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

Saturday, 31 August 2019

Taking Command

One of the interesting aspects of the treatment given Star Trek as a roleplaying game by Modiphius Entertainment is that it examines directly the role of crew and positions aboard ships and at postings in Star Fleet. No other Star Trek roleplaying game has done this, but to date, there are three supplements for the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game which focus on the six departments of Starfleet. These are organised division by division, so The Command Division supplement focuses on the Command and Conn departments, The Operations Division supplement focuses on the Security and Engineering departments, and The Science Division supplement on the Science and Medical departments. Each supplement details the various branches and departments within each division, their role in Starfleet, an expanded list of Talents and Focuses for characters within each division, plots and campaigns which focus on characters within each division, supporting characters from within each division—including canonical NPCs, and more.

As with much of the Star Trek Adventures line, The Command Division supplement is presented as an in-game—and in-world—briefing to members of both the Command and the Conn departments. Although Starfleet officers of all types may be found in command positions, it is Command officers who trained and tasked in interpreting and executing—often a long way from the reach of either Starfleet or the Federation, Starfleet orders, directives, and policy in support of the Federation Council’s orders and directives. Command officers thus represent the will of both Starfleet and Federation as much as they are responsible for the actions of the officers and personnel under their command. 

Conversely, The Command Division supplement first describes the Conn department as “[T]he slightly unloved “red-headed stepchild” of the division”, but makes clear that this is not the case. Rather Conn officers are found everywhere, piloting starships and smallcraft. They also extensively cross-trained in different disciplines and sciences and so are capable of working across several departments and positions. This points to the versatility of the Conn officer, but there is some truth to the Conn department being “[T]he slightly unloved “red-headed stepchild” of the division” in The Command Division supplement because the book does focus on the Command department more than the Conn department. Now this is understandable given the importance of Captains and Command officers in Starfleet and Star Trek, but as much as the supplement focuses on the Command department more than the Conn department, there is nevertheless much here which will apply to plots and stories involving officers from the Conn department and other Divisions as they do from Command Division. The Judiciary and officers of the Judge Advocate General Office and the Prime Directive in particular. Both are accorded lengthy write-ups that should really help the Game Master bring both into her campaign, the latter probably more frequently than the former, though if any Starfleet officer violates the Prime Directive, the Judge Advocate General Office is likely to turn up… 

Where Conn department officers are generally limited to a few ranks, Command department officers are not, so in exploring the department, The Command Division also encompasses Starfleet Command, including the Command-in-Chief and Joint Chiefs, important branches such as fleet operations, research & development, and the diplomatic corps, as well as the role of flag officers. This is all important because Command department officers—captains especially, are likely to be frequently in contact with flag officers as their immediate superiors as well as Starfleet, whether that is receiving orders or relaying reports back. In exploring the role of flag officers, the supplement opens up a couple of options. One of course, for a captain to be promoted to flag rank, whilst the other is to run campaigns involving admiralty characters and their support staff.

As well as examining the careers of Command officers beyond the Captain’s chair, The Command Division supplement also looks at their beginning, at the selection of both Command and Conn officers at Starfleet Academy, and there is potential here for a flashback scene or two, notably of course, with the test of character that is the notorious no-win situation, the Kobayashi Maru bridge simulation. Of course, the point of the supplement is playing and challenging a Command officer aboard a starship, so there is a nice section on things that affect its day-to-day operation, such as general and standing orders, for example, the captain being announced when coming onto the bridge; starship operations, including the various alerts statuses and duty watches; and the various roles of a captain’s senior staff. The likelihood is that the Star Trek fan will have picked up a great deal of this from watching the television shows and the movies, but having all this in print really quantifies it for both player and Game Master.

Mechanically, The Command Division supplement what the ratings mean in both the Command and Conn disciplines and how they work with the other disciplines—there are some nice examples of characters from the various television series who combine Command and Conn with other disciplines. So both Jean-Luc Picard and Kathryn Janeway come to Command via Science, whereas Tom Paris is an experienced Conn officer, but through necessity has to undertake a medical role too. Advice is given as to what options to take through the Lifepath system in the Star Trek Adventures core rules to create both Command and Conn officers and an extensive list of focuses and new talents, such as Decisive Leadership and Strafing Run expand their roles and capabilities.

Since it is all about commanding and piloting starships, it is no surprise that The Command Division supplement includes a dozen or so new ships. From the twenty-second century, the supplement gives the Daedalus and NX classes; the twenty-third century, the Constitution-class refit, the Hermes-class scout, the Oberth-class science vessel, Sydney-class colony transport, and the Centaur-class light cruiser; and the twenty-fourth century, the Ambassador-class, Nebula-class, New Orleans-class, Olympic-class hospital ship, Steamrunner-class, Norway-class, Saber-class, Sovereign-class, and Luna-class. Their inclusion opens up lots of options for campaigns set in Star Trek Adventure’s three eras and they come with numerous options like twenty-second century ship weapons and talents (such as photonic torpedoes and grappler cables), the mission pods—Command & Control, Sensors, and Weapons—for the Nebula-class, and the Captain’s Yacht. Of the new ships, the Luna-class stands out because it comes not from the television series, but from the novels and online games. Here it is presented as a projected vessel, yet to be launched in 2371, so there is the possibility that the player character could command the first in a new class of vessels. Smallcraft receive a similar treatment, the supplement including the Type-F shuttlecraft, the Work Bee, the Type-6 shuttle, the Type-7 shuttle, the Type-8 shuttle, the Type-9 shuttle, the Type-10 shuttle, and the Federation Attack Fighter.

As much as the inclusion of all of the space vessels is welcome, one issue with their inclusion is the lack of illustrations for them. There are some, all nicely done painted pieces, but not every vessel is illustrated and it is necessarily clear which illustration fits which ship. This is a major omission as it should be immediately clear and every ship should be illustrated for easy recognition, a crew and their player characters should know what their ship looks like, and neither players nor Game Master should have to look elsewhere to find out what their ship looks like. 

Where much of the supplement is aimed at both player and Game Master, the ‘Using the Command Division’ section is very much for the Game Master as it discusses the different types of plots which can be used with Command and Conn officers. It divides the possible plot components into red, gold and blue—diplomacy, combat, or science components respectively—and expands upon them. So red plot components can include conspiracies, diplomacy, first contact, and more, whilst blue components can include deep space exploration, evacuation, research, and so on. These are further supported with advice and rules on handling social conflict, including in extended tasks such as peace negotiations and legal proceedings. In general, the advice on structuring social conflict and social tools like intimidation, deception and negotiation in combat is decent, whilst the section on telepathy will doubtless be useful for Vulcan and Betazoid characters as well as NPCs. The advice on social conflict is nicely supported with example scenes from the television series.

Rounding out The Command Division supplement are details of the various awards and commendations that Starfleet officers might receive—including the requirements for their being awarded and the bonuses they can grant, starbases and their roles, and a selection of NPCs whose roles would fall under the Command Division. The latter includes not just generic NPCs, but also notable figures from Star Trek. So there are admirals like Vice Admiral Alynna Nechayev as well as Federation diplomats Sarek and Lwanna Troi! There is advice on handling her in particular, as she is sure to disrupt any ongoing Star Trek Adventures campaign, if only temporarily.

