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

Sunday, 17 June 2018

Enter the Third Horizon

The Dying Ship is a scenario for use with the Middle East-influenced Science Fiction roleplaying game, Coriolis: The Third Horizon. Originally published in Swedish by Free League Publishing, it has since been published in English by Modiphius Entertainment, and presents a short adventure which can be run in a single good session—perhaps two at most—and which can be run after ‘The Statuette of Zhar’, the short scenario in the back of the core rules. It comes with a pre-generated set of characters for quick play if the players have not created their own (they will need to create a ship of their own), a myth and plot drawn out from the Dark Between the Stars, and a desperate race to find out what has happened to a lost ship.

The player characters are employed by a representative of the Melem Gesurra corporation to fly to its ice hauler, Orun II, which has stopped responding to hails and has changed course towards a deadly asteroid cloud. They are to go aboard and determine what has happened aboard, what the status of the crew is, and then bring it back on course to deliver its valuable cargo of ice to the giant space station of Coriolis. Getting to the Orun II will present no problem, despite the interest of a gang of thugs, but once aboard, all that changes. Here the characters are free to explore the Orun II as they wish, essentially turning the scenario into a micro-sandbox as they discover the fate of the crew, reveal the often battered and broken status of the ship, and confront the true threat aboard the ship… 

For the most part the Game Master will be mostly reacting to what the players and their characters are doing, but she has access to a number of NPCs as well as certain strange things for the player characters to run into. The sandbox element of the adventure more or less ends when the player characters confront the true threat aboard the ship. Then it switches from a sandbox to a countdown—remember that oncoming, deadly asteroid cloud?

Throughout the adventure there is advice for the Game Master, in particular staging advice allowing her to begin The Dying Ship In Media Res followed by a series of flashbacks. Plus there are numerous suggestions as to possible events that might befall the characters in getting to the Orun II, getting aboard the Orun II, and especially, once they start exploring the Orun II. These all have a cost in Dark Points to trigger, which of course, the Game Master will earn whenever a player fails a roll for his character and decides that he has to succeed, so therefore rerolls. In fact, there are probably too many suggestions for a Game Master to use, so either her players are going to end up rerolling a lot or she can save the ideas as inspiration for later events. 

Physically. The Dying Ship is impressive. Like the core rules, it is done in full colour, with lots of good art. The latter is accompanied by full colour hand-outs, NPC illustrations, and the deckplans of the Orun II. The writing is also clear and the translation is well handled. 

If there are any issues to The Dying Ship, then they are twofold. First, there is quite a bit of backstory to the scenario and there is possibility that access to that backstory might end up in the hands of the player characters. What that backstory truly is and what happens after the adventure ends is not really detailed. Second, the adventure is short. It could be played in a session with a little pace—perhaps even as a convention scenario—so it does sort of feel as if it could have provided just a bit more play, or been given options to extend it a little. That said, the scenario does offer possible hooks for adventures after the events aboard the Orun II.

If the adventure in Coriolis: The Third Horizon presented the setting and the mechanics, then The Dying Ship presents a bigger adventure, a bigger stage, and the roleplaying game’s bigger themes. The Dying Ship is a good first adventure for Coriolis: The Third Horizon and hints, just a little, at some of its secrets and horrors.

Friday, 15 June 2018

Free RPG Day 2018: Scritch Scratch

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th is Free RPG Day and with it comes an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Like the support for Free RPG Day in 2016, The Derelict: A Tall of Terror for Call of Cthulhu, this year’s entry from Chaosium, Inc., is a scenario for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. The scenario is Scritch Scratch: A Modern-Day Call of Cthulhu Scenario for Two to Six Players. which asks the question, “What Terror Lurks Within the Gloomy Woodlands Surrounding a Sleepy English Village?”.

Designed to be run using either Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition or the Call of Cthulhu 7th Edition Quick-Start Rules—free to download hereScritch Scratch is a one-shot scenario set in a valley in the north of England, but which is relatively easy to set elsewhere as long it is just off the beaten track and very close to extensive woodland. It can be played in a single four-hour session, so is suitable as a convention or demonstration scenario. Six pre-generated investigators are included, but suggestions are given if a Keeper and her players wants to run the scenario with a different set of investigators. These six are divided into two distinct groups. The first consists of professional cleaners hired by the local council to clean a house in the out of the way village of Muscoby. The second consists of a film crew accompanying the cleaners to make documentary about them. The council is paying the cleaning crew a generous fee for undertaking the job and the film crew are there as a bonus.

