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

Monday 29 March 2021

Miskatonic Monday #62: The Highway of Blood

The Highway of Blood: A Call of Cthulhu Scenario for the 1970s is a one-shot scenario for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, published on the Miskatonic Repository. It stands out as being different for four reasons. First, it is set during the nineteen seventies. Second, it is inspired by the low-budget horror, splatter, and exploitation films of the period, shown in a ‘grindhouse’ or ‘action house’ cinema, such as Duel, I Spit on Your Grave, Last House on the Left, Texas Chainsaw Massacre, The Hills Have Eyes, and the more recent Death Proof. Third, in doing so, the scenario involves a number of elements which the players may find disturbing. In fact, more disturbing than is the norm for a Call of Cthulhu scenario. These include drug use, sadistic violence, implied rape (against NPCs), torture, cannibalism, body horror, and violence against children. Consequently, the scenario comes with a warning and advice on how to handle such topics, including making clear to the players the nature of the content of the scenario and discussing any boundaries they may have—essentially a ‘Session Zero’, if necessary fading to black and drawing a veil in what might otherwise be a personally harrowing scene, and ultimately respecting a player’s limits. Even if that means ending the current session. So to be clear, 
The Highway of Blood is not a scenario for the timid or the easily offended, its content is of a grittily adult nature and so requires mature players, but it goes out of its way to be upfront about this and gives advice on how to handle it.

The Highway of Blood takes place in 1975, along The Devil’s Backbone, a scenic drive along a limestone ridge in the Texas Hill Country. It is purportedly one of the most haunted spots in the Lone Star State. The Player Characters, who might be friends on a week-long road trip through West Texas, or FBI agents from the Dallas office who are investigating a series of disappearances in the area, begin play on the road, getting low on fuel and in one of the worst heat waves the region has ever seen, also in need of a cold drink. When they see a sign up ahead promising ‘Gas & Food’, the Player Characters make the necessary right turn onto the unpaved road and find themselves in the crumbling, mouldering former uranium-mining town of Abattoir, West Texas (population of 850, but probably much less…). Unfortunately, getting into Abattoir, West Texas, is the easy part. Getting out is going to be challenging, not to say nigh on impossible, and is likely to be tortuous. In some cases, literally…

The fourth reason why
The Highway of Blood is different, is the format. It is not a traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario in that it is a strong plot driven by an investigation, with layers of the mystery being peeled back layer by layer as the Investigators make their enquiries. Instead, it is written as a sandbox-style scenario in which the Player Characters are free to go anywhere they like, though they are likely to be harried and hindered by the evil inhabitants of Abattoir and its environs everywhere they go. To that end, The Highway of Blood describes the town and surrounding locations in some depth, including the inhabitants and the items which might be found there—sometimes on lengthy random tables. The locations include the gas station, the diner, the church, and the few surviving shops in the town itself. Then beyond the confines of the town, the roads which crisscross the area, the camp and mine shafts for the long since shutdown uranium mine, a horridly bloody compound, and below the mine, a series of strange caves and tunnels. All described in some detail and all sites which the Investigators can visit as part of their sojourn in and around Abattoir.

The plot—as much as there is a plot in The Highway of Blood—is primarily driven by two urges. One is the urge by the debased and often inbred townsfolk to harass and harry, even play, with the Player Characters, and keep them in Abattoir, whilst the other is Player Characters’ urge to escape Abattoir. The highlight of this—if there is one—is the set piece car chase over the roads surrounding the town. This is ‘The Hunt’, and it is very obviously inspired by the car chases seen in the Grindhouse genre. Beyond this hunt, the motivations and plans of the scenario’s antagonists are discussed in some detail, as are possible outcomes or endgames…

The Highway of Blood is supported by a number of appendices. The first provides an overview of ‘The Hunt’, including optional car rules to supplement the chase rules in Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition; and rules for non-lethal attacks (since the antagonists do not want to actually kill the Player Characters) and driving stunts. The second provides environment rules for the desert and various hazards; the third the full statistics and write-ups for the various NPCs; the third the monsters; and the fifth, descriptions of new spells and items, plus new rules for radioactive dust and water. The sixth gives the scenario’s various handouts, including numerous maps and floor plans, plus portraits for all of the NPCs and details of the vehicles the Player Characters and their enemies drive during the scenario. The seventh appendix provides two sets of pre-generated Player Characters. One is a quartet of twenty-somethings on a week-long road trip, whilst the other is a pair of FBI agents looking into a rash of disappearances in the area. The eighth and last appendix provides a thumbnail guide to playing in the seventies—news and pop culture in 1975, slang, and recommended films. All useful for anyone who was not born then or was too young to remember the period, or was alive back and then, and has forgotten what it was like.

So what then is The Highway of Blood actually about? It can be best described as the desert version of H.P. Lovecraft’s ‘The Shadow Over Innsmouth’. The town of Abattoir is dominated by a cult dedicated to an ancient god whose members seek victims for conception, consumption, and consecration. This is no Escape from Innsmouth though, the emphasis being on the ‘no escape’, again in keeping with the Grindhouse genre. There is a touch of Mad Max in the scenario’s set piece car chase and of Deliverance in the encounters between the Player Characters and the NPCs. Instead of hillbillies of Deliverance or the bachtrachian inbreds of Innsmouth, what The Highway of Blood has is ‘Dustbillies’. There are potential allies to be found in Abattoir, but to a man—and there are no active female NPCs in the scenario—all have either been cowed by the cult or actively choose to ignore it. This adds to the challenge of what is already a challenging scenario.

Physically, The Highway of Blood is decently appointed. It is presented in full colour with a mixture of period colour photographs and photographs, as well as black and white photographs from the nineteen thirties onwards. The floorplans are clean and easy to read, as are the maps in general. Some thought has been given to highlighting the key points in the scenario and in particular, key trigger warnings for the horrific situations in the scenario. Throughout, there is staging advice and directions for the Keeper, most notably appropriate music to play at certain points, as well as the voiceover from a state radio disc jockey. In addition to it needing an edit in places, if there is an issue with The Highway of Blood, it is that the Keeper could have been given a bigger, better map of the region and it be placed more upfront for her reference.

As a scenario, 
The Highway of Blood is difficult to quantify. This is because as a sandbox scenario, a form more readily seen in the Old School Renaissance rather than in Call of Cthulhu, it very much being very player driven with relatively little in the way of the plot or NPC to pull them along. In fact, the plot more pushes the Player Characters along as the inhabitants of Abattoir harass and harry them in and around, but not of, the town. In addition, the format means that unlike a traditional Call of Cthulhu scenario, there is not the readymade trail of breadcrumbs or clues for the Player Characters to follow, so that because The Highway of Blood is a sandbox, the Player Characters can more easily avoid any and all clues, run into a major threat and get captured and/or butchered in the first hour or so, or simply wander around never finding anything, just desperate to escape… So a play through of The Highway of Blood could last an hour or hours over multiple sessions. And even if the Player Characters do manage to escape, they may not necessarily succeed or find a solution which deals with the threat they face in Abattoir. That said, the players and their characters have to be both lucky and resourceful if they are to fully deal with this threat, the likelihood being that they will ultimately fail, get captured, and the scenario fades to black as the Player Characters scream in terror. Such an ending though, would be in keeping with the Grindhouse genre that The Highway of Blood is inspired by.

Ultimately, the nature of The Highway of Blood is what will make a gaming group decide whether to play it or not. The triggering issues it contains means that it is definitely one to avoid for some players, but those issues are part of the genre and the authors should be praised for addressing how to handle them as well as they do. The scenario is also less useful for a campaign, though there is advice to that end, being better suited to one-shot play. For a gaming group looking to play a grim, gritty, and gruesome Grindhouse scenario, The Highway of Blood: A Call of Cthulhu Scenario for the 1970s is the perfect choice.

