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Thursday 29 June 2017

Free RPG 2017: Borderhounds Role Playing Game: Apartment 11A

Now in its tenth year, Free RPG Day offers up a variety of different titles for different games, typically introductory rule sets, also known as quickstarts, or scenarios. The scenarios are of course for existing games, but whilst the quickstarts may likewise also be for existing games, many are for forthcoming games, giving gamers a chance to experience a new game or setting before they released. RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is one such release, as is Borderhounds Role Playing Game: Apartment 11A.

Borderhounds Role Playing Game: Apartment 11A is a release from Troll Lord Games, best known as the publisher of Castles & Crusades, a stripped back version of the d20 System which did two things. First, it did not emulate Dungeons & Dragons, Third Edition, but rather an older version of the game, something akin to Dungeons & Dragons and Basic Dungeons & Dragons, the versions of the RPG that essentially predated Advanced Dungeons & Dragons. Second, it prefigured the Old School Renaissance in presenting old interpretations of Dungeons & Dragons. What Castles & Crusades did introduce was a rules system called the SIEGE Engine. Primarily, this includes a skills and action resolution mechanic for every situation bar combat, which worked just like the d20 System. The SIEGE Engine was an attribute check system which divided each character’s and each monster’s attributes into primary and secondary attributes. Primary attributes gave a base target to succeed of 12 and secondary attributes gave a base target to succeed of 18, with primary and secondary attributes determined according to Class and Race. Every situation had a Challenge Level that could be added to the base target, which gave a Challenge Class against which a player would roll and add bonuses for character's Level, attribute bonuses, and Class. In play it has proved to be a simple means of handling almost any situation in the game.

In the years since its publication in 2004, Castles & Crusades has continued to be popular and the SIEGE Engine has been used in a number of different roleplaying games and genres, including the Science Fiction of Star Siege and the Pulp action of Amazing Adventures. The latest roleplaying game to join the SIEGE Engine family is the Borderhounds Role Playing Game, for which Borderhounds Role Playing Game: Apartment 11A is the quickstart released for Free RPG Day 2017. Before explaining what Borderhounds Role Playing Game and Borderhounds Role Playing Game: Apartment 11A both are, it is important to note that it is not. What Borderhounds Role Playing Game is not is a d20 System interpretation of a roleplaying game of guns, swords, cyberware, and magic a la Shadowrun. The reason that it needs to be said is that the cover of Borderhounds Role Playing Game: Apartment 11A very much gives that impression. After all, one character can be seen wielding a pistol and a katana, another a spell and a revolver, a third looks like a Dwarf complete with assault rifle, cyberarm, and red Mohican, and a fourth who is a Troll with a submachine gun. Which of course, looks very Shadowrun-like.

So if the Borderhounds Role Playing Game is not a multi-genre roleplaying game of magic, guns, and cyberware set in a future America, then what is it? Well, it turns out to be a multi-genre roleplaying game of magic, guns, and cyberware set in a future Hell—and America. This Hell has gone corporate in a big way and what it primarily trades in is the Human Soul—known as ‘Weepers’. Sometimes those Souls go astray and sometimes demons go rogue, and this is when the Department of Retrieval, Hell’s industrial espionage arm, steps in. Or rather some demonic bureaucrat puts out a contract to tender and freelance bounty hunters and troubleshooters known as Borderhounds bid for it. Sometimes these contracts take the Borderhounds into the Wasteland surrounding the thousand mile radius Corporate HQ or even back to Earth.

In the Borderhounds Role Playing Game, the player characters are of course Borderhounds. They primarily Humans, but can also be Demon/human Hybrids, who are widely despised in Hell. No matter their Class, they all have access to firearms, but some Classes like the Occultist have access to spells, a handful of Zero Level and First Level spells being given to that end. Some characters also have access to ‘Forza Infernis’ or ‘Powers of Hell’. These include powers such as Hellfire Blast and Hellfire Burst, Boost Attribute, Danger Sense, and Track Hell. All  ‘Forza Infernis’ require Infernis points to cast and apart for demons, are fatiguing to cast. Humans and Weepers who cast ‘Forza Infernis’ are automatically fatigued, whereas Hybrids must make a Saving Throw against their Constitution to avoid being fatigued.

Four pre-generated characters are provided to play the scenario, ‘Apartment 11A’. They include a Soldier who can bestow leadership bonuses on his allies and a bonus on strategy and tactics checks; an Occultist with knowledge of the arcane and Hell who can cast Arcane Bolt and various spells (though how many is not clear); a Renegade who is the equivalent to the Thief Class; and a Hybrid Street Fighter who has claws, horns, and teeth and besides being able to teleport back and forth from Hell to Earth, can cast ‘Forza Infernis’. All are Third Level and all will need transferring to a character sheet.

The scenario in ‘Apartment 11A’ is a very short affair, just over two-and-a-half pages in length. In it, the player characters are a Borderhounds team on Earth who work for Kain’s Henchmen, a larger group. Relatively new at the job, they have been tasked with tracking down and killing Felswop, a demon on the run in dingy Chicago. This is a small job, passed down by a more famous Borderhound because it was not worth his time. As the scenario opens, the player character Borderhounds have tracked Felswop to the Walton building and are about to go in. All they have to do is enter, go upstairs, enter the titular appartment, and kill the demon. This is not as easy as it sounds, but it is not all that interesting either. There are a couple of traps and a handful of monsters to fight, but very little beyond that. There is very little variation in what the player characters will face and no opportunity for anything other than combat. The result is that ‘Apartment 11A’ feels somewhat flat and one note, not really something you would want for quickstart to showcase a new game.

 Beyond its vibrant cover, Borderhounds Role Playing Game: Apartment 11A is workmanlike in all aspects. The writing is reasonable even if the scenario design is uninspiring. All right, so the pages of Borderhounds Role Playing Game: Apartment 11A are limited at just sixteen and with a lot to pack in, but the scenario does not offer much beyond combat. The good news is that the scenario will not take longer than a session to play through if that. As the very first taster for the Borderhounds Role Playing Game, Borderhounds Role Playing Game: Apartment 11A works adequately enough, but as a quickstart to entice players to play the game, it is underwhelming.

Wednesday 28 June 2017

The Tools of FATE

The FATE System Toolkit is part of the sextet of books funded via Kickstarter for FATE Core, the newest version of Evil Hat Games’ ENNIE award winning light and cinematic generic RPG first seen in Spirit of the Century back in 2006. It began life as the guide to magic for FATE Core, but as the Kickstarter grew and grew, things kept getting added to it, many of which have nothing to do with magic. In each and every case, the FATE System Toolkit asks what the GM wants the new rule or approach to the rules to do and how it fits into the game. It never mandates that its solutions are how something should be done, but rather how the mechanics can be ‘hacked’ to get it done. As it states up front, the FATE System Toolkit is not ‘the’ toolkit for FATE Core, but ‘a’ toolkit for FATE Core. In other words, “Here is how you could do it” rather than “Here is how you should do it”.

In keeping with the Bronze Rule in FATE Core—that anything can be treated as a character—the first things that the FATE System Toolkit looks at are Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Aspects underpin FATE Core and here we get a range of suggestions as what else they can do in addition to the options given in the main rulebook. This includes invoking them for effect rather than a bonus to a roll, such as a dwarf where he is underground and knows which way is North; detonating situation Aspects, that is going from ‘Weak Structural Integrity’ to ‘Collapsing Bridge’; representing quests as Aspects, for example, ‘Sabotage the Imperial Annihilation Station’; and making gear important by giving it Aspects, such as ‘Brutal Orc Cleaver’.  Skills are given a similar range of options, ranging from Professions as Skills or replacing Skills completely with adjectives that describe how a character does something, like Forceful, Graceful, Clever, or Resolute, to working into modes or bundles and even replacing them totally with Aspects. Modes package the skills into bundles for easy character generation and give bonuses to skills that duplicated between bundles. This is one of the options to replace FATE Core’s Skill Pyramid and enables a GM to design modes to fit particular genres or campaigns. Stunts receive a similar if much shorter treatment, including tying them to Aspects or gear rather than Skills, having pre-requisites—much like there was in Spirit of the Century, and so on.

The original way in which the hobby categorised characters is looked at in ‘The Big Game’ rather than campaigns as a whole. So we are shown a way to do Class and Race with Professions such as Fighter or Thief and Races like Elf or Orc. Both are packages that emulate an older style of game as much as FATE Core can. These come with an interesting side note that explains what we mean by Race in game terms. The new Origin Story method of character creation uses flashbacks rather than necessarily forging connections between the characters as per the FATE Core book whilst the Bronze Rule is applied to a scenario structure to use Aspects as the framework, a list of events leading to a crescendo that if reached means that the bad guys are winning! Special Circumstances covers particular situations, for chases which can be designed as challenges or contests and handling motivations and instincts in social interaction, whilst the section of Customized Tools is more a collection of odds and sods, from getting into the nitty gritty of Stress, Consequences,  Zones, and Refresh to creating your own FATE dice.

