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

Sunday, 15 July 2018

Call of Cthulhu Chronicles

One of enjoyable things about owning a smartphone or tablet are the opportunities for playing games and reading. Both types of devices are capable of handling both, whether that is downloading and reading Dickens on Kindle or playing a game of Ticket to Ride, for example (other apps, authors, and games are available). Some apps combine both–reading and gaming—just like a gaming format from the 1970s and 1980s did, the ‘solo adventure’ or ‘chose your own adventure’ books. The advantage of the platform means that the story can be presented in an easy to read and navigate fashion, whilst the page flipping and any mechanics can be handled by the app. The result is intuitive and interactive and all but a natural fit for such devices. One company which is going back to that format of the 1970s and 1980s is MetaArcade. In 2017, the publisher teamed up with Flying Buffalo, Inc. to present Tunnels & Trolls Adventures on its RPG platform, enabling gamers to play and replay some of the classic adventures from one of the most prolific publisher of solo fantasy adventures. Now MetaArcade is teaming up with another venerable roleplaying game publisher to bring not more fantasy adventures to its platform, but horror adventures. Specifically, confrontations with cosmic horror!

Together, MetaArcade and Chaosium, Inc. are bringing Lovecraftian investigative horror to your tablet or smartphone with Cthulhu Chronicles. This interactive fiction horror mobile game enables the player to play through Call of Cthulhu adventures—old and new—that provide a narrative-driven, immersive campaign experience. The initial campaign is titled ‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’ and consists of five stories set in the Jazz Age of the 1920s with a promise of more to come for a total of nine episodes. Some of them, veteran players and Keepers of Call of Cthulhu will recognise, others are new. Some of them are adaptations of existing solo adventures, but given how few of those there actually are for Call of Cthulhu, ‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’ also includes several classic scenarios which have been adapted for solo play. So in ‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’, the first scenario, ‘Alone Against the Flames’ is an adaptation of Chaosium, Inc.’s first solo adventure for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, ‘Paper Chase’ is adaptation of the one-on-one scenario published in The Call of Cthulhu Companion in 1983, ‘Edge of Darkness’ is an adaptation of the highly regarded scenario from the Call of Cthulhu, Fifth Edition and Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition rulebooks, and ‘Dead Boarder’ and ‘Eyes of the Law’ are new. They are designed to be played in order, beginning with ‘Alone Against the Flames’, followed by ‘Edge of Darkness’, ‘Dead Boarder’, ‘Eyes of the Law’, ‘Paper Chase’, and so on, forming a campaign which takes the player and their investigator to Arkham and its environs. Once played through, they can be played in any order. The reason to play them again being to explore other lines of enquiry and acquire more clues.

Download Cthulhu Chronicles and what you will be presented with is Lobby with the five initial scenarios, in order and with each looking like the cover of a book. A menu at the top of the screen provides options for the Shop where tickets can be purchased, a ‘How to Play’ which takes you to the publisher’s website, and the Settings. The Shop is important because if you want to play a scenario at your whim, then it needs to be purchased and that requires tickets. A Small Ticket Bundle of ten Tickets costs just $0.99, but purchasing a scenario costs twenty, so the cost of purchasing and being able to play a scenario at your whim is essentially $2. A Large Ticket Bundle of one-hundred-and ten Tickets is sufficient to buy all five of the initial scenarios and will cost just $9.99.

Alternatively, you can use Trials to play for free. These are limited in number, just three per day and they only allow you to play a scenario once per day.

Once you decide upon a scenario, the first thing you will be asked upon opening it is to select a character. There are six to choose from and they include an antiquarian, two police officers, a librarian, a socialite, and a dilettante, with a good mix of genders and ethnic backgrounds for the period. Each character in Cthulhu Chronicles is defined by three attributes—Athleticism, Intelligence, and Appearance. Athleticism combines physical strength, coordination, and overall fitness, and is used for physical actions and combat; Intelligence combines mental acuity, wit, and problem-solving abilities, and is also used for Sanity checks; and Appearance combines physical beauty and the forcefulness of the character’s personality. Each character has one attribute at sixty-five, one at fifty, and one at thirty-five, this varying from one character to another. To represent the effects of the trials and tribulations a character will doubtless suffer, each has an additional pair of attributes—Health and Sanity. The first represents how much physical harm a character will suffer and is the most varied between the six characters, whilst the second how much mental stress a character can suffer after having witnessed the strange and the supernatural. It is always starts at fifty for all characters.

Each character has his or her own page, upon which there is a portrait as well as a memorable quote to bring them to life, a background or Bio, and a piece of equipment, a handgun of some type or another. In general, the make will not matter in an adventure, but it adds a little detail. In addition, a second page lists all of the clues a character has found for each scenario. They range in number between six and eleven for each adventure and enable you to track what you have learned as part of your character’s investigative efforts. To discover them all will require multiple playthroughs and this can be done for each of the six characters.

The adventures themselves follow the structure you would expect for solo adventures. You follow the story, continuing from one page to the next until you are given two or three choices. Select a choice and that will take another branch of the story or scenario, opening up further lines of enquiry. At certain points you will asked to test one of your character’s three attributes—Athleticism, Intelligence, and Appearance—typically when you want to persuade someone in the story, to avoid taking damage, whether physical or mental, to spot a clue, and so on. Then a spinner, divided into two sections, will appear. One section will indicate if you have succeeded, the other if you have failed. The difficulty of the task being checked will determine the size the two sections, the harder the difficulty of the task, the greater the size of the red or fail zone. The consequences of failure may be that a character suffers losses to his Health or Sanity, or simply does not find a clue.

