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

Saturday 31 July 2010

Cthulhu Who?

Ken Hite is Call of Cthulhu’s number one fan. He might not own the number one copy of Call of Cthulhu, but is more than qualified to write what is essentially an initiate’s guide to Cthulhu and the Cthulhu Mythos. His Cthulhu 101: A Beginner’s Guide to the Dreamer in the Deep is that guide, a pocket-sized book from Atomic Overmind Press that explains who Cthulhu is, where he is from – both in and out of the fiction, what he does and does not do; who H.P. Lovecraft was, what he wrote, and what were his inspirations; discusses the good and the bad of August Derleth – kept Lovecraft’s writings in print, but wrote bad stories and claimed too much when it came to copyrights; all before suggesting an awful lot of bests and not-so bests. The best and not-so best stories, comics, movies, television, music, games, and toys, plus suggested next steps.

In places it gets as basic as, “How do you pronounce Cthulhu, exactly?” In others, its gets a little more complex, such as in the discussions of Lovecraft’s inspiration for his creation, and what exactly, Cthulhu might symbolise. For the most part Hite gives us just the facts, but Derleth does not come out of this in a wholly favourable light.

Much of Cthulhu 101 will be familiar, being too basic for some. Basic can still be useful though, a handy reference. It is easy to imagine Hite delivering this as the Power Point presentation from R’lyeh, so worth having.

Friday 23 July 2010

Dungeons & Deep Ones, Oh My!

Almost as I complain at the lack of a campaign to go with the otherwise excellent Sunken Empires, Open Design publishes a scenario that takes the adventurers quite literally From Shore to Sea. Designed for use with Paizo's Pathfinder RPG, it can be used with any variant of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, but its constant references to the Pathfinder Bestiary means that From Shore to Sea really is a Pathfinder adventure. Also, it is set in the Pathfinder default world of Golarion, but then it can just as easily be set elsewhere. More definite though, is the fact that it is written for a party of sixth level characters, it does take the heroes along the Hellmouth Gulf to reveal dark secrets of the ancient and lost Azlant Empire, and it does combine elements of high magic with the Innsmouth taint. Lastly, this review of From Shore to Sea brings to a close an opportune trilogy of sea borne reviews that began with Wrack & Rune, was continued with Sunken Empires and now comes to an end with this module.

More specifically, From Shore to Sea takes place in the diabolical empire of Cheliax, its events opening as the party is travelling along the road of the rugged and ragged coast of Hellmouth Gulf. Cries for help alert them to a fisherman being attacked by giant crabs, and after going to his aid, he appeals for their help. His village of Blackcove has been beset by creatures of the deep, things that shamble from the sea and steal the villagers by night. Can they investigate and put an end to the threat? Coming to the isolated village, the heroes find the remaining inhabitants cowed and holed up in the lighthouse. What little they can learn points towards Nal-Kashel, an island out in the Gulf that is traditionally visited by a bride and groom on their wedding night. Then again, can the problems that beset them be due to their pallid looks, their lank hair, and the hint of something batrachian in their features? Even as the party begins to elicit the events of the past few weeks from the recalcitrant and scared peoples of Blackcove, the lighthouse floods and tentacles thrust forward to steal yet more of the populace.

Nal-Kashel turns out to be very strange indeed. Remnants of towers orbit its skies, will-o’-wisps flit hither and thither, gillmen are herded to work, strange energies have warped the island into tiers, and the visitors find themselves taking on a corruption that hints at the island’s secrets. Discovering more of these secrets will take further investigations around the island, revealing some of the high magics of the Azlant Empire. Eventually though, the heroes will have to face the true villain behind the disappearance of the villagers of Blackcove, and in doing so will face a threat from Dungeons & Dragons’ ancient past.

What is obvious about From Shore to Sea is its inspiration, author H.P. Lovecraft’s “The Shadows Over Innsmouth” with its strange brine encrusted town and its offshore inhabitants, the Deep Ones. Bar the obvious appearance of Dagon, there is no appearance of the Mythos in this scenario and nor is it written in Call of Cthulhu mode. Here the adventurers are expected to be truly heroic and will not have to suffer the need to make Sanity checks, or indeed be sent mad by what they see. Naturally, the emphasis in this adventure is never far from combat, but a great deal of investigation is needed too, primarily among the strange ruins of Nal-Kashel.  In fact, the scenario could be played without anyone making the parallels with Innsmouth, but for those in the know, such parallels add a salt encrusted edge to its events.

In physical terms, From Shore to Sea is a slim booklet at thirty-two pages, but full colour is used throughout and it is printed on good glossy paper. The artwork is also good and the book as whole has a clean, tidy, and easy to read layout. If there is an issue with the writing, it is that it requires a slightly closer read than a more straight forward dungeon module might need. This it should be pointed out, is due to the weird nature of the adventure’s setting rather than the fault of the author. Structurally the scenario’s plot is fairly linear, with just a little room for deviation as the party explores the island.

As with other Pathfinder modules, From Shore to Sea uses the “medium XP advancement track,” and while there are plenty of Experience Points to be gained from defeating various creatures, the player characters will be rewarded for other actions as well. There is very little in the way of monetary or magical reward though, but what magical items there are to be found, are invariably a little different. They are not just left lying around though...

