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Sunday, 8 January 2017

Extracurricular Esoteric Endeavours II

The publisher 12 to Midnight has developed its horror setting of Pinebox, Texas through a series of single scenarios written for use with Savage Worlds, the cinematic action RPG rules from Pinnacle Entertainment Group. In July, 2014, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the publisher released the setting through a particular lens and timeframe, that is as students at East Texas University. Over the course of their four-year degree courses, the students undertake study and various academic activities as well as having a social life, a job, and even an annoying roommate. Then of course, there is the weird stuffs—ghosts, werewolves, vampires, and more… The challenge of course is that the students have to deal with both, but need to grow into being able to cope with both.

The publication of East Texas University was followed by something to really challenge the students—a whole plot point campaign that builds and builds over the course of their four-year degree courses. A plot point campaign differs from a standard campaign in that it is a framework of scenarios that advance the plot around which the GM can fit and run single scenarios not necessarily pertinent to the campaign’s core plot. These can be of the GM’s own design or bought off the shelf. The plot points are triggered under certain circumstances; it might be because the player characters visit a particular location or because of an action that they have taken. In Degrees of Horror—the campaign funded by the same Kickstarter campaign as East Texas University, the plot points are also built around areas of academic study and the year in which the player character student—or study group—are currently in. What this means is that in Degrees of Horror, the Study Group will encounter the first notions of the outré things to come in the first term as Freshmen and both the campaign and the Study Group’s investigations will come to fruition as Seniors at their graduation.

From their very first week, the Freshman Study Group at East Texas University will begin encountering the supernatural. First a ghost, then more hauntings, and finally monsters, so that by the end of their first year, the students will be relatively experienced investigators into the supernatural, have gained a mentor, and got hints as to the mystery at the heart of both East Texas University and Pinebox. As they progress from their Freshman to Sophomore year and then to Junior and Senior years, the students will investigate more and more of the mystery and the conspiracy at the heart of the campaign. This involves both magic and science, a failed attempt to stop a previous threat, a mix of legends and monsters old and new, and a visit to Pinebox’s singular geographical feature, a permanently fire-ravaged area known as the Burn. There are twelve plot points or scenarios to this campaign, organised into three per year. They follow one after another, so what triggers them is time and having played the previous part.

Now at just twelve parts and at just past fifty pages in length in a ninety-six page book, the Degrees of Horror campaign feels a little short. Indeed, if you were to play through the campaign in order straight at between one and two sessions per plot point, with a session per week, the campaign would last no more than between three and six months. Fortunately, this issue is addressed with another twenty Savage Tales. These include encounters with vampires, weird insects, zombies, curses, ghosts, and more. They also have more stringent requirements that must be met before the Dean—as the GM is known in East Texas University—can run them. These include the year that the Student Body is in, activities such as those involving a fraternity or sorority, a character’s Major like Science or Literature, and so on.  Some are also sequels, not just to Savage Tales given in Degrees of Horror, but also to separate Savage Tales available from 12 to Midnight. This includes a sequel to ‘Last Rites of the Black Guard’, the very first adventure from 12 to Midnight, so the Study Group can go right back to where the story of Pinebox began in gaming terms and and explore that.

To be fair though, the fact that some of the extra adventures that can be run as part of the Degrees of Horror campaign have to be purchased, is not all that much of an issue. Not not only does the book itself contains plenty of adventures, but there are also several short adventures available for free for the East Texas University setting and that in addition to the shorter adventures generated using the rules in the East Texas University sourcebook. So essentially, the Dean does not necessarily need to buy the other adventures as there are plenty available between those in East Texas University and Degrees of Horror as well as online, though if he wants to get the fullest out of the campaign, he may want to purchase the others. Either way, what the Dean has between the three sources is a good mix of adventures that provide variety in terms of both actual threat and degree of threat. Any or all of these adventures are easy to slot into the Degrees of Horror campaign around its plot points and give the campaign a nicely episodic structure that will build story and campaign over time.

Rounding out Degrees of Horror are the full write-ups and stats for the major NPCs in campaign as well as various monsters that the player characters might encounter. Physically, Degrees of Horror is a full colour hardback like East Texas University. It is well written, comes with an index, and is an easy read. The artwork is good, but perhaps rather cheesy in places—the cover in particular. If there is an issue to Degrees of Horror it is that an extra map or two would not have gone amiss, particularly of the base of operations that the Student Body acquires during the campaign and some handouts would have been nice too.

East Texas University presented all of the rules and background to run a campaign at an American university in which the students have to cope with the academic and social life as well as having to face the horror of the supernatural. It should be pointed out that the horror and the supernatural in Degrees of Horror—and thus East Texas University—is fairly vanilla. It involves ghosts—lots of ghosts, vampires, spirits, possession, demons, as well as a local legend or two, and whilst this may not be most radical treatment of the horror genre, the scenarios are varied, fun, and well crafted. Above all, Degrees of Horror shows the Dean—or GM—how to put rules and background of East Texas University into practice with a well structured and enjoyably fun campaign.