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

Monday, 17 February 2020

Miskatonic Monday #34: A Fossil

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 Repository.


Name: A Fossil

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Sean Monaghan

Setting: Modern Day

Product: Scenario
What You Get: 1.69 MB twelve-page, full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: A lost auction is too heavy a price to pay. 
Plot Hook: A second chance to own the one book you really must have.
Plot Development: A dead rival, scales before the eyes, and a festering town...
Plot Support: Nine plain as they can be handouts and monster and creature stats.

# Open, flexible set-up
# Scope for player input

# Solid hook for the antiquarian investigator
# Potentially interesting setting
# Bullet point format eases Keeper’s job
# One-shot or one-session scenario
# Period neutral
# Creeping body horror

Needs editing
# Underdeveloped, murky setting
# Too much festering?
# Plot strands kept apart?

# No ACTUAL Sanity losses

# Underdeveloped 
# Needs editing
# Seaside body horror for one?

Sunday, 16 February 2020

Not to be Forgotten

Latin for ‘from among (the) forgotten’ and sharing its name with a poem by H.P. Lovecraft, Ex Oblivione is a scenario for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, the roleplaying game of conspiratorial and Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Arc Dream Publishing. It can be played using the roleplaying game’s full rules or those from Delta Green: Need to Know. Be warned though, this is a brutal, bloody affair involving mass violence and absolutely not for the faint of heart. In fact, Ex Oblivione is not a subtle affair in terms of its horror or its violence, but although the scenario will not mark the end of Delta Green as an organisation—after all, that has already happened with the original iteration of Delta Green, and it came back—but it very much mirrors the very first encounter with the Unnatural by the agency which would one day become Delta Green. A horror out of the agency’s deep past is about to take its very bloody revenge.

Agents of Delta Green—whether of the Program or the Outlaws—get involved when ‘HOME DAGON HOME HOME YHANTHLEI SEA TO THE SEA.’ is found graffitied on the wall at a gruesome crime scene. A family of five in Mustang, Arizona, a remote town originally founded to support the long since shutdown nearby U.S. Navy base have been ritually butchered and whilst the local police force suggest that ‘Dagon’ might have occult links, given that it is mentioned in the Bible as the name of a god worshipped by the Philistines, its investigators have no clues as to the motives or perpetrators of this heinous act. Delta Green knows otherwise and strongly suspects the involvement of the Unnatural in the crime. Consequently, a team is dispatched to Arizona to investigate, identify, and nullify the threat.

Unless complicated by setting up (or even breaking) cover identities, the initial investigation in Mustang is quite straightforward—the crime scene, local witnesses, and so on. Clues though, point towards the ruins of the old Naval base, little more than a hangout for the local teenagers, drifters, and the homeless, and from there to New England. This will likely confirm the suspicions of veteran players of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying, but Ex Oblivione does not go in that direction. Certainly, it draws heavily from that direction—or source material—for inspiration… What Ex Oblivione does instead though…

What Ex Oblivione does instead though, is something unlike almost any other ending to a Call of Cthulhu or Delta Green scenario. First, there is the creeping realisation as who the murderers are, and that is hocking enough, but then there is climax itself, which will require careful staging upon the part of the Handler. It is brutal, it is violent, and the horror of it is exactly that—horrifying. To say anything more would be to reveal too much about what is a monumental confrontation with the Unnatural.

Physically, Ex Oblivione is well presented, the illustrations and cartography as you would expect. Although decently written, the scenario does feel rushed in places and could have done with another edit.

It is almost traditional for scenarios of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying to involve a threat to humanity or the world, a threat of immense scale. Here the threat is far, far smaller, but still of a staggering scale that Ex Oblivione is likely to remain a memorable scenario for the players and their Delta Green agent characters. Unlike the meaning of title, the final confrontation in Ex Oblivione is not going to be forgotten for anyone who plays it.

Saturday, 15 February 2020

Mutant Magic Eight Ball?

Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind is the eighth release for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, the spiritual successor to Gamma World published by Goodman Games. It is also radically different to all of the previous releases for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. The previous seven releases for the post-apocalyptic roleplaying game have all been scenarios. These have either been standard scenarios like Mutant Crawl Classics #6: The Apocalypse Ark or Mutant Crawl Classics #4: Warlords of ATOZ, or scenarios designed for use with player characters who are Zero Level. Such scenarios, like Mutant Crawl Classics #1: Hive of the Overmind and Mutant Crawl Classics #7: Reliquary of the Ancient Ones are known as Character Funnels, one of the features of both the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game it is mechanically based upon—in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. In terms of the setting, known as Terra A.D., or ‘Terra After Disaster’, this is a ‘Rite of Passage’ and in Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients, the stress of it will trigger ‘Metagenesis’, their DNA expressing itself and their mutations blossoming forth. Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind is not a scenario, but a supplement—and a supplement dedicated to just the one artefact.

That artefact is the most holy of ancient relics, the Data Orb of Metakind, a device which has been handed down from shaman to shaman, from mystic mutant to mystic mutant for generations. Only Shamans, Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients can use the hand-sized golden orb—Purse Strain Humans cannot—and they need to be intelligent to do so. Once the user has understood and bonded with the device, what he gains access to accumulated knowledge of everyone who has ever handled and used it. So thousands of memories and experiences, knowledges, skills, and more. Though usually only a few times a day. Each time the character interfaces with the Data Orb, it is usually to extract a specific piece of information or answer to a particular question, but every time the character does so, his player has to make a roll to determine the character’s success. Now the likelihood of a player character extracting the information he is after is quite low, but it is possible.

Now the fun of the Data Orb and Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind is when the player fails the roll. Then the player character’s request might be misinterpreted, partially interpreted, or simply ignored, but if misinterpreted or partially interpreted , then the Game Master gets to roll on the indicated table. Most of the supplement is dedicated to the various tables representing the various categories of information contained within the data matrices of the Data Orb. Five of these deal with various types of technology to be found in Terra A.D.—including power sources, medical, arms and armour, and artificial intelligences. This grants a player character a bit of new information, generally helpful, for example, on the Weapons & Armour Technology Table, if the player rolls Dazer Pistol, the player character learns a new setting for the weapon.

The other tables send the player character off in another direction, all of them providing them a benefit in some way, either permanent or temporary. So from ‘Voices of the Past’, accessing Bulbar the Odd’s “When confronted by an unknown creature, it is far better that you assume that it is poisonous, blindingly fast and utterly ferocious. This attitude does not condone mindless extinction of the new and the novel, but it does lessen the chance of your corpse looking surprised.” will grant the user a temporary bonus to his attack rolls. Whereas accessing the Thought Records of the Ancients, “It is by will alone I set my mind in motion. It is by the juice of Sapho that thoughts acquire speed, the lips acquire stains, stains become a warning. It is by will alone I set my mind in motion.” grants the character a permanent bonus to his Personality attribute. Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind includes lots of fun quotes like this and back them up with juicy benefits.