When it comes to Dungeons & Dragons, or indeed Pathfinder, the influence of the Cthulhu Mythos is relatively slight. It is there, but it is small, perhaps the best example being The Freeport Trilogy from Green Ronin Publishing. It is still is small, even a decade on, but From Shore to Sea hints at possibilities, both for Pathfinder and its setting of Golarion. To be fair, this is all that From Shore to Sea was intended to do, its main remit being to explore just a little of the secrets of the Azlant Empire. For the GM wanting to add more dark secrets to his campaign, From Shore to Sea is a good choice, its combination of high magic and the Innsmouth look being surprisingly effective, giving the former a certain unpalatable taint.

Election Lite

I have always had an interest in American Presidential politics, usually fuelled by the excellent coverage we get on radio and television here in the U.K. (I doubt that the reverse is as true...), so when I was looking for something to read the other week, I picked up a copy of Race of a Lifetime: How Obama Won the White House by Mark Halperin and John Heilemann. My interest peaked, I have begun re-watching the first season of The West Wing as well, which leaves only my politics and my gaming itches to be combined. Not wanting to get out and take the two hours necessary to play, I decided against the otherwise excellent 1960: The Making of the President, instead opting for Campaign Manager 2008.

Both games are from Z-Man Games and both are designed by Christian Leonhard and Jason Matthews who have also designed the forthcoming Founding Fathers, a multi-player game about the writing of the United States Constitution from Jolly Roger Games, another game that I am looking forward to. Not surprisingly, there are plenty of parallels between 1960: The Making of the President and Campaign Manager 2008. Both are two-player card driven games that simulate a US election, the first between Richard Nixon and John Kennedy in 1960, the second between John McCain and Barack Obama in 2008. Both are built around capturing the States necessary to gain the Electoral Votes that will vault the candidate into the White Office, but while the first has the candidates battling for all fifty States, the second concentrates on just twenty key or “battleground” states. This is the main difference between the two games, but Campaign Manager 2008 is also a much shorter game, with less of an emphasis on historical detail and the issues it was fought over.

Also, in Campaign Manager 2008, the players do not take the roles of the candidates, but their campaign managers, constructing and using a deck of cards to gain Support or voters and swing the issues in each of the twenty States at stake. The cards represent the strategy and the resources each manager has at hand, and each will be able to use them again and again as they are drawn from a refreshed deck. What cards and thus what resources a manager has to hand will also rise and fall – going all out to win that all important State will mean burning through resources that he will have to garner later on, leaving his opponent to win other States...

Opening up the box finds some ninety Campaign Strategy cards, twenty Breaking News event cards, twenty Battleground State tiles, a Scoring Chart, twenty Scoring Tiles, twenty-four wooden Support Markers, four wood Issue Markers, a single Going Negative die, the Going Negative Chart, plus an eight page Rule Book. All of these components are done in full colour, either on good card stock or in solid wood.

The focus of the game, essentially the playing area, are the twenty Battleground State tiles, ten of them the key target States for Obama, the other for McCain. They are Florida, Indiana, Iowa, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, and West Virginia for McCain, and Colorado, Michigan, New Hampshire, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Virginia, Washington, and Wisconsin for Obama.

Each Battleground State tile is three-and-a-half by five inches and depicts the State itself broken down into its voting districts, plus its abbreviation and the number of Electoral Votes it possesses. At the top and bottom of the State is an identical row of circular spaces in three colours representing the Voters in the State. Red circles support McCain, Blue support Obama, while white circles represent Undecided Voters. The row at the top of the State reflect the opinions of the Voters on the Defence Issue and is next to the Defence Symbol (a tank), while the bottom reflects their opinion on the Economy, likewise next the Economy Symbol (the almighty Dollar). Between the Defence and Economy Symbol on the left hand side of the State runs a four-space Issue Track. Throughout the contest for each State, the importance of each issue will change, reflected by an Issue Marker which will point towards the Defence or the Economy Symbol. The Issue that the Issue Marker points towards is the Majority Issue, while the one it points away from is the Minority issue. On the right hand side of a Battleground State tile are two spaces for Demographic Groups. Throughout the game, a Key Demographic marker sits in one of these spaces to indicate that it is the current Key Demographic in that State. It is possible to target the current Key Demographic to sway the State’s Undecided Voters (represented by empty white Voter spaces).

Taking Florida as an example, it provides twenty seven Electoral Votes, and its Key Demographics are either Jewish Conservatives or Latinos. Along the top and bottom are five Voter spaces. Alongside the Defence Issue they break down as two Red (McCain), one Blue (Obama), and two White (Undecided), while alongside the Economy Issue they break down as two Red (McCain), two Blue (Obama), and one White (Undecided). In order to win a State, all of its Voters need must support his Candidate in the Majority Issue. In general, McCain is stronger on Defence issues, while Obama is stronger on the Economy.

