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Monday 30 November 2020

Jonstown Jottings #32: Air Toads!

Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the Jonstown Compendium is a curated platform for user-made content, but for material set in Greg Stafford’s mythic universe of Glorantha. It enables creators to sell their own original content for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha13th Age Glorantha, and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds). This can include original scenarios, background material, cults, mythology, details of NPCs and monsters, and so on, but none of this content should be considered to be ‘canon’, but rather fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’. This means that there is still scope for the authors to create interesting and useful content that others can bring to their Glorantha-set campaigns.


What is it?

Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads! presents a sort of inflatable batrachian bomb with which to confound your Player Characters for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is an thirteen-page, full colour, 1.24 MB PDF.

The layout is clean and tidy, and the illustrations reasonable.

Where is it set?
Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads! can be set almost anywhere, but particularly where Cliff Toads may also be found.

Who do you play?
No specific character types are required when encountering Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads!. Having a hunter amongst the party may be useful and the likelihood is that any Eurmali will enjoy the possibility of an encounter with these creatures going off with a bang!

What do you need?
Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads! requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. The RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary will also useful for details of Cliff Toads.

What do you get?
Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads! provides the Game Master with an utterly weird, almost confounding, certainly ridiculous monster. A toad, that like its Cliff Toad cousin, can look like a rock and squeeze its way through relatively narrow cracks and crevices, has a long tongue it uses to capture and then swallow its prey, but if punctured, can explode with a big whoosh of air and a bang! And not only that, but can inflate and float away into the sky!

The Air Toad is likely to be more nuisance than threat per se, but it is still dangerous and if being hunted or simply found in the area where the Player Characters are, then any attempt at stealth is likely to be thwarted should one or more of them explode. Besides being a nuisance though, Air Toads are valued for their body parts. Their eyes, for example, all three of themwhich enable an adult Air Toad to see in every direction and thus make it very hard to sneak up on—are valued by sorcerers for their use in illusion spells, whilst alchemists use them to make floatwine, an intoxicating concoction that enables the imbiber to fly! However, recovery of such parts require that the Air Toad has not exploded and that needs bludgeoning weapons. Thus for many Player Characters, with their reliance on piercing and slashing weapons, going on an Air Toad hunt is a whole other challenge...

As well as its stats and biology, Monster of the Month #11: Air Toads! gives the Mythos & History for the Air Toad—unsurprisingly given the absurdity of the creature, Eurmal was involved—as well as adventure seeds (mostly as nuisance and prey for the hunt), a table of rumours, and a discussion of the different perspectives that other races have on the Air Toad. Notably, in Prax, this includes the Cult of the Storm Bull-Frog, a relatively temporary spirit cult, allied with Storm Bull, which dedicates it itself to the care and worship of a particular Air Toad. Along the way there is some scholarly discussion of the creature which adds another perspective or two and so should engage any Grey Beard amongst the Player Characters upon the subject.

Is it worth your time?
YesMonster of the Month #11: Air Toads! presents toads which go bang, and who would deny that the levity of their game would not be improved with the addition of batrachian bombs?
NoMonster of the Month #11: Air Toads! is a ridiculous idea. Honestly, who thought of such a thing?
MaybeMonster of the Month #11: Air Toads! is relatively easy to use, but the absurdity of it may change the tone of a campaign and even then, such batrachian bombs are not something that you can include too often in a campaign. It definitely falls under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’ and it may even fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Really Vary’.

Sunday 29 November 2020

A Sex Horrificam II

Fronti Nulla Fides—or ‘there is no trusting appearances’—is an anthology of six scenarios for The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus: Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome using Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Published by Golden Goblin Press, this setting presents new challenges in investigating and confronting the Mythos in Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying, shorn of its reliance upon libraries, newspaper archives, and Mythos tomes, instead requiring the investigators to ask others lots and lots of questions, do an awful lot of watching, and sneak about a fair bit. In other words, more detective legwork rather than research. Similarly, the reliance upon firearms found in conducting investigations in the Jazz Age of the 1920s, makes such investigations and confrontations with the Mythos more fraught affairs. The sextet in Fronti Nulla Fides see the investigators conducting a raid on a house of tinkers, a rescue mission to a city of white apes, a terrible sea journey, and in turn, hunts for a slave, a dragon, and a barbarian.

The anthology opens with ‘The Clockwork Oracle’, the first of three contributions by  publisher Oscar Rios. This is set in Corinth in Greece—though it could easily be moved to another city—and has the Investigators hired by a trio of brothers and sisters whose father has become obsessed with mechanisms and clockwork devices, in particular, a mechanical jay known as The Clockwork Oracle, which he believes can tell the future. This obsession has grown to the point that he is spending much of his wealth upon them, has allowed a gifted tinker to move into his home, and when confronted by his children, threw them out of the house. Amongst other things, siblings want the tinker removed from the house, their father separated from The Clockwork Oracle, both him and the household slaves kept safe, their family’s financial records secured, and more. Of these other objectives, each of the siblings has his or own objective and the scenario divides them between the Investigators, so adding a slight divisive element when it comes to the scenario’s set piece. Oddly, the biggest challenge in the scenario for the Keeper is portraying the squabbling siblings as they talk across each other, but otherwise this a short and straightforward scenario that provides an opportunity for the Investigators to conduct some classic detective work before the scenario’s grand set piece—the raid on the house. Here the scenario is almost Dungeons & Dragons-like, with much more of an emphasis on stealth and combat in comparison to scenarios for Call of Cthulhu, but this should make for a fun change of pace. The scenario also has numerous different aspects to its outcome which will need to be worked through, depending upon how successful the Investigators have been. Overall, ‘The Clockwork Oracle’ has a two-fisted muscularity to it, but still packs in plenty of story.

Jeffrey Moeller’s ‘Goddess of the White Apes’ is a sequel to his ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’ from De Horrore Cosmico. ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’ is an interpretation of ‘Facts Concerning the Late Arthur Jermyn and his Family’ in which the Investigators look into the background of Marius Asina to determine if he is suitable for elevation beyond his current rank of senator. Of course, he was not, since neither Marius Asina nor his family turned out to human, let alone barely Roman citizens! ‘Goddess of the White Apes’ leans into the pulpiness of the ‘Swords & Sandals’ genre, but combines it with weird miscegenation and horror, as the Investigators are directed to rescue from the nephew of the emperor from a city to the far south beyond the furthest reaches of the empire. There they find a city which is rapidly coming to ape Rome itself as the leader of the White Apes attempts to make both their home and their society more ‘civilised’! Here the Investigators—after the travails of their long journey south (though a means of cutting the journey time is explored)—must deal with a leader more capricious than a Roman Emperor and effect an escape. The set-up of ‘Goddess of the White Apes’ allows it to be run as a standalone scenario, but it works better as a sequel to ‘The Vetting of Marius Asina’.

Whether as crew or passengers, the Investigators find themselves in peril at sea in Charles Gerard’s ‘Following Seas’. As they sail aboard the Minerva from Antioch in Syria Palestina to Ostia, the port which serves Rome, the ship’s captain veers between depression and irrationality, his mood and actions upsetting the crew as strange energies are seen to swirl about the ship’s rigging. Both investigation and action will take place aboard the Minerva in what is classic, ‘ship in a bottle’ scenario, one that quickly pushes its narrative to an action-packed dénouement. Along the way, there is room for unsettling flashbacks, either ones which have happened in earlier encounters with the Mythos or ones which each player can create for their Investigator on the spot. ‘Following Seas’ is a decent scenario, one which is easily run as the Investigators are travelling between locations—perhaps in a campaign, perhaps between other scenarios, and which can easily be transferred to times and locations which involve sailing ships and sea voyages.

