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

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Weirdness and Wonder

The Hydra Cooperative, LLC is best known for its artfully curated and themed trilogy of scenarios set in the Hill Cantons, a world of Slavic myth, Moorcockian extradimensional intrusions, and Vancian swindlers and petty bureaucrats. They are Fever-Dreaming Marlinko: A City Adventure Supplement for Labyrinth Lord, Slumbering Ursine Dunes, and Misty Isles of the Eld. Although set in the same world, each of a quite singular nature and very different to each other in tone and feel. The latest release from The Hydra Cooperative, LLC is yet again, another scenario of a singular nature. Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Operation Unfathomable is an adventure unlike any other, in an underworld unlike any other, and unlike any other adventure, it is one-part sandbox, one-part high Level scenario for First Level characters.

Developed from a convention scenario published in Knockspell #5 and designed for use with Swords & Wizardry rather than the usual Labyrinth Lord of other Hydra Cooperative, LLC titles, the set-up for Operation Unfathomable is quite simple. The player characters are at Fort Enterprise in Stonespear Province, the northernmost outpost of the Murian Empire where they are conscripted by the local government for a mission of the utmost importance. Recently, the gallant Prince Eyraen, brave warrior son of Syantides, Sorcerer-King of Mur, led a band of men through a nearby entrance to the Underworld and descended into its depths to find and take revenge upon a minor chaos godling known as Shaggath-Ka. He has not returned and is presumed lost. Soldiers under the command of Fort Enterprise’s captain went after the prince, but they too failed to return and are presumed lost. Now it is the turn of the adventurers, for it is hoped that a smaller party, one better suited to stealth (or even diplomacy!), might succeed where the troops failed. Not necessarily to find the probably fallen prince, but to return a great magical artefact that he stole from his father’s treasury before he left for the north.

So that is that, then. On a mission they cannot refuse and equipped with the odd magical item or two, and forewarned by a map of the prince’s progress recovered from the depth, the player characters have to descend—quite literally down a thousand foot ladder—into the Underworld and go chasing after a McGuffin. And to be fair, as far as the plot is concerned, that really is all there is to Operation Unfathomable. Yet there is a whole lot more to the scenario than this all too simple plot and it all comes down to one simple idea: the journey is better than the destination.

This journey is built around two, rich, meaty strands. The most obvious of the two consists of the Underworld’s encounter areas. There are barely more than twenty of these, such as a ‘Beetletown Welcome Centre and Dwellings’, long abandoned outpost of the extinct Beetle Empire with its wheezing beetle statue and strange hamster ghosts; ‘Science Fungoid Experimental’, manned by the joyfully happy Science Fungoids; and ‘Local Franchise Temple of Nul’, regional church of the Cult of the Mindless God, whose priests transform its most willing worshippers into loyal, headless antenna-necked soldiers. Each one of these locations is detailed and interesting, but where Operation Unfathomable really comes alive is with the other strand—the ‘Encounters & Other Random Weirdness’ on the ‘Master Event Table’. From this one table, a total of some forty-four entries are further divided into three sub-categories/tables, ‘Underworld Phenomena’, ‘Competing Parties & Underworld Travellers’, and ‘Wandering Horrors’. So for example, a party of adventurers might have to run lest they be engulfed in ‘Mutagenic Cloud’ and have their lips gain tentacles, they grow a Moustache of Chaos, or their blood becomes flammable; get to trade with a Slugman on a business trip, or engage in a metaphysical debate with a Woolly Neanderthal on a spirit quest; and take pity on Flaming Hounds or be boggled by the rope tricks of the Cave Swallows. The Game Master is expected to throw these encounters at her players and their characters with some regularity in order to drive the story of their Underworld excursion onwards.

Intrinsic to the setting is the fight between Law and Chaos, this being more apparent in the Underworld as it is closer to the seething mass of mindless Chaos to be found at the centre of the planet. One of the new Classes, the Underworld Ranger, is tightly involved with the ongoing conflict between the two. Similarly, the need for player and player character maturity is also intrinsic to the scenario. The set-up for Operation Unfathomable is that the low level party is following in the wake of a high level party, and although the latter is still missing, presumed lost, it has cleared many of the more dangerous threats along the route marked on the players’ map. This does not mean that the player characters can wander along in the wake of the previous party’s progress, heedless of all possible danger. They will face both high-level and low-level threats, the author making no effort to create a dungeon full of balanced encounters. This gives the limited section of the Underworld described in Operation Unfathomable a naturalistic feel and consequently, the adventurers will need to know what fights to pick and what fights to avoid. This is offset though, by the number of encounters in which the monsters and persons encountered will want to engage in and encourage conversation with them. Not all of them to the player characters’ advantage, of course, but whatever their intentions, this is supported by some great NPCs for the Game Master to portray.

Rounding out Operation Unfathomable is a set of seven appendices. In turn, these describe the Chaos at the heart of the world and short histories of both the Underworld and the Beetle Empire; give a description of the Cult of the Mindless God, a quartet of hirelings, and the means to bring new player characters into play; a whole new Class in the form of the Underworld Ranger, descriptions of monsters, treasures, and spells; and a set of ten pre-generated adventurers (or alternatively, a rival adventuring party). The Underworld Ranger is a member of an organisation dedicated to fighting Chaos in the Underworld who equips him with light-intensifying goggles, an anti-Chaos shortsword, and eventually a Zaracanth Industries ZR-1 ‘Dissuader’ sidearm which shoots a ball of electricity and which must be wound up between shots! The monsters range from the Two-Headed Ape Mummy and the Firebomb Beetle to the Worm Soldier and Worm Surgeon, and include the Blind Antler Man, Chaos Flies, and Bat-Winged Dwarves. Items like the Zaracanth Industries ZR-1 ‘Dissuader’ sidearm and the Science Fungoid’s Death-Ray Revolver have a Science Fantasy feel to them, but most of the Underworld’s treasures simply have a weird feel to them, like the Potion of Advantageous Decapitation which grants the imbiber’s head the ability to separate and float of on its own or the Fizzy Drink of Ocular Autonomy which lets the imbiber’s eyeballs to float off for a while… For the most part, the spells have a fairly workmanlike aspect suited to casting in the Underworld.

Now it should be pointed out that some of the content from the appendices is included in a separate book, the Operation Unfathomable Player’s Guide. This gives the Underworld Ranger Class and its associated equipment as well as the various spells from Operation Unfathomable. It also includes some background for Operation Unfathomable along with the party map and some facts and tips, which are of course, thoroughly useful. It opens with an entertaining cartoon strip which depicts just a little of the oddness to the be found in the Underworld, but its primary new content consists of three new Classes not to be found in the pages of Operation Unfathomable. These Classes are the Underworld Otter, a Fighter or Thief with limited weapon use, oily fur which protects them against oozes, jellies, and the like, and an embarrassing sense of frivolity; the Woolly Neandertal, hairy Fighters with great Strength, but limited vocabulary; and the Citizen Lich, a Wizard who attempted to transform himself in a full Lich, but failed and instead became a minor Lich who is still undead and so is hard to kill, but can be Turned by a Cleric. Raise himself to high enough a Level once again and a Citizen Lich can eventually become a full Lich.

