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

Friday 31 December 2010

Reviving the Unspeakable

Almost ten years ago I had the pleasure of reviewing the last issue of Pagan Publishing’s The Unspeakable Oath, the fanzine for Chaosium, Inc.’s Call of Cthulhu that for a decade had been bringing a more adult approach to both the game and the Cthulhu Mythos. The fanzine, by then more of a professional magazine than something that a fan might publish, had already been on hiatus for four years when issue #16/17 appeared. Sadly it was to go on hiatus again, this time for even longer. Its absence has been much mourned, so it was with no little joy that the game’s devotees greeted the announcement of its return. Even better, the new issue, #18 is now available as a PDF and physical copies will be wending their way to subscribers and contributors shortly. Mention of those contributors does mean that I need to make a confession as being amongst them, having contributed several reviews to the magazine’s regular reviews column, “The Eye of Light & Darkness.” Given how much I like The Unspeakable Oath and always have, and in particular, always liked its reviews, I do feel ever slightly both humbled and pleased to have so many of my own appear in this issue. Fortunately, Brian M. Sammons provides a pair of frothier film and book reviews to counterpoint my all too dry game reviews.

The subtitle for The Unspeakable Oath #18 is “A Digest of Arcane Lore for Cthulhu Mythos Roleplaying Games,” thus reflecting the changes in the gaming hobby since its last appearance in that there are five games available that do Lovecraftian Investigative Horror as well as a handful of publishers supporting Call of Cthulhu itself with new scenarios and sourcebooks. While this subtitle suggests much, only Call of Cthulhu itself is supported within the pages of the magazine. Perhaps future issues will do more than that, but that it only supports Call of Cthulhu should not be held against The Unspeakable Oath #18 as the ideas and material to be found within its pages are easily adapted to most of the other games of Lovecraftian Investigative Horror.

Physically, The Unspeakable Oath #18 is available as an eighty-two page greyscale magazine or as 13.06 Mb PDF. Its layout is clean, simple, and tidy compared to the most “recent” issues, its look echoing the fanzine styling of early issues. If on the one hand there is perhaps a little too much white page evident, then on the other, at least the text has room to breathe rather than having been crammed into its pages. One issue is with the art which sometimes feels overused – not repeated, but rather given too much space.

As ever the magazine consists of several regular features – Arcane Artefacts, Mysterious Manuscripts, Tales of Terror, and of course, the aforementioned, The Eye of Light and Darkness – slotted around a set of feature articles. Of the Arcane Artefacts I prefer Adam Gauntlett’s “The Chinaman’s Screen” to Dan Harms “The Forgotten” if only for the fact that it is designed to be just and implementing that in game is never going to be easy. The issue’s single Mysterious Manuscript, “The Branchly Numbers Edit” by Pat Harrigan gives such an obvious take on a very modern phenomenon, that of the Numbers Stations [http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Numbers_stations], that I am surprised that nobody has thought of it before. Nevertheless, a pleasingly modern manuscript is the result. John Scott Tynes contributes the first of the scenario seeds that are the Tales of Terror with “Mr. Popatov,” a puppet that could be something more, while Pat Harrigan’s second contribution, “Slight Return,” is an intriguing situation perfect for a long running Delta Green campaign. Crossroads are always dangerous places, and nevermore so – or not in “House of Hunger” by Monte Cook. Much the same can be said of art galleries, at least in Call of Cthulhu, as evidenced by Nick Grant’s “The Art Show.” All four Tales of Terror come with multiple explanations, enabling to the Keeper to run them as mysterious or as mundane as is his wont.

The first two of the issue’s features are perfect for anyone wanting to delve back into Call of Cthulhu canon. Curiously, given how he has figured in two classic Call of Cthulhu campaigns – Masks of Nyarlathotep and Day of the Beast (a.k.a. The Fungi From Yuggoth), it is surprising how little we know about the Black Pharoah himself, Nephren-Ka. In “Tales of Nephren-Ka,” James Haughton expands and develops what we do know, suggesting that he might actually be the Monotheist Akhenaten and adding tomes and spells devoted to his legend. Notable amongst these is the Book of Thoth, one tome that only the foolishly curious would ever want to read. There is plenty of background information here for the Mythos and plenty with which to dangle in front of the all too curious investigator.

