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Monday 27 April 2020

Miskatonic Monday #37: Return to the Monolith

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: Return to the Monolith

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Michael LaBossiere

Setting: Modern era Hungary

Product: Scenario
What You Get: 1.39 MB fourteen-page, full colour PDF
Elevator Pitch: A sequel to the classic ‘The People of the Monolith’ from 1982’s Shadows of Yog-Sothoth 
Plot Hook: Some mysteries are just too dangerous to research for television.
Plot Development: A record of investigating the strange, plenty of research, Hungary-bound, and stone-cold creepy night scenes.
Plot Support: Six NPCs, two handouts, and a minor Mythos race.


# Simple set-up
# Great set-up around a documentary mystery series
# Sequel to a minor classic scenario

Suitable for experienced investigators
# Plenty to research
# Variety of NPCs
# Potential modern campaign set-up

# Linear plot
# Too many NPCs?
# Research overly difficult?

# Plot too similar to ‘The People of the Monolith’
Investigators are known for investigating the Mythos (or the weird)

# Plot too similar to ‘The People of the Monolith’
# Potential modern campaign set-up
# Decent one-shot or introduction to Lovecrafian investigative roleplaying

Sunday 26 April 2020


In ages past, the many tribes of man live, survive, explore, and fight their way across the great continent of Mu. It is a land of savage beasts, of mysterious caves to be delved into and their fabulous gems to be taken, of barren wastes and arid deserts, steamy jungles and wide grasslands, and of jagged mountains and hidden valleys. There are many tribes scattered across the continent—primitive and civilised, nomadic and settled, in villages of wood and stone, in cities of caves and cities of mud brick houses. It is a land of secrets and threats, whether of the ancient Saurians who have long abandoned Mu, but are rumoured to have retreated into hiding; of cultists, priests, and strange peoples who hold dark rites to gods inimical to mankind; and of mysteries hidden away in lost valleys and caves. Armed and equipped with weapons and tools made of wood, stone, bone, hide, and fur, adepts, bestials, fighters, oracles, sorcerers, and specialists work to ensure the future of their tribe. To make sure it is fed and clothed, to protect it from predators and rival tribes, to ensure that the gods are kept appeased, and to ensure that their stories and their legend will be told in the tribe’s oral history.

This is the set-up for Paleomythic: A Stone and Sorcery Roleplaying Game, a new roleplaying game from a new roleplaying game publisher. This publisher is Osprey Publishing, best known for its military history reference works and within the past few years, for its wargame rules like Frostgrave: Fantasy Wargames in the Frozen City and board games like the new version of Escape from Colditz. At the end of 2019, Osprey Publishing again branched out and published its first two roleplaying games. These are Paleomythic: A Stone and Sorcery Roleplaying Game and Romance of the Perilous Land: A Roleplaying Game of British Folklore. Of the two, Paleomythic: A Stone and Sorcery Roleplaying Game is the more obviously interesting, as it visits a genre that is rarely given treatment by roleplaying—the Stone Age, or Stone Punk. Paleomythic: A Stone and Sorcery Roleplaying Game is one of grim survival and mythical adventures in the land of Ancient Mu, one which transposes the Swords & Sorcery genre—the fantasy subgenre of sword-wielding heroes engaged in exciting and violent adventures in a world with elements of magic and the supernatural—to prehistory and the self-coined ‘Stone & Sorcery’ genre. In fact, Paleomythic: A Stone and Sorcery Roleplaying Game could actually take place before a ‘Stone & Sorcery’ world or after and before our world and history, but either way, the Player Characters are modern humans.

As modern humans in Paleomythic, each Player Character is represented by their Name and Age obviously, plus the Traits, Flaws, and Talents. Traits are natural abilities such as Dextrous or Wilful, Flaws are weaknesses such as Clumsy or Sickly, and Talents represent a character’s experience, skills, and specialist training, for example, Barbarian or Cultist. Each Talent provides a speciality or advantage as well as set of equipment. For example, a Storyteller can orate a story or myth for gain—monetary and otherwise, as well as to alter another person’s memory of an event. The Storyteller starts play with a hide hat, cushion, scarf or feathered cloak, and a pouch of gems. To create a character, a player can simply choose all of these elements or he can roll for them. The more Talents a character has, the fewer Traits he has, plus he can select two extra Traits at a cost of one Flaw each. A character’s initial Traits also point towards his background and appearance.

Our sample character is Solumia, a young woman adopted by her current tribe after being found wandering as a child. Her own tribe was lost under circumstances which she either refuses to talk about or cannot recall. Consequently, there are certain fears and rumours whispered about her, which she fostered as a soothsayer, a doomsayer of things to come. She can be thoughtless when it comes to other people and their possessions, but she rarely sees the worst in others. Despite this, she often seems to be lucky and no one has reason to call her a coward.

Name: Solumia
Age: Young
Background: Faced a terrifying challenge that no others would and won; sole survivor of a calamity
Appearance: Upright stance with a wry smile
Traits: Agile, Brave, Careless, Dextrous, Fortunate, Unassuming, Wilful
Talents: Bestial—Savage (bonus die to resist illness and disease, avoid attacks) Oracle—Soothsayer (Dumbfound target, cause dread, sway crowd), Specialist—Crafter (craft item, repair item)
Gear: tunic, belt, shoes, rushlight, two bags, rope, six pieces of fruit, wood spear, hood, dark linen tunic, black feather cloak, bone knife, fur hat, fire making kit, lamp, oil, pack, flaker, hammerstone, needle

