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

Friday, 16 June 2017

de Harken Inheritance

Reviews from R’lyeh’s 2016 review of The Fenworthy Inheritance caused no little interest amongst the Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition community as evidenced by these recordings* and this discussion at Yog-sothoth.com. For although The Fenworthy Inheritance is not written for use with any version of Call of Cthulhu, its use of the GORE™ Open Game Content Rules published by Goblinoid Games—best known for the Old School Renaissance Retroclone, Labyrinth Lord—means that it is surprisingly compatible with the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu. The publisher of The Fenworthy Inheritance, MontiDots Ltd. is not only a publisher of horror scenarios, but also of fantasy adventures too. Just like The Fenworthy Inheritance is written for a retroclone of a horror roleplaying game, these scenarios are written for use with a Old School Renaissance retroclone of Dungeons & Dragons.

*AireCon IV: MontiDots Interview, the fourth recording is the relevant recording.

The first of these adventures is MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall: A MontiDots Adventure for early versions Fantasy Role-playing games. which uses Knights & Knaves’ OSRIC™ System (Old School Reference and Index Compilation) for its mechanics. This means that it is roughly compatible with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but the advantage of this and many other Old School Renaissance roleplaying games, scenarios, and supplements is how compatible they are with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, let alone each other. MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall is an adventure for First Level characters, the first in ‘The Tales of Highcliff Gard’ trilogy which will continue with MD3 Necromancer’s Bane and MD4 The Tales of Highcliff Gard. It introduces the Highcliff Gard setting and presents a relatively short—just twenty-one locations—though highly detailed dungeon that can played through in a session or two.

The setting for MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall is Highcliff Gard, a village at the heart of Highcliff Gard Vale located in the south of Fiefdom of Kaldemar. Both valley and town are isolated, both geographically and politically, though the reasons why are not initially obvious. The scenario and setting make various changes to the standard Dungeons & Dragon-style set-up. One is the inclusion of Stationers, an organisation of bards who deliver messages, but more important to the players are the changes to the available Races and Classes. Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings are all available as player character Races and together with various Sylvan races and beings and many of the Giant races, they are known as the ‘Erle Folk’. Essentially the Erle Folk are all Fae and to some degree or another all possess Fae Sight. The standard version of Fae Sight allows Infravision that works day and night as well as the ability to see hidden doors and beings. Even Halflings possess limited Infravision, whilst Dwarves have limited vision when outside, but better hearing. On the downside, the people of Highcliff Gard are strongly ill disposed to the ‘Erle Folk’, Elves especially, though Halflings and Dwarves are just about tolerated. So the players really need to be aware of this xenophobia before playing MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall.

MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall includes changes to just two Classes—the Cleric and the Magic-user. Clerics in Highcliff Gard are polytheistic, worshipping a pantheon rather than a single god and making offerings to each of the gods of the pantheon as necessary. This gives Clerics access to a wide range of spheres and thus spells, the given pantheon for Highcliff Gard suggesting a Norse influence—no surprise given that the designer is from Yorkshire. Magic-Users can brew potions with the aid of a liquid known as Aqua Conjurum, which is brewed by alchemists typically of higher Level. The problem with these changes is that they are not as clearly presented as they could be. 

At the heart of MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall is a mystery and a curse. Long again, the first Lord of Highcliff Gard, Sir Agrail de Harken, came to the valley and began construction of a castle. Unfortunately, he angered an Erle noble who responded with a series of curses. The first prevented further construction of the castle; the second spread fever and famine throughout the valley after de Harken banished all Erle Folk from the Highcliff Gard; whilst the third meant that no male de Harken ever lived beyond his fortieth year. The player characters learn of this from a bard whilst passing through the valley, but their presence has obviously been noted because they receive a summons from Lady Karlina Harken, the wife of the current Lord of Highcliff Gard who is in his thirty-ninth year and so due to die within the next months…

Recently, damp at Harken Hall has revealed a previously concealed door and Lady Karlina Harken wants to hire the adventurers to venture beyond this door and discover what secrets it hides. Beyond the base payment, Lady Karlina will pay for all information that they can learn, especially if it gives clues as the nature of the Harken family cure and how to lift it. What lies beyond the concealed door is a circular complex of just twenty-one rooms and corridors. These are currently inhabited by vermin and the undead, all relatively weak ones given that this scenario is for First Level, though there are signs that the complex was once in use by the living. The dungeon is just thirteen pages in length, but several of the rooms are large enough and important enough to have one, two, or even three pages devoted to them. What this means is that these locations are rich in flavour and detail that supports the investigative and explorative aspects that dominate MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall. In fact, there is so much information in the scenario that the Dungeon Master is advised to tell his players that they should take notes about what they find and that come the end of the scenario, the player characters will be rewarded Experience Points for not just killing creatures and taking their treasure, but also for how much information they gather. To that end, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall is not a scenario wherein the overly curious will be punished for investigating just a little too much. The players should pay attention to the details of each and every location in the dungeon if their characters are to get the best out of MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall.

This investigation and its accompanying level of detail will not only reward the player characters in terms of clues and thus Experience Points, but also some decent magic and/or special items for player characters of First Level. These are quite detailed in their effect and quite useful in their way, but without being overly powerful.

Originally devised to be run at Gary Con VII in 2015, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall comes, like all MontiDots Ltd titles, as a spiral bound book. Which means it sits flat and folds to show a single page all very nicely, so this is a nicely serviceable format. The author is a freelance artist, so the artwork in the book is also very good, although given the spiral bound format of the book, it would have been nice if there had been some illustrations at the back of the book to show the players a la S1 Tomb of Horrors or S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks. The cartography is not quite as good, being serviceable at best when compared to the artwork. One problem is that whilst the area map of Highcliff Gard is better looking and has more character to it than the dungeon maps, the detail on it is just a little too small to read clearly. The writing though, does need another edit and perhaps many of the adventure’s supporting features could be better organised and presented.

Although MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall includes both clues and links to the next part in the trilogy, MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, but it could be run as a standalone affair if that is what the Dungeon Master desires. Whether it is run as part of a trilogy or a standalone adventure, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall is a beginning adventure of a different stripe. Most adventures for characters of First Level tend to focus on exploration and combat, but this adventure’s focus upon investigation and exploration means that MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall: A MontiDots Adventure for early versions Fantasy Role-playing games makes for a refreshing change.

—oOo—

MontiDots Ltd does not currently have a website. Copies of MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and other scenarios are available direct from the author.

Another Flippin' Deckbuilder

From Dominion to Star Realms, ‘deck building’ has become a tried and tested mechanic when it comes to card games—and a mechanic which has been integrated into a number of board game designs. In these designs the players typically begin with the same basic deck of cards which they then use to generate money that can be spent to buy better and more effective cards, typically to defeat their opponents or outscore them with Victory Points. As a mechanic gets used and developed, it not only gets improved, but designers come up with new twists upon the mechanic. So Trains is a deck building game which directs the effects of the cards to building a train network between various Japanese cities. The twist to deckbuilding in Flip City: A Deceptively Simple Microdeckbuilder—and this is the first of a number of twists that the game introduces—is that the players not only generate money from their cards to buy more cards, but they generate money from their cards to flip them—and flip them to their better sides.

Originally a Taiwanese design from Homosapiens Lab, Flip City is published in English by TMG and is a city-building card game in which the players attempt to build the largest city or the happiest city. What holds each back is the unhappiness generated by certain buildings. It can be played by between one and four players—so it includes a solo option—aged eight and up, and has a playing time of no more than fifty minutes. It consists of just eighty-six cards, each double-sided and each being city location or building type that can be upgraded by flipping it over. The second twist to Flip City is that players do not play using hands of cards, but draw from the top of the deck. Since the cards are double-sided, this has a couple of consequences. The first is that a player can always see the type of card which sits on top of his deck and can choose to draw that card or not—though certain card types force a player to draw them. The second is that when a player empties his deck and has to reshuffle it, he has to take care to prevent any of his cards from being flipped because this will change the cards he will have access to.

The game has six base card types. These are the Residential Area which flips to the Apartment; the Convenience Store which flips Shopping Mall; the Factory which flips to the Power Plant; the Central Park which flips to the Station; the Hospital which flips to the Church; and the Office which flips to the Trade Center. (Of these, the Office was originally an optional expansion, but which has incorporated into the game.) Once a card has been flipped to its upgraded side, it can also be flipped back to its basic side. Each card is delightfully illustrated and comes with a cost to purchase, a cost to flip, and an indication of how much money, Unhappiness, and/or Victory Points it generates when played. Each card also has a special ability or effect.

For example, the Residential Area generates one coin and one Unhappiness. It costs one coin to flip over to the Apartment, but when the Residential Area is revealed as being on the top of a player’s deck, its effect is that it must be played. As the Apartment, the card also generates one coin and one Unhappiness, but can be flipped back to the Residential Area at a cost of eight coins. When it is flipped back to the Residential Area, it does not go back into a player’s discard pile, but into a rival’s discard pile.

The Convenience Store costs two coins to purchase, generates a single coin when played, and costs three coins to flip to the Shopping Mall. It provides the victory conditions which when played on a turn, if the player plays a total of eighteen cards, then he wins. As the Shopping Mall, it generates two coins and a Victory Point when played, It costs one coin to flip back to the Convenience Store. Its effect is that if a player’s deck is not empty, he must play an extra card, no matter what it is.

