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

Friday 26 February 2010

Pattern Recognition

In most games you do not get to be evil. You play as “White Hats,” heroes fighting the evil doing “black hats” whether said “black hats” are crazies, zombies, Great Old Ones, or Nazis, and invariably saving the world in the process. There are exceptions to this of course, of which The Stars Are Right is the latest addition to those exceptions. This is not the supplement for Call of Cthulhu from the 1990s, but the English edition of a card game originally published in Germany by Pegasus Spiele, but now available from Steve Jackson Games. Designed for two to four players, aged twelve and up, in The Stars Are Right each player is a cultist, attempting to bring the Great Old Ones to Earth. Unfortunately for each cultist, the stars are not quite right to summon such Lovecraftian horrors, but if a cultist can summon Lesser and Greater Servitors, then with such creatures he will be able to make the Stars Come Right and so summon his true Master, end the Rule of Man, and thus become a new Lord of the Earth. Or his Master’s next nibble between meals...

My first reaction to The Stars Are Right was, “Yay! I get be an evil cultist!” My second reaction to The Stars Are Right was, “Yay! It’s illustrated by Goomi, who does the amusing Unspeakable Vault (of Doom)!” My third reaction to The Stars Are Right was, “Yay! It’s not another Munchkin variant!” For while The Stars Are Right is still a silly game, it is never as silly or as random as Munchkin and its various re-themed variants, being a more substantial affair that melds a strong theme with a solid game design that just happens to look good in well done cartoonish style. The game play focuses a star pattern grid which the cultists will alter, flipping, pushing, and swapping individual stars by invoking Servitors to create particular patterns in the stars and so use those patterns to summon Lesser and Greater Servitors whose powers enable greater numbers of flips, pushes, and swaps. Eventually, by using these manoeuvres – and by sacrificing Greater Servitors – a cultist can achieve the complex pattern of stars necessary to summon a Great Old One.

This is an attractive looking game. From the eye-catching box itself to the cards and the tiles, the quality of the components is nothing less than solid. True, the rules sheet feels a bit flimsy in comparison, but the box itself comes with an insert to keep everything together and the tiles come in their own ziplock bag. Trivial as the latter two facts might seem, they do mark another change at Steve Jackson Games because many of the publisher’s older titles lacked internal packaging which meant that in terms of production values lacked the class of The Stars Are Right. That said, it would have been nice if the game had included another ziplock bag for its cards.

The game consists of two elements. The first are the Star Tiles, of which there are twenty-five. These are double sided and come in rich night sky blue , and depict a number of night sky elements – one, two, three, four, or five stars; waxing and waning moons; shooting stars and meteors; the Sun and the Moon; a Lunar Eclipse and a hooded eye Solar Eclipse; and an empty void. The corners of each tile depict what lies on the other side, so making it easy for a player to identify the tiles that he needs to flip.

The other element is the game’s cards. Four of these are each a “Little Book of Evil,” or Reference Cards. The remaining seventy-five are Creature Cards, each of which depicts a Mythos entity and comes packed with quite a bit of information. These include a creature’s name, type (Great Old One, Greater Servitor, Lesser Servitor, or Minion), its Invocation Symbols (how it rearranges the Star Grid when played), a symbol indicating which Great Old it serves (Minions lack this privilege), its Victory Point value (Lesser Servitors are worth one point, Greater Servitors two points, and Great Old Ones four), the Constellation or pattern of stars that have to be visible on the Star Grid to be summoned, and its Power, or how it alters the Invocation Symbols from other creatures.

All of the information on the cards is easy to read, with the Symbols corresponding to the Flip, Push, and Swap manoeuvres needed to make the Stars Come Right being very clear. The cards are also darkly attractive, with Goomi’s artwork being as excellent as you would expect, though Lovecraft purists might balk at his slightly tentacle in cheek take on the Mythos. After all, the cultists in the game are not summoning Hounds of Tindalos, Dagon, or Cthulhu, but Tindaloo, Dagoon, and great Cthulhoo. The four Great Old Ones that appear in The Stars Are Right are Chaugnar, Hastur, Tsatso, and the aforementioned Cthulhoo. The more powerful a Creature, the greater the number of Symbols it grants when Invoked or when its Power is used.

At game’s start, the Star Tiles are laid out in a five-by-five grid and everyone receives five cards. The first aim of a cultist on his turn is to generate as many as manoeuvres – the Flips, Pushs, and Swaps – represented by the Symbols as possible. Initially this is done by Invoking (and discarding) a Creature to use its Symbol in one of two ways. In the opening stages of the game, the Symbol will be used to alter the Star Grid, but once a Cutist has managed to summon a Creature and have placed on the table before him, he can use the Symbol from the Invocation to feed the Power of the Summoned Creature. A Power either exchanges one Symbol into another, or generates extra Symbols. A Creature is not discarded if its Power is used, but the Power can only be used once per turn.

Once a Cultist has all of the Symbols that he can generate, he can expend them to alter the Star Grid. A Flip turns a Star Tile over; a Push forces a vertical or horizontal row along by one space, with the Tile that has forced out of the Star Grid being placed back into the empty space created by the Push; and a Swap exchanging the places of two orthogonally adjacent tiles. If the Stars Are Right and the Constellation on a Creature card matches a pattern in the Star Grid, then that Creature can be summoned. Once done, a Cultist is allowed to discard a card and then refresh his hand.

All of the Constellations in the game are different, even between Creatures of the same type, and the more powerful and the more useful a Creature is, the more complex, and the more difficult its Constellation is to achieve on the Star Grid. The elements of a Constellation need not be adjacent and some of the Constellations for the more powerful Creatures have dark spaces in their patterns that can contain any sky element. The most complex of Constellations are those for the Great Old Ones, but if the summoning Cultist controls any Greater Servitors that are devoted to the Great Old One being summoned, then it can grant the Cultist a Bonus Star. This Bonus Star is used to ignore one of the sky elements in the Constellation needed to summon the Great Old One. Up to three Bonus Stars can be donated in this way, but the Greater Servitors are sacrificed in the process.

Most Creature cards give something towards a Cultist’s Victory Point total. Minion cards do not. While each Minion card provides a Symbol when Invoked, its Power does not change or multiply other Symbols. Instead, Ghasts and Ghouls allow a Cultist to increase hand and discard more cards respectively, whilst Gugs and Tindaloos allow a Cultist to swap a Lesser or Greater Servitor that he controls with another belonging to a rival Cultist. Any Gug or Tindaloo is discarded in the process...