Given its original purpose, it is surprising that the FATE System Toolkit devotes less than half of its pages to its original purpose—magic. Even then it devotes more of those pages to examples than it does to discussing how to build magic systems for FATE Core. This starts out with what the magic system is designed to do and what its aims are before specifically looking at its tone, source, availability, cost, and limits. Once their ramifications are discussed, it looks at how magic can be modelled through the use of Aspects, Skills, and Stunts. Over all, it does not amount to more than a few pages, but they are a thoughtful few pages, prompting the GM to think about his intended design.

So where the section is lengthy is in its examples—and really good examples they prove to be. Stormcallers power their ambitions by tapping into the five Great Storms raging at the heart of creation—Earthquake, Flood, Glacier, Inferno, and Thunder, whilst Storm Summoners conjure the elementals of these storms to do their bidding. Each example can be used independently, but they nicely go together with the Stormcallers being a development of the magic system in Evil Hat Games’ The Dresden Files RPG. Thematically, The Six Viziers is a ‘Great Steppes of Russia’ inspired system where the characters are marked with a tattoo of one of the great constellations—or Viziers—in the sky and are thus capable of great actions with their skills. In comparison, The Subtle Art opts for the understated effect, that is, the placing of temporary blessings and curses—or Aspects—upon a target. It has a much grittier feel than the other example systems. All of these magic systems are great, but the highlight is Voidcallers, essentially the black, black magic version of the Stormcallers. Instead of tapping into an elemental storm, a Voidcaller draws on the Void for aid and ‘great power’, but this comes with consequences—consequences of the GM’s choosing. This begs to be used as the basis for ‘things mankind is not meant to know’ campaign and as written does not necessarily come with tentacular trappings, but there is nothing to stop a GM from adding these if so desired. Accompanying each of the worked examples is a ‘30-Second Version’ that summarises the system in easy to digest thumbnail fashion. Very useful—and that is before you get to the full details which beg to developed into a fuller setting.

Rounding out the FATE System Toolkit is a set of subsystems, ones that enable the GM to take his game into different directions and enable him to do different things in his game. These include Kung Fu, Cyberware, Gadgets, Monsters, military Squads and Mass Battles, Swashbuckling Duels, Vehicles, Superheroics, and Horror games. Of these, Kung Fu has been more recently done for the Wuxia genre with the alternate takes given in Tianxia: Blood, Silk, & Jade and Jadepunk: Tales of Kausao City. Military Squads and Mass Battles are handled as characters and character-versus-character—as per the Bronze Rule that turns everything into characters—just as you would expect, whilst the Monster rules  do a good job of handling Very Large Monsters across multiple zones. So good for fighting truly big dragons, kaijū, or monsters like those of the computer game, Shadow of the Colossus. The Duelling subsystem works in a similar fashion, enabling characters to swashbuckle back and forth across zones as well as giving advantage to the duellist who makes the best use of the terrain in each of the zones in addition to their opponent’s psychology. Both the Cyberware and Gadgets subsystems enable characters to build great devices, that is with advantages and weaknesses, whilst the Vehicles subsystem calls for the characters to emotionally invest in their joint-owned Mystery Van/Firefly class spaceship/Babylon 5.

Lastly, the FATE System Toolkit suggests ways in which FATE Core can do horror, a genre that it admits that it is ill equipped to handle. By turning up the Compels for an Oppressive Atmosphere, turning up the difficulty of any obstacles for Impossible Circumstances, and turning down player character resources—fate points, stress, and consequences—for Stark Desperation, the FATE System Toolkit shows how FATE Core could do horror, especially the more cosmic horror of Lovecraft’s works. These suggestions would also work nicely with the Voidcaller magic system given as an example earlier in the book.

Physically, the FATE System Toolkit is a sturdy hardback. It is well written, cleanly presented, and illustrated with some excellent artwork. This though, does not mean that it is without issue. Most RPGs involve one or more elements of the technical. Indeed the roleplaying game can be best described as ‘technical fiction’, their requiring technical information—or rules—to help the GM and his players participate in the fiction or setting. The FATE System Toolkit is more technical than fiction, which means that it is probably drier than most RPG supplements. Which does mean that FATE System Toolkit is not always the most engaging of reads and it explains why it took this reviewer more than one attempt to read through it, but to be fair, that is as much an issue with this reviewer as it is the book. In fact, it is probably more the former than the latter given that ideas in the FATE System Toolkit gives are imaginative and fun. There are, undeniably, great ideas in the FATE System Toolkit for adding this or that to a FATE Core game as well as, of course, for tinkering with different elements of said FATE Core game.

The rules and mechanics to almost every roleplaying game are written in stone. Their designers will doubtless note in the forward to said game that the game and thus the rules you have are now yours and can tinkered with or played the way that you want. Then they leave all of the effort making and implementing those changes up to you. Not so the designers of FATE Core. They give you a book that is entirely devoted to thinking about and implementing those changes to make FATE Core your game. Then they give you examples. Really good examples.

You never need anything more than FATE Core to run or create a FATE game, but the FATE System Toolkit may well be ever so useful when the GM and his players come to do so. The FATE System Toolkit is a thoughtful tinkerer’s guide to getting under the hood of FATE Core.

Monday 26 June 2017

The Fall of the Wall

Please forgive this interruption from the normal round of reviews, but I want to bring your attention to a recent announcement at Yog-sothoth.com. Approximately a decade ago, fans at what is the premier site for Lovecraftian investigative gaming decided that they would work together to create a companion to the hobby’s greatest campaign, Masks of Nyarlathotep, and so answer the many questions that have arisen over the years about the campaign, offer enhancements, and provide advice and support. The result was the labour of love that is The Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, which has been described as the equivalent of the ‘Masks of Nyarlathotep wiki’. Successfully funded on Kickstarter in support of the many costs that go to keep Yog-sothoth.com, the Companion has been well received (not least by me) and there have been calls for it to see continued publication.

Unfortunately, in fully funding the printing of The Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion, there have not been enough monies to fund the continued operation of Yog-sothoth.com and as a consequence, its owner, Paul of Cthulhu has decided to part with his collection of Call of Cthulhu books which stretches back over thirty years. There are some great titles and items on this list, including a very many rarities, If there is a tome that you are after, please check this list and consider making a purchase and so help keep Yog-sothoth.com a going community.

Sunday 25 June 2017

Carcosa in Carcassonne

Originally published in 2000 by Hans im Glück in German and by Rio Grande Games in English, Carcassonne is one of the early, great Euro-style board games. Currently published by Z-Man Games, it won the Spiel des Jahres in 2001 and has since gone on to become a classic and is rightly regarded as a gateway game to the hobby. Based on the town in south-west France, it sees the players attempt to build the town of Carcassonne using the game’s tiles as they see fit, constructing cities, completing roads, surrounding monasteries, and occupying farms tile by tile, and then claiming them with their knights, thieves, monks, and farmers. Since its initial release, there have been both multiple expansions for the game and multiple versions of the game, but what if Carcassonne were to fall prey to a malign meme, an insidious influence, a yammering yellow? What if there were men and women desperate enough and ready to drive themselves mad in service of a greater goal, to make the ancient Roman city not ‘Carcaso’, but Carcosa?

This is almost the setup for Carcosa – A Lovecraftian board game of Cults and Madness published by One Free Elephant. It does not actually see the Yellow Sign subvert the town of Carcassonne, but it does take the same tile-laying, area control mechanics of Carcassonne the game and build on them to see rival cults—or players—race to bring the Tattered King to Earth, commanding cultists to control ley lines, conduct rituals, explore the districts of Carcosa itself as they replace our reality, and even sacrifice them to the dark waters of Lake Hali for the pleasure of the King. 

Designed for two to four players, aged fourteen and over, Carcosa can be played in about hour, sometimes less. It consists of eight-four Carcosa tiles, four Hastur tiles, a Cult Mat, four sets of ten ‘Cultists’, four sets of Ritual Stones, four Chapter House cards, four Forbidden Lore cards, and the rulebook. The four Hastur tiles are the game’s starting tiles and show parts of a District in Lake Hali. The eight-four Carcosa tiles show several types of features in Carcosa. These are Districts, Ritual Sites, Confluxes, Ley Lines, and Lake Hali. When placed each tile must be placed adjacent to an existing tile and the sides of the tiles must match. Notably, each of the Carcosa tiles is double-sided and has ‘Stable’ and ‘Unstable’ sides. When a player draws a tile, he examines it and places it so that its ‘Unstable’ side is face up. Only when a feature is completed—Districts built, Ley Lines linked, Ritual Sites surrounded, and sections of Lake Hali enclosed—will it stabilise so that the feature’s tiles can be turned over and its controlling player can harness its power.