On the one hand, the Data Orb of Metakind essentially acts as a Patron AI, the means by which a Shaman gains his Patron AI Bond wetware programs—the nearest thing that the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game has to spells. It does not though, actually grant wetware programs as having a Shaman praying to his Patron AI would. On the other hand, it grants access to knowledge, typically random knowledge (because the player character has failed to access the specified information he was looking for), and that is where the fun comes in. When that happens, the Data Orb becomes a source of random knowledge and benefits—tables and tables of them—much like the famed Deck of Many Things of Dungeons & Dragons. In comparison though, a Shaman can access the Data Orb again and again, several times a day.

Of course, none of this is without its dangers. Roll poorly and the user may simply get an electric shock from attempting to use the Data Orb. Roll really poorly and—well, why spoil it for the user? The Data Orb of Metakind is brimming over with secrets and dangers, all of which are best learned through play and discovery. If there is an issue with the supplement, it is that there is no scenario detailing where it might be found, but the Game Master will have to write one.

Physically, Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind is somewhat unprepossessing. It is fundamentally, one big set of tables, but they are all neatly laid out, well written, and easy to use. The supplement uses a range of artwork, including a fun one of the publisher himself on the back page.

The Data Orb of Metakind is the equivalent of a Magic Eight Ball in the post-apocalyptic world of Terra A.D. Think of a question, shake the Data Orb of Metakind, and see what answers, secrets, or dangers it gives. Mutant Crawl Classics #8: The Data Orb of Metakind provides a big artefact with plenty of potential for fun and failure, plus there is lots of gaming life to it, for once found, a Shaman is going to consult this again and again, making this a supplement for the whole of a Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game campaign.

Friday, 14 February 2020

Friday Filler: Never Bring a Knife

So the heist went like clockwork. You got in, emptied the safe, grabbed the jewelry, and filled all of the holdalls with cash. Now all you need to do is get it back to the rendezvous point and divide the loot. Except… you know that the gang has been infiltrated by undercover cops, either because of an informant or because you are one of the undercover cops. Unfortunately, you only know what you are—a loyal Hardened Criminal or a sneaky Undercover Cop, or a villainous Hardened Criminal or an upright Undercover Cop enforcing the law. Anyone else could be either… And as questions are asked, protestations of loyalty and honesty are made, tempers flare, and the only way the matter is going to be settled is with a showdown shootout!

And if that sounds like the plot of almost any ‘Heist Gone Wrong’ film, from Rififi to Reservoir Dogs, you would not be wrong. It is also the set-up to Never Bring a Knife, a social deduction game from Atlas Games which can be best described as Reservoir Dogs meets The Resistance. Accusations and bullets will fly in this game until one of the gang goes down in a hail of lead and loyalties are revealed, betrayals are suffered, and either the Hardened Criminals are arrested by the Undercover Cops or make their escape from the police. Designed for four to eight players, it should be no surprise that the adult and violent inspiration and game play of Never Bring a Knife means that it carries a minimum playing age of seventeen years old and over. Now this does not mean that younger participants cannot play Never Bring a Knife, the rules being simple enough, but parental permission should be sought. That said, not every game needs to be designed with younger players in mind, and that is certainly the case with Never Bring a Knife.

Besides the short rulebook, Never Bring a Knife consists of sixty two cards. Eight are handy Reference cards, though all of the cards used in play have clear instructions on their use on them. Ten are Role Cards, divided between five Hardened Criminal and five Undercover Cop cards. Sixteen are Wound Cards, used to track each gang member’s Wounds as he suffers them. The first gang member to suffer three Wounds triggers the end of the game. The rest of the cards form the play deck.

The Gun cards inflict Wounds, a gang member suffering a Wound for every two Gun cards which end up in his stack at the end of a round. Armour cards cancel out Gun cards, but only the one each. If this reduces the number of Gun cards in a gang member’s stack at the end of a round, he suffers one less, or even no Wounds. Money cards in a player’s stack at the end of a round can be kept and banked and is expended to heal a Wound or to be able to look at another gang member’s Role card. Crime cards are used to force a gang member to discard Money cards, which will prevent him from paying for healing or to look at other gang members’ Role cards. A Hit can be purchased using Money cards and used to inflict a Wound on a gang member or banked for later in the game, so great for that last inevitable betrayal so in keeping with the game’s genre. An Intel card enables a gang member to examine, but not reveal, another gang member’s Role card. The Mole card forces a gang member to swap his Role card with that of the Boss, which may or not change the gang member’s allegiance.

Game set-up is simple. Each gang member receives a Role card and can look at it. One last Role card is placed in the middle of the table to represent the Boss. He will come into play when the Mole card ends up in a gang member’s stack. The Hit card and the Mole card go into the discard pile and so will come into play in later rounds, hopefully when dramatically appropriate! Each gang member not only gets to look at his own Role card, but also of that to gang member to his left. This is each player’s initial clue as to the true identities of his fellow gang members.

Never Bring a Knife is played over a series of rounds. At the start of each round, each gang member receives four cards. They then take it in turn to play one card at a time. The first card a gang member plays must be on another gang member and the first card played on a gang member must be face up. After that, a gang member is free to play his cards on anyone, including himself, but all cards are now played face down. Obviously, a gang member will want to play Gun cards on his rivals—especially if he knows them to be of an opposite Role, but keep the Armour and Money cards for himself. The former as protection, the latter because they can be used to purchase further actions. Once a gang member has had four cards played onto his stack, he cannot receive any more, but play continues until each gang member has had four cards played on him.

Once done, each gang member reveals the four cards in his stack and resolves them. This can be done in any order and may involve spending Money cards saved from earlier rounds. Wounds will be suffered, Money cards will be used heal Wounds or examine the Role cards of other gang members or the Boss (in the middle of the table, so this is useful if the Mole card is played at any time), Armour cards to stop Gun cards, Intel cards to examine the Role cards of other gang members or the Boss, and so on. Money cards and Hit cards can be kept to be used in subsequent rounds. At the end of the round, each gang member keeps any Wounds he suffered during the round which he could not heal by spending Money cards or stop with an Armour card. If at the end of a round, any gang member has three Wound cards in front of him, then he has fallen, and not only does the game end, but everyone on his team—either Hardened Criminals or Undercover Cops—loses and everyone on the other team wins.