At game start, each player receives the same deck of cards and a general market is placed is formed of Convenience Store, Office, Hospital, Factory, and Central Park cards. Each player’s turn consists of two phases. In the ‘Play cards phase’, a player draws cards from the top of his deck, generating coins, Unhappiness, and/or Victory Points as well as their effects and abilities in the process. This needs to be done card by card, because if a player generates three or more points of Unhappiness, his turn is over, no matter how many Coins and Victory Points he might have generated, and he cannot proceed to the ‘Building phase’. Some cards, like the Church, will increase this limit on the number of Unhappiness points that a player can draw, but with the two-point limit on Unhappiness without the effect of the Church cards, a player will constantly face the challenge of whether or not to draw more cards to get more more Coins or Victory Points or lose his turn because he has too many Unhappiness points. This is made all the more challenging because some cards, like the Residential Area, have to be played or force another card to be played. What this means is that throughout the ‘Play cards phase’, a player will always need to decide whether he wants to push his luck or not.

If a player has cards in his discard pile, he can also Recycle some of them, flipping them over to their other side. This again will generate a player Coins and Victory Points as well as increase the limit on his Unhappiness points.

If a player survives the ‘Play cards phase’, he can spend any Coins gained in the ‘Building phase’. In this phase he can carry out one action, either buying a new card from the general supply and adding it to his discard pile; selecting a card from his discard pile and pay the indicated cost to flip it; or developing a card, buying a card from the general supply and then paying the cost to flip it before adding it to his discard pile. 

At the end of the ‘Building phase’, a player checks to see if he has met either of the winning conditions. This is either having generated eight Victory Points and played a total of eighteen cards including the Conditions.

The rules also include a solo variant. This is played starting with the standard deck of Flip City cards and a limited number of cards in the general supply. At the end of each turn, one card is removed from the general supply. Flipped Apartments are also removed from the game. This acts as a timing mechanism for the game, the player losing if the general supply is emptied of cards.

Physically, Flip City is a well presented game and the rules are nice and clear, the English translation benefiting from a short FAQ too. The graphic design of the cards is excellent, though the players will probably need to refer to the rules to understand what the symbols mean a few times to get the hang of the game’s play. The illustrations on the cards are excellent and when the cards are placed down next to each other they do form a cityscape.

There are perhaps four issues with Flip City. The first is that handling the cards back and forth—shuffling them over and over, going through the discard pile to Recycle cards, and so on—is a bit fiddly. The second is that there is not a great deal of interaction between the players, and what there is, consists of the Apartment being flipped back into a Residential Area and into a rival’s deck. This is the game’s only ‘take that’ element and serves to clog up a player’s deck and increase the likelihood of his having to miss a turn because he is forced to draw cards and generate too much Unhappiness. If a player can generate enough Coins to do this, it can really disadvantage an opponent. The third is that this chance of generating too much Unhappiness and thus end a player’s turn without his acting can also be frustrating, but on the other hand this is at the heart of the game’s push your element and a player should really be keeping track of the number of Residential Area cards he has in his deck and his discard pile. This will give some idea whether or not it is a good idea to push his luck and draw more cards. Fourth, with three or four players, a game of Flip City does become a noticeably longer game, primarily because the players have nothing to do whilst one player goes through his turn. This makes Flip City a bit too long to be a filler. None of these are issues that will stop anyone from playing the game, but they are ones to bear in mind when playing.

Flip City looks small, but it is clever enough to deliver thoughtful and quite deep play with just a few card types. It does this by making the cards double sided, which doubles the number of cards available and by being able to flip back and forth between the two sides, which increases the number of options a player has. Although game play may be a bit fiddly in places, the game never stops giving a player choices, the design is clever, and it really is an interesting twist upon the deckbuilding game. Flip City really does live up to its subtitle of being ‘A Deceptively Simple Microdeckbuilder’.

Free RPG Day: RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure

For all of its forty-year history, RuneQuest as a roleplaying game has been intrinsically linked to the setting of Glorantha. Even if not quite so effectively as the recent republication of RuneQuest Classics proved, but for many of those four decades, that link has not been as strong as many think, and arguably in several cases, not even present at all. In much of that time, RuneQuest has been a set of rules to which the setting of Glorantha can be added and in the twenty first century, only the roleplaying games, Hero Wars and HeroQuest: Glorantha have combined both mechanics and setting. That all changes with the latest incarnation of RuneQuest, recently returned to the bosom of its original publisher, Chaosium, Inc.. RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha once again makes Glorantha intrinsic to RuneQuest.

Although 2017 is going to be a good year with the release of both 13th Age in Glorantha from Pelgrane Press following a successful Kickstarter campaign and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha from Chaosium, before we see either, we will be given a taste of the latter with the release of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure. This is for Free RPG Day, the annual event for which various hobby gaming publishers supply an array of titles and paraphernalia intended to support or introduce their games—now in its tenth year. RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is designed to do the latter, introducing the new edition of the classic rules, as well as elements of the setting and a scenario that can be played through in a single good session, if not two.

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha can be best described as Classic RuneQuest with bits of HeroQuest—or rather, bits of King Arthur: Pendragon—set during the Hero Wars. Or at least it does from the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – QuickStart and Adventure. Long time Gloranthaphiles and RuneQuesters will recognise many elements of this game that date all the way back to the original game. It remains a Basic Roleplay System roleplaying game, which means that characters have seven attributes—Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Dexterity, Charisma, and Power—which range between three and eighteen; individual skills are percentiles, including weapons; everyone has individual hit locations which can be armoured for better protection; and everyone has access to Spirit magic—or Battle magic; in combat, order of action is determined by Strike Rank; and when rolls need to be made between characters, NPCs, or objects, then the GM needs to refer to the Resistance Table. Similarly, in terms of the background, the period in which RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is set, that of Dragon Pass during the Hero Wars of the 1610s and 1620s after the Sartarite rebellion that threw out the occupying Lunar Empire, will be familiar to both Gloranthaphiles and RuneQuesters.

What sets RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha apart from the previous versions of RuneQuest are two obvious changes, one minor, one major. The minor change is to the combat rules—there is no Defence value, no value intrinsic to a player character, NPC, or creature which makes them more difficult to attack. Instead, the emphasis is moved to active values, essentially parrying with a weapon or a shield, or dodging. The major change is the inclusion of Runes—Elements, Powers, Forms, and Conditions—and Passions—commonly Devotion, Hate, Honour, Love, and Loyalty—that are used in various ways. Runes represent affinities with the gods and the fundamental building blocks of the world. Passions are how a character feels about the world, what he believes in, and how strong his ties are to his community and other groups. Runes are rolled against when attempting to cast Rune magic, but like Passions, a player character can take inspiration from them to guide his actions and invoke them to augment his actions. Like skills both Passions and Runes are represented by percentage values and when rolled against, they can provide a modifier that will augment the player character’s next action.
For example, a Sartarite farmer whose parents were killed by the invading Lunar Empire and is confronted by a squad of Lunar soldiers might invoke any number of Runes and Passions in order to determine his next course of action and then augment that action. Or his player might roll against his character’s Passion of Hate (Lunar Empire) 80% to determine his next action and when attacking with his spear might invoke his character’s Rune (Air) 80% to potentially augment his next action. So the player rolls 27% and in comparing that to the character’s Hate (Lunar Empire) 80%, it is clear that the character will attack the Lunar captain. The character takes up his spear and leaps from his mount intent on stabbing the Lunar captain with his spear,  calling upon Orlanth to aid him and invoking his Rune (Air) 80% as he does. His player rolls 30%, indicating a Success and a +20% bonus to his spear attack, which goes from 90% to 110%!
 Alternatively, the player might have decided that his character wanted to talk to the Lunar soldiers and the GM asked him to check against his Passion. Or the player might have just decided that his Passion was enough and invoked that for the attack roll. However they are used, what Runes and Passions are in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is both a means to tie the player and their characters into the setting of Glorantha and to both enhance and enforce their roleplaying.

After a quick introduction to the setting of Glorantha—an introduction that will be familiar from previous supplements—RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure runs through the rules and mechanics in good order, including various spot rules as necessary. They are clearly organised and will be familiar to anyone who has played RuneQuest. Understandably, there is a particular emphasis placed on the Passions and Runes, the former because they are an element new to RuneQuest if not to the Basic Roleplay System and the latter, whilst not new to RuneQuest, how they are used is.

In terms of magic, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha offers various types that will be familiar to both Gloranthaphiles and RuneQuesters. RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure though, focuses on two—Rune Magic and Spirit magic and does not include either Sorcerery or Spirit Combat as they are too complex to cover in the few pages on magic in the booklet. Of the two, Spirit Magic will be the familiar to most, being like the Battle Magic of previous editions, with spells like Bladesharp 1, Demoralise 3, Healing 2, and so on. These are spells that anyone can learn and cast, needing no more than Magic Points and a roll versus the character’s Power. Rune magic consists of spells that are only taught by the various cults that worship Glorantha’s many gods. They require the expenditure of Rune points—which are gained by the permanent sacrifice of Power and then replenished through proper worship of the gods—and then making a roll against the player character’s Rune affinity.