The Cult Mat is divided into two sections. The outer section is the Occult Power track which is used to track each player’s progress towards the Summoning Ritual which will bring the King in Yellow to Earth. The inner section is the Ritual Chamber with spaces for the Carcosa tiles to be placed ‘Stable’ side face down. The middle of the Ritual Chamber is marked with the Yellow Sign. This is where potential Cultist recruits can be found and ultimately, the Summoning Ritual is held to bring the King in Yellow to Earth.

Each player’s ten Cultists consists of a Prophet, who sits on the Ritual Mat and controls access to the undrawn Carcosa tiles; an Oracle who keeps track of a cult’s score and progress towards the Summoning Ritual; and eight Cultists. Three of these wait on the Ritual Mat, ready to be recruited and two wait in the Cult’s Chapterhouse, one in the Asylum and one in the Recovery Room. This leaves a player and his cult with just three Cultists at start of play.

Each player has access to a set of six Ritual Stones, each numbered from two to seven. By completing Ley Lines, a player can imbue these with power, the longer the Ley Line, the higher the number of the Ritual Stone which can be imbued. On subsequent turns, a player can use a Ritual Stone to gain an advantage. For example, ‘We Are Legion’ allows a player to add a Cultist to an uncontrolled feature, whilst ‘Shape the Beyond’ lets him take a Carcosa tile from the stack currently controlled by his Prophet and save it to be played later. Notably, possession of a higher numbered Ritual Stone means that it can be used as a lesser numbered Ritual Stone. Each player has a Forbidden Lore card which details the powers of all six Ritual Stones.

Lastly, each cult has a Chapterhouse with two rooms, an Asylum and a Recovery Room. When a Cultist completes a feature, he is sent to his Chapterhouse’s Asylum. On subsequent turns, he will move to the Recovery Room before becoming ready to play again. This strengthens the resource management aspect of the game, since completing features will temporarily limit the number of Cultists he has from one turn to the next.

A player’s turn consists of five steps—Recover Sanity, Tile Selection, Tile Placement/Replacement, Cultist Placement, and Tile Resolution. In the Recover Sanity step, Cultists are moved from the Asylum to the Recovery Room and from the Recovery Room to a player’s supply, enabling Cultists who completed features in earlier turns and were sent insane, to gain their semblance of sanity—after all, no sane man wants to summon the Yellow King. In Tile Selection, a player takes a tile from a stack which does not have a Prophet belonging to any player on it and then places his Prophet on that stack. This blocks access to that stack until after the current player’s next turn and adds a resource denial aspect to the game as the players block and unblock access to the stacks. Having drawn a tile, a player examines its Stable side to determine where to place it in the Tile Placement/Replacement and adds it to the tiles in play with the Unstable side face up. Notably, he can use this tile to replace an existing Unstable tile—as long as the sides match with the tiles it is being placed alongside. Replaced tiles are not lost, but added to the bottom of a stack to be drawn later. In the Cultist Placement step, the player can add a Cultist to the feature he has added or extended—on the Ley Lines, Districts, Ritual Sites, or in Lake Hali—as long as there is not a Cultist already on it.

In the Tile Resolution step, if a feature is completed, all of its tiles are flipped over from their Unstable to Stable sides. The Cultists who completed the feature go insane and are sent to the player’s Asylum. Power is then drawn to various effects, depending upon the type of completed feature. Districts score points and advance a player towards starting the Summoning Ritual. Some Districts contain ‘theatres’ which allow a player to recruit additional Cultists. Ritual Sites are completed when surrounded by eight other tiles. This scores a player more points, but if the Ritual Site is home to a feaster—something that only the placing player will know—it devours the Cultist on the Ritual Site and any Cultists in the surrounding waters of Lake Hali. Although this scores points for all players whose Cultists are devoured, these Cultists are sent to the Cult Mat and cannot rejoin the game unless recruited via a District with a Theatre. Although this scores points for everyone involved, it can be used as a means of denying Cultists to a rival player. A player can sacrifice a Cultist to Lake Hali to score points, though this will reduce the number of Cultists he has to hand. By completing a Ley Line, a player will imbue a Ritual Stone, unless it is connected to an ‘Empowered Conflux’, in which case, he will imbue a Ritual Stone and score points.

Play continues until one of two conditions are met. If two stacks are depleted on the Cult Mat, the game ends, players score for any incomplete features they control, and the player with the most points takes control of Carcosa and wins the game. This is the less interesting of the two conditions. The more interesting condition occurs when a player’s Oracle reaches the end of the scoring track on the Cult Mat and so can begin the Summoning Ritual. This requires him to complete three more features and send their corresponding and now insane Cultists to the Cult Mat (instead of the cult’s Chapterhouse). The first player to do so, brings the Yellow King to Earth and wins the game.

Carcosa quite literally brings several new twists to Carcassonne and its style of play. Cultists being sent insane by completing features and their need to recover imposes a strong resource management aspect, whilst the ability to complete a Ritual Site and sacrifice Cultists of any player enforces this—though they do extra points for these sacrifices. So a player needs to be very careful not to overcommit his Cultists lest he exhaust the numbers he has to place. The ability to block access to the tile stacks gives another tactical aspect to play. The Unstable/Stable aspect of tile placement adds a sense of mystery and hidden play to the game, but being able to replace an Unstable tile can be very powerful, especially if it changes the effect of a tile, such as connecting a Ley Line to an ‘Empowered Conflux’ or changing a Ritual Site to one with a Feaster—or vice versa. That said, while the Stable/Unstable tile mechanic is clever, it can be fiddly when it comes to flipping them over, so players do need to be careful. Above all, the Summoning Ritual as the end game condition makes the game a race, one that any player can still catch up to if he is behind as well as slowing a player down who is attempting the Summoning Ritual. In addition, the Ritual Stones can give a player an advantage just when he needs it. All of those does mean that there is much more to learning to play Carcosa than Carcassonne and that the game’s full details will really come out after a few plays.

Physically, Carcosa is a nicely presented game. Everything is in full colour, the tiles are beautiful pieces of artwork, dark and moody, even ominous, each presented on thick card. The Cultists are wood—as they should be for a Carcassonne-style game—but pleasing cut to represent berobbed cult members. The rulebook does look a bit plain though and although it does explain the rules well enough, it is not the easiest set of rules to read or indeed use as a reference guide to the rules. The Cult Mat, though sturdy, feels a bit cramped in play. (Note that this review is of a pre-production copy, so the ultimate design will vary, most notably the rulebook will be presented in full colour and redesigned.)

Thematically, Carcosa is a delight. Its artwork and the Cultist meeples—this is a Carcassonne-style game, so each player’s Cultists are always meeples—bring an ominous sense of dread and doom to the game play, yet without overpowering it. There no great Mythos creature or entity lumbering into view, but always a sense of building towards something insidious and despairing. At its core, the game play remains simple, but Carcosa does add several degrees of complexity to Carcassonne’s mechanics, moving the game well away from being a gateway game as does the theme, which is more adult and darker in tone. Another reason it is not a gateway game, is that the complexity means a greater range of tactical options, perhaps slightly too many for casual play. That also means though, that the players have more opportunity to be tactical—not just in terms of their tiles and where to place them, but also which tile stack to block, when to play a Ritual Stone, when to sacrifice everyone’s Cultists, and so on. 

Of course it could be argued that Carcosa is an overly complex version of Carcassone, but then the players are trying to perform a Summoning Ritual and what ritual is ever easy? Yet the complexity is born of a design combination that is clever and in places novel, bringing both mechanical depth and thematic depth to a design classic. Ultimately though, the cleverest aspect of One Free Elephant bringing Carcosa to Carcassone is not noting the connection, which was there for all to see, but making the connection in terms of theme and game—such that you have to wonder why no one made the connection before.


Carcosa – A Lovecraftian board game of Cults and Madness is currently being funded via a Kickstarter campaign.

Saturday 24 June 2017

It's the End of the World

Worldbreaker is something that The Esoterrorists has never had before. Originally published in 2006 and then in a second edition in 2013, The Esoterrorists is Pelgrane Press’ roleplaying game of investigating and combatting occult terrorists intent on tearing the fabric of the world by exposing it to the creatures of the Outer Black. Notably, it launched the GUMSHOE System, the publisher’s investigative, clue-orientated roleplaying mechanics, which it has used for the majority of its roleplaying games since, including Mutant City Blues,  Ashen Stars, and Night’s Black Agents. In that time, The Esoterrorists has been supported with numerous scenarios and a supplement or two, but it has lacked is a campaign. Worldbreaker is the campaign that fulfills that lack.