As you progress through a scenario, your character will also discover clues, which will measure the character’s progress in investigating each the scenarios. All this is done to a nicely eerie soundtrack and some decent illustrations. Each of the five initial scenarios takes about ten minutes to play through, though this time will be drop as you flip through pages to get to a branch unexplored… Of course, one of the advantages—or disadvantages—of this form of interactive fiction over the pen and paper ‘choose your own adventure’ books is that you cannot stick your finger into the book at a certain point whilst you go off down another branch of the story. If that leads nowhere useful or your character dies, then you can flip back to the page where your finger is. In Cthulhu Chronicles this option is unavailable…

‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’ opens with the character wanting to travel to Arkham, with each of the six having a different reason which influences how they become involved in each scenario. ‘Alone Against the Flames’ sees each character travelling from their hometown to Arkham and learning something of the horrors to be found in Lovecraft Country. Once in the university town, it becomes the character’s base of operations and from there they explore events in and around Arkham or go slightly further afield. Although the five scenarios give the ‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’ campaign a nicely episodic feel, there is the hint towards the end of the five that the story is building towards something much greater and much more of a threat in terms of the Mythos.

As a side note, it should be pointed out that three of the scenarios in ‘Investigations in Lovecraft Country’—‘Alone Against the Flames’, ‘Edge of Darkness’, and ‘Paper Chase’ will appear in the forthcoming Call of Cthulhu Starter Set. So it will be interesting to see if the remaining four scenarios in the campaign will be all new or updated versions of classics from Call of Cthulhu.

There are but two niggles with Cthulhu Chronicles. One that it is not possible to examine any of the characters without actually playing through a scenario—it is not possible click back from character selection. The other is the lack progression in terms of characters. They seem to re-set at the end of each scenario with no continuity, so there is not that sense of investigator progression you have in Call of Cthulhu. That said, Cthulhu Chronicles is not an emulation of Call of Cthulhu and so is not designed to reflects its mechanics.

Currently only available for the iOS platform—with others to be supported soon—what Cthulhu Chronicles does is bring both cosmic horror and Call of Cthulhu to interactive fiction in an easy-to-play and read fashion. Cthulhu Chronicles provides an opportunity for long time devotees to revisit old classics and play new scenarios in a new format, whilst new players can experience the feel and flavour of cosmic horror for the first time—perhaps as taster for what Call of Cthulhu feels like.

Saturday, 14 July 2018

Free RPG Day 2018: Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day and with it came an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. Atlas Games rarely contributes to Free RPG Day, but for 2018 offered us Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts. This is a quick-start for the 1998 roleplaying game of power and consequences in which broken and obsessed people risk everything to change the world. That world is just like ours, but Magick is real and essentially willpower multiplied by understanding equals what you wished for. Designed as an introduction to the Unknown Armies Third Edition Roleplaying Game funded on Kickstarter in 2016, explains the game’s concepts and rules, gives a short scenario to play through, and four pre-generated player characters to use with the scenario.

The Occult Underground can be found anywhere and is populated by all manner of fantastic and fearsome persons. Some of these creepy weirdos are Chargers capable of altering the world in ways no human can and so hold positions of power, whilst others are Checkers, those who seen the weird and the wonderful and are drawn to ‘check’ it out some more… Most player characters are Checkers, capable of performing certain magicks. Notable amongst these are Avatars and Adepts. The former aspire to become Archetypes—such as the Mother, the Naked Goddess, and the Mad Scientist—and the more like an Archetype an Avatar acts or imitates, then the greater his magic and the more he can bend reality. The latter can Do Stuff, but getting to Do Stuff relies upon an Adept’s obsession with something like sex, cars, guns, cleanliness, and so on. For example, of the four pre-generated player characters in the adventure, two are Avatars and two are Adepts. Vince Kirkland is an Avatar of The Guide and can always send someone in the right direction or give good advice, whilst Jada Parker is an Avatar of The Warrior and can pursue a purpose without suffering stress and inspire those around her. Ellen Kaloudis is a Fulminturgy Adept, a gunslinger who knows spells such as Serious Demeanour and .45 Caliber Exorcism, whereas Greg O’Neil is a Cinemancy Adept who can enforce cliches with spells like Stock Wardrobe and What Could Go Wrong? Their spells require Charges which can be generated by wearing a totem, like a gun for lengthy periods for the Fulminturgy Adept, and enacting movie cliches for the Cinemancy Adept. Essentially the differences between Avatars and Adepts are that Avatars have fewer magickal powers, but can use for free, whereas Adepts have more, but need to power them with Charges.

Characters are defined by what they have seen—Shocks; what they can do—Abilities; what drives them—Passions and Obsessions; who they are—Identity; and who they know—Relationships. Shocks represent the mental trauma a character has suffered from the worst effects of Helplessness, Violence, the Unnatural, and so on. Measured on a set of meters, they track how a character reacts to them, the possibility being that they will become hardened to them and callous or burn out from the stress. Abilities are broad talents like Dodge, Knowledge, Notice, Pursuit, Secrecy, and so on. There are just ten of them. A character has three Passions—Fear, Rage, and Noble, as well as an Obsession, the latter typically tied to his Identity. This Identity is what the character does, typically a role like Police Detective or Taxi Driver. Identities can substitute an Ability where appropriate. So in a car chase, a character with the Police Detective Identity might use it to substitute the Pursuit Ability. Similarly, a character’s Relationships—Favourite, Guru, Mentor, Protégé, and Responsibility—can substitute an Ability or identity where appropriate. Abilities, Identities, and Relationships are all measured as percentiles, typically in the range of 20% to 60%.

