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

Friday 30 April 2021

[Fanzine Focus XXIV] Crawl! No. 8: Firearms

On the tail of the Old School Renaissance has come another movement—the rise of the fanzine. Although the fanzine—a nonprofessional and nonofficial publication produced by fans of a particular cultural phenomenon, got its start in Science Fiction fandom, in the gaming hobby it first started with Chess and Diplomacy fanzines before finding fertile ground in the roleplaying hobby in the 1970s. Here these amateurish publications allowed the hobby a public space for two things. First, they were somewhere that the hobby could voice opinions and ideas that lay outside those of a game’s publisher. Second, in the Golden Age of roleplaying when the Dungeon Masters were expected to create their own settings and adventures, they also provided a rough and ready source of support for the game of your choice. Many also served as vehicles for the fanzine editor’s house campaign and thus they showed another DM and group played said game. This would often change over time if a fanzine accepted submissions. Initially, fanzines were primarily dedicated to the big three RPGs of the 1970s—Dungeons & DragonsRuneQuest, and Traveller—but fanzines have appeared dedicated to other RPGs since, some of which helped keep a game popular in the face of no official support.Since 2008 with the publication of Fight On #1, the Old School Renaissance has had its own fanzines. The advantage of the Old School Renaissance is that the various Retroclones draw from the same source and thus one Dungeons & Dragons-style RPG is compatible with another. This means that the contents of one fanzine will compatible with the Retroclone that you already run and play even if not specifically written for it. Labyrinth Lord and Lamentations of the Flame Princess Weird Fantasy Roleplay have proved to be popular choices to base fanzines around, as has Swords & Wizardry. Another choice is the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game.

Published by Straycouches PressCrawl! is one such fanzine dedicated to the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game. Since Crawl! No. 1 was published in March, 2012 has not only provided ongoing support for the roleplaying game, but also been kept in print by Goodman Games. Now because of online printing sources like Lulu.com, it is no longer as difficult to keep fanzines from going out of print, so it is not that much of a surprise that issues of Crawl! remain in print. It is though, pleasing to see a publisher like Goodman Games support fan efforts like this fanzine by keeping them in print and selling them directly.

Where Crawl! No. 1 was something of a mixed bag, Crawl! #2 was a surprisingly focused, exploring the role of loot in the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game and describing various pieces of treasure and items of equipment that the Player Characters might find and use. Similarly, Crawl! #3 was just as focused, but the subject of its focus was magic rather than treasure. Unfortunately, the fact that a later printing of Crawl! No. 1 reprinted content from Crawl! #3 somewhat undermined the content and usefulness of Crawl! #3. Fortunately, Crawl! Issue Number Four was devoted to Yves Larochelle’s ‘The Tainted Forest Thorum’, a scenario for the Dungeon Crawl Classics Role Playing Game for characters of Fifth Level. Crawl! Issue V continued the run of themed issues, focusing on monsters, but ultimately to not always impressive effect, whilst Crawl! No. 6: Classic Class Collection presented some interesting versions of classic Dungeons & Dragons-style Classes for Dungeon Crawl Classics, though not enough of them. Crawl! Issue No. 7: Tips! Tricks! Traps! is a bit of bit of a medley issue, addressing a number of different aspects of dungeoneering and fantasy roleplaying.

Published in November, 2013, as its title suggests, Crawl! No. 8: Firearms! is another focused issue, and that focus is on guns and adding guns to your Dungeon Crawl Classics roleplaying game campaign. Guns are something of a difficult subject when it comes to Dungeon Crawl Classics because it is a fantasy roleplaying game and guns, whether because of their history or their technology, do not belong in a fantasy roleplaying game. Much like firearms historically negate the degree of training necessary to wield a bow effectively on the battlefield, in fantasy, they negate the years of study and training necessary to become a wizard, as well as being easier and faster to reload. They are in the main, the province of roleplaying games and campaigns set in the modern day or the future, although historically, the modern day begins in the seventeenth century when armies and individuals wield arquebuses, flintlocks, wheellocks, and the like. Historical precedent aside, this does not mean that a Dungeon Crawl Classics Judge cannot include or add them to her campaign, and well as providing rules for their use, Crawl! No. 8: Firearms! gives at least one way in which they can be added to a campaign.

Crawl! No. 8: Firearms! opens with Reverend Dak’s ‘Firepower!’. This gives a quick discussion of how and why firearms might be introduced into a campaign before providing rules for their use. Should they be powerful and rare or mundane and not much pop? The advice for power and rare at least is to build limitations into their use, whether that includes limiting them to black powder or non-automatic, or using the optional rules included. The basic rules include their being fast and that they can be aimed, so that the user gains Die Bump up to a bigger die for the initiative, attack, and damage rolls. Damage is always the one die, except when it is doubled for aiming. Taking cover is an action and increases Armour Class, and duels are extremely deadly, inflicting a number of dice’s worth of damage equal to the Level of the Player Character or NPC. Since the duellists will be standing facing each other, this seems fair enough—if nasty! 

Optional rules include making Critical hits deadly, firearms complicated—giving users a negative Die bump to rolls until they are properly trained, and automatic weapons can be used to attack everyone in a ten feet area. Actual stats for guns are given in ‘From Gold to Guns’ by Mike Evans with the Reverend Dak. This covers weapons across four eras—of powder and smoke, gear and bullet, destruction and calamity, and lasers and rockets. The latter group is where the article strays into the realms of Science Fiction, but its contents are very easy to use.

Reverend Dak provides a reason for the inclusion of firearms in a campaign with ‘Invasion!’. This sets up an invasion by an alien species, the reasons why it is invading, and so on, with a series of tables. Thus, who they are, where they are from, what they want, and who and what they brought with them, whilst stats are provided for all of the given invaders in a separate appendix. This is the first of several appendices which round out Crawl! No. 8: Firearms!. ‘Appendix R: References’ lists other roleplaying games where firearms play a role, whilst ‘Appendix S: Submissions’ collects the best submissions to the editor’s blog, and notably adds explosives and bombs to the mix. Lastly, ‘Appendix T: Firearms Critical table’ and ‘Firearms Fumble Table’, both by S.A. Mathis, provide exactly what you expect.

Physically, Crawl! No. 8: Firearms! is decently presented. The writing and editing are good, and artwork, if not of highest quality, is all very likeable. The wraparound cover is a nice touch. The subject matter—and thus the whole issue—is going to be a hit or a miss for most Judges, players, and campaigns. It all boils down to whether or not they want to include the use of firearms alongside their fantasy. If they do, then everything is here in a handy fashion to include it. If not, then the issue will be of little interest, though this does not mean that the issue is by any means a bad one. Even if a Judge has no plans to add firearms to her campaign, there is nothing to stop her reading the issue to find out how it might be done, and Crawl! No. 8: Firearms! certainly provides that. Overall, Crawl! No. 8: Firearms! is a solid, serviceable treatment of its focused subject matter which is easy to bring to the table if that is what a Judge wants for her game.

Monday 26 April 2021

1981: Merc

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


Published by Fantasy Games Unlimited in 1981, Merc: A modern Roleplaying Game of Counter Insurgency was one of the first military themed roleplaying games. It had been preceded by The Morrow Project from Timeline, Ltd., although that was a post-apocalypse roleplaying game, and would be followed by FASA’s Behind Enemy Lines and Role Playing Games, Inc.’s Recon: The Roleplaying Game of the Viet Nam War, both in 1982. The genre would arguably reach its apotheosis in 1984 with the release of Twilight 2000 from GDW. Of course, the earlier Traveller Book 4: Mercenary from 1978 from GDW would cover some of the same subjects and situations as Merc, but being a Science Fiction roleplaying game, it would avoid some of the real-world issues that Merc deals with. What is interesting about the titles in this genre is not that they were published at all, but rather that it took so long for the roleplaying industry to publish straight, non-fantastical treatments of military subjects given that hobby had essentially come out of the wargaming hobby and that many of its designers and players had military experience. 

The designers of Merc set out their stall with, “Think of the possibilities: go back to 1954 and go on patrols with the Legion in Indo-China, or search the countryside of Ireland for I.R.A. terrorists, join 5 Commando in 1964, or even lead a patrol of Soviet 103 Guard Army Airborne into Afghan hill country. With these rules and your imagination you can visit Rhodesia, Chad, Angola, El Salvador, Panama, or even Cuba. Of course, your accommodations won’t be first class and you’ll have people shooting at you, but we guarantee lots of excitement.” Thus, Merc is a role-playing game of modern mercenaries in action, carrying out missions for their employers anywhere in the world, being employed as Soldier of Fortunes operating in small teams. Missions will be covert or overt, and range from assassinations and search and destroy to sweeps and reconnaissance.