For decades the Esoterrorists have conducted occult activities and conspiracies aimed at tearing open the membrane between our reality and the horrific vortex of the Outer Dark. Only the Ordo Veritatis has worked to thwart their activities, throwing back any demons that slip through tears in the membrane, breaking up Esoterrorist plans, and conducting operations to cover up what really happened, lest the fear and the horror become known and so further weaken the membrane. To date the Esoterrorists have been conducting single operations, but now their plans seem to be coalescing and pushing forward towards to a very final end. From a brutal ritual in an underground club in San Francisco, agents of Ordo Veritatis—the player characters—will find clues and links to greater plans, clues and plans that will lead them back and forth across the globe. This is the set up for Worldbreaker, a campaign detailing the Esoterrorist efforts to bring about their final plans written by the designer of the GUMSHOE System and The Esoterrorists, Robin D. Laws.

Taking its cue from previous titles from Pelgrane Press like The Zalozhniy Quartet for Night’s Black Agents and even older campaigns of investigative horror like The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep, the structure of the campaign in Worldbreaker has a beginning and an end that are set, but the scenarios in between can be played in any order. Clues are laid in the initial scenario with links to each of the following four and then clues gathered from the four build links to the campaign’s climax. Following these clues will take the Ordo Veritatis agents from San Francisco to Washington, D.C. and back and forth across the USA and then on globetrotting investigations to Leicester in the UK—a nod to the author’s attendance of Continuum, to a cave system in Belize, to Moldova, and Nigeria before the final destination can be determined. The campaign itself is not only globetrotting, but so are several of the scenarios.

Worldbreaker opens in San Francisco with the prologue, ‘Into the Basement’, a descent into the aftermath of an assault upon alternative lifestyles which culminated in a bloody ritual and a suicide pact. How and why did a middle class vanilla family come to commit such acts? Answering these questions presents the agents with the first clues to the campaign’s greater conspiracy. The scenario plays out as a traditional law enforcement investigation, with lots of clues to gather and organise from the crime scene, so it feels very like an episode from the C.S.I. franchise. That said, the bloody nature and adult themes of ‘Into the Basement’ definitely make it a scenario for mature gamers and set the tone for campaign to come even as it plays out in a very straightforward manner.

(Note: This review will discuss the four scenarios in Worldbreaker in the order in which they appear in the book. So when the scenario number is mentioned, it should not be taken as the implication that they should be played in this order—Worldbreaker is not The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep.)

As the title of the first scenario suggests, it involves clowns. Drawing on the rash of random clown sightings in 2016,  ‘Coulrophobia’ begins simply with that, a thin link to the sighting of a man dressed as a clown that becomes more when the first of series of strange car-related deaths occur nearby. Are the deaths related to the clown sightings and if so, how? Following the trail leads to another outbreak, this time in Leicester in the UK. This scenario shifts from the prologue in terms of skill, involving much more in the way of interpersonal skills than it does technical or forensic skills. One issue is that the scenario’s UK-set scenes do not feel particularly authentic and still some Northern American in their details. Nevertheless, the Ordo Veritas agents will need to work quickly if the clown sightings and the strange deaths are not to spread…

Where the other scenarios in Worldbreaker are quite contained, the second scenario, ‘Geoslashers’ threatens to sprawl as the Ordo Veritatis agents investigate how the world’s leading search engine—here called ‘Waltz’, but as the author suggests, substitute the one of your choice—is managing to capture the sight of dead bodies with its street-mapping and satellite-imaging technology. Is this simply a case of one too many a coincidence or is someone playing to the cameras? A much more open scenario, this pulls the investigators hither and thither, and the GM will probably need to juggle its various scenes around in reaction to how the players and their investigators conduct the investigation.

The third scenario, ‘New Crystal Maiden’, is the most straightforward and easiest to run in the campaign. Set in Belize it draws from horror films like The Descent—which itself is probably a big clue as to what happens—in having the protagonists trapped and hunted in a cave system. This turns the more traditional investigative horror of most scenarios for The Esoterrorists into a survival horror adventure and just like a traditional horror movie, it includes a cast of deplorables that when it comes down to it, you are happy to see shredded in the dark. This cast of deplorables is in fact all too modern, the cast and crew of a new reality television series to which the agents can attach themselves to.

As with the second scenario, the title of the fourth scenario, ‘Heart of Outer Darkness’ says a great deal about its inspiration and its story. The Ordo Veritatis agents have to travel into dangerous territory and the ‘heart of darkness’ not once, but twice. Once in the furthest reaches of Eastern Europe and the quite literally ill-regarded territories caught between the old Soviet Union and the new Russia, then again into war torn Africa and the rebel-held forests of Nigeria. Both journeys have a tired, wrung out quality to them, the first of old espionage tales, the second of old colonialism, though the trip through west Africa is the one in the campaign that touches the most upon contemporary events, in particular the ebola outbreaks and the activities of Boko Haram. Both trips also highlight the limitations of Ordo Veritatis  as for the most part, the agents will be on their own as they travel up country. The journey structure of the scenario means that it builds to a definite climax and feels as it should come fourth in the order that the scenarios should be played, despite the fact that they can be played in any order.

Rounding out Worldbreaker is its climax, ‘Swallowed’. Each of the preceding four scenarios come with pipe clues which feed into this scenario and the mystery of a disappeared passenger flight. It allows the Ordo Veritatis agents to pull any last strings together before confronting the Esoterrorists and their very final plans. This echoes the end of the Call of Cthulhu campaign, Shadows of Yog-sothoth, but brings it up to date with a party, a degree of bureaucracy, and a very matter of fact attitude. 

Physically, Worldbreaker is a slim book, ably illustrated by Chris Huth. It feels slightly rushed in places and perhaps could have been better localised in places. Each of the scenarios is neatly organised with notes on handling, clues leading in and out, as well as suggestions to the veil out, the procedure for covering up each Esoterrorist activity—though in the case of ‘Swallowed’, that veil out is going to have be very big indeed. (There are also notes for running Worldbreaker for Night’s Black Agents included in an appendix.) Throughout of course, the skills required to push each investigation forward are clearly marked, though what is clear is that the expenditure of investigation skill points is kept low throughout. This also has the effect of confining the majority of the campaign’s mechanical aspects to the use of general skills—mostly in fights, scuffles, and the getting out of the way.

In terms of structure and scale, Worldbreaker does feel very much like a Call of Cthulhu campaign. A small mystery leads to a conspiracy and a larger mystery which in solving will reveal a global threat and ultimately the means to defeat it in a final confrontation. This should not be taken as a criticism, for there are some very fine Call of Cthulhu campaigns and the model has been proven to work again and again. Worldbreaker though, is a campaign for The Esoterrorists, and that means it is a contemporary affair, more brutal and often sordid in tone, its horror not quite so arcane. It is also a short campaign by any measure, none of the scenarios being more than a few sessions long, which also means it can be better paced and Ordo Veritatis can thus save the world—if not necessarily the player character agents—in quite short order.

Thursday 22 June 2017

Free RPG Day: Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special

Saturday, June 17th was Free RPG Day—the tenth Free RPG Day and as was to be expected, it came with an array of new and interesting little releases. Invariably they are tasters for forthcoming games to be released at GenCon the following August—or even later, but others are support for existing RPGs or pieces of gaming ephemera. Amongst the array each year there will always be one or more hotly anticipated title and one of these was the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure. This was joined by the first release for another old game, Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special.

Originally published in 1990 by West End Games, Torg was a cinematic multi-genre role-playing game in which the Earth was invaded by several different realities—or ‘cosms’—that mapped themselves onto our reality. Each cosm was essentially a different roleplaying genre, the Living Land being a Lost World-style jungle that covered much of the USA; Aysle, a magical low-tech world a la Dungeons & Dragons covering the United Kingdom; the Cyberpapacy of France combined cyberpunk with theocratic dystopia; Japan became Nippon Tech, an ultracapitalist nightmare society ruled by corporations; the New Nile Empire mixed Ancient Egypt with pulp action in North Africa; and Indonesia became Orrorsh, a  Gothic horror realm of the Victorian age. Each of these cosms had a High Lord who competed to dominate the others in the ‘Possibility Wars’, but as ‘Storm Knights’, the player characters not only remain resistant to the changes mapped by these cosms, but can go from one cosm to another unchanged. This allowed a mix of character types, so a stone age warrior-shaman from the Living Land could fight alongside a mage from Aysle, a hacker-priest from the Cyberpapacy, a martial artist from Nippon Tech, a consulting detective from Orrorsh, and a gadgeteer from the New Nile Empire and stand up against the High Lords in the desperate Possibility Wars. 

