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

Sunday 28 February 2021

Whispers from the Dark Side

Since the publication of Call of Cthulhu in 1981, the Mythos has proliferated into numerous other genres and roleplaying games, including the fantasy of Dungeons & Dragons. For example, Wizards of the Coast published Call of Cthulhu d20 in 2001, whilst Realms of Crawling Chaos from Goblinoid Games explored the Mythos for the Old School Renaissance. More recently, Petersen Games presented the entities, races, gods, and spells of the Mythos for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, enabling the Dungeon Master to bring those elements of cosmic horror in her fantasy campaign. What though, about using Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition to run campaigns involving cosmic horror in the more modern periods normally associated with Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying—much like Wizards of the Coast did with Call of Cthulhu d20? For that, there is Whispers in the Dark from Saturday Morning Scenarios, also the publisher of Harper’s Tale: A Forest Adventure Path for 5e, a campaign for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, suitable for a younger or family audience. Whispers in the Dark is definitely not, being a horror setting in which stalwart Investigators confront the forces of the Mythos or ‘Yog-Sothothery’, and do not always succeed or come away unscathed—physically or mentally. The starting point is Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e.

Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e requires the Player’s Handbook to run and play. Other than that, it provides the Game Master with everything she needs to get started. This includes rules for Player Character generation, equipment, adjusted rules for damage, healing, resting, and lingering injuries, madness and sanity, a set of pre-generated Investigators, and a lengthy scenario set in 1875 in New Orleans. The setting is thus our world, but of course, one beset by cosmic threats from beyond and those that would foolishly entreat with them. Using the Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition mechanics means that Investigators in 
Whispers in the Dark will look like their fantasy counterparts. However, there are differences. First, an Investigator does not have a Race in the traditional sense, since all Investigators are Human, or appear so. Instead they have an Ancestry, of which three are provided in Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e—Human, Human (Lengian), and Human (Deep Blooded), the latter two of which tie a Player Character into the Mythos itself. For example, an Investigator with the Human (Deep Blooded) Ancestry, has Darkvision, Deep Ancestry—which enables the Investigator to hold his breath for hours, Deep Connections—which potentially grants the Investigator Deep One contacts in any coastal town or city, and speaks Aklo, but is Monstrous, suffering a penalty to Persuasion checks. Instead of a Class, an Investigator has a Background, a profession or calling, such as Antiquarian or Hobo, which provide Skill, Tool, Weapon, and Saving Throw Proficiencies, and more. Feats such as Ardent Scholar, Gifted Healer, and Whimpering Minion add further colour and flavour to Investigators. Where in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition a Player Character will gain new features as he acquires Levels, an Investigator can acquire new skills, languages, tools, weapons, feats, and so on. The maximum Level in Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e is tenth Level.

Henry Brinded
First Level Antiquarian
Medium Humanoid (Lengian)
Armor Class 11
Hit Points 5
Speed 30 ft.

Strength 08 (-1) Dexterity 13 (+1) Constitution 12 (+1)
Intelligence 16 (+3) Wisdom 10 (-0) Charisma 17 (+3)

Sanity: 18 (+)

Saving Throws: Charisma, Intelligence, (Advantage versus spells and other magical effects)
Skills: Arcana +5, History +5, Investigation +5, Persuasion +5, Sleight of Hand +3
Proficiencies: Arcana, History, Investigation, Persuasion, Sleight of Hand, Simple Weapons, Intelligence, Charisma
Languages: Egyptian Hieroglyphs, English, French, Greek, Latin, Leng
Savings: $1000
Income: $600/month
Equipment: A set of fine clothes, a notebook, several pencils, and collection of curiosities

Whispers in the Dark offers a number of options for making skill checks, including training being required in an Intelligence-based skill to avoid rolling at a Disadvantage, and always making the roll of one on a twenty-sided die, always a failure. These though are optional rules, whereas, there are plenty in Whispers in the Dark which are not. These include making healing more realistic, so Short Rests at eight hours and Long Rests at seven consecutive days, during which an Investigator will be doing little except sleep and rest, will make most players reconsider rushing into action as they might once of have done in their Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition games. An Investigator reduced to zero Hit Points or less, must make Death Saves as per Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, the Difficulty Class is twelve rather than ten, but the Investigator can be stabilised with a successful Medicine skill check—unlike in Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition where the Medicine skill is of little use given that a Cleric can cast healing magic, it assumes a much greater prominence in Whispers in the Dark. In addition, if the Investigator does survive, his player will have to roll on the ‘Lingering Injuries Table’, which may mean, for example, that he has a ‘Lost Eye’ and so is at a permanent disadvantage on Wisdom (Perception) checks that rely on sight and on ranged weapon attacks.

The three omissions in 
Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e are that it does not do magic, though it hints at its nature in a word beset by Yog-Sothothery, and it does not include any Mythos creatures or entities and it does not list any Mythos tomes. This though is fine, it after all, being a quick-start rather than the full rules. It does include rules for Sanity and Madness, just as you would expect for a roleplaying game of Lovecraftian investigative horror. Every Investigator has a Sanity Score, equal to his Charisma plus Wisdom modifier. The resulting score provides a modifier just an Investigator’s primary abilities. This modifier is applied to all Sanity checks, which will be against a Difficulty Class set by the Game Master, triggered by discovering ‘Forbidden Knowledge’ in a Mythos tome, encountering ‘Unspeakable Horrors’, ‘Mind-Numbing Terror’, ‘Primal Fear’, and ‘Brushes With Death’, the latter being when an Investigator is reduced to zero Hit Points. Unlike other ability scores, an Investigator’s Sanity Score can fluctuate up and down—mostly down. There are two consequences to this. The first is that of course, an Investigator’s Sanity modifier can also fluctuate up and down—mostly down. The second is that a player will also need to track his Investigator’s Sanity Score as it fluctuates up and down.

When an Investigator does fail a Sanity check, the amount lost is always determined by a roll of a four-sided idea—and doubled if the Sanity check is a fumble. As is traditional in Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying, Sanity loss is a downward spiral, once an Investigator having lost Sanity, the harder it is to succeed at a Sanity check, so the greater the likelihood of losing Sanity, and so on and so on. Whilst Sanity loss spirals downward, the effect of the loss spirals upward. In addition to the point loss, the Investigator suffers a bout of Madness, for example the Investigator loses sight while his mind processes the weirdness before him (and is effectively blind for a Turn) or his stomach churns and rumbles as her body reacts to the unnatural scene before him (and is effectively Poisoned for a few Rounds). The first bout of Madness is termed a ‘transient episode’, which lasts until the end of the encounter that triggered the Madness, but if an Investigator loses Sanity whilst in this ‘transient episode’, the ‘transient episode’ escalates into ‘short-term episode’ and last until the Investigator has had a Short Rest. If the Investigator loses further Sanity whilst in this ‘short-term episode’ or loses half of his Sanity, the bout becomes a ‘long-term episode’, which requires weeks of downtime to recover. It is also possible to recover Sanity loss between adventures. Lastly, indefinite Madness occurs when an Investigator’s Sanity is reduced to a quarter of her maximum Sanity and that cannot be cured, short of a wish spell or divine intervention. Here then is another marked difference between 
Whispers in the Dark and the archetypal roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror—the possibility of recovery from indefinite madness and the existence of the Wish spell! Divine intervention is always possible—typically at the hands of Nyarlathotep—but at a cost.

Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e comes with a beginning scenario, ‘The Crow Road’. Intended for Investigators of First and Second Level, this is set in and around the French Quarter in New Orleans in 1875 during the period of Reconstruction following the American Civil War. As the city suffers a rash of gruesome murders—murders which echo the Jack the Ripper kills in London a decade or so later—the Investigators are engaged to look into the deaths. Either because they come across one of the bodies after a night out in the French Quarter or because the local police consults them for their expertise with the outré. Built around combination of a number of timed encounters over the course of a few days and particular locations, this is not obviously an investigation into the Mythos a la Lovecraft, but long-time devotees of the Mythos and Call of Cthulhu will recognise the scenario’s links to the Mythos. ‘The Crow Road’ is an engaging scenario, nicely organised, especially the way in which the clues are arranged, and will take two or three sessions to complete. It will need a bit of careful preparation upon the part of the Game Master given its structure. The scenario is supported by a short guide to New Orleans and six pre-generated Investigators, all Second Level and all pleasingly detailed and encompassing a solid range of skills and backgrounds. Of course, players are free to create their own Investigators using the rules presented in 
Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e to play ‘The Crow Man’.

Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e there are notes for the Game Master. These do note the issues with H.P. Lovecraft, but in the main they highlight the differences between Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e and Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. These being that there no dungeons or fantastical creatures, and violence has consequences in that it might land the Investigators in gaol. Instead, play relies on finding and interpreting clues, rather than on going toe-to-toe with the threats behind the mysteries inherent to the setting.

Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e is presented in full colour and engaging fashion. Many of the new rules presented in Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e are highlighted in red to make it easy for the Game Master to spot them. The artwork varies in quality though, and if ‘The Crow Road’ scenario is missing anything, it is a map of New Orleans.

Mechanically, the tone in 
Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e is very different to that of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Fundamentally, Investigators are frail—mentally and physically—in comparison to the heroes of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. Play is radically shifted to investigation and interaction, the emphasis on combat greatly reduced. There is a sense of the Whispers in the Dark setting being more fantastical than traditional Lovecraftian investigative horror in the mention of the Wish spell, but that will have to wait until the full roleplaying game.

Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e is a crossover title, designed to attract players of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition into Lovecraftian investigative horror with its familiarity of mechanics. It is not though, a crossover title in the other direction. Players of Call of Cthulhu or Trail of Cthulhu are far less likely to use Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e as a stepping-stone into playing Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition. They might want to play ‘The Crowman’ because it is an investigative horror scenario and it is set during a period rarely visited in other Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying games. Another option would be to adapt ‘The Crowman’ to those Lovecraftian investigative horror roleplaying games, but the period setting of Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e suggests another possibility. It feels reminiscent of Masque of the Red Death and Other Tales, the Gothic Earth setting published by TSR, Inc. for Advanced Dungeons & Dragons, Second Edition in 1994. Perhaps it could be used in conjunction with that setting, especially with the forthcoming Van Richten’s Guide to Ravenloft for Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition.

As an introduction to Lovecraftian investigative horror, 
Whispers in the Dark: Quickstart Rules for 5e more than ably makes the shift over from Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, making it easy for players of the world’s most popular roleplaying game to make that shift too. Players of other roleplaying games of Lovecraftian investigative horror may find the shift towards Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition a little more difficult to adjust to, but either way, the players of both games will find ‘The Crowman’ an entertaining and horrifying scenario, one which definitely deserves a sequel.

Saturday 27 February 2021

Making Mesoamerica Mundane

Almost from the start, Call of Cthulhu has been fascinated by South and Central America. From the Peru chapter in the original The Fungi from the Yuggoth in 1984, the scenarios ‘The Pits of Bendal-Dolum’ and ‘The Temple of the Moon’ from 1986’s Terror from the Stars, all the way up to the Peru prequel chapter found in Masks of Nyarlathotep: Dark Schemes Herald the End of the World and the Bolivia chapter of The Two-Headed Serpent: An Epic Action-Packed and Globe-Spanning Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu. Perhaps the best treatment of the region is The Mysteries of Mesoamerica, published by Pagan Publishing in 2009. What has run through each of these scenarios and support is a fascination with the strange, complex, if notoriously bloodthirsty stone age cultures found throughout the region, with their rich pantheons of gods, and the sophisticated structures they left behind in the wake of their societal collapses and later subjugation at the hands of the Spanish invaders. The latest supplement for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition to visit the region is A Time for Sacrifice.

A Time for Sacrifice is published by New Comet Games, following a successful Kickstarter campaign. It is the publisher’s third title for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, following on from The Star on the Sure – Struggles Against Evil in 1920s New England and Devil’s Swamp – Encountering Ancient Terrors in the Hockomock, both of which were ambitious in terms of their production values, but ultimately let down by their lack of development and editing. A Time for Sacrifice is an anthology of five scenarios set deep in the jungles of Mexico’s Yucatán Peninsula, in Honduras, and on the island of Cuba during the nineteen twenties and early nineteen thirties. It is not, however, a sourcebook on the region with regard to the Cthulhu Mythos or Call of Cthulhu, with the aforementioned The Mysteries of Mesoamerica probably the best source as well having its own excellent scenarios. Otherwise, as the publisher mentions, the Keeper will need to do her own research with regard to the region and its history. As with the previous two books for Call of Cthulhu from New Comet Games, the production values for A Time of Sacrifice are high, including full colour throughout and glossy paper, but it remains to be seen if the issues with editing and development.

A Time for Sacrifice opens with ‘Egg Out of Time’, the first of three scenarios by the anthology’s publisher, Ben Burns. It opens en media res, the Investigators members of an expedition on the Yucatán Peninsula, running to the rescue of a college professor and fellow expedition member who has fallen ill mysteriously at the entrance to a ruin, and then racing him to the nearest hotel. Then upon receiving a note intended for their ill colleague, they come to the aid of an expedition which has been attacked by the locals who appear to be performing a pagan summoning of some kind. Of course, it turns out to be a bait and switch and the likelihood is that the Investigators will need to find a way to stop the terrible danger they have unleashed. ‘Egg Out of Time’ does have an entertaining idea at the heart of its plot, but as presented it never really lays out the groundwork for the plot and it compounds this problem with a page-and-a-half of exposition explaining the plot which the Keeper is expected to read out to her players. In terms of a story, this works fine, but in terms of a roleplaying scenario, it is unengaging and breaks the narrative. This combined with the underwritten set-up, the insufficient advice on who the Investigators might be and why they are on the expedition, as well a lack of information that they might know at the start of the scenario—instead the Investigators are expected to research much of it—and ‘Egg Out of Time’ launches A Time for Sacrifice in underwhelming fashion.

It is followed by Brian Courtemanche’s ‘Pyramid Scheme’, which specifically takes place after the Wall Street Crash of 1929, at the start of the Desperate Decade of the nineteen thirties. The bulk of this scenario is again set on the Yucatán Peninsula, but it begins in New York. Here the Investigators—who are presumed to have conducted numerous previous enquiries into the outré—are hired by a lawyer to infiltrate Ritterville, a company town in Mexico belonging to Ritter Nautical and Industrial Supply, a rival to his employer’s company. Research soon reveals that the owners of Ritterville suffered terribly during the Wall Street Crash and possess some outré interests, so the lawyer wants the Investigators to determine what is happening in the town. The set-up leads to delightful opening scenes which capture the desperate nature of life during this period, but which otherwise set the Investigators on a linear path—and not just because they will be taking a number of train and boat trips to get to their destination. The timing of these journeys structures the scenario quite tightly, so that the Investigators will have limited scope for optional activities throughout. Consequently, the scenario feels like a connected series of scenes, but many of them are at least engaging and there is a constant sense of the Investigators being toyed with throughout and this sense of being played continues right into the dénouement which has the Investigators actually engaging in a pok-ta-pok faceoff! The scenario has a knowing title and borders on a Pulpy sensibility and would not be too difficult to adapt to be run using Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos.

Ben Burn’s second scenario in the anthology is ‘Space Between Time’, which at first is not set in Central or South America at all, but on the island of Cuba, before actually switching to the island of Cozumel, off the coast of Mexico. The Investigators are hired by Miskatonic University to attend a cultural exchange conference in Cuba, but the team leader, Doctor Donald Sanderson has other plans. He has evidence that his father, William Sanderson, whom everyone claims to have been killed on an expedition when Donald was a boy, is still alive and he wants the Investigators’ help in finding him. If the Investigators agree—and there is no scenario if they decline—he takes them to where his father disappeared, and into the strangeness that is the ‘Space Between Time’. This is a space between from travellers can access any world, any time, and any dimension, and contained within are any number of dangers and things best left untouched, although Investigator and player curiosity may dictate otherwise. Apart from one or two interesting interactions with the Mythos, ‘Space Between Time’ is primarily the equivalent of an escape room made all the more dangerous because something is hunting the Investigators. There is very much the danger of a ‘Total Party Kill’ here if the Investigators do not solve the mystery to the scenario, and even if they do, the end result may not be all that satisfying given that one Investigator may need to sacrifice himself to let the others escape.

