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

Saturday, 16 October 2021

Evil on the East Coast

The Darkness Over Eaglescar – A Modern Day Call of Cthulhu Scenario is the tenth scenario from publisher Stygian Fox. Although the title suggests that it is a modern-day scenario for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, it is actually set in 1999. It is also set in England’s north-east, in the fictional coastal town of Eaglescar. What this means is that it has a certain English seaside town ambiance that certainly British Keepers and players will enjoy. Despite the specifics of the setting, The Darkness Over Eaglescar can easily be adapted to the setting and period of the Keeper’s choice, whether that is the Purple Decade of Cthulhu by Gaslight or the Jazz Age of Call of Cthulhu, or indeed, updated to a more contemporary period. With some adjustment the scenario could be adapted to run using Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game.

Designed for roughly four investigators and to provide two sessions or so’s worth of play, The Darkness Over Eaglescar begins with the Investigators being contacted by an old friend, Georgina Angler. She believes that her teenage daughter, Cassandra, is in trouble, having become involved with some shady characters, and she suspects, drugs, as well, and wants the Investigators’ help in finding her. Georgina will point to one of the business owners on the esplanade as someone who might know more, and he indicates two further leads, one a local drug dealer, the other a sea front fortune teller. Both will point towards the Voice of the Machine, a local New Age cult run by Eleanor X. Researching her reveals that her parents were members of a seventies hippie cult, The Children of the Vortex. This cult was notorious for its drug dealing, the exploitation of its members, and ultimately, the stabbing and murder of its founder. Background on the cult can be discovered by research at the local library and Eleanor X herself, will contact the Investigators to reassure them that Cassandra is fine. However, the cult leader will not let them see the missing girl.

Ultimately, the Investigators will need to investigate the cult’s properties and possible links between The Children of the Vortex and the Voice of the Machine. The latter will probably involve the Investigators having to commit a couple of acts of breaking and entering, which presents its own challenges in a small town, suburban environment. In doing so, they will likely be involved in one or more violent confrontations, and perhaps rescue Cassandra.

In terms of its horror, The Darkness Over Eaglescar is a scenario with a very human face. The Investigators will not be confronting any of the traditional elements of the Mythos, and to be fair, not really confronting the Mythos directly, more its effects upon the members of the cult. This will come primarily in a pair of intentionally surprisingly violent encounters, but depending upon what the Investigators discover, they may be able to get hold of another means to thwart the cult—a more magical means.

The Darkness Over Eaglescar is a relatively short adventure and although the players and their Investigators do not know it, they are up against a time limit. The players will need to use their Investigators’ time with some care, but unless they really waste it, they should be able to conduct their inquiries with alacrity. In fact, there are few plot strands to follow in the scenario, so the given timeline could be effectively collapsed into a couple of days or so and the scenario run in a single session as a convention scenario. However, that would be quite tight in its plotting. The alternative would be to reduce the number of Investigators—the scenario could be played with just two and still work.

The scenario is decently supported with a handful of handouts, some of which are really very good. Likewise, some of the artwork is also very good. Similarly, The Darkness Over Eaglescar is a very good-looking scenario, but unfortunately, looks can be deceiving. The cartography looks good, but feels a little odd in the design of its two houses. Plus, why is there no map of the Eaglescar itself? Then there are several element crashes between the scenario’s images and handouts and the text. This is not enough to make the text totally unreadable, but it is unnecessarily challenging. In addition, and although it is not as bad in previous releases from the publisher, The Darkness Over Eaglescar is further indication that Stygian Fox Publishing is still very much in need of a professional editor.

Let down by disappointing production values, The Darkness Over Eaglescar includes a decent mix of investigation and interaction, as well as some surprisingly violent scenes—ones that if played in the scenario’s British setting, the Investigators will probably be unprepared and ill-equipped to deal with. A more than serviceable scenario, The Darkness Over Eaglescar neatly captures the faded ambiance of the British seaside town, but is flexible enough to be set elsewhere and else when.

Friday, 15 October 2021

Ice Box

Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden is the eleventh release for Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic, the spiritual successor to Gamma World published by Goodman GamesDesigned for Second Level player characters, what this means is that Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden is not 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. By the time the Player Characters in Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden have  reached Second Level, they will have had numerous adventures, should have understanding as to how their mutant powers and how at least some of the various weapons, devices, and artefacts of the Ancients they have found work and can use on their future adventures.

The set-up for Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden casts the Player Characters as members of the tribe known as ‘The Ones Who Dig’. For centuries, the tribe has been digging deep into the ground and has finally broken into an underground complex built by the Ancient Ones. This is the long-buried entrance to the Garden of the Gods, which is said to be the repository of the Seeds of Creation, the seeds and biological records of all life of Terra A.D. from before the Great Disaster. It was foretold by the prophet, Boxx the Curious, that one day, a tribe would dig deep enough to locate the Earth Canoe which would take the faithful to the Garden of the Gods—and now that day has come. Unfortunately, the Player Characters are not among those deemed worthy to take the first journey in the Earth Canoe. They will be present though, when things go very wrong. Not everyone wants anything of the world before the Great Disaster restored to Terra A.D., and they would not only deny it to others, but destroy it too!.

Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden begins with a bang and quickly throws the Player Characters into the action and then the quest. This takes them into a seed vault—a little like the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, but of course, updated for the twenty-ninth century and then turned upside down by the events of the Great Disaster. After the confrontation and the escape aboard the Earth Canoe, the majority of the scenario takes place in the seed bank, which is described in no little detail across its two levels. This detail combines weirdness of both the twenty-ninth century and Terra A.D., such as lickable walls and rabbits all with the same face of an old man, but everything is well explained. The latter is necessary because there is a lot of information to impart to the players as their characters explore the complex. This comes not just in the form of the purple text of the room descriptions, but also the secrets to be discovered by the Player Characters. Of which, there are a lot and most of which come in the form of audio-visual recordings, and as well as revealing what has been happening in the Garden of the Gods for the past three millennia do also hint about life before the Great Disaster.

Although there is some combat involved, the emphasis in Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden is on exploration and examination of the strange place in which the Player Characters find themselves. Instead of artefacts and devices, the Player Characters will be mostly discovering secrets, and there really is very little ‘treasure’ to be found in the adventure. However, the adventure could have done with a little more combat, or at least, more threat. Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden opens with an attack upon the ‘The Ones Who Dig’ tribe by the Gene Police, a faction of human fanatics, an attack which is problematic in terms of storytelling—not once, but three times. The first problem is that attackers successfully carry out at the beginning of the scenario and then do not appear again. Essentially, they serve as means to sabotage the expedition and get the Player Characters getting to go instead, which seems a wasted opportunity. Having set up a ‘Chekov’s Gun’ of the Gene Police attack, it seems a wasted opportunity to leave the possibility of their following the Player Characters to Garden of the Gods and attempting to destroy it, giving the adventure a greater sense of urgency in the process.

The second really stems from Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden being written for Second Level Player Characters. It leaves both the Judge and her players to wonder what their characters were doing before the events of the scenario begin. In terms of Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, what they were doing on their Zero Level Character Funnel, and subsequently, when they were First Level. With such questions, it leaves the scenario to be run as a one-shot, or worked with difficulty into the Judge’s own campaign, and just like Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game, there is no real advice on setting up or working the scenario into a campaign. There are no answers to the questions, “What if the Player Characters do not come from ‘The Ones Who Dig’ tribe?” and “What if there is no ‘The Ones Who Dig’ tribe?”. The third problem stems from the first two—just who are the Gene Police? The adventure describes them as having inveigled their way into the ‘The Ones Who Dig’ tribe, but does not say who they are or give them personalities. They are just treated as throwaway enemies and that seems like a wasted opportunity.

What happens after the scenario is much less of an issue, since the author includes notes for continuing Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden. These are useful, since the discoveries to be found in the Garden of the Gods have potentially major ramifications for both the future of Terra A.D. and the Judge’s campaign. It would be nice to see these explored in a sequel to this scenario, if not multiple sequels.

Despite the issues with its set-up and follow through of that set-up, Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden is an enjoyably detailed and entertaining adventure. It wears its inspirations openly on its sleeve—or at least in the colour gem in the palm of its right hand—and these are fun for the Judge and players alike to spot. This shows most obviously in the change in environment which the scenario undergoes as part of its story line, which is radically different to that for most scenarios for Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden.

Physically, Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden is nicely presented. It needs an edit in places, but is generally well written and the artwork is decent. The map is rather plain though.