The second feature addresses an issue so obvious it is a wonder that it has never been answered in the thirty years that we have had Call of Cthulhu, so be thankful that Dan Harms finally has. In those thirty years, the beginning scenario in the core rulebook has always been “The Haunted” (or “The Haunted House” as it was once known, though the scenario remained the same despite the change of name), and the likelihood is that more players have been run through that scenario than any other. Yet beyond the confines of a Keeper’s home grown campaign, no official source for the game has ever asked what came next or explained what the Chapel of Contemplation was. In “The Chapel of Contemplation: A Cult for Three Eras,” Harms expands on what little do know to lay bare the dark fraternity’s secrets and history from the middle of the nineteenth century until just the other week with story hooks in turn for Cthulhu by Gaslight, the classic period of the 1920s, and the here and now. Given that the cult is an offshoot of the Church of Starry Wisdom and has broken such ties with that organisation is all the more interesting were it to learn that a group of investigators was attempting to thwart the plans of the Crawling Chaos. What an interesting ally might The Chapel of Contemplation make in the fight against Nyarlathotep?

Rounding out the features is a slice of dark, all dusty history. In “Black Sunday” C.A. Suleiman and George Holochwost examine one of the worst natural side effects to hit the Dust Bowl – a blizzard of silt that got into every crevice and scoured every surface that it could. The facts about this day in particular and other chilling details about this ghastly natural disaster are kept short and sweet, and so are easy to bring into a game should the investigators come to visit the Oklahoma Pandhandle. Four such reasons are given, complete with story hooks, which either give a Mythos explanation for the Dust Bowl having occurred or a way in which elements of the Mythos have taken advantage of it. There is a nice balance between fact and fiction here, and while its contents might be set too late for most campaigns set in the Classic period of the 1920s, it should definitely be read by any Keeper running a Trail of Cthulhu game, which is indeed, set in the “Dirty Decade.”

This issue’s scenario is a detailed affair set in the Louisiana bayous after the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. The Keeper might want to consult the recently reprinted Secrets of New Orleans for background detail, but Richard A. Becker’s “Dog Will Hunt” – the title a fitting inversion of the Southern US expression, “that dog won’t hunt” – can be run without. More specifically, it is set in and around the township of Montegut which literally lies on the edge of the bayou. Not long having suffered an influx of Cajun refugees from the flood and anticipating the benefits that an oil rush might bring, the town has recently been beset by the disappearance of three of the refugees. Getting the investigators to Montegut and thus involved in the scenario is always going to be awkward, and the author gives several possibilities, but once there, he gives the curious a reason to stay, a man being harried to death before their very eyes.

Long on field work and short on academic research, “Dog Will Hunt” is, despite its not unwelcome degree of detail, a relatively simple scenario. The bulk of that detail is devoted to describing its various elements and suggestions as to what might occur, the scenario being more of a framework than an actual plot line with most of what might occur being due to investigator action. Identifying and getting to the villain of the piece will not be easy given the recalcitrant nature of the locals, but once found he should prove to be a memorable figure. It is a pity that the author could not have provided samples of his dotty dialogue, so the Keeper will have to be inventive here. There are one or two nice scenes written in though and another side effect of the degree of detail is that the author never strays into character cliché.

It has been both a long time since we have had a new issue of The Unspeakable Oath, and equally, it has been a few years since we have been able to hold in hands, any magazine, with any Call of Cthulhu content. So the return of that most professional of Call of Cthulhu fanzines is doubly welcome. Echoing more its early days in feel and style, The Unspeakable Oath #18 is the perfect forum for the type of shorter work that might not otherwise make into print. Long may the magazine continue its self held high standards, though for all games of Lovecraftian Investigative Horror, rather than just Call of Cthulhu.

Thursday 30 December 2010

Your Squad's Starting Step

When it comes to wargaming World War II at the squad-based level, Avalon Hill’s Advanced Squad Leader game system is without peer. It allows opponents to control squads, half-squads, individual support weapons, leaders, and vehicles in a clash of arms over a variety of terrain types and across the conflict’s many theaters of operation. Yet the detail of the game system and its steep learning curve can be both a daunting and expensive prospect. Fortunately, the game’s current publisher, Multi-Man Publishing, has countered this with the release of the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1.

This is designed not only to introduce the prospective player to the core concepts of the game system, but to also act as a taster for the whole of the Advanced Squad Leader line. In that, it is relatively inexpensive compared to the full game ($80 versus $24), and further it concentrates entirely on infantry combat between US, German, and Russian troops using only their support weapons (machine guns, flamethrowers, and demolition charges), with vehicles saved for the full game and further Starter Kits, of which there are now a further two.

Starter Kit #1 is pleasingly appointed. The rules include full color examples and the double-sided counters are clear and easy-to-use. While the full color mapboards, representing a variety of urban, rural, and wooded terrain at a scale of 40 meters per 2cm hex, are not fully mounted, they do come on sturdy card. The box is missing one component, the turner counter, and another Quick-Reference Data Chart for the second player would make the game easier to play.

