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Saturday 8 February 2020

An Alternative Cosmic Mythos

Published by Livres de l’Ours, what Rats in the Walls: A roleplaying game of cosmic horror offers is a mechanically light roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror with consequences. Set in the Jazz Age of the nineteen twenties and the Desperate Decade of the nineteen thirties, it is very much inspired by the writings and Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft, but does not actually use the writings and Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. The consequences come with failure upon the part of an investigator, whether that is in combat, when he casts a spell, his will suffers from a sanity-draining incident or encounter. As well as facing Old Ones such as The Feeder, The Grinder, and The Void Mother, and their cultists, investigators in Rats in the Walls may discover wonders and dangers beyond the Walls of Sleep in worlds that reflect the dreams of the Old Ones. What drives the investigators is the knowledge that only they are in a position to defeat the terrifying machinations of the Old Ones and their cultists, that only they can prevent all of mankind being exposed to the horrifying truths of the universe.

An investigator in Rats in the Walls is defined by five attributes, which range in value between 0 and +3. These are Brawn, Dexterity, Violence, Wits, and Willpower. He also has a Profession, such as Artist, Boxer, or Magician, and a Reputation, like Anonymous, Old, or Shady. These provide a particular benefit. For example, the Lumberjack is used to living in harsh conditions and receives two extra Hit Points and the Occultist knows one spell and two dead languages, whilst a Feared Reputation means that most people will back down if they know who you are and Well-Travelled means that you never get lost above ground and learn languages easily. A Profession also allows an Investigator to succeed at the mundane aspects of his job and affords him several contacts in the field. An investigator also has a couple of pieces of equipment, perhaps a weapon as well, and some languages. To create an investigator, a player divides five points between the five attributes, and chooses a Profession, a Reputation, and some equipment and languages for him. With the rulebook in hand, the process takes mere minutes.

Our sample investigator is Henry Brinded, a Bostonian from a wealthy family who studied Classics at Yale before serving as an artillery officer with the American Expeditionary Force in Northern France during the Great War. As a consequence he is slightly deaf and abhors loud noises. He owns and runs a small antiquarian shop which specialises in ancient and medieval manuscripts.

Henry Brinded
Profession: Occultist
Reputation: Dilettante

Brawn 0, Dexterity 0, Violence +1, Wits +3, Willpower +1

Hit Points: 10
Sanity Points: 11

Languages: Latin, Ancient Greek, Hebrew
Equipment: Notebook & Pen, Magnifying Glass

Mechanically, Rats in the Walls uses two six-sided dice. For an investigator to undertake an action, his player rolls the dice and attempts to get a high result. Bonuses are flat, either a +2 because the task is easy—due to the investigator’s Profession or he has the right tools or time, or -2 because the task is hard—due to a lack of time, tools, help, and so on. The target for the roll is typically an eight, but whilst that is always a success, it is a success with consequences. A player will need to roll ten or more for his investigator to succeed without consequences. Further, the Game Master does not roll, only the player does.

Before the roll is made though, player and Game Master discuss and set the terms of the task. Now a player can roll and the result be a failure, but it can instead be a partial success rather than an out and out failure. For example, in attempting to break into a house to view an occult tome which the owner is believed to possess, a player and the Game Master negotiate not an unsuccessful attempt if the player rolls a failure, but the fact that although the investigator manages to break in, find the occult tome, and get the information he needs, he leaves evidence of his intrusion that the house’s owner might find. 

Now, this act of negotiation is not carried out throughout the whole of Rats in the Walls. For tasks that take time, a player is simply rolling to determine how long the task takes, the better the skill check, the quicker it takes. Combat works in a similar fashion. At its most basic, with the average investigator having just ten Hit Points and a rifle inflicting 2d6 points of damage, combat in Rats in the Walls is deadly, and if an investigator is reduced to zero Hit Points and survives, then he suffers a scar, which might a limp, chronic pain, or a nasty scar. What a player is really doing in combat is rolling to see whether his investigator will inflict Consequences or suffer them. If a player rolls poorly, then his investigator will suffer one or two Consequences—decided upon by the Game Master, but roll well and his investigator can inflict them on his opponents. Potential Consequences include Harm, Ignore Armour, Stray Bullet, Vulnerable, and Stress, but the Game Master and the players are free to make them up.
For example, Henry Brinded confronts a cultist about to slice open the throat of a wouldbe sacrifice. His player states that he wants to disarm the cultist. He rushes forward and attempts to stop him by grabbing the knife. His player rolls two dice and adds Brinded’s Violence of +1. Unfortunately, he only manages to get a result of a nine and not the target number of ten he needs. This means that Game Master can inflict a Consequence on Brinded. Since Brinded was attempting to disarm the cultist, the Game Master rules that it be Harm as although he does not disarm the cultist, but he does in effect stop the cultist from cutting the victim’s throat when the cultist plunges the dagger into Brinded’s shoulder.
Like most good roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, Rats in the Walls has a Sanity mechanic. Whenever an investigator encounters a supernatural event or monster rather than any mundane horror, his player makes a Willpower roll. He can roll and succeed and lose nothing, but gain a bonus when encountering either again, or he can fail and lose Sanity Points. How many depends on how poorly the Willpower roll was failed by, either one to three or one to six points. Once an investigator suffers one shock too many and loses all of his Sanity Points, he may do something silly—run away in a random direction, shoot mindlessly, abandon his friends, and so on, faint, or even continue to act normally. The latter is not without its consequences, so the investigator might be shell-shocked and lose one Sanity Point permanently, gain a scar which aches in the presence of the unnatural or a third eye which detects the use of sorcery, a weak heart, or suffer from PTSD. Once a player has made his choice, the investigator gains a die’s worth of Sanity Points back, but it can also be gained between sessions by an investigator engaging in favourite activity.