Mechanically, Paleomythic uses dice pools of six-sided dice. The base size of this dice pool is equal to the number of Traits possessed by a character. To have a character to succeed at any task, his player rolls these dice and any result of a six counts as a success. If a character has any relevant Traits, then this adds a further six-sided die to the pool. Talents do add dice, but they do indicate which Trait is appropriate, for example, Charismatic for a Bone Chanter to command a cadaver. Since the Traits are by default determined randomly, this can mean that a character can have a Talent and not have its associated Trait. Conversely, a Flaw deducts a die from the pool. Similarly, the use of an appropriate tool adds a further die to the pool, but this should be rolled separately, or ideally, be a die of a different colour. This is because if a one is rolled on this die, the tool breaks. If a tool breaks, it does not mean that the task has been failed—a Player Character can still roll a six and succeed on the other dice.
So for example, following a raid by a rival tribe, Solumia has joined her fellow tribesmen in chasing after the raiders. At one point, this means crossing over a ravine. Fortunately, there is a fallen tree trunk lying across the ravine—which is how the raiders got so close to Solumia’s village without being noticed—but to cross it, the Game Master asks her player for a test. Solumia has five Traits, so her player will roll five dice, but she also has the Agile Trait, so asks the Game Master if that is appropriate to the situation. The Game Master agrees and the player is now rolling six dice. Solumia’s player rolls 2, 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6—indicating that she has successfully run across the log.
Combat uses the same mechanics. Damage inflicted negates a character’s Traits, if only temporarily. A character who loses all of his Traits is rendered unconscious, and should he suffer any more damage, he will be killed. A straight attack will inflict just a single wound, but certain weapons and Talents will inflict more. Armour will negate one Would per attack—prehistoric armour is not good enough to protect more than that, and worse, the protecting armour is damaged in the process and will not provide further protection. Weapons work like tools. They break on a roll of one, but on a roll of six, they provide an additional effect. So an obsidian maul has ‘Destroyed’ as a weapon effect, which means that rigid armour is smashed, soft armour is damaged, but can be repaired, and the target of the blow takes an extra wound, whereas a simple bone knife has the weapon effect of ‘Intimidate’, which means a foe is unnerved and loses his next attack if already wounded. There is no effect if the foe is not wounded or has the Wilful Trait.
Continuing the example above, Solumia and her fellow tribesmen have raced after the raiders and caught up with their rearguard left behind to help the raiders get away. The one attacking Solumia has four Traits—Agile, Dexterous, Brave, and Guileful. He is armed with a hand axe, which has the ‘Pain’ weapon effect, and being sneaky, will ambush Soumia. With four Traits, the Game Master will roll four dice, plus one bonus dice for his weapon and another for his Guileful Trait, for a total of six dice. However, Solumia might spot him beforehand. Her player only rolls five dice, because she has no appropriate Traits. The Game Master rules if he succeeds, Solumia spots the attack and can react, but if he fails, she will be unable to. A result of 2, 3, 4, 5, and 6 means that she does and can attack this turn, but the raider gets to attack first. The Game Master rolls the six dice for the sneaky raider—2, 3, 4, 5, and 6, plus 6 on the bonus die for the weapon—which means one success. Unfortunately, in response to the raid, Solumia did not have time to don any armour. So she takes a blow to the head and loses one Trait which her player decides is her Agility. Now Solumia’s player will be rolling four dice for her Traits. Worse, the weapon effect of ‘Pain’ also takes effect. This stops Solumia using any bonuses due from her Traits on her next action. However, she can act.
Solumia turns and stabs at her attacker. Her player will have four dice to roll due to the loss of her Agility Trait. Worse, she cannot gain a bonus die from the Brave Trait because of the painful blow inflicted by the raider, but she still gets the bonus die from the wooden spear, so five dice. The wooden spear also has the weapon effect of ‘Ward’, which will make it more difficult for the raider to attack next turn and so cannot use any appropriate Traits. Solumia’s player rolls 1, 1, 3, and 4, but 6 on the weapon’s bonus die. The raider takes a wound and the Game Master crosses off his Guileful Trait, and the weapon effect means that next turn he is attacking with just three dice, the weapon bonus die, and no Traits! 
So in effect, Traits lie at the heart of the mechanics to Paleomythic. In terms of roleplaying, they are a character’s virtues and mannerisms, and of course, flaws. Mechanically, they work as advantages and disadvantages, but they also serve as a character’s Hit Points. When lost in combat or through other damage, their loss both reduces the number of dice a player has to roll to undertake an action and denies the player the bonus which the Trait Seoul’s grant. So a double effect, reflecting the brutal, savage nature of life and combat in the prehistoric world of Paleomythic.

Another interesting aspect of Paleomythic is the use of equipment and its fragility. It is possible to purchase equipment at more organised settlements, but by default, the Player Characters are expected to make their own and repair their own. No item possesses any great durability, but unless smashed or lost, they can be repaired. So as much as equipment or a tool provides a bonus, there is an element of a character and his player investing time in them not just because he can use them, but because he has to spend time repairing them too. In addition, the rules in Paleomythic also cover crafting, climbing, foraging, hunting, trading, trapping, and even locks (though not ones with keys for obvious reasons), all activities that the Player Characters are likely to engage in as they help their tribe.

As well as being a world of savagery and survival, Paleomythic is also one of mystery and magic. The magic is first reflected in various Talents, such as Mystic, Ritualist, and Shaman. So the Mystic can recall ancestral memories to gain the single use of particular Traits; Ritualists perform rituals to produce effects such as curses, famines, fertility, and more; and a Shaman can enter the Otherworld to commune with spirits, but can also repel, punish, and banish them. The Otherworld is a bleak and hazy reflection of the real world, but is also a place of mysterious ruins, forgotten temples, and dead forests where secrets can be found. The Shaman can automatically enter the Otherworld and bring others with him, so providing another realm for the player characters to explore. What there is not is a codified form of magic or really spells, and all of these various ‘magical’ abilities feel rougher and require more effort to enact. 

As to the setting of the continent of Ancient Mu, Paleomythic describes it in broad strokes. This is because it is a continent of the unknown in time where the only information is orally transmitted rather than recorded. So there are no maps that the Player Characters would see and so no maps for the Game Master. This does not mean that the world is not detailed as Paleomythic details elements which the Game Master can add to her campaign. So the means to create tribes and settlements, including beliefs, ceremonies, dwellings, leaders, supported by examples. Some of the stranger places across Ancient Mu are also described, such as the City of Dust, a trade city ruled by many chiefs and the Night Tombs, earth and stone mounds which constrain the treasures and relics of a once-powerful tribe, surrounded by marshland and close to the Otherworld. Numerous gods and how and why they are worshipped are also detailed, as are numerous adversaries. These include potential foes, beasts, beast men, the undead, and more. 

Notable amongst their absence from this list is anything akin to dinosaurs, but Paleomythic is very much a roleplaying game where their presence would intrude and detract from the setting. Notable by their presence amongst the various foes is the inclusion of the Serpents of the Forgotten Ruins and the Toad Things of the Black Obelisk, which both hint towards two of the influences upon Paleomythic: A Stone and Sorcery Roleplaying Game, and that is the writings of Robert E. Howard and Clark Ashton Smith. Obviously, the Swords & Sorcery element is more readily apparent in the setting, but there are hints of—or nods towards—aspects of their stories, whether that is the Serpent Men of Howard’s King Kull stories or Clark Ashton Smith’s toad things and Tsathoggua from his Hyperborean cycle of tales. So as much Paleomythic draws from the Swords & Sorcery genre, there is just a hint of the Lovecraftian to the continent of Ancient Mu.

For the Game Master there is advice on running Paleomythic as well as possible adventure types—conflict, travel and exploration, and specialist types, along with tables of potential hooks. In addition, it looks at ‘Paleodelving’, the equivalent of dungeoneering on the Ancient Continent of Mu. A few final notes discuss how to adjust the game to fit a more realistic game in the Pleistocene Epoch with human species and to add elements of technology and civilisation to adjust it to the Swords & Sorcery genre. Rounding out the roleplaying game is ‘Captives of the Beastmen’, essentially a cave delve in which the Player Characters must rescue their fellow tribesmen who have been kidnapped. It is a decent introductory adventure, more detailed than sophisticated, but reasonable enough. It does though point towards a need for more interesting scenarios than ‘Captives of the Beastmen’, which hopefully Osprey Publishing will supply at some point—as well as a campaign.

Physically, Paleomythic: A Stone and Sorcery Roleplaying Game is a lovely digest sized hardback. Presented in full colour, is well written and very nicely illustrated with painted artwork. A pleasing touch is the use of cave painting-style illustrations which help impart some flavour to the setting. The map for the included scenario is perhaps a little too dark, but that is a minor issue.

There are not many Stone Age or prehistoric-set roleplaying games to choose from, but Paleomythic: A Stone and Sorcery Roleplaying Game is a good choice. The rules are simple and quick, pleasingly managing to support interesting and flavoursome characters and capture the savage nature of the Continent of Ancient Mu, whilst the Game Master is given the means to create an interesting prehistoric world of her own. Paleomythic: A Stone and Sorcery Roleplaying Game is a fantastic first roleplaying game from a publisher new to roleplaying games (if not other games), bringing a whole new genre to a forgotten time in a lovely little book.