Physically, The Command Division supplement is a decent looking book. There are some inconsistencies in the layout, but otherwise the book is generally well-written and illustrated with a fully painted images, though not all of them are as good as one might wish. Notably, in comparison to other supplements, there is less in-game reports, diary entries, and so on in The Command Division supplement, so the layout does not feel as busy and has a bit more room for its contents to breath. The layout is done in the style of the LCARS—Library Computer Access/Retrieval System—operating system used by Starfleet. So everything is laid out over a rich black with the text done in soft colours. This is very in keeping with the theme and period setting of Star Trek Adventures, but it is imposing, even intimidating in its look, and whilst it is not always easy to find things on the page because of the book’s look, it is easier in The Command Division supplement because it is less cluttered than in other supplements for the line. Although the book needs a slight edit in places, but if there is an issue with the production of the book, it is that lacks illustrations of its ships.

The Command Division supplement is not perfect, but its contents are undeniably useful. Not just for the Game Master in creating content for her campaign—both specifically aimed at challenging the Command Division characters in her campaign and in general—but also the player who has a Command Division character or a character who aspires to transfer to Command. Either way, The Command Division supplement works as a reference for player and Game Master alike, and is an excellent expansion for the Star Trek Adventures: The Roleplaying Game

Friday, 30 August 2019

Friday Fantasy: Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom

Having reviewed Going Through Forbidden Other Worlds, seen the effects of Obscene Serpent Religion 2, and the powers to be gained through the lunar cycle with She Bleeds, we move on to listen to the Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom. This is the fourth of four short scenarios and supplements for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay released by Lamentations of the Flame Princess at Gen Con 2018. Drawn from the section on sandbox campaigns in the Referee’s Book for the roleplaying game, Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom presents not a setting, but a whole ecology that the Referee can bring to her game. Or rather, a ‘mycology’ if you will, for the supplement lets the Referee invade her campaign with ambulatory toadstools or ‘Mushroom Mans’, who grow from spores shot out of the Mushroom Kingdom and who want wanting to explore the world beyond their Mushroom Kingdom. So along with a selection of other creatures, this then, is a fungal bestiary.

At heart of Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom are the eight tribes of Mushroom Mans, each a different colour, each with different abilities, but all hating and ready to fight each other. So, the Black Mushroom Mans are Wizards of casting a few spells each day, Grey Mushroom Mans control their own gravitational direction and can walk on walls and ceilings, and Red Mushroom Mans move faster and have an initiative bonus. Given that this is a Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay supplement, so far Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom is not that weird, except that Mushroom Mans can be eaten and their flesh smells like birthday cake and ice-cream. When their flesh is consumed, it has different, random effects. These are all themed and there is a table of random effects for each type of Mushroom Mans. So for the Purple Mushroom Mans, who are the only Mushroom Mans capable of speaking with humans, their flesh, when consumed, grant the ability to speak, understand, read, and write any language , internalise the thoughts of foes in combat, granting excellent benefits, make the person highly persuasive, grant telepathy with anyone the consumer knows over any distance, and so on. Most of these abilities last just twenty-four hours.

Up until this point, the Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom prevents beneficial effects in consuming the flesh of Mushroom Mans, though of course weird in that the player characters need to consume the flesh of an intelligent species. The supplement gets weirder when  this flesh is eaten more than once in a twenty-four hour period. Playing upon the fact that mushrooms or ‘shrooms’ have psychoactive or psychedelic properties, the supplement presents a table of more weird and random effects such as the ingestor becoming invisible and immaterial for a time—but not his clothes and equipment, a strong light shines out of the ingestor’s eyes, even when closed, or the ingestor cannot simply walk, but must skip and sing with joy, although this makes them more tired.

The competitive rivalry between the eight tribes and the chaos of any spore outbreak is abated should a Mushroom King spawn. This huge, three-headed Mushrooms Mans is in permanent contact with other Mushroom Kings via two heads, but also has his own secret plans in a third. The three heads cannot agree easily and so are slow to act, especially in combat, but each head is a different colour and changes colour from round to round, so it has a range of revolving powers. The Mushroom King is not the only creatures in the Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom, the others including Toadstool Turtles which serve as mounts for Mushroom Mans and release spores that confuse mammals who attack them, Mooshrooms which are the livestock of the Mushroom Kingdom and which can be milked for their prismatic and psychedelic milk, and Mushroom Zombies, mindless killing machines which when damaged release noxious, necrotic dust into the air, which of course, has its own Necrodelic Effects Table. There are lots of bugs and other types of mushrooms and fungal creatures in the Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom, such as the Great Tumor, which infects and warps everything around it, including causing all food and drink to cry out not to consume it. Perhaps the most interesting entry in the supplement is the humourless Professor Finkelfunkel, a prickly expert who has been studying the Mushroom Kingdom for several years and who may, or may not, like the player characters. This is expressed in the mushroom tea he serves…

Rounding out the Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom are some treasures, like the innards of the Golden Mushroom which are valuable if difficult to get, and Transformation mushrooms which can change a character’s attributes if eaten.  The Mushroom Mans are also presented as a player character Class. They receive random Hit Dice from Level to Level and their flesh can be consumed without suffering a psychedelic effect. It is not quite clear how the Mushroom Mans Class gains its different colours—presumably by consuming the flesh of other Mushroom Mans—but the Referee should be able to develop the Class a little further.

Physically, Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom is a lovely little book. It needs an edit in places, but really the artwork is excellent throughout, all done by the same team. This gives the supplement a consistent look. Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom is weird, but you would expect that of a supplement for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, but it is not that weird. Certainly not as weird as the what was the previous themed bestiary for the roleplaying game—Slügs. This will probably make the supplement easier to use. If Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom has a weakness, it is that the ecology—or mycology—feels underwritten in terms of motivations for the Mushroom Kings and what any kingdom wants. Although she will need to develop those herself, should the Referee want to spawn mushrooms and toadstools in her campaign, then all of the spores she needs can be found in the Sounds of the Mushroom Kingdom.

Monday, 26 August 2019

[Fanzine Focus XVII] The Hobonomicon #0

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry. Another choice is Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

The Hobonomicon #0 is the inaugural issue of a fanzine written for Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, launched on August 2nd, 2018 at Gen Con. Unlike other fanzines, it comes not in A5 format, but letter size. Written and drawn by many of the some writers and artists who work on titles for Goodman Games—whether Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game or Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & MagicThe Hobonomicon is the book of the void and of unbelievers, a legendary shadow tome of doom architects and fallen chaos martyrs. Or rather, it presents ‘Escape from Planet Punjar’, a full scenario based on Doug Kovacs’ after hours game at Gen Con.

‘Escape from Planet Punjar’ is actually a character funnel. One of the features of both the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game and the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is that is possible to play Zero Level characters going out on their first adventure to hopefully survive and return as First Level adventurers. In a character funnel, each player roleplays not one character, but several, ultimately going on to play whichever one of them survives and so achieves First Level and attains a Class. In Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, the Zero Level characters are likely to be peasants and in Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, they are simple tribal folk ready to undergo their Rite of Passage, but in ‘Escape from Planet Punjar’, the Zero Level characters are citizens living in the lightless, lawless bowels of the ecumenopolis that is Planet Punjar. It is the year 50,000 and the collision of the Doom Planet with Planet Punjar is iminent, and so it has been decreed by the High Lords of Punjar that the planet be evacuated.

