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Saturday 26 September 2015

Retrospective: Starstone

For those that remember it, Starstone begins in October 1982 with White Dwarf #34. The highlight of the magazine was ‘Troubles at Embertrees’, a scenario by Paul Vernon that capped the author’s ‘The Town Planner’ series that had appeared in the previous three issues and served as a showcase for Starstone. Published in the same year, this further explored the setting presented in ‘Troubles at Embertrees’, known as the County of Starstone. Within a compact few pages, ‘Troubles at Embertrees’ described the village of Embertrees, it inhabitants and their motivations, as well as the troubles that best the settlement. The scenario was nicely detailed and for gamers of a certain age, very fondly remembered. Certainly the quality of the scenario was enough to pique the interest of the hobby when adverts—the first in same issue of White Dwarf as ‘Troubles at Embertrees’—and then reviews appeared for Starstone.

Published by Northern Sages, Starstone: a Medieval Fantasy Campaign is all but unique. Unlike in the USA, there were just the two independently published scenarios for use with fantasy roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, but not specifically Dungeons & Dragons or Advanced Dungeons & Dragons released in the UK. No Honour in Sathporte was one and Starstone was the other. This, of course, to avoid copyright infringement and the lack of license available from a notoriously litigious TSR, Inc., but the stats given in Starstone were simple enough to adapt to almost any fantasy RPG in 1982—and they still are.

Designed for five to eight beginning characters—though not beginning players, Starstone contains two complete scenarios, each comprised of dungeon, wilderness, and urban areas, plus an introductory adventure. The setting is the County of Starstone, a vassal region of the Kingdom of Vedra to its south. It is a hilly, bucolic region, best known for its gold mine and the death of Risten, the paladin who helped free the county from the grip of the evil sorceress, Daretta. The majority of its population consists of humans leavened by gnome villages and various dwarves who work at the gold mine. Notably, elves are rarely seen in Starstone. The county is currently under the rule of an appointed lord lieutenant after the death of Risten, the previous ruler, and the disappearance of Risten’s son. More recently, the Kingdom of Vedra’s war with its western neighbour, Toxandria, has forced the king to withdraw troops from the county, reducing the number of patrols and so leaving it vulnerable to incursions and attacks by forces—both humanoid and monstrous—from the Great Northern Waste.

It is against this background, plus a rash of disappearances—of both people and gold shipments, that the adventurers find themselves travelling north into the County of Starstone, working as caravan guards travelling north to the fishing port of Ristenby. This is the set up for the four-page introductory scenario, ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’, which due to a broken bridge, begins with the caravan being forced them to divert to the village of Longbottom Down and a night’s stay at the Lord Varmok inn. Unfortunately, in the morning, their employer is nowhere to be found. Discovering where he might have gone is relatively easy, but getting him back might be a problem. In some ways, ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’ is too straightforward an adventure, possibly even linear. It is in places too easy, but the foes the adventurers will face are tough—ghouls, a weakened vampire, and a comparatively high level ‘necromancer’—for a party of First Level characters. They will need to show caution and perhaps be methodical in their exploration rather than rushing into things if they are to survive.

Unfortunately, the transition from ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’ to ‘Sardkirk’ is poorly handled. For starters, the aftermath of ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’ is not detailed, but then the introduction to ‘Sardkirk’ reads like a jump cut combined with a punitive flashback, the latter involving very heavy taxes being levied on the adventurers! This has an ‘Old School’ feel, but not in a good way. 

In response, a guild of merchants, frustrated at the lord lieutenant's failure to deal with the issues that threaten the county, step forward and hire the adventurers on a retainer. In return the party is expected to investigate these issues and deal with whatever the cause might turn out to be—and pay a tithe to the guild on all found treasure in the process. So essentially, they go from a big tax to a small one, though there are benefits to having the merchants’ support. Their first task is to investigate a number of disappearances near the village of Sardkirk.

The second scenario itself, ‘Sardkirk’ concerns the Gnome village of Sardkirk and the disappearances in the surrounding countryside. The village is known for three things. First, its mine, a source of sard, a semi-precious carnelian-like stone that is worked into the second, the village’s distinctive pottery, and third,  it being the last resting place of Kelti, the Gnome deity/hero said to have fought his last battle there and thus has become a site of pilgrimage. Outwardly, Sardkirk is a pastoral idyll, but this is a village full of interrelated families, so it is not really a happy place—and not just because of the disappearances. Thus Sardkirk is rife with petty ambitions and jealousies—and this highlights one of the best aspects about Starstone, the effort made to detail the NPCs beyond their mere stats, to give the DM their motivations and reactions in a relatively simple fashion. So there is quite a lot going on in the village and this coupled with the table of events and visitors serves to bring the village and its inhabitants to life.