The fourth scenario is ‘The Thirteenth Bak’tun’ by Jonathan Bagelman. Set in Mexico, this is the best written of the five scenarios in A Time for Sacrifice. The Investigators are hired by Miskatonic University to join an expedition already in the field as experts and extra security, but by the time they reach Vera Cruz, they learn that it has been attacked by bandits and the task becomes a rescue mission. The scenario nicely brings in Mexico’s febrile interwar politics—the one scenario to really make use of the setting in the anthology—and comes with a lot of backstory and a solid plot. However, in places it feels a little like a tourist handbook and the plot itself is essentially a variation upon one which has been seen again and again in Call of Cthulhu, that of a Serpent Person wanting to restore his people to greatness after their millennia old slumber. Overall, the scenario is decent and could even serve as the lead into a campaign of the Keeper’s own devising, or even perhaps tied into The Two-Headed Serpent: An Epic Action-Packed and Globe-Spanning Campaign for Pulp Cthulhu.

The anthology ends with ‘Doorway of the Gods’, Ben Burns’ third scenario. Again, linear and again, the Investigators are hired by Miskatonic University to join an expedition, this time in Honduras. After another sea voyage beset by strange dreams, the Investigators arrive in Honduras to learn that contact has been lost with the expedition and once at the site—at the base of a step pyramid with a strange doorway, that everyone is missing. However, the author drastically ups the action in this scenario—first, crew and passengers on the sea voyage from Boston being hunted by something which returns to the ship again and again; second, the Investigators and their guides are hunted at the site of the missing expedition; and third, the head guide, having learned that his men have been snatched, is not only determined to enter through the strange doorway, but has come armed for bear! Or is that Dimensional Shambler? M1921 Thompson Submachine Guns with drum rounds, Short Magazine Lee–Enfield Mk III rifles, twelve-gauge shotguns, .38 automatic pistols, and grenades! It is such a radical change of tone after the previous four scenarios, but ‘Doorway of the Gods’ essentially becomes a ‘Search and rescue’ mission combined with a ‘bug hunt’, and with such an emphasis on action and combat, is really better suited to Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos than standard Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition.

As with previous titles for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh edition from New Comet Games, A Time for Sacrifice is physically ambitious. So, it is full colour throughout and fairly heavily illustrated. However, the artwork varies greatly in quality—some being quite decent, some bland, and a lot of it being quite dark and murky, whilst the numerous handouts, also in full colour, are dull and rarely benefit from being in colour. Similarly, the maps vary in quality, many being quite plain, others having something of a period feel. Of course, it goes without saying that all of the scenarios in A Time for Sacrifice demand another edit, let alone the need for further development in some cases.

As an anthology, A Time for Sacrifice is at best uneven in tone, plotting, production values, and support. In addition to preparing any one of the five scenarios in its pages, the Keeper will need to research some basic background on the Mayans, and both the Mexico and Honduras of the period—not just for herself, but for her players and their investigators too. As a campaign, which the publisher suggests that the five scenarios could form if run in chronological order, A Time for Sacrifice would need a great deal of work upon the part of the Keeper. Although they share a general location and themes—the Mayans and Mesoamerica in common, there is little here to hang a campaign on. Better still to use them as one-shots or pick and choose the ones that a Keeper wants to run, just as she might with any other anthology. Whilst there are perhaps one or two decent scenarios in the collection, in the main, their set-up is too similar and their plots linear, such that running one too soon after another would make it too familiar. Ultimately, it is difficult to get really excited or enticed by A Time for Sacrifice, and the combined effect of the anthology is to make Mesoamerica mundane.

Friday 26 February 2021

Shorter Stabs of Cthulhu

Fear’s Sharp Little Needles: Twenty-Six Hunting Forays into Horror is an anthology of scenarios published by Stygian Fox for use with Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition. Published following a successful Kickstarterter campaign, it follows on from the highly-regarded Things We Leave Behind in being set in the modern day, in dealing with mature themes, and in containing contributions from a number of tried-and-tested scenario authors from the last decade or so. What sets it apart though, is that Fear’s Sharp Little Needles contains some twenty-six scenarios, all but one of them, short, sharp stabs of horror—typically each five or six pages in length and thus the length of a magazine scenario or so. All twenty-six can work as one-shots, all but the last can work as convention scenarios, and all but the last require minimum preparation—the latter feature making Fear’s Sharp Little Needles a useful anthology for the Keeper to pull off the shelf at the last minute and have something ready for her gaming group with relatively little effort. In many cases, the scenarios would also work with just the one player and Investigator and the one Keeper. However, with a little more effort, many of the scenarios in the campaign would also work in an ongoing campaign, and in fact, some of them would work with Arc Dream Publishing’s Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game and some of them are actually linked together. Fear’s Sharp Little Needles also has its companion in the form of Aspirations.

Aspirations – A Modern Day Call of Cthulhu Supplement for Fear’s Sharp Little Needles differs from Fear’s Sharp Little Needles in that it is not just a collection of scenarios. It includes both scenarios and articles, adding extra mysteries and strange situations to be investigated, a potential patron, and more, all for the Modern Day. As with Fear’s Sharp Little Needles, each of the nine entries in the anthology is quite short, no more than seven pages in length, but typically four pages in length. All nine are fully illustrated and many of them come with maps too. The anthology opens with ‘All for a Good Cause’ by Jeffrey Moeller. This presents a potential patron for the Investigators, a Hollywood-based charitable organisation, The Barry Crawford Trust. Named for a now dead actor renowned for his hedonism, it is run by his wife, an adult entertainment actress, and has a secret agenda all of its own—its head hates the Mythos! The foundation will secretly fund investigations into strange mysteries and Mythos activities, and even help out with legal fees and help when the authorities are alerted to the Investigators’ inquiries. All that the foundation asks in return is that they hand over any Mythos artefacts and tomes for destruction. However, their contact seems just a little twitchy, and there is more going on here, nicely hinted at with the illustrations which the Investigators might be able to find and so double as handouts, but what ‘All for a Good Cause’ provides is a ready-made patron and the basis of an over-arching narrative structure into which the Keeper can run any modern-set Call of Cthulhu scenario, whether from elsewhere in Aspirations or Fear’s Sharp Little Needles, or indeed, any modern-set campaign.

Jeffrey Moeller follows ‘All for a Good Cause’ with ‘The Blackthorns’. This details Fair Oaks, a popular and highly regarded suburb—easily located to a town or city of the Keeper’s choicewhich hides its dark secret behind its obvious idyllic. It suffers from a rash of disappearances, especially child disappearances. Two weeks ago, another boy disappeared, whilst another boy was found unconscious. If the Keeper is using The Barry Crawford Trust as a patron, the foundation sends the Investigators to the suburb to look into the disappearances, suggesting a  potential supernatural link to them. Alternatively, the Investigators might be hired as Private Investigators by the parents of the missing boy. The is some delicacy required here, since it does involve children, but the investigation does present an interesting moral twist upon the Mythos, and in a long-term campaign, that twist might just be too compelling for an Investigator or two. Certainly the Keeper is encouraged to review their actions in past scenarios and campaigns.

Adam Gauntlett provides three entries in Aspirations. The first of these is ‘Dead Mall’, set in and around the dying Diamond Arcade mall in New England, where a blogger charting the region’s dying mall was found dead in the car park of hypothermia on an otherwise warm night. Investigation reveals that the mall is located on site which has been beset by lethally cold weather in the past, so could this death be connected? ‘Dead Mall’ is a short investigation, clues quickly pointing to one of the facility operators in the mall itself. It is likely that the investigation will end in a confrontation and turn physical, so the Investigators will need to be prepared. If using The Barry Crawford Trust, the Investigators’ contact will suggest that witchcraft might be involved.