The aim of the game is to score ten Victory Points. The first Cultist to do so not only wins the game, but heralds the beginning of the End Times... These points can be scored by summoning lots of Servitors, or just enough Servitors and a Great Old One. Of course, as soon as the Stars Come Nearly Right for one Cultist, all of the other Cultists really start trying sure that they go Wrong...

If you do happen to buy a copy of The Stars Are Right, then I would recommend adding two things to make game play a little easier. First is a means keeping track of everyone’s Victory Point totals, using either tokens or dice. The other is a means of keeping track of a cultist’s Symbols during his turn. Again, tokens work well here. Pleasingly, the publisher is supporting the game with not only a Scoring Track that can be downloaded for free, but with a set of Action Tokens which will be available – also free – in the near future.

The card and Symbol mechanics in The Stars Are Right are easy enough to grasp after a round or two, the learning process being aided by the clearly written rules. Where the game gets really difficult is in the “Pattern Recognition,” the process of reading a Constellation on a Creature card and matching it on the Star Grid, and in working out how the Symbols that you have can be used to create or get closer to creating the Constellation on the Star Grid. In fact, on our first play, this was an extremely frustrating process. For what is actually a simple card, this element of The Stars Are Right can be hard work and take more effort than you would have thought. This is also means that this is not a game to play with someone who is prone to “analysis paralysis.” This frustration lessens though with more play, but it does mean that The Stars Are Right is not quite as conducive to casual play. It takes the right frame of mind to want to play this. Well, you are playing a Cultist...

Nevertheless, this is a game that will be enjoyed by all fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, and by fans of Munchkin Cthulhu wanting a little more substance and a lot more evil. This is a game in which you not only fight evil, you are evil, and the only reason that you are fighting the other evil is because it might get to be more evil than you. With a design and mechanics that strongly match its insanely eldritch theme, The Stars Are Right is brain wrangling fun.

Starting Out Like It's 2006

While the current vogue in Dungeons & Dragons is to look forward with Fourth Edition or back with the Old School Renaissance, there is still much to admire and appreciate from the versions of the game that came in between. One of these is Scourge of the Howling Horde, an official scenario from 2006 written for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition. Published by Wizards of the Coast, it is designed for a party of four to six heroes of 1st level, and more specifically for the Dungeon Master who is new to the game.

The set-up and plot for Scourge of the Howling Horde is as clichéd as they come, at least in terms of Dungeons & Dragons. Go right back to classics such as T1, The Village of Hommlet or U1, Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh, and you will find the very same template used by Scourge of the Howling Horde. Though it should be pointed out that took U2, Danger at Dunwater to fully develop this plot strand. A village is imperilled – in this case, the quiet frontier town of Barrow’s Edge, by a tribe of nearby goblinoids, who normally secretive and reclusive, have turned bloodthirsty and rapacious raiders. The village’s menfolk never returned from their expedition to investigate the tribe, and Barrow’s Edge has put out the call for “Adventurers Wanted!”

The adventurers are answering this call when they come across a merchant caravan under attack from the goblins. Coming to the merchant’s aid and escorting him home gets them to Barrow’s Edge, the inhabitants of which will welcome the adventurers. Here they have the opportunity to rest; to interact with the hamlet’s interesting and useful NPCs – a wizard, a cleric, a moneylender, a merchant, and so on; and to negotiate a price for successfully coming to the aid of the villagers.  From here, the adventurers can set out and make their way to the Howling Caves, their goblinoid inhabitants already on guard for such an attack. Inside the small complex, the party will find a tribe forced to fight under the yoke of stronger bugbears and hobgoblins – encounters with them being greater challenges for the players – with their yoke being the recent arrival, a young black dragon. The creature wants to build both its lands and its treasure hoard, and has begun by helping to kill the tribe’s chief and then install a more compliant leader.

On one level, Scourge of the Howling Horde is not just a cliché, but also too simplistic. A village in danger from a small band of goblins forced to raid by a stronger force and all the party has to do is work its way into the tiny dungeon, beat up the inhabitants, and take their treasure. Fortunately, there is slightly more to the adventure than that. Not all of the goblins are happy with the recent change, and if the heroes look to means other than the sword, they will find allies who will aid them in toppling the current leadership. Given the challenge of facing the dragon in the final encounter, this might prove useful...

If this adventure had been written in the 1980s – or even earlier – it is doubtful that it would be as detailed or as long. At just 32 pages long, and with just a few inhabitants of the village and the seventeen locations of the goblinoid caves described, Scourge of the Howling Horde is actually quite short as an adventure. The reason for this brevity of encounters is twofold. First it is due to the depth of detail and advice given to help the Dungeon Master stage each encounter, but second and more obviously, it is the format in which each encounter and location is laid out. This adventure pioneered the use of the “Combat Encounter,” a format in which encounter or location is laid out very simply with everything that the Dungeon Master needs to run that encounter. So this includes advice on running the encounter; an explanation of how each element in the room works, which might be a trap or how the Turning Undead rules work in the game; the stats for any monsters, including most notably, tick boxes for each creature’s Hit Points; and of course, a plan of the location, copied from the full map at the back of the book and increased in size.

What the “Combat Encounter” format does is keep everything self-contained and easy to handle with no unnecessary page flipping needed upon the part of the Dungeon Master. Not so self-contained though as found in Fourth Edition adventures as to make them almost isolated from each other, and in some cases, the foes in one encounter will race to get aid from another. The limited page count of the scenario also negates the amount of page flipping needed in longer adventures such as Expedition to Castle Ravenloft – published in the same year – wherein all of the “Combat Encounters” were kept together and separate from the room descriptions.

One obvious omission from the scenario is that of an area map. There is no map showing the relationship between Barrow’s Edge and the goblinoid caves, and for an adventure that is all about giving the beginning Dungeon Master advice, there is sadly no advice on creating and mapping the area around the village – though it also means that the scenario and its setting can be dropped into most worlds with relative ease. In fact, the village does not know where the caves are, and unless one of the party has the Track Feat or they have captured and interrogated a goblin from an earlier encounter, then getting to the caves will involve an awful lot of blundering around in the bushes in order to get there – and that is with no map! Another issue that author does not address is what does the tribe and its tyrant leader do in response to an attack on the caves if the party retreats to the village to recuperate? More minor issues abound, such as the hobgoblin inhabitants of the cave possessing magical weapons that they could have used and instead keeping them locked up in a chest. All issues though that a competent Dungeon Master could fix, but not necessarily one new to the game.

