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

Monday, 26 July 2021

Jonstown Jottings #45: Night in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters

 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.

—oOo—

What is it?

Night in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters is a trilogy of short encounters themed around herding for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is a seventeen page, full colour, 1.98 MB PDF.

The layout is clean, but slightly untidy with artwork which is functional rather than attractive. It definitely needs another edit.

Where is it set?
Night in the Meadow is nominally set in the Blueberry clan of the Cinsina tribe, but can be set anywhere in Dragon Pass where herds of cattle are kept out overnight in the pastures. 

Who do you play?
At least one Herder. In addition, an Assistant Shaman or Priestess will be useful, as will a Hunter or other Player Character with the Tracking skill. A Lhankor Mhy priest or scholar may find some of the background to one of the scenarios to be of interest. In addition, Player Characters with the Passions ‘Hate (Trolls)’ or ‘Hate (Telmori)’ will be challenged by the events of one or more of the encounters.

What do you need?
Night in the Meadow requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and the Glorantha Bestiary.

What do you get?
Night in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters presents a series of three encounters on the tribe’s herding pastures over the course of a season or two. Ideally, the encounters should not be run one after another, but as smaller adventures between longer scenarios. Each of the encounters is suited to smaller playing groups and could either be run as flashbacks or as part of campaigns involving Player Characters close to their initiations, for example, Six Seasons in Sartar or Valley of Plenty (although Night in the Meadow would require some adaptation to be run using HeroQuest: Glorantha or QuestWorlds).

The first of the encounters in Night in the Meadow is the eponymous ‘A Night in the Meadow’. The Player Characters and other herders are awoken with a startle and a shout, aware that something has happened, but not quite what. Eventually they will realise that one of the horses is acting oddly and making the rest of the animals skittish. This is a simple enough situation, even charming, which requires a little investigation and a bit of negotiation to solve and gives the Player Characters the opportunity to make good names for themselves.

‘Pieces of Genert’, the second encounter is much, much simpler, and more action-oriented and will probably result in some hunting and some combat. The herds have been harassed by hyenas of late and the Player Characters are called out to track down the pack and drive it off. There may be more to the situation of course, and even if they fail to find the pack’s den, it will return for what it sees as an easy meal. The encounter includes a nice link to Glorantha’s mythology and a lovely piece of treasure to be found as well. If there is an issue, it is the requirement for the Player Characters to require at least standard success results for thirty-six Tracking rolls! This is just too much, and the Game Master should simply reduce this to just six.

In the third and final encounter, ‘Brilliant Hunt’, the Player Characters discover that a calf is missing and after following the tracks, discover that it has been stolen by a band of Trollkin. What the Trollkin are doing out on the pastures is a good question, and the encounter raises even more interesting questions when the Trollkin accidentally discover a set of ruins. There is actually quite a lot going on in this encounter and there are several outcomes and consequences which the Player Characters will have to deal with, including negotiations with Trolls and Dragonewts, joining an ‘alien’ cult, and more. Consequently, the encounter is definitely the most sophisticated of the three.

Any one of these encounters could be played in a single session, perhaps two at the very most. They should require relatively little preparation, but they are too often written in a stream of consciousness fashion rather than informing the Game Master upfront as to what is going on. The various stats and NPC write-ups are generally clear though.

Is it worth your time?
YesNight in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters presents three enjoyably simple and interesting encounters built around herding that are relatively easy to prepare at short notice.
NoNight in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters is harder to run if the party does not include a Herder or an Assistant Shaman or Priestess, or both amongst its members and perhaps the playing group is two large for these encounters.
MaybeNight in the Meadow and other Spirit Encounters involves messing about in fields when the Player Characters have better things or less parochial things to do, like preparing for the upcoming Hero Wars, but its encounters might serve as an interlude or two.

Sunday, 25 July 2021

Horror & Hope

We live in The Extant, an isolated bastion of light and creation. It sits in The Nether, a seemingly endless sea of primal chaos whose ectoplasmic forces known as shadow or umbra constantly washes up and crashes down upon The Extant. A veil known as The Curtain protects us, not just from the ebb and flow of the umbra, but also from what lies in the Echos, the distorted, memory-altered reflections of The Extant which sit on the other side of The Curtain, and then beyond that, the Cosmos, dream worlds and nightmares—if not both. Out in the Echoes live ghost-like ephemera, thoughtforms, and further out reside aberrations with alien minds, and then, visages further out, stranger still, mythical even… And oh so many of them want to play in The Extant.

Unfortunately for mankind The Curtain is imperfect, marked with rifts, fissures, and worse that entities from beyond can slip into our world and infect it. They find victims and servants and masters. Things of nightmare lurk in the alleyways, others manipulate and take advantage of our baser natures, whilst covens and cults make dark pacts for power, influence, and worse. Such things might be ghosts, demons, vampires, doppelgängers, the undead, or they might not, but like monsters under the bed or boogeymen in the closet, they are all real. As the strangeness and the monsters emerge into our world and magic grows, there are those who have reacted to this—investigators, mystics, occultists, hunters, and even monsters, seeking to protect the fragility of our existence. Such persons are cast in two lights—Illuminated and Shadowed. The Illuminated are ordinary persons driven to face the supernatural and do something about it—protect others from it, hide it, or even learn more about it, whilst the Shadowed have been changed by it, and may be a bloodsucker, one of the living dead, a host to an inhuman entity, a warlock, or something else. Whatever it is, it is now part of their nature and as much as they work against the incursions of the supernatural, their unnatural nature means that they will never be truly regarded as heroes.

This is the set-up for Sigil & Shadow: A Roleplaying Game of Urban Fantasy and Occult Horror, in which myth, magic, and urban legend crash upon a very modern post-truth world. Not our world exactly, but a parallel one. Published by Osprey GamesSigil & Shadow employs the simple percentile mechanics of the d00Lite System and presents the means to create a range of beings and entities drawn from the horror and urban fantasy genres, a flexible—potentially too flexible—magic system, and solid advice for the Guide—as the Game Master is known, to set up her own campaign typically based on an area she knows or a maps she has adapted.

A Player Character in Sigil & Shadow is defined by his Casting, Background, Oddity, Ability scores, Skill Trainings, special features—including perks and powers, descriptors. Each Casting represents an archetype and an associated Drive, or motivation,. There are eight Castings, four belonging to The Illuminated and four to The Shadowed. The Illuminated have Drives which push them to interact with the supernatural, whilst The Shadowed are driven by their supernatural, often monstrous natures. The four Castings for The Illuminated are the Seeker, the Hunter, the Protector, and the Keeper, whilst the four Castings for The Shadowed are the Afflicted—inheritors of a cursed bloodline, the Devoted—granted power by a patron, the Host—possessed, willingly or unwillingly, by an Inhabitant, and the Ravenous—which is forced to consume a specific thing in gross quantities. An Oddity might be a Birthright, Altered Reality, Raised in a Cult or as an Experiment, and so on, and not every Player Character has one.