Initially well received, Torg gained its hardcore fans, but suffered from various issues as detailed here and it was out of print by 1996 and by 2006, the proposed second edition, Torg 2.0, had also not appeared. German publisher, Ulisses Spiele, best known for the leading German fantasy roleplaying game, The Dark Eye, has owned Torg since 2010, but it is only in 2017 that we are getting to see the second edition, known as Torg Eternity, with this Kickstarter campaign. Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special is an introduction to the new setting.

Unlike Torg, the setting for Torg Eternity is not of an Earth where the Storm Knights successfully defeated the High Lords, but one where the High Lords were far more successful in their desire to take the Earth and harvest its Possibilities. The ‘Core Earth’ of Torg Eternity is also more action orientated than our own and magic and miracles exist.

Torg Eternity uses similar mechanics to those used by Torg, what became known as Masterbook and would be subsequently used in West End Games’ own Science Fiction roleplaying game, Shatterzone, as well as a number of licensed properties, The World of Indiana Jones, The World of Necroscope, and The World of Tank Girl. In this system, a character’s attribute or attribute plus skill is compared against a Difficulty Number, the standard Difficulty Number being ten. To this is added a number generated on the Bonus Chart included at the bottom of each character sheet, which can range from -8 to +13 or more if a player rolls well. This is rolled on a twenty-sided die. The chart is very slightly slanted towards low or negative numbers, but if a player rolls a ten or a twenty on the die, he can keep rolling the die, adding up the numbers rolled to get a Die Total. The character’s  attribute or attribute plus skill plus the penalty or bonus generated on the Bonus Chart is the character’s Action Total. The Action Total is compared to the Difficulty Number to determine if the character is successful and then the Success Levels achieved. 
So for example, Tom is being chased by edeinos scouts—lizard warriors in the Living Land and having clambered out onto the fire escape decides to leap across the alley to the opposite fire escape. Tom has an attribute rating of seven for his Dexterity and a Maneuver skill rating of +2. This gives him a base Action Total of nine, but since the GM has set the the Difficulty Number at ten, Tom’s player needs to roll on the Bonus Chart. He rolls a twenty! This gives him a starting Die Total of +7, but since he has rolled twenty, he can roll again and add the total. He rolls two, which he adds to the twenty to get a Die Total of twenty-two and checking the Bonus Chart gives a bonus of +8 to add to the current Action Total, which is now seventeen. This is seven Success Levels above the Difficulty Number and gives Tom a Good result. 
The basic rules presented in the Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special cover actions, including interaction and physical attacks. The combat rules also cover options such as all-out attacks, combined actions, and so on. In addition, every Storm Knight have Possibilities, typically three per act of an adventure and these can be used to roll extra dice for an action and to negate Wounds and Shock suffered. One other aspect of the Torg Eternity that comes into play when a Mishap or one is rolled, is that any equipment being used which is not supported by the local reality loses its connection to its home cosm made possible by the Storm Knight and will not work until the connection can be made again.

The scenario in the Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special is ‘Invasion’. Designed to be played by up to six players plus the GM, it is set in New York on the very day that the ‘maelstrom bridge’ crashed onto the city and began turning both it and the rest of North America into the Living Land. It sees the Storm Knights—though they do not know it yet—try to get to a place of refuge away from the marauding dinosaurs and lizard warriors. Consisting of six relatively short scenes, it presents a solid showcase for the setting and its mechanics, but it is very action and combat orientated and not one of the scenes any interaction, at least in terms of the rules.

Besides the monsters, the scenario is supported by six sample characters. Including an academic, an executive, an athlete, a paramedic, a crook, and particularly up-to-date, a near celebrity, they represent a good mix of characters and Americans. Both they and the scenario is not quite ready to play though, as the sample characters do not come with their own character sheets and one will be needed to be filled in for each character. 

Physically, Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special is a slim, sixteen-page booklet. It is done in full colour, but is sparsely illustrated. The writing is pacey and a GM could prepare Invasion and have it ready to run in an hour. The adventure itself should be completed in a session.

Of course, Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special only covers a tiny fragment of the Torg Eternity setting, but the scenario drops the player characters into this setting and gets them up to speed quickly enough. The other issue is with the Torg Eternity mechanics, which are not quite straightforward and not quite intuitive, though they play reasonably enough.

Given that Torg Eternity encompasses a multiverse, the Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special really does only provide a taster of the Torg Eternity setting. It is enough of a taster for one session though and that is the point of the Torg Eternity Free RPG Day Special

Friday 16 June 2017

Free RPG Day: RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure

For all of its forty-year history, RuneQuest as a roleplaying game has been intrinsically linked to the setting of Glorantha. Even if not quite so effectively as the recent republication of RuneQuest Classics proved, but for many of those four decades, that link has not been as strong as many think, and arguably in several cases, not even present at all. In much of that time, RuneQuest has been a set of rules to which the setting of Glorantha can be added and in the twenty first century, only the roleplaying games, Hero Wars and HeroQuest: Glorantha have combined both mechanics and setting. That all changes with the latest incarnation of RuneQuest, recently returned to the bosom of its original publisher, Chaosium, Inc.. RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha once again makes Glorantha intrinsic to RuneQuest.

Although 2017 is going to be a good year with the release of both 13th Age in Glorantha from Pelgrane Press following a successful Kickstarter campaign and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha from Chaosium, before we see either, we will be given a taste of the latter with the release of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure. This is for Free RPG Day, the annual event for which various hobby gaming publishers supply an array of titles and paraphernalia intended to support or introduce their games—now in its tenth year. RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is designed to do the latter, introducing the new edition of the classic rules, as well as elements of the setting and a scenario that can be played through in a single good session, if not two.

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha can be best described as Classic RuneQuest with bits of HeroQuest—or rather, bits of King Arthur: Pendragon—set during the Hero Wars. Or at least it does from the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – QuickStart and Adventure. Long time Gloranthaphiles and RuneQuesters will recognise many elements of this game that date all the way back to the original game. It remains a Basic Roleplay System roleplaying game, which means that characters have seven attributes—Strength, Constitution, Size, Intelligence, Dexterity, Charisma, and Power—which range between three and eighteen; individual skills are percentiles, including weapons; everyone has individual hit locations which can be armoured for better protection; and everyone has access to Spirit magic—or Battle magic; in combat, order of action is determined by Strike Rank; and when rolls need to be made between characters, NPCs, or objects, then the GM needs to refer to the Resistance Table. Similarly, in terms of the background, the period in which RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is set, that of Dragon Pass during the Hero Wars of the 1610s and 1620s after the Sartarite rebellion that threw out the occupying Lunar Empire, will be familiar to both Gloranthaphiles and RuneQuesters.

What sets RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha apart from the previous versions of RuneQuest are two obvious changes, one minor, one major. The minor change is to the combat rules—there is no Defence value, no value intrinsic to a player character, NPC, or creature which makes them more difficult to attack. Instead, the emphasis is moved to active values, essentially parrying with a weapon or a shield, or dodging. The major change is the inclusion of Runes—Elements, Powers, Forms, and Conditions—and Passions—commonly Devotion, Hate, Honour, Love, and Loyalty—that are used in various ways. Runes represent affinities with the gods and the fundamental building blocks of the world. Passions are how a character feels about the world, what he believes in, and how strong his ties are to his community and other groups. Runes are rolled against when attempting to cast Rune magic, but like Passions, a player character can take inspiration from them to guide his actions and invoke them to augment his actions. Like skills both Passions and Runes are represented by percentage values and when rolled against, they can provide a modifier that will augment the player character’s next action.
For example, a Sartarite farmer whose parents were killed by the invading Lunar Empire and is confronted by a squad of Lunar soldiers might invoke any number of Runes and Passions in order to determine his next course of action and then augment that action. Or his player might roll against his character’s Passion of Hate (Lunar Empire) 80% to determine his next action and when attacking with his spear might invoke his character’s Rune (Air) 80% to potentially augment his next action. So the player rolls 27% and in comparing that to the character’s Hate (Lunar Empire) 80%, it is clear that the character will attack the Lunar captain. The character takes up his spear and leaps from his mount intent on stabbing the Lunar captain with his spear,  calling upon Orlanth to aid him and invoking his Rune (Air) 80% as he does. His player rolls 30%, indicating a Success and a +20% bonus to his spear attack, which goes from 90% to 110%!
 Alternatively, the player might have decided that his character wanted to talk to the Lunar soldiers and the GM asked him to check against his Passion. Or the player might have just decided that his Passion was enough and invoked that for the attack roll. However they are used, what Runes and Passions are in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha is both a means to tie the player and their characters into the setting of Glorantha and to both enhance and enforce their roleplaying.