The scenario is designed as a mini-sandbox. The cleaning crew, accompanied by the film crew, arrive in Muscoby to do the job on the house. There they will find not only evidence of the owner’s strange occupation (he is currently in hospital), but also of the village’s equally strange history. What they learn at the house may warrant further investigations with both villagers and ex-villagers—the latter residing in a nearby town. Eventually, as they come to realise what the nature is of the weird secrets in Muscoby, those secrets will reveal themselves… The scenario allows for both confrontation with that secret or simply running away.

Throughout the scenario there are snippets of advice based on the experience of the author and others playtesting it, including how to avoid misinterpretations of the term ‘cleaning crew’ and the council’s motives. This is in addition to various pieces of supplementary information. There are some fun NPCs for the Keeper to roleplay too and whilst these play upon the cliché of the country bumpkin, they do go beyond this just enough for them to be more fully rounded out creations. As to the Mythos in Scritch Scratch, it is present, but very much in the background. Instead, what the investigators and their players will be confronting is a manifestation of widespread folklore. What this means is that Scritch Scratch can be run as a horror scenario using the Call of Cthulhu rules rather than something obviously to do with the Cthulhu Mythos. The horror in the adventure is kept quite low key, the mix of weird occurrences and discoveries laying the groundwork for the Keeper to deliver some short, short shocks at the appropriate time.

Scritch Scratch lacks two things. One is advice for running it with fewer than the six pre-generated investigators, though if that is the case, then the clean-up crew are probably more pertinent to the scenario than the film crew. The other is an introduction for the players and their investigators, so whilst the scenario explains the set-up for the Keeper, it does not do so for the players. This may well be an issue for the Keeper coming to Call of Cthulhu afresh or with relatively little experience as a Game Master. For an experienced Keeper, such an introduction is relatively easy to create, but it should have been included anyway to help the Keeper set both the scene and relationship up between the cleaning crew and the film crew as well as adding a degree of verisimilitude from the off.

Barring the aforementioned lack of introduction, Scritch Scratch is well written and organised, and nicely illustrated. The latter are going to look good in colour whenever the scenario is collected in full anthology—as The Derelict was in Petersen’s Abominations: Five Epic Tales of Modern Horror—and do serve to illustrate certain locations and possible events in the scenario. In fact, the Keeper might like to use them as illustrative handouts at the appropriate time.

Of course, being a release for Free RPG Day, devotees of Call of Cthulhu are going to want a copy of Scritch Scratch, however good it is. Fortunately, Scritch Scratch: A Modern-Day Call of Cthulhu Scenario for Two to Six Players is a pleasingly low key one-shot of bucolic mystery and horror.

Sunday, 10 June 2018

Fear of the Forest

Out of the Woods is an anthology of scenarios for use with Trail of Cthulhu, the clue-orientated roleplaying of Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Pelgrane Press. It presents a quintet of mysteries with a common theme—from Wisconsin to Utah, Vermont to Brittany, that theme is a fear of the forest and what lies beneath its dark, tangled canopy, lurking, watching, ready to strike fear, to abduct, and to hunt the unwary… All five take place in the default time period for Trail of Cthulhu, the Desperate Decade of the 1930s, and all five serve to take the investigators beyond the edge of civilisation and into ancient wildernesses…

The anthology opens with ‘Midnight Sub Rosa’ by Ruth Tillman. This takes the investigators to backwoods Alabama and the small town of Rosa, to solve the mystery of a missing occult tome. The diary of Ezekiel de la Poer, a notorious necromancer hanged in 1736, has been stolen from the home of a retired professor of American Folklore. Both diary and its owner were to be the subject of a symposium to be held by the professor and various academics on what is the bicentennial of de la Poer’s death. The question is, who stole it, what was in the diary, and what effect might it have on the thief? The scenario gets off to a bit of a woolly start with its being rather unclear as to how the investigators are to be involved and what is going on. What is going on is that in the default set-up, the investigators work for the Armitage Inquiry, one of the campaign frameworks presented in Trail of Cthulhu, tracking down and dealing with occult and Mythos tomes which pose a threat to humanity.

What this means is that the Mythos is placed upfront in this scenario and the investigators, if not actually aware of it, should almost be aware of it. As the investigators arrive, the town of Rosa is beset by strange events which sets up the second strand of the investigation. The first is more or less a locked room mystery in which the investigators determine who stole the book, where it is now, and what its contents are, whilst the second deals with its effects in the wild and on the local populace. Inspired by the H.P. Lovecraft stories, ‘Rats in the Walls’ and ‘Statement of Randolph Carter’, this is a decent enough scenario in which the woods really only play a minor part. The real issues with the scenario are twofold. It could have been better organised, especially at the start where it is unclear quite what is going on, especially as where the investigators are concerned. Then for a scenario originally intended to be used as a convention scenario, it really is too long in its current form and the provided pre-generated investigators really need some background.