In order to win a State, a Campaign Manager has to play Campaign Strategy cards gain both Voters and shift the Issue Marker to the Issue that has most Voters in. There are ninety of these cards, divided equally between the two campaign managers, with blue backs for the Democrats and Red for the Republicans. Each Campaign Strategy card lists its type, its title, and its game instructions, along with an appropriate photograph and some colour text, the latter a note to the campaign manager’s team. For example, “Judgement To Lead” is an “Advertising: Minority Issue” type card for Obama. In game terms it provides one Support (or a Voter) in the Minority Issue of a single State and shifts the Issue Tracker in that State one space towards its Minority Issue. The photograph shows Obama at a podium with the attached note, “We need to contrast McCain’s experience against BHO’s judgement.”

Some Campaign Strategy cards are marked with the symbol of a six-sided die. When this card is played it indicates that the campaign has gone Negative. The card in question is invariably highly effective, but playing it has consequences, providing a random benefit to a campaign manager’s opponent. The effect in question, including adding Support, shifting an Issue, or altering the Key Demographic in a State, as well as allowing the opposing campaign manager to draw extra cards is determined randomly by rolling the die against the Going Negative Chart.

There are also twenty Breaking News event cards, representing random events that come into play when a State is won and a new one enters play. Each of these comes into play once per game and usually applies to the new State, unless one campaign manager has a Media Support Campaign Strategy card in play, in which case he can control which State it affects. For example, the “Campaign Fatigue?” Breaking News – breaking on ZNN or Z-Man Network News, that is – forces the removal of all Support (Voter) markers from the affected State.

Lastly, there is the rule book itself. It is easy to ready, explains everything clearly, and makes the game easy to both understand and teach.

Setting up the game is quick and easy. Each player chooses two Battleground State tiles and places them in the middle of table adding the Key Demographic and Issue Markers as indicated on each tile. Each campaign manager then drafts from the forty five Campaign Strategy cards that he has available to him, a deck of fifteen cards. This is the Campaign Deck that he will use throughout the game. From this Campaign Deck, he draws a starting hand of three cards. If neither player wants to go through the draft process or chose their initial Battleground States, then the game come with quicker set up solution that also works for those new to the game. Fifteen of the Campaign Strategy cards for each candidate are marked with a star, as are two of the Battleground State tiles for each candidate – Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and New Jersey. Each candidate will play the game using these fifteen Campaign Strategy cards and start play using the two starred Battleground State tiles.

Once set up is done, for example, with the beginning States of Florida, Michigan, Missouri, and New Jersey, the campaign begins. On his turn, a campaign manager can undertake just one action. He can either play a Campaign Strategy card or he can draw one from his deck. He will need to do the latter because he will quickly use up the cards in his hand, the trick being to know when. Having more cards in your hand gives a campaign manager more options, allowing him to increase Support for his candidate in a particular State or to respond to his opponent’s activities. Fortunately, some Campaign Strategy cards allow an extra card to be drawn after it has been played, thus ensuring that a campaign manager has options in his hand. A campaign manager also has to be careful when to play Campaign Strategy cards that force him to Go Negative – as powerful as they are, and as useful as they are in grabbing that all important big State, they do have consequences.

Play continues until a State is won. Its winner gains its Electoral Votes which are marked with the Scoring Tile that corresponds to the State in question, the Scoring Tile being placed on the Scoring Chart. Essentially, the Scoring Chart looks like the kind of graphic you would find on television on its coverage of an election night. The Scoring Tiles do not quite fit on the Chart, but this is more a problem of the tags being left on each Tile after their having been punched out. To be fair, both players only need to know their positions relative to each other and what matters is who gains those all too important two and seventy Electoral Votes. This is how a Presidential Election and Campaign Manager 2008 are both won.

The winner of a State also gets to chose which new Battleground State is added to the fray. A Breaking News card is drawn and its effects are applied to the new State. Play continues as normal.

Play in Campaign Manager 2008 tends to ebb and flow. Not just in the way in which Campaign Strategy cards pass through each players’ hands, but the way in which momentum can be gained and lost as one campaign manager wins a State and is able to bring another of his target Battleground States. It also offers each player plenty of choice: what Campaign Strategy cards to draft, when to play or draw a card, which States to target or defend, and then which new State to bring out.

A game of Campaign Manager 2008 is supposed to last about forty five minutes, although we found that it generally lasts longer. Each of the games we have played has been very tight, invariably coming down to a single State that would win either candidate the Presidency. The wins have also been balanced between McCain and Obama, no candidate having a real advantage over the other. Thematically, Campaign Manager 2008 feels a little odd. It is strong in terms of handling an actual Presidential Election, but not that strong in terms of the 2008 US Election. What this means is that there is less opportunity or reason for “table talk,” to really bring out the personalities and issues of the campaign in roleplaying terms. Conversely, this means that the election’s politics do not get in the way of the game. Of course, this is not an issue with the longer, deeper 1960: The Making of the President.

From our plays, we were also unsure about the game’s card mechanics. They do add a strong resource management aspect to the game, their movement through a campaign manager’s hand representing the ebb and flow of resources and stratagems available, but we have been experimenting with being able to draw from all of a campaign manger’s Campaign Strategy cards, adding a draw phase at the end of a player’s turn. It makes for a faster game, but does mean that the ebb and flow feel of the game is reduced.