Physically, Scourge of the Howling Horde is neatly and cleanly laid out, although more use of colour – other than on the cover and inside the back cover – would lift its appearance above the ordinary. As would some colour artwork, because the combination of heavy line art and dark toned pages does give the book a grey look when it really needed to have been that more enticing.

Although Scourge of the Howling Horde is very obviously written for a beginning Dungeon Master and his players, there is nothing to say that a more experienced group would not enjoy it as much. In fact, my friend Dave has run this adventure as our Dungeon Master with a group whose experience of play varied quite a bit. Dave brought out the tiles and the plastic Dungeons & Dragons miniatures, doing the game in full, and it was a lot of fun. My familiarity meant that I could see the scenario’s traditional elements and enjoy them, while the other players could just get on and play the game. Our play through lasted about three solid sessions, while more experienced players will get through this in less time.

Scourge of the Howling Horde is interesting in that you get to see the evolution of a format while still looking backwards for not only all of its story elements, but also in how they are used. The format is by the standards of the Old School Renaissance very modern, as is the advice on running the adventure. For some gamers, the degree of familiarity with this scenario might breed contempt, but Scourge of the Howling Horde really does make for a good starter scenario, one that can be run with the Dungeons & Dragons Edition 3.5 rules that it was written for, or with any Dungeons & Dragons variant bar Fourth Edition

Friday 19 February 2010

Roleplaying Upwards & Outwards in 1974 (Just Not Down).

If I have a complaint about the Old School Renaissance, it is that it tends towards the referential, that it often refers back to the Dungeons & Dragons of any when from 1974 to 1981, re-iterating what messers Arneson and Gygax did in yet another “Edition Zero” RPG. This is not to deny that many of the titles published under the Old School banner are really very good, many more deserving of our attention than the mainstream Dungeons & Dragons titles being published. My complaint though, is addressed in X-plorers: The role playing adventures of Galactic Troubleshooters! Published by Grey Area Games, the conceit underpinning this RPG is one big “What If?” That is, what if the creators of the first RPG, back in 1974, drew upon the Science Fiction of Heinlein, Asimov, Niven, and Anderson rather than the fantasy of Tolkien, Vance, Leiber, et al, to create their groundbreaking game of the imagination? The result is a Science Fiction game published years before TSR thought of doing one with the publication of Star Frontiers in 1982, and while Metamorphosis Alpha and Gamma World were earlier, in hindsight theirs is the Science Fantasy genre, not Science Fiction.

The setting for X-plorers is the year 2222 A.D. Earth along with the terraformed worlds of Mars and Venus are governed by the U.C.N. or United Corporate Nations. Far beyond the Solar System lies the Reaches, a dense star cluster home to numerous habitable worlds ripe for colonisation by the U.C.N., by the various corporations that make up the U.C.N., or by a myriad of political or religious groups. With opportunities for exploitation comes also opportunity aplenty for corruption, and the U.C.N.P. or United Corporate Nations Police can only do so much. In to this situation come the Troubleshooters (or player characters), employed by the U.C.N. or other organisation to undertake all manner of jobs, from cargo runs and anti-piracy patrols to exploration and investigations. This is about as detailed as the setting for the game gets, providing more theme than detail.

Characters in X-plorers are all assumed to be Human – the one thing that the game lacks is rules for creating player character aliens – and are created by rolling three six-sided dice for four attributes: Agility, Intelligence, Physique, and Presence. This can be done in any order and provides a modifier that ranges from -2 to +2 applied to the appropriate Skill Throws and Saving Throws as necessary. The Agility modifier is also used in ranged combat and the Physique modifier is used in melee combat, while the Intelligence modifier is used with nearly every skill bar the Agility modifier. Of the four attributes, Presence will probably be used the least, primarily because social interaction is not addressed in the rules.

Unsurprisingly, X-plorers is a Class and Level system, though it only comes with four classes, these being Scientist, Soldier, Scout, and Technician. While there is no difference between the classes in terms of Hit Dice, Base Hit Bonuses, and Saving Throws – their being the same at each level for all four Classes – what separate each Class from another are its skills. The Scientist knows Computers, Medicine, Science, and Sociology; the Scout knows Pilot, Security, Sleight of Hand, and Stealth; and the Technician knows Computers, Mechanics, Pilot, and Robotics. The Soldier class is slightly different in that he knows Demolition and Survival, he also knows Martial Arts, which improves his damage in hand-to-hand combat, and Weapons Specialist, which increases his Base Hit Bonus.

The skills work in a fashion similar to Saving Throws or this case, Skill Throws, all done with the traditional twenty-sided die. At each level a class provides Skill Throw target for each skill, which will fall as a character rises in level. Roll against the Skill Throw target with modifiers from the appropriate attribute. For example, the Intelligence modifier is used for Computers and Security and the Agility modifier for Sleight of Hand.

The system so far is clean and easy, the lack of alien player character races keeping the game balanced, while in keeping Hit Dice, Base Hit Bonuses, and Saving Throws the same between the classes also helps maintain this balance. The effect of this is to make X-plorers a very skills focused game, already pushing it away from the focus on abilities to be found in early Dungeons & Dragons. It does allow multi-classing though, enabling characters to cross train and so gain the skills that their primary class lacks. This is an expensive option though.

Anyway, a typical character looks like Greg below. He has signed on as a Troubleshooter to get some experience beyond the confines of the laboratory and the computer room. How he passed the physicals is anybody’s guess, but the mental aptitude tests were a whiz! While his theoretical knowledge will stand in good stead, his lack of practical skills might not ingratiate him with his team mates. With just 100 Credits to his name, he is going to be light on equipment.

Gregor “Greg” Ward
Level 1 Scientist
Male, 26, 1.65 m, 75 kg
Agl 12 (+0 Saves); Int 18 (+2 Saves);
Phy 5 (-1 Saves; To Hit/Dmg melee/unarmed; hp); Pre 13 (+1 Saves)
BHB: -1; Saving Throw: 15+; Hit Points: 4; Armour Class: 10
Class Abilities (+2 to all skills for Int)
Computers: 13+; Medicine: 15+; Science:  13+; Sociology: 16+

As is traditional, each character receives 3d6 worth of Credits to spend on equipment. Most of it is built into toolkits, such as Base Camp Kit or Sensor/Survey Kit. The equipment chapter includes robots, each being simply defined by Armour Class, Hit Points, Saving Throw, Movement, and the number of programs it can run. These programs simulate Class skills and enable a robot to fulfil a position not held by a character or to back another character up. Any player looking to use his robot as some kind of combat machine will be disappointed. Robots in X-plorers are under a “First Directive” that prevents them from doing harm to humans while always aiding humans.