This effort is continued with the true threat to Sardkirk—‘The Broch Caverns’. This extensive dungeon and cave complex is home to three interconnected tribes of goblins that have not long returned to the area. Their activities are detailed over the course of the day, as are those of their guests. So far the tribes have been kept from simply attacking the village by the tribes’ backers, but various factions within the tribes chafe under this restriction, something that the adventurers can take an advantage of. In fact, it is probably best if they do, since this is a large—over a hundred locations, tough dungeon, especially if the party decides to simply assault its inhabitants. This is a dungeon that the party is likely to visit more than once, though if alerted the goblins will be prepared on subsequent visits.

Overall, this is an excellent dungeon with plenty of the campaign’s trademark detail and emphasis on investigation and interaction. In fact, both are crucial if the adventurers are to learn of ‘The Broch Caverns’. Again, much like ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’, the scenario suffers from a lack of discussion about the consequences of the adventurers’ actions.

The second scenario involves the investigation of another village—‘Dolgold’. This is home to Starstone’s Dwarven run gold mine, and although it has also seen its own rash of disappearances, the issue in this community is that it has divided into factions that have been set against each other. The old villagers hate the new villagers because they do not respect their druidic religion and their ways, the quarrymen think that the dwarves are murdering them—and vice versa, and the dwarves hate the castellan of the castle because he collects the taxes levied on the gold by the lord lieutenant. Getting at the causes of these rivalries will take some digging upon the part of the adventurers as this a much more difficult adventure, but if they are successful, they will learn some more about the plots going on behind the scenes of the County of Starstone as well as some of its secret history. 

As a scenario, ‘Dolgold’ feels smaller than ‘Sardkirk’—and it is. Less of Dolgold is detailed, but it is larger and even then, the scenario manages a decent balance between detailing NPCs who are important to the plot and those who are not. Of course, the outcome of ‘Dolgold’ has greater consequences than does that of ‘Sardkirk’—and again, these are not detailed. Yet the scenario does continue the supplement’s practice of doing much to bring the village and its inhabitants to life, and it is only through interaction with, and investigation of them, that the adventurers will prepare themselves for the final foes they might face. Again, they will present the heroes with a tough challenge.

Physically, Starstone is a decently presented black and booklet, one that is a little rough around the edges. The layout is dense, with the occasional indication that the book was not laid out using a computer, but rather via Letraset. The cartography is good, although in places, the connections between rooms and levels could have made much clearer—especially in the text. Whilst any illustrations are infrequent, some of them are really very good—the book’s take upon goblins as more akin to naughty, evil, and sharp-toothed children than other interpretations of them is interesting, if not refreshing—and some of them poor indeed. Fortunately, the latter are vastly outnumbered by the former. One issue with the book is that the maps come as a separate folded A3-sized sheet, which even folded is larger than the book by an inch or so. This makes it slightly more difficult to keep the map sheet in good condition.

One notable feature of the writing is how the author gets around direct references to Dungeons & Dragons. This primarily shows in the character stats, which are limited to actual armour type (from which the Dungeon Master can extract an Armour Class), Class, Level or Hit Dice, Hit Points, and Attacks. No NPC is given any attribute scores, although some are given the effect of high stat bonuses in some case. Two notable inclusions are each NPC’s Wealth stat and his Influence Level or standing with the community. Both are potentially useful when comes to interacting with them. The second area where the effort to avoid references to Dungeons & Dragons occurs in the spell names—Ball of Fire or Curse Removal, for example—and the bonuses for magical weapons. These are given as percentiles rather than single numbers. Of course, these stats do point towards Dungeons & Dragons, and fairly obviously so, but they are not exact. Rather they are just easy to translate.

Back in 1982, Starstone was well received in the press. Writing in White Dwarf #40, Daniel Collerton gave the module nine out of ten and said, “For those who prefer a coherent, highly detailed medieval milieu for their campaigns, Starstone could hardly be bettered. Even for those who don’t like such a background, it still represents excellent value for money merely as an example of meticulous campaign design. Very highly recommended.” The UK’s other RPG magazine of the time, Imagine, was not quite as complimentary. Reviewing it in Imagine #4, Robert Hulston lamented that, “The main plot is not actually solved in Starstone; players must wait for the publication of Ristenby Town to carry the story on.”, but said that, “As it is, though, Starstone will provide entertainment for many evenings, is exceptional value for money (being packed with 3 or 4 times the material of similarly priced modules) and is highly recommended.” Similarly, Eric W. Pass writing in Dragon #97, said, “Starstone is one of the best-detailed modules I have examined. If you have the time and the inclination to sample superior module design, buy it. The few faults I have listed in no way detract from the overall presentation. Hopefully, Mr. Vernon will consider these small points and address them for us before the town of Ristenby appears off the North American coast.” The review ends with the note that Starstone is distributed in the USA by The Armory in Baltimore, indication that it got wider distribution than just the United Kingdom.