Merc comes as a boxed set, which contains a thirty-six-page book, four cardstock reference sheets, plastic transparent overlay, and two six-sided dice. The book covers character creation, including former service and why the Player Character decided to become a mercenary, rules for movement and stealth, small arms combat, vehicles, experience, and a short mission. The reference sheets reprint various tables from the book, whilst the plastic transparent overlay has a target which is placed over the silhouettes of vehicles and men on the other reference sheets and the hit location rolled for. This is likely one of the first uses of a transparent overlay in a roleplaying game, and would most notably be seen again in 1991’s Millennium’s End from Chameleon Eclectic Entertainment and 2007’s Aces & Eights: Shattered Frontier from Kenzer & Company.

A Player Character in Merc is defined by his Physical Appearance, Physical and Mental Attributes—Strength, Agility, Intelligence, Knowledge, Intuition, and Prior Military Service, and one or more Military Specialities. The latter two will be defined by a mercanary’s Physical and Mental Attributes. Physical Appearance values are rolled on three six-sided dice. All Physical and Mental Attributes are measured as percentile values, but range from eleven to sixty-six. These are all generated by rolling two six-sided dice and treating one as the tens dice and the other as the ones dice, again one of the earliest uses of the ‘d66’ in a roleplaying game. The process is relatively straightforward and a player is free to assign the rolls to the attributes as he likes, primarily to be able to select the ‘Military Occupational Specialty’ of his choice.

Name: Ernest Ludde
Age: 31
Height: 5’ 9”
Weight: 170 lbs.

Hair Colour: Black
Eye Colour: Brown
Complexion: Average
Voice: Average
Handedness: Ambidextrous

Strength 62 – Strong (+5 Test Modifier)
Agility 63 – Nimble (+5 Test Modifier)
Intelligence 24 – Average
Knowledge 54 – Knowledgeable (+10 Test Modifier)
Intuition 61 – Primordial (+5 Test Modifier)
Prior Military Service 44 – Extended Service (+10 Test Modifier)

MOS #1: Heavy Weapons Expert
MOS #2: Martial Arts Expert

Frame: Medium
Carrying Capacity/Build: Above Average (125 lbs.)

Stress Test: 46
Dexterity Test: 46
Command Control: 51

Mechanically, Merc uses two core mechanics. The first is Major Tests, of which there are three—Stress, Dexterity, and Command Tests. The first is rolled when a Player Character is in a tight situation, under sniper fire, in a minefield, and so on, and can result in him freezing, bolting for cover, or blindly opening fire. The second covers acts of agility and athleticism, whilst the third is how well troops follow a Player Character’s command. All are rolled as percentiles on ‘d66’, the aim being to roll under. The second type of test is the Skill test, and there are nine of them—Detection, Evasion, Pathfinder, Stealth, Intercept Messages, Decipher, Concealment, Set/Disarm Explosive Devices or Traps, and Set/Disarm Non-Explosive Devices or Traps. All are rolled on two six-sided dice, the aim being to roll under a target of six or less, though this target can be modified by the situation and the Merc’s Primary and Secondary MOS.

As a military game, Merc recommends that it be played using 20 mm miniatures. It covers just about everything you would expect—types of movement, terrain, vehicles, types of opponents, combat, ambush, traps, and equipment. Movement is by type, cross-referenced with terrain and how far a mercenary can get in thirty seconds. The vehicles tend to be light and relatively small, so trucks and jeeps, no more than armoured personnel carriers, scout cars, and light tanks, plus limousines and private jets. Opponents include government troops, terrorists, guerrillas, and natives. The list of equipment is exactly that, and anyone expecting something more complex or detailed is likely to be disappointed. Combat uses three different mechanics. Unarmed combat is a standard Skill Test, as are use of grenades and mortars, though with higher targets. Small arms fire though, is rolled on three six-sided dice, the aim being to roll under a target of twelve or less, though this target can be modified by the situation. Sniper shots use the transparent overlay placed over a silhouette. Two six-sided dice are rolled, modifiers are applied, and the result compared to the number on the transparent overlay. The aim is to roll as low as possible to get closer to the aim point. Rolls of zero or below are considered to be on target.

There is not a huge amount of depth to Merc, but damage is where it definitely feels underwritten. Located in the section for the Corporation—the name for the Referee in Merc, and also the employer for the teams of the Player Character mercenaries—it is handled on a single table which with a roll or two, determines hit location, severity and damage inflicted, and effect. Typically, this includes the initial damage, the ongoing damage, and whether or not the damage inflicted is a mortal wound. There is no effect from skill or weapon type as such. The rules also state that Body Points are lost, when in fact they are not. Rather they are gained, whether from the initial damage, from wounds, and ongoing damage, such as internal bleeding. As a mercenary gains more, the greater the chance of his falling unconscious or dying from his wounds. Similarly, the rules for medical care are also underwritten and undeveloped.

Also, for the Corporation, there is a guide to mission types and how many Experience Points a mercenary will earn from successfully completing it. A mercenary will earn more if his MOS is pertinent to the mission and he performed it well, so a medic will earn more for keeping a hostage already known to be seriously wounded, alive long enough to bring him back after being rescued. Experience Points are then divided in two, one half being paid as money to the mercenary and the other awarded as actual Experience Points, and these are split between Attributes and MOS. Exactly how that works is not quite fully explained. Ultimately, should a mercenary acquire enough Experience Points, he is hired by the corporation and retires.

The Corporation is provided with an example of play, which is definitely of use when trying to understand the rules and how the game is meant to be played. There is also a scenario set in Rhodesia in 1975. The Player Characters are mercenaries hired by the White minority government to strike at a village harbouring ‘terrorists’ who have crossed the border with Zambia and begun operating in the area. It comes with a couple of maps and six pre-generated mercenaries. There is a distinct anti-Communist tone to some of them and in comparison, to the pre-generated mercenaries, the scenario does not even name any of the terrorists, give them any personalities or motivations, or backgrounds—and the villagers are ignored all together. The orders for mercenaries are to eliminate the terrorists—and if necessary, the village. Much more of a wargaming than a roleplaying scenario, would anyone really want to roleplay such a mission? There is no denying the historicity of the situation, but that does not make it any less abhorrent.


It would be at least a year before Merc: A modern Roleplaying Game of Counter Insurgency was reviewed at the time of its release. In the January 1983 edition of The Space Gamer (No. 59), Brian R. Train thought that the game suffered from a lot of ambiguous rules, saying, “This is quite a good game for an (assumed) first effort – I feel its flaws are due basically to not enough development time and design limits. If a later, revised edition of Merc were put out, I would heartily recommend it. As it is, though, I would warn the buyer to ‘approach with caution’ unless he is already quite familiar with the subject matter, in order to fill in the numerous holes.”

Paul Cockburn gave Merc only a thumbnail review in Imagine No. 9 (December 1983), alongside reviews of other Fantasy Games Unlimited titles—Daredevils, Daredevil Adventures, Vol 2, No. 1 & 2, Merc Supplement 1, and Swords & Sorcery for Chivalry & Sorcery. He wrote, “Merc is clearly designed for the gun nut, the sort of role-player who likes to know just how much of a mess his assault rifle will make of a ‘soft’ target.” before concluding “The book is dedicated to ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare, (Mercenary Extraordinaire)—and I’m sure he’ll be delighted.” In comparison, William A. Barton, writing in Different Worlds Issue 32 (Jan/Feb 1984), gave Merc and its first supplement a more detailed review, in the process identifying several issues with the rules which felt should have been caught in the editing and playtesting stages. He stated that, “If the thought of going into corporate employ for combat missions in third-word countries on a regular basis is appealing to you—or if you desperately need additional information to bolster campaigns based on systems such as Traveller’s Mercenary, which lacks data on most of the situations covered by Merc—FGU’s little game of modern counter-insurgency situations might not prove a bad buy for you at all.” However, he thought that the price was “…[j]ust a bit steep for those not thoroughly committed to modern merc role-playing.”