Of course, most characters are going to want arms and armour, but it is expensive given how little starting money a character begins with. Weaponry does not get any more advanced than Lasers (so non-lethal weapons, which is a pity), and they are as deadly as they are expensive, the latter fact at odds with the suggestion that the most commonly carried weapon by Troubleshooter teams is the laser pistol, which costs 600 Credits! Even an Automatic Pistol costs 200 Credits!! What this means is that the Troubleshooters are going to undertaking their first assignments armed with Dungeons & Dragons weapons. I thought the point of X-plorers was that it was not doing Dungeons & Dragons?

Combat is as easy as the rest of the game, but it is deadly for the player characters. The loss of Hit Points for an NPC or a creature means its death, whereas a Troubleshooter has to roll on a Critical Table that can result in no effect, an adrenaline surge, or being knocked unconscious at best, or a fatal wound or instant death at worst.

Starships and starship combat is built around character roles aboard ship. Scientists are good navigators; Scouts make good pilots; Technicians good pilots or engineers; and Soldiers gunners. Starship combat is a matter attempting to gain the range upon an opponent or to escape his range with each round broken down into four phases. In the Navigation Phase, the navigator makes a Computer Skill Throw to either determine the range of all nearby ships so granting a +1 bonus to all subsequent rolls in the round or to plot a multi vector to act against one or more ships – attacking or escaping. A successful Mechanics Skill Throw in the Engineering Phase will repair the ship, enhance its shields and Armour Class, or boot the engines for another +1 bonus for the pilot. Similarly, a successful Pilot Skill Throw will enhance the ship’s shields and Armour Class through evasive manoeuvres, increase the range between other ships, or gain a better attack position on the enemy and grant a +1 bonus to the gunner. No surprises for what the gunner is rolling for in his phase... Just as with ground combat, fights between starships is deadly, but the rules do keep everyone involved and the likelihood is that any fight will be a fraught affair.

For the GM, X-plorers provides some advice on running the game – if you think about it, probably more than would have appeared if the game had been published in 1974 – and a guide to creating interesting NPCs as well as all manner of strange alien critters, the latter supported with all manner of weird and wonderful beasties. The advice on creating planets and sentient alien species is arguably a little light, suggesting that the GM opt for what is playable. Lastly, there is a set of readymade Troubleshooters to get a game going, plus a little secret about the background.

The rulebook is rounded out with the scenario, “Cleopatra Station.” Designed for a single session it has the Troubleshooters employed to determine why contact has been lost with Cleopatra Station, a small wheel space station orbiting Phobos, Mars’ moon, aboard which Ra-Industries operates a research lab. The scenario partly solves the problem of starting equipment discussed earlier by having the team's employer assign them environment suits and laser pistols, and certainly this is the model that I would use if running the game - have the equipment on loan, but the characters be responsible for it.

Primarily, this adventure echoes the feel of films Alien and Aliens – the obvious nod being that one of the NPCs is named Ripley – with the characters having to fight off strange beasts as they progress through the station. Secondarily, the adventure actually echoes another scenario, “Death Station,” one half of Traveller Double Adventure 3: Death Station/The Argon Gambit, in which the player characters must board a silent laboratory ship (which just happens to be wheel shaped). While “Cleopatra Station” is far from being a sophisticated affair, being more of a “dungeon bash” in space, it serves well as an introductory scenario.

At just sixty pages, X-plorers is a relatively slim rulebook. The black and white interior is for the most part clean and tidy, with a variety of illustrations, some good, others a little too scratchy. Some of this artwork suffers from having too grey a background, often a problem with inexperienced publishers. The best of this artwork though, echoes the style of Classic Traveller.

Barring the range of sample critters, X-plorers takes its cue from the aforementioned Traveller in not being Pulp Sci-Fi in tone. Although its Science Fiction is dry in tone, it is not hard Science Fiction, nor is it Imperial in flavour, as is that of Traveller or Rogue Games’ Thousand Suns, or post-Imperial, as is in VSCA Publishing’s Diaspora. This is not say that X-plorers could not be run in any one of these flavours and that is one of the game’s strengths – the GM is free to use its rules to make the game his own. Another is its simplicity of rules, which are undeniably easy to pick up and play or run, while one more is its fundamental yet pleasing shift from an emphasis on abilities and powers to skills, that is, from what a character can do to what he knows and what he can do.

If there is a real problem with the game, it is that as written it does not equip the characters with the gear that they need. Others might gripe at its lack of non-human character races and the lack of rules for creating alien races and alien worlds, but with the latter, the author’s aim is to grant the GM the freedom to use his imagination to create his own. And that is the point of the game, because in going back to 1974 and re-imagining roleplaying anew in an entirely different genre, X-plorers: The role playing adventures of Galactic Troubleshooters! gives us a charmingly simple approach to playing Science Fiction once again. 

Sunday 14 February 2010

It's a Love Game

Our hobby is organised around convention dates rather than the traditional holidays, which has the side effect of making any attempt to review a game appropriate to a particular holiday all that more awkward. Halloween is of course the exception, as you can find a horror themed RPG or board game at any time of the year, but what about Easter, Christmas, or Valentines? Games with themes particular to these holidays are far and few between, and rare is it that I am asked to write such a review. Except for Valentine’s Day, which with its strong themes of love and romance, would seem to be the perfect subject for RPGs – certainly as a change from uncovering unspeakable horrors or putting other races to the sword and taking their loot – and this is supported by reviews that I have written for publication dates in the past some when near February 14th. These titles have included Green Ronin Publishing’s Blue Rose: The Roleplaying Game of Romantic Fantasy, the original RPG that gave us the True20 System; the Indie RPGs Breaking the Ice and Shooting the Moon: All is fair in love and war from Black & Green Games and Best Friends: A role-playing game about girlfriends and all their petty hatreds from BoxNinja.

This year though, I am going back to 2006 to look at a 1PG title called Idyll: Romantic Fantasy. Published by Deep7, a 1PG RPG is a PDF only game which breaks its constituent parts down into single pages. So a 1PG RPG has one page devoted to its rules, one page devoted to the player and his character, one page devoted to the referee, one page devoted to the game’s specific genre elements, and lastly a series of single pages devoted to scenarios, of which there are usually five or six. The 1PG line dates back to the turn of the century at a time when games electronically published as PDFs stayed in that format, never to reach the shelves at your friendly local gaming store, so long before the game as a PDF became just another way to sell a game before it was actually published. Deep7 published almost twenty 1PG titles plus supplements, covering genres as diverse as spies, pirates, H.G. Wells’ War of the Worlds, disaster movies of the 1970s, and in a personal favourite, playing cartoon-like insects in the real world. Although it has been a few years since Deep7 has published anything new, the fact that their titles all PDFs means that they are all effectively “in print” and available, and all at their original bargain prices.

