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

Sunday 24 March 2013

Sin & Sanity

Before you get to the review you need to know something. I am listed in the credits in the book that I am reviewing and I am an editor for its publisher, Sixtystone Press. I tell you this because I do not want you to think I am being unprofessional in reviewing a book that in some small way I worked on. You see, I originally wrote the review after I was asked to simply read through the manuscript and give my opinion on it. At that time, there was no point in my publishing the review as the book was a long way from publication. That was in August, 2011 and the best part of a year before Sixtystone Press asked me to be its editor. In the meantime, very little of the book has been changed from what I originally saw, and what has been changed amounts to just little things. For example, a weapon was changed from one make and model to another – and that on the basis of my being part of the peer review group and then editor on another Sixtystone Press title, Investigator Weapons, Volume Two, but at its heart, this is the review that I wrote in August, 2011.


Published by Sixtystone Press, Nameless Cults Volume One: Lost in the Lights – A Call of Cthulhu sourcebook of cult horror is a scenario and sourcebook for Call of Cthulhu set in the modern day. It is the first volume in the publisher’s ‘Neue Unaussprechliche Kulte’, a series detailing modern day cults that are ready to run for any Keeper of Arcane Lore. As a contemporary set scenario and sourcebook, it is not written for use with Chaosium’s Cthulhu Now, as that book is at best obsolete, but it does include notes so that it be can run as part of a Delta Green campaign using the sourcebooks from Pagan Publishing.

What strikes you first about Lost in the Lights is its use of colour. It is surprising to note that in over thirty years of published Call of Cthulhu titles that not one of them has ever been published in full colour. Now there have been titles which include colour plates and titles that used spot colour, but none have used full colour. At least not for Call of Cthulhu books published in English, until now that is. Lost in the Lights makes use of full colour, in particular in its very modern hand outs which include a mobile telephone screen and television screen shots, but for the most part it employs spot colour and does so with a vibrant pink and an equally vivacious purple throughout the book. The effect is startling and certainly gives it feel that matches the contents of Lost in the Lights.

The reason why that vibrancy matches the contents of Lost in the Lights is because its scenario, “Invisible Sun”, is set in Las Vegas and a literary Las Vegas at that. The scenario presents a very contemporary investigation into a cult that is also fully described in the pages of Lost in the Lights, as well as “A Brief Discussion of Other Las Vegas Weirdness.” This is a mere introduction to the setting rather than a full guide to Sin City and its environs, but it is more than enough to intrigue the Keeper. The cult described in Lost in the Lights is the Keepers of the Primal Song, whose members worship the Lesser Outer God, of Shabbith-Ka. First appearing in “What Goes Around, Comes Around,” in Issue #8/9 of PaganPublishing’s The Unspeakable Oath (later reprinted in Pagan Publishing’s The Resurrected Vol. 3: Out of the Vault), the cult here is expanded to present its goals, origins, and practices from antiquity until the here and now. What marks the Keepers of the Primal Song as a cult of singular note – held for a very long time – is the fact that the cult is wholly insular, wholly introverted, and has no plans on world domination. This makes for a very different cult, one that possesses a horrible machismo in the way in which its members worship Shabbith-ka – such that you have to feel sorry for any investigators exposed to it – and as seen in “Invisible Sun,” also makes for a very different threat and a very different type of investigation.

“Invisible Sun” is a lengthy scenario that draws heavily from contemporary pop culture. The scenario and the investigation begins with a missing girl – Angelique Adams who ran away to be star. She never made it, not did she make it home from Las Vegas, sending a text message in which she said she had been trying to escape from some “cult wackos”! Now her father wants the investigators to find her and bring her home, or if that proves impossible, bring anyone responsible for harming her to justice.

