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

Friday 24 January 2014

Against the Slave Lords

It is curious to note that in 2013, a year when there was all but no official support for Dungeons & Dragons, the best support came in the form of nostalgia. Not the ‘new’ nostalgia as seen in the form of the Old School Renaissance, but actual honest to goodness proper nostalgia. Wizards of the Coast made available much of the official Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons back catalogue via dndclassics.com as well as publishing two collections of classic Advanced Dungeons & Dragons scenarios. The first was Dungeons of Dread, which compiled S1: Tomb of Horrors, S2: White Plume Mountain, S3: Expedition to the Barrier Peaks, and S4: The Lost Caverns of Tsojcanth. The second was Against the Slave Lords which collated the ‘Aerie’ or ‘A’ SeriesA1: Slavepits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade, A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, and A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. Both were presented as handsome hardback books, but what marks out Against the Slave Lords are the extras that are included in the book. 

The four scenarios began life as the 'AD&D Open Tournament at Gen Con XIII' in 1980. They would each be released in 1980 and 1981, before being collated as Scourge of the Slave Lords in 1986 as the middle part of the super campaign between T1–4 The Temple of Elemental Evil and GDQ1–7 Queen of the Spiders. Set in the World of Greyhawk, the series introduced the Slavers as threat in the setting and to do so, it expanded upon four scenarios that were originally designed to be played in a time frame of just four hours each. Included in each of the four scenarios were those tournament guidelines and a set of six pre-generated adventurers. This shows in the maps in particular, which either come in two versions, one with just those locations used in the tournament, the other with all of the locations; or with the tournament sections marked within the larger map given for the full scenario. 

Designed for play by a party of adventurers of fourth to seventh level, the ‘A’  Series begins with A1: Slavepits of the Undercity. For the past four years, the towns and villages along the coast of the Sea of Gearnet have been beset by the raids of slavers. In response the local lords hire a band of adventurers to investigate and put an end to this menace. An escaped slave has identified a ruined temple in the city of Highport in the Pomarj as one of the stops on the slave trade trail and as the scenario opens, the heroes find themselves standing outside a secret entrance to this temple – which they learned about from an escaped slave – ready to penetrate its dilapidated halls and uncover the first secrets of the Slave Lords. The scenario consists of the ruined temple above ground and the re-purposed sewers beneath it. The ruins above ground are split into two sections, one half of the temple unused (though parts are still patrolled by Orcs), the other half a reworked temple. Below the sewers have been extended into a nest of ant-men and seemingly endless pits of stinking, fermenting refuse.

There is a fundamental flaw with A1: Slavepits of the Undercity, at least as far as the non-tournament version is concerned. The tournament version is a straightforward affair, not to say linear and the accompanying maps reflect this. The non-tournament version is not quite as straightforward and expands greatly upon the rooms and ruins of the temple. In the process, what both the text and the maps lack are connections between various areas of the temple. For example, one of the new areas, currently home to a pair of basilisks, has been blocked off by a brick wall and the text does not describe how it can be accessed. Similarly, as drawn, the non-tournament map of the temple does not show a means by which a party can go from the abandoned area on the one side to the actual temple on the other without exiting the temple complex and walking round the outside to another entrance. Which effectively defeats the initial use of stealth to gain access. This is one element of A1: Slavepits of the Undercity that the DM will need to address before running the scenario.

Overall, A1: Slavepits of the Undercity is a serviceable dungeon/adventure. Given its origins as a tournament scenario, it cannot avoid being linear in structure and play. Nevertheless, it does in places present some challenging tactical situations, most notably the ‘Main Slave Chamber’ where the adventurers must fight over the tops of the slave cages with great care or be tipped into the cages below. 

The opening of the second scenario in the series, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade, has a familiar feel to it. The adventurers find themselves outside a slavers’ base, ready to sneak inside using a route provided by an escaped slave. Despite the repetitive nature of this beginning, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade has a much more rounded feel to it as well more depth and detail. Following a map found below the temple in Highport, the adventurers have located a second slavers outpost, a hillfort deep in the Drachensgrab Hills. The stockade is only a stopping point upon the route used by the slave caravans, so if the adventurers are to learn more, they investigate what lies behind its walls and below its gatehouses and barracks.

In comparison to the first scenario in the series, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade is not only a more coherent adventure, it feels much as if the setting is alive. The stockade is heavily guarded and should its guards be alerted to the adventuring party’s intrusion, they will react accordingly. Much of the scenario is written to that end… What the adventure also includes are more tactical breakdowns of certain locations that give more detail and help support the actions of the various NPCs described in the room entries.