Mutant Crawl Classics #11: The Omnivary of Eden is a thoroughly likeable scenario, designed to be played in two sessions or so, and full of detail and flavour. Whilst it should be fun to play as is, to get the most out of it, the Judge will need to develop more of the set-up and the consequences of the outcome of the scenario.

Monday, 11 October 2021

Jonstown Jottings #47: GLORANTHA: A Trek in the Marsh

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?

GLORANTHA: A Trek in the Marsh is a scenario for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is a four page, full colour, 963.55 KB PDF.

The layout is clean and clean. It is art free, but the cartography is reasonable.

Where is it set?
GLORANTHA: The search for the Throne of Colymar is set in Sartar in the Upland Marsh

Who do you play?
Player Characters of all types could play this scenario, but is best suited to members of a nearby Colymar tribe or Ducks. Humakti will, of course, relish the opportunity to curb the influence of Delecti the Necromancer.

What do you need?
GLORANTHA: A Trek in the Marsh requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and the Glorantha BestiaryThe later is a necessity as no stats or creature or monster write-ups are included.

What do you get?
GLORANTHA: A Trek in the Marsh is set on the northern edge of the Upland Marsh and presents an opportunity for a nearby tribe to reduce the great swamp’s boundaries and reclaim land lost centuries ago to the magics of Delecti the Necromancer. One of the magical rods which enforces his malign influence has been located and the local tribal chief thinks it can be removed or destroyed and so sends some trusted adventurers to deal with it.

Consisting of really only two pages, the adventure is linear, the Player Characters proceeding rom the edge of the map straight to the location of the magical rod, perhaps having an encounter or two on the way to the marsh—depending upon if they veer slightly left or slightly right. These encounters, as are the majority of the encounters in the scenario, all combat based. No NPCs are encountered or detailed in the course of the adventure. No encounter, even the encounter with the altered Dancer in the Darkness which protects the rod is accorded more than three sentences.

GLORANTHA: A Trek in the Marsh is not badly written, but very much like the earlier GLORANTHA: The search for the Throne of Colymar, it is underwritten and underdeveloped. As presented it is not a whole scenario, but rather the middle of a scenario. Despite the fact that the Player Characters are on a quest to destroy or remove a magical artefact, the artefact itself is not detailed or illustrated, and there is no information as to how the local tribal chief learned of the location of the artefact, how the artefact is removed, and what happens once the artefact is removed. In addition, the protector of is described as a combination of a Darkness
elemental and a Dancer in Darkness, but stats or abilities are given, leaving the Game master to develop these herself without guidance. Omitting the stats for monsters and creatures which can be found in the Glorantha Bestiary is not wholly unreasonable, as the Game Master can easily provide these, but not providing the stats or write-up of a new combination of monster is simply nonsensical.

Similarly, the lack of set-up and consequences for the scenario, leaves the Game Master with more work than should have been necessary. The author need not have tied either to a specific tribe, but with sufficient background, the Game Master could easily have tied in both set-up and consequences to the tribe of her choice. Instead, the author leaves all of the development work to the Game Master rather than some of it.

Is it worth your time?
YesGLORANTHA: A Trek in the Marsh contains the germ of an interesting scenario if the Game Master is willing to completely develop its set-up and consequences which its author failed to do.
NoGLORANTHA: A Trek in the Marsh is a third of a scenario, no more than a series of combat encounters, in need of development in the beginning, middle, and end. Cheap, but avoidable.
MaybeGLORANTHA: A Trek in the Marsh contains the germ of an interesting scenario if the Game Master is a running a campaign in and around the Upland Marsh, and is willing to completely develop its set-up and consequences which its author failed to do.

Sunday, 10 October 2021

I Got The Altered Morphology Blues II

A decade ago, on January 12th, a plague struck the world. A flu-like plague which seemed resistant to the then available treatments. Fortunately nobody died, but eleven days later, on January 23rd, all of the symptoms vanished and everyone recovered. Only later did people realise the significance of what became known as ‘Ghost Flu’ as months later, sufferers began exhibiting powers and abilities only found in mankind’s wildest imaginings and biggest cinema screen franchise. The ability to fly, phase through walls, read the minds of others, control gravity, flatten or enhance the emotions of others, and read or even enter dreams. Literally, people had superpowers. This manifestation becomes known as the ‘Sudden Mutation Event’ or ‘SME’, and in the next ten years approximately one percent of the population will manifest SME. In response, there was no rash of costumed heroes or villains, though a few tried. The most photogenic of SME suffers became celebrities, sportsmen, television and film stars, or politicians, others found jobs related to their newly gained powers, for example, a firefighter who control flames or oxygen, a transmuter who could literally turn lead into (industrial) gold, or a healer who work as a medic or doctor, and the most popular sports found ways of incorporating them into their play. Some though turned to crime, and of course, there were criminals who exhibited SME, and whilst the Heightened as they became known were mostly assimilated into society, they could still be victims of crime and they were also victims of a prejudice all their very own. For example, the Neutral Parity League campaigns against ‘Chromes’ (from ‘Chromosome’) as the Heightened are nicknamed, often violently, whilst organisations like the Heightened Information Alliance campaigns for the protection of their rights. In general, the Heightened have become one of society’s accepted minorities and most just get on with their lives.

When one of the Heightened is involved in crime—whether as victim or perpetrator—the police will investigate and handle the matter just as they would any other crime. However, most big city police forces have established a unit to specifically deal with such cases. This is the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit (HCIU), staffed by Heightened members of the police force and tasked with investigating and solving SME related crimes, whether committed by or against SME sufferers. The HCIU also serves as a combination liaison/bulwark between the mutants and ordinary folk. The law has also adapted to take account of the prevalence of Heightened abilities. Thus investigative powers such as Observe Dreams and Read Minds require consent or a legal warrant, the use of X-Ray Vision ability must follow strict health and safety guidelines as its emits radiation and can cause cancer, the wrongful use of Impersonate is fraud, and several powers, including Radiation Projection, Invisibility, and Read Minds are deemed inherently dangerous. Such powers fall under Article 18 which regulates their use and may even see their users being monitored. The study of superpowers and SME expressives is known as Anamorphology, while members of the HCIU are trained in Forensic Anamorphology.

This is the set-up for Mutant City Blues, a super powered investigative roleplaying game, originally designed by Robin D. Laws and published by Pelgrane Press in 2009. It uses the author and publisher’s GUMSHOE System, designed to play investigative games which emphasise the interpretation of clues rather than their discovery, and which has been used with another genre in a number of roleplaying games from the publisher, including horror in The Esoterrorists, cosmic horror in Trail of Cthulhu, space opera in Ashen Stars, and time travel in Timewatch. In 
Mutant City Blues the other genre is the classic police procedural of Law & Order, Hill Street Blues, and NYPD Blue. The combination though is specific. The Player Characters are police officers with powers, not superheroes who are cops. So not DC Comics’ Gotham Central or the Special Crimes Unit from Superman’s hometown, Metropolis, or indeed, Wildstorm’s Top 10. This is very much not a ‘Four Colour’ superheroes setting. The action and the investigation of Mutant City Blues also takes place in a real city, whether New York or Toronto, or a city the Game Moderator is familiar with. Although Mutant City Blues has the feel of a setting that is North America, it would be easy to set a campaign elsewhere, and there are notes on adapting it to the United Kingdom.

To help the Game Moderator adapt 
Mutant City Blues to the city of her choice, the roleplaying game comes with a number of elements which mapped onto that city. This includes a future timeline which runs from the outbreak of Ghost Flu to the present day, a guide to the future city’s politics and leading figures, as well as its new institutes and businesses. First and foremost amongst them is The Quade Institute, the world’s foremost Anamorphological research centre, run by the renowned geneticist, Lucius Quade. The Quade Institute is also where members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit are trained in Forensic Anamorphology. A complete Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit is described, ready for the Player Characters to be slotted into. Lastly, there is a ready-to-play scenario, ‘Food Chain’, which introduces the history of the Mutant City Blues setting as well as providing a case for the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit to investigate.

In actuality that is the set-up for 
Mutant City Blues as published in 2009. In 2020, Pelgrane Press published a second edition, this time by Gareth Ryder-Hanrahan and Robin D. Laws. Mutant City Blues still retains the same set-up and flexibility in terms of where it can be set, but it also introduces a number of changes, not least of which is a new scenario, ‘Blue on Blue’. The majority of these changes have been implemented to make the game faster and easier to both set up and play.