It seems odd not to have three of the Classes from the Operation Unfathomable Player’s Guide in Operation Unfathomable. Nevertheless, these four Classes all suit the setting, the Underworld Ranger Class adding a Science Fantasy element, the Underworld Otter and the Woolly Neandertal adding a primal element, and the Citizen Lich adding a baroque, civilised feel.

Outside of the map of the route taken by the Prince and his entourage, Operation Unfathomable is relatively limited sandbox. There are few places that a wandering party of player characters might actually go, but they are included on the Game Master’s map, even if descriptions of them are not. This is the problem if the adventurers go off piste as it leaves the Game Master to develop these locations on her own. There is certainly the feel that more needs to be written about this region of the Underworld, though the next supplement in the series will be Odious Uplands, which details the region above the Underworld.

Physically, Operation Unfathomable is a striking volume. The writing is engaging—particularly the colourful commentary from Bardolph the Beer Hound, Underworld Ranger, which runs throughout the book, but also each the many encounters and the various locations. The map of the Underworld is both fantastic and fussy, perhaps a bit too fiddley to handle easily at the table. What strikes the reader first about Operation Unfathomble though, is its artwork, somewhat cartoonish, but heavy and imposing, capturing the grandeur of this section of the Underworld.

Operation Unfathomable does a superb job of describing a fantastical environment of the world below as various factions attempt to take control of the area. At times it feels baroque, at times simply natural, but never, ever far from the weird, whether that is in the descriptions of the locations or of the many encounters. And although the scenario’s tone threatens to tip into out and out silliness, it never quite does. The scenario’s plot feels fresh and clever, which when combined with an underground environment detailed as never before, serves to give Operation Unfathomable a singular feel. Imagine Quentin Tarantino got together with Ralph Bakshi to make a Saturday morning cartoon in which the dirty half dozen were sent down a dungeon on a McGuffin hunt and the network refused to broadcast it because it was too weird, and that captures the feel of Operation Unfathomable.

Saturday, 20 October 2018

Courting the Other Arthurian Roleplaying Game

Originally published in 1989, Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game is the late Greg Stafford’s second approach to Arthurian, chivalric roleplaying and his love letter to Hal Foster and Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur. At the time, it was as simple as it was groundbreaking and even three decades on, its combination of simple rules, excellent storytelling advice, and shared narrative mechanics serve to make it look like a very contemporary game design and a perfect introduction to Arthurian roleplaying, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, and storytelling roleplaying. Unfortunately, Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game never received any more support beyond the core rules, but with the republication of the roleplaying book following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the publisher, Nocturnal Media also released the Prince Valiant Episode Book.

The Prince Valiant Episode Book consists of some thirty-four episodes—or short scenarios—contributed by a who’s who of the gaming hobby. They include Shannon Appelcline, Emily Care Boss, Ed Greenwood, Jeff Grubb, Will Hindmarch, Ken Hite, Chris Klug, Robin D. Laws, John Nephew, Chris Pramas, Mark Rein•Hagen, Monica Valentinelli, John Wick, amongst others. Each episode is typically two or three pages in length and each follows roughly the same format. This includes the episode type—such as Assistance, Attack, Mystical, or Nuisance; the Situation, the Name of the primary NPC and who they are accompanied by; their Long and Short Term Goal; their Planned Activity and Personality; the scenes for the episode; and lastly the stats for Characters involved in the episode. The format is easy to follow and makes each of the episodes easy to prepare and run. In general, it is assumed that the player characters are all knights at the court of King Arthur, but some episodes do demand that at least one player character be a knight.

The thirty-four episodes include bandits, Saxons and treachery, bandits, jealousy and deceit, bandits, a Kraken—or three, bandits, wreckers, the fae, bandits, pride and poverty, bandits, scoundrels, and of course, bandits. Despite their involving an awful lot of bandits, there is not a bad episode amongst their number. Some good ones include ‘ First Flower of Spring’ by BJ Hensley, in which the knights get to hunt for the first flower of spring for King Arthur so that he might present it to his wife, Guinevere. This provides an opportunity for the player characters to interact with the other knights of King Arthur’s court as well as undertake some travelling across the land. In Epidiah Ravachol’s ‘A Wedding in Green’, the travelling adventurers get dragged into a wedding along with a reluctant abbot, but with an enthusiastic would be bride and groom, whilst in Sage La Torra’s ‘No Traveler Returns’, the player characters have decide what exactly the motives of a group of raiders are—are they really trying to give themselves up? In the main, the episodes involve a mixture of combat and action and intrigue, so if there is anything lacking it is courtly doings. The one exception to that is ‘Marriage, but Only for the Right Reason’ by Robert Schroeder in which romance is matter of debate and determination.

Physically, the Prince Valiant Episode Book is as handsome a hardback as the Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game. Again, it uses lots of Hal Foster’s terrific illustrations—typically one per Episode—on white, glossy paper which showcases his artistry and use of colour. Each episode is neatly organised and easy to read and use and some do come with suggestions as to Experience Point awards, but others do not.

Unfortunately, the Prince Valiant Episode Book is not very well organised—in fact, it is not organised at all. The problem here is that it is presented episode after episode, neatly and tidily, but that is all. There is no index, and no table enabling prospective Storytellers to select an episode by type, location, and so on. This makes the episodes difficult to find and difficult to determine their suitability for the Storyteller’s campaign and use as episodes for players to run should they want to take a turn being the Storyteller and so earn themselves the Storyteller Certificates that give their characters an advantage in the game.

Barring the unhelpful organisation, the Prince Valiant Episode Book is both lovely and helpful—and not just for the Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game. Of course, the various storylines in the Prince Valiant Episode Book will run fairly easily with Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain and with further adjustment, with Age of Arthur. With even more of an adjustment, though not necessarily a great adjustment, the contents of this supplement would also work well in Legend of the Five Rings. After all, duty and hour are integral to the settings of both roleplaying games. For the Storyteller who wants to something to run for her Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game, whether it be inspiration for a plot or a full episode, the Prince Valiant Episode Book is not just lovely and helpful, but definitely useful too. Of course, the fact that it gives a array of industry luminaries the space to visit of the world of Hal Foster and Greg Stafford’s grounding breaking roleplaying game is both a bonus and a feature—a highly fitting feature.

