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

Sunday, 13 January 2019

A Mythic Primer

The Glorantha Sourcebook is an important companion to the three roleplaying games set in Greg Stafford’s world of Glorantha—HeroQuest Glorantha, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, and 13th Age Glorantha—all three of which are, like The Glorantha Sourcebook, published by Chaosium, Inc.. It is a systemless sourcebook which introduces the mythic and mythological underpinnings of Glorantha, taking us from the creation of the universe and God Time to the Gods War that introduced Death to the world, the Compact that ended it and introduced Time to the world, and beyond... It is the story of gods and heroes, kings and prophets, and more, but it is not though, the definitive work on Glorantha as a whole. There is the massive eight-hundred page, two-book The Guide to Glorantha for that. Instead, The Glorantha Sourcebook focuses very much on the myths and pantheons of the peoples who will ultimately come to clash in one geographical area—that of Dragon Pass, the region which allows egress north to to south through the mountains which divide the northern continent of Genertla. All this telling will come to a head in the year 1625, at the beginning of the Hero Wars—the starting point for both RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and 13th Age Glorantha.

The volume begins with a short description of Glorantha’s geography, before diving into a history of Dragon Pass. This literally sets everything up for what follows in the book, being a annotated explanation of the feud between the House of Sartar and the Red Emperor, between the Lunar Empire and the peoples of Dragon Pass. It is written as a gift from a scholar to the queen in Nochet, the City of Queens, so much like the rest of The Gorantha Sourcebook, it is no dry, objective text, but subjective and opinionated. As well as giving the history, it gives the details and family trees of the dynasties that have shaped the region, notably the Feathered Horse Queens, the Lunar Kings of Tarsh, and the various Sartar Dynasties. Although their involvement in the events of Dragon Pass has waxed and waned over the centuries, the Elder Races are not ignored and are described in turn. Of these, the write-up of the Aldryami is somewhat brief in comparison of those given for the Dragonewts, Mostali, and of course, Uz. 

At the heart of the supplement though are two lengthy and opposing set of chapters, which together continue the explanation of the feud between the House of Sartar and the Red Emperor. Where this explanation has been historial, here it is very much concerned with the gods. The first set  consists of ‘Theogony’ and ‘Time’. ‘Theogony’ presents the stories and creation myths of Glorantha’s gods, element by element, in turn Darkness, Water, Earth, Fire, and Air. Each is accompanied by a family tree that depicts the element and his or her descendants in their classic iconic forms as well as maps of their associated realms. Thus Darkness is accompanied by a map of the the Underworld, Water by a cross section of the oceans, Earth by a map of the realms of the Green Age, Fire by a map of the realms of the Golden Age, Air by a map of the Storm Age or Lesser Darkness, and so on. From the creation of the universe and the world, the chapter takes the reader through God Time and the events of the God’s War that ultimately would lead to the events of the second of these chapters, ‘Time’. What is notable about ‘Theogony’ is that is not written from the point of view of these pantheons’ contemporary worshippers in Dragon Pass, but from the God Learners of the Second Age. Although initiates of the cults dedicated to these deities might not necessarily agree with the interpretations of the God Learners, their attempts to rationalise myths actually serve to make them accessible for the reader. ‘Time’ actually presents the actual history of Dragon Pass from the end of God Time through the First, Second, and Third Ages up until the beginning of the Hero Wars. This is a relatively short chapter, but it is important because it what keeps the mortal world separate from God Time and it is the compact that created it that is so threatened by the contents of the opposing two chapters.

The opposing set of chapters are ‘Gods of the Lunar Way’ and ‘The Redline History of the Lunar Empire’. Together these describe the deities, heroes, goddess, empress, and emperor who will fight on the opposing side in the Hero Wars. Of these, the goddess—the Red Goddess—is the most significant because she is a goddess reborn in Time, who lived as a mortal and became a goddess once again, thus threatening the compact that brought Time into the world and separated it from God Time. It is her son, the Red Emperor, who will be born again and again over the course of the history detailed in ‘The Redline History of the Lunar Empire’. It is the Red Emperor’s decision to expand the Glowline, the magical border of the Lunar Empire, into Dragon Pass and the differing nature of their religions—the Lunar Empire accepts Chaos as part of natural order of things, whereas the people of Sartar and its surrounds see Chaos as a threat, that will see the two cultures and peoples clash again again culminating in the Dragon Rise ceremony which triggers the Hero Wars.

Beyond these lengthy chapters, The Glorantha Sourcebook essentially looks at the nature of the forces arrayed against each other in the run up to the Hero Wars and beyond. ‘Gloranthan Magic’ explains the Runes and their relationships, the latter nicely depicted and explained with a series of diagrams. This and the discussion of the types of magic will likely be amongst the most familiar content in the book. ‘Gods and Mortals’ notably details the leading heroes of the Hero Wars, including Harrek the Berserk, Jar-eel the Razoress, Delecti the Necromancer, and of course, Argrath Whitebull, who will lead the rebellion against the Lunar Empire. Lastly, the shortest chapter is ‘Startar Magical Union’, which introduces the Warlocks who combine a number of magical disciplines in serving Argrath Whitebull. The description of the Warlocks are quite brief, but their inclusion, like much of the supplement, sets the stage for the Hero Wars.

Physically, The Glorantha Sourcebook is a highly attractive hardback. It is clearly written, with a strong sense of story, though in places the style is a little heavy going, but then that is sometimes the way of such mythologies. The book is liberally illustrated though, with great depictions of the gods, heroes, and myths discussed in the text. A lot of the artwork is not new though, but it is used effectively and more than serves the text to support the differing points of view presented throughout the book. In particular, the stone reliefs taken from Sartar’s Palace, which depict the history of Dragon Pass up to the Dragon Rise, are wonderfully evocative and echo those of the Assyrian Empire. The Kyger Litor temple friezes of the Uz are also good. 

