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

Monday 28 October 2019

Hobo Horror

Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey is a scenario written and published for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition by Golden Goblin Press. Released as a stretch goal for the Kickstarter campaign for the scenario, Cold Warning: A chilling 7th Edition scenario, it builds on the author’s article, ‘Raggedy Clothes and Worn Out Shoes: A Look at the American Hobo’ from Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion, to present a wintry slice of Hobo life played out across the North East of the USA, as seven Hobos, Tramps, and Bums make their way across two states in search of a more than welcome hearty celebration. It presents a short guide to Hobos and the Hobo culture of Desperate Decade of the nineteen thirties, a septet of pregenerated characters, and the scenario, ‘Riding the Northbound’, for which the pregenerated characters are designed.

Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey opens with ‘Raggedy Clothes and Worn Out Shoes: A Look at the American Hobo’, an examination of  the place of the hobo and his life and how he can be played as a Mythos investigator, here reprinted from Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion. It looks at Hobo life, mundane threats faced by Hoboes—they were often hated by communities and the authorities, the unionisation of Hobos through Tourist Union #63, Hobo camps, the Hobo etiquette and code of right, and gives examples of Hobo slang and signs. It goes into the details of finding a job as a Hobo and making sufficient ‘Days of Need’—the daily material required to get by in good health. Whether looking for a job, performing, begging, or scavenging, it is all hard work and in terms of the mechanics, it feels a little like it, since a player will be rolling for this day by day.

In terms of investigators, it provides three Occupations as well as a set of tables for generating Hobo names like Stinky Judge Phil or Professor ‘Barb’ Bourbon. The Hobo rides the rails, actively looking for and wanting work; the Tramp depends on his ability to sing, tell a story, or play an instrument as much as his luck to get by; and the Bum relies upon his luck as much as pleasure in the bottle to get by. On the down side,  ‘Raggedy Clothes and Worn Out Shoes: A Look at the American Hobo’ is a reprint, but this was one of the best articles in Island of Ignorance – The Third Cthulhu Companion—and as good as it was there, it is just as good here. This is an excellent article and if you wanted to play a Hobo—of either stripe—this is the perfect resource, whatever the roleplaying game (and it need not be one of Lovecraftian investigative horror either).

The seven pregenerated characters include three Hobos, two Tramps, and two Bums. They include a mix of male and female characters, each of which comes with a thumbnail portrait and a detailed background. Notable additions to some of these characters is the Dreaming skill, suggesting that the scenario that follows might involve the Dreamlands. Even if that is not the case, what it suggests that despite their circumstances, some of the Hobos have not stopped daring to dream—quite literally… If there are issues with Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey it is with these pregenerated characters. Not that they are bad, but rather that they are not provided in the book as ready to play investigator sheets and that should none of the pregenerated characters with the Dreaming skill be selected, they may be at a disadvantage when it comes to playing the scenario that follows.

Almost two thirds of Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey consists of the eponymous scenario. It begins in a jungle—a Hobo camp—just outside of Boston. The player characters have arrived looking warmth and company with the onset of winter, but find it all but empty. They quickly learn that a fellow Tramp, Bottlecap Bob has struck it lucky, having fallen in love with, and married a rich widow, and to celebrate his good fortune, has invited everyone he ever rode the rails with to come join him at his new home in Harmony Corners to celebrate. For the player characters this is too good an opportunity to pass up, but Harmony Corners is north of Albany in New York state, which means crossing Massachusetts and then heading north just as the weather is turning bad…

So begins a risky journey of riding the rails, jumping trains, and walking in winter across New England. This includes gathering supplies for the journey, dodging the authorities to get aboard a train, skirting a village with a reputation for hating Hobos, making friends, finding work, and quite a bit more. There are several challenges and scenes given to cover the journey and although somewhat episodic, they nicely bring the Hobo experience to life for the players, showing not just the difficulties they faced, but also the kindnesses they were shown. Although these scenes are mundane and involve just a little in the way of investigation, they are rife with chances to roleplay and game.

Eventually the Hobos will reach Harmony Corners and there find a homecoming of sorts, a warm welcome that comes with plenty of hot food, fine drink, a bath and a shave, and best of all, a warm bed for more than just the night. Of course, it looks to be too good to be true—and it is. Just the player characters are warm, dry, and have full bellies, the home of Bottlecap Bob, his beautiful Japanese wife and her two daughters, is beset by groans, screams, and worse… At this point, the horror of the Mythos erupts in the mansion into a bodily mess, one that the Hobos may not be equipped to deal with. No matter how well prepared the player characters are, the climax to the scenario is likely to be fairly physical—and if they manage to come out of that alive, there is still scope for them to continue their quest elsewhere.

For as a scenario, this is what ‘Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey’ is, a quest, a great odyssey beset by travails and blessed with boons, only for the Hobos to find—much like Odysseus found his homecoming, it is not as welcoming as the Hobos might have liked. Yet unlike that 0dyssey, it is the homecoming that is mythological rather than mundane in ‘Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey’ and the journey that is mundane rather than the mythological. Further, it is the journey that is interesting, even fascinating, rather than the confrontation with the Mythos at the climax, which the Hobos have little notion of. In this, ‘Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey’  may well work as a suitable scenario with which to introduce the Hobos to the Mythos.

Physically, Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey is a slim volume, liberally illustrated with period photographs and some excellent artwork by Reuben Dodds. The maps are clear and the scenario is decently written, although it needs an edit in places.

Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey has its origins as a convention scenario and perhaps it would have been nice to have some notes towards that end. As written though, Riding the Northbound: A Hobo Odyssey is a fine exploration of the Great Depression’s underbelly and of character types often ignored in Lovecraftian investigative horror, and a scenario which proves that the journey is often more interesting than the destination. 

Sunday 27 October 2019

Abhorrent Operettas

A Night at the Opera: Six Terrifying Operations for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game is an anthology of scenarios for the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, the roleplaying game of conspiratorial and Lovecraftian investigative horror published by Arc Dream Publishing. All six are standalone affairs and so can be used as one-shot scenarios, but whilst they are not connected beyond being investigations for Delta Green, they do have campaign possibilities. Ranging in complexity from basic to labyrinthine, the six can easily be slotted into an ongoing campaign, fitted to the Agents as they gain experience on operations or ‘nights at the opera’. The sextet can also be run after the introductory set-up scenarios in Control Group or the scenario in Delta Green: Need to Know. Some of the scenarios in A Night at the Opera are not new, having been available for the previous iteration of Delta Green as well as having been available singly, but it is good to have them here in a definitive collection for the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game.

The collection opens with ‘Reverberations’ by Shane Ivey, an introductory investigation into the reappearance of a designer drug from the 1990s on the streets of Chicago. Then distributed by Tcho-Tcho streets gangs—since broken up by police and federal crackdown—the question is, who is distributing the drug two decades later, why are users and dealers disappearing under mysterious circumstances, what has it to do with the much maligned Tcho-Tcho community? Old Delta Green hands will no doubt confirm that reputation, but different times and different attitudes means that investigators need to be more respectful. The least complex of the investigations in A Night at the Opera, more experienced players of roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror will probably determine the problem at the heart of ‘Reverberations’, but in keeping with the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, there is a certain degree of obfuscation when presenting the Unnatural threat. Another thing that ‘Reverberations’ does—and this is something that several of the scenarios do in the anthology—is hint at the deeper and wider conspiracies in the world of the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game. ‘Reverberations’ is a short and engaging investigation, which nicely works as an introduction at the start of a campaign or a later interlude in an ongoing campaign.

