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

Friday 27 November 2009

Space is Big...

...and not just to avoid having to give you the rest of the quote from Douglas Adams’ Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, but also to get to point, so is Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game. Seriously, this is a big game. Weighing in at 632 pages long (and 34 chapters long), Starblazer Adventures from Cubicle Seven Entertainment, is one of the bigger RPGs available in a hobby that has seen the size of its books grow and grow. That said, the book is relatively light given its size. On the other hand, in an age when core books are expected to be in colour and possess an element of graphical sophistication, Starblazer Adventures has neither. Do not let either fact put you off though, because instead of the aforementioned graphical sophistication, what you get is very cleanly and tidily laid out, making the book all the more accessible. As to the lack of colour, well that is purely down to the source upon which the game is based, a black and white comic published in Britain the early 1980s. Starblazer presented “spacefiction adventure in pictures,” each issue containing a complete story, and although the comics did not share the same universe as a comic series today might, numerous characters appeared again and again to allow the development of a setting for those characters. Over the course of the 281 issues, stories appeared written by Grant Morrison and John Smith, and drawn by Mike McMahon, John Ridgeway, Colin MacNeil, and others, and you can hardly turn a page in Starblazer Adventures without seeing a sample of the artwork from the comic.

As its subtitle suggests, Starblazer Adventures is a game about the Space Opera subgenre of Science Fiction, so more technically more fiction than science with big spaceships, weird alien worlds, even weirder aliens with alien queens of probably an amorous disposition, and the occasional big space battle. Which not to say that some clever thinking and perhaps a little science is never going to get the hero of the adventure out of a scrape or two (indeed, one of the heroic archetypes in both game and comic is the Scientific Hero), but he really needs to have a good blaster strapped to his side and a stalwart alien companion by his side. In modern terms, the territory for Starblazer Adventures is Star Wars or Star Trek, but the rules sets (and I use the term “sets” because it is appropriate) in the game are comprehensive enough that not only could the Story Teller run a game in either setting, he could also do a Mechwarrior, a Firefly, a Judge Dredd, or a Battlestar Galactica game just was easily. What allows the Story Teller to do this is two factors. The first is the way in which the book is organised, with “Alien Races & Mutations” in one chapter, “Star Monsters & Machines,” and so on, enabling him to create these elements with easy reference. The second factor is that Starblazer Adventures uses the FATE 3 engine for its mechanics.

First seen in Evil Hat Production’s superb pulp action RPG, Spirit of the Century, the Fate system is a Fudge variant, one in which Fate Points play a major role. Just as in many other RPGs they can be spent to gain a bonus to a roll, but here they have a greater versatility. Like many “Indie” style games, a player can spend them to create and bring small elements into the game, what is known as “dramatic editing,” but under the Fate system, Fate Points can do a whole lot more. They can be spent to invoke a character Aspect and bring it into play, to tag another character or location related Aspect to bring it into play, to power a Stunt, or to make a Declaration, adding some small element to the story. The Fate system also ditches traditional attributes, instead defining characters by skills, Aspects, and Stunts. It plays fast and easy – the player rolls two six sided dice, each of a different colour, and deducts one from the other to a number from +5 down to -5 (unlike Spirit of the Century, in which 4dF or four Fudge dice are rolled and added together). This number is added to any bonuses derived from Skills, Aspects, or Stunts to try and beat a target number, or to roll higher than an opponent in a contested roll. In a contested roll, the amount by which one side beats the other determines the amount of damage inflicted.

Characters are defined by their Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. Skills are areas in which a character is trained in, his knowledge and expertise; his Stunts are related to his Skills and grant a character small bonuses or permissions within the game; while Aspects define the character in some way, such as “Muckraking” or “This is Bigger Than I Thought!” and are the more interactive elements within the game. Sample skills might be Weapons – Fair (+1) or Science – Great (+4), while possible typical stunts include abilities like Lip Reading and Impossible Detail (both tied to the Investigation skill) or possessions such as Custom Ride gives you a favoured vehicle that you have added a gadget to (tied to the Drive skill). Most Stunts do not require the expenditure of Fate Points, but those that do are slightly more powerful. A Fate Point can be spent to Invoke one of a character’s Aspects and so gain a bonus, but if Compelled by the Story Teller and brought into play, so developing complications and driving the story along, then the character earns a Fate Point. Lastly, Aspects belonging to another character, or to an object, place, or a scene can be Tagged by another character, again by paying out Fate Points. When choosing Aspects for a character, the designers’ advice is that they should never be boring and it should always be possible to view an Aspect in a positive and a negative light. Otherwise, a character cannot participate in the game’s Fate Point economy – bring negative Aspects into the game and letting it act as a story hook, gets a character more Fate Points to spend in his favour.