Oscar Rios’ second scenario is ‘Manumission’, in which Rome’s practice of slavery is put to a vile purpose. A vigilis—the equivalent of the police in the Roman Empire, comes to the Investigators for their help. In fact, he comes to them for their help because they owe him a favour or two, so ‘Manumission’ works best later in a campaign when the Investigators who have had a run in with the authorities. The vigilis wants them to help a friend of his whose nephew has been sold into slavery by his drunkard father. Quick investigation reveals that the boy has already been sold and the buyer is not prepared to sell him back. In order to rescue the boy, the Investigators will have to follow the seller and perhaps steal him back. However, in the process, they will discover why the boy was sold and that adds a degree of urgency to the rescue attempt. This is a solid piece of nastiness, nicely set up and waiting for the Investigator to do the right thing.

‘The Dragon of Cambria’ by William Adcock takes the Investigators to the west of Britannia and into Wales where a rich lead mine has unleashed a dragon! This is a classic monster hunt in Dungeons & Dragons-style, but one scaled to Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, which means that the Investigators are likely to be snapped up in a straight fight between themselves and the creature. They will have to use their guile and planning to defeat the creature, though their efforts are likely to be hindered by rival hunters and locals interpreting the appearance of the dragon as heralding a rebellion against the Roman authorities.

Lastly, Oscar Rios’ third scenario takes the Investigators to the province of Germania Superior and beyond! In ‘The Blood Sword of Emeric’, a German tribal leader has risen in rebellion and is attacking locals and Romans alike, but is said to have a blood red sword capable of killing at a single cut and slicing through chainmail. Whether as agents employed by a merchant to recover a missing shipment, the head of a local fort beset by refugees wanting someone to bring him the head of Emeric, or even as agents of an occult society interested in rumours of the sword, the Investigators will need to get what information they can from the refugees, find a guide, and strike out beyond the frontier. The scenario is again quite straightforward and quite action orientated, but it does a nice bait and switch on the Investigators—not once, but twice!

Physically, Fronti Nulla Fides is well presented and edited. Each scenario begins with a full list of its NPCs and each scenario’s maps are generally good, and the illustrations, although having a slightly cartoonish feel to them, are excellent throughout.

Each of the six scenarios in Fronti Nulla Fides should take no longer than a session or two to play, each is different, and even despite their being quite short, time is taken to explore the possible outcomes and ramifications of each. Their length also makes them easy to fit into an ongoing campaign, either between longer, more involved scenarios or chapters of an actual campaign. They also provide a decent amount of physical and interpersonal investigation, showcasing just how rare it is that Lovecraftian investigating roleplaying at the height of the Roman Empire rarely involves visits to libraries or poring over Mythos tomes. Overall, Fronti Nulla Fides not only lives up to its title, but also provides the Keeper of a Cthulhu Invictus campaign with a set of six short, but enjoyably action-orientated and punchy scenarios.

Saturday 28 November 2020

Winter's Woe

Under a Winter’s Snow: Death & Disease in North Dakota is a scenario for use Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Published by Stygian Fox, it is set early in the Jazz Age in North Dakota in the wake of the Great War and the 1918 Pandemic. Amidst a flurry of snow and ice in January, 1921, the inhabitants of the town of Eisner have been struck by a strange disease which leaves them sweating, shivering, and penultimately delirious before they die. The local doctor has been overwhelmed by the rash of deaths, which he fears to be another outbreak of the Spanish Flu. However, in the victims’ delirium, they whisper of a shrouded man seen in both their dreams and on the streets of Eisner, and of superstitions long forgotten in this modern age…

It should be noted that Under a Winter’s Snow deals with an outbreak of a disease with flu-like symptoms. Published in 2020, but before the outbreak of the current pandemic, it means that it has strong parallels with contemporary events. The scenario’s themes of disease, infection, and contamination may mean it is not suitable for some players. The Keeper is advised to consider the ramifications of such themes before deciding to run Under a Winter’s Snow.

In the default set-up for Under a Winter’s Snow, the Investigators are county officials sent into help with the outbreak. Alternatively, they might be law enforcement tracking a strange individual who has been spreading chaos and madness since his return from the Great War or standard Call of Cthulhu Investigators who have been caught in Eisner during the dreadful weather. A fourth is given, that of the players taking the roles of members of the local youth, caught up in the winter and the dreadful situation with the disease. This though, is not the advised option as the Investigators are not meant to be residents of the town and is not supported by the scenario itself.

Under a Winter’s Snow is relatively short and it is very likely that the Investigators are going to be quickly mystified as to the cause of the disease and its source. This being a scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, of course means that the disease has an unnatural cause, but getting to that source is going to be challenging for the players and their Investigators, whilst presenting the clues to that end, is going to be challenging for the Keeper. The scenario has a timed element, one that sees both more and more of the townsfolk infected and some of the Investigators infected. A nice touch is that being infected may actually open up some clues to the Investigators as well as drive them to investigate first the disease, and then perhaps beyond the disease itself… However, the scenario ultimately turns on the activities of a single NPC which the Keeper will have to very carefully roleplay—first portraying the NPC as innocuous, even helpful, but later as seeming to know more, until it is clear that the NPC is somehow involved. Here perhaps the Keeper can have some fun roleplaying an NPC who despite being insane might actually help the Investigators and in return, want their help, but not necessarily from the same motive.

Physically, Under a Winter’s Snow is tidily presented, but is lightly illustrated and needs another edit. The handouts are reasonable, but there is no map of the town. One of the handouts sort of doubles as a map, but only after the Investigators have done a particular action, and then it is a hand drawn piece, very rough, and very much at odds with the cartographic standards usually set by Stygian Fox.

Originally published as part of Stygian Fox’s Patreon, Under a Winter’s Snow feels rushed and not sufficiently developed to stand on its own as a scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. It leaves too much for the Keeper to detail herself, whether that is the town of Eisner, a map of the town of Eisner, the names of the victims of the disease, the names of various NPCs, and so on. It could have included pre-generated Investigators, especially if they have been sent by the county authorities to help the town’s doctor, and if not that, then at least given some suggested roles and Occupations. Either option would have worked if the scenario is being run as a one-shot. If not as a one-shot, as written the time period of the early nineteen twenties and remote location of North Dakota makes Under a Winter’s Snow difficult to bring into a campaign, but ultimately, the location is irrelevant because the scenario does nothing with it and so is easy to shift elsewhere, whether that is Lovecraft Country, the north of England, rural France, or even Germany.

Under a Winter’s Snow is not as fleshed out as it could be and feels much more of a magazine scenario than one that warranted a release on its own. It offers an interesting roleplaying challenge for the players and their Investigators in dealing with an NPC who has succumbed to the Mythos, but will require some effort upon the part of the Keeper to bring both setting and plot to the table.