The investigation plunges the investigators into the strange and seedy world of Las Vegas and beyond. It throws them up against a horribly modern environmental hazard as well as into a facedown with the ultimate sinner in Sin City. He is a late sixties teeny-bopper heartthrob who just happens to own a casino, and as a casino owner, is very respectable and law abiding. Which throws up a very interesting challenge for the investigators – doing anything that investigators, or indeed player characters, would normally do in a Call of Cthulhu scenarios, will bring them to the attention of the casino security and thus to the LVPD. Therefore, the investigators will need to be a whole lot more circumspect than normal if they go looking for ways to get into limited access areas, carrying concealed firearms, questioning staff members, and so on. Which makes getting anywhere with the investigation in “Invisible Sun” much more of a challenge than is the norm. The author discusses numerous means of the investigators circumventing, though his inclination, and that of the scenario and literary Las Vegas, is to run this as a caper, even a heist movie. Various options cover the type of caper that the players might come up with for their investigators, the simplest of them being quite technical, the easiest being the most kitsch and perhaps the most fun to roleplay. Preferably with the investigators dressed as Elvis…

“Invisible Sun” then, is a very kitsch affair. It is also veers into the psychedelic for a potentially very nasty encounter that draws from one of H.P. Lovecraft’s better filmed short stories. If there is an issue with “Invisible Sun”, then it is this kitschy nature. Some of it is unavoidable. The scenario is set in Las Vegas after all, a town hardly known for its austerity. The easiest means of conducting the investigation is for both Keeper and players alike is to embrace the kitsch and the camp, and use it to their best advantage. Further, for all of the gaudy extravagance of Sin City, the Las Vegas of “Invisible Sun” is a filmic or televisual one, the author suggesting further kitsch elements that can be drawn from both mediums.

Once past the kitsch, Lost in the Lights is perhaps one of the most challenging scenarios to be published in some years. Challenging because it sets the normal mode of investigation in a Call of Cthulhu scenario very up against the modern world, its technologies and in particular, its approach to security, post-September 11th, 2001. This requires careful handling by the Keeper and careful detective work on the part of the players and their investigators.

Lost in the Lights is rounded out with four appendices. The first of these covers recommended viewing, listening, and reading, the movies listed certainly being useful given how central a role that the caper that plays in “Invisible Sun;” while the second lists all of the character write-ups, maps, and hand outs. The third provides a guide to weird Las Vegas, covering everything from Area 51 and the Atomic Testing Range to the Liberace Museum and urban legends of the area. It is not extensive, but it does give a good starting point for further research. This being a modern-set scenario, the first question that many a Call of Cthulhu Keeper will ask, “Can I use ‘Invisible Sun’ with Delta Green?” Pleasingly, the last of the volume’s appendices deals with this very question, addressing it scene by scene.

Behind its gaudy cover – which actually makes sense once you have read the book, but might put the initial viewer off – Lost in the Lights is an eye-catching book. In addition to its use of colour, the layout is clean and thoughtful, and the maps all well done. The hand outs are all well-chosen and designed, with a Wikipedia entry in particular giving the book a pleasingly contemporary touch.

It has been no little wait for this book to be released, just as it has been no little wait for the author, Jeffrey Moeller to deliver on the promise he gave us with the Monograph, The Primal State. I wait to see what he creates next with great interest… In the meantime, what he and Sixtystone Press present us with in Nameless Cults Volume One: Lost in the Lights – A Call of Cthulhu sourcebook of cult horror is a consistently challenging scenario for Keeper and players alike. It combines an interesting cult and an entertaining scenario that focuses on interaction and investigation in a highly contemporary setting

Friday 15 March 2013

Back to Africa

Railway-themed board games, or Train Games as they are known, such as the 18XX series, Age of Steam, Railways of the World, Empire Builder, and so on, are all about their maps. Many of the expansions for these games come in the form of maps as the terrain presented on each board presents the players with challenges anew when it comes to making connections between each map’s destinations. Ticket to Ride is something of a latecomer to the concept, its publisher, Days of Wonder, having preferred to put out new core games like Ticket to Ride: Europe and Ticket to Ride: Nordic Countries that stand alone rather than new boards that expand upon one of the core games. So the Ticket to Ride Map Collection series has been something of a breath of fresh air.