Saturday 25 April 2020

Goodman Games Gen Con Annual I

Since 2013, Goodman Games, the publisher of  Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game and Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic has released a book especially for Gen Con, the largest tabletop hobby gaming event in the world. That book is the Goodman Games Gen Con Program Book, a look back at the previous year, a preview of the year to come, staff biographies, and a whole lot more, including adventures and lots tidbits and silliness. The first was the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book, but not being able to pick up a copy from Goodman Games when they first attended UK Games Expo  in 2019, the first to be reviewed was the Goodman Games Gen Con 2014 Program Book. Fortunately, a little patience and a copy of the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book has been located and so can be reviewed.

After having reviewed Goodman Games Gen Con 2014 Program Book, it is clear that there have been changes between its publication and that of the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book. It is slimmer at just sixty-four pages, but as subsequent entries in the series have appeared, they have got thicker and thicker with ever increasing page counts. Nevertheless, the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book set the template and is still a book of bits and bobs, the silly and the seriously useful, an eclectic mix of the useful and the ephemeral, all illustrated with some great art. What is radically different between the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book and the Goodman Games Gen Con 2014 Program Book, is that the silliness in the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book begins with the first page! So we have a ‘Gen Con Luck Chart’, a table of prizes and benefits to be rolled for when the attendees might have won—or even lost—when they purchased the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book. This is followed by ‘Bios of the Band’, fun filled biographies of many of the luminaries who were writing and drawing for Goodman Games in 2013—and still are in 2020. They include Doug Kovacs, Brendan Lasalle, Michael Curtis, Brad McDevitt, and of course, Joseph Goodman. These are nice snapshots of the team behind Goodman Games and it is indicative of the strength of the team that they are still working together today.

Art has always been a major feature of titles from Goodman Games—of course, it is with any roleplaying book—but Goodman Games has placed a certain emphasis upon it and its Old School Renaissance style. So it features in ‘We’re with the band’, a look at the band of adventurers whose story has been told through their appearances in successive titles for Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, from the core rulebook and through each of the adventure modules. This is essentially a run of Easter eggs for the observant and adds a nice little level of detail through the series. The we are on to ‘What’s Next for DCC RPG?’, ‘What’s Next for Age of Cthulhu?’, and ‘What’s Next for Systems-neutral Sourcebooks?’, each section highlighting releases then forthcoming in 2013. Most notably, they include two notable boxed sets for Dungeon Crawl Classics, both of them—Dungeon Crawl Classics #83: The Chained Coffin and Dungeon Crawl Classics #84: Peril on the Purple Planet—now highly sought after. This all takes up the first third of the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book. Then we are on to the volume’s adventures.

The first of these is Michael Curtis’ ‘The Undulating Corruption’. The first of two adventures for Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book, designed for player characters of Fifth Level and parties which include a Wizard who has been corrupted by his use of magic, which as the adventure points out, is all too likely by the time he reaches Fifth Level. By various means, this Wizard has learnt of a means to expel the corruption from his body—the Crucible of the Worm. The exact location is up to the Judge, but wherever she places it, what the Player Characters discover is a disaster area, which instead of being free of corruption has been blighted by it, and not only that, whatever is the cause has now left a trail as it heads off across the countryside. So this sets up a chase for the Player Characters to take as they track down a very nasty threat to them, the countryside, and potentially, a nearby city. Designed to be played in a session or so, the scenario pleasingly picks up on a mechanic in Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and builds a good adventure around it. Although it has a specific set-up, this is a good adventure to slip in between longer larger affairs and gets the adventuring content in the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book off to a good start.

If ‘The Undulating Corruption’ was a good start, then the second adventure, ‘The Jeweler that dealt in Stardust’ is even better. Harley Stroh’s scenario is designed to be played by Third Level characters is a heist, a raid by thieves upon the house of Boss Ogo, jeweller and one of the many fences of stolen goods in the city of Punjar. Unfortunately, he has not been seen for a month. Fortunately, this surely means that something must have happened to him—probably dead if no one has seen him for a month—and represents a opportunity to grabbed. That is, to break in and steal everything worth taking—or at least portable—and do it before anyone else does. His premises are famously said to be heavily trapped to trick and kill those foolish enough to attempt to burglarise him. The fully mapped building is full of traps and puzzles and clues as to Boss Ogo’s recent activities… The question is, just what has happened to Boss Ogo, but importantly, where is his loot?

This is a great scenario with plenty of detail and flavour. It is a really good scenario for Thief or Rogue type characters, and despite being set in the city of Punjar, would also really work with the Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar Boxed Set, a setting in which every Player Character is a thief—whatever their character Class.

The third and last scenario is actually a preview for the then forthcoming Maximum Xcrawl. This is one of the most original settings for Dungeons & Dragons-style roleplaying. It is set on an alternate Earth which was a Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy world and in modern times is dominated by a Roman republic in North America. Like any Roman empire, it has gladiatorial games, but in modern times they take the form of dungeoneering as of old. Essentially, this combines the pizzazz and showmanship of World Wrestling Entertainment with classic dungeoneering and turns it into sports entertainment, complete with arena events. Written for use with the Pathfinder Roleplaying Game, ‘What’s next for Xcrawl?’ introduces the setting and the setting’s take upon Dungeons & Dragons-style gaming.

The introduction includes backgrounds for three of the Xcrawl Races—Dwarves, Elves, and Gnomes—as well as a list of Xcrawl Classes to enable players to create their own characters for the setting. To be fair, to get the most out of the accompanying scenario, ‘Maximum Xcrawl: 2013 Sudio City Crawl’, the Referee and her players will need a copy of Maximum Xcrawl. The scenario is designed for characters of Sixth to Eighth Level and showcases the type of dungeon to be found in the setting. It combines game show elements with combat and showmanship—characters can gain rewards for grandstanding—and very room and encounter is a test in itself. This leads to an intricate design for every room, whilst the modern sensibility enables plots to run inside and outside of the dungeon arena and ‘Rules Lawyers’ to take on a wholly different meaning.

Rounding out the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book is a selection of photographs taken on the ‘World Tour’ that the Dungeon Crawl Classics Judges team takes each year around various conventions. These are all North American conventions in the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book, but in the seven years since this book, the tour has expanded beyond those borders.

Physically, the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book is very nicely put together. It is tidily presented, the artwork is good, and the editing decent. However, there is a problem with the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book and it is that even in 2013, its gaming content was not new. So both ‘The Undulating Corruption’ and ‘The Jeweler that dealt in Stardust’ appeared in the Free RPG Day release from Goodman Games in 2012 and then ‘Maximum Xcrawl: 2013 Studio City Crawl’ appeared in the Free RPG Day release for 2013. What this means is that if the Judge or Game Master has either of these, then the truth of the matter is that the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book is not going be of greatest use to her. The rest of the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book is fun, but not useful, so if the Judge already has these adventures, then the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book is really just a collector’s piece.

Now the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book did set the template for the Goodman Games Gen Con Program Books to come—Goodman Games having published one each year since. Of course, the format would evolve from book to book, as evidenced by the Goodman Games Gen Con 2014 Program Book, but many of the same elements would be retained from issue to issue. And if the Judge does not have any of the three scenarios in the Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book, then it is definitely worth her time. Whether she is running a standard Dungeon Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, a Dungeon Crawl Classics Lankhmar campaign, or an Xcrawl campaign. The Goodman Games Gen Con 2013 Program Book is a fun silly book, but its gaming content is still as good as it was in 2013.

