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Friday 30 November 2018

1998: The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles—and so on, as the anniversaries come up. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is probably the only the roleplaying game where good manners, fine breeding, good company, and fine wine are de rigueur as are unparalleled skill with a sword and just in case, an invasion plan of Belgium. Published by the late, lamented Hogshead Publishing in 1998, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen both is and is not a roleplaying game, but it is definitely a game. It is also most definitely is a conceit worthy of any of the tales told by the Baron himself, and its focus on storytelling—literally in the case of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen—would prefigure the storytelling, ‘indie-style’ roleplaying games of the next century. Indeed, the publication of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen would lead to the establishment of Hogshead Publishing’s ‘New Style’ line of roleplaying games which would include John Scott Tynes’ Puppetland, Greg Costikyan’s Violence, Robin D. Laws’ Pantheon and Other Roleplaying Games, and Michael Oracz’s De Profundis.

The situation is this. Of an evening, sometime in 17—, men and women of refinement and good breeding—possibly stranded in a snow-drift near Salzburg—shall gather in the nearest inn to regale each with the tales of their extraordinary adventures, much in the vein of the good Baron himself. They shall take it in turns to tell of tale that another has asked them of, the listeners occasionally interrupting to offer objections and corrections, and perhaps to proffer a wager or two as to a particular detail in the story being told. Should a disagreement come about over such objections and corrections because neither side will back down, then a duel may follow. Only to first blood of course and so honour is settled, the veracity of the tale is concluded, and the stake—that which is wagered—is accepted by the loser who adds it to his or her purse. For fairness’ sake, everyone begins play with a purse of the same value. Then the next participant tells a tale of the same extraordinary scale, and the next, and the next, until all sitting round the table have had an equal turn at entertaining their fellows. In the finality, all decide who entertained them the best with the most enjoyable story by pledging their purses to them and the storyteller who has the largest purse at the end of the game not only wins, but readily pays for a round of drinks or the current bill from newly enlarged purse.

This then is The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen: A Game of Tall Tales and Playing Roles as told by James Wallis. It is a storytelling game of magnificent adventures, enticing escapades and escapes, derring-do and dangerous drama, and of “How did you get out of that?” (or “…into that?). Of honour and nobility, of courtesy and comradeship—especially to the ladies, and of being rude to the French. Particularly, the latter. It is best played by a handful of players, five being a good starting figure. They will need no more than a handful coins (or tokens) equal to the number of players. This is their purse.

At the start of the game, each player will take a name and title. This may be their own if they are already of the nobility, hold military rank, or are a member of the clergy. Alternatively, for the purposes of the game, they may adopt such a nom de guerre for so long as they are playing. Then, the person who last filled everyone’s glass turns to the person on his or her right and asks them to tell a tale of their exploits, which of course, must be fantastic. For example, “Tell me, Baron Fromager, how you came to be in possession of the light of Pharos and how you used it at the Siege of Vienna to save the day?” The player of Baron Fromager then tells the tale, hopefully in an entertaining fashion. In particular of how the dastardly Turks stole it from Alexandria and used it light their way across the world on dreaded night attacks when all good folk should abed and so expand their empire greatly.

However, another player in his character as a person of good birth or station, may raise an objection or suggest a correction to the Baron Fromager during his telling. Continuing the example, Lady Trumpton may interject with, “But surely my dear Baron, how could you steal it from the hands of the Ottoman Empire if they could see you coming miles away by its very light?” Lady Trumpton must, since she is raising an objection, proffer a wager of a coin (or token if no coins are being used). This sets the stake. The storyteller can accept both this and the object, adding the stake to his purse and working the objection into the continuing narrative of his story. Alternatively, he can naysay the interruption and add his own coin to the stake. In this case replying, “I fear my dear lady, that perhaps the fine bouquet of our wine has tonight overcome your senses, for you forget that it was not I who was seen approaching the Turks, but my good companion, Riccardo, renowned in all of Christendom for the strength of his bite and the mirror-like sheen of his teeth. So when he smiled, The Light of Pharos was reflected back at the Turks, temporarily blinding them and so I was able to sneak in and steal the light without them seeing me.” At this point Lady Trumpton may elect to accept both explanation and the stake, or she may escalate the objection, adding yet another coin to the stake. This can continue until one side backs down and accepts the stake, or one side runs out of coins and will not back down or the exchange leads to the slighting of a participant’s honour. In the case of the latter two, satisfaction is demanded, and a duel will ensue.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen has much to say on the matter of duelling—indeed, it has a lot to say upon a great many number of things—but what it boils down to is a duel with swords to first blood. If one or neither of the duellists have the requisite schooling in the art of swordsmanship, it is recommended that they wait until both are sufficiently skilled, which should take about fifteen years. If that improves an unviable option, then rules are provided as to ‘Duelling for Cowards’. Which involves several rounds of ‘Stone—Knife—Paper’ until there is a winner and honour is satisfied. The loser gives his purse to the winner and his involvement in the game ends.

Should the storyteller have been victorious, then he may continue in its telling and preferably within five minutes bring it to a rousing conclusion to the pleasure of everyone else round the table. He then has the duty of turning to the player on his right and asking him or her to tell a suitable tale of such and such… This continues until the end when everyone has had their turn and then they get to vote for the greatest tale pledging the whole of their purses to their preferred tale. The person with the most coins at game’s end is the victor.

These then, are the rules to The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, and simple they are too. Simple though, does not mean simplistic, for they are also elegant and easy to grasp, which when combined with the good Baron’s words and advice help encourage the participants to get into their selected roles and attempt to tell entertaining tall tales. This simplicity and this elegance makes the eminently portable and easy to run with little in the way of preparation. It helps that the tome comes with two appendices. The first, ‘Tell us, Baron, the story of…’, lists some two hundred ideas for those participants unfortunately bereft of imagination, whilst the second, ‘The Rules in Brief’, should be obvious to anyone in its intent. But these are handy references to have in mid-game and a bookmark is probably a useful tool to mark their pages.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is not a game without tactics, but like its rules, these are equally as light. They come down to maintaining a balance between having coins in your purse so that you may object to or correct an aspect of a rival storyteller’s tale—for if you have none, you can do neither—and filling the purses of the other participants for it is their purses that will decide the winner at the end of the game. This is not a means of guaranteeing a victory though, for it must be backed up with a story that others have found entertaining enough to favour—and remember at the end of the evening. Of course, building a large purse to be able to influence the decision of who told the best tale and so avoid having to pay for the next round of drinks is an ignoble tactic worthy of accountants and poltroons.

Then there is that conceit. Which of course, is that Baron Munchausen himself dictated the rules of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen to the designer’s eighteenth-century ancestors, who also happened to be games designers and publishers, but never actually published them at the time. Of course, some two hundred years later they fell into the hands of the designer and so Hogshead Publishing was able to release the game, somewhat late, in 1998. The conceit has a quite singular effect—it enables the author to engage us by writing in the good Baron’s voice, which he does at length, because the rules to The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen really amount to no more than a page or two in length. The effect of that voice is not only to hide the author’s own—more readily apparent in his recent Alas Vegas, but also to give context to the game’s rules and to very much set its irreverent tone. That tone of course, matching that of the Terry Gilliam 1988 film of the same name such that you wished that the late John Neville would join you for a late-night game.