Friday 27 November 2020

Glitter on the Water

Dead in the Water is a scenario for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, the spiritual successor to Gamma World published by Goodman Games. It is designed for Zero Level player characters, what this means is that Dead in the Water is a Character Funnel, one of the signature features of both the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game it is mechanically based upon—in which initially, a player is expected to roll up three or four Level Zero characters and have them play through a generally nasty, deadly adventure, which surviving will prove a challenge. Those that do survive receive enough Experience Points to advance to First Level and gain all of the advantages of their Class. In terms of the setting, known as Terra A.D., or ‘Terra After Disaster’, this is a ‘Rite of Passage’ and in Mutants, Manimals, and Plantients, the stress of it will trigger ‘Metagenesis’, their DNA expressing itself and their mutations blossoming forth.

Dead in the Water is published by Savage AfterWorld and is a scenario for between twelve and sixteen Zero Level Player Characters—so three or four players, which takes place on and off the coast of The Rainbow Sea in the light of the ‘Horizon Star’ which causes the sea to glitter… The scenario begins in the fishing village of Narleen, with the Zero Level Player Characters either as residents or visitors. Either way, the Player Characters are present when screams are heard, and the village’s alarm bell is sounded. When they respond, they discover several waterlogged corpses dragging themselves out of the surf and into the village, where they claw at and grapple several of the inhabitants. The Player Characters have the opportunity to help here and in doing so come to the attention of Narleen’s village headman. Examination of the strange corpses discovers a strange thing—each corpse is host to a small squid-like creature residing in its mouth and also reeks of a powerful odour, the same as a flammable liquid to be found on The Island of Fire, a forbidden isle in The Rainbow Sea. This means that the source of the waterlogged, but animated corpses that have attacked Narleen and other villages, must be The Island of Fire, and so the village headman tasks the Player Characters with going to The Island of Fire and put an end to the attacks. This will be their Rite of Passage.

If the attack on Narleen is the first act of Dead in the Water, then the second is the sea journey to The Island of Fire and the third is exploring The Island of the Fire. The sea journey will be for the most part, quite straight forward, there is a chance for further attacks from the swimming corpses and other things, but perhaps the most fun (or frustration) will come when roleplaying and interacting with the captain of the boat they take to the island. The simple fact is that he cannot speak, so players and Judge will need to engage in a round or two of miming and hand signals!

The Island of Fire turns out to be a Site of the Ancients. There is an ecological feel to the initial exploration, but once inside the towering structure at the centre of the small island, it is revealed to be a technological site. There are some secrets to be discovered, as well as various artefacts, which are appropriate to the location rather than just random. Now despite The Island of Fire having a limited number of locations, there is a pleasing sense of scale to them and at least one of them should invoke a sense of wonder in both the players and their characters. However, this sense of wonder quickly turns to horror as the antagonist at the heart of scenario literally looms into view. The climax on—well, technically, under—The Island of Fire should be frantic, desperate, ad dangerous, whether it involves fight or flight! The Player Characters should ideally prepare themselves by grabbing whatever artefacts they can and by the end of the scenario, will hopefully have survived and gained enough Experience Points to become First Level.

Dead in the Water is just sixteen pages long and reasonably well illustrated and edited, and the maps decent. Some of the illustrations capture some of the adventure’s scale, but some are just a little silly. Just what are Beavis and Butthead doing in Terra A.D. and arguably, do you just not want the waterlogged corpses to grab them and pull them overboard? If there is anything missing in Dead in the Water, it is perhaps that it would have been nice to have seen more of the base presented—though there is nothing to stop the Judge from expanding it herself.

Whether played as a Character  Funnel, or even as a short encounter for First Level mutants, Dead in the Water is a likeable scenario which should offer a session or two’s worth of play. Dig into it and it has a combination of a zombie film meets Alien in its feel, which is nicely transposed to an interesting environment, making Dead in the Water a slightly creepy mix of Science Fiction and Horror.

Friday Fantasy: The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location

 Waterdeep is a city of many faiths, yet there are many in the City of Splendours that lack wealth, influence, or congregation to build a temple of their own, let alone a cathedral. Each year though, on Plinth Day, the adherents of such faiths compete in displays of devotion in order to awarded one of the twenty shrines within the building known as the Plinth. This is a six-storey tower, slim, but with many balconies and home to the aforementioned shrines where those of the faiths that were successful on Plinth Day may come to worship without fear of condemnation or prosecution—whether be followers of Law or Chaos, or Good or Evil. Since the faiths with shrines in the Plinth must adhere to the rule of tolerance, civility, and respect, the multi-denominational, square tower is somewhere the agents of faiths and other organisations come to meet—though there is no knowing who might be watching, inside or out… The tallest building in Waterdeep, the Plinth is not only a well-known landmark, it is also home to a griffon cavalry guard station, a plum assignment for any member of the city’s griffon riders.

The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location is published by The Eldritch Press and as the title suggests, describes a location in the City of Splendours, perhaps the most important city in all of Faerûn. Thus it is a supplement for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, one that details the building itself, the occupants of the twenty shrines—from Auril, goddess of winter and Azuth, god of wizards to Talos, god of storms and Umberlee, goddess of the sea, descriptions of four NPCs and stats for a total of eleven, four quests, floorplans of all six levels of the Plinth, and a heresy. The NPC stats include generic characters and creatures such as the Flight Captain and Griffon Mount, but also entries tied to the quests, such as the Green Ghost which rises from the City of the Dead and everywhere it wanders, it withers the greenery and fresh flowers placed by the faithful of Eldath, goddess of peace, at the graves, and the Southern Assassins and Southern Rogues who will be instructed to deal with the Player Characters should they be taking too much of an interest in the fact that the masters of the Southern Assassins and Southern Rogues have been seen buying poison! Of course, The Emerald Enclave would like the Green Ghost laid to rest and The Lords’ Alliance would be very interested to learn about the purchase of certain poisons… The four quests range from Second Level up to Seventh Level, so the likelihood is that if the Dungeon Master uses all four, the Player Characters will be coming back to the Plinth more than once.

Perhaps the longest section in The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location—certainly the longest section of text—is dedicated to the Mother Source Heresy. Prior to its adoption as a multi-denominational establishment, the Plinth was a sacred monument to the goddess Selûne. Acolytes of the Seekers of Selûne are known to visit and wander the Plinth, communing with the building and chanting verses, sometimes even being struck by profound visions. Their activities are linked to holy fragments of a magical earthen vessel, known as the Mother Source Fragments, that suggest that there was an ultimate godhead and primeval Source-of-Realms to an unknown Goddess. Or it might be an aspect of an existing goddess, such as Selûne or Mystra and this interpretation has led to the rivals claiming that the interpretation is heretical.

The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location is very nicely presented. The artwork is excellent and the layout clean and tidy. Overall, this is a highly attractive supplement.

The obvious ties of The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location to Waterdeep make it difficult to use elsewhere and whilst it will be easy enough for the Dungeon Master to develop the four quests, it is pity that they do not tie into the Plinth as strongly as they should. Similarly, for all that the Mother Source Heresy is interesting, there are no quests actually using it or involving the Player Characters in it, so unlike the quests, it is not going to be all that easy to bring into a game or campaign. Perhaps in need of a little more development and support for the Dungeon Master, The Plinth: A Waterdeep Location does a decent job of presenting an interesting location and handful of NPCs—and presenting in a highly attractive fashion.

