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Saturday 24 October 2015

The 1980s Horror RPG

The best known title published by Pacesetter Ltd. is 1984’s Chill: Adventures into the Unknown, a horror roleplaying game that drew its inspiration from horror movies of the twentieth century and pitched stalwart heroes against such foes as vampires, werewolves, mummies, ghosts, goblins, and ghouls. Chill also introduced us to S.A.V.E. (Societas Argenti Viae Eternitata or The Eternal Society of the Silver Way), a secret society dedicated to protecting innocents from the creatures of the Unknown. Although there is a new edition of Chill 3rd Edition: A Horror Roleplaying Game about to be published following a successful Kickstarter campaign and a new S.A.V.E. sourcebook currently being funded, it should be pointed out that there other horror roleplaying games that use the same mechanics as Chill: Adventures into the Unknown.

Rotworld: A Game of Survival Horror Against Undead Flesh Eaters is one, and Cryptworld: Chilling Adventures into the Unexplained is the other. Both are published by Goblinoid Games, which is best known for releasing the Retroclone, Labyrinth Lord. Although Goblinoid Games does not own the rights to Chill, it does own the rights to a number of the former publisher’s other games as well as the associated mechanics and the Pacesetter Ltd. name. Thus we have both Rotworld and Cryptworld and a number of games, including Timemaster: Adventures in the 4th Dimension, Sandman: Map of Halaal, and Majus: Magic Noir Adventures of Supernatural Intrigue. Of these five RPGs, Cryptworld is the most like its forebear, being a horror roleplaying game in which the player characters investigate and hunt the forces of the unexplained. In doing so they may face classic Gothic monsters of the page and screen—vampires, werewolves, and mummies; the lone stalker, the scary neighbour, and crazed cannibals of the Slasher flick; and monsters from the unknown—alien blobs, extraterrestrial invaders, the Chupacabra, and more.

At the heart of Cryptworld, and of course, its raison d'être, is its Action Table. With a roll against this table, a player or the Crypt Master can reasonably quick discover the result and effects of a roll. The system uses ten-sided dice, with percentile rolls for all actions. In most instances, a character can get away with simply rolling under the value of his attribute or skill, but if he needs to know how well he did, he simply deducts the number rolled from his skill to get a Margin of Success. In combat, this Margin of Success becomes his Attack Margin, the result cross referenced against the difficulty or Defence Column. This gets a result ranging from a simple scratch to a crushing or crippling blow that knocks the defendant down.
For example, our first sample character, Chris Kettley, has been investigating the disappearances of homeless people in Las Vegas’ Downtown South district and tracked them to a warehouse owned by Toledo Trucking. Having eased himself over the fence, he does not get very far before a Hillbilly Cannibal—who has come in from the desert to feed on the homeless, leaps out at him, axe raised, and with a clang, brings the weapon down on the concrete having missed the journalist.
In response, Chris flails widely at the buck-toothed, roughly dressed guard. He rolls his Unskilled Melee of 53 and gets a result of 29. The Margin of Success—Chris’ Unskilled Melee of 53 minus the result of 29—is 24. This is compared to the randomly determined Defence Column, which is 7, to get a result of ‘LK’. This is ‘L’ for Light Damage (2-20 points of Stamina lost) and ‘K’ for the defender being knocked down. Chris’ flailing arms push the guard over who falls back and is winded… Chris takes the opportunity to run back towards the fence.
The mechanics, with their use of the Action Table, look more complex than they are in practice. The problem with both the mechanics and their use of the Action Table is twofold. First, there is an almost bewildering number of conditional rules that apply to the various situations and skills that can come up in play. Second, the Action Table is essentially focused on combat. It is meant to, and it does, work with the use of skills, but to actually interpret the results of any skill roll the Crypt Master has to look elsewhere in the book. Which can only slow gameplay down…

That said, when it comes to combat, perhaps the aspect that players today will find the oddest is that mechanically, no weapon in the game does any damage. Rather, the damage is essentially derived entirely from the results of the skill roll. Thus the weaponry tables in Cryptworld are all about range modifiers (which do affect skill), reload time, and rate of fire. One interesting mechanic using the Action Table involves a defendant’s action when being fired upon. When this occurs, the defending character has to roll a ten-sided die to determine the Defence Column that the attacker is rolling against, but can influence this by expending Luck to make it a higher Defence Column and thus make himself harder to hit. This is a pleasing way of handling a character’s attempt to dodge.

Character generation in Cryptworld again looks more complex than it is, in part because it involves a degree of arithmetic. Eight attributes, each ranging in value between twenty-six and eighty, are rolled for randomly, with a number of factors being derived from these attributes. These factors include secondary factors such as Penetration Bonus and Wounds, and also the unskilled values for various skills. The most jarring aspect of character creation is that the number of skills a character starts the game with is randomly determined, so that one character might start the game with three skills or as many as six. Like attributes, skills expressed as percentiles, with the unskilled value for any skill being equal to the average of two or three attributes.

The majority of the skills listed would cover any time within the last fifty years, but with the inclusion of the Beam Weapons skill could enable a Cryptworld campaign to be set in the future, whilst the inclusion of the Horseman’s Lance, Mounted Melee, and Bow skills mean that it could easily be set in the past. From the skill list there is the one odd omission—that of a Drive skill. Every character has base chance when driving—equal to the average of his Agility and Perception attributes, yet in order to improve upon that, a character has to purchase the Stunt Driving skill.

