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

Sunday, 31 January 2021

Demand and Dread on the War Road

Zaharets, the Land of Risings, has been free for six generations. Kept as slaves for longer than they can remember, it has been one-hundred-and-fifty years since the Luathi rose up and overthrew the great kingdom of Barak Barad, driving out their masters, the monstrous bestial folk known as the Takan. The rebels anchored their claim to the region by founding cities at the northern and southern ends of the War Road, the route which runs along the coast. From the south came traders—in goods and information, from the Kingdom of Ger, whilst the Melkoni came from the west to establish a colony city-state of their own in the Zaharets. To the east, inland, lies a great desert, home to the horse clans of the Trauj, who trade with the Luathi and guide their merchants across the desert, whilst remaining ever watchful of dangers only they truly understand. In time, Zaharets has become a crossroads where three landmasses and numerous cultures meet. Yet as hard as the Luathi have worked to re-establish human civilisation, the Zaharets is not safe. There are a great many ruins to be explored and cleansed of the Takan, there are secrets of the time before the Luathi’s enslavement to be discovered, bandits prey upon the merchant caravans as they traverse the War Road, and there are dark forces which whisper promises of power and influence into the ears of the ambitious—and there is something worse. Jackals. Jackals give up the safety of community and law and order to go out into the ruins and discover the secrets hidden there, to burn the broken cities free of Takan presence, to face the bandits that raid lawful merchants, and worse… No good community would have truck with the Jackals. For who knows what evil, what chaos they might bring back with them? Yet Jackals face the dangers that the community cannot, Jackals keep the community safe when it cannot, and from amongst the Jackals come some of the mightiest heroes of the Zaharets, and perhaps in time, the community’s greatest leaders when the Jackals decide it is time to retire and let other Jackals face the dangers beyond the walls of the towns and cities of the Land of Risings.

This is the set-up for Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying, a roleplaying game in land akin to the Levant in a post-Bronze Age collapse. Released by Osprey Games, the publisher of roleplaying games such as Paleomythic, Romance of the Perilous Kingdoms, Righteous Blood, Ruthless Blades, and Those Dark Places, this is a roleplaying game inspired by the epic myth cycles of the Ancient Near East—The Iliad, The Odyssey, Gilgamesh, amongst others, as well as the history. They primarily serve as inspiration though, for although there are parallels between the various cultures of Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying, so the Ger are akin to the people of Middle/New Kingdom Egypt, the Luathi to those of Israel and Canaan, the Melkoni to Mycenaen Greece, and the Trauj to the dessert and tribal nomads of the Arabian Peninsula, these are cultural touchstones rather than direct adaptations. In Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying, each of the Player Characters will be human, a Jackal from one these four cultures, most obviously a warrior or a ritualist, but also possibly a craftsman, scholar, thief, or even politician, who has eschewed his or her community in favour of secrets, glory, honour, and danger to ultimately protect it.

A Player Character or Jackal in 
Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying is first defined by his Culture, either Luathi, Ger, Melkoni, or Trauj. This defines his virtues—what his culture values are, suggests reasons for becoming a Jackal, faith, magical traditions if a Ritualist, names and appearance, and skill bonuses. A virtue, if relevant, can be used to improve a skill test, essentially a fumble into a failure, a failure into a success, and a success into a critical success. For example, with ‘Fires of Freedom’, a Luathi Jackal can call on the virtue to defend against attempts—physical or spiritual—to take him into bondage or to fight to ensure that others remain free. A Jackal also has five attributes—Strength, Deftness, Vitality, Courage, and Wisdom—which range between nine and eighteen at start. They can be lowered at the cost of Corruption Points and a Ritualist also has a sixth attribute, Devotion, which represents the strength of his devotion to the spiritual world. He has various derived abilities, including Mettle, representing his willingness to fight; Clash Points, representing his battlefield awareness and capacity to react; and Devotion Points, used to invoke rituals, plus Skills which are percentiles and can go above one hundred percent. A Jackal has four traits, two general and two cultural. Each trait is tied to a specific skill and when that skill is rolled, a player can roll an extra die to provide with a choice of ones when determining the percentile value of the roll. This can be advantageous when determining if the player has rolled a critical result—failure of success, either of which requires doubles. So if Jackal had an appropriate trait, his player would roll percentile dice, plus an extra ones die, for example, ‘30’, ‘7’, and ‘3’, he would select the ‘3’ rather than the ‘7’ for a critical success of ‘33’ if the skill is high enough to get a critical success, or opt for the ‘7’ and ‘37’ if not to avoid a critical fumble. For example, ‘Light Touch’ is a general trait which provides this bonus for pickpocketing attempts for the Thievery skill rather than all Thievery related actions, whilst ‘The Jewels of Melkon’ is a Melkoni cultural trait which grants the extra die for Craft rolls related to whitesmithing, or working with gold or silver.

To create a Jackal, a player comes up with a concept, chooses a Culture and an associated virtue, before assigning seventeen points to his attributes (which begin at nine). After deriving various abilities from them, he assigns points to his skills. These are done group by group, so Common, Defensive, Martial, Knowledge, and Urban skills, and the points are different for each group, being derived from various attributes and derived abilities. The player selects four traits, two general and two cultural, selects equipment, and answers some character questions, primarily how and why he is a Jackal. The process is not overly complex, but it does involve a little arithmetic.

Kallistrate is a native of Kroryla, the Melkoni colony established four decades ago in the Zaharets. She is a devotee of Lykos, the founder of the colony and demi-god, and believes it is her destiny to follow in his path rather than that destined by her parents—a good marriage, children, and… boredom. She walked out on a betrothal and following in her family trade, weaving, and sort to make a name for herself in her own right.

Name: Kallistrate
Culture: Melkoni
Cultural Virtue: The Fires of Lust

Strength 12 Deftness 16 Vitality 12 Courage 12 Wisdom 10 Devotion 00

Clash Points: 5 (Max. 5)
Mettle: 12 (Max. 12)
Valour: 18 (Max. 18)

Wounds 6
Valour ×3 (6)
Valour ×2 (6)
Valour ×1 (6)

Common Skills
Craft 66%, Drive 15%, Influence 60%, Perception 55%, Perform 75%, Ride 10%, Sail 10%, Survival 50%

Defensive Skills
Dodge 60%, Endurance 45%, Willpower 45%

Martial Skills
Athletics 50%, Melee Combat 75%, Ranged Combat 30%, Unarmed Combat 40%

Knowledge Skills
Culture (own) 45%, Culture (Other) 25%, Healing 40%, Lore 20%, Ancient Lore 00%

Urban Skills 56
Deception 31%, Stealth 40%, Thievery 10%, Trade 45%

Traits and Talents
Bearer of the Eye of Chium (Perception for Ambushes)
Dangerous Beauty (Influence – Charm/Seduction)
Classically Trained (Rhetoric)
Twin Fangs (Two Leaf-Bladed Swords)

Combat
Damage Bonus: +1d4 Move: 15 Initiative: 16+1d6
Weapons: Twin Leaf-Bladed Swords (1d8)
Armour: Leather (2)

Mechanically, 
Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying employs the Clash system. This is a percentile system in which rolls of ninety-one and above is always a failure, even though skills can be modified or even raised through advancements above one hundred percent. Rolls of doubles rolls under a skill are a critical success and rolls of double over are a fumble. Opposed rolls are handled by both parties rolling, with the participant who rolls higher and succeeds at the skill check winning. In general, except in situations where there is an extended contest, such as a chase or combat, only one roll is made for a particular skill per scene. Of course, traits and cultural values have a chance of modifying a roll, depending upon the situation, but a Jackal also has several fate Points. These are used to gain a re-roll of a skill check or a damage roll, to add a narrative twist, to invoke a talent that a Jackal does not have, and to prevent a Jackal from dying when reduced to zero Wounds.

