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

Friday, 25 November 2016

Crawl Classics for Two

For Free RPG 2016—the tenth Free RPG Day—Goodman Games released Dungeon Crawl Classics: Lankhmar – The Madhouse Meet/Mutant Crawl Classics: The Museum at the End of the Time. These were two scenarios, the first for the Lankhmar setting for Dungeon Crawl Classics, Goodman Games’ Basic Dungeons & Dragons to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons retroclone, the second for the forthcoming post-apocalypse RPG, Mutant Crawl Classics. The book is just twenty-two pages long, but contains two scenarios designed to serve as introductions to their respective settings.

‘The Madhouse Meet’ is designed to introduce Judge and players alike to Dungeon Crawl Classics: Lankhmar, the setting of Nehwon based upon the fiction of Fritz Leiber. It is a Level 1 Adventure written for use with First Level characters, a ‘Meet’ adventure that throws them together in situation and forces them to work together. No matter what characters the players create, they all begin play in the same cell somewhere in the city of Lankhmar, manacled to the wall. Their challenge is to get out of their predicament and to discover how they ended up. The adventure is specifically written to that end, designed to put the adventurers into this predicament and then give them every opportunity to get out of it. Once free of their manacles, the player characters are without their possessions and so this will probably colour how they proceed. If they run into every situation, the likelihood is that more of their number will be killed. As the adventure advises, ‘The Madhouse Meet’ should best be approached with “stealth over steel”.

What lies beyond the confines of the player characters’ cell is small dungeon. It does not amount to more than twelve rooms and apart from the strange sorceries behind their abduction, ‘The Madhouse Meet’ is probably as mundane and as straightforward a dungeon you would want to run in a demonstration game or as an introduction to a campaign. This does not mean that the scenario is bad. It is well written and comes with detail enough to engage the player characters in addition to their drive to escape from their incarceration. If there is a downside to ‘The Madhouse Meet’, it is that there is relatively little in it to tie it into the Lankhmar setting, but this does mean it could be set in a campaign of the Judge’s own devising.

Accompanying ‘The Madhouse Meet’ is ‘The Museum at the End of the Time’, a scenario for Mutant Crawl Classics. This is Goodman Games’ love letter to the post-apocalyptic science fantasy of TSR, Inc.’s Gamma World in which young tribesmen—humans, mutants, mutated animals, sentient plants, and others—leave their village to explore the word of Terra A.D., a world wrought by some great disaster that felled the Ancients and left behind a mutated, twisted planet full of secrets and artefacts. ‘The Museum at the End of the Time’ is a character funnel designed to take multiple Zero Level characters per player and put them through danger after danger to see who will survive and thus become First Level and full player characters. Taking its cue from ‘Rite of Passage’, the scenario from Gamma World, Third Edition, in ‘The Museum at the End of the Time’ the player characters are mutant tribesmen ready to undertake the Rite of Passage. They must journey out into the radioactive and dangerous wilderness surrounding the lands of the Tribe of Cog and not only survive, but return with an artefact to prove their maturity and take their place as Seekers of the tribe.

Rather than simply search nearby lands, the player characters are going to be brazen. They are going to journey to the glassy Glow Desert and the initial part of the adventure covers their foray into this radioactive wasteland. There are strange encounters to be had here—fungoid-reanimated corpses, serpents that hunt beneath the desert’s glassy surface, and more—but eventually they come to ruins of a structure built by the Ancients. Below is a small collection of rooms that make up a combination of museum and research centre. Though there are combat encounters to be had, the emphasis in the adventure is on exploration of these rooms and examination of the things to be found in them, rather than combat or roleplaying. There is plenty to experience here, from visions of the past to experiences beyond the immediate setting of Terra A.D., such that ‘The Museum at the End of the Time’ has elements of being a ‘funhouse dungeon’, a dungeon where matters regarding ecology, naturalism, or even logic take a backseat to presenting a good—and fun—challenge to the players whose characters are exploring it. This is not say that there is no sense of naturalism to the adventure, but this a museum from the far future, being explored in the far, far future. So there is certain wackiness to the affair.

Part of the joy of ‘The Museum at the End of the Time’ is that wackiness and the flavour and detail that add to that. The other joy is the author’s obvious love of English Science Fiction, which is in parts weird and in parts knowingly silly. Now the downside to the adventure is that it has been released when the rules for Mutant Crawl Classics are not yet available. It is of course compatible with the rules in Dungeon Crawl Classics and rules are included for player characters attempting to work out how artefacts function, to get the most of ‘The Museum at the End of the Time’, the Mutant Crawl Classics rules are a must. Of course, if you apply the highly appropriate Clarke’s Third Law, ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ to the scenario and it is less of an issue. There is even the hint that the world of Dungeon Crawl Classics exists as part of the past of Terra A.D.!

Physically, Dungeon Crawl Classics: Lankhmar – The Madhouse Meet/Mutant Crawl Classics: The Museum at the End of the Time is well presented. The artwork might not be the best, but the cartography is nicely done and the writing is engaging.

