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Tuesday 1 January 2019

Reviews from R'lyeh Post-Christmas Dozen 2018

Since 2001, Reviews from R’lyeh have contributed to a series of Christmas lists at Ogrecave.com—and at RPGaction.com before that, suggesting not necessarily the best board and roleplaying games of the preceding year, but the titles from the last twelve months that you might like to receive and give. Continuing the break with tradition—in that the following is just the one list and in that for reasons beyond its control, OgreCave.com is not running its own lists—Reviews from R’lyeh would once again like present its own list. Further, as is also traditional, Reviews from R’lyeh has not devolved into the need to cast about ‘Baleful Blandishments’ to all concerned or otherwise based upon the arbitrary organisation of days. So as Reviews from R’lyeh presents its annual (Post-)Christmas Dozen, I can only hope that the following list includes one of your favourites, or even better still, includes a game that you did not have and someone was happy to hide in gaudy paper and place under that dead tree for you. If not, then this is a list of what would have been good under that tree and what you should purchase yourself to read and play in the months to come.


Original Adventures Reincarnated #1: Into the Borderlands
Goodman Games $49.99/£38.99
In a year that was not so much nostalgia tinged as nostalgia saturated, 2018 was not so much a case of ‘What’s old is new’, but ‘let’s begin anew’, so the perfect first entry on this list is everyone’s favourite beginning adventure for Basic Dungeons & Dragons—or rather two of them. The inclusion of these two adventures explains why certain modules did not appear in Wizards of the Coast’s Tales from the Yawning Portal, for this weighty tome not only collects B1 In Search of the Unknown and B2 The Keep on the Borderlands—classic scenarios both—but also updates them for use with Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition (though it includes versions of the originals too). Plus, it comes with commentaries on both adventures and further locations which expand the dungeons into mini-campaigns. Together the scenarios offer ‘old school’ adventure updated for the clean and accessible rules of the twenty-first century’s take on Dungeons & Dragons.

Chronicles of Crime
Lucky Duck Games $45.99/£29.99
Board games in which you solve crimes go all the way back to Cluedo (and beyond), but if you were looking for crime-solving game which brings everything up to date, then Chronicles of Crime is what you are looking for. This is a co-operative game in which you will be using your mobile phone to scan QR codes on locations, people, and objects represented by cards in order to look round crime scenes (including in Virtual Reality if you have the glasses), examine clues, interview witnesses, consult experts, and finally explain how the how the murder was done and who did the dastardly deed. In between times, you can discuss the case with your fellow detectives, but for every clue you examine and question you ask, the clock counts down and time is running out. The game comes with five lengthy cases set in London (more cases and crime genres are promised), plus a tutorial case which teaches you how to play—and with Chronicles of Crime App, you really can be playing ten minutes after opening the box. The cleverness of the design means that the games’cards, representing places, people, and clues, can be reconfigured again and again, different for each case, so that each time they tell the story of a different crime, almost like an ensemble cast performing a different play every night (much like the Nero Wolfe television series with Timothy Hutton). Good played solo, great played as a duo, Chronicles of Crime is perfect for anyone who likes a good whodunnit.

Call of Cthulhu Starter Set
Chaosium, Inc. $24.99/£19.99
Every good roleplaying game deserves a starter set, box designed to introduce the game and get everyone playing. Surprisingly, the premier game of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Call of Cthulhu, has never had one—until this year, that is. The Call of Cthulhu Starter Set is a surprisingly inexpensive introduction to the game, but even more surprisingly comes with everything a player—and then his friends—needs to get going and then some more. Not just the rules, dice, and a scenario, but the rules, dice, investigator (player character) sheets—blank and ready-to-play, and a total of four scenarios. These begin with Alone Against the Flames, the solo adventure designed to teach a player how to play Call of Cthulhu, and then build on that with three classic scenarios that in turn are designed to be run by a Keeper with one player, a Keeper with two or more players, and a Keeper and multiple players. In the process, both Keeper and players get to encounter different aspects of the Mythos, enjoy hours of play, and see some classic scenarios updated to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. (Read the full review here.)

Spire: The City Must Fall
Rowan, Rook, and Decard $50/£35
Spire: The City Must Fall is a roleplaying game of secrets and lies, trust and betrayal, violence and subversion, conspiracy and consequences, and of committing black deeds for a good cause. The players take the role of downtrodden Drow, members of a cell of a rebel movement, The Ministry of Our Hidden Mistress, rising up from the streets as to overthrow their Aelfir, or High Elf masters. As far as they are concerned, their cause is right, but to the state, they are rebels, criminals, and worse, terrorists. The question is, how far will they go to bring about the change they desire, what acts will they commit, who can they trust, who will they betray, and what are the likely consequences? All this takes places in the Spire, a mile-high tower city in a world of technology and magic, using primarily player-facing mechanics that explore the consequences of failure and only reward the players and their characters for making a difference and bringing about change. After all, only the cause and the revolution matter, comrades. (Read the full review here.)