If in terms of skills and skill checks, the Clash system in 
Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying is simple and straightforward, combat by comparison, is not. Every combatant typically one main action in a combat round, often a standard type attack, but with the addition of Clash points, combat becomes more dynamic, more heroic. In the main they work as reactions, such as responding to a melee attack and turning it into a clash or dodging a ranged attack, or taking minor actions in addition to a main action. For example, switching a weapon, invoking a rite, or standing up from prone. They can also be spent to improve the effect of an action, such as turning a simple attack into a power attack or sweeping arc, though this costs more in terms of Clash Points. Damage is taken first in terms of Valour Points, and then in Wounds, and once a Jackal begins suffering Wounds, damage can have permanent effects. Suffer enough wounds and a player has to roll for Scarring at the end of a combat.
On the edge of the Luasa Sands, Gashur, a Luathi Hasheer, a seeker of knowledge, has engaged a Trauj guide, Ikemma of the Ashan Mudi clan, to locate some ruins. Accompanied by her bodyguard, Kallistrate, they have penetrated a cave network and discovered some worked rooms where Gashur has begun to survey some of the mosaics on the walls. Their investigations have alerted a band of Takan, the small, foul and rat-like Norakan led by their leader, one of the hyena-like Oritakan and his lieutenant, the simian Mavakan. The Loremaster states that Kallistrate can use her Bearer of the Eye of Chium Talent to determine if she spots the ambush. Kallistrate has a Perception of 55% and her player rolls percentile dice plus another die for the ones. The percentile roll is ‘99%’! Not only a failure, but a fumble too. Fortunately, the roll of the second ones die results in a ‘5’. Kallistrate’s player choses the ‘5’ and turns the roll into a ‘95%’ rather than the ‘99%’, downgrading it from a fumble to a failure. It means that the three Jackals have been surprised as the Takan come charging into the room, the Mavakan at their head wielding its chipped bronze axe.

Barely able to squeeze through the doorway, the Mavakan runs straight at the nearest interloper, which is Gashur. It attacks first, and the Loremaster rolls ‘18’, opting for a Shield Bash manoeuvre, smashing into the Luathi Hasheer and knocking him flying into the rubble. From behind the Mavakan, the Norakan swarm into the room and over Gashur. If the other two Jackals cannot stop him, they will drag him back into the darkness… On the next round, Kallistrate wins the initiative—she is faster than anyone in the battle, followed by the Norakan and the Oritakan, then Ikeema, and lastly the Mavakan. Kallistrate charges the large beast readying her twin swords to strike. This grants her a total of six Clash Points to spend. Her player rolls ‘40’, enough for Kallistrate to hit with her Melee Combat skill, but her Twin Fangs Talent grants her a second ones die, and this rolls a ‘4’, which turns a success into a critical. However, the Takan have their own supply of Clash points—not as many as the Jackals, but enough—and the Loremaster decides that the Mavakan will spend one to turn Kallistrate’s melee attack into an actual clash. The Loremaster roll’s the Mavakan’s Combat value and it comes up a ‘99%’! Not only a failure, but a fumble, and since the Mavakan fumbled, it suffers maximum damage, ignoring armour, and Kallistrate gains a Fate Point. Since Kallistrate hit, her player decides to power up her attack by making it a Power Attack for two Clash Points. This increases damage by an extra six-sided die, so together with the damage for the weapon and Kallistrate’s damage bonus, the Mavakan suffers a total of eighteen damage. This is more than half of its wounds!

Ikeema uses a Clash Point to ready his bow and fire an arrow at the Oritakan, but misses as the Norakan drag away the helpless Gashur. The Oritakan responds with its ‘Commanding Presence’ special ability, its high-pitched barks driving the Takan band to follow its orders. The Mavakan regains five Wounds too and all of the Takan can adjust their combat rolls as if they had an appropriate trait! Kallistrate’s blow was mighty, but it looks like the battle is not yet going the Jackal’s way…
Magic in 
Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying consists of Rites, its casters known as Ritualists. Each Ritualist enters into a pact with a power or entity of the spiritual realm, following one of the two ritualist traditions of his culture. For example, Luathi Ritualists are either Kahar, the Servants of Alwain, the creator of Kalypsis—greater world—and the initiator of Law, their rites focusing on purity, light, and water, or Hasheers of Ameena Noani, who seek out and gather the knowledge from before and during the kingdom of Barak Barad, their rites focusing on seeing and understanding. In terms of Jackal creation, a Ritualist selects a tradition from one of the two Ritualist traditions for his culture, receives one less general and one less cultural trait, knows the four rituals particular to his tradition, and has the Devotion attribute as well as access to the Magical Skills group.

In play, every Rite has a cost to cast or reserve—essentially to prepare it and cast when needed, a cost in Clash points to cast in combat, and so on. Each Rite is treated as a sperate skill roll, so it is possible to have critical effects and many can be advanced or upgraded. In the long term, this is necessary because 
Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying only includes four rites per tradition, so there are no extra rites for a Ritualist to learn, although it is possible to study another tradition, and even for non-Ritualists to begin studying a tradition.

Ikemma of the Ashan Mudi clan is of the Trauj people, a deaweller of the desert who keeps the traditions and magics of his people alive through storytelling. He has explored many ruins in his time and often serves as guide to those foolish enough from along the War Road who want to delve into the secrets that the sands of his homeland hide.

Name: Ikemma of the Ashan Mudi clan
Culture: Trauj
Cultural Virtue: Hearer of Old Tales
Ritualist Tradition: Yahtahmi

Strength 09 Deftness 12 Vitality 11 Courage 12 Wisdom 13 Devotion 15

Clash Points: 4 (Max. 4)
Mettle: 11 (Max. 11)
Valour: 15 (Max. 15)

Wounds 5
Valour ×3 (5)
Valour ×2 (5)
Valour ×1 (5)

Common Skills
Craft 45%, Drive 15%, Influence 20%, Perception 65%, Perform 57%, Ride 55%, Sail 10%, Survival 60%

Defensive Skills
Dodge 40%, Endurance 55%, Willpower 55%

Martial Skills
Athletics 50%, Melee Combat 35%, Ranged Combat 60%, Unarmed Combat 36%

Knowledge Skills
Culture (own) 50%, Culture (Other) 15%, Healing 30%, Lore 60%, Ancient Lore 00%

Urban Skills
Deception 40%, Stealth 45%, Thievery 10%, Trade 44%

Magic
Devotion Points: 15 (Max. 15)
Rites
Zahara Breaks the First Horse 52%
Ilou Slaughters the Eastern Beasts 52%
Yakhia Crosses the Luasa 52%
Tamat Finds the Well of the World 52%

