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

Saturday 15 September 2012

Victorians & Vampires (& Zombies)

In 1905 the dead rose and fell upon the living.

Whole countries collapsed under the onslaught of the cadaver cavalcade, but society and civilisation held. In the United Kingdom the declaration and implementation of martial law meant that society could hold on and hold out long enough to learn about the new world around them. It would take decades, but slowly the nation’s cities were reclaimed from the dead and refortified to prevent attacks from without, much of the countryside being left to roving bands of animates and the blight that poisons the very ground. Having retaken the cities, the Domestic Security Force – known as the Deathwatch – mans the walls, protecting the cities from threats without whilst having the mandate to ruthlessly put down any outbreaks of the Plague and the rise of the dead within. In the tightly packed slums, the living conditions mean that disease is rife and Outbreaks of the Plague and the dead are far from uncommon.

In the two hundred years since the first Outbreak, the well-known Victorian reverence for the dead has been more than reappraised. The cremation of the recently deceased, lest they rise again, with most bodies going to the great public crematoria – it is a prosecution offense not to send a body there. Only the very rich can afford to have the deceased lie in mourning, and even then, a member of the black clad Mourners’ Guild must watch over the deceased, ready to behead the corpse if he should rise. Other undead threats besides the animates – vampires and ghouls as well as the Frankenstein creations of the alchemy and embryonic sciences – lurk deep in the sewers, tunnels, and warrens below the cities. When the Deathwatch cannot deal with these, Undertakers will delve into the depths, seeking the bounty on the head of each at the branches of the Office of Urban Defence.

Whilst Great Britain remains a parliamentary monarchy, a new aristocracy has arisen as the old has ossified. The industrialists have become richer as the work place reforms of the nineteenth century have been repealed. Of course, this does not dissuade the industrialist nouveau riche from wanting to marry into the aristocracy for the name and the status, and of course, that money gives accesses to the anti-aging treatments that prolong life for up to two hundred years. Another path to unaging is vampirism, although the Office of Urban Defence places a bounty on head of all vampires – or rather their dust – as they are dangerous predators who spread their condition by disease and mind control. Vampires most commonly infect prostitutes, but there are some who survive the infection and live out an existence as that most romanticised of tragic figures in this new age, the Dhampiri. Eschewing their progenitor’s sanguinary desires, the Dhampiri express a hatred of all vampires and often turn to hunting them for their bounty.

The atrocious living and working conditions of the working class to be found in Britain’s cities are not only the breeding grounds of disease and new outbreaks of the Plague, but they are unsurprisingly the breeding grounds for dissent. Food riots are common and anarchist bombing campaigns not unknown, although the men of the City of London Police and Metropolitan Police do their best to rout the terrorists out. They are aided in this task by the clairvoyants, mediums, and telepaths of CID’s Psi Branch. The police also have to deal with the Resurrection Men who trade in bodies for experimentation and as food for the Meat Market; the swelling desire to kill in the growing number of murderers; and having to monitor the otherwise legal practice of prostitution, whose practitioners must be checked lest they spread disease and even vampirism.

The skies over the cities remind the inhabitants of both life and death. They crackle with the galvanic energy of the Tesla Towers that power many of the devices that people use daily, including the Van Haller Lightning Gun favoured by the Deathwwatch, yet are laden with the outpourings of the factories and the public crematoria, forcing everyone to wear protection from the ash coated London Peculiars – even the horses! The working classes often can only afford the cloth “dust masks” to wear over their mouths, whilst the middle and upper classes can afford gas masks of brass, glass, and rubber, as well as clothing in similar material, a style known as “Gas Mask Chic.”

This is the setting for Unhallowed Metropolis, a neo-Victorian set RPG that combines horror, manners, and zombie and vampire hunting set in an alternate future. First published by New Dark Age through by Eos Press in 2007, the Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised returns in 2012, this time published by Atomic Overmind Press, best known for Ken Hite’s superb The Day After Ragnorak. This can only be good news because the few supplements released by New Dark Age for Unhallowed Metropolis were either unavailable beyond the borders of the USA, or inordinately expensive to obtain. As the title suggests, Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised, the book has been redone, both character creation and combat being streamlined; the setting information being expanded to cover the USA, most of Europe, and beyond; new character Callings or types (the Deathwatch Soldier and the Detective) being added; and an array of new material incorporated from some of the supplements previously released. The result is an improved rulebook and background, but as will be explored, not all of game’s original issues have been addressed.

In terms of characters, Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised offers eight Callings – two more than the original edition – each of which not only determines a character’s social class, but also his Class in game terms. The eight are Aristocrat, Criminal, Deathwatch Soldier, Detective, Dhampir Vampire Hunter, Doctor, Mourner, and Undertaker. In addition, rules are given that enable a player to create a custom character not using one of these Callings. Although a Calling provides a character with a set number of features and skills, each also gives plenty of options that allow a player to customise his character. For example, the Aristocrat Calling grants the Blue Blood and Deference Features, but allows the player choose from another thirteen, one for each level in his Etiquette Skill – the skill varies according to the Calling. The Features for the Aristocrat Calling range from Big Game Hunter and Casanova to Military Family and Vogue via Duellist and Gossip. Each Feature usually adds a bonus to skill roles or allows failed skill rolls to be rerolled, but each also adds flavour and background to the character too.