Friday, 19 October 2018

The Art of Symbaroum

Artwork and illustrations alone cannot sell a roleplaying game, but whether great art or signature art, it can help sell a roleplaying game. From Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and SkyRealms of Jorune to Legend of the Five Rings and Mouseguard as well as supplements such as The Book of Unremitting Horror and Green and Pleasant Land, the artwork in these roleplaying games supplements do more than illustrate places, people, monsters, and things. They capture the feel and tone of their respective settings, they impart a sense of wonder or of horror, and they entice the reader—or viewer—into wanting to explore their respective settings as described in the accompanying text. One recent roleplaying to be lauded for its consistently evocative artwork is Symbaroum. Originally published by Järnringen, but now published by Free League, and distributed by Modiphius Entertainment, this Swedish roleplaying game takes place on the edge of civilisation and beyond. The civilisation is the young kingdom of Ambria, barely two decades old, it was founded on the ruins of the ancient and long-lost empire of Symbaroum as the refuge for the survivors fleeing north over the mountains from the Kingdom of Alberetor as it fell to an onslaught from the necromantic Dark Lords. The edge is where the barbarian tribes and goblins make their lives, the beyond is the Davokar Forest, an endless tract of thick woodlands into which treasure hunters venture, hoping to learn its secrets, locate long lost ruins of Symbaroum, and perhaps return with treasures of the past that will make them rich.

From the core rulebook and The Copper Crown to the more recent Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden and Karvosti – The Witch Hammer, the Symbaroum line has been greatly praised for its artwork. Whether it is illustrating the majesty and mystery of the forest under the eaves, the dark and desperate nature of life in Thistle Hold—Ambria’s primary frontier town, the magnificence of the Titans, the mountain range which divides Ambria from Alberetor, the great elemental beasts and the Elves of the season that step out of Davokar to attack and menace Thistle Hold, and the characters—the various types that the players will roleplay in the game, what comes across in Symbaroum is its dark and brooding atmosphere, its fear of the unknown, and the fraught nature of life on the frontier. Fully painted by artist Martin Grip, now much of that artwork has been collected in The Art of Symbaroum.

The Art of Symbaroum comes as a handsome cloth-bound square hardback, just eight-and-a-half inches square, its content printed on glossy paper against a rich black background. It contains just four chapters—the numbers subtly matching the runes on the front cover—‘Symbaroum’, ‘Ambria & Davokar’, ‘Creatures’, and ‘Covers’, across which are presented some seventy or so paintings. Images in ‘Symbaroum’ hint at the grandeur and scope of the ruins of the fallen civilisation and the strange threats that linger, such as the noble spiders and their master, the ruthless warlord known as the Spider King. ‘Ambria & Davokar’ takes the reader from the civilisation of as yet unexamined Ambria, via the rude settlement of Thistle Hold with its infamous arena—as detailed in Thistle Hold – Wrath Of The Warden—out under the fecund eaves of the forest. It includes images of the Titans, the mighty mountains that provided an escape route out of fallen Kingdom of Alberetor, as well as those of the stronghold of the High Chieftain—inside and out—which counter any suggestion that the barbarians are uncultured. ‘Creatures’ includes not beasts and monsters, but also persons. Rounding out the seemingly slim volume—at over hundred pages, it is not actually all that slim—is ‘Covers’, which presents the covers used to grace the front of various sourcebooks and supplements for Symbaroum. Of course, they are what attracted us to the game in the first place and so it is good to see them here, free of titles and logos.

Many, but not all of the paintings are accompanied by short pieces of text. These include snatches of poetry and portents as well as anecdotes from treasure hunters and adventurers who have ventured into Davokar and elsewhere. These add a little flavour and complement the artwork without getting in the way of it.

Other artbooks for roleplaying games might have gone large, but the small square format for The Art of Symbaroum actually works in its favour. It works as both an illustrative primer for the setting and as a handy reference at the table when the Game Master wants to show her players what their characters are seeing in game. Here its small size means that it takes up little room at the table or when being handed round. So there is a practicality to the tiny tome. It should not necessarily be consulted freely, for as the blurb on the back cover states, “When journeying through the pages of this book, remember the warnings spoken by the wardens of Davokar: tread carefully and do not disturb the ruins of old, for the darkness of Symbaroum is about to awaken.”

Above all though, The Art of Symbaroum is a lovely art book, full of evocative, brooding, beautiful artwork. The paintings of Martin Grip do not just showcase the setting of Symbaroum, they are a part of Symbaroum, and it is a delight that the publishers should recognise this by releasing The Art of Symbaroum.

Monday, 15 October 2018

Too Early to Judge

The Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start is an introduction to the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game currently being funded on Kickstarter. Published by EN Publishing, it includes a simple explanation of the mechanics, four pre-generated Judge player characters, and a complete scenario which can be played through in a session or two. The setting for this quick-start and the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game is the future depicted in the stories starring Judge Dredd in the long running British weekly comic, 2000 AD. This is a post-apocalyptic dystopian future in which the populations of the world are crammed into mega-cities where unemployment and crime are rife, such that the home city of Judge Dredd,  Mega-City One, is governed by the Justice Department and its lawmen, the Judges, are charged with the conviction, sentencing, and possible execution of criminals. In Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start, the players will roleplay Judges—the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game provides rules for playing Judges, Perps (criminals), or citizens as well as for playing in the other settings explored in 2000 AD.

A character in the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game is defined by ten attributes: Strength, Agility, Endurance, Intuition, Logic, Willpower, Charisma, Luck, Reputation, and Psionics. Each has a basic attribute score and a derived value which indicates how many dice are rolled when a character wants to take an action. In the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start the basic attribute score is not used and in the four pre-generated Judges provided, the derived values are typically two or three. In addition, skills such as dodging, law, medicine, perception, and so on, provide a character with further dice, usually one or two for the given pre-generated Judges.

In addition, Judges—and other characters—also have Exploits, the equivalent of advantages. For example, ‘Voice of the Law’ enables a character to make an attack against the Mental Defence of those within hearing distance and if successful, give them one command, whilst ‘Achilles Heel’ allows a character to analyse target and ignore its Soak value, but only once per target. This bonus can also be granted to an ally. The four pre-generated Judges each have two or three such Exploits. Oddly, none of these Exploits are listed on the pre-generated Judges’ character sheets, so the players or Game Master will need to note them down on the back of each sheet.

The mechanic in the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game uses a dice pool assembled from six-sided dice, the number a combination of a character’s derived attribute value, skill value, and equipment. Essentially, a player rolls the dice pool and attempts to beat a target number, including Routine (ten), Challenging (fifteen), and Difficult (twenty). Characters also have Defences—Melee, Mental, Ranged, and Vital—which act as target numbers when they are attacked. Judges have a uniform and helmet which provides a Soak value against any damage they might suffer.

The four pre-generated Judges include a Psi-Judge, a Med Judge, a Street Judge, and a Tek Judge. Each character sheet also lists all of the equipment a Judge will need when on foot—Lawgiver (pistol) and its various types of ammunition, Daystick, Bootknife, Judge Uniform and helmet, Handcuffs, and Birdie Lie Detector. Also on the character sheets are minor nods to the characters’ personalities and history.

