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

Saturday, 15 December 2018

1998: Alternity: Science Fiction Roleplaying Game

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

—oOo—

The publication of Alternity: Science Fiction Roleplaying Game in 1998 marked the return of TSR, Inc. to the Science Fiction genre. In its twenty or so years, the publisher had dipped its toe into the genre several times, hoping to find the success it had with Dungeons & Dragons in the fantasy genre, the most well-known entries being Star Frontiers from 1982, Buck Rogers XXVC from 1988, and the worldbooks like Bughunters, The Galactos Barrier, and Kromosome for use with Amazing Engine. Where those roleplaying games differed from Alternity, was that they were not generic, but instead had their own settings, whereas Alternity was generic. It was designed to provide a framework for Science Fiction adventures not just in the far future, but also adventures in then ‘here and now’. So Space Opera, gritty Cyberpunk, alien conspiracy, and so on. At its core were two books, the Player’s Handbook and the Gamemaster Guide. It is the former that is being reviewed here.

What is striking about the Player’s Handbook is that it is not just a guide and the rules to creating characters for Alternity. It is an introduction to the Alternity rules and the rules themselves as well as the guide and the rules to creating characters for Alternity. This is such that the Game Master will probably be referring to this rather than the Game Master Guide for the running of the game. The very first chapter of the Player’s Handbook even includes a set of ‘Fast-Play Rules’ which explains the basics of the game and gives some characters all in a few changes. After that, the Player’s Handbook settles down to explain Hero creation and its various elements, as well combat, equipment, arms and armour, computers, mutants, psionics, and cybertech. Not spaceship construction and planets—rules for those will have to wait until the Game Master Guide. Throughout, there are parallels to Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, but these are quite light and although the roleplaying game is a ‘Class and Level’ or ‘Profession and Level’, there is greater flexibility in what a character can be within the rules in Alternity than there is in Dungeons & Dragons.

What is really striking about Alternity is the core mechanic. It uss polyhedral dice as normal—except oddly, not the ten-sided die—but any roll to undertake an action always involves two dice. One is the Control die, which is always a twenty-sided die. The other is a Situation Die, which can vary in size—although not a ten-sided die as the designers only wanted to use the platonic solids—and can either be a plus or a minus. When rolled together, the result on the Situation Die is applied to the result on the Control Die and the total compared against an attribute if a Feat Check or the total of an attribute plus skill if a Skill Check. The aim of course, being to roll equal to or under the target number. Results range from Critical Failure (a natural twenty) and Failure to Ordinary Success (under the target), Good Success (under half the target), and Amazing Success (under a quarter of the target). A typical Situation Die is +d4 for a Feat Check or a broad Skill Check, but +0 for a speciality Skill Check, the type of Situation Die and the number of Situation Dice can go up or down on the Situation Die Steps Scale.
For example, Doctor Walter Gallardo is conducting a comparative examination of legends of the peoples of two worlds in an attempt to draw parallels in their structure and so confirm his theory about their being connected. To confirm his hypothesis, Doctor Gallardo’s player wants to make a Xenology check. The target is 16 and since this is a Speciality Skill Check, he will be rolling +d0 for the Situation Die as well as the Control Die. The Game Master moves this down one Step to -1d4 as Doctor Gallardo gets a strange prickly feeling, which he puts down to intuition (in fact this is the artefact affecting his mind). So his player is rolling 1d20 and -1d4. On the Control Die, he rolls an 8, but on the Situation Die, he rolls a 4. The latter is deducted from the former to get a final result of 4. This is an Amazing success and the obsessed is able to make the connection between the two legends and the two cultures. 
Later on when Doctor Gallardo goes to his head of department to get funding to follow up on his findings, he is faced with a more difficult task. For this, Gallardo’s player will roll the dice against his Interaction skill, which is a Broad Skill. This means that he will be rolling the Control Die and a +1d4 Situation Die. The Game Master states that the task is a difficult one and suffers a +1 step situation penalty, increasing the Situation Die to +1d6. Given that Gallardo’s Interaction skill is 10, this is a tough challenge, so his player triggers Gallardo’s Luck Perk. That requires a Will check, the aim being to get a bonus. Gallardo’s player manages to get a Good success, which gives him a -3 bonus to apply to the roll. Unfortunately, he rolls 14 on the Control die and 6 on the Situation die. Even with the bonus from the Luck Perk, there no way in which Doctor Gallardo is going to get funding to go off on a harebrained scheme to confirm the existence of ancient aliens...
A character—or Hero as he is known—in Alternity is defined by his Ability scores, Species, Career and Profession, Skills, Perks and Flaws, as well as various roleplaying attributes. The six Abilities are Strength, Dexterity, Constitution, Intelligence, Will, and Personality, and range in value between four and fourteen for Humans, and slightly higher for some other Species. The base Species is Human, but five other Species are given—Fraal, Mechalus, Sesheyan, T’sa, and Weren—all of which feature in Star*Drive, the first setting for Alternity. Fraal are like the Greys, long-lived with psionics and a limited emotional range; Mechalus are cyborgs with an affinity for computers and technology; Sesheyan are bewinged humanoids capable of flight from a low tech world new to spaceflight who make good spies and scouts; T’sa are reptilian and fast, ever-cheery tinkerers; and the Weren are giant, furred, clawed tough warriors from a primitive culture with a reputation for zealotry. As well as notes on roleplaying for each species, each write-up includes details of their roles in contemporary, near-future, and far-future campaigns, giving both Game Master and player alike further useful information.

