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

Saturday 30 November 2013

Misappropriating the Mythos

With a game as old as Call of Cthulhu, it is no surprise that over the years its adventures and scenarios have fallen prey to cliché. Not every adventure and not every scenario to be sure, but too many end up relying on clichés that see the investigators blaze away with their Tommy guns at monsters and madmen alike; cast rituals with little or no consequences; and unearth, if not deities, then alien beings that are all too often like the last alien being they unearthed… Such clichés detract from the intent of such scenarios – to instil horror and dread in the investigators, if not the players. In a quartet of scenarios – The Dying of St. Margarets, The Watchers in the Sky, The Dance in the Blood, and The Rending Box – author Graham Walmsley has previously presented the antithesis to such clichés. Each of the four scenarios, recently collected in the volume, The Final Revelation, is designed for Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane Press’ clue-orientated RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror and written in the game’s Purist mode, a mode in which survival in the face of the unknowable is unlikely… 

Not content with writing scenarios in this purist mode, Walmsley has gone one step further in presenting a means by which we can also think about writing our own – Stealing Cthulhu. Originally funded through IndieGoGo in 2011, Stealing Cthulhu is not a guide to writing scenarios for Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu, or indeed any one of the several RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror currently available. Rather it is a way to look at writing scenarios, specifically Purist scenarios, for any one of them, for Stealing Cthulhu is completely systems neutral, even right down to not supporting Walmsley’s own RPG which is included in the pages of Stealing Cthulhu – ‘Cthulhu Dark’. 

The concept at the heart of Stealing Cthulhu is suggested in the title, and yes, it does involve the theft of Cthulhu. Well almost, for what it actually involves is the theft of ideas from Lovecraft’s original fiction. The author suggests that the Keeper not only go back and reread Lovecraft’s fiction, but having done so, steal his ideas, and then adapt and reuse them, emphasising different aspects, combining different ideas or swapping them, even developing or twisting them in directions that Lovecraft never considered. To illustrate and discuss how this is done, the author draws on a particular type of Lovecraftian tale. Unsurprisingly, that type is Purist in tone and feel and consists of At the Mountains of Madness, The Call of Cthulhu, The Colour Out of Space, The Dreams in the Witch House, Nyarlathotep, The Shadow Out of Time, The Shadow Over Innsmouth, and The Whisperer in Darkness. The author in turn steals creatures, scenarios, locations, patterns, themes, and descriptions. 

For example, what would happen if the incidents described in The Shadow Over Innsmouth are recast in Venice Beach, California or Weymouth (your choice of the original Weymouth in Dorset, or in Nova Scotia, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Tasmania, Auckland, or Barbados, though the Massachusetts might a bit too close to Innsmouth)? How would this change those events? What if instead of a Mi-Go corpse being found washed up on the banks of a river in Vermont as in The Whisperer in Darkness, it was found washed ashore on the beach at Venice Beach or Weymouth? Then again, what if a corpse was found, not with her brain precisely and surgically removed as in The Whisperer in Darkness, but with her reproductive organs missing in a similar manner? Just by thinking through the switching of details and elements, their theft from the original stories begins to open up new scenarios to explore and run. 

In stealing each of these elements, Walmsley does something more – he analyses them, he places them in context, where he can he shows how they can be reconfigured, and he explains why and how they work. He draws parallels – for example, between Colours Out of Space and Lloigor – between elements to illustrate how they can be interchanged and he also suggests what to avoid, such as fish puns in a scenario involving Deep Ones. Lovecraft’s style is not ignored either, Walmsley also dissecting how the author begins and ends a story, creates and maintains horror before increasing it. At every turn Walmsley gives an example to support his ‘criminal’ process of theft and commingling, such that interspersed throughout the tome are a number of detailed scenario outlines that a Keeper worth his essential saltes should be able to develop further.

In examining the primary entities of the Mythos, Walmsley goes beyond Lovecraft’s creations to look at those of Blackwood, Campbell, Chambers, Lumley, and Wilson as well as Lovecraft’s. He still adheres to the key story where they appeared. Despite Stealing Cthulhu’s remit to explore Lovecraft’s Purist tales as they and their elements can be used in RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the book does not ignore those elements that might be seen as their antitheses. More commonly found in the Pulp style of story and thus many a Call of Cthulhu scenario, most notably Masks of Nyarlathotep, they are ‘Fights’, ‘Cultists’, and ‘Rituals’, what Stealing Cthulhu terms ‘Anomalies’. This is not to say that they do not appear in Lovecraft’s stories, but what the author suggests is reinvent them or replace so that they better fit the Purist style.

Rounding out the volume is a trio of appendices. These include a miscellany, a bibliography, and a complete game, ‘Cthulhu Dark’. A version of the latter has since been republished in The Unspeakable Oath #22, but here is the original version. It is a light story telling system that is wholly Purist and ultimately quite unforgiving in its play.

Lightly, but pleasingly illustrated, Stealing Cthulhu is simply laid out, more written as a set of notes or a journal, one in which the author’s voice shines strongly throughout – even though said author’s voice is mild and scholarly – constantly asking the reader, “What if you do this?”. His though is not the only voice in the book. Almost like a Mythos tome itself, there is a version of Stealing Cthulhu that has been annotated, not by one author, but three. Gareth Hanrahan, Ken Hite, and Jason Morningstar, each an author of Mythos related tomes in their own right, adds their own opinions, suggestions, and even counterpoints to Walmsley’s analysis and reconfiguration, and that in addition to the footnotes Walmsley makes on nearly every page. Their commentary expands greatly upon the author’s and furthers his ideas and their application.