As with other 
GUMSHOE System games, Player Characters in Mutant City Blues are defined by various abilities, either Investigative or General. Investigative Abilities are further divided into Academic, Interpersonal, and Technical. As a superhero roleplaying game, Player Characters in Mutant City Blues also have superpowers or Mutant Powers, which are again split between Investigative and General Powers. What defines the split between Investigative and General Abilities and Powers is how they are used. In the first edition of Mutant City Blues both Investigative and General abilities are represented by ratings or pool of points. For Investigative abilities, if the Player Character has the ability, he can always use it to gain core clues during an investigation, and his player could always spend more points from the Investigative ability pool to gain more information. For General abilities, such as Health, Infiltration, and Preparedness, a player expends points from the relevant pool and uses them as a modifier to a die roll to beat a particular difficulty. This is on a six-sided die and a typical difficulty is four, but can go as high as four. In the second edition of Mutant City Blues, a Player Character still has pools of points for his General abilities, including mutant powers, but not for Investigative abilities and powers. Instead of ratings, a Player Character either has the Investigative ability or power, or he does not. During an investigation, a Player Character will always pick up a clue related to an Investigative ability. If a Player Character wants more information, he can Push.

The Push is the major rule change in the second edition of 
Mutant City Blues. Replacing ratings for Investigative abilities, a Push is primarily used to gain more information or overcome obstacles preventing progress in an investigation. For example, it might be used to speed up the investigative process, such as getting the results back from the laboratory quicker than usual for Forensic Anthropology or Ballistics, to add an expert in the field as a friend using Art History or Occult Studies, or even use Cop Talk to impress the media or a Player Character’s superiors. A Push can also be used to sidestep or lower the difficulty of a General ability test. However a Push is used, a player only has two to expend per session, and they cannot be saved between sessions.

To create a member of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit, a player receives three pools of points to spend on his character. These are standard for both General abilities and Mutant Powers, but will vary for Investigative abilities, the value depending upon the number of players. To ease the creation process, the second edition of 
Mutant City Blues includes templates that model particular police departments, such as the Forensic Science Division, Gang and Narcotic, Robbery, and Special Weapons & Training. Each template has a cost in points, with any excess being used to purchase other Investigative abilities and purchase and increase General abilities.

Whilst choosing Investigative and General abilities is relatively straightforward, selecting Investigative and General Powers is more involved. In standard superhero roleplaying games, a player is free to choose what powers he likes, in any combination, often to model particular superheroes from the comic books and films. Now that option is possible in 
Mutant City Blues, but that diverges from Mutant City Blues as written. Mutant powers in Mutant City Blues are clustered together genetically, so that if a Heightened has the Transmutation power, he is also likely to have the Disintegration, Phase, Touch, Reduce Temperature, and Ice Blast powers. He may also have the Wind Control, Healing, Radiation Projection, and Self-Detonation powers, but not Pain Immunity or Gravity Control. All this is mapped out on the Quade Diagram—as devised by the renowned geneticist, Lucius Quade of The Quade Institute—and in addition to using it to select powers during the character creation, the Quade Diagram serves as a forensic tool in the game. HCIU officers can use it to determine the powers used at a crime scene, as many of them leave some form of residue. It can determine the involvement of one Mutant if the residue is clustered, more if there are several clusters. The point here is that mutant powers are known quantities and do not vary, and in addition, where in the comics, a superhero will often tweak or adjust his powers from one issue to the next, this is very difficult to do in Mutant City Blues.

Our sample member of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit is newly appointed Grace Bruckner who transferred across from Robbery where she specialised in art theft. She has become adept at identifying forgeries from merely touch alone. Her tendency towards Disassociation means she has few friends on the force, her colleagues seeing her as cold and unfriendly. This is despite the fact they know her genetics.

Detective Grace Bruckner, 1st Grade
General Abilities: Athletics 4, Composure 10, Driving 2, Filch 2, Health 10, Infiltration 4, Mechanics 2, Preparedness 5, Scuffling 5, Sense Trouble 5, Shooting 4, Surveillance 6
Investigative Abilities: Architecture, Art History, Bureaucracy, Bullshit Detector, Charm, Document Analysis, Evidence Collection, Fingerprinting, Forensic Accounting, Forensic Anthropology, Languages, Law, Negotiation, Photography, Research, Streetwise
Investigative Powers: Touch
General Powers: Disintegration 1, Healing 3, Phase 5, Transmutation 3
Defects: Disassociation

Certain powers and clusters, however, also have ‘Genetic Risk Factors’ associated with them. For example, Heightened with the Night Vision and Thermal Vision powers have tendency for Watcher Syndrome, whilst those with Telekinesis and Force Field, suffer from Sensory Overload. As she has both Phase and Disintegration, Detective Grace Bruckner can suffer from Disassociation, which means that she has a tendency to emotionally withdraw from people, and if the condition worsens, to see the world and her actions as unreal. Genetic Risk Factors need not come into play though, but it all depends upon the mode in which the gaming group has decided to play 
Mutant City Blues. The roleplaying game has two modes. In Safety Mode, Genetic Risk Factors are seen as potential risks to the Player Characters and may occasionally be topics of conversation, but in the main do not enter play except when they might affect Heightened criminals. In Gritty Mode, Genetic Risk Factors can express themselves in the members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit, and in play, are one source of Subplots.

Subplots are plots extra to the main investigation, the ‘B’ plot to the ‘A’ plot, and are typically personal or tied to another case. The players are encouraged to suggest them and the Game Moderator can add them, but in Gritty Mode they can also take the form of a personal Crisis which will affect a particular Player Character, and they can be triggered by the expression of a Genetic Risk Factor or an event which occurs in the line of duty. The latter can affect all police officers, not just members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit, but those triggered by a Genetic Risk Factor is specific to the Heightened. Mechanically, a Crisis requires a test and if failed, earns the Player Character a Stress Card. Similarly, if a Player Character exhausts the points from a power, but manages to refresh it by testing his Genetic Risk Factor (done against its resistance ability, which is different for each Genetic Risk Factor), he also gains a Stress Card due to the strain. 
Mutant City Blues lists over fifty, each with a tag like Addiction or Home Life, and Deactivation or Discard conditions, these being ways a Player Character effectively forestall the effects of a Stress Card or get rid of it completely. Should a Player Character acquire three or Stress Cards, then he is forced to quit or is fired from the force due to stress and his consequent actions.

Crises and Stress Cards are obviously storytelling and roleplaying tools, but they are also ways of enforcing the conventions of Mutant City Blues’ genre. In effect, Crises and Stress Cards are a way of handling a Player Character’s story arc over the course of a campaign. Just as in the television shows which inspire it, characters in 
Mutant City Blues leave, resign, take a new assignment, or are killed. Similarly, the use of the two modes—Safe and Gritty—model the two types of police procedural. Safe Mode represents a police procedural which focuses on the powers and the cases, and less on the personal and home lives of the Player Characters, whereas the grimmer Gritty Mode brings into play the personal and home lives of the Player Characters as well as the dangers of using their mutant powers. Of the two, the Gritty Mode more strongly enforces its genre than the Safe Mode. And this is in addition to the grind of dealing with the bureaucracy of the job, the Player Characters’ superiors, the media, and the criminals.

The two genres for 
Mutant City Blues—police procedural and superheroes—will be familiar to most, but not necessarily together. The roleplaying game’s authors provide plenty of advice to that end. The rules and advice cover collecting clues and using Pushes and their benefits, action at non-lethal, lethal, and superpowered levels, including combat, shootouts, chases, and more. There is a lengthy discussion of how the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit operates, including an orientation manual (with annotations from a member giving an explanation and opinion on how things are actually done), handling interrogations and court scenes, how the presence of the Heightened has changed the law, and running cases of the week and big plots. Plus there is a guide to the future world of Mutant City Blues, its politics, cultures, sports, and notable figures that the Game Moderator can map onto the city of her choice. Plus that mapping need not be onto a city in the near future, but could be the here and now, and there is advice for doing that too. The players are not left out here with advice on selecting their characters’ watch commander, using subplots, and suggesting some interview techniques, since after all, few of the players are going to be trained police officers. Lastly, there is an adventure, ‘Blue on Blue’ which does a good job of introducing the setting of Mutant City Blues and its various elements as they are affected by the Heightened, and takes the story of SME all the way back to the beginning. That said, it very much has the feel of a North American city and the Game Moderator will need to make some adjustments to set it elsewhere.