Where A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade disappoints by modern standards, is in its lack of narrative beyond the guards’ possible reaction to the intruding adventurers – at least initially. A closer reading of the scenario reveals that there are events going on at the stockade beyond the arrival of the adventurers, in particular the poor relations between the head of the stockade and her deputy. This may well influence how the DM runs the adventure, but being buried deep in the adventure the information is not as useful. Were the scenario not appearing in reprint, then arguably another edit would have moved this information to the front of the module so as to alert the DM. 

Another issue with A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade is that it does not address solutions to situations that do not involve combat. Much of this is due to ‘A’ Series’ origins as tournament adventures, but there are situations where non-combat solutions should have been given. Most notable of these is an encounter with a ‘Haunt’, the restless spirit of someone who died before it could complete a now unfinished task. What the adventure never really addresses is how this task can be finished except through combat. Still, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade is a solid affair with more to it than A1: Slavepits of the Undercity.

If the tournament origins of the ‘A’ Series have been evident in the first two parts, they are explicit in A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords. Following various slaving parties has led the adventurers deep into the Drachensgrab Mountains where the parties seem to disappear into one mountain… After many days’ search they have located a possible tunnel entrance to the ‘Aerie of the Slave Lords’. These tunnels, or rather this tunnel, basically links a series of linear rooms that feel as if they have been written to deplete the player characters of their resources. This feeling is only exacerbated when the designer does exactly the same for this adventure’s third part.

The adventure’s second part is actually quite interesting and involves far more than combat. Once the adventurers have made their way through the first series of rooms, they find themselves in the ‘Aerie of the Slave Lords’, an island located in a lake that fills the caldera of an extinct volcano. Nearby is where the Slave Lords conduct the slave trade – Suderham, the City of the Nine, above which stands below their fortress, Drachen Keep. The latter is the party’s intended destination, but a direct assault would be foolish, so they must search for an alternate means of entry. In this they have the aid of several other agents of their employers who suddenly appear from nowhere to give the adventurers clues as where they should go… This requires some investigation upon the part of the adventurers and interaction with the inhabitants of the city, which is itself fully detailed.

In the tournament version of A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, this section is all but skipped over. In the full version of the scenario, it is but a necessity, providing a welcome change of pace between the grinding trudge of the beginning and ending dungeons that make up the scenario. In terms of organisation, it would have helped if the information about the agents had been given at the start of the section covering the city. Similarly, it would have been helpful if the information explaining the nature of first dungeon had been given before the start of that dungeon and not at the start of the section detailing Suderham. Then of course, there is that ending...

Now at last we come to the ‘A’ Series’ pièce de résistance, A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords. It opens in a most spectacular fashion, with the adventurers lying in the dark without all of their equipment. They have been cast into the caves below the island and must gather the means to aid their escape as well as find their way out. At the end of the tournament version of A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords, the adventurers are captured, although in the non-tournament version, their defeating the slave lords is allowed for. Still, if they are cast into the caves below the island, the players will need to be ingenious with what they do have to hand if their characters are to escape. There are plenty of opportunities to gather the means to arm themselves, not all of them involving combat, such as negotiating by very odd means with a tribe of intelligent fungi, the Myconoids.

A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords also comes with a timing mechanism, or at least an implied one, both the ‘dungeon’ and the island being beset by earthquakes which prove to be evidence of an volcanic eruption once the adventurers are free of the caves. This adds a further air of desperation to the adventure as the inhabitants of Suderham attempt to flee the island. The adventurers must find their way through these frantic islanders if they are finally to confront the surviving slave lords on the harbour front.

The issue at the core of the scenario is that the adventure begins with the player characters having their equipment confiscated. Putting aside the fact that the players  never like their ‘toys’ being taken away – let alone disliking getting captured in the first place, one of the challenges to this adventure is that Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition is not a game really designed to be played without such equipment and magic items. Later iterations of the RPG possess more flexibility with regard to such a situation, though they might make the situation in this adventure less of a challenge. That said, advice is given on handling both the dark environment of the caves and the discoveries necessary for the characters to equip themselves, but this advice does begin with a surprisingly harsh admonition. A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords is the most mature of the original quartet of scenarios in Against the Slave Lords, pushing at the boundaries of what Advanced Dungeons & Dragons was capable of.

What A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords really provides is a rousing and memorable conclusion to the ‘A’ Series and thus Against the Slave Lords. It is the most focused and most effectively executed of the quartet and the least hampered by the tournament format of the four. 