Once a Calling is selected, each player has twenty-five points to spend on six attributes – Vitality, Coordination, Wit, Intellect, Will, and Charm; and another twenty-five to spend on skills. Both are rated between one and five, and with the points available, most characters will have average attributes of 3 or so, with perhaps one attribute a little higher, whilst their skills will again average at 3 with one or two skills much higher. Each player has a final five points with which to customise his character, and he can also choose from a wide selection of advantageous Qualities and disadvantageous Impediments. Before that, a player must select his character’s Corruption. This reflects that although the characters have the capacity to be great figures of the Neo-Victorian Age, they possess a greater susceptibility to the moral decay that threatens the very fabric of society. This is represented by the three Corruption paths that a character could take – Physical, Desire, and Drive. A character begins with just a point in one of these paths and an associated Affliction, but through play can develop further Afflictions as he meanders along the Corruption paths into moral decay, eventually to turn into a monster, both physically and mentally. The most obvious way of being drawn down these paths is by being exposed to greater horrors, but there is a more common means of being driven along the path to Corruption. First a character has “Second Chances” and can make a number of rerolls per session equal to his Corruption, and if he needs more rerolls, then he must increase Corruption, and second, once per session he can call upon the “Devil’s Luck” to automatically get out of a perilous scrape, again at the cost of increasing his Corruption. Since the likelihood of a character requiring “Second Chances” is quite high, it seems odd that the desperate need for luck is so tied to a character’s path to Corruption. That said, at its heart, the Corruption paths are a pleasing roleplaying reflection of the setting.

Our sample character is Mrs. Arthur Fanshawe, the widow of the late Arthur Fanshawe, Member of Parliament for Deal. He rose as a vampire after being infected following continued dalliances with prostitutes and had to be staked after he had killed several of his servants. Thankfully his son, John, was at boarding school at the time. Florence was the one who did the staking and had to endure the scandal even whilst she was in mourning. Come the end of mourning, the scandal did not go away and she entered the “Quiet Service” of the Guild and became a Mourner.

Mrs. Arthur Fanshawe
Calling – Mourner
Vitality 3 Coordination 3 Wit 3 Intellect 2 Will 3 Charm 3
Skills: Concentration 4, Etiquette 3, Language 2 (French), Melee Weapons 4, Psychology 1, Ride 1, Second Sight 1, Shadow 2, Thanatology 3, Theology 2
Prowess 6 Wealth 4
Corruption: Desire 1 – Addiction (Laudanum)
Features: Death Trance, Disconcerting, Disciplined Mind, Exculpus Mastery (Preferred Weapon: Exculpus), Familiarity: Animate, Latent Medium, Twin Blade Fighter (Two Weapon Fighting Stunt, Ambidextrous)
Combat Stunts: Fast Draw, Free Parry, Lucky Shot, Snap Reaction
Qualities: Dreamer (6), Faith (2)
Impediments: Allergy – Pollen (1), Fastidious (1), Good Tasting (4), Ward – Son, John (2)

Equipment: Exculpus (Pair), Armoured Leather Corset, Mourning Clothing, Respirator, £8

Mechanically, Unhallowed Metropolis employs a pair of ten-sided dice, these being rolled and added together along with either the appropriate attribute or skill to equal or beat a Difficulty Rating. A Moderate Difficulty Rating is 11, Complex is 14, Hard is 15, and Virtually Impossible. Although the average result on the dice will be 11, with a character only adding a pertinent attribute or skill to a roll, the average of which will probably be only 2 or 3, there is nevertheless a high chance of a character failing even a Moderate Difficulty Rating. Although some Calling Features and some Qualities allow rerolls with certain skills, it is not all and the likelihood is that a player is going to need to turn to his character’s “Second Chances” more often than not. As much as the Corruption mechanic is an integral part of the setting, this potential reliance upon it is all but an imposition.

This mechanical issue is only exacerbated when it comes to combat, which can be very deadly. That said, one pleasing aspect of the combat rules retained from the original edition are the combat stunts, which a character receives for each level he possesses in a combat skill. For example, “Snap Reaction” enables a character to react before an foe can take an action, whilst Fast Aim allows a character to forgo an action rather than a whole turn in order to gain an aiming bonus. (In the previous edition, every skill had a series of stunts associated with it, which while it added detail, slowed down both character generation and play). Nevertheless, the deadliness of the combat rules not only exacerbates the unforgiving rules system and its reliance upon the Corruption mechanics, it is at odds with the cinematic leanings of the combat stunts.

The problem would not be so bad were the base roll consist of the result of the two ten-sided dice and both the pertinent skill and the pertinent attribute (or twice the pertinent attribute if an attribute check), but it does not. Then it does under certain circumstances, such as attempting to strangle someone, which requires an opposed roll of the Vitality plus Unarmed Combat. To have such inconsistencies is odd and undermines the game’s rules.

