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

Sunday, 13 June 2021

Elevator Straight From Hell

Destroyer of Worlds is a scenario for Alien: The Roleplaying Game. Like Chariot of the Gods—also available in the Alien: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set, it shares the same mode of play, but differs in terms of its campaign model. Thus, it is written for the roleplaying game’s Cinematic mode, and so is designed to emulate the drama of a film set within the Alien universe, emphasising high stakes situations, faster, more brutal play, and deadly encounters. However, where the campaign model for Chariot of the Gods is that of Space Truckers—star ship crews hauling goods and resources, as in Alien, the campaign model for Destroyer of Worlds is that of Colonial Marines, essentially military missions like Aliens. In Destroyer of Worlds then, the Player Characters get to face off against Xenomorphs as armed and dangerous marines, as they engage in a deadly manhunt on a near-abandoned colony world rife with intrigue and insurrection, just as war breaks out in orbit above. As the situation deteriorates around them, the Player Characters will find themselves the unfortunate victims of corporate, military, and interstellar politics, as something worse than their nightmares chases them off world…

The background for Destroyer of Worlds is the Oil Wars between the United Americas (UA), the Three World Empire, and the Union of Progressive Peoples (UPP), the race to locate fresh sources of petroleum which would keep their respective industries and militaries supplied. Thus, the strategic importance of petroleum-rich worlds has grown and grown over the years, with those close to national borders also creating severe tensions. One such world is the Ariarcus colony on Kruger 60 AEM. Located in the Outer Veil in United Americas space close to the border with the Union of Progressive Peoples, for decades the Ariarcus colony has proven its worth as a strategic source of oil, such that when the colonists were found selling oil to the UPP, the colony was seized as an asset and militarised, with units from both the United States Colonial Marine Corps and the Colonial Navy being stationed on and above the planet at Fort Nebraska. The colony has all but collapsed, with barely two thousand colonists left, many wanting to get off world, an insurrection which wants to be free of what its members see as the UA yoke and is ready to defect to the UPP, and as military forces are diverted to deal with a UPP attack on the neighbouring the Cygni 61 system and LV-038 colony, both the military and colonial administration declares an evacuation of the colony, the insurrection seizes the opportunity to reach out to the UPP. At the same time, a squad of Colonial Marines from Fort Nebraska’s Special Operations ‘Sin Eaters’ marine unit decide it is the moment to go AWOL…

Into this set-up are thrown a team of marines drawn from the forces left after the strike force has left for Cygni 61 system and LV-038 colony, including members of an assault team, a Chemical Biological Radiological and Nuclear (CBRN) Defence Specialist, a Combat Technician/Hospital Corpsman Android, and two riflemen and drivers, led by a ‘Sin Eater’ commander. Their task is to locate the squad of Colonial Marines who have gone AWOL and prevent both them and any intelligence they possess from falling into the hands of the UPP. Each has his or her agenda—some have their own secrets too—that will come into play as their mission progresses, and over the course of a single few hours, they will track down the missing Colonial Marines, confront the Insurrectionists, get caught up in the outbreak of war, come under horrifying chemical attack, deal with rival factions desperate to make alliances, and as the order to evacuate is issued, face monster after monster the like of which they will have never encountered before, and ultimately, literally climb up out of Kruger 60 AEM’s gravity well. All of which takes place in the Antarctic environment of Ariarcus, a moon of the gas giant, Oblivion, under the never more than twilight gaze of the ever-watchful and oppressive Eye of Oblivion—an 11,000-kilometer-wide blue storm raging in the gas giant’s atmosphere.

Destroyer of Worlds is designed for three to five players, but includes a total of seven in the ramshackle unit drawn together and assigned what will turn out to be a brutally nasty disaster of a mission. Essentially, those Colonial Marines initially appearing in the unit as NPCs are intended as replacement Player Characters, for make no mistake, this is a deadly scenario in which a ‘Total Party Kill’ is a distinct possibility. In fact, it might actually be worth the Game Mother preparing some of the other NPCs as replacement Player Characters, so deadly is the scenario in places. Potentially though, this would lead to a shift in the ‘party dynamics’ as NPCs from other factions become Player Characters and have their own agendas. Ultimately though, everyone’s agenda is to get off world, whatever the consequences.

Destroyer of Worlds is structured over three acts. In Act I, the Player Characters get their assignment and begin their investigation, tracking the missing Colonial Marines down across the Ariarcus colony, dealing with the last remnants of the colony infrastructure and administration, confronting the Insurrectionists, potentially encountering both corporate and UPP operatives with their own agendas, Xenomorphs, and more. As the Player Characters begin putting things together, Act II begins with a bang. Open conflict begins in orbit above between the UA and the UPP, the colony is hit with EMP attacks, bringing spacecraft and attack ships crashing down on the colony, and worse, an unknown ship showers the colony with the transformative Black Goo seen in Prometheus. The latter leads to some horrifying scenes as the remaining colonists are radically mutated or ripped apart. Combined with an order to evacuate the colony, this will drive the Player Characters to get off world, but the effect of the EMP attacks mean that the colony’s space elevator is not working. In Act III, this will force the Player Characters to delve into Fort Nebraska’s sublevels to get the power working again, and in the process, discover some of the darker secrets about just what has been going on at the base…

Destroyer of Worlds is big, bold, and brassy, an epic adventure from start to finish, and yet… As much as it captures the cinematic feel of Aliens and the later films, it is not an easy adventure to run and it is guilty of over-egging the pudding. The problems with the adventure are fourfold. First, there is a lot going on in the adventure, with multiple factions and multiple agendas, not including those of the Player Characters. Combined with events there is a lot for the Game Mother to keep to track off throughout the adventure, and this can be compounded later on in the second and third acts if the Player Characters are joined by NPCs—both innocent bystanders and members of other factions, who are equally as desperate to get off world. Second, the adventure does not just throw one Xenomorph element at the Player Characters, but all of them. So not just the Black Goo and the

Anathema it creates, but also species Xenomorph XX121 from Alien and Aliens—from Egg to Queen, and subspecies. There is often little to no subtlety to this, and it is compounded by the third problem—the sheer number of Xenomorphs that the Player Characters will encounter throughout the adventure, especially in Act III. Consequently, their exploration of Fort Nebraska’s sublevels do take on a dungeon-like aspect, but with guns and grenades and Xenomorphs, instead of swords, spells, and Orcs, such that it feels as if everyone should be playing an Aliens boardgame rather than Alien: The Roleplaying Game. Fourth, because it is an adventure for Cinematic mode, Destroyer of Worlds is heavily plotted, in some cases for the Player Characters as much as the story itself, including one of the Player Characters beginning infected, their drive eventually being to locate a cure, which as the scenario plays out, they will hopefully discover exists. So it feels heavy-handed in places, but given that Destroyer of Worlds is a Cinematic one-shot, this is not as much of an issue as it could have been. Fifth, there is quite a lot going on off-camera in terms of the story that is never really explained, such as who exactly drops the Black Goo on the colony (it is intimated that this this is Engineers from Prometheus, just to further over-egg the pudding), why the Player Characters are selected, and so on. Yet, in the face of the unrelenting pace at which Destroyer of Worlds is telling its story, it almost does not matter. Certainly not for the Player Characters, but perhaps for the Game Mother?

