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

Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Looping Your Home

It is not an unreasonable claim to suggest that the ENinie award-winning Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the '80s That Never Was, published by Modiphius Entertainment, was the best roleplaying game released in the English language in 2017. Based on the stunning artwork of Simon Stålenhag, also used to illustrate the roleplaying game, Tales from the Loop depicts an alternate past in which children discover that the landscape around them is rife with mysteries, many of which seem to stem from the advanced scientific research institutes that their home towns are built around. And all this whilst having to deal with an often troubled home life and adults who never believe what the children have seen.

The first supplement to be released for Tales from the Loop is Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries. This presents three full scenarios, a mixtape of scenario hooks and threats, four blueprints for threats, and a guide to putting a Loop around your hometown. All bar the latter is written with the setting of Mälaröarna, the islands of Lake Mälaren, which lies to the west of Stockholm in Sweden, the default setting in Tales from the Loop. As in the core rulebook, they are supported by notes and indicators to help the Game Master adapt the content to the roleplaying game’s other setting of Boulder City, though it would be interesting to see a collection of scenarios written with Boulder City as the base setting rather than Mälaröarna.

All of the scenarios in Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries as well as the scenario hooks of the Mixtape, are inspired by various aspects of the nineteen eighties. So there are stories about the commercialisation of toys and the craze for certain toys, the moral panic about video nasties, hooks based on classic eighties rock and pop tracks, and so on. As to be expected, this is all very well presented, with a clean layout, fantastic illustrations, and some very nice cartography. That said, the editing is a little scrappy in places and it does feel as if the book was rushed into English translations. Nevertheless, Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries is a handsome looking book.

The supplement opens with the titular, ‘Our Friends the Machines’. In this mystery, the Kids’ hometown has been selected to launch a new toy line based on the animated series, Our Friends the Machines. The toys in this series are robots, divided between the Convoys and the Deceivers, each capable of transforming into ordinary vehicles and objects. After the chaos of the launch at the local toyshop, strange things begin happening in the town, the adults begin acting obsessively, and the toys…? Very obviously inspired by The Transformers, devotees of the animated series will get a kick out of playing what is a fun Mystery. Groups who have a Computer Geek archetype amongst their number will have a certain advantage, but any Kids with Tech skills will be useful.

There are creepy moments to be had in ‘Our Friends the Machines’, but the tone of the book definitely makes a shift to the creepy in the second scenario, ‘Horror Movie Mayhem’. It starts with the Kids’ hometown being beset by a moral panic at the video nasties—or at least the horror movies—that the youths are swapping and watching. Led by the Parent-Teacher Association, this escalates into an attack on the local video store and then just out of sight, against anyone or anything who is different or stands out from the social norm. The one by one the adults begin changing their behaviour and of course, this includes many of the Kids’ parents. Somehow, the Kids need to find out what is going on and who is responsible, before finding a solution before its effects spread even further. Given the video-based theme of the scenario, the inclusion of some movie inspiration is a nice touch and a slight pity that the other scenarios did not include similar lists.

After having done a certain whimsy with ‘Our Friends the Machines’ and creepy with ‘Horror Movie Mayhem’, the third scenario, ‘The Mummy in the Mist’, takes the supplement in a weird direction. Rumours spread round the school of an actual mummy being seen in nearby woods. Ideally this should be enough to pique the curiousity of the Kids. This may not be enough motivation for some groups and the Game Master may have to provide further options or nudges. At the same time as the Mummy appears, the nearby lake appears to be fog bound all of the time and the police are more active. What this scenario buys into is the curiousity and seeing everything as dare attitude of Kids rather than the rationalism of adults, for of the three scenarios in Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries, this one the Kids have to go looking for the mystery rather than the mystery coming to them. This is also a scarier, weirder scenario and it feels markedly different in tone from the previous two.

All three of the scenarios are well organised and follow the pattern set in the core rules by being divided into five phases—‘Introducing the Kids’, ‘Introducing the Mystery’, ‘Solving the Mystery’, ‘Showdown’, ‘Aftermath’, and ‘Change’. Details of countdown events are given to push each Mystery along as well as suggested scenes and other advice. The three scenarios are followed by ‘Mixtape of Mysteries’. These follow the minor Mystery format to be found in the core rules, but what sets them apart is that they are inspired by particular rock and pop tracks from the nineteen eighties. So the tracks include ‘Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)” by the Eurythmics and ‘Thriller’ by Michael Jackson as well as Belinda Carlisle’s ‘Heaven is a Place on Earth’ and The Police’s ‘Every Breath You Take’. The authors then build plots around them, including the theft of dreams by rogue robots, a trio of women offering a refuge—or could the rumour that they are witches be true, a la the film, The Witches of Eastwick, a vagrant with the power to steal away children, and more. Barring a couple which do play upon a ‘Pied Piper’ effect, there is a decent medley here, all of which should be relatively easy for the Game Master to develop into full scenarios.

‘Machine Blueprints’ details four of the signature machines to be found within the environs of the Loop—wherever it is located. They include the Alta ABM100 fire patrol robot, the Paarhufer MK 79 service and maintenance robot, the Lieber-Alta M75 Locomotive Ship, and MG/S Sierra Nevada bulk freighter. One lovely tidbit here is the idea of teenagers taunting Alta ABM100 fire patrol robot with flares and driving away in a car chased by the robot. Each of the write-ups is accompanied by a Mystery suggestion or two, which will need much more development than the Mixtape Mysteries. 

Rounding out Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries is ‘Hometown Hack’, a guide to dropping a Loop onto your hometown or where you live. It sets a few criteria for a Loop and takes the Game Master through the few steps necessary, including preparing and placing the agency. In Sweden it is Riksenergi and in the USA it is DARPA, in the worked out example and third Loop, ‘The Broads Loop’, it is ReGIS or ‘Regional Geomagnetic Information Sciences’, part of the Ministry of Defence (and not Department of Defence as given here). It really is only a quick example, so it would be nice to see it further developed and it is an indication of Modiphius Entertainment and Free League Publishing working closely together.