Mechanically, play is quick, and the four-card hand combined with the four-card limit on each gang member’s stack keeps everything simple and elegant. A gang member might be killed in a couple of rounds, but a game will probably last a round or two longer than that. Physically, Never Bring a Knife is nicely presented. The rule book is easy to read, whilst the cards themselves are clear and easy to understand. A nice touch is that the artwork varies on each of the Role cards and different designs are used on the Gun cards. This gives the game a little more variety in its look. 

What is interesting in Never Bring a Knife as a social deduction game, is not just that each gang member will need to identify the Hardened Criminals and Undercover Cops in the gang, but will need to keep himself and his fellow team members alive. So the Money cards play as big a role in the game as the Gun cards. Initially each gang member will know about himself and the gang member to his left, whilst also wondering about the gang member to his right who knows whether he is a Hardened Criminal and a Undercover Cops. This is each gang member’s initial clue, the second being the first cards played on each gang member, which may or may not suggest their allegiance. After that, gang members will have to rely on Money and possibly Intel cards to discover who their friends and enemies are.

Throughout the game though, gang members are free to say whatever they want to each other, so they can agree to work together, issue threats, spread lies, debate about the Roles of their fellow gang members, share information, and even outright lie. A gang member’s role will only be revealed to everyone at the end of the game. It is here that gang members are free to roleplay too and given the genre which inspired it, Never Bring a Knife is ripe for film quotes and film-inspired roleplaying, which adds to the flavour of the game. Or, of course, a gang member might have enough of all the talking, cajoling, and threatening, lose his temper and just blaze away with his Gun (cards). Lastly, both the Hit and Mole cards have the capacity to add last minute twists to the outcome of the game if played at the right time, further emulating the genre that the game is inspired by. 

Never Bring a Knife is a fun stand-up, shootout showdown, which fans of heist films will enjoy roleplaying their way through. Its simple rules enable gang members to play out the story of heist gone wrong in hail of bullets, desperation, and recriminations. 

Monday, 10 February 2020

The Psionic Puppet

The Zhodani Candidate is the second scenario from the designer of the superlative freeform, Eve of Rebellion. Set in the Third Imperium of Mongoose Publishing’s Traveller and published by March Harrier Publishing via Mongoose PublishingThe Zhodani Candidate won the Zhodani Base Awards 2019 for Best Adventure. It is a one-shot scenario suitable for conventions or campaign breaks, designed to be played by five players, plus the Referee. In terms of mechanics, The Zhodani Candidate is written for the current rules for Traveller, but is so rules light, it can be run by almost every previous version of Traveller, or indeed, be adapted to almost any system of the gaming group’s choice. Indeed, the primary game content in The Zhodani Candidate in terms mechanics are the stats and skills of the five characters involved, although stats are also provided for the Cepheus Engine.

Inspired by the television series Homeland and the Cold War brainwashing thriller The Manchurian Candidate, plus the Trust and Betrayal mechanics of Contested Ground Studio’s Cold City roleplaying game, The Zhodani Candidate is a scenario about intrigue, deception, and conflicting agendas. It takes place in the year 1098 on the planet of Mora in the Spinward Marches. Lady Isolde Ling Muudashir, the heir to the Duchy of Mora, is planning to marry ex-Imperial Marine Sergeant Darius Cantu, a love match rather than the traditional marriage of securing dynasties and economic alliances. Cantu is a war hero who fought in the Fourth Frontier War against the invading forces of the Zhodani Consulate and after being captured, spent a decade in the Zhodani re-education camps before being returned to the Third Imperium as part of a prisoner exchange. Cantu would simply have remained an ex-war hero, content to do charity work for veterans of the Fourth Frontier War, were it not the fact that he met Lady Isolde and they fell in love.

Consequently, various Imperial agencies with an interest in the security and stability of the rich and technologically advanced Duchy of Mora given its role as the gateway to the Spinward Marches, have concerns about the intending nuptials. They are worried that Sergeant may have been brainwashed by the Zhodani during his decade-long captivity and may be a secret sleeper agent. As husband-consort to the Duchess of Mora, he would have access to a great deal of classified information and would represent a major security risk. Informing the current Duchess, Delphine Adorania Muudashir, of their suspicions, the agencies have come to a compromise with her. They will form an Inter-Agency Taskforce to perform a security vetting of Sergeant Darius Cantu and determine if he can be cleared to marry Lady Isolde, or whether he is the Zhodani Candidate—a sleeper agent programmed to betray the Imperium. They will then approve the wedding guest list, should the wedding go ahead.

The Inter-Agency Taskforce consists of five members. They include Undersecretary Eon Jaxon, Undersecretary to the Ministry of State, Spinward Bureau, who formed and heads the Inter-Agency Emergency Vetting Taskforce; Senior Ducal Bodyguard Sir Jans Hillier, the head of Her Grace’s Security Service; Perrin Davos Senior Security Vetting Agent, Ministry of Justice, a specialist in security vetting; Lieutenant Samanthe Rosen, Imperial Naval Intelligence, a junior member of Naval Intelligence recommended by the Admiralty as an investigator and interrogator; and Senior Scout Evelyn Tremayne, a representative of the Intelligence Branch of the Interstellar Imperial Scout Service with information to present to the Inter-Agency Emergency Vetting Taskforce. All five player characters are presented in some detail and come with full stats, skills, background, and equipment, as well as a Departmental Agenda, a Personal Agenda, and more. What this means is that there is quite a lot of information for the players to absorb in terms of their characters—and then there is the addition of Traveller’s Library Data pertinent to the scenario.

The scenario itself is divided into two parts. The first is the investigation of Sergeant Darius Cantu, the second is the vetting of the wedding guests and the wedding itself. Now although there is a central objective in the scenario, that of ensuring that Lady Isolde Ling Muudashir is married to a safe husband, achieving it is only half of the scenario’s playthrough. The other half is the interplay of the player characters and their sometimes conflicting objectives. Here, as with the earlier Eve of Rebellion, is where the author’s experience with playing and creating freeforms come to the fore. That said, the objectives in Eve of Rebellion are tightly supported by the links between the player characters, but in The Zhodani Candidate, these are not present, at least not initially. At the start of the scenario, the player characters do not know each other, so the players will need to work harder to involve their characters in the scenario. Now the investigation serves to pull them into the scenario, but after that, the players will need to work hard to work bring their objectives into play without exposing them.