Stealing Cthulhu is not a comprehensive tome. It does not deal with each and every one of Lovecraft’s stories nor does it examine all of Lovecraft’s creations, the creatures and entities of the Mythos – yet so many of them are interchangeable that this is a moot point. It focuses solely on the Purist tale, but that is its remit, and anyway so much of its contents could be applied to the Pulp style, were a Keeper so inclined, that again such an issue is moot. It lacks an index, but the layout and organisation is so light that its contents are easy to find.

In the past, attempts at giving advice on creating and running scenarios of Lovecraftian investigative horror, too be honest never more than mere essays, have invariably approached it from a gaming angle. With Stealing Cthulhu the approach is a literary one, one that begins almost a literary analysis of the source material, but the difference is that Walmsley does more than analyse – he applies it, or at least questions and suggests how it can be applied. In doing so, he does not provide the Keeper with a guide to creating and running scenarios of Lovecraftian investigative horror, but rather he gives us the tools and the prompts to think about the process. It may well be a manifesto, or a love letter to the Purist tale, but Stealing Cthulhu resurrects the essential saltes of Lovecraft’s original fiction from the catacombs that the clichés of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying has oft consigned it. Having done so, Stealing Cthulhu thoughtfully and artfully prompts us to sift those saltes into something playable. 

Tuesday 26 November 2013

The Lion After The Serpent

If you were wondering what had become of The Day After Ragnarok, the 2009 Savage Worlds setting created and written by Ken Hite and published by Atomic Overmind Press, then you are not alone. The award-winning post-WW2, post-apocalypse, post-Ragnarok campaign setting, which has since been adapted for use with Hero Games’ Hero Sixth Edition and more recently for use with Evil Hat Games’ Fate Core, has not received the support that it truly deserves. Ideally, that would be a Plot Point campaign, but in the meantime, the setting has been supported with a half dozen ‘One-Sheet’ adventures and three entries in the Serpent Scales: Fragments From The World After The Serpentfall series. To date, these have visited the rise of the Klan in Serpent Scales #1: The New Konfederacy; examined the STEN Gun in Serpent Scales #2: (Happiness is a) Sten Gun; and even gone ashore in Serpent Scales #3: Return to Monster Island. Now there is a fourth entry in the series, one which comes with a little bit of history of its own.

Available for Savage Worlds and Fate Core, Issue #4 in the Serpent Scales: Fragments From The World After The Serpentfall series is The Lion in Fimbulwinter: Sweden After the Serpentfall. It began life as a Ken Hite authored contribution to the Swedish gaming magazine FENIX for its ‘post-holocaust’ issue, and after all, there is no post-holocaust setting like The Day After Ragnarok. Atomic Overmind Press has taken Hite’s original article and developed it into this fourth entry in the Serpent Scales series. It describes the events in the July 1945 Serpent Fall as they fell upon Sweden, taking them up to the current situation in Sweden in 1948.

Of all the countries of Scandinavia, Sweden is the only one to survive nearly intact. To the west, Denmark and Norway took the brunt of the tsunami that flowed east and west in the wake of Jörmungandr’s atomic-fire induced plummet to earth. Sweden could not avoid the earthquakes or the torrential rain that followed, but despite hundreds of thousands that died, Sweden survived as a nation, although a politically unstable one. Placed east of the Serpent Curtain, Sweden is almost but not quite a client state of Moscow, which cannot be said of its neighbours – Norway and Denmark are both People’s Republics garrisoned by Soviet troops, whilst Stalin incorporated Finland into the USSR directly as the Karelo-Finnish SSR. At home, Sweden remains a monarchy although King Gustav VI Adolf or ‘Comrade G’ was forced to retreat from public life by a Communist government that has since been replaced by a left wing alliance that avoids making radical decisions that might break the government and force external intervention…

Meanwhile, the king’s son, Crown Prince Gustav Adolf, has decamped to the once-German island of Heligoland in the North Sea with much of the Swedish Navy and air force, and declared himself the Royal Governor of Heligoland. It has become a major staging post for ships of the British Royal Navy and for refugees getting out of Soviet occupied Germany – whatever their ‘former’ political allegiances. The British Secret Intelligence Service, or MI6, supports anti-Communist activities in Sweden, the country serving as the perfect jumping off point to get spies through the Serpent Curtain and back out again. This activity includes research into the oldest runic symbols in Europe; the very ones that the Ahnenerbe scholars are said to have used to summon the Midgard Serpent! Monsters are everywhere, just like the rest of the world, whether that be sinuous serpents newly returned to Sweden’s lakes or the trolls and even more fearsome troll wives that do the bidding of their Frost Giant masters.

Just ten pages long, The Lion in Fimbulwinter is a 2.42 Mb, black and white PDF. It not includes a succinctly written, but nevertheless rich description of a country that is rarely visited in gaming. This presents a fraught nation, desperately trying to rebuild following the Serpentfall whilst staving off the seemingly inevitable Soviet annexation. Although it maintains the high quality in terms of content – content that should spark ideas aplenty for the GM – seen in previous The Day After Ragnarok titles, barring a somewhat silly final scenario seed, what The Lion in Fimbulwinter really lacks is ‘the Top Five’ lists begun in The Day After Ragnarock – such as Top Five Places To Stomp Nazis and Top Five Secret Bases. That said, it is a shorter piece than other titles in the series.