Traits and Talents
Born Under Oura (Willpower)
Ruin Dweller (Lore for Ruins)

Combat
Damage Bonus: – Move: 14 Initiative: 12+1d6
Weapons – Scimitar (1d8), Trauj Bow (1d10)
Armour – Linen (1)
In the fight beneath the ruins, the Takan have spirited Gashur deeper into the darkness and the Mavakan has continued to press its attacks, wounding both Ikemma and Kallistrate. When it unleashes its Howling Fury, it forces a Willpower check on the two Jackals. Both fail, reducing their Valour temporarily. Fortunately, neither fail the second roll, so they are not forced to flee, but discretion being the better part of valour, they decide to retreat with the Mavakan at their heels. They race back through the corridors only to find their way blocked by a chasm—the Takan must have collapsed the bridge over it they used earlier. Kallistrate looks nervously at the distance, wondering if she can make the jump. Ikemma asks, “Tell me, have you heard how we Trauj first came to cross the desert? It was Yakhia who-” Kallistrate looks at the desert dweller incredulously and exclaims, “Is now a good time to be telling stories? We have Takan behind us and a missing employer.” The Yahtahmi laughs and replies that is always time for stories and in telling the story, casts the rite, ‘Yakhia Crosses the Luasa’ which grants them both a bonus to their Athletics skill equal to his Devotion for the rest of the day. With any luck, this will be enough that they can make the jump as they hear the roar of the Mavakan behind them.
If 
Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying is a solid design which supports heroic play and the clash of law and order, it is long term play where it begins to shine. In the long term, a player has the chance for his Jackal to push his skills above one hundred percent. This not only opens the option for a highly skilled warrior to divide his martial skills between attacks and dodge attempts and so forth, but further, they open up Advanced Skill Talents. These enable a Jackal to be heroic, even amazing, such as ‘Arrow Snatch’, with which a Jackal can enhance his ability to defend against a ranged attack by grabbing a missile from the air by spending further Clash points. Advanced Skill Talents are provided for each of the five skill groups.

The life of a Jackal is not just dangerous physically, but also mentally and socially. In facing the chaos left over from the remnants of the great kingdom of Barak Barad and the forces of chaos that would tear down the Law of Men, a Jackal can incur Corruption. It can also be incurred for corruptive actions, such as turning to banditry or allying with a chaotic being, and gain enough, a Jackal can have his Fate Points replaced by Dark Fate Points, which can be used to fuel dark rites, and also gain marks of Corruption, such as paranoia and pus-filled blisters. Corruption can also break a Jackal’s connection to the powers that grant him his rites, a major loss for any ritualist. Fortunately, a Jackal can undertake acts of Atonement, which varies from culture to culture, and though challenging, if successful, reduces the Jackal’s Corruption.

Unfortunately, as his Kleos, or renown, grows, a Jackal increasingly comes to the attention of the forces of Chaos. He will also gain recognition and potentially patrons, but the forces of Chaos will reach out to a Jackal, not necessarily to kill him, but tempt or coerce him—and if that fails, well, then kill him. He will have prophetic dreams too, their nature depending upon the Jackal’s degree of Corruption. Of course, no town or society, wants Jackals to return from their ventures with the stain of Corruption, and since Corruption cannot initially be detected, society cannot trust Jackals.

Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying is played over two seasons—rainy and dry, and at the end of each, a Jackal can undertake a Seasonal Action. One of these can be Atonement, but other options include Carouse, Craft/Commission an Item, Find Rumours, Increase Kleos, and Research. In the long term though, they also include Acquire Patron, Establish Home, and Hospitality, and these last Seasonal Actions represent not those of a Jackal excluded from society, but a Jackal who is attempting transition back into society. This will take years, but if a Jackal survives, he can retire, and the player’s new Jackal can benefit from the wisdom of the retiring one. Not necessarily covered in the roleplaying game, but there is scope here for generational play a la King Arthur Pendragon.

For the Loremaster—as 
Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying terms the Game Master—there is a Gazetteer of the War Road, focusing upon Ameena Noani and Sentem, the Luathi cities at the northern and southern ends of the War Road, each of the various locations accompanied by a pair of secrets which the Loremaster can expand upon. A bestiary provides a range of threats, including wolves of the four-legged and two-legged (or bandit) kind, the dead, and Takan of various types. There is good advice on running the game too, but this is not a roleplaying game intended necessarily to be run by anyone new to the hobby. Lastly, there are three adventures, designed to start a Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying campaign and lead into Jackals: Fall of the Children of Bronze, the first campaign for the game. The three scenarios will take the Jackals up and down the War Road.

Physically, Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying is as well presented as you would expect for a title from Osprey Games. The artwork is excellent and the layout clean and tidy, but it needs a slight edit in places. It is far from poorly written, but it often suffers from a lack of examples in places, or rather a lack of full examples. It certainly could have done with a full example of a Player Character and a longer example of combat to show how the Clash system fully works. Another issue with the roleplaying game is that its tables—especially the combat tables—are not repeated at the rear of the book for easy access.

Conceptually, Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying is easy to understand and grasp—the conflict between the Law of Men and Chaos, the tension between society needing those brave enough to face the threat of Chaos, but because they are, never trusted for it. Similarly, its Bronze Age will be familiar and easy to grasp, whether from The Iliad, The Odyssey, or Gilgamesh, or the films of Ray Harryhausen, but as a setting, Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying is not as easily accessible. This is a combination of content and presentation, there being a fair number of terms and phrases that the players will need to know to understand the cultures of the setting. Ultimately, the Loremaster will need to work a bit harder with her players for them to match the same degree of buy-in as herself.

Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying
is a game which will reward long term play, so it is good to know that it will be followed by Jackals: Fall of the Children of Bronze, but it would be nice to have an anthology of scenarios too. Overall, Jackals – Bronze Age Fantasy Roleplaying nicely balances its tension between the Jackals and society, giving the Jackals a rich environment in which to explore, face ancient threats, be heroic, and ultimately return from to the society they turned away from in order to protect.

Saturday, 30 January 2021

Tampered Temps & Terror

The year is 2086. In 2012, The Terminal War, a last-chance attempt by Western governments to take control of dwindling petroleum resources, triggered the use of biological and chemical weapons, as well as a limited nuclear exchange, accelerated rapid Climate Change and forced mass migration of refugees. As governments—national and local—reeled from the fallout of the war, corporations stepped in to first to aid, and then buy them out. Walls were erected around towns and cities to protect citizens from the roiling toxic fogs which cover the countryside, the mutated creatures which lurk out in the fogs, and to prevent further refugees from flooding the limited space behind the walls. Many would also combine to form larger complexes or plexes. Within the walls, these plexes were divided into security zones, from the demilitarised No-Go zone kept an eye on by police and sentry monitor guns to the wealth and protected privilege of HiSec. In between though, are LowSec and MidSec, where the police do not operate and gangs and crimes are rife. Here law enforcement has been privatised. Which is where the SANCTIONS come in.