As opponents maneuver their squads to bring enough firepower to bear on the enemy, the heart of the system is the squad leader. Enough firepower can both inflict casualties and break the enemy’s morale, thus restricting a squad’s ability to fight. Squad leaders are capable of both coordinating the firepower of multiple squads, and more importantly, of rallying broken squads so that they can take up the fight once again. Turns consist of eight phases: Rally, Prep Fire, Movement, Defensive Fire, Advancing Fire, Rout, and Close Combat. The rules for each are well explained and illustrated with clear examples. Though not overly complex, the rules do require the memorizing of a lengthy list of abbreviations.

The longest of the six scenarios is seven turns. Predominately set in post-D-Day Western Europe; the historically based encounters take place in Normandy, the Ardennes, and Germany as well as Stalingrad. None uses a larger area than one mapboard or more than thirty counters, which increases the Starter Kit #1’s suitability for solitaire play. Beyond the six scenarios, the Starter kit is a little limited, and it is a pity that no capacity for designing scenarios was included.

Minor quibbles aside, the Advanced Squad Leader Starter Kit #1, with its good quality components, represents a solid, reasonably priced package. It is also an excellent means of entering what is an engrossing hobby that is already well supported, including further Starter Kits to help ease the learning curve.

Wednesday 29 December 2010

First Blood!

One of my favourite RPGs of late is Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying. This is Green Ronin Publishing's adaptation of BioWare's highly regarded Dragon Age: Origins computer RPG, the result being a light and fast playing game that focuses on high action and often dangerous situations and dark decisions whose outcomes are more often than not, shades of grey rather than straight black and white. Fortunately Dragon Age’s mechanics play fast and light, so they never get in the way of the players having to make these decisions. In fact, Dragon Age’s mechanics, what it calls the "age" or "adventure game engine" are so good that I wish that Green Ronin would adapt them for use with its hugely entertaining setting, Freeport: City of Adventure.

Coming as a black and white softback book, Dragon Age: Blood in Ferelden contains not just three full length adventures, but three detailed full length adventures. This in addition to the three detailed adventure outlines at the back of the book! The three adventures here are designed in turn for characters of Ranks One and Two, Ranks Three and Four, and Five and Six. They take the adventurers into Ferelden's hinterlands of the Korcari Wilds and Frostback Mountains before coming back to its sophisticated heart, the capital city of Denerim. The last scenario includes guidelines of how it can be used as a framework into which not just the first two adventures in this book, but also those in Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, Set 1 and Dragon Age: GM's Kit can be inserted to form campaign that will take the heroes from their first through to their sixth Ranks. Just in time for the release of Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, Set 2.

The first two scenarios send the adventurers off into the countryside on quests. In the opening scenario, “Amber Rage,” they find themselves attending a village fair in the Hinterlands when they and its inhabitants are beset by impossibly enraged Stalkers that have boiled out of the Kocari Wilds across the river. Worse, whatever caused the rage in the Stalkers is contagious and has infected some of the villagers, if not one or more of the player characters. Fortunately, a local wise woman thinks that she knows the cure, but unfortunately, the prime ingredient lies deep in the Kocari Wilds where the inhabitants rarely welcome strangers. Even worse, there is a double deadline. Either the infected succumb to the rage or the authorities move to stop it spreading!

The second, “Where Eagles Lair,” takes the adventurers up into the Frostback Mountains, home to the savage Avvarian hillmen, who much like the peoples of the Kocari Wilds, do not take kindly to strangers. Again they are after something, but this time a person, the missing daughter of a local nobleman, rather than a strange ingredient. Before they can find her, the heroes find themselves in an Avvarian camp just as it comes under siege. This is one of the scenario’s most memorable scenes, a real opportunity for the adventurers to be truly heroic in a scene very reminiscent of the Battle for Helms Deep from the film version of The Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers.

Although both scenarios present interesting challenges and moral choices, they are each very different. Primarily in tone, “Amber Rage” being a much more grim affair than “Where Eagles Lair,” but what would you expect with a punning title like that? “Amber Rage” is also more straightforward, and in some ways more obvious than “Where Eagles Lair.” Then again, neither of these scenarios is wholly original, but the spin that their respective authors put on them shakes them up and makes them perfectly playable.

A change of pace comes with the third scenario, "A Fragile Web." Set in Denerim, Ferelden's capital, it opens with the adventurers coming across vile cultists about their work and in thwarting them, the heroes are brought to the attention of a well known noble. In thanks she offers to become their patron, which opens up all sorts of possibilities in terms of future adventures. To say more about this adventure would be to ruin it, but in contract with the previous two, "A Fragile Web" is not only city based, but also emphasised upon more traditional investigative play and roleplaying. There are moments here that players who are more combative in their gaming style are unlikely to enjoy, which is why this scenario would work better as a campaign framework.

Rounding out Blood in Ferelden are three scenario seeds. Their situations include surviving a night time attack on an inn, investigating a series of robberies in Denerim, and escorting a priest on a pilgrimage, but all are quite detailed bar the statistics, meaning that can easily be scaled to whatever Rank the hereos have achieved. All are at least a page long, and some are so good that I might steal them for my Legends of the Five Rings game.