After a quick introduction to the setting of Glorantha—an introduction that will be familiar from previous supplements—RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure runs through the rules and mechanics in good order, including various spot rules as necessary. They are clearly organised and will be familiar to anyone who has played RuneQuest. Understandably, there is a particular emphasis placed on the Passions and Runes, the former because they are an element new to RuneQuest if not to the Basic Roleplay System and the latter, whilst not new to RuneQuest, how they are used is.

In terms of magic, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha offers various types that will be familiar to both Gloranthaphiles and RuneQuesters. RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure though, focuses on two—Rune Magic and Spirit magic and does not include either Sorcerery or Spirit Combat as they are too complex to cover in the few pages on magic in the booklet. Of the two, Spirit Magic will be the familiar to most, being like the Battle Magic of previous editions, with spells like Bladesharp 1, Demoralise 3, Healing 2, and so on. These are spells that anyone can learn and cast, needing no more than Magic Points and a roll versus the character’s Power. Rune magic consists of spells that are only taught by the various cults that worship Glorantha’s many gods. They require the expenditure of Rune points—which are gained by the permanent sacrifice of Power and then replenished through proper worship of the gods—and then making a roll against the player character’s Rune affinity.

So for example, having delivered the initial blow against the Lunar captain, the Sartarite farmer might take a moment to cast Bladesharp 2. This requires the expenditure of two Magic Points and a Power check, a roll against the character’s POW×5, which is 60%. The farmer’s player makes the roll and the head of the farmer’s spear glistens with sharpness, adding a total of +10% to the farmer’s short spear skill and +2 to its damage. This increases the farmer’s Short Spear skill from 90% to 100% and its damage from 1D6+1 to 1D6+3.  
Alternatively, as a devout worshipper of Orlanth, the Sartarite farmer knows the Lightning Rune spell and casts it to bring down the wrath of Orlanth on his enemies, in this case, the Lunar captain. First, the farmer’s player rolls his affinity of Rune (Air) 80% and succeeds, then expends two Rune points. The farmer’s eyes flash with lightning and with a crack of thunder, the lightning strikes the Lunar captain in the right arm. Unfortunately, he fails his Resistance roll and he suffers 2D6 damage which ignores any armour he is wearing. An average damage roll will incapacitate the Lunar captain and a good damage roll will maim or blow the arm off… The situation looks poor for the Lunar captain.
Of course, having expended those two Rune points, the Sartarite farmer is unlikely to be able to cast Rune magic as powerful in the short term. He will need to worship at a proper shrine or festival in order to regain these, so a player character should never be frivolous in its use.

Half of the RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is devoted to the rules. The other half is devoted to a starting scenario, ‘The Broken Tower’, plus the five player characters. They include a noble farmer-warrior, son of the clan chieftain and initiate of Issaries; a cavalrywoman and initiate of Orlanth Adventurous; and an apprentice priestess of the Earth goddess Ernalda. All three are of the Ernaldori clan of the Colymar Tribe. The trio are accompanied by a revolutionary against the Lunars and scribe from Nochet, plus an initiate of Lhankor Mhy, as well as a heavy infantry soldier from Dunstop, in Lunar Tarsh, an initiate of Seven Mothers. All five are experienced characters and all have strong affinities in terms of Runes and Passions, as well as Spirit and Rune magic. Of the five, the only one that presents any difficulty in terms of play is the heavy infantry soldier from Dunstop, in Lunar Tarsh. For anyone coming to RuneQuest and Glorantha anew, the differences between playing a Sartarite rebel against the Lunar Empire and a renegade Tarshite Lunar soldier may be just a little too nuanced to roleplay effectively, let alone imparting that difference to those playing the Sartarites.

‘The Broken Tower’ takes place in an area known as ‘the badlands’ lying at the southernmost stretch of the Starfire Range of mountains. The player character are members or associates of the Ernaldori clan of the Colymar Tribe, assigned to track down some thieves who have not only stolen some of the tribe’s cattle, but also killed some of their tribe members. They chase the miscreants into the Badlands only for them to discover that the region is home to deadlier and much older foes than mere cattle thieves and murderers. It showcases the scope and some of the scale of the setting whilst keeping everything reasonably self-contained. The scenario includes opportunities for replaying and combat, though ultimately, what it does enforce is that combat is not the only solution and that the gods are very, very real.

Physically, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is ably and tidily presented, though perhaps it is a bit too grey in terms of presentation. For players new to RuneQuest, the layout could have been better, in particular, the boxed sections, ‘Gloranthan Gods and Cults’ and ‘About Glorantha and RuneQuest’, really would have been more useful closer to the front of the booklet. The artwork is excellent, though of course it will no doubt look better in colour rather than in greyscale as it is here.

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is not really a product designed to introduce those new to roleplaying to the hobby as it does not provide that basic a starting point. That said, there is nothing to prevent someone new to roleplaying being introduced to the hobby as part of an existing group using the rules and adventure presented in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure. Those new to both RuneQuest and/or Glorantha, but not roleplaying in general will probably have no issues grasping either the rules or the basics of the setting, though no doubt the recently announced Glorantha QuickStart will likely make up for more than just the basics of the setting given here. For the long time Gloranthaphile or RuneQuester who has played RuneQuest in any form, whether RuneQuest Classics or HeroQuest Glorantha, then picking up and playing RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure will be ever so easy—and even easier if he has played King Arthur: Pendragon with its heavy reliance on traits and passions. In fact, for an experienced GM who is familiar with RuneQuest and Glorantha, RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure is easy to use and ‘The Broken Tower’ is easy and quick to prepare. 

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha – Quickstart and Adventure does exactly what it sets out to do and that is provide a good introduction to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. It does this not just for a single Free RPG Day, but for the foreseeable future.

Sunday 11 June 2017

Caribbean Consternations

The attraction of the Caribbean lies in its promise of tropical paradise, under bright azure skies across hundreds of islands with different cultures and traditions, lying within easy reach of the American mainland. Cuba is within easy reach by boat trip, promising sun and in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, booze and dancing aplenty, presenting an enticingly exotic alternative to Prohibition America, but beyond there are islands still under colonial rule, offering a free and easy lifestyle. To some, such islands are a sleepy backwater of empire, but many are home to dark secrets and mysteries. Such secrets as those revealed in Tales of the Caribbean. This is the fourth tome from Golden Goblin Press, released following a successful Kickstarter campaign and following on from Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion, Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans, and De Horrore Cosmico: Six Scenarios for Cthulhu Invictus. Like the second and third of those releases, Tales of the Caribbean is an anthology of scenarios for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

The seven scenarios take the Investigators to the Bahamas, Cuba, Haiti, Montserrat, Puerto Rico, St. Vincent and the Grenadines, and Trinidad. Although each scenario provides some background on the isle upon each is set as well as a map of said isle and there is a broad overview of the region given at the start of the anthology, it is important to note that Tales of the Caribbean is not a sourcebook for the region. That said, the geographical proximity of the Caribbean to the USA means that the scenarios in the anthology are relatively easy to add to an ongoing campaign, especially if the Keeper is running a campaign based in New Orleans or Miami, so Tales of the Caribbean would work with Golden Goblin Press’ own Tales of the Crescent City anthology, The Mysteries of Mesoamerica supplement from Pagan Publishing, or SixtyStone Press’ Magic City campaign.

The anthology opens with ‘The Devil Cuts In’ by Phredd Groves, which is set on the island of Montserrat. The investigators might be tourists, anthropologists, or similar, who are perhaps visiting the island to speak to Doctor Oscar Lucknow, a noted local historian and occultist or to enjoy the Galbraith Masquerade, an annual and unique Christmas festival held at a village in the centre of the island where the good doctor lives. Welcomed as guests and then celebrants in the festival, its normal course of events do not go as planned and as a result unleash a surprisingly sorry Mythos entity upon the island. What ‘The Devil Cuts In’ explores is the Mythos not as a benign influence, but rather its application for a benign effect rather than a malign one. This is both a small affair and a race against the clock, nicely contained, quite underplayed, and an entertaining twist upon a setup that has been seen before in Call of Cthulhu which benefits from a unique Mythos entity.