A Player Character has four Abilities rated out of one hundred, Strength, Dexterity, Logic, and Willpower. A Background is a Player Character’s occupation, from Activist, Artist, and Athlete to Techie, Thrill-Seeker, and Wealthy, and determines his Lifestyle and gives his player a choice of three Perk, or advantages, to choose from. For example, the Politician has an Upper Class Lifestyle Rating and offers the Perks of Well-to-Do, and either Skill Training in either Social or Education. Perks can add bonuses to a Player Character’s Abilities, advantage on particular skills, and other benefits. There are ten Skills, each rated between levels zero and five. A Player Character with level zero in a skill is trained in it, but adds +10% for each level above that to a maximum of Level Five and +50%.

If a Player Character is trained in Mysticism, then he also gains a Gift, which starts with Sixth Sense, and with further training can unlock Heal, Mesmerise, Psychometry, or more. A Shadowed Player Character will have a Manifestation, a paranormal ability or boon, such as Animal Companion, Blink, Ethereal Form, Heightened Senses, Inhuman Ability, Terrifying, and more. He will also have a Burden, like a Dreadful Feature or Strange Compulsion, and can have more should a player want his character to have more Manifestations.

To create a character, a player selects a Casting, rolls for a Background, and assigns ten Advancements to his Abilities. These begin at 40% each, and each Advancement adds +5%, to a maximum of 70%. Alternatively, an array is provided. He then effectively selects two skills and sets them at Level 1 (+10%). Lastly he writes two descriptors, one positive, one negative, to flesh out the Player Character, chooses some equipment, and determines secondary factors. Throughout, a player has access to his character's pool of five Bones, which can be permanently expended at certain steps during the Player Character creation process to choose an aspect of the character instead of determining it randomly, to gain extra Perks, and Skill Training.

Our sample Player Character is Heath Carlson, an assistant professor of comparative theology who came into an inheritance from his late uncle—a set of papers and journals that dated back to the eighteenth century. They revealed the occult activities and supernatural links of his ancestors and spoke of someone close to the family that aided them in their doings, an older figure only identified as ‘H’. Ultimately Heath returned to his teaching position in the autumn with only hazy memories of what he had done that summer. In the months since, he has suffered more lapses in memory and found himself associating with others he would ordinarily have avoided. There is a voice in his head whispering ideas and suggestions. He has strange new abilities and people are reacting differently to him…

Name: Heath Carlson
Calling: Shadowed (Host)
Drive: Dominion
Oddity: Ancestral Conduit
Rank: 1

Strength: 45% Dexterity: 50%
Logic: 60% Willpower: 55%

Bone Pile: 4
Hit Points: 22
Initiative: 2 Damage Resistance: 0

SKILLS
Arcana (Untrained—Umbra), Combat (Untrained), Education (Theology) Level 1 (+10%), Investigation (Untrained), Larceny (Untrained), Medicine (Untrained), Mysticism Level 1 (+10%), Social (Untrained), Survival (Untrained), Technical (Untrained)

Background: Scholar
Lifestyle: Middle Class (2)


DESCRIPTORS
Insatiably Curious
Gullible

POWERS
Perk: Encyclopedic Mind
Gift: Sixth Sense
Manifestations: Channel (Arcanum), Terrifying
Burden: Misfortune

NOTES
Heath is Timid, but Kind, whereas ‘H’ is Assertive and Cruel.

EQUIPMENT
Investigator Pack, Occultist Pack, Plain Clothes, Midsize car

The character creation process in Sigil & Shadow is not difficult, but it does get involved in places, particularly when creating one of The Shadowed. It specifically asks a player to explain how his character came to embrace the change and how it manifests, but what it does not do is give examples or suggestions. This is intentional, since it frees both players and Guide from necessarily adhering to traditional monsters, such as vampires or werewolves or ghosts or… Now there is nothing to stop both players or Guide from creating versions of The Shadowed which would fit into those archetypes, and certainly, the rules would easily support that. Plus there is an option to add Shadowed Origins which do fit into categories such as Undead, Aberrant, Fey, Eldritch, or Engineered. As much as this openness supports player and Guide inventiveness alike, it also means that Sigil & Shadow lacks off the shelf archetypes that might have eased the creation process.

In terms of its mechanics, Sigil & Shadow uses the d00Lite System and is quite light. To have his character undertake an action, a player rolls percentile dice aiming to roll equal to, or under a Success Value. Typically, a Success Value is equal to an Ability plus a Skill—though untrained skills count as a -20% penalty. A roll of 00 to 05 is always a success, whilst a roll of 95 and more is always a failure. A high roll under the Success Value is considered a better result, especially when comparing rolls, and a roll of doubles under the Success Value is a crucial success, whilst a roll of doubles over the Success Value is a crucial failure. If a Player Character has advantage, his player can rearrange the dice roll for his character’s benefit, but the dice roll is rearranged the other way if the Player Character has disadvantage.

Combat is kept similarly short and simple—and potentially deadly. For a horror game, Sigil & Shadow has no specific systems for handling fear or terror, instead using conditions like Frightened, suffered after a failed Willpower resistance roll when a Player Character is exposed to the unnatural or the supernatural.

In addition, each Player Character has his own personal Bone Pile. The Bones in this pile have a number of uses in Sigil & Shadow. During character creation, they can be used to improve a character, but this permanently expends them and reduces the size of a Player Character’s Bone Pile in play. During play, they are primarily expended to allow rerolls of failed rolls, to gain Advantage on a roll tied into a character’s positive Descriptor, or to negate Disadvantage triggered by his negative Descriptor. A Bone Pile refreshes at the beginning of a new adventure or scenario, but a player can earn Bones for good roleplaying and for his character adhering to his Drive.

The Illuminated have further uses for Bones that The Shadowed do not. The player of one of The Illuminated can expend a Bone to force the Guide to reroll and use the result which benefits the Player Characters; to let another player reroll a failed roll; automatically succeed at a resistance roll; automatically inflict maximum damage on a successful attack; and guarantee that for one round any action taken by the character—or against him, cannot kill him (though injury may ensure…). Essentially, The Illuminated are lucky where The Shadowed are not.

In addition to The Shadowed, ‘Modern Magic’ plays a major role in Sigil & Shadow. It has found a greater place in society, openly discussed and dismissed in equal measure, whether at the coffee shop round the corner or the social network of your choice. Learning is a matter of hard work and effort, more so than just belief, whilst casting requires a catalyst—a physical or symbolic offering tied to a spell’s nature to trigger the spell. For example, a Hydromancy spell might require a splash of water. Spells often require a focus, such as a wand or crystal ball, and are fuelled via an invocation or ritual. However, invocations take time. Alternatively, sorcery is a more immediate form of magic, the caster channelling the forces of arcanum through his body, effectively becoming the catalyst, though this is dangerous because it can backfire and there is a karmic backlash as the power for a spell has to come from somewhere. For example, if a sorcerer douses a fire with a sudden downpour, the fire engine sent to fight the fire might suddenly run out of water. Ultimately, practitioners of sorcery may suffer from Sorcerer’s Stain, a sort of karmic mark that identifies the sorcerer to the victims of his magic.