‘Reverberations’ is followed by ‘Viscid’, a richer, deeper investigation written by Dennis Detwiller. The Agents are brought in to investigate the bloody death of a geneticist (and his girlfriend), who had links to secret defence research projects and appears to have been continuing his research despite being retired. The horrors uncovered are inspired as much by The Thing from Another World as The Cat in the Hat, but they do take no little uncovering and they do play upon the concept of the near-unstoppable, mutable horror seen over and over in the genre. In the hands of other scenario writers, the set-up and the threats might simply tip over into being clichés, but as much as the Unnatural horrors are well-handled, what really lifts ‘Viscid’ out of the ordinary is the layering of the conspiracy covering up the fallout from the collapse of MAJESTIC-12—the top, top secret organisation that kept the existence of extraterrestrials a deep, deep secret and exploited the technologies they were given by them—in the wake of September 11th, 2001. There is the possibility that the Agents will even come across one of its notable figures, which gives the Handler—as the Game Master is known in the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game—a really good NPC to roleplay and add to her campaign. This is a nicely detailed, meaty investigation with lots of clues and some nasty confrontations, both mundane and mythological.

Dennis Detwiller’s ‘Music from a Darkened Room’ is a Delta Green classic, an investigation into the odd death of a fellow Delta Green Agent in a supposedly haunted house. Its structure is one of two halves—much like its precedent, ‘The Haunting’ for Call of Cthulhu—with Agents investigating and assembling data in the first half, then entering the house in the second. The scenario has been restructured heavily around an array of experiences and encounters to be had from room to room in the house, all varying according to the Agents’ Will Power stat. This enables the Handler to tailor the encounters and experiences to the Agents, enabling her to start with a sense of unease and build up through creepy to weird and the outright bloody confrontations. How much of a solution there is to this situation is another matter, and this may be one that the Agents finding resolving almost impossible.

Shane Ivey’s ‘Extremophilia’ has the problem in that has similarities with the earlier ‘Viscid’ in that inheritors of MAJESTIC-12’s legacy have their experimentation get out of hand. The Agents are called in when a sheriff’s deputy in Lewis and Clark County, Montana turns up dead after suffering massive heavy metal poisoning. Clues point to a researcher at a local, but obscure pharmaceuticals company, but he is nowhere to be found. In places suitably weird and creepy, what  ‘Extremophilia’ lacks in comparison to ‘Viscid’ is the layering of the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game’s conspiracy as deeper background. Its movie reference is more obvious, being Close Encounters of the Third Kind, which may well impinge upon the tone of the scenario. Were it be in another anthology, ‘Extremophilia’ would be a solid scenario that a Handler would be happy to run, but alongside ‘Viscid’ it pales in comparison.

Greg Stolze’s only entry is ‘Star Chamber’, a powerhouse of a scenario which calls for grand staging and excellent roleplaying. Much like the Akira Kurosawa film Rashōmon, it involves multiple conflicting points of view and testimonies, with the Agents tasked with determining if not the truth, then at least the least worst outcome for Delta Green as an agency. The set-up has the Agents being sent to hear an after-mission report of an investigation which went wrong, but rather than hear the reports given verbatim via the Handler, the players get to roleplay out what happened on the out-of-country mission as the survivors. At each stage though, the emphasis is upon the point of view of a different survivor—or secondary Agent, so getting at the truth, or at least, a truth, should prove a challenge throughout. The set-up requires much heavier staging than other Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game scenarios with a greater degree of direction needing to be given to the players when roleplaying the survivors recalling (and playing out) events in the unsuccessful mission. Although it may call for more than they expect from a Delta Green scenario, most players should relish the roleplaying challenges written into ‘Star Chamber’ which should leave their Agents wondering if the same might happen should they really screw up an investigation. ‘Star Chamber’ would work as a one-shot or convention scenario, but whether played as either of those, or as part of a campaign, this a markedly different and enjoyable scenario.

The last scenario in A Night at the Opera is Shane Ivey’s ‘Observer Effect’. The Agents are hurriedly assigned as Department of Energy agents to investigate whether the Olympian Holobeam Array, a new high-technology physics laboratory which has just gone online, is using technology from previously classified United States Air Force programs. The facility’s scientists and engineers seem disgruntled, if not affronted, to have the Agents on-site, but as the laboratory is beset by a series of strange energy spikes accompanied by distortions in the fabric of reality, their reactions begin to vary wildly. Some are secretive, some forthcoming, others disappear, and the situation only grows worse and worse as the spikes and distortions escalate… This is as direct a confrontation with pure Cosmic Horror as any of the scenarios in the anthology present and may well mark the ending of a campaign should its timeline play out free of Agent interference…

Physically, A Night at the Opera is a sturdy, well-presented, full-colour hardback. It would have been nice if the various NPCs from the scenarios had been given thumbnail illustrations for the Handler to show her players, but the main presentation issue with the anthology is that the background information for the secondary Agents is not presented as succinctly as it could be for ease of use. Of course, the main actual issue with A Night at the Opera is whether or not the Handler already has any of the six scenarios within its pages as they have long been available separately. So a Handler may already have one or more of these, which means that the collection is not of as much use as if she had none of them.

Although they do suffer a little in terms of repetition of plot elements, for the most part, the six scenarios in A Night at the Opera are singular pieces of horror that at their best are strongly wrapped in the conspiracies behind Delta Green. That they can all sit alongside each other and be run as part of the same campaign showcases the strength of the framework in the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game in providing motivations for Agents and players alike to investigate the Unnatural. Of the six, ‘Viscid’ stands out as a deliciously deep slice of conspiratorial investigation, and of course, ‘Star Chamber’ as a fantastically staged roleplaying set-up and premonition as to what might happen to the Agents (much like in the earlier Delta Green: Need to Know) in the future. A Night at the Opera: Six Terrifying Operations for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game is an excellent set of scenarios for the Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, whether used as one-shots, convention scenarios, or as part of an ongoing campaign.

Saturday 26 October 2019

Shear Horror

It is traditional for the roleplaying game publishers to release something special in time for Halloween and Goodman Games is no exception. As in years past, these take the form of scenarios for Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, the Old School Renaissance Retroclone which sits somewhere between Basic Dungeons & Dragons and Advanced Dungeons & Dragons in terms of its complexity. Primarily, it includes Race as Class, allows for extra actions during combat, and a detailed, if often random spellcasting mechanics. It also introduced the concept of the ‘Character Creation Funnel’ in which players would each take a group of four Zero Level characters through an incredibly dangerous adventure in the hope that one or more of them might survive and gain sufficient Experience Points to attain First Level and thus a character Class. Not every scenario though for Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game is a ‘Character Creation Funnel’ for Zero Level characters, and Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror #2: The Sinister Sutures of The Sempstress is an example of that.