What Serpent Scales #4: The Lion in Fimbulwinter – Sweden presents is the Berlin of the post-Ragnarok world. Which is a little odd given that Hite has already described the city of Tehran, as detailed in his Tehran – Nest of Spies, as being Berlin’s equivalent in The Day After Ragnarok setting, it being the closest non-Soviet capital with an accessible border to the Soviet Union. Perhaps the Berlin of the North of the post-Ragnarok world? If there is a thematic similarity, then the flavour and the tone of The Lion in Fimbulwinter are very different, not as exotic, much dryer, even starker, and colder than Tehran – Nest of Spies

Wednesday 20 November 2013

Curse of Chaosium V

I begin this review with a confession. As much as I love reading and reviewing titles for Call of Cthulhu, Trail of Cthulhu, and other RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror, I have become loathe to review titles released by the premier publisher for Call of Cthulhu, such that I have two outstanding titles to review – The House of R'lyeh and Atomic Age Cthulhu. The issue is that with each of the previous four titles I reviewed – Curse of the Chthonians: Four Odysseys Into Deadly Intrigue, the Call of Cthulhu Sixth Edition’s Keeper’s Screen, the Cthulhu Invictus Companion, and Terror from the Skies: A Race to Save Humanity from a Dark Future – have warranted a singular label, ‘Curse of Chaosium’. In each and every case of these reviews, the titles have been flawed, mishandled, and ill judged, issues that in each and every case can solely be placed at Chaosium’s door. Having to write reviews of such books – books from a publisher whose previous titles I hold in high esteem – is a thrillingly unpleasant exercise in pedantry. Not only do you have to tell the reader that such a book is dreadful and anything other than worthwhile purchase, but you have to catalogue exactly why. To do otherwise, would be a disservice to anyone reading the review.

Thus the ground is laid for me to review the very latest scenario to be released by Chaosium, Inc. for Call of Cthulhu. I approached the prospect of reviewing Canis Mysterium: A Scenario With Bite, which at just thirty-two pages, is perhaps the shortest single scenario ever published, with a certain weariness for Call of Cthulhu. After all, how bad could it be? It certainly could be no worse than the execrable Terror from the Skies, a book so incompetently handled that Chaosium owes an apology to the campaign’s authors. On the other hand, it might surprise me and be as joyously rife with potential as say, the Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep or Tatters of the King. Sadly, Canis Mysterium is nowhere as good as either of those, but then neither is it as appallingly awful as Terror from the Skies. In truth, it is something else, something that we have seen before.

Canis Mysterium is the first scenario to be published by Chaosium in over a decade that visits Lovecraft Country during the Jazz Age, though very late in the Jazz Age, being set in late 1930. True, there have been visits paid by scenarios in Chaosium’s Miskatonic University Library Association Monograph series, though none of those have reached the shelves of your local friendly gaming store; and true, the soon to be lamented Miskatonic River Press has published two excellent books set there – New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley and More Adventures in Arkham Country. Still, Canis Mysterium is the first scenario to be published by Chaosium in over a decade that visits Lovecraft Country during the Jazz Age. It also takes the Keeper and his players to a wholly new part of Lovecraft Country.

Coldwater Falls lies to the lies west of Arkham on the Aylesbury Pike road and Miskatonic River between Dean’s Corners and Dunwich. Primarily a farming town with a textile mill, there is little to distinguish it from its often dark, dismal, and dangerous neighbours. That is until the investigators are summoned to the offices of the University President of Miskatonic University. They are members of the university’s School of Biology, specifically the Department of Psychology, who are asked by the University President to visit Coldwater Falls where the local constable wants help in dealing with a madman who has murdered and partially eaten a young girl.

What the investigators discover is a madman, one who is suffering from the delusion that he is a wolf! The mystery and direction of the investigation in Canis Mysterium concern themselves with how the madman came to suffer his delusion. Discovering this information will require their talking to a few of the inhabitants of the town. For the most part, this is fairly straightforward process apart from getting to one NPC, though this addressed somewhat bluntly towards the scenario’s end.

Canis Mysterium is not a subtle affair. True it foregoes much of Call of Cthulhu’s traditional investigative process, with little in the way of books or newspapers for the characters to peruse, instead opting for a more interactive means of gathering clues. Yet these all but matter not, for in the penultimate scene an NPC that has been pointedly kept away from the investigators, simply turns up and hands them the clue they need. Then in the scenario’s dénouement, the only means presented of the investigators defeating the threat is through violence. Given that in the default set-up for the scenario, the investigators are meant to be students and doctors at Miskatonic University’s Department of Biology, they are very probably ill-suited to such a situation. A situation that is deadly and likely to result in fatalities.

Not that the villain of the piece, or his Ghoul ally – and that is not a spoiler, it appears on the cover – and their plan for revenge on Coldwater Falls are particularly interesting or subtle either. In fact, the plan is straight off of page one of the horror villain’s book of revenge plans. What is vaguely interesting is that if the Keeper wants the investigators to experience this revenge being brought to fruition, he will have to do it all by himself. There are no notes included as to how to do it. That said, if the investigators do bypass the showdown with the villain, then the epilogue at least sees them suffer the consequences of their inaction, though even that is underwritten.

Another problem with Canis Mysterium is Coldwater Falls. It is barely sketched out and leaves little for the Keeper to work with. This raises the question as to why the town is located in Lovecraft Country. It has no bearing upon the scenario such that its plot could be moved to any other town without any changes whatsoever and the investigators could simply work at or be studying at a university other than Miskatonic. 

Physically, the problems with Canis Mysterium start with the cover. It is not a bad cover per se, nor a particularly good cover, it simply gives the scenario away. Inside, the book is neatly and cleanly laid out, though let down by oppressively unsubtle internal illustrations and inexpertly applied editing. Further, the scenario completely lacks maps. There is no plan of the town and there is no floor plan of any of the locations that the investigators will visit. Now the Keeper can get away with running the scenario without any maps, and if it helps, he could just point to the book’s front cover and say to his players, “Your investigators are fighting here!” at the dénouement of Canis Mysterium. Yet if the Keeper wants his investigators to visit Coldwater Falls again, and the means are provided with the scenario seeds included at the back of the book, it would have been useful to have had maps included.