In 1982, Starstone: a Medieval Fantasy Campaign cost just £2.99—and at that price it was a bargain. Especially in comparison to the slightly costlier scenarios of the time published by TSR, Inc. Considering its original £2.99 price, today it would likely cost £14.99 or more—and again, that would be a bargain. With just a print run of three thousand, in the thirty years since, copies of the module have rarely appeared on the second hand market. Today it would probably fetch at least £30—if not double that or more. As high praise as Starstone received in 1982, it was never reprinted nor did it receive any further support. This was despite a second supplement, Ristenby Town being mentioned at the end of the supplement.

Unlike in 1982, Starstone would have no problems getting published for use with any fantasy RPG today. The terms of Open Game License make it very easy and given the preponderance of Old School Renaissance RPGs, the designer would have plenty of choice, whether that is Goblinoid Games’ Labyrinth Lord or Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game. Yet Starstone would work equally as well with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, and arguably, would give any of the scenarios released so far for the new edition of Dungeons & Dragons a run for their money in terms of the quality of the adventure and the storytelling. Doubtless any of the Old School Renaissance publishers would leap at the chance to publish Starstone and that even after the author discounted the possibility of funding this on his own via Kickstarter. Indications are that the author has seriously considered bringing it back, but that was several years ago. So if a PDF version exists…?

Yet as good as Starstone was in 1982, it was not perfect and it is definitely not perfect now. As it is, Starstone is a living place with events going on as the adventurers investigate and deal with the issues that threaten the county and many these of events and especially the plots to each scenario and the campaign in general, are buried in the text. Getting to both events and plots is not easy because of this. Another issue is that the transition from ‘Strange Goings on at Longbottom Down’ to ‘Sardkirk’ is poorly handled, combining the equivalent of a jump cut with a punitive flashback. Similarly the consequences of each scenario are not well handled either, which is disappointment given how Starstone is meant to be a 'living' setting.

In addition, because the follow up supplement, Ristenby Town, was never published, it has left the full scope of the plots going on in the County of Starstone unrealised. Also, in hindsight, it seems odd that the links between Starstone and ‘Troubles at Embertrees’ seem underplayed, especially given the scenario’s favourable reception. That though was in 1982. Today, it seems likely that making such links would be problematic given how possessive of its properties that Games Workshop is—even properties it has owned for decades and has absolutely no interest in doing anything with. In the case of ‘Troubles at Embertrees’—and so many other things—this is simply a shame.

So should Starstone: a Medieval Fantasy Campaign be brought back over thirty years since its original publication? Indubitably so… The Old School Renaissance would welcome the reprint of this book, but could it be brought back? In an era of Kickstarter and numerous Old School Renaissance publishers, there are multiple ways in which this could be re-published—and that even before the possibility of self-publishing. Now that leaves the question of whether or not it should be a straight reprint? The answer is no, it should not be straight reprint. Ideally, a second edition would be edited to address the problems in terms of the scenario’s plot and the presentation of said plot. It would ideally also expand upon the port of Ristenby, perhaps even leading to the publication of Ristenby Town.

Starstone: a Medieval Fantasy Campaign is a low fantasy campaign, with a certain sense of desperation and an underlying mood of fear that together prefigures the ‘Grim and Perilous Adventure’ of Games Workshop’s Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay five years later… It certainly has that RPG’s same emphasis on investigation and interaction over combat—though there is plenty of scope for the latter—even if the DM will need to work a little harder to extract such an emphasis from the book’s dense text. Whilst its handicaps mean that it is not quite perfect, Starstone: a Medieval Fantasy Campaign is a classic mini-campaign, rich in gaming potential, and unfinished as its plots are, rife with possibilities for the Dunegon Master to expand.

Friday 18 September 2015

An Appendix N Short #1

For the most part, books and games released under the Old School Renaissance have been put out by the small press, whether that is Labyrinth Lord from Goblinoid Games or Swords & Wizardry from published by Mythmere Games. To date, the only larger publisher to offer an Old School Renaissance RPG is Goodman Games with its Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. What set this RPG apart from just about every other RPG and every other fantasy RPG is that every player begins the game playing Zero Level characters—and lots of them! In going through their first adventure, there will perhaps, be survivors who will survive to achieve First Level and acquire an actual Class.

The Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, is though, published under the same Open Gaming Licence as other titles for the Old School Renaissance, which means that other publishers can release support for it. One such publisher is Brave Halfling Publishing, a small press outlet best known for its ‘White Box’ iterations of classic Dungeons & Dragons-style RPGs such as X-Plorers and Delving Deeper. Now, after a successful Kickstarter campaign, the publisher has released a small selection of adventures under the Appendix N imprint.

The first of these is Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #1: The Ruins of Ramat. This is a Zero Level adventure—or alternatively, it can be upgraded for play with higher level characters—that can be played in a single evening or session. Based on an earlier edition written for use with Labyrinth Lord, it has been adapted for use with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game as part of the Kickstarter. It is designed for use by eight to twelve characters, so at two characters each, it would work with four to six players. Physically, it comes as a digest-sized booklet with a detached colour card cover. Also included are two player hand-outs—the back cover blurb says four, but mine contained two—illustrations that can be shown to the players when they reach certain locations. The other issue with The Ruins of Ramat is that its introduction for the players is incomplete, so the book could have done with another edit.