At its most basic, character creation is simply a matter of choosing Skills, Stunts, and Aspects. A quick method of creating characters is provided, but of course, the game wants a little more than that from its players, asking them to create a simple background and tying Aspects to their character’s origins, training, career, and so on. There is plenty of advice to aid the players, including a set of tables for randomly creating a character’s liftepath and the discussion of many and varied careers available. As with Spirit of the Century, it is also suggested that the players create their characters together and build a background in common.

The basics of the game – character creation, Skills, Stunts, Aspects, gadgets and gear, the use of Fate Points, and running the game, including combat, are all covered in the book’s first eleven chapters, roughly a third of its contents. It does dwell on Aspects and Fate Points and how they work, almost to the point of repetition, but both lie at the game’s core. One interesting element of combat is that when a character takes damage, or Stress (this can be either Physical or Mental depending upon the type of attack), he can absorb it by taking a Consequence. Depending upon the type of attack, a Consequence can be anything from a bloodied nose, a phobia, or losing the mortgage to your spaceship. It usually takes time for a Consequence to wear off, but in the meantime, it can be Tagged or Compelled exactly like an Aspect.

After this, Starblazer Adventures gets a little more interesting, particularly for the Story Teller. The interesting bit though, starts by setting out some basic assumptions, and these are all a matter of size, or as the book puts it, “Size Matters!” Covering everything from Tiny (smaller than human sized) to Galactic (bigger than a solar system), this scale is used throughout the rest of the book to handle everything, from robots and spaceships to star empires and mandroids (cyborgs). The following chapters deal in turn with “Alien Races and Mutations,” “Star Monsters & War Machines” “Star Empires & Battle Fleets,” and “Hoover Cars, Robots, & Mandroids” before hightailing it for the stars aboard the starship of your Choice. With these it is a matter of choosing the right Aspects and Stunts to create the right package, though the chapter on “Star Empires & Battle Fleets” adds another element in the form of organisations, not just how to create them, but also how to run them (not dissimilar to a standard character is the short answer) and how to get the characters involved with them. If a player wants to play an alien, mutant, robot, or mandroid character, he can either use these rules to create his own package or take one any of the examples given.

Starships receive almost as much attention as characters in Starblazer Adventures, with five chapters devoted to their design and creation; their Skills, Stunts, and Aspects; how to use them in the game; and lots of sample ships. Some of the more entertaining ship Aspects include “Who in God’s Name Painted It Pink?”, “Steers Like A Cow,” and “Scotian Engineer.” As with other elements of the game, ships are treated much like characters, with Skills and Stunts used to handle the usual factors that you would expect a starship to have – Manoeuvre Drive, Cargo Hold, Ships Systems (Communication Systems, Crew Quarters, Life Support, and so on), Ships Marines, and so forth. At first glance, this might look a little odd, but it means that when a ship takes damage, the effects are more easily modelled and they can suffer Consequences in exactly the same way as characters do.

At just two pages, the “Collaborative Campaign Creation” chapter is not the shortest in the book – that honour goes to the one devoted to “Basic Scaling” at a single page. It describes a process much like that of joint character creation discussed earlier in the book, but is more freeform and freethinking, the aim being to create a map of the area where the campaign will be set. In allowing the players to take part in the process, a Story Teller will find what they want to see in his game.

This is followed by a chapter devoted to “Plot Stress,” which works in a fashion similar to the Stress damage taken by both characters and starships. What Plot Stress does is track the effects of plot actions – taken by both the player characters and NPCs, upon a campaign and assign Consequences when certain levels of Stress are taken. In the sample given “Spacestation Theta 9,” several causes of Stress are listed and when enough Stress has been accrued, the station’s Energy Shields fail after a power failure as the result of a Minor Consequence, but will be boarded by pirates as the result of an Extreme Consequence. What the “Plot Stress” rules do is twofold. First it allows a Story Teller to keep track of the plot’s progress, and second, it pushes the plot forward and ups its tension. Complementing the “Plot Stress” chapter is the “Plot Generator & the Adventure Funnel,” the first a set of random idea tables for creating a scenario, while the latter has the Story Teller work backwards form the his plot’s desired goal, adding complications and twists. Which is really rather clever.

Much of the remainder of Starblazer Adventures is devoted to what makes a Starblazer game exactly that and providing a who’s who and a where’s where of the Starblazer comic. There are no stats given for any of the peoples and places, but then the book is already large enough. Advice is given on how they might be used though, and where appropriate, Aspects are given too. Stats are given for “Monsters, Minions, and Mad Scientists” providing the Story Teller with a ready supply of protagonists and threats.

The book is rounded out with six appendices. These in turn discuss and list the 281 issues of the Starblazer comic; give a summary of the rules; provide useful tables, sheets, and maps; ad lastly discuss the game in the Designers’ Notes. The book is rounded out with an excellent – and necessary – index. Over all, the writing is light and easy, often friendly and direct, making the game much easier to read than its size might otherwise suggest.