Sunday 28 March 2021

A Mythic Neo-Noir Starter

City of Mist is a roleplaying game of neo-noir investigation and superhero-powered action. The intersection between the film noir and superhero genres has invariably derived from the Pulp fiction of the thirties and forties, with such characters as The Shadow or Batman, with generally low-key and low-powered heroes and villains in comparison to what would follow with the Four Colour subgenre. City of Mist does something different. It brings in the powers and personalities of legends and gods of different Mythos—King Arthur, Red Riding Hood, Hercules, Athena, and Bast—and then obscures them. These powers and personalities manifest through Rifts, inhabitants of The City, a fog-shrouded, corrupt, and crime-ridden metropolis which could be Los Angeles of the thirties, New York of the fifties, or London of the sixties. It is simply known as The City. As Rifts, the Player Characters investigate Cases, and if necessary, fight crime, some of it committed by other Rifts, some not. Yet as powerful as each Rift is, the ordinary citizens of The City, the Sleepers, cannot see them for what they are and never see them manifest their powers. The Mist, a strange mystical veil renders each manifestation of a power or legend ordinary. Wallcrawling? Parkour. Lightning bolt? Broken electrical substation. Each Mythoi—god or legend or even abstract concept wants to manifest itself in The City, but the Mist works to prevent this, for the result might be chaos which could rip The City apart, so instead it allows them to manifest through the Rifts. Equally, as there is a tension between the Mythoi and the Mist, there is tension between the Mythos, both the legend which wants to become more and a mystery as to why it manifested, and the Logos, the ordinary self, safe and mundane in each Rift.

The City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set is designed as an introduction to the setting. Published by Son of Oak Game Studio LLC, it provides everything necessary to play through at least one Case. Designed to be played by five players and a Master of Ceremonies—as the Game Master is known—the starter set comes richly appointed. There are two books labelled ‘The Players’ and ‘The Master of Ceremonies’; five pre-generated character folios, one each for Baku, Detective Enkidu, Job, Lily Chow, Iron Hans, and Tlaloc; a deck of twenty Tracking cards and a Crew Card; two twenty-two by seventeen-inch poster maps; forty-one illustrated character tokens; and two City of Mist dice—one purple Mythos die and one ivory Logos die. There is a lot in the box, all of it presented in full colour and illustrated throughout with artwork which invokes the two inspirations for City of Mist.

The starting point for the 
City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set are five pre-generated Player Characters or Rifts. The quintet consists of Baku, Detective Enkidu, Job, Lily Chow and Iron Hans, and Tlaloc. Baku is a monster hunter, mythological Japanese chimera who hunts ghosts and devours nightmares; Detective Enkidu is an experienced police detective who hides a creature of the wild from Sumerian myth inside her which drives her to break the rules; Job is an unkillable priest whose family was killed by The City’s criminal underworld; Lily Chow is a runaway teen able to unleash Iron Hans, a magician-giant who is her companion, protector, and big brother; and Taloc is a small time crook with a gift of the gab and the power of the Aztec god of rain and water, thunder and lighting. Each of the five character folios is done on heavy, glossy card in A3-size. This does mean that there is quite a lot of information on each folio and that each folio takes up quite a bit of space on the table.

Unlike a traditional roleplaying game, a Rift is not described in terms of skills or attributes, but rather what he can do. Each of the five has the same set of Core Moves, or actions that they can attempt. What marks a Rifts out as special is the fact that he has four Themes, represented by four cards on the folio. They are divided between Mythos and Logos Themes, the legendary and the ordinary aspects of a Rift. Some Rifts have Mythos Themes than Logos Themes, and vice versa, and it is possible to lose Themes, so that a Mythos Theme might Fade and be replaced by a Logos Theme, whilst a Logos Theme might Crack and be replaced by a Mythos Theme. There are consequences to having Themes all of one type. For example, a Rift who replaces all of his Logos Themes with Mythos Themes, becomes an avatar of his Mythos, whilst losing his last Mythos Theme means he becomes a Sleeper and denies the existence of the Mythos. Whilst each Mythos Theme has a Mystery that the Rift wants to explore, and each Logos Theme has an Identity which represents a defining conviction, belief, or emotion, all Themes have Power Tags which can be invoked to help achieve a Rift’s intended goal, plus a Weakness.

For example, Tlaloc has the Mythos Theme ‘God of Rain and Lightning’. This has the Mystery, “Who Threatens to Blot Out the Fifth Sun?”, the Power Tags, ‘Call Upon the Storm’, ‘Thunderbolt Manipulation’, and ‘Electrifying Gaze’, plus the Weakness, ‘Indoor Spaces’. He also has the ‘A Dimond in the Rough’ Logos Theme, which as the Identity, “This Will Be The Last Time, I Swear!”, the Power Tags, ‘Good, deep down inside’, ‘Relentless Schmoozer’, and ‘Sticky Fingers’, as well as the Weakness, ‘Pangs of Remorse’.

Learning the game begins with ‘The Players’ booklet. It runs to forty-four pages and introduces the concepts behind roleplaying and City of Mist, explains the character folios and how the roleplaying game is played—the ‘Moves’ or actions a Rift can take and their potential outcome, describes the various districts of The City, and provides a lengthy, eight page example of play. The latter includes two of the pre-generated Rifts in the starter set and showcases the various types of Moves that the Rifts can perform as part of an investigation and then combat scene. In general, the Moves are well explained, but do come with fine print and do require a little bit of study. The example of play though, is more than helpful in showing the prospective player and Master of Ceremonies how the game works.

Whilst the Master of Ceremonies has to read the ‘The Players’ book to understand the basics of City of Mist, the ‘The Master of Ceremonies’ book is all hers. This explains the role of the Master of Ceremonies, the Moves or actions she can take—and when, explains how to present challenges and dangers to the Rifts, and so on. A Danger encapsulates a threat to the Rifts, whether that is an NPC, a location, or a situation, which might be a crime lord’s chief enforcer, a car chase through the streets of The City, or a building on fire. The bulk of the ‘The Master of Ceremonies’ book is given over to ‘Shark Tank’, the first case for ‘All-Seeing Eye Investigations’, the crew which the Rifts in the 
City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set are members of. ‘All-Seeing Eye Investigations’ has its own ‘Crew Theme card, complete with its own Mystery and Power Tags which the Rifts can invoke as part of their investigation.

Mechanically, City of Mist and thus the 
City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set is ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’, which means that it uses the rules first seen in Apocalypse World in 2010. These rules are player-facing in that the Master of Ceremonies does not make dice rolls, but rather that the player do. So from the Core Moves below, a player would roll ‘Convince’ to persuade an NPC, but ‘Face Danger’ to avoid being influenced. The rules in City of Mist have eight Core Moves—‘Change The Game’ (give an advantage or remove a disadvantage), , ‘Face Danger’ (avoid harm or resist a malign influence), ‘Go Toe to Toe’ with someone, ‘Hit With All You’ve Got’ (harm someone in the worst way you can), ‘Investigate’, ‘Sneak Around’, and ‘Take the Risk’ (perform a feat of daring). When a Rift undertakes an action, his player states the Move he is using, applies any bonuses from Tags—short descriptors for a quality, resource, advantage, disadvantage, or object in the game—and applies the resulting Power value for the sum of positive and negative tags and statuses affecting an action, and rolls two six-sided (or the included City of Mist dice) dice. A player can use all manner of Tag Combos to build up the Power value, as long as the Master of Ceremonies agrees. Several Tag Combos tailored to each pre-generated Rift are listed in their respective folios.