When it was published in 1981, Merc: A modern Roleplaying Game of Counter Insurgency was a very contemporary roleplaying game. After all, Colonel ‘Mad’ Mike Hoare would attempt a coup d’état in the Seychelles in November of that year, the film The Wild Geese and the book it was based upon appeared in 1978, and The Dogs of War, the film based upon the book by Frederick Forsyth, had been released the year before. The concept of mercenaries conducting small unit operations in faraway countries was common, and as Soldiers of Fortune, such men were revered and reviled in equal measure. It is rare that a roleplaying game can be or would be as contemporary. Forty years on, and both Merc and the world it depicts are very much a piece of history—and a troublesome one at that. Today, mercenary work has been corporatised as security work and is rarely in the news as it was then, but the world of Merc is one of post-colonial intervention, even meddling, in Third World countries, and it feels, and is, distasteful. As is mention of the fact that mercenaries served with the Nazis in World War II, as is having to determine height, weight, build, and so on, according to ethnicity, as is the scenario being set in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and being employed by the White government to prevent ‘terrorists’ sneaking over the Zambian border and attacking the railway. This was the situation in Rhodesia, but having to roleplay that now as well as the other elements, means that it is horribly dated, and feels at least horribly inappropriate, if not actually racist. And that is not even mentioning that all of the Player Characters are meant to be male. Of course, it depicts what was a male world, but again, it feels unintentionally misogynist.

In some ways more a military skirmish wargame than a roleplaying game, Merc: A modern Roleplaying Game of Counter Insurgency has not dated well in the forty years since it was originally published. At best, it showcases why sometimes the contemporary is not always the best realm for a roleplaying game to be exploring. It might be serviceable for what it is, and arguably not even that in some places, but the world it depicts and what it involves the Player Characters doing is most definitely a different country, and beyond its limited historical significance as a roleplaying game, perhaps Merc: A modern Roleplaying Game of Counter Insurgency should stay there.

Sunday 25 April 2021

Young Gods

“Good evening, and once upon a time…” What if these were the opening words of the six o’clock news? What if the news was not only of the latest government initiative, a war in a faraway country, threat of famine in another, a new economic report, a celebrity’s scandalous activities, and all you would expect, but also of Gods walking the Earth, their cults proudly and joyously celebrating festivals dedicated to them, of myths being enacted and reinforced? What if corporations and celebrities and politicians purposefully align their brands with the Gods in the hope gaining their patronage, the love affairs and scandals of the Gods are the subject of the magazines at the supermarket checkout, Valkyries and Amazons work as mercenaries, Satyrs make for the greatest party hosts and revellers, and victorious sports teams give praise to Nike? And not millennia ago, but yesterday, last week, and tomorrow? This is The World, which is just like ours except that the Gods are real, their faiths accepted alongside the more modern monotheistic faiths of ours, and the supernatural is real, but occluded rather than hidden.

The World is one with multiple pantheons—the Aesir, Manitou, Theoi, Netjer, Kami, Tuatha Dé Danann, Óríshá, Devá, Shén, and Teōtl pantheons—often rivals and competitors for the same myths, legends, artefacts, and aspects of The World. As much as they are idolised, it is rare for any one of the Gods to walk the Earth or directly intervene in the affairs of mortals, primarily because they need to maintain a balance between the human belief and worship in them which forms both their personalities and their roles and the danger that the fickle nature of that belief and worship will drastically change their personalities and their roles. Instead, they reside in Overworlds and Underworlds from which they project Terra Incognita, lands of myth once removed from The World, but accessed via Gates such as Bifrost or Fengdu Ghost City, or Axes Mundi, like travelling the aether or sailing the ocean to reach the River Styx. Many of these Terra Incognita parallel real-world locations in The World. For example, Boston’s Catholic churches double as Tuatha sancta, whilst its city parks are strewn with fairy mounds from which lead stray paths where tolls must be paid or riddles answered to again access dreamlike gardens. Sailors carrying a piece of wood or stone from Ireland may find themselves voyaging into Tir na nÓg rather than docking in Boston Harbour. The shining metropolis of Memphis in Egypt with its skyscrapers and maglev mass transit is contrasted with the ancient and macabre necropolis of Saqqara next door, where with the right spells, entry into the Duat, the realm of the dead, may be found.

The feuds and rivalries between the Gods are not the only sources of conflict in The World. The primary conflict is between the Gods and the Titans. The Titans are also deities, but are archetypal embodiments of a particular purview whose pursuit of their primal urges tend to have destructive effects, especially on the mortal realms. Consequently, the Gods, many of them children of the Titans, imprisoned the Titans, who have rattled their chains ever since, more recently weakening them and allowing their more monstrous offspring to enter The World and threaten humanity. Into this conflict step the Scions. Each is the half-divine child of one the Gods and humanity. Many do not know the true nature of their parentage and so explain their amazing abilities and skills as being due natural talents, others have undergone the Visitation, the moment when their true nature and divine lineage is revealed and they are granted their Birthright, gifts from their godly parent.

This is the set-up for Scion: Second Edition, published by Onyx Path Publishing. Inspired by The Wicked + The Divine by Keiron Gillen and Jamie McKelvie, Roger Zelazny’s Lord of Light, American Gods by Neil Gaiman, the television series Carnivàle, and others, this is a contemporary roleplaying game of modern myth and epic heroism in which not only do the gods walk amongst us, they often have children too. These children, the Scions of the gods, born to the magic of yesterday and the promise of tomorrow, are caught up in a war with the Titans, elder beings who rage against the human world and its wayward gods. As children of the gods, the Player Characters protect the interests of their parents on Earth whilst protecting humanity against the ravages of the Titans. It is explored through not one book, but four, each book representing a different Tier. These are Scion: Origin, Scion: Hero, Scion: Demi-God, and Scion: God, which explore the Scions’ growing ties to their own myths and legends and to the mortal world, the latter weakening as the former strengthens, as they become increasingly involved in divine conflicts.

Scion: Origin is the starting point. The Player Characters are mortals, not yet aware of their true nature, even though divine ichor flows through their veins. They might be a faith healer whose powers are truly divine in nature, a stuntman whose physical prowess enables him to throw himself into any situation, a gambler whose luck truly shines, a mercenary for hire always able to get the job done, but part of that will be their unknown divine mature. Alternatively, a Scion may not be the son or daughter of a God, but a Supernatural being. These include Saints, Kitsune, Satyrs, Therianthropes, Wolf-Warriors, and Cu Sith, who may in turn achieve true divinity like the sons and daughters of the Gods.

A Player Character in Scion: Origin is first defined by a Concept and three Deeds—short-term, long term, and band-term—which combine the Scion’s aims and what his player wants. He has three Paths, one each connected to his Origin, Role, and Society/Pantheon, representing decisions the Scion has made or experiences made, the Origin his background, the Role his occupation or area of expertise, and Society/Pantheon his connection to an organisation, cult, or pantheon. Origin Paths include Adventurer, Life of Privilege, Military Brat, or Child of the Street; Role Paths include Charismatic Leader, Detective, and Technology Expert; and Society/Pantheon the Aesir, Manitou, Theoi, Netjer, Kami, Tuatha Dé Danann, Óríshá, Devá, Shén, and Teōtl pantheons and one of its Gods. In the long term, a Path also provides a route along which a player can develop his character, and will be rewarded in doing so with slightly reduced Experience Point costs. He also has Skills and Attributes, and lastly, a Calling and Knacks. The Calling is an archetype such as Creator, Guardian, Hunter, Lover, and so on, each of which has several associated natural or supernatural benefits, or Knacks. For example, ‘The Bare Minimum’ for the Healer Calling, enables a Scion to tend someone safely even without the right tools and ‘Experienced Traveler’ for the Liminal Calling lets a Scion quickly pick up social cues and language even in the remotest of locations, and is unlikely to be seen as out of place. Some Knacks require the expenditure of Momentum—acquired from failed dice rolls, and whilst a Scion can know multiple Knacks, at the Tier of 
Scion: Origin, he can only have the one active.

Creating a Scion is a matter of making choices building upon the Concept and selected Pantheon, the player deciding which of his Scion’s Paths is primary, secondary, and tertiary and assigning dots to skills based on each Path’s skills. Attributes are divided into three arenas—mental, physical, social, and are assigned dots based whether they are primary, secondary, or tertiary. The Scion’s Approach, how he prefers to act, whether through Force, Finesse, or Resilience, grants further dots in the three associated attributes. The process is not complex, and whilst it is supported by a solid example, it could have been eased with a clearer summary at the start of the process.