Physically, Destroyer of Worlds comes as a boxed set, much like the Alien: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set—and almost as richly appointed. Open up the box and the purchaser is confronted with decks of cards, poster maps, character sheets, and the scenario book itself. The two decks of cards consist of twenty-one Personal Agendas, six Vehicle cards, two Weapon cards, nine NPC cards, and six Story cards. The Personal Agenda cards are given to the appropriate Player Characters at the beginning of each act and define their aims for that act, their being rewarded with Story Points based on how well their players roleplayed them. The Story cards are similar to the Personal Agenda cards, but reveal secret aspects of their particular Player Characters which again will affect their motivations. The other cards are a mix of the old and the new, some having appeared in the Alien: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set. These include a United States Colonial Marine Corps heavy tank (which the Player Characters can potentially commandeer), a pair of UUP vehicles, and the AK-4047, the UPP equivalent of the Pulse Rifle.

The main map is a thirty-four by twenty-two inches poster which depicts Ariaricus colony on one side and the interior of Fort Nebraska on the other. This is in addition to the two A3-sized maps which show individual locations. Of the three, the smaller maps are a lot easier to handle and sue at the table, but like all of the maps, they are done in the green-on-green blueprint style seen in the Alien universe. The seven Player Character sheets are easy to read, as is the scenario booklet, which is cleanly laid out in the style seen in Alien: The Roleplaying Game, the Alien: The Roleplaying Game Starter Set, and Chariot of the Gods. It is lightly illustrated with pieces taken from Alien: The Roleplaying Game, but the light layout makes up for that. Notably, the scenario book includes four appendices, one for all of the types of the Xenomorphs which appear in Destroyer of Worlds, one for the Talents which appear in the scenario, one for all of the stats for the gear and vehicles, and one for vehicle combat. The appendices of Talents and Xenomorphs do reprint material from Alien: The Roleplaying Game, but they are included for anyone running Destroyer of Worlds using just the  rather than Alien: The Roleplaying Game.

Destroyer of Worlds is a fantastic scenario, but not a perfect one. It has too many moving parts and too many Xenomorphs and too much going on that it needs careful handling and preparation upon the part of the Game Mother to run well. Yet it is big, it is bruising, it is over-the-top, and it delivers the pulsating combat action of Aliens and an eighties action movie. It has some great set pieces just like an eighties action movie and an Aliens horror movie should—the rain of Black Goo, assaulting the Insurrectionists’ compounds, getting back into Fort Nebraska, sneaking about in the sublevels of the base and the final confrontation on the space elevator… Ultimately, Destroyer of Worlds is a popcorn munching, shoot ‘em up horror movie of a scenario. Essentially, put on the Aliens soundtrack and expect the Player Characters to blast their way through it, get the bejuzus scared of them, get infected, confront Xenomorph after Xenomorph, probably die, and maybe, just maybe, survive.

Saturday, 12 June 2021

Partying The Party RPG

When the party is confronted with bush with golden, sparkling leaves, seeming to dance to a rhythm only it can hear and it implores with a booming voice for one of their number to dance because it has lost its magic and needs to be once again enthused with the ‘power o’ dance’ to get his jive, and the Game Master turns to her players and says that one of them must dance a dance of her choice in complete silence, and the other must guess what it is, then you know that this is no ordinary adventure, and no ordinary roleplaying game. When a Dorse—a mutant hybrid of a Horse and a Dragon—demands that everyone play ‘Naughty Imitation’ and impersonate a famous film star doing something naughty, then you know that this is no ordinary adventure, and no ordinary roleplaying game. When the party must create and perform a song or rhyme to open an emotionally needy chest, then you know that this is no ordinary adventure, and no ordinary roleplaying game. All of these sound like party games, which they are, and not like a roleplaying game at all, but these really are challenges presented in a roleplaying game which combines a classic fantasy quest to save the world with the type of games which will be familiar to a wider audience. This, when combined with simple, light rules, a straightforward plot, accessible presentation, and sense of humour, makes this roleplaying game almost the perfect means to introduce those unfamiliar to the concepts of roleplaying to their first actual roleplaying game.

The roleplaying game in question is The Party RPG: The Rise of Burden Bluggerbuckle, published by The Party RPG. Designed to be played by between three and six players, including a Game Master, it presents a Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy adventure, played as a one-shot over multiple sessions, but with very light rules, a physical component—the players are encouraged to dress up as their characters if they want and there are plenty of physical challenges and games throughout the quest, and a presentation intended for the scenario for the game to be played from the page. There is also scope for the players to share the role of Game Master, swapping from playing to refereeing for a scene, and then back again, so that in a game of five players, everyone could have a go at being a Game Master several times. Although it can be played round the table like a traditional roleplaying game—or these days over Zoom—it does not have to be and could easily be run in the lounge over the coffee table.

The setting for 
The Party RPG: The Rise of Burden Bluggerbuckle is the Great Plains. Phosphorian, for both his great villainy and his glowing member, has died. Upon hearing this tragic news, Burden Bluggerbuckle, his Orc boyfriend waiting at home in a floral apron, swears a mighty vengeance and sets out to cast the Enchantment of Unrelenting Rage which will rent the Great Plains in twain—at the very least! To save the Great Plains, a Squad—as opposed to a party which would confuse everyone in and out of The Party RPG: The Rise of Burden Bluggerbuckle—of doughty adventurers who undertake Main Quests and Side Quests. Main Quests to acquire the six pieces of the Counter Enchantment which will break the Enchantment of Unrelenting Rage and Side Quests to enhance their abilities and gain gear that will help them on their grand quest. Over the course of sixteen scenes and locations, the Player Characters will encounter an exploding goat (he gets better), shout to reveal hidden items, find a way over a broken bridge, hunt for buried treasure, impersonate pigs, run into belligerent chickens, and a whole lot more.