As to whether The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is or is not a roleplaying game, the answer is ‘yes’. Yes, it is a roleplaying game because the participants are playing a role, that of a noblemen, soldiers, clergymen, or other persons of good character, and yes, it not a roleplaying game because the characters have no stats or abilities in terms of mechanics, they do not progress in terms of those abilities, and despite the fact that stories and adventures are involved, there is no progression between them, and lastly, because there is no Game Master or referee. The atmosphere in which it was played and the lack of structure in comparison to other roleplaying games also lent credence to the idea that it might be a ‘party game’ rather than a roleplaying game. Yet there is nothing casual about The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen. It takes wit and imagination to play and ultimately roleplaying, for you are not telling a tale, but roleplaying someone who is.

It is also definitely a game, a structured form of play and entertainment, with rules—very light rules—and tactics—very light tactics—in which the players (and their characters) compete against each other and from which there can be a winner. Which of course, in 1998, ran counter to the core concept at the heart of any roleplaying game in which there is no single winner, but that we are all winners. This marked The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen as something radically different to the traditional roleplaying games released alongside it that year, and although it was well received, even being nominated for the Origins Award for Best New Roleplaying Game in 1999, it did not win. It was though, included in Green Ronin Publishing’s 2007 Hobby Games: The 100 Best, wherein Allen Varney championed it as an “...[S]trikingly original exercise in competitive storytelling…”

It is impossible to disagree with Mister Varney, but not impossible to elaborate. The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen was not only ‘strikingly original’, but also very simply put, ‘unique’. It introduced a new way to both roleplay and play games in a genre that was all its very own and it was also the perfect ‘beer and pretzels’ game—or rather ‘wine and canapés’ game, in that it could—and can—be played in a bar with no more than a few tokens and a tipple of your choice.


Of course, just like the good Baron himself, this was not the end of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen, for a second edition was published by Mongoose Publishing in 2008. It expanded greatly upon the twenty-four pages of the original edition, introducing what would turn out to be the first of many variants upon the original rules. The first variant would be ‘Es-Sindibad’s Rules’, accompanied, of course, by an account of the Baron’s adventures in Araby. The variant is played with tea and dates instead of alcohol and wagers and sees the participants telling their own stories whilst also incorporating the stories of those persons who were telling stories before them. The other two variants—really variants upon each other—of ‘My Uncle the Baron’, are designed to be played by younger storytellers or those who are somewhat the worse for wear. These are essentially games of one-upmanship in which the participants attempt to outdoor each other in simply describing the fantastic feats of their esteemed uncle. Examples are of course included. Again, the new edition was well received and was nominated for an award, this time the ENnie for Best Writing in 2009, but again, sadly, it did not win. 


And there The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen would have rested, but like the Baron’s tales grow in the telling, The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen grows with each new edition. The 2008 edition was followed by a third edition in 2016, this time published by Fantasy Flight Games. Where the Mongoose Publishing added a mere three variants, the third edition adds a round dozen. Spurred on by an encounter with the Baron’s modern descendant, the author takes the rules of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen and adapts theme after theme to them. They start off with ‘Soviet It Goes’, in which the Comrades tell of their equal feats in service of the Motherland, such as ‘Tell me Comrade, how did you persuade that great Soviet musician, John Lenin, to be Back in the USSR?” and run through a gamut of genres both grand and parochial. The grand is ‘Guttenberg’s Revenge’, a game of literary figures and their mixed adventures across the novels of other figures, the parochial is ‘Munchausen Crescent’, in which the storytellers tell of their amazing adventures around the public transport system of London. These are a fine mix of variants and themes, but there is a point at which they become just a little far-fetched and perhaps their titles are puns too far…

This, the third edition of The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen comes as a digest-sized hardback, which points to the portability of the game. Done in full colour, the fully painted illustrations, all of Baron Munchausen himself, are simply exquisite. But then there is the writing. It is all conceit at best, all balderdash at worst, but it never lets up and it perfectly captures the voice and attitude of the Baron himself, so that even if you could take the original rules and fifteen variants and pare them down to fit in the twenty-four pages of the game’s first edition, you would still want the other one hundred pages or so of the third edition, because they are nothing less than  verisimilitude upon verisimilitude which is such a delight to read.

The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is quite possibly the cleverest storytelling game you have never heard of, prefiguring as it did, and perhaps being eclipsed by the very many storytelling games that have followed in its wake. Its core idea is simple, its mechanics are both simple and elegant, the verisimilitude of the writing perfect, but its theme is magnificent. The resulting combination is a thoroughly civilised roleplaying game, both in design and character.

Friday Filler: Big Trouble

Although the ‘Choose Your Adventure’ style of gamebooks had been around by the time The Warlock of Firetop Mountain was published in 1982, the first Fighting Fantasy title was groundbreaking. It allowed gamers to play in their own time, complete with a solid set of rules so that it felt like a roleplaying adventure, and the success of the series meant the adventures were readily available in bookshops and high street shops rather than in just speciality shops. In comparison, the Endless Quest series, published by TSR, Inc. were no match, for whilst their stories took place in the worlds of the publisher’s various settings, they were all text, did not come with any mechanics, and so did not feel like a game. TSR, Inc. published two series of the books and its successor, Wizards of the Coast also published its own beginning in 2008. Now the publisher has returned to the series with a new quartet of titles, all tied with Dungeons & Dragons and all set in its default setting of Faerûn in the Forgotten Realms.

Written by Matt Forbeck—best known as the designer of the roleplaying game, Brave New World—each of the quartet focuses upon a core Class and a core Race found in Dungeons & Dragons. So there is a title involving a Cleric, a Fighter, a Rogue, and a Wizard and a title involving a Dwarf, an Elf, a Halfling, and a Human. These are combined into the classic pairings found in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, so the four books in turn tell of the adventures of a Dwarf Cleric, an Elf Wizard, a Halfling Rogue, and a Human Fighter. Each comes as a sturdy little hardback, illustrated in full colour with artwork drawn from the current version of Dungeons & Dragons, including lots and lots of monsters. Each book contains some sixty or so entries and is written for a young teenage audience, so they are suitable for those coming to Dungeons & Dragons for the first time. This does not mean that there is nothing of interest for veteran players of Dungeons & Dragons to be found in the pages of these solo adventures. Being set above, below, and across Faerûn, the protagonists of each book will have the opportunity to visit various locations familiar from both the novels set in the Forgotten Realms and the game supplements too.