The setting itself is explored in some detail, such as a discussion of “unmentionables” and “combat corsetry” under equipment, which covers the setting’s weaponry with flavour aplenty and gives the tools of the trade for the various Callings. Animate Restraints or Dust Kits for collecting the fine ash of staked vampires? Just what every Undertaker needs! Almost a quarter of the core rules is devoted to the threats faced by humanity in the Neo-Victorian Age. In turn, the anatomy of the animate dead – Zombies and Zombie Lords, Vampires and Dhampirs, and Ghouls, as well as the creations of alchemical and galvanic science – artificial life such as the Anathema and the Homunculi, the reanimated dead known as Mercurials, the assembled Prometheans, and the half-living Thropes that are capable of switching between human and bestial forms. The chapters explore the science and philosophy behind the creation of each as well as presenting the stats, and there is plenty here that the GM can draw from for inspiration and flavour for his scenarios. There is enough here that a player could draw from if his Doctor character wants to delve into the alchemical, galvanic, and life sciences of the very modern Neo-Victorian Age.

Many of these elements and threats are further discussed, exploring in particular how they can be used in play, in the chapter for the GM’s eyes only, as well as that ever present danger in the Neo-Victorian Age – scandal! Accompanying these notes and advice is a set of eight plot seeds. The rulebook is rounded out with appendices that provide a glossary, a bibliography, an index, and a detailed description of Deathwatch uniforms.

Physically, Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised come as an attractive and sturdy hardback. The book is illustrated with an array of artwork, some of it black inks, some greyscale pieces, and some it actually photographs of posed models. Much of the latter illustrations are devoted to the illustration of the setting’s “Gas Mask Chic,” and whilst they do fetishize said style, they do not always capture the grime and grubbiness of the setting. The other artwork does though. The book comes with a very nicely done map of London on the inside front and back cover, and the book is generally well written. If there is an issue with the book it is that it is not all that easy to use. The glossary is probably all too short, whilst the index, which although present, is too broad to be really of any use, whilst the need to refer to various tables, such as the wound tables in combat, is hampered by their not being reprinted at the end of the book (though they are referenced).

As much as the setting of Unhallowed Metropolis lends itself to any number of scenario and campaign ideas – Deathwatch duty beyond the walls of the fortified cities, animate hunting through the streets of London, and vampire hunting through London’s high society being the obvious ones – there is pair of dichotomies at the heart of the game and its set up. The first of these is intrinsic to the Victorian era, and is one of class. The issue is that bringing characters of different social classes together, as certainly it would be a possible scandal for a member of high society to be seen consorting with a member of the lower orders. Yet characters of all classes are needed if a party is to gain access to all classes of society. The second is the dichotomy between the combat orientated and the non-combat orientated characters. Both types are necessary, but one type will find itself relegated to the role of bystander when the game focuses on the speciality of the other. Both dichotomies are addressed in the section on Dynamics of Play, and whilst the advice is good, it does not totally negate either dichotomy.

When Unhallowed Metropolis was originally published, I reviewed it in 2008 for Steve Jackson Games’ Pyramid e-zine. The issues that I had at the time were the lack of Callings, the underpowered mechanics that imposed the Corruption mechanic, and the social/combat divide. Four years on and with the publication of Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised, not all of the issues have been addressed. Certainly the additional Callings of the Deathwatch Soldier and the Detective are welcome, as is the additional new material and the streamlining of the stunts. Yet the failure to address the fundamental flaws in the mechanics is at the very least disappointing.

Despite the shortfall in the revisions carried out with Unhallowed Metropolis, Revised, the return of the RPG and the promise of supplements are both more than welcome. The game itself is far from unplayable, and the setting itself is rich in horror, suspense, and intrigue, being atmospheric to the last. Ultimately, the atmosphere is what sells Unhallowed Metropolis, ash-laden, gin-soaked, and perpetually in mourning…

Sunday 9 September 2012

Between States

In the last seventy years humanity built an elevator into orbit and explored the Solar System from the Sun’s corona out to the Kuiper Belt. We terraformed Mars and established colonies wherever we went. We mastered nanotechnology and built Artificial Intelligences. We cloned ourselves and uplifted innumerable species. We adopted augmented reality and mastered the ability to digitize our memories and consciousness. We gene-engineered ourselves and new forms of ourselves, known as “Morphs.” We learned how download and upload our consciousness from one body to another. The ability to change our bodies forced us to redefine our sense of self and we got close to becoming something new, a new definition of what it was to be human.

Ten years ago the Fall occurred.