Throughout the pages of 
Mutant City Blues, there is another option discussed. That is instead of the Player Characters as members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit, they are Private Investigators. This gives the players and their characters greater flexibility in terms of how they approach investigations, as well as less responsibility and also less authority. However, they are still private citizens and they will need to be equally as careful, if not more so, in their use of their powers than members of the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit. Rather than the set-up and organisation provided by the Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit, the players and their characters will need to work out the details of their agency ahead of time. The scenario, ‘Blue on Blue’ does have notes to enable it to be run using private investigators, but it is really written to be played using Heightened Crimes Investigation Unit officers.

Physically, for a book published in 2020,
Mutant City Blues is surprisingly done in black and white. In some ways, that is thematic, and to be fair, it does not detract from the book in any way. In general, the artwork is excellent, the book is well written, and the layout clean and tidy, and best of all, easy to read.

If there are any issues with 
Mutant City Blues, it is in tone and setting. Some players may well find its strongly implied setting to be too North American, but the police procedural is very much a North American television staple, which for others it is that its superpowers are too low powered, to be not quite Four Colour enough. Yet even the roleplaying game’s Safe Mode is not Four Colour, although it is much closer than Gritty Mode, and after all, it is written to be a police procedural with superpowers, rather than it is a superpowered police procedural.

The 
GUMSHOE System was always designed to ease the process of playing investigative roleplaying games, but its iteration here in the second edition of Mutant City Blues has gone even further, switching from the previous edition’s pools of points to a simple binary yes/no for its Investigative abilities. Combined with the equally as simple Push mechanics and Mutant City Bluesmakes investigations even easier, shifting any prior complexity to the game’s action when General abilities—mundane and mutant come into play. And really, they are not that complex.

Inspired by two genres—police procedural and superheroes—
Mutant City Blues still remains underpowered for handling either separately, but merged together, the result is an appealing combination of familiar genres that are consequently easy to roleplay. And that is made even easier by the streamlining of the GUMSHOE System and the cleaner presentation in this new edition. Mutant City Blues does what it says on the badge, present police procedural and investigative roleplaying in a near future that is almost like our own world, and make it accessible and engaging. The combination is very specific, but there can be no doubt that Mutant City Blues does it very well.

Saturday, 9 October 2021

The Other OSR—Warlock! Kingdom

Warlock! Kingdom
is a supplement for Warlock!, “A Game Inspired By The Early Days Of British Tabletop Gaming”, in particular, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay and Maelstrom as well as the Fighting Fantasy solo adventure books which began with The Warlock of Firetop Mountain. It has Careers
Careers such as Agitator, Boatman, Grave Robber, and Rat Catcher; it has two attributes, one of which is Luck; and it has a Warlock! running around an unnamed, humancentric kingdom causing mayhem. Although mechanically much lighter than Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, it is nevertheless intended to be grim and gritty, a world of adventure and peril, but with mud aplenty—or worse—underfoot and a certain, sardonic sense of humour. However, beyond there being a marauding Warlock!, and gods, such as the beloved Thrice Blessed, the bloody Red King, and the reviled Dragon, there is unfortunately very little in terms of background in Warlock!. This is an omission that Warlock! Kingdom aims to rectify.

Warlock! Kingdom is published by Fire Ruby Designs and is very much a book of two halves. The first is a Gazetteer of the Evening Lands, which provides an overview and entails of the western part of the Kingdom, whilst the second is a guide to Grim Biskerstaf, a thriving port city on the mighty river Vessen. Both sections are for the most part systemless, so that a Game Master could easily take the descriptions and content found here and adapt to the roleplaying game of her choice, be it Dungeons & Dragons, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay, Zweihander: Grim and Perilous, or something else.

Warlock! Kingdom opens up with the ‘Kingdom Gazetteer’, which details the Kingdom, which feels fairly generic in its fantasy. It has great forests, mighty mountain ranges, rolling hills, broad meandering rivers, deep lakes, busy cities and towns with wide swathes of untamed wilderness in between, the settled areas populated by Humans, but also Dwarves, Elves, and Halflings. It stands on a peninsula, though this is not described. After this description, the book seems to go awry with a table of cultural events for the Player Characters to encounter and involve themselves in. It is a really good list, ranging from harvest festival to a funeral to dancing bear to Gerarix Stonecast with a mutated uman to exhibit, but feels too early in the book when you really want to know particular details of the country—languages, religion, and whatnot. Similarly, the discussion of the Royal Family and the Traitor, the latter the former chamberlain to the King whose worship of the demon Delock would lead to an unleashing of dark forces and precipitated a war that nearly shattered the kingdom. And also the fact that since the war against the Traitor, the King himself has not been seen, and that it appears that his wife the Queen and the King’s chief advisor are in charge given his absence. No suggestions are made as to why the King is missing or why, so there is plenty of room there to speculate—both in game and out.

Fortunately, 
Warlock! Kingdom settles down after that and guides the reader around the Evening Lands. This focuses on particular geographical locations like the Black Spine Mountains and the Golden Cave, the former riddled with caves and tunnels that are home to tribes of Goblins and clans of Dwarves, the latter a site of pilgrimage to the martyr, Saint Agarix, the current priest of which at the cave is probably living off the proceeds from the pilgrims’ donations. Many of these various location descriptions are accompanied by a table of random elements. Thus for the battlefield of Pomperburg, where the largest battle against the Traitor took place and which remains a place of horror to this day, there is a list of unusual items to be found on the site still. Not every location has such a table, but in each, they add a little bit of extra flavour and detail.

The bulk of 
Warlock! Kingdom—almost two thirds, in fact—is devoted to Grim Biskerstaf, a city on the kingdom’s south coast at the mouth of the Vessen River. In the wake of the war with the Traitor, though thriving, the city is in decline, its ruler, Lord Kelberond ineffectual and perpetually confused; the city guard forced to operate on a shoestring budget whilst the Peacock Guard, whose members protect Lord Kelberond, strut about the city as if they own it; the harbour the site of ongoing squabbles and fights between the Fish Speakers and the Dockers as to who controls trade on the river; and religious dissension growing as the Red King’s Men, worshippers of the Red King ejected from Fesselburg, the Kingdom’s capital, have taken up residence in the city—some actually devout, others little more than thugs. Then there is the Blight. This is a ghastly disease which turns the sufferer’s skin a sickly green and makes it break out into open sores. No one knows the source or cause of the Blight, but of late, the river has turned into sludge and it only affects the lower classes—so at the moment, the Blight is not all that important.

The description of Grim Biskerstaf follows the format used for the Kingdom in the first half of Warlock! Kingdom. Each of the descriptions of the city’s thirteen important locations is accompanied by two things. One is a snapshot from the main two-page illustration/map of the city, and the other is a table. Similarly, the descriptions of the city’s various organisations and notable figures are also accompanied by their own tables, which in each case adds further detail and flavour. Thus, outside the cathedral to the Thrice Blessed stands a tree and on that tree—in very Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay fashion—are nailed notices of employment described in a pair of tables, whilst along the city’s famous red stone walls, built by an Elven queen a millennium ago, stand a series of great towers, many of which have fallen into a state of disrepair and rumoured to have been occupied by persons other than the city guard. Who exactly occupies a particular tower can be determined by a roll of the die and reference to the accompanying table.

Grim Biskerstaf’s organisations include the Little Council, which supposedly governs the city and has table of its various plans; the College of Doors, its school of magic whose entrance changes regularly and is actually located in a hidden magical dimension, and its table suggests where the entrance door may be found that week or so. Its notable citizens include the wizard, Dolkepper, who when not studying the universe, is crabbily ruminating on which of the city’s citizens has slighted him and then tetchedly complaining about it. Who exactly, of course, is detailed on the accompanying table. In addition to the table, all of the descriptions are full of detail and flavour that the Game Master can bring to her game.

Rounding out 
Warlock! Kingdom is ‘So, You’re a Local?’, which gives a sextet of new Careers for Grim Biskerstaf. These are Docker, Fish Warden, Mudlark, Night Watchman, Publican, and Servant, but to be fair would work in almost any port city or town. Alternatively, they could serve as the basis for Player Characters in a campaign or scenario set entirely in Grim Biskerstaf! All of these have tables answering a couple of questions such as ‘What have you found?’ or ‘What have you seen?’, which further tie them into the city. As well as potential Player Characters they could also form the basis for NPCs too. Finally in Warlock! Kingdom, there is another pair of lengthy tables. One of hirelings, the other of adventure seeds. There are no stats with the hirelings, but the adventure seeds are nicely detailed and could keep a campaign in Grim Biskerstaf going for a while.