Monday 23 November 2020

Jonstown Jottings #31: Legion

Much like the Miskatonic Repository for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, the Jonstown Compendium is a curated platform for user-made content, but for material set in Greg Stafford’s mythic universe of Glorantha. It enables creators to sell their own original content for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha13th Age Glorantha, and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds). This can include original scenarios, background material, cults, mythology, details of NPCs and monsters, and so on, but none of this content should be considered to be ‘canon’, but rather fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’. This means that there is still scope for the authors to create interesting and useful content that others can bring to their Glorantha-set campaigns.


What is it?

Legion presents ninety-six pre-generated Broo, nine new deadly diseases, a Broo name generator, and a scenario for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is ninety-two page, full colour, 28.82 MB PDF.

The layout is clean and tidy, and many of the illustrations good. It needs a strong edit.

Where is it set?
Legion can be set almost anywhere where Broo may be found (although there are references to Prax in the text). The included scenario, ‘Imperial Waystation 42’, can be set anywhere on the boundaries—or former boundariesof the Lunar Empire.

Who do you play?
No specific character types are required when encountering the creatures in Legion. The Broo are not that fussy (mostly). Of course, an initiate or priest of Chalana Arroy will probably be useful after any encounter with the Broo.

What do you need?
Legion requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. The RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary may be useful.

What do you get?
Echoing supplements such as RuneQuest Source Pack Alpha: Trolls and Trollkin, RuneQuest Source Pack Beta: Creatures of Chaos 1: Scorpion Men and Broos, and RuneQuest Source Pack Gamma: Militia & Mercenaries, as well as the Foes and Runemasters supplements, Legion is a supplement of deadly monsters and enemies that the Game Master can bring to her game. The monsters and foes in question are Broo—the horned, often goat-headed species befouled by Chaos and vile practices, widely known as carriers of horrid diseases and worshippers of dread Chaos gods. Legion presents some ninety-six pregenerated Chaos enemies, broken down into twenty Rune Lord, Priests, and Rune Lord Priests, twenty-six Initiates, and some forty-eight lay members, plus nine new deadly diseases, a Broo Name Generator, and ‘Imperial Waystation 42’, a location and short scenario. There is also a breakdown of the Broo according to their Cult, so along with the expected Malia and Thed worshippers there are worshippers of Cacodemon, Nysalor/Gbaji, Pocharngo, and even the Seven Mothers and a Sorcerer!

All of the Rune Lord, Priests, and Rune Lord Priests and the Initiates are full write-ups as well as their stats. For example, Gukgaz Khul is a Rune Priest of Primal Chaos, host to thousands of pin worms that constantly wriggle out of and across her body, and the ‘Bleak Hill Blindness’ and capable of controlling the unintelligent things which crawl from the chaos ooze, such as gorp and dragon snails, and including a small gorp which is home to her allied spirit, whilst Khul Gruc, a Rune Lord Priest and Shaman of Thed, one of three to be found in Dragon Pass, who is typically found in a discorporate state and guarded by other Rune Lords and Initiates of both Thed and Malia. His body is a riotous swathe of brightly coloured fungi and mushrooms that sprout from every available inch of his body. Initiates include Black Shuck, a Broo with the shaggy head of a fighting dog who constantly drools from both mouth and nose, and who worships Malia; Wild Face, an Initiate of Thed has the face and claw of a puma, who has issues loading his crossbow; and Khi Ghul, a sable-horned devotee of Seven Mothers with slick, black fur that has a dark red stripe running down it and who despite hating life, actually works as a translator for any human contact and idolises the Lunar Empire!

Legion being a supplement about Broo, it includes several new diseases—and they are deadly indeed. They are described as serious diseases, purportedly appearing and spreading in the wake of the withdrawal of Lunar forces from Prax. For example, Bleak Hill Blindness causes weeping and loss of vision; The Laughing Death, which causes the sufferer to collapse into fits of uncontrollable laughter and it is thought to have originated amongst Eurmal worshipers; and Dermal Glue, in which the sufferer exudes a fouling smelling glue which leads to everything sticking to him! All of these diseases are really vile.

‘Imperial Waystation 42’ is a ‘defend the flag’ one-shot, combat-orientated scenario. It describes a fortress at the edge of the Lunar Empire’s expansion, only partially completed before it was abandoned. The fortress is described such that it can be used elsewhere, but here it comes under attack by Broo. Several reasons are given for the Player Characters to visit the fortress and defend it, and the scenario comes suggestions as to which Broo to use from Legion, although the Game Master is free to pick and choose to match her players’ characters.

As well as the degree of invention on show in Legion, many of the Broo are accompanied by some fantastic artwork, much of it fully painted. The artwork and the map is decent throughout. In terms of the writing, one thing that should be made clear about Legion is that avoids the repellent nature of Broo procreational practices, although it alludes to it obliquely. Whether or not the Game Master wants to include this aspect of the Broo in her campaign is left up to her to decide.

Is it worth your time?
YesLegion presents a vilely inventive array of foes and even NPCs (in some cases) that the players and their characters will remember not just for the confrontation, but also for the diseases that Broo will infect them with as a reminder.  
NoLegion is probably best avoided if the Game Master does not want to bring Broo, their diseases, and their reputations into her game.
MaybeLegion presents foes which vary widely in power level, and many of them are likely to be too powerful for many groups of Player Characters, so the Game Master will need to use them with care.

Sunday 22 November 2020

1990: Buck Rogers XXVC

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. 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.


As the hobby in 2020 awaits the much-anticipated release of Cyberpunk Red, the fourth edition of Cyberpunk, the year also marks the thirtieth anniversary of both its highly regarded forebear, Cyberpunk, and another roleplaying game designed by Mike Pondsmith. That roleplaying game is Buck Rogers XXVC, or ‘Buck Rogers in the 25th Century’. Published by TSR, Inc. in 1990, as the title suggests 
Buck Rogers XXVC is based upon the character originally created by Philip Francis Nowlan in the novella Armageddon 2419 A.D., and subsequently popularised in newspaper comic strips, a film serial in the late nineteen thirties, and then a television series in the late nineteen seventies and early nineteen eighties. In the original novella, Buck Rogers is frozen in a mine by radioactive gas and kept in a state of suspended animation for nearly five centuries, only to awake in 2419 to find a North America ruled by the Air Lords known as the Han and their allied gangs from fifteen great cities, Americans left to fend themselves beyond the confines of the cities, but putting up a resistance against the Han and their gang allies. The original novella, the film serial, the television series, and both roleplaying games—TSR, Inc. publishing Buck Rogers XXVC in 1990 and then the High Adventure Cliffhangers Buck Rogers Adventure Game in 1993—have expanded upon, to varying degrees, the scope of their Buck Rogers settings. For example, the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century television series takes the character and story into space and beyond the confines of the solar system, and its look is influenced by Star Wars, at the time being nearly everyone’s idea of what Science Fiction should be like; Buck Rogers XXVC takes the character into the space, but only the confines of the solar system, and its Science Fiction, is more Pulpy in its styling; and the High Adventure Cliffhangers Buck Rogers Adventure Game takes Buck Rogers back to his roots of the novella—a conflict set on Earth only, fought with the technology of the Great War and the nineteen twenties. What they share in common is the same cast of characters, and of course, Buck Rogers himself, a man out of the past, frozen in time for centuries, and awoken to help to fight an oppressive enemy.