A result of a six or less is a Miss, a result of between seven and nine is a Hit, but with complications, whilst a result of ten or more is a Hit with a great success. Each Move works slightly differently and will give different results depending upon the roll. For example, the ‘Investigate’ Move gets a Rift answers to questions. If a Hit—seven or more—is rolled, the player can ask the Master of Ceremonies a number of questions and so gain a number of Clues equal to the Power value applied to the roll. If a Hit with complications—seven or more, but less than ten—is rolled, the Master of Ceremonies can expose the Rift to danger, give fuzzy, incomplete, or partly-true partly-false answers, or have the NPC ask the Rift a question, which he must answer. The aim in many Moves is to inflict a Status such as ‘Prone-2’ or ‘Befuddled-1’ or ‘Knife Wound-3’, which will give a Rift an advantage when rolling against that NPC who has suffered such a Status and a disadvantage when suffered by the Rift. A status like this is recorded on a Status card and kept in play until it is got rid of.

In addition, the Rifts can enter a Downtime sequence between the investigation or action, and undertake actions such as ‘Give Attention to a Logos’, ‘Work the Case’, ‘Explore Your Mythos’, ‘Prepare for your next Activity’, and ‘Recover for your next Activity’. This is handled as a montage scene and the effects of each action are automatic, whilst ‘Burning for a Hit’ grants an automatic success without complications, but also makes the Tag unusable until a Downtime sequence has been completed. Lastly, there is ‘Stop.Holding.Back.’, a special Move which enables a Rift to push his powers beyond their limit, though at the cost of a sacrifice to one of the Themes in a Rift’s folio.

The Master of Ceremonies has her own Moves, divided between Soft Moves and Hard Moves. A Soft Move is an imminent threat or challenge to the Rifts and their investigation, and really only consists of the Master of Ceremonies complicating things for the Rifts as a means to spur them into action. A Hard Move is a major complication or a significant setback to the Rifts and their investigation, and includes more options for the Master of Ceremonies. ‘Give a Status’ inflicts a Status on a Rift, but this can be resisted by a ‘Face Danger’ Move. Other Hard Moves, such as ‘Burn a Tag’, ‘Complicate Things, Big-time’, and others cannot be resisted and are more narrative effects and consequences than Moves as such. Essentially, they can come into play when a Rift fails to take an action or fails—rolls six or less—when undertaking an action. The Master of Ceremonies also has Intrusions, which really codify her using her judgement when adjudicating the rules.

The Case in the 
City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set, ‘Shark Tank’ is organised in a couple of ways. First, it is a pyramid diagram of scenes, arranged by depth into a series of layers, which after the briefing, the Rifts can visit and investigate. Second, it is as a series of programmed steps which take the Master of Ceremonies and her players through the process of learning to play both City of Mist and the scenario. For example, when the Rifts encounter a group of enforcers shaking down a shop owner, ‘The Master of Ceremonies’ book says, “If this is the crew’s first fight, stop the story and move over to the players’ booklet, starting at Exhibit #8: Playing Through a Conflict on page 21 (see also MC Skill: Running a Fight Scene on the next page).” At which point, the players and Master of Ceremonies can set up and run the fight scene. However, this does not mean that the Master of Ceremonies can necessarily run ‘Shark Tank’ without any preparation, but it does mean that once prepared, she really has all of the references, pointers, and advice at her fingertips, including advice specific to each of the five Rifts which come pre-generated with the City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set. The scenario itself has the Rifts interviewing the owners of several businesses on Miller’s Square where All-Seeing Eye Investigations has its shabby office, potentially exposing police corruption, confronting villains who bring a whole new meaning to the term ‘loan shark’, and having a showdown at the chief villain’s lair. Beyond the confines of ‘Shark Tank’, there are extra scenarios available which can be played using the content from the City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set.

Also included in the 
City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set are two twenty-two by seventeen-inch poster maps and forty-one illustrated character tokens. The maps depict various locations which appear in the scenario, ‘Shark Tank’, and tokens cover all five Rifts and the various NPCs in the scenario. The single purple Mythos die and single ivory Logos die are decent twelve-sided dice marked with one through five twice, and then the domino mask symbol on the six face for the Logos die, and power icon on the six face for the Mystery die. Each icon also appears on the Themes in each folio.

Physically, the City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set is very nicely put together. The poster maps are on sturdy paper, the counters thick cardboard, the folios on glossy card stock, and both of ‘The Players’ and ‘The Master of Ceremonies’ booklets done on glossy paper stock. Inside, both booklets are superbly illustrated in a slightly cartoonish, but suitably film noir style, and their layout is excellent. Not only designed to look like a set of case files for a crime, but also designed to be accessible with effective use of devices to highlight text and boxed text for useful information. If there is a physical downside to the 
City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set, it is the box it comes in. It is not particularly sturdy and unlikely to do a good job of protecting its otherwise excellent contents.

City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set is at first confusing. The box contains a lot of components and it is a little difficult to quite know where to start. However, once you dig into the rules in the ‘The Players’ booklet it begins to make a little sense, but really where it comes together is in ‘The Master of Ceremonies’ booklet, especially in the scenario, ‘Shark Tank’, which gives context for the rules and whether through nudges to the Master of Ceremonies to use particular rules or direct referral back to the rules in ‘The Players’ booklet. Once grasped, what the City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set reveals is a flexible ruleset which drives and pushes the narrative. The setting itself, combines urban fantasy with super heroics, but that combination avoids much of the trappings of the superhero genre. It shrouds them in the fog of the film noir genre just as The Mist masks The City from them. The City of Mist: All-Seeing Eye Investigations Starter Set is an excellent introduction to The City and the ‘Powered by the Apocalypse’ mechanics of City of Mist.

Saturday 27 March 2021

Tomorrow's Future Today

The Future We Saw is a near-future, post-scarcity, post-labour roleplaying game of A.I. and precognitive manipulation of politics, power, privacy, and information in a world of radical political, corporate, and social factions. This is a future in which corporations and other organisations not only have their own public relations teams to make themselves look good, but teams of undercover fixers whose task is to ensure that their employer looks good and their employer’s rival looks bad, that they have the inside information on their rivals, whilst denying inside information to their rivals. Working in small team ‘Special Forces’ style operations, these fixers will conduct acts of blackmail and kompromat, assassination and intimidation, infiltration and hacking, extraction and kidnapping, sabotage and discovery, and more. Each team will comprise combat and protection Veterans, technical Specialists, Psy-Ops who provide medical and psychological support, and Seers, precogs capable of seeing Glimpses and Gazes into the possible future, and so potentially avoid them—though not without suffering high degrees of stress such that it is not uncommon for Seers to burn out.

The Future We Saw is published by Lost Pages, best known for its Old School Renaissance titles such as Genial Jack Vol. I and the Burgs & Bailiffs series. It employs the mechanics from Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition to provide four Classes—each of which goes up to Fifth Level, near-future skill and tool Proficiencies, and the spell-like Glimpses and Gazes of the Seer. In addition, it covers the types of factions found tomorrow—if not today—and the means to set up a Scheme, or campaign, in which factions will send teams on Missions against their rivals to gain or prevent leverage, perhaps discovering other information, which will lead to further Missions, and so on. Lastly it includes a campaign setting, set-up, and scenario in tomorrow’s Dublin written by the author of Macchiato Monsters: Rules for Adventures In a Dungeonverse You Build Together.

The Future We Saw is not a Cyberpunk roleplaying game. Not only does it lack the chrome and neon aesthetics, it is not about technology and our inability to integrate with it, and it is not about the masses versus megacorporations or working to bring them down. The various factions in The Future We Saw are in power, so it is about sabotaging them, manipulating them, and controlling them rather than destroying them, and all for the benefit of another faction rather than society. The Future We Saw is about the manipulation of a future that has already been lost to the control of corporations and other factions whose promises have failed to deliver as discourse polarised and technology either drove out the need for labour or began to direct it. What technology there is has been subsumed into society, whether that is robot delivery drones or mobile devices or A.I.-driven vehicles—essentially all recognisable from today, and in terms of game play there are no hacking rules. Instead hacking is handled offscreen by an NPC, if at all. However, labour is at least useful for providing a human face, or stepping in when A.I. cannot cope or needs to be repaired, but in the main, robots do much of the work. However, constant working with A.I. has caused mental illness in many, even triggering a precognitive ability in some. Typically, this comes in the form of a hallucination which suggests the best possible outcome, but not whether the action will succeed, such that the powers of a Seer are powerful, but not absolute. However, such predictions, known as Sights, can fail due to errors in belief, the blurring of details, focus upon incidental details, and personal bias as well as the Seer’s mental health.

