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

Monday 31 October 2011

Halloween Horror II.III

In coming to this review, I find myself with something of handicap. You see, being English and of a certain antiquity, I never came across Clifford the Big Red Dog by Norman Bridwell. I never read it when I was a child, nor did I read it to my daughter when she was of a similar age. I was all about Doctor Seuss and Maurice Sendak and Roald Dahl, and not Norman Bridwell. Which is a shame when coming to Cliffourd the Big Red God, a re-interpretation by Kennith Hite of the short story by H.P. Lovecraft, “The Dunwich Horror.” Being by H.P. Lovecraft, I have read “The Dunwich Horror,” although I have not read it to my daughter. (Come to think of it, perhaps the next time she visits, I should bind her to a chair and make her listen to my reading…).

In the children’s book, Clifford is a puce puppy, which despite being the runt of the litter, is chosen as a pet by Emily Elizabeth. Good natured, if naïve, Clifford grows to love his owner and she her dog in return, their becoming the best of friends. Clifford also grows in size, being the big red dog of the title such that Elizabeth Emily frequently rides on his back as if he was a horse.

In “The Dunwich Horror,” young Wilbur Whateley also has a close friend who grows to massive size, though it unlikely that he ever went for a ride on his back. Wilbur certainly cares for his friend, though he is rarely seen and Wilbur never takes him out for a walk, on a leash or otherwise. Wilbur’s friend does get to go on a walk – well, it is more of a rampage actually – but only after Wilbur’s death at the paws of a dog. And no, the dog is not Clifford. Then again, Emily Elizabeth does not die either, so Clifford never goes on a rampage across the Dunwich countryside. Hold on, but what would happen if Clifford actually did kill Wilbur and… Well, that is a tale for a crossover and not the tale of Cliffourd the Big Red God.

Cliffourd the Big Red God is the third in Atlas Games’ Mini Mythos series by Kenneth Hite and illustrated by Andy Hopp that re-tell classics of children’s literature through the short stories of horror author, H.P. Lovecraft. Or re-tell the classic short stories of horror author, H.P. Lovecraft through the works of children’s literature. Anyway, in this bright and breezy retold tale, young Wilbur Whately and he too has a big ruddy dog, er god. This is Cliffourd, who is big and red and does not like dogs (so the Cliffourd the Big Red God meets Clifford the Big Red Dog crossover seems unlikely), but does like eldritch tomes, non-Euclidian games, hide ‘n’ seek, and is the biggest, reddest god in Dunwich! He would actually like to be the biggest, reddest god in all of the universe, but when you track as much mud into hush, book-lined halls as Cliffourd does, the librarians usually have something to say about that!

Of course, at the end of it all, Wilbur still has his Cliffourd, and just like Elizabeth Emily loves Clifford despite the scrapes that his size gets him into, Wilbur loves his Cliffourd. Of course, Cliffourd the Big Red God is better than all of the other batrachian, cyclopean, squamous, and tentacular gods – because Wilbur loves him.

Cliffourd the Big Red God is another charming tale written for old children. Warped and twisted old children, who can either read it to each other or to children in the hope of making them warped and twisted too.

Halloween Horror II.II

The very latest title for Call of Cthulhu, Chaosium, Inc.’s RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, is strange for several reasons and quite possibly the strangest release for the game for some time. Red Eye of Azathoth: Unspeakable Adventures Straddling a Millennium is strange because it has been released not by one of the usual suspects – Chaosium, Inc., Pagan Publishing, Goodman Games, Miskatonic River Press, Super Genius Games, Cubicle Seven Entertainment, or even Pelgrane Press, but by Open Design, LLC. Which is a publisher better known for publishing Kobold Quarterly and various supplements for Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game and Wizards of the Coast’s Dungeons & Dragons, Fourth Edition, especially for the Midgard Campaign Setting and its Free City of Zobeck. Second, it is strange because this experience with the Dungeons & Dragons format informs the feel and style of Red Eye of Azathoth throughout. Third, it is strange because although Red Eye of Azathoth adheres to the traditional onionskin format so beloved of the Call of Cthulhu campaign, it does not arrange its slivers of onionskin location by location, but time period by time period. Fourth, each of the five scenarios that comprise Red Eye of Azathoth can each be played through in order as a campaign, or as a series of one-shots in any order. Fifth, Red Eye of Azathoth is strange because it is only available as a PDF, physical copies only being available to patrons of the project at Open Design that eventually became Red Eye of Azathoth.

The five parts of Red Eye of Azathoth are in turn set in Dark Ages England, early Medieval Japan, Renaissance Spain, the New World, and the Wild West. What these disparate times and places have in common are the effects of the garish, gaudy glow of a ruddy comet the passing of which leaves in its wake, death, destruction, madness, and chaos. In each of these times, the adventurers find themselves confronted with strange situations and presented with mysteries, each of which takes a series of flashbacks to understand, the number of flashbacks growing as the campaign progresses. It is these flashbacks and the information and skills that they impart that together make up the campaign’s primary clues. Thus by the end of the fifth and final chapter, the adventurers will have learned what is really going on.

Not only are all five of the scenarios in Red Eye of Azathoth written for use with pre-generated characters, they are also written to be played with four participants. In some cases, the scenarios suggest how another player could be added, but not always. Further, the issue of creating new characters is not really addressed as part of the campaign, though new skills are explained. This necessary because this quintet is set entirely outside of the time frames discussed in Call of Cthulhu. In fact, the two sources that Red Eye of Azathoth draws from for its rules are actually out of print and unavailable, being the otherwise disappointing Cthulhu: Dark Ages and still the best treatment of its subject, “The Good, the Bad, and the Utterly Insane: Call of Cthulhu in the Wild West,” which appeared in Pegasus Press’ Worlds of Cthulhu #2.

Red Eye of Azathoth opens with a bloody bang, in media res, with “That Which is Dead Shall Refuse to Lie.” It is Walpurgis Night, Sunday April 30th, 887 AD on the tidal island of Lindisfarne, Northumbria, and the famed monastery has been stormed by a Viking raiding party. Under a blood red sky and before rising seas, the four adventurers – two Viking pagans and two enslaved Christian monks, must overcome their natural mistrust of each other to face a sorcerer that they can all see on top of the monastery’s tower. This is bloody affair, gorier than most Call of Cthulhu scenarios, the need to enter and explore the monastery to get to the final showdown and the number of combat encounters, make it all read very much like a dungeon. Apart from the dangers present in the scenario itself, the initial danger is that the Viking characters will overplay the master-slave relationship that the scenario opens with, possibly hampering the investigation later on. Still, this gets the campaign off to a start with a bang.

It is followed by “The Silence of Thousands Shall Quell the Refrain,” which is set in Japan in 1287 AD. This places the investigators in the pre-samurai era with their being sent to study the marvellous village of Iwaizumi, which come war, famine, or typhoon has always been able to pay its tribute to the emperor, and this without petitioning the throne on any matter in return. The curious reputation of the village is exacerbated by the curious nature of villagers, everyone one of them silent and illiterate. This sets up what could be a stumbling block to the easy running and playing of the scenario in that the villagers communicate through the use of sketched pictograms. The Keeper is encouraged to act this out between the player characters and the NPCs, a process that could grow wearisome all too quickly. Fortunately, the scenario does feel that long, but again, like the scenario before it, “The Silence of Thousands Shall Quell the Refrain” is a combat orientated adventure.

This is not to say that there is no investigation involved, but the real issue with the scenario is that unlike its predecessor, it really does feel like a generic Dungeons & Dragons scenario, one that could be set elsewhere, let alone early medieval Japan. Effectively that of there being a village under threat and the adventurers must deal with the threat, though the twist at the beginning is that the village of Iwaizumi is at least initially mysterious rather than obviously dangerous.

The middle scenario though, is more interesting, at least historically. “Fires of Hatred Defile the Sky” takes place in Valencia, Spain in 1487 AD at the height of the Spanish Inquisition. The descent of three angels upon the city has been taken as a blessing by the “Grace of Valencia,” Bishop Esteban del Cassandro, to root out every non-believer and heretic in the city. As the scenario opens, each adventurer finds himself gagged and hooded, under arrest and held by the Inquisition. The adventure involves the characters finding allies and avoiding being subject to inquisitive torture, their escaping the prison, all already with a good idea as to who the scenario’s antagonist is. Proving it is not just another matter, but also the point of the scenario. Doing so, involves a chase sequence before breaking into the antagonist’s quarters.