The actual adventure in The Zhodani Candidate runs to less than a third of its length, but includes staging advice, the scenario’s events, and possible outcomes. Besides this, it comes with the five player characters, Library Data, timeline of events, and reference sheets for the Game Master. In comparison, The Zhodani Candidate is mechanically more complex than Eve of Rebellion, and the Game Master may want to have access to both Traveller, First Edition and Traveller, Second Edition from Mongoose Publishing to the fullest out of it. The complexity comes in the fact that unlike in Eve of Rebellion, the player characters in The Zhodani Candidate are going to be doing a lot more than just talking and deceiving. Stats and guidelines are given should the Game Master want to run the scenario using the Cepheus Engine.

One new mechanic which The Zhodani Candidate does add is for handling trust between the player characters. Adapted from Cold City, it measures the degrees of trust between the scenario’s cast, which can grant a bonus between two trusting characters. Conversely woe betide anyone who breaks their trust with another character, or rather expect trust to be lost and broken as the player characters’ differing objectives clash and conflict with each other.

Physically, The Zhodani Candidate is a 1.44 Mb, thirty-six page, colour PDF (though only the cover and some maps use any colour). It is well written, the characters are solidly designed, and the advice is excellent throughout. If there is anything missing, it is that the scenario could have done with a few more handouts, perhaps to give out as part of the briefing handouts and so establish a sense of verisimilitude right from the start. No doubt a Game Master could create these herself as part of her preparations to run the scenario—and even better if she did them as folders of briefing material, one for each player and his character, ready to be opened at the inaugural meeting of the Inter-Agency Emergency Vetting Taskforce.

What The Zhodani Candidate lacks in comparison to Eve of Rebellion is a sense of grandeur and elegance. Now this is due to differences in their subject matters, Eve of Rebellion with high politics and family matters, The Zhodani Candidate with subterfuge, espionage, and deception. So there is more machination to The Zhodani Candidate, more grit and more paranoia. Eventually though, The Zhodani Candidate will probably confirm everyone’s perceptions of the nasty, underhand, and perfidious Zhodani and their sneaky use of Psionics, and drive everyone on the taskforce into a showdown from which none are going to walk away unscathed.

Sunday, 9 February 2020

The Fate of Cthulhu

It is the year 2050. Twenty years ago, an island rose in the Pacific Ocean and a horde of loathsome octopus-headed beasts swarmed over every ship sent to investigate, even withstanding multiple nuclear strikes. With a great being known as Cthulhu at their head, the creatures launched neurological attacks that warped and corrupted the survivors. Within a month, humanity survived only in a handful of enclaves. 

It is the year 2050. Twenty-two years ago, an island rose off the coast of Massachusetts and as the resulting tsunami floods the coast up and down the east coast of the USA there came reports of ships and towns being attacked by fish people. Then in the isolated town of Innsmouth, a search and rescue team saw survivors transforming into the fish people—quickly identified as Deep Ones. They were only the first, for what became known as the Innsmouth Plague spread around the world. Billions transform, millions die. What they have in common is that they were taking Palliagil, a cure to an MRSA plague from eight years before. Could it be linked?

It is the year 2050. On Hexenacht, April 30th, 2030, the top of Brocken, Germany’s highest mountain exploded to reveal a thousand foot tall, eight-legged and hoof-footed, tentacled monstrosity. Its appearance instigated a wave of cannibalism amongst the nearby Hexenacht celebrants that would leave thousands dead. But then from the corpses exploded miniature versions of the giant thing that had appeared earlier that night. They killed anyone who investigated, then more spawned from the new corpses. Within days, these tentacled horrors dominated the planet bar three, slowly contracting exclusion zones in New England, Nigeria, and Australia.

It is the year 2050. Twenty-two years ago, the unknown Nour Al Hasan walked out of the desert and won the Egyptian presidential election. He declared himself Nyarlathotep, the Dark Pharaoh, and that he would return Egypt to its former glory, whilst in Antarctica, over a hundred volcanoes exploded and revealed great cities and waves of star-headed, barrel-shaped and winged creatures which fly north to meet up with the armies of Faceless Ones that the Dark Pharaoh freed from below the pyramids. Within weeks, humanity is dead.

It is the year 2050. Twenty years ago a strange figure appeared in Covent Garden in London, all in yellow and masked, a strange mist spreading in its wake. Those touched by the mist exhibit symptoms of diseases in seconds that normally take days, either dying almost immediately or undergoing grisly transformations. Within hours this King in Yellow appears in cities around the world, spreading disease, and in weeks, there is nowhere in the world that remains untouched, most of humanity dead by then.

It is the year 2050. You are one of the few survivors of an unholy apocalypse that struck the world two decades ago. Scientists and researchers have developed the means to effect limited time travel and it has been decided that they will send one or more men or women—forewarned of knowledge of the future—back in time to meddle with one of these timelines and thwart the efforts of an Old Ones and its cultists. This is not without a cost though, for every time traveller must connect with another alien being known as Yog-Sothoth in order to come back to 2020, literally connect with the corruptive power of the Mythos, and that leaves a mark. It likely gives the time traveller a strange power, one beyond science, a power that itself will be of use in combating the Mythos and its influence, but even that will corrupt the user even further, however beneficial it may well be…

It seems that despite Call of Cthulhu having been in print for almost four decades and both initiating and dominating the Cosmic Horror subgenre, the long reach of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying seems to touch upon roleplaying game upon roleplaying game. From Savage Worlds and Realms of Cthulhu and GURPS and Cthulhupunk, numerous roleplaying games have provided different takes upon the role of H.P. Lovecraft’s Mythos and approaches to it, so it is no surprise that it has finally reached FATE Core. The highly anticipated FATE of Cthulhu is radically different to the roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror that have come before it.

Published by Evil Hat GamesFATE of Cthulhu is a roleplaying game—a standalone roleplaying game which does not require FATE Core to play or run— of confronting the Mythos a la the James Cameron film, The Terminator. One or more of the investigators will have come back from 2050 to 2020 to stop the apocalyptic plans of an Old One and its cultists. They come back aware of the steps along the way which brought about the apocalypse and they come back ready to fight it. This though is not the Cthulhu Mythos in general, but rather a single Old One and its cultists, and each thwarting of an Old One is a self-contained campaign in its own right, in which no other element of the Mythos appears. So no cultist dedicated to another Old One or Nyarlathotep himself stepping in, even if only mockingly, to help the investigators thwart a common enemy. Unless the Game Master wants them to, that is… So what FATE of Cthulhu is not, is a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but is instead, a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian action horror. Now this does not mean that the Game Master could not take the elements of the Lovecraft Mythos in FATE of Cthulhu and use them to run a scenario or campaign of Lovecraftian investigative horror as per other similar roleplaying games. That would take a little more effort upon the part of the Game Master, as FATE of Cthulhu is not written or organised to support that, in part because the Mythos is compartmentalised timeline by timeline.