‘Dead Mall’ is followed by ‘Granny’s Tales’. Rather than a mini-scenario, this details a Mythos tome, but one unlike the traditional ‘bound in unknown leather’, battered, and deeply annotated volume typically beloved of Call of Cthulhu. Granny’s Tales is a seventies adult underground comic, one inspired by artist R. Crumb before it goes off in its own Mythos-inspired direction. Consisting of twelve issues, the early issues are easy to find, but the last one is almost never seen for sale. There are echoes of The Revelations of Glaaki in Granny’s Tales, in format if not content, and this Mythos tome is nicely detailed and ready to add to a Keeper’s campaign.

The third entry from Adam Gauntlett is ‘The Bay of Nouadhibou’. Again, this is different in being a set-up rather than a full scenario. It will take the Investigators to the Islamic Republic of Mauritania in West Africa where there have been reports of a radical cult operating in the derelicts of the ship graveyard off the city of Nouadhibou. With its mix of religious militantism, slave gangs, immigrant transfers, and Mythos activity on the edge of the Sahara desert, ‘The Bay of Nouadhibou’ is the most suitable entry in Aspirations to use with Delta Green: The Role-Playing Game and it is a pity that this runs to just four pages, as it deserves to be developed into a fuller scenario all of its own.

In Jo Kreil’s ‘Bring Me Your Sick’, William Northfield is dying of cancer and in his search for a cure has begun attending and donating large amounts of money to a health spa where he has been receiving surprisingly effective treatment from its owner, Doctor Baum. The Investigators might be hired by one of Northfield’s relatives or the Board of Directors of his company, either being concerned at the time and wealth that he is pouring into the health spa. The Investigators may benefit having a scientist or doctor involved, or least have one as a contact, but very quickly their enquiries point towards the clinic and a terrible confrontation with Doctor Baum and exactly what he is planning.

Where ‘Granny’s Tales’ detailed a Mythos tome, ‘The Treader of the Stars’ by Brian M. Sammons and Glynn Owen Barrass describes an Alien entity previously presented in their short story, ‘Fall of Empire’ from the Steampunk Cthulhu anthology published by Chaosium, Inc. On the rare occasions it turns its extradimensional attention to earth it whispers secrets into the minds of its cultists who in return build it a body of flesh—from any source. Including mass murder. Once brought to Earth, it enjoys our dimension, causing chaos and rending reality before disappearing again. Along with full stats, the entity is given a detailed description of what it looks like and what it is capable of, which is quite a lot. However, it is not accompanied by any suggestions as to how to use it or scenario hooks, so of all the content in Aspirations, this is not the most immediate of use, or indeed, the easiest

Simon Yee’s ‘Urban Pentimento’ adds another location, this time Japan. This describes Unsu City, a small town which stands in the shadow of Hiroshima and whose secrets are tied into events at the end of World War Two. The town has not just a strange history, but also a Christian of a strange denomination, a satellite office for a German computer company, ghosts lingering from World War Two in the hospital, and a literally underground nightlife… This is a setting waiting for a plot to be developed around it and to it, so will need some development upon the part of the Keeper. It could also have benefited from a map or two.

Rounding out Aspirations is ‘The Lumber Barons’ Ball’ by Chitin Proctor with John Shimmin. This is very much more of a scenario and is very modern in that it involves Kickstarter! Brian Carr successfully funded the first part of his twenties-set horror web comic, Carcosa, on Kickstarter and the second part has been chosen as a Kickstarter Staff Pick, which means that a new interpretation of the King in Yellow will probably be reaching a wider audience. If The Barry Crawford Trust is their patron, then the Investigators will definitely be pointed towards preventing such an occurrence. As well potentially tying in a lost typeface into the Mythos, the scenario provides some solid investigation which the Investigators can do from home before trying to locate Carr at his home in Muskegon, Michigan. Here the investigation is more physical as the Investigators have the opportunity to stay in the converted apartment house and explore the rest of the building as AirBnB guests. The finale takes on the grand affair typical of a scenario involving the King in Yellow, but injects an extra degree of menace and topicality by fronting it as a protest against police shootings. This adds a feeling of freshness to the otherwise decaying and decadent whole affair. Overall, ‘The Lumber Barons’ Ball’ brings Aspirations to a pleasing finish, though some of the content is a little dense and will careful preparation upon the part of the Keeper, and again, it could have done with an extra map or two.

Physically, Aspirations is a slim book, but neatly and tidily presented in full colour with plenty of illustrations and decent maps. In some cases, though, the Keeper will need to provide extra maps herself.

As a companion to Fear’s Sharp Little Needles: Twenty-Six Hunting Forays into Horror, the truth is that Aspirations is not essential. Its content is extra and does not add to or develop the content to be found in Fear’s Little Needles. In some ways, that is a pity. Perhaps The Barry Crawford Trust presented in ‘All for a Good Cause’ could have been expanded to cover how it might involve the Investigators in each of the scenarios in Fear’s Little Needles—or at least those which would have been appropriate. As it is, Aspirations leaves the Keeper to do that and as a result is very much a mixed bag, feeling a little too much like the things that there was no room for in  Fear’s Sharp Little Needles. That is, a decent handful of scenarios, one or two settings or ideas begging for richer development, and some needing development upon the part of the Keeper to be truly useful or usable. Overall, Aspirations – A Modern Day Call of Cthulhu Supplement for Fear’s Sharp Little Needles is more an anthology for the completist than a must-have.

Monday 22 February 2021

Miskatonic Monday #61: Hand of Glory

Between October 2003 and October 2013, Chaosium, Inc. published a series of books for Call of Cthulhu under the Miskatonic University Library Association brand. Whether a sourcebook, scenario, anthology, or campaign, each was a showcase for their authors—amateur rather than professional, but fans of Call of Cthulhu nonetheless—to put forward their ideas and share with others. The programme was notable for having launched the writing careers of several authors, but for every Cthulhu InvictusThe PastoresPrimal StateRipples from Carcosa, and Halloween Horror, there was a Five Go Mad in EgyptReturn of the RipperRise of the DeadRise of the Dead II: The Raid, and more...

The Miskatonic University Library Association brand is no more, alas, but what we have in its stead is the Miskatonic Repository, based on the same format as the DM’s Guild for Dungeons & Dragons. It is thus, “...a new way for creators to publish and distribute their own original Call of Cthulhu content including scenarios, settings, spells and more…” To support the endeavours of their creators, Chaosium has provided templates and art packs, both free to use, so that the resulting releases can look and feel as professional as possible. To support the efforts of these contributors, Miskatonic Monday is an occasional series of reviews which will in turn examine an item drawn from the depths of the Miskatonic Repository.


Name: Hand of Glory

Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Allan Carey

Setting: Jazz Age Yorkshire

Product: Scenario Set-up
What You Get: Twenty-three page, 29.91 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Sometimes fate hands you a terrible choice.
Plot Hook: 
 A day’s walk takes a terrifying turn atop the Yorkshire Moors. Maybe the locals really are weird, maybe they just don’t like outsiders. Or both.
Plot Support: Plot set-up, single period maps, three handouts, and five pre-generated Investigators.
Production Values: Clean and tidy, decent map, lovely handouts, and clearly done pre-generated Investigators.

# Type40 one-night, one-shot set-up

# Potential convention scenario
# Solid moral choice
# Superb handouts
# Pre-generated Investigators nicely fit the set-up
# Easily adjustable to other periods
# Nasty, even cruel scenario
# Minimal set-up time
# Playable in an hour or two!


# Nasty, even cruel scenario
# Stark, difficult choices
# Playable in an hour or two!
# Investigator interaction hooks and relationships could have enhanced the tension.

# Great production values
Minimal set-up time
# Underwritten Investigator relationships undermine simple, really nasty plot.

Sunday 21 February 2021

The Other OSR: Electric Bastionland

Imagine a roleplaying game which gives you two hundred pages of character options. Imagine a roleplaying game with a large expansive setting. Imagine a roleplaying game which builds the details of its setting from its character options—all two hundred pages of them. Imagine that Player Character generation in such a roleplaying game—with all two hundred pages of its options would take a mere five minutes. Actually less. Imagine a roleplaying game in which the Player Characters are adventurers and treasure hunters across this large expansive setting. Imagine that such a roleplaying game has Old School Renaissance sensibilities in terms of its simple mechanics—simple mechanics which are explained in four pages—and the dauntingly dangerous nature of its world. Combine all of these aspects together and what you have is Electric Bastionland, a roleplaying game of failed careers, debt and treasure hunting, and exploration and survival, across, under, and beyond a vast metropolis which is created and improvised through play and from tables.