Starting with ‘Escape from Planet Punjar Introductions’, which provides ways to introduce the characters, the main feature of The Hobonomicon #0 takes the Zero Level characters step-by-step through their increasingly desperate efforts to get off planet. This includes ‘Zero Level Occupations’, and goes on through a map of the shattered levels of the city, ‘Planet Punjar Encounters’, ‘Gangs, Cops, and Cults’, ‘Chance Happenings and Random Shit’, and lastly, ‘Escapes From Planet Punjar’. This is presented in a rich mix of table entries and pictures. So the map presents a cutaway view of the lower depths of Punjar marked with locations, none of which are given illustrations. Instead, the Dungeon Master is expected to work from the illustrations which are good enough to inspire any Dungeon Master. ‘Planet Punjar Encounters’ work on the same principle, although some details and stats are given, whilst full stats and thumbnail descriptions are given for the ‘Gangs, Cops, and Cults’. ‘Chance Happenings and Random Shit’ works slightly differently in that sometimes the Dungeon Master interprets the results and sometimes a player does. Lastly, ‘Escapes From Planet Punjar’ provides fuller, but no less random final encounters in which the player characters have the opportunity to get off the planet.

Fingle Woznekki
Zero Level Citizen (Mutant)
Gender: Female (Pregnant)
Occupation: Anarchist Rabble Rouser
STR 15 (+1) AGL 11 STM 13 (+1)
PER 13 (+1) INT 06 (-1) LCK 16 (+2)
Hit Points: 5
Saving Throws
Fortitude +1 Reflex +0 Willpower +1
Mutation: Sensual Tail (master key for all meat kiosks)
Equipment: Fire bomb, protest flag, gas mask, pepper spray

‘Escape from Planet Punjar’ is a lot of fun. It has a surprisingly British feel in its humour and style, echoing the gonzo ‘Judge Dredd’ and ‘Nemesis the Warlock’ comic strips of 2000 AD as well as the grim feel and grit of the Warhammer 40,0000 universe. It is primarily a sandbox, the players free to have their characters wander they will in their desperate efforts to escape their dying world. Since it primarily consists of random tables, ‘Escape from Planet Punjar’ is also highly replayable, or rather, highly rerunnable, because the Dungeon Master can run this again and again and the results will be different almost every time. It does call for a high degree of improvisation upon the part of the Dungeon Master, but plethora of tables help, as does the format. The format and rerunnable also makes ‘Escape from Planet Punjar’ suitable as a convention scenario.

The problem though with ‘Escape from Planet Punjar’ is that there is no Science Fiction equivalent of Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game or Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game—no Star Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. So there are no rules for running quite this sort of game and that will require some further improvisation upon the part of the Dungeon Master. Not a huge amount, but this in addition to the improvisation already required. Thus it really needs a Dungeon Master of some experience rather than a novice as it is a toolkit rather than a fully written out scenario.

Rounding out The Hobonomicon #0 are a pair of comic strips. Doug Kovacs’ ‘Death of a Reaver’ is the first part of a series and sees a lone warrior encounter a trio of bandits who bar her way over a bridge. It is well drawn, but does leave the reader on cliffhanger and really does not tell much in the way of a story in its four pages. ‘Dreams of a Klartesh Fiend’, drawn by Stefan Poag and written by James MacGeorge is a drug induced nightmare that although well drawn feels at home on the inside back page.

Bar the cover—which is done in colour, front and back, inside and out—The Hobonomicon #0 is heavily illustrated in black and white throughout. The artwork is excellent, ranging from grim to gruesome, from daft to disturbing, but it all fits. The writing is also good too, perhaps a little underwritten, but enough to nudge the Dungeon Master’s imagination.

The Hobonomicon #0 is scenario as fanzine. And in that scenario, ‘Escape from Planet Punjar’, The Hobonomicon #0 showcases how the Star Crawl Classics Role Playing Game might start. If that is what you are looking for, or a scenario which can be semi-improvised at convention after convention, or perhaps you like Doug Kovacs’ (and others’) art, then The Hobonomicon #0 is perfect for you. Hopefully, The Hobonomicon #1 will see the characters escape to the stars after they have made their ‘Escape from Planet Punjar’.

Sunday, 25 August 2019

[Fanzine Focus XVII] Midderzine Issue 3

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed how another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & DragonsRuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry

Midderzine, which promises ‘More green for your game’, is a fanzine devoted to The Midderlands, the horror infused, green tinged interpretation of the medieval British Isles flavoured with Pythonesque humour and an Old School White Dwarf sensibility, published by Monkey Blood Design and first detailed in The Midderlands - An OSR Setting & Bestiary. Also published by Monkey Blood Design and like The Midderlands line, this fanzine is written for use with Swords & Wizardry and adds new flora and fauna, locations, oddities, and more. This is much more of a house publication and so is cleaner, tidier, and more consistent in style than the average fanzine. This includes the artwork and cartography of designer Glynn Seal as well as the artwork of Jim Magnusson.

Midderzine Issue 1 set the format with a pleasingly cohesive first issue. Midderzine Issue 3 follows that format opening with ‘Meet the Midderlander’, an interview with one of the creators of The Midderlands as a setting. Now this time the interview is with me, because I am the editor on The Midderlands - An OSR Setting & Bestiary and its two sequel supplements. Now the interesting aspect of the interview is not the fact that it is with me, but rather it is the role which warrants the interview and thus it is an editor being reviewed.

Actual content for The Midderlands begins with ‘The Haven Gazette’, a collection of five rumours and news pieces, like reports of the ‘Brigands of the Scaled Skin’ terrorising travellers in the borderlands or how an argument between two friends in the village of Weeshaw escalated into a brawl that split the village and had to be broken up by the local militia. These are really quick thumbnail snippets that the Game Master can use as bits of background colour, rumours, or adventure hooks to develop. It is followed by ‘Hexes & Unique Locations’, a description one hex on The Haven Isles map, this time on the Thames Estuary where a strange obsidian obelisk has been found and there is an old beacon to warn ships of the Swine’s Teeth Rocks below. Again, it is up to the Game Master to really develop these as adventure locations, but the descriptions are good.

The bulk of  Midderzine Issue 3 details the one town—Sixoaks in Kentshire, in the Southeast of the Haven Isles. There is a lovely moment for geographers everywhere with the inclusion of Polg’s Pond, an oxbow lake, said to be home to a wart goblin who once saved the townsfolk from a sudden flood, an event celebrated with the annual Polg’s Flood Festival. Sixoaks is noted for its one inn, for which privilege the owners are heavily taxed by the local lord; the particularly good carrots grown by Boris Picker and brought by a customer from Great Lunden; and Thistle, the prized mudcow bull who is protected against rustlers and the hungry. There is also the Tithe Barn where the local lord, Lord Krust, stores the heavy taxes levied on the townsfolk, and who suspects that one of the guards stationed there is pilfering from. This is the major hook in Sixoaks, an investigation that the player characters will be asked to conduct in order to confirm their employer’s suspicions. The investigation is a slight affair, with really very little in the way of plot, but should provide a session or two’s worth of play.

‘New Monsters’ details the Elemental Gloomium and the Eyeballer. The first is a corrupted Earth Elemental which searches out veins of gloominum to feed its addiction in the deep and the dark, and whose fists are known to inflict a Gloom Punch and a gloom-touched deformity. The second is a scavenger which comes out at night in search of detritus to search through and which has multiple eyeballs giving it amazing, almost magical eyesight. It eyes are prized by collectors, but exactly for what is left up to the Game Master to decide.