If there is an element in “Fires of Hatred Defile the Sky” that feels at odds with Lovecraftian investigative horror, it is the inclusion of magic that feels more Euclidean. For example, one investigator knows how to construct a golem whilst another can command snakes and even transform himself into a snake. Lovecraftian Purists are unlikely to appreciate this, and Dungeons & Dragons players will probably be dismayed at the lack of spells. Ultimately, their inclusion does feel out of place providing as they do too easy a solution to some of the situations presented in the scenario.

The lost colony of Roanoke is no stranger to Call of Cthulhu, having previously been visited in “Whispers from the Abyss” in the Theatre of the Mind Enterprises’ anthology, Whispers from the Abyss and Other Tales – pleasingly acknowledged in the text of the fourth scenario. Set in 1587 AD, “Lost Shall Be Those Bearing Souls Split in Twain” finds the adventurers crossing the Atlantic to join in the colonisation efforts spearheaded by Sir Walter Raleigh in the New World. Upon arrival, they and their fellow colonists find the existing settlement abandoned, which sets up the scenario’s first mystery and first problem. That is, what happened to the former inhabitants and was it something to do with the indigenous peoples native to the region; and how will they survive the all too imminent winter? At least looking into the first problem will bring the newly arrived colonists into contact with the natives, and here the scenario’s tension lies – dealing with one or more peoples whose relationships with new colonists’ predecessors threaten their own relationship with the native. This is all the whilst both the colonists and the natives are haunted by creature out of legends of the New World.

Unlike the previous scenarios, “Lost Shall Be Those Bearing Souls Split in Twain” is a more event driven adventure and by setting it on the edge of the New World, it also feels less confined than the previous adventures. There is also less of a reliance upon the format and play style of the Dungeons & Dragons scenario, it is less combative in nature, and ultimately, less linearity.

Red Eye of Azathoth comes to a close in the “Weird West” of the Arizona Territory of 1887 AD. “And Madness Shall Rise to Devour the West” opens with such a shuddering bang, it behoves me not to spoil it for any potential player. Once the scenario gets moving, the investigators must make their into the isolated township of Desperation to find its inhabitants harrowed by hunger and the perpetual sandstorm that rings the town, and the town itself under the control of several fierce Marshals with a tough approach to law enforcement. After the more traditional feel of a Call of Cthulhu scenario in “Lost Shall Be Those Bearing Souls Split in Twain,” this scenario reverts to the pattern by the first three adventures and is more combative and explorative in nature. Given the modern era of the setting, it would seem natural that this combative aspect would involve firearms, and indeed the scenario does. Yet there is an effect within the scenario that prevents their working, forcing the investigators to rely upon their comparatively weak melee skills. It seems so odds at the setting to remove something so intrinsic to it. Another issue with “And Madness Shall Rise to Devour the West” is its change of tone compared to the earlier scenarios; it is inherently pulpy with super competent investigators two of whom possess several spells.

The influence of the Dungeons & Dragons format on the feel and style of Red Eye of Azathoth shows most obviously in the characters and the campaign’s physicality. It is important to stress the difference between the characters of Red Eye of Azathoth and the investigators of Call of Cthulhu. In Call of Cthulhu, the investigators are ordinary men and women of varying degrees of competence though rarely what might be called super competence, especially when it comes to combat. Whereas the “investigators” of Red Eye of Azathoth owe more to high level adventurers of Dungeons & Dragons in terms of skills and combat expertise, rather than arcane or divine abilities, although several of the pre-generated adventurers possess both spells and knowledge of the Mythos. Their skills are thus high – though this often matched by the capability of the antagonists – which when combined with the lack of traditional investigative processes, makes the “investigators” of Red Eye of Azathoth more like adventurers. Further, without those traditional investigative processes, the means of resolving the five scenarios takes on a more physical, more combative nature.

It should be noted that the structure of the campaign and its use of different adventurers in each time period also impacts on the campaign in interesting ways. In the traditional onionskin campaign, an investigator’s Sanity is whittled down as the events of the campaign progress, such that there is often a loss of player characters due to deleterious effects of encountering the Mythos. In Red Eye of Azathoth, this is avoided because essentially, the characters are refreshed from one scenario to the next. Though to an extent, the traditional Sanity whittling is countered with some quite strong Sanity losses within the scenarios themselves. Red Eye of Azathoth also avoids the loss of knowledge common to other Call of Cthulhu campaigns that would come with the death of investigators with the flashback mechanic, though they still begin each scenario unaware of who the campaign’s villain is and of course, who he will be in each scenario.

The structure of the campaign also expects a little more of the Keeper. Naturally, the protagonist is working to achieve certain objectives, but in each scenario, the adventurers have the opportunity to curtail certain elements of these. So a Keeper needs to maintain a track of what the adventurers have done or not done in one adventure, as this not only has an effect during the subsequent adventures, but also on the campaign’s finale. Essentially, by campaign’s end, the Keeper will have assembled a check list in which he needs to have checked off what the investigators have done and determine how well they will have done overall.

Physically, Red Eye of Azathoth is a clean and tidy looking book. Oddly, it is actually better for a Keeper to own the PDF version of the book, rather than the printed version. This is because the PDF makes use of colour, making it easier to read, especially the maps. In the printed book, they are sometimes too dark to read. If there is an issue with the book, it is that it needs another edit just to tidy it up.

Ultimately, it is difficult not to read Red Eye of Azathoth as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign written with the drier, less forgiving set of rules in Call of Cthulhu. There should be no criticism inherent to such a concept, but in the execution as evidenced by this mini-campaign, the result is not wholly satisfying. The individual scenarios themselves feel too short and often too linear; the antagonist too fleeting a figure until the climax of each scenario when the investigators get a chance to beat him up; and the campaign often a little too fantastic in the way that the characters are designed. This is not to deny the interest that lies in exploring the settings and period of at least the first four scenarios or in the way in which the first four scenarios are set up. Similarly, the means of passing information from previous scenarios to the latest is interesting and well done, helping to get past the issue of dealing with player knowledge (though to help work against player knowledge, I would suggest that initially they only be told that they are playing one-shots rather than a campaign).

For some players, Red Eye of Azathoth: Unspeakable Adventures Straddling a Millennium is just going to be too different a campaign for them to play, whether they normally play Call of Cthulhu or Dungeons & Dragons in their classic styles. For Call of Cthulhu, it is too pulpy and too reliant on combat to deal with its threats, whilst for Dungeons & Dragons, the investigators are probably too weak and the settings not quite fantastic enough. Given the campaign’s source, it is no surprise that its influences are worn so readily, and if both players and Keeper can embrace both these influences and the campaign’s structure, then there is an interesting experience to be gained from playing through the campaign. Whilst those influences and its structure is always going to make it a stranger when compared to other campaigns, Red Eye of Azathoth: Unspeakable Adventures Straddling a Millennium is nevertheless a brave attempt to do something different with the classic Call of Cthulhu campaign.

Sunday 30 October 2011

Halloween Horror II.I

Out of Time is an anthology for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu that collates four scenarios previously singly as PDF titles. Each of the four is a detailed one-shot complete with pre-generated investigators with each scenario in turn taking place on the Western Front during the Great War; on the most barren outpost of France’s colonial empire in the 1930s; to Science Fiction’s lunatic fringe in early 1950s California; and to the after effects of nuclear testing in the South Pacific, again in the early 1950s. Any one of the four, all of which tend towards the Purist rather than the Pulp style of play, can with some effort be run as a convention style scenario, but really any of these four merits a good session or two’s worth of play.

The anthology opens with Adam Gauntlett’s “Not So Quiet,” which is set entirely within the confines of Military Hospital Number Five not far behind the Allied lines in 1917. The investigators have either been posted there as staff or wounded, have been sent there as patients. Arriving after a hellish journey in an ambulance convoy, the patients are assigned to their wards to rest and the staff sent to work. In the days to come, it becomes apparent that not all is well at the hospital: mortality rates seem high, even amongst those that would otherwise appear to be on the road to recovery; the wards are ruled by the head nurse with a rod of iron; the experimental electro-shock therapy seems to be more than therapy; off the rounds drug treatments; and simply an air of malevolence that hides something more desperate.