Of course, whilst Against the Slave Lords primarily consists of the reprint of the ‘A’ Series modules, the compilation actually consists of more than this. To begin with, it includes a new foreward for each of the four modules, written by the original authors. These add an interesting retrospective on each, but the main addition to Against the Slave Lords is A0: Danger at Darkshelf Quarry. Designed for characters of first to third level, this is the first official scenario to be written for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons since 1999, it is intended to lay the groundwork for the ‘A’ Series. It takes place in Nyrond, further along the coast of the Sea of Gearnat in quarry above the village of Darkshelf. Although the quarry continues to be productive, of late, strange noises have been heard from within its depths, a third shift works the quarry in secret, half-eaten bodies have found in the nearby river, and slavers have operating in the area. These goings on are enough for the head of the village to hire adventurers to investigate.

Now there are not the adventurers as suggested for the tournament play-through of the ‘A’ Series, indeed A0: Danger at Darkshelf Quarry is not designed for tournament play nor does it come with pre-generated adventurers. Shorn of the tournament format, the scenario is a more rounded affair and given much more detail. It also lacks the built-in starting point that the other scenarios all have, so the adventurers have a freer hand in how they approach the quarry and its mystery and workforce. This a solid adventure and a decent introduction to the ‘A’ Series campaign.

If there is a weakness to the inclusion of A0: Danger at Darkshelf Quarry, it is that it only lays the groundwork for the events of the ‘A’ Series rather than linking to it. Being written for levels one through three, it leaves something of a gap of two or three levels before the player characters are suitable to tackle the next four parts. Unfortunately this gap is not addressed in Against the Slave Lords.

Physically, Against the Slave Lords is well presented. The reprint of the original ‘A’ Series is clean and tidy, although in retrospective, it is a shame that none of the art in A1: Slavepits of the Undercity, A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade, and A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords really serves these three scenarios. In comparison, the art in A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords is far more useful and overall, the layout and style of the series’ final part is cleaner and feels more competent. In retrospect it would have been nice if the four modules themselves had been accompanied by the type of illustration found in the ‘S’ Series that the DM could show to his players. To some extent, the fan illustrations at the end of Against the Slave Lords could be put to that purpose. 

One physical element missing from Against the Slave Lords are the original covers of the ‘A’ Series. They are present on the cover slip, as is the mockup of what the cover of A0: Danger at Darkshelf Quarry would have looked like had it been published in 1980. The inclusion of the latter is a nice touch, but being a separate item, the cover slip can easily be lost. It would have been better had this been presented as the back of the book rather than as a slip. The cover slip is also the only use of colour throughout Against the Slave Lords.

Of the ‘A’ Series itself, I never played through the whole of the campaign, only through A1: Slavepits of the Undercity. I did purchase A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords, but at the time was not impressed by it. I would later locate a copy of Scourge of the Slave Lords. Thirty years on and my opinion of the ‘A’ Series has changed. Certainly the fourth part of the series is much better than I recall, whereas the third part is particularly disappointing. In coming back to the ‘A’ Series thirty years on, Against the Slave Lords proved to be far from an engaging read. Perhaps that is because such modules are not designed to be read for pleasure, but studied; perhaps my reading and gaming tastes have changed too much, the question remains, would I play or run Against the Slave Lords after such a long gap? The simple answer is, if I were to do so, it would not be with Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition or indeed, any version of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. It might be with D&D Next, which the cover slip says that Against the Slave Lords is compatible with, then again, it might be fun to play this with a set of rules with a sense of energy, such as Pelgrane Press’ 13th Age.

The ‘A’ Series has long been out of print, so having it available once again is a welcome sight, especially when it comes as a sturdy hardback as Against the Slave Lords does. As uneven as the four scenarios are in the series – A2: Secret of the Slavers Stockade and A4: In the Dungeons of the Slave Lords are certainly better than A1: Slavepits of the Undercity and A3: Assault on the Aerie of the Slave Lords – the series should be of interest to the ‘Old School Renaissance’ and anyone coming back to Dungeons & Dragons with the release of D&D Next in 2014. The addition of A0: Danger at Darkshelf Quarry is equally as welcome, although a bridging scenario between it and the rest of the series would have been a reasonable addition. Still, the flexibility and choice of Dungeons & Dragons-style RPGs available means that Against the Slave Lords can be run and played using a variety of different RPGs, making it accessible and playable even thirty years on.