The plot to The Ruins of Ramat begins with a lost dog. Or rather a scared little girl who comes running with the tale that a giant, clawed monster reached up out of the ground and grabbed her constant companion. The village has no-one to turn to for help, so when the player characters decide to volunteer, the villagers look oddly relieved. Once they do get up the hill, they find a hole in the ground and at the bottom of the hole, a complex of tunnels that has been there for centuries…

Although the monster that grabs the dog is nowhere to be found, the dog itself can be found. That is the good news. The bad news is that there are demons and the undead in complex—not too many given that this is an adventure for Zero Level characters—but more than enough to present them with a challenge. What they also discover is the remnants of an ancient monastery, once dedicated to the militant arm of the Church of Ramat, a Lawful deity, which they will hopefully learn was defiled by evil. The dungeon itself consists of just seventeen locations. With so few, it means that they are quite detailed and atmospheric as they build towards the scenario’s culmination.

Now the dungeon’s true history will not be apparent on a straight play through of The Ruins of Ramat, but an appendix includes two adventure expansions. The first is an option for one of the characters to study the teachings of Ramat and in doing so, become a Cleric. The second adventure expansion is a simple link to another location that the Judge can develop.

The ‘Appendix N’ element of the scenario’s title—Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #1: The Ruins of Ramat—denotes the fact that it is inspired by ‘Appendix N’, the list of inspirational fiction found at the back of the original Dungeon Master’s Guide that so influenced Dungeons & Dragons and then Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. This designation leads to expectations that these fictional inspirations, whether it is Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings or Jack Vance’s The Dying Earth, will be discussed or at least made clear. Sadly, this is not the case, but perhaps in future releases such a discussion would be a worthy inclusion…?

Appendix N Adventure Toolkit #1: The Ruins of Ramat is a solid, well written scenario. Its design is tight and should serve as the fun, challenging ‘Character Creation Funnel’ that a Judge is looking for.

Tuesday 15 September 2015

Call of Cthulhu II (Part the First)

So it is at long last that Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, is a reality. The venerable and inaugural roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror receives not only a new edition, but also an update and an upgrade—and proper updates and upgrades in either case. For this is not a mere case of intermittent creep between reprints or makeovers of the current rules with relatively minor changes in the rules, an issue that has beset previous editions of Call of Cthulhu. Rather Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is a full rewrite and design of the game, the mechanics, and how the game is played, arguably something that it has not been given in some two decades—if not longer. In the process, the designers have sought to address some fundamental issues that have arisen in over thirty years of game play, to make the game more accessible, and more attractive to an audience for the twenty-first century. The result is a relatively radical redesign whose differences—despite it fundamentally being compatible with previous editions of the game—have proved to be slightly contentious given the game’s thirty year history and whilst they may not necessarily be to the taste of every player or Keeper, they do make sense.

Published by Chaosium, Inc. after a very successful Kickstarter campaign, the very first thing that you notice about Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is that rules have been split into two books—the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook – A Core Game Book for Players and the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook. Now the latter contains almost everything in the former—and of course, much, much more, but the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook gives the player all of the information he needs to create characters and then play without being exposed to the secrets in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook. It is the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook – A Core Game Book for Players that is being reviewed here.

The very next thing you notice about either book is that they are in full colour—a first for Chaosium, Inc. Gone is the layout of the Call of Cthulhu 20th Anniversary Edition that looked decent with some colour, but was fussy and intrusive when done in black and white. The use of colour is not extensive, but the double spread pieces at the head of each chapter add a certain class and atmosphere, as does the use of luggage tickets to hold sidebar text. The next notable change is that of the book’s choice of fiction—‘The Dunwich Horror’ rather than the eponymous ‘The Call of Cthulhu’—a more atmospheric choice that pulls the focus of the game to Lovecraft’s New England, suggesting that the horror of Call of Cthulhu can be more local and more of an investigation… Another shift in emphasis is that Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is primarily written for the 1920s—its original and Classic Age—and the Modern Day. This does not mean that the rules presented in the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook and the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook cannot be used to run games in the other official periods for Call of Cthulhu, such as Cthulhu: Dark Ages, Cthulhu by Gaslight, Cthulhu Invictus, and The Dreamlands; indeed, far from it. Rather that the focus is those two periods and the others are for the moment covered by the supplement, Cthulhu Through the Ages.

It is important to note what is not in the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook – A Core Game Book for Players. There is no explanation of the rules, of the new mechanics, of Sanity, or of the Cthulhu Mythos. What there is instead is a complete guide to the creation of player characters or investigators in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, plus advice on playing the game and playing in general. This is supported by historical background material on the 1920s as well as everything needed to equip the investigators. The actual rules and mechanics for running the game as well as explanations of the Mythos and scenarios are given in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook.