Besides providing support for Tales of the Loop, what Our Friends the Machines & Other Mysteries also does is point to possible further support—more Mysteries and Mystery Hooks, more blueprints, and sample Loops (though of course, it is possible to have too many Loops). Overall, this is good, solid support for a solidly good roleplaying game.

Tuesday, 30 January 2018

Miskatonic Monday #4: Plague

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise ofthe DeadRise ofthe Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.

—oOo—



NamePlague

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
AuthorMatt Ryan & Noah Lloyd
Illsutrations: Sam Mameli

SettingArkham, Modern Day, Lovecraft Country
Product: One-Shot Scenario
What You Get26.2 MB, 36-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: Against the clock, medical emergency to defeat the shrubbry of death

Plot Hook: The investigators are members of a Centers for Disease Control and Prevention team assigned to investigate the outbreak of an unknown and deadly disease in an old house.
Plot Development: Inter-team rivalries; the demands of the building's tenants; a rapidly developing disease.
Plot SupportFully plotted out with eighteen NPCs, scenes and events, timeline, and medical investigation. Plus six pre-generated inter-connected investigators.
Production ValuesNeeds an edit. Clear maps. Good house map. Investigator backgrounds not with their investigator sheets.

Pros

Works as a convention scenario
Good one-shot or first exposure to the Mythos
# Passing resemblance to The Monolith Monsters
Lots of well-drawn NPCs for the Keeper to portray
# Simple plot with few timed events
# Mythos underplayed
# Link to 'The People of the Monolith'
# A very giving Gug
Easy to adapt to Delta Green   

Cons

Finding a cure feels underplayed
Feels like there is just the one possible outcome
What happens next?

Conclusion

# Medical investigation underwritten
NPC reactions and motivations nicely handled
Limited possible outcomes
# Delivers some good 'shocks', but the one potential shock is the best
What happens next?

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Reviewing Bad

Here is an interesting situation. Almost a decade ago, in 2009, I wrote a review of Age of Cthulhu II: Madness in London Town. It was one of the infrequent negative reviews that I have written and as exercises in writing and reviewing, they can be quite fun to do. At the time, my editor asked me if I wanted to reconsider. After all, the review was not written in a discursive style and it was direct and to the point about the issues that I had with the scenario. I reread the review and decided that I wanted to stick to what I had written. The editor duly posted the review and I moved on to the next review. To this day, I cannot recall what that review was, or the one before it, but I do remember my review of Age of Cthulhu II: Madness in London Town. I also remember how I was unprepared for how unhappy the publisher was with the review and the relatively minor controversy this caused. At the time it was strange experience, to watch online as a furore swirled around a couple of thousand words I had written.


Now in 2018, another reviewer, Bryce Lynch of tenfootpole.org, has posted a review to https://rpggeek.com/ of a scenario called Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin. It should be noted that this review is written in line with Lynch’s particular standards when it comes to writing reviews of Old School Renaissance titles, but like my review of Age of Cthulhu II: Madness in London Town, this review of Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin has attracted some attention and not necessarily for the right reasons.

Published by Jon Brazer Enterprises, this is a dungeon adventure designed to be played by six characters of Sixth Level using Swords & Wizardry Complete, the retroclone published by Frog God Games. Previous versions of the scenario were written for use with Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age, Paizo’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition from Wizards of the Coast. This version of Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin is the publisher’s first offering for Swords & Wizardry and the Old School Renaissance.

The adventure opens with the line, “Northam has been razed. None survived. Send reinforcements immediately.” It is delivered by an injured man who staggers into the adventurers’ camp before promptly dropping dead. The party has camped on the edge of a boggy area known as the Crannogs, at the heart of which is the Great Swamp. The area is policed and patrolled by the Stormhammer Rangers—and the dead man happens to be a Stormhammer scout. When the party reaches Northam, the adventurers find that its buildings smashed, livestock slaughtered, its inhabitants either dead or missing, and the following words burned into the ground: “Beware The Blackener Of Bright Waters, For She Is Come Again.” They also learn that the town was attacked by a force of lizardmen and wyverns from the nearby Ixtupi tribe and that the force stole the skull of Nyrionaxys which was mounted on the wall of the town’s mead hall. 

Long ago, the Crannogs was a country known as Greenacre governed by a society of druids. Then the Ixtupi tribe, led by the black dragon queen, Nyrionaxys, attacked, destroying the druids, despoiling their temple, and as well as establishing draconic rule and turning the land into a greater swamp. Eventually, Nyrionaxys’ rule was overthrown, the Ixputi tribe driven back, and ultimately, Nyrionaxys herself was cut apart as she slept… The question is, why has the Ixputi tribe returned to attack the peoples of the Crannogs and what does it want with Nyrionaxys’ skull? Clues point to another upcoming attack and from there to the Temple of Ixputi…

The main focus of the adventure is on the Temple of Ixtupi, which offers five levels of dungeon exploration and combat. Over the course of their exploration, the adventurers will face an interesting mix of monsters, some wholly new, some modified. They include Befouled Spirits—Air, Earth, Fire, and Water, Mud Zombies, a variety of Black Dragon-Lizardmen hybrids, and more. In fact, the design of these monsters is actually one of the best features in Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin, the author clearly having had fun in mashing the various creatures into hybrids. On the downside, the Dungeon Master may need to refer to The Tome of Horrors Complete and Monstrosities supplement for the full details of some of the monsters used in Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin.