In play, magic in Sigil & Shadow is intended to be freeform, the player discussing with his Guide the aims of the spell and the Guide setting the Difficulty to apply to the Success Value before rolling. A spell is built from its intended effect, method of delivery, form, and catalyst, and from these the Guide determines whether the spell is Low-, Mid-, or High-Magic. Low-Magic is generally easy, discreet, and quicker to cast, with Mid- and High-Magic growing in complexity, obtrusiveness, and casting time. Magic is broken down into a number of Arcana, each of which is studied separately using the Arcanum skill. The Arcana are divided into the Fundamentals, such as Aero, Aqua, and Umbra, and the Apocrypha, like Musicorum or Techno. Where the Fundamentals cover the traditional Platonic Elements, the Apocrypha are very modern magic—too modern according to some traditionalists. Each Arcana has four aspects and several foci. For example, Aqua’s aspects are water, empathy, illusion, and cleansing, its foci being cups, chalices, bowls, and jars, which covers quite a broad range and gives a Player Character plenty of scope in terms of what he can within an Arcanum.

In addition, Sigil & Shadow can summon and bind entities for arcane aid; place Sigils which capture and hold magic until the seal is broken, whether on an item, a person, or a place; and create relics and artefacts, though most take the form of consumables charged with spell-like effects, rather than permanent items, which are rare. Now whilst Sigil & Shadow is not a roleplaying game of modern magic with lists of spells as such, there is a list of sample spells, three per Arcanum. These do help Guide and player alike get a feel for what spells can look like in Sigil & Shadow, whilst the process is eased with the inclusion of a summary and a cheat-sheet. Both are necessary, because despite its stated aim of spell-casting being easy and freeform, magic in Sigil & Shadow is not quick in play. Magic is a matter of negotiation and discussion between player and Guide, a player setting out what he wants his character to achieve and the Guide setting the terms. This takes time, especially when first learning to play Sigil & Shadow, though this is eased by a Player Character typically only knowing the one Arcanum at the start of play. Nevertheless, the need to negotiate and discuss the desired spell effect breaks the flow of the play, as effectively it has to stop to discuss game mechanics. Which is fine for the Guide and the player of the magic-using Player Character, but not necessarily for the other players sitting round the table. Initially at least, it might be an idea for the Guide and player to work through ideas together before start of play as to what the player might want his character to to use his Arcanum for and develop some modifiers and outcomes that will be easier to adjust in play rather working through them on the spot. At least until both Guide and player are at ease with the system.

For the Guide there is a solid cast of antagonists and entities. These are kept nicely simple, just a few lines, including sample Crpytids like Impish Aberrations and Zombies, whilst Strange Encounters provides more detailed creatures, entities, and things, with write-ups more like that of a Player Character. For example, Cadence appears as a sickly old man with pale skin, yellow teeth, uncomfortable grin, and seemingly dead eyes at dance venues, raves, nightclubs, concerts, and the like, encouraging attendees to dance, dance, and dance… Included are several opinions as to what Cadence might be, which nicely add colour to his description, and then the descriptions of each of the other Strange Encounters. Just eight are detailed, but they feel contemporary and very much suit the modern setting of Sigil & Shadow.

The advice of the Guide covers safety tools, themes, styles, and discussions of what The Illuminated, The Shadowed, and the Cosmology are. The discussions are brief, perhaps too brief, and this is not helped by a lack of a campaign setting or ready-to-play scenario. There is advice for creating, in particular building a campaign around a real-world map and adding descriptors and details, as well as setting up feuding and allied factions, and there is a scenario outline. An appendix provides further suggestions of add to campaign. Overall, the advice is good, but it is underwhelming and ultimately leaves a lot for the Guide to do before being able to bring Sigil & Shadow to the table. This includes learning the magic system as well as setting up a campaign location and writing a scenario.

Physically, Sigil & Shadow is nicely presented as you would expect for a book from Osprey Games. The artwork is excellent, though it does need another edit, and in comparison to other titles from this publisher, it is not as dense, making it an easier, more accessible book to read. It could perhaps have done with some more detailed examples of play and even some sample Player Characters to further enhance that accessibility.

As its title suggests, Sigil & Shadow: A Roleplaying Game of Urban Fantasy and Occult Horror is a much darker take upon the Urban Fantasy genre and provides the means to explore from the angles of protecting against that horror, exploring it, or even embracing it, depending upon what character types the players create and the campaign the Guide wants to create and run. And it is very much a matter of ‘creating’ and running, as the Guide will need to create her campaign or adapt a setting or scenario to run Sigil & Shadow. And this adds to the work of the system, if not the complexity, which despite the simplicity of the mechanics, still leaves Sigil & Shadow with a magic system that equally requires work in play.

Overall, Sigil & Shadow: A Roleplaying Game of Urban Fantasy and Occult Horror is a solid combination of simple rules and conceptual complexities that needs effort upon the part of both players and Guide to set up and run. For the gaming group looking for a toolkit to run a darker, urban fantasy campaign, Sigil & Shadow: A Roleplaying Game of Urban Fantasy and Occult Horror is a solid choice.

Saturday, 24 July 2021

The Other OSR: Warpstar!

Warpstar! is the sister game to Warlock!, and much like Warlock!, it looks like just another Old School Renaissance Retroclone—and it is, but not the sort you might be thinking of. Published by Fire Ruby Designs —previously best known for Golgotha, the Science Fiction retroclone of far future dungeon scavenging in shattered battleships—Warpstar! makes its inspirations known on the back cover blurb which reads, “Warpstar is a rules-light science fiction roleplaying game that aims to emulate the feeling of old-school British tabletop games of wondrous and fantastical adventure in the depths of space.” Now there is a slight disconnect here in that there are no such ‘old-school British tabletop games of wondrous and fantastical adventure in the depths of space.’—or at no such roleplaying game. In the case of Warlock!, the inspiration is Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Maelstrom as well as the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure books which began with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. So what then is Warpstar! inspired by? 

In fact, the original inspirations for both Warlock! and Warpstar! are both miniatures wargames. For Warlock! that inspiration is Warhammer Fantasy Battles, and then the roleplaying game, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, which would be derived from it. For Warpstar! that inspiration is Warhammer 40,000: Rogue Trader, a miniatures wargame which actually had strong roleplaying elements, but was not a roleplaying game. Indeed, it would be another twenty-one years before the setting of Warhammer 40,000 would receive its own roleplaying game with the release of Dark Heresy in 2008. So the claim that Warpstar! is a rules-light science fiction roleplaying game that aims to emulate the feeling of old-school British tabletop games of wondrous and fantastical adventure in the depths of space.” does feel slightly disingenuous. However, if you instead see Warpstar! as a roleplaying game inspired by a roleplaying game of grim and perilous adventure in the depths of space and the very far future that never was (but which would have been the Science Fiction equivalent of Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and likely would have been as popular) then Warpstar! feels as if it comes from something material rather than the ineffable. 