The Sinister Sutures of The Sempstress is ‘A Level 6 Adventure’ by Macabre Michael Curtis, the author of Mutant Crawl Classics #3: Incursion of the Ultradimension, A Single, Small Cut, The Dungeon Alphabet: An A-Z Reference for Classic Dungeon Design, and of course, Stonehell Dungeon. Designed for characters of Sixth Level, it is a horror scenario with gothic trappings which takes place when the adventurers are out of the dungeon, perhaps staying at the same inn on their travels, or even at home. Other than that, all the scenario needs is somewhere like a closet or a drawer in which the player characters can store their clothes. Unlike most scenarios for Dungeon Crawl Classics, it is specifically designed to be run in a single session, which ideally, should be on the evening of Halloween.

The Sinister Sutures of The Sempstress opens with the player characters abed, perhaps dreaming, perhaps not. In a nicely creepy moment, a stitched together hand, followed by arm, body, head, and more, eases itself out of a drawer or closet to revealed a doll of patchworked flesh and comes towards each of the adventurers, knife in hand… This happens in each of their bedrooms and presents a challenge in which each must face a foe relying solely upon their innate abilities and skills rather than their arms, armour, and equipment. Nevertheless, they should be able to defeat their horrifyingly strange foes and thus prepare themselves to trace them to their source—back through the closet (or drawer)...

Once the adventurers do follow their attackers back to their source, they find themselves in the ‘House of Tattered Remnants’, a sort of deconstructed Victorian Gothic mansion, constructed of offcuts, either stitched back together or discarded and forgotten. There are spiders and marionettes, toys straight out of the adventurers’ childhoods, raggedy bats, and more. The house is part-seamstress’ workshop, part-fixer-upper on the borders of the non-Euclidean, but mostly all Grand Guignol! There are just ten locations in the adventure, but all are described in some detail and so there is plenty for the adventurers to examine and explore in addition to the threats and foes they will face. 

As an adventure, The Sinister Sutures of The Sempstress is fairly linear in structure and so in the progress of getting to the threat and protagonist at its heart, the adventurers are highly likely to uncover what is going on and why they are attacked. Were this any other adventure, then that linear nature might be held against it as a criticism. In its defence, it should be pointed out that The Sinister Sutures of The Sempstress is a short adventure—physically at just sixteen pages and as a dungeon, just ten locations—and it is designed to be played in a single session, on Halloween, almost like the players and their characters are roleplaying their way through a horror movie.

To enforce the horror of the scenario and the things that the adventurers will encounter, The Sinister Sutures of The Sempstress employs a Sanity-like mechanic. As they progress through the house, there is a chance that they will lose ‘Stability’, perhaps taking on more and more of the patchwork aspects of the ‘House of Tattered Remnants’ as the strange realm they find themselves in forces them to unravel...

Physically, The Sinister Sutures of The Sempstress is slim, but decent looking book. The artwork is good throughout and can easily be shown at the appropriate points to the players as their adventurers proceed through the adventure. The adventure is also decently written, but the level of detail means that the Judge will need to give it a careful read through despite it being fairly short.

If you were looking for a horror scenario for the fantasy roleplaying game of your choice for characters of medium Level, then Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror #2: The Sinister Sutures of The Sempstress is a good choice. It is in turns creepy and bloody, with a near constant theme of sewing and tailoring, and works as a one-shot—for which the Judge will need to provide pre-generated adventurers—or as a scarey interlude in an ongoing campaign. Either way, Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror #2: The Sinister Sutures of The Sempstress presents an evening’s worth of horror, though perhaps not if you suffer from aichmophobia or vestiophobia.

Friday 25 October 2019

Friday Filler: Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection

There is nothing quite as vicious as university politics and there are no more university politics as vicious as those at Miskatonic University—especially at the Orme Library where not only your reputation and your standing are on the line, but so is your sanity! With the position of Head of the Library Committee open, there are five candidates for the position, but as the candidates gather to discuss who gets the promotion, there is a scream from the Library’s Restricted Section. Some foul thing has been unleashed and Head Librarian, Doctor Henry Armitage has asked for your help in defeating it. In order to do that you will need to delve deep into the library stacks where you will find the pieces of the sigil and fragments of lore from the many grimoires upon the library shelves necessary to defeating the otherworldly threat. Yet tarry too long, open too many books, pick up too many artefacts and your very sanity is at stake. Perhaps you may be able to gather hapless wandering graduate students together enough that they will protect from a threat kept hidden on the stacks—either that, or you leave them behind as rush to safety behind the wards that Doctor Henry Armitage has set up. After all, there is no renewable resource than graduate students! Return with enough accumulated fragments and sigils and the highest sanity of your rivals, and you are sure to get that coveted promotion to Head of the Library Committee.

This is the set-up for Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection, a heavily thematic, but simple-to-play board game published by Chaosium, Inc. following a successful Kickstarter campaign and winner of the 2019 Silver ENnie for Best RPG-Related Product. Designed by Reiner Knizia—who also designed the Glorantha-set, cow-raiding game, Khan of Khans for the publisher—it is a ‘push-your-luck’, set collection game with a strong card-counting element for two to five players, that takes about thirty minutes to play. It is easy to learn—a player only ever having one decision from turn to turn—and can be played by anyone of sufficient sanity over the age of thirteen.

Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection consists of six sets of cards. There are an eighty-card Library deck—itself consisting of sixteen Graduate Students, twenty-eight Grimoire Fragments, and thirty-six Sigil Pieces; thirty-five Defence cards, broken down into five sets of seven cards, one per player; thirty Lore cards; and thirty Red Sanity cards and five Black Sanity cards. There are nine optional cards. Of these, the players delve into Library deck in order to find the Grimoire Fragments and Sigil Pieces they need; they use the Defence cards to prevent themselves from learning too much and being expelled from the stacks; and if they escape the stacks, they will pick up Lore and Sanity cards. Each player has a Player Desk mat, each one an academic like Doctor Harold Ohm, Dean of Parasitology or Professor Edith Mayberry, Dean of Astrozoology, these having spaces around the edge to store their Graduate Students Grimoire Fragments, and Sigil Pieces.

The game is played over five rounds. At the start of each round, the Library Deck is shuffled and placed face down. One Sanity card is laid out in order per player, all Red Sanity cards bar a single Black Sanity card, which placed last. The Black Sanity card has a higher value than the Red Sanity cards and since obtaining a high Sanity at game’s end, the players should be keeping an eye on when to exit the Stacks in order to grab a higher valued Sanity card.

On his turn, a player can do one of two things. First, he can search the Orme Library’s Restricted Collection. This simply means he draws a single from the top of the Library deck. He can draw a Graduate Student, a Grimoire Fragment, or a Sigil Piece. Graduate Students come as one type—Graduate Student, but there are different types of both Grimoire Fragments and Sigil Pieces. There are seven types of Grimoire Fragments—Folk Magic, Summoning Magic, Curse Magic, Dream Magic, Gate Magic, Possession Magic, and Resurrection Magic—each marked with a different symbol, and three types of Sigil Piece—left, right, and middle. When a card is drawn, it is added to the slots marked around the Player Desk mat. Once a card is drawn, a player’s turn is over and he can draw another card on his next turn.