Electric Bastionland: Deeper into the Odd is published by Bastionland Press, following a successful Kickstarter campaign. As its title suggests, it is an expansion to the author’s earlier Into the Odd and Bastion Ein Sof, but a standalone expansion, one that takes the seemingly formerly wretched city of Bastion into the Electric Age and sees it glow with the fierce yellow of Electricity and grow and encroach upon other cities, to become a modern metropolis of bright lights and possibilities. It is a city that juxtaposes the familiar and the odd, the latter making those that engage with the oddness also odd. It is a city without a council, but many councils and many boroughs. It is a city which is constantly being built, but nobody claims to have built. It is a city of modernity with the sensibility of the past. It is a city of electricity and the consequences of that electricity—strange transmissions on the Radio, unnerving headaches near power stations, and machines that serve themselves. It is a city without a history and a city whose history has become a physical thing. Bastion is the present. Deep Country, beyond the limits of the city where everything was better, but simplistic and inconvenient, is the past. The Living Stars are the future. Connecting the three—Bastion, Deep Country, the Living Stars—is The Underground. It connects everything, tests everyone, and lies beneath reality, but it will get you where you want to go—eventually. Bastion as a city and a setting has the feel of La Belle Époque and of La Ville Lumière, and then hints of the Jazz Age verging on an ecumenopolis, but stranger, weirder, and odder the closer you look. Just how strange, just how weird, and just how odd, begins with the Player Characters.

Each Player Character begins play in debt, their career a failure, desperate to pay off this debt such that they embark on ‘great’ treasure hunts. Working with a fellow band of Debtors, they know that if they can find it, the treasure will surely be enough to pay off their debts. Yet they have a rival, and he also knows of the treasure. Tarry long in their expedition and the rival may retrieve the treasure and so their debt remains, grows even. In working to retrieve the treasure the Debtors will encounter the oddities and the weirdness of Bastion. Both will rub off on the Debtors, leaving also weird and odd, and that is in addition to the scars and bruises they may gain along the way. If they survive, they may also become Grizzled as well as scarred.

A Player Character in Electric Bastionland has three abilities—Strength, Dexterity, and Charisma. These are rated between three and eighteen. He has a six-sided die’s worth of Hit Protection and a six-sided die’s worth of New Pounds—this is not a lot of money. Together with his fellow Debtors, he owes £10,000. The exact nature of the debt is determined by the Failed Career of the youngest player. For example, a Fashionista owes The Lion Council—a literal council of lions—£10,000 and its members want the debt to be repaid in interesting meat, whilst a Petty Officer simply owes The Petty Court that amount, but can pay off half that amount by personally attending The Petty Court and representing himself in a tediously long trial of trivial affairs. Every Debtor has a Failed Career. Exactly what is determined by cross matching the Debtor’s lowest Ability score with his highest, and that gives a page number.

Every Failed Career is given a two-page spread and with one hundred Failed Careers in Electric Bastionland, that is the aforementioned two hundred pages of character options and a third of the book already taken up! However, each Failed Career is described in relatively broad detail. Along with an illustration, each Failed Career is accompanied by a simple explanation, some sample names, and the reason for the Debtors’ debt. Besides one or two items of equipment, each Failed Career gives options which add further detail and flavour. Exactly is determined by many New Pounds a Debtor has and how many points of Hit Protection he has. For example, the Necro-Engineer specialises in the most modern means of dealing with the growing industry of corpse production. His name might be Do, Jincey, Gognon, or Zephryne; he owes money to The Jolity Engine, a sentient, building-sized gambling machine; and he owns sombre formal wear and a shovel. A pair of tables ask two questions—‘how did you get your start in the corpse disposal industry?’ and ‘what was your great project? (you couldn’t get funding)’. If Necro-Engineer begins play with £6, then the answer to the first question is, by ‘Chasing Scavengers Away’ and he is accompanied by a barely-domesticated hyena which sticks with him. If he begins play with £2, he was a ‘Professional Grave Visitor’ and has a lifetime’s supply of bouquets from various florists around the city. As to his greatest project, if the Necro-Engineer only has the one point of Hit Protection, it was The Incineration Dome and he has a fire-proof protective suit which fits over his formal wear, whereas if he has four points of Hit Protection, it was The Protein Reclamation Initiative and he has a jar of flavour-masking rub, which makes anything palatable! Each of these tables is different for each Failed Career, but each balances the amount of Hit Protection and New Pounds with a piece of equipment or a power or other benefit. The lower the amount of Hit Protection and New Pounds, the potentially more powerful the piece of equipment or power or other benefit—and vice versa.

Name: Slipper
Failed Career: Academic Debater
Strength: 13
Dexterity: 13
Charisma: 11

Hit Protection: 5

Debt: Conglomerated Taxes (You are exempt from certain taxes, gaining an effective 50% discount on pets, hair products, and offal.)

Possessions: Cane (d6), pocket-watch

What Can You Debate Forever?: Formal Wear (Headgear)
What Did Your University Provide As A Leaving Gift?: A Novelty Umbrella (also a clarinet).

Go through the list of Failed Careers and what 
Electric Bastionland is doing is not just providing the means to create characters, but detailing aspects of the world. Thus, Gutter Minder Failed Career might establish that the Debtor is Rat given human form in a lab experiment or a former High Society member, the only survivor of a mob uprising. The first establishes that somewhere in Bastion, someone is experimenting on animals, and that perhaps there might be a laboratory where they might be working on more, that there might be other, similar creatures out there, and so on. The second that of an uprising which could be any number of reasons. From the Trench Conscript which suggests a war and a battle and a Criminal Bureaucrat who specialises the legal loopholes which make every crime legal to the Wall-Born which suggests Bastion is surrounded by walls to the Integrated Alien passing as human which suggests a Science Fiction aspect to the city and the Un-Revolutionary, who seeks to prevent, even undo change in a city that is changing, the Failed Careers each hint at and add aspects to Bastion. Of course, not all of them will come into play necessarily, though those pertaining to the Debtors currently being played, certainly should.

Electric Bastionland shares much in common with the earlier Into the Odd. If a Debtor wants to undertake an action, his player rolls a twenty-sided die against the appropriate Ability, aiming to equal to or under to pass. For initiative in combat is handled with a Dexterity save. Combat is equally as simple. A player rolls the die for the weapon used to determine how much might damage be inflicted—there is no ‘to hit roll’. The target’s armour is subtracted from this and the remainder is subtracted from first his Hit Protection and then his Strength. Once damage is inflicted upon his Strength, a Debtor must make a save against his Strength in order to avoid being debilitated—which of course gets harder and harder the more Strength lost. Lastly, should a Debtor be reduced to exactly zero Hit Protection without suffering damage to his Strength, then he also scarred, which can be anything from an actual scar to doomed to die! And that is it in terms of mechanics, which are fully explained in just four pages! They are mostly player-facing, meaning that the players will probably roll more than the Conductor—as the Game Master is known in Electric Bastionland, and combat is in general, short and nasty, and best avoided if possible.

The last third of 
Electric Bastionland is for the Conductor. Advice, even direction for the Conductor, is to the point and laid out in short, easily grasped bullet points in ‘Preparing The Game’. The point of the roleplaying game is to find the treasure which will lift the Debtor out of penury, and so the treasure should be valuable rather than useful, there should be an explanation as to why it has not been found yet, and it should be thought-provoking. In a series of three bullet point blocks, the Conductor is guided through a range of subjects covering preparing and conducting the game, essentially presented as the principles behind the game. In turn, Bastion, Deep Country, and the Underground are presented in the same fashion, looking at how to understand, map, stock, and conduct (or referee) each of these weird and wonderful locations, often accompanied by tables that the Conductor can use as inspiration.