Fans of Spirit of the Century wanting a Science Fiction game will themselves able to pick up and play Starblazer Adventures with hardly a hiccup, but for anyone new to the Fate system, Starblazer Adventures is well written and well presented, making it relatively easy to learn. For the Story Teller, the various tool sets – “Alien Races and Mutations,” “Star Monsters & War Machines” “Star Empires & Battle Fleets,” and so on, enable to either create his own setting or adapt a favourite, whether taken from a book, a film, or a television series.

As good and as comprehensive Starblazer Adventures actually is, it is not perfect. Its sheer size is a daunting prospect to anyone coming to it afresh, and while it is gloriously comprehensive, it also means that there a lot for the Story Teller to take in. The look of the book is also something of an issue. With all of that black and white line art, and as good as that art is, it does make the book quite grey in places. Nevertheless, that art is good, and it goes some way to give Starblazer Adventures something of a unified look and feel, a necessity given that the game does not come with its own setting. Which in this modern day and age marks this game as being something of an oddity, because it is to be expected of a “genre” supplement, but not a core book like Starblazer Adventures. Instead, the game offers ideas and story hooks aplenty as well as discussing how to get a game started, providing a plot generator, and looking at typical Starblazer settings from “Space Cowboys & Smoking Lasers!” to “Who Elected the Guy with Two Heads?” via “Fortress Earth & The Thermal Wars” – essentially adventures during the trailblazing, the cosmopolitan, and the expansion eras.

Yet seeing the lack of a background as an issue is to miss the point. Starblazer Adventures is a toolkit, a big fat toolkit designed to help the Story Teller create a Space Opera game, one that leans towards a sense of grandeur when it comes to scale. Indeed, it could be argued that the game itself approaches its genre with that same self grandeur, and there has never been a book that approached Space Opera on such a scale as Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventures.

Friday 20 November 2009

Death to the French!

When an RPG takes its characters to war, it is invariably as a group or unit capable of undertaking small unit actions, not of participating in the main battle. It allows the players to maintain some degree of control and independence over their characters and not be constantly subject to orders issued by NPCs (or rather the GM). There are a few exceptions to this rule, but what it usually means is that the player characters are cast as commandos, as members of the Special Forces, or something similar. Pick your war and the same set-up applies, whether it be the Vietnam War, World War II, or the Napoleonic War, which is the subject of Omihedron Games’ “Indie” RPG, Duty and Honour: A Game of Adventure and Romance in Wellington’s Army.

Like its most obvious inspiration, the television series Sharpe – and the Bernard Cornwell books that is based upon, Duty and Honour casts the player characters as soldiers undertaking small and important missions on the edge of Duke of Wellington’s campaign against the French and the Spanish during the Peninsular War of 1810. While the game cannot escape the command structure and the need to give and take orders – it is a military game, after all – the small action nature of its set up allows for player led and directed missions, this being the game’s primary “Indie” element. Nevertheless, it does call for one player to be the officer and the others to be the NCOs and privates in an army that is not only at war, but which renowned for its harsh discipline regime.

Character generation in Duty and Honour is a mixture of the random and player choice, a slightly lengthy and complex process that produces a detailed soldier, complete with a little background, all ready to play. Each character is defined by what the game terms parameters, of which there are seven. These are Measures (Guts, Discipline, Influence, and Charm), more traditionally known as a character’s attributes; Reputations (loyalties and favours owed to Personalities and Institutions, such as the character’s regiment or his agent in London), Skills (which range from the expected Command and Soldiering to the more interesting Romance and Skulduggery), Experiences (events in the character’s life before and after joining the army that provide bonuses to his Measures, Reputations, Skills, and Wealth), Regiment (which all of the player characters have in common), Traits (the equivalent of advantages, including Educated, Is But A Scratch, Sir!, Chosen Man, Duellist, and Thief in the Night), and Wealth.

A player receives points to assign to the character’s Measures and Skills from his Social Class and his military training, plus ten free points to spend on Traits. The rest are determined by his Experiences, each one determined by drawing a card that will not only grant possible bonuses to the character’s Measures, Reputation, and Skills, but sometimes also an aspect of his background. For example, drawing a Heart Face card gives the character a favour, one owed by a senior figure associated with the Experience. In game terms, he gains +2 Personality Reputation: (senior figure), but the player also gets to describe how his character won the favour. In addition, cards are also drawn for the character’s Spoils, which add further benefits. There are two sets of tables, one for life before the army and one during. The GM sets the number of Experiences for his players, with seven or more indicating an iconic character, while four or more represents an experienced character.

The character below has a total of six Experiences, divided equally between civilian and military life. James is the son of a Scots officer, killed in battle, and a French mother. He is not wealthy and had little hope of gaining a commission, but gained the patronage of Colonel Willingham after rescuing her daughter who was astride a runaway horse. During his time in Spain he was part of a relief force sent to aid the siege of a French held town, arriving in time to not only strengthen the besieging forces, but also successfully lead the storming of the breach. Later he uncovered the activities of Spanish guerrillas loyal to Bonaparte and prevented the assassination of a major figure in the Spanish resistance.

