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

Friday 30 October 2009

Whither Arkham?

Let me begin by offering an apology.

I am sorry that I have to start a review on a bad note, especially when I happen to like the book itself, the game that it is for, and the publisher.  Now normally while I would tell you the good things first, and discuss any problems with a book towards the end of the review, but in this instance, it would be unfair if I were to be anything other than up front about this.

The book in question is Arkham Detective Tales, a new anthology of scenarios for Pelgrane Press’ clue orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Trail of Cthulhu.  The very first thing that you need to know about Arkham Detective Tales is that not one of its four scenarios is set in Arkham, the town at the heart of Lovecraft’s New England.  Pelgrane Press is aware of the error, and now so are you.  The point is that you do need to know this, and once you do, you need to get past that fact, because you actually cannot set these adventures in Arkham – despite the title, as all four are city based adventures.

The second thing you need to know is that there is a big section missing from one of the scenarios, roughly two pages long. The scenario in question is “The Kidnapping,” and the missing section details how the investigators go about determining both the identity and location of the kidnappers.  There are also other sections missing, though these are smaller and not quite as important.  Pelegrane Press is also aware of these issues and has made the missing text available on its fora and will correct the PDF accordingly.  Not only that, but the publisher has promised this PDF will be made available to all purchaser along with a free new additional scenario, written by the author of Arkham Detective Tales – and this scenario will be set in Arkham. 

This is more than reasonable of the publisher, not to say generous.  Nevertheless, as both a gamer and a reviewer I cannot help but be disappointed by these errors.

So having noted those issues, what of Arkham Detective Tales itself?  The four scenarios it contains are written for its “Mythos Detectives” campaign frame, which casts the player characters as investigators as working either for a police department such as the NYPD or the FBI in the North Eastern USA, or as experts who have aided the police or the FBI in the past.  As serving members of the law enforcement community or as civilian consultants, the investigators have gained a reputation for successfully handling situations that have an occult element.  With such a reputation, the investigators will be called in again or assigned to help with the four strange cases contained within the pages of Arkham Detective Tales.

Trail of Cthulhu suggests two styles of play.  In the Pulp style of play, the player characters are tough and capable, capable of facing a Mythos threat and withstanding its Sanity blasting terror, as opposed to the Purist style of play in which the investigators are less capable of withstanding the horrors of the Mythos, and worse, rarely capable of fighting them off.  Arkham Detective Tales’ “Mythos Detectives” campaign frame opts for the Purist style leavened with Pulp elements that make its four scenarios more optimistic and lighter in tone at certain points.  Much of this optimistic and lighter in tone comes from the fact that the foes faced in the pages of Arkham Detective Tales are not the Great Old Ones or Elder Gods, but their foolish human servants...

The collection opens with the already mentioned and self-titled “The Kidnapping,” with the investigators called in to help with the kidnapping of an infant.  Young Adam Cornelisz has gone missing and his slightly odd parents seem almost displeased to involve the authorities, let alone the investigators.  Within days the family receives a ransom note, which they are very ready to pay.  This scenario actually has two spines – a spine being the structure onto which the clues, plot, and story are hung – one that explores Adam’s family and the other his kidnap.  In following the latter spine, the scenario does present the investigators with an opportunity for a shootout, while in following the former spine, they will end up facing a dilemma over Adam’s safety and eventual fate.  Despite this dilemma, this is the most straight forward and simplest of the four scenarios in the collection.

As its title suggests, “Return to Red Hook” is a sequel to one of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories, the first two such sequels in Arkham Detective Tales.  A strange dark haired young woman comes into the police station asking for help in finding her brother, Alaquin Hirt.  He has gone missing after talking about “moon-men” and monsters in Brooklyn, and when his sister mentions this, all that the desk sergeant just wants them to get rid of the distressed woman.  What if her brother really is missing though?   From their own investigations, the detectives learn that Hirt had been researching the Red Hook cult, broken up by the police in 1924 after several children went missing, and nobody, not the police nor the inhabitants of the dilapidated neighbourhood, want to talk about what went on in 1924 or what might be going on now...  Push too far and the cult will act against the investigators, all the while strange events occur around them.  “Return to Red Hook” is a more arcane affair than “The Kidnapping” which asks the Keeper to be more proactive in marshalling the servants of the Mythos against the investigators.