The Glorantha Sourcebook is not quite perfect. There is an instance of incomplete text and perhaps it could have done with clearer maps of Dragon Pass and the surrounding area to help the reader gain an easier grasp of the flow of events of the region’s history. Certainly the maps of the growth and fluctuating fortunes of the Lunar Empire from Wane to Wane help with its history and it would have been nice to have seen something similar done for Dragon Pass. Another issue is that because much of the content is written from differing perspectives, it can sometimes be a little awkward to put the various stories, histories, and events in context with each other, so certainly for the period of Time, an actual timeline might have been a useful addition. In comparison, the write-up of the Lunar Empire is much easier to follow because of timeline.

Drawing on diverse sources, such as Wyrm’s Footnotes, for both its text and illustration, there is certainly much here that Gloranthaphiles—devotees of Greg Stafford’s world—will find familiar in the pages of The Glorantha Sourcebook. To be truthful, the supplement is not quite aimed at them, although there is much in its pages that they will useful in terms of easy reference, especially given that its contents have been updated. Rather The Glorantha Sourcebook is intended as an introduction to specifically Dragon Pass and an exploration of the events leading up to the Hero Wars, framing the conflict not so much as between dynasties, but as between myth and magic. What this means is that The Glorantha Sourcebook is an excellent companion volume to The Guide to Glorantha, but an even better companion to both RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and 13th Age Glorantha, serving to introduce, support, and frame the conflicts that those two roleplaying games open with.

Saturday, 12 January 2019

What Are Your Ages?

One of the questions raised about 13th Age might be, “What were the other ages?”. Published in 2013 by Pelgrane Press, 13th Age distilled the best features of the then two previous editions of Dungeons & DragonsDungeons & Dragons, Third Edition and Dungeons & Dragons,Fourth Edition—and added elements which made each player character unique, emphasised narrative game play elements, and upped the action. In the Dragon Empire of the 13th Age, thirteen great Icons—kings and queens, princes, emperors, creatures, and more—work together, feud, and fight in order to hold onto power and to take it, sometimes to maintain the greater good, sometimes not, as the great and the good theorise that the age might be on the wane... The player characters each have two or three links to these icons and it is these that push and pull the characters into their adventures. In the 13th Age the thirteen icons are the Archmage, the Crusader, the Diabolist, the Dwarf King, the Elf Queen, the Emperor, the Great Gold Wyrm, the High Druid, the Lich King, the Orc Lord, the Priestess, the Prince of Shadows, and the Three—the latter being ancient evil Dragons. But were they icons in the previous age and in the ages before that? If not, who did they replace? And just what exactly, is an ‘age’?

Of course, to play 13th Age, none of these questions need be asked, but the Book of Ages certainly asks them and answers them too. In doing so, it gives suggestions as to what an Age might be and how old the icons might be, the means to define the Ages, and thirteen sample Ages (plus one more). Plus, buried in all of that content are new character Races, magic items, spells, and monsters—and some suggestions as to how all of this content might be used from the perspective of the 13th Age.

Basically, an Age is a period of time with a specific influence or arc in terms of events, which begins and ends with tumult and catastrophe. The most well-known in the Dragon Empire being of course, being the 1st Age, marked by its founding following the defeat of the Wizard King and its ending with the destruction of the city of Axis by the giants. The Book of Ages suggests that an Age might be defined by later historians or according to Icon insight, their being best placed to understand when an Age begins and when it ends. These two options are given by the book’s author and the game’s designer respectively and as with the rest of Book of Ages, the Game Master is free to pick and choose the options that she likes. As to the nature of the Icons, three types are given. The first are Eternal Icons, these having always existed, either because they are immortal or because the Icon is held as a very important office. The second are Age-Defining Icons, ones which heavily influence an Age, but then disappear. The third are Recurring Icons, which appear for an Age or two, disappear, but reappear later on, again and again. In the default setting of the Dragon Empire, it is suggested that the Emperor and Great Gold Wyrm are eternal, the Crusader and Orc Lord age-defining, and High Druid and Prince of Shadows recurring.

These suggestions are not set in stone of course, and exactly in which Age the Icons appear, dominate, rest, or disappear can either be defined by the Game Master ahead of time, or alternatively, turned into a collaborative exercise in history creation by both Game Master and her players. To do this, the Book of Ages provides an ‘Engine of Ages’. To use this, both Game Master and players take control of various factions and link Icons to them—these need not be the Icons present in the 13th Age, but can be created specifically for the particular Engine of Ages. So it might be Lady Lamia associated with serpent-sorcerers, the Tallest Ent with living forests, and so on. Each faction is assigned a number of anchor points—Zeniths when the faction is at its highest point, Nadirs when it is at its lowest, Crossovers when they interact with other factions, and Iconic when a faction’s Icon changed—and these are sown across history by rolling dice. The higher the die type rolled, the further back in history the Age when the anchor is placed. Then for each anchor placed, the player gets to define an associated Legend—essentially a tale still told about that Age, Legacy—an enchantment, group, or structure that survives to the current Age, or a Lair—a dungeon or other problem that dates back to the Age. Lastly, the catastrophe which ended the Age should be defined. Any gaps, that is, undefined Ages, are left for the Game Master to fill in the details. This is all noted down on a matrix so that everyone can see the ebb and flow of the anchor points and begin to build a history.