As with its fantasy counterpart, Warpstar! is a Career and Skills driven game rather than a Class and Level game. A Player Character has two attributes—Stamina and Luck, but unlike in Warlock!, does not have a Community, such as Human, Halfling, Elf, or Dwarf, which grants societal benefits rather than mechanical ones. Instead, he has a Talent, an innate, biological, or mechanical ability which provides an in-game benefit. For example, Natural Charm or Sleep Anywhere. These can be used to model alien races along with whatever cosmetic aspects that a player decides his character has, but despite this, the setting for Warpstar!, the Chorus of Worlds, does not have any Player Characters races detailed in the core rulebook. He also has thirty-two base skills, ranging from Animal Handler, Appraise, and Astronav to Thrown, Warp Focus, and Zero G, and all of which range in value from one to twenty. To create a character, a player rolls dice for the two attributes, selects a Community, and sets ten skills at a base level of six and another ten at level five. The rest are set at a base level of four. The player then rolls four six-sided dice. These generate the four choices he will have in terms of Basic Career for his character. Once selected, a Career provides four things. First a quintet of skills which can be increased during play whilst the Player Character remains in that Career and a maximum level to which they can be improved, either ten or twelve. For example, the Ganger receives Medicine 10, Sleight-of-Hand 10, Intimidate 12, Small Arms 12, and Thrown 12.  The player divides ten points between these skills up to their maximum given values. Second, it provides a sixth skill, named after the Career itself, the level for this Career skill being the average of the other skills the Career grants. Third, it provides some standard equipment, and fourth it gives a pair of background elements specific to the Player Character’s time in that Career, both of which are generated randomly. For example, a Ganger’s two die rolls would determine what he did to earn him a criminal record and who hunts him. Lastly, a player picks three personality traits for character. 

Name: Gottschalk Einstein
Community: Human
Career: Warp Touched
Past Careers: —

STAMINA: 21 LUCK: 11

TALENT: Sleep Anywhere
 

ADVENTURING SKILLS
Animal Handler 04, Appraise 06, Astronav 06, Athletics 05, Bargain 06, Blades 04, Blunt 04, Brawling 05, Command 04 (10), Diplomacy 05, Disguise 04, Dodge 04, Endurance 05 (10), History 05, Intimidate 04 (12), Language 05, Lie 04, Medicine 05, Navigation 04, Persuasion 10 (12), Pilot 06, Repair 06, Ship Gunner 06, Sleight-of-Hand 04, Small Arms 05, Spot 06, Stealth 04, Streetwise 05, Survival 05, Thrown 04, Warp Focus 12 (12), Zero G 06

CAREER SKILLS
Warp Touched 7

POSSESSIONS
Cloak with mathematical emblems, metal staff affixed with an opening eye, several books on warp theory, pills and tinctures to ease the pounding headaches. 

GLYPHS
Burnout

TRAITS
Charming, Faithful, Unfriendly 

NOTES
Where have you been? – The Fighting Maze of Fellus IV.
Where have you seen? – Beautiful fractal patterns of the Warp? 

Character generation is for the most part straightforward, as is character progression. A Player Character should receive one, two, or three advances per session. Each advance will increase one of a Player Character’s Career skill by one level, up to the maximum allowed by the Career. As a Player Character’s Career skills rise, so will his Stamina, representing him becoming tougher and more experienced. When a Player Character reaches the maximum skill level, he can change Careers—this will cost him a total of five advances. Whilst this grants him access to other skills, it will not increase the cap on the ones he already has. For that, he needs to enter an Advanced Career, such as Assassin, Cult Leader, Duellist, Lawbringer, or Warp Lord. This raises the maximum skill levels to fourteen and sixteen rather than ten and twelve for Basic Careers. There are thirteen Advanced Careers in Warpstar! and twenty-four Basic Careers. In general, a Player Character will be undertaking two or three Basic Careers before entering an Advanced Career—probably ten or fifteen sessions of play or so, before a Player Character is in a position to do that. 

Mechanically, Warpstar! is simple. To undertake an action, a player rolls a twenty-sided die, adds the value for appropriate skill or Career and aims to roll twenty or higher. More difficult tasks may levy a penalty of two or four upon the roll. Opposed rolls are a matter of rolling higher to beat an opponent. Luck is also treated as a skill for purposes of rolling, and rolled when a character finds himself in a dire or perilous situation where the circumstances go in his favour or against him. Combat is equally simple, consisting of opposed attack rolls—melee attacks versus melee attacks and ranged attacks versus the target’s Dodge skill. Damage is rolled on one or two six-sided dice depending upon the weapon, whilst mighty strikes, which inflict double damage, are possible if an attacker rolls three times higher than the defender. Armour reduces damage taken by a random amount. 

Of course, Warpstar! has to take into account Science Fiction weaponry, so there are rules for slug-firing guns, laser weapons, pulse guns, needlers, and more. They each have a code attached, such as ‘S1d6+1P’, which in turn indicates the size of the weapon, the damage, and the type of damage. It looks a little complicated and is at first, but once you get used to it, it is easy enough. Damage is deducted from a defendant’s Stamina. When this is reduced to zero, the defendant suffers a critical hit, necessitating a roll on a Critical Hit table. Warpstar! has four, for slashing, piercing, crushing, and energy damage. Of course, the precedents for Warpstar! had more, and more entries on them, but for a stripped back game like Warpstar!, they are enough—and they are brutal. Damage below a defendant’s Stamina acts as a modifier to the roll on the table, so once dice are rolled on the critical damage tables, combat takes a nasty turn. 

For example, Gottschalk Einstein is aboard a D-Class Charger, the Stolen Dodo, when it is boarded by pirates and he is spotted trying to hide by two pirates—Wilmar and Bruna. Both have clubs and slug pistols (S1d6+1P), and 14 Stamina, a Blunt skill of 3, a Dodge of 4, and a Small Arms skill of 4. The two pirates are under orders not to kill any of the passengers as they can be ransomed off, so raising their slug pistols, they demand that Gottschalk Einstein surrender. The Game Master assigns them an Intimidate skill of 4, and adds four to account for the fact that there are two of them and they are pointing guns at Gottschalk Einstein. His player will simply be adding Gottschalk’s Intimidate to the roll. The Game Master rolls five and adds the eight to get a total of thirteen. Gottschalk’s player rolls fourteen and adds Gottschalk’s Intimidate skill to get a result of seventeen. He is not surrendering any time soon! 

Combat then ensues… Both sides roll Initiative. The Game Master rolls a four and Gottschalk’s player rolls a three. Wilmer will act first, followed by Gottschalk, and then Bruna. The Game Master will roll Wilmar’s Small Arms skill and Gottschalk’s player his Dodge skill. The Game Master rolls three and adds Wilmar’s skill of four to get a result of seven. Gottschalk’s player rolls eight and adds his skill of four to get twelve—Gottschalk has clearly ducked back into hiding. It is his turn though, and Gottschalk’s player will roll his Small Arms skill versus Wilmar’s Dodge. Gottschalk’s player rolls seventeen and adds his skill to get a result of twenty-two! The Game Master rolls just two and adds Wilmar’s Small Arms skill to get a result of just six! This means that Gottschalk’s result is three times more than Wilmar’s and counts as a Mighty Strike. Which means that the damage from Gottschalk’s laser pistol (S1d6+2E) is doubled. Gottschalk’s player rolls a total of eight—maximum damage, which is doubled for an end result of sixteen damage! Fortunately, Wilmar is wearing light armour, so the Game Master rolls a three-sided die and reduces the damage by the result. She rolls one and Wilmar suffers fifteen damage! This reduces his Stamina to minus one and counts as a critical hit. Gottschalk’s player rolls two six-sided dice and adds the one negative Stamina as a bonus to get a result on the ‘Critical — Energy’ table. The result is ten—which is ‘Skin and bone seared, dead.’ Bruna looks around nervously as her colleague has been blasted dead in front of her! 