Friday 24 April 2020

Graverobbers in Outer Space

In some distant star system, great armada mass, dreadnoughts manoeuvring to bring their massive batteries to bear on their enemies, starcruisers unleashing barrage after barrage of missiles, destroyers darting in to fire torpedoes, and carriers launching wave after wave of single seat starfighters to swarm over their targets to attack pinpoint weaknesses. Energy beams scour away ablative armour, explosive missiles shatter ships’ hulls as nuclear-powered missiles explode and pump their energy as laser blasts which pierce ships’ hulls, freeing oxygen and ships’ crews to the vacuum of space, setting fires to race between the bulkheads, and compartment after compartment is lost… When the battle ends, it does not matter who won, for massive hulks remain, whole or broken by the battle, some still burning or fizzing with freed energy, others venting life preserving, whilst still contain sealed compartments holding the last of their crews, desperate to escape or hoping for rescue. Clouds of energy and radiation swirl amongst the fields and trails of debris left behind by damaged or destroyed ships. The combatants may have gone bar perhaps a picket ship or rescue boat perhaps, but into this scene of devastation come other ships and crews, each bent on other missions. Perhaps they have come to salvage the wreckage, to rescue the survivors, or to get aboard the ruined ships to go in search of data, secrets, or something else… 

This is the set-up for The Graveyard at Lus: A Dynamic Space HexCrawl for OSR Sci-Fi Games published by InfiniBadger Press. Designed for use with White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, its contents would not only work with other Old School Renaissance Science Fiction roleplaying games, but with other Science Fiction roleplaying games in which large scale space battles take place. Mostly obviously, Traveller, but also Starfinder, Golgotha: A Science Fiction Game of Exploration and Discovery at the Edge of Known Space, and These Stars Are Ours!.

What The Graveyard at Lus does is take a staple of Dungeons & Dragons-style fantasy roleplaying games and apply it to another genre—that is, Science Fiction. Specifically, it takes the Hexcrawl and turns it into a Spacecrawl, but instead of exploring a a region of space marked with star systems and planets and asteroid belts, and so on, or the ruins of a previously unknown planet, it has the Player Characters exploring a much smaller area and really, during a particular period of time. That is, in the aftermath of a great space battle. It is a toolkit, but one in which the designer takes the Game Master step-by-step through the process of creating her own space graveyard.

By default, starship graveyards created using The Graveyard at Lus are twenty-by-twenty hex grids. From this starting point the Game Master can roll for or choose the height and width of the battle area, the factions involved in the battle—those suggested can come from White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying or from the new ones included in The Graveyard at Lus, debris fields and their density and degree of radioactivity, what starships can be found in the graveyard and how damaged are they, and lastly populate unique space hexes—for example with a starbase or a rip in the fabric of space. Further tables enable the Game Master to generate events which could occur whilst the Player Characters are exploring the graveyard.

Once defined, in order to help the Player Characters explore the graveyard, The Graveyard at Lus provides the Game Master with expanded rules for exploration and combat by spaceship. Building on the rules in White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying, these cover movement—both realistic and cinematic, dangers such as debris, collisions, and radiation, scanners, weapon ranges and targeting, rounding out with notes on explosions, surviving in space, and singularities. Already included in earlier tables, the new alien species in the supplement include the giant jellyfish-like space-going Dremwan who can harden their skins and eject bolts of venomous plasma; the Koldar are a parasitical scorpion-like race which strip planets of their resources; Neemen are a genetically engineered human species whose egos drive them to become the dominant version of humanity; and the TakTakTak, a four-armed race of telepaths divided into three castes, each with different psionic abilities. Stats are given both races and their starships—or just the race in the case of the Dremwan—but they do feel slightly underwritten in terms of  their motivations. The Dremwan seem written to be mysterious, the Koldar strip planets, and the Neeman want supremacy, but the TakTakTak? No idea as nothing is really said.

As well as updating some of the races from White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying to include the ships they use, The Graveyard at Lus includes several new creatures. Feroozes are magnetic oozes which squeeze through hulls and exude acid break down other species for their iron content; Graveworms feast on dead starships; Space Sharks feed on the energy given off by starships and sometimes their engines too; Space Syrens are energy beings which psionically lure ships’ crews to dangerous stellar objects and feed on their dying life energy; and the Unquiet are space zombies. There is not great invention on show here with these creatures, their parentage being fairly obvious as they are adaptations of classic Dungeons & Dragons monsters. To be fair though, White Star: White Box Science Fiction Roleplaying is a pulpy kind of Science Fiction roleplaying game and monsters like Space Syrens and the Unquiet do not feel out of keeping with the genre.

Rounding out The Graveyard at Lus is a selection of new technology, such as FTL Jammers and Teleporters, before it provides a fully worked example with ‘The Graveyard at Lus’. It nicely takes the Game Master through the process step-by-step before presenting it as an example for her to run. Lastly, the supplement provides half a dozen forms ready for the Game Master’s use when she comes to create her own space graveyard.

Physically, The Graveyard at Lus is neatly and tidily presented, though an edit is needed here and there. There are no illustrations as such, but silhouettes are used for ships throughout and together with several hex maps serve to break up the text. The various forms are very nicely done and the tables clear and easy to read.

The idea of a space graveyard is full of possibilities and adventure, and if the Game Master’s Science Fiction campaign can support them, then The Graveyard at Lus is a worthy addition to her toolkit. Indeed, it would also be possible to adapt the concept to the fantasy genre, whether that is on the high seas of the Game Master’s fantasy campaign or in a space-going fantasy a la TSR, Inc.’s Spelljammer. And yet, what The Graveyard at Lus leaves the Game Master to decide is the motivations of the Player Characters—just why have they come to this graveyard in space? And since this is a ‘SpaceCrawl’, what spurs them on to go from one location to another, rather than simply head for the dead or dying ship they want? And once the Player Characters have got there, what do they find aboard the space derelicts? Just a table of hooks and ideas would have been enough to answer these questions and possibly serve as spurs for the Game Master’s imagination. As written, The Graveyard at Lus does feel as if it tells the middle of the story, but leaves the beginning and the end for the Game Master to develop herself.

The Graveyard at Lus: A Dynamic Space HexCrawl for OSR Sci-Fi Games takes a fantastic idea and does a good job of developing it into a solid little toolkit for creating an interesting, and of course, dangerous environment. However, it needs the input of the Game Master more than it should to fully round it out and perhaps a new addition might address the purpose and the destination in a way that it currently does not.

Monday 20 April 2020

2009: Madness in London Town [Review]

Yesterday I was interviewed for the Grogpod podcast about me and my gaming history, my reviews and editing and so on. One of the topics of conversation was a review I wrote back in 2009, which at the time caused a slight controversy and upset the publisher. Thanks to the efforts of the Grog Squad it has been relocated and I have been asked to repost it on the blog.

Before anyone makes a fuss about this review, please in mind that it was written over ten years ago and the book is now out of print. Further, the publisher and I have a cordial relationship and I had the pleasure of meeting him at Gen Con 50 in 2017. We also have a good working relationship as I first proofread and then edited the rest of the titles in the Age of Cthulhu line. The authors of those books are now friends because of working with each other on those books.

The posting of the review again is purely to assuage my readers’ curiosity and to preserve a little bit of my reviewing history.