Discovering what is going takes careful interrogation; such is the paranoia that pervades the hospital. The process is hampered by the patient-staff divide, for while individually each investigator will be able to gather a certain amount of information, but bringing the investigators together to share that information is another matter. So for the most part, the GM will be running single scenes until the climax itself. Nevertheless, “Not So Quiet” is strong on atmosphere, with plenty of opportunity for the investigators to inveigle their way into what is really going.

The second scenario is “The Black Drop” by Jason Morningstar. As it opens, the investigators find themselves aboard a freighter bound for the Kerguelen Islands located at the far southern reaches of the Indian Ocean. The French government has decided to shut down its failed colony there and the passengers are either to aid in its closure or to take advantage of this very last opportunity to visit the islands. The windswept and almost sub-Antarctic archipelago is a known site from which the Transit of Venus can be viewed and some have suggested a potential deep water anchorage for use in the forthcoming conflict that everyone fears, so when the crew of the freighter picks up German radio traffic, just who else has an interest in the Kerguelens and what is the nature of that interest?

All too quickly, the investigators find themselves ashore and at the mercy of the elements, the foreign barrenness of the island, and the colonists whose intentions are anything other than the desire to return to France. Given their situation the investigators need help, if not allies, and the latter come in the form of the German party which has its own objectives. This sets up the first of two tensions within “The Black Drop” – can the investigators, let alone the players, ally themselves with forces that they know to be “evil,” in other words, the Nazis? The other being that of how far the investigators will go to prevent the coming of a greater evil, one that has been present on Kerguelen from when it was part of a much larger land mass...

“The Black Drop” has quite an open structure with even the evil at its heart being left up to the GM to decide. The Kerguelen Islands are themselves nicely described, with a focus on the dangerous nature of their landscape. Whilst the provided pre-generated investigators do together possess some potential tensions contemporary of the period between them, they do themselves feel underwritten. Conversely, of all of the four scenarios in Out of Time, this is the one that would be the easiest to fit into an existing campaign, the given flashbacks that develop the scenario’s background being easily adapted into scenes that would push the investigators to visit the Kerguelen Islands. If there are parallels between this scenario and any other, it would be the classic Beyond the Mountains of Madness for Call of Cthulhu. The author deserves kudos, not just for a bleakly desperate scenario, but also for labelling one of the sections, “The Unholy Lambeth of the Antipodes.”

Bill White provides two scenarios for “Out of Time,” both of which are set in the early 1950s. The first of these is “The Big Hoodoo,” a big slice of Californian Voodo that draws heavily from Science Fiction history while setting it quite literally in the parallel universe next door in your neighbour’s backyard. Further, the pre-generated investigators are not your typical antiquarian or your gun-toting Private Eye, but the literati of the Science Fiction world – Robert Heinlein, ex-Navy engineer and author; his second wife, Virginia, also an ex-Navy engineer; Anthony Boucher, Science Fiction editor and mystery author; and lastly, a young and up and coming Philip K. Dick. As the scenario opens, all four are in Los Angeles en route to attend the funeral of late Jack Parsons, rocketry pioneer and occultist who was killed in an explosion in his garage laboratory. The scenario suggests other Science Fiction luminaries who might be attendance should there be more than four players.

What follows is a complex, dense affair that echoes Film Noir, though sun drenched rather ensnared in shadows. This complexity and the wide array of clues available would need careful pruning for a convention game, let alone a normal one, threatening as it does to sprawl wildly if the GM does not keep a tight rein on the narrative. It presents a heady mix of science and the occult, government interest and charlatanry, the Mythos and Enochian Magic all based on the real world relationships, histories, and beliefs of the scenario’s antagonists, most notably those of a renamed L. Ron Hubbard. The author puts an amusing twist upon them and Hubbard’s self-actualisation teachings – though fans of Asimov might object to said twist – that just exacerbates the weirdness of “The Big Hoodoo.”

There are a number of issues that a GM must address in wanting to run “The Big Hoodoo.” It is very specific in terms of setting and protagonists, not only making it difficult to adapt to other times and settings, but also making it difficult to run it without using the pre-generated investigators. The ultimate issue is one of how much the players are prepared to buy into playing and interacting with Science Fiction luminaries – unless they have read the works of the authors in question, they are unlikely to gain much from this scenario.

Rounding out Out of Time is Bill White’s second scenario, “Castle Bravo.” Again set in the early 1950s, this is an attempt to do the period’s “Atomic Horror” without veering off into the more traditional campiness of the genre. Like the rest of the scenarios in the collection, it is a Purist affair, and like “Not So Quiet” before it, “Castle Bravo” concerns the military. This time the investigators are members of the crew of the USS Bairoko, a US carrier assigned to monitor a series of secret thermonuclear test shots in the Bikini atoll called Operation Castle.

In comparison with “The Big Hoodoo,” this is potentially a more action orientated adventure, despite being a Purist scenario. It is also a more focused and direct affair that starts with the bang of the atomic detonation and from there events take on an increasingly weird turn. The investigators face not only the dangers of the fallout, but also the transmogrification of fellow crewmembers and their own falling into increasingly odd fugue states. They also haunted by an antagonist whose own transmogrification echoes that of Doctor Manhattan from Alan Moore’s Watchmen. In addition to having to get to the heart of the threat that they really face, the investigators must also help keep their vessel at a necessary readiness to face their threat and negotiate with their superiors in order to gain the means to deal with said threat.

The oddity of the latter means that having roleplayed their way into military characters, the players then have to roleplay their characters doing unmilitary actions. Another issue with the scenario is that only the one investigator is subject to the anagnorisis, the scenario’s “big reveal.” Nevertheless, this is an enjoyably muscular adventure, one that relies on interaction as much as it does action.

Physically, Out of Time is another excellent looking book, just as you would expect for a title for Trail of Cthulhu. It is not quite as well presented though. This shows in the poor handling of the some of the page references, a hangover from when the four scenarios were available individually. That said, the page numbers on the contents page are correct. It also shows in some of the artwork. It is not a matter of the artwork being bad, for Jérôme Huguenin’s work continues to be excellent, but rather some of it feels irrelevant to the story.

All four of the scenarios in this anthology need a very careful read through, though this is in part is eased by the inclusion of a set of designer notes from the supplement’s three authors. Thus for “Not So Quiet,” Adam Gauntlett discusses the dangers of being wounded during World War I; for “The Black Drop,” Jason Morningstar explores how his scenario might be run during the nineteenth rather the twentieth century; and for “The Big Hoodoo,” Bill White provides detailed, if not to say, very welcome, playtest notes. He does not however, provide any for “Castle Bravo.” This is not as much of a problem as it might have been with the previous three scenarios, as “Castle Bravo” is a comparatively straightforward. Still, their inclusion would have been useful.

Being one-shots and particular to a time and place in each case, the four scenarios herein are far from flexible. With a tweak here and there, they can be moved towards the game’s Pulp mode of play, but shifting out their periods is more difficult. Of the four, “The Black Drop” is the easiest to run with a standard group and existing campaign, whilst “Not So Quiet” could be used as the start of a World War I set campaign. “Not So Quiet” could be run as a flashback to explain the investigator’s previous experience with the Mythos.

The very title of Out of Time hints at the desperate nature of the four scenarios in the anthology. Three of the four also take Trail of Cthulhu out of its traditional period of the 1930s, while the fourth, “The Black Drop,” certainly takes Trail of Cthulhu far from civilisation. All four though continue Trail of Cthulhu's tradition of strong strong with well written and well realised scenarios.

Sunday 23 October 2011

Dicing For Sanity

The focus of so many exotic curios and occult artefacts at the museum is the cause of a new threat to Arkham. They weaken the barriers to the beyond, letting Gates open and monsters in, and laying a path for an Ancient One to make its way to Earth and lay waste to mankind. Only a number of dedicated investigators have the knowledge and will, and perhaps the allies and the tools, if not necessarily the time, to locate a sufficient number of Elder Signs that will seal the portals and prevent the arrival of the Ancient One. This is the set up for Elder Sign, the latest board game from the designers of Arkham Horror that uses the same art work and trade dress as seen in both Arkham Horror and the recently released Mansions of Madness.