Lastly, Richard Marpole writes up another Scottish Class, leading on from his ‘Woad Rager’ in Midderzine Issue 2. The new Class is the Phantom Piper, who carve and play Scrotland’s national musical instrument to guide the souls of the dead into the afterlife, to lay angry spirits to rest, and even play Scrotland’s clan warriors into battle. The pipes are part of a Phantom Piper, supernaturally linked and granting him spells and the ability to turn and destroy the undead. In turn though, as he grows in piping power, the Phantom Piper grows closer to the Other Side and receives a  Mark of Death, like translucent skin or the sound of bones clicking when he walks… This though may bring him to the attention of Witchfinders and Inquisitors and may even end up with him being burned at the stake! The New Oddities are all Phantom Piper spells, like McDonal, Where’s Yer Trousers, which transports the target’s trousers miles and miles away, and Flower of Scrotland, which summons a wrath-filled army of ghostly warriors to fight for the Phantom Warrior. This is another fun, thematic Class, and perhaps the author will return with other Classes for the other regions of the Haven Isles in future issues.

Physically, Midderzine Issue 3 is up to the same standard as the previous editions. This means reasonable artwork and excellent cartography, though it does feel a little rushed in places and could have done with a tighter edit.

If there is anything missing from Midderzine Issue 3, it is perhaps a good adventure with a good plot, but hopefully that will change with future releases from Monkey Blood Design. Overall, Midderzine Issue 3 feels a little broader in its application in that its contents could be used in other settings should the Game Master be prepared to adapt the material. Really though, as with the other issues, the content of Midderzine Issue 3 is very much written for use with The Midderlands, providing further solid support that the Game Master can easily add to or develop for her campaign.

Saturday, 24 August 2019

[Fanzine Focus XVII] Extinguish the Sun Vol. 2

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another Dungeon Master and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & DragonsRuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry.

Extinguish the Sun is a fanzine published by Apollyon Press, best known for the somewhat underdeveloped Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay supplement, On the Shoulders of Giants. The inaugural issue presented a pair of settings, one fantasy, one post-apocalypse, that were worthy of further development and detail. Unfortunately, Extinguish the Sun Vol. 2 develops neither of the settings, but does at least announce that the ‘Knights of the Road’ setting will instead be developed and published by Necrotic Gnome Productions, an Old School Renaissance publisher best known for the Wormskin fanzine. Instead, the second issue, published in August, 2018, presents a wholly new setting, one which seems timely considering the imminent release of both Cyberpunk Red and Shadowrun, Sixth Edition.

‘Fulminations of the Cybernetic Punk’ reskins the rules of Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay to present a Cyberpunk setting in just sixteen pages. It provides four new Classes, a simple equipment list, a guide to the Matrix, and a setting. Unfortunately, it is missing one element which makes Extinguish the Sun Vol. 2 a complete roleplaying in and of itself, but we will come to that… Making use of just Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay’s Rules & Magic, it mixes and matches various parts of character design to present four new Classes. So for example, ‘The Mercenary’ uses the ten-sided die for its Hit Dice, saves as an Elf, and gains Experience Points as the Specialist Class. Notably, ‘Fulminations of the Cybernetic Punk’ uses the Skills system from Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay to model the various abilities of three of the four Classes rather than giving specific abilities. So The Cyborg is given access to five skills—Guidance (navigation and digital mapping), Knowledge (encyclopedic), Vision (thermal, X-ray, et cetera.) Maths, and Strength (raw), each rated between one and six, and each working whenever the player rolls under the skill. So, instead of adding to the Cyborg’s base Strength attribute, the player is rolling it and improving it as a skill.

The other Classes are just as simple. Thus, The Lowlife has the skills of Acquisitions and Offloading, the first for finding and acquiring goods, services, and employment, the latter for selling or getting rid of things. The Phreak has latent psionic abilities which enable him to plug into the Matrix via a data jack and so explore computer systems with his mind. The Phreak does not have any skills or abilities as such, but rather this one ability to connect to the virtual world. The Mercenary differs though, focusing on abilities rather than skills. Each Mercenary has a primary weapon, a secondary weapon, and a special ability to reflect a fighting style. So a Mercenary with a Monosword primary weapon, Unarmed combat secondary weapon, and the Martial Arts Special might be a Ninja-style assassin, but replace the Monosword with the Pistol, and the Mercenary becomes a bodyguard. Take pistol, baton, and the Savage Special which increases weapon die types and the Mercenary might be a murderous enforcer.

Curiously, although ‘Fulminations of the Cybernetic Punk’ comes with an equipment list, what it lacks is cyberware. Instead, it subsumes these elements into the characters, most obviously in the Cyborg Class, but also the Phreak Class. The Matrix where the Phreak mostly operates is described as a mass of interconnected nodes, each node designed and styled by its owner. Some are designed as rooms and complexes of rooms, but secure areas it is suggested are like ‘dungeons’. Although all Classes can access the Matrix, here the Phreak comes into his own, having more—if virtual—Hit Points and a greater bonus to hit, though really, perhaps the Class should also have been given proper Specialist skills to reflect their larcenous intent inside the Matrix.

In terms of background, ‘Fulminations of the Cybernetic Punk’ describes a world dominated by five mega-corporations, a world of extreme haves and have-nots, and so on. This is a fairly standard Cyberpunk world, one in which the player characters are freelance mercenaries, perhaps working for the corporations, perhaps cultural-counter terrorists, perhaps both. 

Unfortunately, what ‘Fulminations of the Cybernetic Punk’ lacks is an adventure. It suggests that a heist in the Matrix is a replacement for the dungeon of other Old School Renaissance roleplaying games. How exactly that works is not quite explained, leaving the Game Master to develop the idea herself. To really pull the ideas of ‘Fulminations of the Cybernetic Punk’ together, it would have been good to see an example of a dungeon as heist works… Instead, what Extinguish the Sun Vol. 2 gives is an interview with Daniel Sell of the Melsonian arts Council. Now it is a decent interview, interesting and informative, but it does not make the issue, instead it brings it to a shuddering halt, such is the abrupt change of subject.

Physically, Extinguish the Sun Vol. 2 is nicely laid out with art, which although cartoonish, gives it a singular look. There is plenty of potential in ‘Fulminations of the Cybernetic Punk’ and it is an interesting attempt to do a Cyberpunk with a retroclone, it is just a pity that the author does not complete it with an adventure, making it all but ready to play, instead leaving the Game Master with more effort than is really necessary...

Friday, 23 August 2019

[Fanzine Focus XVII] Crawl! No. 1

On the tail of Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & Dragons, RuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.

Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry. Another choice is Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Published by Straycouches Press, Crawl! is one such fanzine dedicated to Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Since Crawl! No. 1 was published in March, 2012 has not only provided ongoing support for the roleplaying game, but also been kept in print by Goodman Games. Now because of online printing sources like Lulu.com, it is no longer as difficult to keep fanzines from going out of print, so it is not that much of a surprise that issues of Crawl! remain in print. It is though, pleasing to see a publisher like Goodman Games support fan efforts like this fanzine by keeping them in print and selling them directly.