The scenario is called ‘State of the Empire’. In what is a pleasing touch, it takes mere days after the events of the very first Judge Dredd story which appeared in the second issue of 2000 AD. In that, a Perp known as ‘Whitey’, hiding out in the derelict Empire State Building, kills Judge Alvin and in response, Judge Dredd volunteers to go in and apprehend him. In ‘State of the Empire’, the player characters, all rookie Judges are tasked with clearing the lower four floors of Perps, gangs, and vagrants. It is possible to obtain some further information, but very quickly the Judges are sent out to conduct their assignment. Overall, this set-up is a nice nod to the history of the Judge Dredd comic strip.

Unfortunately, ‘State of the Empire’ is at best adequate, at worst, uninspiring. The problem is threefold. First, every other scenario written for the previous versions of a Judge Dredd roleplaying game has taken its cue from the comic book and included a streak of dark satirical comedy to its storyline, accompanied by puns and wordplay. There is none of that present in ‘State of the Empire’, meaning that it is quite literally, witless. Second, given that the characters are law enforcement officers and there are crimes being committed, there is no investigation involved in the scenario—it is essentially a raid and a series of fights. Such that the player character Judges could be replaced by a Cleric, Fighter, a Thief, and a Wizard, and the criminals by Orcs and you would be hard pressed to tell the difference. Third, and worst of all, ‘State of the Empire’ does not provide for the player character Judges to do what they are meant to be doing and that is, ‘judge’. There are no guidelines in the quick-start for sentencing criminals, which really misses the point of what a Judge in the setting of Judge Dredd and Mega-City One does. The scenario focuses all too much on the execution duty of the Judges when it should have given equal focus to the conviction, sentencing, and execution of criminals.

The doubly sad news is that ‘State of the Empire’ is the adventure from Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game core rulebook. Doubly sad because gaming groups are likely to have played it by the time the core rulebook is released and because it is not a good adventure. A not unreasonable ‘dungeon bash’, but as a scenario for a roleplaying game based on the Judge Dredd comic strip, it fails to get across any of the flavour, feel, or tone of what a Judge Dredd story is.

Now ‘State of the Empire’ is not without merit. Besides the primary set-up of Judges going into clean up a building after Judge Dredd himself has been in there, two other options are given. One is to play as citizens going into the ruins of the Empire State Building in search of a missing boy, the other is as Perps—criminals—going in after some loot. Hooks are provided to that end, but not pre-generated player characters. A group will have to wait for the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game core rulebook to be able to play either, which is a pity, because as a scenario for either, ‘State of the Empire’ works as a combat-focussed session’s worth of play.

Physically, Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start is a twenty-nine-page, 12 MB, full colour PDF. Its layout is tidy, it uses some illustrations from 2000 AD, and the maps clear enough. It does need another edit in places though.

As a quick-start, Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start comes with everything a gaming group needs to try the roleplaying game out. It does need more preparation than it should, that is, it the player character sheets need some extra information they lack, and the scenario at best, works as a showcase for the mechanics, if not the setting. In fact, it would be better if the Game Master was to go and track down any one of the scenarios published for any other Judge Dredd-based roleplaying game, adapt it to the rules for the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game, and run that rather than ‘State of the Empire’. Ultimately, the best thing about the Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Quick-Start is that it is free. It is just a pity that ‘State of the Empire’ is not because you will have pay for it when purchasing Judge Dredd & The Worlds of 2000 AD Roleplaying Game core rulebook.

Sunday, 14 October 2018

Conan III

Given their influence over the hobby with the publication of Dungeons & Dragons in 1974, it is no surprise that over the last thirty-five years, there have been some five roleplaying games—or supplements and scenarios—based upon the stories of Robert E. Howard. From CB1 Conan Unchained! published by TSR. Inc. in 1984 for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition to the latest from Modiphius Entertainment, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, published in 2017, many are held in high regard, others less so. What they share in common is that they draw upon the life of Conan the Barbarian, the eponymous larger than life character whose adventures would take him across the ancient lands of the Hyborian Age would take him from uncivilised warrior to king. Except in CB1 Conan Unchained! and its sequels, CB2 Conan Against Darkness! and RS1 Red Sonja Unconquered, players do not take the roles of Conan and his companions, but create archers, barbarians, knights, mercenaries, nobles, nomads, priests, pirates, scholars, scoundrels, shamans, witches, and more, who will explore the lands of Hyborea in the long years following the fall of Atlantis. They will fight mighty battles, delve into dark ruins, put a sword to dire sorcery, and more.

Now where previous roleplaying works based upon the Conan stories have drawn from the wider canon, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of draws specifically upon the works of Robert E. Howard only. Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, the roleplaying game uses the 2d20 System, first seen in Mutant Chronicles: Techno Fantasy Roleplaying Game. This is a relatively straightforward set of mechanics which here allow for ‘larger-than-life’ characters and heroic action with an emphasis on that action. Its genre is soundly ‘swords & Sorcery’, but with an emphasis on the swords versus the sorcery. This is because sorcery in the Hyborian Age ultimately involves pacts with dark and evil gods and demons and its practitioners being cursed. In Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of it is possible to play a sorcerer, but it takes a great deal of effort and great promises made to often malign intelligences upon the part of the wouldbe sorcerer in his search of power and knowledge.

A character in Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is defined by seven attributes—Agility, Awareness, Brawn, Coordination, Intelligence, Mental Strength, Personality, and Willpower. They typically range between six and twelve with higher values being better, but it is possible to have an attribute as high as fourteen. This indicates that a character is a member of an Ancient Bloodline and thus descended from the sunken isles of Atlantis or ruined empires of Acheron. It also marks him out as a potential exemplar—of excellence or depravity. He will also have any number of skills, each defined by two factors, Expertise and Focus. Expertise represents general training, whilst Focus is the disciplined practice necessary to get the most out of a skill. At the end of character generation, skills can have a maximum Expertise and Focus of five each. In addition, every skill has a set of associated Talents, each set arranged in a mini-talent tree. There also are several Talent Trees which are not attached to particular skills. For example, the first Talent in the Melee Talent tree is ‘No Mercy’, which allows a player to reroll damage dice equal to the number of Melee Talents his character has. After ‘No Mercy’, the Melee Talents branch into three options—‘Deft Blade’, ‘Grappler’, and ‘Blood on Steel’—each of which has a Talent after that which a character can eventually have. In some cases, Talents have ranks can be selected multiple times.