Fantasy Flight Game’s third board game of facing Lovecraftian horror, Elder Sign is, like Arkham Horror, a co-operative game designed to be played by between one and eight players, with a playing time of between one and two hours. The co-operative element means that the opponents faced by players are not each other, but by the game itself and its mechanics. It also means that there is a time component to Elder Sign, not only in terms of a time limit before the Ancient One arrives, but also in terms of events (of a random nature) that occur regularly throughout the game’s play. In order to counter the effects of these events, and eventually, the arrival of the Ancient One, the Investigators will explore the Museum and have Adventures within its confines, the aim being to marshal the resources necessary to save the world.

Elder Sign is comprised of several sets of large and small cards, various tokens and counters, a card clock, and a set of customised dice. The large cards are divided between decks of Investigators, Adventures, and Ancient Ones, whilst the small cards are divided between decks of Common and Unique items, Spells, and Allies – all beneficial to the Investigators, whilst Mythos cards describe the events and effects that occur every time that the clock strikes Midnight and linger until the clock strikes Midnight again.

There are sixteen individual Investigators to choose from. Each one gives an Investigator his maximum Sanity and Stamina, his Starting Items, and a special ability. For example, Dexter Drake is a magician who whenever he gains a Spell card during play, he always gains an extra one, whilst Gloria Goldberg is an author whose Psychic Sensitivity grants her extra dice to roll when visiting Other World Adventure Cards.

During a game, the Investigators will face one of eight Ancient Ones. They include Azathoth, Cthulhu, Hastur, Ithaqua, Nyarlathotep, Shub-Niggurath, Yig, and Yog-Sothoth. Each one gives the number of Elder Signs needed to prevent it from being awoken, which occurs when the Doom Track on the card is filled; a special ability that applies throughout a game; a means of Attack once it is awoken; and a Combat Task that must be completed by the Investigators to weaken and eventually banish it from the Earth. So for example, for Cthulhu, the Special Ability is “Dreams of Madness,” which reduces every Investigator’s maximum Sanity and Stamina by one. Thirteen Elder Signs are needed to banish this Ancient One, but it only needs eleven tokens for the Doom Track to be filled and Cthulhu to be woken up. When Cthulhu does Attack, it reduces each Investigator’s Sanity or Stamina by one and adds another token to his Doom Track. The latter is a problem because in order to defeat an awoken Ancient One, the Investigators have to remove all of the tokens from the Doom Track. To remove a Token, an Investigator has to roll the given Combat Task.

Each Adventure Card has a title, a Trophy value, some flavour text, a set of Tasks that need to be completed if an Investigator is to succeed at the Adventure itself, and a set of Penalties for if an Investigator fails to complete the Adventure and a set of Rewards if he does. Some Adventure Cards also have a Terror effect that occurs if an Investigator does not complete a Task on each roll and some stipulate that their Tasks have to be done in order rather than the order of a player’s choosing. Most of the Adventure Cards take place in the Museum such as “Remains of the High Priest” and “The Gift Shop,” but others take place off world, like “The Dreamlands” and “The City of the Great Race.” In general, the Rewards and Penalties for the Other World Adventure cards are greater and they are also harder to complete.

Penalties on an Adventure Card can deduct Sanity and Stamina from an Investigator, cause a Monster to appear, advance the Clock, or add another Doom Token to the Doom Track on the Ancient One Card. Rewards can grant Items, Spells, and Allies as well as Elder Signs and Clue Tokens. They can also open Gates to Other World Adventure Cards. Not all of the Rewards are good – sometimes they are mix of the good and the bad.

The small cards represent Common and Unique items, Spells, and Allies as well as Mythos effects. They add extra dice to a Task attempt or alter dice rolls; enable an Investigator to restore Sanity or Stamina; or in the case of some Spells, let an Investigator store dice results between attempts at a Task. Allies grant another special ability, such as Richard Upton Pickman’s being able to change results on the dice in a certain fashion. Each Mythos card has two effects. The first occurs as soon as it is drawn, whilst the second lasts until the next Mythos card is drawn. For example, immediate effect of “The Stars Align…” is to add a Doom token to the Doom Track, whilst the lingering effect, “…Before Reason Fails,” lets the Tasks on Adventure Cards be done in any order, even if they stipulate that they must be done in order.

The game includes Sanity, Stamina, Investigator, Clue (these allow re-rolls of the dice), Elder Sign and Doom Tokens. There are also Monster Markers, little card strips that when summoned can replace Tasks on an Adventure Card to make them more difficult to complete. Each Monster Marker has a piece of flavour text on the reverse and a Trophy value.

The final components are the card Clock, used to measure the passing of time and determine when new Mythos cards are drawn; the Museum Entrance card; and the dice. The Museum Entrance card represents somewhere where an Investigator can go to “Receive First Aid,” “Search the Lost & Found,” or “Buy A Souvenir.” This usually requires an Investigator to expend Trophy points won by completing Adventure Cards or defeating Monsters, or to expend various tokens or items.

The dice are the heart of the game, rolled by an Investigator to try and match the symbols listed for each Task on the Adventure cards. They come in three colours. The six green dice are the most common and all of them are usually rolled when a Task is attempted. The yellow dice gives better results than a green die whilst the red dice gives better results than the yellow die. It usually takes the expenditure of a Common Item card to add the Yellow die to a player’s roll and the expenditure of a Unique Item card to add the red die. There is only the one yellow and one red die in the game.

Game set up is quick and simple. Each player selects an Investigator and receives its starting items. An Ancient One is chosen and placed on the table where everyone can see it along with the Clock – which is set at midnight, the Museum Entrance card, and six Adventure Cards. The first Mythos card is drawn and takes effect.

On his a turn, a player sends his Investigator to the chosen Adventure Card. He takes up the green dice and the yellow or red die if he decides to use an Item or has a Special Ability. The Tasks are arranged on each Adventure Card in lines and with each roll of the dice, a player must match the symbols on a single line with those on the dice. He can only attempt to match the symbols on one line at a time and if he does, he places those dice on the symbols on the card. He can then go on to roll for the Tasks on the other lines. If he fails to roll the right symbols for a line, he can continue rolling, but must discard a die each time he fails to match the symbols. On some Adventure Cards, there is a Terror effect for failing to match any symbols and rolling a Terror on the dice. If the player completes all of the Tasks, he receives all of the rewards at the bottom of the Adventure Card. He also receives the Adventure Card to keep as a Trophy which can be spent at the Museum Entrance for various effects. If he does not complete any of them, he suffers the penalties also given at the bottom of the Adventure Card.

Alternatively, a player could have sent his Investigator to the Museum Entrance. As soon as a player’s turn is over the Clock is advanced one quarter of the way round its face. When the Clock reaches Midnight a new Mythos Card is drawn and its effects applied. Since the two effects on the Mythos Cards vary greatly, often the players will find themselves hoping for one with less dangerous effects. So drawing one every fourth turn is another way in which Elder Sign can turn up the tension.

Our sample Adventure Card is “Lights Out.” Harvey Walters’ player decides that the reward of an Elder Sign is worth going for. The individual Tasks on each line are not difficult in themselves, but the Arrow symbol beside them means that they have to be done in order. Harvey has at his disposal one Unique Item – a copy of “Cultes des Ghoules” that lets him add the red die to a Task attempt, and one Spell card, the spell “Flesh Ward,” which lets him store a die roll between attempts. Harvey decides that he will use both, meaning that he rolls both the green and the red dice.

On the first roll, Harvey gets the results of 1 Clue, 2 Clue, Scroll, Scroll, Skull, and Tentacle on the green dice. On the red die, he gets the Wild Card symbol, which can be used to match any other symbol. The 1 Clue and 2 Clue symbols are enough to complete the Task on the first line and places those dice on the Adventure Card. He takes the red die and stores it on the Spell Card. This leaves him with just four green dice to roll.

On the second roll, Harvey needs two Skulls, but is unlucky and gets neither. He is forced to discard one of the green dice leaving him with three to roll. He gets 1 Clue, 3 Clue, and a Skull. He needs another Skull, so uses the Wild Card symbol on the red die that he stored earlier to match the symbols needed to complete the Task. This leaves him with just two dice and needing two Scrolls to complete the third Task and the whole Adventure Card. He rolls a Scroll and a Tentacle. Ordinarily this would not be enough, but Harvey’s Special Ability allows him to change a single Tentacle result on the dice to a Scroll, and as soon as he does he has completed all of the Tasks and the Adventure Card.