It is no surprise that one of the scenarios in Tales of the Caribbean involves zombies and that one of the scenarios is set on the island of Haiti. That scenario is Jo Kreil’s ‘Toil in the Fields’ in which the investigators are asked by an old friend at Miskatonic University to collect the body of his late son, a missionary who died in a malaria outbreak. When they arrive, discover the island is not only dominated by U.S. interests, but also rife with corruption, disease, and fear. In this febrile atmosphere, they quickly learn that the body they came for is missing and nobody has any interest in another missing body—this is Haiti after all! Or perhaps somebody has a great deal of interest in the missing bodies, which leads the investigators deeper into the island. This is the first of the scenarios in the anthology to deal with the obvious sources of horror in the region—Haitian folklore, zombies, and Voodoo—and like the others, it does not draw or make any links with the Mythos. In fact, the practitioners of Voodoo stand opposed to the Mythos and if they do not stand against it openly, they can in many cases be called upon for help in thwarting the forces of the Mythos. The scenario also introduces a Pulp element that makes ‘Toil in the Fields’ suitable for use with Chaosium’s Pulp Cthulhu, so this is much more of a physical scenario than the others in the anthology. ‘Toil in the Fields’ is a solid affair which makes good use of traditional horror elements and nicely paints the atmosphere of a country under American occupation.

Jason Williams, the author of Secrets of Tibet, takes us to the Bahamas with ‘Crimson Eyes & Azure Pools’. The investigators are hired—perhaps by Miskatonic University, perhaps by the Bahamas government—to locate a missing retired Miskatonic University botanist and his three students after their boat turned up shipwrecked and empty. This is a relatively straightforward affair, involving a number of elements that occur again and again in other scenarios in the anthology, including island hopping from a major to minor and more rural island and warnings from the local inhabitants not to investigate any further. The clues reveal that Professor Dinsdale and his students were attempting to locate and confirm the existence of a strange bird-like creature on Andros Island. Unfortunately as they look into the disappearance of the Dinsdale expedition, the existence of these strange bird-like creatures is all but confirmed when they take an interest in the investigators which begins with a scary, out of nowhere encounter with them. It contains the Pulp tone of the previous scenario, this time with odd encounters with the natives, both benign and malign, culminating in a confrontation in a weird cave in the trees. The scenario introduces a local Mythos creature, one based on the myths and legends of  Andros Island and of course one twisted to darker ends.

‘Wrath of the Sulfurer’ is by Dave Sokolowski, the author of Sun Spots and is specifically set in 1922 on the island of St. Vincent. The infamous volcano, Soufrière or La Sulfere, is about to erupt again, so is of interest to scientists, reporters, and humanitarians. As the surprisingly angry inhabitants of St. Vincent flee the brooding eruption, the investigators learn that there is an evil influence at the heart of the volcano, which if not stopped, threatens the island and perhaps more… Getting to the island, finding further information, and perhaps further help is beset by nightmares and inhabitants of the island beset by their own nightmares. Much like the earlier ‘The Devil Cuts In’, this scenario has its own time limit, and like many of the scenarios in the anthology it has a definite climax and ending. Although the scenario does build to an effective climax—and a memorable one inside a volcano—it probably does involve one too many dice rolls to get to that climax.

If there has been a Pulp sensibility running throughout the various scenarios in Tales of the Caribbean, then Oscar Rios punches it up a notch or two with ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’. Set on Trinidad, it involves two feuding cults, two opposing aspects of the same god, a large dose of colonial history, though not necessarily Caribbean history, and some Pulp staples as the bad guys. This has the potential to be a big pulpy mess of a scenario, but the author keeps everything focussed and well ordered, as well as including some very sticky encounters. One issue is that being more Pulpy in tone, the scenario is more physical and more combative in nature than the traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario and that may put more investigative characters at a disadvantage as there is a lot of fighting involved in the scenario. Again this builds to a set climax and again, the climax does involve more than a few dice rolls, but the climax is a memorable one. Arguably, this is more of an adventure than a scenario and it is one that fans of certain fedora-wearing, whip-cracking archaeologist will enjoy. This is fun and creepy in equal measure and is supported by some thoroughly nasty new spells and monsters.

Up to now, the scenarios in Tales of the Caribbean have been a little linear in structure, with relatively little investigation, but that changes with Jeffrey Moeller’s ‘Servant of God’. The investigators are quickly hired to come to Cuba and investigate a ‘locked room’ mystery. A Postulator for the Vatican, a Catholic official tasked with investigating a candidate for sainthood, has been found dead in his locked hotel room in Cuba, Havana. The candidate is a sixteenth century Spanish colonist and member of the Inquisition who founded a holy order popular on the island, fought against the colonial administration and was regarded as a sort of Robin Hood figure, and was reputed to have performed miracles before his death. Getting to the heart of this involves more investigation than the previous scenarios in the anthology and feels much more like a traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario. Their inquiries will take the investigators back into the island’s colonial past as several motifs occur again and again to taunt the investigators—weddings, the sound of bells ringing, the need to sign names over and over, and anti-colonial/American sentiment. Containing more of an urban element than the other scenarios in the anthology, there is a real mystery to be solved in ‘Servant of God’ and it is a richer, deeper scenario that long time players of Call of Cthulhu will enjoy getting their teeth into.

The last scenario in anthology takes the investigators to Puerto Rico. ‘Night Forms a Cover for Sinners’ is Oscar Rios’ second contribution to Tales of the Caribbean and like the earlier ‘Crimson Eyes and Azure Pools’ deals with the disappearance of a number of academics. Hired to find them, the investigators quickly learn that the missing men were interested in a regional legend, that of the Fountain of Youth, and if they are to locate them, they too will need to follow in their footsteps. Unfortunately this is not as entertaining a scenario as Rios’ earlier ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’. From their initial inquiries, the scenario ambles along in too linear a fashion, playing out as a series of reveals and warnings for the investigators not to proceed any further. This is done via an NPC who appears under a different guise each time, but whose true nature remains a secret until revealed at the end of the scenario. Until then, the investigators have little chance to really learn much about this NPC despite said NPC being nicely described and her motives well presented in the scenario. Overall, ‘Night Forms a Cover for Sinners’ has some entertaining moments, but ultimately the players may not enjoy finding out that their investigators have more or less been manipulated at almost every turn.

One issue that runs from one scenario to the next, is how to get the investigators involved in each situation. The anthology also includes an NPC who can be used a means to bring the investigators into each scenario, as American colour for each scenario, and even as a source of replacement investigators. Named for the backer on Kickstarter who pledged at a certain level, Morgan Matthews is an American film Director from New Orleans—another potential link to Golden Goblin Press’ Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans—who tours the Caribbean looking to film scenery for stock footage and folklore to adapt into his next big movie. Several members of his staff are also included and they could easily be replaced by, or used to replace, the investigators. It would have been useful if the anthology had included reasons to include Matthews and his team in each of the scenarios, but the Keeper is left to devise such reasons himself.

Physically, Tales of the Caribbean is a decent looking book. It only needs an edit here and there and the artwork, all by Reuben Dodd, gives the anthology a consistent look throughout. It varies slightly in quality, but some of it is very good and some of it points to the Pulp sensibility that runs through the anthology's seven scenarios. Within the pages of the scenarios, the book’s maps and handouts are often too small and too dark to see and read clearly, but this is countered by their being included in the book’s appendix which gives much more space to both.

Tales of the Caribbean is not the best book to be released by Golden Goblin Press—that accolade still falls to Tales of the Crescent City—but it is certainly a close second. Many throw up refreshingly interesting situations and twists upon the Mythos, ‘The Devil Cuts In’ and ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’ in particular, whilst all remain respectful of the setting and its culture. If ‘Night Forms a Cover for Sinners’ underwhelms, both ‘Black as Pitch at Midnight’ and ‘Servant of God’ are the collection’s standout affairs, one a fun adventure, the other a good investigation. Of course, the quality of both scenarios is to be expected from their respective experienced authors, and this certainly does not mean that any of the other scenarios are bad. Tales of the Caribbean is an excellent first tour around the region, showcasing some entertaining scenarios and adventures for Call of Cthulhu, and with some seven hundred or islands still left unvisited, hopefully laying the path of for Tales of the Caribbean II.

Monday 5 June 2017

A Taste of Cthulhu in the Dark

Originally appearing in the highly regarded Stealing Cthulhu and then in The Unspeakable Oath #22, Cthulhu Dark is a rules light RPG of Lovecraftian investigative horror designed for simple, minimalist play. Its core rules fit on a single page and require no more than three dice—one of which should be green—per player to play so that a game can be begun with a minimum of preparation upon the part of the players. A stripped down version of the rules for Cthulhu Dark are currently available from the author’s website, but an expanded version of the game itself is currently being funded via a Kickstarter campaign. This review is not of the edition that will eventually be funded via Kickstarter, but Cthulhu Dark 0, the preview edition launched at DragonMeet 2016.