So for example, having delivered the initial blow against the Lunar captain, the Sartarite farmer might take a moment to cast Bladesharp 2. This requires the expenditure of two Magic Points and a Power check, a roll against the character’s POW×5, which is 60%. The farmer’s player makes the roll and the head of the farmer’s spear glistens with sharpness, adding a total of +10% to the farmer’s short spear skill and +2 to its damage. This increases the farmer’s Short Spear skill from 90% to 100% and its damage from 1D6+1 to 1D6+3.  
Alternatively, as a devout worshipper of Orlanth, the Sartarite farmer knows the Lightning Rune spell and casts it to bring down the wrath of Orlanth on his enemies, in this case, the Lunar captain. First, the farmer’s player rolls his affinity of Rune (Air) 80% and succeeds, then expends two Rune points. The farmer’s eyes flash with lightning and with a crack of thunder, the lightning strikes the Lunar captain in the right arm. Unfortunately, he fails his Resistance roll and he suffers 2D6 damage which ignores any armour he is wearing. An average damage roll will incapacitate the Lunar captain and a good damage roll will maim or blow the arm off… The situation looks poor for the Lunar captain.
Of course, having expended those two Rune points, the Sartarite farmer is unlikely to be able to cast Rune magic as powerful in the short term. He will need to worship at a proper shrine or festival in order to regain these, so a player character should never be frivolous in its use.

Half of the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is devoted to the rules. The other half is devoted to a starting scenario, ‘The Broken Tower’, plus the five player characters. They include a noble farmer-warrior, son of the clan chieftain and initiate of Issaries; a cavalrywoman and initiate of Orlanth Adventurous; and an apprentice priestess of the Earth goddess Ernalda. All three are of the Ernaldori clan of the Colymar Tribe. The trio are accompanied by a revolutionary against the Lunars and scribe from Nochet, plus an initiate of Lhankor Mhy, as well as a heavy infantry soldier from Dunstop, in Lunar Tarsh, an initiate of Seven Mothers. All five are experienced characters and all have strong affinities in terms of Runes and Passions, as well as Spirit and Rune magic. Of the five, the only one that presents any difficulty in terms of play is the heavy infantry soldier from Dunstop, in Lunar Tarsh. For anyone coming to RuneQuest and Glorantha anew, the differences between playing a Sartarite rebel against the Lunar Empire and a renegade Tarshite Lunar soldier may be just a little too nuanced to roleplay effectively, let alone imparting that difference to those playing the Sartarites.

‘The Broken Tower’ takes place in an area known as ‘the badlands’ lying at the southernmost stretch of the Starfire Range of mountains. The player character are members or associates of the Ernaldori clan of the Colymar Tribe, assigned to track down some thieves who have not only stolen some of the tribe’s cattle, but also killed some of their tribe members. They chase the miscreants into the Badlands only for them to discover that the region is home to deadlier and much older foes than mere cattle thieves and murderers. It showcases the scope and some of the scale of the setting whilst keeping everything reasonably self-contained. The scenario includes opportunities for replaying and combat, though ultimately, what it does enforce is that combat is not the only solution and that the gods are very, very real.

Physically, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is ably and tidily presented, though perhaps it is a bit too grey in terms of presentation. For players new to RuneQuest, the layout could have been better, in particular, the boxed sections, ‘Gloranthan Gods and Cults’ and ‘About Glorantha and RuneQuest’, really would have been more useful closer to the front of the booklet. The artwork is excellent, though of course it will no doubt look better in colour rather than in greyscale as it is here.

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is not really a product designed to introduce those new to roleplaying to the hobby as it does not provide that basic a starting point. That said, there is nothing to prevent someone new to roleplaying being introduced to the hobby as part of an existing group using the rules and adventure presented in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure. Those new to both RuneQuest and/or Glorantha, but not roleplaying in general will probably have no issues grasping either the rules or the basics of the setting, though no doubt the recently announced Glorantha QuickStart will likely make up for more than just the basics of the setting given here. For the long time Gloranthaphile or RuneQuester who has played RuneQuest in any form, whether RuneQuest Classics or HeroQuest Glorantha, then picking up and playing RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure will be ever so easy—and even easier if he has played King Arthur: Pendragon with its heavy reliance on traits and passions. In fact, for an experienced GM who is familiar with RuneQuest and Glorantha, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is easy to use and ‘The Broken Tower’ is easy and quick to prepare. 

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure does exactly what it sets out to do and that is provide a good introduction to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. It does this not just for a single Free RPG Day, but for the foreseeable future.

Sunday, 11 June 2017

Caribbean Consternations

The attraction of the Caribbean lies in its promise of tropical paradise, under bright azure skies across hundreds of islands with different cultures and traditions, lying within easy reach of the American mainland. Cuba is within easy reach by boat trip, promising sun and in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, booze and dancing aplenty, presenting an enticingly exotic alternative to Prohibition America, but beyond there are islands still under colonial rule, offering a free and easy lifestyle. To some, such islands are a sleepy backwater of empire, but many are home to dark secrets and mysteries. Such secrets as those revealed in Tales of the Caribbean. This is the fourth tome from Golden Goblin Press, released following a successful Kickstarter campaign and following on from Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion, Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans, and De Horrore Cosmico: Six Scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus. Like the second and third of those releases, Tales of the Caribbean is an anthology of scenarios for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

The seven scenarios take the Investigators to the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, Montserrat, Puerto Rico, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad. Although each scenario provides some background on the isle upon each is set as well as a map of said isle and there is a broad overview of the region given at the start of the anthology, it is important to note that Tales of the Caribbean is not a sourcebook for the region. That said, the geographical proximity of the Caribbean to the USA means that the scenarios in the anthology are relatively easy to add to an ongoing campaign, especially if the Keeper is running a campaign based in New Orleans or Miami, so Tales of the Caribbean would work with Golden Goblin Press’ own Tales of the Crescent City anthology, The Mysteries of Mesoamerica supplement from Pagan Publishing, or SixtyStone Press’ Magic City campaign.

The anthology opens with ‘The Devil Cuts In’ by Phredd Groves, which is set on the island of Montserrat. The investigators might be tourists, anthropologists, or similar, who are perhaps visiting the island to speak to Doctor Oscar Lucknow, a noted local historian and occultist or to enjoy the Galbraith Masquerade, an annual and unique Christmas festival held at a village in the centre of the island where the good doctor lives. Welcomed as guests and then celebrants in the festival, its normal course of events do not go as planned and as a result unleash a surprisingly sorry Mythos entity upon the island. What ‘The Devil Cuts In’ explores is the Mythos not as a benign influence, but rather its application for a benign effect rather than a malign one. This is both a small affair and a race against the clock, nicely contained, quite underplayed, and an entertaining twist upon a setup that has been seen before in Call of Cthulhu which benefits from a unique Mythos entity.

It is no surprise that one of the scenarios in Tales of the Caribbean involves zombies and that one of the scenarios is set on the island of Haiti. That scenario is Jo Kreil’s ‘Toil in the Fields’ in which the investigators are asked by an old friend at Miskatonic University to collect the body of his late son, a missionary who died in a malaria outbreak. When they arrive, discover the island is not only dominated by U.S. interests, but also rife with corruption, disease, and fear. In this febrile atmosphere, they quickly learn that the body they came for is missing and nobody has any interest in another missing body—this is Haiti after all! Or perhaps somebody has a great deal of interest in the missing bodies, which leads the investigators deeper into the island. This is the first of the scenarios in the anthology to deal with the obvious sources of horror in the region—Haitian folklore, zombies, and Voodoo—and like the others, it does not draw or make any links with the Mythos. In fact, the practitioners of Voodoo stand opposed to the Mythos and if they do not stand against it openly, they can in many cases be called upon for help in thwarting the forces of the Mythos. The scenario also introduces a Pulp element that makes ‘Toil in the Fields’ suitable for use with Chaosium’s Pulp Cthulhu, so this is much more of a physical scenario than the others in the anthology. ‘Toil in the Fields’ is a solid affair which makes good use of traditional horror elements and nicely paints the atmosphere of a country under American occupation.

Jason Williams, the author of Secrets of Tibet, takes us to the Bahamas with ‘Crimson Eyes & Azure Pools’. The investigators are hired—perhaps by Miskatonic University, perhaps by the Bahamas government—to locate a missing retired Miskatonic University botanist and his three students after their boat turned up shipwrecked and empty. This is a relatively straightforward affair, involving a number of elements that occur again and again in other scenarios in the anthology, including island hopping from a major to minor and more rural island and warnings from the local inhabitants not to investigate any further. The clues reveal that Professor Dinsdale and his students were attempting to locate and confirm the existence of a strange bird-like creature on Andros Island. Unfortunately as they look into the disappearance of the Dinsdale expedition, the existence of these strange bird-like creatures is all but confirmed when they take an interest in the investigators which begins with a scary, out of nowhere encounter with them. It contains the Pulp tone of the previous scenario, this time with odd encounters with the natives, both benign and malign, culminating in a confrontation in a weird cave in the trees. The scenario introduces a local Mythos creature, one based on the myths and legends of  Andros Island and of course one twisted to darker ends.

‘Wrath of the Sulfurer’ is by Dave Sokolowski, the author of Sun Spots and is specifically set in 1922 on the island of St. Vincent. The infamous volcano, Soufrière or La Sulfere, is about to erupt again, so is of interest to scientists, reporters, and humanitarians. As the surprisingly angry inhabitants of St. Vincent flee the brooding eruption, the investigators learn that there is an evil influence at the heart of the volcano, which if not stopped, threatens the island and perhaps more… Getting to the island, finding further information, and perhaps further help is beset by nightmares and inhabitants of the island beset by their own nightmares. Much like the earlier ‘The Devil Cuts In’, this scenario has its own time limit, and like many of the scenarios in the anthology it has a definite climax and ending. Although the scenario does build to an effective climax—and a memorable one inside a volcano—it probably does involve one too many dice rolls to get to that climax.