Mechanically, Unknown Armies uses a percentile system. Rolls of 01 are critical successes, 00 of critical fumbles, whilst matched successes—successes in which doubles are roll—are unusually good, and matched failures—failures in which doubles are roll—are unusually bad. On occasion, such as when acting in accordance with a character’s Passion or rolling as part of his Identity, a player can flip-flop result, either to get a successful result or to get a better success. Beyond this, Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts covers the rules for Stress checks, coercion, combat, medicine, and therapy. Of these, Stress checks are a little like Sanity rolls in Call of Cthulhu, but designed to account for more types of shock and to have a more immediate effect upon what a character can do. The explanation for how the mechanics work are not as clear as they could be and Game Master will need to give them a very careful read to understand and be able to impart that to her players. Nevertheless, it is clear from the rules that Unknown Armies is a fairly brutal system and the setting quite harsh.

In comparison, the explanation of the abilities of the two Avatars and the two Adepts are much more clearly written and it is here that Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts begins to be more flavoursome. Good explanations of all four are provided as well as backgrounds for each of the Cabal, the quartet who make up the quick-start’s pre-generated characters. Character sheets are provided for each.

The flavour and detail continue in ‘Maria in Three Parts’, the scenario in Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts. It opens with all four characters receiving a text from Detective Renee Jefferson, a shared contact, requesting their aid. The local police department has come across the weirdness of the occult underground before and in response, which has led to the establishment of ‘Blue Line’. This is an unofficial network of law enforcement officials set up to help each other when dealing with the occult, which includes Detective Renee Jefferson. Contact has been lost with one of Blue Line’s more reliable consultants, so she wants the player characters to go check on her. The resulting scenario involves a good mix of investigation and manic action, hopefully culminating in confrontation with an entertainingly snazzy antagonist. It should provide a good or two’s worth of gaming, though part of the first session will taken up by a fair amount of explanation.

Although Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts is attractively presented, it is not as well organised as it could be. The problem is that the backgrounds for each of the four pre-generated characters are separate to their character sheets, and this is compounded by the fact that the magickal abilities for each of them is again presented separate to them. This means that the Game Master needs to do some physical printing and separating out, and then collating of the sheets. Certainly the layout of the booklet could have been better organised.

Of all the releases for Free RPG 2018, Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts is perhaps the most difficult and the most challenging to both run and play. The rules are quite intricate and need a careful read through as the concepts behind both feel underwritten and are far from easy to grasp, let alone pass onto the other players. Yet both rules and concept support a fun quartet of pre-generated characters and an engaging scenario, and this is where Free RPG 2018, Unknown Armies: Maria in Three Parts really shines.

Thursday, 12 July 2018

Free RPG Day 2018: Kids on Bikes Free RPG Day Edition

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day and with it came an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. The contribution from Renegade Game Studios is Kids on Bikes Free RPG Day Edition, a version of the collaborative storytelling roleplaying game just for Free RPG Day 2018. Funded via Kickstarter, Kids on Bikes RPG - Strange Adventures in Small Towns is a roleplaying game of small town life before there were smartphones in everyone’s pocket—so no access to cameras, the internet, and GPS which would make investigations into the mysterious and the unknown all the easier. Although the mysterious and the unknown may found around any corner and behind any door, it is the kids who are ready to believe and ready to investigate. The only way for them to investigate and confront such mysteries and unknowns is to work together, know their strengths, and be prepared to ride like hell when the mysteries and unknowns turn on them and their meddling!

The Kids on Bikes Free RPG Day Edition presents a cut down version of the full game. It starts by discussing the setting of boundaries, the Game Master and her players being expected to agree on what they want and do not want in their game—what they want to see, what they are okay with, what they want to gloss over, and what they want to avoid. The point is all about be being respectful to each other, especially in light of the fact the players are going to be roleplaying children. Kids on Bikes Free RPG Day Edition omits though, both rules for setting creation and character creation. In the full version of Kids on Bikes RPG - Strange Adventures in Small Towns, everyone collaborates on creating the small town where their kid characters will have their adventures. Here it presents a town called Undecided—sic!—so named because nobody could agree on an actual name and then on what to change it to. Undecided stands amidst miles of forest whose only other feature is a lake. On the edge of the town stands a mine entrance with a cemetery and pet cemetery on either side, whilst teenage life in town seems to revolve around the Space Lanes Bowling Alley and Flying Robot Arcade. Then with spring coming, so will the fair and its Fabulous Freak Show. That said, every player gets to add a single rumour to Undecided, the veracity of which may—or may not—be proved in game.

In place of character creation rules, Kids on Bikes Free RPG Day Edition includes four pre-generated Kids, four pre-generated Teens, and four pre-generated Adults. Each has six stats—Brains, Brawn, Charm, Fight, light, and Grit—which are attached to a die type, from a twenty-sided die for the character’s best stat down to a four-sided die for his worst stat. The ten-sided die represents an above average stat, whereas an eight-sided die represents a below average stat. A character also has a pair of Strengths, such as Lucky, which allows a player to spend two Adversity Tokens to reroll a stat check, or Treasure Hunter, which allows a player to spend one Adversity Token for his character to find a useful item. Each of the twelve characters also has two questions, such as “What do you remember most about your father?” or “What are two of your go-to jokes?”.  