Our example character is an investigative journalist, Chris Kettley. An ex-reporter for the Las Vegas CityLife, he has gone freelance after the editor decided that some of his stories were too fanciful. Nevertheless, his curiosity is such that he thinks that there is more to such stories.

Chris Kettley
Strength 48 Dexterity 58 Agility 58 Personality 68
Willpower 60 Perception 72 Luck 64 Stamina 56
Unskilled Melee: 53
Penetration Bonus: +0
Stamina Recovery Rate: 4
Wounds: 13
Gambling 83, Investigation 81, Journalism 85, Language (Spanish) 81, Social Sciences (Psychology) 81

As an option, characters can also possess Paranormal Talents such as ‘Precognition’, ‘Ignore Pain’, ‘Distance Viewing’, and ‘Telepathic Sending’. These are joined by a few that will be familiar from Rotworld, such as ‘Speak with Dead’ and ‘Corpse State’. Unlike skills whose number is randomly determined, the number of Paranormal Talents that a character can have is determined by his Perception and Willpower, up to a maximum of three. It costs Willpower to use Paranormal Talents, and although a character’s Willpower will refresh, the relatively high cost will preclude their being over used.

The chapter of ‘Things’—monsters, threats, and more—draws heavily upon the Gothic tradition, Myth, and movies of the last seventy years for its inspiration. So from the first there are the Mummy, the Vampire, and the Werewolf; from the second there are the Chuacabra, the Gorgon, and the Jersey Devil; and the Gillman, the Puppet Master, and the Space Blob from the third. It is easy to spot the inspiration for many of these Things, so the Ankle Biters are from Critters, the Criswell from Plan 9 From Outer Space, the Puppet Master from Chuckie, and the Trilliad from The Day of the Triffids. Spotting these inspirations is part of the fun of playing these monsters as the Crypt Master and facing against them as the players. There are over thirty Things included in Cryptworld, but with a game like Cryptworld the Crypt Master is going to want more.

As a horror game, Cryptworld does include a mechanic for handling Fear, rolling on the Action Table to get a result, primarily being a loss of Willpower points. It seems odd though that the rules for Fear are given as an option rather than being a featre of the game itself. Advice for the Crypt Master examines setting the tone of the game, the core elements of the Horror genre, and possible themes. At just a couple of pages, it is short and succinct, if aimed at the more experienced Referee, but then Cryptworld is definitely an RPG for the experienced Referee rather than the beginner. It would have been nice if the tones, elements, and themes had been illustrated by the example movies that the RPG itself draws from. Where Chill has S.A.V.E., Cryptworld presents a number of options and ideas for organisations that investigate the wierd. Thus you have an academic department (the International Society of Crptozoology and Xenobiology), a government agency (Defense Against Paranormal Agencies), a secret society (Societas Malleus et Sudis or the Society of Hammer & Stake), and so on. 

Rounding out Cryptworld is the adventure ‘Red Eye’. This is an introductory adventure that can be played with characters who have never encountered the supernatural or the occult, but it can also be played by characters who have. It is also good for throwing diverse unrelated characters together because all they need is a reason to be aboard an overnight flight from Hawaii to Los Angeles. Unfortunately, also aboard is the supernatural’s answer to the apex predator—hell bent on not being discovered and killing everyone if it is—and doubly unfortunately, anything that the player characters might usually use to combat this outre threat is unlikely to been allowed on board in their hand luggage… So when a body is discovered not long after take off, the player characters will not only have to scavenge the contents of a long haul passenger jet, but will have to rely upon their wits to defeat the creature locked in the pressurised metal tube with them. ‘Red Eye’ is a solid, fraught adventure which works  as well as a one-shot as it does an introduction to a campaign.

Physically, Cryptworld is well presented, decently written, and nicely illustrated. In particular, the illustrations by Jim Holloway give the book a solid period feel. The rest of the artwork, by Brian Thomas and Tim Tyler, is a match for that period also.

Chill and Pacesetter Ltd. and thus the ethos and feel of Cryptworld date from after the gaming hobby’s ‘Golden Age’ of its first ten years. This was from a time when there was a push for complexity and realism, for a universal mechanic, and it shows in Cryptworld as a fairly heavy, if not complex, set of mechanics, at least by contemporary standards. The complexity primarily shows in its use and application of the universal mechanic is hampered by numerable situational rules and the need to reference individual rules for far too many things. This only slows the play of the game down, as does the fact that the Action Table itself is printed in greyscale in the back of the book rather than in full colour on the back cover.

Of course the truth is that Cryptworld is going to be eclipsed by the release of Chill 3rd Edition: A Horror Roleplaying Game. After all, Chill is a name that the gaming knows and recognises, but whilst Chill and Cryptworld share the same mechanics, Chill comes with a background and in the form of S.A.V.E., something ready to build a game around. Cryptworld lacks both, but neither lack is reason enough to dismiss Cryptworld out of hand, for it has merits of its own. With a clean presentation of its rules, a decent selection of Things (or monsters), and a little advice on running horror games, Cryptworld: Chilling Adventures into the Unexplained is well done, generic, horror gaming kit.

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