So of the two scenarios in Dungeon Crawl Classics: Lankhmar – The Madhouse Meet/Mutant Crawl Classics: The Museum at the End of the Time, it is a case that ‘The Museum at the End of the Time’ is much better than ‘The Madhouse Meet’. There is more flavour and detail to it, and simply, it is just more fun. As good a preview as it is, it is just a pity that you cannot yet play it… Similarly, ‘The Madhouse Meet’ does not quite have the feel of Lankhmar to it, but this does not mean that it is not a decent dungeon. Despite these imperfections, Dungeon Crawl Classics: Lankhmar – The Madhouse Meet/Mutant Crawl Classics: The Museum at the End of the Time is a fun package that provides a solid preview of both RPGs.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

Screen Shot V

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 Keepers Screen for Call of Cthulhu from 2000. In general, 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 Delta Green: Need to Know, the new screen published by Arc Dream Publishing for use with Delta Green: A Role-Playing Game of Lovecraftian Horror and Conspiracy. Further, Delta Green: Need to Know comes with rules enough to create player characters or Agents and the basic rules to play the scenario. In other words, Delta Green: Need to Know is the ‘QuickStart Rules’ for Delta Green: A Role-Playing Game of Lovecraftian Horror and Conspiracy.

Now it cannot be stressed how radical Delta Green was when it was first presented in The Unspeakable Oath #7 in 1993 and then in 1997 in the Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Supplement, Delta Green. It updated the presence of the Cthulhu Mythos for the then present, explained how it remained hidden in the then and now, and gave a reason that explained why anyone would investigate it. Essentially it layered the Mythos behind various conspiracies, including that of that of the New World Order and a healthy dollop of UFOlogy, and then folded the investigators into another conspiracy that was investigating the other and its secrets. Published by Pagan Publishing, in the next nineteen years, Delta Green would be supported by more fiction than gaming supplements, an issue with the limits of licensing agreement with Chaosium, Inc., but following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Arc Dream Publishing is presenting the Delta Green setting anew, updating it for the new millenium and the Post-9/11 political landscape. Beginning with Delta Green: Need to Know.

The screen with Delta Green: Need to Know is a four panel affair in landscape format. It can roughly be divided into four sections—‘// Using Stats & Dice //’, ‘// Combat //’, ‘// Wounds & Ailments //’, and ‘// Sanity & Willpower //’—that cover most of the actions that an Agent can undertake. The rules are neatly summarised from both the Need to Know booklet and also the Delta Green: Agent's Handbook, which presents the basic background and rules as well as the full means to create investigators or Agents. It is simply arranged and everything is easy to read, but there is one element missing. It does not include page references to either the rules given in Need to Know or Delta Green: Agent's Handbook. It certainly needs them for the latter rather than the former. Nevertheless, the screen is useful for running the scenario in Need to Know, as well as in the long term.

Given that Delta Green: Need to Know is the first release for Delta Green: A Role-Playing Game of Lovecraftian Horror and Conspiracy, it should be pointed out that as useful as the screen is, it is the least interesting element to Delta Green: Need to Know. The Need to Know booklet is far more interesting and before getting into the booklet that comes with Delta Green: Need to Know, it is important to note what Delta Green: A Role-Playing Game of Lovecraftian Horror and Conspiracy is and what Delta Green: A Role-Playing Game of Lovecraftian Horror and Conspiracy is not. First and foremost, it is not a Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game, as much as its origins lie in being supplement for that RPG, yet it is also a Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game because it draws from the same sources and the same mechanics. Delta Green: A Role-Playing Game of Lovecraftian Horror and Conspiracy uses the same mechanics as Call of Cthulhu because both draw from the Basic Roleplay System, but there are differences which bring nuances not present in Call of Cthulhu, at least not in editions of the RPG prior to Seventh Edition. Delta Green: A Role-Playing Game of Lovecraftian Horror and Conspiracy uses the same literary sources as Call of Cthulhu—the writings of H.P. Lovecraft and similar authors—but how much and to what extent is not clear in either Delta Green: Need to Know or Delta Green: Agent's Handbook. This will have to wait until the release of Case Officer’s Handbook, the book for the Handler (as the GM is known in Delta Green: A Role-Playing Game of Lovecraftian Horror and Conspiracy). Further, the Cthulhu Mythos is not even present in the game, rather it is named as a knowledge skill called ‘Unnatural’. To anyone familiar with Call of Cthulhu, this may seem odd, even unnatural, but actually changing the name obfuscates and mystifies the Mythos under yet another layer of shadow. Which in many ways is what Delta Green: A Role-Playing Game of Lovecraftian Horror and Conspiracy is about. This is the first of numerous changes that can be best showed cased by presenting an Agent as player characters (or Investigators) are known in Delta Green: A Role-Playing Game of Lovecraftian Horror and Conspiracy.

Henry Galatas,
Special Agent, FBI
Age 37, American

STR 11/55
CON 11/55
DEX 13/65 (Agile)
INT 13/60 (Perceptive)
POW 13/65 (Dogged)
CHA 12/60

Hit Points 11
Willpower Points 13
Sanity Points 60
Breaking Point 47

My mother & sisters (12)
My Greek Orthodox faith (12)

Protecting America
Understanding people
Rooting out terrorism
Keeping the team together

Traumatic Background
Hard Experience

Incidents of SAN loss without going insane
Violence [ ] [ ] [ ] adapted | Helplessness [ ] [ ] [ ] adapted

Skills: Accounting 60%, Alertness 50%, Art (Painting) 20%, Bureaucracy 40%, Criminology 50%, Dodge 50%, Drive 50%, Firearms 50%, Forensics 50%, HUMINT 80%, Law 50%, Military Science 10%, Occult 10%, Persuade 70%, Psychotherapy 20%, Search 50%, Stealth 20%, Unarmed Combat 60%, Unnatural 00%
Languages: Arabic 50%, Greek 20%