In this quick-start, each player chooses a character and answering a question about the relationship his character with the character of the player to his left—good or bad (a list of twenty questions for each is included at the back). Then each player notes down his character’s motivation, fear, and what might be found in his backpack. Given that this is a quick-start, there is a surprising amount of advice for all four of these final steps, reflecting the complexity of the characters, whether Kids, Teens, or Adults.

Mechanically, Kids on Bikes RPG - Strange Adventures in Small Towns uses the full polyhedron panoply, with of a character’s stats being represented by a single die type. For a character to do something, player rolls the appropriate die for his character’s stat and attempts to roll over a difficulty number set by the Game Master, for example, between ten and twelve for an impressive task that a skilled person should be able to do. When a die is rolled and its maximum number is rolled, the die explodes and a player gets to re-roll and add to the total. A player only has to keep rolling exploding results until his character succeeds. The Game Master also decides whether an action is a Planned Action or a Snap Decision, although a player can attempt to persuade her either way. Primarily, a Planned Action allows a player to take the average of a character’s stat and so forego the need to roll, whereas with a Snap Decision, this is not possible. 

It is possible to roll critical successes and failures as well as easy successes and failures. The former have long term consequences, whereas the latter have short term consequences. In general though, successes enable the player to collaborate with the Game Master to narrate the outcome, whereas the Game Master mostly gets to narrate the outcome if the roll is a failure. One other consequence of failure is that a player earns Adversity Tokens for his character. These can be spent to provide bonuses in stat checks, other players being able to spend theirs on another player’s stat check if it is a Planned action, as well as to trigger particular strengths. Combat employs these same mechanics, but for the most involves Snap Decisions and characters rolling against each other or NPCs to gain narrative control.

So far so good. If Kids on Bikes Free RPG Day Edition—and thus Kids on Bikes RPG - Strange Adventures in Small Towns—had been released prior to 2016, then its inspiration would not have been so obvious, but that is not the case and so the inspiration is obvious. That inspiration all but announces itself with the rules for ‘Powered Characters’. The Powered Character is not a player character though, but then nor is she or he an NPC solely roleplayed by the Game Master. Instead, the Game Master creates the Powered Character, deciding their reactions, powers, personality, and so on, but apportions each of these aspects out to the players so that they collectively control the Powered Character together with the Game Master. This further emphasises the degree to which the players have narrative control over the flow of events in a game of Kids on Bikes, but the Game Master can use the Powered Character to nudge events here and there. A few sample Powered Characters are provided for the Game Master to use—they include others besides the young subject of government experimental program, as well as places of interest in the town of Undecided, some NPCs, and plot hooks.

Kids on Bikes Free RPG Day Edition is plainly and simply presented, with just the single internal illustration. The writing in general is pretty good and it is all very readable. Overall, a good showcase what for what the Kids on Bikes RPG - Strange Adventures in Small Towns can do, there being plenty of gaming potential to be had in the pages of Kids on Bikes Free RPG Day Edition.

Sunday, 8 July 2018

Miskatonic Monday #11: Tomes of Terror

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 ofthe DeadRise ofthe 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 far reaches of the Miskatonic Repository.


It is usual practice for entries in the Miskatonic Monday series to be laid out as series of quick to read and understand bullet points, the aim being for the reader to get the gist of the review and make an informed purchase decision as easily as possible. Although this review is of a title released via the Miskatonic Repository and is thus part of the Miskatonic Monday series, it adheres to the discursive format used for other reviews. This is because the title being reviewed is no mere single scenario, but rather a mini-campaign comprised of multiple parts.

Tomes of Terror: A Quest for Forbidden Knowledge is a campaign for the modern day set in and around Arkham in Lovecraft Country. Although designed to be used with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the campaign can be enhanced with the use of the Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition supplement, Arkham Now. Reference may also be made to Miskatonic University: Dire Secrets & Campus Life, although that supplement is really set in the Jazz Age. Suggestions are also included should the Keeper want to run Tomes of Terror in conjunction with Delta Green, the setting from Pagan Publishing for use with Call of Cthulhu, Fifth Edition and later editions or the more recent Delta Green roleplaying game from Arc Dream Publishing.

The default set-up for the campaign has the investigators as employees or investigators working for the Eagle Bond private investigation agency in Boston. Their latest assignment is to investigate the theft of four valuable and rare books from the Restricted Section of the Jeremiah Orne library at Miskatonic University in Arkham. The Dean dissatisfied with the progress of the investigation by Arkham PD has hired the agency to locate and recover the books. Not only does he emphasis the danger of the books falling into the wrong hands, he provides details of those who have and have had access to the Restricted Section.

