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

Monday, 30 January 2023

Miskatonic Monday #174: The Shambler Between Worlds

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 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.

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Jason Shayer

Setting: Jazz Age Arkham
Product: Scenario
What You Get: Twenty-five page, 2.78 MB Full Colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: A disappearing inmate from Arkham Assylum? This calls for the Miskatonic Mystery Club!*
Plot Hook: A disappearing inmate from Arkham Assylum leads to occult shenanigans.
Plot Support: Staging advice, six pre-generated Investigators, 
three NPCs, one handout (justabout), five maps, and one Mythos monster.
Production Values: Plain.

* Miskatonic Mystery Club Mobile not included

# Miskatonic University horror scenario
Miskatonic Mystery Club is a great idea
# Straightforward, simple plot
# Teraphobia
# Multiversophobia

# Needs a slight edit
# Underwhelming hook to get the Investigators involved
Is the island ‘unvisited’ or ‘uninhabited’?
# Needs more handouts
# No information about the emergency book reading
# Investigators could kill an important to the plot NPC
# Miskatonic Mystery Club only briefly detailed

# Straightforward, simple plot needs further development and details fleshing out 
# Potentially serviceable Miskatonic University/Arkham-set scenario that needs more of the Miskatonic Mystery Club

Miskatonic Monday #173: Play, Repeat, Return

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 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.

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Braydon Fiveash & Stars Are Right

Setting: Modern Day Alaska
Product: Scenario
What You Get: Twenty-nine page, 6.58 MB Full Colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: Groundhog Day, but with dinosaurs!
Plot Hook: Home just got really strange.
Plot Support: Staging advice, one NPC, three handouts, six maps, table of timelines, two dinosaurs, 
and one Mythos monster.
Production Values: Decent.

# House in a bottle weird mystery
# Survival horror begins at home
# Easy to prepare
# Entertainingly different set-up and mode of play
# Mythos twist upon a cliché which makes good use of the environment
# Chronophobia
# Frigophobia
# Ornithoscelidaphobia

# Scenario could last twenty minutes, could last four hours
# Not all of the maps in the right places
# Cliché is easy to work out

# Infuses a cliché with the Mythos for an intriguingly different one-shot  
# Short, sharp, easy-to-prepare weird Science Fiction horror one-shot that can be ready to play in minutes

Sunday, 29 January 2023

Conan & War

Conan the Mercenary is a supplement for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of published by Modiphius Entertainment. It is the third in the ‘Conan the…’ series of supplements which focus on and take their inspiration from Conan himself at various stages of his life and what he was doing. Over this series, the supplements will track our titular character’s growth and progress as he gains in skills and abilities and talents. Thus this third supplement, following on from Conan the Barbarian and Conan the Thief, looks at Conan as a young man and his life what he did after he left his homeland and took his next steps on his career which will take him from barbarian to king, essentially the equivalent of a Player Character having taken the first steps in his adventuring career. Yet whilst the stats for Conan himself at this stage of his life do appear in the pages of Conan the Mercenary, and so hint at his step as covered in the next supplement, Conan the Pirate, they are more a side note than a feature, for the supplement continues the path south begun in Conan the Barbarian to examine and explore more of the countries of the centre, where East meets West in the Hyperborean Age—Khoraja, Koth, Ophir, and Shem. Not necessarily the most warlike of countries, but the most likely to hire and in need of mercenaries, or sell-swords, dog soldiers, and sword-sisters. Conan the Mercenary supports the role of the mercenary and warfare in Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. It includes new archetypes, talents, backgrounds, and equipment to help players create more varied Mercenary characters and Game Masters more varied Mercenary NPCs; a gazetteer and guide to the fractious lands where the rulers have good reason to employ mercenaries of all kinds, whether that is to protect borders, put down insurrection, buy off rampaging mercenaries, and to strike at their rivals—whether internal or external an array of detailed NPCs and monsters, including unique nemeses; and mechanics to help bring mercenary campaigns and other activities and attitudes to your game, including sieges, battles, skirmishes, small operations, and more.