As with other RPGs of Lovecraftian investigative horror, in Cthulhu Dark, the player take on the roles of Investigators drawn into mysteries that defy explanation and will eventually reveal to them terrible secrets that bring them to understand the true nature of the universe. This nature is alien and uncaring, a sense of dread that threatens to overwhelm and sap both the sanity and the humanity of these that come into contact with it. This is a universe of things—alien entities and species—who care nothing about the existence of humanity and those that do see them as nothing more than as transitory irrelevancies or playthings. Collectively they are known as the Cthulhu Mythos, being as like unto gods as mankind might be to lesser species on Earth. Some are worshipped by men in the hope of gaining power or at least the chance to survive should the stars come right and these things come to reclaim the plant that was once theirs and will be again. Such men are insane and in carrying out their master's’ plans spread horror and insanity… The Investigators will often find themselves looking into such plans and so confront the Mythos and its corrosive effects.

Notably, in Cthulhu Dark, confronting the Mythos is all that the Investigators can do. They cannot fight it directly, for it is too powerful, too unknowable, and such efforts are doomed to end in failure, resulting in the Investigators’ deaths or insanity. They can instead face its Earthly minions, though often hampered by the positions of power such minions hold in society, and so perhaps thwart such dastardly plans as would end in the return of the Great Old Ones and the end of life on Earth as they know it…

In Cthulhu Dark 0, an Investigator essentially consists of three things—a name, an Occupation, and his Insight. Alternatively, he might have a trait should the scenario not need the Investigators to have an Occupation. So for example, here is a Henry Brinded, an Investigator who appears in the recently published Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion.

Name: Henry Brinded
Occupation: Bostonian Antiquarian
Insight Die: 1

Mechanically, Cthulhu Dark is very simple. If an Investigator wants to do or investigate something, whether that is question someone or search the newspaper morgue for relevant articles, as long as that act is within human capabilities, his player rolls one die—the Human die. If the investigative act lies within the scope of the Investigator’s Occupation, then his player rolls a second die—the Occupation die. If the Investigator wants to risk his mind to succeed or if the investigative act directly pertains to the Mythos, then his player rolls a third die—the green Insight die. Then the dice are rolled and the highest result counts, showing the Investigator how much information he learns.

On a result of a one, he discovers the bare minimum; enough to proceed with the investigation, but no more. On a result of a four, he discovers everything that a competent investigator would, whilst on result of a five, he discovers this and something more. On a result of a six, he discovers everything that a competent investigator would and something more, but also glimpses something beyond the understanding of mere men. This undoubtedly going to be horrific and will probably require the player to make an Insight Roll for the Investigator. Likewise, if the highest result is on the Investigator’s Insight Die, an Insight Roll also needs to be made. 
For example, Henry Brinded has found the Diaries of the Walter Corbit, late of a supposed haunted house in Boston. He decides to read them. The Keeper lets his player roll his Human Die, his Occupation Die, and because Brinded is reading a Mythos tome, his player can also roll his Insight Die. On a result of a one, Brinded learns that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation; on  result of a four, he discovers that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation and was in dispute with his neighbours; on result of a five, he learns that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation and was in dispute with his neighbours because he wanted to be buried in his house; but on a six, he discovers that he learns that Corbit worshiped at the Chapel of Contemplation and was in dispute with his neighbours because he wanted to be buried in his house and that he had no intention of dying! 
An Investigator’s Insight represents how far he comprehends the true, horrifying nature of the universe. It begins at one and is represented by the Investigator’s green Insight Die, which always has its current value displayed. When an Investigator encounters something unnatural and disturbing, his player must make an Insight roll, rolling his Insight Die. If the result is higher than the Investigator’s Insight, it goes up by one as he gains greater understanding of the universe’s true nature and his player must roleplay his Investigator’s newly invoked fears. 

If an Investigator’s Insight reaches five, he can attempt to suppress his knowledge by burning Mythos tomes, stopping rituals, and so on, his player rolling the Insight Die in an attempt to lower his Investigator’s Insight. Unfortunately, should an Investigator’s Insight reach six, he achieves full comprehension of the universe and after one moment of lucidity goes insane… Time to create a new Investigator.

The effect of these stripped back mechanics is keep play simple and straightforward. Essentially there is no means of failure, the dice rolls determining how well an Investigator does rather than whether he fails or succeeds. Unlike most traditional roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Cthulhu Dark is very much a narrativist game rather than a simulationist game. (Actually, there is a mechanic for failure which adds a ‘Failure Die’ to an Investigator’s roll, but only when it is interesting and only when it does not impinge upon the investigative process.)

Further, in comparison to most traditional roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Cthulhu Dark collapses the Sanity/Insanity scale and changes the rate at which an Investigator will lose his Sanity. Initial loses will be quicker and more likely, but as an Investigator’s Sanity drops and his Insanity rises, he becomes inured to the horrors of the Mythos, making that final realisation as to the truth of the universe all the more horrifying when it occurs.

The core rules in Cthulhu Dark 0 run to no more than ten pages—and eight pages of those really only expand upon the rules given in the first two pages. In comparison, the Keeper’s Section is four times as long. It delves into how to write and rewrite a mystery, and then play the mystery before presenting a bestiary. It takes the Keeper from first principles through to running the adventure, constantly asking questions of him in order to help him develop the adventure, avoid pitfalls, and handle both both dice rolls and scene. This section is engaging and worth the time of any Keeper to read, whatever roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror he runs. 

Like any roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Cthulhu Dark includes a bestiary of Mythos entities and creatures. It looks at each entry’s themes, creeping horrors, and how they can applied to the settings mentioned elsewhere of ‘London 1851’ and ‘Mumbai 2037’. The entries include Old Ones such as Cthulhu and Yog-Sothoth, servitor races like Deep Ones, independent races such as the Elder Things and the Mi-Go, sorcerers like Joseph Curwen and Keziah Mason, and even artefacts such as the Shining Trapezohedron. It is not a comprehensive bestiary and feels influenced by the author’s earlier Stealing Cthulhu. This is no bad thing and there is no reason that a Keeper could not apply the ideas and methods of Stealing Cthulhu to the entities and creatures presented in Cthulhu Dark.

The setting provided in Cthulhu Dark 0 is ‘London 1851’, with the other mentioned setting, ‘Mumbai 2037’, to be included in the full version of the roleplaying game. ‘London 1851’ is a Dickensian alternative to the ‘Mauve Decade’ of Cthulhu by Gaslight atypical to most Victorian Era set roleplaying games. Not only does it provide a detailed snapshot of the city at the time of the Great Exhibition, it looks at the various options for Investigators during the period. What is interesting about the options discussed is that none of them are really Middle Class or Upper Class, most are really Working Class. Other Victorian Era roleplaying games might provide such options, but the point in Cthulhu Dark 0 is that the Investigators do not hold positions of real power or influence and in a typical Cthulhu Dark scenario, the Investigators are at odds with those who do. The lack of Middle Class or Upper Class options enforces this.

Rounding out Cthulhu Dark 0 is ‘The Screams of the Children’, a scenario set in London, 1851. The Investigators are thieves, prostitutes, street-sellers, and others—sample Investigators are provided, all female—who reside at the same lodging house where the baby of another resident has disappeared. It involves themes of pregnancy, childbirth, and monstrous offspring, and makes uses of the previous description given of London in the early Victorian period, but adds specific locations to accompany its plot, plus  themes and suggested die rolls for Investigators’ efforts. The scenario is relatively short, but nicely involving and atmospheric, harking back in tone to the author’s Purist scenarios for Trail of Cthulhu.

Physically, Cthulhu Dark 0 is a slim volume, neatly laid out and lightly, but nicely illustrated. The writing style is also light, but very direct with the author constantly asking questions of first the reader and then the Keeper. This is a style singular to the author and can be seen in his earliest tome on roleplaying, Playing Unsafe, as it can here and in the more recent Cthulhu Apocalypse. If there is an issue with the writing and with a great any of the questions—at least in the answers given to them—is that they go to support the given scenario, ‘The Screams of the Children’ rather than a Cthulhu Dark scenario in general. This though, is only an issue with Cthulhu Dark 0 and hopefully will be less of an issue in Cthulhu Dark when released with more scenarios as the full roleplaying game.

What Cthulhu Dark combines is Graham Walmsley’s interpretation of the Cthulhu Mythos gained through his authoring of Stealing Cthulhu with simple, unobtrusive mechanics that model the investigative process and sanity degradation inherent to the genre of Lovecraftian investigative horror. The result is a refinement of Lovecraftian investigative horror gaming down to its essential saltes.