Lieutenant James Ogilvie, 71st Highland Light Infantry
(Scottish, Catholic, Son of an Officer, Rifleman)
Guts 4 Discipline 4 Influence 4 Charm 4
Skills: Awareness 2, Command 3, Courtesy 2, Diplomacy 2, Engineering 0, First Aid 0, Gambling 1, Haggle 0, Intimidate 0, Intrigue 2, Maritime 0, Music 1, Quartermaster 1, Riding 3, Scavenge 2, Siege 1, Skulduggery 1, Soldiering 3, The Arts 0
Wealth: 2, fine charger (+1 Riding)
Reputations: Institutional Reputation (Officer’s Mess) 1, Institutional Reputation (71st Highland Light Infantry) 2, Institutional Reputation (Lisbon Black Market) 1, Institutional Reputation (Spanish Resistance) 3
Traits: Born for Battle, Crackshot, Fair of Face, Natural Rider, Second Language (French), Strong Swordarm, Student of War

The last thing that a player does – together with his fellow players – is create the details of their characters’ regiment. Actually the book suggests that this should be the fourth step, but it seems more logical to do it at the end of the process. The regiment in question can be one of the actual regiments that campaigned in the Peninsular War, or a fictitious one, but creating the members of its complement is a collaborative process between the players and the GM, as is creating the regiment’s honours and traditions.

The game itself is card driven, and both the GM and the players will need an ordinary deck of cards each. The game is played as a series of missions and skirmishes, each comprised of several challenges, a challenge being an opposed test between the GM and the characters involved. The intent and potential outcome for all those involved in a test is determined beforehand, and then each side draws cards equal to a pool created from the appropriate Measures, Skills, Reputations, Traits, Wealth, and equipment.

Success is measured by all those involved against the Card of Fate. This is a single card drawn from the GM’s deck, which can be matched in varying ways to achieve different successes. If any of the cards drawn are of the same Suit as the Card of Fate, this counts as a Success; if any are the same number, the card counts as a Critical Success; and if one card is an exact match, it counts as a Perfect Success. Cards that do not match the Card of Fate in terms of either suit or number do not count, but any Joker drawn can count as any type of success. A test’s victor is the player who has drawn, in descending order, the most number of Perfect Successes, the most number of Critical Successes, or the most number of Successes. Of course, because the GM has drawn the Card of Fate from his deck and because his deck has no Jokers, it is impossible for him to score any Perfect Successes, so stacking the game slightly in the players’ favour. After every test, the participant’s deck is reshuffled, except that of the GM, which again slightly favours the players.

While the test is the game’s core mechanic, its core structure is the Challenge, an event or problem that when resolved that will have a dramatic impact upon the game. Essentially, a Challenge packages and explains the reason for a test, but usually, Challenges are collected into Missions, which are primarily military in nature, for example, having to find evidence of a French spy or make contact with the Spanish Resistance. Most players will share this Military Mission, but alongside it, each will often have their own Personal Mission, such as seducing Lady Ellingham or selling some loot on the black market in Lisbon. The players need to complete most of the Challenges within a Mission to successfully complete it.

Interestingly, although the GM can assign a Mission, it is his players who decide how it is resolved, being expected to set each Challenge during a Military Planning session. Personal Missions are determined by the players, who are expected to take the opportunity to add them as and when. This aspect of the game pushes it towards being an “Indie” game, in which the narrative input from the players is as important as the input from the GM. Of course, a Mission Generator would make a solid addition to the game, perhaps in a future supplement?

Personal combat uses the same mechanics, but combat beyond the simple melee is slightly more complex. Rather than having the player characters involved in a mass battle on the scale of Waterloo, Duty and Honour keeps its scale relatively small and in keeping with both the action adventure nature of its genre and the game’s focus upon the characters. Thus skirmishes are limited to just fifty participants, with every player character expected to have a role and the officer character having the responsibility of deciding the aim of, and the tactical orders for, the skirmish. He also gets to assign the men under his command extra cards equal to his Discipline Measure. Of course, getting wounded in a Napoleonic Era battle is dangerous, as is receiving medical treatment, and the game reflects this.

For the player unaware of the Napoleonic Wars or who has neither read the Sharpe novels nor seen the television series, the author provides detail aplenty. Whether that includes small details such as the stereotype for your nationality or faith, the point of view from both a French and an English officer, and a good overview of the British Army and the British abroad during the period, it is enough to get a game going. Beyond that, Duty and Honour provides a short bibliography, with the author’s recommendations discussed. Also included are rules for running a campaign based around a cavalry unit, making possible a game based on the Matthew Hervey novels of Allan Mallinson. Similarly, the mechanics in Duty and Honour are flexible enough to use for games set in earlier period, such as in the campaign in India during the establishment of the Raj or even during the American Revolutionary Wars. All that the GM has to do is provide the history.