If there has been a Pulp sensibility running throughout the various scenarios in Tales of the Caribbean, then Oscar Rios punches it up a notch or two with ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’. Set on Trinidad, it involves two feuding cults, two opposing aspects of the same god, a large dose of colonial history, though not necessarily Caribbean history, and some Pulp staples as the bad guys. This has the potential to be a big pulpy mess of a scenario, but the author keeps everything focussed and well ordered, as well as including some very sticky encounters. One issue is that being more Pulpy in tone, the scenario is more physical and more combative in nature than the traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario and that may put more investigative characters at a disadvantage as there is a lot of fighting involved in the scenario. Again this builds to a set climax and again, the climax does involve more than a few dice rolls, but the climax is a memorable one. Arguably, this is more of an adventure than a scenario and it is one that fans of certain fedora-wearing, whip-cracking archaeologist will enjoy. This is fun and creepy in equal measure and is supported by some thoroughly nasty new spells and monsters.

Up to now, the scenarios in Tales of the Caribbean have been a little linear in structure, with relatively little investigation, but that changes with Jeffrey Moeller’s ‘Servant of God’. The investigators are quickly hired to come to Cuba and investigate a ‘locked room’ mystery. A Postulator for the Vatican, a Catholic official tasked with investigating a candidate for sainthood, has been found dead in his locked hotel room in Cuba, Havana. The candidate is a sixteenth century Spanish colonist and member of the Inquisition who founded a holy order popular on the island, fought against the colonial administration and was regarded as a sort of Robin Hood figure, and was reputed to have performed miracles before his death. Getting to the heart of this involves more investigation than the previous scenarios in the anthology and feels much more like a traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario. Their inquiries will take the investigators back into the island’s colonial past as several motifs occur again and again to taunt the investigators—weddings, the sound of bells ringing, the need to sign names over and over, and anti-colonial/American sentiment. Containing more of an urban element than the other scenarios in the anthology, there is a real mystery to be solved in ‘Servant of God’ and it is a richer, deeper scenario that long time players of Call of Cthulhu will enjoy getting their teeth into.

The last scenario in anthology takes the investigators to Puerto Rico. ‘Night Forms a Cover for Sinners’ is Oscar Rios’ second contribution to Tales of the Caribbean and like the earlier ‘Crimson Eyes and Azure Pools’ deals with the disappearance of a number of academics. Hired to find them, the investigators quickly learn that the missing men were interested in a regional legend, that of the Fountain of Youth, and if they are to locate them, they too will need to follow in their footsteps. Unfortunately this is not as entertaining a scenario as Rios’ earlier ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’. From their initial inquiries, the scenario ambles along in too linear a fashion, playing out as a series of reveals and warnings for the investigators not to proceed any further. This is done via an NPC who appears under a different guise each time, but whose true nature remains a secret until revealed at the end of the scenario. Until then, the investigators have little chance to really learn much about this NPC despite said NPC being nicely described and her motives well presented in the scenario. Overall, ‘Night Forms a Cover for Sinners’ has some entertaining moments, but ultimately the players may not enjoy finding out that their investigators have more or less been manipulated at almost every turn.

One issue that runs from one scenario to the next, is how to get the investigators involved in each situation. The anthology also includes an NPC who can be used a means to bring the investigators into each scenario, as American colour for each scenario, and even as a source of replacement investigators. Named for the backer on Kickstarter who pledged at a certain level, Morgan Matthews is an American film Director from New Orleans—another potential link to Golden Goblin Press’ Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans—who tours the Caribbean looking to film scenery for stock footage and folklore to adapt into his next big movie. Several members of his staff are also included and they could easily be replaced by, or used to replace, the investigators. It would have been useful if the anthology had included reasons to include Matthews and his team in each of the scenarios, but the Keeper is left to devise such reasons himself.

Physically, Tales of the Caribbean is a decent looking book. It only needs an edit here and there and the artwork, all by Reuben Dodd, gives the anthology a consistent look throughout. It varies slightly in quality, but some of it is very good and some of it points to the Pulp sensibility that runs through the anthology's seven scenarios. Within the pages of the scenarios, the book’s maps and handouts are often too small and too dark to see and read clearly, but this is countered by their being included in the book’s appendix which gives much more space to both.

Tales of the Caribbean is not the best book to be released by Golden Goblin Press—that accolade still falls to Tales of the Crescent City—but it is certainly a close second. Many throw up refreshingly interesting situations and twists upon the Mythos, ‘The Devil Cuts In’ and ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’ in particular, whilst all remain respectful of the setting and its culture. If ‘Night Forms a Cover for Sinners’ underwhelms, both ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’ and ‘Servant of God’ are the collection’s standout affairs, one a fun adventure, the other a good investigation. Of course, the quality of both scenarios is to be expected from their respective experienced authors, and this certainly does not mean that any of the other scenarios are bad. Tales of the Caribbean is an excellent first tour around the region, showcasing some entertaining scenarios and adventures for Call of Cthulhu, and with some seven hundred or islands still left unvisited, hopefully laying the path of for Tales of the Caribbean II.

Monday, 5 June 2017

A Taste of Cthulhu in the Dark

Originally appearing in the highly regarded Stealing Cthulhu and then in The Unspeakable Oath #22, Cthulhu Dark is a rules light RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror designed for simple, minimalist play. Its core rules fit on a single page and require no more than three dice—one of which should be green—per player to play so that a game can be begun with a minimum of preparation upon the part of the players. A stripped down version of the rules for Cthulhu Dark are currently available from the author’s website, but an expanded version of the game itself is currently being funded via a Kickstarter campaign. This review is not of the edition that will eventually be funded via Kickstarter, but Cthulhu Dark 0, the preview edition launched at DragonMeet 2016.

As with other RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror, in Cthulhu Dark, the player take on the roles of Investigators drawn into mysteries that defy explanation and will eventually reveal to them terrible secrets that bring them to understand the true nature of the universe. This nature is alien and uncaring, a sense of dread that threatens to overwhelm and sap both the sanity and the humanity of these that come into contact with it. This is a universe of things—alien entities and species—who care nothing about the existence of humanity and those that do see them as nothing more than as transitory irrelevancies or playthings. Collectively they are known as the Cthulhu Mythos, being as like unto gods as mankind might be to lesser species on Earth. Some are worshipped by men in the hope of gaining power or at least the chance to survive should the stars come right and these things come to reclaim the plant that was once theirs and will be again. Such men are insane and in carrying out their master's’ plans spread horror and insanity… The Investigators will often find themselves looking into such plans and so confront the Mythos and its corrosive effects.

Notably, in Cthulhu Dark, confronting the Mythos is all that the Investigators can do. They cannot fight it directly, for it is too powerful, too unknowable, and such efforts are doomed to end in failure, resulting in the Investigators’ deaths or insanity. They can instead face its Earthly minions, though often hampered by the positions of power such minions hold in society, and so perhaps thwart such dastardly plans as would end in the return of the Great Old Ones and the end of life on Earth as they know it…

In Cthulhu Dark 0, an Investigator essentially consists of three things—a name, an Occupation, and his Insight. Alternatively, he might have a trait should the scenario not need the Investigators to have an Occupation. So for example, here is a Henry Brinded, an Investigator who appears in the recently published Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion.

Name: Henry Brinded
Occupation: Bostonian Antiquarian
Insight Die: 1

Mechanically, Cthulhu Dark is very simple. If an Investigator wants to do or investigate something, whether that is question someone or search the newspaper morgue for relevant articles, as long as that act is within human capabilities, his player rolls one die—the Human die. If the investigative act lies within the scope of the Investigator’s Occupation, then his player rolls a second die—the Occupation die. If the Investigator wants to risk his mind to succeed or if the investigative act directly pertains to the Mythos, then his player rolls a third die—the green Insight die. Then the dice are rolled and the highest result counts, showing the Investigator how much information he learns.

On a result of a one, he discovers the bare minimum; enough to proceed with the investigation, but no more. On a result of a four, he discovers everything that a competent investigator would, whilst on result of a five, he discovers this and something more. On a result of a six, he discovers everything that a competent investigator would and something more, but also glimpses something beyond the understanding of mere men. This undoubtedly going to be horrific and will probably require the player to make an Insight Roll for the Investigator. Likewise, if the highest result is on the Investigator’s Insight Die, an Insight Roll also needs to be made. 
For example, Henry Brinded has found the Diaries of the Walter Corbit, late of a supposed haunted house in Boston. He decides to read them. The Keeper lets his player roll his Human Die, his Occupation Die, and because Brinded is reading a Mythos tome, his player can also roll his Insight Die. On a result of a one, Brinded learns that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation; on  result of a four, he discovers that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation and was in dispute with his neighbours; on result of a five, he learns that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation and was in dispute with his neighbours because he wanted to be buried in his house; but on a six, he discovers that he learns that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation and was in dispute with his neighbours because he wanted to be buried in his house and that he had no intention of dying! 
An Investigator’s Insight represents how far he comprehends the true, horrifying nature of the universe. It begins at one and is represented by the Investigator’s green Insight Die, which always has its current value displayed. When an Investigator encounters something unnatural and disturbing, his player must make an Insight roll, rolling his Insight Die. If the result is higher than the Investigator’s Insight, it goes up by one as he gains greater understanding of the universe’s true nature and his player must roleplay his Investigator’s newly invoked fears. 