To date, Days of Wonder has published three volumes of the Ticket to Ride Map Collection. The first, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 1:Team Asia and Legendary Asia added mountains as a new terrain and expanded the number of possible players from five to six players with a team play element. The second, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 2: India and Switzerland reprinted the Switzerland board from its original release in 2007 together with a new board for India that advanced the series’ timeline into the Edwardian age. Late in 2012 these were joined by the third and latest in the series, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa.

As with the other titles in the series, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa requires a base set to play, either Ticket to Ride or Ticket to Ride: Europe. Unlike other titles in the series, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa only includes the one new map board and set of rules rather than two. So in comparison, it has to do the work of two new boards to be interesting, let alone challenging. The good news is that The Heart of Africa is challenging…

Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa consists of the new map board, forty-eight Destination Tickets, forty-five Terrain Cards, a new type of card, plus the twelve-page rules booklet, which includes the expansion’s rules in ten different languages. The map itself does not depict the whole of Africa, but rather the South and the West of the continent as far North as Nigeria in the West and Sudan in the East. Thus it does not include North Africa nor does it include the Horn of Africa. As with the Switzerland map, The Heart of Africa map includes destinations that are countries rather towns or cities. These are limited in number though, consisting of Nigeria, Tchad, and Sudan on the map’s northern edge. These destinations are reflected in the game’s Destination Tickets.

Physically, The Heart of Africa map reflects the Ticket to Ride line’s chronological progression. The original board game is set in the 1890s whereas the India map from Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 2: India and Switzerland is set in the Edwardian period. The Heart of Africa map is placed in the 1920s, as reflected in the artwork with its motorcar and its biplane. Elsewhere, the art on the map has a dry, dusty feel apart from the rich illustrations accorded to the country destinations depicted at the northern edge of the board.

Most Ticket to Ride maps reflect the type of terrain they depict in the routes that the players have to claim in order to fulfil their Destination Tickets. Thus, on the Switzerland map from Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 2: India and Switzerland, there are a lot of mountain routes that the player must claim if he has to connect to any of the destinations in the South of the country or over the border in Italy. Similarly, the map of Scandinavia from Ticket to Ride Nordic Countries has a lot ferry routes reflecting the difficulty of reaching certain destinations and the fact that the Baltic Sea divides the various countries on the map. The map in Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa does reflect the type of terrain it depicts in the type of routes available. Indeed, besides the standard type of route, there is only one other incidence of another type of route on the map, that of the ferry route to Madagascar.

So if The Heart of Africa map does not reflect the difficulty of its terrain in the types of routes it depicts, then how does it do it? It does so by grouping the route colours according to terrain type. So rather than distribute route colours across the map, here they are grouped – orange, red, and yellow for Desert and Savannah routes; blue, green, and purple for Forest and Jungle routes; and black, grey, and white for Cliff and Mountain routes. These groups are organised geographically, with the Forest and Jungle routes across the middle of the map, the Desert and Savannah routes to North and South of this, and the Cliff and Mountain routes to the North and the East.

This grouping has a strong influence on play. First, it will have players scrabbling for Train Cards of the same colour if they want to make connections through the terrain types. The map has multiple incidences of routes of one colour being connected to a destination out of which leads a route of the same colour. This is only exacerbated by the lack of double routes in the interior of the map – all of its double routes are located along the coast of the continent. The map also has very few grey routes that can be claimed using any colour Train Cards. Second, it will be obvious to the other players what terrain group a player a wants to claim a route from the colour of the Train cards he is drawing.