What Idyll: Romantic Fantasy explores is a genre defined by the novels of Mercedes Lackey and Tanith Lee, in which heroes are dashing, heroines are strong willed, and wizards are invariably mysterious and rarely trusted. The game’s choice of Pre-Raphaelite cover art – Romeo and Juliet by Sir Frank Dicksee – captures much of that flavour. Unlike other 1PG titles, Idyll: Romantic Fantasy focuses on character interaction and character driven adventures, on sex (whether courtly wooing or hot and sticky bodice ripping, though the game only discusses rather than dwells on this subject), on romance, on lengthy stories that might span multiple generations and multiple novels, and drama. Lots of drama... This is no Indie RPG, so there are no rules that pertain to these elements. The point of any 1PG title is simplicity and the GM’s notes contained in Idyll highlight its genre’s key elements rather go into them in any depth.

Character generation in Idyll – and in other 1PG titles – is very easy. 1d3 is rolled for four stats – Sturdiness, Looks, Craftiness, and Brains – and another 1d6 points are added to these scores. A further four to six points are distributed between the skills, each of which are associated with one of the four stats. 1d6 is also rolled for the character’s Presence, the equivalent to his charisma or physical and mental bearing, while another is rolled for the character’s Guts. This is his Sanity score, and the character fails a roll against his Guts, he loses a point of Presence. In addition to determining his Notoriety, Blood (his hit points) and his money, a character also has a Background and a Status, which can be rolled for or chosen by his player. Backgrounds like Brigand or Mage, and a Status such as Wanted or Blessed each provide various bonuses to skills, money, and other attributes.

So here is a sample character. Robert of Salisbury was captured while fighting abroad and taken as a galley slave. When the slave ship was attacked, he managed to escape, but was horribly scarred. He has returned home, but his looks prevent him from claiming his inheritance. He possesses some natural spellcasting ability, but is not aware of it.

Sturdiness: 3; Looks: 1; Craftiness: 2; Brains: 2
Etiquette 1, Fighting 1, General Knowledge 1, Languages 1, Rumours 1, Spellcasting 1, Swimming 1
Blood: 15; Guts: 3; Presence: 5; Notoriety: 2

The mechanics in Idyll (and in any 1PG) are very simple. Roll a six-sided die with low being better than high, a result of a one always succeeding, a six always failing. Skill checks are rolled under the value of the skill and its stat. The game system is very quick and easy, its simplicity giving the GM plenty of room to rules as needed. It should be noted that while characters can be improved, it is not possible to learn any kind of Spellcasting – arcane or divine – after character generation.

Magic in Idyll receives two pages devoted to it, one detailing the game rules and the other a grimoire of some twenty or so spells for both types of magic. In keeping with the 1PG ideal, magic is kept simple. Each spell has an Intensity number which modifies the target number when making a Spellcasting roll. To cast a known spell, the wizard or priest simply rolls under Brains plus his Spellcasting skill, unless the Intensity of the spell being cast is greater than his combined Brains/Spellcasting score, in which case the difference acts as a negative modifier. This difference can also act as a bonus for a defender if he is attacked using a spell.

In addition, prior to casting a spell, a priest must make an Oratory skill check. A priest cannot know more damage inflicting spells than he knows non-damage inflicting spells, while a mage cannot know any type of healing spell. Both types of spellcaster can expend his improvement points to reduce the Intensity factors of the spells that he does know, so making them easier to cast. Lastly, the rules for magic cover playing druids and shamans as well as the summoning of beings from beyond. Again in relatively simple detail, but these are pointers enough for the GM to work with.

Up until this point Idyll has provided the rules for the game and a plethora of pointers towards the genre – though it has not quote out and out discussed the genre. What it does instead is put the pointers into practice with six single page scenarios. Each opens up with the scenario’s premise, its setup, and an explanation of what is really going on, and is supported with detailed locations and NPCs, plus their stats. Any one of them should provide an evening’s worth of play and all come with complications that add extra drama or lengthen the scenario.

The first of the six is “That Witch is Not,” in which the inhabitants of Briarton have fallen prey to a sickness caused by a witch who was run out of the village after she let the village elder’s oldest son die. The villagers want help in bringing the witch to justice as no one who has ventured into the woods to capture her has returned. This is followed by “Sylveena,” also set in a village, this of Colton. Here a young boy has fallen in love with a half-unicorn girl whom the villagers suspect of being in league with or is fleeing from a goblin band that has been attacking the villagers following her appearances. Again the player characters will have to venture into the woods to find both the young boy and the half-unicorn girl after they run away.

The third scenario is “Ghostly Orphanage” which takes place in the city of Kingsport. What begins with a child’s tale of having been held against his will leads into a decent little mystery that leads into a tragic tale. “Dearest Sister,” the fourth scenario is the first touch upon relationships and sex, though not in any prurient fashion. The heroes come upon a wounded prince, desperate to get home to his aging father following their country defeat in battle. The ensuing welcome home feast is not only held for the prince, but also for the return of his sister, long thought dead. What begins as a celebration ends in tragedy when one of the courtiers is poisoned! As with any “murder mystery,” this is the most complex of the scenarios to date and the GM needs to take some care if he is to run it effectively.

The fifth scenario is probably the most difficult to run of all the six, because in “The Breenstil Curse,” all of the player characters have to be female! All of the men in the kingdom have fallen prey to a weakening illness, so the queen commands her greatest heroines to consult with Redmaw, an ancient dragon who will help determine the cause. Though what price he demands is another matter... In the sixth and last scenario, “The Dowry,” the heroes are asked by a merchant to see if a local nobleman has used a love potion on his daughter in the hope that he can marry her and so gain her dowry.

Barring the cover, Idyll is very lightly illustrated. In places, particularly in the scenarios, the text is quite dense. The game also needs another edit, but for a rules set and a set of scenarios at its price, this can be overlooked.

Idyll does lack is a real discussion of its genre, a problem common to all 1PG titles. There is almost the expectation that in coming to the game that you already know about the genre, but for those of us who do not, it would have been a helpful addition. Or at least some pointers as to where to look for further information. Fortunately, some of the genre’s key elements – such as relationships and strong characterisation – are present in some of the scenarios, and if those are not enough, Wikipedia is a good place to start your research.