To create a character in Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, a player takes his character through a lifepath of ten steps, at each step either rolling randomly for or choosing attributes, skills, and Talents. The ten steps are Homeland, Attributes, Caste, Story, Archetype, Nature, Education, War Story, Finishing Touches, and Final Calculations. From his Homeland, a character gets his first language and talent from the choice of thirty available, whilst his Attributes are set at a base of seven, which can then be adjusted according to rolls which determine those which are mandatory or optional. From these a player pick his character’s best or worst attributes. Caste, from Crafter and Escaped serf/Slave to Priest and Warrior, determines a character’s social background, whilst Story—there are six of these for each Caste—starts building a character’s history. Archetype—Archer, Barbarian, Mercenary, Noble Warrior, Nomad, Pirate, Priest/Priestess, Scholar, Scoundrel, and Witch/Shaman—is the nearest that Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of gets to the concept of Class a la Dungeons & Dragons, but really are just character types. Nature indicates a character’s personality, Education continues a character’s history, as does the War Story. Finishing Touches enables a player to make some small adjustments, whilst Final Calculations determine various derived values. Throughout, each stage provides various bonuses—Attribute, Expertise, and Focus adjustments as well as Talents—with a player being free to roll for a random result at each stage, choose freely, or mix the two. Of course, most of the stages give a player options to choose from, so the process is not entirely random.

The process is of a moderate complexity, but it allows players to create characters which fit particular archetypes or are a mix of skills and talents, that are skilled and capable, and can take action. Advice and suggestions are included though on how to create player characters not quite so over the top and how to bring a diverse group of characters together. This is further supported in the Game Master’s section which examines keeping the player characters together as various group types, like troops or pirates.

Our sample character is Sigrid Sharp-Eyed, a Nordheimer whose family was outcast for reasons her parents never told her and whose childhood was one near brush with death after another. Conscripted into one army and mercenary company after another, Sigrid survived battle after battle because she had any skill, but because she had an unnatural awareness of where the safest place on the battlefield might be. After one last bloody one-sided battle, she fled south and has found where she can—thief, thug, guard, and lookout. She has a reputation for being eagle-eyed and a known hatred of authority and military leaders.

Name: Sigrid Sharp-Eyed
Homeland: Nordheim (Vanaheim)
Languages: Nordheimer, Cimmerian
Class: Outcast Social Standing: 0
Story: One of the Rabble (Betrayed)
Archetype: Barbarian
Nature: Practical
Education: Family Footsteps
War Story: Survived a Massacre
Fortune Points: 2

Attribute Aspects
Acute and Aware, Warrior-Born

Agility 9 Awareness 13 Brawn 10 Coordination 10
Intelligence 7 Personality 8 Willpower 6

Vigor 11 Resolve 8 
Melee Damage Bonus 2
Ranged Damage Bonus 3
Mental Damage Bonus 0

Winter-born, Ancient Bloodline, Embittered, Survivor, No Mercy, Thief, Sharp Senses

Acrobatics (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Animal Handling (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Athletics (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Craft (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Discipline (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Healing (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Melee (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Observation (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Resistance (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Stealth (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Survival (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Thievery (Expertise 2, Focus 2)

Furs & Pelts, Ragged Furs (Heavy), Spear decorated with polished stones, Axe, Family Heirloom, 8 Gold, Ring of Semi-Precious Stone

Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of uses the 2d20 System, also used in several of Modiphius Entertainment’s other self-developed roleplaying games, such as Star Trek Adventures and Mutant Chronicles, plus the forthcoming John Carter of Mars and Dune. Simply each time a character wants to take an action, his player rolls two twenty-sided dice, aiming to roll low. This roll is made against an Attribute or against an Attribute plus the Expertise value of a skill. Each roll under this value generates a success. Further successes can be generated if the roll is also under the Focus value of a skill. The number of successes are measured against the Difficulty Rating of the task, one being average. Any successes generated above the Difficulty Rating are counted as Momentum and these can be spent for various effects. These include ‘Create Opportunity’, to provide a bonus die for a subsequent skill test; ‘Create Obstacle’ to increase the difficulty of an opponent’s skill test; ‘Obtain Information’ at a rate of one question per point of Momentum; ‘Improve Quality of Success’ and so more more stylishly; ‘Increase Scope of Success’ to increase the number of targets or area of effect the action affects; and ‘Reduce Time Required’. In combat, Momentum can be spent to gain another action, gain bonus damage, make a called shot, recover from damage, and so on from quite a list of possible actions.

When rolled, Momentum need not be spent, but can be saved into a communal pot that any player can dip into. The pot size is limited though, and goes down by one at the end of each scene. So there is an incentive to spend it or lose it. In addition, each character has several Fortune Points. These can be spent to gain automatic successes, additional actions, to overcome Stress or Weakness, or to influence the story. Fortune Points are refreshed at the start of each session, but can be regained for good play, clever plans, teamwork, overcoming challenges, and so on.
For example, Sigrid Sharp-Eyed has eventually drifted south where her reputation has found her work in Zamora the Accursed, the city of thieves. She is employed as a guard on the night watch at the fortified villa of Tolmos Gem-Fingered. Of course, she is casing the joint in readiness for a heist of her own, but in the meantime another thief has broken into Tolmos’ vault and is making his escape attempt past near where Sigrid is patrolling. The Game Master asks Sigrid’s player to make a Difficulty 2 Observation test, the difficulty of the task reflecting the skill of the thief. Sigrid has an Awareness of 13 and an Observation of Expertise 2, Focus 2. This means that her player only needs to roll under 15 to gain a Success. Her player rolls a 4 and a 16, giving Sigrid only one Success. Fortunately, Sigrid has the ‘sharp Senses’ Talent, which allows her player to re-roll a die on an Observation test. Her re-rolls the 16 and rolls a 2. This is under Sigrid’s Focus for Observation and so gains her two Successes, for a total of three. Having succeeded at the test, the Gamemaster tells Sigrid’s player that she sees someone slip out of Tolmos’ villa and across an adjacent roof. For the moment, Sigrid’s player decides to keep the Momentum and puts it into the communal pot.
Now where the players have Momentum to spend, the Game Master has Doom. She begins each session with her own pot of them, but can gain them through player character actions. These include a player purchasing extra dice to roll on a test, rolling a natural twenty and so adding two Doom (instead of the usual Complication), attempting a Reaction in combat, and voluntarily failing and gaining a Fortune Point in return. ‘Threatening Circumstances’ of the situation and any unspent Momentum rolled by an NPC. In return, the Gamemaster can spend it on minor inconveniences, complications, and serious complications to inflict upon the player characters, as well as triggering NPC special abilities, having NPCs seize the initiative, and bringing the environment dramatically into play. 

What the Doom and Momentum mechanics do is set up a pair of parallel economies with Doom being fed in part by Momentum, but Momentum in the main being used to overcome the complications and circumstances which the expenditure of Doom can bring into play. The primary use of Doom though, is to ratchet up the tension and the challenge, whereas the primary use of Momentum is to enable the player characters to overcome this challenge and in action, be larger than life.

