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

Monday, 29 November 2021

Miskatonic Monday #88: The Orphanage

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.


—oOo—

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Rudy Peverada

Setting: Jazz Age Arkham

Product: Scenario
What You Get: Seventeen page, 3.28 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: “Ohhh, won’t somebody please think of the children!”
Plot Hook: Children are going missing from the Arkham State Orphanage, so why won’t the authorities take an interest?

Plot Support: Detailed location, four maps, twelve NPCs, and two Mythos creatures.

Production Values: Uneven.

Pros
# Self-contained investigation
# Decent maps
# Possible addition to a Lovecraft Country campaign 
# Easy to relocate to other times and places

Cons
# Challenging to involve the investigators
# Underwritten plot
# Requires a good edit
# Villain motivations underwritten

Conclusion
# Self-contained investigation
# Underwritten plot and villain motivations
# Requires a good edit

Saturday, 27 November 2021

A RuneQuest Starter

The starter set for any roleplaying game is always designed as an entry point into that game. It has to do three things. First, it has to introduce the game—its settings and its rules to both players and Game Master. Second, it has to showcase the setting, the rules, and how the game is played to both players and Game Master. Third, it has to intrigue and entice both players and Game Master to want to play more and explore the setting further. A good starter set, whether City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set, the Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Starter Set, or the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set will always do that, whereas a bad starter set, or even a mediocre starter set, such as the Sixth World Beginner Box for Shadowrun, Sixth Edition, will not. Whilst a starter set is always designed to introduce a roleplaying game, it has another function, depending upon when it is published. A starter set published as a roleplaying game’s first—or one of its first—releases introduces the game and setting to everyone. A starter set published later or deep into a line’s run, when there are multiple supplements and scenarios available as well as the core rulebook, is designed to introduce the game, but not to those who are already playing it. If there is content in its box that veteran players of the game and fans of the setting will enjoy and can bring to their game, then that is an added bonus. Ideally though, it is intended to introduce the game and setting to new players, at the time of its publication providing a means of getting into both when the range and number of books and supplements available might be daunting and there might not be an obvious point of entry to the propective player and purchaser. This is exactly what the RuneQuest Starter Set does for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha from Chaosium, Inc.

The RuneQuest Starter Set comes in a dense sturdy box which weighs two-and-a-half pounds! It designed to introduce new players and new Game Masters to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha to that end includes all of the rules necessary to play the content in the RuneQuest Starter Set, provides an introduction to Glorantha and the area where the three scenarios it comes with are set, fourteen pre-generated adventurers, a sheaf of handouts and play aids, and a set of polyhedral dice. The latter come in an appropriately bronze colour since RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is a Broze Age roleplaying game, but whilst they both fetching and obvious as soon as you open the box, they are not the starting point for the RuneQuest Starter Set. No, that would be the cover sheet, which in turn yells out ‘Read Me First!’ and ‘What’s In This Box’ and ‘What’s Not In This Box’. The cover sheet—as with any good roleplaying box set of old, including a great many from Chaosium, Inc.—introduces the RuneQuest Starter Set, explains what it is and what its contents are. Less importantly, it does not cover character creation, equipment, advanced combat rules, becoming a Rune Master, Shamanism, Sorcery, or Sacred Time, and that is fine, since all of that can wait until the core rules for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Instead, it contains the sixty-page Book 1: Rules, fifty-eight-page Book 2: The World of Glorantha, fifty-seven-page Book 3: SoloQuest, and eighty-one-page Book 4: Adventures, plus the aforementioned fourteen pre-generated Player Characters, two blank Adventurer Sheets, the Map of the Jonstown Area, the Map of Jonstown, and the Map of the Rainbow Mounds (all maps measure twenty-two by seventeen inches in size), two four-page RuneQuest Starter Set References handouts, Gloranthan Runes sheet, and a Strike Rank Tracker. This may seem like a lot—and it is, but this is a starter set and is designed to ease the player and the prospective Game Master into both Glorantha and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha without overwhelming them as they delve deeper and deeper into the box.