As crime and death increase, staffing agencies are given legal powers and ‘Sanctioned’ to hire armed Temporary Employees and assign them tasks ranging from policing and search and rescue to espionage and investigation. Such employees are known as SANCTIONS and out of the money they are paid for fulfilling their assignments and bonuses for capturing or executing Officially Sanctioned targets such as ghouls or mutants, skags or gang members, biters or CHUDs (Cannibalistic Humanoid Underground Dwellers), they are expected to maintain their arms and equipment. This includes guns, armour, and bioware, or Amps, such as Coagulon Skin Coating, Porcupine Spine Ejection System, and Smog Plug nasal filters. For this is a future where bioware is used to augment men and women, cybernetics and A.I. having been outlawed following the ‘Berlin Massacre’ of 2025 when A.I. Cybertroopers ran amok due to a rogue computer virus. Bio Technology Drones are common and via biotech computer flesh pods plugged directly into the user’s nervous system grant access to the GNW or ‘Global Neuro Web’, where they can explore virtual environments, often to play, but in the case of SANCTIONS and criminals, to ferret out secrets and steal data data.

This is the set up for ++SANCTIONS++ Body Horror Sci-Fi RPG, a roleplaying game which is part Judge Dredd meets Existenz meets Bladerunner meets S.L.A. Industries meets Split Second meets Strontium Dog. Published by Purple Crayon Games Studio, it employs the publisher’s own Core-6 rules. It casts the Player Characters as these law enforcement temps, or 
SANCTIONS, each either a Shok agent—standard operatives skilled in combat, but who can specialise as scouts, investigators, hostage negotiators, and so on; Med Teks, typically medics and forensics specialists; and Tekks, who can be security specialists, hackers, mechanics, and the like. A SANCTION has five statistics—Fight, Ability (agility and dexterity), Mind, Social, and Physical, each of which ranges between one and four. A SANCTION also has Life Points or Hit Points, based on Physical and modified by Amps; Humanity, equal to 100%, but depleted by each Amp installed until there is a chance that a SANCTION might suffer BioPsychosis and go feral; and Luck, used to purchase extra success for any action or skill attempt.

To create a SANCTION, a player assigns eight points to his character’s Abilities, again ranging between one and four. Dice are rolled for Life Points, the player selects one positive and one negative trait for his SANCTION’S psyche profile, for example, Rich Kid Adventurer and Addict, and then has ten points with which to purchase skills and Talents. Each positive and negative trait grants an advantage or disadvantage. For example, Rich Kid Adventurer gives a SANCTION more starting funds, whilst Wanted means that the 
SANCTION has a bounty on his head. However, it is not clear what is necessarily a skill and what is a talent in ++SANCTIONS++, plus there are a lot of them. In fact, there are ninety-five skills and talents listed. Skills and talents are either rated at Skilled or Expert, though that is not quite clear what it means. It possibly means that a SANCTION has either one die if Skilled or two dice if Expert in a skill or talent. Since a Skilled rating costs two skill points and an Expert skill three points, a SANCTION will typically start play with just five skills, all of them probably related to one of the standard three roles as a SANCTION—Shok, Med Tek, or Tekk—because obviously a Player Character has to qualify at least in some of those skills to beSANCTION. Consequently, a Sanction does feel underskilled and the ninety-five skills in ++SANCTIONS++ just a bit much… Lastly, a player has some money with which to purchase guns and gear for his SANCTION, including bioware and amps. For the most part, this will be relatively basic equipment and amps, the really interesting ones, including fusion-powered bio armour suits being expensive.

Our sample character is Bev-MED, ex-skag, who saw one too many fellow gang members die in the south BirmChester Plex, and decided she had had enough. She stole some creds, got cleaned up and trained as a medic. She works as 
SANCTION to help people if she can.

Bev-MED
Fight 2—Handgun X
Ability 2—First Aid X, Trauma Surgery X
Mind 2—Bio Ware X, Pathology/Forensics X
Social 1
Physical 1
Life Points 14
Humanity 95
Luck 3

Psyche Profile
Positive: Hardened (+1 to Fear Tests)
Negative: Wanted (owes $C1500)

Funds: $C608
Amps: Smog Plug
Equipment: Jaeger Arms Light Auto Combat Pistol, Flak Vest, First Aid Kit, Spray Skin, Hypo-Jet, Las Fuser, Wound Foam, FukTape, cable ties, cell phone, green boy laser

Mechanically, ++SANCTIONS++ uses the publisher’s ‘Core-6’ system. This is a dice pool system using six-sided dice. Typically, for a 
SANCTION to succeed at a task, his player rolls a number of dice equal to a statistic plus skill. Each five or six rolled, counts as a success. One success is needed to succeed at an Easy Task, two at a Moderate Task, three for a Tricky Test, and so on. Rolls of two or more ones count as an Epic fail, whilst rolls of two or more sixes count as a Heroic success. This applies whether the Task is a Fear Task in a scary situation, overcoming stress due to the loss of Humanity, or driving a vehicle in a fast chase. Should a SANCTION fail, then a player can spend a point of Luck to turn one die result into a success.

Combat uses the same mechanics, but primarily consists of opposed dice rolls. Thus, Fight plus an appropriate skill, the highest roll determining the winner. Both damage and any armour are rolled for, the latter reducing the amount of damage the target suffers and the amount that the armour protects by one. For the most part, damage is rolled on either one or two six-sided dice, plus modifiers, whether from weapons or C.H.U.D.s, so combat is moderately deadly. Mechanically, hacking and running the Global Neuro Web in ++SANCTIONS++ essentially employs the same rules as for combat, whilst narratively they are run as virtual reality encounters, essentially enabling Control to run as encounters in alternative genres.

For the most part, ++SANCTIONS++ includes a lot of lists. Lists of guns, amps, bioware, bio computers and custom rigs, agencies and corporations, pills and drugs, phobias, and more. In terms of background, it sketches out the future in broad strokes, never getting down to specifics more than naming the town of Northampton in the colour fiction. This is intentional since the roleplaying game is designed to be flexible in that it can be set anywhere of the Control’s choosing. It does however, provide various ‘Officially Sanctioned Targets’, from A.I.s and Bions or artificially intelligent drones to gatas (sewer alligators) and muties. It also includes several hooks for Gigs—or short assignments, an actual playable Gig, and a much longer assignment also playable. Both are enough to run and play and for a group to get a feel for how ++SANCTIONS++ runs and plays.

Lastly, there is some advice for Control. Mostly, this explores the role of body horror in the ++SANCTIONS++. It is present in the setting, certainly in the case of the monsters and the ‘Officially Sanctioned Targets’ that the 
SANCTIONS are tasked with dealing with. However, it is not quite as present within the Player Characters, mainly because the primary vector for body horror is amps and other bioware, and to really reduce a SANCTION’S Humanity, it requires quite a fair number of pieces of bioware—and that is expensive. Further, it is slightly offset by the other side of the Humanity mechanics which restores a SANCTION’S Humanity by a few percentage points for doing good deeds.

Physically, ++SANCTIONS++ Body Horror Sci-Fi RPG needs both an editor and a developer. Although the black and white digest-size book is liberally illustrated with a range of photographs, line art, and cartoons, the layout is scrappy, even disjointed, and it has no index.