Conan the Mercenary opens by introducing new options for the Mercenary type character, building upon the content in the core rulebook for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. This includes the fact that the mercenary can have two Homelands (although only gains the benefits of one) to reflect how well-travelled he is, and has access to two new Mercenary Castes, Born Soldier and Child of Camp Followers—the latter tying to the vivid description of the camp followers later in the supplement, and both complete with stories and associated traits, whilst there is just the single new caste Talent, ‘Scrounger’. Similarly, there are two Mercenary Natures—Professional and Blood-crazed, whilst the Archetypes include ‘Asshuri’, ‘Captain’, ‘Champion’, ‘Messenger’, ‘Unseasoned’, and ‘Veteran’. Mercenary Educations add tables for War Stories, Personal Belongings and Garments, notable Weapon and Provenance, possible Mercenary Names. These add flavour and detail, whilst the Mercenary Talents are primarily built around the ‘Veteran’ Talent tree, only available to those who have served in a mercenary company, whilst the other ten Talents, such as ‘Hostage Taker’ or ‘If it Bleeds…’, are available to all Player Characters. The new ‘Tools of War’ begin with ‘Engines of Destruction’, the siege weapons employed by armies and mercenary companies to break castles, fortresses, and cities, but they get more personal with oddities such as the mancatcher and repeating crossbow. Perhaps more interesting for most players is the examination of high quality Akbitanan steel, whose forging is kept secret by the skilled craftsmen of Shem. The resulting weapons can strike fear into the opponents of anyone wielding them and so they are in great demand.

Supporting these new character options is a gazetteer of the lands in the centre of the West—Khoraja, Koth, Ophir, and Shem. Khoraja is a nation founded by mercenaries. They captured the city of the same name from the kingdom of Koth, taking advantage of the mountains which separates it from the rest of the kingdom. It also controls Shamla Pass, not only an important trade route through the mountains, but also the route that a major invasion force would take going north or south. The kings of Khoraja repudiate their mercenary origins, but that does not stop them from employing them. Koth itself employs mercenaries not only to protect its borders, but to put down insurrections that intermittently arise as one city ruler or noble aspires to the throne. The country’s fractiousness severely hampers the efforts of King Strabonus, its much feared and much derided ruler, to chart its future, not helped by the presence of Tsotha-Lanti, the sorcerer who at best is regarded as an advisor to the king, at worst the power behind the throne. Ophir is the opposite of Koth, a settled, extremely wealthy, and decadent nation, unambitious under the rule of its king, Amalrus, but not his wife, Queen Yrrane, who secretly plans to take the throne from her husband. To that end she has gathered the fealty of many mercenary captains who would command their companies to aid the ambitious spouse. Shem, known for its highly skilled craftsmen, is divided between meadowlands and desert, the latter providing a protective bulwark against invaders from the east. In each case, an overview of each country is provided, along with a look at their major cities, traditions, culture and faiths, ruins, notable features and citizens, and more. In each case, the content of Conan the Mercenary is set before the events of Conan’s stories, enabling the Game Master to run them as adventures for her Player Characters.

If the Gazetteer examines the places where mercenaries are most frequently employed or stationed and particular reasons why, ‘Events’ is more about the general reasons for war in the Hyperborean Age—not just war between kingdoms, internecine warfare, barbaric raids, and religious upheavals, but also natural events such as plague and famine, and unnatural events like the rise of a sorcerer and incursion from the Outer Dark. These are relatively short overviews so feel slightly generic. Fortunately, the supplement shifts away from this when it focuses on the NPCs in the setting in ‘Encounters’. This includes both a look at Conan’s involvement in the politics and events of the nations of Khoraja, Koth, Ophir, and Shem, in particular, his command of mercenary companies in the defeat of the Thugra Khotan and later defeat during Prince Almuric’s uprising against King Strabonus in Koth. These are backed up by a good range of ‘Encounters’ or NPCs. Even the most basic of mercenaries, such as the Asshuri, the Free Company mercenary, or Khrajan Solider are all given good write-ups alongside their stats, those done for the persons of renown, such as Thugra Khotan—self-entombed sorcerer in the city of Kuthchemes in Khoraja, King Strabonus, and Tsotha-Lanti, are excellent, helping to bring their ambitions and resulting plots to live and ready for development by the Game Master. Oddly, although mentioned in the gazetteer, there are no stats or write-up for Queen Yrrane and given its focus later in the supplement, there are no camp followers detailed here. Nevertheless, the ‘Encounters’ section enables the Game Master to have her Player Characters encounter them if running her campaign before the events of Conan’s stories.