Buck Rogers XXVC would be TSR, Inc.’s second attempt at a Science Fiction roleplaying game, following on from 1982’s well-regarded Star Frontiers, and preceding the High Adventure Cliffhangers Buck Rogers Adventure Game and the Amazing Engine and its subsequent line of supplements—both from 1993, and finally Alternity in 1998. It would come about because Lorraine Williams, the then president of TSR, Inc., was the granddaughter of John F. Dille, the publisher who had originally syndicated Philip Francis Nowlan’s Buck Rogers comic strip and as a property, Buck Rogers, is owned by the Dille Family Trust. Williams wanted to combine Buck Rogers with the popularity of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, and this would lead to the development of a new background for Buck Rogers, by Williams’ brother, Flint Dille. This new background would be initially showcased in 1988 in the board game, Buck Rogers - Battle for the 25th Century, and then the roleplaying game, Buck Rogers XXVC, in 1990.

The setting for 
Buck Rogers XXVC is the year 2456. The twenty-fifth century is a future in which atomic powered rocket ships fly between the plants of the solar system, great power blocs work to terraform Mars and Venus, corporate warlords use genetically engineered workers and warriors to dominate whole worlds and enforce their will, and an Earth, a political and economic backwater still recovering from a war in the first half of the twenty-first century, bucking against off-world powers who see it as a source of clean water, historical art and objects and treasures, and other resources to be plundered. The solar system is dominated by three great power blocs, formed in response to the Last Gasp War fought between the United States of America and the Soviet Communist bloc which began with the successful destruction of Russia’s powerful new orbital offence system, Masterlink, by United States Air Force Lieutenant Colonel Anthony ‘Buck’ Rogers—who was assumed killed in the attempt and ended in a limited exchange of nuclear missiles. The three power blocs, the Russo-American Combine (RAM), the Euro-Bloc faction, and the Indo-Asian Consortium (IAC) quickly formed a world government and then, as the rest of the solar system was explored, settled, and terraformed, the System States Alliance. Each bloc claimed a different world, RAM took Mars, the Euro-Bloc Luna, and the IAC Venus, with both RAM and the IAC making great efforts to terraform their worlds. To date, both RAM and the IAC have made great strides such that parts of both worlds are habitable. Ultimately, RAM would rebel against the System States Alliance and by the end of the Ten Year War in 2285, break both Earth as a power and fearing the IAC as an economic rival, sabotage colonisation and terraforming efforts on Venus. As RAM tightened its grip and influence on the Solar System, refugees from Earth, Mars, and Venus would flee to Mercury where the most powerful colonists would establish a ‘Sun King’ monarchy made wealthy on the energy and minded ores it sold to the rest of the solar System. A later wave of refugees would flee into the asteroids, and to Jupiter and Saturn, these Outer Worlds eventually to become home to The Black Brotherhood, bands of pirates feared for their raids across the system. Earth, the majority of its population residing in Arcologies, with mutants confined to reservations or the polluted and scavenged Badlands, and its technology regressed to that of the twentieth century, is under the thumb of RAM, as part of its ‘Solar Alliance Protectorate’. More recently, an alliance of smugglers, traders, and rebels who have banded together to form the New Earth Organisation (NEO), an underground resistance group dedicated to freeing Earth from RAM’s yoke. (Notably, parallels are drawn between NEO and RAM, and the Continental Army and British forces during the American War of Independence, but of course, NEO’s enemy is corporate, rather than imperial, though no less autocratic.) Recently, NEO’s hopes and plans have been bolstered by the discovery and revival of Buck Rogers, the hero of The Last Gasp War.

Buck Rogers XXVC comes as a richly appointed box set, which start with three black and white books—‘Characters & Combat’, the ninety-six-page rulebook; the sixty-four-page ‘The World Book’, which covers the background and includes information and a scenario for the Referee’s eyes only; and the thirty-two-page ‘The Technology Book’, which covers the setting’s equipment and weaponry. The Referee is given a plain, but serviceable Reference Screen: Tables and Statistics, plus twenty-four reference cards. On the font of these is a full colour illustration, showing either a ship, an NPC—such as Ardala Valmar, Buck Rogers, or Killer Kane, or a map of one of the setting’s worlds, with the stats and background on the back. These reference cards feel reminiscent of Spelljammer, the space setting for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition. There are two double-sided poster maps. One poster has a map of Tycho Arcology Spaceport on one side and an outer-space hex grid for running space combat on the other, whilst the other poster has the deck plans for a small cruiser and a medium cruiser—both suitable for use with 25 mm figures—on one side, and a map of the orbits of the inner planets and various settlements in the Asteroid Belt on the other. Lastly, there is sheet of counters for use on the maps, a set of polyhedral dice, and a plastic overlay. This is used to determine travel and communication times between the planets as they orbit around the sun, the Referee having to move them along in their orbital paths once every thirty days in game to reflect the changing distances. Overall, the box set is nicely appointed.

Buck Rogers XXVC is a classic Race, Class—or Career, and Level system. It is based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, but with various tweaks to account for the genre. The Player Characters, traders, adventurers, spies, resistance fighters, and more, are assumed to be members of, or at least affiliated to NEO. A Player Character is defined by seven attributes—Strength, Dexterity, Intelligence, Constitution, Wisdom, Charisma, and Tech. These provide various bonuses, notably serving as a bonus to skill rolls, and range in value from one to twenty-two. A Character also has a Race, Buck Rogers XXVC offering thirteen options. They start with Terrans, unmodified Humans, and then add Martians, Lunarians, Venusians, and Mercurians, each type having been modified to survive on their respective home worlds. The other eight are ‘gennies’, or ‘genetic mutants’, modified with animal DNA to survive in certain conditions or perform various tasks. So Tinkers are crossed with lemurs and gibbons, and are short, have long fingers, a longer reach, and fine fur and are suited to engineering and technical tasks—especially in tunnels; the Martian Desert Runner has feline and canine DNA to give claws and the ability to run on all fours, and webbing between fingers and toes to run on the sands of Mars; and the dread Terrine have Shark DNA with tough skeletons, retractable talons on hands and feet, and sandpaper-like skin, and are bred by RAM as its shock troops. In terms of Class—or Career, Buck Rogers XXVC gives Rocketjocks, the pilots of the setting, Warriors—fighters and professional soldiers, Scouts—planetary explorers and loners, Engineers, Rogues—gamblers and information traders, and Medics. All six Careers have attribute requirements, and some cannot be selected by Gennies. Each Career provides a few abilities. The Rocketjock grants a bonus to Driving and Piloting skill checks and a Charisma bonus when interacting with a member of the opposite gender; the Warrior rolls a six-sided die for unarmed damage and gains a specialisation bonus every other Level to use a particular weapon, up to +3 for each weapon; a Scout a bonus to his Career skills at each Level; an Engineer receives a to hit and damage bonus when using a tool as a club in combat; the Rogue receives a bonus to his Career skills; and only the Medic can use a Drug Fabricator or Autosurgery. Each Career has its own set of skills. For example, the Rocketjock has Drive Jetcar, Drive Groundcar, Manoeuvre in Zero G, Notice, Pilot Fixed Wing, Pilot Rocket, Pilot Rotorwing Craft, and Use Rocket Belt, whilst the Rogue has Bypass Security, Climb, Fast Talk/Convince, Hide in Shadows, Move Silently, Notice, Open Lock and Pick Pockets.