Beyond the physical changes to the books and their presentation, the greatest changes to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition are understandably to the rules. The best way to illustrate those changes is to start with a player character or investigator. Our sample investigator is Henry Brinded, a character that I have used to illustrate the character creation process in previous reviews and who will appear in the forthcoming Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. Brinded is a Yale Classics graduate who as an officer cadet at university was commissioned in the United States Army and sent to France. There he served in the field artillery. Unfortunately, this left him with partial deafness and a fear of loud noises. After the war he tried to continue with his studies, attempting a Masters Degree, but the stress forced him give up the course. Since then he has been the proprietor of Brinded’s Books, an antiquarian bookshop.

Henry Brinded,
age 44, Antiquarian

STR 40 SIZ 85 CON 45 DEX 70
APP 75 INT 80 POW 65 EDU 91
SAN 58 Luck 75 Damage Bonus +1d4 Build 1
Move 7 HP 12

Brawl 35% (17/7), damage 1D3+db, or by weapon type
Rifle/Shotgun 35% (17/8), damage 2D6/1D6/1D3 (Ithaca Hammerless Field 20G 2.75” calibre shotgun)
Handgun 30% (15/7), damage 1d10+2 (Colt New Service (M1909) .45 LC calibre revolver)
Dodge 35% (17/7)
Skills: Appraise 45%, Archaeology 26%, Art/Craft (Book Restoration) 49%, Art/Craft (Painting) 26%, Artillery 40%, Climb 30%, Credit Rating 45%, Firearms (Handguns) 30%, Firearms (Rifle/Shotgun) 35%, First Aid 50%, History 55%, Library Use 50%, Navigate 20%, Occult 20%, Persuade 40%, Pilot (Boat) 26%, Psychology 31%, Spot Hidden 45%, Stealth 25%,  Swim 40%, Track 20%.
Languages: Ancient Greek 41%, English (Own) 91%, Latin 51%.

Personal Description: Tall and thin, just shy of infirm, bespectacled and inquisitive.
Treasured Possessions: Latin-English Primer;
Traits: Introspective but curious, softly spoken, but firm in manner
Phobias: Ligyrophobia – Fear of loud noises.
Notes: Immune to sanity losses resulting from viewing a corpse or gross injury.

The changes to the investigator begin with the attributes—they are expressed as percentiles. They are still rolled using six-sided dice during the creation process, but they are multiplied to get a percentile figure. What this means is that they can be rolled as percentiles, just as skills are. Yet look closer at the some of those skills—the combat skills—and they have a set of numbers after them in parentheses. These are half, or the Hard value, of a skill, and the fifth, or the Extreme value, of a skill, and in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition every attribute and every skill has these values. So for example, Brinded’s INT can be expressed as ‘INT 80 (40/16) and his Appraise as ‘Appraise 45% (22/09)’. They represent the qualitative successes that a player could roll, a roll under Hard value of the skill being better than just under the skill itself. Not only does this measure how well an investigator does on the roll, it can measure how well an investigator does against an opponent or a difficulty. All of this is explained in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook, but notably it replaces the venerable Resistance Table that has been part of Call of Cthulhu and other Basic Roleplaying RPGs for decades, subsuming it into the game’s core mechanic and making it easier to use during actual play. On the downside it does make for a fussier character sheet with all those numbers…

At its most basic then, if both attributes and skills are being treated as percentiles, it means that Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is still fundamentally compatible with previous editions of the game. Converting between the two is a matter of simple arithmetic. This will of course, become more apparent in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook, but it should be noted that the Investigator Handbook does conclude with the article, ‘Converting from Previous Editions of Call of Cthulhu’.

An investigator in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition has two additional stats. POW or Power still exists and an investigator’s starting Sanity is still derived from it, but his Luck is not. Instead, an investigator has a Luck attribute against which all Luck rolls are made. This addresses a common complaint that the POW has always been too influential a factor on an investigator during the game, that too much is derived from it. Further, an option in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook enables Luck to be spent as a resource to modify rolls. Whilst Luck is a wholly new attribute, Build is a wholly new derived  factor, used in fighting maneuvres and also to give a sense of scale. Again, this is fully explained in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook.

The Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook includes some one hundred Occupations. Primarily they are divided between Classic Occupations of the 1920s—Alienist, Explorer, Gun Moll, et cetera—and those of the Modern era—Computer Programmer/Technician/Hacker and Deprogrammer, but many are marked as being Lovecraftian, that is important to Lovecraft’s fiction, including Antiquarian, Author, Dilettante, and so on. There are some odder choices, including Animal Trainer, Prostitute, and Zookeeper for example, but the range given is solid, providing plenty of choice and inspiration. Although an Occupation provides the basis for an investigator’s skills, they are not necessarily derived from his Education attribute. For example, the Gun Moll’s points for her Occupation skills are derived from both her Education and her Appearance attributes. Although the Education attribute covers both formal education and life experience, it makes sense because not every investigator will be highly educated and not every Occupation is based upon a person’s education. Further, it de-emphasises the influence of the Education attribute upon an investigator, again another complaint about previous versions of the game.