As with previous supplements for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, ‘Hither Came Conan…’ places our titular hero in the context of the supplement and provides a playable version of him early in his long career. This also ties him back into the contents of the previous two chapters and in doing so, outlines one possible plot for the Game Master. ‘The Mercenary Way’ explores mercenary life in the Hyperborean Age. It is the most entertaining chapter in the supplement, starting with a discussion of camp followers and their way of life training behind a mercenary company. Technically called a ‘tross’, it looks at the different roles—blacksmiths, camp boys, cooks, gamblers, healers, priests, prostitutes, and more—all of which lend itself to a scenario or two, if not a mini-campaign around the ‘tross’. Despite their not being involved in the thick of the action, such a setting still lends itself to plenty of conflict, roleplaying, and social dynamics that would lead to good, if likely grubby and sometimes desperate, storytelling. Several mercenary companies, from the good to the bad, from the Nemedian Adventurers which only serves the King of Nemedia to the Free Companions, are described and a Mercenary Code of conduct is given as well as an explanation of how mercenary companies are structured. Tables provide loot to be taken from a battlefield and a city, events whilst ransacking, and events whilst carousing as a mercenary. The latter are always fun, providing a nice selection of random encounters and events that the Game Master can develop. The loot tables though, do feel as if they could be longer.

Supporting the earlier discussion of reasons to go to war in ‘Event’, the section on ‘Mercenary Adventures’ looks at the types of scenarios and campaigns that the Game Master can run with the supplement. These start with scouting and reconnaissance missions, patrols, securing prisoners, and more before slipping into the weird looking how cursed ruins, ancient battlefields, and even demons and gods of the Outer Dark could get involved in a mercenary campaign. These sections are fairly broad in their overview and should be treated as starting points for the Game Master.

Surprisingly, it has taken to almost the end of Conan the Mercenary to include rules for battles and mass combat. Part of that is due to the format of the series, but it does seem like a long wait. In general, the rules for small skirmishes are provided in the core rules for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, but here they scale up to handle full battles and sieges. These are not wargaming rules, but a means to handle a battle in a more narrative fashion whilst still involving the Player Characters on an individual level. To that end there is advice on ‘Narrating Battles the Howard Way’ and using cut scenes for ‘Heroic Actions’ where a Player Character has an opportunity to influence the battle and be courageous, such as opening a gate to let soldiers through or sabotaging a siege engine. It does add complexity to play and the Game Master should definitely run through a few examples to get the feel for it before running it for her players. There is an example too, which can be studied. Lastly, ‘Heroes of the Age’ adds a pair of potential Player Characters or NPCs developed by backers for the Kickstarter campaign for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of. Of the two, Freya the Red would make an interesting mercenary commander for any campaign, whether as employer or enemy.

Physically, Conan the Mercenary is a slim hardback, presented in full colour, illustrated with an excellent range of fully painted artwork. It is well written, is accessible, and comes with a reasonable index. The maps of the nations detailed in Gazetteer are a bit bland though.

Conan the Mercenary opens up new campaign and scenario possibilities, whether that is as a special operations squad involved in civil war or a rebellion in Koth or going to war against the forces lead by Thugra Khotan, as Conan did, or surviving in the tross from one campaign to the next. However, it does take a while before it comes together and begins to feel like a supplement for Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, doing so when it begins to draw more directly from the adventures of Conan himself and the characters he involves himself with in Howard’s stories. The book needed more of that and so it comes across as being a rather slight book in places, not helped by it being shorter than other supplements in the series. 

Conan the Mercenary does feel slightly underwhelming in paces, but it shines through where it counts—and that is on the personal level. For the Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of Game Master who wants to send her Player Characters into the heat, blood, sweat, and hell of battle, to let them sell their martial skills to the highest bidder, and have them influence the fate of kingdoms at the point of a sword, Conan the Mercenary unsheathes its sword and strikes the right blow!

Saturday, 28 January 2023

Jonstown Jottings #76: In Search Of Baroshi

Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the Jonstown Compendium is a curated platform for user-made content, but for material set in Greg Stafford’s mythic universe of Glorantha. It enables creators to sell their own original content for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha13th Age Glorantha, and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds). This can include original scenarios, background material, cults, mythology, details of NPCs and monsters, and so on, but none of this content should be considered to be ‘canon’, but rather fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’. This means that there is still scope for the authors to create interesting and useful content that others can bring to their Glorantha-set campaigns.


What is it?
In Search Of Baroshi is a scenario for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is a twenty-seven page, full colour, 1.56 MB PDF.

The layout is plain and it does need an edit. There is no artwork, but the scenario makes use of classic Glorantha maps.

Where is it set?
In Search Of Baroshi is set in Sartar, specifically near the Caves of Chaos as detailed in the classic scenario, Snakepipe Hollow. It is a sequel to events which occurred in that scenario.

Who do you play?
Any type of Player Character can play In Search Of Baroshibut worshippers of Babeester Gor, Ernalda, Humakt, and Storm Bull will all be useful.

What do you need?
In Search Of Baroshi requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, the Glorantha Bestiary, and The Red Book of Magic. In addition, The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories and the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack will both be useful for details on Clearwine and its notable inhabitants.