From this introduction of the case, the investigators have free reign to follow the clues as is their wont. They can do this overtly, covertly, or a mix of the two, but may need to come up with a cover story or two to explain why they are investigating the thefts rather than the police. The four books are The Necronomicon, Cultes Des Ghouls, The Book of Eibon, and The Revelations of Glaaki (Volume IV), which is a powerful and perilous quartet of titles to steal. Who would benefit from stealing such diverse and such dangerous tomes? All the evidence points towards an inside job given the nature of security measures installed at the Jeremiah Orne library, so the academic staff, the student body, and the university staff. Initially, there are relatively few clues, especially physical ones, and much of the investigation in Tomes of Terror will involve interviews, interrogations, and other forms of interaction, though these will often be punctuated by periods of surveillance. The campaign allows for modern means of investigation too, including the use of mobile phones, the Internet, and so on, most notably here though, the use of the credit check (the latter means is supported by the handouts, as are a sheaf of emails).

The campaign is divided into five scenarios, all with a suburban feel to them. It opens with ‘Cthulhu 101’, before expanding out to encompass ‘Overdue’, ‘Manuscripts Don’t Burn’, ‘Rare Finds’, and ‘The Calling’. The clues found in ‘Cthulhu 101’ will point towards the separate lines of enquiries in the other four scenarios. Each of the four involves a different cultist and different aspects of the Mythos—which the four tomes hint at if you are a student of Call of Cthulhu in any incarnation—but all four are linked through the initial scenario. The second, third, and fourth scenarios can tackled in any order, as can the fifth if the investigators prick up on certain clues. That said, each of the four scenarios has its timeline and these run in parallel to each other, so the likelihood is that if the investigators make progress with their enquiries in one, the likelihood is that events will be getting away from them in the remaining scenarios. As time passes, the new owners of the tomes are learning more and more, their madness growing as they work to put their ghastly ambitions into practice. Clever play and luck though, may result in the investigators preventing these antagonists from progressing too far with their plans, but the likelihood is that they will be too later and the investigators will find themselves confronting some very nasty things… As the author points out—and as a result of Tomes of Terror being mainly set in suburbia—his players quickly learned to be wary of basements.

With multiple lines of enquiry, each represented by a scenario, the Keeper is left with a lot to keep track of. Not just the activities of the antagonists as they pursue their respective plans, but also some sixty-four NPCs! Many of them play minor roles in the five scenarios, some are red herrings, but many provide information that will help with the investigators’ efforts. Likewise, the players will find their investigators confronted with several dozen persons to question and follow and look into… Keeping tracking of who their investigators have talked to and what they have found out are challenges in their own right.

The Keeper is supported by a timeline tracker—the players are provided with a blank one too, but the Keeper should be wary of letting them have it lest it indicate that their investigators are up against some hidden deadline. She also has access to some nine pages of full colour maps and thumbnail portraits for each NPC, plus nine pages of handouts. She is also given advice on how to run each scenario, noting the weirdness of Arkham even in the modern age and including good advice on what happens if there is a Total Party Kill. She will need to read the campaign with care to keep track of everything. If there is an issue with the advice, it is that there is little as to how the investigators go about their enquiries, especially given that they lack the authority to conduct such enquiries and that there is a duty of care to be accounted for when it comes to many of these being questioned. That is, the student body. A set of pre-generated investigators would have been useful too.

Physically, Tomes of Terror: A Quest for Forbidden Knowledge is simply and cleanly presented in full colour. The portraits for the NPCs are nicely done, though the clip art often feels like placeholders or text breaks. Some of the fuller pieces are decent though. Overall, the campaign is well presented given its amateur origins.

Tomes of Terror: A Quest for Forbidden Knowledge is challenging investigation with the players and their investigators having to work through a multitude of clues, witnesses, and suspects. It presents these in an interesting structure of parallel investigations which although they do exacerbate the challenge, they also serve to give the campaign a sophisticated, more modern feel. Overall, Tomes of Terror: A Quest for Forbidden Knowledge is a solid mini-campaign worth downloading from the Miskatonic Repository.

A Proper Paw & Pack Play Starter

Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers is the first scenario to be released for Pugmire Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Game, the post-Man, post-apocalypse fantasy roleplaying game in which every plays a dog. Ideally, they are ‘good’ dogs, aspiring to join the Royal Society of Pioneers and so serve the Kingdom of Pugmire. The Pioneers are dedicated to protecting the kingdom from threats such as rats and badgers as well as the cats of the Monarchies of Mau and to exploring beyond the boundaries of the kingdom, perhaps to find clues as to what happened to Man. Published by Pugsteady via Onyx Path Publishing, Pugmire Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Game uses the Open Game Licence for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition to provide its mechanics, the result being that the roleplaying game is easy to pick up and play—and that in addition to its fun and engaging themes. As the first scenario for the roleplaying game, Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers goes not one step further in making it easy to pick up and play, but several.

First and foremost, Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers provides a full scenario to play through, but then it divides each chapter into two—scenario and rules. The first lays out the events of each chapter, whilst the latter explains the rules to be used in the preceding scenario. The scenario comes with six First Level pre-generated adventurers to support the adventure. Then alongside the adventure appear excerpts of the journal of Pan Daschund, which can be read by the Guide—as the Game Master is known in Pugmire—and their contents used to help her in describing events in the following chapters. Lastly, there are links to a solo adventure on Youtube which parallels the plot of Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers and which can be played through as a choose your own adventure affair.

Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers begins with an introduction to both roleplaying and Pugmire, explaining what both are and providing a decent example of play, and guiding the prospector player and Guide as to how to use the book. This includes taking the first few steps—finding players, a venue, reading the book, and so on. This all helps, as does watching the video. This has twenty or so parts, each roughly a minute in length which allows the viewer to play out the events as described in the journal of Pan Daschund. At the same time, the prospective Guide should gain some idea as how the scenario’s plot runs and how to stage certain events. Staged in dramatic tones, the only thing missing perhaps is some animations showing how the dice roll and the mechanics work, but then that is covered in part by the extended example of play.