Another aspect of Blood in Fereleden is that it adds more information about the setting. This can be as simple as new monsters or the very occasional magical artefact, but for the longer term there are details about the Kocari Wilds and their peoples, about the Frostback Mountains and the Avvarian Hillsmen, a recurring cult, and the city of Denerim. Of particular interest will be the section on the Avvarian Hillsmen and their religious beliefs as this is a given player option in the Dragon Age: Dark Fantasy Roleplaying, Set 1.

Physically, Dragon Age: Blood in Ferelden is up to the standards set by the line. The layout is easy on the eye; the art is decent – though you wonder if it would look better in full colour; and the maps never lack for character. In fact, the maps would not look out of place in any book for classic Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, a game that both myself and the publishers of this book know well. If there is an issue with Blood in Ferelden as a book, it is that it feels rushed in paces, but is probably an issue with the editing rather the writing.

If a GM is to get the very utmost out of this supplement, then he needs to give it a complete read through. Were he not to do so, then he would come late to the campaign framework suggested by the third and last scenario, “A Fragile Web,” and thus waste some of the opportunities it suggests. Any group will get plenty of play out of the three scenarios in Blood in Ferelden and more out of them if the GM uses all of the contents -- including the adventure seeds -- of this book to create a campaign. All three scenarios are good with "Where Eagle's Lair" being the most entertaining. This then is another good book that any Dragon Age GM should want, and if it happens that a GM does not use them in his Dragon Age game, then its ideas are worth plundering.

Trapped in the Wilds

Kobold Quarterly is a like a box of chocolates. You never know what you gonna get.” Which is about as cheap a way of summing the latest selection box of articles and columns devoted to Dungeons & Dragons and its variants as you could get. After all, the cover does proclaim the magazine to the “The Switzerland of the Edition Wars” and quotes about chocolate are more prevalent than they are about Cuckoo Clocks, so I can get away with paraphrasing Forest Gump at least the once. Which begs the question, what bad quote will I use to open my review of the next issue with? No idea, but I have three months to come up with something and I really do not want to set a precedent...

Anyway, what of the latest issue, Kobold Quarterly #15? As ever it primarily provides support for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, but both these and other articles have wider application and are suited for Dungeons & Dragons style gaming in general. Of course, you do actually have some idea as to the contents of the issue, as they are highlighted on the cover, and as with previous issues, there is a theme to the latest issue, or rather two separate themes, that of traps and nature.

First up for the nature theme is Ryan Costello, Jr.’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game article, “Nature’s Orders,” which describes three options or Orders for the Druid Class. Druids of the Bestial Order do not cast spells or use orisons, but has a deeper understanding of the animal world to gain natural attacks such as claws or constriction, better senses, and increased access to the Wild Shape ability. Druids of the Godai Order are not as bestial, but focus on casting spells that draw from the four elements and have access to the matching Clerical Domains. Lastly, Purist Druids are even more like Clerics, actually worshipping nature and able to cast Cure spells rather Summon Nature’s Ally. The article also discusses where the variants might found in the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game default setting of Golarion. Of the three variants, the Purist Order is the least developed and the least interesting.

Also for Pathfinder Roleplaying Game is Jonathan McAnulty’s “Ecology of the Giant Ant.” This not only examines the Giant Ant, but also adds a dozen variants upon the species, from Acrobat and Carpenter Ants to Trap-Jaw and Treecutter Ants. The lighter mechanics in this means that it is easier to adapt to other Dungeons & Dragons variants. Rounding out the nature theme is Stefen Styrsky’s “Children of the Wood,” also for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game. This is in effect, a companion piece to the publisher’s forest adventure anthology set near the Free City of Zobeck – of which there is a review to come – Tales of the Margreve. This is written for the spellcaster in your game, providing a new Bloodline for the Sorcerer – literally the Blood of the Green, that embodies the natural powers of growth and renewal; Forest and Harvest Domains for Clerics and Druids; and the School of Nature for the Wizard who has studied life and death under the green canopy, represented by the Conjuration and Necromancy schools.

For Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition, David Adams corals innumerable options for the rider in “Reasons to Ride.” These include new riding gear, but they primarily consist of new Feats such as Fury of the Horselords, which enables a Barbarian horseman to use a Rage Strike attack when charging. There are also several new mounts described that are more fantastical in nature. Overall, this is an excellent article for the DM that wants to take his campaign onto horseback.