An Agent in The Future We Saw has the six attribute scores of Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition—Strength, Constitution, Dexterity, Intelligence, Wisdom, and Charisma. Each of the four Agent Classes grants various Proficiencies—Saving Throws, Armour, Weapons, and Skills, as well as a series of features. For example, the Specialist starts with Expertise—double Proficiency with two skills and Specialist Training. This can be Thug, essentially the equivalent of the Rogue’s Backstab; Contacts, which grants Advantage on Charisma checks when dealing with criminal contacts; or Meaningful Practice, which grants a bonus action with one particular tool the Agent has Proficiency with. Two means of Agent creation are given. One is an array for the ‘Typical Professional’, whilst the standard three six-sided dice are rolled for those ‘From Other Walks of Life’. An Agent then receives some bonuses to these and then selects a Class. An Agent does not begin with equipment as this is provided by his employer on a Mission by Mission basis.

Marilyn Hilliard was an actuary working for Solid Life Health Insurance supporting an expert A.I. when she began to see the times of deaths of her customers. This drove her into having a mental health episode and eventually hospital. Her policy and employment was subsequently purchased from Solid Life Health Insurance and she found herself working for an entirely different employer.

Marilyn Hilliard
First Level Seer

Strength 12 (+1)
Constitution 06 (-2)
Dexterity 13 (+1)
Intelligence 14 (+2)
Wisdom 18 (+4)
Charisma 16 (+3)

Hit Points 7

Proficiencies: Light Armour, Simple Weapons
Saving Throws: Intelligence, Wisdom
Skills: Insight, Investigation, Persuasion

Stress Prevision (People)
Future Sight: Emotional Button Mashing, Evil Eye (Glimpses); Alpha-Beta Approach Pruning (Gazes)

A Seer’s capacity to see into the future is divided into ‘Glimpses’ and ‘Gazes’. ‘Glimpses’ grant visions of the future about the Seer’s immediate environment—to see how a combat plays out to pre-empt an action, to determine how a conversation might play out, or to predict the worst possible outcome from a situation. In general, this is to gain a bonus action, a reaction, and so on. ‘Gazes’ take longer, often days at a time, and grant long range predictions, perhaps about the plans of a rival faction or the best possible course of action. Although The Future We Saw does not have hacking rules or mechanics, but the difference between ‘Glimpses’ and ‘Gazes’ maps onto the shift on how hacking is handled in cyberpunk and similar roleplaying games. Originally, hacking was always handled by a Player Character working from a base or home whilst the rest of the team goes on the Mission, essentially ‘Gazes’, but in more recent iterations, hacking needs to be done on scene, that is, the hacker has to go on the Mission. Which is this case, the equivalent of the ‘Glimpses’, visions of the future which happen on site, during the Mission. Predicting the future does not come without its cost. Invoking ‘Glimpses’ and ‘Gazes’ inflicts stress and suffering stress can led to burnout and exhaustion, which can greatly impede an Agent’s capacity to operate. Combat is also dangerous in The Future We Saw as it is possible to suffer grisly wounds.

Ideally, The Future We Saw should be played with four players and thus one of each of the four Agent types in the roleplaying game, though with more players, the doubled up Agents should opt for different specialities to enable each Agent to shine in different ways during play. Doubling up with Seer Agents may set up an interesting dynamic of differing views of the immediate future, but will also complicate the efforts of the Game Master to what that ‘best’ future might be in any given situation. Even with just the one Seer in a team, determining the ‘best’ future might be in any given situation is still one of the more challenging tasks in the roleplaying game for the Game Master.

In terms of setting, The Future We Saw does three things. First it presents and discusses five Factions—Hegemon, Innovator, Movement, Rentier, and Zaibatzu—and what their objectives are, why they are hated and why they are useful, and the three perks they can grant once per Mission. For example, an Innovator represents the Power of Progress, which could be cutting edge technology, pervasive data hoarders and manipulators, and the like, such as gig economy delivery and taxi services, and political consulting firms specialising in data analysis and manipulation. It is hated because it pursues improvements without any qualms about collateral or financial damage, but useful because it is building the future. Their perks include ‘Benefit: SIGINT’—harvesting data means great briefing material, Support: Cutting Edge—new technology; and Ultimate: Hack from the Stash—the possibility that the data breaches have already made in the target of the Mission, but not yet revealed. A diagram shows the relationships between the five types of Factions, so that the Game Master can see the alliances and enmities at a glance.

Second, it examines the types of Missions and Schemes that the Agents can be sent on. Whether an Extraction, Cover-Up, or Kompromat, Missions are played out in seven phases—Briefing, Procurement (assign equipment), Deployment, Execution, Extraction, Debriefing, and Consequences. What is interesting here is that in terms of game play, failure is as interesting as success, since the target Faction (or other Faction) might be running its own team of Agents and failure means approaching the problem again, but from a different angle, even a different type of Mission. Further, throughout the Game Master has her own character to roleplay in addition to the various NPCs in situ, and that is Control, a voice in the Agents’ ears, offering advice, help, and warnings, a la Control of John le Carre’s espionage fiction.

Schemes are the overall objectives of the Faction the Agents are working for, the equivalent of a campaign in other roleplaying games, but relatively short and meant to be flexible and be developed as the Agents play through Missions, make discoveries and the target Factions acts in response. These are mapped out on a ‘FTM’ or ‘Faction Tension Map’, which sets out the specific relationships between the Factions and other organisations or persons involved in the Scheme, willing or not. The relative brevity is supported by the number of Missions the Agents go on to acquire Levels—two Missions to get to Second Level, then three to get to Third Level, and so on, for a maximum of fourteen Missions to get to Fifth Level, the maximum available in The Future We Saw.

Third, The Future We Saw presents a Scheme setting, ‘Dublin 2020’. It details a city divided by wealth and a security Fence, dominated by corporate interests, alco-tourism, and tax breaks. It is supported by complete scenario, ‘L❤VE’s Data’s Lost’, in which the Agents are working for L❤VE, an Innovator and start-up company desperately on the make whose data, much of it private and harvested from its app, has been hacked into on the servers at a nearby server farm. The Faction responsible, ZPLNTR, a radical hacker group, is holding the data hostage and the Agents’ task is to prevent further leaks and get control of the data back. Mix in rival Factions, rival events, and more, and this is a decent starting Scheme which feels just a little too real.

Currently, The Future We Saw is only available in an ‘Ashcan’ or ‘Zero Edition’. This does not mean that it is roughly presented. The layout is clean and tidy, and there is a lot of white space. This is by design, and whilst some may complain, it does give the content room to breath and it makes it easy to read. The artwork is decent and though it needs a slight edit in places, the book is well written.

The Future We Saw is a heist roleplaying game, a roleplaying of small teams of experts conducting missions in small amounts of time. It is like the television series Leverage or Hustle, but with a twist. It is like those television series, but backwards—or rather forwards. In Leverage, the team achieves its aims, playing out a con on its mark, but how the mark is played, how each switch or misdirection is made, is revealed in flashbacks, showcasing the skills and abilities of the team’s members. In The Future We Saw, there are no flashbacks, but there are flashforwards, quick peeks and squints mostly into the immediate future(s), and they occur throughout the mission rather than at the beginning or the end.