What do you get?
In Search Of Baroshi is a scenario which takes the Player Characters from the city of Clearwine north to the outskirts of the Caves of Chaos in Snakepipe Hollow, the Chaos-infested valley in the north of Sartar. They are asked by the temple to Ernalda in Clearwine to rescue an ancient godling known as Baroshi who had been freed by a previous expedition which had subsequently worked to establish an Erath temple in his name. The temple was subject to multiple attacks by the forces of Chaos and during a recent attack, the body of Baroshi was destroyed and his spirit seized. The Player Characters are directed to locate the godling, free his spirit, and locate the surviving members of the expedition—if any.

In Search Of Baroshi is divided into three parts. In the first, the Player Characters are briefed and have a chance to gain some information about the region around Snakepipe Hollow, some of the threats they are likely to face, and more. In the second, they make their way from Clearwine to the other side of Snakepipe Hollow, the scenario discussing several routes and what might be encountered along the way. The third part describes the caves where the Chaos cultists have taken Baroshi and are now planning to sacrifice him. A third of the scenario is devoted to the various NPCs that the Player Characters will encounter first in Clearwine and then in the caves where the climax of the scenario takes place. These sets of stats are all decent enough and will present a group of Player Characters with a decent challenge.

In Search Of Baroshi has a solid plot and an interesting set-up, and opportunity to roleplay in the initial section. The last section is a strike and rescue mission. In some ways it is the least interesting aspect of the scenario. In no way unplayable, it nevertheless, does feel undeveloped and in places, bland. The NPC monsters are not particularly engaging and the descriptions of the caves where the action takes place is perfunctory at best. They do not feel lived in or occupied locations and some descriptive text would help the Game Master set the scene whilst descriptions of what might be found in individual caves would have given the Player Characters things to look at and interact with, rather than each location just being the site of another fight. Further, whilst the scenario gives two options as which of the Chaos factions is in charge, the description of what they plan to do is underwritten and consequently made all the more difficult for the Game Master to describe to her players.

In addition, the fate of only one of the original expedition is detailed in the adventure, and she is only rendered as both someone to rescue rather than as an NPC in her own right and a reward condition at the end of the scenario depending upon if the Player Characters save her or not. The other members are ignored all together and it would have least been useful to have been given their names, let alone few items belonging to them that might have wound up in the possession of the Chaos cultists.

Is it worth your time?
YesIn Search Of Baroshi is a straightforward scenario which does need development in terms of flavour and detail to help bring it alive and help the Game Master work it into her campaign. 
NoIn Search Of Baroshi is too location specific being near Snakepipe Hollow and it involves fighting Chaos which may not be an activity that the Player Characters are ready for.
MaybeIn Search Of Baroshi needs work in terms of flavour and detail to help bring out the details of its plot, but if the Game Master is willing to make that extra effort, the scenario is serviceable and it could lead into further activity in and around Snakepipe Hollow.

A Science Fiction Map Kit

One of the fascinations with Traveller is with its starships. Ranging in size from one hundred tons up to hundreds of thousands of tons, the players are exposed to them in the rules fairly on—during the process of character creation. Careers such as Scouts, Merchants, and Nobles all have the possibility of giving the characters starships of a small, but capable size. Of course, a starship will take the Player Characters from star system to star system, from adventure to adventure, but the starship also becomes a home too. As a home, the players doubtless want to know what their starship looks like and if they have a role aboard her, as no doubt they do, where their normal station is and where their stateroom is. Then of course, starship deck plans are just like maps. They provide locations to visit, to adventure in, to explore, to attack and defend, and so on. Which can of course be for the theatre of the mind or with miniatures. Starships in Traveller are also highly technical, designed to be realistic within their setting of the Third Imperium, with much their displacement and tonnage given over to fuel, power plant, and jump and manoeuvre drives. There are plenty of supplements dedicated to starships in the Third Imperium—official and unofficial, but of these few, barely a handful are dedicated to the really large starships, space stations, and other big installations and locations. This is where Starship Geomorphs comes in handy.

Starship Geomorphs is a vast collection of geomorphs—or map sections—which can be slotted together to form larger locations in a wide variety of layouts. This includes starships, space stations, buildings, and massive structures. They are all designed using the architecture and map iconography of Traveller, so there is a high of familiarity for long-time fans of the venerable roleplaying game. However, none of the geomorphs are official Traveller content despite their compatibility. Further, their use lends itself to form and function rather than technical design, with the geomorphs here being slotted together to create their locations and ships rather than the Game Master designing a ship using the rules for naval architecture and adhere to the rules for realisation as a set of deck plans. Consequently, Starship Geomorphs possesses a greater utility than a set of deck plans for a single starship or location might.