So for example, Helena is controlling Lady Lamia and the serpent-sorcerers. She has rolled a Zenith in the 3rd Age for her faction and describes this as the serpent men’s attempt to bind their future with sorcery, a period known as the Age of Serpents. It is agreed that the Age of Serpents comes to an end because the sorcerous ritual fails and unleashes demons upon the world. The Legacy for this Age is the Crown of Time, said to be able to control the passage of time. The 4th Age is marked by a Crossover by Jeremy’s Tallest Ent and Living Forest, which Dave as the Game Master, suggests is with the Elves because they have not appeared in the history. Jeremy agrees and describes how the Ents and Elves joined together in order to end the threat represented by the serpent men. This Age of the Green Alliance ends with victory over the serpent men and their imprisonment in the City of Serpents, the Lair rolled at the end of the Age. The Nadir in the 5th Age for the Living Forest and Tallest Ent is described as their having spent much of their effort to stop the Serpent Men and so go into decline. It is known as the Age of Sorrow.

The result is a broadly sketched history, one which both Game Master and her players can their link their characters to via the Icons. It is intended to be a collaborative process, roleplayed out over a session with the Game Master primarily serving as the chronicler and noting everything down, whilst asking the players to explain what happened—and perhaps why. To aid both, the Book of Ages includes a list of prompts and suggestions to get everyone’s creativity going… What this creates is not the history of the Dragon Empire, but ‘a’ history of the Dragon Empire, one that is unique to the playing group.

There are though, two Ages which are not defined using this process. The first is the 1st Age, which defines the Dragon Empire as it is known in the 13th Age, whilst the second is the 12th Age and when that is defined using the Engine of Ages, it is with the intent that it sets up the situation in the 13th Age as outlined in 13th Age. The process is accompanied by both prompts and an extensive example.

The remainder of the Book of Ages—some four fifths of it—are devoted to detailing thirteen different Ages, from ‘The Age of Founding’ to the ‘Age of Balefire’. The primary use of these Ages is to fill in the blanks after running the ‘Engine of Ages’, but in play, they can be kept as a mystery or fully realised, visited via portals or even time travel. Another option is taken from 13th Age Glorantha and makes the previous Ages accessible via heroquests. Each Age is given a rough period when it should happen; a summary, overview, the Icons associated with the Age; its Legends, Legacies, and Lairs; End Times—how it ended; as well as notable Races, Spells, Powers, and Items. So ‘The Age of Founding’ describes the chaos after the death of the Wizard King, how the Emperor tamed the land, and the Giants came to destroy the city of Axis. The Emperor, Great Gold Wyrm, and the Three figure strongly during the Age, as do the Hooded Woman ruled over the unquiet dead before the Lich King, the Spelljack who sowed magical chaos, and of course, the Chieftain of the Giants. One Lair leftover is the Spelljack’s Citadel, stolen flying realm which might be found flying somewhere, and a Legend concerns the fate of the Wizard King, who has never returned despite being known to renew his youth. Monsters include Skeletons of Giant Ancestors, Snapping Skulls, and the Wizard King’s Servants, post-human Arcanites transformed by too much exposure to his magic. Besides being monsters, they can also be a player character Race. As such, an Arcanite can better recharge spells or magical items after a battle and as they gain in experience, can better protect themselves against magic. Like the other races in the supplement, the Arcanites can be added to a campaign as is or treated as a player character’s one Unique Thing—survivor, time traveller, and so on. Besides this, some of the other interesting Ages include ‘Age of the Blazing Meteor’ in which a starship explodes over the Dragon Empire disrupting magic and the survivors ally with Hobgoblins, the Age of the Howling Moon in which the Emperor becomes a werewolf and lycanthropy becomes noble, and the Age of the Terrible Emperor in which he becomes tyrant, destroys all opposition, makes himself immune with astrological magic, but forgets about the monks, who dethrone him with a killer punch. 13th Age kung-fu, anyone?

Physically, the Book of Ages is an attractive supplement illustrated with excellent pieces of black and white art. It is well-written, and the content is ably supported with suggestions and extensive reference lists for ease of use. Although there is no index, these do a decent job instead.

The Book of Ages probably does more to expand a 13th Age campaign than any previous supplement, opening up the history of the Dragon Empire, not only for play, but for set-up too, so that like every player character, every Dragon Empire is unique. This is a book of ideas and campaign themes as much it is history, so that campaign could become a time-hopping, theme-hopping game, where instead of finding somewhere to find and fight pirates in the Dragon Empire, it becomes a case of when, as in the Age of Corsairs. And of course, any one of the Ages could be expanded upon by the Game Master to run a campaign in, were she so inclined. A really ambitious Game Master could run a 13th Age campaign built around Age hopping, almost like the adventures of a well-known time traveller on the television. Certainly, the Book of Ages demands its own anthology of scenarios set in the different Ages, if not that very campaign!

It is difficult not to be thoroughly impressed by the Book of Ages. This is a fantastic book of campaign ideas and options that every 13th Age Game Master should have.

Sunday, 6 January 2019

1979: B1 In Search of the Unknown

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 ‘B’ series, the series of modules written by TSR, Inc. for Basic Dungeons & Dragons did not begin with B2 Keep on the Borderlands that much is obvious, but there is no denying that it feels that way. This is not surprising given that it was packaged with the Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set between 1979 and 1983, it is estimated that more than a million copies of B2 Keep on the Borderlands were printed, and for a great many gamers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, it was their introduction to Dungeons & Dragons. Yet before this, there was another scenario, also part of the ‘B’ series, and also packaged with Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set until it was replaced with B2 Keep on the Borderlands. That module was B1 In Search of the Unknown.