To create a character, a player rolls three six-sided dice for each attribute, and selects a Race and Career. He divides forty points between his Career skills and another twenty between General skills. He also adds the value of the appropriate attribute to each skill the character has as well as any bonuses from the Career. Each time his character goes up a Level, he will receive another forty points to assign to his Career skills and another twenty to his General skills—that is, those skills not granted by his Career. He then receives between two hundred and two thousand credits to spend on equipment.

Name: Seldona Clarke
Race: Human
Career: Scout Level: 1

Strength 10 (Weight 40, Max. Lift 115, Strength Feat 2)
Dexterity 12
Constitution 09 (System Shock 65)
Intelligence 13
Wisdom 11
Charisma 13
Tech 10

Armour Class: 10
Hit Points: 8


Career Skills
Animal Riding (Dex) 13, Befriend Animal (Chr) 01, Climb (Dex) 18, Move Silently (Dex) 17, Notice (Wis) 16, Planetary Survival (Wis) 16, Planetology (Int) 27, Tracking (Wis) 16

General Skills
Cook (Tech) 15, Geology (Int) 18, Navigation (Int) 18, Sensor Operation (Tech) 15

Laser Pistol, Mono Knife, Utility Belt, Smart Clothes, Messkit, Backpack, Inertial Compass, Cr 75

Buck Rogers XXVC employs not one, but three different mechanics. The first a simple attribute test, a roll equal to, or less than an attribute on a twenty-sided die. The second is the skill check, a roll under—but not equal to, a skill rating. The difficulty of a skill check is directly modified, its skill rating doubled if the task is easy, halved if difficult, and quartered if impossible. The third is the combat roll, rolled on a twenty-sided die, rolled to beat an opponent’s Armour Class. However, Buck Rogers XXVC being designed in 1990 and not 1992 when Gamma World, Fourth Edition was published means that Buck Rogers XXVC uses descending, not ascending Armour Class. Further, Buck Rogers XXVC being based on Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, the value used to determine the number a player rolls to his is ‘To Hit Armour Class Zero’, or THAC0.

Armour Class itself runs from nothing and ten down to zero and Battle Armour. Battle Armour with Fields is even lower, and Armour Class is adjusted by cover, Dexterity, and illumination. It is also lowered if a Player Character does nothing but parry or dodge. Combat also covers melee and firearms combat, weapons like the Laser Pistol and Rocket Pistol doing one eight-sided die and one ten-sided die’s worth of damage respectively. At lower Levels, this can be enough to kill a Player Character, and a Player Character whose Hit Points is lowered to zero is dead, unless someone can get the would be corpse to a life suspension device, but these are expensive and bulky. So the likelihood of low Level Player Characters owning one is equally as low… Add in rules for heavy weapons, suffocation, radiation, extreme heat and cold, and until a Player Character has gained a few Levels, the world of 
Buck Rogers XXVC is grim and gritty rather than pulpy. That said, the Referee is advised that when possible to narrate ways of his Player Characters surviving near certain death—though not inescapable death!

Buck Rogers XXVC includes rules for both rocketship combat and construction for fighters, cruisers, battlers, transports, and freighters. Ships are expensive, running to hundreds of thousands of Credits. Space combat involves weapons like lasers, missiles, gyrocannons, and acceleration guns, played out at scale of fifty miles per hex. Essentially, a ship’s pilot—ideally a Rocketjock—maneuvers the ship whilst everyone else takes different stations aboard the ship. Weapons need to be manned in order to be fired, the Engineer needs to be able to conduct repairs, the Medic provide first aid, and so on. Each section of ship, whether that is sensors and communications, controls, life support, or hull, has its own individual Hit Points. Reducing any section to zero or fewer Hit Points has the same effect as a critical hit. Otherwise, the ship combat rules work as per personal combat, including the use of THCA0, and are serviceable enough.

Apart from the addition of Gennies, the other significant technology in 
Buck Rogers XXVC is that of Digital Personalities. Each is an artificial intelligence which can project a three-dimensional image of itself, which mechanically has mental, but not physical attributes. A Digital Personality cannot fight actual people, but can fight other Digital Personalities. A Digital Personality also has the ability to use computer programs such as Control Remote, Stealth, or Virus Attack. A Digital Personality is actually an NPC Career, as is the Scientist, someone who possesses skills and abilities, like gadgeteer, which Player Characters cannot. Notably, Doctor Huer is a Digital Personality, as is the head of RAM, Simund Holzerhein. This is not the only major change to the characters of the Buck Rogers in the 25th Century setting. For example, Ardala Valdemar is a freelance Martian RAM agent with high connections who serves as an information broker and espionage agent, whilst the infamous Rocketjock, Killer Kane, who defected to serve RAM, but only to save his then lover, Wilma Deering. In the meantime, Killer Kane has come to believe that RAM has the people of Earth’s best interests at heart.

In addition to covering each of the worlds of 
Buck Rogers XXVC in some detail—their economy and culture, their politics and government, ‘The World Book’ also includes rules for creating more Gennies, guidance for the Referee for running the game and its genre, and a scenario, ‘Ghost in the Machine’. This has a recently fired rocketship crew hired to get hold of a RAM yacht and its secrets before RAM can recover it. Intended for Player Characters of First and Second Level, it should provide one or two sessions of play and enable the Player Characters to try out the various rules, including combat and space combat. ‘The Technology Book’ covers everything from terraforming and space elevators down to personal weapons and gear. Lastly, the Reference Cards present further information on aspects of the setting—major NPCs, the worlds, and ships. They are handy and accessible, providing illustrations and easily accessible content that the Referee can show to her players.

Buck Rogers XXVC is generally well presented. The artwork whether black and white in the books, or colour on the Reference Cards is good throughout. Equally, the maps are bright and colourful, though the counters are plain. In general, Buck Rogers XXVC is well written. Nice touches include the short, but involving ‘choose-your-own-path’ adventure which serves as an introduction to roleplaying in the ‘Characters & Combat’ book, the roleplaying and cultural notes on the various Races, and the Reference Cards, the maps, and the plastic overlay, which are all great.

Yet mechanically, 
Buck Rogers XXVC is underwhelming. In terms of the attributes, only Strength, Dexterity, and Constitution provide any bonuses; there are no special abilities assigned to each Race—at least not in terms of the mechanics; the various abilities given to the various Careers feel underpowered and unbalanced, some Careers, like the Rocketjock and the Warrior gaining an improvement every other Level, whilst others like the Engineer and the Medic, a single ability. And, in terms of the Medic, if a playing group wants to have a character who can operate a Drug Fabricator or Autosurgery, then one player has to select that Career, or an NPC be added. Also, there is no mechanical means for the Player Characters to be heroic, so no luck or hero points. It all comes down to the dice rolls, and whilst there is a means to determine the difficulty by adjusting the skill score, there is no corresponding way to handle degrees of success or failure.