There is no denying that ++SANCTIONS++ is rough around the edges, and in need of further development, but the combination of simple mechanics and the fact that it displays its influences like a retina overlay across your sight, makes it more accessible than it might otherwise have been. The broad strokes in which its post-Terminal War future is painted also gives it a flexibility in terms of where and when Control sets her game, whether that is in her local plex or a big city familiar to us all. Feeling more like an ashcan than necessarily the finished artefact, ++SANCTIONS++ Body Horror Sci-Fi RPG offers a biopunk body-horror future that the Control can tinker with and turn into something of her own.

Friday, 29 January 2021

Grapes of Wrath!

Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror #1: They Served Brandolyn Red is a scenario for Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. However, as its title suggests it is not the typical fantasy scenario for the roleplaying game. Published by Goodman Games, it presents a combination of fantasy and horror, in particular gothic horror—and it does so in one of the signature features of both the Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic and the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, and that is, the ‘Character Funnel’. In this, 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. However, in order to get the Player Characters to First Level, Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror #1: They Served Brandolyn Red, pours out a glass or two of extremely full-bodied, bloody, gothic encounters!

Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror #1: They Served Brandolyn Red is also different in that it has a story-based set-up rather than the Player Characters, despite being Zero Level, being nothing more than simple villagers. It is also different because it has handouts and for those Player Characters who survive the ordeal, it is different because there is a sequel! The set-up requires that two of the Player Characters be Elves, but all come from the same village, from one of four families—the Dragontear, Leddy, Vintner, and Whitegrass families, and the handouts include family rumours and legends, complete with family crests, a family tree, and an illustration to show the players at the appropriate time. The sequel is Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror: The Corpse That Love Built.

The setting for Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror #1: They Served Brandolyn Red is the village of Portnelle. As the scenario opens, everything is bright and festive, and almost everyone is happy. Today there is going to be a wedding. After years of feuding, the town’s most prominent and influential families, the human Leddy family and the elven Whitegrass family, will come together and end the acrimony between them when the Elven maid, Nala Whitegrass, marries her husband to be, the Human, Hort Leddy. Unfortunately, the wedding turns rancorous when ant-men burrow up from beneath the church and begin taking the heads of the guests, and the old inter-family feud resurfaces all too quickly! After an ant-men-wedding guest brawl, it will be up to the Player Characters, some of them related to the bride or groom, others not, to race off after the ant-men, if not to rescue those already grabbed, then at least to put a stop to it happening again and bringing back the body parts for proper burial.

Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror #1: They Served Brandolyn Red consists of two mini-sandboxes. The first will see the Player Characters chase the ant-men onto the Longbow Vineyard, once the property of the Vintner family—of which some of the Player Characters are members, but which long since been abandoned. The second leads through some tunnels under the vineyard to the final denouement with the semi-sentient subterranean parasite who serves as the scenario’s primary antagonist. After the somewhat absurdist nature of the wedding, the scenario gets into its full gothic swing with encounters in the abandoned vineyard, including the former home of the Vintner family, the winery, and the family mausoleum. These are quite creepy encounters, each hinting at the secret that befell the Vintner family and ultimately led to the abandonment of the vineyard. This comes to a head in the winery with an absolutely fantastic staged encounter escalates from a haunting into something worthy of a Hammer Horror film. Of course, this being an adventure for Dungeon Crawl Classics and the Player Characters all being Zero Level, this is a thoroughly nasty encounter, but it is huge fun and the Judge should ham it up for she is worth.

By comparison, the delve into the tunnels below the vineyard are not as interesting as the encounters above ground in the vineyard. Taking place in the ant-men nest, they are in turns creepy and gooey and smelly, and they do resolve the scenario in terms of what it is going on in the present, whereas the exploration of the vineyard will reveal hidden family secrets and what happened in the past. Yet, they are not as much fun as the encounters above ground. 

Physically, Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror #1: They Served Brandolyn Red is nicely presented. It is well written, the map is good, and the illustrations are all excellent. The handouts are also good. The scenario should take a session or two to complete, but no more. The length of the scenario also means that it is easy to prepare.

There are plenty of Character Funnel scenarios for Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game, after all, they are a signature feature of the roleplaying game. Yet, Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror #1: They Served Brandolyn Red is no mere fantasy set-up and adventure. It is a tough adventure, with some nasty encounters, but from the start it involves story and it involves the Player Characters in that story, and it presents not one, but two mysteries. The first, taking place above ground in the vineyard, involves the four families and all but forgotten secrets of the past between them, the second below ground concerns the present and why the wedding was attacked, and has more of the feel of a fantasy story. The story is suitably gothic and is carried through into the vineyard’s best wine, Brandolyn Red, which will have a suitably gothic effect upon anyone who drinks it and also forms the adventure’s most notable treasure! Overall, Dungeon Crawl Classics Horror #1: They Served Brandolyn Red is an enjoyably entertaining scenario, one which the Judge will have as much fun running as her players do roleplaying.

Monday, 25 January 2021

Miskatonic Monday #59: The Posse

 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: The Posse

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Andy Miller

Setting: Down Darker Trails
Product: Scenario
What You Get: thirty-four page, 29.29 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Cowboys and dinosaurs, oh my! (Again)
Plot Hook: The Boyd Gang has robbed the 11:10 to Santaquin! Let’s ride out and round ‘em up.
Plot Support: Introduction to train robberies, five NPCs, six detailed pregenerated Investigators, NPC and Investigator portraits.
Production Values: Decent.

Pros
Cowboys and dinosaurs, oh my!
# Sequel to The Last Valley
# Potential convention scenario
# Potential one-shot
# Well done pregenerated Investigators
# Enjoyable introduction to the Lost Worlds genre
# Straightforward plot
# Multiple set-ups
# Classic Wild West set-up
# Action driven scenario

Cons

# Linear plot
# Utah background underused
# Requires The Last Valley
# No Sanity losses for failure?

Conclusion
# Cowboys and dinosaurs, oh my!
Classic Wild West set-up
# Linear plot

Sunday, 24 January 2021

From Tales to Things

Out of Time is the first campaign for Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the ’80s That Never Was –and quite possibly the last. With Out of Time, Free League Publishing brings the award-winning roleplaying game based on the paintings of Simon Stålenhag to a close. Throughout this alternate childhood of the 1980s, young teenagers have explored rural small-town Sweden, but a rural small-town Sweden in which its streets, woods and fields, and skies and seas are populated by robots, gravitic tractors and freighters, strange sensor devices, and even creatures from the long past. To the inhabitants of this landscape, this is all perfectly normal—at least to the adults. To the children of this landscape, this technology is a thing of fascination, of wonderment, and of the strangeness that often only they can see. In Tales from the Loop, it is often this technology that is the cause of the adventures that the children—the Player Characters—will have away from their mundane, often difficult lives at home and at school. Taking place at the end of the decade, Out of Time takes place over the course of year, but has potential to be something more—and all because the campaign involves time travel…

Out of Time begins with a rash of pets and farm animals going missing, followed by flyers asking for information about lost pets going up across the neighbourhood, then rumours of a mechanical contraption seen roaming the fields outside the small communities of the Mälaren Islands. When the Player Characters investigate, they discover the first of many strange experiments taking place, experiments which get stranger and stranger as the campaign progresses. Later, their summer takes a decidedly strange, literally ‘Out of the Body’ turn, which reveals more of the Mystery, before the weather gets randomly worse and storms threaten to shut the region down. Ultimately, to solve the Mystery and even save the world, the Player Characters must sneak out during a lockdown and break into the Facility for Research in High Energy Physics—or ‘The Loop’—the world’s largest particle accelerator, constructed and run by the government agency, Riksenergi. There at last they can discover what links the storms out of nowhere which bring strange mud and sand, the repeated crashes of the magnetrine ship Susi Talvi, the weird flashbacks at their summer camp, and the 1969 moon landing.