Investigators in FATE of Cthulhu are defined by their Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Aspects describe elements of a character and to work effectively, they need to be double-edged, that is, each should be both an advantage or a disadvantage. For example, the Aspect ‘An eye for the ladies’ could be used as an Advantage to spot a particular woman in a crowd or a bonus to seduction attempts, but as a Disadvantage, it would mean that the character would be easily distracted in female company. Each investigator has an Aspect each for his High Concept and his Trouble, plus two free Aspects. In play, an Aspect is Invoked by the player to gain an advantageous bonus or a reroll, but Compelled to trigger its disadvantageous elements. It costs a player a Fate point to Invoke an Aspect, but he will gain a Fate point if the Aspect is Compelled. (A Compel can be resisted by a player, but this costs him a Fate point). Stunts provide advantages or bonuses under certain circumstances, usually to skills, and they can be Corrupted by exposure to the Mythos. Skills simply provide a bonus to skill rolls, there being a limited number of broad skills in the game, one of which is Lore, expanded here to cover knowledge and its application of the Mythos.

Francine Hernandez
Personal Timeline: 2050
High Concept (Aspect): Desperate Housewife who knows too much
Trouble (Aspect): My husband was a cultist
Relationship: I trust John, but he doesn’t trust me
Aspects: Ex-Society Matron, Gets lost in the Future (Corrupted) 
Stunts: The Voice of Reason, Hound of Tinadalos’ Eye (Corrupted)
Skills: Deceive (Great +4); Contacts, Resources (Good +3); Fight, Rapport, Shoot (Fair +2); Drive, Lore, Notice, Will (Average +1)
Physical Stress (Physique): 1 2 3
Mental Stress (Will): 1 2 3
Corruption Clock: O O O O
Refresh Rate: 3 Fate Points: 3

Mechanically, whenever a player wants to undertake an action, he selects a skill and rolls four Fudge dice—FATE having originally been derived from the Fudge RPG mechanics—special six-sided dice, each of which has two faces marked with a ‘+’ symbol, two faces marked with a ‘–’ symbol, and two faces left blank. The ‘+’ and ‘–’ symbols cancel each out and the blank faces add nothing, so the results range simply between +4 and –4. The result is added to the player’s skill, aim being to beat a target set by the Game Master, an Average target being +1, a Fair target being +2, and so on, the targets matching the skill values in terms of progression. Should a player’s result match the target, then he succeeds at a cost; if the result is one or two points or shifts above the target, he simply succeeds; and if the result is three or more  shifts, he succeeds with style. In combat, shifts usually represent damage inflicted upon a target, but should a character succeed with style, then he can place a temporary Aspect in play, that can either be used once and then it is lost, or used once for free with subsequent uses requiring a Fate point to be expended.

Aspects like this can be set up on locations, objects, on NPCs, and on player characters, and then during play both the players and the Game Master can interact with them, Invoking and Compelling as necessary. Similarly, the Game Master can design and create places, people, and things all with the simple use of Aspects that get to the core of anything that he designs and creates, and again these can be Invoked or Compelled as part of FATE Core collaborative play between the players and between the Game Master and the players. Unlike FATE Core there is less of this collaborative effort involved during character creation, primarily because FATE of Cthulhu does not involve the worldbuilding that is part of the core rules.

One of the big differences between FATE of Cthulhu and other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror is that where in those roleplaying games the corrosive effect of witnessing or employing the Mythos, whether that is seeing a Mythos entity or reading a Mythos tome, or casting a Mythos spell, is mental. In other words, investigators lose Sanity. Now in FATE of Cthulhu, the corrupting effect of the Mythos can work that way, but in the main, its effects are physical. Every time an investigator is exposed to the Mythos or uses it in the case of casting a spell or ritual, or using a Corrupted Aspect or Stunt, the investigator will face backlash as the universe tries to protect itself against the changes forced upon by the unnatural nature of the Mythos. If the investigator cannot withstand this backlash—the backlash being equal to the success of the use or power of the Mythos—he adds points to his Corruption Clock. Fill that in, the Corruption Clock is emptied, but the investigator is drawn further into the influence of the Old Ones and one of his Aspects is corrupted. Should an investigator have all of his Aspects corrupted, he is lost to the Mythos.
For example, Francine Hernandez is attempting to find where her husband, Hector,  is going to be as she knows that he will be participating in a great ritual to learn the location of a lost tomb. He has already managed to deceive her as to where he is going, but Francine and her compatriots need to know. Francine’s player decides to use her Gets lost in the Future Corrupted Aspect. Francine’s player pays the Fate point to Invoke the Aspect. This will give a bonus of +2 to Francine’s Notice of +1. The Game Master takes Hector’s Deceive of +4 and rolls blank, blank, ‘–’, and ‘–’, to give Hector a total of +2. Francine’s player rolls blank, ‘–’, ‘+’, and ‘+’, for a total of +5. This beats Hector’s attempt at Deception, and means that Francine learns where he has gone. Unfortunately Francine suffers backlash equal to the roll her player made or +5. Her player has to make a roll using her Will of +1  and rolls blank, ‘–’, ‘+’, and ‘+’, for a total of +2, which is not good enough as it leaves three mental shifts to absorb. Francine can absorb one of the shifts on her mental stress boxes, the other two having been filled earlier in the investigation. For the remaining two mental shifts, Francine can either take a point of Corruption and have part of her Corruption Clock filled in, or suffer a Consequence. Francine’s player decides on the latter and Francine gains ‘Visions of an alternate failed timeline’.
Despite the physicality of the Corruption Clock versus the Sanity mechanics of other Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying games, there is still a downward spiral of being exposed to, and in this case, using the Mythos to fight the Mythos, over and over. Essentially, it may well be necessary to fight fire with fire, but the cost…? Once gained, Corruption is fairly difficult to lose, though it is possible if no Corruption has been gained during an investigation or through a supreme act of sacrifice upon the part of another investigator.

Instead of giving a greater sense of the Mythos, FATE of Cthulhu focuses on five distinct threats—five distinct threats powerful enough to bring about an apocalypse. Each threat is essentially a separate campaign or timeline in which someone from the future of 2050 has some knowledge of. Each of the five timelines—which in turn deal with Cthulhu, Dagon, Shub-Nigggurath, Nyarlathotep, and the King in Yellow—consists of five events, the last of which is always the rise of the Old One itself. The events represent the roadmap to that last apocalyptic confrontation, and can each be further broken down into four event catalysts which can be people, places, foes, and things. The significance of these events are represented by a die face, that is either a bank, a ‘–’, or a ‘+’. These starts out with two blanks and two ‘–’, the aim of the players and their investigators being to try prevent their being too many, if any ‘–’ symbols in play and ideally to flip them from ‘–’ to blank and from blank to ‘+’. Ultimately the more ‘+’ there are, the more positive the ripple will be back down the timeline and the more of chance the investigators have to defeat or prevent the rise of the Old One. Conversely, too many ‘–’ and the known timeline will play out as follows and the less likely the chance the investigators have in stopping the Old One.