Similarly, Pan Daschund’s journal provides another narrative as an aid for both the Guide and her players. Again, the Guide can read through this, each excerpt preceding the next chapter, to gain some idea of how to present the encounters the player characters will have in that chapter. However, it also works as a journal that the good dogs can refer to in-game, Pan Daschund having already been part of the way and reported back to the Royal Society of Pioneers. Each excerpt is a page in length so could be read out to the players ahead of their playing through a chapter.

The scenario itself takes place in the autumn, after a spring and summer of hard rains, flooding the farmlands to the east, driving the farmers into the city of Pugmire and presenting all manner of bad dogs, opportunistic rats, and manipulative cats take advantage of the situation. At first thinking they being hired as prospective members of Royal Society of Pioneers to deal with some rat bandits, Pan Daschund instead hires them to deal another problem—missing dogs! Eager young pups have been heading east past Mutt Town in search of a legendary site of Man, rumoured to be where Saint Akbash, a holy dog of yore, gained his healing powers. Pan Daschund  wants to the good dogs to find these missing pups, map their journey, and perhaps search for the site.

Offered good plastic, the investigation takes the good dogs from the city of Pugmire south to Wooford where they can cross the swollen river and head east. Along the journey, they will encounter good dogs, crooked rats and creepy cats, big bad badgers, strange beasts, and ancient mysteries. Each of these encounters is neatly organised into discrete chapters, divided into two sections, one the scenario, the other the rules. The first gives the narrative and pushes the plot along, whilst the latter explains the rules to be used in the preceding scenario as well as presenting any necessary stats. Both scenario sections and rules sections are kept short throughout, typically no more than a couple of pages in length for the scenario sections and a page in length for the rules sections. The compartmentalisation of the scenarios and rules sections into discrete chapters is nothing new, going all the way back to the ‘Combat Encounters’ pioneered in the 2006 adventure Scourge of the Howling Horde  for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. The encounters here are clearly delineated, but unlike previous iterations of the format—for Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition especially—without the constraints upon the story or mechanics. The adventure consists in total of chapters, plus an epilogue, so Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers should provide four or five good session’s worth of play.

Rounding out Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers is a set of ready-to-play good dogs and prospective members of Royal Society of Pioneers. Each comes with a full background as well as a character sheet and an illustration. There is also a full explanation of each dog’s tricks and spells at the back of the book for easy reference.

Physically, Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers is a fetching hardback done in the same style as the core rules for Pugmire. It is in full colour, every effort has been made to make the layout easy to use, and the illustrations are really very good. There is but one issue and that is the numbers on the map at the end of the scenario are wrong.

The other scenario available for Pugmire is, of course, ‘The Great Cat Conspiracy’, from the core rules. Like most scenarios in the core rules, it is a bit short and really, it focuses on politics in Pugmire than it does the wider world. The wider world is what is addressed in Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers. It is a mini-epic in the making, providing good dogs with the opportunity to see the world and encounter some of its dangerous denizens, some of whom can just about be trusted. One aspect of the world of Pugmire that it does focus on is that of the post apocalypse and what Man left behind. Unlike say Gamma World or Metamorphosis Alpha, this focus is not on the wacky or the weird, but on the mysterious and the weird, essentially embodying the Arthur C. Clarke adage that ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.’ Along the way, there is plenty of opportunities for the dogs to be heroic, to fight, and to use their wits. 

An experienced Game Master will able to pick up Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers and start running it with very little difficulty and without reference to Pugmire Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Game, such is the helpful organisation of both contents and the adventure. An experienced Pugmire Guide will be able to run Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers with almost no difficulty and could run it straight out of the book with relatively little preparation, again for the same reason. The less experienced Game Master—or Guide—will find it more challenging, primarily because of the preparation. Again, the organisation of the adventure into discrete chapters helps. For the new player, the book keeps everything clear and simple, provides reference material where wanted, and does not overcomplicate the flow of the game though the use of the discrete chapter organisation.

Overall, Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers is designed to be as well organised and helpful as it can be and it certainly succeeds in being both. These though are just the bonus factors for a great adventure which presents a good mix of mystery and intrigue, combat and roleplaying whilst opening up the world of Pugmire just a bit more. Every roleplaying game needs a good first adventure, and Pan’s Guide for New Pioneers is more than helpful in fulfilling that function for the Pugmire Fantasy Tabletop Roleplaying Game.

Friday, 6 July 2018

Free RPG Day 2018: Numenera: Ashes of the Sea

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day and with it came an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. One of the regular pieces of support for an existing roleplaying game in 2018 is Ashes of the Sea, a scenario and quick-start use with Monte Cook Games’ highly regarded and award-winning Numenera roleplaying game.

Numenera describes a world a billion years into the future in the Ninth Age, drastically changed by huge advances in science, but whilst the evidence of those changes is all around, the understanding of the science has long been lost. This does not mean that it cannot be regained and Numenera is all about discovering the great secrets of the past and using them to make a better world. Examples of this technology include Cyphers, one-use devices that the player characters can freely find and use for strange magical-like effects and there are lots of Cyphers to find and use, so the player characters are encouraged to use what they find—there will always be more. In essence, Numenera re-invented Dungeons & Dragons-style play, but in a Science Fantasy setting and combined it with accessible, player facing mechanics that allowed the GM to focus on storytelling. With the inclusion of some fantastic artwork—and every release for Numenera is superbly illustrated in full colour—that beautifully portrays the far future world of Numenera, you have an RPG setting with both scope and grandeur.

