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

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.

Thursday, 11 January 2018

The Ninth Doctor

With The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook, Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s celebration of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary for the Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game leaps onto more recent and familiar ground with an examination of the first Doctor to appear in the ‘Nu Who’ era. Brushing all but the basics aside of what had come before it, the Ninth Doctor reset just about everything to have unencumbered adventures with a new Companion, all new monsters—only one old monster would return in the first season of ‘Nu Who’, and hugely improved funding at Saturday teatime where he belonged. Of course, neither the Doctor nor his Companions were wholly unencumbered—as we shall see—but the success of the first season of ‘Nu Who’ would lay the foundation for the worldwide phenomenon that Doctor Who would become in the twenty-first century and ensure that the BBC had faith in the programme once again. The shortness of the Ninth Doctor’s incarnation though, does have its repercussions and its parallels for The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook.

“Change, my dear. And it seems not a moment too soon.” If the quote from the start of the Sixth Doctor’s era is appropriate for a review of The Sixth Doctor Sourcebook, then it is never more appropriate for the Ninth Doctor and The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook. For it is actually surprising to realise that the Sixth Doctor and the Ninth Doctor have certain aspects in common. Both had more or less the same number of stories—eleven in the case of the Sixth Doctor, ten in the case of the Ninth Doctor. Both were brash and no-nonsense characters, both in counter to their previous incarnations, but where the Sixth Doctor was assured bluster, the Ninth Doctor hid regrets and grief. Both also introduced a longer format for their stories—forty-five minutes rather than the traditional twenty-five minutes. Both stories of the Sixth Doctor and the Ninth Doctor included seasons with overarching plotlines, the Sixth Doctor with ‘Trial of a Time Lord’ and the Ninth Doctor’s only season.

Of course, the big difference was that the Ninth Doctor introduced ‘Nu-Who’, reviving the series after almost a decade away from the screen, and that only after Doctor Who: The Movie, the primary outing for the Eighth Doctor, as detailed in The Eighth Doctor Sourcebook. It brought in production values that the BBC had never applied to Science Fiction, it told more personal stories, and engaged more with the lives of the protagonists, especially the Companion, Rose Tyler, along with her family. Although perhaps not as successful worldwide as the seasons that were to come for the Tenth Doctor, it proved to be popular and laid the groundwork for the more than a decade’s worth of seasons that have followed.

Despite the change in format and style of the television, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook follows the same format of the previous eight entries in the series. It can be divided into three chapters—‘The Ninth Doctor and Companions’, ‘Playing in the Ninth Doctor’s Era’, and ‘The Ninth Doctor’s Adventures’. The first chapter looks at who the Ninth Doctor is, who his Companions (and almost-Companions are) are, and their characters as well as providing a character sheet for each. The second examines the various and elements of the Ninth Doctor’s era, whist the third details each of the Ninth Doctor’s adventures and extrapolates games ideas and content from them in turn. All of which is presented as essentially the after effects of the Last Great Time War between the Daleks and the Time Lords which ended in mutual destruction of both races at the Doctor’s hand. As much as the Time War casts a pall over both the Ninth Doctor and his stories, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook comes at those stories and his character with no little hindsight. Now the details of the Last Great Time War would not be revealed until 2013 and the fiftieth anniversary special ‘The Day of the Doctor’, but where the previous sourcebooks merely touched upon the subject of the Time War to one degree or another, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook more fully explores its ramifications.