For the GM, there is plenty of advice on running a Duty and Honour game, and he is also supported with several examples of play, and numerous NPCs, some of which can be used as player characters or allies, while others will be definitely opposed to the player characters. The background also provides a good overview of the setting, but the GM will probably have to conduct a little research if he wants to add extra detail.

Physically, Duty and Honour is reasonably well laid out with plenty of space that makes it an easy read. It needs another edit true, but the book is an engaging read and the artwork is decent enough. The author also adds a degree of verisimilitude by including several period documents.

One obvious issue with Duty and Honour is that it does not allow for female characters, or rather female player characters, because it categorises women as helpless ladies, deceptive hussies, and spirited lovers, and then, only as NPCs. In the game’s defence, its genre is a mixture of the action adventure and the bodice ripper, and more significantly, there were not a lot of female soldiers serving in Wellington’s army. While the 1809 Miscellany does include rules for creating Spanish female characters, it would be useful to have some guidelines for creating female characters as they do appear in more significant roles in the genre, for example, in the Sharpe books. A more obvious detraction from the game is the lack of negative Traits, essentially something with which to balance the positive ones that every character receives. Again, the publisher plans to address part of this issue with a free supplement that can be downloaded from its website, which will cover Reputations in more detail, including negative ones.

Duty and Honour already has its own supplement in the form of the 1809 Miscellany, which bring together several different articles and three scenarios, and a sequel in the form of Beat to Quarters, which aims to do for Hornblower what Duty and Honour does for Richard Sharpe. Personally, I cannot wait to see Beat to Quarters, as I am very fond of the Age of Sail genre.

One of the genres that I have wanted a good RPG for is the era of the Napoleonic Wars, and while there have been one or two decent attempts, this is the first game to really do the setting justice. While there might not actually be an RPG based on Bernard Cornwell’s Sharpe novels, Duty and Honour: A Game of Adventure and Romance in Wellington’s Army is that RPG in spirit, as it lets the players do everything that Sharpe can, but still very much make their tales of daring do all their own.

Friday 13 November 2009

Earl Grey. Milk or Lemon?

If you happen to have played any Call of Cthulhu scenarios at conventions in the United Kingdom over the last decade, you might have been lucky enough to have played in one or more run by the Cult of Keepers. Although the six members of this informal group of Call of Cthulhu Keepers have gone their separate ways, they gained a reputation for running highly effective scenarios, and since the group has broken up, there has been a demand not only to bring them back, but for some of their many scenarios to see print. Already one such scenario Gatsby & The Great Race, has appeared as a Miskatonic University Library Association monograph, but it is not freely available (being only available direct from Chaosium), and to get the utmost out of it, you need lots of players, and ideally, a castle in Bavaria.

Fortunately for those demanding to see more scenarios from the collective minds of the Cult of Keepers, growing publisher Cubicle Seven Entertainment has come to your rescue with the anthology, Cthulhu Britannica. This collects five scenarios set across the ages, from the late Victorian period of Cthulhu by Gaslight to the near future prior to the End Times via Call of Cthulhu's classic period of the 1920s (well, 1930s, anyway), and the here and now. One important consideration for the potential Keeper is that the five scenarios are all based on convention scenarios and thus not all are suited for use with an existing campaign. In fact, the terminal nature of one or two of the scenarios makes them suited only for use as one-shots. This is no bad thing though, and even then one or two of the one-shots herein could be used as the starting point for a campaign.

Starting with its very cover – a tentacular and Punk inspired subversion of Jon Constable’s The Hay Wain, Cthulhu Britannica sticks two fingers up with a very British sensibility, and this wafts from every page. All of its scenarios are set in the United Kingdom, have been written by Britons, and the book itself has been released by a British publisher. Some of the scenarios could be set elsewhere, but some of the feel and the tone to those might well suffer in the process. Nevertheless, all five scenarios come with pre-generated investigators and are relatively easy to run.

The collection opens with “Bad Company” by Alan Bligh, a brutally bloody piece for Cthulhu by Gaslight. The investigators are well-to-do gentlemen of the right sort asked by a junior minister and peer to help locate his son, who has gone missing after having been seen in the wrong company. More importantly they need to do this while avoiding any whiff of a scandal. The “wrong company” in a question is a mysterious young woman of Eastern European extraction who has left a foul trail of defiled and ruined lovers and disciples in her wake. Getting to her leads the investigators through the capital’s seamier side and to their encountering numerous nasty ner-do-wells along the way before the final confrontation. This is a strong scenario, which suffers from being underwritten in places, in particular where the villainess of the piece is concerned. This is the easiest of the book’s scenarios to use in or to start an ongoing campaign, although it does no more than suggest that.