One further indication of how well the monsters are handled in Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin are the notes titled ‘Thinking Like A Black Dragon’. This boxed section gives four or five ideas as to how the Dungeon Master might like to use Nyrionaxys, the aim being to make her a memorably dangerous and deadly foe. Some of it is obvious, such as the fact that Nyrionaxys will not simply await the arrival of the player characters, but it nevertheless adds to the ‘deadly’ aspect of Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin.

If the design and handling of the monsters is entertaining and well thought out, the dungeon not always so. The Temple of Ixtupi is part-temple, part-tomb and so it suffers from being rather linear. The dungeon design also relies quite a lot on secret doors, which sets up two possible problems. One is that the player characters’ progress may be hindered and the others is that a lot of the scenario’s secrets will remain hidden, which in some cases may deny the player characters an advantage in facing their foes. Another problem is that the scenario may not offer enough Experience Points for a party of Sixth Level characters to attain Seventh Level.

Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin comes as a thirty-four-page, full colour, 3.4 MB PDF. In fact, it is highly colourful. The artwork is excellent in its depiction of the monsters to be found in the scenario, though more illustrations of the monsters would have been great for Dungeon Master to show to his players, especially of Nyrionaxys. The maps are problematic in that some of their details are unclear, primarily because of the use of colour. That said, the scenario comes with a separate PDF of the maps for easy reference.

Now Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin is not a perfect scenario. There are two issues with the scenario’s beginning. One is that this beginning, although striking, may not be strong enough to spur the player characters to act and perhaps a stronger beginning might have been to have them attacked by Nyrionaxys’ forces. The other is that the scenario’s background is overwritten and conveying a lot of this information to his players may be a challenge for the Dungeon Master.

Despite its imperfections, Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin lives up to the series title of ‘Deadly Delves’. It is dangerous and the foes the adventurers will face are fearsome. It should provide a session or two’s worth of solid play, which is what every reasonable adventure should provide.

To return to the review which sparked this one, it is often asserted that reviews have no effect. Not so in the case of my review of Age of Cthulhu II: Madness in London Town. In the aftermath of the kerfuffle around my 2009 review, the publisher was gracious enough to come to me and ask if I wanted to edit future titles in the Age of Cthulhu line. I have since edited several entries in the line and I have a good working relationship with the publisher and it was a pleasure to finally meet him at GenCon 50 last year.

In the case of Bryce Lynch’s review of Deadly Delves: Reign of Ruin, the immediate outcome of the publisher some three hours after reading the review was his decision to withdraw from releasing further titles for use with Swords & Wizardry. Effectively, this cemented the company’s previous decision to put its Old School Renaissance plans on hold—permanently. For a time, the publisher also made the scenario free to purchase. These are, of course, only the immediate effects of the review, it being too early to see if there will be any greater effect upon either the reviewer or the publisher. Yet whenever someone says that reviews have no effect or influence in our hobby, sometimes that is not always the case.

Friday, 26 January 2018

Friday Filler: An OSR Miscellany

Tim Shorts—via Gothridge Manor or GM Games—is one of any number of small press publishers who are garnering support for their output via Patreon. Many similar publishers put podcasts funded via Patreon, for example, The Good Friends of Jackson Elias and the GROGNARD Files, but GM Games provides support for use with Swords & Wizardry Light, but there is no reason that this support would not work with the more recent Swords & Wizardry Continual Light or other retroclones.


The end of the year for 2017 package for GM Games comes in a digest-sized envelope. Inside there are four types of item, each of which is handily sized and easy to bring to the table and drop into an ongoing game.

The first of the four items actually consist of two items—or rather two Character Records for Swords & Wizardry Continual Light. Now the character presented at the end of Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is bland at best, but awful at worst. Done on heavy paper, those presented here are little pamphlets just four pages in length. There is room on the front for a player character’s name and then the stats, Class and Race abilities, Saving Throw, Base Hit Bonus, Armour Class, Spells, and equipment on the inside pages. There is probably not quite enough space in the boxes given for this information unless the character’s player has small writing. Pleasingly on the back page there is an Experience chart for the character where a player can tick off the number of adventures that have been played. Overall, these character sheets are a bit cramped, but they are charming and if there is ever a Swords & Wizardry Continual Light Whitebox Set, then they—or something like it—should be in the box.


—oOo—

The second of the four items is an NPC Card. The NPC Cards series presents NPCs on a single A6-sized laminated card in full colour. The NPC this time around is ‘Harker, Goblin Warrior’. A two Hit Dice creature, Harker is a big goblin who wields his grandfather’s sword, Arm Eater, his father’s goblin armour, and his own Imp Helm—actually an Imp’s horn atop an iron cap, which regenerates Hit Points for him. Harker is perhaps best described as cunning, preferring to pick and choose his fights. Although nicely presented, the NPC himself, Harker, is not all that interesting and really it should be suggesting ways to use this NPC in way that is interesting for the players and their characters—that is, interesting enough for the players and their characters not to simply kill the NPC.


—oOo—

The third of the four items is a Micro-Location. Micro-Location #19, ‘Oubliette’, is also in full colour and comes on a laminated card, roughly six inches by three-and-three-quarter inches. It describes a pit, twenty feet deep, and an adjoining room. Both are shown in cross section. The location is both small in size and small in scope. Both the cross section and the illustration are nicely done. The monster is more of a trap than a monster, but no less deadly, and the given magic item is of limited use, but useful nevertheless. Overall, this location is easy to drop into most settings, whether that is in a dungeon, the ruins of a castle or manor house, and so on. 