What is significant about the Ninth Doctor is how much character development he undergoes during his season. Mostly obviously he begins uptight, gruff, and grief-stricken, but as the season progresses, he relaxes, learns to trust again, and become what the Doctor was before he took the drastic actions he did at the end of the Last Great Time War. Much of this will come about because of his time with Rose, who in ‘The Ninth Doctor and Companions’ is detailed as the Doctor’s main Companion through the season. She is joined by the ex-Time Agent and con-artist, Captain Jack Harkness, really his first appearance in Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game and perfect for anyone wanting to run a game based on Torchwood. Essentially Rose Tyler and Captain Jack Harkness are the Ninth Doctor’s only Companions, anyone else is more a member of the supporting cast. To that end, three other characters are included in the chapter, two as ‘almost-Companions’ and one as a ‘not-Companion’. Rose’s mother, Jacky, and Rose’s ex-boyfriend, Mickey, are the almost-Companions, characters who revolve around the Doctor—or at least the effect he has on Rose, but do not accompany him on his adventures. Parallels here can be drawn between the Third Doctor and various members of UNIT who join him in his rare excusions in the TARDIS. The ‘not-Companion’ is of course, Adam Mitchell, the young genius who worked for Van Statten in the episode, ‘Dalek’, and who Rose persuaded the Doctor to join them aboard the TARDIS, and whose greed would quickly find him ejected again. Adam provides a counterpoint to Rose, showing how she is suited to travel with Doctor, whereas he is not.

Just as a reset lies at the heart of the Ninth Doctor’s return, so it forms a central theme in ‘Playing in the Ninth Doctor’s Era’. It suggests that playing a campaign similar to that of the Ninth Doctor’s season, is much like returning to a roleplaying campaign after a break with all new characters. It also allows players familiar with the setting to also come at it anew and the Game Master to present old threats and familiar situations in new and different ways. In other words, to keep it fresh. The other issue with the era is its short and personal nature and the chapter examines how it can be used as a framework for a similar, but short campaign (or season). To back that up, it gives three campaign ideas that a Game Master could develop, each drawn from elements present in both the series and the sourcebook, but without the Doctor.

The third and final chapter, ‘The Ninth Doctor’s Adventures’, is also the longest—some three quarters of the book. It details all of ten of the Ninth Doctor’s adventures, but with so few to deal with, the danger with The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook is that its story write-ups would suffer from being too long and too detailed. To an extent, with a paucity of stories to write up, this is unavoidable. Fortunately, the story recaps over not overwritten, so lack the flaccidity of The Fifth Doctor Sourcebook. So it is pleasure to read up on some personal favourites, such as ‘The Unquiet Dead’, ‘Dalek’, and ‘The Empty Child/The Doctor Dances’, and see what the sourcebook does with them. All ten are supported by good write-ups of the various NPCs who appeared onscreen. So there are write-ups of Lady Cassandra O’Brien Dot Delta Seventeen, the Face of Boe, and the Trees of the Forest of Cheem from ‘The End of the World’; Charles Dickens from ‘The Unquiet Dead’; Harriet Jones, MP Flydale North from ‘Aliens of London/World War Three’; and Pete Tyler—father of Rose, from ‘Father’s Day’. There is some repetition between the monsters and NPCs given here and those found in the Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game core rules, but given the amount of crossover material between the two, this could hardly be avoided.

If there is an issue with the write-ups, it is that they are each followed by lengthy continuity lists which seem more a little superfluous. Their inclusion is more than made up for by the ‘Running the Adventure’ sections. Each explores how each story can run as seen on screen or changed make it feel different or fresh, if as seems likely, the players have seen the episodes. Notably, they include advice listed under ‘Changing the Desktop Theme’—a reference to the changed look of the TARDIS interior after some thirty or so years on how to reskin the story with another threat or enemy, and so on. So ‘The End of the World’ is reexamined as a cosy murder mystery, how to use a different alien in ‘Dalek’ trying to escape (or even trying to get in), and so on. This is all backed up by exploration of the ideas and questions raised by each episode. Again these are well done, if a little too long in places, but each story write-up is rounded by a selection of further adventure ideas so that the Game Master can run sequels to the adventures, if not the adventures themselves.