In 
The Party RPG, the players are free to create characters that are whatever they want. A Unicorn with a sense of adventure? A brave warrior who rolls into battle in her wheelchair? A lizardry, wizardy gecko? A pilfering Chameleon? A middle-aged accountant fighting evil in his pipe and slippers? All possible and perfectly acceptable. A character is very simply defined. He has five Skills—Stealth, Awareness, Strength, Intelligence, and Speed—rated between one and ten. A player simply assigns five points between these, buys some basic equipment for his character, describes who and what he is, and thus he is ready to play. Fantastically, everything that a player needs is laid out on the character sheet. So on the front, there are the five skills, plus a tracker for the character’s Hit Points, Level, and Experience Points, and places to record his weapons and shield, plus items and armour. On the back is a step-by-step guide to character creation and an explanation of what all of the terms are in The Party RPG. The character sheet is very nicely done.

Frau Blücher is a no-nonsense housekeeper who has no truck with the end of the Great Plains. Otherwise, where else is her G.O.A.T. goat, Heidi, going to graze and headbutt anyone she does not like?

Name: Frau Blücher

Skills
Stealth 1
Awareness 2
Strength 0
Intelligence 1
Speed 1

Equipment: Simple Wand, Basic Leather Armour, Soap

Mechanically, 
The Party RPG is very simple, although it uses two resolution systems. The first is when the Player Characters are acting against the environment, such as climbing a tree or fording a fast-flowing stream, or when they are engaged in combat. This requires the player to roll three six-sided dice and add any bonuses from his character’s Skills and items of equipment. The aim is to roll high, with possible results including Pivotal Successes, Successes, Fails, and Epic Fails. For example, a task set at Moderate has a Pivotal Success threshold of fourteen or more, Success threshold of eleven and up, a Fail threshold of ten and below, and an Epic Fail threshold of seven or less. It is as simple as that. In general, Pivotal Successes, Successes, Fails, and Epic Fails will be set by the Game Master, though weapons and shields have their values, which will be better for the items purchased or found later in the quest. Damage is dependent on a Player Character’s Level—either one, two, or three six-sided dice, armour detracts from inflicted damage, and shields can totally deflect or partially block damage, and even break! A Pivotal Success result on an attack roll ignores the effects of armour.

The other resolution system, which is for Player Character versus NPCs, is dependent upon the Level of a Player Character or NPC—again one, two, or three six-sided dice. These are rolled and added together with the appropriate Skill Levels of both the Player Character and the NPC, and the highest result wins. Although simple enough, in fact, both mechanics are simple enough, it feels a little odd to have two separate, quite different systems for a game that is aiming to be as easy as it is.

The ease of play for 
The Party RPG is facilitated by its layout. Every location is broken down into a series of sections. The first section always sets out the objectives the Player Characters have to complete and instructions for the Game Master. This is followed by sections which set the scene, give handy tips, and always ends with one giving the suggested Experience Point awards depending on how well the Game Master thinks her players and their characters performed in the location. This ranges from ‘Abysmal’ and ‘10XP’ to ‘Terrific’ and ‘80XP’. A total of one hundred Experience Points are required for a Player Character to go up a Level—so will typically occur at every other location and grant a bonus Skill level, plus Hit Points, and enable a Player Character to use better equipment. Throughout the location, boxes in bold colours highlight what the Game Master needs to act upon—so red for combat or active actions like sneaking past some Goblins; blue for treasures to be rewarded to the Player Characters; purple for a physical out of game action, such as singing or dancing; green for ending a scene. The layout and these boxes further make The Party RPG easy to run from the page.

However, running 
The Party RPG does require some page flipping when it comes to combat and shopping—all of the stats for the NPCs and the equipment that the Player Characters can obtain through visiting shops or being rewarded are at the back of the book. A bookmark or two, should offset this issue to some extent.

Physically, 
The Party RPG is cleanly and tidily laid out. The writing varies depending upon the subject matter. It does tend towards bullet points in its style for a lot of the rules explanations. This is not an issue for the experienced Game Master, but anyone coming to the game anew will not find it as easy as it could have been. In comparison, the writing of the quest is more expansive and humorous and entertaining, so more engaging to read. The book’s artwork is excellent, but really too small for the Game Master to enjoy or use to add colour to the running of the game. It would have been great if the artwork had been larger and thus could have been shown to the players as their characters progressed onwards as part of their quest, and thus helped them envision the world their characters are exploring. One other effect of the writing and the simplicity is that The Party RPG is easy to prepare. An experienced Game Master will be able to read and grasp what is all going on the page from a simple readthrough. 

However, as clever and as fun and as silly as 
The Party RPG: The Rise of Burden Bluggerbuckle is, it is not without its issues. The first one is the tone, which is adult in nature—though not explicit—and as written, The Party RPG is not suited for play by younger audiences, which is a pity given the simplicity and physicality of the roleplaying game. Of course, the Game Master can tone down or remove the adult humour during play, but perhaps the inclusion of alternative text better suited for younger and family audiences would have widened the accessibility of The Party RPG Second, the rules are simply not as well explained as they could be. This is not a matter of discounting their simplicity, but rather that they are more clearly explained for the Game Master than her players. Now there are examples of the three types of mechanics—Player Character versus the environment, versus NPCs, and combat—in The Party RPG, and they help, but there is no clear explanation otherwise. Third, once play is underway, there is no guidance from situation to situation as to the suggested scores for Pivotal Successes, Successes, Fails, and Epic Fails for the challenges the Player Characters will face. For the experienced Game Master, setting these suggested scores is not really going to be all that difficult, but anyone new to this type of game, it will be challenging, and makes The Party RPG not quite as readily suited for new Game Masters as the designers intended.

So is 
The Party RPG: The Rise of Burden Bluggerbuckle actually a roleplaying game? The answer to that is both yes and no. Yes, because the players are rolling up and creating characters and having go away on adventures just like Dungeons & Dragons—or in the case of Dungeons & Dragons meets Toon or Dungeons & Dragons meets Tails of Equestria – The Storytelling Game. But no, because there are no means or advice to create anything other than a playthrough of ‘The Rise of Burden Bluggerbuckle’, and as a roleplaying game, The Party RPG is very much tied to that story line. So, it is more of a one-shot or a mini-campaign, but still a roleplaying game.