Alternity provides four broad Professions—or Classes—Combat Spec, Diplomat, Free Agent, and Tech Op, each a sort of archetypal character. Each provides a few simple benefits. For example, Combat Spec Heroes are faster and specialise in one combat related skill, so their Action Check for determining their initiative is increased by three and the base Situation Die for their chosen skill is -d4 rather than +d0. Diplomats start with contacts or resources and can purchase skills from another chosen Profession at a discount; Free Agents have greater resistance for one Ability and more Last Resort Points—the equivalent of Hero Points in Alternity; and Tech Ops receive extra Skill Points as they attain each Achievement Level.

Within Profession there are several Careers. So for Combat Spec there is Bodyguard, Law Enforcer, Spacehand, and so on, whilst for Free Agent, there is Explorer, Reporter, Spy, amongst others. These are guidelines only and the Game Master is encouraged to create more. They do not provide any particular benefit, each instead providing a ready package of skills to purchase and an equipment package. Skills themselves are either Broad or Specialised, so Culture is the Broad Skill, whilst Diplomacy, Etiquette, and First Encounter are the Specialised Skills. The Broad Skill needs to be purchased before any Specialised Skills can be taken and is always equal to the governing Ability. So for Culture, this is the Hero’s Personality Ability. Specialised Skills are bought in Ranks, the Ranks being added to the value Broad Skill. Perks and Flaws are advantages and disadvantages, whilst Attributes—Motivations, Moral Attitudes, and Character Traits are essentially roleplaying hooks and tags.

To create a Hero, a player selects a Species, Career and Profession, then divides sixty points between the six Abilities. Although every Hero receives some Broad Skills, the number of points their player is given to spend on skills is derived from a Hero’s Intelligence score. Unfortunately, this favours the Intelligence Ability over the other three Abilities, forcing a player to put points into that Ability when he may not necessarily want to play an intelligent Hero. This is a problem which Alternity shares with many generic roleplaying systems which favour Intelligence. Purchasing skills is probably the most complex part of the process, requiring a fair degree of arithmetic, again an issue with many generic systems. Another issue with the skills is the choice, there being an odd lack of social sciences. So no anthropology, archaeology, and so on, but plenty of hard and life sciences. Purchasing Perks and Flaws is easier as is selecting the various roleplaying Attributes.

Our sample Hero is Doctor Walter Gallardo, a physicist turned xeno-archaeologist who is obsessed with confirming the existence of a progenitor species which occupied and seeded known space with their current species. This began after he found an artefact, an amethyst bracelet that at first he thought would be a perfect gift for his wife, but upon latter examination was found to be worked through with an unfamiliar circuitry. When he began having strange dreams of worlds beyond known space, he soon realised that the artefact was the cause. He quickly bought his wife another gift, kept the bracelet for himself, and began researching both it and legends of the ‘ancients’. In the last year, his search has become an obsession, his wife despairing of both his focus and his loss of interest in his research at work.

Doctor Walter Gallardo
Species: Human Gender: Male
Profession: Tech-ops Career: Scientist
Rank 1

Abilities (Untrained)
Strength 8 (4) Dexterity 9 (4) Constitution 9 (4)
Intelligence 14 (7) Will 10 (5) Personality 10 (5)

Action Check 11

Skills
Strength
Athletics (8/4/2)
Dexterity  
Vehicle Op (8/4/2)
Constitution
Movement  (9/4/2)—Trailblazing 1  (10/5/2); Stamina (9/4/2); Survival  (9/4/2)—Survival Training 1 (10/5/2);
Intelligence
Knowledge (14/7/3)—Computer Operation 1 (15/7/3), Deduce 2 (16/8/4); Life Science (14/7/3)—Xenology 2 (16/8/4); Physical Science (14/7/3)—Astronomy 1 (15/7/3), Chemistry 2 (16/8/4), Physics 2 (16/8/4); System Operation (14/7/3)—Communications 1 (15/7/3), Sensors 1 (15/7/3)
Will
Awareness (10/5/2); Investigate (10/5/2)—Search 1 (11/5/2)
Personality
Culture (10/5/2); Interaction (10/5/2)