—oOo—

The fourth of the four items is a Micro-Adventure. These are where GM Games began with its Patreon output and ‘Iron Crawlers’ is Micro-Adventure #70. It is written for use with Swords & Wizardry Continual Light and has a simple plot, fairly mundane opponents, and actually, a down-at-heel charm. It opens with the player characters being hired by Sir Carl the Swindler to recover his signet ring, which he lost to a local gang of ruffians known as the Iron Crawlers, in a game of cards. Despite his reputation, Sir Carl the Swindler has the money to pay the party. The gang has its headquarters in the cellar of a burnt-out manor house and the player characters will have to break in and confront the gang. Essentially a mini-dungeon with just ten locations, everything is decently described and the NPCs are fleshed out enough for the Dungeon Master to portray them. The members of gang—variously described as the Iron Crawlers and the Iron Mongers—will protect themselves, but will not necessarily attack. If they do, they may not use lethal force. It should be pointed out that the members of the Iron Crawlers gang are strictly small time and greedy rather than necessarily evil.

‘Iron Crawlers’ comes on an orange-brown stiff paper pamphlet with a large map of the ten-location dungeon, or cellar, on the inside. The production values are not quite as high as on the NPC Card and the Micro-Location cards, but overall, ‘Iron Crawlers’ is good adventure to bring out in an urban location. It has a grim and gritty feel which means that it would work best in a Low Fantasy setting rather than a High Fantasy setting. So with some adjustment, it would work well with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay as well as the Zweihänder Grim & Perilous RPG, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, and Lankhmar: City of Thieves for use with Savage Worlds, among many options.


—oOo—

So if you are running for Swords & Wizardry Continual Light, then the character sheets in this selection would be a nice addition to your game. The NPC Card is attractive, but perhaps a bit underwritten, whereas Micro-Location #19, ‘Oubliette’ is perhaps a little overwritten, but does not suffer for it. Iron Crawlers – Micro-Adventure #70 is a good little adventure and really easy to use with very little preparation and should provide a session’s worth of decent play. Overall, this is a solid package and an entertaining medley of Old School Renaissance goodness.

Sunday, 21 January 2018

Cthulhu Classics VIII

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

Having looked at the releases from Games Workshop, culminating with Green and Pleasant Land: The British 1920s-30s Cthulhu Source Pack, Reviews from R’lyeh now moves on to another early licensee for Chaosium, Inc. This is T.O.M.E. or Theatre of the Mind Enterprises, a publisher best known for the five titles it released for use with Call of Cthulhu and Gardasiyal: Adventures in Tékumel, the 1990s roleplaying game set in the world of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. Between 1983 and 1984, T.O.M.E. would publish five collections of scenarios—The Arkham Evil, Death In Dunwich, Pursuit To Kadath, Whispers From The Abyss And Other Tales, and Glozel Est Authentique!—for use with Call of Cthulhu, Second Edition. The second release though, and the subject of this review, is Death In Dunwich.

As with The Arkham Evil, it is initially difficult to determine what Death in Dunwich actually is. The extent of the back cover blurb runs to, “The Nightmare Continues . . . The police aren’t talking . . . The coroner is terrified . . . But it’s Business as Usual in Dunwich! Another macabre adventure from: Theatre of the Mind Enterprises, Inc.” Not only is this unhelpful, elements of the blurb are inaccurate. There is no indication as to what nightmare is continuing from, is it H.P. Lovecraft’s story ‘The Dunwich Horror’, or is it from The Arkham Evil? It is certainly no sequel to The Arkham Evil and despite being set in Dunwich, it has very little to do with that story. As to the inaccuracies, the police will tell the investigators what they want to know, so they are talking, and as to the coroner, he is more mystified than terrified.
So what is Death in Dunwich? Well, it is a scenario set in 1922 which takes place in Massachusetts and New York. The mystery at its heart is the death of Dale Plunckett, an art expert with French citizenship whose body has been found a few miles outside of the Massachusetts town of Dunwich. The investigators are hired by a mysterious stranger to determine how he died, who killed him, and why he was killed. They are given a week in which to conduct the investigation and paid handsomely for it. Exactly what the interest of this mysterious stranger has in the fate of Dale Plunckett is unclear, adding further to the number of obfuscations littering the pages of Death in Dunwich.

The investigation begins with the state police in Springfield, Massachusetts and they will be happy to answer the investigators’ questions as will be the coroner. There are one or two clues to be found in Dunwich, but the next step of the investigation hinges on the discovery of a key. If this is found, then the investigators can access a treasure trove of clues—some twenty-five or so individual clues across some eight pages, nearly a quarter the length of Death in Dunwich’s thirty-six pages. If the investigators do not get the key, then both they and the scenario are basically derailed. There is a way to get them back on track, but it essentially involves the investigators being arrested after the disappearance and death of the investigating officer and the Keeper having the interrogating officers drop enough clues for the investigators to know where to go next.

As to what is going on in Death in Dunwich, this kept hidden from the Keeper, let alone the players and their investigators, for nearly all of the book, and even then it is barely spelt out. The background to the plot begins with two brotherhoods. The Right Hand is good and seeks to protect various relics and artworks against the Left Hand, which of course being ‘sinister’, is dedicated to evil. This background has no relevance to the plot of Death in Dunwich, except that Roland Dunkelherz, an agent of the Left Hand has enveigeled himself into the service of the world’s richest man, the octogenarian, J.D. Rothenfelder, and found a way of providing him with unique works by the Old Masters that he so craves. This is by resurrecting Old Masters, including Da Vinci, Rubens, Caravaggio, and so on, and forcing them to create new masterworks. Somehow, Dale Plunckett came across one of these unique works of art, a previously unknown painting by Leonardo da Vinci, and was investigating its provenance when he was killed.

