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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

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