Physically, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook is as well presented as the rest of the line and is profusely illustrated with photographs from the series. In truth there have been better sourcebooks in this line, but there have been worse also, and to be fair, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook is good entry in the series. It is perhaps a little overlong in places, but a high page count and limited source material will lend themselves to that effect. Nevertheless, The Ninth Doctor Sourcebook provides a good gaming examination of the Ninth Doctor’s stories and their themes, explores some interesting questions, and provides a solid start to the series’ coverage of ‘Nu Who’.

Sunday, 7 January 2018

Miskatonic Monday #2: Isle of Madness

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—

NameIsle of Madness

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Ed Possing
Cartography: Ed Possing

SettingDesperate Decade, 1930s (1950s), Pulp Cthulhu
Product: Scenario
What You Get0.996 MB, 16-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch
The Tempest meets The Island of Doctor Moreau in the Bermuda Triangle with not-Deep Ones

Plot HookThe heroes are shipwrecked off a secret island in the North Atlantic and get caught up in a Mad Scientist’s plans for revenge on his batrachian brothers.
Plot DevelopmentFriendly not-Deep Ones, a big tank of water in the Mad Scientist’s lair, evil plans, and sharks. Plus a giant robot! In a volcano!!
Plot SupportFully plotted out with eight NPCs, scenes and events, and a map of the island.
Production ValuesNeeds another edit and no artwork. The map is scrappy.

Pros

Straightforward plot
Very little investigation
Easily shifted to the 1950s
Easy to drop into a Pulp Cthulhu campaign, especially The Two-Headed Serpent
# Works as a short scenario or a sidetrek

Cons

Highly action orientated
Straightforward plot
Sanity losses too high in places
Very little investigation
Where’s the Mad Scientist’s monologue?

Conclusion

# A ‘B’ Movie writ large
Solid, though not original, plot
A big fat punch up from start to finish
Easy to run
Playable in a session
Still want that Mad Scientist’s monologue, dammit!

The Horrors of Harlem

In Lovecraftian investigative horror and in Call of Cthulhu horror, the role of Race has always posed a contentious issue, even a taboo issue. This is because the source upon which the roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu and its like, draws, that is, the fiction of author H.P. Lovecraft—or at least some of the fiction—espouses his racist and bigoted points of view. Or at least some of his fiction does, most notably his short story, ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. Now it is true that racism and bigotry were prevalent in society throughout Lovecraft’s life, but this does not excuse the esteem in which Lovecraft held white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant men above all other races. The contentious nature of this issue means that Call of Cthulhu has never addressed it directly in its almost forty-year history. Now there are scenarios where it raises its ugly head, most notably ‘Deadman’s Stomp’ which appeared in the Call of Cthulhu, Fifth Edition and Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition rulebooks and ‘The Plantation’ from Mansions of Madness, but even these shy away from dealing with the issue because it is an unpleasant one and it is not something that many gamers want to have to face in their roleplaying.

Nor is Call of Cthulhu alone in this attitude as far as roleplaying is concerned, the 2007 game, Steal Away Jordan: Stories from America’s Peculiar Institution, from Stone Baby Games being a rare exception. In more recent times, authors have moved to explore the Mythos from a Black perspective, most notably in Matt Ruff’s Lovecraft Country and Victor LaValle’s The Ballard of Black Tom, the latter a counterpoint to Lovecraft’s ‘The Horror at Red Hook’. In late 2017 though, Darker Hue Studios published a supplement and campaign setting in which Call of Cthulhu can be played from a Black perspective. This does mean that to one degree or another, racism is part of the supplement, but what Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games does is make it part of the setting as it focuses upon the energy and exuberance of the Harlem Renaissance.