This is very much less of an issue in Adam Gauntlett’s ‘The Silence Mill’. The investigators receive a letter from a comrade thought to have died in the Great War seeking their help, but not before they have had to come to the aid of the postman trying to deliver it! The son of their long lost friend has not only been accused of murder, he has been accused of being a werewolf, and the investigators are asked to come to what is all but feudal Brittany in France to help him. When the investigators get there, events serve to leave them with little in the way of help, but as the scenario unfolds, the local legends of werewolves, the templars, and the Holy Grail all point towards the ancient and dense forest of Paimport where no-one but the local marquis and his men will walk. His hold over the locals means that the investigators will have to overcome both their reticence and the difficulties of the French legal system for non-Francophiles—the default set-up and the pre-generated investigators suggest that they are English—if they are to save the accused and thwart the plans of the cult which makes the forest its own.

Where ‘The Silence Mill’ really shines is in the combined layers of legends which the author overlays the Mythos to give it the cultural depth that few scenarios achieve. Mostly obviously King Arthur and the Holy Grail, under which he works the Mythos. His choice of Mythos would suggest the West Country of the United Kingdom as a suitable location, but by shifting the location to Northwest France, the author can not only layer in both werewolf and templar myths, but also localise them in the Brocéliande. This gives ‘The Silence Mill’ a rich cultural depth which few scenarios for Lovecraftian investigative horror attain. With its hook being derived from events during the Great War, there is also room here for the Keeper to run a prequel to the events of ‘The Silence Mill’, perhaps using a scenario from the anthology, Dulce et Decorum Est: Great War Trail of Cthulhu.

Although ‘Midnight Sub Rosa’ explores racism and segregation to an extent, it is intrinsic and central to the third scenario, ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’. Written by Chris Spivey, the author of the highly regarded Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games, its investigators are African Americans very much taken out of their comfort zone. In the desperate years of the Great Depression, they have managed to enrol in the Civilian Conservation Corps, a paramilitary public work relief programme established as part of the New Deal. Although theirs is one of the few integrated teams in Civilian Conservation Corps, the investigators have to contend with near constant racism of varying vehemence as well as the strict daily regime of life in the corps. Both will greatly hamper their researches and investigative efforts when they are recruited by the local Chief of the Safety Division to look into a number of strange deaths and disappearances amongst the African American corps members in the area. This is reflected in the mechanics which make spends and so on more expensive for African American investigators rather than reducing the number of Ability points they have available to spend and so reducing their capability.

This being Vermont, the obvious Mythos threat here would be the Mi-Go, but this is not so in ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’. In fact, the singular threat in the scenario is probably the least interesting element of it, whereas the backdrop and the social constraints are not only more interesting, they are also more of an interesting challenge to understand, explore, and roleplay.

If the need to sacrifice dignity and swallow your pride is explored in ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’, Lauren Roy’s ‘The Coldest Walk’ explores the sacrifices that need to be made to mollify the Mythos. Deep in the woods of Wisconsin, near where bodies have been found crushed and frozen—even at the height of summer, the inhabitants of the town of Four Pines have come to an agreement. When the sky flashes in the bright colours of the aurora, one of their number must make a terrible choice lest they all succumb to the cold. Whether brought to Four Pines as journalists in search of story, private investigators looking for a missing person, alienists wanting to to research psychological trauma, or simply out of  curiosity, what they will be presented with is a situation without any obvious antagonist. Getting the townsfolk to reveal the truth and the need for their activities, will take some good roleplaying, as will navigating their way to anything approaching a successful conclusion. The scenario presents multiple courses of action and thus multiple possible outcomes and overall, is probably the easiest of the five given in the anthology to adapt to other periods.

Out of the Woods comes to an end with ‘The Trembling Giant’ by Aaron Vanek. Like ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’ before it, this casts the investigators as members of a minority, not African Americans, but Native Americans. And as with ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’, the investigators also benefit from the New Deal. Instead of enrolling as members of the Civilian Conservation Corps, as a result of the Wheeler-Howard Indian Reorganisation Act of 1934, they receive some land as a form of reparation. In particular, they are members of the Water Clover People of the Paiute Indian Tribe living in Utah who are given a piece of  state land near a hunting and fishing site. Again, as with ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’, the investigators must deal with the prejudices and small-mindedness of White majority, many of whom may be unhappy at land being handed over to the ‘Indians’, as they attend the ceremony of the signing of the land to them, possibly research the land itself—it is some distance away from their current land, so they know little about it, and eventually visit the parcel of property and its strange woodland… As the tribe’s shaman suffers terrible nightmares and warning totems shatter, the investigators will quickly come to wonder what exactly is the nature of the land they have been given and what help they can rely upon if they are to face it...