Our sample Scion is the Pre-Visitation Elias Castro who made it big as a successful lawyer defending even bigger-name clients, some of whom were guilty and he managed to get off. He made himself rich and famous—even infamous—and then his conscience got to him. Elias began to drink and gamble, putting himself in debt, leading to a vicious circle of terrible clients, drinking, and gambling. Part of him wants to be off the rollercoaster, part of him continues to enjoy the ride.

Name: Elias Castro
Concept: Off-the-deep-end Gambler
Parent: Hermes
Origin Path: Surburbia – Everybody’s gotta grow up somewhere
Role Path: Charismatic Leader – Honey tongued lawyer
Pantheon Path: Hermes – Caught between two worlds
Calling: Trickster (1)

Short-Term Deed: To take one more risk (Courage)
Long-Term Deed: To get sober (Conviction)
Band-Term Deed:

Culture 3 (Rough & the Smooth), Empathy 5 (I can see through you), Integrity 3 (I stand by everything I say), Leadership 2, Persuasion 5 (Would I lie to you?), Subterfuge 4 (God of Gamblers), Technology 1

Intellect 3 Might 1 Presence 3
Cunning* 4 Dexterity* 2 Manipulation* 5
Resolve 2 Stamina 1 Composure 3

Movement: 2
Defence: 1

Aura of Greatness, Rumour Miller, Wasn’t Me

Scion: Origin employs the Storypath system, which can be best described as a distillation of the Storyteller system—the mechanics of which date all of the way back to Vampire: The Masquerade—and certainly anyone familiar with the Storyteller system will find that it has a lot in common with the Storypath system, except that the Storypath system is simpler and streamlined, designed for slightly cinematic, effect driven play. The core mechanic uses dice pools of ten-sided dice, typically formed from the combination of a skill and an attribute, for example Pilot and Dexterity to fly a helicopter, Survival and Stamina to cross a wilderness, and Persuasion and Manipulation to unobtrusively get someone to do what a character wants. These skill and attribute combinations are designed to be flexible, the aim being any situation is to score one or more Successes, a Success being a result of eight or more (this can be lowered as Scions become more powerful). Rolls of ten are added to the total and a player can roll them again.

To succeed, a player needs to roll at least one Success, and may need to roll more depending upon the Difficulty of the task. Should a Scion succeed, he can increase the number of Successes with an Enhancement, such as having a fast car in a race or the favour of a particular God, but he needs to succeed in order to use the Enhancement. Any Successes generated beyond the Difficulty become Threshold Success and represent how well the character has succeeded. These can be spent by the player to buy off Complications, for example, not attracting the attention of the Police in a car chase, or to purchase Stunts. These can cost nothing, for example, the Inflict Damage Stunt, whereas the Disarm Stunt costs two and the Critical Hit Stunt costs four. Characters in Scion: Second Edition often have Stunts due to their Birthright, such as Loki, which grants the ability to positively influence someone, but only when the character lies, but Birthrights are outside the scope of 
Scion: Origin.

Under the Storypath system, and thus in 
Scion: Origin, failure is never complete. Rather, if a player does not roll any Successes, then he receives a Consolation. This can be a ‘Twist of Fate’, which reveals an alternative approach or new information; a ‘Chance Meeting’ introduces a new helpful NPC; or an ‘Unlooked-for Advantage’, an Enhancement which can be used in a future challenge. Alternatively, a character gains Momentum which goes into a collective pot and which can be spent to add extra dice to a dice pool or used to fuel various Knacks possessed by the Scions. Scion: Origin focuses on three areas of action—Action-Adventure, Procedurals, and Intrigue. The first covers combat and is fairly straightforward. The second handles information gathering, which is divided into two categories. Leads start or continue the plot and so do not have to be rolled for by the players, whereas Clues provide extra information, are more challenging to find, and do require a roll. Intrigue covers social interaction and the reading and shifting of the attitudes of both NPCs and player characters.

Scion: Origin is a roleplaying game of supernatural and divine beings, many of varying power and scope. The mechanics cover this with Scale, both Narrative and Dramatic. Narrative Scale covers minor characters and story elements, whilst Dramatic Scale covers situations when it applies to the Player Characters. When Scale comes into play, it adds a number of Enhancements equal to the difference between the two sides involved in the scene. As with the rest of the Storypath system, Enhancements come into play as effects if successes are generated as part of a test.

The advice for Storyguide includes the general and the specific. The general is the fairly standard and includes ignoring or modifying rules she does not like, ensuring that everyone around the table is comfortable with the tone and content of the game being played, and so on. This does feel underwritten and could have included further advice and safety tools such as the X-Card. The specific discusses how to set up a campaign through steps of what it calls the Plot Engine—the seed, the pitch, and deeds and arcs. Naturally, it emphasis how to bring the myth into the game, but keep it subtle because the Scions are not truly divine, so will not be enacting the Saga of Argonauts, the search for the Golden Fleece, or penetrating the maze of the Minotaur—at least not literally. Instead, they might be enacting them with the myth alluded to, but underlying the mundane. So at the Myth Level of 
Scion: Origin, set at Iron Level—with the divine present in the mundane world as signs and omens which may or may not be real, bordering on Heroic Level—in which the supernatural has begun to become apparent, the search for the Golden Fleece might turn into a road trip to get a fleece jacket back , whilst penetrating the maze might mean a bureaucracy rather a labyrinth. This can be as subtle or not as the story warrants, the Storyguide advised to play with and enforce mythic tropes such as the Rule of Three, Hometown Advantage, Beauty is Only Skin Deep, and so on. To do this, the Storyguide will need to research and adapt myth upon myth, and depending upon the choices made by her players, the mythos of pantheons she is not familiar with. She is also advised to keep it dramatic, including repeating a call to adventure over and over if a Scion ignores it, slightly changing the nature of the call each time. This is delightfully unsubtle and whilst you might not do it in another roleplaying game, it is perfectly in keeping with the Urban Fantasy genre and thus Scion: Origin.

The setting to 
Scion: Origin is explored in several ways. This includes several pieces of fiction, all by Kieron Gillen—author of The Wicked + Divine—telling the story of Scion discovering the true nature of the world around and her place in it. Along with the sample pre-generated Scions, these a holdover from the roleplaying game’s first edition, they bring a personal perspective to the setting. One of these examples includes a God not given in the list pantheons to show other deities can be included. As well as exploring the nature of The World and its differences with ours, several cities are described, including their links to the Terra Incognito and the Axis Mundi. They include Boston and New York, Kyoto and Memphis, Mexico City and Varanasi, and more. Not all in the same detail, but they do suggest how other cities might be explored in a similar fashion. There is also a good chapter of antagonists, including archetypes, using qualities, flairs (one-shot abilities which require a cool-down period to use again), and utilities to build important NPCs, advice on creating them, and numerous ready-to-play examples. The latter are accompanied by design notes which explore the principles of each mythic creature, suggesting how they can be used and adapted from one pantheon to another.

Rounding out 
Scion: Origin is a set of appendices. The first explores six Supernatural Paths. These include Saints, Kitsune, Satyrs, Therianthropes, Wolf-Warriors, and Cu Sith. Of these, Therianthropes are lycanthropes, Wolf-Warriors are berserkers, and Cu Sith are fey canines. Guidelines are given on how to adjust them to model other mythical figures, such as adapting the Wolf-Warrior to be a classical Amazon, a Dahomey Amazon, and a Shieldmaiden. These shift Scion: Origin away from being a roleplaying game about the divine, and more to encompass the Urban Fantasy genre, as well as pleasingly demonstrating the flexibility of these archetypes. That said, more of them included in the book would have been nice. The second lists all of the major Gods and their Callings and Purviews for all ten pantheons presented in Scion: Origin. They include the Aesir or Norse Gods, the Manitou or Algonquian pantheon, the Theoi or Greco-Roman pantheon, Netjer or Egyptian pantheon, the Kami or Japanese Gods, the Tuatha Dé Danann or Irish Gods, the Óríshá or Yórúba pantheon, the Devá or Gods of South Asia, the Shén or Chinese pantheon, and Teōtl or Aztec pantheon. These are lists only, and whilst useful, further research upon the part of the Storyguide and her players will be needed beyond this. The third and last appendix provides a conversion guide from the first edition to the second edition of Scion: Origin.