Presented in landscape format, Starship Geomorphs opens with an introduction and an explanation of the geomorphs. These are organised into standard, edge, corner, and end sections. In addition, there are aerofins too, the aim being to reduce the starships being more aerodynamic and less boxy. There are suggestions too to flesh out a ship design, including its overall look, occupants, gear, age, level of wear, sounds heard aboard ship, and more. There are suggestions also, to add flavour and detail, including what might be found in the ship’s locker and down a ship’s corridor. Other uses of the geomorphs suggested include combining them to create space stations, like the small Dyson-Class modular Star port, corporate facilities, and so on. In the case of the sample starship and sample corporate facility, references are provided to the particular pages where the geomorphs can be found that make up the particular object or location.

The bulk of the book is understandably given over to the geomorphs themselves. They begin with a multipurpose geomorph, a research area geomorph, cargo bay—full and empty, engineering/sensor ops, flight hanger/crew area, brig/prison, arboretum—upper and lower, a drop capsule/troop deck, an auditorium, a sports complex, high passage (first class) passenger deck, promenade decks—food/retail and casino, cloning facility (or alternatively low berth facility), bride areas, gunnery and sandcaster decks, and much, much, more. Some are quite mundane, such as the battery deck, office space (or cubicle farm, proving that office design does not get better in the future), waste processing, and so on. Very quickly the Game Master can put together a troop or fighter carrier, an exploratory or laboratory vessel, a passenger liner, an imperial throne ship (yes, there really is a throne room geomorph!), a strike vessel complete with weapon turrets and barbettes, and more. Punctuating these are some delightful cross section three-dimensional illustrations of the various geomorphs, including a ‘Flight Hanger with Launch Tube’, a cargo bay with an armed crewman outside ready to shoot some scuttling creatures inside, a corridor with doors off and a window through which can be seen a poor, glowing man having suffered a strange mishap in the laboratory, a low berth area, a steerage compartment for passengers travelling on the cheap, and lots more. There is a sense of humour to a few of these, but in the main, they help bring their locations to life and add an extra dimension to the deck plans.

This is just the starships possible with Starship Geomorphs. Space stations and star ports are also possible, again using many of the same geomorphs. However, mix up the office space, auditorium, lobby, and so on, and what you have is a corporate building. The arboretum, promenade areas with and without casino, swimming pool, and passenger decks all combine to form a hotel, with the steerage decks becoming the equivalent of a coffin hotel. There are tram and train layouts, interstitial spaces for between floors and decks, connecting bridges between buildings and space station sections, and a lot more.

Starship Geomorphs is cleanly and clearly laid out. The writing is fairly light in tone and there are notes here and there throughout. The geomorphs are all well done and easy to use.
As a book, Starship Geomorphs is a superb catalogue of maps, plans, deck plans, and more. If there is an issue, it is that there is a high number of geomorphs labelled ‘Multipurpose’, in fact too many of them, to the point where their purpose is lost without the Game Master going through them one by one. Another issue is perhaps that whilst the print version is lovely, the PDF is actually of greater use because the user can separate the geomorphs and put them together onscreen. Further, Starship Geomorphs is not just of use for Traveller, but will work with any Science Fiction roleplaying. Thus, Star Wars: Edge of the Empire, The Expanse, Star Trek Adventures, Star Frontiers, and Cyberpunk Red—all of these would work with a lot of the geomorphs in Starship Geomorphs. If Starship Geomorphs is missing anything, it is a guide or suggestions to create particular ship’s deck plans or building floor plans, but there is plenty of inspiration to be found in the individual geomorphs. The geomorphs can of course be used to create locations for confrontations between miniatures in skirmish wargames.

Starship Geomorphs is delightfully, usefully utilitarian and inspirational in its design and purpose. This big book of map sections is a terrific addition to the toolkit of any Game Master running just about any Science Fiction roleplaying game or even wargame.