Age of Cthulhu Vol. II: Madness in London Town is the second scenario to be released by Goodman Games for Call of Cthulhu, the RPG of Lovecraftian horror published by Chaosium, Inc. It follows the first scenario, Death in Luxor, set in the same shared world of the late 1920s. Possessing the same high production standards, Madness in London Town comes with five pre-generated investigators, excellent maps and handouts, and a fairly straightforward adventure that can be played through in no more than two sessions of play. As the title suggests, the adventure takes place in London, where the investigators are invited to attend a gala at the British Museum by an old friend. Unfortunately, he is dead before the end of the first act…

Mechanically, Madness in London Town is a better scenario for Call of Cthulhu than its forebear, primarily because it includes the necessary NPC stats and Sanity losses. Yet beyond that, Madness in London Town is outclassed on most counts. Its plot, of a friend’s death putting the investigators on the track of a cult of black druids racing to summon a Great Old One on the right date, is linear in structure and superficial in nature, assumes that the investigators are American and will come armed, lacks the historicity of Death in Luxor, and lacks the sort of historical (not to say geographical) detail and accuracy that many Call of Cthulhu devotees appreciate. The unfortunate truth is that this an adventure set in England written by a non-native, and it shows. Age of Cthulhu Vol. II: Madness in London Town works best as a pulpy, brawns-over-brains adventure, but a Keeper will have to work very hard to make it fit the Classic mode and style of Call of Cthulhu.

To begin with, this is a review of a scenario. There will be spoilers.

Madness in London Town opens with the player characters invited by an old friend, Doctor Vernon Whitlow, to attend a gala dinner at the British Museum. Arriving in something of a hurry, the characters barely have an opportunity to speak to the other guests before the good doctor enters the room and after a few moments’ raving, slits his own throat. Already forewarned that something is amiss at the museum, the scenario’s pull is the mystery behind Whitlow’s death. Clues found at his flat (one thing that the author does get right, as flat is the term used in the United Kingdom) point back to odd goings on at the British Museum, below which the investigators will have a strange encounter with even stranger cats. Even nastier encounters take place at a waxworks museum (no, not Madame Tussaud’s) and at the chief villain’s country dwelling, before the final showdown on Salisbury Plain at England’s most famous monument, Stonehenge.

The cult concerned is a revived ancient order of black druids, using the henge to summon their lord and mistress, Shub-Niggurath. Putting aside the fact that the use of the monument and the druidic faith in this way could be found offensive by some, the plot and cult are both very sketchily detailed. There is very little to either, and apart from the investigative dog work, there is very little for the more scholarly investigator to do throughout the adventure. That the cult’s efforts can be simply stopped by bashing the chief over the head just seems almost anti-climatic.

This being a Goodman Games book, where Madness in London Town does shine is in the quality of its handouts and its maps. It is a pity no map of England could have been provided, as this would have given the adventure a sense of scale and place (or at least shown the distance between its primary locations), and the map of London does feel jumbled. The scenario’s NPCs are nicely presented with plenty of detail, and it includes one or nasty little set pieces – most notably in the waxworks museum, surely a nod to the 1953 film House of Wax, starring Vincent Price. Beyond the adventure itself, Madness in London Town offers a new take on the Milk of Shub-Niggurath and a new spell.

At times, the scenario feels rushed as if the author wants to get onto the next scene. He also rushes into the scenario, never quite setting it up, and it will take a careful reading of the first few pages for the Keeper to grasp what is going on. The inclusion of a better summary would have solved this. The history that the scenario is based upon – the disappearance of a legion during the Roman conquest of Britain – is almost irrelevant, whereas in Death of Luxor, the background is very much part of the story.

So, having told you what the adventure is about and given you some hints of its pluses and minuses, allow me to dig a little deeper and address some of the issues that Madness in London Town raises. To that end I will list them as do’s and don’ts, each highlighting the various issues, before I come to a conclusion. We start with a long “do” before the shorter do’s and don’ts take us to the finale.

Do get your pre-generated investigators right. One of the first things that I do with any scenario for Call of Cthulhu is check its pre-generated investigators – if provided. I do this not just for the benefit of a review, but also out of semi-professional interest, having provided 27 pre-generated investigators for the forthcoming The Complete Masks of Nyarlathotep Companion. So I know how to put an investigator together in terms of the mechanics, how to tie him into the story, and how to use history to make him interesting. As with Death in Luxor before it, Madness in London Town has its own set, and fortunately, the five given are much, much better than those provided in Death in Luxor. They are not as broadly drawn and they are not as absurdly pulpish, being much more like something that a player would create himself. They are still pulpish enough, several having daftly, but not ridiculously, high combat and Dodge skills. That does not mean that any one of the adventure’s quintet is perfect…

Let us examine said investigators from the top, then. First, if you describe an investigator as having dedicated himself to archaeology, actually give him some points in the Archaeology skill – especially if you describe him as having authored two academic papers on the subject with the scenario’s lead NPC. Oh, and learn to spell Archaeology, it really is spelt the correct way in Call of Cthulhu. Second, older characters get extra points to add to their Education attribute. Either these were not added to the Big Game Hunter’s Education or (a) his creator really did roll an Education of 5 – which is impossible (bear with me, but the explanation goes like this: base age of character is Edu+6, so his given Education being 8, his base age is 14, and for each decade after that, an investigator receives +1 Education, so at 50, the Big Game Hunter receives +3; so taking this away from his Education of 8 gives a basic roll of 5, which is impossible on a roll of 3d6+3), or (b) the character really should be 14 years old and a crack shot with an Elephant Gun. My suggestion is that his Education should be 11, not 8, and the extra points should have been assigned to his Dodge skill and some languages beyond the one he learned traveling from one end of the continent to the other. Third, if a character is described as having spent his days racing automobiles (among other activities), why does he not have the Drive (Auto) skill? Plus, if the search for answers to the mysterious nature of said investigator’s parents has led him down many dark roads, why does he have the Cthulhu Mythos skill and not the Occult skill? Then again, why does he have the Mythos skill at all? Fourth, why does an author who follows a solitary life dedicated to intellectual pursuits and her writing need particularly high skills in Dodge and Handgun? Has she been dodging the barbed comments of her critics, and practicing shooting at targets in preparation for her revenge? Fifth and lastly, the average of 12 and 12 is 12, not 13 – Call of Cthulhu is not the sort of game where you give the player characters extra Hit Points…

Don’t make the staff of the British Museum look like idiots. You might not know where lions and tigers can be found in the wild, but the odds are high that the staff of the British Museum does, even in the 1920s. If the staff is setting up an African themed diorama, it is unlikely that they will include a stuffed tiger as part of it, since the tiger is found on another continent altogether. Unless of course, you want everyone viewing the diorama (and indeed reading Madness in London Town) to exclaim, “Tigers! In Africa?”

Do get your geography right. I was not personally aware that during the 1920s that Scotland was in the West Country, specifically, the southern English county of Wiltshire. Then again, as an issue it was probably fixed when the Scotland Act of 1998 was passed and Scottish devolution was allowed, enabling the glens of Salisbury Plain to be returned to their rightful place north of the border. The point is that Salisbury Plain is a chalk plateau not known for glens or wooded river valleys, and that could have been ascertained with a modicum of research. Or just looking it up on Wikipedia.

Don’t name one of your NPCs, even if only a minor character, after a historical figure. This is especially important if that historical figure was a leading member of the German Nazi party.

Do get your geography right. The drive via taxi cab from the docks where the investigators disembark from their transatlantic liner to the gala at the British Museum cannot be in any way, shape, or form be described as short. This is even assuming that their transatlantic liner docked in London, which given the fact that as every good Call of Cthulhu player knows, transatlantic liners docked at either Liverpool or Southampton, is highly unlikely because London is primarily a goods port.