The advice for creating the inhabitants of Bastion is to make them interesting and memorable. Although they make up the majority, Humans are not the inhabitants of the city and beyond. Others include Mockeries, creatures of felt, wood, and string given life, hated by animals, but loved by children. Each has a particular talent and acts as if on the stage. In Bastion, they tend to be based on animals, Mock People though are loathed and Mock Objects stick to the Underground. Machines, connected to the Underground or a part of it, initiate change and monitor it, creating and modifying rather than destroying—and that can include the Debtors when encountered on their treasure hunt. Aliens are more advanced than the inhabitants of Bastion, but typically just a very specific way, and cannot truly integrate into society. Out in Deep Country, some have become gods or monsters of myth and legend. Monstrosities are each unique, each made rather than born, each mundane before it became what it is now.

The last part of 
Electric Bastionland is ‘The Oddendum’, a collection of short articles which the Conductor can include in her game. The first of these though, ‘A Player’s Handbook: Strategy Guide’, is not for the Conductor, but the players. It is a two-page spread on how to play Electric Bastionland and explore its city and beyond, and it is very useful. However, situated so very near the end of the book, it feels very much out of place, when really it should have been placed earlier, after the rules explanations and examples, where prospective players could have more readily found it. The rest of ‘The Oddendum’ covers a wide range of subjects, from Oddities, the strange devices and things whose workings defy explanation, but which might be magic or Sci-Fi and which everyone will want to buy or steal to an explanation of why the designer named the Game Master the ‘Conductor’ and how the city of Bastion is not a refuge or sanctuary to come back to from the Deep Country or Underground, but a continuation of the adventure. It includes sections of advice for the Conductor alongside sections of things to put in the game, so ‘The Balancing Act’ examines the balance between mechanics and making things interesting is followed by a list of Noble Weapons. This is followed by ‘Example Content’ such as ‘Unions and Rituals’—cults, clubs, and armies, ‘Dedicated Followers of Fashion’—an emporium of haute couture, and ‘The Bureaucrolabyrinth’, a table for running and complicating any bureaucratic process. All of these can be added to a Conductor’s game as she desires, but these final pieces do feel a bit of a jumble. And that in a way is fine, since Bastion as a setting is not meant to be a coherent whole, it is meant to be cluttered and discordant, part-patchwork, part-tangle.

Finally, the designer steps in with ‘The Last Word’. Here the designer makes clear that 
Electric Bastionland is designed to be played by anybody, to be played at the table, and to be created at the table. Further, that what it is not is a textbook intended to be studied. For the most part, the designer succeeds. Electric Bastionland is simple enough that it can be played by anyone, and it is definitely not a textbook, but very much more of a toolkit, one set of inspirations after another. Mechanically though, despite its simplicity, Electric Bastionland is not very forgiving—especially in combat where every attack succeeds and what matters is the amount of damage rolled. This is an issue continued from Into the Odd and it may be off-putting for some players. Electric Bastionland does include advice that addresses this—all of it good, but despite the simplicity and the advice, Electric Bastionland is not necessarily a roleplaying game for the beginning Game Master—or Conductor, since it relies heavily on improvisation. Which simply may be too daunting for the prospective Conductor. For the more experienced Game Master, the advice and simplicity will be nowhere near as daunting and should nicely ease her into running her first Electric Bastionland treasure hunt.

One side effect of the improvisation inherent to running and playing 
Electric Bastionland is that unlike the earlier Into the Odd, there is no traditional adventure or scenario, or in this case, treasure hunt, included in its pages. Into the Odd had a hexcrawl, a town, and a dungeon, and whilst Electric Bastionland has sample boroughs, what it does not have is a sample treasure hunt. Perhaps including one would have pulled away at the degree of improvisation which the designer of Electric Bastionland wants the Conductor to engage in and the lack of proscription that he wants Electric Bastionland to have, but certainly a working example of how treasure hunt can be put together and improvised might have been a useful edition, especially for the new or less experienced Conductor.

Another issue that 
Electric Bastionland shares with Into the Odd is just how much play can be got out of the roleplaying game. The set-up is simple: the Player Characters are in debt and each having a Failed Career need to find treasure to pay off what they owe. In the process, there is a magical, fantastical cityscape and beyond to explore, interesting NPCs to interact with, interesting other Debtors to interact with, obstacles to be overcome, and more. But what then? What next once the debt is paid off? There is potential in perhaps the Debtors having become part of the city becoming involved in its events and in perhaps exploring further aspects of their Failed Career, but that is beyond the scope of Electric Bastionland. Ultimately, Electric Bastionland is best suited for short campaigns, and since it includes one hundred Failed Careers, each one very different, each one adding to the nature of the city, there are multiple stories to be told and debts to be repaid. Thus, Electric Bastionland is better suited for repeated play rather than long term play.

Physically, it feels odd that a roleplaying book as large as 
Electric Bastionland is not in colour, the use of one artist—Alec Sorenson—and the judicious use of yellow colour palette as a highlight gives the book a uniform look throughout. Further, the illustrations impart a strong sense of the ordinary and the outré which pervades the city of Bastion and beyond. In terms of look and layout, Electric Bastionland is notably spacious, which when combined with the three-bullet point motif which mostly runs throughout the book, makes everything accessible and easy to find. If there is an issue with Electric Bastionland as a book, it is that towards the end it becomes a little disjointed, a collection of things, and as much as that fits the tone of the roleplaying game, it may not be to everyone’s taste. Otherwise, the book is well written, it is engaging, and it is well presented.

There is an elegance which runs throughout Electric Bastionland: Deeper into the Odd, from the simplicity of its mechanics to the delightfully evocative nature of the Failed Careers which build story into a campaign and across the sprawling metropolis of Bastion. The city itself has a surreal, almost ethereal feel to it that is just waiting for the Conductor to improvise and work with her Debtors to explore and perhaps make a little more real. Ultimately, Electric Bastionland: Deeper into the Odd is a roleplaying game whose every page is begging you to be played and explored, and just for a little while, you really should.

Saturday 20 February 2021

The One Ring Starter

As the Kickstarter for The One Ring Roleplaying Game, Second Edition continues apace, one of the most interesting additions to the new version is that of a Starter Set. Now The One Ring, originally published by Cubicle Seven Entertainment never actually did not receive a Starter Set, but publisher of the forthcoming second edition, Free League Publishing has an interesting track record with both the Alien Starter Set for the Aliens Adventure Game and the Tales from the Loop Starter Set for Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the ’80s That Never Was—and the forthcoming The One Ring Starter Set looks interesting. If Cubicle Seven Entertainment did not publish a Starter Set, then what it did publish was Bree. Instead of a Starter Set, what Bree can be best described as is a starting supplement.

Although this is not a starter set, it is focused on a smaller area and its three scenarios are designed for beginning Player Characters. It takes The One Ring further west from the Misty Mountains, Rivendell, and Eriador, and can serve as both an expansion to that supplement and region, both in terms of its description of the village of Bree and its immediate environs. And then, the three scenarios presented in Bree could easily be added to those set in Eastern Eriador, as detailed as in Ruins of the North. Alternatively, the Loremaster can use the content and scenarios in Bree as an introduction to The One Ring for both the players and their characters, and then go on to explore the wider area and undertake the scenarios set there with Rivendell and Ruins of the North. Essentially, come west from Rivendell with experienced Player Characters or go east from Bree with new ones. With established Player Characters, they could be of any Heroic Culture, but for new ones, it is intimated that players select either Hobbits of the Shire, Men of Bree, Bree-Hobbits, and perhaps the odd Dwarf Heroic Cultures for their Player Characters. This will serve to keep some of the mystery of the wider world to be revealed through the three scenarios in Bree and then on to Rivendell and Ruins of the North. This option would also work well with the forthcoming The One Ring Starter Set from Free League Publishing which focuses on The Shire, so the Hobbits who have had adventures in their homeland, can have their next in and around Bree.