Unarmed 60%, 1d4-1
Glock 23 .40 S&W Semiautomatic 50%, 1d10
Smith & Wesson Bodyguard .38 Special Revolver 50%, 1d8

To start with, an Agent looks not dissimilar to an Investigator. The same attributes are used, though SIZ is not used. Every stat has derived value—equal to five times its value—to roll against when using it directly and stats under nine or over twelve also have a distinguishing feature. An Agent also has Bonds—personal connections—that tie him to the natural world that to some extent will bolster his ability to withstand the ‘Unnatural’, but yet will suffer as consequence. In terms of skills there are relatively few changes, most of which to reduce the number of skills to choose from. So Alertness covers perception-based skills like Spot Hidden and Listen, Firearms covers guns, and so on. For obvious reasons, there is Cthulhu Mythos skill, it instead being replaced by the Unnatural skill, which covers all “Things Man Was Not Meant to Know”. In addition to skills, Agents can have special training, such lockpicking, parachuting, or SCUBA diving, each tied to an existing skill, or in some cases, a stat.

In Delta Green: Need to Know, Agent creation is designed to be quick and easy. Several different sets of arrays are given for the stats. A player selects one and assigns the points to his Agent’s stats as he likes. (The Delta Green: Agent's Handbook provides more options.) Choice of Profession—there are eight given, ranging from Anthropologist/Historian and Federal Agent to Scientist and Special Operator—grants the base skills and their values, plus some options. (Of the eight Professions, only the Special Operator needs some sort of explanation, and this is that the Special Operator is a soldier, ex-military, military contractor, and so on.) In addition, there are Bonus skill points to be assigned. Besides this a player needs to decide on his Agent’s Employer, Bonds, Motivations, and reason for being co-opted into Delta Green. Most of these are up to the player, but each Profession also determines the number of Bonds an Agent has, essentially the more time consuming the job, the fewer bonds available. As to the reason that brought an Agent to Delta Green, this is a traumatic incident in their past such as Extreme Violence, Imprisonment, Things Man Was Not Meant to Know and so on. Each is mostly traumatically deleterious to an Agent’s stats, though there may be some minor bonuses too.

Overall, Agent creation in Delta Green: Need to Know is quick and easy. It also includes six ready to play agents. They include an FBI interrogator, an anthropologist with an interest in the occult, a computer scientist obsessed with puzzles, and so on. They are fully written up and come with fully worked out sheets and backgrounds. Essentially they are included for quick start games, perhaps at a convention, or as examples of what the basic rules in Delta Green: Need to Know can do. Whereas the Agent creation rules are better aimed players with more experience of the setting or looking towards long term play.

Mechanically, Delta Green: Need to Know and thus Delta Green: Agent's Handbook, is a percentile system—no surprise given that it is derived from the Basic Roleplay System. Delta Green: Need to Know keeps the mechanics even simpler. Penalties and bonuses rarely amount to more than a flat -20% or +20% and when it comes to a Luck roll, an Agent has just a flat 50%. In Delta Green it is not a derived value. Combat is noticeably deadlier with many weapons having a flat Lethality rating in addition to the damage they ordinarily do. For example, a short burst from a submachine gun has a Lethality rating of 10%, whilst a grenade has a Lethality rating of 15% in a 10 metre radius. Roll under this and an Agent or the target—if human—is dead. Not even Body Armour protects against this, though cover will.

As befitting a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the rules for Sanity in Delta Green: Need to Know—and thus Delta Green: Agent's Handbook—are more complex. An Agent can suffer Sanity loss from both suffering and inflicting violence and from a sense of Helplessness as well as the Unnatural. When an Agent suffers a loss of five points of Sanity in one encounter, Temporary Insanity occurs, simply triggering a ‘flight or fight’ response and lasting only a few minutes. If an Agent loses Sanity enough to fall below his Breaking Point—essentially when the terror or stress has become too much, equal to Sanity minus his POW or Willpower—he can acquire a Disorder which will develop later. The nature of the Disorder is determined by the source of the Sanity loss. So PTSD from Violence, Anxiety Disorder from Helplessness, Depersonalisation Disorder from the Unnatural, and so on. Should an Agent lose Sanity or encounter a traumatic trigger related to his Disorder, an acute episode of it can occur.

However, in Delta Green, there are ways of preserving an Agent’s Sanity. Willpower can spent to reduce to Sanity loss, but at the same this reduces the value of an Agent’s Bonds, reflecting the loss of and connection to humanity represented by the Bonds. An Agent adapt to sources of Sanity loss from Violence or Helplessness, but whilst this makes him immune to such losses, he also becomes more inhuman. Willpower is a finite resource, but it can be regained through rest, fulfilling a motivation, and so on. Personal pursuits away from an assignment enable an Agent to strengthen a Bond, undergo therapy and regain Sanity, improve a Stat or skill, and so on. In general, the Sanity rules in Delta Green: Need to Know—and thus Delta Green: Agent's Handbook—reflect the wider effect of Sanity loss.