First published in 1979 as an introductory adventure for the first Dungeons & Dragons Basic Set that had appeared the year before, B1 In Search of the Unknown set out to provide a adventure that could be run by the novice Dungeon Master and played by novice roleplayers, both just setting out on their first foray into the world of dungeoneering. Thus it is designed to challenge Dungeon Master and players alike and to be instructive for both, but it is not designed to be particularly deadly as a dungeon for experienced players might be. So within the first five pages there are sections that give notes for the Dungeon Master on how to prepare the module, how to handle time and compute experience, and how to be an effective Dungeon Master. It details the type of features that the player characters might typically find in a dungeon—one way secret doors, illusions and magic mouths, a torch and flame extinguishing wind corridor, a room of mysterious pools, and so on. It suggests how to handle the hiring and employment of hirelings, what the players’ expectations should be and how they should organise their characters, and this is backed up by a set of NPCs that the player characters can hire and also a sheet for the players that includes the scenario’s background, some sample player characters, and more importantly a set of ten tips on being a good player and a good player of Dungeons & Dragons. The sheet is a really nice touch, really helpful, and to be fair, the tips still stand up as good advice four decades on…

On the other side of sheet of hireling NPCs and player tips is the Players’ Background Sheet. This gives the whys and wherefores to the adventure explaining why the players are there—treasure and magic! Many years ago, heroes of legend known as Roghan the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown, respectively a great warrior and a great wizard, helped fight off an invading barbarian horde and so cemented their reputations. This despite the fact that they were rumoured to have a reputation for being evil. Anyway, for their efforts, they were greatly rewarded and together they took the reward and disappeared to the north where the barbarians had come from. Rumour trickled back that they built themselves a great lair somewhere in the wilderness before they too were said to have been lost in battle on another great expedition. Now a map has fallen into the hands of the player characters, roughly drawn, but showing the location of a place identified as ‘Q’. Could ‘Q’ be the lost Caverns of Quasqueton, the fabled lair of Roghan the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown?

The dungeon itself consists of two levels. The upper level is a fully worked area with rooms that switch between the ordinary and the outré. So there is a kitchen and a dining room, a lounge, storerooms, barracks, a smithy, guestrooms, and so on. Zelligar the Unknown has his own suite of rooms—essentially a complete wizard’s mini-lair, whilst Roghan the Fearless has his own set of chambers as does his mistress. Yet there is also a fungal garden, a pair of teleportation rooms, false steps, a pit trap, a mini-maze, and a dead end, as well as the famed Room of Pools. The latter contains fourteen stone pools, whose contents include the benign, such as drinking water and fish; the dangerous, such as acid, green slime, and wine; and the helpful, such as healing. As to these outré rooms, the teleportation rooms, false steps, a pit trap, a mini-maze, and a dead end that do little more than confuse any exploration of the underground complex. Now this is a traditional part of dungeon design, but here in a very compact dungeon level it feels a little like a gilding of the lily.

What really stands out about each of these rooms is the detail given to their descriptions. For example in the Mistress’ Chamber there is tapestry that depicts a warrior carrying away a woman from a burning village with the message, “Melissa, the most dearly won and greatest of all my treasures.” embroidered across the top. Yet as rich as the descriptions are, they cannot compensate for the design of the first dungeon level, which is tight, even cramped, with some thirty-seven locations on just the one-page map and many of them seemingly placed without semblance of order or sanity. Now one could argue that that this is indicative of the hinted at Chaotic alignment of its builders, but the layout is not even weird, it is just crazy.

In comparison, the seventeen rooms of the lower are the exact opposite, an exercise in restrained naturalism. They consist of a series of caverns that Roghan the Fearless and Zelligar the Unknown never got round to fully finishing. In fact they feel so natural that their contents amount to little more than bats and a magical statue, but in comparison with the rooms above they are either going to feel like a relief from the chaos above or a disappointment…

The notable feature about B1 In Search of the Unknown is that none of the rooms—barring the bats in the caves below—have any monsters or any treasure. This where the scenario’s innovation comes in because it does have both monsters and treasure, both given in a pair of lists at the back of the module. From these lists the Dungeon Master’s primary task in preparing B1 In Search of the Unknown is to populate the two levels of the dungeon and seed it with treasure. Twenty-five monster options are given along with thirty-four items of treasure, but since the module advises that only sixteen to twenty of them be used between the two levels, there will be certain sections of the dungeon that will be empty. There are slots with each room or location description to record the Dungeon Master’s choice of monsters and treasure taken from the two lists. This innovation is designed to help the Dungeon Master learn the craft of dungeon creation and to an extent, it works since the Dungeon Master is working with the author to fully detail the dungeon. 

Yet it is also a handicap to the full design of the dungeon because it effectively ignores story or plot. Unless a dungeon is being generated randomly, its designer will put its elements—its physical layout, features, monsters, and treasures—together for a reason, and when it comes to the monsters, unless they are rolled on the random encounter table, there has to be an answer to the question, “What are they doing there?”. This is ignored in B1 In Search of the Unknown so what can happen is that the dungeon ends up as a series of spaces filled with a random assortment of monsters. Now this can be offset by two factors. One is a good Dungeon Master who will determine what the monsters are doing and why, the other is a good set of players who will be asking the same questions. Their answers may not match, but the Dungeon  Master is free to use the best of them.

On the other hand, B1 In Search of the Unknown is not a living, breathing ecology. Its abandoned nature means that it is a static environment, almost tomb-like, awaiting the arrival of outside agency—that is, a party of adventurers, also known as the player characters—to act upon it. As a design it is also a dungeon for dungeon’s sake, a dungeon designed to be explored because it is there rather because of any threat it represents. So this dates it in terms of design. Yet in 1978, the year that B1 In Search of the Unknown was published, this type of design was already being superseded with G1 Steading of the Hill Giant Chief, which at just eight pages did have a plot, even if just a simple one. The following year, E. Gary Gygax would pen not one module with a plot, but two, each setting the ‘base of operations in peril’ style of adventure that has since been visited and revisited in the decades since. The first was T1 The Village of Hommlet and the second was B2 Keep on the Borderlands, which of course would eclipse B1 In Search of the Unknown.