As a reward, he gains an Elder Sign and a Spell Card plus the Adventure Card to spend as a Trophy. A new Adventure Card is then added. If he failed, he would have lost two Stamina and added another Token to the Doom Track on the Ancient One’s card.

When the Doom Track is fully filled on the Ancient One’s card, it awakes and comes to Earth. At that point every Investigator has to face it, battling to remove the Doom Tokens from the Track. This uses the same dice mechanics as for the Tasks on the Adventure Cards.

Should either the Sanity or Stamina of an Investigator be reduced to zero, he deemed to have been devoured! His player must start afresh with a new Investigator, including new Starting Items. He loses those previously held by the now devoured Investigator. If an Investigator is devoured by the awakened Ancient One, no new Investigator can join the fight against him.

Winning a game of Elder Sign is not easy, but it is made all the harder when certain Adventure and Mythos Cards and Monsters appear that have the Locked Die icon on them. These temporarily remove a die that matches the colour on the icon from the game, thus reducing the number of dice each player has to roll on his turn until the Adventure Card or the Monster that has confiscated the die has been dealt with, or the effects of the Mythos Card have been replaced with a new one when the Clock strikes Midnight. Fortunately, in addition to using Investigator Special Abilities and the various Spell and Item Cards to give themselves an advantage, players can do things. First, Clue Tokens allow players to re-roll dice. Second, they can Focus a die – saving a die result for a subsequent Task, but at the cost of discarding another die, or Assist another player on the same Adventure Card – giving them a die result that they can use on their turn in attempting the Tasks on that Adventure Card. The downside to this is that it reduces the number of dice every player has to roll until the Assisted player’s turn.

Physically, Elder Sign is up to Fantasy Flight Games’ usual standards. Everything is of a high quality as you would expect, and the illustrations, all of which will be familiar to players of Arkham Horror and Mansions of Madness, are excellent. The rulebook is perhaps a little succinct at twelve pages, with some more examples of play being needed to better get the play of the game across. If there is an issue with the components, it is that some of the components are just a little too small for easy handling and thus some of the artwork’s effectiveness is lost.

Elder Sign is described as a co-operative dice game, but whilst the dice rolling lies at the heart of mechanics and game resolution, the game is really a “co-operative dice and decision” game. The players have to decide where their Investigators have to go and which Adventure Cards they should attempt to resolve, this decision usually being influenced by the number of Elder Signs available as Rewards on the current Adventure Cards or the Adventure Cards or Monsters with the locked dice on them. Of course, sometimes a player will attempt to resolve an Adventure Card for the Item and Spell Cards that it would reward him. They also need to decide how to apply their dice rolls, and in all of this, a player is free to solicit advice from the other players. This then, is the game’s “co-operative” element.

In comparison with Fantasy Flight Games’ other titles of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Elder Sign is simpler, more direct, and quicker to play. It is less location focused than either Arkham Horror or Mansions of Madness, so it has less of a narrative structure to it, but because a player is rolling the dice multiple times during his turn, it actually feels like you are doing more than in either of those games, especially in Mansions of Madness where a player’s actions feel severely limited.

The combined effect of the reduced narrative structure in comparison to Fantasy Flight Games’ other Lovecraftian board games and the focus on the dice rolling to resolve the Adventure Cards is to make Elder Sign feel mechanical in play. It is possible that much of the game’s flavour and colour could fade into the background if the players do focus too much on the dice and the mechanics. That said, this is not necessarily an issue for the more casual player.

With eight Ancient Ones to face and forty-eight Adventure and eight Other World Adventure Cards, and sixteen Investigators to play, the core set for Elder Sign offers plenty of replay value. Plus, the format is ripe for expansion. The actual downtime between turns is not necessarily high, but of course with more players there is a slightly longer wait. When it is a player’s turn, the rolling of the dice to resolve the Tasks of an Adventure Card can be quite tense, which just adds to the atmosphere and feel of the game seen in the art.

Above all, Elder Sign captures much of the tension and atmosphere of fighting desperately against the Mythos. That it does so in such a self-contained and time constrained manner is a sign of a good design, at the heart of which is the clever, tension inducing dice rolling. Not too complex for the casual player, but still evocative for the Lovecraft devotee.

Saturday 22 October 2011

The TALENT Campaign

For a game as old as Arc Dream Publishing’s GODLIKE: Superhero Roleplaying in a World on Fire, 1936–1946, it seems a shame that there is so little support for it, let alone the fact that for a game with a setting – the whole of the Second World War – as rife with possibilities, it has never been given a campaign of its own. All that changes with the release of Black Devils Brigade: The First Special Service Force and the Italian Campaign, 1943–1944, the first full length adventure campaign for the GODLIKE, the RPG that took Talents or the common soldiery with an amazing abilities to war against the Axis Powers. In GODLIKE the player characters are soldiers first, not only highly trained, but also trained in how to use talents such as being able to open any locked door simply by pointing at it, momentarily freeze time and sidestep bullets, or go to sleep and have their skeleton climb out of their body to fight for them. Not only are the Allied Talents up against the military might of Nazi Germany, but also the Übermenschen, the Nazi Talents who are part of the SS and who revel in their powers and the Aryan ideals of the “Super Race.” At the heart of the game lies each Talent’s Will, this fuels his powers and his ability to cancel out another Talent’s powers, but which can be lost if he loses a contest of Wills with an enemy Talent. In Black Devils Brigade: The First Special Service Force and the Italian Campaign, 1943–1944, this will all come to the fore as the Talents are taken from training right through the length of the Italian campaign.

The Talents in Black Devils Brigade are members of the First Special Service Force (FSSF), a joint American-Canadian unit raised and trained as commandoes specialising in winter warfare, their intended mission to carry out strike missions behind enemy lines in Norway and Romania. When this became impossible, the unit was first sent to the Pacific to help re-capture the Aleutians from the Japanese, before being going to Italy and fighting at Anzio. Many of the initial recruits were originally miners, mountaineers, and lumberjacks, tough outdoorsmen who were also expected to speak a second language. This is reflected in the extra points that a Forceman receives for his Stats. One factor reflected in character generation in this alternate world is the fact that the First Special Service Force kept its Talents when they manifested and did not send them to train with Talent Operations Group at its Achnacarry Commando Training School. Thus a player receives just twenty points with which to create the abilities of his FSSF Talent.

Our sample FSSF Talent is Henning Huber, a Canadian who as the son of German immigrants wants to prove himself to be a Canadian rather than a German. He trained as a telephone engineer, which often meant repairing telephone lines in all weathers and which resulted in him being assigned to the FSSF’s Communication Detachment, part of its Service Section. His Talent manifested during a live fire exercise when one of his detachment was wounded and he found himself without sufficient medical equipment to treat the wound. With no one else available, he literally grabbed other kits from Forcemen elsewhere on the battlefield. He can grab objects vital to his survival or that of others, but only if he is scared and he has no control over what item he gets. In recent battles he has managed grab weapons from both his colleagues and his enemies, and even one occasion, a whole tank! For his reason, he is known as “Lucky Dip.”

Corporal Henning Huber, “Lucky Dip,” Talent Section, FSSF
Body 3 Coordination 3 Sense 2
Brains 3 Command 2 Cool 2
Base Will 4
Current Will 8
Motivations: Prove himself to be Canadian, not German; Force Esprit des Corps
Skills: Anti-Tank Rocket 1 (4d), Bluff 1 (3d), Brawling 1 (4d), Climb 2 (5d), Drive (Automobile) 1 (4d), Electronics 2 (5d), Endurance 2 (5d), Explosives 1 (4d), Forward Observer 1 (4d), French 1 (4d), German 2 (5d), Grenade 1 (4d), Instrument (Piano) 1 (4d), Knife Fighting 2 (5d), Machine Gun 1 (4d), Map Reading 1 (4d), Mechanics 1 (4d), Mortar 1 (4d), Navigation (Land) 1 (4d), Parachuting 1 (4d), Pistol 1 (4d), Radio Operation 2 (5d), Rifle 2 (5d), Sight 1 (3d), Skiing 1 (4d), Stealth 2 (5d), Submachine Gun 2 (5d), Survival 2 (5d), Tactics 1 (4d), Telephony 2 (5d)
Talents (16 Will Points)
Fetch: Reflexively grab what he needs when in an emergency 8d+1wd (Qualities: Attacks, Robust, Useful Outside of Combat. Base Cost: 4/8/16. Extra: Reflexive +2/+4/+8; Flaw: Peace of Mind – Scared -2/-4/-8; Flaw: Uncontrollable -3/-6/-12; Final Cost 1/4/8; 16 points).