Throughout 
The Party RPG: The Rise of Burden Bluggerbuckle, both Game Master and players, but especially the players, are encouraged to be inventive and creative, not just in terms of creating their characters, but also in terms of how they approach different situations. In return, the Game Master is encouraged to take these ideas on merit, to give them a chance to work, no matter how preposterous, and so support an inventive, slightly over-the-top, even a little silly style of play. Throughout, The Party RPG: The Rise of Burden Bluggerbuckle never gets away from the fact that its play should be fun. Which also includes the physical elements that are likely to be more acceptable to a wider, more family audience than necessarily to a roleplaying audience, and that means that The Party RPG: The Rise of Burden Bluggerbuckle could actually work as an introduction to roleplaying games (though it is not quite as suitable for new Game Masters as it could have been). Although it might not be for everyone, but for anyone ready to embrace its silliness, its simplicity, its scope for inventiveness, and its physicality, The Party RPG: The Rise of Burden Bluggerbuckle has the potential to be huge fun.

Friday, 11 June 2021

Friday Fantasy: Lumberlands – Wampus Country Travel Guide I

Out on the borders of the far Northwest lies a forest without end. Here doughty Lumberjacks and Lumberjills leap from tree to tree, felling and cutting the mighty pines for shipping back to civilisation. In the deeper parts of the forest, the great hairy hulks known as Sasquatches roam freely, feared by some as monsters, simply misunderstood say others, but unknown to all. If the exact nature of the Sasquatches remains unknown, then the secrets of the Squirrels are kept hidden—and they like that. For within their secluded city republic of Baudekin, sapient Squirrels and other members of the Sciuridae family from across the dimensions protect it secrets, most notably the Secret Gnawledge those contained within the roots of the Library Trees. For anyone wanting to set out into the forest, the place to start is Squeamish, a ‘nice, clean, company town’. Squeamish is a boomtown, a frontier town built by the Red Bear Lumber Company, and the many Lumberjacks and Lumberjills that work the forest work for a felling gang employed by the Red Bear Lumber Company. They work for the Red Bear Lumber Company, they live on the Red Bear Lumber Company property, they eat Red Bear Lumber Company food, and they have a long line of credit with the Red Bear Lumber Company. Perhaps though, one of those many Lumberjacks and Lumberjills—whether a Lumber-Fighter, Lumber-Cleric, Lumber-Thief, or Lumber-Wizard—will strike it lucky on a side hustle or with an independent gang and bring back that one rare botanical specimen which will set them up for life—or at least ensure they can pay off their credit. There are always Wizards and Alchemists willing to pay for such items. Adventurers come to Squeamish too, perhaps for those same rare botanical specimens, or to hunt for Sasquatch or rescue innocents kidnapped by the brutish creatures, or to enter a Lumberjack competition, or… Whatever the reason, they will need a guide—and there are plenty of those to go around. Perhaps hire a Gunkey—a cross between a goat and a jackass, and twice as stupid/foppish/lecherous as you would expect, rent out a half-useful, only half-tested device from Half-Mad Leach MacCleod, or simply feast on tasty street food from Odd Jacob—the ‘Salty Weasel Bites’ are a best seller!

This is the set-up for Lumberlands – Wampus Country Travel Guide I, a systemless, rules-agnostic fantasy roleplaying setting by the creator of Wampus Country. Published by Lost Pages, best known for the entertaining Genial Jack and the Burgs & Baillifs series, this is a comedy-style setting based on the Pacific Northwest—although it could be Vermont too, although mostly the Pacific Northwest because Portland—which is easy to adapt to the setting of the Game Master’s choice, whether that is Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, Savage Worlds, or Old School Essentials. So as a setting, right from the start, it is full of flannel (shirts), axes, bearded men, axes, maple syrup, axes, and weirdness, which sort of has a Twins Peaks feel to it.

Lumberlands is offered as a place to visit, rather than as a place to be from. Numerous reasons are given why, such as questing for the legendary Squirrel City, engaging in logging company intrigues, or even attempting to hire a family of Giant Beavers to gnaw you that perfect home. Lumberjack and Lumberjill culture is highlighted, how they are plain-dealing, strong, self-reliant, egalitarian (mostly), and so on, before suggesting what Lumber-versions of the four core character Classes might look like. So Lumber-Fighters prefer axes, wear flannel and dungarees, possess stunning beards, big stompin’ boots, and enjoy public displays of prowess, whilst the Lumber-Thief sports a smaller, often oiled beard, wears flannel ironically (?), is agile as a weasel, has canvas boots with good luck symbols, lumbergang tattoos, and pirate-style earrings. Not really enough to equate to an actual Class in terms of Dungeons & Dragons, more a set of pointers in the right direction, whether the Game Master simply wants to use the use the classic Dungeons & Dragons Classes as written with Lumberlands flannel, or actually create Lumberlands versions of those Classes. Lumberjacks and Lumberjills can worship any gods, but have their own too, like Timmerton, the demigod of the Lumberlands, a bare-chested mountain of a man with maple syrup dripping from his mighty beard, and the Cult of the Beaver, whose members are very fond of hard work and clean teeth.

Lumberjack and Lumberjill equipment includes the Lucky Flannel, which when combined with dungarees, counts as leather armour, and axes of all sorts—and custom-fitted axes for all sorts of situations. The list of possible customisations is only the first of several tables in Lumberlands – Wampus Country Travel Guide I. The next gives options adding a personality to your Gunkey, whilst there are several subtitles to the supplement’s quite detailed encounter table. Once out of Squeamish, having detailed the Red Bear Lumber Company and several of the town’s peoples and places, the supplement runs off into the woods, with all of its gear strapped atop a Gunkey of course, and begins to expose some of the secrets of Lumberland. This includes just who and what the Sasquatches are and they really are not what you think; a discussion of Squirrel politics, which might or might not be a parody of US state politics, less members of the rodent family of course; and somewhere—since there are no maps of the Lumberlands, ‘Portal-Land’, a dimensionally unstable triangle where easy access to other worlds can be gained (and vice versa), and time and gravity can shift, and is inhabited by the False Ones, strange humanoids with perfectly smiling porcelain masks, hypnotically pleasant lines in banter, horribly matching sweaters, and a willingness to invite adventurers to dinner…

Rounding out Lumberlands – Wampus Country Travel Guide I is a lengthy set of encounter tables, which are broken down by type, so Deadly Plant, Things of Nightmare, and Natural Wonders, and more. Each of the categories includes six detailed entries. Penultimately, there is a list of Lumberland familiars, including an ‘Enchanted Salmon of Wisdom’, which looks good on a wooden plaque and dispenses wisdom in song, and an ‘Animated Tattered Flannel, which could have been a shirt or a baby’s blanket, but which will happily wrap around the owner’s shoulder, but leaps to cover his nose and eyes in the event of a gas or powder attack! Lastly, there is final list, this one of potential Henchbeings, including one eyebrow-raising Marmot!

Physically, Lumberlands – Wampus Country Travel Guide I is neatly presented, although the text is a little fuzzy in places. The artwork is of course cartoonish, which suits the supplement perfectly.