There are of course, changes to the game’s skills. The number of skills from one edition of Call of Cthulhu to the next has always fluctuated and Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition is no different. For the most part the skills are tidied up. Appraise, Animal Handling, Read Lips, and Survival are added as new skills, the latter requiring a specialisation, as does the new Lore skill which covers non-standard areas of knowledge like Dream Lore or UFO Lore. Old interpersonal skills such as Debate, Bargain, and Oratory are subsumed under the Persuade skill, whilst Charm and Intimidate are added alongside the venerable Fast Talk. Fist/Punch, Grapple, Kick, and so on are now covered by the Fighting (Brawl) skill, but more specific definitions are required for skills above 50%. Other melee skills are treated as individual specialisations of the Fighting skill as most guns are for the Firearms skills, although notably, the use of shotguns and rifles are treated as the one Firearms (Rifle/Shotgun) skill. Similarly, all of the old Art and Craft skills are specialisations of the Art/Craft skill and all of the science skills—Biology, Chemistry, Cryptography, Forensics, Physics, and so on—are specialisations of the Science skill.

One skill that has changed is Credit Rating. Now it is really no longer a skill, but a measure of an investigator’s financial status—and to an extent, his social status. Although it can still be rolled during play and like other skills in Call of Cthulhu Seventh Edition, can be ‘pushed’—see below—it cannot be given a ‘tick’ during play and therefore cannot be improved through an Experience Check. Rather it represents a financial resource from which various factors are derived and which can go up or down according to an investigator’s actions during a scenario. So successfully thwarting a cult might earn an investigator an increase in his Credit Rating, but being sent to an asylum might decrease it. This will be down to the Keeper. Every Occupation includes a Credit Rating range on which Occupation points need to be spent.

Part of creating an investigator also involves creating a Backstory, including Personal Description, Ideology/Beliefs, Significant People, Meaningful Locations, Treasured Possessions, and Traits. To each of these a player attaches a short pithy and meaningful statement, each statement further defining the investigator and serving as a roleplaying hook. During play an investigator can draw upon them to help recover Sanity points, but as much as they support an investigator’s Sanity, they can be corrupted when he loses Sanity. Of course, they also round an investigator out, serving to make him more than numbers.

Lastly, a number of optional rules give alternative means of creating investigators as well as some Experience Packages that grant an investigator extra skills at the cost of some lost Sanity  points. Obviously they include a War Experience Package to reflect time served in the Great War—Henry Brinded has this package—or more recent conflicts in the Modern Age. Other packages include medical and criminal experience and there is even a package to reflect experience with the Mythos! As useful as these are, it is disappointing that no package is included to reflect the experience of women on the Home Front during the Great War.

Although the rules themselves are not detailed in the Investigator Handbook, but two important changes are discussed, both to do with skill rolls and both draw upon more recent developments in the roleplaying hobby. The first of these is that upon a successful skill roll, a player, having already agreed upon the possible outcome of a successful skill roll with the Keeper, earns the right to narrate the outcome. Not in every situation, but it does mean that in some situations in the game that the Keeper is no longer the gatekeeper and that the players have greater agency.

The second change to skill rolls in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, is designed to address the problem of failure. In previous editions of the game, when a player failed a roll, there was no way around the problem and this could be an issue when the investigator was trying to find an important clue, such that the Keeper would have to find a way around this roadblock in order for the game to progress. Now the exact mechanics are not discussed in the Investigator Handbook, but the concept is—a player can Push a roll. What this means is that if a player fails a roll, then he can roll again. He needs to explain what his investigator is doing differently to earn the right to Push a roll and he also needs to negotiate with the Keeper what the consequences of failure are.
For example, Frank Gilroy is a lawyer working for Dan O’Bannion, Arkham’s most notorious gangster. Sent to investigate a farm that has been supplying O’Bannion with illegal hooch, Frank and his team find themselves under attack. Frank decides that he needs to get into cover as quickly as possible and the nearest cover is the farmhouse. The main entrance is locked and so Frank tries to break it down using his Strength of 55% and fails!
Frank’s player decides to Push the roll, explaining that Frank will charge the locked door. He and the Keeper negotiate the terms of possible failure—a pair of dogs will hear Frank banging on the door, causing them to charge out of the surrounding cornfield and attack. Unfortunately Frank’s player fails the roll and the two big hounds bound into the yard, slavering to get a piece of the lawyer!
Combat rolls cannot be Pushed in this fashion, but like the right to narrate the outcome of successful skill rolls, this is another storytelling mechanic. Most obviously it is a means to get around the problem of failed rolls, but it has another effect—it makes the play of the game less black and white, giving a greater flexibility in the outcome of skill rolls and so moving Call of Cthulhu towards a slightly pulpier feel. Examples of Pushed rolls and the consequences of their failure are given for every other skill in the skills list.