‘The Trembling Giant’  presents the woods not as home to some threat, but the threat itself, a global and more long term interpretation of one of the Mythos’ signature and most fecund of entities. This is balanced by the presence of the effects of that fecundity on the land neighbouring the tribe’s new territory, which serves to give the horror a more human and tentacular face. As with ‘The Silence Mill’ and ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’, this feels well researched and like  ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’ provides a different and difficult approach to investigating the Mythos.

Physically, Out of the Woods is well presented and in general well written, although it does feel a little rushed in places. Where required, the cartography is nice and clear, and the illustrations decent throughout. Each scenario includes a breakdown of its scenes and a diagram of how they should flow. Each scenario is also accompanied by various handouts and a set of pre-generated investigators. 

The very worst thing that could be said about this anthology is that many of the scenarios are of their time and place and thus are difficult to adapt to other to times and settings. That said, they are in many cases, one-shot scenarios, rather than something that could be added to existing campaigns. Certainly, ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’ and ‘The Trembling Giant’ are the most difficult to adapt to other times and places, primarily because they include social horror as well as Lovecraftian investigative horror. The very least worst thing which could be said about anthology, is that its theme—nyctohylophobia—is inconsequential to the first scenario, ‘Midnight Sub Rosa’. Certainly, that theme plays a much stronger role in the following four scenarios and they are all the better for it. Of the five in the anthology, ‘The Silence Mill’ stands out because of its adaptation and layering of myth which give it a richness to its background, and ‘Dreaming of a Better Tomorrow for 30 Dollars a Month’ because it explores the social horror of the time as much as it does Cosmic horror. Nevertheless, there is not one bad scenario in the collection. Out of the Woods successfully invokes our nyctohylophobia, our fear of the forest, with a quintet of excellent scenarios. 

Friday, 8 June 2018

Moorcockian Meanderings

One of the factions with an interest in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes are the Eld—essentially ‘space elves’ from another dimension with a distinctly Melnibonéan-like, decadent sensibility—who cross the sea channel between their home in the Misty Isles to reach the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, which just lie off the Persimmon Sea and there claim to their long lost Golden Barge. Perhaps having encountered them in the Slumbering Ursine Dunes, the player characters now have the opportunity to follow the Eld—whom the scenario describe as being “Lawful Evil space elves with a taste for bizarre bureaucracy, biomancy, and (David) Bowie.”—back to their home, perhaps because they have a map or they have been hired by a patron such as the shark-like Ondrj the Reaver. This is the set-up for Misty Isles of the Eld, the second part of a trilogy of supplements and adventures published by Hydra Collective LLC for use with Labyrinth Lord. The other parts of the trilogy are Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko, with all three being set in the Hill Cantons, a setting described as, “A Slavic-myth inspired, acid fantasy world of Moorcockian extradimensional incursions and Vancian swindlers and petty bureaucrats.”

Although written as part of the Hill Cantons setting, Misty Isles of the Eld is sufficiently isolated and self-contained enough that it can be placed almost anywhere in the Labyrinth Lord’s campaign setting. Designed for roughly four or five player characters of Third and Fourth Level, Misty Isles of the Eld is, like Slumbering Ursine Dunes before it, another ‘pointcrawl’ adventure rather than a hexcrawl. This depicts a region as a series of connected nodes rather than hex grid of locations and wilderness spaced in between. This makes travel in a sense more direct and avoids the problem of having an adventuring party wandering endlessly in the wilderness trying to find specific locations. Now where in Slumbering Ursine Dunes this turned the map of its region into something representational rather than exact and topographical, much like the map of the London Underground, on the island of the Misty Isles of the Eld, it is exact and topographical. This is because the layout of isle and the barriers which separate locations are pure artifice—giant meat-fed grubs arranged as ridges to suit the whims of the island’s current occupiers—and so arranged to be exact.