So a Forceman Talent character can be created with twenty points, but this is a real problem for Black Devils Brigade as a supplement. In a standard game of GODLIKE, Talent Operations Group characters receive twenty-five points to spend on their Talent abilities and it can be challenging enough to create interesting characters on this point total. On the twenty points that an FSSF Talent gets it is very difficult without resorting to the common default of buying Super Stats and Super Skills. In play, this disparity widens when the FSSF Talents face the Übermenschen, who are often built on as many as eighty or more points. To an extent this is a feature of the game, pitching the better trained Allied Talents with less effective abilities against the Übermenschen with emphasis on powers over training. It forces a player to be inventive, not just in creating the character, but also in playing the game. Now while the inclusion of the FSSF’s first eight Talents as playable characters is laudable, it would have been useful to have if not more characters, then at least some ready-to-play, Talent packages built on twenty points.

Although the bulk of Black Devils Brigade is devoted the FSSF’s time in Italy, it includes enough background information with which the GM could run the Talents through some sessions training stateside or the anti-climax that was the recapture of the Aleutians. Once in Italy, the Talents will naturally find themselves constantly at the centre of the action, being called upon to perform scouting missions, assaults, patrols, and more over mountain, rural, and urban terrain. Not only will they face normal veterans of both the Wehrmacht and the SS, but also the Übermenschen, who are also members of the SS. More specifically, the Talents will often themselves sent out to deal with the threats posed by the Übermenschen. The campaign details some fifty of them, complete with fully worked powers and personalities, both of which vary widely. It should be made clear that not every of the Übermenschen is an avowed Nazi – many are simply trying to survive, while others have second thoughts.

Naturally, the focus in Black Devils Brigade is on combat, and plenty of it, with the player characters finding themselves being tested again and again. That said, the campaign includes several situations that do not involve combat, including comfort missions, relationships with civilians, inter-unit rivalries, and army politics. These both break up what could have been a very one-note campaign and provide yet more opportunities for roleplaying. Throughout the campaign, the Talents are at the centre of the attention and the action, reflecting the fact of their importance in the war fought in GODLIKE and the need to keep the player characters at that centre of attention.

Rounding out the campaign is a lengthy appendix that not only includes the pre-generated Talents but also several sets of rules. These cover making Sneak Attacks – a common tactic used by the Forcemen in their raids across enemy lines; Bombardment – artillery is a constant threat; One Roll Patrols – a means of generating random patrol missions from the type, terrain, and complications with a single roll of eleven dice; Minefields – laid by both sides; and FUBAR situations. The latter dealing with the random bad things that can happen on the battlefield, coming into play only when a player rolls poorly.

Physically, Black Devils Brigade is well laid out and well written with decent artwork. In places the GM will need to pay careful attention to the maps and their descriptions in the text as it is not always easy for the GM to visualise the battlefield, and this may well be a problem in trying to impart the lay of the land to the players. Even though the campaign does work hard to keep the emphasis in the battles on the player characters, there is the feeling that miniatures would help in order to have both players and GM visualise and interact with the battlefield, though in bringing them to the game would make it much more expensive.

In truth, we have been waiting for Black Devils Brigade for quite some time now. To date we have had excursions for GODLIKE to the Pacific and Western Europe, but for the most part, the Italian Campaign has been ignored. Not now though, for Black Devils Brigade: The First Special Service Force and the Italian Campaign, 1943–1944 does it full justice in presenting a challenging, sometimes too challenging, a roleplaying campaign that will give months of play.

Sunday 16 October 2011

Track or Share?

One of the odder games to be released at Essen in 2010 was SNCF (Société Nationale des Chemins de fer Français) from Winsome Games. The oddity being that Winsome Games is best known for developing, publishing, and licensing detailed, historical train games – board games that focus on the building and development of railway networks and the trading in the shares of railway companies. SNCF was anything other than detailed or historical, but was instead a simple track and share game that could be played in thirty minutes. Nevertheless, it offered up careful tactical play and was quickly licensed to Queen Games and released as Paris Connection.

As both titles suggest, Paris Connection is set in France in which the players take the role of investors in the new railway companies that want to connect Paris with the rest of France. Designed for between three and six players, aged ten and over, the aim of the game is to increase the value of shares in one of six railway companies and to hold shares in these companies. Share values are increased by laying track and building connecting routes from Paris across France to her towns and cities. The first clever aspect of the game is that the wooden train pieces that represent the track or routes in the game also represent the shares in the company, so there will come a point at which it is more profitable to own shares in a company rather than build with them. The second clever aspect about the game is that share ownership is hidden throughout the game and only revealed at the very end, though share transactions are done in public.

The game consists of a board depicting a map of France with her various towns and cities. Most towns are worth a single point when scored, but in general, the further a town or city is away from Paris, the more valuable it is to score. Around two sides of the board is a scoring track that runs from one to thirty, showing not a player’s score, but the share values for each company. Besides the main board, there is a small storage board for each of the game’s six sets of share/track pieces. These come in six colours, are done in wood, and are shaped like steam locomotives. There is a card screen for each player behind which he can hide his shares. The last two components are a black cloth bag used to determine random share ownership at the start of a game and two sets of rules. One set of rules is in French, the other in English. Both are double sided, done in full colour with one side explaining how to set the game and the other the game’s actual rules.

Game set up is simple. Each player receives a screen and a train of each colour is placed on the start of the Scoring Track and on the start hexes in Paris. The remaining train pieces of all six colours are placed in the cloth bag and given a good mix. Each player then draws a number of random train pieces from the bag and hides them behind his screen. The number drawn depends on the number of players. The greater the number of players, the fewer the initial number of shares that they can hold at the start of the game and the fewer maximum shares that a player can hold at the end of the game without their scores being penalised.

On his turn, a player has two options. He can either lay track or take shares. To lay track he takes up to five train pieces from any one storage board and places them board so that they are connected to trains of the same colour. To take shares, a player places one the shares he has behind his screen on the storage board that matches its colour and takes two shares of another colour from another storage board. This is only way in which a player can increase the number of shares that he holds.

Play continues until there are only share/track pieces remaining on the single storage board with the remaining share/track pieces either behind the players’ screens or on the board. The other way to end the game is for a player to build into Marseilles. At this point everyone reveals the shares they hold behind their screens and receives points for each share according to its value on the Scoring Track. The player with the highest value share portfolio – after penalties are levied for holding more than the maximum number of shares – is the winner.

Initially, the idea that you are not building your own railway and that you do not own train pieces of a single colour is counter intuitive. In almost every other game, you are building your own railway and you do own all of the train pieces of a single colour. Once past this stumbling block, Paris Connection presents one base tactical question and then a number of smaller questions to a player. That base question is, at what point does it become more valuable to hold multiple shares in a railway network than to extend that network? In other words, at what point do share/track pieces become more valuable as shares than as track?

The subsequent and smaller questions revolve around how does a player affect the share values in the other rail networks? The game is not complicated enough that it includes rules on how to reduce share value, but it is possible to limit the growth in share value. The most obvious means is place the share/track pieces in such a way that they do not connect to any town or city and so do not score any points. Thus a rail network’s share value is not increased for a player’s turn.

The last question that a player needs to address is, how quickly does he need a rail network need to get to Marseilles? It might be that with several high value shares in his portfolio, he might want to end the game early to capitalise on those values. Conversely, the other players might want to lay track in a high value share to both stop it rising in value and it reaching Marseilles, hopefully giving them time to improve other share values and increase their portfolios.

There are three great aspects to Paris Connection. First, there is its simplicity. The rules are not only simple to learn, they are also simple to teach. In fact, the game is simple enough that after a single read through of the rules; a group could get playing, meaning that it is entirely possible to play Paris Connection out of the box. The second great aspect is that the game has almost no randomness to it, and what there is, consists of determining each player’s share portfolio at game’s start. The third great aspect is that this is a Euro Game not for two to five players as many good Euro Games are, but for three to six, and light games for six players are not necessarily all that common.