Having explored the adventures of the Human Fighter in the underworld in Escape the Underdark, the adventures of a Dwarf Cleric in Into the Jungle, and the adventures of a Halfling Rogue in To Catch a Thief, you follow the adventures of an Elf Wizard in Big Trouble. As the protagonist, you are a young Elf living with your younger brother and parents in the Ardeep Forest where you are studying to be a wizard. Unfortunately, your idyll is broken by the crashing and cracking of trees as your home comes under attack by some quite voracious giants! In the aftermath of the attack—as with the previous books in the series—you are given two fundamental choices. In this case, which parent to go after, as both are missing! Go one way and you will find yourself at the home of the giants and dealing with a creature that is so greedy, so vile, he is worthy of a Roald Dahl story. Go the other way and you run into some good company along the way to Eye of All Father in search of help. In between, there are encounters with kobolds and goblins, dragons and barbarians, and more, including with one of the greatest figures in all the Forgotten Realms. Indeed, greater than that encountered in To Catch a Thief.

In many ways, Big Trouble is very different to the other titles. The protagonist is not some lone adventurer trying to escape, on an assignment for the organisation he works for, or forced on a mission to pay for his crimes, but rather a wouldbe adventurer searching for his family. This makes the quest far more personal and important and it makes the choices presented seem all the more difficult and all the more desperate. It should be noted that not all of the choices offered end in the protagonist’s death, but whilst many do, there are many that also end, if not on a happy note, then not on an unhappy one either. Even with the most positive of outcomes the story does not have a truly happy ending either, the single splitting path structure of the Endless Quest format prevents the reader from switching back to the search for the other parent. On the plus side, the protagonist does get to cast some spells, just as a wizard should and some of them are recognisable as Dungeons & Dragons spells.

Big Trouble takes the protagonist into the wilds north and south of the Ardeep Forest, so unlike To Catch a Thief, the locations visited in the main, are less familiar than those of Waterdeep. Like the other books in the series, the book is very nicely illustrated with art taken from an array of Dungeons & Dragons books. It also contains some memorable encounters, both good and bad, though the bad are of course, the most entertaining ones.

One issue with Big Trouble—and thus the Endless Quest series—is the lack of replay value. Once read through, the lack of variability that a set of rules or mechanics, means that there is no longer the challenge to be found in the book and thus a strong issue to read it again. To be fair, mechanics or rules were never a feature of the Endless Quest series and so there is no expectation that they should be in this new series. Just that in comparison with other solo adventures, they are not as sophisticated and so are suited to a younger audience.

In terms of tone, Big Trouble is not as dour or as grim as either Escape the Underworld or Into the Jungle, nor is there the devil may care attitude to be found in To Catch a Thief. There is an air of desperation to its story though and the protagonist is understandably earnest and desperate to find his family. The personal nature of the story means that the reader can more readily identify with the protagonist than he can with the protagonists of the other three new Endless Quest titles. In addition, the lack of familiarity to the places it takes the protagonist to means that it is not as good an introduction to the Forgotten Realms as Escape the Underworld or To Catch a Thief are. Nevertheless, Big Trouble is an adventure that the older reader will enjoy and which should provide inspiration for when they get to the gaming table and play Dungeons & Dragons for real.

Saturday 24 November 2018

FAITH unfulfilled

Tiantang is the first supplement to be released for FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG. The Spanish Science Fiction Roleplaying Game from Burning Games presented an intriguing far future setting in which Humanity plays a relatively minor role and which mixes themes of rampant capitalism and individualism, the greater good of the community, strength and honour, and faith in gods, which when strong enough in their believers can grant them gifts strong enough to change the universe as Soulbenders. Beyond the core book and the FAITH: A Garden in Hell - RPG Starter Set, the roleplaying is not particularly well supported, which is why is the Tiantang sourcebook is such a welcome addition to the line.

At the core of the setting is Tiantang, the near-Dyson Sphere which is home to the Corvo, the technological, capitalist, and expansionist insectoid-like species. It is a huge Dyson Ring—one that is slowly expanding into a full Dyson Sphere—that is home to billions and billions of Corvo, the bulk of them of living in vast agglomerations of Zero-G habitats which have accreted from the debris of old spaceships, space stations, and more as well as the corporate purpose-built modules. Most of the inhabitants of these slums derive their income from ‘skulling’, the practise of plugging in and selling their time and brain as computing capacity for Corvosphere’s three mega-corporations and their many subsidiaries. Whilst all Corvo are used to living or spending time in zero gravity, the middle classes can afford to live on giant multi-level stations called ‘gyro-zhans’, which spin fast enough to generate artificial gravity. Whilst all gyro-zhans have some accommodation for those who work there, many are all but wholly devoted to particular aspects of Corvo life and Corvosphere corporate culture. Thus there are whole gyro-zhans dedicated to handling the Corvosphere’s stock exchange, corporate headquarters and offices, manufacturing, algae farms, research and development, tourism and entertainment, and so on. Then there are the rich. Some have villas in the most well-to-do gyro-zhans, but the richest own palace-ships from which they conduct their day-to-day lives, some never leaving and some running the huge mega-corporations which dominate Corvo life.

Tiantang is broken down into Ten Sectors, including Shiyan, the academic and scientific research sector; Xiao, a Zer0-G slum dominated by Mob activity, and Taiyang, a trade and entertainment centre which attracts most of the tourists coming to Tiantang. Each of Corvosphere’s three mega-corporations—The Union Megacorp, Wang Megacorp, and Nation’s Solution Megacorp—has its own sector headquarters, and there is also an eleventh sector, Tiantang CS, a neutral ground for all of the mega-corporations and corporations in the Dyson Sphere, which is not counted as part of the Ten Sectors. As with the rest of Corvospace, there is no central government or polity on Tiantang, each sector typically being governed by either corporate or criminal interests. Although there is plenty of travel within most sectors, travel between sectors is prohibitively expensive to prevent the mass movement of labour forces. Although there are forms of mass transit found in many of the sectors, most travel within each sector and between sectors is achieved via spaceships—commuter spaceships each ferry thousands of workers each day—and Tiantang has a very high volume of spaceship traffic in transit at any one time. This includes to and from the Mehdi Gate, the wormhole access to The Labyrinth, which in turn provides interstellar travel to the rest of the Corvosphere and beyond. Traffic in and out of the Mehdi Gate is heavily policed and organised to prevent it becoming clogged—though accidents do happen.

Each of the individual sectors, plus Tiantang CS, is given a full write-up, highlighting important NPCs, districts—each sector further consists of hundreds of districts, particular locations and organisations. So for example, Gu is Tiantang’s largest slum, the first stop for immigrants, squatters, and the desperate. Essentially a massive hive-like cluster of habitats and repurposed industrial detritus, it is all but ignored by the corporations who little or no influence here and if there is any sector management or authority, it lies in hands of Gentleman Dao, a captain of the Hwang Tong, who wants to purge the sector of all other criminal activity. Unlike other sectors there are no districts, but there are still persons and places of note. These include Little Heimis, an ex-ice fortress that is home to Tiantang’s Raag community—whom the corporations employ as mercenaries and the gangs and the Tongs avoid; the Egui Building, supposedly haunted, but definitely home to unexplained weirdness; and the Death Dancers, a reformed gang that now carries out acts of terrorism against the corporations. Stats are given for a typical Death Dancer, and adventures seeds suggest the player characters could become involved in gang warfare, earn bounties looking for policemen missing in Gu, get involved in a Romeo and Juliet set-up within the Hwang Tong, and even signing on to help establish corporate law in the sector. Tiangtang does this again and again for each sector, so that as a supplement it presents adventure hooks and ideas aplenty, many of which would lead to interesting encounters and situations.