What Campaign Manager 2008 really offers is solid thoughtful play for two players in something longer than a filler game, but shorter than a bigger game. Its theme is strong enough that it really does feel as if you are battling out for the Presidential Election, but without the raucous nature and politics of the actual election and its issues getting in the way. The game play is simple, but the ideas underlying the game are complex and require the players to think about their decisions rather than rely on luck. If neither you nor your opponent has $2.4 billion between them, Campaign Manager 2008 is about the quickest, easiest, cheapest way to see if you can become the leader of the free world.

Sunday 18 July 2010

Add Depth To Your Shallows

Taking your average Dungeons & Dragons character and dropping him into the ocean and what you get is, well, for want of a better term, “a fish out of water.” The problems that arise when a character takes to the sea are threefold. First, his movement is restricted – he is no longer walking but swimming. Second, his weapons are no longer as effective – thrusting, piercing weapons work better than those that cut or bludgeon. Third, it is no longer the right atmosphere for him – few if any, player character races can breathe underwater. Although it is possible for a character to take feats and acquire magic items that allow him to take to a life in the deep, the problem with that is that it means that he is limited on both land and at sea. The option then is to take the whole campaign to sea, which is what Sunken Empires: Treasures and Terrors of the Deep, the latest supplement from Open Design for the Pathfinder RPG does, but rather than focus on a life on the ocean waves, it dives off the coast and into Dungeons & Dragons’ ancient past.

There is a very archaeological feel to this book, exploring as it does the upper reaches of the lost sunken city of Ankeshel and above it, the twin towns of Cassadega, the upper established by sages to study the undersea ruins, the lower by Merfolk to handle trade with the surface folk. Just eighty years ago, the opening of the tomb of priest-king Thalassos IV revealed incredible artefacts, pieces of technology long lost, including weapons such as spears, nets, and tridents powered by Vril Batteries. In the years since, Cassadega has become a haven for both sages and treasure seekers, the town growing to support both...

Although Ankeshel serves as an adventuring location and Cassadega as a base for those adventures, neither are never more than sketched out in Sunken Empires, but their inclusion serves as example of what the DM could create, and almost every element in the supplement easily supports this setting, not one of those elements is so tied to the setting that he not could use them in his own campaign. This shows a certain lightness of touch in both the intent of Sunken Empires and upon the part of authors.

All of this is underpinned by the Classics. The Classics in Dungeons & Dragons terms with not only a discussion of the ecology of the Aboleth, the Lawful Evil eel-like psionically capable Aberrations that first appeared in I1, Dwellers in the Forbidden City back in 1981 (which also introduced the Yuan-ti), but also “A History of the Aboleth.” This is written by the author of I1, Dwellers in the Forbidden City and the creator of the Aboleth, David “Zeb” Cook, and serves as the introduction to Sunken Empires. The Classics in terms of classic lost civilisations, as the supplement examines in turn, Atlantis, Lemuria, and Mu with a nod to H.P. Lovecraft along the way, drawing elements and aspects from each to create Ankeshel.

In order for an adventurer to explore Ankeshel or other sunken locale, Sunken Empires introduces the Pelagic Class, each a variation upon the core classes – for whichever version of Dungeons & Dragons 3.5, you are using – adapted to work and explore beneath the waves. For example, the Pelagic Barbarian is pearl diver or whaler from the islands, who can swim like a shark and grapple like a kraken, while the Sorcerer can be born with the bloodline of the Aboleth, the ocean itself, or Ankeshel’s Vril energy. These Pelagic Classes are supported with a range of aquatically themed Feats, plus oceanic Domains for the Cleric and Glyph schools – which let a Wizard store his magic into inscribed esoteric symbols – for the Wizard, while the new player character race, the Maeran or Half-Merfolk, is a perfect addition if the DM intends to take his campaign back and forth between Upper and Lower Cassadega, and then down into Ankeshel beyond.

The H.P. Lovecraft references continue with the inclusion of Shoggoth Polyps – grow your own Shoggoth, anyone? – in the various lists of aquatic equipment and lost technologies. Once a GM takes his game to the waters, the various devices and weapons here will get plenty of use. There are gaff hooks and sawfish swords, suits of sharkskin armour complete with a snapping shark jaw helmet, a deep compass which always points up, sea rot powder which will rust any iron or steel it touches, and the new Cassadegan electromagnetic coil and cryothermic guns – built upon Ankeshelian relics – that will have a player champing at the bit to own and use. Equally, the DM will enjoy outfitting his villains with the new items described in Sunken Empires, some of which do verge upon being quite pulpy in nature.

Magic has a chapter all its very own, providing new spells aplenty for all of the core classes and magic items for all. Both of these continue the marine theme, with detailed spells such as Defy Depth and Ink Cloud, but Wizard’s Glyph schools and the associated spells given here are just likely to find a home in land based campaigns as they are in ocean based ones. Of the magic items, many are enchanted versions of equipment already described, but many are quite specific. There are Sharktooth Daggers and Stingray Whips, Buoyant Chests and Everbreath Masks, Obscuring Sands and Octopus Bracers – instant tentacles! – but by far, one item stands out as it continues the book’s Cthulhu references. Actually the reference is more octopoid than Cthulhuesque, the Tentacled Shield possessing tentacles that can be commanded by the wielder to animate and attempt to disarm an opponent!