The third scenario, “The Book,” explores Lovecraft’s concept of “things man was not meant to know,” embodying it in one of notoriously eldritch tomes.  It begins with a gruesome murder, the victim a young student found with his throat cut and his eyes gouged out.  This is quickly followed by a second death, just streets away, in the exact same circumstances.  There appears to be nothing connecting the two murders except the means, which the police surmise can only be the work of a madman.  Both though, had an interest in books – though not the same interest – and in following this link the investigators will expose themselves to the insidious effects of their reading.

The last of the four scenarios in Arkham Detective Tales is “The Wreck,” which like “Return to Red Hook,” is a sequel to one of H.P. Lovecraft’s short stories.  Here the source is less obviously titled and so indicated, being “The Shadow Over Innsmouth.”  The scenario opens with the investigators summoned to New York harbour, where a tramp steamer, the Star of Mauritius, has been tied up after being found adrift off the coast, its crew missing with smears of blood where they once were.  The investigators are to go aboard and determine what happened, but what happened will actually be determined by the players who take the roles of the doomed crew in a bloody prequel that will add flavour to the initial investigations.  What these reveal is that the cargo is important to several interested parties, including the ship’s reclusive owner, an ex-federal agent who participated in the raid on Innsmouth in 1928, and something of a more batrachian nature...

Physically Arkham Detective Tales is neatly laid out in the Trail of Cthulhu style and if the illustrations of French artist Jérôme Huguenin are not always quite as creepy or atmospheric as in earlier titles in the line, they still very good.  Besides the errors highlighted at the top of the review, Arkham Detective Tales suffers from more minor editing issues that get worse as the book progresses.  The handouts though, all look good with a dark sombre feel to them.

Despite its problems, Arkham Detective Tales really does live up to its back cover blurb.  It does deliver “Cyclopean skyscrapers, bizarre cults, strange foreigners, and eerie alleyways...” and takes the investigators into neighbourhoods that the NYPD would otherwise not enter.  And despite those problems, the four scenarios in Arkham Detective Tales are solid affairs, straight forward and unfussy, with the best being the two sequels to the Lovecraft’s own stories.  All four would make excellent additions to any campaign set in America during the Desperate Decade of the 1930s because their encounters with the Mythos are all of a true human nature.

Wednesday 21 October 2009

"Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it's a damn big snake!"

Let me start with a bang.

Not the Big Bang, but a big bang nevertheless. And a question.

Imagine if you will that you are President Harry S. Truman and have just been informed that in a last ditch attempt to prevent the allies from winning the war, Hitler has initiated  Götterdämmerung and unleashed the Midguard Serpent? What would you do? This is the question posed -- and answered -- in The Day After Ragnarok
($19.95, Atomic Overmind Press), a post-WW2, post-apocalypse, post-Ragnarok campaign setting for the popular Shane Hensley’s Savage Worlds ($9.99, Pinnacle Entertainment Group) rules set (a version has just appeared for the HERO System, and it would not be a surprise if another appeared for Green Ronin Publishing’s Mutants & Masterminds too). Published by Atomic Overmind Press and written by Ken Hite, the man who kept sending us those Suppressed Transmissions and recently won an Origins award for his Tour de Lovecraft: The Tales, this literally drops an apocalypse on the world and drop kicks Conan into 1948. Well, not Conan himself, but a Howardian aesthetic at the very least. Unlike most Savage Worlds supplements, this is primarily a source book. It does not come with its own Plot Point campaign, the setting being too darned big for that, instead offering us several example outlines and an extensive GM’s toolkit for each of them.

Hite’s answer is that Truman would order a B-29 to fly the Trinity Device through the serpent’s eye and into the brain of Jörmungandr and detonate it. With the Midguard Serpent brought low by the fires of the atom, the once mythical creature’s shattered body crashed to the earth to be followed by the poisonous rain of its blood. Segments landed on and smashed Britain, divided Europe with the Serpent Curtain, and caused a super tsunami that raced across the Atlantic to ravage the USA as far West as the Rockies. Now in 1948, much of Europe and the Near East are held in Stalin’s red grip behind the Serpent Curtain; the British Empire is based in Australia and South Africa under King Henry IX with Rhodes University in South Africa having taken up the mantle of Oxford and Cambridge universities and India split between the Empire and the Congress Party; Japan retains her Empire after the Allies were forced to sue for peace; and California is the home of the USA under President Earl Warren. The rest of the once USA is bookended by the deserts of the High Plains and the Drowned Coast, home to the scavengers, squatters, and adventurers; with the city states of the Mayoralties between them. The latter ranging from despotic and desperate city states to a strangely fertile Soviet Iowa, with strange twisted monsters rampaging in between, usually of a serpentine nature. Meanwhile, Professor Bernard Childermass builds rockets for the Royal Rocketry Air Force at Woomera; Djehuti-Yamun leads the Children of Set, the most malignant of the newly arisen snake cults; and who knows what loyalties and pay drive Otto Skorzeny’s adventures?