Ashes of the Sea opens with the player characters exploring a prior-world ruin in search of numenera. It is clear that the ruins have been picked over by previous explorers, but when they unseal and explore a previously unexplored room, they accidentally activate a machine which sends them far away. They awaken to find themselves in a ruined building on the side of a mountain far above a green valley. The room has similar machinery, but it needs to be repaired before there is any hope that the explorers can transport themselves back to where they were. With no other obvious clues as to where they are or the means to make such repairs, perhaps answers and means lie in the valley below. Here the explorers discover the village of Bardak, its insular if friendly inhabitants, and the legends of how the village came to be. They also learn of the great six-armed icon to the north, which villagers describe as sitting above an entrance to the underworld and speak of as their protector.

With nothing in the way of technology—or cyphers—available in Bardak, the nearest place of interest for the explorers will be the Icon. Getting to the Icon will be relatively easy, whereas persuading the villagers, and especially the village Elders, to let them go to the Icon is another matter. This will require a fair degree of persuasion, setting up some side quests that if completed, may influence any negotiations in the adventurers’ favour. Of course, the explorers could just off without seeking permission, but that will probably make the trip just a little more difficult. Once there, it is matter of finding the right equipment, overcoming dangers, and thence home for tea. Or at least home to wherever they left from…

Ultimately, the ‘Ashes of the Sea’ adventure is a sidetrek, a diversion from whatever the player characters were doing in the first place. It does not involve anything in the way of villains or enemies and the main problems are really environmental and technological, although the player characters will need to use their powers of persuasion too. As an introductory adventure, it showcases the uses to which technology can be—and been in the past—put to make the world a better place, but it also highlights the dangers of meddling just a little too much. As a sidetrek adventure for an ongoing campaign, it does whilst also providing the explorers the chance to stock up with more cyphers and other numenera.

Throughout the adventure there are notes for Game Master to help her make GM Intrusions—a way of making life more awkward for the player characters, but also a way to reward them with Experience Points—and to adjust the difficulty as necessary. These are primarily aimed at ongoing campaigns, not being as suitable if ‘Ashes of the Sea’ is being used as an introductory adventure or as a one-shot.

The second half of Ashes of the Sea presents an explanation of the rules to Numenera. It is a good explanation and it will be familiar to anyone who has The Numenera Starter Set. In fact the material from The Numenera Starter Set is more than enough to play though this scenario. Physically, Ashes of the Sea is as well presented as you would expect from a book from Monte Cook Games. The layout is clean, the writing clear, and the artwork, although recycled from other products, is excellent.

If The Spire of the Hunting Sound for Free RPG Day 2017 was not an easy scenario to use, focusing a little too much on puzzles, then ‘Ashes of the Sea’ strikes a more balanced note. Less puzzles and more of a focus on exploration and technology with some good social and roleplaying elements along the way. Overall Ashes of the Sea is a solid introduction to the Ninth World of Numenera, but one that really works well as a sidetrek adventure.

Free RPG Day 2018: T&T Japan

Now in its eleventh year, Saturday, June 16th was Free RPG Day and with it comes an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera or a quick-start. In the past, Flying Buffalo Inc.  has released support for Tunnels & Trolls*  on Free RPG Day, but like Tunnels &a Trolls Featuring Goblin Lake Solitaire Adventure, the result has not been of the highest quality or content. For Free RPG Day in 2018, Flying Buffalo Inc. has released something to tie in not with Tunnels & Trolls, but with a supplement for the venerable roleplaying game—T&T Adventures Japan.

* Note that this link is for a review of previous version of Tunnels & Trolls. A review of the latest edition, Deluxe Tunnels & Trolls will appear at some point in the future.

It appears that Tunnels & Trolls is big in Japan, where it appeared before Dungeons & DragonsGroup SNE not only publishes a translated version of Tunnels & Trolls, it also publishes its own content as well as a magazine in the form of TtT Adventures Japan. The supplement, T&T Adventures Japan collects some of the content from the magazine and translates it into English. Free RPG Day T&T Adventures Japan presents some of the Manga from TtT Adventures Japan, the mini-rules, a quartet of pre-generated characters, and a complete solo mini-adventure.

It opens with an excerpt from the manga, ‘Adventures in Tunnels with Trolls’, in which Laila the Elven Wizard breaks the fourth wall and introduces Tunnels & Trolls. It is all rather charming even if the goblins look weird, more like Deep Ones than goblins. Art from the manga is used throughout the Free RPG Day T&T Adventures Japan to illustrate various rules and situations and it all adds a bit of whimsy to the booklet. The mini version of the Tunnels & Trolls rules cover character creation, including attributes, kindred (Human, Elf, Fairy, or Dwarf), and Class (Warriors, Wizards, and Rogues). It then explains combat and magic, as well as the core mechanic for doing just about everything else—the Saving Roll. This is a simplified version of what is one the earliest roleplaying games and one of the least complex, more so given that Tunnels & Trolls only ever uses six-sided dice.