Being a Science Fiction roleplaying game, Warpstar! has rules for spaceships, but in keeping with the design, the rules are simple. Spaceships travel the Warp and although heavily automated, including having an intelligent computer or Mind aboard, which can perform many functions, the various positions aboard need to be manned to be used effectively, quickly, or at critical moments. For example, the Mind, which will always maintain contact with its crew if it can, can initiate the Warp engine, it takes time. The positions aboard are Pilot, Gunner, Scanners, and Astronavigation. Ships are rated for their Manoeuvrability, Ship Gun (of which a ship only has the one), Anti-Personnel Gun, Scan, and Astronav Computer—all of which provide a bonus or penalty to a Player Character’s skill. Armour and Structure work like Armour and Stamina for Player Characters, but at a ship’s scale, as do weapons, which of course have their own weapon codes. 

Numerous example spaceships are detailed, many of which can be taken by a crew of Player Characters, some only by NPCs, and once they get into spaceship combat, there is a ‘Critical — Ship’ table. Vehicles are given a similar treatment.

Spaceship travel involves travelling through the Warp and some, when exposed to the Warp, learn how to channel it in their mind in certain patterns, known as Glyphs. They are known as ‘Warp Touched’ and considered all but insane, though it is possible for anyone to learn Glyphs through time and concentration. It costs Stamina to cast a Glyph, whether it is successfully cast or not, and if a one is rolled when a character manifests a Glyph, the Warp Touched suffers ‘Warp Bleed’. Their manifestation is not only a failure, that failure is deadly. The effects of which might be minor, such as the caster’s hands catching fire and inflicting Stamina damage, but they might be a warp mutation—for which there are tables—or being swallowed by the Warp! Some thirty-six Glyphs are listed, their effects ranging from the minor to the major, such as ‘Burnout’, which burns out small electronic devices, and ‘Stutter’, which stutters a target out of reality and freezes them in place for several rounds. 

The setting for Warpstar! is drawn in broad strokes. Humanity has spread out across the galaxy from the lost cradle of Earth in a rough sphere of space called the Chorus of Worlds. It is ruled by the Autarch from the world of Jewel, from which he creates and dispenses Cadence, the drug-like material which extends life and enhances the senses. As the only source of Cadence, the Autarch’s power is balanced against the Hegemony, the military might of the Chorus with its deadly Nova Guard star marines, the Merchant Combine, the economic might of the Chorus, and the Warp Consortium, its scientific might. Worlds are ruled by lords and ladies as they see fit, who pay planetary tithes in return for Cadence, whilst the individual worlds are home to billions upon billions. 

In addition to the description of the politics and structure of the Chorus of Worlds, there is a discussion of its currencies and its technologies—robots, weapons, armour, communication, and more. Only an overview is given of its worlds and the Warp, more specific details being given for its various denizens and how to design them. Examples include Anthromorphs—hybrid species based on animal DNA from Old Earth, Fruiting Dead—undead humanoids infected with a soporific fungal spore spread via the Warp, and Kronux—a species with acidic blood which aggressively attempts infect other lifeforms with its DNA! Several creatures from the Warp are listed also, including the Warp Dragon, Warp Entities, and Warp Ticks. 

For the Game Master, there is decent advice about running Warpstar! from handling the rules to establishing the tone of the game and setting. It discusses what the Player Characters do, such as exploring the galaxy, fighting evil, solving mysteries, and generally adventuring—essentially little different to almost any Science Fiction roleplaying game, all the way back to Traveller! The advice highlights the fact that Warpstar! is not a hard Science Fiction setting and its technology should be interesting in terms of its storytelling rather than its mechanical effect. Overall, the advice is decent enough, and like Warpstone!, what it comes down to is that Warpstar! is designed to be hackable, and given how light the mechanics are, that is certainly the case. 

Of course, Warpstar! lacks a scenario, much like Warpstone! Yet in some ways, Warpstar! has a huge library of adventures to draw from in terms of other Science Fiction adventures, so many of which would be easy to adapt, whether that would be mechanically or storywise. Traveller, for example, being Imperial Science Fiction in tone and feel would be a ready source of adventures, but then so would something like Star Frontiers. Even the publisher’s own Golgotha could serve as inspiration for taking a starship crew of Player Characters far out beyond the borders of the Chorus of Worlds. Plus, the simplicity of Warpstar! makes adapting them easy. 

Warpstar! is a buff little book, starkly laid out and illustrated in a suitably rough style which feels suitably in keeping with the period inspiration. It is very handy and especially combined with the lightness of its mechanics, makes it easy to reference and to run from the book. 

Warpstar! brings the simplicity and tone of Warpstone! and its inspirations—Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Fighting Fantasy to a Science Fiction setting, a galaxy of grim and perilous in the very far future. It is again lean and fast, often brutal, but again with plenty of scope for the Game Master to easily develop her own content. Overall, Warpstar! is easy to pick up and play, presenting a quick and dirty Science Fiction roleplaying game that will tick many a gamer’s sense of nostalgia.

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Fire Ruby Designs will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between July 30th and August 2nd, 2021 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Friday, 23 July 2021

Friday Fantasy: Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book

SquareHex is best known as the publisher of The Black Hack and the fanzine, Black Pudding, but the publisher also does a wide range of gaming accessories and square and hex pads, the latter for drawing floorplans and area maps, all of which are aimed at the Old School Renaissance and Dungeons & Dragons-style retroclones. The very latest in this line is the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book. Funded via the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021 Kickstarter campaign, it comes part of a combo package that provides both content and blank space to be filled in with content, or alternatively, each of the parts is available separately.

The Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book comes in not one, but two versions. Both are a ten-and-a-half by fourteen-and-a-half-centimetre notebook, black and white, share the same format, run to sixteen pages in length, and are filled with tables. Each page a single table, the number of entries ranging in number from eight to thirty. There is even a table with fourteen entries which is drawn on using an ordinary deck of cards, but fans of Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game will have their own dice to roll on this table, and the likelihood is that they will have a thirty-sided die too. In the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021, there are table for ‘What’s on the End of the Stick?’, ‘Coins on a Corpse’, ‘Coins in a Coffer’, ‘The Kobolds are Selling’, ‘Potions Side Effects’, ‘The Door Opens But’, ‘The Door's Stuck Because It's’, ‘Hirelings & Henchfolk’, ‘The Magic Mouth Says’, ‘What's in the Pit?’, and more. The including ‘Wrath of the Gods’, ‘What Angered the Gods?’, ‘Deck of Minor Magics’, ‘Wild Animal Reactions’, and ‘The Wheel of Fortune’. Some of the entries are fairly humourous, if not silly, such as ‘A bag of Troll excrement – on fire!’ from the ‘What’s on the End of the Stick?’ or ‘Turkish Delight cut from a Gelatinous Cube’ from the ‘The Kobolds are Selling’ table. Other tables are far more utilitarian, ‘Coins on a Corpse’ for example, listing different amounts of coins, whilst the ‘Hirelings & Henchfolk’ is a list of stats and names—actually starting with ‘Tom, Dick, and Harry’, of most Zero and First Level NPCs.