The last eight pages of the Need to Know booklet is taken up by the scenario, ‘Last Things Last’. Penned by Bret Kramer—editor of the forthcoming Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion and The Arkham Gazette and author of the Call of Cthulhu monograph, Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37—‘Last Things Last’ is a ‘Shotgun Scenario’. These are short scenarios, written for Delta Green and envisioned as “ultra-condensed descriptions of possible adventures, plot-hooks, themes, or subplots”, each one being typically submitted to the annual year-end contest on the Delta Green Mailing List and subsequently saved on The Fairfield Project wiki. ‘Last Things Last’ was submitted to the first contest in 2005 and came joint second.

‘Last Things Last’ throws the Agents into the shallow end of Delta Green assignments with a clean up operation. An ex-Delta Green operative has died and the Agents, that is the player characters, are assigned the task of going in and sweeping up anything that could link him to the organisation. Essentially as active Agents themselves, ‘Last Things Last’ showcases what might happen to them following their deaths. Now given the length of the scenario, the investigative process is fairly short, but dealing with what the investigators find is another matter and the point of the scenario. It is quick, it is dirty and it is great for a one-night one-shot or convention scenario.

Physically, Delta Green: Need to Know is well presented in full colour. The photographs and documents used to illustrate the booklet are in turns eerie and creepy, nicely hinting at things rather than being explicit. The writing though is problematic. In places it can at best be described as being very direct in its advice to both player and Handler as to what their roles are in playing and running Delta Green, at worst not a little patronising. Better though, to err on the side of the former than the latter, since Delta Green: Need to Know is the RPG’s quick start rules and getting to the point is their very point.

So what is not in Delta Green: Need to Know? Well, no background to the Agents’ relationship with the American government or no real idea about what the Agents are facing with regard to the Unnatural, beyond that they are dealing with incursions of the unknown that threaten mankind. Indeed, the Unnatural barely plays a role in Delta Green: Need to Know. Which means that if you know nothing about Delta Green, then Delta Green: Need to Know is not a good place to start as it does not really present an introduction to the setting. It does though, present a decent introduction to the rules as well as well as a good sample scenario. The only way in which it could be better is if the scenario was a team of Agents’ first ‘Night at the Opera’, rather than one suited for more experienced operatives. Which means that as a physical product, if you know nothing about Delta Green, then Delta Green: Need to Know is not really worth purchasing—it only serves as an introduction to both the setting and the mechanics, and nothing more. As a PDF—and a Pay What You Want PDF at that—then Delta Green: Need to Know is definitely worth $10 given that ‘Last Things Last’ will provide an evening’s or a convention game’s worth of entertainment. If you are already a devotee of Delta Green, then you are probably going to want the physical product itself and will be able to read far more into the material given in Need to Know and ‘Last Things Last’ than someone new to it. And then afterwards, run material of your own devising or already owned, either for Delta Green or Call of Cthulhu.

Sunday, 13 November 2016

Cthulhu Classics VI

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

With the sixth entry in the Call of Cthulhu Classics series, we come to the fifth and last release for Call of Cthulhu from Games Workshop, following on from Trail of a Loathsome Slime, Nightmare in Norway, The Vanishing Conjurer & The Statue of the Sorcerer, and of course, the highly regarded hardback edition of Call of Cthulhu, Third Edition. That release is Green and Pleasant Land: The British 1920s-30s Cthulhu Source Pack. Published in 1987, it was not quite the first supplement to explore the United Kingdom during the RPG’s default period of the Roaring Twenties—that honour would arguably go to the campaign, Masks of Nyarlathotep, with its own London chapter, published in 1984. It was though, the first to look at this ‘sceptr’d isle’ in any real detail and arguably also the first to look at the 1930s for Call of Cthulhu as well. Of course, it would later be superseded by Chaosium, Inc.’s own The London Guidebook in 1996, and then by several supplements—of varying quality—from Cubicle Seven Entertainment for its Cthulhu Britannica line culminating the Cthulhu Britannica: London Box Set. Along the way, the 2008 Miskatonic University Library Association Monograph, Kingdom of the Blind: A Guide to the United Kingdom in the 1920s and 1930s can be seen as a missed opportunity, whilst the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion with its extensive London chapter has yet to appear as of late 2016.

Green and Pleasant Land is an eighty-page, over-sized book roughly divided into two halves, one devoted to background information and the other to a trio of scenarios. Ending the supplement is Brian Lumley’s short story, ‘The Running Man’. This is a decent piece that concerns the disastrous attempt by some amateur ghost hunters to investigate a haunted house and nicely sets the scene for the scenarios that precede it. The background half of Green and Pleasant Land consists of a series of short sections that vary in length from a single page or less to as many as five. They cover mundane subjects such as British social life, communication, entertainment, crime & punishment, public health, and travel—aviation, the inland waterways, motoring, railways, and sea travel. There is a mundane and a Fortean timeline as well as sections devoted to archaeology, follies, the occult, and the Mythos. After listing various notable figures from the period—including various fictional ones such as Hercule Poirot, Jane Marple, and James ‘Biggles’ Bigglesworth—it introduces various new Occupations specific to Great Britain. These are Gentlemen, Players, Butlers, Valets, Sleuths, and Sportsmen, all nicely detailed with more background and discussions of how they should be played than is the norm for Call of Cthulhu. There is also the first mention of rules for prior experience for investigators who fought in the Great War. These rules are not particularly detailed, but they are a good start (and were the basis for an expanded article on the same subject in the Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion). Now of these new Occupations, most consist Occupations for Middle and Upper Class Investigators, so from the outset the tone of the supplement is ‘What ho!’, more Jeeves and Wooster Pulp tone than anything approaching Purist.