The production values on Paris Connection are very high. The board is attractively done and clearly laid out. The screens are nice, though prone to falling over. The wooden train-shaped track/share pieces are equally attractive if a little small and perhaps fiddly to handle. The rules sheet is bright and easy to read. Yet these high production values are source of the game’s single real flaw. Paris Connection is not an inexpensive game. In fact it is an expensive game given both how long a play through lasts and how simple it is. It is engaging and enjoyable to play, but it does not offer value for money.

The purchase of the copy of Paris Connection that we have been playing was an impulse buy. The promised lightness of the rules and the upper limit on the number of players were the draw despite the price. Having played it a few times, we have found it to be light and easy, but still offering some tactical choices. Not only is Paris Connection an excellent filler game, it is also a good starter game, a title that can be played and enjoyed with casual games players… that is, if you are happy to overlook the price.

Saturday 15 October 2011

An Elizabethan Whirl

On occasion I want to delve into the extensive library/ludography upstairs and pull out a classic or an item of interest and review it. If all I did was review games, then it would happen, but the truth is that there is never quite enough time to review games from the here and now, let alone review those from the past. Yet the reflective nature of the twenty-first century and our yearning for late twentieth century nostalgia has led to the games of our yester years actually being made available once again just as if they were appearing on the shelves all that time ago. Such is the case with Maelstrom.

Originally published in 1984, Maelstrom was something of an oddity. It was a full RPG, but not one that was released not by a hobby publisher, but by Puffin Books, the imprint of Penguin Books that was, and remains a major publisher of children’s books. This meant that an actual RPG appeared not just on the shelves of your local games shop, but also on the shelves of your local, and thus any, book shop. Now this sounds strange, but in 1984, the hobby in the United Kingdom was at the height of the Fighting Fantasy craze. Titles in the solo game book series were selling very well, but Maelstrom was a very different beast, a semi-historical RPG set in the late Elizabethan Age, that came not only with a magic system and potentially, a treatment of the supernatural, but also a solo adventure and an adventure written for multiple characters. Further, its characters were not the traditional warriors and wizards, but nobles, professionals, craftsmen and artisans, tradesmen and labourers, as well as mercenaries, priests, mages, and rogues.

Now Arion Games have brought it back. It still comes as a thick, slightly over-sized paperback with the terrific snow scene of a man defending a cart and his companions from members of the soldiery. Inside the book is still split between two parts, one for the players and one for the referee, with a solo adventure in the players’ part, and an adventure to run in the referee’s. The book still has the heavy ink illustrations that do so much to give it a heavy atmosphere and a historical feel. Everything looks about the same as my now somewhat shelf worn copy that I bought back in 1984. The question is, how do the game’s rules and the game itself stand up to scrutiny with the benefit of twenty-five years’ gaming experience?

Maelstrom uses a percentile system, with characters having to make rolls or Saving Throws against one of nine attributes that define each character. So for example, to parry a sword thrust, a character must roll against his Defence Skill, whereas to work out the state of a noble’s household accounts, a clerk would roll against his Knowledge Skill. If this sounds simple, then it is. Even the complications only add just a little more to account for critical results, combat, and magic.

So in a fight, the blows of the combatants go back and forth with rolls on their Attack and Defence Skills with damage from successful hits rolled according to the weapon type, which often requires the use of six-sided as well as ten-sided dice. One interesting aspect of combat is that whilst all damage is recorded against a character’s Endurance – who will fall unconscious if he suffers damage equal to his Endurance – each wound is recorded individually. So for example, Alfred, waylaid by thugs, is beaten several times with their cudgels for a total of sixteen points of damage, which is recorded blow-by-blow as 5/5/2/4 (16). Wounds are recorded this way because each heals individually, at a rate of one point per week if resting or one point per month if pursuing a normal life, so that in our example, after a week’s bed rest, Alfred’s wounds are reduced to 4/4/1/3 (12). This makes for a dangerous combat system, but the issue of a character falling unconscious after receiving damage equal to his Endurance is problematic in that it is not necessarily deadly. Delivering a mortal blow is technically not possible, at least in the basic rules.

The rules for magic continue Maelstrom’s simplicity, requiring a Knowledge Skill roll by a mage to recall the correct incantation and a number of Will rolls equal to the desired effect’s difficulty. The game does not come with dedicated spell lists and the referee is expected to determine the rolls needed for the effect that the player mage wants. Again, critical successes and failures are possible, and their effects also need to be determined by the referee. In casting a spell, a mage taps into the “Maelstrom,” a dangerous and chaotic force that can, at the referee’s option, act independently for or against the mage, or even serve as a strange dimension that the mage and his fellow player characters can be cast into and out of, perhaps to end in some strange place or time.

Creating a character in Maelstrom involves assigning fifty points between nine attributes, each of which starts at a base of thirty. After that each character requires a Living, representing his past prior to going adventuring. Each Living determines a character’s age, appropriate skills, and possessions. The given selection of Livings is diverse, from Noble to Labourer, and includes Professionals (Architects, Clerks, Doctors, and Scriveners – lawyers), Craftsmen and Artisans (Armourers, Blacksmiths, Bladesmiths, Masons, Tailors, Tanners, and Wood-carvers), Traders (in everything from fish and fruit to wine and groceries), Travelling Players (musicians, minstrels, and players), and Herbalists. The latter are usually pacifists that collect and prepare herbs for medicinal purposes, knowing in which seasons herbs are available. The Herbalist Living is supported with excellent appendix detailing the herbs its practitioners work with.

Our sample character is Henyre Powlett, an architect who has been studying and working under a master architect in Bristol for almost half of his life. He wishes to travel to gain further work and experience. He is a gentleman whose family owns land in the county of Somerset.

Henyre Powlett
Architect, Age 26
Attack Skill 30
Defence Skill 30
Endurance 35
Speed 35
Agility 30
Will 35
Persuasion 40
Knowledge 45
Perception 40
Equipment: horse, dagger, good clothes, pouch with 49 shillings, a week’s food, skin of wine, and architect’s tools

Of the Livings available, the closest in terms to classic types in other RPGs are the Mage, the Mercenary, the Priest, and the Rogue. Mages are generally older as they need to take up a second Living in order to provide a cover for their sorcerous activities and likely membership of a cult. Mercenaries are excellent fighters and know how to use their armour to lessen blows taken and to use their weapons to inflict more injurious wounds. A Priest can exalt those around him through Preaching, and has limited powers – Detection, Warding, Casting Out, and Exorcism – over spirits. Rogues though, are further divided into Beggars, Thieves, Assassins, Tricksters, Burglars, and non-specialists, each with their own particular skills in addition to those general to the Living.

The Player’s Section is rounded out with a solo adventure and some advanced rules. The adventure is relatively short, but still atmospherically grim. It is designed to be played with an Assassin character who is given a target to kill. The advanced rules add encumbrance, attribute modifiers for Livings, rules for making a living out of a character’s Living, more detailed weapons and wounds, and the effects of critical rolls in combat. For the most part, the Referee’s Rules gives even more details on each of the Livings as well as a scenario. The latter describes a road trip from St. Albans to London in which various events occur and comes full of colourful detail. The adventure is well done and serves as a good introduction to the setting.

So far, Maelstrom is an immensely likeable RPG. It is full of period detail, never more so than with the character types which get more coverage in Maelstrom than any other subject, though this information is split between the book’s two parts for the player and the referee. It is also easy to play and run, the rules being simple and easy, but although the game can be run as is, it is not without its problems.

The rules themselves are too simple, especially the basic rules. The advanced rules are necessary to avoid the game being too simplistic, especially for combat, which needs the rules for serious and critical wounds for it to be more than straight fight to a knockout. For an RPG set during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, it seems a curious omission that no rules are given for the use of firearms. Another problem with the RPG’s list of weaponry is that whilst multiple damage listings are given for each weapon type – for example, “1-10, 2-12, 3-18, 2-20, 4-24, 3-30, and 5-30” all under sword – the listings do not actually assign an actual sword type to each damage value. Suggestions are given separately, which is anything other than helpful.