However, if a player draws a Sigil Piece card which completes the Sigil—consisting of left, right, and middle Sigil Pieces—he earns a Lore card, discards the Sigil Pieces he has, and can continue exploring the Restricted Collection. Similarly, if he draws a Grimoire Fragment and completes a set of any five different Grimoire Fragments, he also earns a Lore card, discards the Grimoire Fragments he has, and can continue exploring the Restricted Collection.

If a player instead draws a Sigil Piece card or a Grimoire Fragment card identical to one that he already has, then his Sanity is compromised, he has seen too much, and is expelled from the Restricted Collection. He cannot take any further action this Round and he also loses all of the Graduate Student, Grimoire Fragment, and Sigil Piece cards acquired that Round.

The other thing that a player can do on his turn is voluntarily leave the Restricted Collection. The advantage of leaving rather than being expelled from the Restricted Collection, is that a player is awarded a Sanity card and he gets to keep his Graduate Students. Otherwise, his Grimoire Fragment and Sigil Piece cards are discarded.

In addition to either exploring or leaving the Restricted Collection, a player also has the option to play a Defence Card. There are seven of these, each player having his own identical set. They divided into Proactive cards, played before drawing a Library card, and Reactive, played after. Example Proactive Defence cards include ‘Steal’, which enables a player to take a card from another player—useful in either completing a Sigil or Grimoire Fragment set or preventing another player from doing so; and Premonition, which lets the player reveal the top three cards in the Library deck which everyone has access to. Example Reactive Defence include ‘Reflexes’, which enables him to discard the Library deck card just drawn, and ‘Gift’, which lets the player give the Library deck card just drawn to another player as long as that player does not already that card. This is a good way of getting rid of a duplicate Library card.

Once a Defence card has been played, it is turned face-down and cannot be used again until refreshed. This either requires the discarding of a complete set of four Graduate Students or the player is expelled from the Restricted Collection. Only one card is refreshed when either happens. The optional cards included in Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection provide players with more Defence cards.

Play continues over a round until either every player has left or been expelled from the Restricted Collection. Once a player has been expelled or has left the Restricted Section, the round is over for them. The Library deck is reshuffled, new Sanity cards are laid out, and a new Round begins. Play continues until the end of the fifth round, at which point the values of each player’s Sanity and Lore cards are added up, the player with the highest total being declared the winner and awarded the position of Head of the Library Committee.

Not only is the play of Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection simple enough, with each player being limited in their choice of actions, but so are the game’s tactics. This simply amounts to card counting, each player needing to watch what other cards have been drawn from the Restricted Collection, because as more and more cards are drawn, a player has a greater idea of what has been drawn from, and what is left in the deck. With that information in mind, a player has a greater idea of whether or not he continues driving deeper into the Restricted Collection and keep drawing Library cards in search of a Grimoire Fragment or Sigil Piece he believes to be still there or flees because neither is there. And this effect is greater the more players a game has, but conversely, the greater the number of players, the more competition a player has for the cards remaining…

Physically, Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection is really nicely, thematically presented. The artwork is excellent, the rules are clearly explained, and that fact that it comes in a box that looks like an ancient mythos tome is not only pleasingly satisfying, it also adds to the feel of the game. If there is fault to the game it is in the Defence Cards which are marked with various icons to indicate the actions they provide. There is no text on them. This though is understandable given that the game’s components are designed to be language independent—that is, work with any of the languages the game’s rulebook covers. As much as that is a laudable aim, it does mean that during the initial playthroughs, players are going to be making regular reference to the rulebook in order to determine what each Defence Card does.

For all its simplicity of design as a ‘push-your-luck’ game, Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection forces a player to think about his ‘action’ on each and every turn primarily based on what he thinks is still left in the Restricted Collection. There is a constant balance between going too far and being expelled after a Sanity draining discovery or pushing on to find the last Grimoire Fragment or Sigil Piece that will ensure Sanity and Lore towards winning the game (especially if there is a high value Sanity to be won on the way out!).

Better with four or five players than two or three, Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection is easy to learn, easy to teach, and with a few decisions to take, easy to play. Thus making it an excellent filler. Thematically it feels very different to other Lovecraftian board or card games, perhaps drier than directly facing the Mythos, but Miskatonic University: The Restricted Collection proves that the world of librarianship and academic is not as fusty as you would think, having its own dangers and its own luck. Not all of them from the dangers in the Restricted Collection...

Monday 21 October 2019

Miskatonic Monday #28: Galilee Springs

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the depths of the Miskatonic Repository.


Name: Galilee Springs

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Sean Liddle

Setting: Modern Day
Product: One-Shot
What You Get: 254.94 KB seven-page, black & white PDF, plus six pre-generated characters
Elevator Pitch: The Prisoner meets the Mythos.
Plot Hook: Bad dreams at night, leads to nightmares by day
Plot Development: Escape.
Plot Support: Staging advice

# A $1 scenario
# Designed for three players
# Familiar structure and set-up
# Space for improvisation
# Potential links to Delta Green or Delta Green

# Unedited
# Linear
# Designed for three players
# Not enough development for the new Keeper
# Familiar structure and set-up
# Missing staging advice (Parts 2 and 3)

# Opportunities for missing memories missed

# Familiar structure and set-up
# Inexpensive
# Underdeveloped

Sunday 20 October 2019

1999: Brave New World

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.


It is 1999. As the end of the millennium approaches, President John F. Kennedy has been in office for almost four decades. On November 22nd, 1963, he survived the assassination attempt on his life by a team of powersuit-wearing Dreadnauts sent by the supervillain Devastator, but his wife did not. In response, Congress enacted The Delta Registration Act, which made it a federal offence for any Delta—as those with superpowers are known—not to register themselves with the government within seven days of manifesting them. Delta civil rights were curtailed and they could be conscripted into government service of any kind. In order to control Delta activity, Delta Prime was set up as a super-powered law enforcement agency to control unregistered Deltas. A confrontation in New York in 1966 between Devastator and Delta Prime would result in the destruction of his headquarters and the surrounding four city blocks in New York, and following his escape, the declaration of martial law. It is still in force today.

The situation was compounded by a second confrontation, ‘The Bicentennial Battle’, between Devastator and Delta Prime which took place atop the Sears Tower in Chicago on July 4th, 1976. It too, would end in tragedy. The detonation of Devastator’s doomsday disintegrated everything in a twenty-five mile radius, killing millions and creating a perfectly spherical extension to Lake Michigan known as Chicago Bay. It also killed Superior, the Alpha-class Delta who had lead the attack, whilst at the same time every free Alpha-class Delta on the planet suddenly vanished. They have not been seen since.

The first Alpha, Superior had been the defender of America since World War II, transforming from a Delta to an Alpha following a traumatic near death experience, following which he flew to Berlin, killed Adolf Hitler and ended the war in 1943. He would end both the Korean and Vietnam wars early as well. Without the Alphas to keep the balance of power, battles between Deltas are not uncommon, tensions escalated between the USA and the Soviet Union. This would culminate in a limited nuclear exchange, following the nuclear meltdown at Chernobyl, sabotaged by American Deltas, which would leave the cities of Atlanta and San Francisco and Kiev and Minsk destroyed. 