In addition to the standard twenty-sided dice, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of uses Combat dice. These are six-sided dice where only the rolls of one, two, five or six count. In general, they are used as effect dice, for example, in the included scenario, ‘Vultures of Shem’, for every Success rolled for an Observation test when looking for loot on the battlefield, a player gets to roll a Combat die. Primarily though, they are used to roll damage in combat, which can be physical, mental, or social, with characters suffering damage to their Vigour or their Resolve. Here rolls of one and two represent extra damage and rolls of five and six—marked with an eagle—trigger special Effects. So for example, a Farming Flail has four Combat dice for damage and the Qualities, Improvised, Knockdown, and Piercing 1. Improvised means that it does no damage when Effects—or fives and sixes—are rolled, the Effects still count; Knockdown means that a opponent is knocked down if Effects are rolled; and Piercing 1 means that any damage ignore s an opponent’s Soak.
Continuing the example above, Sigrid has spotted a dark swathed figure leaving her employer’s villa and making off across the roofs of Zamora the Accursed, the city of thieves. She assumes that the figure is a thief and gives chase, managing to catch up within a moment or two, her aim being to capture the miscreant. As a player character, Sigrid has the Initiative—the Game Master could spend a point of Doom to seize the Initiative, but decides not to—and her player declares that her attack will be to subdue as Sigrid wants to capture the thief. This will cost one Momentum from the group pot. Sigrid’s player declares that he wants her to succeed and in return for adding two Doom to the Game Master’s pot, will roll two more twenty-sided dice. He will be rolling against Sigrid’s Agility and Melee (Expertise 3, Focus 3) skill for a target of 12. The Thief will attempt to Parry using his Coordination and Parry (Expertise 1, Focus 1) skill for a target of 10. This turns it into a struggle.
Sigurd’s player rolls 1, 3, 6, and 20! This counts as a total of five Successes, but the 20 adds a Complication (…more of that in a bit!). The Game Master rolls just two dice and only gets 10 and 18, for one Success. Clearly, the thief has failed to parry Sigrid’s strike with her spear and her player spends two Momentum to disarm the thief, knocking his knife from his hand. The other three Momentum are saved to add to the damage roll. Sigurd’s player rolls four Combat dice for the spear’s damage, for a result of 2, 3, 5, and 6. The 2 gives one damage, the 3 does not, and both the 5 and the 6 add further damage as well as two Effects, which with the Piercing Quality of the spear means that the blow will ignore the Soak of the armour worn by the thief. Even if the thief was wearing armour, this would negate its effect and so the thief takes 4 damage plus another 3 from the extra Momentum, which translates as Harms. The 7 Harms are enough to inflict a Wound to the thief—5 Harms are enough—and since Sigrid’s player has had her disarm the thief, the Game Master declares that it is to the thief’s right arm rather than roll for it…
Lastly, there is the 20 that Sigrid’s player rolled! The Game Master could simply add two Doom to the Doom pool, but decides that the roof that the fight is on is weak. So as Sigrid and the thief manoeuvre, the roof under their feet shifts and suddenly collapses under their feet and they find themselves falling into the building below amidst a shower of tiles and wooden beams…
Sorcery covers various traditions, such as Eastern Sorcery, Shamanism, and Witchcraft, but only gives thirteen spells, from Astral Wanderings and Atavistic Voyage to Summon Horror and Venom on the Wind. For the most part, these are not the ‘fire and forget’ dweomers of other fantasy roleplaying games. They take time and effort and great study as well as pledging oneself to a patron. The difficulty of casting spells and the fact that sorcerers are not necessarily immune to the spells they cast means that they turn to other means to build their magical reputations, notably alchemy and animal handling. The first to create petty enchantments such as exploding or blinding powers, talismans, and so on, the second to befriend beasts to aid a sorcerer rather than actually summon one. Overall, Sorcery in Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is challenging and dangerous, but still playable.

Our sample sorcerer is a priest of Mitra from Koth, accepted into the priesthood from childhood despite being born under an ill omen. He has been pushed and trained under a rigorous regime, but ostracised and mistrusted. In response, Maurus trusts few people and sought out forbidden areas of research and alternate knowledge. He does not know if this is in response to the poor portents of his birth or fulfilling them. 

Name: Maurus
Homeland: Koth
Languages: Kothic, Aquilonian
Class: Priesthood Social Standing: 2
Story: Ill Omens (Cursed)
Archetype: Priestess
Nature: Learned
Education: Elder Mentor
War Story: Survived Sorcery
Fortune Points: 3

Attribute Aspects

Agility 6 Awareness 8 Brawn 6 Coordination 7
Intelligence 11 Personality 11 Willpower 13

Vigor 6 Resolve 15
Melee Damage Bonus 0
Ranged Damage Bonus 0
Mental Damage Bonus 2

Cosmopolitan, Courageous, Patron, Priest, Quiet Wisdom, Scribe, Subject

Alchemy (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Animal Handling (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Counsel (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Craft (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Discipline (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Insight (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Lore (Expertise 4, Focus 4), Observation (Expertise 2, Focus 2), Persuade (Expertise 3, Focus 3), Society (Expertise 1, Focus 1), Sorcery (Expertise 2, Focus 2)

Petty Enchantments
Atavistic Voyage

Staff, Scroll of Mitra’s Teachings, Oils, Herbs, Religious accoutrements, alchemical kit, Sorcery kit, Personal library

In terms of background, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of provides an introductory gazetteer of the Hyborian World. This is written as if taken from the academic papers that Howard based his stories upon, and as much it introduces the setting, it sets up each of the setting and character supplements to come, so that the section on the lands of the north will be explored in the supplement, Conan the Barbarian, which also explore in detail campaigns built around the barbarian archetype. Altogether, some nine regions and thus some nine supplements and campaign types are prefigured here. A lovely touch is the inclusion of a boxed section of ‘Hyborian Shorthand’, which suggests the historical influences on Howard’s Conan stories. These very simply allow the Game Master and her players get a handle on what each of the various nations in the setting are like.

These boxed sections continue throughout the ‘Gamemastering’ chapter, which make the connection between writings of Howard and the writings of H.P. Lovecraft as well as constantly ask what would Howard do if writing a Conan story as much as running Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. From handling the rules to telling stories, player character motivation to environments, elements of Conan adventures to life between adventures—with a particular focus on carousing, the advice impressively thorough and helpful. It is supported by a good range of encounters or mortal foes, wild beasts, monstrous foes, and otherworldly horrors for the Game Master to use in her campaign, plus write-ups of some of the major characters from Howard’s Conan stories including the eponymous protagonist himself. The encounters are categorised as minions, toughened foes, nemeses, and horrors, and should provide plenty of opposition for a Game Master in the initial stages of her campaign. As should a sample set of NPCs, though they can also work as allies or even sample player characters. Rounding out the roleplaying game is the adventure is ‘Vultures of Shem’, which starts with the player characters standing in the middle of a battlefield after their side has been defeated and goes from there. It is a good set-up, gets the characters and their players involved quickly and should provide a couple of good sessions worth of play.

