise of a newly released power in the ancient city of Felstead and the efforts of the various warbands to thwart the danger he represents. The power turns out to be a wizard older than the city’s frozen history who has prolonged his life beyond death and commands both undead and cultists devoted to him. Throughout the campaign there are opportunities to do more than just stop the efforts of the Lich Lord—a wizard and his warband might capture great artefacts and knowledge, and perhaps even learn the secrets of the Lich Lord’s undeath!

The ten scenarios present a variety of different challenges and rewards. They begin with ‘Total Eclipse’, in which rival warbands must search and fight for the ancient treasures of Felstad under a sudden solar eclipse and include skirmishes across the city’s frozen river, inside the ruins of a lost mansion, and more until the showdown in ‘The Final Battle’ which takes place in the Lich Lord’s newly raised fortress over the city. In many cases there are situations where rival warbands might be forced into alliances in order to defeat the minions of the Lich Lord and of course, this may also lead to the betrayal of one ally by another. Especially when it comes to getting some of the campaign’s more treasures home to a warband’s base. In addition, some of the scenarios would benefit from the involvement of a referee who would handle the Lich Lord and his forces. In such cases, the scenario provides full rules for handling both without the need for a referee.

The ten scenarios in Thaw of the Lich Lord takes up just half of the book. The other half is devoted to new material, some of it supporting the campaign, but all of it useful beyond its events. This includes four new soldiers that a wizard might hire. The Bard grants a bonus to the Will rolls of other soldiers; the Crow Master trains and uses Blood Crows in battle to strike at a distance, the birds requiring a Crow Roost in the warband’s base; the Javelineer is a cheap missile thrower; and the Pack Mule can carry more treasure. New spells like Lichdom and Revenant enable a wizard and a soldier to live beyond death respectively. There is also a hoard of new treasure items, such the Book of Bones, a tome that details how to create an animated skeleton when the spell Raise Zombie is cast; Club of Battering, a two-handed maul that can drive an opponent back further than most weapons; the Dark Cauldron, which grants a bonus when Raise Zombie or Revenant is cast; Quiver of the Soul Keeper that imbues arrows with ability to strike the ethereal undead; and so on. There are over twenty of these new treasures, many of which are particular to this campaign. 

There are just half this number in terms of new monsters. There is of course the Blood Crow, ready to serve the Crow Master, but the majority of the new creatures are members of the undead, such as the Frost Wraith and the Wraith Knight. Two or three are particular to Thaw of the Lich Lord, including the Lich Lord himself, who receives a two-page spread detailing his background, his abilities, and his tactics during the final battle. These tactics are fairly straightforward and make his handling when there is no Referee present relatively easy.

Thaw of the Lich Lord is well written, decently illustrated, and a solid expansion for Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City. There is perhaps a single problem in story presented by the ten-part campaign and that appears early on when the various wizards and their warbands hear rumours of new power, possibly a necromancer, having established himself in Felstad. Now they learn of this not in game, but out of game, and perhaps it would have been nice if the players could have learned this through play rather than in spite of it. Of course there is nothing to stop someone running Thaw of the Lich Lord to write his own scenarios.

As well as the standard miniatures manufactured by Northstar for use with Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City, the manufacturer has also released a series of miniatures specifically for use with the campaign. These include all of the creatures right up to the Lich Lord himself. Of course, the players are free to use whatever miniatures they want, just as in the core rules. Whatever miniatures the players use, Thaw of the Lich Lord is solid support for the rules and setting of Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City and the good news is that there is a second expansion, Frostgrave: Into the Breeding Pits, already available and a third, Frostgrave: Forgotten Pacts to come.

Saturday, 8 October 2016

Screen Shot IV

How do you like your GM Screen?

The GM Screen is a essentially a reference sheet, comprised of several card sheets that fold out and can be stood up to serve another purpose, that is, to hide the GM's notes and dice rolls. On the inside, the side facing the GM are listed all of the tables that the GM might want or need at a glance without the need to have to leaf quickly through the core rulebook. On the outside, facing the players, is either more tables for their benefit or representative artwork for the game itself. This is both the basic function and the basic format of the screen, neither of which has changed very little over the years. Beyond the basic format, much has changed though.