The campaigns consists of a trilogy of scenarios—‘The Animal Ark’, ‘Summer Camp’, and ‘The Storm in the Hourglass’. The first takes place just before Christmas, 1988, which only serves to heighten the fractious state of their home lives, but at the same time, there are reports of missing animals, strange devices can be found scattered throughout the area, and a magnetrine ship appears out of a rip in the sky to crash again and again. ‘The Animal Ark’ is quite a short scenario, but does a good job of setting up the campaign, whilst giving the players scope to develop their characters’ home lives. There is advice for the Game Master and suggestions as to what can be added to reflect the heightened anxiety and emotions which seem to occur at Christmas, but many players will have had experiences of their own and can make suggestions of their own too. Essentially setting the scenario at Christmas serves to strengthen the two contrasting strands of a Tales from the Loop game, one being the Game Master presenting the weirdness of its alternative setting and the Mysteries of The Loop, the other being the players exploring the emotional, but mundane complexities of their characters’ home lives.

‘Summer Camp’ moves the time on to the summer of 1989 and the tradition of children being sent to summer camp. Here the Player Characters and other local children are kept busy with a range of outdoor activities, from hut building and gymnastics to orienteering and telling ghost stories round the fire. Things get strange though, when each of the Player Characters wakes up to find that not only is he not in his own body, but he is not in his own time—it is 1969! This presents a challenge for both character and player, as he must negotiate life in an unfamiliar period and negotiate unfamiliar relationships. This is in addition to the ups and downs of life at the summer camp, a strange old man in the woods, and weird dreams… Although replacement characters are provided for the players to roleplay in 1969, one of the options is for the Game Master to create the parents of the Player Characters from back in 1989. Here is a fantastic opportunity for the players to roleplay their characters’ parents and what they were like as children. However, this will take some extra effort upon the part of the Game Master to set up and develop, but the emotional payoff, as the Player Characters realise that their parents had Mysteries of their own to solve and weirdness going on around them just as their children do in 1989, is a great piece of storytelling…

‘The Storm in the Hourglass’ brings the campaign and the 1980s to a close. Set in the autumn of 1989, the storms back in ‘The Animal Ark’ appear again and begin to escalate, forcing the authorities to declare an emergency as the weather worsens. ‘Men in Black’ are seen around the Mälaren Islands as ‘time bubbles’, which when the Player Characters investigate, turn out to be unstable, appear across the region. There are indications too that the technology which has been a fixture of the Player Characters’ childhood is malfunctioning, including the Loop itself. The climax of the campaign will see the Player Characters hopping from time bubble to time bubble and breaking into the Graviton at the heart of the Loop, there to confront their antagonist and the threat she has created.

Of the three scenarios in Out of Time, ‘Summer Camp’ is the longest, mainly because there is a large number of camp activities and events to involve the Player Characters in before anything strange happens. Potentially, this may unbalance the tension between the ordinary and outré strands of a typical Tales from the Loop scenario. Probably the best solution would be for the Game Master to tailor the camp activities and events to the Player Characters to avoid this. As the campaign progresses though, it does grow in complexity, especially in the finale with all of the hopping from time bubble to time bubble.

As a campaign, Out of Time introduces an aspect intrinsically excluded from Tales from the Loop, and that is the potential death of a Player Character. In 1969, the Player Characters are threatened by the campaign’s antagonist with a gun—and she is not afraid to use it. Now in this sequence, it is not as much of an issue, since the Player Characters are not in their bodies, but it highlights the greater peril they face in the campaign. Of course, if the Game Master has decided to port the Player Characters back into their parents, it amplifies the peril, even threatening a Grandfather Paradox should one of the parents be shot and die… Back in 1989, there is the possibility that the Player Characters will fail and unlike in previous scenarios for Tales from the Loop, that has world-ending consequences…

The possibility of the Player Characters facing their death in Out of Time foreshadows another possible option for the campaign, which is to run it as a link between Tales from the Loop and its nineties sequel, Things from the Flood, where death for the Player Characters is a possibility. The authors suggest that the final part, ‘The Storm in the Hourglass’ be shifted forward to 1994 when the ‘Mälarö Leak’ occurred, hot, brown liquid bubbling up out of the ground, forcing an evacuation that would last for years, flooding the Loop, and precipitating to a scandal that would force the Swedish government to shut down Riksenergi and sell the Loop. The advice on this is perhaps somewhat underwritten and it does mean that there is a much longer gap between the events of ‘Summer School’ and ‘The Storm in the Hourglass’, during which time events will have moved out of the framework for Tales from the Loop. However, Out of Time does provide options which would bridge this gap.

The first option is a nonet of ‘Secret Places’, a Mystery Landscape which fits both the 1980s of Tales from the Loop and the 1990s of Things from the Flood. These range from the strange platforms, mechanical marvels, and scrap ships being seen throughout the area of ‘Castle in the Sky’ to the lone concrete foundation with a single hatch which appears having thrust up from the ground in ‘Extra Life’. All of the Mysteries come with an explanation as to the Truth, Hooks, Countdown, and the Antagonist, and can be easily slotted into a Game Master’s campaign or expanded as necessary. The second option is ‘The Mystery Machine’, a set of tables for inspiring and generating Mysteries of the Game Master’s own design, whilst the third, ‘The Mix-CD of Mysteries’ presents an octuple of Mysteries based on eight classic CD tracks from the nineties, such as Nirvana’s Smells Like Teen Spirit and Pulp’s Common People. Again, these come with an explanation as to the Truth, Hooks, Countdown, and the Antagonist, and can be easily slotted into a Game Master’s campaign or expanded as necessary. Again, just like the Mystery Landscape of ‘Secret Places’, they will need some development upon the part of the Game Master. However, most of the tracks listed come from the mid to late nineties and so thematically, do not quite bridge the gap between Tales from the Loop and Things from the Flood as well as a wider selection might do. In many cases, the mature nature of the lyrics and the Mysteries they inspire better suit the nineties and thus Things from the Flood than they do Tales from the Loop. Nevertheless, thematically they can be used to foreshadow the nineties and events of Things from the Flood and of course, inspire the Game Master to write her own using other lyrics.

Physically, Out of Time is as well presented as you would expect for a Tales from the Loop title. Of course, it highlights Simon Stålenhag’s fantastic artwork, but the writing is also good and the layout is clean, tidy, and accessible. All three scenarios follow the same format, making them easy to access and relatively easy to run.

It is great to finally have a campaign for Tales from the Loop, even if it is bringing the decade and the roleplaying game to a close. It should be no surprise that the campaign is challenging given it involves time travel, and although the plot is given a clear diagram for the Game Master to follow, it is complex and will require her to read through the plot with some care. With that preparation, Out of Time is a fantastic campaign, presenting the Player Characters with a challenging and enjoyably complex mystery, a mystery which brings Tales from the Loop to the conclusion it deserves.