Scion: Origin is well-written, the full colour artwork throughout is excellent, and the whole affair is attractive. Perhaps in places it feels a little too concise, especially in the examples of the rules. What Scion: Origin is lacking though, is a beginning scenario, which would suggest some idea as to how the designers intend the roleplaying game to be played. However, there is the quick-start for it, A Light Extinguished: A Jumpstart For Scion Second Edition, which could be played with the full rules using Scions of the players’ own design, rather than the pre-generated ones provided in the quick-start. More of a problem is the lack of story hooks or campaign suggestions which might have helped spur the Storyguide’s imagination. Similarly, it would have been interesting to see myths taken from the different pantheons and worked through to see how they could work in Scion: Origin. Doing so would also have been a chance for the designers to showcase some of the less familiar pantheons. Elsewhere an example of play and a full example of combat would both have been helpful.

Scion: Origin is a roleplaying game about playing Gods to be, so it is almost as if Scion: Origin is wanting to pull the Scions onto the step in their Paths to divinity, which technically would be Scion: Hero, but it never goes as far as pulling the setting of The World and the Scions over that threshold. There is a sense of the liminal to Scion: Origin which is not helped by the lack of examples and the Storyguide being left to research, adapt, and develop myths of the pantheons to really get started. This is not to say that the tools are not there for the Storyguide to get started—the Storypath system is suitably cinematic, the advice is solid, and the background is good, but Scion: Origin does not help the Storyguide make that first step into The World easy. However, Scion: Origin is a roleplaying game full of great potential and a roleplaying game in which the Player Characters are also full of great potential. For the Storyguide willing to work myths, Scion: Origin will turn into some potentially mythic stories and adventures.

Friday 23 April 2021

Tomb of the Warden

Doom on the Warden is a scenario for Metamorphosis Alpha: Fantastic Role-Playing Game of Science Fiction Adventures on a Lost Starship. The first Science Fiction roleplaying game and the first post-apocalypse roleplaying game, Metamorphosis Alpha is set aboard the Starship Warden, a generation spaceship which has suffered an unknown catastrophic event which killed the crew and most of the million or so colonists, and left the ship irradiated and many of the survivors and the flora and fauna aboard mutated. Some three centuries later, as Humans, Mutated Humans, Mutated Animals, and Mutated Plants, the Player Characters, knowing nothing of their captive universe, would leave their village to explore strange realm around them, wielding fantastic mutant powers and discovering how to make use of the fantastic devices of the gods and the ancients that is technology, and ultimately learn of their enclosed world. Originally published in 1976, it would go on to influence a whole genre of roleplaying games, starting with Gamma World, right down to Mutant Crawl Classics Roleplaying Game – Triumph & Technology Won by Mutants & Magic from Goodman Games. And it would be Goodman Games which brought the roleplaying game back with the stunning Metamorphosis Alpha Collector’s Edition in 2016, and support the forty-year old roleplaying game with a number of supplements, many which would be collected in the ‘Metamorphosis Alpha Treasure Chest’.

Published following a successful Kickstarter campaign, Doom on the Warden is a special scenario. Written by James M. Ward, the designer of Metamorphosis Alpha, it is intended to be played using between six and eight characters with plenty of play experience behind them and plenty of scavenged equipment and artefacts. It can be played as a convention scenario and there are guidelines towards that end, but Doom on the Warden is definitely a scenario which experienced and long-time players of Metamorphosis Alpha will get the most out of. This is primarily for three reasons and why the scenario is so special. First, the scenario takes place on the fabled Level Zero, the equivalent of a lost Xanadu or Atlantis where some, all, or even none of the answers might be found as to exactly what is going on aboard the Starship Warden. Second, in exploring this Level Zero and discovering its secrets, one potential outcome is that Doom on the Warden could set the Game Master’s campaign on an entirely different course—literally and figuratively. Third, Doom on the Warden is inspired by another scenario all together—S1 Tomb of Horrors.

Published in 1978, and more recently in the 2013 Dungeons of Dread and Tales from the Yawning Portal from 2017, S1, Tomb of Horrors was designed by E. Gary Gygax and has always had the reputation of being the ultimate ‘Deathtrap Dungeon’, being filled with puzzles and traps which when combined with a seeming random factor makes it a challenge that is almost impossible to beat. It would be reprinted multiple times, receive a boxed sequel in the form of Return to the Tomb of Horrors, and its legendary status would ensure that it appeared at number three in Dungeon #116’s “30 Greatest D&D Adventures of All Time” (November, 2004). S1 Tomb of Horrors was always intended to present a challenge to the most experienced of players and James M. Ward has taken the same approach to Doom on the Warden. It is designed to challenge the players of Science Fiction roleplaying games, presenting difficult situations and fearsome opponents, but is different to S1, Tomb of Horrors in a number of ways. Obviously, it is a Science Fiction rather than a fantasy adventure—although buildings and bunkers to be found in the scenario could lend it the description of being a Science Fiction ‘dungeon bash’, but the puzzles and traps to found on Level Zero of the Starship Warden are less random and less arbitrary, and there is not the feeling that there is with S1, Tomb of Horrors that the Game Master—and thus E. Gary Gygax—is trying to kill his players’ characters. Lastly, where the title of S1, Tomb of Horrors suggested that as a scenario it was a combination of horror and fantasy, and was not, the title of Doom on the Warden does not suggest that it is a combination of Science Fiction and horror, but actually is. Doom on the Warden takes its Player Characters from megalophobia to nyctophobia to triskaidekaphobia to phobophobia to simply a sense of quiet dread…

Whether through discovery of their own or learning of it through a myth or legend, perhaps imparted by a tribal shaman, Doom on the Warden begins with the Player Characters at the entrance to ‘heaven’, an engineering hatch through which rises a great chimney, ascending to the home of the Ancients. Inside they discover several bodies of the Ancients—perhaps cast out of Heaven?—and as the chimney turns into a walkway, the Player Characters find themselves seemingly in a land of the giants, a forest of Brobdingnagian proportions, filled with giant trees, hornets the size of fists, and beasts such as rabbits and squirrels large enough to become beasts of burden. As with other levels on the Warden, Level Zero is a large oval shape, approximately eighteen miles across from the bow to the stern and fourteen miles from port to starboard. The level is divided into three concentric ovals or zones, working inward, a forest of giant willows, a berry plantations laid out with patches of mutant berries, and extensive flower gardens full of glens of mutated flowers, each one of different character and invoking a different sense of fear. There are plenty of encounters to be had in each of these zones, depending upon the direction in the Player Characters want to explore. They are free to wander and there is a table of random encounters included for each zone. Most of these encounters will either be dangerous or hostile, but there are plenty which are not and many of these are quite lightly done, adding an element of humour and roleplaying which nicely contrasts with the dangers and hostilities to be found elsewhere. One thing that the Player Characters will discover is that there is something or someone at work on the level—forestry robots work the forests, others work to restore the damage done by the catastrophe centuries ago, and there are transport devices readily and willing to ferry the Player Characters onward.

Ultimately, the Player Characters should make their way to the centre of the level and the island in the centre of Blume Lake—the latter a nod to the brothers who were early investors and co-owners of TSR, Inc. The island is home to a bunker, a place of the Ancients, and clearly an important one. Numerous robots protect it, but whatever intelligence is at work on the Level, it seems to want help… The final scenes of Doom on the Warden will see the Player Characters either save the Starship Warden or…?

Doom on the Warden is a difficult and challenging adventure. There are numerous encounters which will kill the Player Characters, a few simply by design, many through a player’s foolishness, but most through luck and the roll of the dice. As they proceed across this secret level, the players and their characters will be rewarded if their play is both careful and intelligent—and not just in terms of their characters’ survival, for there are plenty of artefacts and equipment to be scavenged too.

There are two ways in which Doom on the Warden can be run. One is as part of an ongoing campaign, the author suggesting that it be run as the midpoint of such a campaign. By that time, the players and their characters should have accumulated plenty of playing experience of Metamorphosis Alpha and the Starship Warden, as well as their characters having collected numerous artefacts, devices, and weapons of the Ancients. Even then, Doom on the Warden may be too challenging a scenario and its degree of lethality too high, such that it may even be a campaign-ending scenario. If so, it might be better off run towards the end of a campaign, or even as the culmination of campaign, more so because if the Player Characters are successful, the scenario sets the campaign and the Starship Warden in a wholly new (old) direction.