Physically, 
Warlock! Kingdom is a buff little book, starkly laid out and illustrated in a suitably rough style which feels suitably in keeping with the period inspiration. The cartography is nicely done, but the book does need a tighter edit in places.

Warlock! Kingdom begins in underwhelming fashion, the description of the kingdom at least feeling underwritten before it settles down and starts telling you interesting stuff. It really picks up with the description of Grim Biskerstaf, a city full of secrets and dirt which could be dropped into any campaign, which is made all the easier because like much of the book, it is systemless. Pick it up for overview of the kingdom, but definitely stay for the write-up of the Grim Biskerstaf in Warlock! Kingdom, which is perfect for any Grim & Perilous setting or roleplaying game, not just Warlock!

Solitaire: Rise

In ages past the greatest of all dungeons fell. Its great portals were penetrated by mighty heroes and level by level, its halls and corridors walked down, and its rooms and chambers, chapels and necropolises, lairs and dens, and reliquaries and treasuries entered, their denizens put to the sword and the spell, their coins, gems, and magics plundered. A millennium has passed since then and the doings of those great warriors and wizards have passed into legend and dungeons are things of the past, so perhaps it is time for a new network of tunnels and rooms, constructed and populated at the hands of a new Dungeon Keeper? Or at least the old Dungeon Keeper of old, woken after a thousand year slumber to build a dungeon anew?

This is the set-up for RISE: A Game of Spreading Evil. Published by Blackwell Games, it is a counterpart and opposite to DELVE: A Solo Map Drawing Game. Both are map-drawing games for one player and both involve the drawing and building, populating and defending, and exploring and exploiting of great underground networks. The difference is that in DELVE, the player takes the role of the Overseer of a Dwarven hold, digging down into the depths of the earth, whereas in RISE, the player takes of the role of the Keeper, tasked with building up to the surface—though is nothing to stop an enterprising Keeper from building down! In the course of this mighty construction, a Keeper will explore nearby caverns and tunnels, develop them into rooms such as chambers and hovels in which recruited troops can have their lair, forges which enable traps to be built elsewhere in the dungeon, a mason to allow the construction of secret passages and barricades, prisons in which to incarcerate captured adventurers, taverns and theatres to keep the dungeon’s denizens happy, and altars on which to sacrifice them in return for really good magic! Lastly, a Keeper might discover a portal to another realm and send forth explorers to learn its secrets and plunder its treasures.

RISE: A Game of Spreading Evil is a solo map-drawing game with tactical elements and some journaling aspects which can be played at leisure by the would be Keeper. Fairly easy to play, it can be started, put down, and picked up again because a Keeper’s dungeon never amounts to more than sheets of paper and perhaps a notebook. It requires a good pencil, a rubber, several sheets of gridded or graph paper, a notepad, some tokens, and a standard deck of playing cards. Each turn, beginning from the Dungeon Heart, as the Keeper the player will draw a card from the playing deck, and draw what it indicates on their map; resolve any combat; exchange Resources for Trade Goods or vice versa; build new features like rooms, traps, and barricades; and recruit new Units. Only one room can be built per turn. In addition, the Keeper must keep track of the dungeon’s Happiness, keeping it high enough to avoid its denizens from mutinying and turning on the Keeper!

The suit of the card drawn determines what the Keeper’s excavation teams have discovered. Clubs are Remnants, Diamonds are Trade Goods, Hearts are Resources, and Spades are Natural Formations. The depth or level of the discovery will determine the amount of Resources or Trade Goods found, whilst the number on Clubs or Spades card indicates the result on the Remnants or Natural Formations tables. In the case of the Hearts or Diamonds result, the Keeper can draw an empty cave on the map to represent the discovery, whilst with a Clubs or Spades card, the Keeper refers to the result from the relevant table and then draws that on the map. When building a Room, the Overseer pays the listed cost and either adds it to an empty space or builds it into an already discovered cavern. Each Room provides a particular benefit. For example, the Hovel serves as a basic lair and can house some ten units’ worth of troops, whereas a Puzzle Room is intentionally designed to slow any combatant—whether having descended from the surface or mutinied from amongst the Keeper’s own troops—down from one turn to the next. Others like the Theatre or the Casino enhance a dungeon’s Happiness, and some provide buffs, such as the Kitchen, which increases the fighting Strength of nearby troops with a ready supply of good unwholesome food, and Treasury, which increases the maximum amount of Trade Goods the Keeper can store.

If a Keeper builds an Altar, then sacrifices can be made to gain Good Magic. This might be to summon a spell which brings a room to life and turns it into a unit of its own or helpful whispers flit about the dungeon and cause any imprisoned Adventurers to switch sides and enlist in the service of the Keeper!* Another potential Good Magic is a portal. Once a portal has been discovered, the Keeper must construct a Portal Siege Camp if the aim is to launch raids through the portal and into other Realms. Successful raids will return further Resources and Trade Goods, as well as captured Units and even stolen items and artefacts. The latter is best stored in their dungeon’s Thieves’ Gallery.

* This quicker than the other option, which is sending the Adventurers to the Torture Chamber—should the Dungeon have one—and from there to the Hiring Office, and probably involves less paperwork. It is also probably less fun for one of the parties involved.

Combat occurs when a Keeper discovers the presence of the enemy, represented by a Remnant being drawn at the start of turn, such as an Adventuring party or a powerful champion who tests the Keeper’s forces. It can also occur when a Keeper’s own units become unhappy and mutiny, turning on their former master—or mistress, fighting their way to the Dungeon Heart. If the enemy or mutinied units cannot do this, then they will dig in and begin taking over a section of the dungeon. This will present a further challenge to the Keeper in addition to expanding the Dungeon from the depths to the surface. Combat is a matter of attrition, comparing the Strength values of the combatants and deducting the lower Strength value from the higher Strength value. A Unit whose Strength is reduced to zero is removed from the Dungeon. The rules allow for Ranged combat, such as from Archers and Warlocks, whilst Cultists can cast a protective shield and Trappers can reset or disarm traps.

In addition to launching raids into other Realms via Portals, RISE gives tables for Adventurers to be encountered, Information to be found, Legendary artefacts to be discovered—once the Joker cards have been added back to the deck with the Keeper’s expansion reaching the fifth level, gratuitously great Heroes who take it upon themselves to delve deeper and deeper into the depths of the Keeper’s Dungeon, and options such as World Layers. The latter are themed levels of the Dungeon, like a Primordial Layer populated by gigantic reptiles, lava flows, and ancient megaliths. These add flavour and serve as a feature in the Keeper’s Dungeon. Lastly, RISE comes with a set of challenges which can be attempted over the course of multiple playthroughs of the game.

What is not quite clear is what the end objective of playing RISE: A Game of Spreading Evil actually is. The aim is to explore and develop up from the depths, ultimately to reach the surface, and perhaps from there, become a true threat to the world beyond. Yet there is barely the need for such an objective, or even a sense of having won in playing RISE. This is a game whose point is twofold. There is, of course, the play, the intentionally procedural construction of the Dungeon and its development, but there is also the story of the Dungeon to be told in that constructive play. As with DELVE: A Solo Map Drawing Game, what develops out of the play of RISE: A Game of Spreading Evil is a map of the Dungeon, level by level in cross section; when combined with the notes kept in the journal, a story that tells of the Dungeon’s development, history, and notable features; and ultimately, a Dungeon complete with notes and map that the Keeper can take, and as Dungeon Master, could be run as a dungeon for a group of players. Perhaps for Dungeons & Dragons, perhaps for another roleplaying game.

Physically, RISE: A Game of Spreading Evil is a cleanly presented, digest-sized book. The writing is clear and simple such that the reader can become a Keeper and start digging and drawing with very little preparation.

One of the given inspirations for RISE’s sister game, DELVE: A Solo Map Drawing Game is the computer game, Dungeon Keeper, and the same can be said for RISE—if not more so. It is played at a much more sedate pace, with the player as the Keeper handling all of the procedural and resource management elements. Of the two, DELVE: A Solo Map Drawing Game is the more polished and deeper affair, RISE: A Game of Spreading Evil being a little rougher around the edges and not being quite as well explained as it could be. Nevertheless, RISE shares much in common with DELVE. It can be played in one sitting or put aside and returned to at a later date, but it does take time to play and the more time the Keeper invests in the play, the more rewarding the story which should develop and the more interesting the Dungeon created—and ultimately, RISE: A Game of Spreading Evil is about the story of Dungeon.