To begin with the general format has split, between portrait and landscape formats. The result of the landscape format is a lower screen, and if not a sturdier screen, than at least one that is less prone to being knocked over. Another change has been in the weight of card used to construct the screen. Exile Studios pioneered a new sturdier and durable screen when its printers took two covers from the Hollow Earth Expedition core rule book and literally turned them into the game's screen. This marked a change from the earlier and flimsier screens that had been done in too light a cardstock, and many publishers have followed suit.

Once you have decided upon your screen format, the next question is what you have put with it. Do you include a poster or poster map, such as Chaosium, Inc.’s last screen for Call of Cthulhu ?  Or a reference work like the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu? Or a scenario such as ‘A Restoration of Evil’ for the Keeper's Screen for Call of Cthulhu from 2000. In general, the heavier and sturdier the screen, the more likely it is that the screen will be sold unaccompanied, such as those published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for the Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPGs.

So how do I like my GM Screen?

I like my Screen to come with something. Not a poster or poster map, but some form of reference material. Which is why I am fond of both the Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune and the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu. Nevertheless, I also like GM Screens when they come with a scenario, which is one reason why I like the new screen published by Chaosium, Inc. I like it equally as much because Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack comes with not one scenario, but two—and both are of a criminal bent. It also comes with a set of maps, a reference booklet, and some Investigator sheets.

The screen comes as a threefold affair of A4-sized sections in landscape format. The front of the screen presents a full colour panorama of an investigation in progress. It is a night shot and a nice piece of art that warrants further scrutiny to catch the little things going on… On the reverse, an Insanity and Extreme Difficulty Gauge runs across the top. On the left hand section, boxes summarise the base mechanics, combat with firearms, and other forms of damage. A combat flow chart sits on the middle section along with a bouts of madness summary and sample Sanity costs. There is also a page guide for spells and tomes rather than any rules summarised. The right hand section gives sanity effects, a damage flowchart, and summaries of the rules for chases and vehicle collisions. This is all done in shades of grey, but is easy to read and where necessary, page references to the pertinent sections in the Keeper’s Rulebook have been included. If there is an oddity about the screen and the layout of its reference material it is that the damage rules are summarised away from the combat rules, but flitting from one to the other is unlikely to present a challenge. Overall, the screen is sturdy, useful, and solid support for the rules themselves.

The reference booklet, or Keeper References, reprints the rest of the tables that do not appear on the screen itself. Primarily they include the weapons tables, sample phobias and manias, sample tomes, and the skills list. They also include the indices for both the Investigator Handbook and the Keeper Rulebook. Printed in plain black and white, the reference booklet nicely supplements the screen.

The maps primarily consist of maps of Arkham, Lovecraft Country, and the world, all three reprinted from the Keeper Rulebook. The first is a nice depiction of Lovecraft’s signature town, but only the very most important buildings and locations are marked, so its usefulness is limited. The second is of the region of New England pertinent to Lovecraft’s writings and is useful for the scenarios here and in Doors to Darkness. The third marks the various notable mysterious locations and Mythos places around the world. Not necessarily of immediate use, but veteran players of the game will have fun spotting the Mythos places from previous campaigns on the world map. These three maps are done in full colour and are poster-sized. Of the three maps, the one of Lovecraft Country is likely to be most useful, since it provides a much needed overview of the region where a great many scenarios for Call of Cthulhu have been, and will continue to be, set. The other four maps are also full colour, but depict locations from the scenarios in the Keeper Rulebook. All seven maps are all well done and make for nice additions to the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack.

The first scenario is ‘Blackwater Creek’ by the editor of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, Scott Dorward. It takes place in in the village of Blackwater Creek, somewhere out Dunwich way, in Massachusetts at the height of Prohibition in 1926 and has two options to get the player characters involved. The first is as academic investigators from Miskatonic University sent out to locate a missing archaeologist and his wife, who conducting a dig in the area. The second is as Boston Bootleggers, sent to obtain a new and abundant supply of whiskey for their boss, Declan McBride. 