In 1999, and at eighty two years of age, President Kennedy is effectively President For Life. The ‘Witch Hunts’ that followed the implementation of both The Delta Registration Act and Martial Law against anyone who might be a Delta continue to this day. Yet some were not prepared to simply give in and lose their freedom and civil rights. They set up a loosely organised resistance network called ‘Defiance’, its members ‘Defiants’. Although deemed a domestic terrorist organisation by the government—and there are Defiants who would advocate such actions—its primary aim is to help those Deltas who do not want to register and to spread the truth. By the end of the century, with the birth of the Internet, this is done via a website known as DeltaTimes.com.

This is the set up—known as the ‘Ravaged Planet’—for Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game. Published by Pinnacle Entertainment Group in 1999 and then by Alderac Entertainment Group from 2000, it is a superhero roleplaying game of protest and resistance in an American fascist nightmare, inspired by comics such as Kingdom Come and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, storylines from the X-Men series, George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, and more. It is a grim, dark setting—definitely more Modern Age than Bronze or Silver Age—in which the players take the role of Deltas, those with limited superpowers who have defied the government in deciding not to sign The Delta Registration Act. Operating behind the secrecy of a mask—as much because they need to protect their civil rights as they do their identities and their families—they undertake a number of different tasks. They might be vigilantes dealing with traditional small time crime, helping find and protect other Deltas and get them out of the USA, and if they gain its trust, undertaking missions for Defiance.

As a superhero roleplaying game with a setting, Brave New World is different to most of the superhero roleplaying games which had come before it. With a very few exceptions, most had been rules sets first, with settings detailed in subsequent supplements. This though, is not the only significant difference between Brave New World and other traditional superhero roleplaying games, such as Champions, GURPS Supers, Golden Heroes, or Villains & Vigilantes. As already mentioned, such superhero roleplaying games possess rules sets—rules sets which enabled a player to create superheroes of their own design. Not so in Brave New World. Instead, heroes are built around a template or Power Package, which provides a standard set of powers. There are ten Power Packages in Brave New World—Bargainer, Blaster, Bouncer, Flyer, Gadgeteer, Goliath, Gunner, Healer, Scrapper, and Speedstar. 

Of the ten Power Packages, it is not immediately obvious what some of them are. So the Blaster, Flyer, Gadgeteer, Healer, and Speedster are obvious, but the Bouncer is the acrobatic superhero, the Goliath is the equivalent of the Brick, the Gunner is a marksman, and the Scrapper is the Brawler or Martial Artist. The Bargainer summons and binds demons into totems, which can be used to either temporarily replicate the powers of other Deltas or permanently replicate them. The Bargainer is also different in another way, as is the Gadgeteer. Heroes with the Power Packages Blaster, Bouncer, Flyer, Goliath, Gunner, Healer, Scrapper, and Speedster can all do one thing. So a Flyer is a Hero who flies and does nothing else in terms of his powers, rather than a Flyer who can zap an enemy with his energy blasts, a Scrapper is a brawler or martial artist, not a brawler or martial artist who bounces off the walls and roofs. In comparison, the Bargainer’s ability to bind and replicate powers gives him potential access to a wide array of powers, but it should be made clear that the Bargainer needs to be attuned to the totems and he can only use one at a time. Of all of the ten in Brave New World, the Bargainer is arguably the roleplaying game’s signature character archetype. Similarly, the Gadgeteer can design and build pieces of technology, for example, an armoured battle suit, but they require daily maintenance and make it time consuming to really have more than one or two running at any one time.

Besides his Power Package, each Hero is defined by their Traits, Skills, Quirks, Powers, and Tricks. There are four Traits—Smarts, Speed, Spirit, and Strength, which are rated by a number of six-sided dice plus a modifier, like 2d6+1 or 4d6. A typical Human has two dice in each Trait. Skills are divided between the four Traits and add a bonus to dice rolls of the Trait when appropriate. Initially, both Traits and Skills are rated between one and five. Quirks are the equivalent of advantages and disadvantages, whilst Tricks provide a Hero with the capability to do special things, some related to his Power Package, some not. To create a Hero, a player can simply select one of the archetypes given in the rulebook, there being one for each Power Package. Alternatively, he can divide twelve points between his Hero’s four Traits, and then for every point assigned to a Trait, he receives three points to assign to Skills associated with that Trait. This means that the higher a Trait is, the more likely a Hero is going to be better with its skills and that it is probably better to build a specialised Hero rather than a generalist. Points from skills can also be spent on Quirks, but a player can instead choose negative Quirks to gain more Skill points, possibly for positive Quirks. Then the player selects a Power Package followed by three Tricks. There are two each of these for each Power Package, for example ‘Rock Your World’ and ‘Superjump’ for the Goliath Power Package, plus a selection of General Tricks, like ‘Grapple’, ‘Make an Impression’, and ‘Ricochet’. A Hero does receive some free Skills and several skills are suggested that every Hero possesses, such as Bravery, Fighting: Barehanded, Perception, and so on.

Our sample Hero is Orlando Esposito, an art historian at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, Crescent City and the arts critic for the Crescent City Tribune. He is never not seen immaculately dressed and as well as writing about various arts events, consults with the police matters to do with paintings and forgeries. He recently survived a car crash in which he suffered a heart attack. Since his recovery, he has discovered that he can run, really run, and fast. So far he has kept his identity secret and has no intention of revealing his new found abilities.

Orlando Esposito

Smarts 4d – Academia (History) 3, Area Knowledge (Crescent City) 2, Criminology 1, Etiquette 3, Forgery 3, Language (English) 2, Language (Italian) 2 

Speed 2d – Dodging 4, Driving (Personal Vehicle) 2

Spirit 4d – Arts (Painting) 3, Bravery 1, Perception 2, Persuasion (Bluff) 1 (Charm) 3, Scrutinise 3, Search 2

Strength 2d – Climbing 2, Fighting: Barehanded 2, Running 3

Speed: 7
Size: 5

Delta Reg ±0, Secret Identity ±0, Unregistered ±0; Addicted (Coffee) -1, Cautious -3, Pacifist -3, Snobby -1; Photographic Memory +5, Self-Confident +2, Voice +1

Power Package
Fast Runner: +100 Pace
Lighting Reflexes: +5 to Speed rolls for Initiative and Dodging