The traps theme is explored in three articles. The first is for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition and explores a logical development for anyone with the Thievery skill. It really works for the Rogue Class, because with “Rig This!” by John Flemming, he not only gets to disarm traps, but set them too! Not ones in situ mind you, but ones prepared earlier and carried on his back. In a concept reminiscent of the alchemical rituals discussed in Adventurers’ Vault, Rogues with the Trapsmith Feat can learn Schematics, each one the instructions for a clockwork, oiled, and alchemically fuelled bigger-than-a-bear trap. The article is supported with numerous examples and begs to fall into the hands of the inventive and wily Rogue. The second article for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition offers an interesting approach to the trap. “Jack in a Trap” by Philippe-Antoine Menard combines monsters with traps and traps with monsters to create hybrids. The examples given have more of a Science Fiction feel than fantasy, despite their stone dressings. The third article devoted to traps is for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and is more obvious in its contents. Older gamers will find the nastiness of the traps described in Andrew Hinds’ “Pits of Despair” more than a little reminiscent of Flying Buffalo Games’ Grimtooth’s Traps, and if you are not aware of that venerable series, then Necromancer Games has released The Wurst of Grimtooth’s Traps! Anyway, if you do do dungeons – and if not, why not considering what the magazine is for? – then you can never have enough pits.

Theme aside, Kobold Quarterly #15 includes several articles for both games. For example, Anthony Eichenlaub expands upon the concept of skill powers first seen in the Player’s Handbook 3 to provide thirteen new skill stances in “Masters of Great Skill.” While the concept is welcome given how Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition has de-emphasised skills, the author never quite develops it fully. The problem is that the flavour text for each Utility or stance feels at odds with its effect and the effects themselves are often more powerful than the flavour text suggests or warrants. The DM would be wise to consider carefully if he wants these in his campaign. Better developed is Quinn Murphy’s “A Call to Awesome” for Dungeons & Dragons Fourth Edition in which he expands upon the critical roll. Where in the past that would have just given a player greater damage, with Critical Actions and Scene Criticals that natural roll of twenty can be used to trigger more interesting and longer lasting effects such as trying to being able to climb a behemoth and so gain access temporarily to a weak spot. This is an excellent article that nicely develops an idea. It will take a little set up by the GM to set up, but if done right, the heroes get to be more heroic than just hitting an opponent with an axe! Jobe Bittman gives us a nasty dungeon denizen, the Horakh in “King of the Monsters.”

Michael Kortes’ “Collaborative Killers” for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game keeps things mechanically simple for a discussion of tactical manoeuvres that a group can co-operate in performing. They include the “Eldritch Flank” for spellcasters, the “Lure” for pack animals, and “Pile On” for when the heroes need to overpower an opponent. Of course, there is nothing to stop a GM from turning them on his player characters! This is followed by “Blades from the Past” by Alex Putnam which describes ten historical weapons for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and suggests where they are used in Golarion.

Penultimately, in Mario Podeschi’s “Going Vertical” we are given a system-less discussion of side view dungeons exploring the fun, excitement, and danger of adventuring in the vertical rather than the horizontal. It comes with a full sample setting and suggests that the DM look at old fashioned side-scrolling video games for further inspiration. Lastly, Kobold Quarterly #15 returns to the Free City of Zobeck a second time for its more traditional visit, this time to explore the Cartways as its undercity is known.

Of course, there is always more to an issue of Kobold Quarterly than gaming articles and Kobold Quarterly #15 is no exception. Historians of the hobby will enjoy “Those Dark Dungeon Blues,” James Lowder’s look back at the hysteria surrounding Dungeons & Dragons in the 1980s, while anyone with an interest in how we roleplay will enjoy Monte Cook’s opinion on simulation versus game play in “Simulating Game Reality.” Besides the usual fiction reviews, the latest issue includes an interview with the author and publisher, Margaret Weis. The fiction reviews are likely to be of more use than the interview or the issue’s two cartoons, and as good or as humorous as they are, they are just extras and hardly what the reader will come back to in the future.

Available as a seventy-six page magazine or a 33.59 MB PDF, Kobold Quarterly #15 is cleanly laid out and written to the magazine’s usual standard. It feels a little light on colour and technical in style. That said, much of the information it has to impart is technical and has to be technical to get that information across. With that limit in place, Kobold Quarterly #15 is as always, readable.

While not every article in Kobold Quarterly #15 hits its mark – “Masters of Great Skill” sadly letting the side down, there is as ever a plethora of ideas to be found in its pages. All of them are well presented and all of them are worth GM or DM leafing through to see what he can borrow and adapt. Sadly there is no scenario this issue, though my wish for some “Edition 0” material is all but answered in both “Going Vertical” and “Pits of Despair,” both of which have a pleasingly Old School feel. It is a pity that there are only three article devoted to its traps theme, though these articles are well done. As are all of its articles, with options aplenty for both the DM and the player alike. If I have to pick favourites it would be “Rig This!” for its portable traps, “Going Vertical” for forcing the heroes up (or down), “A Call to Awesome” for opening up both the action and the story, and oddly, “Those Dark Dungeon Blues” for its history, but then I like that kind of article.