Lumberlands – Wampus Country Travel Guide I is funny and engaging and inventive, but for all that, its tongue-in-cheek tone and subject matter is unlikely to be for everyone or every campaign. Both tone and subject matter mean that Lumberlands – Wampus Country Travel Guide I needs a higher degree of buy-in from the players as much as the Referee for everyone to enjoy it. The other issue is where to use it, as there are likely to be few campaigns or settings in which are going to be natural fits for its content. It means that the Referee should really consider if this supplement is going to be suitable for her campaign even before thinking about the work necessary to adapt it to the rules being used. That aside, Lumberlands – Wampus Country Travel Guide I is a delightfully silly satire upon the Pacific Northwest (or Vermont or Canada), its peoples and its politics, and its wildlife, and let us hope that there will be a Wampus Country Travel Guide II.

Monday, 7 June 2021

Miskatonic Monday #64: One for One – Old Man Tompkins

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—

Name: One for One – Old Man Tompkins
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Sean Liddle

Setting: 1950s Massachusetts

Product: Introductory Scenario
What You Get: Six page, 387.14 KB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Sometimes the Old Man who lives at the end of the lane really is the monster...
Plot Hook:  No town can be this perfect—and it takes teenagers to see it.
Plot Support: Map, plot, and staging advice.
Production Values: Rough.

Pros
# Decent introductory scenario
# Solid, single-session horror scenario
# Potential convention scenario
# Keeper can design her own NPCs
# Different historical setting
# Mythos-lite
# Simple, direct plot
# Inexpensive

Cons

# Needs an edit
# Keeper needs to create her own NPCs
# Does not name the books
# Mythos-lite
# Inconsistent Sanity losses

Conclusion
# Needs an edit
# Simple, single-session horror scenario
# Requires some preparation

Sunday, 6 June 2021

Worriment on the War Road

Jackals: The Fall of the Children of Bronze is something a little bit different. It a supplement—the first supplement—for a roleplaying game from Osprey Games. Over the past couple of years or so, the publisher has diversified into the roleplaying hobby to publish a number of well-presented titles, including Paleomythic: A Stone and Sorcery Roleplaying Game, Ruthless Blood, Ruthless Blades – Wuxia Roleplaying, and Those Dark Places: Industrial Science Fiction Roleplaying, as well as Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying, but none them, however, have received supplements. That is, until now. Jackals: The Fall of the Children of Bronze is not just a supplement for Jackals, but a whole campaign. In Jackals, the Player Characters take the eponymous roles of mercenaries, accepted ‘outcasts’ who undertake tasks and missions up and down the War Road which connects the various towns, cities, and city-states of the Zaharets, the Land of Risings where four kingdoms and cultures meet. The Zaharets is only recently free of the yoke of the monstrous bestial folk known as the Takan and their great kingdom of Barak Barad, and there remain ruins to be explored and cleansed of Takan influence, secrets of the past to be uncovered, merchants to be protected, alliances to be forged, and more. Yet no good community would have truck with the Jackals. For who knows what evil, what chaos they might bring back with them? Nevertheless, Jackals face the dangers that the community cannot, Jackals keep the community safe when it cannot, and from amongst the Jackals come some of the mightiest heroes of the Zaharets, and perhaps in time, the community’s greatest leaders when the Jackals decide it is time to retire and let other Jackals face the dangers beyond the walls of the towns and cities of the Land of Risings.

Jackals: The Fall of the Children of Bronze provides a grand campaign for Jackals, encompassing some fourteen adventures across nine years. These fourteen adventures will take the Jackals up and down the War Road from Ameena Noani in the north to Sentem in the south, and back again, time and time again. They will search for new sources of tin—a vital resource in the manufacture of bronze, hunt for the rare ingredients needed in a ritual to save a potential patron, face the corruption creeping into the towns and the hearts of men and women across the Zaharets, discover histories and pacts made long before man’s subjugation at the claws of the Takan, reclaim lands long lost, strike at the heart of the Takan presence in the Zaharets, and even as they stand between Law and Chaos, become involved in the growing conflict along the War Road. It grows to become an epic campaign that not every Jackal will see to the end. Some will die. Others will find it too much and retire.

As is made clear, Jackals: The Fall of the Children of Bronze is not a traditional campaign in the sense that it is formed of a singular interconnected story a la an adventure path. Rather, it is formed of multiple stories that lead up to a more singular series of events. There is also much more going on around the Jackals, so the nature of the campaign is episodic, almost part of the hustle and bustle of their lives from one season to the next. For the first five years, the campaign consists of two adventures per year, essentially one in the dry season and one in the rainy season. There is scope here for the Jackals to undertake a couple of adventures at each end of the War Road at a time, one at the end of each season, and one at the beginning of the next, but more likely, the players and their Jackals could simply focus on missions at either end of the War Road and ignore the other. That though, would not be without its consequences, if the Jackals undertake more than one mission, they will be forced to choose sides as the campaign comes to a close. Either way, this leaves plenty of room for the Loremaster to add encounters and adventures of her own.

By the time that Jackals: The Fall of the Children of Bronze focuses on just the one scenario per year, the Jackals will have become ‘Regarded’ up and down the War Road for their deeds, some of their number may have retired or died—their replacement Jackals will gain several benefits, which vary depending upon how long it is into the campaign, upon joining such a well-known Pack, and they will have participated in a great raid upon the Takan which if successful, will undermine their activities in the Zaharets. This will see the Jackals in turn capturing and clearing out a strategically located fortress, undertaking a ritual which may lead to the mighty of a large number of Takan, and finally, participating in the battle which will bring about the end of the Wars of Unification.

Every chapter of the campaign is organised in the same fashion, with an introduction and explanation of that year’s theme—this varies from year to year, a list of the important NPCs, a list of events in both the North and the South, and retirement benefits if a Jackal decides to retire. Most adventures run to three acts, and offer a good mix of roleplaying, investigation, combat, and exploration, with the start of individual locations listing the sights, smells, and sounds that the Jackals will encounter there, all nicely placed for the Loremaster’s reference. Each chapter ends with a list of hooks and other events going on up and down the War Road. For the most part, the individual scenarios should provide between two and three sessions’ worth of solid play, with the final four adventures lasting longer each.