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Harlem Unbound is not just about a specific place, but also about a specific period. The setting is the northern section of the borough of Manhattan which in the early years of the twentieth century became a ‘Black Mecca’ for a wave of mass immigration from the Southern United States and the Caribbean. This mass immigration would lead to the specific period, roughly between the Great War and the Great Depression, a flowering of Black arts, culture, politics, and society, known as the Harlem Renaissance. Not for nothing were the 1920s known as the Jazz Age and if the Jazz Age had an epicentre, it was Harlem and the Cotton Club, but other music, poetry and literature, stage performance and art also flowered in the neighbourhood throughout the period. The mass immigration would also lead to overcrowding in the tenements and brownstones of Harlem. This was encouraged because White landlords raised the rents on the properties owned in Harlem and having more people living in an apartment made the rent easier to pay. Nor did the mass immigration and growth in the Black population in Harlem lessen the effects of racism or segregation, mostly obviously in the fact that whilst the Cotton Club was famed for its performances by Black artists, its audiences were White. This highlights how Harlem also became a cultural mecca for the dilettante, the demi-monde, the rich, the famous, and the criminal from outside of the neighbourhood, attracted as they were by its raciness and licentiousness. The resulting melting pot led to tensions between the various Races and cultures. In addition to Racism which was rife throughout the period and setting, there was tension between the Blacks who had moved to Harlem as part of the Great Migration and the last remnants of the Whites they forced out—often immigrants themselves. There were tensions with the Whites who were coming into Harlem, whether to partake of the nightlife and the culture, to criminally exploit, and so on.

This then, is the setting for Harlem Unbound, a supplement written by the creator of Langston Wright, the Black demobbed G.I. from Pelgrane Press’ Cthulhu Confidential. Written for use with Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition and Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu, it can be seen as companion supplement to a trilogy of supplements—Secrets of New York published by Chaosium, Inc., Arkham Detective Tales from Pelgrane Press, and Tales of the Sleepless City from the much lamented Miskatonic River Press, as well as any number of scenarios set in New York published over the years. Yet whilst any of those could be used or run in conjunction with Harlem Unbound, the supplement asks one thing of both the Keeper and his players. It asks the Keeper to depict and roleplay NPCs who are Black and to depict and roleplay NPCs who are racist, whilst asking the players to depict and roleplay investigators who are Black. Now this is a challenge for the average Keeper and player alike for neither is Black and neither has the experience of being subject to racism. Handling both can be seen as just a roleplaying challenge, but it should be seen as a delicate roleplaying challenge at the very least, lest a line be crossed, inadvertently or not.

To help player and Keeper address this challenge, Harlem Unbound provides four things. The first is advice on portraying Black characters, whether NPCs or investigators, and this can be boiled down to a checklist of things to avoid—Black accents, the N-word, and stereotypes. The author elaborates upon this of course, but these are the basics for everyone to keep in mind. The second is advice is on how a White Keeper should approach a Black player and broach the subject of how he plans to run the game, handle different situations, and so on, essentially to set boundaries and to determine what the player is comfortable with in terms of the setting and its inherent social issues. Although written specifically with Harlem Unbound in mind, it is good advice that applies well beyond the boundaries of Harlem—geographically and historically. This is supported by short and to the point descriptions of the Jim Crow Laws, what it means to be Black in America, and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan.

Third, to represent the hotbed of tension and mistrust that Harlem is throughout the period gives a Racial Tension Modifier to apply all Social rolls made between different cultures. This is a simple matter of increasing the difficulty of the roll or even applying a Penalty die—if for Call of Cthulhu—or increasing the point spend by one, if for Trail of Cthulhu. Fourth and last, it suggests setting a three-tiered system of ‘reality’ consisting of ‘The Passing Player’, ‘The Harlemites Player’, and ‘The Purist Player’. The first of these is for the player who wants to visit the Harlem of the period, but not be confronted by the social issues rife in the neighbourhood; the second is for the player who is prepared to roleplay being subject to the Racism and social issues of the setting to a degree and mechanically be subjected to the Racial Tension Modifier; and the third is for the player who prepared to be subjected to the Racial Tension Modifier and every aspect of the Racism and social issues of the setting. Again, each of these tiers is accompanied by staging advice and notes to help the Keeper apply them to his game. And again, it can be taken and applied to periods and settings outside of Harlem. If there is an issue with the mechanics and advice, it is that they are buried deep in the supplement and not readily to hand for easy reference. Which is only exacerbated by the lack of an index.