Friday, 27 January 2023

The Other OSR—Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG

The Angry Sun bleeds on the Broken World. Some days it burns hot and cold. Some days it burns the land. Some days it drains the Wiz of their powers. Others it is cool and sleepy. Sky Wyrms hunt for meat below. Fallen towers radiate magic and hide spells. Ruins hide the secrets and treasures of the past. This is the Broken World. The Broken World is the world of the Gooz now. Warty, hairy, dirty, ugly, flute-eared Gooz. Once they were just vermin, but the Pretty Ones are long dead in the ground. The Gooz explore the world, search the ruins, and climb the towers, sometimes to save the Broken World, but mostly to get rich. They set out from Gooz City ready to face danger such as the Quetzplow, which will slurp out a Gooz’s brains, Assassin Bots, and coin-eating Mooku which can glue a Gooz to the ground with its snot. This is the setting for the Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG, a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game designed and drawn by James V. West. The author and illustrator is best known for the fanzine, Black Pudding, the Old School Renaissance, Swords & Sorcery fanzine, which he also draws and writes—just like the Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG. Black Pudding brought a slightly gonzo sensibility to the Old School Renaissance and every issue left the reader wanting to see a roleplaying based on its content. That roleplaying game is Doomslakers. It not the Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG, which instead is an over-the-top, gonzo, underground comic style post-apocalyptic roleplaying game in which everything is hand drawn and handwritten. Literally nothing in the Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG is printed using traditional founts or layout. Coloured in vibrant shades, it is a riotous mass of tables, rules, and illustrations that boggles the mind!

Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG is published by Random Order Creations following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It has an Old School Renaissance sensibility, one it shares with microclones such as Into the Odd, Knave, and Cairn, and in comparison with those roleplaying games and other retroclones, it has two primary issues—one obvious, one less so. The former is the presentation. It is bold, it is bright, it is a jumble, and that makes it inaccessible—or at least difficult to access with any ease. Everything jumps off the page, so it takes just that little more effort than another roleplaying game would. The latter is the lack of a ready to play scenario. Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG does include a table of ‘Recent Events of Some Gravity’, an ‘Adventure Machine’ table, and a ‘Towers’ table to help the Gooz Master create adventures from these prompts, but a scenario would have been a useful inclusion.

A Gooz in Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG starts with three attributes or Action Classes as they are called here—Cunning, Magic, and Prowess. Confusingly, they are abbreviated to ‘AC’, which sort of makes sense when the Gooz Master asks a player to roll against an ‘Action Class’. These are initially rated eight, ten, or fourteen, the lower the Action Class the better it is. He also has Hit Points; a Defence value, which reduces damage taken directly; and points of ‘Gooz’ to spend on doing extraordinary things. Creating a Gooz is a fourteen-point step, as a player rolls not just for starting Hit Points and armour, but also starting weapon, money, colour of blood, colour of skin, eyes, and hair, hair style, lucky symbol, talent, background, clothes, name, possessions, and ears. Talents include Alchemy, Psionic, Strong, Eyebeam, and more. Alternatively, many of these a player can simply pick from the table. A Gooz is just a Gooz unless he is a Gooz Wizard and even if not, there is a chance of his knowing a single vulgar spell or possibly more (if he knows more, he might as well be a wizard).

Name: Finus
Cunning: 8
Magic: 10
Prowess: 14

Hit Points 15

Gooz 5

Talent: Extra Arm
Armour: None
Weapons: Falx (2d4), Pistol (2d4 six-shot)
Lucky Symbol: Cat
Money: 3 Tossers

Blood: Orange
Skin: Pink Hair: None Hair Colour: Grey Eyes: Pink Ears: Triangles

Wearing: Crude loincloth
Possessions: Pyramid puzzle, lockpick kit, blanket
Background: Burglar
Need: Set up the best cat sanctuary in all of Gooz City
Deed: Stopped Kern from eating another cat

Mechanically, Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG is simple. It is player-facing, so a player rolls the dice both to attack and defend in combat, rather than the Gooz Master rolling for the latter. To have his Gooz undertake an action, a player rolls against the appropriate Action Class, aiming to roll equal to or higher than the value. Thus, lower Action Classes are better than higher ones. A natural twenty is a critical hit and a special effect will always apply, such as a knockdown or a disarm, whereas it may apply if the roll is a ‘Solid Hit’, five or more higher than the value of the Action Class and . A natural roll of one is a fumble, in which case the player describes the unfortunate outcome. However, a roll of just one under the Action Class is called a ‘Graze’ and while counted as a miss or failure, allows for a small benefit. A Gooz can be Lucky or Unlucky, in which case a +2 or -2 is levied on the roll, respectively. It is also possible for a Gooz to be luckier or unluckier than this. One nice touch about the Gooz Sheet for Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG is that space is given for both ‘Solid Hit’ and ‘Graze’ values for each Action Class.

Gooz can also be spent for the Gooz to be amazing. A point allows a Gooz to pull off a cool stunt, steal the initiative, succeed at die roll, learn a fact from the Gooz Master, gain an extra action, and even add a fact to current game. Gooz is the equivalent of hero or luck points and refreshes daily.