One question oft raised when it comes to playing Call of Cthulhu is, “If the Mythos is so dangerous—both physically and mentally—why does my character continue to investigate it?”. Traditionally the response has always been “...because no one else will” and “...because only he can stand against humanity.”. That of course still applies, but Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition suggests reasons beyond this in the form of ‘Investigator Organisations’. Although they provide no benefit in terms of the rules, these do provide motivations and means of support—physically, mentally, and in some cases, financially. Members of an organisation might have shared experiences, interests, ties of blood, and so on, that drive them to investigate the unknown. They are also a ready supply of NPCs for the Keeper and of replacement investigators for the players. Several example organisations are given including the Wrath’s Circus of Wonders, the Strange but True! Newspaper, and Ratched’s Children—the latter a group of former psychiatric patients affiliated by their exposure to the Mythos. They accompanied by a set of ready-to-play investigators (or NPCs), each affiliated with one of the nine sample organisations. One organisation, the Miskatonic University-based The Society for the Exploration of the Unexplained is given a fuller set of seven investigators and is particularly notable for being the only organization to be given female investigators as examples.

Befittingly for a game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, the Investigator Handbook provides advice on how to investigate—searching for clues, conducting research, talking to people, and so on. It discusses team composition, tactical aspects—in general, both spells and dynamite are a bad thing, what equipment to take, and long term planning—if the investigators last that long. Older players of Call of Cthulhu may recall ‘The Field Manual of the Theron Marks Society’, the supplement of useful advice that appeared in the anthology, Terror from the Stars. The chapter of advice in the Investigator Handbook feels similar, yet is nevertheless useful, introducing new players to basics of ‘investigative horror’. Its corollary is a chapter on broader advice on roleplaying and then various game mechanics. Both are useful sections, designed to highlight the differences between Call of Cthulhu and the other RPGs that the players may have experienced. Still it seems odd that the two chapters are kept separated from each other.

Rounding out the Investigator Handbook is a chapter of reference material. This includes a timeline of events from 1890 to 2012, travel distances and speeds, a goods and services price list for anything and everything from five yards of gauze bandages and a single semester’s college tuition to twenty-five glass marbles and an elephant gun. The last section of the volume includes extensive tables listing melee weapons, firearms, and explosives. Of these tables, it seems odd not include all of the signature weapons actually described earlier and to include the Molotov Cocktail under the 1920s when it did not exist until the 1930s*. Again, it seems odd that this chapter has been kept separate from an earlier chapter, in this case, the one devoted to the 1920s.

*Admittedly, this is a personal bugbear of mine.

Now as good as all of this sounds, the Investigator Handbook is not quite perfect. The problem is with the rules—or rather the lack of them. It should be made clear that the Investigator Handbook is not intended as a rulebook nor stand in for the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook, but nevertheless it does discuss numerous aspects of the rules. In each and every case, this discussion is helpful and supportive, but only if the reader knows the rules already. Without this knowledge, this discussion feels obtuse because there is nothing specific in the book for the reader to refer to, for although certain rules are detailed—Pushed rolls, combined rolls, regular and hard rolls, and so on—they are placed deep within the text of the book and thus not easy to find or refer to. The solution is then either to refer to the Quickstart Rules, ideally because that is where the reader will have begun playing Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition or the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook because that is where a full explanation of the rules can be found and ideally the Keeper will have a copy. Arguably though, the reader and player should not need to refer to either to get a simple explanation of the rules, especially when those rules are being discussed in the book to hand. The ideal solution would have been to include a simple reference for the rules, preferably no more than a page in length, that a player could refer to during play or during his read through of this book. This would not be a case of creating a second rulebook—since all of the rules are in the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Rulebook—but rather making the Investigator Handbook a better, more complete, and useful work.

In essence, the Investigator Handbook brings together the contents of two previously published books—1920's Investigator's Companion, Vol. 1 and 1920's Investigator's Companion, Vol. 2, collectively published as The 1920's Investigator's Companion—and combines it with the means to create much more detailed, more rounded investigators. Informed by some thirty years of play and certainly a decade of advances in roleplaying game design, there is no denying that the Call of Cthulhu Investigator Handbook is an excellent introduction to Lovecraftian investigative horror, one that is informative when it comes to both the setting and the investigative process, but arguably, without a short rules reference, it is not quite 100% complete.