Should an investigator permanently lose all of his Sanity Points, he becomes permanently insane and thus an NPC. There are two ways in which Sanity Points can be permanently lost. One is through being Shell-shocked, another is by learning a spell. Learning sorcery requires finding and deciphering an old tome. Casting a spell is a Willpower check and can lose the caster Sanity Points. Spells include Curse of the Mute which renders the target incapable of speech, Murmurs inflicts strange whispering voices on the target revealing dark secrets and a loss of Sanity Points, and Withering which gives the target the strength and vitality of a nonagenarian for a few hours. Now one of the things that Rats in the Walls does omit here are the tomes which contain these spells.

In terms of its mythos, Rats in the Walls does step over into the Cthulhu Mythos with the inclusion of the Ghoul and the Shoggoth, but in the main it offers its own Horrors Behind the WAlls of Sanity. Abyssals are creatures of living water which can teleport between any body of water in sight and manipulate water tendrils to attack; the Dying Light come from the centre of the universe in search of life to take back to the Void and can absorb life, but the sight of which is the same as seeing into the Void; and Memory Hounds target those humans who have killed other humans, possessing the face of the person who was killed. The Old Ones of Rats in the Walls’ mythos are unstoppable, almost unquantifiable entities who have found a home on Earth, Consequently, they have no statistics and cannot be killed, rather their plans can be delayed, the efforts of their cultists thwarted, and so Humanity saved for a while. They include the Feeder, the Grinder, the Howler, the Mad Dancer, the Stranger, and the Void Mother, each being conceptual in nature, and each comes with thumbnail descriptions of three cults, one from the Middle Ages, one from the Jazz Age, and one from the future, a Science Fiction setting.

The mythos of Rats in the Walls and the reach of the Old Ones stretches ‘Beyond the Walls of Sleep’. Here their inhuman dreams intermingle with Humanity’s imagination to create medieval cities lit by gaslight, lands reached by ships that sail the skies, souks populated by peoples and creatures out of myth, so realms of the fantastic, but also the disturbing and the weird, such as the Iron Plain, a wide plain covered in flowers of brass populated by the victims of the Great War, perhaps hunted by the first war machines or the City of a Hundred Summers where everything is bought and traded for in facts. Although it is possible to learn a ritual that will enable you to enter the Old Ones’ dreams, the greater likelihood is that an investigator will be drawn in after being embroiled in their machinations.

In terms of support for the Game Master, Rats in the Walls provides solid advice on running Cosmic Horror at the table, primarily that her task is not to scare the players, but the investigators. It advises using contrast to highlight the weird versus the mundane, making sure that the world is worth saving, and not to draw upon the Mythos of H.P. Lovecraft. It makes clear that although Rats in the Walls is inspired by his writings in its treatment of Cosmic Horror, it does not set out to emulate it. Further, on the Purist to Pulp scale, Rats on the Walls veers away from the former, being about stalwarts caring enough about the world to fight to save it from the alien beings which embody Cosmic Horror, even if that fight is daunting and there is the possibility that the investigators will die or go insane. Further advice guides the Game Master through creating investigations, whilst an appendix provides means to create investigators in The Past—the Victorian era and the Wild West, for example, and during the Crusades.

Physically, Rats in the Walls is available as an art free version or a version with full colour artwork. The latter consists of full page pieces, all fairly decent. The book is well written, although it needs an edit in places. If there is anything missing from Rats in the Walls it is a sample investigation or scenario.

What Rats in the Walls offers is rules-light cosmic horror roleplaying inspired by H.P. Lovecraft, but not emulating him. Its player-facing mechanics—a combination of Advanced Fighting Fantasy and Powered by the Apocalypsemake for faster, easier play and enable the Game Master to focus on guiding the narrative and portraying the NPCs. The lightly drawn mythos of Rats in the Walls: A roleplaying game of cosmic horror, means that there is plenty of scope also for the Game Master to create new content and develop new scenarios that may avoid some of the familiarity of similar horror roleplaying games.

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