If an Investigator’s Insight reaches five, he can attempt to suppress his knowledge by burning Mythos tomes, stopping rituals, and so on, his player rolling the Insight Die in an attempt to lower his Investigator’s Insight. Unfortunately, should an Investigator’s Insight reach six, he achieves full comprehension of the universe and after one moment of lucidity goes insane… Time to create a new Investigator.

The effect of these stripped back mechanics is keep play simple and straightforward. Essentially there is no means of failure, the dice rolls determining how well an Investigator does rather than whether he fails or succeeds. Unlike most traditional roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Cthulhu Dark is very much a narrativist game rather than a simulationist game. (Actually, there is a mechanic for failure which adds a ‘Failure Die’ to an Investigator’s roll, but only when it is interesting and only when it does not impinge upon the investigative process.)

Further, in comparison to most traditional roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Cthulhu Dark collapses the Sanity/Insanity scale and changes the rate at which an Investigator will lose his Sanity. Initial loses will be quicker and more likely, but as an Investigator’s Sanity drops and his Insanity rises, he becomes inured to the horrors of the Mythos, making that final realisation as to the truth of the universe all the more horrifying when it occurs.

The core rules in Cthulhu Dark 0 run to no more than ten pages—and eight pages of those really only expand upon the rules given in the first two pages. In comparison, the Keeper’s Section is four times as long. It delves into how to write and rewrite a mystery, and then play the mystery before presenting a bestiary. It takes the Keeper from first principles through to running the adventure, constantly asking questions of him in order to help him develop the adventure, avoid pitfalls, and handle both both dice rolls and scene. This section is engaging and worth the time of any Keeper to read, whatever roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror he runs. 

Like any roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Cthulhu Dark includes a bestiary of Mythos entities and creatures. It looks at each entry’s themes, creeping horrors, and how they can applied to the settings mentioned elsewhere of ‘London 1851’ and ‘Mumbai 2037’. The entries include Old Ones such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, servitor races like Deep Ones, independent races such as the Elder Things and the Mi-Go, sorcerers like Joseph Curwen and Keziah Mason, and even artefacts such as the Shining Trapezohedron. It is not a comprehensive bestiary and feels influenced by the author’s earlier Stealing Cthulhu. This is no bad thing and there is no reason that a Keeper could not apply the ideas and methods of Stealing Cthulhu to the entities and creatures presented in Cthulhu Dark.

The setting provided in Cthulhu Dark 0 is ‘London 1851’, with the other mentioned setting, ‘Mumbai 2037’, to be included in the full version of the roleplaying game. ‘London 1851’ is a Dickensian alternative to the ‘Mauve Decade’ of Cthulhu by Gaslight atypical to most Victorian Era set roleplaying games. Not only does it provide a detailed snapshot of the city at the time of the Great Exhibition, it looks at the various options for Investigators during the period. What is interesting about the options discussed is that none of them are really Middle Class or Upper Class, most are really Working Class. Other Victorian Era roleplaying games might provide such options, but the point in Cthulhu Dark 0 is that the Investigators do not hold positions of real power or influence and in a typical Cthulhu Dark scenario, the Investigators are at odds with those who do. The lack of Middle Class or Upper Class options enforces this.

Rounding out Cthulhu Dark 0 is ‘The Screams of the Children’, a scenario set in London, 1851. The Investigators are thieves, prostitutes, street-sellers, and others—sample Investigators are provided, all female—who reside at the same lodging house where the baby of another resident has disappeared. It involves themes of pregnancy, childbirth, and monstrous offspring, and makes uses of the previous description given of London in the early Victorian period, but adds specific locations to accompany its plot, plus  themes and suggested die rolls for Investigators’ efforts. The scenario is relatively short, but nicely involving and atmospheric, harking back in tone to the author’s Purist scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu.

Physically, Cthulhu Dark 0 is a slim volume, neatly laid out and lightly, but nicely illustrated. The writing style is also light, but very direct with the author constantly asking questions of first the reader and then the Keeper. This is a style singular to the author and can be seen in his earliest tome on roleplaying, Playing Unsafe, as it can here and in the more recent Cthulhu Apocalypse. If there is an issue with the writing and with a great any of the questions—at least in the answers given to them—is that they go to support the given scenario, ‘The Screams of the Children’ rather than a Cthulhu Dark scenario in general. This though, is only an issue with Cthulhu Dark 0 and hopefully will be less of an issue in Cthulhu Dark when released with more scenarios as the full roleplaying game.

What Cthulhu Dark combines is Graham Walmsley’s interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos gained through his authoring of Stealing Cthulhu with simple, unobtrusive mechanics that model the investigative process and sanity degradation inherent to the genre of Lovecraftian investigative horror. The result is a refinement of Lovecraftian investigative horror gaming down to its essential saltes.

Monday, 29 May 2017

A Symbaroum Duology

The pattern for the first few releases for the Swedish near-Dark Ages fantasy RPG, Symbaroum has been to include two scenarios in each book. For example, The Copper Crown contained two scenarios to complete a trilogy begun in the Symbaroum Core Rulebook, whilst Adventure Pack 1, which came packaged with the Symbaroum: Gamemaster Screen contained two single scenarios that could be slotted in an ongoing campaign. Published by Järnringen and distributed by Modiphius Entertainment, this trend continues with Adventure Pack 2 in presenting two scenarios. Their joint theme is the danger of digging too deeply and too greedily into the black soil of the past under Davokar’s canopy. In both scenarios this will unleash terrible secrets.

The first scenario is ‘The Fever of the Hunt’ which takes place at the  excavation site of Salindra’s Hope, a great muddy mound alone in the forest atop which stands a walled encampment. The local barbarian tribe has declared the region taboo and the only way in or out is by river, so the Game Master could easily run ‘The Curse of the River Goddess’ from Adventure Pack 1 before the player characters arrive at the frontier dig-site. Several reasons are suggested as to why they are making the journey. Most obviously they are treasure hunters themselves, but other options include being agents of the Iron Pact tasked to determine the threat the site represents, being hired to rescue a young noble with dreams of finding a great treasure, and being sent to find a fugitive.

The scenario is heavily plotted out with a series of events that start just before the player characters arrive. Now these events are what will happen if the player characters do nothing and allow the plot and the motivations of the NPCs to run their course. This is likely to have dire consequences for the surrounding region…  If on the other hand, the player characters do intervene, they have the chance to forestall these consequences and the scenario presents various potential outcomes. Ultimately what they may have to contend with is a fresh outbreak in a centuries old conflict, one they are unlikely to survive should they get caught up between the two combatants. Surviving this muddled, muddy situation will take good roleplaying rather than negotiation skills and then there are the all of the lesser entities—the treasure hunters, the interdicting barbarians, the oddly acting Ogre bailiff, and so on—to deal with. Although relatively short, this scenario has the capacity to build to an epic climax.

The second scenario is ‘The Bell Tolls for Kastor’, which takes place in the town of Kastor, the alternative launching point to Thistle Hold for expeditions into the Davokar Forest. It is also the exit point too. This is because expeditions from the town are unregulated. The default reason for the player characters coming to the walled town is a message from an old friend or lover of the player characters—one fault with the scenario is this option is suggested several times rather than other reasons being given. As they arrive, the player characters find the town in uproar, several members of its council dead and extra guards on duty in the town after the new mayor has declared a state of emergency. Unfortunately, the player character’s contact is numbered among the dead.

‘The Bell Tolls for Kastor’ is a murder mystery of a sort, but one in which the player characters will have to resort to subterfuge to solve. It is a complex mystery involving the undead, rival cults, goblin bands, a giant monster, and a strange artefact—the bell itself. Unlike ‘The Fever of the Hunt’, this scenario is less event and plot driven, and though it has ending, how the player characters get there is dependent upon their investigations. Like ‘The Fever of the Hunt’ though, this scenario also involves a dangerous creature from the past, and again, it can be reasoned with as much as it can be fought. ‘The Bell Tolls for Kastor’ is said to take place after the events of ‘The Fever of the Hunt’ as several NPCs from the first scenario appear in the second, but not immediately after. That said, with some adjustment the scenario could be set up to do so.

Adventure Pack 2 comes with more than just the two adventures. Of course ‘The Bell Tolls for Kastor’ includes a description of town which can be used beyond its inclusion and there is a wealth of NPCs—several of them quite powerful—some of whom may make an appearance after the adventures have been played through. An appendix also adds new rules, including traits such as Bloodlust and Mirage, a new feature called Rituals, and descriptions of two artefacts, one of which, the Bell of Kastor, has the ability to soak up Corruption—a boon to any spell caster. Of course, it has limitations, one of which may become all too obvious if the scenario goes badly for the player characters. Notably, the appendix and thus Adventure Pack 2, references the Player’s Handbook. This includes material such as boons and burdens, ritual ceremonies, and so on. As yet, this book has not yet appeared in an English language edition. One other aspect of Symbaroum first made mention of here, is that of Dwarves as a race. They appear as NPCs, but given that there is yet no background on them, they do feel out of context in Symbaroum as currently presented.