Friday, 8 October 2021

Friday Faction: The Madman’s Library

One of the pleasures of visiting the home of a friend or acquaintance, is the opportunity to peruse his shelf. Does he have the same titles as you, suggesting that you share interests and friendship in common? If so, does he possess titles you have never seen before, perhaps books you want to read or simply never heard of? Or do his shelves hold titles on subjects you have no interest at all, revealing a point of divergence? Perhaps he will allow you to browse their contents or even take them home with you to read them at your leisure? Author Edward Brooke-Hitching is highly unlikely to allow you to do either. He barely mentions the titles he has in his own collection, let alone on his shelves, but in the pages of The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts, and Other Literary Curiosities From History, he explores the weird world of books that are mad, bad, and dangerous to handle (and even eat!), and which he would like to have in his library.

Open up the pages of The Madman’s Library and within moments you will be astounded by the vibrancy of the colour illustrations from Louis Renard’s Fishes, Crayfishes, and Crabs, of Diverse Colours and Extraordinary Form, that are Found Around the Islands of the Moluccan and on the Coasts of the Southern Lands from 1719, if not intrigued by the scientific inaccuracies and wild imaginings, been offended by a nude depiction of the demon Asmodee from the Compendium of Demonology and Magic, and hopefully amused by He-Gassen, a Japanese scroll depicting men in flatulent competition with each other. You will also have learned that in 2010 Google estimated that there were approximately one hundred and thirty million titles in print—or at least available, and that Google planned to scan them all; the eponymous dictator commissioned the Blood Qur’an of Saddam Hussein, a copy of the holy book written using fifty pints of his own blood as ink; and that the art of binding books in human skin is known as ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’. The practice is more common than you would have thought, and so deservedly receives its own chapter devoted to ‘anthropodermic bibliopegy’ in The Madman’s Library. It is also as fascinatingly ghoulish as you would expect.

Other chapters explore ‘books that are not books’, such as Chinese oracles bones, carved with predictions and forecasts, which were often mistaken for dragon bones and ground up to be used in medicines; ‘demon bowls’ containing spiralling protective incantations on the inside and buried in houses as supernatural protection; and hollow books which contain a secret cabinet of poisons; and 20 Slices, whose bright yellow binding contains exactly that number of Kraft American cheese slices. There are also the aforementioned ‘Books Made of Flesh and Blood’—thankfully not made from us, along with ‘Cryptic Books’, which takes the reader all the way from secret messages written on eggs and only revealed on the white of the egg is boiled to Kit Williams’ infamous Masquerade via the incomprehensibly mysterious Voynich Manuscript, followed by ‘Literary Hoaxes’, ‘Curious Collections’, Works of the Supernatural’, ‘Religious Oddities’; there are hoaxes, like the Fortsas Affair, which was announcement in 1840 of the sale of the magnificent library of the late Comte de Fortsas, which included fifty-two previously unknown works and which brought bibiophiles and collectors scurrying to the Belgian town of Binche, and which of course was an enormous joke; and a whole lot more.

Throughout, The Madman’s Library is delightfully luxurious in its presentation. No page goes without the image of a cover of, or of pages from a book, presented in exquisite detail and beautiful colour. These bring each and every book mentioned in the text to life—and short of having the titles in front of him, they are the next best thing.

As engaging and as entertaining as The Madman’s Library is in bringing its many books to life, the writing does sometimes feel as if it is skating over several of its subject matters. For every Grand Grimoire, a guide to summoning the Devil’s prime minister of Hell, Lucifuge Rofocalé or If We Can Keep a Severed Head Alive…, a patent of 1987 which discusses the technological, scientific, religious, historical, and ethical issues of decapitation and afterwards, there is a prayer-book pistol—owned by the Duke of Venice, Francesco Morosoni—which could be fired when the book was closed and the silk bookmark pulled as trigger, that only merits a mention. However, this still leaves several shelves’ worth of books to discover in reading The Madman’s Library.

Our fascination with books is also carried over into our gaming. Not just the fact that many of the games we play are actual books, but that the books play a role in our games. They are sources of knowledge, MacGuffins to be chased, secrets to be found, and more. Straight away, The Madman’s Library is excellent source material for almost any roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Both Call of Cthulhu and Trail of Cthulhu both share numerous Mythos tomes, but so many of the esoteric titles described in the pages of The Madman’s Library would sit alongside them or even make their way onto the shelves of the Orne Library’s Special Collection at the renowned Miskatonic University. Of course, the contents of The Madman’s Library are perfect for Bookhounds of London, Kenneth Hite’s campaign setting for Pelgrane Press’ Trail of Cthulhu, since it specifically casts the Investigators as bibliophiles. Many of the titles mentioned work in earlier periods too, whether that is the aforementioned Grand Grimoire or prayer-book pistol for The Dee Sanction or Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay, or even earlier for The Design Mechanism’s Mythic Babylon or Mythic Rome.

As good as a potential source of inspiration for your gaming as this book is, it is simply a good read. Engaging and eclectic, entertaining and enjoyable, with something interesting to discover on every page, The Madman’s Library: The Strangest Books, Manuscripts, and Other Literary Curiosities From History is a delight to read from end to end.

Monday, 4 October 2021

Miskatonic Monday #87: Haze

 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.


—oOo—

Name: Haze
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Héctor Gámiz

Setting: 2010s USA

Product: Scenario
What You Get: Twenty-eight page, 4.43 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Music to die for!
Plot Hook: Could a strange teenage suicide be something more?
Plot Support: Detailed plot, five handouts, four NPCs, one Mythos tome, one spell, and two pre-generated Investigators.
Production Values: Solid.

Pros
# Potential introductory investigation
# Solid investigation to conduct
# Good mix of the interpersonal and the research   
# Decently done NPCs
# Can be adjusted to any time in the 21st century
# Nicely done handouts

Cons
# Involves suicide
# Can involve the suicide of an Investigator
# Requires a good edit and localisation
# Is the title appropriate?

Conclusion
# Solidly written investigation
# Does involve suicide
# Potential Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game scenario

Sunday, 3 October 2021

Last Flight of the Templars

It is Friday, October 13th, 1307. For over two hundred years, the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, commonly known as the Knights Templar, has dedicated itself to protecting Christians making their pilgrimage to the Holy Land. Blessed by the Church and an official charity, the militant order of monks has become a power unto itself, a series of Papal bulls having placed the order above local laws, rendering them exempt from taxes, borders, travel restrictions, and legal oversight from any power short of the Papal Throne itself. In addition to protecting the Holy Land and participating in numerous Crusades against the infidel, the influence and power of the Templars has spread far beyond Outremer, primarily through the clever management of the vast tracts of lands given to the order as gifts, but also through the financial and banking network that it developed, ensuring the safe and transferred transit of credit. Yet in recent years, the reputation of the militant order of monks has suffered. Military defeats have forced it out of the Holy Lands and lost it access to the sites it was supposed to protect and there rumours of mysterious rituals and misdeeds, ranging from idol worship, sacrilege, and denying Christ to financial corruption, fraud, and secrecy. Then there are fears that the Knights Templar wanted to establish its own state in Europe, equal to any kingdom. Lastly, many of those kingdoms, including their monarchy and their nobility owed vast debts to the Knights Templar. It was for these reasons that the Templars fell from grace and from power.

On the morning of Friday, October 13th, 1307, French forces, on orders from King Philip IV of France with permission from Pope Clement V, moved in secret to arrest dozens of Knights Templar in the Templar’s Parisian stronghold, the Enclos du Temple, including their Grand Master Jacques de Molay, and their Commander of Normandy, Geoffroi de Charney. Both would ultimately be charged with heresy, excommunicated, and burnt at the stake. On the morning of Friday, October 13th, 1307, as the Enclos du Temple was assaulted by French troops, Grand Master Jacques de Molay would his last orders. Faced with betrayal and defeat, he commanded the last Templars to take the secrets of the order to safety. They would be the last thirty to escape the fallen stronghold and theirs would be a perilous journey across Europe in search of sanctuary, harried all the way first by forces loyal to King Philip, and then the Inquisition. Did they find sanctuary and do they ever discover the true secrets of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon?