Two of the tables are different. One is the ‘Deck of Minor Magics’, and the other is ‘The Wheel of Fortune’. The ‘Deck of Minor Magics’ grants minor, but interesting magic, much in the style of the fabled Deck of Many Things, but very much toned down, and requires the player to draw from an ordinary deck of cards. That adds a pleasing physicality to the use of Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021. ‘The Wheel of Fortune’ uses symbols rather than numbers and gives random effects which change a Player Character, his situation, or even hurt him. In fact this feels more random, and definitely more arbitrary than the ‘Deck of Minor Magics’. The result is determined by spinning the actual Wheel of Fortune which accompanies the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021 and requires some craftwork upon the part of the Dungeon Master to cut out and mount. The use of symbols instead of numbers adds an element of mystery to the Wheel of Fortune and its accompanying table, and obscures the results a little so that the players cannot as easily attempt to spin the wheel to their characters’ benefit.

The other version of the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book also contains tables. However, all of them are blanks. There are spaces for tables which require the roll of an eight-sided die, a twelve-sided die, a thirty-sided die, and more, but not a single one of the tables in Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book contains any results. The point of this version of the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book is that it is ready for the Dungeon Master to fill in and design tables of her own.

The largest of the items is the Adventure Design Booklet. This is digest-sized and is again sixteen pages. Like the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book, it is also blank—or rather it does not have any content. The majority of its pages are lined and double-columned, there is a single page of hexes, and three of squares. The front page though, has a big space for a front cover illustration and a title above, much like the classic Dungeons & Dragons scenarios of years past. So much like the point of the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book is for the Dungeon Master to fill in and design tables of her own, the point of the Adventure Design Booklet is the Dungeon Master to fill in and design an adventure of her own. For a book that is all but blank, there is something delightfully nostalgic about the Adventure Design Booklet, all just waiting for the Dungeon Master to be inspired and put pen to paper, and in the process create an adventure that is particularly personal to her.

Physically, the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021 and the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book are both black and white booklets with sturdy covers. Where the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021 is done on a glossy paper stock, the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book and the Adventure Design Booklet not. They are done on a rougher paper stock, which makes for a better writing surface. The Adventure Design Booklet is also done in light grey—guidelines just waiting for firm input from the Game Master.

On one level, the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021, the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book, the Adventure Design Booklet, and the Wheel of Fortune are ephemera, even fripperies, not necessary to play whatsoever. Yet they all have their uses and their charm. The Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book 2021 can add a little randomness and colour to play or serve as inspiration for the Dungeon Master, whilst the Dungeon Master’s Little Black Book and the Adventure Design Booklet are blank slates awaiting the Dungeon Master’s inspiration and creative input.

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SquareHex will be at UK Games Expo which will take place between July 30th and August 2nd, 2021 at Birmingham NEC. This is the world’s fourth largest gaming convention and the biggest in the United Kingdom.

Friday Fantasy: For the Sound of His Horn

With For the Sound of His Horn, author Adam Gauntlett returns to the horror genre he is best known for with titles such as The Man Downstairs and Hocus Pocus for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. This is a scenario set in Barovia, and thus Ravenloft, the preeminent horror setting for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. The scenario is designed for a party of Player Characters of First to Third Level and is set in and around a village in Mordent. The author’s experience with other horror roleplaying games is nevertheless on show here, as the emphasis in For the Sound of His Horn is very much on interaction and investigation rather than exploration or combat.

Subtitled ‘A Haunted Hunting Party in Mordent’, 
For the Sound of His Horn takes place in Oaksey, a small village in Mordent, once part of the Huntingtower estate, since long extinct. The village has long been known for its fox hunts, and despite the loss of the local lord a century before, maintains the tradition today, keeping a pack of foxhounds and staging regular hunts. There being no lord, the position of Master of Foxhounds is held by Oaksey’s alderman. Recently, the current alderman, Sanders Murdoch, suffered a near-fatal hunting accident. Some say it was due to a riding accident, others his poor horsemanship, still others put it down to something unnatural, whilst Sanders himself suspects foul play and has vowed to severely punish whoever was responsible for his injuries.

The Player Characters may come to Oaksey for several reasons. They may simply have heard some travelers’ gossip and become intrigued enough to visit, but they might be asked by the Church of Ezra to come to the aid of local priest, they might be occultists who have heard of strange goings on in the village, or they may simply be keen huntsmen and women, come to ride with the village hunt. Their visit and thus 
For the Sound of His Horn is structured around a series of Core and Optional scenes. The Core scenes should provide the initial clues and revelations which point to Optional scenes and yet more clues and revelations—some of which are connected to the scenario’s main plot, others not. Most of these scenes—both Core and Optional—take the form of interviews and interactions with the villagers, meaning that the scenario relies heavily on the Insight, Investigation, and Perception, although there is the possibility of combat either towards or at the climax of the scenario. Ideally, the climax of the scenario should come at or around a festival when true facts of what has been going on in the village for the last century will come to light.

Each of the scenes in 
For the Sound of His Horn, whether Core or Optional, is presented on its own page and everything is clearly laid out. Thus the nature of the scene, skill involved, goal, and then if an NPC, personality, background, maneuvres—that is, the NPC’s actions in the scene, and lastly his disclosures. The latter are his secrets, hidden information, and true motivations, all to be revealed with a combination of good roleplaying and skill rolls. Location descriptions are simpler, listing and explaining their various features, secrets, and potential encounters.

Given that it is written for use with the Ravenloft setting, the scenario makes use of Haunting Effects and Stress, as well as its many secrets. The Haunting Effects can cause Fear, which can lead to a Player Character acquiring Stress, the Hunting Effects being set off by Triggers. Again, these are clearly marked in each of the locations where they occur. In fact, one of the locations has several! The scenario is not without its own potential triggers either. Obviously, it is a horror story and so it does involve strong themes, but those themes do include child cruelty (though this is very much off camera). The stronger issue may be the fact that the scenario involves blood sports, in particular, fox hunting. It includes a description of the activity and a list of its terminology, and the scenario should culminate in a Meet and a fox hunt. The blood sport is so bound up in the events of the scenario that it would be very difficult to run if the Dungeon Master was to try and remove it from the scenario.

Unfortunately, 
For the Sound of His Horn is missing a couple of elements which would make it easier to run. The first is that all of the NPCs lack a physical description and the second is that the scenario does not have any maps. The former is more of an issue than the latter, because it is possible to run the scenario with referring to any maps—having them would make it easier though. Fortunately, both are easily rectified by the Dungeon Master. Thus she can write the descriptions herself—though the author should have supplied them, and she can either draw the maps herself or find suitable ones online, even rights free ones. Another issue is that not all of the scenario’s plots are fully explained until they appear in the individual scenes and locations, so a better overview could have been provided. For the Dungeon Master it might be a good idea to draw a plot diagram and perhaps a relationship diagram as part of her preparation.

Physically, 
For the Sound of His Horn is generally well presented and easy to understand. It is lightly illustrated, mostly with rights free artwork.

In comparison to most scenarios for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, the setting for 
For the Sound of His Horn is not so much fantasy as one of late Georgian or Victorian England. This means plenty of source material to draw from in presenting the scenario—especially if the Dungeon Master wants images to illustrate the scenario’s NPCs. It also means that the scenario would be easy to adapt—at least in terms of its plot—to other roleplaying games and their settings, whether that is Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, Cthulhu by Gaslight, Victoriana, Doctor Who: Adventures in Time and Space – The Roleplaying Game, and so on. Overall, For the Sound of His Horn is a highly enjoyable horror scenario, emphasising interaction and investigation in serving up a punch cup, a fruity slice of hand cake, and a rich melodrama!