Physically, Adventure Pack 2 is nicely presented. The artwork is both fantastic and oppressive, setting the mood for both scenarios and potentially working as visual aides for the Game Master. Where Adventure Pack 2 is disappointing is in the writing, or rather the translation and localisation. Neither are as clean as they could be and the book feels a little rushed in places. Certainly a closer edit would not have gone amiss.

Adventure Pack 2 presents two good scenarios that explore their theme of greed and curiosity very well. These are dark, gritty affairs that the Game Master will want to have for his Symbaroum campaign.

—oOo—

Modiphius Entertainment will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 2nd and June 4th, 2017 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.


Sunday, 28 May 2017

Pandemic Over Arkham

Although there had been cooperative games before, some even dating as far back as 1989 as in the Aliens boardgame or even 1974 with the Eascape from Colditz boardgame, it is oft forgotten how groundbreaking Pandemic was when it was first released in 2008. Although its subject matter was grim—four scientists from the Center for Disease Control attempting to find cures to four epidemics before they wiped out mankind—it was an accessible subject matter, and to most people, the play of the game against the game itself was novel as well as challenging. The rules were also instantly accessible, so that you could open the box, read through and do the setup in minutes before starting play. Once you played, you knew that you had to go back and play again, if only to beat the game itself, because essentially, playing Pandemic was like playing a puzzle. So it was in June, 2008 when playing Pandemic for the first time, it having gone on sale that weekend at UK Games Expo. Since then, it has become a mainstay of the hobby, only receiving attention anew when Z-Man Games published Pandemic Legacy: Season 1 in 2015. Back in 2009 though, a friend commented that the diseases in Pandemic—red, blue, black, and yellow—might not represent diseases at all, but rather they could be cultists devoted to one of the Great Old Ones of the Cthulhu Mythos. So the yellow disease cubes could be members of the Cult of the Yellow Sign, the black cubes members of the Brotherhood of the Black Pharaoh, and so on. In 2016, the interpretation of the disease cubes in Pandemic became a reality with the publication of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu.

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is a cooperative game in which stalwart Investigators work to thwart the summoning of the Great Old Ones in the Lovecraft Country towns of Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport. They must race to find the clues necessary to close the Gates in each of these towns all the while cultists gather and summon Shoggoths—things from an elder age—that will inexorably move towards the Gates and once there summon an Old One whose influence over this section of New England will only further hamper the efforts of the Investigators. Not only do the Investigators have to contend with the difficulty of piecing the clues together to close the Gates and nefarious cultists determined to summon their eldritch masters, there is the chance that they will be sent mad by their very efforts. 

If too many Great Old Ones are summoned and Cthulhu is woken from his slumber, then the Investigators lose. If they are overwhelmed by cultists—that is, when the supply of cultists runs out—then the Investigators lose. If they are overwhelmed by shoggoths—that is, when the supply of shoggoths runs out—then the Investigators lose. If they fail to gather the clues in time—that is, when the supply of Clue cards runs out—then the Investigators lose. If they all go insane, then the Investigators lose. If they seal all four Gates before they run out of Clue cards, then the Investigators win. 

So five ways to lose, one way to win.

Designed to be played by between two and four players, aged fourteen and up, the design of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu is a mix of Pandemic and Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, the old and the new, the latter being the new theme. Though that said, that theme owes much to Arkham Horror with the need to shut several gates to prevent the intrusion of the Old Ones. It is played out on a map of four connected towns in Lovecraft Country—Arkham (green), Dunwich (yellow), Innsmouth (purple), and Kingsport (red). Each town consists of five locations, plus a Gate. One location in each town is marked with a Bus Station, though Arkham has two. Above the map is a line of spaces for Old One cards, each one representing an Old One who will be awakened when a Shoggoth passes through an open Gate and bring its baleful influence to bear upon Lovecraft Country and the Investigators. For example, the awakening of Hastur heralds the appearance of another Shoggoth and the movement of all Shoggoths closer to open Gates, whilst Yig makes Gates closer to seal. At the end of the line of six spaces for these Old One cards is the space for Cthulhu himself. When he is summoned, then the game is over. Under each space is a number, indicating how many Summoning cards are turned over at the end of each turn. This number increases as more Old Ones appear, escalating the game’s difficulty as play proceeds.

The map also has spaces for the Summoning cards and the Player cards. Both decks contain cards corresponding to locations on the map. The Summoning cards are used to determine where the Cultists will appear and spread their influence on the map as well as if any Shoggoths on the map will move towards an open Gate. The Player cards represent clues. If an Investigator can collect five of one colour and go to the Gate in the corresponding town, he can seal the Gate. Seeded into the Player deck are two other types of card. The first are Relic cards, which grant the Investigators a temporary advantage. For example, the Seal of Leng allows the Investigators to block and cancel the effect of an Old One for the rest of the game, whilst the Book of Shadow lets an Investigator look at and rearrange the top four cards of the Player deck. The latter mirrors the effect of the Forecast card from Pandemic, but the use of Relic cards forces a player to roll the Sanity die to determine if his Investigator loses Sanity. The second type of card is the Evil Stirs card, which works much like the Infection card from Pandemic. In effect, it increases the difficulty of the game, making the player roll the Sanity die for his Investigator, reveal a new Old One, make a new Shoggoth appear in a random location on the map, and the Cultists regroup—the cards in the Summoning card discard pile are shuffled and added back onto the top of the Summoning deck. This means that the same locations are open to Cultist influence again and again...

Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu comes with seven Investigators—Detective, Doctor, Driver, Hunter, Magician, Occultist, and Reporter, each with their own special ability. These abilities are a mix those new in Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu and those adapted from Pandemic. So for example, the Detective needs four Clue cards to seal a Gate rather than five, much like the Scientist in Pandemic, and the Doctor can do five actions per turn rather than four, much like the Generalist in the Pandemic. Whereas, the Driver moves an extra location with a Walk action and ignores Ithaqua’s effect, which is new to the Pandemic family of games. Each Investigator comes with its own card that explains his or her abilities and this card is double-sided. The front is done in full colour, whereas the back is monochrome and details the Investigator’s abilitis after he has lost his Sanity. For example, the Doctor goes from five actions per turn when sane to four actions per turn when insane. Some card effects enable an Investigator to regain lost Sanity, whilst an insane Investigator who successfully seals a Gate fully recovers his Sanity.

Lastly, it should be noted that instead of wooden cubes and pawns—since replaced by plastic—being to represent the diseases and CDC members as in Pandemic, this game uses fully sculpted plastic figures. Those for Cultists and Shoggoths are anonymous, but those for the Investigators are individually sculpted figures which match the illustrations on the Investigator cards. These are nicely detailed figures and greatly add to the period feel of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu.

At the start of the game, six Old One cards are randomly selected and placed in their slots on the board. Each player chooses his Investigator and is given the matching Investigator card, four Sanity tokens, and a reference card. All of the Investigators start play at the Train Station in Arkham. Cultists as well as one Shoggoth are seeded in six locations drawn from the Summoning deck. These cards also from the Summoning discard pile. Relic cards are added to the Player deck and then each player receives two or more cards from the deck as his starting hand. The number varies according to the number of players. The fewer the number of players, the more cards a player is given. Lastly, the Player deck is seeded with the Evil Stirs cards.

On his turn a player has four actions and can get his Investigator to do the following. Walk to an adjacent location; while at a Bus Station, ‘Take the Bus’ by discarding a Clue card to move to any location in the town on the Clue card or discarding a Clue card that matches the town the Investigator is in to move to any other location in the town; or move through one Gate to another. He can also give a Clue card to another Investigator or take a Clue card from another Investigator as long as the Clue card matches the town they are in. He can also defeat a Cultist or Shoggoth and remove it from the board, though defeating a Shoggoth takes three actions. The later also earns him a Relic card. Lastly, he can seal a Gate by discarding five Clue cards of the same colour as the Gate on the Gate’s location. Notably, using a Gate or a Relic card, encountering and/or fighting a Shoggoth, or revealing an Evil Stirs card, all result in the player needing to roll the Sanity die. This may lose the Investigator one or two Sanity or attract the attention of some Cultists. 

From one turn to the next what the players will be trying to do is keep from being overwhelmed by Cultists and stop any Shoggoths reaching open Gates. They will also be trying to reach the same towns so that their Investigators can exchange Clue cards and so have enough to close the Gates. At the end of each turn, they will receive two more cards from the Player deck—these can be more Clue cards, Relic cards, or Evil Stirs cards. This means that they may not be useful. Also at the end of the turn, a number of Summoning cards will be drawn, these indicating where new Cultists will appear  and occasionally, that any Shoggoths in play should move.

This all sounds easy enough, but the Evil Stirs cards are an ever constant and imminent threat, promising to complicate things, always ensuring that Cultists are constantly recruiting from the same location over and over again—just like the Infection card causes cities in Pandemic to be infected again and again with diseases. In both cases because the Evil Stirs or Infection card empties the discard pile and returns it to the top of the Summoning/Infection deck respectively. Of course, in Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, the Evil Stirs card brings with it the appearance of Shoggoths, ready to move towards the nearest open Gate. 

Just like Pandemic, the order in which the cards appear—from both the Player deck and Summoning deck—can also hamper or aid the play of the game, which is as should be. Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu makes the play of the game easier, but more challenging. Easier by placing fewer limitations on movement and the exchange of Clue cards, but more challenging by forcing the players to regulate two factors which left unchecked will ensure their defeat—the number of Cultists and Shoggoths—rather than the one as Pandemic. Then even more challenging by imposing situational difficulties upon the players with the effect of the Old One cards revealed when a Shoggoth is allowed to go through a Gate.