Book 1: Rules does exactly what it says, explaining the core rules for RuneQuest: Roleplaying Game in an easy to understand fashion. In turn, it covers the dice and dice rolls, the core mechanics, the Resistance Table, time and movement, skills, experience, passions, Runes and how they work, combat, magic—both Rune and Spirit magic, and so on. Much of this will be obvious to veteran players, but this is a streamlined version, for example, the Fumble Table for very bad results in combat, is much shorter than that given in the core rules. Which makes sense since the variety is not really needed within the limits of the scenarios given. As well as explaining how magic works, Book 1: Rules also lists all of the spells—both Spirit magic and Rune magic—which appear in the adventures that appear in the RuneQuest Starter Set. Useful boxouts explain the difference between RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Editionhow to survive combat, how Strike Ranks work, when you need healing, and more. One useful addition here, sadly missing from The Red Book of Magic, is made to each of the Rune spell entries, that of the cults which use that particular Rune spell. There are also two examples of play—one of roleplaying and one of combat—that help show how the game is played, both done as two-page spreads and both of which are drawn from scenes in the scenarios in Book 4: Adventures. Rounding out Book 1: Rules is a list of spot rules for easy access, whilst the centrefold of Book 1: Rules provides an ‘Adventurer Sheet Overview’, not just of one of the pre-generated Player Characters, but of Vasana, Farnan’s Daughter, the Player Character used in Book 3: SoloQuest. In effect this, like the two examples of play and the rest of Book 1: Rules, is preparing the player and Game Master alike to play and adventure in Glorantha.  

Book 2: The World of Glorantha is the proper introduction to the setting of Glorantha. Of the four booklets in the RuneQuest Starter Set, it has the most dynamic cover illustration, depicting as it does Sartarites reacting in fear and shock to the rising of a dragon into the sky and coiling itself around the Red Moon. It is a fantastic image, depicting the very moment and reaction to the Earth and Moon-shaking event that prefigures the events which play out not just in the RuneQuest Starter Set, but also RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Inside, Book 2: The World of Glorantha explains the nature of its setting, that it is an Age of Bronze in which magic is part of everyday life, kinship ties and temples play important roles in society, that everyone has loyalties and passions that will drive their actions, and that the influence of the Gods is felt through their associated Runes. It details all of the Runes and the cults which have a role in the RuneQuest Starter Set—whether in one of the scenarios or because one of the pre-generated Player Characters belongs to one of them, and it also explains what is sets Glorantha apart from other settings. This covers Heroes and Heroquesting (although further detail on this left for the core rulebook to explain), the importance of community and kinship, what drives and motivates characters to act—the Rune affinities and Passions, the lethal nature of combat, and more, before exploring the nature of the world. As with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, the emphasis is upon Dragon Pass and its immediate surrounds, and is accompanied by what is an incredibly attractive and readable map of Northern Sartar, essentially the region where the Player Characters will be adventuring, at least in the RuneQuest Starter Set. A short history given too, essentially to bring the reader up to date and ready to play the adventures.

The second half of Book 2: The World of Glorantha—in fact, more than half—focuses in on one setting, that of the City of Jonstown. This will be the base of operations for the adventurers and the central location for Book 4: Adventures. In comparison to the first half, this section is much more detailed and details the history of its founding by Sartar in ST 1480 and the establishment of its famous Jonstown Library in 1535, surrender to the Lunar Empire in 1602, through to 1625 and the Dragonrise, its besieging by the Sartar Free Army under Kallyr Starbrow, and the reestablishment of a free City Ring and thus local government in the wake of its capture. The city is described in some detail, including architecture, distribution of food, prominent religions, politics, along with write-ups and stats for the city’s notable figures and descriptions of the city’s various quarters. Jonstown itself is divided into an Upper City, built on the site of an old hill fort with the Lower City spread before and the two connected by a set of wide steps and a spiraling tunnel for carts and wagons. Again, there is a very nicely done three-dimensional map provided for the city, but the booklet goes a step in making use of that map. For the Upper City and each of the four quarters, the particular section of the map is blown up and included alongside the descriptions to make it easier for the Game Master to navigate her way around Jonstown. Lastly, there is a set of generic stats for the typical inhabitants of the city and each the notable locations around the city—which appear on the map of Northern Sartar is given a thumbnail description.

Book 3: SoloQuest is where the fun starts in the RuneQuest Starter Set. To play through the adventure in Book 3: SoloQuest, the player will also need to refer to Book 1: Rules and have two of the pre-generated Player Character folios to hand. One is that of Vasana, the character whom the player will be roleplaying, and that of Vostor, the Lunar Tashite warrior, who where necessary will stand in for the other Lunar warriors she will face in the course of the adventure. As the title suggests, the adventure takes the form of a SoloQuest (something which RuneQuest has not had since the publication of SoloQuest 1, SoloQuest 2: Scorpion Hall, and SoloQuest 3: The Snow King’s Bride, all in 1982, and available collectively, here) in which Vasana takes part in the Battle of Dangerford, at which Sartarite and allied forces mount a defence of the village against an incursion by Lunar forces. The adventure gives her time to prepare before the battle, take part in multiple sorties, and more. The adventure makes great use of not just Vasana’s martial skills, but also her Passions, and often they will drive her to act in unexpected ways. As well as the Experience Checks gained through successful skill or Passion use, the player gains points towards Vasana’s Battle Result Total, which at the end of the battle is used to determine both the outcome of the battle and her role in it. With two hundred entries, it is likely that the adventure can be played through more than once, to explore all of the options, and although the scenario is specifically written with the character Vasana in mind, it should be possible to play using the other martial characters from the fourteen given in the RuneQuest Starter Set.