Tricks: New Friend, Afterimages, Burst of Speed
Delta Points: 3

Mechanically, Brave New World uses pools of six-sided dice. To undertake an action, a Hero’s player rolls dice equal to the value of the Trait. From these the highest result is selected and if appropriate, a Skill value is added to get a total. If sixes are rolled, these explode and can be rolled again and added to the total as long as the player keeps rolling sixes. Target Numbers from five (Easy) and ten (Challenging) all the way up to twenty-five (Incredible) and thirty (Phenomenal). Matching or beating the Target Number counts as a success, but for every five points over the Target Number, an extra success is attained. These extra successes can then be used to do tricks, such as knocking an opponent down or having an attack ricochet off a wall,  do a ‘Blast Punch’ if the Hero is a Blaster, and so on. A Hero also has a number of Delta Points per session, which can be used to roll another die and add it to the current total, or to save a Hero’s life.
For example, Orlando Esposito is being interviewed by Lieutenant Gregory of Delta Prime because he was seen near some Delta activity. Orlando wants to persuade the Delta Prime officer that he saw nothing. This will be an opposed roll of Orlando’s Persuasion (Charm) versus Lieutenant Gregory’s Scrutinise which is 2d6+2. This means that the Guide—as the Game Master is known in Brave New World—will roll two dice and add two to one of the results. This will set the Target Number which Orlando’s player will roll against. He will be rolling Orlando’s Spirit and adding his Persuasion to one result.
The Guide rolls 2 and 2. She adds Lieutenant Gregory’s Scrutinise of two to get a total of 4. This sets the Target Number for Orlando’s player. He rolls He rolls 3, 5, 6, and 6. The two results of 6 mean that he can roll and add to their totals, This gives him 2 and 6, which means that he can roll again. The final result is 5. So the total result is 6, 6, and 5, which adds up to 17, to which Orlando’s Persuasion of 3 is added for a final of 20. This not only succeeds, but grants three extra successes. Now normally, this is enough to persuade the target to whatever the persuader wants within reason, but Orlando has the ‘New Friend’ Trick, which enables him to make friends really easily. For every Extra Success, he gains a +2 bonus to future Persuasion checks against Lieutenant Gregory, so +6 then!
Combat uses the same mechanics. Initiative rolls are made against an Easy Target Number with Extra Successes generating extra actions, which gives Speedsters an advantage, although this is offset by the fact that the extra actions beyond those of everyone else in the combat come after everyone has acted. It does give them an advantage in that their extra actions from the next rounded can be expended to dodge attacks though. All attack rolls are made against an Easy Target Number, although this can be modified by any number of factors, most notably for hand-to-hand combat, the defender’s Fighting bonus. Damage again uses the dice pool mechanics with the highest die result used to determine the actual damage inflicted. In the main, apart from Blasters and the power armour suits built by Gadgeteers, Heroes are going to be attacking with more mundane means—guns, melee weapons, and fists.

Brave New World handles its superpowers as an extension of various aspects of each Hero. Typically, a superpower adds a bonus to Trait or Skill roll. For example, the Gunner Power Package has Crack Shot and Quick. The first adds +5 to the Gunner’s Shooting attacks, whilst the latter adds +5 to Speed rolls for initiative. These are static bonuses, but variable bonuses are offered through Tricks. Thus for the Gunner Power Package, the ‘Mercy’ Trick enables a Gunner to reduce the amount of damage he inflicts with his shots, even stunning a target, whilst the ‘Pierce Armour’ Trick enables the Gunner to fire bullets through the weak spots in a target’s armour if the Gunner’s player rolls two extra successes.

In terms of support, Brave New World there is some advice on playing the roleplaying game for players, focusing on life as a Delta and the role of a Delta, and on running the roleplaying game for the Guide. Decent enough, with an emphasis on getting the players to the table. In terms of support for the game, the Guide is given a set of seven foes to pitch against the Heroes. They include the Aquarians, a community of amphibian Deltas who live in Chicago Bay; Evil Unlimited, a support network for villainous Deltas; Deaders, corpses brought back to life by the insertion of a chipset invented by a gadgeteers, which simulates their dead brain; Armageddon Pilots of the Delta Prime who wear battlesuits maintained by Gadgeteers; the Police and the Mafia; and lastly, Vampires! Now unlike the Deaders, this adds an element of the occult which is really not present earlier in the rulebook.

Now one of the things that Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game does—and this a feature of the game line—is provide a number of secrets to the ‘Ravaged Planet’ setting. The most obvious of these is the fact that John F. Kennedy died in 1963 and has been impersonated by another Delta since, a Delta who engineered the death of Superior and other Alphas. It also identifies the editor of DeltaTimes.com, but only speculates on where exactly Deltas come from. Similarly, it speculates as the nature of Alphas before suggesting that should any Hero die, then their character sheets should not be destroyed...

Physically, Brave New World opens with a full colour comic—‘Patriot’s Last Stand!’—which depicts the last moments of Patriot, a reformed ex-member of Delta Prima turned Defiant, attempting to save the life of a newly discovered Delta. It is okay, perhaps a little stilted, but it works as a serviceable introduction. It is followed by a lengthy excerpt from DeltaTimes.com which explains the background of the Ravaged Planet. Again in full colour, as are the ten ready-to-play Power Packages archetypes. The book itself is well written and decently illustrated, a lot of the artwork having a certain angst to it.

As a roleplaying game, Brave New World is a low-powered superpower roleplaying game, which by the very nature of its Ravaged Planet setting, is fairly grim. It mechanics are quick and easy, being far more serviceable than those of Deadlands: The Weird West Roleplaying Game and Hell on Earth: The Wasted West Roleplaying Game from which they are derived. There should be no doubt that a session of Brave New World could be run today as much as it was twenty years ago and it would be fine, but just as it would be for the Guide today as it was twenty years ago, running a game of Brave New World would be a frustrating experience. Not because the mechanics are poor or the setting bad, but because Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game is extremely limited in its scope.

Now one of the criticisms made of Brave New World is that the number of Power Packages are limited, providing a limited choice for the players, but as much as that is a valid complaint, there is another fundamental problem with Brave New World as a superhero roleplaying game. It does not really explain how a Delta gets his superpowers, it being hinted that he survived a near death experience, which if so, should really be put to the player as a fundamental part of character creation. As in, “What was the near death experience your Delta experienced prior to gaining superpowers?” Now as to the limited number of Power Packages and the limited options within them, it cannot be denied that it limits player choice and once a Hero dies, a player’s choice in terms of a replacement Hero is further limited because so many of the other choices will have been taken and it will be difficult not to replicate another Hero.

In the designer’s defence , he has made it clear that this was done for both ease and speed of set-up and play, rather than opting for a complex build system. In the ‘Choices’ column of March 31st, 2000 on RPG.net, he states, “In other superhero games, balancing out hero powers has often led to character creation systems in which you need several hours and a calculator to build yourself a hero. With the power packages, even a novice player can come up with a hero in under a half hour. An experienced player can do so in about five minutes.” Which is a laudable aim, but it not only limits player choice, it also limits choice for the Guide in terms of the range of NPCs she can confront the Heroes with. Now there are a few standard foes given too, but again, they are limited in number. Further, if the roleplaying games is designed with both ease and speed of set-up and play in mind, why is this only done for the players and not the Guide? Why is there advice on getting the players together and ready to play, but nothing for them to play in the form of a scenario that the Guide can run?