Physically, the presentation of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu matches the theme. It feels and looks fustier, mustier, just a little ornate, and not at all like the killer elegance of Pandemic. Many of the well done components support the game’s replayability. There is not just the replaying again to beat the game and prevent Cthulhu from being summoned, but also the replaying of the game to beat it at a higher difficulty, which can be adjusted. The increased number of Investigator roles to choose from and the number of Old One cards provides more choice when setting up and playing the game as replayability.

So in looking at Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu, the question is, is it still a Pandemic game? To which the answer is yes. The core mechanics of Pandemic are central to the mechanics of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu and anyone coming from the one to the other will adapt with. In fact, the core mechanics of Pandemic remain obviously visible such that the Lovecraftian theme of Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu does feel somewhat pasted over the top of them. Yet, that theme also allows the elegant brutalism of the Pandemic mechanics to be pushed and extended, making Pandemic: Reign of Cthulhu more challenging and ultimately, more uncaring. Perfect then, for a Pandemic game.

—oOo—

Z-Man Games will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 2nd and June 4th, 2017 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.


In Sorcerous Service

Ur-Turuk is the oldest and largest of mankind’s cities. Located in Turukstan, it stands on the Gulf of Tharita and is home to a great ziggurat temple to the god Enu, father of the sun and lord of fire, as well as a Vahnam—an association of Sorcerers and their retinues. The primary concern of each Sorcerer is improving his magic, which requires the recovery of ancient Alulim artefacts—the Alulim being giant Ancients who harnessed magic and enslaved mankind long ago—and then deconstructing them to extract the magic. The recovery requires research and then expeditions to travel out beyond Turukstan, but the extraction takes time and solitude, so the Vahnam needs to be protected from outside influences. This is the task of each retinue, who in serving and protecting their sorcerous masters will get involved in city politics and manipulate Ur-Turuk’s various factions, not just the city government and the city guard, but the priesthoods including the Line of Enu, the Temple of the Red God, the Cult of the Blind Serpent, and the Cult of Nissa, as well as the trade guild, the Brotherhood of Coin, the beggars’ guild, the Dust, and various underworld factions, such as the Vanishing Hand and the Black Face.

Sorcerers can cast great magics. They can summon and create things of nature and the elements as well as demons and ghosts. They can also destroy them and shape them, but they cannot use magic to transmute one substance into another, nor can spells be cast to learn things. So a Sorcerer is unable to cast a spell that would determine a cause of death, decode an encrypted scroll, or overhear a conversation from afar. In each case, an expert on the spot would be required—a physician, a scholar, a thief, and so on—to learn such information. Further, the effects of magic are not permanent. A magically constructed wall will collapse or fade, magical food will satiate the appetite and nothing more, and magical healing will only temporarily stave off the effects of wounds and damage. Should a warrior suffer too many wounds and receive magical healing, then when that healing fades, the wounds will return and he will be ripped apart! In such cases, it best to proper, non-magical healing lest a warrior’s wounds should overcome him.

This is the set-up for Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk, a roleplaying game of magic and politics inspired by ancient Persia published by Arion Games following a successful Kickstarter campaign. Mechanically, it uses the d6 System first seen in 1987’s Star Wars: The Roleplaying Game from West End Games, but structurally it uses the ‘troupe style’ of play pioneered by Ars Magica, currently published by Atlas Games. What this means is that each player controls a Sorcerer; a Major character—perhaps a master swordsman, a high priest, an oracle, an assassin, a noble, and so on; and three Minor characters—a Soldier, a Servant, and a Specialist. Characters are defined by six attributes—Might, Agility, Wits, Charm, Toughness, and Perception—and various skills from the forty-five available. Sorcerers also possess magical skills. Characters also have Perks and Complications.

Character creation gets more complex the more important a character is in a Sorcerer’s retinue. The creation of Minor characters involves a mix of rolls, picking templates, and freely assigning dice to attributes and skills. Guidelines are included if the the GM or his players want a bit more freedom than the methods included for Minor characters. The sample Minor characters have used the standard method. So the soldier in our retinue is an ex-scout who has grumpily been assigned to guard duty where he commands a team of men. He is known for his wary and weary eye, as well as his temper when his men fail him or the Vahnam. The Servant is a Cook, an ex-pickpocket who sought another trade lest her thievery lead to her execution. She is renowned for her advice as much as her readiness to defend her kitchen domain. The Musician likes the limelight and always plays a solo when performing. Unfortunately his eye for company after the performances often lands him in trouble and he knows when to get out of the way.

Souran, Soldier, Old Guard
Might 2D+2
Mêlée Weapons 1D, Block 1D
Agility 2D+1
Missile Weapons 2D, Parry +1
Wits 2D
Tactics +1
Charm 2D
Command +1
Toughness 2D
Survival +1
Perception 3D
Assess Other +1, Awareness +1

Perks: Warrior, Toughness, Danger Sense
Complications: Sense of Honour, Angry, Slow Reactions

Weapons: Shamshir (+2D), Crossbow (4d+1)
Leather armour (+2 Protection, -1 Agility)

Hatefeh, Servant, Cook
Might 2D
Mêlée Weapons +1, Brawling 1D
Agility 2D+1
Craft (Cooking) 2D+2, Larceny +1, Stealth +1
Wits 2D+1
Charm 1D+2
Streetwise 1D
Toughness 2D+1
Perception 2D
Awareness +1

Perks: Common Sense
Complications: Obese

Megabiz, Specialist, Musician
Might 1D
Agility 2D
Dodge +1
Wits 3D
Lore (Music) +2, Language +1
Charm 4D
Music 2D, Performance 1D, Seduce 1D+1
Toughness 2D
Stamina +1
Perception 2D
Awareness +1

Perks: Attractive (Minor), Educated (Minor)
Complications: Showman (Minor), Personality Flaw (Promiscuous) (Minor)

Creating a Major character is more involved, but more freeform. Several roles are given, suggesting which attributes to favour and which skills, perks, and complications to select. Termeh has served the Temple of Enu for decades now, having the gift of being able to read into the flames. She is old now and her powers are waning, but still powerful. She has rivals who would unseat her and are currently feuding with her for her influence over the chief priest. She also serves as an advisor to her daughter, Zarif Rastegari, who is a Sorcerer in the city’s Vahnam.

Termeh, Major Character, Oracle & Priest of Enu
Might 2D
Agility 2D
Wits 3D+1
Religion 1D+1
Charm 4D
Command +1, Persuade +2, Diplomacy +2, Performance 1D
Toughness 2D
Self-Control 1D
Perception 2D+2
Second Sight 2D

Holy Power 1D+2

Perks: High Priest (Major), Burning Faith (Major)
Complications: Ancient (Major), Feud (Major)

Creating a Sorcerer is even more freeform, a player needing to assign more dice to his Sorcerer’s attributes, skills, and magical skills. Notably, a Sorcerer has access to Sorcerous Perks and Complications that Major or Minor characters do not, though Minor Magic is available as a Perk that allow a Major character to possess some magic. Zarif Rastegari is a scholar and Earth and Body Sorcerer who is fascinated with the pure nature of magic. She has inherited some of her mother’s second sight, but not yet harnessed it with spirit-related magic. Her magic must be worked through a ruby that she wears on a necklace and she is better at summoning and shaping with her magic than she is destroying.

Zarif Rastegari, Sorcerer
Might 2D
Agility 3D
Dodge 1D
Wits 4D
Research 2D, Lore 1D, History +1
Charm 2D
Barter +1
Toughness 2D
Self-Control +2
Perception 3D
Awareness 1D, Second Sight +2

Perks: Sorcery (Major), Iron Will (Major), Educated (Minor), Scholar (Major)
Complications: Sense of Honour (Minor), Squeamish (Major), Magical Focus (Major)

Elements
Mind, Light 2, Nature, Spirit, Magic 3, Body 2, Fire, Air, Water, Earth 2

Controls
Summon 2, Destroy 1, Shape 2

Lastly the players need to decide upon the nature of their Vahnam. This is the home and headquarters of the sorcerers and their retinues. It is built using a pool of points that increases the greater the number of Sorcerers and their retinues who make it their home, but it is quite a tight budget, so the players will need to make some careful choices in how they design their character’s home.

Zarif Rastegari shares her Vahnam with another Sorcerer and his retinue. It is located in Ur-Turuk’s residential district, home to merchants and craftsmen, and is a relatively small townhouse built around a central courtyard in which stands a well from which can be drawn pure water. The Sorcerers and their retinues live comfortably in the house as well as eating well. Indeed, it is renowned for its kitchen and the banquets which are beginning to attract guests from across the city. The highest room in the building is used by Zarif Rastegari as an observatory by both her and her mother. The Sorcerers plan to build a library, but the building itself will expanding and that will involve purchasing land from their neighbours.