Physically, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is a sturdy hardback, liberally illustrated throughout with scenes from Conan’s adventures and the Hyborian Age. For the most part, it is very well written, the section on gamer mastering in particular, being very good. There are sections in the gazetteer which feel horridly overwritten and there is nothing to really ground either player or Game Master in the setting after the introduction before the writers start on character generation and the rules.

At its heart, Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is quite a simple game, the 2d20 System being relatively straightforward and easy to understand. Unfortunately, with the addition of the rules for Momentum and Doom, the complexity of the rules ramps up. The problem with this is adjusting to and learning just what the Momentum mechanics can deliver and enable the larger than life style of play which Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of is designed to deliver as a roleplaying game. The learning curve feels greater than it really should be and that may be off-putting for some players. There is a focus upon combat in these rules, particularly for Momentum and Doom, but that is to be expected for what is to be designed to deliver a larger than life, pulpy, action-orientated roleplaying experience. Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of promises lurid sensationalism, exotic locations, bold adventure, weird menace, fearless action, and more. It certainly delivers on that promise and the 2d20 System certainly feels suited to the stories of Robert E. Howard’s Conan.

Saturday, 13 October 2018

The Other OSR: Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower

An isolated location, a village in peril, a need for outside agents—the player characters, and a secret long forgotten. These are all the classic ingredients for a type of Dungeons & Dungeons scenario which has been with us from the beginning with T1 The Village of Hommlet and B2, Keep on the Borderlands and continuing with Scourge of the Howling Horde for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and H1 Keep on the Shadowfall for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition—and beyond! Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh fits this same pattern. The hillfort village of Anminster sits astride the road through the Ettinmarsh, an isolated stop along a minor trade route, but both trade and travel have been disrupted by bandits and the local lord’s capacity to respond has been limited by the loss of half of his soldiery. Thus, he has need for freelancers—that is, the player characters—to investigate and perhaps put an end to the danger threatening Anminster.

All this sounds like an Old School Renaissance adventure for the retroclone of your choice—and it is. Not the retroclone what you were thinking of though, but for Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh, which is written for use with Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style!, the supplement for Mythras which is designed to do Dungeons & Dragons-style adventuring with a percentile mechanic, a stronger emphasis on skills, and the use of passions. Published by The Design Mechanism—and available in the United Kingdom via Aeon GamesAdventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh is designed for characters of Rank One and Two. It is intended as an introduction to the world of Greymoor, the setting for Classic Fantasy adventures—surely a nod to Greyhawk, one of the original Dungeons & Dragons campaign worlds, but noticeably does not include a great deal in the way of background about that setting. Instead the given background is very much focused on supporting the set-up for the adventure and its sequels, the first of which is Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower.

Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower is a follow on from Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh, building on the set-up provided in Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh, that of an isolated location beset by banditry—in this case, a tribe of goblins. Importantly, what the events of Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh did was focus on another situation—one confined to the village fort of Anminster and below—rather than the bandit threat. Essentially, Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh left that plot thread hanging, but its sequel picks up on it and brings it to a somewhat succinct conclusion. Again designed for characters of Rank One and Two, the scenario opens with the both the village and the adventurers being alerted to an attack on a caravan out on the causeway through the swamp. Clues at the burning caravan point back into the swamp and to an ancient tower—the tower of the scenario’s title, once the home of an ancient Elven necromancer and now widely believed to be haunted. Here the Goblin band which has been plaguing the causeway and surrounding area have its base.

The six floors of the narrowing Moonspike Tower are described in some detail as are the inhabitants, as there is more to the location than a Goblin lair. In fact, there is a chance that the player characters can roleplay their way through the situation, but there likelihood is that that they will have to fight their way in and up to atop the tower. Notably, there is a strange artefact there that requires the player characters to return to Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh to activate and if activated will require the Game Master to develop further adventures (though Kefitzah Haderech: Incunabulum of the Uncanny Gates and Portals from Lost Pages may well be useful). 

Effectively, Moonspike Tower and the Goblin lair wraps up the plot which began in Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh and brings it to a close. Yet, this only takes up sixteen pages of Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower, so what of the other twenty or so pages? Well, some of those pages are given over to monster stats, exactly as you would expect, but the remainder is split into two sections.

The first is ‘Tomb Lair of the Kobolds’. Just six pages long, it presents base of a small band of Kobolds which the Game Master can drop in her campaign in and around the Ettinmarsh where Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh and Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower are set. It can be used as a random encounter or a hook is included to draw the player characters to the Kobold lair. Short and detailed, in terms of rewards it deliver more magical items than in previous adventures, but it feels too similar to the Goblin lair of Moonspike Tower in being another encounter with evil humanoids. Nor does it feel like a development of the earlier content in both adventures, when perhaps the rest of the module could have given more information about the area around Anminister and Ettinmarsh. In particular, where the artefact atop Moonspike Tower might lead could have been developed as could the bedraggled settlement of Sunken Veldra, which is marked on the map.

The remainder of Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower—almost half—is given over to a set of encounter tables. These have been copied from the Classic Fantasy Unearthed Companion and modified for use in the supplement’s default setting of Mystamyr. They cover travel on all types of terrain as well as flight and do include notes on special encounters. In general, should the Game Master want to expand upon possible encounter in and around Ettinmarsh, then the tables are useful.

Yet, as useful as the Random Encounter tables are and as decent a mini-encounter/dungeon ‘Tomb Lair of the Kobolds’ is, both feel out of place in Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower. Arguably, Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower should be concentrating on bringing the adventure and plot begun in the previous adventure to a close. Well, actually it does, but only in the first sixteen pages, leaving the author to fill the scenario/supplement with seemingly random content. So the question is, should the Moonspike Tower encounter really have been included in this adventure at all and instead been included in Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh? Arguably so, given its length… That would have been allowed room for the encounter with the Kobolds and perhaps another two encounters to support the Random Encounter tables or perhaps some background on Ettinmarsh and the wider area so that a Game Master can create material of her on. 

Physically, Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower matches the standard of presentation of Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh. It is clean and tidy, lightly illustrated, though not with new artwork. Like its prequel, the module would stand up to better handling with a card cover. The maps are better handled than in the prequel though, and although the area map is presented in colour on the back cover, it does include the location of various places that are meant to be hidden from the player characters.

There is no denying that Adventure Module M1: The Terror of Ettinmarsh needed a sequel. After all, it left a big plot hook left dangling… Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower does a decent job of providing that sequel and bringing that story line to a close, even offering a guide to using non-violent means. Yet that only takes up half of the module, and whilst the rest of module—the mini encounter and the Random Encounter Tables—is decent enough, the constituent three parts of Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower just do not feel as if they should be in the same module. Ettinmarsh and the surrounding area deserves more coverage, it is just a pity that Adventure Module M2: Moonspike Tower does not provide that.