To roll up a character, a player rolls three dice for each attribute and assigns the results as he wants. Dwarves, Elves, and Fairies all get to add bonuses to various attributes. Humans are just lucky and get to roll failed Saving Throws a second time. Of the three Classes, Warriors are great in combat, Wizards get to cast throw spells, and Rogues get to do both, just not with as much proficiency. Rogues are not anything like the Thief Class of other roleplaying games. So Rogues and Wizards will also need to choose some spells, but all Classes need to determine their Combat Adds. These are the bonuses to any combat roll derived from a character’s high Strength, Dexterity, Luck, and Speed attributes.

Class: Warrior Level: 05
Race: Human
Strength 51 Constitution 13
Dexterity 12 Speed 14
Intelligence 12 Luck 14
Wizardry 08 Charisma 15

Combat Adds: +43

Samurai sword 4d6
Dagger 2d6
Samurai armour 9 Hits

Tunnels & Trolls is not a game that relies heavily on skills and skill checks. What the game has instead is Saving Rolls, usually made against a set attribute, for example, Luck or Dexterity. Simply, two dice are rolled—doubles roll over and add—and added to the attribute in question to beat a set target. For a Level One Saving Roll or ‘L1SR’, this target is twenty, and then goes up by five for each level. So Haruto would really be in trouble if he had to make a L1SR on Wizardry, but then he is not a Wizard or a Rogue. For most of the other attributes, Haruto would be able to pass an L1SR with greater ease.

Combat in Tunnels & Trolls has changed relatively little in thirty five years. Each side involved rolls up their dice and adds the results to get a total. This total is compared with the opponent’s, the highest winning that round. The difference between the two rolls is inflicted on the loser! In fact, this was always so easy that it was very straightforward to write computer programs that would handle the process for you. Then again, rolling the handfuls of dice was always much more fun.

While monsters can have full statistics similar to that of player characters or NPCs, they can also be simplified to a Monster Rating or MR. A creature’s MR is rounded by the nearest ten to get the number of dice rolled each round, while half the MR is the value added to the roll as its ‘Adds’. So Waakeg the Ogre Magi with an MR of 44 rolls 4d6 and adds 22. When a player character suffers damage he takes it from his Constitution, whereas a monster takes it from its Adds, in effect, both reducing the equivalent of its Hit Points and its ability to bring its best to any fight. Think of this as the monster growing fatigued as a fight continues.
So for example, Haruto, comes across Waakeg the Ogre Magi menacing a caravan. With an MR of 34, we already know that the Ogre Magi rolls 4d6+22 in combat, while Haruto rolls 9d (for his sword and an extra die per Level as a Warrior) and adds 43. The Game Master rolls 2, 4, 5, and 6 for Waakeg the Ogre Magi, which with the Adds, gives a total of 51. Things are not looking good for the Ogre Magi as Haruto’s player rolls 2, 2, 2, 3, 3, 3, 4, 5, and 5, when combined with Haruto’s Adds, gives a total of 72. Deducting Waakeg’s total of 51 from Haruto’s 72, gives a result of 21. This is deducted from Waakeg’s Adds, so that on the next Round, the Game Master will roll 3d6+1 for the Ogre Magi. Might be time for Waakeg to run for his life or surrender…
Magic in Tunnels & Trolls is a point spend system, a Wizard or Rogue spending Kreem—the energy which fuels spells in Trollworld—represented by points of their Wizardry attribute to cast their spells. The main difference between Wizards and Rogues is that Rogues know fewer spells, so need to be more careful in what dweomers they learn. Most spells also have a minimum Intelligence and Dexterity requirement before they can be cast. Famously, the name of the spells in Tunnels &Trolls are somewhat tongue in cheek and some of the more well known ones are listed here in Free RPG Day T&T Adventures Japan, such as It’s ElementaryTake That, You Fiend, and Poor Baby.

Free RPG Day T&T Adventures Japan also includes four sample player characters—the four from the manga and the examples earlier in the booklet, a little advice for the Game Master, and a treasure generator. Almost half of Free RPG Day T&T Adventures Japan is made up of ‘Coming Down the Mountain; a Mystic T&T adventure’ written by the roleplaying game’s designer, Ken St. Andre. It is designed for use with Warrior character of Third to Seventh Level, which really sets up the only real issue with Free RPG Day T&T Adventures Japan. There is no advice on creating a character for it. To be fair, it is a simple matter of creating a Warrior character and then adjusting it up from First Level to Third—or greater—Level, but the advice should have been included. If a player decides not to create a character, then one is provided although the adventure will be a tough challenge as it is only Third Level.

Consisting of some seventy nine entries, in ‘Coming Down the Mountain; a Mystic T&T adventure’, the player character is a samurai who is sent up Mount Kitsune by his daimyo to bring back a holy man who live atop the mountain. It contains a decent mix of martial and mystic challenges as well as matters of honour too. Overall, this is a decent solo adventure which should provide half an hour’s worth of play.

Decently presented, Free RPG Day T&T Adventures Japan gives a good explanation of the Tunnels & Trolls Mini Rules, an engaging introduction to Tunnels & Trolls Japanese style, and an enjoyable solo adventure full of Chanbara flavour. Of course it is a pity that no group adventure could have been included, but that down to a design decision and space. One other issue is that it never quite really identifies what makes a Japanese Tunnels & Trolls game different from an American one, but the adventure more than makes up for that by showing that it can be done. Overall, a good taster for Tunnels & Trolls and T&T Adventures Japan, but really only for the one player.