Perks & Flaws
Concentration, Good Luck, Photo Memory; Alien Artefact, Forgetful, Obsessed

Roleplaying Attributes
Motivation: Discovery
Moral Attitude: Selfish
Character Traits: Logical, Curious

Combat in Alternity adds an interesting tweak or two to its mechanics. For example, initiative is determined by an Action Check, the result—Marginal, Ordinary, Good, or Amazing—matching the four phases in an Action Round and indicating when a Hero can first act. Similarly, damage has three degrees of success—Ordinary, Good, or Amazing—which match the outcome of the Skill Check made for the attack and each weapon has three damage ratings, one for each of the three degrees of success. Weapons can inflict stun, wound, mortal, and fatigue damage. So a standard 9mm handgun does d4+1w on an Ordinary degree of success; d4+2w on a Good degree of success; and d4m damage on an Amazing degree of success. Wearing armour does not require a Skill Check, but instead each type of armour has three ratings—Low Impact, High Impact, and Energy. Thus a Flak Jacket has a Low Impact rating of d6-2, a High Impact rating of d4-1, and an Energy rating of d6-3. The type of damage is matched against one of these ratings and the result of the armour roll deducted from the damage roll. The higher types of damage—wound and mortal—also inflict the lower type, with mortal damage being potentially fatal. That said, Heroes can withstand Stun and Wound damage equal to their Constitution scores and since they will be wearing armour which deducts a single die’s worth or so of damage and most weapons do a single die’s worth or so of damage, unless a Hero gets really unlucky, combat in Alternity has a high degree of give in it. Heroes can take a lot of punishment which gives the mechanics a certain cinematic feel. That said, the combat rules are all that well explained and a more detailed example of how combat works would have been useful.

Roughly half of the Player’s Handbook is dedicated to technology—computers, arms and armour, vehicles, and cybertech. This is governed by Progress Levels, the equivalent of Tech Levels in other Science Fiction roleplaying games. These run from Progress Level 0, the Stone Age, up to Progress Level 9 and beyond… Progress Level 5 represents the Information Age—the here and now, Progress Level 6 is the Fusion Age, the near future, and Progress Level 7 is the Gravity Age of the far future. Computers covers hardware and software as well as the Grid, the worldwide computer network, and hacking; future weapons include electrochemical or charge firearms which ‘charge’ and fire plasma rounds at high velocity, stutter or sonic weapons, lasers, mass weapons which throw short-lived singularities at targets, quantum weapons which fire subatomic particles, amongst others; and future armours include powered armour, body tanks, and displacer suits which shift and blur a wearer’s image. Overall, it is a decent selection arms, armour, and equipment, the authors having mostly succeeded in coming up with a few more options than the obvious laser pistols and sonic stun guns without necessarily being too over the top.

The vehicle rules cover vehicular combat in fairly short order, including spaceship combat. What is really surprising about this chapter is that it includes not one, but two fully worked examples, one of modern vehicle combat and the other of spaceship combat. Both are really useful because they are also the only examples of play in the book. Although there are single examples of the rules in use throughout the Player’s Handbook, the lack of fully worked example does hinder learning the rules of the game and it seems strange to not have any until four fifths of the way through the book. One notable addition to the chapter is a spaceship, including deck plans. The Trader-Class spaceship is not dissimilar to the A2 Far Trader of Traveller fame and it likely serves the same purpose in type of Science Fiction campaigns that Alternity is designed to handle. Straight out of the book it would serve as the base of operations for a group of Heroes in a near or far future campaign, though more starships would probably be needed.

Rounding out the Player’s Handbook for Alternity are further character (and genre) options—mutations, psionics, and cybertech. Although the mutations, such as Acid Touch, Dermal Plating, Hyper Dexterity, echo those of roleplaying games of TSR, Inc. past—such as Gamma World, there is not the wacky range of types and power levels present in the rules for mutations in Alternity. Instead, there are rules that allow them to be purchased much like Perks and Flaws as well as rolling for them randomly. Of course, there are far too few options, but that is to be expected from what is really the introduction to the roleplaying game, and really, it would not be until the release of the Gamma World Campaign Setting that this subject would be covered in any depth.

The treatment of psionics is also decent and feels quite balanced.  Where mutations are abilities, Psionics are skills, listed under four the six abilities as per the other skills, which can be purchased by a fifth Profession, the Mindwalker. Various Mindwalker careers are given, from Biokineticist and Biowarrior to Psiguard and Telepath. Cybertech is the book’s last chapter and feels like the shortest and least useful. A Hero need only invest ten skill points into learning to use a nanocomputer and after that, he can have as much cyberware install as his Tolerance can withstand and he can afford. The list includes the BattleKlaw, Cyberoptics, Data Slots, and so on, but after the richness of the Muations and Psionics chapters, it feels a bit threadbare.