The clue to the nature of the Misty Isles lies in the phrase, “…arranged to be exact”, for it primarily consists of a once bucolic island occupied by the fey which has been suppressed and arranged into a fog-enshrouded, sterile, salt-white pocket hell by the intrusion of another dimension. This is Cold Hell, and from it sashay the Eld, tall and thin humanoids with elongated skulls and delicate fingers ready to impose their hierarchies on the island—and then perhaps beyond. As well as arranging the island’s topography with the purple and green-ribbed grub-ridges, the Eld have built a private party complex, a great monument which floats in the sky, a plantation house, an empty Pagoda City, and a vat complex where bodies are broken down and turned into fuel—body and soul. These last four sites make up the equivalent of dungeons Misty Isles of the Eld.

As soon as the player characters step onto the island, they will be exposed to the weirdness of the Eld. Not just the gigantic ridge-grubs with mouth-openings into which human slaves shovel half rotted flesh, but also flesh-blobs cleaning up some unsightly accident or carrying out an execution, Eld patrols leading vatmen bread as trackers, white apes unleashed to gain some exercise, a faerie forest left as a Schadenfreude Arena, and much, much more. As soon as the player characters begin interacting with the Eld, they live up to their Lawful (Evil) alignment and they react. The Eld Defence Plan is literally written into Misty Isles of the Eld with the island’s Eld Command Structure, led by Sub-Colonel Zogg, raising the Alert Level to deal with the intruders after they are first encountered by a patrol, have visited one of the island’s major locations or murdered an important Eld, and disrupted activities at one or more the facilities on the island. Eld Command will first increase the number of patrols before actively hunting the intruders. This is not the only sign of their progress, as the Chaos Index introduced in Slumbering Ursine Dunes and Fever-Dreaming Marlinko is in Misty Isles of the Eld inverted into the Anti-Chaos Index which tracks the consequences of the player characters’ actions, ideally to reverse the Eld influence on the isles and so return them to their former state.

There is a strangeness to every one of the eighteen locations on the Misty Isles, but the four ‘dungeons’ are unlikely to be anything like the player characters have ever encountered before. Rather than dungeons, they are complexes—work complexes, military complexes, factory complexes, and pleasure complexes—built using Eld superscience and magic. None of these complexes are particularly large, but all four are rife with weird detail and flavour.

In addition to describing the various locations and encounters to be found on the island, Misty Isles of the Eld comes with four appendices. These include a bestiary of the weird and wondrous creatures and creations the Eld brought with them from Bonegrinders and Cerebral Boreworms to Vat-Giants to Vatmen; a new Class, the Psychonaut; complete descriptions of the Eld artefacts to be found in the Misty Isles—weapons, tools, and miscellaneous; and reprints of the book’s various maps. The new Class is the Psychonaut, which treats Psionics as a combination of mutations and permanent spell-like powers, each with a limited number of uses per day. These include Aptitude Accelerant, which enables a Psychonaut to raise an attribute temporarily to 18 once per day, Biting Quip which enables him to deliver a comment barbed enough to drive the victim into a catatonic state, and Retrovlution, which drives its victims back down the evolutionary ladder. This all comes at the cost of several deformations, such as rooster clawed feet or a secondary brain. The Psychonaut is primarily a Class for the Eld, but perhaps a player character might develop these powers if exposed to the wrong—or the right—mutagens.

The Eld Artefacts give the player characters something to pick up and play with. All a player has to do is make a roll against his character’s Intelligence, the number of six-sided dice to be rolled depending on the complexity of the item. Once understood, their use can be taught to other characters of sufficient intelligence. There is the danger though that the devices will break in the learning attempt… This is a pleasingly simple way of handling fantasy characters meeting technology a la Metamorphosis Alpha or Gamma World.

Physically, Misty Isles of the Eld is well presented with stylish artwork and cartography which capture the studied oddness of the Eld. There is however, a lot going on in the scenario and the Labyrinth Lord will need to give it a careful read-through to understand how the different parts mesh together. Certainly, a better overview could have been provided rather than having to put these different parts together as you read through the book.

There have numerous scenarios for Dungeons & Dragons-style games in which the player characters encounter advanced technology, most obviously in S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks for use with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition, but in Misty Isles of the Eld, the player characters get to encounter both that technology and its wielders—and they are no fools. This means that the player characters will be faced with the challenge of strange magic and intelligent foes in addition to the dangers of exploration. This is in addition to the arch-weirdness and horror which permeates the scenario and really only makes it suitable for adult players.

Misty Isles of the Eld is one-part penetration by Moorcockian Science Fantasy from beyond, one-part extradimensional Melnibonéan-like space elves wanting to impose order, and one-part dazzle white home furnishings of the early seventies combined with Soviet-era brutalist monument design. This is a genuinely unique combination and the fact that the author manages to pull it off, marks the Misty Isles of the Eld as a singularly impressive scenario.