Playing Idyll might not necessarily be the most romantic of ways to game. After all, it is a roleplaying game and they usually need more than the one player and a GM to be played effectively. There is nothing to say that Idyll could not be run in that fashion, and some advice could have been included to that end, but a game like the aforementioned Breaking the Ice is a much better game in that regard. Nevertheless, Idyll is pleasingly light and easy and in the hands of a sympathetic GM, its contents will appeal to anyone looking to add some romantic elements to their fantasy gaming or just wanting their fantasy gaming to be a little less masculine. Played as is, or used as a source of extra scenarios and ideas for an existing campaign, Idyll: Romantic Fantasy represents excellent value for money, but then again, that has always been the hallmark of the 1PG titles. 

Friday 12 February 2010

Baby's First Labyrinth

Between the publication of Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition and the advent of the Old School Renaissance, one of the good things that Goodman Games did was keep alive a style of gaming that had been on the wane for as much as a decade or more... With the Dungeon Crawl Classics line the publisher released scenarios that harked back to the play style of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition while still using the latest version of the rules, and the publisher continues to do so today, although some that flavour I feel has been lost in the adventures written for the more complex Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition. The latest release from Goodman Games more than makes up for that loss though, and not only that, because The Dungeon Alphabet: An A-Z Reference for Classic Dungeon Design is written by Michael Curtis, who under his company, Three-Headed Monster Monsters has begun publishing Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls, a megadungeon written for use with one of the Old School Renaissance’s leading RPGs, Labyrinth Lord. Indeed, each of the dungeon elements described in this book originally appeared on the author's blog.

Part of the publisher’s “systems-neutral” line of supplements suitable for any version of Dungeons & Dragons (or one of various variants), The Dungeon Alphabet comes as a very reasonably priced hardback – or at a “Great Price” as the book’s spine garishly proclaims. Behind its similarly garish, but also cartoonish cover, The Dungeon Alphabet turns out to be as simple as A, B, C. Over the course of twenty-six one or two page entries – one for each letter of alphabet, of course – the author discusses elements to be found in the classic Old School style dungeon, not only suggesting how such elements can be used by a Dungeon Master in his dungeon, but also giving a table whose contents are intended to provide inspiration for said DM. Said DM is free to roll his dice and consult a table to determine the inspiration for this dungeon – so the standard panoply of polyhedral dice will be required if this is the chosen method – or to just read through a table’s contents and decide himself which entry is the most inspiring.

The entries cover things to be found in an Old School classic dungeon. Everything and anything from room types (Caves and Halls) and their inhabitants (Kobolds and Oozes) to treasure (Gold and Jewels) and dungeon dressings (Doors and Levers) via room dressings (Altars and Pools) and the downright odd (the Weird and one last category, Zowie!). The write-ups under each entry are quite short, essentially a description of said entry and the how and the why of its use in some underground labyrinth. Some of the tables are short. For example, the “E is for Echoes” and “X is for Xenophobia” tables have only six entries each, but then again, how many times can you make an echo interesting? Other tables are much longer or require dice rolls on multiple tables such as those given for “A is for Altars” or “R is for Rooms.” In other words, the more use the DM is going to make of one of the elements described in The Dungeon Alphabet, the bigger its table and the wider its inspiration.

What makes The Dungeon Alphabet stand out more than the average Dungeons & Dungeons supplement though, is its artwork. The front cover might not to be everyone’s taste (it is not to mine, if I am honest), but inside this slim hardback is lavishly and slavishly illustrated by some of the classic Dungeons & Dragons artists, including Erol Otis and Jeff Easly, who are joined by more contemporary artists such as Brad McDevitt, Peter Mullen, and Chad Sergesketter. From inside the front cover to the last entry, there is hardly a page without a piece of evocative art. Not all of it is good, but neither was it that good back in the day, but not once does it fail to evoke that Old School feel.

One claim The Dungeon Alphabet does not live up to is that of its back cover blurb, that “DESIGNING DUNGEONS IS AS EASY AS A, B, C!” Dungeon design is an art that takes time to learn, and if it was easy as this claim, then everyone and their grandmother would be doing it, even considering the fact that grandmothers are of an age to really remember the Old School dungeon and the Old School style of play. What this does highlight though, is the fact that there is still room on our gaming shelves for a book devoted to the art of Old School dungeon design – though delve back into the back catalogues of magazines such as Dragon and White Dwarf and you will doubtless find a fistful or two of articles devoted to this art, but The Dungeon Alphabet is at the very least the first step towards that. Nevertheless, this supplement is as good an introduction to the mien of the Old School Renaissance as any, and deserves to find a place on the shelves of every discerning Dungeon Master. Entertaining, thoughtful, and evocative, from the moment that you crack open its pages, The Dungeon Alphabet: An A-Z Reference for Classic Dungeon Design delivers a critical hit to your nostalgia button.

Madness Begins With The Author...

"Blah, blah, blah. Secret Plans.
Blah, blah, blah. Submarine off the coast.
Blah, blah, blah. Bent pyramid.
Blah, blah, blah. Omar Shakti's Cat."

The very title of Five Go Mad in Egypt might well be the finest thing about this recent Monograph for Call of Cthulhu from Chaosium. It is a homage to Five Go Mad In Dorset, the infamous parody of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five children’s stories from the early 1980s, so that title is redolent with comedic possibilities. Unfortunately anyone coming to Five Go Mad in Egypt expecting a send up of the British stiff upper lip and the hypocrisy and ridiculous nature of British attitudes to the world in general will surely be disappointed. My own homage at the top of the review is about as funny as Five Go Mad in Egypt gets. 

Since the beginning of the Miskatonic University Library Association series, the issue has always been one of quality. In fact, this issue has been built into the line, because each Monograph is published by Chaosium with the understanding that while its content will be of interest to the Keeper, such elements as layout and editing are left up to the author to handle. This has led to some quite terrible Monographs being published by Chaosium and because few if any are reviewed; too often the purchaser is expected to buy them sight unseen. This all too often leads to disappointment. Fortunately the good floats to the top and there are indeed Monographs worthy of a Keeper’s attention. Titles such as The Pastores, Primal State, and Kingdom of the Blind all spring to mind. 

Unfortunately, Five Go Mad in Egypt does not reach such lofty heights. It is far from being truly terrible, so it is no Mystic Alliances, but its author commits a number of errors so basic as to hamstring what could have been a decent, if Pulpy adventure.