Rounding out Tiantang is the adventure, ‘Secret of the Yinshen Shi’. This is a murder mystery, set in the Nongchang sector, a residential and cultural hotspot sector which is on the up as the various mega-corporations attempt to gentrify it. The adventure is decent enough and has a Film Noir quality to it, but does not feel very strongly tied to the sector it is set in.

To work with both the adventure and the supplement in general, stats are provided for some nine generic NPCs, such as High Class Corvo, Mob Boss, and Human Merc, plus some new equipment. This is in addition to stats provided for the various NPCs detailed in the sector chapters. One nice touch is that there is an index of these at the back of the book.

The final page of Tiantang provides some new rules for gaming in the mammoth Dyson Sphere, covering the ease of obtaining goods and listing the prices for services such as ambulance, remote first aid, military aid, remote hacking, and so on. There is even a cabaret crew to hire which will provide an impromptu street performance as a distraction from whatever mission the player characters are undertaking. Barring the last service, these very much have the feel of earlier Cyberpunk roleplaying games such as R. Talsorian Games, Inc.’s Cyberpunk and Shadowrun from Catalyst Game Labs.

Physically, Tiantang is a lovely, if slim hardback. Like all releases for FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG, the artwork is superb, something that all fans of good Science Fiction art will appreciate. The book also includes a mini-poster which shows cross sections of a gyro-zhan and a space slum, which are fantastic in beginning to show some of the detail of Tiantang. On the other hand, as good as the presentation is, the writing suffers from a lack of editing and reads rather oddly in places. There is also a lack of a general index and a glossary. Several new terms are mentioned and a point of reference for them would have been useful.

Unfortunately, Tiantang is ultimately hampered by size—the size of Tiantang the Dyson Sphere versus the size of Tiantang the supplement. At just over one hundred pages, there is just not the room in the book to really present a Dyson Sphere in any detail and this lack of detail shows. There is flavour and there are hooks, but Tiantang is never more than a very broad overview of the biggest artificial structure in the Corvosphere. There is no sense of what the inhabitants’ day-to-day lives are like, how they get around, what they do, what they buy, what they watch, and so on, so it feels just a bit too impersonal. There is some colour fiction in the opening pages of the book, but that is really the only time where you get an individual view. More of that would have helped Tiantang come to life.The same can be said of the mega-corporations, which operate from sector to sector, district to district, but will probably be easier for the Game Master to provide that information herself rather than what individual life is like.

Ultimately, given the size of what Tiangtang is setting out to describe as a supplement, it is never going to be more than underwhelming. Some of the content in its pages is both good and gameable, and any FAITH: The Sci-Fi RPG Game master is going to want this supplement, but to really bring it to life, she is going to have to provide some of the nuts and bolts herself.

de Harken Inheritance III

Previous adventures from Montidots Limited for the Old School Renaissance have been set in the valley of Highcliff Gard, a minor feudal holding at the heart of which stands the village of Highcliff Gard. The personal fiefdom of the de Harken family, it lies nestled on the western slopes of the White Mountains to the south of the Kingdom of Yeorlingard and north of the clan lands of Kaldemar, and east of the great Hundreness Forest. It is humanocentric setting, the people of Highcliff Gard holding a particular prejudice against the ‘Erle Folk’—Dwarves, Elves, Halflings, and the like. Unfortunately, the de Harken family lives under a curse. No male member of the family lives to see their fortieth year. This curse, its cause, and perhaps a means to lift it, are the subject of the first two fantasy scenarios from Montidots Limited, MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane. The first adventure is written for use with First Level and Second Level characters, the second adventure for use with characters of between Third Level and Fifth Level, the suggested ruleset being Knights & Knaves’ OSRIC™ System (Old School Reference and Index Compilation), but of course, this being an Old School Renaissance setting, it is easily adapted to the retroclone of the Game Master’s choice. A planned third part in the trilogy, MD5 Tantulus, is yet to appear, but in the meantime, to literally fill in that gap in the series, there is MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard – A MontiDots adventure suppliment for early versions of Fantasy Role-playing games.

MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard is the setting supplement for use with both MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane. It expands upon the background material given in both adventures, but more importantly is set prior to the events of both. As written, it is designed to provide enough information and adventuring hooks for a party to arrive in Highcliff Gard and for its members to make it their base of operations as go off on adventures, some of which will lead them outside the valley, but most of them will keep them within its confines. At the core of those adventures are MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, but in addition those, MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard provides further adventures, encounters, hooks, and seeds which the Game Master can weave in between the two core adventures. These include an introductory courier mission over the mountains to bring the player characters into the valley; children whose ambitions are at odds with those that their parents have for them; rival kingdoms with designs on the valley ; a ruined tower which conceals a secret at the heart of Highcliff Gard; a cult working to overthrow the social order in the valley; and a former necromancer’s dungeon—sealed up for centuries, but from behind whose doors come the occasional sounds of bangs, screams, and roars—which can easily be expanded upon by the Game Master.

These are not the only adventures, encounters, hooks, and seeds to found in MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard, but it is a shame that one fully detailed encounter is reprinted wholesale from MD3 Necromancer’s Bane rather new content being provided. All of them though, including the two previously published full adventures, are designed to be built around a campaign framework whose plots see the valley and its inhabitants suffer from a dreadful winter, which makes their lives more difficult and exacerbates their innate xenophobia. The framework is designed to give a sense of urgency to the playthrough of the ‘Highcliff Gard’ trilogy, but as presented will need an experienced Game Master to be properly handled. This is primarily because there really is not the advice to help those with less experience.

MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard greatly expands upon the background material presented in the earlier two modules. This includes a timeline of its history, more background—especially beyond the confines of Highcliff Gard, and detailed descriptions of notable locations within the valley. The latter consist of Harken Hall—family seat of the de Harken family, the Halister Mill Tavern, and the Cumfrey Swails’ Herbery. Each is fully mapped out and although the floor plans of Harken Hall are rather plain, those of the other locations are nicely detailed.

Rounding out the supplement is an encounter table and a number of new rules. These expand the rules for alchemy, enabling First Level Magic-Users to brew potions—including weak healing potions, increased rates of fire for archers, polytheistic priests, and a note on necromancy. Also discussed are the Erle Folk, the version of Elves, Dwarves, Gnomes, and Halflings found in the setting for MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard and much distrusted by the folk who live there. For the most part, they are not intended as Races for player characters, the setting being humanocentric in the main.

Physically, MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard is not a case of style over substance, but it does have an issue or two in terms of presentation and writing. Coming as a spiral-bound book, MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard is illustrated with some excellent pieces of artwork—the image of the corpse of a dragon being fed upon by scavengers is particularly striking. Some of it has appeared in the previous two scenarios, but that still does not mean that those pieces are bad. Where the cartography contains detail, the floor plans are also good, being easy to read and use. The issue though is not so much with the writing as the editing and the development of the supplement. MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard simply needs another edit, but really what it deserves is more development. This would enable the author to give more structure and more staging advice to the campaign framework that the plots suggest and to help the Game Master handle events in and around MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, as well as help her in the lead up to MD5 Tantulus. Perhaps it would also give time to develop new material to replace content repeated from the two scenarios unnecessarily and possibly rethink the inclusion of one of the dungeons which adds little to the supplement overall.

MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard is a nice looking book and it contains a lot of solid material. The latter certainly supports both MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane, and it should also support the forthcoming MD5 Tantulus. This includes further background information—the material describing the area beyond the confines of Highcliff Gard is especially welcome—and the various plots. It can also work as a standalone supplement, but that leaves more work for the Game Master to undertake to develop scenarios and encounters around the suggested plots, when really, it is designed to work with both modules. Nevertheless, it still requires a fair degree of preparation and effort upon the part of the Game Master if its contents are to fully support MD2 The Curse of Harken Hall and MD3 Necromancer’s Bane. Overall, MD4 Tales of Highcliff Gard – A MontiDots adventure suppliment for early versions of Fantasy Role-playing games is full of interesting and useful content which requires an experienced Game Master to get the most out of its pages.

Friday 23 November 2018

Hacking the Fecundity

The Dark Brood is a supplement for The Cthulhu Hack, the the elegant, stripped back player-facing roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Just Crunch Games and based on The Black Hack. It explores the nature and fecundity of Shub-Niggurath, ‘The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young’, presenting possible manifestations of both herself and her ‘Dark Brood’, examples of her Dark Brood, a set of adventure seeds built around them, and more. This comes packaged in a slim booklet, not illustrated, but cleanly and clearly laid in fashion which is easy to read and grasp.

The idea is that the incessantly fertile womb of Shub-Niggurath serves as a ready source of strange new horrors, impossibly copious in form, but limited in terms of their existence, and born of an uncaring mother to slither forth to spread horror and chaos, to serve those dedicated to the worship of their mother, and to scream and squall having been abandoned by her. For Shub-Niggurath herself, The Dark Brood suggests five aspects—Creator, Nurturer, Sustainer, Guardian, and Incubator. The descriptions accompanying these aspects do not go into any great depth, the supplement focusing more on her offspring than on ‘The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young’, but they perhaps represent more attention than has been paid to her in any number of roleplaying supplements for Lovecraftian investigative horror over the years. This is not to discount the number of scenarios that involve Shub-Niggurath, but these aspects do indicate that there is scope for further examination of them. Perhaps there is room for an anthology of full scenarios dedicated to her—even from Just Crunch Games.

From the wellspring of chaos that is Shub-Niggurath’s womb, The Dark Brood suggests that her children take on three forms. These are as the almost human-like Avatar, sect-leader, begrudging but wise adviser, or power behind the throne; as Servitors, bound as bodyguards, hunters, assassins, and so on, often to serve a cult leader; and as Mindless Progeny, womb-spawn spat out to do more than destroy, desecrate, and despoil. Six examples of Dark Brood are given, each randomly created using the mechanics presented in the earlier supplement, From Unformed Realms. They include the Devil Hound, an oddly triangular canine-like thing whose gaze burns flesh, is able to move through certain materials without trace, and the touch of which causes strange dreams of the womb, whilst the Ophidiaes is a massive creature with a bite which melts flesh and who leaves behind a faecal trail of partially digested flesh. The six are all examples of Mindless Progeny rather than Avatars or Servitors, so there is scope again for material that develops and presents examples of these forms. 

Some of the six example Mindless Progeny are perhaps underwritten in terms of their purpose, the following trio of Adventure Seeds make up for it. They include strange goings on in a fertility clinic, a handful of missing children on forestry land of which local travellers are the primary suspects, and the strange death of a pioneer in the sports drinks industry. These are nicely developed, each a page or two in length, with multiple suggestions for getting the investigators involved, and each easy for the Keeper to develop into a full adventure. 

Options for worshippers of Shub-Niggurath are also given. These explore who and why someone might so worship her, so those who worship her for Betterment might be radical lifestyle gurus, dieticians, and so on. Other options include Breeding, Contagion, Indulgence, and even Philanthropy! These are accompanied by a number of rituals devoted to Shub-Niggurath, all quite nasty and quite detailed. The suggestions are that they were part of witchcraft practices, of fairy legends, and of alchemy, but hints that in them there may be something more akin to modern chemistry. How this rituals might be learnt is up to the Keeper to decide (or perhaps a future supplement?). Rounding out the supplement is an ‘Obligatory Random Table’, consisting of ten entries which work as encounters, nudges, and so on that can be rolled for during a game or used as inspiration by the Keeper. Again, this is a good set of ideas and suggestions for her use.

The Dark Brood examines Shub-Niggurath like no supplement before, presenting a rash of ideas, creatures, adventure seeds, spells, and more. Yet there is a sense of frustration to the booklet, for it touches upon certain elements without developing them, like the other two aspects of Shub-Niggurath’s avatars, the cults devoted to her, and so on. To be fair though, this is a slim volume, so there is not the room for everything else a Keeper might want in a supplement devoted to her. Ultimately, The Dark Brood is an interesting and likable booklet which handily supplements any information about ‘The Black Goat of the Woods with a Thousand Young’ a full rulebook might contain. In the meantime, the Keeper will have to wait for the definitive supplement on Shub-Niggurath.

Sunday 18 November 2018

Lovecraft City

The year is 1937. At the prestigious Miskatonic University, a pernicious Communist criminal conspiracy operating out of the Orme Library has been smashed by the joint forces of the Arkham Police Department and the FBI, forcing its leader, former esteemed academic, Doctor Henry Armitage to go into hiding. Overhead, dark roiling clouds hide both the sun and things that flit and slither… Outside, cyclopean skyscrapers of windowless black stone loom over the streets, their entrances oddly inhuman and never used or totally absent. Vehicles dawdle along the streets, models such as the Nightgaunt and Witch, unseen elsewhere in the USA, their engines sounding like the scuttling of insects. At night, no good Arkhamite goes out, lest they never return or get lost on streets whose buildings change or disappear during the hours of darkness. Crime is rife—the breaking of the Gilman House hold on city hall means that the Marsh family out of Innsmouth Docks where strange black steamships regularly dock, is free to go to war with the rival Malesta family—and no-one can bring heavies to the fight like the Marsh family! This is the situation in Great Arkham, the major city of the North-East that has grown to encompass the once separate towns of Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport, now a malevolent metropolis where cabals and cultists—always a lurking presence in Lovecraft’s fiction and Lovecraft Country—have power and influence like never before! Yet, the city of Great Arkham remains all but unknown in the wider USA and thanks to an outbreak of Typhoid Fever and subsequent quarantine maintained by the mask-wearing and disinfectant tank wielding Transport Police, it is rare that anyone leaves…

This is the setting for Cthulhu City, a campaign framework published by Pelgrane Press for its clue-orientated roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Trail of Cthulhu. It is a setting in which the Mythos is never far from an explanation as to what is going on, the Mythos and its various worshipers hold positions of power, and if the investigators begin to look into any of their activities, they have the power and influence to move against the investigators without fear of repercussion. As each of the city’s cults—the Witch Coven of Old Arkham, the Necromantic Cult originally founded by Joseph Curwen, the Church of the Conciliator which has come to dominate Christianity in the city, the Esoteric Order of Dagon of Innsmouth, and the necromantic scientists of the Halsey Fraternity, as well as the lesser students of the mystic arts of the Brethren of the Silver Lodge, the unknown Pnakotic Cult, and the outlawed Armitage Inquiry work towards their own aims, the investigators face not one threat, but many! Whilst their aim might be to restore some semblance of normality to the city, the enemy of their enemy might just be their friend and help might come their way from unexpected, esoteric quarters… That though, means helping an ‘enemy’ in a city where the Mythos has all but won and the Stars are just shy of coming right.