Don’t, and this is more of an aesthetic issue, provide thumbnails of your scenario’s NPCs that are cliches and so enable the audience (that is, the players) to identify which one of them is the bad guy at a single glance. It might well be that my partner is particularly perceptive, but she was able to identify the villain of the piece just by looking at the thumbnails.

Do get your geography right. Soho is not in Bloomsbury.

Don’t assume that the investigators (pre-generated or not) will be armed. Many of the pieces of artwork do, showing an investigator holding a handgun of some kind. The England of the 1920s is not an armed England, and pistols are uncommon compared to shotguns and rifles. Further English Customs take a dim view of Americans attempting to enter the country armed for bear, and not just because bears have been extinct in England for centuries.

Do get your geography right. And do check your maps. Like most European cities, London was not built by design, but rather evolved and is not laid out on grid pattern. The term “city block” is not English.

It should be pointed out that the scenario ends with a note about historical accuracy. Here the author states that although he has taken pains to utilize real locations, businesses, societies, and historical events, the adventure is not meant to present a wholly accurate representation of England during the 1920s and that details have been changed to aid the adventure plot or facilitate play. This rather misses the point of Call of Cthulhu, a very, very historical game, played by many not only for its fine elements of Lovecraftian horror, but also for its history. Further, I would suggest that this is very much the cause of so many of the scenario’s do’s and don’ts.

The other cause is the lack of experience that Goodman Games has with writing for Call of Cthulhu. Not just upon the part of the author, but also upon the part of the editor, who should have been able to spot and correct the do’s and don’ts listed above. Worse still, if you go back to the review of Death in Luxor, there is a note at its end from its author suggesting that I look at a preview of the publisher’s next release (which, of course, is this scenario). I did not see such a preview, but if I had, I would certainly have raised all of the issues above, and no doubt some of them would have been corrected. I want to make clear that my tentacular dissection of Madness in London Town is due my wanting the scenario to be better, not an unhappy response to not seeing that preview. My tentacular dissection, though, is certainly the reason why this review will not be quoted on the Goodman Games website.

Long has the roleplayer of these fair isles, by which I mean, the British Isles, suffered at the hands of authors from the colonies. If you are English, Irish, or Scottish, then the likelihood is that you will have read one or more supplements written about your country by Americans containing groan-worthy – if not highly laughable – facts about your country. The unfortunate fact is that Age of Cthulhu Vol. II: Madness in London Town is just one more addition to that list of supplements.


Please note that I did not mention the Welsh at the end of this review. I could have put them in and everybody would have been none the wiser. I have instead left the error in and proffer an apology to any Welsh reader. Sorry. Please believe me when I say that I did not intend to omit you from that final list at the end of the review.

Sunday 19 April 2020

1990: Rifts

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 all but impossible to start a review of Rifts and not acknowledge the problems it suffers from being published by Palladium Books. In terms of physical design, Rifts is a terrible roleplaying game, first because it is organised in such a fashion as to make it difficult to play and second, because it has no index. Now these are standard features of any book from Palladium Books, but in a roleplaying game which is as badly organised as Rifts and therefore needs an index to make it easier to use, the designer’s stupidly stubborn refusal to include one is nonsensical. Similarly, there is no character sheet, but to be fair, no character sheet could encapsulate just how much information a player has to note down when creating and playing a character in Rifts. This is of course, a given with all Palladium Books, but in a roleplaying game with as many separate elements as Rifts, it is an extraordinarily big given. That given aside, Rifts remains physically imposing, a slab of a softback book, neatly, cleanly, and tidily presented throughout, with uniformly, if cartoonishly good black and white artwork and excellent fully painted inserts. The standard of presentation—if not the organisation—was very good for 1990.

So what is Rifts? It is a post-apocalyptic roleplaying game set hundreds of years into the future which combines big robots, magic, psionics, and bruising combat on an incredible scale. It is a roleplaying game in which Glitter Boys piloting big mecha suits, chemically enhanced Juicers, psionic Cyber-Knights, ley-commanding Ley Walkers, Techno-Wizards, Dragons, psionic Mind Melters, and more combat the ‘Dead Boy’ soldiers in their deaths head armour, Spider-Skull Walkers, and Sky Cycles of the evil Coalition States as well as supernatural monsters, D-Bees (Dimensional beings), and the instectoid Xiticix from other dimensions. It is a future in which a golden age was destroyed by nuclear conflagration as billions died, their Potential Psychic Energy—or P.P.E.—was unleashed as surges into the Earth’s many, long forgotten ley lines, coming together at nexus points and causing rifts in time and space to be ripped open. As the planet buckled under the psychic onslaught, millions more died and fed more energy into the now pulsing ley lines, causing a feedback loop which would grow and grow. The oceans were driven from their beds to wash over the lands, Atlantis rose again after millennia, alien beings flooded through the rifts, and magic returned to the planet. 

In North America—the primary setting for Rifts—the land consists of feudal states, though the Coalition States, a hundred-year-old, mutant-hating, magic hating, psionic-hating totalitarian empire is spreading its influence out of Chi-Town near the old ruins of Chicago. Its current target is the city of Tolkeen which stands astride a ley line nexus on the bones of the pre-rifts city, Minneapolis, and is home to many wizards; the Coalition States operates the Lone Star City, a huge pre-rifts military complex with the most advanced manufacturing, animal genetics, cybernetics, bionics, and robot facilities on the planet, whilst the rest of the former state is new frontier across which high-tech desperados range; the remains of Georgia and Florida are marshlands populated by dinosaurs; and the former St. Louis is a demon infested no-go zone dominated by two hundred ley lines and thirteen nexus points. Elsewhere, Mexico is aid to the home to Vampire Kingdoms; England, Scotland, Wales have become a Realm of Magic; and the Germany of the ‘New Republic’ is as advanced as Chi-Town.

So what can you play in Rifts? Here a player is faced by a deluge of choice. Rifts is a Class and Level roleplaying game, and the Classes are either Occupational Character Classes or Racial Character Classes. Occupational Character Classes are further categorised into Men of Arms, Scholars and Adventurers, and Practitioners of Magic, whilst Racial Character Classes are natural psionics—although many characters other than Racial Character Classes can be psionic—and actual separate species like Dragons. The Men of Arms Occupational Character Classes consist of Borgs—bionic superhumans or cyborgs; the Coalition Grunt is the Coalition States’ infantryman, Coalition RPA Elite or ‘Sam’ Coalition its pilots of robots and vehicles, the Coalition Military Specialist its espionage and reconnaissance specialists, and the Coalition Technical Officer its military technicians; Crazies are neurologically enhanced through nano-technology, a process which physically enhances them, but sends them literally crazy; the Cyber-Knight is a psionic paladin, complete with psi-sword and a chivalric code; the Glitter Boy pilots the famous Glitter Boy power armour complete with its ‘boom’ gun; the Headhunter is a bounty hunter and warrior for hire; and the Juicer is super-chemically enhanced at the cost of a much shortened lifespan. The Scholars and Adventurers Occupational Character Classes consist of the Body Fixer—a medical doctor, the City Rat—dwellers of a city’s lower levels and sewers, the Cyber-Doc—a cybernetics specialist, the Operator—freelance engineer or technician, the Rogue Scientist—scientific explorer and researcher, the Rogue Scholar—seekers and teachers of knowledge, the Wilderness Scout—hunter and guide; and the Vagabond Non-Skilled—the equivalent to the ordinary person in Rifts.