Overall, The Future We Saw is an interesting take upon the heist and the post-cyberpunk roleplaying game, set in a tomorrow that we can already see.

Friday 26 March 2021

Friday Filler: Exploriana

In the nineteenth century there remained much of the world to be explored and discovered, so men and women would set out to chart and catalogue the great unknowns in Africa, Asia, and South America. Many would be sponsored by august bodies such as the Royal Geographical Society, the Gesellschaft für Erdkunde zu Berlin, and Société de Géographie, as well as many museums, and in turn the most successful of explorers would return with tales of their explorations, bringing back with them charts of where they have been, fantastic animals and beautiful plants, amazing treasures, and even lost explorers. They would go on to be famous, whilst their sponsors—the societies and the museums—would gain prestige, able to conduct greater scientific work and open greater exhibits to the public. This is the set-up for Exploriana, a board game of exploration and discovery, published by Triple Ace Games, following a successful Kickstarter campaign in which august scientific bodies will send out intrepid explorers and naturalists to chart and catalogue the world, and come back with great discoveries. Each player is the head of one these scientific bodies, who Recruits and sends out Explorers to the far flung corners of the world where they explore regions, and make and return with discoveries that the scientific organisations so covet. It combines ‘Card Drafting’, ‘Push Your Luck’, ‘Set Collection’, and ‘Worker Placement’ mechanics, is designed for between two and five players, aged fourteen and up, and takes roughly forty-five to sixty minutes to play.

Exploriana consists of five decks of cards and four boards. Three of the decks of cards are Region decks, consisting of Discovery cards, one each for Africa, Asia, and South America. Each Region deck has an associated Region board. The fourth board is the Renown/Score Track, whilst the fourth and fifth decks of cards consist of Explorer cards and Mission cards respectively. Each Discovery card in a Region deck indicates its type—Animal, Location, Treasure, Map, or Orchid, as well as the number of Victory Points it awards at game’s end, Renown for determining turn order, coins it awards, and potentially the Hazard it presented in acquiring. The three types of Hazard are ‘Wrong Turn’, ‘Animal Attack’, and ‘Rockfall’. If a player reveals the three different or three of the same Hazard types during a turn exploring, his turn is over. The three Region deck decks vary in terms of risk and reward, with South America having the lowest and Asia the highest.

The Explorer cards consist of individuals like the Entrepreneur who can draw new Mission cards and choose open to keep, the Medic who can turn over the top card of a Discovery deck and if has one, can ignore the Hazard it reveals, and the Photographer who can take two cards from a Region. Explorer cards are recruited in the first phase of each turn, but each has a cost to be paid if a player wants to use their effects, and an Explore card is discarded after use. Each Mission card has a task such as ‘My Hero!’ (rescuing three or more lost explorers), ‘Bloomin’ Marvelous!’ (collect a set of orchids, one of each type), and ‘Location, Location, Location!’ (collection a location from each of the three different Regions. Each Mission card awards four Victory Points.

Each of the three Region boards has spaces to place the players’ Explorer pawns and Lost Explorer tokens. They are also double-sided, one side being for two to four players and the other for five players. The Renown/Score Track is used to keep track of the players’ Renown throughout the game. Both Renown/Score Track and the three Region boards are designed to click together jigsaw fashion to form one long board.

Set-up of 
Exploriana is simple enough. The Renown/Score Track and the three Region boards are placed in a line down the table and the three Region decks shuffled and placed alongside them with three cards in reserve on one side and the rest on the other. Two cards from each deck are drawn and placed face up so that everyone can see them. Each player is given his two Explorer pawns, six coins, and two Missions, which will score them Victory Points if completed.

Each round of 
Exploriana consists of four phases. Turn order goes from the highest Renown to the lowest, but at the game’s beginning, the player who most recently travelled to another continent goes first. In the ‘Recruit Explorers’ phase, the players each choose one Explorer card from those face up. There is always one more Explorer card than the number of players and any Explorer card left has a coin added to it. A player who takes an Explorer card with coins on it, also gets the coins. This can be a consideration as players rarely have quite enough coins necessary to hire their Explorers and use their abilities. In the ‘Send Explorers’ phase, the players take in turns to assign one of their Explorer pawns, then the other, onto one or two of the Region boards. A player can only explore a Region deck if he has an Explorer pawn on the associated Region board. It is possible to completely fill the spaces on a Region board, forcing a player to place his Explorer pawn elsewhere.

Then, starting on the South America Region board and moving to the Africa Region board and then the Asia Region board, each player takes any number of actions for one of his Explorer pawns in the third phase, Explore Regions’, before going round again for each player’s second Explorer pawn. There are three types of action a player can take. First, he can ‘Explore’, turning over cards from the Region deck adjacent to Region board; second, he can ‘Hire a guide’, every player having a guide token he can use to cover a Hazard symbol on a face-up Region card, though this costs coins; and third, ‘Use an Explorer card’, a simple matter of following its instructions. A player’s turn with one Explorer pawn continues until one of four conditions are met. Either three different or three of the same Hazard types are revealed face-up on the Region cards, in which case the Explorer becomes lost and a random Lost Explorer token is added to the Region board and all of the face up Region cards in the Region are shuffled back into the Region deck, and two cards are drawn again. Lost Explorer tokens are worth two, three, or four Victory Points, and are placed face down. Either because there are five face-up Region cards adjacent to the Region board or the player decides to stop exploring, or because an Explorer card tells the player to stop.

If there are five face-up Region cards or the player decided to stop exploring, and there are not sufficient Hazard types revealed face-up to get the player lost, the last action he gets to do is ‘Take Picks’. If there are four or fewer Regions face-up to choose from, a player only gets one pick, but if there are five, he gets two. A pick can either be all of the Region cards with Animal symbols on them in the Region, a single Region card with a non-Animal symbol on it (Location, Treasure, Map, or Orchid), or a single Lost Explorer token on the Region Board. A player can then repeat this all with his second Explorer pawn, in either the same Region or a different one, depending upon where it is placed.

The fourth and last phase of a round is ‘End of the Round’. It is actually only triggered when any Region deck or its reserve pile, or the Explorer deck is depleted, and indicates the end of the game. Each player is awarded Victory Points for the number of Renown points scored, Mission cards completed, Lost Explorer tokens, coins, and Region cards with Location and Treasure symbols collected, for each Animal on their Region cards collected, the number of Map symbols collected, and the number of sets of Region cards with Orchid symbols collected. The player with the most Victory Points is the winner.

Essentially, each player is attempting to push his luck when exploring a Region and turning over its Region cards, attempting to find the Region cards he wants that will score him the most points or helps him fulfil the requirements of a Mission card. This is balanced against the possibility of too many Hazard symbols being revealed, and so making an Explorer lost, as well as the need to find coins which a player will need to pay in order to use the special ability of an Explorer card. The first player to any Region—typically dictated by Renown order—has the benefit of making use of the first two cards face-up in a Region, thematically, the equivalent of entering undiscovered territory. Later players will probably find that the face-up Region cards have changed, potentially with the best Region cards already having been picked or too many Region cards with Hazard symbols left to be revealed. The ‘Set Collection’ aspect of the game involves getting as many Region cards with Map symbols or sets of the three types of Orchid symbols on the Region cards. A last aspect of the game’s ‘Push Your Luck’ play, is whether or not to Explore the more dangerous Regions of Africa or Asia, which have higher rewards, but more risks in the form of a greater number of Hazard symbols.

Beyond the race to place Explorer pawns in choice slots on the Region boards, 
Exploriana is not a game with any real direct interaction between the players. This does not mean that it is a bad game however, rather that its competitive play is relatively gentle and probably suited to a younger audience than the minimum age of fourteen years old already given. Certainly twelve-year-olds would have no issue with relative complexities of Exploriana and those complexities are not that complex. Further, the playing time of forty-five minutes to an hour is a little long, except for the first playthrough perhaps. After that, it should play in thirty minutes or so.