Bree presents Bree-land and its four constituent villages—Archet, Combe, Staddle, and of course Bree for The One Ring. In character, despite the number of traders passing through Bree itself, the village and area is conservative, its inhabitants, both the Men of Bree and the Hobbits of Bree, its Big Folk and Little Folk, sensible and not given to adventures and wild doings. Those that are, of course, are deeply frowned upon, because there is just not something right about them. There is relatively little history to Bree and Bree-land, the village having stood at the crossroads of the Greenway which runs north into a land of dark hills and ruins and south towards the Gap of Rohan, and the East Road which runs from the Misty Mountains in the east to the Shire in the west, for many centuries. It is a bastion of quiet civilisation beyond which lies wilderness and danger, which mostly obviously relies upon the Bree-Wardens and their big sticks and the ancient hedge which encircles the village of Bree for its protection, but the reality is that neither could truly withstand a concerted effort by a force of Orcs or the influence of the Shadow… Thus, at the direction of Gandalf the Grey, the Rangers of the North undertake the duty to protect both Bree and Bree-land, though few Bree-landers realise it and most distrust any Ranger they see.

All four villages of Bree-land are described in some detail, though only Bree is given a map of its own. Understandably, The Prancing Pony, perhaps the most famous inn in all of Middle Earth is described in detail, as the owner, Barnabus Butterbur—the forgetful Barliman is his son—and full plans of the building are provided as is a table of encounters. The Prancing Pony is likely to be the focal point of most of the Player Characters when in Bree, but the supplement suggests several new activities which members of a Fellowship can conduct during the Fellowship Phase. The first is Opening Bree as a Sanctuary—though Bree is so small that the Fellowship will need to earn the trust of Bree’s important personalities and of the Rangers, and become regulars at The Prancing Pony. The others include Guard the East Road, Building the Refuge at Girdley Island—the latter to better support Ranger missions in the area; Write a Letter—this needs to be delivered, but can inform the recipient of the author’s arrival, ask for aid, arrange a meeting, and more; have a Chance-Meeting in the Inn; and more.

Bree adds one new Heroic Culture and makes alterations to a second. The former is Men of Bree, which enables players to create characters from Bree-land with one of six Backgrounds, as per other Heroic Cultures in The One Ring. They include a character having been away to the Blue Mountains as a caravan guard, serving as a Gate-warden, and having become aware of the presence of the Rangers in and around Bree-land. The Heroic Culture captures the sheltered nature and upbringing of the Bree-landers. For Bree-Hobbits, the supplement mixes elements of the Men of Bree and Hobbit of the Shire Heroic Cultures.

Although there are suggestions as to adventuring in and around Bree, the supplement comes with three scenarios which take place over the course of two to three years. They can take place in any year, but the supplement suggests that the first, ‘Old Bones and Skin’ takes place in the autumn of 2950, then the second, ‘Strange Men, Strange Roads’, the summer of 2951, and the third, ‘Holed Up in Staddle’, in the autumn of 2951. The scenarios could be run separately, but really work together as a trilogy which forms a mini-campaign. Each is nicely set up with an explanation as to when, where, what, why, and who before breaking the scenario down into easy parts. All three scenarios are relatively lengthy, and should take two to three sessions to complete.

The first scenario is ‘Old Bones and Skin’, which is in part inspired by a song by Sam Gamgee. It opens amidst a scandal, young Tomas Heatherton having failed to attend his uncle’s funeral, but the discussion of scandal is interrupted when the young man rushes into The Prancing Pony, white as a sheet and blathering about a ghost in the graveyard! This is the opportunity for the Player Characters to strike out as heroes for the first time, and lengthy investigation of the graveyard reveals a more corporeal threat—an old Troll! Chasing the Old Troll across the South Downs is a challenging task, but success leads to a trove of treasure—using the rules for treasure from the Rivendell supplement—and revelation of family secrets. These family secrets tie into the plot behind the trilogy, whilst the adventure will see the Player Characters first make a name for themselves. Although the Player Characters will find themselves going up hill and down dale, this adventure is a bit of a romp, in turns exciting and scary, and mysterious.

The second scenario, ‘Strange Men, Strange Roads’ requires a little bit of a set-up, but this gets the Player Characters their first assignment—meet a contact at the Forsaken Inn, a disreputable and unwelcoming stop further along on the East Road. Unfortunately, the contact is found dead and the most likely culprits are amongst a trade caravan heading back to Bree and beyond. Investigating a trade caravan on the move is a challenge and will require a mix of stealth and guile. The Loremaster has a good cast of NPCs to portray—perhaps slightly too many for the Loremaster new to roleplaying—and even as a murder mystery set in Middle Earth, the scenario has echoes of Film Noir. There are some pleasing encounters along the way, not all of them dangerous, and not all of them casting the villains as truly black-hearted. It should all come to a head in the corridors of The Prancing Pony and present the Player Characters with a moral dilemma. If there is an issue with the scenario it is perhaps that the events it sets up happen off screen. Now these could be played out, but would require more experienced Player Characters and the Loremaster to design the situation to be played out. Otherwise, this is another good scenario, one which brings the darkness to found beyond the borders of Bree to within its thick hedge.

The third scenario, ‘Holed Up in Staddle’ takes place entirely in Bree-land and in bringing the trilogy of scenarios in Bree to close, also brings the consequences of the first two scenarios to head as well. The Player Characters come to the aid of the Rangers in tracking down some of the villains, but despite the aid of a notable figure in the area, lose track of them. With no further leads, the Player Characters are forced to return to Bree. There rumour spreads that one of the richer families of Hobbits in nearby Staddle is acting out of the ordinary, its members having become more reclusive and insular than is the norm. Ideally, Player Characters will follow up on this and ferret out an idea or two as what might be going on. The finale of the scenario and the campaign will see them launch an attack on a Hobbit hole! Which will be a challenge for anyone not Hobbit-sized. The scenario is decent enough, but not as satisfying as the first two and it does feel like the authors are in a hurry to get to its climax and that of the campaign.

Overall, the campaign should ready the Player Characters for adventuring in the wider world beyond the borders of Bree-land. The three scenarios are sophisticated and deep and rich, and involve a good mix of tasks and challenges—physical, social, and combat. The campaign has more of a self-contained feel to it, being confined to one small area, but this more readily allows the Loremaster and her players to bring this smaller part of Middle Earth to life and to have the Player Characters invest themselves in it and in protecting it, likely to open up Bree as their first Sanctuary. One thing that the Loremaster will need to do is prepare a list of NPC names for inhabitants of Bree-land that the Player Characters might run into in any one of the villages and thereabouts, as well as for nefarious ne’er-do-wells—like certain members of the Ferny family—and strangers who might take an interest in their activities.

Physically, Bree is a relatively slim book by the standards of supplements for The One Ring. It is a pretty book, done in earthy tones throughout that give it a homely feel that befits the setting of Middle Earth. The illustrations are excellent, the cartography decent, and the writing is clear and easy to understand. It even comes with a good index.

Bree nicely fits onto the realm of Eriador as an expansion to or lead into Rivendell and Ruins of the North, as much danger and mystery as there is presented—and that danger is very well-presented and explained in Bree—there is ultimately a pleasing cosiness and homeliness to both the supplement and the area it describes. Bree is a charming introductory setting for The One Ring and a fantastic stepping stone onto exploring the wider Middle Earth.

Friday 19 February 2021

Friday Filler: Colt Express: Bandits

Published in 2014, Colt Express is a super fun game of bandits raiding a train in the Wild West, which would go on to be the 2015 Spiel des Jahres Winner. From one round to the next, each player programs the actions of his bandit and then at end of each round, these actions are played out in order, and as each action happens, the bandits aboard the train interact with each other, plans go awry, and chaos ensues! The fact that this takes place aboard a cardboard model of a train that sits on the table in front of the players and they get to program their bandits’ maneuvres up and down and along the train, only serves to make the game more entertaining. In the years since, Colt Express has been supported by a handful of expansions, such as Colt Express: Horses & Stagecoach, including even a Delorean! However, as good as it looks and as fun as it is to play, Colt Express is at its best when there are six players sat round the table and all six bandits are involved, and a game can devolve into maximum chaos and in the space of thirty minutes or so, tales of how each bandit successfully—or unsuccessfully robbed the Colt Express. So, what do you do if there are fewer than six players? Five players is fine, four maybe… With fewer players how do you back up to that maximum fun? Well, publisher Ludonaute has a solution—the Colt Express Bandits series.