Where Green and Pleasant Land begins to get interesting is in its exploration of the outré. So there are solid sections on the occult—witchcraft and Aleister Crowley in particular, as well as a discussion of Harry Price and the Society of Psychical Research. The relatively lengthy discussion of the archaeology of the period, which covers everything from British barrows, Roman temples, and Sutton Hoo to discoveries in Greece, on Crete, and of course, Egypt with the excavation of Tutankhamun’s tomb, is accompanied by a look at a peculiarly British phenomenon—the folly. These are the architectural creation of the rich and the eccentric, odd throwbacks to ages past, ripe for the Keeper to have cultists put to some nefarious purpose. The section on ‘Britain in the Mythos’ sadly runs to just two pages, listing and mapping the locations for various works of Lovecraftian fiction and Call of Cthulhu scenarios. In addition, the Call of Cthulhu scholar will also spot the odd reference scattered throughout the book. Of course the ‘Britain in the Mythos’ section is up to date for 1987, but has long since been superseded. What it does highlight though is the lack of application of the Mythos to the British Isles in Green and Pleasant Land, it brings nothing new to the Mythos in Call of Cthulhu. No new cults or Mythos entities, or indeed a discussion of the Mythos in the United Kingdom. Typical of the time, but nevertheless disappointing.

Green and Pleasant Land contains three scenarios. The first of these is ‘The Horror of the Glen’ in which the investigators are hired by the famous ghost hunter, Harry Price, to investigate a brutal murder in the highlands of Scotland, said to be at the hands of a deadly ghost. It has everything for bucolically Celtic investigation—suspicious natives, a fire and brimstone priest, and a nicely detailed castle! There are some quite lengthy clues (sadly not replicated for ease of use), some of which are a little difficult to find, and a plot that echoes Lovecraft’s ‘Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and His Family’. The climax of the scenario is rousing if linear, but this is a solid scenario that is a delightful period piece (I recently had the pleasure of playing it at UK Games Expo 2016). It is followed by ‘Death in the Post’, a less direct and less straightforward scenario that begins with the investigators being asked by an acquaintance to examine a strange piece of papyrus. They quickly learn that it is part of a mad sorcerer’s ongoing revenge and thwarting him will send them hither and thither around the country on his trail. It is a sprawling piece, much more difficult for the Keeper to run and potentially quite deadly that would probably make much use of the travel information provided earlier in the book. The challenge in running ‘Death in the Post’ is hampered by the lack of labels for the portraits of the various NPC victims. The third and last scenario concerns that most parochial of British pastimes—the canal holiday! ‘Shadows over Darkbank’ takes the investigators into the Black Country where a somewhat contrived request to investigate a canal tunnel collapse. Probably the most ambitious of the three scenarios in Green and Pleasant Land, this needs a careful read through if the Keeper is to grasp its plots and impart them successfully to his players. The choice of Mythos creatures in ‘Shadows over Darkbank’ is an oddity, effectively Deep Ones, but not Deep Ones, but then that could easily be changed.

It should be noted that the compendium, almost almanac-like structure of Green and Pleasant Land is due, like so many of Games Workshop’s Call of Cthulhu output, due to the origins of its sections as articles for White Dwarf. For example, the section on ‘Money & Prices’ was first seen in White Dwarf #70 as ‘Crawling Chaos: The Price is Right - Prices in 1920s Britain’; the ‘Characters’ section was originally seen in the White Dwarf #74 article, ‘Gentlemen and Players: A Guide to Creating British Investigators’; and then this fed back into the magazine with a section cut from Green and Pleasant Land. This was ‘Green and Pleasant Language: British Period Slang’, which appeared in White Dwarf #90 and is infamous for its discussion of the ‘Mummerset’ accent.

Physically, Green and Pleasant Land is a supplement of two halves. The background section uses a lot of period photographs and adverts—probably too many of the latter—whilst the second half, the scenarios, is renowned for its illustrations by Martin McKenna. These are superb pieces, often gothic grotesques that greatly impart the character of each of the NPCs. Unfortunately, because none of these portraits are labelled, it is often difficult to determine who is who for the scenarios.

Further, as a sourcebook for the United Kingdom, Green and Pleasant Land is far from complete. Now the book’s editor, Pete Tamlyn, states up front that he had material sufficient to fill two books of this volume’s size. Which begs the question, what was left out? What was definitely left out of Green and Pleasant Land is any discussion of the United Kingdom’s geography, of the differences in the peoples of its constituent parts, of any real options to play investigators of working class origins other than servants or sportsmen, and of any options to play female investigators. Part of the problem with all of these issues is that Green and Pleasant Land is very much an extension of Cthulhu by Gaslight, which published in 1986, gave more background and detail for the United Kingdom. Without access to that supplement and without being a student of history, the Keeper is going to do some researches of his own if he wants to run a game with any degree of historicity set in the United Kingdom of the period.

There is no doubt that Green and Pleasant Land is the best of the original books published by Games Workshop for Call of Cthulhu. By modern standards the background in the supplement feels somewhat light and akin to a series of bullet points than what would be wanted today. This is not to say that the information given is poor, but its lack does leave the Keeper with work to do. Perhaps the best of the new material in Green and Pleasant Land is the set of new Occupations which although too Pulp in tone, are really well done and a lot of fun. The three scenarios are solid if varied lot, none quite perfect, but none without a certain charm.