The current version of Crawl! No. 1 is a ‘Special Edition!’. Like the previous version, it presents five articles, but here presents one article that includes everything that was subsequently written for it. This is ‘Van den Danderclanden: A Patron from the Imminent Future’, which previously only contained a description of the patron. It is actually one of five articles in the fanzine, of which ‘Wizards & Warriors! Part 1’ is the first. Inspired by the fiction of Robert E. Howard and Fritz Leiber, it suggests ways of doing the Swords & Sorcery fantasy subgenre using the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. First is eschewing demihumans in favour of man, offering new starting occupations to replace of Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings on the Occupation table in the core rules. Next, it takes the radical step of giving all characters Thieving skills. In other words, they are all thieves! To support this suggestion, it provides two options. One is to give every character all of the skills of the Thief, bar the ability to backstab. Now this does mean that the Thief Class is emasculated in comparison to the other Classes, so instead the article also provides a simple alternative skill system based around their Level and their attributes bonuses. These are all quite difficult to achieve, but they do allow any character to attempt to thief-like actions, whilst still allowing the Thief Class to be better. The other major change is to drop the Cleric’s ability to heal, even the Cleric Class, but certainly to replace the need to heal with more Hit Points or faster standard healing. To make this yet more harder, the article suggests that a character can also have a Hit Dice pool equal to his Hit Dice and his player then roll dice from that pool to recover his character’s Hit Points. 

Mechanically, ‘Wizards & Warriors! Part 1’ takes Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game in a grittier direction even as Swords & Sorcery, the subgenre it is emulating is regarded as not a little pulpy in tone. It will be interesting to see what Crawl! No. 2 does with this.

Brett Miller’s ‘Van den Danderclanden: A Patron from the Imminent Future’ lies at the heart of Crawl! No. 1 and collects all of the details about this patron and his complete spells and spellburn. The first third-party published patron for Dungeon Crawl Classics, Van den Danderclanden is the Supernal Archmage of Empyreal Aptitude in a distant, but parallel future. Driven by a thirst for power, he now reaches across the parallels and back to his previous selves to manipulate their actions and so lay the groundwork for him to ascend to godhood! Which includes of course, one of the player characters. When invoked as a patron by his player character ancestor, he grants temporary gifts such as Slow Time or Transdimenaional Assistance. Yet as the Invisible Shepherd, he is an Unholy Patron, and so when invoked, those that call upon him can be tainted by his influence, so that they may be plagued by the ghost of they have slain or constantly losing and finding things—and the effects of this taint can get worse and worse…

Van den Danderclanden also delights in the chaotic effects of Spellburn and several effects are given for any spellcaster who has him as their patron. He also grants them several spells, such as Van den Danderclanden’s Hateful Blemish which inflicts the corruption of heavy magic use upon a target and Snafufubar, which focuses and inflicts bad luck upon the target of the spell. ‘Van den Danderclanden: A Patron from the Imminent Future’ is perfect for the Judge who wants to inject more chaos into the life of a Wizard in her campaign. Van den Danderclanden is likely to have an insidiously corrupting influence upon a campaign and so add a ripe dose of darkness.

‘Save of Die!’ gives an alternative to the Bleeding Out rules from Dungeon Crawl Classics. It enables a character with less than one Hit Point to stay conscious with a successful Fortitude Save and perhaps do something to save himself, such as cry out or crawl away. ‘Variable DCs’ is written to add some depth to the Skill Checks system in Dungeon Crawl Classics, basically giving a wider range of Difficulty Checks rather than the given Easy, Routine, Moderate, Hard, and so on. It also discusses Occupation skills, Class skills, and Passive Ability Checks. Whilst it may add more depth, it may also add, if not complexity, then an extra step in the process of determining whether a character has been successful or not in his actions. 

One of the aspects of magic in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game is that casting spells is not automatic, and can lead to spell failure, corruption, loss, or all of that… Not so in other retroclones. ‘OSR Conversions: Spells’ provides a means for spells from other Old School Renaissance roleplaying games, including a player having to roll a spell check for his Wizard, there being a chance that the spell is not cast, fumbled, or cast with variable effects. It is not an exact science, since there are a lot of spells in the Old School Renaissance, and the Judge will need to adjudicate the exact effects from spell to spell. ‘OSR Conversions: Spells’ is a nice little tool that opens up the wider world of the Old School Renaissance and its numerous spells books to the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Physically, Crawl! No 1 is simply laid out with reasonable art, including one which apes Van den Danderclanden as the Great Beast, Aleister Crowley! Of the articles, ‘Save of Die!’ and ‘Variable DCs’are dry and mechanical and are likely to appeal to those Judges that like to tinker, whereas ‘OSR Conversions: Spells’ opens up lots of potential for the Judge who likes other retroclones. ‘Wizards & Warriors! Part 1’ is a good start to a series though, and of course, ‘Van den Danderclanden: A Patron from the Imminent Future’ has the potential to be a lot of fun in any campaign. Overall, Crawl! No. 1 is a good first issue—obviously updated—but good nonetheless.

Monday, 19 August 2019

Miskatonic Monday #25: Legs

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the depths of the Miskatonic Depository.


Name: Legs

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Jim Phillips

Setting: Modern Day
Product: Scenario
What You Get: 3.47 MB, 21-page colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: B-Movie madness at an 'HPL' convention.

Plot Hook: Trapped in darkness, in a hotel, screams all around, can the investigators escape the towering darkness? 
Plot Development: A B-movie, darkness, the scuttling, and then some more scuttling. Did we mention scuttling?
Plot Support: Three decent maps and five pre-generated investigators.
Production Values: Decent.

# Parodies NecronomiCon (and similar conventions)
# Body survival horror
# One-shot

# Suitable as a convention scenario
# Potential for investigator-to-investigator conflict
# Potential for the players as investigators
# Decent art
# Good art

# Linear plot
# Free

# No investigator backgrounds
# Undeveloped potential for investigator-to-investigator conflict
# Unsuitable for any who dislikes scuttling

# Straightforward one-shot 
# All the scuttling you could ever want in the towering darkness.

Sunday, 18 August 2019

Retrospective: Cults of Prax

One of the issues with RuneQuest—recently and beautifully republished as RuneQuest Classic by Chaosim, Inc.—was what it hinted at and did not provide. It hinted at a setting, that of Glorantha, which we know of today in all of its richness and detail through numerous roleplaying games and supplements. Notable among those hints were three cults, of which Orlanth and Kyger Litor were more important than the Black Fang Brotherhood, which suggested the power and place of faith and magic in the world of Glorantha. Had there been descriptions of more cults in RuneQuest, then perhaps the first step into Dragon Pass and Glorantha would have been easier. Of course, it should be made clear that this is not an issue with the most recent iteration of the roleplaying game, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, in that the cults, gods, and runes are more strongly integrated into the rules as well as the setting. Not so in 1978, but then came Cults of Prax.

Cults of Prax was published in 1979. It presented fifteen cults—old and new—plus their subcults, dedicated to fifteen very different deities. Fifteen cults which presented different world views. Fifteen cults which would support their members and even help train them in terms of magic and skills in return for their worship and donations to their gods of magical power and money. Fifteen cults which helped maintain a link between their gods and the real world, particularly through the rune magic the cults taught their initiates. Fifteen cults that the player characters could join and aspire to become Rune Lords and Rune Priests and so bring the power of their gods into the world. Fifteen cults which would provide motivations for NPCs and player characters alike.

The fifteen cults are broken into four categories—the Barbarian gods, the Invader deities, the Lightbringers, and non-human gods. The four Barbarian gods and their cults are Daka Fal, Storm Bull, Waha, and Eritha, the latter the primary Earth goddess in the region covered by Cults of Prax. The Invader deities are Humakt, the Seven Mothers, Pavis, and Yelmalio, with Pavis being an example of a local city cult and the Seven Mothers, a cult which most hold in antipathy, here presented as with the rest of the other cults as an organisation which a player character could join, benefit from and donate to, espouse, and more. The Lightbringers details only four of those that journeyed into Hell and returned Yelm to the world and include Issaries, Chalana Arroy, Lhankor Mhy, and Orlanth, whilst the non-human gods are Kyger Litor and Zorak Zoran—two Troll deities, and Aldrya, the goddess of the woods and mother of the Elves, Dryads, and Pixies. There is an interesting and diverse range of cults detailed here, most of them for the first time—the inclusion of Orlanth and Kyger Litor being the exception—but all pleasingly natural as if they have a place in the world, their members believe so, and they believe in the myths of their gods, which of course, varies from god to god. Sometimes conflicting, sometimes not. 