Operation Unfathomable
The Hydra Cooperative, LLC $20/£15.99

Written for use with Swords & Wizardry—but easily adapted to the Dungeons & Dragons-style game of your choice—Operation Unfathomable is a dungeon adventure like no other. It is a gonzo-Jack Kirby-esque high level adventure for low level adventurers in which a dirty dungeoneering dozen must enter the Underworld on the trail of missing royal warrior prince who descended into its depths to find and take revenge upon a minor chaos godling known as Shaggath-Ka. Not necessarily to rescue him, but to retrieve the great magical artefact that he stole from his father’s treasury! This is not a dungeon bash scenario, for bash too hard and the adventurers will get bashed back—even harder, but an adventure in which the party must employ diplomacy, stealth, and knowing when to run away if it is to succeed. At the heart of this adventure are some truly fantastic locations such as the ‘Beetletown Welcome Centre and Dwellings’ and ‘Local Franchise Temple of Nul’, regional church of the Cult of the Mindless God and some truly fantastic encounters on the ‘Encounters & Other Random Weirdness’ on the event table, like being engulfed in a ‘Mutagenic Cloud’ and have their lips gain tentacles, getting to trade with a Slugman on a business trip, or engage in a metaphysical debate with a Woolly Neanderthal on a spirit quest. Essentially a mini-sandbox—or tunnelbox—Operation Unfathomable is wonderfully weird in a fun way. (Read the full review here.)

Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game
Goodman Games LLC $39.99/£33.99
Continuing both the gonzo theme and the resetting of beginnings, Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is essentially a reimagining of the classic 1978 Gamma World using Goodman Games’ Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game mechanics. Which means that it is a Class and Level roleplaying game using the d20 System, but with a whole lot of different dice. Explore the post-apocalyptic world of Terra A.D. (‘After Distaste’) and make it a better world for your tribe scavenging the past of a future that never happened as Pure Strain Humans, Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients. It adds some interesting and modern twists, such as replacing the Alignment of Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game with alliances with secret societies and linking the ‘prayers’ of the Shaman Class not to a god, but an A.I., each one a holdover from the Great Disaster that struck the Earth centuries ago. This being a ‘Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game’, it means that Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game does the ‘Character Funnel’ too, shoving handfuls of Zero Level characters through a low-level scenario to see if they survive and so pass a rite of passage into adulthood. Well supported with lots of scenarios, the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is packed with weirdness, horror, and wackiness. (Read the full review here.)

Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World
Chaosium, Inc. $129.99/£101.99
Already a classic two decades ago, what is regarded as the greatest campaign for any roleplaying game got updated, redesigned, and rewritten in 2018 to make it easier to set up—by introducing the most famous NPC in gaming, Jackson Elias, before the campaign begins; making its multiple plots and clues much easier to follow for the Keeper, if not the players and their investigators; and to take account of its previously stereotypical depictions of its antagonists and follow up thread plots which were previous left dangling… As a result of the new content, the new maps, the new art, and the new advice, it has tripled in size. It remains though, a globetrotting campaign of epic scope, following in the footsteps of an ill-fated colleague and an ill-fated archaeological expedition, which as clues and secrets are revealed, will see the investigators confront different masks of the Crawling Chaos again and again until his current plans come to light. A campaign of herculean proportions, there is at least a year’s worth of great roleplaying to be had in the new edition of Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World, the new slipcase edition now of size to match! And if the Keeper can run the campaign using the Masks of Nyarlathotep Gamer Prop Set from the H.P. Lovecraft Historical Society, then all the better. (Read the full review here.)

Forbidden Lands
Free League $129.99/£48.99
Legacy games have been a feature of board games ever since Legacy Risk in which the play of the game actually altered both the state and the rules of the game, ultimately turning every copy of the game into a unique copy. Now the idea comes to the roleplaying game with Forbidden Lands, an open-world survival roleplaying game in which the player characters are not the heroes of roleplaying games, but raiders and rogues setting out to stamp their mark on a valley that has long been under a demonic curse. Forbidden from entry for centuries, the curse has recently lifted, leaving a land untouched by mortal hands and ready to be explored, ransacked, plundered, and claimed! The characters will set out to find lost tombs, fight terrible monsters, wander the wild lands, and if they survive, perhaps build a stronghold from which to explore further, but also to defend against the threats which still lurk in the valley or other raiders bent on taking what they have already claimed. As the game progresses, the map of the ‘forbidden valley’ is marked up with stickers showing the players’ and adventurers’ finds and discoveries, so it too will be different from every other boxed set of Forbidden Lands.

RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha
Chaosium, Inc. $54.99/£42.99
2018 was a both a great and a bad year for RuneQuest and Glorantha. Bad—and sad—because of the passing of Greg Stafford, the creator of Glorantha, but great because RuneQuest returned home to Chaosium, Inc. and was released in aa attractive new edition along with a systemless supplement presenting its mythology, The Glorantha Sourcebook, and a Dungeons & Dragons-style take upon the Hero Wars in the form of 13th Age Glorantha. At the core of those releases though, is RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, an update and redesign of RuneQuest II which combines the passion mechanics of Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain (Greg Stafford’s other truly great design) with the Runes of Glorantha, to make the building blocks of Glorantha’s universe a fundamental part of every player character and help each player bring them into play as part of their character. No longer do characters in RuneQuest aspire to be members of a cult and gain its Rune magic. They start play as initiates and with the mighty magic of their gods, all ready to fight the Hero Wars, to drive the Lunars from their lands, and to assert the myths and stories of their gods.
(Read the full review here.)

Modern AGE Basic Rulebook
Green Ronin Publishing $34.95/£26.99
Since 2010, Dragon Age – Dark Fantasy Roleplaying Set 1: For Characters Level 1 to 5 from Green Ronin Publishing has been putting the action into fantasy with its Adventure Game Engine, the mechanics since released in the form of the Fantasy AGE Basic Rulebook. Now the publisher has updated the mechanics to cover the Industrial Revolution, the here and now, and beyond, presenting a toolkit with which the Game Master can run games in different genres—espionage, horror, urban fantasy, action, post-apocalypse, and more—in different modes of play: Gritty, Pulpy, and Cinematic. Pleasingly, the rules for these modes are placed throughout the book, but very clearly marked for easy recognition. Players get to create and play characters capable of doing action, exploration, and social stunts in play—and so be cool. This is backed up with great advice and tools for the Game Master to help her create adventures of types and in all modern-set genres. The Modern Age Basic Rulebook offers light, fast mechanics and the means run a variety of game types.

Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game
Chaosium, Inc. $29.99/£24.99
As well as RuneQuest coming back in 2018, the year also saw the return of Greg Stafford’s third great roleplaying game—or rather his first great storytelling game. This is Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game. Based on the comic strip series, Prince Valiant in the Days of King Arthur, by Hal Foster, this is Greg Stafford’s second, other best attempt at an Arthurian roleplaying game after Pendragon – Chivalric Roleplaying in Arthur’s Britain, in which the players also take on the roles of knights (other options are available in the advanced rules) at the court of King Arthur and set out to do good deeds and be heroes. It uses incredibly simple, even simplistic mechanics, but to those it adds innovations that encourage good roleplaying and shared storytelling by having the players take turns in being a Storyteller (or Game Master) for an episode. These make Prince Valiant: The Storytelling Game look very modern even though it was originally published in 1889! Plus it comes with great advice on playing the game and being the Storyteller, so making it a good introductory roleplaying game as well as a good roleplaying game.

Pelgrane Press $49.99/£38.99
2018 was a good year for Delta Green, for not did the setting of modern Lovecraftian investigative and conspiratorial horror get its own roleplaying game from Arc Dream Publishing, it got a roleplaying game which took it back to the cowboy days of the 1960s when peace and love raged in USA, war was waged in in Vietnam, and the Cold War raged everywhere… In this timeframe, both Delta Green and MAJESTIC-12, are rival authorised, but unacknowledged black programs dedicated to investigating the true threat by mankind—cosmic ‘unnatural’ entities beyond our understanding. But where Delta Green wants to contain and destroy, MAJESTIC-12 wants to study and weaponise—and only one will come out on top. Delta Green agents are the last bulwark against threats from within and without, each putting mind and body on the line in order to keep their families, their country, and even the planet not only safe, but ignorant of the true nature of the universe. That does not mean though, that Delta Green agents don’t carry out their missions with a swing.

Art & Arcana: A Visual History
Wizards of the Coast $50/£35
Since this (Post-)Christmas Dozen started at a begining, it seems fitting that it should end by suggesting an everything—or at least an everything of something. For which Art & Arcana: A Visual History fits the bill to perfection. As we enter its forty-fifth year, there have been plenty of good histories about the gaming hobby, such as Designers & Dragons and Playing the World. None though, are quite as pretty as Art & Arcana: A Visual History, which as the title suggests presents the history of the look of Dungeons & Dragons over the course of forty years and more. It takes the reader from the days before Original Dungeons & Dragons to the latest edition, exploring how the look of the game changed. Not just its art, but also its trade dress, but above all the art! There is not a single page in this weighty volume which does not showcase some of Dungeons & Dragons’ best art. Plus the book highlights some of the game’s favourite artists, the evolution of monsters and villains, and more. Alongside the art is a solid history of both art and Dungeons & Dragons, making this more than a book of pictures. Written by both fans and experts, this is as much a visual history as a book of memories and very much a book which every Dungeons & Dragons fan should have on their shelf.

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