In tone and feel, Canis Mysterium wants to be a Purist affair, but its plot and antagonists are Pulp. It also has the feel of something else, that of a scenario to be found in one of Chaosium’s Miskatonic University Library Association Monographs. Which is not necessarily a sign of quality. Had  Canis Mysterium appeared in a Monograph, then the scenario would not have really stood out from the others in such a volume. Releasing it as a single scenario means it is placed centre stage where its flaws can nothing but stand out. Canis Mysterium: A Scenario With Bite is underdeveloped in terms of support and it underwhelms as a whole, failing to stand out from the pack and more gums at you than bites.

Curse of Chaosium III

Were it not the fact that more than one publisher releases titles for Call of Cthulhu, it would have been a truly terrible year for the game’s fans in 2011. The reason being that Chaosium, Inc. released exactly one new title in the course of that year that was not either a reprint or an ill-thought through translation that actually turned out to be quite serviceable despite its many flaws. Further, if you take into account the fact that two thirds of that book previously appeared in a Miskatonic University Library Association Monograph, then Chaosium, Inc. published exactly one new scenario in 2011. Even then, if you consider that new scenario was not for its core game, but another setting, the only conclusion is that Chaosium, Inc. published nothing new for what is its core game, Call of Cthulhu, in 2011.
The book in question is the Cthulhu Invictus Companion, a supplement for the publisher’s popular setting, Cthulhu Invictus, that sends the reach of the Mythos into Ancient Rome. It is the first official support for the setting, bar the previous monographs Malam Umbra and Extrico Tabula, and Miskatonic River Press’ excellent campaign, The Legacy of Arrius Lurco. A slim sixty-eight page volume, the Cthulhu Invictus Companion contains three scenarios and descriptions of three new cults. Although all of this material will be new to the shelves of local friendly gaming shop, two of the scenarios are not actually new. Both “Chuma Invictus!” and “Morituri Te Salutamus” previously appeared in the original Cthulhu Invictus monograph (and they have been tightened up here and there for this reprint) , which means that if you already own a copy of said monograph, the Cthulhu Invictus Companion is not a worthwhile purchase. Though if you are a completest, it is another matter…

The supplement opens with “Chuma Invictus!”, set in A.D. 47 during the reign of the emperor, Claudius. The player characters are not investigators in the traditional sense, but legionaries, assigned as part of a trade envoy’s bodyguard. They are to accompany beyond the border of the Empire, South of Egypt to the Kingdom of Kush. This is a lucrative trade, but whilst both sides benefit, Kush is envious of its northern neighbour and Rome has a stationed a legion on the border. The journey involves a trip up the Nile, punctuated by ambushes by bandits and crocodiles, before reaching the capital of Kush, where a game of cat and mouse ensues. This is over a set of scrolls desired by both the envoy – actually a member of a secret society dedicated to collecting lost or rare tomes, and an Egyptian sorcerer, who wants to use the contents of the scrolls to his own ends. That is, bringing his god to the Earth, or rather both his god and his god’s home to Earth.
When I first reviewed this back in 2004 – for that was when the Cthulhu Invictus monograph was originally released – I was not impressed. That was as much because this was the first scenario for the setting, that the setting itself felt undeveloped, and that it took the game away from the Roman Empire, which was after all, where the game was meant to be set. Reading “Chuma Invictus!” now reveals it to be a well-paced and engaging one-shot that hints at Rome’s attitudes towards its neighbours. With there being more support available for the setting, it does not feel quite so out of place. Of course, it is still a one-shot and a set of pre-generated legionary characters to play would have been a nice touch.
Where as a travel log adventure, “Chuma Invictus!” is not the most traditional of adventures for Call of Cthulhu or Cthulhu Invictus, the second scenario and the second reprint in the Cthulhu Invictus Companion is certainly so. In fact, “Morituri Te Salutamus” is not only that, but it is also much more of an introductory scenario. It opens after a day at the races, with the characters coming across the attempted abduction of a woman of Equestrian status. In return for thwarting the kidnapping, the investigators receive both a reward and a request to investigate both this attempt and the disappearance of a number of other women across Rome. It feels pulpy in places, and its climax is probably a little difficult considering that the introductory nature of the scenario. Otherwise, this probably the easiest scenario in the supplement to integrate into an on-going campaign because it at least starts in Rome.
The third scenario, “Bacchanalia,” is the only new scenario in the volume and takes place at the other end of the Empire in a newly rebuilt Carthage. It begins almost Alien-like in a very dramatic fashion with the investigators as guests at a dinner party. This is the first move by a cult native to the city to reassert itself, one that involves – much like “Morituri Te Salutamus” – mass sacrifice. This is a shorter, much more focused affair, but one that is awkward to bring into a campaign given the scenario’s location.
Interspersed between the three scenarios are a set of short articles that describe five different cults particular to Cthulhu Invictus. They include an Egyptian avatar of Yog-Sothoth, the Wild Hunt that rides across Gaul and Germania, and a Black Wind that scours North Africa. Although interesting enough, their inclusion has no bearing upon the supplement’s scenarios and only contributes to the disparate feeling to Cthulhu Invictus Companion.
Putting aside the fact that so little of the Cthulhu Invictus Companion is new, its real problem is that it does feel disparate and it does feel desperate. It feels disparate because the supplement lacks focus, and feels desperate because the disparate nature of the content makes it feel as if the publisher has put it together from bits it had lying around on hard drives rather than by design or intent. Lastly, and arguably, a Companion supplement to a setting’s core source or rule book should be full of indispensable, useful information. The content in the Cthulhu Invictus Companion can certainly be made to be useful with some effort upon the part of the Keeper, but the last thing that this supplement is, is indispensable, and ultimately, the Cthulhu Invictus Companion does give Cthulhu Invictus the support it warrants.