Kobold Quarterly #15 marks another solid issue for the magazine. Solid though for Kobold Quarterly is still good though and what else would you expect but more ideas and more food for thought from a magazine with standards as high as it has?

Monday 27 December 2010

Lonesome Fears

How the lone Call of Cthulhu player doth suffer? In the past the fantasy fan has been well served with solo adventures aplenty, from Tunnels & Trolls to the phenomenon that was the Fighting Fantasy series. The horror fan was and always has been less well served, though the Call of Cthulhu devotee has had four titles that he could play on his own. These included two from Chaosium, Alone Against the Wendigo and Alone Against the Dark; one from Pagan Publishing, Alone on Halloween; and lastly, Triad Entertainment’s Grimrock Isle. The combined solo adventures and a small campaign, of the solo adventures, is the only one still in print. With all but one of those books unavailable, there is another option. One that involves a single player and a single Keeper rather than the single player, and one that is free.

Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude, made available for download by Unbound Publishing as a 1.3 Mb sixty-page black and white PDF. Describing itself as “An opuscule of adventures for lone investigators in the world of Chaosium’s Call of Cthulhu,” an “opuscule” being a small or minor work, Monophobia presents a trio of adventures that a Keeper can run for a single player. All three are one shots, best suited to experienced players and should provide a good session’s worth of play. An impressively detailed pre-generated investigator is provided for each scenario. The three all take place during the twenties or thirties, but with a little effort the Keeper could set them else when.

The anthology begins by discussing the nature and issues inherent in the format. That while pitting the lone protagonist against the alien forces of the Mythos perfectly emulates stories by Lovecraft himself, such as The Case of Charles Dexter Ward and The Shadow Over Innsmouth, it places a lot of responsibility upon the shoulders of the player. No longer does he have his colleagues to rely on for his safety and to discuss the threat that they face with. The Keeper has also more to do, no longer can he sit back and listen as the players and their investigators interact, and so he will have to the adventure moving. Potentially, an adventure is more deadly, there being just the one victim, the player character, to suffer the physical and mental depredations that come with facing the Mythos. The authors suggest that some of these issues can be addressed mechanically, with Idea Rolls, with the careful choice of Sanity losses, and by making the “monsters” more circumspect in their actions. On the upside, the single investigator gets to feel the full dangers of the Mythos, and above all, the single player and Keeper set up enables the exploration of situations impossible with more participants. At the very least, one of the scenarios in this collection does that very well.

The first of the trilogy is “Vengeance From Beyond,” which explores a situation familiar to Call of Cthulhu – revenge form beyond the grave. It has an antiquarian investigator hired by a collector to locate a Mythos tome that was stolen from him. Finding both culprit and tome is relatively easy, but it also results in the death of the culprit. When the collector is driven to suicide it seems that the investigator will not be far behind him as visions threaten his sanity. Discovering the cause is again easy, but stopping it involves lots of detective work during which time the Keeper can have lots of fun haunting the investigator. This is perhaps the most traditional of the scenarios in the book and for that the least impressive.

“Of Grave Concern” is the second scenario its highlight. It is also the longest. It opens in media res with the investigator waking up in a corpse, in a coffin, in a mausoleum. Rather than being stuck as a walking corpse for the whole scenario, salvation comes with the investigator awakes once again in his own body, but the question, who was responsible for the transfer between bodies and what has he been up to while in control of the investigator’s body? This scenario sees the investigator bounce back and forth between the bodies, having only limited opportunities for investigation while in each. The scenario calls for an experienced investigator with some knowledge of the Mythos, but it also requires an experienced Keeper to handle both the pacing of scenario and the flow of clues and information to the investigator. This is a pleasingly clever scenario, one that really would only work with a single investigator and makes not just the best of this set up, but the most innovative.

The last scenario takes the investigator – the given one provided being an explorer – to a spot visited in classic Mythos fiction, but rarely in Call of Cthulhu. “Robinson Gruesome” opens with the investigator being stranded on an island near infamous Ponape. Alone, his initial concern will be for his survival, for food, water, and shelter, but soon learns that the island has regular visitors, ones that come to placate an ancient creature only they are aware of. With few resources and none of the benefits of civilisation to rely upon, this is the most combative scenario in the book, as it climaxes in a fight to the death. The antagonist has the advantage in terms of magic, but hopefully the investigator can rely upon his ingenuity.

Not since “Paperchase,” the single player and Keeper scenario that appeared in The Cthulhu Companion, has this set up been as well supported. These are not only interesting scenarios, but professionally written ones too, with one of them being quite exceptional. Although the collection needs one very last edit, by any standards you care to set, Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude is about as ready for publication as you could get. All a publisher has to do is prepare it for its layout style and it is ready to go. Indeed, if it wanted to, a publisher could use what Unbound Publishing has done with the layout, although it is simple. The question is then, why has this collection not seen publication? Compare this to the Call of Cthulhu titles published in the last decade and the question is even more puzzling.