The TITANS appeared. In the wake of these human-created, recursively-improving, military seed A.I.s known as Total Information Tactical Awareness Networks came conflict. First a netwar, then advanced war machines, then nuclear and chemical weapons, nanovirii and nanoswarms, with millions of humanity harvested, their memories digitised to unknown ends. The lucky few got off the Earth with their mind and body whole, but millions had themselves voluntarily digitised and their minds beamed out into space. Some of these infugees or “Infomorph refugees,” were never collected, but many remain in storage or live out an existence in virtual reality, whilst the lucky few work out long periods as indentured servants in cheap Morphs in hope that they can own a body of their own someday. The Earth itself is a smoking, irradiated, toxic wasteland, home to dangerous machines and plagues, abandoned and actively quarantined by the Planetary Consortium for our own protection.

As to the TITANS? Well, within days of the conflict breaking out, they disappeared, taking with them the millions of minds that they had uploaded. Later they were traced to the first of several Pandora Gates, each a wormhole gateway that connect with alien worlds far outside of the Solar System. Each of the known Pandora Gates is in the possession of a Hypercorp – the commercial descendants of the old megacorps, but adapted to harder, leaner times – or a faction like the Love and Rage anarchist collective which operates the Fissure Gate on Uranus.

Barely an eighth of Earth’s old population made if off world before the quarantine came down and ten years on, it has adapted to its new and many environments. The Inner System – Mars, the Moon, and Mercury – is dominated by the Planetary Consortium, a capitalist/republican system in which the biggest shareholders have the largest vote. A military, almost fascist oligarchy rules the moons around Jupiter, whilst the Outer System is dominated by an alliance of Scandinavia-style social democracies and anarchist Collectives. Humanity survives, but its fears are even greater now that its home has been ruined. It already deals with one alien species – the ambassadorial race known as the Factors, a species of intelligent slimes that protects humanity from other aliens, but fears the nature of the others. It fears another outbreak of the multi-vector Exsurgent Virus capable of self-morphing and infecting computer systems and biological creatures, one strain of which, the Watts-MacLeod strain, is known to leave its victims with the capacity to use Psionic or Parapsychological powers. It fears the use of the weapons of mass destruction that destroyed the Earth and worse, it fears the return of the TITANS or the possibility of the current A.I.s becoming fully self-aware and delivering another hammer blow to humanity.

No one faction works to prevent these “existential threats,” most being concerned with signs that their rivals are researching and developing such threats themselves. Except that is, Firewall. This is a secret cross-faction conspiracy that works to protect transhumanity from “existential threats,” whatever their source.

This is the set-up for Eclipse Phase, a near-future trans-humanist post-apocalyptic game of conspiracy and horror published by Posthuman Studios that won the 2010 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game. The title comes from the term, “Eclipse Phase,” which is the period of time between when a cell is infected by a virus and when the virus appears within the cell and transforms it. During this period, the cell does not appear to be infected, but it is. Humanity then is infected. By what, and what it become is another matter. At the heart of the game though is its slogan: “Your mind is software. Program it. Your body is a shell. Change it. Death is a disease. Cure it. Extinction is approaching. Fight it.” It neatly sums Eclipse Phase up, for in this RPG, a player character cannot die. “His” body can, but his self or Ego cannot, it either being recorded onto an implanted Cortical Stack and retrieved after death, or a back-up body is activated afterwards – if he has paid the insurance that ensures that there is Morph at the body bank to be resleeved into. Thus it is possible to resleeve from one body to the next, essentially holding off death. As to the extinction of the slogan, it is being fought by Firewall, which in the RPG’s default setting, the player characters are presumed to be members of. Other suggested campaigns include salvage and rescue/retrieval operations (the Fall left numerous habitants, on and off world to be scavenged), trade, crime, mercenaries, social/political intrigue, and exploration (the Solar System is not fully explored, and that is before you consider the possibility of Gatecrashing through one of the Pandora Gates).

The divide between body and self in Eclipse Phase begins more or less at the start of character generation. A player decides upon the concept for his character, and then his character’s Background – Fall Evacuee (got off Earth with his body intact), Re-Instantiated (did not get off Earth with his body intact, but his consciousness was beamed off), Martian or Lunar Colonist; and Faction – Argonaut (scientific techno-progressive), Barsoomian (Martian outback colonist), Socialite (member of the inner system glitterati), or Titanian (participant in the Titanian Commonwealth’s socialist cyberdemocracy). Each gives a few advantages, whilst several limit the type of Morphs available to the Background or Faction. He also needs to decide his Motivations of which he will have three at the start of the game. In game they helpa character regain Moxie (the game’s equivalent of Luck) and earn Rez or Experience Points.

A character has two types of skills. The first are Aptitudes (Cognition, Coordination, Intuition, Reflexes, Savvy, Somatics, and Willpower), ingrained talents that every character has and which are the basis of the second type, Learned Skills. Both will be carried with his Ego from one Body or Morph to the next, but each Morph is different and will limit and enhance a character’s Aptitudes and thus his Learned Skills, depending upon the type of Morph. This is why some of the Learned Skills in the character example receive small five point bonuses. Each player has two set amounts of points with which to purchase both types of skills, but in addition a player must draw from the points for his Learned Skills if he wants to select Traits – such as Direction Sense or Adaptability (a character resleeves with ease), his Morph, improve his Aptitudes, and get extra money so that he can purchase Backup insurance (and so has a Morph prepared if his current is killed), services, and implants from an array of bioware and cyberware. Every character starts the game with a Cortical Stack (for recording a character’s Ego) and Basic Mesh Inserts (which allow a character to connect to the all-pervasive wireless mesh), but can purchase more. A character can also purchase his “Rep” or Reputation, a social currency that he can spend with various factions in return for favours. If a character wants more points to spend on these and Learned Skills, he can select negative traits but they grant only a few points.