Saturday 16 November 2013

Your Choice

The newest game from Looney Labs, best known for the Fluxx family of games and the time manipulation card game, Chrononauts is Choose One. This is a party style game much in the vein of Apples to Apples or Say Anything in that it is all about knowing your friends and the answers they might give to certain questions or matches. It plays quickly and easily with simple rules for between three and ten players; a game should last no longer than forty minutes and can be picked up and understood within moments of opening the box and reading the rules sheet.

Choose One consists of ten sets of pairs of Choice cards, three hundred Topic cards, a Score Board, and a mix of scoring tokens that fit in a little cloth bag. The scoring tokens are really rather nice and include a metal nut, a plastic brain, a wooden heart, and even a button! These are used to indicate each player’s score on the score board and provide some pleasing individuality. The Score Board is solidly mounted and is marked from one to ten and then a “Winner!” space. The Choice cards are used each round to indicate a player’s choice and come in a pair one blue and one white card. The Topic cards each have a blue and white section and have single word or phrase in each, for example, “an evening home alone” or “attending a party” or “Lost” or “Gilligan’s Island”. (It should be noted that the blue on both the Topic and Choice is a very purple shade of blue).

At game’s start, each player is given a set of Choice cards and receives a hand of five Topic cards. He chooses a token and places on the Start spot on the Score Board. Then play begins. Each turn, one player is the Chooser and picks a Topic card from his hand and shows it to the other players. They have to decide which of the two choices the Chooser will select. The Chooser indicates his choice by holding either his blue or white Choice card, face down. In doing so, the Chooser has to make a truthful choice. In other words, he cannot bluff. The other players will also select one of their Choice cards and hold it face down in front of them. Once everyone has made their choice, the cards will be revealed. If nobody’s card matches the Chooser's answer, then the Chooser gets two points. If any player’s card matches the Chooser’s answer, then both they and the Chooser are awarded a point. If nobody guesses correctly, then nobody gains any points. Points are tallied on the score board and the next player becomes the Chooser. The first person to move their token onto the Winner's Circle – having scored eleven points – is the winner. (Having to score eleven points to win makes the game slightly harder to win, as does the fact that somebody has to make the wrong choice for anybody to score points).
So for example, Richard is the Chooser and plays the Topic card that has “candles” in the white portion of the card and “Lava Lamp” in the blue section. He reads the entries out and makes his by placing a Choice card down on the table. James, Nick, Matt, and Bill take a moment to decide which they think of the two options that Richard will choose and play a Choice that they think will match the one played by Richard. Everyone reveals their Choice card. Richard’s Choice card is Blue, that is, he chose “Lava Lamp”. As did James, Nick, and Bill, but not Matt, who played a White Choice card thinking that Richard’s choice was “candles”. Richard, James, Nick, and Bill are all awarded one point, but Matt scores nothing.
Choose One is a nicely appointed game. It comes in a small box and is thus easily portable. Its rules are simple and the game is easy to play – undemanding in fact. Its Topic cards are American, but then so is the publisher and the game’s intended audience. Given that the game’s tag line is, “How well do you know your friends?” it is no surprise that it plays better with people that you know and people that know you, be they friends or family. Overall, Choose One is a pleasing party filler that tweaks a familiar format.

Sunday 10 November 2013

Coarse Conjury by K. Hite

Magic in Lovecraftian tales is ineffable, unquantifiable, unworldly, and understandably, a literary device. Magic in games of Lovecraftian investigative horror can be all those things, but to make it so, magic actually has to be the exact opposite. It has to be describable, it has to be quantifiable, and as much it remains a device, it has to have cause and effect, and with those in hand, both a GM and his players can work and describe magics in a roleplaying game as part of its narrative. This is the aim of Rough Magicks, a supplement for Trail of Cthulhu, Pelgrane Press’ RPG of clue orientated Lovecraftian investigative horror, penned by the author of the RPG, Kenneth Hite.

Rough Magicks is a slim volume that expands upon the nature of Lovecraftian magic and the rules for it in Trail of Cthulhu and it begins by addressing a simple question – “What is the nature of magic?” Several solutions are suggested. Is it a hyper-science? Something only known to those who have awoken in the Dreamlands? Is it not magic, but psionics? Is it a genetic holdout from the biological sciences of the Elder Things? One, some, or all of these suggestions are possible answers much in the manner of how the Trail of Cthulhu core rules describe the creatures and entities of the Mythos.

How it expands upon the nature of Lovecraftian magic and the rules for it is done in Rough Magicks all through the simplicity of adding a single new General Ability – Magic. Now in Trail of Cthulhu, it is most obviously the province of the sorcerers and wizards who have had and continue to have dealings with the unknowable and the incomprehensible and so have a grasp of the fundamental workings that underpin the nature of the cosmos. Thus we are dealing with figures such as John Dee, Gaspard du Nord, and Ludwig Prinn, and more latterly, Randolph Carter, and Joseph Curwen. In game, the Ability is being expended to negate in part the loss of Stability, essentially serving as a partial bulwark against the immediate shock that comes with the working of magic and the casting of spells.

