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

Saturday 8 October 2016

Screen Shot IV

How do you like your GM Screen?

The GM Screen is a essentially a reference sheet, comprised of several card sheets that fold out and can be stood up to serve another purpose, that is, to hide the GM's notes and dice rolls. On the inside, the side facing the GM are listed all of the tables that the GM might want or need at a glance without the need to have to leaf quickly through the core rulebook. On the outside, facing the players, is either more tables for their benefit or representative artwork for the game itself. This is both the basic function and the basic format of the screen, neither of which has changed very little over the years. Beyond the basic format, much has changed though.

To begin with the general format has split, between portrait and landscape formats. The result of the landscape format is a lower screen, and if not a sturdier screen, than at least one that is less prone to being knocked over. Another change has been in the weight of card used to construct the screen. Exile Studios pioneered a new sturdier and durable screen when its printers took two covers from the Hollow Earth Expedition core rule book and literally turned them into the game's screen. This marked a change from the earlier and flimsier screens that had been done in too light a cardstock, and many publishers have followed suit.

Once you have decided upon your screen format, the next question is what you have put with it. Do you include a poster or poster map, such as Chaosium, Inc.’s last screen for Call of Cthulhu ?  Or a reference work like the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu? Or a scenario such as ‘A Restoration of Evil’ for the Keeper's Screen for Call of Cthulhu from 2000. In general, the heavier and sturdier the screen, the more likely it is that the screen will be sold unaccompanied, such as those published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment for the Starblazer Adventures: The Rock & Roll Space Opera Adventure Game and Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space RPGs.

So how do I like my GM Screen?

I like my Screen to come with something. Not a poster or poster map, but some form of reference material. Which is why I am fond of both the Sholari Reference Pack for SkyRealms of Jorune and the GM Resource Book for Pelgrane Press' Trail of Cthulhu. Nevertheless, I also like GM Screens when they come with a scenario, which is one reason why I like the new screen published by Chaosium, Inc. I like it equally as much because Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack comes with not one scenario, but two—and both are of a criminal bent. It also comes with a set of maps, a reference booklet, and some Investigator sheets.

The screen comes as a threefold affair of A4-sized sections in landscape format. The front of the screen presents a full colour panorama of an investigation in progress. It is a night shot and a nice piece of art that warrants further scrutiny to catch the little things going on… On the reverse, an Insanity and Extreme Difficulty Gauge runs across the top. On the left hand section, boxes summarise the base mechanics, combat with firearms, and other forms of damage. A combat flow chart sits on the middle section along with a bouts of madness summary and sample Sanity costs. There is also a page guide for spells and tomes rather than any rules summarised. The right hand section gives sanity effects, a damage flowchart, and summaries of the rules for chases and vehicle collisions. This is all done in shades of grey, but is easy to read and where necessary, page references to the pertinent sections in the Keeper’s Rulebook have been included. If there is an oddity about the screen and the layout of its reference material it is that the damage rules are summarised away from the combat rules, but flitting from one to the other is unlikely to present a challenge. Overall, the screen is sturdy, useful, and solid support for the rules themselves.

The reference booklet, or Keeper References, reprints the rest of the tables that do not appear on the screen itself. Primarily they include the weapons tables, sample phobias and manias, sample tomes, and the skills list. They also include the indices for both the Investigator Handbook and the Keeper Rulebook. Printed in plain black and white, the reference booklet nicely supplements the screen.

The maps primarily consist of maps of Arkham, Lovecraft Country, and the world, all three reprinted from the Keeper Rulebook. The first is a nice depiction of Lovecraft’s signature town, but only the very most important buildings and locations are marked, so its usefulness is limited. The second is of the region of New England pertinent to Lovecraft’s writings and is useful for the scenarios here and in Doors to Darkness. The third marks the various notable mysterious locations and Mythos places around the world. Not necessarily of immediate use, but veteran players of the game will have fun spotting the Mythos places from previous campaigns on the world map. These three maps are done in full colour and are poster-sized. Of the three maps, the one of Lovecraft Country is likely to be most useful, since it provides a much needed overview of the region where a great many scenarios for Call of Cthulhu have been, and will continue to be, set. The other four maps are also full colour, but depict locations from the scenarios in the Keeper Rulebook. All seven maps are all well done and make for nice additions to the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack.

The first scenario is ‘Blackwater Creek’ by the editor of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, Scott Dorward. It takes place in in the village of Blackwater Creek, somewhere out Dunwich way, in Massachusetts at the height of Prohibition in 1926 and has two options to get the player characters involved. The first is as academic investigators from Miskatonic University sent out to locate a missing archaeologist and his wife, who conducting a dig in the area. The second is as Boston Bootleggers, sent to obtain a new and abundant supply of whiskey for their boss, Declan McBride. 

As Boston Bootleggers, the group is tasked with travelling to Blackwater Creek and there negotiating with the distillers who have been supplying their bootleg whiskey to a rival gang in Boston. This means making the distillers an offer they can accept or if they refuse, an offer that they cannot refuse. The group will arrive in the rundown, dilapidated village to discover recalcitrant villagers and sick children, the place beset by a fecund decay. There are further signs of this fecundity if the player characters go looking for it, but very quickly the plot drives them to the distillers and their farm and it is here that the scenario is likely to one of two ways. First, the negotiations with the distillers are successful and the scenario all but peters out; second, the negotiations with the distillers fail and everything goes awry.