Lastly, having three different sets of mechanics—one for attribute checks, one for combat, and one for skills, complicates rather than eases the play of the game. The use of THAC0—the use of THAC0!?—and skills as percentages feels more like a cultural and design clash rather than a decision, almost as if 
Buck Rogers XXVC is straining to get away from the constraints of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition, and be its own thing—rather than a hybrid. Of course, Buck Rogers XXVC was designed to ride on the back of the popularity of Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition and so was designed to be familiar to the players of that game, but without those constraints, there is no denying that Buck Rogers XXVC could have been a better game. Indeed, the Referee could easily take the background of Buck Rogers XXVC and adapt it to the rules of her choice, especially if she wants more competent Player Characters and to reflect a pulpier, more action orientated style that reflects the Space Opera of the nineteen thirties and nineteen forties—the source material for Buck Rogers XXVC.

There is a great deal to like about 
Buck Rogers XXVC—the setting is well done and it is well presented, but ultimately, the mechanics and the low Level of the Player Characters do not feel suited to either the genre or the game. Buck Rogers XXVC is a great setting to delve into, but not necessarily play as written.

Saturday 21 November 2020

In-Line & In-Country

Delta Green: Kali Ghati is a scenario for use with Arc Dream Publishing’s Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game which can be played using the roleplaying game’s full rules or those from Delta Green: Need to Know. It is set in Afghanistan, so shares parallels with ‘Night Visions’ from Control Group: Horrifying Scenarios for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game and concerns the fate of a missing Agent, so shares parallels with the scenario  ‘Last Things Last’, from Delta Green: Need to Know. It comes with six ready-to-play Agents, so it can be run as a one-shot, as a convention scenario, as an introduction to the Unnatural—as the Mythos is called in Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game—and Delta Green a la Control Group, or simply added to an ongoing campaign.

Delta Green: Kali Ghati opens with the Agents in-country, having been sent to Forward Operating Base Turner in Patika province, in the eastern part of Afghanistan, close to the border with Pakistan. The base has been the process of shutting down and being handed over to the Afghan National Army, and only sixty U.S. Army soldiers posted still there. Unfortunately, a CIA clandestine services officer named Tim Ellis, also stationed there, has gone missing and the last thing that the U.S. Army wants is news breaking out of another American citizen having been captured by the Taliban. Worse, Tim Ellis is actually a Delta Green agent and the organisation does not want him—or the esoteric knowledge he has acquired over the years—falling into the hands of the Taliban either. The player character Delta Green Agents are sent in to locate him, retrieve him, and if unable to do that, make sure that he does not fall into the wrong hands.

Delta Green: Kali Ghati is essentially divided into three acts. In the first act, the Agents will investigate Ellis’ activities at F.O.B. Turner, dealing with the officers and soldiers who had dealings with him, as well as an interpreter and the members of the Afghan National Army. They are a mixture of helpful and reluctant, but with some careful roleplaying, the Agents will learn that Ellis was fascinated by the strange tales of a nearby village that go back to the nineteenth century, and more. They are likely to also be given warnings not to go to the village, but duty demands that they do. The second act consists of the drive to Kali Ghati—and here the action hots up as attempts are made to prevent them getting there. This is a big scene and will need careful staging from round to round, almost like a wargame.

The third act takes place at the village of Kali Ghati and sees the Agents learning the secrets that the villagers are hiding. They will very likely also discover the whereabouts of Tim Ellis. As plotted, once they discover the secrets of Kali Ghati, all hell breaks loose and the best they can probably do is get the hell out…

Delta Green: Kali Ghati is a problematic scenario. Its issue is that it is linear and does not allow a high degree of player agency. In the initial scenes where the Agents are investigating Ellis’ activities and interactions, they have plenty to do, but in later scenes, there is less and less that they can do. Should the players want their Agents to push harder and harder at the constraints of the plot, the more effort that the Handler will have to make to accommodate their actions. The scenario is also more combat focused in comparison to other scenarios for Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game, which will put Agents with fewer or limited combat skills at a disadvantage. Of course, replacement characters abound in the form of other U.S. Army soldiers, but the likelihood of having to replace the Agents—either early in the scenario or at the climax, undermines players’ roleplaying. Essentially, the combats are all but unavoidable, and the second combat is likely to become something of a grind, likely to be preceded by a grind of dice rolls to get to that second combat…

Physically, Delta Green: Kali Ghati is nicely produced. The maps are clear and the artwork excellent as is usual. The six pregenerated Agents, including a CIA Officer, an FBI Agent, CIA Consultant, a biohazard specialist, and two U.S. Army soldiers, are for the most part, decently done. They have a few details missing, but these are not pertinent to the scenario and can be easily made up by the Handler or the player. 

Delta Green: Kali Ghati is linear and is tightly constrained in terms of storytelling. In fact, to the point that it feels more like a film than a roleplaying game—indeed, the scenes in the village of Kali Ghati are reminiscent of the film, The Man Who Would Be King. The short length and the straightforward, narrow nature of its plot means that Delta Green: Kali Ghati is best suited as a one-shot or a convention scenario, especially for players looking for action rather than investigation.

Friday 20 November 2020

1965: Nuclear War

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. 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.


Invented in 1965 by Doug Malewicki and published by Flying Buffalo, Inc. since 1972, the Nuclear War Card Game is a satirical game of Cold War brinkmanship, black propaganda, and mass destruction designed for between two and eight players. Designed for players with a sense of humour, aged thirteen and up, who each control a major nuclear power, it  can be played in roughly thirty to forty-five minutes. Whilst the aim of the Nuclear War Card Game is to win by defeating a player’s rivals—either by persuading their population to defect or bombing them back into the Stone Age, either way reducing their population to zero—a game can also end in a storm of retaliatory missile and bomber strikes that leaves everyone’s population dead and dying. In which case, everyone loses. If you think that this sounds M.AD., then that is Mutually Assured Destruction for you.

The Nuclear War Card Game consists of two decks of cards, eight player boards, a Nuclear Spinner Board, and a four-page rules leaflet. The two decks are the Population Deck and the much larger Nuclear War Deck. The Population contains cards representing between one and twenty-five million persons, whilst the Warhead Deck contains cards of various types. Warhead cards represent nuclear warheads ranging in size from ten to one hundred megatons, each indicating how many members of a population it will kill, ranging from two to twenty-five million. Delivery cards indicate the size of Warhead tonnage they can deliver to a target, raging from a single ten megaton warhead in a Polaris missile to a Saturn rocket capable of carrying a single one hundred megaton warhead, whilst a B-70 Bomber can carry multiple warheads up to a total of fifty megatons. Other cards include Anti-Missile cards which will bring down incoming missiles during an attack, whilst others are Top Secret or Propaganda cards. Top Secret cards can decrease an opponent’s or the current player’s population, force him or the current player to lose a turn. For example, ‘Your Cold War prestige soars due to being the first on the Moon’ causes five million of the enemy to join the current player’s country and ‘TEST BAN!’, which called by the President of the current player’s country forces him to miss a turn. Propaganda cards simply cause Population from a rival country to defect to the current player’s country.