The Magic Ability is not wholly the province of the NPC sorcerer or wizard though. If the Keeper allows it, then an investigator can acquire the Magic Ability, but this must be in-game during play rather during character generation. It may be from reading certain Mythos tomes, from encountering or learning it from entities such as Yog-sothoth or Nyarlathotep, from being by an actual sorcerer or wizard, or from being exposed to it at certain places, like Dread Carcosa or the Moon-Pool of Ponape. As much as the Magic Ability partially counters the loss of Stability when casting spells, what it does not, and cannot do, is negate any potential Sanity loss…

In addition to listing the potential Magic Ability gain from studying certain tomes, from Al-Azif to Unaussprechlichen Kulten, Rough Magicks expands upon the rules for ‘Places of Power’, gives numerous examples of casting, and suggests the Magic ratings for a veritable menagerie of Mythos Monsters. Of course, this being a book about magic, there is a whole chapter devoted to spells, pleasingly entitled ‘Cast A Deadly Spell’ which adds new spells whilst also re-examining old ones for dramatic purposes. Trail of Cthulhu being a clue-orientated game means that the casting of spells leaves evidence and just as with Mythos creatures in the Trail of Cthulhu core rules, the investigators can detect evidence of this casting. For example, Bureaucracy could undercover a change of use filed by the Chapel of Contemplation on a certain building or that last night’s midnight mass was no ordinary ceremony with the use of Theology. Not ignored is that signature response to the magics and the entities of the Cthulhu Mythos – the Elder sign, the author discussing what it might look like and there are more suggestions than you think…

Rough Magicks does not restrict itself wholly to Mythos Magic. It also expands upon the rules for ‘Idiosyncratic Magic’ for the ‘Bookhounds of London’ campaign frame in the Trail of Cthulhu core rules – since expanded into a superlative setting book of its very own. More suited to Pulp style games, the purpose of ‘Idiosyncratic Magic’ is to provide boosts to the caster’s General Abilities, and again, these are supported by example effects for each General Ability. Examples are given for each of the various General Abilities, such as wearing pieces of a mirror like monocles until your cheeks bleed to enhance the Disguise Ability or wielding a ‘Dead Man’s Glove’ filled with blood to enhance the Filch skill. All have a certain uneasy, if not out and out gruesome quality, and serve as possible starting suggestions.

Rounding out Rough Magicks is a specific revisiting of magic in Lovecraft’s fiction. This is a more open discussion of the subject, though of course, Hite has been drawing upon and applying his knowledge of Lovecraftian fiction  as evidenced in his Tour de Lovecraft  throughout the pages of Rough Magicks. Here he is more appraising of his sources discussing the various ways in which Lovecraft presents magic in his fiction. This serves as a set of pointers for the Keeper wanting to draw direct from the source for atmosphere as much as it does to highlight Lovecraft’s flexibility when it comes to describing magic in his stories.

Physically, Rough Magicks is another attractive looking book for Trail of Cthulhu, as ever suitably illustrated with a selection of creepy art from Jérôme Huguenin. Unfortunately, the book feels a little rushed in places and could have done with another editorial pass.

Rough Magicks is not a book that the Trail of Cthulhu Keeper necessarily needs, but should he want to expand upon the nature and role of magic in his campaign, then this supplement is more than to the point. Indeed, it would also nicely complement the Bookhounds of London campaign frame and source book with its bibliographic focus and its development of ‘Idiosyncratic Magic’. Perhaps the best aspect of the definition and the quantification at the heart of this book is that it leaves plenty of room for the Keeper to make the magic of his game, ineffable, unquantifiable, and unworldly in play.

Friday 8 November 2013

A Beggarly Affair

One of the delights of Maelstrom, the Tudor set RPG published in the United Kingdom by Puffin Books back in 1984 and then more recently by Arion Games in 2007 is its Livings the equivalent of its Classes in other RPGs. From Architects, Doctors, and Scriveners to Beggars, Blacksmiths, and Traders via Mages, Mercenaries, Priests, and Rogues, each of the game’s numerous Livings is presented in plenty of detail. Every Living is interesting and capable, though often only in some small way. The more recent Maelstrom Companion added yet further Livings, expanding especially with a number of legal professions. Now there is a supplement that focusses entirely upon one type of Living with the eponymously titled Beggars Companion.

This slim one-hundred-and-twenty-two page paperback expands greatly upon the beggar and his place in the Tudor England portrayed in Maelstrom. For the player it covers how beggars rose in numbers during the late Tudor period; how they were treated by the state, the church, and society in general; the numerous types of beggars and their ‘tricks’; and the basics of the secretive language of Beggars’ Cant. For the Referee, it covers the beggars’ campaign; a set of beggars and rogues that can be player characters or NPCs; and a septet of adventure seeds as well as a full adventure.

For the player there are a total of twenty-eight new Livings, all of them beggarly professions. They range from the ‘Abraham Man’, who fakes lunacy, and the ‘Bawdy Basket’, who trades in lewd lechery and loathsome falsehoods, to the ‘Whipjack’, who fakes service as a shipwrecked mariner, and the ‘Wild Rogue’, who has known no other profession except that of beggar. Most of these can be taken by a character of either gender, but several are gender specific, such as the female only ‘Bawdy Basket’ or the ‘Father of Families’, a male only Living for which the beggar entreats his audience with tales of the loss of his wife and children. Each is accorded bonuses and penalties to his attributes as well as a ‘Nefarious Knack’, a special ability that is particular to that type of beggar. Thus, the ‘Counterfeit Crank’ is capable of ‘Loose Fall’, so that when replicating the effects of epilepsy, he is capable of falling to the ground without injuring himself.

Our sample character is Eleanor Mathews, a widow who was forced upon the road with the death of her husband, Nicholas. She uses her knowledge of herbs, and more recently spices, to work as a ‘saffroner’, a sell of fake herbs and spices to the unwary. Despite her being a woman, the Brotherhood has accepted Eleanor as she is a skilled healer.