Friday 17 January 2014

The Second Doctor

The latest supplement for Cubicle Seven Entertainment’s Ennie-award winning Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space roleplaying game is The Second Doctor Sourcebook (though this review appears almost at the same time as The Third Doctor Sourcebook comes to print and The Fourth Doctor Sourcebook is announced). It continues the publisher’s celebration of Doctor Who’s fiftieth anniversary begun by the The First Doctor Sourcebook by delving back into the show’s past to explore perhaps that most pivotal of incarnations of the Doctor. For without the role being recast with Patrick Troughton the series would never have been kept going by the concept of Regeneration. In addition, the second Doctor’s tenure also introduced us to the Sonic Screwdriver plus the Time Lords and the Doctor’s home of Gallifrey as well as pointing towards the creation of UNIT, the agency that will figure so strongly in the adventures of the Third Doctor. Thus The Second Doctor Sourcebook prefigures much to come that is covered in both The Time Traveller’s Companion and Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook, the previous two sourcebooks from Cubicle Seven Entertainment.

The Second Doctor Sourcebook takes us from the Second Doctor’s first encounter with the Daleks in his first adventure in The Power of the Daleks to his confrontation with the renegade Time Lord known as the War Chief and his subsequent trial by the Time Lords in The War Games. Apart from a visit to the Scottish past in The Highlanders, the Second Doctor’s adventures primarily take place in the near future, the Doctor coming to the aid of mankind as it tries to survive ecological upheaval and numerous invasion attempts. He and his companions face foes again and again, not just the Daleks and the Cybermen, but also the Ice Warriors and the Yeti. The Second Doctor Sourcebook presents an opportunity for the Doctor – or indeed, the player character Time Lord and his Companions not to be mere wanderers in the Fourth Dimension, but to face evil and actively intervene to save others. To visit the Himalayas and get lost in the tunnels of the London Underground while menaced by the Yeti; to discover what the Daleks are doing in 1866 and what they want the Doctor to isolate; and to foil the machinations of Salamander, the Mexican scientist who is the spitting image of the Doctor!

The book is essentially broken into two parts. The first introduces us to Troughton’s portrayal and explores his character, his Companions, the difficulties of his travels during this period, and the common themes and ideas. Most notably these include singular adventures rather than campaigns, adventures set at isolated bases ripe for attack or invasion, the evolution of a world government dealing with the issues of arms control, overpopulation, and ecological catastrophe, and of course, evil that must be fought. In comparison with the First Doctor, the Second Doctor is more aware of the threats that he might face out in the universe and is thus more capable of dealing with the dangers of his tenure. Although the TARDIS remains as cantankerous and as difficult to pilot as ever, the Second Doctor has least access to his 500 Year Diary, his Sonic Screwdriver Mark 1, and of course, his Recorder!

Two notable issues are addressed in dealing with Second Doctor adventures. The first is how run them without muddling up the timeline. The solution given is to run them after the Doctor is found guilty at his trial and before his sentence is carried out by having him work for the Celestial Intervention Agency. This set-up would allow for a good mix of Companions too, whether official or player created. Indeed, such Companions of either type could come from any time period. The second issue is that of the timeline of the Second Doctor’s adventures, many of which take place in the place in the very near future. Of course, this is a future of the 1960s, so already looks odd by the twenty-first century. The solution is to either adjust the stories and feel to our timeline or be authentic as possible.

As well as the stats and write-up for the Second Doctor himself, The Second Doctor Sourcebook includes stats and write-ups for all of his companions. The most notable changes in the Doctor are his pacifism (reflected in his Code of Conduct), though not all of his Companions share this attitude and are handy in a fight – Ben and Jamie in particular. To support the new Companion and the guidelines for creating Time Lord and Companion player characters suitable for the period, The Second Doctor Sourcebook includes a slough of new Traits such as 'Epicurean Tastes' and 'Menacing'. Many of these are taken from The Time Traveller’s Companion and Defending the Earth: The UNIT Sourcebook. These are joined by descriptions and write-ups of the Second Doctor’s major foes – the Cybermen, the Daleks, the Great Intelligence, and the Ice Warriors. One oddity covered in these write-ups is why the Doctor meets the Model 2, Model 3, and Model 4 in the order that he does...