The truth is that Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude has a limited audience as it is a niche product. Yet for that target niche, the Keeper and the single player, the collection is all but perfect – it would be perfect if the collection could be played through using just the one investigator and if it had made as full use of its set up in all three scenarios as it does in “Of Grave Concern.” This is the highlight of the trilogy, one that could grace the pages of any Call of Cthulhu anthology and still stand out. That Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude is free is not its selling point, but its bonus. That Monophobia: A Fear of Solitude is a good collection is the point.

Saturday 11 December 2010

Reckon 'ee be a grockle

With no sign of an actual sourcebook on the British Isles for Call of Cthulhu on the horizon, what Cubicle Seven Entertainment is instead doing is releasing supplements in its Cthulhu Britannica line that focus on particular regions of this “Green and Pleasant Land.” Shadows Over Scotland is due in early 2011, but the first is already here in the form of Avalon: The County of Somerset – A 1920s’ Reference for Call of Cthulhu. As the title suggests, this supplement takes us to the West Country and the home of King Arthur renowned for the strength of its cider – or as the locals would say, “zider” – and the tall tales of its natives. Yet this oft ignored rural hinterland hides several millennia’s worth of history, superstition, and folklore, below which runs dark bloody strands of truth and horror that few dare to question.

Written by Paul “Wiggy” Wade-Williams, whose numerous credits include All for One: Régime Diabolique and Slipstream for Savage Worlds, this new Call of Cthulhu supplement presents the history and geography of Somerset, its legends and customs, three scenarios set during the 1920s, along with extra adventure seeds, NPCs, and notes for the setting. Parts of it purport to be based upon a manuscript written by Professor Noah Ainley-Chant, a local historian and scholar of the Mythos who disappeared at the end of the nineteenth century, that the author of the supplement has himself seen and here occasionally annotates the Professor’s comments. Said manuscript has of course disappeared since the author saw it...

Avalon: The County of Somerset begins with a steady canter through the region’s history from Prehistory through the Roman Era to the Dark, Saxon, and Middle Ages, and thence to the Modern Period. Quickly we are onto the county’s geography, focusing in particular on the Somerset Levels, the wetlands bound by hills on every side bar the coast of the Bristol Channel to the West. The gazetteer describes Somerset’s notable places, both mundane and mysterious. The former includes the county’s major towns from Axbridge to Yeovil, while the latter include the triangular folly that is Alfred’s Tower, the caves of Cheddar Gorge and Wookey Hole, and of course, Glastonbury. The city of Bath receives particular attention, naturally with a discussion of its healing waters that date back to beyond Roman times, and it is suggested that as the county's social heart, the city could be used as a base of operations for a Somerset set game.

Up until this point, sections of boxed text are used to add further detail and give extra scenario seeds. These are much shorter than those given later in the book in their own section. The rest of the book does not have these boxed sections, beginning with the chapter on “Legends and Customs” that explores and explains some of the myths and truths about places such as Alfred’s Tower, Cadbury Castle, Glastonbury Abbey, and Wookey Hole. More outré happenings are likewise discussed, including Faeries, Ley Lines, Wassailing, and Witchcraft, with as the rest of the supplement, Professor Ainley-Chant giving us the Mythos origins for each.

In a nod back to Games Workshop’s supplement, Green and Pleasant Land: The British 1920s–30s Cthulhu Supplement and its missing article on “Mummerset” that eventually appeared in White Dwarf #90, there are two sections devoted to accents and phrases. The first describes how the Keeper can talk like a local, while the second gives a list of local words and phrases. These are useful and amusing, although in the case of the two derogatory terms given for outsiders and tourists, neither are local, and one dates from several decades after the time that his supplement is set.

The supplement comes with three adventures. Given the prominence placed upon the worship of Mother Hydra and Father Dagon and the influence that comes with the co-mingling of Deep Ones and mankind has had on the county, the danger was that the book’s scenarios would entirely focus upon this aspect. Fortunately, this is not the case, with just the single scenario being devoted to these batrachian horrors, or rather on the all too human cult devoted to them. Set very specifically in 1923 – and it could not be set at any other time, “Blood and Water” could be used as the starting point of a campaign, though there are no notes to that end. The other two scenarios are less constrictive, with the investigators looking into the disappearance of a noted archaeologist in “Strange Little Girl” and undertaking a delve into a cave in “St. Swithun’s Hole.” The latter is more a framework that can be run in an evening, and so would work as a one-shot, but either of two would serve as solid introductions to an ongoing Call of Cthulhu campaign. Both being set in United Kingdom also makes them suitable for use in conjunction with the Tatters of King campaign, especially as Somerset lies all too close to the Severn Valley.