Physically B1 In Search of the Unknown is well presented, well written, and for its time is a good looking product. If the artwork is no more than reasonable, it at least evocative of a style of play that is no longer common. What does let the module down are the maps, or at least, the annotation on the maps. This is not given a standard numbers as in absolutely every other module before or since this one, but instead in Roman numerals. Which makes no sense whatsoever and actually hampers a Dungeon Master’s efforts to run B1 In Search of the Unknown.

Ultimately the question of whether or not B1 In Search of the Unknown is a good module is dependent upon whether you have played it before and where you stand in relationship to the Old School Renaissance. If you played it and enjoyed it, then it is probably a good adventure. If your preference for the Old School Renaissance lies in retroclones that ape Basic Dungeons & Dragons or the earlier version of Dungeons & Dragons, then again it is probably a good adventure, uncomplicated as it is with plot or narrative beyond the need to simply explore and plunder. Yet as written, B1 In Search of the Unknown is not a good adventure because it needs too much input from the players and the Dungeon Master alike. A dungeon like this always needs the input of the players to work, for they have to ‘play’ it, but the Dungeon Master needs to doubly prepare the dungeon, not just in readying it to run, but populating it and populating it with an eye towards some semblance of sense and plot.

It is this weakness in terms of preparation that best explains why the ‘innovation’ at the heart of B1 In Search of the Unknown has rarely been repeated, either by TSR, Inc. or the Old School Renaissance. This is not surprising since the preparation effort required is doubled and the Old School Renaissance’s older fanbase lacks that time… Now this is not to say that it could not be done for the Old School Renaissance, but the result would have to be either very generic or designed around building plot elements rather than the simple placement of monsters and treasure. That said, the one publisher to have done something similar is Games Workshop with both Dungeon Planner Set 1: Caverns of the Dead and Dungeon Planner Set 2: Nightmare in Blackmarsh.

Ultimately B1 In Search of the Unknown managed to be too basic an adventure and too complex an adventure, the former in terms of design and the latter in terms of preparation. Its innovation remains a novel idea, but in execution requires more effort than the learning tool it was meant to be, really should. Thus it is no wonder that it would be replaced by B2 Keep on the Borderlands in the Basic Dungeons & Dragons boxed set and our hearts (well that and the fact that B2 Keep on the Borderlands was written by the designer of Dungeons & Dragons and the head of the company…).

Saturday, 5 January 2019

Witches, Weirdness, & Whimsey

Woodfall is a ‘Dark Fantasy Mini Setting’ of a communal living, regulated necromancy, trafficked faeries, swamp mutants, witchcraft, unregulated necromancy, and the exceedingly good benefits of socialism. Published by Lazy Liches Loot following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is a mini-hexcrawl involving a small town and a swamp that is designed to do three things. First, to be easy to drop into an existing and it does this by being enclosed by mountains and forest on three sides. Second, to be systems neutral so that it can be used with any fantasy roleplaying system. Thus, there are no game stats in Woodfall at all, but that said, its language and its fantasy is essentially that of Dungeons & Dragons, so it would work with just about any Old School Renaissance retroclone. In terms of tone, the retroclone the setting feels nearest to is Lamentation of the Flame Princess’ Lamentation of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, as there are elements of horror, revolution, and the grotesque to Woodfall. Third, it is designed to run with a minimum of preparation, so much of the individual content and descriptions are given in easily digestible bullet point and nugget-sized form. All this comes packaged in a heavily illustrated neat little digest-sized hardback.

The setting described in Woodfall is Woodfall Town and the adjacent, dark and oppressive swamp. Located on a series of mounds on the edge of the swamp, it is home to outlaws, thieves, and witches, a sanctuary for rebels and all those who oppose the nearby kingdom as well as faeries liberated from their enforced servitude as good luck charms for the kingdom’s major noble houses. This is why many of its citizens plot the overthrow of the king and the king has stationed soldiers nearby to monitor what is going on in the town. The town also offers and allows free healing for those who cannot afford it elsewhere, allows a thieves’ guild to operate in return for a share of its takings to support the village, provides a refuge for women escaping abuse or arranged marriages, and allows necromancers to raise skeletons with written permission. Other shops and services to be found inside the town include sellers of masks (though the Game Master will need to determine what the masks do) and potions—made from local ingredients, a fence for handling stolen goods, and an expert forger. Politically, the town limits how much land and property an inhabitant can own and allows the inhabitants of each dry mound to send their representatives—different from week to week—to a general meeting where executive decisions are made, essentially a bit like a zoviet or an anarcho-syndicalist commune!

Woodfall includes a good list of reasons why the adventurers might come to town. These range from being a spy sent by the nearby kingdom on a mission, having stolen goods for sale, and seeking specialised healing to looking for training, needing a base from which to venture into the swamp, and to aid the town against the king making another eviction attempt. Once in the town and past the watching soldiers there are hirelings to be employed and rumours to be picked up at the Crooked Inn, but there is also much to be found in the swamp beyond the confines of the Woodfall. These include the soldier camp watching town, whose commander is the subject of pranks played on him by the townsfolk; the Revolutionary Corpse Council, a guild of necromancers who practised their art unfettered by morality from within their dungeon; a doomsday cult of spiky goblins based in a ‘Goblin Punk Fortress’ and its dungeons; a friendly troll and unfriendly witches; alien frogmen who just want to return to the stars; and quite a lot more. This includes encounters, new monsters, and advice on monster hunting—important because the player characters do not gain any Experience Point from killing creatures, but from objectives and treasure found.  There are also rules for magical item crafting, including potions, wands, and scrolls, which are supported with sample ingredients—such as magical woods, orb materials, and various flora, many of them to be found in the swamp and the wood.