Combat in Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG is similarly simple, but can also be deadly. On a turn, a Gooz can do one thing—take an action or move, plus do something trivial. The Defence value is deducted from any damage rolled, but all damage dice explode, so can inflict a lot of damage and easily kill a Gooz. If an enemy’s Hit Points are reduced to zero, then it is dead, but a Gooz has a choice—death or debasement. The former is the noble choice and the player’s new Gooz gains a small boon. The latter means that the Gooz is knocked down, scarred, and suffers from the permanent effect of the deadly blow. Damage can also be ‘Real’ such as that suffered by a Wizard from his weakness. This ignores Defence. Beyond this, Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG covers rules for fumbles, cover, conditions, morale, poisons, nasty scars, travel, exploration, and more.

Magic in Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG is divided between the Vulgar, the Wizardly, and the True. . Vulgar magic includes spells such as Bite It or Sparkler or Hold Breath. Whilst magic requires a roll against a Gooz’s Magic Action Class, a Wizard can undo, counter, and even reverse the effects of Vulgar spells. True magic is not to be trifled with and all Gooz believe that doing so was what killed the Pretty Ones and really, really annoyed the Sun. An actual Wizard must adhere to the three Laws of True Magic—bear a Wizard’s mark, suffer a weakness that is his bane, and be followed by a Watcher who will always be following and judging the Wizard’s exploits. Wizard spells are more powerful than Vulgar spells and include spells such as Blend In, Exploding Doom, Ice Burst, and Liar. All cost Wiz to cast and a Wizard begins play with between two and twelve points of Wiz. Points of Wiz are recovered much like Hit Points, but the Wizard must choose between the two—he cannot recover both at the same time. A Wizard can also have a familiar and know a few tricks. One major difference between ordinary Gooz and Gooz Wizards, at least mechanically, is that ordinary Gooz begin with the equivalent of having gained a Level prior to beginning play. Gooz gain Levels by surviving adventures and with a new Level gain two out of more Hit Points, a spell, increased Wiz, a treasure, or some lucky rolls.

Treasure is where Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG begins show off the weirdness of its setting. Items of power can sacrificed in return for fortune. At worst, this result in scorched earth as the Sun rains down fireballs on the land and everyone knows about it, but at best, not only all the Gooz go up a Level, but the land is healed for a time… Quite what that means is left up to the Gooz Master to decode. There are long tables of treasure, including Frivolous Junk, Strange Items, Odd Armour, and Super Tech. The Gooz Master can even give any treasure secret properties with another table. In terms of setting, Goozer City, the last beacon of civilisation, first bastion of Gooz ascendancy, is detailed in terms of more tables that the Gooz Master can roll on to create streets, buildings, routes, smells, vendors, and more. Beyond the city there is map of the immediate regions with short encounter tables for each, an ‘Adventure Machine’ table and tables to create towers that leak sorcery and secrets, the daily effects of the Sun, and both a table to create monsters and a decent bestiary too.

Physically, Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG is cartoonishly presented, in a style that echoes Ralph Bakshi’s Wizards. It is busy, vibrant, and full of little embellishments that seem to sneak into view as you are trying to find something else. It is not so much well written as well hand drawn and written giving it a highly distinctive look. However, it could be better organised as the section on Wizards and magic is the middle of the section that ready should be for the Gooz Master.

There can be no doubt that the Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG is as much a piece of art—cartoonish art—but art nonetheless, as it is a roleplaying game. As a work of art it is more accessible than as a roleplaying game, its funky, gonzo fanzine-like style often inhibiting the technical nature of the roleplaying game. Not necessarily to the point where the Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG is unplayable, but rather to present the reader with a hurdle that has to be overcome in finding where everything is and thus learning how to play.  The other hurdle is the lack of scenario. Now there are plenty of tables which the Gooz Master can take inspiration from, but given that 
Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG includes a handful sample Player Characters, it seems odd not to have a starter scenario too.

Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG looks—and is—fun. Weird and wacky, funky and freaky, gonzo and goofy, Gozr – Sci-Fantasy RPG is a joyously higgledy-piggledy toolkit for cartoonishly post-apocalyptic fun.

Friday Fantasy: The Incandescent Grottoes

The Incandescent Grottoes
is a scenario published by Necrotic Gnome. It is written for use with Old School Essentials, the Old School Renaissance retroclone based on the version of Basic Dungeons & Dragons designed by Tom Moldvay and published in 1980. It is designed to be played by a party of First and Second Level Player Characters and is a standalone affair, but could be connected to another scenario from the publisher, The Hole in the Oak
. Plus there is scope in the adventure to expand if the Referee so desires. Alternatively, it could simply be run on its own as a self-contained dungeon adventure. The scenario is intended to be set underneath a great mythic wood, so is a perfect addition to the publisher’s own Dolmenwood setting, but would be easy to add to the Game Master’s own campaign setting. Further, like so many other scenarios for the Old School Renaissance, The Incandescent Grottoes is incredibly easy to adapt to or run using the retroclone of the Referee’s choice. The tone of the dungeon is weird and earthy, part of the ‘Mythic Underworld’ where strangeness and a degree of inexplicability and otherworldly dream logic is to be expected.