With a noir sensibility, Cthulhu City also has a sense of unreality to it that feels like the film Dark City meets Lovecraft Country. In terms of what Great Arkham might be, the most obvious answer is a terrible reflection of the modern world in an unpleasant update of the Dreamlands, but it might an Arkham that somehow orbits Aldebaran on the shore of Lake Hali or simply an alternate timeline. It is also a setting where the investigators are the outlaws. In most settings involving Lovecraftian investigative horror, it is the cultists that the criminals, even if it the player characters who are investigating them rather than the legal authorities. Cthulhu City inverts this, making the investigative efforts of the player characters illegal and the player characters the criminals, with the reins of justice and the laws ententacled in the clutches of the cabals and cults.

Mechanically, this is reflected in Suspicion, a measurement of how much the activities of the investigators have come to the attention of the authorities and their true masters. For example, merely being out at night without good reason accrues an investigator one point of Suspicion gain, but engaging in a gun battle or revealing the truth of a Mythos attack would accrue him four points. As an investigator gains Suspicion, the more he comes under greater scrutiny, from a simple increase in the number of rats around him and his home at a Suspicion of one, his phone being tapped at a Suspicion of two, up to an actual manhunt for him at a Suspicion of five! The increased scrutiny also leads to increased watchfulness by the authorities and more General Ability tests to avoid the scrutiny. Now Suspicion can be lost—by an investigator waiting it out if the current value is low enough, or by buying it off or making a deal. The later of course, enables the Keeper to bring the other cults and cabals into play and get them involved in the investigators’ activities.

In terms of what the players roleplay, investigators in Cthulhu City are as per standard player characters in Trail of Cthulhu. They are though, citizens of Great Arkham and will have extra build points to devote to District Knowledges of the city and they are allowed to possess Pulp abilities like Hypnosis. This reflects the lurid nature of a Cthulhu City campaign. It is also possible to bring in existing investigators, perhaps if the city is part of the Dreamlands, though they will not have the District Knowledges. Several set-ups are suggested to bring them together, such as Miskatonic University students and faculty, immigrants of one neighbourhood weathering institutional prejudice and neglect—for which the excellent and award-winning Harlem Unbound: A Sourcebook for the Call of Cthulhu and Gumshoe Roleplaying Games would be particularly useful, as dreamers and artists of Kingsport, and so on… Other suggestions include working for a patron like Father Iwanicki, last Catholic priest in a city dominated by the Church of the Conciliator or being members of the same organisation, like a newspaper. Whatever the set-up, each player needs to answer a few questions about his investigator. These include how the investigator came to be in Great Arkham, why he cannot leave, what chief weirdness of the city haunts him the most, and what he fears.

Arkham City itself, is unsurprisingly, described in some detail. This starts with a brief history of the metropolis, from its founding through its incorporation of both Innsmouth and Kingsport to the madness and suicides of 1925 and beyond to the recent and mysterious death of Mayor Upton just two years ago. Over half of the book is devoted to the ten districts of the city, from Old Arkham, the University District, and Sentinel—the old parts of Arkham, to the incorporated parts like Dunwich, Innsmouth Docks, and Kingsport, plus totally new districts like Chinatown. Each comes with possible encounters, stock locations, landmarks, and stock characters, as well as named characters. These are not written as is, but rather accorded options so that, for example, every NPC comes in three versions with the suggested adjustments to their abilities. These are as a Victim who needs the investigators’ help; as a Sinister figure in league with one of the city’s several cults; and as a Stalwart, potential ally in their efforts in the face of the Mythos. Similarly, locations are treated as Masked or Unmasked. A Masked location appears to be relatively untouched by the Mythos—though it may be present and well hidden, whereas Unmasked, the location is tainted by the Mythos and the horror is very present.

So in Old Arkham, the stock location of a mansion, if Masked, is high-ceilinged and brightly lit, the windows thick curtained and a jaunty piano tune plays out on a gramophone as if warding of the city’s weirdness outside. Unmasked, the house is dark, a pale face appears at the windows, and inside the rooms are given decay over which ugly idols loom over the piles of ancient books. Stock character, the Gadabout Henry Billings, is twenty and fashionably drunk by lunch, a graduate of Miskatonic University. As Victim, he is being blackmailed by a cult after one too many a drunken debauch; as Sinister, he hides his Mythos activities behind his drunken debauchery; and as Stalwart, he is a jolly, good-hearted drunken fool, ready to leap into help in what japes his new-found companions—the investigators—get up to!

The treatment of the cults and cabals covers their leaders and members, aims and responses, and clues to their activities. Their influence is also set district by district, which enables the Keeper to track their reactions to the investigators’ activities. There are even guidelines as how they can be joined and what the benefits and responsibilities of membership are! The approach is  more straightforward and lacks the options given for Locations and NPCs. Instead, where the variability in these organisations comes is that what they do and what they want varies from cult to cult, rather than their having any internal variability.

There is good advice for the Keeper on how to run the campaign, with discussions of the type of horror and the mysteries to be found in Great Arkham. Connections are made to other campaign books for Trail of Cthulhu, some of them stronger than others—Arkham Detective Tales, The Armitage Files, Cthulhu Apoclaypse, and Shadows Over Filmland being the more workable suggestions. Ultimately though, it is up to the Keeper to decide what the actual nature of Great Arkham is, which of the cults she wants to focus on, and the connections between persons and places from district to district. This though is where Cthulhu City comes slightly unstuck, because as a campaign setting it is not actually written in stone, which leaves a lot of extra work for the Keeper to undertake in terms of her preparation. Especially in making the connections since the supplement does not really come with as thorough an index as it could or should have. The supplement includes appendices listing their main mentions, but this is not quite up to the task that the preparation for a Cthulhu City campaign really warrants.

Rounding out Cthulhu City is the scenario, ‘The Whisperer in the Light’, which is designed as the investigators first foray into Great Arkham. They are asked to look into a haunting and in the course of their investigation will discover strange science, bright spirits, and desperation on several levels. As good and as horrific the situation is in the scenario, it is not a good introduction to the powers lurking behind the facade of Great Arkham, although it does take the investigators on a short tour round the city. The problem is that it is not specific to the city and all too easily could be run in almost any town or city, but to be fair, this is a consequence of the ‘construction kit’ nature of Cthulhu City. If the scenario had been too specific in its links to the occult factions present in Great Arkham, it would have limited the Keeper’s choices. That said, advice could have been provided to help the Keeper link its events to each of the cabals and cults to help her draw her players further into their machinations.