Rounding out Woodfall are some ‘Changes Over Time’, basically outlining what happens as the plans and aims of the various factions proceed and come to fruition. All of these have the chance to greatly change the situation in and around Woodfall Town, including the area beyond its environs, the nearby parts of the Game Master’s campaign. There are also a few scenario ideas too, this in addition to the various ideas and hooks found throughout the book.

The description of Woodfall as a ‘Dark Fantasy Mini Setting’ is certainly apt, for tone of the setting is dark and the scale of the hexcrawl is ‘mini’. The scale is small, so the dungeons and lairs are small, the encounters are small, and so on. Yet that ‘mini’ aspect of the adventure often hides further secrets and scope for the Game Master to expand elements of the adventure, for example, by designing a particular dungeon herself. One obvious thing to do is expand the swamp and perhaps a way to do that is to bolt Fever Swamp from the Melsonian Arts Council onto the back of the swamp in Woodfall. This allow for a sense of weirdness which escalates as the adventurers move from Woodfall into the swamp nearby and then into the greater swamp detailed in Fever Swamp.

Woodfall’s design has both advantages and disadvantages. Its scale means that its writing is concise, often amounting to no more than a bullet point. This makes each easy to digest and bring its information to the table, whilst also leaving room for the Game Master to expand them and add her own content. Whilst this makes the content easy to run in terms of preparation, it does not negate the fact that preparation is needed since the supplement is systemless. Thus the Game Master has to provide the numbers for the persons, places, objects, monsters, and so on. This could be done on the fly, but the Game Master would need to know her game stats. On the plus side, Woodfall would work with the roleplaying system of her choice, not just an Old School Renaissance retroclone. One aspect that the Game Master would need to ensure that the mechanics of her choice does have and that is the means for creating and playing witches.

It should be noted that setting for Woodfall has a decidedly modern feel—early modern, that is, of the seventeenth and the eighteenth centuries—which shows in the organisations, their acronyms, and the politics that dominate Woodfall Town and the surrounding area. The Woodfall Welfare Group (WWG) distributes money, resources, and food to the needy; the Healers Association (HA) provides healing and care for the sick; the Faerie Liberation Front (FLF) frees enslaved faeries; and the Crisis Act Team (CAT) helps abused women, and so on. The politics are definitely anti-feudal, anti-monarchy, community-minded and pro-social responsibility, and given the emphasis on sharing the means of production and benefits of wealth, by any definition, socialist. The consequences of which should be interesting to explore in what is a fantasy roleplaying game given how we typically bring our contemporary sensibilities to a game.

Physically, Woodfall is a black and white hardback. It is liberally illustrated in a somewhat scratchy style, some of the cartography and artwork being rather good, but some of it being rather simplistic. The book is in general neat and tidy, although it does need a good edit in places.

Woodfall needs some preparation upon the part of the Game Master to ready its content for play, but once ready, there are multiple sessions of play to be found within its pages. In fact, there is the basis and means here to run a whole mini-campaign—primarily character led, but also directed by the hooks at the beginning of the book—in which the actions of adventurers would change the future of the region. A little rough around the edges, Woodfall is a compact campaign which opens up to give the Game Master space to make it hers and the players motivation to lead the adventure.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

Reviews from R'lyeh Post-Christmas Dozen 2018

Since 2001, Reviews from R’lyeh have contributed to a series of Christmas lists at Ogrecave.com—and at RPGaction.com before that, suggesting not necessarily the best board and roleplaying games of the preceding year, but the titles from the last twelve months that you might like to receive and give. Continuing the break with tradition—in that the following is just the one list and in that for reasons beyond its control, OgreCave.com is not running its own lists—Reviews from R’lyeh would once again like present its own list. Further, as is also traditional, Reviews from R’lyeh has not devolved into the need to cast about ‘Baleful Blandishments’ to all concerned or otherwise based upon the arbitrary organisation of days. So as Reviews from R’lyeh presents its annual (Post-)Christmas Dozen, I can only hope that the following list includes one of your favourites, or even better still, includes a game that you did not have and someone was happy to hide in gaudy paper and place under that dead tree for you. If not, then this is a list of what would have been good under that tree and what you should purchase yourself to read and play in the months to come.


—oOo—


Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands
Goodman Games $49.99/£38.99
In a year that was not so much nostalgia tinged as nostalgia saturated, 2018 was not so much a case of ‘What’s old is new’, but ‘let’s begin anew’, so the perfect first entry on this list is everyone’s favourite beginning adventure for Basic Dungeons & Dragons—or rather two of them. The inclusion of these two adventures explains why certain modules did not appear in Wizards of the Coast’s Tales from the Yawning Portal, for this weighty tome not only collects B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands—classic scenarios both—but also updates them for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition (though it includes versions of the originals too). Plus, it comes with commentaries on both adventures and further locations which expand the dungeons into mini-campaigns. Together the scenarios offer ‘old school’ adventure updated for the clean and accessible rules of the twenty-first century’s take on Dungeons & Dragons.


Chronicles of Crime
Lucky Duck Games $45.99/£29.99
Board games in which you solve crimes go all the way back to Cluedo (and beyond), but if you were looking for crime-solving game which brings everything up to date, then Chronicles of Crime is what you are looking for. This is a co-operative game in which you will be using your mobile phone to scan QR codes on locations, people, and objects represented by cards in order to look round crime scenes (including in Virtual Reality if you have the glasses), examine clues, interview witnesses, consult experts, and finally explain how the how the murder was done and who did the dastardly deed. In between times, you can discuss the case with your fellow detectives, but for every clue you examine and question you ask, the clock counts down and time is running out. The game comes with five lengthy cases set in London (more cases and crime genres are promised), plus a tutorial case which teaches you how to play—and with Chronicles of Crime App, you really can be playing ten minutes after opening the box. The cleverness of the design means that the games’cards, representing places, people, and clues, can be reconfigured again and again, different for each case, so that each time they tell the story of a different crime, almost like an ensemble cast performing a different play every night (much like the Nero Wolfe television series with Timothy Hutton). Good played solo, great played as a duo, Chronicles of Crime is perfect for anyone who likes a good whodunnit.