Residential District
Small
Wealth (Comfortable) 4D+1
Security 3D+1
Facilities
Observatory, Superior Kitchen, Well
Reputations
The Line of Enu (Friendly)
The Cult of the Blind Serpent (Unfriendly)

Mechanically, the player characters are rolling handfuls of dice to beat a target, ranging from Very Easy (5) and Easy (10) to Very Difficult (25) and Heroic (30). These dice can be in any of the six attributes, the forty-five skills, and the thirteen magical skills, typically combinations of an attribute and a skill. An average NPC will have two dice in each of the attributes, some of the skills, and perhaps a few more dice in the skills he is good at or that represent his occupation. Major NPCs and of course, the player characters, will have a lot more dice in their attributes and skills, and thus more dice to roll. In addition, attributes and skills can have pips, either +1 or 2. When two or more dice are rolled, one of them is the Wild Die. When the result of this die is a one, it deducts the highest die from the total rolled, whereas rolls of six on the Wild Die enable it to be rolled again and the total added. As long as sixes keep being rolled on the Wild Die, it can be rolled again and again. 
For example, Souran is going about his rounds late at night at the Vahnam. Unfortunately, someone has sent Black Face assassins—they cover their faces in ash—to murder Termeh, the Priestess of Enu. Souran has the Danger Sense Perk and cannot be surprised, but in the dark, the GM rules that his player must roll to see where the assassins are going. Souran’s player adds his Perception 3D and Awareness +1, so has to roll 3D+1 against a Moderate (15) difficulty. Souran’s player rolls 4, 6, and 5 on the Wild die, which with the addition of the +1, gives a total of 16 and a success. Souran takes up his crossbow and goes in search of the assassins.
 The system is simple and fast. It also allows for automatic successes if a player has enough dice—up to a target of Moderate (15)—and for multiple actions, simply deducting dice for each of the actions that a player might want to do. In addition, some characters possess Hero Points, which can be used to escape the current trap or danger, to maximise the results on the dice roll, or to acquire a clue or assistance for the adventure. Combat is handled by opposed rolls between attacks and Reactions—Dodge, Block with a shield, or Parry with a weapon—followed by damage rolls to overcome the target’s armour and Toughness. Combat does take into account the effect of the excess on the attack roll, so a strike might grant a bonus to the damage roll or reduce the opponent’s armour, smash the opponent’s shield or disarm him, cleave a limb or simply kill him, and so on. Various combat options are covered, including the specific effects of various arms and armour, and in general, combat is short and brutal. 
For example, Souran comes upon the first assassin. Both Souran’s player and the GM as the assassin roll for initiative. Souran has Agility 2D+1 and the Assassin Agility 3D. Souran has 10 and the Assassin 7—Souran goes first and snap fires his crossbow. His player will roll Agility 2D+1, Missile Weapons 2D, and +1 for Souran’s Warrior Perk, a total of 4D+2. The GM will roll the Assassin’s Agility 3D as he tries to dodge, but with a penalty of -1 for armour. The GM rolls 5, 5, and 5, for a total of 14 with the effect of the Assassin’s armour. Souran’s player rolls 5, 5, 5, and 6 on the Wild Die. Then rolls another 6, followed by a 3. To this total of 30 is added +2, for a total of 32. This exceeds the Assassin’s Reaction roll by 17, so Souran’s excess can be turned into the Assassin being disarmed as the crossbow bolt strikes his wrist. The damage roll for the crossbow is 4D+1, whilst the Assassin is wearing leather armour, so has a +2 bonus to his Toughness 2D. The GM rolls 2 and 5, which with the armour bonus gives a result of 9. Souran’s player rolls 4, 5, 6, and 2, which with the +1, gives a result of 18. This is an Excess of 9 more than the roll for the Assassin, indicating that he has been incapacitated—the bolt pierces the Assassin’s wrist, ripping tendons and blood vessels, causing the interloper to cry out in pain and drop his blade as blood pumps from the wound. The other Assassins are alerted to Souran’s attack, but so are the rest of the guards.
 Of course magic lies at the heart of Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk and its approach is to make it fast and flexible. A player  has the freedom to decide the effect, range, duration, number of targets, and so on before making the casting roll for his Sorcerer. Effects can include inflicting damage, boosting the target’s attributes or boosting the effect of an object, restoring a target or object, and summoning a creature. So a Sorcerer might want to blast an enemy with fire, enhance the Strength attribute or Brawling skill of a wrestler, boost a fire into conflagration, and summon a Pegasus to escape or a demon with which to make a bargain. Once these are decided upon, the player makes an appropriate casting roll, a combination of a Control skill—Summon, Destroy, or Shape, and an Element—Mind, Light, Nature, Spirit, Magic, Body, Fire, Air, Water, or Earth. The rules explore each of the thirty combinations. 
So for example, Zarif Rastegari is searching some caves having heard that an ancient Alulim artefact might be found within its depths. Rather than have her companions light torches, the Sorcerer decides draw forth some light. Her player decides that the spell will be Fatiguing (+0), have a range of Self (+0), a duration of one hour (+6), and a ten foot radius (+13). This gives a Target Number of 19 against which Zarif Rastegari’s player must roll a combination of Summon 2 and Light 2 or 4D. 
Once the Target Number is set, all the player needs to do is make the Casting roll. If the roll is successful, the spell succeeds. Otherwise it fails, but on a roll of all ones, a catastrophic spell failure occurs, which means that the Sorcerer might lose his ability to cast magic, knocked out or stunned, or even rip him apart! In general, the more dice rolled in the Casting roll, the worse the catastrophic spell failure occurs is likely to be. Spells can also be combined, so that a Sorcerer can build spell effects. So a Sorcerer not only summon water to impress a tribal chieftain with a Summon + Water Casting roll, but then a Shape + Water Casting roll in order to shape into a fountain or direct its flow. The rules for magic include high magic areas, minor magics and sorcery, limited magic, as well as using spells defensively.

Overall, the magic and sorcery mechanics in Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk are simple and straightforward, but their freeform nature and the freedom they grant in how spells are cast and the effects they have, is not a little daunting. The guidance included helps, but anyone coming to the roleplaying game after playing in fantasy settings where there are set spell lists will still need to make some adjustments and that may impede playing time.

Magic is not the only source of power in Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk. There is also faith. Mechanically, this is represented by a religious character’s Holy Power, essentially a skill possessed by the priesthood by each faith. It is used—or invoked—to add a bonus to other skills rather than as a set of miracles a la the clerical spells of Dungeons & Dragons. If used to so enhance a skill and the skill roll fails, the priest loses his Holy Power until such times as he regain it through prayer and devotion. What this means is that sorcery is very much favoured in Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk and as a result Holy Power is more a sense of personal faith upon the part of any priest rather than drawn from any faith in a deity. This seems to undercut the influence and power of the various faiths and priesthoods in the city of Ur-Turuk and perhaps this aspect could be developed further in supplements for the roleplaying game?

Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk also includes a bestiary and an examination of ancient Alulim artefacts and how a Sorcerer deconstructs them in order draw forth their magic into himself and so improve his magical abilities. This is the only way in which a Sorcerer can improve his magic, though he can improve his mundane skills just the members of his retinue can. Although Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk does not include a scenario, it does include an outline of the opening chapters of a campaign and a discussion of what a Sorcerer and his retinue does on an ongoing basis. The core focus of the game is the conducting of research into the existence and location of Alulim artefacts, mounting an expedition to recover the artefact, and then studying the recovered artefact before breaking it down to extract its magic. This will involve one or more of the Sorcerers, but only the one Sorcerer can study and extract magic from an artefact and this takes a whole season. Major and Minor characters in a Sorcerer’s retinue will aid him in this task, providing support and protection, but whilst this is their primary role, they can also have their own adventures and their own stories. 

Since this is Troupe style play, both the GM and the players can scale up and down their Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk campaign, telling and roleplaying smaller tales with the Minor characters, larger and more heroic stories with the Major characters, and then grander epics with the Sorcerers. So the Minor characters might be involved in small tales in and around the Vahnam; the Major characters in going out and interacting with the city of Ur-Turuk, advising the Sorcerers, and then accompanying them on their expeditions; and the Sorcerers in research, expeditions, and working on artefacts as well as the politics and life of Ur-Turuk. Since each player has three Minor and three Major characters to choose from—and he is expected to switch back and forth between them—he will not only always have a character to bring into the current storyline and situation, he will also be constantly called upon to exercise his roleplaying skill.

Unfortunately, Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk does not feel quite complete. True, it includes everything that the GM needs to run the game and that the players need to play the game, but the setting itself feels underdeveloped. Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk is meant to be inspired by ancient Persia and that does not quite come across. It feels Middle Eastern rather than specifically Persian. Further, whilst there is a reasonable amount of background on the city of Ur-Turuk, certainly enough for the GM to work with in the initial stages of his campaign, beyond its walls, there is virtually nothing given, which is an issue since this is where the Sorcerers and their retinues are going to be going on expeditions.

Physically, Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk is a well presented, full colour hardback. It feels as if it could be better organised—there is a lot of information in terms of the mechanics and the background to get through before the reader gets to the mechanics for character generation. The artwork varies in quality, some of it very good and nicely capturing the exoticism of the setting, much of it good, but some of it somewhat scrappy in quality. Overall, it is handsome book.

Mechanically and conceptually, Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk does not feel like an original roleplaying game. The d6 System is a tried and tested set of mechanics and Troupe-style play is a tried and tested campaign set-up and so will be familiar to many. The combination is more than effective though, the d6 System being simple and fast, the combat mechanics adding a brutality to the game, whilst the Troupe-style play adds roleplaying opportunities aplenty. Both sit well in the interesting setting of Ur-Turuk where a campaign can start, but not really go beyond the city walls. Ultimately, Sorcerers of Ur-Turuk promises much, but its setting really needs to be fleshed out and further developed if it is going deliver the full potential of Troupe-style play.


—oOo—

Arion Games will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between June 2nd and June 4th, 2017 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.