The supplement itself opens with ‘Song of Harlem’, a history of the neighbourhood from well before the first White settlers until the start of the period upon which Harlem Unbound focuses, starting in 1919. The rest of book focuses the subsequent decade or so… This is followed by ‘Harlem Herself’, a description of the neighbourhood and its important locations throughout the period. These are relatively short sections, but no less informative. ‘Harlemites’ presents the means to create investigators for Harlem for use with both Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu. This includes eight new Occupations—Hornman (Musician), Hellfighter (Military), Dockworker (Everymen), Painter (Artist), Rabbi (Clergy), Patron (Socialite), Conjure Woman (Occult/Researcher), and Writer (Author). Most of these will be obvious in what they are, but two deserve further explanation. One is the Hellfighter, a Black soldier who served with the US Army in the Great War, but whose unit was assigned to fight in the French Army, and whose return home has not been readily accepted by White society. The other is the Conjure Woman, part-mystic, part-detective to whom the community comes for her magic and her insight. Of course, the Conjure Woman is not wholly new, a version having previously appeared in Secrets of New York as the Conjure Man. Overall, this is an interesting selection, but it would have been useful if a list of Occupations had been included suggesting those which would be useful for running a Harlem Unbound campaign.

Harlem Unbound also includes the OGL Gumshoe rules, including creating and handling clues, scenarios, and stories. What this means is that Harlem Unbound could be run without immediate reference to Trail of Cthulhu, though in the long term, the Keeper will need to refer to those rules, at least for more information on the Mythos. The Keeper wanting to run Harlem Unbound using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition will still need to refer to the Keeper Rulebook at the very least. Most of the supplement though, is written with both systems in mind. This includes new additions to the Mythos, such as the Baron in Blues, an avatar of Azathoth; the Golem, based on Jewish legend and perhaps to be found in the Jewish community on the periphery of Harlem; and the Soucouyant, a shapeshifting vampiric witch, the Duppy, a malevolent spirit, and the Zonbi, living undead slaves, all from the Caribbean. Further support comes in the form of several scenario hooks worked out to varying degrees—these in addition to those peppered throughout the book, and various members of the supporting cast. These are a mix of simple descriptions and fully statted and several of their descriptions serve as scenario hooks also.

Rounding out the volume is a series of bibliographies of the great, the good, and the bad of Harlem. This includes literature and musical artists as well as politicians and criminals. A full timeline is included as is a section on Harlemite slang and various organisations.

Regions beyond Harlem are not ignored in Harlem Unbound. Links are made between Harlem and Lovecraft Country as potential points of origins for both NPCs and investigators. One link is made to Ross’s Corners, but others are made—primarily through the book’s set of supporting cast—to a pair of towns new to the setting. One is Attucks, a slave sanctuary town populated by all Blacks, the other is Harbormill, an industrious place fallen on hard times due to its proximity to Innsmouth. None of the quintet of scenarios is set in any of these towns, but perhaps the author could be persuaded to take the Harlemites of Harlem Unbound on the road to New England?