What the Mutations, Psionics, and Cybertech chapters do is actually quite a lot. In absence of worldbuilding rules and advice, rules for spaceship construction, and rules for creating alien species, is that they open genre options. Of course, they are options available to the Heroes in some settings, but they also allow the Game Master to create alien races, run campaigns involving them, and so on. Push the Mutations and Psionics rules in one way and Alternity could work as a low level superhero roleplaying setting, but pull it in another and you could do a world where mutants are hunted.

Physically, the Player’s Handbook is very late nineties, all sidebars and text boxes with rounded corners. Here these boxes are done in bright green, making them stand out against the white pages of the book, although not always easy on the eye. Done in full colour throughout, the book is not heavily illustrated, but does include some really nice illustrations in its pages. This being a TSR, Inc. book, the writing and editing is of course, professional. 

One issue with the Player’s Handbook is that some chapters are better organised and presented than others. Certainly the later chapters are better and easier to read than those earlier in the book. As a consequence, the rules for things vehicle combat and mutations and psionics are better explained and in the case of vehicle combat, better shown in action, than the core rules themselves. Yes, it helps that the fast play rules are presented at the front of the book, but the lack of an example of play and of standard combat—as opposed to vehicle and spaceship combat—are a definite hindrance rather than a help. Nor does it help necessarily, that the section on personal combat is lumped in with the ‘Heroes in Action’ chapter, so that the rules for combat do not stand enough for the Game Master to run them with any great ease.

Re-examining Alternity twenty years on and it is difficult to really engage with it with any great enthusiasm. Certainly in the form of the Player’s Handbook what really stood out about Alternity was the core mechanic of the Control Die and the Situation Die—the latter being able to scale—which was as radical a design as TSR, Inc. ever attempted, and really was more quirky than radical. The rest of the roleplaying game is far from radical though, a fairly standard take upon the Science Fiction genre, but one grounded in Space Opera and cinematic Sci-Fi rather than hard Science Fiction. There are aspects of the mechanics that are well handled though, mutations and psionics, in particular. These show promise as to what Alternity can do in terms of genre and campaigns should the Game Master want to include them. In the meantime, the Player’s Handbook provides a serviceable introduction to a serviceable set of generic Science Fiction roleplaying rules, from which a good Game Master should be able to get a good game. Essentially TSR, Inc.’s last hurrah, it is left up to the campaign settings—Star*Drive, Dark•Matter, and Gamma World—to really showcase what Alternity: Science Fiction Roleplaying Game can do.

—oOo—

With thanks to Geoff Greenwood for his comments on the review.


Sunday, 9 December 2018

Ave Cthulhu II

The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus: Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome is an update and expansion of Cthulhu Invictus, published in 2008 by Chaosium, Inc. for use with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, itself based on an Miskatonic University Library Association monograph published in 2004. Chaosium did a minor update of the setting to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition  with Cthulhu Through the Ages, but it is Golden Goblin Press that has published this more thorough update following a successful Kickstarter campaign. This is good news given that both publisher and author of Golden Goblin Press have experience with the setting, having published the more recent scenario anthology, De Horrore Cosmico for the period, and written the only campaign for the setting to date. This is the highly regarded The Legacy of Arrius Lurco, published by the much lamented Miskatonic River Press, one of the few campaigns for Call of Cthulhu to be set outside the Jazz Age of the 1920s.

The setting for Cthulhu Invictus is 145 AD, during the reign of Antonius Pius. It is a period of relative peace and stability, his rule being over an empire of over two million square miles and some one hundred million people, stretching from the Black Sea in the East to Britannia in the West, from the deserts of Africa in the south to the Rhine in the north. Yet this period is not without its dangers, for there is a ‘Shadow War’ going on, being fought by a few in the know, against an enemy that they barely understand—cults dedicated to Great Old Ones and Outer Gods, alien creatures and beings which prey upon the citizens of the Empire, and remnants of civilisations and empires from before the rise of man—known as ‘Lost Kingdoms and Fallen Empires’, many determined to destroy not just the empire, but also the known world… Many creatures are the basis for myths and legends from across the empire and are often as dangerous, if not more so, than the tales of them tell.