The Incandescent Grottoes is, like the other official scenarios for Old School Essentials very well organised. The map of the whole dungeon is inside the front cover, and after the introduction, the adventure overview provides a history of the dungeon, an explanation of its factions and their relationships, and details—but definitely not any explanations—of its unanswered mysteries. The latter can be left as they are, unexplained, or they can be potentially tied into the rumours which will probably push the Player Characters into exploring its depths. Or of course, they can be tied into the Referee’s greater campaign world and lead to other adventures, or even developed from the players’ own explanations and hypothesises should the Referee be listening carefully. Besides the table of rumours, the adventure includes a listing of the treasure to be found in the dungeon and where, and a table of ‘Random Happenings’ (or encounters). These are not merely random encounters with wandering monsters, but a mix of those along with strange things like a sudden aura of cold that sends a shudder down the backs of the Player Characters or a floating skeletal hand which points to the nearest treasure before crumbling to dust.

In between are the descriptions of the rooms below The Incandescent Grottoes. All fifty-seven of them. These are arranged in order of course, but each is written in a parred down style, almost bullet point fashion, with key words in bold with details in accompanying parenthesis, followed by extra details and monster stats below. For example, 
the ‘Ritual Robes’ area is described as containing “Dark stone blocks (pockmarked, walls, ceiling 10’). Green tiled floor (zig-zag pattern). Black robes (flank the corridor, hanging from hooks).” It expands up this with “North (from Area 16): Intermittent crackles and blues flashes.” It expands upon this with descriptions of the door to another area and what happens when the Player Characters examine the black robes. There is a fantastic economy of words employed here to incredible effect. The descriptions are kept to a bare minimum, but their simplicity is evocative, easy to read from the page, and prepare. The Incandescent Grottoes is genuinely easy to bring to the table and made all the easier to run from the page because the relevant sections from the map are reproduced on the same page. In addition, the map itself is clear and easy to read, with coloured boxes used to mark locked doors and monster locations as well as the usual room numbers.

In places though, the design and layout does not quite work. This is primarily where single rooms require expanded detail beyond the simple thumbnail description. It adds complexity and these locations are not quite as easy to run straight from the page as other locations are in the dungeon.

The dungeon itself is driven by factions and their associated rumours. The factions include a demonic cult that has all but collapsed, a band of troglodytes riven by factionalism, a Necromancer who is using the caves as a base of operations, an Imperial Illusionist hiding out, and more… All are given quite simple motivations and wants, often clashing with each other, so that when the Player Characters do interreact with them, the dungeon will come to life and be more than a simple series of rooms, traps, and encounters. The Incandescent Grottoes definitely has the feel of a location on the edge of abandonment, one which swings back and forth between the weirdness and whimsy of caves and grottoes run through with strange crystals and mushrooms and the corridors and rooms of worked stone. Notably, the areas previously occupied by the cult are laced with deadly traps and puzzles, only adding to the often highly dangerous nature of the dungeon. Whilst this deadly nature is befitting of the Old School Renaissance, arguably The Incandescent Grottoes verges on being too deadly and dangerous for First and Second Level Player Characters especially if run as a first-time dungeon for players new to the genre. If so, it is perhaps better run as the deadlier half of The Hole in the Oak. Of course, there will be plenty of Game Masters who will see this as a feature rather than a negative aspect of the adventure and so will not have the potential issue. Either way, The Game Master should at least know beforehand and once at the table, it will encourage careful play, just as any classic Old School Renaissance dungeon or scenario should, and the likelihood is that the Player Characters will be making two or three delves down into it before exploring its fullest reaches.

Physically, The Incandescent Grottoes is a handsome little affair. The artwork is excellent, the cartography clear, and the writing to the point.

The Incandescent Grottoes can be used as an introductory dungeon—and it would be perfect for that, but it begs to be worked into a woodland realm of its own, its various details and connected rumours used by the Referee to connect it to the wider world and so develop context. Whichever way it is used, The Incandescent Grottoes is a superbly designed, low level dungeon, full of whimsy and weirdness and fungal flavour and crystalline detail that bring its complex of caves and rooms alive, all 
presented in a format that makes it incredibly accessible and easy to run.