For the GM there is a chapter on running a Sunken Empires campaign, which guides him through the possibilities and dangers of running an underwater game level by level and describes the hazards to be found between the shore and the Underdeep. He also has a handful of new monsters to throw at his players, from the humble Goblin Shark to the Isonade, a gargantuan beast that delights in the destruction of seaside communities. There are new Familiars too, such as the Horseshoe Crab, the Blue-Ringed Octopus, and the Sea Horse, perfect for the Wizard who does not want to get his Weasel wet.

Physically, Sunken Empires is a fantastic looking book. The artwork, even though done by several artists, has a uniformly heavy style and a feel of foreboding throughout. The cartography is equally as good, but you just know that both the book’s maps and many of its illustrations would look even better in colour.

As an aside, Sunken Empires begins with an excerpt from a Derro A-B-C nursery rhyme, which begs the question, exactly where can I find the rest of it? Or is it being saved for a Derro sourcebook? My musings aside, what do I think of Sunken Empires? To begin with, not one of its eighty pages goes to waste, each and every one them being packed to the gills with useful information – information that the authors manage to keep in perfect balance between being setting specific and generic in nature. That the information builds nicely upon classic Dungeons & Dragons elements will be enjoyed by the long time fan of that game, that the information is developed into the basis for a campaign all of its very own will be appreciated by all.

With the potential to add new depths to the shallows of your campaign, Sunken Empires: Treasures and Terrors of the Deep literally the only thing that this supplement is missing is a full campaign of scenarios set in Cassadega and Ankeshel.

Saturday 10 July 2010

Look Up! Look up!

As much as I enjoy Call of Cthulhu, there are several aspects to it that are better addressed by its more modern licensed counterpart, Trail of Cthulhu. Published by Pelgrane Press and designed by Ken Hite using the GUMSHOE System first seen in Robin D. Laws’ Esoterrorists, what Trail of Cthulhu handles better is the discovery of clues (if an investigator has the appropriate skill, he gets the clue, if he wants more information, he can spend points on it), investigator motivations with Drives (which explain why the ordinary person would look into something as terrible and as alien as the Mythos), and in some ways, the feel of the game. Call of Cthulhu veers towards a Pulp style of play, with investigators often being able to recover the Sanity that they lost from encountering a Mythos entity and when they did encounter said entity, it was the application of gunfire that defeated it. While Trail of Cthulhu can do the Pulp style, its natural inclination is towards Purist style in which each Mythos entity is less quantifiable, that there is no way in which an investigator can regain Sanity lost to a Mythos encounter, and in which any resort to the use of firearms is futile. Of course, the Purist style does lend itself to the one-shot scenario rather than the continued campaign, but that is not necessarily a bad thing.

Of the Purist style scenarios released to date, the best has been The Dying of St. Margaret’s by Graham Walmsley. An investigation into the events at a grey and soulless all girls’ school on a remote Scottish island, the scenario proved to be a wonderfully bleak affair that made effective use of the investigators’ Drives to push and pull them in, and their Credit Rating scores to provide different avenues of investigation. Walmsley has now followed up The Dying of St. Margaret’s with The Watchers in the Sky, an affair that will draw disparate men and women to the North of England and into the clutches of a cult dedicated to a strange biology. As with The Dying of St. Margaret’s, this is another two-session or so one-shot complete with pre-generated investigators. It includes guidelines for creating suitable investigators if a player wants one of his own design. To be honest though, the characters are suitable for the scenario and creating a new investigator just delays the start of the game. Lastly and unlike The Dying of St. Margaret’s, this scenario does not contain any rules for running it in the Pulp style, but to be equally as honest, their presence would be superfluous.

Whether the players are using the five pre-generated investigators or not, The Watchers in the Sky begins with three hooks that bring them together at Brichester University. In South London, they find that an inmate at an asylum is paranoid that the birds he feeds are watching him while at a nearby scientific laboratory, others find their experiments are disrupted by strange misshapen birds that watch constantly. Lastly, at Brichester University the dissection of an unknown bird reveals a strange biology. What exactly is the secret behind these birds, each one constructed from human, animal and alien body parts?

It requires a little effort upon the part of the GM to bring the five investigators together, and to get them to the Lake District village of Rydal, replete with initially recalcitrant villagers and secrets to share... This required effort is the first of two issues of concern with The Watchers in the Sky. It is that in places, the scenario is heavy handed in getting its players and their investigators need to be. The other issue is that not everything in the scenario is explained, that what exactly is going on in The Watchers in the Sky actually remains as mystery. Neither of these issues it should be made clear have a crippling effect upon the scenario, though a less experienced group of players might find both experiences frustrating. The inclusion of the mystery is intentional, the author both wanting to keep the Mythos unknowable and to leave the players to wonder at the mystery, if not fill in the blanks themselves...

The author has some fun with the game’s Stability rules, introducing an alternative rule called “Drive yourself Crazy” that suggests the players take control of when their investigators suffer Stability loss rather than the GM, their being encouraged to call for Stability Checks rather than the GM hand them out. Throughout the pages of The Watchers in the Sky, the points at which Stability can be lost are clearly marked. Further, the author suggests in effect that the process be turned into a race between the players to see which of their investigators go mad first. The aim here is to have the GM and players alike explore the unwritten point of the Purist game – to drive the investigators mad.