The denouement of Death in Dunwich essentially involves the investigators arriving at the door of J.D. Rothenfelder who has moved to the tiny, isolated town of Dunwich, discovering something that there is something odd going on, the least of which is the fact that he has a pet gorilla. Then having a fight. Getting there is an awkward journey as without the clues from the trove, the investigators will have no reason to visit him, or indeed, stay in Dunwich once they have learned all that they can. This is despite the scenario devoting a lot of space to detailing the town and its inhabitants, who will not have a bad word to say against him. The investigators may learn about the events which Lovecraft described in ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and which the inhabitants of the town are reluctant to talk about, but of course, this is just one more aspect of the Death in Dunwich which is irrelevant to the scenario’s plot.

If The Arkham Evil has a poor reputation, then Death in Dunwich deserves an equally poor, if not a worse, reputation. At the back of the book, in the ‘Advice to Keepers’ section, the designer states, “This scenario should be run as follows: the Introduction should be intriguing, the Middle Game should be frustrating, and the End Game should be an orgy of violence.” The scenario more than lives up to all three claims. The set-up is intriguing of that there is no doubt. After all, there is the dead body of man who died under mysterious circumstances and that of course, raises questions. So having got the players and their investigators intrigued with a set-up, the scenario literally locks the second two thirds of the scenario away unless the investigators find the key. What this means is that this physical key is the literal key to completing the scenario.

This also has the effect of undermining any semblance that the scenario has of a second act. If the investigators do not get the treasure trove of clues, they have nothing to do except wander around Dunwich not being told anything by the inhabitants because they lack the questions to ask and so cannot move onto the third act and its climax. This is unnecessarily frustrating and even if they do find the treasure trove, then the players and their investigators spend the entire second act sifting through a lot of clues before moving onto the climax.

The climax itself is likely to be violent and it has the possibility of being somewhat creepy, but whether or not it turns out to be horrifying is all down to the players. To begin with, they might not even encounter the resurrected artists. This might be because they simply never discover where they are being held captive, but it might because they kill Dunkelherz and since he was responsible for their resurrection and is now dead, they crumble back into dust. If the investigators do encounter the resurrected artists, it suggests that they stab them and send them back to dust. Whilst this is the humane thing to do, it ignores the fact that the first thing that the investigators will want to do is ask questions and then stab later…

This highlights another pair of issues with Death in Dunwich. One is that whilst there is mystery, there is barely any horror present and that in the scenario’s third act only. There is absolutely none in the first and second acts, and just the single Sanity loss mentioned in the scenario at all. The other issue is that there is barely any Mythos in Death in Dunwich, instead just dancing around the events of ‘The Dunwich Horror’ and using the mechanics of Call of Cthulhu to design Roland Dunkelherz as a difficult opponent to beat in a fight. So in a sense it barely qualifies as a Call of Cthulhu scenario and the fact that it uses the backdrop of ‘The Dunwich Horror’ as window dressing means that the scenario could just as easily be set in any small town. Certainly nobody would notice the difference just as they would not notice that the irrelevant links to ‘The Dunwich Horror’ have been removed.

Physically, Death in Dunwich is surprisingly well presented. The artwork is okay, but the cartography is clear and simple and there is some semblance towards creating some decent handouts. Many of them though will need to be photocopied and cut out, and there is rather a lot of them, but they do work as a set of handouts and clues. One annoying aspect of the writing is the use of slightly silly names of NPCs which serves to undermine the tone of the scenario. Right the middle of the adventure is a screen of sorts. It is a nice idea, but really all it does is reprint the maps that appear elsewhere in the book. The scenario also comes with some pre-generated investigators, though they will need fleshing out, and an envelope. This contains further information for the Keeper, in fact, the stats and description of the bad guy at the heart of the scenario. Its inclusion feels more like the designers forgot to add these details during the writing of the scenario.

Yet much like The Arkham Evil before, Death in Dunwich is not without its merits. It is of course the first scenario to present Dunwich for Call of Cthulhu. It has some good clues and they do support the mystery at the heart of the scenario. Further, they support what has the potential to be an interesting mystery, but not without a rewrite. 
Reviewing Death in Dunwich in Dragon #91 (November, 1984) in ‘The butler didn’t do it: Mysterious adventures in role-playing’, Ken Rolston made several criticisms of the adventure, most notably, “No summary of the narrative is provided, and no chronology is listed, so it is difficult to get an orderly sense of the whole adventure. The gamemaster must pay close attention when reading the background information, and I often found it necessary to backtrack and scan ahead to make sense of what I was reading.”, but he was surprisingly positive, finishing the review by saying that, “The mystery itself is detailed, challenging, and dramatic. The horror is satisfactorily evil and gruesome in the Cthulhu style, and the setting, background, and characters are effectively detailed.” Similarly, Jon Sutherland, reviewing both The Arkham Evil and Death in Dunwich in Open Box in White Dwarf #48 (December, 1983), described Death in Dunwich as “...a much shorter, ultimately more satisfying adventure; the compactness of the information is useful, as is the Keeper’s screen which is stapled inside the book.” and in comparing it to The Arkham Evil said, “Death in Dunwich can be interesting, frustrating and terminal and consequently is the better of the two.” He gave the scenario an overall score of eight out of ten.

Death in Dunwich was discussed not once, but twice in the pages of The Space Gamer. The first time was in The Space Gamer #71 (Nov/Dec 1984) by William A. Barton, the designer of Cthulhu by Gaslight: Horror Roleplaying in 1890s England. In ‘Whispers of Things Lovecraftian: TOME’s Cthulhu Modules’ Barton provides an overview of the line published to date before reviewing, the fourth release from T.O.M.E., Whispers from the Abyss and Other Tales. As well as highlighting the scenario’s deficits and some of the criticisms made elsewhere of the scenario, Barton’s opinion was that “...[T]he scenario could also be viewed as an interesting change of pace for experienced CoC investigators (similar to a couple in Chaosium’s The Asylum and Cthulhu Companion). With a few changes, it could even prove suitable for use as an occult-oriented scenario for such systems as Mercenaries, Spies & Private Eyes, Daredevils, or Tri-Tac’s Stalking the Night Fantastic.” This was followed up with a capsule review in The Space Gamer #73 (Mar/Apr 1985) by Russ Williams  who pointed out that, “Unfortunately, most of the scenario’s background is hidden from the players, so from the point of view of this adventure, it is wasted space.” In general though, he was more positive than most reviewers of the day, ending with, “I recommend Death in Dunwich for players with  bit of experience and tact who are ready to concentrate on a murder mystery instead of the Cthulhu mythos.”