Each of the five timelines comes with details of what a time traveller from 2050 would know about it, more detail for the Game Master with a breakdown of the events and their Aspects, Stunts, Mythos creatures, and NPCs. Most of these can serve as useful inspiration for the Game Master as well as the advice given on running FATE of Cthulhu and her creating her own timelines. In addition, FATE of Cthulhu highlights two issues with Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. First it makes clear that in spite of his deplorable social views, H.P. Lovecraft’s writings and creations are worth examining as sources of inspiration, as are the writings of more modern writers who do not share Lovecraft’s views, race, or gender. Second, it makes clear that in FATE of Cthulhu, Corruption is not Sanity—or the loss of it—and that in Corruption, it not only has a far wider array of effects to apply to investigators, it wants to avoid any stereotypes or insensitivity that the portrayal of insanity or other mental illness might lead to. It goes on to give good advice about the portrayal of those affected by Corruption and how to avoid clichés. Both are fair, balanced, and mature approaches to their subject matters, being aware of the sensitivity and difficulty that some gamers may have with either subject.

Physically, FATE of Cthulhu is well produced, nicely illustrated, and well written, including numerous detailed examples. It is however more limited in scope than other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, being focused on a certain type of campaign, and if a Game Master wanted to do more with it than run those campaigns—although any of the five offers opportunities for roleplaying and action—she would have to make more of an effort. In terms of the five timelines and the concept behind FATE of Cthulhu, what is really missing is the point of departure for any time traveller (or time travellers if the Game Master was running a full on ‘Chrono-Commandos versus Cthulhu-style campaign), so no details of what the future is like. There is advice on how time travel works, how it is possible to meet your past self and even have them die in your past, but no background about what life is like in 2050. Also as written, it is very much focussed upon the timelines, so writing a solo adventure would also be challenging.

As befitting a FATE Core roleplaying game, FATE of Cthulhu is more action-orientated, more direct, and more upfront about its confrontation with the forces of the Mythos. It definitely veers to being Pulp in nature rather than Purist and can probably be best described as High Derlethian. Further, its ‘time commando comes back from the future to stop…’ may not be original, but FATE of Cthulhu does provide a fresh approach to confronting the Mythos with Lovercraftian action horror.

Saturday, 8 February 2020

An Alternative Cosmic Mythos

Published by Livres de l’Ours, what Rats in the Walls: A roleplaying game of cosmic horror offers is a mechanically light roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror with consequences. Set in the Jazz Age of the nineteen twenties and the Desperate Decade of the nineteen thirties, it is very much inspired by the writings and Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, but does not actually use the writings and Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. The consequences come with failure upon the part of an investigator, whether that is in combat, when he casts a spell, his will suffers from a sanity-draining incident or encounter. As well as facing Old Ones such as The Feeder, The Grinder, and The Void Mother, and their cultists, investigators in Rats in the Walls may discover wonders and dangers beyond the Walls of Sleep in worlds that reflect the dreams of the Old Ones. What drives the investigators is the knowledge that only they are in a position to defeat the terrifying machinations of the Old Ones and their cultists, that only they can prevent all of mankind being exposed to the horrifying truths of the universe.

An investigator in Rats in the Walls is defined by five attributes, which range in value between 0 and +3. These are Brawn, Dexterity, Violence, Wits, and Willpower. He also has a Profession, such as Artist, Boxer, or Magician, and a Reputation, like Anonymous, Old, or Shady. These provide a particular benefit. For example, the Lumberjack is used to living in harsh conditions and receives two extra Hit Points and the Occultist knows one spell and two dead languages, whilst a Feared Reputation means that most people will back down if they know who you are and Well-Travelled means that you never get lost above ground and learn languages easily. A Profession also allows an Investigator to succeed at the mundane aspects of his job and affords him several contacts in the field. An investigator also has a couple of pieces of equipment, perhaps a weapon as well, and some languages. To create an investigator, a player divides five points between the five attributes, and chooses a Profession, a Reputation, and some equipment and languages for him. With the rulebook in hand, the process takes mere minutes.

Our sample investigator is Henry Brinded, a Bostonian from a wealthy family who studied Classics at Yale before serving as an artillery officer with the American Expeditionary Force in Northern France during the Great War. As a consequence he is slightly deaf and abhors loud noises. He owns and runs a small antiquarian shop which specialises in ancient and medieval manuscripts.

Henry Brinded
Profession: Occultist
Reputation: Dilettante

Brawn 0, Dexterity 0, Violence +1, Wits +3, Willpower +1

Hit Points: 10
Sanity Points: 11

Languages: Latin, Ancient Greek, Hebrew
Equipment: Notebook & Pen, Magnifying Glass

Mechanically, Rats in the Walls uses two six-sided dice. For an investigator to undertake an action, his player rolls the dice and attempts to get a high result. Bonuses are flat, either a +2 because the task is easy—due to the investigator’s Profession or he has the right tools or time, or -2 because the task is hard—due to a lack of time, tools, help, and so on. The target for the roll is typically an eight, but whilst that is always a success, it is a success with consequences. A player will need to roll ten or more for his investigator to succeed without consequences. Further, the Game Master does not roll, only the player does.

Before the roll is made though, player and Game Master discuss and set the terms of the task. Now a player can roll and the result be a failure, but it can instead be a partial success rather than an out and out failure. For example, in attempting to break into a house to view an occult tome which the owner is believed to possess, a player and the Game Master negotiate not an unsuccessful attempt if the player rolls a failure, but the fact that although the investigator manages to break in, find the occult tome, and get the information he needs, he leaves evidence of his intrusion that the house’s owner might find. 