Jackals: The Fall of the Children of Bronze will need some effort upon the part of the Loremaster to prepare. She should least have a ready supply of monsters and NPCs—especially Takan who often menace the Jackals and she should apprise herself of the War Road’s geography, both sections on the Northern and Southern Reaches to be found in Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying. Essentially this is to familiarise herself with the various NPCs and places that the Jackals will be visiting. Although the campaign is a sequel to the three adventures in Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying, the Loremaster needs to supply her players and their Jackals with a Hook to pull them into the campaign. There is a table of these provided, such as ‘Terrors from the Night’ in which each night an Ukuku, one of the grey, horned owls who serve the lord of the dead, visits the Jackal in his dreams and attempts to deliver a message from beyond. Which is a harrowing experience, and throughout the campaign, events and encounters are tied into these hooks. In addition, the Loremaster may need to design other encounters and scenarios depending upon the outcome of the Jackals’ actions. There is a little advice to that end in the aftermath of every adventure.

Physically, Jackals: The Fall of the Children of Bronze is well presented, in the now standard, full colour format for all of the roleplaying titles from Osprey Games. The artwork is scarce, but excellent where it does occur and the maps in general are decent, all arguably many of the numbers implicating position on the map could have been moved off the actual maps in some cases as they obscure details. If the book has an issue, it is that its font size is not all that large and there is quite a lot of cramped text, meaning that it may not be easy to read for some of its target audience.

Unfortunately, the episodic nature of the campaign in Jackals: The Fall of the Children of Bronze does not make it easy to run as a campaign and thus build the links between the epsiodes. It does not really focus on anything until the last four adventures in the campaign, and whilst the hooks do serve to draw the Jackals further into the campaign, they feel underused. None of this is really helped by the lack of a strong overview of the campaign and its events, which leaves the Loremaster to often make the connections herself for her own benefit, let alone the players and their Jackals in play. Overall, Jackals: The Fall of the Children of Bronze is a solid campaign for Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying—and exactly the support it needed. However the Loremaster will need to work hard to lift it above being simply solid and make it good.

Saturday, 5 June 2021

Magazine Madness 3: Wyrd Science – Session Zero

The gaming magazine is dead. After all, when was the last time that you were able to purchase a gaming magazine at your nearest newsagent? Games Workshop’s White Dwarf is of course the exception, but it has been over a decade since Dragon appeared in print. However, in more recent times, the hobby has found other means to bring the magazine format to the market. Digitally, of course, but publishers have also created their own in-house titles and sold them direct or through distribution. Another vehicle has been Kickststarter.com, which has allowed amateurs to write, create, fund, and publish titles of their own, much like the fanzines of Kickstarter’s ZineQuest. The resulting titles are not fanzines though, being longer, tackling broader subject matters, and more professional in terms of their layout and design.


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Most magazines for the roleplaying hobby give the gamer support for the game of his choice, or at the very least, support for the hobby’s more popular roleplaying games. Whether that is new monsters, spells, treasures, reviews of newly released titles, scenarios, discussions of how to play, painting guides, and the like… That is how it has been all the way back to the earliest days of The Dragon and White Dwarf magazines. Wyrd Science is different—or at least, the very first issue is very different. Its bright and breezy, pastel-shaded pages features not a single monster, spell, treasure, review, scenario, or the like. Instead, its ninety odd pages contain some 
eighteen entries—divided between ‘Common Items’ and ‘Rare Items’—consisting of columns and retrospectives, along with a slew of interviews with just a handful of some of the hobby’s creators and commentators.

Wyrd Science Session Zero—actually the first issue, but misnomered to confuse everyone—was published by Best in Show in January, 2021 , following a successful Kickstarter campaign. The strand that runs throughout the issue is that the year 2020 has been terrible (which is certainly true), but what is interesting about 2020 is how we as gamers have adapted to the adversity and changed to deal with the challenge of not being able to game together. In the opening diary entry of ‘Quickstart – Manga’s Musings’, Mira notes our shift to online gaming, how there continued to be new content to support our hobby, and that despite the difficult conditions, publishers such as Wizards of the Coast and Games Workshop were even more successful. This is something that John Power, the editor of Wyrd Science, will return to later in the issue with ‘2020 Vision’ with his own appraisal of the year just gone, along with his note about the growing diversity amongst the creators and players of games of all types. 
Anna Maxwell looks at another trend from the last year ‘Quickstart – Alone In The Dark’, which is that of solo play. There has always been a solo aspect to the hobby with long running series of Fighting Fantasy books and Tunnels & Trolls solo adventures, but a newer trend has seen the rise of roleplaying games specifically written to be played solo, often in the journal format. The title which has got all of the attention is Tim Hutchings’ Thousand Year Old Vampire, an exploration of alienation and loss as with a few rolls of the dice the player determines events and charts his vampire’s responses to them from his transformation into the undead until his final death. It is the nearest that Wyrd Science Session Zero gets to a review, but it is clear that no what your experience of the last year was, Thousand Year Old Vampire is possibly one of the most thematically appropriate roleplaying games to be published in 2020.

Fans of the Old School—Renaissance or otherwise, will doubtless enjoy ‘Quickstart – Publish And  Be Damned’ and ‘Quickstart – Cast Pod!’. The former is an interview with Andre Novoa of Games Omnivorous, which released a surprising number of titles in 2020. As well as discussing some of those titles, including the well-received Mausritter and the Manifestus zines—Cabin Risotto Fever, The Feast on Titanhead, and The Seed, the interview discusses the production values which the publisher has become known for. What notable here is that the publisher does not use traditional roleplaying designers as part of its production, in fact, designers who do not roleplay at all. It is an enjoyable interview as is the latter. This is with Dirk the Dice of the Grognardfiles RPG Podcast. The interview covers the origins and history of the podcast, and for listeners of the podcast, there is much here that will be familiar, as much of this story has been told via episodes of the podcast. However, for anyone who has never listened, this is a good introduction. Only fifty episodes to catch up on, but enjoyable they are too. The Grognardfiles RPG Podcast is not the only British podcast given space in Wyrd Science Issue Zero. In ‘Zoom Of Horrors – The Smart Party On Gaming Online In 2020’, the hosts of What Would the Smart Party Do? explain how they adapted to playing online in 2020—quite easily it would seem—and how it came to dominate much of their social life and how they coped with so many roleplaying games competing for their attention.

“THE LIFEBLOOD OF OUR COMMUNITY, good gaming clubs are a home away from home.” is the opening line of ‘Quickstart – Roll Deep’, an interview with Sasha Bilton of H.A.T.E. (Hackney Area Tabletop Enthusiasts) about his ‘local’ gaming club. The role of clubs cannot be underestimated, but it is debatable as to whether their role is quite as important as the title of the article suggests, especially after the last year of almost everyone having moved online to play. In effect, the article straddles 2020 though and is far from relevant in a year when we were all playing online, and perhaps the issue should have focused more on that rather than on something which nobody knows if and when it will be possible again. Nevertheless, it throws a spotlight on what sounds to have been—and should be again, a well-run and vibrant gaming club.