Friday 4 September 2015

An Arkham Asset #0

Originally conceived by the late, great Keith Herber, The Arkham Gazette is a magazine devoted to Lovecraft Country, that mouldering corner of New England home to old money, old prejudices, and ancient evils. It is now being published by Sentinel Hill Press, the small press outlet for Bret Kramer, best known as the author of the scenario, Machine Tractor Station Kharkov-37, and as the editor of The Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. To date there have been three issues—if you count the prototype ‘issue #0’—with an actual third issue to appear following a successful KickstarterThe Arkham Gazette #0 began life as a proof of concept for the late, lamented Miskatonic River Press, before being developed into a prototype issue and accorded a connecting theme.

Written for use with Call of Cthulhu, Sixth Edition, the theme for this  inaugural edition of The Arkham Gazette is the ‘Aylesbury Pike’, the road that runs from Arkham to Aylesbury with a forks leading off to Dean’s Corners and Dunwich. With such a focus, the issue begins in mundane fashion, with ‘The Amos-Goodrich Cemetery’ and ‘New England’s Interstate Roads’. The first is an examination of a near roadside cemetery with a slightly odd reputation that lies alongside the pike, whilst the latter is a short introduction to the history of the north-east’s road system in the first quarter of the twentieth century. Both are accompanied with scenario ideas and Keeper’s options, but these are little more than ideas. ‘New England’s Interstate Roads’ is actually a companion piece to the longer, more in-depth ‘The Aylesbury Pike’, an article devoted to the most famous route running through Lovecraft Country. It details its history and its route, enabling the Keeper to add flavour and verisimilitude to those long journeys between Aylesbury and Arkham that are likely should the investigators begin to explore the secrets of Lovecraft Country.

‘Curtis Sloan, Encyclopedia Salesman’ describes a new NPC, pleasingly ordinary, if slightly unnerving. Perhaps his description could have been expanded to give a thoroughly mundane explanation for his behaviour as well as his Mythos connections. That and perhaps a scenario hook or two would have rounded this entry out… Nevertheless, Curtis Sloan is well suited to the region given the influence and presence of certain Mythos entities. 

The longest article in The Arkham Gazette #0 is ‘New England’s Petroglyphs’, an examination and discussion of the famous rock carvings and inscriptions to be found throughout the region—including hoaxes. A little dry in places, this does have Mythos relevance given the number of Mythos species that have made New England their home over countless millennia, the author highlighting the sites where such carvings can be found in Lovecraft Country, referencing various supplements, notably Escape from Innsmouth and Return to Dunwich. This is a nicely researched piece, including sources both fictional and nonfictional, perhaps only let down by the underwritten scenario and campaign options.

Better developed though in terms of options is the encounter, ‘Mr. Pickett Goes a Huntin’’, which comes ready to be dropped into a game in almost any rural location.  Whether the farmer is a simple huntsman, looking for trespassers, or something more, is up for the Keeper to decide, though the options are there for all of these. 

The scenario in The Arkham Gazette #0 is ‘The Chapochaug Tunnel Haunting’ which concerns an abandoned railway tunnel with a reputation for being haunted and a history of fatalities. A student botanist has gone missing nearby, or perhaps a pair of young lovers on a secret assignation, or perhaps the investigators are curious about the tunnel’s dark history, but the exact plot of this lengthy scenario is again up to the Keeper to decide. In comparison with earlier entries in the magazine, this scenario does feel a little as if the author is throwing in everything but the kitchen sink, so the Keeper will need to be careful in deciding exactly what is going on in the tunnel. Nevertheless, this has pleasing potential aplenty for an atmospheric single session or so and is supported with some solid handouts.

Rounding The Arkham Gazette #0 is an annotated bibliography of scenarios set along or near the Aylesbury Pike. A nice touch is that each of articles in The Arkham Gazette #0 is neatly categorised. So for example, ‘New England’s Interstate Roads’ is listed under ‘From the History Books’ whilst ‘The Aylesbury Pike’ is categorised under ‘Deep Background’. Hopefully this will be continued in the proper issues.

Physically, The Arkham Gazette #0 is a gentlemanly looking affair. Originally released in August, 2013 and revised in November, 2014, issue #0 of The Arkham Gazette does need another edit.’ That aside, it It should be noted that the look of The Arkham Gazette #0 apes that of the Lovecraft Country line, the series of classic Call of Cthulhu releases published during the RPG’s heyday. This includes the use of Cristoforo, Thomas Phinney’s expanded version of the Columbus font which does much to add authenticity to The Arkham Gazette #0

To be fair, much of The Arkham Gazette #0 may not appeal to the reader unless he is student of Call of Cthulhu, of Lovecraft Country, or of Lovecraftian lore. Several articles—and arguably—the issue’s ‘Aylesbury Pike’ theme are mundane, even prosaic, but that may be exactly what brings those students to this issue—that and the fact that it is free. Whilst several of the other entries do feel underdeveloped in terms of their application, the highlight of this inaugural issue  is of course the scenario, ‘The Chapochaug Tunnel Haunting’, but ‘Mr. Pickett Goes a Huntin’’ is also good. Overall, this is a nicely written guide to the byways of Lovecraft Country.