The Terrain Cards specifically work with the route groupings and so come in three types – Desert and Savannah, Forest and Jungle, and Cliff and Mountain. When a player claims a route he can also play a Terrain Card (or two Terrain Cards if the route is longer) that matches the colour of the route to double the value of the points scored for the route. He must have as many Terrain Cards of that terrain grouping as any other player – this is known because they have to be kept face up on the table where everyone can see them. Alternatively, Locomotive or Wild Train Cards can be used instead of Terrain Cards. Once played, Terrain Cards and Wild Cards are discarded.

Game set up is little different to that of other Ticket to Ride games. Each player receives his forty-five trains and four Train Cards as usual. He also receives four Destination Tickets, of which he must keep two, and a single, random Terrain Card. Two Terrain Cards are placed face up as well as the usual Train Cards. When a player decides to draw cards during his turn, he can choose to draw Terrain Cards as well, so either two Train Cards or two Terrain Cards, or one of each. Once drawn, a player’s Terrain Cards are placed face up so that everyone can see them.

Both the need to have Terrain Cards and the need to have as many Terrain Cards as another player adds the need to make more decisions in the game. Drawing more Terrain Cards gives the potential for a player to outscore his rivals, though this may come at the cost of drawing Train Cards and expending them to claim routes. Or should a player ignore the Terrain Cards and grab routes before anyone else does rather wait to score double points. In addition, a player can draw more Terrain Cards in order to have as many as his fellow players or more as a means to stop them scoring double with their Terrain Cards. In other words, the Terrain Cards can be used as means to block other players.

Over the course of the Ticket to Ride line, the distribution of the routes across the various map boards have got tighter and tighter and thus more competitive. The India map from the previous expansion, Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 2: India and Switzerland being the most recent evidence of that. With The Heart of Africa, the map is equally as tight and competitive if not more so because of the lack of the double routes and the grouping of the route colours. The tight nature and competitive play of the Ticket to Ride Map Collection vol. 3: The Heart of Africa map is enhanced by the use of the Terrain Cards making this the most challenging version of Ticket to Ride yet.

Friday 1 March 2013

Call of Cthulhu Classics I

From one week to the next, Reviews from R’lyeh writes reviews of new games and supplements with an emphasis on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror. This series concentrates on Call of Cthulhu and other games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but not those recently released, but those of the past. There have been innumerable titles published over the years and this is an opportunity to appraise them anew, often decades after they were first released.

The series begins with perhaps one of the most important scenarios ever published for Call of Cthulhu. For it is important to note that without Trail of the Loathsome Slime, Chaosium might never have published Cthulhu Now, and that without Cthulhu Now, Pagan Publishing, might never have published Delta Green. The genesis of Trail of the Loathsome Slime though, began with author Marcus L. Rowland, now best known for his RPGs, Forgotten Futures and Diana: Warrior Princess. During the 1980s he was known as a prolific contributor to the British roleplaying magazine, White Dwarf, writing numerous scenarios and articles, many of which still stand up to scrutiny a quarter of a century later. White Dwarf had started in 1977, but it would be several years before it would provide any support for Call of Cthulhu, a roleplaying game which by then was two years old. That first support would be “Cthulhu Now! - Call of Cthulhu in the 1980s”, which appeared in White Dwarf #42 (June 1983), followed by “Cthulhu Now! - Part 2: Mini-Scenario outlines for Call of Cthulhu in the 1980s” in the next issue. The first part focused on skills and weapons, whilst the second outlined Dial 'H' for Horror, Trail of the Loathsome Slime, and Cthulhu Now! as mini-scenarios.

Marcus L. Rowland’s two-part series set the tentacles of the Call of Cthulhu community aflailing. For as a roleplaying game, Call of Cthulhu was then a historical piece. It was set in the Roaring Twenties, the same period when most of H.P. Lovecraft’s fiction was written. The idea that it could be set in periods other than that of the 1920s and especially one that the readers of White Dwarf – myself included, White Dwarf #42 being my first purchased issue – were intimately familiar was a revelation. The popularity and the feedback on the series was enough to get Games Workshop to ask Rowland to write a scenario for publication based on the material he had published in White Dwarf. The result was Trail of the Loathsome Slime, a scenario published for contemporary Call of Cthulhu in 1985 that would prefigure Chaosium’s Cthulhu Now by two years.