Overall, Green and Pleasant Land is an excellent supplement by the standards of the day, one that is held in a certain regard by those that recall it. The content is good and the scenarios are still playable these decades on…


As ridiculous as it was, I got to play ‘The Horror of the Glen’ on Saturday, June 4th at UK Games Expo as part of the Call of Cthulhu Masters. It was ridiculous because of the four players at the table, one knew the scenario and one had not only read it, but written a review of it (in other words, that was me). We all demurred and said that we were happy to play. It was good fun and we enjoyed it very much because the Keeper did a good job. Sadly it was announced that the Keeper in question, Sue Wilson, passed away recently. Sue was a fixture of UK conventions, big of cheer and big of presence, always happy and always friendly—she ran good games. I played in numerous scenarios she ran over the years and enjoyed them. There must have been so many players over the years that she ran scenarios for and I hope that she brought joy to her players each time. Sadly I did not know Sue away from the conventions, but it was never less than a pleasure to see her each time. I know that I will miss her at each and every one I attend.

Sunday, 6 November 2016

Cold War Now

In the wake of World War Two and deep into the Cold War, the world’s superpowers—as well as remnants of Nazi Germany—enacted programs that would strengthen their positions in the event of the then much feared possibility of a nuclear war. In particular, they created super-soldiers augmented with technologies developed from Nazi bioscience, the CIA’s mind control programs, British Intelligence’s experiments with alien technology, and the KGB’s study of exotic radiation, and then placed them into cold storage until they could awake, ready to defend their particular country in the new post-apocalyptic world. These augmented super agents are known as Sleepers. Yet that war never came and with the fall of the Berlin Wall and subsequently, the Soviet Bloc, each of the world’s superpowers was left with technologies and programs that would be embarrassing to admit that they had ever possessed, let alone developed. So they signed the Pariah Treaty, a secret agreement under which they would not only abandon the development of their morally questionable technologies, but would also actively work to terminate programs using them—with extreme prejudice.

The secrecy of the various sleeper program means that a great many records have been lost and so some Sleepers and the associated knowledge of their creation have not been found. Some remain in hibernation, the location of their facilities unknown, but others have awoken and work from behind the scenes to guide the world their ends. So even as the various intelligence agencies of the world’s superpowers disavow all knowledge of such programs, SS-Werwolf, the original Nazi Sleeper program sows chaos in order to destabilise world order and grab power; Octagon exploits the sleeper technology for financial gain; and the Circus, a cabal within the British establishments actively seeks to track down and eliminate Sleepers, whether awake or still in hibernation, plus all related technologies. Then there is Obsidian, an independent agency that sees Sleepers not as morally embarrassing leftovers from the Cold War, but as victims of the Cold War, and its mission to find, wake up, rehabilitate, and prepare Sleepers for a future that they were never prepared for. This was Obsidian’s original mission, one it still carries out, but now it also works to prevent Sleepers and Sleeper technology from falling into the wrong hands as well as recently awoken Sleepers going rogue and using their augmented abilities on the population at large…

This is the set-up for Sleeper: Orphans of the Cold, an RPG published by Death Spiral Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It combines classic conspiracy themes with elements of horror, alienation, and future shock against a framework of elite squad special forces-style covert operations and rapid if secret technological development. The players take on the role of Sleepers who are members of Obsidian, undertaking missions to save other Sleepers and to protect the world from potential Sleeper threats. In addition to this, they will set up their own base and not only protect their reputation and secrecy, but also direct the scientific development of technology recovered whilst on their missions. From this development will come weapons and devices that will aid them on their missions. This essentially gives Sleeper the feel of the X-COM series of computer games.

To create a character a player first decides upon the character’s origin, that is which program created him. This defines the technology that the character’s power is based upon and where the Sleeper is from. The Sleepers of NATO’s Nectar V use powers derived from Nazi bioweapons technology and are primarily from mainland Western Europe; the Sleepers from the CIA’s MKJESTER are a mix of Americans and Russian defectors and possess mental abilities; Grey Dust of British Intelligence used alien technology to give British and Commonwealth Sleepers bizarre powers; and the KGB’s Last Light program gave its Soviet Bloc sourced agents energy based powers derived from exotic radiation. Three powers are given to each program, so for example, Nectar V Sleepers typically have ‘Entrail Burst’, ‘Bioartillery’, and ‘Vampirism’. The first of these enables a Sleeper to explode his altered internal organs and ensare targets with them; the second to fire explosive cysts at his targets; and the third to inflict damage upon himself to gain superspeed, but then feed upon others to heal himself. There is a certain gruesome nature to many of these powers.

Now whilst these powers were created by the particular programs, a player is free to choose any origin and any of the powers in the RPG as long as he can explain how he came have that power with that program. So an MKJESTER Sleeper with the Radiation Burst power might be a Russian defector, whereas a British Grey Dust Sleeper with the Teleportation power might be the result of the alien technology rather than Last Light radiation experiments. What this means is that there is no mechanical effect to choosing an origin for the character. There may be roleplaying and storytelling effects to choosing an origin, but not a mechanical effect because if it can be effectively explained as to how a program developed a power, the choice of origin does not limit choice of power. Perhaps a mix of powers available to all programs and powers limited to particular programs might have been a way of making a character’s choice origin more important.