In terms of layout, Five Go Mad in Egypt manages to be both neat and tidy – and both terrible and ugly. The first and most obvious problem is that the book is entirely laid out in double space type, making it actually awkward to read. Second is the problem that the text just runs on with no attention paid to section or chapter breaks. Third, all of the book’s visual elements, whether illustrations (predominately comprised of actually quite suitable photographs) maps or handouts are either too small, too dark, or just plain indistinct; sometimes a combination of all three problems.

The author’s worst sin though is the fact that he does not know how to write a scenario. Any piece of writing for a roleplaying game is actually two things. First and most obviously, it is a work of the imagination. Second it is a piece of technical writing, because it has to impart particular pieces of information at a certain time so that the referee, or in this case the Keeper, can easily digest and prepare this information to impart to his players.

From reading Five Go Mad in Egypt, there can be no doubt that the author has an imagination and that he has applied it to the scenario, although rarely is it well expressed. This lack of clear expression only compounds the lack of technical skill in terms of writing scenarios. For example, there is no scenario background – the background section being given over to the history of an NPC who appears in the scenario’s opening scene as the investigators’ patron and then never again; the villain of the piece is not mentioned until page nine of the scenario at the end of said opening scene and you do not learn that he is undead until page sixty-four; six pages each are devoted to a chase through the halls of the British Museum and to just walking up the drive of the villain’s London home – six pages including photographs; important NPCs appear without rhyme, reason, or explanation, and events occur in a similar fashion...

The problem is this: the author is writing in a stream of consciousness. He has not given thought to how the Keeper is going to run Five Go Mad in Egypt, leaving the Keeper to make much, much needed reference to the sections at the rear of the Monograph. Primarily this will be to find out anything about the scenario’s plot which is outlined in the description of its main two NPCs – Doctor Nyugati and Marlene Delamere. In addition, the author is all too often concerned with how the investigators might think or feel, and with suggesting where they might like to go, such as the tentacle plant filled maze in the gardens of the villain’s London house.

The subject for Five Go Mad in Egypt comes from its subtitle, “Investigating the Sphinx Tomb.” The investigators are invited to attend a dinner at the British Museum where they will be hired to work as archaeologists, occultists, or security on the expedition to investigate a tomb beneath the Sphinx. While at the dinner, an artefact in possession of their host has to be stolen so that the investigators can run around the museum at night and discover that the thief was a Mummy donated to the British Museum by an American millionaire and philanthropist, Doctor Nyugati. The remainder of the scenario concerns itself with the chase after the good Doctor, encountering the various zombies and death traps that he has left in his wake. Eventually, the investigators will follow him into the Sphinx Tomb and there try and prevent him from summoning great Cthulhu and so ending the world.

Leaving the terrible writing and the linear nature of the scenario aside, the author’s grasp of the Mythos, at least as far as Call of Cthulhu is concerned, is poor. Why is Cthulhu being summoned in Egypt? Why is he being summoned in Egypt below the Sphinx, an artefact and monument known to be important to Nyarlathotep in Call of Cthulhu? Further, why coin a servitor Mythos race – the “Black Winged Ones” – when already suitable species exist, such as Byakhee and Hunting Horrors? Not to worry, because the Black Winged Ones are identified as Hunting Horrors at the rear of the book.

One area where Five Go Mad in Egypt attempts to outshine virtually almost every other release for Call of Cthulhu is in the number of handouts. None are included in the book itself, but the purchaser can download a 10.44 Mb, 140 page PDF that contains 138 handouts, most of them repeated from the book, but here repeated in full size. The problem is that, yes, you can have too much of a good thing. Nobody actually needs five photographs of Croydon Aerodrome, not the Keeper and certainly not his players. Croydon Aerodrome might, but no one else...

There is one last problem with Five Go Mad in Egypt and it is not the fault of the author. Rather, it is the fault of the publisher. Chaosium is supposed to exercise some control over the quality of the Monographs that it publishes. There is no evidence that any such quality control was exercised as far as Five Go Mad in Egypt is concerned. Further, because Monograph prices are set by their page count and because the text is double spaced and interspersed by innumerable photographs, the price of Five Go Mad in Egypt has been severely inflated.

Despite all of these issues, Five Go Mad in Egypt has the potential to be the “outline” for a very Pulpy scenario. Potential because it is not yet a fully fledged outline just as it is very far from being a proper scenario.

Ultimately, and despite the fact that its title is both brilliant and meaningless, Five Go Mad in Egypt: Investigating the Sphinx Tomb is underwritten and over padded, under organised and overpriced. That it is so bad is down to the author, but that it is so bad and available to buy is the fault of everyone at Chaosium.

Saturday 6 February 2010

Red Hook Take III

The scenario as a sequel in Call of Cthulhu to one of H.P. Lovecraft’s stories is nothing new. Many of the early adventures for the game were not surprisingly heavily inspired by Lovecraft’s writings and whole campaigns have been set around or after his stories, such as H.P. Lovecraft’s Dunwich and Beyond the Mountains of Madness – a sequel to At the Mountains of Madness. The latest entry into this small angle of the game is The Cold Case of Robert Suydam. Published by Super Genius Games, its full title should be After Lovecraft: The Horror at Red Hook – The Cold Case of Robert Suydam. This is first in a planned series from the publisher, each scenario to be released as a sequel to one of Lovecraft’s short stories and to include a copy of the appropriate short story itself within the pages of the book, both as inspiration for the Keeper and as a possible clue for the investigators.

The choice of “The Horror at Red Hook” is an odd one though. To begin with, it is not one of Lovecraft’s best, being an urban set tale of horror that unveils the author’s xenophobia whilst never involving the Mythos as we know it. Even Lovecraft was dissatisfied with the story, describing it as being “rather long and rambling, and I don't think it is very good” (H. P. Lovecraft, Selected Letters Vol. 2, p. 20; cited in Joshi and Schultz, p. 114.), while others have been less kind. Further, The Cold Case of Robert Suydam is not the first sequel to “The Horror at Red Hook” as both Chaosium, Inc. and Pelgrane Press have published sequel scenarios to it. “A Restoration of Evil” for Call of Cthulhu appeared bundled with the game’s Keeper’s Screen back in 2000, while “Return to Red Hook” appeared in the recent Arkham Detective Tales for Trail of Cthulhu.