Lastly a player selects his character’s Morph. It is possible to play a normal, unmodified human or Flat, but they are rare, few having got off Earth following the Fall. In the After Fall, humanity has developed a diverse range of Morphs, divided between Biomorphs and Synmorphs. Most Biomorphs are genefixed humans or Splicers, but other Biomorphs are engineered towards athleticism (Olympians), combat (Furies), particular environments (like the Rusters of Mars), or a particular type of role, the latter being vat-grown morphs known as Pods, and include Pleasure and Worker models. Biomorphs also include Uplifted species such as Chimpanzees and Octopuses. As the name suggests, Synmorphs are artificial and robotic. They include the extremely cheap, mass-produced robotic shells known as Cases that are prone to malfunction, but other options include Flexbots, Reapers, and Swarmoids.

What is important to note here though, is the fact that whatever the choice of Morph, it is only a character’s starting Morph. Due to events in game, a character could easily find himself resleeved, and not in a Morph of his choice, which essentially grants the GM control over what a character’s physicality will be. This can be discombobulating for the players, let alone the characters, but overcoming the limits of one body to use another is the point of Eclipse Phase.

Lastly, a character has two sets of second statistics. One for his Ego and another for his Morph. The process is not that complex, but it is not a short process either, involving a lot of flipping back and forth as a player works out what he wants. The process can be curtailed by using one of the sixteen pre-generated sample characters.

One other option available during character generation is that of Psionics or Parapsychological powers. Available to characters who have been infected by the Watts-MacLeod strain of the Exsurgent Virus and who have purchased the Psi Trait. Once infected, the Psionic Ego – and Psionics are wired or “Quantum Entangled” into an Ego rather than a Morph – can select Psi Sleights that either enhance their users or allow the users to “Mind Hack” others. On the downside Psionics have a reduced capacity to withstand mental stress, are prone to mental disorders, and are vulnerable to further infection from Exsurgent Virii.

The sample character is a Neo-hominoid, an Orang-utan Uplift. As such Maisie is a pro-Uplift rights advocate. When not working as a Zero-g Emergency Medical Technician, Maisie supplements her income and reputation as a security ops/combat medic.

Name: Maisie
Background: Uplift
Faction: Mercurial Motivations: +Exploration+Reclaiming Earth+Uplift Rights

Morph: Neo-hominoid

Initiative 80
Lucidity 20
Trauma Threshold 4
Insanity Rating 40
Moxie 2

Speed 1
Durability 30
Wound Threshold 6
Death Rating 9
Damage Bonus 2

Advantages: Common Sense, Expert (Medicine), Limber (Level 2), Right at Home (Neo-hominoid)
Disadvantages: Addiction (Chocolate), Mild Allergy (Bee Stings)

                                        BASE MORPH BONUS       TOTAL
Cognition (COG)            20
Coordination (COO)     15                    5                      20
Intuition (INT)              15                    5                      20
Reflexes (REF)              20                                            20
Savvy (SAV)                  10                    5                      15
Somatics (SOM)            15                    5                      20
Willpower (WIL)           10                                            10

Academic [Biology] (COG) 50, Academic [Chemistry] (COG) 50, Academic [Genetics] (COG) 50, Academic [Psychology] (COG) 30, Art [Drawing] (INT) 25+5=30, Climbing (SOM) 70+5=75, Fray (REF) 70, Free Fall (REF) 60, Free Running (SOM) 55+5=60, Infiltration (COO) 55+5=60, Interest [English Literature] (COG) 50, Interest [Old Earth History] (COG) 50, Intimidation (SAV) 30+5=35, Kinetic Weapons (COO) 45+5=50, Language [English] (COG) 90, Language [Mandarin] (COG) 50, Language [Russian] (COG) 50, Medicine [General Practice] (COG) 30, Medicine [Paramedic] (COG) 75, Medicine [Paramedic/Decompression Victims] (COG) 85,Medicine [Trauma Surgery] (COG) 60, Navigation (INT) 45+5=50, Networking (SAV) [Mercurials] 30+5=35, Perception (INT) 55+5=70, Persuasion (SAV) 40+5=45, Pilot [Spacecraft] (REF) 50, Profession [Forensics] (COG) 40, Profession [Lab Technician] (COG) 50, Profession [Security Ops] (COG) 30, Psychosurgery (INT) 35+5=40, Research (COG) 40, Scrounging (INT) 35+5=40, Unarmed Combat (SOM) 55+5=60