The second scenario is Mike Mason’s “Darkness, Descending,” which is set in 1934 (though it can be easily moved back into the 1920s) with the investigators joining an archaeological dig near the village of Middle Harling where evidence of a Roman settlement has been found. The author describes the setting as being quintessentially English, but it would be best to say that the adventure as a whole exemplifies the “things best left undisturbed” scenario to the point that it might be described as being clichéd. Similarly, the scenario’s NPCs can be best described as being archetypes, such that it would be incredibly easy for the Keeper to ham them up. For inspiration for that I would point the Keeper to episodes of The Archers on Radio 4... This would be an easy scenario to run, and rather complain at the clichés, the Keeper should revel in them.

“Wrong Turn” by John French is the collection’s first true one-shot. It is set in the here and now, and casts the investigators as part of a television crew filming test shots at an abandoned radio telescope. Abandoned after a terrible experiment, one that will come back to haunt the team as darkness falls and something comes back to haunt and harry them. This is a short mood piece, strong on atmosphere and isolation that the author supports with solid staging advice.

It is followed by Keary Birch’s “King,” a very near future set scenario that is the first of the two that open with the characters awakening to find themselves in a strange situation. Here they find themselves patients recovering after eye surgery, the author suggesting that the players wear blindfolds during the initial stages of the scenario to simulate this. Once the bandages (or blindfolds) are off, the characters find themselves trapped in the hospital. The initial exploration of the surgery wing is nicely creepy, but then the scenario wants to wind up the tension and threat level with encounter upon encounter with Mythos creatures. Getting past them will be difficult enough, the scenario ending either in a blood bath or a lot of tense creeping about.

The last scenario is the interestingly named “My Little Sister Wants You to Suffer,” written by Paul Fricker, also the author of Gatsby & The Great Race. This is the weirdest adventure in the book and one that will divide Keeper and player alike (though only the latter after he has played it through and been subject to the scenario’s “big reveal.”), that opens with the characters having no memory whatsoever. Their memories will return as the scenario progresses, providing more background about themselves and their fellows. The adventure takes place for most of its course, aboard a damaged spaceship which the characters will have to fix and finally escape from, all the while with limited equipment and with their memories revealing unsettling facts. Like “King” before it, this is a short scenario and also another one-shot.

Physically, Cthulhu Britannica is a book of varying quality. Certainly the artwork is of varying quality, some of it being a little heavy handed in style, and the book does need another editorial pass. That said, the pre-generated investigators are in general nicely done, the maps all look good, and the writing style is all the better for being sparse and to the point, which along with the regular advice given on staging the scenarios, is not only indicative of the origins of the five scenarios (as convention scenarios), but also of the experience that the authors have in running them.

What the release of Cthulhu Britannica does highlight is the lack of a Call of Cthulhu supplement devoted to the United Kingdom. Perhaps Cubicle Seven Entertainment might be the publisher to attend to that omission. Yet while the collection effectively showcases the efforts of the Cult of Keepers, it does not actually serve the needs of Keeper running a campaign set in Great Britain – in any era. Granted that this is not the aim of Cthulhu Britannica, but a book devoted to scenarios (or a campaign) in Albion in the one period would be a very welcome sight. Perhaps the former members of the Cult of Keepers could devise something...?

I am not necessarily a fan of the one-shot (after all, how many books of one-shots do you need?), but I do like this collection more than others. Despite the unevenness in quality, the scenarios do maintain a strong tone, a solidly British sensibility, and a mood that will appeal to those who prefer not to play their Call of Cthulhu in a Pulp style. Each comes with consistently useful staging advice that will help make any one of their number a memorable playing experience, and that is where Cthulhu Britannica really shines.

Sunday 8 November 2009

"When shall we three meet again, In thunder, lightning, or in rain?"

Placing scenarios or campaigns for Call of Cthulhu in the modern era has always been difficult task because of the issues of motive, exposure, and communication that arise. Motive because the investigators need a reason to probe the strangeness that only hints at the alien nature of the Mythos; exposure because in a modern world full of technology, the Mythos surely cannot remain hidden from our watchful eye; and communication, because in an age of instant contact, can word of the Mythos really be kept a secret? Delta Green, the best of the approaches to contemporary Call of Cthulhu addresses all three of these issues, essentially by placing the Mythos behind layers of conspiracy and a more contemporary mythology. The other option is to take the game in another direction, which is exactly what Kevin Ross does with Our Ladies of Sorrow, the second release from Miskatonic River Press, though not without a certain degree of the aforementioned layering.

Our Ladies of Sorrow is a horror campaign for Call of Cthulhu set in modern day America that does not involve the Mythos at all. Two decades in the making, it presents a trio of connected and well researched ghost stories that draw heavily from both folklore and modern horror cinema. The protagonists are not something unnameable, rugose, baleful, or abominable, but rather are more sinister, more creepy, and in their own way, far more knowable – to the point that one might even sympathise with their motives. They are three sisters – Mater Tenebrarum, the Mother of Darkness; Mater Suspiriorum, the Mother of Sighs; and Mater Lachrymarum, the Mother of Tears – who have always been with mankind and together embody femininity’s darker side.