Now, this act of negotiation is not carried out throughout the whole of Rats in the Walls. For tasks that take time, a player is simply rolling to determine how long the task takes, the better the skill check, the quicker it takes. Combat works in a similar fashion. At its most basic, with the average investigator having just ten Hit Points and a rifle inflicting 2d6 points of damage, combat in Rats in the Walls is deadly, and if an investigator is reduced to zero Hit Points and survives, then he suffers a scar, which might a limp, chronic pain, or a nasty scar. What a player is really doing in combat is rolling to see whether his investigator will inflict Consequences or suffer them. If a player rolls poorly, then his investigator will suffer one or two Consequences—decided upon by the Game Master, but roll well and his investigator can inflict them on his opponents. Potential Consequences include Harm, Ignore Armour, Stray Bullet, Vulnerable, and Stress, but the Game Master and the players are free to make them up.
For example, Henry Brinded confronts a cultist about to slice open the throat of a wouldbe sacrifice. His player states that he wants to disarm the cultist. He rushes forward and attempts to stop him by grabbing the knife. His player rolls two dice and adds Brinded’s Violence of +1. Unfortunately, he only manages to get a result of a nine and not the target number of ten he needs. This means that Game Master can inflict a Consequence on Brinded. Since Brinded was attempting to disarm the cultist, the Game Master rules that it be Harm as although he does not disarm the cultist, but he does in effect stop the cultist from cutting the victim’s throat when the cultist plunges the dagger into Brinded’s shoulder.
Like most good roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Rats in the Walls has a Sanity mechanic. Whenever an investigator encounters a supernatural event or monster rather than any mundane horror, his player makes a Willpower roll. He can roll and succeed and lose nothing, but gain a bonus when encountering either again, or he can fail and lose Sanity Points. How many depends on how poorly the Willpower roll was failed by, either one to three or one to six points. Once an investigator suffers one shock too many and loses all of his Sanity Points, he may do something silly—run away in a random direction, shoot mindlessly, abandon his friends, and so on, faint, or even continue to act normally. The latter is not without its consequences, so the investigator might be shell-shocked and lose one Sanity Point permanently, gain a scar which aches in the presence of the unnatural or a third eye which detects the use of sorcery, a weak heart, or suffer from PTSD. Once a player has made his choice, the investigator gains a die’s worth of Sanity Points back, but it can also be gained between sessions by an investigator engaging in favourite activity.

Should an investigator permanently lose all of his Sanity Points, he becomes permanently insane and thus an NPC. There are two ways in which Sanity Points can be permanently lost. One is through being Shell-shocked, another is by learning a spell. Learning sorcery requires finding and deciphering an old tome. Casting a spell is a Willpower check and can lose the caster Sanity Points. Spells include Curse of the Mute which renders the target incapable of speech, Murmurs inflicts strange whispering voices on the target revealing dark secrets and a loss of Sanity Points, and Withering which gives the target the strength and vitality of a nonagenarian for a few hours. Now one of the things that Rats in the Walls does omit here are the tomes which contain these spells.

In terms of its mythos, Rats in the Walls does step over into the Cthulhu Mythos with the inclusion of the Ghoul and the Shoggoth, but in the main it offers its own Horrors Behind the WAlls of Sanity. Abyssals are creatures of living water which can teleport between any body of water in sight and manipulate water tendrils to attack; the Dying Light come from the centre of the universe in search of life to take back to the Void and can absorb life, but the sight of which is the same as seeing into the Void; and Memory Hounds target those humans who have killed other humans, possessing the face of the person who was killed. The Old Ones of Rats in the Walls’ mythos are unstoppable, almost unquantifiable entities who have found a home on Earth, Consequently, they have no statistics and cannot be killed, rather their plans can be delayed, the efforts of their cultists thwarted, and so Humanity saved for a while. They include the Feeder, the Grinder, the Howler, the Mad Dancer, the Stranger, and the Void Mother, each being conceptual in nature, and each comes with thumbnail descriptions of three cults, one from the Middle Ages, one from the Jazz Age, and one from the future, a Science Fiction setting.

The mythos of Rats in the Walls and the reach of the Old Ones stretches ‘Beyond the Walls of Sleep’. Here their inhuman dreams intermingle with Humanity’s imagination to create medieval cities lit by gaslight, lands reached by ships that sail the skies, souks populated by peoples and creatures out of myth, so realms of the fantastic, but also the disturbing and the weird, such as the Iron Plain, a wide plain covered in flowers of brass populated by the victims of the Great War, perhaps hunted by the first war machines or the City of a Hundred Summers where everything is bought and traded for in facts. Although it is possible to learn a ritual that will enable you to enter the Old Ones’ dreams, the greater likelihood is that an investigator will be drawn in after being embroiled in their machinations.

In terms of support for the Game Master, Rats in the Walls provides solid advice on running Cosmic Horror at the table, primarily that her task is not to scare the players, but the investigators. It advises using contrast to highlight the weird versus the mundane, making sure that the world is worth saving, and not to draw upon the Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. It makes clear that although Rats in the Walls is inspired by his writings in its treatment of Cosmic Horror, it does not set out to emulate it. Further, on the Purist to Pulp scale, Rats on the Walls veers away from the former, being about stalwarts caring enough about the world to fight to save it from the alien beings which embody Cosmic Horror, even if that fight is daunting and there is the possibility that the investigators will die or go insane. Further advice guides the Game Master through creating investigations, whilst an appendix provides means to create investigators in The Past—the Victorian era and the Wild West, for example, and during the Crusades.

Physically, Rats in the Walls is available as an art free version or a version with full colour artwork. The latter consists of full page pieces, all fairly decent. The book is well written, although it needs an edit in places. If there is anything missing from Rats in the Walls it is a sample investigation or scenario.

What Rats in the Walls offers is rules-light cosmic horror roleplaying inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, but not emulating him. Its player-facing mechanics—a combination of Advanced Fighting Fantasy and Powered by the Apocalypsemake for faster, easier play and enable the Game Master to focus on guiding the narrative and portraying the NPCs. The lightly drawn mythos of Rats in the Walls: A roleplaying game of cosmic horror, means that there is plenty of scope also for the Game Master to create new content and develop new scenarios that may avoid some of the familiarity of similar horror roleplaying games.

Friday, 7 February 2020

Friday Fantasy: Dungeons & Tombs

There is no denying the continued and growing popularity of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, with it having appeared on the television series Stranger Things and the YouTube series, Critical Role, it no longer being seen as a hobby solely the preserve of typically male, nerdy teenagers and young adults. Yet as acceptable a hobby as roleplaying and in particular, playing Dungeons & Dragons has become, getting into the hobby is still a daunting prospect. Imagine if you will, being faced with making your first character for your first game of Dungeons & Dragons? Then what monsters will face? What adventures will you have? For nearly all of us, answering these questions are not all that far from being a challenge, for all started somewhere and we all had to make that first step—making our first character, entering our first dungeon, and encountering our first monster. As well written as both Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the Player’s Handbook are, both still present the prospective reader and player with a lot of choices, but without really answering these questions in an easy to read and reference fashion.