The fun continues with Book 4: Adventures. This contains three adventures, each of differing nature and complexity, and designed to ease the Game Master into running RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Its cover sets the tone, depicting the Player Characters arriving at the walled city of Jonstown (described in Book 2: The World of Glorantha) after surviving the Battle of Dangerford (as adventured in Book 3: SoloQuest). The three adventures are ‘A Rough Landing’, ‘A Fire in the Darkness’, and ‘The Rainbow Mounds’, and they can be played in any order, but ‘A Rough Landing’ is designed to bring the adventurers into the city and get them involved in its affairs, so should ideally played first. It is also intended to be played after the adventure in Book 3: SoloQuest, so any number of players could have run their characters through that before coming to the table to roleplay together. None of them are overly challenging to run, each of them having quite straightforward plots, which whilst different in each case, means that they should not overwhelm either the first time Game Master or players. This does not mean that veteran players will find them simplistic as they do make good use of the background—especially recent events in the case of ‘A Fire in the Darkness’ and they are genuinely fun to play. The first scenario, ‘A Rough Landing’ is the most straightforward, the adventurers arriving in Jonstown and finding themselves quickly involved in a brawl that will bring them to the notice of the city authorities. It sounds almost like a cliché, but it does not take place in a bar and there are lots of ways in which it can go, which the authors take the time to discuss. Once they have come to the attention of the authorities, the adventurers will be called upon to perform the first of several tasks and missions, which is to check on a settlement to the west which has not been heard from in a few days. It is a nasty twist upon the ‘village in peril’ set-up and primarily involves action and combat, but there are opportunities for the Game Master to make the situation a little creepy too.

If ‘A Rough Landing’ involved combat and action, then ‘A Fire in the Darkness’ is an investigation scenario. A rash of fires has broken out across Jonstown and everyone is on edge because they fear both arson and the possibility that any future fire cannot be contained and might spread across the city, raising parts of it to the ground. Like any investigation, this is quite detailed, involves a fair number of NPCs, and some clues to sort through and try and work out what is going on. Of course, there is more to mystery and the fires than meets the eye, but with care, some stealth in places, and even some diplomacy, the adventurers should be able to learn what is going on. This is a nicely done investigation which should take several sessions to play out and which should prove interesting to play depending upon the Player Characters’ Passions and the cults they belong to.

The third and longest scenario is ‘The Rainbow Mounds’ and is a throwback to the scenario of the same name which appeared in the supplement, Apple Lane. Originally published in 1978, the two scenarios in Apple Lane would for very many years be the first scenarios that many RuneQuest groups played and it is lovely to see it updated here. Recently, the hamlet of Apple Lane has been beset by raids by bandits of the Troll and Newtling kind, and one of the local farmers recognises the Troll attackers at least as similar to those who abducted him when he was a child. The Player Characters are hired as mercenaries to investigate and if possible, put an end to the attacks. What follows is the equivalent of a dungeon, Gloranthan style, but a network of caves rather than a worked network of corridors and rooms, and with a strong emphasis upon its different factions and their loyalties. As a ‘dungeon’ there is plenty of opportunity for exploration and there are some quite nasty encounters—even those not necessarily attached to the adventure’s main plot, but players who approach it as a dungeon are likely to come away disappointed. There are plots and plots in motion in the Rainbow Mounds, and whilst there are plenty of opportunities to fight, including some really quite big fights, approaching the cave complex and its inhabitants in a combative stance may not always be the best approach.

As the longest and most complex scenario in the RuneQuest Starter Set, ‘The Rainbow Mounds’ will provide multiple sessions’ worth of play. However the fact that it involves the Rainbow Mounds throws up a couple of wrinkles which will not necessarily be obvious to anyone new to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. It is noted that the scenario is an updated version with some major changes and it does not follow the same plot as the previous version, although in places there are lots of similarities. So players whose characters have adventured here before will still enjoy it. The other issue is that as written in the introduction, the hamlet of Apple Lane does not have a Thane. If that is the case, then if the Player Characters are successful in dealing with the problems of the bandits from the caves, the situation is ripe for the Game Master to make the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack her next purchase and run the adventures contained within. However, what if the Game Master has already run the adventures in the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack and one of the Player Characters is Thane? The Game Master may need to make some adjustments to the beginning of the scenario as it is not addressed here. Those issues aside, the scenarios in Book 4: Adventures and thus the RuneQuest Starter Set are really very good, engaging and fun, whilst drawing the players and their characters into the setting.