Implants: Basic Biomods, Basic Mesh Inserts, Bioweave Armour (Light), Direction Sense, Clean Metabolism, Cortical Stack, Prehensile Feet
Gear: Backup Insurance (four months), Cr 2750

c-Rep 25, g-Rep 20, i-Rep 20, r-Rep 35

In terms of mechanics, Eclipse Phase uses a percentile system, but one running from 00 to 99 rather than 01 to 100. Since Learned Skills range from 01 to 99, a roll of 00 is always a success. Rolls of double numbers – 00, 11, 22, 33, 44, 55, 66, 77, 88, and 99 – are always a critical success if under the skill, but a critical failure if over. One tweak with the system is that Moxie can be spent to flip the result of a roll. So for example, a roll of 72 could end be flipped to a 27 and a success. What is interesting in this mechanic is that rolls of doubles cannot be flipped and so critical failures cannot be avoided.

If the system is relatively simple, the setting is not. Lengthy sections discuss in turn the new homes and habitats that humanity has found itself in the After Fall; the politics and economics of the After Fall – the economics having radically changed with relatively easy access to nanotechnology and Cornucopia Machines, though your Reputation with various factions and interests can often get you further than simple money; how to live with the Mesh, the decentralised information and data that pervades everywhere – and not just live with it, but also hack it and use it; and gear that includes everything from personal augmentation and drugs, chemicals, and toxins to weapons, robots, and vehicles. Much of this information has an understandable technological bent, so it is no surprise that the RPG’s most radical technology, that of Morphs and resleeving, gets most of a chapter of its own. Entitled “Acelerated Future,” it primarily explores the ramifications that resleeving has on society, but it also covers rules for handling the alienating effects of integrating into a new Morph and the concept of Forking. This is the sleeving of multiple copies of the same Ego in several different Morphs so that there can be multiple versions of one person moving around. There is a social stigma attached to this, but it is done for various reasons, not just the need to be in two places at once. One sign that Eclipse Phase is a hard Science Fiction RPG is attention is paid to the scale of the setting. It takes time to get around the Solar System. The upshot of the digitised consciousness is that it possible to travel great distances via Egocasting. Once an Ego arrives at its destination, it is resleeved. This is not without its dangers, but it allows easy interplanetary travel.

Rounding out Eclipse Phase is a chapter for the Gamemaster. Although the chapter contains advice for the Game Master, the bulk of it is devoted to yet more setting material. This though is not for the players’ eyes, but the GM’s only, for this setting material is about the secrets behind the setting. In truth, I have not done much more than scan this chapter as I actually do not want to know the secrets! But from what I saw it all looked to be useful, expanding upon earlier information given on Firewall, the TITANS, the Pandora Gates, and more.

Physically, Eclipse Phase is a solid hardback, done in full colour throughout. The standard of artwork is good, especially when depicting the technical elements of the setting, and whilst the layout is clean and tidy, it is does get a little busy in places.

Science Fiction roleplaying depends to veer towards the Space Opera and the light and fluffy, relying on the clichés of the genre. Eclipse Phase stands directly opposite that, its background being rich in terms of both depth and detail. This means that the setting is that much more complex, and thus that much more demanding for players to grasp, though not as complex and as demanding as it is for the Gamemaster. It asks both to grasp and use a thoroughly radical technology, that in addition to the challenges presented by the technology and its capabilities that both have at their fingertips. It is this very daunting nature of the game that is its major problem, and it is not one that is really addressed to any great depth. At least though, the game keeps its mechanics relatively simple when compared to the complexity of the game itself.

A minor issue is that given the level of detail awarded the setting of Eclipse Phase, it is surprising that none of the gear is named. It is all generic rather than branded, and in any fiction, including that of an RPG, brand names do add verisimilitude. That said, this lack of branding is addressed, but even then a list of suggested manufacturers would at least offset this minor lack.

Eclipse Phase has been a book that I have wanted to review for quite some time. I did not until now because I had been daunted by its density, but upon reading the RPG, it is no surprise that Eclipse Phase won the 2010 Origins Award for Best Roleplaying Game. It is an impressive creation, superbly detailed Science Fiction setting, with a dizzying density that grabs you and makes you want to play there. And then makes you want more detail.

Friday 7 September 2012

Lovecraftian Fantasy

It is due to a matter of simple copyright, but Dungeons & Dragons never truly explored a fantasy infused with the writings of H.P. Lovecraft or the Cthulhu Mythos. The only time that it really ever did was with the first edition of Deities & Demigods, and that was to present the “gods” of the Mythos as a pantheon, complete with write-ups and stats for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. In subsequent editions of this source book, this content was removed as its inspiration, the works of H.P. Lovecraft were not then in the public domain. With the passing of the millennium, they are now in the public domain and ready to serve as inspiration for an array of RPG writers who since the publication of Call of Cthulhu in 1981 have steeped themselves in the “Cosmicism” of both his fiction and the RPG it inspired. Thus the Mythos has appeared in what is a classic just ten years on – Green Ronin Publishing’s Freeport Trilogy for Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition (and others) – as well as increasingly so in support material for the successor to Dungeons & Dragons, 3.5, Paizo Publishing’s Pathfinder Roleplaying Game.