The scenario was reviewed in Different Worlds #32 (Jan/Feb 1984) by Larry DiTillio—the designer of Masks of Nyarlathotep—no less! He was enthusiastic about the plot, describing it as a “dandy idea”, but of the overall scenario, he wrote, “Summing up, Death in Dunwich leaves a lot to be desired in terms of a Cthulhu scenario.” but that the best thing about it from a Cthulhu standpoint, “...[I]s the detailing of Dunwich itself.” He finished by writing, “...with a little bit of hole-plugging and expansion, the mystery itself might make a good change of pace scenario in a Cthulhu campaign. My recommendation: think it over before buying it and if you do buy it, keep a grain of salt handy for the designer’s suggestions.”

It is difficult to sum Death in Dunwich up as anything more than a failed attempt to both write a mystery and provide the means to investigate it. Obviously, the scenario was released at a time when the concept and art of writing investigative scenarios was relatively new, but Chaosium was also new to the process and it was providing solid investigative scenarios at the time when T.O.M.E. was not. Ultimately Death in Dunwich feels like three parts—the opening mystery, the clues, and the climax—which were designed separately before being brought together to see if they work as a whole. Which of course, they do not—not without a lot of redesign upon the part of the Keeper. To return to the designer’s statement that “This scenario should be run as follows: the Introduction should be intriguing, the Middle Game should be frustrating, and the End Game should be an orgy of violence.” Well, Death in Dunwich is all of those things, but mostly an exercise in frustration.

—oOo—

With thanks to Brandon Blackmoor and Stephen Ward for providing access to Dragon #91 as well as to Darren Happens for access to Different Worlds #32.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

Disappointingly Close To The Near Heavens

The advent of the Open Gaming Licence opens up a world of publishing possibilities for both creatives and other publishers. So it is with the Cepheus Engine System Reference Document from Samardan Press which details the core rules for a Classic Era Science Fiction 2D6-Based Open Gaming System. In other words, it allows the creation of Science Fiction gaming content which is compatible with Traveller, the first big Science Fiction roleplaying game, though not set in the same background as Traveller’s primary setting of the Third Imperium. So for example, Stellagama Publishing has its own setting in These Stars Are Ours! as does Battlefield Press with Warren C. Norwoods Double Spiral War. Stygian Fox Publishing, best known for publishing the highly regarded Things We Leave Behind for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, also has its own setting in the form of ‘The Near Heavens’ of which A Life Worth Living is the first release for.

‘The Near Heavens’ offers “Hard Edged Science Fiction Roleplaying in the Near Heavens Setting of AD2151’. In the twenty-second century humanity has explored and colonised worlds out as far as Groombridge and Sirius, the limits of the authority of the Terran Associative. This is the governmental organisation which has come to regulate life on and off world as nation states shattered in the wake of a limited nuclear war in the twenty-first century. Although there are still nation state holdouts, what has replaced them across most of settled space are polities based around cultures, often fracturing out of their former states in a series of ‘Culture Wars’. These continue to this day, with some ‘Culture Wars’ actually serving as proxy wars for other polities or corporations. Such conflicts, typically low scale, offer employment opportunities for mercenaries. Interstellar travel is achieved via Jump Space, but a Jump takes weeks and requires passengers to travel in cryosleep as only Synths, or Synthetic androids, can withstand the rigours of Jump space. Passengers do not age in cryosleep, so frequent travellers are typically biologically younger than their chronological age. Space travel is not entirely safe and Jump inversion incidents, which occasionally result in the loss of passengers rather than a starship, are a known hazard.

A Life Worth Living is an introduction and scenario for ‘The Near Heavens’. It is a fairly linear affair designed to highlight various aspects of the setting and comes with a set of pre-generated player characters designed to play the scenario. They are Private Security Contractors—or mercenaries—who operate as a special operations cadre known as Black Maul. Currently on Groombridge after completing a contract, they receive messages from Terese de Sainte, an ex-member of the squad. Her messages make reference to the ‘Cabin in the Woods’, an incident on the world of Eden in the Groombridge system in which the squad was attacked by Edenite separatists and had to hold out until it was evacuated. It was a defining moment for the squad and the constant references to this incident suggest that she might be serious trouble.

The trail leads back to Earth and beyond, the mystery revolving around a McGuffin or two, both of which will remain elusive and just out of reach for much of A Life Worth Living. The plot is fairly straightforward and involves a good mix of interaction and combat as well as investigation. Whilst it has some decent moments, it does end on a downbeat note with little in the way of a decent climax. Both it and the ‘Near Heavens’ setting is supported by details of various drones and vehicles, ’Bots and Synthetics, and arms used by both the members of Black Maul and other Private Security Contractors. The description of the Synthetics includes the means to create them as characters—both player characters and NPCs—and it should be noted that one of the members of Black Maul is a Synth.

Although A Life Worth Living is designed to be played using the pre-generated characters provided, it can be played using characters that the players created themselves. They need to be mercenaries, primarily with ground combat related skills, but there are plenty options within that framework. The Game Master will need to work some of the scenario’s background into that of player characters’ background, especially to establish the relationship with Terese de Sainte. One way to do that is to stage the ‘Cabin in the Woods’ scene is as a prologue. This would strengthen the ties between the Terese de Sainte and the rest of Black Maul and so strengthen the motivations of the Black Maul squad members—that is, the player characters—to go to the help of Terese de Sainte at the start of the scenario. One of the players would have to roleplay Terese de Sainte as one of the members of Black Maul does not turn up until the closing moments of ‘Cabin in the Woods’ to rescue them. This would also strengthen the player characters’ ties to Terese de Sainte. Plus, it would work with the pre-generated characters as well as those created by the players.