The volume is rounded off with a further six adventure seeds and an appendix that describes several new Mythos tomes and eight NPCs that can be encountered whilst the investigators are in Somerset. What is interesting about these NPCs is that just two of them have any inkling as to the true nature of the Cthulhu Mythos, and this lack of any connection to the Mythos is a refreshing change to the rest of the book.

Another possible danger with a supplement such as Avalon: The County of Somerset is that its focus could have fallen too much upon a certain legendary figure. For example, the danger in Cthulhu by Gaslight supplement is that the focus will be upon the period trio of Sherlock Holmes, John Watson, and Jack the Ripper, here in Avalon: The County of Somerset, there is just the one figure and the one place, King Arthur and Glastonbury. This is always a danger when you have such icons associated with a place or time, but it is one that the author avoids, and rightly so. The two are of course, irrevocably linked, but their place in the collective imagination is not as prominent, and so neither are overused here, although Glastonbury figures in one of the scenarios. There is a Mythos explanation for the legends surrounding King Arthur, but these are pleasingly underplayed.

So the question is, what role has the Mythos played in the history of Somerset? It suggests that the worship of Mother Hydra and Father Dagon and the influence that comes with the co-mingling of Deep Ones spread in from the coast across the Somerset Levels, driving out and up on to the surrounding hills worshippers devoted to Shub-Niggurath and to Eihort. In turn, the Romans stamped out or co-opted these pagan practices; the Normans stamped them out; and then draining of the Levels drove the Deep Ones back into the sea. Beyond this long presence of the Deep Ones, the influence of other Mythos entities on the county is very much left up to the Keeper to decide and develop, whether from the various scenario hooks and seeds, or from his own ideas. Even though Avalon: The County of Somerset is a relatively short book, gaining a grasp of the influence that a Mythos entity or species has over the county is made all the more difficult because it is written into the narrative rather than being broken down case by case. Nor does the all too exhaustive index help. For example, it is mentioned in the text that the county was home to a Celtic tribe that worshipped Cthugua, but since it is not mentioned in the index...

As a gazetteer of Somerset in the early years of the twentieth century, Avalon: The County of Somerset is underwritten. In comparison with earlier ages, the modern period of the 1920s is barely touched upon, which when combined with the lack of period photographs, details such as the local newspapers, and how to get to the county, only serves to isolate the setting. Within the context of the game itself, this is not entirely a bad thing, but as far as the sourcebook is concerned, it isolates the setting from the reader, or rather the Keeper. As does the absence of a map that shows where Somerset lies in England, and that in addition to the lack of a map showing transport routes into and across the county. The likelihood is that this isolation will force the Keeper to rely upon existing what he knows already of the West Country, and that will be cliché ridden. I can count myself fortunate here in that I am, if not from Somerset as is the author, but at least from the West Country and can piece these missing details together, but anyone not native to these isles will only be at a disadvantage.

Physically, Avalon: The County of Somerset is decent looking book. The cover is pleasingly batrachian, the internal layout is clean, and the artwork reasonable. Yet it misses a trick in terms of design. As already mentioned, it is written as a manuscript with commentary from the missing Professor Ainley-Chant and then from the author himself. In effect, this gives three layers to the book. At the base there is basic fact, over which you have Professor Ainley-Chant’s interpretations, and then over that, you have Wade-Williams’ annotations. Yet because the extra comments from both men are never separated from the main body of the book’s text, merely being italicised, the supplement never transforms itself away from being a mundane text book. Had some graphical device such as handwriting in the margin or post-it notes being used to box text, it would have made the book look more interesting and made some use of the idea of commentary upon commentary.

The other issue with Professor Ainley-Chant’s interpretations is that anything odd to be found in the county of Somerset has a Mythos explanation. Now in places the author of the book dismisses some of the Professor’s suggestions, but if a Keeper were to ignore that, then the presence and explanation of the Mythos is the reason behind everything threatens to overwhelm, well, everything! It is as if nothing has a mundane explanation. The solution of course, is for the Keeper to pick and choose the Mythos elements that he wants in his campaign, but more mundane explanations should have been offered as well.

Ultimately, this is a supplement full of detail and brimming with scenario ideas and hooks. The scenarios themselves are playable and would slot easily into most English set campaigns. Yet – Avalon: The County of Somerset – A 1920s’ Reference for Call of Cthulhu is a book with a few problems, mostly stemming from a design and an intent that were not as well executed as they could have been. In places it obscures the setting for the reader with not enough of the mundane, while in others it overwhelms the reader with the overly outré, the effect being to force the Keeper to find his own clarity with the contents, and this will only be exacerbated if the Keeper is not of native stock, but rather an “Emmet” or “Grockle.”