The second and longest part of The Second Doctor Sourcebook is further divided into chapters that travel chronologically in order through each of the Second Doctor’s adventures. For each of these there is a synopsis followed by a guide to running the adventure and a listing of any appropriate characters, aliens, and gadgets. The guide to running each adventure is not a straightforward adaptation, but rather a discussion of themes and ideas inherent to the adventure. So for example, with The Tomb of the Cybermen the author draws parallels with pulp serials and how the Cybermen are looking for suitable successors (almost like an ancient Mummy come back to life!), while with The Abominable Snowmen, the author highlights its Lovecraftian feel. Rounding the entry for each story is a selection of Further Adventures hooks that could be run as possible sequels.

Physically, The Second Doctor Sourcebook is a slim hard back book, suitably illustrated throughout with black and white photographs – though it will be the last to be done in black and white. As fitting the switch to colour of the series, The Third Doctor Sourcebook will also be in colour. The volume feels solidly researched and well written, but if there is a downside to the book, it is that not going to appeal or be of use to everyone, and that is going to be an issue with each of the subsequent volumes in the series. After all, almost everyone has their favourite Doctor and also their least favourite Doctor, and that may be reflected in the Doctor Sourcebooks that they purchase. With The Second Doctor Sourcebook, the adventures presented here are more dynamic, more knowing, and more exciting than those of The First Doctor Sourcebook, and as such foreshadow the style of adventures to come right up to, and including new Who.

As much as many of the Second Doctor’s adventures are unavailable to watch and will thus be unfamiliar to all but the dedicated of fans, there is a familiarity to the style and feel of the adventures detailed in The Second Doctor Sourcebook. That of visiting a place, being mistaken for someone else or intruders before investigating and getting involved in some kind of threat or mystery. What this means is that the contents of The Second Doctor Sourcebook are more accessible and potentially easier to use than those of The First Doctor Sourcebook. That though seems in keeping with the character of the Second Doctor compared to the First Doctor and just serves to show how both are well served by their respective First and Second Doctor Sourcebooks.

Saturday 11 January 2014

Nitrates & Nasties

From Dread Albion to the Balkans, the 'Backlot Gothic' stretches across a timeless region of Europe reached only by train, but which can only be crossed on foot or by horse and carriage. It is home to a backwards people, many superstitious, others ignorant, who live under the shadow of the vampire, the werewolf, and the man of visionary, but misguided science. Cousin to the Backlot Gothic is the Backlot Jungle, which stretches from the Amazon to Asia via Africa, and although its creatures change from lion to tiger to jaguar as the continent dictates, the frogs will always sound like those found in Southern California.

For Hollywood is the inspiration for the Backlot Jungle and the Backlot Gothic both, the two being the setting for Shadows Over Filmland, an anthology for Trail of Cthulhu. Penned by Ken Hite and Robin D Laws, the anthology draws from the horror movies of the Desperate Decade. The authors have taken films such as Dracula, Frankenstein, King Kong, The Mummy, The Wolf Man, White Zombie, and others, and used them to give the Cthulhu Mythos of stories like ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’ and ‘The Case of Charles Dexter Ward’, a Silver Nitrate wash. Or indeed, infuse the classic creations of the Universal Monsters films with the sanity debilitating effect that is the Cthulhu Mythos. The result is an otherworldly, gothic conceit that the Keeper will use to draw his investigators into the twelve eerie, sometimes grotesque reels presented on the screen in Shadows Over Filmland.

The supplement is essentially three sections. The first is Hite’s essay exploring the parallels between Lovecraft’s fiction and the horror films of Universal Studios and RKO. Despite Lovecraft’s own dismissal of these films, Hite finds more than enough to support the core conceit behind Shadows Over Filmland, looking in turn at the vampire, the werewolf, the mummy and so on. Thus, both The Mummy and the stories ‘He’, ‘The Terrible Old Man’, ‘The Picture in the House’, ‘The High House in the Mist’,’ ‘Dreams in the Witch-House’, and ‘The Thing on the Doorstep’ all make use of the concept of the immortal monster-magus as much as The Mummy and ‘Cool Air’ and ‘The Horror at Red Hook’ all possess a certain fascination with the Oriental and the exotic. Having established the parallels, Hite goes on to explain the differences between the Cthulhu Mythos and the Silver Nitrate Mythos, primarily the emphasis upon sexuality, its obsession with psychology, fascination with corpses and their mutilation, the sublimation of the Desperate Decade’s economic fears into supernatural ones, the mocking of God’s good order, and so on…

The second section explores the more mundane elements that make up the Backlot Gothic. Whether the blackest of forests or catacombs and castles most sinister, hermits or gypsies, butlers or laboratory assistants, these elements emulate the stock characters and locations where the movies of Shadows Over Filmland are shot. Complete with numerous examples and advice on handling both the motifs and the accents to found in the Backlot Gothic, their inclusion highlights both an issue with Shadows Over Filmland and its intent. The issue is that the regular use of this stock footage can easily become a cliché, but the intent is that is Shadows Over Filmland not meant to be used as a campaign. That is, the Backlot Gothic is somewhere to visit on an irregular basis, a fact further supported by the absence of any advice on running the dozen scenarios herein as a campaign. Rounding out this section is a number of story hooks that the Keeper can develop into full scenarios in addition to those in the book’s third section.