Then six set numbers are assigned to the Sleeper’s attributes—Athletics (dexterity and physical skills), Physique (constitution and strength), Nerve (composure and charisma), Focus (intelligence and concentration), and Shooting (guns and artillery). Each of these attributes covers several skills, so Athletics includes Melee, Mobility, Sprinting, Stealth, and Throwing, whilst Nerve includes Fate Point, Intimidation, Persuasion, Spotting, Vehicles, and Wounds. A Sleeper can use any of these skills, but at character generation, a player selects four at which the Sleeper is particularly adept as his Specialisms. When a character makes a roll using one of the four selected Specialisms, he rolls better dice. Some Specialisms are not actually skills, but improve the character in other ways. For example, a Specialism in Bionics increases the number of Bionic devices that a character can have implanted in him later in the game when they are developed; Carry increases the amount that a character can carry; Wounds increases the amount of damage a character can suffer; and Fate Points the number of Fate Points he has in the game. Once done, all a character needs is some starting equipment—a primary weapon, a sidearm, and some armor, plus standard equipment that might needed on a mission—and a codename, this varying according to the character’s origin.

Mongoose was inducted into the KGB’s Last Light program from the gulags where he had been born, orphaned, and later released before being convicted as a thief and a member of the Bratva, the Russian mafia. He is a trained engineer as well as a thief and burglar. His Teleportation power enables him to get into places better than he could before. Although he is trained in the use of firearms, he prefers to use knives. Thin, almost gaunt, he has never lost his grey gulag pallor. 

Athletics 4
Melee •, Mobility •, Sprinting, Stealth •, Throwing

Physique 3
Bionics, Carry, Resilience, Wounds

Nerve 3
Fate Point, Intimidation, Persuasion, Spotting, Vehicles, Willpower

Focus 3
Concentration, Engineering •, First Aid, Investigation, Science

Shooting 2
Artillery, Assault Rifle, Handgun, Machine Gun, Shotgun, SMG, Sniper Rifle

Melee Defence 11 Resilience Defence 9
Stealth Defence 11 Willpower Defence 9
Maximum Bulk 18 Maximum Wounds 6

Glock 17, Combat Knives, Knuckleduster, Baton

Alternatively, a player can simply select one of the twelve pre-generated characters instead. The twelve showcase Sleepers from each of the four player allowed origins as well as the twelve powers. Each of the twelve Sleepers is given a background in the section describing the program he was created by. That said, character creation is very, very quick. In fact, recording the information on the character sheet takes longer than actually creating the character.

As for the powers in Sleeper, there are just twelve available to the player characters, though several NPCs have other powers, but these are not available to the player characters. Each of the twelve powers gets a double-page spread in which the mechanical effects are described on the one page, whilst on the other, is given four examples of how the power might be used. Also included is what happens when a character rolls a natural one on a check to use his power, representing the fact that the character has temporarily lost control of his power. So for example, the Create Matter power enables a Sleeper to create and sustain blocks of a concrete-like substance that can be used as cover or dropped on opponents. When a natural one is rolled, between two and eight blocks are created and scattered away from the character. The suggestions for using Create Matter include creating cover for allies, dropping a block in front of a moving vehicle to force it to stop, block off a doorway to prevent someone from escaping, and even a set of steps for getting up or down from high places. Essentially there should be no real limit to how a power can be used except a player’s imagination and if the power can feasibly do it, then the GM should allow it.

The core mechanic in Sleeper is very simple. To attempt a skill test, a character rolls a ten-sided die and adds his attribute to beat a target number. An easy task is six, average is eight, hard is ten, and very hard is twelve. A roll of four or more above the target number is a critical success, whereas a roll of a natural one is a critical fumble and results in a catastrophic rather than fatal effect. The results of both critical successes and natural ones are given for the use of both powers and combat rolls, but out of combat, the GM will need to be creative as none are given. 

In general there is an emphasis in the rules on the characters succeeding rather than failing or at least not failing very badly. This can be seen in the natural one rule where such results are catastrophic, but not fatal, and also in the rules for group tests. Here it is the character with the highest attribute or appropriate Specialism who makes the roll, possibly with bonuses if other characters successfully help him. In addition, characters also have Fate Points, which allow a die to be rerolled, an extra die to be added to a roll, make a short move at any time during combat, and to buy off a condition, a Death Counter, and so on. The GM has his own Fate Points to spend on the NPCs.

Combat is where Sleeper gets complex as it takes on a tactical aspect. Although it does not have to be, Sleeper is designed to be played out on battle maps of squared grids marked with the terrain, with movement and range for weapons being given in squares. There is also a page full of Target Numbers and Conditions to take into account and taking these into account and keeping track of them is where the game does get complex. Otherwise combat is as relatively straightforward as the skill mechanic, but in each round a character has three actions—a movement action, a combat action, and a power action. More than the one die is rolled when a character takes a sustained or rapid fire action, or fights with more than one weapon in melee combat. In this case, each extra die rolled has to beat the same Target Number as the skill die to successfully hit a target. Then for each hit, one or more damage dice are rolled—depending upon the weapon employed—to beat the value of the armour worn by the target. Successful rolls inflict wounds on the target.