Saturday, 23 January 2021

Hylophobia Horror

The Dark Forest – A Call of Cthulhu Scenario Set in the Modern Day is a scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Published by Stygian Fox Publishing, it is the second release from the publisher as part of its Patreon programme. The scenario is a missing persons case—that of a child at a detention and rehabilitation centre for youth offenders—which takes the Investigators to Michigan state’s Upper Peninsula and deep into the Hiawatha National Forest where they will confront ancient gods and the pernicious influence of the Mythos, all hiding behind a façade of corporate greed and child rehabilitation. The set-up of the scenario means that The Dark Forest could easily be run using Delta Green: The Roleplaying Game as it can Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, although it introduces an agency of its own, The Advocacy, an independent consultancy which takes U.S. government contracts and investigates unusual events. However, the scenario does carry a ‘Contains Explicit Content’ warning and the advice that some players might find its mature themes disturbing, dealing as it does with rape, molestation, and institutional violence against defenceless teenagers. 

The Dark Forest – A Call of Cthulhu Scenario Set in the Modern Day begins with the Investigators being contacted by Martina Love. Her son, Donte, is nearing the end of his sentence at the P.J. Nelson Training School for Boys in Michigan state’s Upper Peninsula, but she has not heard anything from him, the staff say that he is at an external facility, and she is becoming increasingly worried. She asks the Investigators to find her son for her, but when the Investigators begin to make enquiries, they quickly learn that the youth correctional facility is currently in lockdown because several of the boys have absconded. All this and more will need to be determined before the Investigators arrive in northern Michigan, where the mobile phone network is unpredictable and connection to the Internet even worse. Beyond this however, there is relatively little to be learned through the research methods traditional to Lovecraftian investigative roleplay and consequently, the scenario has just the single handout. An alternative set-up for The Dark Forest is to have the Investigators be teachers at the P.J. Nelson Training School for Boys. This is a stronger set-up if the Keeper wants to run the scenario as a one-shot, but does require the Keeper to prepare and present a lot of information that the teachers would know upfront because they work at the facility, rather than delivering them piece by piece as Investigators coming from the outside conduct their enquiries. 

Once the Investigators get to Hiawatha Township and the P.J. Nelson Training School for Boys, the investigation takes place in three stages—interviews at the prison, at the prison’s work camps where the boys undergo vocational training for life beyond their sentence, and with the prison’s de facto warden, Bill Nelson. The Investigators are likely discover that the staff and inmates have grown used to the oddities of life in and around the Hiawatha National Forest, and are not necessarily hiding anything sinister, but simply corrupt. (Well, the scenario is set in a privatised prison system after all.) A radically transformative and horrid encounter with one of the missing boys definitely points to the former though, that is, if the Investigators survive the encounter, as it comes at a moment when they are unaware of what is to come and thus unprepared. The scenario does not deal with the fallout from this, but it will point towards something going on deep in the forest. 

Initially, there is an ethereal feel to the Investigators’ incursions into the forest, but as their search for answers continues and takes them in deeper and deeper, the feel becomes darker and darker, as well as literally as the foliage and canopy thickens, and the light fades… Ultimately, the Investigators will confront the evil at the heart of the scenario, a confrontation which will take them into the Finnish equivalent of the ‘Upside Down’. The change from the here to the ‘Upside Down’ is nicely handled, but the confrontation itself, although climatic, is one note—a fight. No other means of defeating the threat are suggested and the likelihood is that the antagonist will defeat the Investigators unless they are forewarned and thus well-armed. Unfortunately, that is not necessarily likely since Investigators do not have the opportunity to learn very much about what it is that they are facing, and less so if the Investigators are teachers at the P.J. Nelson Training School for Boys. The advice is that the Keeper should allow the Investigators to retreat and make a plan, before coming back to face the threat. Notably, at the end of the scenario, there is a Sanity reward for retreating from the threat, which is only slightly less than for defeating it. 

Physically, The Dark Forest – A Call of Cthulhu Scenario Set in the Modern Day needs an editor. 

Yet in other ways, The Dark Forest is a superbly presented book. It is done in quite a rich palette of earthy colours and the artwork is, for the most part, excellent. Besides the absence of editing, the book could have been better organised in places, but that is something that the Keeper can easily adjust to. 

As interesting as The Dark Forest is in reinterpreting the forces and influence of the Mythos through another mythology and pantheon, that of Finnish myths of the Kalevala, the execution is ultimately underwhelming. The Investigators are never quite able to prepare for, or understand, what they will face in the Finnish equivalent of the ‘Upside Down’, and the singular solution of violence is disappointing. The Dark Forest – A Call of Cthulhu Scenario Set in the Modern Day starts strong with an intriguing mystery and its presentation of mature themes is well-handled and there are some creepy scenes, but its dénouement leaves much to be desired.

Friday, 22 January 2021

Blue Collar Sci-Fi Horror III

It has been almost thirty-five years since the publisher of Britain’s longest running Science Fiction comic, 2000 AD, dabbled in the field of roleplaying. Both times, it was with solo adventure books, first with the Diceman comic, and then with You are Maggie Thatcher: a dole-playing game, but that changes with the initial release of a new publication from Rebellion. This is Adventure Presents, essentially a complete roleplaying game and scenario in a magazine format. The first issue is Tartarus Gate – A Roleplaying Game of Sci-Fi Horror, from the designers of Spire: The City Must Fall. This consists of a simple roleplaying game and a full, three-session scenario designed for up to six players and the Game Master for which everyone will need three six-sided dice and some pencils. The Game Master will need to do some careful preparation, but Tartarus Gate – A Roleplaying Game of Sci-Fi Horror comes with everything necessary to play—six ready-to-play pregenerated Player Characters, a handful of NPCs, and some absolutely gorgeous cartography and art.

The setting for Tartarus Gate is the year 2130. For years, Earth has been dominated by the OBOL Corporation and in search of a better future—or at least proper employment, the Player Characters have taken positions as unpaid interns aboard the transport ship Charon, entrusted with shepherding cargo from Earth to the Tartarus Gate Waystation. Six months into the journey, they are awoken from their Deep Sleep Pods and after recovering from the process, they are given their first task. Visual feeds from the lower decks have gone down, but before they did, the computers registered that something was moving. All the interns have to do is descend to the lower decks, restore the visual feeds, and ensure that there is nothing moving down there that there should not be… The Charon is six months’ travel from the nearest help, so it is down to the interns. With luck, they can impress their employer and make their temporary employment permanent.

The format of Tartarus Gate is important. The centre twenty-two pages are intended to be pulled out. They start with the six four-page character sheets, each of which includes a briefing, the character description, equipment list, and deck plans of the Charon. Then they followed by the various map handouts, all done in three dimensions and full colour, the four-page explanation of the rules for Tartarus Gate, and the eight-page GM Reference Book. This leaves the other twenty-two pages of Tartarus Gate devoted to the actual scenario.

A character or intern in Tartarus Gate is simply defined. He has four Abilities—Toughness, Agility, Smarts, and Wits—each ranging in value between one and four. He has a value for his Health and his Resolve—his willpower, the former as high as twenty, the latter as high as twelve. He also has three Drives, for example, Hasty, Selfless, and Haunted. Each character has a background and a given role, such as Veteran or True Believer, and an excellent illustration. It is left up to the player to name the character.