As Boston Bootleggers, the group is tasked with travelling to Blackwater Creek and there negotiating with the distillers who have been supplying their bootleg whiskey to a rival gang in Boston. This means making the distillers an offer they can accept or if they refuse, an offer that they cannot refuse. The group will arrive in the rundown, dilapidated village to discover recalcitrant villagers and sick children, the place beset by a fecund decay. There are further signs of this fecundity if the player characters go looking for it, but very quickly the plot drives them to the distillers and their farm and it is here that the scenario is likely to one of two ways. First, the negotiations with the distillers are successful and the scenario all but peters out; second, the negotiations with the distillers fail and everything goes awry.

Of the two options, the second is more likely—even the author states that “It’s highly likely that combat will ensue at the farm.” In fact, this is the scenario’s major scene, one that raises the stakes between the player characters they become involved in a confrontation between the distillers, their men, and more… This is because the  tensions between the pre-generated characters—they are not in any traditional sense, investigators—are likely to rear their ugly heads. There are both ties and rivalries between the six, ties and rivalries that involve brotherhood, friendship, love, ambition, and money. These are very likely to come to the fore here in what will be a bloody shootout. Should this happen, then ‘Blackwater Creek’ is unlikely to continue because the gang members will be dead or bloodied and bruised and driven off...

Whereas, the academics are tasked with travelling to Blackwater Creek in order to locate Doctor Henry Roades, an associate professor of archaeology at Miskatonic University who had recently led a field trip in search of an early colonial settlement in the Miskatonic Valley that had failed for unknown reasons. Roades has not returned and his colleagues are growing concerned. They will have the same initial encounters in the village as the gangsters, but unlike the gangsters, the academics have much more in the way of an investigation to conduct. For them there are clues to be followed and if they do so, they are much likely to move towards the source of the fecundity and its corrosive effect in Blackwater Creek, whereas the bootleggers are not. As investigators, theirs is a less confrontational path, less combat oriented, though still dangerous.

The problem with ‘Blackwater Creek’ is that there are no pre-generated academic player characters. This means that of the two plot hooks given to draw the player characters into the scenario—‘Investigator Option One: Miskatonic Faculty’ and ‘Investigator Option Two: Bootleggers’—it is the criminal option that is the more favoured. This is because the pre-generated criminals have plot hooks built into each one that tie them into the scenario and of course with each other that give the scenario much more of a dramatic impetus when those characters are used. Now the presence of the academic and the archaeological field trip has always been part of the scenario’s plot, but not necessarily as plot hooks to pull academic investigators into the scenario. Its inclusion as a plot hook is decently done, but it does not feel as well supported and it does feel like an afterthought.

With the two different options in ‘Blackwater Creek’, the scenarios deliver two different playing experiences. One underplayed, but much more of a traditional Call of Cthulhu investigation, the other more direct and much less of an investigation. Yet, there is a third option. What if both options were played? What if two groups played the two options simultaneously, perhaps at a convention? It would take two good groups and it would require a second set of pre-generated investigators, this time an academic set. So what if…?

The second scenario, ‘Missed Dues’, is written by Mike Mason, the co-author of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, and like ‘Blackwater Creek’ is a criminal affair and set in Lovecraft Country. It differs though by being set earlier in 1922 and in town rather than in the countryside, but like ‘Blackwater Creek’, it comes with a set of six pre-generated player characters. Now these six are underwritten, lacking the backgrounds of the six given for ‘Blackwater Creek’, but they are all criminals working for gang boss, Mordecai ‘the Hammer’ O’Leary, to whom they owe a favour. This is made clear in the conversation that opens the scenario that also suggests their misdeeds—losing a truckload of bootleg whiskey, an extortion attempt that went too far, and an attempted bank robbery made without permission. In return for forgetting their misdeeds, O’Leary wants them to find a small time thief known as ‘Sticky Jack’ Fulton who owes him for a series of burglaries that he committed without permission.