Physically, A Life Worth Living is beautifully presented. The layout looks clean and the book is liberally illustrated with stunning artwork, the best of which is very well done as contemporary adverts. Unfortunately, A Life Worth Living is far from perfect. As pretty as the layout is—and it is undoubtedly pretty—look closer and it is just a bit rough around the edges. The editing, or lack thereof, is excruciating and leaves the reader wishing that time had been spent on this. It does not help that there are no page numbers and no index. For some gamers, the scenario’s linear plot may be more of an issue, but A Life Worth Living does involve a lot of space travel, going from point A to point B, and it really is an introductory scenario, so arguably, this can be overlooked.

The primary problem with the design of A Life Worth Living is that there is no explanation of the plot. Instead, the plot is explained as it progresses in the book and this is the most awkward means of presenting the plot. A summary of the plot would really have helped the Game Master prepare the scenario.

A Life Worth Living is probably the prettiest and most professional looking book ever released for use with the Cepheus Engine System, let alone for Traveller. Yet that professionalism is not carried off as far as the content is concerned. Although the it is far from unplayable, A Life Worth Living needs another edit and it needs just a little further development. 

Monday, 15 January 2018

Miskatonic Monday #3: Terror Itself

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise ofthe DeadRise ofthe Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.

—oOo—


NameTerror Itself

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
AuthorJames Coquillat & David Naylor
Illsutrations: Alex Low, David Naylor, & Leon Fechner

SettingMassachusetts, 1920s, Miskatonic University, Lovecraft Country
Product: Scenario
What You Get2.2 MB, 24-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: Archaeology meets things under the bed all against the clock

Plot Hook: A lonely strangeness comes to an isolated Massachusetts village after the Investigators begin an archaeological dig on an Indian burial ground.
Plot DevelopmentInteresting archaeology and missing animals. Are strangers—the investigators?—responsible or is something else haunting the town?
Plot SupportFully plotted out with eight NPCs, scenes and events, timeline, and archaeological investigation. Plus six pre-generated investigators.
Production ValuesNeeds an edit. The map could be clearer. No area map.

Pros

Archaeological dig used as a means of investigation
Good mix of main NPCs
# Good addition to an archaeology-based campaign
Good addition to a Miskatonic University-based campaign
# Good mix of timed and freeform events
# Possible link to Innsmouth (in name only)
# Makes great use of shadows
Easy to adapt to Cthulhu by Gaslight or Cthulhu Now 

Cons

Minor NPCs left undeveloped
No village or area map
Sanity losses and gains too low in places
Needs a careful read through
# Odd mix of pre-generated investigators
# Title feels like a placeholder

Conclusion

# Excellent use of Archaeological excavation as investigation
Short, two session scenario
Creepy and underplayed plot
# Solid addition to a Lovecraft Country campaign
Uninteresting title
# Pleasingly unnerving in places

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Under Swords & Wizardry's Light

When it comes to the Old School Renaissance, the gamer has plenty of retroclones to choose from, depending upon his preferred version of Dungeons & Dragons. Of course, if you really wanted to play in the Old School style, then what you want is a retroclone which draws from Original Dungeons & Dragons and for that there is no finer starting point than Swords & Wizardry. Originally published in 2008, Swords & Wizardry has proved to be a popular choice of retroclone and despite  being a fantasy roleplaying game, it has actually formed the basis of some Science Fiction roleplaying games, in particular White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying  from Barrel Rider Games and its Pulp Sci-Fi offshoot, Dare the Stars! The Future as it Once Was from Wild Boar Games, LLC. In the decade since, Swords & Wizardry has appeared in various versions, most notably Swords & Wizardry - Complete Rulebook and Swords & Wizardry Light. As its title suggests, the former contains everything you need to play and more, but the latter is a free-to-download and play version that covers the four core Classes of Dungeons & Dragons and First to Third Levels of play. Between the two and released in late 2017, is the latest iteration of the roleplaying game, Swords & Wizardry Continual Light.

The opening sentence of the introduction to Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is as follows: “You remember, don’t you? The sounds of battle heard through the clatter of dice? The shuffling of character sheets? The war stories shared with fellow campaigners?” This perfectly explains what Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is designed as. This is both as an introductory roleplaying game and not as an introductory roleplaying game. It is an introductory roleplaying game for gamers who have roleplayed before, either returning to the hobby after a while away and wanting to play a fantasy roleplaying game a la Dungeons & Dragons once again or wanting to try an Old School Renaissance retroclone after playing other roleplaying games. It is not an introductory roleplaying game in that its rules are radically streamlined for ease of play rather than ease of learning, so there is no explanation of what roleplaying is or how the game is played.

Characters in Swords & Wizardry Continual Light have the usual attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. A bonus of +1 is awarded if one of the attributes is fifteen or more, which has various effects depending upon the attribute. So yes, the +1 bonus for Strength applies to a Fighter’s attack and damage rolls, but for a Magic-User, a +1 bonus for Intelligence acts as a penalty to anyone who has to save against his spells, whilst for Charisma, it also grants an NPC, a Torchbearer, who will join the adventurer on his explorations and expeditions. There are four Races—Dwarf, Elf, Halfling, and Human, and four Classes—Fighter, Cleric, Magic-User, and Thief. The three non-Human Races provide various bonuses, but are limited in their choice of available Classes. The Classes work as well as you would expect, granting Class abilities, a Saving Throw, a Base Hit Bonus, and a Hit Dice, but there are differences.