Perhaps, the biggest problem with Maelstrom is the lack of adequate background. A little over two pages is devoted to “Background: The Lie of Land,” discussing the period in the broadest of terms. The truth of it is that it not enough. Without more background, the referee is forced to look elsewhere if he wants to write adventures as beyond the wealth of detail accorded the various Livings, Maelstrom is sorely lacking. The Elizabethan Age is a period of religious strife, exploration, treason, and more, all of which is ignored in Maelstrom. The result is that the referee will need to come up with a background and a focus for his game, for Maelstrom lacks a sense of conflict that would provide that focus.

Further, perhaps too much information is paid to the characters and their Livings. You can of course, have too much information, but at the same time, there is the matter of whether a player would chose to play a Fruiterer or an Engraver versus a Mage or a Mercenary?

Physically, this edition of Maelstrom does need an edit and perhaps its layout could be a bit more open and easier to read. Worse, much of the artwork has a slightly faded, washed out look that renders the road map in the adventure very hard to read.

There is much to like about Maelstrom. Its rules are easy, and even with the use of the advanced rules included, the game is still quite light. The magic system is simple, but also flexible, and what is included in the book, is supported with two good adventures. The historical detail is excellent, but it is too focused. It needs more historical background rather the detail about the Livings and perhaps, it even needs a second edition. As it is, Maelstrom is not without charm, but it is without focus.

Saturday 1 October 2011

Dungeons & Dagon

If you look carefully enough, the Cthulhu Mythos created by H.P. Lovecraft and many of his writing circle has always existed in Dungeons & Dragons. Most notably it appeared in the first edition of Deities & Demigods, but in the decades since that book, it was hard to find, the horror to be found in Dungeons & Dragons having been derived from both Gothic and cinematic sources. As Lovecraft’s own works have slipped into the public domain, their influence over gaming has grown, including Dungeons & Dragons. Not necessarily the Dungeons & Dragons as published by Wizards of the Coast, but that born of the Open Game License for Dungeons & Dragons Third Edition. So we see it in releases for the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game – from both Paizo Publishing and Open Design, and also in “Old School Renaissance” or “Edition 0” titles such as Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ Weird Fantasy Roleplaying Game, but never more so than in the supplement, Realms of Crawling Chaos: Lovecraftian Dark Fantasy.

Published by Goblinoid Games, Realms of Crawling Chaos is a supplement written for use with the “Old School Renaissance” RPG, Labyrinth Lord in both its standard (in which Demi-Human races are treated as Classes, as in Basic Dungeons & Dragons) and Advanced (in which race is separate to Class) versions. It is co-authored by Daniel Proctor, the creator of Labyrinth Lord, and Michael Curtis, the author of Stonehell Dungeon: Down Night-Haunted Halls and The Dungeon Alphabet. What it sets out to do is meld the genres of Dungeons & Dragon’s “Swords & Sorcery” or “Adventure Fantasy” with Lovecraftian Horror. At the heart of the latter lie several factors: the insignificance of man, the vastness of the universe, an uncaring natural world, the reality of mankind as an animal, superior otherworldly beings, and science as a double-edged sword. No doubt many of these will be familiar to devotees of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but not necessarily to players or DMs of Dungeons & Dragons. Fortunately, Realms of Crawling Chaos details each of these clearly, but succinctly in turn before explaining their merging with Adventure Fantasy.

Still set in the Middle Ages, Lovecraftian Dark Fantasy posits a brutal world in which humanity predominates, but has to work hard and fight for survival. Magic is rare and what high technology there is, is a holdover from civilisations past. None of the common creatures of “Adventure Fantasy” exist in this world, instead darker, more twisted creatures exist, some from other dimensions, others having seeped down from the stars, and some that have evolved in parallel with mankind. At the heart though is the concept – best discussed by Ken Hite in “The Man Who Shot Joseph Curwen: Prolegomana to a Critical Approach to Call of Cthulhu” in his Dubious Shards, now available from Atomic Overmind Press – that in gaining recognition and reward for facing the unknown, the adventurers themselves become akin to that unknown.

Realms of Crawling Chaos presents no new Classes, but rather several new Races: Sea Bloods (Deep Ones), Subhumans (human-Voormis hybrids), White Ape, and White Ape Hybrids. Under Labyrinth Lord, where Races are also Classes, Sea Bloods are a Fighter/Cleric combination; Subhumans and White Apes are Fighters; and White Hybrids combine the Fighter and Thief Classes. Under Advanced Labyrinth Lord, only Sea Bloods and White Ape Hybrids can be Magic-Users or Illusionists, whilst all of these Races can be Assassins, Clerics, Fighters, and Thieves. Naturally – or is that “unnaturally”? – each of these new Races has something at least inhuman about them, but those of Sea Blood take on an increasingly Batrachian cast and are drawn more and more towards the sea as they gain levels.

The new magic in Realms of Crawling Chaos has a scientific slant, apart from the usual “Summon…” spells, being more alchemical in nature. They allow a Magic-User to “Condense Essential Saltes,” create a “Fluid of Preservation” for use on dead body or body parts, and such useful items as the “Powder of Ibn Ghazi,” whilst spells such as Geas of the Descendant with which a caster can influence a descendant much in the manner of The Case of Charles Dexter Ward; gain a companion like Keziah Mason’s “Brown Jenkin” from The Dreams in the Witch House with Initiate Familiar; and navigate the non-Euclidean architecture of the Old Ones with Walk Among Angles.

Perhaps a good third of Realms of Crawling Chaos is devoted to a Mythos bestiary, which adds two new characteristics for monsters to Labyrinth Lord – Intelligence and Psionic Strength. The latter ties in with the supplement’s rules for Psionics and allow for the mental abilities of races like the Elder Things and the Fungi from Yuggoth. The bestiary itself covers everything from Giant Albino Penguin and Serpent People to Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, the descriptions never quite escaping the physicality necessary to Dungeons & Dragons. Nevertheless, what is so striking about the bestiary are its illustrations. Sean Aaberg’s heavy inks ooze a stark menace that the text descriptions never amount to.

A variety of Eldritch Artifacts is given a similar treatment, from the Fungi from Yuggoth Brain Cylinder and the Cthulhu Idol to the Mind Projection Machine and the Great Race Ray Gun. Realms of Crawling Chaos goes further than its bestiary in offering rules for the GM to create his own random artifacts in one of the supplement’s three appendixes. The rules for Psionics will be familiar to anyone who played Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, though in comparison they are pleasingly streamlined and anything other than complex. Nor are they intended for use with player characters, for as the authors state, their use could outbalance the player character Classes. Anyone who recalls the Psionics rules from Advanced Dungeons & Dragons will find this something of a refreshing approach.

Rounding out Realms of Crawling Chaos is a series of fourth appendices. The second of these provides the aforementioned means of creating artifacts, whilst the third tells you how to use the Psionic powers in this supplement in Goblinoid Games’ post-apocalyptic RPG, Mutant Future. The fourth does a nice job of listing the literary sources for all of the Lovecraftian artifacts, entities, and spells; but it is the first that is most archly Lovecraftian. As its title, “Reading Eldritch Tomes” suggests, it deals with that most Lovecraftian of endeavours and its inherent dangers. Under its rules the Magic-User rolls against a tome’s given Complexity in order to Comprehend a portion of its contents and thus learn one of the new spells given elsewhere in Realms of Crawling Chaos. Simple failure to Comprehend the contents of a tome has no consequences, but a severe failure will force a save against its Potency and that can result in the reader suffering from an affliction such as acquiring an unseemly compulsion, developing a phobia, being only to speak in tongues, and so on.

Whilst the inclusion of the deleterious effects of the tomes is positively Lovecraftian, Realms of Crawling Chaos unfortunately does not apply the rules throughout the supplement. It would have been interesting if the Potency effects had been applied to actually encountering the creatures, entities, and gods given in the bestiary. That would have been made for a much darker “Dark Fantasy.”

The supplement does lack a scenario and at first glance, appears to lack advice for the GM. What advice there is, lies in the hints and suggestions given in the discussion of the genre and the suggested campaign types, and as to the point that this advice is, perhaps some advice to running a “Dark Fantasy” game and writing for it would not have been unwelcome. More of an issue though, is the fact that the effects of the otherworldly hideousness of the Mythos is confined to the Magic-User or Illusionist Class and then only when members of the Class take the time to read Eldritch Tomes. Despite this omission, Realms of Crawling Chaos: Lovecraftian Dark Fantasy provides a set of workable tools to create a grimmer, starker, and less forgiving fantasy world.