The ‘Shadow War’ provides a very loose framework for a Cthulhu Invictus campaign framework, loose because it involves investigations and acquisition of knowledge by disparate groups and individuals. Each is aware of some aspects of the Mythos, but not all and should any communicate with the others, they might just realise the true extent of threat that mankind faces. Cthulhu Invictus supports this in two ways. One is a ready selection of Patrons, Investigator Organisations, and NPCs. The NPCs were all added as part of the Kickstarter and include a very lucky potential mentor; an infamous pirate, scourge of ships and sea devils alike; and the world’s best linguist. The Patrons range from a renowned astrologer to a collector of strange tales, whilst the Investigator Organisations include ‘The Awoken’, all survivors of similar incidents who have a strange sense about the world; ‘The Army of Metilus’, a ghost who gathers ‘soldiers’ to fulfil dangerous missions; and more. These are nicely detailed and provide the Keeper with set-ups and NPCs around which to build scenarios and campaigns.

The ‘Shadow War’ is not the only aspect of Cthulhu Invictus that marks the setting as being different to other campaign settings for Call of Cthulhu. In the Roman Empire—and beyond of Cthulhu Invictus, magic is real and everyone believes in it. Indeed, although its practice is illegal, it is possible for certain investigator occupations to begin play with a spell or two, typically drawn from the folk magic given in The Grand Grimoire of Cthulhu Mythos Magic. As much as Cthulhu Invictus uses the ‘monsters’ of the Mythos, it also draws from Greek and Roman myth for its own monsters—Cyclops, Gorgons, Minotaurs, and so on—but reinterprets through the lens of the Mythos to create something new, but familiar (and of course, definitely deadly). There have been some changes in the background to Cthulhu Invictus from the original edition to this one, notably to omit the more fantastical Mythos activities in Greece. There is certainly Mythos activity the empire’s Greek provinces, much of it dating over the course of thousands of years, but it is more restrained in nature here.

Yet Cthulhu Invictus is a Call of Cthulhu campaign setting and it shares aspects familiar to other more modern campaign settings too. These include international travel, so that it is possible to do a Roman world-trotting campaign; Pulp or Purist tones—the former offering ‘Swords & Sandals versus the Mythos’; ready access to arms (mostly melee weapons and usually not much help against the forces of the Mythos) and armour; and opportunity still for research at libraries, even on scrolls and artefacts which date from the time of the ‘Lost Kingdoms and Fallen Empires’. That said, low literacy rates means that the researcher is even more of a specialist than he is in more modern settings. Nevertheless, the supplement supports the role with a solid selection of new scrolls and tomes particular to the period, as well as various new Mythos artefacts.

In terms of investigator options, Cthulhu Invictus provides almost sixty Occupations, from Advocate, Apothecary, and Archer to Thief, Vigilis, and Writer. They include Roman occupations such as Augur, Centurion, Gladiator, and Prefect, plus non-Roman ones like Barbarian and Druid. In the main, investigator creation ues the same rules as Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but where investigators in the standard game, here they have the Status skill. It serves a similar function, but fundamentally it indicates a character’s social class and place in Roman society and thus what Occupation an investigator might have. A simple labourer would have a Status of no more than twenty, whereas a Senator would a Status of between forty and seventy. Certain Occupations, such as Gladiator and Magus, are so lacking in respect that instead of Status, they have Infamy, representing their lack of legal protections within the empire and putting them on a par with slaves.

A guide to the various degrees of Status is given, from slave or destitute freeman vagabond right up to Imperial Domus, a member of the emperor’s family, although this is unobtainable for most investigators. Included in this guide are suggestions on how to handle the place of slaves and women in investigator groups in Roman times. This is to get around the social restrictions on both at the time and to provide a group with some roleplaying challenges too, since playing either will be different to playing men. Both issues are potentially difficult, but they maturely handled here.

An extensive set of tables enables both Keeper and her players to generate suitably Roman names whilst a smaller set provides inspiration and options for an investigator’s background. Options are included for creating experienced investigators. Being set in the ancient world, Cthulhu Invictus replaces a lot of skills with ones appropriate to both time and place. These include Empire—knowledge of the Roman Empire, and Other Kingdoms—knowledge of kingdoms beyond the empire’s borders; the addition of Astrology and Augury as specialisations of the Science skill; and the inclusion of the Oratory/Rhetoric skill as a noble art. Combat skills are all treated as specialisations of the Fighting skill, including missile weapons and siege weapons.

In general, investigator creation in Cthulhu Invictus is no more complex than that of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, requiring no more than a few extra rolls on the names tables. Our sample investigator is a simple labourer, in from the country and hoping to better herself. She is a skilled apiarist and knows the value of honey in medicine, having been taught by her late mother, who was a freed slave. She would like to know more and hopes to work for an apothecary or physician.