That though, is the basic game. 
Exploriana includes much more than just the basic game. For two players, it adds a dummy third player to act as a rival, though this is not as enjoyable to play, and then there are several advanced rules and variants. These add valuable relics which can be discovered by collecting particular symbols for the Region the relic is from; a bonus of two coins for Explorer pawns which become lost, which encourages a player to actually push his luck even further exploring a Region and drawing cards; and Expansion cards which are taken as soon as they are drawn, such as the Poisoned Chalice which is given to another player (and later possibly to another player when an Explorer becomes lost) and losing the player who has it at the end of the game Victory Points. There are a total of nine advanced options and variants, which the players are free to pick and choose from, and that is in addition to the solo rules and variants included. Adding these to the play of the game will increase its play length though.

Exploriana is very well presented. A good cardstock is used for all of the cards, the playing pieces and tokens are of thick cardboard or wood, and everything is done in full colour. The rulebook is generally well written, but needs a careful read through in places.

Exploriana is quite a light game, with scope to make it as complex as the players want, but without getting overly so. Its engaging theme, attractive production values, and light mechanics make it a decent family game as well as something that can be enjoyed by the more experienced boardgamer too.

Monday 22 March 2021

Jonstown Jottings #40: Secrets of HeroQuesting

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 and HeroQuest Glorantha (Questworlds). This can include original scenarios, background material, cults, mythology, details of NPCs and monsters, and so on, but none of this content should be considered to be ‘canon’, but rather fall under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’. This means that there is still scope for the authors to create interesting and useful content that others can bring to their Glorantha-set campaigns.


What is it?
Secrets of HeroQuesting is a guide to HeroQuesting—becoming a hero, creating and running HeroQuests, and other secrets of HeroQuesting.

It is 10.43 MB, eighty-one page full colour PDF.

It is generally well written and illustrated throughout with a range of Public Domain artwork. The layout is tight in places and it needs another edit.

Where is it set?
Secrets of HeroQuesting can be set anywhere in Glorantha, but focuses on Central Genertela.

Who do you play?
Secrets of HeroQuesting does not require any specific character types, but Player Characters should possess magic, be capable and willing to embody the tenets of their cults and the characteristics of the gods they worship.

What do you need?
Secrets of HeroQuesting requires RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, but will apply to, but is not specifically for, QuestWorlds: Glorantha and 13th Age Glorantha.

Secrets of HeroQuesting makes reference to numerous supplements for Hero Wars, Questworlds, and HeroQuest Glorantha, including Sartar: Kingdom of Heroes and The Eleven Lights. It also references numerous titles from the Stafford Library and fanzines. None of these are necessary to run the content in Secrets of HeroQuesting, but they will help the Game Master with examples.

What do you get?
HeroQuesting—the ability to engage with the mythology and beliefs of Glorantha’s many cults and legends, to learn from them, to enforce them, and to embody the original participants, has long been a long-term aim of roleplaying in Glorantha, from RuneQuest II to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. After all, the Lightbringers’ Quest in which Orlanth, Chalana Arroy, Lhankor Mhy, Issaries, Eurmal, Flesh Man, and Ginna Jar quested into the depths of Hell to find the Bright Emperor Yelm whom Orlanth had slain with the newly discovered Death, and return him to his rightful place and so bring about an end to the Great Darkness, is a myth central to Glorantha’s lore, which great heroes can enact again and again to enforce a fundamental truth about the world. This re-enactment and enforcing of a myth is known as a HeroQuest and its participants are HeroQuesters, and whilst the Lightbringers’ Quest may be the greatest of HeroQuests—especially if you belong to one of the cults which worships its original participants—there are innumerable cults in Glorantha, and all of them have myths to replicate and HeroQuests to be fulfilled. Secrets of HeroQuesting explores and examines the ideas and concepts behind HeroQuesting and suggests ways in which the Player Characters—if they are powerful enough and sufficiently devout—can undertake and so become greater heroes for their cults.

A HeroQuest is the bringing of a myth into the world, typically enacted through a divinely inspired, tightly regulated mythical journey, designed to ‘Achieve the Impossible’. Secrets of HeroQuesting identifies and examines various types in some detail—‘Short Form’, ‘Long Form’, ‘Riddling Contests’, ‘Wagering Contests’, ‘Re-enactment’, ‘Magic Roads’, ‘Raid Quests’—noting the potential controversy of the latter given that we are gaming in a modern world, ‘Exploration’, ‘Mundane’, and even ‘Spell-Learning’ in which Rune and other spells can be learned through mini-HeroQuests which echo how they were originally learned. In moving on to look at their individual steps or ‘Stations’ it suggests that HeroQuests become something that a HeroQuester actually invest points of Power into—much as he did for Rune spells—so that he can access a particular HeroQuest more easily later. Similarly, individual Stations can be invested in, which sets a greater flexibility in how the HeroQuester approaches each Station and can substitute different Stations for another and even use one Station to leap to another and potentially into another HeroQuest. In terms of objectives, a HeroQuester will not only be enforcing a Myth, but more personally learning a spell, performing an improbable act or task, gaining a magical weapon or item, gaining allies, and more. It might be that a HeroQuester is undertaking a HeroQuest to gain the means and support to start a bigger more important HeroQuest which he would otherwise be unable to start, let alone complete.

What is emphasised throughout is that although a HeroQuester is enforcing a particular myth, his approach need not rigidly adhere to how the HeroQuest is completed according to said myth. The HeroQuester can be flexible in how he attempts each Station, especially if successful. If a HeroQuester’s approach can be flexible, then so can the HeroQuest in that it is possible to alter or warp a HeroQuest, not just for the HeroQuester who completed it, but for anyone who attempts it afterwards. The flexibility extends to improvising stations as well, but this requires a higher degree of knowledge upon the part of both Game Master and her players, so is better suited to veterans who have been playing for a while and whose characters have also been HeroQuesting for as long. 

Numerous examples of HeroQuests are discussed throughout, though the Game Master will still need to track them down in order to deploy them in her campaign. Also discussed are the advantages of being Illuminated and going on HeroQuests, as well as covering the different planes—from the Mundane Plane to the God Plane, and the Ages of Gloranthan Mythology—from the Formless Age and the Dark Age to the Chaos Age and the Silver Age. Advice is given on designing and running a HeroQuest, tailoring to the players and their HeroQuesters, and suggested Game Master styles. It even takes the concept of ‘Achieving the Impossible’ up a notch or nine and suggests quite how HeroQuesters could potentially save those who have been consumed by the Crimson Bat! This falls under ‘Your Glorantha Will Vary’ of course, but would make for an epic mini-campaign since it would require a great deal of preparation, research and adventuring to even attempt it, including numerous HeroQuests before the big event. Throughout, the author adds commentary to the content, personalising it and giving much of what he writes some context.

Now as good as the advice in Secrets of HeroQuesting is, and as interesting a read on the subject as it is, there are issues with Secrets of HeroQuesting which preclude it from being totally useful for your RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha or other Glorantha-set campaign. First, it is one author’s view of what it is and what it involves, born of forty years of gaming in Glorantha, so it is unlikely to be the ‘official’ approach to the subject matter when the official guidelines are released. Second, the author draws heavily on forty years of assembling an extensive library of roleplaying games, supplements, scenarios and campaigns, and fanzines—the majority of which the reader is unlikely to possess or have access to. This is particularly noticeable in the suggested use of ‘Virtues’, the equivalent of personality Traits from King Arthur Pendragon, which although present in earlier supplements for RuneQuest: Classic Edition (and also in the fanzines Tales of the Reaching Moon #6 and Enclosure #1), they are not present in RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha, though the Power Runes do use its model. The inclusion of Virtues is not the only mechanical additions in Secrets of HeroQuestingthe others being the investment of Power into HeroQuests and individual Stations, and the inclusion of a ‘Hero Soul’, a magical part of a HeroQuestor which is awakened upon a Player Character first participating in a HeroQuest and left permanently on the God Plane. These contribute towards the third issue, the inclusion of extra mechanics and elements for the Player Character and Game Master alike to keep track of in addition to the fairly complex character sheet for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Fourth and last, is that although the author identifies that most of what has been written about HeoQuests in the past is “fragmentary and self-contradicting” and states that his aim is to reconcile these fragments together with his “…most recent ideas and gaming experiences”, as much light as is thrown on HeroQuesting, Secrets of HeroQuesting still cannot quite get away from the enigmatic and mystifying nature of its subject matter. Especially for the Game Master not as learned when it comes to the lore. Perhaps the promised Secrets of HeroQuesting: Storm will provide concrete worked examples and advice on staging and varying HeroQuests when it is released.