Combat is nasty, but not immediately lethal. The Armour Values for standard armour ranges between three and five and weapons like the Glock 17 does 2d6 damage, the AKM 2d10 damage, and the Barrett M82 does d12+2d8, so wounds can quickly mount up. Beyond this and further wounds suffered accrue a character Death Counters, the equivalent of critical injuries. A character character can recover from these from round to round, but they can get worse and a character who accrues three Death Counters, whether from from injuries or his current wounds bleeding out, falls unconscious. This is in addition to conditions like Confused, Dazed, Stunned, and Scared. These conditions can be dealt with First Aid and aiding an ally in the field as can some wounds, but there will be some injuries that can only be recovered from during downtime. 

Overall in play, combat is simple and straightforward, but its intricacies, especially the conditions do take practice getting used to and applying. Further the characters will find combat challenging, but careful tactical play and use of their powers will give them an edge.

If the primary play mode of Sleeper consists of tactical combat missions, then its secondary play occurs during downtime. At the start of a campaign the players set up and establish a secret base, including its fields of scientific research—exotic chemistry, hybridisation, micro-technology, advanced composites, quantum computing, and superconductors—and its expert personnel. Then during downtime, the game runs through a Base Cycle in which characters recover from injuries or are replaced, equipment and resources captured during the mission are applied to scientific research and development, a check is made to see if the characters’ activities on their mission alerted the authorities or other factions and might have led to a loss of resources and research as bases are raided or shut down, resources can be spent to expand or improve a base, research can be conducted, and new arms, armour, and devices can be manufactured. 

The Base Cycle ends with the world technology level rising, but before this, the characters can be assigned to specific facilities. These include the Expert Surgeon for treatment of long term injuries, the Training Grounds to change or gain a new specialism, and the Bionics Theatre to have devices implanted. Now the Training Grounds and the Bionics Theatre are important because apart from the new technology developed by the base that leads to new and advanced equipment, they are the only means by which a character can improve himself. Sleeper as an RPG does not have an experience system as found in almost every other RPG. So to increase the number of Specialisms a character has, the players need to develop the capability of their base’s Training Grounds and to get better bionics, they need to research and develop bionics and the Bionics Theatre.

The book includes a large section devoted to its future technology arranged according to the areas of research—exotic chemistry, hybridisation, micro-technology, advanced composites, quantum computing, and superconductors. They include plenty of variety, allowing the technology tiers to be revisited and explored along different avenues of research from one campaign to the next.

The world technology level is important in two ways. primarily it tracks the technology available to the opposition, but together with the secrecy and reputation rolls made during the Base Cycle, it can be seen as a measure of the technology’s emergence into the public consciousness. Since some of it is disturbing, even horrifying, then this is also some indication of the level of future shock as the globe moves towards a darker future. Otherwise, there is not a specific mechanic to handle this effect or the shock of the player character Sleepers waking up to an unexpected future and the horrors they face in this brave new world.

For the GM there is solid advice on running the game, running campaigns, and writing missions. There is also a wide selection of NPCs, both other factions and civilians as well as some scenario outlines. Notably, rules are not provided to let the GM create his own NPCs, but rather to customise and upgrade the ones given. The bulk of the GM’s section is devoted to a sample game, Operation Onyx. It sends the player characters into an office building search of some World War Two-era Nazi technology. It is a good introductory scenario that should serve well as the starting mission for a campaign.

Physically, Sleeper: Orphans of the Cold is a well presented black and white book. The artwork is perhaps a bit dark to appear in black and white, but all of it is good. The writing itself is solid.

Whether or not Sleeper: Orphans of the Cold War is successful as an RPG design comes down to one design decision—the eighteen mission campaign framework. Within the limits of those eighteen missions, the player characters will have room to encounter a variety of foes and defeat them, improve themselves slightly, and develop sufficient technology to give them an edge against their enemies. Beyond the eighteen mission campaign framework and as an RPG, Sleeper begins to feel limited in the choices it provides and what it can do. The number of powers which give the GM and players alike limited choices in terms of designing player characters and NPCs, the limited ability of the player characters to improve in terms of their skills, but not their powers, and the limited ability of the GM to create his own NPCs are all hindrances to long term play, that is, beyond that eighteen mission campaign framework.

To an extent showcasing each of the twelve powers included in Sleeper with a sample character reinforces this lack of design choices. Yet the book does point to an explanation for this, stating that whilst the GM is free to design additional powers as is his wont, the dozen given have been playtested to be balanced against each other and that designing your own might upset this balance. Further, the designers have stated that what Sleeper is not is a superhero roleplaying game with its hundreds of powers. 

Now this sounds like damning criticism. It is not. Rather it is a case of highlighting the scope of Sleeper and what it was designed to do. Outside of that scope, Sleeper does feel a little as if the designers are letting you play in their background and not much more.

Sleeper: Orphans of the Cold War draws from the same sources as roleplaying games such as Contested Ground Studios’ Cold City, Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green, and GDW’s Dark Conspiracy, and explores very similar themes. Its take upon the conspiracy-horror genre is more action orientated, perhaps slightly more pulpy, building it around two modes of play—the covert operations of the various missions and the resource management mechanics of the Base Cycle to develop new technology—that nicely support each other and can be drawn upon for roleplaying opportunities and hooks. Within its own limits, Sleeper: Orphans of the Cold presents a solid set of rules and campaign framework within which superpowered Sleepers fight to prevent terrible technology from bringing about a fearful future.