Harlem Unbound includes four scenarios. They are written to be played using Black investigators and although they could be played by White investigators, that would be to undermine the author’s intent. The quartet introduces the investigators to Harlem and draws them into Harlem society over the course of a decade. It opens with ‘Harlem Hellfighters Never Die’ which deals with revenge from beyond the grave on the Western Front that reaches onto the streets of Harlem. It nicely gets the investigators involved in Harlemite society and culture before exposing to racism in Harlem and racism brought to Harlem. Given the physical nature of the investigation and the military links in this scenario, it should be no surprise that ‘Harlem Hellfighters Never Die’ best suits investigators with a military background or who served in the Great War. (In fact, there are a number of scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu, particularly in Dulce et Decorum Est: Great War Trail of Cthulhu that would work as preludes for the investigators in Harlem Unbound.) This is a solid introduction to Harlem, nicely opening with a local event before plunging the investigators into the horrors that the Hellfighters brought back with them. Where ‘Harlem Hellfighters Never Die’ is a quite uncomplicated affair, the second scenario, ‘Harlem (K)Nights’ is more complex and more of a location-based scenario as the investigators have to work out what is being summoning, who is summoning it, and where they are summoning it. Set against the backdrop of the recently imposed Prohibition and involving gang warfare, this is not as well written a scenario as the other three and it also suffers from a weak introduction. The Keeper will need to give this one a closer read to gain a full understanding of what is going on. The scenario also suffers from a lack of maps.

As the title suggests, ‘The Contender: A Love Story’ involves boxing. The investigators are hired by Jack Johnson, former heavyweight champion of the world. One of the boxers in his stable is due to fight Stefano Rossi. This pairing should never have happened, for Rossi is nothing but a washed-up fighter nearing the end of his career with a reputation for throwing fights. He seems to have found his edge again, severe enough that he recently killed another boxer in the ring and Johnson does not want that happening to his boy. Can the investigators find out what is giving Rossi his edge? The investigation involves plenty of roleplaying, in particular with some really creepy characters and ultimately, like any good boxing story, it will turn into a tragedy. The scenario is also something of a cliché—and the parallels between it and ‘The Hopeful’ from More Adventures in Arkham Country are quite strong, but the tragedy overcomes that and makes ‘The Contender: A Love Story’ the strongest scenario in the book.

If the third scenario takes the investigators into the world of boxing in Harlem, ‘Dreams and Broken Wings’ takes them into the world of the neighbourhood’s literati. An artist has been seen for days and his sister fears that he may have committed suicide following the recent death of his wife in a shooting. Although the investigation will probably stray into the criminal interests of those organisations preying on Harlem, this scenario has a feeling of the weird to it. Again, much like the previous scenario, ‘Dreams and Broken Wings’ is a tragic affair and is all the better for it.

Physically, Harlem Unbound is sturdy hardback done in a two-tone, red, black, and white throughout. Behind its strikingly brash cover, the book is well laid out, with a judicious use of the red to mark titles and highlight particular blocks of text—notably details for use with Trail of Cthulhu rather than Call of Cthulhu. Yet the book is not perfect. The map of Harlem is too small and too difficult to find easily in the book. It is a pity that it could not have been reproduced larger inside the front and back covers. Similarly, it would have been nice to have had the map reproduced in each scenario and marked with the locations particular to that scenario. Another issue for some might be that the artwork is too bold and brash, especially in comparison to the delicate thumbnail portraits done for the biographies of the members of the African-American community who were part of the Harlem renaissance. These are rather nice pieces and it is a pity that none of the NPCs in the various scenarios are afforded the same treatment, especially since the descriptions of their appearance is often underwhelming. Certainly, the book could have done with an index—an inexcusable omission in the twenty-first century—and another edit would not have gone amiss. That said, as a first book and an ambitious book at that, Harlem Unbound is physically impressive.

Harlem Unbound is the supplement that Call of Cthulhu has always needed and was always afraid to have, but the arrival of the supplement begs the question of why have we had to wait for it for so long? The likely answers to that question are that there were not the authors with the interest or knowledge to do the subject and its difficulties the justice they deserved. Further, for anyone other than a Black author to write about the issue of racism in the roleplaying game would have been as contentious an issue as racism itself. Yet in writing about the issue, the author of Harlem Unbound has not made it the point of the supplement, but rather framed it in a period and setting that for Black culture and society was a positive time. The resulting book has been worth the wait though, including as it does good background and good advice—above all, good advice—as well as the four scenarios. It feels like a first book though, being rough around the edges and not quite as polished as it could be.