Despite these issues, this does not mean that content presented in Secrets of HeroQuesting is neither interesting or useful, and it really has a lot of potential, especially if the Game Master has access to the same content as the author. Bringing that potential to the table is another matter, especially if the Game Master is new to Glorantha and RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha.

Secrets of HeroQuesting ends with a detailed bibliography of roleplaying games, supplements, campaigns, and fanzines in which HeroQuesting is explored, a glossary of terminology, and full table of contents.

Is it worth your time?
YesSecrets of HeroQuesting provides an in-depth exploration of HeroQuesting, an important aspect of roleplaying in Glorantha and careful study will enable the Game Master to take her campaign and players and their characters onto another plane.
NoSecrets of HeroQuesting provides an in-depth exploration of HeroQuesting, an important aspect of roleplaying in Glorantha, but it is not the official version from Chaosium, Inc. and it cannot quite escape being still a mystifying and enigmatic subject.
MaybeSecrets of HeroQuesting provides an in-depth exploration of HeroQuesting, an important aspect of roleplaying in Glorantha, but it is not the official version from Chaosium, Inc. and it cannot quite escape being still mystifying and enigmatic despite going some way to clarify the ideas and concepts behind the subject.

Sunday 21 March 2021

A Holiday Horror Quartet

Imagine growing up in Lovecraft Country? What sights and hints of the Cthulhu Mythos might the children of that benighted corner of New England been exposed to, growing up as they have in or near its darker and more mystical corners—Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport? Since being coined by the late Keith Herber, the setting has been more widely explored in supplements for Call of Cthulhu, such as Arkham Unveiled and Tales of the Miskatonic Valley during the nineties, and relatively recently in New Tales of the Miskatonic Valley and More Adventures in Arkham Country in the noughties. The point of view for all of these is always that of the Investigator core to Call of Cthulhu, but the very latest campaign to explore the region does so from the point of view of children, who perhaps suspect that the world around them is perhaps a little stranger than some of the adults around them would know or even admit, and in investigating that strangeness, may lay groundwork for their becoming fully fledged Investigators as adults. This is the set-up for The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection, a campaign which takes place over the course of a single year in New England, at four family get togethers, that will see cousins come together to discover dark secrets about their family and truths about the world around them, and confront mysteries and the Mythos, wonders and magic, horrors and truth, ultimately to form friendships which will last long into adulthood.

The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection from Golden Goblin Press, best known for titles such as An Inner Darkness: Fighting for Justice Against Eldritch Horrors and Our Own Inhumanity, The 7th Edition Guide to Cthulhu Invictus: Cosmic Horror Roleplaying in Ancient Rome, and Tales of the Crescent City: Adventures in Jazz Era New Orleans. Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, it is a campaign for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, which is set in New England in 1925 and 1926 and which requires the players to take the roles of six eleven-, twelve-, and thirteen-year-old children. They each live and have relatives in the towns of Arkham, Dunwich, Innsmouth, and Kingsport, and during the course of the year will spend Halloween in Dunwich, Christmas in Kingsport, Easter in Arkham, and Independence day in Innsmouth. The campaign consists of ‘Halloween in Dunwich’, ‘Christmas in Kingsport’, ‘Easter in Arkham’, and ‘Innsmouth Independence Day’. Of the four lengthy scenarios, the first two are not new. ‘Halloween in Dunwich’ originally appeared in the Miskatonic University Library Association monograph, Halloween Horror, one of the winners of Chaosium, Inc.’s 2005 Halloween Adventure contest, whilst its sequel, ‘Christmas in Kingsport’ appeared in the 2006 eponymous Miskatonic University Library Association monograph, Christmas in Kingsport, following Chaosium, Inc.’s Holiday Season Adventure Contest. For the Keeper who has access to them, the following supplements will be useful in adding colour and detail to each of the four scenarios in The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection. These are Return to Dunwich, Kingsport: The City In The Mists, Arkham Unveiled, and Escape from Innsmouth, as well as Miskatonic University, but whilst they can be a source of colour and detail, none of them are necessary to run the scenarios in the campaign.

Interest in combining horror and playing children in roleplaying games has picked up in the last decade, with television series like Stranger Things and roleplaying games like Kids on Bikes and Tales from the Loop – Roleplaying in the '80s That Never Was. For Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, scenarios like The Dare and The Haunted Clubhouse have explored the more modern periods, but The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection predates them all—not only in the genesis of the four scenarios in the anthology, but also in the period they are set. Further, as much as the players are called upon to roleplay children in the campaign, they will be confronted with elements of the Cthulhu Mythos and cosmic horror as well as horrific elements of the mundane world, including racism, prejudice, child abuse, bullying, and worse. Whilst none of these elements are specifically aimed at the Investigators the players will be roleplaying, they are present in several of the scenarios and they are likely to witness them. Consequently, many of the scenarios do carry warnings and both they and the pre-generated Investigators are designed to be played by mature players.

The six pre-generated Investigators consist of Donald Sutton, Gertrude ‘Gerdie’ Constance Pope, Gordon Brewster, Edward Derby, George Weedon, and Alice Sanders. Donald Sutton, the son of Kingsport artists and gallery owners, is a sensitive artist who is also friends with a ghost; Gertrude ‘Gerdie’ Constance Pope is from Dunwich and has strange white hair and ice blue eyes and has the gift of knowing things she should not, but does not know who her parents are; Gordon Brewster is also from Dunwich, a sturdy and hardworking farm boy who knows that the local hills are home to strange things; the studious and intelligent Edward Derby lives just off campus from Miskatonic University in Arkham, and has managed to read the strange books his father left him; George Weedon, also from Arkham, is athletic and principled; and the oldest cousin, Alice Sanders is a resident of Innsmouth, sturdy and stocky, but with keen mind and a slightly devious streak. All six are given full Investigator sheets and more—the more of which comes at the end of the book.

The campaign opens with ‘Halloween in Dunwich’. As members of the extended Morgan family, the cousins and their parents or guardians are invited to spend Halloween at the farm of the family patriarch, Great-Grandpa Silas. As the adults gather and catch up with the family gossip and rumours—some of which the Investigators have an opportunity to overhear and presages plots and events to come in the rest of the campaign’s scenarios—Great-Grandpa Silas takes the children away for a day of activities, games, and competitions. These include apple picking, pumpkin harvesting and carving, singalongs, and more, ending with a family feast and ghost tales round the fire. These activities serve functions in and out of the game. They get the Investigators to interact with each other and with their family, to begin forging relationships with each other in play rather than simply as written. They also serve to get the players rolling dice and have their Investigators be active and gain Experience Checks so that they are more skilled as the campaign progresses, and they also show how children’s lives can be fun, especially in a period where the fun was not so technologically sophisticated to what it is today. This is a device which the author pulls again and again as the campaign progresses, but each time the setting is different, the family dynamics are different, and the activities are different.