The Practitioners of Magic consist of the Line Walker who draws energy from and can ride ley lines, the Mystic—a sensitive and healer who combines magic and psionics, the Shifter who open up dimensional portals and summon creatures from the other side, and the Techno-Wizard who combines magic and technology to create and power wondrous devices. The Racial Character Classes start with the Dragon—the creatures of myth, but from an unknown dimension and merely weeks old at game start and is followed by the Psychic Character Classes. These consist of the Burster or pyrokinetic, the Psi-Stalker who hunts and feeds on other psionic-users, Dog Pack—genespliced canines used by the Coalition States to hunt wizards and psychics, and the Mind Melter—a superpowered psychic!

That is a total of twenty-seven characters Classes!

Every Class comes with its own abilities and skills, plus a choice of other occupational skills and secondary skills. Suggested equipment is given as well as starting funds and cybernetics—if any. Many also come with supplementary mechanics. So for example, the Crazy Occupational Character Class includes for how the Crazy’s madness expresses itself—covered in five pages compared to the two devoted to the actual Crazy Occupational Character Class, and six pages of Techno-Wizard gear in comparison to the two pages devoted to the Techno-Wizard Occupational Character Class.

A character in Rifts is defined by eight attributes—Intelligence Quotient (I.Q.), Mental Endurance (M.E.), Mental Affinity (M.A.), Physical Strength (P.S.), Physical Prowess (P.P.), Physical Endurance (P.E.), Physical Beauty (P.B.), and Speed (Spd.). The base attributes range from three to eighteen, with results of seventeen or more granting bonuses, though low rolls do not impose any penalties. A character will also have Hit Points and Structural Damage Capacity or S.D.C., essentially stun points. To create a character in Rifts, a player rolls three six-sided dice for his character’s attributes, rolls for his Hit Points and S.D.C., rolls to see if he has psionics, selects an Occupational Character Class or a Racial Character Class, chooses equipment and rolls for money, and lastly looks at rounding out the character. 

Cyber-Knight (Level 1)
Alignment: Scrupulous (Good)

I.Q. 13
M.E. 13
M.A. 08
P.S. 22
P.P. 18
P.E. 17
P.B. 11
Spd. 20

Hit Points: 12 S.D.C. 107

Save versus Coma/Death +5%
Save versus Poison & Magic +1 

Psi-sword Damage: 1d6 Mega-Damage (M.D.)
Automatic Kick Attack: 2d4
Body Block: 1d4 (Opponent must dodge or parry to avoid being knocked down; lose one melee attack if knocked down.)
Pin/incapacitate on a roll of 18, 19, or 20. 
Crush/Squeeze: 1d4

Attacks per Melee +4
+7 damage in hand-to-hand combat
Initiative +1, Parry +5, Dodge +5, Strike +2, +8 to roll with punch or fall
W.P. Blunt +1 Strike, +1 Parry
W.P. Knife +1 to throw
W.P. Sword +1 Strike, +1 Parry

Base P.P.E. 23
Saving Throw versus psionic attack: 12 or higher.
I.S.P. 24
Psionic Powers: Object Read, Sense Evil, Sixth Sense

O.C.C. Skills
Anthropology 40%, Athletics (General), Automotive Mechanics 25%, Basic Electronics 35% Bodybuilding, Boxing, Climbing 67%, Cook 40%, Detect Ambush 40%, Gymnastics (Sense of Balance 60%, Work Parallel Bars & Rings 68%, Climb Rope 77%, Back Flip 80%, Prowl 40%), Hand-to-Hand: Martial Arts, Horsemanship 59%, Intelligence 36%, Land Navigation 52%, Language (American) 96%, Language (Dragonese/Elf) 96%, %, Language (Euro) 75%, Language (Spanish) 75%, Literacy 55%, Lore: Demon 45%, Lore: Fairie 30%, Paramedic 55%, Pick Lock 35%, Pilot (Automobile) 54%, Pilot (Motorcycle) 64%, Sewing 45%, Streetwise 24%, Swimming 65%, Tracking 30%, Wilderness Survival 35%, , W.P. Automatic Pistol, W.P. Blunt, W.P. Knife, W.P. Energy Pistol, W.P. Energy Rifle, W.P. Sword, Wrestling, Writing 30%

Suit of personalised, heavy, M.D.C body armour, suit of light M.D.C body armour (Crusader Full Fibre Environmental Body Armor, M.D.C. 55), set of dress clothing, set of black clothing. Gas mask and air filter, tinted goggles, hatchet for cutting wood, knife (or two), sword, modern handgun (NG-S7 Northern Gun Heavy-Duty Ion Blaster 2d4/3d6 M.D.) and rifle (L-20 Pulse Rifle 2d6 M.D. single shot/6d6 burst) and three extra ammo clips, first-aid kit with extra bandages and antiseptic, suture thread and painkiller, tent, knapsack, back pack, saddlebags, two canteens, emergency food rations (two week supply), Geiger counter, and some personal items.
Money: 300 credits, black market item worth 4000 credits
Cybernetics: Cyber-armour (A.R. 16, 50 M.D.C.).

This process is not an easy one, nor is it quick. Some of the shorter Occupational Character Classes and Racial Character Classes may take half an hour to create, others an hour or more, all depending upon the particular elements of the Class and what extra elements the player needs to choose. Further, a lot of cross referencing is required as both Class abilities, hand-to-hand combat styles, and skills can sometimes enhance a character’s attributes. Then there are options too, for example the finishing touches to creating a character is a player choosing his character’s Alignment. The tables for birth order, disposition, and more are all optional…

Mechanically, Rifts is quite simple. Combat is handled by rolls of a twenty-sided die, a player having to roll high to hit, usually four or more. Mechanically, Rifts is also quite complex. If a target is hit and does not avoid the attack, the player whose character is attacking rolls to beat the target’s Armour Rating. If he does, the target take damage, if not, the armour takes damage. However, not all armour has an Armour Rating. This is because where Rifts gets even more complex is because characters will find themselves fighting on two scales—Structural Damage Capacity and Mega Damage Capacity. Both measure the amount of damage that an object or a person can take. So for Structural Damage Capacity, this is the amount of damage that a car or a house or the character can take before being destroyed. Mega Damage Capacity—previously introduced in Palladium Books’ Robotech roleplaying game—represents high-tech armour like Glitter Suits and vehicles such as Coalition Spider-Skull Walkers and dinosaurs and supernatural creatures. Only weapons which do Mega-Damage can inflict damage on anything with a Mega Damage Capacity.

Roughly, one hundred points of Structural Damage Capacity is equal to one point of Mega Damage Capacity. So a single point of Mega-Damage actually inflicts the equivalent of one hundred points of Structural Damage. However, anything which possesses Mega Damage Capacity cannot be harmed by weapons or attacks which just do Structural Damage. Conversely, anything or anyone hit by a Mega-Damage attack which does not have Mega Damage Capacity is essentially obliterated. Fortunately, whether through weapons, beweaponed suits of armour, magic, or psionics, most characters have the capacity to inflict Mega-Damage. Yet this means that Rifts is really fought on two levels and unless everyone does have access to Mega-Damage attacks and Mega Damage Capacity armour, then they cannot really play at that level. This divide is really present between those Occupational Character Classes which have this feature, for example, between the Men of Arms and the Adventurers and Scholars. That said, it does lend itself to interesting situations where the player characters might have to solve a problem or engage in a fight where Mega-Damage attacks and Mega Damage Capacity armour is inappropriate and that is all they have…

Rifts is a game about augmentation as much as it is big stonking battles against robots and strange monsters, and what it offers in terms of augmentations is bionics and cybernetics, magic, and psionics. In terms of magic it provides some one-hundred-and-fifty spells across fifteen Levels and powered by a spellcaster’s Potential Psychic Energy—or P.P.E. Psionics only offers some sixty or so abilities, divided into the Healer, Physical, Sensitive, and Super Psionics categories, some of which are particular to certain Classes, but all are powered by a character’s Inner Strength Points—or I.S.P. In terms of bionics and cybernetics, Rifts lists some hundred or so implants, some available to purchase freely, some only available on the black market. Many of these upgrades and implants will be familiar from the Cyberpunk genre with the protection that various items provide capable of withstanding damage by Mega-Damage attacks and inflicting Mega-Damage. In the case of magic and psionics, many of the powers and spells can be powered up to provide from and inflict Mega-Damage.