The other way of running the Doom on the Warden is as a tournament scenario much as S1 Tomb of Horrors was originally intended. This is run as a more linear scenario, rather than allowing the Player Characters the freedom to roam, the aim being to get them to Blume Lake and the bunker on the island at its centre. As well as advice on running the scenario, the author includes three sets of different pre-generated Player Characters and their motivations for exploring Level Zero aboard the Starship Warden. For the purposes of tournament play, each of the three groups of pre-generated Player Characters begin play with more knowledge about Level Zero than they would if the scenario is being as part of an ongoing campaign. The first group consists of Pure Strain Humans, members of the Vigilist tribe which dates back to the original Metamorphosis Alpha campaign run by James Ward. The Vigilists and their village were created by E. Gary Gygax and their inclusion is a nice tribute to him alongside the author being inspired by S1 Tomb of Horrors. The aim of the Vigilists is to ascend to Heaven and restore the Starship Warden to its original course. The second group consists of Wolfoids from Epsilon City—as detailed in the supplement of the same name—and like the Pure Strain Humans, their aim on Level Zero is to take control of the ship. Lastly, the third group consists of Mutants, drawn from across multiple levels of the Starship Warden, who also want to take control of the ship, primarily to deny control to the Pure Strain Humans. Almost a fifth of Doom on the Warden is dedicated to character sheets for the three different groups. They consist of eight Mutant, one Pure Strain Human, and six Wolfoid pre-generated character sheets, there being just the one Pure Strain Human character sheet because they are easy to roll up in comparison to Mutants and Wolfoids. Lastly, Doom on the Warden includes three pre-generated Player Characters inspired by backers of the Kickstarter.

Physically, at just forty-eight pages, Doom on the Warden is a nicely presented hardback. Both writing and editing are decent and as you would expect from a title from Goodman Games, the range of artwork is excellent. In particular, Peter Mullen’s double-page spreads inside the front and back covers really capture the scope and scale of the Starship Warden. They, like much of the artwork can be used as handouts when running Doom on the Warden.

If there is an issue with Doom on the Warden, it is perhaps that it is difficult to use, that it has the potential to end a campaign. That though is by design and by inspiration, S1 Tomb of Horrors itself suffering from both issues. Fortunately, Doom on the Warden is very much less arbitrary in its play and its design than S1 Tomb of Horrors. If there is anything missing from Doom on the Warden, it is a gallery of its artwork which the Game Master can use as handouts for her players. 

Doom on the Warden is a fantastic scenario. It is big, it is nasty, it is dangerous, and it has the scope to either end a campaign, whether as a Total Party Kill or as the culmination of an ongoing campaign, or set both campaign and the Starship Warden on a wholly new (old) course. It lives up to its inspiration, S1 Tomb of Horrors, but goes beyond it to have the Player Characters’ actions have an effect upon Level Zero of the Starship Warden, on the Starship Warden itself, and on the campaign, and is better for it. Doom on the Warden is deadly and if the Player Characters are not careful or smart, they will get killed, but not necessarily in as arbitrary a fashion as S1 Tomb of Horrors. Which means that if the Player Characters can succeed and overcome the challenges presented in Doom on the Warden, then both they and their players truly have the right to feel a sense of great accomplishment.

2001: Zombies!!!

1974 is an important year for the gaming hobby. It is the year that Dungeons & Dragons was introduced, the original RPG from which all other RPGs would ultimately be derived and the original RPG from which so many computer games would draw for their inspiration. It is fitting that the current owner of the game, Wizards of the Coast, released the new version, Dungeons & Dragons, Fifth Edition, in the year of the game’s fortieth anniversary. To celebrate this, Reviews from R’lyeh will be running a series of reviews from the hobby’s anniversary years, thus there will be reviews from 1974, from 1984, from 1994, and from 2004—the thirtieth, twentieth, and tenth anniversaries of the titles. These will be retrospectives, in each case an opportunity to re-appraise interesting titles and true classics decades on from the year of their original release.


The undead have arisen and are dead set on chewing down on any still alive. A handful of Survivors are stuck in the centre of a city, but know if they can get to the helipad, there is a helicopter which they can escape aboard. Between them though, is a cadaver cavalcade with Bullets in short supply—though nearby buildings can be scavenged for further supplies and weapons, and the Survivors are as equally as desperate to escape as each other. This is the set-up for Zombies!!!, which takes a classic zombies movie plot and turns it into a board game designed for between two and six players, aged fifteen plus. Originally published by Journeyman Press in 2001—and by Twilight Creations, Inc., since 2002, Zombies!!! combines dice rolling, hand management, and take-that mechanics with the themes of exploration, combat, and bloody zombie horror!

Open up Zombies!!! and you find a lot of components—thirty map tiles, a fifty-card Event deck, Life and Bullet tokens, six human Survivor miniatures, and a hundred zombie miniatures! Yes, really. A hundred zombie miniatures! The miniatures are simple. The humans all wield shotguns, whilst the zombies are all reaching out for their next victim whilst moaning , “Brainssss…” The map tiles are each four inches square and marked with a three-by-three grid of squares. They depict the streets and buildings of the town where 
Zombies!!! takes place. Some have named buildings like the Toy Store, Police Station, and Hospital. Each named building indicates the number of zombies found in the building and the number of Life and Bullet tokens which can be scavenged from the building. One map tile is marked with a helicopter. This is the Helipad, the destination which is one of the ways of winning a game of Zombies!!!. The map tiles are done in grey and muted tones, reflecting that this is a town at night.

What stands out though about the production values of 
Zombies!!! are its Event cards. Painted by Dave Aikins these are superb slices of horror, each depicting a Survivor dealing with the zombies swarming the town. Perhaps sneaking past as in ‘Alternate Food Source’, which stop all zombies from attacking that Survivor until his next turn; confronting them like throwing a ‘Grenade’ in the Army Surplus Store, killing all zombies inside, but inflicting damage on the Survivor too; or healing from their attacks, such as applying a ‘First Aid Kit’, which prevents the Survivor from taking damage when in the Hospital or Drug Store. Many of the cards are designed to complicate the lives of other Survivors. For example, ‘Butter Fingers’ forces a target Survivor to discard a weapon or two Bullets; ‘Your Shoe’s Untied’ halves the target Survivor’s movement roll; and ‘Slight Miscalculation’ fills a target building up with zombies, up to double the amount given on the named map tile. Many of the Event cards work only specific buildings, for example, the aforementioned ‘First Aid Kit’ and ‘Grenade’. Lastly, the rules are done in simple black and white and easy enough to read and understand. The rules run to three pages, the other page devoted to a piece of fiction and a nice little foreword by George Vasilakos, publisher of the zombie roleplaying game, All Flesh Must Be Eaten.

Set-up for 
Zombies!!! is easy. Each player receives a Survivor miniature, three Life tokens, three Bullet tokens, and three Event cards. The Town Square map tile is placed in the centre of the table, the other map tiles are shuffled and the Helipad tile placed at the bottom. Then on each turn, a player draws a new map tile and places it anywhere on the map as long as any of its roads connect to the adjacent tiles. Zombie miniatures are added to the new tile and building on a name tile as indicated. The player refreshes his hand of Event cards back up to three, rolls a die to determine how far his Survivor can move, fighting any zombies encountered square by square. To defeat a zombie, a player rolls a die and hopes to get a four, five, or six. If he does, the zombie is defeated and added to the player’s collection. If he rolls a one, two, or three, he loses a Life token. If he loses all of his Life tokens, his Survivor miniature is moved back to the Town Square map tile to start again, and he loses any weapons he has from Event cards and half of his accumulated Zombie miniatures. Alternatively, if the player has any Bullet tokens, he can spend them on a one-for-one basis and hopefully increase the value of the roll to survive the combat and continue moving. Lastly, the player rolls a die and moves that number of zombies in any direction he likes. Typically, this will be either away from his Survivor miniature to ease his path on his next turn or towards the Survivor miniature of another player to make his next turn just that bit more difficult, or a mixture of both. During the turn, a player can also play a single Event card and also discard one.