And penultimately, the RuneQuest Starter Set comes with not six as you would expect and as appeared in The Broken Tower—the quick-start for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha—but fourteen pre-generated adventurers. All of them come in folio form, with a full-page illustration of the Player Character on the front—including mount or other animal or elemental companion, and the character’s Rune affinities, background, and guide on how to play them on the back. The back splits open to show the character sheet, with statistics and attacks on the left-hand panel, skills and passions in the middle, and magic on the right-hand panel. Spread across an A3-size sheet rather than both sides of an A4-size sheet, the format is very readable. There are a couple of blank sheets in the box too, but hopefully they will be available in general as well. The given pregenerated adventurers include Vasana, of course, ready to play the solo adventure in Book 3: SoloQuest, but also Yanioth, the Assistant Priestess of Ernalda, Harmast the merchant, Vishi Dunn the shaman, Vostor the Lunar Tarshite soldier and Seven Mothers initiate, Sorala, the Lhankor Mhy initiate, and Nathem, the hunter and Odayla initiate. Together, these seven will be familiar from The Broken Tower and the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha rulebook. However, they are joined by initiates of Babeester Gor, Yelmalio, Maran Gor, Storm Bull, Chalana Arroy, Eurmal, and Humakt, essentially giving the players a wider choice what they play for the scenarios in the RuneQuest Starter Set, as well as providing replacement characters as necessary.

Lastly, the RuneQuest Starter Set includes two map sheets, two four-page RuneQuest Starter Set References handouts, and a Strike Rank Tracker. The map sheets are double-sided. One depicts the Rainbow Mounds from the scenario in Book 4: Adventures, one side marked up with location names, the other without, whilst the other sheet has a map of Jonstown on one side and a map of Northern Sartar on the other. Both of the latter are exceptional pieces of cartography. Plus the actual backs of the four booklets in the RuneQuest Starter Set form the map of Northern Sartar, which again, is another nice touch. The RuneQuest Starter Set References handouts—two of them, so one for the Game Master and one for the players, collates the most useful tables in the game. The Gloranthan Runes sheet simply lists all of the common Runes which appear in the game and the Strike Rank Tracker shows the twelve Strike Ranks of a round on the outside of the sheet with the modifiers in the middle. Clear and easy to read, it is so obviously useful that it will have groups playing RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha wishing they had had it from the start.

Physically, there is no denying the impact and physical presence of the RuneQuest Starter Set. There is a lot in the box, but there are a couple of issues with it. One is that it does need a slight edit in places, but the other is that parts of it feel fragile. None of the set’s four booklets have card covers. And whilst the maps and the Strike Rank Tracker are done on stiff paper stock or card, the RuneQuest Starter Set References handouts are not. So even as you hold them in your hand, there is the feeling that they will not withstand a great deal of handling. This though, is the most—and the only—disappointing aspect to the RuneQuest Starter Set. Otherwise, the contents of the RuneQuest Starter Set are well written, engagingly presented, and supported with some great artwork and some superb cartography. Even physically, the RuneQuest Starter Set is simply good value, let alone the amount of play a gaming group is likely to get out of it.

Now of course, veteran players and Game Masters of RuneQuest and of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha are going to find much that is familiar in the RuneQuest Starter Set, especially in terms of the rules and the background. What is in it for them though, is the background on Jonstown and the opportunity to expand the details of northern Sartar in the wake of the Dragonrise, the opportunity to play a solo adventure which throws them into recent events, for the Game Master to play rather than run with the solo adventure, and then for everyone to play the three new adventures, and make use of the maps and references. The ‘Rainbow Mounds’ adventure will probably bring back memories for veterans of a certain age anyway and the chance to revisit something again is always fun. 

If there was any danger of being overwhelmed by the RuneQuest Starter Set, it would be by the amount of things in the box, not the actual content. The RuneQuest Starter Set really does give the prospective Game Master and her players everything they need to start playing RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha—background, rules, dice, a solo adventure with which to learn to play, multiple, lengthy, and engaging adventures, and gorgeous, gorgeous maps that just make want to look at them and have your character want to visit each and every location just because it is on these maps. Yet by breaking everything down into the four books, the RuneQuest Starter Set never threatens to overwhelm, easing them into the world and the game step-by-step, deeper and deeper they go into the box until they have learned about the world and are involved in the solo adventure and wanting more with the proper adventures. And the three adventures will deliver that and multiple sessions of play. The RuneQuest Starter Set is the perfect introduction to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha that both the roleplaying game and setting have long deserved and it really does set a standard by which other starter sets are going to be measured. Chaosium did that already with the Call of Cthulhu Starter Set, now it has done it again with the RuneQuest Starter Set.

—oOo

A full Unboxing in the Nook video of the RuneQuest Starter Set can be found here.