As with The Dying of St. Margaret’s, the author also makes use of Directed Scenes to flesh out NPCs, the primary purpose these being to strengthen the links that each investigator has with his or her Sources of Stability. He also suggests that the other players be allowed, even be encouraged to have them to take the roles of friendly NPCs in these scenes. This push to get everyone involved – whether their investigators are involved in a scene or not, together with the fact that each of the scenario’s major NPCs is succinctly sketched out, complete with suggestions as to how he or should be portrayed, is indicative of Walmsley’s acting and improvisation background.

The GUMSHOE System means that finding clues in Trail of Cthulhu is very easy, yet it is made even easier in The Watchers in the Sky. For each clue there are at least two suggestions given as what skills can be applied and an explanation as how they are applied along with a result. These explanations almost work as mini-scenes in themselves, fitting alongside the other scenes in the scenario.

Available as a thirty-six page, greyscale 12.98 Mb PDF, in terms of presentation The Watchers in the Sky is up to the standards of other Trail of Cthulhu titles. It needs an edit here and there, but such errors are minor. Similarly, while not all of Jérôme Huguenin’s art quite matches the description in the text, each and every single illustration is an excellent, sometimes sombre and foreboding piece of art.

Despite some reservations about how heavy handed and lacking in explanation the less experienced will find this scenario, there is a lot to like in The Watchers in the Sky. As with the author’s earlier The Dying of St. Margaret’s, it focuses upon another aspect of the investigator rules in Trail of Cthulhu. In The Dying of St. Margaret’s, that focus was upon an investigator’s Drive, what made him look into the Mythos, but in The Watchers in the Sky it is his Sources of Stability, what keeps him grounded in our perceived reality. That said, this focus is more understated, the players being expected to become aware of certain coincidences and parallels as the events of The Watchers in the Sky unfold. The mood is also different, this scenario being more odd, more mysterious, more weird than The Dying of St. Margaret’s, which was bleak and grey in comparison.

Lastly it should pointed that since this is a one-shot scenario, and thus comes with its own set of epilogues, the format is not unlike that of a short story, except that it is roleplayed through rather than read. Another fine example of the Purist style, what The Watchers in the Sky offers then is a chance for the players to encounter the mysterious and the unknowable whilst playing out their own weird tale.

Away From The Dungeon

I do not have a group that plays “Edition 0” at moment, though this does not stop me from wanting to leap into the Old School Renaissance and run some old fashioned, back-to-basics Dungeons & Dragons. The desire all too often means that what I look at when it comes to scenarios are all designed to played with characters of first level. Thus I have looked at, and reviewed, titles such as Death Frost Doom and The Grinding Gear, all written for low level characters, but there are of course, scenarios written for levels beyond first, so it would only be fair to look at those too. For my first, I chose Wrack & Rune, an adventure for a party of four to six characters of between fourth and sixth level.

Published by Faster Monkey Games, Wrack & Rune is ostensibly compatible with all “Edition 0” games, but has been written for use with Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord and not only makes use of that RPG’s core book, but also its Advanced Edition Companion, the supplement that makes Labyrinth Lord more like Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. The scenario is set in Faster Monkey Games’ Eastern Valnwell campaign setting, but there is nothing to stop the Labyrinth Lord or GM from dropping it into his own campaign world. All that this requires is a civilised country with a coastal region that is prone to heavy storms.

The adventure begins in Wrack, an insular and unwelcoming fishing village on the Eel Bight, a bay known for its heavy fogs, treacherous currents, steep cliffs, and shoal waters. The party has been sent there by the wizard Meldime who wants them to look for the Lady Elaine, the ship that was due to deliver an articled stone statue from the Dwarves for his new tower at Cobble Point, but which is now overdue. The adventurers have just given ten days to bring him news of the lost ship and if they can deliver the statue in good condition, the wizard has promised to reward them each a magic item.

While in Wrack, the party learns of Keyshilan, an island that appears during the heavy fogs of spring and autumn that is purported to let the fey folk travel to their undersea winter kingdom of Shiriyak. The locals say that the fey folk capture anyone who comes too close to the island, so avoid setting to sea at these times, but ships are still lost during these fogs. Given the time restraints placed upon the adventurers by Meldime, they have little time to hang around in the village, but with some good roleplaying, the adventurers can learn that a ship recently went down in the Eel Bight. The question is, if this was the Lady Elaine, did she sail too close to Keyshilan? This is knowledge enough for the party to hire the Sea Vulture and her slightly scurvy crew commanded by Captain Morton, who together mostly make their living from salvage.

Once the party takes to the sea in search of the Lady Elaine, the adventure becomes more freeform in nature with the course of events primarily determined by the players’ actions. It also takes on a logistical aspect as not only do the heroes have to locate the wreck and verify that she is indeed the wreck of the Lady Elaine, they also have to search the sea bed for the statue and haul its various parts up onto the deck of the Sea Vulture. Wrack & Rune gives rules for handling each of these processes, as well as several means by which the characters can more easily, though not necessarily more safely, explore the sea bottom around Wrack. There is also one new magic item, a Potion of Sea Change, and two new monsters for Labyrinth Lord, the Dolphin and the Large Octopus. The players will probably have fun with the potion as it polymorphs a person into a random aquatic creature better suited to working under the sea. Which might mean a creature with fins rather than hands and of course, no voice for casting spells...