The campaign is divided into four books: “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows,” “Suspiriorum: Desert of Sighs,” and “Lachrymarum: River of Tears,” followed by “Epilogue: The Final Cut.” The minimum time span for the campaign is within course of a year, “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows” being set in the early part of the year, “Suspiriorum: Desert of Sighs” in high summer, and “Lachrymarum: River of Tears” during winter. In each book the investigators will discover the effects and reach of one the three Mothers, each of whom has her own agenda. Mater Tenebrarum haunts the dreams of the despairing, the insane, and the suicidal; Mater Suspiriorum is concerned with those who have lost their way, calling them home; while Mater Lachrymarum focuses on those who have lost something, being particularly concerned with the loss of children.

Once the investigators come to their attention, the Sisters will act against them, initially through the women that they possess, but later more openly as the investigators learn more about the triple avatars. They will also act against them in dreams, for example through Night Hag attacks, the dream of an old crone sneaking into the bedroom and climbing onto the sleeper’s chest to crush the breath out of him. These and other dreams are also used as a means to deliver clues to the investigators, some of which may not be relevant in the current scenario, but in a subsequent one. The effect of these dreams is to scratch away at the investigators’ Sanity in small pecks and scrapes, rather than having it bludgeoned away by unfathomable exposure to the Mythos.

Easily set in any mid-sized town or city with a college or university, “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows” opens Our Ladies of Sorrows with a painless introduction scene – painless for the Keeper, that is. As the investigators take a break in a diner they are horrified to see an old man chased into the road to his death by a crone. Worse, no-one other than the investigators saw the old woman, but she sees them, and if they follow her, she disappears into a nearby apartment building. The same building it turns out where the victim lived, although none of the tenants know of an old woman living there. Getting permission to investigate what could be a haunted building is difficult, but once gained the player characters will discover that a lot of strange, little things going on, which will begin to effect them too not long after... Essentially, “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows” is a classic haunted house, but with a more diverse range of tenants that comes with an apartment block. If the scenario has a possible weakness, it is in the way that its climax begins, which does come out of leftfield. Nevertheless, this does effectively set the campaign up and set a pattern for what is to come.

“Suspiriorum: Desert of Sighs” takes the investigators to Arizona and the Desert of Sighs where a group of hiking college student have gone missing. Called into help, the investigators arrive to learn that one of the lost party has walked out of the desert, though delirious and badly wounded, but what of the others? They have been missing for days and only have limited supplies, but nevertheless, their parents want to know what has happened to them and will pay the investigators to conduct a search. The Desert of Sighs has a bad reputation, as numerous people have gone missing within its confines over the years, while others have reported strange events occurring to them, such as getting lost in mazes, technology malfunctioning, and voices on the wind. In order to determine what has happened to the lost hikers, the investigators will quite literally have themselves to get lost and so discover a strange city that lies at the edge of the world, and perhaps some minor elements of the Mythos. Some players might find giving into the demands that the scenario makes, almost asking as it does, for them to give up a degree of control over their characters, but it is worth it as “Suspiriorum: Desert of Sighs” is a more mature, more challenging scenario than “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows” with a strong emotional element that will make demands upon each investigator.

The last scenario “Lachrymarum: River of Tears” begins with a surprise for the investigators – they are asked for by name by La Llorona, the Mexican Weeping Woman. There have been numerous sightings of her in Baleford, Illinois, a town currently threatened by rising flood waters, and a rash of disappearances and deaths amongst its Hispanic community, many of whom blame the disappearances on La Llorona. Not that the town sheriff is bothered, given his attitude towards the Hispanic community. Nor does he want amateurs doing his job, but the Hispanic community might be more accepting of help from the investigators. This rift is not the only source of tension in Baleford, which is threatened by the constant rain and the encroaching waters, which have already exposed human remains. The investigators will find themselves caught between this tension and the flood, both of which will come to a head when the levee breaks and another child goes missing. When the characters join the search for him, they will eventually be confronted by La Llorona herself in a fitting climax to the campaign that sees the investigators face an antagonist whose ability to make use of the rising waters makes her very dangerous.

Our Ladies of Sorrow does not quite end there – though the ending of “Lachrymarum: River of Tears” has one hell of a sting in the tail – as the campaign has an epilogue. The fourth book, “Epilogue: The Final Cut” takes some months later and draws the investigators into the eerie fate of someone who was a resident at the apartment block in the first scenario. Proof perhaps that the three Ladies of Sorrow have a long reach and long memories.