This is an investigation that takes the player characters into the murky alleys of Arkham’s criminal underworld as they track their quarry down. Here they will be at an advantage, since they know this world and they can interact with its denizens. Where they will be at a disadvantage is in determining what it was that ‘Sticky Jack’ Fulton stole, why they were stolen, and who for. This will also take them into the realms of academia where they will stick out like sore thumbs. The likelihood is that they will probably have to rely upon their criminal skills, so they get to shine otherwise. Their investigation will lead them to Fulton’s employer and from their the scenario takes a turn for the weird…

In comparison with ‘Blackwater Creek’, ‘Missed Dues’ is written as a much more of a traditional investigative scenario, even though it is with criminally orientated player characters. Only the single option in ‘Blackwater Creek’—‘Investigator Option One: Miskatonic Faculty’—lends itself to this style of investigation, whilst the other option—‘Investigator Option Two: Bootleggers’—presents more of a Mythos encounter, than an investigation. A probably bullish and hectic, as well as enjoyable, encounter, but an encounter nevertheless.

Ultimately what both scenarios included with the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack feel like are convention scenarios with their pre-generated investigators and plots that limit their use by character types beyond the criminal. This does not mean that either cannot be used with more traditional investigators or more traditional campaigns. ‘Blackwater Creek’ is probably easier of the two to use to that end since it includes that option. On the whole,  ‘Blackwater Creek’ and ‘Missed Dues’ are enjoyable diversions rather than immediately useful as scenarios.

So how I like the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack? The screen is clear, simple, and easy to use, whilst the reference booklet provides further supplementary support. The maps are good to have, and beyond those for the scenarios from the Keeper’s Rulebook, will serve as useful aids in the long term. Whilst it is always good to have scenarios, those presented with the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack offer offer something different to play rather than being necessarily useful. For some that may be a refreshing change, whereas others may not find quite as useful. Overall, the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack can definitely be said to be found not wanting and is a solid, pleasingly complete package.

Friday, 7 October 2016

1985: The Good Games Guide 1

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


In 1985 Games Workshop dominated the gaming hobby in the United Kingdom. It had, over the course of a decade, built up a distribution business importing the American RPGs that had begun with Dungeons & Dragons and then gone on to publish British editions of many of these games, including Call of Cthulhu, Middle Earth Roleplaying, RuneQuest, and Star Trek. It had published board games such as Apocalypse, Battlecars, Judge Dredd, and Talisman, as well as RPGs of its own in the form of Golden Heroes and Judge Dredd. It had established a chain of its shops and in the form of White Dwarf magazine, had what was the voice of the British roleplaying hobby. So what was it doing in 1985, publishing The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86, what was it, and what was it doing on the shelves of our newsagents?

It was essentially an exercise in marketing, a way to present the games available in the hobby game market, not just to dedicated gamers (such as myself), but also members of the public with an interest in hobby games. This was in the run up to Christmas and thus an attempt to drum up interest from the general public rather than the readers of White Dwarf. It provided reviews and overviews of the leading RPGs within each genre with a  particular focus, of course, on Games Workshop titles. So we have a discussion of Dungeons & Dragons, both Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, as well as a look at the various modules and supplements then available. Remembering that this was 1985, there are some interesting comments in this overview. For example, the then new Advanced Dungeons & Dragons rulebook, Unearthed Arcana is described as “...a sign of the future.” There is a certain irony to the statement given how that supplement is held in such poor regard. Of Oriental Adventures, it says, “Whether this marks the beginning of a new phase of the game’s development, with ‘culture books’ for different types and periods of fantasy remains to be seen.” Perhaps the nearest that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition got to these would be seven years later with the Historical Reference series that began with HR1 Vikings Campaign Sourcebook.