Monday, 19 July 2021

Miskatonic Monday #68: The Haunted Place

 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.



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Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Andy Miller

Setting: Jazz Age New England

Product: The Haunting, take two?
What You Get: Fifty-Six page, 29.09 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Some hauntings never get old...
Plot Hook: Providence brings a haunted man into the path of their oncoming automobile.
Plot Support: Detailed plot, ten decent handouts, five maps, four NPCs, two Mythos tomes, and six pre-generated Investigators. 
Production Values: Excellent.

Pros
# Inspired by H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shunned House’
Inspired by Sandy Peterson’s The Haunting
# Simple, but highly detailed set-up
# Clue rich
# Lots of historical detail
# Easily adapted to other periods
# Suitable for one or two Investigators
# Suitable as an introduction to Lovecraftian investigative horror
# Easy to drop into a campaign (or start one with)
# Playable in a single session
# Not ‘The Haunting’, but like The Haunting
# Has its own bed frame-window moment.

Cons

# Not ‘The Haunting’, but like ‘The Haunting’
Potential information overload
# Challenging NPCs for the Keeper to roleplay
# Challenging NPCs for the Investigators to interact with
# Scope for conflict between the Investigators
# Potential Total Party Kill

Conclusion
# Not ‘The Haunting’, but like ‘The Haunting’
# Simple, but highly detailed set-up
# Suitable as an introduction to Lovecraftian investigative horror
Loving tribute to Sandy Peterson’s ‘The Haunting’

Sunday, 18 July 2021

Petersen's Fantasy Fears I

Although there is no denying that the preeminent roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying is Call of Cthulhu, there can be no denying the kinks between the Cthulhu Mythos and the world’s preeminent roleplaying game, Dungeons & Dragons. They go all the way back to the original version of the Deities & Demigods, the pantheon guide for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, First Edition. The connection would come to the fore at the end of the millennium with Death in Freeport from Green Ronin Publishing. It moved back and forth with Realms of Crawling Chaos for Labyrinth Lord and other retroclones and with adventures like Carrion Hill for Pathfinder, before coming up to date with a supplement and set of campaigns for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition written and published by Sandy Petersen, the designer of Call of Cthulhu no less!

Ghoul Island Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen is the first part of a four-part campaign for use with Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos. Published by Petersen Games, this Mythos-inspired campaign as a whole takes the Player Characters from First Level up to Fourteenth Level, via milestones, with Ghoul Island Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen taking them from First Level to Fourth Level. The campaign makes extensive references to Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos, and ideally, the Game Master should run the campaign using its rules to get the fullest out of it for her players. However, it is possible to run Ghoul Island Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen without reference to Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos, but some details and nuances representing the corrosive influence of its Yog-Sothothery will be difficult to implement, if not lost. Either way, Ghoul Island Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen and the Ghoul Island campaign is a combination of heroic fantasy with horror, rather than the other way around. That said, some players may find that the heroic fantasy is not as supported in Ghoul Island Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen as it could have been given the dearth of physical rewards or treasure to be found. There is advice to counter that though, and the downplaying of such rewards means that the Game Master and her players can instead concentrate on the adventure and the story.

Ghoul Island Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen begins with a sea voyage. The Player Characters are aboard the Hazel’s Folly, carrying a cargo for the far-off Farzeen, a city on a distant volcanic isle. This may be as investors or as crew—there are several plot hooks given, and they have plenty of opportunity to bond with the crew and potentially make friends before the action kicks off. This is with a calamitous storm which threatens to batter the ship to pieces and all but throw them ashore. The calamities continue once they are ashore as the rest of the crew turns unexpectedly nasty and potentially, the Player Characters, find themselves in trouble with the local law! Once in Farzeen, the Player Characters should be able to straighten their circumstances out and then explore the town. It is strangely clean and tidy, standing on the shore all but surrounded by jungle over which towers the volcano. The plot kicks up a notch and some of Farzeen’s secrets are revealed when the commander of the city watch requests their aid. Bodies have been disappearing—including the mutineers! As the title suggests, there are ghouls on Farzeen Island and they provide a vital mortuary service for the city. Could they be responsible for the disappearances?

Ghoul Island Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen is a fairly strongly plotted and linear first part of a campaign. Throughout there are opportunities for action and roleplaying and some investigation, with options for exploring a little of the city as well. There are suggestions also to expand the campaign in other directions and full stats for all of the crew of the Hazel’s Folly (oddly bar one) and the various other NPCs in Farzeen. The best of these is Upton, quite literally a downtown Ghoul dressed for a night out on the town! Certainly, the Game Master should have fun portraying him. As generally easy and straightforward as this opening part of the campaign is, it is very much an introduction and never gets beyond hinting at the greater plot behind it all. Also included are the stats for a magical item or two—including one fantastic weapon which will draw comparisons with Elric’s Stormbringer, which sadly, the Player Characters are unlikely to get hold of in this act of the campaign. Another issue with the campaign is that it is missing rules from Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos which would have made it easier to run. Now this is deliberate and understandable, because obviously, the publisher wants the Game Master to buy a copy of Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos in order to get the most out of the campaign. Arguably though, the publisher has gone too far. Options are discussed which consider the possibility that one or more of the Player Characters could be a Ghoul or have Ghoul blood, but that is an option, and absolutely not necessary in order to play and complete the campaign. Yet rules for Dread—the mechanic for handling the Player Characters’ reaction to Yog-Sothothery—are pertinent, almost intrinsic, and if it is a case of their definitely not being included, then at least some designer notes could have suggested ways of handling the horror and the fear that is very much part of the campaign if the Game Master does not have access to Sandy Petersen’s Cthulhu Mythos. Or at least discussed in terms of the rules on horror and madness in Chapter Eight of the Dungeon Master’s Guide

Physically, Ghoul Island Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen is slim hardback, done in full colour and very well presented in the Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition style, although with much darker, Mythos-infused artwork. It needs an edit in places, but is generally easy to read and to prepare from.

Ghoul Island Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen should provide four and eight sessions of play, it being possible to play through each of its four chapters in a single session each. It could work as a crossover between Call of Cthulhu and Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, perhaps as a variant upon a Dreamlands-set series of adventures? Or just simply as an introduction from one game to the other? It is fairly straightforward in terms of its plotting and story, so it should be fairly easy to run. It does take a while for it to really drop any of hints as to what is going on, at least in play, and hopefully they will be more explicit in the next act. Overall, Ghoul Island Act 1: Voyage to Farzeen is a solid start to its campaign and a solid introduction to facing the Mythos in a fantasy setting.

The FATE of Basilisk

FATE of Cthulhu added two elements to Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying—time travel and foreknowledge. Published by Evil Hat Games, the 2020 horror roleplaying game was built around campaign frameworks that cast the Player Characters as survivors in a post-apocalyptic future thirty years into the future, the apocalypse itself involving various aspects and entities of the Mythos. Not only as survivors though, because having entered into a pact with the Old One, Yog-Sothoth, they have unlocked the secret of time travel and come back to the present. They have come back aware of the steps along the way which brought about the apocalypse and they come back ready to fight it. This though is not a fight against the Cthulhu Mythos in general, but rather a single Old One and its cultists, and each thwarting of an Old One is a self-contained campaign in its own right, in which no other element of the Mythos appears.