As well as destroying much of the world and increasing both the number of, and the potency of the planet’s snakes, the Serpent Fall has introduced magic to the world, both Arcane and Miracles, along with the new science of Ophi-Tec. The latter comes born of the study of the massive remnants of the Midguard Serpent and in the few years since its fall, has encompassed biotechnology, energy, and even advanced aero technology.  So far the Ophi-Tec has produced the microwave blasting Marconi Gun, artificial Gill Arrays, Neural Stimulators, Ophiline (refined Serpent oil -- better than gas!), and even delta wing rocket planes, like the Avro Blackhawk.  Speleo-herpetologists continue to harvest Serpent parts -- such as the scientists of the Royal Society at the Hereford Cut (the location of the serpent’s belly) -- and develop new devices.

In game terms, Ophi-Tec replaces the Arcane Background (Weird Science) background with powers represented by individual pieces of Ophi-Tec.  Unfortunately a character needs to be connected in some way, for example to the Rhodes University or a government, to possess Ophi-Tec, either that or have acquired it on the black market.  Similarly, Psionics is also a possible option for a character, but only if he happens to highly connected to the Soviet Union.  Taking an Arcane Background though is an expensive option, taking the equivalent of two Edges to acquire.  Stalin though, regards magic as “reactionary superstition” even though he has his own frost giant or Nart allies, preferring to promote Soviet scientific ideals, perhaps embodied in his engineered man-apes, used to infiltrate British Africa.

The Day After Ragnarok’s mix of the post apocalypse and the post-World War II makes possible numerous other character options.  Want to be Sykes-Fairburn trained commando on the make, a mountie of the RCMP patrolling the Canadian Poisoned Lands, a bush pilot serving the Mayoralties, a Rhodes Scholar obsessed with the Serpentfall, or a Texas Ranger laying down the law along the Rio Grande?  These can be created with ease, and just reading the book itself suggests numerous other possibilities.  How about an Amish survivor turned gun fighting “Holy Roller” or a PBY-Catalina pilot running guns and word of democracy into the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere?

Most Savage Worlds settings come with a Plot Point campaign -- a campaign that allows the players plenty of freedom of movement and usually exposes their characters to the secrets of the setting.  The Day After Ragnarok does not come with a Plot Point campaign, primarily because the setting is just too big...  Hite instead offers four outlines that the GM can flesh out.  These cast the player characters as traditional freelancers, as agents for the Crown (or some other government or agency), as local protectors in Los Angeles, or as part of the effort to rebuild America after the tsunami.  Alongside these are details of the numerous monsters that now walk the night (like the Death-Worm, the Giant Gila Monster, and the Ghoul, and let us not forget the dangers of “Serpent Taint”), an adventure generator (with examples), and generators for both encounters and cities in the Poisoned Lands.  Best of all are the superb Top Five lists, of which Top Five Places To Stomp Nazis and Top Five Secret Bases are the obvious highlights.

What is obvious in reading The Day After Ragnarok is that Hite’s own underlying inclination is towards running this as a Conan 1948 game set in Robert E. Howard’s own country of Texas or at least in the Mayoralties.  The monsters of the Poisoned Lands and the generators for both encounters and cities in the Poisoned Lands are evidence of this, but the book comes with details enough for a GM to set his game elsewhere. Long time fans of Hite’s Suppressed Transmissions will recognise the same combination of alternate history, conspiracy, and arch weirdness in The Day After Ragnarok, and so should enjoy seeing Hite’s imagination given the space to create a fully fledged setting.

Think Conan meets Mad Max and “SMGs & Sorcery” and what you have in The Day After Ragnarok is a wildly imaginative, fantastic Pulp setting.

Only Ken Hite’s imagination though, could stretch as far as suggesting that Ronald Reagan could star in the 1946 movie, Conan of Cimmeria.