Vibia Durmilla 
age 19, Labourer
STR 70 SIZ 80 CON 35 DEX 65
APP 45 INT 60 POW 65 EDU 25
SAN 58 Luck 70 Damage Bonus +1d4 Build 1
Move 7 HP 11

Status: Poor

Brawl 40% (20/8), damage 1D3+db, or by weapon type
Dodge 32% (16/6)

Skills: Appraise 15%, Art/Craft (Apiculture) 65%, Art/Craft (Potions) 25%, Drive/Teamster 30%, Empire 15%, Fast Talk 15%, Fighting (Brawl) 35%, First Aid 50%, Listen 50%, Medicine 26%, Natural World 50%, Occult 21%, Repair/Devise 35%, Sleight of Hand 35%, Spot Hidden 45%, Status 20%, Stealth 20%, Track 20%

Backstory
Personal Description: Ordinary looking woman who is overweight and who is never without a satchel containing a jar of honey and a small knife
Ideology: All happens according to the will of the gods
Traits: Stoic
Significant Person: Paulinia, a close friend in whose footsteps you are following
Meaningful Location: Tending to the beehives with her mother
Treasured Possession: Family Lares statues

To reflect the dangerous and different world of Cthulhu Invictus gives a number of rules and options that make the setting even more lethal, more difficult, and more different than in traditional Call of Cthulhu. These allow for wounds to become infected, for the religiously devout to gain a bonus when spending Luck points and the religiously indifferent to gain a penalty when spending Luck points—both reflecting the importance of belief in the gods in the Roman world and beyond; and different means of regaining lost Sanity, including home care, and humane, mystical, and agitation treatment. The Sanity gains from any of these methods is not great, no more than a four-sided die, and even then, they are not guaranteed to work, but that fits the setting and if the investigators are devout—and several faiths and philosophies are detailed to that end, they do get that Luck benefit as some kind of compensation at least.

One major difference between Cthulhu Invictus and Call of Cthulhu is that most people are superstitious and genuinely believe in gods, magic, and monsters. Not only do they worship the gods, but the stories they hear from cradle to the grave are those of myth and legend, including as they do numerous fantastic creatures. Yet these creatures are not just those of myth, but of the Mythos. Cthulhu Invictus very much presents centaurs, cyclops, harpies, gorgons, et al, as monsters, though some, like Dryads and Pegasi, are not monstrously dangerous. Other entries in this bestiary are not just monsters, but leftovers from the Fallen Kingdoms, such as the Izdonarii, the last defenders of the Lomarrians. As well as these monsters, Cthulhu Invictus presents several cults as potential threats for the Keeper to pose to her players and their investigators. These are found scattered throughout the empire, from Heralds of the Deep, which secretly worships Cthulhu, to The Eternal Fellowship, whose members seek immortality through any means.

In terms of mundane support, the supplement includes equipment lists, and guides to the Roman Legions, the Roman provinces, and Rome itself. The latter is described as a ‘brief tour’ and ‘brief’ is really how these chapters feel. This is not really a criticism of the content, since the Roman Empire is huge and consequently, there is a huge range of background to cover. Too much, of course, to really cover in the one supplement. It does mean however, that the Keeper may want or need to do further research, whether from history books or other roleplaying supplements.

Rounding out Cthulhu Invictus are are two good scenarios, both of them set in Rome, which makes them easy to run as part of a campaign. They can though, be easily set elsewhere in the empire in any big city. ‘Blood & Glory’ concerns strange goings on at an amphitheatre and a gladiatorial school and consists of two strong investigative strands, nicely encompassing both gender and status. Depending upon how the scenario plays out, it could actually be run a second time, though there should definitely be a break between the two should this happen. The second scenario, ‘Food for Worms’, does plague meets The Walking Dead in Rome. This is no simple zombie tale though and is very much the better for it.

Physically, Cthulhu Invictus is sturdy softback book. It needs a slight edit in places and its layout is perhaps slightly cramped in places, but is otherwise well written and an easy read. In terms of appearance though, it is clear that Golden Goblin Press is working to improve the look and production values of its books. Not only is it printed on better paper, Cthulhu Invictus is the publisher’s first full colour tome, but that colour is used judiciously, mostly for photographs and images of period artefacts and artwork. The remaining artwork gives the look of Cthulhu Invictus a pleasingly uniform look and style—especially following the exploits of an investigative party as commanded by their stalwart leader, Brita.

The advantage of a Cthulhu Invictus campaign is that it is very familiar to us from our history lessons and our epic films and television series set in the Roman world. Yet as familiar as it is, the Roman world presents its own challenges in terms of roleplaying and investigating Cosmic horror. These manifest primarily as social differences and different attitudes in terms of gender, religion, and philosophy—all of which Cthulhu Invictus explains and in the scenarios, showcases. What this highlights is that Golden Goblin Press has always had a better appreciation and understanding of the Cthulhu Invictus setting, and if the resulting supplement can never hope—or be expected—to cover everything about the Roman world, The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus: Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome is a more than handsome introduction to Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying in the Ancient World.