Shadows Over Filmland’s third section is its longest and is devoted to the investigators’ individual trips to the Backlot Gothic in the form of a dozen scenarios. Of these twelve, Ken Hite pens five – ‘Death Across the Nile’, ‘Dreams of Dracula’, ‘Lord of the Jungle’, ‘The Black Chateau’, and ‘White Bokor’; Robin D Laws pens six – ‘Dr Grave Dust’, ‘The Green Ape’, ‘The Night I Died’, ‘The Preserve’, ‘The Non-Euclidean Man’, and ‘Under a Werewolf Moon’; and together, they co-author ‘The Final Reel’. The degree to which the Mythos is employed in these dozen varies from one scenario to the next, so that one scenario might be a more Universal Studio feature than a Lovecraftian submission to Weird Tales. That said, those of the scenarios that are more Lovecraftian would work well in a standard Trail of Cthulhu campaign with little or no modification.

The dozen opens in classic fashion not in the Backlot Gothic per se, but Backlot Egypt with ‘Death Across the Nile’ and a tale of possession down the ages. This scenario will be familiar to most gamers, right down to taking place at an archaeological dig, but this does not mean that it is not well done and that it is anything other than engaging. There is a twist or two to the tale, but it is otherwise a straight forward affair. ‘White Bokor’ is written as a sequel to White Zombie, the 1932 film starring Bela Lugosi and is intentionally straight forward, if not linear in nature. In it the investigators find themselves on the Backlot Island, either washed ashore or following up on earlier clues, where the only place to go is a castle on the Mountain of the Dead! The problem is that it is influenced by the films of George Romero and whilst the investigators are faced by a zombie herd, they are the ones being herded and it feels all too heavy handed. Given that its title is ‘Dr Grave Dust’, it is no surprise that the third scenario is inspired by Lovecraft’s ‘Herbert West – Reanimator’. An epidemic of grave robberies has struck the Backlot Gothic, and the investigators are asked to uncover those responsible. The culprit is quickly highlighted in what is otherwise a surprisingly combat orientated scenario. Again this is another straight forward scenario, but what is interesting is how the culprit’s motive has been taken a step further beyond an interest in reanimating the dead.

The conceit of the Backlot Gothic in ‘Dreams of Dracula’ is that no one has heard of Dracula and Bram Stoker never penned the eponymous novel, which of course flies in the face of player knowledge. Set in Backlot Albion, perhaps London, perhaps Whitby, the investigators are asked by a friend to help him with a queer situation – both his wife and her friend have been struck down by fever and anaemia, brought by nightmares! This is a languorous, atmospheric affair, one that apes the England-set sequences from Bram Stoker’s novel, almost as an act of misdirection. The author’s use of the Cthulhu Mythos, hidden as it is behind the apparent vampire Mythos, nicely and effectively underpins the scenario’s misdirection. As ‘The Green Ape’ opens, the investigators find themselves ready to go ashore and brave the Backlot Jungle on the remote island of Nambu in the South Pacific. This is a trip back into the prehistoric past, much like the movie that inspired it – King Kong, and much like any trek into the unknown, the scenario become something of a test of endurance, although this is balanced by a Pulp sensibility. The next adventure is again set in the Backlot Jungle and is again something of a test of endurance, but more intentionally so. ‘The Lord of the Jungle’, which draws from James Whale’s 1940 film, Green Hell, and Lovecraft’s ‘Facts Concerning The Late Arthur Jermyn And His Family’ also continues the previous scenario’s Pulp sensibility, but this slips away as the investigators penetrate further and further into Africa’s dark heart to locate a lost city and uncover its secrets. 