Call of Cthulhu Starter Set
Chaosium, Inc. $24.99/£19.99
Every good roleplaying game deserves a starter set, box designed to introduce the game and get everyone playing. Surprisingly, the premier game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Call of Cthulhu, has never had one—until this year, that is. The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set is a surprisingly inexpensive introduction to the game, but even more surprisingly comes with everything a player—and then his friends—needs to get going and then some more. Not just the rules, dice, and a scenario, but the rules, dice, investigator (player character) sheets—blank and ready-to-play, and a total of four scenarios. These begin with Alone Against the Flames, the solo adventure designed to teach a player how to play Call of Cthulhu, and then build on that with three classic scenarios that in turn are designed to be run by a Keeper with one player, a Keeper with two or more players, and a Keeper and multiple players. In the process, both Keeper and players get to encounter different aspects of the Mythos, enjoy hours of play, and see some classic scenarios updated to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. (Read the full review here.)


Spire: The City Must Fall
Rowan, Rook, and Decard $50/£35
Spire: The City Must Fall is a roleplaying game of secrets and lies, trust and betrayal, violence and subversion, conspiracy and consequences, and of committing black deeds for a good cause. The players take the role of downtrodden Drow, members of a cell of a rebel movement, The Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress, rising up from the streets as to overthrow their Aelfir, or High Elf masters. As far as they are concerned, their cause is right, but to the state, they are rebels, criminals, and worse, terrorists. The question is, how far will they go to bring about the change they desire, what acts will they commit, who can they trust, who will they betray, and what are the likely consequences? All this takes places in the Spire, a mile-high tower city in a world of technology and magic, using primarily player-facing mechanics that explore the consequences of failure and only reward the players and their characters for making a difference and bringing about change. After all, only the cause and the revolution matter, comrades. (Read the full review here.)


Operation Unfathomable
The Hydra Cooperative, LLC $20/£15.99

Written for use with Swords & Wizardry—but easily adapted to the Dungeons & Dragons-style game of your choice—Operation Unfathomable is a dungeon adventure like no other. It is a gonzo-Jack Kirby-esque high level adventure for low level adventurers in which a dirty dungeoneering dozen must enter the Underworld on the trail of missing royal warrior prince who descended into its depths to find and take revenge upon a minor chaos godling known as Shaggath-Ka. Not necessarily to rescue him, but to retrieve the great magical artefact that he stole from his father’s treasury! This is not a dungeon bash scenario, for bash too hard and the adventurers will get bashed back—even harder, but an adventure in which the party must employ diplomacy, stealth, and knowing when to run away if it is to succeed. At the heart of this adventure are some truly fantastic locations such as the ‘Beetletown Welcome Centre and Dwellings’ and ‘Local Franchise Temple of Nul’, regional church of the Cult of the Mindless God and some truly fantastic encounters on the ‘Encounters & Other Random Weirdness’ on the event table, like being engulfed in a ‘Mutagenic Cloud’ and have their lips gain tentacles, getting to trade with a Slugman on a business trip, or engage in a metaphysical debate with a Woolly Neanderthal on a spirit quest. Essentially a mini-sandbox—or tunnelbox—Operation Unfathomable is wonderfully weird in a fun way. (Read the full review here.)


Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game
Goodman Games LLC $39.99/£33.99
Continuing both the gonzo theme and the resetting of beginnings, Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is essentially a reimagining of the classic 1978 Gamma World using Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game mechanics. Which means that it is a Class and Level roleplaying game using the d20 System, but with a whole lot of different dice. Explore the post-apocalyptic world of Terra A.D. (‘After Distaste’) and make it a better world for your tribe scavenging the past of a future that never happened as Pure Strain Humans, Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients. It adds some interesting and modern twists, such as replacing the Alignment of Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game with alliances with secret societies and linking the ‘prayers’ of the Shaman Class not to a god, but an A.I., each one a holdover from the Great Disaster that struck the Earth centuries ago. This being a ‘Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game’, it means that Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game does the ‘Character Funnel’ too, shoving handfuls of Zero Level characters through a low-level scenario to see if they survive and so pass a rite of passage into adulthood. Well supported with lots of scenarios, the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is packed with weirdness, horror, and wackiness. (Read the full review here.)

Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World
Chaosium, Inc. $129.99/£101.99
Already a classic two decades ago, what is regarded as the greatest campaign for any roleplaying game got updated, redesigned, and rewritten in 2018 to make it easier to set up—by introducing the most famous NPC in gaming, Jackson Elias, before the campaign begins; making its multiple plots and clues much easier to follow for the Keeper, if not the players and their investigators; and to take account of its previously stereotypical depictions of its antagonists and follow up thread plots which were previous left dangling… As a result of the new content, the new maps, the new art, and the new advice, it has tripled in size. It remains though, a globetrotting campaign of epic scope, following in the footsteps of an ill-fated colleague and an ill-fated archaeological expedition, which as clues and secrets are revealed, will see the investigators confront different masks of the Crawling Chaos again and again until his current plans come to light. A campaign of herculean proportions, there is at least a year’s worth of great roleplaying to be had in the new edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World, the new slipcase edition now of size to match! And if the Keeper can run the campaign using the Masks of Nyarlathotep Gamer Prop Set from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, then all the better. (Read the full review here.)