What is interesting about this selection and thus Cults of Prax is the geographical setting. In more recent treatments of Glorantha—RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and HeroQuest in Glorantha—the focus has been on Dragon Pass, on Sartar, and its surrounds, but here in the second book for RuneQuest, the region explored is Prax, the god-blasted desert region home to the great beast-riding barbarian tribes, infested by Trolls at night, and the site of the civilised town of New Pavis, abutting the ruins of the old city, now known as the Big Rubble. This means that many of the deities more familiar to Sartar are not detailed here—Ernalda, the primary Earth goddess, being the primary example. This focus upon Prax and its nearby regions would continue in then future supplements for RuneQuest, such as the Pavis: Threshold to Danger and Big Rubble: The Deadly City boxed sets.

Each of the fifteen is described more or less in the same level of detail, giving information on the mythos and history of the cult, the nature of the cult, its organisation, membership, and associated and subservient cults, along with some miscellaneous notes. The supplement actually begins not by detailing a cult to be found in Prax, but a sample cult, a generic cult which is used to explain what each of the entries are in the cult write-ups. Along with guidelines for creating Rune spells, what this chapter also does is explain cults in a manner that a Game Master could go away and create his own rather than use those given in Cults of Prax.

Of the entries in each cult write-up, the mythos and history of the cult presents the life and purpose of each god in four stages—‘Before Time’, ‘Since Time Began’, ‘Life After Death’, and ‘Runic Associations’. So, for Yelmalio, ‘Before Time’ describes how as a warrior and leader he fought for his father, Yelm, the Sun, and despite being disarmed by Orlanth, and being wounded and having his fire powers stolen by Zorak Zoran, fought alongside Lord Elf to fight chaos; how ‘Since Time Began’, the cult has remained relatively small having few Sun Dome temples, but spread wherever the Sun and sky are worshipped, fielding professional soldiers in many conflicts; and for ‘Life After Death’, how his worshippers will descend to the mansions of Yelm where the sun god stayed after Orlanth killed him. There they will find final contentment after many lifetimes of work, being willing to return again and again to achieve this—even resurrection. The cult’s ‘Runic Associations’ are Truth and Light.

The cult entry for Yelmalio goes on to detail how it survives in areas where there are Storm worshippers; how it has little political power, but is renowned for its mercenaries; and why it hates Zorak Zoran and Kyger Litor, but maintains a professional rivalry with Humakt. Thus cult temples are organised like military companies and Trolls may never join the cult and cult members may never befriend Trolls. Cult members are taught battle magic spells Coordination, Detect Gold, Light, and Repair at half the cost, but cannot learn Bludgeon, Darkwall, Fireblade, and Fire Arrow—the latter two because Zorak Zoran stole Yelmalio’s heat powers, which is a neat way of mechanically reflecting the cult’s mythology. The entry goes on to describe the requirements for lay and initiate membership, then Rune Lord and Rune Priest, details the Rune spells the cult teaches, as well as Rune spells that Yelmalio’s associated cults also grants, so for example, the Sunripen Rune spell from Aldrya and Sunspear from Yelm. Lastly, miscellaneous notes detail the uniform nature of the cult’s temples—square, with slightly tapering walls and a gold sheathed dome, how the cult hates to be paid in silver Lunars rather than gold Wheels to the point that it pounds Lunars into lumps of metal, and how many of the cult’s members tend to be blonde and brown-eyed.

There is a wealth of detail in each of the fifteen entries. Whether it is the notes on Troll culture and Human prejudices in the entry under Kyger Litor; how Storm Bull worshippers are contemptuous of anything that does not meet their cult’s crude and simple demands, even as they partake of the contemptible lifestyle; and how the swords of Humakti initiates always shine. There is a certain dryness to this detail, but this does not get in the way of it and it is counterpointed by the travelogue of Biturian Varosh, a merchant prince of the Issaries cult. His journey takes him across Prax to Pavis, down to Corflu and back again, all the while encountering different cults and attempting to trade with them (or not in the case of Lunar Seven Mothers cultists), adding colour and flavour, though of course from a Lightbringer worshipper’s point of view.

In addition, Cults of Prax gives an explanation of the Gloranthan calendar, whilst an extensive set of appendices lists such things as cult compatibles, cult membership for the various barbarian tribes of Prax, the new skills and Battle Magic spells to be found in the supplement, a chronology, and new weapons of the Lunar scimitar and the use of shield and two-handed spear favoured by Yemalio mercenaries and soldiers, since adopted by regiments of the Lunar Empire.

Physically, Cults of Prax is organised in a simple, readable fashion. There is no index per se, but the lists of new skills, Battle Magic spells, and Rune spells do indicate the sections where they can be found, and since the book is so well organised, finding such entries is actually not as difficult as it could be. The book is lightly illustrated with just a few decent pieces of art, though some of it does little to actually illustrate the contents of the book.

The critics at the time of its publication were positive in their response to Cults of Prax. Reviewing Cults of Prax in White Dwarf No. 23 (Feb/Mar 1981), O. C. Macdonald wrote, “Cults of Prax, which is essentially an expansion of the rather scanty rules given in the RuneQuest rulebook on runemagic is described as the second book of RuneQuest.” continuing with, “For those who are interested in RuneQuest, I cannot rate this book too highly, it makes an already excellent, imaginative, and highly playable FRP system into a masterpiece that richly deserves a place at the forefront of the hobby.” before awarding it a score of ten out of ten. It was also given a detailed review by Richard L. Snider in Different Worlds, Issue 7 (Apr/May 1980), who described Cults of Prax as, “...[T]he best extant cosmology designed for use with any FRP that has been published. The format is presented in a professional, enjoyable and highly organized manner. I heartily recommend it both to those persons who own a copy of RQ and others who are interested in adding this dimension to their individual campaigns.”, finishing with, “I view the addition of social interaction mechanisms and a delineated cosmology to be integral to a complete fantasy campaign. Cult of Prax [sic] is the only published sourcebook of this type that gives these factors anywhere near their proper weight. I applaud both authors and the editors for their fine product.”

Steve Jackson—of Steve Jackson Games—gave Cults of Prax a capsule review in Space Gamer Number 27 (March/April 1980), commenting that, “This book could perhaps have been improved by a slightly less scholarly writing style, The "textbook" nature of the cult descriptions make them somewhat confusing at first (even to an experienced RuneQuest fan; I checked!) On the other hand, this same textbook attitude gets a lot of data into a small space, and lends great verisimilitude to the game-world of Glorantha.” He finished the review, saying, “If you play RuneQuest, you want this book. If you are a serious Game Master in any fantasy system, you would do well to look it over. The CULTS OF PRAX philosophy is totally god-orientated. Similarly god-orientated GMs may find it used; others will find it interesting. And remember: Gods don't have to be effective to be important. Belief is the thing, and the interactions of social groups and differing beliefs in CULTS OF PRAX is good fantasy reading if you don't game at all.”