Val Lewton’s films for RKO from the 1940s – leaping a decade ahead than is the norm for Trail of Cthulhu – are the inspiration for ‘The Night I Died’. Once again a friend calls upon the investigators for their help. His fiancée has fallen into melancholia and appears to sleep walk, even going so far as claim that she is a ghost! Set in an Urban Backlot, ‘The Night I Died’ is another atmospheric piece, but one that comes with notes on how to make it more of a Mythos influenced experience than it is. Inspired by Lovecraft’s ‘From Beyond’ as much by The Invisible Man, ‘The Non-Euclidean Man’ brings the investigators to a scientific symposium hosted by the Pneumametric Society and face to death from beyond – though initially not their own. 

‘The Black Chateau’ has the most modern feel of the dozen scenarios in the anthology, at least artistically. It evokes a feeling of stark, nightmarish horror in entrapping the investigators within an imaginatively contemporary version of the haunted house to very pleasing effect. Much like the earlier ‘Dreams of Dracula’, a familiar monster appears in ‘Under a Werewolf Moon’. Its use is not as imaginative as that of Dracula in ‘Dreams of Dracula’, but this is nevertheless far from unplayable. The penultimate conceit in the anthology takes a concept from the Universal Horror films and sets it on the investigators. ‘The Preserve’ unites three of the antagonists from previous entries in Shadows Over Filmland and lets them take revenge on the investigators in what is a Pulp affair suitably located towards both the end of the book and the end of a Backlot Gothic campaign.

The conceit culminates in Backlot Hollywood – or is it the ‘real’ Hollywood? – with the appropriately named ‘The Final Reel’. The investigators are called in by the Hays Office to look into Capitol Pictures’ production of a new horror film entitled Call of Cthulhu! Can they find cause to have this threat to American morals shut down, let alone uncover who exactly is sponsoring the film? Fittingly, this plays louche and loose with the Shadows Over Filmland canon to draw on several of the previous scenarios in the anthology, though such elements are not central to the plot. It is almost as if the investigators have stepped out of the collection’s previous films and into the studio… The scenario comes with several detailed NPCs around which the Keeper involves the investigation, though this is primarily a player-led affair. Should the investigators want to do more than just shut the film down and uncover the cult or cultists behind its production, then the Keeper will have to improvise the details himself. Otherwise, this is an entertaining climax to Shadows Over Filmland.

Physically, Shadows Over Filmland is a beautiful book. The layout is clean and tidy, and Jérôme Huguenin provides some excellent art. It is missing an index, but that is probably less of a problem since the book is unlikely to serve as a reference work. Slightly more problematic is the lack of maps since their inclusion might have aided the Keeper in certain scenarios.

The best of the dozen Shadows Over Filmland work effectively when their combination of the horror of the Cthulhu Mythos and the horror of the Universal Monsters counterbalance each other. Samples of the twelve that achieve this include ‘Dreams of Dracula’, ‘The Black Chateau’, and to an extent, ‘Under a Werewolf Moon’. The least effective scenarios are those that wander away from the Backlot Gothic or the Backlot Albion, primarily because the investigative process plays less of a role and because there is less player agency involved in them. Those in between these two poles are solidly written scenarios, though ‘White Bokor’ is perhaps too linear and too heavily scripted. The tone for most of the twelve is also well handled, for the most part maintaining a steady median between the Pulp and the Purist, sometimes advice being given for the Keeper should he want to adjust to one tone or another. 

As with any anthology, the contents of Shadows Over Filmland can easily be used as a series of one-shots. All are relatively short, offering at most two sessions’ worth of play. There is no particular order to the twelve scenarios, but certainly ‘The Preserve’ and ‘The Final Reel’ should be played after the previous ten. Many of the twelve would also work as additions to an on-going Trail of Cthulhu campaign, though the ‘The Preserve’ and ‘The Final Reel’ might stretch the credulity and tone of certain Keepers’ campaigns. The intended use of the anthology though is as a supplement to an existing campaign, the Backlot Gothic not being somewhere that the investigators should visit regularly. Indeed, there is such a dream-like quality to the scenarios that these twelve would work as a series of visits to a version of the Dreamlands influenced by the cinema of the Desperate Decade. However Shadows Over Filmland is used, it presents a diverting dozen that take the investigators deep into the Arcadian idyll of the Backlot Gothic suffused with the sinister and the malevolent behind which lurks the Cthulhu Mythos.