Saturday, 8 December 2018

Lamentations of the Flame Punchinello

The Punchline is a scenario for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, designed by Zzarchov Kowolski, the author of the highly regarded Scenic Dunnsmouth. Like other scenarios published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess, it is set in the early modern period of the opening decades of the seventeenth century. In particular, a small alpine village suddenly striven by fear, doubt, and hysteria. This is Forkton, a settlement where rumours of missing children and of the plague in other towns and villages are rife, where the priest stirs up hatred of other faiths with warnings of devil worship and black rites in rage-fuelled rants, and distrust of the outsider runs rampant. Unfortunately, there is more than a grain of truth to these fears and rumours—children are missing, devil-worship is occurring in the valley, outsiders are not to be trusted, and the plague does stalk the land. Which is when the player characters enter the village of Forkton.

The Punchline is a written for play with characters of low Level, but it is not a traditional scripted scenario in that the player characters will follow a relatively tight plot line. Rather, it is more of a mini-sandbox, or given that it takes place in the Alps, a ‘valley-box’. The player characters are free to wander as is their wont, encounter who they want, loot what they want, since they probably going to be more powerful than most of the individuals they encounter. This does not mean that The Punchline lacks a plot, but it is not a plot that relies upon the players and their characters. Its events will play out unless someone intervenes to stop them, with its terrible consequences only serving to add to the terrible things already going on in the valley.

Instead of a plotted scenario, The Punchline is really a toolkit for the Game Master to run a bloody red scenario for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay. She is provided with a dozen NPCs of note to roleplay, descriptions of the ‘villains’ of the piece, maps and descriptions of various locations in the valley, and a full write-up of the ‘Red Plague’ which stalks the land. She is accorded some advice both as to the true nature of scenario and as to how to run, the latter essentially to really ‘ham it up!’. This is for a good reason, since the antagonists at the heart of the scenario are actually a troupe of killer clowns—and no, this is not a spoiler, as it is mentioned on the back cover.

Physically, The Punchline is a handy, digest-sized hardback. It is painted in full colour throughout, drenched in red to reflect its ‘Red Plague’ plotline. The contents are decently organised and details of the scenario’s dozen or so NPCs are handily listed inside the front cover, whilst those for its antagonists are listed inside the back cover. Running to less than forty pages, the scenario is quite short, and the writing is quite punchy in style.

The Punchline is a horror scenario and none of its cast, the NPCs and of course, the antagonists are particularly pleasant individuals, but there is one individual who is particularly unpleasant, such that some Game Masters may have difficulties portraying him. This individual, one of the NPCs, is an anti-Semite. Now despite it being a historical scenario and anti-Semitism being an unfortunate part of that history, this is an issue that the Game Master should approach with care and may even want to avoid portraying all together lest offence be readily caused.

The Punchline is a location adventure, ostensibly set in the Alps, but easily relocated to any mountainous region. It is also easy to drop into an ongoing campaign as somewhere the player characters might stop off at overnight as they travel from one location to another. Similarly, it is easy to run with other retroclones, but its plot also works with the recently released Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Fourth Edition from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, because it takes place in a similar time and place. It is merely a matter of changing names and stats.

The Punchlinee is a ‘killer clown’-themed sequel to The Mask of the Red Death. It is a short, one-night, two-sessions at most, tale of desperation, superstition, and evisceration. It just needs the Game Master and players alike to ham it up into the bloody B-movie it is written to be.

Sunday, 2 December 2018

1993: Magic: The Gathering

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.

—oOo—

Normally, this series examines a particular game from a particular year, moving forward, decade by decade, but this review, although very much part of the series, is a little different. First, it includes a half decade instead of just whole decades and second, it is not of a particular game, but of a history of a particular game. The game is Magic: The Gathering, the ground-breaking collectible card game from Wizards of the Coast, which in 2018 is twenty-five years old. Just as with Dungeons & Dragons almost twenty years before it, the game’s design and the way in which it was played was unique, creating a format and a type of play that many have tried to emulate, but few have been as successful as Magic: The Gathering. Its theme of rival wizards—known as ‘planeswalkers’—duelling each other using spells which inflict damage on an opponent, provide protection against an opponent, and summon creatures was certainly familiar at the time of its release and remains so today, drawing on the fantasy stylings of Dungeons & Dragons. In 1993, its design and game play were radical, but easy to grasp, with players using card decks they could design and build themselves, then design again after each play to match and tweak a strategy. This was supported by the game being highly expandable, Wizards of the Coast designing and releasing new expansion sets on a regular basis, enabling a player to adjust and redesign his deck or design anew, the result being that it can evolve as the game itself evolves. Lastly, Magic: The Gathering is collectible as well as playable, every card being illustrated with a beautiful piece of artwork and like trading cards, categorised as being rare, uncommon, or common.