Step forward the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ published by Ten Speed Press. This is a series of introductory guides to Dungeons & Dragons, designed as primers to various aspects of the world’s leading roleplaying game. Each in the series is profusely illustrated, no page consisting entirely of text. The artwork is all drawn from and matches the style of Dungeon & Dragons, Fifth Edition, so as much as it provides an introduction to the different aspects of the roleplaying game covered in each book in the series, it provides an introduction to the look of the roleplaying game, so providing continuity between the other books in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ and the Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set and the core rulebooks. This use of art and the digest size of the book means that from the start, every entry in the ‘Dungeons & Dragons Young Adventurer’s Guides Series’ is an attractive little package.

The first in the series, Warriors & Weapons provided an introduction to the various Races of Dungeons & Dragons, the martial character Classes, and the equipment they use. Second is not Wizards & Spells, the companion to Warriors & Weapons which covers Clerics, Sorcerers, and Wizards, or indeed any of the other spellcasting character types in Dungeons & Dragons. Instead the second book in the series is Monsters & Creatures. As the title suggests, this presents an introduction to the monsters, creatures, and animals that the prospective player may well have his character encounter on his adventures, many of them—like the Beholder, the Mind Flayer, the Owl Bear, and more—iconic to Dungeons & Dragons. Equally, the third in the series is not the eagerly anticipated Wizards & Spells, but Dungeons & Tombs, a guide to the dungeons, tombs, castles, crypts, cave networks, and other complexes which populate the many fantasy words of Dungeons & Dragons.

Dungeons & Tombs begins in promising fashion, warning of the dangers of dungeon delving, but highlighting also that they are places of mystery and adventure before discussing a little just some of the preparations necessary to venture into such places. Then the book leaps into the first of its three parts, ‘The Most Dangerous Dungeons’ which looks at six of the strange, sinister places ready to be explored by the adventurers. These are Ironslag from Storm King's Thunder, The Temple of Elemental Evil from Princes of the Apocalypse, The Sea Ghost from Ghosts of Saltmarsh, Ravenloft from Curse of Strahd, Chult from Tomb of Annihilation, and Undermountain from Waterdeep: Dungeon of the Mad Mage. Each is given an overview, highlights its important places, shines a spotlight on a specific area, and outlines a key encounter in the dungeon where the adventurers will have to make a critical choice.

So for example, Ironslag is a former iron mine and fortress which has been reopened by the Fire Giant, Duke Zalto, who wants to construct a mighty warmachine. Besides Duke Zalto himself, other threats include the treacherous Yakfolk, salamanders, and other Fire Giants, as well getting into the dungeon itself—behind a high cliff face protected by the village of the Yakfolk. The latter is included listed in the dungeon’s important places, alongside the mines, the foundry, assembly hall, and at last, the Adamantite Forge. The spotlight is on The Foundry where Fire Giants are smelting iron and Duke Zalto’s son, Zaltember is about to toss a prisoner into the molten metal! Here is a chance for the adventurers to intervene, story prompts suggesting an idea for the Dungeon Master and an idea for the player characters. Lastly, the Encounter is presented in a short piece of fiction, here describing the final scenes in the dungeon and asking the reader what the character in the fiction should do next.

Now there is nothing wrong in Dungeons & Tombs showcasing the dungeons and campaigns available for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and it has the benefit of all six ‘Most Dangerous Dungeons’ actually being in print—unlike the last time that Wizards of the Coast did something similar with the near useless, Dungeon Survival Guide. Yet Dungeons & Tombs only highlights six of the campaigns when at the time of publication there are ten available and it ignores the excellent Lost Mine of Phandelver from the excellent Dungeons & Dragons, Starter Set. Further, it exposes secrets (spoilers?) about each of these dungeons when perhaps the write-ups could have been more circumspect in what was revealed. Nevertheless, the six do showcase various types of dungeons—a ship, a mine, a castle, and so on.

The middle section returns to the territory of Monsters & Creatures, but specifically focusing on creatures found underground with the ‘Dungeon Bestiary’. Some fifteen monsters are detailed, each entry accorded a double page spread, the left hand page showing an illustration of the creature or monster, a listing of its special powers, a description of its size, and an indication of its Danger Level, from ‘0’ or harmless to ‘5’ for really nasty. On the right hand page there is a description of the monster or creature and its lair, accompanied by a list of things to do or not do when dealing with it. Many of the entries are Dungeons & Dragons classics, like the Basilisk, Mimic, Oozes like Black Puddings and Gelatinous Cubes, and Ropers. Others, like the Grung, the Sea Elf, and the Yikaria, are simply not, leaving the reader to wonder why such a random selection was included. The simple reason is that these monsters and creatures appear in the ‘Most Dangerous Dungeons’ rather than because they are classic Dungeons & Dragons creatures.

The last of the three parts in Dungeons & Tombs, is ‘Building Your Own Dungeon’, a relatively short guide for the potential Dungeon Master wanting to create her own dungeon. This looks at potential concepts—location, creator, and purpose; populating a dungeon with inhabitants and traps; mapmaking with examples and map symbols; quests and exploring dungeons; and using dungeons to tell stories. All of this is good advice, a solid introduction to designing dungeons and running them, but it is all for the Dungeon Master. The fundamental problem with Dungeons & Tombs is that it does not do the same for the potential player. There is no equivalent introduction to dungeoneering and its dangers for the player and his character, because instead, Dungeons & Tombs is focusing on specific dungeons and their dangers, which both player and character are likely to encounter just the once.

Now there is nothing wrong with a book for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition examining dungeons or adventures and their dangers for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Yet in devoting over half of the book to specific dungeons, including the monsters and creatures which are specific to those dungeons, it forgoes the opportunity to give more general advice on dungeoneering for the prospective player and Dungeon Master. General advice which would enhance the utility of Dungeons & Tombs, potentially serving as general reference which could sit on the playing table or close at hand, ready to be checked for advice and hints. Much like the Monsters & Creatures book can work.

Physically, Dungeons & Tombs is an attractive little hardback. It is bright, it is breezy, and it shows a prospective player what his character might face, both in the art and the writing. Further, the art shows lots of adventuring scenes which can only spur the prospective player’s imagination.

The problem with Dungeons & Tombs is that it does not deliver on its tagline of ‘Explore the Magical Worlds of D&D’, but rather the bulk of it delivers ‘Explore SIX of the Magical Worlds of D&D’. Apart from the last section, the last fifth of Dungeons & Tombs, which is specifically written for the Dungeon Master, its approach to its subject matter is just not general enough to be useful in the long term. Dungeons & Tombs is disappointingly specific and the least useful, least interesting of the three Young Adventurer’s Guide’ titles to date.