One other aspect of Cthulhu City is how light the new mechanics it includes actually are, really no more than tracking a few numbers in the form of the Suspicion rating of the investigators and the degree of influence each cult or cabal has over each of Great Arkham’s ten districts. Although there are a few new spells, there are easily adapted, so that effectively, this supplement is very accessible if the Keeper wants to run it using a ruleset other than Trail of Cthulhu.

Physically, Cthulhu City is a sturdy hardback. It is engagingly and imaginatively written, but as mentioned it feels somewhat undone by its lack of index. The other issue is that a lot of its artwork is not as good as that which appeared in previous supplements for Trail of Cthulhu. In fact, a lot of it is uninteresting and feels like it is simply taking up space.

Most updates of Lovecraft Country maintain the dark region’s towns and villages—Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport—as discrete and isolated. Cthulhu City ignores this in favour of urbanising the region and bringing both its dream-like nightmarish feel into the Desperate Decade of the 1930s and the forces of the Mythos all but out into the open. It then provides the building blocks for the Keeper to create a campaign that is Kafka meets the Mythos, cult hoedown by streetlight, and a pre-war American Maquis against the Mythos, all played out in a dream… Although requiring hard work to prepare, Cthulhu City is an engaging modernisation of Lovecraft Country that gives the gives the Mythos muscle and turns​ noir's nightmares up to eleven​.

Saturday 17 November 2018

Conan III's First Seven

Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth is an anthology of seven adventures for use with Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed Of, the swords & sorcery roleplaying game published by Modiphius Entertainment. Reflecting the nature of Robert E. Howard’s novels, these adventures are designed to be played episodically, as and when, rather than as a campaign. One of the suggestions is for the Game Master to run them as flashbacks, the idea being that player characters are referring back to them when they are travelling or carousing between other adventures. This gives the Game Master free reign when to run this septet, although the anthology includes advice to help her decide if and when. ‘Where’ is another matter, the scenarios being set across the known world, from beyond Stygia in the far south to the Bossonian Marches and Pictish territory in the west, from deserts to stormy seas, and deep into the past.

The anthology opens with ‘Devils Under Green Stars’ which finds the adventurers far to the south beyond Stygia where they come across the last outpost of Zukundu, a long long, long forgotten civilisation which occupies an entire island. Although it looks abandoned, the adventurers find it home to not one tribe, but three! Each has devolved to one degree or another. The scenario is quite linear in structure, the adventurers being led around on something of wild monster chase which turns into a tour of Zukundu’s best and worst features. What this means is that the scenario is really set up to tell the one tale, but possibly a more experienced Game Master might be able to provide an alternative, perhaps more open approach the given set-up of three warring and each oddly different tribes. In the meantime, the Game Master gets to chew the scenery with some vile NPCs and the adventurers might get away with a sack full of gold.

‘The Pact of Xiabalba’ is the second scenario and begins with the player characters at sea aboard a ship as a mysterious storm shipwrecks them ashore a strange island. To survive they need water and to find water, they need to explore the ruins on the island and it is here that things turn a little strange. Suddenly they find themselves amidst a city just as it falls to an assault by a barbarian horde. Not in the present though, but in the distant past where their mission is to change time as otherwise they are not coming back and the campaign goes in a whole new direction. Advice is given as to what might happen if the adventurers fail, but again, this is a fairly linear and straightforward scenario. There are a couple of decent NPCs for the Game Master to portray, but ‘The Pact of Xiabalba’ is really all combat and action.

‘The Caves of the Dero’ feels like a traditional fantasy adventure, but its set-up is easy and it can be located just about anywhere. A treasure map leads the adventurers to a long abandoned villa below which they find a mine full of Morlock-like degenerates in search of treasure for their master. The villa ruins feel nicely creepy and the dungeon has suitably weird feel to it. The adventure does push the adventurers onwards with a cave-in—not the only time this device will be used in Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth—and as decently written as it is, the promised, but missing map of the dungeon complex would have been useful.

‘The Ghost of Thunder River’ sends the player characters to the Bossonian Marches, the frontier territory which serves as a buffer between Aquilonia and lands of the Picts. The player characters find themselves in the frontier fortress-town of  Velitrium as part of the militia just as the garrison learns of Picts actively raiding across the river and taking prisoners. If the player characters are to act, they will have to do it in secret or persuade a very reluctant garrison commander to let them, but once they do, they will soon be able to discover what is behind the rash of Pictish raids. Not for the first time though! The scenario actually starts with a prelude in which the players roleplay a band of Pictish hunters who come across some strange ruins and in exploring them set everything in motion. Once this background has been set, play switches back to the immediate present and the player characters can act. This is a nice device and provides the players and their characters with some foreshadowing of events to come.

A MacGuffin pulls the adventurers into the dread clutches of a criminal mastermind in the urban adventure, ‘The Thousand Eyes of Aumag-Bel’. It opens with their carousing and enjoying the fruits of their looting when all of a sudden, armoured thugs rush in, demanding that they hand over said MacGuffin. Failure to comply leads to a fight and probable ostracisation by the inhabitants of the city where Aumag-Bel holds horrible sway. Like the first scenario, ‘Devils Under Green Stars’, this another linear, straightforward affair, a combination of social pressure and a chase after a gang of young pickpockets drive the adventurers forward into a confrontation with Aumag-Bel in his sordid base of operations.

The penultimate entry in Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth is a scenario rather than an adventure, essentially a setting and set-up rather a fully rounded series of events that the player characters can play out. In ‘The Red Pit’, the player characters find themselves enslaved and being worked to death in a stone quarry when they have a chance to escape. The rest of the scenario involves their climbing to the top and overcoming their brutal guards to eventually escape. Rather than an adventure, this is a highly detailed set-up and extended battle, one that works as memorable set-scene which can used to showcase how a group of disparate individuals—that is, the player characters—came to be together.

The last adventure is ‘The Seethers in Darkness’ and is perhaps is the most Lovecraftian of the seven in the anthology. The adventurers are hired as guards to provide protection to a scholar who wants to search for lost ruins that many say do not exist in the desert southwest of Zamboula. When he gets lost in a sand storm, they are bound to follow him deep underground into a weird tomb complex and Hyborea’s past in what feels just a little like a dungeon bash. Fortunately, it does not feel quite as linear as other adventures in the collection even though it is.

The last chapter in the anthology is ‘Seeds of Glory’. Although Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth is not designed to be run as a campaign, one of the things that the advice for the Game Master in this chapter does, is actually suggest how it can be run as a campaign. One of the suggested campaign outlines starts off with the characters not so much on the bottom rung of the ladder, so much as not yet on that ladder, as slaves in ‘The Red Pit’ and then takes the Game Master through the other parts of campaign as the player characters gain gain fame and fortune. The advice suggests how Conan himself—using the stats for him included in Robert E. Howard’s Conan: Adventures in an Age Undreamed OfConan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth can be brought into the adventures, but without him sidelining the player characters. Rounding out the chapter is a good collection of scenario seeds that the Game Master can develop and bring into his game.