This is the set-up for Heirs to Heresy, a roleplaying game published by Osprey Games in which the last thirty free members of the Knights Templar carry the order’s great treasure and secret to sanctuary—to Avallonis. Avallonis may be a mystical dimension that only the gnostic Templars know how to access; a demonic realm to which the all the souls of the Templars are bound to; a faerie city, shrouded in mist with gleaming silver towers; the city of Lisboa where its friendly King will shelter the Templars from the wrath of the King of France and his lackey, the Pope; a state of mind or even a second word that will grant them eternal reward; and ultimately, even a lie… As to the great treasure, it might be the Grail, the Lineage of Christ, the idol of Baphomet, the Library and Seal of Solomon, or something else. The exact nature of both destination and treasure are up to the Grand Master—as the Game Master is known—to decide, although the length of the flight from Paris will heavily influence the former. The further the destination from Paris, the longer the campaign. Thus, if the destination is London, then the campaign will be relatively short, whereas Malta, owned by the Knights Hospitaller, sister order to the Knights Templar, would be a longer journey and thus a longer campaign. Similarly, The Grand Master will also need to set the degree of Esoterica available in the campaign and thus potentially, the Player Characters. This can be mundane, infused, or mystical, and the higher the degree of Esoterica, the more likely that magick will play a role in the campaign, including the foes that the Player Characters encounter. Finally another limiting factor upon an 
Heirs to Heresy campaign is the number of Templars who escaped Paris—thirty. If they all die before any one of them reaches sanctuary with the treasure, then both the secrets and the last treasures of the Knights Templar will have been lost.

Of course, 
Heirs to Heresy is not the first roleplaying game to explore this legend, designer John Wick having done so with Thirty in 2005. Although they share similar themes, Thirty emphasises the esoteric, whereas Heirs to Heresy explores that aspect of the Templar legend as a range of options. The other difference, of course, is that what constitutes as safe and good roleplaying is today is openly discussed and stated. Thus, Heirs to Heresy is up front about what is. In the foreword, the author rejects the adoption of the iconography of the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon, the Knights Templar by hate groups which espouse white supremacy, religious intolerance, and persecution. It is also clearly stated that whilst Heirs to Heresy draws very much upon the history and religions of the fourteenth century, it is not written as a historically accurate roleplaying game. Rather it blends history, mystery, and legend to create the potential for exciting stories—much like a film or television series would. Ultimately, it is more historical fantasy, and that includes the types of characters that the players can roleplay. The Knights Templar recruited from France, Germany, England, the Iberian Peninsula, and Italy, as well as Scandinavia, the Middle East, North African, and other Mediterranean countries. As long as a Templar is a devout Catholic, there is no bar in terms of origin, or indeed, his or her gender.

A Knights Templar is defined by six Attributes—Might, Vitality, Quickness, Intellect, Courage, and Spirit as well as fifteen skills. The Attributes typically range between zero and four, and skills between zero and five. To first create a Knights Templar, a player decided whether his character is a Dedicated Knight or a Versatile Knight. This will determine the spread available for his attributes. A Dedicated Knight has a mix of higher and weaker Attributes, whilst a Versatile Knight has a more balanced range. Similarly, whether a Templar’s training, either Focused training or Well-Rounded training, determines whether he has mastered one skill if Focused training, or a wider range of skills if Well-Rounded. With Focused training, a Templar has fewer skill points to assign, but two skills can be high, whereas with Well-Rounded training, there are more points, none of them can be high. Notably, a Templar does not have any combat skills or a Horsemanship skill. Every Templar is supposed to be skilled in both, so they are covered by his Attributes rather than dedicated skills. This is in addition to determining what the character looks like, his nationality, whether or not he has seen combat, how far he has travelled, his degree of spirituality, when he became a Templar, and so on. A player can also roll for quirks for his Templar and lastly choose some relationships with his fellow Templars.

Our sample Templar is Gudbrand Signysdottir, originally from Scandinavia, who travelled to Constantinople with her merchant father. Although he was killed by bandits, she saw how fiercely the other members of the caravan were protected by a band of Templars. Scarred in the attack, she decided to join the Templars and dedicate her life to the White Christ rather than return home where her brothers would take their father’s business.


Name Gudbrand Signysdottir
Nationality Scandinavia
Languages: French, Latin, Old Norse
Quirks: Exceptionally long hair, scar over one eye

ATTRIBUTES
Might +1 Vitality +1 Quickness +3 Intellect +2 Courage +3 Faith +2

SKILLS
Athletics 3 Awareness 3 Battle 3 Craft – Courtesy 3 Explore 3 Healing – History – Hunting – Inspire 3 Insight 3 Persuade 3 Religion 3 Stealth – Travel 3

HEALTH
Maximum 15 Crippling Blow 5

COMBAT
Melee Attack +4 Melee Damage Bonus +2
Ranged Attack +5 Ranged Damage Bonus +5
Defence 18
Damage Reduction 7

WEAPONS
Longsword (1H) d12 (On a 1: ignore Damage Reduction)
Londsword (2H) 2d8 (On two 1s: ignore Damage Reduction)
Dagger d6 (On a 1: ignore Damage Reduction)
Mace 2d4 (On a 1: permanently reduce Damage Reduction by 1)
Axe d8 (On a 1: shatter shield, or reduce Damage Reduction by 1)
Crossbow d10 (On a 1 or 2: ignore Damage Reduction)

ARMOUR
Chainmail 5 Damage Reduction
Shield +2 Damage Reduction

Mechanically, 
Heirs to Heresy is straightforward. To perform a Test, a character’s player rolls two ten-sided dice and adds an Attribute and a Skill to beat a target. A task which requires effort has a target of fifteen, challenging is eighteen, and difficult is twenty-one. If the result beats the target and consists of doubles, it is a critical outcome. This means it is done with a flourish, perhaps faster, with a better effect, or similar. In combat, it means double damage. If the task is made with Advantage, three ten-sided dice are rolled and the best two selected. Conversely, if the task is made at a Disadvantage, three ten-sided dice are rolled and the worst two selected. Advantage can be gained from the situation or one Templar can grant by supporting another. Notably Heirs to Heresy does include fumbles in its rules, because the Templars are meant to be competent and because fumbles are boring.

In addition, as God’s chosen warriors, every Templar can bring his faith and commitment to bear on his situation. To reflect this, he has Faith points to spend on various effects, including adding his Faith Attribute to a single Test, damage total, or reducing incoming damage by the same, to reroll a single Test, and if they factor into a campaign, power esoterica, Gifts, and Relics. Faith points are recovered slowly, a point every Sunday morning or by spending an hour in deep prayer at a Church or Catholic Holy Site. The latter requires a Test. However, Faith points are lost if a Templar breaks his vow of chastity, steals from the less fortunate, fails to pray upon awakening, or leaves a fellow Templar behind who could not have been rescued.

Combat is slightly more complex, but throughout Templars intended to be highly competent and capable combatants. In the main, the opponents a Templar will face are Mobs and Fearsome Foes. Mobs are either particularly courageous or fanatical to want to attack Templars, who can easily outfight them. A Templar always goes first and kills or defeats one member of the Mob per point of damage inflicted, whilst a Mobs only acts when a Templar fails to deal damage. Thus the Templar will in general have the upper hand and only when he fails will be vulnerable.

A Fearsome Foe represents a challenging opponent who fights like a Templar and can attack first before a Templar can act. Initiative is handled by pulling tokens out of a bag—one colour for the Templars and one for the Fearsome Foes, and when one colour is drawn from the bag, one of its associated combatants can act. Combat covers manoeuvres such as furious blows, defending, parrying, and so on. One interesting element of combat occurs when damage is rolled. An attacker can hope to roll high and simply inflict a large amount of damage after Damage Reduction has been deducted, but if a one is rolled with several of the weapons the Templars commonly wield, the damage ignores Damage Reduction. What this means is that an attack can inflict damage if even the damage roll is low. Other weapons have different effects when a one is rolled. When a Templar suffers damage greater than his Crippling Rating, his player begins ticking off boxes on his Templar’s character sheet, which can be stunned, bleeding, broken limb, or worse.
For example, Gudbrand Signysdottir and her companions have fled the chapterhouse in Paris and reached the outskirts of the city where they encounter a patrol consisting of two knights—both treated as Fearsome Foes and a Mob of foot soldiers. They are challenged and combat ensues, her companions engaging the Mob and one of the enemy knights, whilst Gudbrand Signysdottir faces off against the other. When the Grand Master draws the token for the NPCs and decides that the knight will charge and attack. She rolls the two ten-sided dice and adds the knight’s Attack bonus of +6. This roll is made at Disadvantage. She rolls two, five, and ten, and whilst the five and ten are enough with the Attack bonus, this at Disadvantage, so the Grand Master must choose the worst two rolls. The two and the five, plus the bonus are not enough to beat the Gudbrand Signysdottir’s Defence of eighteen. As his second action, the knight presses the attack. Her roll of seven, nine, and the bonus is enough to beat Gudbrand Signysdottir’s Defence. The knight’s damage roll is four plus six, for a total of ten, which when reduced by Gudbrand Signysdottir’s Damage Reduction of seven, means she suffers just three points of Health damage.