Each of the three main scenarios follows the same structure: the hook, an explanation of what is going on, a description of the scenario’s setting, a set of possible events, and then the dénouement followed by the aftermath. Each one of a scenario’s “possible events” is detailed and easy to implement, being the building blocks with which a Keeper can construct a story and create a growing sense of horror and suspense. This design structure makes each scenario relatively easy to run, and even the neophyte Keeper should have relatively little difficulty running Our Ladies of Sorrows.

What is interesting about the campaign is that each of the three main books is very filmic in its own way. Not cinematic, for in roleplaying parlance that is a whole other tone all its own, best exemplified by Atlas Games’ FENG SHUI Action Movie Roleplaying, with an emphasis on high action, speed, gun fights, and martial arts. The three parts of Our Ladies of Sorrows are filmic in that they draw heavily from modern horror cinema not just for their tone, but for many of those little possible events with which the Keeper can construct each scenario. The first book, “Tenebrarum: House of Shadows” draws from the “Haunted House” movie, while the second, “Suspiriorum: Desert of Sighs” reads as a nod towards a road movie, though one that veers off into a very bad sixties drug trip. The last, “Lachrymarum: River of Tears,” draws more from the J-Horror or Japanese Horror tradition, especially in the imagery of La Llorona, but all three scenarios possess a strong senses of both psychological horror and isolation. The latter especially so in the second two books, where the environment keeps the investigators in place and works to cut them off from the outside world.

Our Ladies of Sorrows can be played as is, from end to end, although it really works as an addition to an ongoing contemporary Call of Cthulhu campaign, its scenarios threaded between others. The campaign’s strong maternal themes also benefit by being added to an ongoing campaign, especially one in which the investigators have developed backgrounds and connections, especially with children. Either with their own, or with those of friends. As befitting and to be expected of any contemporary Call of Cthulhu campaign, Our Ladies of Sorrows discusses the possibility of it being run as part of a Delta Green campaign. Suggestions are made how to do this for a standard Delta Green cell, but these do seem a little forced, whereas the other suggestion that the campaign be run using a Phenomen-X team feels infinitely more fitting given that Phenomen-X are more likely to investigate something that looks like a ghost story.

On the downside, Our Ladies of Sorrows is not quite as well presented a book as it could have been. The artwork does not quite match the mood of the campaign, and the layout is a little untidy in places. Worse are the handouts, which though functional, are bland. Which is a pity, because good handouts will do much to add flavour to a campaign and help draw the players into its mood and atmosphere. Overall though, the layout of the book is clean and tidy and easy to read.

A more minor issue is the fact that this is a difficult campaign to set outside of the USA, more obviously because its second scenario takes place in a desert, but also because much of its elements are grounded in American culture. With some effort upon the part of the Keeper, it could be set elsewhere, say for example, Australia or South Africa. To be honest though, such an effort would hardly be worth the outcome as so many aspects of the author’s research would go to waste.

Some Keepers and some players might quibble at the lack of any Mythos threat presented in Our Ladies of Sorrow. This is an issue that the author addresses directly in the book’s appendices, the first of which discuss numerous triple spirit- or goddess-like sisters, including the Fates, the Furies, the Gorgons, the Norns, and so on. In his afterword, Ross not only discusses the history of the project that would become – including a proto-version in his convention scenario, “The Dare,” from Triad Entertainment’s Dwellers in Shadow anthology (which should have a Keeper or two scurrying either to their shelves or e-bay) – Our Ladies of Sorrows, but suggests that the campaign’s triptych of feminine aspects are all avatars of Hecate, the Greco-Roman Goddess of Witchcraft, Magic, Crossroads, Wilderness, and Childbirth, who with Artemis and Selene is also part of a trio of lunar deities. Taking that one step further, Ross suggests that Hecate could be yet one more of Nyarlathotep’s million faces, but only if the investigators dig deep enough. This act of layering is exactly what a modern set Call of Cthulhu game demands if a Keeper wants it to possess verisimilitude, though in the case of Our Ladies of Sorrow, it is only an option, although a very low key option. Other appendices include an excellent bibliography and one of the inspirations for the campaign, Thomas De Quincey’s Levanna and Our Ladies of Sorrow.

Overall, Our Ladies of Sorrows is a very complete package, the Keeper needing nothing more than the core rulebook, though more books will be needed if the campaign is to be run as part of a Delta Green game. As a campaign, it will probably be best enjoyed more by experienced Call of Cthulhu players, precisely because there is no Mythos present and the shocks will be something fresh for them.

At its heart, Our Ladies of Sorrows is a ghost story, or series of ghost stories. Not something that Call of Cthulhu has done effectively before, but here the research and the development time have proved to be worth the effort. This campaign has the potential to be as scary as any of the game’s best Mythos-themed classics, and while right now, it is inarguably one of the best contemporary horror campaigns available, in years to come it might well be rated alongside many of Call of Cthulhu’s classic campaigns. The reputation of Our Ladies of Sorrows is going to grow and grow…