Physically, Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth is a slim and attractive hardback. It is illustrated throughout and both the artwork and the cartography—when the latter is not missing—is decent enough. The writing needs editing in places, primarily because of the occasional piece of missing text, but also because the events in the scenarios are quite detailed as they play out.

The seven scenarios in Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth are each quite short, offering a session or two’s worth of action and combat-orientated play. They each work better as occasional episodes or diversions rather than a campaign, since they are geographically diverse and too many tell the tale of an ancient evil discovered—either a civilisation or an act of sorcery—which needs to be thwarted by the player characters. This is where the flashback device of adventures and times remembered comes into its own, giving the Game Master more options in how she uses these often thematically similar adventures. Overall, Conan: Jeweled Thrones of the Earth is a solid collection of adventures that nicely takes the player characters back and forth across Hyboria and down memory lane.

Friday 16 November 2018

Anthropological Fantasy

Folkways is a supplement for High Adventure Role Playing Fantasy or HARP Fantasy, the roleplaying game descended from 1980’s Rolemaster. Published by Iron Crown Enterprises, it does two things for the percentile-based game. One is to provide the Game Master with the means to create and build interesting and gameable races, cultures, and nations. The other is to provide both Game Master and players alike with new races, professions, and training packages to add to their campaign, be that in either of Iron Crown Enterprises’ home settings of Shadow World and Cyradon.

The supplement is divided into two parts. The first presents a discussion and examination of ‘Folkways’, in sociology and anthropology, the norms for routine or casual interaction. Essentially, why a race, culture, or society acts the way it does. There are twenty of these—Environment Ways, Urban Ways, Family Ways, Marriage Ways, Lifespan Ways, Gender and Sexuality Ways, Association Ways, Rank Ways, Order Ways, Authority Ways, Freedom ways, Wealth Ways, Work Ways, Leisure Ways, Dress Ways, Food Ways, Language Ways, Magic ways, Supernatural Ways, and Self-Reflection Ways—and the author turns them into Twenty Questions which the Game Master can ask when creating content for her game world. So the first examines how the topography of region, access to water, its ecosystem, and weather affect a culture’s outlook, habits, and customs, so a culture with limited access to water might place a strong value upon gaining access to and not wasting water, moving from water source to source in a nomadic lifestyle, whereas a culture with ready access might settle down near the water and take advantage its regular ebb and flow to grow and harvest crops. For Work Ways, it asks who does the work and why, whether that work is simply to exist or to earn to pay for goods, how much that work is valued, and lastly, if slavery exists. So a culture working to live at a subsistence level would be of a different character, whereas a feudal society imposes greater obligation upon its members.

When asking these questions, the author not only presents examples in our own world, but goes on to apply them to any number of fantasy settings—the Twenty Questions spurred by the Folkways can equally be applied to cultures of other genres, whether Science Fiction or horror, but this supplement is for a fantasy roleplaying game—drawn from fiction and gaming. These include J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, The Book of the New Sun by Gene Wolfe, Stephen R. Donaldson’s Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, George R.R.. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, and others, as well as the MMORPG, World of Warcraft and HARP itself. This altogether, is an interesting read, questions about these settings and others being raised as the reader proceeds through the book. It is very much a pity that the author does not look at roleplaying game settings which are regarded as being culturally based—Glorantha of RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, Rokugan of Legend of the Five Rings, and Tékumel of Empire of the Petal Throne—as the answers which would be generated by the asking of the Twenty Questions of them would make for fascinating reading. Of course, such answers are really outside the scope of a supplement devoted to HARP.

So far so academically stolid, but then since Folkways is a supplement for HARP, it is no surprise that two races from HARP Fantasy are the subject of these Twenty Questions. These are the Gryx and the Gnomes. The answers for both are useful. For the Gryx because they are a race not only new to HARP Fantasy, but new to fantasy, so unfamiliar from the run of the mill Dwarves, Elves, Hobbits, and whatnot. For the Gnomes, this brings a few answers to a race that is often dismissed as being silly.

The second part of HARP Folkways is where the actual new game rules occur, which means that the first part is essentially systemless and could easily applied to the setting and races—fantasy or not—of the Game Master’s choice. The new mechanics include some eleven new races, ten new professions and associated talents, new cultural adolescence packages, and twenty-three new training packages. The new races include the minotaur-like Amarvish—which feel just a little too much like the Tauren from World of Warcraft; the Menomenee, aquatic sea-elves, and the gigantic, arctic-dwelling Navrothor with Dwarf-like attitudes. These have only the one of the Twenty Questions asked of them, but again, they provide further examples of answers to those questions. Some of the races do feel as if they are stretching the boundary between what works and what is just a bit silly, for example, the overly gregarious and weasel-like Tomalak and the pack-rat, rat-like Gordaz, universally disliked for their attitudes to property and ownership. 

The new cultures, from Aquatic and Aerial to Coastal and Deeping (below Deep Warrens),  feel more sober enough, as do the new Professions. Those like Artisan, Hunter, Labourer, Sailor, Trader, and so on, will probably find their way into most settings, but the tonal mix really continues with the Training Packages. The Fisherfolk are normal enough, but Clowns, Conquistadors, Nestorians (professional storytellers), Private Eyes, and Stylites (ascetic monks), and others are highly specific and the Game Master will want to pick and choose which of these she wants to have in her campaign. Other Training Packages are more setting-specific, but without specifying that setting. Lastly, Folkways returns to the Twenty Questions and asks about the two default settings for HARP Fantasy—Shadow World and Cyradon. In particular, it asks them of the Theocracy of Asut and the Orsai Empire for Cyradon, and of the Vasai Republic for Shadow World. These are fully worked out examples and for devotees both settings, these are useful explanations and examinations of the whys and wherefores of their respective cultures. Rounding out the supplement is an appendix of charts on which the Game Master can roll to create her own Folkways for the cultures she wants to design.

Physically, Folkways is decently written softback. Its subject matter means that it feels a little dry and academic in places, but the numerous examples and explorations of the Twenty Questions serve to offset this. It is also nicely illustrated, and whilst none of the artwork is necessarily bad, some of it is good enough to put the merely adequate to shame.

Of course Folkways is a book for HARP Fantasy, but there is a sense that you wish it were otherwise, instead being wholly systemless, a discussion and examination of other cultures, races, and nations presented in other roleplaying game settings. That though is for another supplement, its discussion of the Folkways and application of the Twenty Questions instead spurring the reader to examine and think about the cultures he has encountered in the books he has read and the games he has played. For both Game Master and player there is also an array of new character options to bring to the gaming table, though the Game Master is advised to mix and match rather than import them wholesale into her campaign as not all of them will have their place in such a world. Above all though, Folkways makes the Game Master think what makes the peoples and cultures of her campaign so in light of their influences and so helps make those people and culture richer, more believable, and more interesting when her players encounter them.