Eleanor Mathewson
Herbalist/Trickster-Saffroner, Age 38
Attack Skill 30
Defence Skill 30
Endurance 30
Speed 30
Agility 30
Will 30
Persuasion 41
Knowledge 45
Perception 40
Equipment: Sample herbs, filler materials, clothes, pouch with 14 pennies, a day’s food, knife
Abilities: Herb Lore, Diagnosis, Assess

What comes across clearly from reading the Beggars Companion is how much of a challenge roleplaying a beggar character will be in Maelstrom. Tudor society looks upon the beggar poorly, seeing him as lazy and greedy and ill prepared to work for a living as every proper, upright, and industrious Christian ought. The state has legislated against the beggar many times, but beggars can obtain licenses to practise their ‘trade’. Such licenses can also be counterfeited. Even so, the law will often drive beggars out of a parish, or worse, punish them by placing them in the stocks, branding them, or have the gristle from their upper ears cut away as indication of their vagrancy. Further, as outsiders, beggars are rarely trusted and as strangers, can be blamed for the cause of manner of ills – diseases, thefts, and so on. That said, beggars can at times call upon the charity of the church, though the degree of help available will wax and wane… Another source of help is the Brotherhood, a fraternal organisation that provides shelter and support to beggars in good stead, but will call upon its brethren to aid in its criminal activities. What this means is that beggars must live by their wiles as well as by their ‘tricks’ of the trade in order to earn them a crust and they need to succeed without being obvious about it. 

Essentially, what this addresses is the issue at the heart of the Beggars Companion – why would the players should choose to play in campaign involving beggars. Besides the detail provided with each Living, the Knack assigned to each Living serves as a ‘roleplaying’ hook, not only something that the character can do and do well, but something that needs to be roleplayed. Not just roleplayed by the player as part of the game, but actually roleplayed by the character in the game in order to do well. Thus the challenge of playing a beggar this historical setting is only extended. Further challenges of increasing difficulty are presented in the Styles of Play, beginning with the Theatrical style that is much lighter in tone and better suited to one-off scenarios and short campaigns. This is followed by the default Historical setting, replete with filth, decay, depravity, and distrust, and then the Dark style, in which the lives of the beggar characters are under constant threat.

In addition to the Rogues Gallery, the Referee’s Section also includes a further Living. The Upright Man is a manipulator of both the beggar and the respectable, hiding behind his own façade of respectability that creates by being seen to work. Where most characters in Maelstrom have no more than two Livings, the Upright Man is a third Living, one to be taken after a previous profession and then life as a beggar. It can also be used as something for beggar characters to aspire to. ‘The Long Road’ is a full scenario, much in the style of the adventure from the core rulebook for Maelstrom. Here the beggar characters follow not just a road, but also another beggar, Old Ted. Once an Upright Man, it is believed that Old Ted amassed a small fortune so as members of the Brotherhood, the characters have been tasked to keep their eye on him. Suddenly he wanders off. Where could he be going, and why? Understandably, this is a linear affair, although given the subject matter of this supplement, it is a pity that the adventure only really allows the player characters the opportunity to practise their knacks at the beginning. Rounding out the supplement are a set of appendices that cover the physical hardships of being a beggar, more herbs, and a bibliography.

The Beggars Companion is a reasonably well presented book. It is lightly illustrated and although it is an easy read, it could have done with a closer edit in places. Overall, this is an interesting little book that nicely expands upon an aspect of Tudor England and Maelstrom. It would be nice to see it supported with more adventures and even a campaign, but in the meantime, there is plenty of detail and background material for the Referee to bring to his game.

Sunday 3 November 2013

Halloween Horror 2

Since 2003, the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs has been Chaosium, Inc.’s way of making other works available to players of both Call of Cthulhu and Basic RolePlay. Bar the printing, each monograph’s author is responsible for the writing, the editing, and the layout, so far the quality of entries in the series have varied widely and has led to some dreadful releases. Unfortunately, whilst Halloween Horror 2: Eight Horrors for One Special Night is far from dreadful in terms of both editing and layout, or indeed storytelling and writing, it is lacking with regard to all four aspects.

Halloween Horror 2 dates from 2006 and collates eight of the entries in Chaosium’s 2006 Halloween Adventure Contest, following on from the trio collected in the previous year’s Halloween Horror monograph. It presents three scenarios for the classic Call of Cthulhu period of the 1920s, three for the contemporary period of Cthulhu Now, one for the contemporary period of Secrets of Japan, and one for Cthulhu Dark Ages. The anthology would be followed by Halloween Horror Returns! in 2007 and then Bride of Halloween Horror in 2009.

The octet opens with Brandon Hanlan’s ‘Of Angels and Bones’, which is designed for two to four players and is set during the 1920s. Specifically it is set in the Illinois town of Totun in 1924 a year after the head of the Church of the Loving Saviour, Pastor Gene Pleate, was killed following a protest against the celebration of Halloween and then several years old corpses were discovered in his basement. The cause of their deaths could not be confirmed, let alone the circumstances, but the scandal was enough to drive his flock to disband. In the year since, almost nothing of note has happened in the town, although as Halloween approaches, strange lights have been seen in the skies nearby. Which is something of a problem, for ‘Of Angels and Bones’ suffers from a problem to all too many Call of Cthulhu scenarios – not enough of a hook to entice the investigators to well, investigate. This is not to say that there not uninteresting things to investigate and not uninteresting NPCs to interact with, but getting the investigators to Totun is an issue, as is the fact that the scenario’s actual climax and ending are extraneous. It feels as if the author felt that the ending was not strong enough and essentially came up with a variation of the town under siege by zombies. ‘Of Angels and Bones’ is a situation in search of a scenario…