Carrion Hill is an example of this. Published in 2009, it is an adventure for four characters of fifth level written by Richard Pett, an English author who has written innumerable adventures for both Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and whom I had the pleasure of editing for his contribution to Goodman Games’ Age of Cthulhu Vol. V: The Long Reach of Evil. That contribution was indeed his first adventure for Call of Cthulhu, the quintessential RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but it was not his first that involved Lovecraftian investigative horror. That was Carrion Hill.

Carrion Hill is itself a wind and rain sodden city looming up out of the swamps of eastern Ustalav, located on the southern bank of the Kingfisher River. It has a long, dark history having been occupied by one flock of worshippers after another, many of them devoted to even darker gods. The original inhabitants were even worse, all of them vile and depraved cultists of the Old Gods. Except to the singularly sinister scholar, such information has long been forgotten, as has the existence of a network of tunnels, temples, and tombs that run deep under the city. This morning though, something rose from those depths, an irruption that caused buildings to implode and left the surrounds as little more than slime slathered scree. The cream of The Crows – the city watch – is already missing, having come to combat the cause of the calamity, so what is Carrion Hill’s mayor to do if he wants to delve to the bottom of this catastrophe.

Enter the player characters. They are tasked to investigate these upward attacks from below whilst the Crows attempt to keep the peace and prevent the citizens of Carrion Hill from panicking and fleeing the town. The adventurers’ delving uncovers dastardly doings deep underground – cultists have summoned something that they should not have done, and now it is loose! Armed with the evidence of the cultists’ doings, the party must track both them down and discover a means to end the explosive eruptions of the summoned thing before it is too late. So far, so much like a Call of Cthulhu scenario…

Well, no, not really. Carrion Hill is after all a Dungeons & Dragons – or rather a Pathfinder Roleplaying Game adventure. The emphasis is more on combat than investigation, with the adventurers encountering and facing the surviving cultists one-by-one in mortal combat until they have acquired the knowledge and means to end the thing’s tentacular thrustings. These encounters are actually quite small and they can be done in any order, providing the heroes with a degree of free action. All the whilst being chased by the thing that the cultists summoned, of course. That said, impinging upon said degree of free action is the unstoppable nature of the thing – at the party’s expected level, it is unstoppable, so the party has no choice but to determine a means of stopping it. Were they to going charging in without tracking down any of the cultists – essentially the combative equivalent of conducting research and an investigation in Call of Cthulhu – the player characters would be dead.

Physically, Carrion Hill is as well presented as you would expect for a release from Paizo Publishing. Both of its art and its maps are done in full colour with both being pleasingly attractive. In addition to the adventure itself, Carrion Hill includes four pre-generated player characters and a two-page appendix describing the city of Carrion Hill and its history. The information given easily allows the GM to place the city in Paizo Publishing’s campaign setting of Golarion or drop it into one of his own devising.

As the author of the adventure states, Carrion Hill is the first adventure from Paizo Publishing to draw explicitly from the works of H.P. Lovecraft. Thematically, both dwell on matters of madness and decay, but the adventure lifts elements wholesale from the fiction, most notably the thing threatening the city and a certain tome. Its inspiration is Lovecraft’s “The Dunwich Horror,” though to be fair, only the latter half of the story, and to be fair, the combative nature of the latter half of the story is better suited to the combative play style of Dungeons & Dragons and the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, and so does not jar with what would otherwise be a more investigative scenario.

Thus it is not truly Lovecraftian, for the heroes of the adventure can only die rather than have their sanity torn asunder. It hews to the heroics of its core genre, even despite the addition of the horror elements. That said, the adventure would well in other fantasy settings, perhaps even the Dreamlands themselves, or the Ditlana built cities of Tékumel: Empire of the Petal Throne. For the most part, releases from Paizo Publishing have always meandered towards dark fantasy as a genre. With Carrion Hill, both the author and Paizo Publishing fully embrace it, presenting a well written, grim, horror bent adventure.

Sunday 2 September 2012

By Jove... Cthulhu in Space

Here is a sad piece of news. There is no official Science Fiction setting for Call of Cthulhu. Although over the years, the genre has been visited rarely, most notably in the scenarios, “Blood Moon” in Strange Aeons and “The Last Log,” Marcus L. Rowland’s fondly remembered contribution to White Dwarf #56, the genre itself remains ignored and its potential undeveloped. That said, the genre has not been ignored by Chaosium’s Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs, which since 2003, has been the publisher’s means of making other works available to players of both Call of Cthulhu and Basic Role Play. Bar the printing, each monograph’s author is responsible for the writing, the editing, and the layout, so the quality of the series varies widely and has led to some dreadful releases. Notable Science Fiction Monographs include End Time, Once Men, and Cthulhu Rising. None of these three are being reviewed here, but rather a supplement for Cthulhu Rising, entitled Jovian Nightmares.