Cults of Prax was published in 1979 and so is forty years old. If RuneQuest provided the framework through which we could enter Glorantha, Cults of Prax, described as the second book of RuneQuest, opened up the world of Glorantha, not necessarily physically—though there is a geographical aspect to the supplement in Biturian Varosh’s travels—but mystically and motivationally. In focusing upon the cults, it placed an emphasis on how and why each cult’s members viewed the world, and how and why they interacted with each other, with other cults, and with the world around them. Cults of Prax brought both function and form to faith, and in doing so, it made faith both playable and something that you wanted to play. This is what made Cults of Prax arguably the most important supplement ever for both Glorantha and RuneQuest.

Saturday, 17 August 2019

Seeking an RPG

The year is 1765. King George III is mad. In France, hunters not only tracked down and discovered the Beast of Gevaudan, but found the region infested with pagan cults. Both London and Paris have walled off great sections of their cities into which are quarantined all those found to be suffering from the Plague. This plague, is not one of buboes and fever—though the authorities would say it is and would even go as far as to put the city of London to the torch in 1666, but of madness, madness which is exacerbated by the monthly rise of the Blood Moon that has cast its baleful light upon the world for centuries. Whilst there is madness within the cities, there are horrors outside it that drive the peasants into worshipping them or fleeing into the towns and cities. All this has arisen since the Templars broke into the tomb of Abd al Hazred under the Temple of Solomon in Jerusalem in 1136—against the Akhua Brotherhood, a religious sect dedicated to protecting the tomb—and took the only copy of his dread work, the Al Azif, so allowing true knowledge of the universe into the world, and perhaps something worse... In the centuries since, the Akhua Brotherhood has slipped into the shadows, funding both scientific research across Europe and a front, a semi-secret organisation with halls in London, Paris, Berlin, the Colonies, and elsewhere, dedicated to hunting down and destroying the monsters that have arisen under the Blood Red Moon and from the Plague. This organisation is known as the League of Seekers.

This is the set-up for a British roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror and action in which the player characters are members of the League of Seekers or Seekers. They are members of the peasantry, the middle classes, and gentry who answer the call in their very blood to join. Some of the middle classes may actually be members of the Akhua Brotherhood, whilst some of the gentry are actually Vampyrs. Characters are defined by nine attributes—Arcane, Conflict, Eloquence, Fitness, Investigate, Learned, Mind, Occult, and Subterfuge—each of which is associated with five percentile skills. 

To create a character, a player rolls for his (social) Class. This determines his base Attribute values and what skill values can be assigned as well the life path the character will follow during creation. The Lifepath determines their birthplace, upbringing, and early career, which give further adjustments to the character’s attributes and skills. Every character is randomly assigned the start of a tale which describes their encounter with the horrors of the world which his player must finish and the player also gets to choose a statement which grants the player character a bonus under certain circumstances. For example, ‘I am likeable’, which grants a +10% bonus when the character attempts to convince or charm someone. A character also receives an Awakening Power as a result of his Tale of Horror, and lastly receives some equipment from the League of Seekers, including a special gift, such as a Tincture of Healing or the Lamp of Guiding Light.

Standard character generation is straightforward enough. Creating a character who is a member of the Akhua Brotherhood is more complex and includes a player choosing between four sects: Bahith—keepers of knowledge, Hamia—protectors of sacred sites and warriors, Masernam—Sleepwalkers who guard the realms of dream and spirit, and Al-Hashishan—the secret of assassins. The creation of Vampyrs is similarly complex with attributes, skills, powers, weaknesses, and so on, all depending upon what generation the Vampyr is.

Name: Guillaume Martin
Birthplace: Village Upbringing: Basic Living
Background Career: Hunter
Class: Peasant Age: 24 Gender: Male
My Tale: I had hunted wolves before, but none as big as this… [As it cut down my fellow hunters I stood in fear, yet it did not notice me. Knowing that it would strike at nearby villages, I fled to find help.]
Your Statement: I am one with nature (+10% to tasks in the fields or forest)
Experience Dice: d4

Alchemy 00%, Lore 00%, Magick 00%, Ritual 00%, Sigil 00%

Fitness 4
Acrobatics 00%, Athletics 20%, Resistance 10%, Toughness 30%, Travel 20%

Mind 2
Cunning 20%, Dream 00%, Logic 00%, Memory 10%, Willpower 30%

Conflict 5
Explosives 00%, Melee 00%, Ranged 50%, Thrown 00%, Unarmed 00%

Investigate 3
Detect 10%, Notice 40%, Research 00%, Search 20%, Track 60%

Occult 2
Cults 00%, Demonology 00%, Divination 00%, Folk Tales 00%, Xenology 00%

Eloquence 4
Commerce 10%, Deceive 00%, Diplomacy 00%, Etiquette 00%, Languages 00%

Learned 2
Academia 00%, History 00%, Medical 00%, Mythology 05%, Theology 05%

Subterfuge 4
Disguise 00%, Forgery 00%, Stealth 50%, Steal 00%, Tinker 00%

Insanity 12 Insight 0 Reason 3
Dark Knowledge 04% 
Wounds 12 Injury 3
Damage Bonus: d6

Talents: Bruiser
Traits: Invisible
Awakened Powers: Blend Focus: 40%

Equipment: Hunters Carbine, Repeating Crossbow, Blade of St. Bartol, Seeker’s Raiments, three sedatives, bedroll, satchel, flint & steel, rope, lantern, £5

One issue with character generation is that eighty percent of the player characters are likely to be peasants, and that does limit what character types a campaign may end up with. It also limits access to certain skills. Much of this is understandable, given the social constraints of the time, but for example, any character with an interest in the skills which fall under the Occult attribute will really need to be of the middle classes or the gentry to pursue them. So it is not possible to play a witch-type or wise woman-type character with any ease. Another is that the rules do not tell you if the base skill points are assigned to the five skills under each attribute or spread between the various skills.

The roleplaying game includes an extensive equipment list with a particular emphasis on the esoteric. For example, both armour and weapons can be embossed with Runes, such as Aegishhjalmur: Protection, which increases the armour value of any armour won by one, or Iibead: Banish, which when etched into a blade or bolt will banish the magical effects protecting a target and inflict extra damage on magical beings. There are several specialised weapons too. They include the chain sword, used either as a sword or a whip, the Leyden mine which unleashes a blast of stunning electricity, and the Hunters Carbine, which can fire solid slugs and hold seven rounds. None of these are illustrated and in the case of the latter, no explanation of how they work is given.

Mechanically, the roleplaying game uses a percentile system. Rolls under a skill value count as a success, difficult challenges halving the skill and hard challenges quartering it. Gear bonuses can improve a skill. A Roll under the associated attribute of a skill count as a critical and rolls of 99% or higher as fumbles. So for Guillame, a roll of six or less when his player rolls against any Investigative skill counts as a success. A critical grants a bonus to a subsequent skill check, a true answer to a relevant question asked of the Game Master, extra information, or a Blessing. A fumble means that the character has triggered a trap or alarm, learned false information, suffers a penalty a subsequent skill check, or loses a Blessing. A Blessing is a simple, randomly determined percentage value that can be used as a bonus to a roll, a penalty on an opponent’s roll, change an outcome, and have a Vision Quest (if the character has the talent). Alternatively, a Blessing can be used to flip a roll, re-roll a roll, or passed to another character. Rolling a critical or a fumble also enables a player to roll his character’s Experience die and add the result to the skill the critical was rolled on. This happens as soon as the critical is rolled. 