One of the secrets in Wrack & Rune is that the adventurers are not up against one deadline – that one being Meldime’s time limit before he reduces their fee, but two. This second is the imminent arrival of Keyshilan and the revelation as to the island’s true nature. Although not the only threat in Wrack & Rune, the others being the undersea environment, Captain Morton’s greed, and various aquatic predators who will take an interest in the party’s activities, but it is the major one. Much like the film Jaws, the Labyrinth Lord should keep Keyshilan and its mystery an ever present threat in background while the characters are at sea, ratcheting up the tension as the climax approaches...

Available just as 5.02 Mb, sixteen page PDF, Wrack & Rune is a cleanly presented affair. The only spot of colour is on the front cover and the map, and while only clip art is used to illustrate the adventure, all of it is well chosen. Steve Zieser’s cover illustration is nicely evocative of the threats to be faced though, depicting the wreck of the Lady Elaine. There is one last issue, and that is with the title. The “Rune” of Wrack & Rune does not refer to a rune in the sense that most gamers would think. It is not a character from an ancient script or alphabet such as that often used by the Dwarves or by wizards to inscribe magical effects, but is rather an aphorism or in the case of the scenario, a poem with mystical elements. In other words, there is poetry in this scenario.

If Wrack & Rune has flaws, they are at least minor. It is perhaps lacking in terms of staging advice and in the descriptions of the default setting of Eastern Valnwell, to an English sensibility, it does feel as if the author is trying too hard in some of the names chosen and in the personalities of the NPCs. Nevertheless, the adventure is nicely balanced between roleplaying and interaction elements at the start and the logistical, time limited elements of the dive on the wreck, and it should provide two good sessions of gaming. Overall, Wrack & Rune is a solid, well written scenario that takes the adventurers away from the dungeon and presents them with an interesting challenge.

Tuesday 6 July 2010

So This Is It...

Over the past few years, there has been a trend in board games wherein the players have not been competing against each other, but instead co-operate together against the game itself. For fans of the Cthulhu Mythos, Arkham Horror can be included amongst their number, alongside such other titles as Space Alert, Shadows Over Camelot, Red November, and Battlestar Galactica. It should be pointed out though, that both Shadows Over Camelot and Battlestar Galactica add in an element of treachery with at least one player being a traitor. The game I am going to review though, is purely co-operative and lacks that traitorous element – unless of course, you happen to purchase the expansion – but be warned, in playing you do hold the fate of humanity in your hands and that fate is damned difficult to avoid. The game in question is Z-Man Games’ Pandemic.

Designed for two to four players aged ten and up, in Pandemic the players take the role of specialists working for the CDC or Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, the United States Federal Agency tasked with dealing with health, safety, and research as well as having to combat the outbreak of various virulent diseases. At the start of any game of Pandemic, the specialists will be faced with the outbreak of not one, but four diseases across the globe. They have an hour’s worth of nerve wracking game play in which to not only find cures for all four diseases, but also to prevent mankind from being overwhelmed by any one of them and thus wiped out. They will need to husband their resources, conduct enough research, and get to the right cities to treat the victims and so contain any further outbreaks if they are to win and mankind is to survive. There is only one way to win Pandemic – find a cure for all four diseases, but multiple ways in which to lose. It is a hard, sometimes a very hard game to win, but all too easy to loose...

Inside Pandemic’s surprisingly small box can be found a board, ninety-six wooden cubes, five pawns, six wooden Research Stations, six card markers, over one hundred cards, plus the eight-page rulebook. Everything is done in full colour with sturdy wooden pieces and hard wearing cards. The board itself depicts the Earth marked with the major cities of world and the routes between them. The cities are divided between four colour-coded zones: blue (North America and Europe), black (Eurasia, India, and North Africa), red (Asia and Australia), and yellow (Hispanic America and Sub-Saharan Africa). The board also has room for the game’s two decks of cards and its various markers. The six markers are divided four cure markers – one for each of the game’s four diseases, and one each to indicate the Infection Rate and the number of Outbreaks.

The cards are primarily divided between two decks, one of Infection Cards and one of Player Cards. For each of the cities on the board there is corresponding card in both decks, but where the Infection Deck only has cards that show a city, the Player Deck also contains special cards (which give the players a one time advantage when played) and Infection Cards (which indicate a new occurrence of a disease and increase the number of infection cards drawn). Each of the five Role Cards grants a player an extra ability that allows him to break the game’s basic rules. For example, the Medic role card lets a player treat all of the disease cubes of one colour in a city as a single action, rather than having to expend an action to cure a single disease cube. The other roles include the Dispatcher (who can move the other players around the board), the Operations Manager (who can build Research Stations wherever he is), the Researcher (who can freely give cards to another player when they are in the same city), and the Scientist (who needs fewer cards to cure a disease).

Lastly, there are four Reference Cards – these list possible player actions, and of course, the disease cubes. These are divided between the four colours – blue, black, red, and yellow – that match the coloured zones on the board. A disease of one colour will only appear in its matching zone unless an outbreak occurs and it infects a city in an adjacent zone.