Cthulhu Rising: Call of Cthulhu Roleplaying in the 23rd Century describes a near future set in 2271, inspired by movies such as Alien, Aliens, and Outland. In a time when the United Earth Federation together with innumerable corporate interests have explored and colonised the Solar System and beyond, it asks the question, “If in aeons past, entities and races of the Mythos have filtered down from space and distant stars to Earth, what happens if humanity follows them back into space and discovers them?” The setting supplement provided everything necessary to play – background, the Mythos of 2071, and character generation – bar actual scenarios. This is an omission that Jovian Nightmares: A Sourcebook For Cthulhu Rising — Call Of Cthulhu Roleplaying In The 23rd Century addresses. That said, as a single setting, Cthulhu Rising is superbly supported by the author’s own website, including standalone adventures and campaigns that involve civilian and military characters.

As its title suggests, Jovian Nightmares focuses on the gas giant Jupiter and its sprawling system of rings, moons, and other satellites – a region known as Circum-Jove – as well as all of the settlements and outposts that mankind has established in the previous 150 years. These include the cities that hang from the underside of the ice mantle that cover Europa’s world ocean; Nanotech Valley on Ganymede, home to a high tech hub devoted to nanotechnology; and the Orbital Gas Mines that float through the upper reaches of Jupiter’s atmosphere mining for Helium-3. Circum-Jove is home to numerous organisations, from the governmental like the Circum-Jove Administration and the Federal Law Enforcement Authority (FLEA) to non-government organisations such as the criminal Estrella Negra, Covenant Europa, the latter a terrorist threat dedicated to freeing Europa from human occupation, and the Ganymede Club, an invitation-only, private members club dedicated to radically dangerous sports such as interplanetary shuttle racing in the upper Jovian atmosphere and diving in the Europan World-Ocean. This is in addition to numerous corporations, companies, and combines that have a presence in Circum-Jove.

Much of Jovian Nightmares is devoted to detailing both these organisations and these places in Circum-Jove, with each of the Galilean Moons receiving several pages each. The background also includes a lengthy history, covering the years between 1973 and 2271. In terms of character support, Jovian Nightmares adds several new Occupations particular to the Circum-Jove region, although most work as equally well elsewhere, including Black Marketeer, Docker, FLEA Field Agent, Interstellar Colonial Marine, and Terrorist. Both Keeper and players will need access to Cthulhu Rising to get the full use out of these, although a Keeper could easily use them as inspiration for his own Science Fiction Call of Cthulhu setting.

Roughly half of the supplement is for the Keeper’s eyes only. It details many of the secrets to be found in Circum-Jove, some of them of a Mythos nature, others more mundane. These are organised first by planet, and then moon by moon, in turn also dealing with the various Mythos races that have a presence or an influence over the region. Some of them are obvious, such as the fact that Europa being an ocean world means that it should surprise no-one that the moon is also home to a certain species of ultra-terrestrial batrachian humanoids… Other secrets what or whom has been causing the disappearances in the labyrinthine catacombs beneath Ganymede and what caused the Red Eye of Jupiter, but fortunately, none of the secrets here are particularly radical, nor do they jar with the feel of the setting, which would have perhaps been worse.

The scenario in Jovian Nightmares, “Escape Velocity,” casts the player characters as convicted criminals sentenced to lengthy terms of Penal Involuntary Servitude aboard the Jovian Discoverer IV, an orbital gas-mining platform. Backgrounds are given for six pre-generated characters, though the Keeper will need to download the actual characters. After been  punished and sedated following a fight between their number, the characters awake to find their cell hatches open, a klaxon sounding in the distance, and a body outside their cells… Although they will not know it initially, this scenario is a race against the clock to determine what happened aboard the platform and then get off to safety. It is a detailed affair that the Keeper will need to handle it with care to keep up the pace, especially if he wants to fit into one session as the author suggests.

Rounding out the supplement is a septet of Adventure Seeds. These cover a range of set ups, from corporate troubleshooters and security personnel to surveyors and members of a salvage team, so it is unlikely that a Keeper would use them with the one set of characters. Each of the Adventure Seeds comes with several options as to what is going on, but each will need no little development upon the Keeper’s part.

Physically, Jovian Nightmares is neatly and tidily presented. In fact, it is much better laid out and edited than the average Monograph. The maps are perhaps a little workmanlike, the lack of detail not quite matching the grit and grift of the genre. That said, the artwork, which is drawn by the author, does, and it is a pity that there is not more of it. The scenario handouts could have been a bit more interesting too.

Ultimately, Jovian Nightmares leaves the reader wanting more. Whether that is more detail, more background, more secrets, or more scenarios. Actually probably the latter in favour of dropping the fiction, which does not necessarily add all that much to the setting or the supplement. The issue really though, is that Jovian Nightmares can only provide an overview – and it should be said that it is a good overview – of Circum-Jove. Jovian Nightmares is indicative of the potential in the setting and the failure to see it properly developed into an official Call of Cthulhu setting.