Wyrd Science does not restrict its content to just roleplaying. In ‘Table For One – Matt Thrower Embraces Solo Gaming’ continues the issue’s theme about solo gaming, not roleplaying though, but board games. Of course, it mentions Pandemic, but it looks at other titles too and points out that solo options are becoming a regular design feature in the creation of boardgames. ‘Meeple Hold On – Dan Jolin Finds Solace In Board Games’ explores a similar vein, but extends the play of boardgames online as with the play of roleplaying games moving online. However, whilst the author can, “…[F]irmly believe that you can never be bored as long as you have board games in your house.”, he cannot escape regurgitating a cliché that was tired ten years ago and is dead, dead in 2020, let alone 2021. At what point will writers about boardgames stop trotting out something along the lines of, as the author does here, “Thanks to a recent resurgence of the board game hobby and industry, those shelves need no longer limit you to, say, the roll-and-move slog of Monopoly, or the dragged-out, dice-dependent conquesting of Risk.”? It shows a complete lack of awareness of both the hobby and the market, and to be clear, board games have been growing in popularity for the last two decades at least, and there is no such resurgence and if so, it is certainly not recent. What next, comics are no longer just for kids?

The status of wargaming and miniatures is featured in ‘A Miniature Renaissance – Chris Mcdowall Scouts Out The Future Of Wargames’, written by the designer of Into the Odd and Electric Bastionland, suggesting that even as the success of Games Workshop grows, there is a movement in the hobby towards simplicity combined with fewer restrictions in terms of miniatures  brought to the table. ‘Model Behaviour – Luke Shaw On Building Miniature Communities’ looks at the other side of the wargaming and miniatures hobby, and that is painting. This is no tutorial though, but instead discusses where to go online to discover more about painting your miniatures and the community which has built up around the hobby online. It nicely casts that hobby in a new light.

As well as reflecting the shift in the hobby from face-to-face to online gaming, Wyrd Science also reflects the shift in diversity with series of articles on Queer and disabled gaming, women in gaming, and non-Western gaming. Together, ‘Beyond Violence – Jay Dragon On The Queer Future Of TTRPG Design’, ‘Sisters Of Battle – Danie Ware On The Changing Face Of Fantasy’—with an emphasis on fiction slightly more than gaming, and ‘Making Waves – Pamela Punzalan On The Rise Of RPGSEA’ respectively give room for voices that might not otherwise be heard in a traditional gaming magazine. The latter article is particularly interesting in that it is rare to hear about gaming and gaming culture outside of the English-dominated market. All three are to be welcomed though, and hopefully future issues of the magazine will provide a platform for other voices and opinions too, as these are all good articles.

A similar shift in diversity in terms of subject matter in the hobby is echoed in two other interviews in the issue. One is ‘Phantoms Of Oppression’ is with Banana Chan, the co-designer and co-publisher of Wet Ink Games’ Jiangshi – Blood In The Banquet Hall. This roleplaying game combines Chinese food with unknown horrors against the backdrop of racism and oppression, the Player Characters running their family Chinese restaurant by day and stopping actual monsters terrorising their neighbourhood by night. The other is ‘Home On The Strange’, an interview with Chris Spivey of Darker Hue Studios about his award-winning Harlem Unbound—one of the best supplements of 2017—and   his forthcoming Haunted West, which presents a Weird West roleplaying game against the backdrop of continued post-American Civil War Reconstruction, rather than discontinued Reconstruction. Again, these are lengthy pieces which showcase how the hobby can explore some of history’s difficult issues. 

The continuing growth in the popularity of more traditional and Scandinavian roleplaying games is placed under the spotlight with another pair of interviews. Simon Stålenhag’s artwork has not only inspired two roleplaying games—Tales from the Loop and Things from the Flood, but also captured our imaginations with his artbooks which juxtapose outré technology—rusting robots and hovering container ships—with the ordinary everyday life to be found in the Swedish suburbs. The artwork is fascinating, the viewer able to see the odd nature of each scene, know that the people within it accept this as the norm. He is interviewed in ‘Mazes & Monsters’, exploring his inspirations and how his cinematic visions have been adapted in both the televisual and roleplaying mediums. It only hints at what is to come in the next book, a more apocalyptic vision than has been seen to date, but the fans of his artwork will know that it will be worth the wait. Almost at the opposite to Simon Stålenhag’s clean visions is the Doom-laden Artpunk of the award-winning MÖRK BORG, the pre-apocalypse Old School Renaissance roleplaying game. ‘The Apocalypse Meant Something’ is with its graphic designer, Johan Nohr, which examines how the look and feel of the roleplaying game does everything good graphic design should not and how that contributed to the game. Not only is this different, but it means that the interview is taking a different approach too, but still highlighting how the visual and the physical design has an impact on the design of the game itself.

The featured and longest interview in Wyrd Science Session Zero is ‘The Man With The 20-Sided Brain’. This is with the author of the comics The Wicked + the Divine and the Dungeons & Dragons-cartoon inspired DIE, roleplayer, ex-games journalist, and Warhammer 40,000 comics author, Kieron Gillen. It is an enjoyable and informative read and makes you wonder what the author might do with a roleplaying game, but at least should make the reader want to go out find a copy of DIE (of which there is a roleplaying game), if not The Wicked + the Divine.

The contrasting strands of old and new—or at least the relatively old and relatively new—that run through Wyrd Science Issue Zero are seen in two board games. The old is the Escape The Dark... series of games, such as Escape the Dark Castle and Escape the Dark Sector, the solo-style boardgames which can be played by one or more players. These are heavily inspired by classic fantasy and Science Fiction, as well as the Fighting Fantasy series of solo adventure books and consequently the interview with creator Thomas Pike in ‘The Dark Is Rising’ emphasises the stories created in playing either. The new is Root, one of the biggest boardgames of the last few years, which layers its political elements under woodland and anthropomorphic animals, explored in ‘If You Go Down To The Woods Today’ and examines the different ways which faction is played and how that affects the game. Again, these are excellent articles which highlight just two elements of the board game hobby.

Physically, Wyrd Science Session Zero is impressively bright and breezy. The layout is clean and tidy, with decent use of photographs against pieces of art as more like spot fillers. The issue does need another edit in places though.

Anyone coming to Wyrd Science Session Zero expecting content for his favourite game will definitely be disappointed. The inaugural issue of the magazine is very much about the hobby—interviews and retrospectives, and similar—rather than for the hobby (or a particular game). In particular, the issue highlights just how much our hobbies—roleplaying, boardgaming, and miniatures gaming, have been forced to change and adapt in the last year, and us along with them. In doing so, Wyrd Science Session Zero captures much of what our gaming has been like in 2020 with a series of entertaining and informative interviews. Just like all three of these hobbies covered in the issue, it will be just as interesting to see where Wyrd Science Session Two goes...