So a Fighter is good at fighting, a Cleric can cast holy spells and turn undead, and so on. All Classes presented in Swords & Wizardry Continual Light are given a choice of Gear Sets in terms of weapons and armour, whilst all characters get to pick from a choice of Adventuring Packs which provides their starting equipment. The first difference though, is the fact that every character’s Hit Points are rolled on a six-sided die per Level rather than on different polyhedral dice per Class as in other Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying games. Similarly, the damage rolls for various weapons are rolled on six-sided dice rather than on polyhedral dice. The second difference is that each character only has the single Saving Throw, which of course, improves as the character acquires Levels. The rate of improvement varies between Classes. The other difference pertains to the Thief Class, which like every other treatment of the Class, has various burglary-related skills. These are rated between one and six, rather than on a percentile scale as in other Dungeons & Dragons type roleplaying games.

To create a character, a player rolls three six-sided for each attribute and keeps the results. He selects a Race, a Class, spells if the Class allows spells to be cast, and then a Gear Set and a Adventuring Pack. The most time consuming part of this process is actually writing it all down, but the information is slight enough that it could be noted down on an index card.

Elidyr Virzana, Elf, Level 1 Magic-User
Str: 12 Int: 16 (+1) Wis: 07
Con: 11 Dex: 13 Chr: 15 (+1)
Hit Points: 3 Save: 15 (+4 Saves vs. Magic)
Armour Class: 10 Ascending Armour Class: 10
+1 to-hit vs. goblins, orcs, and undead; immune to paralysis; +2 save vs. magic; +1 to Hide in Shadows & Move Silently
Spellbook: Sleep, Detect Magic
Gear: Staff (1d6), Daggers (2) (1d6-1), Adventuring Pack
Torchbearer: Norbert Smith (HD 1-1, AC 9 (10), HP 5)

Perhaps the biggest difference in Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is how experience and the acquisition of Levels is handled. It foregoes Experience Points and simply awards a character a new Level after he has played through a set number of adventures. This is two to go from First to Second Level, then five to go from Third to Fourth Level, and so on all the way up to Seventh Level, the maximum Level possible in Swords & Wizardry Continual Light. This is pleasingly simple and it nicely supports a couple of options also given. These include eight optional Classes—Bards, Assassins, Druids, Monks, Necromancers, Paladins, Rangers, and Swashbucklers—which are variants of the four core Classes. All eight are quite powerful in comparison to those four core Classes, so Swords & Wizardry Continual Light balances this in a simple way. The character of an optional Class has to complete an extra adventure to acquire a new Level in comparison to the four core Classes, so three instead of two to go from First to Second Level. Further, the rules provide an option for playing beyond Seventh Level, allowing players to purchase Perks like an extra Hit Point, an additional spell slot, or a reduction a character’s Saving Throw, using credits they accrue for completing adventures. One last option gives rules for balancing playing a Human character rather than a character of another Race and allowing a Cleric to have spells at First Level.

In the main, the rest of the book consists of a series of short sections. So equipment, spells—four or five spells for each Level up to Third Level for the Cleic and the Magic-User Classes, combat and running the game, and treasure are covered in just a couple of pages each. This is done by stripping the content back to its bare essentials, so that spell and treasure descriptions and effects are expressed on no more than a couple of lines. Monster details and descriptions understandably need a little more space, but not much, but the sheer number of them means that almost five pages are devoted to them. Again, their details are stripped down, but the combination of stats and description rarely amounts to more than four lines.

Rounding out Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is a glossary and a guide to converting  Swords & Wizardry Complete to Swords & Wizardry Continual Light. All this runs to just twenty pages, including the Open Gaming Licence. Which begs the question, what is missing? Obviously, there is no introduction to roleplaying, no example of character generation, no example of play, and so on, but then arguably Swords & Wizardry Continual Light does not need them because it is not aimed at an audience which needs that sort of introductory content. What Swords & Wizardry Continual Light very much lacks is an adventure. Without that, it feels like a complete set of mechanics, but not a complete package and an adventure would have rounded the Swords & Wizardry Continual Light out. It is not even as there is not space available—there are a few more blank pages which could have been filled with an adventure.

Physically, Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is a bit hit and miss. The layout is at best serviceable and readable, but that is in the main due to the stripped down nature of the text, organised as it is into almost bullet points. One issue is that the character sheet is plain ugly and artless. Another is with the art. The book’s cover is great, but it does not match the internal illustrations, especially in terms of tone. It is great and it is heroic, but the internal illustrations depict down at heel, desperate adventurers all but muddling through in grim, dangerous situations. Some of the artwork quality is poor, but the worst problem is that its size varies too much and impinges upon the layout. This really needed to be more consistently handled. Lastly, it feels as if it should be presented as an A5, digest-sized book rather than the A4 size it is.

Bar the adventure, there is no denying that Swords & Wizardry Continual Light gives you everything necessary to play and presents it in as to the point and as accessible a fashion as possible. As a printed booklet though, it feels  a little more expensive than other games of its ilk, especially given the lack of adventure. That said, the PDF version of Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is inexpensive and the available adventures are just as inexpensive, so that the Dungeon Master can get playing quickly and easily without being too heavy on the wallet. It also feels like it should be in a box with dice and adventures and character sheets, essentially a ‘White Box’ version of Swords & Wizardry Continual Light.

Published by Triumvirate Tavern PublishingSwords & Wizardry Continual Light is overall, an impressively simple and straightforward retroclone. It may not do anything particularly original, but what it does, it does to the point and it does in a pleasingly familiar fashion. Swords & Wizardry Continual Light is stripped down, sparse Dungeons & Dragon-style gaming, perfect for making the switch to the Old School Renaissance or coming back to the hobby.