As to the Power Packages, two pose problems. Bargainers and Gadgeteers essentially replicate the superpowers of other Power Packages. Now there are limitations on both—Bargainers can only use one totem at a time and Gadgeteers can only maintain a limited number of devices, but both possess a flexibility that other Power Packages lack. And with that flexibility comes complexity. Even, Bargainers are easier to use since their superpowers replicate the powers of others, but Gadgeteers can build power suits, scanners, space vehicles, teleporters, and so on. They cannot maintain all of them at the same time, but they can build them. Of course, since Brave New World is not a complex point-buy superhero system, the only advice for the Guide is that gadgets bend the laws of physics, not break them, and if a device is too powerful, dial it back down. This still gives the Gadgeteer a lot of freedom and flexibility. Something that the other Power Packages lack, and consequently, just like the Bargainer Power Package, it feels too powerful in comparison. That said, it is particularly frustrating that only gadget given as a sample device is a suit of power armour. This is indicative of the economical approach to information in Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game.

Then there is the big secret revealed in the ‘Brave New Secrets’ chapter, that President Kennedy is actually dead. It is an amazing secret. Its revelation will have a profound effect upon the USA of the Ravaged Planet’, but it has no relevance upon Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game whatsoever. Oh it is relevant to the Brave New World line, but the ‘Brave New Secrets’ chapter ends with the following:
“Of course, the heroes (and the players) don’t know any of this stuff. It’s up to you to make sure it stays that way—at least until we say otherwise.
The Information in Brave New World is released on a need-to-know basis.
We’ll tell you when you need to know.”
This is one of the features of Brave New World, each book in a line revealing the deeper aspects of the setting bit by bit. Yet this is information on a macro scale, rather than a micro scale. Essentially, the problem with Brave New World is the lack of specificity. The world and its background is really only drawn in broad details and there is a lack of detail to the world that would highlight the differences of the ‘Ravaged Planet’ in comparison to ours. What is the media like? Have the efforts of Gadgeteers changed science and technology? What businesses have benefited or suffered from the appearance of Deltas? Of course, in comparison to the overall story, these are small details, but they help paint a world and in the case of Brave New World they would contrast with our world. An example of this lack of specificity is the absence of a timeline. Various dates are mentioned in the background, but at the point when Brave New World is set, the last given date is 1989–ten years before! Similarly, no individuals—normal people or Deltas—are named beyond those in background. Nor is any place described or mapped, not even Crescent City, the city that grew up along the new shoreline of Chicago Bay in the wake of the Bicentennial Battle. Information like this would make it easier for the Guide to create scenarios given the lack of one in the rulebook.

Now some of these issues are addressed in Ravaged Planet: The Brave New World Player’s Guide, the first supplement released for Brave New World. There is a great deal of background in the supplement, in particular on Crescent City and the USA, as well as ten new Power Packages—and of course, more secrets. There can be no doubt that some of this information could be of use to the Guide in running her Brave New World campaign from the outset and arguably, some of it could have been included in Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game. If not that, then at least a scenario that the Guide could run to get her game started and help her players and their Heroes engage with the setting of Ravaged Planet. And support the easy-to-play, quick-to-play intent of using Power Packages rather than character design.

Ultimately, what undermines Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game as a roleplaying game is that it is not complete. It simply does not have enough information or the right information for the Guide to run a game or campaign in a setting that it only gives the broadest of overviews of. The Guide is left needing to purchase another supplement—Ravaged Planet: The Brave New World Player’s Guide—rather than wanting to purchase it to find out more information. In other words, it should be a choice, not a necessity. Which leaves Brave New World: A Roleplaying Game as a roleplaying game with very little for the Guide to work with, but some potential to work with, but only with further supplements. Thankfully, there are relatively few of them.

Saturday 19 October 2019

The Other OSR: Melee

It is impossible to ignore the influence of Dungeons & Dragons and the effect that its imprint has had on the gaming hobby. It remains the most popular roleplaying game some forty or more years since it was first published, and it is a design and a set-up which for many was their first experience of roleplaying—and one to which they return again and again. This explains the popularity of the Old School Renaissance and the many retroclones—roleplaying games which seek to emulate the mechanics and play style of previous editions Dungeons & Dragons—which that movement has spawned in the last fifteen years. Just as with the Indie Game movement before it began as an amateur endeavour, so did the Old School Renaissance, and just as with the Indie Game movement before it, many of the aspects of the Old School Renaissance are being adopted by mainstream roleplaying publishers who go on to publish retroclones of their own. Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, published by Goodman Games is a perfect example of this. Other publishers have been around long enough for them to publish new editions of their games which originally appeared in the first few years of the hobby, whilst still others are taking their new, more contemporary games and mapping them onto the retroclone.

Yet there are other roleplaying games which draw upon the roleplaying games of the 1970s, part of the Old School Renaissance, but which may not necessarily draw directly upon Dungeons & Dragons. Some are new, like Forbidden Lands – Raiders & Rogues in a Cursed World and Classic Fantasy: Dungeoneering Adventures, d100 Style!, but others are almost as old as Dungeons & Dragons. One of these is The Fantasy Trip, published by Metagaming Concepts in 1980. Designed by Steve Jackson, this was a fantasy roleplaying game built around two earlier microgames, also designed by Steve Jackson, MicroGame #3: Melee in 1977 and  MicroGame #6: Wizard in 1978. With the closure of Metagaming Concepts in 1983, The Fantasy Trip and its various titles went out of print. Steve Jackson would go on to found Steve Jackson Games and design further titles like Car Wars and Munchkin as well as the detailed, universal roleplaying game, GURPS. Then in December, 2017, Steve Jackson announced that he had got the rights back to The Fantasy Trip and then in April, 2019, following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Steve Jackson Games republished The Fantasy Trip. The mascot version of The Fantasy Trip is of course, The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition

The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition is a big box of things, including the original two microgames. So instead of reviewing the deep box as a whole, it is worth examining the constituent parts of The Fantasy Trip: Legacy Edition one by one, delving ever deeper into its depths bit by bit. The first of these is Melee, quick to set up, quick to play game of man-to-man combat. It is designed to be played by two or more players, aged ten and over, with a game lasting roughly between thirty and sixty minutes. Inside the box can be found a twenty-four page rules booklet, a 12” by 22½” game map, a set of eighty-six counters, and three six-sided dice. The presentation of the game is rather plain and simple. So the layout of the black and white rulebook is clean and tidy, as the game map, which is marked in two” Hexes, each with a centre spot, every seven Hexes forming a Megahex three standard Hexes in width. The standard Hexes are used for movement and facing in melee combat, whilst the Megahexes are used to determine range in missile combat. The various counters provide a range of opponents, including animals and monsters, plus condition counters and dropped weapons and shields. These are done in a range of monochrome colours, but all are different and include a pair of giants whose triangular counters take up three Hexes! All of the counters have a skull and crossbones on the other side to indicate when they have been killed. Lastly, the set of three wine-red six-sided dice add a spot of colour to the game.

Play of Melee begins with the creation of a fighter. Each has two attributes—Strength and Dexterity. Strength covers how many hits a fighter has, what weapons he can use, and how effective he is in hand-to-hand combat. Dexterity covers how easily a fighter can hit an opponent, disengage from the enemy, and how quickly he can attack. These begin with a value of eight each, to which a player distributes another eight points. Then a player chooses the fighter’s arms and armour. Weapons determine how much damage a fighter does, whilst armour provides protection, but reduces a fighter’s Dexterity and movement.