Play continues like this until the Helipad map tile is drawn. This is always placed by the player with the least number of zombies currently in front of him. This will typically be nearer that player’s Survivor miniature than those of his rivals, but at that point, 
Zombies!!! becomes a race game to get to the Helipad first. The player whose Survivor gets there first wins the game. The other way to win is by defeating and accumulating a total of twenty-five zombies in front of you.

Zombies!!! is a decently produced game—at least for 2001. The rule book is a bit plain, but the zombie miniatures are fun and the tiles decent, if a little thin. The Event cards are to reiterate, fantastic. They really capture the grim, bloody nature of the situation that the Survivors find themselves in, and they are the exact reason why Zombies!!! would go on to win the 2001 Origins Awards Best Graphic Presentation of a Board Game. They are also the same reason why later editions of Zombies!!! would raise the suggested minimum playing age from twelve to fifteen.

Zombies!!! manages to be both a great game and a terrible game at the same time. It is a great game because it is pure Ameritrash. It is high on luck, it involves lots of deadly combat, has a high take that aspect as everyone plays Event cards against each other, and it does not so much ooze theme, as bash it against the nearest wall and splatter it across the room. It is also easy to learn, easy to teach, and it can be fun to play. It can also be tense because each player is desperately trying to husband both Life and Bullet tokens against the need to search for more, entering the dark confines of buildings to do so. It is a terrible game because it is pure Ameritrash. It involves too much luck and the take that value is high; many of the weapon Event cards only work in specific buildings, which whilst thematic, limits their use; there is too much combat without any real significance, which slows game play—Zombies!!! does feel as if it should be a shorter game; and ultimately, the Survivors are just waiting for the Helipad map tile to be drawn and the race for the endgame to begin, because trying to get the twenty-five zombies necessary to win is really challenging.

In 2021 
Zombies!!! is twenty years old. Not only did it win an Origins award, but would receive sixteen expansions, which in turn added a military base, a mall, a school, and more, including new themed map tiles, Event cards, and zombie miniatures. As much as these added theme and further showcased Dave Aikins’ art, they did have the side effect of increasing the space and time needed to play Zombies!!!. Plus, the game received spin-off titles enabled players to play as the zombies hunting humans, deal with an alien invasion, and even have the players face skeletons rather than zombies back in medieval times. Which all serve to highlight how successful Zombies!!! was. Indeed, it would ride the wave of popularity that hit board games in the noughties all the way up to the release of The Walking Dead television series, and beyond… Notably, it would make the jump from specialist shops that supported the hobby into mainstream shops, especially ones that sold CDs, DVDs, and the like. With its eye-catching, action-packed cover, this ensured that Zombies!!! reached a wider audience that it would not have done otherwise.

It is easy to dismiss 
Zombies!!!, but it has been highly popular and despite its flaws, it is still playable, it is very easy to bring to the table, and it can be fun to play, even after twenty years. Zombies!!! is a still a classic ‘beer ‘n’ pretzels’ treatment of a classic horror situation.


Twilight Games is currently running a campaign for the Zombies!!! 20th Anniversary Edition on Kickstarter. (With thanks to Niamh for her loan of her copy of Zombies!!!, which she can definitely have back.)

Monday 19 April 2021

Miskatonic Monday #63: Full Fathom Five

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: Full Fathom Five
Publisher: Chaosium, Inc.
Author: Paul Fricker

Setting: 1840s South Seas

Product: One-Shot Scenario
What You Get: Sixty page, 5.63 MB Full Colour PDF

Elevator Pitch: Moby Dick meets the Mythos (with Sea Shanties).
Plot Hook:  The lure of the sea runs deep.
Plot Support: Twenty-three pre-generated Investigator sheets, portraits for all NPCs and Investigators, staging advice for the Keeper, deck plans, glossary and location guide, five handouts, three Mythos NPCs/monsters.
Production Values: Clean and tidy, decent deck plans, good handouts, and clearly done pre-generated Investigators.

# Nautical one-night, Blood Brothers-style one-shot scenario

# Potential convention scenario
# Different historical setting
# Twenty-three pre-generated Investigators and/or NPCs
# Nasty series of deaths
# Challenging switch between Investigators, victims, and/or NPCs
# Challenging roleplaying of 
Investigators, victims, and/or NPCs
# Strongly plotted
# Natty nautical X-card
# Sea Shanties


# Twenty-three pre-generated Investigators and/or NPCs
# Involves whaling (animal cruelty)
# Challenging switch between Investigators, victims, and/or NPCs
# Heavily plotted
# All male cast
# Sea Shanties

# Different historical setting
# Challenging roleplaying of Investigators, victims, and/or NPCs
# Nasty nautical one-shot
# Sea Shanties

Sunday 18 April 2021

A Sartarite Starter Seven

The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories: Seven Ready-to-Play Adventures for RuneQuest is an anthology of scenarios designed for use with RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Published by Chaosium, Inc., the septet is designed for use by a Game Master new to Glorantha and is set across the various lands of the Sartarite tribes in Dragon Pass. The scenarios will see the Player Characters attend a festival and compete in a great competition, rescue clan regalia, come to the aid of a distant village beset by a ghostly monster, help lift a curse from a village in danger of famine, search for missing children in woods infested with ghouls and a skulk, investigate a previously unknown ruin, and venture out onto the Plains of Prax to attend a wedding ceremony. In order to run any of the scenarios, the Game Master will need no more than the core rules for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha and the Glorantha Bestiary, although The Glorantha Sourcebook may prove useful for its further information. The scenarios in 
The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories do not constitute a campaign, but they can be worked into a campaign, especially one set in and around the hamlet of Apple Lane and the lands of the Colymar tribe, such as RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack and The Smoking Ruin & Other Stories.

The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories opens with the titular ‘The Pegasus Plateau’. It takes place before the Three Emeralds Temple, which is dedicated to the Ernalda and stands below the Pegasus Plateau, a few miles south of Clearwine. Pegasus Plateau is notable as having been the home to a flight of Hippogriffs, which serve as the spiritual liaison between Earth and Sky and guide the Three Winds into Dragon Pass. Recently, a flight has returned to the plateau and the priestesses of the Three Emeralds Temple have decided to reinstate the Three Winds Celebration, a three-day festival which ends in a race up the almost unclimbable plateau to locate and a chance to bond with a hippogriff and so make it a competitor’s mount. The Player Characters not only have the opportunity to participate in the Three Winds games—and very much should participate—they also have the chance to interact with a number of different NPCs. These include the priestesses at the temple, the various traders attending the festival, and their fellow competitors. This can lead the Player Characters becoming involved with local politics—the nearby Locaem tribe is currently in turmoil following the death of its leadership during the Dragonrise, as well as creating both rivalries and friendships with their fellow competitors.

Ultimately, the winners of the Three Winds games will have to ascend to the top of the plateau, locate the flight of Hippogriffs, and attempt a bonding. The ascent is difficult and involves several unexpected challenges, not least of which can come from the other competitors. Good roleplaying throughout the festival may grant the Player Characters both clues and advantages. ‘The Pegasus Plateau’ is a good scenario, one that gives the Player Characters the opportunity to shine and the chance to really begin building their reputations and legends. After all, how much greater a starting point is there than bonding with a Hippogriff? However, it is a busy scenario with lots going on and several things for the Game Master to keep track off. The Game Master will also need to work with her players to get their characters involved, as unlike the other scenarios in the anthology there is no standard reason for them to attend the festival. Consequently, it feels a little underwritten in places and too busy in others for a scenario designed for a beginning Game Master and whilst it is the anthology’s titular scenario, it does not feel quite right as the opening scenario for the anthology. However the Game Master decides to use ‘The Pegasus Plateau’, its outcome is likely to be memorable for the Player Characters and their players, there are both NPCs which can become recurring members of the campaign, and hooks the Game Master can develop into further adventures.

The second scenario, ‘The Grey Crane’, is perhaps the easiest of the entries in The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories to work into a campaign built around the content and scenarios contained in the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack. It takes place in the lands of the Hiording Clan, part of the Colymar tribe which shares Apple Lane with the Varmandi Clan, although it could be moved to another clan altogether. Either way, the Player Characters are summoned to the clan hall of their affiliated clan along with the great and the good of the clan as the chieftain is about to receive a small delegation from Lunar Tarsh under a banner of peace. Not all of the tribe are happy to see the Lunars—and some of the Lunar delegation are unhappy to be there—but the leader of the delegation causes an uproar when he politely asks to see a set of relics, known as the ‘Grey Crane’, sacred to the clan and associated with a clan legend involving the death of an overly ambitious and misguided alchemist known as Miskander. This is a chance for the Player Characters to test out their feelings about the Lunar Empire versus the demands of Sartarite hospitality, persuading the current holder of the relics either way. Whatever the outcome, a week later, the relics are stolen, and the obvious culprits are the Lunar delegation which just visited. The chieftain charges the Player Characters with recovering it, which means travelling to the Lunar Tarshite’s camp and again testing out their feelings about the Lunar Empire, but with the situation reversed.