Of the two options, the second is more likely—even the author states that “It’s highly likely that combat will ensue at the farm.” In fact, this is the scenario’s major scene, one that raises the stakes between the player characters they become involved in a confrontation between the distillers, their men, and more… This is because the  tensions between the pre-generated characters—they are not in any traditional sense, investigators—are likely to rear their ugly heads. There are both ties and rivalries between the six, ties and rivalries that involve brotherhood, friendship, love, ambition, and money. These are very likely to come to the fore here in what will be a bloody shootout. Should this happen, then ‘Blackwater Creek’ is unlikely to continue because the gang members will be dead or bloodied and bruised and driven off...

Whereas, the academics are tasked with travelling to Blackwater Creek in order to locate Doctor Henry Roades, an associate professor of archaeology at Miskatonic University who had recently led a field trip in search of an early colonial settlement in the Miskatonic Valley that had failed for unknown reasons. Roades has not returned and his colleagues are growing concerned. They will have the same initial encounters in the village as the gangsters, but unlike the gangsters, the academics have much more in the way of an investigation to conduct. For them there are clues to be followed and if they do so, they are much likely to move towards the source of the fecundity and its corrosive effect in Blackwater Creek, whereas the bootleggers are not. As investigators, theirs is a less confrontational path, less combat oriented, though still dangerous.

The problem with ‘Blackwater Creek’ is that there are no pre-generated academic player characters. This means that of the two plot hooks given to draw the player characters into the scenario—‘Investigator Option One: Miskatonic Faculty’ and ‘Investigator Option Two: Bootleggers’—it is the criminal option that is the more favoured. This is because the pre-generated criminals have plot hooks built into each one that tie them into the scenario and of course with each other that give the scenario much more of a dramatic impetus when those characters are used. Now the presence of the academic and the archaeological field trip has always been part of the scenario’s plot, but not necessarily as plot hooks to pull academic investigators into the scenario. Its inclusion as a plot hook is decently done, but it does not feel as well supported and it does feel like an afterthought.

With the two different options in ‘Blackwater Creek’, the scenarios deliver two different playing experiences. One underplayed, but much more of a traditional Call of Cthulhu investigation, the other more direct and much less of an investigation. Yet, there is a third option. What if both options were played? What if two groups played the two options simultaneously, perhaps at a convention? It would take two good groups and it would require a second set of pre-generated investigators, this time an academic set. So what if…?

The second scenario, ‘Missed Dues’, is written by Mike Mason, the co-author of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, and like ‘Blackwater Creek’ is a criminal affair and set in Lovecraft Country. It differs though by being set earlier in 1922 and in town rather than in the countryside, but like ‘Blackwater Creek’, it comes with a set of six pre-generated player characters. Now these six are underwritten, lacking the backgrounds of the six given for ‘Blackwater Creek’, but they are all criminals working for gang boss, Mordecai ‘the Hammer’ O’Leary, to whom they owe a favour. This is made clear in the conversation that opens the scenario that also suggests their misdeeds—losing a truckload of bootleg whiskey, an extortion attempt that went too far, and an attempted bank robbery made without permission. In return for forgetting their misdeeds, O’Leary wants them to find a small time thief known as ‘Sticky Jack’ Fulton who owes him for a series of burglaries that he committed without permission.

This is an investigation that takes the player characters into the murky alleys of Arkham’s criminal underworld as they track their quarry down. Here they will be at an advantage, since they know this world and they can interact with its denizens. Where they will be at a disadvantage is in determining what it was that ‘Sticky Jack’ Fulton stole, why they were stolen, and who for. This will also take them into the realms of academia where they will stick out like sore thumbs. The likelihood is that they will probably have to rely upon their criminal skills, so they get to shine otherwise. Their investigation will lead them to Fulton’s employer and from their the scenario takes a turn for the weird…

In comparison with ‘Blackwater Creek’, ‘Missed Dues’ is written as a much more of a traditional investigative scenario, even though it is with criminally orientated player characters. Only the single option in ‘Blackwater Creek’—‘Investigator Option One: Miskatonic Faculty’—lends itself to this style of investigation, whilst the other option—‘Investigator Option Two: Bootleggers’—presents more of a Mythos encounter, than an investigation. A probably bullish and hectic, as well as enjoyable, encounter, but an encounter nevertheless.

Ultimately what both scenarios included with the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack feel like are convention scenarios with their pre-generated investigators and plots that limit their use by character types beyond the criminal. This does not mean that either cannot be used with more traditional investigators or more traditional campaigns. ‘Blackwater Creek’ is probably easier of the two to use to that end since it includes that option. On the whole,  ‘Blackwater Creek’ and ‘Missed Dues’ are enjoyable diversions rather than immediately useful as scenarios.

So how I like the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack? The screen is clear, simple, and easy to use, whilst the reference booklet provides further supplementary support. The maps are good to have, and beyond those for the scenarios from the Keeper’s Rulebook, will serve as useful aids in the long term. Whilst it is always good to have scenarios, those presented with the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack offer offer something different to play rather than being necessarily useful. For some that may be a refreshing change, whereas others may not find quite as useful. Overall, the Call of Cthulhu Keeper Screen Pack can definitely be said to be found not wanting and is a solid, pleasingly complete package.

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