Friday, 12 October 2018

Friday Filler: The Fighting Fantasy Co-op II

Escape the Dark Castle: The Game of Atmospheric Adventure brought the brutality of the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure books of the eighties to co-operative game play for up to four players in which their characters begin imprisoned in a tyrant’s castle and must work together to win their freedom. Published by Themeborne, with its multiple encounters, traps, monsters, objects, and more as well as a different end of game boss every time, Escape the Dark Castle offered a high replay value, especially as a game never lasted longer than thirty minutes. That replay value is enhanced with the release of Escape the Dark Castle: Adventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight, the first expansion for Escape the Dark Castle. Originally funded by the same Kickstarter campaign as the core game, Escape the Dark Castle: Adventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight brings replay value to the core game with a new threat to the characters’ possible escape—both big and small, three new potential escapees, and more.

In Escape the Dark Castle: Adventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight, a new figure has risen to prominence. This is the Death Knight, a legendary swordsman to whose banner flock the weak, the mindless, and the fanatic. As the ‘Lord of Decay’, he works to dominate all of the castle, including its prisoners. He corrupts and he twists, but above all he sends out curses! This is the set-up for Escape the Dark Castle’s first adventure pack, a standalone expansion whose Cards can also be mixed in with those from the core game. It includes fifteen new Chapter Cards, three new Character Cards, three new Character Dice, a Cult Die, five new Item Cards—all of them curses, and of course, a new Boss Card in the form of the Dark Knight himself. He will be the final challenge to be faced and overcome if the prisoners are to escape the Dark Castle!

The three new characters—the Bishop, the Hunter, and the Mason—are specialists. They roll six Dice for their primary Traits, the Mason for his Might, the Hunter for his Cunning, and the Bishop for his Wisdom, but just the one Die for the other two traits. Each character also has his own Die, but the specialisation has several profound effects upon gameplay. Most obviously, challenges and situations which fall within each character’s own specialisation are going to be much easier than those that are not, but conversely, challenges and situations which fall outside of their specialisation are going to be very difficult. The judicious use of items—and particularly co-operation between the characters—are the key to both their survival and their potential escape more than ever. Consequently, the fortunes of the characters in their escape attempt are going to very much swing this way and that…

The five new Item Cards are all black and all black—front and back. These have dread effects in play. ‘Accelerated Decay’ forces items drawn in a Chapter to crumble and be removed from play; ‘Crippling Injury’ prevents a Character from carrying more than one Item or a two-handed Item; ‘Temporal Vortex’ sucks all Relics in play into a vortex and back into the Item deck; and ‘Restless Spirit’ prevents a Character from resting during combat. Lastly, ‘Marked for Death’ makes a Character the target of Cultist attacks and ripe for Cult recruitment. ‘Crippling Injury’, ‘Marked for Death’, and  ‘Restless Spirit’ cannot be removed from play once drawn and stay with a Character until game’s end.

A Character who receives the ‘Marked for Death’ Curse Card is in a perilous situation and a potential threat to his fellow escapees. First, he suffers extra damage when fighting them; second, he cannot rest; and third, when his Hit Points falls below half, his player must roll the Cult Die instead of the Character Die. The Cult Die completely lacks the double symbols and the shield symbol of the Character Dice. Instead, it is only marked with single symbols on its six sides, but worse, three of those sides are marked in black. When one of these is rolled in combat, the Character has betrayed his fellow escapees as the Cult Die is added to the row of dice that the Characters must defeat on the Chapter Card! Further, the Character who rolled the Cult Die no longer participates in the fight, although he does not take any damage when he is hit. Once the combat is over, the Character who is ‘Marked for Death’ retrieves the Cult Die, ready for it to be rolled in the next combat. It is possible for a Character ‘Marked for Death’ to be healed back up to half of his Hit Points and so be able to use his Character Die once again, but should he suffer further damage he is still prone to falling into the cult’s clutches once again.

The ‘Marked for Death’ Curse is a very powerful card and once in play, will very likely seriously handicap the Characters in their escape attempt. Especially when the Cult Die replaces the Character Die of the affected Character as it also negates their potential effectiveness in combat as it limits the number of symbols they can roll. For the Bishop, the Hunter, and the Mason this is much more of a problem because as specialists, they also lose their focus.

Then there are the Chapter Cards which make up the Castle and the Characters’ escape route. This is a good mix of rooms and monsters, but to that mix are added cultists. There are only five of these—so the Death Knight’s cult is not all that big—but in conjunction with the ‘Marked for Death’ Cure Card, they are dangerous! Lastly, there is the Death Knight himself, the final encounter to be overcome before the Characters can escape. With his ability to block different symbols from round to round, he is a very difficult boss to defeat.

Physically, Escape the Dark Castle: Adventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight is as well produced as the core game. The Chapter, Boss, and Character Cards are large and really easy to read and understand. Each one is illustrated in Black and White, in a style which echoes that of the Fighting Fantasy series and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay last seen in the nineteen eighties.

When the Death Knight himself has been defeated a few times, then the replay value of this expansion can be increased by mixing it into the core game. That may actually make the encounters from this pack easier to deal with because although the same Item Deck will be used, not all of the Chapter Cards from Escape the Dark Castle: Adventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight will go into the fifteen cards that make up the Castle, so there is less likelihood of a Cultist being drawn and a Character being drawn into the Cult’s clutches. Overall, Escape the Dark Castle: Adventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight is as deadly and as dangerous and as difficult as it sounds. If you enjoyed Escape the Dark Castle and were looking for more of challenge, then Escape the Dark Castle: Adventure Pack 1 – Cult of the Death Knight would be your next choice.

Monday, 8 October 2018

Miskatonic Monday #14: The Gruen Transfer

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 them 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 of the 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.


Name: The Gruen Transfer
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Danial Carroll

Setting: Modern Day
Product: Scenario
What You Get: 15.41 MB, 22-page full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: Last minute mall massacre.
Plot Hook: Closing time takes on a whole meaning for the new shift at the mall.
Plot Development: It’s a reverse Dawn of the Dead with a ‘Ghoulish’ supper.

Plot Support: Six pre-generated player characters, mall map, random set-up, and season’s greetings.

Production Values: Clean and clear layout; nice map; decent pre-generated player characters


# Solid set-up
# Simple, straightforward plot
# Ordinary player characters
# Survival horror one-shot
# Inverts the Gruen Effect
# Who are the zombies?


# Little investigation, little to discover
# Faceless NPCs
# Undeveloped backstory
# No red herrings
# Unsuitable for campaign play


# Weak backstory & plot 
# Potential strong personal horror