For example, Osgar the Unready is a Saxon who has been called up to the fyrd. He is armed with an axe, carries a shield, and wears leather armour. The armour and shield reduce his Dexterity (adjDX) from 13 to 10, whilst the armour sets his Movement Ability to 8. Creating a fighter takes a few minutes at most and the amount of information can be easily recorded on an index card.

Osgar the Unready

Strength 11
Dexterity 13/11/10
MA 8
Small Axe 1d+2
Javelin 1d-1
Shield (2 Hits front), Leather Armour (2 Hits)

Melee is played out over a series of turns consisting of six phases—initiative, movement, the opponent’s movement, combat, forced retreats, and dropped weapons. None of which happens simultaneously, but it takes place across a five-second round. Whether a fighter is Engaged or Disengaged, he has numerable options. If Engaged, he can ‘Shift and Attack’, ‘Shift and Defend’, ‘Change Weapons’, ‘Disengage’, and so on. If Disengaged, he can ‘Move’. Charge’, Dodge’, ‘Drop’ (to prone), ‘Ready New Weapon’, make a ‘Missile Weapon Attack’, and so on. The ‘Cast Spell’ and ‘Disbelieve’ options are included, though their actual use comes into play with the companion game, Wizard

The rules also cover the extra reach of polearms, enabling the user to jab at an opponent, the use of the left-hand dagger, shield-rush attacks, hand-to-hand combat, thrown weapons and missile weapons, disengaging, defending and dodging—fighters rolling an extra die to attack a defending or dodging target. When it comes to the actual attack, whether missile or melee, the attacking player rolls three six-sided dice in an attempt to get a result below a fighter’s adjDX. This is the attacking fighter’s Dexterity adjusted by the armour worn and shield carried, the facing of the target, the wounds suffered by the attacker, and various other factors. For missile weapons, it includes range, but not facing—single Hexes for a thrown weapon, but Megahexes for other missile weapons.

After a successful hit, a player rolls for damage his fighter’s weapon inflicts. From the roll, the defender subtracts hits for the armour he is wearing and shield he carries. A roll of three though, will triple the damage, whilst a roll of four will inflict double damage and five is an automatic hit. A roll of seventeen always misses and the attacker drops his weapon, whilst a roll of eighteen also misses and the attacker’s weapon is broken. Suffering five or more hits in one blow imposes a one-time penalty to the defender’s Dexterity, whilst if a defender suffers eight points, he is knocked prone.


Strength 15
Dexterity 09/06
MA 6
Battle Axe 3d
Chainmail Armour (3 Hits)
For example, Osgar the Unready finds himself facing Sigrunn, a brawny Viking raider. When first spotted, they are ten Hexes apart. Both players roll a six-sided die for initiative at the beginning of Round One. Sigrunn’s player rolls a five against Osgar’s player’s three. Sigrunn’s player declares that the Viking will ‘Move’ as quickly as he can to attack the Saxon, whilst Osgar’s player states that Osgar will heft his light spear (javelin) and make a ‘Missile Weapon Attack’ at the charging—lumbering?—Viking as soon as he comes in range. So in the Movement phase, Sigrunn rules his full Movement Ability, which is six Hexes. At this point, Osgar hefts his spear at the Viking, who is four Hexes away. Osgar’s current adjDX is ten, but because Sigrunn is four Hexes away, it is reduced to six. Osgar’s dice roll is a five, which means that the spear has struck the Viking. Osgar’s player rolls a six for damage, but this is adjusted down to five for the weapon (1d-1) and Sigrunn’s armour deducts another three points. Sigrunn suffers two hits.
In Round Two, initiative is won by Osgar, whose player decides he will ‘Ready New Weapon’. This enables him to move up to two Hexes and ready another weapon, in this case, his small axe. Sigrunn’s player has the Viking ‘Move’ straight at the Saxon to be able to attack on subsequent rounds. He is not close enough to make a Charge Attack, which would allow Sigrunn to also attack. So at the end of Round Two, the two fighters are facing off against each other.
In Round Three, it is Sigrunn that wins the Initiative. His player declares that the Viking will ‘Shift and Attack’, whilst Osgar’s player has the Saxon ‘Shift and Defend’. The ‘Shift’ aspect enables both fighters to move a Hex and act. Osgar cannot attack, but the effect of his ‘Defend’ action is that instead of Sigrunn’s player rolling three dice for his attack roll, he will roll four dice. Sigrunn’s player does and gets a result of twenty-two! This is so bad that the Viking drops his battle axe! Of course, Osgar cannot attack this round, but because Sigrunn has to ‘Ready New Weapon’ in order to pick up his battle axe in the next round, the likelihood is that the Saxon will.
So in Round Four, it does not actually matter who wins Initiative. Nevertheless, Sigrunn does and scrambles to ‘Ready New Weapon’, whilst Osgar will ‘Shift and Attack’. The Viking grabs his weapon, but the Saxon attacks, rolling a four. This means that the attack inflicts double damage. Osgar’s player rolls 1d+2 for his small axe and gets a result of four plus two, which is doubled to twelve. Sigrunn’s chainmail will protect him for three hits, reducing the damage taken to nine hits. This is enough to knock the Viking prone, meaning that he will have to get up on the next Round with a ‘Stand Up’ option. Things are not looking good for Sigrunn…
Melee also gives rules for fighting with nonhumans. These include bears, giant snakes, gargoyles, and giants as beasts and other creatures to fight in the arena, but also adds the means to create fantasy-themed fighters. So Elves, Dwarves, Halflings, Orcs, Goblins, and Hobgoblins. For the most part, they are given adjustments to their base Strength and Dexterity, but Elves are nimbler in light armour, whilst Halflings are good at throwing things. These feel somewhat underwritten to be fair, especially in comparison to other roleplaying games. Lastly, survivors from the arena can earn Experience Points, typically fifty Experience Points per combat. These can then be spent to improve a fighter’s Attributes at a hundred Experience Points per point.

Physically, Melee is well presented. It has a ‘Old School’ monochrome feel, but the writing is excellent and the rules clearly explained, and the new artwork in the rulebook is very nice. With the Roman Legionary on the front cover of the box, there is a gladiatorial aspect to the game, and this is continued inside the front of the rules booklet with a short vignette detailing an encounter between Flavius Marcellus and a German tribesman, which is then given a turn-by-turn explanation of the encounter in the inside back cover. The first of these sets up the prospective player, whilst the latter explains how everything works.

Melee is a little game, but offers quite a lot of tactical play and options in terms of its rules, much of which will be later seen in Steve Jackson’s GURPS. It is pleasingly self-contained—there is room inside the box for another set of dice and index cards to record the details of every fighter—and easy to set up, play, and teach. If there is anything missing, it is perhaps the lack of rules for terrain, making Melee solely an arena style game (it will be up to subsequent supplements to cover this). There is a level of detail in Melee not really found in the games of its time—though RuneQuest would certainly do something very similar—which still makes it very playable. Forty years on and Melee is still a short, brutal battle of a game.