‘The Grey Crane’ is a much more straightforward scenario. It does the social nuances of both receiving and ‘probably’ acting as a delegation nicely, and whilst the final twist as to where the ‘Grey Crane’ actually is feels a bit like a deus ex machina, it actually works and is explained why. The scenario also does a good job of humanising the Lunar Tarshites and if used with the adventures in the RuneQuest Gamemaster Screen Pack would serve to help pull the Player Characters into their local community.

Previously released to mark the anniversary of the passing of Greg Stafford, ‘The Rattling Wind’ takes the Player Characters east to the remote Antorling Clan hamlet of Farfield in the foothills of the Quivin Mountains near the Dog-Rat Valley. Of late, the village has been attacked by the ‘Rattling Wind’, a ‘monster in the night’ which has killed locals once a week for the last three weeks, its arrival heralded by a thunderous cadence and the shaking of shutters and windows as it passes, disappearing into the night after leaving its victims crushed. The desperate villagers cannot account for what caused this, only pointing to the arrival of a family of Ducks into the area as the only recent event of note.

‘The Rattling Wind’ is a classic action-horror-mystery which uses a well-worn plot, but uses it to good effect. It comes with secrets and consequences and a handful of not always likeable NPCs, including a grumpy Duck! It is more of an investigative scenario than the previous ones in the anthology, leading to a good mix of interaction and fantastic action scenes, as the Player Characters first poke around and then are confronted by the threat as it comes rattling out of the night to take its victims. The solutions to the situation are straightforward, enabling the adventurers to tackle with either brains or brawn. The former will be required early on in the scenario and perhaps later on if the clues are not necessarily found. There is no right way to address the situation in The Rattling Wind and the adventurers are pleasingly not penalised for choosing one means of resolution over another.

There is a degree of the Gothic to ‘Crimson Petals’, the fourth scenario, which takes place in the village of Greyrock, which has been forced to the edge of famine, forcing the inhabitants to wider hunting and even greater acts of raiding on nearby villages. The villagers are suspicious of outsiders and although in desperate need of help, not always welcoming of it, but astute investigation will reveal carefully hidden goat bones, a preponderance of red flowers, a blocked temple to Ernalda, and a sickness of red blotches found on men, women, and children alike. If they get nowhere, it is the children who will be able to supply the Player Characters with certain information, enabling them to investigate further. This is a lovely touch in an investigative scenario which will probably benefit from the inclusion of an Ernaldan priestess and a shaman—if not both.

‘Gloomwillow’s Hollow’ is set in the Woods of the Dead, the lands of Brangbane, the Ghoul King, between Herongreen and Alone, and includes a description of the Highwall Inn, previously detailed in Highwall Inn for HeroQuest and Questworlds to mark the first anniversary of Greg Stafford’s passing and The Coming Storm, a campaign sourcebook for HeroQuest Glorantha. The adventure, actually called ‘The Hollow’, begins with Player Characters in Alone, hired by the city’s desperate mayor to find the more than a dozen children who have disappeared into the nearby Woods of the Dead in the past few weeks—or to avenge their deaths. Harried by strange batrachian creatures, the Player Characters are drawn into the Woods of the Dead where they must explore a twisted, arboreal dungeon which almost seems to be alive as it thrashes about them. ‘The Hollow’ is a dark and twisted adventure which may well put off the Player Characters from entering another forest any time soon.

In some ways, ‘The Ruin on the Stream’ is the strangest adventure in the anthology. Whether due to rumours of strange lights, sounds, or sights or perhaps of indication of a ruin marked on ancient rather than modern maps, the Player Characters are drawn to a rich and verdant area where dinosaurs may be found as well as a set of ancient ruins. There they encounter a Dragonewt ready and willing to communicate and even teach them about the purpose of the ruins. He encourages their participation and if they do, the Player Characters are put through a series of tests, participating in his heroquest and in the process learning secrets of the past. This is a good scenario for any Lhankor Mhy Player Character, who might be nudged to investigate the site following the purchase of some maps available in the earlier ‘The Pegasus Plateau’. The Game Master will probably wants to conduct a little further information in The Glorantha Sourcebook, especially if she want to develop sequels to this scenario.

The last scenario in 
The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories is ‘The Pairing Stones’, which takes the Player Characters east out of Sartar and onto the Plains of Prax. They are employed as caravan guards by a Trader Prince of Issaries who is taking a pack train carrying various trade goods to sell at a wedding. This wedding will be held at the Pairing Stones, two natural pillars of differing colours leaning towards each other, where it has become common for those of different tribes and nations to marry. The marriage in question is to be between a prince and princess of the Impala and Bison tribes, the hope being that the union will help end the ongoing feuds between the tribes. Unfortunately, when the pack train arrives at the Pairing Stones, the place is in uproar—the bride-to-be, Delenda Bretta’s Daughter, has been  kidnapped by Rhino Riders! The Player Characters’ employer quickly negotiates their involvement in the search for the missing bride. The situation is, of course, no simple abduction, and the story behind ‘The Pairing Stones’ has a familiar feel, but the scenario is nicely set up, the NPCs’ motivations well described, and the potential outcomes of the scenario explored in some detail. Overall, it is well told and the scenario will introduce Sartarite Player Characters to Prax and Praxian customs.

The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories does not only include scenarios. In the case of ‘Gloomwillow’s Hollow’, there is extra information about the region in and around the Woods of the Dead and the dangers it contains, principally, of course, the Ghoul King and his ghoul horde. A quartet of adventure seeds provide further reasons for the Player Characters to revisit the area and perhaps put an end to the threats it is home to—though beginning Player Characters are likely to find these threats very challenging. Elsewhere, the anthology describes the Locaem, the tribe upon whose lands upon which the Three Emeralds Temple stands. The description includes its history right up to its difficult relation with the Lunar Empire, walking a fine line between deference and rebellion, until the last king and his family were killed in the Dragonrise. The tribe’s clans are also detailed as are the various places of interest on its territory. The last entry in the anthology is a write-up of ‘Renekot’s Hope’, a small village lying on the route between Tarsh and Dragon Pass. It is a community of refugees, ex-veterans, and exiles wanting to avoid the conflict between Sartar and the Lunar Empire, so is home—and a would-be home—for the disparate types which typically make up the Player Characters. Various NPCs are detailed, accompanied by some excellent illustrations, and along with the village major locations, a trio of potential threats are described, ready for the Game Master to develop. ‘Renekot’s Hope’ is designed as a starting location for the Player Characters and a campaign, though it is in a region which is not as well covered as Sartar and the area around the Colymar tribal lands currently is.

The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories is as solidly presented as you would expect for a title for RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. The illustrations are excellent throughout, the index good, and sections of boxed text provide supplementary information, such as a guide to the Great Winter or where to look for information about the full Draconic Creation Myth, or advice for the Game Master, such as setting the ‘Goals for this Scene’. Both provide help for the Game Master, especially for the Game Master new to RuneQuest: Roleplaying in Glorantha. Physically, there is an issue with the anthology, it is with the maps. A variety of styles is used, which gives the book a slightly inconsistent feel and the regional map, which shows the placement of the book’s content, is not necessarily an easy read. Certainly, some maps are easier to read than others.

None of the scenarios in 
The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories are very long, each one needing two or three sessions to play through. This makes them easy to work into a campaign, especially one set in and around Sartar, though in some cases, they do require a degree of preparation, in some cases more than might be necessary for the beginning Game Master. Some of the stories verge on the cliché, but where this is so, the stories are well-handled, and in all cases, the potential outcomes of each scenario is usefully explored. Overall, the seven scenarios in The Pegasus Plateau & Other Stories: Seven Ready-to-Play Adventures for RuneQuest showcase the diversity of adventures and stories which can be told in Glorantha and a session or three.