The Colt Express Bandits series consists of not one expansion, but six. One for each of the six bandits in Colt Express—Belle, Cheyenne, Django, Doc, Ghost, and Tuco. Each expansion replaces its particular bandit in the game, but not when the bandit is being played by a player. Rather an expansion takes the place of a bandit who is not being controlled by a player and hands that control to the game itself. Each Colt Express: Bandits expansion adds new deck of eight Action cards which will control the bandit from one turn to the next and two special moves or effects.

So, what can each bandit do?

In Colt Express, with a “Liddle ol’ me?”, Belle cannot be targeted by a Fire or Punch action if another Bandit can be targeted instead. In Colt Express Bandits – Belle, her Action cards consist of Move—always towards where there is the most jewels to be picked; Punch—everyone in the same carriage and always towards the back of the train!; Theft—steal a Jewel from every Bandit in the same carriage; Robbery—jewels if she can; and Charm—make all of the Bandits aboard the train move towards her. Lastly, when she encounters the Marshal, she charms him into not shooting her! Belle is all about using her charm to steal as many jewels as she possibly can.

In Colt Express, Cheyenne is a pickpocket and when she punches a Bandit, also steals a Purse from her victim. In Colt Express Bandits – Cheyenne, her Action cards consist of a Double Move—two carriages if in the train or four if on the roof, or a Single Move—one carriage if in the train or two if on the roof, and always towards the most Bandits, after which she pickpockets a Purse from a random Bandit in her new location. She also a Bow Attack which replaces her pistol attack, enabling her to fire poisoned arrows at her rivals. These are treated like bullets as in the standard game and clog up a Bandit’s Action Deck. A poisoned Bandit must grab one of the Antidotes—to be found throughout the train—to be consumed per Poisoned Arrow taken. A Bandit who has suffered one or more Poisoned Arrows cannot win the game. Thus, Cheyenne is all about stealing Purses from her rival Bandits and preventing them from winning with her Poisoned Arrows. 

In Colt Express, Django is a crackshot and when he shoots another Bandit, he or she is knocked into the next carriage. In Colt Express Bandits – Django, he still has that capability, but here he fires a volley, the bullets hitting the nearest group of Bandits rather than a single Bandit! In addition, at the beginning of the game, each other Bandit receives two Ejection tokens, and at the beginning of each turn, Django places a Dynamite token in the carriage he is currently in if it does not have one. When the Explosion Action card is draw, all of the Bandits caught in the explosions are ejected from the train and must use their next action to reboard the train. Any Bandit ejected from the train in this fashion must give one of their Ejection tokens to Django and these are worth money at the end of the game. Django then, is also about using brute force, with a big gun or a big bang to drive everyone off the train and enable him to scoop up the loot.

In Colt Express, Doc is in smartest Bandit and always starts each round with seven Action cards rather than six like everyone else. In Colt Express Bandits – Doc gets to be cleverer too. First the Bandit who shoots or punches Doc earns his respect and his Respect card, allowing that Bandit’s Player to control Doc until another Bandit shoots or punches Doc. Doc also shoots special bullets which deny the shot Bandit particular actions, such as Fire, Floor Change, Punch, or Move, depending on the card. Doc also sets up a Poker Game, which forces every Bandit with loot to participate by contributing one of their already purloined loot, with Doc adding one from his stake. The player controlling Doc gets to redistribute this loot, Doc receiving two, and everyone else one bar a single Bandit who gets nothing. This is a slightly fiddly, slightly more complex expansion, the player controlling Doc getting to feather his Bandit’s own nest whilst ensuring his rival Bandits, including Doc does not receive as much.

In Colt Express, Ghost is the sneakiest of the Bandits and can place his first Action card face down into the common deck rather face up as is standard. In Colt Express Bandits – Ghost, he is after the Special Suitcase which replaces the Strongbox which begins play in the locomotive, guarded by Marshal. Any Moves he makes is always towards the Special Suitcase, but he also has combined action which enable him to do a Floor Change and then Fire, and his Fire and Punch actions affect every Bandit in the same carriage. Ghost is all about obtaining the Special Suitcase and will win the game if he has at game’s end, so when Ghost is in play, the game becomes about denying him the Special Suitcase as much as it is stealing as much loot as possible.

In Colt Express, Tuco can shoot up or down through the roof of the carriage he is, targeting a Bandit who is on the roof if he is in the carriage or a Bandit who is in the carriage if Tuco is on the roof. In Colt Express Bandits – Tuco, he can still do that. When he takes a Move Action, it is always towards the largest group of Bandits and as with other Bandits, his Punch and Shoot attacks affect multiple Bandits in or on the same Carriage. Tuco’s double-barrelled shotgun fires more bullets though and although Tuco cannot win by expending all of his bullets, he gets extra bullets and receives loot for each bullet fired. In addition, Tuco can swap places with the Marshal and if another Bandit forces Tuco to be in the same carriage as the Marshal, the offending Bandit receives a Wanted token. Each Wanted token adds to a Bandit’s final score, including Tuco’s. So Tuco wants to avoid the Marshal if he can because he is wanted and rival Bandits want to get Tuco and the Marshal together.

Set-up is simple enough. The Action deck for each Colt Express: Bandits expansion is placed to the right of the first player. Between the first player’s action and the second player’s action, one card is drawn randomly from the Bandit’s Action deck and added to the common deck which will be resolved at the end of the round. Each of the Bandits in the Colt Express Bandits series can be shot by his or her rival Bandits and when shot three times, he or she loses her next action.  Each also has his or her own winning conditions. Belle wins by having the most jewels at the end of the game. In which case all of the actual players and their Bandits lose! Cheyenne wins by being the richest of the Bandits at the end of the game who has not been poisoned. Django wins the game immediately if he gets all of the Ejection Tokens—essentially if every other Bandit is blown or shot from the train twice! He can also win by being the richest Bandit. Doc wins by having the most loot. Ghost wins by having the Special Suitcase at the end of the game or having the most loot. Tuco wins by having the most loot.

What is interesting is that elements of the Colt Express Bandits could be incorporated into the main game. So Belle could use her charm on the Marshal, Cheyenne could use her Poisoned Arrows, Django could seed the train with Dynamite and set off the explosions, Doc could play the Poker game, Ghost by possessing his Special Suitcase, and Tuco by avoiding the Marshal. However, they are not necessarily designed for that and they are not designed as written to be used as more than one entry in the Colt Express: Bandits expansion at a time. This is not to say that an enterprising group could not do that, or even an enterprising player, with the latter actually controlling his own Bandit, whilst the game controls the rest. This would make it fairly complex in working out what happens and when, but if the players are methodical about it, then it should not necessarily be an issue.

Physically, each entry in the Colt Express: Bandits series is well done. The cards are the same quality as those found in Colt Express, the tokens are on thick cardboard, and the little rules leaflet—print in French and English is generally easy to read. However, the English translation is not quite as smooth as it could have been and it could have done with another edit.

Each of six entries in the Colt Express: Bandits series is, to varying degrees, interesting and engaging, and brings out more character from each of the Bandits. The owner of the game is free to pick and choose which of them he wants to, but the likelihood is that he will want all of them, to give him and his gaming group the option to play the Bandits that they want and still have the equivalent of six Bandits in the game. However, this does feel like an expensive option, when perhaps all six expansions could have been collected into the one box (that said, all six expansions in the series will fit the box for Colt Express) and then expanded perhaps with advice on using them for solo play—that is, one player Bandit and five game-controlled bandits and how they might interact. Or on adding the abilities given in this series to the standard play of the Bandits with any of the entries in the Colt Express: Bandits series. As it is, a gaming group, and possibly a single player will have to find that out for themselves how the entries in the series for themselves.

Colt Express is still a great game and the Colt Express: Bandits series adds further flavour and character to each of the Bandits in play. Some options are more complex than others, but overall, adding one or two of these to game should keep the game play fun and add a little challenge and chaos at the same time.