The five campaigns, or timelines, presented in FATE of Cthulhu in turn have the Investigators facing Cthulhu, Dagon, Shub-Nigggurath, Nyarlathotep, and the King in Yellow. Each consists of  five events, the last of which is always the rise of the Old One itself. The events represent the roadmap to that last apocalyptic confrontation, and can each be further broken down into four event catalysts which can be people, places, foes, and things. The significance of these events are represented by a die face, that is either a bank, a ‘–’, or a ‘+’. These start out with two blanks and two ‘–’, the aim of the players and their investigators being to try to prevent their being too many, if any ‘–’ symbols in play and ideally to flip them from ‘–’ to blank and from blank to ‘+’. Ultimately the more ‘+’ there are, the more positive the ripple will be back down the timeline and the more of a chance the investigators have to defeat or prevent the rise of the Old One. Conversely, too many ‘–’ and the known timeline will play out as follows and the less likely the chance the investigators have in stopping the Old One.

Each of the five timelines comes with details of what a time traveller from 2050 would know about it, more detail for the Game Master with a breakdown of the events and their Aspects, Stunts, Mythos creatures, and NPCs. Most of these can serve as useful inspiration for the Game Master as well as the advice given on running FATE of Cthulhu and her creating her own timelines. After all, there are numerous Mythos entities presenting the prospective Game Master ready to create her own timeline with a variety of different aspects, purviews, and even degrees of power, but nevertheless capable of bringing about an apocalypse. However, Evil Hat Games has already begun to do that with its own series of timelines, each again dealing with a different Mythos entity and a different downfall for mankind. The first of these is The Rise of Yig.

Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk is different. Really different. To begin with, this second of the new timelines would appear to be barely connected to the Mythos at all—but it is, if that is, the Player Characters go digging deep enough into the world-side infosphere that Basilisk has planned for the whole of humanity. If not the universe. In Mythos terms, its closest parallels is with Hastur and the Yellow Sign, a memetic infection of occult nature which encourages artistic endeavour, but in Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk, that memetic infection is technological in nature, once shared often encouraging the monomaniacal exploration of fields of study and the need to understand them to their utmost. This often leads to the withdrawal of the infected from societal norms, ultimately leading to their deaths through lack of self-care and dehydration. Its origins lie in the Google Books project to digitise and make available all human knowledge. Thirty years later and Google’s Thinking Hat technologies enabled humanity to connect to digital neural networks and solve its most complex of problems—including climate change, whilst Google Physical Assistant enabled humanity to upgrade its body with cybertechnology. The combination provided a platform upon which Basilisk could survive and prosper and spread, the weakness of flesh bolstered by technology, pushing those connected to it to greater depths of understanding, for ultimately, its aim was a technological and scientific ‘Godthink’—not the idea that ‘All religions lead to the same thing’, but that the study of the universe leads to an understanding of both its and everything in it. If it had to turn the planet into the United Mind Of Humanity, a hungry, all-devouring hivemind of man and machine intertwined, it would and it did.

Where most timelines deal with known Mythos threats, or variations upon them, Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk does not. It is a fight against an idea, not a thing or an entity, but all quickly an idea given form and physicality. This timeline combines elements of The Terminator—more so than other timelines—with The Matrix, mapping them back onto current developments in information theory, digitalisation, robotics, artificial intelligence and machine learning, the Internet of Things, and other cutting-edge technologies before pushing forward into a dystopia that is definitely Science Fiction rather Occult in nature. The technological nature of the setting means that the way time travel works in this timeline is also different. There is no corruptive pact with Yog-Sothoth to facilitate the way between and thus the means to travel back from 2050 to 2020 (or earlier), rather it is technological in nature, developed by Basilisk. The Resistance has gained access to it in 2050 to travel back in time, and there is the possibility that they may able to use the time travel apparatus to jump to other pivotal points within the timeline. This gives Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk a little more fluidity in terms of campaign structure. Instead of leaping into the past to a point from which they can moving forward and acting to undermine the threat at the heart of the timeline, the Player Characters may be able to jump up and down it, with agents of the Basilisk in hot pursuit, or even aware of approximately when the Player Characters will appear. After all, the extent of Basilisk’s understanding and knowledge means that it has a very good idea of just what the Player Characters are trying to do…

As with other timelines for FATE of Cthulhu, the Player Characters are jumping back in time to locate the four events which led up to if not the apocalypse of Basilisk, then the dystopia it ushers in. As with other timelines, there is no direct confrontation with the existential threat it represents, but primarily its agents and progenitors. And unlike those other timelines, the cosmic threat to humanity is not an unknowable Elder God, but a still inhuman mind that unfortunately humanity can understand—and that is the existential threat that the Player Characters face, avoiding understanding Basilisk. Further, Basilisk has agency (and agents).

As with the timelines in the core rules, Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk details the history of its apocalypse and the four events which led up to it for the benefit of the Investigators who will be aware when they jump back from the future. It is accompanied by a more detailed timeline for Game Master along with their four event catalysts (which can be people, places, foes, or things) and their die face settings which the players and their Investigators will need to change by making enquiries and working to defeat the cult of information. There are details of threats and situations, including Thinking Hats Experts, biomechanically-altered humans, capable of temporarily enhancing particular skills to the pinnacle of understanding, Boston Dynamics-derived cyborgs, Hunter-Killer Experts, and more. 

The Basilisk’s agenda is discussed in detail, along with its mechanisms and advice for the Game Master on how to run Basilisk. This is absolutely necessary because of the complexity involved in running this timeline because of its complexity of ideas, the flexibility offered by time travel, and the greater agency possessed by Basilisk. If the previous Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Yig was more complex, not as straightforward, and involved multiple factions across the timeline, then Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk is more so—time travel, existential memetics, and deep conspiracy, all set against a contemporary world.

Physically, Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk is cleanly presented. It is easy to read and the lay out is tidy, though it needs an edit in places. The artwork is good also.

Although Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk is specially written for use with FATE of Cthulhu and very much built around the Investigators coming back from the future forearmed with knowledge of the past, there is nothing to stop a Game Master from using the timeline to run a campaign from the opposite direction and from a point of ignorance. That is, as a standard campaign a la other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror, whether that is actually for FATE of Cthulhu or another roleplaying game. It would be different to other campaigns, presenting more of a modern conspiracy campaign, possibly hackers or activists against the rise of the machines rather than classic Lovecraftian Investigators confronting entities of cosmic horror. This way, the Investigators can encounter the threats featured in Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk without the benefit of foreknowledge.

Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk is a very different campaign framework for Lovecraftian investigative horror, a radical technological departure that in effect is a non-Mythos campaign, but ultimately one involving existential horror. However, the technological aspects of the framework mean that it is complex and will take some effort to really run right. Ultimately, by drawing upon contemporary events and technologies, Darkest Timeline: The Rise of Basilisk presents a scarily prescient timeline which showcases how FATE of Cthulhu can do more than just the traditional Mythos.