Ultimately, as good a guide to the Black Mecca as Harlem Unbound is, its subject matter means that it is not going to be liked or played by everyone. Which is a pity because Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games is the definitive guide to playing in a time when the investigators have to face mundane horror on a daily basis as well as confront the horror of the Mythos.

Saturday, 6 January 2018

Dungeons & Dragons & Deep Ones

The Mystery at Port Greely is an adventure for Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea, the Old School Renaissance emulation of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons that mixes ‘Swords, Sorcery, and Weird Fantasy’ published by North Wind Adventures. It is designed for four to six players of between Fourth Level and Sixth Level. Set in the game’s default world of Hyperborea, concerns the fate of a group of emissaries sent by the Fishmonger’s Guild in City-State of Khromarium to the vassal town of Port Greely. The Greely lobstermen have grown increasingly isolated and recalcitrant over the past three years, but they still paid their taxes, so this was never an issue for the City-State of Khromarium. Yet those emissaries have been missing for two weeks and the good guildsmen of the Fishmonger’s Guild are concerned and want answers. Thus they hire the player characters to sail to Port Greely, even providing passage, to search the coastal town for their emissaries and establish their former good relationship with the Port Greely lobstermen.

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, is not so much Lovecraftian influenced scenario for a Dungeons & Dragons-style retroclone, but rather a scenario directly based on the H.P. Lovecraft short story, ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ for use with Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea and retroclones. Its influences are not so much worn on its sleeve as seep out from between every webbed finger or two, ooze from under every thick fold of skin around the neck, and gurgle out of every frog-like throat through newly acquired gills. This is a tale of monsters and miscegenation in a wretched hatchery of croaking horror  and batrachian blight.

So the player characters sail to Port Greely and find it a run down, mouldering town. What few inhabitants there on the streets are jaundiced, misshapen, lumpy figures with bulging throats and eyes, and rough, almost scaly skin, termed ‘townies’ in the scenario. They avoid the interloping adventurers and what little can be learned from them amounts to a distrust of men from decadent Khromarium and any further information can be learned from Merlokk, the town’s high priest and de facto leader. Much like the short story it is based upon, to learn anything more of The Mystery of Port Greely, the player characters must speak to the town drunk, Zephæstus. This may or not come after the player characters have been chased through the port and captured by townies who have slunk out of their homes to apprehend them. Clues as to what is going may be found in Port Greely’s most prominent landmark, the Fane of the Esoteric Order of Mother Hydra, but Zephæstus will point the player characters to the four islands of the Greely Shoals as the best place to get answers… Here lies the terrible Temple of the Deep Dwellers, home to the batrachian monsters who have their scaly claws on the future of Port Greely and also the climax to the scenario.

In actuality, what The Mystery of Port Greely is not, is a scenario of Lovecraftian investigative horror, nor is it particularly Lovecraftian. This is primarily because of what Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea emulates—Advanced Dungeons & Dragons—and those rules predated the introduction of a Sanity mechanic. So there is no deleterious mental effect to seeing any of the monsters in The Mystery of Port Greely, just as indeed, there is no deleterious mental effect to seeing and fighting any of the monsters in Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. So whilst The Mystery of Port Greely has the trappings and themes of a Lovecraftian scenario—a viscous quality to a lot of the location descriptions, a sense of helplessness and hopelessness (at least in some of the NPCs if not the player characters), and miscegenation, but this has to be contrasted with the pulp fantasy, swords and sorcery setting of Astonishing Swordsmen & Sorcerers of Hyperborea with its lusty blood and carnage, civilisation against barbarism, and so on. After all, what the player characters will be doing is bringing the civilisation of the City-State of Khromarium to Port Greely and putting its barbarous and degenerate inhabitants to the sword and the spell.