The activities also establish a very nicely balanced contrast between the mundane and the Mythos, again a device which will be used in all four scenarios. Of course, when it comes, the Mythos is no less horrifying than you would expect. One of the old family ghost stories told round the fire proves to have more than a ring of truth to it as a vengeful spirit returns from the family’s past to enact a ghastly plan. The adolescent Investigators are the only ones capable of defending their family against the predations of this spirit, and must fight through a swarm of Halloween-themed threats to confront the evil spirit and put an end to its dread ambitions.

If the Investigators looked forward to spending time with Great-Grandpa Silas in Dunwich, they are resigned to spending ‘Christmas in Kingsport’ at the home of their joyless Great Aunt Nora. She expects children to be ‘seen and not heard’, so there is little likelihood of any laughter or fun. Fortunately, Aunt Nora’s ward, the Investigators’ beloved older cousin Melba, a carefree flapper and black sheep of the family, comes to their rescue. She sneaks them out of the house and takes them on a guided tour of Kingsport—sledding, visiting friends, feeding cats, snowball fights, and more. There is something delightfully picaresque about this day out and despite her reputation as the black sheep of the family, Melba is a very positive character who likely reminds both the players and the Keeper of someone in their own family and childhood. Unfortunately, the joie de vivre of the cousins’ grand day out comes to a crashing halt when they are discovered and then the opprobrium heaped upon them and their cousin, Melba, is upstaged by the arrival of their uncle, who has returned from Europe with his new wife. Who is German, no less! Which all threatens to sour Christmas even more.

However, ‘Christmas in Kingsport’ takes a stranger and more wondrous turn when cousin Melba leads the Investigators Beyond the Walls of Sleep and into the Dreamlands. This strange realm of sleep and dreams has always been portrayed as strange and weird, but ‘Christmas in Kingsport’ focuses on the magic and the joy of exploring a mythical, almost Narnia-like, realm. Having made their day in the mundane world, Melba makes the Investigators’ sleep a magical holiday adventure, but it suddenly takes a scary turn when a party in their honour is literally crashed by Christmas demons! Captured, they must find out by whom and why, using clues they have learned in both the waking and the dreaming world—the Investigators will definitely need to listen, and hopefully solve the mystery before they wake up on Christmas morning. Ultimately, there is a great deal at stake in ‘Christmas in Kingsport’, but it is a wonderfully entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable scenario.

The third scenario, ‘Easter in Arkham’, is darker in tone and pulls the Investigators deeper into the Mythos and the secrets of Arkham. Staying at the homes of both Edward Derby and George Weedon, the Investigators have a lot of freedom to visit some of their favourite places in the town and get up to a lot. These include going to the cinema to see films such as The Thief of Bagdad or The Gold Rush, getting ice cream, visiting the penny arcade, bicycling, and more. Chief amongst these though, is attending and even participating in the Miskatonic University Easter Parade, there being opportunities for the Investigators to bake goods, paint Easter eggs, and make Easter bonnets, as well as enter their associated competitions. The pleasure of these activities is first interrupted by strange rumours of missing pets, evil lunch ladies, swarms of killer rats, and worse, and then fraught encounters with one of Edward Derby and George Weedon’s classmates playing truant and a horrid attack by one of the animals in the petting zoo at the Easter Parade. Investigation will reveal that recently departed pets have been returning to their owners, but changed, tainted, and unstable, which for Call of Cthulhu veterans can only point to one cause—and they would be right! However, the Investigators do not know that and getting to that cause will entail dealing with terribly afflicted animals, making friends with a gang of would-be members of the feared O’Bannion mob each of their own age, and negotiating with a figure out of witch-haunted Arkham’s past in a very nicely judged and staged encounter.

The fourth and last scenario in The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection is ‘Innsmouth Independence Day’. Almost like the film Jaws, the Investigators get to spend and celebrate the Fourth of July on the New England coast, but this takes place on Haven Cove, an island opposite the harbour of Innsmouth, the most shunned and reviled towns in New England. This is a chance for the Innsmouth side of the Morgan family to meet the rest of the family, and vice versa, and do so on neutral ground, just sufficiently far away from the mildewed and mouldering seaport and its strangely inbred and evolving inhabitants, to gain the grudging acceptance of the High Council of the Esoteric Order of Dagon. However, one of the Investigators, Alice Sanders, a resident of Innsmouth has a plan. Once all of the competitions—swimming, sailing, fishing, sandcastle building, and more—are out of the way, she wants to sneak off the island and into Innsmouth and locate her family records. There are elements of The Shadow Over Innsmouth here, but the Investigators are sneaking in as well as sneaking out, and whilst there are plenty of watchful eyes who will alert the authorities to their presence, the Investigators can find allies too—and make friends. ‘Innsmouth Independence Day’ culminates in some quite nasty confrontations with some family secrets and truths, and whilst the protagonists are children, the scenario does not shy away from the sometimes brutal and inhuman way of life in Innsmouth.

Almost the last fifth of The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection is dedicated to Investigators sheets for the six children at the heart of the campaign. This is fifty pages long, which is somewhat unnecessarily over the top given the size of the cast. However, The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection does not just give Investigator sheets for the six children for the four scenarios in the campaign, but for later in their lives as well. The first set take the sextet into their early twenties, whilst the second presents them as Investigators for use with Pulp Cthulhu: Two-fisted Action and Adventure Against the Mythos. Hopefully, their inclusion will see the Investigators who have come of age and aware of the Mythos during the events of The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection return again to conduct further investigations.

In terms of staging the four scenarios in The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection, the Keeper will need to do some preparation. Primarily this will be to create the various adult members of the family in addition to those mentioned in the text. In terms of running the scenarios, the Keeper is encouraged to have his players spend Luck as needed on their Investigator’s tasks and actions, and in return be generous with restored Luck between adventures. In terms of staging the scenarios and the campaign there are, nevertheless, a number of issues with the campaign. First, The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection really only works with the full six players. Second, the scenarios are linear in places, though this is offset by the fact that there is a lot for the Investigators to do throughout, both in the linear sequences and in the sequences where they have greater freedom of action. Third, the campaign negates the parents and guardians of the Investigators. They are named, but they are never really developed and it would have been useful if the Keeper had been given some roleplaying notes about both how to roleplay them and how each of them feels about the Investigators.

Physically, The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection is very well presented. In contrast to most releases for Call of Cthulhu, there is a sense of warmth to the book and a vibrancy to its illustrations. Many of these are taken from period festival illustrations of the day, whilst the illustrations of the Investigators have a suitably slight cartoonish feel to them that enhances the childhood sensibilities of the campaign. Not all of the illustrations quite match the text, but that is a minor issue. 

As a piece of writing for a roleplaying game, The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection is simply an entertaining read. There are moments of tragedy and joy and outright humour in the writing and it is easy to see that the author is actually enjoying himself in writing the four scenarios in the campaign. As a campaign, The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection is linear in places and it does demand all six players, but it captures the feel of being a child again and pulls the players into roleplaying children again with all of its fun and disappointment and excitement and frustration of dealing with adults—and it does this without being patronising or belittling any one of them. It also brings alive a sense of family, with its gossip and secrets and difficulties. All of which will be familiar to so many players and Keepers from their own childhoods. As individual scenarios, The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection adeptly contrasts the mundane with the Mythos, whilst giving time for the Investigators to be children and revealing step by step some of the darker secrets about the world around them.

Golden Goblin Press has a well-deserved reputation for publishing excellent anthologies and campaigns for Call of Cthulhu, Seventh Edition, but The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection is the exception. The Eldritch New England Holiday Collection is a superb piece of writing, which in capturing our childhoods and taking a new, fresh angle to Lovecraft Country, brings charm to Call of Cthulhu and Lovecraftian investigative roleplaying. The late, much missed Keith ‘Doc’ Herber would have been proud.