In terms of background, Rifts actually includes quite a lot, some twenty pages providing a potted, sometimes detailed overview of the former states of the United States, Canada, and Mexico along with thumbnail descriptions of places around the world. It focuses mainly on Chi-Town and the Coalition States as the primary enemies in Rifts. This is accompanied by full colour maps of North and South America. In general, there is a lot of room for the Game Master add her own content, but there are some details which she will have go digging for because they are in other sections. In terms of advice for the Game Master, Rifts is sorely lacking, the half page of advice just telling Game Master and players alike not to be put off by the magnitude of the game. Now there is a set of tables for creating monsters quickly and stats for the Xiticix and various generic NPCs, but there is no advice on running a campaign, on what sort of games could be run, no campaign ideas, or anything else. For a roleplaying game with such big ideas and concepts, it is so frustrating not to have such small details. So for example, the Shifter Occupational Character Class is all about opening up portals and summoning things through them and doing to other dimensions, but there is not a single discussion of what these dimensions are like anywhere in the book. Essentially, a Class has been designed with a cool feature and then that feature has been ignored.

Of course, the lack of advice for the Game Master might have been less of a problem for anyone attempting to run Rifts for the first time, had the roleplaying game included a starting scenario. Which of course, it does not. So the Game Master is left wondering what to do with a disparate bunch of character types, working out why they are together, and then write a scenario which will satisfy one or more of them. However, the designer does acknowledge that, “This is not a beginner’s role-playing game, nor one conducive to hack and slash gaming. Like many of our games, Rifts is a thinking man’s game. Perhaps the hostile environment makes it all the more important that one uses his head.” The fact that Rifts is not a beginner’s is undeniable, but whether it is ‘a thinking man’s game’ is debatable, given the emphasis in the roleplaying game upon combat and the amount of playing called for by combat, with Player Characters having multiple attacks and options and very many different combat abilities.

The other reason why Rifts is not a beginner’s game is because of the way it is organised. So the rules for psionics follow the Psychic Racial Character Classes, but the rules for magic do not follow the Practitioners of Magic Occupational Character Classes, but some eighty pages later after the Psychic Racial Character Classes, the rules for psionics, and some background. Likewise, the rules for bionics and cybernetics are placed over a hundred pages after all of the Character Classes at the back of the book. Then the relatively few pages of background are squirrelled away in the middle of the book. It simply makes no sense. 

In terms of design, there is a certain identikit feel to Rifts in that so many of its elements are pulled from other Palladium Books roleplaying games. So the Mega Damage Capacity rules are from Robotech, the bionics and cybernetic rules from Ninjas and Superspies and Heroes Unlimited, the magic rules from Palladium Fantasy Role-Playing Game, and so on. Although that said, the magic rules have been tweaked up for Rifts. Notably, the stats for the various mundane weapons—melee weapons and guns (the latter all dating from pre-apocalypse of Rifts)—seem to have been reprinted from just about every Palladium Books roleplaying game and have an oddly seventies feel to them. Part of this is intentional, to make Rifts part of the whole Palladium Books family of roleplaying settings and genres, part of its Megaverse.


Rifts was reviewed in Challenge 48 (January/February 1991) by Eric W. Haddock who said, “A preponderance of organizational problems and simple editorial errors (like incomplete sentences and spelling) all detract from the overall quality of Rifts.”, followed by “Without a doubt, Rifts is one of the most abysmally organized books I’ve seen. It is extremely difficult to find rules within a section easily and quickly when one needs to. A GM should not expect to start running a game and assume that whatever rules he isn't clear on can be looked up during play. In the games I played and ran, it took more time to find a rule than it took to read it, despite the Quick Find Table.” Despite this, he ended on a positive note, “I highly recommend Riffs because of its setting and potential for great scenarios, which can have as much connection with other Palladium games as the GM wants. However, until the Rifts Conversion Book comes out, not everything in Palladium’s previous games can be put directly into a Rifts campaign. There is enough here, though, to keep any GM busy thinking up new scenarios and creating new archvillains for players for quite a while.”

Rifts was subject to a Feature Review by Joshua Gabriel Timbrook in White Wolf Magazine Issue 26 (April/May, 1991). He said that, “The only real problem with Rifts is that inexperienced game masters are left almost completely in the dark. Although the book is over two hundred-fifty pages long, the most the game master gets is a couple of creature charts and the setting. As it is so aptly stated, “...that initial set-up is likely to take a bit of effort...” In short, it is a lot of work to run the game. However, the atmosphere is so rich with ideas for adventure that intriguing plots and stories shouldn't be difficult to develop. In fact, some may discover that it is very worthwhile and rewarding to create a campaign working from such a blank slate.” He concluded by saying that, “Overall, Rifts is an incredible roleplaying experience, and its setting seems to be as original and fun to play as the recent multi-genre games, Shadowrun and Torg. Those who are into bleak worlds, hi-tech magic, twisted rituals, fascist empires, brutal weaponry, min-boggling power armor, and fantastic stories should really give it a try.”

Rifts would appear in the twenty-second slot of ‘Arcane Presents the Top 50 Roleplaying Games 1996’ in Arcane #14 (December, 1996). The article described it as “It’s the ultimate in old-style high-energy RPGs. It uses a class-and-level system, and its supplements are full of new character classes, as well as weapons, robots and power armour. Fantasy-style creatures are a bit less common, and tend to be rather conventional elves and orcs - although it’s perfectly possible to play a baby dragon. One of the key concepts is ‘mega-damage’, which is important when you're playing with giant robots and such. This is the game for people who want to have everything possible in their campaigns - and then to blow a lot of it up with cool super-weapons.”

Rifts is not a subtle game. It is a roleplaying game for those who want to play a game in which everything goes ffizzacckk!, bada-bada-bada-bada-bada, boom!, and really, really BOOM! It presents a fantastic array of character options which should make players champing at the bit to get their gaming—if not their roleplaying—teeth into. In terms of the rules, Rifts is workable, but there are a lot of numbers and stats to keep track of—by the players as well as the Game Master. The background works as a decent enough backdrop whilst still leaving room for the Game Master to add her own content. But then, Rifts does everything it can to undermine its potential. Not just with the illogical, nonsensical organisation and idiotic lack of an index, but with the lack of advice for the Game Master and the failure to explore or discuss what to do with everything it gives the Game Master and her players, to get them to work together. Plus there are elements of the setting left undeveloped which relate directly to the Occupational Character Classes, and so on. 

Rifts is essentially the kitchen sink of roleplaying games, but without any advice as to how to turn the taps, which of course, have been put on backwards. And of course, people have played and loved and bought the eighty odd books published for it. Just think how much better it would have been if…?


With thanks to Doctor Andrew Cowie and Matt Ryan for providing access to a copy of White Wolf Magazine Issue 26