“The Horror at Red Hook” relates the decline of a Brooklyn neighbourhood as it falls under the sway of a vile fertility cult. The cult’s growing power came from the knowledge of one Robert Suydam, a reclusive local medievalist whom the cult enticed into its clutches with promises of youthful vigour. The cult’s activities, in particular, a rash of child abductions did not go unnoticed resulting in an investigation into the cult and the eventual raid upon the cult’s underground basement lair by the authorities. Leading both the investigation and the raid was one Detective Thomas Malone, whose experiences in the basement forced him into retirement far from the towering buildings of New York. It is Detective Malone who relates much of the events of “The Horror at Red Hook.”

The Cold Case of Robert Suydam takes place some ten years after the events of “The Horror at Red Hook,” with the investigators hired by Marlene van Brunt via Detective Malone. As Robert Suydam’s only heir, she wants the investigators to trace the re-appearance of a book that was part of her uncle’s library and is about to go to auction. Not only that, Mrs van Brunt also wants them to see if the same source has other items that once belonged to her uncle and that she rightly believes to be hers. Tracing the source of the book, a copy of The Golden Bough, takes the investigators from the auction house to a pawnbrokers to a colourful vagrant living on Brooklyn’s docks. So far, so straightforward, but from here on in, things take a turn for the odd – in several ways...

Odd in that tracing the vagrant’s activities the investigators are lead back into the Red Hook district where they discover a band of depraved cannibal cultists, which in keeping with Lovecraft’s own attitudes are vile foreigners. Odd in that the investigators will soon realise that they are being monitored – by children. These children are cunning, if not clever, and the Keeper should have some fun in portraying the frustrating tricks that they will play against the investigators. Eventually though, if the scenario is to progress, the investigators will have to capture one of these urchins and interrogate him. If not a morally questionable manoeuvre, then interrogating a child is at least tasteless one and really, the author should have given another option for the investigators as well as suggesting the Sanity loss for such an action.

From the child, the investigators will learn that they take their instructions from a wonderfully smart and pretty girl, an orphan called Ellen. In confronting this angelic creature, they will also learn that not only are the children under her thrall, but so are a growing handful of adults, all of whom will do anything to protect their beloved charge. Acting against this “Orphan anti-Annie” will prove to be a great challenge to the investigators and essentially the wisest course of action is to watch and observe rather than act rashly. In doing so they will discover what Ellen is up to in the cellars and caverns below Red Hook... Stopping her is another matter entirely.

Despite the opening pages of The Cold Case of Robert Suydam explaining everything in almost laborious detail, the set up for the scenario is essentially left up to the Keeper to determine. It suggests that the investigators speak to Detective Malone after having read his manuscript, that is, The Horror at Red Hook; or alternatively, that the Keeper create an occult researcher who interviewed Malone and acts as a patrons of sorts for the investigators, directing them towards possible occult occurrences ripe for examination. It possible that this researcher be H.P. Lovecraft himself! Either way, the scenario assumes that the players will have read “The Horror at Red Hook” prior to, or shortly after, beginning play. While leaving the scenario’s beginning up to the Keeper to decide means that he is free to fit The Cold Case of Robert Suydam into his campaign however he wants, it also means that he has to make an extra effort in creating elements that could just have been provided by the author. Plus it leaves the scenario’s beginning as given as being weak and underwritten.

As with other Call of Cthulhu titles published by Super Genius Games, The Cold Case of Robert Suydam comes with its own set of pre-generated investigators. The four given consist of an English occultist/remittance man and his ex-boxer bodyguard; and a confidence trickster and his ex-boxer bodyguard. Each of the characters possesses the Cthulhu Mythos skill, unnecessarily so not only because these are starting characters and no starting character should ever have the skill, but also because no reason is given for these characters to possess such knowledge. All right so one investigator is a student of the occult, but this does not make him a student of the Mythos. Further it is absurd that such a character should have a Cthulhu Mythos skill of 15%, especially given that his Sanity is higher than its starting base. On the whole the members of investigative quartet manage to be excessively pulpy in nature and utterly dull to a caricature one and all. Which is no mean feat!

Physically, The Cold Case of Robert Suydam comes as a digest sized book with a reasonable layout and art that fails to impress. What lets the scenario down is its lack of maps. It has become a consistent problem with titles from Super Genius Games and by not including any maps, the publisher commits a fundamental error. The task of any piece of RPG writing is not just to impart the imagination of the author to the GM or Keeper, but also to help said GM or Keeper impart this imagination again to his players. The lack of maps gets in the way of this task and fundamentally makes the scenario just that little more difficult to run. It is not as if the book lacks space for the inclusion of these much-needed maps. After all, they could easily replace the art with the dual effect that (a), no one at large would have been any the wiser and (b), the scenario would have been made all the better and all the easier to run.

Oddly, the back cover blurb claims that The Cold Case of Robert Suydam “...[I]s the latest in the innovative line officially licensed Call of Cthulhu scenarios and supplements from Super Genius Games.” If The Cold Case of Robert Suydam is innovative at all, it is that it includes a copy of the text it is based upon within its pages. Yet if you consider that the text of At the Mountains of Madness was included in The Antarktos Cycle, a companion volume to be used as a Mythos tome when playing Beyond the Mountains of Madness, then the publisher’s claim that it is innovative is either nothing more than hyperbole or wilful ignorance of the game’s history. I like to think that it is more a case of the former than the latter.

The greatest weaknesses of The Cold Case of Robert Suydam are twofold. The first is that it is a very linear scenario, offering little in the way of flexibility in terms of player action. The second is worse, and that is unevenness in tone. The problem is that in parts the scenario is very pulpy in tone, in particular any scene involving the cannibal cultists and the lacklustre pre-generated investigators. Now, the source for the scenario, The Horror at Red Hook, is pulpy enough in style, but the scenario just over does this style and in doing so, is at odds with the tone elsewhere, in the investigations with regard to the enthralled children of Red Hook. Such scenes have the potential to be very creepy and while there is advice to that end, the scenario would be a more effective piece if the tone set by such advice had been applied throughout.

As the first entry in the “After Lovecraft” series, The Cold Case of Robert Suydam is an underwhelming affair. While the dreadful pre-generated investigators can be overlooked, the scenario’s  underwritten beginning, uneven tone, linear nature, and cartographic inadequacies do what deserves to be a creepy affair a great disservice, and so cannot be ignored. Though there is nothing to stop a Keeper from running this scenario as is, the likelihood being that he will get one or two sessions out of the scenario, After Lovecraft: The Horror at Red Hook – The Cold Case of Robert Suydam is not a scenario that I would recommend for that purpose. It is better suited to adjustment and crafting into something more suited to a Keeper’s own campaign.