Combat allows for differences in the weight of the melee weapons in blocking damage, for achieving dominance over opponents by surprise, weapon length, opponent fumbles, mobbing them, or pinning them against a wall, and critical rolls. Dominance grants an extra attack, double damage, disarms an opponent, pins them, and so on, depending on the circumstances. Every player character has the same maximum number of Wounds—twelve. The more Wounds he suffers, the greater the penalty he suffers on all of his actions, until he has taken his twelfth Wound and dies. Whenever damage suffered exceeds a player character’s Injury level, he suffers a wound. So for Guillame, any roll of four or more for damage which thus exceeds his Injury level inflicts a Wound. Since even cudgels and daggers inflict one to six points of damage, the chances of a player character receiving a Wound in combat is fairly high. When Wounds are healed, the more Wounds a character has suffered the harder it is to heal them. 

Similarly, all characters have a maximum Insanity total of twelve. Whenever a character encounters a situation or a creature which would cause fear, the Game Master rolls the Insanity factor for that situation or creature. This will be either a six-, eight-, or ten-sided die, depending upon the Fear Level of the situation or creature, with the ten-sided die reserved for those rare encounters with cosmic gods. If the roll exceeds a character’s Reason value, then he gains a point of Insanity. Where Wounds impose a penalty upon a character’s actions, greater Insanity will inflict paranoia, paranoid delusions, aggressive paranoia, and finally catatonia on a character. In addition, such encounters can inflict Dark Knowledge. For example, Guillaume encounters a Werewolf, for which the Fear Level is two. The Game Master rolls an eight-sided die for the Insanity factor and gets five, higher than Guillaume’s Reason, so he gains a point of Insanity. The Game Master also has to roll a four-sided die for the potential Dark Knowledge gain, in this being two points.

For every ten points of Dark Knowledge a character possesses, he gains a point of Insight and each point of Insight reduces his Reason. This not only reduces his capacity to withstand fear, but it inflicts certain symptoms on him. For example, hearing whispers or the sound of a distant flute, being able to see a red aura around the infected, or gaining a greater understanding of the language of the Elder Gods. Some of these ongoing effects inflict Insanity themselves. Insight can be reduced by a character defeating cosmic horrors, destroying cults, eradicating the plague and its effects, even entering an asylum, whilst Insanity can be reduced by using sedatives or entering an asylum. Insight though, can be put to positive use, such as seeing the Hidden or even mentally reconstructing a scene or ritual, though such a reconstruction increases a character’s Insight.

The Mysteries in this roleplaying game cover alchemy, divination, and tomes—both occult and Mythos, as well as three schools of magic—arcane, ritual, and talismanic. They all have their spell lists with individual spells being drawn from particular tomes and most inflicting further Dark Knowledge on the caster. The section on magic feels all too brief in comparison to the roleplaying game’s ‘Atlas’, which details the range of areas where the League of Seekers operate. This includes Europe, with particular attention paid to London and Paris with their walled-off Quarantine zones, the Colonies of North America, and even out into the Dreamlands. Unfortunately, not all of this is very interesting, or even gameable. The London and Paris sections are serviceable, although both could have done with actual threats to the League of Seekers rather than just allies, but the description of the North American colonies is nothing more than a stodgy wodge of early colonial history. By comparison, the section on the Dreamlands is well written and gameable, though likely to be the most familiar section to players of other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. It is a pity that one of the most gameable sections in the roleplaying game describes a region that the player characters are least likely to visit.

It is not until over two hundred pages into this roleplaying game that it actually tells the reader what it is about, what the Akhua Brotherhood and the League of Seekers are and what they do. Even then, they are barely given half a page each, which is inarguably inadequate given that both are the organisations which the player characters belong to. Several enemy cults are also described, often given more information in the form of notable members than that given to either Akhua Brotherhood or the League of Seekers. In terms of monsters, the roleplaying game gives several types, being either folk tale creatures like Baba Yaga or the Beast of Gévaudan, cosmic horror entities like Byakhee or Deep Ones, or threats like the Infected. The latter have been infected by the Blood Plague—also known as the Blood Rage—and as the Blood Moon rises, their bestial, aggressive urges manifest, a threat to good society. Wiping out the scourge of the Infected is the League of Seeker’s primary task.

Lastly, the roleplaying game includes a scenario, ‘Beast of Dunwich’. This is not set in the blighted town of Lovecraft Country, but the sea sodden, wave wrenched town in Suffolk. Following a rash of deaths in the town, the League of Seekers sends the characters to investigate. The journey is not without incident, but the mystery itself in the town will take relatively little effort to uncover and probably end in a confrontation or two. The scenario can probably be played in a single session.

Physically, this roleplaying game is neat and tidy, with some reasonable if oppressive artwork and solid cartography. Unfortunately it lacks an index, but that is not the very least of its problems. Similarly, the lack of editing—the roleplaying game genuinely reads like raw text—is also the very least of its problems. 

To identify what those problems are, it is necessary to explain what this roleplaying game wants to be and that is Brotherhood of the Wolf meets the Mythos, the Age of Enlightenment fights evil. Which is a laudable aim and puts it into the same niche as other roleplaying games such as Paradigm Concepts’ Hunter: The Invisible World and Cakebread & Walton’s Dark Streets, but unfortunately is not in the same league as either. From the outset, it is clear what both of those are about and what the player characters are supposed to be doing. Not so this roleplaying game, for at no time does the author ever give an elevator pitch for the roleplaying game—there is no ‘Brotherhood of the Wolf meets the Mythos’ or the ‘Age of Enlightenment fights’ evil—anywhere in the roleplaying game. Not on the back cover blurb, not in the introduction, not anywhere… Even the descriptions of the Akhu Brotherhood and the League of Seekers deep into the book do not feel adequate to the task. Indeed, the very summary at the top of this review was not so much written as assembled from bits and pieces throughout the roleplaying game. Essentially, the author completely fails to sell the roleplaying game on its own merits. There is no cool incentive for the prospective Game Master to buy this roleplaying game or the prospective player to want to play it.

Then there is the roleplaying game’s lack of development. There is a fair amount of background here—certainly in terms of geography—but it either lacks much of the context to be playable or simply reads like a history lesson. Turning this into something gameable would take an unnecessary effort upon the part of the Game Master. It also feels as if the roleplaying game over-eggs its pudding in terms of its horror, almost as if there is too much for the Game Master to choose from, whether it is the Cosmic Horror of the Mythos, the Folktale horror of werewolves and the like, or the threats of the Infected. Arguably, this roleplaying game could have lost the Cosmic Horror aspect and it would have still worked, the Infected under the Blood Moon and the Folktale horrors not only being enough of a threat, but also elements strong to carry the roleplaying game by itself and give it the hook that the author unfortunately fails to do.

Ultimately, this is a roleplaying game which fails to fulfill the author’s ambitions. This is a roleplaying game which needed the input of more than the author, primarily in terms of asking questions and developing gameable content and what the player characters are meant to be doing. It feels too much like a ‘homebrew’ roleplaying game pushed towards a level of professionalism that it is simply not ready for. Yet there is a kernel of something here, and perhaps in the hands of a good and patient Game Master, there is a playable game to be drawn from its pages—if that Game Master is looking for a ‘fixer-upper’. Unfortunately, getting to that roleplaying game and making into something playable would be a challenge for anyone but the designer. 

Up until this point, this review has not mentioned the name of the roleplaying game nor its publisher. The name the of publisher is Feral Gamers, Inc. and the roleplaying game is League of Seekers