Saturday 4 January 2014

Your Zombie Primer

Zombies: A Hunter's Guide is an entry in Osprey Publishing's Osprey Adventures line of sourcebooks. To date the line includes Ken Hite's treatment of the Nazis' esoteric interests in The Nazi Occult, the truth behind the Templars in Graeme Davis' Knights Templar: A Secret History, and an examination of what the 'Greys' really want in We Will Destroy Your Planet: An Alien’s Guide to Conquering the Earth by David A McIntee. What each title in the line does is blend the fact and the fiction of their respective subject matters, but without providing either game mechanics or game stats - these the Game Master has to provide himself. Essentially, what each entry in the line is, is a systemless sourcebook, a background to which the Game Master adds the rules of his choice. Although an entry in the Osprey Adventures line, Zombies: A Hunter's Guide pre-dates the line, beginning life as a parody of the traditional history books that the publisher is better known for. Originally published in 2010, in 2013 it was reprinted as a deluxe edition and that is the version that is being reviewed here.

Take any number of treatments of the zombie, from The Walking Dead and The New Deadwardians to All Flesh Must Be Eaten and Zombicide, and the common theme between them is that the dead have arisen and civilisation as we know it is doomed... Not so in Zombies: A Hunter's Guide. It posits a world in which zombie uprisings are a known threat, in which Zombie Wars have been fought by military units, in which the zombie hunter is a recognised profession, and in which the zombi phenomenon is common enough to be the subject of academic study. Once myth and conjecture, the number of zombie outbreaks have increased year by year since the end of World War 2, despite the attempts of numerous governments to cover them up. Zombies: A Hunter's Guide is also an actual book that could be purchased in this alternate Earth, so barring the suggested 'Further Reading, Watching, and Gaming', the contents of this book can be accessed by both the GM and his players - and even referred to during play!

Over the course of several chapters, Zombies: A Hunter's Guide presents everything that the prospective zombie hunter will need to know in order to combat the corpse challenge. Over the course of several chapters, the fictional author of Zombies: A Hunter's Guide examines the origins of the zombies, the types of zombies that might be encountered, their strengths and weaknesses, and not only how to recognise them, but also eliminate them. These include necromantic zombies, voodoo zombies, Nazi zombies, revenants, atomic zombies, viral zombies, zombie masters, and viral hounds and zombified animals. Other chapters cover the matter of zombie hunters themselves, as well as zombie hunter weapons and equipment, and zombie hunter tactics.

In describing these various members of the corpse cortège and the means to combat them, the author draws deeply on the pop culture of zombies and the history of that pop culture. The combined effect of this is to make the contents of Zombies: A Hunter's Guide very familiar, for example, the island of Haiti is given as the home of the Voodoo zombie, Wade Davis exposed the secrets of the Voodoo zombie in his The Serpent & The Rainbow, and Francois "Papa Doc" Duvalier used Voodoo and zombies to keep himself in power as president of Haiti. So far, so good, but what Zombies: A Hunter's Guide does is add elements of a secret history. For example, the USA sent the US Marines in not to keep the peace in 1915 after the assassination of the president, but to engage in a war against the threat represented by zombies. Of course, Haitian refugees and immigrants have since brought Voodoo and Voodoo zombies to America...

It does this over and over with each type of zombie. For example, both the Miskatonic University and the Bodleian Library are known centres for 'Necromantic and Animate Necrology Studies', and the best-known revenant, a particular type of zombie that is driven to perform a particular task, is William Bonnet, better known as 'Billy the Kid'. Which is why his grave is caged off! For the Game Master and his players there are organisations to join, such as 'Bureau 9' (founded by Allan Pinkerton during the American Civil War), the Vatican's Corpus Mortuambulanticum, and the mercenary unit,Command: The Blue Unit. Also included are discussions of the contemporary weapons and tactics needed to fight zombies in general.

Physically, Zombies: A Hunter's Guide is a slim hardback. It is well written and as you would expect with an Osprey Publishing book, it is well presented with a good mix of full colour and black and white artwork. If there is an issue with the book it is the options given in 'Further Reading, Watching, and Gaming' for gaming are all war games and board games. There is nothing wrong in the choices given and none of them are surprising given that war gamers purchase Osprey Publishing titles, but no role playing games are suggested, which is a major omission. Certainly, All Flesh Must Be Eaten deserved a place on the list of suggestions.

At its gaming core, the concept behind Zombies: A Hunter's Guide is a world in which zombies are a known threat and outbreaks are dealt with by sanctioned organisations as well as the foolish amateur. This is an incredibly easy set-up to do for the RPG of your choice -- Savage Worlds from Pinnacle Entertainment Group and Evil Hat Productions' recent FATE Core would work very well with the setting material presented in Zombies: A Hunter's Guide. Lightly drawn -- after all, who needs depth when dealing with the cadaver cavalcade? -- Zombies: A Hunter's Guide gives a juicy setting that is easy to add the rules to.