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The next issue of Wyrd Science—actually marked ‘Issue Two’—is currently being funded on Kickstarter.

Friday, 4 June 2021

Scenario Sounds

In November, 2020, S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, the classic fantasy meets Science Fiction scenario by E. Gary Gygax for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition received of all things, its own rock album. When it comes to roleplaying, music has long been seen as something to add to the experience, to build the atmosphere, but rarely, the other way, the single by Sabbat, Blood For The Blood God, inspired by Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which appeared in White Dwarf #95, the Traveller concept album by the band, The Lord Weird Slough Feg, and the work of the band, Gygax, being clearly inspired by Dungeons & Dragons, all being the odd exceptions. The Barrier Peaks Songbook, the resulting ten-track concept album from Loot the Body described itself as a psychedelic rock album, though it felt more Prog Rock than psychedelic rock, but to be fair, just as The Barrier Peaks Songbook is an exception in being a rock album inspired by roleplaying, Reviews from R’lyeh reviewing a rock album—or indeed, any music, is also an exception. Nevertheless, The Barrier Peaks Songbook turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable album, adding voice and sound to the weirdness and the contrast of genres at the heart of S3 Expedition to the Barrier Peaks.

Fans of Dungeons & Dragons and music inspired by that roleplaying game will therefore be pleased to discover that Loot the Body has returned to that well for another album. Titled, Hex Volume 1, this is not another concept album like The Barrier Peaks Songbook, but rather a collection of songs inspired by classic scenarios for both Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. There are six tracks in the album and they draw from from a diverse range of scenarios for Player Characters of all Levels. The collection opens with a crash of heavy guitar riffs that the chart the rise and fall of the great evil wizard, Keraptis, whose heinous acts drove the warlords of the north to rise up against him. Thirteen hundred years ago he descended into the volcanic mountain with a company of gnomes and disappeared, the mountain of course, being White Plume Mountain from the special scenario, S2 White Plume Mountain. The track, also called ‘White Plume Mountain’ really works as an introduction to the scenario, telling of Keraptis’ dark deeds and foreshadowing just some of the dangers to be encountered should the Player Characters venture into his lair. Perhaps a bit too heavy to be played in-game (but then a light, lute-based version would probably not be as entertaining), but as a precursor to the scenario of the same name, ‘White Plume Mountain’ is a solid introduction and a good start to the album.

It is followed by ‘Dwellers of the Forbidden City’, a more reflective piece of mystery and horror inspired by the pulpy I1 Dwellers of the Forbidden City. It warns of the fearsome things to be found lurking within the depths of the jungle-bound city, the sacrificial pool, the alien voice of the Aboleth—in its first appearance for Dungeons & Dragons—inside the adventurers’ heads, the glint of evil in the snakemen’s eyes, and worst of all, “There’s something alive, Something alive in the ruins, There’s something alive, Something alive and it calls”. The tone is very much one of foreboding and brings to life the horror which pervades the scenario itself, but which is often slightly lost in the pulp overtones. The mystery and horror continues, but is joined by decadence and weirdness with ‘Castle Amber’. Based on the X2 Castle Amber, the scenario for Basic Dungeons & Dragons, this captures the listener in the slumber that strands them inside Chateau d’Amberville, home to the louche, the deadly, and merely insane members of the strange Amber family. There is some delightful wordplay here, such as “When you’re inside Castle Amber mingle with nobility, They like their magic like their coffee, 
Everything’s a little deadly everywhere there’s lunacy, But they try to keep it in the family” which highlights the insular weirdness of the castle’s inhabitants. From its shimmering start, ‘Castle Amber’ never more than hints at some of the secrets to be found inside Chateau d’Amberville, and whilst the lyrics prove to more than worthy of X2 Castle Amber, the music feels just little too upbeat, a little too much for the delicacy of its inspiration.

On the other hand, no delicacy is required for ‘Tomb of Horrors’, a track inspired by the scenario which set the standard for every ‘Deathtrap’ Dungeon which it inspired—S1 Tomb of Horrors. From the punchy opening “Step into the tunnel past the jackal headed man, Make it to the archway if you can, Into the mouth of the devil you lost another friend, Forsaken in a prison without end”, it is a doom-laden warning to any would be tomb raiders and grave robbers wanting to test their skills and satisfy their avarice against the last resting place of the demi-lich, Acererak. Where ‘Castle Amber’ felt it could have been lighter, ‘Tomb of Horrors’ could have perhaps been heavier, but again the lyrics certainly make up for that. Similarly, ‘Ravenloft’ carries some heft to it, a mournful goth-inspired lament based on what is often regarded as one of the best scenarios to be published for Dungeons & Dragons, which is of course, I6 Ravenloft. And yet, as Count Strahd von Zarovich stands on the balcony of his castle, surveying his domain before him, ruing his misfortunes and regretting the decisions he made in the pursuit of love, the lament is restrained from reaching its full impact. The vocals are simply too positive, too smooth to really reflect the regrets in the lyrics. Had ‘Ravenloft’ been sung by a voice like Trent Reznor* or Johnny Cash, its impact would have been stronger.

* Please note that this reference required the input of this household’s resident Goth.

Hex Volume 1 ends on a more upbeat note with ‘Keep on the Borderlands’, an ode to those guards who stand against villainy out on the frontier and the last refuge for travellers who want to journey beyond the civilised lands. Inspired by the classic B2 Keep on the Borderlands, probably the one module played more than any other, whether that is for Dungeons & Dragons or the Basic Dungeons & Dragons it was written for. There is a strong twang of Americana to this last track, drawing parallels between its fantasy frontier and that of the Old West and edging slightly towards being Country & Western.

Hex Volume 1 does not quite succeed in capturing the feel of every old-school hex map or scenario that it draws its inspiration from, and so is not quite as successful as the earlier The Barrier Peaks Songbook. Nevertheless, the album is still entertaining and will enjoyed by anyone who has played through any of the six scenarios it explores in song. In fact, some of the scenarios which inspire Hex Volume 1 could easily inspire Loot the Body to base songbooks of their own upon them—Reviews from R’lyeh awaits a song titled ‘Bree-Yark!’ for The Keep on the Borderlands Songbook. In the meantime, Dungeons & Dragons devotees and supporters of the Old School Renaissance will find much to enjoy in the lyrics and  references of Hex Volume 1.