Game set up takes a little doing. Each player randomly selects his Role and receives two Player Cards. The remainder of the Player Deck is seeded with Epidemic Cards, the number setting the difficulty for the game, five being average difficulty. Everyone starts play in Atlanta – the headquarters for the CDC – along with a single Research Station. Nine Infection Cards are drawn and each of the cities that they show is seeded with disease cubes. These nine cards are reshuffled and placed back on top of the Infection Deck. This is an important feature of the game, previously drawn Infection Cards being reshuffled and placed back on top of the Infection Deck each time an Epidemic Card is drawn from the Player Deck, indicative of the fact that once a city has been infected, that it can be re-infected.

Each player’s turn has three phases. In the first phase, he can act, having four action points to spend on movement, on treating diseases, on building Research Stations, or on the special actions listed on his Role Card. In moving, he can simply move from one city to the next or use a Player Card to move to or from the city given on that card. In doing so, he discards the card in question. To treat a disease, a player uses up one action and removes one disease cube from the city he is in. A player needs to have the Player Card for the city that he is in if he wants to build a Research Station there, discarding the card in the process. A player can give a Player Card to another player, but to do so both players have to be in the city marked on the card. Lastly, a player can cure a disease simply by discarding five Player Cards of the same colour whilst at a Research Station – or four cards if the player is the Scientist.

The draw phase follows this, a player simply drawing two new Player Cards. A turn ends with the Infection Phase, in which a number of cards equal to the Infection Rate are draw and single disease cubes added to the cities shown on the cards. At the beginning of the game the Infection Rate is just two, but this will increase up to three and then four as Epidemic Cards are drawn from the Player Deck. The maximum number of disease cubes of any one colour allowed on a city is three. If a disease cube is added to city that already has three – which will happen because cities are likely to be re-infected – an Outbreak proper occurs there. The Outbreak Track goes up by one and each city linked to the Outbreak location is infected by a single disease cube. In the process, it is possible to infect an adjacent city that already has three disease cubes on it and set off a chain reaction...

If an Epidemic Card was drawn during the draw phase, its effects take place before the Infection Phase. It moves the Infection Marker up by one and adds three disease cubes to a new city drawn from the bottom of the Infection Deck. This new Infection Card is added to the discard pile of Infection Cards which is shuffled and placed back on top of the Infection Deck. The Infection Phase continues as normal, except for the fact that cities already infected are likely to be infected again!

So how do you win? Simply by finding cures for all four diseases.

So one way to win, but three ways to lose. A game of Pandemic can be lost if the Outbreak Tracker goes up too high; if the Player Deck is exhausted; or if all of the disease cubes of one colour are out on the board.

If that all sounds very mechanical, then it is. In fact, Pandemic has to be very mechanical because the game has to run itself while the players try and stop this process. And stopping that process takes no little thought and no little effort, which is of course, is made easier because a player is encouraged to seek the advice of his fellow players who are expected to suggest his next best course of action.

Even at best and with that advice, the players are fighting a losing battle. They can never quite get on top of the diseases before an Epidemic Card is drawn and cities begin being re-infected. This leads to a certain amount of Infection Card counting, the players trying to balance their actions between the location of the Disease Cubes already on the board and the Infection Cards that have yet to be drawn. This is because the top cards of Infection Deck are going to be drawn and then refreshed when an Epidemic Card is drawn, giving the opportunity for the players to learn those top cards. The other balancing act is between trying to treat diseases and collecting enough Player Cards, the latter made more difficult because a player can only hold seven Player Cards in his hand.
Of course, once you have managed to cure a disease, everything gets slightly easier. It becomes easier to treat, more so if you have the Medic in play, who no longer has to act to treat, merely pass through a city infected by that disease. If the players manage to develop a cure for a disease and remove all of its cubes from the board, it is eradicated and will not appear again. So any Infection Cards drawn of that colour have no effect. Eradicating a disease is admirable, but rarely is it worth the effort – there being too much else to do.

Despite all of this difficulty, Pandemic is still a good game. Game play is very tense, but also very quick because you do not have that all much to do on your turn. Plus, when it is not your turn, you are still kept busy, discussing with everyone what both you and they should be doing. In fact the game is so quick that it is usually completed in less than an hour. One downside is that the discussion between players can be dominated by a single player, especially if the other players are not as experienced with the game. This lessens though the more times that it is played. The other downside is that it is so very difficult. Of course, the difficulty can be decreased by reducing the number of Epidemic Cards that can be drawn, but once you have beaten the game at one difficulty, you will only want to try at a greater difficulty. The big plus though, comes when you do succeed. The feeling of having beaten all four diseases and saved mankind is not only fantastic, it is also a relief.

I will go further than saying that Pandemic is a good game – it is a great game, a classic even. It is not difficult to learn or hard to play, but is difficult to master or rather beat the game itself. It also keeps everyone involved and it demands that you play intelligently. Pandemic is just simply and frustratingly brilliant.

[As a side note and to keep it within the Reviews from R’lyeh theme, there is even an unofficial variant that re-imagines the players not as specialists working for the CDC, but investigators holding back the forces of the Mythos. Think of the disease cubes as cults devoted to things that man was not meant to know and outbreaks as summoning and you get the idea... In the meantime, the designer of this game has new co-operative board game called Forbidden Island which I reviewed last month.]