Each of the Player Boards, illustrated with a photograph of a Titan missile launch station, is marked with six spaces—‘Face Up Card’, ‘1st Face Down Card’, ‘2nd Face Down Card’, two ‘Deterrent Force’ spaces, and ‘Population’. A player uses the ‘Face Up Card’ and ‘Face Down Card’ spaces to set up and bluff using his country’s nuclear arsenal; the ‘Deterrent Force’ space to establish a threat against anyone who might attack his country; and the ‘Population’ space to keep track of his Population cards. The infamous Nuclear Spinner Board is spun whenever a missile is launched or a bomb is dropped to give a random effect, such as ‘Explodes a Nuclear Stockpile! Triple the Yield’ to increase the number of Population killed or ‘Bomb Shelters Saves 2 Million’ which reduces the damage inflicted. The Nuclear Spinner Board also tables to get the same effects from rolling either two six-sided or two ten-sided dice as an alternative, or if the spinner is broken! Lastly, the rules sheet both explains the rules, answers various questions, and gives some suggestions as to tactics when playing the game.

Game set-up is simple. Each player receives a Player Board, a number of Population cards (the number determined by the number of players), and nine cards from the Nuclear War deck. On a round each player takes it in turn to play all the cards marked Secret or Top Secret in his hand, draw back up to nine cards, play any cards marked Secret or Top Secret in his hand so added, draw again, and so on until he no cards marked either Secret or Top Secret in his hands. The fun of these is a player using the text on the cards to build a story about his country, taking it through the Cold War to the point where Nuclear confrontation turns hot…

Then each player places two cards face down in the first two slots on his Player Board. They will be revealed in subsequent turns and in doing so, will reveal a player’s strategy. A player with weak warheads or inadequate means of delivery—bombers or missiles, or who does not immediately want to turn the Cold War hot, can play Propaganda cards to reduce a rival country’s population. A player who wants to go aggressive immediately can put down a delivery system—bomber or missile—followed by a warhead, which has to be launched at a rival country once the combination has been revealed. A player can also bluff, playing a warhead, but not a delivery system—and vice versa, instead playing a Propaganda card. In some instances, a player does not have a choice as to which option he chooses, it very much depends upon the cards in his hand.  Alternatively, a player can place Anti-Missile cards or even a combination of a warhead and a delivery system onto the Deterrent spaces of his board. These are placed face up rather than face down and serve as a warning against any other player who might be thinking of launching a nuclear strike at that country. The classic combination being a Saturn missile with a hundred megaton warhead ready to launch in retaliatory fashion against an enemy. 

Once a player has put two cards into the first two slots, and sets up his initial strategy, he draws a third from the Nuclear War deck and places a third card into the third slot on his Player Board. The last thing a player does is turn over and reveal the card in the first slot on his Player Board. This will reveal the initial suggestions as what his current strategy is. On subsequent turns, a player will draw a card first and then play the rest of the turn as per normal.

If a player reveals on subsequent turns that he has a delivery system loaded with a warhead—in the order of delivery system first, followed by the warhead, he is ready to launch a nuclear strike! He designates his chosen target, spins the spinner on the Nuclear Spinner Board and applies the results to the warhead’s detonation. If the warhead is successfully detonated, the targeted player loses the indicated number of casualties from his Population. Once a nuclear strike has been launched at another player, a State of War exists not between the attacker and defender—but between all players! This State of War continues until one player, whether the attacker, defender, or another player is eliminated. An eliminated player can retaliate by combining warhead and bomber or missile cards and target not just the player who struck at him, but any player! It is entirely possible for an eliminated player to eliminate a rival with a retaliatory strike, and that rival to eliminate a rival with a retaliatory strike, and so on. Basically in one giant M.AD. conflagration!

Peace then breaks out… until another player has a warhead ready to launch. Play continues with rounds of missile and warhead build-ups punctuated by deadly strikes. Of course, during the build-up phases, there is scope for further bluff, as well as negotiation, counter bluff, and intimidation. A game of the Nuclear War Card Game continues until one player is left standing (amidst the irradiated rubble) undefeated and still with a Population of at least a million. Alternatively, everybody might have been wiped out, in which case, everybody loses.

With simple rules and direct mechanics, the blast ’em, bomb them style of play of the Nuclear War Card Game is quick. Which means that once a player is eliminated, he should not have to wait too long before either the game finishes (with a winner or not) and a new one, quickly and easily set up to start play anew or a wholly different game chosen. In this way, the Nuclear War Card Game serves as a solid filler.

Physically, the Nuclear War Card Game does not share the production values as more contemporary titles. The card stock for both the Player Boards and the Nuclear Spinner Board is adequate enough though still feels slightly cheap. The cards for the game feel slightly thin, but apart from the Propaganda cards which are rather plain and lacking in flavour, all of the cards are brightly and engagingly illustrated. The rules sheet is simple and utilitarian, but like everything else in the game, does its job.


In 1984 Games Magazine called Nuclear War, “the quintessential beer and pretzels game” and put it on its  top 100 list. The game also won the Origins Hall of Fame Award as one of the best games of all time in 1998 and in 1999, Pyramid magazine named it as one of The Millennium's Best Card Games. Editor Scott Haring said “Back when people were well-and-truly scared of the possibility of nuclear vaporization (I guess today either the threat is lessened, or it's become old hat), Nuclear War dared to make fun the possibility of mankind's dreaded nightmare via a card game.”

Designer and publisher Steve Jackson reviewed the Nuclear War Card Game in Space Gamer Number 34 (December, 1980). He described it as, “...[N]o sense a serious simulation - and even as a game it is very, very simple. Other than that, the only drawback is that the "strategy" rules often lock you into a bad move a couple of turns ahead. Real life is like that - but this game isn't real life and shouldn't try to be.” before concluding that, “This is NOT an "introductory" wargame - it's not a wargame at all. It's a card game. Recommended for a quick social game or for when everyone is too sleepy to play anything complex.”

In Dragon Issue #200 (Vol. XVIII, No. 7, December 1993), Allen Varney included it in a list of ‘Famous & forgotten board games’, in his article, ‘Social Board Games’. He stated that, “It’s a sin for a multi-player design to throw out a player before the game is over, but in this venerable game, that’s the whole point.”, ultimately describing it as the “black-humored contemporary of Dr. Strangelove.” More recently in Scarred For Life Volume One: The 1970s (Lonely Water Books, 2017), authors Stephen Brotherstone and Dave Lawrence described the Nuclear War Card Game as “A card game about the unthinkable, featuring a Twister-style spinner containing results such as ‘RADIOACTIVE BETA RAYS KILL ANOTHER 5 MILLION’ and ‘ADDITIONAL 1 MILLION ARE ENGULFED IN THE FIREBALL’ might not seem like most people’s idea of a fun night in, but Nuclear War is a darkly comedic, even educational game. And it’s a brilliant one to boot.”


The Nuclear War Card Game is a game of nuclear brinkmanship, of nuclear standoffs and deterrence, one in which peace is always temporary and war always inevitable. Its subject matter—notoriously black, if not tasteless, in terms of its humour—combined with its mechanics (especially the retaliatory strike rule) make it the ultimate ‘take that’ game, often escalating into everyone having to ‘take that’ and suffer the consequences. The Nuclear War Card Game captures the foolishness and absurdity of the Cold War, pushing everyone to slam their fists on the big red button in the ultimate ‘screw you, screw everyone’ game—whether as first strike or in revenge.


With thanks to Steve Dempsey for locating Allen Varney’s ‘Social Board Games’ in Dragon Issue #200 and Jon Hancock for Steve Jackson’s review in Space Gamer Number 34.