Magic: The Gathering would win the Origins Awards for Best Fantasy or Science Fiction Board game of 1993 and Best Graphic Presentation of a Board game of 1993 in 1994, with many of its expansions winning Origins awards since then. In the quarter of a century since its first release, Magic: The Gathering has seen many of its players become professional players of the game, made its designers and publishers wealthy, and cemented its place as the definitive collectible or trading card game.

The history is Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering. From its beginnings at the meeting between Richard Garfield and Peter Adkison in 1991, its development and pre-release playtesting to its release at GenCon 1993, and then meteoritic rise in popularity to the establishment of the Pro Tour, the move on-line, and the current state of the game, Generation Decks charts the history of Magic: The Gathering. The game’s early history has, of course, much been written about, but it deserves re-examining and there is a giddy frisson to the book’s opening chapters as the designers, playtesters, and publishers get to grips with Richard Garfield’s unique creation. This almost comes to an abrupt stop with the realisation that the culture at Wizards of the Coast fostered by Peter Adkison is ill-suited to bring Magic: The Gathering to a wider audience and needs to take a mature approach in order to become a professional entity. Fortunately, the excitement returns when the book enters the Pro-Tour world and charts the rise of professional players of the game, the author obtaining some excellent interviews with those players who dominated the professional game in its early years, both in terms of their personalities and their deck designs. These include its heroes—Kai Budde and Jon Finkel, and its villains—Mike Long and Mark Justice.

Similarly, the rise of hobby is equally as interesting, seeing how players came to engage with the game, whether that is creating safe spaces in which to play, setting up websites where the fans could discuss the game and learn more about it, and so on. Yet, in comparison with earlier chapters which explore the early history of the game in some detail, the later chapters feel hurried and as if they gloss over some of the difficulties that the game and its development has faced as it has moved online and the difficulties of it becoming more than a fad confined to its all too male, all too nerdy community. This highlights an issue with Magic: The Gathering, because for the most part, the history of the game has been a male one and perhaps one of the best chapters in Generation Decks about the current state of the game is the involvement of women in it. Or rather the lack of women in it. This is despite the involvement of women like Lisa Stevens—now the CEO of Paizo Publishing—in bringing Magic: The Gathering to market and beyond, but as Chalk explores, there are relatively few women who actively play the game and even fewer who have succeeded on the Pro Tour. The author takes the time to talk to those who are involved to get their opinions and their experiences. Unfortunately, what this again highlights is that like so many other hobbies, too many men are ill-prepared to accept women into ‘their’ hobby. This is one of the few places in the book where the author is less than positive about the hobby and several suggestions are made as to how Wizards of the Coast and the hobby might overcome this issue and it will be interesting to see if they are implemented and the issue is addressed in a future history.

Paralleling the history of Magic: The Gathering in Generation Decks is the story of the author. Notably, he is the son of games designer and illustrator, Gary Chalk, and his story is of a peripatetic upbringing—from the UK to New Zealand, to France, and back to the UK—and of his first encountering Magic: The Gathering to his reengaging with it again and again which parallels the history of the game. Intended to bring a personal touch to the history of the game and certainly, gamers of a similar age will probably recognise some of themselves in the author’s experiences, it is though, very much the book’s ‘B’ plot, not as interesting as the history and downbeat in tone. This personal strand and the history come together at the end of the book when the author gets to meet Richard Garfield himself, and for both author and reader it is an underwhelming experience, cementing the downbeat tone of the personal story with the history.

Unfortunately, Generation Decks has been written inside a bubble—that bubble being Magic: The Gathering itself. Although as mentioned, the book explores how the game’s release and rise in popularity parallels the rise of the digital age, the history it all but completely ignores is that of the greater gaming hobby. Certainly, it acknowledges the game’s debt to Dungeons & Dragons and it covers the rise and popularity of the Pokemon collective card game, but what it ignores is the impact that Magic: The Gathering had upon both gaming industry and gaming hobby. It ignores the many attempts by other publishers to bring similar games to the market, it ignores how this would lead to a bubble that when it burst would bankrupt some companies and drive others to near bankruptcy, and how almost overnight, the gaming hobby became a Magic: The Gathering hobby. (For that the Dungeons & Designers series is undoubtedly a better history.)

For the most part, this is an interesting and enjoyable read, but not a great read. Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering might be an ‘Unofficial History’ of the game, but it is more story than history—after all, if it was a history, it would have an index and it would focus less on the author’s own history. Further, it is not quite a hagiography, but it is perhaps too reverent of its subject to be a good history. The definitive history of Magic: The Gathering remains to be written, but in the meantime, Generation Decks: The Unofficial History of Gaming Phenomenon Magic: The Gathering is a peripatetic telling of its story.