When one of the players’ tokens is drawn, her player decides that it is now Gudbrand Signysdottir’s turn to act and like the knight, she has two actions. The first is to attack, striking at the knight with her Longsword. Gudbrand’s player rolls eight and eight—which indicates a critical strike and doubles damage—and adds her Melee Attack of +4. The total is twenty, which means that the attack is a success. This definitely beats the knight’s Defence of sixteen and the damage roll is a twelve-sided die plus her damage bonus of +2, doubled of course for the critical result. The result is nine, plus the damage bonus, doubled for a result of twenty-two. The knight’s Armour rating of seven reduces this to fifteen, which is deducted from the knight’s Stamina of eighteen. As her second action, she pulls back and decides to Parry against the next attack. This means that any attack against her will be at Disadvantage.
Beyond the core rules, Heirs to Heresy adds simple rules for combat, and in terms of the campaign, rules for travel and pursuit. Travel is handled via Travel Tests and becomes more difficult if the Templars have to leave the road, with failures leading to their becoming lost running out of supplies, enemies catching up with them, having an obstacle encounter, and so on. The Templars begin play with a pool of Pursuit points, one per Player Character, and they are accrued for being seen, engaging in combat, being pursued by an Inquisitor, and more. The Grand Master can spend these to have the Templars encounter a patrol of guards, penalise Downtime activities, and other activities. When they stop at places of safety on their journey, whether in the wilderness or civilisation, the Templars can attempt Downtime actions. For example, Conceal Trail might enable them to reduce their Pursuit points, find someone to aid them, spread rumours to throw off their pursuers and so reduce their Pursuit points, train to gain Advantage on a roll.

In terms of experience, a Templar can acquire Advancement Points and Gifts. A Templar can acquire a Gift once every four sessions or so, such as Armour of God, which increases his Damage Reduction by a Templar’s Faith Attribute, but the player cannot spend Faith Points to reduce damage; Nobility, which enables a Templar to request lodging from peasantry or royalty alike; and Spiritual Well, which gives a chance to recover the first Faith Point spent each day. Advancement Points are earned for making Critical rolls and can be spent during Downtime to increase Skills, to unlock Relics, and to learn Esoterica, the latter including Magicks, Blessings, and Martial Esoterica.

Learning Magicks means learning esoteric spells and the gnostic unlocking of the universe’s secrets through greater mystical understanding, and requires a Templar to study the Library of Solomon. This grants the Templar the Gnosis skill and access to an increasingly harder to cast circles of spells, such as Angelic Light or Obscured From Man’s Eyes. The Third Circle includes Bind Angel/Demon and Resurrect the Dead. Blessings are granted by the Saints, such as St. Adrian, who as the Patron Saint of Guards, grants Advantage on Awareness Tests made when keeping watch or trying to detect ambushes, or St. Christopher, who as the Patron Saint of Travelling, eases travel, enabling a Templar to spend a Faith Point to automatically find a safe place to shelter for the night. It is up to the Grand Master how a Templar comes to learn a Blessing, though he needs a high Piety to learn each one. The one suggested method is having access to the Holy Grail, but Templar might easily be granted through great acts of piety or a gift from a sympathetic member of the church. Lastly, Martial Esoterica such as Agile Climber, Hammering Blows, or Sword Savant are mundane abilities that can be learned or taught from training, meditation, and a host of other sources.

Of the three types, Martial Esoterica is the easiest to learn and include in an 
Heirs to Heresy campaign. Both Magicks and Blessings are more difficult, and not only require the Grand Master to decide whether her campaign is infused or mystical in nature, but also what the source for either is going to be. There are obvious choices here—the Library of Solomon for Magicks and the Holy Grail for Blessings, and if the Grand Master decides that either of these has a role in her campaign, especially as the treasure that which Grand Master Jacques de Molay has bid the Player Characters take to safety, that treasure becomes doubly important. It not only serves as their burden, but also a source of their mystical power, and ultimately, their faith made real.

Although 
Heirs to Heresy is simple in its core set-up and its mechanics, the Grand Master actually has a fair amount of work to do in bringing a ready to play to the table. She has to decide the length of the campaign and the destination that the Templar Player Characters have to travel to, who is pursuing them—the roleplaying game comes with a good list of enemies, what Avallonis is and what the treasure is that they are carrying, the nature of magic and presence of esoterica in the campaign, and ultimately, the truth about the Poor Fellow-Soldiers of Christ and of the Temple of Solomon. The suggestions cover most of the classic theories, that the Knights Templar were the Guardians of the Grail or the Lineage of Christ, Idol worshippers, or Gnostic knights, wanted to establish a Templar Nation-State, or had entered into an agreement, even an alliance, with the Order of Assassins. Of course, with a subject like the Knights Templar, there is a wealth of source material available to research and draw inspiration. And to some extent, research is really necessary for a roleplaying game like Heirs to Heresy, for as much as it is a work of historical fantasy, it still draws from and is set in that history. The Grand Master will want to research interesting locations and persons along the route that the Templar Player Characters decide to take to get to their Avallonis, and the longer the campaign, the more that the Grand Master will need to do this. This suggests, especially for those of a medium or long length, a possible structure for an Heirs to Heresy campaign, that of episodic television, in particular in the mode of the series The Incredible Hulk or The Fugitive. This may ease the amount of research the Grand Master has to do as well as helping her organise and develop her campaign.

The actual advice for the Grand Master is split into two strands. There is the advice for setting up a campaign and running adventures, and there is advice on being a Grand Master and on running a safe game, the latter being nice and clear in its presentation. All of which is welcome, but leads to a certain imbalance between whether 
Heirs to Heresy is designed as a roleplaying game for players new to the hobby or for long time players. The advice on running a safe game is welcome for either, but the effort needed to go into the set-up and the potential research needed for a campaign suggests that the roleplaying game is better suited to experienced players and potential Grand Masters.

Heirs to Heresy includes the beginning scenario, ‘The Flight from Paris’, which is intended to be played in a single session and lead into a campaign of the Grand Master’s own design. It specifically opens on the morning of Friday, October 13th, 1307 with the Player Characters awakened to find the Enclos du Temple already under assault and as they prepare to defend their order, they are pulled aside for an important mission. Which of course, is the flight from Paris, the exact details of which the Grand Master will have to define and her players roleplay. As a one-session scenario it throws the Player Characters into the action and teaches the players the rules, so has them ready for what is to come.

Rounding out the roleplaying game is an appendix of pre-generated Player Characters and a lengthy list of Angels and Demons. There are four pre-generated Player Characters and they are nicely balanced between Dedicated Knights and Versatile Knights, male and female knights, and diverse origins. The list of the Angels and Demons is lengthy and designed to work with the Angel and Demon Binding magick detailed earlier in the book. The list of demons is taken from the Key of Solomon, the Lesser Key of Solomon, and various other texts in the Library of Solomon.

Physically, 
Heirs to Heresy is presented in a clean, tidy, and fairly open fashion. It does need a slight edit and is decently illustrated in full colour. Except for when it comes to the tables, the Heirs to Heresy very much looks like anything other than a roleplaying game from Osprey Games. This is primarily due to Heirs to Heresy being a lighter game in terms of its background and mechanics, and ultimately, tighter in its focus, which results in a less compact presentation.

Heirs to Heresy is a toolkit to run a historical fantasy campaign, one which will need preparation and research. Almost a toolkit to run a single campaign for a single group of players, since it is designed to tell a particular story, and once played it is hard to retell that or a similar story with the same group. Within that story though—that of the exodus in the wake of their order’s downfall—Heirs to Heresy allows scope to tell of the Knights Templars’ last flight and of their fear, faith, bravery, and hopefully, their enlightenment.