There are similar examinations of Middle-Earth Role Playing and of Avalon Hill’s RuneQuest III, but both less critical than that of the overview of Dungeons & Dragons. Shorter reviews follow of the fantasy RPGs and settings then available, such as Elfquest and Conan: The Roleplaying Game and Thieves’ World and Hârn. Similar treatments follow for Call of Cthulhu and other horror RPGs; Star Trek, Traveller, and other Science Fiction RPGs; the James Bond 007  and Golden Heroes RPGs and similar heroic RPGs, and so on. Shorter articles race through subjects as diverse as solo adventure gamebooks, miniatures and painting, fantasy board games (all described as American classics), Steve Jackson Games’ titles, and wargames. In addition a full colour insert advertising Games Workshop’s own titles reinforces the role of The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 as a piece of marketing.

Although it would be the only issue, The Good Games Guide 1 is notable for its inclusion of two scenarios. Their inclusion would have been reason enough for gamers and readers of White Dwarf to purchase it rather than the casual gamer and the interested gamer that the magazine was really aimed at. The first of the scenarios is ‘The Web of Eldaw’ by Rick Priestly. It is notable because according to Graeme Davis, it was the first mention anywhere of Warhammer Role Play, the game that would become Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay as well as being the first scenario written for it. The scenario is also written and comes with stats, for use with 2nd edition Warhammer Fantasy Battle, so this would have been at a time when there was still some crossover over between the RPG and the miniatures rules and before the RPG became Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and took the well-known direction it did with The Enemy Within Campaign, that is, a Moorcock-influenced fight against Chaos. The adventure itself is a dungeon, set in the rarely visited Albion—outside of the miniatures game that isand concerns the attempts of a young prince to reclaim the family throne following a recent coup. The scenario has Shakespearean undertones with hints of both Hamlet and Macbeth to it, especially in its four pre-generated characters. It is their motivations that drive the adventure and have the potential to make it much more interesting than the traditional dungeon bash. ‘The Web of Eldaw’ can be read here.

The second of the scenarios is Marcus L Rowland’s ‘Underground’, written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Third Edition. This is set in 1942 in wartime England with the investigators on leave and staying with an old colleague, Julian Hammond at his home in the scenario’s unnamed village. His wife is worried about her husband’s odd behaviour, sleeping during the day and being out at night, despite having resigned from the Home Guard on the grounds of illness. Not that he is ill… What exactly is Julian Hammond up to? ‘Underground’ is a straightforward if dangerous scenarioon two counts. First, Hammond is a member of the GHQ Auxiliary Units, the ‘stay behind’ guerilla cells set up in absolute secrecy that would carry out acts of resistance in the event of the Nazi invasion of England. This means that Hammond and the fellow members of his cell have access to considerable firepower. Worse, Hammond and his fellow cell members have fallen under the influence of the spirits of eighteenth century wizards bent on returning from the grave and sapping the men’s Sanity by teaching them of the Cthulhu Mythos. The latter is arguably overdone and the scenario is likely to end in a bloody and violent firefight. Nevertheless, this is a nicely detailed scenario with plenty of period feel to it. 

‘Underground’ is unique for being the first scenario for Call of Cthulhu set during World War 2 and thus a further innovation from Marcus L Rowland following his development of Call of Cthulhu for the modern day with On the Trail of the Loathsome Slime and its forebears. These days Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying during World War 2 is more than ably supported with two settingsAchtung! Cthulhu from Modiphius Entertainment and World War Cthulhu from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, and ‘Underground’ would work in either setting.

Physically, The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 feels very much like the White Dwarf magazines of the time. This is no surprise given that it was assembled by the same team, but it feels slightly rushed, even tired. Otherwise, it needs another edit.

To assess The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 as anything more than an obscure  piece of gaming hobby frippery would be to do it more justice than it deserves. Nevertheless, the inclusion of its two scenarios, both of which made notable debuts in their own way in its pages, make it of  interest to players and collectors of two leading roleplaying games. Beyond that, The Good Games Guide 1 Winter 85-86 captures some of the state and some of the views of the British gaming hobby in late 1985.


With thanks to Andy Hopwood of Hopwood Games for the loan of his copy of The Good Games Guide 1. Without his making it available, this review would have appeared much, much later.