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Friday 28 March 2014

The Unforgiven

I begin this review with disclaimer. I edit books for Lamentations of the Flame Princess—not all of them, but enough to explain that I am involved with the publisher before I begin a review of one of its latest books, Forgive Us. I was not involved in the publication of Forgive Us, whereas I was involved in the publication of Scenic Dunnsmouth. Understandably, I am not reviewing Scenic Dunnsmouth, but you can read a review of it here. In the meantime, I feel qualified to review Forgive Us, a new scenario for use with Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying and other ‘Old School’ fantasy roleplaying games.

Written and illustrated by Kelvin Green, Forgive Us – Being A Chronicle of the Events Surrounding the Mysterious Disappearance of the Notorious Criminal Gang Known as the Tenebrous Hand. And Other Stories. is written for a party of characters of fourth level and above. It actually consists of three scenarios—‘Forgive Us’, ‘In Heaven, Everything is Fine’, and ‘Death and Taxes’. All three take place in the year 1625, in Norwich, a city that has grown prosperous from the manufacture of textiles. Thus unlike most Old School fantasy RPGs and in line with Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ recent releases—Better Than Any Man, Death Love Doom, The Magnificent Jan Van Ooms, and Tales of the Scarecrow, the trilogy is set during early modern period and does involve the use of firearms. None of the three adventures are connected and there is no advice as to how to connect them, although reasons are given for involving the player characters in each. One oddity is that only the first scenario, ‘Forgive Us’, is mentioned in the back cover blurb. A map of Norwich accompanies the book.

History tells us that Norwich was struck by the plague in 1625, but ‘Forgive Us’ gives an alternative to this outbreak of the Black Death. The scenario revolves around the activities of the Tenebrous Hand, a band of thieves who have grown so successful preying on the activities of Norwich’s rich merchants that it has taken over a single block of buildings in the city. Now something curious has occurred—it appears to be locked up and deserted. Certainly those who work in the legitimate businesses based in the block appear not to have gone into work of late.

Which depending upon the motivations of the player characters, is convenient—if they want to rob the Tenebrous Hand, or inconvenient—if they need to contact someone inside. Once the characters have gained access, the various businesses and buildings under the thieves’ protection are mapped out in some cartographic detail. The Referee will need to make up the particulars of each room as he goes, for only the most information is alluded to in the text.

In presenting an exploration of these buildings, the author presents a ‘dungeon bash’, but a ‘dungeon bash’ in which almost nothing happens and which feels all the more natural for not actually being set in a dungeon. It takes its cue here from Lamentations of the Flame Princess’ inaugural scenario, Death Frost Doom, being primarily driven by the players’ curiosity and the adventure’s presentation by the Referee. This is not to say that the scenario is without incident, but to an extent, the players will need to work hard to reach them. When they occur, they are quite, quite nasty…! There is every chance that the scenario will go wrong for the player characters, especially if it plays out like the movies that the author draws upon for inspiration.

‘Forgive Us’ is followed by two shorter scenarios, each suitable for single sessions. In ‘In Heaven, Everything is Fine’ something is not quite right in the village of Ashmanhaugh. The player characters travel there because they have heard that it is haunted or perhaps because they are looking for someone. There is, of course, nothing untoward in the village—everyone seems happy, prosperous, and pleased to see the characters. Then strange things seem to happen and the characters feel unwell. Does the strange tower in the woods have something to do with this? Despite its short length, ‘In Heaven, Everything is Fine’ calls for more effort upon the part of the Referee. Especially if the player characters visit the strange tower in the woods.

Lastly, in ‘Death and Taxes’, the player characters are asked to attend the funeral of a friend. Oddly, their friend’s daughter has gone missing and tax collectors have arrived to collect unpaid revenue that their friend should have paid. This is a short affair that easily slips in between other scenarios. 

Physically, Forgive Us is a pleasing black and buff book. The author not only writes the book, but is also its illustrator and cartographer. Not all of the artwork quite works, but the cartography is excellent, providing a level of detail that the Referee can work from to give descriptions of each—something that the text does not. This should not impede the experienced Referee though. If the editing needs a little tightening here and there, that is more an editor’s pedantry than anything that mars the book which is otherwise solidly presented.

What Forgive Us highlights are the parallels between Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying and Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay—particularly in the former’s aforementioned more recent releases set in the early modern age. After all, they share the same historical period, the same grim and gritty tone, and the same perilous sense of doom. Of course, it took an Englishman to bring these parallels to the fore. Thus it would be far from insurmountable for a GM to adapt the scenarios from Forgive Us to Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay—at least for the First and Second Editions of the game. Adapting Forgive Us to Fantasy Flight Games’ Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay Third Edition presents more of a problem. There is also the matter of Forgive Us’ English setting, as Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay never visited its British Isles analogue of Albion, but then any of the three scenarios in Forgive Us can easily be relocated to The Empire of the Old World.

Forgive Us would also work with another two British RPGs— one is Arion Games’ Maelstrom. It is set during the same period as the RPG and shares a little of the same tone, although its use of magic and monsters may be too over the top in comparison with Maelstrom’s restrained treatment of its outré elements. The other is Cakebread & Walton's Renaissance Deluxe, the Black Powder era RPG that covers the period between 1500 AD and 1800 AD.

Of the three scenarios in Forgive Us, it is the eponymous ‘Forgive Us’ that stands out. ‘In Heaven, Everything is Fine’ and ‘Death and Taxes’ are decent enough fillers, but ‘Forgive Us’ benefits from its detail and its scope being given the space. It presents a mysterious malodorous situation in a quietly entertaining fashion, punctuated by some short sharp shocks that work all the better for the scenario’s very ordinary setting. Overall, Forgive Us presents us with a trilogy of scenarios that are in keeping with the recent scenarios for Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplaying, but which are not authored by its publisher and are thus more like traditional scenarios and less belligerent towards the players.

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