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Friday 17 March 2017

Charting the Unchartable

Ostensibly, From Unformed Realms is a supplement for Cthulhu Hack, the stripped RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Just Crunch Games that is based on The Black Hack, the equally back-to-basics RPG inspired by Dungeons & Dragons. In fact, it is a systems neutral supplement that can be used with just about any RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror or any RPG that deals with the weird, in just about any genre or time period. Well, that is except for a couple of pages at the back that are more period and element specific, but neither of those pages are the supplement’s raison d'être, which is essentially, rugose and squamous. What it is, is a means to throw something unexpected and unknown into the path of the investigators, adventurers, or misfortunates…

With a matter of rolling three six-sided dice, the GM can determine a significant feature of something unspeakable. The first die determines the type of traitextremities, senses, skeleton, fluids, appearance, and other features; the second a category, so for example, under fluids the options are voluntary and involuntary (plus tables for nature, neurotoxins, and unclean as needed); and the third die, the specific detail, which might be spittle, ink, sweat, vomit, bile, pus, and so on, all depending upon the rolls made.
Trenton ran. Behind him he could hear Dawson’s cries for help, but it was too late for Dawson, held as he was behind the bar-like ribs of the thing’s chest cavity. It was the first life-form that they had encountered on this planet, its sibilant wheezes, rising and falling making it sound like the wind that should have rolled between the towers of this ancient city of yellow metal. It was not they had they not heard these sounds, it was why they they were just not wary enough until Dawson noticed that there was no wind. Then the sibilance stopped and the shout came. It staggered his companion and before he could react something lumbered out of the shadows with its impossibly tall jaw wide open and snapped shut on the exo-archaeologist. 
Dawson had yelled and banged to get free. It took no notice. Trenton took no notice. All he saw were the multiple legs and then the spinning inside the cavity. Dawson rolling and rolling as a secretion was spread from front to back, howling in fear as he tried to work out what was happening to him. It was not going to happen to him though. Trenton had to get back to the landing ship. Then the thing began to pipe a pulsing sound and as it bounced off the yellow metal walls around him, Trenton knew he was being hunted.
So with a matter of three rolls of the dice, it was determined that with these monsters, its senses involve sound, specifically a shout or whisper; that it has a skeletal adaptation in the form of a cage; and that its form is arachnoid. Anything else is all terrible imagination. Of course, these are just three options and the GM is free to roll as many or as few times as he wants, but this is where From Unformed Realms works best, as a spur upon which the GM can hang his imagination and develop something more from the dice results.

Where From Unformed Realms does not quite work is going from first questions, such as “‘What does this thing look like?” and “What is the role of this thing?”. It is not a means to create monsters and other things in rational means since it neither sets out with those questions in mind nor places the tables and their answers in anything other than a random order. Now there is nothing to stop a GM consulting a particular sub-table to obtain such directed answers, but in some cases there is only a limited number of answers. Which means that such cases, for example ‘form’ and ‘specialist’, do not offer as many variations in comparison to other categories.

Rounding out From Unformed Realms is the two-page ‘The Obligatory Appendix’ in which a GM can roll up a mission statement or plot for his next scenario. These include tables for ‘The Hook?’, ‘Organisation’, ‘Reason?’, ‘Location?’, ‘Horror’s Motivation?’, ‘Nightmares?’, and ‘Strange Discovery?’. Unlike the various tables given in the rest of the book, none of the entries come with an explanation, but to fair, this is not really needed as the various entries are all self-explanatory. Further, these tables are organised in a logical fashion so as to help the GM set up the bare bones of a plot ready for him to flesh out. Further they are really only suited for use in the modern era, so the 1890s of Cthulhu by Gaslight, the Jazz Age of the default period of Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, or the contemporary period of the here and now.

Arguably, From Unformed Realms could benefit from clearer advice on how to use the tables, that is, more directed advice on how to use the tables. Equally, the appendix could be expanded into its own book and there can be no doubt that this would also be very useful. As it is, From Unformed Realms is the sort of book you want to have on your shelf when short of ideas and short of time and browsing for inspiration.

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