Physically, The Mystery of Port Greely is well presented and in general well written. The artwork is absolutely fantastic, both in terms of its horror and fantasy, in particular, Peter Mullen’s pieces evoking the art style of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. The cartography is also good. This is not to say that the book is perfect. The region map of the area around Port Greely is really too large for the information it imparts, some of the descriptions and their mapped areas do not quite match, and there are parts of the scenario which could have been more developed. In particular, there is no description of Port Greely for the Game Master to read as the player characters sail into the harbour and beyond the Fane of the Esoteric Order of Mother Hydra and the town’s tavern, The Yawning Gourd, there are no other locations detailed in Port Greely. Without the latter, this leaves the players and their characters with relatively little to do in the scenario but follow the fairly simple plot. It would certainly have been good for the scenario to have included a few more locations, both for the player characters to visit as part of their investigations and to hide whilst the townies are chasing them down...

One issue with the plot of The Mystery of Port Greely is that the player characters are drugged whilst in the town. This really has no major effect upon the plot. Rather it serves to get the player characters to Zephæstus in one fashion or another, and there have their fears confirmed. It also sets up the major roleplaying scene in a scenario which is fairly light on interaction.

Deep Ones—or Deep One-like creatures—have existed in Dungeons & Dragons for a very long time, whether it as the Sahuagin of U3 The Final Enemy or the Kua-Toa of D2 Shrine of the Kuo-Toa and D3 Vault of the Drow. In The Mystery at Port Greely, they are more obviously Deep Ones rather than just another evil amphibious species, for the scenario draws very obviously from ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ for its inspiration. It does not ignore the fact that it is a Dungeons & Dragons-style adventure though and the origins of the threat faced in The Mystery of Port Greely is taken from Dungeons & Dragons, even if it is tinged by the Mythos. If the reliance on ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’ means that the plot of The Mystery of Port Greely is perhaps just a little simplistic, the adventure more than makes up for it with great art and great descriptions that impart the degeneration at its heart.

Monday, 1 January 2018

Miskatonic Monday #1: Shortcut of Supernaturalism: Jasper St. Jones Got The Prettiest Bones

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 Invictus, The Pastores, Primal State, Ripples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in Egypt, Return of the Ripper, Rise ofthe Dead, Rise 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—

Name: Shortcut of Supernaturalism: Jasper St. Jones Got The Prettiest Bones

Publisher: Tomb of Nyarlathotep Games
Author: Tristan Jusola-Sanders
Artists: Marco Monte, Simon Bray, David Lewis Johnson

Series Concept: The ‘Shortcut of Supernaturalism’ series provides a scenario outline in just ten pages that the Keeper of Arcane Lore can prepare for a single four-hour session with a minimum of fuss.
Setting: Jazz Age (Contemporary), Lovecraft Country
Product: Scenario Outline
What You Get: 4.2 MB, ten-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: The Haunting meets 'The Case of Charles Dexter Ward' meets Cronos

Plot Hook: The discovery of a vagrant, drastically dehydrated and near death, repeating over and over, “Jasper St. Jones got the prettiest bones.”
Plot Development: The vagrant was found near steam tunnels leading under a reservoir dam that the St. Joneses, a local well-to-do family is building and Jasper St. Jones is a notorious ancestor of the current St. Jones patriarch.
Plot Support: Bullet point by bullet point guide to scenario background, the six NPCs, scenes and events, and major clues; full stats for the NPCs and one new spell and one new tome; and one handout.
Production Values: Needs another edit and the artwork consists of placeholders rather than serving the scenario.

Pros

Straightforward plot
Easy for the Keeper to develop or adapt
Multiple Mythos explanations
Suitable for smaller groups of investigators

Cons

Investigator involvement underwritten
Some clues undetailed
Sanity losses too high
Villain reactions undeveloped

Conclusion

# Feels rushed
Solid, though not original, plot
Would benefit from a map of the steam tunnels
Would benefit from suggestions by investigator type to ease their involvement
Easy to run for the experienced Keeper
Excellent concept which needs some development to fulfil its promise