Mechanically, Tartarus Gate is simple and straightforward, its key mechanic, known as the ‘Adventure system’, best described as ‘roll three and keep two’—mostly. For his character to undertake an action, a player rolls three six-sided dice and removes one die. Which die depends upon the rating of the Ability being tested. If the Ability has a value of one, the highest die value is removed; if two, the die with the middle value is removed; if three, the lowest die value is removed; and if four, no die is removed, and all are counted. Either way, the total value of the remaining dice needs to equal or exceed the value of a Target Number to succeed, the Target Numbers ranging from six or doable to twelve or extremely difficult. The Game Master can adjust the difficulty of a task by temporarily increasing or lowering the Player Character’s Ability value. A supporting Player Character can help another and so temporarily increase the supported Player Character’s Ability, whilst the acting Player Character can spend Resolve to also increase his Ability value. Resolve can be regained by a Player Character pursuing one or more of his Drives and in Tartarus Gate, and may be reset at the beginning of some chapters, as can Health.

Combat in Tartarus Gate consists of opposed rolls. The lower roll is subtracted from the higher roll and the remaining value deducted from the losing combatant’s Toughness. Combat is designed—much like the rules in general—to be fast and in the case of combat, potentially deadly.

Tarsus Gate as a scenario is broken down into three chapters. In the first chapter, the Player Characters will waken from their Deep Sleep Pods and put through their paces as a ‘recovery process’, much like the first though steps of a video game as a player is taught the controls and what each button does. Given their assignment by Assisti, the ship’s AI, they make their way to the engine room and there they have their first and then second strange encounter—the former with a bloodless, mangled corpse, the latter with a figure from Earth’s recent and wrought past… This figure will come to dominate the mystery which lies in the bowels of the Charon and will be revealed as the Player Characters moves from one chapter to the next.

It should be no surprise that the plot and structure to Tartarus Gate is linear. After all, the Player Characters have been tasked with going from one end of a spaceship to another and the scenario is quite short. However, there is still plenty for them to do and explore, and interact with the handful of NPCs the Game Master has to portray. As well as the detailed NPCs to run, the Game Master also has events to throw at the Player Characters in every location.

The chapter breaks are also used as moments of reflection, for the players to check how the game is going and perhaps a chance for them to change their characters’ Drives if necessary. Tartarus Gate also makes clear that its play is meant to be fun—for everyone, and that if anyone is made uncomfortable, then he should raise his hand and say so. 

Physically, Tartarus Gate is very nicely presented. It is well written, but what really stands out is the artwork—which is as good as you would expect from a publisher which puts out 2000 AD each week. If the illustrations are good, then the maps are even better. Overall, the production values, for what is just a ‘magazine roleplaying game’ are stunning.

Adventure Presents Tartarus Gate – A Roleplaying Game of Sci-Fi Horror is intended as a first roleplaying game and for the most part succeeds. Its combination of a simple, straightforward plot, set-up, and quick mechanics certainly supports that, as does the vibrantly exciting presentation. However, whilst it works as a first roleplaying game for those new to roleplaying, it is a slightly different matter for the prospective Game Master. If the Game Master has played a roleplaying game or two before, then not as much of an issue, but if the Game Master is coming to this totally anew, it will be more difficult for her. For the experienced Game Master, readying and running Tartarus Gate is relatively easy.

Adventure Presents Tartarus Gate – A Roleplaying Game of Sci-Fi Horror is an impressive first issue, an attractive package that is easy to pick up, prepare, and run—it could be ready to play in thirty minutes!

Monday, 18 January 2021

Jonstown Jottings #35: The Quacken

 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 Glorantha, 13th 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?
The Quacken presents a leviathan monster and associated scenario for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

It is forty-five page, full colour, 3.29 MB PDF.

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

Where is it set?
The Quacken is set in any coastal area or sea area around Genertela, although the default location for the associated scenario, ‘Clash with the Quacken’, is Mirrorsea Bay, off the coast of Esrolia.

If the Game Master really wants to play up the inspiration for ‘Clash with the Quacken’, it could easily be moved to the coast of Prax and involve the members of the Sun County Militia from Tales of the Sun County Militia: Sandheart Volume 1 and its sequels.

Who do you play?
No specific Player Character types are required to play ‘Clash with the Quacken’, although sailors, fishermen, and anyone with the Darkness or Water Runes may have an advantage. A Shaman or anyone with Spirit Sight will also be useful and any good Orlanthi should relish the opportunity to confront the sea again.

What do you need?
The Quacken requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. The RuneQuest: Glorantha Bestiary may be useful for details of Ducks.

What do you get?
The last in the ‘Monster of the Month’ series,* The Quacken presents a terrible creature, one which brings the land and the sea together, created during the War of the Gods when the Sea Tribe invaded the Earth, Magasta and an unnamed goddess. Essentially, giant squid with the beak and head of a duck, including feathers, and potentially, the bad temper of each. They notoriously aggressive, especially the females after they have come onto land to lay their eggs. Such females enter a state called ‘stupmi’ and vigorously drive off or consume anyone or anything which they see as a threat. Where females die after suffering through ‘stupmi’, males do not and may undergo bouts of it again and again. Males under its effects have been known to attack ships. However, the dead body of a Quacken can be harvested, its flesh sweet and best fried, the beak as a mild stimulant for Newtlings, the eyes for their oils, and their teeth as Death talismans!

*(Actually, The Quacken is not the last in the ‘Monster of the Month’ series, but it should emphasised that this could have been more clearly phrased by the authors.)

In addition to fully detailing what is, really, a weird leviathan, The Quacken includes a scenario ‘Clash with the Quacken’. This is coastal set scenario in which the Player Characters are hired to come to the help of Stone Dock Village. The village chieftain has been having terrible dreams of the ocean depths, merfolk, and a crimson, and this comes at time when the fishermen of the village are bringing in reduced catches. He fears that worse is to come and wants the Player Characters to discover the cause of what has beset the village. This will see the Player Characters going to sea, dealing with a very grumpy and direct shaman, and protecting Stone Dock, the huge slab of primordial rock  that is the village wyter.

The inspiration for the scenario is obvious, and whilst it does draw from Clash of the Titans, ‘Clash with the Quacken’ is very much its own, making it an epic confrontation between the land and the sea. It does need some careful staging in certain scenes—especially in the spirit world, but the scenario is well supported with some solid NPCs for the Game Master to roleplay. Although, multiple versions of the Quacken are provided in order to scale the final confrontation to the power levels of the Player Characters, ‘Clash with the Quacken’ is still a challenging scenario.

Is it worth your time?
YesThe Quacken is a ridiculous idea. I mean, whoever would have thought of combining a Duck and a Squid? And yet... and yet, you know you are just waiting for someone to yell, “Unleash the Quacken!”
NoThe Quacken is a ridiculous idea, like the ‘surf and turf’ equivalent of a Turducken
. I mean, no. Really no. Let’s not even go there.
MaybeThe Quacken definitely falls under ‘Your Glorantha May Vary’. In fact, it probably strays into your ‘Your Glorantha DOES Vary’, but Glorantha has Ducks, so why not Duck-Squids (or Squid-Ducks)?