The scenario primarily takes place in the South Atlantic in late 1983, early 1984, not long after the conclusion of the Falklands Conflict, but it begins in London. The investigators are contacted by Russell Corey, an American clairvoyant and investigator of the occult and the mysterious, although not necessarily of the Mythos. He has revelations that he wishes to share, but by the time that the investigators make the agreed upon appointment, Corey is dead and the police have the building cordoned off. Getting into Corey’s flat to find out what he wanted to share is the scenario’s first challenge.

If the investigators are successful, then they learn that Corey believed that the disappearance just before the Falklands Conflict, of the Delta Pioneer, a research vessel belonging to the British Bird Preservation Society is connected to the activities of a Satanist who was executed in 1927. Corey’s researches had revealed that the Satanist was on Griffon Island in the early 1920s, the very island where the Epsilon Pioneer, the sister ship to the Delta Pioneer, is headed in the New Year. Located in the British Antarctic Zone, Griffon Island is home to the Lesser Barbed Penguin, the population of which was reduced by an oil spill the decade before and the recovery of which, the British Bird Preservation Society monitors annually.

Of course, the investigators have to obtain berths aboard the Epsilon Pioneer, either as part of the British Bird Preservation Society’s scientific survey team or as member of the ship’s complement. This is the scenario’s second challenge. If they are successful, the trip south is uneventful, whereas the arrival at the island is! Something sends everyone aboard the ship into a murderous frenzy, and in the chaos, the ship is grounded on the island’s rocky shore. Once the survivors are ashore what worries them most is not the fact that they are temporarily stranded on an island with thousands upon thousands of birds, but the fact that island has been scoured of all life except for a few scared looking penguins…

To support Trail of the Loathsome Slime, several new skills are reprinted from White Dwarf #42 – including the use of Phone Phreaking, which certainly dates the affair. The scenario’s maps and plans are very clear, and the three hand outs are nicely done, one reflecting the computer technology of the time. That said, another hand out, that of a pamphlet from the British Bird Preservation Society about its work on Griffon Island would have been a nice addition. There would have been space as some of the hand outs and maps take more space than they really need to. In addition, the scenario does include notes on converting it to the 1920s, essentially transforming it into a much simpler scenario with little in the way of technology for the investigators to rely upon. It should also surprise no one that it also has the feel of a period piece, as evidenced in particular by the description of the computer technology, let alone some of the minor events that occur because of where the scenario is primarily set.

For the most part, Trail of the Loathsome Slime is an action orientated affair, whether that involves breaking into Corey’s cordoned off flat, fighting off the frenzied crew and passengers of the Epsilon Pioneer, or facing down the true danger to be found on Griffon Island, with relatively little in the way of investigation. The challenges it presents in the early parts of the scenario suffer from having too few solutions, at least as written, and as consequence, a Keeper might be forced to hand waving those obstacles should the players roll badly. Also, it is perhaps too straight forward a scenario and feels very much like an early effort upon the part of an author whose later work would show more depth, more detail, and more sophistication. “Draw the Blinds on Yesterday” (White Dwarf #63) and “Curse of the Bone” (White Dwarf #86) are both highly regarded examples of Rowland’s later scenarios and showcase Rowland's writing to better effect.

At its heart, Trail of the Loathsome Slime still has the feel of a magazine scenario. Which is no surprise given its origins as an outline in White Dwarf #43. It thus feels underwritten more than anything else, but a Keeper today would no problem expanding upon the scenario given wealth of research material he would have at his fingertips. Nevertheless, Trail of the Loathsome Slime is certainly not without its charms, and of course, there is the matter of the title and in that, Trail of the Loathsome Slime is simply joyous in its use of a bad pun.