Forbidden Lands
Free League $129.99/£48.99
Legacy games have been a feature of board games ever since Legacy Risk in which the play of the game actually altered both the state and the rules of the game, ultimately turning every copy of the game into a unique copy. Now the idea comes to the roleplaying game with Forbidden Lands, an open-world survival roleplaying game in which the player characters are not the heroes of roleplaying games, but raiders and rogues setting out to stamp their mark on a valley that has long been under a demonic curse. Forbidden from entry for centuries, the curse has recently lifted, leaving a land untouched by mortal hands and ready to be explored, ransacked, plundered, and claimed! The characters will set out to find lost tombs, fight terrible monsters, wander the wild lands, and if they survive, perhaps build a stronghold from which to explore further, but also to defend against the threats which still lurk in the valley or other raiders bent on taking what they have already claimed. As the game progresses, the map of the ‘forbidden valley’ is marked up with stickers showing the players’ and adventurers’ finds and discoveries, so it too will be different from every other boxed set of Forbidden Lands.


RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha
Chaosium, Inc. $54.99/£42.99
2018 was a both a great and a bad year for RuneQuest and Glorantha. Bad—and sad—because of the passing of Greg Stafford, the creator of Glorantha, but great because RuneQuest returned home to Chaosium, Inc. and was released in aa attractive new edition along with a systemless supplement presenting its mythology, The Glorantha Sourcebook, and a Dungeons & Dragons-style take upon the Hero Wars in the form of 13th Age Glorantha. At the core of those releases though, is RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, an update and redesign of RuneQuest II which combines the passion mechanics of Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain (Greg Stafford’s other truly great design) with the Runes of Glorantha, to make the building blocks of Glorantha’s universe a fundamental part of every player character and help each player bring them into play as part of their character. No longer do characters in RuneQuest aspire to be members of a cult and gain its Rune magic. They start play as initiates and with the mighty magic of their gods, all ready to fight the Hero Wars, to drive the Lunars from their lands, and to assert the myths and stories of their gods.
(Read the full review here.)


Modern AGE Basic Rulebook
Green Ronin Publishing $34.95/£26.99
Since 2010, Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5 from Green Ronin Publishing has been putting the action into fantasy with its Adventure Game Engine, the mechanics since released in the form of the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook. Now the publisher has updated the mechanics to cover the Industrial Revolution, the here and now, and beyond, presenting a toolkit with which the Game Master can run games in different genres—espionage, horror, urban fantasy, action, post-apocalypse, and more—in different modes of play: Gritty, Pulpy, and Cinematic. Pleasingly, the rules for these modes are placed throughout the book, but very clearly marked for easy recognition. Players get to create and play characters capable of doing action, exploration, and social stunts in play—and so be cool. This is backed up with great advice and tools for the Game Master to help her create adventures of types and in all modern-set genres. The Modern Age Basic Rulebook offers light, fast mechanics and the means run a variety of game types.

Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game
Chaosium, Inc. $29.99/£24.99
As well as RuneQuest coming back in 2018, the year also saw the return of Greg Stafford’s third great roleplaying game—or rather his first great storytelling game. This is Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game. Based on the comic strip series, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, by Hal Foster, this is Greg Stafford’s second, other best attempt at an Arthurian roleplaying game after Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain, in which the players also take on the roles of knights (other options are available in the advanced rules) at the court of King Arthur and set out to do good deeds and be heroes. It uses incredibly simple, even simplistic mechanics, but to those it adds innovations that encourage good roleplaying and shared storytelling by having the players take turns in being a Storyteller (or Game Master) for an episode. These make Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game look very modern even though it was originally published in 1889! Plus it comes with great advice on playing the game and being the Storyteller, so making it a good introductory roleplaying game as well as a good roleplaying game.


The Fall of DELTA GREEN
Pelgrane Press $49.99/£38.99
2018 was a good year for Delta Green, for not did the setting of modern Lovecraftian investigative and conspiratorial horror get its own roleplaying game from Arc Dream Publishing, it got a roleplaying game which took it back to the cowboy days of the 1960s when peace and love raged in USA, war was waged in in Vietnam, and the Cold War raged everywhere… In this timeframe, both Delta Green and MAJESTIC-12, are rival authorised, but unacknowledged black programs dedicated to investigating the true threat by mankind—cosmic ‘unnatural’ entities beyond our understanding. But where Delta Green wants to contain and destroy, MAJESTIC-12 wants to study and weaponise—and only one will come out on top. Delta Green agents are the last bulwark against threats from within and without, each putting mind and body on the line in order to keep their families, their country, and even the planet not only safe, but ignorant of the true nature of the universe. That does not mean though, that Delta Green agents don’t carry out their missions with a swing.


Art & Arcana: A Visual History
Wizards of the Coast $50/£35
Since this (Post-)Christmas Dozen started at a begining, it seems fitting that it should end by suggesting an everything—or at least an everything of something. For which Art & Arcana: A Visual History fits the bill to perfection. As we enter its forty-fifth year, there have been plenty of good histories about the gaming hobby, such as Designers & Dragons and Playing the World. None though, are quite as pretty as Art & Arcana: A Visual History, which as the title suggests presents the history of the look of Dungeons & Dragons over the course of forty years and more. It takes the reader from the days before Original Dungeons & Dragons to the latest edition, exploring how the look of the game changed. Not just its art, but also its trade dress, but above all the art! There is not a single page in this weighty volume which does not showcase some of Dungeons & Dragons’ best art. Plus the book highlights some of the game’s favourite artists, the evolution of monsters and villains, and more. Alongside the art is a solid history of both art and Dungeons & Dragons, making this more than a book of pictures. Written by both fans and experts, this is as much a visual history as a book of memories and very much a book which every Dungeons & Dragons fan should have on their shelf.