‘The Devil’s Agents’ by Shawn Proctor is designed for a similarly sized group and is also set during the 1920s. It takes place in Lovecraft Country and casts the player characters, of which there are four pre-generated ones provided, as ne’er do wells and potential cultists devoted to Shub-Niggurath. Under the obedient sway of Simon, the cult leader, they are tasked with a number of assignments necessary to build towards Simon’s first great undertaking. This includes robbery, murder, and more, all acts that will attract not only the police, but also the attention of a very atypical investigator party. This situation presents a potentially interesting roleplaying challenge and is supported by a new Sanity mechanic that allows the Sanity of the player characters to dip far below zero. Unfortunately, the mechanic is not fully developed as it lacks an explanation of how Sanity is lost once it reaches zero, especially when it is gained for successfully undertaking actions that further the cult’s aims. This is not helped when the four pre-generated characters begin play with no Sanity and no suggestion given as to how this Sanity was lost. It should be noted that naming these after the cast and characters of the film Shaun of the Dead is not conducive to serious play. Again, there is an interesting set up and set of possibilities in this scenario, but both are hampered by poor development.

Brian Hensley's ‘Haunted Molesbury’ is a modern set Call of Cthulhu scenario, nominally set in the United Kingdom, but really in a small piece of the USA. It is specifically about Halloween or at least a Halloween event organised by the men and woman of RAF Molesbury, a US airbase in the United Kingdom. The investigators are the guests of a friend who is serving at the base and are asked to enjoy the festivities. The scenario is linear and limited, being primarily designed to get the investigators through and involved in the scarefest. This scenario is pleasingly straightforward and easy to run and as much as its Americana feels false, it is actually befits the scenario.

‘Way Down. In Ioway.’ by X.D. Eness is designed for three to six investigators and takes place in rural Iwo in the 1920s. It takes a radical approach to the Cthulhu Mythos and builds the scenario around two falsehoods. First, that the Mythos is nothing but a construct, and second, that its adherents can lured into a trap. Then it involves the player characters. They are employees at Viscill Countywide Press who are asked by the company’s owner, Sherwin Farne, to housesit for a week. Then strange things start happening, all culminating on the night of Halloween. The problem is that there is little that the player characters can do bar wait it out and then be told what is going on. There is little that they can find out themselves and this is bound to be an exercise in frustration upon the part of the players.

John Kennedy’s ‘The Smokestack Horror’ is set in the modern day and is set in a high school where there is a new report that a teacher has had a nervous breakdown, screaming about “…[K]ids being in league with worms…”. This is deemed sufficient reason enough for the investigators to visit the school and attempt to find out what is going on. The problem is that from almost any angle, this would be all but impossible. The investigators have to come up with a reason why they would on school grounds let alone be investigating given the school is unlikely to let anyone lacking any kind of authority just wander around. That said, once a means has been found, there are still plenty of human obstacles in the way before the investigators can unearth what is going on and the horror is reasonably handled.

The tone is turbo-charged by Oscar Rios and Walter Attridge in their modern set scenario, ‘Halloween Candy’. The investigators are agents of the newly formed Department of Homeland Security who on Halloween are suddenly given a new assignment – go to the town of Cogan Springs and determine who has been ordering rare compounds that can be combined to produce a dangerous drug and why. This is not so much a scenario of ‘Survival Horror’ as ‘Action Horror’, unashamedly and unsubtly so, one that would make for an all action ‘Night at the Opera’ for Pagan Publishing's Delta Green. That is if the investigators survive and the world does not end…

Simon Yee’s ‘Enter the Gaijin’ is also a modern set scenario, but one that makes use of the supplement Secrets of Japan rather than Cthulhu Now. It is thus a rare incidence of scenario using that supplement. Beginning with a series of home invasions and a bank robbery, it takes the investigators from Arkham, Massachusetts to Japan and suitable for investigators who are Federal agents, so as with ‘Halloween Candy’, would with Pagan Publishing’s Delta Green. Although short, it involves some solid investigation and unlike several of the other entries in Halloween Horror 2 does not overdo the horror.

Rounding the supplement is ‘A Ring of Toadstools’, a Cthulhu Dark Ages scenario by Oscar Rios. The scenario can take place anywhere in the British Isles, but has an obviously Celtic feel to it, involving as it does faery folklore. The investigators are visitors to Sogailraugh and so are invited to participate in the town’s All Hallows Festival. This gives them the opportunity to interact with the inhabitants before events take a strange turn. Noreen, the daughter of the local lord and lady is to be christened on the day, but her mother claims that she has been kidnapped! The player characters need to take all of folklore to heart if they are to find out what happened to Noreen and get her back. In some ways this feels like a Dungeons & Dragons scenario given its fantastical rather than Mythos elements, but in places it is no less horrifying and in comparison to many of the scenarios in the anthology, ‘A Ring of Toadstools’ is the most rounded out piece in the book. If there is an issue with the scenario, it is its lack of Mythos content and it is the lack of parallels drawn between the folklore and the Mythos. Otherwise, ‘A Ring of Toadstools’ at least brings Halloween Horror 2 to a satisfying close.

Physically, Halloween Horror 2 is simply laid out and simply uninteresting. The editing is imperfect, but not exceptionally so… Only ‘A Ring of Toadstools’ is illustrated, but again, not to any great standard. Then again, the standards for the Miskatonic University Library Association series of monographs is not high.

Unfortunately, there is little to really to distinguish Halloween Horror 2 from any other Miskatonic University Library Association Monograph. Too many of the scenarios need work, especially in their hooks, which at best makes Halloween Horror 2: Eight Horrors for One Special Night something for a Keeper to tinker with.